Monday, June 30, 2003

There are a couple of tidbits over on TF.N about Star Wars Episode III: The Phantom Attack of the Menacing Clones. First is the item that there is apparently to be no location shooting at all on Episode III. So all the "planetside" shots will be digital, except for those shots already known to have been filmed during Attack of the Clones shooting, a couple of years ago. Second, it appears that a long-lived rumor -- that footage of Natalie Portman has been shot for later insertion into even-more-Special-Editions of the original trilogy -- is, in fact, not the case. I can deal with that.

And finally there's this intriguing item: "Color and darkness will be emphasized in the film. Rick McCallum says it will mimic paintings by Mark Rothko." I assume this refers to the film's visual look, as opposed to its story, but George Lucas is a very visually-oriented storyteller, so this may be kind of important. I found this gallery of Rothko's work yesterday. I am unfamiliar with him, but it appears that his work features bold colors with a lot of contrast. Episode III would seem, then, to have a look of its own, different from the initial "naturalistic" look of A New Hope (which gives way halfway through the film as technology takes over the story).

Finally, in news items thus far regarding Episode III, Jonathan Hales -- Lucas's co-writer for Attack of the Clones -- has not been mentioned. I wonder if Lucas again did the script all by himself. I rather hope not, since as much as I love Lucas and Star Wars the guy has always needed help in the dialog department. We'll see. (I was also surprised to learn that the current draft of the script is only 102 pages, but this might not be that indicative of anything.)

By all the Gods in all the worlds, who cares??!!

A sign that I've been reading too much political stuff lately: this morning, one of MSN's headlines referenced "Tropical Storm Bill". I read this and immediately thought this was a piece of legislation.

Tom Burka's blog is now sporting a new, and quite nifty, appearance. I like it when "Retro" meets "Cyberspace".

Matthew Yglesias is posting intermittently right now (boo) because he's spending something like three weeks traveling in Europe (hiss). But today he's got something of a Summer Reading List up, although it's not so much a list. Anyway, I hadn't thought of posting a reading list because I rarely know more than a book or two in advance of what I'm planning to read.

For instance, I may have a stack of epic fantasy novels to get through, but then I might decide after reading the first one that I'm really in the mood for something else when I'm done. Every volume of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series has had this effect thus far: those books are so densely plotted and intricate that each time I finish one, quite frankly the last thing I want is to read another epic fantasy, or even any kind of fantasy at all.

And then there are the time when I'll encounter a book that's so good that the next book on The Reading List is, well, pretty screwed unless it's literally Shakespeare or Steinbeck or some such literary giant. I remember when I tried reading Tad Williams's The Dragonbone Chair immediately after finishing Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana, which did Williams's book no favors (and Tigana is not even my favorite of GGK's novels!). I waited a year to tackle Williams again, and finally found that it actually was a pretty damn good book, if a bit bloated. A really good book can send me into something of a "reading funk" after I finish it. Last time this happened was Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, a year ago.

As for nonfiction, I'm even more all over the map than in my fiction reading. I'll wander through the library and say, "Holy crap, that sounds interesting!", and under my arm the book goes. And that's not even mentioning the immense number of books I personally own. About the only nonfiction books that I know I plan to read in the near future are Hillary Clinton's new book and The Clinton Wars by Sidney Blumenthal (thus indulging my double-fascination with Presidential stuff in general and Clinton stuff in particular).

Even my approach to my recent Short Fiction Month was random and scattershot. Generally, my reading tends to err on the side of "I wanna read that!", with occasional pangs of guilt that "I oughta read that". But luckily for me (or not; the jury's still out), I've become quite good at pushing guilt out of my mind.

I don't know if I'll ever be able to decide which Hepburn is my favorite -- Katherine or Audrey -- but I guess it doesn't really matter, does it? My favorite Katherine Hepburn film is The African Queen, and my favorite scene is where Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) gets up one morning after really tying one on the night before, sits up, blinks...and sees Rose Sayer (Hepburn) sitting at the back of the boat, in all her proper British splendor, her parasol in one hand and Charlie's last bottles of liquor in the other as, one by one, she pours their contents into the river.

The first Katherine Hepburn film I ever saw was On Golden Pond:

About thirty years separate the two films. If that's not "aging gracefully", I don't know what is.

Sunday, June 29, 2003

Well, I think that Rachel Lucas has finally lost me. I had seen her as a thoughtful and entertaining right-wing blogger, but after this half-baked "Fisking" of a Bill Clinton speech, I just think she's descended into self-parody. It's not worth a point-by-point rebuttal, but she does say something that I found staggering in its sheer lunacy -- particularly to see it coming from a person who has made a big deal of the fact that she's a history student:

Seriously, does anyone care what Hitler's "root causes" were? I didn't think so. Schmoot schmauses.

Amazing, utterly amazing. The study of history is, in large part, precisely the study of "root causes", the idea being that maybe if we identify the forces that led to certain events or to certain people rising to power, maybe we'll be able to identify those forces again in our own time. So yes, I suspect that Hitler's "root causes" are, in fact, quite relevant: just what led an entire nation to turn over its reins of power to a person like that? Why would they do so? Are there any such instances transpiring today? What role did the punitive nature of the Treaty of Versailles play in the rise of Naziism? And so forth. I don't understand why bitching about "root causes" is such a shibboleth on the right these days, but for a person like Rachel -- who is constantly patting herself on the back for her superior understanding and respect for history, in the face of all those dumb liberal students who don't know nothin' better -- to make a statement like this is almost beyond my comprehension.

(Oh, and while I'm at it, Rachel tosses up a nice strawman in discussing Bill Clinton's criticism of the Bush tax cut plan. Rachel seems to think that Clinton is complaining that anyone at all is getting a tax cut, so she boldly claims, "I'm gonna keep any 'windfall' I get". Well, that's very nice. Too bad that the actual Democratic complaint isn't that you're getting "any 'windfall'", Rachel, but that you're not getting enough of one. I wish I could figure out just how right-wingers translate "We think the lower and middle classes should get more of the present tax cut than the extreme upper-class" into "We think nobody should get any tax cut at all".)

The daughter and I attended West Seneca's annual "big parade" yesterday (there's an official name for the weeklong festival, but I don't remember it just now). It was just about the same line-up as always: a procession of old cars, some fire trucks, a few bands and bagpipe corps, et cetera. There were two groups of dancing young girls, the second of which seemed comprised of six-year olds, whose dance-steps creeped me out a bit. The whole thing was closed off by another group of fire trucks, this time the really huge ones with the sirens that redefine "deafening" when you're within twenty-feet of them. My daughter was excited that some of the participants were throwing candy, of course. She didn't get much, since the bigger kids get to it all first, but she got a few items. One thing that always surprises me is that Smarties, when hurled twenty or more feet onto concrete, don't shatter. Weird.

There was a moment that I figured SDB would appreciate: a group of former Marines marched (ten of them, about) with two current Marines with them. The group stopped right in front of us for a moment, one of those stoppages that happens in the course of parades, during which the old veterans clustered around the two younger guys, admiring their Marine-issue cargo pants. I couldn't hear the entire conversation, but the younger guys were describing the items that could fit in the cargo pockets and how convenient they are when crawling through muck and whatever it is Marines have to crawl through at times. SDB writes a lot about military stuff, so how about a post or two on military fatigues?

(Oh, and the four little boys on the curb in front of us learned a valuable lesson just then. One of them yelled out to those Marines: "Hey, Army guys!" You never saw a dozen scowling faces whip around that fast....)

If you somehow missed Gollum's acceptance speech for "Best Digital Character" at the MTV Movie Awards, well, here's your chance. (Foul language alert, and it takes a while to get to Gollum. Just bear with it.)

Paul Riddell, who was one of my favorite regular reads before something (or a lot of somethings) went awry in his personal life and he decided to quit writing entirely, has returned to writing via blogging (or "live journaling", as it were). He's got a very narrow focus right now, which is fine by me; at least his tap hasn't run completely dry, and I can still hold out hope that he'll gradually recharge the batteries, re-find his Muse, and attain new heights of hilarity. (I don't think any of his old columns are archived anywhere, else I would link them.)

I watched the old Rankin-Bass animated version of The Hobbit with the kid the other day. It was a favorite of mine when I was a kid, and I saw it before I read the book, so I was actually enchanted to read the book and find out that there was even more story than I had known about, which is a nicer way to go than getting angry because something didn't make the movie after reading the book. I found that the film stands up quite nicely; the animation isn't very smooth, but that's no surprise considering the general quality of Rankin-Bass animation back in the day, and the designs themselves are very nice, with an interesting watercolor style. The voice work is generally high-quality, especially John Huston as Gandalf. And I have to admit that I still have a soft spot for the goofy, 1970s style music in the film, some of them with J.R.R. Tolkien's lyrics given the folk-treatment, and a totally new song ("The Greatest Adventure") providing a main theme, of sorts. The reviews on the IMDb entry for The Hobbit pretty much savage the film, so this is pretty much as case of trying to see the film for where the filmmakers are coming from, and accounting for the resources at their command.

