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

Wednesday, July 31, 2002

I don't typically take those "personality tests" that are proliferating around the Web and particularly the blogosphere; I've found that in most of the hypothetical situations that are the basis of the questions, what I would really do is never one of the options. I do recall a rather devious IQ test that consisted of page upon page of math and language questions; after a while you start to realize that the questions are repeating, and soon thereafter you realize that the test is unending. Sure enough, when you quit, the test sends you an e-mail which calculates your IQ based solely on how long it took you to catch on to the joke. I don't recall my personal result, but it wasn't very good. It caught me on a day of high gullibility, I suppose.

My favorite all-time personality quiz, though, is the One Question Geek Test. (I have no recollection at all of where I encountered it first, except that I'm pretty sure it was on a Usenet group.) The test is elegant, clever, and witty when you realize the joke. The single question is this:

1. Pronounce the word "coax."

I love that one.

Political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has had a couple of interesting posts (here first, and here second) on his journal about music, digital distribution, and the recording industry's increasingly Draconian efforts to strongarm Congress into scuttling long established practices of Fair Use. Interesting stuff. His position seems to be very similar to mine: the "Information [music, books, movies, any content whatsoever] Wants To Be Free" is as ludicrous a credo as has ever been coined, but the recording industry has gleefully squandered what little high ground it had in its right to maintain its deathgrip on the Keys to the Realm. On the one hand is the industry that wants the right to hack into any computer they suspect to be harboring illegal copies of music, without any of the usual protections against this sort of thing that law enforcement agencies have to deal with; and on the other, the people who, in Tom's words, "are like children who've snuck into the candy store warehouse, and now think that free gummi bears are your god-given right."

(Update: Other interesting articles on this issue, concerning specifically the bill before Congress that the RIAA is trying to get passed, include this one by Stephen Den Beste and this one from Instapundit.)

Monday, July 29, 2002

In the "Well, I suppose that's progress" department: the error message that Blogger is displaying when publishing now reads, "We're working on this." Acknowledgment of a problem is, of course, the first step....

Late summer is the time for Renaissance Faires and Medieval Festivals throughout the country. Nearly every state seems to have one, and they are almost always an amazing time. Yesterday the family and I attended the Sterling Renaissance Festival in Sterling, New York. Between the music and the food, the arts and the crafts, the shows and the activities, I'm not sure what was best about the thing. A cheerful "Huzzah!!!" to everyone involved with this year's Festival, especially the actors involved in the new and improved joust that has been added this year. (Last year's joust was mostly a demonstration; this one was a full-fledged act with three knights who hate each other and a storyline that was played out over two separate jousts and ended in an unforseen allusion to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which brought much rejoicing.) The only negative aspect of the day was the weather; it never rained but it was one of the most sweltering days of the year. Next year we are planning to attend in costume.

(And speaking of costumes: you don't really appreciate how ugly today's fashions are until you see women at one of these festivals dressed in Renaissance and medieval garb. How beautiful some of them were!)

Does the ability to sit on a skinny bicycle seat for hours on end and pump your legs like a madman make you a great athlete or merely a guy who does better without training wheels than most people?

-- Ron Borges, MSNBC Sports Commentator.

Occasionally someone in the media will say or write something so amazing at odds with reality, so colossally stupid, that I must wonder if they meant it more as satire than as a presentation of a seriously held belief. Generally I find this to be the case of anything from the mouth or pen of Ann Coulter, but this week it's Ron Borges who appears to have either taken leave of his senses or merely decided to opine about something of which he is completely ignorant.

His article questions whether Lance Armstrong's fourth consecutive victory in the Tour de France is a feat of athleticism and if Armstrong is an athlete at all. Borges's argument basically boils down to this: "He rides a bike, which anybody can do. Athletes do things that not everybody can do." This is sheer, total nonsense. The fact that I can walk down the street to the park and shoot baskets does not imply that Michael Jordan is not an athlete; nor does that fact that I can join a bunch of friends for a pick-up game of basketball mean that Barry Bonds is not an athlete. Borges writes, "Athletes, for my money, must do more with their bodies than pump their legs up and down." OK, fair enough. Then athletes must also do more with their bodies than swing a piece of wood at a ball, put on a pair of gloves and try to pound someone else into unconsciousness, skate around on some ice after a disc of hardened rubber, or toss a rubber ball through a metal hoop. Borges's attempt to reduce Tour de France-caliber cycling to "pumping the legs up and down" is completely disingenuous, precisely because I can describe any sport in an unflattering light.

Here is another bit of Borges's stupidity: How fast is he when they take the bike away? Is he as fast as Marion Jones? Is he as fast as Chipper Jones? Comparing an athlete in one sport to an athlete in another is almost always a ludicrous exercise. Consider Chipper Jones. I suppose that Borges is wondering if Jones or Armstrong would win a 50-meter sprint, or some such thing. Now, I suspect it would be Armstrong, but that's not relevant just now. What is relevant is this: how valid is any such comparison at all? If Armstrong attempted to play third base on a major league baseball team, he would probably end up looking foolish in the field and he'd almost certainly be a disaster at the plate. Jones would wipe the floor with him. But if you put Chipper Jones on a bicycle at the bottom of one of the French Alps during the Tour de France, I doubt he would even finish the stage, much less manage to keep up with the peloton. This is no indictment of Jones as an athlete, nor would Armstrong's inability to play baseball at major-league level reflect on him as an athlete. The skill sets demanded by the sports these two men play are completely different, and Borges's bizarre attempt to compare the two is a non-starter.

Borges's worst sentence, though -- in which he clearly demonstrates his monumental ignorance of cycling -- is this lovely chestnut: For my money, being the greatest athlete in the world involves strength, speed, agility, hand-eye coordination, mental toughness and the ability to make your body do things that defy description. Chief among them is not pumping your legs up and down while your feet are strapped to bicycle pedals. Is Borges suggesting that Lance Armstrong -- or any Tour de France rider at all -- lacks strength? A bicycle is not a mo-ped. It requires muscle power to go anywhere at all, even on a flat road. To ride up a mountain is so obviously a matter of strength that I have to wonder if Borges has ever even climbed onto a bicycle. The question of speed is frankly bizarre. I suppose that Borges wants to know how fast Armstrong can run the fifty yards or whatever. But I would be willing to bet that I can outrun some of the offensive linemen in the National Football League; does that imply that I am a greater athlete than they? Not for one minute. I certainly couldn't block a Bruce Smith, probably not for a single play, and absolutely not for an entire game. Speed is valuable in some sports, less so in others. By Borges's reasoning, Greg Maddux is not an athlete because his "speed" is almost never on display. (Anyway, the fact that Miles per Hour is a constant measurement of Tour de France coverage, from just what basis is Borges questioning Armstrong's speed?) As for agility, well -- I can't think of any other word besides "agility" to describe the ability these riders have to control their bikes as they descend a mountain, at very high rate of speed, on narrow and winding roads or the ability to ride in the peloton in the first place. Riding a bicycle also involves hand-eye coordination, especially when riding at the higher rates of speed where small stones can be threatening road-obstacles to as great a degree as potholes. And a bicycle is not a self-steering mechanism; tremendous hand-eye coordination is required just to keep from going off the road. (Another note on hand-eye coordination: it isn't all the same. Michael Jordan clearly has tremendous hand-eye coordination; his almost instinctive ability to move the ball in such a way to evade defenders and make the shot is legendary. But his hand-eye coordination did not prove very handy at all when he spent two years playing minor-league baseball; he was barely able to stay above the Mendoza line at AA ball. If he'd played AAA ball, his average would have been a train wreck, and I doubt he'd have even gotten a hit off any decent major-league pitcher.) As for the last two "habits of highly effective athletes" that Borges names, I can't think of a sporting event that demands more mental toughness than the Tour de France. And just completing the Tour -- pedaling over 1500 miles in three weeks, through some of the most mountainous country in the world -- certainly defies description to me. But then, I suppose Borges does this kind of thing himself every week -- that's what it would take for it to be the commonplace thing he thinks it is.

Lastly, Borges meditates on the fact that cycling is not one of the most popular sports in the US. Well, so what? Popularity of a thing means nothing. Heaven's Gate may have been the biggest flop of a movie of all time, but it's still a movie. Cycling most definitely is a sport, unless of course one is applying George Carlin's definitions of Sport (one of which being that it has to involve a ball). By Borges's reasoning, short-track speed skating is not a sport, and therefore Apolo Anton Ohno is not an athlete. Sorry, Ron. That dog won't hunt, and you know it.

All that said, I have to again wonder if Borges meant this at all, or if he is sitting back right now enjoying a laugh at the reaction to what he wrote. If he didn't mean it, then he's a lousy satirist. If he did mean it, then he's an idiot. So which is it?



Saturday, July 27, 2002

IMAGE OF THE WEEK





Still from Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, Hayao Miyazaki, director. English title: Spirited Away. (Image links to the Spirited Away page on Nausicaa.net, a site devoted to the films of Studio Ghibli.)

