Tuesday, April 29, 2003

The Blofeld-to-my-James-Bond engaged in some introspection the other day. He ranks himself on ten categories:

1. Intelligence.
2. Sense of humor.
3. Passion.
4. Consideration.
5. Honesty.
6. Flexibility.
7. Serenity.
8. Balance.
9. Ambition.
10. Attentiveness.

So, everyone's probably wondering: how do I stack myself up?

1. Intelligence. Hmmm....I guess I'd give myself a 7 here. I think I'm smarter than the average person, but my approach is more "know a little bit about a lot of stuff" as opposed to knowing any one thing particularly deeply. I guess.

2. Sense of humor. I'm not sure how I'd rank myself here. Sometimes I think I'm pretty funny, but other times I wonder if my sense of humor isn't too obscure or abstract. I'll call it a 7, I suppose.

3. Passion. Well, do I rank how I show my passions, or how I feel them? This I ask because I tend to put up a look of imperturbability (is that a word? nah, don't ask), when on the inside I'm all a-flutter. I'm with Carlin here: "I don't have pet peeves, I have major fucking psychotic hatreds." But I don't get on stage and share them, much. Call it a 6.

4. Consideration. Another 7. I think I'm mostly considerate, but occasionally I can be a clod.

5. Honesty. Zero. I'm actually a Republican. (Just kidding. Another 7 -- I think I'm mostly honest, but I'm willing to "color the facts" a bit if I see the need, or a downside to blunt honesty. I think it comes from years in management and sales, two fields where lying is too often the tool of choice.)

6. Flexibility. Again, I'm not sure what's being measured here, but I'll give myself a 10 for going with the flow in two moves in six months.

7. Serenity. In some ways, I'm pretty serene. In other ways, I'm off the walls. So....another 7.

8. Balance. In the past, I'd give myself low marks here -- 4 or 5, at best, because I've generally been one to rank family and my writing way ahead of things like work and getting the oil changed. But I think this may go up as I take measures to make writing into my work. The problem with balance is that you first have to find the things you want to balance in the first place. We're constantly told to seek balance, but we tend to not consider the likelihood that we actively detest at least one or two of the things we're balancing. So I'll split the difference and take another 7.

9. Ambition. In my previous jobs, I'd probably get ranked pretty low, because I was never one to obsess over "moving up the ladder". This, of course, is because I saw the people who had moved up the ladder and generally found them to be insufferable cretins. But now that I'm doing what I want to do (or at least starting to), my ambition's going up. Yep -- another 7!

10. Attentiveness. Gotta be honest here: 4, at best. My attention span is lousy-lousy-lousy; "what's next?" is the phrase most often on my lips. Sometimes I can be almost Homeric -- and not the Greek poet, but the Simpsons patriarch: "And now, we play the waiting game! (beat) Awww, the waiting game sucks. Let's play Hungry Hungry Hippos." I can focus when I really feel the need to do so, but the things on which I decide to focus tend to not be the things most other folks would focus on.

Adding it up, I get a 68, so at first glance I'm not that impressive a specimen. But I also get 30 bonus points for liking cats, which makes me just irresistable.


FILM MUSIC EXCURSIONS, part the second.

Generally speaking, a film music fan does not think it necessary to actually see the film before buying the filmscore CD, listening to it, and appraising it. To people outside the film music circle, this is very odd behavior. I've had the conversation a lot of times:

Me: I picked up the score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon today.

Them: Great movie!

Me: Never saw it. But the music's terrific!

Them: Whoa! You didn't see the movie?

Me: Nope.

Them: Then why on earth would you buy the soundtrack?

Me: Well, the music's by Tan Dun, a classical composer I've liked before.

Them: But you didn't see the movie! Why would you buy a soundtrack without seeing the movie? That's crazy!

Me: Nah. It's music, isn't it?

Them: But—

Me: If a lover of classical music listens to Nielsen's first two symphonies and likes them, isn't it normal for them to pick up his third and fourth symphonies out of expectation that they may like them as well?

Them: Well, yeah, but—

Me: And if you love Eminem's music, then is it weird for you to buy his new album the day it comes out, even if you've never heard a single track of it?

Them: It may be so, Socrates.

Me: If you've never heard any of some band's songs, but then a friend comes to you and gushes about how great it is, might you not try it out on that basis?

Them: Yes, I may, Socrates.

Me: Then if I've discovered that I admire a great deal of Miklos Rozsa's filmscores and even some of his concert works, isn't it reasonable for me to pick up the CD of his score to King of Kings, even if I've never seen the film?

Them: Shut up and drink this.

Me: Ooooh, hemlock!

And so it goes.

The prevailing view is that a filmscore CD is much like, say, an action figure or a movie poster or a novelization: it's an artifact of the film, meant to recapture something of the experience of the film itself. This is definitely true to a point, and for a lot of film music lovers, it started precisely this way. When I was a young Star Wars fan growing up, home video was in its infancy, movies on tape didn't exist, et cetera. So there was no way to re-experience the film between re-releases except to do it vicariously: reading the book or the comics, staging scenes with action figures, and listening to the soundtrack LP. I'd listen to the tracks on the album and envision the derring-do going on while John Williams's music was playing, and I'd do the same for other score albums to other films.

For most casual listeners of film music, it pretty much stays at that level. These are the people who made the Titanic album a multi-platinum item, despite the fact that no film music fan I've ever met considers Titanic to be James Horner's best work, or even close. (In fact, I think that the Beyond Titanic CD is a better listen, because that first album just gets so damned repetitive after about fifteen of its seventy-five minutes…but that's for another time.) For most people, the music is intimately connected to the film, and to separate them seems foolish and weird.

But for people like me, eventually the music starts to take on a life of its own. I think it starts when connections between different scores by the same composer become noticeable, when the ear becomes refined enough to pick up on these things. For me, this was probably when I heard similarities between Star Wars and Superman, both by John Williams. And the more filmscore albums I acquired, the more the music took on this "extra life" outside the films. In my case, it helped that my sister was (and still is) a lover of classical music; the lines were pretty much blurred very early on. Eventually I started buying filmscore albums to films I planned to eventually see, and it was only a matter of time to my current attitude: where I often don't care if I ever see the film before I buy the album. (In the case of Jerry Goldsmith, this attitude results in listening to a lot of wonderful music whilst avoiding a lot of terrible movies. Not so much lately, though, as Goldsmith seems to me to be running out of steam.)

And that, inevitably, leads to a discussion of the connection between music and visuals, which in turn has implications for classical music's long distinction between "absolute" and "program" music. Which will require another essay….

If any of my readers should happen to have a spare $30,000,000 sitting around, would you mind donating it to the City of Buffalo?

That's roughly the sum the city was expecting to receive from the New York State government this week, without which the city is facing some very serious financial problems -- we're talking about not paying vendors and possibly missing payroll. This stuff has been brewing for years, as Buffalo's once-prosperous tax base has eroded over the years following the decline of manufacturing in the area and the mass exodus to the suburbs by families who once lived within the city limits. Many other cities that faced the "suburbanization" problem dealt with it by simply annexing the suburbs, so that people living there still ended up paying their taxes to the city, but for various reasons -- just about all of them political -- this solution isn't viable in Buffalo.

So the city keeps its hand out to the state, when the state's own budget is a train wreck (which somehow never seemed to come up during last fall's election, fancy that). This is during a time when most states are facing big-time budget problems, which are exacerbated by New York State's annual budget problems. (It's been something like two decades since Albany actually passed the budget by its legally-mandated date, a problem caused in part by monolithic institutional problems in the State Legislature, something I remember every time some anti-Federalist waxes poetic about state governments.)

But, as bad as things are today, there are some very small bits of news that may be seeds for a better future. First, some former industrial real estate has just been converted to loft apartments in downtown. If successful, this kind of project should lead to a new community of people actually living in downtown Buffalo, which should stimulate business growth much more than the people who head downtown for just a few hours at a time, for a show at Shea's or clubbing on Chippewa or whatever. Buffalo's efforts at downtown-revitalization have been founded, for many years, on getting businesses to open up in hopes that people would go where the businesses are. After years of very mixed results, they're trying the opposite approach: bringing in the people first, in hopes that businesses will follow. This seems to me a far more sensible track to follow.

The other good news has less to do directly with the City of Buffalo, but more to do with the entire Niagara Frontier region. It's the steps being taken to convert the Niagara Falls International Airport into a hub for cargo transport. The NFIA has sat unused for a number of years now, and now the facility is being investigated for its possibilities in cargo and freight handling. This is because many cargo-handling airports in the Northeast and in Canada are currently "maxed out" in the amount of cargo they can handle; a new cargo hub is needed, and the NFIA may fill the bill. The facility is just sitting there, and it has a very large runway that can handle the largest cargo planes in use. (These planes cannot land at the Buffalo-Niagara International Airport, because that facility's runways aren't big enough. The NFIA's runway is shared with a United States Air Force Base; that's why it's such a big runway.)

