Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw

Come down off your cross.

Ugh. Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching the Scarecrow movies: Scarecrow (2002), Scarecrow Slayer (2003), and Scarecrow Gone Wild (2004). Only because I’m a bit of a completist when it comes to franchises and I got them all on one DVD at some bargain sale. Most horror franchises go downhill, and so does the Scarecrow series, but few start off as badly and then go downhill. By the third instalment they weren’t even trying.

Life without life

I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy discovering new words when I’m reading. Words like pulvinate and catena, oscitant, and equitation and toxophilite. Reading Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File recently I came across a description of a character as looking thin and weak, with a voice sounding “like a whisky ad.” In what amounts to a summation he is later tagged with the adjective “azoic.”

If you check a dictionary you’ll see azoic defined as “lifeless,” which is its literal translation from the Greek. I think its primary meaning is as a way of designating a period of geologic time, the Azoic Age being the period of the Earth’s history before the appearance of life. Since the date of the first appearance of life keeps getting pushed back, it has been a fluid label. It has also been largely replaced by the term Archaean.

A secondary meaning azoic has is of a type of dye. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it used to describe a person before, and I think Deighton was having a bit of fun. Well played!

Monster of the week

Don’t know about you, but I know what I’m thinking.

I’ve been spending some time recently watching crime shows and in the last month alone I’ve noticed a recurring theme: that of the pedophile sex ring operated by a bunch of rich, well-connected types.

It first came up in Series 3 of Prime Suspect (1993), which had DCI Tennison investigating the death of a teenage “rent boy.” As the case progresses it turns out that there is a posh sex club that is trafficking in kids but which is protected from investigation because some of the members have powerful connections. Indeed, even high-ranking police seem to be involved.

Next up was “Sidetracked,” the first episode of the first season of the BBC’s Wallander, which aired in 2008 (the novel it was based on came out in 1995). Again there is a sex ring involving the abuse of underage girls, with the police involved in a cover-up.

Finally I watched the first season of True Detective (2014). Once again our heroes are investigating a bunch of murders that seem to point to some kind of ritual sex cult involving wealthy, powerful people (politicians, police, the usual suspects). I’d say more about the exact nature of this cult but very little is explained. It’s an interesting show in some ways, but calling the writing lazy would be to give it too much credit.

Obviously the pedophile sex ring has fully entered the bloodstream of pop culture, becoming a nightmarish part of our collective mythology. As I recall (and my memory here is hazy) such sex rings also pop up in the the Red Riding Quartet (1999-2002) of David Peace and the Lisbeth Salander novels of Stieg Larsson (2005-2007). Both of which were made into series of movies and both of which follow the same script: a club of rich predators who operate above the law, brought down by courageous investigators.

What basis do such stories have in reality? I can only think of the Marc Dutroux case, which was much publicized but only went to trial in 2004. It was also so complex I’m not sure if anyone has figured out what was going on, though the controversy over its handling, which continues to this day, means that it has only grown in the imagination.

It’s hard not to think that the pedophile sex ring involving corrupt police and politicians allied with secretive billionaires is mostly an urban myth and conspiracy theory. One of its more recent manifestations had a child sex-slavery ring being run out of the basement of a Washington pizza parlour (it became known as Pizzagate). Hillary Clinton was said to be involved.

Obviously sex trafficking is real. And it’s also true that such trafficking can involve victims who are under the age of consent. Rich people do pay a lot of money to indulge abusive behaviour. Hence sex tourism, or child prostitution more generally. These are, however, solitary crimes. I find it curious then that pop culture is so obsessed with these rings when it’s not clear to what extent anything like what we see on TV has ever existed. There’s the Jeffrey Epstein story, involving lots of big money and politicians and maybe even corrupt law enforcement agencies, but as far as I know the young women in that case weren’t being kidnapped and murdered.

Why then did the pedophile sex ring become such a popular topos? Is it just a way of feeding a generally held belief that rich and powerful men are almost certainly up to no good? That the 0.1%, with their flunkies and enablers in government, are preying on the poor in the most horrible ways imaginable? The monsters we read about in bestselling novels and hit TV series exist to meet a demand.


I’ll bet he wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been revisiting the extended family — I think that’s a good word — of Psycho movies: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho, Brian De Palma’s homage Dressed to Kill (1980), the three more direct lineal descendants Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986) and Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990), Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake, and the 2012 biopic Hitchcock which takes as its subject the filming of the original.

