Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Official Dispatch from the Unfair Humor Department

If you are anything other than a fiery liberal Democrat, you will not find this funny. If you are anything other than a fiery liberal Democrat, you will find it, at best, mildly unfair and at worst downright slanderous.

Be either amused, or be warned.

A Complaint.

I'd love to rely on my hometown newspaper's website for news more than I do, but The Buffalo News's site is, to my way of thinking, a train wreck, and a barely functional one at that.

First, the site is so "busy" as to be unpleasant on the eyes. But as annoying as that is, what bugs me is that the site is not updated with the day's new content until around 9:00 am, which seems to me rather late. I like checking the news when I get up, which is almost always before nine. I suppose they might be thinking that if they update too early, then more people won't bother actually picking up the physical paper. And even then, their updates are always problematic: some stories don't load until well after the update on the main page. Ugh.

Come on guys, the Web's not a new thing. Let's work out the kinks.

Enough Plame to Go Around

(Yeah, bad pun, that. Sue me.)

I'm going to try to avoid commenting on the whole Valerie Plame affair; I figure that anyone familiar with my politics will have a pretty good idea of where I stand here. Suffice it to say that I feel none of the antipathy toward the CIA that Jane Galt appears to believe is the mainstream belief of the left; I've long believed that sometimes you just plain have to have spooks out there doing stuff that's a tad questionable. (It probably comes from all those years of watching James Bond movies as a kid, followed by reading Robert Ludlum novels as a teen.)

Anyway, my general views on this whole business mirror Morat's and Kevin Drum's. Since those fellows (and Darth Swank, as well) are providing lots of good linkage on the Plame affair, I'm going to steer clear of it unless something big breaks.

Wish him luck.

Today's the day Scott begins his job search. I hope his goes, well, better than mine has.

One full turn of the seasons

Bara, my source for all things Iceland, has put up a post comprising one year's worth of photographs of the view from her balcony.

She's got a fine balcony.

(Bara is, among other things, Warren Ellis's web designer and the doppelganger for my novel's heroine.)

Return of the Jedi King

Yeah, I watched it last night. It took a while to load on my dial-up, but I just wrote while it loaded. Simple.

Anyway, I can't really say that the trailer made me drool any more than I'm already drooling over the movie. It is the one film coming out this winter that is an absolute must, as far as I am concerned. But first, I've read the book many times so I know how the story ends; and second, based on the first two movies, I pretty much know what this one's going to look like. This movie is pre-sold, so the trailer was just a nifty tidbit to me.

While I was loading it, I used the little slide-bar thingie to look at specific shots, and at one point I felt a bit of consternation over what appeared to be Elrond pulling a knife on Aragorn; this had me imagining a "Stay away from my daughter, you mortal dog!" kind of thing. Luckily, when I played the actual trailer, this scene turns out to be Elrond giving Narsil to Aragorn. That I can deal with (even if it's not at all the way it goes in the book).


Yup, one of the stories I sent out over the weekend (the "Snow White" story) has been rejected already. It was a pretty nice rejection, with some general commentary about the tone and even some reading suggestions for other authors whose work I should study if I plan to write this kind of thing in the future. (Although, the authors the editor suggested don't strike me as being germane to what I was actually attempting with the story, which poses to me the possibility of other problems with the thing.) All this surprised me, since the editor went on to say that even if I reworked the story accordingly it still probably wouldn't fit with what the publication in question normally does, so this editor took time to give a few general suggestions for a story that's not really what he would print anyway.

Oh well. Later today I'll figure out what market gets this one next.

(I should note that as a rule I have little interest in reworking old stories to fit suggestions like the ones this editor gave. If he had specifically requested a rewrite, that's one thing; and I will probably check out the two writers he named, since both are writers I've heard of but not got round to actually reading yet. But I'm not one to try to retrofit old stories. I'm a "What's next?" kind of guy.)

Maybe if we don't say it, it won't happen.

Last night on one of our fine local TV stations, the weather guy lowered his voice at the end of his forecast segment and said, "And there may be flakes in the air later this week for parts of Western New York." And my eyes rolled heavenward.

Come on, folks, this is Buffalo! Let's put an end to this annual rite of hemming-and-hawing over the first time each fall that the word "flurries" has to be used in a weather forecast. Let's stop acting as if we're in a Harry Potter novel and we're referring to Lord Voldemort in hushed tones. Let's stick out our chins, puff up our chests, and say, "It's gonna snow this week. Ya got a problem with that?"


Monday, September 29, 2003

Is his jersey on backwards?

OK, I've got Monday Night Football on right now, while I'm doing some late writing and whatnot. The Bears (who are right now on the receiving end of a lopsided beating) have just kicked a field goal to get on the scoreboard, 17-3. But what's got me posting is this: Chicago's placekicker, a guy named Edinger. (Funny last name, that....)

Anyway, I watched this guy line up, and he was just standing there with his back to the line of scrimmage while the offensive and defensive lines set up. And he didn't turn to face the play until the snap of the ball. So, taking into account the twisting of his body as he makes the actual kick, in the course of a field goal attempt this guy's body pirouettes a full 270 degrees. Weird.

Oh well. Go Packers.

Where's the screenplay to STAR WARS?!

Via John Scalzi I see 100 Documents that Shaped America.

That's the Gettysburg Address. Fascinating stuff here.

More Retail Sniping

OK, I'll say this for Wal-Mart: to my knowledge, they're not using those God-awful self-serve checkouts in their stores yet. (At least not here. I may be wrong.)

The grocery store nearest my home has one of these set-ups as a replacement for a traditional "Seven items or less" express lane, staffed by a real live cashier. I detest these damn things.

(That is all.)

Too Many Notes

Lynn responds to my post below about Mozart, which was in turn a response to a post of hers about Mozart. Blogistan rules!

Anyway, she makes a valuable point about the way Mozart is viewed these days. We seem to love child prodigies in a "circus freak" kind of way, and Mozart is classical music's ultimate circus-freak, a kid who was writing symphonies when most kids are still struggling to spell "cat" if you spot them the 'c' and the 'a'. The profound work of Mozart's maturity is not often explored for that reason. And if that's not bad enough, there's all that folderol about listening to Mozart making your brain work better, or some such thing. (I'm pretty sure that stuff has been debunked, but I'm not sure.) So Mozart is not only freakish, but good for you! Thus we turn Mozart into a curiosity that is also the musical equivalent of Brussels sprouts or rice cakes. He's shoved off into that realm of things that we know we should listen to more often, but dammit, it's just plain more fun to listen to a Tchaikovsky ballet. (Not to disparage Tchaikovsky ballets, mind you. I adore those, too.)

Also, AC Douglas was also kind enough to leave a pointer in comments to an older piece he wrote for his own blog about Mozart. I seem to remember reading the Norman Lebrecht column to which he's responding, and I recall being mystified at the idea of being crushed beneath the weight of too much Mozart.

Now that's just mean.

I know that the baseball gods like to torment Cubs and Red Sox fans in a manner uncomfortably similar to the way a cat toys with a mouse just before she kills it, but tormenting both sets of fans in the same season? Wow...talk about divine cruelty.

Submissions R Us.

Three stories went out today (well, two stories and a humor piece). I now have five items out at market right now, and the countdown begins on rejections for all five.

CORRECTION: Actually, I have six items out. I forgot to count the portion-and-outline of the Damned Novel. Whoops.

When in doubt, redesign!

Oliver Willis has redesigned his blog, which now has a more "newspaper"-like appearance. He also has obviously heeded my wise advice about permalinks in the interests of clarity and good judgment. I'm always glad to help!

(Actually, I'm not sure Oliver even knows my blog exists. I'm not that big of an egotist.)

Is it REALLY made of pigskin?

NFL week four thoughts.

:: Geez, two crappy games in a row for the Bills. Ugh, yuck, foulness incarnate! (But if they had to lose at home, at least it was to a team that I like. If it had been, say, the Cowboys, I'd be vomiting in seven different colors.)

So what's wrong with the Bills? The running game's complete absence is the main answer. Starting running back Travis Henry sat out after getting hurt last week, but even in the first two games the running game didn't produce. I'm really confused as to why the running game is so nonexistent. It's the same offensive line as last year, plus they added Sam Gash, who is one of the best lead blockers in the business. And yet, the Bills thus far in 2003 cannot run the ball. I don't know if it's a matter of impatience, and they just need to keep pounding it until it opens, or what. But what does worry me is that each game with anemic rushing, even if they win, will make the Bills that much more likely to press last year's first-round draft pick Willis McGahee into service as soon as he's eligible to play and the doctors say his leg won't fall off.

Actually, I'm wondering if part of the problem isn't the offensive line after all -- a pretty big part, as a matter of fact. The Bills used to fall into this trap in the mid and late 1990s: they would start off the season completely unable to generate much offense, the line would get blamed, but as the year went on they'd get better, they'd have a few big games late in the year, and everyone would figure that the o-line was fine and nothing needed fixing in the offseason. And then the next year, the same pattern would emerge. I wonder if the Bills weren't overimpressed with the line's performance last year, and thus did nothing to improve it again in the offseason. Just a thought, but you tend to win (or lose) with the performance of your big guys up front, on both sides of the ball, and Buffalo's thus far hasn't been terribly good.

