Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Tsunami Directions

The roads in California coastal communities have many, many traffic signs to assist residents in the event of a tsunami wave hitting the California shoreline.  Here are some of the signs.

All the signs are cleverly positioned so that their arrows point east.  The message is this:  If a tsunami is imminent, get away from the beach.

None of the signs in our area specifies a particular route.  The arrows just point east.

Honestly, I have to question whether these signs are helpful.

Sensors have been placed all over the Pacific Ocean to monitor waves and predict tsunamis hours before the big waves come to shore.   The internet, broadcast outlets and neighbors will warn people living near the Pacific Ocean if a tsunami is approaching.  These people will get in their cars and head east.

If you live near the ocean and see a backup of cars on all the east-bound roads in your neighborhood, someone in one of the cars will roll down a window and yell to advise you what is happening.  You will learn quickly about the tsunami and, if you have a functioning brain, you will follow the traffic and go east.

If a tsunami originates from a closer spot, say Catalina Island or the Farallon Islands, and there is no warning, you will recognize there is a problem when your feet get wet or you see lines of cars heading east.  Again, if you have a functioning brain, you will join the traffic and proceed away from the flooding water -- that is, to the east.

If you do not have a functioning brain, signs like the ones above will be of no help to you.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016


I managed to wangle a ticket to last week's WonderCon in Los Angeles.  WonderCon is the younger brother of the truly enormous ComicCon convention held each summer in San Diego. 

Since driving to the downtown convention center is no fun, I decided to travel on the newish Expo Line train from Culver City.  Naturally, my train's electrical connection shorted on its way to the station, and so I joined several other lanyard-wearing WonderCom participants to wait for a bus to pick us up.

One, an older fellow, turned out be a Marvel Comics alum, the former assistant to Jack Kirby, which I thought was pretty cool.  (Kirby created or worked on hundreds of comic characters, including Ant-Man, the Avengers, Black Panther, Iron Man and X-Men.)

I asked whether Kirby, who died more than 20 years ago, had anticipated that the adventures of comic book superheroes would be turned into major movies.

"Oh, he knew it was coming," my new friend said.  "Everyone knew from 1977 on.  The first Star Wars movie was the game changer."

He also said that a new Marvel film featuring Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, might be one to watch.  Put a tickler in your calendar for this November.

In the Main Hall

I had heard of people dressing up to attend these conventions, and the experience did not disappoint.  Here are just a few of the characters I met.

The most popular costume, of course, was Deadpool.  There were fewer zombies than I had expected. Many girls and women were dressed as Princess Leia from the first Star Wars trilogy.

One refreshing thing was that these costumed characters, unlike those in New York's Times Square, were happy to be photographed, and even to pose with regular people in mufti, without $10 or $20 shakedowns.   

Another novelty was the exhibition hall, which like those at any convention, was filled with tables set up by people promoting their products.  In this case, it was mostly artists, including many really good ones, who had created original characters and, presumably, stories for them.  If their narratives are as original as their images, the comic book and comic movie world will be lively and lucrative for years to come.


Since this WonderCon was held on the West Coast, there was a full contingent of food trucks parked outside the center  and selling a variety of cuisines to augment the usual convention fare inside. 

And, since costumes and accessories can be heavy, there was a checking booth -- similar to coat-check booths in inclement parts of the country -- for people to store their fake heads, weapons and uncomfortable footwear.

A well-planned event.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Movie Monday: The Brothers Grimsby

Rated R (strong sexual content, language, penises, scrotums, anuses).


You remember Sasha Baron Cohen.  He received considerable attention and praise in the early aughts for his "Da Ali G Show" interviews.

Ali G was a fictional character, a doofus who ambushed serious people into filmed interviews in which they struggled to be polite in the face of his idiocy.  Ali G was popular first in England and then in an HBO series in the U.S.

In 2006, Baron Cohen played the title character in "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."  This was a road-show mockumentary in which Borat, another clown character, tours the U.S. doing interviews and making fun of regional Americans, lampooning their perceived sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and jingoism.

(Baron Cohen's work is part of an emerging trend of comedians creating cartoon versions of people they don't like or respect and then playing them as fools.  Think of Stephen Colbert.
        (Or, go back about 80 years and think of white filmmakers' creation of Stepin Fetchit, an offensive stereotype of African Americans played by a black man who at the time was understandably happy for the opportunity to get a well-playing gig.)

This endeared Baron Cohen, an alum of Christ's College, Cambridge, to the intelligentsia.  When he received a British Best Achievement humor award, he reprised his Ali G personality on stage with presenter Sir Ben Kingsley:  "I is grown up now. I ain't living in my nan's house anymore. I is living in her garage."  

So funny.

The Brothers Grimsby

Baron Cohen's earlier fans are disappointed with this movie.  The trenchant commentary they so appreciated in his earlier outings seems to have given way to a hot mess of gross-out gags.

The set-up is this:  Nobby (Baron Cohen) and his brother were separated and adopted by different families; Nobby grows up to be a crude, 11-child-breeding, non-working, benefits-drawing lout in the low-class English town of Grimsby while his posh brother, Sebastian, has become a disciplined MI6 operative.  The two reunite to clear Sebastian's name, and along the way Nobby shows himself to be resourceful and street-smart, not just a common vulgarian.

Sort of a noble savage/action adventure satire aimed at 12-year-old boys.

Manohla Dargis, the New York Times critic known for very long analyses of serious foreign films, could choke out only a few paragraphs for this one.

         A Freudian might be able to make something of Sacha Baron Cohen’s emphasis on
         bodily orifices and protrusions in “The Brothers Grimsby.” I prefer a more obvious
         explanation: At some point during the making of this 1-hour-18-minute burlesque,
         Mr. Cohen became bored. . . .  
                   Mr. Cohen just seems off his game in “Grimsby,” and it may be that the movie’s
         high concept proved too constricting for someone who has done some of his best
         work (as in the “Borat” film) with a looser, more episodic format. He seems boxed in,
         rather than liberated by, the spy movie, which of course is already self-parodying. . . .,

Stephen Twitty of Artisyndicate, who like Dargis has a degree from NYU's film school, had a more straightforward reaction.

