Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Open your mind to me....

According to SamuraiFrog, this article of clothing will set you back eighty bucks:

I can think of one Martian freedom fighter who probably wishes he'd had one of those!

I keep waiting for that lady's baby to tell me to start the reactor....

Graphically Reading

Want a foolproof way to get some good graphic novels to read? Grab any edition of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror - the ones edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow (at least until a couple of years ago, when Windling stepped down and was succeeded by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant), look in the introductory essays for the one on the year's best graphic novels, and make a reading list from that essay's recommendations. You won't go wrong, and you'll find a lot of amazing stuff across all genres. (And now you'll have plenty of time to catch up, as the YBFH series has apparently been discontinued, damn it all.)

A case in point is Bookhunter, by Jason Shiga. A rare book is stolen from the Oakland Public Library, and the Library Police are dispatched to investigate the theft. Who are the Library Police? They're a crack squad of law enforcement professionals who are charged with protecting American access to information via the libraries, and they investigate the theft of the rare book with meticulous attention to detail and good old fashioned gumshoeing.

The story is set in the 1970s, so the overall tone is kind of like CSI meets Kojak. The book is full of fun information about books, and about libraries and library procedures; and of course, the entire conceit is hilarious, right down to the last fight where the villain is able to jump-start his final getaway attempt by using the drawers of the card catalog to his advantage. This is a wildly fun and entertaining book.

Not wildly fun is Shaun Tan's The Arrival; this book is stunningly beautiful instead, a true work of art that puts the very best of comics on display for anyone who may still be skeptical as to whether comics are a viable medium for deep storytelling. This tale of immigration is told through illustrations only; there isn't a single word anywhere in the book. But what illustrations they are: evocative, haunting, and all of them beautiful. This book reminds me of the work of David Wiesner in its sophisticated use of nothing but image to tell an involving story. A man comes to a new country, where he's immediately baffled by the customs he finds and the sprawling cityscape in which he must live. But he manages, through the help of new friends, some of whom aren't human or any recognizable species at all. The way this book uses the fantastic to make statements about the universal experience of people who voyage to a new homeland is nothing short of amazing. This is a gorgeously wonderful book.

I also note the anthology series Flight, whose fifth installment came out last year. For some reason I'd had the impression that the Flight books present excerpts from long-form works, but that's incorrect; the pieces in each volume of Flight are complete, and the books are basically collections of short fiction, just in the comics medium. I'm not going to cite specific examples of effective stories here, but each volume thus far contains some absolute gems. Give Flight a look.

"I like to think you killed a man. It's the romantic in me."

A while back, I watched Casablanca for the first time in several years. Why did I allow so long a time to elapse between viewings of this, a movie that's been in my personal Top Ten ever since I first saw it? Who knows, really...time was when I wouldn't go much more than a month without watching it, and in my sophomore year of college, I went through a six or seven week period when I watched it every single Sunday, after the early football game. Why so long this time? I genuinely can't say. Hopefully I won't wait until 2011 to watch it again.

A few random thoughts on the movie that occurred to me whilst viewing it:

:: Sam's role isn't as big as it seems. He's all over the first half of the movie, but we only see him once or twice after the Paris flashback.

:: The actors are helped by a screenplay that's full of some of the best dialog ever written, but they come to the aid of the script a couple of times. It takes great acting and directing to make a line like "Is that cannonfire, or my heart pounding?" come off as anything other than pure sap.

:: If there has ever been a better long closeup than Ingrid Bergman's when she first listens to Sam singing "As Time Goes By", I haven't seen it. It's an amazing closeup, that lasts for what feels like more than thirty seconds, and in that span, Bergman is able to convey a whole bunch of emotions, without changing her facial expression much at all: she shows resignation at being confronted with her past, fear that she's going to have to face Rick again, rueful remembrance for the last days she was truly happy, regret for the way she had to hurt the great love of her life, all with no words and just a camera focused tight on her features as she listens to a song.

:: Something hit me about the movie's timing – the timing of the story, that is. When does it take place? Well, Rick pegs it pretty specifically when he's getting drunk by himself; he says, "It's December 1941 in Casablanca. What are they doing in America? I'll bet they're asleep." December 1941. But the rest of the movie seems to imply that the story is taking place before America enters the war, doesn't it? Nothing is ever said specifically, but if a state of war existed between Germany and the United States, as it would beginning on December 8 of that year, surely Major Strasser's attitude toward Rick and "blundering Americans" would be different than what he shows. If Germany and America were at war, Strasser would probably treat Rick Blaine as an enemy rather than as a potential annoyance.

That being the case, the question that comes up for me is this: What does Victor Laszlo plan to do once he gets to America, anyway? There's no resistance effort to lead in America, so is he planning to try to raise money? Lick his wounds for a bit and rally some support before returning to Europe? Work for the Americans? I wonder, especially since, in light of what seems to be the fact that the movie takes place in the first week of December 1941, within a day or two of Victor and Ilsa's arrival in America, that country will be entering the war.

(No, I don't want the movie to have answered these questions, nor am I suggesting that the movie's "failure" to answer them is a "failure" at all.)

:: It interests me that Rick's Cafe has significantly higher ceilings than just about every other interior in the movie.

:: More love for Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart: there are times when they make hand gestures while talking in a very real way, the way people actually would while talking, even though the gestures in a couple of cases cause their lines to come out a bit muffled. (Not that you can't understand them, though.) Bogart's got an example when he meets Louis in his office after Victor's arrest; he rubs his cheeks and mouth while saying something. And earlier, when Ilsa is with Rick in his room above the Cafe Americain, she runs her hands through her hair in that way that some women do when they're talking about heavy stuff after having been awake for a long time. Tiny things, those, but it's those tiny things that add up to convincing portrayals.

:: I never noticed before how much Ugarte is sweating in his scene with Rick early in the film. Rick's not sweating at all, but Ugarte's face glistens all over with sweat. I wonder if that was intentional, depicting Ugarte's tension at trying to get away with murder, or if Peter Lorre was just a lot hotter than Bogart on the set.

:: I can't remember where I saw it, but I read within the last year somewhere a suggestion that Louis is gay. Sorry, but I'm just not seeing it.

