Gomer and Goober: Let's Hear it For Goober!

I've put off writing this particular post because I didn't want to make value judgments between the two characters. Although I don't personally understand why Gomer was so hugely popular (enough to earn him his own show), Jim Nabors is a decent character actor, and Gomer was a fresh addition to The Andy Griffith Show.

The later non-Don-Knotts (and non-Gomer) seasons are not as good as the earlier seasons, as many critics and fans of the show (including me) will attest. Actors like Andy Griffith require someone to act against. Without Don Knotts, Andy Griffith as Andy Taylor continued as credible straight-man to the town's idiosyncratic citizens (Howard, Floyd). But Don Knotts was the perfect foil--plus a sheer comedic genius in his own right--so his absence is noticeable, and Andy Griffith as Andy Taylor is a little off his game.

The latter seasons did produce decent episodes, however, and this is where I must put in a word for Goober. Although Goober is often seen as part of the decline, replacing the "better" Gomer as the town jester, he has always had a charm of his own for me. He reminds me of Dauber from Coach, being sweet, physically down-to-earth, and quite good at his job. Unlike Gomer, who is perceived as a clumsy innocent (more intuitive than Barney and less likely to shoot off his foot but actually far less efficient), Goober can do all the things he is supposed to do, like take apart a car inside the court house.

Actually, Goober is rather like Dauber plus all of Coach's players rolled into one.

My favorite Goober episode occurs in the last season when he ends up dating a woman with a Ph.D. that he met through a service. The "computer" match is entirely believable. Goober is a warm personality, a sweet-heart whose lack of "smarts" is the result of lack of education, not lack of interest or capacity. While Gomer seems to stumble over the truth, Goober, his cousin, seems to have instinctive commonsense, not to mention a sense that the world is in fact more complicated than so-called "smarter" people realize.

When Goober explains to Opie how he filled out the dating service's questionnaire, it is clear to the teen-Opie that Goober refused to accept the socially-acceptable interpretation of the questions. But Goober, like many male Ph.D. holders I know, argues against multiple-choice questions: Why can't all the answers be right? Why shouldn't there be more options?

Interestingly enough, the episode also points out--and marriage experts now agree--that superficial resemblances (we both like art, we both like opera) are not entirely helpful in determining what actually brings people together. How Goober and the Ph.D.-wielding woman interact actually matters more.

Both Gomer and Goober blunder when faced with more worldly characters, including Andy, who supposedly know what's what. They doesn't mean Gomer and Goober are wrong in their assessments. The two cousins fall into the trope of canny dopes, yet they are quite different in interpretation, proving that a trope is a useful starting place, never an end point.

Reviews That Make My Eyes Roll: Getting Mad at Imperfect Characters

How the whale SHOULD have behaved.
Reviews can be helpful. In fact, I have found that the "better" books (i.e. books that I personally think are well-written) inspire better reviews. (Yeah, yeah.) By that, I don't (automatically) mean reviews that agree with me. I mean reviews that are thoughtful and intelligent, well-written and free of multiple grammar errors. Such reviews I trust. To inspire such thought-out, considerate responses, the book must be okay!

In comparison, I pause over a book when it is followed by a review like this:
"The character feels guilt about his spouse's death--I wish people understood that they don't need to blame themselves for things that aren't their fault!"
Ah--but they do . . .

Such a review is not necessarily the writer's fault. There are cases where writers unfairly expect readers to understand a character without establishing the background that would justify that understanding.

In this case, however, I'm talking about reviewers who are offended that a character in a book behaves and thinks in ways that they, the reviewers, personally think people shouldn't behave or think--which makes me wonder what those reviewers read. Okay, yes, I dislike dystopia novels and never read them. However, if I only read books where characters did and said things that I think people should do or say . . . I'd never read anything.

Seriously.

When Frodo accuses Sam of betraying him, am I seriously supposed to stop reading or watching because That's SO wrong! Doesn't he know how great Sam is? How could he be so MEAN?!
Is Frodo wrong in his accusation? Absolutely! Is he currently under the sway of the ring? Yes. Is his attack on Sam an example of the ring's terrible power? Yes. Is Frodo's accusation a way for the reader/viewer to see the terrible toll the ring is having on an otherwise good and sweet man? Yes.
For non-fantasy lovers, let's examine Elizabeth from Pride & Prejudice. She angrily accuses Darcy of hurting her sister.
Did Darcy hurt her sister? Yes. Did Darcy do it intentionally? Eh, kinda sortof but not really. Is Elizabeth overreacting? Maybe. Does Elizabeth use Darcy's actions in this one case to create an over-arcing narrative about him and refuse to see his side? Yes. Is she being unfair? In a way. Did Darcy bring this on himself? Yes.
If Darcy's behavior was too egregious, I would have a tough time with him and Elizabeth getting together at all. But it's not. What I find weird--puzzling, bemusing, STRANGE--is when reviewers aren't upset because Elizabeth had the wrong idea and then got over it but are upset that someone would behave like Elizabeth in the first place. (Doesn't she know how great Darcy is? Why can't she understand?!)

Um, character arc, anyone? Growth? Change? Improvement?

In a way, these reactions are a testament to a good writer (I suppose). The characters are so real, the readers react to them as they would to real people: Oooh, it so bugs me when people act like that!

Still, such reviews give me pause, as in, Um, are crazy people reading this book? 

I take a deep breath and read a different review.

