alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Well, my prediction of managing a Patreon update every other month seems to be holding true. Since last time, I have:Looking forward, the next update should include another Cinema Purgatorio, the conclusion of Providence, and possibly the last few chapters of VotF, depending on how much effort Providence #12 turns out to be. After that, on to Jerusalem!
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Speaking of both frugality and fun, I recently picked up the latest Humble Mobile Strategy Bundle. Some I had played before and enjoyed (Kingdom Rush especially), but two are new to me and are proving particularly fun.

Hero Generations is a sort of highly condensed RPG. Each move takes a year of your current character’s life. When your lifespan runs out, it’s game over – unless you acquire enough fame before then to win a mate; if you have, the game continues with their adventures, starting with a hand-me-down item or two, or perhaps some other advantages. Each generation takes only a few minutes to play, so it can be rewarding in small chunks. However, there is clearly an overarching plot which will take a significant number of generations to complete. While a few things are constant, much of the world is randomized each game, so there is plenty of replay value.

Guild of Dungeoneering has many similar qualities: each session is relatively short, but the over game could take a long time, and there’s plenty of replay value. The theme is a little like the old PC game Majesty, in that there are lots of adventurers in the world, but you don’t directly control any of them. Instead, you act as a sort of Game Master, laying out dungeon tiles, treasure, and monsters in a way which hopefully will entice the adventure into challenges which will level them up successfully so that they can defeat this particular dungeon’s quest. The combat mechanic is a simple card game, but each character class has a different default deck, and what loot you pick up inside a dungeon also affects the cards in your deck, so it’s got a little bit of deck-building character as well.

Both games are recommended. If you like playing on an Android device, and act soon, you can get both of them and many more besides for a whopping five dollars. I expect (though have not checked) that these games are also available on other platforms, though you might have to pay retail.
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So, you know that thing about the Evil Republican who said poor people are going to have to decide between new iPhones and health insurance? I’ve seen many arguments go by about how many cell phones it takes to equal the cost of health insurance, and similar arguments on an economic or factual basis. The same sort of dialogue is happening about the National Endowment for the Arts, and many other recent political issues.

But I think there is a moral argument worth having here, also, which seems to be largely overlooked.

One of the moral stances implicitly held by many people on the Right (though they are usually too canny to come right out and say it), is that if you spend ANY money on something that isn’t a necessity, you are Not Really Poor. Or, to look at it from another perspective, anyone who is actually poor does not deserve to spend any of their meager resources on entertainment.

This, I find abhorrent. A life which is entirely spent on the bare means of survival is worse than that of most mammals. A life in which one is not allowed to EVER choose enjoyment is a life not much above that of a slave.
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Thelma Todd has a fairly small, thankless role in this as a tough society dame who has the misfortune of not being nearly AS tough as headliner Clara Bow. But Bow, in her apparently-best talkie role, is riveting. In this, her penultimate film role, she demonstrates that she definitely still has IT.

The story is purely melodrama, but it is pre-code melodrama, with lots of room for implied salaciousness. Bow plays a young lady named Nasa, who has a fiery temper and a wide emotional range. By the time she’s out of finishing school, the tabloids have nicknamed her “Dynamite”, and she’s earned it. Her character arc brings her all over the map; from rich society girl, to destitute single mother prostitute, back to riches, and finally (perhaps) true happiness with the one who quietly loved her all along. Along the way, she rides horses (and men), whips rattlesnakes (and men), has knock-down drag-out fights with Thelma Todd (and men), and enjoys lots of offscreen sex with men (just men, though I gather the original novel had rather more range).

One notable historic tidbit: this film apparently contains the first not-even-coded depiction of gayness. At one point, Bow goes slumming to a cabaret with mincing waiters singing a saucy song about sailors! Like many incidents in the film, it’s hideously offensive by modern standards, but historically interesting.

I can’t say it’s a GOOD film, but I mostly enjoyed it.
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Seven Footsteps to Satan (1929) is the earliest Thelma Todd film I have found. Indeed, it is so early that it is a silent movie (apparently one of the last silent horror films).

While I found it interesting enough to finish watching and to write about, let me be clear up front: this is not a good movie. Not much plot, unevenly paced, poorly directed. The acting is passable. And, though this is not a fault of the original makers, the existing print that this was restored from is incredibly washed out, lacking nearly all visual detail. The ending is a narrative cheat that is only half a step above “it was all a dream”.

The story begins with a somewhat nebbishy leading man who is practicing marksmanship in his secret lab, so that he will be well prepared to go exploring in “darkest Africa”. Soon, he gets tangled up with robbers and then he and his girlfriend are suddenly kidnapped. So far, so pulp.

