Being the Ongoing Chronicle of the Anticks, Misadventures, and Odd Deeds of an Overalls-clad Wanderer.

Saturday, June 29, 2002

Music therapy was the topic on the second hour of this week's edition of Talk of the Nation Science Friday on NPR. Music therapy is a fast-growing field as more and more science uncovers links between music and healing and health. The NPR program featured a number of music therapists and experts on neuroscience, including Dr. Oliver Sacks of Awakenings fame discussing the latest research on music and how it is processed in our brains. Charles Darwin, it turns out, may have been completely wrong when he wrote: "As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least direct use to man in reference to his ordinary habits of life, they must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed." In short, Darwin is saying that musical production does not seem to have any overt survival benefit from an evolutionary standpoint. Contemporary research, as the NPR program demonstrates, suggests otherwise: that music is extremely important to survival.

Parenthetical to this topic is a quote by English composer William Byrd (1543-1623), entitled "Reasons briefely set downe by the auctor to perswade every one to learne to singe".

First, it is a knowledge easely taught, and quickly learned, where there is a good master, and an apt scoller.

Second, the exercise of singing is delightful to nature, and good to preserve the health of Man.

Third, it doth strengthen all parts of the brest, and doth open the pipes.

Fourth, it is a singuler good remedie for a stutting and stamering in speech.

Fifth, it is the best meanes to procure a perfect pronunciation, and to make a good orator.

Sixth, it is the onely way to know where Nature hath bestowed the benefir of a good voyce, which guift is so rare, as there is not one among a thousand, that hath it; and in many, that excellent guift is lost, because they want Art to expresse Nature.

Seventh, there is not any musicke of instuments whatsoever, comparable to that which is made of the voyces of Men, where the voyces are good, and the same well sorted and ordered.

Eighth, the better the voyce is, the meeter it is to honour and serve God therewith: and the voyce of man is chiefely to be employed to that ende.

Since singing is so good a thing, I wish all men would learne to singe.

(quoted from The Esstential Canon of Classical Music by David Dubal.)

Friday, June 28, 2002

IMAGE OF THE WEEK





Cover of "Paradox", by Paul Gulacy.

One of the most durable creative collaborations in any medium is that of writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy. These two men are responsible for many of the finest comics and graphic novels of the last three decades. They are best known for their 1970s work on Marvel's Master of Kung-Fu series. Other favorites of mine by Moench and Gulacy include Six From Sirius (from which I derived my screen name), Slash Maraud, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, and James Bond 007: Serpent's Tooth. Gulacy's work is notable for its photographic realism and his ability to create static images of cinematic scope. He is one of comics' finest artists.

The image links to an informative site about Paul Gulacy.



I don't think I've ever lived in a place where the local television news stations were not held by the locals to be generally incompetent or at least moderately goofy. Surely, then, the Buffalo news stations are not unique in this. I'm sure the stations in other cities all find some way to justify calling themselves "the number one news station in Chicago" or Memphis or Tulsa or Denver or wherever, despite the apparent logical contradiction in there being more than one "number one news station". And I'm sure that in other cities, news stations frequently open a given bit of reportage with the breathless statement that "You heard it here first!"

The occasion for this little bit of rambling and ranting? Well, tonight Buffalo's CBS affiliate (WIVB, Channel 4, for those curious persons) did a story about one particular pair of old Buffalo buildings that, despite being on the National Registry of Historic Landmarks, are in serious disrepair. My problem with the story? Channel 4 aired this story during its 11:00 p.m. newscast, and as is general procedure they had a reporter actually on the scene, in the vicinity of the two buildings in question. Fair enough (although surely the same material could have been delivered by the anchor). But then this reporter begins: "Behind me you can see the two towers of the Richardson Complex." Unfortunately, given that this report was shown live at about 11:15 at night, nothing at all could be seen behind the reporter! She actually gestured to the buildings, but because of the darkness -- coupled with the fact that the buildings in question were built with dark granite -- she seemed to be indicating the empty air.

Keep up the good work, Channel 4.

Wednesday, June 26, 2002

I recently read a new book about the craft of writing: Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at his Craft by David Morrell. Morrell, the author of such novels as First Blood, has written here a lively volume of writerly advice. Not all of it is new: I have yet to see a book on writing that doesn't counsel a would-be writer to actually write and do so each and every day. Some lessons, though, bear repeating -- especially with regard to writing, an activity where it is frightfully easy to allow a day or two to pass without once committing words to paper. The best sections, to me, were the sections on dialogue -- like Stephen King, Morrell advises us to avoid adverbs like the plague, especially in dialogue attribution -- and the section on voice, where Morrell analyzes some of the problems inherent in writing fiction in the first person.

The book's later chapters address the life of a writer. Here we are told, of course, not to quit our day jobs; however, Morrell goes farther than that. He gives advice on money management for the writer, and in one particularly penetrating passage he describes the life of a writer who is on a book tour. This is in an attempt to disavow any aspiring writers of any illusions of fame or glamour that are to come with writerly success. Most interesting is his description of the book warehouse he toured that was heated by a giant furnace in which remaindered books were being burned. Ouch.

Morrell's book is not as good as Stephen King's On Writing (still the gold standard for writing books, as far as I am concerned), but it is still a worthwhile volume. I recommend it.

Fantasy comprises a large portion of the fiction that I read (along with science fiction, horror, and so-called "interstitial" fiction). Every genre, though, has subgenres, and within fantasy I have a particular fondness for works based on the legends of King Arthur and, going farther back, on the mythology of ancient Britain -- particularly Wales.

The Welsh national epic is called The Mabinogion, and one of its finest tellings -- by Evangeline Walton -- has been reissued in hardback. Walton is one of the leading lights of twentieth century fantasy, and her Mabinogion cycle -- consisting of The Prince of Annwn, The Children of Llyr, The Song of Rhiannon, and The Island of the Mighty -- is a towering masterpiece by one of twentieth century fantasy's leading lights. I was fortunate enough to acquire this work in its last reissue ten years ago, but I am thrilled that the work is again available. Any lover of fantasy and mythic fiction must read Walton's Mabinogion.

Sadly, it appears that essayist Paul Riddell -- of whom I wrote last week -- has decided to pull the plug on his website, The Healing Power of Obnoxiousness, one week before his hosting arrangement was to expire. Therefore, I have removed the permanent link to HPoO, and replaced it with Sci-Fi Weekly.

Here's hoping that Riddell returns to form soon.

Tuesday, June 25, 2002

I've added another nice blog that I found recently: It's All About Books!. This one is about, well, it's about....

NASA has received a fair amount of criticism in recent years for its stubborn over-reliance on the space shuttle and the resultant basis of almost our entire space program on technology that dates to the early and middle 1970s. The Space Administration has done little more than put new launch vehicles on the drawing board; except for a handful of prototype test firings, the shuttle is all NASA has. And now they've been forced to ground the entire shuttle fleet, pending analysis and repair of microscopic cracks that have turned up the shuttles' propellant lines. Not good news for a space program that has been lacking in focus pretty much since the conclusion of the Apollo mission.

I know it's early -- it's not even July 4 yet -- but I think I know one of the things that I want for Christmas. Oh, what a hoot!!

No, it's not time for the Image of the Week yet, but I had to show this item: the teaser poster for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which is due out this winter.





The title, for those of you who are not as up on your Tolkien as you should be (You know who you are, he said ominously), refers to the places at the center of action in LOTR's second installment. The tower in the foreground of this poster is Minas Morgul, which guards the entrance into Mordor through which Frodo and Sam must pass. The other tower (the one in the background) is Orthanc, the citadel of Saruman in the land of Isengard where the turncoat wizard held Gandalf captive and created his Orc army in the first film. I've also linked the poster image to an AICN page were a series of links to mirror-sites containing the latest trailer for The Two Towers can be found.

Between the completion of Star Wars and the release of Lord of the Rings, the next couple of years are going to be good ones for the movies.

(ADDENDUM: According to the film's trailer, the first tower is actually Barad-dur, the stronghold of Sauron, and not Minas Morgul. The books themselves say that Minas Morgul is one of the Two Towers, in the closing message at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. Peter Jackson evidently made this change to fit into his idea that Saruman is an ally of Sauron's.)

Remember a few months back, to when some researchers announced that they had determined the average color of the Universe to be turquoise? And then, they had to backtrack because of a bug in the code they used to make this determination, and instead announced the color of the Universe to be a shade of beige?

Well, they have apparently decided on a name for the Color of the Universe: Cosmic Latte. (Yes, you read that right. Our Universe is the average color of a menu item at Starbuck's.)

For details (including some techinical information behind the whole project), go here.

Monday, June 24, 2002

During the glory days of the Buffalo Bills, when the team was dominating the AFC and then losing the Super Bowl each year (1990-1993), some of the more superstitious fans suggested that the Bills' problems in the Super Bowl stemmed from their uniforms. In the first Super Bowl, which they lost by a single point when Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal with ten seconds left, the Bills wore their white "road" jerseys. In the next three Super Bowls, though, the Bills wore their blue "home" jerseys -- and were blown out in each game. Obviously, then, the team should wear the white whenever they get back to the Big Game. (For my part, I think they should try going to the Super Bowl with a good defense, something which they lacked in all four of their Super Bowl appearances.)

Why do I bring this up? Because when the 2002 season kicks off, the Bills will be sporting new uniforms. They can be seen here.

I liked the old uniforms better, to be honest. That said, I do like the new home jersey (although it looks a lot like the Denver Broncos' home jerseys, with red substituted for orange in the side-stripe). The road jersey, however, leaves me cold. It looks too much like the Tennessee Titans' uniforms, a look which I don't like. Oh, well. At least they didn't change the team colors to some horrible non-football scheme, like, oh, teal and orange (sorry, Dolphins).

