Thursday, April 29, 2004


The Edmund Fitzgerald, in trouble on Lake Superior.

For me, the two most fascinating shipwrecks in history are that of the Titanic and the Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down on November 10, 1975 in a severe storm on Lake Superior. I found this painting on a site devoted to the wreck (the painting links to it), and I just found this one pretty striking.

UPDATE: Darth Swank and Robert in comments remind me of the wreck of the Empress of Ireland, which went down in the St. Laurence River after being rammed by a Norwegian collier. The loss of life was greater than that of the Titanic, but the Empress of Ireland did not have anywhere near the mythic opulence of the earlier wreck, and the ship went down so fast that there was no time for the heartbreaking stories of families bidding each other farewell on the decks to take place as they had on the Titanic. Most fascinating to me, though, is the fact that the Empress of Ireland went down within sight of land (well, it would have, if not for the dense fog that led to the collision in the first place).

Here's a good writeup on the wreck of the Empress of Ireland, and make sure to check the rest of that site out as well, including the Flash-driven "Diagram of a Colossus", an interactive tour of the Lusitania.


Apparently NBC is under the impression that viewers don't realize Scrubs is a comedy, because I've just watched a preview for next week's episode that punctuates the jokes with a laugh track.

Scrubs does not use a laugh track.


The Powerless Samaritan

La Gringa wonders if she should be feeling guilty for not doing more to help the person who called her at home at 4:00 a.m..

Personally, I'm amazed she stayed on the line as long as she did.

(No, not that I'd have hung up on her had I been conscious enough at that time to process what was happening; in the more likely scenario, I would ascertain that the person on the other end is not a family relative calling to give me bad news, mumble something like "Wrong number", and then hang up.)

Mr. Quest

Today while driving around Buffalo in a U-Haul, I tuned in for a while to whatever the ESPN Radio show is that has replaced Tony Cornheiser's show since Cornheiser stepped down. I don't know who the host is now, but he was going on about the fact that he loves the old cartoon show Jonny Quest, and he was lamenting the fact that nearly every other old cartoon has seen some kind of successful revival, but Jonny Quest has not. He even said that he couldn't find anything online about the show, which makes me wonder if he was spelling it "Jonnee Kwesst", since it took me a single search under "Jonny Quest" on Google to turn up some stuff: this and this, for example.

I liked Jonny Quest a lot when I was a kid, although I didn't get to see it often because if I recall correctly, the places I lived didn't air it often. It was just a straight-forward adventure show, without a whole lot of goofy humor stuff. I remember that when there was a short-lived revival some years ago, I was excited because not only was it Jonny Quest returning, but because I worked at Pizza Hut at the time and we had the official tie-in stuff.

(Which, sadly, turned out to be pretty lame. There was what I thought was a nifty-looking Jonny Quest action figure, but it turned out to not be so much an action figure as just a figure: it was not posable. A pretty good example, really, of the crappy toys Pizza Hut always had for its kid's meals. There was also a plastic collectible drinking cup, with a picture of Jonny pointing at, well, you. One of my employees, who was a stereotypical dirty old man, took one look at this cup and said, "I think he wants you to pull his finger." That pretty much killed my excitement.)

Anyhoo, the guy on the radio show wondered why there has never been a JQ movie or something similar, except for that brief revival in the 90s. I suspect that it would be hard to pull off: a show about a bunch of crime-fighters who are all guys, except for one woman? Two of whom are kids? I can just imagine the critics pumping their reviews of such a movie full of speculations of homoeroticism. I mean, Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly -- she who no doubt snuggles deep-down into her sheets with Pauline Kael's picture on them after every pretentious review she writes -- would be a veritable fountain of drool at the prospect of writing a review of a Jonny Quest movie full of "Wink wink nudge nudge" innuendos. Probably actually using the words "wink wing nudge nudge".

When To Run Screaming From Your Boss, #4857

A good time to make a very quick getaway from your supervisor is when he says, "We have some furniture to pick up from a few local stores. How do you feel about driving a U-Haul?"

So began a four-hour odyssey around the Greater Buffalo area today, as I went to three different establishments in a 14-foot U-Haul truck to pick up bookcases, tables, et cetera. For a grocery store. For reasons passing understanding. Oh well.

The drive wasn't bad, actually, except for the fact that none of the things I'm usually supposed to do actually got done in my absence. The truck had air conditioning, which was a plus given that it was actually pretty warm today, and I got to listen to a bit of the Jim Rome Show, although he didn't have any guests on that interested me today.

The weird part is that since I was out of the store until about 2:00, I had to take my New York State-required thirty-minute lunch break when I got back -- despite the fact that I was scheduled to leave at 3:00. So I took a half-hour off, sat around, then punched back in for thirty more minutes of work. C'est la vie.

And if you're not incredibly bored yet by this post, well, you need to get out more. I'm writing it and I'm bored.

(Oh, and this was all after I helped unload yet another #$*%&#!! truck full of trees and bushes for the #*$&%(@!! Garden Center. Hence, I'm incredibly tired, and hence the lack of posting until now.)

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

So long, John.

On American Idol this week, local boy John Stevens, the sixteen-year-old carrot-topped crooner who has been inexplicably moving on each week, finally saw his luck run out. He's been pretty much in over his head for several weeks now, and he's outstayed at least three more deserving contestants.

Still, John's departure was a bit sad to behold. Simon Cowell made a point last night of telling John what a class act he is, and John showed it one last time tonight: after reading the results, host Ryan Seacrest asked John what part of American Idol he was going to miss the most. John didn't hesitate at all as he pointed to the remaining five contestants and said, "Them."

Good luck, John.

Your semi-occasional dose of GAAHHHHH!!!

After I got done reading the fascinating post linked below over on Libertarian Jackass, I figured I'd keep on scrolling down.

And I saw this, taken from here. What we have here are the "Great Moments in Human Development", as viewed by that whackiest subset of libertarians, the Randites. At the bottom, we have Homo erectus discovering fire; then a cave painter; then an Ancient Egyptian scribe, writing on papyrus; then Aristotle; and finally, the crowning achievement of all human thought: Ayn Rand herself.

Yes, folks, they really think like this. Take my word for it.

Q&A on the War on Terror

Libertarian Jackass reproduces a set of questions, and their answers, on the War on Terror, focusing specifically on al Qaeda. It's a sobering read. Go check it out.

(Original article here.)

Scalzi on Music

For his recent "Reader Suggestion Week", I posed the following question to John Scalzi:

"Will things like iTunes destroy the way we used to allow songs to 'grow' on us, as we tilt toward buying songs that are immediately pleasing? And will the fact that apparently the individual song is increasingly the atomic entity with respect to music distribution, will this kill the idea of the album? And what place classical music in the grand world of downloading, when the paradigm of 'Hey, bands, just record your music in your basement!' doesn't really scale to symphony orchestras?"

He offered the following answer in the middle of a "grab-bag" post of all the questions that didn't inspire a full-length post of its own:

"Well, it's not like orchestras ever fit into basements. Didn't stop hundreds of years of symphonies from being written. And when you have the capability of being able to replicate an entire orchestra from a synth, what's to stop some ambitious person from composing a symphonic score?

Yes, I think iTunes et al will change how we approach music, but it'll change it back to what it was, say, in 1903, when most music was sold as songs (through sheet music). Albums are a fairly late development in terms of being the accepted basic unit of musical currency. Also, I think we've all always tilted toward songs -- it's why even in the era of albums bands always released singles. I've mentioned before that I do think the idea of an album meaning "a set number of songs determined by the physical limitations of the recording media" is going out the door, but I think musically ambitious bands will always release suites of thematically-linked songs. Would it be so bad to live in a world where Radiohead or Wilco could release album-length works and Britney and Justin simply released singles? Digital distribution allows for both."

I wish I could put my finger on it, but this answer just doesn't seem right to me, and I'm not sure why. I can cite a number of places where I diverge with John, but I'm not sure they add up to him being wrong. So, I'll just respond to a few items here.

:: First, I think he totally missed my fear, expressed in the opening of my question, that downloads will hasten the compression of our attention span, which is already alarmingly diminished. If we assume that most people who buy music by the song will only buy those songs whose first few seconds immediately appeal to them, have we lost something as a musical culture? I mean, if you bail out on Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique after the first four minutes, you still won't even have heard the idee fixe, the theme which ties together the entire work. That's an extreme example, to be sure, but I think it helps illustrate what I'm getting at.

:: I think John's a bit flip about dismissing my concerns about classical music in general in the age of downloading. No, composers didn't write symphonies and record them in their own basements, but there were a lot more orchestras then, as well. And I mean, a lot more orchestras. Every town had its own orchestra, many nobles even had their own orchestras, et cetera. Since the era we're talking about was mostly the pre-recording era, the premium was on performance, which no longer seems to be the case at all. Live music was music, whereas now recording has become so entrenched that we constantly have to remind ourselves that live music even exists. Some commentators I've seen (and I'm not sure if John would fit in this category) seem to think that the demise of Big Recording (assuming the demise of Big Recording) will lead to some grand rebirth of live music, which I'm not at all convinced will be the case. And the problem to classical music, in particular, seems to me to be potentially pernicious: as fewer recordings get made, fewer ensembles will exists in the first place, which means fewer opportunities for the composers to get their works performed at all. And besides, those hundreds of years of symphonies were largely written before the rise of the synth, electric guitar, and drumset.

