Joy and Despair in a Single Day

BeakerTwo things came in the mail today that represent the poles of joy and despair for me. Although I didn’t open then in this order, let’s start with despair, because I can’t deal with ending on it. I got the AT&T bill today. Insert dramatic music here.

Ever since I got to the one year mark with my package with the company, it has been hell. Even though I was extremely clear when I first signed up that I wanted absolutely positively no special deals that were going to run out, after one year literally every part of the package went up in price. And by literally, I do not mean the newer definition of the word meaning “not literally,” I mean literally “literally.” So I called them up and they lowered a few things, most notably my internet cost. My bill went up but it was manageable. And it was all retroactive. But they told me to pay the whole amount on the bill and they would refund me the over-payment.

The next month I got the bill. It thanked me for my over-payment, which it said was exactly the amount I owed. And it asked for the same high level for the current month. So I called them up again. They told me not to worry, the changes didn’t get made before the bill went out. Everything was fine, though. The changes had been made. They told me to pay the whole amount on the bill and they would refund me the over-payment.

So this month, I’m thinking with all those over-payments, the bill would be low. Some of my friends are fond of pointing out that in many respects, I am a hopeless optimist. Accent on the “hopeless.” I opened the bill and it thanked me very much for my over-payment, which it said was exactly the amount I owed. And it asked for even more money for the current month. Ugh!

I looked through the bill. I saw why it had gone up again. The satellite television bill had “NFL SUNDAY TICKET 2014” added to it for a total extra cost of $42.99. This was especially galling to me because as everyone knows, I think that football is the most boring game ever invented! And I knew that I hadn’t signed up for it. But I at least understood: the bill went up because they were charging me for something I neither wanted nor asked for. But why was I again at the same high level for internet and phone?

So I called them up. At this point, I’m not angry (Not that I ever take it out on the poor souls who man the phones!) so much as exhausted. I think in a matter of just three months, AT&T has managed to reduce me to learned helplessness. I explain the situation to the bright young representative. It got very bad. She was apologizing so much that she was starting to sound like an abused wife. But the bottom line was that the reduced internet cost was just not in the records. After apologizing several more times, she put me through to the specialist. Insert the same dramatic music here.

But before I get back to the story, I’d like to introduce you to a pet peeve of mine that has really done wonders to my attitude. If you’re like me, you’re used to being abused by soulless corporations who you have no choice but to do business with. But why is it when I call any company at all, their computer system asks me to enter my account number? When a “customer service” representative comes on the line, he never knows what my account number is. Are they just messing with me? Just making sure I am serious about my call? I’d really like to know. (For the record, I think I know why. But it still doesn’t explain why they can’t manage to send the account information to the representatives.)

So I get to talk to Linda. In all my hours with AT&T, she is the first person I have talked to who seemed to be my age. This was very good, because I’ll admit it: I’m biased towards older people. I even took one of those “subconscious bias” tests and it found that I had a distinct bias for older people. It speaks very poorly of us that as a society we have a distinct bias for the young. I think it means we value looks over competence and wisdom. Anyway, Linda gave me my old internet discount. Plus she gave me another $5 per month discount for putting up with what is, after all, no worse than what I get from every other soulless corporate giant. And she gave me her phone number and a confirmation code. And she knew better than to tell me to pay the whole amount on the bill because they would refund me the over-payment.

Then I had to deal with the satellite part of it, but I won’t bore you with it. Let’s just say that supposedly that all got straightened out. But even if it did, it won’t surprise me if the next bill is $60 more for the “24 HOUR PARTRIDGE FAMILY NETWORK.” At this point, literally (as in literally “literally”) nothing would surprise me.

The good news is that Andrea spent $2.32 in postage to send me a Googly Eye Ring that she got at the dollar store. They are the perfect googly eye addition to all your sock puppets. Here is Andrea’s hand using it to look very much like Beaker from The Muppets:

Googly Eye Ring Puppet

So let it not be said that there is no good in life. Even as evil lawyers and executives all over the world are looking for better and better ways to gouge you and waste your time (“Think we could get the idiots to enter their account number five times per call?”) there are other people inventing the Googly Eye Ring. The world is not totally bad.

