The Fun We Had

I’ve been thrust into social distancing, working from home, etc. I consider myself lucky because my wife was recently relieved of caring for her aunt, and so has moved back in with me. So I’m not completely alone. Still I miss the little conversations I had with coworkers during the day. Oh yeah, so far I still have a job. So, I’m really lucky.

My mind soon turned to some science fiction I had read as a child. It always does. One was a mystery about a murder in a future society where Spacers, on colonized planets like Solaria, dislike seeing each other face-to-face, instead preferring viewing each other on holographic screens. Hardcore SciFi fans probably remember The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov. I had to do a little digging. I remembered the name R Daneel Olivaw, which led me to all the rest. The R meant that Olivaw was a humanoid robot, but the detective was a human, named Elijah (Lije) Baley. They had previously worked together in The Caves of Steel, which my mother and I both read. These two novels are now considered part of Asimov’s Robot series, beginning with the short stories in I, Robot, and hew to his Three Laws of Robotics.

So these spacers – living far apart on low population planets – hated and avoided being in each other’s presence, making grudging exceptions for procreation, and even more grudging exceptions for being interviewed by Lije Baley. Conversely, they had little modesty while being viewed holographically, which seems unsurprising in the age of selfies and dick pics, but made for spicy reading material in 1956. Spacers were also not averse to being around robots – in a later book, one woman considered herself married to a robot. I guess we aren’t at that stage, though I have seen reports of guys who are very attached to their adult sex dolls, like Julietta and Saori. Man, how did I get there?

The other story I thought of also turned out to be by Asimov, his 1951 short story, The Fun They Had. You can read it from an instructional PDF, with a series of questions afterwards. Essentially a young girl of the future is surprised to learn that students used to gather in schools led by human teachers, instead of learning at home from machines.

The Fun They Had strikes home more than ever, as I am currently designing buildings for colleges and universities, most of which have sent their students home, and are rapidly implementing distance-learning for the time being. One of our core beliefs in campus planning, architecture and other services, is that students learn a great deal from residential life as well as from the academic curriculum that we usually see as the goal of education. I suppose I did, though I didn’t know it at the time. So while I suppose there may something to be learned from distance-learning as well, especially if that becomes the norm in business, I can’t quite imagine colleges churning out students that view each other, but rarely ever see each other.

On Friday afternoon, many of my coworkers logged in for social gathering via the Go-To-Meeting app. It was fun. Some had pets in their laps. Several of us were drinking beer and wine. We said goodbye to two employees leaving for other opportunities, one of whom was drinking tequila. We ended up wearing funny hats, which had nothing to do with drinking, of course. But again, I do still miss the small interactions when I am simply walking around and asking someone how it is going. I suspect that will be true for college students as well, when all contact is intentional rather than incidental.

Hey, Venus

I started to write this piece quite a while ago, but got distracted. I was reminded of it while chatting with a coworker who is a big time Star Wars and scifi fan.

Having gotten tired of insanely high cable tv bills, I cut back to internet-only several years ago. But I did have an apartment-style antenna, which pulls in broadcast stations like Comet TV for free. Comet shows all sorts of low-budget sci-fi, fantasy and horror films, many of which I have blogged about here already. A year or so ago, I happened across a 1960 spacefaring film called First Spaceship to Venus (FSTV).

FSTV’s plot was that an artifact found within an asteroid implied belligerent intentions on the part of intelligent beings on Venus. Earth’s scientists organize a truly international crew – African, American, Chinese, French, German, Indian, Japanese and Russian – to investigate. This diverse crew predated Uhura, Sulu and Chekov on Star Trek by five years. Unfortunately I fell asleep halfway through and woke up towards the end. But I was intrigued.

Some research revealed that the film’s original German title translated to The Silent Star, and was based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, The Astronauts, or Astronauci. Lem wrote on the other side of the iron curtain, which explains why I had never heard of him during my peak sci fi reading years. Lem is famous for Solaris, which spawned three movies, but many of his other works are still difficult to find translated from Polish to English.