:: I'm a bit dismayed at John's suggestion that the synthesizer can replicate a symphony orchestra. Approximate, yes. Replicate, no. I don't want to dismiss the possibilities of electronic music -- a lot of my favorite music is electronic in nature -- but I don't want to downplay its limitations. If we reach a point where there are only a handful of orchestras left, I really can't imagine that the fact that a synthesizer can simulate one will really inspire too much creation of new symphonic music.

:: John says that the musical culture will revert to that of 1903, when the song was the chief means of musical distribution, in the form of sheet music. This analogy troubles me, because the only point of convergence is in the song-as-musical-atom. Sheet music dominated, firstly, in the era prior to widespread recording; and second, more importantly, sheet music's popularity depended on widespread musical literacy to a degree that I regret to say I find unlikely to ever exist again. For sheet music to be of any use, someone has to be able to play the piano, and not just plink out a tune or two, but actually play the thing. Song-as-atom or no, music was a participatory thing to the people of 1903. Not so now. The song, back then, was still seen as just a first-step into music. Now, it seems as though the song is the only thing that matters. Witness, today, the track list of a mix CD John made for his daughter. It's all songs, and rock or pop songs to boot. Not an iota of orchestral music there, no suggestion of longer forms.

:: Finally, John says that digital distribution still allows for the concept of the album. I don't disagree, but that's not what I'm getting at. What can be done with digital distribution is one thing; what is likely to be done with it is something else. If Radiohead releases an "album", in the classic sense of the word, online, but people are able to buy either a song or two from it up to the whole thing, what's the point of the "album" in the first place? Can the "album" even be said to exist? It seems to me that the idea of artistic context that is inherent in the album concept would suffer dramatically in such a scheme.

(Postscript: I don't want this to sound like a big attack on John Scalzi, because I love the guy's blogs in general and his thoughts on writing in particular. But there's just something that bothers me about today's music talk: it's entirely about songs. Song this and song that, and here's a great song, and here's the ecletic bunch of songs on my iPod, et cetera. The word "music" now seems to be a singular plural for "songs". I really do worry that longer forms will no longer exist with any kind of true vibrancy.)

The Tempting of Luke

Wow, that sure worked: lots of good comments to the discussion question below, in which I ask if Luke Skywalker was possibly tempted by the Dark Side of the Force when Ben Kenobi was struck down.

The answers seem to trend largely to "No", which is why I am sure it will not surprise anyone that my answer is "Yes". Ha! Take that, Smithers! Er....anyway, my rationale follows.

First, I think it's important to distinguish that there are varying degrees of "temptation by the Dark Side". I fully grant that whatever Luke feels at that moment, Dark side-wise, is much, much milder than what he feels in The Empire Strikes Back after his vision of his friends in pain, and not even close to what he feels in the throne room in Return of the Jedi. But I do think he's tempted: just a tiny bit, perhaps, but tempted nonetheless.

It's worth noting how Yoda defines the Dark Side in The Empire Strikes Back: "A Jedi's strength flows from the Force. But beware the Dark Side. Anger, fear, aggression -- the Dark Side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight." (Emphasis mine.)

I'd submit that Luke most definitely feels at least two of those emotions in that moment, as he stands still and starts blasting away at the stormtroopers: anger and aggression. The closest thing he's ever had to a father figure has been struck down before his eyes, by the very man who (he believes) killed his own father, and in that moment, nothing to him matters except vengeance. He ignores Leia's cries for him to get aboard the ship, while heeding Han's helpful advice to blast the shield door controls. Only when he hears Ben's voice in his mind does he realize that he has momentarily lost perspective.

Now, in comments, Nefarious Neddie notes that not all instances of anger, fear or aggression constitute Dark-Side temptations, and I'd agree, although I'd also point out that in Obi Wan's duel with Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, anger and aggression very nearly get Obi Wan killed. There's a closeup of Obi Wan's enraged face as he brings down a fierce blow which Maul barely parries, but this leaves Obi Wan open to Maul's "Force blast" which sends him over the brink of the shaft. The implication is that aggression and anger lead to dolorous ends, even if not always to a Dark-Side conversion.

What really convinces me that Luke's moment in the Death Star landing bay is a Dark-Side temptation, though, is a parallel moment in Anakin Skywalker's life in Attack of the Clones. It's been well-noted that Anakin's life in the prequel trilogy roughly parallel's Lukes, but with Luke making the right decisions at the appropriate moments while Anakin keeps making the wrong ones. Consider the two moments I'm talking about: Luke/Anakin witnesses the passing of his closest parental figure, in the company of those responsible (Luke sees Ben fall to Vader, Anakin cradles his mother as she dies in the Tusken camp). And then compare what happens afterward: Each lashes out at the perpetrators (even though Luke can't really get a good shot at Vader, he dispatches a number of his surrogate Stormtroopers). Each hears, in his mind, the voice of the Jedi who first "discovered" him, warning him away (Luke hears Ben saying "Run, Luke, run!"; Anakin hears Qui Gon saying, "Anakin! Anakin! NO!").

But -- and this is the important part -- where Luke heeds the voice he hears, Anakin ignores his -- and I think it's pretty clear that Anakin's slaying of the Tuskens is his first foray into Darkness. (John Williams, as always, tips us off: when Anakin tells Padme what he's done, we hear the Emperor's Theme alternated with Vader's Theme in the score.) The two moments, in my mind, are closely parallel, which leads me to believe that Luke was, in fact, tempted by the Dark Side at that point. But while Luke turns away from his temptation, Anakin gives in to his.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

The Gold Watch

Andrew Cory suggests that when John Kerry debates President Bush this fall, he should explicitly mention the fact that he still has a piece of shrapnel embedded in his posterior. I'm not really sure this is a good idea; in my mind at least, if Kerry did this I would be forced to envision Christopher Walken telling a little boy, "I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass for two years...."

Stealing the Government's Bandwidth

Actually, is it stealing the government's bandwidth, since I'm a citizen and I pay taxes and all that? Hmmmm....anyway, time for my standard "Too tired to blog, but wanting my posts to take up more space on the front page" trick of swiping a recent Astronomy Picture of the Day. Here are some nebulae:

For more details, go here. Weirdly, the APOD site uses nebulas as the plural of nebula instead of nebulae, which I always thought was correct but which I now see by looking it up that nebulas is an acceptable plural form after all. I don't know, it all seems pretty nebulous to me.


(By the way, I see via Patrick Nielsen Hayden that NASA has recently discovered that politics trumps science in the Bush Administration. Oh, goody.)

Your STAR WARS discussion question

Here's an experiment for the comment thread: a discussion question. Because, you know, I'm tired and scraping the bottom of an already shallow mental barrel for blog stuff. Here's the question:

Would it be fair to say that the scene in A New Hope immediately following Ben Kenobi's death -- when Luke is torn between escaping with his friends on the waiting Millennium Falcon and standing his ground against the stormtroopers (and, presumably, Darth Vader) to avenge Ben -- constitutes the first time Luke is tempted by the Dark Side of the Force?

A Class Act

Say what you will about Drew Bledsoe's recent performance with the Bills -- 2003 in particular -- the fact is that Bledsoe is still a classy guy. Today he agreed to a restructuring of his contract, which as most NFL contracts do these days would have put him into stratospheric heights with respect to the salary cap after this year. Now the Bills are no longer virtually committed to dumping Bledsoe after the 2004 season, which gives them enormous flexibility: if Bledsoe tanks in 2004, they can get rid of him more cheaply and move on to the J.P. Losman era, or if Bledsoe returns to form, they can keep him and give Losman another year of development in 2005. And the money not being spent now on Bledsoe means that the team may be able to pick up an additional free agent or two to plug into whatever holes still need filled.

I personally never viewed Bledsoe as anything more than "the guy to play while they groom the next guy", but it's nice that the Bills will have flexibility to really spend their time carefully developing the next guy.

Hmmmm, time for some new posts.....zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz....

Posting here may be a bit light this week due to a rather intensive period at work. The Company has decided to operate a full-blown Garden Center at The Store, which is a sort-of "prototype" operation that will be replicated at other locations next year if we're successful this year. Last week saw the construction of the Garden Center. This week sees the delivery of plants. Lots and lots and lots of plants. Today I helped unload the first three deliveries, totaling almost a thousand plants (and by "plants", I also include trees and shrubberies [Ni!]). And when I left for the day, the fourth truck was waiting in the wings. So between all that hefting of plants, wallowing in dirt and potting soil, moving wooden pallets around, and climbing into and out of the backs of semis, I'm really rather tired.

(But hey, I got to drive a forklift. That's always fun. I haven't been able to drive a forklift in over ten years. There is no finer macho toy than a forklift, if you're a guy who doesn't actually have to drive one on a regular basis.)

Monday, April 26, 2004

Anyone want to run for Congress from Buffalo?

