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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Riddle me this: What do Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries and Star Trek Discovery have in common?

You wouldn’t think two of my favorite shows, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and Star Trek, have a lot in common. But as of recently, they share one very interesting feature: Both are asking die-hard fans to pony up a lot more money than one normally expects to pay for such entertainment. MFMM, after three seasons on Australian TV with international streaming distribution, launched a crowdfunding campaign to make a feature film (and hit their goal within days). After five Star Trek series on ad-supported broadcast TV and 14 films, Star Trek Discovery is being used as the flagship series of CBS’ new streaming service, CBS All Access, on the theory that Star Trek fans will be willing to pay a monthly fee.

What’s even more interesting is the very different reception these strategies have gotten. With MFMM, it’s very positive. Fans are eagerly pledging, with some even kicking in thousands of dollars in exchange for a chance to appear onscreen or get a piece of wardrobe after the shoot. The tone of the chatter on social media is excited and hopeful. The press coverage emphasizes the dedication and enthusiasm of the fan base rather than the fact that thousands of people are paying a lot of money, most for very minor incentives like a postcard or access to “inside info” (more or less a fan club), so they can get to see a movie they would otherwise have paid 12 bucks for at the theater.  ("Put your sassy magnifying glass away because there’s no mystery here, fans are absolutely humming for a ‘Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries’ movie,” says this HuffPo article.)  

But the response to ST:DSC on CBS All Access has been far more negative and cynical. Even die-hard ST fans who plan to pay for the service (like me) seem to be resentful. While fans on social media debate whether the series is likely to be any good (as ST fans will), the response to putting it on CBS All Access for U.S. viewing (it will be on Netflix elsewhere) is universally negative. There’s a lot of grumbling about CBS’ greed and abuse of the franchise. The tone of media coverage is more like, “Will rabid ST fans fall for CBS’ money-making ploy?” ("CBS hopes that fans will embrace that vision — and, with credit cards in hand, help build a new business to carry the company forward,” says Variety.)

There are some obvious reasons for the disparity, like the fact that MFMM fandom feels like the little engine that could, since the show isn’t widely known, and the fandom is young and hasn’t been overtly exploited for decades. Also, a crowdfunding campaign on the front end of a project feels voluntary, while a streaming distribution scheme for a finished product feels like being overcharged. The different responses the two efforts have received are more psychological than anything else; MFMM feels inclusive and optimistic, while ST:DSC feels coercive and mercenary.

But in the end, they’re not actually so different. For whatever reason, the producers are calculating that a dedicated fan base will pay well above market price for access to this particular product because they want it so badly. What’s more, MFMM fans are handing producers their hard-earned money with no guarantee they will actually get a movie. (Do people realize that Kickstarter itself offers no guarantee that a project will be completed? I wonder how many people have actually read the terms of service? “The creator is solely responsible for fulfilling the promises made in their project. If they’re unable to satisfy the terms of this agreement, they may be subject to legal action by backers.” In other words, if you sent the creator money and they didn’t make the thing, you could sue them. Good luck.) At least with ST:DSC, you don’t have to pay a dime until the product actually exists (which it does; the premiere is a few days away!), and for that matter, until the product has actually been seen and reviewed. And yet, people are more negative about the ST:DSC model. Humans are funny that way.

Interesting thought experiment: What if the two were reversed? What if ST:DSC had had a crowdfunding campaign and MFMM were being used to anchor a paid streaming service? Would the responses be reversed as well? Possibly not, because MFMM is still relatively small and hasn’t already been monetized to death the way ST has. But still, I wonder.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The end of the line

This morning, a Facebook friend posted this wonderful New York Times article from 2008 called “The Curious World of the Last Stop.” Reporter Andy Newman rode to the end of every subway line in the city and wrote about what he found there. Reading it, I was reminded of my own end-of-the-line story. I think about it surprisingly often, but I’ve never written it down before.