Air cargo has been suggested as an industry that could revitalize Niagara Falls, NY, what with the city's proximity to Canada and the general need for a new air cargo facility in the Northeast.

Congratulations to Sean on the occasion of his new job.

But Sean, if you ever vote for this guy, I'll dispatch the Birds of Doom to cover your house with pigeon-poop.

Monday, April 28, 2003

Shortly before we moved from Syracuse, I finally finished the rough draft of my Arthurian fantasy novel, The Promised King, Book One: The Welcomer. I've been working on this novel, in one form or another, for a little more than six years. The current rough draft is actually the third draft I've generated in this story, but this is the one where the story's shape is finally the way I want it. The earliest version was my first real attempt at writing prose, and it showed as I succumbed to just about every possible "rookie mistake" that exists in writing: the first third was one gigantic infodump, akin to if The Lord of the Rings had started with "The Council of Elrond" and taken 150 pages to do it and complete with "As you know, Bob" bits of exposition that embarrass me to this day when I happen to re-read them.

(An "As you know, Bob" is when one character tells another character something that they both already know, purely for the benefit of the reader:

GANDALF: Ah, the ring. As you know, Frodo, your uncle Bilbo found it and took it from Gollum. (stands up, bangs head on ceiling) Ouch!

FRODO: Yes, Gandalf, I remember the ring. And as you know, Gandalf, we hobbits are really short and live in holes in the ground….

You get the idea. The problem, of course, is that people generally don't sit around telling each other things they already know. Outside the White House Press Corps, that is.)

In addition to all the extraneous infodumps, I also had a very large-scale subplot -- actually a parallel plot that was to have little to do with the main plot until the very end -- that simply didn't belong. So I excised it and saved that material in another place, for use in a later book.

Then, when I bought a new computer a year and a half ago, I found that half the original files had been corrupted -- so I had to actually re-type the entire thing. This actually made things better, because there were spots in the original narrative where I'd left notes to myself like "Flesh this out later" or "Make up the background for this". All that got tightened up and dealt with, particularly the backgrounds for one set of supporting characters.

So now, I'm onto the last set of revisions before this thing goes off to publishers. In the novel's current state, I have twenty-two chapters with a short epilogue. (No prologue. I was once ambivalent about prologues, but now I pretty much hate them.) The current word-count is just over 187,000 words, which translates to between 400 and 500 pages in a mass-market paperback, depending on the typeface and page-density. (Or, in other terms, it's just a bit shorter than Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.) I'm hoping to edit that total down by roughly 18,000 words for the final draft.

And then, it's on to The Promised King, Book Two: The Finest Deed, in which the story concludes. (Nope, no trilogy.) I already have an initial draft in longhand form, but I already know of at least four major changes I'm going to have to make to the story. But I'm hoping to take roughly another year to get that one done.

So proceeds my plan for world domination.

I often wish I'd attended college during the Internet Age, if only to be able to take advantage of certain online resources in important debates, when certain bits of information would have been incredibly handy. Case in point: this handy site (link filched from MeFi) that depicts all manner of buildings, aircraft, and fictional spaceships to scale (one pixel per meter). This is the kind of thing that would really help out in those beer-enhanced, two-in-the-morning "Could Captain Kirk's Enterprise defeat Darth Vader's Super-StarDestroyer in a space battle?" discussions. And keep scrolling across the top for a rather unexpected object....

(I'm curious, though, as to where the site's author got his information for the CE3K mothership. Was this established somewhere, or did he extrapolate it somehow from the ship's size in the film relative to Devil's Tower? And the Death Star seems a bit of an omission, although it presumably would be really friggin' big if drawn to scale.)

Somehow, no matter how much I tell myself that I need to read more short fiction, I never actually end up doing so. Thus I keep acquiring short-fiction collections -- especially the Year's Best anthologies in fantasy and SF, as well as collections of classic SF and horror stories -- and only managing to read a handful of these gems.

Steven R. Donaldson once suggested an analogy between novels and short stories: novels are beer, where short stories are wine. Of course, he's assuming that beer is a more egalitarian beverage, whereas wine is more "craft-oriented" than beer, I think. (It's been a long time since I read his words on this matter, so I might be doing him an injustice.) I'm not sure the analogy holds up, really -- all those microbrews on the shelves these days seem to demonstrate otherwise -- but in Donaldson's defense, he came up with this analogy before the big microbrew craze that allowed beer consumption in America to move beyond "Tastes Great, Less Filling!"

Anyway, I've once again decided that I need to read more short fiction. This time, though, I've hatched a plan. Very simply: I'm going to make May "Short Fiction Month". For the entire month of May ("It's May, it's May, the lusty month of May….") I will read only short stories, novelets, and novellas. After I finish the two novels I'm currently reading (one of which is a review novel for GMR), I will read no more novels until June. I'm not sure I'll review every short story I read here, but I'll try to note the really good ones.

(I will, though, still maintain my rigorous non-fiction reading schedule. And no, Ari Fleischer's daily press briefings do not qualify as "short fiction".)

Clear your oral cavity of beverages before reading this.

(If it doesn't seem funny at first, just wait. Inevitably you will picture in your mind the act being described, and it's all downhill from there.)

Remember that one Far Side cartoon, where two deer are talking in the woods? One of them has a pattern on his chest roughly shaped like a target with a bull's eye, and his buddy says, "Bummer of a birthmark, Hal."


ESPN's Len Pasquarelli gives the Buffalo Bills a grade of C+ on their draft this year, primarily because of the cloud of uncertainty surrounding their first-round selection of Miami running back Willis McGahee. I'm still confused as to why they did this, but as Pasquarelli indicates, the Bills didn't select anyone who is likely to crack the starting lineup this year, so it seems that GM Tom Donahoe is, in fact, thinking in terms of the future. This makes sense, I guess, since the Bills have used free-agency to fill many of the needs they had after last year (except for tight end, where the Bills still have a gaping hole). So I guess Donahoe's approach this year was to pick quality players who could contribute in small roles for now but grow into starting roles when the current nucleus starts attaining free agency.

Still, I don't know if I would have taken McGahee. But then, I'm sitting at home writing a blog entry about the draft, whereas Donahoe is being paid the big bucks to actually execute the draft. (And no, I'm not willing to make the same concession toward the current President of the United States.)

Sunday, April 27, 2003

Yet more on SpaceShipOne, complete with the best picture yet of the actual spacecraft. The current article deals with the movers-and-shakers behind the private spaceflight movement, including Amazon's own Jeff Bezos.

I don't have a whole lot of experience with Libertarians, but they always strike me as living in something of a strange alternate world, exactly like ours except that everything's been moved eight inches to the left. They seem to have normal lives and normal experiences, and yet the conclusions they draw from their experiences of the world we seem to share are…well, I'm not sure how to describe it, really. Libertarians strike me as holding a mix of lofty idealism leavened with a strange faith that since their lives turned out A-OK, everyone else's will, as well, if only we could get that pesky government out of things. I think that libertarianism is a very useful "balancing" principle -- weighing the desirability of a new law versus its implications for freedom -- but as a basis for one's entire worldview, that's something else.

An item recently linked by Kevin Drum is a case in point: a scheme by some Libertarians to pick a state, pack up and move there. By "some Libertarians", we're talking about thousands -- they want to gather up enough of the flock to be able to force their agenda in whatever state they choose. I read Kevin's post but didn't follow the links, because it just struck me as the kind of harmlessly flaky thing that appeals to Libertarians.

But then I'm driving along on Friday evening, listening to This American Life and lo, there's a story on these very Libertarians. (The whole program can be heard here, but it's not segmented, so you'll need to advance to about twenty-seven minutes in.) It's one thing to read about them third-hand on a blog, but to hear them actually talking about this stuff is kind of weird -- it could even approach scary, such as when one fellow speculates on whether they should choose a state with a coastline to make it easier if "the S-word" should ever come up. Yup -- secession.

The story focuses on one particular Libertarian, an earnest and intelligent young fellow who is steeped in Libertarian theory, and yet he strikes me as so steeped in theory that he doesn't seem to have a handle on some of the more mundane concerns of life. He completely downplays the inevitable local resistance that his movement is certain to face whenever his twenty-thousand brethren arrive in Vermont or Delaware or Wyoming. His faith in the marketplace strikes me as scary -- private companies will pick up the cigarette butts and maintain all the roads, for instance. We're told that since zoning laws won't exist in Liberatopia, McDonald's will be able to build next door to your house if they so desire. But it's all good, because you'll be allowed to paint your house any color you want. Well, OK…but I fail to see how being allowed to treat my aluminum siding as a Jackson Pollack canvas really compensates for having what goes on behind fast-food restaurants doing so beside my back yard. (I worked in restaurants for years, and I know damn well what goes on outside the back door when the employees are bored. Especially since Liberatopia will have no drug laws.)

