Saturday, October 22, 2016

Saturday Serial: "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"

"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches" (59:24)

Courtesy /

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Miscellaneous administrivia

I'm not sure what exactly broke about a lot of my If This, Then That redirects, but I unbroke them. Things I read, listen to, and watch are again being thrown to my tumblr without me having to like or link each of them individually as they come out, as God intended. My blog is also auto-echoed, so if you hang out on tumblr a lot and prefer to read there, follow me! It's coming up on International Dress Funny AWESOME Day, so I hunted you up a bunch of makeup tutorials from some of my favorite weirdos. I also answer costume questions for free this month, so comment here, Ask on tumblr, or email me for help in your efforts to disguise yourself as someone covered in much more glitter and/or stage blood than your quotidian self.

Did you know I have a Patreon? I do! For as little as a dollar a month, you can improve the lives of four young, hungry, embarrassingly domesticated rats. They would send you letters of thanks, but they're too busy hiding their treats in the back of their nest box and then running back out to the door for another one, like I can't tell them apart and don't remember how many noms I've handed out. ("You are not the fifth, unfed rat. Go eat the one I gave you.") Also, they don't have thumbs, and don't understand how mail works. Plus they chew on paper.

How could you let these adorable faces go hungry? I mean,  not that they're hungry now. I don't think they know what being hungry feels like. I fed them French fries within an hour of getting them home, and I've been giving them snacks more or less continuously ever since. But if you pledge money to me, I can feed them more French fries, which I think we can all agree will further improve their little rat lives.
I've begun posting #spoiledratupdates to my Facebook, because my pets have more fans there than I do. (They're amazingly down-to-Earth, for creatures who are so universally adored. I can honestly say that all this fame has not made them a single iota more self-absorbed than they were before the public discovered them. It would not be physically possible.) Circe Rowan is my stage name, and that feed is public, so read to your heart's content.

I have music going pretty much every moment of the day that I am not in the shower or specifically using my ears for something else, and if I could trust the idea of waterproofing on Bluetooth earbuds, I would fix that first thing. I've started posting #EarwormOfTheDay to Twitter so everyone can enjoy it. Feel free to follow along. My music collection can be most politely described as 'eclectic', and a lot of it is not in English.

Finally, last but not least, a belated birthday gift has turned up in the post. It's a Professor Layton game, so for the next few days I won't really be sleeping per se so much as taking occasional breaks to hunt down the 3DS charger. This completes my collection of Layton games that I do not need to jailbreak expensive hardware to play, at least until the 2017 release of Lady Layton: The Millionaire Adriadone Conspiracy, and don't think I'm not already stalking preorders on that one.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

I don't often buy CDs anymore. With media I'm generally only interested in the main content, and the hard drive stays the same size no matter how much I load onto it, so digital services are easier. It's rare that I want some part of the packaging enough to store it, and pack it, and move it from house to house when I am eventually forced to be itinerant again.

Placebo released a 20th anniversary retrospective, and I paid to have them mail me one. I like them enough to give them money, and their website asks a very reasonable $11 for a 2-CD set, in a hardcover gatefold. I wanted the pictures. More accurately, I wanted to know which pictures the two of them thought were relevant. Knowing what people want to remember is sometimes more interesting than the events themselves.

There is a brief introduction to the album by Brian Molko in the front of the book. I have seen very little prose from him, but it all has the same curious quality of standing by itself, hanging over the page in the same way narration hangs over film footage. Song lyrics are usually from strange viewpoints like that, but it's more unusual in print. He uses the metaphor of film to describe the course of their lives, in fact. It includes a reference to a significant 'supporting player', which seems to be David Bowie, who features heavily in about the last third of the photo album.

He's still hurting. I don't know why I thought that was so important to notice, or to think about it, or to note here where you can read it. Giving some recognition to the fact that other people feel stuff just seems to be my pointless personal goal in life, like those people who set out to read everything on someone's list of 100 Greatest Novels, or run a marathon in every state. Mine just has no end. People will keep feeling things until the end of time, or at least until the end of the human race.

The observation is not exactly a leap of logic. The intro is datelined "Ibiza, June 2016". It's surfaced in other things. There's a recent interview Placebo did for a Russian audience, in prep for their anniversary tour, where they were asked about Bowie. Molko's response was to tell the audience, vehemently, that it was okay to feel sad. It sounded very heartfelt.

