Wednesday, December 31, 2003

This is 2003, signing off.

I probably won't be posting anything more today, mainly because I have a ton of other work to get done. Three stories are going into the mail, the domicile isn't looking as good as it should, I've allowed the dishes to pile up. I'm not sure what 2003 "Retrospective" thoughts I want to post yet, if any, so those will wait until either tomorrow or the second. (I'm undecided on whether I'm posting anything tomorrow or taking a day off.)

So, as I complete my first complete calendar year of blogging (with the second anniversary coming up in a little over a month), I'd like to thank all of my readers, linkers, and commenters for the preceding twelve months. I'm not going to single anyone out specifically, because there are too many who deserve it and I'd inevitably forget someone important. So, to anyone who has perused this space over the last year, thank you and have a safe and good 2004.

And remember, if you go to any large, public celebrations tonight, please don't drink too much if you're driving and leave the almanac at home. I'd hate for one of my readers to be labeled a "person of interest".

Tolkien, Tolkien, Tolkien!

Will Duquette, who was kind enough to link my thoughts the other day on LOTR as literature, today links another fascinating piece from someone who rejects even more strongly than I do the idea that the films represent finer storytelling than the books.

Way to go, Governor Dean!

Howard Dean may not know it, but he's reached a milestone of amazing proportions: he has crossed the Lucasian Violence Threshold. (That's the point a Democrat or liberal of sufficient visibility reaches when Rachel Lucas wants to punch him or her at the mere sight of his or her face on TV.)

Of course, given that she hates Howard Dean because he's a Socialist (yup), I'm rather left wondering how much Rachel knows about Howard Dean or Socialists.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

How jolly IS the Jolly Green Giant, anyway?

(This post is slightly, well, "randy" in content.)

Tonight I was driving through a neighborhood I hadn't been through before, and I saw some very nice Christmas light displays. But there was one thing that clearly the homeowner didn't check out: they had a tall, oblong shrub in front of their house, about six or seven feet tall, with a rounded top and a very slight lean. This was covered in a brilliant display of green lights, which the homeowner had placed with sufficient density to make the thing very bright and very festive. Up close.

The problem is, from distances of, say, a quarter mile or more, all those lights sort-of blend together into a single shaft of green light. So, unfortunately, it looked as if this one house had a giant green phallus in the front yard. I seriously doubt that this was the intended effect.

Always check your Christmas lights from a distance, folks.

What can I possibly say???

Sometimes in the course of perusing Internet debates, I will encounter someone whose arguments are so outright bizarre that they just stop me cold. It's not that they have good arguments, but that they are starting from a set of assumptions that I can't even comprehend.

For example, check out this MeFi thread. The topic is public funding of arts programs. Whether you're pro or con -- I, personally, am very pro-arts funding -- isn't relevant to what I'm trying to illustrate here. There's a commenter partaking of that thread under the handle "Faze", who seems to think that we are in some kind of artistic golden age on the basis of how great current TV and rap music are. This person actually states that a single episode of King of Queens contains more laughs than the entire opus of Shakespeare, and he commits the "Popularity equals quality" fallacy numerous times. Another of his arguments goes roughly like this:

1. Most TV writers today are Harvard grads.
2. The finest minds in our society come from Harvard.
3. Ergo, some of our finest minds are spending the best years of their lives making us laugh.
4. Ergo, this is a golden age of art.

I try to comprehend the totality of questionable assumptions behind this view, and my mind shuts down due to the strain. Amazing.

A Complaint About Rejections

I've long since accepted the necessity of form letters for rejections; in fact, in most cases, I prefer them. (Except for that "We can't tell you exactly why, but it probably sucked" letter that Asimov's uses.) But that being the case, it would be nice if certain markets wouldn't stuff my SASE with other stuff besides the rejection. The resulting thickness of the envelope makes me think, "Hmmm....could it be? Could this be a contract? Ooooooh!"

(Yes, this is a stupid thing to complain about. My New Year's Resolution to whine less is not in effect yet. Oh, and there is no such Resolution. Heh.)

From the mouths of babes....

I just treated my daughter to a mini-tantrum (no, not at her!). A rejection slip for a story of mine just arrived, from the market to which I have my largest ratio of "near misses" in my submission history. When I got done saying things like "Gaggle rogga fruggool Nozmeth ZOOM!" (because, you know, I can't say what I'd really want to say in front of her), she asks what's wrong, and I calmly explain:

"Well, Sweetie, I sent a story I wrote to this magazine, and they sent me back a nice letter saying that while they like it, they didn't like it enough to buy it."

She thinks this over for about 1.6 seconds, and then replies: "So send them a story they'll like better, Daddy!"

One of the great unexplored mysteries of human nature, I think, is how children sometimes seem to instinctively know exactly what to say.

Pardon me while I fire up my printer....

Writing Update

The novel-in-progress has been pretty-well stalled lately, both for circumstances beyond my control (that illness of mine, immediately followed by the climax of the Christmas season) and within my control: I had reached a point in the story where I couldn't figure out how to make the transition to the next stage, even though that next stage is frighteningly, maddeningly close -- it's like in those adventure movies where one trail ends, the next trail starts just twenty feet away, and between the two is a bottomless chasm.

However, I finally figured it out. The solution was two-fold: first, I started suspecting that one scene that I'd been dreading writing actually doesn't need to occur, but then I had to figure out what happened instead of that particular scene to get me to the point where I need to be. I hit upon the solution last night, however, and theoretically I can start picking up steam again now that I'm healthy and the holidays are just about over.

For some reason, January has always felt like a relief to me. When I actually had jobs, I liked to take vacation time not over Christmas but two weeks after it, and this is why.

Cold? Nah, this is balmy!

Here's a funny list of what various folks in different locales do to cope with certain temperatures. I'm a little miffed, though, that Buffalo has no entry. Maybe something like this:

28F: People in Buffalo say, "What do you want from us! It's colder in Minnesota, but you can't ever talk about them, no, no, no...."

Marking the Solstice

Over at Laputan Logic is a fascinating post about the oldest roofed structure in the world, a tomb in Ireland whose purpose is to mark the Winter Solstice. Check it out.

Everyday, something new learned

Via Paul Riddell I found two fascinating articles. First is this cautionary piece about how our faltering level of scientific literacy is sure to have disastrous results sometime, probably sooner rather than later. Part of the problem, I think, lies in the scientific community itself, which tends to view efforts at popularization with suspicion and chafes at teaching science to laypeople. But a lot of it also lies in the general "Why the hell do I need to know this?" attitude Americans seem to have toward, well, anything not immediately connected to their own chosen career.

Riddell also points out this article by noted skeptic Michael Shermer, in which I learn that the magic-marker thing that stores use to test large bills for counterfeits doesn't work on counterfeits that are made with any kind of sophistication at all. Interesting. I'm also glad to know that my general view of those little plastic balls you're supposed to throw into your washer to get cleaner clothes ("How the hell can that possibly work?") is the right one.

However, I do think that I could have lived a long and happy life without ever learning of this treatment for "internal cleansing". (Note how these people say they don't include pictures on the site for their product, because they think they'd be targeted by pranksters and whatnot. Gee, I can't imagine why.)

It's Official

The Buffalo Bills have informed head coach Gregg Williams that he will not be receiving a new contract offer for 2004. No need to rehash it all, but I do wish Williams success elsewhere, when he goes back to coordinating defenses somewhere.

The biggest names being mentioned as a replacement are Jim Fassel (now former head coach of the New York Giants), Jim Haslett (current head coach of the New Orleans Saints), and Tom Coughlin (former head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars). Personally, I'd like to see Ted Cottrell, the current defensive coordinator of the New York Jets, get serious consideration. Other than that, I have no opinion, so long as the next guy dumps Kevin Gilbride as one of his first official acts.

Monday, December 29, 2003

I saw Miss Scarlet wandering into the parlor with a candlestick....

OK, all you people on the lookout for suspicious activity, here's a new one: Watch out for people toting almanacs, because they can be used for terrorism.

Have we yet reached the point when it might be easier to just put out a list of activities that cannot be viewed suspiciously at all?

Good Eats!

Oh, wow! I had no idea that Alton Brown, who was one of my favorite personalities on The Food Network back when we bothered getting cable, had a blog. And he's promising to update more, which is a bonus for me, since I didn't even know he had anything to update. Coolness galore!

(via the Dead Parrot Society)

Say it ain't so....

PZ Myers doesn't think that Jack Chick knows what he's talking about.

I wonder if God ever gets annoyed at the caliber of spokespeople he has these days. I mean, when you've had Moses doing yeoman duty for you, it's got to be annoying to have Jack Chick around.

Nightmare Alley

Darth Swank points out this article about the Tarot, which is a pretty interesting read, and not just in itself, but because in a strange bit of cenvergence -- insert the X-Files theme here -- I just finished a noir novel that is arranged around the Tarot and fortune-telling, called Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. (My copy is part of am outstanding Library of America collection, Crime Novels: American Noir, 1930s and 40s, which also contains such books as The Postman Always Rings Twice and They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) Each chapter of Nightmare Alley is titled, and themed, after one of the cards of the Tarot.

