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U.S. Television Critics Awards

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The United States Television Critics Association gave out their annual awards this weekend and it’s an interesting set of winners.

Individual Achievement in Comedy – Julia Louis-Dreyfuss – Veep – both male and female actors were nominated here, and while it may have seemed like Louis C.K. should have been the sure winner, I think that Armando Iannucci’s Veep just gets better and better, while Louie is coming off a somewhat controversial season.

Individual Achievement in Drama – Matthew McConaughey – True Detective – again, both men and women nominated in this category, and notable that McConaughey won over Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad’s final season.

Outstanding Achievement in News and Information – Cosmos – I’m really pleased that this won because the show, hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, has been taking a hard-line stance on topics such as evolution and climate change.

Outstanding Achievement in Reality Programming – RuPaul’s Drag Race

Outstanding Achievement in Youth Programming – The Fosters

Outstanding New Program – Orange is the New Black – the competition here included True Detective and Fargo, both shows that I love, so I guess I’ll have to finally get around to watching this.

Outstanding Achievement in Movies, Mini-series and Specials – True Detective – Kind of a no-brainer on this one, eh?

Outstanding Achievement in Drama – The Good Wife

Outstanding Achievement in Comedy – tie between Veep and Louie

Career Achiievement Award – James Burrows (shows he has worked on in one capacity or another include Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Laverne & Shirley, Cheers, Wings, Frasier, Friends, NewsRadio, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Dharma & Greg, Will & Grace, Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory, so yeah, he kinda deserves it)

Heritage Award – Saturday Night Live – I guess this is for lasting 40 years, which is definitely an achievement on its own; certainly the last season was uneven.

Program of the Year – Breaking Bad – duh

I’m currently in the middle of watching True Detective for the second time. The first time I watched it on my iPad on the 307 bus, one episode per week as it aired. Now I’m watching it on the “big screen,” one episode per night, with my wife.

I wasn’t sure if she was going to go for this, but she is completely wrapped up in it. One thing is, she thinks that aside from Game of Thrones, she doesn’t want to watch TV series, she only wants to watch movies.  She hasn’t yet realized that outside of indie cinema, there’s more creativity going on with televison at the moment than in film, or at least that’s how it sometimes seems to me. But after watching the first episode, she commented that it felt more like watching a film than a series.

I was actually kind of lukewarm on it the first time – loving the acting, the photography, the production design, but not quite sure how I felt about the overall story. Now I’m completely loving it.

One reason that it may be getting to me more this time is we’re watching it in the midst of the news reports about Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The first time around, I wasn’t sure how I felt about Rust’s misanthropic philosophy.  Things like this:

I think human consciousness, is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware, nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; an accretion of sensory, experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.

Or this:

This… This is what I’m talking about. This is what I mean when I’m talkin’ about time, and death, and futility. all right there are broader ideas at work, mainly what is owed between us as a society for our mutual illusions. 14 straight hours of staring at DB’s, these are the things ya think of. You ever done that? You look in their eyes, even in a picture, doesn’t matter if they’re dead or alive, you can still read ‘em. You know what you see? They welcomed it… not at first, but… right there in the last instant. It’s an unmistakable relief. See, cause they were afraid, and now they saw for the very first time how easy it was to just… let go. Yeah They saw, in that last nanosecond, they saw… what they were. You, yourself, this whole big drama, it was never more than a jerry rig of presumption and dumb will, and you could just let go. To finally know that you didn’t have to hold on so tight. To realize that all your life, all your love, all your hate, all your memories, all your pain, it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person. And like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it.

Maybe the first time I watched it, I thought he was just damaged and more than a little bit batshit crazy. Now I’m not so sure. We live in a world where after 5,000 years of recorded history, we have learned nothing and are still capable of such barbaric acts. I want to be an optimist about humanity but some people sure don’t make it easy.

 

 

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PCCW Netvigator – You Make It So Easy to Hate You (and VPN Notes)

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PCCW’s Netvigator Internet service enjoys a virtual monopoly for fixed line Internet services in the small villages located all around the New Territories.  And faithful (?) readers of this blog may recall that when I moved from Sai Kung to Lam Tsuen last year, it took PCCW more than a year to figure out how to get a line to my house – despite the fact that I’m in a ten year old house in a large village located right off a main road. I spent much of that year sending complaint letters to PCCW, the telecommunications authority, and members of Legco, not that it did me much good. But now it seems that PCCW is seeking their revenge.