Also, there's the lack of a consistent number two receiver, although Bobby Shaw seems to be showing signs of life there. Josh Reed was supposed to be that guy, but he's simply not getting open. This really isn't all that surprising; NFL receivers tend to take several years to develop. Peerless Price blossomed last year, and that was his fourth year in the NFL; prior to that, he was generally viewed as an underachiever. Eric Moulds didn't come of age until his third year, and in fact, prior to the 1998 NFL season (when Moulds finally broke out with Doug Flutie at quarterback), the Buffalo News actually labeled Moulds as a rare "bust" for the Bills' drafting team.

And it really killed that at the one time when the Bills desperately needed their defense to stand strong and force the Eagles to go three-and-out, they instead gave up that long touchdown run that sealed the game for Philly. In general, the defense had its share of decent plays yesterday, but they didn't create any turnovers and their tackling was pretty suspect. There were a number of plays yesterday in which an Eagles ball-carrier or receiver would have been stopped had the Bills' defender wrapped him up as opposed to relying on the "big hit" to knock him down.

So, the Bills are 2-2 right now, when I figured they'd be 3-1. Not a disaster, but they've got bigger holes than I thought. And if Gregg Williams wants to keep his job, he needs to get those holes filled, pronto.

:: We're roughly one-quarter of the way through the NFL season, and right now my preseason predictions seem...well, they're not in good shape. Of all the teams I predicted to win divisions, only one -- Pittsburgh -- even has a share of first place. It's a long season, though, and things will probably shake up a bit. I can only hope, anyway.

:: OK, isn't that amazing-looking guy who threw all those touchdown passes for the Vikings yesterday the same guy who once injured himself by headbutting a wall in a touchdown celebration? Am I missing something?!

:: Now it's starting to feel like football season, when it starts to get dark during the late games. This is when I start to get interested in games other than the Bills. I even watched a bit of Kansas City/Baltimore yesterday. Ah, football....


At some point yesterday, September became my best month for traffic yet. And there are still two days to go to pad the lead, especially with those days being Monday and Tuesday, generally my best days for hits. Hoo-ray. (Still bored.)

Search Engine Follies

Some funky stuff noticed lately on the referrals:

:: I am currently Number Seven on Anti-President Bush journals on Google. Now, "Anti-Bush" is a pretty good summation of my political stance, but that's far from my focus here. My blogroll's loaded with folks a lot more interesting in that regard.

:: Yes, I am a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. But no, I do not know the answer to this. Nor, quite frankly, do I care. (McClatchy is the Pirates' owner.)

:: Apropos of my recent posting antics, someone arrived here the other day via this search. I'm sorry I can't provide what's being sought here, but if you want to see a blogger flailing, well, this is the place for you!

:: Just as an experiment: I've been curious as to how long it takes Google to find pages and put them in its database. So, I'm going to stick a weird phrase here and see how long it takes Byzantium's Shores to show up in Google's search results for that phrase. And the weird phrase is..."Armadilloes love vanilla frosting". Start your clocks, now! (Yes, I'm bored.)

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Root Causes

I don't know if SDB has changed his brand of coffee or something, but he's been even more interesting than usual lately. I found his article on farm subsidies fascinating, not just for why they are in general poor policy but for how they hinder the "War on Terror".

A lot of folks on the right get annoyed at the mention of "root causes", and not entirely without reason; examination of root causes tends, to some on the far left, to involve a lot of hand-wringing about what shits we Americans are, complete with rhetorical flourishes like "Bush = Hitler" placards that really do, at times, seem to imply the idea that we had 9-11-01 coming and that it was some kind of cosmic return of the chickens to their roost.

I think that it's important to look into "root causes" like these, not so that we can be "humbled" or "learn why they hate us" and leave it at that, but out of the realization that maybe, just maybe, there are things we've done that have led certain other cultures to embrace terrorism. This strikes me as at least as important to the ultimate goal of defeating terrorism as the short-term military operations such as Afghanistan.

And besides, if we stopped propping up Archer Daniels Midland, maybe we could return to Coke flavored with sugar. (A lot of old-time Coke fanatics insist that the beverage tastes different since the switch to corn syrup as the sweetener.)

Buffalo's Evolution, continued

In my post last week about Ten things I love and hate about Buffalo, I mentioned Buffalo's glorious architecture under "Things I Love", but lamented the lack of striking modern architecture under "Things I Hate". That may be changing, though, with the unveiling two days ago of the design for a new courthouse in downtown Buffalo. Here's what it looks like:

This building, once funding is secured, will be erected on a corner of Niagara Square, the central square in downtown Buffalo that is the hub of the city's radial street pattern. (That's the obelisk visible in the distance.) The building to the right, not seen in full, is Buffalo City Hall, which is the city's most visually-striking building, not only for its architecture but for its positioning: the building is very prominently located, and is "front and center" in any view of the city skyline from the west.

The new courthouse will rise to roughly the "shoulder" of City Hall, so as not to overshadow the city's most distinctive landmark. Of course, buildings don't tend to look the same in reality as they do in artist's renderings, but it would be nice if Buffalo had a beautiful building that didn't date from before the FDR Administration.

(For a good example, you can see the HSBC Center, Buffalo's tallest building, here. Snore.

GGK News

Lurking around the message boards at Bright Weavings, the official site for author Guy Gavriel Kay (whose books, if you haven't read them, are awaiting you with increasing levels of haughty impatience), I learned that Kay's Canadian publisher already has a blurb on the web about his new novel, The Last Light of the Sun, which is coming out next spring. The blurb can be read here, for you folks who like to click links. For those of more impatient character, well, I quote it in full right now.

Over 250,000 books sold! In his eagerly awaited new novel, Guy Gavriel Kay turns his gaze to the northlands, brilliantly evoking the Viking, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic cultures of a turbulent age.

There is nothing soft or silken about the north. The lives of men and women are as challenging as the climate and lands in which they dwell. For generations, the Erlings of Vinmark have taken their dragon-prowed ships across the seas, raiding the lands of the Cyngael and Anglcyn peoples, leaving fire and death behind. But times change, even in the north, and in a tale woven with consummate artistry, people of all three cultures find the threads of their lives unexpectedly brought together...

Bern Thorkellson, punished for his father's sins, commits an act of vengeance and desperation that brings him face-to-face, across the sea, with a past he's been trying to leave behind.

In the Anglcyn lands of King Aeldred, the shrewd king, battling inner demons all the while, shores up his defenses with alliances and diplomacy-and with swords and arrows-while his exceptional, unpredictable sons and daughters pursue their own desires when battle comes and darkness falls in the woods.

And in the valleys and shrouded hills of the Cyngael, whose voices carry music even as they feud and raid amongst each other, violence and love become deeply interwoven when the dragon ships come and Alun ab Owyn, chasing an enemy in the night, glimpses strange lights gleaming above forest pools.

Making brilliant use of saga, song and chronicle, Kay brings to life an unforgettable world balanced on the knife-edge of change in The Last Light of the Sun.

Well, that certainly sounds compelling, even setting that first clause, which sounds like a cross between selling books and selling Quarter-Pounders. The blurb doesn't make any mention as to this being the opening book in any kind of series or multi-volume work, so I have to assume it's a stand-alone.

Who knows, maybe by then I'll have a job and thus be able to buy the damn thing.

UPDATE: It's confirmed that the book is a stand-alone.

And, duh, the answer to last week's Puzzler.

Well, yesterday morning I listened to CarTalk and thus learned the answer to the baseball puzzler that was vexing me the other day. It turns out that I was somewhat on the right track, but I overthought things a bit. The puzzle question, basically is this:

A guy goes into a bar and notes that a baseball game is on TV. He asks the bartender what the game's status is, and the bartender says, "Bottom of the fifth, no score, nobody on, two outs." Then the batter hits a grounder sharply down the first-base line, which the first-baseman cleanly fields - - and then hurls across the field to third base. The third-baseman catches the relay, steps on the bag, the ump signals "Out!", and the inning ends. How is this possible?

Well, the answer (look away, if you're still working it out) is that the guy was not watching the game directly on the TV, but rather in the mirror behind the bar. So it's backwards. Oy.

My own answer, though, was clearly overthought. I assumed that he wasn't watching any game at all, but rather the movie The Pride of the Yankees, in which Gary Cooper plays Lou Gehrig. A bit of lore about that film is that Gehrig, in real life, hit lefty, but Cooper simply couldn't hit lefty without looking horrible. So the filmmakers made him a reverse-image New York Yankees uniform, and in the baseball scenes, shot everything "reversed" so that all they had to do was flip the film-image to make it look right. (Yeah, that's a pretty foggy explanation.) So anyway, I was on the right track with the backwards image, but I did a bit too much thinking. Oh well.

Dictation from God

Lynn has a good post about Mozart. After reading it the other day, I listened to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (Chicago SO, Solti, for those concerned with such details). And a month or two ago, I listened to The Magic Flute, for no particular reason other than that I love The Magic Flute. (It was the first opera I ever saw performed on stage, although that's not really why I love it, since I had already owned two recordings of it by the time I saw it.)

