Got you covered

A popular type of post on personal blogs are the ones with music links. I’ve never done one of these because I figure everybody already knows what they like. But just for a break I thought I’d link to a few of my favourite covers here.

“Subdivisions” Allegaeon

A metal version of Rush’s classic “Subdivisions”? I was highly sceptical at first but boy did these guys nail it. The guitar work is great and the vocals on point too. As they say about the best covers, they really made this song their own. I love it!

“Sympathy for the Devil” Motörhead

Motörhead’s covers vary a lot in quality, but I thought this really worked. The opening drums get things off to a great start and Lemmy’s voice is a perfect fit for a weary and scarred Satan.

“The Waiting” with Eddie Vedder

This isn’t really a cover since Tom Petty’s here playing and singing back-up. Basically it’s just Vedder coming on stage and doing lead vocals. But does he ever kill it. I like this version even better than the original.

And now some words from our sponsors

Just go away already.

Wow, the Super Bowl ads really sucked.

They’ve probably been bad for a while now, but to be honest I haven’t been paying any attention. This year I managed to check a bunch of them out. And they were . . . terrible.

I’m honestly surprised they were this bad. No intelligence or creativity at all. They just seemed like they were throwing around lots of money, big stars, and brand IP,  and then hoping for the best. What was funny about Arnold Schwarzenegger and Selma Hayek playing retired Olympians (Zeus and Hera) who get an electric car? Do you think they might have written them actual jokes? What was funny about Mike Myers reprising his role as Dr. Evil to hawk an SUV (in an ad The Athletic rated the pick of this year’s crop)? What was funny about Ryan Reynolds recycling an old Mint ad upside-down? What was funny about Lindsay Lohan reinventing herself by going to the gym, along with a bunch of weird celeb cameos (Dennis Rodman, Danny Trejo, William Shatner)? There was nothing clever, noteworthy, or memorable about any of this. It was all trash.

Is ad culture now as exhausted for new ideas as Hollywood has long been? Because that’s what these ads felt like. Blockbuster commercials with A-list talent and no brains. Were these the ads we were supposed to be talking about the next day around the water cooler? Or is that itself an antiquated notion now?

Or perhaps I’m just being a curmudgeon. Writing in Slate, Justin Peters declared this year’s Super Bowl ads to be “by and large, pretty good.” So I watched all of the ads he ranked as the best. I was even more disappointed. The Chevy Silverado ad just mined The Sopranos for . . . what? That’s the ad? Meadow and AJ hugging after she drives through the opening credit sequence? It was only a minute long and I honestly had to skim through it to make it to the end. And I loved The Sopranos!

Next Peter had an ad for something called ClickUp, with the joke being that the signers of the Declaration of Independence were using a tablet and cloud computing. No laughs, not even a smile, and the whole idea is played out by now.

Then there was an Expedia ad which was sort of meta, poking fun at previous Super Bowl ads and ad culture in general. Another yawn.

A Lay’s Potato Chips ad which had Sexiest-Man-in-the-World Paul Rudd teamed up with Seth Rogen, as they reminisced over movies they’d been in together while sharing some Lay’s. Peters found this “very funny.” Huh?

Nissan “Thrill Driver.” Eugene Levy is funny in just about anything, but this is more of the blockbuster syndrome I was talking about. Big effects, big star cameos, and nothing else.

I sort of gave up at this point. Among the rest, Jim Carrey was back as the Cable Guy. I actually thought this was a little better than Mike Myers returning as Dr. Evil, though not much. Apparently there were a lot of not-good commercials trying to sell us on crypto. One of these just had a QR code bouncing around the screen. Larry David shilled for another, but his ad was way too long, dragging out a single joke to the point where it lost its edge before the hook at the end. LeBron James also pitched crypto, with the same FOMO message. As Matt Schimkowitz writing for Yahoo put it, “The [crypto] ads, disturbing and boring in their own ways, were met with derision online for basically the same reason: They suck because the thing they’re advertising sucks.” Yep.