Then there is the surreal moment when the guy discusses, as an example of what he doesn't like about public parks. He breezily says, "We'll privatize this common area". He scoffs at all the regulations typical of a town park -- no skateboarding, for instance (this one I can somewhat agree with; there should be more places for skateboard and rollerblade use in this world). But he also scoffs at "No alcohol and no glass containers", which he thinks is Draconian -- but any parent who has ever encountered broken glass around the swings at the playground won't quite share the same view, I suspect. "Parks" equal "theft", he tells us: governmental funding of parks equals theft. When the interviewer points out that no private company is simply going to want to operate a free public park, he concedes, "Yeah, it'll be gated", and then states broadly that there will be no purely public spaces in Liberatopia. I'm glad the interviewer didn't ask what happens to the library. I probably would have broken down in tears at this guy's answer to that one.

This Libertarian travels around Vermont, one of the candidate states for Liberatopia, talking to the locals and trying to get them to sign the pledge promising to move once enough folks are signed up. One guy seems to be hearing these ideas for the very first time, and yet signs on the dotted line almost immediately -- we get to hear the scratching of his pen -- leaving me to wonder if he's really thought things through. I wonder what happens when some of these people move and discover just how much they really, truly, deep-down love little things like parks for the kids and libraries and not having to worry about some company putting a set of dumpsters on the other side of their driveway. I don't know, but something about this whole endeavor makes me envision Bart, after one of Homer's schemes has predictably turned out poorly, saying: "Bet you wish you'd researched this plan a little, eh, Dad?"

A state consisting of nothing but private property, then. Sure, it's completely unrealistic. But if it ever does come to pass, I guess there's one bright spot: stock in companies that make fencing is going to absolutely soar, because if there's one constant in a community where "private" is the prevailing social value, it's that fences will dominate the landscape. Maybe I'll invest in Home Depot now.

(BTW, "Liberatopia" is my word. It doesn't occur in the interview.)


OK, let me try to understand this. You're the Buffalo Bills. You had a decent year in 2002, bounding from a 3-13 year in 2001 to 8-8, with a new quarterback and a new offensive line. Your running back, in his second year, has a Pro-Bowl season, gaining more than 1400 yards behind this youthful, inexperienced O-line that had its share of problems but everyone agrees is just going to get better and better. And in the offseason, you signed one of the better blocking backs in the league (Sam Gash, who had an earlier and very successful tour-of-duty with the Bills a few years back) and a talented back to be his backup (Olandis Gary, who had an excellent year as a rookie with Denver and has played well in a second-string position there lately).

But you defense was another story: the line generated few sacks, your linebackers were overmatched (except for London Fletcher), and your talented secondary was overwhelmed because of the incredible lack of front-seven pressure. Opposing teams ran though your defense like a hot knife through warm butter, and you twice gave up more than 200 yards to the opposing running back. So you signed a few defensive lineman, and in a draft that is very deep on defensive linemen, you traded a bit of offensive firepower in one of your two excellent receivers to get a first-round pick, which you didn't previously have. So obviously you're going to use that pick to get another young defensive lineman – if not an outright starter, at least someone who can help in pass-rush situations and grow into a starting role. Maybe you're not going to get a Bruce Smith, but you can at least try to pick up another Dana Stubblefield or a Marcellus Wiley, a guy who can help out now and get really good later on.

That's obvious, isn't it? I mean, you're set at running back, right? So the last thing you'd do is use that precious first-round pick on Willis McGahee, a running back who in his last college game, the Orange Bowl, suffered a horrid knee injury that it's unclear he'll recover from; that if he does recover from it, it'll take a while – perhaps not until the 2003 season; that if he does recover from it, playing his home games in a cold-weather, artificial turf stadium isn't going to help keep it healed; and a guy who plays a position that's not a need right now.

You sure wouldn't do that. That would be silly.

I hope Tom Donahoe, the Bills' GM, has some idea as to what he's doing. Because I sure don't.

(EDIT: I wrote this yesterday and saved it for posting today, just to see what some other folks make of this who probably know more about football than I do. ESPN's John Clayton thinks highly enough of what the Bills did yesterday to call them a "winner" in the draft, on the basis that they were lucky enough to still be able to pick a defensive lineman with the second-round pick whom many thought would go in the first round. According to Clayton, with McGahee's injury making him damaged goods, the Bills may make out financially by being able to basically give both players second-round money at contract time. Or something like that.

But two of the guys on ESPN's "Veterans' Roundtable" are as nonplused as I about the McGahee pick: running back is a position at which the Bills seem to have no needs whatsoever, and they have a lot of pressing needs elsewhere, so why use the first round pick for one?

Maybe Donahoe is thinking back to his tenure with the Steelers, when that team was a free-agency revolving door, losing good players every year. That required Donahoe to get really good at drafting, since he was constantly having to reload. And Donahoe's a pretty crafty guy, so maybe there's some trade or something cooking in his mind. I just don't know. I'm simply not understanding this pick.)

For a couple of funny visual items pertaining to the war, check this and this.

All right, is there any way to fix permalinks that suddenly aren't working? Or do I just have to wait and hope the problem resolves itself, or worse, just become one of those "Scroll down until you find it" blogs? Arrgghhh....

(UPDATE: Republishing my archives seems to have fixed the problem. I can only hope.)

Friday, April 25, 2003

Time for some lazy, random linkage....

:: In major news, certain to push Iraq, SARS, and North Korea off the front pages, Peter Mayhew has been signed to reprise his role as Chewbacca in Star Wars Episode III. Rumors that Chewie will be doing the "Who's On First" routine with Jar Jar Binks are apparently unfounded, although producer Rick McCallum refuses to rule out those two characters performing a version of Monty Python's "Dead Parrot" sketch.

Rumors are also unfounded that Callista Flockhart has been signed to play Han Solo's mother.

:: SDB is wondering just what happens if terrorists find a way to take out a significant number of US Representatives. His solution is to allow Governors to appoint Representatives in the event of their demise, as opposed to holding special elections, which would not really be a tenable solution if enough of them were to be done in at the same time, as SDB envisions. Of course, in the event of, say, the slaying of the entire New York Congessional delegation, I'm not sure I'd want Governor Pataki naming a full slate of Republicans, but extraordinary times would probably call for extraordinary measures.

And besides, if such a catastrophic disaster were to befall the United States, it seems to me the Constitution might end up being set aside for a while.

:: Some writers have chosen the best adventure books of all time. I'm not sure I'd call The Perfect Storm an adventure book, though.

:: Best Boondocks ever.

:: Mike Finley talks a bit about teamwork, probably the most popular management concept in recent years. If you've worked in pretty much any corporate setting at all in the last decade, chances are you've had to attend at least one seminar/meeting/pow-wow related to how wonderful teamwork is and how it can make things better. Of course, that's true, but of all the organizations I worked in, "teamwork" either happened or it didn't based on how the immediate supervisor behaved, and it generally had little to do with the people on the team. I saw the same group of people function as a cohesive unit under one manager, only to become back-stabbing twits under a different one. So I generally thought that maybe the corporate trainers' time would be better spent getting the managers together and teaching them about how to foster teamwork, instead of gathering the employees and lecturing them about it.

The funniest thing was that in the organization where I worked where teamwork was always bad, one of upper management's attempts to change this was to change management titles. So we no longer had "Managers", but "Coaches". That's right. Our "District Manager" became our "District Coach"; the "Training Manager" was now the "Training Coach", et cetera. As if by changing the person's title, you somehow change the person. Uh-huh.

:: Invoking Senator Santorum's logic, I suppose I could claim that I have no problem at all with murderers, as long as they don't actually kill anybody. (No link, since links to the whole Santorum affair can pretty much be found by randomly clicking just about any of the people on my blogroll.)

:: According to the Ecosystem, I am currently a "Crawly Amphibian". I'd sure love to move up the evolutionary ladder, people....hint, hint....(William Burton is a "Large Mammal" -- four levels above me -- and he hasn't written a single post in over two months! Ach, the pain....)

:: And finally, in other major news, I'm taking a breather from blogging for the rest of today and tomorrow. I'll probably return with even more stunning content on Sunday.

Thursday, April 24, 2003


Curious George, from Curious George Takes A Job.

Curious George, the creation of Margaret and HA Rey, was a favorite of mine when I was a kid, and we've managed to pass it on to our daughter. This little monkey's adventures are always surprising and fun, with a delicious sense of "What wonderments are lurking around the next corner?" on every page. Even when things turn out badly for a time -- George breaks his leg, George swallows a puzzle-piece, George gets locked up in jail -- the overall desirability of curiosity is never eliminated. The bad stuff can just lead on to even more good stuff, which is, I think, a valuable lesson these days.

Since the original books were written many decades ago, it's interesting to note the sensibility of those times as contrasted with our own. Just the very first book, where the Man in the Yellow Hat spots a monkey and, suddenly wanting a pet monkey, decides to trap him and toss him in a sack for the boat-ride back to America is less than "p.c.", but somehow we accept it. Of course, these days the Man in the Yellow Hat would use his money to establish a wildlife refuge in the jungle so that George can always live in his normal habitat...but then, we'd never get to see what happens when George takes a job as a highrise window washer, or what he'd do if he spilled bottled ink all over the floor, or how he'd apply his new-found knowledge after his friend teaches him a bit of spelling.