Hayao Miyazaki is known as Japan's answer to Walt Disney. He is responsible for some of that country's most amazing films in the anime style: titles like My Neighbor Totoro, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, and his greatest work (thus far), Princess Mononoke. That last title was actually Japan's highest-grossing film until it was superseded by Titanic. However, Titanic's record fell last year with Miyazaki's most recent work, Spirited Away. The film is set to be released in the United States on September 20 by Disney, which owns the US distribution rights to all of Studio Ghibli's films. (Studio Ghibli is Miyazaki's studio.) Disney's last release of a Miyazaki film, Princess Mononoke in 1999, was pretty much of a failure -- Disney's response to the problem of marketing a foreign film in a genre that is generally not very well known was to not market the film at all. (It didn't even play in the town I lived in at the time.) I hope that Spirited Away is more successful, but I'm wondering if Disney isn't making the same mistakes. No trailers have been shown theatrically that I know of. Lilo and Stitch was a presence six months before the film opened, with posters in theaters and trailers showing at the Disney Store constantly. Even the current Disney abomination, the flick based on the "Country Bear Jamboree", had some advertising behind it. Now Disney is opening Spirited Away after Labor Day, when filmgoing drops like a rock. The film's poster -- which I have only seen on AICN -- is beautiful and simple, but it also conveys little of any sense of the film's story and suggests that it's only a picture for girls. Disney can pretty much sell deep-freeze units to Eskimos when it wants to, so why won't it pull out the stops for this?

Another note on Star Wars comics: I haven't read them, but there is a series out there called Star Wars: Infinities, which deals with "What if?" scenarios. The first series speculates on what would have transpired had Luke aimed his torpedoes at the Death Star reactor shaft and missed; the second series -- in progress now, apparently -- tells what would have happened if Han Solo had been just a bit too late to save Luke from freezing to death on Hoth. Now, if that's not an interesting idea, I don't know what is.

Star Wars has generated a lot of ancillary creative efforts beyond the films; starting in 1991 with Timothy Zahn's novel Heir to the Empire the saga has been explored at length in full-length books and also in comics, telling stories not only of the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia et al after Return of the Jedi but also delving into the deep past to tell stories of the Sith and the Jedi. Some of this stuff is quite good. Zahn's novels are a high point, even functioning as well-written space operas in their own right as well as serving as Star Wars stories, and I've heard some good things about Ann Crispin's and Michael Stackpole's works. Some of it, though, is downright bad: Kevin J. Anderson's Jedi Academy trilogy starts out promising but fizzles out, and those who found the love story in Attack of the Clones disappointing would do well to have a look at Dave Wolverton's The Courtship of Princess Leia, which is an utter disaster. (Not only does that novel reduce everybody's favorite brash space pirate, Han Solo, to a lovesick stalker and kidnapper, but it also gives us such amazing things as....wait for it....C-3PO singing.)

It did not all start in 1991 with Zahn's first book, however. There were other attempts at "Expanded Universe" books during the original trilogy. Brian Daley wrote a trilogy of novels about Han Solo's adventures prior to his meeting Luke and Ben in A New Hope; Alan Dean Foster wrote a book called Splinter of the Mind's Eye which takes place after ANH but before The Empire Strikes Back; and I seem to recall a couple of books about Lando Calrissian. Most notable, though, was the comic book series published by Marvel Comics between 1977 and 1987. This series began with a six-issue adaption of A New Hope, and then proceeded to run for 101 more issues after that. (The adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back came in issues 39-44, and the adaptation of Return of the Jedi actually did not appear in the series itself but was a separate, limited series of four issues.) Starting with Issue #7, the Marvel series struck out on its own, telling stories that were "Beyond the Movie! Beyond the Galaxy!". The first story told after the ANH adaptation centered on Han Solo and Chewbacca, who took off from Yavin to go pay off Jabba the Hutt. They are almost immediately waylaid by space pirates, who steal all of their money -- leaving Han with nothing to pay Jabba. So, he and Chewie go to some planet whose name I don't recall and end up getting recruited by some locals to fight off the local bad guy (whose impressive name is "Serji-X Arrogantus"). Han and Chewie in turn recruit a rag-tag bunch of people to fight Arrogantus in Magnificent Seven style. Among others, there are a crazy old Jedi named "Don Wan Kihotay" and a six-foot-tall rabbit named Jaxxon. (I swear I am not making this up.)

As goofy as that story sounds -- and it really is as goofy as it sounds -- the Marvel Star Wars series was actually not that bad. Occasionally it was lousy, but some interesting stories were told and it's fun to realize that these tales were spun at a time when all the particulars of the Star Wars universe were still unknown. This got the series's writers into occasional trouble: Jabba figures in the comic from the second issue, but of course Jabba's looks weren't settled by George Lucas until ROTJ, so the Marvel Jabba is completely wrong; worse than that, at one point the Marvel series actually had Han Solo pay off Jabba, which they then had to hastilly backtrack when they learned that in TESB the price is still very much on Han's head. One of the special "Annual" issues (do comics still do the "Annuals"?) was a flashback story told by a guy who once helped Obi Wan and "Luke's father" escape Darth Vader. And so on. Lucasfilm pretty much ignored the Marvel series, which made for some bizarre twists and turns as the comic's writers tried to accomodate the details in the movies; and after ROTJ, the writers were pretty much told that they couldn't really do anything at all -- at that point, Star Wars was totally on the back burner and the Powers-That-Be didn't want anything to mess it up, so the comic kicked off an "alien invasion" plotline that actually started fairly well but was resolved in hackneyed fashion when the book was abruptly axed as of issue #107. (And now I see that the "Expanded Universe" novels are in the midst of, well, an "alien invasion" plotline.)

The Marvel Star Wars comics offer an intriguing "alternate universe" take on the whole thing which is almost always interesting and quite often highly entertaining (six-foot rabbits more than two decades prior to Jar Jar Binks aside). What's more, the series is now being issued as a series of trade-paperbacks by Dark Horse Comics. The image below is the cover to the first book (which is also the cover to Marvel's Star Wars #1), and links to the Amazon info.





I'm glad to report (or sorry to report, as the case may be) that Gordon Van Gelder's operation at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is still the Quickest Draw In The West, when it comes to getting the rejection slips out. From the time I dropped the thing in the corner mailbox to the time my SASE appeared in my home mailbox, six days elapsed. Wow. Time to print the thing out and send it someplace else. (On a related writing note, another short story of mine that's been stalled-in-progress may have cleared up this morning with the realization that I bungled the story's beginning. Hopefully that will turn out to be the answer; I've been nursing this particular idea for a while but it's proven stubbornly difficult to get onto paper.)

It's probably a sign of something -- good or bad, I don't know -- if one can buy a new bookshelf unit (62" tall, 9" deep, 27" wide), fill it completely (including one shelf of nothing but mass-market paperbacks placed two-deep), and still have several stacks of books on the floor. Wow. (Although I haven't finished the whole project yet; there is still another shelf to relocate to the bedroom and fill and another to rearrange and condense, so everything should be off the floor soon. I think.)

Thursday, July 25, 2002

The Bartlett Administration will soon be looking for a new Deputy Communications Director. Rob Lowe has decided to leave The West Wing, in a dispute over money. Here's hoping that the departure of Sam Seaborn is handled well (not a drawn-out death, like Dr. Greene on ER) and at least explained on the show itself (the exit of Moira Kelly's incredibly annoying character after the first season of TWW was never explained at all).

I've been listening quite a bit lately to a rather astonishing piece of music: the Violin Concerto ("To the Memory of an Angel") by Alban Berg. This is the first time in years that I've really delved into twelve-tone music. In the past, I have almost always found twelve-tone music to be cold and sterile-sounding, as if the mechanics of twelve-tone composition completely ruled out what, for me, has always been of primary concern in music: the creation and conveyance of emotion. So much twelve-tone music strikes me as academically interesting but artistically barren. Not so with this concerto. Despite its atonal structure, this is as emotional a work as one is ever likely to hear. The emotion is harder to get at; it's not conveyed with lush melodies and traditional harmonies, but it most definitely is there.

The Concerto was written as a Requiem of sorts for a person Berg knew, and it ended up serving as Berg's own Requiem in a way: he died before the work was premiered, so he never heard it. Upon listening to it, I was struck by the fact that it is not really a virtuoso showpiece, the way many concertos are (although I doubt any violinist would consider it an easy work). The focus is not on the technique, but rather on the dialogue that takes place between the soloist and the orchestra. Where many young violinists can display their skills in performances of, say, the Brahms Concerto, I can't imagine any young violinist being able to really play this work convincingly; it requires musicianship -- in the expressive sense -- that most young virtuosi simply do not as yet possess. This is particularly true toward the work's conclusion, when the twelve-tone music gives way to a more tonal texture surrounding a chorale that Bach himself had harmonized two hundred years before. (In fact, the Chorale is directly foreshadowed in the work's tone-row itself, something which I did not realize until I read an analysis of the work in Grout's History.) The depth of feeling in the concerto's closing moments is amazingly tragic and heartbreaking. Death seems to inspire the best in so many composers -- Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, and Britten all wrote amazing Requiems, and Mahler's Symphony No. 9 is a Requiem by any other name. Berg's amazing Violin Concerto certainly belongs in that class.

