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December 2014
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adventures in customer support

My wife works from home. Her office is on a different floor than our router, and she struggles mightily with speed and connection issues. (All the rest of our wi-fi stuff works fine.) We decided what she needed was a dedicated connection to the Internet. So I contacted Comcast Support via the online chat service.

When asked to categorize my problem, I chose “Internet (Other)”. Here’s how the chat began:

Comcast > I understand that you want to add a internet outlet, am I right?

Steven > I think so :­). Wife needs more speed/smoother experience, wifi is not doing it for her, she works on a different floor from our main router.

Comcast > I see, let me connect you to our SALES Team to further assist you.

After an extended discussion with a member of the SALES team, the following ensued:

Comcast >  Since your wife is getting a slow wifi connection, I will be referring you to our Internet Department. Would that be okay with you?

Steven > ok ... I think they're the ones who sent me to you :­).

Comcast > As I have checked, Steven, the one who sent me to you was from another department but not our Internet Department.

So off to the Internet Department I went (again?). The first thing the new support person said was, “It's a privilege to have you here on chat and I am looking forward to provide you excellent service!” Then:

Comcast > I understand that you are having a slow WiFi connection and want to add a coax outlet to get a wired connection, did I get that right?

Steven > Yes. It may be as simple as my wife's workstation being in a bad position in the house, but she definitely has speed/connection difficulties when she is working. The other wireless stuff in our house works fine. She thought if she was able to get her own wired connection, it would solve the problem.

Comcast > I see, Steven, you are wrongly transferred to Internet troubleshooting department. Let me connect you with our sales department who will set up an appointment for technician visit to add the additional coax tap, however, there will be some charges for the visit. Would that be fine with you?

Steven > well ... I was transferred to you by the sales department :­) ... but yes, it's fine

Finally, this occurred:

Comcast > Let me connect you with the concerned department for best assistance. Please stay connected while I transfer this chat. Please wait, while the problem is escalated to another analyst.

New Comcast Support Person > Analyst has closed chat and left the room.

This took about 45 minutes.

mozart in the jungle, season one

Mozart in the Jungle is another series from Amazon, meaning you can’t watch it anywhere but via Amazon streaming. It’s about a symphony orchestra in New York, and while there are missteps, Mozart in the Jungle has great heart, avoiding the sappiness that statement might suggest.

The setting works well or poorly, depending on your perspective. Good for people like me, who know little about the running of a symphony; bad for lovers of classical music, who have been vocal about all of the things Mozart in the Jungle gets “wrong”. I sympathize with the latter … I feel the same way when a series or movie about something I know gets it wrong. But given my lack on knowledge in this case, my enjoyment is unspoiled by complaints about whether Mahler was the proper selection for the orchestra.

Mozart in the Jungle isn’t particularly adventurous … it’s a typical backstage dramedy, unusual because of the setting but mostly settling for the standard plot lines and characters. Gael García Bernal is charismatic as the new maestro, Rodrigo … he personifies the heart at the center of the show, making us believe that he cares passionately about serving the music. Lola Kirke does well as the stand-in for the audience, as an oboe player trying to make her way into the orchestra. (And we’ve come a ways for the Kirke family … when Jemima Kirke got our attention on Girls, it was oft-noted that her father was Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke, but now, Lola is described as Jemima’s sister.) There are some other notables in the cast: Malcolm McDowell as the maestro who is replaced by Rodrigo, Bernadette Peters as the chairperson of the symphony board. Both actors refrain from scenery chewing. Saffron Burrows does her “I’m very tall and have great cheekbones” thing, and does it well … once we get past the pilot episode, her performance grows along with her character.

The show takes its time reaching its peak. My favorite of the ten episodes were numbers 6 & 7. #6, “The Rehearsal”, is one that took a lot of flack from the classical fans … Rodrigo drags his orchestra to an abandoned lot and has them play the “1812 Overture”, and I didn’t want to be caught up in the corny tugs at my heart, but I couldn't resist. It was followed by “You Go to My Head”, the one episode that took adventurous chances, and the episode many felt was the best of the season. The final episode of the season is a bit too neat, but if you've stuck around until that point, you’ll be captivated nonetheless.