:: On some level I'm willing to grant the point to people who know more than I do, but I'm sorry, experts: I still hear Peter Lorre as saying "De Gaulle" instead of "Weygand".

Well, that's all for now. I'll return to Casablanca sometime sooner than a few years, though.

Monday, March 30, 2009

A modest suggestion

Next time the three men go into their little room so they can privately plan how to screw New York State, why don't we just bar the doors and set the place afire?

I said this on Facebook the other day, but frankly: forget these nice and pleasant "tea parties". What's needed now is, frankly, a storming of the Bastille. Maybe the sight of a working guillotine in front of the Capitol in Albany will jerk these people into taking governance seriously.

Sentential Links #163

Clicking our way to happiness and fulfillment:

:: So we're driving around, bickering, and Sarah says, "Whenever you call me a rule utilitarian it makes my womb clench."

:: The question of whether we are alone in the Universe, and even if there are other planets capable of sustaining life, is certainly deeply ingrained in our minds. This is one of the biggest remaining unanswered philosophical questions in science!

:: Pics of celebs eating hot dogs. Get going. (And now I want a hot dog.)

:: DOLLHOUSE is disappointing so far; it's like watching a guy do two seconds of juggling five butcher knives before he puts them down to show you slideshows of his Aunt Ethel visiting the Grand Canyon. (I still have yet to watch anything beyond the pilot episode, which I liked. I've got them all saved, but I haven't watched them yet. I just liked this quote.)

:: I just want to say this: just because you're a vegetarian doesn't mean you don't have to bathe.

:: What a fantastic story ! And what incredible music ! Don't miss the experience of getting to know Wagner's Ring. (A very nice classical music blog I'd forgotten I bookmarked.)

:: Full of excitement, danger and thrilling locations, this remains my favorite Bond film of them all. (Which one? Go look!)

:: When is endurance tenacity to be admired and when it is just plain bull headedness that goes against all common sense? What kind of criteria makes sense for determining when to hold on and when to let go?

:: But also, because this seems like a pretty darn good business to get into as long as we're going to be having a Depression and nobody is going to be willing to pay musicians such as myself. After all, even jobless people will obviously be needing magical amulets: to help them get new jobs, to help them pay their bills, to help them get girlfriends even though their cars have been repossessed... (I want one that will bring me unending supplies of pizza and pie!)

:: DO NOT INSTALL IE8 ON VISTA HOME PREMIUM!!!!! (Aieee! That sounds disastrous. I had IE8 on the other computer, the XP machine, and while it wasn't disastrous as SDB experienced with Vista, it completely gummed up the program I use to rip DVDs. So I switched back to IE7. Of course, none of this crap happens on a Mac!)

:: Wow it's Leonard Nimoy's birthday too! That man rocks, I love his acting, his photography, even his music! Now to celebrate the life of this true renaissance man here are 5 facts you may or may not have known about him! (I had no idea! Happy belated birthday, Mr. Nimoy!)

More next week. Tune in then. And before!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Unidentified Earth #61

Time for this week's puzzler! First, the usual housekeeping. UI 60 broke a streak of as-yet Unidentified entries, as Dave in Rocha pegged it fairly quickly as the giant letter 'M' that is maintained on the side of a mountain in Montana, overlooking the University of Montana in Missoula, MT. UIs 58 and 59 are still without guesses, though! Wow. I can imagine why no one would want to visit UI 58, as it is a place where one would find more cheer in a graveyard. UI 59 is rated as one of North America's most scenic drives -- when the road is open, that is.

So here's the new one:

Where are we? Rot-13 your guesses, folks!

"Will you take the longest road?"

Since finishing my re-read of The Fionavar Tapestry a week ago, I've been trying to think of something new to say about the trilogy. I re-read this series just three years ago, and many of those observations still hold. This is also the work of GGK's with which I am most familiar over the years, so it doesn't hold much for me by way of outright surprise. Still, I found myself throughout rooting for the characters, feeling a bit of the sense of betrayal when it turns out that Metran has turned against the Light, and the deep sorrow when Kevin Laine sacrifices himself in order to break the winter.

What I did notice anew this time was the character of Dave Martyniuk.

At the very end of The Darkest Road, Kim Ford reflects that of all five of the "real world" characters who have gone to Fionavar, Dave has changed the most, and on this re-read I got more, much more, of that sense. Previously I've tended to see Dave at first as something of a selfish jerk, but this time, I saw him probably more for what GGK intended: a nervous and tense man, driven to succeed but also very wary of not merely expressing his emotions but actually feeling them in the first place. Dave is reluctant to go to Fionavar at all, and he tries to break away in the transit, ending up alone on the northern plain, where he meets the Dalrei. His trials there lead him to make his own resolution with the internal conflicts he is fighting, most of which spring from his strained relationship with his father, a relationship that is emotionally, and possibly physically, abusive.

I further noticed that Dave Martyniuk, alone of all the major characters, is never really called upon to make a choice of self-sacrifice or self-denial. Instead, he becomes something else: a man who would be willing, if called upon, to make that choice when presented. Dave comes to terms with himself in a powerful way that I'd never noticed as strongly before.

Choice is really what drives this series, an endless series of choices presented to characters who can't possibly be expected to know what it is they are choosing, and yet the choices are made each time; what's more, the crisis that forms the spine of the series -- the freeing of Rakoth Maugrim -- is also depicted as the result of a series of choices made by many people in many places, over many years. The Fionavar Tapestry is not one of those fantasies where it seems as though everything that happens is in accordance with some ancient prophecy; there's no sense that anything is truly fated to happen. In fact, the one group of characters who are tortured by the fact that they are trapped in a series of sad fates -- Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere -- are finally allowed the choices they've never been allowed before. The story of Fionavar derives enormous tension from the way characters make choices that may, or may not, turn out disastrous, and the moments of highest tension come from situations in which the choices the characters have are basically between "dying horribly now" and "dying horribly in a little while".

So there we have it: Fionavar in 2009. I suppose I'm good for this series until 2013.

Sunday Burst of Weirdness

Oddities abound!!!

:: In the "Weird as Totally Cool" Department: Lynn linked this bit about the largest model railroad layout in the world, which is located in Hamburg, Germany. There's a video there, but you can actually see a better copy of that video at the official site for the Miniatur Wunderland. Amazing!