So in the last week a director has been announced on the Alien vs. Predator project, and casting rumors abound for something called Superman vs. Batman. Well, as long as we're apparently launching the "fanboy wish-fulfillment" genre, maybe Rick Berman and George Lucas can get together and finally settle that age-old Internet debate: Could the USS Enterprise blow up the DEATH STAR?

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Also via AICN: a rather sad story about the possibility of artifacts from the remarkable collection of legendary sci-fi collector (and the original source of the term 'sci-fi' itself), Forrest J. Ackerman. Ackerman, known also as the Ackermonster, Dr. Acula, or just plain "Forry", is already getting quite old and has been suffering from ill health recently. I don't know if I would ever have had the opportunity to tour the Ackermansion; now it looks like I will never have that opportunity. Ackerman is the collector of SF, fantasy and horror memorabilia; his collection is absolutely legendary and it is very sad to think that its days are numbered.

"Who is 'The Loneliest Monk'?"
-MTV's Tabitha Soren in 1992, after an interview with then-candidate Bill Clinton, who had said that he would love to play saxophone with jazz great Thelonius Monk.

:: It's always funny when journalists and other media personalities inadvertently display their complete ignorance on any given topic. Sometimes you can't blame them, if they just happen to have stepped afoul of some piece of information that might not necessarily be common knowledge, but still, the effects are quite often hilarious. Take this sentence, from an otherwise unremarkable article about the computers used by film special effects companies:

"Digital Revelations is largely relying on Intel-based computers for the effects on Rendezvous with Rama, a thriller coming out next year in which a group of humans seek revenge on aliens that blow up Italy."

Now, perhaps Arthur C. Clarke's novel Rendezvous with Rama isn't as well-known as it used to be; it is, after all, at least thirty years old (although it is also a SF classic). What's funny is that this plot description is utterly absurd. The book opens with Venice being destroyed by a meteor impact, which leads to the deployment of an orbital weapons system for the purpose of blowing up any such future threats. The orbital system, though, detects something else entering the Solar System, something alien in nature. The object is code-named "Rama" and a team of astronauts is dispatched to, well, rendezvous with it. That's it. No aliens blowing things up, no interstellar war. In fact, if memory serves, the actual aliens themselves don't even appear in the book. This author has clearly never heard of the book and therefore conflates a couple of plot points into something that barely has any resemblance to the novel's actual storyline.

Thankfully, the record has been set straight by the good folks at AICN.

Sunday, July 21, 2002

The proposals for rebuilding the World Trade Center site released last week were all fairly pedestrian, and none of them really gave much idea of what the finished site would really look like -- they were simply white images superimposed on a generic gray simulacrum of Lower Manhattan. Not so with this proposal, which is highly detailed, meticulously thought out, and more than a little megalomaniacal. Maybe this isn't quite the answer for the WTC site, but the science fiction-futurist in me would love to see something like this built somewhere. (Hey, why not Buffalo? Our current tallest bulding would be one quarter the height of this sucker!)

(Warning: the site linked above is Flash-heavy, and takes a while to load.)

Go Lance!!!



Prequels present a number of unique problems in terms of storytelling. To the extent that the events in the original work are dependent on those events to be depicted in the new work, a sense of inevitability can develop as the storyteller works within the constraints of the events that are already known to happen and still tell a story that is somehow fresh and satisfying on its own. This problem is faced most famously by George Lucas as he fills in the blanks behind the original Star Wars trilogy with the new prequel trilogy, but the problems of prequels arise in other places -- one such place being the novel I have just finished reading, Local Custom by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. The specific problem herein doesn't lie so much in whether the story is exciting or involving given that which comes later; what is at issue here is if one should begin the series with the prequels, given that they were not created in that order.

This book is one of two prequels to a series of space opera novels called "The Liaden Universe" (so named because the central planet is a world called Liad). I have found some very positive reviews of these novels -- here and here, for example -- that make them sound irresistable: a blend of space opera and romance, with wonderful characterizations and exciting action, et cetera. These books have a lengthy publishing history: the original novels were out of print for years, and then they were reissued in trade-paperback format (but apparently those, too, are now out of print). Lee and Miller have now written two prequel novels (of which Local Custom is the first and Scout's Progress is the second), which were also initially published as a trade-paperback omnibus but are now being issued as separate novels. Then, all of the remaining books in the series (I believe there are seven altogether) will be reissued as well. This reissuing order -- in the story's chronological order, as opposed to the order in which the novels were originally written -- presented me with some key problems. It's not unlike the difficulty faced by someone who has never seen a Star Wars film before: despite the fact that the events of The Phantom Menace happen first, the story really should be entered with A New Hope. The same applies here. I probably should have waited for Conflict of Honors to be issued (it's due next month). I suspect that I would have found the action of Local Custom more involving had I known the story to which it is leading.

That's not to say that it is a bad book, because it is not. It is, in fact, quite good -- mainly from a standpoint of characterization. The story involves a young scion of an important clan on the planet Liad, Er Thom yos'Galan (the names in this book are a bit of a stumbling point), who is being forced to marry so he can produce the heir which is required by the laws of the clans. The problem is that Er Thom is still in love with an Earth woman with whom he had an affair some years before, Anne Davis. He decides that before he marries, he must see Anne one more time, and so he goes to Earth to do just that -- and so discovers that he fathered Anne's child, Shan.

This is the setup for a "culture clash" story. Er Thom wants Shan to be his heir -- in fact, he believes that it is required. Anne only wants to raise her son herself, and not have him stolen by the Liadens. There are intrigues that involve the Liaden concept of honor (called "melant'i" in the novel), and the lengths to which aristocracy must go to save face. Local Custom, then, is basically a romance; those who come to space opera expecting lots of space ships and action will be disappointed. The book's only action, per se, comes in the last hundred pages. This is not to say that the book is boring, but it did have me wondering for a long time -- well over half the book -- when the preliminaries would end and when the real story would begin. Additionally, a subplot involving Anne Davis's status as a scholar of linguistics is only handled in perfunctory fashion, and not really involving. Again, I wonder if this would not have been the case had I read the original series, which apparently deals with Shan's adventures as an adult, first; the "linguistics" subplot doesn't seem that important given the relatively few pages devoted to it here, but it seems more important as a seed for future action. I may be wrong here (if you've read the original series, don't tell me so because I want to learn for myself!!) but the effect of this subplot was to feel a bit like the Death Star diagrams in Attack of the Clones. Was that an Easter egg for fans, or a precursor of some major action down the road retrofitted for the prequels? All through the book I had the feeling that I would be better served setting these two prequels aside until after I complete the originals. For this reason above all I am going to wait to read Scout's Progress until after the rest of the series is out.

The book's strengths are definitely its characters and their interactions. Lee and Miller (a husband-and-wife writing team) do an excellent job of creating a society in the Liadens that seem like ours on some points but differ wildly on others, particularly with regard to class structure. Most amazingly, they do this without much by way of "infodump" at all; anyone needing a primer on the oft-quoted rule of storytelling, "Show! Don't tell!", could do far worse than study what these two have done here. The Liaden concepts of honor, balance and necessity are all fascinating, and I look forward to exploring them more as the other books come out. My only complaint, and it is minor, is in the Liaden words that pepper the story. I've never much liked books that have me referring to a glossary on a fairly regular basis. Luckily, Lee and Miller are sufficient to the task of making me overlook that particular problem.

I've added a new link under "Other Journeys". It is the website of Charles Stross, a writer from Scotland who is one of the real up-and-comers in science fiction. His work appears frequently in SF magazines like Interzone, Asimov's, and Odyssey, and he is becoming a standard feature in the annual "Year's Best SF" collections. He also maintains an interesting online journal which is always interesting (especially today's article about his views on the sustainability of the United States as a superpower).

Friday, July 19, 2002

Just as I was convinced that my own writing is unredeemable crap comes the most wonderful restorative tonic: the 2002 results of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, the whole point of which is to produce bad prose. None of my writing reads like this, so I am happy again.

In every group of passionate devotees to any particular thing, there will be one topic that can instantly divide the group down the middle, leading to angry debate that is never resolved. It's rather like gathering a bunch of baseball fans and asking, "So, should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame even if he never apologizes?" Film music fandom is no different, and their hot-button topic can be summed up in a single name:

James Horner.

