Sunday, November 30, 2003

Buy Buy Buy!

I have a few new items up for auction under "Marketplace" in the sidebar. Go forth and bid. Every penny you spend with me is a penny not spent at...someplace else. Yeah, that's it!


There's been some comment lately about Blogistan about some bit of political correctness in which the terms "Master" and "Slave" should no longer be used in tech contexts, because they're racially-charged terms or something. Most commenters, such as Kevin Drum and Jeff Kahane, think this is taking linguistic sensitivity too far, and I agree.

(BTW, is Jeff Kahane a new commenter over at Highered Intelligence? What's up with that? Not that it's a problem. I think. Hmmmm…)

Anyway, in one of the comments to his own post, Kevin says this: "It just encourages people to look for things to be offended by, a behavior that is distressingly common among all groups these days (including white males, I might add)." This reminds me of a weird tale from my college years, which still befuddles me whenever I think about it.

In my senior year I took a class in Analytic Philosophy, which very heavily involves matters of language and how language works and what metaphysical relation, if any, exists between words and objects. In particular, we spent some time on the work of Saul Kripke, a philosopher who held that "Names" actually pick out the same object in all possible worlds. If memory serves, a thought-experiment we delved into in this class went like this: "If a meteor had demolished life on Earth such that humans had never evolved, and thus the English language had never existed, would the word cat still refer to cats?"

(You begin to see just why I'm currently unemployed.)

So, one day after spending this class debating whether or not words had "absolute" meanings, a friend and I decided that it would be neat if there was a word that had literally no meaning whatsoever. It was a word devoid of meaning: it would not even have meaning if you used it in any particular context. And the word we cooked up to serve this position was this:


(You begin to detect now the roots of my sense of humor, I hope.)

So we kept this joke around, mainly as a bit of philosophical goofiness: a word with no meaning! None at all! What could be more harmless than this? Well, I was about to find out, because during the subsequent semester, I was spreading the joke of Phneh to some of the cooler folks in the music department, where I liked to hang out. And then I scrawled Phneh on a piece of paper and stuck it on the bulletin board in the student lounge of the music building, and then I pretty much forgot about it.

Until a week or so later, when some other guy was sitting in the lounge and suddenly announced, "I'm taking that sign down. It's bothering me."

I, of course, was completely baffled: This guy was claiming to be offended by a sign bearing a single word that he could not possibly have ever seen before, since the word hadn't even existed until my philosophy buddy and I had coined it in the first place. I thought nothing of it, although I did get a bit nonplused when he in fact did remove the sign. So I, striking a blow for All Good Things, made another such sign and stuck it right back up. Which he tore down as soon as he saw it. And so on and so forth, except this guy actually decided to make some kind of personal crusade over this. Inevitably, this character used some connection he had with the Administration by serving in the Student Government to "take over" the bulletin board in question. He typed up an Official Notice on a fake college letterhead (and I remember him making a big deal of bringing in his girlfriend's laptop just so everybody would see him doing this, and this was back when students with laptops were pretty rare) that Bulletin Boards were for Official Use Only, et cetera.

This, of course, annoyed a lot more folks than myself, people who took this to mean they couldn't put up signs advertising their used textbooks or parties they were hosting that weekend or various things. Another person actually went to the Dean of Student Affairs or whatever on whose authority Mr. Bulletin Board had claimed to be acting, and was informed that no such policy existed. And ultimately, I ended up receiving a stern lecture from the music building secretary, a woman named Ruth, if memory serves (who was the real authority in the building). She basically told me that she shouldn't have to take time out of her busy day to adjudicate a dispute "over a nonsense word!", and she was less than amused when I asked why she was getting involved in something that everybody concerned already knew was nonsense.

This stern lecture did afford me one bit of amusement later on, because after she'd finished with me, Ruth tore down Mr. Bulletin Board's "Official Notice" (which other people had covered with caustic bits of graffiti) and stormed out. Then, later on, Mr. Bulletin Board himself came in and got huffy when he noticed that his "Official Notice" was no longer there. He demanded that I tell him who took it down, because it was, you know, "Official College Business", which allowed me to tell him: "Ruth took it down, and I suspect she is a better arbiter of what is and is not 'official' than you are."

A few friends told me that I should print up a ton of flyers with Phneh on them and just start putting them up on every campus bulletin board I could find, but by this time I was bored of the whole business and had moved on in my head to other things. There was a coda, though, that I think of anytime some weird PC controversy erupts. When it had all just about died down, someone actually asked Mr. Bulletin Board why he decided to make such a crusade over a word that had no meaning. I have never forgotten his response:

"If it really has no meaning, then I'm free to interpret it as offensive."

A month or two later, I was relating this whole tale to my philosophy buddy, who had missed it all because he had left our college after the first semester that year. He found the whole thing completely hilarious, and when I told him Mr. Bulletin Board's idea that he was free to interpret Phneh as "offensive", my friend rubbed his chin and said, "I don't get it. Why would you voluntarily offend yourself?"

Well, I've been wondering that myself, ever since. Maybe the folks who think that "Master" and "Slave" should be stricken from the OED can answer it. Or the poor guy who once nearly lost his job because he used the word "niggardly" correctly in a sentence.

Now THAT'S Crap-tacular!

Via TBOGG I learn the answer to a longtime question of mine: If Bob Pinciatti on That 70s Show hosted a party, what kind of music would he play? I mean, check out the track listing. Lord, if I ever find myself at such a party, please shoot me!

Like everyone else on Thanksgiving, I didn't learn about President Bush's trip to Baghdad until late in the day. Comment seems to be centering either on that trip being a nice thing to do, or a bald political maneuver. It seems to me that it was both. Somebody probably decided that some new photo-op stuff was needed since that whole aircraft-carrier thing just doesn't look as good now as it did way back when. And of course, a visit from the Commander-in-Chief is nice and all but it really doesn't do anything to change the fact that the whole policy-thing is going south in a hurry. So basically I don't think the trip was the great stroke of political genius the President's supporters seem to think it is, and I don't think it was the mistake that the President's critics seem to think it is. I'm with Atrios: obviously a photo-op, but a pretty good one – and that's it. And it does kind of speak volumes that the President spent two hours in the country he insisted on "liberating" and yet didn't speak to a single one of the people he'd "liberated".

I've also seen some weird theories floating around that this was hastily cobbled together when the White House learned that Senator Hillary Clinton was also traveling to Iraq, but that just seems bizarre to me. Ditto the folks Glenn Reynolds is linking to, the ones who are spouting the "They love Bush and hate Hillary!" crap. Of course they're going to be more excited about the actual Commander-in-Chief visiting than some Senator, even if that Senator is fairly high-profile. It's amazing how anything Bush does can reduce so many people on both sides into acting like sputtering doofuses.

(The only news coverage I caught of the President's Iraq visit was on The Today Show, which seemed to go out of its way to emphasize the staggering bravery of this whole thing, which I'm really not sure I buy. I mean, yeah, it was mildly risky, but NBC had a computer animation of Air Force One touching down in complete darkness, and then they showed a bit of the news footage some French reporters had of some insurgents shooting a rocket at a cargo plane, as if to say, "These insurgents could have brought down the President's plane, had he attempted his landing in daylight and had it not been totally secret!" Which, quite frankly, I very much doubt. I know that the President's plane isn't quite the piece of military hardware that the Harrison Ford movie depicted, but there is no way a couple of guys with a rocket-launcher could bring it down.)

How I Spent My November Vacation

"Well, I'm back!"

Spending nine days away from the blog was actually a lot easier than I had expected. In fact, for a very brief moment, the thought of simply not returning until I really felt like it flashed across my mind. Luckily, I was able to beat that impulse back down with a very large hammer.

So, what did I do? Well, the usual stuff. First, I read some books:

:: The Sword of Rhainnon, by Leigh Brackett. I'd never read any Brackett before this. Her work is pretty hard to find -- I had to get this one from the library, since I'm not sure there is anything by Brackett even in print right now. Brackett is one of those names you'll see lauded on SF discussion boards which are frequented by people who have read the genre for a long time. Her biggest claim to fame is that she wrote the first draft of the screenplay to The Empire Strikes Back, before her untimely death in 1978 required George Lucas to turn the project over to Lawrence Kasdan.

This particular book is set, as apparently a lot of Brackett books are, on Mars -- but it's not the Mars we know now, not by a longshot. Since the book was written two decades before the Viking landers, this was still in the era when people thought there might be canals up there and that a great civilization might have once prospered on the Red Planet. So basically the book reads like one of those 1950s sci-fi adventure movies. As I read it, I could just see the burly white hero besting a planet-full of Technicolor baddies. The book never quite rose above the anachronisms, but it was still pretty fun.

:: Carrie, Stephen King. I liked this one. Not as much as 'Salem's Lot or The Stand, but this one was pretty good. Not all that scary, really, but that could be because I already knew how it ended. What made it compelling for me was that I well remember the equivalent of Carrie in my own school, the kid who was still getting his books knocked out of his hands on the stairs even when he was a senior. Anyone who ever says that "High school is the best four years of your life!" should be kneed in the groin and forced to read Carrie while being force-fed overcooked asparagus.