Buffalo Congressman Jack Quinn, a Republican from Hamburg (one of Buffalo's Southtowns), has announced his retirement this year. This could be a good seat for Democrats to pick up: the district is predominantly Democratic to begin with, and Quinn himself was a political moderate (he spearheaded a move to raise the minimum wage and has been fairly labor-friendly, by Republican standards). I'm excited as a Democrat at the prospect of a pickup here, but Quinn was a good advocate in Congress for Buffalo, and that's a legacy that needs to stand. This city needs all the help it can get.

Next week, watch as Jerry discovers that water is wet!

Yep, with the return of the NFL to the front of the sports page on Draft Weekend comes another wonderful article by Buffalo News sportswriter Jerry Sullivan, in which he points out that even after the draft, the Bills still aren't as good as the Patriots, as if it was possible for the Bills to make up that deficit in a single draft.

Keep up the great work, Jerry.

Book Memes, Two.

PZ Myers has three book memes in one post. One of which is The List, which I've already discussed, but I'll take on the other two. First is simple: what are my rules of what constitutes a good story?

I guess I'd lead off by saying that I don't think there are any "rules" for fiction; better, probably, to try to describe what characteristics are common to stories I love. With that in mind, here I go:

1. Don't depress me. This is big: I don't like stories that are just depressing. But this does not rule out sad endings, because "sad" does not equal "depressing". Likewise, "dark" (or "gothic" or "downbeat") also do not equal "depressing". Schindler's List is a terribly sad movie; Seven is a depressing one. I guess the difference is that sadness can still seem to serve a purpose, whereas depression is without purpose: it's just there. I don't want a story in which characters are subjected to just one damn thing after another, with no hope at all for a respite or even a good lesson learned beyond "Life sucks". If I want "Life sucks", well, I'll just look at, you know, life.

2. Engage my emotions. This goes hand-in-hand with "Don't depress me". Even though I don't want to feel depression after reading or viewing a story, I do want to feel something. A story that is the emotional equivalent of an unsalted saltine cracker is not a story for me.

3. Tie up your loose ends. Unless you don't want to. I tried coming up with a better way to say this, but I can't. I love both kinds of stories I'm talking about here, really: I love it when everything ties up into a neat little package, and I also love it when a story lets some things stay open, as if to suggest that the story was really just a segment of someone's life that we've just watched. Guy Gavriel Kay does the latter a lot; John Bellairs does the former. Either works.

4. But if you're gonna tie up your loose ends, be careful about it. Too often, a "no loose ends" book or movie starts to feel like one: about two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through, you start to notice a relentless pace at which one thread is tied up every few pages or minutes or so. And then there's Neal Stephenson, who leaves everything in the air until the last ten pages, and then whammo! It's all bundled up with duct tape and baling wire. That's not satisfying, really.

5. Great stuff along the way will make me forgive a crappy ending. But the stuff along the way had better be really great.

6. Beware the surprise ending, or the shocking revelation. I love being surprised in stories, but the surprises have to arise logically out of the content of the story, so even if I didn't see it coming, I can still reexamine the story and see the clues and note the construction by which the surprise or revelation comes. A great example of how not to handle this is the movie Basic Instinct, whose final shot reveals whether or not a certain character is the murderer. The way the story has been constructed, it could have gone either way and made equal sense. That's bad storytelling.

7. Show me something new along the way. Discovery is cool. And it doesn't have to even be something totally new; it can just be a new way of looking at something really familiar. Don't be ordinary.

8. The word "said" should comprise at least 97% of your dialogue attributions. And for the love of God, please don't use "ejaculated" as a verb of dialogue attribution. I can't read about someone "ejaculating" a sentence without thinking of that one scene in There's Something About Mary.

Finally, I can probably distill all this into a single, three-part rule: Don't bore me, don't make me feel bad for having been told your story, and don't do anything that breaks the spell you're trying to weave.

I could probably come up with lots more, but you probably get the idea. You probably also get the idea that I'm a pretty permissive reader. That I am, and I've never made any bones about it: I tend to like lots of stories, of different kinds, told in different ways.

Book Memes, One.

There are suddenly a lot of book memes circulating. While I'll take a pass on the "List the great books you've read" one, here's one via Wil Duquette that I like: listing the ten books that had the biggest impact on my life.

Now, it's really hard to do this, now that I've been thinking of it for a day or two. It's tough to gauge impact, because I find that books can often lay in the tall grass, so to speak, for many years -- I'll read them, file them away in my brain, and then suddenly discover later on how they moved me in one direction or another. I've waffled on a lot of these titles, and who knows, I may come back and change them later. Anyway, here are ten books, some of which won't be a surprise to longtime readers. (These are in no particular order, and as I tend to do in "List" posts, I cheat. A lot.)

1. Cosmos, Carl Sagan. To this day, this is still the book that has influenced my overall worldview regarding the Universe and our place within it more than any other. I find so much more awe, so much more poetic beauty, so much more reverence in a Universe that is billions of years old and through physical processes eventually gave rise to life and consciousness than I do in the idea of a static Universe popped into being in just six days, six thousand years ago. The science of this book may be out of date, but I don't care. As far as I am concerned, it is a towering achievement of twentieth century science writing.

2. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. It's pretty obvious why, I think.

3. Salem's Lot, Stephen King. This is the first out-and-out horror book I read, once I was ready to really delve into the genre.

4. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King. This book provided the answers to questions I didn't even know I had.

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke. I'm pretty sure I read some science fiction before this, but this one cemented my love of the genre for all time. And not only that, this book showed me what was possible in the genre besides Star Wars space opera and Star Trek "sociological" SF.

6. The Prydain Chronicles, Lloyd Alexander. (Yeah, it's a five book set, actually. Deal with it.) My first encounter with epic fantasy, two years before Tolkien.

7. Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay. It's not my favorite GGK novel, but it's the first that I read, and in the same way 2001 pushed me beyond my original idea of what SF was, Tigana broadened my horizons of what fantasy can do.

8. The Joy of Music and The Infinite Variety of Music, Leonard Bernstein. I group these together because the content of each -- essays, teleplays from Bernstein's TV programs, interviews -- are so similar in style and tone. These two books shaped my love of music more than any others. I always adored Bernstein's ability to adore and venerate a very wide range of music, and I have always tried to follow his example. (This is a man who would as soon conduct Mozart as he would David Diamond.)

9. Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades, John J. Robinson. A fascinating era of history, engagingly written by a writer who didn't produce nearly enough books.

10. The Book of Marvels, Richard Halliburton. This man's travel writings, all of which roughly correspond to the years between the two World Wars, are a clinic on how to convey "sense of wonder". Track down a copy, and when you read it, try to ignore the obvious anachronisms (like the fairly obvious "white man's superiority" stuff, which is par for the course for the book's day).

And, you know, why not a couple of honorable mentions:

11. Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud can teach you a great deal about storytelling, and not just about comics.

12. The follow-up, Reinventing Comics, is less about storytelling and more about the possibilities inherent in a digital age.

13. Adventures in the Screen Trade and Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade William Goldman. These will also teach you a great deal about storytelling; and for me, they pretty much squashed any idea that I'd ever try to sell a film script. (Not that I could sell the ones I've already written, of course, because they're Star Wars fan-fictions.)

14. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Carl Sagan. Essential reading, really, in this age of belief in UFOs and holeopathic medicine and various other nonsense items.

15. The House with a Clock in its Walls, John Bellairs. Just because Bellairs is a favorite author of mine, and this is the first of his that I read. Gothic fiction for kids. Great stuff.

16. Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl. Humor, warmth, darkness, cruelty, love, pain, redemption, and the perfect ending. All in one book.

OK, that's it. For now. (I told you I cheat!)

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Man, am I reading the wrong books....

One blog meme which I will not be picking up is the big list of great books that's going around, the idea being to bold the one's you've read. (You can see the list here, in Lynn Sislo's version.) I won't be doing this list because for one thing, I think it's a pretty odd -- it includes Shelley's Frankenstein, but not Stoker's Dracula, for example, and I'm not really sure how to count some works. There are things I read in high school to which I have not given a single thought since, so much so that I couldn't possibly talk intelligently about them beyond saying "Yeah, I read that in high school." Would that count? And while I haven't read Pygmalion since high school, does it count that I know My Fair Lady by heart?

But more than that, I prefer to maintain my belief that I am actually a fairly well-read individual, and posting visual evidence that I've not read the vast majority of those books would do damage to my self-image. And I'm all about self-image, you know. Uhh....or something like that.

And then there's Jason's copy of the list. Man, is he well-read. Yeesh. It reminds me of an exchange in an episode of The West Wing, when Josh Lyman glances over Charlie Young's shoulder at his school transcripts as Charlie is filling out college applications:

JOSH: Charlie, just how smart are you?

CHARLIE: I got some game.

Jason's got some game, too.

The Draft (NFL, that is)

One thing I love about the NFL is the way the long, slow offseason is punctuated at about the halfway point by the annual College Draft, when teams select their "players of the future", and hope for, say, a second-rounder who will become a Hall-of-Famer (Thurman Thomas) while avoiding a first-rounder who flops horribly (Ryan Leaf). The Draft is split over two days, with the first three rounds on Saturday and the last four rounds on Sunday. The Draft gives fans the first inkling of what their team is up to and how things might shape up in the season to come.

First thing's first, though: Eli Manning.