Oh, how bringing up Horner in the midst of a bunch of film music afficionadoes can make the fur fly! When I was active on rec.music.movies, there were lengthy debates that cropped up every few months devoted to James Horner. They usually cropped up whenever any prominent film with a Horner score was released. It happened when Titanic came out; then it happened again when Deep Impact arrived. Ditto The Mask of Zorro, Enemy At the Gate, et cetera. They also cropped up in relation to the music of Star Trek (Horner composed the scores for Treks II and III), in discussion of music for fantasy films (Horner's scores to Krull and Willow are popular examples, and both are hard to find scores on CD), and in the horribly morbid topics like "If John Williams dies, who should do the score for the next Star Wars movie?" I even remember a couple of instances where some individual trolled the newsgroup by posting a blank message whose subject line was simply, "Horner"; sure enough, those minimalistic trollings worked as the whole love-hate relationship with Horner reared its head.

Why, then, does James Horner arouse so much discussion in the film score community? It stems from a number of problematic aspects of Horner's music. No film score enthusiast can ignore Horner; he is simply too big a name in the field these days. He is probably the biggest name in film music after the grand old men, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. His score to Titanic sold more copies than just about everything else. In a collecting area where special editions of long-awaited film scores can number less than 3,000 copies and still remain available for several years, the sheer numbers surrounding Horner's success with Titanic are staggering. But his immense presence in film music cannot be ascribed to Titanic alone; he has scored more than 120 films since 1978. His body of work is among the largest in all film music, and he is still fairly young -- he turns 50 next year -- so Horner should be writing music for a long time. So why does his music inspire such fierce reaction, both pro and con?

I think that the pro-Horner side is easier to explain. His music, almost without exception, is immediately pleasurable. Horner has an almost-inexhaustible gift for melody, and his melodies vary from the quite simple ("My Heart Will Go On") to the longer and more complex (the love theme from Braveheart). His orchestrations are usually lush and romantic, heavy on the strings and woodwinds; he does less with the brass than a Williams or a Goldsmith, using them more often for color or special melodic effect than as an overall part of his orchestral scheme. His orchestral writing is precisely the kind of writing that screams out, "This is beautiful music", before one has even listened long enough to know if it is beautiful music. (Frequently, it is.) Finally, James Horner has probably the best sense of scene of any composer working today. He has an uncanny ability to home in on the emotional center of any particular scene, and he constructs his cues accordingly. The best illustration of this comes in Titanic, when Jack and Rose kiss while standing on the prow of the ship. His music for the scene doesn't reach its climax with their kiss, but rather a few seconds later when Rose lifts her right hand to Jack's neck in a gesture of desire. The result of all this is that James Horner comes up with wonderful melodies and uses them to lean on the emotional points of a story to a greater degree than any other contemporary composer. (I imagine that his approach would be thwarted thoroughly if he were to work with George Lucas, who has been known to not finish a scene, well, ever.) For a substantial portion of the film score community, film music is about highlighting the emotions in any story; thus, Horner receives high marks from them.

All this being the case, then, how could anyone disparage Horner's work? If he is that good a musical dramatist, how can anyone not like him? The answer lies in the music. Despite all of his gifts for drama and melody (and despite the obvious talent in evidence in his best scores), Horner has a maddening tendency to be lazy at best and to outright swipe entire passages from his own music and others at worst. The more of Horner's music that one hears, the more one realizes that he uses many of the same effects from one score to the next. One prime example is his use of the Japanese shakuhachi flute, which he first used in his score to Willow as a melodic instrument. Since then, he has used the shakuhachi in many of his scores to highlight transitions to tense scenes, many times in precisely the same way (the effect turns up in Legends of the Fall, Braveheart, and The Mask of Zorro), and to provide bursts of sound in the midst of his action sequences. When scoring scenes of mustering intrigue, he often uses the same motif from film to film: an ostinato snare-drum pattern coupled with raucous piano chords. (This can be heard in Sneakers, Apollo 13, and to a lesser extent in Titanic.) Then there is a special effect of his which I lovingly call the James Horner Rolling Chord of Melodic Punctuation. This occurs in scenes where he gives a long, slow statement of a melody; after each phrase a sepulchral chord is heard, rolling upward from the bass. (The best example of this can be heard in Braveheart, just before the Battle of Stirling when William Wallace gives the Scots his pep-talk.) So in Horner we frequently encounter the same effects, over and over again, sometimes unchanged entirely. Horner has also been known to lift entire passages of his own music and use them in other scores later on; examples include Cocoon (the film's climax includes music taken from Star Trek II) and Apollo 13 (where music from Sneakers is used in spots).

The other problem many have with Horner is more serious. There are times in his music when, to be charitable, certain phrases are highly similar to phrases in other composers' works. His early score to Battle Beyond the Stars (a B-grade sci-fi flick by Roger Corman) is basically a pastiche of the music that Jerry Goldsmith was writing during the same period -- the middle and late 1970s -- complete with the echoing trumpet calls from Patton. And then, there are times when they are virtually identical: the second phrase of Horner's Willow theme (the heroic theme, not the lyrical one) is not similar but note-for-note identical to a phrase in Robert Schumann's Fourth Symphony. His "Southhampton" theme from Titanic is eerily similar to Enya's song "Book of Days". Other works that have been cited as occuring in the Horner oeuvre are Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky and Britten's War Requiem. (I'm not familiar with either work, but the people from whom I have heard these works mentioned are persons whose musical knowledge is far from suspect.)

James Horner strikes me as a composer who is more concerned with being prolific than with being truly good. Thus, he produces work that is almost always solid and workmanlike; and occasionally (these days less frequently than in earlier days) he comes up with something that is irresistable in spite of its borrowings and other flaws of derivation. Listening to Horner, though, puts me in mind of the scene in Amadeus when Mozart goes to Salieri for advice. "You put too many demands upon the Royal ear," Salieri says. "Do you know that you didn't even give the audience a good bang at the end of the numbers to let them know when to clap?" A James Horner film score always lets us know when to clap and when to cry, when to sit on the edge of our seats and when to reach for the popcorn. For many film music lovers, that is enough. For others, though, that is only the beginning.

Urban development is one of the crucial issues that faces the city of Buffalo, even as the city faces immense budgetary constraints that are severe enough that police and fire precincts have been closed in the last year, and now the Buffalo Common Council is considering a plan to reduce its size by three districts to save the money otherwise paid to city legislators and their staffs. (A separate controversy is the fact that under the current plan, the three Council members who will lose their seats are African-Americans, but that's another issue.)

Like just about every other Great Lakes or Northeastern city in the last twenty or so years, Buffalo has fallen on hard times with declining population, loss of huge numbers of manufacturing jobs, and the rapid growth of urban sprawl. The difference between Buffalo and Cleveland or Baltimore or Milwaukee is that those other cities have taken concrete steps to revitalize their urban centers, frequently making creative use of dormant waterfront properties, preserving and utilizing important architectural landmarks, and creating an atmosphere of development and entrepreneurship. These are all things that Buffalo has talked about endlessly, but somehow has never gotten around to actually doing. Consider waterfront development, just for one example. Buffalo's waterfront should be a developer's dream, with huge swaths of land formerly used as shipping docks and whatnot in the days when Buffalo was both an important port and a manufacturing center. Development plans for the waterfront have been proposed, scrapped, reproposed, redesigned, rescrapped, discussed, put on the back burner, put on the front burner, ad infinitum. The most recent grasp at waterfront development was the announcement that Adelphia Communications would build an office tower very near the waterfront district, which theoretically would spur all manner of development to take advantage of the large numbers of Adelphia workers there. Well, that project is near dead due to Adelphia's corporate collapse. All those "accounting anomalies" don't just hurt workers and their families, and they don't just hurt the stock market and the portfolios therein. They also hurt cities, especially cities like Buffalo that have been punch-drunk for a very long time now. (With all respect to our President, it seems to me that things quite frankly are "black and white" when it comes to accounting procedures.)

Most depressingly, the questions surrounding urban development -- what kind of city is Buffalo, and what kind of city does Buffalo want to be -- are pretty much ignored in the Buffalo mainstream media (which is mostly comprised of three television stations and the city's one major newspaper, The Buffalo News). The only place these issues seem to come up are in the alternative press, most notably in the weeklyArtvoice, which constantly runs articles offering suggestions as to what can be done with Buffalo's bumper crop of vacant properties, scathing critiques on Buffalo's insistence on trying to feed at the casino-gambling trough, and lately a fascinating series of features called Good Neighbor, Bad Neighbor in which two businesses are contrasted for the appearance of their facilities and the way in which they integrate into their local surroundings. Perhaps demonstrating that businesses can be attractive is a good place to begin in starting Buffalo's self-renewal, which has been promised to be "just around the corner" for so often that it's hard not to wonder if it is actually a carrot on a stick that has been strapped to our own heads.

I'm shocked--Shocked!--to find that gambling is going on here!

(I nominate this as the most unsurprising news item in the last ten years.)



