Blink

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Finally finished up reading Jonas Gardell’s Kärleken/Sjukdomen/Döden (Torka aldrig tårar utan handskar) trilogy (the TV version is also good). It’s strange to see the ‘backwards’ countryside of western Värmland represented (and to read about it). As a ‘foreigner’ living here especially it’s entertaining.

Near the end of the third book, one of the main characters (one of the only ones left alive) exits the train in Åmotfors, which is already a podunk, middle-of-nowhere, close-to-nothing town, and asks the guy who picks him up, “Ar det långt till Koppom?”

“Bah. Tar väl en kvart eller så. Och när vi väl är där får du inte blinka för då missar du hela tätörten.” Yes, that’s just about 100% accurate.

It was interesting to delve into these books as my first foray into reading books in Swedish. I knew I had to choose something that would hold my interest – and the story/tragedy of AIDS happens to be one of the things that still conjures up all kinds of emotion and anger – this huge sense of loss – even though I have no tangible connection to it. I feel deeply affected every time I think about it – and how pervasive the fear and scaremongering was. And also to realize how young people today understand so little of how the terror associated with this at-first completely mysterious and fatal disease rippled across society and more starkly exposed the hypocrisy and inhumanity of bureaucracy, governments and healthcare organizations (as well as average people – who didn’t care about this at all, in fact welcoming and even laughing about it on some selfish, shitty, brutal level as long as they believed it only afflicted gay men) while bringing the strength, resilience, organization and collective voice of the gay community into the light.

When I reflect on this period, it felt like “peak terror” went on for a really long time (I was a child during the height of this), but in fact, despite the havoc the disease wreaked, it was a relatively short period of time that it gripped public attention and also equalled an inevitable death sentence (the relatively brevity of the ‘epidemic’ period being little consolation to all those who did lose their lives)… I cannot say it was a mere blink of an eye, but like most things in life and indeed in the course of history, especially now with the 30-second attention spans of tweets, the demand for instant gratification and higher-stakes drama, the pain and fear of that period has lost its efficacy – at least for those who didn’t witness those years of uncertainty, illness and death.

Innovation v Invention – Not knowing how to change things when you work from a template

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As long as something is deemed sufficient, even if imperfect, no one will change it. Most people who work in technology or in any field that relies on innovation know that “innovation” is rarely, if ever, borne of someone expressing a specific need and someone else finding a way to meet that need. Sometimes innovation comes from hidden needs – the solving of a problem. Those who express their problem but don’t have ideas for or even an expectation of finding a solution are eventually met by those who have framed their problems with a solution in mind, developed solutions and introduced these solutions (or sometimes introduce solutions for problems that were somewhat hidden).

There are, of course, other innovations that are so novel, so innovative, that they create whole new things, new paradigms, new ways of seeing, perceiving, gathering information, organizing the world and living in that world. These tend to be things that are widely perceived as “crazy”, such as statements like “every home will have a personal computer by whatever year”. This seemed so outlandish, unnecessary and beyond the realm of possibility at the time. But there were visionaries who could see the potential for personal computing. We have seen the same with the smartphone, spearheaded by Apple, and other connected devices. We used to have crazy long-distance phone charges just to speak to someone who lived in the next county – and even though we all hated it, it is not like the majority of us tried to devise innovations to liberate ourselves. True innovation is often vision and a means to liberation (not just a run-of-the-mill solution to a problem). It anticipates a solution for many problems or features that we want to use long before we have the problem or want the features. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are written about ad nauseam as the forefathers of this sort of thing – mostly because they have been the front-men and are identifiable figures. We don’t often hear about the thinkers, geniuses, programmers who have come up with a lot of the inventions (tech oriented or not). But real innovation usually changes the world.

This is where I have a lot of problems with normal corporate life. Most companies have adopted “innovation” as a buzzword and concept – have tried to weave the idea into the corporate behaviors, running workshops on how to think about and teach approaches to “innovation”. But this is just not how it works.