When I was a kid, my grandmother used to spend summers in a rented beach bungalow in Far Rockaway. She was one of a shrinking group of old folks from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who still did that. The neighborhood out there was getting rougher and rougher, and those who could afford it had long ago started summering farther out on Long Island or at the Jersey Shore. But my grandma never left Williamsburg and Far Rockaway. That was her world.

When I was little, my father used to take me to visit her there. Sometimes, we’d go just for the day; sometimes, Dad would leave me with Grandma for a little vacation. I'd stay a few days, going to the beach and playing skee ball on the boardwalk. As I got older, we stopped going. But when I was in high school, I decided it would be nice to visit Grandma in Far Rockaway, maybe one last time. I called her and told her I was coming. She was so excited. I knew she'd be out buying fruit and stale marzipan as soon as we got off the phone. She insisted she would meet me at the subway stop so I wouldn't get lost finding her bungalow, so I gave her an arrival time.

This was the 1970s. No internet with interactive trip planners, and no cell phones. I was a Manhattan kid. To me, a long subway ride was, like, 45 minutes. So off I go: transfer to the A train, get a seat, I'm all set. I ride. And ride. And ride and ride and ride. The time I gave Grandma comes and goes. And still I ride. I'm starting to feel kind of bad, because now I'm late, and my old grandma is standing there waiting for me. I figure I'm going to keep her standing for 15 minutes…no, 20…no, 25. No. ONE HOUR. The ride to Far Rockaway, the end of the A line, was a full hour longer than I had thought possible. And when I finally arrived, Grandma was standing there with a big hug and a smile. She never said a word about the time. We walked to her bungalow, where there was fruit and stale marzipan, which I ate gratefully. It tasted like humble pie.

To this day, I can't even tell this story without feeling horrible. Forty years later, this is still my greatest regret -- I made Grandma wait for an hour at the end of the line.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

That mysterious pain is an underregulated industry kicking you in the face. Again.

Freeze your credit, they said. That'll protect you from identity theft, they said. Except: "A security freeze doesn’t protect you if the thieves break into the vault of the company that maintains the freeze. That’s what happened here, and we will now spend years seeing what happens next."  (NY Times) Yup. The bastards broke into the system where they keep the magic PIN that unfreezes your credit file.

That said, you should still freeze your credit, on the theory that maybe you're not already doomed. Not a very sound theory, but what the hell, hope springs eternal. That’s what they told my husband and me to do when we discovered we had an identity-theft problem. I believe their exact words were, “When you’re done waving goodbye to all your horses as they run down the road, never to be seen again, why don’t you go ahead and lock that barn door?”

You can freeze your credit with each agency online, by phone, or by snail mail. (More info here.) Depending on state law, it might cost a little money. Based on a sample size of two (my husband and me), each method offers advantages and disadvantages.

Online: You get your magic PIN immediately (for all the good it does you — see above). But you feel all queasy about sending your social security number and other identifying information over a system that seems less secure than the diary you had in junior high with the little lock and the key you kept in the special-treasures box in your desk drawer. And for some reason, sometimes after you input all your info, the damn thing still says “Sorry, Charlie, no can do,” forcing you to try calling anyway.

By phone: It’s still an automated system, only you have to wait to get your PIN by snail mail. But for some reason, it might work even when the online one doesn’t. Same queasy feeling applies. Plus there’s that robotic voice reminding you that your finances are actually overseen by AI gnomes from the uncanny valley.

