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

Thursday, January 30, 2003

IMAGES OF THE WEEK



The Niagara Mohawk Building, Syracuse, NY.

One of the neat aspects of northeastern cities is the prevalence of art-deco architecture (the most famous example probably being New York City's Chrysler Building), especially in older cities like Buffalo and Syracuse that haven't seen much by way of significant additions to the skyline since the art-deco era. This building -- the headquarters of New York's Niagara Mohawk Power Company -- is one of the most striking examples of the art-deco style I've ever seen, especially so since the building's restoration a few years back. Having driven by the building several times, I can report that it does indeed gleam as much as the above photo indicates.

Here is a close-up of the building's tower, including the angelic figure near the building's crown:



(Say, can anyone out there recommend any good introductory books about architecture? I'm finding art-in-building increasingly interesting, and yet I know very little about it.)

New books are for sale on Ebay. Check out "Marketplace", also at left.

Furthering my triumph over All! Things! Tech!, I've added a Google Search function in the sidebar at left, thus making Byzantium's Shores more staggeringly useful than...well, I'm hoping it enhances things a bit here. Look between "Other Journeys" and the Archive for the Search function.

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

SciFi Weekly has an interesting interview this week with Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell, two of the more notable artists in SF and fantasy. Vellejo's work should be familiar to anyone with passing interest in SF, such as his cover painting for Vernor Vinge's novel A Fire Upon the Deep.

OK, I just finished watching this week's episode of Alias, and I quite enjoyed it -- more than when I've tried watching this show in the past. They used a tried-and-true formula: an in medias res opening, leaving the heroine in jeopardy, and then flashing back to tell how she got into that situation in the first place. One thing that rankled was the fact that this episode was clearly designed, at least in part, to bring viewers like me -- who haven't been watching faithfully -- at least somewhat up to speed. The execution of the miniature "infodumps" was a bit ham-handed, right down to the dreaded phrase, "As you know....", which I heard at least twice in the episode. "As you know...." speeches are incredibly tempting for a writer who is trying to get information to the reader or viewer that they need to understand the story. But I did enjoy the show's tight pacing, and it's always enjoyable watching Rutger Hauer play the taciturn bad-ass (which is a good thing, because that's virtually the only type of role he ever plays).

As far as TV espionage shows go, though, I think Alias has some heavy lifting ahead of it, if it wants to supersede 24 in my pecking order.

I won't do any kind of lengthy analysis of the State of the Union speech here -- there's plenty of that, all over the Web. I will note that President Bush continues to be a very effective orator. While he doesn't have the inate speechmaking ability that Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan had, GWB has done the next best thing: he's assembled a team of speechwriters who are better at matching rhetoric to their man's speech patterns and syntactic qualities than any in recent memory. And Bush has one strength, the lack of which dogged Clinton in virtually all of his major speeches: he doesn't go on nearly as long. I'm one who remembers Clinton's speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention, in which he droned on for something like three days. Brevity was never Clinton's strong point.

Via TheForce.Net: the occupational hazards facing an orchestral conductor when the composer of the works on the program happens to be in the concert hall. At least Maestro Slatkin was armed!

TF.N's story can be found here, and this event was also featured in a lengthy interview with Maestros Williams and Slatkin on NPR's Weekend Edition. Any mainstream mention of film music should be supported, and any attempt to bring film music to a larger audience can only be a good thing. This is an art form that is woefully underappreciated -- musical people tend to view film music as classical music's bastard stepchild, and film people tend to view film music as something not to be appreciated in any context other than with the film itself.

"Minas Morgul Oliphaunts 45, Isengard Uruk-hai 17."

I can only assume that this is the kind of thing that was being sought when this Google search brought someone here.

(And imagine: Byzantium's Shores is the only site anywhere on the Web listed under that particular search term! I'm the one and only!)



Wine Poetics is a blog I happened upon, pretty much randomly, the other day. It's brand-spanking new -- less than a month old -- and it's about wine, poetry, and wine-related poetry. Nice to see blogs out there that aren't about conservative politics, liberal politics, libertarian politics, tech stuff, or -- worst of all -- long-winded screeds about football and Star Wars. (Ahem.)

Monday, January 27, 2003

Once again, SDB is confusing absence of evidence with evidence of absence. I'd love to be able to conclude from the lack of any kind of terrorist incident at the Super Bowl that we're winning, that we've crippled Al Qaeda, that the reason the game wasn't attacked is because they couldn't mount any such attack.

The problem, though, is this: rewind history to before 9-11-01, before we declared war on Al Qaeda in particular and on terrorism in general. Prior to that date, "proportional response" was the rule; we contented ourselves with missile strikes whenever we thought we had a good read on where Bin Laden happened to be. How many Super Bowls were struck by terrorist incidents before we crippled Al Qaeda? how many times was the World Series the site of an attack? how many times was the New Year's crowd in Times Square hit by a suicide bomber? How many times did any of these things happen, back when Al Qaeda was at the high point of its ability and strength?

Answer: ZERO.

The lack of any conclusive evidence for the current status of Al Qaeda, coupled with Al Qaeda's general modus operandi in the past (striking normal people, at work, on days which are fairly unremarkable in any other way), suggests to me that SDB's conclusion is frighteningly unfounded.

Another test. Man, is Movable Type lookin' good right now....

For some reason I haven't been able to get into Alias, despite the fact that its subject matter should be right up my alley. But, the episode that aired last night after the Super Bowl has been billed in numerous places as not just an outstanding episode but also a good "jumping-on" point for people who haven't been watching all along. I taped it, and will report later in the week.

I'm also looking forward to tonight's premiere of Miracles, which I'm hoping can fill some of the void that was left by the dismantling and ultimate cancellation of the brilliant, underappreciated Millennium. (This one's being taped as well.) I have high hopes for Miracles, because -- if it's done well -- dark stories about spiritual supernaturalism always captivate me. The problem, though, is the stories in this vein that are done poorly -- and it's very easy to screw them up.

So that's it, then: the season is over, and we are now officially waiting for next year. Soon there will be free-agent signings galore, and then the draft; then minicamps, followed by training camp. Before we know it, another regular season will have begun in the NFL, and everyone will be lining up to knock the Tampa Bay Buccaneers off their perch.

The Buccaneers.

It's a brave, new world, folks.

So, my final post about the 2002 NFL season is at hand. Commencing forthwith:

:: There's a generally-held belief that blowouts are inherently uninteresting and boring. In the case of the Super Bowl, where blow-outs have traditionally been the norm, it's reached such a point that the corollary belief is that the commercials are more interesting than the game itself. I don't agree. Blowouts are certainly interesting if it's your team doing the blowing out; as a Bills fan, I can confirm that my attention was riveted in that AFC Championship Game twelve years ago, when the Bills dismantled the Raiders 51-3. But blow-outs can be interesting on other grounds, as well. Yes, some are boring -- Super Bowl XXIX, for example, when the 49ers whalloped the Chargers 49-26 -- but some are definitely interesting. This game is an example. Just the fact that it was the Bucs who were blowing out the Raiders, and not the other way around, was interesting in itself. And the game wasn't quite the blow-out that the final score indicates; the Raiders had actually closed to within thirteen before the Bucs put it away and then appended the exclamation-point. But to the extent that anyone expected a blow-out, it was not expected to be the Raiders on the receiving end. On that basis -- the unexpected nature of this blow-out -- I found the game interesting.

:: All week I heard about the veteran leadership abounding on the Oakland sideline. So where was it? Why were Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, Bill Romanowski, Rich Gannon, et al not in their teammates' faces, getting them the #$&%!! back into the game? When they caught Rice on camera early in the third, sitting on the sideline moping, I knew the game was over, despite the flicker of life the Raiders showed a little later on.

:: I was very pleased to see the Super Bowl won decisively by a team that executed fundamentals so solidly, after a season where fundamentals were tossed aside by just about everyone. It's great to see that defense still wins championships; that running the ball and grinding the clock when one is leading in the second half is still excellent strategy (Dave Wannstedt, are you listening?); and that one does not need a stellar passing game to win a Super Bowl.

:: Joe Theissman is still an idiot. In his pregame pick, he announced that the Raiders would win. OK, fine -- a lot of people picked them. But he went on to say why: "The Raiders were, week in and week out, the best team in the NFL this season." Was Joe watching the same NFL season that I was? Was he watching when the Raiders went on a four-game losing streak? Was he watching when, "week in and week out", there was no clearly dominant team in the league? Hell, the Raiders didn't even have the better regular-season record of this year's two Super Bowl teams. I wonder if Theissman's brain was affected when his leg was broken all those years ago.

:: Commercials: I liked three of them. There was the FedEx Castaway spoof, the "Osbournes" Pepsi Twist ad, and the Bud Light ad with the guy who decided to get a third arm. That's about it. (Oh, and a new SportsCenter ad where Joe Montana is a chef, and he loses his Super Bowl ring in the food, to have Stuart Scott find it.)

:: Halftime: What on earth was Shania Twain wearing?! Ugh. Ugh, ugh, ugh. If this is what country music is about these days, then Patsy Cline must be gyrating in her burial place.

:: Pregame: I'm probably going to hell for saying this, but I'm finally tired of "God Bless America". I understood why the song shot to the forefront of our consciousness after 9-11-01, but now apparently we're to hear it at every sporting event -- even before the actual National Anthem. Still, Celine Dion sang it well. This year featured one of the better "Star Spangled Banner"'s in recent memory; the Dixie Chicks did a simple rendition, solemn and with lovely vocal harmony. I was baffled that they did away with player introductions; maybe everyone was awestruck by the Patriots' "Introduce us as a team" gimick from last year. It was nice, though, that they did a little season-recap for each team, showing their respective roads to the Super Bowl.