In a somewhat related area, I recently read an article about why we don’t have better condoms. The most “revolutionary” development in the condom-making arena in the last 40 years has been synthetic latex condoms (since latex allergies are serious, and one wouldn’t want a latex allergy to prevent someone from having safer sex…). (Durex apparently used the word “revolutionary” in its marketing of a polyisoprene condom.) This is not innovation, at least not by its modern, accepted definition. Perhaps if we think of the literal definition of “innovation” – it is a bit like “to make new again/improve”, in which case, making small, incremental changes and improvements IS innovative. And polyisoprene is a variation of an existing product and existing material. True innovation, as the word is used, should be called “invention” – meaning that you will end up discovering something completely new and different from what anyone could have imagined. Some completely new material that totally changes the game.

Condoms have never been the most interesting topic for anyone – and because, until the onset of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, condoms were seen primarily as a non-invasive birth control method (not something gay men were particularly into), they were not something anyone really needed to talk about. It was also not high atop anyone’s “let’s revolutionize this design/material” agenda, going back to the point that if something is sufficient, there is no real reason to fast-track change or seek to think about it in a new way. Indeed, at the height of the AIDS crisis, real innovation had to go into something more urgent – seeking viable, life-saving treatments for the disease itself. (It was not entirely clear early on, before the virus and its spread was fully understood, that condoms could act preventively.)

If you believe Danny Resnic, hard at work on his Origami condom, polyisoprene is a symptom of Americans’ failure of imagination when it comes to condoms. “When I first told people I was developing a new condom, they went, ‘Well, what could be different about a condom?’ ” he said. “They couldn’t imagine anything different, because there’s never been anything different.” Resnic thinks men have become desensitized by latex condoms. “They’ve come to accept that level of sensation as the maximum.” If they use condoms at all.”

I would argue that lack of invention in many areas comes down to this same lack of imagination. There seems to be no shortage of imagination in technology. And while changes occur frequently in areas like healthcare and pharmaceutical/medical device development, the regulatory and legal requirements, costs, lack of “sexy factor” and human factors considerations make this field much more difficult to operate in. Real change seems to occur only when there is a loud enough public outcry or public health emergency (the response to HIV/AIDS in the 80s – only because the gay community and its few supporters were vocal, organized and demanding enough or to some extent in response to Ebola, which some argue came belatedly). Some “imagination” is not as possible to implement – and certainly not as swiftly as one would desire – in healthcare and medtech.

When looking at something as “boring” to most as condoms, we have a working template, and very few people have the interest or imagination to change or improve it.

“Everyone has AIDS!” – When Did AIDS Become a Punchline?

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I watch an undue amount of television and films and have begun to wonder: when did it become okay to joke about AIDS? And when is a joke a joke too far?

When did AIDS stop being a histrionic soapbox issue in one isolated, “very special” TV episode (à la Designing Women) or a story arc for a regular character (à la Life Goes On and its Chad Lowe character “Jesse” – which actually handled it pretty well – but didn’t that show have enough going on with an economically strapped middle-class family rearing a Down Syndrome kid, an overachieving nerd kid and a late-in-life, unplanned pregnancy, among other things?).

Back in the early days of the crisis, which rightfully terrified every person conscious and alive at that time, we did not see a lot of gay stories on TV (we know of course that all AIDS stories were not gay stories, but the dearth and lateness of mainstream stories can be placed squarely on the fact that network television was not the semi-gay-friendly place it has now become), but there were some exceptions – Designing Women had a particularly poignant episode guest starring a very young Tony Goldwyn (yes, yes – President “Fitz” Grant from Scandal).

AIDS showed up in pop culture now and then… but when did it become okay to joke about it?

When you think about treatment for HIV and AIDS – and the awareness of it – it has advanced further and faster than advances in almost any other disease or illness. I’d attribute it to the persistent, loud demands of won’t-take-no-for-an-answer activism from an hitherto marginalized community of gay men who were disproportionately affected by this epidemic. We can all thank them – even if, as one characterization of the crisis puts it, we have ended up in a “complacent” or “indifferent” place in society with regard to what is now a treatable illness.