:: The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain. This is one of the cornerstones of the noir crime genre, and it's a good one. Tough and lean prose, a tight focus on a mere handful of characters, a crime that is almost gotten-away with, and it's short. I read this one in a day, and I think that noir novels might become my genre of choice whenever I'm tired of longer, more florid works.

:: Bushwhacked, Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose. A fascinating, if depressing, look into the policies of the Bush Administration.

:: And I'm still truckin' along on The Iliad. Hector just killed Patroclus. Lots of stuff about the Argives trying to recover the corpse. I have a feeling Achilles is not going to take kindly to this development. (Yeah, I already know how it all plays out. In college we had to read the portion of the poem where Achilles and Hector finally duke it out.)

As for writing, I didn't get as much work done as I had hoped, but I still got a bit of work done. The novel now stands just shy of 83,000 words, which is in turn just shy of the halfway point. Now I'm in the middle of a couple of chapters which set up the conflicts that play out over the last act of the thing.

In real-life stuff, Thanksgiving was lovely -- much food consumed and not a single down of football watched. (A good thing, too -- the cognitive dissonance I would have suffered as I tried to figure out which team I wanted to win in the Dallas-Miami game would have been too much.) We caught From Russia With Love on some satellite-network that was doing a Bond marathon (they followed that one up with The Man With the Golden Gun -- talk about going from good to, well, not-so-good). And we largely sat around and did nothing.

Friday I did a very small amount of Christmas shopping. I went to Wal-Mart -- but in the mid-afternoon, well after all those psychotic people who line up at five in the morning (and who, apparently, will trample anyone in their way) are gone. That's also a good time to visit stand-alone stores like Media Play and whatnot, because it's my experience that later in the day is when people descend on the malls. Then I went home. (BTW, hey, Wal-Mart! You're going to "hold" a DVD player for the woman for when she gets out of the hospital? You can't give the damn thing to her? Ye Gods....)

And that's about it. All in all, not a lot went on. Just the way I like it.

Friday, November 28, 2003

Friday Cat Blogging

No, I'm not officially back from hiatus yet, but I wanted to stick something here just so there isn't a gaping, week-long hole in my archives.

So, go look at some kitties. Awwwwwwww!

(via MeFi)

Friday, November 21, 2003

I want to see Mountains and Elves again....

OK folks, this is the Final Post. This is IT. No more.

Well, at least for nine days. I'll be back on the 30th, one week from Sunday. I hope all of my American readers have a lovely, safe, and filling Thanksgiving; I hope all of my non-American readers have a nice regular week. Feel free to check in here a bit, just to keep the traffic from totally nosediving; I have almost two years' worth of good stuff in the Archives, you know. Newer readers can check out the posts listed under "Notable Dispatches", as well as the ones I listed here, which was the last time I took a break from posting.

(BTW, Blogger's permalinks work, but they are thrown off by graphics. I've noticed that when I load a permalinked post of mine from the archives, it will go to the right spot at first, but then as the various images and whatnot in other posts from that same week load, the thing gets thrown off. So you'll have to scroll around a bit. But that's not a problem to you, is it? Nope, I thought not!)

Also make sure to check out any of the blogs under "Other Journeys" you might not have checked out before. There is a ton of great stuff being produced in Blogistan. I'm not going away or anything, so I'll be checking in here to do my own daily blog-reading and I'll be answering e-mails, if anyone needs to contact me. I should also have a few new reviews showing up on GMR this Sunday (but I'm not sure, it depends on when the editors choose to run them).

Finally, I leave you for now with this item from rock critic Lester Bangs's book Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader. Writing in 1981, Bangs is talking about Jim Morrison (in response to the book No One Here Gets Out Alive, which I really must read), and there's good food for thought for all artists in this passage.

In a way, Jim Morrison's life and death could be written off as simply one of the more pathetic episodes in the history of the star system, or that offensive myth we all persist in believing which holds that artists are somehow a race apart and thus entitled to piss on my wife, throw you out the window, smash up the joint, and generally do whatever they want. I've seen a lot of this over the years, and what's most ironic is that it always goes under the assumption that to deny them these outbursts would somehow be curbing their creativity, when the reality, as far as I can see, is that it's exactly such insane tolerance of another insanity that also contributes to them drying up as artists. Because how can you finally create anything real or beautiful when you have absolutely zero input from the real world, because everyone around you is catering to and sheltering you? You can't, and this system is I'd submit why we've seen almost all our rock 'n' roll heroes who, unlike Morrison, did manage to survive the Sixties, end up having nothing to say.

Art is about the world. So is blogging. So get out and, you know, see the world once in a while. Your art and blogging will be better for it.

Happy Thanksgiving (or Thursday), and see you in nine days!

It's Caption Time!

Longtime readers will know that I love photos that capture American Presidents in decidedly un-Presidential moments. (It doesn't matter who the President is, either. Clinton was great for stuff like this.)

Anyhoo, go ahead and leave a caption in the Comments for this one:

(via Bara)

Friday Burst of Weirdness

OK, it's a two-fer this week, because I won't be around next Friday to offer up any weirdness.

This first one is something I just saw on TBOGG about an hour ago: a time-lapse Flash presentation of Michael Jackson's changing face through the years. As one might expect, it ain't pretty.

And the other bit is something I saw six days ago. I've waffled on whether or not to post it, because it pretty much violates my own self-imposed "PG-13" rating here: this is straight "R" territory, if not slightly worse (maybe that "A" rating for which Roger Ebert is always pining). Anyhow, this is perhaps the strangest (and grossest) fetish I've ever seen. NOT SAFE FOR WORK!

I wear the required uniform!

Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias are getting annoyed with Glenn Reynolds's whole "Let's snoop around the news from 1946 and compare the situation then to the situation in Iraq right now" schtick. I've never been a regular reader of Reynolds, primarily because when I do read him I'm generally reminded of that scene in The Breakfast Club when Bender (Judd Nelson's degenerate) tells Andrew (Emilio Estevez's wrestler): "When I grow up I wanna be just like you. I figure all I need is a lobotomy and some tights."

(Yeah, that's not fair. Reynolds does link a lot of interesting stuff. But his own logic is invariably half-baked. Probably comes from updating eight blogs fifty times a day.)


Via Atrios, I see that a recent installment of the comic strip BC is being interpreted by some as being an anti-Islamic message.

Well, I've read the cartoon, and I'm sorry. I'm as tired of anti-Islamic rhetoric as the next good leftie, but I just don't see it here. All I see is an outhouse joke. Not a very funny one, of course, but I get the humor here. The guy's sitting in an outhouse, and he's wondering if he's imagining the smell. I get the joke. I figured the anti-Islamic message was simply that the outhouse has a crescent moon carved into the door, but that's pretty much a stereotypical image of all old wooden outhouses, isn't it? I swear I remember seeing such outhouses in old episodes of Little House on the Prairie.

But then I read the WaPo article, and there is some seriously convoluted reasoning here: the use of the word "Slam", which the cartoonist insists is to merely convey that the guy has gone into the outhouse, is actually a coded message specifically identifying Islam. That seems a bit extravagant for a newspaper daily comic strip, and a bit out of character for a strip wherein one rarely finds subtlety. And some guy says that the "Slam" cannot refer to the closing of the outhouse door, since people don't slam outhouse doors, they close them gently. They do? Really? I take it this fellow has never been to any outdoor event where the "facilities" consisted of a bank of Porta-Potties. Believe me, they do get slammed. In fact, the repeated whack of the slamming door is a key way of finding the facilities in the first place.

This kind of thing is just like all the people decoding George Lucas's views on race through careful analysis of his depiction of an orange-skinned amphibian and the guy I once worked with who refused to smoke Marlboro's because the design of the pack is clearly a coded message endorsing the Klan. (Something about how the red field forms a K-like shape, if memory serves.) So come on, folks -- instead of combing the funny-pages for right-wing propaganda that probably isn't there, let's comb actual policies for bad stuff that is.

UPDATE: TBOGG posted on this as well, and his position is the opposite of mine. But I admire his ability to relate it back to an episode of Seinfeld. I've long believed that there is nothing in life that can't be related to Seinfeld.

They could have just dropped a Pythonesque 16-ton weight on the guy....

OK, I knew it was coming. I read about it in various spoiler forums months ago. But I was still pissed off at ER last night.

(spoilers and geeky complaining here)

Last season, I was getting happy with ER again. See, a few seasons back, the show allowed its cast to balloon to ridiculous levels -- there were so many characters that the old favorites stopped getting as much time as an old viewer like myself would have preferred (and I've been with the show since the third episode of the first season), and the new characters didn't get enough time to establish themselves beyond their first impressions. This was all finally worked out with a big exodus: Dr. Finch was conveniently written out when Eriq LaSalle decided to hang 'em up as Dr. Benton; Dr. Malucci was fired; Dr. Chen was sent packing for half a season; Anthony Edwards's desire to leave the show gave the producers the excuse to kill off Dr. Greene (brain tumor). Last season, the cast was back to manageable levels, and the show's dynamic was a lot better for it (with the exception of all the overwrought crap they kept shoveling on Abby, Maura Tierney's character).