The novel, which was originally published in 1946, apparently arose from conversations Gresham had with a former carnival worker with whom he served in the Spanish Civil War. The story is that of one Stan Carlisle, who at the beginning of the book is a minor assistant with one of those traveling carnivals that features "mindreaders" and strongmen and other such acts. Stan gradually discovers that he has an uncommon gift for doing what is called "cold reading", which is basically using an ability to think fast and pick up on visual cues in order to simulate psychic ability. Stan, though, is so good at it that he leaves the carny and strikes out on his own, developing an act which he first calls "mentalism" and then changes to "spiritualism", even going so far as to become an ersatz clergyman so as to more effectively bilk his "flock". However, Stan's ability to manipulate other people's psychological baggage (and some of his manipulations are truly diabolical) does not quiet his own demons, and in the end, his hubris leads him into tragedy.

This book's subject matter reminded me of a couple of X-Files episodes that dealt with traveling carnivals and charlatan magicians and such, although it's perfectly clear that there never is anything supernatural going on here -- just the perversions of a man using his gifts to deceive and swindle others. Gresham writes in that wonderful noir style in which he doesn't always tell us exactly what's going on because it's more effective to get us to see it on our own. I love writing like this passage when Stan is shown to his hotel room by the bellhop:

Stan nodded, throwing his hat on the bed and getting out of his overcoat. "Bring some club sode. And plenty of ice."

The boy took a five and winked. "Like some company? We got swell gals in town -- new since you was here last. I know a little blonde that's got everything. And I mean everything."

Stan lay down on the other bed and lit a cigarette, folding his hands behind his bed. "Brunette."

"You're the boss."

I loved this book's darkness; it's a virtual study in mood and emotion. The book was made into a film starring Tyrone Power and, more recently, a graphic novel adapted by Spain Rodriguez (reviewed here).

A Morat Two-fer

Morat returns from a mini-blogging holiday with a very sad post and a somewhat troubling one.

First, the sad one: the impending death of a newly-acquired dog. As a longtime cat person, I know well how sad it is to lose a loved pet, but it's truly gut-wrenching when it comes so soon into the relationship. I truly hope that Morat's father-in-law somehow gets another dog someday, once the pain from this one has lessened somewhat.

Now, the troubling post: Apparently Howard Dean is warning that his well-spring of supporters might well sit out the 2004 elections, turning their backs on the Democratic nominee, if Dean fails to win the nomination. This possibility is what scares the hell out of me about 2004, that the Howard Dean phenomenon is more of a "cult of personality" than a real energizing of youthful liberalism. No matter what happens in 2004, the Democrats have a lot of work to do; the party is in dire need of new blood and new ideas. What I'm hoping is that 2004 will be a year in which liberals start the long job of repairing the party infrastructure, even in the face of possible defeat, as Republicans began doing after Barry Goldwater lost in 1964.

Whether Dean gets the nomination and wins, or gets the nomination and loses, or doesn't even get on the ticket, what would be truly disastrous is any scenario in which all these fired-up Deaniacs basically wipe their hands after the election and say, "Wake me up in 2008." What happens in 2004 is vitally important, but in my mind, what Democrats do in 2005 is even moreso. I'm uncomfortable with a Democratic party whose dominant approaches right now are "We love Howard Dean!" and "We gotta replace Bush just to stop the bleeding".

American liberalism is in need of serious rebuilding, and things like this article suggest to me that rebuilding is not what the Deaniacs are really interested in. This kind of thing makes me think of all the Ross Perot supporters who basically vanished from the scene when Perot himself disappeared.

Visions of 2004

Warren Ellis has been posting a series of thoughts or expectations or predictions or hopes from the coming year, from a lot of people in his circle of highly interesting friends and colleagues. Check them out.

It's a game of inches...on any given Sunday...

The playoff picture in the NFL is set, and now I can look at how my predictions matched up to reality. Sadly, not as well as last year, when I picked six of eight divisions correctly. But it's not all bad for me! First, a few random thoughts:

:: Yes, the Patriots had a hell of a year. But I'm still not ready to punch Bill Belichick's ticket to Canton. As far as I can see, he's had one admittedly superb season (this year), one amazingly lucky season (2001), and the rest of his head coaching career has been merely fair. The Patriots are also the most inexplicable 14-2 team I've ever seen; they simply don't dominate in any particular category, which leads a lot of people to wax poetic about "intangibles" and how they "just win" and all that. The problem with relying on mystique is that it can dissipate really quickly.

:: Wow, what a way for a season to end for the Vikings. I didn't get to see it, because the Packers game was televised in Buffalo, which was surreal enough. They showed the Packers basically congratulating each other and taking solace in fighting the good fight during their fourth quarter, while the Vikings were ahead. But then word started to percolate about Lambeau Field that the Vikes might be in trouble, and the fans started turning toward the people in the luxury boxes to tell them what was happening in Arizona. The last two minutes of Green Bay's game became louder and louder as they realized that they might go to the playoffs, and then that they actually would be going.

:: Remember how on Saturday Night Live, Kevin Nealon used to parody Brent Musberger in "NFL Live" sketches by appending every sentence with "on CBS"? Well, Phil Simms must have been on some similar plan, because he never referred to "the Super Bowl", but "the Super Bowl on CBS". I really don't think you guys need to worry, CBS. If I don't know what network is carrying the game, I promise to flip channels until I find it. Should be pretty easy to find the only football game on TV that day.

OK, time to look at my predictions versus reality. Here's a table, with each division's winner and my picks.

AFC EastNew EnglandBuffalo
AFC NorthBaltimorePittsburgh
AFC SouthIndianapolisTennessee
AFC WestKansas CityKansas City
AFC WildcardsTennessee, DenverNew England, Denver
NFC EastPhiladelphiaPhiladelphia
NFC NorthGreen BayGreen Bay
NFC SouthCarolinaTampa Bay
NFC WestSt. LouisSan Francisco
NFC WildcardsSeattle, DallasSt. Louis, NY Giants

So I only picked three of eight divisions correctly – just under fifty percent. But, seven of the teams I picked to make the playoffs did make it, just above fifty percent. I also noted back then that Minnesota, Seattle and Cleveland could well end up making noise in the playoff hunt, and two of three of those teams did: Seattle did make it, Minnesota came heartbreakingly close to making it, and Cleveland wasn't very good, but then, they played in a crappy division and on the last day kept the Bengals out. We all know that the Bills' work on the field did not match what just about anybody thought they'd do before the season, and the Giants were also underachievers in a big way.

Other than the Bills, my biggest bout of confusion lies with the Buccaneers; they fielded basically the same team that went 13-3 and won the Super Bowl a year ago, and they were inconsistent and lousy. In retrospect, I'm not sure what I saw in the 49ers or the Steelers before the season started; these were "reputation" picks, really. I'm a bit surprised that the Steelers stumbled so badly, but that has historically been a very tight division. I also didn't think Bill Parcells would get Dallas into playoff shape that quickly (although I thought for sure that he would get them there eventually), and I pride myself that I never once got on the Miami Dolphins bandwagon. And if they bring Wannstedt back, pencil them in for another late-season swoon next year too as their vaunted defense gets even older.

Obvously, my Super Bowl prediction (Buccaneers over Titans) can't happen. I think that if they're healthy, the Titans are probably the best team in the AFC on paper, but they are in the unlucky position of being a wildcard team, and with the current playoff format, no wildcard team ever gets to play a home game, unless by some crazy miracle both wildcards in a conference advance to the title game. The chances of that happening are pretty low.

So, who can beat the Patriots? In the AFC, I think that the Colts could do it, and so could the Titans, although their road is a lot harder. The Chiefs can't do it. If the Patriots get to the Super Bowl, I think the Eagles, Rams and Packers could all beat them, with the Eagles having the best chance to do so. I don't know if my stomach could handle another Rams-Pats Super Bowl, though, because I know Mike Martz would decide to get cute again, just like he did two years ago when he giftwrapped the championship for Belichick and company.

One thing is for certain: this year's playoffs should see some nifty, nifty football.

The Yoshida Factor

At the risk of sounding like David Letterman when he used to maintain his tally of Consecutive Days In Which He Did Not Receive An Invitation To Appear On Oprah's Show, I now note that Atrios links Adam Yoshida for the third time in three weeks.

I'm still waiting for my first Atriolanche.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Well, at least they were better than the Redskins.

Thank God that's over. I've been actively rooting for the Bills since their 1986 season -- when Jim Kelly came to town, and when I finally got tired of being the kid in high school who knew nothing about football -- and I have to say, they have not had a season this disappointing in all the time I've followed them. Not even their 1994 (7-9), 1997 (6-10) or 2001 (3-13) years came close to this, because as I've made clear over the year, this was the year I thought they'd compete again. Instead they stumbled, they stumbled often, and they looked terrible in stumbling.