But does this advancement mean that all of societal perception has shifted? Does the tempering or perceived neutralization of the threat and the almost-distant memory of the devastation AIDS once caused in the western world mean that we have reached a stage where we can laugh at it? Young people today (I know I sound elderly starting a sentence that way) did not live through the fear and terror of those early years and thus don’t feel the same limitation or deference to the topic’s seriousness. It’s seen as a “developing-world issue” if it is thought of at all. Taking that into account, is it possible for some of the humor to be intelligent analysis or satire of the place we are with the disease – or with other things in society when held up to it? And where is that line? What happens when someone crosses it?

A woman named Justine Sacco found out the hard way, as she completely failed to walk the tightrope when she tweeted something that went viral and was widely seen as completely inappropriate and in horrible taste. (Her Tweet read: “she tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”)

“Despite Ms Sacco only having around 200 followers, the message quickly spread to online news organisations, with social media users around the world expressing their disgust.

The irony of a supposed public relations expert tweeting such an insensitive comment, and the fact it could not be corrected during a 12-hour flight without an internet connection, meant the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was soon trending on the social media site.”

Apart from being a perfect example of displaying very bad judgment, it is also a perfect illustration of the viral nature of social media and why we have to be careful.

But pop culture is… well, popping with all kinds of increasingly frequent joking references to AIDS. From the parody of the popular musical Rent in Team America: World Police with its “Everyone Has AIDS!” song

to the South Park play on the different meanings of the homophones “AIDS” and “aides” (which reminds me of my days observing TESOL/ESL courses; one afternoon one of the teachers discussed acronyms and had used AIDS as an example – later in the lesson, although on a different topic, she introduced the word “aides” and asked the perplexed class, “Do you think Bill Clinton has aides?”).

What prompted this entire train of thought on the subject, apart from watching the heartwrenching HBO treatment of The Normal Heart last week, was my marathon-viewing of Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer, and an episode in which Amy’s boyfriend announces he has AIDS (humorously summarized here). Seeing it almost shocked me because I was not sure whether to find it funny or not. I think Schumer stayed on the right side of the humor because she was not actually laughing at AIDS but was shining a light on a lot of different issues, ranging from hypocrisy to the awkwardness of conversations in which you feel a certain pressure to accept or agree to things that you need time to process, regardless of what they are (but when put on the spot, it is not like you know what to say, so when the boyfriend asks if his having AIDS is a dealbreaker, she nervously, awkwardly chimes, “No, it’s great!”).

The question, though, cannot really be answered universally – where is the line?

TV overdoses, past and present – Random stream of consciousness

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According to HuffPost the best line uttered on tv in 2013 was, “Not great, Bob!”

““Not great, Bob!” It was only three words, spoken by an angry Pete Campbell as he joined the ever-sunny Bob Benson in an elevator on Mad Men.””

As someone who loves any line that involves “Bob” (e.g. “I used to have a pretty good pen, Bob.” Or “Scarves, Bob? His life will be filled with scarves?”), I agree. Especially because I am, like most, a Mad Men fan – and possibly an even bigger fan of the work James Wolk has done on Mad Men, the entertaining and mostly underrated Political Animals and The Crazy Ones – he and Hamish Linklater are the best parts of that show.

I get roped into a lot of television shows – not just because television is improving and offers a depth and breadth that seemed unimaginable a decade ago. I live in the middle of the Swedish woods and am a workaholic multitasker. I need some noise going on in the background all the time, and when it’s not music, it’s television shows. Mostly I carefully select the shows to which I become devoted – but in the interim, I watch a lot of stuff halfheartedly (like the aforementioned The Crazy Ones, which is not very good and only offers a funny line now and then or –puke, puke – guest appearances from – PUKE – Josh Groban. I watch, I judge, I keep watching sometimes even when a show sucks or even after it loses the plot (example, Revenge) or becomes passé (case in point – Grey’s Anatomy). Some stuff is middling all the time – entertaining but nothing extraordinary (Elementary, Grimm, Revolution – stuff that does not require careful attention, enabling my half-watching notice, mostly things I will refer to as “network stuff”. As much as the major networks are trying to be edgy, they are still just middle-ground followers. Half-baked ideas relying on shock value, soapy dramatics, riding the coattails of the deserved success of edgier, deeper, different storytelling from free and premium cable channels. (Not that all non-network tries are successful. The US version of The Killing started off with promise, dragged its feet with sloppy storytelling and carried its first-season mystery into season two without resolution – never a good idea, right David Lynch/Twin Peaks/Who killed Laura Palmer? People extended the show goodwill enough to give it a third season, which was arguably much better than the second season, but it was really too late.)