        "The Brothers Grimsby" stars Sacha Baron Cohen and a giant elephant penis, and it's
        hard to tell them apart. So remember: One of them actually serves a purpose. It makes
        baby elephants.
                 The other makes piles of dung like this.
                 A cinematic colonoscopy, "The Brothers Grimsby" is a relentlessly scatological
        exercise in idiocy, a walk through the monkey house in which Baron Cohen puts things
        up his bum and throws crud at the screen.

It falls to Stephanie Merry of the Washington Post to observe, finally, that perhaps the emperor has no clothes.

        “The Brothers Grimsby” is fitfully, sometimes outrageously, funny. But Cohen’s shtick
       of showing the backwardness and stupidity of unprivileged characters is starting to feel
       lazy, not to mention classist itself.

The film has not done well, probably because the people who bought tickets were expecting to see art-film Baron Cohen humor and got a cheap-laugh Baron Cohen movie instead.

Gersh Kuntzman of the New York Daily News seems to be able to tell the difference and still appreciate the movie on its own limited terms.

        There’s no real point in reviewing “The Brothers Grimsby.” If you like dumb gross-out
        comedies featuring men fellating each other, double entendres about penises and feces,
        and an obsession with the anus straight out of elementary school, you’ll love Sacha
        Baron Cohen’s latest effort.
                   If you don’t, what, pray tell, is wrong with you?!
                   Full disclosure: I was the lone critic in America to unabashedly recommend
          “Zoolander 2,” so I’m certainly not ashamed to even less abashedly beg you to go
         see “The Brothers Grimsby.”
                  I say that not because it’s a great film — hell, it’s not even a good one — but
         I laughed for pretty much the entire movie, most of the time against my better judgment.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter 1916: A Century Later

"Easter 1916" is a fabulous poem.  William Butler Yeats wrote it in the months after a violent Irish republican uprising was quickly defeated in Dublin on Easter Monday in 1916.

Ireland was still under the thumb of England at that point, and centuries of resentment had grown only deeper in the decades after England's non-response to the Irish Potato Famine of the mid 19th century.  The opposition, mostly Catholic in a majority Catholic country, had plotted with Germany, England's enemy in the middle of World War I, for the Germans to send weapons to the Irish rebels.

England knew of the weapons shipments and of the rebels' plans to stage an armed insurrection -- and the rebels knew that the English knew these things.  The Irish attacked anyway, seizing public buildings and paying a great cost as their doomed mutiny came to its defeat. Of the 1,500 Irish fighters, 300 were killed and another 200 jailed, many of them tortured.

Yeats, a prominent Irish poet and playwright (and Anglican to boot), had counseled against the republican violence though he supported their cause.  Over the coming months, he reflected on the Easter uprising and its effect. This poem is the result.

Its first stanza Yeats talks of the status quo ante -- "polite meaningless words."  In the second he describes republican patriots:  an Irish noblewoman enraged "until her voice grew shrill," a gentle teacher drawn into battle, even "a drunken vainglorious lout" whom Yeats detested.  All were "transformed utterly" by the events of that Easter Monday.  The men died fighting.  In a recurring theme, Yeats says, "A terrible beauty is born."

The third stanza compares the adamant stoicism of republican opposition to a stone in a stream, implacable and and unchanging, as life continues around it.

The fourth stanza knits it all up.  Its first lines -- "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart" -- recalls the Irish grievance and the stone in the previous verse.  Yeats memorializes the dead leaders and concludes that their bold defiance had had its effect.

The essential phrases from this poem, encountered in college, lodged themselves in my brain.  They come to me again and again and challenge me to return to the source, not just because Yeats could fashion a powerful phrase but because his vision resonates in the strange world he witnessed aborning.

"Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart."

"A terrible beauty is born."   

Yeats did not publish the poem until 1920.  Two years later, in 1922, Ireland became a free state and in 1949, a republic.

Easter 1916

by W. B. Yeats

September 25, 1916


I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near to my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of it all.


Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse--
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Grandma's Celebrity Gossip

Our popular California columnist dishes on Cher and George Clooney, and, as a bonus, shares a recent snapshot from her collection.

George Clooney said he’s going to quit acting because he doesn’t want to look like an old shlump in front of the camera.  He’s 54. That’s old? If that’s old, he can park his walker in my space anytime. 

Him I remember as dashing Doctor Ross on "ER." 

I didn’t recall ever seeing him in a movie until Adele (Luskin, not the single-named  zhlubby kvetch singing: “Oy-oy-oy! I’m so sad. Nobody loves me. Give me another award.”), reminded me we’d seen the piece of narrishkeit where he was chasing Arabs in the desert (“Syriana”), but I say it was Charlton Heston

Do I believe George Clooney is going to put the kibosh on his acting career? A nechtiger tog!

Every month Cher weinens she has one foot in the grave from the Epstein-Barr. So a Broadway musical about her life she’s writing and a tell-all book spilling the dirt on her sordid affairs with both men and women. Such a platke-macher, that one. 

This she’s kvelling about? Try staying married to the same man your entire life -- one who incessantly hummed “Auf Wiederseh’n” and whose dentures clicked every time he chewed. That’s true love. 

Me, I had plenty of opportunities for the hanky-panky with famous men. At a B'nai B'rith function, Dan Dailey said I looked like Claire Trevor and winked at me. But did I jump out of my flimsies and hop into bed with him? Chas vesholem! Later Sylvia told me he was gay, but I didn’t believe it, not with that deep voice of his. 

And as for cavorting with men and women, that’s no megillah. Two birds you can kill with one stone by inviting Caitlyn Jenner over to the house.  Naked she’s still Bruce.

And who would have recognized this hulking golem at Ralph’s in Encino? Not me. It was Oscar winner Geena Davis. Oy!