Head coach Gregg Williams is pretty much guaranteed to be sent packing. He won't be officially "fired", since his contract is now up; he just won't be brought back. Very likely offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride will be gone as well. I am hoping that the defensive and special teams coaches remain, since those units performed fairly well this year. But a new regime will take the field next year. Williams had three years to turn the Bills around, and in today's NFL, three years is more than enough time to remake a team. He couldn't get it done, posting an overall record of 17-29 and leaving a team with too many obvious holes to be filled. Those holes, as I see them, are as follows:

:: Offensive line. This was supposed to be a strength this year, but their key young players who were supposed to blossom either failed to do so or spent significant time being hurt. Longtime fixture Ruben Brown, whom nobody thinks deserved to be elected to this year's Pro Bowl even though he was, missed yesterday's game due to unexplained "personal reasons", just days after Brett Favre played for the Packers a day after his father's death. The line still gave up too many sacks, and the running game never really became consistent. Of course, a lot of that is due to the playcalling, in which the coaches refused to ever even try to establish a rhythm. But the line did not perform as it should have, and I'd be very surprised if next year's O-line featured the same players as this year's.

:: Defensive line. This unit was pretty good, but they still didn't generate enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Bills still need a defensive lineman, maybe an end, who can get sacks on a consistent basis. Plus, pressure would help in creating turnovers, which the Bills were terrible at doing this year.

:: Secondary. As noted above, the Bills need to make more turnovers. They have good tacklers in the secondary (not that you saw much of that yesterday against the Patriots, whose receivers looked like a bunch of Jerry Rice clones in that game), but they haven't had a real threat to intercept a lot of passes since the days of Henry Jones and Kurt Schulz as the safeties. Cornerback Antoine Winfield is a free agent, and I don't expect him to be back. But if the Bills can get someone who can actually pick off the ball once in a while, I'm fine with seeing Winfield go.

:: Receivers. I'm not nearly as interested in hand-wringing over Peerless Price's departure as many others are. I think Josh Reed developed pretty well this year, but you'd never know it to hear Bills fans and Buffalo sportswriters tell the tale. (Reed had 58 catches this year, while Price had 64 for Atlanta.) Bobby Shaw was a decent number three man as well. The receiving corps suffered by Eric Moulds's inability to really recover from a groin pull midway through the season, and where they really suffered was in something that was completely ignored by nearly everyone who has criticized Drew Bledsoe's performance: the lack of a strong tight end or receiving back. In Bledsoe's best years with the Patriots, he always had Ben Coates as a "safety valve" guy to haul in short passes and collect yardage after the catch. I remember watching Bledsoe shred the Bills' fine mid-1990s defense by using Coates to brilliant effect, and last year, he had Larry Centers and Jay Riemersma to fill that role. This year, he had nobody. I think that was a big factor in Bledsoe's ineffectiveness this year.

:: Quarterback. OK, here we go on Bledsoe. I've been very reluctant to give up on this guy, really, but now I'm of mixed mind. If they can ditch him and bring in a promising youngster, this might well be the time to do it, since there will be a new offensive system being installed next year anyway. I don't question Bledsoe's ability, but I have at last begun to question his heart, because he showed no fire, no anger, no leadership as the team started to gyrate this year. Jim Kelly would have circled the wagons; Bledsoe seemed all too often to be circling the drain.

Bledsoe never got in the face of his young offensive linemen when they gave up a sack, something Jim Kelly never hesitated to do. (In 1989, Kelly publicly castigated Howard Ballard for missing a block on a play that led to Kelly getting injured and missing three games; a lot of people in Buffalo got mad at Kelly and called him a jerk for doing that. But Ballard suddenly stepped it up and he became the stalwart of the right side of Buffalo's Super Bowl-run offensive line.) Just last week, Bledsoe said that Kevin Gilbride's offensive system is the best in which he's ever played, which is a bit of an odd statement to make in a year when the Bills are actually setting franchise records for offensive futility. Last year Bledsoe played with fire here; he looked like a guy who really wanted to win. This year he all-too-often looked like a guy desperate to just not look terrible -- which, as any football fan knows, is precisely the way to end up looking terrible.

So, if the new coaching regime decides that Bledsoe's time is over, so be it. But if they stick with Bledsoe, I hope they're strong-willed enough to commit to running the ball and designing game plans around what Bledsoe's strengths actually are as opposed to what they think it would be nice if his strengths were. And I'll be a lot less willing to defend the guy.

More football thoughts tomorrow, now that I'm relegated to "normal fan" status. It's the one nice thing about having one's team eliminated.

Web Tools

Here, by the way, are some sites I found useful in redesigning things here:

:: Webmonkey's List of Special Characters. I actually don't use this as often as I should, but it is highly useful.

:: The Visibone Color Palette. This thing is enormously useful in choosing color schemes; it lets you compare shades on a side-by-side basis as well as showing all the available colors.

:: The Absolute Background Textures Archive. I spent a ridiculous amount of time looking through here, but my new backgrounds came from this site (as did my original backgrounds, which still show up as "inlays" in the sidebar).

Surprisingly, the job required no power tools and no use of spackle. (If there's a more fun home-improvement word than "spackle", I don't know what it is!)

All Tolkien, all the time.

Is The Lord of the Rings great literature? And is Peter Jackson, as John Scalzi says he is, the "better teller of this particular tale"?

I've been nursing these thoughts for the better part of a week now -- well, more than a week. I really wasn't sure of how to phrase my position, based as it is on personal opinion as these matters always are. When it comes to objective standards for greatness in art, I've always been like Fox Mulder: I want to believe, but I've never been able to get there. There is always something incredibly slippery about the whole enterprise, with arguments for a given work's "greatness" invariably boiling down to criteria that are not definable, and on which disagreement can exist in perfectly logical terms.

I have known professional musicians who adore, say, the music of Bruckner, and I have met music scholars who detest Bruckner. I consider Mozart's Symphony no. 40 in G minor to be one of the very greatest works in Mozart's entire corpus, but Glenn Gould -- who surely forgot more about music than I'm ever likely to know -- described it as "six remarkable measures surrounded by twenty-five minutes of banality". And it goes on and on: John Scalzi says that The Lord of the Rings is not great literature, but Ursula K. Le Guin says that it is.

Despite the best efforts of people who try to establish "objective" standards of greatness, the feeling I invariably get is that what they're really trying to objectify is their own opinion or set of opinions. In the many debates on matters like these I have had over the years, it strikes me that the ghost of "objectivity" is always invoked by those seeking to promulgate a negative view of something, even if it's only slightly negative.

Ultimately, then, I tend to be torn in two directions when it comes to how I view artistic greatness. First, there is the "test of time" argument, since surely a work that persists in public view for a long time, and thereby imposes large influence, probably has some claim to greatness. This, though, might strike some as problematic: is, say, "The Night Before Christmas" a great poem, since it's still very well known two hundred years or whatever after its composition? Personally, I would have to say that it is, no matter how many scholars and critics might dissect its scansion and message. This may seem to cheapen the idea of "artistic greatness", but I think I can live with it. Even if it can be factually established beyond doubt that "The Night Before Christmas" is mere doggerel, it's got to have something going for it to have survived while endless reams of similar doggerel have vanished utterly.

The flip side of the coin, though, is something akin to what Robert Pirsig described (in terms of insanity) as "a culture of one". Many of us have probably had the experience of being profoundly moved by a work of art that has been pretty much reviled by everyone else. In my case, there are the Star Wars prequels (which, I might add, I'm getting tired of seeing bashed in nearly every Lord of the Rings commentary that exists), and there is Berlioz, who might still be languishing in obscurity if Sir Thomas Beecham and, later, Sir Colin Davis had not found something of estimable worth in France's most unloved composer. It's all too easy to observe someone indulging in the belief that something everybody else thinks is lousy is really profound, but all the same, I tend to get uncomfortable when it happens.

I had the experience recently of encountering, on a message board, a fellow who is a really devoted fan of Battlestar Galactica. This struck me as quite odd, as it probably would just about anyone else. I haven't seen the show in years, but I remember liking it well enough when I was seven and being less than impressed when I caught a rerun or two when I was sixteen. But this guy wasn't some drooling fanboy: he can go on for really long message-board posts about the themes he admires in Battlestar Galactica, the messages he finds in the episodes, and so on. It's easy for me to shake my head and think, "Poor soul"….but then I wonder, who am I to gainsay him?

Roger Ebert once wrote (or maybe he quoted someone else) that you can't explain comedy: either someone laughs, or they don't. And, rather crudely, he said that the same is true of sexual content: "You can't talk a man out of an erection." But if the idea of reducing artistic response to such a level rankles, there is this more elegant expression of the same sentiment by Robert Frost:

It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound – that he will never get over it. That is to say, permanence in poetry, as in love, is perceived instantly. It hasn't to await the test of time. The proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but we knew at sight we never could forget it.

So it's not just the test of time that applies. Will The Lord of the Rings still affect readers as it has since its publication? It seems odd to say that it's not great literature even as one concedes that it will, in all probability, continue to be read.

All this, really, may not be specifically germane to Scalzi's essay, but I do think he's trying to establish that, objectively speaking, the Peter Jackson films tell the story of Lord of the Rings better than the J.R.R. Tolkien books do. I'm not sure that his argument, as presented, really works. I've read a lot of such arguments over the course of the trilogy's release in the last two years: people coming forth to say, "You know, I've never been able to read more than four chapters of the damn thing, but these movies are wonderful!" But, as someone points out in Scalzi's comments, certainly the films are more accessible, but accessibility does not equal quality.