I occasionally refer to my days on Usenet here, and I'll do so again now, because even on the rec.music.movies newsgroup, discussions about classical music - - of which film music is something of a bastard stepchild - - used to break out now and then. One view that came up fairly often, frequently enough so as to be depressingly common, was that Mozart is really not that important of a composer. His music is charming and lovely, to be sure, but he's really only held in high regard because he was one of the greatest child prodigies in music history (only Saint-Saens comes close in this regard, and his music is nowhere near as highly regarded as Mozart's). Mozart is "easy listening", because he's not complex at all. This view reduces Mozart to being a mere "placeholder" in music history, so that the textbooks have something to say of the period between Bach's death and Beethoven's emergence.

How anyone could ever seriously hold this view of Mozart is beyond me. It's one thing to dislike his music (although, to be honest, I find that cognitive state about as mystifying as, oh, creationism), but quite another to argue that Mozart's place in history is overblown. "He wasn't an innovator", they claim, ignoring his elevation of opera and his development of music as related to drama, or ignoring his elevation of the symphony and the concerto; they ignore Mozart's more complex harmonic vocabulary and increased use of chromaticism; they ignore Mozart's championing of new instruments and orchestral sonorities. Another claim is "Mozart's music isn't complex", in which they equate "counterpoint" with "complexity", by which measure just about every composer in history falls short alongside J.S. Bach.

And emotionally, it's as if Mozart's detractors have never listened to anything outside of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; hell, one doesn't even need to listen to all that much Mozart to hear the incredible emotional variety and depth in his work. One can get an idea of it simply by watching Amadeus. The emotive character in Mozart is more tempered than that of Beethoven, but comparing a Classicist to the earliest of the Romantics is troublesome, in any event. Mozart's emotional breadth may be more tempered by the classicist devotion to form and proportion, but there is more emotional variation to be found in Mozart than there is in Bach - - which is to be expected, because Bach's primary musical motivation was a spiritual one.

These are pretty much random thoughts, not really developed into a cohesive statement. But I think what goes on with Mozart is the idea that since he lived in the era of powdered wigs, and since a few of his most famous works sound like music from the era of powdered wigs, then there is little reason to expect his music to appeal to those who live outside the era of powdered wigs. That's an odd viewpoint, and it has little to do with the actual music of Mozart.

All Dollars Lead to Wal-Mart

I've been to Wal-Mart twice in the last three days, and it seems pretty clear to me that they're not even trying anymore to maintain any illusion that they're anything but a giant concrete box to which one flocks to buy stuff at prices purposely designed to funnel money out of the pockets of local business people and into the pockets of people in whatever town it is in Arkansas where the Wal-Mart people are located. Some observations:

:: The floors. Whenever I go to Target, for example, the floors are always clean. Ditto the local supermarkets (most of them). Wal-Mart's floors, though, have that permanent-scuff-mark thing going on that's about what you find in any thirty-year-old Goodwill store. And in some remote corners of the store, the floor is disturbingly close to what you find in a movie theater.

:: The bathrooms. Wal-Mart's bathrooms didn't use to smell, but they do now. And two out of four sinks having running water? Wow. And I love how they're located in an unmarked corridor behind the customer service counter, as if the company is saying, "OK, here's a bathroom. But you gotta find it yourself, and if you gotta wash your hands, find the soap and the water yer damn self."

:: The customer service area. It's just inside the main entrance, which is normal for big-box retailers, but whereas in other stores - - Target, again - - it's always easy to get to, at Wal-Mart it's on the opposite side of a railing and assorted whatnot to make it almost inaccessible from the cash register area. So, if you discover a problem after the point-of-purchase, you literally have to exit the store and re-enter to get to the service desk. Or, you decide that the dollar or whatever isn't worth it. Tricky.

:: I suspect that Wal-Mart employs a team of engineers whose job it is to figure out exactly how much space can be used in their stores for merchandise, and still allow the passage of a single shopping cart in each direction. Each time I go to Wal-Mart - - I average about one visit a month; this week's two was an aberration - - there is more stuff piled in what used to be the space between aisles, which has reached such a point that there are literally new aisles being created where there were none before.

:: Part of Wal-Mart's obvious strategy of cramming more crap inside its walls, at the expense of cart-navigation space, is smaller carts. But still, not small enough that two carts can actually pass one another within an aisle. If two carts meet each other in an aisle, proceeding in opposite directions, one must literally turn around and exit the way one entered. And if someone enters behind you, and someone's coming the other way, you'd better hope the person moving the other way has the presence of mind to realize that the onus of turning around rests on their shoulders; otherwise, you're locked in until one of the other two parties clues in. And if you, as a man, have ended up in this situation by ducking down, say, the "feminine hygiene products" aisle as a shortcut to the toothpaste aisle, well, forget it. You're screwed.

:: Wal-Mart has also abandoned any pretense of making the shelves attractive, in favor of the "Here's the crap, buy it so we can get more crap in its place" approach. Thus, the merchandise is no longer nicely removed from the large carton in which it originally arrived at the store and placed attractively on the shelves; instead, the employees merely use a box-cutter to slash open one entire side of that carton and slap the carton itself on the shelves. (Unless, of course, it's not actually in one of the aisles but instead in one of those islands-of-merchandise Wal-Mart now erects in the formerly-wide spaces that divided one section from another. In that case, the cartons are simply stacked right on the floor, or perhaps on their original wooden shipping pallet.

:: Wal-Mart now entrusts employees who have absolutely no business having their voices broadcast across the store's PA system to read long-winded bulletins about the latest specials over the store's PA system. "Attention shoppers; is this thing on?" is not a phrase one should hear over the speakers. And certainly not twice. And it should never be obvious that, while the poor employee is reading the eight pages of specials (single-spaced, front-and-back) over the PA system, one of her co-workers is making faces and/or obscene gestures in a successful effort to make her laugh.

Everything about Wal-Mart nowadays signals an attitude of grudging acceptance of the customer. I think that Wal-Mart's official business philosophy is now something like this: "Professionalism? Service? Convenience? Pish-tosh! We now have you all trained to come to us, sheep-like, for your two-gallon jugs of laundry soap for a buck and your ten-packs of Froot-of-the-Loom underwear. Abandon hope, foolish mortals, for we shall have your money." And damned if they don't.

UPDATE: Lynn makes a few points, in the comments, that I should probably address. It's important to make the distinction that I can't claim to disparage the entire company, but this does seem to be the way of it in most Wal-Marts I've been in, as well. There are four Wal-Marts in the Buffalo area, and to some degree they're all like this. One of them is actually not as bad, but none of them is remotely as clean, pleasant, or easy to get around in as our Targets. The same is true of the ones I frequented in Syracuse, although there is a Wal-Mart SuperCenter about fifteen miles or so from Syracuse that we went to a couple of times that had none of these flaws. That particular store was spotless and pleasant. I had the same complaints, to a varying degree, about Wal-Marts in the Southern Tier; several in Pennsylvania; and several in West Virginia. I haven't been in a Wal-Mart in a dozen states, but I've been in a bunch of them, and pretty far afield. I've yet to encounter one that I genuinely consider to be superior to Target. (I have been in a couple of crappy Target's, but just as the one indisputably good Wal-Mart I've been in doesn't outweight the generally inferior ones I've frequented, those lousy Target's don't detract from the ones that I really enjoy in Buffalo and Pennsylvania.)

What really puzzles me is that Wal-Mart is a relatively new entity in New York State, with the stores in the Buffalo and Western New York area having been open less than eight years. Target came in just a couple of years later, and those stores in this area are far cleaner and still look new. (This is not a consideration in Syracuse, where Target opened its first outlets just last November.)

It's dangerous, of course, to extrapolate one's experience in a single outlet of a large chain to the entire company. Having worked in large restaurant chains I'm well familiar with people coming in and saying things like "Geez, the one in our town stinks, but this one's nice." (Yes, I've been on the receiving end of it going the other way, too.) But if all politics is local, so too is consumer loyalty. All I have to go on is my experience.

The Simlicans?

Andrew Cory has apparently been playing one of those "Run a city" simulation games, and he's come to a startling revelation about the political affiliation of the automata who live in his little metropolis. Hmmmm….he's probably on to something, but it seems odd that the default game setting is that people move away as soon as they're unhappy about something. Couldn't they program in some civic pride? Or, failing that, couldn't they have people who are, on the one hand, pissed off to the point of showing up at City Council meetings and bitching up a storm (all the while refusing to entertain the idea that maybe they'll need to raise taxes), but still too lazy to actually pack up and move?

Warning: Boring Post ahead.

Jesse, over at Pandagon, is sporting a spiffy new design. Go check him out. (He's a lefty political blogger, for those unfamiliar with him.) His redesign has me thinking a bit about permalinks, and the fact that there's no real convention out there for how to do them.

Jesse's permalinks used to be the actual titles of the posts, but now he's changed that to a time stamp, which is probably the most common method out there. I used to have time stamps, but I didn't like them; my thinking was that nobody cares what time I posted something, and the only way it could be useful is as an alibi in a murder case ("Judge Ito, I couldn't possibly have done in Ron and Nicole, because my blog clearly shows two posts entered at the time of the murders!" "Ah, I see. Bailiff, release him!"). So I did away with the time stamp and changed my permalinks to the phrase "link this entry", which struck me as the best way to do it.