OK, I've complained a few times about the fact that I'm outranked on the Ecosystem by a guy who has not posted in nearly five months, so I won't whine about that again. I will complain instead about the fact that I am now outranked on the Ecosystem by a blogger who, as of this writing, has not even started blogging yet.

Ugh. Ugh, ugh, ugh ugh ugh.

My support for the recently "concluded" war n Iraq was never more than tepid, because I never found the evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction all that convincing, and observing the Administration's ham-handed efforts at world diplomacy and complete inattention to Afghanistan after the initial success there, I was not particularly confident that the Administration's post-war effort would be, shall we say, less than impressive. So here we are, with no WMD's in sight, and Iraq degenerating into precisely the type of giant mess that does not bode particularly well for anything: a peaceful democracy in Iraq, a launching point for the neo-con goal of remaking the entire Middle East in our image, a powerful wake-up call for the Arab world, a body-blow to world terrorism…right now, I have to say that it's seeming like more and more of a stretch to think that these goals are achievable.

In private conversations about the impending war, last winter, I would tell friends that I would support the war whole-heartedly if I could just be confident that the world would be a safer place when it was over; or, failing that, if I could at least feel that a significant step had been taken toward making the world safer. Yes, Saddam is out of power; yes, he deserved to be out of power. He was (or is) probably the worst of a whole bunch of evil men in this world. But it seems to me that when one considers removing something, one needs to at least consider what's going to inhabit the newly vacated spot; saying "X is bad; ergo, we must remove X" does little good if X is replaced with a Y that is worse than X was, with no guarantee that Y is just an unfortunate intermediary step to something better.

I'd love to feel confident and proud of what we've accomplished. I'd like to be able to say, "We took on a burden, and the world is a better place for it". But I don't feel I can. Not when Afghanistan is a teetering mess, and we're led by an Administration that literally forgot to request funding in its latest budget for Afghan reconstruction; when Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar are still alive; when Saddam Hussein is presumed alive and in money; when the WMDs that were our primary justification for this war in the first place (and let's not pretend that they weren't) are nowhere in evidence leading to a number of unpleasant possibilities that include American negligence and deceit both before and after the war; and when I seem to be getting up every morning to read a new headline about another American soldier being killed in a series of ambush attacks that seem more and more like a concerted guerrilla war, nearly two months after our President played Top Gun (thus restoring American manhood, as some have said) and declared "an end to combat".

What's unfolding right now is pretty much the scenario that I wanted assurances would not be allowed to develop, if I was to support the war unreservedly. I wish I could see just why George W. Bush's supporters are so confident and proud of their guy and his team, because I'm looking for good news, and I'm just not finding it.

(Here's an excellent post by Tacitus on this matter, and he is no bed-wetting liberal. Original link via Kevin Drum.)

Friday, June 27, 2003


Posting pictures of one's cats has become something of a Friday institution around Blogistan (here is an example from Kevin Drum). And I figure, well, I don't have any pictures to put up of either of our cats, but here's a nice substitute:

Nice kitty!

(That's all I got for today, folks. It's sunny out, not as hot and humid, I've got some projects to work on, so I'm outta here. Or more precisely, I'm still right here, but not writing posts today. Or something. And I may take tomorrow completely off, because there is a parade in town that needs attending by me, or it's just not the same, along with my normal workload. Isn't it amazing how much work I can generate for myself, despite the fact that as of right now, none of it is for pay? I suspect I'm doing something wrong....)

Thursday, June 26, 2003

Well, he was never one of my favorite people, but This guy spent a big chunk of United States history on the floor of the Senate -- close to one-fifth of it to this point, actually.

(But am I a bad person if I admit that one of the first things I thought, upon hearing this, was of those "Obituaries-in-reserve" that were inadvertently left publically available a while back?)


St. Cuthbert heals a child, from an illustrated copy of The Life of Cuthbert by the Venerable Bede.

If and when I ever attain significant wealth, I want to buy a few medieval manuscripts and books -- I love the illustration and illumination of the pages. One of the grandest such examples of such a book is the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels, which is the subject of an impressive online exhibition by the British Library. Amazing. (Cuthbert himself wrote some of his translations of the Latin in between the lines of the Lindisfarne book.)

Here are a couple more examples of pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels:

Amazing stuff.

At long last, it is mine:

Reading shall commence as soon as I finish Agent of Change. The name of anyone posting spoilers in my comments will be forwarded, along with IP address, Social Security Number, and Driver's License photo, to Hillary Rosen and Senator Hatch, as I threatened previously. Be warned.

Robert John Guttke, a friend of mine from several years of Usenet posting, is a Minneapolis-based photographer whose work exclusively focuses on the human form (often nude, so don't visit his site if you're bothered by such things). He has a new calendar available of his male photography (called "Priority Male", because the fellows in the calendar are wearing postal uniforms -- "Priority Male", get it?), and he asked me to plug it here, so plugging it, I am. The covers of the calendar can be viewed here, for those interested. (The calendar doesn't feature full nudity, I am informed.)

I watched Treasure Planet last night, and man, is that one strange movie. It's not space opera per se, it's not fantasy, it's not science fiction...I don't know what the hell it is. It's a really neat movie to look at, but it makes about as little sense as anything I've ever seen. I just couldn't wrap my head around Galleons-In-Space. They should have abandoned that concept and just used regular, old spaceships. I don't know if I've ever experienced as much cognitive dissonance while watching a movie as I did with this one.

Lord knows I hate giving President Bush much credit for, well, anything, but the initial tone of this MeFi post seems a bit unfair to me. This is something I've seen once in a while -- that when Bush received the news on 9-11-01 (we've all seen the photo of White House Chief-of-Staff Andrew Card whispering into his ear), he merely sat there for another few minutes reading to the elementary kids in front of him. I'm not sure what else he could have done, though -- information was probably sketchy at that point, and he probably didn't want to scare the children there or give them an idea that something was grossly wrong.

I'm likewise not willing to criticize him for going to a secure location before returning to Washington that night. In fact, while I think that Bush has mucked up pretty much everything he's put his hands on since he took office, I do think that his leadership in the immediate aftermath of that horrid day was about as good as any President could have given. It's tempting to undervalue those things he did -- speeches and whatnot -- but there is a vital, ceremonial aspect to the Presidency (something which Jimmy Carter, for example, failed to understand when he tried things like carrying his own luggage in his early days in office). For that brief period, in my view, Bush got the tone of being President right, especially in his speech to Congress a week after the attacks.

(I do think that the aircraft-carrier landing was a complete embarrassment, though. But that's something else entirely.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Ah, those warm, sultry breezes of Summer, the ones from the south that bring heat and humidity that makes the evening hours so wonderful...except for the fact that my apartment's sliding-glass door faces north, and we are situated near the entrance of the community.

Which means, folks, that on nights like this, we are downwind of nearly every barbecue and grill in the settlement.

The scents are driving me out of my mind....

All-righty, time for a small fiction sample again. This one is the opening of an untitled space-opera project that I started noodling with a year or so ago, and since then has been not so much on the back-burner as stashed in a Ziploc Freezer Bag and stuffed way in the back of my freezer, underneath two of those awful-tasting low-cal, low-fat meals that the commercials would have us believe are culinary bliss. Originally I was toying with the idea of doing a blog-serial, adding to the story every couple of weeks or so, but I've vacillated between attempting an online tale and, well, not attempting an online tale and simply saving this story for a later time. So, I'll just stick a chunk of it here and see if anyone is sufficiently intrigued to beg me to continue with it.

(Did I mention that I'm hot, bored and undercaffeinated today? Ah, I see that I did, a couple of posts down....)

Untitled Space Opera, Episode I: The Phantom Title

[Editor's note: Actually, not quite. I had toyed with the title Arras of the Stars, but I'm not sure if that would be for this story or for the Amazing Grand SAGA of which this would only be a part. What you see below could not possibly be any more of a "work-in-progress", except to the extent that it's not even, really, "in progress".]

ONE DAY late in the year 4763 OC, the Royal Family of Gavinar Five – Queen Ryann the Third and her two daughters -- prepared for the journey to Salengarde Prime to pay tribute to His Magnificence, the Most Holy and Revered Lord and Protector of the Galactic Realm, Zantor the Second, who was to mark his fiftieth year on the Throne of Stars as High Emperator of the Salengarde Imperium.