Thursday, July 18, 2002

Who knew, during all those years when we would all collectively groan something like "Oh my GOD, how many times can that kid save the Enterprise? Captain Kirk never needed some fifteen-year-old to bail him out when some horrible alien or computer-gone-awry was about to destroy his ship!" that Wil Wheaton was such a neat guy? His blog is just terrific. I've had him linked pretty much since I started Byzantium's Shores, but I decided to give him an extra plug mainly because of this post. Funny thing is, the main part of this post is something that Wheaton didn't write himself, but he gets credit for posting it. (For some reason I must be in a gallows-humor type of mood today....)

IMAGE OF THE WEEK



Page one of The Gashlycrumb Tinies, by Edward Gorey. (Image links to a sizable Gorey collection.)

Edward Gorey (1925-2000) is one of my favorite artists. His Gothic engraving style is very distinctive -- Gorey's work is almost always unmistakable -- and his books and stories are frequently masterpieces of very dark comedy, of which The Gashlycrumb Tinies may be the finest example. The story is, quite simply, a series of twenty-six drawings detailing the horrible ways in which the Gashlycrumb children (one child for each letter in the alphabet) meets a dolorous end. He is also noted for the introductory animation for PBS's Mystery series. Gorey's work can be found in three noted collections, called Amphigorey, Amphigorey Too, and Amphigorey Also.

As a bonus image, this is what Gorey looked like.



(images via and via)
That horrible screaming sound you may be hearing now is your local Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan, because the Emmy nominations have been announced and Buffy only scored a couple of nominations in technical areas. As I noted a few days ago, I don't watch Buffy, so I can't join in the anger, but there are some other bones that need picking on this year's Emmy's. (Or is that "Emmies"?)

I mainly feel the need to complain about the acting nominees. The West Wing is my favorite show, but does it really deserve seven acting nominations? Dule Hill is a fine young actor, but this season was probably his least effective year on the show, mainly because he really didn't have as much to do as he has in the show's previous two seasons. He seemed to drop into the role vacated by Kathryn Joostyn when her character, the President's beloved secretary Mrs. Landingham, was killed off at the end of Season Two. Now, though, Lily Tomlin is apparently going to be cast as Mrs. Landingham's replacement, so perhaps Dule Hill's Charlie Young will have more to do next year. Also, I have never much liked Mary Louise Parker -- she seems, to me, to drawl her way through nearly every role she does with the same laconic tone. Richard Schiff (Toby Ziegler) and Allison Janney (C.J. Cregg) were excellent as always, and it was nice to see Emmy recognition for Bradley Whitford (Josh Lyman) and John Spencer (Leo McGarry). I guess what it comes down to is, even with the acting on The West Wing being as good as it is, is it really that much better than all the other acting on TV these days? On NYPD Blue, Dennis Franz and Charlotte Ross somehow managed to make believable what should have been one of the most unlikely TV romances in years. William Petersen is the core of CSI. On ER, Noah Wyle (John Carter) has executed his character's growing maturity nearly perfectly (though his season was marred by another unbelievable romance and the greater attention paid to the departure of Anthony Edwards). And surely someone in the entire cast of Ed warrants a nomination. Ditto the cast of Scrubs -- either John McGinley (whose Dr. Cox is the best new character on any show last year), or even Neil Flynn, whose psychotic janitor is just dead-on perfect. There is a ton of wonderful acting on television, and it seems a bit unfair to bunch up the nominations all for a single show (The West Wing), or to keep nominating the same people over and over again (Patricia Heaton, for example -- though I violate this statement with my above mention of multiple Emmy winner Dennis Franz....).

Ah, well....the whole purpose of these award shows, as William Goldman has noted, is to give us something to talk about. There really is no "best"; just a lot of very, very fine work. Congratulations to all the nominees, and to those who deserved it.

A Scottish music critic has collected a list of the top 100 music albums of all time. It's a fascinating list, complete with commentary on each selection. (It's also a testament to the awesome array of music out there that out of my slightly more than 600 CDs, I apparently own exactly three of this man's picks.)

The good news from the Tour de France is that Lance Armstrong has begun his usual tactic of using the mountain stages to seize first place; he assumed his first lead of this year's Tour today and, if all goes according to plan, should begin adding to that lead as the more difficult mountain stages loom ahead.

The bad news, however, should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched coverage of the Tour on television, noting the hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of spectators that line the narrow roads traversed by the Tour and its escort vehicles. Huge numbers of spectators in reaching distance of a hundred plus bicyclists plus a number of cars, all traveling at respectable speeds, has always struck me as a recipe for potential disaster -- which came to pass yesterday, when a small child was struck and killed by one of the automobiles in the Tour convoy. Apparently, something similar happened two years ago as well.

Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Courtesy of TFN, Kevin Smith has some entertaining commentary on Attack of the Clones in FilmComment magazine. It's nice to know that there are apparently seven people alive who bought the love story in Clones....

Over on AICN, there is some consternation over the choice of writer/director that has been attached to the project ALIEN vs. PREDATOR. Now, I haven't seen any of Paul Anderson's films, so I can't comment on his status as a "hack" (or as an "auteur" or anything else); what is baffling me is just why anyone thinks that Alien vs. Predator is a good idea for a movie in the first place. Perhaps my heart just isn't in the right place, but I can't see how even a director of, say, John McTiernan's or James Cameron's caliber working from a script penned by, oh, William Goldman could make anything interesting out of a crossover between these two franchises. When people are clamoring for a project like this, and bemoaning the director who has "won" the assignment, it clears up a lot of the mystery as to why a lot of fanboys don't like Star Wars any more.

Tuesday, July 16, 2002

Six proposals for redeveloping the World Trade Center site were unveiled today. I prefer the "Memorial Promenade" version, with its two towers of equal height surrounded by a ring of smaller buildings and plenty of land set aside for memorial space (and I'm pretty sure this design is one of those that does not actually build on the two spots where the original Towers stood). From the Hudson River, it would look like this:





Click on the link for more information on this plan, and the other six that have been submitted for public comment.

I saw the trailer for The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions yesterday as well (there is one trailer for both films, viewable here). I hope this was just a teaser trailer, because it did little to really whet the appetite for these two films. As far as I could tell, it consisted solely of Morpheus saying something mystical-sounding followed by a series of effects shots that look like extensions of the fight scenes from the original film. There was no hint of story at all, except to refer to a "war". These films aren't due for another year, so presumably this isn't the last of the trailers for them.
I went to see Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones again yesterday, for the first time since seeing it three times during its opening weekend. Once again I was struck by the film's level of visual invention, noticing this time things like how in the opening scenes, on cloudy Coruscant, you can faintly see the lines of air traffic moving through the haze. I still find the acting quite acceptable and the dialogue mostly fine (although I still think Obi Wan says "my very young Padawan learner" way too much). I did, though, spot a couple of things that I think would have improved upon the proceedings:

:: George Lucas is such a visually oriented storyteller that sometimes his subtleties are lost in the midst of so much other stuff going on, but he missed an opportunity with regard to Anakin's dreams about his mother's peril: he should have actually shown one of the dreams. It would have worked better if, say, just after the scene where Palpatine suggests that Obi Wan and Anakin be assigned to Amidala's protection, we cut to the shot of Anakin awakening from his nightmare and then being summoned by Obi Wan for a new assignment. Then, later on Naboo, as the dreams grow in intensity, Lucas could have actually inserted a few of Anakin's visions into the film -- maybe showing her being roughly taken by someone (he wouldn't have known it was the Tuskens), or showing her agony -- or perhaps a less literal vision, but still harrowing nonetheless. Show, don't tell is a cardinal rule amongst storytellers. Here Lucas could have helped his cause by showing a bit, thus drawing us in more to Anakin's turmoil.

:: I also think the Anakin-and-Padme section of the film would have worked better if there had actually been another attempt on Padme's life on Naboo. Perhaps Anakin would not have told her about the dreams of his mother, and then used an attempt on her life -- which he would have foiled -- as his excuse to disobey Obi Wan, leave Naboo, and take her with him. Thus he would be indulging most of his more dangerous instincts and being deceitful -- even if well meaning -- to boot.

I also noticed a nifty parallel to the classic trilogy: during Shmi's burial, R2D2 comes rolling up, beeping away, and Threepio says: "He has a message from an Obi Wan Kenobi." Owen Lars is standing there, so he hears this. Later on, in A New Hope, Luke informs Uncle Owen that the R2 unit they've bought "says he belongs to an Obi Wan Kenobi". Owen's "Uh oh" glance at Beru is now much more understandable.

Monday, July 15, 2002

Speaking of Millennium, the lead role of Frank Black was played by Lance Henriksen, who in my view is one of the more underutilized actors working today. He is also a man of some surprising talents: he makes and sells pottery on the side.