The problem I have with permalinks, on most blogs, isn't that there are so many different ways of doing them, but that in many cases it's not obvious at all where the permalink is. For many bloggers, as I note above, it's the time stamp. But many do something else: Steven Den Beste, for example, uses a small graphic of two chain links, above the entry and next to the time stamp, which is appropriate enough except that the "link" icon doesn't appear in the color of SDB's usual hyperlinks, so unless one directly mouses over it, one doesn't know that icon links to anything. Oliver Willis's permalinks are at the end of the post, also next to the time stamp, but really hard to see: it's a single plus-sign that can be easily overlooked.

The worst, though, are the LiveJournal blogs that I read, such as Bara's and Paul Riddell's. For these, the permalink is actually the link to an entry's comments, which contain the text of the entry and the comments (kind of like your standard Movable Type blog, when you load a specific article instead of the blog's main page), but in many cases this screen uses a default LiveJournal set-up, instead of whatever design tweaks that the blogger has made to his or her main-page template.

So, there are my half-baked thoughts on permalinks. Anyone still reading this post deserves a gumdrop.

Make 'Em Laugh

Donald O'Connor died last night. He's best known, by many and most definitely by me, for his role as Cosmo Brown, best friend to Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) in Singin' In the Rain, which is on my short list of the most perfect works of art ever put on film.

(By the way, I found a nice site devoted to the great MGM musicals - - you know, those movies where at the end, you sigh and say, "They don't make 'em like that anymore….")

Friday, September 26, 2003

By 2000, we'll all be wearing the same jumpsuit and be taking our meals in pill form!

Darth Swank points out a collection of illustrations and cover-art from space books dating from all through the 20th century. It's pretty cool to look at these, not just for the "retro" aspect but in that I grew up reading this stuff -- a lot of these titles are the ones that shaped my fascination with, and hopes for, the future of space travel. In fact, this one is the first space book I remember reading, when I was in first grade, appropriately titled The First Book of Space Travel. (It was written in 1953, four years before Sputnik.)

Well, at least the gas tank doesn't explode in a giant fireball....

TBOGG informs me (well, he informs readers of his blog, of which I am one) that a recall has been placed on the Segway. Apparently those nifty gyroscopes that keep the thing upright don't work so well when the batteries are low. Whoops.

I'm reminded, of course, of the episode of Friends in which Ross and Chandler have an escalating duel of prank messages about one another on their college's alumni bulletin board. It culminates when Chandler posts that Ross has died in a blimp accident; Ross confronts Chandler, who replies, "It kills more than one person every year!"

Could you PLEASE stop reaping for a while?!

A lot of unfortunate deaths lately, and they're all incredibly untimely.

:: Robert Palmer. How incredibly bogus. As an 80s/MTV child, I remember his videos very well.

:: Jaclyn Linetzky. No, not a household name, but anyone with kids and PBS has probably heard her voice, because she was the voice of Caillou, the bald-headed four-year-old, in English episodes of the animated children's show Caillou. The show's a favorite in our home. Ms. Linetzky died in a car crash.

:: Gordon Jump. I used to love WKRP In Cincinnati, on which Jump played the kind-hearted station manager, Mr. Carlson. He also was the Maytag repairman in recent years, and he had a notable couple of episodes as George Costanza's boss on Seinfeld. (BTW, it appears that WKRP is falling victim to the vagaries of music licensing, in a pretty ugly way.)

UPDATE: George Plimpton. Never read him, but still, I gotta think that the Grim Reaper really needs to rethink his priorities.


One of my favorite weekly rituals is the Puzzler on CarTalk. This week's is a pretty odd one about baseball that has me mildly baffled. You can read it here. Anyone have any ideas?

(I do have one idea, but I'm not going to say it for fear that it is stupid, or actually correct.)

So how can we sell democracy THIS year???

Well, this was just sad.

On some weekends I like to watch old episodes of That 70s Show, which are aired on a Canadian station (from Hamilton, Ontario, I believe). This station just had an ad for tonight's "Ultimate Survivor Night", which first consists of the new episode of Survivor, and then followed by…

(My God, I can't believe it)

…their coverage of tonight's elections in Ontario!

That's right, they tied election coverage in with Survivor, complete with that mindnumbing Survivor theme song as they showed clips of their news reporters and people voting and the candidates and whatnot. Yeah, I guess that's one way to look at elections; if you don't do well by your constituents, you get voted off the island (or off the Parliament, in this case). But marketing election coverage to take advantage of some TV show? Oy....

Will It Float?

Hee hee….I'm watching Letterman as I write this, and he's playing "Know Your Current Events" with some woman from Dallas. Letterman cracks, "How 'bout them Cowboys!" and what sounds like six people in the audience bother to applaud. America's team. Yeah, right.

(By the way, what's with the parade of Bush Administration people on Letterman's show lately, anyway? It strikes me as slightly odd that Lynne Cheney and Colin Powell were guests on consecutive nights.)

My guest's pants are on fire! Good thing this is radio....

I don't know if I've ever heard more dishonesty from an NPR guest than what I heard from a guy named Tim Searcy on yesterday's Talk of the Nation. (As of this writing, the link to the segment itself isn't working.) Who is Tim Searcy? He's the Executive Director of the American Teleservices Association - - which means he's the Telemarketer-in-Chief.

This guy was incredible. He kept spouting the nonsense about how the telemarketing industry will lose two million jobs over this, which is an absurd figure, really; and he seemed to know how absurd it was, because he kept bringing up sympathetic imagery, pointing out that it's single moms and minorities who are doing the calling. Here's why he was so dishonest:

:: Little mention was made of the sorts of calling that will still be allowed. Non-profit organizations can still call, politicians can still call, and the big one that doesn't get mentioned: companies with whom you have an established business relationship can call. And that last one is pretty hazy, because it doesn't take much at all to establish a "prior business relationship". You know all those forms you sign when you buy any appliance bigger than, say, a toaster? Those will establish business relationships. And what else might, I wonder? If you subscribe to TIME Magazine, does that mean you have a business relationship with AOL-Time-Warner? And if so, does that mean that you're open to calls from all of their respective marketing departments? I'm not entirely sure, to be honest, but I have my suspicions.

:: Business-to-business calling isn't going anywhere, either.

:: I can't speak for other locales, but the telemarketing firms in Buffalo are always hiring, not just for outgoing cold calls but for research calls (I'm not sure if these will be forbidden by the List), and for collections calls (which are subject to regulation that is separate from the Do-Not-Call List), but also for inbound customer service calls. Believe me, the call centers aren't going to be locking the doors anytime soon.

:: The Do-Not-Call List applies to specific phone numbers, not to families. So if you're signed up, and you move in two years and therefore get a new number, guess what! You can get called again. And believe me, they're going to be on top of it. Especially since the List is set up so that there is a lag period between when you sign up for the List and when they have to stop calling you. People move a lot in this country.

:: Finally, the "We'll lose two million jobs" argument. That would pretty much double the number of jobs lost in the current economic morass, wouldn't it? Does anyone really believe that the Do-Not-Call List will do more damage to the telemarketing industry than has befallen manufacturing in general in this country? What a doltish argument.

What was most depressing was that host Neil Conan made no effort to challenge this guy on his numbers. Good Lord. I love to listen to NPR, but sometimes they really do bend over backwards to be nice, and it's annoying when they do. (Granted, I did not hear the entire show, so I may actually be wrong on this point. When I get a chance to listen to the whole segment, once it's available, if I'm wrong here I'll retract.) One caller in to the segment did challenge the numbers, and this Searcy guy very nicely dodged by saying something like "That's wrong on so many levels", and then retreating to "If you support this list, you are objectively pro-tossing the single mommy on the street" nonsense.

Yeah, I'm gonna go and spit.

I'm not sure what Matthew Yglesias is referring to here, but I suspect he might need to pay a bit more attention to the TV that's on Sunday afternoons, as opposed to Sunday mornings. Turn off the C-SPAN and watch some ESPN, Matt!

I assume that Brian Williams, when moderating the latest debate amongst the Democratic presidential candidates, referred to the eleven men on a football team, by which he undoubtedly meant the eleven players who are allowed on the field at any one time. This is why teams will get penalized if they happen to have twelve men on the field while a play is in progress, and why in a city where the fans are especially loud and rambunctious in the stands, the phrase "The Twelfth Man" is used to refer to them.

(By the way, anyone who pays attention to football sooner or later gets to see Steelers head coach Bill Cowher's head nearly explode as he takes exception to a referee's call. By far the best was some years back when his Steelers got flagged for twelve men on the field, when they really only had the specified, and legal, eleven. He got a photograph of the play in question at halftime - - football teams take huge numbers of photos of every play, for coaching analysis after the game - - and then he proceeded to track down the offending ref and stuff the photo down the guy's shirt. It was a classic moment. Cowher got fined pretty heavily, if memory serves. I think that game might have been against the Vikings.)