After and before

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Lame Names

The Significant Other and I traveled to LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) the other day to pick up a friend.  Along the way, I noticed two major structures whose names always have struck me as counterproductive, if not downright silly. 

Custom Hotel

This is described as a "boutique airport hotel" by its operator, Joie de Vivre Hospitality.  The company's philosophy is this:

     We create opportunities to celebrate the joy of life through the personality of our hotels.

      Our boutique hotel properties are grounded in local culture and actively engaged in the
      community (better: communities) around them.

My question is this:  What does Custom Hotel mean, exactly?  Custom what?  What does the name have to do with the Manchester neighborhood where the hotel is located or the airport that is just a mile or so away?

I'm not a branding specialist -- there are such people, by the way -- but that doesn't stop me from thinking about how the Joie de Vivre people could position this property better.  Just off the top of my head, I can think of two better names.

1.  Why not rename Custom Hotel and call it The Brown Hotel?  Its exterior walls are painted brown, after all.  Promotional literature could could call it "The Brown" so as not to confuse people who used to refer to UPS as "Brown."
       One restaurant at the hotel could be renamed "The Derby," after the long-gone Wilshire Boulevard establishment, The Brown Derby, that was popular with Hollywood types in the first part of the last century.  There is a well-regarded restaurant called The Derby in Arcadia, far from the airport; perhaps its operators could be convinced to replicate their establishment at the hotel.
       Then the hotel's airport shuttle bus could be repainted brown, further reinforcing the name and making it easier for people arriving at LAX to spot their ride.

2.  Or, perhaps better, why not repaint the hotel in a blue tone?   There are plenty of blues in the Southern California palette, and the hotel promotes its location near Marina Del Rey and Venice Beach, each of which is near the blue Pacific Ocean.
     "Blue Hotel" resonates in part because the term has been used in art:  An 1898 American short story by Stephen Crane, a 1987 Chris Isaak song, a 2008 Ryan Adams song.  None of these works is upbeat, of course, but blue is a friendly color.  In fact, blue is just about everybody's favorite color.
     Plus, other hotels carry the same name (no trademark problems), including a classy joint, the Montauk Blue Hotel in New York's Hamptons.

Either way, problem solved.

(Joie de Vivre has other hotels with inscrutable names -- Avatar Hotel, Hotel Avante and The Epiphany, all in Silicon Valley -- and one, Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco, that calls to mind either a stylized 17th century Japanese theater form or, more common now, "posturing" in American political discussions.  All very unfortunate.)

Theme Building

The Theme Building is a 1950s futuristic structure that opened on the LAX grounds in 1961.  It formerly housed a Theme Restaurant that closed some time ago and was replaced later by a restaurant called Encounter (another meaningless name: Encounter what?) that was supposed be a "destination restaurant" and closed after less than two years of operation.

I see at least two problems here.

1.  The "Theme" building would make more sense if it had an actual, you know, theme.
         The traditional thing with public structures is to name them after prominent politicos.  LAX has Tom Bradley International Terminal, named for a popular mayor, for instance.
         The Theme Building was declared an L.A. Cultural and Historical Building in 1992, and you have to think the city fathers and mothers missed an opportunity to change the name to honor someone relevant.  Maybe Gov. Jerry Brown, who used to be known as Governor Moonbeam.  Or perhaps a local futurist like Gene Roddenberry, the Star Trek creator who died in 1991.  Or George Jetson.  I'm just saying.

2.  There were two chances to get the restaurant name right, and the operators chose the names Theme Restaurant and Encounter.  Both chances were blown.  The view from the restaurant deck (still open at some times) must be pretty cool even after many multi-story parking lots have filled much of the space inside the airport's U-shaped cluster of terminals.
      How about Sky at LAX?  Or Starflight Bar and Grill?
      Unfortunately, a "destination restaurant" on airport grounds was bound to fail.  The road through LAX is clogged at all hours, and most people's memories of trips to airports are not fond.  There are many other restaurants in Los Angeles that serve fine food and are not burdened by negative associations.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

(N)O Canada

Now go home!

It will not come as news to anybody that a certain North American country is highly agitated about people from the country to its south crossing the border in search of work.

I speak, of course, of Canada.

In recent years, the Canucks have tightened their border security, perhaps in response to terror threats.  One aspect of this tightening has been much greater scrutiny of U.S. visitors entering Canada to work, even on short-term assignments.

I first became aware of this a few weeks ago when I talked with a professional man, a New Yorker who had been dispatched to the Great White North to assist a Canadian company in preparation of documents for a financial transaction.

First Story

As his plane coasted into Toronto, my friend filled out the usual entry form; when he came to the "Reason for Your Visit" question, he checked the box marked "work."

"All the snowboarders got waved through," he told me.  "They sent me to a second line. Someone in a uniform wanted to know why I was doing this job and not a Canadian."

"It was very interrogative," he added. "They got very offended when they learned I was working on a process to sell a Canadian company."

After about 30 minutes of questioning, my friend was granted entry.  He spent a couple days on his assignment, went home for Presidents Day weekend and returned the next week to finish the job.  He filled out another entry card as his plane touched down at 2 a.m. on Tuesday morning.

"This time was harder," he said, apparently because the immigration scanning system indicated he'd been in Canada on a "work" visit the week before.  "They asked all the same questions."

Apparently his answers were not convincing.

"It is my judgment that you are going to need a work permit to stay in the country," the second screener said.  "What is the nature of your work?"

"I'm an investment banker."

The immigration officer consulted something she called the "NAFTA list."

"'Investment banker' isn't on the list," she said.  Trying to be helpful, she tossed out another question.

"Well, maybe you're a management consultant, eh?"
          (Okay, so I added the "eh" bit.  I've been to Canada; it definitely could have happened.)

"I'm not a management consultant," my friend said.

"Okay, what was your college degree?"

"I majored in math," he said.  Again, she consulted the list.

"'Mathematician' is on the list," she said triumphantly.

"But I'm not a mathematician."
        (Are there jobs for traveling mathematicians?  Do these people carry briefcases full of pi?)