But then, this year the producers have allowed cast-bloat again. Dr. Lewis has some guy she married in Vegas, and divorced. Each year usually sees the addition of a new med student to fill the "clueless young doc" spot (originated by Carter back in Season One); this year it's Neela, the Indian-American med-student (whose last name I can't recall for the life of me, because no one calls her "Dr. Whatever" -- it's always "Neela"). But for some unknown reason she's joined by three other med-students, one of whom -- a useless clown named Morris -- is thrashing about for no apparent reason. And a new nurse was just introduced a few weeks ago, who might as well have walked onto the set wearing a T-shirt with "Luka's New Lover" printed on the front.

Now, a few years ago, the producers would have just shoehorned all of these characters into each episode for a minute here and thirty seconds there, and none of it would be very satisfying. The approach now, it seems, is to actually send characters away for long periods of time. Thus, we've had Carter in Africa, unseen, for seven or eight episodes now. Chen has been shipped off to China. Kerry Weaver now gets about two scenes per episode (Laura Innes, by the way, has a fine television directing career shaping up) in which she shows up, does some bit of administrative work, and then vanishes again. But still, the cast is bloated.

Which brings me to last night's travesty: the killing off of a character (I think), a favorite character of mine, a character whose story arc has been bungled constantly, and whose death -- if a death it actually was -- completely sucked. Dr. Romano, the prickly soul whose flashes of warmth were almost always directed at Dr. Korday, and whose left arm was severed when he got too close to a helicopter's rotors a year ago, was apparently crushed to death with a burning helicopter fell out of the sky literally onto his head.

This development was so mind-numbingly awful that I barely know where to begin writing about it.

Well, there's the death itself. Was this supposed to be some bit of cosmic irony? The enormously arrogant and gifted surgeon, whose career was destroyed when he lost his arm and who never adjusted to his new handicap, gets killed by a falling helicopter? Well, maybe that kind of freak thing happens in real life...but the way the episode framed the event, with Romano first going up to the hospital's helipad and not being able to step out of the elevator because of a flashback to losing his arm, and then going back downstairs and staggering out into the parking lot to get some air, and then looking up to see the burning helicopter dropping out of the sky toward him....I could just hear the show's writers sitting around a table scratching their heads while a producer-dude circles behind them saying, "Come on, guys! We gotta make it more ironic! Have Frank goad Robert into going up to the helipad because Robert doesn't want to look like a coward!"

More problematic is that it's plainly obvious that the writers and producers just gave up on Dr. Romano. They didn't know what the hell to do with him, they didn't know how to write someone who loses the ability to do the thing by which they have defined themselves, and they completely forgot Romano's humanity. What I always loved about Romano wasn't his great put-downs (of which there were many), but that his warmth would show up in very unexpected ways sometimes. When Dr. Korday (and only Romano could call her "Lizzie") was struggling with what to do when Mark Greene's tumor returned, it was Romano who gave her the sounding board she needed and told her what she had to do:

KORDAY: Am I just supposed to sit by and watch him die?

ROMANO: (softly) Yes.

It was Romano who once came stampeding into the hospital with a critical patient -- his beloved pet dog. It was Romano who struggled valiantly to save Lucy Knight's life when she was stabbed, and his tantrum in the OR when she died. And it was Romano who was hopelessly in love with Dr. Korday. Sooner or later on ER, just about every doctor gets to be "the hero", the person who brings a patient through a harrowing and near-death ailment or injury. Romano never got to do that, and I had started to think that maybe Romano's act of heroism would be to save himself, over the long haul, after his disabling. I had hoped to see him learn to use that prosthetic arm and find his ability to practice medicine again. Instead, a promising character arc got cut off when it became clear that the writers didn't know how to write it.

(And really, why has no one learned of his death yet? Are we holding out some hope that he turns up alive later on or something? The episode ends with a crane lifting the wreckage of the chopper, and I figured that's when someone would notice the body, but they just faded to credits. During the last fifteen minutes, a few people wonder where Romano is, but that's it.)

I don't object to random, shocking and senseless events in stories, because they happen in life. But this event was neither random nor shocking. This was "Oh crap, we've painted ourselves into a corner, so let's just kill him and call it a day." This was like when LA Law had a character step into an elevator shaft where there was no elevator (and that show never recovered), and to a certain extent it was like Bobby-in-the-shower on Dallas (a development to which I've generally been willing to give a pass, since the season that followed it was a really strong one). And it robbed one of my longtime favorite shows of one of my longtime favorite characters. I'm going to have a hard time trusting the writers now, because even if they get a really good storyline going, I won't have faith that they can end it satisfactorily. That's a shame.

Wes? or Howard? Decisions, decisions....

I'm trying to avoid getting overly excited about any particular Democratic presidential candidate, because quite frankly I'll be voting for whoever the Democrats nominate (unless they somehow manage to nominate, say, Michael Moore, a guy whose style could turn me off JRR Tolkien if he started extolling Lord of the Rings). But I have to note that I found General Clark fairly impressive on Letterman last night.

And now, here comes my last dose of political anger before I go on hiatus (so if such stuff annoys you, just skip this post):

Matthew Yglesias points out that Lileks takes a breather today from navel-gazing and rambling on about Gnat to get all mad at an Iraqi blogger who is insufficiently grateful to the country that put the Saddam regime in power, did nothing when Saddam got really bad, and then finally invaded to depose the guy but did not (a) finish the job yet or (b) show any sign that they plan to fill the void with anything better. Well, whether or not that particular take is appropriate, I'm getting really tired of the ideas that the only way to demonstrate one's "stones" is to pick up a gun, and the one that anger at the current President of the United States is equivalent to anger at the whole United States, or the soldiers, or whatever.

OK, that's that. Back to babbling about the usual stuff.

UPDATE: Dan Drezner has some comments on the Lileks piece. He's even more of the view that Lileks is full of bird poop than I am. Note to self: read Drezner's blog for a while.

Thursday, November 20, 2003


The Eternal Flame burning above the grave of President John F. Kennedy, Arlington National Cemetery.

Unless you live in a cave (or, say, North Dakota), you surely know that this Saturday marks the fortieth anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination. I've looked around the Net for some cool stuff to post about it, and there is a lot of good stuff out there. The best things I've seen are:

This virtual tour of Dealey Plaza;

This live cam from the Sniper's Nest, from where Oswald fired on the President;

The official site of the Sixth Floor Museum, which is an amazing place. I was fortunate enough to visit the museum some years ago, as part of a "JFK assassination bus tour" when my wife and I had a business trip in Dallas. I also saw the house where Oswald's infamous "backyard photos" were taken (the famous shot of him posing with his rifle), the theater where he was captured, and I made a point of standing where Zapruder stood. I have no informed opinion as to whether or not the assassination was a conspiracy, but I will note that Oliver Stone's JFK is one of my favorite films.

Oh, and Scott of Archipelapogo actually works in that building. It's an interesting and small world.

Gack, II.

Via David Sucher I see one of the dumbest looking buildings ever designed. The idea is a stack of boxes, each one slightly offset, and with no windows. If they paint really big letters and numbers on each face, the thing would look like something my 4-year-old would make from blocks. I like nifty-looking buildings, but sometimes we have to step back and wonder if we really want our cityscapes to look like games of Jenga "in progress".

One of David's commenters wonders if the people who complain about no windows (and I definitely think that all those featureless facades look pretty dumb) would be OK with it if the builders painted or glued on fake windows. Probably not. In the town where I used to live, some old buildings were demolished in favor of a new CVS drugstore in the downtown section, one of those shoebox-shaped drug stores like Eckerd's. Problem was, with that building design, the front door goes on the "short end" of the shoebox, but the lot did not extend back from the street enough to allow them to build that design such that the door would face the street, so they simply built it "the long way", with the door on the "side" and the store's featureless wall lining the street. The brilliant solution the company came up with was precisely to glue, nail and staple up fake windows and doors and awnings. The result was one of the dumbest looking buildings I've ever seen, and each time I drove by it I would think of that scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when King Arthur and the boys are admiring Camelot from a distance, and the pack-mule guy mutters, "It's only a model".

David also makes the point, in another post, that wind farms are actually beautiful things. I agree. My wife's grandmother lives in the midst of a very big windfarm in northwestern Iowa, and on our last visit I found them profoundly lovely -- especially on one foggy morning when those slowly-turning turbines looked, from a distance, like some kind of giants on a lonely moor. Also, people who complain about the droning sound of a windfarm are just plain wrong. We actually went and stood underneath a turbine that was rotating at a pretty decent rate, and the drone was actually softer than that of the normal buzz of the autumn locusts.


According to Jesse Ezra at Pandagon, the FOX network is considering reviving the animated show The Family Guy. Apparently DVD sales of the show are brisk enough to make the FOX people think that there's sufficient audience to keep the show around. For myself, I never found the show particularly funny, and I've been perplexed by the show's large fandom. I did enjoy the episode where the megalomaniacal, British-accented toddler declares war on broccoli, but that's about the only time the show ever really made me laugh. Go figure.

