Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Roger, Houston. Entering blackout now. Catch you on the flip-side.

As noted, this is my last day of posting until next Monday. (Yes, I'll be posting on Labor Day. That's so all you disgusting people with jobs fine working citizens have something to read at work on Tuesday.) I'm not going anywhere special; in fact, I'm not even abstaining from the computer. I'll be checking e-mail and reading all the blogs I usually read. I'm simply taking a breather from generating new material for this place. However, the fact that there will be no new material here for the next four days in now way absolves you all, my Constant Readers, from the responsibility of loading this page at least once a day just to keep my hits from dropping through the floor. And yes, I watch these things like a hawk. Don't fail me again. (insert sound of Vader-breathing here)

But, if you all really need some added incentive, here are some links to some fascinating stuff from the archives, selected from roughly a year ago to the time when we left Syracuse. (Fascinating to me, anyway. At any given moment, I feel one of only two emotions toward my own writing: loving fascination, and outright horror.) There are the Notable Dispatches over in the sidebar, and for random browsing, many of the Images of the Week are still functional (i.e., not suffering from link-rot).

(It occurs to me that I should look into the archives of some of the more recent bloggers I've discovered. There tends to be a lot of good stuff, languishing on some server at Pyro or Hosting Matters or wherever, only memorialized as a list of date-ranges in someone's sidebar. So, if you find someone you like, look through their archives! And I'll do the same.)

Writing and Procrastination

It's All In The Details, part one

How I Remember 9-11-01 (Written on 9-11-02. I actually like everything I posted on that day; I chose everything for thematic effect.)

My Essential Reference Library

Syracuse: The Experiment Begins (My God, how distant that day now seems, and it's not even a year later.)

Writing: When It Sucks

Review: Alan Jay Lerner's The Street Where I Live (This book has the single greatest first sentence I have ever encountered, and that includes A Tale of Two Cities.)

It's All In The Details, part two (I should get back to doing these, especially since I'm watching a lot more movies these days.)

Where the Hell I Get My Ideas

War Thoughts from Way Back When

A Proposal for Addressing the Shortage of Military Buglers

Fantasy: the Genre of Champions

French Impressionism in Music, Reconsidered

Thoughts on The Grapes of Wrath

Russian Romantic Composers: Part One, Part Two

My Fair Lady: An Appreciation

The Kennedy Center Honors: Who's next?

Movies With Great Last Lines

Pauline Kael and the Critical Quest for "Objectivity"

Review: Spiderman

Big Chain Bookstores Kick Ass

Review: The Two Towers

Roll On, Columbia.

Post-Super Bowl Thoughts and NFL-2002 Redux

More on Columbia

Weirdest Job Interview Ever!

Events I Recall With Startling Clarity

Great Romantic Scenes from the Movies

How Dare SDB Hate Attack of the Clones, part one and part two. (BTW, I should retract my speculation about SDB's approach to fiction and movies and such. Clearly I was wrong there. But on nothing else. Harumph.)

Why Do the Bad Guys Get All the Great Lines?

Digital Distribution of Art

Theme Restaurants Kick Ass, Too

Recipe: Pastitsio (Greek Lasagna)

Listening to Music: A Lost Art

Attack of the Presidents: Part One, Part Two, Part Three. (This series of posts, about a couple of comedic aliens who thought that the fictional US Presidents they saw on Earth TV and movie broadcasts were actual heads of state on our planet, was never completed because I couldn't figure out how to incorporate President David Palmer of 24 into it correctly, and it kind of fell by the wayside.)

My Favorite Things, as of this past April.

That's probably enough for now. I'll come up with another such list next time I take a break. Aside from that, have a fine Labor Day Weekend, everyone. Drive safely, drink responsibly, and never go up against a Sicilian when Death is on the line!


A gilded dragon from the Tang Dynasty, China, (A.D. 618-906).

The dragon, central to many mythologies worldwide, is particularly important to Chinese mythology. I found this gilded figure quite striking. (From China the Beautiful.)

(I wasn't going to do an Image this week, but I figured Aaron would complain.)

I know that everyone's buying the Two Towers DVD over the last couple of days. It seems like every store within a ten-mile radius that I've seen has some kind of great deal on the thing, from rebates if you buy the movie and an eight-pack of Duracell batteries to a deal at BlockBuster where you get the movie and five free rentals to boot, which is something like a $50 value. My approach? I'm just going to wait until the movie's been out for a month or so, and then I'll just grab one of the cheap-o previewed copies when BlockBuster or one of the other local rental outlets starts ditching them. So there. (This approach only works, though, for the BIG new releases. Smaller-run items, like anime DVDs, aren't stocked in sufficient quantity at BlockBuster to show up on the "previewed" racks. C'est la vie.)

Oh, and here's what's wrong with the music industry: film music compact discs are often quite a bit more expensive than the DVDs which contain the films themselves. Ridiculous.

According to Lynn, every Democrat at next year's National Convention should be locked in the hall so Bill Whittle's latest essay, a screed on responsibility, can be read to them. Well, fair enough…but only if Republicans similarly agree to hear David Neiwert's magnificent Rush, Newspeak, and Fascism. I won't hold my breath.

I have mixed feelings on Bill Whittle. He is a good writer, in the sense that he's very good with words with a special flair for employing metaphor to illustrate his points. (His high point, for me, was the essay about courage and the shuttle Columbia. Aside from a predictable and dull section about why liberals are wrong about America, that essay was superb and, in its last section, utterly haunting. I still re-read it once in a while.) As an essayist, though, I find him to be really unfocused. The metaphors are always engaging, always fascinating; but when he shifts gears into his meat-and-potatoes, he basically derails into the same basic anti-liberal ranting that's been the standard fare for folks like Rush Limbaugh, Dennis Prager and all the rest over the last decade. So whenever Whittle comes up with a new essay, I find myself enjoying and attentively reading the metaphoric stuff; but then he inevitably gets to "What's wrong with liberals/leftists", and then I shift to skimming, because really, I've heard and read it all before. (Especially the opening bit here, where he indulges in the usual "My side is diverse and fascinating, whereas the other side is monolithic and hates us all" bit.)

Aside from the weirdos at Democratic Underground, I know of few people on the liberal side who actually hold the simplistic set of beliefs that Whittle keeps attacking. This reduces a lot of what he says to strawman status: he keeps refuting points no one is making, or if someone is making them, they are not representative of any rank-and-file of the left of which I am aware. Consider his attack on Deconstructionism. Now, I am no expert on that subject, but I suspect that I know at least as much about it as Whittle does (I've actually read some Derrida, frex), and it's a more complicated discipline and set of ideas than he lets on. The fact is, there are forces at work in a given author's writing that the author might not even be aware of. It happens all the time. Can the idea be taken too far? Clearly…but it's not something to be dismissed in three paragraphs. This reminds me of one time I was listening to Rush Limbaugh ranting on about the left's adoration of moral relativism - - which doesn't exist, but never mind - - and he cited as an example a Hindu religious text, the Bhagavad Gita. The only way that the Bhagavad Gita can be taken as professing moral relativism is if one hasn't read it, or anything about it.

This, ultimately, is the overwhelming impression I get of Bill Whittle: he's not a man arguing against liberals. He's a man arguing against what he's been told liberals believe by others. He also happens to do this very well, which is why he has a large following.

It occurs to me, in the end, that Bill Whittle is not an essayist, as much as he calls himself one. He is basically a preacher, and what he is writing are not essays but sermons. There's not a thing wrong with that. Preachers can crystallize things and frame them in interesting ways, and the sermon is an amazingly old and rich literary form. I've heard many a boring Christian preacher, but I've also heard a number of them who were able to illustrate Christianity through words that made me think of things in new light. Maybe not convincing, but new. That's Whittle's strength. The problem is, he doesn't stick with what he's really good at; instead, he starts with it and then wanders off into territory that's well-mined and well-established and well-explored. When that happens, the only people who will be moved are the already-faithful. Lynn says she finds it hard to imagine anyone reading a Bill Whittle essay all the way through and not being completely convinced. This seems to be suggesting that he needs the weight of a lot of words and metaphors to convince, because he lacks arguments, but I don't think that's what Lynn is getting at. For myself, I find it hard to imagine anyone reading one of Whittle's essays all the way through and being convinced unless they were convinced already.

Greatest headline EVER!

