Dept. of Unlocked Catalog Memories

My 80s youth was awash with catalog companies. In the absence of the Internet, paper-based distance-shopping was immensely popular! There were tons of these; the most well remembered were firms like The Sharper Image that eventually became a sad mall store, but my old favorite was the DAK catalog — which, somehow, I forgot about entirely until I saw this blog post that’s been sitting in an open tab for six months.

Enjoy!

Joe Stands Alone

Something interesting came up the other day: in conversation elsewhere, I learned that Joe Biden is the ONLY member of his generational cohort (“The Silent Generation,” born between 1928 and 1945) to ever be President, and given the age of that group it’s likely none will follow him.

After Ike, POTUS was always a member of the so-called “Greatest Generation,” born between 1901 and 1927. They fought the war, hence the name. So, after Ike — a member of the prior “Lost” generation, born in 1890 — we had a parade of Greatests for thirty years:

  • JFK, born 1917, took office in 1961, and turned 44 his first year in office
  • LBJ, 1908, 1963, 55
  • Nixon, 1913, 1969,56
  • Ford, 1913, 1974, 61
  • Carter, 1924, 1977, 53
  • Reagan, 1911, 1981, 70 (which was a huge point of discussion at the time)
  • GHWB, 1924, 1989, 65

Then we skipped the Silent folks entirely, and the Boomers took over for nearly another 30 years:

  • Clinton, 1946, 1993, 47
  • GWB, 1946, 2001, 55
  • Obama, 1961, 2009, 47
  • Trump, 1945, 2017, 71

It’s only then that a member of the Silent cohort got elected, in what was really a black-swan electoral event in lots of ways — absent the very specific factors of the 2016 race, it’s easy to imagine a world where no Silent gets elected at all. Instead, Joseph R. Biden, born 1942, was inaugurated in 2021, and turned 79 his first year in office.

It seems clear he’ll remain the only Silent to ever sit in the Oval.

That got me thinking: Why?

Turns out? Numbers. The Silent cohort was comparatively small — especially compared to the groups that came before and after. There are lots of reasons for this, but the biggest ones are probably the Depression and the War depressing birth rates.

Pew suggests the Silent group was “only” about 47M births; compare that to the Boomers at 76M.

All this points me to an uncomfortable realization: my own cohort, GenX, is also a small group sandwiched between two much larger generations (the Boomers and the Millennials). That could lead to the Oval skipping us, too. :(

Oh well.

Books of 2024, #6: Babel by R. F. Kuang

You’d think I’d get tired of hating books the SF critics love, but here we are again.

Babel is a mess. It’s yet another coming-of-age tale in SF, which is something I’m getting really tired of across the board; I mean, is it impossible for authors to imagine something interesting happening to adults? Fine. Whatever. If that was the only thing I disliked, this would be a different post.

The basic argument is that our point of view character (Robin) is a half-Cantonese youth orphaned by a cholera outbreak. Predictably, he’s “rescued” from poverty by an English academic, who adopts him as his “ward” and takes him back to Oxford to join the fictional Translation Institute there.

In the world of Babel, a sort of magic exists based on the user of silver bars engraved with matched-pairs of words in translation. The effect is derived from the tensions and implications inherent in translation. This is clever, but not NEARLY so clever as Kuang clearly thinks it is; one serious shortcoming of the book is an ENDLESS PARADE of footnotes describing this-or-that matched pair. Often, the footnotes are in untranslated Chinese, because I guess why not?

But even this bit of babble isn’t the main problem with the book. Publisher’s Weekly says it better:

Publishers Weekly negatively reviewed the novel, saying, “Kuang underwhelms with a didactic, unsubtle take on dark academia and imperialism.” They explained, the “narrative is frequently interrupted by lectures on why imperialism is bad, not trusting the reader or the plot itself enough to know that this message will be clear from the events as they unfold. Kuang assumes an audience that disagrees with her, and the result keeps readers who are already aware of the evils of racism and empire at arm’s length. The characters, meanwhile, often feel dubiously motivated.”

This is something I’ve joked about before as “Rand’s Disease.” Like lots of bright kids, I read Atlas Shrugged in high school. Ayn Rand’s books are notionally novels, but they’re not REALLY. What they are are long tirades about her philosophy masquerading as fiction. The characters are wooden and poorly fleshed out. Motivations are questionable. Reactions are bizarre. This is what happens when your priority is something other than the novel itself.