I can't stand it when young athletes enter the draft of some professional sport but then whine when they don't like who drafts them. I never really liked John Elway because he started his career with this kind of crap (the Colts – then of Baltimore – drafted him, but he pitched a fit and got himself traded to Denver), and so did Eric Lindros when he entered the NHL. My belief is that if you do something like enter the NFL draft, you take your chances. It's no secret at all that the bad teams get the first picks, so if you're one of the very best college players in the draft, you know you're going to play for someone who's rebuilding. And these days, if you really don't want to play for them, just put in your four initial years and then exercise free agency.

So Eli Manning, who pitched a fit about not going to the Chargers, got his wish and was traded to the Giants about an hour after he was drafted by San Diego. Fine. I don't blame Manning, really, for not wanting to go to San Diego, seeing as how that team's front office is only marginally better managed than that of the Arizona Cardinals, but still -- they had the first pick, and Manning's the guy. By pitching a fit, he's already shown without ever so much as putting on shoulder pads in the NFL that he places himself ahead of the team. So I hope he tears his ACL in his first game and never plays again. Seriously.

(And for some reason, I've never been too wild about Eli's older brother Peyton either, but I don't know why. I mean, he's a very good quarterback, but he just bugs me, somehow. Maybe it's my suspicion that he was named after a soap opera?)

Now for the really important stuff from yesterday's first three rounds of the NFL Draft (with rounds 4-7 happening today): how did the Buffalo Bills do?

Well, I dunno.

I mean, there's that metaphysical sense in which I don't know: you obviously can't predict the future. Back in 1991 or thereabouts the Indianapolis Colts had the first and second picks in the draft overall, which they used to take defensive end Steve Emtman and linebacker Quentin Coryatt. Those picks, everyone thought, would lay the cornerstone for the Colts to build a defense that would dominate for years. Instead, both guys suffered through short, injury-riddled careers before leaving the game. And then there's the whole San Diego Chargers' Ryan Leaf fiasco, which put the Chargers this year into the position of using a top five pick to take a franchise quarterback twice in five years. Ouch. So, I don't know how the Bills' picks will pan out, obviously. (And I've always had this sneaking suspicion that Mel Kiper has somehow managed to craft a career out of not really knowing anything.)

But in general, I think they did pretty well yesterday, but I was hoping for something slightly different. My belief, before the draft, was that the Bills had to get the following in the first couple of rounds, and hopefully in this order:

1. Defensive Back
2. Quarterback
3. Wide Receiver

What the Bills actually did was to make a trade with Dallas to end up with two first-round picks (and no second round pick), which they used thusly:

1. Wide Receiver (Lee Evans, Wisconsin, 13th pick in the 1st round)
2. Quarterback (J.P. Losman, Tulane, 22nd pick in the 1st round)
3. Defensive Tackle (Tim Anderson, Ohio State, 11th pick in the 3rd round)

So the Bills apparently got the speedy wide receiver they were looking for. I wouldn't have gone with a first-round pick at this position, since this draft is supposedly rich in WRs, and the Bills aren't exactly desperate at that position, no matter how the fans might whine. A local sports-radio personality used to maintain that receivers grow on trees, and while I don't think good ones are quite that common, I don't think they're so uncommon that a team with other deficiencies needed to spend its high draft pick on one. But maybe Tom Donahoe was thinking in terms of Eric Moulds's longevity, after Moulds's injury-prone 2003 season. I'm also not sure what message this sends to third-year man Josh Reed, who's a guy who has taken a lot of abuse from fans for what they perceive to be his lackluster second year, even though that second year saw much more production that either Eric Moulds or Peerless Price displayed in their respective second years.

I wanted to see a defensive back drafted this year, badly. The Bills' secondary is usually pretty decent at tackling, but they haven't had a real interception threat since Kurt Schulz left the team years ago. They need someone who can pick off the ball once in a while. Maybe they're thinking that since they signed Troy Vincent, they're fine in this aspect, but I'm not sure yet. All I know is that the Bills filled out their Draft Day One selections with a defensive tackle. This probably isn't that bad an idea, since I've been harping on their inconsistent pass rush for about two years now. I seriously doubt this guy will step in and start, but well, there it is.

And finally, they needed a quarterback, and they got one in Losman, who is apparently an even better athlete than the guys taken in the draft's top eleven (according to Len Pasquarelli, an ESPN football writer). This pick is obviously a warning shot across Drew Bledsoe's bow, but it's also necessary: nobody really expects the Bills to still have Bledsoe around in a couple of years, so they needed to get their quarterback of the future now, when he could sit on the bench and absorb the game a bit before being anointed the starter. To get Losman, the Bills traded next year's first-round pick to the Cowboys (along with a second and a fifth-round pick this year), which means that for the second time in three years, the Bills have traded a future first-round pick to get a quarterback. Losman will also be the third "quarterback of the future" for the Bills since Jim Kelly's retirement (Todd Collins and Rob Johnson were the first two), so here's hoping Losman's the third-time charm. I actually don't mind the Bills trading a bit to get him, since this draft is deep in quarterback prospects, and had they waited another year, the pressure to deliver on a QB would have been that much higher.

So, the Bills ended up addressing two of the three main areas in which I was concerned, and they seem to have done so fairly prudently – i.e., they didn't give up the farm like the Vikings did when they decided that Herschel Walker was an important enough guy to get that they unloaded enough draft picks on Dallas for the Cowboys to build a dynasty team. As for the rest, I dunno. I can't predict the future, and anyway, I'm not terribly knowledgeable about the college game to begin with.

My readers are, as always, welcome to opine in comments about their teams' successes or failures in the draft (even fans of the Stupid Patriots are welcome, although my only interest in the StuPats draft would be if they "drafted" a letter withdrawing from the NFL). And thanks to Sean for tipping me off about the Pasquarelli article linked above.


For the second time in three days, I see that Steve the Modulator in not being as thorough about reading every post of mine as he should be.

There is simply no excuse for not going through my blog with a fine-toothed comb, people! Don't make me open up a can of this. It wouldn't be pretty, believe me.

What if Ozzel hadn't come out of lightspeed too close to the system?

Last week at the library I found a copy of Star Wars Infinities: The Empire Strikes Back, and I couldn't resist, even though I've generally found Star Wars comics (and the Expanded Universe stuff, in general) to be a very mixed bag. And yes, Infinities: TESB was a mixed bag, but it was an interesting one.

The idea of the Star Wars Infinities comics is a kind of Star Wars alternate history: a small detail is changed in the plot of the movies, and then the resulting story is told from that point on. Apparently their version of A New Hope has Luke's torpedoes failing to destroy the Death Star, and in The Empire Strikes Back, the point of diversion comes much earlier: Han's attempt to rescue Luke on the frozen wastelands of Hoth fails. Luke dies, the Empire pretty much crushes the Rebellion, and so forth.

I don't want to say too much about the plot here, since the delight of such a story rests in a new set of surprises. Much of what happens in the film is reflected in the Infinities version – Yoda, Lando Calrissian, and Boba Fett still appear – but in very different ways. The story's ending, though, is very much of the "start with a bang, end with a whimper" variety, and it relies on a particular character exhibiting a kind of vulnerability we'd never expect that character to have.

I was also a bit nonplused by the comic's adherence not just to the main threads of The Empire Strikes Back, but also to The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. The comic shows Boba Fett and Darth Vader without their helmets, drawn in such a way as to clearly reflect their origins as revealed in the prequels. I found this rather jarring. The original film obviously could not include all of that, and for that kind of material to show up here felt really out of place to me.

Still, the hour I spent reading Star Wars Infinities: TESB was a pretty entertaining hour, so if you're of a mind to see how it might have turned out differently, give it a try.

"The Chickens of Mars"

PZ Myers – who apparently thinks I look like a deranged chainsaw murderer, which I am not at all sure is not actually a compliment! -- has a link that can only elicit the response of "Oyyyyy….", accompanied by a slow shaking of the head.

Apparently the "Face on Mars!" people have had their thunder stolen by folks who are now poring over the close-up photos of rocks from the Martian Rovers and finding….

(wait for it)

Fossilized bird skeletons.


Feline Indignity

La Gringa brings some awful memories screaming back by linking this. I once had to assist my parents in precisely this operation, and if I ever could select ten memories I'd gladly have removed from my brain, this one might just make the cut.

And I've also given baths to plenty of cats in my time, so this kitty's expression is well known to me:

"Someday, one of my larger brethren will kill you and eat your heart, pathetic human!"

Kegs, pitchers,'s all good!

In a corner of the area where we keep the beer, I saw that The Store recently got in a shipment of Leinenkugel's, which is a small brewery in Wisconsin. I liked this stuff when I had it in college, but I've never seen it here, so that's pretty nifty. (There really is something to be said for Wisconsin, a land where the major food groups are beer, cheese and sausage.)

Now, if only I could find Yuengling's in Buffalo, I'd truly be happy on the beer front. (And I know I should practice what I preach and taste the locals. I still haven't got around to drinking any Flying Bison yet. I'm not sure why The Store doesn't carry it.)