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Kevin Drum ruminates a bit about the NASA bureaucracy, which was fingered today as the main culprit behind the Columbia disaster. I think he raises an interesting question: Is NASA's "culture" really significantly worse than any other large-scale, bureaucratic-type of "culture"? Or does it only seem that way, because when NASA goes awry, the poor results tend to be rather spectacular? I don't know, really. But I do have to consider that of the many, many spaceflights we have executed, only three have resulted in fatalities to the astronauts, and one of those took place on the launchpad. (Hell, was the Apollo 1 fire even a mishap during launch, or were those three men merely doing a kind-of "dry run"? I'll look this up later.)

Now, I do think that the Columbia disaster points out some shifts in philosophy that need to be made by NASA -- not away from human spaceflight, but toward maybe actually coming up with new ships once in a while. I'm just guessing here, but I somewhat suspect that we could have come up with a better, and safer, launch vehicle than the shuttle at some point in the last 25-plus years.

I recall one of the several good lines in the movie Armageddon (yes, it had a few, as bad as the thing on the whole might have been): when the oil-rig workers are strapped in and awaiting lift-off, someone says something like, "Hey, we're all trusting our lives and the whole planet to two machines that were built by the lowest bidder!" And I also think of how, whenever we see someone struggling with a task that shouldn't require that much struggling, a common metaphor is rocket science, as in, "Hey, this ain't rocket science! It's not that hard!" So, it seems to me that maybe we should try to limit the histrionics when something bad happens to the people who actually are doing rocket science.

(Oh, and here's another linguistic complaint: I hate the use of the word "culture" in the above context. It's another appropriation of a word by the business-and-bureaucrat community to elevate something to higher importance than it should have.)

I just checked the Realms of Fantasy slush-list to see if maybe the story of mine that's in their possession has been read yet, and apparently, it hasn't. That's not terribly surprising. What is disconcerting is that apparently the slush-reader left some manuscripts in someone's car. Aieee!

(BTW, for those wanting a numerical illustration of the odds one comes up against in writing fiction, drop down to the numbers on the lefthand side of the page. The current batch represents 301 submissions, of which 7 have been held for further consideration. Not purchased, mind you -- just held for later. I must be insane.)

Apparently, I'm not the only one with Frank Lloyd Wright on the brain. Lynn comments as well, and she's responding to yet someone else. There seems to be a big disconnect between Wright's apparent view of buildings as "walk-through sculpture" and the more general, public view of buildings as, well, places for stuff to happen, whether it's lives being lived, business being done, or art being shown. From what I know about Wright (and that, really, isn't much), he didn't seem to consider function much in his designs.

But I still enjoy looking at his buildings.

Continuing my tour through the wonderful world of Women Whose Toilets Britney Is Not Fit To Scrub, I find the luminous Kate Hudson.

Hudson was the best thing about the movie How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, a piece of pure sit-com fluff which somewhat captivated me nonetheless on the basis of the way Hudson glows whenever she was onscreen. And there's one scene in which she takes a big bite out of a sandwich that....oh, never mind....

Dennis the Dastardly responds today to a checklist of things women think about men, or some such thing. I don't have much comment of my own, basically because I think everybody's full of crap.

ESPN's tour of all the major-league ballparks hits Minneapolis's Metrodome today.

I have a lot of fine memories of the Metrodome, all from my four years in college. I thrilled to the Twins' exploits in the 1991 World Series, when they defeated the ever-evil Atlanta Braves in seven games. (The Braves are a tiny bit more palatable to me than the Dallas Cowboys.) The second of the Bills' four Super Bowl defeats came in the Metrodome. And, I spent my twenty-first birthday there (in part). A bunch of my friends got together and went to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival during the day, and then at night we went to see the Twins beat the Royals, 9-2. I remember walking in and being struck by the apparent difference in size between a large venue in person and a large venue on TV; I actually looked around and said, "They had a Super Bowl in here?"

(In fact, there was a one-year stretch in which the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NHL Finals, and the NCAA Final Four were all held in Minneapolis.)

Of course, unless one is quite rich, one doesn't get drunk spending one's twenty-first at a baseball game. I had one beer, and the guy at the booth said after he looked at my ID: "Happy birthday. Five bucks." But I figured, hey, I'd been drunk plenty of times. That sensation wasn't going to become any more unique by virtue of doing it legally.

And one lasting memory of the four hours or so I spent in the Dome is of this horrible jingle for some local pizza joint that they insisted on blaring over the loudspeakers. To this day, I get this damn tune going through my head sometimes, even though I only heard it once. Dial four eight eight eight eight eight eight, for the very best pizza you ever ate….AGGGHHHH!!!

The correct grammatical use of "sucks" can be illustrated thusly:

Having the World Science Fiction Convention just a ninety-minute drive away and being unable to attend because of financial constraints really sucks.

I expect this to be included in the next edition of Strunk and White.

It's interesting to note the way blogging - - both writing and reading - - takes shape to accommodate other bloggers' habits, and how my own habits get slightly thrown out-of-whack when a favorite of mine either goes on a hiatus (as SDB did last week) or has some shift in life-circumstance which changes their posting habits (e.g., Pandagon). Some bloggers I tend to check in the morning, either because they post late-at-night, or - - more likely - - they're Californians, and thus post some stuff after I, being an East-coaster, have retired for the evening. So it gets comforting somewhat, to get up in the morning and read SDB and Kevin Drum and TBOGG*; it's also comforting to check back a few times during the day when Pandagon or Matthew Yglesias puts up something new on their "sporadic" basis. And it throws me off if bloggers I've tended to read at certain times of the day change their routines.

What's strange in all this is that I haven't settled into any particular posting habit of my own, as far as I can see. Sometimes I'll write a day's posts the night before, using Word, and slap them up in the morning. Other times I'll just wait until mid-afternoon. Sometimes I'll do an Yglesias-type day and post several times in a day. About the only main habit I've settled into is that I usually post nothing at all on Saturdays. Generally speaking, I try to do all of my posting for the day at once, but that's not a habit so much as a preference that I don't try to hard to avoid breaking. My point in all this? Glad you asked.

I don't have one.

* Best wishes to Tbogg on the current difficulties facing his family.

Monday, August 25, 2003

Well, isn't that interesting: I'm writing this post on one browser window, and according to the other browser window I'm running, Byzantium's Shores cannot be found. Erk. I suspected a problem was brewing last night when I discovered that my permalinks weren't working again. Anyway, let's get this fixed soon, guys. Thousands of lives are at stake.

UPDATE (two minutes later): Now the page is showing up again. I've entered the realm of Bizarro-Blogger.

Oh, swell. For people looking for slash fiction featuring Magnum and Higgins from Magnum, PI, I am as of this writing the number four site, according to Google.

I read Kevin J. Anderson's A Forest of Stars this weekend. This is the second book in his Saga of Seven Suns series, which began with last year's Hidden Empire. That book was a decent light read, although I found Anderson's characters a bit wooden and his tendency for cute allusions and references gets annoying after a while. The big problem with Hidden Empire was that it felt like five hundred pages of set-up, with Anderson taking forever to simply get all of the pieces in the right positions.

No such problem afflicts A Forest of Stars, which is a much better read than the earlier book. It's still light space-opera, with galactic conflicts, apocalyptic battles, ancient alien artifacts, a King and his scheming ministers, a society loosely based on Gypsies, a society of religious mystics, and aliens who are basically uncorking the galaxy's biggest can of "Whoop-ass" on the humans.

The model is still George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. Anderson gives us lots of short chapters, each from the viewpoint of a different character. Even the title A Forest of Stars mirrors Martin's titles in his concurrent fantasy masterpiece. Anderson still lacks, though, Martin's skill at characterization, so a lot of the book seems more plot-driven than character driven. Most times that's not a problem, but there are spots where certain developments seem awfully convenient, such as a pivotal discovery made by a character who has gone off alone into space for personal reasons. Anderson's main skill, as always, is in using words to convey the visual sense of what's going on in his story. If this book were made into a movie correctly, it would be eye-candy of the highest order. I'd love to see those huge, diamond-hulled Hydrogue war-globe starships.

The story of the entire series involves a titanic war that began when humans used an alien device to ignite a gas-giant planet into a star, unaware of the beings called Hydrogues who live in the depths of the gas giants. It's a lot more complicated than that, and by the end of A Forest of Stars, there are four new and previously-unknown alien races on the scene, relegating humans to the status of mice on the battlefield.

The third book in this series should be out next summer, and there is a prequel graphic novel coming out this winter. This isn't a great series, by any means, but as space opera I actually find it preferable to, say, the military SF of David Weber. Sometimes you just want a big, galaxy-spanning tale of aliens and war and love and political machination, and that's what Anderson's delivering.

I have two new reviews up today (well, yesterday, actually) at GMR: Richard Halliburton's The Royal Road to Romance, and Gene Wolfe's Latro in the Mist.