UPDATE: It turns out that Matthew probably knew what he was talking about, and Brian Williams muffed the analogy. In his opening remarks to the debate (official transcript here), Williams said: "We have an extraordinary field of Democratic candidates, extraordinary, for one, for its size. We are one short of an official NFL roster at 10." So, he was clearly trying to allude to eleven men on the field, but he mis-spoke and allude to the actual roster, which is actually 53 men, if memory serves. So I didn't catch Matthew in a funny error after all. Bummer.

A Chicken in Every Road!

In exactly three years, I will meet the age requirement to be President of the United States. My campaign begins now. I know that 2006 is not an election year, but there are ways of dealing with these things.

First, I am taking donations via that PayPal link so I can buy a clone army, which I will use to....

Thursday, September 25, 2003


Rhos Dirion from the col west of Twmpa. (Locations in Wales.)

Someday I want to travel to Great Britain, so I can see all the locales associated with Arthurian legends and the Celtic legends that preceded them, such as the Welsh Mabinogion. I found an incredibly nifty photo gallery of Welsh locales here.

And here, for fans of William Wordsworth, is Tintern Abbey:


Via Bookslut, I discover more fuel for my never-ending hatred of Entertainment Weekly.

Information I Could Have Done Without

Following Sheila's instructions, I went over to this writer's blog to leave a note of encouragement. (And I was sufficiently impressed after a dip in her archives that I added her to the blogroll, so say Hello to Sarah Jane Elliott, a writer-to-be from Canada.) It seems that Ms. Elliott had a story rejected by Realms of Fantasy, and needs some good words. Fair enough.

Except that she indicates that at least she got the yellow rejection letter, not the "Blue Form of Death".

At that point my head thudded upon the table, because my most recent rejection -- for my "Snow White" retelling, the one that just poured out of me a few months back -- was from Realms, and it came on the Blue Form of Death. I'm taking this to mean that the story didn't even make it past the first reader at Realms.

Of course, another clue was that the Blue Form of Death lists a handful of probable reasons for rejection, among which the phrase "it simply didn't stand out" was highlighted. This kind of irritated me, in that it tells me absolutely nothing. "It didn't stand out" is semantically the same as "We found ten or twelve better stories that were indisputably better than yours", which is pretty damned obvious since I'm looking at a rejection slip.

I am probably in a minority, but I simply don't want an editor's half-baked thoughts on why they're rejecting the story; those thoughts, given as they always are in a total vaccuum, are of no use to the story at hand and they provide no real lesson for the stories that are in the offing. So I'd much prefer to leave it at "Thanks for the submission, but we can't use it" and send me on my way. I want a "Yes", or I want a "No". That's it.

Now, if you want to give me a more detailed reason, fine. (Weird Tales does this nicely.) But the Realms approach -- "We can't take time to tell you why we don't want your work, but it could be this, this, this or this", with the appropriate "this" highlighted -- is rather bogus. But I suppose it's better than the Asimov's rejections, which I am told are more like this: "The vast majority of submissions here suck, and yours is probably in that number. Here are some reasons why most stories suck. Have a nice day."

But even that is small condolence, because -- guess what -- my baseball story is currently at Asimov's. I can't wait.

AT LAST!!! (warning: achievement of dubious worth ahead)

Regular readers of this space will also be familiar with my quixotic obsession with my ranking on the Truth Laid Bear Ecosystem, and specifically my bizarre obsession with my ranking as compared with that of blogger William Burton, whose blog stubbornly refuses to fall much lower than it is right now despite the fact that it has gone un-updated for almost eight months now.

Well, today I checked and I now outrank William Burton. I am currently a "Marauding Marsupial", and my rank today is 403rd on the Ecosystem. William Burton is 506th. Huzzah! Let there be milk and honey throughout all the land, and let us sing with the voices of angels!

Quickie Political Hits

Here are a few interesting things I've found out and about Blogistan today, in a lefty-political vein:

:: Michael Moore answers some of his critics' objections. (via Oliver Willis)

:: John Scalzi on dishonesty in the current administration. This sums up a great deal of how I feel about things right now.

:: Matthew Yglesias has some thoughts about Presidential succession. This one's not particularly lefty, but still interesting in a wonky kind of way.

:: I was wondering how long it would take Gregg Easterbrook, who seems to increasingly blend good writing with a bizarro-world view of reality, to migrate his fixation on Hillary Clinton's byline from his Tuesday Morning Quarterback columns on ESPN.com to his TNR weblog. And the answer is: today.

Could it BE the last season?

Regular readers of this space will know that I make no apologies for my never-ending love of the show Friends, which begins its final season tonight. For those not keeping track (i.e., those poor deluded souls who think that Survivor is interesting), this year will be an abbreviated season for Friends: there will be only eighteen new episodes, with the balance consisting of classic episodes chosen by the fans. I don't know about that particular aspect of this season, since the show's been in syndication for several years now, which means that pretty much any episode can be guarateed to show up within a certain time frame, and since the show's first four seasons are now on DVD. But yeah, I'll end up watching those reruns anyway, because not only do most of the shows still make me laugh, there are some that even make me tear up.

How do I hope Friends goes out? Well, I hope they don't lead up to some big "capstone" moment for the show, the way MASH kind of had to. For my money, the best finale episodes of long-running TV series were the ones for Cheers and Star Trek: The Next Generation, both of which managed to tell stories that delved deeply into the shows' early, foundational years but also didn't feel the need to draw some big conclusion to the proceedings. When both shows ended, you still got the feeling that the next day, Sam would show up to open the bar and that the Enterprise would go on exploring the galaxy.

I hope that Friends doesn't do a MASH-like finale, with the characters each going off to some fate totally separated from the others. (Yes, we know that Joey will, since we know he's moving on to a spin-off next season, but that's it.) The MASH finale had to be that way, because it dealt with the war ending. Probably the most maligned finale episode ever is Seinfeld's, and with good reason: while I loved the idea of putting these incredibly shallow and narcississtic characters on trial for basically being themselves, the actual execution of the idea ended up not being very funny. And the finale of The X-Files was a really good episode, but it was handicapped by coming at least a year after it should have (and probably two years, really).

Unlike the writer of this MSN article, whose reading of psychological baggage into Friends is a lot creepier than anything in the show itself, I don't really have much of an opinion on specific things that must happen in the final season. Generally, I think Ross and Rachel should end up together, but I don't need a big wedding for the two of them in the finale. I don't need to see the entire gang break up, with Chandler and Monica moving to Chicago or some such thing. Basically, the show's writers have done exceedingly well for nine years now; I'm willing to go along for a tenth.

(But there must be a final cameo for Janice. Maybe she and Gunther can end up together?)

We're men. It's what we do.

Darth Swank nearly got himself purged from my blogroll yesterday, with this post of a Salma Hayek photo gallery. I mean, that's bad enough in itself - - I have work to do, dammit! - - but he didn't mention that the picture he shows on his blog links to a significantly larger version of the same picture, and when you scroll about halfway down…well, I just can't have that. Good Lord!

(Oh, heavens…that gallery is just part of a vastly bigger site of such galleries…of other women…)

Buffalo Rules! (except for when it sucks)

Scott Secrest once again rips off an interesting blogging idea, this one ten things he loves and ten he hates about where he lives. (He lives in Dallas; that he was able to come up with nine - - I am granting food, on the basis of my one experience with Texas barbecue - - amazes me.) Ever one to swipe an idea for a post from some innocent bystanding blogger, here are ten things I love and ten things I hate about Buffalo.

Things I love:

:: Culture. For a city Buffalo's size, the cultural opportunities here are great. There is a very lively theater scene, the Buffalo Philharmonic is an outstanding ensemble, there are a number of art museums and galleries. Buffalo is also home to the Goo Goo Dolls and Ani DiFranco.

:: Architecture. Yeah, I could probably list this under "Art", but then again…Buffalo is a treasure house of fine architecture, much of it dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

:: Food. Buffalo is a great food city. Hell, we'd deserve a great food rep on the basis of Buffalo-style chicken wings alone, but there are a lot of fine restaurants here. You can pretty much find anything here (with the increasingly annoying exception of dim sum).

:: Weather. Yes, you read that right. Buffalo does get a ton of snow, but we know how to deal with it. (We're not like those places that are completely shut down after an inch of snow, like, oh, Dallas.) In fall, we are treated to the best autumn leaves outside of Vermont. Our summers are wonderful - - we've never once hit a hundred degrees in all the years they've kept stats. The only downside is spring; it's short, cold and rainy.

:: The Buffalo and Erie County Public Library. I've sung the praises of this institution many times, but having access to a great metropolitan library system is amazing, truly amazing. Literacy is pretty high here.

:: The Bills. Need I say more? This is the best football town in the Sagittarius Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy.

:: Proximity to the Great Lakes. Actually, I love the entire Great Lakes Region, and I don't think I ever want to live more than fifty miles or so from the Lakes.

:: Location, location, location. Buffalo is perfectly located for day-trips elsewhere. I know that sounds weird - - I love Buffalo because it's easy to go someplace else - - but it's true, really. Rochester, Syracuse, Erie, Toronto, Cleveland, Pittsburgh. Then Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, et cetera beyond that.

:: Canada. This could be filed under "Location", I suppose, but the fact that an international border lies ten miles away rules.