Here's a detail shot from one cityscape of this amazing-looking railroad:

That's some great modelmaking, there.

:: I dropped by BrightWeavings.net to see if there's any news on the GGK front, and on the message boards, I found, amidst a discussion on literary snobbery, a link to someone's LiveJournal wherein they reproduced a book with some truly staggeringly bad descriptive writing. Go look. It's hilarious.

:: You never catch the fundraising pitch folks on Buffalo's PBS station, WNED, rising to this level in order to part you from your money:

Now there's a good sport! I hope the pledges came through for her; she should have had something to show for wearing Groucho glasses on the air and then getting hit with a pie.

:: I feel the need to revisit the Burst of Weirdness from three weeks ago, in which I questioned the need for a new version of Dora the Explorer that was described as "sexy". Since then, I've seen the actual new Dora who is coming down the pike, and here she is:

Well, that's not very offensive at all, is it? That's about how The Daughter, who is in the "tween" age group, dresses, and so do many of her friends. Plus, it turns out that Tween Dora isn't replacing Preschool Dora at all, but co-existing alongside. I'm not sure who encouraged the use of the word "sexy" to describe Tween Dora, but she's not sexy at all. She's a kid. Nothing to look at here, folks!

(Until, that is, Mattel decides to release Grown-up Dora....)

:: Speaking of Grown-up Dora, I thought I'd linked this a while back, and maybe I did, but a while back I saw a collection of grown-up renditions of Calvin and Hobbes somewhere, and this one really stuck in my mind:

To my way of thinking, that's just perfect: older-Calvin still exploring those woods of his, but this time with Susie Derkins with him, an equal partner in all the exploration of that magical world we last saw C&H sledding off into. And Hobbes is along for the ride, even if in spirit only.

I grabbed this one from here; DeviantArt hosts a lot of other C&H fan renditions in an archive that's worth searching through.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Answering Anything! (Yet again)

Continuing with my answers to questions asked in Ask Me Anything! 2009, I have a set of queries posed by Dave in Rocha, one of the occasional posters at BfloBlog.com, Buffalo's premier sports blog.

Do you buy into the concept of Tor-Buf-Chester? Do you think it can ever be a viable, marketable entity due to the fact that it crosses an international border? Are there other cross-border metro regions like this?

A bit of explanation: there's a pundit out there named Richard Florida who has posited a notion that economic activity in the next, oh, hundred years or so and maybe beyond will be driven less by individual cities than by larger groups of cities -- megalopolises, if you will. This isn't a new concept, certainly; most people are, I assume, aware of the economic activity driven by the Boston-NYC-Philadelphia corridor in the Northeast, or the San Diego-LA-San Francisco corridor in the west. Florida also noted that Buffalo could itself be located in such a corridor, which he dubbed "Tor-Buf-Chester", linking Toronto, Buffalo, and Rochester together into one larger economic entity.

So, do I buy into the concept? I do, with certain caveats. The biggest caveats are these: the region crosses an international border, and a big chunk of it lies in New York State, which is not a place that is particularly geared toward making economic activity easier. But I can see an era emerging in which Buffalo, and Rochester by extension, reap the benefits of proximity to Canada's largest city and also its richest economic region, the "Golden Horseshoe" that extends from Niagara Falls all the way around the western end of Lake Ontario to Toronto, including St. Catherines and Hamilton. (In fact, Hamilton is itself a large city, so maybe the region should be named "Tor-Ham-Buff-Chester". And really, why not include Syracuse as well? "Tor-Ham-Buff-Chester-Cuse" probably doesn't roll of the tongue, but then, "Tor-Buf-Chester" sounds goofy as well.)

I've long believed that all the window-dressing Buffalo tries to do with regard to its image is just that: window dressing. Only the revival of Buffalo as an economic engine is going to really turn things around here, and there are a number of reasons -- some local, some located in Albany -- why that is currently unlikely to happen. Enacting policies that make a "Tor-Buf-Chester" type of entity a reality can only help, but as it stands right now, I don't think there's a whole lot of there there for people who want to talk about Tor-Buf-Chester as it is, right now.

Can you define the equation for the radiant exitance (aka emission) of a blackbody radiator as a function of wavelength? How, other than by taking the derivative, can you calculate the maximum point on that curve?

This question is in two parts, and so is my answer: "Yes", and "By using math".

Who is your favorite current Sabre?

Talking about "my favorite current Sabre" isn't likely to be all that illuminating, because when it comes to hockey, I'm like that girl down at the local bar on game nights. You know, that girl. She's the one who has never paid one single moment of attention to the sport that's on the teevee right now until she started dating the guy she's with right now, who happens to be a big fan of the sport on the teevee right now. She's the girl newly dating the New York Yankees fan who declares herself a huge A-Rod fan because A-Rod's kinda cute but can't actually name the position he plays, cite his current batting average or home run total, or pick him out on the field. She's the one who will nurse her drink all throughout the game and ask "When does A-Rod hit again?" when he's already on base after his last at-bat. You know, that girl.

I may sound like I'm making fun, but I'm really not. When it comes to hockey, I'm that girl. Seriously. I don't know much more about hockey than "Shoot the puck into the net." I don't know what "icing" is. I don't know a forward from a defenseman. When it comes to the Sabres, I know when they're winning and when they're losing, and that's about it. Put it this way: back in the 1990s, when the NHL was actually on teevee on a real network, that network -- whichever one it was -- thought it would help new hockey viewers to superimpose a blue dot over the puck, wherever it was, and then when the puck was shot, superimpose a red laser streak thing, theoretically to help solve the problem that on teevee, it's hard to see the puck unless you're an experienced hockey watcher and can thus infer the puck's location just by taking in what the players are doing. Well, I was the viewer helped out by the blue dot over the puck.

So yeah, me identifying my favorite Sabre doesn't mean much. But for the record, it's Ryan Miller, just because of that funny ad he did last year.

When will then be now?

It already was. You missed it.

There's only one question left, which will come...soon. Heh!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Know Thyself!

UPDATE: Some correct guesses are in, as noted below. Another day or two and I'll give out the rest of the answers.