Actually, there's a lot of good new stuff at GMR this week. Check it out.

Hooray and Huzzah! The Ecosystem is back up and running, and even better, I've made the evolutionary leap to Marauding Marsupial. Of course, I still have some work to do: the unupdated-in-six-months William Burton still outranks me, as does -- gasp -- the dullest blog in the world.

I am really starting to be glad we got out of the Syracuse area when we did, even if our stay there was for only six months. The big basketball championship aside, I'm starting to wonder if there isn't some kind of curse hanging over that entire region. And this one hits kind-of close to home: yesterday, one of the buildings at the apartment complex where we lived burned to the ground. It wasn't the actual one, but judging by the address, the one that burned was within a quarter mile of our old apartment.

And while we did live there, a quarter mile in the other direction, a murder occurred. And there was the big ice storm in April, on the weekend we had to pack and leave. And there was generally a ton of snow. And the constant news of factory closings., there's a pall over the Central New York region.

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Happy Birthday, belatedly, to Greg Harris. He doesn't provide a number, so I'll assume that he turned 57 until I am informed otherwise.

I noticed a couple of funny things in the course of my latest viewing of The Fellowship of the Ring last night, both during the Moria sequence.

:: Remember the famous Far Side cartoon, in which a student is attempting to enter the Midvale School for the Gifted by pushing on the front door, even though the door is clearly marked "Pull"? Well, one of the things Gandalf does when he's trying to open the Doors of Durin is to push on them with his shoulder...but when Frodo figures out the riddle and the doors open, they swing outward.

:: In Balin's tomb, when Gandalf is reading the last entry in the journal kept by the dwarves before their deaths, we get a glimpse of the very last line, in which the dwarven runes trail off in an angle scrawl across the bottom of the page. I'm sorry, but this put me immediately in mind of Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "The Castle Arrrgggghhhhh...he must have died while carving it!"

You know what I love? I love when it's the middle of August and, even though we haven't had anywhere near as hot and humid a summer as we've been known to have (and Buffalo summers aren't nearly as hot and humid, as a rule, as those you'll find in cities closer to the Atlantic), Canada will look down on us from her lonely perch in the north and say, "You folks could use a bit of arctic air." That little kiss of Canadian chill, which in January or February threatens to freeze us to the marrow, is the most refreshing thing possible when it comes in August.

Thanks, Canada.

Is John Stossel -- that guy on ABC's 20-20 -- an obnoxious doofus or what? In his always provocative segment entitled "Give Me A Break!" the other night, he indignantly complained about -- gasp! -- the fact that movie studios, when doing publicity for movies everybody hates, will selectively quote from bad reviews to make them sound like raves, and they will use actual raves by little-known pseudo-critics who write gushing praise about every movie they see. And lest anyone think maybe they were simply re-running an old Stossel piece, all of the films featured are current or very recent releases, like Gigli and Alex and Emma.

I wonder if next week Mr. Stossel might do a "Give Me A Break!" piece on, say, the old practice in Radio Shack where the clerks would ask for your address if you were just buying a three-foot piece of video cord. Or maybe he'll get angry about those unlawfully-removed mattress tags.

POST-SCRIPT: I actually wrote this post, as I am occasionally likely to do, on Friday night. (Sometimes I like to write posts in MSWord and then cut-and-paste them into the blog at a later time.) In between then and my actual posting it here, Jesse of Pandagon commented on the same Stossel feature. Weird. But Stossel's still a doofus.

Over on 2Blowhards, there are a couple of items of interest to me as a Buffalonian. The items aren't specifically about Buffalo per se, but they do touch on a few issues of ongoing interest in this former rust-belt city that has had more trouble than just about any of its other brethren in moving beyond the hangover caused by the decay of local manufacturing, the concurrent population loss, and the mistakes that most cities have made over the last few decades.

First, one of the Blowhards speaks out against Frank Lloyd Wright. Buffalo is the home to one of Wright's masterpieces, the Darwin Martin House, which I've written about before. The Martin House is a current object of a big restoration effort, and it is generally held to be one of the very finest of Buffalo's buildings in a city where architecture is a big thing. I'm not sure I agree (or even if I know enough to really form an opinion, having never actually set foot inside a Wright building) but their take on Wright is pretty interesting. I never knew that Wright had something of a mania for low ceilings, and in the course of doing a little online research on Wright, I found that when he designed his famous Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and when museum officials pointed out that his ceilings would not allow clearance for some of the paintings, his response was: "Cut them in half." Referring to the paintings. Wright, apparently, was something of an ass. (Which partly explains my negative reaction to Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead: Howard Roark, who was if I am not mistaken based on Wright, is supposed to be admired for his refusal to buckle under, and yet all I kept thinking as I read the book was, "Geez, this guy is an ass.")

Second, the Blowhards did an absolutely fascinating two-part interview (part one, part two) with David Sucher, a writer and blogger whose main interest is in what he calls City Comforts: architecture, but as a function of how it serves the neighborhoods in which it occurs. There is a lot of fascinating stuff in this interview, and I plan to spend some time investigating Sucher's work and blog in the future. I've already requested his book from the library. (Gods, I don't ever want to live in a place where I cannot take advantage of a large metropolitan library system!)

One thing that immediately struck me is Sucher's suggestion that all those mini-strips that seem to be popping up everywhere, especially in sprawled-out areas like Buffalo where new construction keeps going on out in the fringes while older, inner neighborhoods crumble and die, should at least be built right out to the sidewalk, with parking in the rear. As I drive through Buffalo's suburbs, there are parking lots upon parking lots upon parking lots. Parking lots everywhere, with mini-strips and plazas and malls or whatever set back, way back, from the street. So pervasive has the sprawl become, and to such a degree have we conceded to the car and marginalized the pedestrian, that a lot of these wide streets do not even have sidewalks.

Sucher also has a blunt, practical attitude that is fairly refreshing in the face of all the bizarro "newspeak" that so often seems to be de rigeur for urban-planning types. Sucher doesn't hate suburbs, he doesn't hold them in disdain, and he simply says, "We can tear down the buildings if we need to." This is certainly true. Modern construction isn't like the building of a medieval cathedral, when a cornerstone would be laid in the year 1150 and then construction would finally end in 1325. We put buildings up in months these days.

Buffalo has a lot of problems, many of which are related to failed urban planning. I look forward to seeing if some of Sucher's ideas are applicable.

(EDIT: I replaced my original link to Mr. Sucher's blog with the up-to-date one.)

Happiness is a Return of the King photo gallery. I especially like this one, which I assume happens just after Frodo is stabbed in the back by Bilbo, who has tracked him all the way from Rivendell to seize back the Ring.

(No, that's not really what happens. Duh.)

Via MeFi here is an interesting (I think) annotation of a scene from The Matrix Reloaded, in which Neo talks to someone called the Architect. I haven't seen the movie yet -- The Matrix is, for me, a wait-for-video venture -- but this scene, although it sounds a bit spoilerish, didn't spoil much for me at all. At least, I don't think it did. It's a lot of the "You don't understand your true nature" stuff that filled the first movie. But fans might find the annotations interesting.

Friday, August 22, 2003

I'm torn as to how to mock this story, so I'll just toss up a couple of alternatives and let you all choose the one that tickles your fancy.

1. "Based on the event currently scheduled for September 13, I think that folks living in the vicinity of Neverland may want to watch the skies for the mothership to show up on September 14 and spirit Mr. Jackson back home."

2. "In a related item, judges in the county where Neverland resides are already preparing the forms in advance for restraining orders, names to be filled in later."

3. "When told that some of the proceeds are expected to be donated to his gubernatorial campaign, actor and candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger is said to have screamed, 'No! No! Anything but that! What's he trying to do, kill me?!' National GOP overlord Karl Rove, though, speculated that Mr. Jackson is a secret French agent whose mission to disavow America has gone seriously awry."

Embrace the Geekiness:

:: Observing my daughters third viewing of The Wizard of Oz this week, I was struck by one of the Wicked Witch's lines as she's in the process of expiring. Yeah, she whines "I'm melting!" over and over, but then she says something like, "Oh, who would have thought that a miserable girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness!" And, being the Star Wars geek that I am, I immediately wondered: if we were to replace the Emperor's shriek as he plummets down the reactor shaft at the end of Return of the Jedi with a similar line, what would it be?

"You were a runny-nosed teenager before I took you in!"

"I got you a girlfriend and gave you my biggest Star Destroyer!"

"They promised me that turning to the Dark Side was permanent!"

"Who could have thought the pod-racing runt that Qui Gon found would be the one to destroy my plans!"

