Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dr. Seuss and Flit: "Like a Moth to a Tiki Light"

In other news from September 14, 1929, Dr. Seuss continues to entertain us with his Flit advertisements. This time, a woman is going to a party dressed as a butterfly in a hula skirt, but her husband thinks she'll get killed.

Note the ever present cat, and also note that Seuss' cats tended to have strangely boot-like feet.

Embarassing Moments: Financial Ruin

I continue to be on "Wall Street Crash" watch while reading the New Yorker. By late 1929 I've seen a ton of advertisements which ENCOURAGE people to invest heavily in the market, but this one from September 14, 1929 -- just a month before the crash happened -- is truly, truly ominous.

I wonder: were financial experts at the time warning of a crash, and was this advertisement a reflection of that? It seems like an awfully big coincidence.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Jewel Thief Returns!

This past weekend I did a photo shoot for an upcoming issue of Bombay Dost. They wanted shots of me wearing my "Jewel Thief" outfit, preferably in front of a white background, in the highest quality possible.

I welcomed this opportunity because I don't really HAVE any good pictures of that outfit; you can't just roll out of bed and slip it on, you've got to WORK it. For that reason I enlisted the help of Melissa Baumunk of Brown Salon to give me a grand hairstyle -- at 9:00 in the morning! -- and the wonderful Jenn Wilson (here's her site for all your photographic needs) rolled out the white backdrop in her garage and took to the pictures for a really spectacular set.

Jewel Thief 1

This was an odd shoot because the roll of paper is quite narrow, so all gestures needed to be slightly contracted and the tailfeathers always kept under control. I was afraid that would make for boring pictures, but actually it gave us a good framework to work within. And thanks to some post-production adjustments (not to mention Jenn's skillful removal of the run in my fishnets) it looks like I'm floating in Bollywood happy-space. Joy!

The happiest thing about all of this is that the outfit -- built by Lydia Bellenie of Delirium Clothing back in 2002 -- fits me perfectly. For a while it was too big and I put it in the back of the closet, but either it has shrunk or I have inflated. Now it's perfect! This is nice not just because I can finally wear it again, but also because it's a simply amazing piece of work, right down to the springy "pocket feathers" in the back and the faux zebra sequins of the bodice.

Where did Lydia find a sequinned zebra to skin? Only she knows...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fie on Fussy Preparation!

I previously explored the obtuse mystery of a 1929 "Caviarette" advertisement. If you'll remember, the REAL mystery of the advertisement was that it was poorly written and barely sensible.

This appears to be a trend, because in the September 14, 1929 issue of The New Yorker I've run across another Caviarette advertisement, and it's equally bad.

Calling it "The Third C Mystery" is already a bad idea, because the mundane meaning of the "three Cs" are not revealed until the final panel (Cocktails, Caviar, Caviarettes), giving you little reason to worry about whatever it is they're looking for. If the society lady can't even be bothered to explain her problem except by using an acronym -- and if she goes about her investigation with such a haughty, ignorant facial expression -- then we're inclined to hope that she never finds what she's looking for and that her party fails.

But thank goodness the Smart Grocer understands her richie-rich autistic lingo and puts in an order for the all-important "third C." The only bright spot of this entire ordeal is the grinning, bundled up airplane pilot in panel five, who must have gotten paid a lot of money just to fly a package of crackers to her society do'.

In the final writeup we find out that her guests are in fact "Major Bliss, Madame Ecstasy and Miss Delight," which implies to me that she's actually the madame for a high-class escort service. And we know those folks care about their caviar.

These advertisements are beginning to annoy me.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Torchwood Season 3

I thought that Torchwood season one was generally bad, and that season two was downright terrible, but I've stuck with the series because it has potential. I felt that if the writers would only recognize the strengths of the premise -- and brutally stomp out all of the self-introduced weaknesses -- they'd end up with something truly great.

Usually my prayers go unanswered, but season three of Torchwood is absolutely amazing. They've darkened the tone, chucked the juvenile sexuality, trimmed off the extraneous character complications, and written within the budget. It is five episodes of perfectly-maintained suspense, anxiety, and outright horror. The aliens -- known as the "456" -- are the most terrifying creatures I've seen since...well, Alien.

In true Russell T. Davies style, however, the focus of the show -- and the REAL monsters -- are the buerocrats and functionaries who serve to represent humanity at its worst. It's bad enough that the 456 exist...what makes it TRULY bad are the petty foibles of those we expect to protect us.

If you've never watched Torchwood, go out and rent season three. Skip seasons one and two entirely; don't worry, you'll catch on quick enough. You might squirm when John Barrowman does his obligatory crying, but this time around it's kept to a tolerable level, and he really DOES have something to cry about.

PS: Actually this was very similar in tone and theme to a 1998 British mini-series called "Invasion: Earth." You might even accuse Davies of (perhaps unconsciously) copying it. Still, the particulars are different enough to make both series' distinct AND worth watching.

The Real Estate Rhumba

I mentioned last month that some changes were in the works...well, today marks their potential fruition: I just made an offer on a condominium.

I love where I live right now. It's a nice neighbourhood, and my apartment is big, and it's within walking distance of my work AND a car-share car. I could see myself staying here for the rest of my life, except for two very important considerations: I'm renting, and the soundproofing is AWFUL.

