Thursday, February 24, 2011

So You're Operating a Front: Helpful Tips

photo altered to obscure phone number*

Curtains in the window? Not recommended. If you want to pretend you're selling tropical fish, you might want to consider an aquarium in the window—maybe even with tropical fish in it? At least put some photographs up, something passersby can look at. Specifically preventing them from looking in, having your window display essentially be a window disguise, risks arousing suspicion: the opposite of your goal.

The name, too, is important. Let's say your tropical-fish store is a front for a drug-smuggling business, or a brothel—whatever your thing is, doesn't matter. The problem with a name like "Koran" is that it in post-9/11 America there's this suspicion of Muslims that turns anything that sounds like a reference to Islam into kind of a red flag—again, the opposite of our goal. So a curtained establishment with a big, red "KORAN" sign is not exactly flying under the radar, even if you do put the words "TROPICAL FISH" up there, too.

On the other hand, if this is in fact the headquarters for a terrorist cell, then you score points both for boldness and possibly even for a kind of double fake-out, the "so obvious it can't possibly be so" gambit. So:


* ...because I am kidding. (Is this joke OK? I DON'T KNOW.)

terra incognita-nada*

Google has a web browser, and their web browser has an "Incognito" mode, and when you open a new Incognito window, a warning comes up. The first three items on the list are pretty unremarkable, but after that it gets pretty amazing pretty fast:

(click to enlarge if you can't read it, Granny)

I know Google's international and has had issues with totalitarian censorship of one form or another, so the thing about secret agents actually does make sense (although it rings crazy† here). But "People standing behind you"—that's got to be a joke, right? Either way, I like it.

* Clever wordplay from song lyrics I wrote in 1995 or 1996, when I was an idiot.
† I like "rings crazy."

Monday, February 21, 2011

irony is not a mustache

(quasicounterillustration via)

Morality is a kind of irony.

This is a thought that occurred to me the other day when thinking about whether it's true (as I feel it is) that a "healthy sense of irony" is indispensable: I jumped from, "Yes, because it's a prerequisite for true moral thought," to a full-on equation of the two things, morality and irony.

Now, this was partly a kind of intellectual game I was getting off on, but I also think there's truth to it. Irony, in its purest sense (or at least its original, literary sense, having to with dissembling*), is the saying of one thing while meaning another—or, maybe to get more to the heart of it, the existence of a level of understanding separate from the most literal. Isn't morality ironic in the sense that you're looking at an action or a situation and thinking about more than just the facts of it, that you're thinking about a meaning, a sense, separate from what you might (in the analogy I'm trying to make) call its "literal meaning"?

When teaching English, I felt I should be able to define poetry, and what I decided was that poetry is defined by—powered by—an almost somehow magical distance (sometimes awesomely huge, sometimes stunning small) between the words being said and their meaning: poetry means something more than what it is most literally saying. So poetry, too, sort of hinges on irony. I want to be totally clear here that I'm not talking about hipster irony or the "cool" irony of post-Gen X advertisements: I'm talking about irony as a sense that can be reproduced or caricatured as a tool or trick but that is actually a human capacity, the ability to think about things beyond the surface, to see a space between the signifier and the signified.

Another example: are things beautiful? Can a woman be beautiful to me in a way that means anything more than the facts of a chemical response in my brain, of instincts and cultural influences, of genes and psychology? Can her beauty have any sense beyond the most basic situation of one organism responding a certain way to another organism? If so, isn't it so in the same way, in which we're able to see a meaning beyond the most literal? In this sense, isn't love, too, a kind of irony?

I'm referring to a human ability to see the difference between the statistics and the story. It's stereo, it's binocular vision: the ability to perceive depth. Two ears, two eyes, and—most importantly of all—two perceptions of the same reality, superimposed over each other, with the resulting ability to process these perceptions, bring them into focus, and transform them into a morally three-dimensional picture. Without irony, we have no depth perception.

Or, I don't know, maybe that's all a load of crap.

(a load of crap, via)

* Not to be confused with Number Five's dreaded disassembling.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Appreciation Fest: Harper's [UPDATED]

Totally, ridiculously unrelated. (via)

[Full disclosure: I'm friends with someone involved in the production of Harper's magazine. However, I was friends with this person—and this person was so involved—for years before the feelings I'm about to express kicked in, which actually happened just a few issues ago. Oh, and I also once did a few days' work for (and got drunk in the presence of) Lewis Lapham, but he was at Lapham's Quarterly already by then, sharing an office with The Nation, and I'd be (pleasantly) startled if he had any idea who I am.]