Anyway, the only ad I sort of enjoyed was the Uber Eats one, which was weirdly riffing on “can you believe how stupid the people are who order Uber Eats?” You could say it fell into the category of so-dumb-it-was-kind-of-good, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s cameo was definitely off-putting. In a field of disposable formula and conspicuous waste, it’s the only moment that stood out.

Stats 2021

One of the interesting things about blogging is the availability of stats detailing how many people are visiting your site, on what days and what time of the day, how long they’re staying, what they’re reading, where they’re located, and lots of other stuff. So since we’re kicking off a new year I thought I’d look back and share a bit of this here.

At Alex on Film in 2021 these were the ten most visited posts:

Little Children (2006)
The Gore Gore Girls (1972)
I Spit On Your Grave (1978)
Deep Throat (1972)
The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)
Candyman (1992)
Behind the Green Door (1972)
Visitor Q (2001)
Showgirls (1995)
Her Last Fling (1976)

I think this is mostly self-explanatory. Cult films and porn rule. Except for the continuing dominance of my review of Little Children. I can’t figure that out. It isn’t linked to anywhere.

And here are the ten most read reviews at Goodreports:

The Road
A Perfect Night to Go to China
1491
An Impalpable Certain Rest
How to Become a Monster
Madame Bovary’s Ovaries
The Blind Assassin
Why Nations Fail
Who Killed Jackie Bates?
The Age of Movies and The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex

Nothing too surprising here. Nice to see a number of Canadian titles making the list too. I’ll take that as an inspiration to try to do more in that department in the coming year.

Lost in transit, or: Why can’t I buy a coat online?

It’s hard to miss the way that COVID-19 has transformed the economy. The delivery sector in particular has become a huge employer. No matter what time of day, or what neighbourhood I’m walking through, I see at least a couple of vans (often rentals) buzzing about or parked in the street, with delivery drivers running up to porches and leaving packages.

Of course, with so much demand, and with this many new delivery drivers entering the workforce, I’m sure there’s been some sub-optimum hiring going on. This has led to a few problems.

About three months ago I bought a winter coat online from a large retailer. It was a good price and came with free home delivery. After several weeks it still hadn’t arrived and I got in touch with customer service. According to their records the coat had been delivered. I assured them that it had not. Nor was this a case of the infamous porch pirates. I live in a sort of cul-de-sac, and no one has ever seen a porch pirate in these parts. Plus I’m home most of the time during the day, and receive parcels nearly every day. I’ve never had a parcel go missing before and I’m pretty sure I would have known if one had been delivered.

Most of my parcels though are books. People don’t steal books. That’s because nobody wants them. But who doesn’t want a new coat? When I called both the retailer and the third-party seller who had sold the coat they expressed a sort of weariness. Again? “This happens a lot,” one representative told me. I received a full refund.

As an aside, I was interested that many of the people I told this story to said that delivery drivers were taking photos of the parcels sitting on the customer’s porch as proof of delivery. This made no sense to me. What’s to stop a driver from putting the parcel on the porch, taking a picture, then picking the parcel back up and taking it with them? Only a porch camera I guess. Which would make the driver’s “proof” of delivery redundant.

A couple of weeks later I thought I’d try again. I ordered another coat (slightly different, but still a good deal) and instead of opting for home delivery said that I would pick it up in-store. After a week of tracking the shipment online it disappeared somewhere between the local shipping station and the store. I went to the store. A helpful sales rep told me that this is happening “a lot.” The coat was gone and they told me there was little hope it would ever be found. I would have thought they would have had better tracking, but after three weeks of searching and updates being emailed to me the retailer finally admitted defeat and again gave me a full refund. Officially the coat had gone from being “stuck in transit” to “lost in transit.”

This made me wonder just how much product is being “redistributed” through the delivery chain these days. Buying two coats in three months and having them both go missing may not be a large sample size to go on, but how representative is it? Both times I spoke to multiple customer service representatives who seemed weary of what was clearly a large and ongoing problem. I think the numbers may be huge.