Life With and Without Robin Williams

Robin WilliamsAccording to various sources, Robin Williams is dead. The coroner suspects “suicide due to asphyxia.” I must admit to being shocked. It isn’t that I’m naive and think that any actor’s public face is who they really are. But Williams’ antics here in Sonoma and Marin were legend. So I always took him to be a narcissist who might well kill himself accidentally, but not on purpose. But according to his publicist, “He has been battling severe depression of late.”

So it is sad, as it always is when anyone feels the need to hurry death along. But I was wondering about it. I totally understand why someone in chronic physical pain would rationally decide to kill themselves. I guess the reason I don’t feel the same way about depression or, more generally, psychic pain is that it seems transitory. But I think that may be a bit of an assumption. It is certainly true of me, but then, my manic-depressive cycle is well known to me. But it remains hard to believe that there was not much joy left to Williams had he managed past this current crisis. But I wouldn’t presume to know for my own friends and family members, much less for a man I don’t know in the least.

As for what I do know—his work—I’m not especially a fan, but I admired him. I’ve always thought his acting was a good demonstration that comedy was the hardest thing to do, because he was a fine dramatic actor. I never really watched him on Mork & Mindy, but I thought his stand-up comedy was fantastic. I first noticed him as an actor in The World According to Garp, where I thought he had a wonderful Cary Grant type of likability. Then there was Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King. And that reminds me that I’ve been meaning to watch The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, so I guess I’ll watch it tonight. [Update: Will tells me they also really like Patch Adams and Awakenings. -FM]

My friend Will is especially bummed out. For one thing, Williams is probably the favorite actor of Will’s whole family. I know that they are very fond of Hook and Toys. But more than that, Will had this dream of Williams some day getting into politics and becoming president. Stranger things have happened. Unless, it would be stranger to have a fine actor become president than a mediocre one. Will also has a special fondness for local things, and I think he was taken with the fact that Williams decided to make the north bay his home.

I find it interesting that Robin Williams starred in the video for Bobby McFerrin’s song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Now, I’ve always found the song kind of offensive. The last thing you should ever tell and anxious or depressed person is to “be happy!” That’s not to say that it isn’t good advice—just that it is frustratingly useless. “It will soon pass, whatever it is.” But it does seem like an ironic comment on Williams’ death. Maybe it would have passed, maybe it wouldn’t have. But it is over now and he is at peace. And we are the poorer than we would have been, but the richer because he had been.


For the record, I do think people who die are at peace. The statement is a cliche, but I’m being serious. What is wonderful and terrible about life is its conflict. I do see death as a reward for life, and life as a gift.

Situational Use of Economic Models

Dean BakerDean Baker made a great observation this weekend, Robert Samuelson Says Economics Is An Inexact Science, Except When He Wants to Cut Social Security and Medicare. For those of you who don’t know him, Robert Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist who spends much of his time talking about how we have to cut entitlements for the kids. You see, his great interest is that we are taking money out of the pockets of future generations. But of course, raising taxes (like the payroll tax cap) is unacceptable to him. So he isn’t really interested in future generations in a general sense. He’s worried that the taxes of the rich in the future might go up a bit.

What Baker noted is that Samuelson’s arguments are generally dependent upon long-term projections from the Congressional Budget Office. Like all long-term economic projections, they are famously useless. But okay, you use the best economic information that is available. This week, however, Samuelson has written a column calling for the Federal Reserve to increase interest rates because he’s afraid that inflation will go up and “take on a life of its own.” And he specifically says that we shouldn’t listen to those economic models that he so loves to use to argue for cuts in Social Security. It’s truly amazing.

Economic policymaking is often an exercise in educated guesswork, built on imperfect statistics, shaky assumptions, incomplete theories and political preferences. This is an instructive case in point.

Note why this is an instructive case in point: because it is necessary to make his point. It is not an instructive case in point when it comes to entitlement “reform” (the smart conservative word for “cuts”). In fact, reading his constant stream of articles about how we have to cut Social Security now now now, you would never get the impression that economic projections weren’t handed down to Moses himself on Mount Sinai.

More broadly, Samuelson is making the argument that low inflation is a Very Big Deal. But as regular readers here note, modest inflation is good for everyone who actually works for a living. About the only ones who would suffer due to 4% inflation would be Robert Samuelson’s rich friends who have a lot of money in bonds. Dean Baker went on to note what it all means:

Let’s just be clear what Samuelson is advocating. He wants the Fed to keep millions of people from getting jobs. He wants to keep tens of millions of people from getting pay increases because when the unemployment rate is high most workers do not have the bargaining power to secure wage increases. He wants children to grow up with unemployed parents.