I've never gotten into Buffy the Vampire Slayer or its sequel series, Angel, mostly because both series have generally been opposite a show that I still watch and enjoy regularly, and by now both series appear to have a sufficiently established mytharc that I fear I would be at sea if I tried to come aboard now. When I've watched both shows, though -- I've caught an episode here and there -- I've found them to be intelligent and entertaining. Joss Whedon seems to know what he is doing with these shows.

And now, this fall he has a new one on Fox: a space opera series called Firefly. Apparently Whedon's concept is "Stagecoach in space", which sounds a lot like an early Gene Roddenberry description of Star Trek: "Wagon Train to the stars". Anyway, here's hoping that this new show finally gives something to look forward to on television on Friday nights, which has not been the case since the brilliant (in its first two seasons, anyway) but ratings-challenged Millennium went off the air.

(The Firefly official site can be found here, while a fan site [should a show that doesn't exist yet even have a fan site?] can be explored here.)

Stephen Den Beste has written this article on the plausibility of the new movie Reign of Fire. I haven't seen the film (and I'm not sure I plan to), but his critique puts me in mind of that awful Godzilla movie from a few years back, which not only forced me to watch the fascinating Jean Reno playing second fiddle to Matthew Broderick (whose only decent role was WarGames, when he was thirteen or something like that) but also asked me to believe that if I had two vehicles to choose from in order to escape a gargantuan lizard-dragon-dinosaur beastie that is on the loose in NYC, I should choose the yellow taxicab over the Apache attack helicopter.

Sunday, July 14, 2002

A while back I wrote about the bizarre theories of human history proposed by author Graham Hancock. In that post I hinted that I would sometime post some recommendations for books on skepticism, something which is in short supply these days as belief in UFOs, alien abductions, ghosts, contact with the dead, and other such ideas abound while basic scientific knowledge generally atrophies. Here are some of the better books and other sources for skepticism and the scientific outlook that I have found. (I should note that I am not talking about "Skepticism" in the epistemological sense, but rather skepticism as an outlook.)

:: The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, by Carl Sagan. Sagan was known as a critic of pseudoscience and anti-rationalism all his life, and this book is his crowning achievement in those areas. The book, written in 1995, creates a sense of alarm that in an age where so many facets of American life -- entertainment, business, medicine, national defense -- are dependent on science, scientific ignorance is on the rise rather than on the decline. It seems to Sagan as if the country has made a conscious decision to turn away from science: for instance, at the time of his writing Congress had just eliminated its Office of Technology Assessment, the only organization specifically charged with providing scientific and technological information to the members of the House and Senate. Throughout the book Sagan decries the rise of fuzzy thinking that has accompanied the decline of science and questions the priorities at the heart of our society that have led this way. Sagan's tone in The Demon-Haunted World is grumpier than in his other works; he employs grumpier language than the flights of near poetry that appear in such books as Cosmos and Pale Blue Dot. The tone is real, and warranted.

:: Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer. The title of this book is something of a misnomer; the issue of just why people do believe weird things is not actually addressed until the book's last chapter. That said, the book is a decent primer on skepticism and critical thinking. Shermer illustrates the difference between science and pseudoscience, and in one particularly useful chapter he illuminates a series of errors and fallacies that can creep into our thinking, polluting it, as it were. Much of the book directly addresses specific pseudoscientific claims, such as alien abductions, near-death experiences, and the like; he also devotes a substantial amount of space to defending evolution in the face of creationism and to addressing historical revisionism, particularly with respect to the Holocaust. Sagan's book is better, but Shermer's is also valuable.

:: Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud by Robert Park. This is another survey of pseudoscientific claims and investigations into why scientific thought is so often derailed by wishful thinking and poor reasoning. He concentrates in particular on perpetual motion, cold fusion, and homeopathy. The best parts of the book involve his disappointment in the news media; many news outlets continue reporting on people whose pseudoscientific claims have been long-since debunked, ignoring the debunking completely and justifying the continued coverage of outrageous claims under the rubric of "human interest stories".

:: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen. This book is only tangentially about skepticism and critical thinking, but it is illustrative about how accurate knowledge and a systematic approach to that knowledge can be derailed by political concerns. Loewen describes many ways in which history texts are promulgating blatant errors, but more pernicious is the fact that many textbooks deliberately omit events and trends in history that do not promote a popular view of America. The aim, according to Loewen, is to produce pupils who view America as the protagonist in world history; for good or ill, this aim on the part of educators and textbook producers -- Loewen casts aspersions on both -- has had the effect of dulling historical knowledge and convincing legions of students that history is at best boring and at worst irrelevant.

Here are some sources on skepticism from the Web:

:: The James Randi Educational Foundation. Former magician James Randi is a professional debunker of odd claims, and as such he is a treasure. If you want to win a million dollars and you don't want to risk losing to one of fifteen other people on Survivor, Randi is your man: all you have to do is demonstrate a paranormal power. Easy, eh?

:: The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. CSICOP is a well-known organization that applies scientific investigation into putative events of paranormal activity. Their website is loaded with resources, and they also produce a periodical journal, The Skeptical Inquirer. (They are also based in Amherst, NY -- a suburb of Buffalo. They get high marks on that basis alone.)

:: The Skeptics Society. To quote from the mission statement: The Skeptics Society is a scientific and educational organization of scholars, scientists, historians, magicians, professors and teachers, and anyone curious about controversial ideas, extraordinary claims, revolutionary ideas and the promotion of science. Our mission is to serve as an educational tool for those seeking clarification and viewpoints on those controversial ideas and claims. The Skeptics Society also produces Skeptic Magazine.

:: The Critical Thinking Consortium. An organization devoted to promoting critical thinking.

:: Snopes.com: The Urban Legends Reference Pages. If you're wondering if there is any truth to such claims as a suicide caught on camera in the background of The Wizard of Oz, or Phil Collins writing the song In The Air Tonight as a response to witnessing a drowning (and then performing the song for some guy who had been in a position to stop the drowning and did nothing), or that Nostradamus predicted the attacks of 11 September 2001, go to this site. It is one of the most comprehensive such sites on the Web. (None of these claims is true, by the way.)

Friday, July 12, 2002

I've been experiencing difficulty publishing lately. I wonder how that "Movable Type" thing works....

IMAGE OF THE WEEK





Cover to Detective Comics #27, which contained the first appearance of Batman. (Image links to a good site on the history of superhero comics.)

:: I'm a day late with this week's Image, primarily because I wanted to tie the image with my thoughts on the remarkable novel I finally finished reading yesterday. The book is Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

What a book this is. It is the tale of two cousins, Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier, who team up to create a number of notable comic book characters, their most famous creation being "The Escapist", a costumed superhero who is sort-of the ultimate Houdini. Chabon tells how these two men come up with the idea of doing comics in the first place, how they create their initial works, and how their creation becomes more famous than they ever thought possible. A mere plot description of the novel makes it sound like a "rags-to-riches" story involving comics, but it is far, far more than that. Chabon isn't content to merely give us a few years in the lives of two comics men; instead, he gives a meditation on the entire Golden Age history of comics itself, complete with owners who cheerfully (and sometimes not so cheerfully) pocket all of the financial rewards from the artists' efforts; the lawsuits begun by DC Comics in an effort to keep anything remotely resembling its cash cow, Superman, off the market; and the McCarthy-era turn against comics which was brought about almost single-handedly by Dr. Frederick Wertham and his book Seduction of the Innocent, which in turn led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority (and, to some, the setting back of comics as an artistic medium in the United States). Many novelists could get an entire work out of just that material, but in many ways the historical background of comics is just that: background for his work, which concentrates instead on character. And it is in its characters that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay takes flight.

Put simply, it is a very long time since I read a book whose characters were as real as the ones presented here. Chabon gets us to rejoice at every victory, wince at every defeat, and acknowledge every stop on the voyage of self-discovery that Sammy and Joe take. Both of these men are full, three-dimensional characters who lead full, three-dimensional lives. And what lives they are. Joe, for instance, isn't just Sammy's cousin. He is a Jew from Prague who has managed to escape the oncoming Nazi threat, alone of his family. When he arrives in America at last and meets his cousin Sammy, he quickly falls under Sammy's spell. Sammy is one of those rambunxious youngsters who always has some kind of "get rich quick" scheme cooking up, and who thinks nothing of talking benefactors into bankrolling his plans before he has even fully formulated his plan. This happens early on, when Sammy talks a businessman -- Sheldon Anapol -- into entering the comics business, with the promise that he and Joe have "the next Superman" ready to go. Of course, much of this is bravado and bluff, and after they convince Anapol to give them a chance they promptly start work on creating this superhero they have already claimed to have. Sammy is to do the writing, and Joe is to do the artwork.

However, both Sammy and Joe are torn in different directions. Sammy is a writer with brilliant talent, but he can never quite overcome his belief that comics are just junk, telling pictured stories for children; plus, Sammy is increasingly unsure of his own sexuality. As the book progresses, Sammy's self-loathing becomes more and more apparent, as does the unnecessary nature of it all, because Chabon makes clear that he is a man of talent.