In any event, a couple of people are getting nice new winter coats for Christmas. I probably shouldn’t try ordering another, but now I’m curious to see how it might turn out. Could a third time be the charm? I’ll let you know.

Now you’re cooking with gas . . . in space

They even put it on buttons.

The expression “Now you’re cooking with gas!”, which has the meaning of “Now you’re doing it right/making progress/on the right track,” had its origins at the end of the 1930s, when it was used on radio shows as a way of promoting the home use of natural gas. Some have attributed it to Bob Hope (or one of his writers) and it apparently does get used by him in Road to Zanzibar (1941), a movie I haven’t seen.

My father liked to use the expression. I heard it a fair bit growing up. I never heard anyone else say it. Whenever I’ve used it I’ve only gotten confused looks. I think it may have been the equivalent then of “Where’s the beef?” for my father’s generation. That’s an ad line that found it’s way into a movie too.

You can imagine my surprise then on reading Miles Cameron’s Artifact Space, which is space-opera SF set sometime in the distant future on board a giant “greatship” that is sailing through the cosmos. When the crew of a hydrogen harvester are unloading their cargo of fuel the captain tells the rookie “Now we’re cooking with gas.” This provokes a questioning response, “We are?”

“It’s an expression,” he said. “Apparently, once upon a time cooking with gas was very . . .” His eyes met hers. “Honestly, I don’t know. Half our jargon is from the old United States Navy and the other half is from the ancient British Royal Navy, and there’s a bunch from early spaceflight operations and some even from Old Terran trucking. Navies are the most conservative linguists anywhere — we preserve even the meaningless terms for hundreds of years.”

I don’t know why the connection is made here to navies, since it’s an advertising catch phrase that started out on radio directed at people using gas ovens in their kitchens. In any event, this may be the first time I’ve ever seen the expression in print, and what a strange place to finally find it!

Bowling alley time machine

Not the alley I was at, but close.

This weekend I went bowling. It was part of an outing to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I hadn’t been bowling in thirty years! I can date it because I remember the last time was the day of a friend’s wedding.

I think I’ve only bowled three or four times my entire life. So I’m not a good bowler. I can still recall that day thirty years ago and how bad I was. Which made it all the more enjoyable this time, because I was much better. Indeed, I was the only person in our group who bowled a strike! Such satisfaction. I had a great time and I think bowling is fun.

Of course, taking a thirty-year break also led to a bit of culture shock. Hence the title of this post.

Do you recall the bowling alleys of your youth? Or on screen in such movies as Kingpin and The Big Lebowski? Well, I’m sure they’re still out there, but the only bowling alley in my city is part of a larger “Family Fun Centre.” Which basically just means there’s an arcade as well. I thought being linked to an arcade was apt because everything had been done to make the actual bowling alley look like a video game.

In the first place, it was all dark, with lighted strips on either side of each alley in all kinds of crazy colours. There were disco lights over the alleys as well, but luckily they weren’t turned on. Above each alley was a monitor that showed various messages and displayed your score, and a screen by the ball dispenser that you entered your name into and that also kept your score. So much for those scorecards we used to use!

This wouldn’t have been too bad, but the big monitor over the lane wasn’t in synch with the screen by the ball dispenser, so it was always displaying the wrong scores, and in mixed-up order. Plus they kept changing the screen and running various animations on it so you could never just look at it and get any idea of the standings. I also thought it a sneaky bit of business in that, being logged in, it wouldn’t allow you to start off with a few practice balls. Nope, you had to sign in on the computer in order to get the pins to set and after that every ball counted. The system also kept track of how long you’d been playing, so that when your time was up that was it. The system just shut down. Which I guess does the job, but seems a bit tight-assed. Basically the computers are running everything now. They tell you when to start and when to stop and that’s it. I thought bowling was supposed to be a more relaxed atmosphere than this. We were really trying to go fast at the end to get another game in. We didn’t, quite.

Call me old-fashioned, but I much preferred bowling with all the lights on and just keeping score by pencil. The scoresheets were a lot easier to look at and to understand than all these screens.