Any other suggestions, folks?

:: Over on Tosy and Cosh (wasn't that a movie starring Fred Dryer and a German shepherd?) John wonders what the final image of Episode III will be, given that the final images of TPM and AOTC mirrored to a small degree the final images of ANH and TESB.

I don't know how Lucas could mirror that final gathering of the heroes smiling in ROTJ. The most often-suggested final image for Episode III I've seen, in various forums, is for Obi Wan to turn over baby Luke to Owen Lars and then wander off into the Tatooine wastes. Personally, assuming that Padme dies in the film, I think it would be interesting to see the newly-minted Darth Vader visiting her grave. That would plant a few of the seeds for Anakin's eventual return to the Good Side.

:: A few days ago, my wife and I watched Mission: Impossible!, which is a favorite movie of ours. (Yeah, we still like Tom Cruise. Sue us.) Anyway, I just want to note what is one of my favorite villain's lines ever in a movie. At the end, when Ethan Hunt explains to Mr. Phelps how the Bible that Phelps had boosted from a hotel was the clue Hunt needed to figure out that Phelps was behind everything, Mr. Phelps says: "They stamped it, didn't they? Those damn Gideons." For some reason, that line always cracks me up.

In the "She Went Doing What She Loved" Department, a 101-year-old legendary cowgirl has died after being thrown by her favorite horse. (Via Joseph Duemer.)

Watching the fourth quarter of a preseason tilt between the Steelers and the Greatest Force for Evil In The Western World (the Cowboys), I'm suddenly wondering: how do the commentators on the network football broadcasts manage to maintain any interest in doing play-by-play and color commentary on the exploits of guys whose NFL careers are, in all likelihood, within fourteen days of ending? I watch these sixth and seventh-round picks going all-out, desperately trying to make the team, and all I can think of is that episode of The Simpsons where Homer takes over the Pee-Wee football team.

"And now for the easiest job a coach has…the cuts!"

Scott of The Gamer's Nook has just learned that the current economic miracle-in-progress is about to put him on the unemployment line. Since he's been off the actual job market for more than thirteen years, he's looking for advice on how he should craft his resume for the IT industry. Anyone with any thoughts (like you, Sideshow Bob) should go give him a kibitz or two. I'm afraid that the only advice I'd be able to give him involves adding the phrases "all-beef patties" and "Super-size" to his lexicon.

I got caught up on my taped episodes of The Restaurant last night; all that remains is this coming Sunday's finale, in which I expect Rocco (the chef and restaurant owner) to rip the mask off his head and reveal himself to be Old Man Carruthers. "I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn't for you meddlin' kids!"

In the fifth episode, anyway, there are three line cooks who get together and decide to screw Rocco by claiming to have been involved in a bar fight after work, with one of them going to the hospital. Thus, of course, they don't show up for work. Believe me, even in a large kitchen like this place, having three cooks not show up for work is a major headache. But later, Rocco learns of their deception when he actually tries to call the hospital to check on his employee and learns they've never heard of him. Surprise!

This little incident brought back all the unpleasantness I ever experienced in the restaurant business. There are always employees who are lousy, and who pull stunts like this; they always think they are stickin' it to the man. What they never realized is that the restaurant's doors were going to open the next day at 11:00 or whatever, whether they were there or not, and that the only people they were screwing were the coworkers who were about to show up for their shifts and then find out that they now have to work two or three times as hard.

A constant fact of restaurant management was that good people tended to move on, by virtue of the fact that they are good people; and the restaurant business tends to attract the bottom-feeders of the job market. You try to minimize this, as a manager, by staying attuned to your people and keeping the good ones happy. On this score, Rocco seems to be pretty piss-poor as a manager. Now, obviously this show probably isn't giving the total picture since they are distilling multiple days of business into 42 minutes or whatever of a prime-time show, but on the basis of what I am seeing, about the only way Rocco could be more divorced from what his people are experiencing is if he actually wasn't in the restaurant at all during the business hours.

It seems that the Ecosystem is having some difficulties, and NZBear will shortly be looking into alternatives and doing some digging to see if it's a problem on his end.

Anyway, I just wanted to take this opportunity to publicly thank NZBear for the work he's done on the Ecosystem. I've found it a really fun way to track the growth of Byzantium's Shores aside from simply watching my hits go up.

Thursday, August 21, 2003


Muhammad Ali (standing) after knocking out Cleveland Williams (prone), 1966. (Discussion by the photographer here.)

From this SportsFilter thread, I find The Observer's ten best sports photographs. The list, as one might expect from a British paper, is heavy on boxing, soccer and rugby; nothing from basketball, football (American style), baseball, or anything else. But the pictures are pretty cool.

I don't like boxing much at all; my feelings are encapsulated by something I once heard from a comedian whose name I've long since forgotten: "You have to wonder about a society that considers masturbation 'self-abuse' and boxing, a sport." I just don't like watching two people beat the crap out of each other for sporting purposes. But I've always had a fondness for Muhammad Ali, and I have to admit I choked up a little when I recognized him as he went to light the Olympic Flame at the 1996 Summer Games. Plus, as boxing images go, this picture is just cool. As the photographer notes, back then there was no advertising emblazoned on the floor of the ring; just stark white that contrasts well with the bodies of the men actually fighting in the ring.

You know, the more I learn about Iceland, the more intriguing that place seems. I think that after I finish reading The Iliad and The Odyssey, I'll finally get round to reading the Icelandic sagas that have been sitting on my bookshelf for a long while.

I mean, how can anyone not be intrigued by a country that has a museum dedicated to…well, this?

(via Bara)

Via Teresa Nielsen Hayden, check out this compare-and-contrast of the area affect by last week's blackout, versus what that same area usually looks like. NYT registration required.

(Why is it that every time I read a story about the possible causes of the blackout, I picture that guy in Airplane! who unplugs the landing lights as the plane makes its final approach and then says, "Just kidding!" as he plugs them back in? Anyway, that single blip of bright light in the Buffalo area is not me standing outside shining a deer-spotlight into space whilst doing the Nelson Muntz "Ha, ha!" So don't ask.)

Jason Streed, he of the long-time resistance to blogging, has a great satirical piece about the plight of the underappreciated blogger. Check it out.

(BTW, for some reason Jason's blog seems to have display problems, at least in IE. Hitting F11 twice fixes it.)

Gregory answered the five questions I asked him. Anyone else up for a go? Let me know, or if you know Gregory better, ask him! It would be pretty cool to see this thing propagate around Blogistan.

Greg also mentions the film Road to Perdition. Here's a film on which I apparently beat him to the punch, quite a while ago. Ha!

(BTW, Greg, is something wrong with your comments, or is it just my computer? I occasionally try to leave a comment, but when I click "post" it simply reverts to the zero-comments window.)

Lately I seem to be more of a "linker" than a "writer", as far as Byzantium's Shores is concerned. Maybe it's the stunningly gorgeous summer we're finally having in Buffalo, after we got that three-week "rain every day" stretch a while ago, and maybe I really do need the hiatus that I'm scheduling for next week. It's not so much that I lack for ideas on things to drone on about; it's more a "motivation" thing to sit down and crank out more of the essay-style stuff that's the meat-and-potatoes of blogging. I actually have plenty of ideas on stuff to write about. Who knows…but substance will return here. Oh yes.

(And it's not a motivation problem as far as writing-in-general goes, because I'm motivated as hell to do my fiction stuff; I just wrote two reviews for GMR; and I have a pro bono copywriting assignment that I'm excited as hell about. It's pretty much limited to doing essays for the blog, which seems to me a big indicator that I should take a fallow period.)

Sometime today I will hit 19,000 hits. Woo-hoo!

In related news, Glenn Reynolds just absently waved a hand by his ear, thinking he'd heard a gnat buzzing by.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Just a heads-up to my regular readers: I'll be taking a four-day hiatus early in September, most likely between the 4 th and the 7 th. (That covers the Thursday through Sunday of Labor Day weekend.) This will simply be one of my occasional "recharging of the batteries" breaks in posting, the periodic enjoyment of which keeps my stuff here from becoming banal and repetitious. (Shut up, you. Mr. Poo, indeed.)

ADDENDUM: That's what I get for not reading the calendar that actually identifies the holidays; Labor Day Weekend is actually next weekend, with Labor Day falling right on the 1st. I sort of thought that Labor Day worked the same way that Election Day works (i.e., it can't fall on the 1st), so clearly I was in a bit of error there. Whoops. Thus, I shall actually move my mini-hiatus up one week, to August 28 through the 31st. I thought about keeping the dates the same, but I wanted to do my hiatus during the actual holiday weekend since my traffic tends to nosedive on holiday weekends anyway.