Is it Monday yet?!

Film Score Monthly has a good review of the soon-to-be-released score CD to Return of the King today.

Also, has a good, long interview with Lord of the Rings composer Howard Shore. How does a newly composed symphony, involving six movements and based on themes from all three films, sound? Or a boxed set sometime next year, comprising hours upon hours of heretofore unreleased LOTR music? (Keep in mind that the score CDs are 70 minutes long, while the films are each in excess of three hours!)

And somewhere (but I can't remember where, so I'll see if I can find a link later) I read about a possible book about the LOTR music, which would be an outstanding thing for film music lovers. It's a genre that doesn't get nearly enough interest, scholarly or otherwise.

Would Victor Von Doom really cry?

The other day I finally got to read Issue #36 of The Amazing Spiderman, which was the issue that centered on 9-11-01. I remember reading a lot of laudatory stuff about the issue at the time it came out, but reading it now, two years later, I don't know -- the sentiments expressed are fine, but they're really the same sentiments expressed pretty much everywhere else anyone's written about 9-11-01. And when some horrified bystanders demand of Spiderman, "How could you let this happen", well -- that just dragged in the Giant White Elephant into the story. How could anything like that happen in a world with superheroes? How could all those superheroes fail to stop such an act? The writer, J. Michael Straczynski, can only offer as an answer that "We couldn't imagine this", but really, that doesn't cut it, does it? The same heroes who have literally saved the earth from destruction couldn't thwart something like a pair of airplanes on a bright late summer morning?

Well, OK, even if I can totally buy the idea that the whole thing happened too fast, that the heroes' attention was elsewhere at the time, why couldn't they do anything to save all those people trapped in the higher floors? Some of those folks can fly, you know -- couldn't they catch the poor souls who decided to jump rather than burn or choke? Surely Storm of the X-Men could have used a localized icestorm to slow the fires as they burned? Surely the superheroes could have done something other than lift girders from the pile of wreckage. And even if I grant that they could do nothing to stop the planes, and even if I grant that they could do nothing to help until the Twin Towers had fallen, what then? Why didn't they band up and take on Al Qaeda?

I probably sound snarky here, and a little like the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. But there was just a terrible sense of falsity in this issue that deflated the whole enterprise for me as the reader. I know that such a catastrophic event poses problems to storytellers who are writing continuous stories set in real-world places, and I don't know how it could have been dealt with best. But this issue just seemed...wrong somehow. False. As if the writers were trying to have the best of both worlds. I'm just not sure that a world with superheroes can even admit the kind of evil the real world witnessed on 9-11-01.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

How to memorialize over 2000 people....

The finalists for the memorials at the World Trade Center site in NYC were unveiled today, and in all honesty, I'm with John Scalzi -- none of them really strike me. But it's really hard to get a handle on them; only one, "Reflecting Absence", seems to convey what the memorial would look like in the context of the design for the office buildings they're planning to erect on that spot, and one -- the "Memorial Cloud" frankly looks to me just plain bizarre. And quite honestly, the written descriptions of the memorials are mostly painful to read, in the sense of "purple prose". (Do the "Memorial Cloud" people really want the symbolism of a bandaid over a wound?)

Memorials are really tricky things.

Sparsity of Posting

I have a lot of work I'm catching up on (none of it for money, but hey, maybe it's all leading somewhere bright and golden), which is why I'm late in posting today and why I'm inflating things with pictures. Go figure.

Anyway, don't forget that after this Friday I'm taking a break from posting here until one week from Sunday.


I'm sure that Darth Swank will get a kick out of this item I saw via Warren Ellis:

Japanese Superheroes!


Last night I was looking through some old video tapes to see which ones actually had stuff we still needed to watch and forgot about in the course of two moves in a year, and which were reusable. In the course of so doing, I came across an episode of The West Wing from the second season, "17 People", in which Toby figures out that something is going on, which in turn leads him being told about President Bartlet's multiple sclerosis. So, I sat down to watch the episode, which was a pretty good one.

One of the subplots of the episode had Sam Seaborn and Ainsley Hayes (the blond Republican lawyer who was played by Emily Procter before she left the show for CSI Miami) arguing about the merits of the Equal Rights Amendment. Toward the end, Ainsley pretty much ends the argument with this bit of impassioned dialogue:

"Becuase it's humiliating. A new Amendment we vote on declaring that I'm equal under the law to a man? I am mortified to discover there's reason to believe I wasn't before. I am a citizen of this country, I am not a special sub-set in need of your protection, I do not have to have my rights handed down to me by a bunch of old, white, men."

Upon hearing that line again, last night, I was immediately reminded of this: the ceremony at which President Bush signed the ban of partial-birth abortion into law:

Interesting bit of congruity, that.

Hooking the Reader

I was checking out Body and Soul, a blog I don't read enough even though I've had it blogrolled for six months now, and I came across a post that starts off like this:

"One of my mother's best friends lost her husband in Vietnam.

He didn't die. Husbands have many ways of getting lost."

I doubt I've yet encountered a blog post with a better opening than this one, in the nearly two years I've been reading them. "Husbands have many ways of getting lost" -- what a perfectly haunting sentence. And the whole post is an excellent meditation on sexism, too. Check it out.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Mr. Kamen's Opus

The film music community received a bit of sad and shocking news today: composer Michael Kamen has died. He was only 56, but he had been battling multiple sclerosis for a number of years.

Kamen wrote the scores for all the Lethal Weapon films, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the first X-Men film, the James Bond film Licence to Kill, and -- my favorite score of his -- Mr. Holland's Opus. Kamen's work will also be known to rock fans; he was behind a lot of the orchestral stuff used by "arena bands" like Pink Floyd.

Yet again I have to wonder why creativity and the ability to bring pleasure to many people is so often not rewarded with long life.

Farewell, Michael Kamen.

A Report from the Department of Useless Dichotomies

The Department of Useless Dichotomies has placed the following report.

:: It has come to our realization of late that the people who inhabit this world may be separated into two distinct populations. Of the first can be said this: They are polite, and they demonstrate such by using the phrase "Excuse me" in its intended circumstance: as a signal to people who are occupying the path they wish to travel, that said obstructing people might duly acknowledge the person and shift accordingly, thus allowing the polite person to pass.

More pernicious, though, are the members of the second population. These people, to whom the word "Boor" can be reasonably ascribed, do in fact use the phrase 'Excuse me', but they do not use it as a signal and request. Rather, they utter said phrase while continuing to move at their original rate of speed and along their original trajectory, whether the persons unfortunately in their path have sufficiently shifted to allow passage or not. The meaning of "Excuse me" to the members of the second population, therefore, appears to be a means of self-absolution of any responsibility for collisions that might occur by way of their failure to allow others sufficient time to move.

Of course, any suggestion that the "Boor" might actually be at fault for failing to either look in one's path to note the presence of others or to at least slow their approach so that others might move is as futile as trying to bail out a sinking ship with a teaspoon; the inevitable refrain one shall hear upon attempting such correction is "I did say 'Excuse me'!", usually also accompanied with rolling of the eyes, if appropriate. The temptation here to simply inflict bodily injury on the offender should be resisted; the Department does not recommend physical violence as a matter of legal course. But it occurs to this Department that our sister organization, the Department of Just Desserts, might counsel one to utter a very quick and sotto voce "Excuse me" before punching such a "Boor" in the nose, and then say, "I did say 'Excuse me'," before departing the scene. As usual, the Department of Useless Dichotomies does not specifically endorse any recommendations by the Department of Just Desserts.


"The Green Fields of France"

I'm surprised that it didn't occur to me a week ago, given that it was Veterans' Day and that Teresa Nielsen Hayden had a whole bunch of stuff up about World War I and Armistice Day (what Vets' Day was, originally), but one of my favorite Celtic/Folk songs is "The Green Fields of France" by Eric Bogle, the lyrics of which I personally find more moving than the oft-cited WWI poem, "In Flanders Fields" (although the song alludes to that poem in the final verse). These are the lyrics as I know them from the several recordings of the song I own, but there are variations.

Well, how do you do, young Willie McBride,
Do you mind if I sit down here by your graveside?
And rest for awhile 'neath the warm summer sun,
I've been walking all day, and I'm nearly done.
I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the great fallen in 1916,
I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?


Did they Beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the death-march as they lowered you down?
Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

Did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined?
And, though you died back in 1916,
To that faithful heart are you forever 19?
Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Enshrined then, forever, behind a glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame?


The sun's shining down on these green fields of France;
The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance.
The trenches have vanished long under the plow;
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard that's still No Man's Land
The countless white crosses in stand mute in the sand
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man,
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.


And I can't help but wonder, no Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did they really believe when they answered the call,
Did they really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain
The killing and dying, was all done in vain,
For young Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.


First in Space, now First in the Environment....

Via Nathan Newman I see that China is on the verge of implementing fuel economy standards that are tougher than those of the United States. According to the article, all new SUVs and minivans in China will be required to meet the same fuel efficiency standards as automatic-shift cars of the same weight. Wow. (Pickup trucks and commercial trucks are excluded, but apparently pickup trucks are not popular in China except for use by businesses.)