After more questioning, my friend was directed to surrender his passport.  At 3 a.m., he was allowed to go to his hotel, 25 miles away in the city, and ordered to return at noon with documentation to support the issuance of a Canadian work permit.

Fortunately, the Canadian firm's legal counsel had dealt with similar situations. My friend returned to the airport at midday with a file including an engagement letter and other documents affirming that he was, in fact, a management consultant.  After sitting in a waiting room for 45 minutes, his name was called.  He sat for another period while an immigration agent examined his papers.

Finally his passport was returned to him; stapled to it was a one-year Canadian work permit.  Later that week, he went home. I don't think he's planning to visit Canada again soon.

"The funny thing," he said later, "is I had to go to France to do the same work for the same project.  I didn't have any immigration problems there."

Second Story

A week after my friend ended his work stint in Canada, another American was detained in Vancouver, B.C.  He is the self-named Augustus Invictus, an eccentric-sounding Florida libertarian who is seeking the Republican nomination for Marco Rubio's senate seat.

Invictus is also a lawyer.  Two years ago, he represented a former neo-Nazi leader appealing a criminal conviction on domestic terrorism charges.  Even assholes get access to legal representation in the U.S.; it's a constitutional thing.

Anyway, Invictus seems to have been invited by like-minded Canadians to give a speech.  Canadian communists threatened violence if he were allowed to talk, he said. (Suppression of speech is a "thing" in both our countries now.)

Canadian immigration officials questioned him closely when he arrived in Vancouver on March 4.  According to his account, he was interrogated for three to four hours "about my affiliation with neo-Nazis, about the charges of Fascism, and about allegations of racism.”  He said border agents made him remove his shirt to look for incriminating tattoos, presumably swastikas.  None was found.

“I was a politician traveling to give a speech, and yet they treated me like a gang member trying to run guns across the border,” Invictus said in a release. “They said that no good could come of my entry into the country because violence would certainly ensue.”

At the end of the interrogation, Invictus was denied entry to Canada.

His point:  “So I was prevented from making a speech because Communists made threats of violence against me – and that seems to me to be ass-backward. Clearly, the Canadian government values the right of violent protest for Communists more than they value the right of free speech for all.”


Later I had a dinner with a an IT expert for a company with several branches in Canada.  He said that he, too, had been grilled harshly several years ago when he traveled to Canada to offer training and support to personnel in the company's Canadian offices.


Then I talked with another friend who works on the business side of an entertainment company.  His firm sent an American architect who specializes in sports venues to evaluate a site in Montreal.
       "Canadian immigration gave him grief about working in the country, and he lost his temper," said my friend.  "So they refused to admit him and put him on a plane back to the United States."


Another friend told me that Canada doesn't look kindly on travelers with drunk driving arrests.  (Neither she nor I has such a record, by the way.)  Here is some government guidance on the matter.

          Q.  Can I enter Canada with a DUI?
          A.  The short answer is maybe.  

               Once arrested for drunk driving, an individual becomes Criminally Inadmissible
               to Canada.  This means the offender may not visit Canada for any reason, without
               first obtaining special permission from Canadian immigration authorities.
               Canadian immigration officials have a tremendous amount of discretion when
               deciding whether or not to admit an inadmissible individual to Canada on a
               Temporary Resident Permit (TRP).  A Temporary Resident Permit is a document
               that enables foreign nationals, who would otherwise be inadmissible, to enter Canada
               for a prescribed period of time.


A final note:  Ha ha ha.


My previous impression was that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency treats guests and immigrants more harshly than similar systems in other countries.

It appears that our Canadian friends are playing catch-up or possibly even getting tougher than our own border agents in these matters.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Movie Monday: Embrace of the Serpent

Last month this film won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film.  Of the other four finalists two were set in Europe, one in Jordan and one (by a French team) in Turkey.

It was the first Colombian-made film even to be nominated, and its audience to date seems to have consisted mostly of Latin Americans and people attending film festivals.   Online reports said that ticket sales before the Academy Award announcement were about $1.2 million in Colombia and another $100,000 or so in Mexico, Uruguay and Spain.

"Embrace of the Serpent" now is being shown at art houses in the U.S., and I saw it last week in crowded but small theater.  It also seems to be available on YouTube, and so may reach a broad audience over time.

The Environment

Essentially, Embrace is a meditation on the extinction of the Cohiuano, an invented one of the hundreds of small native groups who live, or used to live, in settlements along the Amazon River. These isolated groups had symbolic images but no formal written languages or political organizations or metal machinery.   Their survival relied on deep knowledge of and connections to their environment -- from astral navigation to land and sea animals to the uses of plants -- that had been developed over many generations.

During the early part of the last century, and then again during World War II, white people went into the wilderness to collect the sap of rubber trees for the manufacture of inflated tires for bicycles, then cars and, during World War II, military vehicles.

During these incursions, natives were treated as forced labor to harvest rubber, were punished harshly and were paid in food but nothing else that might have been of use to them.  The natives were scorned as primitives, and their lives were upended by a quest for profit that made no sense to people whose daily reality did not involve money or commerce.

The Story

The main character in the film, Karamakata, is the last of the Cohiuano.  He is played by two Amazon natives, one a young man and the other much older.   Each meets a different Western researcher studying Amazon tribal beliefs, customs and botany.  The second scientist comes bearing research that the earlier scientist had published before dying and so establishes a connection with the older Karamakata.  The last Cohiuano takes both anthropologists/scientists on river journeys, one in 1909 and the other apparently in the 1940s, into the jungle in search of a particular rare plant, the yakruna.

The movie shifts back and forth between the first and second treks.  It documents damage caused by whites -- the researchers' role in the movie is to bear witness -- and establishes the other-ness of the world views held by the Amazonians whom the researchers encounter.


"Embrace of the Serpent" was shot in the Amazon and on black and white film, perhaps to suggest the early 20th century period when both the researchers' journeys took place.  (Or it may have had to do with the light and in the Amazon region; I'm speculating here.)