Scarecrow & Mrs King: Funnier Than You'd Think

On the surface, Scarecrow & Mrs King appears standard 1980s fare: handsome man, pretty woman, spy stuff, chase scenes, and so on.

What makes it stand out from many of the other spy-detective-fisticuff-car-chase shows of the same time period is the wink-wink dialog and off-the-cuff interactions. The plots are fairly unimaginative, as far as weird spy plots on television tend to run along the same lines (I actually find it rather believable that spies would congregate around Washington, D.C., convinced that their tiny world of several square miles is the only reality).

Scarecrow & Mrs. King has a large number of "muttered" lines (like Lex Luthor's in Superman II), the ones that are given almost absentmindedly in passing. These are my favorite pieces of dialog (I still consider Tony's comment in NCIS about the ship the Dwight D. Eisenhower, "Shouldn't it be called Mamie?" to be one of Bellasario's funniest lines).

The surprisingly funny and clever moments in Scarecrow & Mrs. King totally pay off the effort of listening closely:

The pilot:
While trying to escape in the helicopter, Lee pauses to ask Amanda, "What are you wearing?" referring to her cub scout/den mother uniform.

"What do you care?" she squawks.
In the "A.C.M. Kid":
"Ham," Lee mutters in response to Amanda's undercover act as his ex-wife.
In "Saved by the Bells," one of my favorite episodes in which everyone thinks Amanda is The Scarecrow, top secret agent:
"I don't know how anyone could mistake me for you," Amanda tells Lee in Jackson's husky voice."You're so much taller."
"Don't forget to frisk the bad guys," she tells him later (pretending to be him). He gives her an exasperated look.
In "Sudden Death" when the bad guy instructs a football player to kill another player during a scrimmage.
"In many ways, that's much simpler than our usual play," muses the wonderful Jerry Hardin as the villain.

Chivalry Continued

In a prior post, I comment on Sherlock's wonderful sense of chivalry (as depicted by Jonny Lee Miller).

Here are some additional non-Elementary examples:

In Season 6 of Coach (all seasons are finally available but not through Netflix!), Hayden's team is on a winning streak, mostly due to lucky breaks. He isn't thrilled. Christine, his wife, comes home to find him watching a previous game that he coached. She assumes that it is a game that he won (he does like to win!), but he says, "No."
"We played great. They played better. That's what football is supposed to be about," he tells her.
In Last Man Standing, Mike Baxter is immensely proud of his daughter, Eve, for running a Sno-No-Mo business. He encourages her to compete with an older male neighbor who wants the same business. However, when Eve stoops to publishing lies about her competition (claiming he killed a cat with his snowblower), Mike puts a stop to her behavior:
Mike: The free market is the greatest thing that ever happened to this planet, but it only works if there's some moral compass to it. You start lying and cheating about it, it defeats the whole purpose. Go take them down right now.

Eve: Great, perfect. Just when you get an edge, the man hits you with regulations!

Mike (muttering): Boy, I love that kid.
This is chivalry at its best. It's not about NOT competing. It's also NOT about being a sore loser or complainer. It's about respecting the opponent without giving up.

A darker version of this behavior occurs in Black Butler, Volume VII, when Ciel comments that he doesn't blame his enemy (not Sebastian in this case) for protecting "his own." Ciel still burns the man's home down, takes away his livelihood, and orders his personal devil to remove the man and his evil acts from existence. But hey, all's fair in love and war.

Granted, it's a tad psychopathic. But it still resides within the chivalric code because there is no malice behind it. Righteous anger, yes. You fight. I fight. I win. Game over.

A-Z: Dewey Decimal 100: Figuring Out Our Futures

For the fourth A-Z list, I'm tackling non-fiction, Dewey Decimal style.

For the 0-99s, I read Abominable Science by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero.

For the 100s, I read Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert: 152.42 Gilbert at Portland Public Library.

The title sounds like a self-help book. It isn't. It belongs in the section that tackles philosophy. In this case, Gilbert is discussing the science of how people make decisions, how the brain operates. He doesn't actually get to happiness until almost the end of the book.

His ultimate point: human beings are exceptionally good at imagining the future; since they are also exceptionally bad at imagining the future correctly, they are exceptionally bad at predicting what will make them happy.

Gilbert's point is the reason that science-fiction, even Asimov's, revolves around the world the authors know; thus, 1960s Star Trek has beeping buttons, and 1990s Star Trek has flat computer screens, and so on. (The most truly prescient part of 1960s Star Trek were the communicators, but even those had a kind of current-day cousin in the form of huge walkies-talkies.)

Gilbert details the reasons that humans are so bad at imagining the future by referencing multiple studies as well as studies combined with neurological scans--quite frankly, it's the kind of sociology I can get behind.

It comes down to something that proponents and antagonists of AI often seem to misunderstand. However Spock-like/Sheldon-like human beings pretend to be, emotions are a part of decision making. The reactions we have to events in the real world and to imagined events both involve emotional judgment; until computers can mimic this, they truly can't form judgments at all.

Gilbert doesn't talk about computers; he talks about the brain's remarkable ability to separate an imagined emotional judgment from an emotional judgment related to reality. That is, when we are faced with a real choice--a red light--we hugely favor it over an imagined choice--a green light--because the brain wants us to survive.

However, since an imagined event and a real event both entail actual emotional responses, those actual emotional responses can get massively confused, especially since human beings are remarkably bad at realizing that time will alter an emotional response. Gilbert shows that people often feel far less awful after a traumatic event--losing a job, receiving a terrible medical diagnosis--than they imagined they would.

