The Decline of Civilizations

From a newsgroup post dated April 23, 2009:

Over on rec.arts.sf.written there’s currently a discussion (in a monster thread entitled “Socialism in SF” that’s 90% crap) about the decline of the West as evidenced by the sorry state of the fine arts.

That’s a subject I find interesting, even though I think 90% of everything everyone says on the subject is wrong — not the alleged sorry state of the fine arts, but what it says about the state of our civilization.

I’m trying to give shape here to a bunch of complicated and conflicting ideas on the subject, and I’m not finding the words. Instead, let me ask everyone out there for opinions:

Are the fine arts in a state of decline?

Does it matter that opera and ballet are now largely the province of a tiny faction of old-fashioned elitists, given that we have movies and other new media?

Does it mean anything for the health of civilization as a whole if the arts are in a state of decline?

Does it mean anything for the health of civilization as a whole if people think the arts are in a state of decline?

Feel free to bring up historical examples like Ming pottery and Byzantine literary forms.

==

This did not yield any discussion. I suppose I misjudged my audience.

Opening Pandora’s Box

A newsgroup post from October 15, 2008, complaining about Pandora Internet Radio. This was, in fact, why I stopped using it:

Okay, I’ve started several stations now, and they all seem to keep drifting in the same direction. I know what I want, and Pandora generally seems to start off with it, then gradually go off course. No matter what I choose as my starting point, the music keeps getting slower.

I mean, I picked “Ooh La La” by Goldfrapp to try to get fast techno, and instead, while I’m getting more Goldfrapp, it’s all her slower songs. (“Crystalline Green” is playing right now.) I got “#1 Crush” by Garbage, which is a cool song, but what do I have to do to not get stuff that’s so slow?

I hate to thumbs-down songs I actually like, but I may start doing exactly that.

Life of A Salesman

From a newsgroup post dated October 17, 2007:

Elsewhere there’s a discussion of a very annoyingly condescending salesclerk someone dealt with recently; I remarked there that such salespeople are fools, because you sell more stuff with flattery than condescension.

Which reminded me of an incident, lo these many years ago, which I didn’t post there because it wasn’t relevant, so I’m posting it here. Not that it’s relevant here, either, but it’s my newsgroup, so I can post it anyway.

I was in the audio department somewhere, I think at Circuit City, considering whether to replace all or part of the stereo system I bought back in 1973. I was chatting with a salesman, who was doing a pretty good job of ingratiating himself without being pushy or condescending, and I had explained that I maybe wanted to upgrade my twenty-year-old system.

He asked what I had.

“A Sansui 661 receiver,” I said.

He nodded. “A decent unit in its day,” he said, “but you can do better. What have you got for speakers?”

“MicroAcoustic FRM-1s,” I said.

“Well, you aren’t going to replace those,” he said. “There isn’t anything better.”

Whereupon he managed to flatter me immensely, and impress me with his knowledge, at the same time he lost the sale. He was the first salesman I’d met since 1975 who’d ever heard of the MicroAcoustic FRM-1, and if he said that no one had improved on it, I believed him, so I didn’t buy new speakers.

I did spend a pleasant half-hour chatting about audio equipment with him, though.

Trailer Park

(All new!)

So we saw “The Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2” Monday afternoon (and had a lovely time, thanks). It has long been my custom to assess the trailers accompanying any movie we see in the theater, so here we go:

There were eight trailers. This is excessive. It hasn’t been that long since five was the norm.

“Transformers: The Last Knight” looks big and loud and stupid. I am so not interested.

The remake of “The Mummy” does not look very promising, either. Both these first two trailers were so loud that I was beginning to worry the whole feature would be unpleasant and ear-tiring, but fortunately that did not turn out to be the case.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” was the first trailer that was not just a barrage of noise and CGI. It had moments of character, bits of humor, and generally lots of stuff to indicate that the film is not just a noisefest and lightshow. I expect to see and enjoy this one.