I've added a couple of links to blogs I have found in the last few days.

:: Shadow of the Hegemon takes its title from the Orson Scott Card novel of the same name, which is a part of Card's "Ender" series of books (none of which I have yet read, though Ender's Game seems to be permanently one of the five books I mean to read "any day now"). I can't comment on how that title reflects the site's content, but the site is a Warblog from a left-leaning standpoint. Just about every Warblog out there tends to operate on the right side of the political spectrum, which makes this one especially valuable. And it's well written and well reasoned, to boot. (I learned about this one via this post by Stephen DenBeste on USS Clueless, to whose site Demosthenes provides a worthy counterpoint.)

:: I Love Everything, which seems to be exactly that: a grab-bag of nifty links (plus a really cool-looking design).

Permanent links can be found at right, under "Other Journeys".

Sunday, June 23, 2002

I finished reading The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years by Haynes Johnson today. Johnson is perhaps best known these days as one of the historians who regularly provides commentary for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS (along with Michael Beschloss and, until her recent leave-of-absence following a plagiarism scandal, Doris Kearns Goodwin). He is also a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. In The Best of Times he presents an overview of the 1990s. The book, which came out in 2001, is very interesting in that it is one of very few books about that decade not written in the light of 11 September 2001. Many commentators since that horrible day have noted that the 1990s seem distant (even though they ended just two years ago), with the concerns of that decade appearing terribly unimportant now that issues of life, death and war have arisen. I don't know that this is really the case, but there is still something strange about a book whose historical viewpoint is such that the Taliban government merits only one mention -- for its infamous destruction of the Buddhist megaliths in Afghanistan -- on the book's second-to-last page.

Reading Johnson's book, it quickly becomes apparent that he does not have a chronological overview of the events of the 1990s in mind. Instead, his aim is to provide a snapshot of where America stands as the new decade begins. This can be seen by observing Johnson's treatment of President Bill Clinton, who -- despite being named in the book's title -- only is central to a little more than half of The Best of Times. Persons of a more conservative bent might avoid the book because of Clinton's mention in the title, and perhaps because of the title itself. This would be a mistake. The title that Johnson has chosen is an allusion to the opening sentence of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, which begins thusly:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness....

The 1990s, for Johnson, are a time of dual nature; they are notable for the extraordinary economic boom in which tremendous wealth was created and unbelievable technological progress was achieved, but they are also amazing for the level of depravity evidenced in the items that rose to the top of popular culture and the scandals that dominated both American public attention and the American political system. No figure better illustrates this dichotomy than President Clinton, a politician of rare ability and a man with uncanny inability to avoid his worst instincts.

In avoiding a chronological retelling of the 1990s, Johnson divides his book into four sections, each devoted to a separate theme that he finds winding through the decade. First is what he calls TechnoTimes. Here Johnson chronicles the rise of the Internet and the figures that shaped it and the new economy. Beginning with the developments in the immediate post-World War II period that laid the foundations for the spectacular technological progress to come in the 1990s, Johnson describes how the United States committed to unprecedented investment in basic research -- precisely the kind of research that led, years later, to the connectivity of computers (that formed the precursors of the Internet) and the miniaturization and speeding up of the processor (which led to the personal computer and to Steve Jobs and, finally, to Bill Gates). This is fascinating material, and here Johnson provides a cautionary note: in recent years, funding for basic research has declined. The TechnoTimes section of the book is enriched by the fact that Johnson does not limit himself to covering the Internet; he also delves into he Human Genome Project, a research project that is likely to have immense impact on public health and the pharmaceutical industry in years to come.

Next Johnson moves on to Tele-Times, in which he first delves into the O.J. Simpson trial. What Johnson finds remarkable is the way in which the entire Simpson case captivated the American public, leading to television executives adopting policies of "All O.J., all the time". This goes on for the more than a year that transpires between the infamous slow-speed chase of the white Bronco to Simpson's final acquittal, and for Johnson the trial points to some alarming facts about race in America: while a mjaority of whites believe Simpson to be guilty of the murders (as, frankly, do I), a majority of blacks believe him to be innocent. Johnson describes how Simpson's lawyers embark on a defense based on racially-motivated conspiracy theories on the part of the LAPD, but he also reminds us that the raw material for such theories was easily found -- witness Mark Fuhrman's eventual unmasking as an unrepentant racist. Johnson writes: "Lost in such appeals to racial animosities is the idea that O.J. could be the victim of nefarious police tactics and guilty of the murders with which he's charged." (Also interesting is the title to Johnson's chapter on the Simpson case: "The Trial of the Century, Part One".) Johnson then explores other implications of Tele-Times, mostly concentrating on the increased corporate presence in the decision-making processes that determine which movies get made, which television shows are aired, and which books are published. Johnson quotes David Geffen: "[Ten years from now] I think we'll be saddened by how much dumber culture is than it is now....every once in a while there will be a terrific movie, and we'll be astounded by it. We'll celebrate the person who makes it because it will be so much rarer than it once was."

It is in the next section of the book, Scandal Times, that Bill Clinton takes center stage. This part of the book details the amazing effort that a large amount of individuals put into investigating nearly every facet of Clinton's life, both personal and public, in an effort to discredit him at best and destroy him at worst. I won't comment at length on this portion of the book, except to say that I found it fascinating and more than a little horrifying. Johnson is incredulous that Clinton -- the Governor of a rural state who was known for centrism and dealing with both sides of the political aisle -- could inspire such fierce hatreds as he did; but he is also amazed that Clinton would so often bungle his own affairs and end up playing directly into their hands.

The final section of the book is Millennial Times, in which Johnson directly explores the state of America as the new decade begins. This involves a chapter on the disputed election of 2000, a chapter on the bursting of the dot-com bubble, one about the shifting priorities of the younger generation (expectations of quick money-making, disinterest in education except as preparation for work, and complete distrust of public servants and politicians), and a chapter about the changing demographics of the American culture. He also details the stunning ineptitude Clinton displayed in his departure from the Presidency. In this section of the book Johnson points toward the problems that he sees are likely to confront America in the future. If this section of the book feels inadequate, it is because Johnson could not write about what was still in the future when he wrote it: the coming of terrorism and the resumption of Middle Eastern hostilities, the two forces combining to make war a reality for the new President and the new decade.

The structure that Johnson has chosen for his book makes for fascinating reading, although the book does at times feel like an unfinished portrait of America in the 1990s. A number of the seminal events of the Clinton years are either unmentioned or only mentioned in passing: the Waco debacle, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine shootings, the military disaster in Somalia, the war in Kosovo, and others. I suspect that these events are left uncovered because they do not factor into Johnson's larger analysis of the forces at work in the new decade; Johnson is, after all, not looking to fit every event of the 1990s into some larger framework but rather looking to paint, with a broad brush, the outlines of what he sees as the American direction as the new decade begins.

This is a very worthy book about a fascinating decade. Incomplete, but fascinating.

My favorite television show of the 1980s was, without doubt, Magnum, PI. I loved the show's humor, the chemistry amongst the cast (despite the fact that Larry Manetti, who played Rick, was a lousy actor), the Hawaiian locales which were more than just a nifty backdrop for a detective show, and the show's versatility: sometimes it was a standard mystery show, sometimes an espionage thriller, sometimes a political thriller, occasionally a legal drama, and often times a riotous farce. There were hilarious episodes, such as the one where Magnum and Higgins engage in a war of pranks (complete with Magnum blowing up Higgins's matchstick Bridge on the River Kwai, while whistling "Colonel Bogey" to Higgins over the phone). There were complex espionage episodes, such as the episode where Magnum realizes that his wife -- whom he had married in Viet Nam, and whom he thought dead -- is still alive. There were farcical episodes that paired Magnum with outrageous cohorts -- gumshoe Luther Gillis (Eugene Roche), the daughter of a counterfeiter with whom Magnum is locked in a bank vault (Carol Burnett), and a Japanese-American policeman who insists on speaking in an awful John Wayne impersonation (Clyde Kusatsu). There were also intense, noir-style episodes, most notably one that featured Frank Sinatra in a guest role. Magnum, PI was an awfully good show. I'd love to see some kind of reunion special. This year we had LA Law and Laverne & Shirley get reunions; why not Magnum?

(The occasion for this bit of TV nostalgia is this Flash movie, which is a hilarious parody of Magnum, PI's opening credits sequence.)

Saturday, June 22, 2002

I can't believe that it took me so long to discover the Naxos recording label. This classical label doesn't merely present new recordings of the same old classical repertoire; instead, Naxos seems to concentrate on music that is less familiar to classical listeners. Thanks to Naxos, I have begun exploring the music of Norwegian composer Geirr Tveitt (1908-1981) and reacquainting myself with the two symphonies of Vasily Kallinikov (1866-1901). The nicest thing about Naxos is that their CDs are budget-priced, with a single-disc recording typically going for $7.99 or $8.99 (American dollars). This affordability makes it easier to explore the unfamiliar; people unwilling to risk $17.99 for a CD of, say, the music of Kurt Atterberg (Swedish composer, 1887-1974) might decide to explore the vast wealth of underheard music that is out there, rather than go with something safe like the umpteenth recording of Holst's The Planets or yet another disc of Wagner excerpts. The recordings also tend to be by lesser-known orchestras and performers, such as the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine or (if I may indulge a bit of local pride) the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Naxos website is also well-done, containing a wealth of information about classical composers (with bios and Naxos discographies), information about performers, and commentary on the contemporary classical music scene. There is also a nice Learning Zone, containing a lot of helpful advice to persons wishing to begin exploring the world of classical music.