I'll tentatively plan my next hiatus, after that, for Christmas Day and the two days before it, December 20-22.


What now?

The movie of the week here is The Wizard of Oz, which has never been as high in my estimation as in a lot of other people's, but I do appreciate it. There's a lot of good stuff there, and I even noticed something last night that I hadn't seen before. There's one scene where I swear a guy commits suicide….

But seriously, in the early scene where Dorothy meets the magician-psychic guy, he is shown clearly rifling through Dorothy's belongings to glean little bits of information about her, so he can then repeat them back to her and look as if he's an actual mind-reader. It's too bad more people don't catch on to this and realize that this is what all so-called psychics do. Especially that creep on Crossing Over, who I think really needs to be taken off and devoured by those shadow-beasties from Ghost.

Mickey has been building his own computer for a while, and he seems to be almost done. It's pretty nifty-looking, although I do wonder if he might need to put a sticker on the side of it so birds don't think it's empty air and smack into it.

Mickey also reports that The West Wing is coming to DVD in the US. This is, of course, a good thing.

In the "Not Quite as Good News as a Paying Gig, but Good News Nonetheless" Department, I met this morning with the bosses of a Buffalo arts institution about doing some copywriting for them, on a pro bono basis. If they like my work - - and why wouldn't they, right? - - not only will it be valuable experience for me, but they've also agreed to help me out in marketing my services. This will be of enormous benefit, as I decided when I started doing this that I was going to avoid cold-calling like the plague.

Time for a writing update: I haven't actually made my 1000 words-per-day target lately, but I did reach a natural finishing point for Chapter Three. Now I'm going to begin…chapter four. Yep, we're livin' on the edge, here. Hold on!

This is why swimming in the ocean with seals doesn't seem like a particularly good idea.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Gregg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback column returned last week, and this week he's got his AFC Preview up. I don't know...I lost quite a bit of respect for Easterbrook back when he wrote his ludicrous attack on Senator Hillary Clinton, and well, I just don't find as much fun in reading him since then. He seems to be shifting into a mode of "Look how smart I am", which is weird considering how many details he gets, well, wrong.

Just focusing on his notes about the Buffalo Bills in today's column (you have to scroll a bit), he makes an unbelievably dumb statement that makes me wonder if he's watching football games on a black-and-white TV set from the 1950s or something:

"Not only did Buffalo toss out a good-looking uniform and bring in an ugly one, the Bills abandoned the colors of the American flag - not to put too fine a point on it, the single most successful color scheme in world history - for a look based on a color that appears to be Nineteenth Century Rusting Russian Dreadnaught Aft Bulkhead Cyanic."

Now, reading this, one gets the impression that the Bills went from using red, white, and blue to something like, oh, orange and teal. I grant that the Bills' new uniforms aren't nearly as spiffy as the ones that saw them go to four consecutive Super Bowls, but geez, look at this pic of their new road uniform, and you can see other shots of the home uniforms here.

This is what Easterbrook considers "abandoning the colors of the American flag"? As TMQ might say, "Ye Gods...."

Short hits:

:: Nope, no double standard here. Move along. These aren't the droids you're looking for.

:: Geez, you mean we didn't actually win yet?

:: Geez, you mean we didn't actually win yet?

:: I didn't need to know about this.

:: Jacques Chirac is the greatest Head of State in the world! (Not really. Just trying to jolt this guy out of his current slump.)

:: Kudos to Senator Kerry. Cheez-whiz is disgusting. Provolone is my cheese of choice for a cheesesteak.

:: Today's entry in my newly-sporadic series, "Women Who Are Wwaayy More Beautiful Than Britney" is Gillian Anderson.

And for good measure:


Here's something weird: now that we're using EarthLink, I've discovered that their pop-up quashing software initially quashes new windows opened up by Javascript links, like weblog comments on MovableType blogs. Strange. (They open, though, the second time I click the link. Hmmmm....)

The peach has never been my favorite fruit. Part of that stems from years of consuming nauseating canned peaches in the school cafeteria, but even fresh peaches tend to be "iffy": I've had many a peach that was nice and firm, perfectly ripe with lots of juice, and yet had little flavor at all. And I've never been terribly fond of peach-flavored stuff.

But the other day I tried a white peach from the local grocery store, mainly out of curiosity. And now I'm in love with the damned things.

Now, if only I could ever find a Cox's Orange Pippin apple in this country....

Here's something fun I saw over on Archipelapogo, and I figured I'd give it a shot. (Scott, 'pogo's writer, is one of the fellows from Collaboratory.) What happens is this: he e-mailed me five questions, and I answer them below. Then, anyone who reads these and wants to take a whack, leave a note to that effect in my Comments for this post, and I will e-mail you with five questions of your own. Sort of like those "Friday Five" things that I used to see on blogs (though not so much anymore), but the questions are actually targeted to the person, as opposed to merely being five generic-type questions that might not even apply. Got that? OK, here are my answers to the questions Scott posed:

1) Where did you get the name Jaquandor? What is it’s special significance to you?

This is a bit of geekiness, and thus far I've only encountered one person who ever recognized the reference. "Jaquandor" is the name of a minor character in the 1980s comic book Six From Sirius, which was a four-issue limited-series put out by Marvel's Epic Comics line. It's a science-fiction story about a team of six elite agents who work for Sirius Swarm, the Galaxy's dominant government. They basically go on space opera-ish James Bond type assignments. There was a sequel series, called Six From Sirius II. Both were written by Doug Moench and illustrated by Paul Gulacy. I always wished those guys would have done more series with those characters. (I could have used another name from that same series, Jakosa Lone, but that would have drawn cries of derision from certain quarters….) Anyway, I've been using the name online for about five years now; I started using it when I was active on Usenet.

2) If you could give one bit of fatherly advice to your daughter today for her to receive twenty years from now, what would it be?

The world is an amazing place; never stop being awed by it and never stop learning from it. Never lose the "sense of wonder". Always look for beauty and knowledge. (And yes, that's all one piece of advice.)

I'd love it if she went into a "creative" field, but really, I think I'll be happy no matter what she does, as long as she always keeps learning and doesn't slip into the trap of confusing her day-to-day minutiae with the entire world. (Well, I'll probably be unhappy if she becomes Chair of the Republican National Committee. But you get the idea.)

3) What was it like having a college professor for a dad? What were the pros and cons?

Hmmmm…in general, my father has always been fairly laid-back about his academic background. He's not one of those people who insists on being called "Dr." by complete strangers, and he's been known to teach classes in t-shirts. He was quite concerned about my academic performance, of course, but I don't think he was any more concerned about that than other intelligent parents. (It's the unintelligent parents you have to worry about.) Of course, there were the obligatory howls of consternation when I'd bring home a bad grade in his particular subject (mathematics), not really because he assumed I'd have a similar level of ability there but more because clearly I wouldn't have actually asked him for help in long division or trig or whatever. Occasionally, when I would go to him for help with the math homework, he'd be appalled when he realized that I was being taught incorrectly (I think), and this would bring about the inevitable tirade about teachers and whatnot. But that didn't happen all that often.

4) Which of the four Bills Super Bowl Losses was the toughest to stomach and why?

Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh!!

I'd have to say the first one (Giants, 20-19), by a pretty wide margin. That's the one the Bills absolutely should have won, and it's almost unforgivable that they didn't. As I think back to that game, it astounds me how badly the Bills were outcoached in that game. Their defensive philosophy of "bend but don't break" (which, incidentally, I hold as the main culprit in all four of those losses) really hurt in the game against the Giants. That's the game where they allowed a nine-and-half-minute scoring drive at the beginning of the third quarter, and when the Bills had the ball on offense for only nineteen total minutes. That's the game where Thurman Thomas rushed for 135 yards, but only had 19 carries. If Marv Levy would simply have noticed how Thomas was cutting the Giants to ribbons and run him 30 or 35 times, there's no way they would have lost that game. Yeah, Scott Norwood should have made the kick - - that's what NFL placekickers are paid to do, after all - - but that game also should never have come down to a kicker never known for his distance being asked to make a low-percentage kick.

What's funny about the two games against the Cowboys is that I firmly believe the Bills could have won both of those games. Both times, their defense actually played tough in the opening half, and both times the Bills had early leads. And both times they were done in on turnovers.

In reality, the only time I think the Bills were actually beaten by a clearly superior team was the second one, when the Redskins beat them.

5) Which three books sparked or reinforced your passion for reading and writing? Pick one from childhood, one from adolescence, and one from adult life.