Another interesting factoid that I did not know was that American fuel efficiency standards are based on the averages for entire fleets, whereas the Chinese standards will apply to each vehicle. That is why American manufacturers can sell vehicles with abysmal mileage, as long as they have some other vehicle like a Geo Metro in the product line that brings the total average up. That won't be possible under the Chinese rules.


Dogs and the Demented Souls Who Love Them

The Grey Bird has a few thoughts on the expectations people should have when entering the lair of a dog-owner. I can sympathize, but as always, I am very glad that I have seen the inherent superiority of cats.

(By the way, surely it is an indicator of something that you almost never see cats on Letterman's "Stupid Pet Tricks", an installment of which aired last night featuring -- you guessed it -- two dogs and a macaw bird.)

Writing Update

After finally engaging in a bit of a breakthrough over the last few days, the writing on the Novel-In-Progress has become easier, and as of this morning I broke 76,000 words. (I'm planning for a first draft between 180K and 190K words.) Very cool. Part of the problem, I'm convinced, has been that I've simply allowed too many days to go by without getting anything of substance written -- less than 200 words, for example. That's simply not enough to keep the ball going and the characters fresh. Continuity of effort is essential; otherwise, you simply lose sight of what the hell it is you're doing.

Anyhoo, another weird problem came up. I have a main character -- a fairly major character -- who has been spending much of the book thus far behaving in a way that doesn't entirely make sense. I mean, it's not totally illogical, but there really are better ways for him to go about things, and I finally reached the point where that fact had to be confronted. Now, since I don't work with outlines, my original temptation was to simply backtrack and fix this character's actions so they make more sense, but I kept rejecting that on the basis that it would just be too much stupid work. I will backtrack if I have to, but I tend to be very militant in how I judge "if I have to". Even if I'm writing a short story, I resist backtracking as much as I can; in a novel, a backtrack would represent the loss of several months of work. So I kept this character acting in ways that aren't quite up-to-snuff, and over the last week I've written no fewer than four versions of a scene where he tries to explain himself.

Yesterday, though, I finally realized what I had been missing: I had been working too hard on making his explanations make sense, as if his actions really did have to make sense. Yesterday, though, a simple thought popped into my cranium: "What if he's actually full of shit, and what if everyone around him knows it?" Which is, of course, the right answer, because it gives the character in question a much-needed third dimension, it adds conflict and tension, and best of all, it sets the stage for events which I already knew were to come. Now he's not just a cog in my plot-wheel; this person's actions will be partly responsible for a major disaster that's in the offing a few chapters from now.

Lesson learned: If your characters are screwing things up, that is not a sign that you, the writer, are screwing things up.

A Couple of Film Music Thoughts

As I noted a few days ago, I've been recording some of my favorite film scores onto my hard drive for listening purposes when I'm writing. (Many times I like to listen to music on headphones when I write, unless I'm home alone.) One score that was a big favorite of mine in the late 90s, but which I hadn't really listened to much in several years, is James Horner's Braveheart. As much as I've become annoyed with Horner's constant, well, "Hornerisms", this score is still as good as I remember it, and the first half of it is downright extraordinary. It has a wonderful meditative quality that is almost otherworldly, particularly the track "The Secret Wedding", in which Horner plays out one of his longest and most intricate melodies. I think the second half of the score (the stuff after the Battle of Stirling) isn't quite as good, but man, those first nine tracks are sensational. I've long believed that James Horner reached his high point right around 1995, when he composed excellent scores to Braveheart, Apollo 13, and Legends of the Fall. Those three scores are why I didn't mind when he won an Oscar a few years later for Titanic, even though that score really wasn't all that great. Better a few years late than never, I always say.

I also picked up the score CD of The Matrix Revolutions yesterday, and I listened to most of it this morning. I've yet to see the film, and since I also missed Reloaded, I'll likely wait for the DVD, but as I've long maintained, seeing the film is in no way a requirement for enjoying the score. Don Davis turns in some really superb work here -- the disc is a fascinating blend of techno stuff and straight-forward orchestral writing, some of it purely atmospheric and some of it strongly melodic. This should tide me over until Monday, when the score CD to Return of the King hits the stores in what I am sure will be the film music event of all time. (Or at least November.)

Monday, November 17, 2003

Buy Buy Buy!

Back by popular demand (well, not really, since nobody's asked) is the "Marketplace" section in the sidebar, wherein I put some of my old books and music and ancient ushabti from the tombs of the Upper Nile. Check them out and buy. Great Christmas stuff, and all that. Or something.

A Momentous Occasion

Over the weekend, Darth Swank was entrusted with one of the most closely-guarded secrets in all history. He now knows the eleven herbs and spices.

(Yeah, like he hasn't heard that one before....)

News Flash

Things aren't all that great in Afghanistan.

And the one panda became two....

Jesse of Pandagon has been joined by Ezra Klein, late of several other left-side blogs. Niftiness of the highest order should ensue.

Forgotten Arts

Sometimes it's neat to see old arts and methods applied to more modern things. Such as the Declaration of Independence, illuminated as medieval books were. Wow. Now I want an illuminated edition of The Lord of the Rings!

(via Teresa Nielsen Hayden's Particles.)

Best Search Ever!

I haven't witnessed any traffic to Byzantium's Shores based on really weird Google searches in quite some time, which is a bit disappointing. But even if I did, I seriously doubt I'd have anything to match the one that Jenn Manley Lee received last week. I have never seen a search that reveals so much about the searcher, not just in what they are looking for but in the way they look for it. Wow.

Crap. I thought they said LON Cheney was visiting.

The Vice President of the United States, Dick Cheney, is visiting Buffalo today. Pictured below is his reaction after being informed that, in the wake of yesterday's disaster of a Bills game, all defibrilators in the greater Buffalo area have been found to be in working order:

Cheney indicated his disappointment that he won't be able to partake in Buffalo's signature culinary delicacy, chicken wings. But he further noted that he is not avoiding wings for the reason many would expect (his heart trouble). It's that he knows that his boss would likely insist on him bringing some back to the White House, and after that pretzel incident, the President is most definitely not to be entrusted with small chicken bones.

Further, Cheney is vigorously denying reports that are surfacing in French newspapers that his "undisclosed location" has also been used to house the Buffalo Bills' offense. But his veracity in this matter is suspect, given his continuing insinuation that the Bills' lack of scoring is somehow connected to Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

Look, a string! Let's play it out!

Yep, folks, you can stick a fork in the Buffalo Bills. They are done. Sure, they have the proverbial "mathematical chance" at making the playoffs still, but somehow I suspect that the 2003 Bills aren't about to become football's equivalent of the 1969 Mets. They're 4-6, they lost yesterday to an injury-ridden second-year expansion team, their offense has not scored a touchdown in four weeks, et cetera. They might have won yesterday had their placekicker made the two field goals that he missed, but even then, as I've noted a number of times before a team whose offense can't find the end zone isn't going to win much unless their defense is one of the best ever, which this one ain't.

Oh, and they might have lost running back Travis Henry for the season. He cracked his fibula in the second quarter, and then played on that leg in the second half. This guy's got heart, so it's too bad that he's probably going to be traded the second the Bills decide that Willis McGahee is ready to take the reins as the fulltime starter.

I always find it a strange feeling when the Bills are eliminated (officially or figuratively). There's disappointment: a lot of it this year, because I can safely say that nobody thought that a performance this bad was in the offing back in September. But there's also relief in that even if they lose every remaining game, it's now pretty much meaningless, so I go back to being a football fan instead of a Bills fan. That means I can pay more attention to what's going on elsewhere in the league. Whoopee! (Or, alternatively, I can just flip to ABC and watch figure skating in the vain hope that someone can knock off Evgeny Pleshenko....)

What to say about yesterday's game, then? Not much, really, that I haven't said before. The Bills ran the ball well, but not when they needed to; the O-line couldn't give Drew Bledsoe enough protection to keep him upright until the receivers could break their routes; a fine defensive effort was squandered; the coaches are in this perpetual fog (they actually had to call a timeout after a third-down because they hadn't yet decided whether or not to kick the field goal). Yada yada yada. I do, though, have a theory as to what on earth is wrong with Drew Bledsoe.

Everybody in Buffalo is down on Bledsoe, mainly because he's so immobile that he either gets sacked or he throws a horrible pass in desperation in the face of pressure. The refrain goes that in today's NFL, quarterbacks with that little mobility are toast. I'm not sure I agree with that. Look at some recent Super Bowl quarterback heroes: Kurt Warner, Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson -- not exactly the names that leap to mind when one thinks of "mobile quarterbacks". And the two poster-children for mobile quarterbacks, guys who really run, have missed significant amounts of time the last two seasons to injuries sustained by running: Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick. But Bledsoe has most definitely been a lot less effective this year than he was last year, with his current performance matching a similar decline in Bledsoe's 1999 and 2000 seasons. (In 2001 he was injured early in the year, which gave rise to The Devil Incarnate Tom Brady taking over in New England.) What, I wondered, was so different about the guy up to 1998 and last year?

