Odds & Ends: Christmas 2020

Odds and Ends

Hell of a year, huh? It wasn’t strangely hard on me because my life is already mostly online. But even for me, it’s been hard. It’s one thing to choose to be alone. It’s another to be forced. Nothing makes me want to go outside like knowing that I can’t!

I don’t have a lot to say otherwise. Here are just a few things worth mentioning.

James Fillmore

I’m sure that this will embarrass him, but I want to highlight James Fillmore. He continues to write here. And I’ve gotten a number of compliments for his writing. So let me be clear: look at the author! I know, it’s in small print. But some of the best stuff here is by him.

His last article was particularly good, The Strange and Awful Origins of the Resolute Desk. That was really good! It reminded me of the days when I had the time to write cool articles like that! Remember the slogan here, “Everything interesting for everyone interesting!”

Sure, you can find most of that information on Wikipedia. But first, it will be poorly written in a way that will bore you to death. And second, you won’t know to look on Wikipedia for the HMS Resolute.

I spend most of my life editing other people writing. And I always know that something is good when I get interested in the text while editing. I assure you: it is extremely rare and I work with a lot of professional writers!

So thanks James! I really appreciate it. And I suspect a lot of other people do too!

Santi Claus

Early today, I was thinking of Santa Claus, as you do on Christmas Eve. And then I thought, “Oh yeah! Chico Marx and the Santi Claus.”

So I found this bit of Marx Brothers insanity from A Night at the Opera. These two are great together. And this is a great print:

And here is Chico in what I consider his best piano bit in Go West.

Christmas Evil

My favorite Christmas film is It’s a Wonderful Life. Just kidding! I actually hate that film. I love Frank Capra but at his worse, he’s saccharine. And that’s the case here.

My actual favorite Christmas film is Christmas Evil. If you want to know why, go over to Psychotronic Review. I explain this as well as why you should buy the film. But if you don’t want to, there is a free copy!

But now that I think about it, do I really explain why I love the film? The truth is that such things can’t be explained. It is unquestionably a great film. It’s a slasher film that is also an art film. But why do I love it? Because I love it!

Baroness von Sketch Show

The best comedy group I’ve found in the last several years is the Baroness von Sketch Show. They are Canadian and they do some of the best stuff I’ve seen.

Strangely, most people I know aren’t that into them. I’m not sure why. Here’s Santa’s Christmas:

Stewart Lee Doesn’t Ruin Christmas

I was going to return to this old comedy bit by Stewart Lee to go along with my tradition of “Frank ruins holidays” posts. But when I watched it, I realized that he doesn’t actually ruin Christianity. Instead, he acts very pretentious and over-thinks a simple song. It’s very funny.

This is still a large part of his act today. A good example of this is his “pirate’s letter” routine where he complains that the audience isn’t laughing fast enough. And he goes on to explain the joke. People say explaining a joke ruins it, but when it’s done by a pretentious Englishman, it’s brilliant!

I had wanted to add a video of Harry Hill to show you what he was talking about but I couldn’t find a good one. The truth is that I think he’s brilliant but I don’t find him very funny. As for Michael McIntyre, I don’t even see why people think he’s funny. He’s so artificial. But I can tell that he could be funny if he weren’t doing the crap that his fans clearly love.

Merry Christmas

My mother’s side of the family is made up of a bunch of Christian Conservatives. And it’s only since she died that I learned that my mother was very religious in her way. I wish I had known because I would have loved to have talked to her about it.

The truth is that I think religion can be a beautiful thing. So I find it distressing when people use religion for nothing more than to reinforce their bigoted social and political beliefs. As an atheist mystic, I want more.

But regardless of your feelings about Christianity, you’ve got to admit that Christmas isn’t much of a holiday. From a theological standpoint, what does the birth of Jesus mean? There are stories but it has nothing to do with the religion itself. Yet I never hear Christians complaining about the Easter Bunny.

Listen up Christians: Easter is your big holiday. The fact that Christians make a big deal (or any deal) about Christmas show that they don’t take their own mythology seriously. But honestly, I really don’t know what American Christians get from their religion.

But whatever it is would starve any seeker of truth or God.

Merry Christmas!

The Strange and Awful Origins of the Resolute Desk

Resolute Desk

The Resolute Desk. It’s the main desk in the Oval Office. Duplicated a zillion times on film and TV sets, it is immediately recognizable to everyone. (Well, that and the windows.) Let’s learn where it came from!

Search for the Northwest Passage

In the 19th century, every empire worth its salt was trying to find the Northwest Passage. What’s that? It’s an easier way of getting from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

The route south of Argentina has notoriously awful sailing conditions. Even today, it’s a rough ride for scientists headed for Antarctica.