For our purposes here, I'll define "childhood" as up to 13; "adolescence" to include college; and adult life to mean after college. (Hell, I'm not at all certain I'm an adult even now!)

Childhood is something of a toss-up, but I'd probably go with Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles. This was my first encounter with multi-volume fantasy series, set in imaginary worlds with a map inside the front cover. (I could as easily have chosen John Bellairs's The House With a Clock In Its Walls, which cultivated my love of Gothic and horror fiction, and Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which began my love of written SF. And of course, it's not a book, but the bedrock of my storytelling world has always been Star Wars.)

Adolescence: This is pretty hard, actually. Music actually eclipsed reading for a long time; I actually started college as a music major, and listening and performing were paramount. I suppose the book I'd pick here would be one I read during my sophomore year in college (during May Term, actually - - remember those, Sean?) when I'd go sit on a blanket under a tree reading it after class. This was Carl Sagan's Cosmos. And actually, this is something of a cheat, since I had been transfixed by the television series when it had first aired during fourth grade. Maybe I'd instead choose John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights, which kindled a fascination with the Arthurian legend that is still flowering in me to this day, in the form of the novel I'm writing. But actually, given my answer to #2 above, I'll go with Cosmos.

Adulthood: This is even harder. Again, I'll cheat by narrowing it to two: Guy Gavriel Kay's three-volume Fionavar Tapestry and Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Aside from Arthuriana, my love of fantasy in general was pretty dormant until I encountered the Kay series (although it, too, is Arthuriana in part). And King's book crystalized so many thoughts I've had about writing over the years. At one point in the book he says something like, "Do you really need a permission slip from me or something like that to call yourself a writer?" Funny, because in a way, that's precisely how I've come to see that book.

OK, there are my answers. Anyone want me to ask? I won't be asking about the air velocity of an unladen swallow….

You know, I really try to avoid making fun of the place, but just what is it with Texas, anyway?

(via Paul Riddell.)

Oh, goody! Via Matthew Yglesias I find that my list of annoying political words has a new entry: OBVIOUST. Yup, it's another of those supposedly cute words whose meaning basically boils down to, "People who disagree with me don't merely disagree; they are actually delusional for not endorsing what's obvious." Oh, and it's an ugly word, to boot. What is it with making up new, ugly, and pretty-much-dumb words like "Obvioust" and "Idiotarian"? Doesn't our English language afford people enough words to express themselves?

And I see that the guy who coined "Obvioust" also trots out the canard that the United States is not a democracy. Now, he leaves off the other end of the formulation, but I assume he's one of those folks who, whenever America is characterized as a democracy, sagely leans forward and pronounces: "Ah, but America is a republic, not a democracy." Of course, you never hear these folks stepping up to correct President Bush whenever he talks about the need for "democracy" in Iraq ("Excuse me, Mr. President, but don't you think we should establish a republic in Iraq instead?"). This weirdo bit of wisdom is always irrelevant, because nobody actually uses the word "democracy" in the sense of, say, ancient Athenian democracy, anymore -- unless they happen to be historians actually talking about ancient Athens. Invoking my handy Oxford Pocket Dictionary, I find that the first meaning of "democracy" given is this: "Government by the whole population, usually through elected representatives". Saying "America's a republic, not a democracy" is like saying "Britney is a woman, not a human", and the only proper response is a loud, resounding "Duuuhhhh!"

The incongruity of a person who wants to adhere to a strict meaning of "democracy" also wanting to make up his very own ugly new word to describe his fairly run-of-the-mill political philosophy would be funny, if it weren't headshake-inducing.

Monday, August 18, 2003

Ach! damnable MeFi. Every so often there will be a food thread over there, and everyone will chime in with their thoughts or favorite brands of said food, the inevitable result of which is that I immediately want to go out and get some of it, like their infamous discussion of potato chips shortly before the Super Bowl this year.

Today, the subject is root beer, which I love and have not enjoyed in quite some time. Now I'll probably have to go get some IBC, or maybe I'll even spring for some Saranac (which is also a fine microbrewery for real beer).

By the way, the MeFi thread's original poster says that root beer isn't much known for mixed drinks, but here's one that simulates the flavor of birch beer, for those who like that stuff (and I do): simply mix one shot of peppermint schnapps (preferably Rumpelminz) with 12 oz. of root beer (preferably IBC or Stewart's, not A&W or Mug, although Barq's is OK). Be careful you don't use too much schnapps, though, because the result will taste strongly like Scope Mouthwash.

True story: a particularly dense supermarket cashier once carded me when I bought a six-pack of IBC root beer. Since I was under 21 at the time, she actually had to have the manager come over and OK the purchase, because, you know, the label said "beer" on it.

A couple of movie links, for those inclined:

:: I've never totally warmed up to the work of the Coen Brothers (those that I've seen anyway), but here's a nice fan site for their films, which includes scripts to all of 'em. (Via I Love Everything.)

:: In the wake of Gigli, there's this MSN list of the biggest bombs of all time. I haven't seen all of these, either, but I'm mixed on the ones I have seen. Howard the Duck is one of the most unbelievable horrid things ever made, of course. I only saw Hudson Hawk once, and I'm pretty sure I was at least partially buzzed on beer at the time, but we found it kind of fun and goofy. I've never seen Cleopatra, but its score -- by Alex North -- is a film-music masterpiece that received a glorious restoration a few years ago on the Varese Sarabande label. I have to admit that I did enjoy The Postman when I rented it, although it's chock-full of moments in which Kevin Costner wallows in self-indulgence. (I also seem to recall reading somewhere that the film made back its money in international release, but I'm not sure about that.) And Cutthroat Island really didn't deserve its total critical drubbing -- it's a serviceable pirate flick that suffered from a lack of charisma in its leads. It probably bombed because pirate movies just weren't on anybody's radar back in 1996 or whenever it came out.

Reading notes today:

:: Figuring that it's long past time I started digging into some of the really bedrock literature of the world, I began reading The Iliad yesterday, in a translation by Robert Fagles. If all goes according to plan, I'll be following up with The Odyssey. This is literature I haven't much encounted since my freshman year in college, when we read very small snippets in handout-form. I always found the whole "Read this two-page excerpt from this thousand-page work of literature" approach pretty much useless; rather than confer upon me some bit of familiarity with the work in question (the point of the whole "liberal arts" thing), I rather found it made for an "in one ear and out the other" effect, and thus my knowledge of The Iliad is confined to my very basic knowledge of the events at Troy and the fact that in some way the work depicts the Gods as being a fairly capricious and mean-spirited lot.

A more personal hang-up of mine regarding the Greek literature is that, for some reason, all the Greek names sound the same to me. Now, I can keep Tolkien's cast of thousands in Lord of the Rings pretty much straight in my head; ditto George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire and a host of other works. But inevitably, when I start delving into Greek stuff, I have to keep referring back to see who certain people are. I don't know, maybe it's because so many of them end in 's' -- Achilles, Atrides, Atreus, et cetera -- but that's pretty much a personal stumbling block. It's weird, the little "mental blocks" we form.

Anyway, I'm reading The Iliad in pretty small doses, so I expect it to take a while.

:: Over the weekend I plowed through my first ever novel by F. Paul Wilson, Conspiracies. This novel features a character named Repairman Jack, a secretive soul with a very shadowy background who uses his treasured anonymity to go around solving problems. Sort of a one-man "A Team", blended with Frank Black from Millennium. In Conspiracies, Jack is hired by a husband whose wife has fallen in with an organization of way-out conspiracy theorists (the book is worth reading just to catch up on most of the biggie conspiracy theories of today) and since disappeared. Along the way, a lot of supernatural stuff starts happening; this is apparently the third novel to feature Repairman Jack, but I hadn't read the first two. This didn't pose much of a problem to me, since the novel seems to give whatever information about previous events is necessary to understanding what's going on here. Wilson keeps the plot moving, he has a good eye for detail, and the book is by turns funny and scary. My only complaint was the ending. There isn't one. It's like the old feeling I used to get when I'd watch the first part of a two-part episode of a favorite TV show, but I wasn't aware that it was a two-part episode beforehand, and with five minutes to go I'd suddenly realize, "They can't resolve all this by the end of the hour." Oh well -- at least I know that the follow-up novel has already come out, so it's not like I have to wait a year or anything.

:: I should also note that I read Catherine Asaro's Primary Inversion a week or so ago. This is the first in a series of hard-SF space operas set in Asaro's "Skolian Empire". I enjoyed it, although it's a bit clunky at times and meandering in its plot. It was good enough, though, that I definitely want to read more of this series. It's a stand-alone novel, but I'm not sure if all the "Skolian Empire" novels are stand-alones or not.