The mice aren't exactly a bonus either.

I've been gradually working towards buying my own place. I got pre-approved for a mortgage two weeks ago, and then set out with a wonderful real estate agent to find my dream home.

I quickly learned that there are no guarantees and no right answers. The better the place is, the more you invariably have to pay, and the second-scariest phrase I've learned during this whole ordeal is "house poor."

The scariest phrase -- one I'm already well-versed in -- is "bad neighbours." I am not a fighter who wants to grab the world with both hands and twist it to my will...rather, I want to snuggle up in my own corner of the world and try to quietly coexist with my fellow snugglers.

So besides the essential considerations such as location (I have no car) and price (I am not rolling in dough), I have done my best to consider the people who will live around me. How much will they impact on my homelife? How will they respond to me walking through the door in a pair of high heels?

Unfortunately, assessing your potential neighbours is not like assessing your plumbing. Today we looked at a townhouse that is unfortunately somewhat buried in its little cluster of townhouses; you walk through the door and you are on stage. But I tried to look for tell-tale signs of neighbourly badness, and even on a sunny Sunday afternoon I didn't see them: no couches on the front lawn, no beat-up cars, no garbage, nobody yelling. As a matter of fact I saw some nice flowerbeds and some well-cared-for lawn furniture.

In terms of the townhouse itself, it's a two-bedroom end unit that is slightly larger than my current apartment (though it feels smaller because it's staggered on four levels). It's well-maintained and has lots of potential. The front and back yards are sort of crappy, but that's nothing a few trees and shrubs couldn't improve. The single shared wall felt solid and I sincerely hope it is.

What's more, it's only a short walk from a grocery store and a bus route, and even the walk to uptown Waterloo (and therefore my workplace) is doable. And the price is right.

Standing there with the real estate agent, I started to sweat. Even though I knew that a decision would eventually need to be made, I found myself completely unprepared for it. This was a hurdle I had to jump: the grown-up necessity to step into an uncertain long-term committment, without anybody there to make the decision for me. I had to be my own grown-up, for better or for worse. And I found it in myself to do so...I put forward an offer.

I'll find out tomorrow night if it's been accepted, and even after that there are a lot of conditions which need to be met, but I feel like I've made the biggest step of the entire procedure, if not my entire life so far. If the offer is refused, the next decision will be a bit easier.

My recommendation for those who are considering buying their first house or condo: find a GREAT real estate agent (I'll be happy to pass the contact info for mine if you're curious), be aware of hidden costs (water heater rental!), and...well, have some idea of what's important to you, and how much you're willing to pay for those things.

I wonder: is this whole process a little easier for couples?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Meditation on Vegetation

One thing I love about my apartment is the huge front window, and what I like MOST about that window is the huge amount of vegetation that grows in front of it. Seriously, look:

The Ruins: The Last of the Supplies

All that greenery has given me no end of pleasure. It's kept my living room cool on scorching hot days. It's a home to thousands of interesting little bugs. It adds something soft and natural to my view each day.

So imagine my surprise when I came home today and saw the carnage; yes, my landlords have chopped it all down to the roots and left it by the curb. No more vegetation. No more pretty view.

Why did they do this? I think their first concern was for the concrete steps out front, which they're in the process of repairing. Some of that vegetation was in the way of their repairs, and I understand why they'd want to TRIM it.

But REMOVE it? ALL of it?

When my parents bought their first (and current) house, they planted a sapling in the front yard and we named it "Slim." Over twenty years it has grown into a huge, beautiful tree that beautifies the front yard and shades the porch. Birds live in it from time to time. It was an investment that paid off through patience and a small amount of tending, and it remains a living, growing, vibrant thing.

And yet here, in Waterloo, all I see are people CUTTING DOWN trees. Whenever a new development is being built, the old and not-so-old trees get turned into sawdust. One by one, trees are being removed from front yards all along my daily walking route. Sometimes a few new trees are planted, but always in sparse little rows intended to be "decorative" instead of "functional" or -- dare I say -- "wild."

Just have a look at our Waterloo Town Square for an example of a disregard for the benefit of vegetable growth.

I am not a person who believes in woodsy spirits and I am not going to cry for all the lost trees, but I DO think that people are remarkably short-sighted and ANAL about vegetation. My landlords certainly had some reasons for removing my beloved greenery, and they probably gave a passing thought to the good reasons for RETAINING that greenery, but from what I see most people put vegetation at the very BOTTOM of the list. If it gets in the way of the lawnmower or kills the grass underneath it, get rid of it. If it must be trimmed, cut it down. If you need to build something there, chop it up and chip it.

The only plant we care about is grass, it seems.

So I am by no means slagging any one person for chopping down healthy trees and bushes. I'm slagging a general idea that such growth adds less to health and aesthetics than -- say -- personal convenience or financial concerns.

So sad.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Grumpy Behaviour: Children Versus Adults

Saturday morning. I'm at my favourite breakfast spot, and a huge group of people are throwing a "going away party" for a husband, wife, and their son named "Zane."

Zane is six, and he's apparently grumpy because he stayed up late the night before; he's excited because they're flying out to see "Aunt Betty" tomorrow.