There have also been newer Curious George books, written and illustrated in much the same style as the Rey's. We have one of them out of the library just now. I can't remember the title, but part of the story involves George falling asleep during a movie and dreaming that he's really big. At the end, when the Man in the Yellow Hat wakes George up, we can see on the TV screen the movie's final frame -- which the illustrater has depicted as an old-style "The End" card with the RKO Pictures logo and radio-tower icon, like RKO did in the 1930s and 40s. Now there's a little bit of throwaway detail that no kid is going to appreciate -- hell, few enough adults would appreciate it -- but I sure loved it.
Today is apparently "Take Your Kid To Work Day". In honor of this, I've plunked my daughter in the armchair to watch movies while I work on writing. How easy was that! "See, honey? Now I'm entering names and addresses of local business people into my scheduling program, so I can generate a mass-mailing later in the week....and now I'm working on a personal essay I'm submitting to the local paper....and then I'm going to do rough-drafts of two sample sales letters. Fun, huh!"

(Well, no, I don't have her watching movies. But I find something funny about "Take The Kid To Work Day" now that I've decided I'm a freelancer. Later on I'm substituting a walk to the playground for my afternoon coffee-and-Tetris break.)

Want some handy writing-related generators? Sheila Viehl's got the goods, here and here.

Oh, dear. Another liberal celebrity has opened her mouth, and that's set my favorite conservative, Rachel Lucas, to the usual foaming at the mouth. She takes exception to Janeane Garofalo's characterization of the boycott against the Dixie Chicks as "Nazi stuff".

She's got something of a point. It's a long-standing bit of Net-lore that in any online conversation (probably, any conversation in general, but I've only seen this discussed online) that the first person to invoke Hitler or Nazism automatically loses. This is usually cited as "Godwin's Law", although the precise formulation of Godwin's Law indicates otherwise. But the point is well-taken: invocation of the Nazis generally indicates that a given discussion has reached a point where rationality has reached its breaking point. And it also seems to cheapen the Nazis, to mute that sense of evil that the word "Nazi" should imply, if we apply it too easily to any source of disagreement that comes down the pike. So Ms. Lucas is right in that sense, and while I find George W. Bush nauseating, I too get tired of seeing his picture with a little "Hitler mustache" penciled in.

(Of course, I think our "Evil Indicator" is seriously out of whack these days. If people on the right are annoyed at folks who equate President Bush with Adolf Hitler, they should perhaps check out some folks on their side who genuinely hold the same belief about President Clinton.)

But then, I think that Ms. Lucas is ignoring the fact that freedom of expression does occasionally seem to be less-valued these days, which is Ms. Garofalo's main point (albeit ham-handedly made). Ms. Lucas says that the Nazis were about killing and genocide, but that's not all they were about -- in fact, those are just the ugliest symptoms of the Nazi disease. What the Nazis were really about was totalitarianism. They were about the establishment of a society in which dissent, real or perceived, was to be stamped out ruthlessly and efficiently. So I think that Ms. Garofalo isn't saying that the people boycotting and book-burning are Nazi-like, but rather that they are taking the first steps on what could possibly be the road to Nazism.

I don't think Janeane Garofalo made her point all that well, but by the same token, she's not some idiot screaming at the rain.

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Nobody likes telemarketers, obviously. I've never yet met someone who genuinely enjoyed fielding their calls -- and yet, the Direct Marketing Association chafes at the regulatory pressure being put on them, insisting that they provide a valuable service. Well, probably -- but then, what falls under the category of "Direct Marketing" is a lot more than just the annoying telemarketers.

Anyway, it's interesting to read of the actual tactics used by some telemarketers. Now, this outfit is certainly more shady than most, but a lot of the underlying assumptions and strategies are the same whether they're trying to "cram" my phone service or just get me to buy another three year's worth of TV Guide. The goal is to keep me on the line, with the marketer speaking fast enough and keeping the questions coming quickly enough that I quickly lose track of just what it is I'm answering or agreeing with, et cetera.

I remember a specific call I took last fall. Now, I almost never answer the phone anymore. If I'm online (we still use dial-up) we have an online answering service (this one, if you're interested) that takes messages, and telemarketers don't leave messages because there isn't an actual person doing the dialing -- it's all by computer, and if the auto-dialer detects an answering machine, it abandons the call or might play a recorded message for the machine, which is stupid anyway because the message invariably gets truncated on both ends because the recording is too stupid to wait for the "beep". But for some reason, one day I wasn't online and the phone rang, so I actually answered it. And, when they asked for me and massacred my last name (it's not a tough name, but people encountering it for the first time never pronounce it correctly, which is a convenient tip-off that the person calling is a marketer), for some reason I decided to abandon my usual approach ("He's not here today") and took the call.

I don't recall all of the particulars, but it was a "no obligation free gift" because I'd recently subscribed to some magazine. They only needed to verify my information for the "free gift", which she (the marketer) then went on to describe, listing the items I could choose. All this went by fairly smoothly, I selected the his-and-hers rototillers or whatever, verified the mailing address, and that should have been it.

Yeah, right.

Because that's when she (the marketer) launched into "several other promotional opportunities while my information was being processed". Now, what "processing" was going on is totally beyond me; this was almost certainly a lie to get me to stay on the phone while product after product was pitched. But there was no "Here's Product A, are you interested?" type of thing -- no, the strategy was a lot sneakier, designed around the old sales rule that you never ask a "yes or no" question. So, she (the marketer) proceeded to speak a lot faster, saying things like "I am authorized today, Mr. [Surname] to offer you a one-time promotional price on [something], simply as our way of saying thank you, Mr. [Surname] for accepting your free gift that we talked about earlier in this call. As I noted, Mr. [Surname], this is a very special promotional price which constitutes savings of X off the regular retail price, and I am only able to offer you this price today, Mr. [Surname]. Of course, there is no obligation if you do accept this particular offer. Mr. [Surname], do you use a Visa or MasterCard to pay for the majority of your online products?"

And so on. Very quickly she got me to the point where, if I've done my job as the lamb-like person on the phone and been lulled into a sense of security by her repeated use of the phrase "no obligation", I would read her my credit card number. Luckily, I still had my wits about me, and told her, "This was no obligation. I don't want to buy anything today."

This, though, was interpreted as "I'm not interested in Product A, but maybe you have something else". So, out comes Product B, and another pitch for a special promotional price. Again, I said, "I do not wish to buy ANYTHING today. All I want is that free gewgaw that we discussed ten minutes ago." (The call was, indeed, pushing ten minutes by then.)

"Oh, very well, I understand, Mr. [Surname]. Would you please hold the line so I can turn this call over to my supervisor? He will complete the verification process for your free thingamabobber. Thank you for your time, Mr. [Surname]."

Hold. Hold. Hold. Bad music. Hold.

Then another guy comes on, and what does he do? He launches immediately into another product pitch. By now my humorous curiosity was running into growing annoyance, so I almost immediately cut him off: "I do not wish to buy anything. I was told no purchase was necessary, and I do not wish to purchase anything."

The guy fell silent, and then proceeded to inform me that he needed to get a special authorization code for my "free gift" to then be shipped or whatever. (By now I couldn't even remember what the damned gift was.) He asked me to hold once more, I said fine...and that's when I hung up. Fifteen minutes on the phone with these people, but it really made me aware of telemarketing tactics. They're not about educating the customer, or giving information for an informed purchase, or helping people to make the right buying decision. Telemarketing is simply about numbers and the Law of Averages: Faced with such a large population as the United States, these companies know that they can find someone who's willing to give them the time they need to get the information they need. It's not even about selling, which is a fine profession, no matter what the used-car guys seem to convey. It's about sleight-of-hand.

This is why I flat-out refuse to deal with telemarketers. Not because they call during the dinner hour, or because they're intrusive, or anything else. It's because I am not a customer to them, in the same sense that when I walk into Applebee's for lunch I am a customer to the server and management. And I won't do business with an outfit that doesn't see fit to treat me as a customer.

Apparently the worst team in baseball is the Detroit Tigers. (Actually, it's not even "apparently" that's the operative word -- "obvously" is closer.) Today on the Jim Rome Show I heard one of the most stunning statistics of how bad a baseball team can be that I've ever encountered: the entire Detroit Tigers team is hitting worse (.179 avg, 6 HR) than all of the pitchers in the National League, combined (.180, 6 HR). Wow. That, my friends, is bad.

More today on the privately developed spacecraft, including what an actual flight would be like.

I tried asking this a while back, but no one answered so I'll try again: what is this "RSS" thing I see on various blogs, and is it something I need to either do or be concerned with?

Kevin Drum notes that neocon's may be undergoing their own, personal "With friends like these...." moment. (Or, maybe Groucho Marx's famous statement, "I'd never join a club that would have me as a member" might be more appropriate.)

A popular destination for my wife and I on our wedding anniversary -- which is coming up next month -- is Toronto, a city we both dearly love to visit.