Speaking of killing, I also caught a brief article on TV characters who should be killed off. I found that I agreed with the majority. The article also brought up some other random thoughts – because that is what a multitasker does – lots of different things at once, with disconnected thoughts shooting through the brain at lightning speed. Sometimes I capture them – sometimes not (but they were not likely worth capturing).

I only recently started watching Scandal – rapidly caught up on the previous seasons over holiday break. I dislike Quinn – never had a liking for her, but it has gotten worse. I agree that she can go anytime. I have trouble with Tony Goldwyn in general – he is a good actor but for me, he is Carl the bad guy from Ghost (a film I hated). I cannot do anything except make fun of Ghost. Everything about it was so cheesy, and the villains (Willie Lopez!? Carl!). I also remember ghosts of TV’s past when Tony Goldwyn was a guest star on Designing Women, asking the women to design his funeral. He played a gay man who was going to die from AIDS, and the episode ended with his funeral. Designing Women was a preachy show and brought up a lot of issues of the day (mid/late 80s issues). Not that AIDS is not an issue today – but the issue and the illness – or approach to the illness – have changed, maybe in part because of mainstream treatment of the disease?

Which then led me to think about the show Life Goes On (not least because one of its principal actors, Patti LuPone, is now in the ensemble cast of American Horror Story: Coven. Not a favorite in the US although it went on for seasons and seasons. It was probably the first show that put a family front and center that included a member with Down Syndrome and prominently featured that character in the storylines. While that was probably groundbreaking at the time, the show also gave one of its main characters an HIV-positive teenage boyfriend (played by Chad Lowe – probably one of the only things I remember him doing since his career has been overshadowed by his brother Rob and his ex-wife, Hilary Swank – who would have imagined that when she was in one of the many Karate Kid sequels?). I thought about how this character introduction was also its own kind of groundbreaking. While Life Goes On was never actually what I could call “entertaining”, it somehow tackled big issues without being over the top or preachy. It’s no wonder it was not popular (I am told that it was popular in Iceland for some reason – so everyone remembers “Corky” – I suspect if I were to ask a representative sample of Americans if they remember Corky or Becca Thatcher, they would not).

Where is this line in television between entertainment and education? At times Designing Women just felt like a mouthpiece for the creator’s political views and feminist diatribes. Life Goes On, without being too heavy handed or dramatic, still felt a bit too real, making it too depressing to be a gripping drama. Meanwhile, something like The Wire can do both – “edutainment”. But, it is also true that The Wire was not exactly popular during its first run. It has more of the slow-burn quality that comes from being able to buy whole seasons of tv on DVD or online for streaming/download. Some things just don’t catch on until well after the fact. Some fall into obscurity (Homefront, anyone?) while others live on and gather a loyal, vocal following (Arrested Development, Friday Night Lights – note that I cite TWO Kyle Chandler classics!). Thanks to the push for original programming from unorthodox sources (Netflix), we got another season of Arrested Development after years of waiting. Was it worth it? Hard to say – need to watch it more than once to assess. That was the beauty of Arrested Development all along – you almost had to watch it more than once to catch everything. The show was laced with multilayered jokes and references, and without a pretty well-stocked brain bar, getting the perfectly hilarious mixed cocktail it intended could be challenging. It was funny on its surface in many cases but even funnier if you could unpack all the layers. (The Simpsons is a lot like that, too – albeit more so in its earlier years.)

But then so much of pop culture – any culture or discipline – relies on shared references.