Second, Scalzi lists a number of prominent films made from books whose books are now well-less known than their films are. I'm not convinced of his arguments here. First, as he notes, in most of the cases he lists, the films came much sooner after the books than the Lord of the Rings films did. Better examples might include, say, Moby Dick and Ben-Hur. In the former case, I doubt anyone would claim that the various films (even the Gregory Peck version) supplanted the book; Ben-Hur might, though, be a better case in point. Even the liner notes to the score CDs for Ben-Hur make the point that most people would be more likely to think that the film is based on a Bible story, as opposed to a nineteenth century novel by Lew Wallace.

But that brings me to my big objection here: movies are far more visible than books, and they have far greater cultural visibility. A movie which flops still sells more tickets than a best-seller sells copies these days; I'll bet more people saw "Gigli" in theaters than have read Dave Eggers's book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and it's a foregone conclusion that more people know what Gigli is than the Eggers book. There is a kind of "supplanting" of books by their movies which is pretty-much inevitable, so I don't think this really bolsters Scalzi's argument here. Even a bad movie of a good book stands a pretty good chance of supplanting the book. Just look at some of the lesser James Bond movies: Live and Let Die is just wretched, and Moonraker is a pretty lousy movie too. Neither bear much resemblance to their books, which are quite good – but I'm not even sure if Ian Fleming's James Bond novels are even in print right now. And even in the case of Harry Potter, it wouldn't much surprise me if even now more people have seen the first two movies than read the first two books, phenomenon that they are. That more people know the movies than know the books in all these cases doesn't seem to me to point to a specific preference for these particular movies, but rather leads me to suspect a general preference for movies in general.

Just a couple of more points on this whole business. Scalzi makes what seems to me an odd assertion that argues that since Jackson had to take significant liberties with Tolkien's story to make it work on the screen, this somehow demonstrates the weakness of Tolkien's original material. This is not a good argument. Taking a story from one medium and transposing it into another always requires significant shifts in form (witness the changes made in all those Shakespeare plays that got turned into operas). That Verdi had to make quite a few changes to Othello for his opera Otello in no way implies that the original play was somehow faulty. (Just wait until some deluded soul tries to film Cryptonomicon!)

I also disagree that Jackson got all of Tolkien's themes into the films. Yes, a lot of them are there, but some of them are, frankly, inadequately treated if at all. I've commented, at each film's release, that Jackson doesn't seem to get the "passing of an Age" feel at all, nor do I think he gets the religiosity of Tolkien. The omission of the Scouring of the Shire is fine from a cinematic standpoint, but from a thematic standpoint, it falters pretty seriously. (As I noted last week, this omission really mutes Frodo's realization in the film that the Shire is no longer his home. I didn't think this worked in the movie. In the book, it does.)

Scalzi also pretty much takes it as a given that Tolkien's prose is weak and the poetry is bad. Now, I am certainly no expert on poetry; I read more poetry than the usual person, but I still know very little about its technical aspects. Still, I always enjoy the poems and songs when I read Lord of the Rings. As for the prose, well, I couldn't disagree more. The Lord of the Rings has long been one of my favorite "dipping" books -- i.e., a book I love to just open up and peruse favorite passages, and Tolkien's language is to my ear wondrous. Stylistically, I love how he opens the story in a slightly more-adult version of the tone he used in The Hobbit, but then gradually shifts the tone to "epic heroism" as the Fellowship's journey begins; likewise, I love how he uses a return to the more "earthy" tone in the last chapters to highlight the changes in Frodo's world. And there are specific passages, such as the closing paragraphs of the chapter "The Siege of Gondor", which rank with the greatest paragraphs I've ever read.

And finally, there is characterization. I've seen lots of comments by people online that they can't get into Tolkien's books because they're interested in characters, which I find to be a completely befuddling statement, because I find Tolkien's characters far, far more compellingly drawn than their Jackson analogues. (Gollum excepted, of course, but even there Jackson does that weird thing with Gollum poisoning Frodo against Sam in Return of the King.) Samwise Gamgee is so much more complex in the book, as is Gimli; the Aragorn-and-Elrond relationship is more than just "Stay away from my daughter!"; et cetera. The films take broader strokes with the characters, but to my mind they are shallower than Tolkien's. In a lot of ways this is necessary to make the books filmable in less than, say, eight hours per movie. But I can't get behind the idea that Jackson has improved on Tolkien's characterizations.

Of course, many of my objections here can boil down to the expression of taste. But that, really, may be my ultimate point: the films may supplant the books for the masses, but that doesn't mean they will for people of a more literary bent; and even if they do, well, so what? For me, the books are indisputably great literature.

The Kennedy Center Honors

I watched the Kennedy Center Honors on Friday night, and as always, it was thrilling to see five wonderful artists paid tribute for their careers. This year the honorees were country singer Loretta Lynn, film director Mike Nichols, soul singer James Brown, violinist Itzhak Perlman, and actress/comedian Carol Burnett. A worthy bunch, every one. And as always, the show was a delight, although I wonder if it was taped on a night when President Bush was either incredibly tired or sick or something. He looked curiously unenthusiastic, barely even laughing when his own father, President Bush the Elder, cracked a joke at his expense during a speech for Loretta Lynn.

Last year I listed some folks I thought might deserve being future Kennedy Center Honorees, and I'll repeat that exercise now, since I have at least five more readers than I did last year. Feel free to comment, if either to lob tomatoes at my suggestions or, better, to offer suggestions of people I've forgotten.

:: Filmmakers (Directors, Producers, Screenwriters)

Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, George Lucas, Stanley Donen, Ron Howard, Lawrence Kasdan, William Goldman, David Mamet, Rob Reiner, Robert Zemeckis.

:: Actors and Actresses

Harrison Ford, Meryl Streep, Michael Douglas, Tom Hanks, John Cleese, Robert Redford, Jodie Foster, Anthony Hopkins, Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts, Robert DeNiro, Diane Keaton, Lily Tomlin

:: Music – Classical and Jazz

John Williams, Lorin Maazel, Leonard Slatkin, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Glass, John Corigliano, Anne Sophie-Mutter, Kathleen Battle, Yo Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, Chick Corea.

:: Popular Music

Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison. (As I noted last year, I'm not sure how "stodgy" the Kennedy Center would be toward musicians like Edward Van Halen.)

:: Television and Comedy

David Letterman, George Carlin (although, again subject to stodginess), Jerry Seinfeld, Ken Burns, Dick Clark, Stephen Bochco.

In putting forth these names, I mainly went by the body of work produced, although in some cases I am not at all sure that body of work exists as of now.

(EDIT: As noted, I simply reposted the above list from a similar post of a year ago, without noticing that last year's list included Itzhak Perlman who was honored this year. So I edited his name out. Oops.)

Somebody call the Waahh-mbulance!

OK. In the last month, Atrios has linked Adam Yoshida (a right-winger who is so loony that he actually thinks that if China's economy gets too strong, the United States should engineer a worldwide depression to bring China back to its proper third-world status) twice (here and here).

And Atrios has never linked me.

Why yes, I would like some cheese with my whine, please!

(UPDATE: And now Demosthenes links Yoshida's insanity. Ye Gods....)

Do not adjust your monitors!

For those checking in today or Monday, yes, this is the new look, aside from the masthead image which will stay for another week or two. My design skills are not to mocked. Hear me roar!

(However, I must note that I actually uploaded the new look yesterday, on Saturday. So if this is the first time you're seeing it, you're a slacker. I'm saying this because we all know that insulting one's audience is the key to salvation.)

Friday, December 26, 2003

"Ding ding ding went the trolley...."

Terry Teachout on Meet Me In St. Louis, which I agree is one of the most underrated musicals of all time. It's a pure confection, but what a confection it is! (Although I can name several films with songs as good as the three Mr. Teachout names from Meet Me...: Singin' in the Rain, My Fair Lady, Brigadoon, The Music Man and The Sound of Music leap to mind.)

This reminds me of the last time I watched Meet Me in St. Louis. I was in the mood for a musical, and preferably one I hadn't seen in a while (i.e., one that I didn't already own), so I went to Blockbuster and checked out their musical selection. Not particularly good selection, but then, that's not really a surprise, is it? Anyway, they had a copy of Meet Me..., so that's what I got. When I took it to the counter, the Blockbuster employee bursts out enthusiastically: "Oh, Meet Me In St. Louis! That's one of my favorite movies ever!" Except, you see, if you've seen the movie and heard the song, you know it's pronounced "Meet Me In St. Louie", but she said it "Meet Me In St. Lewis".

I did manage to withhold my knowing belly-laugh until I got to the car.

I wanted to go back the next day and rent something like Shoah to see if she'd react that way again, but I never did get around to it. (As if Blockbuster would have a copy of Shoah, anyway.)