I’ve been paying $190 per month for Netvigator’s Internet service. This gets me an ancient ADSL line advertised as being 8 Mbps, but in practice has never been more than 5 Mbps – and generally quite slower than that. I was told this was a special promotional price because I’m also a NOW-TV subscriber. And then, my contract expired. Even though I still subscribe to NOW-TV, I was told that the monthly cost of my Netvigator service would increase to $298 per month, a more than 50% increase. This is especially frustrating after hearing from a friend in Kowloon who pays $236 per month for a 500 Mbps line from Netvigator.

Me:

I have always paid $190 per month for my Netvigator service.  My contract is finished and I am told it will now cost $298 per month for a new contract. I don’t understand the reason for this price increase. Certainly the level of service has not increased. I am not going to get a 50% faster line, so I don’t understand why I would be charged 50% more.  Can you please explain this?

Them:

Please kindly be informed that our service plan price has been adjusted
as we need to constantly invest to improve our service, in order for us
to maintain a high quality of service. Our company started sending a
notice to customers by post one month before the price adjustment. We
deeply apologize for the inconvenience and confusion that we have
brought to you.

Improved service? I’d gladly pay more for a faster line, but they are only offering me the same service I’ve always had.

Me:

I still do not understand from your answer why I am being asked to pay 50% more for the same service.

Them:

With regards to your email, we are really sorry to learn of your
disappointment over the service fee adjustment. However, we regret that
because there has been a substantial increase in our costs, price
adjustments for some of our services have become necessary.

As soon as I received your email, kindly be informed that I have
immediately passed your contact number to our sales hotline department
for their follow up action and please be patience that our colleague
will get contact you and introduce you the promotional offers on your
interest.

Substantial increase?  Please be patience? If I’m Patience, will you be Felicity?

Me:

No one has called me yet.  

A friend of mine told me that he is a Netvigator customer and pays $236 per month for 500 Mbps.  Please explain to me again why you want to charge me $298 per month for a connection that is 98% slower than that.

After a few days, I received a phone call telling me that if I want to renew the contract, it will cost $298 per month. I said that was too expensive. The guy said, “Okay, bye, see you.” That was a great promotional offer, wasn’t it?

Them:

In regard to your concern, as to cope with constantly changing market
circumstances, we do provide different promotional offers in different
market segments from time to time.

Referring to the record, our sales colleague has contacted and provided
an available offer for your consideration.

Constantly changing market circumstances? Why do they keep throwing these empty marketing phrases at me?

Me:

Your sales colleague called and did not provide me with any promotional offer, just the same $298 price previously quoted to me. Which I have refused. It is too expensive.

Them:

Referred to your message, please note that I have checked with our sales
department and kindly be informed that they will arrange to contact you
again in order to introduce you more offer plans for your interest.

A few days later, another “sales colleague” called and again offered me the monthly rate of $298. When I again said it was too expensive, I was offered a “special promotional rate” of $268. Still too much.

Then it got a little bit weird. The PCCW drone suggested that I could continue to use the service on a monthly basis without a contract. I kept asking how much that would cost me every month and I couldn’t get a clear or simple answer to what I thought was a clear and simple question.  She seemed to suggest that without a contract the service would continue to cost me $190 per month. I’m sure this is not right.

So I’m waiting for my next bill to see how much it is before I decide on my next step.

Side note #1 – You only need service of 3 Mbps or greater in order to efficiently stream Internet video services such as Netflix. These companies have spent buckets of money in optimizing their services so that they’ll work for people with relatively low bandwidth. And even with my relatively slow line and routing through a US VPN service, I’m able to watch Netflix and Hulu smoothly for the most part.

However, 4K streaming is coming soon. That will required a sustained bandwidth of at least 15 Mbps. On this Akamai chart of which countries are ready for this kind of service, Hong Kong places third globally, because 26% of the population does get this kind of speed. (No surprise, South Korea is #1.)

I think this is good news. If PCCW wants to sell this service, they’re going to have to do more network upgrades. Though I’m sure such an upgrade for my village would be years away.