Humans rely on comparisons to understand the value of things, but those comparisons, by necessity, are all performed in the present. That is, we compare experiences to those we are currently undergoing or have already undergone, not to experiences that may or may not happen in the future even when we are imagining the future

Unfortunately, when we imagine future experiences by comparing them to similar past experiences, we encounter the problem not only of confabulation (mixing up memories) but of cropping those past experiences, even to the point of employing a narrative. In one study, men and women recorded their emotions during a period of time. When they were asked to look back and remember how they felt, they remembered their past feelings based on gender expectations (women "remembered" feeling more sensitive; men "remembered" feeling less) even though at the time their feelings were far more gender neutral. The same type of thing happened between Asian Americans and European Americans. The Asian Americans actually recorded more positive emotions but "reported that they had felt less happy and not more." (Ah, European Americans and their endless pursuit of happiness.)

In sum, people are BAD at predicting what will make them happy.

The solution: since people are relatively good at knowing what they feel in the present (if not the future or the past), the best approach is to request impressions ("How do you feel?") from someone currently experiencing what we might want to do in the future. Studies have shown that this is a remarkably effective tool (i.e. people actually do feel better for knowing spoilers).

I used this technique when I contemplated getting a Ph.D. On the one hand (negative), it would entail far more debt, which makes me want to die inside. On the other (positive), it could mean working at a university, which could entail (supposedly) greater job security. On the first hand, I would be competing with people with three Ph.D.s and four M.A.s (how many degrees was I going to have to get in this rat race?). On the other, I would satisfy social pressure (which is quite powerful) by becoming a "real" professor who worked at a "university". On the first hand, I would have to move, which I had no desire to do, and go through another bout of being a student. On the other hand, I would prove that I was ambitious and could accomplish a long-term goal.
Who decides what is relevant?

I could imagine myself doing what I currently loved, working at a community college, teaching
English classes.

I could imagine myself teaching at a university like Barbra Streisand in The Mirror Has Two Faces.

I knew enough to know that imagination wasn't going to help me. I could end up totally miserable in either case. So I went online and did research. Truthfully, I knew where I was heading. The negative column obviously increased my tension and the positive column seemed mostly comprised of making other people happy--which my personal philosophy says is a bad reason to do stuff (though Gilbert points out that believing untrue realities--such as "children make us happy"--prove beneficial to society overall).

However, I wanted to be sure, and I continued to waver until I came across well-written comments by a person who had gotten a Ph.D. in the Humanities; he or she (I can no longer remember) clearly and non-aggressively expressed the downsides and upsides of that decision and wrapped-up with how they currently felt. It was the final push I needed to make up my mind.

And now I get to teach people who truly need help rather than being tied to a higher educational  system that increasingly fills me with dismay as students pay more and more money so that system can continue to charge them more and more money. 

Gilbert is right: asking advice works!

Of course, Gilbert would point out that once people make decisions, their brains expend extra effort to justify those decisions.

Or, as a children's counselor once told me, "Children and adults do things for the same reasons. Adults are better at rationalizing those reasons."

Ah, well, whatever works.

Great Character Actor: Hattie Winston

Hattie Winston is Dr. Becker's no-nonsense, dryly ironic nurse, Margaret, in Becker. Her character is absolutely necessary to the sitcom since without a Hattie Winston, a Dr. Becker becomes simply Yelling Man (or, as one episode is titled, "Angry Head").

Margaret calls Becker on his crap, perceives his "heart of gold," and delivers to-the-point insights. Okay, yes, she is something of a trope. Hattie Winston makes her real, likable, and hilarious.

My favorite Margaret line occurs when she is trying to hold a staff meeting with Becker and Linda, who keep talking about the Krispy Kreme donuts--
Linda: They're more fluffy, like a croissant.
Becker: Mm, I think they're much fluffier than that.
Margaret: When was a little girl, I had a dog named Fluffy.
Becker: What does that have to do with anything?
Margaret: I had him neutered because he kept interrupting me.
It's not just the line, of course, but the way she says it--with punch and an evil eye.

Hattie Winston has a long career, starting with The Electric Company (remember that show?!). One of my favorite Hattie Winston guest star appearances is in Castle's "Kill the Messenger." She plays the sickly aunt with tons of cats, who serves Castle et al. tea while they fix her door.

Television Houses I'd Like to Live In

As a negative example:

I wouldn't want to live in The Golden Girls' house: two much pastel and wicker (though I do like the lanai).

TV houses or apartments I would like to live in:

The Baxter House in Last Man Standing: Great decor. A very nice master bedroom that reminds me of the large, warm parents' bedroom in Family Ties. Plus little nooks which make sense in terms of drama (overheard conversations!) and give the house personality. Plus I like brick.

In addition, the outside of the house more or less matches the inside (as far as I can tell). This is not true of the Golden Girls' house, by the way. 

The brownstone in Elementary: I covet this house. And I love the fact that neither Sherlock nor Joan feel any need to prettify it. Its bones are gorgeous--it doesn't need prettifying.

The only downside: Lucy Liu always makes me feel so cold. I realize the house might be better heated than it appears--and some people run hot--but I can't help but shiver when she walks around in shorts and bare feet. But then I wear multiple layers except in the warmest part of summer.
From Howl's Moving Castle

Because I love NYC so much, I must admit: Monica's apartment in Friends (and yes, I prefer it to the "boys'" apartment).