It was certain to be the most magnificent celebration the Imperium had ever seen, watched and joined by every one of the Imperium’s one hundred and eleven member star systems as well as a hundred or more of the pseudo-independent systems which nevertheless allied with the Imperium. Even the Oxcillan Protectorate, the Imperium’s most powerful rival in the Galaxy, would pay its grudging respect to the man who was about to become only the fourth High Emperator to achieve his fiftieth year. Every place in the Galaxy would mark the occasion, but nowhere would it be grander than on Salengarde Prime itself, when the amazing gifts for the Emperator would be presented for the first time – although most of them were already known to some degree. There would be, for example, a cycle of songs by Welf A’nibra, generally held to be the finest composer in the Imperium. There would be carvings by Jantina of Renald Three, carvings not just remarkable for their make by one of the greatest of sculptors but by the fact that they would be made from the golden bark of Renald Three’s migratory trees. There would be a new poem by Shinn Darhyl, the venerable poet of Dasken Seven who had not composed a single new verse in the nearly twenty years since he had become even more reclusive on his private moon. And there would be so much more! The festival, which was to last one Salengarde month (fifty-one days), would be the most amazing event that anyone could remember – even the Cyborgs of the Outer Reaches, whose communal memories were said to reach back hundreds of years.

Princess Tarina, at sixteen the older of Queen Ryann’s daughters, had dreamed of going to Salengarde Prime all her life and she had awaited this particular journey since a year before, when the Emperator’s Envoy – in all his prim and proper military bearing – had presented to the Queen the official invitation, signed in Zantor II’s own hand. Of course, father had known in advance; that was why he had prevailed upon the Queen to have a new Royal Cruiser built just for the occasion. The ship had been built and christened, its test runs had been a smashing success, and the day had at last come for Queen Ryann and the two Princesses to board the Royal Shuttle and go to their new cruiser which had been named The Jewel of Gavinar. Everything was packed, and the farewell ceremony was just two hours away. For Princess Tarina, the whole day was like a dream – a dream that suddenly turned sour, when one of the Queen’s consorts brought the word that her other daughter, Princess Margeth, had announced that she did not want to go.

"What?" shouted the Queen. "How dare she! Two hours until we board….two hours! Gods forbid that I have any peace from either of my two daughters! At least I could have sent two Princes away, but Princesses? By the Seven Holy Suns!"

She said quite a bit more than that; Queen Ryann's tantrums were the stuff of legend. A standard joke -- never told in the Royal Court, of course, lest word get back to the Queen – was that her husband had set aside his title as King Regent to take his seat on the Emperator's Council simply to get away from the eruptions of Ryann's anger. At this moment, Queen Ryann was still going on about the difficulties of Princesses when Princess Tarina, who had been standing there for all of it, hazarded to speak.

"Mother, would you like me to talk to her?"

"You?" The Queen stopped and stared at her older daughter. "Tarina, please. Margeth has a hold over you. You would do anything for her….if I sent you in there, she'd convince you not to go."

"Not this time, Mother."

The Queen furrowed her brow and stroked her chin. "I suppose I could always order the Royal Guard to bring her by force," she said. "Though it would be quite the scandal. I would be laughed at in my own Court! I suppose that I shall have to go."

"Mother!" Tarina stepped forward into her mother's path. "Margeth isn't going to listen to you."

"Nonsense, girl. Margeth will listen…."

"Mother, Margeth never listens to you. Maybe she'll listen to me. I think I can talk to her. She knows what this journey means to us."

"You mean, to you." The Queen put her hands on her hips. "I know that you've dreamed of going to Salengarde all your life. But Margeth is my child, and she is to be treated…."

"Let me try, Mother!" Tarina was pleading now, something which usually failed miserably with her mother. "If I don't succeed, you can fill her room with stun gas and have her carried aboard the Shuttle with the rest of our luggage."

The Queen stopped to consider that. "Stun gas….the idea has merit."


"Oh, very well," Queen Ryann snapped. "Go and talk to her. You have thirty minutes, and then I am having her sedated. We can suggest to the news outlets that she was taken with a bit of fever….yes, it is that time of year…." The Queen was still scheming how to cover up the unwilling sedation of her younger daughter for a spaceflight as Princess Tarina bowed for her mother and then made her way to her sister's chambers.

Fifteen minutes later, it was not going well.

[At this point, fifty Ninjas would enter and do battle with Wonder Woman and Lara Croft.]

Greg has a couple of interesting posts today (well, two that I'm citing, anyway. He's never not interesting):

:: There is, apparently, a strange new trend in job interviewing: puzzles and brain-teasers. I probably don't know enough about this kind of thing to know if it really has the expected results (i.e., does it actually help determine things like "problem solving" and "creative thinking") or not, but it sounds a little creepy, anyway.

:: Greg also speculates on whether President Bush will consent to debates in 2004's fall campaign. It seems to me that if he does find a way to scuttle debates, timing will be the excuse, given the late date (the latest ever) of next year's Republican National Convention and the 9-11 anniversary observation, to come soon thereafter. Wait and see, I suppose....

Charlie Stross, he of the "My God, I'm tired because I've written six hundred thousand words since breakfast" life, is changing his lifestyle a bit. Congrats to him, and best wishes.

I'm hot, bored, and under-caffeinated. 'Tis a combination that inevitably leads to babbling about Star Wars....

:: The clamoring as to the title of Episode III has apparently begun, over on AICN. As usual for AICN, the "TalkBack" provides some fine nuggets of amusement (Star Wars Episode III: All Your Base Are Belong To Us) amongst the throngs of "Star Wars sucks, God bless The Matrix" posts. Oh well. As for me, I think that trying to guess the title for Episode III is a pretty useless exercise, because in both of the last two cases, the titles eventually announced were not titles that anyone would have thought of before. The only Star Wars film to have an obvious title is The Empire Strikes Back, and I don't expect things to change now. So I'll just wait and see.

:: Over on the rec.arts.sf.written newsgroup, a thread recently kicked off about "Sequels that ruin the original", which eventually settled on a number of haughty, "literate" SF-fan types savaging The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, with no one complaining that those discussions were off-topic in a written SF newsgroup (but just try discussing any other SF movie there and see what happens). Anyway, one mini-debate within the larger debate is on Han Solo's well-known "gaffe" when he claims that the Millennium Falcon is "the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs".

Most people assume that Han is using "parsec" as a unit of time, which it is not -- a parsec is a unit of distance -- which most people therefore take to mean something like, "I drove between Buffalo and San Francisco in less than two hundred miles", an absurdity. The obvious explanation -- that Han somehow found a much shorter, and more dangerous and therefore more impressive, route for executing the Kessel Run -- is usually rejected, because well, George Lucas is a hack and just couldn't have come up with anything clever like that. Whatever.

I do recall, though, that when I grew up in Western New York, my family would occasionally drive to visit my grandmother who lived in New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia. This involves moving southeast -- but the problem for us, from a driving perspective, was that there is no good south-east route between Western New York and Southeastern Pennsylvania. So we'd do a "stair-step" kind of route, going a bit east then a bit south then a bit east then a bit south and so on, until we reached Philly. Thus, a trip that was about 300 miles "as the crow flies" turned into a 400 mile drive. Of course, my father never gave up the dream of finding the "Southeast Passage", which usually involved narrow country roads through the hill country of central Pennsylvania (think Deliverance, but farther north). So we were trying to make the "Philadelphia Run in less than 400 miles".

Thus, Han's claim has never bothered me. Go figure.

Today is the first day of significant heat in Buffalo -- right now it's something like 83 degrees out, and tomorrow's supposed to be a bit hotter before a cooldown. What's nice is that later on this evening, when I reach the point where I'm hottest, I can fire up the central air (which we haven't had in any of our previous domiciles). Hooray!

By the way, all of you people in "warmer climes" who think of Buffalo as an arctic snow-palace, remember: in all the time that weather stats have been kept, not once has Buffalo's temperature topped 100 degrees. So there.

(And you folks in Arizona or some such place, stop telling me that it's a "dry heat". 110 degrees is friggin' unpleasant, no matter how dry it is. Harumph.)

Here's one of those ultra-cool "VR" tours, of an Egyptian Pharaoh's tomb. Ultra-cool, even at 56K. (Yeah, I'm still on dial-up. And I'm quite happy with it, because I do very little downloading of big video files and I don't do filetrading of any sort. So there.)

(Crossposted to Collaboratory -- but not yet, as Collaboratory is apparently now under conversion to New Blogger.)

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Long-time readers will know I spent a good amount of time last winter complaining waxing poetic about the amount of snowfall Syracuse receives, which is significantly more than Buffalo's, despite the national perception of Buffalo as being only a tiny bit less wintry than, say, St. Petersburg, Russia. And Syracuse's snowfall is exceeded by a town called Oswego, which is right on the shores of Lake Ontario and perfectly situated to receive the brunt of the lake-effect snowstorms.

How much snow did Oswego get last year? Well, one of the things that will be familiar to people living in areas of heavy snowfall will be the gigantic piles that accumulate in fields, empty lots, and abandoned parking lots where the snow from the roads is dumped after being removed from the streets. These snowpiles, owing to their impressive size, can last long past the actual end of winter, into April...into May...

...or, if the winter dealt enough snow, past the summer solstice.


What single actor, more than any other, has made his index fingers such a vital part of his thespianic arsenal?

Why, this fellow, of course!

(Somehow this page showed up in my referral log -- probably another case of someone looking at this page immediately before looking at mine, since the Gallery in question obviously doesn't link me. But this is one of the funniest things I've ever seen on the Web.)