And then I thought, that's an odd thing to say. It wasn't really an answer to the question, but that's not unusual. Molko often wants to answer much more intelligent things than he's actually been asked. But more than that, it was a reply to something I think most people would not think to ask. It's something I argue with myself over a lot, but there's a reason for that: Expressing the idea that I'm not allowed to be upset confuses others. Most people would not second-guess the impulse to mourn. Maybe they think the tumblkids are going kind of overboard with it, but fundamentally, someone who used to be around a lot won't be anymore, and that's sad.

Those are the words of someone who is worried, perhaps not unreasonably, that some of the people his weird artist friend felt he belonged with the most are so alienated they need to be told they have permission to care. That is someone who has spent a lot of time trying desperately to convince himself not to have feelings about things he doesn't belong to, and people who don't belong to him. I don't know if he feels that way anymore, but he remembers.

Long periods of isolation leave some very distinctive scars.

For what it's worth, the album also has a new single on it, which is actually one of the happiest, most optimistic things I've ever heard them do. Just because someone is gone doesn't mean you lose everything you got out of knowing them.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Someone on reddit recently posted the question, "What was the thing that made you realize you were living in the future?"

I'm not sure if I had an exact moment for that, but the other day I had to dig through my room to find where I had put down the phone that was actively streaming music to the earbuds I was wearing at the time, so 'the future' is probably here. I expect it's going to involve me misplacing a lot of things that are no longer physically tethered to my body and/or the wall. Detangling headphone cords is a pain in the ass, but at least I always knew where the wire led.

The turning point where tech became truly impressive and magical, rather than just a new and improved version of a thing I already knew about, was sometime around when everything suddenly went wireless. I'm not entirely sure why. My family had cordless telephones so early that I don't remember the main house phone ever being any other kind. Television and AM/FM/shortwave radio, of course, were all invented long before I was born. I have never existed in a state of literal 'radio silence'. Signal is everywhere, and as far as I'm concerned, it always has been.

I do remember first getting the Internet. I was fourteen, old enough to realize how useful it was, but too young to properly appreciate how vastly different it was from all the media we already had. I'm thirty-five, and I'm about the oldest person you'll find who had proper internet access that didn't come through a large corporation or research institution -- we signed up for America Online, in fact. Installed from a floppy disk. I suffered through their "web interface" for a while before I got bright and downloaded Netscape Navigator. I later performed a miracle and managed to remove Internet Explorer completely from an installation of Windows 95, which somehow broke the internal AOL browser. I considered this a distinct improvement.

Most of AOL's stuff was either geared towards grown-ups (news, sports, stock prices) or children (most of the games), but one of the few places I hung around on a regular basis was Keyword: Straight Dope. The Dope was not particularly meant for high schoolers and I probably shouldn't have been there ca. age fourteen, but my parents already had most of Cecil's books, and anyway nobody asked.

The thing about the internet, though, was that I could only get to it from one place, and that place was out in the open. The second phone line was run from a jack in the family room, and that was therefore where the modem resided, attached to my father's computer. It wasn't that the only computer in the house was Dad's; there was a second computer that we kids could use for games and homework, and by high school I also had a primitive laptop that my father had brought home when it fell off the end of the equipment audit trail at work. (My sister wasn't interested, so laptop mine, thankyouverymuch. It lived in my room. I wrote a lot of very bad fanfic on it.) But the computer with the internet connection was the only one I could use to talk to people. That was incredibly important to me, seeing as my in-person social landscape was made up almost entirely of isolation, interrupted occasionally by someone being cruel. The people on the other end of the internet were my only real escape from that.

I understand if my parents kept the arrangement because they didn't want their 12- and 14-year olds fucking around with strangers online unsupervised. I'm not sure that was their actual logic, as I remember having quite a lot of messy snotty-crying breakdowns that everyone else in the room with me completely ignored, but I'm not ruling out that it was their intent. Because of the bind I was in, though, the end result was that it just wasn't possible for me to talk to any of my (geeky, harmless, age-appropriate, already known to my parents) friends with any measure of privacy.