Not television but . . .

Just about any part of Hayao Miyazaki's creations.


Chivalry Isn't Dead: Sherlock in Elementary

Sherlock doesn't even turn Clyde into soup.
In Elementary, Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) claims that he isn't kind. This is mostly accurate. He doesn't experience an upwelling of warm emotions in reference to people's circumstances. (And although Joan harasses him about this--she is more imaginatively empathetic than Sherlock--she is essentially more like him than she realizes).

Despite the lack of upwelling emotions, Sherlock is actually impressively kind. The word that describes his behavior best is chivalry.

Pilot
 
In the pilot episode, the villain deliberately manipulates his patient into killing his, the villain's, wife. He puts his unaware patient on steroids to exacerbate the poor man's violent nature, then places him in the victim's way.

"He was your patient," Holmes chides the villain, "and you took advantage."

Take into consideration that this is Jonny Lee Miller saying "took advantage" in husky, drawling, entirely English tones that indicate absolute consternation at the other man's acts. The phrase is also rather old-fashioned: "took advantage" as Austen would have meant it.

Using other people's weaknesses to commit crimes is the opposite of chivalry as Holmes makes clear when he calls the villain out.

"You Do It Yourself" 

My favorite example. Joan helps an ex-boyfriend, who is also an addict, get clear of a crime he didn't commit. She knows he is a lost cause but she still goes to the rehab center where she arranged for him to have a bed. Sherlock joins her.

He doesn't scold or remonstrate or point out the pointlessness of what she is doing. He simply requests the privilege of sitting with her. 

Granted, Sherlock has an investment in this matter; just as Joan isn't giving up on the ex-boyfriend, Sherlock doesn't want Joan to ever give up on him. Yet he doesn't behave selfishly. He sits with her while she waits, stating that he has nowhere else to be that night. His chivalry is the chivalry of letting the situation be what it is.

"Dead Clad Walking"

Sherlock makes arrangements to meet a woman with whom he has been exchanging erotic letters. She is also an expert in antiques. She is a sophisticated, elegantly coifed woman at least 20-25 years his senior.

Sherlock doesn't guffaw or act embarrassed or snigger. He is polite, respectful, and gives her the ultimate compliment: "You have a rare gift [of writing], madam. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

Chivalry isn't dead!

Historical Principle: Face It, People Don't Think Abstractly

My favorite Last Man Standing episode is "Renaming Boyd's School." What makes it such a fantastic episode is the reason that Vanessa (Nancy Travis) doesn't want to change the school's name.

The argument: Clark Elementary School is named after Clark of Lewis & Clark, and he owned slaves. The argument against keeping the name is that Clark wasn't the greatest role model when it comes to diversity and understanding the modern world. The argument for retaining the name is that Clark was a product of his past--lots of people (including George Washington) owned slaves--plus changing the name will cost money.

Vanessa Baxter doesn't want the name to change because changing the name could lead to the school painting over the Lewis & Clark mural that she and other parents painted years earlier--it is part of her legacy.

She makes the clever argument that the name "Lewis" should be used instead--which would lead to the mural being preserved. The name is PC because Lewis was gay--or not.

But the real reason for Vanessa's argument is the mural. She's invested in it; she wants something she worked on, her legacy, to survive.

Encapsulated in Vanessa's argument is the reason that Marxism failed: People don't think in the abstract. Ultimately, familial, religious, and local concerns and needs matter more than any amount of "poor people will rise up against their overlords" theorizing.

In the previous Daughter of Time post, I address how Tey's character Grant reduces the War of
the Roses to a local affair. He is wrong (not all of the book's history is accurate). However, while the messiness of brawling royal families hurt everyone from farmers to merchants (the ramifications weren't limited to a group of cliquey aristocrats), the short-term politics of the war had sudden and explosive ramifications for the aristocratic families involved--the ones who invested themselves in one dynasty or another by trying to marry their children into particular families or by backing a particular power-broker. 

Pick the wrong side in modern-day America, and you have to wait four more years. Pick the wrong side then and wave goodbye to your entire family.

The point: people back then (and now) didn't think in philosophical terms or theoretical terms or historical terms. They thought in terms of what the leaders and battles and wars meant to their current needs, wants, goals. As Spike says in Buffy about the vengeful Native American ghost, "You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick."

Bad behavior can result from Spike's mindset, but the underlying reality--people care about stuff--is not inherently greedy or evil. It's normal. And everybody does it, even people who think they are above it all. As I tell my students, "Everybody has a bias because everybody has an invested interest."

Each of us cares about something: reputation, paying the rent, kids, getting funds for this particular program, a house, a car, a garden, a piece of art. Cats. We care about the next ice cream social or the next religious service or the neighbors next door. We care about the coffee shop we want to save or the building we want to preserve, the television show we really love or the traditions that have helped us and our family. We invest in a particular recipe or website or leader or brand. 

Claiming abstract motivations (I want the world to be a better place! I want to save the nation!) sounds good, and the human brain works overtime to make such abstract claims sound good. And I'm not throwing out the possibility that people are motivated by virtues and empathy and bigger pictures (I think they are).

The point is that no amount of abstract belief will wipe out the things and people that humans attach themselves to. As sociological analyses show time and time again, people join causes and religions and political rallies through word-of-mouth and family ties--personal investment--and very rarely through abstract argument.

We are social animals, whether we want to be or not. We are wired to care about what's in front of us, not to robotically (my apologies to robots) unravel the present into relativistic non-being.