What this blog needs to jazz things up is...a quiz! So, here's a quiz. The following are quotes from fictional characters. Some are from movies, some from comics, some from books. Each quote has the speaker describing himself or herself. Identify the characters. Fun wow!

1. "I'm the best there is at what I do, but what I do best isn't very nice."

(Wolverine from The Uncanny X-Men

2. "In this town, I'm the leper with the most fingers."

3. "You like me because I'm a scoundrel. There aren't enough scoundrels in your life."

(Han Solo in TESB)

4. "I'm the only cause I'm interested in."

5. "I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor."

(Gandalf in Lord of the Rings: FOTR)

6. "I play videogames better than anybody."

7. "Whacking. I'm hell at whacking."

(John Book in Witness)

8. "I have an extensive collection of nametags and hairnets."

(Wayne in Wayne's World)

9. "I wanna be just like you. I figure all I need is a lobotomy and some tights."

10. "I washed my face and hands before I come, I did."

(Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady)

Who are these folks?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Chicken Wing Soup, version 2.0

FINAL UPDATE: This post has become pretty unwieldy over the years, so please go to this page for the best and most current version of this recipe! Thanks!

UPDATED AGAIN 9-15-2013 with instructions for making a gluten-free version of this soup!!! See below.

EDITED AGAIN on MARCH 27, 2011! See below.


A couple of weeks back I posted about my inaugural attempt at making Chicken Wing Soup. Yesterday, I gave it a second attempt, using some of the notions that I had already formulated from Batch Number One, and to my taste buds, this batch was significantly better than Batch Number One. So here is the recipe on which I have now settled:


1.5 lb cooked chicken
1/2 lb potatoes, cooked and diced
1/4 cup Frank's hot sauce

1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup flour

32oz Chicken stock
1 cup skim milk
1 cup lowfat sour cream
More Frank's hot sauce or other hot sauce, to taste

Seasoned croutons for garnish

1. Cook and shred the chicken and marinade in the 1/4 cup hot sauce, the longer the better. (I marinated mine overnight until afternoon, about 18 hours.)

2. Put marinated chicken and potatoes into a crockpot and turn on "High". Cover and let "crock" while you make the rest of the soup.

3. Melt the butter in a soup pot or stock pot over medium heat.

4. Add 1/2 of the flour and stir until it is completely mixed with the melted butter; then add the rest of the flour and continue stirring the roux until it is the color of light caramel, about three or four minutes.

5. Add the Chicken stock, milk, sour cream, and hot sauce, all at once. Turn up heat a bit, stirring constantly; taste and add more hot sauce if desired. Turn heat up again, and keep adjusting heat up a bit at a time, stirring all the while, until the soup is just reaching a boil. Allow the soup to boil for a minute or so, constantly stirring. (This allows the roux to thicken the soup.)

6. Pour the soup into the crock pot, over the chicken and the potatoes. Stir a few times, cover, and allow to crock on "High" for an hour or so. After that, to keep warm turn the pot down to "Low" until serving.

7. When serving, sprinkle seasoned croutons on top; best eaten with thick slices of crusty bread with butter. Even better with a cold beer!

Notice that this time I omitted the aromatics, opting not to saute onions and celery in the roux before adding the stock, milk and cream. I may go back to doing this in the future; this probably does make for a more complexly flavorful soup. This time I was mainly interested in getting the consistency and flavor exactly right, and this formula resulted in a really good product. I made this for a potluck dinner at church last night. I went in with a crockpot full of soup. I came home with a nearly empty crockpot. That tells me something.

UPDATE 11-10-10 and 3-27-11: OK, I can't ever quit tinkering. So I decided to try something a bit different when I made the soup again this weekend past.

I love the flavor of the soup as prepared above, but the one thing that always vexes me is that it doesn't totally blend together the way I want it to -- what I think happens is that the sour cream never really integrates into the soup, but rather breaks apart into a whole bunch of really tiny bits that are suspended in the rest of the liquid. This doesn't really impact the flavor, but the creamy consistency is never quite what I want it to be.

So when I decided to make the soup again the other day, I thought of a change to make. I left out the sour cream, and instead used half-and-half. So, here is my newest formulation of the soup!

3-27-11: I've added details on optional aromatics to add to the soup. It's in italics in the recipe below.


1.5 lb chicken, cooked and shredded
1/2 lb potatoes, cooked and diced
1/4 cup Frank's hot sauce

Optional Aromatics:
1 small onion, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 carrot, shredded

1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup flour

32oz Chicken stock (I use a "No sodium added" brand. This dish doesn't really need any additional salt.)
1 cup skim milk
1 cup half-and-half
More Frank's hot sauce or other hot sauce, to taste

Seasoned croutons for garnish

1. Cook and shred the chicken and marinade in the 1/4 cup hot sauce, the longer the better. (I marinated mine overnight until afternoon, about 18 hours.)

2. Put marinated chicken and potatoes into a crockpot and turn on "High". Cover and let "crock" while you make the rest of the soup.

3. Melt the butter in a soup pot or stock pot over medium heat.

4. Add 1/2 of the flour and stir until it is completely mixed with the melted butter; then add the rest of the flour and continue stirring the roux until it is the color of light caramel, about three or four minutes.

4a. If you wish to use the Optional aromatics -- and I do recommend it -- add them to the roux at this point and stir them about for several minutes, until tender, allowing their flavor to sweat out.

5. Add the Chicken stock, milk, sour cream, and hot sauce, all at once. Turn up heat a bit, stirring constantly; taste and add more hot sauce if desired. Turn heat up again, and keep adjusting heat up a bit at a time, stirring all the while, until the soup is just reaching a boil. Allow the soup to boil for a minute or so, constantly stirring. (This allows the roux to thicken the soup.)

6. Pour the soup into the crock pot, over the chicken and the potatoes. Stir a few times, cover, and allow to crock on "High" for an hour or so. After that, to keep warm turn the pot down to "Low" until serving.

7. When serving, sprinkle seasoned croutons on top; best eaten with thick slices of crusty bread with butter. Even better with a cold beer!

Basically, it's the same recipe except with half-and-half replacing the sour cream. This resulted in a much nicer, creamier, more consistent texture to the soup. I suppose that you could go farther and use 2 cups of half-and-half, or if you really want a rich dish, use heavy cream. But I don't think the dish needs that much fat.