:: Natural splendor. In addition to being right on Lake Erie, Buffalo is thirty miles away from Lake Ontario. Niagara Falls is twenty-five miles away. The Southern Tier region, with its hills and ski resort towns, is forty miles south. The great Finger Lakes region is two hours away.

OK, time for the flip side. Things I hate about Buffalo.

:: City politics. Buffalo has a lot of problems, and the political machinery almost seems purposely created to keep things from getting fixed. It astounds me how bad things are, and yet last year Buffalo re-elected the Mayor who has presided over the disastrous slide to a third term over no opposition, and this year we're prepared to do the same with our County Executive.

:: Modern architecture. Buffalo's old buildings are astounding; Buffalo's new buildings are merely utilitarian and uninspiring.

:: Bad decisions. This could go under politics, but Buffalo has elevated bad decision making to an art form. A great natural waterfront? Naturally, we built a six-lane thruway right between downtown and the water. And so on. I could list these all day, but I won't. You get the idea.

:: Sports lore: Boston complains about Bucky Dent and Bill Buckner. Buffalo, though, has Super Bowls XXV, XXVI, XXVII, XXVIII; Homerun Throwback, Wide right; No goal; and more.

:: Tim Russert. Yeah, he's from Buffalo. Sorry, folks.

:: Chain bookstores. Not that they killed Buffalo's indy bookstores, because they didn't, not really. But I live in Orchard Park, one of Buffalo's "Southtowns" - - the collective local term for the southern suburbs. All of Buffalo's big bookstores - - including the indy's who are left - - are in the Northtowns. So I gotta drive all the way across town for books. (Given my current financial situation, this may be a good thing.)

:: The job market. There isn't one.

:: Being in a "Has-been" city. Buffalo is pretty much ignored by the national press, in terms of coverage of urban issues.

:: The local news stations. "If it bleeds it leads" is the rule here, and not a single story goes by without the anchor person reminding us that "You heard it here first". And the race to find a local connection to every story of national import is really annoying.

:: Timothy McVeigh. Yeah, he was from here too. Ugh.

So, how about all of your cities?

Good News

The Nigerian single mother, who had been sentenced to death by stoning for violating Islamic law, has been acquitted by an appeals court.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Bartlet For America, a follow-up.

OK, I've just finished watching the season premiere of The West Wing. I'll wait a few weeks before I attempt to assess the new direction of the show, but just a couple of bullet thoughts on this one:

:: The direction was just fine. I loved the alternating between the hectic stuff of the West Wing and the quiet of the White House Residence. I liked some new camera work and new lighting effects.

:: I think the show's core actors, the regulars who have been there since Day One (and I include guest stars like Timothy Busfield as Danny, NiCole Richardson as Margaret, and all the rest) now have so strong a feel for their characters that even if the dialogue as written isn't quite what Aaron Sorkin might have done, they can still make it sound like it. I suspect that a Sorkin departure would have been far more harmful to the show after Season Two than after Season Four.

:: If they want to make an alternate-universe West Wing focusing on President Walken's Republican administration, I just might watch it. I liked how he seemed a strong leader, gutsy and very quick to make a decision without being impulsive, and with a certain bit of wisdom.

:: The scene where drunk and grief-stricken Bartlet storms into the Oval Office and starts screaming incoherently at President Walken was really well played.

:: That was a joke for people who might have the show on tape and haven't watched it yet. That didn't happen.

E pur si muove

The spacecraft Galileo, and its demise this past Sunday, is the subject of what I consider to be Steven Den Beste's best post ever. Read it. It's not just about Galileo, but also about why NASA has had mission failures. But it's not gloom-and-doom, and I have to like any post about space exploration and space science that ends with the sentence "The best is yet to come."

Yeah, Steven, I know you said a few days ago that putting together a book of your thoughts, of any sort, would be too much like work. But if you did put out a book of your science and engineering stuff, I'd read it. (Just leave out that post about Attack of the Clones, though. Not your finest hour. Heh.)

Bartlet For America!

Season Five of The West Wing kicks off this evening, and it begins the post-Aaron Sorkin era. The majority of the reviews I've seen of tonight's episode online are positive, although the ones that are negative are really negative. As shocked as I was at Sorkin's abrupt departure last year, I'm holding out hope that it will be fine. The show has four years behind it, and I did get the feeling that while Sorkin's storytelling abilities were still as strong as ever, his dialogue for TWW was taking on a "sameness". I'll be glad, really, to see some other directions taken, and I'll certainly be glad to see conversations where the most common words are not "the thing" and "yeah". (Ever notice how TWW characters always respond affirmatively with "Yeah"?)

One scene that I'd like to see is Josh and Donna walk together from the White House front door all the way through the building to their offices, in one of those long tracking shots the show always does, and yet not say a word as they do so. I think that would be pretty funny.

And I am looking forward to a return to more "nuts and bolts of politics" type stuff going on. I just hope they don't turn to Law and Order-style, "Ripped from the headlines!" stories. And I'd sort of like it if they'd back off the foreign policy stuff, not because I disagree with anything they've done or anything like that, but because it always throws me out of a story when they refer to countries that don't really exist.

(Of course, it's possible to go too far the other way. I caught the first couple of minutes of that NCIS show the other night, and it actually had a guy playing President Bush. And not just "Back of the head" or "Going around the corner" shots, mind you; this guy actually interacted with the show's characters. The guy they cast did a pretty good Bush, but I just couldn't take anything seriously after that. And now that I think of it, it seems that Presidents pose problems to filmmakers in general. I remember the horrible digital cut-outs of President Clinton that were injected into Contact, an otherwise terrific movie. It's possible to go too far in the search for realism, because there is a certain amount of illusion that can never be totally disspelled.)

Mmmmmm, steamed gentile....

Via Atrios, I see that the beef industry wants to come up with Cheeseburger French Fries, which would literally be a meat-and-cheese combo "molded" and processed to look like a French Fry. The hope is, of course, to get these into school cafeterias. More and more I'm thinking that whenever I get some extra money, I'm sinking it into stock in WeightWatchers.

But then, I think these might be just great as bar food, especially after a couple of beers. Pour some melted cheese over these…my God, I'm becoming Homer Simpson.

Chickens in the Mist, continued.

(What on Earth?!)


President Cheney talked to Tim Russert
about the persistent problem with Iraqi
chickens, and the way our troops keep
using them for target practice when they
cross the road. Of course, Cheney's
explanation makes no sense, but you can't
expect Russert to ask him any real questions,
such as why all those chickens are crossing
Iraqi roads in the first place. I'll have more
to say about this later.

LAST WEEK, I had some thoughts
about General Wesley Clark and his deal
with chickens. I came to a startling new
idea about all this. More later.

OH, COME ON! Andrew Sullivan
won't get off the subject of Carol Mosley
Braun's recent announcement that she would
serve no chickens at her campaign stops.
He seems to literally think it's because
Mosley Braun worships chickens, and she
always pulls to the side of the road when
a line of them cross the road. Andrew
doesn't seem to be able to tell the difference
between a chicken and a duck. More later.

me about Operation Chicken. More later.

Hmmmmm...should the blood gush, or merely trickle?

In the course of writing my fantasy novel-in-progress, I've found myself waffling on the extent to which I describe violence in the battles. Not that I'm squeamish, really, but there's a balance to be struck in that kind of thing. But after reading about one-fourth of The Iliad, I've got a lot of new perspective. That work is chock full of passages like this:

"With that he [Diogenes] hurled and Athena drove the shaft
and it split the archer's nose between the eyes - -
it cracked his glistening teeth, the tough bronze
cut off his tongue at the roots, smashed his jaw
and the point came ripping out beneath his chin."

And that's one of the more tame bits of violent description. It makes me partly wonder if all the hand-wringing about violence in our media might not be, just a teeny-tiny bit, a lot of sound and fury over nothing. The Iliad is one of the central works in all of Western Literature, and a lot of it is blood, guts and gore.

(Translation of The Iliad by Robert Fagles.)

A Question about Vouchers

I've been following a couple of discussions regarding public schools and private schools and vouchers and all that kind of thing, and there's something I'm not sure I've ever seen addressed in the whole voucher discussion: what happens if the voucher doesn't pay for the entire tuition bill at any of the private schools? Are those parents screwed? Can they use the voucher to pay tutors? Do they have to take out student loans just to get their kid through grade school? Just wondering.

It is surely to their credit....

A surprising consequence of Hurricane Isabel last week is that, as the storm approaches, the soldiers whose duty it is to stand guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery were given permission to abandon their posts.

Those soldiers refused.

They remained at their posts, maintaining a tradition of stewardship and a continuity of service that has lasted since 1930.

I take enormous comfort in the knowledge that, even in times like these, such commitment to duty still exists.

(Jason Streed posted on this over at Collaboratory as well.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

I do not think about things I do not think about.

From the Associated Press: "I appreciate people's opinions, but I'm more interested in news," the president said. "And the best way to get the news is from objective sources, and the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world."

Wow. We now have a "Navel-gazer-in-Chief".

Yeah, that's probably a cheap shot, but are we really to believe that Bush's own advisers are "objective", and that their decisions and recommendations are not driven by ideology at all? And is the President really admitting that he makes no effort to educate himself and to learn for himself the vagaries of the issues facing him on any particular day? At least with Presidents Clinton and Bush the Elder, I got the feeling that even if I thought they were full of crap, which was quite often, the President had at least made some kind of thought process on his own.