:: Postgame: since when do they do music in the postgame? What's up with that? The game ends, and then it's: "Congrats, Bucs. We'll give you the Vince Lombardi Trophy just as soon as we're all done listening to Bon Jovi!" And I was glad to see that Chris Berman still pulls out the orange necktie for special Buccaneer occasions.

And, finally, a couple of thoughts about the NFL itself.

:: While I can somewhat agree with the "purists" with regards to the current structure for overtime games, I have to conclude that a system whereby a team can win without the other team even touching the ball needs to be tweaked. My thinking is this: first of all, keep the coin toss, but don't kick it off -- just give the team winning the toss the ball, at the opposing twenty yard line. If they're going to march down the field and score, make them march down the field. Second, if they do score, I think the other team should then get one possession in which they can either tie or win, depending on what the first team to score did. However, after both teams have each had a possession, then go right back to sudden death. I think that overtime is "sudden death" because of football's status as the most physical of the major sports; you don't want these guys out there for an extra hour or two beating on each other.

So, just to take a hypothetical example: if the Bills and Jets play to a tie in regulation, a coin is tossed. The Jets call it and win, and they get the ball first. Then, suppose they start at the 20 and drive downfield for a field-goal. Then, the Bills get a possession -- also starting at the twenty. They, too, drive for a field goal. Now the Jets would get another possession, and the game would progress as before until the next team scores. Then, game over. This would not cheat the Bills at all, because they would have had the opportunity to score a touchdown on their OT possession, and thus win the game. Of course, this system would create a few weird instances: in my above example, if the Jets' QB throws an interception on his first snap in OT, and that interception is run in for a touchdown, then the game's over -- because both teams will have had possession once, and the Bills would have a lead.

So: the first team to take the lead after both teams have possessed the ball, should win in OT.

:: Finally, a word about parity. I read a commentary a few weeks ago (I don't recall the writer or location, unfortunately) that complained about parity because it's meant the end of dynasties in the NFL, and thus there will presumably be less of a sense of history forged nowadays. I don't agree. First of all, dynasties in themselves are pretty rare. There really was no "Team of the 1990s" (I don't consider the Cowboys thus, because they won their three championships in four years early in the decade and were lackluster after that), so the last true dynasty was the 49ers of the 1980s. But their three championships in the 1980s were spread out, so I can't believe anyone thought they were a dynasty when they won their first. Conversely, many were convinced that the 1985 Bears were the start of a dynasty, but it never came to pass. So, I don't think we can really predict whether or not there will be dynasties.

However, it seems at least partly true that the old style of dynasty may be a thing of the past: a team putting together a core of players and keeping that core together for a long period of time. Future dynasties, thus, may not be the result of accretion of great talent on a single team, but rather by great front-office personnel and coaches on a team. Scouts and coaches are going to be more important in the future, and whereas we very well may not see a Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s again, I also think we're unlikely to see a situation where a Chuck Knoll or a Don Shula or a Tom Landry can coach a colossus but then spend ten years coaching mediocre teams because the colossus eventually got dismantled. John Gruden might not win another Super Bowl with this same collection of Buccaneers, but I'd be shocked if his coaching career ended sometime in the future without another title under his belt. Selection of personnel is going to get more important, and this is the real reason why the Bengals and Cardinals are such train-wrecks: not only do they lack talent, but they also lack the proper management team to bring in talent in an era when talent can be acquired much more easily and not nearly as capriciously as in the day when there was the draft and little else.

I like parity. I like the fact that a team can go from being a doormat to a Super Bowl champion quickly. I like the fact that of the 19 teams that posted records of .500 or better in 2002, 12 posted losing records in either 2000 or 2001. I like the fact that "Wait 'till next year" can actually have some meaning now, as opposed to before when it meant "Wait until we have an awesome draft, start developing those kids, and then have another awesome draft the year after, and the same thing over four years until we're a great team".

The way teams acquire players has changed, but the game is still the same. It's still line-'em-up, run and throw, stop the other guy, for sixty minutes each Sunday. So we've had five new Super Bowl Champions out of the last six Super Bowls. So five of those champions were teams that to that point in their franchise history had never won a Super Bowl before. So the best team in the NFL can actually change from year to year much more fluidly than before. Football is still football, the Super Bowl is still the Super Bowl, and the best team in the NFL was still crowned yesterday.

The Buccaneers are the Champions, and long live the Champions. At least until September.

I've noticed in the last year or two that I will receive campaign mailings, seeking contributions, from candidates who are not in my state. I expect these are targeted to folks on the Mother Jones mailing list and the like, and they are invariably phrased in terms of "Support me, so that the Republicans don't take control" or something like that. Sympathetic as I may be, I'm generally hesitant to donate any of my money to political causes, and I'm even more hesitant to do so in the case of candidates who don't represent me.

I'm bringing this up because Scott Secrest recently received such a mailing from Tom Daschle (to whom I lovingly refer as "our Lemming-In-Chief"), and he actually wrote back, sending his regrets to Senator Daschle in no uncertain terms. He also posted his response to Collaboratory. I have to agree with Scott, almost entirely -- one generally should be wary of requests for another chance for a guy whose most notable recent accomplishment is being the first to walk the plank.


Sunday, January 26, 2003

One minute to go. Observations to come tomorrow, but I just have to make this notation: I've been reading CalPundit for several months, and this is the first instance in all that time of him being stone wrong.

Oh well, every winning streak ends sooner or later. I'm sure he'll get right back on the winning ride again tomorrow. Or later today....

POETICAL EXCURSION #10

"The Bloody Sire", by Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962).

It is not bad. Let them play.
Let the guns bark and the bombing-plane
Speak his prodigious blasphemies.
It is not bad, it is high time,
Stark violence is still the sire of all the world's values.

What but the wolf's tooth chiseled so fine
The fleet limbs of the antelope?
What but fear winged the birds and hunger
Gemmed with such eyes the great goshawk's head?
Violence has been the sire of all the world's values.

Who would remember Helen's face
Lacking the terrible halo of spears?
Who formed Christ but Herod and Caesar,
The cruel and bloody victories of Caesar?
Violence has been the sire of all the world's values.

Never weep, let them play,
Old violence is not too old to beget new values.

:: After reading this poem a week or so ago, I've been wondering a lot: how true is that Jeffers says here? How true is it that what we humans value, what we deem worthy, is shaped by violence and war? This poem suggests a sort of "catastrophistic" view of human nature: that our paradigms, our values, are born in moments of violence and blood-letting. Saddeningly, maddeningly, this may in fact be the case; and it leaves me wondering, on the eve of war, just what new values will be thus born.

I wrote last week about a peculiar result of my rewatching a film that I didn't like even though most other people did (Dead Poets Society); last night I did the reverse. I watched a film that I've loved since it came out, even though it may well be the single most reviled film, judging by the vitriol its mere mention seems to elicit, of the last ten years. I am talking, of course, of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

I can grant some of the flaws in the film. I really can. The dialogue, while not remotely as bad as many would insist, could have used some touching-up. While I am most emphatically not a Jar Jar hater, he could most definitely have been toned down a bit. While I think Jake Lloyd did a fine job as nine-year-old Anakin, I do think that he might have benefitted from the directorial hand of a director more attuned to working with children. (If ever Steven Spielberg was going to direct a Star Wars film, this would have been the one.) And so on and so forth. I do think that The Phantom Menace is probably the most obviously flawed film in the series, with the most blatant creaking spots in the narrative, but I've been mystified by the sheer level of dislike the film has generated. I remember one of those "Top Ten" lists on the MSN Entertainment page a year or two ago that listed the "Worst Sequels Ever Made", and guess what film made the Number One spot (on a list that somehow managed to omit Superman III, for God's sake). Weird.

I was going to write a lengthy defense of The Phantom Menace, addressing just about every negative about the film I could find, but I got a bit lucky in that someone's beaten me to it. I agree with about eighty-five percent of what this guy says about the film. (I also disagree almost one hundred percent with his assessment of Return of the Jedi, but that's for another time.)

It's probably inevitable that there should be so much comparison right now between the Star Wars saga and Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, since both are unfolding on the screen these days. The generally held view -- although not by me -- is that the LOTR films are everything that the current crop of Star Wars films are not, and that Peter Jackson's work shows by its very greatness just how far George Lucas has fallen. Well, OK, I guess, but I disagree entirely -- I still love both equally. But the current primacy of LOTR suggests to me an analogy, because the way Tolkien originally created his stories of Middle-Earth is in a way similar to the way Lucas has brought forth his own saga. First, Tolkien wrote his great trilogy, the one with Frodo and Sam and Aragorn and the War of the Ring and all the rest of it; that's what captured so many imaginations. Likewise, George Lucas captured imaginations with his trilogy of films about Luke Skywalker and Han Solo and Princess Leia and all the rest of it.

Later on in their lives, both Tolkien and Lucas felt it was time to go in and tell some of the backstory to their universes. Tolkien did this with The Silmarillion, a work which is also held in some high regard, although not as high as his original trilogy (mainly because of its more archaic tone, and the fact that Tolkien died before the work was complete). The Silmarillion tells the stories of how the Elves came to Middle Earth, and how the Rings of Power were forged, and all the rest of the stuff hinted at in The Lord of the Rings. I've never read The Silmarillion, so I can't comment much on it, but it's a vast epic story on its own. So, when George Lucas announced that he was at long last making the first three episodes of Star Wars, filling in the details of Darth Vader's life, I think that most fans assumed that they were going to get the Star Wars equivalent of The Silmarillion. Thus their disappointment, at least in part, when Episode I finally arrived, and fans discovered that Lucas had not made The Silmarillion at all. He had made The Hobbit.