Things That Never Happened In Syracuse, no. 2376: while at Party City this morning, buying DragonTales-themed plates, napkins and balloons for my daughter's belated birthday celebration, I glanced at the guy behind me in the checkout line, who along with his wife and two daughters was buying a fistful of balloons including a giant one shaped like a ladybug, and realized that he was none other than Jim Kelly, NFL Hall-of-Famer and former quarterback of the Buffalo Bills during the team's run of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.

Somehow, I managed to contain my excitement at such a brush with my town's greatest sports hero without betraying my cool exterior. (In other words, I didn't start going, "Holy crap, it's Jim Kelly! Oh my God it's number twelve! Wow! I can't believe it! You are so cool!!") Score one for the Good Guys.

I mentioned a week or so ago, when President Bush had his initially-troublesome encounter with a Segway, that I enjoy humorous Presidential photos, regardless of the President's political affiliation. For instance, here is President Bush the Elder, during his own inaugural festivities on January 20, 1989, indulging one of his grandchildren's fascination with flashlights and dentistry.

Over the last week I've been dipping into a fascinting book called Public & Private: Twenty Years Photographing the Presidency by Diana Walker, a photojournalist who covered every President of the United States between Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton. The book is fascinating for its look, as the title indicates, into both the Presidency as a public institution and the lives of the individual men who have held the office.

Some more partisan Republicans might want to take this next one more literally than I would, but it's still a funny picture:

Of course, the book isn't devoted to humorous photos -- far from it, actually. The full gravity of the Presidency is on display here, as is the toll it takes on both the men in the office and the people surrounding him. There are some very poignant candids in the book. For instance, there's a wonderful shot of President Reagan, for example, walking across the lawn of the White House with a gift basket for Nancy Reagan in his hand (she was in the hospital at the time) and looking not quite as "larger than life" as Reagan often looked. Another pair of images of President Bush the Elder after he lost re-election capture the disappointment of losing such a race: one of Bush delivering his concession, the sadness evident in his eyes, and a shot from the back taken the next morning of the President and Mrs. Bush leaning on one another. The book abounds with such examples.

Finally, there is this next image, taken in 1991 for the opening of the Reagan Library. This photo perfectly captures the idea of the Presidency's ongoing nature by showing five Presidents standing side-by-side. I once saw a speech by former President Bush, at an event where he and Presidents Clinton and Carter paid tribute to the White House itself. In that speece, Bush referred to the Presidency as a "continuum of service", a phrase which I liked.

I find books like Public & Private to be a good antidote, and a necessary one, to the occasional political depression that can set in when one focuses too much on the issues and personalities of right now and loses a bit of focus on the idea of ongoing history.

TBOGG also mentions something odd said by Dick Gephardt the other day. I've seen Gephardt's comment mentioned a few times on right-leaning sites and blogs, with the general comment being, "Why aren't Democratic bloggers annoyed/outraged/angered by what Gephardt said?" I can't speak for everyone on my side of the political fence, but as far as I am concerned, Gephardt has no chance at all of winning the nomination, so I'm not terribly concerned about things he says.

Even so, I'd be interested to see if there's a history in Presidents using executive orders as a response to unfavorable court decisions. Does anyone know anything about this? (Yeah, I could do my own homework, but I'm busy today. Yeah, that's it. Busy.)

Thanks to SDB's pair of links to me this week, I rolled past 15,000 hits a couple of weeks earlier than expected, and this month may wind up as my biggest-traffic month yet. Yippee, thanks to my regular readers, thanks to everyone who's permalinked me, and thanks to everyone following SDB's links. I hope a few of you will stick around a while.

But then, lest my head get too big at surmounting 15,000 hits in a year and a half, TBOGG brings us up to speed on what he's been able to do in nine months....

Monday, June 23, 2003

When in doubt for something to post, just shamelessly swipe something good from MeFi. Case in point: the hilarious antics of Gord, video-game store owner and apparent Sultan of Sarcasm. Remember that scene in Clerks that was a montage of stupid customers and their equally stupid questions? This whole site is like that. Hilarious.

I'm sure I could come up with a series of similar tales from the restaurant world, like the woman who ordered the open-faced turkey sandwich and then demanded to know why we "forgot" the other slice of bread...or the guy who ordered his pizza with "double sauce" and then complained because it was too messy to eat....

An interesting thread of discussion has come up over on Highered Intellect about the "Zero Tolerance Policy" our schools are adopting these days, in the wake of the school shootings at Columbine and Jonesboro and Paducah and all the rest of them. (That is the first of many posts of theirs, co-bloggers Michael Lopez and William Moon, to discuss the issue and a few side-issues as well.)

"Zero Tolerance" is one of those things that sounds great in theory, but in reality it leads to those whacko incidents we've all read about: kids getting suspended for having fingernail clippers or pocket-knives of whatever. The whole "Zero Tolerance" thing is pretty goofy (as George Carlin once observed, "You can probably beat someone to death with the Sunday New York Times"), but it's probably not going away. And not because it's really protecting our kids, but because it's part of a growing trend to replace actual, human thought with impersonal process.

I used to see this kind of thing all the time in my various jobs, especially in the first restaurant company where the upper managers were constantly waxing poetic about "systems". Everything had to be a system. If something went wrong, if we had a month in which we ran bad sales numbers or missed our labor targets or ran higher expenditures than usual, it was because we either weren't allowing our "systems" to work or because "we didn't have systems in place". It got to be a monthly ritual of sorts, when the Area Manager would come around and lecture us on our need for "systems". Of course, he was less than helpful when asked specifically what he had in mind for new "systems".

Sometimes the systems were nice, but at certain points they tended to break down when a point is reached beyond which the system's standard assumptions no longer apply. But that's not even my main problem with them; it's the way systems and their closely-related species, policies, quickly become a crutch to managers and insinuate themselves into the process such that they become taken for granted. Thus we have school officials suspending a third-grader for a month because she had a toothpick on her person, and then shrugging and saying, "It's our policy. I can't do anything about it. I have no choice." Or as I had to do as a restaurant manager, and tell the poor nine-year-old girl that she couldn't post a picture of her missing dog on our bulletin board because it went against our "no solicitation" policy. (That's a real example, and that same type of thing came up a lot. It was all part of my company's attempts to stay "Union-free".) Some would say that the policy is dumb because it doesn't allow for things like that, but I often think it's the reverse: dumb policies and systems are allowed to fester because they allow those in authority to do absurd things without looking like idiots. If we have to be the "bad guy" every now and then, how much easier it is to simply point our finger at "the system" or "the policy" whilst issuing a mealy-mouthed statement of regret. Institutional idiocy is easier to swallow, I suppose, than individual idiocy.

Thus our new paradigm seems to be: "We don't want to make decisions, so we're going to institute systems and policies that make our decisions for us. Yes, the result will be the occasional bad or even horrible decision, but that's preferable to having some one person actually be the villain." It goes to ridiculous lengths. When recently searching for a job, I was informed that I had to make my resume "scannable". At some point, unbeknownst to me, it became standard practice for companies to scan resumes into a computer and let the computer make initial determinations, based on keywords, as to who to interview and who to file in the "Also Ran" box. So, if a well-qualified person falls through a company's cracks, it's not the Human Resources person who's to fault for not paying attention to the resumes in his or her inbox, it's the applicant's fault for not complying with a system that is theoretically put in place to help Human Resources find that person in the first place. Or the bank employee will spread their hands, telling that potential first-time homeowner, "I'm sorry, there's nothing I can do. The computer rejected you." Another example is the well-intentioned "Three strikes" laws, the ones that toss people in prison for life the third time they commit a felony: the idea of "allowing the punishment to fit the crime" is done away with, because that would require actual human thought. Better to let a system make a mistake of overreaching than to allow a human being to make a mistake of underreaching, apparently.

It's a fine line that exists between "The system exists to help us function" and "We're here to make sure the system functions", or more perniciously, "Let the system do your job for you". This is why I find the idea of term limits for elected officials unpalatable: to introduce this idea, to put this system in place, is to tacitly say, "We just can't be trusted to pay attention and make sure these people are doing what they're supposed to be doing, so we'll just put in a system to automatically kick them out when the time comes." The proper role of a system is to help people make decisions. Too often we reverse the process: the role of people is to implement the decisions of the system. As useful as systems are, we become so entranced with them that we actually abdicate our powers of reason in the favor of a well-oiled system. And I wonder if our powers of reason don't atrophy as a result.

A system is a tool. Very often, a particular system is a good tool. But as with all tools, there are jobs for which a given system is called for and jobs for which it is not. Slavishly adhering to a system because it's always been there and because it makes things easier and well, dammit, because we can't do anything about it anyway because it's, you know, the system makes us into the carpenter who is so enamored of his brand-new hammer that he refuses to put it down, even when he needs to cut a piece of wood.

Whoa! Just now, on that last post I made an error in the HTML for the link to the article in question, and when I clicked "Post", New Blogger threw up a dialog-box telling me that I had messed up the code. Old Blogger didn't do that. Neat feature, guys!