And he ended the article with, “But hey, we all have our priorities.” And that is the ultimate problem with Samuelson and the scores of other conservative pundits like him. They have their priorities, which are to enrich the rich at the expense of everyone else. But they know they can’t say that. So they claim that they are looking out for the common good. I appreciate the bind that they find themselves in. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they represent a small slice of society without admitting it. And that makes them pernicious. But hey, what do you expect from Fox on 15th Street.

Let’s Not Reboot Columbo

ColumboI read an interesting bit of news over at The Guardian, A Reboot of Columbo Is a Fantastic Idea—Apart From One Enormous Flaw. It reported on speculation that Mark Ruffalo may be cast as Columbo in an upcoming feature film. The “enormous flaw” in the title of the article is that Columbo wouldn’t work on the big screen and should remain a television show. This is true, but not for the reason that the anonymous writer claimed.

According to the article, “[A] movie—striving for event status, shouldering itself into the cultural conversation by claiming to be a once-in-a-lifetime event—simply doesn’t jibe with the lieutenant’s process.” The point is that Columbo’s whole process is slow and steady and so you really couldn’t appreciate it in a one-time event. As far as I’m concerned, this is not an enormous flaw.

The Columbo character first appeared on the stage. But The Guardian noted that its real place was on television. Well, maybe. I would say that theater and television are very similar: they are dialog centered. And that is the key to why Columbo wouldn’t work on the big screen. Now notice: I said wouldn’t, not couldn’t. The truth is, if it weren’t for our ridiculous copyright system, some young filmmakers could make any number of great low-budget Columbo films. (The character was created in 1962, and I think after 52 years, it is far past time that he is in the public domain.)

The problem is that no Hollywood studio would make a film that retained what we all liked about the television series. They would insist upon car chases and action sequences. And I’m sure that they could do that while being true to the character. But why? No one wants to see that. The article claimed, “The pleasure comes from seeing how Columbo applies his wily process to the murderer at hand.” But I disagree with even this. As murder mysteries go, Columbo isn’t very good. I’m often left at the end thinking, “That would never hold up in court.” The pleasure is just hanging out with Columbo and waiting for each, “Just one more thing…”

The essential nature of the show is two people talking to each other. And as far as Hollywood is concerned, this is death. It is no accident that My Dinner with Andre came out of the collaboration between a playwright and a theater director. Yet that film did work on the big screen. Although having watched it again recently, I know it works just as well on the small screen. And that’s the same thing about the character Columbo. There is no advantage to doing it on the big screen. And if Hollywood does it, they will screw it up.

But maybe there shouldn’t be a reboot of Columbo. I agree that Ruffalo could do a great job with the character. But wouldn’t the right thing be to bury Columbo with Peter Falk? I mean, just out of respect? But I doubt that will happen. The Columbo brand is worth too much money. So whether it is with Ruffalo or not, whether it is on the big screen or small, whether it is sooner rather than later: it will be done. And regardless of whether it is done well or not, the only thing that will matter is if it makes money. Because Columbo is not a beloved character owned by us all. It is a valuable commodity that must be used to maximize profits, because we are a great civilization—the first one to be totally lacking in a soul.

Yuji Koseki’s Ode to a Radioactive Moth

Yuji KosekiOn this day in 1909, the great Japanese composer Yuji Koseki was born. I don’t know a great deal about him. He worked in a lot of different forms and as a result, nothing especially stands out. Wikipedia tends to reward specialization. He composed film scores, songs, marches, fight songs, and much more.

He lived one of those old fashioned, very Japanese lives that I’m so jealous of. After he college, he went to work for Columbia Records as a composer, where he appears to have stayed his whole working life. He wrote both “classical” and popular music for the company. In 1939, he started writing film scores. He composed the music for 47 films over two decades and then he stopped, although I doubt he retired, since he was only 53 at that time. He also wrote fight songs for professional sports teams that are still sung to this day.

He is best know, however, for writing the music to “Mothra’s song” for the film Mothra that he also scored. It is a very catchy tune with lyrics by Susumu Ike:

Happy birthday Yuji Koseki!