(No, I didn't get that feeling with Reagan either, which is one of many reasons I tremble for my country when I head GWB referred to as Reagan's true political heir. As for the earlier Presidents of my lifetime, I wasn't really aware enough of Carter to know one way or the other. But I suspect that it was that way with him, and with Ford and most definitely Nixon, from what I've read of their Administrations.)

I hope you never do, Wesley!

Wil Wheaton reports that he's never done any drug outside of alcohol, and he's not entirely sure why. No, not that he sees no reason to avoid drugs, but rather that he's never been terribly tempted to do so.

Funny how Wheaton avoids making any mention of the anti-drug speech Wesley Crusher receives from Tasha Yar in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Symbiosis", which is one of the most horribly-awful moments in all of Star Trek. I'm assuming that Wil blocked those memories from his brain.

That's just what they'll be expecting us to do....

Via Oliver Willis, I note that former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, some of whose beliefs might be more appropriate in the skull of a person named "Fox Mulder", is being courted by the Green Party.

I'm taking this as official permission for me to pay no attention at all to the Green Party in 2004.

This Isn't Denmark, but There's Still Something Rotten

One of my favorite TV shows of all time, Millennium (at least its first two seasons), is not available on DVD in the United States.

This show, however, is.


Soon to be More Machine than Man

Nefarious Neddy links to a photo of Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode III, complete with longer hair (meant to bridge the prequels with the 1970s-hairdos of A New Hope) and a look in his eyes that says, "Whoever I'm looking at is about to die, most horribly!"

What impressed me most about Hayden Christensen's portrayal of Anakin in Attack of the Clones was how much he relied on his eyes to convey emotion, and not just in the obvious scenes like when his mother dies in his arms. In the waterfall scene, when he breezily proposes that a dictatorship might not be the worst thing and Padme blows it off as a joke, there's something in his eyes that says, "Yeah...I'm joking...not serious at all..."

Guilty, Your Honor

Via His Swankness, I perused the Museum of Bad Fads for a bit. And yes, I did spend at least two of my college years wearing Zubaz pants.

Yeah, tacky-as-hell, I know. But for a college student who rarely got more than five hours of sleep in any one night, they were perfect. It also helped that my college was in the relative backwaters of small-town Iowa, which allowed for a certain "What the heck is he wearing?" factor on the part of people who had never seen such a thing before.

The problem with Zubaz pants, though, was how incredibly thin they were. So in winter, when the winds would kick up in Western Nebraska and proceed uninhibited all the way to Ohio, well....frostbite was a concern.

Asian Art

Teresa Nielsen Hayden points out a gallery of art by Yoshida Hiroshi (from a Smithsonian collection), a Japanese artist who blended Western and Japanese techniques in making his prints of Far East locales. It's all gorgeous stuff. Teresa links individual prints, so check her post for the good ones. One which really caught my eye is this, the Island Palaces in Udaipur, India:

Fans of the James Bond movies should recognize the Island Palaces from their use in the film Octopussy.

When perusing these, make sure you click through to the larger versions. For instance, in the Island Palaces painting, when you check the larger version the attention to detail in the reflections of the Palaces and the distant mountains in the water is much more evident.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Those Autumn Leaves....

It's officially fall. I love fall. Fall is the best time of year. I love leaves falling, crispness in the air, weather that screams out for a pot of chili for dinner. I love it when it's slightly too cold to go out without a jacket but slightly too warm to go out with one. I love the beginning of football season and the climax of baseball season. And so help me, I even love seeing the Christmas decorations in the stores in October.

But then, I have it on good authority that I'm somewhat off-kilter.

My First, and Only, comment on the Emmy Awards

I caught just a couple of minutes of the Emmys last night (I always want to type that "Emmies", by the way). The only awards show I ever really like watching is the Oscars, just because…well, I don't know. Just because, I guess. But I caught enough of it to know that I really wish Jon Stewart had a network show. That's all.

One more blog, and he gets a set of steak knives.

And, on his other blog, John Scalzi talks about reading speed. He apparently reads really fast. I'm not sure if I'm a fast reader or not. I know that I can be; when I first read Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, I got through them all in less than two weeks (both trilogies). But I had a college room-mate who encountered them for the first time when he picked up my copies, and he polished them off in about three days.

I also tend to have multiple books going at once, and those will fall into categories: what I call "Waypost" books, meaning books I intend to finish fairly quickly, and "Companion" books, which are the books that I dip into a small amount at a time. Thus, right now one of my "Waypost" books is James Clavell's Shogun, which I'm about one-fifth of the way through, while The Iliad is one of my "Companion" books - - I tend to read no more than four pages or so of it in a day. I also try to get through books that I'm reviewing for GMR faster than I do books that I'm reading for my own amusement and amazement, because there is a certain obligation connected with those books.

I'm well-acquainted with the "Book so good I wish it didn't have to end" phenomenon - - Guy Gavriel Kay's books do it to me, frex - - but I don't translate that into slower reading. If anything, I tend to plow through them even faster, because I can't help myself. I'm a big fan of allowing myself to be swept away by narrative, and pacing myself in reading simply goes against every part of my being. I read a Gene Wolfe essay about Lord of the Rings once, in which Wolfe wrote that when he first read LOTR he allowed himself a single chapter a day, but with the provision that he could re-read anything up to that day's chapter to his heart's content. I couldn't do that. When I get a book that commands me to keep reading, I plow ahead until I either finish or I realize that if I don't put the damn thing down now I am going to only get about four hours' sleep.

Finally, John says that he envies people who read slower, because - - I am paraphrasing - - they get to spend more time in the authors' worlds. I think I envy John more, though. If there's one thing about death that scares the living crap out of me, it's that it will inevitably happen at a time when I've still got a pile of books to get through. But then, that's true for anyone, no matter how fast they read.

(By the way, I wonder if there is any correlation between reading speed and writing output?)

Increase your traffic! Free viagra!

John Scalzi provides some pointers on how to ask other bloggers for links to one's own blog. It's all good advice, so anyone just starting out should go see what he has to say.

I typically don't do this. I've actually done it twice, and both times I felt mildly uncomfortable about it. Neither instance resulted in a link, and after the second one I pretty much decided I wouldn't bother trying again. But occasionally it's tempting. I have left links to posts of mine in other bloggers' comment threads, if I wrote something here on the topic of the thread in question that was too long-winded to actually post in the thread. But actually e-mailing someone to say, "I comment on this on my blog today" just doesn't appeal to me. (Plus, with services like the Ecosystem and Sitemeter and Technorati and all the rest, e-mails like that can actually be redundant, if the blogger's paying attention to such things.)

Part of my problem with it is that it seems to me like begging, which in some ways it probably is. Sometimes, when I write something that seems to me fairly coherent if not downright insightful (shut up, you!) and no one notices it outside of my regular readers, it can feel somewhat like those times in junior high when the popular kids were talking about something you personally knew a lot about, but they wouldn't let you in on the conversation. Of course, that's not really the case (mostly), but with blogging being as isolated a hobby as it is, that's rather how it feels.

And then there's the disconnected feeling one gets when a "throwaway" post, in which one just tosses off a snarky rant about something that's not generally what one writes about, actually does get noticed and linked by others. "Harumph!" one thinks. "I bleed intellectual stuff every day and nobody cares, but when I let loose with some random anger, that gets noticed!" Well…yeah, in way, that's what happens. What to do there is just accept it and hope that some of the new visitors following the unexpected links stick around for all the good stuff. That's how readerships get developed.

Just a couple of other thoughts on this: If you decide that you do want to e-mail other bloggers for links, don't shoot for the big boys immediately. Try for some of the second-tier ones out there - - again, the Ecosystem is a good guide - - because those bloggers probably don't get as many "Hey, I commented!" e-mails as the Instapundits and Atrios's and SDBs out there. And a good trick that I've employed from time-to-time is the "HTML Tutor" role. Now, I am no genius when it comes to page design, but if you happen across a blogger who writes something like "I'd like my blog to look like _____" or "I wish I could figure out how to display _____" or something similar, and you know how to do it, e-mail them with the instructions on how to do so, and make sure you give them your URL. If they're classy - - and by far, most bloggers are - - they will thank you publicly with a link, and if they are classy and they like your content, they'll put you in their blogroll. Bloggers like being helped along, and they will remember who did the helping.

Gone With the Wind (not THAT one, though)

Tom Burka puts aside the political humor for this post, and dammit, he's still funny.

You guys are the suckiest bunch of sucks who ever sucked!

Boy, what a crappy game that was. But, not totally unexpected: the Dolphins seem to be living up to their usual modus operandi: starting the season strong, which will presumably be followed by a major fade in November and December. The Bills usually lose game in Miami if they're scheduled in September, so the fact that they lost this one doesn't really surprise me. The next time these two teams meet will be the second-to-last game of the year for both, on December 21. Circle that date now.

