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a blog from Eli the Bearded
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Landfill: Notes on Gull Watching and Trashpicking in the Anthropocene by Tim Dee. Copyright 2018, first printing February 2019.

I've read a bit about garbage, most recently Waste and Want by Susan Strasser (1999, but apparently used as a textbook, so easy to find new), so I thought this might be good to get some fresher information. The title, and subtitle, certainly pulled me in.

No. This is a British author writing a lot about his personal experiences, often as a reporter following more serious bird watchers than him. There are, it seems, a fair amount of bird watchers who specialize in watching sea gulls. In many cases these people hang around landfills and transfer stations because the gulls like the easy pickings.

Every chapter is essentially a self-contained essay with at least some tangential connection to gulls. There's one that compares and contrasts Hitchcock's The Birds to the original short story, with some attention devoted to the gulls in each for example. It's not what I wanted, but it's not a bad book.

When I found this in a bookstore (the famous "City Lights Books" in San Francisco, which I was visiting with some out-of-town house guests), I was drawn to the title and picked it up to read a couple of pages from inside. I happened upon chapter eight "London Labour and London Poor". This is one of the least gull-ish chapters, but also one of the most interesting to my tastes.

That chapter is about Henry Mayhew's three volume 1851 (based on 1840s work writing a newspaper column; volume four came out 1862) London Labour and the London Poor (at Wikipdia and volume 1 at Gutenberg, volume 2 at Gutenberg, volume 3 at Gutenberg, but apparently no volume four). Mayhew interviewed and wrote about the most marginal people of the time. The excerpt that made me buy the book:

Trash has a deep and determing place in Mayhew's cosmology. Waste management, in its widest sense, is vital to the story. This begins with the lowest class (Mayhew calls them low but was clearly sympathethetic to such people). The endeavoured to eke out scraps for a penny or two from what others had decided was useless. Contemplating suc lives and such labour makes Mayhew ask big questions. When do objects — or people — cease to have value?

There are dustment in Mayhew — men in the vanguard of professional waste collection. But they were far outnumbered by informal rubbish collectors. On these people Mayhew performs a kind of rescue anthropology. He describes them as if they were members of a ramshackle federation:

  • Bone gubbers and rag-gatherers
  • Pure-finders
  • Cigar-end finders
  • Old wood gatherers
  • Dredgers, or river finders
  • Sewer-hunters
  • Mudlarks
  • Dustmen, nightmen, sweeps, and scavengers

"Pure" is dog shit. Its name alone indicates our classificatory anxiety about its status. It was sold to tanneries, where it was used to cleanse and purify leather. In London, 200 to 300 men were "engaged solely in this business." A covered basket and a glove were required, though many dispensed with the glove, "as they say it is much easier to wash their hands than to keep the glove fit for use." There were even those who worked fakes and passed "mortar" off as pure.

That's great reading. The connection to gulls for this chapter? How the presence of so many and so varied human trash pickers squeezed the gulls out of the easy trash-pickings niche.

Altered Carbon

I wrote this first part in 2018 after watching season one. I've just finished season two and I'll add my thoughts at the end.

Altered Carbon is a ten episode sci-fi series on Netflix, based on a book by the same name. About all I know of the book is that it is the first of a trilogy.

Altered Carbon at imdb

Overall I liked this, but I had some issues with the puppet-master bad guy in the last two episodes. The motivations were trite and the dialog and actions seemed a bit poorly considered for someone who is supposed to be that powerful.

I felt the series did a great job with the central conceit: a small piece of technology that allows your mind to be moved (and for the rich, backed up). Bodies are called "sleeves" in a bit of language evolution that feels pretty natural. People can easily survive having their body die, even without backups, so long as their "stacks" (a little more awkward) are intact. The backups exist for the case of the stack being destroyed.

People swap bodies with some regularity in this series and yet I never once felt I didn't know who was who unless the story meant for it to be ambiguous. In one episode a guy with very distintive tattoos plays three people: a guy just arrested with a personality to match the ink; a woman's grandmother brought back from the dead for a Day of the Dead party; and an assassin whose regular body had just been destoryed "resleeved" for an interrogation. It was not hard to tell these people apart, and I think even the faceblind could realize it was the same The main character is a terrorist who has been in "jail" for 250 years, pulled out because of his special people reading skills to be a private detective on a case of a very rich man's attempted murder. The guy's stack and head were blown off a couple of minutes before the backup.

