Hmm Weekly for March 3, 2020

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CANIS UNFAMILIARIS DEP'T.

THE UNCANNY DOG is a warning and I can't stop thinking about it. I'm not going to watch the movie with the uncanny dog in it; I wouldn't really be inclined to go watch a movie of The Call of the Wild even if they'd made it with a normal, decent dog. But they didn't make it with a decent dog and I keep seeing this other dog's horrible face in ads and pictures, and it's enough. It's too much. 

The dog in The Call of the Wild is made out of computer code and it has a person inside it: a "former UCLA gymnast," according to the New York Times, who was motion-captured wearing "a tight gray suit, a gray skull cap and carbon fiber arm extensions that allowed him to walk on all fours." And, occasionally, "a synthetic rubber muzzle over his face." Many people at the heights of their professions obviously put a lot of care and effort into generating this doglike object. It's hard to say something is abhorrent when the people who made it seem to have meant so well, but it is abhorrent, even in a still. The synthetic dog-face—its surface derived from scans of a real dog, an authentic-ish approximation of the specific St. Bernard–Scotch shepherd cross Jack London had in mind for his novel's protagonist—is wrinkled up in a fully false and human expression. It belongs to no category of living things. 

There are unreal animals inside people's screens all the time now. They took The Lion King, a perfectly serviceable cartoon story about cartoon animals, and remade it with photo-realistic fake lions in a fake savanna. There is the cowboy video game where you ride a plausible horse, a horse you have to feed and brush, through a Western landscape of singing birds and wild mammals that hunt prey and can be hunted in turn. I went looking for more information on the wildlife of the cowboy video game and discovered that lately there was a glitch where it all seemed to be getting hunted to extinction, in the computer-generated West. 

In my own lifetime, on Earth, the numbers of living non-domesticated vertebrates have been cut in half. Or more; it's hard to count. Virtual animals have taken the place, in human experience, of real ones. In animal experience, there's been no replacement. Social media bots circulate photos of frogs in tortured anthropomorphic positions, or an ocelot color-edited to have glowing blue eyes and silver fur—the same ocelot, copied over and over. 

Part of the case for the CGI dog is that it's good for animals not to cast them in movies. The Times wrote that the Humane Society considers CGI "the only foolproof way to ensure animal safety on set." It's a conception of animal welfare that's ultimately eliminationist. The movies simply become an animal-free zone, and nobody has to worry about the animals. 

The new animals gaze back with humanized eyes, unconstrained by their animal limits. The early naturalists or natural historians created fantastic distorted beasts, with human parts mixed in, out of rumor and legend and fragmentary knowledge. In the 21st century we create synthetic beasts to turn away from the knowledge we possess. Before, the world was too full of life for people to comprehend. Now the world is too empty to face. 

We truly were warned. For the human actor playing a human being beside the synth-dog in The Call of the Wild, they chose Harrison Ford—that is, Rick Deckard. The Call of the Wild intersects the cinematic universe of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, which is derived from the literary universe of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, across both of which Rick Deckard polices the line between the human and the synthetic. In the novel, Rick Deckard keeps an electronic sheep on the roof of his apartment building and the neighbors think it's real. Nearly all the animals in the world are extinct ("First, strangely, the owls had died"), and the ones still living are luxury goods. Most people get by with persuasive replicas. 

The dividing line, in the book and the movie, is empathy. Rick Deckard hunts and kills androids—"replicants" is the word in the movie—trying to hide among the humans on the ruined planet. The androids, under testing, don't react quite right to stories of suffering or cruelty:

You’re in a desert walking along in the sand when all of the sudden you look down, and you see a tortoise, it’s crawling toward you. You reach down, you flip the tortoise over on its back. The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over, but it can’t, not without your help. But you’re not helping. Why is that?

For uncounted tens of thousands of years, human beings drew animals on cave walls. We can only guess at their precise understanding of what it meant, an understanding that evidently stayed coherent and consistent longer than the entire span from Hammurabi's "cattle for cattle and sheep for sheep" to the federal Animal Welfare Act. Outside the caves were the animals themselves, physically present as well as spiritually. 

Jack London's own notion of the dog had a human inside it, an anthropomorphized third-person protagonist. "The Wild" itself is an invention of the human mind imprisoned in civilization, on the premise that there is somewhere you can go to get away from it, where the dog that thinks like a human may become a leader of wolves, running free. 

This one place is all there is, and our fake animals don't even fool the neighbors. The whole world is tortoises flipped on their backs, one after another, all the way to the horizon. The whole world is a briefcase made of one hundred percent genuine human babyhide. Why is that? 


ATMOSPHERIC PHENOMENON DEP’T.

I KEPT THINKING as I drove home that eventually I’d get an angle on the prism-shard ahead of me and reveal a gargantuan rainbow, but no dice. I have never seen anything like this, and then a few days later I saw a similar event, but I didn’t go nuts trying to take a picture from my car (again.) The sun-streaked clouds are kinda cool, though.


CONSUMER ADVOCATE DEP’T.

JOE MACLEOD’S SUPERMARKET SWEEPIN’S™

As a public service, Joe will present an item he saw and/or purchased at the supermarket, or in this case, a price club, which will remain anonymous, referred to solely by its initials, which are BJ. Not to suggest that you buy any item presented, or eat it, or anything like that, it's simply to show you an item of interest available at a supermarket or place that wants you to believe it is cheaper than a supermarket. Clean-up on all aisles!