As long as I'm babbling about beer, I should talk about my preferred drinking glasses for the stuff. I have a nice, thick glass engraved with the Killian's Irish Red logo that I bought at the Coors Brewery; I like that glass a lot, although it's pretty heavy and the handle is only large enough for me to get three fingers through. Then there's the authentic German stein that a certain room-mate brought back from college for me, but that one's just a bit too nice to drink from – the thing's an actual work of art – so it stays on one of my bookshelves. (That, and when I drank from it, I was always afraid that if I had a few too many, I'd start clunking myself in the face with the stein's open lid.) My favorite glasses for actual drinking are a pair my sister bought for me. I'm not sure where she got them (some catalog, I imagine), but the handles are wide enough for a good, four-fingered grip; the base is thick and heavy while the glass at the top become pleasantly thin (and with no lip), making for nice balance; and the sides are engraved with the delightful health:

"Fill up the goblet,
Let it swim in foam,
that overlooks the brim;
He that drinks deepest,
Here's to him!"

I love that. It makes me want to take a long and deep draught, dance a jig, and go beat the crap out of an Englishman.

Friday, April 23, 2004

One keyboard, stilled...and Peggy Noonan's keeps writing

Longtime political columnist Mary McGrory has died. I always enjoyed her writing, and I will miss it.

(via Thousand Yard Glare)

Remember the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which some aliens decide to enslave the crew of the Enterprise by getting them all addicted to a video game that directly stimulates the brain's pleasure center? And how they first had to deactivate Data, since he's immune to the game's effect?

Sometimes I think that Law and Order is the same kind of alien plot, and I'm Data. I mean, I think it's a good show and all, but two or three episodes a year and I'm good. And that's just the original show; I've never seen a complete episode of Criminal Intent, Special Victims Unit, Criminal Victims, Special Intent, Kojak: That 70s Law and Order, or any of the other ones.

(via TBogg)

Friday (!) Burst of Weirdness

Scott emerges from his Nook to provide me with this week's Burst of Weirdness, for when you want to combine your love of cannabis tobacco with your love of cuddly Japanese felines:

The "Hello Kitty" Bong.

Make sure you scroll down to the pictures detailing the bong's construction. They're hilarious, especially that first one: it makes me wonder if Kitty went vampiric on us.

Your Weekly Display of Idiocy

Someone saw a picture of John Scalzi's daughter (who is only slightly less cute than my daughter) and made the endearing comment, "Cute little wetback girl. I wonder if she'll grow up to do donkey shows like her whore mother."

And from there, this person only got stupider.

John, I must say, is taking this with a lot more evident humor than I would.

(No, this is not the start of a new weekly feature.)

I say, put him in Canton.

On the day that my family moved from Syracuse back to Buffalo -- just over a year ago, now -- I was excited when, in the course of the drive, my radio finally managed to pull in Buffalo's sports-talk station, WGR. This made me happy because I finally got to hear the Jim Rome Show again (it had not been available in Syracuse at the time, unless it aired on a tape delay at an odd time). And I've never forgotten the feature story on Rome's show that day: an interview with the agent of Pat Tillman, a player for the Arizona Cardinals, who had left football to sign up with the Army Rangers in the wake of 9-11-01.

It was a moving story of a patriot who set aside career for service to his country, and today the story received a postscript that I had never hoped to read.

Pat Tillman was killed in action in Afghanistan.

Thursday, April 22, 2004


Publicity still from the film Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

AICN posted a series of stills from this new movie today. The film is to be released in the fall, and I'm really looking forward to it. I find the design elements, which suggest Fritz Lang to me, utterly fascinating.

Summer in Iceland


And, as always, wait for the wonderful self-portraits to load, because Bara's beautiful.


Jay on the Atkins Diet:

"Or maybe the populace will wake up, get off of an idiotic diet that works solely by throwing your digestive system into a panic and giving you THE GOUT as part of the bargain, and go back to diets which are at least halfway sensible like counting fat and\or calories."



I've often numbered Michigan among the states in which I wouldn't mind living, but this seriously gives me pause. Allowing doctors to set aside their Hippocratic Oath at will? Nauseating.

(via Eschaton.) there anything they can't do?

Via DPS I came across Kyushu Journal, which is a blog written by an American now living in Kyushu, Japan. Upon initial inspection, it appears to be an interesting read. Looking at its owner's bio, I see that he apparently plays the shakuhachi flute with some skill. I'm just guessing, but I bet he sits up a bit straighter and grins whenever he's watching a movie with a James Horner score.

And following links around, I see via Kyushu Journal a really good parable (I think it's a parable, anyway – maybe it's just a good story with a nice moral, or a "slice of life" observation?) by a blogger called Real Live Preacher.

Why he earns the big bucks

Last night's episode of The West Wing was notable to Matthew Yglesias from a policy standpoint. The same episode was notable to me for a continuity error in which Josh refers to Bartlet "winning Iowa", when Bartlet did not actually win Iowa. Oh well.

Sow a million seeds, reap one potato

I'm not much of a James Lileks fan. I linked him for a while when I was fairly new to blogging, but I also delinked him fairly soon thereafter when he stopped interesting me. I go to Target a lot myself, and with my own four-year-old daughter, so I don't need to revisit those trips in reading other peoples' blogs. Plus, I generally tend to keep a running list of stuff I need, and I go to Target either when the list gets pretty long or when the need for one item on that list becomes urgent. Lileks seems to grab the wallet and pack up the kid at the merest thought that he might need a new pack of Gilette twin-blades sometime in the next six weeks.

And generally, his political commentary isn't very good, either -- just a lot of anger, really, worded a bit more poetically, but even there he never manages to put anything in a new or interesting way. And the way he goes out of his way to locate the most un-nuanced left-leaning person out there and "fisk" what they have to say to within an inch of its life is just strange. I mean, we're talking about a guy who once fisked, with great gusto, Harry Knowles, for God's sake. Harry Knowles, of Ain't It Cool News. (And there, of course, was Glenn Reynolds all a-twitter with the wish that we "read the whole thing".)

But I still look over there once a month or so, just because I know that on average, Lileks does still produce an essay or post once in a while that strikes me as being really worthy, even if I think upon reading it, "Where's the guy who writes this stuff, and why doesn't Lileks let him post a bit more, instead of the pedestrian thinker with the tendency to rely on the too-cute metaphor?"

Anyway, I thought this was just marvelous. I hate to call such a fine piece of personal writing a "Bleat". It seems more like a song to me.

Things I want to see, #4897

I'd like to see a story set in a police department where the "regular cops" look up as the Internal Affairs guys enter, and say something like, "Hey, Eddie! I haven't seen you in months! How are things down in IAB, anyway? Any good collars lately?"

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

What's a blogger gotta do, anyway?!

(Unseemly whining contained in this post.)

All of a sudden, today I'm seeing that blog devoted to news items about Walmart linked like crazy all through Blogistan. Why, it's almost as if no one noticed that blog before one but me, that is. Harumph!

You know what's creepy?

When you think of someone you haven't thought of for a number of years, and you make a mental note to check sometime to see if they're still alive...and then, two or three days later, you discover (having forgotten totally about it) that they have just died.

Just the other day I was wondering if the guy behind the Guiness Book of World Records, Norris McWhirter, was still alive...and while looking through MeFi just moments ago, I saw that he just died.

Anyway, I always enjoyed thumbing through the Guiness Book in my youth, and like Bobby and Cindy Brady, I occasionally thought of setting my own record. I wonder if "Blathering on a Blog" is a Guiness-approved category?

Parental Priorities, in action

This week, I have exposed my daughter to the wonder that is Neil Gaiman, via his illustrated children's book The Wolves in the Walls. Illustrated by Dave McKean, who also did the pictures for Gaiman's Coraline, this book tells the tale of a young girl who hears strange noises in the walls of her home. She is convinced that the sounds are made by wolves living in the walls, but her family insists otherwise, citing rats and mice and bats and casually intoning, "When the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over".

Of course, in typical Gaiman fashion, this fairly creepy start eventually gives way to a pretty humorous conclusion once the wolves actually do come out of the walls. When I was a kid, I always tended to enjoy the stories that had a slightly creepy air about them -- Roald Dahl, Maurice Sendak, John Bellairs -- and I'm glad that Gaiman is keeping this kind of thing going.

Can R2-D2 whistle a few bars?

Morat takes time off from caring for his two temporarily-wayward dogs, who are apprently dumbasses (and one of whom is apparently very tired), to wonder about which Star Wars parody song is best: Weird Al Yankovic's, or Mark Davis's. Well, those are both funny songs, but as far as I am concerned, no Star Wars parody song is ever likely to top my favorite of all.

By the way, researching this post yielded a wealth of Star Wars parody stuff on the Net to which I plan to devote much time exploring over the next few days. For now, though, have you ever considered that somewhere in the Star Wars galaxy, a series of words comprised of yellow letters in a block font are apparently floating unimpeded through space? Ever wonder what happens when those words inevitably encounter another object? Wonder no more.

Don't make so much noise. Gardner's dozin'.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke reports that Gardner Dozois, the longtime editor of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, is stepping down. Maybe the new editor will actually buy my stuff for once; I mean, how many more Charles Stross stories do we really need, anyway? Sheesh.

(Actually, the correct answer there is "A lot", since Stross is awfully good. Sigh. Well, maybe we can lay off the Robert Silverberg stories...nah, he's good too. Double sigh.)