But then the film takes a sharp left into dream logic. Our heroes find themselves in a huge mansion that seems not unrelated to Castle Frank-N-Furter. It is packed to the rafters with secret passages, thugs in tuxedos, tortured damsels in distress, mysterious dwarfs, screeching apes, inscrutable Orientals, men with Exceedingly Strange facial hair, femmes fatales, ominous shadows, groping hands, and orgiastic cultists whose cult leader is named Satan. This is not a complete list.

Our hero keeps insisting that he just wants to go home, in the apparent belief that this will have any positive effect. But things keep happening. It’s never really clear why he has been brought there at all, what Satan wants with him, which of the weird characters are actually on his side, or much of anything really. (At least until the last few minutes, whose existence I deny.) It’s very nearly Lynch-ian. If you’re a fan of the surreal, I recommend starting at the 20 minute mark, and turning it off at 1:10 (just as the clapping starts).
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Well, now I have seen all three film versions of The Maltese Falcon. The 1941 is, of course, a classic. The 1931 was, as I posted earlier, good and interesting. The 1936, however, turns out to be nearly a complete waste of time. Bah.

Remember how I said that in the 1931, the lead seemed to think he was in a comedy, despite everyone else being in a crime film? In this version, they have just decided to straight up make it a comedy. I don’t think that this decision was necessarily fatal; one could tell a successful humorous version of this story. But it definitely went poorly for them that they decided to throw away the Gift of Hammett’s timeless dialogue and substitute their own “wit”. Only a few lines are recognizable from the source material, and the replacements are neither funny nor memorable.

I had high hopes for Bette Davis, but she had no real hope of saving the picture. Despite having top billing, her role is relatively small. And really, with this script and this director, no actors could have rescued it.

While the plot is clearly recognizable, they changed all the names and the identity of the MacGuffin. Perhaps Warner Brothers felt a little shame at remaking the film so soon, and sought to make it a little less obvious. But, as much as I like the Matter of France, Roland’s Horn is just not as interesting a MacGuffin as the Falcon. The protagonist’s secretary is ditzy well beyond the point of annoying. There was one change that I thought had a chance of being interesting; the Gutman analogue was a gray-haired, matronly crime boss with a kitten. Sadly, in the execution, she was as dull as the rest.

Strongly dis-recommended. If you want to see an interesting variant, stick with the 1931 version.
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Kestrell is, at long last, starting to write up some of her vast accumulated knowledge (and opinion) about Umberto Eco's wonderful _The Name of the Rose_. Recommended to all bibliophiles. http://kestrell.dreamwidth.org/263842.html

(And there's a Patreon attached, so consider that, if you want to encourage more such writing.)
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This is the FIRST movie version of the Hammett novel, now known basically as a footnote to the legendary classic remake in 1941 starring Humphrey Bogart. I watched it because of a Thelma Todd part, which turned out to be a poor reason, as her part is small and without much scope (Mrs. Archer). On the other hand, as a piece of comparative storytelling it was FASCINATING!

In this case, the interesting comparisons are largely to be found in the acting and direction. Both sets of writers wisely realized that the source material was sufficiently strong that it didn’t so much need to be adapted as transcribed.* The screenplays are not identical, but each of them takes about 90% of their plot, and even dialogue, directly from the novel. With so much the same, the differences are starkly highlighted.

The biggest difference is in the character of Sam Spade himself. While Bogart would focus on a cynical world-weariness, Ricardo Cortez spends more time grinning than not. He seemed to me to be saying, “YOU characters may think you’re in a gritty crime novel, but I’M in a romantic sex comedy!” Emphasis on the sex; this pre-Code Spade is a complete slut. He spends a lot more time getting laid (and thinking about getting laid) then Bogart. Our first view of this Spade is in silhouette, through his office door, smooching a VERY satisfied client; he then returns to his inner office and straightens up the disarranged pillows of his sofa. Bogart may have slept with Mrs. Archer, but he gave the impression that it was under duress; Cortez also breaks off with Mrs. Archer, but only because she has become inconvenient, not because he has any objection whatsoever to sleeping with his partner’s wife. Cortez is certainly capable of being tough or serious; he just does so as little as possible.

This lighter-hearted Spade plays excellently well against Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly (this version dispenses with the multiple aliases of the femme fatale). In fact, Daniels is the one actor who I would say did a distinctly better job than their 1941 counterpart. This is no great surprise, as I think Mary Astor is the weakest element of that version. Daniels is more obvious in her duplicity, but also significantly more vivacious and seductive. Cortez’s Spade knows enough not to trust her from the start, but obviously also thinks that she is sufficiently hot that he is more than willing to go along with her for the time being. It’s tawdry, but it makes obvious sense, something that their relationship in the 1941 movie never did for me.

On its own merits, as a pre-Code proto-noir, this is a fine little film. It’s not an enduring classic like the 1941 version, but you knew that.