The director, Ciro Guerra,  went to some lengths to involve natives, to understand their ancient traditions and views and to represent them in the movie.  In an interview, he said this:

         Amazonian people just see it so differently. We think of the past as something that’s
        behind us and the future in front of us, but for many Amazonian people, it’s the opposite.
        The past is in front of you because the past is what you can see and what you can know.
        You walk towards it, because the future is something that is unknown and you don’t
        know if a trap is waiting for you, or what’s going to happen next. So for them the past
        is something that guides you and the future is something that you need to be aware of.

There are many elements of native culture -- myths, dreams, medicinal and hallucinogenic plants, and symbols of panthers and poisonous snakes.

As a Movie

"Embrace of the Serpent" is a pretty good movie.  It tries but does not -- probably cannot -- tie its themes up as neatly as most movies do.  Its action consists largely of the discovery of evidence of previous actions and explications of mysterious and intricate belief systems.  There are mostly unseen white demons, and subthemes that feel forced and frankly ahistorical, especially toward the end. These aspects, and the length of the piece, over two hours, render the film less than fully satisfying.

(This business about movies running long is a general trend these days.  I have the impression sometimes that directors fall in love with the footage they have shot and are unwilling to make the kind of careful edits that could improve the pacing of their narratives.)

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Peter Drucker

"Managing Oneself" is a vanishingly small book that could edify just about any reader.  It is a plumped-up copy of a 1999 article that Peter F. Drucker, then 90 years old, published in the Harvard Business Review.  It is available as a paperback, on Kindle and in various online PDF postings.

Drucker was by any measure the most distinguished management consultant of the 20th century.  He wasn't the flashy guy telling corporate execs to expand their conglomerates by milking cash cows and investing the proceeds in potential stars.  Rather, he observed the behavior of individuals and their interactions, and also the character of large organizations.

"Managing Oneself" is a tiny introduction to the corpus of his work.  It speaks to challenges faced by individuals who seek to achieve (and not to shoot themselves in the foot repeatedly) as they pursue careers and affiliations with other humans and  organizations in the 21st century.  This is the general point:

        Now, most of us, even those of us with modest endowments, will have to learn how to
        manage ourselves.  We will have to learn to develop ourselves.  We will have to place
        ourselves where we can make the greatest contribution.  And we will have to stay
        mentally alert and engaged during a 50-year working life, which means knowing how
        and when to change the work we do.

He notes that most of us do not understand how we absorb information, do not really know our strengths and, perhaps worse, do not know our personal weaknesses.  Similarly, we do not understand the strengths and weaknesses of the people who work with us, and we do not understand which kinds of organizations are the right kinds of places to suit our strengths.

No wonder so many people are frustrated with their jobs.

Happily, the article recommends several helpful habits and actions to improve our understanding of ourselves and our situations.  Worth a read.

Drucker in Perspective

In fact, the article I mention is but a tiny bit of Drucker's work, which thoughtful people still share among themselves today (he died 10 years ago) and will continue to read long into the future.

Drucker was born and educated in Austria and Germany; a secular Jew, he fled first to England and then the U.S., claiming citizenship in 1943.  It seems fair to infer that the newcomer experience, as well as a formidable intellect, made him particularly sensitive to the nature of the American organizations and how they functioned.  In 1946 and after years of inside observation, he published "The Concept of the Corporation," an analysis of General Motors, which established his reputation.

At that point, Drucker was just getting started.  Almost 40 other books followed, including "The Practice of Management" and "The Effective Executive."

Drucker coined the term "knowledge worker" to describe a developing shift in what was required of employees as organizations became more specialized.  Then, in 1991, came "The Age of Dislocation: Guidelines to our Changing Society" that anticipated many of our personal, economic and political struggles today.

I could read the "Managing Oneself" article every year and learn something new each time.  My only regret is that I didn't get my hands on it when I was younger and even stupider than I am today.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The New Look in Makeup

The new look.  (This is not a photo of Theidiosyncratist.)

I had my makeup "done" not long ago in preparation for an event.  I like to call myself a makeup minimalist, but I will concede that, in my case, "minimal" could be a synonym for "lazy."

Anyway, the experience was interesting, and I learned a lot about how the girls are doing their faces these days.  

Some Impressions

1.  Skin.  I used to wear tinted moisturizer, at least occasionally.  When my last bottle ran out, I didn't replace it.  I don't have a bunch of spots on my skin, after all.  This, I learned, is not the current fashion.
     The makeup expert started her work by applying a number of products.  In order, as best I can recall, were these:  serum, moisturizer, "correction" around the eyes, "mattifying" foundation cream, three different shades of powdered highlights, all-over flat powder and, finally, powdered blush. 
     I'm no expert on these matters, but by this point when I looked in the mirror it appeared that my face had been spackled. 

2.  Eyes.  This was more normal.  Some lightish-neutral cream around the lids, then eyeliner.  Black eyeliner.  
      "Do you want tails?" the makeup gal asked.
       "Tails?" I asked.  
       She showed me a picture. It looked like this.

        "Maybe not this time," I said. The woman shrugged and then drew narrow black lines across my eyelids.
        Then she brushed some lightly sparkled highlighter under my eyebrows.
        Then she brushed some dark brown powder into my eyebrows and used a tiny comb to
shape them.
        Finally, she applied several layers of mascara, blotting between each.
        "How's that?" she asked.
        I looked in the mirror.  Here I will use a popular current expression:  My eyes "popped."
        "Not bad," I admitted.
3.  Lips.  "Lips today are dramatic," she said.  She offered several suggestions.

        "I was thinking of something a little more, well, normal," I said.    So she came up with some   colors like these, which are more like what I see at parties and in restaurants these days.  

         I picked a shade like the one on the left.  The makeup master found a matching pencil and crayoned my lips all over with that.  Then she repeated the process with the lipstick and a small brush.  
         Then she applied what must have been some kind of clear sealant -- the lipstick didn't smear as much as I had expected later when I had a glass of wine.  Definitely a plus.