S.L. Viehl talks a bit about descriptions in writing. For the most part, I hate long-winded descriptions and would much rather write dialog or action; my general approach is to "fold" the descriptive stuff into actual action; instead of saying, "Gwyn had unruly, auburn hair", I'm more likely to write something like "Gwyn brushed a lock of auburn hair from her eyes". And then, I can have her do this every once in a while, thus not only establishing the color and quality of her hair, but giving her a habitual action that makes her a bit more vivid.

Of course, when writing my first draft -- the "closed-door draft" that Stephen King talks about -- I tend to throw in all manner of long, descriptive paragraphs, and I'm finding that in the course of editing I'm removing great whacks of that stuff. I figure, if I'm skipping over that stuff in my own writing, then I'm not going to be doing my readers (theoretical entities as they are at this point) any favors by leaving it in.

It takes a very good author, someone well-schooled in what to do with language, to make long passages of description interesting. This is probably where reading a lot of poetry comes in handy.

Here's something I didn't know about: recycled printer cartridges. The last time I bought a new cartridge, I selected one of the cheaper ones available at Wal-Mart. It bore the Pelikan logo, which impressed me because Pelikan is a noted manufacturer of fountain pens (not that success at fountain pen manufacturing necessarily leads to success in printer cartidge manufacturing, but, hey.). I finally opened the cartridge this weekend, and found a plastic business-reply envelope inside to send my old cartridge in for recycling. That struck me as pretty cool. Reusing and recycling is nifty.

I commented the other day, on Nefarious Neddie's comments section, that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the Potterverse equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back. But according to this reviewer (who, in strict observance of my recent edict, doesn't spoil the book beyond a bare-bones summary), that appellation is better suited to the new book.

Guess I'd better buy my copy. I'm planning on Wednesday.

Sunday, June 22, 2003

I've had a couple of hits in the last day or two looking for information about the Warsaw Concerto. I'm not sure if I've ever mentioned that work here, but I must have if I'm turning up in search hits on it. Anyway, the Warsaw Concerto is actually a work of film music, written by composer Richard Addinsell (1904-1977) for the film Dangerous Moonlight (released in the United States as Suicide Squadron), a World War II-era melodrama. Apparently the main character is an amnesiac pianist and composer, who spends the film recalling bits of the concerto he was composing before his memory loss; that work is the Warsaw Concerto. Addinsell wrote the piece after the film's producers decided not to pursue using Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto #2.

I own two excellent recordings of the Warsaw Concerto (and I'm sure more exist). The work is included in the Erich Kunzel/Cincinnati Pops Orchestra compilation disc, Victory At Sea and Other Favorites, a disc of music from World War II era films. This is one of my favorite CDs, actually -- the sound is spectacular and the performances are muscular and first-rate. Other selections on the disc include five selections from Victory at Sea (music by Richard Rodgers), a suite of Max Steiner's score to Casablanca, the lush theme to the TV miniseries The Winds of War, and others. The pianist on the Warsaw Concerto is William Tritt.

The other recording of the Warsaw Concerto in my collection is a Naxos CD, Warsaw Concerto and other Piano Concertos from the Movies (RTE Concert Orchestra, conductor Proinnsias O Duinn, pianist Philip Fowke), available on Amazon here. The focus on this disc is not World War II music but, as is clear by the title, works of film music featuring piano and orchestra. Other works here include Miklos Rosza's wonderful Spellbound Concerto and Bernard Herrmann's Concerto Macabre (from Hangover Square). The Naxos CD has the benefit, as do all Naxos CDs, of being budget-priced.

Demosthenes has an interesting post about the intersection of politics and marketing. It's quite a problem, and I have no handy solutions to offer except to note that for Democrats, constant hand-wringing about how this isn't the way it should be is a sure ticket to losing early and losing often. Democrats really need to start playing the cards as they've been dealt, instead of playing as if they had the hand they wish they had.

SDB (he of the muchly-appreciated link -- thanks for the hits!) posts some screen-grabs today from a Lara Croft game. I don't know the first thing about Lara Croft, really, but I do notice something in those screen-grabs. (OK, I notice two things, but I probably shouldn't discuss the first one.)

Why is it that, in movies and apparently in video games, when someone is at a corner in a corridor and they want to peek around the corner to see what the baddies are up to, they stand with their back to the wall and then crane their necks wwaayy around to the right or left to do the appropriate peeking? Wouldn't it be better to face the wall and then slightly lean sideways and extend one's neck to the side so as to get the look one's trying to get? I mean, is there a genuine advantage to be gained in standing with one's back to the wall and then twisting one's neck past the point where it's really supposed to be twisted, or is this just so as to indulge that other thing I noticed in those screen-grabs?

Oh, and Steven also wonders who we Yanks have who is of similar iconic quality of Ms. Croft. I assume what he's getting at is, what complete babes do we have who also kick substantial amounts of ass. Well, since I really can't get tired of looking at this image, I offer this one:


(UPDATE: SDB wonders if Wonder Woman counts because she's actually an Amazon by birth. I say, yes, indeed! After all, Superman came all the way from the planet Krypton and still wears red, white and blue and fights for "Truth, Justice and the American Way". Wonder Woman's wearing red, white and blue as well, albeit with some gold highlights. Besides, that picture....I'll stop here, because I'm probably creeping out some of my readers.)

My newest review for GMR is up: a 1992 operetta-style recording of Lerner-and-Loewe's Broadway hit Brigadoon.

In news from the old stomping grounds, the big DestiNY USA project ran into a big roadblock this week, as the New York State Legislature failed to pass a bill that would have given DestiNY the tax breaks that it says were necessary to get construction funded. Now, the DestiNY people are looking over their options, including packing up shop and going someplace else. Like, say, Massachusetts or Pennsylvania.

I liked the idea of DestiNY. I like gigantic shopping malls, believe it or not. And I suspect that there really is no long-term hope for the Syracuse economy outside of finding some way to encourage tourism there -- the town's manufacturing base just isn't coming back, high tech isn't big there, et cetera. But there's something "fuzzy" about DestiNY, with its constantly-shifting plans and size. The project never seemed to come into focus, and no one could ever really say, "This is what it will look like" -- instead, there was a constant stream of "Here's what we want to build" and "We'd like to have this" and "Wouldn't this be neat" statements.

I don't know if DestiNY is dead or just slightly wounded. But they need to make a decision, soon.

The Buffalo News reports today that opposition to a casino in downtown Buffalo, which would be run by the Seneca Nation of Indians, continues to mount. The proposed casino would theoretically generate something like 2000 new jobs, which is no small thing. But it's far from a given that the casino would do what it's promised to do: help rejuvenate downtown Buffalo by luring people there to gamble. I find it unlikely that people going down there to blow their money are likely to do much shopping or dining elsewhere, especially since casinos are invariably designed so that one does not have to leave the place. There's a reason why, when you enter a casino, you don't walk in the front door onto the gaming floor. This fact, coupled with the fact that the casino's revenues would be almost entirely pocketed by the Seneca Nation, makes me wonder just how much economic stimulus this thing can be likely to produce. And in a city where the ever-dwindling tax base is a big source of trouble, is it really a good idea to take a prime chunk of downtown real estate and remove it from the tax rolls, so the Senecas can have a casino?

And I note that public support for these "juggernaut" projects never seems to be that strong around here, and yet our politicos keep proposing them and they never seem to get defeated at the polls no matter how bad things get here. The City of Buffalo is about to have its finances taken over by a State Control Board, and yet, just last November, the Mayor of Buffalo was elected to a third term with no opposition. Oy!

Saturday, June 21, 2003

I was done blogging for the day, but there are two important notes I need to pass on to my loyal band of lunatics readers:

:: Digby is back on the air. Let there be rejoicing throughout the land.

:: Anyone spoiling the new Harry Potter book on his or her blog, without giving due warning for folks like me who don't want to be spoiled until I've read it, is a boob. Anyone spoiling the new Harry Potter book in MY COMMENTS SECTION will have their IP address forwarded immediately to Senator Orrin Hatch. That is all.

Courtesy Scott McCloud, a couple of blog entries -- this one first, followed by this one -- about the relationship of comics to prose. The posts are interesting meditations on the sometimes troubling relationship between the two, and the way creators of one view the other. I've sometimes thought it would be fun to write comics, as a different kind of storytelling to explore. Occasionally I'll hear a prose reader sneer at comics with a comment like, "I stopped needing pictures with my stories a long time ago", to which my usual response is, "So you never go to movies or watch TV, then?" If not, fine -- some people genuinely don't -- but visual storytelling tends to be held on a lower rung by a depressingly large segment of society, with comics being held to the lowest expectations of all. My take has always been that stories are stories, and everything else is just mechanics.

Empty nest syndrome, literally: We awoke this morning to discover that the robin's nest in our hanging ivy plant is now empty. At some point since last night, the robin family left for nicer digs somewhere else.