Of course, having watched two versions, now I’m going to have to go watch the in-between 1936 version, Satan Met a Lady, starring Bette Davis. No doubt I shall report back…

* Kestrell and I refer to these as “gift stories”. As in, “You were given this as a gift; all you had to do was not throw it away.” I’m not always a purist when it comes to adaptations, but when you’re given perfect source material, have the sense to recognize it. Case in point being Treasure Island, which is been filmed a dozen times at least, but only a couple of them had the sense to just tell the story they were given.
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I finally got around to reading this, some months after its release, but at least before the new season of Twin Peaks itself. Short review: mixed, but indispensable for the serious T P fan.
At more length:Read more... )
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My latest kick is the films of Thelma Todd. I first developed a crush on her decades ago from the Marx Brothers films Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. Having been recently reminded that she actually did a huge amount of work (in a tragically short life), I’ve been seeking out more of it. While far from a complete filmography, a surprisingly large amount of her work is available on YouTube. The first two I tried, I didn’t stick with long enough to see her part, but the third was worth completing, and then talking about.

Corsair (1931), directed by Todd’s boyfriend Roland West, was surprising in a number of ways. For a start, the title, combined with an opening shot of a sailing ship, led me to believe I was getting a classic pirate movie. Piracy does eventually feature, but we START with… a contemporary (to 1931) football game?

Chester Morris plays John Hawks, an all American quarterback from the Midwest, and a rising star. He’s planning on a steady job as a football coach, when he has the misfortune of catching the eye of spoiled heiress Allison Corning (Thelma Todd). She knows what she wants, and she usually gets it. Hawks’s resistance to her charms only makes her want him more. (Speaking as a Guy, I feel compelled to note that those charms include a very nice translucent shirt with no bra under it – pre-Code for the win!)

Allison arranges for John to be employed in her father’s Wall Street financial firm. He adapts well at first, but after a year, decides that he can no longer stomach selling junk bonds to widows (literally). Instead, using some contacts he has picked up over that year, he’s going into a much more straightforward profession: piracy on the high seas!

Well, sort of. He’s found out that his former boss, in addition to his other unethical dealings, wholesales a lot of booze from criminals (these are Prohibition times). A rich friend provides a boat, and some criminals on the inside provide information on delivery times. John hijacks the booze, then sells it BACK to Allison’s father for both financial gain and the satisfaction of cheating the old skinflint.

There is an extended subplot involving the two criminals who are working with John, during which the film ventures into what I would have to call proto-noir territory. Lots of sharp shadows and murky morals. The relationship between the two frays under the extreme stress and danger of their doublecross, but even as they cynically snipe, their love for each other shines through. Especially good work here by actress Mayo Methot.

Sadly, once that subplot is over, the film seems to settle in to a fairly conventional final act. The final confrontation between John and the criminals is serviceable, but little more than that. Allison’s father turns out to be slightly less slimy then he looked, and hires John back as a company president.

We end on a kiss between John and Allison, though a somewhat ambiguous one. It is certainly possible to stick with the surface reading that she is renouncing her wild ways for properly meek womanhood and True Love. On the other hand, it seems equally valid to read the scene as Allison using her devious feminine wiles to finally overcome John’s resistance. I expect they will have an interestingly stormy marriage, regardless.

While I can’t recommend it unreservedly, the early scenes with Thelma Todd are great, as are the noir-ish sequences in the middle.
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I spent most of December with a cold, and thus got very little work accomplished. I did watch a large amount of Western movies, leading to significant additional annotations for Cinema Purgatorio number seven (see earlier comments about Art never being finished, only abandoned).

January, thankfully, has been significantly more productive. Notable accomplishments since last time:
• Annotated chapters two through five of Voice of the Fire.
• Helped annotate issue 11 of Providence.

Plus a lot of miscellaneous bits here and there. Still lots more to do, and a new issue of Cinema Purgatorio is due out tomorrow. Thanks for your support!
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Earlier this evening, I did some public storytelling for the first time in roughly a decade. I was kinda nervous. I was going with my favorite material (Astolfo and Giocondo), which is generally a crowdpleaser – but which is 30 minutes long. A flop at that length is a really big flop.

I am happy to report that I’ve still got what it takes, and I knocked ‘em dead :)

Seems like a fun group of people, and they’ve liked my material so far. I’m definitely going to try and make it to next month’s event also. April, thanks again for letting me know about this. And Doria, thanks even more for making it happen!

March

Jan. 22nd, 2017 10:06 pm
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I was at the March yesterday. I posted lots of photos on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/alexx.kay/media_set?set=a.10210486821740239.1073741848.1035714672&type=3), but it occurred to me that I should document it here as well.

I got started a little late, and only arrived downtown around 11:45. From the moment I exited the T, the crowds were impressive, and only became more so as I approached the central location. In fact, I didn’t get all THAT close to the center, as my crowd-phobia kicked in well before that point. There were so many people, I didn’t even get close enough to be able to hear the speakers. But I felt I was still participating by circling around the fringes, offering encouragement, and taking pictures of things I felt were noteworthy.