Watched chronologically, these movies go, without exception, downhill. I’d certainly avoid the last two titles. The sequels were actually better than most people were expecting at the time, and though Dressed to Kill has dated badly in several obvious ways it’s still worth a look.

Galbraith’s Law

From The Age of Uncertainty (1977) by John Kenneth Galbraith:

People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any part of their advantage. Intellectual myopia, often called stupidity, is no doubt a reason. But the privileged feel also that their privileges, however egregious they may seem to others, are a solemn, basic, God-given right. The sensitivity of the poor to injustice is a trivial thing compared with that of the rich. So it was in the Ancien Régime. When reform from the top became impossible, revolution from the bottom became inevitable.

From The Spanish Civil War (2006) by Paul Preston:

Accordingly, the Civil War of 1936-9 represented the ultimate expression of the attempts by reactionary elements in Spanish politics to crush any reform which might threaten their privileged position.

From The Empire Must Die: Russia’s Revolutionary Collapse, 1900 – 1917 (2017) by Mikhail Zygar:

The colossal difference in wealth and education made the country extremely unstable, as indeed is any system based on segregation. Sooner or later, the prosperous minority becomes unable to withstand the pressure of the dispossessed majority pushing up from below.

The imperial family, the court, members of the government, the Black Hundreds – thousands of people were unable to renounce their belief in the medieval dogma of the divine origin of tsarist power. Their archaic conviction and stubborn resistance to the bitter end prevented reform and the country’s political development. Time and again they brushed aside all moderate evolutionary scenarios.

Mixed messaging

This Friday my community enters Stage 2 of the loosening of the strictures put in place to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Hair salons and barbershops will be open, as will restaurant patios and churches.

This Friday my community will begin mandatory wearing of masks or face coverings in all commercial establishments. No mask, no service.

If the situation is not improving then should we be opening up at this time? If the situation is improving, why are the safety guidelines becoming stricter? Shouldn’t we all have been forced to wear masks a couple of months ago?

Up for renewal?

As the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown loosens but remains in place, thoughts have begun to turn not so much to when things will return to normal but what the “new normal” is going to look like.

Some things, I think, are going to be lost forever, while others, like the dead animals buried in the Pet Sematary, are going to come back changed. Here’s a partial list.

Handshakes and hugs: I’ve read some commentators already bidding a not-very-fond “good riddance!” to these forms of expression. Given our current state of feeling toward social distancing it’s hard to see them making a comeback. A hand stuck out at us today might as well be holding a gun, and a hug be interpreted as a form of assault. I’m not sure we’ll be seeing them again anytime soon.

Malls: the “retail apocalypse” has been a slow-motion extinction event for the past decade-plus, mainly due to the shift to online shopping. This is a trend that has only been accelerated. These properties are going to have to be repurposed.

Mass travel: I think people will go back to filling up cruise ships and airplanes again if only because for a lot of older, better-off people this is all they have left in life. But I don’t think the industry is ever going to return to pre-pandemic levels. Which is a good thing.

Hotels: connected to the collapse of the travel industry, but high vacancy rates are only part of the story. There are no conventions being held and hence no need for convention centres either, which are a big part of the hotel economy, especially in big cities.

Cash: a lot of stores have stopped taking cash, even for very small purchases. And those that still do have signs up saying they’d prefer you to use a card. This is another change that has been in the offing for a while now and it’s just been hastened along by recent events. We’re moving toward the cashless society. I don’t like this, if only because it means that every transaction will now be recorded somewhere. Which, in turn, means that we will more and more come to be identified and defined by our purchases.

Libraries: I think I read somewhere that 2014 was supposed to be “the end of tactile media.” That hasn’t happened yet, but I guess it’s another change that’s been taking place at its own speed. How eager are people going to be to sign out books that have been touched by other people’s hands, and been in other people’s homes? See above for what’s happening to cash.

Cinemas and theatres: I’ve only been to see a couple of movies in a cinema in the last ten years. It’s just not worth it (for my notes on one of these outings, to see Blade Runner 2049, see here). As for live theater, it’s been at least fifteen years since I’ve gone out to see a play. According to official statistics these are businesses that have recently been experiencing hard times, with higher ticket prices making up for declining sales. So this constitutes another sector of the economy that was already distressed, with this latest downturn likely to push it over the edge. I don’t know how the industry is going to respond. Are digital/streaming platforms going to make up the difference?