How do I know all this? Because it's impossible for anybody in the restaurant to ignore Zane.

ZANE: I haaaate this place, I hate it here, I don't wanna eat here!

MOM: You've never been here before, give it a chance.

DAD: C'mon Zane, look at all this food, what do you want to eat?

ZANE: I don't WANNA eat here!

DAD: Hey grumpy, what do you want, do you want chocolate waffles?

ZANE: I don't WANT chocolate waffles, I don't WANNA have chocolate waffles, I wanna see Aunt Betty!

MOM: We'll see Aunt Betty tomorrow, Zane.


What makes this more amusing is that Zane is sitting next to a smaller boy -- Billy -- who's a real goody-two-shoes. This kid keeps making the situation worse.

ZANE: I want COKE, I wanna have a COKE!

DAD: Okay, one Coke for Zane. What do you want, Billy?

BILLY: Milk, please. My dad says you should never drink Coke for breakfast.


DAD: Zane, that's alright, we'll get you a Coke.

BILLY: My dad says you should drink milk, not Coke.


MOM: Wow, who's a grumpy-gus this morning?

The parents, family, and friends try all sorts of techniques for distracting Zane. They drag him around the restaurant and show him all the nooks and crannies. They talk about what their airplane trip will be like ("Maybe you'll get to fly the plane, Zane?" "I DON'T WANT TO FLY THE PLANE!"). Nothing works for long.

The food finally arrives.

ZANE: I want chocolate waffles!!!

DAD: You DO have chocolate waffles. Look, here, you've got chocolate waffles.

ZANE: I don't WANT chocolate waffles!!!


ZANE: I don't LIKE this chocolate, I want REAL chocolate!

Sunday morning and I'm back at the same place. Zane isn't there -- presumably he's flying off to see Aunt Betty -- but a man and woman in their 40s sit next to me.

I try not to pay attention to them, but I notice that she's complaining as soon as she sits down...something about wanting to sit in a different part of the restaurant because she likes the food better there, but the waitress reassures her that the menu is exactly the same and the food comes from the same kitchen.

A few minutes later, I become aware of them when the waitress brings them their food.

WAITRESS: Here's your order, and I'll just run and bring over your toast.

WIFE: I have just one request. Could you please make sure that the bread isn't toasted or buttered?

WAITRESS: Uhhhh...the food is already done.

WIFE: Oh. I'd prefer not to have it toasted or buttered.

WAITRESS: I see. It's just that they've already made your food.

HUSBAND: Maybe you should have mentioned that when you ordered.

WIFE: Sigh. Okay. Just bring it over.

Shortly afterward the waitress comes by to see if everything's okay.

WAITRESS: How's your food, is everything good?

WIFE: I just have one complaint. These are roasted red peppers. The menu just says "red peppers." Look at this pepper here, this is carbon. That's unhealthy and dishonest.

WAITRESS: I didn't know the menu didn't say "roasted," I'll tell the cooks.

WIFE: Because I don't like roasted red peppers.

WAITRESS: I didn't know the menu said that, I'll tell the cooks.

WIFE: If I'd known they were roasted I wouldn't have ordered it.

WAITRESS: I see, I'll tell the cooks.

WIFE: Sigh. Sigh. Sigh.

Not long after I got up to leave. The husband asked his wife if her food was good, and I saw that she was poking at it and shaking her head.

WIFE: I...I don't even know what this is. I don't know what this IS. I can't EAT this.

I left before the final fireworks but I was struck by the similarity between her tantrum and Zane's: at least Zane was STRAIGHT FORWARD. His need to whine was 100% direct and honest. This woman, however, was more manipulative in her whining.

And somehow you can excuse a six year old for behaviour that is unseemly for a 46 year old.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I'd Buy Anything By...The Red House Painters

When I think of San Francisco -- where I've never been -- I either think of William T. Vollmann's prostitutes...or of The Red House Painters.

When I think of the Red House Painters I am instantly transported back to the early '90s, when I listened to their "Rollercoaster" album over and over again while driving desolate country roads. There's a lot of angsty music in the world, but the Red House Painters weren't just angsty, they were downright MISERABLE. They'd given up on everything. Life was too awful to even scream about, and when lead singer Mark Kozelek DID scream it was like a sucide victim lurching suddenly out of the morgue: oh so dangerous, oh so lost.

Nirvana had nothing on the Red House Painters. These guys could play so slowly that you almost thought they'd stopped. The guitar was painful and alone. The lyrics were sheer poetry without a single misstep. They could make you cry for three minutes or twelve minutes, no matter how short or long the song. And the album covers, enigmatic and beautiful in that 4AD way.

Here's a prime example of how they could turn an already bleak four-minute song into a brilliant nine-minute epic. It's "Katy Song," which starts off simple and gradually descends into chaos.

When I say these things I am talking about the "classic" RHP albums. Kozelek cheered up a bit on the later albums -- musically at least -- and it was difficult for some fans to adjust to the slightly more upbeat sound. Errrr, "more upbeat" as in "not quite so suicidal." Take a look at this spot-on fan video for "Song for a Blue Guitar," the title track from their last 4AD album.