The March proper started late and was clearly going to go on for a long time, and remain packed throughout. So I didn’t technically march. When my spoons were running low (about 1:45), I headed home. I hadn’t seen anyone I knew in person; unsurprising given the scale of the event.

Surprisingly little in the way of counterprotest. Well, maybe some folks showed up but were intimidated by the crowd size and left without making a fuss. There were a few groups of “orthogonal” protesters (largely for socialist groups), but only one of these appeared to actually have any problems with the March, per se. I saw a grand total of one Trump T-shirt; the young man wearing it had it on over a chain mail tunic, was holding a medieval-style helmet in hand, and had a fake-looking sword stuffed down the back of his shirt. When I spotted him, he was already walking away.

All in all, a hopeful day.
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What a delightfully odd film! When I first read the Netflix summary, I thought it contained grammar errors. But no, it was merely a case of trying to describe an extremely convoluted structure in a small number of words. Luckily, I have no such space restriction here.Read more... )
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
This post is eight years old, but seems more relevant today.

Originally posted by [livejournal.com profile] bradhicks at Yes We Can Put Americans Back to Work. We Probably Won't, Though.

"CWA: 6,000 Men and a Scenic Boulevard"
The American way of life depends, in part, on a specific illusion. It's a lie that we tell ourselves, and tell our children. What we just did last Tuesday, an orderly, peaceful, even civil transition of power from one generation to the next, from one ethnic group to another, from one political party to another political party with a different political agenda? We lie to ourselves, and lie even harder to our children, that that is something we can count on, something we have always been able to count on, that any alternative is so unthinkable and unnatural for Americans that we need have no fear whatsoever of any alternative.

Historians know that that's a lie. Even if one accepts the incredible claim that every US President who has ever been assassinated was killed by a deranged lone gunman, acting out of personal motives, with no political motive, and with no encouragement or assistance by anyone else, the fact remains: historians know that it can get so bad in the United States, economically, that the American people will withdraw their consent to be governed. We call one particular financial industry collapse that rippled outward around the globe (among other things, ultimately bringing the Nazis to power in Germany) not just any recession or depression, but the Great Depression, because the number of people needing work in the US rose to about 3.5 million, or about 20% of all working-age heads of households. In the hardest-hit parts of the country, it reached 50%. And it's not a coincidence that the next several years saw three credible attempts to topple the United States government: a half-million man general strike called by Soviet-influenced CIO labor unions aimed at sparking a general uprising and Communist revolution that couldn't quite hold out long enough to get their revolution before it collapsed, Huey Long's astronomically-growing Poor People's Army that aimed at overthrowing the Constitution which was only thwarted via its leader's assassination, and an attempt by the 1930s equivalent of the Democratic Leadership Council, then called the American Liberty League, to use corporate money to bribe US military generals into placing them in power via coup d'etat. No, we know as a matter of objective fact: somewhere in the near vicinity of 20% prolonged unemployment, the USA starts running a serious risk of anarchy followed by totalitarianism.

We also know that by the same measure of unemployment that was in use at the time, as of this month the US unemployment rate is somewhere in the near vicinity of 15%. And rising. Fast. As in perhaps as much as 1% per month. No, really, trust me on this: everybody in both political parties now understands what everybody in both political parties understood as of 1933, when centrist (and wealthy) Democratic former New York governor Frank Roosevelt was sworn in as President: they were doomed if they didn't find some way to lower unemployment. And trust me on this, both Republicans and Democrats in our own time understand that the clock is ticking on this now, too. What remains is the question: how do we do that? Nor are today's Republican and Democratic leaders the first politicians to be faced with this question, it is the exact same question that was asked in 1933. And the political elites and the professional economists of our time agree 100% with the political elites and the professional economists of 1933. Our ruling class, just like the ruling class of 1933, believes that government by definition screws up everything it touches. That all government intervention in the economy is inherently bad, that the best it can possibly be is a short-term necessary evil. That the reason that big corporations are big is that they are lead by people who know how to make the best use of money and how to get the best work out of employees. Therefore the political elites and professional economists of our time 100% agree with Frank Roosevelt of early 1933 and with the American Liberty League of the 1930s that what we need is something like the Public Works Administration. What we need, they are 100% sure, is a public-private partnership: government identifies legitimate government needs that aren't currently being met, and bids that work out to private contractors, and audits those programs and those contractors to make sure that not one thin dime of taxpayer money is wasted on any project that's unnecessary or on any expense that can't be justified. And in a sign of bipartisanship, Franklin Roosevelt appointed left-wing Republican Harold Ickes to do just that.