Harper's is a magazine I thought I liked and wanted to like. I got a subscription in 2004 or so, around the same time that I got my subscription to The New York Review of Books—which, when my father recommended it to the relatively politically liberal son of a quite politically conservative family friend, the quite politically conservative family friend made me laugh by saying, "Oh, good. Why don't you just tell him to subscribe to Pravda?"—and neither magazine lived up to my expectations. Both were intelligent and often occasionally very interesting; both, in the end, would tend to wind up in recycling with very few pages actually read.

Boring. They were boring.

But Harper's I picked up again a little while ago, and somehow it's gotten really good. I know there was a big shake-up over there, and in no way do I mean to suggest (nor do I believe) that boring people left: on the contrary, my (uninformed) guess is that the shake-up was profound enough that it just freed the editors and contributors up to try new things in a way that would have been less permissible (and maybe even just actually a bad idea) back when things were running more smoothly. Again, this is me talking out of my ass (and has nothing to do with anything I've heard from my friend over there, see bracketed and italicized "disclosure" above). What I do know is that suddenly I'm not just reading the "findings" and 50–75% of the "readings," skimming the "index," and flipping through the articles to see whether there are any I'm willing to plow through, anymore; now I'm reading the whole damned magazine because it's damned interesting.

So my message to anyone out there who, like me, used to think, "I like Harper's in theory but don't really want to read it," allow me to share the good news: Harper's has gotten awesome. Indeed it's gotten better even than what I used to expect from it because it's funny now. Actually, I'll put it this way: if you like Alt85 at all, you'll probably like Harper's even better.

You know you love me!
Gossip Girl


^ Remember when people used to do shit like this, like in e-mails or old-school web sites? If you don't, you should probably see a neurologist because that was like 10 years ago. Unless you're a teenager, in which case scram, get off my lawn. Damn kids.

Here are a few random things from the second-to-last issue of Harper's that I copied down because I liked them and wanted to share them as examples of interesting shit those motherfuckers publish:
Houellebecq said: "The question whether love still exists plays the same role in my novels as the question of God's existence in Dostoevsky."
What?? Amazing! I thought Platform was great and fucking hated The Elementary Particles, but this quotation might push my Houellebecq tolerance back into the black. P.S. I want my novels to address that question, too!

From the "findings":
Studies of cell-phone records revealed that college-age women call their fathers half as often and talk for only half as long when they are ovulating.* The researchers said that this may help avoid inbreeding.

The excessive cleanliness of modern life may encourage depression by killing off beneficial bacteria.

Neurotic newlyweds who have sex frequently as are happy as non-neurotic couples.

Particle physicists were optimistic about the possibility of creating something out of nothing, because nothing is actually something.
Amazing! And the current issue, which I was just reading in the bath† and have read every amazing word of up to page 19 so far, has juxtaposed a sampling of questions from the All Souls College examinations ("described as the hardest exam in the world") and a sampling of questions from the senator-shooting lunatic Jared Loughner's online message-board personality; either on its own would be amazing, but putting the two next to each other adds a whole other level of meaning. Here are a few of the All Souls College questions (which I sort of want to answer):
Is dark energy more interesting than dark matter?
What do extremes in dress and personal adornment signify?
Are universal human rights a form of cultural imperialism?
What can we learn from Las Vegas?‡
Is "women's writing" a distinct category?
What difference should it make to feminism whether gender differences are natural or socially constructed?
How many people should there be?
Is nothing sacred?
And here are two of Jared Loughner's questions:
Would you put a child's pair of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles underwear on your girlfriend?
Why Rape!!!!
Anyway, clearly I don't have too much of a point to make and already made it a long while ago: I like this magazine. Please note that it has changed, and it is awesome.

[UPDATE: OK, so I actually did end up skimming or skipping one or two things in the latest (Mar. 2011) issue, but that's all made up for by a few amazing "findings"—e.g., "The sexual arousal of men is dampened by sniffing the tears of a woman"—and by the footnote explaining that "effin' b" (which someone is quoted as saying) means "Fucking bitch," a beautifully responsible–mischievous clarification that of course I love, q.v., q.v.]


* Just realized that I feel about ovulating roughly the same way I used to feel about periods when I was a kid (q.v.); the more things change, the more they stay the ridiculous same.
† I felt like the tweet there (that I linked to in the word bath) came out a little wrong: should have had an or in there, maybe, to avoid the possible ambiguity or misunderstanding that all conditions, rather than any, needed to be met before taking a bath. Ruins the joke, sort of, no?
‡ Sort of did try to answer this one once, incoherently.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


This sign looks like it's suggesting some sort of progression—maybe a variation on Benjamin Button syndrome or a prediction of the course of future human evolution (a super slowed-down 2001 kind of a thing?). Either that, or it's trying to supplant this easy-to-understand diagram:

Humanity in a nutshell, for aliens—seriously: the idea is that aliens
would be able to make sense of this. I can't make sense of it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The problem with this ad is it isn't specific enough.