The other thing that really stuck out for me was the expense. Wow. This is really pricey entertainment. With shoe rentals, a party of four came in at somewhere between $125 and $150 for an hour of bowling. Now admittedly I’m sure the guys running this place took, and are still taking, a huge hit from COVID. And I’m also figuring there’s some significant overhead. But there were only three or four lanes in use when we were there (out of more than 20 available), and it was a Saturday afternoon. That’s not good.

I have to think the lack of attendance is partly being driven by price. It’s a fun game to play for people of all ages and levels, but I can see why, at that price, bowling went into a tailspin in popularity (to the point where it became the central metaphor for Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone).

But this is a problem a lot of places are facing now. Prices are going up everywhere, while the actual goods and services being purchased ain’t what they used to be. We’re paying more and more for less and worse. I’ve talked before about the gym. The same membership rates (if you’re lucky) are being charged for gyms that are cutting back in hours, offering fewer amenities, and making you wear a mask. No thanks. And who wants to eat in a restaurant now with all the regulations and rules you have to follow? Everybody is just getting take-out. Shopping? More and more people have been buying stuff online, but prices at my favourite sites have spiked by around 20% over the last year (something that Amazon led the way on).

Like I say, I can understand why some businesses have to do this, but still the new normal that’s taking shape looks pretty grim to me.

Eighties house party

Making a comeback?

The American social critic Kurt Andersen has a thing about the present age being a culture of nostalgia, one that is no longer creating anything new. One of his favourite examples is today’s music, and whenever I read him going on about this I find myself doubting how strong an argument it is. It has an air of “grumpy old man” about it, complaining about all this noisy rock ‘n’ roll that isn’t real music. I mean, I liked, and still like, the music I listened to in high school and university, but I assume kids today have moved on.

This past week saw students moving back in for the start of university in my home town. A house behind me that sold a couple of months ago is apparently going to be party central, filled with a lot of good-looking young people. On Saturday night they were having a house party, and I was sleepily listening to the tunes they had cranked up. After a while I started noticing something, and began making notes on the party playlist. Here’s a stretch of what I heard:

“Hungry Heart” Bruce Springsteen (1980)
“Come On Eileen” Dexy’s Midnight Runners (1982)
“Bust a Move” Young MC (1989)
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” Tears for Fears (1985)
“Groove Is in the Heart” Deee-lite (1990)
“Freedom” Wham! (1984)

Wow. I have to say this really surprised me. Kids at university were literally playing the same songs thirty years ago. I think the only thing I missed was Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” and I might have just nodded off before they got to that. If they’d started up Black Box’s “Ride On Time” I think I may have had to go over and introduce myself.

What gives? Is Andersen right? Don’t today’s young people have their own music to listen to? I’m not complaining, but I don’t think the music I listened to as a young man was anything special. I just like it because it’s what I grew up with. Shouldn’t something have replaced it by now?

Update, January 24 2022:

Writing in The Atlantic, music critic Ted Gioia asks “Is Old Music Killing New Music?”

Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician—should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.

The 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams. That rate was twice as high just three years ago. The mix of songs actually purchased by consumers is even more tilted toward older music. The current list of most-downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the previous century, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Police.

I encountered this phenomenon myself recently at a retail store, where the youngster at the cash register was singing along with Sting on “Message in a Bottle” (a hit from 1979) as it blasted on the radio. A few days earlier, I had a similar experience at a local diner, where the entire staff was under 30 but every song was more than 40 years old. I asked my server: “Why are you playing this old music?” She looked at me in surprise before answering: “Oh, I like these songs.”

Alpha bullshit

While working on an essay-review of some of our most pernicious new ideologies I’ve ended up listening in on what’s known as the “manosphere.” This is basically the male take on relationships today, and while some of it is entertaining, in that podcast-on-while-I’m-making-dinner sort of way, and there’s even some helpful, commonsensical advice on tap, most of it is awfully repetitive and reductive.