So I thought back to when I used to see Bledsoe twice a year when the Patriots played the Bills, in the mid and late 1990s, and what I remember of Bledsoe back then is that he used to constantly kill the Bills -- and the Bills' defense was great back then -- not by completing lots of deep passes to his receivers, although there certainly was some of that. No, the big spark plug was his tight end, Ben Coates, who at the time was one of the very best tight ends in the NFL. But Coates's production fell off substantially in 1999 -- I'm not sure if he played hurt that year, or what -- and then he was gone. But interestingly, Bledsoe's statistical fall-off tracks precisely with Coates's, and continued when Coates was gone.

Flash forward to 2002, when Bledsoe joined the Bills. Suddenly the guy could do no wrong again, for most of the season. A lot of it was that Eric Moulds and Peerless Price were better receivers than he ever had in New England, but you would think that even with losing Price for this year Bledsoe wouldn't totally fall apart. So what else was different? Well, it wasn't just Price who left. The Bills also ditched running back Larry Centers, who was almost never used to run the ball but whose receiving skills are such that he has more than 800 career receptions and may end up in the Hall of Fame. Last year, Centers played the same role that Coates used to play for Bledsoe: the safety-valve guy who could grab the short passes when the pressure was coming too hard for Bledsoe to wait for his receivers to get open. Centers had 43 catches last year, more than Jay Riemersma (who was the actual tight end last year) and thus far more than the Bills' current two tight ends combined. This suggests to me that if the Bills want to improve their offense next year, they need to do two things (aside from firing coordinator Kevin Gilbride, who is almost certainly guaranteed to be gone):

1. Improve the offensive line for protection purposes. Bledsoe is a rhythm quarterback, but the current line never lets him get into a rhythm.

2. Upgrade the tight ends or "backfield receiver" to give Bledsoe a credible threat underneath, which will help him get out of jams.

Well, anyway, there it is. As I noted, the Bills aren't officially out of it yet, but they might as well be. They would have to win every remaining game to have a shot at the division, and given their current woes, I don't see them beating Indianapolis or Tennessee at home or the Patriots on the road. So I'm thinking about next year, mildly embarrassed that my expectations for their 2003 season were so far off the mark. But I'm not remotely alone in that regard.

:: Note to Vikings fans: The 2002 Oakland Raiders suffered a four game losing streak at one point in the season. And then they went to the Super Bowl. (In which they got blown out. Don't look too far into history for lessons, I guess.)

:: Remember, I'm on hiatus next week, so I won't be posting about the Bills' inevitable loss to Indianapolis. But I expect that fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium will get to see some touchdowns being scored. (By the wrong team, of course, but still....)

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Your Source for Jovian Goodness

Paul Riddell linked a couple of interesting items this week that relate to Jupiter, space exploration, and how lame we've become at it. Here is an article about the end of the Galileo probe and the general lack of interest in space in the US, which is tied back to science fiction and its failings as a genre in recent years. Also, check out these animations of Galileo's final plunge.

And finally, NASA released a photo of Jupiter that was taken by the Cassini probe as it went by. (Cassini is on its way to Saturn.) Technically a mosaid of small photos, the released image is billed as "the best picture of Jupiter ever", with the colors unaltered this time. (Previous photos used false color enhancement to make the cloud details easier to see. Image alteration for study purposes is common in astronomy; a good example is those topographical images of the Venusian surface that were made some years ago, in which the topography is exaggerated.) The image really is pretty amazing: check it out here. That is one amazing image. I can't wait to see what Cassini reveals about Saturn in 2004.

Of Traffic and Hiatuses

I'm hoping that November is proving to be a slow month, if terms of traffic, for everyone else in Blogistan, because if it's not, then I have a serious problem with my content. I have witnessed a substantial drop in traffic here lately, with the big drop coinciding with Sheila's decision to close down StarLines, although I'm hoping that's not actually a factor. (Not that I'm hoping that my content has suddenly dropped in quality instead!) I suppose that a drop was due after two months of substantial increases in September and October, but still, it's a bit of a bummer.

Anyway, seeing as how traffic has already dropped off quite a bit, I've decided that it won't be much of a big deal if I take a bit of time off. I will go on hiatus starting this coming Saturday (November 22) and I will return Sunday, November 30. So, this Friday's update will be the last for nine days. I suspect that traffic would drop anyway during Thanksgiving week, and I could use a bit of time to recharge and work exclusively on the damn book novel-in-progress.

As with my last posting holiday, I will still be reading my usual blogs and answering e-mails and all that - - it's not like I'm taking an expedition to see the caribou in their natural habitat in the Yukon or something. Also, as with last time, I'm not swearing off posting to Collaboratory.

Skiffy! We got yer skiffy here!

I'm gradually becoming a big fan of science fiction author Timothy Zahn. Like most folks, I suspect, I discovered him first through his series of Star Wars novels; he was the first author in the now sprawling enterprise known as "The Extended Universe" (i.e., the post-Return of the Jedi stories). In those books, Zahn displayed a real talent for fun, zippy space opera with a dash of mystery and neat SFnal ideas, and in his non-Star Wars books, that seems to be exactly the kind of thing he writes. So if you crave SF that's fun and action-packed, Zahn's your huckleberry.

I just read his latest book, Dragon and Thief, which is subtitled "The First Dragonback Adventure". The start of a series, then: the dust jacket promises six books altogether. The title might lead one to expect a fantasy novel - - the dragon thing, you know - - but it's not. This is pure SF, and it seems to be intended for younger readers. The SF genre has really been in need of a way for adolescents to come in - - Young Adult Fantasy is in great shape these days, mainly due to the rising tide created by Harry Potter, but there hasn't been the equivalent for SF. Zahn's new series might help to fill a big hole in the SF readership.

The story involves an orphan named Jack Morgan, who is eeking out an existence in space with the help of his intelligent space ship until he's framed for a theft he didn't commit. While on the run, he comes across an alien named Draycos, who is basically a dragon. Draycos is the sole survivor of an attack on his ship, and he wants to find the beings who are killing his people (the "K'Da"). Thus, Jack and Draycos join forces for mutual benefit - - including forming a symbiotic relationship, because the K'Da must have a host or they die within six hours.

There are some nifty SF ideas in the book, including some stuff involving dimensional perception, but Zahn keeps the technobabble from overwhelming the story and characters (too bad he never wrote for Star Trek…), and in typical Zahn fashion, he keeps the story moving constantly. This is a zippy read, the kind of short and fun adventure that can really be refreshing to read. If you have a young reader in the family or you know one, here's an SF book that they will enjoy. And if you're an adult reader who needs something light and fun, this is a good choice.

A couple of provisos:

:: Dragon and Thief is the first book of a series, so not all plot threads are resolved. It ends with the kind of "open-ended closure" that you find at the conclusion of each Harry Potter book, so don't expect a total ending.

:: This book has one horrible cover. Really. I hope they get a new painting for the paperback, because the hardcover is ghastly. I seriously doubt I would have given the book a second look if I didn't know who Timothy Zahn is.

Was there ever such a thing as an MP2?

I've started experimenting with digital music on the computer over the last couple of weeks. I've been burning some of my favorite film music CDs onto the hard drive, and then listening to the resulting tracks on the headphones while I write. I have to admit that it is a pleasurable way of doing things. It's fairly nifty to be able to just use a couple of mouse-clicks to bring up a certain track, if that's what I want to hear. But I still can't see MP3s ever being my main, preferred means of listening to music.

First of all, they simply don't sound as good as the CDs. I use MusicMatch Jukebox to rip and play, and I rip my MP3s at the highest available rate (160kbs), and even I - - as a relatively low-level audiophile - - can hear a noticeable dropoff in sound quality. They sound "good enough", certainly; even "pretty good" and in a few cases, "pretty darn good". But not as good. Secondly, the ad slogan used to be "Rip. Mix. Burn." Well, I have never been one to "mix"; as I've noted many times before, I am primarily an album listener, so the whole "mixing" aspect isn't that big a deal to me. I prefer to spend extended periods of time in a musical artist's sound world, and one thing that worries me about the "Death to the CDs! Distribute everything digitally! Download your songs, and never darken the doors of a music store again!" crowd is the forcing of a Smorgasbord approach to music upon everyone.

Finally, there's a minor technical issue that's plaguing me. My MusicMatch player does a brief pause between tracks in a playlist, which seems perfectly normal, but there are times when that pause should not be there. This manifests itself, in fairly ugly fashion, in my playlist of the extended score to The Phantom Menace, in which long swaths of John Williams's score are broken into fairly short tracks that play continuously on a CD player but which have audible pauses when played from the hard drive. This drives me crazy, and unless there's a way to get tracks to play seamlessly, this means that I simply won't be able to listen to a fair number of classical music works on my computer, because it's not at all uncommon for classical recordings to have one long, unbroken work recorded as a number of shorter tracks that are to play without pause. I am not going to listen to Richard Strauss's longer tone poems on my computer if I have to put up with myriad one-second breaks. Ditto Wagner's operas. Or Mahler's symphonies. And so on. (Now, if there's a way to disable this feature or work around it, let me know and I'll retract what I've said here.)