The Hobbit, to my way of thinking, stands in relation to The Lord of the Rings in much the same way that The Phantom Menace stands in relation to the remainder of the Star Wars saga. It's not really a full part of the story; much of its action is peripheral to what is to come, and it really serves to introduce some of the characters who will play a part and to give a glimpse of this world in which the great drama will later unfold. The Hobbit is a smaller, more intimate work that has very little of the epic scope that would mark The Lord of the Rings. Sauron is never mentioned in The Hobbit, nor really is the fact that the Third Age may be ending; the Ring is just a magical trinket that makes its wearer invisible; Gollum is a creepy little monster; et cetera. It's a straight-forward adventure story, and not much more than that. That's also what The Phantom Menace is: a small introduction to the Star Wars story, which I think explains a lot of the film's structure. This explains why Anakin Skywalker is not even the primary focus of the film. The Hobbit is not essential to the story of The Lord of the Rings, and likewise The Phantom Menace really isn't essential to the Star Wars saga, except to show a few key events. In The Hobbit, it is the finding of the Ring, an event that in the book is not particularly momentous at all; in The Phantom Menace, it is a similar finding: the finding of Anakin Skywalker, even though his finding is likewise not momentous, in that it doesn't have the kind of huge import on the events surrounding it that I think many Star Wars fans anticipated.

I'd also like to discuss the issue of heroes and protagonists, viz. the Star Wars films. A complaint I've seen made in different places -- I think David Brin voiced it, in his famous article for Salon attacking The Phantom Menace, and I saw the complaint raised elsewhere by others -- is that The Phantom Menace is fundamentally flawed because it is lacking a clear protagonist character. "Whose movie is this?" goes the refrain, and at first glance this seems fairly damning. But I don't think it holds up.

At some point, I think it dawned on many people that the true protagonist of the saga is not Luke Skywalker but Anakin/Vader; the whole saga becomes the tale of this one Jedi's rise, fall and redemption. Orson Scott Card made the point very well in his book How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, in which he outlined how in the "classic trilogy" we see Luke, Han, Leia and friends have a bunch of neat adventures, where all the while it is Darth Vader whose actions shape those of the heroes. Vader is the one setting the agenda; everything the heroes do is in response to Vader, and the saga's key emotional moments come when Vader's son rejects the Dark Side, and then Vader himself does the same. Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker, turns out to be the main character of the saga; and yet, he's not the hero, we don't identify with him, and the story is not told from his point-of-view.

Much has been written over the years about the influence of Joseph Campbell on George Lucas, and how the Star Wars saga is a science-fictional, space-opera rendition of the classic "hero's journey". One can start with A New Hope and tick off the proper events: Luke's "call to adventure", his "refusal of the call", his "meeting of the mentor", his "supernatural aid", his descent into "the belly of the whale", et cetera. The hero journey of Luke Skywalker pretty much determines much, if not all, of the structure of the classic trilogy. But then, along comes The Phantom Menace, set years before Luke's birth; but since we know that the entire saga is really Anakin's story, we are tempted to expect The Phantom Menace to be Anakin's story, and we are a bit surprised to find that it is not. At least, not overtly. Thus, we have David Brin, complaining that George Lucas is apparently making a Campbellian-style epic without a Campbellian hero at its heart.

But is he, really?

Keep in mind that, while the structure of the classic trilogy is undeniably Campbellian, it is so in the service of a character who is not the main character. Luke Skywalker may be the Campbellian hero, but Anakin is the main character. This particular counterpoint suggests that we are not meant to really follow Anakin's struggles in the same way that we are meant to follow Luke's, and thus it is entirely appropriate that The Phantom Menace does not set Anakin at its core the way we might have erroneously expected it to do.

Still, the "Whose movie is this?" question is interesting to me, on other grounds, because there are two ways to view The Phantom Menace in relation to the entire saga, with each way suggesting a different answer to this question. If one views The Phantom Menace as a stand-alone chapter, telling its own story -- which, in many ways, it is -- then the question of whose movie it is may seem initially damning. After all, Anakin -- who we're told is the main character of the entire saga doesn't show up until an hour's gone by, and even then he's a mere participant in the story and not its clear protagonist. Obi Wan Kenobi, the other character whom we might expect to be the focal character, is clearly not; he even drops off the screen for the most part during the entire Tatooine section of the film. It could be Queen Amidala's movie, but since the film obscures her identity, it can't really be her (even though it turns out that it might be). That leaves Qui Gon Jinn, who ends up dead. Is it Qui Gon's movie? Maybe, but it seems to me that the film is more of an ensemble film, with a group of heroes all sharing the role of protagonist.

The idea that a story must have a single, clear-cut hero really doesn't hold up. Consider some of those "disaster" films of the 1970s. Is the Gene Hackman character the clear hero of The Poseidon Adventure? Not really. He has the most screen time, and his actions drive much of the story, but I wouldn't necessarily say that it's his movie. Consider two of the finer works of fantasy literature of recent years: Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry and George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Neither of these works has a single protagonist, opting instead for a large cast of characters. Martin's work, in particular, so blurs the line between hero and villain that even now, with three of the series's eventual six books in print, we don't know really who the good guys are in the first place. Consider, even, The Lord of the Rings. It seems so obvious, at first glance, that Frodo Baggins is the main character. But is he, really? I could make a definite case -- and some scholars actually have done so -- that Aragorn is the true main character of LOTR. (The third installment's title -- The Return of the King -- directly refers to Aragorn, for example.) So, the fact that The Phantom Menace lacks a strong central hero character doesn't seem to me to be a fatal flaw. Or, if I may invoke a cliche-to-be of I've ever heard one, it's not a bug. It's a feature.

There is another view we can take, though, to answer the question of whose movie The Phantom Menace is. We can say that it's still Anakin Skywalker's movie, even though he doesn't show up until well into the proceedings, because it's only the first chapter of his entire story. Returning to The Lord of the Rings: if Aragorn is the main character, and he may well be, then it seems strange that he doesn't show up until well into The Fellowship of the Ring, unless we realize that Fellowship is not intended to be viewed as a stand-alone work. Thus, to give The Phantom Menace demerits because it doesn't introduce the main character until an hour's gone by is wrong-headed, for precisely the same reason that it may be wrong-headed to fault Fellowship for not introducing Aragorn earlier. Of course, this seems a bit unsatisfying on other grounds; it means that we have to hold The Phantom Menace in abeyance until the second and third episodes are complete. This doesn't strike me as a problem. I don't think that The Empire Strikes Back was really appreciated for the great film that it is until after Return of the Jedi arrived, and not because ROTJ is a worse film but because it shows just where all that stuff in TESB was going in the first place. I think that Harry Knowles said it best, in his review of Attack of the Clones: "This movie makes The Phantom Menace a better movie."

Of course, I thought it was a good movie in the first place. I was not disappointed in 1999, and I'm still not disappointed. I don't hold The Phantom Menace as a guilty pleasure; I feel no guilt about it. As far as I am concerned, it's a good movie.

(I do wish Lucas had left out the fart and poop jokes, though. And that scene between Padme and Jar Jar, when she's cleaning R2-D2, is probably the most godawful scene in the entire Star Wars saga. But other than that, I love this movie.)

For the last year, I've been eating healthy and exercising, resulting in 67 pounds off my original weight. I tend to only indulge in "unhealthy" items on special days, with today -- Super Sunday -- being one of them. However, that doesn't mean I go "whole hog"; I was only planning to get a pizza to eat during the game. (Not that I've been abstaining from pizza; we've been making our own, though, out of Boboli crusts, low-fat cheese, low-fat pepperoni and more vegetables than I used to eat on a pizza.) That's it. Just a pizza.

That was until some titanic wanker over on MeFi started this thread.

Later on, it's off to the store to see what the local Syracuse chips are like....

Friday, January 24, 2003

Ignore this; it's a test. Blogger is acting, well, weird.

Rachel Lucas is now my favorite conservative. This post of hers is why.

Just a quick observation: In a country that has produced political rhetoric on the level of Thomas Paine's Common Sense, The Federalist Papers, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, the "Cross of Gold" speech, the Fireside Chats and JFK's inaugural, what does it mean that today's rhetoric includes words like "Shrub", "Slick Willie" and "Idiotarian"?

A day of pseudo-mourning: rejection slips for my three stories that were at market all came in this week. Ugh.

In a sort-of related note, I watched the premiere of American Idol the other night. I doubt I'll watch much more of the series, since they seem to have winnowed things down to the people who have at least some talent, and judging by what little I saw of the show's original incarnation last season, they are concentrating on that "Top 40" style of pop-music that is not remotely my cup o' tea. However, as I watched all of these unbelievably horrible singers step up, give it their all, and then act utterly stunned when they didn't make it (and, in some cases, getting indignant about it), I was thinking: I am watching the pop-singer equivalent of the slushpile.