As Timothy Noah pointed out yesterday in a lovely pair of articles on Slate.com, "Wrong Harry: Four million jobs in two years? FDR did it in two months" (with Charles Peters) and an almost immediate follow-up piece when a news item proved his point for him even better, "CBO, Meet CWA: More evidence that Obama's stimulus falls short," FDR, congressional Republicans lead by Harold Ickes, and right-wing Democrats lead by Al Smith were wrong in exactly the same way that Barack Obama, congressional Republicans, and the Democratic Leadership Council are wrong right now. The Public Works Administration did its job. It did it under budget. It wasted not a single dollar. It attracted not a single critic. And it created almost no jobs. In 1933, it turned out that there just plain weren't that many legitimate government jobs that weren't being funded already. As Ickes took his sweet time coming up with more, lest he be criticized for wasting taxpayer money, he found out that there also weren't a whole lot of companies out there begging for the chance to bid on PWA contracts. They weren't crazy about the contract stipulations, and they weren't all that interested in retooling and reorganizing their entire corporate structures to service contracts there were guaranteed to end as soon as the Great Depression ended. As an anti-poverty, anti-violent-revolution government program, the Public Works Administration was an unvarnished, absolute, indefensible disaster. Period. End of story. Nobody even tries to defend it any more; its supporters just pretend it never happened, so they can recommend the same thing the next time without anybody knowing it's been tried before, because by their politics, it's the right thing to do whether it works or not.

And along about the time that Roosevelt was about to lose his temper over this, the First Lady talked him into talking to a very successful social worker named Harry Hopkins, who only wanted a few minutes of the President's time so he could ask one question. He showed the President figures (that he later showed Congress) showing that there were about 3.5 million Americans in 1933 who were heads of households between the ages of 18 and 64 that no employer was going to hire, no way, no how, not for any amount of money, and he asked: "Can you give one legal reason why we can't just hire those people ourselves?" The thing is, he got that estimate of 3.5 million people by going through the state-by-state lists of people who were already on the dole, people who were already receiving some kind of charitable or government cash hand-out because they weren't working. And what Hopkins realized was that not only did the American people deeply resent those people for taking money and doing nothing all day, the recipients weren't any happier about it, either: they wanted to work. So FDR shoe-horned a program through Congress, first as pilot program called the Civil Works Administration, to raise about $1200 (1933 US dollars) per year per unemployed head of household: $1000 per worker per year for wages, $24 per worker per year for administrative costs, the rest for hand tools and raw materials for whatever projects he could make up. To get CWA funding, a job had to be something that no corporation was interested in providing, and that no government agency was interested in funding, and it had to be as labor-intensive as possible (see photograph above right).

Conservatives in both parties hated it. And still do. And campaigned hard against it in the 1934 congressional primaries. Al Smith's right-wing Democrats convinced FDR that if he kept the CWA, it would cost him his majority in Congress, so he shut it down after only four months. In that four months, CWA workers had already built 1,000 rural airports, built 40,000 school buildings, built or resurfaced a quarter-million miles of roads, and laid twelve million miles of sanitary sewer lines, some of the first sewer lines laid in most counties. In four months. Right-wing Democrats and anti-tax pro-corporate Republicans screamed bloody murder about all the money that the CWA was "wasting," but (and this is a point I'll come back to again) we're still using almost all of that stuff today. 75 years later, those "worthless" "make-work" projects are turning out to be some of the most valuable stuff the government had done in its first 150 years of existence. So contrary to what the right-wing Democrats in Congress were telling FDR he "needed" to do to "save" the 1934 congressional elections, terminating the CWA turned out to be the least popular thing he did as President, and as soon as the elections were over, on voter mandate, FDR brought it right back again, rammed it through Congress again as the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Only this time it had full funding, and a Congressional and Presidential mandate to try to hire every single one of the roughly 3.5 million unemployed, non-disabled, work-aged heads of household in America. And in almost no time at all, they came as close as makes no difference, getting to 3.3 million, on one simple philosophy: you tell us whatever it is you "do," and we'll find you a job doing it. Those jobs paid very nearly jack squat; nearly all WPA workers ended up living with their whole families in roughly 8" x 10" or so rooms in improvised "boarding houses," spare rooms leased out by people who were house-rich but cash poor, trying to save their homes, tenants with no control over the menu of the meal plan it came with and shared use of a single bathroom (or maybe just an outhouse and an outdoor water pump) with 3 to 8 other families. Nobody lived well on the WPA, but nobody starved either. On the other hand, nobody worked terribly hard, either, and I know this one from a very personal source: my paternal grandfather was a WPA veteran.