Side note #2 – So why continue my Netvigator service if my 4G service from SmarTone is working decently? I’m not sure this is entirely logical, but on my last visit to the US I bought a Roku streaming stick (it’s half the price of a Roku box). I want to watch Netflix and some of the other channels they stream on my TV, not on my computer monitor. There is no way to configure the Roku for a VPN or a proxy; it has to be done at the router level. But I don’t want to route all of my Internet stuff through a US-based VPN.  So to me, it seems to make sense to have one relatively low-cost Internet account and router dedicated for this. $190 a month is probably already crazy but I was prepared to go with that. At $268 or $298 a month, I need to decide if it’s really worth it.

The alternative, I guess, will be for me to give up the Netvigator account, get a small network switch, and still have a separate router with the VPN configured in it and use that for the streaming. I’ll save a bit of money, but I’ll be sharing that Internet connection with two other people in the house and not yet sure how consistent my speeds will be. I will test this out within the next few days.

Side note #3 – In terms of VPN providers, Unblock-Us requires you to log into your account via a browser every day. That’s because their service gets tied to your IP address but your IP address is dynamically allocated by your ISP, so it changes. Logging in via the browser authenticates this change.

VyprVPN looks very attractive (their US$9 a month service includes “Dump Truck,” their Dropbox-like service, with 25 gig of online storage) but they require that your router be flashed with dd-wrt. The process is not trivial  and for whatever reason, when I tried to do this with my router, I did not succeed and had to restore my router back to factory defaults (a very good example of a time when having multiple routers came in extremely handy).

If you’ve subscribed to a VPN in order to get around geo-checking, which one are you using?

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Pastrami, Thai Food, Louie, Fargo

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If there’s one New York food I miss in Hong Kong, it’s pastrami. I’ve been able to find just about everything else here, or some reasonable approximations, but the few times I’ve ordered pastrami in Hong Kong it has just been horrendous.

Here’s a great piece on New York’s famous Katz’s Deli (as seen in When Harry Met Sally) and how they make their pastrami. Two to four weeks to cure the brisket. Two to three days to smoke it, in a smoker the size of a Hong Kong apartment.

But I don’t get to Katz’s. It’s too far away from where I stay in New York and not convenient to any of the places I visit on my brief trips there. But back when I was a taxi driver, I used to pray that I’d get fares that would leave me somewhere reasonably close to Katz’s around lunch time. Some days I’d luck out, but not many.

I’m off to New York on Saturday, and here’s the pastrami sandwich I’ll be having on Sunday, at Liebman’s Kosher Deli in Riverdale.

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Anthony Bourdain’s next episode of Parts Unknown is in Northern Thailand, and he’s got a great accompanying blog post just up.

To be fortunate enough to be able to visit Thailand, to eat in Thailand, is a deep dive into a rich, many textured, very old culture containing flavors and colors that go far beyond the familiar spectrum. Given our limited time on this earth, and the sheer magnificence, the near limitless variety of sensory experiences readily available, you don’t want to miss ANY of it. 

I’ve only made it to Northern Thailand once. And the decision to go to Chiang Mai saved my life. Because that Christmas I was in Bangkok and was going to go to Phuket but at the last minute changed my mind and went north instead. My last day there, I was woken in the morning by an earthquake. I watched the scenes of the devastation in Phuket from the airport as I was waiting for my flight to Bangkok. Had I chosen Phuket, I almost definitely would have stayed in some beach front place, and I almost definitely would not be blogging now.

Louie season 4 is almost over. They’ve been showing 2 episodes per week – 8 episodes so far and I think this season is just 12 or 14 episodes. As in previous years, this show resembles nothing else on televison. Louis C.K.’s in the midst of a 6 episode arc that’s psychologically deeper than anything he’s ever attempted before. Essentially it’s contrasting the state of his previous marriage with the relationship he’s now in – with a Hungarian woman who speaks no English visiting NYC for just a month.

Note that in the series Louie’s ex-wife is played by a black actress (and both of their kids have blonde hair and blue eyes).  And in an extended and very painful flashback to the early days of his marriage, the wife is played by a white actress. What was the Bunuel film in which two different actresses portray the same woman, switching off almost completely randomly?  It’s almost like that, but it’s not.