The band broke up, they had label problems, there are solo albums and new projects, blah-blah-blah. These things never last forever. I'd love to find copies of their post-"Blue Guitar" albums but until then, The Red House Painters will always mean San Francisco and sad country roads to me.

Albums to buy: the two (!) self-titled releases, often called "Rollercoaster" and "Bridge," which contain the most finely-crafted of their songs. Albums to avoid: their later work was more loose and spontaneous, but it shouldn't be actively avoided. For fans only: the bonus "Retrospective" CD with Rollercoast/Bridge outtakes and demo versions. There's a reason why those versions didn't appear on the final albums.

The ZsaZsaBlog VI

Last month I noticed that Zsa Zsa was looking increasingly scruffy; she had tufts of fur sticking out every where and she appeared to have stopped grooming herself. She was also extremely lethargic. "That's it," I thought, "she's REALLY dying now."

But then I had a sudden brainstorm. I took out a comb and started to brush her, and in half an hour I'd removed sixteen inches of loose fur.

Sixteen Inches of Zsa Zsa

It seems that the sudden heat and her new frailty had dealt her a double blow, and whereas in the past she'd been able to remove all that fur, this year she just couldn't. It was like she was wearing a pair of snowpants in the middle of summer. As soon as we finished our hour-long brushing session she went bouncing around the room, suddenly cool and free!

As always, signs of her demise were greatly exaggerated.

Case in point: she caught at least two mice last week, and in keeping with her experimental nature she left them in various states of gruesomeness.

Last Monday I stepped on a mouse tail, which she'd left at the bottom of the stairs. Usually she eats the tails, but maybe this one simply wasn't to her liking.

Wednesday's mouse was the most disgusting yet, because instead of eating it front-to-back or back-to-front, she'd eaten in LATERALLY, from the underbelly up. Three of the feet, most of the viscera, and the lower jaw of the mouse were gone...but the tail, spine, and much of the bleary-eyed head were still intact. It looked like a horror movie prop: a mouse dipped in acid, its ribs gnawed back into little fingers and one little back foot hanging off.

Why does Zsa Zsa do these things? I thought she was a cute little bundle who snores happily on my lap, not a wicked witch-monster who spends the early morning hours eating small creatures alive.

Of course this only makes me love her more.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Dee-Yadda Diddy-Aoh Scat!

This weekend King Beckett loaned me his copy of "Anita O'Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer." And though there's not much in the documentary that I didn't already know, it DID increase my respect for her jazz-stylings from "I don't know how to evaluate this vocal style" to "Holy cow, she was SPECTACULAR."

Do yourself a favour and watch her interpretation of "Sweet Georgia Brown" during the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. The director spends WAY too much time focusing on the audience, but persevere until she really gets going. It's more than worth it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Back in the Objective-C Saddle Again

Every year or so I decide to tackle Objective-C and Cocoa again, partly because I want to create useless applications for my computer, but mainly as a brain-sharpening mental exercise.

A few things have hindered me:

* An incomplete mastery of C.

* Textbooks which tell you to do things, but don't explain why.

* Textbooks which go out of date with each OS X update.

For these reasons I've bumbled around the language, eventually finding myself out of my depth and retreating to safer pursuits (like YouTube puppet shows with a seal, for example).

This time I think I'm REALLY getting somewhere. Part of my success is due to my previous attempts at learning the concepts -- even when I failed I took away some valuable lessons -- but I'm using some different resources now...ones that suit my knowledge level AND my method of learning.

I started with Stephen G. Kochan's "Programming in Objective-C." Whereas most other books either assume a total knowledge of C or a complete LACK of knowledge, Kochan's book is written for those who understand the concepts but REALLY need a syntax refresher. The first half explains all the elements of C in an Objective-C context, and ends with "Underlying C Language Features" (like structs and character arrays) that you'll probably never need (but should know about anyway).

The second half of the book is devoted to using the essential Objective-C Foundation classes -- numbers, strings, files, etc. -- and all the important methods. Once you've finished "Programming in Objective-C" you are ready for the Cocoa concepts.

That's where Aaron Hillegass' celebrated "Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X" comes in. This book assumes a comfortable knowledge of both C and Objective-C, and it teaches you how to use them effectively with Interface Builder. By page 100 you're building full-featured applications for your Mac...

...but Hillegass' book is more of a "gentle introduction" than I prefer; it often skips over the lower level "HOW does this work?" stuff. If you're like me then you NEED that information, so I recommend that you SIMULTANEOUSLY read "Cocoa Design Patterns" by Erik M. Buck and Donald A. Yacktman. By teaching you the best ways to use the extremely flexible NEXTSTEP frameworks -- and revealing the common patterns that developers use when writing Cocoa applications -- you learn exactly why Hillegass tells you to -- for instance -- [[foo alloc] init].

The only downside of "Cocoa Design Patterns" is that it's still unfinished. I bought a "rough cut" advance copy and it is teaching me SO MUCH...but it's damn obnoxious to read, full of spelling mistakes, incorrect cross-references, incomprehensible formatting, and half-finished ideas. It's very much a work in progress -- and it's advertised as such, so I wasn't ripped off -- but you MIGHT want to wait until the book is actually released.