Kuang falls prey to this at every turn. Her characters are wooden and shallow. Motivations are sketchy at best. They all feel like sock puppets in a pantomime about the evils of colonialism. I’d say “cut out the endless rants and you’d have something,” except absent the pages and pages of anticolonialism I’m not sure what would be left.

And yet: it won the Nebula. I think SF people just must not care very much about the actual craft of fiction, and consider Big Idea shit to be the higher value, because holy hell this is a problem I run into a LOT when I read an “award-winning” SF text. In Babel’s Nebula year, it beat out the drastically better crafted Nona the Ninth, for example. Reading backward in the list of Nebula winners, I see only 7 genuinely excellent novels in the winner slots since 2020 (Butler’s Parable of the Talents; Gaiman’s American Gods; Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Unions; Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl; Leckie’s Ancillary Justice; Jemisin’s The Stone Sky; Wells’ Network Effect).

Others obviously disagree, but I think my takeaway is that the Nebula isn’t a good indicator for quality for ME. (The Hugo list is marginally better, but there’s other issues there.)

What we talk about when we talk about the Stones

So geriatric oldies act “The Rolling Stones” played here on Sunday. I’ve seen them before, most recently 30 years ago, and candidly it was already a bit hard to swallow 50+ Mick preening about when Clinton was president. At 80, it’s damn near a novelty act — and a gradually sadder and sadder one, given that at this point only Mick and Keith remain of the band that gave us the string of groundbreaking records in the late 60s and early 70s. Wyman has been retired since 1993. Charlie Watts has been dead for two years, which is hard to fathom.

Sure, they have Ron Wood as the “new guy” with half a century behind him, and that’s not NOTHING, but he’s also not on the good material. He joined because Mick Taylor had left, and his exit crippled the band creatively — at least, compared to what they accomplished with him. Taylor was in the band from Let It Bleed (1969) through I’s Only Rock And Roll (1974); that era includes Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. The Stones songs you know are overwhelmingly from 1974 or earlier, with some exceptions, and a GREAT chunk of their best material happened with Taylor on 2nd guitar.

In keeping with that, of the 18 songs they played Sunday, 11 were from 1974 or earlier. The newer tracks include 2 each from 1978’s Some Girls (“Beast of Burden” and “Miss You”) and 1981’s Tattoo You (concert favorite “Start Me Up” — realistically speaking, their only true hit since 1974 — and “Little T&A”).

The Tattoo You tracks are, at this point, 43 years old; they were also the youngest songs played aside from the obligatory sampling of last year’s Hackney Diamonds. Even with the new tracks in the mix, the average song age Sunday is old enough to schedule a colonoscopy. If you drop the 3 youngsters as outliers, the average age shoots up to 53.

Anyway, he’s a review — and setlist — from the other night, written by my pal Andrew. He’s awesome. It’s a fun read, even allowing for my snark about these octogenarians and their nostalgia tour.

Here’s something worth noting

(This whole post h/t to Dorman.)

Louis Gossett, Jr., died today, at the age of 87.

Something interesting about Mr Gossett is that when he won his Oscar for Supporting Actor for An Officer and a Gentleman, he was only the third African-American person to win an acting Oscar of any kind. (Edit: a previous version of this post incorrectly stated he was only the 3rd Black winner of any Oscar at all, and that’s not true; Isaac Hayes won Best Song in 1973.)

Most famously, Hattie MacDaniel won for Supporting Actress in 1939 for Gone With the Wind. A Black person would get a statue again until Sidney Poitier won Actor for Lilies of the Field in 1963 (which was his second nomination in the category; he’d been there in 1958 for The Defiant Ones.

And the next Oscar after that was 19 years later and Mr Gossett.

There’s a lot at the aforementioned link, but your timeline of Actor category wins is:

No. Year Category Actor Film
1 1939 Supporting Actress Hattie McDaniel Gone with the Wind
2 1963 Actor Sidney Poitier Lilies of the Field
3 1982 Supporting Actor Louis Gossett, Jr. An Officer and a Gentleman
4 1989 Supporting Actor Denzel Washington Glory
5 1990 Supporting Actress Whoopie Goldberg Ghost
6 1996 Supporting Actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. Jerry Maguire
7 2001 Actor Denzel Washington Training Day
8 2001 Actress Halle Berry Monster’s Ball
9 2004 Supporting Actor Morgan Freeman Million Dollar Baby
10 2004 Actor Jamie Fox Ray
11 2006 Supporting Actress Jennifer Hudson Dreamgirls
12 2006 Actor Forest Whitaker The Last King of Scotland
13 2009 Supporting Actress Mo’Nique Precious
14 2011 Supporting Actress Octavia Spenser The Help
15 2013 Supporting Actress Lupita Nyong’o 12 Years a Slave
16 2016 Supporting Actress Viola Davis Fences
17 2016 Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali Moonlight
18 2018 Supporting Actress Regina King If Beale Street Could Talk
19 2018 Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali Green Book
20 2020 Supporting Actor Daniel Kaluuya Judas & The Black Messiah
21 2021 Supporting Actress Ariana DeBose West Side Story
22 2021 Actor Will Smith King Richard
23 2023 Supporting Actress Da’Vine Joy Randolph The Holdovers

I don’t watch every year, but I absolutely remember 2001 with crystal clarity. Denzel and Halle, on stage together, was electric.

Additionally, in terms of the biggie awards, Steve McQueen won Picture for 12 Years a Slave. No African American has ever won Director despite nominations by John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood), Lee Daniels (Precious), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Jordan Peele (Get Out), and Spike Lee (BlacKKKlansman).

Voyager is dying.

In 1977, we humans did something audacious. We launched Voyager 1 towards the outer planets, with an idea that maybe we’d get more. It was the second craft, after its sibling Voyager 2, to fly past Jupiter, and was the first to take close-up photos of Jupiter’s moons when it arrived there some 18 months later. By 1980 Saturn was in its sights, where it gave us the first images of Titan and Tethys.

By the end of 1980, it entered what NASA referred to as its “extended mission,” flying ever father from Earth. In 1990, just before its camera shut down forever, its operators pivoted it to take the famous Pale Blue Dot photograph, about which Carl Sagan said:

That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Voyager was built in the 1970s, with the technology available in those years. Over time, the radioactive isotopes it uses for energy have decayed, as they are wont to do, and with that decay came a gradual loss of power. Systems had to be shut down, one after the other, including the aforementioned camera (though one wonders how much of a loss that was; where it is, there is nothing to see).

It left the Solar System 14 years ago, and kept going. They thought we might get a solid 3 years out of it, and yet here we are, four decades later, talking about it.

Voyager 1 is the farthest spacecraft from Earth, and the margin is not close. It is some 15 billion kilometers away now. Radio signals from Earth take some 22 hours to reach it. The reply takes, of course, another 22. That record is unlikely to be broken; as noted here, there are only two others in the race: Voyager 2 and New Horizons, and due to mission parameters both will likely die well before they exceed Voyager’s distance.

Voyager, though, is dying. In December the data stream back from it — data that spent 22 hours in transit — became gibberish. Nobody knows why; it could be a thousand thousand things, but there is no way to fix it. CrookedTimber continues:

Voyager Mission Control used to be a couple of big rooms full of busy people, computers, giant screens. Now it’s a single room in a small office building in the San Gabriel Valley, in between a dog training school and a McDonalds. The Mission Control team is a handful of people, none of them young, several well past retirement age.

And they’re trying to fix the problem. But right now, it doesn’t look good. You can’t just download a new OS from 15 billion kilometers away. They would have to figure out the problem, figure out if a workaround is possible, and then apply it… all with a round-trip time of 45 hours for every communication with a probe that is flying away from us at a million miles a day. They’re trying, but nobody likes their odds.

So at some point — not tomorrow, not next week, but at some point in the next few months — they’ll probably have to admit defeat. And then they’ll declare Voyager 1 officially over, dead and done, the end of a long song.

(See also: It’s Quieter in the Twilight, and excellent documentary from last year about the folks still working on Voyager.)

Of course, even dead Voyager will continue moving, forever, unless it hits something. It’s not pointed towards any star we know, but that could change in a long enough time scale. After billions of years (yes!), our Milky Way galaxy will collide with its neighbor, Andromeda. From this article:

After those 5 billion years, modeling is tricky. That’s when the Milky Way is due to collide with its massive neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy, and things get messy. “The orderly spiral shape will be severely warped, and possibly destroyed entirely,” Oberg said. The Voyagers will be caught up in the merger, with the details difficult to predict so far in advance.

Meanwhile, the vicarious sightseeing continues. Oberg and his colleague calculated that in this 5-billion-year model-friendly period, each of the Voyagers likely visits a star besides our sun within about 150 times the distance between Earth and the sun, or three times the distance between the sun and Pluto at the dwarf planet’s most distant point.