Near the end, Rodrigo says, “This orchestra is capable of doing amazing things. And we’re not there yet. I know, I know. We will be. But in the meantime, please, bear with us.” It’s a perfect description of this series. Grade for Season One: B+.

black mirror

Another British series made for American binge-watching, Black Mirror had its first season in 2011 and its second in 2013 (both times consisting of three episodes), along with a Christmas special a month ago. In the U.S., the series was picked up by DirecTV, which limited the audience totals, but it is now available for streaming on Netflix (minus the Xmas episode), which explains why it’s gotten so much attention here of late.

Black Mirror is an anthology series, often compared to The Twilight Zone, with no connection between the various standalone episodes. There is an overriding theme, though, of technology changing our lives for better or (most often) for worse. Creator Charlie Brooker places each story somewhere in the near future, and bases the tales on recognizable technology taken a few steps further. In “Fifteen Million Merits”, citizens live in single-person dwellings where every wall is a giant display panel. “The Entire History of You” tells of a society where almost everyone has an implant that records everything they see and hear. “Be Right Back” is about an online service where grieving people can continue to communicate with virtual copies of those who have died, using the online profiles of the deceased. Various British actors of note turn up: Rory Kinnear, Jessica Brown Findley, Rupert Everett, Tom Cullen, Hayley Atwell (yay!), Tobias Menzies, and others. Jon Hamm and Oona Chaplin appear in the Xmas episode.

The episodes are of varying quality, although all have at least something to offer. The first episode has the most outrageous plot, with the Prime Minister being forced to fuck a pig on live television. Most people think this episode is not representative of the others, although it shares the theme of taking technology a step further (in this case, YouTube plays a role). It’s a sign of the overall level of the show that not everyone agrees on which is the best episode, although “The Waldo Moment”, which ended the second season, is often considered the “least-best”. I loved seeing Hayley “Agent Carter” Atwell in "Be Right Back", but my favorite episode was probably “The Entire History of You”. The appeal of a system where you can replay past events in your life (viewing them “in your eyes” or projecting them onto a screen for everyone to see) is obvious, and its connection to the present is clear … think of those year-end wrap-ups automatically created by sites like Facebook and Google+ based on your online activity. The pitfalls are perhaps predictable, but no less gripping for that, with good old human jealousy setting events in an unfortunate direction.

It’s easy to get hooked on Black Mirror, in part because there are so few episodes, and also because if you don’t care for one episode, you may like the next one. As I said at the beginning, this is custom-made for binge-watching. An accurate grade would separate the episodes (from an A for “The Entire History of You” to a B for “The Waldo Moment”), but the truth is, once you’re hooked, you’re going to watch them all, anyway. Grade for series to this point: A-. Note that if you live in the States and you don’t have DirecTV, you have to put a bit of work into finding the Xmas special (I watched a copy with Portuguese subtitles on YouTube).

by request: the giver (philip noyce, 2014)

The Giver has an odd history, one that works against it. In 2014, this tale about a future where teenagers have a special, prescribed function when they reach a certain age seems to be jumping a bandwagon, trying to grab just a bit of the Hunger Games money. Except the novel on which this film is based was written in 1993, fifteen years before the first Hunger Games book.

Jeff Bridges had long shown an interest in turning the book into a film, far enough in the past that he hoped his father, Lloyd Bridges, could play the title character (Lloyd died in 1998). Various occurrences kept The Giver from reaching the screen until 2014, by which time Jeff was old enough to play The Giver himself.

It’s understandable that The Giver might get lost in the shuffle. It made a bit of money, partly because it was relatively cheap to produce ($25 million), but it wasn’t the smash many had hoped for. At this point, all anyone can hope is that The Giver is rediscovered down the road.

There is just one problem with that scenario: The Giver isn’t a very good film.

It has an interesting look, in particular the way it plays with color. But while the initial concept is intriguing, the movie gets stupider the longer it goes on. By the time the end rolls around, your brain is mush. The acting doesn’t help … everyone seems to have been directed to be largely emotionless, which makes a bit of sense in the context of the story, I suppose, but which nonetheless coats the entire film with blandness. Meryl Streep is usually noteworthy, even if, like me, you aren’t always a big fan of her performances. At the least, you can say that she has never fallen into the trap (call it the DeNiro Syndrome) of making crappy movies just so she can get paid. (This isn’t to say that she never makes a crappy movie, just that she is dedicated to making good movies, even when the result is lacking.) Here, though, Streep comes across like a combination of several characters in the Wizard of Oz, most notably the Witches (good and bad) and The Great and Powerful Oz himself. Amazingly, though, this campy approach turns out to be just as boring as everyone else’s acting.