And that's to say nothing of the whole "digital versus physical" media issue from a preservation standpoint, except to note that I'd almost bet money that ten or fifteen years from now I will still be able to listen to my CDs, but MP3s will be as useless as those old 5-inch floppy disks from the Apple II/Commodore 64 era. The whole MP3-thing is a neat addition to the music pot, but I don't think it can support the whole dish without changing the dish so radically that I'm not even sure I'd want to continue consuming it.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Friday Burst of Weirdness

Actually, I'm not at all sure how "weird" this is -- it's just one of those cultural differences. Anyway, when one reads a lot of cookbooks and food history, a theme one quickly detects is that foods of necessity in one era eventually become foods of delicacy for the next. Case in point: In Cambodia, spiders are a gastronomic delight.

As I note, this is really more of a cultural difference; I'm sure there's some staple of American diet that the spider-munching Cambodians would find nauseating. But it was a slow week for weirdness online, so that's what I'm going with. Bon appetit!

I could have SWORN that "Stillwater" was a real band!

I watched the film Almost Famous the other day, and I really enjoyed it. Films about rock music have a tendency to go overboard with their sense of the cosmic importance of it all; or, on the other hand, they can err too far on the other side, which if you're intending to make a comedy like This is Spinal Tap is fine, but if you're not, well, it can kill you.

This is a film that explores the lifestyle of a touring rock band that hasn't quite yet made it, and its effect on a young man just entering this world. With the film's endless bus rides, the strange groupies who make this band the center of their existence, the odd doings at various concert venues, and the occasional forays into sex and "what it all means", I suddenly realized after watching it that Almost Famous is actually Bull Durham, but about minor-league rock-and-roll instead of minor-league baseball. Cameron Crowe (who wrote and directed) brings the same sense of affection for the subject matter to Almost Famous that Ron Shelton did to Bull Durham, with much of the same effect: one realizes, watching this film, that there are entire lives being lived in the rock music world that only once in a while, and very briefly, come into contact with the rarefied air of the Led Zeppelin's and the Rolling Stones of the world.

The story is inspired by Cameron Crowe's own life. A 15-year old boy named William Miller somehow gets Rolling Stone Magazine to give him an assignment: get an interview with up-and-coming rock band "Stillwater". Through a long line of delays and stalling efforts, though, William ends up actually joining the band on its tour through the United States, during which he often calls his mother to tell her he's OK. (She is very worried about him; she completely distrusts the rock music world and at every interaction tells her son, "Don't take drugs". Good detail there: a lesser writer would have used the more commonly-known construction "Don't do drugs".) And along the way, William falls in love with a groupie who goes by the name Penny Lane (played by Kate Hudson, who may be the most luminous person on earth today), who is already in love with Russell (Billy Crudup), the band's guitarist, who is in turn a guy whose heart is in the right place but nevertheless continually blunders and mistreats people.

Almost Famous is a virtual study in naivete. William is naive about pretty much everything; Penny Lane carefully constructs an air of wisdom about her, but it is eventually exposed as pure sham; William's mother is naive in her exclusively-negative view of the rock world; Russell is naive about pretty much all of his interactions with others; et cetera. The movie conveys a world in which everybody is wise about some things and totally clueless about others, and the only real difference is in the way some people's areas of cluelessness are more disastrous than others.

I've read a few reviews of Almost Famous since I watched it, and I've read some that take the view that Crowe's depiction of the rock world is too positive, and that the film is lacking in "edge". I don't know about that -- I can sort of see their point, but I suspect that Crowe adopted this tone purposely, because he's a guy who has made it big from pretty much the beginnings that we see for William. I just don't think that extra "bitterness" would help this movie; in fact, it would add a certain false note, a kind of "If I knew then what I know now" quality that's not always appropriate, because not every lesson needs to be learned in the manner that one learns not to touch a hot stove.

Now, if Cameron Crowe ever wants to make a movie about that period in rock history that does have more edge to it, all he has to do is make an entire film about rock critic Lester Bangs, who shows up as a supporting player in Almost Famous (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Now there is a movie I'd like to see.

(Incidentally, I'm now dipping into the book Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader. This guy was fascinating. You can tell a good writer when they captivate you while writing about music groups one knows nothing about.)

Oh, yeah, THAT movie!

Here are a few films that I've always liked, and yet I don't see mentioned all that often in various forums or in real-life. They're the kinds of movies that sit on the shelves at Blockbuster, unloved, or tucked away a safe distance from the "New Releases" at your local Media Play. They might even be in the bargain bins....but they're actually really good movies that deserve to be seen more than they are.

:: Real Genius. The ultimate "Science nerds in college" movie, with some of the best dialogue I've ever heard. It features Val Kilmer before he became a really big name as a brilliant college physics student who has slacked off into eccentricism, top secret government defense schemes, gonzo practical jokes that only the Physics Nerds could come up with (such as using a quarter-sized slice of frozen nitrogen to get pop out of the vending machine), and more.

:: Top Secret! Another early Val Kilmer movie, made by the producers of the Airplane and Naked Gun movies. You can't dislike a movie that lampoons World War II espionage flicks and includes a cameo by Peter Cushing as a Swedish bookseller with a horribly misshapen eye.

:: Dead Again. A thriller with supernatural overtones, a witty script, and a half-dozen "Gotcha!" revelations along the way. It's also one of those thrillers that's fun to immediately watch again after you see it the first time, so you can reinterpret all of the early stuff in the light of the secrets unveiled later on. This is my favorite Kenneth Branagh movie. (Patrick Doyle's score is a barnburner, too.)

:: Grand Canyon. This is a powerful drama about a circle of people from disparate walks of life in Los Angeles. Their lives intersect in surprising ways, and each person in their own way feels that not-uncommon modern sense of life spinning out of control.

:: The Man Without a Face. Since I keep getting hits for people looking for explanations of Dead Poets Society, allow me to plug this film again, which is a far better movie about the student-teacher dynamic. Leave the "Robin Williams angling for an Oscar" movie on the shelves and watch this one instead.

:: Broadcast News. I haven't seen this one in far too long. I have no idea how accurate its portrayal of TV news may be (although Aaron might -- care to weigh in?), but I really dig the interplay of the lead characters. To this day, the line "A lot of alliteration from anxious anchormen placed in powerful posts!" is one of my favorite lines in a movie of all time.

:: Far and Away. OK, this may qualify more as a "guilty pleasure" than an actual good movie. It's the kind of story you'll find in numerous versions in the Romance section at Borders, but so what? It's engaging and fun, and it's got one of John Williams's most underappreciated filmscores.

:: Hear My Song. Here's a movie about a shady Liverpool concert promoter. How shady is he? Well, he spreads the word that Frank Cinnatra will be playing his club. (Hey, it's not his fault if it sounds the same as the other guy!) And he constantly appeals to older Brits for help by saying things like, "I grew up in peacetime. I haven't seen what you've seen!" Anyway, this guy ends up going in search of a legendary singer who fled England for tax reasons. I really can't describe the plot any farther than that, except to say that this is one of those movies that leaves you totally satisfied. You have British humor, Irish singing, con games, and two tender love stories. Next time you're looking for a "date movie", check this one out. Trust me. (Trivia note: the lead is played by Adrian Dunbar, who would later play Senator Bail Organa in The Phantom Menace -- but his scenes were either cut or not filmed, and the role was recast for Jimmy Smits in Attack of the Clones and, presumably, Episode III.

Thursday, November 13, 2003


The Phaistos Disc.

This strange object was unearthed in the ruins of the ancient city of Phaistos, in Crete, in 1908. Numerous mysteries surround the Disc's origin and meaning, which has apparently not yet been conclusively deciphered. (Claims of deciphering have been advanced, with some claiming the Disc's writing is a prayer, while others maintain that it is a mathematical proof. Details here and here.) The Disc's nature is mysterious partly because no other similar artifacts have ever been found, and because the nature of the characters inscribed on the Disc -- showing little, if any, variation -- imply that the Disc may actually have been "struck" as an example of ancient typography. The Disc dates to 1700 BC.

Hey, if I mash the red and blue pills together, what happens when I take the resulting purple pill?

Nefarious Neddie is continuing his crusade to explain The Matrix. Check it out, those who want to know why Agent Smith seems to really like charcoal-gray.

Blogging Rule #85

If you gotta wait two months between posts, make it good when you return.

Of course, this seems to stand in contrast to Rule #43, which reads: "If you're good at blogging, don't wait two months between posts".

Oh! Make him stop! That Rall guy is such a pistol!

Via The Modulator I see an article by Ted Rall that's pretty breathtaking. Reading it, I can certainly imagine the arteries that are just a-poppin' at places like LGF and that Rottweiler guy. I'm sure they're taking it as a "This guy wants Americans to die!" type of thing, but I don't think that's quite what Rall is saying: rather, I think he's trying to make the case that Iraqis really want Americans to die, and thus, we should get out of Iraq immediately. He's using a provocative viewpoint to illustrate his belief that Iraqi resistance is likely to get more focused and more energetic, that American forces are likely to face a more and more difficult road, et cetera. Basically Rall's piece is saying, again very provocatively, that we're headed toward a full-bore quagmire. Agree with that message or not -- and I don't, entirely (although I think the possibility for "quagmire" exists in greater likelihood than the Administration and its supporters admit) -- I don't think this piece supports a reading that implies Rall's delight in American soldiers dying.