There's a reason that philosophers like C.S. Lewis believe that the present, now, is the closest tie to eternity. Imagine the future all you want--the present is where thought and belief and the physical, material world in which we invest ourselves actually come into contact. 

Beware Stamps.com (Audience Studies, Inc. Updated)

Dealing with scammers . . .
This is a repost from 2007, updated to address Stamps.com.

It's embarrassing to admit, "Hey, I was snookered," but I figure doing so may do someone out there some good.

I am fairly savvy when it comes to buying things online (truly!). I don't give my credit card to just anyone; I check for hidden costs before I sign up for anything; and I stick to credible websites.

I hate to admit: I fell for Stamps.com mostly because I associated it directly with USPS. I like the United States Post Office. Over the years, I have found it a reliable handler of my mail.

Two months ago, I received an offer from Stamps.com to get "free" stamps. I went online and printed them. I ended up printing more, which involved entering my debit card information at the same time that I set up a profile.

Unknown to me, I was then also automatically signed up on A Plan.

I must emphasize: this was ENTIRELY unknown to me. (1) I never sign up for "Free 30-day" offers that end with me being charged a monthly fee; nope, not even Amazon Prime. I either sign up for something or I don't.

(2) The plan I was automatically assigned to involved spending $16/month. I don't spend $16 on stamps in an entire year. I would never have agreed to such a silly waste of money.

So a month later, a charge from Stamps.com showed up in my bank account. I was totally surprised and not a little freaked out. What on earth did I check or not check that would let this happen?

I signed in to Stamps.com, and there it was: me on a plan I didn't even know the name of, being charged $16/month.

I set about cancelling my account immediately, but when I tried to delete my card information, the system wouldn't let me "for verification purposes." There were no pending charges (at the time); I had not used the site since my initial show of interest.

Keep in mind, every single billing/commercial online system I use, including Amazon and Central Maine Power, lets me delete my checking account/credit-debit card information whenever I wish. But Stamps.com wouldn't.

I called. Instead of an agent handling my call, or even locating my account, I was told off-hand that I would have to be transferred to "Tech." I'm not kidding. According to the person on the phone, only some computer programmers were able to remove my card information from an account that I was cancelling. Because, you know, it's just so hard to do something that every single credible commercial website allows its consumers to do themselves

So I cancelled the account and then the card.

I have since learned a few things: (1) a number of small businesses use Stamps.com; (2) Stamps.com offers services that other agencies now offer cheaper or for free; (3) I'm not the first person to be dismayed by Stamps.com's reluctance/claimed inability to make cancelling an account easy--in fact, a small business owner on Consumer Affairs.com states that even after he cancelled his account through Stamps.com, he continued to get billed until he stopped things at his end, through his bank (which reminds me of the Friends' episode where Chandler hollers, "We want to quit the bank!").

My theory: Stamps.com decided to move beyond small businesses to individual consumers but made zero effort to adjust its website for people who don't actually spend $16/month on postage.

So it's not a scam; it is sleazy. 

Note the ambiguous wording: "taking the time to try"
Update: Here's the embarrassing part--apparently, I signed up for the plan when I clicked on the Terms & Conditions (that nobody ever reads). So I would lose my case in a court of law.

But not ethically. 

In all of my subsequent correspondence with Stamps.com (basically an email and a package of labels, which I believed were related to an earlier complaint), the company never told me directly, "Hey, you signed up for this plan!" "Hey, welcome to the plan!" "Hey, we're going to start billing you for this plan!"

I can think of no single online company that I do business with--companies that are constantly offering special deals and plans--that behaves in this way.

What doubly astonishes me is that while Stamps.com used small print to charge me for a service I don't use, it is oh-so-innocently shocked when I react as if it has hidden fees and nasty extra billing items lurking in its small-print. So the company snookered me like a good scammer into paying for its plan but doesn't want me to behave as if that is exactly what it did. (Where's a smug grifter when you expect one?)

When Walmart failed to inform me that I couldn't easily return an item bought online to the physical store or through its website, it fell over backwards to reimburse me for postage. That's how a good company behaves. (And I still shop there.)

In the "misery loves company" category, I have discovered that consumer reviewers--the kind of people who read Terms & Conditions--agree with me: it is very, very difficult to figure out the hidden fees and conditions on Stamps.com.

So beware!

Below is the previous time I was snookered by a less than an upfront business.

* * *

In writing this post, I am joining several bloggers who have posted about Audience Studies, Inc. Thanks to said bloggers for helping me track down the information posted here!

I recently joined the odd 400 people or so who agreed to watch a sitcom and then report back to Audience Studies, Inc. I was wary when I took the initial call but agreed, mostly because, as I told the young man on the phone, "You can always get my address out of the phone book."

(That poor young man: I don't think his heart was in the call; when I questioned him as to Audience Studies, Inc.'s resume, he said, in a very embarrassed voice, "I can give you a 1-800 number to call." The young man knew, as I discovered, that Audience Studies, Inc. only communicates what agrees with its "story." )

So, Audience Studies, Inc. sent me a DVD as well as two booklets with pictures of products. And I immediately figured out that Audience Studies, Inc. wasn't interested in learning about my reaction to the sitcom; it was doing product research.

Now, I have no trouble with product research! If Audience Studies, Inc. had called me up and said, "We're going to send you a failed CBS pilot from 2005 that we purchased for a nominal fee as well as a bunch of ads and commercials and frankly, what we really want to know about is your reactions to the ads and commercials," I would have said, "Oh, sure, that's sounds interesting. Go ahead." I like commercials.