Jeff Bridges is the only actor who escapes unharmed. He gives his usual low-key performance where the depth is apparent without chewing the scenery. I’m glad he got to make his movie at last. 6/10. For a better Jeff Bridges movie, go back to The Last Picture Show. For a better use of color/B&W, try Pleasantville.

(Requests are always welcomed.)

link dump

“’We seem to be more frightened than we’ve ever been’: Eula Biss on anti-vaxxers, white privilege and our strange new culture of fear”. “If you don’t approach your subject from a paranoid posture, the risk is that you’ll be seen as naive and complacent, as someone who is kind of playing the fool to institutions of power.”

Blame Republicans, Not Madison, for Gridlock”. “The real problem preventing compromise isn’t inherent in the political system. It's something particularly wrong with the Republican Party, which has become increasingly hostile to the very notion of compromise.”

New Atheists are wrong about Islam. Here’s how data proves it”. “A majority of both Christians and Muslims seem to embrace at least some separation of sacred and secular in politics. That’s one finding that was perhaps surprising and also showed that Muslims are less distinctive than we might think.”

The Hunting of Billie Holiday: How Lady Day found herself in the middle of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ early fight for survival.” “Billie didn’t blame Anslinger’s agents as individuals; she blamed the drug war itself—because it forced the police to treat ill people like criminals.”

'That's Not All!' Kevin Trudeau, The World’s Greatest Salesman, Makes One Last Pitch”. “There was his own Mega Memory training program; the Sable Hair-Farming System (which he promised would ‘end hair loss in the human race’); Dr. Callahan’s Addiction-Breaking System (which he said could break the user of any addiction in 60 seconds ‘virtually 100 percent of the time’); Howard Berg’s Mega Reading speed-reading program, the Perfect Lift Non-Surgical Face Lift, and Eden’s Secret Nature’s Purifying Product. There were magnetic toe rings and magnetic mattress pads, crocodile protein peptide, and Biotape, an adhesive tape said to relieve pain by reestablishing broken electrical connections in the body.”

sleater-kinney and me

Sleater-Kinney’s core audience is hardcore … remember back in 2001, when Greil Marcus called them America’s best rock band in Time Magazine? Marcus is part of the small but important subgroup of S-K fans, a subgroup of which I am a member: middle-aged straight men who were raised on rock and roll. The majority of Sleater-Kinney fans from the start have been girls and women, again with a subgroup, this time of gay women. More and more men turned up at the concerts I saw over the years, for whatever reason … S-K had “crossover” appeal in that respect. But, as much as I love them, I don’t think of them as “mine” the way I imagine the female fans who have grown with the band might feel. Suffice to say that all of the fans I have mentioned tend to be obsessively in love with Sleater-Kinney.

I’ve long proposed a Theory of Rock Star Career Trajectories, which claims that by their mid-30s at the latest, most rock and rollers have already peaked. The greatest of them are still capable of the occasional masterpiece, but the general pattern, even for the best, resembles that of The Rolling Stones, who cranked out one classic album after another through Exile on Main St., which came when Mick and Keith were pushing 30, after which we got Goats Head Soup. Sleater-Kinney came up with the perfect answer to this problem, although I’m sure they didn’t think of it this way, or even that it was a long term, pre-planned goal. Sleater-Kinney made seven albums, and every one of them was at the least really, really good, with a couple of classics thrown in. (One example of this: Robert Christgau gave the following grades to those seven albums: A-, A, A, A, A-, A, A.) They were the band that could do no wrong. In 2006, they were 34, 32, and 41 years old, prime candidates for my theories of career trajectories.

And then they went on what they called a “hiatus”.

In the ensuing years, Corin recorded and toured behind two albums, while Carrie and Janet joined Wild Flag for an album and a tour. And Carrie, of course, became famous far beyond the S-K core audience for the TV series Portlandia. Years passed, and the hiatus continued, suggesting a future for the band that felt increasingly unlikely.