(Some stores have separate displays exclusively for Naxos recordings; others simply file them in with the other labels under the appropriate composer headings.)

Deepest condolences to the St. Louis Cardinals and the family of pitcher Darryl Kile.

Thursday, June 20, 2002

IMAGE OF THE WEEK





Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki, director.

This was Japan's highest grossing film of all time until it was pushed into second place by Titanic. It is the story of a young Japanese warrior, Ashitaka, who kills a demon that is threatening his village but in so doing contracts the demon's curse, forcing him to leave his home and journey to the west in hopes of learning who is behind the upset of the natural order. It is a beautiful film, steeped in Japanese myth and culture and full of some of the most breathtaking animated imagery I have ever seen. The score, by Joe Hisaishi, is likewise gorgeous -- a wonderful example of symphonic storytelling not unlike Howard Shore's recent Oscar-winning score to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Princess Mononoke is one of the finest cinematic fantasies I have ever seen.

Miyazaki's latest film, Spirited Away, is apparently going to be released in the United States later this year. The image above links to nausicaa.net, a site devoted to Miyazaki's films.

As of today, I once again have four stories out at market. Let the rejections begin!

Neil Gaiman's website -- see link at left, under "other journeys" -- has been redesigned. The new layout is lovely, and Gaiman's journal is a delight. Check it out.

Advertising is one of those annoying-yet-necessary things, but lately I've been finding it more annoying than necessary. A few examples, culled from my mundane existence:

:: Is anyone really more likely to do business with some company because that company happens to have bought naming rights to a particular stadium or sports venue? Maybe; but I certainly couldn't tell you without looking it up just what Qualcomm, 3Com, or Cinergi do. The scramble by the Houston Astros to get the name "Enron" off their ballpark (and which may well be followed by a similar scramble by the Tennessee Titans, who play in Adelphia Stadium) strikes me as a kind of corporate karma in action.

:: I recall a few years back some company was perfecting a type of "rolling billboard" that would be superimposed on the image during baseball games on television. The ads would be positioned to appear like the ads that are frequently painted on the field's walls, but as the effect would be like a "bluescreen", different ads -- tailored to fit the market in which the game is being aired -- would be superimposed. Thus, a person watching a Yankees game in Buffalo would see a logo for, say, Ted's Hot Dogs on the wall behind the left fielder, while a person watching that same game in New Jersey might see the IHOP logo.

:: Do we really need to imprint advertising slogans -- for cigarettes, no less -- on the plastic rod that one uses at the grocery store to separate one's groceries from the next person's at the checkout lane? Do people really pick up that rod and, in the process of plunking it down on the conveyor belt, realize that they are low on Marlboro's?

:: Advertisers have apparently figured out the only real way to overcome the fact that most people use television commercials as an excuse to go the refridgerator or bathroom: they jack up the decibel level of the commercials themselves. It's not at all uncommon for me to have to turn up whatever show I am watching, in order to hear the dialogue properly, only to have to quickly turn the thing back down once the commercials begin.

:: Pop-up ads on the Web were annoying when I first encountered them, but I got used to them. (They also tended to crash the AOL browser when they first came into use.) Pop-unders were more annoying; the browser window containing the page that I am trying to read would freeze while the pop-under ad loads. Then the pop-under advertisers started setting up their ads so the windows would open with the entire right half of the ad off the screen, so in order to close the thing one had to click-and-drag the ad back into full view just to get at the "close" button in the upper left, thus increasing the chance that one might read the ad, however inadvertently. (I get around this by right-clicking the title-bar and then clicking "Close".) Well, some wonderful genius has figured out a new twist: the other day I received a pop-under ad that, when I closed my main browser window, actually started moving around my screen, in a circular motion, and fairly rapidly -- rapidly enough that I couldn't even right-click the thing to close it (much less click the "close" button), but still slow enough that the ad slogan could be made out. This detestable thing swirled around my screen -- defying the Coriolis effect, mind you -- for a full five seconds.

:: In Buffalo, the local NBC affiliate broadcasts each night's New York State Lottery drawings. This, of course, means that while watching any NBC show in Buffalo one is subjected to one of those little "corner images" that every network does now -- this one telling us what the current jackpot is.

I could go on, but that's probably enough cantankerousness for one day.

I've enjoyed the writing of Paul T. Riddell for almost two years now, since I first encountered him in this interview on SFSite. He is an essayist on science fiction, film, comics, and occasionally Texas politics and lifestyle (he lives in Dallas). He's also a fine writer who presents penetrating commentary and scathing wit. Riddell's essays have been archived at a website called The Healing Power of Obnoxiousness (see link at left), the tagline for which is the charming bon mot "Clubbing fanboys like baby seals since 1997". That gives a good taste of Riddell's sense of humor and his "No sacred cows" attitude.

Sadly, Riddell announced recently on his Delphi forum that due to hosting issues his site will vanish as of July 1, and he is seriously considering allowing the site to go away permanently rather than locate a new host at this time. Below are links to some of Riddell's essays that I have especially enjoyed.

:: Turning Science Into a Sport

:: When 'Bah, Humbug!' Just Isn't Enough (This one is especially hilarious -- subtle ways to spread something other than joy during the Holidays.)

:: Applying Natural Selection to an Unnatural Problem (Riddell's favorite targets of derision are MBA's. Here is one of his attacks on them.)

:: The Steve Irwin of Science Fiction? (SF's need for an evangelist.)

:: Advice for Writers: The True Story

:: It Ain't Valuable If They Ain't Buying (This is probably my favorite of Riddell's essays, a kind of "tough love" article for beginning writers who must recover from the shock of pouring their soul into a story only to receive a soul-less rejection.)

I assume that all of these links will be broken as of 1 July, so read these soon. And this is just a smattering; Riddell is quite prolific. I could have listed another ten articles here without much effort. I hope he eventually returns HPoO to the Web.

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

I've ranted a couple of times lately about ugly aspects of fandom, in both cases noting the rather unhealthy anger that some people have developed toward George Lucas because the last two Star Wars movies have not lived up to their personal expectations. (Those articles of mine are here and here.) I've been baffled by the phenomenon, which was lampooned in a wonderful episode of The Simpsons where Homer was cast as a new character for the "Itchy&Scratchy" cartoon. Comic Book Guy intones, "Worst episode EVER", and goes on to spout how the creators of I&S owe their fans better, to which Bart replies, "They've given you hours and hours of fun and entertainment. Why do they owe you anything?" I wish fans would take that to heart, especially those who will claim that George Lucas or Steven Spielberg or anyone "raped their childhood".

I did get a reminder this week about how positive an experience fandom can be, though, by reading William Shatner's lovingly-crafted memoir of his experiences with Star Trek fans, appropriately titled Get a Life!. The title comes, of course, from that classic Saturday Night Live sketch Shatner did in which he, playing himself, appears before a Trek convention and proceeds to tell them all to, well, "Get a life". That sketch has become one of the immortal SNL moments.

In this book, Shatner briefly details how the first Trek conventions came to be, and how the convention business grew over the years until they were massive affairs held throughout the country. He also describes how he did the conventions rather mechanically until he began to wonder about the whole phenomenon. Shatner's central question is this, in his words:

"Why does Star Trek, as opposed to let's say Three's Company, deserve conventions and the kind of unconditional love that's been tossed our way for more than three decades now?....How come you never find a convention hall filled with six-thousand people dressed like Mr. Roper?"

Shatner finds many answers to this question, which he poses to fans at the conventions, his fellow Trek actors, the show's former creators, and more. Some people cite the show's central message of acceptance and tolerance; others cite the show's depiction of a positive outcome for the human race, a stark contrast to the dystopic visions that sometimes seem dominant in SF; others cite the show's clear moral grounding in right and wrong. Along the way Shatner introduces us to a number of quirky, unforgettable people. There is the fan who is very short, and found particular inspiration in the episode "Plato's Stepchildren", which focused on an abused dwarf character. There is the shy veterinarian whose claim to fame in Trek fandom is that he takes his cats to the conventions, dressed in Trek regalia. And there is the psychiatric patient who suffers from multiple-personality disorder: several of her personalities are Trek characters.

Shatner also gives a number of anecdotes, most of which are very funny, about his own convention experiences. The funniest involve his early attempts at research for this very book, in which he actually donned some kind of rubber "alien head" mask to wander the convention floor unrecognized. And the brief transcript he gives of one Very Special Convention where he, Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks and Kate Mulgrew all appeared onstage at once makes me wish I could have been there to see the shenanigans.

Most of all, Shatner captures the cameraderie and the warmth of these gatherings, providing a welcome reminder that fandom can -- and should -- be something positive. To be a "fan" of something should mean that that something has enriched one's life. I'm not much of a Star Trek fan these days -- I loved Deep Space Nine but never much got into Voyager, and I have yet to see a single episode of Enterprise -- but Get a Life! makes me want to go out and track down all those wonderful old episodes that I haven't seen in so long, some in nearly a decade.

I love wine, but I am by no means an expert on the subject. While I will swirl it in my glass and occasionally do that "slurping" thing that wine-tasters do (it really does alter the flavor of the liquid when it's in the mouth, believe it or not), I don't indulge in the weird language that wine afficionadoes have developed. I won't talk about how a particular wine has "a bouquet like a fresh carnation, with a body reminiscent of blackberries and a chocolate finish". I'll pretty much stick to, "Yep, I like this one", or "Yeeccchhhhh!!!" When buying wine, I'll stick to some brands that I have had luck with in the past (Ruby Port by Cockburn is a favorite, though not in the summer months -- I find Port too heavy for warm-weather drinking), and experiment with others pretty much by whim. The idea of ruthlessly adhering to the lofty edicts of some wine critic strikes me as bizarre, because I've learned from books and movies that there is no guarantee that I'm going to like what a critic likes, so why should wine be any different?