UPDATE 9-15-2013: If you need a gluten-free version of this soup, fret not! Omit the making of the roux above. Just leave it out. I'd still saute the aromatic veggies in the butter, just for richness, but do not use the flour. Instead, just make the soup without the roux. Then, toward the end of the cooking process (you can do this anytime when you're about to serve), whisk a bit of cornstarch into a cup of cold milk or heavy cream, and then stir that into the soup to thicken it. And hey, you might not even need to do that, if you like the consistency without the thickeners at all.

Something for Thursday

I tend to select more introspective, meditating, or downright sad pieces of music for this weekly feature, so here's something upbeat. Longtime readers know that one of my favorite film composers working today is Joe Hisaishi, a guy whose work is unknown to most filmgoers because he works in Japanese cinema and anime exclusively. However, if you have seen anything by my beloved Hayao Miyazaki, you've heard Hisaishi's music. Sometimes filmmakers find themselves using certain composers on an almost exclusive basis, forming partnerships that result in great film music for great films. Examples include Steven Spielgerg/John Williams*, Alfred Hitchcock/Bernard Herrmann, and to a lesser extent, Robert Zemeckis/Alan Sylvestri.

Anyhow, here is a selection by Joe Hisaishi, from his score to Miyazaki's Spirited Away. The track is titled "Procession of the Spirits", and it is heard early in the film when night falls and all the ghostly spirit patrons begin to file into the magnificent bathhouse where strange supernatural things are afoot. In Hisaishi's best scores he is able to combine Asian and Western musical ideas almost seamlessly, with wonderful and magical effect. Enjoy -- here's "Procession of the Spirits". (There's nothing to watch here; it's just a title card accompanied by the music.)

Isn't that great!

* Trivia question: What is the only feature film directed by Steven Spielberg whose score was not composed by John Williams?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Providing Answers!

More answers to questions asked as part of Ask Me Anything! 2009. Roger's other queries are below:

What would fix the image of Buffalo?

Seeing as how national media and national discourse is so driven by narrative, and seeing as how Buffalo's place in the national narrative is that of the perennial sad sack, I think that the only thing that's really going to ever "fix" the image of this city is a major economic turnaround here. And when I say "major", I don't just mean "stopping the bleeding" or even "establishing consistent growth and an end to population decline". I think Buffalo's image only changes if this town becomes a boom town; then and only then will Buffalo be spoken of in terms that, say, Charlotte or Austin, TX are spoken of now.

Can this happen? I used to think it would; now I still think it could, although I'm doubtful it will because I just don't see anything ever leading to the kinds of changes that need to take place in New York's state government to make Buffalo and the rest of upstate move upward strongly as likely to happen. It's just the way things are. And that's the most frustrating thing: there's no unrepealable Law of Nature that says that Buffalo has to stay the poor Rust Belt doomtown forever, just as there was no unrepealable Law of Nature that said that Buffalo of 1900 had to stay the technological boomtown of the US forever.

It can happen. There are things that I think would help it to happen. (A significantly more business-friendly attitude in New York State, more freedom in cross-border business with Canada, infrastructure improvements to take advantage of Buffalo's location, et cetera.) I'm not banking on any of these things actually happening. Oh well.

Loss of sight or loss of hearing: which would be worse?

Loss of hearing. No question about it. I could figure out how to live a fine literary life if blind. It would be hard, but I'd figure out how to read.

But no more music? I want no part of that.

If the performer came to Buffalo, who would you, without real regard to cost, definitely see?

I'm taking this to mean, "Assume that you can get tickets affordably, no matter who it is." Hmmmmm. If Howard Shore ever comes by to conduct the BPO in any of his various Lord of the Rings concerts, I'd be there in a heartbeat.

What is the definition of taterti, the WV for today?

For those who may not understand, "WV" stands for "word verification", the string of characters you type into Blogger's comment box to show that you're a person and not a spambot. On Blogger these used to be literally strings of random characters, but lately they seem like actual words, or sometimes by luck turn out to be actual words, leading to a kinda-sorta blog game where people give definitions to the fake WV words. OK? OK!

Anyway, Roger's WV at the time he left this comment was "Taterti". This is an Italian word that means "potato-ish". This word doesn't get much use in Italian, but it is sporadically used in musical scores, when the composer wishes the low brass to produce a sound that resembles that of a potato farmer lumbering through the potato patch. Notable works that include such a direction are Brahms's Symphony No. 5 in B Sharp Minor, Franck's Quadruple Concerto and Requiem Mass, and Leroy Anderson's Elegy for the Death of the Spider in my Bathroom.

More answers to come!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

All it needs is a laser

As a proud Maintenance Man, at The Store I have a nicely impressive tool bag, full of all manner of nifty hand tools and whatnot. Someday I'll post pictures of my tools, just because I think tools are cool (I've come to the point where walking into Lowe's or Home Depot gives me much the same feeling that walking into a toy store did when I was a kid). I actually have two tool bags, both of which I push around The Store in a shopping cart (we have a new style of cart, two-tiered but shorter, which are ideal for this purpose), along with my 18V DeWalt cordless drill, a Stanley hardware box, and a small electrical repair kit (which I have yet to use, as I know nothing about electrical repair -- but I keep hoping).

However, there are also several other tools that I don't keep in the bags but rather right on my person, so if I encounter a quick fix, I'm all set. I always have a 30' tape measure clipped to my belt, a utility knife and a Swiss Army knife in one pocket and a small flashlight in the other (this flashlight is uncommonly bright, actually, since it has twelve LED bulbs. I always carry a small notepad, a pen and a mechanical pencil, and a telescoping magnet in my back pocket. The telescoping magnet is incredibly useful. Also, I carry a pair of wire-cutters, or diagonal pliers, as they're technically known (also called "dikes" by old-timers).

But the real important tool that's always on my person -- my Walther PPK, my wand from Ollivander's, my lightsaber -- is my multi-driver. It's made by Klein Tools, and this thing has saved my life (figuratively, obviously) on many occasions. Now, way back when, I sang the praises of Klein tools and their 10-in-1 driver, but now they've pushed the envelope a little farther: the 10-in-1 has been supplanted by the 11-in-1. This thing has two Philips tips, two slotted screw tips, two square-drive tips, two Torx tips, and three nut drivers.