Anyway, things with the ex-wife are contentious, they always have been. But the relationship with the girl friend is a fantasy. She speaks no English, she makes no demands, she’s just there. I think this will end badly and Louie will be alone again and still have no idea of what he wants.

Oh, Ellen Burstyn plays the Hungarian girl’s aunt and Charles Grodin portrays an extremely cranky doctor. They’re both terrific.

And Fargo? Are you watching this? I watched the first episode out of curiosity, convinced that this was spitting on the legacy of the Coen Brothers’ film, even though they’re listed as executive producers. It didn’t hurt that there’s a great cast, which includes Billy Bob Thornton, Keith Carradine, Martin Freeman, Oliver Platt, Bob Odenkirk, Adam Goldberg, Colin Hanks. (They’re all almost blown off the screen by relative newcomer Allison Tolman.)

It’s not a remake of the movie. It’s a very complicated multiple murder mystery set in a nearby town with characters reminiscent of those in the film. It’s the “same universe,” in a manner of speaking. All episodes written by showrunner Noah Hawley, another relative newcomer, and it’s clear that he’s someone to keep an eye on.  I was hooked from the first episode.

Then last week we got to episode 6. Oh. My. God. I’ll put the last 15 minutes of this episode up against the entire season of True Detective.  Episode 7 this week was a bit of a letdown. Three more to go to wrap up the season and the mystery.  Hopefully more seasons to come.  Fabulous stuff.

 

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What TV to Watch Next – Justified

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I think I’m settling into binge watching Justified, a series that runs on the FX network in the U.S. and will be starting its 5th season soon.

Here’s why. Justified is based on a short story by the great Elmore Leonard, who served as one of the executive producers (and took an active interest) before he died earlier this year. The showrunner is Graham Yost, who wrote a couple of John Woo’s American films as well as working on Band of Brothers.

The set-up is simple.  Federal Marshall Raylen Givens is a throwback to the old American west. He wears a ten gallon hat and he gives bad guys 24 hours to get out of town or else. After killing one of those bad guys in Miami (“He pulled first. It was justified,” he tells Internal Affairs), he gets sent down to Lexington, Kentucky – a district that includes Harlan County, the place where he was born and thought he’d escaped. Givens is played by Timothy Olyphant – who starred in one of my all-time favorite series, Deadwood.

Here’s the thing. Hollywood mostly gets Elmore Leonard wrong. Very wrong. Which is a damned shame, because when they do get him right, you get some great entertainment. I’m thinking Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Jackie Brown – works from Steven Soderbergh, Barry Sonnenfeld and, of course, Quentin Tarantino (someone who was clearly influenced by Leonard in a big way).  I’m only 4 episodes into the first season of Justified so I can’t say that it’s up there in the ranks of those three films yet. And it’s no Breaking Bad/Sopranos level, but it’s pretty damned good.

Actually, it hit me midway through season 1 episode 4. It’s an episode called Long in the Tooth, written by Chris Provenzano (he worked on Mad Men) and directed by Adam Arkin (yes, that Adam Arkin). Guest stars are Alan Rucker (you’ll remember him from Ferris Bueller) and Clarence “Mod Squad” Williams III. Both are terrific here. But there’s this scene with two minor characters sitting in a car talking nonsense – and I realized that the dialogue I was hearing was really capturing the spirit of Elmore Leonard, even if he didn’t write it himself. Apparently they go around all the time saying WWED – What Would Elmore Do?

And, to make it even better, in that scene, they’re talking about a film. The film is never mentioned by name, but it’s not hard to guess – it’s Pulp Fiction. I understand that there’s lots of little meta references scattered throughout the series, and I think I’m gonna have fun searching them out.

So, will I end this blog post by saying that you’d be justified to watch Justified? Nah, I ain’t gonna sink that low. But here’s the first season trailer (actually the ad for season 1 on DVD), check it out.

 

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Breaking Bad – Done

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breaking-bad-all-characters

 

For most of its five year run, I knew about the TV series Breaking Bad but had never watched it. As the show wound down to its conclusion last month, I figured it was way past time to catch up and I watched all 62 episodes over the course of the past few weeks (mostly on my iPad on my commute to and from work).

I realized that while the show gets so much publicity in American media, 2 out of 3 people whom I’ve spoken to in the past week have never even heard of it, so let me digress and fill in some of the details.