I also found that the East German and Polish co-production of The Silent Star (SS) had been heavily edited for American audiences. Crew nationalities were changed and all references to the US atomic bombing of Japan had been removed. That sort of piqued my curiosity. Amazon was no help, but DEFA, an East German film club at U Mass Amherst, offered a DVD in the original German with English subtitles. https://ecommerce.umass.edu/defa/

I stayed awake this time, and found that SS was a very solid space opera with an antiwar, antinuke message. It wasn’t as flashy as Forbidden Planet, but comparable in quality to The Angry Red Planet.

Sometime later Comet showed Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, from 1968. Even the title sounded cheesy, but I watched it. Scenes of a serious space voyage to Venus were interspersed with scenes of Mamie van Doren and other pretty blonde women lounging on a seaside wearing tight white slacks and clamshells over their breasts. These native Venusians were supposedly mentally monitoring and challenging the male intruders, but they never actually came into contact with each other.

I had to look this one up, and found that one of Peter Bogdanovich’s first jobs was to remake the 1962 Soviet film, Planeta Bur, or Planet of Storms, into something they could show at American drive-in theatres. So Peter airbrushed out the Soviet logos, and inserted all the blondes. Amazon did have Planet of Storms, in Russian with English subtitles in a bundle with two other Soviet films, A Dream Come True and The Sky Calls. All of these arrived just in time for my Christmas vacation, so my wife got to watch them, too. Wasn’t she happy!

Planeta Bur was a very solid space flick, again, not too different in tone from The Angry Red Planet. It was interesting in that the crew’s robot saved crew member’s lives, but was ultimately unwilling to sacrifice itself to save them again. The Sky Calls was about a race between a government ship and a corporate ship to be the first to get to Mars. The corporates are in the lead, but falter, and the crew is saved when the cosmonauts do the right thing and rescue the corporates instead of going for the glory. 1963’s A Dream Come True (Mechte Navstrechu) involves cosmonauts going to rescue aliens from another system stranded on Mars.

At the time I would have seen these cosmonauts as the Enemy, but after all this time I could see that they mostly had the same hopes and dreams for technology and the future that we did in the US.

Tonto & Flike

I added the 1952 film, Umberto D, to my Youtube TV watch list months ago, and finally watched it last weekend, commercial-free thanks to TCM. The title character was a retired public servant trying to maintain a precarious life for himself and his little dog, Flike, as the lire in his fixed pension were rapidly devaluing. Afterwards I tweeted, “Boy, things haven’t changed much.”

The film is in Italian with subtitles, and I didn’t realize that neorealist director Vittorio de Sica regularly cast non-actors in all the roles until reading reviews. Reportedly de Sica searched for months to find just the right man to play the lead.

A few days later, TCM was showing 1973’s Harry and Tonto, which I had seen years ago. But this time, the opening scenes of an old man living with and talking to his cat, Tonto, couldn’t help but remind me of my own father who lived with and talked to his white cat, Mu. The cat lived a very long life, but passed away several years ago. My Dad followed him a year or so later.

Mazursky and Greenfeld wrote a fantastically touching road movie, but even though he was evicted from his apartment, retired teacher and widower Harry was wealthy and successful compared to Umberto. Even though 1973 was the beginning of a period of stagflation, Harry (Art Carney) had benefited enough from the post-FDR period of prosperity that he could travel across the country, buy a used car and eventually loan one thousand dollars to his son struggling in LA.

Yet, if they made a similar film today, I suspect it would play more like de Sica’s. Some old man, or woman, would have lost everything in the Great Recession, and would be fighting a losing battle against opioids and homelessness.

Streaming of Consciousness

After signing on to HBO Now to get the disappointing last season of Game of Thrones I firmly intended to drop the service. Really. But then they advertised the new His Dark Materials series from studios in Great Britain. I read Philip Pullman’s trilogy almost twenty years ago after catching a review of his middle novel, The Subtle Knife. Like most people I was underwhelmed by plotting failures in the third novel, The Amber Spyglass, but overall Pullman created a fascinating world. The major motion picture version was really OK, but ended strangely and didn’t do well enough in theatres to justify a sequel. The new series is keeping my interest. As Lyra Belacqua, Dafne Keen is a can-do heroine, along the lines of Emma Watson, Maisie Williams and Bella Ramsey. Ruth Wilson is delightful as a can-do villain. I’m not sure if Lin-Manuel Miranda was the best choice to play an alt-universe Texan, but he’s not pissing me off. The Gyptians are all great. I particularly like how race doesn’t seem to matter in this series. Heroes and villains come in all skin tones. But the daemons steal every scene.