For example, everyone needs to see the 1980s classic film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High – I do not know how many times I have referenced it lately and heard it referenced. There was a con mentioned in the show White Collar called “The Phoebe Cates” (referring to the most memorable scene in the film). There was a reference in The Crazy Ones to the scene-stealing Jeff Spicoli (played by then-unknown Sean Penn). Most good pop culture – even the not so good – plays on these references and adds a richness

For the sake of posterity and trying to remember how, when, where and on what I flushed so much time down the toilet, I’m listing as much as I can remember of television I recently ingested and random thoughts on some of them. There are way too many other shows I have not listed (like Mad Men, actually – because they are not on now or soon).

Nashville – Not great, not terrible. I like Connie Britton (thanks to her work in Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story and early Spin City) – not sure I buy this show but I actually like a lot of the music in the show.

The Crazy Ones – This show is all right but I don’t go out of my way to see it. James Wolk and Hamish Linklater make the show for me (really enjoyed both of their work in other things as well). Robin Williams is too over the top as usual and Sarah Michelle Gellar, whom I keep trying to like, is just not for me. I do love Brad Garrett in his role, though. The episodes seemed to get better when he arrived.

The Good Wife – New life breathed into this (not that it needed it) when main character goes off to form her own law firm.

Justified – can’t wait for the new season, coming up soon. I love everything about this show and all its characters. Agree with the writer of article cited above – do not want ANY of these characters to die.

Once Upon a Time – I admit that I have skipped the whole current season of this show. I gave up.

Californication – Thank god we are heading into the final season of this show that should have died ages ago. Sick of this story being rehashed of some loser middle-aged dude who manages to pull his head out of his ass long enough to do something artistically rewarding only to fuck up his personal life and screw over all the people in his fucked life again and again. It’s only funny or forgivable for so long…

House of Lies – Pretty entertaining because it plays on all the stereotypical business clichés and management consultant language. Don Cheadle plays a great asshole.

House of Cards – Entertaining remake of the UK version, proof that creativity can be launched from all kinds of wombs (Netflix original programming)

Episodes – Looking forward to new season. Have been surprised by how crass but simultaneously funny this show is.

Lilyhammer – Funny but also like being hit over the head with stereotypes. But then no one outside of Norway knows anything about Norway – but this might be the sort of thing they imagine. UDI (immigration directorate) might take offense to its treatment, but I’ve never heard a happy story coming out of there.

Shameless – Looking forward to the new season

Grey’s Anatomy – End already. It’s getting petty (or pettier) and duller by the minute

Revenge – It was always soapy but now it’s just ridiculous and has lost any edge it had. Best part is the ease with which character Nolan Ross switches between male and female love interests and it’s just no big deal to anyone. Perfect.

Parks and Recreation – Losing its comedic edge unfortunately.

Community – interested in seeing how this is rebooted now that its controversial creator is back at the helm. Fingers crossed after dismal previous season.

Scandal – Outlandish but a guilty pleasure.

Hawaii Five-0 – another guilty pleasure. I like the chemistry among the cast. Alex O’Loughlin and Scott Caan together are pretty funny. I like some of the cheeky jokes, for example about Magnum PI – long ago and faraway Hawaii-based TV

Elementary – Big Jonny Lee Miller fan, like how Aidan Quinn is pretty much always a New York police captain in every show now, and Lucy Liu has grown on me in almost all the roles she has done since annoying Ally McBeal BS.

Downton Abbey – I could fully see where the popularity came from in the beginning but it is grating my nerves now

How I Met Your Mother – So glad this is coming to an end. It used to be quite funny at times but this last season feels like a stretch.

White Collar – Time filler. Sometimes quite entertaining. I like the characters but it’s a fairly straightforward show.

Veep – Caught up on this a few months ago and loved it. Laughed a lot at the awkwardness.

The Walking Dead – When it comes back, I wonder where the gang will go. I have always been happy that the show was not afraid to kill people off as they went – that’s realistic.

American Horror Story – Enjoying. I love the big ensemble cast and like that each season brings back the same people in different roles. I never used to like Jessica Lange but this has put a few points in her column. Angela Bassett is, for lack of a better word, amazing. She always is.