Friday Burst of Weirdness

One of the most striking sequences in Carl Sagan's classic PBS series Cosmos was his illustration of how evolutionary selection works: the bit about the Heike crabs in Japan. These are crabs whose shells bear features that look strikingly like the face of a Samurai warrior, so the fishermen tend to throw these crabs back into the water, in remembrance of a legendary battle that took place in that particular region many centuries ago. Over centuries of such behavior on the part of the fishermen, a sort of "artificial selection" took place:

How does it come about that the face of a warrior is incised on the carapace of a crab? The answer seems to be that humans made the face. The patterns on the crab's shell are inherited. But among crabs, as among people, there are many different hereditary lines. Suppose that, by chance, among the distant ancestors of this crab, one arose with a pattern that resembled, even slightly, a human face. Even before the battle of Danno-ura, fishermen may have been reluctant to eat such a crab. In throwing it back, they set in motion an evolutionary process: If you are a crab and your carapace is ordinary, the humans will eat you. Your line will leave fewer descendants. If your carapace looks a little like a face, they will throw you back. You will leave more descendants. Crabs had a substantial investment in the patterns on their carapaces. As the generations passed, of crabs and fishermen alike, the crabs with patterns that most resembled a samurai face survived preferentially until eventually there was produced not just a human face, not just a Japanese face, but the visage of a fierce and scowling samurai. All this has nothing to do with what the crabs want. Selection is imposed from the outside. The more you look like a samurai, the better are your chances of survival. Eventually, there come to be a great many samurai crabs.

To this day, that is the most elegant illustration of external selection in nature that I've ever read. So where's the weirdness?

Well, Sagan's "Tale of the Heike Crabs" is really, really elegant and haunting. The "Tale of the Barbie Lobsters", though, is really, really weird.

(via Paul Riddell)

Vanity Publishing

A few days ago I pointed out a rather odd fellow I've noted online, and in comments he took exception to what I said (which I thought was actually pretty tame, but what do I know). He made a point of telling me that his first novel has been accepted for publication, presumably as a "So there!" type of thing after I had commented on a highly unprofessional letter he had once written to a magazine editor (which the magazine printed). I asked him which publisher had accepted his work, but he never answered.

But in the midst of his entry for today (no permalinks, but it will have its own link in his sidebar when he supplants it with his next post) it turns out that his publisher is Publish America, which is basically the "next generation" of vanity publishing. Or, as this person calls it, the "Amway of publishing". (Not to disparage Darren on this particular point; he seems to be genuinely aware of what's going on.)

Teresa Nielsen Hayden had a superb post a while back in which she described the evolution of vanity publishing, now that they have moved beyond the standard model of "You pay us and we'll print your book". Reading that article, and the articles that she links in turn, puts me in mind of a joke that the ill-fated Japanese businessman, Mr. Takagi, says in Die Hard: "We [the Japanese] are flexible. Pearl Harbor didn't work out, so we'll get you with tape decks."

Vanity publishing can have its place, in certain scenarios. If you have a book that you know will have a minuscule audience and you have no interest or desire in an audience any larger than that, a vanity house is probably fine -- say, the tale of your family's ancestral immigration to America from Old Europe, or a cookbook collecting the contents of your great-grandmother's recipe box. But that's about it.


I've been meaning to mention this for a week or so, but if anyone out there pings when they update (a wise practice), they have recently redesigned things over there, so if you use a bookmarked version of their "ping" page, you'll need to go to their main page, do a new manual ping of your blog, and then bookmark the new "ping results" page for use in the future.

Oh, and where used to accept a ping every five minutes, they've backed that off to one ping every thirty minutes.

A New Look!

I've spent some time over the last few days working on the new design for Byzantium's Shores. I set up a "test blog" to do the design-stuff, and I decided on the background graphics. The new appearance will be substantially less "dark", with all text being in dark-type on a light background. Basically, though, the look will still be the same: I am not changing fonts at all, the format of the sidebar will remain as it is, and I'm keeping my pretty little roses. (Yes, men can like roses! Stop looking at me like that!) My current plan is to have the new look in place this Sunday, although if I get things done all the way, I may have it up tomorrow.

Wrapping paper, wrapping paper everywhere....

Much unwrapping of gifts later, and Christmas 2003 is over. (Except for the fact that some relatives' gifts have yet to arrive, and one large gift for the kid remains hidden in a closet for reasons explained below.)

It was somewhat different for us this year, mainly because the wife came down with whatever nasty infection I had last week, just in time for the holiday. It pretty much knocked her out: the new Christmas dress she was sewing for the Daughter, intended for the Christmas Eve church services we traditionally attend, is stuck in its "just about done" phase, which is just as well since the illness was such that we didn't even make it to the services at all. Likewise, we failed to do our traditional "drive around and gaze upon the lights" thing. And finally, the turkey we were going to roast stayed in the refrigerator, and instead I stepped up to the plate and made dinner. Three bowls of Ramen noodles wasn't very Christmas-y, but at least I used the "Beef" flavor, because the wrapper is red.

(That bit about the Ramen noodles was a joke! I did make dinner, but give me more credit than that. I made a Pastitsio [recipe here], which is the best thing I make. And I make a lot of good things.)

Gifts for the kid included a VW Beetle for Barbies, to go along with the miniature VW Beetle I provided for her preschool party a week back wherein "Santa" gave it to her. She loves VW Beetles, mainly because we watched a couple of the "Herbie" movies last summer. Thus, every time she spies a Beetle (new or old) on the road, she starts yelling with delight about the Herbie. (She also thinks PT Cruisers are Herbies, and I've stopped attempting to correct her on this. Easier that way.) The only problem is that the Herbie movies aren't nearly as well known anymore as they used to be, so when she proudly showed her new car to her friends and told her it was a Herbie, they had no idea what she was on about. That's what happens when you raise your kids on obscure stuff. (I can only imagine Darth Swank's kids' friends saying, "Who is Belldandy?")

Let's see, what else...there were three new books for her Leap Pad; a Playmobil Viking boat that came with two Vikings (with helmets, a dagger, a shield, and a battle axe!) and actually floats (she insisted on taking a bath immediately because of this); a Lite Brite (which excited the wife to no end, since she never owned one herself); a few jigsaw puzzles; a pair of kids' binoculars; a few books (including one that I just realized I forgot to give her); a beading set; and quite the assortment of candy (to go along with the caramel corn, English toffee, and sesame-butter cookies that I had already made). Not a bad haul, I must say. (The gift in the closet is an electric keyboard, which we're saving for when the wife's headache-inducing cold has gone away.)

Our practice is to set aside the two or three most "spectacular" gifts to put out before she rises Christmas morning; those are from Santa. Everything else we open Christmas Eve, and we make it known that everything that night is either from us or from relatives. Thus we keep the whole Santa-thing going while we also emphasize the idea of Christmas as a time to show devotion to family, among other things.

For the wife, I got mildly creative this year. I got a round, flat basket that is lined with red-and-green plaid cloth, and this I filled with four books, five special packets of flavored coffee, a small box of those hazelnut Rocher candies (if you like hazelnut and chocolate, these things are miraculous), and a DVD set of the second season of Mad About You, which was our favorite show when we were dating/engaged/first married. (The early seasons were the best -- the show should have ended with the birth of Paul and Jamie's kid, though. The last season was something of a train wreck.)

For me? Not important really. I got a few lovely things, including something handmade by the wife which she managed to make right under my nose. But I was more happy to watch everyone else open their things. I know a lot of people get overly annoyed with the gift-giving aspect of Christmas, and I do sympathize with the relentless commercialization. I've tried in the last couple of years to veer away from "pretty stuff" to things that will be enjoyed more slowly and deeply -- there's probably some kind of Thoreau-ish impulse at work here -- like a handful of books with coffee to read them with, bundled in a pretty basket. I'm tired of those idiotic reports on the TV news where some reporter goes to the mall and quizzes people on what they're planning to spend this year, and the doubled annoyance that such reports this year were invariably coupled with hand-wringing about the economy in general, thus sending a tacit message: "If the economy doesn't get going and unemployment stays high, it's your fault because you didn't fill your house and the houses of others with an appropriate amount of stuff!"

Yes, I'm troubled by robotic gift-giving, and I'm troubled by the all-too-easily-embraced attitude of "Keeping up with the Joneses" that can take root at Christmastime. But just one sincere "Oh, wow!" from someone as they realize what's inside the wrapping paper makes a lot of that disquiet go away. And a chorus of Oh, wow!s from a kid? Well, that just about makes it all go away.

Until, of course, I have to clean up the $&%*#!! wrapping paper and boxes and those #&$*#($#@!!!! twist-ties that toy companies use to fasten everything to the package these days, of course. But hey, it's not all bad: this year I remembered to buy two eight-packs of AA batteries before Christmas. I'm getting better at this.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Merry Christmas

To all my readers, new and old and not yet found: may your Christmas be filled with peace, love, and good cheer!

"Noel: Christmas Eve 1913", by Robert Bridges (1844-1930).