Precisely which star that might be, however, is tricky — it may not even be a star we know today.

“While neither Voyager is likely to get particularly close to any star before the galaxies collide, the craft are likely to at least pass through the outskirts of some [star] system,” Oberg said. “The very strange part is that that actually might be a system that does not yet exist, of a star that has yet to be born.”

Two Star! A forgotten 1990s Fox sitcom…

Image

This is the photo they used for the criminally short-lived Two Star sitcom Fox put together in the early 1990s. They fucked up the scheduling FOUR DISTINCT TIMES, each time putting it opposite absolute juggernauts from the legacy networks (e.g., at one point, CHEERS), and so only 6 episodes aired. More’s the pity, Fox has refused to release it on home video or streaming, so even those six are really only available on grainy dubs from VHS. There are RUMORS of a Halloween special, but even 30 years later no footage has leaked.

KNOWN EPISODES (fall, 1992)

1.01 PILOT: A trio of string musicians busking on a nameless city corner are harassed by the local constabulary, and meet some other targeted musicians en route to court — leading to a supergroup! The only episode to feature the character JERRY onscreen, though he appears as a voice-only role from offscreen occasionally in later episodes. ANTHONY BARILLA guest stars as a musician’s rights activist.

1.02 “Shy One Girl” When DEBRA goes missing under mysterious circumstances, the gang must rescue her or lose their gig playing a live score to Harold Lloyd’s 1924 film “Girl Shy.” Peter Falk cameos, but not “in character” due to rights issues.

1.03 “Two Bass Hit” CHRIS has trouble when his upright bass is wrongfully accused of assault. Clearly the nadir of the (available) episodes, the thin plot’s issues are compounded by a offensively casual treatment of the underlying crime. Rumor has it this script was retooled from a completely different property, but no real details are available. BARILLA appears again, but this time as a prosecutor, which is jarring given that both characters play the accordion.

1.04 “Sins You Been Gone” During a workshop for a new work based on the Seven Deadly Sins, MARGARET discovers her cello can open a portal to hell, but only if out of tune in one specific way. ANDREW SHUE, later of “Melrose Place,” guest stars as an inexplicably upbeat and bumbling Satan obsessed with Beanie Babies.

1.05 “Titus Gone Mad!” Attempting to cram the plot of Titus Andronicus into a 22-minute sitcom proved a worse misstep than episode 3,. Deprived of creative control, the stars were prisoners of their contract and give it a try (though the knowing looks from JOHN and CATHY make it clear they’re not happy), but the resulting mess marks the point when the network started getting cold feet. Ironically, the soundtrack here proved one of the groups’ bigger hits at the time, and has eclipsed the memory of the episode entirely. Paulie Shore guest stars as Titus.

1.06 “Man or Muppet?” After a confusing altercation at an east side diner, KIRK is transformed into a muppet by a disgruntled waitress who dabbles in the occult (Fairuza Balk). The gang seeks reconciliation with her coven, but KIRK isn’t entirely UNHAPPY as a thinly-veiled analog of Henson’s Animal.

Man, what I wouldn’t give for a print of the Halloween, variety-show-style special!

The least surprising words in this article are “Caswell” and “Dallas”

A Dallas-based restaurant group is opening a “female-forward” joint called Postcript over in River Oaks. It’s very, uh, pink.

However, there’s something a bit odd about the management of this joint:

PostScript has been touted by its Dallas-based hospitality group GAP Concepts as “female-forward,” which the restaurant is demonstrating by boasting a very pink interior, paintings of butterflies, a see-and-be-seen area called the “Princess Table” and a button that summons champagne to a guest’s table.

With that in mind, GAP Concepts is led by Veeral Rathod and Obi Ibeto, both men. They tapped two men—noted Houston chefs Bryan Caswell and JD Woodward—to run the kitchen. Jeb Stuart, also a man and the former general manager of Coltivare, is overseeing the wine program, and fellow men Mike Sauceda and Steven Ripley will serve as bar manager and general manager, respectively.

Huh.

The point, just to bring it home, is this is a restaurant designed for women with a very male leadership team. When asked about this, a representative for PostScript said the restaurant “has a well-balanced team across all positions with diverse talents. Right now, they are actively building up the senior leadership, specifically seeking awesome female perspectives.”

Uh-huh. Just not, apparently, in any of the actual leadership roles.

“Joy will in time find you.”