Since I have HBO Now, I’ve been watching some of the other offerings. I already knew that Westworld was awfully violent. The Watchmen turned out to be almost as violent. A friend and I took in the first two episodes, but despite the dramatization of the Tulsa Massacre, I haven’t felt like watching any more. My youngest is always after me to watch The Walking Dead, which is a fairly good show except for all the people getting stabbed or shot or clubbed in the head. I can only watch so much of that gratuitous violence. Even though it is supposed to be zombies or robots getting killed, it bothers me.

I also watched two episodes of Divorce, which was not too bad, and one of Euphoria, which was disturbing because it might be accurate. I tried watching Succession, which is well-liked on twitter, but after the first episode, I didn’t like anybody. I also tried watching Mrs Fletcher, also a fav on twitter. I might show Mrs F to my wife and see if she wants to keep watching.

I raced through the season of the Japanese series, Miss Sherlock. I always appreciate a fresh version of the Holmes stories, and besides, Elementary is over, and Sherlock is on semi-permanent hiatus. YĆ«ko Takeuchi plays Sara Shelly Futaba, whom the police refer to as Sherlock. Does that mean the Conan Doyle stories exist in this universe, or does it leave the door open for Benedict Cumberbatch to drop by? Dunno. Futaba-san is joined by Shihori Kanjiya playing Dr Wato Tachibana, recently returned from volunteer medical duty in Syria. So we have Sherlock and Dr Wato-san, and characters roughly equivalent to Mrs Hudson, Inspector Lestrade, and Mycroft Holmes. Takeuchi’s Sherlock is more brusque and socially inept than most Western versions, and that means something in Japan. Her playing a stand up bass instead of a violin is a nice touch, but I do wish they would find some less familiar pieces than The Passing of Time for her to play. I did guess a major plot twist. Can’t wait for the second season.

I then watched Teenage Psychic, which has a bit of a misleading title. Filmed in Taiwan, the heroine, Xie Yazhen, is actually a Temple Maiden: a medium who can communicate with the dead. When she’s not earning her keep consoling bereaved and troubled folk at the Taoist temple she is, however, a typically troubled 16 year old high school girl confounded by social expectations and one boy in particular. Played by Kuo Shuyao, she appears very homespun Chinese in contrast to some of the more Western-looking popular girls.

Finally, as a guilty pleasure, I’ve been watching a series that ran from 2011-2014 called Hung. Like Breaking Bad, Hung features an antihero high school teacher fallen on hard times. Thomas Jane as Ray is a former star athlete, current coach and history teacher, but his wife has left him, his house was damaged in a fire, and he lives in a Detroit long hollowed-out by neoliberal politics. Ray’s worries include paying support to his ex-wife, played by Anne Heche, and staying in the lives of his unhappy teenaged son and daughter (Charlie Saxton and Sianoa Smit-McPhee).

Instead of selling drugs, he decides to sell his well-endowed body, and with the help of two odd women, lines up wealthy clients willing to pay him for sex. If the genders were reversed, this would be entirely believable, but I take it in as a dark comedy.

Ray happens to be an escort with a heart of gold. An Atlantic review praised the show as featuring men who were competent instead of idiots, but I wouldn’t go that far. These men have a lot of blind spots, but they usually want the right things, while many of the women are batshit crazy, particularly his unofficial pimp, Lenore, played by Rebecca Creskoff. His official pimp, Tonya, played by Jane Adams, is a mess, but generally means well. Lenore calls her, “Tea Brain,” and muscles in on her business relationship with Ray at every opportunity.

I think my next attempt will be Catherine the Great, who according to Helen Mirren, was savaged as sexually-obsessed by political rivals like Frederick of Prussia, but who was in fact simply a competent female ruler with a few lovers.

 

 

US Open Finals & Climate Crisis Town Hall

I’ve been watching tennis for a long time. The US Open has come down to two compelling finals. In one, Serena Williams faces Bianca Andreescu. By winning, Serena could tie Margaret Smith Court’s record of 24 wins in majors. Eleven of Court’s titles were Australian Opens during an age when not all the players chose to take the long flight down under – but she did win them. But Court’s homophobic religious views have become extremely unpopular inside and outside the locker room, so a lot of tennis people want Serena to consign her to the history books.