These three books are my recommended recipes for success. They teach you the syntax, the application, and the structure of Cocoa programming. They also teach you why creating Mac applications is such a pleasure...until you start doing reference counting, of course.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

New Video: "Depressed Benny Hill"

Yesterday I started thinking that although Benny Hill is fun to watch when you're in a great mood, I bet his show would simply infuriate a depressed person. And since Schnapps the Seal is always depressed this was a shoe-in for a short video, which I shot last night and edited today:

Backstage Expose

As usual the music was mostly built up from Apple Loops -- including some sound effects that came with Soundtrack Pro -- but this time I tried something entirely new: foley recording.

If you've ever seen Benny Hill (!) then you know that much of the comedy (!) depended on over-the-top foley of his trademarks was sped-up film with overdubbed sound effects. I was hoping to be able to avoid all that hassle, but as I was putting this video together it became obvious how essential that stuff is to slapstick.

So I did some brainstorming, and these were the techniques I came up with.

* Footsteps: I turned a pair of high heels upside down and hit the heel-tips with a pair of hairbrushes. Totally unnatural, but Benny Hill's footsteps never DID sound natural.

* Brushing: The aforementioned hairbrush rubbed across fabric. I enhanced the lower frequencies to make it sound richer.

* Slapping Schnapps' Head: The hairbrush again, slapped against my palm.

* Whip Effect: A thick hair elastic stretched between my fingers, then snapped on my leg. Ouch.

* Dominatrix Hissing: "Hiss! Hiss! Rah! Hiss!"

* Weightlifting Noise: This was the hardest one. I wanted something that sounded like a ratcheting wrench -- or maybe a jack -- but I'm not exactly swimming in tools. So I took three strings of cheap mardi-gras beads, wrapped them around the back of a wooden chair, and pulled them back and forth. It really worked!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

A New Gesture of Extreme Consternation

It's always nice to learn a new gesture to add to your repertoire! Just as learning a new word can help you express yourself better, so can learning a new gesture help you reveal your innermost feelings to others.

I'm particularly fascinated by "gestures of extreme consternation." Previously, my favourite gesture of this type was to be seen only in Bollywood movies, when the heroine accidentally hits the hero on the head with a kitchen utensil; instead of putting her hands to her face and saying "Oh NO!" the way our western sitcom characters would, the Bollywood female would raise her hands to shoulder-level and flap them forwards and backwards quickly, like she were putting out a shoulder pad fire.

While watching Benny Hill this week I discovered an entirely new gesture of extreme consternation, one that I think was uniquely British: when Benny Hill does something cruel to you in a restaurant, put one hand on the top of your head, stick the thumb of your other hand in your mouth, and then moan terribly while stroking your nose:

I'm not kidding. That's Louise English in the picture, doing the most exaggerated version of this gesture that I've seen so far (usually the "hand on the head" element is not included).

What is this supposed to mean? I think it means "I am so shocked and upset that I've reverted to infancy!" But it's presented in such a nonchalant way that I suspect this wasn't just part of Benny Hill's show...I think it might have happened in British screwball comedies in general. But the first time *I* saw this I sat up in my chair and said "What the HECK?!?"

Somehow I can't bring myself to watch a "Carry On" movie in order to do more research.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Weird Eyebrow Hairs

It's no secret that your hair starts doing strange things as you get older. By way of example, here are three hairs that I plucked out of my eyebrows several months ago.*

The hair in the middle is entirely typical. Almost all of my eyebrow hair looks like that: straight, thin, flexible, and brown.

The hair on the RIGHT is the type I'm seeing more and more: white, coarse, and much longer than usual. These hairs are like vicious spikes and they really yank when I pull them out.

The hair on the LEFT, however, is the weird one. I see one of these every six months or so. It's globular, stunted, and irregularly coloured. Since it's so thick and chunky I see it immediately when it grows, and all I need to do is prod it to make it come out.

I understand the concept of grey hair -- and I suppose that's what's happening to the hair on the right -- but fat little glob-hairs? I don't get it. I'm wondering if anybody else gets hairs like these.

* I didn't save these hairs for a year and then put them online today; this is an old picture from my old camera, which had obvious problems focusing on little nearby objects.

The Emancipated '80s

Some days, to pass the time, I read back issues of '80s computer magazines. It's a nerdy pursuit but sometimes I run across something interesting.

The North American computer scene was pretty stoic. Lots of horny kids owned computers, but the magazines themselves tried to maintain a certain respectability, writing in a fact-based journalistic style in an attempt inform and edify. "Creative Computing" was downright dry and businesslike in its approach, whereas even the less formal magazines kept their childish shenanigans to a minimum.

Then there was Crash.

Published in England and devoted to the ZX Spectrum, Crash Magazine was a swill of pre-adolescent humour, faux hipness, and over-the-top gore. Add Oliver Frey's strangely homoerotic cover art and you have an untinted window into the minds of repressed British childhood during the middle '80s. It's boring and annoying and repetative, yes, but it's a type of sensationalistic weirdness that I've never been exposed to before.

"Tip pages" were very popular in these magazines. Readers would write in with advice for beating the games, or programming cheats, or maps of the sprawling levels which typified Spectrum games. Crash's tip page was nothing special until -- in 1986 -- the previous tip page compiler stepped aside and he was replaced with...A GIRL!