What is bizarre about this whole thing is how completely Audience Studies, Inc. created a fake story in order to try to get (supposedly) unprejudiced reactions to products. First of all, the company went to the trouble to obtain the sitcom (why it didn't simply create its own is beyond me--the episode was so bad, at first I thought it was a basement production, which kind of impressed me. But the episode I was sent, which I turned off five minutes in [because that's what I really do with bad sitcoms] was from "The Rocky LaPorte Show." Don't blame Rocky. It was the dialog and plot that stank.)

Second, the booklets of products were printed as "Prize Booklets" complete with "Prize Entry Forms" that I was supposed to fill out (multiple choice fashion) and just coincidentally keep by the phone for when Audience Studies, Inc. called.

Third, the "Program Evaluation" was not in any way designed to solicit survey responses. It contained questions like "Which character did you like best?" "What parts of the show or the idea should be changed or updated?" No survey company of this type asks such open-ended questions!

I can't figure out whether Audience Studies, Inc. honestly believes that people won't see through this charade or whether people honestly don't see through it. All the bloggers I read had seen through it, but then bloggers already show a degree of media awareness and savvy. (Which is why they are susceptible to viewing the sitcom in the first place.)

Again, the irony is that I'm a big fan of market research, and I would have helped a request in that area. But I draw the line at so much icky snake-oil salesman patter. Either cough up the dough for a non-failed pilot, people, or come up with a better shtick.

Note: A year or so after I did Audience Studies, Inc., I warily agreed to track my viewing--or non-viewing--habits for a week for Nielsen. The difference in professionalism was startling! I reference this experience in the comments.

Villains You Gotta Love: Rupert of Hentzau

Prisoner of Zenda is a great example of a novel where the author loses interest in his hero, giving his villain more and more space on the page.

The villain of Prisoner of Zenda is not the traitorous Duke Michael, half-brother to the king. It is Michael's henchman, Rupert of Hentzau. He shows up soon after the book's hero Rudolf of Rassendyll is coronated as a temporary replacement to the king.

It is possible that Anthony Hope, the author, allowed Rupert to take over because he realized how completely silly the book's plot is--but I doubt it. Yes, all Michael and Rupert have to do is kill the king and then concurrently unmask and blame Rudolf, who after all is the guy pretending to be the king! So basically Rudolf plays right into their hands. (And why don't Fritz and Sapt bring the king with them to the capital in the first place? Seriously, how hard could it be? Stuff the guy in a trunk!)

And how on earth could a conspiracy to plant a false king in the place of a real one even exist, especially one carried out by three people? (Too many people, and someone spills the beans; however, royal personages are usually surrounded by dozens of people who are intimately acquainted with the royal body, so who exactly is being paid off here?)

In fairness, I doubt Hope was crafting a politically astute novel. I think he was writing a romance (in the old meaning of the term): kings! femme fatales! sword-fighting! midnight meetings! castles surrounded by moats! sarcastic villains!

In the book, the sarcastic, lively, handsome and frankly admired villain, Rupert, gains more and more page space. He is one of the few villains left living at the end of an adventure novel of this type (though I understand he dies in the sequel).

In the 1937 David O. Selnick movie, the part of Rupert is perfectly cast with Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks barely avoids taking over the film and only because Ronald Colman plays Rudolf.

In the 1952 version, both Stewart Granger as Rudolf and James Mason as Rupert fail. The latter failure surprised me--it's James Mason!--but Mason does far better as a sincere and brooding villain with depth than a lightweight, amused villain with verve.

Douglas Fairbanks as Rupert is excellent and Ronald Colman matches him with a twinkle in the eye. Colman has this delightful Robert Downey, Jr. ability (or Robert Downey, Jr. has a delightful Colman ability) to throw out single seemingly thoughtless lines in an incredibly funny way (in comparison, Stewart Granger is wooden). Colman and Fairbanks' scenes together become the best in the film--just think of Tony Stark facing down Hiddleston's Loki. Everything else comparatively pales.

Except a very young David Niven as Fritz--that was a surprise!

If you want to watch one of the inspirations for
Princess Bride's swordfighters-with-quips, check out
1937 Prisoner of Zenda.

The Problematic Trope of the Reporter Who Changes America

I don't entirely mind this trope because I like investigative stories--that is, I like watching stories unwind as someone (a detective, a reporter, Miss Marple) follows the thread backwards. All the President's Men is fairly fascinating in this regard since it involves actually "following the money!" Who paid what to whom at who's instruction is honestly rather explosive, even 45 years later.

The problematic element of the trope is not the investigation; nor is it the supposed violation of state secrets. I agree that in a democracy, the press needs a fairly free rein. Hence, my contributions to Wikipedia.

The problematic element is the insistence that these reporters are acting against the common herd or flow, entirely outside the box. Reporters (and I do include the Internet here) then begin to believe that they are somehow acting as enlightenment to the dumb masses, when, in fact, they are acting as spokespeople for the masses and should never, never forget it.

The following two movies deliver the trope of the reporter who changes America. Weirdly enough, in both cases, the movies were more or less accurate. Consequently, I came away with a totally different impression than intended:

David Strathairn as Murrow
Good Night, and Good Luck about Edward J. Murrow's decision to use See It Now to criticize Senator McCarthy.