Nick Cave is perhaps the pinnacle of the “if you know, you know” artist. He’s kind of been quietly there now for decades, producing a staggering amount of material; his creativity and work ethic are remarkable. If he’s new to you, the most likely times you’ve heard his music are perhaps this sequence in one of the final Potter films (“O Children”, from the 2004 double album Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus), or, in a very different vein, at the end of the long tracking shot sequence from the first season of True Detective (“Honeybee Let’s Fly To Mars,” from his side group Grinderman).

Cave started out as a loud, post-punk rock and roller — not for nothing is he considered something of a godfather to goth — but as time passed, his material became a bit more contemplative. He wrote prose and screenplays and film scores, branching out in a way that honestly middle aged musicians quite often do not. In 1999, he married the former Susie Bick, a fashion designer and model whom you’ve doubtless seen in record stores, since it’s her on the cover of The Damned album Phantasmagoria, from 1985. (Later, she’d appear on the cover of Cave’s own record Push the Sky Away.)

All of this is context.

A year after they married, Susie and Nick had a pair of twins, Arthur and Earl. Nick also had a son from a previous relationship, Jethro, born in 1991.

Eight years ago this July, Arthur Cave fell from a cliff near Brighton, in England, where they lived. Grief for Arthur is the through-line on the two most recent albums from Cave and his band, the Bad Seeds: 2016’s Skeleton Tree, already in progress when he died, and the 2019 followup Ghosteen. Both are achingly beautiful, searing portraits of grief, loss, and hope, with a depth and power that always leaves me complete stunned. They are the work of musicians at the height of their powers, inspired by a profound and elemental human state.

This is still context.

Cave has run, since 2018, a site called The Red Hand Files. People write in; Cave responds publicly.

Earlier this month, someone wrote in:

Not a question at all.

On Sat the 30 December my beautiful 16yo son Murray took his own life. He was contacted online by what he believed was a girl he knew. He was extorted and then panicked, hanging himself. He was a wonderful guy who drew beautifully, played guitar and was a straight A student. He was private person and hated being the centre of attention. His world would have crashed around him at the thought of sexual pictures with his peer group. Our hearts are broken, literally agony.

The song we have chosen for the reflection piece at his funeral on Friday in the Cathedral is Distant Sky. In that space it should sound magnificent. I certainly hope so.

In writing this it helps to feel the reality of where we are as a family. We will keep going but fuck me it’s hard.

MARK, SCOTLAND

Cave’s response is beautiful and perfect, and it closes with words I wish anyone struggling with grief would carry with them. You should go read the whole thing, but those closing words are:

Be kind and patient and gentle and merciful with one another. Stay close. Hold firm. Forgive. Grief prepares the way. Joy will in time find you. It is searching for you, in the impossible darkness, even now.

Love, Nick

Well, this is kind of fun

Four years ago today, I shared this news story on Facebook with the comment “Isn’t this how Contagion started?”

We had no idea. It begins:

A never-before-seen virus that sparked an outbreak of viral pneumonia in the Chinese city of Wuhan has now killed one person and spread to Thailand via a sick traveler.

On Saturday, January 11, officials in Wuhan reported that a 61-year-old man died January 9. Testing indicated he was carrying the virus, which researchers have confirmed is a novel strain of coronavirus.

Gore-Tex is Meaningless

I think it’s common knowledge now — or SHOULD BE — that Pyrex hasn’t been Pyrex in a long time. The old promise of Pyrex — that you could take it from the stovetop to the freezer without fear of thermal shock — was abandoned when Corning sold the brand in 1998. One must go elsewhere for actual borosilicate glass (which is what made the Pyrex of old Pyrex).

BUT! Here comes a new let-down. Outdoorsy folks the world over trust something called GoreTex, but the truth of the matter is this: Gore-Tex isn’t Gore-Tex anymore, either, because the OG version of Gore-Tex had Teflon in it, and Teflon isn’t something you really want to be selling in the 21st century.

Instead, the “Gore-Tex” you buy today is probably exactly the same breathable, waterproof membrane that Gore’s competitors were using before Gore’s patent ran out 25 years ago. Gore-Tex only maintains its market position because, candidly, Gore is super vindictive and protective of their now-meaningless brand, and punishes outerwear makers who stray too far from the light.

Canadian motorcycle retailer Fortnine covers this (as relates to moto jackets but it cross-applies to any other kind of jacket) in this video, which is pretty fascinating and worth your time. (10 minutes, but it works fine at 1.5x.)