Hannah Smith's hiring was presented initially as some form of female emancipation: women could be smart and clever and competitive just like men! But some of the spotty readers wrote in to say typical '80s things like "Women should go back to where they belong and stop taking men's jobs," as though being the self-styled "girlie tipster" for Crash Magazine was a high-paying position of executive power.

What's most bizarre, however -- and what, in retrospect, was very typical of the '80s reaction to female empowerment -- was how other readers (and the editors) would simultaneously defend and DEGRADE women. All the male readers said things like "Get out of your chauvinist caves, you idiots! This is the '80s! Hannah Smith is great and she's GORGEOUS! Please give her my PHONE NUMBER!" The female readers said "Just because we're weak and frilly doesn't mean we can't do a man's job!" And the editors...

...well, the editors printed covers like this:

...and they wrote articles about how sweaty she got during aerobics, and they tried to set up a jello-wrestling contest with another female writer...

...all while defending her right to be a member of the team.

I'm not saying that England was particularly sexist at the time -- they had Benny Hill, sure, but they also had Margaret Thatcher. Reading these magazines, I'm remembering that this was how female emancipation was treated by the average person in the mid '80s: "Sure women should have the freedom to do whatever they long as they do it in my pants!" There are still lots of people who have that attitude, surely, but you don't see NEARLY so many of them, and they CERTAINLY don't have a mainstream high-profile forum for their views (not without being viewed as crackpots, at least).

This leads me to Benny Hill. I've been watching his 1982 specials today and comparing them to both his older '60s programs and to today's television shows. They're creepy because Hill had gotten older while his female talent got younger (and more scantily clad), and 95% of the jokes involved Hill and his cronies trying to squeeze some woman's bum...

...but what's weird is that Hill almost always suffers HUMILIATION for this. The women outwit him, or he suffers some sort of punishment for his actions, and we (the viewer) are left respecting THEM and laughing at HIM (while still chuckling at his impotent horny buffoonery).

What's my point? I only have an inkling of one. It seems to me that as sexualized and marginalized as the Hill's Angels and Hannah Smiths were, they DID embody a sort of privilege and power as long as they remained at arm's length. By being intelligent and beautiful they had control of the scripted, imaginary situations they were put in. They were very much the superwomen...fetishized goddesses on pedestals.

When I do drag I'm very aware of this aspect of idealized femininity, so I see the attraction to it, and I also see the benefit of it...

...but it all DOES fall apart when reality enters the picture. The average woman on the street is NOT one of Hill's Angels, and NO women live inside his television scripts. The REAL world is a dangerous place for the desired female, and its one where that element of sexual power tends to wane as the years go by.

So it's certainly good that today's Hannah Smiths are not so routinely dismissed as "girlie tipsters" (though it does seem to me that many women would embrace that type of diminutive for themselves). Things have certainly changed publicly, and that's a good thing.

As for the rest of it, though...gender, sexuality, society, and politics are a terrible stew.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Looming Swine Flu

I just spent twenty minutes in the front seat of a car next to a coughing swine flu sufferer. Then I spent another ninety minutes sitting in a small, stuffy studio with her. And I handled her papers. And her CD cases. I might as well have stuck a cotton swab into her throat and then stuffed it in my nose, I was that exposed.

I practiced breathing in various strategic directions, and I handled her possessions by the corners, and I washed my hands repeatedly. I even kept my fingers away from my face, which is sheer torture for me. If I could have worn a surgical mask I would have.

There's no point, though; if significant numbers of people around me are going to get this flu then I will too, I ALWAYS get the flu. The fact that I've avoided it so long is absolutely shocking.

I'm writing this as a prediction: tomorrow I will be as much a physical wreck as she was. If not, however, then I will cheerfully toast my fragile immune system and thank my lucky stars.

Reassessing Peri

I was an avid Doctor Who fan as a child, but I stopped watching the program midway through the Peter Davison era. So when I resurrected my fandom as an adult I was unpleasantly surprised by Colin Baker's incarnation as a clownish, brash, bullying, smug, but somehow impotent know-it-all.

Far worse, though, was the huge-breasted presence of Nicola Bryant as Peri Brown, the Doctor's assistant. She simpered and bounced and bitched a lot. She had a range of exactly two emotions: stuttering fear or eye-rolling sarcasm. And her American accent sounded weak and terrible, sprinkled with incorrect word usage and lapses in pronunciation. Every time she appears in a scene I want to scratch my ears out.

I developed a serious Nicola Bryant hate-on.

But like many of the more obnoxious aspects of that era -- the pantomime acting, the crap-synth music, the Doctor's outfit -- I've slowly begun to realize that Bryant wasn't really the problem. All of these failings started at the very top of the hierarchy -- John Nathan-Turner's potentially-compromised vision for the program -- and trickled down to the poor people like Bryant and Baker who didn't have any real say in the matter. Colin Baker HATED his coat and he was BAFFLED by what he was told to do. And, likewise, Nicola Bryant was simply Doing What She Was Told.