I'm keeping an ear open for a chorus of tiny voices singing, "C'mon, get happy!", for that would mean that the nest is being taken over by a partridge family. [rimshot]

(Empty nest syndrome, revisited: the people living downstairs moved out this morning. Thus, tonight I will be watching something with lots of explosions and the volume turned way up. Or maybe I'll rent Heat and play the gunfight over and over and over....)

Bad developments: the grocery store a half-mile down the road now sells Krispy Kreme donuts. Of course, the Original Glazed are in boxes and not hot-and-fresh, but you know, who cares. The damned, evil things are still good....

A milestone: this morning my hit counter passed 14,514. That number may seem odd, but its significance is this: since I started tracking hits, Byzantium's Shores has received one hit for every two feet of height on Mt. Everest. Woo-hoo!!

SDB gets sick, and spends a week bringing us up to speed on his intense dislike of all things Gallic. Then he gets some antibiotics (and he's amazed at how big the pills are), and discovers Harry Potter.

I pretty much agree with his synopsis of the first Potter movie, right down to its odd short-changing of Professor Snape (and if you've read the subsequent books in the series, you know how odd a decision that was on the part of the filmmakers, who would have been better served short-changing some of the "Life with the Dursleys" stuff at the beginning). What struck me was that where the first two books really creak in spots (they were, after all, Rowling's maiden efforts), the first film is a lot more confident. (I haven't seen the second one yet.) I'm looking forward to the films of Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire, although the latter is going to present some serious problems, from a length standpoint. Goblet is twice as long as any of the preceding novels, and with those books resulting in two-and-a-half hour films, it thus seems that Goblet would require a five-hour movie.

Oh, and SDB's right about John Hurt. That guy is golden. I especially love his billionaire industrialist in Contact and his Scottish nobleman in Rob Roy.

TheForce.Net put up a fan-written script for Star Wars Episode III yesterday. You all can check it out, but I'm not so geeky that I'd read such a thing.

Well, OK, I did skim through quite a bit of it. And it's not bad. Parts of it are quite good, actually. I do think that the author played up Palpatine's machinations a bit too much, to the exclusion of the idea that it's our choices that make us good or evil, which is a constant theme in Star Wars. I was also tickled at how the writer tries to square some of the stuff in the original trilogy with the prequels, as well as attempting to ground Obi Wan's "lie" to Luke ("Vader murdered your father") in better fashion ("Palpatine has killed you," Obi Wan tells Anakin). I do think that the script left fewer loose ends than George Lucas is likely to leave. One thing that seems to really vex a lot of fans, but which I find rather nifty, is the sheer amount of stuff that Lucas simply leaves unexplained or unexplored. Lucas actually enhances the epic feel of the story by not showing us everything, which is why I enjoy the likely fact that most of the action of the Clone Wars won't be shown at all. This script, though, seems overly concerned with tying everything into a neat little package. I really don't think Episode III is going to do this. But that's a feature, not a bug.

I also didn't care for the script's climax. (SPOILER warning, here.) We have the long-awaited duel between Obi Wan and Anakin on the volcanic planet, but added to this mix is Padme, who ends up dangling from a precipice above the lava whilst the two former friends do battle. I know that the Star Wars movies cite those old serials as one of their primary influences, but this just struck me as too Perils of Pauline-like to really work.

Still, it's an entertaining read. Check it out, if only to look at one set of possibilities.

(UPDATE: Just another thought that occurred to me. I liked this script because it treats the prequel storyline with respect. It's not at all like that "Alternate Phantom Menace" script of a few years back, the one that had horrid stuff like Obi Wan telling Padme that Qui Gon is sad because his wife and children were killed, or some such nonsense. This script isn't about "Let's squash Jar Jar beneath the foot of an AT-AT" fanboy wish-fulfillment.)

I got 11 right of 13 on this quiz of literary first lines. (That result isn't quite as impressive as it sounds -- I guessed on three, and missed on one.) One of my mistakes was for an SF novel, that I am now kicking myself for missing. Ach!!

Friday, June 20, 2003

It just hit me after reading his latest post: I want to be John Scalzi. He's living the life that I want. So, now to kill him and take his....oh, OK. I've just been informed that I don't have to kill him after all. Whew. I wasn't relishing the thought of driving to Ohio.

Can't we build a big fence around Blogistan or something?

(via TBOGG)

So now we're handing out wanted posters in Iraq. Next, we'll send in Robert Patrick with a LAPD uniform and a polariod to demand of the Iraqis, "Have you seen Saddam Hussein?"

And it certainly seems odd that in the last two years, we're oh-for-two in actually capturing or at least determining the fate of the baddies on whom we've decided to unleash our military might. Our success in this regard strikes me as being pretty similar to that of O.J. and his hunt for the "real killers".

According to this interview, with a "literary author" who is using a pseudonym to write thrillers on the side, the difference between "genre" books and "literary" books is that in the former, stuff happens.

Well, OK then.

(Link via S.L. Viehl.)

Kevin Drum has an interesting post today about conservatives and their fixations on sex and communism. He argues that these are the bedrock concerns of the conservative movement, and I find it hard to disagree. I've certainly always noted that for the conservatives, anti-communism trumps everything. You can set up all manner of Deep Throat/James Bond money-and-gunrunning schemes and then lie to Congress about them, as Ollie North did, but if you can make the case that you did it to fight communism, well, it's all good. And I've certainly noticed a resurgence of the word "pinko" in some of the coarser conservative commentary out there, which strikes me as weird.

I even noticed that, to conservatives, anti-communism even appeared to trump "family values" during the Elian Gonzales affair a few years back. The party that once celebrated Dan Quayle's famous defense of fatherhood was not prepared to honor the fatherhood rights of a communist. I suppose the real test would be to have sex and communism come into conflict. During the impeachment of President Clinton, I once joked to a friend that if Clinton really wanted to defuse the situation, he should try to mount a defense that his actions with Monica Lewinsky were somehow part of an anti-communism scheme. "Yes, I lied under oath...but the judge was a Communist!!!"

Maybe Communism is still a major threat, but to me it just seems like...oh I don't know, like maintaining vigilance against witches or zombies. For me, communism pretty much fizzled out as something to be taken seriously when an episode of Seinfeld had Elaine dating a Communist, and Kramer getting fired from his job as a department store Santa because he was spreading communist propaganda to the children who came to sit on his lap.

"He can do whatever he wants, Jerry. He controls the means of production!"

(Oh, and by using a wide-angle lens, Kevin has managed to make his cat indistinguishable from a ferret. Weird....)

It occurred to me yesterday that I recently removed Tacitus from my blogroll ("Other Journeys") because I'd fallen off reading him, even though I conceded his general excellence -- this while I maintained Rachel Lucas on my blogroll, despite my recent complaining that she's not as interesting to me as she was when I first discovered her blog. This now seems to me a case of messed-up priorities: removing the blog I consider good and keeping the one I'm increasingly finding annoying (This. Method. Of. Punctuation. Has. Run. Its. Course. For. The. Love. Of. God.), coupled with the fact that it's my blogroll and I can have on it whoever I want to, leads me to conclude that I should re-link Tacitus and do a better job of reading him.

Or it could just mean I need to eat more fiber and red meat.

Aaron has an amusing article about the little surprises one finds in the basements of old houses. (Apparently, by linking this article I am in fact voting for him in another "New Blog Contest" on The Truth Laid Bear.) Aaron and his wife discovered a container of an old cleaning chemical, which is unremarkable enough until they read the instructions for use.

My family, thus far, has lived in apartments only, so we haven't had this pleasure -- except for our very first apartment, when my wife and I first got married. This was in a very old and large building that had once been a school. We had a lot of room, hardwood floors that creaked, an ancient gas stove, et cetera. We also had a musty basement that we never used for anything. I never found any amusing cleaning solutions down there, but it was partitioned into a series of small rooms interlinked by old, wooden doors, and light coming only from the bare light bulbs set in old fixtures in the ceiling. No windows at all. The whole place was reminiscent of Buffalo Bill's basement in The Silence of the Lambs.

"It puts the lotion in the basket...."

(By the way, Aaron, the little conundrum you had with "flammable" and "inflammable" is not unique to you. In fact, it was used in an episode of The Simpsons. If I recall correctly, it was Dr. Nick -- "Hi, every-body!" "Hi, Dr. Nick!" -- who ran afoul of that bit of linguistic oddity.)

One of our baby robins flew this morning. To the best of my knowledge that one hasn't come back, so I'm wondering now if, upon the first successful flight of a robin's life, the robin says to the parents: "So long, suckers! I'm outta here! No more regurgitated worms and bugs for me!"

I must confess that I'm not terribly excited about the new Hulk movie. I was a fan of the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferigno show when I was a kid (so much so that to this day whenever I meet a person whose last name is "McGee", I get a little creeped out), but the Big Green Lummox never held much appeal for me as a comic character. (Admittedly, I suspect that Hulk's writers during the time I read comics really didn't know what they were doing. For a time they had the Hulk trapped in some kind of interdimensional crossroads, so he was visiting another world in each issue, or something like that....) And the new movie's trailers didn't impress me, either -- they looked, for lack of a better word, "cartoon-y". Hulk just didn't look real in those CGI shots that I saw.