Grampa Hicks was himself a right-wing anti-tax anti-communist Democrat of the American Liberty League school, and he hated the WPA with a fiery passion for the entire rest of his life. It was from him I first heard the joke: "How many people does it take to do one WPA job? Three. One on his way to the bathroom, one on his way back from the bathroom, and one leaning on the shovel pretending to work." But here's the funny thing. You know what Grampa Hicks was before the Great Depression? He was a bum. A mostly-unemployed unskilled laborer on the rare occasions he had a job, a street brawler and small-time crook, a chronic alcoholic and wife-beater who spent most of the 1920s in jail. So when he showed up in one of Harry Hopkins' branch offices and they asked him, "What do you do?" all he could answer was, "Nothing." So they stuck him on one of the WPA's archetypal projects: a National Guard armory. Under the thin pretense of "military preparedness," Harry Hopkins made up this total BS scenario whereby some day, in some foreign invasion of the US, we might end up having to retreat all the way back to any random tiny little town in America, so every tiny little road-crossing town and every suburb and every city neighborhood in America should have a solidly built, concrete-block or raw stone building that the state militia can store their weapons in until that day, and can use as a fort when we get nearly conquered. Nobody was fooled. Everybody knew it was a lie: it was building buildings just for the sake of building pointless buildings. Furthermore, the whole "fort" thing was just an excuse to make the job take longer, to build out of improbably heavy materials and as slowly and carefully as possible, so those mostly unskilled laborers didn't run out of something to do before Hopkins and his few staff could come up with something else to do. Grampa Hicks went to his grave still mocking the work he'd done.

But you know what? There's a funny thing about that, something I'm pretty sure Grampa Hicks never thought about. First of all, if it weren't for the WPA, we Hickses would still be bums. Grampa Hicks was desperate to get out from behind that wheel barrow and that shovel, but was too drunk to do plumbing. So he took to hanging around when the electricians were running wire, and managed to get himself a totally useless job as a sort of human Vice-Grip. "Here," says the skilled electrician who was himself out of work, yelling over to my grandpa because the WPA wouldn't spring for proper tools, "you there -- hold these two wires together while I tape them together." By following that guy around and watching over that guy's shoulder, Grampa Hicks taught himself basic electrical wiring. And when the WPA was over, he was able to lie with a straight face to employers that he was a skilled electrician, and that got him his first real job, one his son learned from him, and that I learned from my dad that paid my way through college: electrical sign erector, IBEW local 1.

But never mind how much difference those "pointless" National Guard armories made to my family, there's something even bigger that Grampa Hicks didn't know. We're still using almost every single one of those buildings. I saw an article a while back (citation lost, sorry) by an architecture student who'd gotten curious about what ever happened to all those National Guard armories, so he got some grant money and went on a national tour. And what he found was that in almost every single rural town in America and even in most suburbs, those "ridiculously over-built" armories were the first truly solid building ever built there. And because they were "ridiculously over-built," they're still in use. A few are grocery stores or other businesses. Some are schools or community centers. Most are police stations or city halls. Almost all of them double as emergency shelters for the town during natural disasters. So the student did some math to figure out, using standard construction techniques and assuming standard maintenance costs, and assuming that we would have built something to do those jobs some time between then and now, what it would have cost some of those counties to have done without those buildings. And compared that to what it cost them and their descendants in federal tax money to support the WPA and to pay off its debts. The WPA actually made money on its most "useless" projects.

You can take almost any WPA project from the 1930s that was widely mocked as a pointless waste of money; nearly all of them paid every penny back in long-term savings to the taxpayers, in taxes paid by people who learned their trade on those projects who would have otherwise stayed on the dole, or both. In the 1936 elections, Roosevelt's political enemies handed out campaign buttons mocking the stupidest-sounding idea the WPA ever had. See, in even the smallest towns, the WPA built the first sewage treatment plants those counties ever saw, and laid sewer pipe for them. But lots of Americans still lived in areas too rural for even that. So the WPA paid teams of laborers to ride from farm to farm, shack to shack, shanty to shanty all over America looking for private outhouses that were rickety, or worse were too close to water supplies or food preparation. Those teams were given a standardized design with a water-tight roof, solid construction that would require almost no maintenance for decades, and most importantly: clean concrete floors and toilet hole lids that could close nearly air-tight, plus ventilation stacks that were designed to be insect resistant, in order to reduce both ground-water contamination by and insect-born transmission of fecal bacteria. Many areas turned the WPA down, especially suburbs around cities, and people all over America relentlessly mocked the WPA workers who thought that the US had "nothing better to do" than to waste $17 per rural house building massively over-engineered fancy outhouses. But you know what? Over the course of the 1930s and 1940s, almost every area that turned the WPA down on the outhouse project and other sanitation projects suffered major cholera outbreaks. Areas where the WPA built sewage treatment and sanitary outhouses escaped, saving tens of thousands of children's lives, and probably millions of dollars in hospital costs and lost wages.