Well, according to this article from Slate, many people do precisely that, rigidly observing one particular critic's 100-point scale for wines. Setting aside the obvious problem of how on Earth wine can be qualified with the precision that a 100-point scale implies, don't people have tastebuds of their own?

Suggestions abound, from all sides, on how to improve Major League Baseball. The list of baseball's problems is a familiar one: the games are too long, the game's competitive balance is out-of-whack (and dangerously close to tipping over completely in favor of the large-market teams), interleague play cheapens the game, multiple-round playoffs cheapen the game, the talent pool is too diluted right now, et cetera. Here is the latest article I've seen on how to fix things. It's not the best thing I've read on the subject -- that would be a tie between Joe Morgan's Long Balls, No Strikes (which I reviewed Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball -- but Wojciechowski has a couple of interesting points. I, too, have to admit that I favor keeping the Designated Hitter. The New York Yankees have, in recent years, proven that the DH need not be an impediment to "National League"-style of play, using hit-and-run tactics, basestealing, and manufacturing runs vs. waiting for what Earl Campbell called "the manager's best friend" (the three-run homer). Yes, if the NL had the DH, mini-dramas like the Shawn Estes-Roger Clemens matchup from this past weekend would not have transpired, but such dramas are really quite rare. More common by far is the pitcher who walks up to the plate looking like he barely knows which end of the bat to hold.

I also agree that if baseball is going to shut down two teams, they should be the Expos and the Devil Rays. When Major League Baseball expanded into Florida, Miami made sense, what with the heavy Latino population in that part of the state coupled with baseball's popularity with Latinos. (I also wonder if part of it had to do with the desire to have a MLB franchise within 100 miles of Cuba.) But Tampa Bay made absolutely no sense, and it still makes no sense. If they had to have two baseball franchises in Florida, surely the Orlando area would have been a wiser location, where a team could have capitalized on that city's staggering tourism base.

I do disagree with this author's notion of instant-replay as an aid to umpiring. I simply do not want to watch a baseball game and hear something like, "Upon further review, the runner's right foot slid in under the fielder's glove and made contact with the bag just prior to the tag being applied. The runner is awarded second base. Will the official scorekeeper please reset the scoreboard to reflect one out? Play ball!" And besides, what would happen to the team that challenges for the replay if they lose the challenge? Do you automatically start their next series of at-bats with one out?

I'm always a bit surprised by the amount of detail which some people are willing to divulge about their personal lives on the Net. The Date Project is a case in point. It's a blog about a guy who is looking for love. I haven't delved too much into this particular site, but the guy seems interesting. Of course, if he proves to be a fascinating blogger, do we wish for his quest to go unfulfilled -- that he never find love -- so the blog keeps going? Hmmmm....

Sunday, June 16, 2002

POETICAL EXCURSION #4

"The Measures Taken", by Erich Fried (1921-1988).

The lazy are slaughtered
the world grows industrious

The ugly are slaughtered
the world grows beautiful

The foolish are slaughtered
the world grows wise

The sick are slaughtered
the world grows healthy

The sad are slaughtered
the world grows merry

The old are slaughtered
the world grows young

The enemies are slaughtered
the world grows friendly

The wicked are slaughtered
the world grows good

(Michael Hamburger, trans. From World Poetry.)

German poet Erich Fried was an Austrian Jew who fled that country following the Anschluss in 1938 after his father's beating death by the Gestapo. Fried eventually became a prominent Socialist, and he also became a prominent figure in Germany's anti-war movement during the Viet Nam era. This particular poem strikes me as being fairly relevant today as War reasserts itself as a force in human affairs. Fried uses the word "slaughtered" over and over, allowing its connotations to give the lie to the central idea behind war -- i.e., that by making war on that which we consider undesirable the world will necessarily be better as a result. A "slaughter" implies a very messy affair, a certain ugliness. Consider a battlefield drenched in blood, cities demolished by bombing, rampant disease and starvation that seem to follow such devastation -- all these are suggested by the word "slaughter". Fried is telling us that war, by itself, never makes the world "industrious", "beautiful", "wise", or anything else. Agree or disagree with Fried's anti-war position, this poem is still an elegant summation of that position.

A few offerings today from Slate:

:: This article on the worst nightmare that can befall a cat person: the acquisition of a dog.

:: This interesting analysis of the term "homeland", which found its way into the American lexicon almost instantly following 9-11-01.

:: An obituary for Lew Wasserman, once head of Universal Studios, that is refreshing in that it blames someone other than George Lucas for the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster.

Saturday, June 15, 2002

So that's it, then: the Mets have exacted revenge on Roger Clemens for his beaning of Mike Piazza (and later throwing a chunk of broken bat at him) two years ago. Mets pitcher Shawn Estes threw behind Clemens on his first at-bat ("My pitch got away from me," he deadpanned) and then he actually homered off Clemens, the first pitcher to ever homer off the Rocket. Piazza, too, got into the act by hitting his own home run. So, now the Mets have officially gotten even with Clemens; maybe they can focus on something more important. Like, possibly, getting back into the NL East race now that the hated Braves have surged into their customary first-place spot.

(And the Pirates? Their stats are terrible, and though they're hovering just below the .500 mark, I keep waiting for the shoe to drop.)

This site appears to be featuring interesting commentary on Star Wars. At the very least, it makes for a nice antidote to the TalkBacks going on at AICN, where even the TalkBack devoted to the new Scooby Doo movie degenerated almost immediately into a series of ventings by people who hated Attack of the Clones. (Incidentally, the most prolific anti-AOTC poster on AICN right now is an individual who openly admits that he hasn't even seen the film. Why devote so much mental energy to expressing hatred for a movie you haven't even seen?! Surely there is some landmark psychological research waiting to be done on the mind of the lunatic fanboy.)

Here is a blog that I discovered (well, actually Sean discovered it) that seems kind of interesting, and here are the author's musings on the Statehood Quarters now that two-fifths of them have been issued. I agree with him that the Connecticut quarter is the best thus far, although I also love the Virginia design (the ships landing at Jamestown), the Tennessee design (musical instruments, in keeping with Nashville's country scene and the Memphis blues scene), New Hampshire's quarter (the "Old Man of the Mountain"), and the Vermont design (maple trees being tapped for syrup). I, too, find it odd that many of the states seem to be taking a "safe way out" by putting their state outline on their quarter, but in my own state's defense, New York actually put a relief map of the state on the quarter, with a line cutting through the state demarking the Hudson River/Erie Canal. We didn't just go for a simple outline, like our neighbors in Pennsylvania did.

By the way, will the District of Columbia get a quarter?

A few miscellaneous links collected from some weekend Websurfing:

:: This article, from the New York Times, is about the current prevalence of fantasy films and the mainstream acceptance of fantasy that the glut of these films demonstrates. (Registration with the NYT is required to read their online content, but the registration process is quick and free.)

:: The MSN article about last week's discovery of an apparently Jupiter-like planet in another solar system.

:: An intriguing new blog about food in New York City.

:: One blogger's experiment with twenty-one consecutive days of posting about the front-page content of People Magazine's website.

Thursday, June 13, 2002

IMAGE OF THE WEEK





Freestyle motocross rider Caleb Wyatt, failing in one of his attempts to land a successful backflip.

I was checking baseball standings and whatnot online, and I saw this headline: "First motocross backflip completed". Saying to myself, "Now there's something I should have a look at", I followed the link to the story and found this picture of one of Wyatt's unsuccessful attempts at this particular feat. I know nothing whatsoever about the world of motocross, but I couldn't resist a picture of a guy and a bike flying through the air toward a large pile of dirt.

(Click on the image for the article, which also contains a video clip.)


It's that time of year again: when the "Year's Best" of short fiction begin appearing. The first of these, Year's Best SF 7 edited by David Hartwell, is out now. Hartwell's Year's Best Fantasy 2 should appear sometime soon as well. Hartwell's is one of the two big "Year's Best" series; the others being Gardner Dozois's annual The Year's Best Science Fiction (the nineteenth annual edition of which will arrive in July) and my favorite, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow (the fifteenth of which should appear in August). These four books provide the best annual snapshot of the state of speculative and dark fiction in general -- plus they yield tons of good reading.

Sean posted a link to an interesting story about one possible means of future Martian exploration: a flying-wing style glider that would coast about the Martian atmosphere, landing in scientifically-interesting places and dropping small, mechanized experiments to the ground below. The article can be found here. I'm interested in two things about this project: first, is the Martian atmosphere sufficiently thick for the flying wing to generate enough lift to fly? And secondly, what will be done about the violent sandstorms that frequently wrack the Martian surface?

(WARNING: The following is in direct violation of my "No Politics" policy.)

The nice thing about self-imposed policies, like my "no political discussion here" rule, is that I can violate it whenever I wish, pretty much with impunity. The occasion today is this interesting article in which Eric Raymond details the top ten reasons why he is not a liberal and the top ten reasons why he is not a conservative. I disagree with a lot of the assertions here (primarily the ones about liberals), but the one that really gives me pause is Number Nine, his assessment of Bill Clinton. In Raymond's words:

"Sociopathic liar, perjurer, sexual predator. There was nothing but a sucking narcissistic vacuum where his principles should have been. Liberals worship him." (italics mine)

There's a lot to process here, and I'm not going to comment on all of it. Clinton is an amazingly dishonest man, but frankly that's to be expected. Honesty in politics has never been in large supply. The legal question of whether or not he actually committed perjury is simply not as clear-cut as many would like to believe. And I have difficulty calling Clinton a "sexual predator", especially given the shenanigans that a depressingly large number of Catholic priests have apparently been perpetrating. Clinton's morality, with regard to marital fidelity, is certainly questionable ("nonexistent" might be a better term), but using such hyperbole as "predatory" to characterize behavior that was, in every instance, committed between two consensual (if stupid) adults seems to minimize the amount of outrage we can therefore claim for the pedophile priests and such. But that isn't what gives me pause here, either. It's Raymond's last clause: "Liberals worship him."

