Archive for July, 2012 | Monthly archive page

And Good Riddance.

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

Harlan Ellison, punning on “boob tube”, famously referred to television as the Glass Teat. While the connection between television and sucking is clear enough, there’s a problem with that image. Nursing usually benefits the child doing the suckling — there’s some vital nutrition being passed through the nipple. Unfortunately, for decades now I think we’ve been wrapping our lips around a totally different body part. For us, that’s stopping now.

For many years we didn’t have television, and frankly we didn’t miss it. It was mostly a matter of economy at first: as we started our lives together, we didn’t have the money to waste on TV… let alone the time. Even later, when we could afford it, it wasn’t exactly high on our list of priorities.

It was only about seven years ago that we decided to subscribe again. My wife watched TV fairly regularly, but I usually only watched when she had something on; I can’t remember the last time I specifically turned on the television to watch something myself, and at no time did I ever sit down and idly flip through the channels. That’s not to say there weren’t shows I enjoyed, but I’d usually catch up with those on the Internet if they weren’t things Lisa watched regularly. But we had a fundamental difference in outlook about TV programming: we both recognized that television fare was mostly poisonous social engineering, but while Lisa liked to study the methods of the hucksters on the shopping networks (without buying a single thing, or even being tempted)… and liked to marvel at the moral pornography of the Dr. Phil Show, or Teen Mom, or Toddlers and Tiaras, or The People’s Court… those same things caused me to break out in hives. The merest glimpse of a Real Housewife was enough to send me into a fit of existential despair.

But things got unbearable for both of us when our provider, DirectTV, got into a squabble with one of its providers, Viacom. DirectTV had just jacked up the price of a subscription yet again, yet they balked when the equally greedy and evil Viacom decided they wanted their share of the spoils.

DirectTV sent out ads complaining that Viacom’s demand of an additional 30% represented a billion dollars nationwide… without, I guess, realizing what a profoundly illuminating statement that was. A billion dollars is only 30% of their revenue? That means they’re raking in several billion dollars…. for a steady stream of pure drivel. And they’re not willing to part with a penny of it, if they can help it… neither to their providers, nor to their disenfranchised customers. They just decided to drop about 30 channels completely until Viacom decided to see things their way. Viacom responded by pulling many of their freely-available videos from the Internet, so we customers were truly SOL. Two behemoths, Godzilla and Megalon, were duking it out… and we were beginning to feel an awful lot like like Tokyo.

So we cancelled the whole damned service.

Or at least we tried to cancel it. Telling you cable company you want to go without TV is a bit like going to your parish priest and telling him you won’t be paying your tithes this year because you no longer believe in God. No, no: I take that back. Cancelling TV is way more difficult.

The robot receptionist was DirectTV’s first line of defense. It kept asking Lisa to please say or enter her account number. She started by speaking, slowly and clearly… but the robot kept garbling the number. Later on it stopped taking voice input entirely, and when you tried to input the numbers via the keypad it would refuse those, too, unless you typed them in at exactly the right moment (which was never now).

Several tries and a lot of lost temper later, she finally managed to talk to a human being. Ooo! Big improvement! The Customer Service Representative kept her on the phone for half an hour as he worked through K├╝bler-Ross’s Five Stages of Fuckery.

First there was disbelief — you’re cancelling television? Impossible! — then bargaining: how would we like to get five whole dollars back, for the duration of the outage? That’s almost two shiny new dimes for each channel! When that failed, he proposed an even better deal on our monthly rate (which made us wonder exactly how low we could’ve gotten the fee if we’d really wanted television, and how much of a scam this whole multi-billion dollar fleece job really is). Then he went on to the third stage, denial: surely we must have been seduced by another competitor’s advertising… but he’d beat their rate to win us back! When this still got him nowhere, he made it to the fourth stage, acceptance, and started transferring her to the the department that handles the disconnections.

This brought on the fifth stage: Lisa’s cellphone dropped the call.

Starting all over again, Lisa made it through DirectTV’s tears, and anger, and bargaining, and general incredulity — “But where will you get your news?” they said, which made her mad — and finally got the company’s assurance that the service would be stopped, and our remaining subscription fee would be refunded to us.

A few days later, they sent her a survey to fill out on-line… and the fuckery continued. I thought it might be full of ridiculous leading questions, such as: “What part of our world-class service and amazing lineup of entertainment do you think you’ll miss the most?” Ha. Little did I realize (NOTE TO DIRECTTV’S LEGAL DEPT.: The following is a paraphrase, exaggerated for comic effect. But I think the gist is still pretty accurate).

“Why did you leave us?” they asked. “Was it because you lost your job and are now too poor to afford the TV you want… you need… you crave?”

No, replies Lisa. Next question.