Snail mail: Didn’t do it, but I suspect you’ll send off your request and forget the whole thing until you get a reply. If you get a reply. And that queasy feeling isn’t going away. Especially given the fact that one of the easiest ways to steal someone’s identity turns out to be putting in a change-of-address request for them, because the U.S. Postal Service has no security whatsoever. My husband and I learned this the hard way. In no time at all, all your mail could start going somewhere else. Oh, the post office will notify you of the change…AFTER it’s been made. And good luck getting it changed back. But I digress…

Be warned, the credit agencies' websites will do everything possible to direct you toward their credit-monitoring products, which cost money. They make it really difficult to find the free and/or cheap stuff, like requesting your free credit report or placing a freeze. That's because, unless and until you pay for their monitoring service, you are not their customer, you are just a pain in their ass. In fact, you (or your data) are the product they are selling to their real customers, the lenders. So when you freeze your credit, you’re making it harder for them to make money off you. Navigating credit agency websites is not unlike trying to find the bathroom in a casino. You just want to take care of urgent business that should cost you nothing, but somehow you keep winding up back at the slot machines.


(Hint: "The Wall Street Journal reports that in the months leading up to the attack, Equifax spent at least $500,000 lobbying federal regulators and Congress to relax regulation of credit-reporting companies. Among the focus of its requests? Data security and breach notification, cyber security threat information sharing, and the coup de grace: limiting the legal liability of credit-reporting companies.")

PS — In an effort to control the free-fall of its reputation, Equifax has dropped its credit-freeze fees for those unfortunates in states where such fees are legal. For 30 days. And they’re not paying your fees at the other two agencies. But hey, you can always still pump quarters into their slot machine.

PPS -- The Equifax website told me my data was probably compromised, so I signed up for the free credit monitoring. That process was suspiciously quick, and the confirmation message said only something like, "your request has been received," so I suspect my data just went to a holding pen to be dealt with later. Probably a dot matrix printer in back of a Denny's somewhere. Which is probably more secure than whatever they were using before. And if those bastards start charging me for the monitoring service after the free year is up, so help me god, I will blog about it so hard. Not like it matters anyway though. A free year of credit monitoring is like saying, "This bank is protected by armed guards. Who go to lunch in an hour."

If the Star Trek series were beers

TOS: Heineken. It’s the first beer you discover that actually tastes like something, and you fall in love. You order it again and again and again. It certainly beats that godawful piss from Anheuser-Busch. Lord knows there are times when you overindulge and later have regrets, but that’s ok. You have standards, and Bud is not gonna cut it. After awhile, you discover there are other good beers – maybe even better beers – and you stop ordering Heineken. But now and then you go back to it for nostalgia’s sake. Yep, still satisfying. In some ways, your first love is always your favorite.

TAS: Shandy. Is it beer? Is it soda? The answer is YES! You feel like, as an adult, you shouldn’t be drinking it at all, but it becomes a guilty pleasure. Hiding underneath all that fizzy lemonade is a unique buzz you come to enjoy – a combination of sugar and alcohol that you keep coming back to. But you don’t tell people because, let’s face it, you’re putting soda in your beer.

TNG: Amstel Light. Finally, a new beer! After all those Heinekens, everyone is talking about how great this is going to be. And it looks so classy in that brown bottle with that impressive coat of arms. You try it – and it tastes like nothing. It’s not bad, exactly. It’s just bland. Inoffensive. A watered-down version of a decent beer. All around you, people are guzzling it like it’s the greatest thing ever, and you just can’t figure out why. But still, you’re just grateful people are finally branching out a bit, so you keep your opinion to yourself, and when offered an Amstel Light at a party, you just smile and say thanks.

DS9: Sam Adams Boston Lager. Damn, that is good beer. This is what happens when you really let beer be beer. At first, you think you will never need another beer. But suddenly, there are lots of good beers all around you. Sam Adams is great, yeah, but – it’s not always what you want. Some days, you admit privately, it lets you down. There are all these little craft beers constantly beckoning. “Try me!” they say, and sometimes you do, and sometimes they’re great, and sometimes they’re awful. But you keep coming back to that Sam Adams, because more often than not, it delivers.