"Fuck this ad" isn't quite right. Maybe I need a new label: "Let's have a little fun at this ad's expense"?

My big question is: whom is this ad addressing? Particularly when it starts off which such a confrontational rhetorical question as "Are you kidding yourself?" it's hard for me not to raise an eyebrow at that opening factual claim: "You're the same age as your dad when he had a heart attack." They're really spinning the roulette wheel on this one, aren't they?

Percentage of readers whose fathers have died of heart attacks, percentage of those people who happen to be the same age as their fathers were when they died (or even within a few years of that age)—I don't have the figures and have no intention of looking them up, but this is a pretty small target audience, isn't it? Oh: and percentage of these people whose fathers' heart attacks were not only definitely related to cholesterol but were also pretty clearly the result of the fathers' not having done enough to lower their high cholesterol.* (Sort of accusatory about these peoples' dads, isn't it? Jesus, have a little respect for the dead.)

I'd like it better if this ad were like,
You're the same age as your dad when he had a heart attack. Like him, you still haven't lowered your high cholesterol enough. You're wearing the same hooded sweatshirt he was wearing when he died and standing in front of his old pick-up truck that you inherited from him, right in his driveway. Which is where he died. Seriously, what's wrong with you? Do you want to die? Is that what's going on? Don't give us that look! You're no better than your damnfool old man! You're dead! Do you hear us? DEAD!

Ask your doctor about Lipitor.

* Their low cholesterol levels were A-OK, though, so at least there was that.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sketch 101: Jaws

[Here's my favorite of the sketches I wrote in a UCB sketch-writing class* in 2010. It's just the wrong combination of too high budget and non-topical (not to mention the fact that I bet someone's already made more or less the same joke—don't have the heart to Google it), but I liked it and figured I'd throw it up on here. Alt85: where you get to root through my garbage.™ Please forgive the incorrect script formatting. Or, rather, please blame Blogger. Alt85: please blame Blogger.™]

Clips from Jaws—mainly just ominous underwater shots—with voice-over.

NARRATOR: In 1975, Steven Spielberg changed cinema forever with his terrifying masterpiece, Jaws. Now, 35 years later, Jaws is back—and better than ever!

Steven Spielberg addresses the camera.

SPIELBERG: Of course George set the stage for this by showing the world that it's totally OK to go back and fix what was wrong with a film, take out what was bad—like in Star Wars, when he went back and made Greedo shoot first: otherwise Han Solo would practically be a murderer! And then I went back and replaced the guns in E.T. with walkie-talkies—I mean, this is supposed to be for kids, right? What was I thinking? So, anyway, now we've gone back and made Jaws the film it always should have been.


Again, a clip from the movie. Little Alex Kintner is on his raft in the water. From below, the shark approaches.

SPIELBERG (V.O.): One thing that always bugged me was of course the death of Alex Kintner. It’s just unnecessary, you know? So we made some changes.

Swimmers rush out of the water, screaming; parents and children are reunited on the beach. Mrs. Kintner looks around desperately for her son.

MRS. KINTNER: Alex? Alex?!

She sees the torn, bloody raft washing up against the shore. But then... A SWELL OF TRIUMPHANT MUSIC. Alex (now played by Michael Cera) stumbles up onto the beach, limping slightly but looking strong, proud, and triumphant.

MRS. KINTNER (CONT'D): Alex! You're alive!

ALEX: You bet I am, Mom. And I got a souvenir.

He holds up a bloody shark's tooth.


Mrs. Kintner, dressed in black, addresses Chief Brody. Periodically her speech is very obviously altered with new dialogue spoken by a different actress.

MRS. KINTNER: I just found out that a girl got—

WOMAN (V.O.): —scared—

MRS. KINTNER: —here last week, and you knew it! You knew there was a shark out here! You knew it was—

WOMAN (V.O.): —scary!

MRS. KINTNER But you let people go swimming anyway! You knew all those things! But still my boy is—

WOMAN (V.O.): —very tired—

MRS. KINTNER: —now. And there's nothing you can do about it. My boy is—

WOMAN (V.O.): —all worn out from the adventure he had.

MRS. KINTNER; I wanted you to know that.

She walks away.

MAYOR VAUGHN: I'm sorry, Martin. She's wrong.