A frosty Christmas Eve when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above with stars was spangled o’er.
Then sped my thoughts to keep that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields and marvelling could not tell
Whether it were angels or the bright stars singing.
Now blessed be the towers that crown England so fair
That stand up strong in prayer unto God for our souls
Blessed be their founders (said I) an’ our country folk
Who are ringing for Christ in the belfries tonight
With arms lifted to clutch the rattling ropes that race
Into the dark above and the mad romping din.
But to me heard afar it was starry music
Angels’ song, comforting as the comfort of Christ
When he spake tenderley to his sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect of th’ eternal silence.

(posting will resume on Friday)

Whoa....mind drugs involved....

Via John Scalzi I see the Top Ten Astronomical Images of 2003. Check them out! (Longtime readers here will have seen some of these before. Which is why I should have more readers.)

Nope, Ms. Dunst, I feel nothing for you at all!

I watched the trailer for Spiderman 2 the other day (as pointed out by Nefarious Neddie). Pretty good trailer, I thought: Doctor Octopus ("Doc Ock") looks dead-on, which is good since I thought the first film didn't get the Green Goblin quite right. Hopefully the next movie won't peter out, and very nearly self-destruct, in the last fifteen minutes like the first one did.

Yes, Virginia, extraordinary claims still require extraordinary evidence!

How a Skeptical Agnostic can Grok Christmas Too!

It's not my fault!

Michael Lopez responds to my question about Lord of the Rings over on Collaboratory. I'm still stewing over my own thoughts (though I can pretty much guarantee that I don't think the movies are superior, storytelling-wise, to the books), so go read Michael's.

But for the record, I didn't set any character limit! Not my fault!

Uh, sure, Glenn.

What Glenn Reynolds seems to think is a clever utterance seems to me to be a pretty stupid one. But then, we are talking about Andrew Sullivan here.

Thanks for the memories, Van.

This week, Van Miller will provide the play-by-play services for the Bills' radio broadcast for the last time. He's been doing this for 37 years, which means that he's been doing Bills games longer than I've been alive. Gregg Easterbrook mentioned Miller in yesterday's TMQ column (about two-thirds of the way down) in which he describes a particular instance of Miller's football knowledge and prescience.

It's hard to imagine someone else's voice coming over the radio next season, and it's likewise hard to imagine games without Miller's little verbal quirks:

:: "Fasten your seatbelts!" He generally says this whenever a crucial play is about to take place, no matter which side of the ball the Bills are playing.

:: "How do ya like that!" Miller usually says this after anything sudden and unexpected happens, for good or ill. (In recent years, it's been a lot of ill.)

:: "It's pandemonium! It's fan-demonium!" Yeah, this one's cheesy as hell, but it's also infectious as hell to here Miller shouting this old chestnut into the mike, nearly drowned out by crowd noise, whenever the Bills score.

:: There used to be a referee in the NFL named Red Cassion who, when making his announcements to the stadium crowd, would stretch the word "down" wwaayy out, like this: "Holding, offense. Ten yard penalty, repeat second dooooowwwwwnnnnn...." I once heard Cassion do this, and immediately thereafter, Van Miller says, "I don't know how that guy gets five syllables out of 'dooooowwwwwnnnnn."

:: There were a few games when Doug Flutie was the Bills' starting quarterback in which Flutie's antics, in which he would seemingly run around with no idea whatsoever what he was doing, reduced Miller to a mere sputter. I seem to recall him recovering at one point and saying, "Well, I don't know what Flutie did, folks, but he gained eight yards and a first down on that."

:: Miller's one bad habit was that he never gave the score very often. If you simply tuned the game in, planning to listen until you got the score, you could end up listening for most of an entire quarter.

:: For me, the memory of Miller shouting "The Bills have won it! The Bills have won it!" over and over, after the Bills won that comeback game against Houston in the 1992 playoffs, is as indelible in my mind as what is probably the most famous radio sports call of all time, "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!" Now, I watched the game on TV and thus did not hear Miller's call as it happened, but I've never seen footage of that game's end without Miller's call dubbed over it. (The NFL Films highlight reel of that game uses Miller's call, for example.)

The local sports radio station, WGR, once tried to see what it would have sounded like had Scott Norwood's field goal in Super Bowl XXV been good. They did this by splicing Miller's call from that game, right up to that kick, with Miller's "The Bills have won it!" immediately after. It wasn't terribly convincing...but I doubt there's a Bills fan in this world who hasn't imagined precisely that call. It's too bad that in 37 years, Miller never got to shout the words, "The Bills win the Super Bowl!" into the radio mike.

(And it's also too bad that he has to go out calling a game from Foxboro. Poor guy.)

Good News in Buffalo

The Buffalo region finally got some good economic news yesterday: auto insurance giant Geico is going to be opening a big customer-service center here, with the number of jobs created to eventually number more than 2,000. The initial job creation will be modest -- 650 or so -- with the remainder to come over the next decade. But still, this is a huge deal for a region where nearly every news headline that pairs the word "Jobs" with a number refers to losses. This was a sufficiently big deal that Governor Pataki was here to make the announcement.

Now, hopefully, this will put a "spring in the step" of the people who work at plugging Buffalo for companies around the country and around the world; hopefully, success will breed success. Instead of "If we could ever get someone to come here", maybe the attitude will shift to "OK, we got a big one, who's next?"

Go Buffalo!

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

Gift cards, certificates, et cetera: A Snarky Lecture

I read an article a week or two ago (no link, I don't remember where I read it) that listed the drawbacks to a number of large chain store or online retailer gift cards. Mainly they broke down in two categories: the "service charges" that the retailers begin deducting from the card after a certain period of disuse, which is annoying, and the fact that in just about all cases the cards are not redeemable for cash, which is not.

When I worked for Pizza Hut, it never failed. Ever. We'd sell tons of gift certificates during the Christmas season, and then they'd all get redeemed in January (which is part of the idea: generating sales during a traditionally slow month). But we sold the certificates in $5.00 denominations only, so someone might be given, say, five certificates for a gift totaling $25.00. Fair enough.

But what would inevitably happen was that people would come in, order something very basic -- like a medium pepperoni and two glasses of water, total bill something like $11.00 -- and then fork over all five of their gift certificates, fully expecting to get $14.00 back in change. And these customers would then get angry when I refused to do this. They really thought that they could just cash them in and take the money to the bar next door or wherever. (I once even had a guy come in with five gift certificates and demand to cash them all in without any purchase of any kind; he very bluntly informed me that he hated our company and wanted nothing to do with us and that I was to give him his $25.00 and send him on his way. When I refused, he called the 1-800 complaint number, the operator at which tried to mollify him by awarding him -- you guessed it -- more gift certificates.)

On the off chance that any of my readers engage in this practice, please stop! People give you gift certificates for a certain establishment on the assumption that you will be able to derive some kind of benefit by going there to redeem them for merchandise or food, even if it's an establishment you typically do not frequent, for whatever reason. If they wanted to give you cash, they'd give you cash. And these businesses rely on gift certificate redemption to help soften the blow in moving from the Christmas retail season (incredibly busy) to the January retail season (incredibly not). And if you really feel that strongly -- if you're given a gift certificate to a business you utterly, completely despise -- then find someone who likes that place and regift the certificates to them. That is far more honest than simply walking in, buying something small, and then expecting the store to just hand over the difference from the register.

(And really, if you can't figure out how to use up a $25.00 gift card to Borders or B&N, then you're not just a clod but a doofus too.)

LOTR: Literature? or just OK books made into great movies?

I posted this very question over on Collaboratory today, and as of this writing there are no responses. So, go respond. (I'll be posting my own thoughts in a day or two, but the short version is "The movies are outstanding, but the books are iconic.")

Of Nativities in Public

I know that it's often a source of controversy for people who want to erect Nativity Scenes in places like public parks or on the front lawn of the town hall, but I really can't get worked up too much in either direction. On the one hand, I agree entirely that using public resources to subsidize and support a depiction of a scene specific to a single religion (even if that religion is the overwhelming religion of the people in the country) probably isn't Constitutional. But on the other hand, I'm not sure that such Nativities represent that much of an imposition on the non-Christians, who merely have to ignore the thing. But then, going back to the first place, why make it such an issue, anyway? In my travels throughout suburban Buffalo recently, you almost literally can't go more than half a mile without seeing a Nativity either in the front yard of a church or someone's house. If there are thousands of places where you can set up your Nativity without any such controversy erupting, why bother insisting that we stick one in the Town Park?


There's a pretty illuminating article in today's Buffalo News about how bad the Bills have played on offense this year. Yuck. The team is on pace to have the franchise's worst offensive season since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule twenty-five years ago, and that includes such woeful Bills offenses as the 1985, 1997, and 2001 teams (which went 2-14, 6-10, and 3-13 respectively).

But even with the obvious fact that the Bills have been lousy on offense this year, columnist-extraordinaire Jerry Sullivan is not content to let the day slip by without saying something colossally stupid. Here's his take, from today's column, about Bills receiver Josh Reed:

So much for Josh Reed's emergence as an offensive threat. Reed has gone two consecutive games without a catch. Meanwhile, New England got two touchdown catches in Saturday's win from David Givens - who went 217 picks after Reed in the 2002 draft.