It was a constant tug of war. I was sad and scared and lonely and very depressed as a teenager, and I generally wanted nothing more than to go huddle in my bed and sob hysterically for a long time. But if I hid in my room, I lost access to everyone and everything online. The internet may not be a 'real place' in the sense of having walls and doors, but a chat window is a real enough place to have a conversation. So my choice was to alienate myself even more, or have a lot of very important and sensitive exchanges in what felt like the middle of Times Square, where at any moment, anyone could walk behind me and read what I'd been typing. Aside from the violation of privacy, the specific people involved were likely to pick a fight over it at some point, mainly because they were the thing I was typing complaints about.

You know how Dan Savage has his "It Gets Better" project? It's mainly aimed at LGBT* kids and teens; people make short videos explaining how they got it in the neck at your age and then survived long enough to realize that "it gets better". There's a second half to that, which is generally left unspoken. Most people would assume it's ",,,when you grow up." It's not. If you watch a lot of those videos you notice a common theme: "When I went to college..." "When I left the church..." "When I moved to the city..." It doesn't get better when you grow up, it gets better when you get out. The single best part about being an adult is that if I am stuck in the middle of something -- a place, a situation, a social group, whatever -- that is making me miserable, I am not obliged to stay there. I can pick up my shit and move.

You underestimate how important it is to have the ability to move whenever you want, even if it's just into the next room. You can't do that if your lifeline has to be tethered to a particular spot on the wall. You can't do that if all of the data you need for work or play is physically stored on one drive in one computer that can't be moved from the desk. You can't do that if your headphones need to be plugged into a rack-mount amplifier to work.

There is a reason my entire life is stored in Google Drive, Google Play, Amazon Document Services. a thing that is technically a telephone that I can cram into my pocket, and a computer that can be closed like a book and jammed into a bag. Everything is always charged, insofar as I can manage it. The memories of what it's like to have no way out, even in the flimsiest of psychological senses, are still very vivid. It's like the people who grew up literally starving in the Great Depression, who always need to have that one extra jar of peanut butter or box of cookies stashed somewhere in the house, even if they have plenty of food now and have no reason to worry about groceries. Lacking something that necessary, and really understanding what you're missing, marks you for life. Just for my own peace of mind, I need a "bug out bag" fill of widgets that will work anywhere, even if I only ever get as far as the library.

So yeah, we're in the future now. The world I live in physically and the world I live in mentally now more or less coincide, which makes my life a hell of a lot easier. I could be halfway across the planet and still access everything that keeps me from going insane. Because of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth and USB chargers and batteries with multi-hour capacities, I don't have to fight with myself over and over about whether it's more important to get this thing done or get out of the house before I lose my mind.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Monday Mystery: "Cracks"

It's been a while since I did one of these. Let's have a look at something less depressing than American politics, shall we? A simple piece of animation, with one closed mystery, and one open one.

On December 31st, 1975, the children's television show Sesame Street ran a short animation called "The Crack Master". Here it is:

Doesn't seem all that mysterious, does it? But it was lost for a long time.

In 2008, a lady named Jennifer Bourne posted recollections of the clip on her blog. The entry is short, and looks like one of those things that surfaces from the muck in the back of your brain when you're trying to sleep at night and won't go away until you figure out what it's from. She's an illustrator herself, and drew a couple of sketches from memory. She asked around on the snopes message board, and while she did find a lot of other people who were creeped out by various things on Sesame Street, and other people looking for the same thing, she never did find the clip. The project that would eventually become the Lost Media Wiki added it to the list of things that seemed to have vanished into the mists of time.

That would have been the end of it, except that her blog post happened to catch the attention of Jon Armond, a voice artist and radio personality who remembered the animation vividly. He went nosing around on the media end of things and eventually found scattered bits of the paper trail at Children's Television Workshop, the production company responsible for Sesame Street, indicating that the short had been re-run at least once. (Every source I've seen says it was run "eleven times in four and a half years", and then vanished, but I don't know where any of them got that info, so. Presumably it was CTW, but I have seen no documents.) Somehow Armond got hold of the rights owners or the rights owners got hold of him, and he acquired a copy of the segment. One thing led to another, and he showed it to Bourne, who agreed that it was the clip she remembered from her youth.