It was Mindwarp that really changed my mind about Bryant, first because she does some really first-rate villain acting, and second because the Peri/Yrcanos love story is so ridiculous that it spells the whole issue out for all to see: the Peri character was poorly scripted, not necessarily poorly acted. What's more, during the commentary for Attack of the Cybermen, Bryant specifically mentions Peri's incorrect American word usage, and reveals that she was told to speak that way so British viewers would understand her.

Well blow me down.

So even though I get annoyed every time Peri Brown gets stuttery and out-of-breath, my respect for Nicola Bryant has actually grown, and I can see moments -- usually funny ones -- when she managed to REALLY act in the role. I feel a bit sorry for her being written as T&A eye-candy "for the dads." I can still hate Peri...but I can finally appreciate Nicola Bryant.

And she's great on the commentaries, by the way.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Our Lame Town Square

When I heard, two years ago, that developers were going to tear up one of downtown's uglier parking lots and turn it into a town square, I was THRILLED. All the objections to the plan were silly ones involving apocalyptic parking shortages and supposed safety issues. The nay-sayers didn't seem to care that uptown Waterloo doesn't have a convenient and communal place for people to just sit down and relax, a place to congregate while shopping, a place to eat your food outdoors.

What I hadn't counted on was the fact that the town square designers were bone-headed morons. They tore up the old parking lot in front of Waterloo Town Square...and then they basically paved it over again, giving us a huge flat concrete area ringed with concrete seats, with a tiny little garden enclosed by -- you guessed it -- more concrete.

It looks vast and featureless and unwelcoming, but the biggest and most obvious problem is that there is no shade. I mean seriously people, what the f*ck were you thinking? Did nobody stand out there and notice that the sun beats mercilessly down on that area between 9am and 5pm? Didn't anybody say "maybe we should position an awning or some trees to block out some of the sun?" Or how about -- lord forbid -- GRASS to break up the heat reflection, or at least a water fountain?

No, the only additional feature they gave us was a metal butt-plug sculpture which -- you guessed it -- has been carefully positioned to provide no shade whatsoever.

This really is a sad bungling of a well-intentioned opportunity. The square appears to be vetted by people who never actually go outside and who have a disconcerting concrete fetish. The only other explanation I can think of -- and this is probably the REAL issue -- is that they built the square specifically for EVENTS, and therefore didn't want to muck it up with pesky "features" and "trees." The fact that those events only occur during eight days of the year must have slipped their collective minds.

So now we have a parking lot in uptown Waterloo that you can't even park on. During the day, six or seven stalwart shoppers sit along the edge, dwarfed by the emptiness. Other people sit on the plastic patio furniture that has been hastily placed in the shadow of the mall -- a shadow that doesn't even touch the square itself. The only people who enjoy the square are the skateboarders, who are managing to slowly remove those metal divots intended to keep them from having fun.

Waterloo Town Square's town square? An abject, stupid failure. A meeting place designed to repel people who might want to meet there. A two-and-a-half million dollar thud.

PS: I hear that the square "isn't finished yet," and that they're asking people for their opinions. My opinion? Rip up half of the carefully-laid concrete and put some grass and trees there, and then add seating in those areas. As for complaints about the skateboarders, well, perhaps you shouldn't have built something which screams "SKATE ON ME!" As it is they're the only people who seem to regularly use the park, so more power to them, they're filling a void. If the void wasn't there -- because people actually felt like sitting in the square -- then the skateboarders would move to another area of unobstructed concrete, because they probably don't want to skate on fingers and feet.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


Season seven of "The Daily Muffy" begins on Monday, July 7th with "Voyageur," a trip down Guelph's Speed River in search of fur and frolic! The adventure will commence here on Flickr.

Voyageur Intro

These things are always a strange mix of anxiety and fun. Fortunately, when I did this on June 21st, I was gorgeously photographed by Shay and punted around by canoe-heroine Natasha. How could I NOT enjoy myself, especially on such a gorgeous day?

There are a few things to note about the shooting of this trip. The first is that I'm wearing the outfit which helped destroy my shoulder back in outfit so terrifying that I call it "The Impossible Costume." Its odd back-centric doohickeys -- which I specifically remember having trouble with on that night -- left me in so much pain the next day that I can only assume it made my problem worse. By wearing it again for this photo shoot, I wanted to prove to myself that I CAN wear just about anything these days as long as I'm careful. I was, and it worked!

The second thing to note is that Natasha did not come with the intention to be photographed, so all the pictures feature only half of a canoe: the half with me in it. Rest assured that we WERE actually afloat, though I can't pretend that the Speed River is a particularly dangerous place to be.

There was, however, the danger of the canoe flipping over every time I hobbled into it. But Natasha is a pro and she kept me high and dry.

The third thing to note is that this was part of my "Shall I continue to do drag?" experiment. I needed to see how these pictures turned out, and to improve the experiment I even bought new eyelashes (the old ones were clunky, quirky, and more dry glue than lash). I'm thrilled that I can still burn up a dress and handle the harsh rays of the sun. Drag, we're still buddies, you and I.

Anyway, be sure to check out Flickr on Monday when the journey commences!

This is My Humerus

People are always showing ultrasounds of their babies to suitably impressed friends and family. Instead of showing you an image of my life and happiness, I present you with an image of pain and dysfunction...yes, this is what my shoulder looks like on the inside:

I'm no doctor so I can't tell you what it means. All I know is, if the inside of your shoulder looks like this, your shoulder is F*CKED.