Gee, let's compare the career stats for these two players:

ReceiverGames PlayedReceptionsYardsTD'sTotal Team Scoring, 2003
D.Givens (Pats)24365226317
J. Reed (Bills)319010574243

So, Reed has had almost three times as many catches in his career as has Givens, and that's with Givens playing for a team that is 13-2 and has scored 70 more points than the Bills this year. But I guess the fact that Givens had one really good game while he's playing for a really good team makes him the better receiver, in Jerry's eyes. Please. Josh Reed clearly hasn't been stellar, but then, the problems with the Bills' offensive production this year go way deeper than a second-year receiver who has actually been pretty productive, as second-year receivers go. Jerry, stop being stupid. Please oh please.

Oh, and since I'm babbling about football today, let me note that someone arrived here via a Google search for wild-card teams that have won the Super Bowl. To my knowledge, only six wild-card teams have ever made it to the big game, with three of those winning it. Those six teams are as follows:

YearWild-Card TeamSB OpponentResult
1980RaidersEaglesW, 27-10
1985PatriotsBearsL, 10-46
1992BillsCowboysL, 17-52
1997BroncosPackersW, 31-24
1999TitansRamsL, 16-23
2000RavensGiantsW, 34-7

Interestingly, all six wild-card Super Bowl teams came from the AFC. No NFC team has ever converted a wild-card playoff berth into a Super Bowl appearance.

(The title quote for this post is, of course, a reference to former Saints and Colts head coach Jim Mora, who once said exactly that in a post-game press conference.)

Monday, December 22, 2003

The Look of Middle-Earth

While I was in college, a single-volume hardcover edition of Lord of the Rings came out that featured gorgeous paintings by fantasy artist Alan Lee, who later went on to be a major contributor to Peter Jackson's design team (if not the major contributor). A major pleasure of seeing the films was seeing those Alan Lee paintings brought to cinematic life. Here is a gallery of Lee's Tolkien-related art. (Personally, I think his Treebeard looks more like the Orc who wanted to cut off Merry and Pippin's legs for dinner than anything else, but that's just me.)


Brad DeLong reminds me of a fantasy novel that may be of interest to Tolkien fans or to people generally interested in the body of Northern European, or Teutonic, myth that was part of the wellspring from which Lord of the Rings is drawn. The book is called Rhinegold, by Stephan Grundy.

Partially dedicated to Tolkien and to Richard Wagner, this is a recasting of the legends of Siegfried (here, Sigifrith) and the mysterious gold of the Rhine river. It is also one of the densest books I've ever read: readers who have difficulty with Tolkien's language will positively choke on Grundy's. Also, as one of the Amazon reviewers notes, Grundy is not entirely successful at blending his bardic prose with coarse dialogue. I've been meaning to re-read this book for years -- like DeLong, I am not even sure to what degree I like it, but I've never forgotten it since I read it nearly ten years ago. (I bought it at sight when it first came out.) Maybe I'll add it to the 2004 Reading List that I'm putting together, since I'm already planning on reading the Nibelungenlied, Parzifal and the Sagas of Iceland.

Grundy has also written novels about Attila the Hun and about the Gilgamesh legend. I haven't read any of those, however.

Your (delayed) Friday Burst of Weirdness

I forgot about the Friday Burst of Weirdness last week, so keeping with my "All LOTR, all the time" theme for today (not an intentional theme, but it seems to be what I'm doing) is this summary of a Usenet discussion thread about LOTR and Christmas.

And more and more, my days on Usenet are seeming like a dark and distant memory....

Behold the King Elessar!

I saw Return of the King yesterday, and like just about everyone else in the world, some things about it I adored, some things I liked less so well, and overall I found it a stunning and occasionally emotionally overwhelming experience. I think, though, that I found The Two Towers to be the best of the trilogy, based on the theatrical cuts. (My thoughts on The Two Towers can be found here.)

And, like everyone else, it seems that the best course may be just list some random observations. SPOILERS HERE!

:: First, a complaint about movie audiences: when you know damned well that the film you're seeing is the blockbuster of the season, and you further know that by virtue of seeing it opening weekend it's likely to sell out the theater, please oh please! Move all the way to the end of the row when you're filing into the theater, and abandon this foolish idea that you're going to have an empty seat on either side of your party. The result is that people who get there fairly close to showtime end up either sitting in the less-desirable seats way in front, or splitting up entirely. (And it would be nice if the theater manager actually standing in the door providing assistance to people looking for seats would actually encourage this practice. Anybody who's ever attended an event in a theater at Disney World knows that those people don't even admit the possibility of an empty seat, and they treat the crowd accordingly.)

OK, about the movie itself. Remember: spoilers.

:: I know that Peter Jackson needed to set up Sam not being with Frodo for the initial encounter with Shelob, but the whole business with Smeagol planting seeds of doubt about Sam in Frodo's mind didn't really work for me. Maybe Frodo would try to send Sam away, but Sam wouldn't have gone, or even started to go. And he could have accomplished the same thing by having Smeagol arrange, say, a rockslide on the Stairs of Cirith Ungol to perhaps get Sam out of the way. (Of course, the Tolkien-literalists probably would have really howled at this.)

:: The Shelob encounter was a fine sequence. What I liked was that Peter Jackson avoided the temptation to start the encounter with one of those Alien-like "beastie jumping out with a bang" to scare the audience. What I didn't like was Sam's line "Get away from him, you filth!" which put me in mind of, well, Aliens when Ripley dons the Wearable Forklift.

:: I liked the effect of Frodo's eyes becoming bluer and bluer, and more lamplike, like Gollum's eyes, as the film progressed and the Ring made its final grab for Frodo's soul.

:: Wasn't the Golden Hall full of sleeping men when Pippin swiped the Palantir? Why, then, did nobody awaken except for Merry, Gandalf, Legolas and Aragorn?

:: Yes, I missed Saruman. "He's not a threat anymore. Leave him locked in the tower" just doesn't cut it, I'm afraid.

:: I don't know if I've ever seen a more thrilling scene in a film than the lighting of the signal fires. (But that didn't stop me from wondering, just how bad do you have to screw up in the service of Gondor to get assigned that duty? "OK, you are to go live on top of this mountain and on the off chance you ever see the fire atop the next mountain over…."

:: OK. I've said before that I think Liv Tyler's performance as Arwen is just fine. Too bad the part of Arwen is pretty badly written. She's reduced to lying upon a couch, waiting to be saved. I'm not sure how much of this is Tolkien's fault originally, but Tolkien knew that the romances were not central to his story and relegated them to the Appendices; I'm not sure now that Peter Jackson ever totally figured out how to deal with the structural problems inherent in the Aragorn-Arwen union.

:: And then there's Eowyn, a strong and compassionate and three-dimensional female character. Too bad she disappears completely after killing the Witch King, and too bad her union with Faramir isn't shown. I hope this is rectified in the DVD version.

:: The Battle of the Pellenor Fields was pretty remarkable. I found it interesting that, unlike the Battle of Helm's Deep, it didn't have a definite starting point – it just kind of ramped up, with one level of desperation following upon another. I was a bit confused as to why this Orc army would bother carving such an elaborate battering ram, though. Much has been said about all the other elements of the battle, so I'll leave well enough alone. (Except that Eowyn's take-down of the Witch King was a fine, fine moment. A fine moment among many.) And did I miss it, or was there really no shot of that one Orc Captain – you know the one, Mr. Tumor Face – getting killed horribly?

:: And would it have been so hard to give Gimli a chance to strut his stuff in impressive fashion? We've had three films of Legolas being a lethal machine, Merry and Pippin finding their courage, but Gimli never seemed to get his own moment to really shine. I would have liked to see him face down a company of thirty charging Orcs, an axe in each hand….

:: Here's something I've never understood, and maybe a Tolkien scholar among my readership might illuminate me a bit: Why is Gimli the only dwarf to fight in the War of the Ring? Why did none of the Dwarves ever come down from the Lonely Mountain? I'm pretty sure that the disaster in Moria did not destroy all of the Dwarves.

:: There should have been a scene where Aragorn takes the leadership of Minas Tirith and Gondor before leading the armies to the Black Gate.

:: The film is, of course, visually amazing. But there were a couple of visuals that I didn't like on the compositional basis. Among these is when Aragorn's army is surrounded outside the Black Gate. (Oh, yeah, I missed the Mouth of Sauron. This would have added, at most, two minutes to the running time.) The wide shot had a "concentric circle" appearance that looked fake to me, as did the way the ground fell away when Mordor collapsed – the fissures stopped in the exact zig-zag pattern needed to spare all of Aragorn's army. That didn't work for me.

:: The corsair ships didn't glide in the water like real ships to my eyes – no rocking back and forth, no rise and fall of the prows as they cut the waves. No, not a big deal. It just happened to catch my eye.

:: Likewise, I can buy the ring not melting instantly upon plopping onto the lava, but Gollum should have disintegrated in flames before meeting the molten rock.

:: I didn't much miss the Scouring of the Shire, and further, I don't think today's film audiences would have sat through it willingly. There was enough squirming during the wrap-ups as it was. But if Jackson had to ditch the Scouring, I might have rather preferred if Frodo had simply never attempted to live there again. The film made it feel slightly perfunctory for me, and about the only solution I could see would have been for Frodo to never have gone back to the Shire at all. (In the film, assuming no Scouring. The book works fine, obviously.)