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Here’s the basic premise. Walter White is a 50 year old high school science teacher living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After school he has a second job as a cashier in a local carwash and still can barely make ends meet. He has a 15 year old son with cerebral palsy and his 40 year old wife has just discovered she is pregnant again. And then White is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. His savings are nil, his insurance won’t cover the treatments he needs and he’ll have no money to leave his family when he dies.

White’s wife’s sister is a kleptomaniac nurse married to a DEA agent, Hank. One day Hank offers to put some excitement into Walter’s life by bringing him along on a bust. Walter recognizes one of his former students, Jesse, who eludes the police, and later tracks him down and suggests that he will “cook” crystal meth and Jesse can sell it for him.

But cooking and selling a little bit at a time doesn’t bring in the money fast enough. Walter and Jesse are soon working their way up the ladder of the illegal drug distribution network. And while the series initially has more than an expected bit of comedy in it, along the way the tone deepens and darkens as murder, betrayal and mayhem increase exponentially.

The series was the vision of Vince Gilligan, previously best known as a writer and producer of the X Files. It starred Bryan Cranston as Walter White. It is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest rated TV series on Metacritic, with a score of 99 out of 100. So far it has won one Emmy for best series, 3 for Cranston for best actor, one for Anna Gun for supporting actress (as White’s wife), 2 for Aaron Paul for best supporting actor (as Jesse). The Writers Guild of America named this the 13th best written show of all time. And it recently got even more attention when actor Anthony Hopkins wrote a public love letter to Bryan Cranston, writing, “Your performance as Walter White was the best acting I have seen – ever. You and all the cast are the best actors I’ve ever seen.”

One other thing I’d like to mention – Gilligan was especially adept at teasing the audience. The pre-credit sequence of many episodes was frequently something that wouldn’t be explained until ten or more episodes later, something so totally out of context and yet so totally captivating that one couldn’t wait for the secrets to be revealed.

Breaking-Bad-Movie-Wallpaper-Background

 

There may be a few spoilers ahead.

I would say that the show was amazingly well scripted and acted. Not every episode was a masterpiece (I’m thinking of one in particular that was mostly about White trying to catch a fly that had gotten into his lab) but overall the quality was amazingly consistent from episode to episode and from start to finish.

Walter White clearly becomes a monster over the course of the series. And yet I found it easy to empathize with him throughout the show. Here’s why:

One key subplot that they return to often was the fact that White was the most brilliant student in college. He partners with his best friend and girlfriend to start up a company after college. Something happens, it’s never entirely explained, and the girlfriend is with his best friend and his interest in the company is bought out for $5,000 – and in “modern times” the company is worth billions.

Throughout the series, White is consistently the smartest man in the room. Over the course of 5 years he will encounter perhaps only two others who can match him in the brains department – Gus Fring (brilliantly portrayed by Giancarlo Esposito) and Mike (Jonathan Banks) – and he gets the better of them. He gets the better of everyone.

Perhaps it’s egotistical of me to think of myself as like White – a really smart person who was never able to translate all that knowledge into anything worthwhile, someone who despite a nice home and a loving family feels like a failure – but to some extent I do, down to the fact that I was screwed out of my share of a start-up while the other founders became not billionaires but definitely well-off.

Throughout the series, White insists that everything he is doing, he is doing for his family. That was one bit I could see through pretty easily. Early on, we see him humiliated at the car wash, wiping down the wheels of one of his student’s expensive sports cars. Many episodes later, we see him make people tremble at the mere mention of his name (well, his alias, “Heisenberg”). It’s not until one of the final episodes where he finally admits that, no, he wasn’t doing this for his family, he was doing it for himself. That he enjoyed the success, the money and most especially the power. It leaves me almost wanting my own “hey, I can make $80 million in two years making drugs” moment.

So I knew exactly where he was coming from. And even though I had some idea of how things would end (it was impossible to avoid, no matter how hard I tried), I found the ending to be emotionally satisfying. I “lived” with these people for two months. It was so well written and acted that I felt that I knew them. If things had to end, and logically had to end in a certain way – well, the way they got there was exactly right. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Is it the best show of all time? There’s no such animal. Is it now one of my favorite shows of all time? Definitely yes.