But then, Roger Ebert gives it a decent review, and Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum -- the most irritating, pretentious, and ultimately empty-headed of EW's annoying corral of "Not ready for The New Yorker" big-head critics -- doesn't, so maybe I'll check it out sometime. (No link to the Schwarzbaum article -- you can get it if you're an EW subscriber, which I am not -- thank God -- or if you're on AOL, which I am.)

I'm very sure that I've plugged this site before, but FilmWise really does have some fun movie quizzes. The ones I really enjoyed when I visited yesterday are the prison-movie dialog quiz, the "list of main characters" quiz, and the "animation screenshot" quiz. Check these out. (And for newer readers, if you haven't checked this site out, go have a look and a lot of fun!)

My Buffalo News op-ed piece appears today. Go read it, and be amazed. My first official by-line, at least my first paid by-line. I don't get paid by Green Man Review for the reviews I do there except in that I get to keep the review materials they send me, but they're my first actual by-line. Or something like that. The article wasn't edited strongly, either -- just a couple of things were tweaked and a handful of words removed, so I can only surmise that my submitted copy was as close to being editorially perfect as is possible. (Insert sound of swelling head here)

(Actually, regular readers of this space won't find anything new here, since the article's basically a distillation of my family's impressions of living in Syracuse, but still....)

Thursday, June 19, 2003


USGS computer image of Stellwagen Bank, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Stellwagen Bank (the curving area, shaded yellow to green, just north of Cape Cod's tip) is an area of sand and gravel banks formed during the glacial retreats after the last Ice Age, creating an area of shallow water that is a prime habitat for many sea creatures and thus a major feeding ground for whales. Whale-sighting trips launch from many of the seaside towns in Massachusetts and along Cape Cod, with the boats motoring out onto the Bank (where depths suddenly reduce to less than 100 feet) to observe the feeding whales as they come up for air. My wife and I did this as one of our honeymoon activities, and there were indeed many whales to be seen, some of them quite close. Below is a stock image of a whale lifting its head from the water; this is pretty much exactly what we saw that day.

Ugh! I just had a post get chewed up. Actually, this one wasn't Blogger's fault. When posting, I keep two or three browser windows open, so I can refer to the thing on which I'm commenting while composing a post. This time, the page I was attempting to load on the other browser launched a pop-up that choked, and when I tried to close that pop-up, I got that "Program Not Responding" dialog box. What I don't get is why clicking "End Now" closes all the currently running IE's, since it's not the case that they're all not responding....or is it? Anyone?

(The post in question was some tame Star Wars babbling that can really wait for another time. And judging by the number of short-burst posts today, I'm guessing that I'm not much in a "content generation" mood right now. Ah well....)

I'm quite aware that controversy exists as to why we "liberated" Iraq. But I'm pretty sure this wasn't one of our reasons.

I've never been one to entertain theories of Cosmic Convergence and such, but even so I find something oddly notable in the fact that on the same day my daughter came into the world, Stephen King was nearly removed from it when he was hit by a guy driving recklessly.

That was four years ago, today.

I'm glad to see that some people still consider it bogus that here we are, two years past 2001, and there's still no space station in Earth orbit that's serviced by regular PanAm flights and home to a Howard Johnson's. If Amazon sells the tickets, I'll have to put one on my wish list.

I'm also glad to see that difficulties in getting a probe to Mars aren't limited to NASA. A lot of people get annoyed every time we lose an expensive space probe, but I figure if we're going to use "This ain't rocket science!" as a euphemism for "Any idiot can do this", then maybe we shouldn't be surprised when it turns out that rocket science actually is a rather difficult endeavor.

Reading news online early in the morning, when one is still bleary-eyed, is an activity fraught with danger. For instance, this morning I saw this headline and immediately clicked it for the story:

Adam Sandler Arrested by US

After a moment of confusion in the course of reading the linked story, I realized my error. The headline had actually read:

Saddam Handler Arrested by US

Somehow, I think the version I expected might have made a slightly more interesting news item, but that's just my opinion. (I tend to misread things like that quite often. You can imagine my double-take the first time I ever drove past a Fuddrucker's restaurant.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Michael Lopez, who was upset a little while back about a school official's idea of proper graduation attire, is now dumbfounded that that post got some attention, including from me.

I understand where he's coming from, really. In the roughly 1.5 years I've been writing Byzantium's Shores, my three biggest spikes in traffic came thusly:

1. On April Fool's Day I took a Steven Den Beste post, ran it through Babelfish into Japanese and back again, and posted the results, calling it "Even More Turgid Steven Den Beste", as a knock-off of the "Shorter Steven Den Beste" that's occasionally flitted around Blogistan. Matthew Yglesias noticed it, and linked it. (He was doing SSDB honors at the time.) Much traffic ensued.

2. A few months before that, SDB himself watched Attack of the Clones and wrote a review that sent me into spasms of geek-like fury, the results of which were channeled into two posts here -- which SDB generously linked with one of those "So-and-so comments" updates at the end of his review (along with a "Maybe Jaquandor should lighten up" suggestion). Much traffic ensued.

3. Last summer, one day I was doing a lot of printing one day, and I decided to kill time by writing capsule reviews of every James Bond movie. Somehow this got noticed and spread around a bit, which was my first big spike.

You never know what's going to get attention, really -- or rather, what's going to get enough attention by the people who are already reading you that they comment on it in their own blogs, thus sending folks who are reading them to see what's up with you. In this specific case, I share Michael's annoyance at this school official's actions, and I thought I'd spread that feeling around a bit, with a credit to the original source. (I had already been planning to link his earlier Star Wars Fanfic post, and then decided to fold them together.) I've written posts that I thought for sure would get noticed and linked by someone, or at least generate some comments on site, but nothing happens; I've written other posts that are basically toss-offs that get noticed and heavily commented.

So, Michael, I understand what you're getting at. But look at it this way: it may have been a post of yours that is "devoid of intellectual content" that got that attention in the form of linkage, but someone had to be reading you all along to happen upon that post and link it in the first place. That is why you're doing all the other heavy-lifting. It may not generate a lot of linkage, but it generates readers. And in Blogistan, readers are where linkage eventually comes from, even when it comes like a bolt of lightning from a clear and cloudless sky.

A couple of movie notes today.

:: Sometimes I'll watch a film I remember positively from many years ago, and discover that my earlier feelings weren't quite warranted; other times I'll find that I didn't appreciate the film enough way back when. A case-in-point of the latter is From Here to Eternity, which I watched back when I was a senior in high school but have not seen since. I remember it being a terribly gritty and moving film, and my memories are pretty much accurate. I love the way all of the lives depicted in that film come together at the end, even if the people living them don't all know each other and never have a scene together. The Deborah Kerr character, for instance, is deeply affected in the end by the actions of Montgomery Clift's Robert E. Lee Prewitt, whose actions are shaped by Frank Sinatra's Maggio...and all of them are affected by Burt Lancaster, et cetera. There isn't a false note in that movie, and I love the grim sense of futility at the end, and of waste, when all of the struggles and character-dramas in the film are rendered moot by the events of December 7, 1941. I haven't seen too many WWII films, so I don't have a very large sample on which to base this, but this is still my favorite film of that war.

:: I knew I'd love Castle In the Sky. No other reaction was even possible. I can't conceive of not liking one of Hayao Miyazaki's films. So, I'm sure it's totally anticlimactic for me to report that yes, I loved it. It's the most straight-forward of Miyazaki's films, with less of the ambiguity between good and evil that so marks his later efforts like Princess Mononoke, but sometimes it's just fun to watch a pure, nasty villain at work who needs no other reason for being bad than that he is bad. And the visuals? My God, I'd love to see this movie on a big screen someday. Those airships are absolutely stunning in their invention, and if I say that Miyazaki has the same gift for visual worldbuilding that George Lucas has, I mean that as a high compliment. Miyazaki doesn't just create worlds that seem real, he creates worlds that I want to live in. I'd love to go to the city in Kiki's Delivery Service; I'd love to visit the forests and mountains of Princess Mononoke; and I'd be moved to tears if I could see the caverns and the airships of Castle in the Sky. And if I saw Laputa itself? I'd surely never stop weeping.

:: One cautionary note for parents of small children: when you get to the point where your kid is no longer afraid of the bathtub, and you want to keep it that way, don't let her stay in the room while you watch Titanic. Just trust me on this one, OK?

Everything you ever wanted to know about Queen Nefertiti and what may be her mummy, but were afraid to ask.

In the Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom that is unfolding outside my patio door, the baby robins who are nesting in my hanging ivy plant are growing quite nicely. Now they actually look like birds, with feathers and wings which they are spreading. This is a nice change from the way they looked just after hatching, when they were basically three blobs of pink flesh with tiny beaks. They also chirp a lot when the mother and father bring worms and bugs and whatnot for them to eat. What surprises me is how soft their hungry chirping is; I figured three chirping baby robins would be a lot louder. As it is, we've got the patio door open and they're about eighteen inches from that door, but our TV in the living room can drown them out.