Failing that, maybe the new editor can at least rewrite the standard Asimov's rejection letter, the one that basically says, "We can't take time to tell you exactly why we're rejecting your story, but the odds are overwhelming that it was crap." Oh well, best of luck to Dozois, a guy whose reaction to my well-wishes would almost certainly be, "Who the f*** is he?!"


Judging by the fact that traffic has not fallen dramatically, I can only assume that the picture of my mug in the sidebar has, in fact, neither struck my readers into stone or reduced their minds to insanity. All-righty then!

(As long as no one tells me that I look like a long-haired Drew Carey, I'm good.)

Happy Birthday, Maestro Rozsa

One of the giants of film music, Miklos Rozsa, was born 97 years ago today. Rozsa is one of my favorite film composers, with such brilliant scores amongst his output as Spellbound, Ivanhoe (my favorite score of his -- what a swashbuckler!), King of Kings, and the magnificent Ben Hur. In recent years Rozsa's star has also been rising as a composer of concert music, of which he wrote a lot; his violin and cello concertos, for example, are showing up more often on concert programs. His concert music is a great deal more "nationalistic" than his film music; in his concert work, Rozsa allowed his adoration for his homeland of Hungary to constantly shine through.

Check out Rozsa's filmography; he was one of the hardest working composers in Hollywood. In the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Rozsa himself appears in an early scene at an orchestra hall (he's the conductor). His autobiography, A Double Life, is supposed to be a wonderful book, but it's long out of print and the copy at the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library is non-circulating, alas.

(And for some reason, I have never been able to remember whether the 's' or the 'z' comes first in his name. I always have to check. And thanks to Lynn Sislo for the reminder.)

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Why they killed

A chilling Slate article by Dave Cullen reports that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did not kill twelve classmates and a teacher five years ago, at Columbine, because they were angry at being made fun of by jocks or because they were Goths who got just a bit too into the whole death thing. The idea is that Klebold apparently was a suicidal little shit with a hot temper (never a good combination), and Harris was a psychopath (not in the pop-cultural sense in which any person who kills is a psychopath, but in the actual clinical sense). About writings on Harris's website, Cullen has this to say:

"These are not the rantings of an angry young man, picked on by jocks until he's not going to take it anymore. These are the rantings of someone with a messianic-grade superiority complex, out to punish the entire human race for its appalling inferiority."

Harris was, in all likelihood, going to snap sometime, somewhere. It happened in high school:

"Harris was not a wayward boy who could have been rescued. Harris, they believe, was irretrievable. He was a brilliant killer without a conscience, searching for the most diabolical scheme imaginable. If he had lived to adulthood and developed his murderous skills for many more years, there is no telling what he could have done. His death at Columbine may have stopped him from doing something even worse."

This is scary, scary stuff.

If I don't get to sleep, they shouldn't either, dammit!

I don't recall the last extended period of my life when I averaged more than six hours of sleep at night, and during college, I had stretches when I averaged less than five. So the students of Duke University should just deal with it, you know? Yeesh.

What gives me pause is the factoid, contained in the story, that college students average between six and seven hours of sleep a night. Somehow, I suspect that this is skewed a bit. If my experience is any guide, ninety percent of the students are getting between three and five hours, while the remaining ten percent -- the stoners, drunks, hop-heads, and just plain freakin' lazy -- pile on more than twelve or thirteen hours a night.

(via Mickey.)

(BTW, something of which I am proud is that I graduated cum laude, and yet I never once pulled an all-nighter studying. I did pull an all-nighter once watching The Wall and a couple other messed up movies, but that was a weekend and I made up for it by sleeping until noon. I think.)

Looking up at the right time

A new project at The Store is the trial launch of an outdoor home-and-garden center, where we'll be selling trees and bushes and flowers and mulch and plastic flamingoes and all the stuff you'd need to dispose of a dead mobster or two. If it goes well, the other Stores in Buffalo will do it next year. This is the week when we're putting the whole thing together. I haven't had much to do with it myself as of yet, but today at around 9:10 a.m. I was out there after carrying out some boxes of stuff. Then I stood and shot the breeze with the woman running the show for a few minutes.

About that time, I heard the unmistakable sound of a jumbo jet's engines on final approach. One hears this a lot in Buffalo's Southtowns, since most incoming flights to Buffalo Niagara International Airport approach from the south, but this was different. The plane was quite a bit larger than I'm used to seeing land here, and its approach path was much lower than any other plane that's ever gone over The Store. It was very different, so much so that the guy standing next to me also said, "Doesn't that plane look a little low?"

"Yeah, it does," I said, glancing around at my coworkers, who were apparently taking no notice at all of the plane. After all, as I've said, planes in descent over the Southtowns is nothing new.

But what was new was how I could make out the stripes in the American flag painted on the tail, and I could clearly see the rather distinctive blue-and-white hull markings. And then I suddenly remembered the big news story in Buffalo over the last few days, and I realized that the plane I was watching as it made its slow, final approach was this plane.

I may be no fan of that plane's most important passenger, but still, as an American, there are few thrills to compare with walking outside one's workplace, looking up into the sky, and seeing Air Force One in slow descent. Today, the President of the United States flew over my head.

And only I and the guy standing next to me, out of perhaps fifty people in the parking lot, realized it.

Ewwwww, broccoli!

Lynn Sislo on picky eaters:

"My grandson is a typically picky kid. Not that I don't expect illogical pickiness from a four-year-old, but he disappointed me recently when he rejected my oatmeal-raisin cookies. To me, oatmeal-raisin cookies are one of the ultimate warm hug foods. When I think about it though, I guess I can understand how someone who has not been clued in on the cultural background that makes oatmeal-raisin cookies a warm hug food might object to a lumpy cookie with black wrinkley things in it."

Now, that gives me pause. I have no problem with the idea of a kid turning up the nose at, oh, asparagus or spinach or lima beans or whatever. But an oatmeal-raisin cookie? And one that I assume has been baked in that wonderful way so that the cookie's overall texture is one of gooey softness while still yielding tiny morsels of crunch where the oatmeal at the edges has browned and become encrusted with carmelized sugar? And hell, even given the idea that maybe, just maybe, the presence of little black lumps in the cookie might be off-putting, but I personally am the type of soul for whom the mere assurance that a food item is, in fact, a cookie will offset any ickiness of the appearance.

Like Lynn, I'm always flummoxed by really picky adults -- the people who can go to a restaurant that has fifty or sixty items on its menu, and only find one or two things to eat. My sister-in-law detests onions, which makes cooking a bit of a challenge for me, since the entire family loves them. My father is repulsed by the idea of casseroles, for some incredibly odd reason; I adore them and am constantly on the lookout for new baked dishes. My mother beamed proudly when, in my twenties, I started drinking coffee at last (she having been a coffee drinker since her early childhood), but her elation turned to horror when I proceeded to dope it up with sugar. And so on.

Turning back to kids, I remember the first time I was told that most kids hate fish, and I thought, "Huh-whuh?!" I don't remember ever not liking fish, although I still haven't got round to enjoying clams (except for chowder, which I love) or oysters. I tried crab, willingly, when I was seven, and I have never stopped loving it. I wasn't too fond of scallops until I was in my twenties, but I would eat them without complaint. When I got to college and met people who claimed to hate eating fish, I could no more wrap my mind around the concept than Einstein could accept the idea that God just might play dice with the Universe.

My own food preferences have shifted over the years. (I may have written about this recently, come to think of it....hmmmm....) I used to hate mushrooms in all forms, but now I actually enjoy them in a pizza or soup or Chinese dish, although I still won't simply sit and eat them whole, and I still think stuffed mushrooms are gross. My appreciation of tomatoes and potatoes has also grown, although I will not consume the former by themselves even if in a salad or the latter in their mashed state. And so on.

Lynn suggests a 12-step program for the rehabilitation of picky eaters. Personally, I rather like the approach Blofeld used in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, in which he ritually hypnotizes picky eaters into being less-picky. Of course, he's also hypnotically programming them to carry out his plan to cause worldwide sterility in plants and livestock, but I suppose we could leave out the world-domination stuff, eh?

Welcome to the Department of Too Much Information. Take a number, please.

Well, all those readers who have always wondered just what the kind of person who generates such drivel as occupies this blog might look like need only check out the sidebar. No, not the best image, but really -- a better image won't improve matters. Sigh. The fact that I'm bearded doesn't show up very well, and neither does my shoulder-length hair. Generally, I think I look like one of the extras from the Rohan scenes of Lord of the Rings. Probably one of the first guys to get eaten by wargs.

Also, in comments below Jason suggested that I put up a picture of my bookshelves, so here is precisely that:

These are not all of my shelves, however: this cluster is flanked by two smaller, three-shelf bookcases, one of which is partly double-stacked. It's hard to tell by this picture, but the walls of this corner form a kind of "stair-step" effect, which yields that nice alcove which is piled with books. Oh, and see that can of compressed air on the top shelf there? If you look on the shelf directly below that can, you can make out a thick stack of papers. This is the original manuscript to The Promised King, Book One: The Welcomer. My copy of the submission manuscript is in a binder next to this computer.