I wasn't surprised that the Bills had difficulty getting their passing game opened up, really. I was surprised at the complete failure of the Bills' running game. I don't just mean they had trouble running the ball; they literally couldn't run the ball, and that's just a week after Travis Henry had 21 carries for a mere 26 yards in the previous game. So now I'm wondering if last year wasn't an indicator of Henry's talent so much as a career year. I really hope this gets on track soon; otherwise the Bills will be sorely tempted to rush Willis McGahee into play later this year when he's cleared to return from his injury, and I want him to sit as much of the year out as possible. (The guy's a potential superstar, but that injury is not one you want to risk by coming back too early.) The Bills seemed to abandon the running game almost immediately, and they too quickly took on the look of flailing on offense, which played right into Miami's hands.

And I have no idea what was up with that trick play in the second quarter. That's two weeks in a row that the Bills have tried a trick play and had it go disastrously awry. The only upside here was getting yet more evidence that Joe Theissman has no idea what he's talking about, ever: he babbled on about how the Dolphins' defensive line came up and screwed up the halfback option pass, and how the Dolphins' cornerback read the play all the way, blah blah blah…and not once did he mention the fact that Travis Henry underthrew the ball something awful, not putting it deep enough and hanging it in the air.

The Bills' defense played very well, especially with being on the field for so long. They even showed more signs of a pass rush. So, I'd say that the Bills need to pay the running game less lip service and pay it more game service. Don't abandon the run so quickly, Gregg Williams! Anyhoo, next up the Bills have a home game against the Eagles, who are 0-2 and coming off a bye week. That'll be a tough game.

:: The Vikings are not only 3-0, but all three wins are division wins. Impressive.

:: Who are these unscoring guys wearing the San Francisco uniforms?

That's about all. Once again, the day was too nice for a lot of football-watching.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Chickens in the Mist, part the fifth.


:: S.L. VIEHL.

(Note: this bit of parody is being offered today because the defenseless pigeon Honored Victim has, most graciously, sponsored Byzantium's Shores with the Blogger people, which means that the banner ad is now gone. Thanks to a classy person!)

What a fine club: The SFWA has decided to revise its rules for poultry membership. As of January 1, 2009, only turkeys will be allowed to join, and then only if they stay on their side of the road. The SFWA people are a bunch of road-crossing-chicken snobs. That's why I don't go to cons.

I'm tired: I went to bed at 3:00 a.m., and I woke up at 3:13. Yeah, I know, but it's Florida and it's hot, and besides, the real-estate guy didn't tell me when I bought this house that my street is a major route for the Migratory Chicken. Clucking bastards…but anyway, I decided to stay up. I wrote 4,587 words by six, taking a break for a quick breakfast of fresh eggs (benefits of migrating chickens outside my doorstep). Then I wrote 9,482 more words before lunch. After lunch, I had to delete 5,233 words because they were all "mellifluous". (Literally. I actually used the word "Mellifluous" five thousand times. It happens when you're distracted by chickens.)

Oooooh, pretty! I found some wonderful bedsheets today with pictures of chickens on them. I'll use them in a quilt. Wouldn't it be cool if I could find some panels with pictures of roads too? Then my quilt could go, "chicken-road-chicken-road-chicken-road"….

Lit snobs: Oh, so Harold Bloom doesn't like chickens! Well, he can just sit in his ivory tower and eat game hens, then. I'll bet he's just jealous because they cross my road and not his. Or else he sits on his porch and throws empty cans at them…"Git outta my street, chickens!"

Won't anyone please think of the Children!!

Via MeFi: It's Banned Books Week. As always, many of the titles on the Most Challenged 100 Books List are surprising: How To Eat Fried Worms? Well, I recall not liking it in fourth grade, but banning it? Yeesh....anyway, the Judy Blume quote at the top of the page laments books that won't get written because they might end up on this list. Maybe I'm warped, but I'm the type to try to write books that are likely to get on this list.

Anyway, read a challenged book.

(Crossposted to Collaboratory.)

Writing Update

The novel-in-progress, The Finest Deed, stands at just under 43,000 words. (In a mass-market paperback, that's somewhere around 100 pages, give-or-take ten or fifteen pages.) I encountered a few difficult spots a while back, which resulted from this book's nature (being the second part of a two-part story, with a world-situation already in place), but I think I've got those problems ironed out now. I don't work with outlines, so my approach is basically "Toss it against the wall and whatever's still sticking when I'm done is the book."

For some reason, I've slacked off on the short fiction lately, but I'm hoping to return to the story I've allowed to sit fallow for a month while I kicked around plot problems with the novel. The story is about a homeless card player who goes on a very improbably lucky streak, or at least that's what I think it's about. The problem with stories is that they tend to end up being about things you didn't think they were about when you started.

Guess who's coming to dinner....

Stephen King is to be awarded an honorary National Book Award for lifetime achievement, and some literati aren't happy about it. Witness Harold Bloom's sniveling dismissal:

"He is a man who writes what used to be called penny dreadfuls…That they could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy."

This is another fine example of the never-ending tension between "What is popular" and "What is good". King is popular, we are told; he is "for the masses". This extends further to disdain for "genre" books, including - - you guessed it - - science fiction, fantasy, and horror. And even more, people who are "in the know" tell us that King is not "literature", in some objective sense. So, awarding King for literary merit is yet another example of the dumbing down of literature and art; we're opening the gates and letting in the riffraff.

My position on this is fairly simple: This is pure nonsense.

Back when I was active on Usenet, particularly in the film music newsgroup, these kinds of discussions would crop up all of the time. What made them interesting, for a while (until they got ridiculously repetitive), was their two-fold nature: there were the people who were appalled that James Horner or Alan Silvestri, two composers working today, should be mentioned in the same sentence as Miklos Rozsa or Bernard Herrmann (two of the greats of yesteryear). This was total outrage, they said; the latter were the great Hollywood maestros of yesteryear, while the former were competent composers at best or total hacks at worst.

What these discussions almost always boiled down to was the insistence of some that there were objective qualities by which it could be factually established that John Williams was inferior to Mikos Rozsa. My position - - that it was all little more than a matter of opinion, combined with time and influence - - was always met with the objection that there really are objective criteria by which John Williams could be factually established as inferior to Rozsa, much as there are objective criteria by which the Moon can be factually established as less massive than, say, Mars. Problems would arise, though, when I would simply ask the question: "What are those objective criteria?"

The answers would invariably be things like: "Rozsa has a sense of style. You always know you're listening to Rozsa and not someone else. Rozsa's music is grounded in a long, symphonic tradition. Rozsa had a long influence. Rozsa wrote well-regarded concert works." In short, the only "objective criteria" ever advanced were statements that were either themselves opinions, or statements that were also true of Williams, thereby merely postponing by a step the arrival at mere opinion.

And then people would hem and haw and say things like, "Well, when you look at so-and-so's music objectively, you can't help but notice the faults like X." I always found it interesting that people telling me to "be objective" were also of the belief that they were the ones taking the "objective" view. Roger Ebert put it best a while back: "When someone tells you to write an 'objective' review, what they're really asking you to do is write a review that agrees with their subjective opinion." I once had someone tell me that my views on these matters meant that I must therefore deny the possibility of science, which struck me as one of the odder things I've ever heard, because I've never yet seen any convincing rationale for artistic greatness being a matter for scientific thought. The rejoinder here, of course, was that we can discuss art "rationally", but reason and science are not the same thing.

Ultimately, I am forced to agree with William Goldman: There is no "Best", and when I say "I think Casablanca makes a greater artistic statement than Gone With the Wind", what I'm really saying is that I like Casablanca more.

I read a lot of critics and reviews, because I think their writings are often informative. Critics are almost always very well-steeped in their chosen fields, so one can learn a great deal from them, about the history and development of the field, which works shaped the field and which might have, but didn't (and thus went on to become "unjustly neglected masterworks"). But I've always been deeply suspicious of critics as judges of what is good and what is bad, because - - and there is simply no other way to say this - - they so very, very often get it wrong.

When I was a music student in college, I read a book called A Lexicon of Musical Invective, at the behest of one of my professors. This book has a very simply conceit: it is a collection of very nasty critical comments about many works of classical music that would later form the backbone of the classical "canon", comments written by the leading critics of the day. One such critic said that Die Gotterdammerung should actually be titled, Die Goddamnerung; we had Philip Hale saying that "It would be nice if Mr. Brahms would use a little melody once in a while" - - this about the Fourth Symphony; and many more. And all of them, wrong. How could this be? How could all of these critics be so staggeringly wrong? After all, these were the holders of the "objective standards" in their day. If the "Standards" are really standards, how did they blunder so badly?

The answer, obviously, is that the critics were applying the standards of their own times. But that's most definitely only the smallest part of what constitutes artistic greatness. As far as I can see, the best standard of greatness is simply the test of time: what is great is what lasts. To return, then, to Mr. King above, if people are still reading him one hundred years from now - - and I think it likely that, for at least some of his works, they will be - - then I suspect Mr. Bloom's vitriol will only be remembered in a future Lexicon of Literary Invective. The critics are reduced to crystal-ball status, and as such, they have little more reliability than any other set of prognosticators.

Critics can tell us what they like, and they can do a better job than most of telling us why they like it. But when it comes to telling us what future audiences will like, they're as lost-at-sea as the rest of us.