Andreescu, though, is a solid player. Just a teenager, she moves well, hits hard off both sides, and competes well, having mowed down every top ten player she’s faced in the last several months. She’ll be tough to beat.

On the men’s side, Rafael Nadal seeks to move to only one win behind Roger Federer’s twenty major titles, with the realistic prospect of winning another Roland Garros next year. After a tired-looking loss to Grigor Dimitrov, Federer’s chances of extending his lead seem about as compelling as his spaghetti commercials. Opposing finalist Daniil Medvedev is fast, powerful and a strong competitor, but has a history of behaving poorly on court, so the wealthy crowd will likely be rooting for Rafa.

Who will win? One strategy is to minimize errors, another is to go for winners, but tennis seems to come down to a balance of consistency and aggression. You can’t just get the ball back in play, but you also can’t give the opponent lots of free points by going for winners on every shot. And, you have to deal with the increasingly intense summer heat.

A few days ago, CNN hosted a Climate Crisis Town Hall for all the major Democratic presidential candidates except Tulsi Gabbard, who is on military duty. Climate activists wanted there to be a climate change-themed debate, but the always timid Democratic National Committee wouldn’t allow it. So instead – over seven hours – each candidate was interviewed in a town hall format by CNN anchors and concerned citizens with prepared questions. In past town halls, these “ordinary citizens” have turned out to have industry connections or concealed agendas, but this batch seemed mostly on point. In fact one flummoxed Joe Biden by asking about him attending a fossil fuel-sponsored event directly after the Town Hall. I’m still amazed CNN let that happen.

Who won the Town Hall? Well, as in the debates, the tone was essentially set by the progressives. Naomi Klein considered it a victory to simply have the words Climate Crisis in large red letters on television. With category 3 Superstorm Sandy shocking NorthEast elites and category 5 hurricanes like Matthew, Irma, Maria, Michael and now Dorian becoming yearly events, even conservative people are realizing that severe weather events are occurring much more frequently than ever before.

How do you win a town hall? Most of the candidates tried to minimize errors, reciting the green talking points they learned from Governor Jay Inslee, who recently ended his candidacy. Some candidates assured us we could still eat hamburgers and use plastic straws – business as usual – while they pursued some incarnation of a Green New Deal.

Several candidates pledged to eliminate waste, or increase efficiency in this or that, which sounds good on the surface. But there will always be a certain level of inefficiency in human endeavors. After hearing decade upon decade of such pledges, I now take them as a veiled promise to not structurally change the status quo.

“Whether they need it or not, government always spends the money it is allotted,” is a standard issue talking point, one I’ve heard since I worked a summer job for county government. Accordingly, Julian Castro recounted an anecdote about Air Force pilots dumping their fuel in the ocean to maintain a yearly allotment of fuel.

Only Bernie Sanders actually went for his shots. Unfortunately for his candidacy, Sanders is proposing to revamp several of our major industries – government/lobbyists, banking, military, pharmaceuticals, insurance, automobiles, prisons – and while he assures us that the workers in those industries are not his enemies, management of those industries will certainly see Sanders as their enemy, as does management of the major media. It remains to be seen whether the Sanders plain-spoken populist agenda constitutes an error or a winner.

Resistance Training & Babylon 5

While on vacation a few weeks ago, I used the vacation club’s weight machine and free weights. I tried a variety of exercises, and found that using the cables seemed most suitable for training swimming muscles. (SwimmingWorld agrees.) Then last weekend I watered plants for a friend, and seeing his powerblock sets and barbells made me think again about adding to my one kettlebell.

I stopped by Dick’s to look at free weights, but after a while noticed the elastic resistance bands. These are a lot more portable than any sort of weight set, are said to be less likely to cause injury and are comparatively inexpensive. So I got two handles and a red 50 lb tube, all by Fitness Gear. I’ll go back for the door attachment next weekend. Not sure if it is a good idea to install a wall attachment in my apartment.