Do I think Murrow was brave to do what he did? Sure! Career anybodies take risks when they poke the bear. And television executives are generally speaking big scaredy-pants.

Was Murrow acting alone? Absolutely not. As I watched Good Night, and Good Luck, I was struck forcibly by the fact that Murrow was catching a wave of distrust about McCarthy. Several people, including Maine's own Margaret Chase Smith, had already spoken out against McCarthy. The army was already gearing up (but had not yet acted) to get ticked as a poked bear about McCarthy.

Again, this doesn't mean Murrow wasn't brave. He was, after all, riding the beginning of the wave. And television executives are notoriously lousy people to have in one's corner. But he wasn't acting absent a national feeling of increasing unease. He was part of a trend.

All the President's Men. I finally saw it! I enjoyed it!

And I came away, despite Woodward's reactions within the movie, with the distinct impression that Woodward and Bernstein had never been in the slightest bit of danger.

In many ways, producer Robert Redford was too exact, perhaps purposefully so, which is impressive. He delivered the story as understood by the reporters, not the kind of story that finds its way onto Cable television. (As a murder mystery aficionado, I kept thinking, "Where are the dead bodies?")

Again, it isn't that Woodward and Bernstein weren't brave. It's that the possibility that the FBI was nudging them down a particular road is not impossible. I don't think there was any conspiracy going on--except for a dissatisfied Deep Throat and, oh, yeah, Nixon. That is, I don't think the FBI was using Woodward and Bernstein as pawns. I do think that there was a push in a particular direction that Woodward and Bernstein walked down with nudges from many others. 

Does that mean that Woodward and Bernstein shouldn't be commended for their work on Watergate? Of course, they should be commended for their work on Watergate!

The point is: when reporters, including online reporters, start thinking that they are acting in some kind of vacuum, when they forget that they operate within a democracy, they start thinking they are brave little dictators who are creating public policy.

But their job isn't to CHANGE people; their job is to report the news.

In this regard, despite some of my reservations, The Post is one of the more accurate reporter movies to come out of Hollywood. The question on the table is not whether to force the American people to hear THE TRUTH (insert drum roll and serious gazes). The question is whether to report material already handed over to The New York Times, which is under an injunction, material that appears to fall into the category of "historical knowledge that embarrasses people."

Graham's choice is not between THE TRUTH and THE LIE but between the role of the newspaper and her bankers--who are rather like CBS executives.

She chooses her role and takes charge--with support. Which is a far closer truth than the lone reporter who wants to SHOCK and AWE others--without support.

Why The Post is an Odd Movie

Is it because of the acting?
No. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep deliver rather low-key performances but that isn't a bad thing; in fact, it is rather impressive. They allow the characters to swallow them up. Both actors can scene-chew with the best of them, but the script doesn't call for that; it calls for them to act ensemble, and they do--because Hanks and Streep can do just about anything.

Is it the approach?
No. I rather like the Spielberg/Eastwood approach to history: take a single person and use that person to distill a representative historical event or time period. I think this approach makes history and certain time periods far more comprehensible and "real." After all, historical moments are made up of people and people's interactions: that's the place to start.

With Spielberg's Lincoln, this works since Lincoln & the Slave Issue is kind of the point of Lincoln.

So, what's the problem?
Katharine Graham/The Washington Post & The Pentagon Papers is maybe the point of Graham/The Washington Post, but Watergate is much more the point of Graham/The Washington Post.

Maybe Spielberg was afraid of going up against All the President's Men.

The movie rather reminded me of Eastwood's J. Edgar which is about Hoover & the Lindbergh Case, which is weird because it should have been about Hoover & Communism.

The New York Times & The Pentagon Papers is a much closer link (which link was well-handled in the movie). However, McNamara & The Pentagon Papers would have been a far closer link.
The amazing Bruce Greenwood as McNamara

Is McNamara the most interesting person in the movie?

Yes.

Could Spielberg have distilled McNamara down to 120 minutes?

Well, Fog of War didn't try, letting the documentary speak for itself, so I'm not sure.

Is The Post worth watching?

Yes. The story unwinds slowly (which I rather like); since Spielberg is the master of pacing, it pulls the audience in. The ensemble cast is excellent. The history carries the movie in a non-history-dump way. I learned more about Katharine Graham and The Pentagon Papers plus the movie made me want to watch All the President's Men. And, as another reviewer pointed out, it was cool to see people typing on typewriters and typesetting the newspaper copy sans a computer. Yes, kids, people used to do that!

Still . . . the sense of oddity remains . . .

Great Character Actor: Patrick Fischler

I love the diatribe about raccoons!
Patrick Fischler is one of my favorite guest stars. He is another one of those hardworking actors who appears in just about everything (or so it seems to me, since he does a lot of murder mystery shows).

He shows up in CSI ("Fur and Loathing" as Wolfie), Castle (as an assassin), Monk (as a Cobra fan), Bones . . .

My favorite is Bones, "The Boy in the Time Capsule."

In the shows I watch, Fischler's appearances last a total of five to ten minutes (Castle is an exception).  And yet, like Harriet Samson Harris, he endows even a three minute scene with pathos or humor or creepiness (whatever is called for). Without overacting, the guy has range!

In "The Boy in the Time Capsule," he manages to capture pain, guilt, and long-suppressed teenage bewilderment in only a few scenes. It is impressive without being excessive--as a Whedon director once pointed out in commentary, directors need their episode extras to act but not show off for the camera. Fischler is the perfect example of the guest star who knows exactly what to do for a scene and delivers. He isn't grabbing his chance in the sun; he is aiding the episode to be the best episode it can be.