Now that it’s over, and now that I’ve finished watching all of it, I find myself somewhat breathless and unable to start up watching another series. I need a bit more time to “come down” before I’m ready to give my attention to another world.

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On Being Jewish

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I’m writing this as I go and I think it’s not going to make much sense but I’m going with it.

I’m Jewish. I make no secret of that fact. I am, as Sigmund Freud described himself, “a godless Jew”. I do not believe in God whether it be Hashem or Jesus or Allah or Buddah or any of the other multitudes of supreme beings worshipped through the ages. I’m “culturally Jewish.” Over the years I have only half-jokingly referred to myself as an “oven Jew”, meaning by that that when the next Hitler comes along (and I have no doubt that he will), he won’t care that I don’t believe in God or don’t go to temple. “Your mother was Jewish, you’re Jewish. Get in the oven with the rest of them.”

I went to Hebrew School for six years. I no longer speak or understand Hebrew yet, oddly enough, I can still pretty much read the language, though I have no comprehension of what I’m reading. I was Bar Mitzvahed and spent a very brief period of my life – less than two years – trying to be religious. I went to services quite a bit when I was 13 or 14 years old but, after awhile, feeling nothing, I stopped.

My parents were both Jews. Neither of them were very religious. They didn’t keep kosher and they didn’t observe the Sabbath, though they did observe the major holidays. My father said it was because he was superstitious. While my father understood the religion very well, I think my mother knows next to nothing about it. However, over the course of decades, she raised thousands – if not millions – of dollars for Jewish and Israeli causes, and I went to a lot of luncheons and dinners held in her honor. I know she was trying to set an example for me, but it was one I did not follow.

Growing up, I knew a lot of people who had survived concentration camps. I saw the numbers tattooed on their arms. I was too young to ask them any details of their experience – not that I’m sure they would have wanted to share them.

I don’t know too much of my family history going back more than 2 generations. One can check records to find out when people arrived in the U.S., but before that? Most of the records in Europe were destroyed. Much of my family came to the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century, mostly fleeing Russian pogroms.  There is the story of one aunt who somehow made it to the US alone at the age of six, presumably most of her family had been killed and there were people helping her along the way and waiting for her once she arrived. How many of my family never made it to the U.S.? How many were killed by Russians and eastern Europeans and Nazis? I will never know. I can only guess that it must be a signficant number.

My family name is not my family name. My father always claimed his father snuck into the U.S. and changed it to avoid being caught. I always figured he was joking and it was more like that scene in Godfather II – that he arrived at Ellis Island, didn’t speak English, was asked his name and perhaps thought he was being asked if he had a trade and that was the answer he gave and that was the name he got. (Curiously, in my paternal grandfather’s passport, he spells his name differently than my father and I do – but my father was dead when I found that passport, so I couldn’t ask him about it.) But the fact is that I don’t know for sure and probably never will know.

On my mother’s side, I have a cousin who is into genealogy. Her hobby has been tracing back the history of our family – though her work doesn’t help me much with my father’s side of things. Another of my cousins is currently working on a book and has shared an early draft with me – I won’t go into details since the book is still a year away from publication so I’ll just say that it concerns the Jewish experience in eastern Europe prior to WWII.

I have always lived with this spectre of death hovering in the background. I have lived my life knowing that for two thousand years the world has had this habit of killing Jews. Millions of them. Lenny Bruce would joke that he found a note in his parents’ basement that admitted that the Jews killed Jesus because he didn’t want to become a doctor or a lawyer. Mel Brooks reacted to centuries of mass murder by turning it into a several musical productions – The Producers, of course, and also the big musical dance number for the Inquisition in History of the World Part 1. Humor is one way we have always coped with unspeakable tragedy.

I can tell you that I have had to deal with anti-Semitism at various stages of my life. Growing up in a mostly Catholic neighborhood in The Bronx, there were a few times when I was chased down the street by people shouting “Jewboy” at me. It stays with you.

It’s perhaps difficult to put into words how one can be both Atheist and Jew and yet I believe I can be both. I think that trying to say, “I’m not a Jew, I’m an atheist,” would be a betrayal of the suffering of the millions who came before me. I know this probably makes little sense to others. I certainly can’t explain it. And yet I’m comfortable with the decisions that I’ve made.