Weak point: Jail loses a lot of it's sting if it just means your stack sits on a shelf somewhere for that whole time.

Questionable point: there seem to be a lot of very random bodies about for people to be "resleeved" and a distinct lack of cheap generic clones to use. Only the very rich are shown to have clones.

Weak point: One character has a very powerful cloaking ability / technology. This is severely underused and never clearly explained.

Notable point: it is explicitly set in San Francisco, apparently about five hundred years from now. (Except for the flashbacks to the "before 250 years turned off on a shelf in prison" for the main character.) None of it looks like San Francisco.

If they make a second season out of the book series, I'll watch it. Five clones killed in one fight scene out of eight.

Season two was good, kinda different, probably a little weaker. It's still very violent, but there's hardly any nudity now. That goes along with very little of the body swapping, and almost no use of clones.

This season takes place off-Earth, on the main character's childhood home planet. Someone has a very effective way to kill people, simultaneously destroying the backups, and the "Last Envoy" main character from the first season has a reason to investigate this. He's got a new "sleeve" now, so our hero wears a different face. A couple of characters from season one show up in their same faces, and even the main characters's old face shows up for a while.

The story was entertaining, but not challenging. All the major plot points were well telegraphed and not much new is revealed about the technology of this future. How the backups are destroyed by the mystery "weapon" (as it is called) is never really explained.

Let's call it five out of eigth "meths" fried on screen.

Six Feet Under

I started watching Six Feet Under, a TV show from HBO, last week. The first episode was engaging, but five episodes in I'm losing interest.

The story concerns a family that owns a Los Angeles area funeral home. The father dies in the first episode and the previously stable family dynamics are thrown into chaos. I was hoping for something like the macabre humor of Dead Like Me, which I watched several years ago and enjoyed. Instead it is beginning to feel like formula TV.

Every episode begins with someone dying, and then that person becomes a lens for studying the characters or a fulcrum for episode plot. Several of the deaths so far have had some of the macabre crazy-way-to-go humor that filled Dead Like Me, but not all of them.

One episode begins with a washed-up porn star talking to her cat about a date she's about to go on, then the cat kills the woman by pushing a plugged in appliance into the bathtub. Good start, but then the episode goes downhill. A deep pocketed fan of the porn star foots the bill for the funeral. The more serious of the two brothers that now own and run the business has a "Yay profitable month" attitude. The other of the two talks about the the films the woman had been in with an employee until Mr Serious intervenes. The dead woman comes back and talks to Mr Serious, at least in his imagination. And "humor" is mined from the people who come to the viewing and share their memories of the star.

Haha, what a riot, religious people and newly grieving folk get to listen to stories of porn shoots and talk of the dead woman's tits. Maybe there are jokes to be mined there, but the ones in this just seem as lazy as the very episodic story structure.

Three mysterious barter arrangements in lieu of cash funerals out of six.

Six Feet Under at IMDB

Dead Like Me at IMDB

The Platform

The Platform on IMDB

This is a Spanish film dubbed by Netflix for world-wide play on their service. I had it recommended to me by a Swede. Some people have compared it to Waiting for Godot and other Beckett works. It's certainly heavy (and heavy-handed). If you interpret it as a parable of modern capitalism, you can find a message here, but the parable is a bit flawed.

The general set up is there is a vertical hole-in-the-ground prison. One cell per level, two people per cell, very little in the way of rules enforced. Saving food is the only thing we ever see punished. And food is a problem. Once a day a platform (the one of the title) is lowered through the prison for people to eat at for two minutes, then it is on to the next floor. When the film starts, a new prisoner has just started on level 48. The platform is a complete mess, and he is surprised his roommate can eat at it. Level 48, his roommate explains, is so much better than the deeper levels.

Not much about this prison arrangement makes much sense. It becomes clear that between the monthly floor assignment resuffles a lot of people die from hunger, murder, and suicide thus freeing up space for newer prisoners. Nothing about this experience will make anyone better negating all benefits of this over a fast execution. The food prepared is lavish at Level 0 and nothing but broken plates by Level 100 or so. It does not look like enough food for the 250 levels the main character guesses the place has. Why go to all that trouble preparing it?

That said it does leave an impression.

Four snails out of a plate of twelve.