Within the manosphere it’s now glibly assumed that there are these creatures known as “alpha males”: special beings who dominate the commanding heights of evolution through their easy reproductive success. The losers are then “betas” who don’t get to breed. (There are other Greek letters as well, but they aren’t as important.) On the other side, women are said to hit a “wall” after peak fertility, with their Sexual Market Value going into steep decline thereafter, to the point where by the age of 40 they have become virtually worthless. Stay away from these painted harpies because all they want is to steal your money and screw alphas behind your back!

Both sexes can be precisely graded on a scale of 1 to 10, as High Value and Low Value mates, their score determined by a mix of biology and Internet algorithms (hey, it’s how Facebook got its start!) whose judgment cannot be questioned because, you know, it’s science.

And so we’ve arrived at a point where it’s now become common to speak as though something like an “alpha male” actually exists and is not just a metaphor. For what it’s worth, my understanding when the word first started being used a while back was that it only referred to not-very-bright jerks who had no friends, couldn’t hold on to a job, and usually had substance abuse problems and/or criminal records. Now they are apparently supermen, and to be celebrated. You may hate these people, in a spirit of Nietzschean ressentiment, but that’s only because you’re inferior.

I’m depressed to see that this crudely reductionist ideology has become something concrete, a mythology and mental space that young people at least are now trapped inside. Just as with the myth of a “meritocracy,” an after-the-fact justification of everyday selfishness and narcissism is now seen as the intellectual underpinning of some kind of immutable law. I don’t think people any more stupid than they’ve ever been, but being steeped in a culture full of such bullshit I’m afraid that they’re becoming more vicious.

Damn COVID

I thought it was over. Or at least that things would be getting better soon. I’ve always been aware of the fact that we’re never getting back to normal, if by “normal” is meant the way things used to be, but I thought we might return to at least an approximation of the status quo ante.

A couple of recent developments have shaken my faith in this a bit. In the first place there’s been an announcement on the status of the annual Friends of the Public Library Book Sale. I’ve posted before on this event (in 2016 and 2019). It’s something I look forward to every year. Of course it was canceled last year due to the pandemic but I thought there was a chance it might be a go now. Where I live we have a very high full-vaccination rate (over 80%) and the sale isn’t until October. But they’ve already said it’s off again.

Understandable. If they were going to hold it they would have to start accepting donations now, and they probably aren’t fully comfortable with that. Plus it’s an event that can only run with a lot of volunteer help and they might have had some trouble on that score too. So I get it. But it’s still quite disappointing and leaves me wondering if it might be in trouble next year as well, or even if it’s going to be viable at all going forward into our “new normal.”

The second bit of news is more upsetting. I’ve always been a bit of a gym rat, and with the gyms being closed for the past eighteen months I’ve been having to manage withdrawal symptoms. Well, the gyms are open now, but with two big caveats.

In the first place, you have to wear a mask. Now I agree this may be for the best. And I accept that it’s possible to work out while wearing a mask, if not a lot of fun. But I don’t want to wear a mask while exercising, and I’m certainly not going to pay to do so. Until the masks come off I’m not going back.

Also, and less understandable, is the fact that the hours have been severely restricted. The gym I was previously a member of was a 24-hour gym, which suited me perfectly, as I am a night owl. Since they’ve reopened their new hours are 5 am to 10 pm on weekdays and only 7 am to 7 pm on weekends. 7 to 7! Is that a joke? And is it the new normal? I’m afraid it may be, as one person on staff who I talked to let it slip that they had no plans to ever going back to being a 24-hour gym. Consternation! Is this the world that COVID-19 made? Damn.

Crushing it

In an earlier post I talked about how I was playing a lot of online chess during the lockdown but that I still wasn’t getting any better. I’m a terrible chess player, and remain so. But every now and then I do have a good game. Here’s the brilliant checkmate I scored against Sven, the 1100 ELO avatar on Chess.com.

A great game by me? No. I have to be honest, Sven played very poorly this time out. Sometimes he does that. But I had no blunders or mistakes and totally dominated. I may have to move up to Nelson someday. But he’s a bully and usually beats me very quickly. I need to get better first.