Today I went to the Guelph General Hospital to pick up a disk of my MRI results, partly because I'll need to give them to a shoulder specialist but also because I'm really darn curious. What sort of awful thing did they see when they looked at my cartilage in three dimensions? Did they scream? Do they still have nightmares?

Probably not. All I know is that once you view your body "in slices" like this, you cease to recognize it and you realize just how meaty you are. The only landmarks I can find in the images are the bones; everything else is just so much generalized gristle.

I'll let the doctor figure it out.

In the meantime, you might be wondering how to look at the inside of your OWN body. First you need to get an MRI, and then you need to call the hospital and ask them to make a copy of the data. They won't mail it to you (or your doctor) so you need to drive back to the hospital in a pounding rainstorm in order to pick up the CD.

When you examine the CD itself, you'll discover that it contains quaint Microsoft DOS files with eight-letter all-caps filenames. The included viewer cannot be run on your Mac, so either you spend the rest of your life trying to interpret the hexadecimal data in your "DICOM image" files or you download OsiriX, a free DICOM viewer for the Mac.

When you use a layperson-monkey technique of hitting OsiriX buttons semi-intelligently until something appears...well, unless you have a railroad spike through the affected organ or something inside you has exploded, you'll see animated slices of incomprehensible things which look mostly like a Grateful Dead lightshow.

I'm not saying that it isn't worth it, but if I thought I could diagnose my own injury by looking at these pictures I was terribly terribly wrong.

PS: On second viewing I believe that the big white thing in the picture -- the one on the left, partly overlapping the ball of my humerus -- is the oft-cursed "labrum," which in my case is apparently torn. It shows up so well in the picture because they injected radioactive dye into it. If that's the case, it's sort of neat that you can see it right through the bone.

PPS: The picture above is not from the MRI, it is an X-Ray they took immediately after the dye was injected. I think the wormy-looking white line in the middle is the path of the needle with some dye backed up into it. Yuck.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Tommyknockers Knocked On My Door, Hung Around for Three Hours, and Then Clogged My Toilet

Stephen King annoys me but I recognize that -- under all the repetition and hackery -- there's a big slice of brilliance in him. No matter how bad any given Stephen King book is, the idea BEHIND the book is usually a whopper.

"The Tommyknockers" fits this description perfectly. I haven't read it since it came out, but I remember it being a relatively poor -- and over-long -- treatment of a fantastic plot. It's unsurprising that the mini-series -- which I watched today -- took out most of the good ideas, drastically simplified the plot itself, and tacked on a horrible ending.

Television scriptwriters really do seem to think that we (the viewers) are incapable of dealing with complex ideas. The truly great thing about King's original book was that the "Tommyknocker" aliens were terribly flawed and destructive creatures; they could do amazing things but were far too selfish and short-tempered to really thrive. This was presented as a racial trait in the novel, and was a sly mirroring of humanity's own foibles: we have great power and adaptability but we're also very primitive, and there's nothing more dangerous than a baby with a loaded gun.

This element added an indispensible level to the explained everything and lent itself to a lot of great plot twists. But in the mini-series, of course, the aliens were just hissing bad guys who wanted to exploit humankind, an idea that reduced it all to a typical "invasion earth" story.

Another thing that television scriptwriters Absolutely Must Do is add a climactic straight-forward fight -- good versus evil! -- and then make sure that everybody's alright in the end, no matter how improbable such a thing might be. I was pleased to see that, in the mini-series, all the infected townspeople underwent an instant spa-treatment as soon as the aliens died...they even got magically-applied lipstick and mascara!

But the show wasn't ALL bad. Traci Lords is always fun, and the major set-piece in the book ("What's happening in the barn?") was even more gruesome on screen. Yay!

Still, I feel personally insulted when a piece of entertainment treats me like I'm stupid. I'm not, and I'm hardly alone in LIKING a bit of a challenge!

New UPhold Song: "Think"

My Canada Day song contribution is one just finished from 2005 called "Think." It really IS sort of appropriate to the day, as it was inspired by a man who screamed insults at me from a balcony during a long-ago holiday...he was one of the men who explode.

You can listen to "Think" in its short, minimalistic, ambient glory here.

It sounds the way it does because of the technology I was using back then. I wanted to write a conventional song, but since I couldn't sing I decided to use a Vocoder plugin.

Unfortunately the only plugin I had was the one from Cycling 74's "Pluggo" bundle. While I grew fond of many of the "Pluggo" plugins (and many of their "Mode" plugins as well), they were terribly flaky and would sometimes refuse to work altogether. Their Vocoder usually only half-worked for had to route it through their virtual "PluggoBus," and in the case of this song the bus would just randomly fade in and out.

I got so frustrated with the vocoder that I gave up on "Think" after only one segment of one verse. But this year, when I went back to listen to it, I realized that the vocoder fade was sort of nice, and though it completely ruined an attempt at "conventional" music it was a nice "experimental" touch.

So I stripped out the rhythm and the original keyboards and rewrote the track around the vocoder glitch. It probably turned out better than if I'd written some lame song about depressed persecution.

The lesson: keep all of your mistakes, even if you think you'll never use them!