Unfortunately, we may have to forego Toronto for now, unless this SARS outbreak is under control by then. And it isn't just us; Major League Baseball is concerned about it and has put new guidelines in place for ball players visiting SkyDome to play the Blue Jays.

And it's four months to TorCon 3, this year's World Science Fiction Convention. They're saying things should be fine for the convention, but then of course they'd say that at this point. I wonder if they're considering any possible emergency locations should things not be better by then. Hey, why not "BuffCon"?

My own personal Moriarty raises an interesting question: after this year, what are the big "film franchises" that are still in the offing? The Matrix and Lord of the Rings will be done; there's only one Star Wars left and that's not until 2005; et cetera. So what will we be doing in 2004? Say, isn't that when Hulk is coming out? And what about the third Harry Potter flick?

Anyway, I'm sure there will be something to see next summer. Maybe Hollywood can even, maybe, you know, come up with something new....

Sorry about the template problems earlier. As is my typical habit following a move, I forgot to inform my ISP of the new mailing and phone info, so they choked. Things appear to be fixed now.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Kirk to Blogger. Beam me up.

(Yes, this was a test. Blogger's being hiccup-y this morning.)

OK, it must be "Political and National Humor in Bad Taste Day" here at Byzantium's Shores. Hot on the heels of the Bush satire and the "Are you an American" quiz comes this joke that I suspect will have SDB rolling on the floor:

:: There were 5 surgeons discussing who makes the best patients to operate on.

The first surgeon says, "I like to see accountants on my operating table, because when you open them up, everything inside is numbered."

The second responds, "Yeah, but you should try electricians. Everything inside them is colour-coded."

The third surgeon says, "No, I really think librarians are the best; everything inside them is in alphabetical order."

The fourth surgeon chimes in: "You know, I like construction workers. They always understand when you have a few parts left over at the end and when the job takes longer than you said it would."

But the fifth surgeon, Dr. Morris Fishbein, shut them all up when he observed: "The French are the easiest to operate on. There's no guts, no heart, no balls and no spine. Plus the head and ass are interchangeable."

Here is something I found whilst following some links to a British person's website. As an American, I can proudly laugh at my own country. I hope you all can, too. If not, please don't flame me....

:: Are You An American? Take this quiz and find out!!

1. You decide that the relationship with your partner is over. How do you break the news you are leaving?
(a) Leave a tearful note on the table and slip quietly away
(b) Calmly discuss the reasons with your partner for your decision
(c) Attack them with a chair in front of a rabble of cheering pumped-up inbreds on national television.

2. You and your mates decide to have a game of football in the park. What do you need to take?
(a) A ball
(b) A ball and 2 coats
(c) A ball, 50 crash helmets, 4 tons of body armour, 20 cheerleaders, a marching sousaphone band with a grand piano on a trolley, and a team of orthopaedic surgeons specialising in spinal injuries.

3. You are driving along a country road when you accidentally run over a rabbit. What do you do?
(a) Stop and see how badly injured it is, taking it to a vet if it is still alive
(b) Carry on driving, but hope it is still alive, or if not, that it died quickly
(c) Strap it across the bonnet of your car and drive home hollering, whooping and throwing empty Budweiser cans out of the window.

4. You wake up in the morning with a stiff neck after sleeping in an awkward position. What do you do?
(a) Ignore it. It will probably loosen up as the day progresses
(b) Take a couple of aspirins and get on with things.
(c) Take yourself to a prostitute-addicted TV evangelist faith healer in an ill-fitting wig, who will lay his hands on your head, whilst screaming about the devil in front of an audience of gibbering inbreds.

5. What do you have for breakfast?
(a) A bowl of Cornflakes, slice of toast and a mug of tea
(b) Glass of orange juice, croissant and a cup of coffee
(c) A bag of donuts with ice cream, a 32 ounce steak with six eggs sunny side-up, fifteen pancakes with maple syrup, ten waffles, five corndogs and a diet root beer.

6. You and your partner decide to take the plunge and get married. What sort of ceremony do you have?
(a) A quiet party with a few friends in a registry office
(b) A church service followed by a traditional reception at a hotel
(c) A minute long mockery at a 24 hour drive-through chapel in Las Vegas, presided over by a transvestite vicar dressed as Elvis.

7. Your 14-year-old son is going through a difficult phase, becoming disruptive at school and reclusive at home. What do you do?
(a) Don't worry. Its just a phase and will pass.
(b) Encourage him to get out more, get involved in team sports or join a youth club.
(c) Take him to an armoury and buy him an arsenal of semi-automatic weapons and enough ammunition to slaughter a small town.

8. You fancy a night in watching something funny on TV. What kind of comedy do you choose?
(a) A sitcom like Fawlty Towers or Father Ted
(b) A sketch show like the Two Ronnies or the Fast show
(c) A thinly disguised morality play set in a massive lounge where the audience whoop for ten minutes every time an overpaid actor with a superglued grin on his face makes an entrance to deliver a lightweight wisecrack.

9. Whilst getting ready for bed, you stub your toe on your wife's dressing table. What do you do?
(a) Shout and swear a bit, after all, it did hurt
(b) Make a mental note to move the table so it doesn't happen again
(c) Immediately call a hotshot lawyer with an uptown reputation, and sue your wife's ass.

You are responsible for the USA's presidential electoral process. Do you:
(a) Count all votes and declare a winner
(b) Count all votes and declare a winner
(c) Let the press declare who's won before the votes are counted; then count only the votes which have been handed in by a deadline whilst not checking if Bud, the hillbilly sheriff of Nowheresville, has left several thousand votes in the trunk of his Chevy 'by mistake', then force a recount of only some of the votes within just one state and allow only 12 seconds for the recount to take place; then be amazed that the recount hasn't finished by the deadline and increase the deadline by another 3.2 seconds; then ignore all votes and let 4 judges decide the result, making sure the judges all support the same candidate; then ponce around the world telling other countries how to run their own elections.

Via my purely evil counterpart, a satire of President Bush that you'll probably find funny whether you're a liberal or a conservative. (WARNING: sound is required and it involves good, old-fashioned potty humor. So if your boss is visiting your desk, don't click the link.)

Yesterday I briefly wondered why no one builds brick houses anymore, opting instead for traditional siding with a facade of brick. Now, thanks to uber-engineer SDB, I know why: because if brick buildings do collapse, everybody dies. I probably should have figured that out for myself.

But I still think that a brick facade looks fake, when the regular old siding is clearly visible on the sides of the house.

I really hope that a year and a half from now, when we're embarking on what's sure to be one of the nastier Presidential elections on record, that Democrats don't get that deer-in-the-headlights look like they did in 2002 -- you know, the "Man, we voted for some of his stuff, why are Bush and the Republicans being so mean to us?" Because according to the NYT (registration required), the President's political strategists are already planning such wonderful touches as holding their national convention in New York City during the first week of September (when in the past they've always been held in July and August) so as to neatly dovetail with -- you guessed it -- the third anniversary of 9/11/01. And no, this isn't just a Democrat whining about timing; they actually admit what they're doing:

Mr. Bush's advisers said they chose the date so the event would flow into the commemorations of the third anniversary of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

The back-to-back events would complete the framework for a general election campaign that is being built around national security and Mr. Bush's role in combatting terrorism, Republicans said. Not incidentally, they said they hoped it would deprive the Democratic nominee of critical news coverage during the opening weeks of the general election campaign.

(Emphasis added.)

This is not shaping up to be a campaign of ideas, in which big ideas are debated. No, we're in store for ads that juxtapose images of Democrats with shots of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. There's going to be bloody-shirt waving. There are going to be personal attacks and questions of Democratic patriotism. On the third page of the article we learn from a Bush adviser that Senator John Kerry -- a decorated Viet Nam veteran -- "looks French".

This is what's coming, folks. We'd better get ready for it, pronto. And this time, we'd damned well better fight the fight that's actually being fought, instead of the one we'd like to fight if only they'd stop playing dirty.

(And I probably shouldn't be reading political blogs at six in the morning when I can't sleep....)

Monday, April 21, 2003

One of the most heartening things I've noticed in the last year or so is the presence of comics, manga, and graphic novels in public libraries. Anything to advance the idea that "Gee, maybe it's not just disposable shit read by shut-in computer nerds who subsist on Doritos and Coke!" can only be a good thing.

Plus, this means I can catch up on some essential comics reading without shelling out $30.00 or whatever for those trade-paperback, ultra-glossy paper editions. Ye Gods....

I was excited by the privately developed spaceship that I wrote about yesterday for a couple of reasons. First, of course, is my lifelong fascination with and belief in the inevitability and desirability of spaceflight. The other reason, though, was some nifty timing: just a couple of days before, I finished reading Rogue Star by Michael Flynn.