Every fiction magazine gets an immense amount of submissions each month, numbering in the hundreds. Since each market only prints a small handful of stories each month -- seven or eight, at most, for the larger fiction markets and fewer than that for magazines that only publish fiction intermittently or as just one feature among others -- the vast majority get rejected. From what I'm told, in most cases, the vast majority even, the decision not to publish is a no-brainer. We're talking ineptly written stories with ghastly prose, cardboard characters and clicheed situations. In cases like these, the editors or editorial assitants or first-readers going through the slushpile need only read perhaps a single page of the story before they can safely toss it aside. That's what we saw, primarily, on the first episode of American Idol: the horrible "singers" who either had no voice, no ear, no performing presence, or (in the worst of cases) none of the three. These are the people who would be cut off after singing for about thirty seconds, receive a tongue-lashing from Simon Cowell, and be sent on their way.

In fiction writing, though, there is no Simon Cowell, really. There's really never a moment when an editor sends a rejection slip reading, "God, man, you are horrible. Please channel your efforts into burger-flipping, gravedigging, or political action; but for the love of All Things Good and Pure, do NOT pick up the pen again." All there is for us would-be writers is, "This doesn't meet our needs. Good luck in the future. Thank you." Of course, Simon Cowell simply saying "I'm sorry, but we can't take you this time. Next!" would not make for particularly compelling television; but I wonder a little if maybe he's not doing these people a favor, because some of them really, truly, are awful.

That's what made another phenomenon so surreal. Since we would-be writers don't know if we're any good, really, until we actually make a sale, all we can do is file our bland rejections (or throw 'em out) and keep on writing. But these people on American Idol, the ones who really are terrible, walk away from their public, brutal, and nationally-televised rejection still convinced that they are talented and that they will make it sometime. They are operating on precisely the same assumption that keeps us would-be writers going, even though they have far less reason to do so.

I'm generally confident in my writing, but occasionally -- once in a great while -- I will wonder: if there were a Simon Cowell of the fiction-world, would he look at my writing and say something like, "If this were 2000 years ago, they would have stoned you" or "If you were to win here, you would be the end of the American publishing industry". I prefer to think that I'm one of the people who clear the first round, and thus far I've just not been able to get farther in the competition. I like to think that, and I have to think that. Even when three rejections come in the same #$^%&@!! week.

It's positively balmy in Syracuse today: highs in the lower 20s. Zowee! It's enough to make the more heavily-traveled streets and roadways wear down to actual pavement, instead of the semi-permanent ice that's covered every byway for the last week or so. The problem, though, is going to come when it finally warms up sufficiently for some actual thawing (next week, perhaps). The snow-pack on the ground is now sufficiently deep that there will likely be some flooding when the thaw hits. (This was an annual concern in Buffalo, as well.)

Oh, and speaking of Buffalo, I was forwarded a news item by a friend of mine (Aaron, who is one of two people I know who really should have a blog of his own) about a new scheme that Buffalo is considering to raise some money. You know how credit-card statements and such will come with some advertising material stuffed into the envelope along with the actual bill? The City of Buffalo is considering doing this with its own mailings. I guess this can't hurt, aside from increasing the amount of junk mail in Buffalo citizen's garbage cans and recycle-bins, but still: I'd love to grab some of these guys by their suit-jacket lapels, shake them a bit, and scream, "What are you doing to increase the city's tax base, you twits?!" (Actually, they are considering selling a city-owned set of high-rise apartment buildings to a private company, which would result in some welcome tax money for the city. Of course, who knows if this will be an actual help or merely a drop in the bucket, expecially to offset the tax hit the city is likely to take when they turn over control of some downtown real estate to the Seneca Nation of Indians, for their damned casino. Arrggghhh.)

When I was a more active Usenet participant, I noticed a curious phenomenon beginning roughly two years or so ago: whenever the subject of gun control would come up, in just about any newsgroup, some anti-gun control person would post a message that simply read, "Just read John Lott's book", as if the mere citation of this book were sufficient to quash all debate. Somehow More Guns, Less Crime had become an authoritative source on the level of, say, A Critique of Pure Reason or Copernicus or some similar canonical tome. So, it's interesting to watch as doubt upon doubt about Lott's methodology and post-publication conduct get piled on in recent weeks. CalPundit has been tracking this pretty well.

Thursday, January 23, 2003

IMAGES OF THE WEEK

Some weeks I have to look around a lot, and think about what interests me, in order to find my Image of the Week; other weeks, though, the choice is obvious. This is a case of the latter, as I pay tribute to two of the finest illustrators of the twentieth century.





Caracaturist Al Hirschfeld, whose work I have admired for years, died this week. He was very prolific, and I doubt very much that there is an American who is completely unfamiliar with his work. I always loved his use of curves and intricate lines, and his willingness to employ white space, as he does here in this drawing of Adolph Ochs, publisher of The New York Times. Of course, the most famous aspect of his work is his concealment in each drawing of his daughter's name ("Nina"), and I confess that I never encountered a Hirschfeld drawing that I did not scrutinize for the "Nina"'s. He was a wonderful artist whose work epitomizes the urbane wit that I associate with Broadway and New York.





"I guess it's okay. The replacement center says he comes from a long line of infantrymen."


Then there's Bill Mauldin, who died yesterday.

I've been meaning to read Mauldin's book, Up Front, for several years now; I'll probably bump it up into the On-Deck circle pretty soon. It's kind of sad that so often I end up exploring the work of these amazing people once their death puts them in the front of my consciousness. Mauldin's illustrative work, most famously his single-paneled cartoons depicting the wartime trials and tribulations of "dogface" GIs Willie and Joe, are masterful vignettes that capture the grittiness of life for the front-line soldiers, the concerns they have, and the particular world-view they end up taking when immediate, violent death is an omnipresent possibility. Mauldin's career didn't end with the conclusion of the war, though; in fact, he went on to doing political cartoons, eventually winning a Pulitzer in 1959. (It was his second Pulitzer; his first came for Up Front.)

Mauldin's work is not anti-war, but neither is it pro-war; instead, it's an unflinching appraisal of the human side of fighting in war.

Ken Follett isn't one of my favorite authors, but he's a guy whose work I will occasionally pick up, as his books -- thrillers, mostly -- are invariably competently written, with quick-moving plots and decent characters. Generally his works are set amidst the backdrop of historical events, and are much of the time inspired by little-known facets of the histories.

Such is the case with Jackdaws, a thriller set in World War II that involves a team of female saboteurs whose mission is to destroy a secret German telephone exchange in France, thus bollixing Nazi communications as the Allied invasion, rumored but still secret, takes place. Meanwhile, a ruthless Nazi agent who is bent on destroying the French resistance catches wind of something going on, and thus the book alternates between the progress of the all-female team and that of the Nazi agent. It's a fairly tightly-written book, and I enjoyed it as such. I did have a few complaints: a lot of the "female team" chapters are devoted to the team's formation, so there isn't as much action-in-the-field as I would like, and thus the level of actual intrigue in the book is less than I would hope. The main character is a woman named Felicity, which is a fine name; unfortunately, she goes by the nickname "Flick", which is the name Follett uses almost exclusively in referring to her. "Flick" just isn't a name that helps cast the spell of a superior intelligence operative. (Imagine if Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca had been named "Clarence", instead of "Rick". "Everybody comes to Clarence's" just doesn't do it.) And finally, I would have liked to have seen more about the French resistance itself.

The strongest parts of the book, strangely, are the ones focusing on the German agent; he's the most developed character and the most interesting -- which is disturbing, given his skill at torture. He comes up with some means of torture that are fascinating for their psychological impact. It's not all about bamboo-shoots under the fingernails; he comes up with one way to torture a sweet little old lady that is devilish and monstrous, and it involves never laying a finger upon her.

Jackdaws isn't the best Ken Follett novel I've read, but it's pretty good.

I'm not a superstitious person, who thinks that things happen in threes or that one should be wary of patterns that are emergent in certain events.

However, if I were William Goldman I would be a tad nervous right now. Goldman is a prolific screenwriter whose most notable work is the script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Thing is, in the past month the Butch Cassidy director (George Roy Hill), executive producer (Paul Monash) and cinematographer (Conrad Hall) have all died.

As these were behind-the-scenes folks, I think that Paul Newman and Robert Redford can sleep easy. Maybe.

Monday, January 20, 2003

So, we're down to this: the Oakland Raiders versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Observations galore:

:: I know that the Buccaneers have been one of the league's better teams over the last three or four years, but my football-fan "coming of age" was during an era when it was the Bucs who were the standard-bearers for hapless football franchises (much like the Bengals or Cardinals of today); when the proper response to someone saying "I'm a Bucs fan" was "BWAAHAAHAHAHA!!"; when if at the end of the season a Bucs fan said, "Man, we had a great year this year!" you knew that the Bucs had gone 7-9. So, it just feels...weird to me that the Bucs are NFC Champions. Oh well; at least they're not wearing orange pants anymore.

:: A hearty "Well done!" to Team Geritol, the Oakland Raiders, for their AFC Championship. They managed to shrug off the AFC's home-field curse to become the first AFC top seed to get to the Super Bowl since the 1998 Broncos, and only the third since the 1993 Bills.

:: Odd symmetry: both starting quarterbacks in Super Bowl XXXVII are former Vikings.

:: My original Super Bowl prediction, cast in cyber-stone back in August, became officially false yesterday when the Eagles lost. I predicted Steelers-Eagles; I got Raiders-Buccaneers. Oh well. At least both of my picks won their divisions, with one exiting the playoffs in the second round and the other in the NFC title game.