Oh yeah. I am the Tool Master.

From the Books: Dungeon, Fire and Sword

(A series in which I post longer excerpts from books I read)

This post is apropos of my post the other day on the movie Kingdom of Heaven. I've long been fascinated, along with many others, of the tale of the Knights Templar, the order of monastic knights founded during the Crusades who were later undone when the Pope and the King of France turned against them, ultimately leading to their final grand master, Jacques de Molay, being burned at the stake. Many legends have sprung up round the demise of the Templars, such as the disappearance of their fabulous treasure; the fleet of Templar ships that supposedly set sail from France when the uprising against them began, never to be seen again; the curse called down by Jacques de Molay on all those who betrayed the Templars. But the true story of the Templars is no less compelling than the legends, and it's the true story that forms the backbone of John J. Robinson's wonderful book Dungeon, Fire and Sword: The Knights Templar in the Crusades.

Robinson takes the approach of storyteller rather than dry historian as he recounts the tale of the Templars and their role in the larger Crusades that led to their founding in the first place. The Crusades are the ultimate period, I suppose, for those who love high adventure and drama in their history; they are replete with heroes and villains, with honor and treachery, with heroism and cowardice, with secular ambition and spiritual devotion. I haven't read many books on the Crusades, so I can't give Robinson's book a comparative recommendation on that score, but it is one of the best history books I've ever read. He makes the history come alive, which is no mean feat.

Excerpted below is Robinson's account of the events that took place at the Horns of Hattin. King Guy of Jerusalem has decided to march out to meet the forces of Saladin, at the behest of the Templar grand master, Gerard de Ridfort. The battle turned out to be a complete disaster, as the Christian forces made one mistake after another that played into the hands of Saladin, the Muslim leader. Thus it was that one of the most resounding defeats in the entire history of the Crusades was suffered by the Christian army:

That afternoon they reached the barren shelf above the village of Hattin. Ahead of them was a rock structure that rose into two summits, known locally as the Horns of Hattin. Beyond it, the road dropped to the Sea of Galilee, but Saladin's army was across the road. Gerard sent word to King Guy [King of Jerusalem, 1186-1190 AD] that his harrassed Templars could go no further that day and that the Christians should make camp where they were. Most of the barons, including Raymond of Tripoli, wanted to press on immediately and fight their way through to the life-giving waters of the great lake. The army just could not go on for more hours without water. Once again the Templar grand master won out, and the king ordered the army to make camp. Some fo the men struggled to the slope of the Horns of Hattin, where they had been told they would find a well. They found it, but it was dry. No form of discipline could keep reins on men crazed with thirst, and several groups broke away to search for water. They were easily killed off by Muslim outposts.

Knowing that the Christians were already overcome with heat and thirst, Saladin decided to add to that discomfort by depriving them of sleep. The nobles had tents, but the whole armychose to sleep in the open to enjoy the cooling breeze. The Muslims set fire to the dry brush that covered the hills. Soon the breeze carried the hot acrid smoke into the Christian camp, making it difficult to breathe. Using the cover of the smoke and the darkness, Saladin positioned his troops throughout the night, so that when dawn broke, the army of Jerusalem found itself completely surrounded.

A whole night after a whole day without water was driving men mad with thirst, made worse by the dawn reflecting off the waters of the fabled lake below them. Some suddenly started to run for the water, and as the momentum built, thousands of foot soldiers rushed down the hill, not to fight, but to drink. Those who were not chopped down by the Muslim cavalry as they ran were herded together and taken prisoner. Raymond of Tripoli led a charge against the Muslims, but they simply opened their ranks and let his party gallop through them, then closed ranks behind him. Once outside, there was no way Raymond's party could rejoin their comrades, so eventually they rode off the battlefield and back to Tripoli. Some of those left behind were convinced that they had witnessed an act of treachery.

The remaining knights fought to their limits, making charge after charge and repelling the cavalry sweeps of the Muslims, but they were steadily driven back up the hill.

Saladin's son al-Afdal remembered: "When I saw them retreating with the Muslims in pursuit, I cried out in joy, 'We have beaten them!' The sultan pointed to the bright red royal tent of King Guy at the top of the hill and said, 'Be silent. We shall not defeat them until that tent falls.' As he spoke, the tent fell."

The Christians were beaten as much by sheer exhaustion as by numbers. When the victorious Muslims broke through to the center of the Crusader defense they found knights and barons, including the king himself, prostrate on the ground with no strength left to lift their arms, much less their weapons. The leading nobles were all made prisoner and taken to a regal pavilion set up for Saladin on the battlefield. There the sultan greeted them with courtesy, inviting King Guy to sit by his side. Knowing that his royal guest was suffering from severe thirst, Saladin handed him a cup of cool water. Guy gratefully took a long drink, then handed the cup to Reynald of Chatillon. Saladin immediately asked Guy to remember that it was he, not the sultan, who had passed the cup to Reynald. That should have told them what the sultan had on his mind. Saladin was telling them that what would happen next did not violate the Muslim laws of hospitality that protected a man who was given food or drink by his host.

Saladin then turned to Reynald of Chatillon, whose crimes he began to recite angrily, cataloging Reynald's lies, his betrayals of trust, his breaking of one truce after another. Made even angrier by Reynald's arrogant reply, Saladin grabbed up a sword and struck off his head. He quickly assured the shocked Christian nobles that they were not condemned to share Reynald's fate. They would be ransomed or exchanged.

Such mercy did not extend to the Knights of the Temple and the Hospitallers who ahd been taken in the battle. They were to be the star performers in a bizarre and brutal drama. Saladin was being visited by a group of Muslim Sufis from Egypt. Although fanatic Muslims, the ascetic Sufis were students of the Koran, not warriors. Saladin announced that they would have the honor or cutting off the heads of hundreds of captured knights of the military orders. Afraid the deny the great sultan, they took the proffered swords in hand as Grand Master de Ridfort was forced to watch. When a lucky stroke cleanly severed a neck, a cheer went up from the watching Muslim soldiers, while taunts and shouted suggestions went to those who hacked away at their victims six, seven, or eight times to get the head separated from the body. It was a grotesque carnival of blood, and one can only speculate on de Ridfort's thoughts as he watched the horror for which he was principally responsible, knowing as well that he was the only captured warrior monk who was to be spared this death by amateur executioners.