When I attended a summer music camp during my high school years (and later as a counselor during my college days), there was a guy there who each year would tell a long and involved "Ferdinand Feghoot"-style tale* that was somehow musically-relevant. Here, with apologies, is one of the ones he told:

:: Once upon a time, in a small village in the Italian Alps, there was a small village orchestra that was the pride of the village. This small orchestra gave several concerts each year, and every concert was attended by hundreds of people from villages all around, even though the orchestra was one of those where the quality of playing wasn't so much the point as was drinking wine under the stars and listening to the lovely music. Well, one year, the orchestra's conductor, a kindly old man, decided to celebrate the orchestra's hundredth anniversary by taking on an immense challenge: they would perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Nothing so grand had ever been attempted by this orchestra, and a chorus was hastily put together for the performance, but everyone was thrilled beyond compare with the idea of performing one of the very greatest masterpieces of all time. It would be the greatest event in the history of this tiny village since one of Hannibal's own elephants had stopped in the local stream to take a drink. Hours upon hours were spent in rehearsal, with the old conductor shaping his not-terribly-talented but incredibly enthusiastic ensemble into one capable of giving a grand performance of the Ninth, whose four movements require more than an hour to play. And as the day of the concert drew near, everyone in the village and all the other villages in the valley became more and more excited.

Everyone, that is, except for the orchestra's two double-bass players, Meriadoc and Peregrin.

You see, Beethoven's Ninth is a terribly demanding piece for the entire orchestra and chorus - - except for the basses, who only play the first few pages of the first movement, and then must remain silent until the very last page of the last movement, when they finally rejoin their mates. This, of course, made for an excruciatingly boring series of rehearsals for these two men, and the concert would be worse: they would simply stand there, on stage and with nothing at all to do, for more than an hour.

Thus was born, in the minds of Meriadoc and Peregrin, a Plan.

"What we'll do, Pippin, is this," said Meriadoc - - for "Pippin" was Peregrin's nickname. "We can't just stand there on stage; we'll go mad with boredom. So we'll slip away right after we're done with our stuff at the beginning, and have a beer or two backstage. Then, we'll just slip back onstage at the end for our last bit."

"But Merry," said Pippin, "how will we know how to come back? Especially if we drink too much?"

They thought on this for a time, and what they came up with was this: Merry would get a piece of string and tie together the last two pages of the Maestro's score. Thus, when he reached that point in the concert, he would find himself unable to turn to the last page of the Ninth, and therefore he would have to stop the orchestra whilst he untied the bound pages. Then he would take up the baton again and lead the concert to completion. Merry and Pippin, of course, would notice the stopping of the orchestra, and slip in for their final moments on stage.

"A perfect plan!" they cheered, and indeed it was.

So on the morning of the concert, Merry and Pippin followed the Maestro around until just the moment when he set down his score to the Ninth; this they grabbed, and used a bit of twine to tie together those last two pages. And then, undetected, they slipped away. And at last the concert came around, and Merry and Pippin took their position at stage left, behind the cellists, and awaited the Maestro's downbeat. They had already hidden some bottles of beer behind the concert pavilion, and they grinned at each other as the hundreds of people gathered on the lawn applauded the concert's beginning. Down came the Maestro's baton, and so began the strains of Beethoven's Ninth. And just one minute into the great seventy-minute work, Merry and Pippin were done until the end. So they set down their great double-basses and slipped out backstage and thence to the spot where their beers awaited. These they drank in a great hurry, five apiece, while the heavenly strains of Beethoven's greatest symphony echoed around them and through the Italian Alps.

But then, as the last movement came near its close, the Maestro reached the bottom of his score and tried to turn his last page - - and found that he could not. Someone had tied the last two pages together! Not knowing what to do, he signaled for the orchestra to stop, and they did; the crowd became confused at the stoppage, and the Maestro fumbled with arthritic fingers to untie the dolorous knot.

"I think - - hic! - - it'sh time," Merry drawled from backstage, hearing that the music had stopped.

"Yesh," agreed Pippin. "Hic! We should get back on shtage."

Both men liked to drink, but five beers in an hour, on an empty stomach no less, had taken its toll. As they made their way back to the wings of the pavilion and out onstage. But as they picked up their giant double-basses, they hit each other on the head and fell forward, into the midst of the cellists. Two of these poor cello-playing fellows, sadly, were very close to the edge of the stage, and the impact of their bass-playing friends behind them was all they needed to fall off the stage and onto the ground, hitting their heads together and in the process knocking them unconscious. And even worse, a cello - - being hollow - - makes a loud banging noise, when dropped from even a small height; and hearing this BANG, someone in the audience screamed, "A gunshot! A gunshot!" At this, everyone began screaming at once and running every which way, trying to get out of the park lest they take the imaginary bullets in the heart. And in the middle of it all, the Maestro stood, trying to work the knot that was too tight.

"I don't think - - hic! - - the plan worked," said Merry.

"Of courshe it did," replied Pippin. "Jusht look - - hic! - - at the crowd!"

Now, we must step back to place this scene in perspective for the reader:

The crowd's gone wild, because it's the bottom of the Ninth, two men are out, the basses are loaded, and the score is tied.


(* A "Ferdinand Feghoot" story is a brief tale which is simply a giant set-up for an incredibly lame pun. A properly-spun Feghoot will make its audience groan in near-agony. Oh, and by the way, the bit about the double-basses not playing for almost the entirety of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is pure license. In reality, they play as much as the rest of the strings.)

Sunday, August 17, 2003

AHHHHH!!! My long search for a really good fan site for The West Wing has finally reached a triumphant conclusion:

I, for one, am not jumping off the ship yet. John Wells, who has taken over the show after Aaron Sorkin's departure, has a long history of doing quality work on television. I'm sure the tone will be different, but you know, that may be fine.

Over on Reflections in d minor, Lynn has a hilarious take on how to write a commentary on classical music. It is too true, sad to say.

(BTW, Lynn, can I safely assume that your favorite classical work is Mozart's Requiem? The clues seem to point that way!)

Fellow Collaborator Jason Streed has his own blog now: Finches' Wings. Judging from his interest in literary matters, I expect that to be a big focus of his. Check him out. He's only brand new, and thus has only a handful of posts up. But he'll be a good one. (And I didn't even have to beat him into doing a blog, unlike some people....)

Where is Woody Guthrie when we so desperately need him?!

Andrew Cory has some interesting thoughts about Star Wars, specifically focusing on the differences between the original trilogy and the prequels. He's more charitable than many in discussing The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, although he's clearly disappointed in them -- he thinks that George Lucas is floundering and is unsure of how to proceed with his story. I don't really agree with that, even if there are admittedly spots where the dialogue clunks (although not so many as others believe) or where the actors might have benefitted from a more hands-on director (although, again, not as many as most think).

Andrew makes the point, about TPM, that the film's story is too "local" -- meaning, it's not as epic in tone as what we had expected. This is pretty much exactly the point I made a few months ago when I said that TPM is the Star Wars equivalent of The Hobbit, when fans were actually expecting The Silmarillion. I can somewhat understand the disconnect between what fans were expecting and what they got, but it never bothered me. In fact, I rather liked the idea that the big events we all know and love could have their beginning in a story that seems to be totally disconnected from it. It's often that way in the real world as well; after all, who could have predicted that the scion of a Saudi Arabian family whose wealth was in construction would later become our greatest enemy and force a fundamental rethinking of a century of American foreign policy? I won't delve more into that, since I've said my piece, but I have been considering something about George Lucas: he likes to leave fairly large whacks of his story off-screen, to be implied or established in passing.

Attack of the Clones ends with the first battle of the Clone Wars, and according to current rumor, Episode III begins with the final battle of those same Wars. That means that the Clone Wars take place, mostly, off-screen. This has caused some consternation amongst fans -- it's a point raised in those abominable AICN Jedi Councils, for instance -- but when you really think about it, Lucas has always done this. Some examples:

:: In A New Hope, we get the feeling that the destruction of the Death Star is the Rebellion's first big coup, but it's not: the film's opening crawl tells us that Rebel spaceships have already won their first major victory against the Empire. The war is already raging; Lucas has performed a classic in medias res opening. We don't even get to learn what spies managed to steal the Death Star plans, or any of that.

:: In The Empire Strikes Back, the Imperial fleet pretty much hammer-punches the Rebellion, right? Well, not quite. Again, the opening crawl tells otherwise: "Imperial troops have driven the Rebel troops from their hidden base...." (emphasis mine) So, as we get ready to watch The Empire Strikes Back, we're informed that the Empire already has struck back. The Battle of Hoth is not the first confrontation between the Rebels and the Empire since the Death Star; rather, it's the culmination of the Empire's current campaign.