Generally, I'm not a fan of Ted Rall's: I think he tends to strive for provocation for provocation's sake; his views are so far to the left that his starting point often seems to be an assumption of Hitler-like evil on the right; his cartoons and writings often strike me as the rhetorical equivalent of that Monty Python sketch with the two "Great White Hunters" who use high-tech artillery to kill tiny animals ("We use an AK-47 to kill mosquitoes. Now, some people ask why we don't just use a flyswatter. Where's the sport in that?"). Plus, I just plain don't like his artwork. And even if I think that Rall is making an argument here that isn't quite what the LGF crowd thinks he is, and even if I think that he's merely using a rhetorical device known as "changing the viewpoint", I think it shows some pretty poor taste in writing a piece like this for the general consumption on Veterans' Day.

Two days late, two dollars short, etc.

Tuesday was the Space Waitress's birthday. I hope it was happy.

Gentlemen, start your twenty-siders!

Scott of The Gamer's Nook wants to take a leaf from "National Novel Writing Month" (or, NaNoWriMo) and do something called International Game Design Month, during which people who like role-playing games (or, RPGers, for short) would spend the month designing a world from scratch, or something like that. He wants to do this in January, which I've always thought would be a better month for NaNoWriMo anyway, given that January doesn't have anything in it like Thanksgiving Weekend. If you're an RPGer and you've been meaning to do some game design, drop by Scott's blog and discuss it. Imagine thousands of gamers worldwide, embracing their inner Gygaxes....

(I did some RPG stuff in college, strictly AD&D, and I've never done anything with it since. But at least I can still tell you what "THAC0" means.)

For 2004, I nominate Gray Davis!

I'm not sure how I missed this, or forgot to note it here, or what. But there is such a thing now as the Robot Hall of Fame, and one of the inaugural members is none other than everybody's favorite garbage-can shaped Swiss-army-knife from a galaxy far, far away, R2-D2!

The Robot Hall of Fame seeks to enshrine both robots from science fiction and robots from real life, which is pretty cool. I do quibble a bit with their induction of the HAL-9000, whom I've always thought of more as a computer than a robot. But I'm not on the selection committee, so my opinion matters for naught.

Anyway, here's hoping for the future enshrinement of such wonderful robots as Robbie, the Iron Giant, and the Terminator(s). I'm not sure if C-3PO warrants induction on their criteria, but I'm pretty much convinced he should be there. He did, after all, manage to sway the Ewoks to the Rebels' side, thus allowing them to take out the shield generator and basically win the whole thing. Or something like that.

I suspect, though, that the whole "Robot Hall of Fame" exercise should be shut down if they ever come round to inducting this robot.

(Link via Aaron.)

Nope, not funny.

Matthew Yglesias points out a British political cartoon that's not funny. I mean, it's really not funny. See for yourself. This cartoon is a one-panel clinic in how to not be funny: make your joke so obscure that your point is undecipherable, engage in caricature for no particular reason, and invoke the dead, just for starters. Wow.

Matthew makes the point that a lot of times when people say, "I don't think this cartoon is funny" what they're really saying is, "I don't agree with the political viewpoint being expressed here", which is probably true in a vague and general sense. But there's a lot of political cartooning I don't find funny on the liberal side, and the only conservative political cartoon I personally know of -- that Ramirez guy, who I believe cartoons for the LA Times -- I actually do happen to find funny on occasion. Those are probably exceptions that prove the rule, though. I'm not sure if I have a point, so I'll stop now.

Wind. Lots and Lots of Wind.

Winter appears to be arriving in Buffalo today, in the form of an incredibly windy storm that's also packing some snow, although the wind is such that right now there is virtually no chance of snow actually accumulating. Thus it begins.

UPDATE: Now, six hour or so after I wrote that post, the winds have slackened a bit, thus allowing the snow to begin accumulating. The amount isn't such that it can be meaningfully described in terms of inches, yet, but it may get there. But hell, after spending last winter in Syracuse (which gets significantly more snow than Buffalo), I'm ready. Bring it on!

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Building a Better Party

A really rich guy is basically giving a lot of money to the Democrats. This is a very welcome development. Something that's been bothering me in recent years is what I've come to call the "Assumption of eventual victory" attitude of liberals: it's the idea that our views are just plain right, goshdarnit, and since the truth always wins out, all we have to do is wait for the people to come 'round to our way of thinking and sweep all those wrong-headed conservatives out into the street. Thus we end up with lackluster candidates who basically "play defense". Matthew Yglesias pointed a form of this out last week, as did Morat. It's quite a problem, and it represents a dilemma I've been stewing over for a while: What is more important to me as a liberal? Is it beating George W. Bush in 2004? Or is it starting the longer, harder work of pushing the debate in America back toward the left, even if that possibly means taking a huge one on the chin next November?

I am thinking here of the 1964 election, when the Republicans sent Barry Goldwater to his doom against Lyndon Johnson. Goldwater got blasted out of the water. The election was not even remotely close, and it seemed that liberalism was ascendant once again. But in the wake of the 1964 campaign, Republicans started the long process of gathering future voices for their party (including a fellow named Reagan), and basically laying the ideological groundwork for the eventual conservative era that began in 1980 and reached its current high point starting in 2000. So what's more important? Preventing any more damage (as I see it) from this President, or working now to ensure a "New Liberalism" in 2020 or so that will hold sway for several decades? I'd love to see a Democratic President take office on January 20, 2005; but I also want to stop "holding the line". I want to see Liberals discuss things not in terms of "stopping the bleeding" or "preventing any further damage", but in terms of enacting what we believe. What scares me is the prospect of getting beat in 2004, and having liberals basically go to sleep again until 2008.

So I think it's time for Liberals to start doing some heavy lifting. We need to fix our own ideological infrastructure and get some arguments; we need to stop waiting for the country to wake up and see the natural goodness of our positions. And if we do get blown out next year (which I emphatically do not believe is a "given"), let's make damned sure we do it in such a way that gets the fires burning again. This means being proactive in shaping the debate and concentrating on winning local, grass-roots elections with good, articulate candidates -- two things the Republicans have been really good at doing for a number of years now, and two things the Democrats have not.

(Demosthenes has more thoughts on Soros.)

Workers of the world....

I've been stewing for a little while over a few comments I've seen in various blogs and comment-threads, such as in Kevin Drum's recent postings about a strike of supermarket workers in California. (Additional posts by Kevin here, here and here.) I don't want to comment on the whole vagaries of the strike and the various unionization issues involved, but what has got me worried is the tenor of some comments I've seen. Specifically, statements like this (rough paraphrases; I'm not looking up specific quotes here):

"Jeez, how much do we want to pay unskilled labor, anyway?"

"Go get yourselves a college education, and then we'll talk about health care."

I find these kinds of thoughts enormously disturbing, and I've been reading a bit more about low-wage workers. Right now I'm on a book called The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans, and it's quite the eye-opening volume. It's more of an academic study of the low-wage part of our economy than, say, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: it covers some of that territory, but it also gives a lot of numbers backing up the problems faced by our nation's low-wage workers. I'm about two-thirds of the way through the book, but so far the most valuable stuff I've found here is the demographic information about low-wage workers and the jobs they hold. Here's a hint: low-wage workers are older, whiter, and better educated than the general stereotype implies.

:: Forget "flipping burgers". Fast-food jobs constitute less than 5% of low-end jobs.

:: Teenagers hold 7% of low-wage jobs.

:: A majority of adults who hold low-wage jobs also have families.

:: Nearly two-thirds of all low-wage workers are white.

:: While blacks and Latinos constitute a minority of low-wage workers, they are represented in the low-wage workforce by a greater percentage of their overall workforce than are whites (31.2% of blacks and 40.4% of Latinos, versus only 20% of whites.)

:: Women constitute 60% of the low-wage work-force.

:: Three-quarters of those women are white. (But again, blacks and Latinos are overrepresented here.)

:: 40% of low-wage workers have a high school diploma, 38% have some post-secondary education, and 5% have a college degree.

I found all those stats useful in reminding myself that low-wage workers aren't stereotypes; they're real people working real jobs, facing real problems. Too much of our rhetoric seems to completely forget that, as in the two representative comments above: Do we really want only the college-educated to have access to affordable health care? Do we really view these people as lacking skills:? Do we really not see the rank elitism inherent in such views of the people who are, after all, a giant part of our economy?

Show me an unskilled and uneducated worker, and I'll show you a worker. In fact, I'll go you one better: I'll show you a worker who isn't unskilled, but a worker whose skills are underrecognized and undervalued by a society that sometimes seems to equate "skill" with "number of diplomas". It's a curious thing that we should build our economy around the efforts of these people and the jobs they work, and then look down our noses upon them while they're working.