Restaurants: I assume restaurants will re-open and people will go back to dining out at some point. But many restaurants, especially those independently owned, are going to go under before then and I think it’s going to be a difficult way back to financial sustainability for those that survive, especially if they can only operate with restrictions on how many people they can seat. It’s a business where profit margins are thin, and who’s going to want to eat meals served by waiters wearing gloves and face masks? The experience of eating out isn’t going to be any fun for a while. As for buffets, they may be well on their way to extinction.

Gyms: Tough one. My routine was always to go to the gym in the wee hours of the morning when the place was almost empty. So I’d go back tomorrow following the same schedule. But most people, by definition, go to the gym during peak hours (just before and after work). And they take classes, which I don’t. Are those people going to come back? Some of them, but probably not enough for many gyms to stay in business. And how many personal trainers are going to be able to make a living out of Zoom fitness sessions?

It all adds up to a different world we’ll be living in. More than that, however, I’m afraid the long-term consequences of this lockdown are going to be staggering. Just recently I’ve been reading some books on the 2008 financial crisis and its fallout (Crashed by Adam Tooze, The Shifts and the Shocks by Martin Wolf) and it’s interesting to see how the repercussions from that were still playing out a decade down the line. Indeed, we’re still living in its shadow, if you count Trump as being one part of the fallout.

Well, the effect of this pandemic, on the economy and people’s lives, is going to be much, much worse. The bill that’s going to come due (and I’m not just speaking literally here) is something I don’t think a lot of people appreciate yet. But some are taking notice. A recent piece by Annie Lowery that ran in The Atlantic, for example, is headlined “This Summer Will Scar Young Americans for Life.” The damage, Lowery writes, “could last forever.” And this is for a cohort that aren’t losing their jobs because most of them haven’t entered into careers yet. Their parents may be in worse shape, and if their grandparents are in long term care . . . well, that’s another horror show. This may never be truly over.

Spare time

H. G. Wells is usually credited with having invented the time-travel story in the 1895 classic The Time Machine. In his book Time Travel James Gleick does a good job putting Wells’s invention in context, though I still wonder why such a rich idea lay mostly unexplored until the twentieth century. Clearly we weren’t waiting for science to catch up to our imaginings, because it still hasn’t (and likely never will).

The novel has been freely adapted on film at least twice, by George Pal in 1960 and again, less successfully, in 2002. I would definitely recommend the Pal version, but if you really want a treat you should look for Time After Time, which has Malcolm McDowell playing H. G. Wells zapping forward to 1970s America in a hunt for Jack the Ripper. It’s a movie that’s not very well known these days but it’s very good.

First as scandal, then as farce

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching a bunch of movies on American politics: Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush biopic W. (2008); a fictional account of a Democratic primary that gets nasty, The Ides of March (2011); a couple of movies looking at historical political scandals: Chappaquiddick (2017) and The Front Runner (2018); and finally a biopic of Dick Cheney, Vice (2018)

What struck me watching these movies, as I think it would anyone, is how their catalogues of scandal, crime, and cynicism pale beside any ordinary week’s worth of news out of the Trump White House. What sorts of movies are we going to see made about the current administration? I think we’re past the point of parody now.

I suck at chess

Finding myself with some free time on my hands recently, I’ve been playing a bit of chess online against a computer. I don’t think I’ve played chess in over twenty years. I am no good at it.

I wasn’t even sure I still knew all the rules, and as it turned out, I was wrong about how castling works. But even after getting back up to speed I soon discovered that I am not only no good at chess, I’m terrible. As I understand it, the key to the game is being able to think ahead, seeing possible combinations long in advance. I can’t do this. I’ve tried, but the furthest I can get in my grand plans and strategies is to think one move ahead. I play the computer on skill level 2 (out of a possible 10). I only win about half the time, and only then when the computer makes a staggering blunder.

I’m truly impressed at how rotten I am at chess. Though I don’t think this is the result of any big mental decline. I don’t remember ever being any good at chess. As it is, even when I get ahead I don’t try and get to checkmate as soon as I can (which I think is the point). Instead I like dragging things out when I’m in an advantageous position, and see how many of my pawns I can turn into queens. This is what my endgames look like (yes, I’m playing white):

GM Alex shutting things down.

I am not a chess player. A real chess player doesn’t do things like this. But I find it relaxing.