VOY: Corona. OMG it’s like Amstel Light all over again! It’s the holodeck of beers, conjuring up a fantasy of lounging on a deserted, white, sandy beach with your impossibly hot sweetheart, toes in the water, sun in your eyes. You reach out, grasp an ice-cold bottle just deposited there by some mysterious, invisible hand, take a sip, and…nothing. It’s a nice dream, and you check in with it from time to time just for the pretty, but usually you leave disappointed and unfulfilled.

ENT: Guinness. Either you love it or you hate it. It’s rich, dark, and robust – but not to everyone’s taste. What’s more, a lot can go wrong with it. If it’s not fresh, or it’s not poured just right, or it’s too cold or too warm, it can be downright foul. But when it’s good, it’s so, so good. Complex, deeply satisfying, with a thick, creamy head you could just take a bath in. Maybe not the beer you want to drink every day with all your meals – but one that holds special rewards when you’re willing to give it the attention it deserves.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Embarrassment is sort of embarrassing, when you think about it

Embarrassment is a really weird emotion. It’s related to shame, but it’s not exactly the same. Shame is an emotion you can feel about something even if no one else knows about it. It’s connected to your internal sense of right and wrong. Which isn’t to say that shame can’t be influenced by outside factors like cultural norms, religion, the disapproval of others, etc. But whether originating from without or within, shame is about how you feel about what you did.

 Embarrassment, on the other hand, is entirely about how you feel about what other people saw you do. And it’s not even entirely about right and wrong. Sure, you can be embarrassed about getting caught doing something shameful. But you can also be embarrassed about being seen doing something that is totally an accident and not your fault, like tripping on the sidewalk or a bird pooping on your head. Those are misfortunes. We worry people will judge us to be clumsy, or our condition will revolt them. We’re not even sure why we feel so bad. We just do. And the feeling can be really intense, even about something relatively trivial -- as strong or even stronger than the shame we feel about having intentionally harmed someone or failed in a responsibility. Most of us probably still cringe at the memory of some embarrassing moment that happened when we were children, despite our adult knowledge that it was no big deal and is in fact a common occurrence in children (like, say, peeing the bed or forgetting a line in the school play).

 The downside of being social creatures, I guess. Humans are weird.

Friday, July 7, 2017

It's art, it's history, it's art history

This article about a pilgrimage to Spiral Jetty made me pull out my college art history textbook: Gardner's Art Through the Ages, 7th edition. Back then, Gardner was divided into five parts that reflected the West's idea of history: the Ancient World; the Middle Ages; the Non-European world; the Renaissance and the Baroque and Rococo; and the Modern World. When it was my textbook, Spiral Jetty was just about a decade old. I remember staring at the black-and-white photo; the book is filled with such photos, which paradoxically utterly fail to capture the art they represent. Also paradoxically, the inadequacy of that photo made it one of my favorites. It appears on page 869 out of 889 total (excluding glossary and index). The chapter is called simply, "Painting and Sculpture After World War II." 

From the epilogue: "The transformation of the world by science and technology is the signal fact that separates the modern epoch from all of the past....The iconic, mythic, and social function of representation has been monopolized by mechanical media -- photography, motion pictures, television. By these means images have been produced and reproduced in countless millions. The art object itself, through sophisticated means of reproduction, loses its uniqueness and it's 'space,' like the original sound of an orchestral performance reproduced in high-fidelity recording....Meanwhile, the Tradition has been dismantled." 

How many more pages are there in Gardner today? The Internet tells me there are now multiple editions; one is called A Global History and another The Western Perspective

We had no idea of the deluge that was to come, just as now we have no idea of the deluge that is to come. Like Spiral Jetty.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

This is not silly

Some men are really pissed off about all the girl cooties that have been contaminating their action-genre movie and TV franchises lately. Granted, most men I know are not like that. Most want nothing to do with the bitter, disaffected minority of male fans who fill up online comment sections with vitriolic misogyny (and racism — which, not surprisingly, often comes with it). But those vocal yahoos are just a super-concentrated distillation of something bigger and more pervasive: the sense that women are, at best, guests in a man’s world.