Joe is likewise torn in opposing directions: between the art of comics (for he regards comics as an art, a fully respectable medium for expression) and his desire to get his family out of Prague (his concern is particularly strong for his beloved little brother, Thomas). Joe also develops a strong hatred for the Germans, which plays out in some very unexpected ways at several points throughout the novel. And to top things off, there is a love-triangle of sorts between the two men and a woman named Rosa Saks, a wealthy New York socialite and herself a brilliant artist. Chabon resists any urge he must have felt to deal with the complex emotions of his novel in perfunctory, soap-operaish manner; instead, he shows us complex people behaving in complex ways, each trying to live as best they can in the face of a world on the brink of (and later engulfed by) war. The feeling of "There but for the grace of God go we" pervades this entire novel, but this feeling can only exist if we are given characters we can care about -- otherwise, the whole exercise is fruitless.

Chabon's language is also accomplished. It took me a long time to read this book, not just because it is long (636 pages in trade-paperback format) but because it is such an amazingly rich novel that there are entire passages that demand to be re-read immediately. Joe's lessons in magic and escape, learned in Prague from a kindly magician named Bernard Kornblum, are wonderful. They come early in the book, and we wonder why we are being told these things, but everything becomes clear later on as Joe's magician-training not only forms the basis of The Escapist but also much later becomes a means by which a family is reunited. Painstaking attention to structure is evident throughout the book, as are some wonderful sentences. For example:

:: Regarding the fate of Kornblum, Joe's boyhood magic teacher in Prague: "Kornblum['s] encyclopedic knowledge of the railroads of this part of Europe was in a few short years to receive a dreadful appendix...."

:: Regarding the work habits of Sammy and Joe: "In the immemorial style of young men under pressure, they decided to lie down for a while and waste time."

:: On people's ability to appraise their times: "One of the sturdiest precepts of the study of human delusion is that every golden age is either past or in the offing."

:: On a particularly unfortunate aspect of the Empire State Building: "A great feat of engineering is an object of perpetual interest to people bent on self-destruction. Since its completion, the Empire State Building, a gigantic shard of the Hoosier State torn from the mild limestone bosom of the Midwest and upended, on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria, in the midst of the heaviest traffic in the world, had been a magnet for dislocated souls hoping to ensure the finality of their impact, or to mock the bold productions of human vanity."

Imagine a 636-page book filled with sentences like that, and you have a book that is not to be read quickly like a Clancy or Grisham page-turner. You have a book of literary amazement. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is absolutely deserving of its Pulitzer Prize. It's the kind of book that leads one to take pity on the next item on the "To read" pile.

I've added a new link to "Other Journeys": AngieMcKaig.com. The subtitle of this one is "Technofodder for the Masses", which is an accurate label: she provides a lot of news items on all things tech. (Plus, she apparently is from Toronto, which is one of my favorite places on the planet -- next to Buffalo, of course.)

Also via her site, this fascinating article on the recording industry and its increasingly maddening attempts to maintain its relevance and dominance over artists. I don't entirely agree with the article, but it's the best making-of-the-case for free downloads I've ever read, plus a convincing argument that the industry is more interested in its own well-being than pretty much any concern for the artists.

Wednesday, July 10, 2002

I've been perusing my archives a bit lately, and I've come to an interesting observation (interesting to me, at least, given my aims in producing this journal in the first place):

I don't write enough about music.

I'm not entirely sure why this is the case. I've always had fairly strong opinions about music; in fact, I even started college as a music major before I switched after two years to Philosophy (thus heeding the siren call of money and fame, not realizing then that this siren call was coming from Ancient Greece). That single decision is probably why I've moved toward writing as my creative outlet as opposed to music, which I was pretty good at. I posted regularly for several years to the rec.music.movies newsgroup, mainly to indulge my long love of the most unfairly neglected area of music: film scores. I left off the Usenet posting, though, at roughly the same time that I began Byzantium's Shores, because I pretty much ran out of things to say about film music after a while. I've become more interested in storytelling in general and writing in particular, and while my love of music has not diminished in the slightest -- my CD collection refuses to stop growing -- I've had far less to say about it. But now that may be changing.

Another problem with my lack of music-related musings is that since I left college (and, before that, turned away from the serious study of music) my vocabulary on musical matters has diminished. I've forgotten things I knew then; chord structures I could at one time identify by ear are now mysterious to me again. My musical muscles, as it were, have atrophied. Thus, I've decided to expend some effort into regaining some of that. I am planning to read up on music again, starting with Harold Schonberg's wonderful books (most notably The Lives of the Great Composers) and then proceeding to A History of Western Music by Grout and Palisca. (This latter work struck me as impossibly dry and boring when I read it ten years ago in a Music History class; but then, so did Charles Dickens, and I'm rather enjoying Great Expectations right now. All things in their time, I suppose.) Another constant companion will probably be David Dubal's remarkable new book, The Essential Canon of Classical Music. This amazing book is nothing less than a fairly comprehensive listening guide to the awesome edifice of classical music.

And that's where the real key lies: in listening to music. While I've always had fairly broad tastes, I find that nevertheless a certain extension of the horizons is called for. I have never been particularly fond of the music predating the Classical period, nor have I been able to digest much of what has come after the end of Romanticism and the "death" of tonality. My musical tastes within classical music tend to begin with Mozart (whose every note is miraculous) and end with Mahler (also astounding), and peaking in the middle with Berlioz (whose music speaks so directly to me that the effect sometimes terrifies). While I do enjoy some Bach, and while I do love Handel's Messiah -- who doesn't? -- I can't boast much familiarity with anything else in the Baroque era or the even earlier musical epochs. Likewise, while 20th century masters like Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Hanson and Copland are near and dear to my heart, the entire edifice of atonal music -- serialism and the like -- has never figured at all in my musical calculus. It is time that I placed more demands upon my ear, and I hope and intend to be writing more about the results.

Some people claim that music is the highest of all the arts. I cannot agree with that -- is Beethoven's Eroica Symphony a greater work, a priori, than The Last Supper or Hamlet, Prince of Denmark? Hell, is the Eroica greater than Stairway to Heaven? I'm not after rankings and hierarchies. What I'm after is art. Had I made different choices some years ago, my art would be music. Instead, it is writing. So be it -- but surely one can inform and enliven the other. That's what art is supposed to do, after all.

The amazing Robert Ballard has found another sunken vessel. This time, he has located John F. Kennedy's famous WWII ship, the PT-109.

Major League Baseball decided to pay tribute to one of its greatest stars ever, Ted Williams, by naming the All Star Game MVP Award after him. This was an excellent way to honor the "Splendid Splinter", who died last week. Of course, if the Powers That Be in baseball had their crystal balls functioning properly, they would have avoided doing this for another year -- because then they would have known in advance that there would be no MVP awarded at this year's All Star Game, because the game would go to 11 innings, the two managers would run out of players, and commissioner Bud Selig would be "forced" to call the game a tie.

Amazing. Just amazing. How MLB can still be alive after its long history of bad decision making, which crystallized last night on the field, is one of the great mysteries of the Universe, right up there with black holes and the duck-billed platypus. The decisions that led to the most ridiculous conclusion of a baseball game in memory were many: both managers selected too many position players and not enough pitchers; both managers cleaved to the rather recent notion that every player should be able to play (whether that means getting one at-bat, pitching to one hitter, or even just being a pinch-runner); despite the expansion of the Major Leagues, the All Star Rosters have not been increased; et cetera et cetera et cetera. The excuses trotted out by Bud Selig and others ("We didn't want to risk injuries to our players", "We ran out of players", "Last call at the hotel bar was in twenty minutes") are, in a word, lame. This was an idiotic thing to happen.

And if that weren't enough reason to question the decision making abilities of the folks running the National Pasttime, just wait. The disastrous lessons of 1994 seem to have been duly noted and ignored by both management and labor, and a player's strike is looming. Way to go, Major League Baseball. Way to go, Mr. Selig. Way to go, Player's Union.

How many more weeks until the Bills open training camp?

Tuesday, July 09, 2002

I love the Tour de France. The sheer level of endurance that these athletes display is utterly, utterly amazing.

Lance Armstrong slipped to fifth place overall today, which isn't much of a concern. Armstrong's strength is in the mountain stages; it is there where he will almost certainly make his move. The last three Tours -- all won by Armstrong -- played out precisely in this way.

Part of the pre-game ceremony for the Major League Baseball All Star Game was baseball's 30 greatest moments. They seem to have pretty much nailed them all, although I'd have included Kirby Puckett's walk-off home run in Game Six of the 1991 World Series. (Of course, Jack Morris's shutout in Game Seven of that same Series was a fine choice, too.) It's too bad they couldn't include some of the best moments from All Star Game history; then we might have been able to revisit that wonderful scene in 1993 (or was it 1994?) when Randy Johnson uncorked a fastball over John Kruk's head. It was one of the funniest baseball moments ever.