Bob and Brad, the most famous physical therapists on the internet (in their opinion, of course), have several youtubes on resistance training. I watched the one on training at home or while traveling. So I have added some of their resistance routines between the stretching and the kettlebell core training that I do while watching old episodes of Babylon 5 on Comet TV.

Bicep Curls (standing on band).
Crossover Curls (standing on band).
Tricep Curls (standing on band).
Push one leg sideways (standing on band).
Squats (standing on band).
Lunge Down (one foot on band).
Stretch Arm Sideways (holding band tight to elbow).
Stretch Arms Open (holding band short).
Behind Head Triceps Pull (holding band short).

One of my work friends used to rave about Bab5 when it was first broadcast, but my kids had control of the TV back then, so I had to do without. Thanks to Youtube TV, and Comet, I have watched the first four seasons in order, on my own schedule. I’ve read opinions that I shouldn’t watch Season 5, but I will.

It was initially hard to watch Capt Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) give all his rah-rah speeches without recalling Capt Sherrypie of Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, a very low budget Finnish parody of both Trek and Bab5 universes. But eventually I forgot about both that and his turn as the government spy Scarecrow. Now I wonder if I should cosplay as Londo Mollari. Peter Jurasik plays the politically-absorbed ambassador so consistently over-the-top it is hard not to like him.

Losing Weight; Maintaining Muscle

I posted a few months ago about being pleased to have lost fifty pounds.

Well now I have lost seventy pounds, and have maintained it for about a month. My diet is about the same, with only two intentional changes.

First, I am no longer eating fruit with lunch. I’m just not as hungry for sweets midday.

Second, I am eating more protein after exercising. I am eating larger portions of meat at dinner after swim practice, and either a vanilla yogurt with fruit, or some hard-boiled eggs. For weekend breakfast after running or biking, I am eating more eggs in my omelets, and adding more meat and cheese.

Why? Because my wife always worries about me, and she was concerned that I was losing weight too fast, or as she put it, “you’re just melting away.” My stepson theorized that by doing mostly aerobic instead of strength training, my body may have been burning away muscle mass. I was initially not concerned because I have been lighter than my current weight as an adult. I was only training about an hour and a half each day, and I felt that there must be an anaerobic component to swimming, cycling and running. But, I’ve learned the hard way that I should listen to my stepson, and I am at the age when men often begin to lose significant muscle mass. I also noticed that while I have become much smoother in the water over these last few months, I haven’t yet regained that much speed. And, there were little flaps of skin dangling from my upper arms – whether from losing fat or muscle, I don’t know.

So I did some research and found that the body is constantly burning mostly fat but also constantly breaking down lean tissue, like muscle, tendons, ligaments, etc. The body uses what you eat to replace the fat and lean tissue. The body needs enough calories to replace everything, or you lose weight. The body also needs the right types of foods to replace what it breaks down, or you lose what gets broken down. In particular immediately after exercise, the body will need protein to rebuild muscles. Hence the added protein in my diet after workouts.

I also decided to address my stepson’s concerns with specific strength training. The apartment complex already has a full set of barbells, and a simple lifting machine, but for my pre-practice warmup, I bought a kettlebell. I felt that it would be best to work on my core strength first.

There are any number of youtube videos with specific kettlebell exercises, but that big swing routine felt a bit scary. So I first tried a very safe looking basic routine, Kettlebells 101: How to Get Started + Beginner Kettlebell Workout with Brittany van Schravendijk. I went with her weight recommendation and bought a 16 kilogram Ethos kettlebell.

Basic Kettlebell
-Dead Lift (from between heels).
-Two Arm Clean (to neck height).
-Goblet Squat (hold clean during squat).
-Overhead Press (clean to over head).
-Halo (circle head each direction).

Following Brittany’s most basic advice, I’ve also concentrated on keeping my back flat while sitting at work and while riding my bike. That has helped to relieve some lower back pain.

Later I found a more advanced routine, Enter The Kettlebell, by a proud-to-be-Russian fellow named Pavel Tsatsouline.

Advanced Kettlebell
-Two Hand Swing.
-GetUp.
-One Arm Clean.
-Press.
-Groove.
-Lower the Kettlebell.
-Snatch.

Tsatsouline’s workout is a lot more aggressive, so I have something to work towards.