To more "enlightened" men, we are welcome guests — but guests nevertheless. When they look at Fury Road, The Force Awakens, Rogue One, Wonder Woman, or Star Trek Discovery — not just women-led stories, but installments in beloved male-dominated franchises — and think, That’s nice, let the girls have some fun too, they are trivializing something that is, to me, Earth-shaking and paradigm-shifting. No doubt, they feel pretty good about their broad-minded acceptance of the female presence, oblivious to the fact that we had to break down the door with a battering ram to get in. What is petty to them is profound and validating to us. And the fact that, the moment I typed that, I felt silly — afraid that someone will accuse me of being melodramatic and overemotional — is actually what I want to talk about.

I am a child of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The coolest things on TV aimed at girls my age were The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, shows that incorporated pop music and fashion, but basically just slapped a fresh coat of groovy paint on the same old gender roles. Moms nurture, dads work. Boys play sports, girls do art. Boys sing lead, girls sing backup. And anyway, I was a tomboy, with little use for domestic stories about family, friends, and dating. I wanted action, adventure, and excitement. I wanted courageous feats of derring-do performed in pursuit of noble goals like honor, exploration, and justice. I wanted bravery, brains, and heroism.

I wanted Star Trek.

I fell in love with Star Trek when I was about ten, and in no time at all, I had hooked my best friend, Rifka. Soon, all of our playtime was spent pretending to be the characters we admired in the fiction we loved. I was Kirk, she was Spock (I’ve written about this before, here.) While Star Trek was our main gig, we play-acted other stories as well: Bonanza (I was Little Joe, she was Adam); The Hardy Boys (from the books — the TV show was still several years away; I was Joe, she was Frank); Lost in Space (I was John Robinson, she was Don West); Hawaii Five-O (I was Steve McGarrett, she was Danno Williams); Batman (though rarely, because neither of us wanted to be Robin). Always men.

Though there were women in some of these stories, we never pretended to be them. Of course, now, with adult hindsight, I can appreciate characters like Uhura, who pushed the boundaries not only of gender, but of race as well. (Whoopi Goldberg was famously inspired to ask Gene Roddenberry for a role on Star Trek: The Next Generation after having been profoundly affected by Uhura as a child — so much so that, the first time she saw Uhura on TV, she excitedly told her mother, "There's a black lady on television, and she ain't no maid!") But at the time, with a child’s eyes, I wasn’t interested in gray areas, fine distinctions, and historical context. The women were never the bravest, the toughest, or the most important. And we saw ourselves as the bravest, the toughest, and the most important. Period.

Then one day, everything changed. Or more accurately, a gradual change that had been percolating in the background came to a head. We must have been about 12 or 13, an age when we still played pretend, but were vaguely embarrassed about the childishness of it. Whereas we used to play openly during recess and after school with large groups of friends, now it was just the two of us — our little secret. But I was growing more and more uneasy, torn between my love of being in the stories and my sense that I was getting too old for this kind of thing. And something else; something I couldn’t put my finger on, but that made me feel kind of squeamish.

As it happened, we were playing Hardy Boys that day. It was all going as usual; we’d agreed on some mystery to investigate, and we were making up the details as we went along — until I called time out. That’s when I dropped what I was about to realize was a bombshell.

“I want to be a girl.”

I can still see the look on my friend's face. It was as if I’d said I wanted to be Robin. No, worse. A villain. No, even worse. A lamppost.

“But you can’t be a girl,” she said. “Joe is a boy.”

I saw my mistake too late and tried in vain to make it right.

“I’ll be exactly like Joe, but a girl. I’ll do all the same things. Only my name won’t be Joe. I’ll pick a girl’s name.”

Eventually, Rifka reluctantly agreed, and we gave it a shot. But basically, that was it — the end of our pretending. We may have made a few more half-hearted attempts to get up a good game of Star Trek after that, but I’d pretty much put the nails in the coffin and handed out the hammers. It was the end of an era.