This is the second volume in Flynn's near-future tetralogy (the first volume of which, Firestar, I reviewed last fall). Where the first volume was roughly contemporary with where we are right now -- with some unfortunate differences that Flynn obviously couldn't have known about back in 1996 -- Rogue Star is set in 2009. Where the focus in the first book was on billionaire industrialist Mariesa van Huyten's efforts to develop the next generation of reusable spacecraft, the focus here is now on the construction of a permanent space station. Flynn is assuming that even in 2009 we will still be using the space shuttle, because the shuttle's external fuel tank -- usually jettisoned and allowed to burn up upon the shuttle's detachment -- is here recovered by Mariesa's construction crews and used as the actual infrastructure of the new station. These parts of the book, I felt, were the least successful; it got very technical and a bit hard to follow. I suspect a person of a more engineerist background might enjoy those chapters more than I did.

But as was the case with Firestar, Rogue Star is much bigger than that. As in the earlier volume, the focus is as much on the political and personal backgrounds of this new space colonization effort as it is on the mechanics of colonization itself. The conflicts of this novel follow up on those created in the first novel -- industrialist versus environmentalist, capitalist versus government -- with some surprising results, although some of the results seem a bit too "pat" here. I felt that Flynn was a bit too gung-ho about benevolent capitalism in the first volume, but in Rogue Star he appears much more aware that people tend to make a mess of things whether they work for the government or for private interests. The characterization is much stronger this time around, and I look forward to seeing what happens in the next two books.

Flynn also manages to get in a bit of "sense of wonder" here, as interwoven throughout the book is the story of a manned expedition to a particularly large asteroid. It turns out that asteroids are to play a large part in Flynn's story, which follows logically from seeds sown in Firestar. But there were still some surprises, and I look forward to seeing how one particular discovery plays out. There is an angle to the space exploration stuff in Rogue Star that I didn't expect to find here, and it opens some interesting possibilities for the remainder of the series.

Every Usenet newsgroup has topics that crop up now and then, some of which result in inevitable flamewars and others that result in thoughtful discussion. And then there are some that result in both. On rec.music.movies, the main group in which I used to participate, one such topic was the relationship between film music and classical music.

Generally speaking, film music afficionadoes tend to feel "looked-down-upon" by classical music people. This perception is not without cause. Many lovers of classical music tend to look upon film music as something of a bastard step-child; it's "classical lite", and the people who love it are merely goofy folks and geeky fanboys who have never been able to develop the finer aesthetic sensibility or the attention-span required to really plumb the depths of the world's great music. Likewise, many film music lovers tend to sneer at classical people, thinking them snobs who think themselves the occupants of the Artistic High Ground and who are thus incapable of seeing the many wonderments film music has to offer.

As is often the case, to a certain degree both camps are correct about the other.

Film music lovers tend to fall into three different camps, as far as their attitudes toward classical music goes. First there are the ones who are quite happy to listen to film music and little else; their classical experience is limited to a handful of the "biggest" classical pieces out there or a concert work written by a film composer. They might have a Beethoven CD or two, or maybe a "Highlights from Wagner's Ring Cycle" CD, but little else. These folks tend to not like classical music much at all, which is surprising since they are already familiar with the orchestral sound, but they find that there isn't enough "payoff" in classical music.

Then there is a smaller camp of people who mainly love classical music, but also follow film music out of what they perceive to be a filet-mignon lover's enjoyment of hamburgers and hot dogs. They claim enjoyment of film music, but squarely on a level that's quite a bit below classical, or an intellectual film critic's appreciation of Hong Kong kung-fu movies.

And finally, there is the third camp that loves film music and classical music equally well, for different reasons, and sees film music as a "sub-genre" of classical that has its own charms that a lot of concert music does not, while granting that concert music is strong in other areas that film music is rarely able to explore. This is what I call the "centrist-inclusive" position of film music fandom, and it's where the most level-headed and reasonable folks reside. Including, of course, me. (Did you expect anything else?)

The relationship between classical music and film music is one I've thought about for a long time, and I'm planning to explore it a bit in a series of essays, of which this is the introduction. Basically, I want to explore just why I love film music as much as I do, and where it stands in relation to the great music of the past, which is also a central part of my creative life. Stay tuned….

The state of our "moving in" has finally reached the point where we can tackle the rest of it over time -- boxes here and there, things not quite where we think we want them, et cetera. Thus, I can really start hammering away on writing again (although I've been doing a bit already, on the "few minutes here and there" basis).

I also get to start taking my daily walks again, for which I am thrilled. Our new neighborhood isn't quite as conducive to walking as our last Buffalo neighborhood was, but it seems pretty nice. Our apartment complex is fairly large, and one of its side-streets opens up into one of those newer housing developments -- the ones where every house is palatial and gorgeous, with perfectly coifed lawns and peripheral landscaping, et cetera. I've noticed a couple of things about these housing developments that strike me as odd, though.

:: First, what is the point of putting a facade of brick on the front of a house, when the regular old white or yellow siding is visible on either side? Hell, for that matter, why aren't houses made of brick anymore? Doesn't anyone learn the lesson of "The Three Little Pigs"?

:: And why are these gigantic homes built on such small lots? If I own a house that big, I want to have it on a suitably large plot of land. I'm talking two or three acres here. But these houses are sufficiently close to one another that in many cases a person could lean out a bedroom window of one house and spit a loogie onto the side of the one next door. Neighbors and neighborhoods are all well and good, but do we really want the Smiths next door to be less than twenty feet away?

:: I'm sure this is simply because these developments are so young, but an affluent neighborhood such as this that is completely lacking in trees just looks sterile. Trees convey a sense of permanence and history. I'm not sure I'd want to live in a neighborhood where it's clear that everyone moved in since 1998.

Rupert Murdoch's FOXNews is a conservative-leaning network, staffed with many pundits/journalists who made a lot of hay during the late 1990s condemning all manner of things done by President Bill Clinton, including his unfortunate dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.

Rupert Murdoch's FOX Network is a network that is given to somewhat sleazier fare than the other major networks, including a new "reality" show premiering tonight, called Mr. Personality. This new show is hosted by…Monica Lewinsky.

I may give up fiction writing. The stuff I make up just isn't as good as the real thing.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

This picture, a woman at prayer during New Year's celebrations in Phnom Penh, appeared on Warren Ellis's blog, and I just thought it was one of the loveliest photographs I have seen lately. Ellis seems to have something of a fascination with Asian culture and goings-on in addition to the just-plain-weirdness that he chronicles as well.

Not that this image has the first thing to do with Easter, but hey, have a happy one, folks!

I'm sometimes amused by our replacement of one symbolic tradition with another, smaller symbolic tradition when the old one becomes too much of a bother in our speed-based society. A case in point: I don't know anybody who roasts a lamb anymore for Easter (if I ever did), but we have the next-best thing: butter on the dinner table that is shaped like a lamb. Yup, that's the same....

This image is of a prototype spacecraft developed by private interests. I hope they succeed; I'm pretty much a slavish supporter of anything designed to get us into space.

UPDATE: Upon further review, it turns out that the big vehicle towering above the pilots is the launch vehicle, and the lower craft, dangling beneath it and not visible very well, is the actual spacecraft. I should have listened to those nagging doubts of mine that said, "What would a spaceship need with what appear to be jet engines?" Anyhoo, here's a better view of the actual ship.

Hey, Sean, remember this guy?

I'm not the most astute person when it comes to matters of Christian doctrine, but I'm pretty sure that Easter is a holiday/festival that's pretty Jesus-centric. You know, the whole crucifiction/burial/resurrection thing. So why is it that each year at Easter-time, ABC televises The Ten Commandments, which is about Moses and the Exodus and has nothing at all to do with Jesus? I know that the Biblical epics that specifically deal with Jesus -- The Greatest Story Ever Told, King of Kings -- aren't particularly well-known these days, outside of film music geek circles. But there is a classic costume epic that, while not specifically about Jesus, at least is set in and around the events of his life. That would be Ben-Hur, which is helpfully subtitled "A Tale of the Christ", stars Charlton Heston, and is frankly a much better movie than the lugubrious overacted monument to pomposity that is The Ten Commandments.

So come on, ABC. Next year, ditch Moses and let's have Judah Ben-Hur.

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Saturday, April 19, 2003

(The scene is the balcony of the Emperor's Palace on Rigel VII. The Emperor, HSUB EROG, is watching a parade on the street below. Occasionally he waves to a float or something, but mostly he looks colossally bored. His Counselor, WEHTTAM SENOJ, approaches from behind with some kind of questionable-looking snack consisting of burned meat on a stick.)

EROG: Ah, finally! (He digs into the snack with gusto, and Senoj winces.)

SENOJ: As you requested, sire. It's been dead for less than ten minutes.

EROG: You can taste the blood!

SENOJ: Umm…yes…. (He turns even greener than usual.)

EROG: You know, you haven't told me about any more American Presidents lately. Why is that?

SENOJ: It didn't seem appropriate, sire. You had to move to a new palace and all – and there was your decision to declare war on the Phranss System.

EROG: Those heretics. They play that game where you can't touch the ball with your hands, their bread is too long for the entire loaf to fit in my mouth, and they're just plain rude! They are a blight on the Universe, an evil in the Nine Eyes of God!