:: I started watching the NFC game in the second quarter, when the Eagles were down 17-10. I was shocked, almost from the time I started watching, at the lack of spark they showed. The Buccaneers yesterday looked like a team that wanted to win and get to the Super Bowl; the Eagles just looked like they didn't want to lose. That, plus their rigid adherence to an overly-conservative game plan, is what I think doomed them.

:: As for the AFC game, the outcome wasn't really surprising. Tennessee's plan was "Keep it close and win in the fourth quarter", but as the game wound on I could see that the Titans simply didn't have enough gas in the tank to win it in the fourth. Even with the bye week in Round One of the playoffs, the Titans were just too banged up, too hurt, too riddled with injuries to win an AFC title game on the road with a game plan that called for a war of attrition. Hence, exeunt the Titans. (I'll say this for the Titans: they are a gritty bunch, and Jeff Fisher is, in my opinion, curiously underrated as a head coach.)

:: OK. If grown men can show up at a Raiders game dressed as extras for an Alice Cooper concert, and that's perfectly normal, then no one gets to laugh at me when I wear my Phantom Menace t-shirt in public. Got it?

My thoughts on the Super Bowl, specifically:

:: History doesn't seem to favor the Buccaneers, since teams making their first appearance in the Super Bowl have traditionally tended to lose. But, on the flip side, the last team to make its first Super appearance -- the 2000 Ravens -- won their game, and they happened to ride the same basic modus operandi to their championship: the league's stingiest and most physical defense, coupled with as unspectacular an offense as you'll find. (Those Ravens, you'll recall, had a stretch of something like four games during the 2000 regular season in which they failed to score a single touchdown; but that didn't matter, since they had a defense that set an NFL record for fewest points allowed.) Recent Super Bowl history offers another reason to favor the Bucs: four of the last five Super Bowl champions (1997 Broncos, 1999 Rams, 2000 Ravens, 2001 Patriots) were teams that, to that point in their franchise history, had never won a Super Bowl before.

:: I've been thinking about NFL parity a bit lately, and I have some thoughts on that which will wait for another essay, but I want to note that one effect of parity has been that the Super Bowl -- once a traditionally lousy game more notable for the commercials -- has become a better sporting event since free agency began and whittled away the last of the old dynasties. Up to Super Bowl XXIX, the average margin of victory was 16.9 points (and, if you take out Super Bowl XXV, in which the Bills lost to the Giants by a single point, that number goes up to 17.4). Since then, the average margin has been 11.4 points. The only real blow-out since then was Super Bowl XXXV, when the Ravens pummeled the Giants 34-7. Two of the last three Super Bowls were decided on the final play (last year's field goal that made the Patriots the champs of SB XXXVI, and the Rams' goal-line tackle that kept the Titans from tying SB XXXIV), and a third was decided in the final two minutes (the Broncos' stop of the Packers as they were driving to tie the game in SB XXXII). Finally, the most competitive Super Bowls have historically been the ones where there was only one week between the Conference Championships and the big game. That's the case here.

:: We'll probably hear a lot about the league's Number One Offense (the Raiders) matching up against the Number One Defense (the Bucs), but I think the reverse may be the key matchup. I think the Bucs defense can contain the Raiders, so if their offense can score -- say, twenty points -- the Bucs should win.

:: And at last, prediction time. The old adage is "Defense wins championships", and the Buccaneers have the defense. I expect a surprisingly low-scoring game, decided by less than ten points -- and I expect that, when the clock ticks to zero in the fourth quarter, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Unless, of course, the NFL comes to its senses and lets the Steelers and Eagles play the game.

Ten years ago today, William Jefferson Clinton became President of the United States. Heavens, has it been that long?

People who make fun of Buffalo for that city's amount of snowfall need to spend a few winter weeks in Syracuse. Yipes. (And it's even worse thirty or so miles north of here.)

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Profanity aside, this reminder of what things were like when we were young is pretty funny. (By 'we', I'm talking about people who grew up in the early 1980s.)

There was a fascinating segment yesterday on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday about the "Millennium Problems", the most important or most notorious unsolved problems in mathematics. I'd step up and try to solve these -- the million-dollar prize for each solution is tempting -- but I'm afraid I would be undone by those three words that struck terror (and still do) in the hearts of millions of math students: Show All Work.

Also via NPR: One of my favorite bits of Shakespeare is in King Richard II, Act II, Scene 1, where John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, gives a speech about England that includes the lines:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars...
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England...


After reading this, I wonder whether the Bard, if writing these lines today, would have to include a phrase like "This land of trousers".

I’m pretty sure Stephen King is skeptical about the war, for example. I know his politics. But he hasn’t made the leap so common to others in the scribbling, warbling and gesturing arts - he doesn’t think we’re all dying to hear his prescriptions for Middle East foreign policy. Oh, interview him on the matter and he might pop off, but I can’t imagine him sitting down, firing up a Winston Light, and telling himself that this 1200 word essay will change the world, because people will think: hey, it’s Stephen KING talking! He wrote “The Stand,” and his fictional account of the repercussions of biological weapons programs gives him a unique perspective. Let’s lend an ear!


That's James Lileks, in an introductory paragraph to his response to an antiwar article written by novelist John LeCarre. I confessed last week that I'm no longer a regular reader of Lileks, because quite frankly I had my fill long ago of "Bomb Iraq; bomb Iraq; dumb liberals; Isn't Gnat cute; bomb Iraq; I took Gnat to the mall; dumb liberals". But this quote is not only dull and predictable, it's actively stupid.

First, it's predictable because no prominent left-leaning person in the arts can open his or her mouth these days to voice a left-leaning opinion on any issue without being met by a chorus of right-leaning persons yelling for him or her to shut up and just keep making movies or writing books or whatever and leave the Important Political Stuff to the grownups who know all about such things, as if a person's occupation has any a priori bearing on the quality of any commentary they might provide. It's always, "Shut up, Barbra Streisand! Shut up, Ed Asner! Shut up, Sean Penn! Shut up, John Le Carre! Shut up, Martin Scorsese! You're actors and writers, not pundits, so shut up and just do what you're supposed to do!" The obvious rejoinder, I think, is that these people are Americans (well, not Le Carre, but he's being tarred with the same brush) and thus they have the same rights of free speech as anyone else, and thus the same right to push for their causes as anyone else. The right-wing meme, that famous people should be quiet, is pretty weird -- ironic, even, considering the previous occupation of the right's patron saint, Ronald Reagan. So, I think that if the right is going to hand an open mike to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Selleck and Ted Nugent, they should stop complaining when the Streisands and Asners and Scorseses of the world do their own thing on their own respective "open mike nights".

But further, in the specific case of Lileks whining about John Le Carre, I wonder if Lileks knows the first thing about Le Carre. We're talking about a writer who, before he became a novelist, worked in the British foreign service; and we're talking about a writer whose novels deal with geopolitical realities. Now, are there any novelists who are taken seriously by the right in this country, by virtue of their subject matter and expertise on such things? Tom Clancy, perhaps? I don't agree with all of what Le Carre says; I'm pretty much on the side of invading Iraq, for instance. But quite frankly, on matters of international perspective and foreign relations, I have to say: Yes, James. I'm going to listen to what John Le Carre has to say about these things, based on his experience and his fictional accounts thereof. In any case, he's got a lot more by way of credentials in that regard than a pseudo-humorist from Minneapolis.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

After a layoff of a couple of weeks, I'm back to selling books on Ebay. The current batch is at left, under "Marketplace", so have a look.

They shall bidssss, oh yessss, nassssty Hobbitssesss....

Sometimes I think that the real reason I read Steven Den Beste is because, by reading him, I spare myself the annoyance of getting my updates on military hardware via Tom Clancy novels.

Steven also has been lately given President Bush and his administration a lot of credit for manipulating the administration's opponents. While Bush has certainly managed to make something of a cottage industry of being underestimated, I'm not prepared to elevate his political strategizing to the level of genius that SDB assumes -- especially given the gutless, "Thank you sir, may I have another!" nature of the Democratic party these days. Beating the Detroit Lions on a regular basis doesn't make one the 1985 Chicago Bears.

Occasionally I will re-watch a generally highly-regarded movie that I personally didn't like, in an attempt to see what it is that I'm missing. More often than not I end up not changing my mind. Dead Poets Society is a prime example.

I was in my freshman year of college when DPS opened, and it made a pretty big impression then; as I recall, the on-campus screening of the film was packed. It's pretty easy to understand why; the John Keating character (Robin Williams) is everything that most students would want in a teacher -- funny, challenging but not in a boring way, wise without being condescending, unorthodox, et cetera. He's one of those teachers who has the uncanny ability to connect with just about every student in his class, but his methods of connection and liberal views end up getting him fired. It's not a terribly new story; there was an episode of The Wonder Years that followed the same track, albeit without a suicide.

So I just watched DPS again, and I still report the same reaction: the film's message is not presented fairly, the characters are all cyphers, the stirring ending is not stirring.