Actors like Fischler are like parallelism in writing. If it isn't there, it's noticeable. When it is, everyone takes it for granted.

He's so good, you take him for granted. Kudos!

The Underlying Ideology of Blue Bloods: It's All About the Hard Work

The best way to understand Blue Bloods' mentality is the episode where Danny protects the Hollywood star (well-played by Marc Blucas, who has absolutely learned his range as a decent guest star) from a scandal that could hurt his career.

It seems like Danny, who is a hard-nosed, call-it-as-it-is pursuer of the truth, would pour scorn on the pathetic Hollywood star who can't be honest about his life. And that's sort of true. Here's the dialog that makes the difference:
Danny: Come on, Russell, I don't give a damn if you like men or women or cream-filled donuts, okay? It's 2013. Men marry each other all the time. They put it in the papers, for goodness' sake.
Russell: Well, in my world, it's 1913, and they don't hire fairies to star in the moving pictures, especially the kind I make. (my emphasis)
Even the dog is saved to do a job.
Danny agrees to keep Russell's mugging "secret" when Russell's livelihood is placed on the line.

This is the ideology that underscores not only Blue Bloods but Tom Selleck's own conservatism. It is, to be frank, old-fashioned liberalism (though not, unfortunately, always defended by liberals). A police commissioner (or a police investigator) has every right to badger people--right up until the matter becomes about their personal lives AND their ability to support themselves financially.

Whenever it seems like any of the Reagans are violating their own principles (which they rarely do), it is always for this reason: we should never make earning-a-living more difficult for people. Frank doesn't punish a precinct lieutenant who has been working extra jobs to pay for his wife's treatment because he recognizes (1) that the man is not sloughing off; he is trying to balance impossible pressures in his life; (2) the man's people have risen to the occasion to help him out.

When Frank helps the mayor's illegitimate daughter who got arrested at a demonstration, he does so to keep her future job options open (and to help a man he admires). When he helps the dead bigamous cop's "other" family, it is in acknowledgement that (1) this was the man's private life; (2) the cop supported both families through his work; (3) the "other" family is not to blame.

And when he chaperones his grandson's field trip, he goes out of his way to make clear that the grandson's young friend could be a doctor AND a park ranger. There's nothing wrong with trying out and doing more than one thing. It's up to the individual.

None of the Reagans tolerate what Danny refers to when he tells Baez that there IS one reason his family would stop talking to him: "If I were on the take."

But hard work--hard work on one's own time--hard work to support one's own family--is the ultimate good and the ultimate reason to protect a city.

Historical Principle: Be Wary of the Narrative Arc.

In a series of prior posts, I discussed Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time mystery novel in terms of the historical principles/research problems that it raises.

These second series of posts are those posts reposted and edited with supplemental material about research and history in general.

In Daughter of Time, policeman Grant discusses the type of history told in tidy, compartmentalized stories:
This, after all, was the history that every adult remembered. This was what remained in their minds when tonnage and poundage, and ship money, and Laud's Liturgy, and the Rye House Plot, and the Triennial Acts, and all the long muddle of schism and shindy, treaty and treason, had faded from their consciousness (p.25). 
Grant is referring to how "we" (meaning me and other people) remember something like the American Revolution in terms of Paul Revere. The Boston Tea Party. Crossing the Delaware.  Discrete, compartmentalized events.

And I defend this--after all, people should have some idea of the order of history, some starting point. I even point out that sometimes the streamlined "easy" story turns out to be kind of true. Yes, more people than Paul Revere headed out to warn colonists that the "British are coming!" But modern scholarship reveals that Paul Revere's efforts had greater impact and spread the message to more people than either Dr. Prescott's or William Dawes' (see Gladwell's The Tipping Point). Longfellow's choice of hero carries a core of truth.

I also complain about well-educated adults who confuse the Middle Ages with the 1700s (I'm not kidding). Or don't realize that people were emigrating West before the Civil War (and after). So knowing the order of events in history can be useful.

However, in this revised post, I want to focus on the need to question the narrative arc, whether conservative or progressive. It is surprisingly difficult to convince adult people that a narrative like, "Women wanted the vote but men tried to stop them" is far too simplistic. In truth, many women wanted the vote and many men helped them. And a large number of women opposed the suffrage movement and although they were linked to men, the anti-suffragists were surprisingly independent from men (though they used men when convenient).

A good example of my own experience with narrative arcs being upended is Rosie the Riveter and WWII. The narrative arc I learned growing up is that women didn't work before WWII. Then the war came and women went to work.

Actually, no. The war came and women were able to get well-paying manufacturing jobs.

Women were already working outside the home. The suburban homemaker of the two-parent/one-income family is fairly exclusive to an extremely small portion of American women and to, well, all of history (taking into consideration that for much of history, men and women worked out of the same location--and yes, they were both bringing in income; check out Martha Ballard).

The nature of work changed over the years, but again, many of the women who went to work in the factories were women who were already working outside the home. They liked the jobs because they paid well, they paid for schooling, and the women often mastered them very quickly. When the war ended and soldiers came back, the propaganda machine said, "Okay, women, go back to your children." But these were women who already belonged to two-income households or were the sole breadwinners of one-income families. They didn't go back home. They went looking for another job.

Conclusion: Be careful of the narrative that insists that once upon a time, EVERYBODY was like THIS.