What’s got me thinking this way? Why am I posting this?

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“The Jewish imagination is paranoia confirmed by history.”

 

Simon Schama is a British historian. His series “A History of Britain” has brought him much international acclaim.  The BBC has just aired a new 5 hour series by him, The Story of The Jews. It aired in the UK last month and was easy enough to find via “the usual sources.” So I brought that with me to the U.S. and showed it to my mother. Although I hadn’t watched it, I guessed correctly that it was something that she would like. Unexpectedly, I found it enormously moving as well.

It’s not a strict chronological history. And it doesn’t go through a checklist of who is or was Jewish, like Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.”

David Lee Roth lights the menorrah,
So do James Caan, Kirk Douglas, and the late Dinah Shore-ah

Guess who eats together at the karnickey deli,
Bowzer from Sha-Na-Na, and Arthur Fonzerrelli.

Paul Newman’s half Jewish; Goldie Hawn’s half too,
Put them together–what a fine lookin’ Jew!

You don’t need deck the halls or jingle bell rock
Cause you can spin the dreidl with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock–both Jewish!

Each of the five episodes has a distinct theme and each moves somewhat chronologically, but also impressionistically through that theme. Schama asks questions, many of which cannot be easily answered, some of which cannot be answered at all. But they are all worth asking and all worth thinking about.

While the reviews in major press outlets have been almost uniformly positive, I should mention that many pro-Palestinian groups have had serious issues with some of the things said in the fifth episode, which discusses Zionism and the State of Israel. (I should also mention that while I am a supporter of Israel, I am not a supporter of apartheid and so I have never been to Israel and have no plans to go. I don’t even have a glimmer of an idea as to what the answer is to all of this.)

One thing I took away from the series is just how much the American Jewish experience in the 20th century is an anomaly – the degree to which Jews were assimilated and the cultural influence they’ve had, through films and music. I guarantee that all of you know at least a few Yiddish words, even if you don’t realize that they’re Yiddish in origin.

Another thing I took away – something I always knew but learned in much greater detail – is about how Jews were treated over the last thousand years. The series is very Euro-centric, so there are very few details given about just how extremely well Jews and Muslims co-existed prior to Zionism. And nothing is mentioned about Jews in eastern Asia, a topic that would be well worth covering in some form. (China welcomed Jews prior to 1949 because, unlike Christian missionaries, they made no attempts to convert others to their faith. And I have one Indian friend who is Jewish – though I’ve never really asked him how that happened.)

Okay, I’ve got no idea where I’m going with all of this. The series has weighed heavily on my mind, that’s for sure. I believe I will watch it again, and soon. I’ll buy – and read – the book from the series when it’s published. Will my Catholic regular-church-going gf watch it with me? (I also just purchased Criterion’s blu-ray reissue of Shoah and will see if she has the patience to sit through that with me (it runs over 9 hours).

Beyond that? Do I have a renewed sense of Jewish identity? Will I rejoin HK’s JCC and start participating in their events? Will I attend Seders and fast on Yom Kippur? It’s all too soon to tell. The point is that Schama has got me thinking about this more deeply than I have in a very long time. I hope that others will also view this series and start thinking about it as well.

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Day Dreaming

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I made a quick trip up to Shenzhen this afternoon. Living in Tai Po, it’s really easy for me to get there – just 3 stops on the train, I almost don’t even have to think about it.

I was on my own and had a leisurely lunch in the Lo Wu mall – not at Laurel, which is probably the best place to eat in the mall, but almost always has a long line as a result. I went to the place on the 4th floor – is it called Lee Yuen? Something like that. I’ve eaten here a lot – it’s never going to be “great” but it’s always good enough.

I ordered three items off the dim sum menu and a pot of tea. They serve the tea nice here. A small pot, with the leaves and a strainer on top. A second pot of hot water, sitting on a stand, a candle underneath to keep the water warm.

I had my iPad with me – I almost always forget to take it with me when I head up there. I sat there eating slowly, taking my time. You can smoke in Shenzhen restaurants, something I definitely appreciate. So I read a few magazines on my iPad, sipped my tea, smoked my cigs, ate and it’s like I was in a bubble, in a good way. The world just slipped away, my cares and my woes and all the stress I’m carrying on my back lately along with it.