Saladin took time for one other piece of business. The bishop of Acre had been killed in the fight, and the Muslims had taken the holy relic of the True Cross. Saladin expressed his intention to have it taken to Damascus to be placed under the doorstep of the principle mosque of the city, so that each time one of the faithful entered the mosque he would trample on the Christian relic. It was the ultimate humiliation. It was not, however, the ultimate victory. The Christians still held the holy city of Jerusalem.

Robinson wrote another book, Born in Blood, on the history of the Freemasons. I wish he'd written more; he had a deft touch for narrative in history.

Monday, March 23, 2009

My Geek Life

I seem to recall doing this quiz thing before, but they all run together, so here it is. I got it on Facebook and did it over there, but I figured I should put it up here as well, so here it is. You just 'X' in the items that pertain to you....

(X) You spent a day watching all of the Lord of the Rings/Star Wars/Star Trek movies.

(I'm claiming this, even though when we did this is was in college when there were only three Star Wars movies. Someday I want to watch the entire saga in one shot. I also want to watch all twelve hours of LOTR in one shot, and if I feel REALLY ambitious, I want to start watching an entire season of 24 at the time of day the first episode starts and then follow the entire season in real time.)

() You spent next two days after watching commentary, outtakes, and behind the scenes footage.
(X ) And you bought the soundtrack.
(x) You went to a midnight release of a movie.
( ) You camped in front of the theater for more than 12 hours to get tickets.

I only stood in line for Phantom Menace tix for an hour or two.

( ) Camping did not prevent you from being in costume.
(x) You can have an entire conversation with friends consisting of quotes from your favorite movies.
() You own at least three game systems.
() You have lost weight because you forgot to eat while trying to reach the next level in your game.
() You own more than four game controllers (of any kind).
( ) You have existed on 3 hours of sleep per night so that your "Sims" get 8 hours and are refreshed for work.
() You upgraded your computer because you wanted to buy a new video game/expansion pack.
( ) You have dressed as your game avatar, or as a npc in that game.
() You achieved level 60 on World of Warcraft.
(x) You have played "Dungeons and Dragons" or any other RPG.
(x) You know what "RPG" stands for.
( ) You dressed as your RPG character would dress.
(x) You own dice with more than six sides.
() You have been accused of having a "gamer" Scent.
() You can identify a Black Lotus.
( ) You can identify a Charizard.
( ) You have bought any of the "Harry Potter" books after standing in line until midnight.
( ) You waited to get your "Harry Potter" book in costume, quoting favorite lines.
( ) You have attended any function with "con" in the name.
( ) You stood in line at said "con" for more than 4 hours to have an item signed.
( ) You spent more than $50 on a costume to wear to "con" because you wanted it to be authentic.
(X) You own more than 50 comics.
(x ) You collect your comics in longboxes.

(Used to, anyway. Not in official longboxes, but reasonable facsimiles thereof.)

(X) You know what a "longbox" is.
( ) You've met and had your comics signed by the creator(s).
( ) You know how many "Robins" there are.
(x ) You know that the portrayal of Rogue in the movie "X-Men" is completely wrong.
(x) You have chatted online more than in person.
() You chatted online enough to learn the time zones.
() You think that when the Mythbusters say "Don't try this at home," they really don't mean YOU.
(x ) Have participated in a movie/tv marathon that involved a drinking game.
() Can sing along with the Buffy Musical Episode.
(x) You know Seth Green from more than just the "Austin Powers" movies.
() You can name all 8 Kevin Smith-directed movies without referring to IMdb.

(AGGHHH! So close.)

(x) You have participated in a "Clerks"-esque discussion about Star Wars (or any other movie).
(x) You have participated in a Kirk vs Picard discussion.
(X) You have participated in a Star Wars vs Star Trek discussion.
( ) You have participated in a Babylon 5 vs. Star Trek:DS9 discussion
(X ) You know who jms is.
(X) You have ever corrected anyone who called you a Trekkie.
( ) You have worn a Star Fleet Uniform.
( ) You own a Star Fleet Uniform.
(x) You think "Twilight" is lame because everyone knows that vampires burst into flame in the sunlight.

(I think it's lame because the writing sucks and the characters are brooding morons.)

(x) You have written fanfic.
(x) You have watched Bizzare Foods and thought "I'd try that."
( ) You can pinpoint the moment at which "Lost" jumped the shark.
(X) You know who Stan Lee is.
( x) You know who Jack Kirby is.
( ) You know who Geoff Johns is.
(X) You have built a website.
(x) You have started a blog.
(x) You maintained a blog for over a year.
( ) You know what the Genie SFRT is
() You have a Twitter account.
( ) You have over 500 followers on Twitter.
( ) You purchased a smartphone just so you could check Twitter on the road.
() You forget your family members' birthdays because they aren't your friends on Facebook.
(X) You have given virtual gifts on Facebook.
() You have Superpoked your boss on Facebook.
() You have gotten a date through Facebook (and we're not talking dinner and movie with your buddies).
( ) You have broken up with someone/been broken up with through Facebook
() You've reached level 30 or higher in Mafia Wars.
() You know what Mafia Wars is.
(X) You participated in more than three social networks.
(X) You've spent more than 200 hours playing the same video game.
(x ) You've seen any movie in the theater more than three times.
( ) You can name the episode of MST3K where Joel was replaced by Mike.
(x) You've argued why the comic is way superior to the show/movie when discussing "The Tick," "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," "X-Men," "Fantastic Four," "Spider-Man," etc.
(x) You have the soundtrack for "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" on your MP3 player.
(x) You are willing to defend the Star Wars prequels.


() You openly disparage the Star Wars prequels because they don't live up to "Empire."


( x) You're openly concerned about the time line ramifications that J.J. Abram's "Star Trek" movie presents to the canon.
( x) You own anything written by Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore or H.P. Lovecraft.

(Check, check and check.)