Some people were really determined to not even do anything as useful as pretend to dig ditches. So they claimed, when the WPA asked them "what do you do?" to be writers or actors or artists. Some of them were even sincere, and had actually studied those subjects in high school; others just made it up. When asked about it, Harry Hopkins famously shrugged and said, "Why not? Those people have to eat, too." So the government made up make-work programs for them, too, all of which were relentlessly mocked all through the 1930s. You're an actor? Here. You've got no budget for props, sets, costumes, or stage rights for plays. We'll let you use an empty storefront and call it a "theater," especially if you'll bring in some WPA laborers to build a stage and some seats for you. No, wait, you can have some costumes, but not many; we have some households headed by widows who could stand to do some sewing for you at WPA wages. And you can have any public domain script you want. Now, put on plays. We don't care what plays, or how many you do, but you will come in 20 to 30 hours a week and work on them, and put them on when you're done ... including you, Mr. Orson Welles. Whose acting, then directing, careers are still bringing in taxpayer dollars every year; all by himself he's probably paid back the entire cost of the WPA's program for actors.

You say you're a journalist or a historian or a writer? Hmm. Tell you what. During westward expansion, an awful lot of tiny little towns got founded, and the people who founded those towns are getting old; go ask them who founded the town, and why, and what it was like, and write it up as a history of the county. Take all the time you want. Nuts, we're out of tiny little towns, and still have writers left over. Think of something. I know, go interview former slaves; we'll give them some time off from their WPA jobs so you can write down what they say their lives were like. What, we're still overstocked on people who say they're writers? Fine, here, we'll hand 'em to the state tourism boards; we'll send teams of 'em to just walk around every state in the Union, get drunk in the local bars, describe the local sights, and make tourist guides. And, oh, by the way, who knew? That'll turn out to include an entire generation of America's most famous writers, including America's third and fifth ever Nobel prizes for literature. Just the taxes on the movie rights to John Steinbeck's novels have probably paid for that entire program all by itself, and are still paying taxes. Not to mention that we still have all of those books, and most of their notes towards the unfinished books, and guess what? Generations of grad students in history are extremely grateful to the WPA; they wish every generation of Americans had been as well documented.

I don't think you can come up with a single dollar of WPA spending that actually counts as wasted, not a single WPA "make-work" project so pointless and stupid that we didn't get our money's worth out of it, especially if you count all the on-the-job job skills training it gave the 8 or 9 million people who went through the program. And that's even if you don't factor in the analysis of very serious historians who question whether or not American "G.I.s" would have fought so hard or so well to save the world from 1941 to 1945 if they had been as resentful, and as starving, as they were in 1930. But no, the blunt fact of history is that if the truth were ever told about the WPA, if the truth hadn't been being smothered in lies by the same political factions that opposed it at the time all the way up to this very day, everybody would know what the WPA proved as inescapable facts. No dollar of government spending is wasted, if it does a job that nobody else was going to do and it builds something that lasts. Almost nobody is so greedy and lazy that they actually would prefer to be paid to stay home and watch TV or get drunk or stoned all day; there are untold tens of millions of us now that no employer would touch for any of a long list of bad reasons who would rather be working. And no matter how lazy you think they are, boredom is a powerful motivator, and so is a desire not to let down your team, and so is a desire not to look bad in front of others: bring 'em to work, leave 'em alone, and nearly all of them actually will work, will actually build things that are built well, built for the ages, built to last. Paradoxically, the really wasted money is the money that gets spent on government overseers determined to make sure that none of the workers waste any money: point people at jobs, give 'em simple hand tools, and tell them to take their time and build something solid and it's almost impossible for us to not get that money back in long-term savings.

Nor is this even all that "liberal" an idea. Ronald freaking Reagan himself briefly campaigned on it, calling it "Workfare:" if you can't find a job, we'll make you one, whether you like it or not. But he didn't even get sworn in before the same pro-corporate Republicans and right-wing Democrats convinced him to drop it, to instead concentrate on cutting taxes for corporations as his only unemployment-fighting measure. No, there is now, just as there was in Franklin Roosevelt's time, a bipartisan consensus of the elites in this country that the way to put Americans back to work is that taxes must be cut on investors and corporations. We are, apparently, supposed to ignore the last thirty years of history, which teaches us that every tax cut we pass and every subsidy we grant to big corporations will be used to hire robots or to move jobs overseas. No, this time we're supposed to believe it will be different and this time they really will use that money to make more jobs. Trust them on this, they say. And just as in Roosevelt's day, the exact same political coalition of big-corporation Republicans and big-corporation Democrats insist that if that won't do the job fast enough, then what we need are even more public-private partnerships. And ironically, even Barack Obama, who very nearly lost his political career early on because he was caught on the fringes of Tony Rezko's financially corrupt public-private partnership, one that Barack Obama had gotten for him, somehow hasn't learned that it's public-private partnerships and tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, not government make-work programs or benefits for the unemployed, that are the real welfare cheats. Being a Harvard graduate who grew up under the steady drumbeat of pro-corporate propaganda about how evil the WPA was, he's still talking up the need for more public-private partnerships like Harold Ickes' old Public Works Administration.