Which liberals would those be?

I have read a great deal of liberal commentary on Clinton, both during and after his Presidency. This includes authors like Molly Ivins, Joe Klein, Helen Thomas, Michael Moore, George Stephanopolous, Michael Kinsley, the editorial department of The New York Times, and so on. Many of these commentators defended Clinton against what they saw to be personally motivated attacks on him, up to and including the impeachment trial; many of them argue that Clinton accomplished a fair number of substantive goals while in office; many of them are thankful that he was able to block many of the Republican more draconian measures and policy goals once that party took control of Congress in 1994; and many of them admire Clinton's political skill and ability to survive setbacks that would have crippled other presidents. If that were the only tone present in these people's writings -- and to my mind, these people constitute much of the prevailing opinion amongst the American left -- then Raymond's charge that "liberals worship Bill Clinton" might be well-taken.

But that's not the only tone present. Also notable is a keen sense of disappointment in Clinton, both as President and as a man. Just about every liberal commentator and writer I've ever encountered has expressed sadness that Clinton achieved much of his success by relentlessly moving to the center, in many cases co-opting issues that had for years been safe, Republican issues. They are disappointed by Clinton's pro-death penalty stance. They are disappointed that Clinton's work on the environment basically amounted to creating a large number of national monuments by using the Antiquities Act, and they suspect that he did this more to gall the Republicans and frustrate his successor than out of any real concern for the environment. They are disappointed that Clinton allowed the Kyoto protocols to twist in the wind. They are disappointed in his bungling of the health care plan. They are disappointed in Clinton's renegging on many of his original campaign promises, most notably his backtracking on gays in the military. They were keenly disappointed by his version of welfare reform. They were galled when Clinton turned his back on the liberal base and instead adopted the "triangulation" strategy formed by Dick Morris, a man who is not near-and-dear to anyone of a liberal persuasion. They were disillusioned when the last two-and-a-half years of Clinton's Presidency was consumed with the spectacle of impeachment and a disgraced President trying to salvage something of a historical legacy. It was liberal dissatisfaction with the Clinton years that made Ralph Nader a force to be reckoned with in 2000. If liberals really worshipped Clinton, Al Gore would be in the White House.

As far as I can tell, the prevailing liberal view on Bill Clinton is this: "He did OK, and if he hadn't been there things might have been a lot worse, but he could have done so much more." That, frankly, doesn't sound like "worship" to me. If you want to see "worship", look at the conservative love affair with Ronald Reagan. As far as I know, no liberal has suggested putting Clinton on Mount Rushmore -- a suggestion which has seriously been advanced on Reagan's behalf. No liberal has said of Clinton, "The nation owes this man a debt that it can never repay" -- which Rush Limbaugh has said of Reagan. Liberal books on Clinton tend to be almost apologetic; contrast that with the fauning tone of Peggy Noonan's When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan.

William Jefferson Clinton is many things, but an object of "liberal worship" is not one of them.

I woke up this morning, and it came to me in a flash, as if my subconscious mind had been processing this particular problem for a day or two. The revelation?

They omitted Say Anything!!!

Yes, I'm still stuck on the AFI's Top 100 Movie Romances, the subject of earlier comment by me. I promise to get off this rut eventually, but I now believe that Say Anything has to be the most egregious omission from The List. After all, it's nothing more than the finest teen romance ever filmed, capturing perfectly the awkwardness of first love and the uncertainty of life after high school and teen angst and all the rest of it. One of the greatest romantic images of all time, from any movie, has to be Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) holding the boom box aloft, Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" blaring for Diane Court (Ione Skye) to hear. Roger Ebert even saw fit to name Say Anything in his biweekly "The Great Movies" column (read that article here).

That should be my final word on the matter. Until, of course, another film occurs to me like a bolt from the blue. (Seven Brides For Seven Brothers? The Music Man? How about Shrek? Oh, somebody, make it stop....)

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

I've added a permanent link (see "Other Shores" at left) to a Webzine called The Infinite Matrix. In the words of the zine, this is "a journal for people who love science fiction as a literature of ideas". They carry fiction, reviews, and a daily journal by SF author (noted for his cyberpunk novels and stories) Bruce Sterling. Check it out.

Military Science Fiction is a potent and growing sub-genre of SF in general these days. Prominent authors of military SF are John Ringo, Eric Flint, David Drake, and David Weber. Military SF is just that: SF stories generally involving violent, bloody wars fought by grunt soldiers wearing immense spacesuits that would dwarf Darth Vader's and weilding blaster-cannons the size of bazookas against horrible, detestable alien enemies. This isn't Space Opera, a la Star Wars or Lensmen; think of Starship Troopers. The focus in military SF tends to be on how a military unit would function in a futuristic war, with futuristic weaponry; tactics are paramount and a badge of honor among authors of this type of SF is how clearly they can write a very complex battle. I actually don't read much military SF; I find that a little of it goes quite a long way. I did enjoy On Basilisk Station, the first of David Weber's series of novels detailing the adventures of Captain Honor Harrington (initials HH....not unlike another famous literary Captain, albeit a seafaring one), even though Weber's characterizations aren't very complex and he demonstrated a strange tendency to break off in the middle of a fairly tense action-filled sequence to provide a lengthy infodump of some sort. Military SF is related to Space Opera, but it doesn't tend to have the galactic scope, the grand sense of wonder, and the Eternal-Battle-of-Good-Versus-Evil thing that attracts me so strongly to Space Opera. But Military SF is very popular these days.

The book I finished yesterday, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, can be considered military SF, but having been initially published in 1975 (with portions appearing three years prior to that in Analog), it is quite different from the military SF of today. Haldeman's book is told first-person by William Mandella, who at the outset is a Private in a military strike force that is training for a war that has just begun against the Taurans, a race of beings encountered in a system a number of lightyears from Earth. The enemy is extremely distant, and some might not even consider them much of a threat, but the war goes on -- and on and on, for years and years. Also complicating things is the nature of space travel itself: transit between star systems is accomplished via "collapsar jumps", which accelerate the ships to something like .9c (nine-tenths of the speed of light), meaning that the soldiers spend years moving from one battle to the next -- while, in keeping with relativity, the time progressing from their perspective is measurable only in weeks. The effect is that when the soldiers finally do get their chance to return home, they are returning to a home that has changed drastically from the one they left, a home which doesn't welcome them with open arms (or even welcome them at all). The Forever War, then, becomes a SF-based allegory on the American experience in Viet Nam.

Private Mandella gets to know his comrades only by very broad strokes, and many of them are killed horribly and in ways that are surprising for their timing and mundane nature. He rarely has any idea (and thus, neither do we) of the military strategy at work behind the actions of the troops, and he at times suspects that there is no strategy per se, other than "Lose no more territory than has already been lost". Haldeman also employs his science very well: in addition to time marching on for Earth while grinding to a near halt for the soldiers, he makes us realize that this same fact of spacetime means that the enemy and the humans may at times be fighting with one side or the other at a clear advantage. In this way Haldeman captures the uncertainty that made the Viet Nam War so harrowing for the soldiers who fought it, that feeling that one not only knows when the enemy may attack but where he may attack from. During the military scenes there is a constant sense that the Taurans may arrive at any second, and they often do.

Equally effective are the scenes on Earth, when Mandella returns home after his service is up. He discovers what seems to him a world gone mad. The Earth that Haldeman shows us is rather dystopic, but what is interesting isn't so much the Earth as Haldeman shows it as Mandella's response to that Earth, as he attempts to carve out a niche where he can live his life and, maybe, enjoy love.

The Forever War suffers a bit in its third act, which felt a bit perfunctory. Mandella is re-drafted into service, this time as a commanding officer. I think that Haldeman is trying to show that the war was just as choatic and horrible for commanders as it was for the "grunts". A bit of this comes through, and the trials-and-tribulations that Mandella experiences in his first command post -- for which he really isn't cut out -- are interesting, but this part of the book still seems to be striving too hard toward the massive Final Battle, which is almost obligatory in stories like this. Haldeman's ending, too, seems a bit too easy and a bit too happy after such a harrowing book. But it does work, though, being based as it is squarely on the science that forms the basis of Haldeman's entire enterprise. Even though I'm not sure if things should work out the way they do, I'm glad that they do.

The Forever War is a very impressive work.

In my post yesterday about the AFI's top 100 romantic films, I commented that I found it bizarre that Jennifer Love Hewitt provided commentary on the listed films that starred Audrey Hepburn. I have now been informed that Miss Hewitt played Miss Hepburn herself in a biopic recently, which probably explains it. OK, but I still think it's weird -- not unlike that ABC interview with Bill Clinton (while he was President) that was conducted by Leonardo DiCaprio. But I concede that it's not completely inexplicable.(Thanks for the tip, Meg!)

Tuesday, June 11, 2002

The American Film Institute has spoken. In a special that aired on CBS tonight, they revealed the top 100 romantic films of all time. Number Three was West Side Story. Number Two was Gone With the Wind. And number One?

Casablanca.

I can live with that.