CHIEF BRODY (soberly): No, she's not.


Quint is screaming in the shark's mouth as Brody watches in horror.

SPIELBERG (V.O.): Then of course there was that unfortunate scene with Quint. Very disturbing for a young child, and not what anyone wanted to see. People love Quint! So we fixed that up.

Quint is dragged into the water, but then immediately a blue, glowing Quint (now played by John C. Reilly) floats out of the water, rising up toward the heavens.

GHOST OF QUINT: At last, I'm free! And it's so beautiful!

Reaction shot of Brody (temporarily played by Fred Armisen) wiping away a tear.

CHIEF BRODY: Go get 'em, Quint.


Brody is up on the mast with the rifle, aiming it at the shark, who's approaching fast.

SPIELBERG (V.O.): And finally we fixed the ending.

CHIEF BRODY: Smile, you son of a—

There is a GUNSHOT from the direction of the shark, Brody dodges, wood on the mast splinters, and then Brody fires. The shark explodes.

SPIELBERG (V.O.): Now the shark shoots first. So at last the movie is perfect, the way I would have made it in 1975 if I could have.


Spielberg smiles.

SPIELBERG: You're welcome.



* Taught by the very funny Dominic Dierkes.

Monday, February 7, 2011

parenthood [UPDATE]

To be honest, I didn't get Modern Family, at first. People I respected said it was hilarious, and I trusted them enough to figure it was possible I'd get into it if I gave it another chance (and I did: I think it might have been the Valentine's Day episode that conclusively won me over, and now I think the show's just great), but before that happened, I saw this scene and just loved it—in fact it may still be my favorite-ever Modern Family moment:

[UPDATE: Looks like the link might be dead, here. If not, enjoy! But if so, know that it's the scene in which Phil, Haley, and Alex are all crying in the car.]

Thursday, February 3, 2011

thoughts about porn


A friend directed me to this interesting article about the effect porn has on men and, more specifically, on the sex they have. Lots of thought-provoking, sometimes troubling shit in this article.

I think that porn surely can shape men's sexual expectations in a fucked-up way (particularly if they're fucked up already, which probably a [slim] majority of all human beings of both sexes totally are), and the scariest part of the article, for me, because it made a lot of sense, was this piece:
...scientists speculate that a dopamine-oxytocin combo is released in the brain during orgasm, acting as a "biochemical love potion," as behavioral therapist Andrea Kuszewski calls it. It's the reason after having sex with someone, you're probably more inclined to form an emotional attachment. But you don't have to actually have sex in order to get those neurotransmitters firing. When you watch porn, "you're bonding with it," Kuszewski says.
Falling in love with the Internet is a terrifying prospect, as in fact I kind of discussed in a very early Alt85 post, here—and indeed there are all sorts of ways in which porn, particularly some pretty nasty porn that I know exists out there, is a little creepy, to say the outrageously mild least. That said, I'm going to spend the rest of this post in a devil's-advocate role, focusing on the porno-positives (or at least not-as-negatives).