“Alien: Covenant”… I dunno. It looks better than the last couple of Alien movies, but that’s saying depressingly little. I think I’ll pass.

“Dunkirk”: It’s a war movie. It looks as if it’s a well-made one, with some good characters, but I’m not much on war movies these days (with exceptions for superhero war movies). If the word of mouth sings enough hosannas, I might check it out.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” looks pretty good, and I still plan on seeing every feature in the series. It would take a real stinker to make me stop. The three prequels were building up a significant amount of suckage, but the Disney takeover has cleansed my palate and renewed my enthusiasm.

The trailer for “Thor: Ragnarok” has a little more CGI than I really wanted, but the line “I know him from work!” sold me — I wanna see it. In general, the Thor series has not been at the top of my Marvel list (not that they suck, they just aren’t as good as some of the others), but this one has promise.

And finally, the next Pirates of the Caribbean film — does it even have a definite title yet? — capped off the previews. I regret to say that even though I loved the first one and it’s always a delight to watch Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, I think the series has outlasted its sell-by date. Zombie sharks are one of those ideas that sounds great in a late-night conversation but should probably not actually be used.

All in all, it was a very loud set of trailers.

Those Who Can

From a newsgroup post dated April 10, 2007:

Down in another newsgroup a couple of people posted pitches for their unpublished novels. I wasn’t impressed — in fact, I thought both were pretty lame, though the novels might not be.

I should have just let it go, but I didn’t — I rewrote ’em both.

I pretended this was an educational effort, but I’m pretty sure I was just showing off.

The thing is, though, that the reason I bothered to do it was that it was so easy. I mean, both pitches contained, as originally written, all the elements needed to make a good pitch — plot, setting, character — but they didn’t make it sound interesting.

One of them spent too long explaining how a disaster happened, when the novel is about the after-effects of the disaster. Who cares why it happened? The cool stuff is what the survivors have to do afterward!

The other had long unpronounceable names all over it, when what matters is the romantic triangle of a mad lord, his loyal henchman, and the courtesan secretly plotting the lord’s overthrow.

They could both be great stories — but alas, I’ll bet they aren’t. It’s a shame.

And it demonstrates a couple of things:

That it’s not the idea that matters, it’s the execution.*

Why I stopped trying to teach writing — it’s too frustrating, seeing all this potential that’s never going to be properly used. That romantic triangle could be a classic, done right, but the odds that it’s done right are mighty slim.

Feist’s Corollary: There is no idea so brilliant or original that a sufficiently untalented writer can’t fuck it up.**

==

* My great-great grandfather was born on an estate in Maine named Execution. It’s kind of a family mystery why anyone would name a house that, but it almost certainly has something to do with the concept that it’s the execution that matters.

The house is now a hole in the ground in the middle of a forest; the only part of the estate that hasn’t gone back to wilderness is the family burial plot, which is maintained by veterans’ groups because there’s a Revolutionary War hero buried there. They consistently put the Memorial Day flag and flowers on the wrong grave, though — there were lots of Goodwins with the same few names. So much for execution.

** This corollary to Watt-Evans’ Law is the only time I have ever seen Ray Feist use the word “fuck.” I think I cleaned it up for the version on my webpage, but this is the original.

Stupid Little Things That Annoy Me More than They Should

From a newsgroup post dated October 24, 2006:

I like Frito-Lay’s “Wavy Lay’s” potato chips. I eat them a lot. For years, I’ve gone (with the help of Julie and the kids) through maybe three or four 11.5 oz. bags a week — I keep an open bag on my desk and nibble on them off and on. (Now you know how I got so fat.)

I deliberately bought the 11.5 oz. size because the larger “Family Size” (which I think is about a pound) was too big — by the time we finished a bag, the last few chips would be soggy, and who wants soggy potato chips?

Last week Frito-Lay did something that I’m sure they thought would be wildly popular with consumers — they changed their standard medium-sized bag from 11.5 oz. to 13.75 oz., for the same price.