Lewis and Clark were trying to find a river route for it. They failed badly, of course. Eventually, we found the solution of having lots of workers die from malaria digging through Panama. But this was before then.

England Loses Two Ships

England sent two ships to explore the waters north of Canada: the HMS Erebus (named for a mythical figure in Hell) and HMS Terror (named after the English word for “terror”). Sailors are superstitious sorts, as a rule, so those aren’t great ship names.

Both ships got frozen in sea ice. Some Inuit oral history suggests that the desperate sailors went all Donner Party. Whatever happened, they didn’t come back.

There’s a brilliant fictionalized TV show about this, called The Terror, in which everyone dies horribly. The star, Jared Harris, is also in the brilliant TV show Chernobyl, which has equally gruesome deaths. It’s Mr Harris’s thing, so it seems. (His dad was in Unforgiven, where most everyone dies — but via standard means and after Harris’ character escapes. There’s no radiation sickness or Death Murder Polar Bears.)

England Almost Loses a Third Ship

The captain of the Terror had a proper English wife, so she pushed for a search-and-rescue operation. It was launched on the HMS Resolute (better name). It also got stuck in Arctic sea ice, but the crew was saved.

America, which was just then building up its own navy, and had unsuccessfully tried to invade Canada a few times, decided to be gracious and permitted the Resolute to be returned to England. Because the thing could still float, barely.

It gets back to England, and it’s basically only worth salvaging for parts at this juncture. But Queen Victoria grasps the point of America’s gesture and responds in kind. They make a very beautifully wood-worked desk out of the Resolute. And they offer it to America as a gift, which we accept

Today, it sits in the Oval Office. (LBJ had it tour the country for a awhile after Kennedy was killed; Carter put it back in.)

So, that’s the Resolute Desk. Betcha thought the name was because Presidents made serious decisions at it. (I did!) Nope, it’s from scraps of a doomed boat looking for two other doomed boats, gifted to us in a geopolitical strategy move. But, hey, geopolitical strategy move is also where the Statue Of Liberty comes from. I’ll take it!

Afterword

The wreckage of the Erebus was discovered in 2014. Two years later, the Terror was discovered in better shape. Their exact locations have not been disclosed, but from what we know I calculate that they were roughly 40 miles apart. The sites have not been fully examined and there is hope that they will find written records.


Image cropped from Barack Obama at Resolute Desk by White House (Pete Souza) — derivative work — under CC BY 2.0.

What About Those Georgia Polls?

Georgia

Like a good little numbers-oriented liberal, I was all over the polls in the lead-up to November’s election. And election night came and I was crushed. I concluded that there really was something wrong with the polls and I wasn’t going to listen to them. Then I started hearing about how close the two Georgia Senate race polls were.

Unskew the Polls!

I thought, “Aha! I’m going to show how wrong the polls were in Georgia and how no one should listen to them for the run-off!” My idea was that I could do an estimate of these conservative freaks who aren’t showing up in the polls but who are showing up to vote. I was planning to do something like Dean Chambers’ Unskewed Polls.

Back in the 2012 election, conservatives claimed that the polls were all wrong because they didn’t have a high enough percentage of white people. It was a telling claim: the more white people vote the better Republicans do!

So Chambers “unskewed” the polls by adjusting them to have the “right” number of white people. And could you believe it?! Obama was only going to win 179 electoral votes!

But this was wrong. The country is becoming less white. So there were simply less whites as a percentage of the vote in 2012 than there had been in 2008. And when the votes were cast, that was exactly what they showed. Obama won 330 electoral votes — 151 more than Mr Chambers had predicted.

A Better Plan

But I had a better idea. I was going to look at how much better Trump did than the polls suggested he would. The Senate elections are only two months after the presidential election, so that ought to be valid. Off the top of my head, I figured the polls were off by about 4 percentage points.

But I was wrong. At least about Georgia.

The Georgia Polls

The FiveThirtyEight average of national polls gave Biden an 8.4 percentage point lead over Trump. The final results were that Biden won by 4.5 points. So they were off by 3.9 points. (Note that this isn’t actually that bad — especially in an unusual election like this one with huge turnout because of the pandemic.)

But in Georiga, FiveThirtyEight had Biden winning by 1.2 percentage points. And Biden won by 0.24 points. And Real Clear Politics had Trump winning by 1.0 points!

When it comes to the Senate polls, things are more complicated. I’ll start with the easy one: Perdue vs Ossoff. Real Clear Politics showed Ossoff winning by 0.7 percentage points. But he ended up losing by 1.8 points. That is mostly due to “undecided” voters all going for Perdue. (I really do think that a lot of Republicans don’t even like to admit to themselves that they support the people they do.) That’s off by 2.5 points but it isn’t unreasonable.