Today's funny development with the robins is that the babies seem to be getting a bit tired of their usual vantage point (having their mother's rump atop their heads). They're starting to push and try to stick their heads out, and the mother keeps hunkering down and giving an unmistakable scowl.

The unfunny development, though, is the way the parents dive-bomb us every time we actually attempt to walk out onto our own patio. I've tried pointing out that they are our guests and not the other way around, but they just don't see it that way. Or maybe they just don't understand English. I mean, it's not like robins are cats.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that I've seen this guy mentioned, at least occasionally, as a possible Supreme Court successor to Chief Justice Rehnquist.

Yet another one of those "How can I keep writing fiction, given that the real world is so much more screwy than anything I can up with" moments....

I've been following this whole business of California attempting to recall the election of Governor Gray Davis, and I have to admit I'm a bit fuzzy on the whole concept of a recall. It seems to me that a recall process should exist for really extraordinary examples of incompetence, or perhaps even outright negligence. But it also seems to me that if an elected official takes office and then converts everything into a giant, bungled mess, well, that's what the next election is for.

Of course, I'm not well-versed at all in California politics, so I'm not sure if Davis is really that bad or not, or really what the deal is here. But I have noted that I have yet to encounter a single person who really likes this guy. Of course Republicans can't stand him, but every Democrat I've seen write about Davis just kind-of grumblingly supports the guy. It's amazing how high up people can rise even when they have the handicap of not being liked.

Mac Diva gave me a mention in regard to my post a few days ago about her recent victory in the New Blog Showcase contest. (Lord, that's a lot of links in one sentence....)

I just want to clarify one thing: In my post, I wasn't really taking Mac Diva to task for winning the contest, which she did, fair and sqaure. Nor was I taking N.Z. Bear to task for anything. I was just whining a bit, pure and simple. I certainly wasn't suggesting that Mac Diva should have been disqualified from the contest on the basis that when she launched her blog, she had something of a built-in reader base via her months of commenting on high-profile blogs like Eschaton. Digby had the same basic advantage when he launched Hullabaloo, after all (even though Digby has apparently left the planet surface in a spaceship he boarded near Devil's Tower, Wyoming).

It happens. If you are a friend of a person who happens to run a high-profile blog, and you launch a blog of your own, then you've got a big jump on the majority of bloggers who simply jumped in with few (or zero) acquaintances in Blogistan, like yours truly. Personal connections can figure as much in Blogistan as anywhere in real life.

So, for folks like me, it's a case of "Tough titty said the kitty". Which is as it should be, and which is why I admitted at the outset of that post that I was whining. But it's my blog, I can whine if I want to!

Kevin Drum and Atrios are excited about the upcoming release this fall of Neal Stephenson's new novel, Quicksilver, which is a "prequel" of sorts to his brilliant Cryptonomicon.

But I feel it my solemn duty to point out that, if these two fellows were reading Byzantium's Shores, they would have known this more than a month ago.

C'mon, guys! I do provide the occasional valuable service to my readers!

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

It's interesting how the Ecosystem works, by counting not just general permalinks, but also the more transitory links to specific articles that come and go. That's how, by taking a week off for vacation, Kevin Drum managed to fall from number five (I think) to number ten. So, not only did Kevin not produce anything new in that period to maintain his incoming article links, but as other bloggers kept on going, their earlier links to his articles in turn fell off their main pages.

(I don't think, though, that the Ecosystem will count different links to the same post on another blog, from the same blog. So, if Aaron were to link the same post of mine twice, but in two different posts, I don't think that would count as two incoming links, for Ecosystem purposes. But I may be wrong here.)

Michael Lopez is a tad irritated that a school principal would dare challenge a handful of students who showed up to their graduation ceremonies inappropriately dressed.

Just how were they dressed? T-shirts with profanity on them? Ripped jeans? Tennis shoes? Hair painted purple?

Nope. Their "inappropriate dress" consisted of...hell, I can't believe it enough to type it. Here's the story.


(On a more important note, Michael also recently posted some recommendations for Star Wars fan fiction. I stopped writing fanfic years ago, but it was always a blast, and it occurs to me that one of those stories is still unfinished. Maybe, if I'm ever sufficiently inebriated, I'll post one here. What I did was take Lucas's basic Star Wars plot and write my own trilogy of screenplays with that same story. Much fun was had, although there was some ridicule from certain quarters....)

The Snow White story was rejected, as I expected. Ugh. I've reached the point where rejections have pretty much one effect: they piss me off, but at least they piss me off right back to my desk or computer table. (Some writers occasionally complain that editors don't give feedback in their rejections; most just use a form letter that says, "Not for us". I don't agree. I just want thumbs-up or thumbs-down.)

As for the damned novel, I'm halfway through editing it, and my "words removed" counter stands at just over 9000 -- which means that at the halfway point in the book I've removed half of the total amount of words I wanted to remove in the first place. So that's going OK. My basic rule on editing is to ask myself, "If I were the reader and this were someone else's book, would I skip this part?" If I answer "yes", out it comes.

Anyway, back to the grind.

Ha! Take that, HTML!! In your face, Flanders!

Since the switchover to Blogger II: The Wrath of Khan, I've noticed that when I use the <blockquote> tag, it screws up the formatting of everything that comes after the closing </blockquote> tag. But now I discover that sticking a paragraph (<p>) tag right after the closing </blockquote> tag seems to fix things. Okily-diddily-doo!!

One of my commenters is a bit nonplused after my off-handed admission yesterday of my appreciation of heavy metal music. Jason's surprised that a level-headed, literate fellow like myself would go for that stuff. (That's a paraphrase, of course!) So, an explanation is in order, I guess.

I was never that much of a headbanger, really. I didn't wear t-shirts with my favorite bands' logos on them. I've never owned a denim jacket. I didn't grow long hair until 1995 or so, the key influences there more being Braveheart than any rock band. And to this day I have never attended a full-fledged rock concert. But I did like the music itself -- some of it, anyway. I enjoyed Ratt and Saxon. Def Leppard was OK. I enjoyed Bon Jovi's early albums, although I didn't care much for Slippery When Wet, which was their breakout success. I got a kick out of Twisted Sister's sense of humor. KISS was interesting, as was Ozzy, but I was pretty much "take it or leave it" on all the "demonic Satan child" antics. I remember when I bought a Stryper album without knowing anything about them, and was thus baffled when they started singing about God and stuff. (Come on, that's really not the type of thing one expects from a metal album!) I never really warmed to Guns-n-Roses, mainly because I've always found Axl Rose's singing voice grating. And to this day, I adore Van Halen -- they're the band I'm likely to name on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays as my favorite rock band ever. (On Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays I'll name Pink Floyd; Sundays I reserve for oldies groups like the Platters.)

What I dug about heavy metal was the size and spectacle of it -- not the concert pyrotechnics, but the musical pyrotechnics, when loudness of volume and repetitious harmonic structure often concealed fascinating guitar work, excellent song construction, and interesting lyrics. A lot of metal acts based their songs on mythic tropes -- Iron Maiden was really into that -- and I was always surprised at the amount of literary allusion to be found in metal songs and albums. (It struck me as odd then, and it does to this day, that the people who partied to that music and scoffed at "literature" were, in fact, partying to music performed by people who didn't scoff at literature at all.)

And I also enjoyed the occasional classical music allusion that metal artists would employ. Eddie Van Halen was big on this -- his guitar solos will often include tiny quotes of Mozart or Debussy -- and in any case, I've always tried to see all music as being part of one giant continuum. Remember the scene in Mr. Holland's Opus when Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) realizes that his attempts to teach a music class have failed utterly, so he takes a different approach? He plays a snippet of a popular song of the day, "Lover's Concerto" -- and reveals to his students that it's actually based on a minuet by J.S. Bach. Then he says, "Try to hear the connecting tissue between this" -- he plays a few bars of the Bach minuet -- "and this," whereupon he launches into a bit of raucous, honky-tonk piano of the type that made Jerry Lee Lewis famous.

I've always tried to find that "connecting tissue" -- if not the direct musical connection, then the connection of spirit between the classical composers of the past and the musicians of today, whether we're talking about John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Wynton Marsalis, Vangelis, or Van Halen. When I consider the giant proportions of a typical heavy metal concert -- the huge sets, the fireworks, the guitar solos lasting ten minutes, the amps set to 11 (because, you know, most amps only go to 10!) -- and I then read about the things Hector Berlioz used to do, such as scoring a Requiem mass not just for orchestra and chorus but also four brass bands, placed antiphonally at the ordinal compass points in the cathedral for maximum echoing effect, or perhaps listen to Mahler's Eighth Symphony (often subtitled "The Symphony of a Thousand", for the sheer number of musicians required to perform it), or even a full-scale production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger or Lohengrin, how can I not think that in some way these artists all tap into the same spirit?