Since I work in Wanchai, I tend to eat lunch in the Wanchai bars every day. Delaney’s, Spicy, White Stag, Canny Man, Queen Vic, China Hand, those places. There’s always people there at lunch time drinking beer or wine. I’m not jealous of those people at all, but I suspect they’re pretty happy with the way their lives have turned out.

For me, I think I’d be pretty happy if I could do a two hour dim sum lunch every day, just sit there in my bubble, reading, not thinking about much of anything. My life hasn’t worked out in such a way that I can do that – but the fact that I can do it sometimes doesn’t exactly suck either.

And despite the heat and humidity today, I got home before 6 PM in a very good mood indeed.

Movies watched so far this weekend – Olympus Has Fallen (a blatant Die Hard rip-off with a blah Gerard Butler that still manages to be entertaining), The Great Gatsby (I hate to see a director I like stumble so badly, may write more on it later).

I’ve also been watching a new Showtime series – Ray Donovan. He’s a “fixer” for a Hollywood lawyer with two brothers with a lot of baggage and a very wicked father who just got out of the joint. It’s not terribly original. But it’s got Liev Schreiber, the always amazing Jon Voight and the always weird Elliott Gould. The first season’s half over and I don’t think it’s going to get where it wants to get, but it’s entertaining enough. (It also has a lot of cable TV series sex scenes, definitely NSFW, and I have to wonder about the reactions of people sitting next to me on the bus who might glance over at my screen at certain moments and think “this crazy gweilo is looking at porn on the bus!” So far at least no one has complained.)

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Family Tree – New Christopher Guest TV Series

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To me, Christopher Guest is a Comedy God. This is Spinal Tap, Waiting For Guffman, Best in Show,  A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration – Guest’s brand of improvisational comedy, the “mockumentary” – well, I’ve loved his work ever since he was one of the writers and cast of National Lampoon’s Lemmings (which I saw live) in the early 70s.

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If you haven’t already heard, he’s now directing and co-writing a new TV series called Family Tree. The first episode aired on HBO over the weekend. The basic premise is that Tom Chadwick is an out-of-work just-dumped-by-his-girlfriend 30 year old who inherits a chest full of crap from his recently deceased great aunt. He realizes that the items in the chest provide clues to his family history and, with nothing better to do, starts investigating them.  This being a Christopher Guest comedy, you’ve probably already guessed (sorry) that Chadwick will encounter a motley collection of oddball characters along his journey. There’s his father, a failed inventor – rather an old premise but nicely played here by Michael McKean – and his sister, who does a ventriloquism thing with a stuffed monkey that’s funnier than it probably sounds.

The lead in the series is played by Chris O’Dowd, who you’ll recognize from This is 40, Bridesmaids and others.  The writing is a collaboration between Guest and British actor Jim Piddock, who has a nice small role in the first episode.  I see that Fred Willard is going to be in two episodes and I can’t wait for those.

It’s hard to judge a sitcom from just a single episode, but for the most part this seems promising. My only problem? Guest’s work has been so influential, especially when you think about Larry David and Ricky Gervais.  Maybe it’s because of all of the British accents here (the show is set in London – btw Guest, though born in the U.S., was a member of the House of Lords until the system changed in 1999) but I kept thinking about The Office and Extras as I was watching this. This happens – you influence others and they in turn influence you.  And some of the humor seems a bit easy – the ventriloquism jokes, the failed inventions.

But I’ve always liked O’Dowd, I’ve always loved Guest, and I’m willing to continue watching this show to see where it goes.

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Spring Is Coming … And So Is Game of Thrones

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The start of season 3 of Game of Thrones is almost upon us.  If you want to remember where things left off with season 2 9 months ago, you could go back and re-watch all the episodes (recently released on Blu-Ray and DVD) or you could save some time and watch this 15 minute recap.

 

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Louis C.K. Does It Again

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Last year, Louis C.K.’s annual stand-up comedy special made history because he premiered it on his own website, selling it for 5 bucks for a DRM-free download.  And it had hundreds of thousands of paid downloads, making back its cost, earning a profit (some of which C.K. donated to charities) and had lots of imitators in its wake.

But this year, he’s gone back to the traditional route, with his special premiering on HBO.  No word on why the step backwards.  However, the promo for it is quite good.

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