The Warnock race had a ridiculous number of people running. Obviously, we know about the two major Republicans: Loeffler and Collins. But the 6 candidates only garnered 90.3 percent of the vote. A full 9.7 percent of the vote went to 14 people who got less than 2 percent (7 got less than 0.6 percent).

RCP had Warnock winning by 15.7 percentage points and he won by only 7.0 points. But remember that the people supporting the minor candidates were not generally included in the polls. So that’s probably what most of the difference is.

The Run-Off Polls

The run-off polls show the two races even. Can we trust them? Kinda.

Generally what they show is the Republican candidate slightly ahead. But this is not always the case. And it is rare for any candidate to get to 50 percent.

What does this mean? I’d say it means that the most likely outcome will be two Republican victories. But it will all come down to turn-out.

The good news is that these appear to be competitive. And I didn’t think that was the case when I started writing this.

Help Out

You can help out the campaigns. Here are their websites:

If you are going to give money, you might consider Stacey Abrams’ group Fair Fight Action. They are doing the kind of work that is most critical to turning Georgia blue.

I recommend doing what you can but not getting your hopes up. These are real possibilities for the Democrats but that’s all. But that’s better than it could be. And all the more reason to fight!


Georgia by Nick Youngson under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Alpha Stock Images.

Advocates for “The Unborn”

Dave Barnhart

“The unborn” are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don’t resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct; unlike widows, they don’t ask you to question patriarchy; unlike orphans, they don’t need money, education, or childcare; unlike aliens, they don’t bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike; they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships; and when they are born, you can forget about them, because they cease to be unborn. It’s almost as if, by being born, they have died to you. You can love the unborn and advocate for them without substantially challenging your own wealth, power, or privilege, without re-imagining social structures, apologizing, or making reparations to anyone. They are, in short, the perfect people to love if you want to claim you love Jesus but actually dislike people who breathe. Prisoners? Immigrants? The sick? The poor? Widows? Orphans? All the groups that are specifically mentioned in the Bible? They all get thrown under the bus for the unborn.

Pastor Dave Barnhart

Image taken from Saint Junia United Methodist Church under Fair Use. Their website says, “A community of sinners, saints & skeptics,” which is pretty cool! I saw the quote above in graphics form on Twitter and knew that I had to share it. -FM

Why I Care About “Little” Films

The Lacemaker by Vermeer

Over at Psychotronic Review, I just published The Films of Slumberjack Entertainment. It includes embeds of most of their short films, so you should check it out.

It’s almost all horror. But it isn’t the kind of stuff that’s going to give you nightmares. They are heavy on the comedy. There is, however, a fair amount of gore. I mention that only because I’ve recently found that most people don’t find blood spraying out of zombies funny the way I do!

Why I Care?

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to why I love independent films like these. Some others include:

There are many more, of course. But why do I care? I think it is because it is ridiculously hard to be an artist today.

Decades ago, I came up with my “Sunday Morning Blues Jam” theory of creativity. It’s this: you can go to any Sunday morning blues jam session anywhere in the world and find people who are better than you could have hoped to have seen a century earlier.

When it comes to film, it’s even worse. With digital cameras and computer software that is a hundred times better than anything anyone had a couple of decades ago, there are a lot of really creative people making a lot of really creative movies.

It’s hard for me because I want to see everything. But it has to be far worse for the filmmakers. The people I talk about are making really great stuff. And few people notice. Yet they keep producing things. They are quite literally the best of who we are.

Caveats

Okay, some caveats. Bookwalter is something of a legend. Also: he hasn’t directed anything in almost two decades and generally isn’t even producing. But he’s still working behind the scenes and getting things restored and released.

And Tjardus Greidanus has gone on to be quite a successful documentary filmmaker. And I also don’t want to forget people like George Barry whose artistic vision is so wonderfully idiosyncratic that he left the business.

Finally, I don’t wish to minimize what any of these people are trying to do. I know they all are clearly hoping that they will take off. I hope they do too! (Admittedly, my liking all of them is normally a bad sign for their careers.) And I have little doubt that their work will at least lead somewhere fulfilling.

Creative Dedication

But even producing a fully developed 4-minute short like The Dog Walker takes a lot of work. So this is about something more than dreams. This is about the creative force that many people feel.

Regardless of what is in the hearts of any of these people, they honor us by honoring their art. And I guess that’s why I care.


Detail of The Lacemaker by Johannes Vermeer — Musée du Louvre, Public Domain.