The list was fascinating. I love these shows, not just for debating their choices but also for the trip down memory lane for wonderful films that I may not have seen in quite a while (I really want to watch From Here to Eternity right now) and the reminder of films that I really do need to see (The Quiet Man and The Goodbye Girl leap to mind). I didn't even have as many quibbles with this list as I have with the previous AFI "Lists" (the 100 greatest movies, the 100 funniest comedies, the 100 most exciting action films). I am convinced that Kevin Costner has starred in two of the finest cinematic love stories of all time: Dances With Wolves and Bull Durham, which were not on the AFI's list. One of my favorite cinematic love stories, believe it or not, is the Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service -- the one Bond film in which Bond actually falls in love. I've also always had something of a soft spot for Somewhere in Time. And there's the wonderful suspense-mystery-reincarnation-dual love story starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, Dead Again. I'm sure I could come up with a few more, given time.

As for films the AFI named which I would omit from their list, there weren't a whole lot of these. I really don't consider It's a Wonderful Life a love story (and, to be frank, I don't much like the film in the first place). If they had to include two Gene Kelly movies, Brigadoon or For Me and My Gal would have been a better choice than the colossally-overrated An American In Paris, an overlong film that suffers greatly in the love department because Leslie Caron is, to my eyes, completely uninteresting. She and Kelly have no chemistry together. I also can't stomach Love Story, which I've always found treacly and overly manipulative. But my heart soared to see my single favorite musical, My Fair Lady, on the list. (One confusing thing about the show, though: why did they feel the need to have Jennifer Love Hewitt comment on every Audrey Hepburn film that was on the list? Were they symbolically trying to anoint Miss Hewitt as the next Miss Hepburn? Good lord, I hope not....)

I wonder if the AFI will do another list for next year. I'm not sure if there are any topics left that lend themselves to 100 films; perhaps a series of specials devoted to specific genres? I'd tune in to see the AFI's Top 25 SF films, Top 25 Westerns, Top 25 Film Noir's, et cetera.

(By the way, according to the AFI's website the next recipient of the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award will be Tom Hanks.)

My new issue of WIRED Magazine came in the mail today....thus reminding me that I never read last month's issue, which is now online at the WIRED website. I found several articles particularly notable:

:: An interview with Steven Spielberg on the eve of Minority Report, his new film based on a short story by Philip K. Dick. What I found most interesting is Spielberg's rejection of purely digital cinema. He really feels that something will be lost when celluloid is a thing of the past, and judging by the mixed reviews I've seen of the digital projections of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, I have to wonder if maybe he's right.

:: This article on the upcoming LucasArts game, Star Wars Galaxies. This game will create the Star Wars universe in an online environment that could involve as many as millions of gamers whose actions will create and shape the ongoing mythology of Star Wars once the films are complete. I'm wondering: suppose one user becomes as powerful and as charismatic a figure, in the game, as the fictional Dark Lords of the Sith? Will Lucas allow the Empire to rise again in his creation, once it's in the hands of the gamers?

:: A profile of Stephen Wolfram, the at-times megalomaniacal genius behind Mathematica and the new book, A New Kind of Science, which -- according to its author -- is just that, a grand new paradigm that may be the most important development in science since Einstein or Newton, or -- according to its critics -- merely repackages some old ideas in unscientific fashion, a sin doubly compounded by Wolfram's decision to forego the traditional mechanism of peer review in science in favor of self-publishing and self-promoting.

Monday, June 10, 2002

For some light reading, I checked out from the library Molly Ivins's collection of columns entitled You Got to Dance with Them What Brung You: Politics in the Clinton Years. This made for an enjoyable evening, but it was slightly eerie to read her mentioning offhandedly the World Trade Center bombing, and realize that she was talking about the botched demolition attempt of 1993. This was rather eerie.

I've finally figured out why I've been writing so much horror recently: because I want to win one of these. If this isn't the coolest trophy out there, I don't know what is. Who wouldn't want a Bram Stoker Award on the mantelpiece?

Congratulations to all the winners. (Neil Gaiman took the Stoker for Best Novel of 2001, for American Gods.)

The New York Times has this interesting article about blogging and, specifically, a rift that is apparently developing between "war bloggers" and "regular bloggers". (I suppose that's what you'd call them.)

This seems a good time to discuss my stance just a bit, perhaps violating my own "no politics" policy. In the menu to the left, there is a quote from one of the characters in Guy Gavriel Kay's magnificent novel The Lions of Al-Rassan. Stripped of its context, the quote probably seems anti-war, almost pacifist in nature. The novel, though, is a fantasy inspired by the fall of Moorish Iberia and the rise of Catholic Espana; war is one of the book's central themes. The words of this particular quote are spoken by a man who is one of the great poets of his day, in Kay's world; this same man, though, is one of the most dangerous men in the world. He is extremely skilled with a number of weapons, and he kills a number of men in the course of the novel. War, for this man, is a necessary evil, a part of the world that must be accepted -- but must not be allowed to become everything.

That, I suppose, is the reason for what I am doing with this blog. The current war is extremely important and will be for a long time to come; but it is not everything. There is still a world full of books and music and art, and I offer my oft-inadequate musings here as a reminder of that. I am not a pacifist; I generally support the war, although I am troubled by a number of aspects of it. It worries me, for example, when we are told by the Vice President that "The war will not be over in our lifetime"; I worry that this is simply a means for rescusitating a formerly-shaky defense industry. I am disturbed by the idea of military tribunals. I wonder just what our plan is for all those detainees at Guantanamo Bay. I question whether or not we should go after Saddam Hussein (my opinion on this changes daily). All this is irrelevant, though, to my writing here.

When we are asked why we fight, so often we answer, "Freedom". Art -- be it great art, shallow art, or junk-food art -- is born of Freedom. What do we fight for? Freedom. But what do we want to produce as a result of our freedom? I recently read a comment by some historian -- whose name I cannot recall -- that went something like, "Every epoch is known for two things: its art and its wars." I'm glad we have warbloggers to write about the wars. I prefer to write about our art.



One can find here the top 20 science fiction films of all time, as selected by WIRED Magazine.

I haven't seen all of their picks, so I can't judge the list entirely. In fact, I haven't seen seven of their twenty films, though one -- Akira -- is on my shelf, still shrinkwrapped and waiting to be watched. (Viewing films like Akira is logistically difficult when one's home includes a two-year-old.) The list purports to judge films by their "adrenaline rush" and by how well the films' worlds are realized. World-building is, of course, of tantamount concern in SF and fantasy (and, to a lesser extent, horror), so judging films on those grounds is certainly understandable. I don't understand their third criterion, though: Precision, or how well the science holds up. Quite frankly, some of their films are so scientifically implausible as to merit serious consideration as fantasy. Star Wars is not hard SF, and that is that. How can we approach the science of a film that gives us FTL-drives as standard equipment, super-laser beams that can obliterate entire planets, a space-station the size and configuration of the Death Star (where are its thrusters?), weapons comprised by a laser beam that stops in mid-air, et cetera? And for all the wonderful gee-whizzery of Jurassic Park, that film is on no better scientific ground. Splicing ancient DNA with frog DNA, and thus being able to create full-fledged organisms? And since when do we know anything about the visual acuity of a T-Rex? I am more inclined to judge the films on the basis of their influence, their storytelling, and their worldbuilding than in judging their science. On that basis I will gladly admit both Star Wars (which is, after all, in my opinion the finest film ever made -- sorry, Citizen Kane) and Jurassic Park.

I would, though, omit a number of the films on this list. I have never liked Bladerunner much, and I wouldn't call it a "Top 20" film, and I certainly wouldn't rank it first. I find Bladerunner anemic on the adrenaline side; its story never draws me in and excites me. As for the worldbuilding, according to this film 2019 Los Angeles looks like a futuristic Tokyo....when, given the rapid ascent of the Latino population in California, would seem to imply a futuristic Mexico City. The acting always seems flat; how Rutger Hauer parlayed this role into a career playing basically the same part over and over again is beyond me. To be fair, I haven't seen the much-praised Director's Cut of the film. (Bladerunner's music score, by Vangelis, is wonderful.)

Likewise, I would omit Alien and I would not allow any of its sequels anywhere near The List. I found the original Alien to be a fairly effective horror-in-space movie, but I also find that it loses a great deal of its punch on repeat viewings. A scare-movie that depends on horrible beasts leaping out from behind things and general gross-out effect for its suspense doesn't have that much to offer in a second go-round; as for the worldbuilding, it's nothing spectacular -- just a claustrophobic spaceship. As for Aliens, that film has never been one of my favorites either, mainly due to its predictability. The film had no surprises for me, and again its worldbuilding is basically a series of claustrophobic sets of mostly dank metal and smoke.

I also have to reluctantly omit The Matrix, a film which I liked immensely upon first seeing it but which has suffered on repeat viewings. The film's pseudo-myth of "The One" seems hollow the more I examine it, and the idea of a "reality beyond the reality" is toyed with intriguingly only to be tossed aside in favor of a massive gunfight at the end. And I must admit to great difficulty believing Keanu Reeves as a martial-arts genius, or whatever it is he's supposed to be.

Tron is a film that I actually like, but I wonder if it's more of a cult-film than one of the standing greats. Nevertheless, I can excuse its presence here. Its worldbuilding is quite amazing, really, being steeped in the video-game culture of the early 1980s. As a cyber-thriller, I find Tron to be much more inventive -- and effective -- than The Matrix. The same objection -- that it is more of a cult-film than one-for-the-ages -- applies to Road Warrior, a fun bit of post-apocalyptic dystopia that isn't really as good as WIRED seems to believe.