Treme – An abbreviated final season. Interested in seeing how it all turns out, even though things never quite “turn out” – I don’t expect finality.

Girls – Clever at first. Eventually just annoying as all fuck. The article above wants Marnie to die. I would not mind if they all did.

Top of the LakeJane Campion is a complicated filmmaker, and she is no different when introducing her storytelling to the small screen. Visually arresting backdrop to a complicated and ugly story, Elisabeth Moss takes center stage as a New Zealander/detective who goes home for the first time in years, dredging up some of the horrors of her own past. Excellent viewing.

Luther – The story is often really outlandish and unbelievable but we can’t help loving Idris Elba, can we? Or the troubled John Luther that he portrays.

Game of Thrones – I resisted. I tried to watch once but did not get far. I tried again and got sucked in this time. Much better. I am a Peter Dinklage fan anyway but came to appreciate the whole thing (even if I still acknowledge that he’s the best thing about the show)

Bron – Swedish/Danish original of the police show – great characters.

The Bridge – US version of Swedish/Danish police show. It took a while to accept Diane Kruger and her character, but I loved Demian Bichir’s character immediately. Also appreciated Ted Levine as the lieutenant – as I loved him in Monk – and Thomas M. Wright as Steven Linder – he also figured prominently into Top of the Lake.

Orange is the New Black – Binge watched. Mostly really enjoyed this – of course it’s not perfect but it was different from most of what else is out there. More accolades for Netflix taking a chance on its own programming.

Longmire – Just renewed for a third season. Can you argue with a show that has Lou Diamond Phillips in it? No.

Ray Donovan – Not sure about this show still. I like most of the characters, but all I can think of when I watch this is that the whole plot development is advanced almost entirely by people making phone calls on their mobiles – way too much time on the phone for everyone involved. Character development suffers a bit…

Homeland – Ok, this show went off the rails many times. I still enjoy it, largely because I have enjoyed the performances of Mandy Patinkin and F Murray Abraham (he will always be Salieri to me). But let’s hope that the next season takes a new direction in light of some of what transpired in the end of the latest season.

Masters of Sex – One of the best things to come along in the last round of shows. Excellent and likeable cast, a sensitive subject handled with sensitivity and a deft hand. Beautifully done. A lot of accolades have gone to star Lizzy Caplan (well-deserved), but other cast members, including virtually unrecognizable Julianne Nicholson and, as the repressed housewife discovering sexual secrets about her husband, the always great Allison Janney.

The Newsroom – My opinion is tipping toward dislike. The background music playing in many scenes tells too much of the story – soaring music that somehow betrays that Jeff Daniels’s character is going to do something liberal and benevolent that no one expects. Too much of the annoying Maggie (played by Alison Pill) and a whole stupid storyline there. I know this is Aaron Sorkin and his famous fast-talking, wordy spiels for all the characters, but I don’t buy the characters here. Mac (Emily Mortimer) is especially out there – someone is unlikely to ascend to her position if this insecure and flighty. Best characters – Sam Waterston, Jane Fonda, Hamish Linklater (a few episodes in the most recent season). They kept the thing grounded.

True Blood – End already? The recent season was a bit more entertaining than the previous two but I could do without this one.

Boardwalk Empire – One of my all-time favorites. I don’t actually know many people who like it, but I love it. I think it becomes more engrossing each season and love the actors they bring in. Somehow the vast ensemble does not get muddled – each character is distinct, even if it does mean that one needs to pay close attention to every moment of the show. Definitely a show not afraid to kill off important characters and fan favorites, which is sad but perhaps necessary to keep it going at the same level. (Actresses I have never liked, such as Patricia Arquette and Julianne Nicholson, turn in fabulous performances here.)

Sons of Anarchy – Also look forward to this ending. It has just become ridiculous. More ridiculous than it already was.

Revolution – Time filler-killer

Grimm – Time filler – like that it is set in Portland, though, so we get references to Portland’s weirdness and Voodoo Doughnut.

Hell on Wheels – I watch this almost entirely to see the performance of Christopher Heyerdahl as “The Swede”. That alone is worth the time.