“You accepted a competitor’s offer, didn’t you? You faithless slut! How dare you, after all we’ve done for you?”

No, replies Lisa. Next question.

“OK, then. (Ahem.) You were lying about question one, weren’t you? Loser!”


And so to the conclusion: “We think you’ll be crawling back to us in no time. But please take this opportunity to let us know about any issues you feel are important to resolve this problem.”

Internet users in the Northeastern US may have experienced a brief outage that day, as miles upon miles of communications infrastructure melted from the blistering heat of Lisa’s response.

So that was that. DirectTV sent us a box in which to return our rented equipment. We also had two old receivers, but they didn’t want those. Strange, how they considered the antiquated equipment ours, or at any rate not worth returning — and yet all this time, they’d continued to charge us for having them.

Next we went out and picked up a Roku box, which uses our Internet connection to pick up a whole lot of free streaming content. We get to choose what we want to bring into our home. We’ve also subscribed to… what’s it called? Cthulhu? No: Hulu. Hulu Plus, that’s it… which brings even more stuff for us to choose from. It may not be the most current programming out there, but who cares? And now that I have much greater control over what’s flowing into my TV, I may end up watching more. Thanks to Hulu, I’ve got about a hundred Criterion Collection films in my queue. And thanks to this whole fiasco, I’ve seen something I would never have seen otherwise, on the Hulu Plus/Criterion listings page:

The X fromOuter Space... on the Criterion Collection

When the hell did this happen? How did I not know Criterion had acquired the rights to The X from Outer Space? True, it’s the same print I have on a Japanese DVD (and reviewed for, but still… the thought that somebody browsing for Winter Light may suddenly decide to add this to their queue instead fills my black little heart with joy.

In the meantime, DirectTV has announced they’ve finally reached an agreement with their arch-rival, and not only will the service be resuming… they’ve also managed to agree to raise their fees by a mere four percent. Such a bargain! While we, in the meantime, have our television needs met for an entire year, at less than the price of a single month’s subscription to DirectTV. And that includes the hardware. If the cable company wants us back, it’s our body parts that will be awaiting their lips for a change.

Kitty 3, Braineater 0

Monday, July 9th, 2012

Twelve years ago, we had two puppies who were less than a year old. When they went through their chewy stage, among the things they destroyed was my pristine Mattel Rodan from 1979 — they tore it to tiny vinyl shreds, really. I was surprised at how thoroughly they pulverized it. I learned a tough lesson: as long as I had animals, I just couldn’t have nice things.

I remembered that this evening, as I went to look for one of my prized possessions: a press packet for the movie Green Slime. It was an original set of promotional materials for the movie from 1968. Precisely one newspaper ad had been clipped out of the back page; evidently the movie had a very limited run at that particular theater. My plan was to scan or photograph some of the pages to go with my podcast about the movie.

I found the press kit, all right… along with the press kit for Hannah, Queen of the Vampires and my enormous 6-foot by 4-foot French poster for Lucio Fulci’s 7 Note in Nero. They had been knocked off their shelf (probably a year ago), dragged to the back of the closet behind the shelf, and shredded to make a nest for my weird little goblin cat. There’s barely a piece left of any of them that’s more than two inches long and a half an inch wide (The kitty also got the sheet music for the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto… but as I haven’t touched the instrument in 25 years, that’s not such a big deal).

I’m not as mad as I thought I’d be. After all, I’ve been in this situation before… many times. Nine years ago, someone — possibly the same cat — unerringly chose some of my favorite books off the shelf and turned them to confetti. My complete annotated collection of M.R. James ghost stories was one volume I lost. Also, I was about to write a lengthy comparison between the 1944 Ray Milland film The Uninvited (often described as the first serious ghost story in Hollywood history) and its source novel, Dorothy Macardle’s “Uneasy Freehold”; but somebody shredded the book before I got started writing. I haven’t found a replacement copy since.

The thing is, this particular kitty, who has spent most of the last 14 years hiding in a shadowy corner — Lisa calls her “the troll” — has in the last couple of years decided to become a house cat. She’s always been fond of me, if not my belongings… and now she likes to come into my room while I’m working and visit. She’ll sit on my lap and rest her greying chin on my hand as I move the mouse. She’d sit there all day, if I let her. How could I stay mad at anything that cute? And in the end, who needs “nice” when you have a cat?

I’m going to keep telling myself that, because it’s just occurred to me that I can no longer find my Seventh Voyage of Sinbad re-release poster, and some of those fragments in the closet look awfully thick…

H. G. Wells: The Red Room

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

One of Wells’s most famous non-science fiction stories, The Red Room, though ostensibly a ghost story, may instead be an allegorical tale about the dawn of the 20th Century. If anything, that makes it even scarier…