I re-read the things I’ve written about Sleater-Kinney when thinking about this post, and realized there was no point in recapping what I’ve already said about how they are important to me. Briefly, they are the closest anyone has ever come in my heart to Bruce Springsteen, who will always be #1. I saw S-K twelve times over the years, played their records over and over, felt the kind of attachment a fan gets when they think of the band members not as Jagger/Richards but as Corin and Carrie and Janet. Even my wife, not a fan, knows who those three names are. When they went on hiatus, I was 53 years old. I knew how much energy it took to be a hardcore fan … three dozen Bruce concerts taught me that point. And I somehow knew there would never be another obsession in my life like what Sleater-Kinney offered. I didn’t have it in me to start all over again. I still had Bruce, and I’ve gone to a lot of Pink concerts over the years (and I love her, but not the same way). But it was time for me to accept my age … I didn’t need to wallow in the music of my youth, there was still plenty of new music to be enjoyed, but the days of seeing a band two nights in a row and thinking about them once or twice a day, those days were gone.

Of course, we all held out hope that “hiatus” meant what it was supposed to mean, that the band would get back together, even though they’d gone out on such a high that any reboot seemed a bit pointless. And as time went on, the idea of a “reunion” became a bit scary, because when I think of reunions, I think of someone like The Eagles making zillions of dollars playing their old tunes for their old fans in big arenas. Yes, I wanted Sleater-Kinney to return, fiercely, but I also feared that return, because up to the hiatus, they could do no wrong, and I didn’t want that near-perfection to be muddied. (If you can hunt down a copy, the classic work on this subject is Mark Shipper’s 1978 novel, Paperback Writer, which tells the story of a truer-than-fact band, The Beatles, who finally give in to calls for a reunion. They cut a new album and go on tour. The album sucks, the audience only wants to hear the oldies, and The Beatles end up as an opening act for Peter Frampton.)

Early in 2014, I read an article about Carrie that detailed some of the personal traumas she went through in the later years of the band. It gave me further understanding of why a hiatus was needed. In a post on March 21, 2014, I wrote as an aside, “it’s time to finally say goodbye to the word ‘hiatus’”. I had to come to terms with the way “the hiatus” had become “the end”.

What we didn’t know was that, on the sly, the band had gotten back together and were recording a new album. OK, they aren’t the biggest band in the world, but I’m astounded that no word of this leaked out. We were completely clueless about the potential existence of an eighth album.

But then came the announcement that they were releasing a box set of their previous albums in remastered format. And inside the box was … a 7” single with a new song, “Bury Our Friends”. A new song???????????????????

What followed was the news that S-K had recorded a new album, and would be touring behind it in 2015.

The new single was very good … for at least one track, they had defeated the Reunion Curse. Subsequent interviews tell us that the members of the band are just as wary of the Curse … they didn’t want to just tour and play oldies, they wanted to make an album, and they kept things secret in part because they wanted to be sure they were happy with the music they were making before putting it out in public.

Maybe it’s that desire to be true to what made them special in the first place. I don’t know. But with No Cities to Love, the question isn’t if it is up to the high standards they have set. No, the question is, how high does it rank within the entire S-K catalog? Because it is that good.

Oh, I’m sure most people thought we’d all say it was good just because we waited so long and we had no perspective and we would like it no matter if it was worthwhile. I might have thought some of those things, myself. But such thoughts only last about as long as it takes to put on the first song on the album, “Price Cut”. It’s about working a low-end job in a bad economy … and it is nowhere near as dreary as that sounds. In fact, it fits right in with the Sleater-Kinney we know. What is nice, right from the start, is that No Cities to Love is recognizably Sleater-Kinney without just piling on the nostalgia for the good old days. The album fits with the others. It has some differences in the sound and production, but that’s always been part of their art … think of the difference between, say, Dig Me Out and The Woods. Janet’s drums still rool. Some say Corin’s vocals are a bit less harsh … can’t say I hear that, but if it brings in new fans, I’m all for it. Carrie’s guitar is more concise than before, especially when compared to something like “Let’s Call It Love.” She says her piece and gets out. Her guitar remains the most idiosyncratic thing about the S-K sound … as I said to a friend, not many people sing like Corin because they can't, but no one plays guitar like Carrie because she sounds like she's from another planet.