In Summary

So here is the the overall look of the moment:  matte foundation with highlights and blush; black eyeliner, often with tails; black mascara; occasional eyeshadow, but not the smoky stuff; arched brows and carefully applied lipstick in a strong red tone.

More pictures --


After the facial artist was done and while she processed my credit card payment, I studied my reflection in the mirror.  I didn't look like myself, exactly, but except for the face spackle, the result was pretty good.  

Then I checked my watch and realized the process had taken much longer than I expected.  It occurred to me that maybe I should spend more time, or at least some time, on makeup every day.

When the makeup gal returned, I asked her how long it took her to do her own face each morning.

"About 90 minutes," she said.  "But if I'm in a real hurry, I can get the job done in a half hour."  

I tried not to goggle in shock.  

In these matters, I think the minimalist look suits me best, after all.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Another Day, Another Show Trial

The North Korean regime says it has caught itself another American spy.

This latest one is a 21-year-old University of Virginia student who, we are told, took a propaganda banner from a staff-only area of an international hotel in Pyongyang.  He was put up to doing this by American political interests or, perhaps, by a church in Ohio that wanted to display the North Korean propaganda on its premises.  The student has claimed that the church promised him a used car worth $10,000 for the banner and $200,000 if he was detained by North Korean authorities over the matter.

After a one-hour trial the student was sentenced to six years at hard labor for his "crime."

My problem is, I don't believe it.

     -- I don't believe a church would be interested in buying North Korean propaganda.
     -- I don't believe anyone, even a naive college student, would risk imprisonment
         in North Korea for $200,000 or even ten times that amount.
     -- I don't believe the U.S. government is sending university students to North Korea
         to conduct espionage missions, steal propaganda posters or overthrow the
         government of the DPRK.
You can see the student's statement and his distressed emotional state in the video above.

If you don't want to watch, here are some quotes:

         "I committed the crime of taking down a political slogan from the staff holding
          area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel."

         "I never, never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States
          administration to commit a crime in this country."

         "I wish that the United States administration never manipulate people like myself
         in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries. I entirely beg you, the
         people and government of the DPRK, for your forgiveness. Please! I made the worst
         mistake of my life!"
                (This reads almost as if written by a non-native English speaker.  Hmm.)

This codswallop is being broadcast for two reasons.  First is to convince North Koreans that their government is really powerful.  (Actually, they have to believe this; any appearance of disloyalty carries the risk of a long, long stay in a labor camp.)

The second reason is to get the Americans to send over a high-level official to negotiate the release of the prisoner. This too is useful as North Korean propaganda -- U.S. officials "begging" and Pyongyang showing "generosity."

How He Got There

The now-imprisoned student "criminal" traveled to North Korea as part of a group organized by Young Pioneer Tours, which advertises "budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from."

The student was detained by police when his group arrived at the airport for their flight back to Beijing. The tour leader, who watched as the student was led away, seems not to have remonstrated with the North Koreans.

"What happened, happened at the hotel, and my belief is that (he) kept it to himself out of hope it might go unnoticed," the tour leader reportedly said in a Reuters interview.

Nice way to hang a customer out to dry.

In fact, the State Department "strongly recommends against all travel (to North Korea) by U.S. citizens" because of "inconsistent application of its criminal laws."

Still, people go.

North Korea needs foreign currency and is willing to open itself to paying visitors, as long as the visitors play by the rules.  The rules include avoiding religious talk, avoiding criticism of the terrible regime, sticking like glue to your tour group's itinerary and taking pictures only when given official permission.  (Otherwise, it's just like going to Italy.)

The North Koreans have received much aid, chiefly food, over the last 25 years to alleviate extreme hunger and to reward the country for not developing nuclear weapons, which it went ahead and did anyway.  Most of the food aid, it has been reported, went to elites and the army while less favored citizens continued to starve in the countryside.

Personally, I would not want to participate in a staged "official tour" that kept me from meeting normal North Korean citizens and that put more money into the pockets of its leadership cabal.

Other Prisoners

The show-trial convictions of innocent travelers have occurred with some regularity in recent years. Here are a couple other travelers, also convicted on flimsy charges, acknowledging their "crimes" and speaking well of their captors, almost certainly in hopes of being released.  Both men were released, after five months and two years, respectively, being held in the country.

We can probably expect to see more of these in the future.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Movie Monday: Only Yesterday

It took a while, but the Japanese anime film, "Only Yesterday," finally reached the United States.  It opened to rave reviews January 1 at a single theater in Manhattan, and about 1,000 people went to see it that weekend.  Now it's being shown at art houses around the country.

(I saw it last week because soon I will return to our East Coast suburb, where you can see pretty much any picture you like, as long as it's "Deadpool" or  "Kung Fu Panda 3.")

"Only Yesterday" was released in 1991 by the esteemed Studio Ghibli.  At that time, it was believed the film would appeal mostly to teenage girls and women (doesn't really work for children), but it was the highest grossing movie in the country that year.  (Ghibli, formed in 1985 and now largely dormant, also produced Japan's most popular films in the years 1989, 1992 and 1994; it won the only anime Foreign Film Oscar ever in 2001.)

Disney negotiated for Ghibli international distribution rights in 1996, but it didn't seem to know what to do with "Only Yesterday."  Since then, cineastes have touted the picture from time to time, and dubbed copies have been distributed and broadcast on some television film channels.

The new copy features Daisy Ridley (from the new Star Wars movie) and Dev Patel ("Slumdog Millionaire") speaking the parts of the two main characters.

The Story

Set in 1982 and based on a manga (a Japanese comic form popular with adults as well as children), the movie is about 27-year-old Taeko, a Tokyo woman who decides to spend her vacation harvesting safflower blossoms on a farm.  She finds herself accompanied by memories of her 10-year-old self who wished for but never had a vacation in the country.

The movie weaves back and forth between Taeko's vacation experiences and her mixed memories of her fifth-grade year.  Through the course of the story, she integrates the two realities and understands how she wishes to spend her adult life.

It's a small story, and it is told at a leisurely pace.