:: Generally speaking, I don't think the films really capture either the sense of journey or the passage of time that is evident in the books. There are too few glimpses of the map of Middle Earth in all of the films, and while there is the occasional line of dialogue that conveys time ("It's been four years since Weathertop", "We must hold this road out of Rivendell for forty days", "The Uruks are still a day ahead of us!"), that passage of time still isn't really felt. Nowhere is this more true than when Frodo and Sam finally get into Mordor: the film makes it seem like Mount Doom is all of five or six miles from the Pass of Cirith Ungol. This crops up, though, in all manner of other places. Aragorn's journey on the Paths of the Dead is a long trek, but the film doesn't really suggest as much.

:: As long as Peter Jackson was willing to include stuff from the Appendices, I wish he'd found a way to get in the bit where an old Samwise Gamgee, after Rosie has passed on, goes to the Grey Havens and over the sea as the last of the Ringbearers.

:: Any film music fan willing to utter anything along the lines of "Oh, if only Williams/Horner/Goldsmith had been signed to score these films" should be given an immediate series of ritual dope-slaps. Howard Shore has scored these films magnificently, none moreso than this third installment.

So, that's it. I'll probably have more to say once my thoughts have formed and my feelings have settled in a little. This trilogy is one of the most amazing things I've ever seen, and I wonder if this might not point to a new direction for Hollywood, now that it's demonstrated that audiences will accept stories told in multiple films that are designed as such. I don't think the films are perfect, and I'm not sure if they'll displace Star Wars in my heart. But I'm sad that it's over.

(But hey, it's not a total loss: I still have May of 2005 to look forward to!)

Football? What's that?

I watched exactly zero minutes of football yesterday. Not a one. I have given up hope. My Bills have been placed on the funeral pyre, and the armies of Darkness -- better known as the Patriots -- are swarming across the world. Soon, I suspect, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick will be hoisting another Lombardi Trophy, Sean will be dancing around squealing about "his precious", and the NFL will fall into shadow.

But at least the Dolphins will be joining the Bills on the pyre.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

No Updates Today

My plate is pretty full today, what with going to see a movie about a returning something or other. (I hope I like the part where Frodo and Sam infiltrate Mordor and enlist the aid of the native population, which are three-foot-tall fuzzy creatures armed with stones and spears, in order to deactivate the force shield that surrounds Barad-dur and prevents Aragorn and his buddy Lando from flying in on a dragon to destroy the main reactor. I also hope they pull off the scene where Frodo succeeds in turning Saruman, who turns out to be his actual father, back to the side of goodness.)

Thus, there probably won't be any more posting than this. I do plan to have some ROTK thoughts up tomorrow. I also plan to fill up space this week with some reposting of selected posts from the last year, mainly as a way of setting up some things I want to write about in 2004.

Here are a couple of links for today:

:: Al Gore Jr., busted! And because he didn't turn the headlights on. Yeesh.

:: Kevin Drum on the poll reported yesterday that seemingly reveals wide-spread support for amending the Constitution to ban gay marriage.

:: Modulatin' Steve points to some spectacular space photography. Wonderful images!

:: LLLOOONNNGGG discussion thread on Return of the King, mainly by people who are so frighteningly literate that I despair of my proto-writing career.

:: Finally, I love Christmas music. I really, truly do. The only Christmas songs I actively dislike are "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer", "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth", the "Carol of the Bells", and whatever that horrible thing with the #$&%^!! Chipmunks is called. Yes, I actually like "The Twelve Days of Christmas", although I tend to prefer humorous rewritings of it, with the best I've ever heard being a version I only heard once, on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson some years back -- it was themed around a divorce settlement, with the song listing the things the husband is giving up. (If anyone happens to have those lyrics, I'd love to have them too!) And my favorite Christmas song is "Little Drummer Boy", with my favorite performance thereof being the 1970s kitsch version done by Bing Crosby and David Bowie.

Having noted that, a devilish MeFi thread about Christmas songs and music turns up this exhaustive, and caustically hilarious, listing of Christmas songs, and for that person in your family who would turn Christmas into a celebration of the Dark Powers of the World, there are Carols for Cthulhu!

See you all tomorrow!

Friday, December 19, 2003

Good Political Stuff

Here are a couple of nifty things I've read over the last few days out in Political Blogistan:

:: Alex Frantz reporting the degree of stage-managing for the President's Thanksgiving Day appearance in Iraq.

:: Alex also looking for a better historical analogy than Dean=McGovern or Dean=Mondale.

:: Morat pointing to a potential killer Democratic meme: "The Bush Tax".

:: Kevin Drum on the ever-shifting rationale for taking Iraq.

:: Also, Kevin Drum pointing out something good about Saddam's capture that I haven't seen mentioned anywhere else: innovative intel techniques.

Is Santa Overexposed?

Do kids see too much of Santa these days? I seem to remember that when I was a kid, you'd see him the one time you went into a mall during Xmas shopping, but then that was it -- there was a mystique about him, a legendary figure unseen except for from a distance. But nowadays, it's impossible to avoid the jolly old elf. He's everywhere. The guy ringing the bell for the Salvation Army bucket at the supermarket might be dressed as Santa. Large stores like Circuit City occasionally have a Santa roaming the aisles. There was a Santa at preschool today. Santa, Santa everywhere. So I guess I'm waiting for the logic to kick in: "If I can see Santa just about everywhere during the Xmas season, why is it that his most important appearance comes when I'm just sleeping?"

Trees with lights on them

Darth Swank must have one weird Christmas tree!

Speaking of which, we set our own tree up the other day. It's always a pleasure to unpack all the ornaments again, always an annoyance to unwind the lights, always sad to find the box containing the stockings that we decorated with the names of cats who have since passed on.

Last night, after The Kid was in bed, I spent some time writing with only the lights on the tree and a bunch of candles illuminating the room. (And the computer screen, too.) Just lovely.

Pistols at Dawn, Indeed!

Michelle has an adversary.

I guess I should read those books one of these years, but every time I start to venture near them, my eyes glaze over and I whine, "But there's twenty of them!"

(Yeah, I know how good they're supposed to be. I think that my reaction is colored by my experience with the as-awful-as-he-is-longwinded Robert Jordan.)

Profanity for me, but not for thee

TBogg on Lileks. Heh. Indeed.

Traffic! We got yer traffic here!

Yesterday saw the 30,000th hit here, via a Google search for "George Carlin" and "Water landing", believe it or not. Thanks to everyone for visiting. Tell all your friends. Tell your neighbors. And so on!

End of Year Link Clearance! Everything of Value Must Go!

This is basically a grab-bag of stuff I've had sitting in my bookmarks for some time, stuff that I placed there to investigate further at a later time and which I never got round to actually investigating further. I make no claims about most of this stuff being interesting, nor in some cases can I even vouch for the political position expressed (if any). This is the blogging equivalent of taking books off my shelves that I know I'll never read and giving them to the Library for the semi-annual booksale. So no flames, please, if something here is offensive!

Here we go:

:: The Complete 9-11-01 Timeline

:: NPR: A portrait of Sam Cooke

:: Unplugging the Matrix: Why the Franchise Went South

:: Mickey Kaus on the Florida Recounts in 2000

:: A 2000 Election Results URL Clearinghouse

:: Heart trouble? Drink dark beer!

:: Zen Asparagus (a Livejournal)

:: A gospel verse found on an ancient shrine (Actually, I remember this. It is pretty interesting.)

:: Want to read some graphic literature? Start with these. (I remember this one too, and vouch for it. Good article.)

:: A short interview with Viggo Mortensen. You've probably either already read this, or don't care.

:: An outstanding profile of composer Carl Stalling. Stalling was the genius behind the music of all the Looney Tunes cartoons.

And a few blogs I bookmarked and forgot about:

:: Third Level Digression

:: This Century Sucks (a really left-wing blog)

:: Art Education Philosophy (doesn't seem to be updated that much)

:: Confessions of a Scottish Trombonist in Denmark (exactly what it says)

:: Bill Maher (It seemed like every time I started to regularly read him, he'd take three weeks off from posting. Damned celebrities with blogs!)

:: The Writer's Writerly Journal

The Shape of Things to Come!

I am planning the first major redesign of Byzantium's Shores for sometime after Christmas. It's not that I'm tired of the current appearance, but this February will see the second anniversary of this blog, and for most of that time things here have looked like, well, this. I'm not one of those bloggers who changes templates the way others change their underwear, but variety is the spice of death and all that. (I think I may have that wrong....) I'm currently searching about for graphics to use and testing things out on a dummy blog (no jokes about this blog being a dummy blog, please!), and I'll "go live" probably the first week of January, unless I get things done really quickly, in which case I could debut the new appearance between Christmas and New Year's.

Right now the only definite plan is to go to a dark text/light background, pretty much the reverse of the current theme, and to retain the "voyaging and seafaring" motif, preferably with a hint of mosaic. Other than that, it's all pretty vague.