SENOJ: You're just mad because you failed in your school classes in their language.

EROG: Is it my fault that I have two tongues, and proper Phrannish can only be spoken with one? Enough! Tell me about another President. This parade is boring me.

SENOJ: Yes, Sire. I believe I was about to tell you about President Josiah Bartlet. He had been the Governor of the New Hampshire enclave before being convinced by his best friend to run for high office. Somehow he miraculously defeated a better looking, more telegenic, richer, better funded, and more conservative and well-known Senator from the Texas enclave for his party's nomination.

EROG: Texas -- we've heard that name a lot.

SENOJ: Yes, Sire. Texas seems to be a root of a lot of problems -- but never mind. I doubt that I can summarize President Bartlet's accomplishments, really; we have a great deal of information about him by way of a documentary series the Earthers broadcast on their televisions once each week. I suppose a summary listing might be in order....

EROG: I've seen this! Is this the documentary where the camera follows the President's workers through busy hallways as they carry on long conversations about state matters for anyone to hear?


EROG: And they don't know they're on camera, for anyone to watch? Or don't they care? They constantly divulge state secrets on that documentary!

SENOJ: Yes, they do. Very strange; I have no explanation for that. Most Presidents would sooner have the documentarians shot before letting them into their private residence while they are meeting with a mental physician, but this Bartlet seems to be of a different cloth. I also have trouble explaining the fact that the layout of the President's Palace in the documentaries exhibits a layout that differs from that which was established in other Presidential sources.

EROG: I'm sorry, I don't follow.

SENOJ: The rooms look different, and they keep the hallways rather dark on the weekly documentary. Quite strange. Oh, and according to the documentary, the United States has recently had diplomatic problems with Earth nations named Qumar and Khundu.

EROG: So? What's the problem?

SENOJ: These nations appear on no map of Earth we have collated from our information, Sire.

EROG: (waves a hand dismissively) That is of no concern. Our information has been wrong before.

SENOJ: They haven't tended to forget entire nations, Sire. And I find it hard to believe that these events, which seem rather serious on the documentaries, don't warrant a single mention by our senior advance scout. You'd think of the thousands of words he writes daily, he'd mention these events once in a while.

EROG: Who can tell? Nobody reads everything he writes.

SENOJ: Yes, well – recently President Bartlet authorized a political assassination of a major terrorist on Earth, from this "Qumar" nation. I would think that a political assassination of such a character would be welcomed by some of the more belligerent factions on Earth.

EROG: Humans are so unpredictable…oooooh, a butterfly!

EROG runs off after the butterfly, and then returns, looking sheepish.

EROG: Sorry.

SENOJ: Quite. In any event, President Bartlet apparently suffers from a disease that he attempted to keep secret from the American people. A non-fatal nervous condition.

EROG: Like mine? twitches twice and belches loudly

SENOJ: Ummm….no. He revealed his condition to the public, after concealing it from them in his first election.

EROG: Ooooh, there's no way those Americans would stand for that.

SENOJ: Actually, they re-elected him in a landslide.


SENOJ: It surprised me, as well. Apparently faced with a stuffy, erudite "liberal Democrat" on one hand, and a "conservative Republican" on the other who is not particularly well-spoken, these Americans flock to vote for the "liberal Democrat".

EROG: That makes no sense.

SENOJ: They're humans, Sire. They're not supposed to make sense.

EROG: Ah. They're like women, then.

SENOJ: Sire, you know you're not supposed to espouse that male propaganda. It only leads to trouble.

EROG: I forget sometimes. So what happened to Bartlet?

SENOJ: Well, we're not sure. The documentaries are still running, once per week except for weeks when the broadcasters decide that they'd rather show one we've already seen.

EROG: Contemptible habit.

SENOJ: Quite. In any event, we know that President Bartlet only served a maximum of eight years in office. Let me think…other interesting details about Bartlet's Presidency…he apparently made the decision to run for re-election after conferring with the ghost of his dead secretary; his decision to run for President was influenced by a friend who was also a drug addict; he tends to launch into long speeches on irrelevant topics; he bears a striking resemblance to President Shepherd's Chief of Staff; and a man who some have speculated is secretly his son is a movie star.

EROG: That's all very interesting, certainly. Well, that's probably enough. I have something to do.

SENOJ: Like what? You had me clear your schedule....

EROG: I've got my country's five hundredth anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, MY wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it. I'm swamped.

SENOJ: You've been watching that Earth movie again, haven't you.

EROG: (grins)How can you tell!

Last night we indulged in something of a Buffalo delicacy/tradition: a Friday night fish fry. This is exactly what it sounds like. Fish fry is a very popular thing in Western NY, owing to the large Catholic population. It can be had in many restaurants year-round, but during Lent it obviously spikes in popularity, with restaurants that don't normally offer it sticking it on the menu just for that season. It's almost always the same, no matter where you go: an immense filet of haddock, beer-battered and deep fried, served on top of a pile of fries with a side of cole slaw and tartar sauce. The fish is always the same, no matter where you go, so the variations occur in the fries -- some places do the "thin" fries, others serve thicker "steak fries" -- and in the slaw, which can taste different depending on where you go. Some places will also throw in potato salad, as well.

Of course, the implications on health are a bit, shall we say, troubling in a city where the big culinary staples are deep-fried fish, deep-fried chicken wings, beef-on-weck sandwiches (roast beef piled onto a salted roll), and beer.

I've written before about Buffalo's need to develop its waterfront, which for decades has been mile upon mile of underused land. Some of this land used to be occupied by loading docks that are vacant and even vanishing following the city's decline as a port year's ago; some of it used to be steel mills and such; et cetera. If you want to see what I'm talking about, check this picture. Pretty much as soon as you leave the downtown area, driving southeast on Route 5 along the Lake Erie shoreline, that's what you see. The picture depicts the spot where the new domed amusement park is proposed to be built.

That's what Buffalo's waterfront looks like, for about ten miles south of the city.

Joseph Duemer's wife is a traitor!! Break out the tar and feathers!!!

Friday, April 18, 2003

Greg of Planet Swank has listed his current favorite things. Ever prepared to follow the leader, I'll do the same now. My list is a lot longer than his, because I'm a much more reflective fellow than he is. (OK, the real reason is that I'm passing time waiting for a load of laundry to finish up. Yeesh....)

Movie, all-time:    Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

Movie, Disney:    Peter Pan.

Movie, Anime:    Princess Mononoke.

Movie, Musical:    My Fair Lady.

Movie, James Bond:    On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Movie, Star Trek:    The Undiscovered Country (Number 6).

Movie, Bogart:    Casablanca.

Movie, Harrison Ford:    Witness.

Movie, Errol Flynn:    The Sea Hawk.

Movie, Ah-nuld:    T2: Judgment Day.

Movie, Gene Kelly:    Singin' In The Rain.

Movie, Monty Python:    MP and the Holy Grail.

TV Show, Drama:    The West Wing.

TV Show, Comedy:    Friends.

TV Show, Reality:    American Idol. (The only current one I like.)

TV Show, News magazine:    CBS Sunday Morning.

TV Show, Kid's:    Liberty's Kids.

Episode, Star Trek TOS:    "The City on the Edge of Forever".

Episode, Star Trek TNG:    "Yesterday's Enterprise".

Episode, The West Wing:    "Celestial Navigation".

Episode, Friends:    The one where Chandler proposes.

Episode, The X-Files:    Three parter, "Anasazi"/"The Blessing Way"/"Paperclip"

Episode, ER:    The one where Dr. Ross saves that kid from the drainage culvert.

Episode, The Simpsons:    The X-Files parody episode.

Comedy Sketch, Monty Python:    "Self-Defense against Fresh Fruit".

Comedy Sketch, SNL:    1988 Presidential Debate (Dana Carvey as George Bush, Jon Lovitz as Michael Dukakis, Tom Hanks as Peter Jennings)

Comedy Sketch, David Letterman:    The Donut-o-pult. (This was a nightly series of gadgets designed to fling donuts into the audience. You had to be there, I guess.)

Character, The West Wing:    Toby Ziegler.

Character, ER:    Dr. Romano.

Character, Friends:    Rachel.

Character, CSI:    Katherine Willow.

Book, Fantasy, GGK:    The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay.

Book, Fantasy, non-GGK:    The Lord of the Rings, JRRT.

Book, Fantasy, neither of these guys:    Mythago Wood, Robert Holdstock.

Book, Arthurian:    The Once and Future King, T. H. White.

Book, SF:    Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson

Book, Horror:    The Stand, Steven King.

Book, Humor:    Island of the Sequined Love Nun, Christopher Moore.

Book, History:    Dungeon, Fire and Sword, John J. Robinson.

Book, Science:    Cosmos, Carl Sagan.

Graphic Novel:    Six From Sirius, Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy.

Manga:    Lone Wolf and Cub, Kazuo Koike.

Graphic "Non-fiction":    Pedro and Me, Judd Winick.