Some thoughts:
  • "concerns about delayed ejaculation" – I have a little bit of a problem with an article mentioning this without also at least noting in passing that a lot of men are very concerned with the opposite problem. Delayed ejaculation isn't necessarily a terrible thing—and on (believe it or not) a philosophical and in a certain sense even ethical level, I feel like the problem with premature ejaculation is (relevantly to the issue at hand) that there's some value in getting off on not the mere fact of sexual contact, but sexual contact that actually gets you off—and also, importantly, some value in learning to be gotten off by more than the mere fact of sexual contact. This is a little bit like what Ferris Bueller says about worrying that Cameron "is gonna marry the first girl he lays, and she's gonna treat him like shit...'cause you can't respect somebody who kisses your ass." In other words, not being an automatic ejaculation machine but having to work at it isn't clearly a problem in my mind.*
  • "switching gears from porn's fireworks and whiz-bangs to the comparatively mundane calm of ordinary sex" – With the above in mind, I'll note, too, that one thing I wonder when reading this article is whether it isn't just true that some sex isn't all that great (that part isn't what I'm wondering because it's just definitely 100% true and not up for serious debate) and that porn, or anyway some porn, is just showing a kind of exciting sex that makes people realize how not exciting the sex they're having actually is. [Not all babies are cute. Not all sex is amazing.] And since I'm not an ignorance-is-bliss kind of guy, part of me is inclined to think that learning the difference between that which really turns you on and that which merely is sexual—like going from literal starvation to a place where your needs are being met so that you can start thinking about which pizza is the best pizza in town—cannot be an entirely bad thing, even if it does highlight some holes [bad word choice! gonna leave it!] in your sex life. Especially since not everybody actually likes sex as much as society insists that everybody does, is it really such a self-evidently terrible thing if people start to realize, "OK, so 'best sex ever' just happens not to be one of the items on the list of why we like each other and want to be together"? If it's a dealbreaker, it's a dealbreaker, and if it isn't, it isn't, but it is so.
  • Fuck novelty. I'm starting a new bullet just to break it up, but really continuing on the same point: yes, when you have sex for the first time, or for the first time in a while, or when you have sex with a new person for the first time, there can be a novelty involved ("Hey, look what you and I are doing!") that wears off eventually. And it should wear off! And if the novelty turns out to have been the only good thing about the sex, well, then, the sex wasn't that great. Does the sex have to be great? I honestly don't know; I wonder about that sometimes. But I do know that if a relationship is founded on a lie, that's a problem: if the sex you're having isn't all that exciting, pretending it is doesn't do anybody any good. And if porn makes you realize that it isn't, I'm not sure I'm ready to file that away under "things about porn that are bad for you."
Again, I'm playing devil's advocate, here. Obviously the idea that porn just shows people good sex is highly debatable. That that is in some cases true, I will argue vehemently; that it's always true or true even in a majority of cases, I wouldn't even begin to suggest. But I'm really only talking about those some cases, here, cases in which porn isn't creating fantasies for people but just showing them something legitimately great that they hadn't realized was out there. (I might in fact be inclined to argue that these some cases are the only cases that healthy, not-misogynistic men are likely to be into, but that's very dangerous territory—partly because I'm increasingly under the opinion that I'm a freakish anomaly in my sexual attitudes—so I'll limit myself only to saying that the men in the article who say they think of themselves as having date nights with Sasha Grey or who actually say shit like, "I love when Kasey [Kox] is fully clothed and smiling at me from her bed" [emphasis mine] are dingbats and cuckoo-birds.)


Best two parts of the article:
  • "I was with a girl who seemed to be in an arms race with porn... She had this imaginary Soviet Union she kept trying to out-fuck." Yes. "Women are turning up the dial" and maybe trying to keep up with porn. Women, please don't do this. Do not act. If you're enjoying it, be as vocal as want—vocal can be great, but only if it's your thing. Don't do some porn star's thing. Do your thing. [I think there's only so far you can blame porn for this: there will always be things out there that make people insecure—is imitating the way a porn star has sex inherently different or worse than imitating the way a regular actress flirts?—and the important part maybe isn't removing the cause for insecurity but overcoming the insecurity (and maybe removing assholes from your life, if you're actually getting pressure to be someone other than who you are).]
  • The Ghostbusters metaphor! Actually, I have nothing to say about it because the point it's making is exactly the same point the "Soviet Union" comment is making (and my commentary would be merely to reiterate that "acting like a porn queen" makes sense if and only if porn queens are essentially doing an impression of what you're actually naturally sort of like)—I just really liked the metaphor.† [NOTE: Someone once angrily told me, when we broke up, that she had faked every orgasm. And I was like, "Um...yeah, I know. That was my least favorite part about sex with you!" (I didn't say that out loud. I'm not a total asshole.) She was fake-orgasming; I was fake-believing. Ladies, please don't fake. I know it's well meaning—I saw a great explanation/apology for it on Parenthood—but it's a mistake, and it's distancing, and it ruins sex. If you don't come, you don't come. Nobody expects you to be what you aren't—or at least no one you should be going to bed with does.]
In conclusion, porn is probably fucked up, but what matters in the end—as with alcohol—isn't the thing itself, or even its consumption, but rather who consumes it how and why.

Filth. (via)

* I might even go so far as to say that, in a world in which sex isn't only about the launching of sperm toward an egg, I'm not sure why men actually have to come every time they have sex—but that's a side note and not actually the point I'm making.

† Including it here in case the link dies / so you don't have to click it:
"Remember Ghostbusters? How in love Bill Murray was with Dana, the Sigourney Weaver character? [NOTE: I'd say "excited about," not "in love with," but that's not so important.] He feels lucky to even get her to agree to a date with him [NOTE: "excited about getting" more than "lucky to even get," but whatever, moving on], but then when he shows up at her door, she's possessed by demons, floating four feet above her bed, begging him to fuck her brains out. And he's completely rattled by it and can't get out of there fast enough. [NOTE: Wrong, but close enough.] Well, that's what it's like when your girlfriend suddenly starts acting like a porn queen. You're like, 'Baby, where'd you go? I just want my girlfriend back.'"