First, the message. The film is basically a paean to the sentiment Carpe diem!, and it shows us a group of prep-school boys who each, in their own way, come to an opportunity to "seize the day". This is Mr. Keating's apparent real goal in his teaching, because although he is ostensibly a poetry teacher he is shown teaching relatively little poetry. A film about poets, with the word "poets" in its very title, should be loaded with poetry and thoughts thereof, but in DPS there is almost no emphasis on poetry as art, as opposed to poetry as a source of inspirational slogans. Just about every poem quoted in the film is only quoted in part, and even then the parts quoted are selected to embellish Mr. Keating's preachings of non-conformity. Predictably, one of these poems is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken", even though it is not at all clear that this poem actually celebrates non-conformity the way so many people immediately assume it does. (More on that here.) Further, many of Mr. Keating's school lessons are so bizarre that they seem to have little, if anything, to do with poetry at all. What is the point of the scene where the boys line up, shout a line of poetry and then kick a ball? or the scene where they are marching about in the school courtyard? I guess these "lessons" are intriguing in themselves, but I kept wondering: if Mr. Keating is such a teacher of poetry, then why is it these kids never seem to develop a fascination with poetry? That's what a good teacher does: he or she makes the student interested in something that they had never been interested in before, or at least he teaches them something about it that they never forget.

The best teacher I had in high school was my geometry teacher, even though she was a very prickly soul and few people would ever describe her as pleasant. (Imagine the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld reincarnated as a high-school geometry teacher, and you've got her.) Why do I consider her the best teacher, then? Because I still remember things from her class, to this day. I remember something about geometry, and I still tend to think along the lines of the proofs she required us to do, over and over again.

Mr. Keating's students, though, never come to love poetry or develop an attachment to it, a need for it. They only come to love him. Watching DPS, I never get the feeling that these boys are learning anything.

Second, the characters. You name the stereotype from a movie set in academia, and it's represented here. There's the nerd who is constantly worrying if every utterance by the teacher will end up on a test; there's the kid whose dreams are being trampled by the overbearing father; there's the youngster who is terrified to open his mouth; there's the rebel-wannabe; there's the strict headmaster; et cetera. We are shown a school dominated by a faculty of white-haired old men, and a single brown-haired young teacher.

But worse, the characters don't even really stay in character if the script does not call for them to do so. Mr. Keating counsels young Neil Perry to talk to his father about his passion for acting, but we are shown time and again that Mr. Perry has no regard at all for young Neil's feelings. So, in a scene toward the end when Neil finally, desperately shouts, "Let me tell you what I feel", the last thing that should come out of Mr. Perry's mouth is "Okay, tell me what you feel." But this is precisely what he says, and not only is this completely out of character, but it dooms the entire story-arc concerning Neil Perry. Given his opportunity to speak his mind, Neil clams up and says nothing; his next act is to get his father's gun and kill himself. Neil's suicide, then, shifts from being about Neil's dreams being hopelessly stifled to being about Neil's cowardice. In the end, Neil turns out to be the real coward of the film. Perhaps this was intentional, but I don't think so -- nothing in the film is subtle, so I have a hard time accepting subtlety here in the film's seminal event. I think we're really supposed to feel sorry for Neil and his plight, but as he sits alone in the study after his father leaves the room, I'm thinking, "You gutless twerp."

Finally, the falsity of the ending is as stupefying to me as ever. We're clearly supposed to know that Mr. Keating is being unfairly railroaded, but an air of cluelessness surrounds him, so as the film's last twenty minutes or so play out I can't help but wonder how he hasn't seen any of this coming. We get the obligatory scene where one of the boys sings to the administration like a stuck pig -- a handy, convenient villain in a story that in the hands of better writers would have had no real villains -- and then the horrid last scene, where Mr. Keating's former students salute him after his firing by standing on their desks and calling him "O Captain! my Captain!" for the last time -- in front of the headmaster, to boot. Rebellion wins out, and in some small way the boys do the right thing in the end, and we're allowed to believe that Mr. Keating has made a difference, or something like that.

But the problem here is, the boys do their desktop climb after they've all signed the letter that gets Mr. Keating fired. When presented with the administration's whitewashed version of events, they say "Yep, that's how it happened, we're sorry, sir"...and only when everyone is safe do they climb atop their desks. Well, I can't buy that. What the boys are really saying here is, "Gee, Mr. Keating, we had a chance to do the right thing but we didn't do that, so here's a nifty consolation prize." If they had to end the movie with the boys standing on desks, then it should have been done this way: The boys are brought to the classroom, where the headmaster waits with the boys' parents, Mr. Keating, and the Trustees or whomever. There the boys are confronted with Mr. Keating on the one hand, and their families and everyone else on the other; and there they are each given a copy of the letter containing the administration's version of events and a pen. They're all told to sign it, and Mr. Keating is already packed because he's about to be fired. Then Ethan Hawke can climb atop his desk and tearfully say "O Captain! my Captain!", followed by the other boys. Sure, they'd all be expelled; sure, Mr. Keating would still be fired on some half-assed pretense; but the boys will have done the right thing. They'll have struck a genuine blow for Integrity and Truth and Justice and the American Way, instead of the pretty much useless gesture they strike otherwise. The way the film ends as is, only one of the boys actually stands up for his principles; only one of the boys is given the chance to save his own neck and decides not to do so. That's Charlie ("Nuwanda"), who gives the turncoat boy a bloody nose and gets expelled for his troubles.

Basically, Dead Poets Society is a very watchable movie -- wonderful photography and acting, nice music -- but it's also a very false one. These themes were explored to much truer effect in The Man Without a Face, a film of complex relationships in which there are no easy villains and no false gestures. If you want to see a film about the complexity of the relationship between a good teacher and a good student, watch that film and leave Dead Poets Society on the rental shelf.

Friday, January 17, 2003

Writer Cory Doctorow, one of SF's leading up-and-comers, has just come out with his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Doctorow has made the novel available for free download, in addition to the "dead tree edition" available at your local Borders. (Link is to the download site.)

Naturally, there are questions in the second act that will have to be answered in the third act. I guess it depends on what you go to a movie for. I figure there was at least $11 worth of entertainment in Empire. So, if you paid four bucks and didn't get an ending, you're still seven bucks ahead of the game.


That's Harrison Ford, speaking way back in 1982 during filming of Return of the Jedi. Naturally, I'm bringing this up because I saw Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers two nights ago.

Much has been made of the "Middle Installment" problem where trilogies are concerned: the fact that the middle segment of the story poses special difficulties, specifically that it can have neither a proper beginning nor a proper ending, and thus makes an unsatisfying stand-alone experience. The problem I have with this "problem" is that in the best trilogies I have encountered -- Star Wars, Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry, Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever -- the "problem" doesn't occur; and if the problem does occur, as it does in the LOTR novels by Tolkien, to note the existence of the problem is to confuse the nature of the work in the first place. The Lord of the Rings, in book form, is not a "trilogy" at all, in the sense of being a story told in three distinct segments. It is a singular story, divided into three parts more for convenience than for narrative reasons.

So, does the "trilogy problem" exist in the film version of The Two Towers? Many critics have complained that it has, but I have to report that as far as I am concerned, it does not. Certainly, the story is left wide open with many things unresolved; but there are still arcs within the film that are completed to some level of satisfaction: the fate of the people of Rohan in their war against Isengard, the fates of Merry and Pippin, the fall of Frodo and Sam into the hands of Faramir. Reading a lot of the reviews, I was left with the distinct impression that The Two Towers simply began, and equally simply it reached a cliffhanger and allowed the credits to roll, but that wasn't the case. Of course, maybe it's that I know the books well and thus I know what is to come, and thus I am not particularly vexed by the cliffhangers. I walked out of the theater perfectly satisfied that I had seen a good film, partly in and of itself but also partly because of the deepening and extension of the story which began a year ago. (It should be noted that this is part-and-parcel of trilogies that tell a single, larger story, as opposed to trilogies like the Indiana Jones movies which are only trilogies in the sense of there being three of them.)

Some other observations on the film follow.

:: My biggest complaint about Fellowship of the Ring was addressed in The Two Towers: the sense of journey and of location. All the traveling that went on in FOTR was not grounded very well, because the film didn't convey a sense of Middle Earth's geography. One of the pleasures of reading the books is constantly referring to the maps to track the progress of the characters; I have even found that the novel FOTR takes on a sense of impending doom as the Company gets ever closer to Mordor. But, in TTT, there were several shots of maps. There weren't quite enough, but it was still nice to see.

:: Gollum was amazing, the best CGI character I've ever seen. (Full disclosure: I am one of nine persons in the Sagittarius Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy who felt that Jar Jar Binks was actually a good character.) It wasn't just that his movements and interactions with Frodo and Sam were lifelike; it was that his CGI features actually conveyed emotion. I could sense the conflict racking this character, the tiny flicker of good within him that is nevertheless completely dominated by the part of him twisted by the Ring. It was absolutely crucial that the film nail this, because we have to know what awaits Frodo if he fails in his mission. And nail it they did. (Andy Serkis's voice work as Gollum was superb, but since his body-movements formed much of the basis for the animations of Gollum, I think he should be Oscar-eligible. Of course, he won't be, because the Academy is a collection of stodgy farts who would rather reward a dull, paint-by-numbers effort like A Beautiful Mind than recognize a film that is likely to stand as a milestone in cinematic history like FOTR....)

:: I envisioned Edoras being a bit bigger.

:: Some people have complained about the degree to which Gimli provided comic relief in the film, but it didn't bother me much.

:: I liked actually seeing Merry and Pippin going to war with the Ents, and Pippin's clever (!) bit of inducement. In the book, we saw very little of this; instead, Theoden and friends arrive at Isengard to find the whole place overrun and Merry and Pippin lounging on the front step, smoking and whiling away the time. This worked better.

:: Sorry, Sean: now that I've seen TTT, I am firmly in Liv Tyler's camp. Not only do I like her as Arwen, I endorse her. So there. Release the hounds!