There are some glaring omissions, as there will be in any such list. Close Encounters of the Third Kind maybe suffers in the worldbuilding department, simply because it's set in the real world and thus isn't much subject to the same kind of flights of fancy that populate a film like Star Wars. But its storytelling is nothing short of amazing, and in this film we can see many of the tropes that would later surface in The X-Files and other "government paranoia" stories. Terminator 2: Judgement Day probably deserves recognition on the list even more than its predecessor, The Terminator. T2 is a masterpiece of adrenaline-pumping action, and it features one of the most menacing villains of all cinema, in the T-1000. The WIRED listmakers were right to include two James Cameron films; I just think they named the wrong ones. The Abyss is one of the most underrated films of all time. It is loaded with SF "sense of wonder"; it shows us a new world (one on our very doorstep); it is exciting and moving and touching; and it's even highly influential, being one of the earliest examples of the "morphing" special effect that would later be used to such amazing effect in T2 and would later pave the way for Jurassic Park and the marvels in the Star Wars prequels. (NOTE: I prefer the Director's Cut of The Abyss to the original, despite the fact that the Director's Cut makes the film's ending far more preachy than it should be.) And while I personally might want to make a case for all five (and probably the sixth, when it arrives in 2005) Star Wars films, certainly a case could be made for The Empire Strikes Back, the film which fleshes out the Star Wars universe and gives its mythology its soundest basis. Plus, it's exciting as hell -- pure adrenaline -- and a wonder of worldbuilding.

I also think that a historical case could be possibly made for King Kong, Forbidden Planet, and Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

One of Buffalo's biggest arts events, the Allentown Art Festival, was this weekend. And I missed it by not realizing when it was, and making other plans. How revolting.

Saturday, June 08, 2002

I've been delayed from writing my thoughts on the series finale of The X-Files, so here they are: The episode itself was well done, but I think it came a bit too late. The show really should have gone to movies after the end of Season Seven, when Scully had been revealed pregnant and Mulder abducted. Everything that has transpired since then has felt padded. I envision a scene like this at Ten Thirteen:

CHRIS CARTER: "We've gotta come up with two more seasons of stuff. How about, oh, supersoldiers?"

STAFF WRITER: "What are those, Chris?"

CHRIS CARTER: "They're government-created humans who can't be killed, which will save us from the aliens when they come. And maybe Scully's baby is one of them. And since David won't be around, we'll need a new agent to pair with Scully. Anybody like the name 'Doggett'?"

STAFF WRITER: "What about the black oil?"

CHRIS CARTER: "I'm still talking about this guy Doggett. And of course he should have a partner...."

STAFF WRITER: "Wait. Isn't his partner Scully?"

CHRIS CARTER: "Hmmm. Well, I'm about to make Scully a single mom, so we can't have her flying off into unknown danger all the time. Responsibilities, you know. So we'll do what we did six years ago when Gillian was pregnant in real life: we'll have Scully do a lot of desk-work and autopsies."

STAFF WRITER: "Well, OK. Not really the best use for an actress of Gillian's talent, but then, she looks better in scrubs and a lab coat than half the women on ER."

CHRIS CARTER: "Gillian's a trooper. I mean, when we did 'Humbug' she actually ate a beetle! You can't buy that....Now, about these Super Soldiers...."

STAFF WRITER: "Hey, is Smoking Man really Mulder's father? We never really came out and said so."

CHRIS CARTER: "Hmmmm. Well, if we did come out and say so, it would seem like a rip-off of Star Wars."

STAFF WRITER: "Say, I have a question. Remember how on Frasier, when Daphne realized she was in love with Niles, someone told her that maybe it was time to stop calling him "Dr. Crane"? Well, Mulder and Scully have a kid now. Should they really call each other by their last names still?"

....and so on.

It took me a long time to really get into The X-Files. I watched it intermittently during its first two seasons, but I didn't get hooked until the brilliant two-parter "Piper Maru/Apocrypha" from the third season. At its best, The X-Files was a smart and witty blend of paranoia, fin-du-siecle anxiety, and good old fashioned horror storytelling. I even liked the first movie, even though it admittedly was skewed a bit too much toward the show's already-converted fans. And I still liked some of episodes from the wildly uneven eighth and ninth seasons. It was hard to watch the show peter out as Chris Carter and the folks at Ten Thirteen made a game effort to keep drawing a story out of a franchise that had really given all it had to give, in terms of its overall mytharc, two years before.

As for the finale episode, again, it was well-done. Putting Mulder on trial was a fun idea (although the way it was set up is one of the more contrived plot devices I've ever seen). I'm glad Mitch Pileggi got such a chance to shine, and I liked seeing the Cigarette Smoking Man living as some kind of Indian ascetic. The episode's biggest flaw isn't even the episode's fault. The entire series once was clearly leading up to Mulder's discovery, at long last, of just what happened to his sister. Unfortunately, the series "resolved" that issue a few years back, and not in entirely satisfactory fashion, either. That was really the "Truth" that was out there; for Mulder, everything revolved around that particular quest; I think that is really why everything that came after felt so deflated. When The X-Files was at its best -- and it was at its best for quite a long time -- it was centered squarely on Mulder, Scully, and the quest for Samantha. The attempt to make it about something else simply didn't work (although perhaps it could have worked, given the very high quality of the episode in which Agent Doggett learned how his son was murdered).

So, the show limped through its final two seasons, bereft of the story that had been at its heart. Nevertheless, I will miss the show. Maybe sometime soon I'll watch one of the amazing three-part episodes: Duane Barry/Ascension/One Breath, perhaps; or maybe Gethsemane/Redux/Redux II. And then there will always be the pinnacle of The X-Files: Anasazi/The Blessing Way/Paper Clip. And then some of the almost-as-good two parters: Colony/End Game, Talitha Cumi/Herrenvolk, Tunguska/Terma....and the great standalone episodes like Home, Jose Chung's From Outer Space, Small Potatoes, Humbug, Squeeze, Tooms....the truth may not be out there anymore, but it's sure somewhere.

"Is there any way I can get it off my fingers quickly without betraying my cool exterior?" --Fox Mulder, Tooms.

"Well, I could have done without that Flukeman thing." --Dana Scully (I don't recall the episode).

Thursday, June 06, 2002

IMAGE OF THE WEEK





The scene of destruction is very familiar to us all. But consider the spherical object at the lower left. This is what it looked like before 11 September 2001:



The spherical object is Fritz Koenig's sculpture, "The Sphere", which used to stand in the concourse between the WTC's twin towers. The destruction of the World Trade Center carried with it an almost unimaginable loss of life. Not to be discounted, though, is the loss to the human heritage of art and creativity. The WTC was not merely a pair of very large office buildings; it was also the repository of a surprisingly large number of artworks and historical documents that are now lost. It is clearer than ever that the magnitude of what was lost that horrible day might never be known.

(The first of these images links to an AP article about the items lost in the WTC attack.)

Wednesday, June 05, 2002

Sometimes I encounter a book that, upon its completion, makes me wonder: "Just why did this author feel the need to write this book?" I encountered just such a book this week. It is 3001: The Final Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke.

2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the classics of science fiction, a truly fine novel that is often obscured by the elephantine shadow cast by its companion film. The sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two, was an excellent book, if not on the level of its predecessor. I don't recall much about 2061: Odyssey Three, except that I wasn't particularly impressed. 3001 gives the series some closure, which is Clarke's biggest mistake. This is not a story that should have closure, at all.

The book opens with a comet-prospector finding a non-cometary object floating in a near-deepspace orbit. It turns out to be the body of astronaut Frank Poole, the co-pilot of the spaceship Discovery who was killed in the first book by the schizophrenic computer HAL-9000. Medical technology has advanced such that Poole is able to be revived, and the book then deals mostly with his assimilation into a society that is as far ahead of him as he was ahead of the people of the Dark Ages. The society that Clarke presents is really nothing new; it's the standard Star Trek-style utopia in which religion has been left behind (and is even characterized as a form of psychosis), material needs are a thing of the past, et cetera. The most interesting thing in the book is Clarke's construct of a gigantic artificial ring-system around the earth, but this strangely is left undeveloped. Clarke posits that people who live on the Rings cannot live long on Earth, and yet he never develops the hint that two entirely different societies would evolve from such a state. Do the Earthbound folks look on the Ring-people with suspicion? do the Ring-people look down -- figuratively and literally -- on the Earthbound? Clarke doesn't indicate anything of the sort. His society here is conflictless, and thus not very interesting to read about. This is a pity.

The book's most serious problems, though, come when Frank Poole journeys to the Galilean Moons (formerly of Jupiter, the gas-giant planet having been converted into a second sun late in 2010). Here he apparently means to make contact with his old friend, Dave Bowman, who along with HAL has become one with the monolith. Frank doesn't seem to feel any emotions at all in this. Would he feel any anger toward HAL for killing him? would he feel concern for Dave's plight? would he feel anything? Not really, if Clarke is to be believed. This was a lost opportunity. Perhaps it couldn't be any other way; Clarke's books and stories have never much been about emotion and feeling. But the lack of it here totally undermines his characters. They begin to feel like automatons in a plot.