And not surprisingly, the Pirates -- losers of 100 games last season and embarking on what will be a long rebuilding process after their last GM, Cam Bonifay, decimated the farm system -- only have one All Star representative (and they probably wouldn't even have him, if not for the rule that requires that the All Star rosters reflect at least one player from each team). This year it is closer Mike Williams, who the Pirates signed to a large contract last offseason for some unknown reason. Teams which lose 100 games typically have far more pressing needs than a top-flight closer.

Ah, well. Go National League!

Let the waiting for 2005 begin: over at TFN, an article has been posted on what will happen in Star Wars Episode III. What I'm most interested in is seeing how Yoda gets away from the forces of evil; surely the Emperor and Darth Vader would never allow him to live if they had any idea that he was not dead. (And notice, in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Vader says things to Luke like "Obi Wan has taught you well", never once mentioning Yoda. Hmmmmm.)

I am also interested in seeing if my theory about the parallels between the fall of the Jedi and the true story of the Knights Templar holds true.

It's also less than six months until The Two Towers. Try as I might, though, I simply cannot get excited about Star Trek Nemesis.



One of the more pleasant side effects of having children is that once the child reaches the age of, oh, two or so, one suddenly becomes much more well-versed on the subject of animated movies. One gains the ability to quote entire passages from Dumbo, Aladdin, Snow White, et cetera. Of course, it helps if one actually likes animation to begin with. Fortunately, I have always loved animation....although some of the films don't bear up upon many, many, many viewings as well as others (I think I can safely live to the age of 71 before I feel the need to watch The Rescuers again).

Anyhow, in recent weeks we have made liberal use of our Blockbuster card to catch up on some animated films we haven't seen yet, and we actually saw a new one at the theater.

:: Shrek. Yes, somehow we failed to see this movie when it was out last year. It's every bit as delightful as the reviews and box office receipts implied. It's a warm and funny film, with a lot of heart but also with a hearty helping of satire and humor. The tone is most similar to the classic film The Princess Bride, in that it constantly walks a fine line between telling its own story and parodying others. The story, about an ogre who claims to crave solitude but really desires love and acceptance, is a wonderful little fable. What makes the film so endearing is its heart and its humor. In one scene, the villain -- Lord Farquaad -- attempts to extract information, through torture, from a helpless Gingerbread Man, using methods such as prolonged submersion in milk. Later on, the Lord is trying to get information from a Magic Mirror. The Mirror tries to hem and haw, until Farquaad gestures to one of his guards -- who holds up a hand mirror and smashes it with a gaunleted fist. The Magic Mirror quickly falls in line after that. The film is full of these kinds of jokes, some of which are quite dark indeed -- witness the bird that explodes when the lovely Princess Fiona's voice attains a too-high note. The film's music score is a combination of pop tunes and ordinary orchestral underscore, all of which somehow works. Shrek is a pleasure.

:: Atlantis: The Lost Empire. This is Disney's foray into a new type of animated film, where the emphasis is on story and action as opposed to song and dance. It's an intelligent move for Disney to make, as its musical films in recent years have felt a bit thin. It's almost as if Disney's best writers have been working on the PIXAR films (Toy Story, Monsters Inc., A Bug's Life). Atlantis's story is really nothing new, in itself; in fact, the film could almost be a reworking of Stargate. A nerdy archaeologist has eschewed traditional studies for unpopular esoterica, and he claims to have discovered the key to finding the lost city of Atlantis. Of course, this gets him nearly fired from his museum job, but a mysterious and rich benefactor personally finances his expedition, which he undertakes along with a crack team of other experts. There is the crusty military man, the eccentric dirt expert, the French demolitions man, and so on. They embark on their journey, eventually arriving at Atlantis after a number of adventures -- and a number still to go, as certain persons on the mission are revealed to have other agendas at work. None of this is particularly surprising, but it is still highly entertaining because of the freshness of the animation -- a lot of which is based on techniques developed in Japanese anime -- and the wittiness of the script. (One notable line comes from the submarine's public address announcer: "Tonight's meal will be baked beans, musical performance to follow.") The film's climactic action sequence is something to behold: it is a battle between Atlanteans (and some of the good guys) in flying-airships that are shaped like fish (one character says, "Do you have anything sporty, like a tuna?") and the bad guys in miniature biplanes, centering on a hot-air balloon that is attempting to depart through the crater of an extinct volcano. The animation during this sequence is nothing short of amazing -- never is the action anything but crystal clear. If Atlantis: The Lost Empire breaks no new ground in terms of story, it is still an enormously entertaining film and may point the way for traditional animation in the future.

:: Mulan. This is the oldest of the films that we've recently seen. It is also the most uneven of them. The film tells the tale of a Chinese girl who, desperate to bring honor to her family, disguises herself as a man so she can go off to war against the Huns. While this is different subject matter for Disney, it is clear that a need was felt to "Westernize" certain aspects of the tale. This being the case, the film doesn't really create the sense of time and place that the best of the Disney films evoke. Mulan simply isn't Asian enough; despite a few very nicely done sequences, this film still feels like a Western take on China rather than China itself. The songs aren't bad at all, but they are very un-Oriental in their tone (especially the horrible pop-tune that closes out the film's end credits); the film's music score, by Jerry Goldsmith, is very good but still doesn't push the Asian envelope enough. The film's voices are well-selected, with many of prominent Asian actors -- George Takei, Pat Morita, Soon Teck-Oh (one of my favorite character actors and a frequent Magnum, PI alumnus) and Ming-Na in the title role -- but somehow the film still feels like the Epcot version of China rather than the real thing. The villains are nothing more than robotic killing machines. Mulan is an enjoyable film, but it can't compare with a film like Princess Mononoke (yes, I know that Mononoke is set in Japan and not China, but the point stands).

:: Finally, we saw Lilo and Stitch last week. What an entertaining film this was. At first glance, one expects a Disney-fied version of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. A diminutive alien is stranded on Earth, where he meets a young person from a broken family and then both proceed to learn valuable lessons about family and love. The similarities end there, though, because the alien -- Stitch -- is actually a genetic creation by an alien scientist who is literally programmed to do nothing but destroy. (In one scene, he creates a miniature model of San Francisco so he can trample, Godzilla-like, through the city.) The girl -- Lilo -- is rough around the edges; she gets into fights and purposely sabotages her sister's attempts to convince the social worker (a huge, black man named Cobra Bubbles and voiced by Ving Rhames) that she is an adequate guardian. The film is animated in wonderful style, making prominent use of pastel shades and watercolors for a look that is quite different from the usual Disney boldness. The music blends traditional Hawaiian song with, believe it or not, Elvis Presley (who apparently is quite revered in Hawaii). The film employs some wonderful humor: when the aliens simply decide to vaporize Earth to rid themselves of their escaped weapon, a life scientist pops up and explains that Earth is the sole habitat of that precariously-endangered species, the mosquito. Lilo and Stitch is a terrific film.

I am starting to wonder if some kind of Golden Age of animation might not be in the offing, between the continued excellence of traditional animation (recently renewed by the adoption of anime techniques), the increased appreciation of anime in general, and the continued evolution of computer-generated animation. There is still life in Disney....but it's not all Disney. And that's all to the good.

Monday, July 08, 2002

A thousand cheers for the organizers of this years Taste of Buffalo, which was held downtown this past weekend. The festival was great fun, as always, and for some reason the food seemed even better this year. Maybe it was the fact that, unlike last year, it didn't rain.

It is still a bit depressing to walk through the festival, along with upwards of 200,000 other people, and note the large number of empty storefronts and closed businesses. Downtown Buffalo has a long way to go.

I wrote a few days ago about Russia's proposal of an international mission to Mars. In that article, I wondered if the Russians could meet the financial obligations that they would incur if such a project were undertaken. The financial problems of the Russian space program are well-documented; they have, for example, raised money for their cash-strapped operation by licensing the hulls of their rockets for advertisements and auctioned off old test vehicles. Well, their problems go far deeper than that, and it now appears that this may be -- and probably is -- a way for the Russians to secure more Western (and, mainly, American) financial backing for their space program. A Mars mission would involve a long-term commitment of capital, which is not exactly in great supply in Russia these days.

(Thanks to the Captain for the information.)

I've been nursing a cold for the last couple of days, which is why I've been absent from posting since Friday.

The problem with summertime colds is the degree of incredulity they create. Since it's not the time of year that I associate with colds, not only is there the typical suffering of a runny nose and a sore throat and all the rest of it, but there is an additional sense that "I can't believe this is happening! How on Earth did I get a cold? Nobody I know has one!" If this were October or November, say, I would have little difficulty accepting the fact that I have a cold right now. As it is July, though, the whole thing seems a bit stupid.

Now, it's off to ladle some more DayQuil down my throat.