:: The film could have been helped in the transitions department. The cuts from one storyline to another were a bit jarring at times -- particularly one transition from Merry and Pippin to Frodo and Sam. This is one reason why, in the Star Wars movies, George Lucas uses wipes in his transitions.

:: At times I felt as if the film assumes that one has seen the Extended Version of FOTR. I'm pretty sure the camoflage aspects of the Elven cloaks were not established in the theatrical version of the earlier film; ditto the leaf brooches that the members of the Fellowship wore. And how did Frodo know Gollum's original name? Was that also covered in the Extended Version of the first film?

:: If these movies don't bring back long hair and beards in men's fashions, I don't know what will. I'm halfway there, though! (I have the long hair. I used to have a beard, but not currently.)

:: Another complaint of mine about FOTR -- the fact that the earlier film didn't really establish, for me, Tolkien's idea of the Ending of the Third Age -- was also dealt with beautifully. I found the entire "Status of the Elves" passage in the middle of the film utterly mesmerizing.

:: I loved the way Jackson set up the Battle of Helm's Deep, so that it was able to just keep getting worse and worse and worse, although toward the end of it I was thinking like the poor fellow in Monty Python's Life of Brian who has been condemned to death for saying "Jehovah", and is warned before his stoning not to make things worse for himself: "Worse? How could it get any bloody worse? Jehovah! Jehovahjehovahjehovah!!!" In short, Jackson really pushed my suspension of disbelief to the absolute edge here. First, they retreat to the wall, then they retreat to the keep, then they retreat inside the keep, then they retreat inside the King's hall, and so on. I was this close to uttering the Magical Words of Disbelief Death ("Aww, come on!") when Gandalf showed up with Eomer. Of course, at that moment I nearly cheered, and I might have if I'd been seeing this film on opening day in a packed theater. (Resolution: See The Return of the King on opening night.)

:: Howard Shore's score is wonderful. I'll probably generate a longer commentary than that sometime, but for now I'll note that I loved the way he turned his ethereal, Middle-Eastern flavored theme for Lothlorien into a battle march for the Elves. The sound mix, though, didn't help matters as the music was often too loud and overwhelmed some of the dialogue.

I guess that's it for now. I found The Two Towers remarkable. Bring on December!

Kevin Drum reports today on NASA's desire to start developing a nuclear-powered drive for space travel, presumably for a future manned mission to Mars. (He got his information from a Los Angeles Times article, to which registration is required for reading. I'm not registered and I blanched at providing the LA Times all the information that they say they needed for their registration, so I didn't bother and thus was not able to read the article in question.)

I'm really of mixed mind on this. It's always been my conviction that, if we don't kill everyone somehow, five or six hundred years from now this era that we're in right now will be seen as the time when the true Space Age began, when humanity first started on the road to leaving its home planet. It's always been my conviction that space travel and eventual colonization are absolutely essential to the long-term survival of our species; and thus, we should absolutely be devoting a substantial amount of our resources to establishing a permanent human presence in space, and then on the Moon, and so forth.

But on the other hand, I'm not sure if we've gone about it in anything resembling the right way. The International Space Station, currently under construction, is a low-orbit item that probably won't serve as any kind of long-term outpost; we've ignored the Moon entirely ever since we accomplished our real goal of beating the Russians there; so on and so forth. If we are to begin working on a manned mission to Mars, then I think such a mission needs to be performed not with the goal of "going because it is there", but rather, "going because we know we're going to have people living there". In short, I'd like to see NASA and our space industries shift from the going as their primary justifications, toward colonization.

So, if we're still interested in Mars (and we'd better be), for now our focus should be on robotic missions there. Instead of developing new propulsion systems for interplanetary travel, let's work on colonizing the Moon. Let's actually develop the "spaceplane", and start moving beyond the Shuttle -- whose core technology is approaching thirty years of age. I sometimes get the feeling, and this is one of those times, that NASA is trying to follow up the space-age equivalent of the Wright Brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk with the development of the SST.

Thursday, January 16, 2003

IMAGE OF THE WEEK





"Hansel and Gretel", by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957).

:: Although Kay Nielsen's work was underappreciated during his lifetime, so much so that he died in poverty, he has recently been "discovered" as one of the 20th century's great illustrators. His greatest claim-to-fame was in the conceptual artwork he did for the "Night On Bald Mountain" sequence in Walt Disney's film Fantasia. The image links to a good biographical precis of Nielsen's life and work; this site contains a very large repository of Nielsen's work.

The Seafarer: A poem in Anglo-Saxon.

MÆG ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan
siþas secgan hu ic geswincdagum
earfoðwile oft þrowade
bitre breostceare gebidan hæbbe
gecunnad in ceole cearselda fela
atol yþa gewealc

þær mec oft bigeat
nearo nihtwaco æt nacan stefnan
þonne he be clifan cnossað

calde geþrungen
wæron fet mine forste gebunden
caldum clommum þær þa ceare seofedun
hate ymb heortan hungor innan slat
merewerges mod

þæt se mon ne wat
þe him on foldan fægrost limpeð
hu ic earmcearig iscealdne sæ
winter wunade wræccan lastum
winemægum bidroren

bihongen hrimgicelum hægl scurum fleag
þær ic ne gehyrde butan hlimman sæ
iscaldne wæg hwilum ylfete song
dyde ic me to gomene ganetes hleoþor
ond huilpan sweg fore hleahtor wera
mæw singende fore medodrince
stormas þær stanclifu beotan þær him stearn oncwæð
isigfeþera ful oft þæt earn bigeal
urigfeþra

nænig hleomæga
feasceaftig ferð frefran meahte

forþon him gelyfeð lyt se þe ah lifes wyn
gebiden in burgum bealosiþa hwon
wlonc and wingal hu ic werig oft
in brimlade bidan sceolde

nap nihtscua norþan sniwde
hrim hrusan bond hægl feol on eorþan
corna caldast

forþon cnyssað nu
heortan geþohtas þæt ic hean streamas
sealtyþa gelac sylf cunnige
monað modes lust mæla gehwylce
ferð to feran þæt ic feor heonan
elþeodigra eard gesece

forþon nis þæs modwlonc mon over eorþan
ne his gifena þæs god ne in geoguþe to þæs hwæt
ne in his dædum to þæs deor ne him his dryhten to þæs hold
þæt he a his sæfore sorge næbbe
to hwon hine dryhten gedon wille

ne biþ him to hearpan hyge ne to hringþege
ne to wife wyn ne to worulde hyht
ne ymbe owiht elles nefne ymb yða gewealc
ac a hafað longunge se þe on lagu fundað

bearwas blostmum nimað byrig fægriað
wongas wlitigað woruld onetteð
ealle þa gemoniað modes fusne
sefan to siþe þam þe swa þenceð
on flodwegas feor gewitan

swylce geac monað geomran reorde
singeð sumeres weard sorge beodeð
bitter in breosthord

þæt se beorn ne wat
sefteadig secg hwaet þa sume dreogað
þe þa wræclastas widost lecgað

forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð ofer hreþerlocan
min modsefa mid mereflode
ofer hwæles eþel hweorfeð wide
eorþan sceatas cymeð eft to me
gifre and grædig

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Gielleð anfloga
hweteð on wæl weg hreþer unwearnum
ofer holma gelagu

forþon me hatran sind
dryhtnes dreamas þonne þis deade lif
læne on londe ic gelyfe no
þæt him eorðwelan ece stondað

simle þreora sum þinga gehwylce
ær his tiddæge to tweon weorþeð
adl oþþe yldo oþþe ecghete
fægum fromweardum feorh oðþringeð

forþon þæt is eorla gewham æftercweþendra
lof lifgendra lastworda betst
þæt he gewyrce ær he on weg scyle
fremman on foldan wið feonda niþ
deorum dædum deofle togeanes
þæt hine ælda bearn æfter hergen
ond his lof siþþan lifge mid englum
awa to ealdre ecan lifes blæd
dream mid dugeþum

dagas sind gewitene
ealle onmedlan eorþan rices
nearon nu cyningas ne caseras
ne goldgiefan swylce iu wæron
þonne hi mæst mid him mærþa gefremedon
ond on dryhlicestum dome lifdon

gedroren is þeos duguð eal dreamas sind gewitene
wuniað þa wacran ond þas woruld healdaþ
brucað þurh bisgo blæd is gehnæged
eorþan indryhto ealdað ond searað
swa nu monna gehwylc geond middangeard
yldo him on fareð onsyn blacað
gomelfeax gnornað wat his iuwine
æþelinga bearn eorþan forgiefene

ne mæg him þonne se flæschoma þonne him þæt feorg losað
ne swete forswelgan ne sar gefelan
ne hond onhreran ne mid hyge þencan
þeah þe græf wille golde stregan
broþor his geborenum byrgan be deadum
maþmum mislicum þæt hine mid nille

ne mæg þære sawle þe biþ synna ful
gold to geoce for godes egsan
þonne he hit ær hydeð þenden he her leofað
micel biþ se meotudes egsa forþon hi seo molde oncyrreð
se gestaþelade stiþe grundas
eorþan sceatas ond uprodor

dol biþ se þe him his dryhten ne ondrædeþ
cymeð him se deað unþinged
eadig bið se þe eaþmod leofaþ
cymeð him seo ar of heofonum

meotod him þæt mod gestaþelað forþon he in his meahte gelyfeð

stieran mon sceal strongum mode
ond þæt on staþelum healdan
ond gewis werum wisum clæne
scyle monna gehwylc mid gemete healdan
wiþ leofne ond wið laþne bealo
þeah þe he hine wille fyres fulne
oþþe on bæle forbærnedne
his geworhtne wine wyrd biþ swiþre
meotud meahtigra þonne ænges monnes gehygd

uton we hycgan hwær we ham agen
ond þonne geþencan hu we þider cumen
ond we þonne eac tilien þæt we to moten
in þa ecan eadignesse
þær is lif gelong in lufan dryhtnes
hyht in heofonum

þæs sy þam halgan þonc
þæt he usic geweorþade wuldres ealdor
ece dryhten in ealle tid

Amen

:: This endlessly fascinating poem, which I think I understand less each time I read it, has been translated many times by many authors and scholars. A selection of translations, some in verse and some in prose, can be found here, with a hypertext edition of the poem, along with a Canadian scholar's Masters thesis on the poem, here.