:: Also in The Empire Strikes Back: when the Rebels flee Hoth, they make for a rendezvous point, which is presumably where the fleet is awaiting that we see at the film's end. Why wasn't that fleet at Hoth already? Clearly it wasn't -- the probe droid surely would have noticed some big ships like that orbitting the planet -- and the implication thereof is that Hoth is only one Rebel base, not the Rebel base. This seems to imply a guerilla-like structure to the Rebellion that is only done away with the the Mon Calamari join up between TESB and ROTJ.

I tend to believe that the Clone Wars were never to be that big a part of the story -- they are backdrop, certainly an important event in the Star Wars universe, but Lucas isn't telling the story of the Star Wars universe. He's telling the story of Anakin Skywalker, and he's leaving a lot of the background stuff way in the background. I'm fine with that.

Notes from our second day at the Erie County Fair:

:: We saw a performance by a troupe of Chinese acrobats. I don't know what was more stunning: the staggering degree to which they could bend their bodies in any way they wished, or their equally astonishing sense of balance. It was incredibly cool, especially the opening of the act when four of the performers teamed up underneath big costumes to portray two playful cats.

:: The finest meal in the finest restaurant can't taste any finer than an Italian sausage sandwich, piled high with grilled onions and peppers, consumed under the sky of early evening outside, and followed by a heaping plate of ribbon-cut fried potatoes.

:: Lately we've come to love Orville Reddenbacher's microwave kettle corn. Yesterday, for the first time, we had real kettle corn: the stuff popped in a giant copper kettle whilst being stirred by a hulking guy wielding an equally hulking wooden spoon. This stuff was absolutely amazing.

:: Bungee-jumping appears to be out; what's in is being hoisted to the top of the tower, from which one then dangles posterior-first before being cut loose, to drop fifty feet or so into a big net. I'm not afraid of heights, and if I were in the company of sufficiently daring friends, I might well do this. What gets me is the price: thirty-five bucks a pop. That's for the pleasure of experiencing about two seconds of free fall.

:: I don't care about actually riding the rides; for me, one of life's finest pleasures is in simply walking to Midway after dark, when colored lights and joyous noises abound. And while other people are roller-coaster enthusiasts, I could very well become a Ferris-wheel enthusiast. The Erie County Fair's big one towered to 125 feet (at least that's what the label said), and it is positioned such that at its apex one can see the downtown Buffalo skyline (about ten miles distant), Lake Erie, and Canada beyond.

:: Until yesterday, I had never heard the engines of a monster truck in person. They had one of those big monster-truck shows in the grandstand, and the revving engines of the vehicles could be heard no matter where we were on the Fairgrounds when they happened to press the gas. I don't know -- there just seems something absurdly wasteful to me about such things.

Our local Blockbuster has a bad habit of being less-than-attentive when shelving movies. For instance, last week we thought we were renting Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, a film in which two dogs and a cat are stranded somehow in the wilderness and have to make their way across many miles of mountainous, wild terrain to their home. Well, I didn't know that this 1993 movie was actually a remake of a 1963 movie, which is what we ended up with. All was well and good, though -- the original turns out to be pretty good, and tells the same exact story.

But it's interesting to note the changes between the 1963 sensibilities and the 1993 attitudes. In the later film, the animals are given voices with which they interact, Babe style, whereas the earlier film has one of those earnest-sounding Disney narrators who describes all of the action. More interesting, though, is the obvious differences in how filming with animals was different back then. There's a scene where one of the dogs kills a rabbit, for example, and totes the dead bunny around in its mouth for a while; later on, the other dog has an unfortunate run-in with a porcupine. In each case I was wondering if they really killed a rabbit and inflicted a porcupine on the dog, since I assume this was before the days of the SPCA monitoring filming. Maybe, maybe not. It struck me, anyway.

Continuing my on-again, off-again fascination with All Things Cetacean, here's an image that scientists believe to be a whale emitting...well, let's just say that if this whale had a lighter, he'd be a big hit at frat parties.

Friday, August 15, 2003


The Illustrated Tale of Genji: the 44th quire Takekawa

My fascination with Asian culture, long smoldering, seems to be catching fire in the last couple of years. The Tale of Genji is one of the earliest works of literature that can actually be called a "novel", and this detail is from an illustrated "edition" commissioned by aristocrats in the twelfth century. I have little knowledge of the book's story (although I did find an online text and an extensive resource site), but I found this particular image interesting, mainly in the blend of color.

And tonight, I think it's sushi for dinner. Yes, it's sushi from the local supermarket. But hey, it's kind of close.

Virtually the same image is all over the news, but here's the NYC skyline during the blackout, just after dusk but before total darkness settled.

Like a lot of Net Geeks, I've been following the Texas court case in which a comics-store employee was convicted of selling an adult-comic to an adult (interesting commentary, with links, here). Like most, I'm annoyed at the clear entrapment here, and I'm also dismayed that the prosecuting attorney based his entire argument on comics being primarily a children's medium. But what really got my goat was in his actual phrasing:

"Comic books, and I don't care what type of evidence or what type of testimony is out there, use your rationality, use your common sense. Comic books, traditionally what we think of, are for kids."

This angered me because I have come to absolutely detest the phrase "common sense".

First, I hate the phrase because it's totally nebulous. What constitutes "common sense" for one person is a lightning bolt of revelation for another. It's just common sense that you don't wear white after Labor Day. It's just common sense that you have your oil changed every three thousand miles. It's just common sense that you lather, rinse and repeat.

I suspect we all know people - - maybe from work, maybe from school - - who are near-savants when it comes to the books: they get good grades in tough subjects as easily as they breathe, the mere idea of them ever getting anything less than an A is unthinkable. But they are totally clueless in interpersonal relationships, perhaps; or maybe when you accompany them into a subway station they suddenly get that "caught in the headlights" look; or they lack any semblance of tact at all. We often say of these people, "Wow, they're sure smart, but they have no common sense". In that context, the phrase seems innocuous, simply describing knowledge that one really ought to have in order to function with others. But then, deciding just what constitutes that knowledge is a good deal more slippery than that. This is definitely the most harmless use of the phrase, but I still don't like it because it smacks of a kind of superiority: "Yeah, they smoke us on the grades, but we know how to order from the Soup Nazi."

Secondly, I hate it when politicians refer to "common sense". Democrats and Republicans both do it, and it makes me crazy to hear these guys talk about "common sense tort reform" or "common sense healthcare reform" or "common sense antiterrorism measures" or "common sense" anything. You know, when I'm trying to elect someone to lead this country or my state, or represent me in Congress, I don't want "common" sense. I'm looking for "uncommon" sense. I want someone who's smart as hell, and who can come up with solutions that in all likelihood aren't common-sensical at all. There was nothing "common sense" about the establishment of the United States Constitution, for example - - that took a convention of the smartest men (no women, sadly - - another way it took common sense a while to catch up) several months to hammer out a governmental structure such that no one was particularly enamored of the results. The United States exists because a bunch of people chose not to go with "common sense" in a time when "common sense" was that you followed your King and you liked it.

Of course, politicians aren't actually intending to use "common sense"; it's just a rhetorical tool, which leads me to my third and biggest reason for hating it: the phrase, like a lot of political catch-phrases ("We can't throw money at the problem" being another prime example), is actually intended to simply shut off debate. In my experience, one hundred percent of the time when someone invokes the phrase "common sense" in advocating a position, whether it's on something like educational policy or something so mundane as the fact that The Phantom Menace is a good movie, what they are really saying is: "My position is self-evident, and your disagreement with me is evidence of some deficiency on your part." It is meant not to argue, but to assert and put the opponent on the defensive. The prosecutor quoted above appeals to both "rationality" and "common sense", but note his use of "rationality": Ignore the evidence. Ignore all other testimony. I don't care what facts may exist that don't agree with me. This is "rational"? Last time I checked, "rationality" meant looking at the facts and testimony and then using reason to draw a conclusion; but that's not what this guy wants. He wants a predetermined conclusion, and anything that stands in opposition to that conclusion is, in his mind, to be completely ignored. Well, that's not "rational" at all, in the sense of using reason. People who appeal to "common sense" don't want you to use reason. What they want is for you to not think at all.

If you find yourself invoking "common sense" in a debate, the sad fact is this: you haven't done your homework, and you're conceding the logical ground to the other guy and resorting to brute force. Of course, it wouldn't be such a popular catchphrase if it didn't work a lot of the time. Just ask the poor comics dealer.