Classical Composer:    Hector Berlioz.

Work by Hector Berlioz:    Romeo et Juliet. (His third symphony.)

Film Composer, living:    John Williams.

John Williams Filmscore:    Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

Film Composer, dead:    Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

Korngold Filmscore:    The Sea Hawk.

Classical Conductor:    Sir Georg Solti.

Classical Recording, all-time:    Wagner's Ring Cycle, VPO/Solti (Decca).

Rock Band:    Pink Floyd.

Pink Floyd Album:    The Wall.

Van Halen Album:    5150.

Led Zeppelin Album:    IV.

Chieftains Album:    Fire in the Kitchen.

Rock Album, all-time:    Brothers In Arms, Dire Straits.

Song, Pink Floyd:    Mother.

Song, Van Halen:    Right Now.

Song, John Denver:    Looking For Space.

Beatle:    The one with the mop-top.

"Golden Oldie":    "Twistin' the Night Away", Sam Cooke.

Food, healthy:    The biggest apples you can find. I mean, so big they could be mistaken for melons.

Food, non-heathy, savory:    Buffalo-style chicken wings.

Food, non-healthy, sweet:    Krispy Kreme originals, served hot. (They're still great even three days stale.)

Pizza Topping:    Italian Sausage.

Salad Dressing:    Poppyseed.

Ice Cream:    Coffee Haagen-Dasz.

Candy, Bar:    Skor; Almond Joy. (TIE)

Candy, Munching:    Reese's Pieces.

Beverage, NA, Cold:    Diet Pepsi.

Beverage, NA, Hot:    Coffee, no milk, lots of sweetener. (I use either Splenda or sugar.)

Beverage, Alcohol:    Cockburn's Ruby Port.

Beverage, Alcohol, non-wine:    Sam Adams Cherry Wheat.

Color:    Purple.

Animal, wild:    Orca.

Animal, domesticated:    Cat.

Cat, breed:    Persian.

Color, Persian cat:    Tortoiseshell.

Light source:    Candle.

Bookstore, chain:    Borders.

Bookstore, indy:    Talking Leaves. (Buffalo, of course.)

City other than Buffalo:    Minneapolis.

US President, all-time:    FDR.

English Monarch, all-time:    Henry V.

Spaceship, Fictional, Good Guys:    The Millennium Falcon.

Spaceship, Fictional, Bad Guys:    Borg Cube.

Spaceship, Real:    Friendship 7. (John Glenn's Mercury capsule)

Shipwreck, Domestic:    Edmund Fitzgerald.

Shipwreck, World:    Titanic.

Natural Disaster, all-time:    Mt. St. Helens, 1980. (At the time I lived 100 miles away, and thus I got to see the eruptions.)

Football Team:    Buffalo Bills.

Buffalo Bill, active:    Eric Moulds (wide receiver).

Buffalo Bill, all-time    Jim Kelly (quarterback).

Baseball Team:    Pittsburgh Pirates.

And, that's probably enough for now. Not exhaustive, but definitely exhausting.

Target is now my favorite place to buy DVDs. The selection's not amazing or staggering, by any means -- a Media Play will have more movies, and Media Play is a chain that is not nearly as good as it used to be -- but Target almost always has something of interest to me, and fairly cheap. Such as, yesterday: Grand Canyon, a favorite film of mine that I somehow always forget about until I spot it somewhere, for $5.99; and those new Hayao Miyazaki DVDs for $19.99 (three bucks less than Amazon), with instant-savings coupons for a couple of bucks off that. Wow.

(I did not buy Spirited Away, because I am under orders not to buy it so that my wife can pick it up for me at a gift-giving occasion. I have a habit of buying things for myself that she was thinking of getting me, and it gets me bawled out at least three times a year. Scary thing was, I actually had to explain this to the checkout guy, who saw that I was buying Kiki's Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky and was stunned that I wasn't getting Spirited Away as well.)

All those words, just to discover that SDB is a closet Platonist.

I watch CSI faithfully, and I remember being fascinated when I caught surgery videos on late-night educational TV. I am far from squeamish. But you know, I have to wonder: just who is the boob at The Today Show who thought that people would want to tune in at 7:30 yesterday morning and, over their morning coffee and bagels, listen to them talk about the body that may be Lacey Petersen, complete with detailed descriptions of the body's state of decomposition and technical discussion of the bone-drilling procedure required to extract DNA samples from the corpse? Lordy....

Earlier this week a new project for Buffalo's waterfront was announced. It's an intriguing idea -- a domed amusement park -- that may help Buffalo take advantage of the millions of tourists who flock annually to Niagara Falls, thirty-five miles north. So, if it works, great.

But goshdarnit, now I want this thing. Lucky Seattle bastards....

(NYT registration required)

There she goes again. Another left-of-center celebrity has spoken, and Rachel Lucas just wants them to shut up, the asshats. I've written elsewhere my thoughts on the whole "Shut up and entertain me" meme that's so common to the right, but I have some other thoughts now.

There has been a lot of talk recently about "free speech" and what it entails, particularly with regard to just what is guaranteed by the First Amendment to our Constitution. This has resulted in a number of notable events recently, most notably and notoriously the Bull Durham fiasco, the whole business with the Dixie Chicks, and the guy who was ordered to leave a shopping mall because he wore a shirt that expressed anti-war, anti-President Bush views.

Generally, the events go like this: a prominent left-leaning person is either shouted down, told to shut up, faces a number of economic repercussions for speaking their mind, or is told to leave the premises. The aggrieved person will complain about "freedom of expression", whereupon someone else -- a right-winger, usually -- will point out, and generally rightfully so, that the First Amendment applies specifically to government-sanctioned restrictions on speech and has nothing to do with what private citizens and companies do on private property. Therefore, the Baseball Hall of Fame's decision to cancel the Bull Durham party because of Tim Robbins's and Susan Sarandon's anti-war views is not, per se, a "freedom of expression" issue.

This is, like so many things in life, partly true. But it's also partly false.

In a strict, technical sense, the First Amendment only guarantees that the government will not interfere with free speech (within certain bounds -- the proverbial shouting of "Fire!" in the movie theater, frex). But the First Amendment is more than that. If I may indulge a bit of SF geekdom, I am reminded of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Dr. Crusher is completely annoyed with a situation on some planet, but Captain Picard won't interfere because of the Prime Directive. He later tells her, "The Prime Directive isn't just an order; it's a philosophy, and a very correct one…" He explains how the P.D. is not a mere guideline for conduct by Starfleet personnel, but a fundamental expression of the values of the entire Federation.

It's the same thing with the First Amendment.

Yes, it serves only to keep government away from the printing presses -- it's worth remembering just why we felt the need to put that amendment in there in the first place. It's because, as a society, we decided that freedom of expression was something worth protecting. We actually sought to codify respect for dissent into the very blueprint of our government, and in a democracy, we get the government we choose. So the First Amendment should be more than just a prohibition against government intrusion into expression: it should be part of our very philosophy. The US Government should never attempt to silence people; but since this is a democracy, we are the US Government -- and therefore, we should never attempt to silence people. And yet, that's what the Hall of Fame did. It's disgraceful.

And actually, what the HoF did is worse, because what's being done now is not so much to silence people as to create an atmosphere in which it is clear that certain speech is not really welcome. The HoF was particularly bald-faced in this: they cancelled the Bull Durham celebration because Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon are anti-war liberals, but several months ago the HoF rolled out the red carpet for Ari Fleischer. I also note that both Robbins and Sarandon have indicated that they had no intention of making any kind of anti-war demonstration at the event in question. But I guess we can't run the risk, after Michael Moore's actions at the Oscars. Now, I think Moore was out of line that night -- but not because his words were dangerous or because he could put our troops in danger (a laughable concept, but that's almost literally what the HoF President said in his letter to Robbins). Rather, I thought he was out-of-line in the sense of rudeness, which is something else entirely.

Rachel Lucas proceeds to ask for specific instances where liberals have had their freedom of expression violated. She's apparently looking for specific instance in which the government has had people locked up for expressing their views, which is, I think, a very narrow way to look at the issue. Instead, we should look for ways in which the message is clearly sent to liberals that they should think twice before expressing themselves. Sadly, such cases are pretty easy to find (here, here, here, for example – and that's just after about ten minutes of searching through Atrios's archives). Surely Ms. Lucas, intelligent as she is, must be aware of how scary it is when the Press Secretary to the President of the United States is saying, in a press briefing and for the record, that "Americans need to watch what they say". (Granted, this last was in response to a fairly unfortunately-timed and not-well-worded comment by Bill Maher, but it was hardly a stupid or traitorous one.)

The First Amendment isn't just a guideline for the government. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. It is about who we are -- a nation that stands, most of all, for the right of people to disagree with us. I fear that if we decide that dissent is unacceptable in our private lives, then perhaps on a day not too far off we might decide to extend that attitude to our public lives as well. And on that day, even if every major city between Tripoli and Kabul is a smoldering crater over which flies the American flag, the Bin Ladens of the world will have won anyway.