(Crossposted to Collaboratory.)



Wednesday, January 15, 2003

I found a couple of interesting word-quizzes yesterday. The first one is about political word origins and is pretty straight-forward. We do have some pretty strange words in our political discourse. I got seven right out of ten.

The second quiz is a fairly devilish word-association thing. Pairs of words are given, and it is your task to decide if they mean roughly the same or the opposite. My score was 151. There were a lot of words here that I had never seen before, so I'm thinking that around twenty or so of my right answers are the product of sheer guesswork. I'm also of the opinion, though, that while I might not be able to always give a meaning of some of the more obscure words here when they're simply placed on the page before me, I can usually glean from context clues what the words mean. Words are meant to be used in sentences, which is why spelling-bee participants will often ask to hear the word as used in a sentence.

Steven Den Beste on the current state of Al-Qaeda:

al Qaeda has let opportunity after opportunity for a major blow against the US go by. Two New Years have passed, with streets of major cities filled with revelers. Not a single suicide bombing. They didn't attack on the 4th of July. They didn't attack on September 11, 2002. They've let several major dates which are significant to Arabs and Muslims pass by. They didn't attack the malls during Christmas season. They haven't managed to pull off a single attack against us in the 12 months since the Tora Bora fight. Do you really think they're holding back?

We've seen lots of threats, and dire warnings, and exhortations to the faithful. We've seen damned little in the way of actual carrying-out. What we're seeing looks immensely like one or two guys with Internet access trying to make al Qaeda look threatening to cover up the fact that they are in deep crisis, such among them as are even left free and alive.

For civilians like us, the only reasonable conclusion is that al Qaeda has been deeply crippled, and the reason they have not made any attacks is that they can't. I do not for an instant believe that they have a bazillion sleepers in the US, and preplaced weapons, and all kinds of other stuff like that which they're holding back for some special occasion. If they could hit us, they'd have done so by now.


I found this initially compelling, until I considered something I heard on (of all places) The McLaughlin Group last week. The show's participants were making predictions for the coming year, and one of them (I don't recall which) said that he believes that in 2003 Al-Qaeda will launch its next big attack, because it fits into the Al-Qaeda time-frame of roughly a year-and-a-half between major attacks. Keeping this in mind, I looked at this timeline of Al-Qaeda's history, and I saw that he was right. Al-Qaeda takes its sweet time in planning and executing its attacks; they select their targets very carefully for psychological effect; while they definitely do exult in the killing of civilians, pure body count does not seem to be their primary concern when planning a strike.

SDB tells us that they're probably crippled, since there have been so many great opportunities for strikes that Al-Qaeda has allowed to go by; but with the exception of their averted plots at the millennium, none of Al-Qaeda's attacks have been aimed at big, splashy events when they could kill tens of thousands in a single stroke. (And one could make the case that this was even the case of the busted millennium plot, as the target was not the throngs in Times Square but LAX.) One thought that has kept coming back to me since 9-11-01 is the fact that if they had merely wanted to kill as many Americans as possible with their four highjacked airplanes, the terrorists would have been better advised to strike on Sunday, 9-09-01 -- which was the opening day of the 2001 NFL season. Imagine the carnage if those highjackers had flown their jets into four sold-out football stadiums, each packed with 70,000 people. Hell, imagine if they had struck the World Trade Center later in the day on 9-11-01, when more people would have arrived for work in the buildings.

I think that SDB is operating under the idea that "No news is good news", and there may be an extent to which this is true -- but it's not, I think, to the extent that SDB believes. We've almost certainly disrupted Al-Qaeda, but on the basis of the evidence we've seen (which isn't much, since the effort against Al-Qaeda is, as SDB rightly notes, a shadow war the victories of which are not trumpeted or heralded as much as they might deserve to be) and on the basis of Al-Qaeda's own history, I don't think it's at all reasonable to conclude that we have crippled them.

SDB seems to be committing the classic error of drawing a conclusion that is unwarranted by the facts. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

I've mentioned a couple of times in previous posts -- most recently here -- how the City of Buffalo, in the face of all manner of other pressing budgetary problems some of which ended up in such measures as closing police and fire precincts and shutting schools, nevertheless managed last year to come up with tax incentives amounting to $400,000 a year to keep a single K-Mart location within the city open.

Well, guess what.

I know that $400,000 doesn't buy what it used to, but I'm thinking that surely Buffalo could have come up with something better to do with that money than keep a K-Mart open for an additional year.

Monday, January 13, 2003



Is it just me, or is this motorcycle, introduced by Dodge last week, strikingly reminiscent of the light-cycles from the movie TRON?

The divisional round of the NFL playoffs often provides the best games, but that wasn't the case this week after the dual-comeback barnburners of Wild-Card week. Nevertheless, there was some scintillating action this week, most of it coming from the Pittsburgh-Tennessee game.

:: First off, I didn't watch much of yesterday's games, so I don't have too much to say. I will note that the 49ers shockingly conceded defeat by electing to simply go to the locker room as the clock ticked away the last seconds of the first half, despite the fact that they were in a hole and they had two timeouts left. They might have been able to get into field-goal range, at least, and gone to the half on a positive note. When you're down at the half in any football game (excepting preseason games, only), the last impression you want to give is, "Let's get the f*** out of Dodge." But that's precisely what the 49ers did. Shame on them.

:: Michael Vick is still exciting as hell to watch, and he's only going to get better -- as long as his coaches don't do to him what Randall Cunningham's coaches did to him, way back when, and try to convert him into being a pocket passer. That effort resulted in Cunningham suffering a season-ending injury in the first game of the 1991 season, and Cunningham's career never really fluorished again, except for his remarkable season with the Vikings in 1998. (Oh, and I expect Eagles safety Brian Dawkins to be fined sometime this week for his helmet-skewering of Michael Vick on a play where Vick scored a touchdown. It was exactly the kind of hit the NFL seems to really frown upon these days.)

:: I was surprised at the lackluster performance by the Eagles on offense. Granted, they were playing one of the league's more underrated defenses, but the Buccaneers sport an even tougher defense. They need to step it up next week.

:: Sadly, it became official Saturday night: at least half of my original Super Bowl prediction was wrong. The Steelers have exited the playoffs, and as they head into the offseason they have some unexpected bright spots -- they can freely unload Kordell Stewart now, for example -- but they also have some uncharacteristic holes to fill, all of them on defense. When you create four turnovers and still give up 34 points and lose the game, especially by giving up big plays in OT, then you've got some serious problems on the defensive side of the ball.

As for the ref's call of roughing-the-kicker which gave the Titans another shot at the game-winner (which the kicker, Joe Nedney, had just missed), well: this one can't be blamed on the officials. It was the right call. The "running into the kicker" rule exists for a reason, and Pittsburgh cornerback Dewayne Washington really did run into him. Had the refs not thrown the flag, Titans fans would be justified in wondering why not. (There were other missed calls as well, including some very obvious interference with Titans tight end Frank Wycheck.)

Granting that it was the right call, given the rules, there's still a certain feeling of "Oh, come on!" that sets in when watching the replay of the hit in question. Washington did run into Nedney, 'tis true; but it was such a glancing blow that a visual dictionary could use that play as its definition of the very term "glancing blow". I was hit harder with wiffle balls in high school gym class than Nedney was hit by Washington; and for that matter, I'm getting a bit tired of the exaggerated pratfall that kickers and punters do when they come within inches of contact with another player. Are they actually coached in this? Yes, a placekicker who has just kicked a FG attempt is in a precarious position, standing on one foot with another pointing almost vertical, but these are professional athletes of whom I would expect enough balance and agility to not be vaulted into the air at the slightest hint of contact, with their legs soaring into the space where their head should be and their arms wildly flailing as if conducting the United States Marine Band in a performance of "The Stars And Stripes Forever". Whenever I see a kicker or punter do this little act, I'm invariably reminded of the scene in The Mighty Ducks when Emilio Estevez, having realized that his youth hockey team isn't particularly good, decides to coach them on how to fake injuries ("When he takes a shot, drop your stick and put your hands on your face and scream, Oh my EYE!.") I know why they do it, but I still don't like seeing grown men playing a game like football when they're wearing the modern-equivalent of chainmail armor acting like they're suddenly made of bone china.

One final note: I don't like the Titans ("Homerun Throwback" is just not forgiveable), and now I don't much like their fans, either. This was the game where they bring out all those young kids who won that "Pass, Punt and Kick" thing the NFL does. The fans did their duty and cheered the kids as they were introduced -- except for the last kid, a fourteen-year-old who just happened to be from Pittsburgh. He was booed. Lots of class, that.

(Actually, I find football fans a pretty scary bunch in general...I mean, what's up with these guys dressed up as skeletons attending the Raider games?)