(If you want to peruse a larger version of this picture, here it is -- but I'll be taking it down after a couple of weeks, since it's a pretty large file. You can make out specific book titles in that one, though.)

And here is a picture of my writing desk, which isn't really where I do my writing these days, since I switched from working primarily longhand.

That's me there in the pic, of course, striking my "pretentious guy reading" pose. I think I did pretty well, given that I had about nine seconds before the self-timer on the Polaroid went off. That book in my hand is my one-volume edition of The Lord of the Rings -- the one with paintings by Alan Lee -- and that's my dictionary on the desk, open to somewhere in the letter 'O', I think. You can't tell by this picture, but the top shelf of the bookcase behind me there is my "Bookshelf of High Honor". That's where my Rand-McNally World Atlas, my complete works of Shakespeare, my two copies of LOTR and slipcased copy of The Hobbit, and my collection of Guy Gavriel Kay's novels reside.

That desk belonged to my paternal grandfather, and then my paternal grandmother. (My grandfather had been dead for over twenty years when I was born.) Now, it has come down to me. I dearly love that desk, and I long for the day when I finally own a laptop so I can always write on that surface. Everyone should have something that belonged to their grandparents, I think.

So there you go, more about me than you ever wanted to know. Well, you asked! ("Blaming the readers" always being a great strategy, you know.)


In my longstanding friendship with the ever-flatulent Mr. Jones, one of our more recent conversational tics (when "conversing" online via IM) is that when one of us indisputably falls beneath the crushing grasp of the other's powers of reason, we concede the point by typing KHAANNN!! KHAANNN!!, as per the scene in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in which William Shatner, for just a moment, achieves the overacting Nirvana that had to that point eluded him. His eyes bulges, his head twitches, he does this weird thing with his mouth, and then he screams KHAANNN!! KHAANNN!! into his communicator. I know, it's hard to describe -- which is why you can check it out for yourself. And thus does the Net come ever closer to total perfection!

(via MeFi)

Monday, April 19, 2004

Of Matters Zoological

On Saturday, we (the Wife, the Daughter, and I) ventured into Canada. Our destination was the Toronto Zoo, which is a terribly fine place. The best part was that we kept the ultimate destination secret from the Daughter, so when she saw the animals, she squealed with immense delight. Then, we traveled to a suburban Toronto mall (Yorkdale, to be specific) and ate dinner at the Rainforest Café. Here's a dull rundown of our day, interspersed with pithy comments.

First off, color me unimpressed with the current state of Canadian meteorology. I consulted no fewer than four online weather forecasts for the Toronto region prior to leaving, and the worst forecast was "Partly sunny, with showers possible." The sun did not actually emerge until around 4:00, after a day of steady rainfall that began about when we drove past Hamilton (the halfway mark on the drive from Buffalo to Toronto). When one dresses expecting temperatures in the mid-60s and partly sunny conditions, one tends to get really cold when the actual conditions at the zoo – a predominantly outdoor place – are mid-50s and rainy. For the first half of our visit, we kept ducking into the warm indoor pavilions as much to bask in the heat and humidity inside as to look at the animals kept there. And the picnic lunch we packed was consumed in the car. And since I had dressed for the weather I'd expected, I didn't even bring a jacket, so before we ever got to the zoo, we had to stop at a Canadian Sears and buy a jacket for me to wear. Luckily, I've actually been needing a new spring and fall light jacket, and even luckier, the ones at Sears were on sale for over half-off. That rocked. (And by the way, I've never been a fan of Sears, because they are, in my experience, nearly always crappy -- even the newer ones seem to leave me thinking, "When are they bringing the rest of the merchandise in?" Well, now I know why American Sears stores are so icky: because the company apparently spends all its money on the Canadian ones. Those were the cleanest, nicest damn Sears I've ever been in. (Yes, there were two Sears that day. First, to get me a new jacket; second, to get the wife a dry pair of pants for dinner. Did I mention that it friggin' rained for six hours straight?!))

In general, though, the Toronto Zoo is a magnificent establishment. We have been there twice now, and we still haven't seen everything. (There is one entire section, devoted to Canadian wildlife, that is off by itself, separated from the remainder of the zoo by quite a walk. Perhaps next visit we'll get down there.) The monkey and orangutan exhibits are mightily impressive, as were the fully-grown Komodo dragons and the Komodo-dragon hatchlings. The lions were also beautiful, although one of them stood in one place, roaring into the distance in a fashion not unlike the ending of The Lion King. My theory is that since this particular lion was facing the paddock where the giraffes are housed, he was simply thinking, "If these fences weren't here, I'd be eating one of them right now!" And the most amazing thing I saw on this visit was the bat exhibit, which is maintained in darkness illuminated by blacklights. One bat was hanging directly in front of the glass window, and it was washing its wings in cat-like fashion – except when it spread its wings momentarily, I saw a baby bat, clinging to its mother's belly as it nursed. This was a stunning moment.

(By the way, if you're not a person who handles embarrassment well, you'd be ill-advised to take your child to a zoo when she is in the midst of her fascination with, shall we say, "bodily functions". Especially when the elephant twenty feet away decides to void its bladder, upon which no fewer than three different people in earshot make some comment about "opening the floodgates".)

Dinner, as noted, was at the Rainforest Café. The food there is good for chain-type places – i.e., it's not a culinary delight, but it's still worth the higher-than-Applebee's prices – but really, with all the cool stuff on the ceilings and the animatronic elephant stampeding and the giant fishtanks and the butterflies and the fiber-optic starfield and the simulated thunderstorm every thirty minutes, this place is just about the most fun place to eat I know of. It's just a blast to go there and was so last night, even despite the fact that the little nitwit who was apparently handling the seating simply wasn't doing his job, thus forcing us to wait about an extra half hour for a table. A funny thing is that the giant tropical fishtank there includes a single member of whatever species the character of Dorrie from Finding Nemo happened to be. Thus, all through the night, there is an omnipresent chorus of children standing by the tank shouting, "HI DORRIE! DORRIE, COME BACK!"

(By the way, it would be really nice if restaurants that include macaroni-and-cheese on their kid's menus go the extra mile and serve something of slightly-higher quality than regular old Kraft mac-and-cheese. Of course, it's easier to just do the boring Kraft stuff, since Kraft makes restaurant ready single-serving packages of premade mac-and-cheese – it's a cryovac package, all you do is boil it for a minute or two – but it still seems kind of lame.)

After dinner, we meandered a bit through the Indigo Books location across from the mall from the restaurant. This store's appearance is far better than its selection, although I did manage to at last acquire a copy of Guy Gavriel Kay's 2003 poetry collection Beyond This Dark House, which is not available in the United States. Sadly, there was only one copy; I was hoping to buy two and use the other as a gift for a certain reader who's been pretty generous with me in the past. C'est la vie.

Other random thoughts, in no particular order:

:: The drivers of Southern Ontario are insane. I'm talking crazy here. First of all, they speed, no matter what kind of car they have. I don't mind getting passed by a late-model Camaro, especially when I'm already going 68 or 69 on the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way), but getting passed by a 1986 Ford Escort – a car that I can practically see shuddering as it careens down the highway at speeds that would have been questionable when the thing was new – is really disconcerting. Plus, the Ontario drivers have little concern for things like, oh, cars in other lanes. I counted at least six instances of drivers being in the middle or inside lane of a three-lane highway and cutting all the way over to exit (and I'm talking cutting over into the exit, not into the right lane approaching the exit). And since when is it standard procedure to come up behind someone in the middle lane, flash them with your brights, and then pass on either the right or left, which are both open? This happened three times. Weird.

:: But then, the sanity of Toronto-region drivers probably isn't enhanced by the ridiculous Toronto roadways. Mostly, the roads themselves are fine, and I've long known that if you want to get from one area in Toronto to some other area in Toronto, generally there's a fairly easy way to get there. It's when you want to get to one specific point that you're in trouble. You get off one large highway onto a smaller limited access highway, and then you get off that to take yet another busy street, and then you keep driving until you find an entrance to where you're trying to go. And these are rarely marked. It's like you can see where you're trying to go just out your window, but none of the roads you are on actually go to that place, and the proper sequence of roads you must take to get there is not marked in any way. Ugh.

Oh, and what's up with the traffic signals flashing? What does a flashing green light mean? Everyone seemed to react as though it was the Canadian equivalent of an American left-arrow, so that's what I did, but why not just use a left-arrow?

:: Toronto has a beautiful downtown and an impressive skyline, but what I've noticed on my last few visits is the rapid construction of "skyscraper clusters" north of downtown proper. Some of these buildings are quite large indeed – a few would likely dominate the Buffalo skyline, if relocated there – but their location so far away from downtown is always striking to me, as if the businesses ensconced therein wanted a skyscraper but didn't want any part of downtown. There is one particular such plaza, consisting of four buildings topped by art-deco style caps, a sort of twenty-first century homage to the Chrysler Building. I thought for a moment I was driving through Coruscant.