This week’s item: HIGH LINER SEA CUISINE® LIMITED TIME EVERYTHING BAGEL CRUSTED HADDOCK

I CLIPPED A bunch of coupons from the BJ’s mailer, and I was proud of myself that I also remembered to bring those coupons with me to the BJ’s along with a couple of IKEA bags in which to place my purchased items. This is going to be a great trip to BJ’s, I thought, and when I found this box, satisfying the coupon for any size SEA CUISINE frozen seafood, it got even better, because not only did I have a two dollar coupon, but this fish item was also already priced at something crazy like $4.50, so I was scoring almost two pounds of pre-seasoned haddock for less than three dollars, tax included. Score!

I had a moment of doubt processing the EVERYTHING BAGEL concept, but I figured since I enjoy everything bagels, putting Everything stuff on a piece of bland white fish should work fine. Look at all those ingredients. Everything but the bagel!

This product has nice modern-looking packaging, except for the High Liner logo guy with his high hair and knowing smirk. Who is this guy, a commercial fisher, or did he drive his BMW down to the SEA CUISINE dock when my haddocks came in?

SEA CUISINE has lots of stuff to read on the package, which I always respect. They even made reading the instructions for opening the box a part of their Mission Statement, to TEAR HERE FOR SMART EATING, because SEA CUISINE is SMART, so get ready for eating and learning! There’s even a cartoon fish with glasses and a pointer-teaching stick, global signs of Smartness. Smarter still, they have the Latin science-name of dinner right on the box, Melanogrammus aeglefinus.

This really was some kind of crazy bargain, there’s eight haddocks in the bag.

The cooking instructions were spot-on, except for “greased shallow baking pan,” greased with what, grease? Would it kill you to make that part of the instructions more specific?

I skipped the grease and put a piece of aluminum foil on the pan. Those are some seriously crusted haddock chunks, eh?

I had a slight hiccup in the cooking process with the part where you broil for a couple of minutes to finish the fish, but it wasn’t the fault of SEA CUISINE, it was my oven, which has a confusing way to set the BROIL function. You set it to broil and then confirm it by pressing the START/ON button, which always confuses me because I only broil stuff about twice a year.

When the fish came out they looked good enough to eat, and it didn’t take too much spatula torque to get them off the foil. They smelled great, super-savory.

Plated up here as part of a balanced and colorful meal! That’s not Kraft cheese dinner there, it’s Annie’s, which was also on sale at BJ’s, 12 boxes that priced out at less than a buck a box with coupon. Very orange!

EVERYTHING HADDOCK were crispy outside, with a creamy layer between coating and fish, an experience very much like the big brand of not-smart frozen breaded/coated fish that has a better man-mascot who looks like he works for a living at catching fish meals and not like he just drove up to the fishing dock by mistake instead of the fancy yacht marina where his boat is parked, like Mr. High Liner.

These EVERYTHING BAGEL pieces of fish were extremely onion-y with a slightly bitter aftertaste. After you eat one—or in my case, two—you won’t want to eat any more for a while, until you are rested up enough to forget how powerful they are. I’m not sure if they were discounted (even without the coupon) because they weren’t selling, or if the price was part of the LIMITED TIME idea, but it’s not the worst thing that the EVERYTHING BAGEL HADDOCK run is brief.


PUNDIT PUNDITRY DEP’T.

WHO WILL TAKE over the MSNBC 7 p.m. slot now that Chris Matthews has taken his HARDBALL and gone home?

The logical—and therefore unlikely—thing to do would be to pick Joy Reid. She’s smart, funny, quick on her feet, and doesn’t take any shit off anybody, which would all be things people who stan Chris Matthews would say about him, right? Take AM JOY out of its low-impact 10 a.m. spot, move it into that 7 p.m. position, and call it PM JOY.

The less logical option would be to get Shepard Smith out of whatever non-compete he might be in after he ankled Fox News Channel. I didn’t watch him a lot, but he really grabs the camera, he’s a talker (maybe not an interviewer or panel-wrangler), with a preacher/orator/funeral director vibe, and he’s just just weird. Maybe being on MSNBC would make that pay off.

The other choice is Steve Kornacki, who jumped behind the Chris Matthews desk right after Matthews’ on-air, mid-show resignation. Finishing the broadcast, Mr. Kornacki appeared shocked, stunned, real, and went on to get choked up, waving Matthews’ HARDBALL in front of the camera and thanking him. That behavior could serve as the audition-cherry on the ice cream sundae of his MSNBC career to date. The ball must go on.


THOUGHT DEP’T.

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VISUAL CONSCIOUSNESS DEP’T.

Magazines, Newspapers, and Periodicals

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RECIPES DEP’T.

IT SEEMS AS if we will never cease presenting a selection of recipes for ancient but reproducible sandwiches, found in The Up-To-Date Sandwich Book: 400 Ways to Make a Sandwich, by Eva Greene Fuller; 1909; McClurg and Co., Chicago, now in the public domain for the delectation of all.

HAM SANDWICH NO. 2
Chop ham fine, mix with a little mayonnaise dressing, and place between thin slices of lightly buttered white bread. Garnish with parsley and a pickle.

MEAT AND MUSHROOM SANDWICH
Mince boiled mushrooms and cold beef or tongue together, and spread between thin slices of lightly buttered white bread. Lightly spread the filling with French mustard. Garnish with a pickle.

CHICKEN SURPRISE SANDWICH
Chop cold boiled chicken and a few capers fine; mix with a little mayonnaise dressing and spread between thin slices of toasted white bread. Garnish with an olive.

If you make one of these sandwiches, before you eat it, please send a picture to hmmweekly@substack.com


HMM WEEKLY IS written by Tom Scocca, editor, and Joe MacRainbow, creative director. If you enjoy Hmm Weekly, please let a friend know about it, and if you're reading this because someone forwarded it to you, go ahead and sign up for a copy of your own right now.
Thanks for reading, and any time you want, email us at hmmweekly@substack.com.