That said, "Only Yesterday" is deeply moving.  You find yourself thinking about it long after it has ended.  It is not emotional or sweet or even charming.  It feels honest and true.  (I may be overinterpretting, but I think it even hints, very lightly, that the story's resolution may not be as neat as it seems.)

It is also beautiful.  The animation is unlike what we see in American children's movies -- lush watercolored skies, and evocative images of farmlands and trains.  The characters are cartoons, yes, but their facial expressions express their thoughts just as well as their words do.

On Reflection

I have been trying to imagine "Only Yesterday" in a different format, perhaps as a novel or a movie with real actors.  I don't think it would work as well. In anime form, the story is at once simple, slightly distant and very effective.

The Japanese title of "Only Yesterday," Omoido Poro Poro, translates as "Memories Like Falling Teardrops," which never would work for a U.S. release.  It may be that the Japanese have more of an ear for poetry than we do.

Its director, Isao Takahata, is a universally renowned master of his form; I plan to seek out some of his other work.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Spring-Fall Time Changes -- Stop the Madness!

I went to bed last night at the usual time.  When I woke this morning, after my usual amount of rest, it was an hour later than it had been when I woke up yesterday.  This is because Daylight Savings Time (DST) began as I slept.

When you think about it, time is an artificial construct, an invention of man.  The sun reliably rises and sets on its own well-understood schedule.  Why should humans make the organization of time more complicated than it needs to be?

There is a minor inconvenience to this, which is the resetting of all our clocks.  In our neighborhood, where electrical service is more intermittent than we would like, this is not a big deal.  We get regular practice at updating our clocks, and so we accomplish the task quickly.  

Still, it would be nice to do this two fewer times each year.

Personally, I don't care whether we have year-round Standard Time or year-round DST.  There is anecdotal evidence that suggests people generally prefer longer evenings to earlier sunrises.  Since we're now on DST, why don't we just stick with it from now on?

More than half our state legislatures already have considered abandoning the biennial clock-change practice; any change by any government is difficult, of course, but the proposals seem to meet with considerable public enthusiasm.

Last month, the Oklahoma legislature took up the issue.  California's lawmakers are considering putting a referendum on the November ballot to reverse a 1949 referendum that adopted the Standard/Daylight regime in the first place.

Go for it, legislatures, I say.  Do it now!


The daylight savings time idea appears to have occurred first to a New Zealand entomologist in 1895; maybe he reasoned that this would allow him more time to study the evening habits of crickets and beetles.

The idea rattled around for a while and first was adopted in Germany in 1916.

During the world wars, the United States switched to annual DST on the idea that longer hours of sunlight would conserve energy needed for the war effort.  The national plan ended after the wars, and most states adopted Daylight Savings Time independently after World War II.

Health Effects

The first few days after springing forward and falling back are a bit perilous, according to health officials.  The speculation is that interruption of circadian rhythms is the cause.

Ischemic stroke incidence, for instance, rises about eight percent (20 percent for senior citizens) in the first two days after a time change, according to a Finnish paper to be presented next month at an American Academy of Neurology conference in Vancouver, B.C.

A 2012 study concluded that the rate of heart attacks rose by 10 percent in the days after the time switch each spring and fall.

Another study found that car crashes increased as much as six percent in days following time changes; a report on this will appear in the April edition of the American Economic Journal.

Let's try a thought experiment:  Imagine what would happen if consuming Hershey's chocolate bars were found to be associated with mildly elevated rates of strokes, heart attacks and car crashes.

Hershey's chocolate bars would be pulled off the market immediately.

What's the difference here?

Economic Effects

A 2008 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research challenged the central energy-saving premise of DST.  The study was based on the analysis of 7 million electric bills studied over the course of three years in Indiana.

       Our main finding is that -- contrary to the policy's intent -- DST increases residential
       electricity demand. Estimates of the overall increase are approximately 1 percent, but
       we find that the effect is not constant throughout the DST period.
               DST causes the greatest increase in electricity consumption in the fall, when
       estimates range between 2 and 4 percent. These findings are consistent with
       simulation results that point to tradeoff between reducing demand for lighting and
       increasing demand for heating and cooling.
               We estimate a cost of increased electricity bills to Indiana households of $9
       million per year. We also estimate social costs of increased pollution emissions that
       range from $1.7 to $5.5 million per year.
                Finally, we argue that the effect is likely to be even stronger in other regions of
       the United States.

Who Likes It?

You know who likes time-change weekends? Fire chiefs.  For years now, they have been advising people to replace fire alarm batteries on the time-change weekends.

This makes some sense, but it would make more sense if people just put wrote notes in their calendars (or if Microsoft, Google, Facebook and newspapers published public-service reminders) and every family in the land didn't have to go to the additional work of changing its clocks as well as its alarm batteries.


Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Costco Chicken

Yesterday I did my monthly Costco run for coffee, fruit, yogurt and whatever else caught my eye.

As I walked out the door, the Significant Other yelled, "Remember to get a chicken!"

What he meant was one of those rotisserie chickens that Costco has been selling since 1995.  At our house, these are known as "roto-chickens."

After adding a roto-chicken to my cart, I hailed a Costco worker in the butcher department.

"How many of these do you sell every day?" I asked her.

"About 900," she said.

One store, one day -- 900 chickens!

Across the chain, I learned later, Costco sells 70,000 rotisserie chickens every day.  Annual sales of these just keep growing, from 50 million in 2011 to 80 million or more in 2015.


There are at least two things people like about Costco chickens. 

First is taste.  The roto-chickens are delicious, lightly seasoned, moist on the inside and golden brown on the outside -- nothing like the stringy, dried-out birds found at most local supermarkets.
        One reason for this is that roto-chickens don't sit in the warming display for too long.  Store employees pull chickens that haven't sold after two hours; the leftovers are chilled and then used in other Costco products:  rotisserie chicken soup, rotisserie chicken salad and rotisserie chicken Alfredo.  