The book's climax arrives when it is discovered that the Monolith (the really big Monolith, the one on Europa, as opposed to its smaller twins on Earth and the Moon) may very well be on the verge of destroying humanity (the reasons for this involve time, distance, and the speed of light). Poole must play the vital role in defusing the threat of the Monolith in a way which is unfortunately reminiscent of the ending of Independence Day, a fact which Clarke bemoans in his Afterword. The whole threat lacks conviction, though, and instead it makes plain the book's largest error: it explains the Monolith. What made 2001 so memorable is the fact that even at the end, after Dave Bowman has been reincarnated as the Star Child, we still don't know what the Monolith is or who made it or why it has been left here or what its purpose at all is -- we don't even know if the Monolith is an alien artifact or an alien itself. It was this air of mystery, that sense of the cosmic unknown, that elevated 2001 to the level of a classic. Even 2010 left much of the mystery intact, even as it continued the story. But in 3001, Clarke tells us that the Monolith is a mindless automaton, and he even refers to its internal circuitry. We shouldn't know that much about the Monolith. It ceases to be a constant pointer to the eternal reality that there will always be an unknown, and instead joins the ranks of things we've figured out. It has been said that the most critical aspect of the best science fiction is the intangible "sense of wonder". 2001: A Space Odyssey had it in spades; 2010 had it but to a lesser extent; 2063 didn't have a whole lot of it but was still a readable novel. 3001's biggest problem is simple: no wonder. Reading it makes me feel as if Samuel Beckett had written a second play, called Oh, There's Godot.

Monday, June 03, 2002

I was tinkering with my blog setup, and it occurred to me that my "current reading" section was inadequate. After all, how long could it take to read a tome on English history or a book of poetry? (In the latter case, quite a while. It's a big book.) I realized that I was approaching some of those books differently than the others that I list there. Thus I arrived at my current metaphor: reading as a journey.

I like the idea of "companion books". These are books that have a long-term place on the table beside my chair or on my desk, books into which I dip frequently and over a long period of time, be it a page or two or a chapter or two or a poem or two. These are different from what I now call "waypost books", which are the books to which I actively devote more time at once -- but are left behind when they are done. The waypost books yield an experience that is very different from that afforded by the companion books. All books need not be read in the same manner. A book may start out as a waypost book, but may reach the level of companion book; likewise, a companion book may become a waypost book if the journey leads in such a direction. Neither change is good nor bad; they are necessary events in the evolution of a reader and his/her relationship to the books.

I've recently noticed a seasonal trend in my fiction reading. My genres of choice tend to be science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I'm likely to read horror any time of year, but as for the other two I tend to read fantasy in the fall and winter while turning toward science fiction in the spring and summer. Maybe there is something about fall and winter which lend themselves to the nature-type tropes that abound in fantasy; and maybe my summertime science fiction tendency is a holdover from my childhood, when each third summer was marked by the arrival of a Star Wars movie. I haven't noticed any remarkable seasonal tendencies toward my nonfiction reading; my interests tend to be all over the map, and thus I tend to grab whatever looks interesting and jump in.

Anyhow, I finished a couple of books this weekend, one SF and one about baseball.

The Price of the Stars by Debra Doyle and James D. MacDonald is the first book in a series of space operas called Mageworlds. (For those unfamiliar with the various sub-genres in science fiction, "space opera" denotes those types of stories with larger-than-life heroes, staging that is galactic in scale, and generally concerned with the classic struggle of good versus evil. Star Wars is pure space opera, as is -- in many of its episodes -- Star Trek. The classic example of a space opera from the standpoint of literary SF is E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensmen Chronicles.) At first glance, Mageworlds appears to be a riff on Star Wars: scoundrels and space pirates abound, toting weapons called "blasters"; there is an order of warriors called "Adepts" (read: "Jedi") who tap into the universe's lide energy (read: "The Force") and fight with specialized weapons (staffs, but in the Adept-fight scenes my mind kept substituting lightsabers).

The story involves a female space pilot, Beka Rosselin-Metadi (one of the most cumbersome names I've ever encountered in a novel), who is trying to make her way in the Universe despite the fact that her father is a prominent military officer and her mother some kind of Very Important Person. Beka's life is changed forever when her mother is assassinated and her father presses her into finding those responsible, promising in exchange to give her his personal spaceship: the Warhammer, an apparently circular-shaped freighter that has been equipped with souped-up engines that make it the fastest hunk-of-junk in the Galaxy. (Yes, I kept picturing the Millennium Falcon.) As she pieces together the trail of the assassins, Beka assembles a motley crew of allies -- her hulking brute of a brother, a kind-hearted medical technician whose skills extend greatly into non-medical areas, an Adept who suffers from a lack of self-confidence, and a mysterious elderly figure known only as "The Professor" (and whose voice sounded, in my reader's imagination, a bit like Sir Alec Guinness).

The book is enjoyable as an action-romp, although the two main action set-pieces tend to ramble, and the characters are fairly interesting. The problem I had with the book was this: it feels like a rough draft for a longer work, with character motivations too often left unexplained and historical events constantly referred to but never explored. Just a day after finishing the book I couldn't explain why Beka's mother is killed even if I wanted to, and the "Mageworlds" named in the series title are never explained. We are told that a war with the Mageworlds has just ended, with the defeat of the Mages, and we gather that the Mages are a people to be greatly feared -- but we never know why. Maybe this is all explained in subsequent novels in the series. I do plan to read them, but I'm not making that a high priority. I recommend The Price of the Stars as a quick, entertaining diversion.

The other book I read was Joe Morgan's baseball volume Long Balls, No Strikes: What Baseball Must Do to Keep the Good Times Rolling. Joe Morgan has been my favorite baseball commentator for years (he generally provides the color commentary for games on ESPN, while Jon Miller provides play-by-play). This is because Morgan not only conveys his immense love of the game, but he also communicates his immense knowledge of it as well. I learned a great deal about the game by listening to Joe Morgan, and I learned some more by reading his book.

Baseball may be the most troubled of the four major professional sports in the United States. While only the NFL has avoided a labor-related work stoppage in the last decade (the last NFL strike was in 1987), baseball is the only sport to have actually forced the cancellation of its playoffs and championship due to a strike. It happened in 1994, when the owners and the players' union collided mainly on the issue of a salary-cap, which the owners insist will restore financial sanity to the game and which the players reject as foolish and unfair. In the years following that strike, which forced then-acting Commissioner Bud Selig to cancel the World Series, baseball saw its attendence plummet and the sales of MLB-related merchandise suffer a related drop. Only in 1998 did baseball begin to show signs of recovery, and Morgan's book outlines his thoughts on what baseball must do to build on the successes of that amazing season.

(A bit of recent baseball history is in order. In 1998, the New York Yankees won 115 games, nearly eclipsing the all-time record for regular season victories en route to their second World Championship in three years. David Wells pitched a perfect game. Cal Ripken Jr. ended his consecutive-games streak. And most memorably, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased each other into baseball immortality as both eclipsed Roger Maris's 37-year-old record by hitting 70 and 66 home runs, respectively.)

Morgan's suggestions for improving the game on the field are fascinating. He is wary of the current trend toward over-reliance on the home run, noting that where it once took a player more than one hundred stolen bases to lead the league in that category over a season, in recent years base-stealing has fallen off to where season leaders in SBs now post numbers like 65 or 70. He believes that restoring base-stealing as a key to offense will liven up the game, and it is hard to disagree with him. Morgan also advocates elevating the pitcher's mound and requiring umpires to enforce the official strike zone, which would tilt the balance-of-power back toward hurlers.

Morgan also writes about improving the game's financial problems, arguing convincingly for comprehensive revenue sharing. Baseball's lack of revenue sharing, a staple in the other major sports leagues (and handled with particular brilliance by the NFL), is the largest reason why teams like the Yankees can compete every year by putting forth whatever payroll they need to win, while teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates can never hope to enter into bidding for players like Ken Griffey, Jr or Greg Maddux. Contrast that to the situation in the NFL: in 1992, the most coveted football free agent was defensive end Reggie White. He ended up signing with the Green Bay Packers, the NFL's smallest market. That would be utterly impossible in Major League Baseball, where the richest teams can pay one player more than some teams pay all of their players combined. However, Morgan doesn't let the small-market teams off the hook, pointing out instances where the teams have made very bad decisions -- such as the Pirates' signing a few years back of B J Surhoff, a decent but unremarkable player whose salary would have been better spent on young talent and prospects for a moribund farm system.

These are all good ideas, and Morgan writes them engagingly. The book's last chapter, though, is both remarkable and depressing. It is the book's longest chapter, and it deals with baseball's problems with race. Minorities are almost never hired -- or even interviewed -- for front office positions in baseball today, and it is a travesty. Morgan writes with barely-contained outrage that white men who have no managerial experience in baseball have been made major-league managers in recent years, while Cito Gaston -- who managed the Toronto Blue Jays to four division titles and two World Championships between 1989 and 1993 -- has been relegated to once again "proving himself" as a hitting coach or wherever he is right now. And it isn't just in the front office or managerial ranks that baseball's quiet racism rears its head. The Arizona Diamondbacks, in their inaugural season, had Devon White -- a black man -- as their centerfielder. White is one of the finest fielders ever, and his presence in an expansion team's outfield -- plus his experience as a member of two World Series champions (the 1992 and 1993 Toronto Blue Jays) -- should have been invaluable to a group of young players. But after their first year, the Diamondbacks refused White a contract, saying they couldn't afford him. They then proceeded to sign as his replacement the white outfielder Steve Findley for twice the amount of money for which White had asked. I found that anecdote rather saddening. Morgan further sees baseball's treatment of African-Americans in general as a reason why so few blacks are now entering baseball, instead turning toward football and basketball.

I enjoyed this book, and I wouldn't mind hearing what Morgan has to say on these same topics now that more than three years have passed since that great season. He has a chapter where he compares the 1998 Yankees to the 1975 Cincinnati Reds ("The Big Red Machine"), and of course he finds in the Reds' favor. (He played for them, after all!) But then he says something interesting: for the Yankees to be truly considered great, they would have to win not one championship but two in a row -- because that is a much more remarkable feat. Well, Joe, the Yankees won not one more championship but two more, and they nearly won a third. So how do they match up to the Big Red Machine now?