:: In my return-from-hiatus post below, I linked Aaron's picture of the Minneapolis skyline. I've always loved city skylines at night, when the lights of the buildings shine against a dark blue or black sky -- but returning from Toronto, I was reminded of the irony that I live in what may be the only large city on Earth with a skyline that is better looking by day than by night. Buffalo's buildings are mainly stone, with none of the sharply-illuminated steel or glass towers popular in the last couple of decades. Buffalo's tallest buildings are all more than thirty years old; there are a couple of younger buildings that are too short to really show in the skyline. Thus the Buffalo skyline at night is very dark, and combined with fairly dark roadways, in general the city looks pretty dingy when one is returning from the brilliance of Toronto and Hamilton (even though from the QEW, one can see little of Hamilton beyond the factories lining the harbor). It's always amazing how traveling outside of Buffalo can make me glad to get home, but to also give me a mild feeling of dissatisfaction or disappointment when I see anew the faults my city presents to the world.

UPDATE: God in Heaven! Above, where I complain about Toronto motorists? You thought that, maybe, just maybe, I was exaggerating a bit? Nope. In my experience, at least half the drivers in that damn town are like this. And the other half? They're just aggressive speeders. Like Chicagoans or Clevelanders. Thanks to Aaron for finding this, and not linking it before we took our trip.

I take a hiatus....

....and Jason apparently starts posting again. If I had to choose a blog for the title of "Most Unfairly Un-updated for Long Periods of Time", Finches' Wings would be a serious contender. Right up there with Michelle's and Nefarious Neddie's.

(Aaron doesn't count because of his clairvoyant ability to post whenever I start to think, "Hmmm, Aaron hasn't posted in a while".)

2006, Taiwan or Bust: An Update

A day or two before my hiatus, I linked an article that speculated that China may be gearing up to invade Taiwan in 2006, for the purposes of bringing its "breakaway province" back into the fold. In that post, I asked Michelle if she wished to comment, seeingas how she is from Taiwan, and she graciously did. She also posted her comments to her own blog.

A Very Public Service Announcement

You know, folks, I've been buying food in bulk for years. I love getting candy and nuts from the bulk section at the grocery store, where I can control the amount, and my parents used to take my sister and I to those co-op type places where a lot of stuff was in bulk and where all the signs were hand-lettered and the checkout person was either a skinny long-haired guy in wire-rim glasses and a t-shirt with a whale on it or a woman with slightly thicker glasses, jeans not quite as faded as the skinny guy's but still somehow looked like she had done more actual work in them, and that expression in her eye that said, "Yeah, I'm a hippie, but I'm still not a dummy, so don't try to give me any shit".

So yeah, I know my way around a bulk food place. Thus, I think I have good background of experience when I say:

It ain't too terribly hard to fill the plastic bag with whatever you're buying, and get that twist-tie around the top of it, without dumping at least two cups' worth of it on the floor.

And yet, nevertheless, every time I enter the bulk area at The Store with broom in hand, the floor looks like the storm-cellar in Twister after Helen Hunt's daddy has been sucked out the door. Oatmeal, walnuts, peanuts, chocolate melting wafers, M&Ms, Reese's Pieces, jelly beans...all over the damn place.

Not a day goes by that I don't thank whatever Gods there are that we no longer sell bulk pet food. I wake up in the middle of the night, cold and clammy from the sweats, at the thought of what these people would do with a barrel full of birdseed....

Two Reminders

One: I'm soliciting suggestions for things to post about for next week, so leave suggestions in comments to this post.

Two: I got a pack of film for my old Polaroid "Instamatic" camera the other day, just out of curiosity to see if the thing still works. If it does, should I include some form of "head shot" here? Or would the horror of seeing just what the hell I look like finally doom Byzantium's Shores to a horrifying demise? Answer this one to comments in this post, right here.

UPDATE: By popular demand (two people, I think), I will try to put a headshot in the sidebar sometime in the next day or two. I warn you all: I may be the blogger behind the Move Over Britney! campaign, but I am not a candidate for inclusion in same. And not just because I'm, you know, male.

Since launching, it forced the cessation of 89 other blogs....

George Carlin once observed that no matter what facet of human existence you name, no matter what obscure activity or hobby or slice of life, it will have a magazine devoted to it. I wonder if now the same thing is starting to happen with blogs. Witness Always Low Prices, a blog devoted to news about Wal-Mart (pro and con).

Sunday, April 18, 2004

A mouse, gone sadly astray....

We caught up a bit on our Disney movies lately, and apparently we're caught up permanently, since Disney has reportedly decided to stop making hand-drawn, traditional animated films entirely. This is yet one more example of how Disney, once a great company, somehow completely lost its mind at some point in the last five or six years.

Home On the Range, the one in current release, is actually quite a good little movie. It's a bit schmaltzy in spots, but by and large its sensibility lies more with the zaniness of The Emperor's New Groove than with the more syrupy stuff Disney's famous for. This movie worked for me on about the same level of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, with humorous little asides and character touches that make the going worthwhile, since there is exactly nothing surprising about this story at all. (Well, there is one surprise: the method the Evil Cattle Rustler uses to nab his prey is really pretty funny.) The voice-work is, as always, first rate; even in the darkest of hours, the Disney people still have their knack for getting the right voice for the right character. I can't envision any movie other than this one that would include Dame Judi Dench and Roseanne Barr in its cast. (And Lance LeGault, a longtime favorite character actor of mine who hasn't been in much lately, has a welcome turn as a stern bison.)

And then there's Brother Bear. We watched this on DVD the other night. It really is better than its reputation – I was expecting a crapfest, but it's not. It's surprisingly thoughtful and funny (this is one of those Disney movies that seems designed to inspire a spin-off movie about its secondary characters, in this case, the two lunkhead moose), and its animation is stunning. Parts of the nature-stuff put me in mind of similar landscaping in the films of Hayao Miyazaki, believe it or not. The film's story also starts out strong, but the ending is a pretty stunning collapse. About two-thirds of the way through the film I had a sinking feeling, because I could see that the film had set up a perfect tragic ending, and I also knew that there is no way Disney would ever have the courage to release a film with the tragic ending I envisioned. And, it didn't.

(For those curious about the plot, three Eskimo -- I think -- brothers confront an angry bear, who kills the eldest brother. The youngest goes after the bear, while the middle brother wants to let it be; and the younger brother kills the bear. But then "the Spirits" intervene, and the younger brother takes on the form of the dead bear, leaving his old clothes behind. Middle brother finds the clothes and assumes that the bear has killed his younger brother, and now goes after the bear, planning to kill it. So, brother is tracking brother with intent to kill, not knowing it's his brother. And the brother-turned-bear befriends an orphaned bear cub, eventually learning that the bear he killed and whose form he now inhabits was the bear cub's mother, whose initial angry reaction was simply maternal protective instinct. I won't tell how it all ends, except to note that this tale's potential for glorious tragedy goes completely unfulfilled.)

But that's not what bothers me most; the DVD presentation really gave me pause. It was released, as Disney has been doing lately, as a two-disc "Collectors" set, like many movies these days, but it's not like you're getting tons of extras. Instead, with this set, you get two copies of the movie itself, with a handful of extras. The films are included both in the widescreen format and in the fullscreen, pan-and-scan format. So, for consumers like me who are accustomed to choosing which aspect ratio to buy (and really, if you're any kind of film buff at all, you already know that "fullscreen" is for dunces), with recent Disney DVD releases, you have no such choice: you're forced to get them both. And since there are really only enough extras included that they really could probably get them onto a single-disc release if they wanted, this is basically Disney's way of still being able to charge for a two-disc set. Thanks, guys.

But it gets a little worse. Not much, but a little. When looking at the discs in the box, I saw that disc one was labeled something like "Original Theatrical Aspect Ratio", which was fine by me. The other disc, though, wasn't just labeled "Fullscreen". Disney labeled it "Family Friendly Fullscreen Presentation". (Emphasis mine.) No two ways about it: this pissed me off.

What on Earth is "family friendly" about a fullscreen release? Nothing that I can see. My own daughter has never asked about "those black bars above and below the movie", and I've never bothered to explain it, because what's the point? She focuses on the movie, which is as it should be. But more than that: if Disney is really trying to keep fullscreen video afloat, it just shows just how out-of-touch they really are. Widescreen is normal now. It is common for me to see fullscreen DVDs in the bargain bin at stores while the widescreen releases are still full price, which is a clear indication that the retailers are saying, "Nobody wants these fullscreen ones anymore". And more than that: when Julia Roberts goes on Letterman to promote her new movie, the clip they show is always in widescreen now. Movie ads on TV are themselves increasingly in widescreen. The only holdouts for fullscreen, it seems, are the TV networks (which is odd since quite a few regular TV series now are shown in widescreen, even though they are produced for a non-widescreen medium).

Disney's labeling of "fullscreen" as "family friendly" may seem a tiny thing to bitch about, and it probably is. But it's a startling example of Disney's problem, and it isn't that people want computer animated movies instead of hand-drawn ones, and it isn't that Disney's movies just don't tell good stories anymore (because, Treasure Planet aside, they do). Disney's problem is more fundamental: it's that, on some level, Disney just doesn't get it. Disney has gone from being a leading company to being the fumbling person saying, "Where is everybody going? Tell me, that I might lead them there!" It's really sad to behold, and I hope they can pull out of it, somehow. I'd like my daughter to see the Magic Kingdom while it's still got some magic in it.