That is not, however, how it got on YouTube.

I'm still not entirely clear how or where Armond got hold of the clip. I am under the impression that it was through CTW's archives, but no one ever says definitively. (Several places mention that his copy is preceded by a few seconds of Bert and Ernie, so it was a recording out of the middle of a finished episode.) It evidently involved quite a lot of negotiation; one thing that the rights holder was absolutely clear on was that Armond could never release the clip, in whole or in part, anywhere. Ever. He could have it, he could watch it, and he could show it to other people personally, but he could not let it loose into the world. He couldn't even tell anyone what the title was.

Knowing the whole two dozen people on the internet who cared were probably going crazy, Armond did the best he could do, within legal constraints, and posted this audio reconstruction and mini-FAQ about the clip.

You will note, if you listen to all nine-some-odd minutes of that, that Armond does not at any point name the producer of the clip. I suspect he can't. He evidently knows, or at least knows who has the rights. The rest of the world does not, nor do we have any idea who the narrator is. CTW does not have any credits for that segment. The IMDb, the TVDb, and MovieFilm have no credits at all for that episode. Before anyone gets too paranoid, they're missing credits for a large chunk of season seven, and of surrounding seasons -- documentation back then was scarce. At least US outfits tended to keep their tapes and kinescopes; the Beeb blithely junked a lot of things when they ran out of space, on the basis that no one could possibly care that much about ephemera like television programs.

Meanwhile, the people running the Lost Media Wiki -- mainly an Aussie fellow who goes by Dycaite -- were not under any obligation to keep anything under wraps, and started their own investigation into the production history. (Mainly with an eye to finding a copy that could be released. The LMW is heavily biased towards the internet, and tends to consider things still lost if they've technically been located, but cannot be viewed or purchased anywhere online.) Dycaite even wrote to the animator Cosmo Anzilotti, to ask if the rumor that he'd produced the short was true. It wasn't, but the ongoing search got a fair amount of attention, which ultimately culminated in a Christmas present.

On December 24th, 2013, Dycaite got an email. An anonymous message from an anonymous remailer, with no text at all, carrying a 23MB .mov file, entitled "Cracks". Which is now the YouTube upload you see above.

The file up on YouTube is not itself broadcast quality; YouTube rarely is. The quality goes up to 480p, which from some of the motion blocking looks to be the max quality of the original .mov file. There are some fairly obvious interlacing artifacts if you slow the video down, but the picture is clear and there's no apparent banding or tearing, so the source just prior to the digital file is clearly broadcast-quality VT. (A resolution of 480 horizontal lines suggests NTSC. It wasn't likely to be anything else, as Sesame Street is originally an American production, and the narrator speaks American English, but a PAL origin would not be completely beyond the realm of possibility for mystery stuff like this. Sesame Street is -- or at least was -- a flagship title for our Public Broadcasting System, which sources a lot of stuff from the BBC.) The title card, on the other hand, is obviously optical; electronically keyed lettering, in 1975, would have had a very distinct sharp-edged 'sparkle', whereas the edges of that font are much less harsh. The original would be a literal film strip, probably 16mm.

I want to say the audio has that '16mm óptical track' sound, too, but YouTube mangles audio, and I'm not 100% sure what I am picking up on there, so don't rely too much on that impression until I figure it out.

Whoever made that clip is clearly much more interested in not being associated with it than with not having it shown, and is furthermore smarter than the average bear, at least in internet terms. When it comes to copyright claims, YouTube is very much of the mind that you shoot first and then jam your fingers in your ears so you can truthfully tell your attorney that you didn't hear the questions later, and the copy I linked to at the top has been there, unmolested, for almost three years. It is reproduced in full and in decent quality, and the only known circulating copy is under strict contractual obligation to not end up online, so whoever holds the rights could get it taken down in about two nanoseconds if they cared to. That they haven't suggests that they are more willing to lose control of their work than to file a complaint that could be traced back to a name.

Friday, October 7, 2016

I recently applied for something that required me to pony up some written samples, showcasing my analytical abilities. The person who tipped me off to the opportunity is a reader here, and seemed to think quite highly of things like linguistic and profiling essays.