Looking back, it’s easy for me to see exactly what was happening. That little voice of heterosexual puberty had entered my head — the one that whispered, “If you want boys to like you, you need to be a girl. A real girl.” I guess Rifka hadn’t quite gotten there yet, but I suspect she did eventually (I would love to ask her, but alas, to my great sorrow, I can’t, as she is no longer with us). I also know exactly what Rifka heard the moment I said, “I want to be a girl.” It was, “I renounce and betray all our shared values. I settle for second best. I give up my hopes and dreams. I strike a bargain with the devil.”

Yes, it was really that stark and simple. Black and white. Girls didn’t fight the good fight, or any fight at all. They didn’t get the grand missions to save humanity, explore new frontiers, or pursue truth and justice. Ever. There was nothing in our world, real or fictional, that said they did. Girls weren’t heroes.

“I want to be a girl” meant “I don’t want to be a hero.” I understand completely now the look of betrayal on Rifka’s face. To be honest, I understood it then, too. I just didn’t know how to find another way.

I am 55 years old now. When I sit in a darkened movie theater or tucked up in bed watching Furiosa, Rey, Jyn, Wonder Woman, Melinda May, Peggy Carter, Natasha Romanoff, Buffy Summers, Kathryn Janeway, Aeryn Sun, Dana Scully, River Song, Zoe Washburne — such a long list now, I can’t even name them all! — I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the magnitude of it, knowing what those characters would have meant to me if they’d existed half a century ago. I am downright giddy at the thought of a new series in the Star Trek franchise promoted with a trailer that features two female characters as the unambiguous leads — a trailer that opens with the words, “Ten years before Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise….”.

I believe that, because of all these fictional women — heroes — when my daughters say, “I want to be a girl,” it won’t mean, “I surrender.” It will mean only whatever they want it to mean. And if there are men out there who think that’s silly, I will try hard not to care, because this isn’t about them.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Trump's immigration ban is horrifying; it's timing, tragic irony

Let me try to explain the special horror I, along with many American Jews, felt when the U.S. enacted an immigration ban targeted at a religious group on Holocaust Memorial Day of all days.

My grandfather was born in Vienna to parents of Polish citizenship. Under the laws of the day, that made him a Polish citizen, too. His family emigrated to Budapest, where he grew up. After marrying and having his first child, he moved his young family to Berlin, where my father was born. My grandfather had never lived in Poland and spoke no Polish. But on Oct. 28, 1938, the Berlin police came knocking at the door and handed him this document.

It's a deportation order. The Nazis were sending all male Polish Jews over the age of 16 "back" to Poland. They gave him ten minutes to pack a bag. He was taken from his family to a detention center, and from there to the train station, where they loaded him, along with hundreds of others, onto the next train to Poland. My father was 10 years old at the time -- old enough to remember how, after they took my grandfather away, my grandmother sent my father running to synagogue to warn his brother, who was 16 and also a Polish citizen, not to come home. To his horror, he couldn't get to the synagogue because it was already surrounded by police; as it turned out, my uncle had successfully lied about his age and had not been taken.

As fate would have it, this took place just as the family was anticipating its salvation. A relative who had emigrated to the U.S. a decade earlier had miraculously managed to enlist the assistance of Sen. Walter George of Georgia (ironically, a notorious segregationist) in obtaining visas for them, which were to be delivered to the U.S. embassy in Berlin. The story of how my grandfather managed to re-enter Germany, rejoin the family, and flee to the U.S. just a couple of months before Germany invaded Poland is amazing. You can hear my father tell it in the video below. (The video was made after my father's faculties were already starting to decline, but we managed to get the whole story more or less intact, if you have the patience to stick with it. It's rather long.)

But for my grandfather's sisters, who also lived in Berlin, there were no visas, and they did not survive.

PS -- WTF, Jared Kushner?