Second is price.  At $4.99 apiece, the chickens are now loss leaders.  Company executives appear to believe, possibly based on market research, that chicken customers purchase many other items on each store visit, resulting in higher total sales at checkout. 


The Costco chicken also is the subject of lore.  Many, many online recipes offer ideas for incorporating roto-chicken in more complicated preparations.

I even read that Julia Child, the famed cookbook author, was a Costco chicken devotee.  I thought initially that this could not possibly be true.  But I was wrong.  An internet search turned up this bit from a Washington Post article in 2009.

       "She (Child) was not a snob about food," said her publicist. "I remember lunch one 
        day at her house: There was iceberg lettuce on the table, Hellmann's mayonnaise and 
        chicken. I said, 'This chicken is delicious,' " only to have Child reveal that it had come 
        from Costco. "She loved chicken and hot dogs from Costco."  
             (Costco has sold a hot dog/soda combo for $1.50 since the 1980s; I am not a tube
       steak fan and so have yet to sample this delicacy.  Still, if Julia Child liked them . . . .)

I myself learned about the chickens from a woman who herself learned about them by a friend who was an executive at Sur La Table, the high-end kitchen product retail chain.


Nineteen E-coli cases in several states last year were traced to Costco rotisserie chicken salad.  The culprit could have been the chicken or another ingredient in the salads.  The E-coli hasn't flared up again, and 19 stomach viruses is not many out of 80 million chickens sold.  On the other hand, if you were one of the people who got sick, you probably would take a different view.

Costco chicken critics complain that the chickens are not organic enough, and Costco has pledged to sell only antibiotic-free chickens by sometime in 2017.  Nutritionists (and I) go back and forth on this issue.  At this point, free-range, organic chicken constitutes a very tiny, very expensive portion of the U.S. market.   With time, perhaps, this will change.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Movie Monday: Deadpool

Below is the preview for "Deadpool," a new take on the superhero genre:
Trigger warning:  Parental permission is required for viewing by those 
under the age of 17; sensitive college coeds should avoid it as well. 

"Deadpool" is the story of a character who first appeared in the X-Men comic books in 1991.  It explains how he turned into an indestructible killing machine and sets the stage for future movies and a hoped-for new film franchise.

The movie telegraphs its attitude in the opening credits, which describe the scriptwriter as "an asshat" and the director as "an overpaid tool."

We have a long tradition of smart-alec heroes in our cinema -- Groucho Marx, Bugs Bunny and a number of characters played by Jack Nicholson.

Now we have a smart-alec superhero.  If you think about it, it's surprising that it took so long for a movie like this to be made.

Deadpool is very funny and a refreshing addition to its oeuvre.  But his humor is like the violence in superhero movies, which is to say, exaggerated.  These films occupy a different universe, one without normal people living everyday lives but with many heavily armed men and big-breasted young women -- naked ones in bars, in the "Deadpool" case.

If you met someone like Deadpool at a social event (unlikely, I know, but stick with me here), you would leave the premises immediately.  Onscreen, however, he will entertain and amuse anyone who enjoys gross vulgarity.  In our current culture, that's a big potential audience.

The Story

"Pool, Dead," as he describes himself initially, was formerly Wade Wilson, a crack Special Forces killer who left the military and became the Merc with the Mouth.  (A merc is a mercenary.)

"I'm just a bad guy who gets paid to fuck up worse guys," Deadpool tells the audience in one of his first asides.  In theater and film, this is called breaking the fourth wall.

We learn the (thin) story of how he got his name and how he fell in love, or at least extreme lust, with a wisecracking prostitute and how that love led to marriage plans.

Then, deathly ill with untreatable cancer, he receives a life-saving mutant-style treatment that also makes him immortal but renders him very unattractive.

"I look like a testicle with teeth," he explains in another aside.  So he adopts the red spandex outfit and the new name.

After the bad guy scientist/cancer healer kidnaps Deadpool's fiancee, the title character goes into superhero mode.  The story gets a little schizzy on motivation at this point -- rescue, revenge, facial reconstruction -- but this does not interrupt the action.

From beginning to end, the plot is peppered with punch-ups, jujitsu battles and elaborate fights with exotic blades.  Squads of machine-gun toting bad guys appear out of nowhere on various occasions.   These conflicts advance the story sometimes, but not always.

Two virtuous and non-sarcastic X-Men characters show up to help Deadpool fight his mortal enemy.  Deadpool's attitude toward his allies calls to mind Groucho's view of Margaret Dumont.

Somehow it all gets resolved, sorta, but I don't want to ruin the suspense for those who have not seen the movie yet.

The R Rating

We are used to long summers punctuated by comic book-derived superhero movies.  Most of these come from Marvel Studios, now a Disney subsidiary, that puts out PG-13 fare to capitalize on the audience of teen-age boys as well as that of grown men.

Deadpool first appeared onscreen several years ago in a small role in a poorly received X-Men movie.  No one expected him to carry a film of his own until a group of creatives created a reboot story for the character and shot a reel of test footage to accompany it last year.  

When the proposal was shown to 20th Century Fox executives, their reaction was hesitant, apparently because the film was sure to receive an R rating.   The last R-rated comic book movie, "The Crow," had been released in 1994.

Then the footage was leaked online and shown at the big Comic Con convention in San Diego.  Fan enthusiasm won over the doubters, and the film was made.

("Deadpool" is rated R, for "strong violence and language throughout, sexual content and graphic nudity," but my guess is that any motivated 15-year-old could wangle a ticket, even over his -- it would be a "his" -- mother's objections.)

We know what happened next. "Deadpool's" off-season opening on  Feb. 12 was the most successful first day ever for an R-rated film.

Its worldwide gross came to $673 million after just three weekends and despite an outright ban for graphic violence that kept it out of China, the world's second largest movie market.  There is talk of a possibly watered-down "Deadpool" version making its way to the Middle Kingdom later.

Naturally a sequel is in the works.  

The movie's star, Ryan Reynolds, has found his niche.  Deadpool could make him as rich as Iron Man has made Robert Downey Jr.