This all looks much more impressive on your end than on mine. You only see the things that hang together well enough to write about. The world is full of scattershot gibberish that deserves, at best, a two-line post on /r/ShowerThoughts. Those don't get 1500-word essays. I once turned in all fifty pages of a twenty page research assignment to one of my college professors, and even I can only pad so much.

There are two main reasons I look like I am some kind of mad genius with a crazy-awesome hit rate: Confirmation bias, and an overblown sense of drama.

The confirmation bias is down to the reader. Human brains -- mine, yours, everyone's -- are built to ping whenever two ideas connect, especially if that connection is new, and/or builds a pattern. The observational variant is sometimes called "the white van effect". Say you walk out of your office every day for lunch, and you spot a white van parked at the corner. About the fifth time in three weeks that you walk outside and see that van, you'll start going, "Huh. That's weird. That van is always there. I wonder what's going on?" Except the van isn't always there -- if you saw it five times in twenty-one days, that means you didn't see it sixteen of those days. It was gone three times as often as it was there. You just don't remember those days, because your brain thought the lack of a white van was totally unimportant. It opted to instead use that space to store more useful things, like where you put your keys, or all the words to "I Am The Walrus", or the phone number to the house you lived in when you were eight. (Your brain's priority levels are sometimes screwy.) The times when I turn out to be right about something that had never crossed your mind before I brought it up are much more salient to your brain than all the crap that surrounds it, so you remember those much more vividly, and are perhaps more impressed than is strictly warranted.

The sense of drama plays, unfairly, on the confirmation bias. I do it on purpose. I blame Sherlock Holmes. Observe the following passage from "The Resident Patient", a story out of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes:

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

[Author's note: Sorry for the delay on this. The AC adapter on my laptop finally expired, and it took a bit for the new one to arrive.]

My sidekick sent me a birthday book with a brief note attached. It had only faint whiffs of hysteria, which is to be expected from someone in a very compressed RN program who has planned her next bout of proper sleep for May 2017. 'Congrats on leveling up you managed to move again without dying life is awful but here is a book happy birthday?' more or less.

I complain a lot here, I know. I have a lot of thoughts about stuff that goes wrong, and if I don't let them out they will circle around and around in my brain incessantly until my head kerplodes. Every so often someone tells me they appreciate reading it, because it makes them feel less like an alien when they think similar things.

Life is, in fact, not perfect right now. I've done something to my back again, and I confess to being utterly mystified by it. I have no idea what I did. I spend a solid 4-6 hours a week bending, stretching, contorting, juggling things, spinning hoops around, and throwing myself bodily from one end of a dance studio to the other, and the only injuries I get from it are the bruises on my legs where I got the timing wrong and hit myself with the umbrella. Go home, try to get up out of a chair, invent new swear words because suddenly something in my lumbar region is mad at me.

Also, I may be sick. My nose has decided to run continually, which may just be allergies. I can scrounge some decongestant, but it makes me jittery, and that plus nose problems makes me testy. It's like being a cokehead, only without all the fun parts.

Other than that, though, I am really not all that difficult to please. Observe:

Those are called fan veils, and in the hands of someone who is much much better than I am, they look like this:

Three of the sets (white-to-blue, yellow-to-red, and white) are cheap nylon practice fans from an outfit so sketchy the return address on my packages was some random apartment in China, but the rose ombré ones are actual silk, bought on clearance from a significantly less sketchy place. I want these, too.

I spent yesterday afternoon gluing rhinestones to the blue set, because of course I did. Everything is better when it's shiny. The white ones need to be dry-brushed with gold, or something similar -- I'm thinking it might work to wad them up and hit the wrinkles with some Krylon spray glitter. It's not the traditional way to decorate fan veils, but I don't much care.

I also bought some gymnastics twirling ribbons, which entertain me far too much for something you can order for $1.83. It turns out that you can just buy the sticks with the swivel hook attached to the end, too. We already have some grommet setting pliers in the house, and I know where to get 25 yard spools of polyester ribbon for about $3, so... I may be at this a while.

The point is, it's not that hard to keep me amused. Get me some colorful flappy tracers to dance with, leave me a bowl of vegetable ends to feed the rats, and I'm good for the day. I cope with long train rides through liberal applications of my library card.