It’s hard to pick a favorite track, which is a good sign … any one of them might be tops at a given moment. But I’m am particularly taken with “Hey Darling”, one of the few numbers that I’ve read even the slightest negativity about. It’s not just the lyrics … let’s be honest, I barely pay attention to lyrics until I’ve listened a hundred times, although I find “Hey Darling” intriguing in the way is suggests a hesitancy about returning to the road: “Sometimes the heat of the crowd feels a little too close, Sometimes the shout of the room makes me feel so alone.” No, it’s the sound of Corin’s vocals, and the exquisite melody of the chorus. I swear, this could be a hit single, and I’m not one of those fans who thinks a hit is beneath the band.

I mentioned the conciseness of Carrie’s playing … the production as a whole is very tight, quite unlike those moments in The Woods (and in the tour that accompanied it) when it sounded like the band was going to escape the record entirely and burst madly onto the streets. Sleater-Kinney are as confident on No Cities to Love as I have ever heard them, as befits a group of 40-somethings who have been doing this for a long time. I feel a lot of pleasure when I listen to the album. I’m sure when I get down to the lyrics I’ll find the bittersweet feelings below the surface, but for now, it just makes me feel good. I mean, I go through emotional turmoil every time I hear “One More Hour”, I love that song like I love no other, but it is not a pleasurable song.

Here is “Hey Darling”, and, what the heck, for old times’ sake, “One More Hour”. You see, “One More Hour” was the last song they ever played live, it is THE breakup song of all time, and if it was emotional back in the day, it was almost unbearable during that long hiatus. Now that they are back, I can listen to it again.

oscar run 4: finding vivian maier (john maloof and charlie siskel, 2013)

(Nominated for Best Feature Documentary)

An interesting subject can take a documentary a long way. The artfulness of the presentation matters, of course, but there is also something to be said for the pleasure of receiving information on a topic you know little about. This joy of discovery is built into Finding Vivian Maier, because John Maloof is discovering his subject as the movie progresses. We understand why he would become obsessed with this unknown photographer with the mysterious life story, and our own interest keeps us going for maybe half of the short (83 minutes) film. Maier was a nanny who took hundreds of thousands of photographs, but kept them all to herself.

We think we are “finding” Maier as we learn bits and pieces about her life … growing up in New York, living in France, becoming a nanny. There are interviews with some of the children she cared for, and even some of the parents. They agree that she was eccentric, and that she always had her camera with her. But there is no real insight into why she took the photos, or why she stored them away, unseen.

Then, around the halfway mark, some of her former charges describe times when Vivian would show a dark side. One man tells of being force-fed when he didn’t finish his meal. It is here that the filmmakers fail us. One suspects that in real life, Maier’s so-called “dark side” grew gradually, but the way it is presented in the movie, it’s as if one day she’s this eccentric nanny with a camera and the next day she’s an ogre. It breaks the suspension of disbelief, and we become aware of how constructed the film is. All documentaries are constructed, of course. Some wear their artifice on their sleeves, others try to hide their efforts. Finding Vivian Maier seems enough like a straightforward presentation of what facts are known that we give in to the narrative being told. But when the darker side of Maier appears, it breaks our concentration just enough to make Maloof seem more than a little untrustworthy.

Ultimately, the only “truth” we can gather about Vivian Maier is that she expressed herself in her photographs. (Interestingly, she took lots of self-portraits, but it’s not the physical look of Maier that I am talking about.) This could have been a half-hour TV documentary, with fifteen minutes of the story of her life, and fifteen minutes showing her photos. Finding Vivian Maier hints at something more, but for me, it never quite delivered. Still, the story was engrossing for a while. 7/10. For a companion, how about the 2014 Oscar nominee for Best Documentary, The Square, which was #2 on my Best of 2013 list.

oscar run 3: ida (pawel pawlikowski, 2013)

(Ida is nominated in two categories, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography.)

The cinematographers nominated are Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski. Lenczewski started on the film, but it is said he didn’t like it, so he was replaced by Zal. I note this mainly because the look of the film is crucial … I wonder what Lenczewski didn’t like.