But 13.75 ounces is too much. The last few chips get soggy.

So yes, I’m seriously annoyed that they made my favorite food cheaper.

I know it’s perverse of me; I don’t care. 11.5 ounces was just exactly right. 13.75 is too much.

But it didn’t last. They currently sell three sizes — Regular, Family Size, and Party Size. Family Size is 10 ounces, which is a good size.

The Decline and Fall of Science Fiction

Newsgroup post, August 23, 2006:

A while back I agreed to be an award judge again. This is a stupid thing I keep doing — I don’t really think awards are a good thing, I can’t really afford the time, but somehow it’s so flattering to be asked that I keep agreeing.

In this case, I’m one of a panel of judges reading five nominees and choosing one as the winner. They’re all supposed to be science fiction.

So I read them. Well, some of them; I admit to not finishing all five, which I excuse by saying that if I don’t want to finish a book, it hardly deserves to win an award, does it?

Of the five, only two were actually fun to read.

The others were a slog, all of them over-long, with long, slow stretches and not much in the way of excitement. One’s more or less a near-future thriller that alas, isn’t thrilling. The other two are solidly SF, with all the stefnal accoutrements, but just didn’t appeal to me at all.

Of the two I enjoyed, one’s only SF by courtesy; it takes a standard dark fantasy trope and treats it as a scientifically-explainable secret history, rather than as supernatural.

Of the two I enjoyed, one is slickly written, nicely crafted, but didn’t really engage me emotionally very much. The other’s prose is charming, but a bit clunky at times, and some of the science and setting stuff is pretty absurd.

Both have fairly weak story structure, with oddly flat and predictable endings.

None of the five have vivid characters or genuinely exciting action or wonderful, mind-bending ideas.

If this is the best the genre has to show these days, no wonder SF sales are down and fantasy is eating its lunch.

Addendum, May 2, 2017: I don’t know whether this would describe the state of SF now, but it did seem to in 2006. I have no idea what’s happening in SF right now; I’m years behind on my reading.

That’s Not Catchy, That’s Sick!

From a newsgroup post dated June 24, 2006:

(From a thread about why so many songs are about really unhealthy relationships…)

Got one stuck in my head today —

“Get down now baby, let your boss man see
If you can howl just like a dog for me.
Black leather is my favorite game
And you will learn how to scream my name…”

“Ball Crusher”
from the album STEPPENWOLF 7

So what really twisted pop songs can you guys think of?

Here are a few of my favorites:

“Every Breath You Take”
“Possession”
“In Your Room”
“Obsession”
“How Do I Make You”

Those are all stalker songs, more or less; then there’s stuff like Grace Slick’s “Silver Spoon,” about cannibalism.

Damn near anything by the Bloodhound Gang would qualify, I suppose. “Yummy Down On This” and “The Ballad of Chasey Lane” seem especially lurid.

Linguistic Theory

Originally posted to sff.people.lwe on March 23, 2006:

I have a theory — not a very serious one — that languages are optimized for specific uses. German’s good for giving orders, Italian’s good for singing, Spanish is good for gossiping, English is good for explaining.

And Mandarin Chinese is good for arguing.

Any comments? Suggestions for other languages?

Remakes: The Good, the Bad, and the Really Ugly

Newsgroup post from March 3, 2006:

Okay, I didn’t see it, but can someone tell me why they remade “When A Stranger Calls”?

Or “Fun with Dick and Jane”?

Or “The Bad News Bears”?

Or “The Shaggy Dog”?

Or “The Hills Have Eyes”?

Or “The Omen”?

None of these are unjustly-neglected films that deserve to be remade to give them a second chance. None of them are classics due for an updating. They’re just, y’know, old movies. Not even all that old, really –The Shaggy Dog” is the oldest at what, forty?

So why have they all been remade?

And there have been lots more inexplicable remakes in the ten years since then, too.