So I figure the odds at roughly 4 to 1 that he's going to screw up the unemployment situation in America, at the very least doing nothing to help it, and quite possibly making it worse by funding the elimination of yet more American jobs, because that's exactly what the new President and his cabinet officers are talking about doing, lately. Sadly, these are even better odds than we would have had under either Clinton or McCain, neither of whom would have even considered anything but public-private partnerships. Obama will, I think, at least think about it. But I don't think he'll do anything but try to set up another PWA. Which is a damned shame. Because what we really need is another WPA.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Originally posted by [livejournal.com profile] jducoeur at Signal-boost: the Great Migration
I suspect that many of my friends have heard about this by now, but for those who haven't:

The tl;dr is that the Sword of Damocles that has been hanging over LJ for several years is starting to cut. LiveJournal has been owned by a Russian company for some time now; evidence says that they recently moved the servers to Russia. That almost certainly means that the Russian government is going to begin actively listening to everything posted here (if they weren't already); knowing them, it is *extremely* likely that this monitoring will not in any way respect your privacy settings. On top of that, there are indications (not yet confirmed that I've heard) that they've begun actively censoring accounts critical of the Russian government.

[livejournal.com profile] siderea has made several recent posts about this; for more details, see this entry, and this one.

The upshot is that a *lot* of people are finally bailing from LiveJournal to DreamWidth, with various degrees of prejudice ranging from "doing primary posting on DW from here on out" to "deleting all traces of my LJ history". This is *not* paranoid: odds are good that the Russian spooks are going to read not just your new stuff but your history of private posts, so if that matters, you may want to take steps.

(For those who haven't come across it: DreamWidth is essentially an alternate LiveJournal -- one of many, but the best of the lot. It was originally based on the same code, although LJ and DW have begun to go their separate ways over the years. As far as I can tell, it's a deeply wholesome project: open-source, non-profit, non-commercial, supported entirely by memberships. While I don't use it much yet, I've been a paid member there for a long time -- they're good folks.)

Anyway: personally, I'm a bit less het-up about the change -- I've always been cynical about online security, and have been assuming for some years now that LJ was at best marginally more secure than Facebook (that is, not), so I generally don't post sensitive material. And I've been expecting this particular twist for some time now. I haven't decided whether to make the leap to DW-primary yet, although I might do so depending on how things progress.  Don't be surprised if this account becomes secondary, copied from the DW one.

So, putting that together: if you're an LJ user, and don't have one already, I recommend getting a DreamWidth account. If you care about your LJ history, seriously consider backing it up to DW. And if you haven't already friended me over there, I encourage you to do so. (Same account name, as usual.)
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Weirdly mixed Christmas this year. Kes and I were both getting over colds this year, so we didn't make it through a full reading of _A Kes-Mas Carol_ on the Eve. Kes has pointed out, though, that there are 12 days of Christmas, so I still have time in which to get my full dose of Xmas Ham :-)

Loot included: A book of Cerebus covers, a rare Fredric Brown collection, a nifty-looking co-op time-travel board game, and more. Loot I gave seemed well-appreciated, especially the zombie dog toy for Kestrell's Wolluf, and a Squirrel Girl travel mug for Andrea.

Dinner was good. Mostly conversed with the younger Salazars and April. Got to see Andy for the first time in ages, and meet his Anandi; she assures me that she is fun even when she *isn't* hilariously drunk :-)

Helping clean up from dinner, I discovered that the dishwasher is semi-broken. Not enough to take it out entirely, but it's running at reduced capacity, and will need repair.

Woke up this morning with super-scratchy throat, fever, and sniffles. So, rather than trying out new board game, went back to bed :-( Very much hoping I can recover enough to get to the folk-tale event Thursday night.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Alan Moore’s story in Cinema Purgatorio, “After Tombstone”, is pretty complex for the roughly 6 pages it takes to vivisect the gunfight at the OK Corral. I’m no expert on the subject, but I’m a lot closer now than I was a month ago, having spent a lot of time reading Wikipedia and watched the three main movies that Moore seems to be drawing on for this story (in order to annotate). None of these four sources agree with each other about what was really going on. And then, the clearly unreliable narrator of Moore’s story has yet a fifth account.

It seems to me that what Moore is getting at here is not just the now-familiar concept that history is another kind of fiction. Rather, that fiction overwrites history, often repeatedly. History becomes palimpsest, a hologram of all the different versions refracting with each other at once. As Dave Sim once quoted Moore as saying, “All stories are true.”

Of course, as we see in “After Tombstone”, this process of overwriting is an extremely violent one. Corpses are left on the street whenever it happens. In Moore’s eternalist view of the universe, however, being shot full of holes in no way prevents (or allows) those bodies to not continually repeat their roles. Dead (line) or not, the show must go on.

Read more... )
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Last night, I spent more time comforting my psychiatrist than vice versa. But then, I can pass for a member of the dominant classes; she’s a black woman with an Arabic name…

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Alexx Kay

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