That look strikes us right from the start. The film is in black and white, which is just common enough for us to accept it. But it is also presented in the old-school “Academy ratio” of 4:3 (like the picture on old TVs, or, obviously, the screen shape on most movies until the widescreen era). We can’t help but feel like we’re in the world of 1960s European art films, and since Ida takes place in 1960s Poland, that feeling is interestingly appropriate.

Since I’m just starting my viewing of this year’s Oscar nominees, I can’t compare Ida to the other nominated films in its categories. But this is a good one. The stark look helps, of course, but the work of the two primary actors, Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska, really makes the film. To me, they are both unknowns, although Kulesza has been impressing for two decades. Trzebuchowska, on the other hand, is an amateur … Ida is her first movie, in fact, as far as I can tell it’s her first work as an actress. Both actors shine, but the contrast in their experience, and the way it plays out on screen, is a perfect match for their characters. Kulesza plays a woman in her early-40s who once worked as a judge who sent anti-communists to their death. She smokes, she drinks too much, she sleeps around. Trzebuchowska plays the titular Ida (first introduced as “Anna”), a young woman about to take her vows to be a nun. Ida/Anna goes to meet her only living relative, Aunt Wanda (Kulesza), before taking the vows, and both women learn something about their past and its still-present influence on their current lives. The professional actor Kulesza plays the “mentor”, the amateur Trzebuchowska plays the novitiate, and their chemistry is the key to the success of the movie.

It is good to see a foreign language film getting an “extra” nomination. It would have been even nicer to see Kulesza recognized in one of the acting categories, although I appreciate it’s a bit much to expect such a nomination from a foreign language film. Ida is a hard sell, a bleak Polish film about nuns and Stalinism and Jews in Poland during WWII. Hey, it’s only 80 minutes long … you can handle it. 8/10. It’s hard to recommend a companion film. You could go with one of the other Best Foreign Language Film nominees. This is my first Pawlikowski film … just guessing, perhaps The Woman in the Fifth with Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas would be relatively easy to check out.

what i didn't watch last week

For many years, I wrote a series I called “Oscar Run” as the awards ceremony approached. I gave it up because I got tired of watching crappy movies just because they got nominated for Best Song. But I still try to catch up on my Oscars movies at this time of year … I’m usually at least a year behind, since I watch mostly older movies. Call this Oscar Run 1 & 2 … I’ve only seen two nominated movies so far, The Grand Budapest Hotel, which received nine nominations and which I wrote about earlier:

I think I liked this one a teensy bit more than I liked the other Andersons. Mostly, it reminded me of a film scripted by T.S. Garp. But after all of these films, it is clear that more than usual, when it comes to Wes Anderson, your mileage may vary. When I read reviews of his films, when I talk to friends who love his movies, it is evident that for the most part, we see the same things. But then I say 6/10, and they say 87/100. If they explained “why 87”, I’d understand the explanation … I saw it for myself. But I’m unimpressed. Which makes Wes Anderson the King of Taste Preferences. 6/10.

And The Lego Movie, which I liked:

The animation is very good, the voice actors well-chosen, and some of the critique of capitalism is unusual for a kids’ movie, especially one that has commercial tie-in potential like this one. I think, though, that this is one of those occasional movies that gets praised for what it is not, as much as for what it is. It is not stupid. It doesn’t take the easy exploitation route. It was made with care. But ultimately, it’s still a loud-and-fast romp with plenty for the younger Lego fans and their parents (who will like the movie for different reasons), and not a lot more. It is no small thing to make an animated movie in 2014 that doesn’t feel cheap, and I don’t blame people who tell me this is a really great movie. But I don’t think they’ll be saying that ten years from now. 7/10.

I promise, with the return of The Computer, these film comments will increase. In the meantime, here are my favorite movies from 2013, a tip of the cap to my always being behind:

  1. Before Midnight
  2. The Square
  3. The Past
  4. 12 Years a Slave
  5. Gravity

And, because it probably matters, here are some Oscar nominees from 2013 that I still haven’t seen:

  • The Wolf of Wall Street
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • Frozen
  • The Book Thief
  • The Invisible Woman