( ) You have a flying spaghetti monster on your car
() You've seen a midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show with live actors in front of the screen.
(x) You know the REAL reason Spider-Man had a black costume
( ) You know the NCC numbers of at least two starships other than the Enterprise
( ) You know what "NCC" stands for.

(Used to, on both counts...my handle on Trek lore is sadly well past its prime.)

( ) You own an original Star Trek Concordance, Technical Manual, and Blueprints

(Used to! Oooooh, my beloved Tech Manual!)

( ) You own at least two medieval weapons
( ) You have participated in battles with foam-covered swords
( ) You know who "Major Matt Mason" is
( ) You have seen bootleg copies of the original Fantastic Four and Justice League movies.
( x) After having had children you realize there's now more people to costume and relish it.
( ) You've managed to turn four days at Euroquest* into nearly eight because, who needs sleep?
( ) You've spent more than $1000 on your "spot-on" costume. (and it's still not quite right...)
( ) You've made a fan film.
( ) Your fan film has been seen by more than your immediate family.
(X) People know you by your online name instead of your mundane name.
() You know what Pennsic is.
( ) You've camped at Pennsic.
() You have/had personalized plates on your car proudly proclaiming your fandom.
( ) Your spouse and/or friends do as well.
(x) You yell at your kids when they try to open a toy/book/comic/figure etc. that you're collecting.

(I don't yell...but I've bought copies of stuff for The Daughter so she wouldn't mess up mine.)

(x ) Your kids have broken your Hallmark collectible Star Trek/Star Wars, etc. ornament.

(Oh, you HAD to bring that up!!!)

( ) You've traveled more than 500 miles to attend a con.
( ) You have a tattoo related to your fandom of choice.
( ) You met your spouse at a fan-related event or con.
( ) You got engaged (to be married!) at a sci-fi convention.
(x) You are publicly willing to defend Dollhouse, because Joss Whedon must be trusted.

(That first episode did NOT suck, and I haven't watched the rest yet, but when I do, look out!!!)

And there we have it! This identifies certain areas where my geekiness fears to tread, mainly in the area of gaming. I just don't have time, and I'd love to. Maybe some day....

Sentential Links #162

OK, after a week off, we're back in the saddle again.

:: There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.

:: Ninjas are for those people who think bounty hunters are the best part of Star Wars because the only stuff in Star Wars they can stand is stuff that happens offscreen in their minds.

:: The Darwin debate never ceases,
For he wounded the pride of our species
When he made you and me
Share the family tree
With those monkeys that love to fling faeces.
(An older post, but funny. Kudos!)

:: To celebrate (or mourn) the last episode of Battlestar Galactica tonight, I made Cylon cookies. (Wow, I really need to watch BSG one of these days.)

:: It’s always interesting to see a place through the eyes of a person who came from somewhere very different.

:: Widower/crooner Danny Gokey did not wow the judges this week with his version of the Carrie Underwood smash, “Jesus, check the oil”. (I suppose I should go on record as saying that I actually kind of liked Adam Whatsisname's LSD-enhanced, Ravi Shankar-ized arrangement of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire". I can see why a lot of people hated it, but I liked that he was the non-country singer who, instead of trying to find some kind of country song he could sound kinda-sorta countryish with and just survive to the next round, instead chose to do something completely off the wall in an admission that country just isn't his thing. I also want to know if Paula, eternally drunk and/or stoned as she is during Idol, started to flash back during the performance.)

:: I do enjoy pointing and laughing, but I'll refrain for the moment. Why? Well, I've heard tell that a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man, and I hope to imagine greater. (SyFy? WTF?!)

:: One of the problems when your life is a literary conceit ...

... is that you maintain faith in the happy ending.
(Boy Howdy, she's right on that one.)

More next week....

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday Burst of Weirdness

Oddities abound!

:: This is only 'weird' in the sense that it's exceedingly unusual to have timing like this, when one is snapping photos. It's a shot of a US Navy hospital ship, but what's distinctive about it...well, go have a look. Wow!


:: If I ever lose a finger, I'm reasonably confident that I won't be doing this.


:: A Homer Simpson clock. Funny.


More next week....

Unidentified Earth #60

OK, after a week off last week, UI returns. As of yet, UIs 58 and 59 are without guesses of any kind! If you were to approach UI 58 on horseback, you might hear somewhere in the back of your head the playing of a Hardanger fiddle, while UI 59 looks like one of the most nail-biting drives in North America. Hmmmmm.

And now, the new one:

Where are we? Rot-13 your guesses if you've got 'em, folks!

Stupid Thoughts that Randomly Popped Into My Head

OK, so for some reason, I was thinking about Galactus. He's the Marvel Comics supervillain who basically flies around the Universe eating planets, because that's what he eats: planets. So I was thinking, does he get in the mood for certain kinds of planets? I mean, is Galactus ever kicking back and thinking, "Hmmm, I could go for a nice frozen rock of a planet right now, kind of like that one they call 'Pluto' in that one system I'm not supposed to eat?"

Are there any planets that are a guilty pleasure for Galactus, in the way that, say, a bucket of fried chicken might be a guilty pleasure for humans right now? As in, "Boy, I don't eat gas giants all that often because they're really not terribly good for me, but sometimes I gotta indulge!"

Are there any planets that Galactus avoids unless he's utterly ravenous, because he either hates the taste or because they disagree with him? Does Galactus fly through our system, look at Mars, and think, "Tastes good, but I'd better not. Last time I ate a planet with that much red dust, I had heartburn for a thousand years."

Does Galactus ever throw up? What does that look like? Could our Solar System's asteroid field have resulted from Galactus doing his Galactic equivalent of praising the porcelain god?

Would Galactus's Thanksgiving dinner consist of eating Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in one shot? Would he take a nap afterward?

Would a planet like Venus, by virtue of all that CO2 in the atmosphere and all the sulfuric acid and other nasty chemicals all over that world, leave Galactus with a really nasty aftertaste in his mouth? Would it give him a bad case of space flatulence?

When Galactus is just kicking back and wants to nosh on some snack food, does he snack on moons and comets and stuff like that? Is an Oort Cloud his version of a big bag of Cheetos?

And does Galactus ever get to wash it all down with anything at all? Or could his constant angry look just be the fact that he has eternal cottonmouth because he can't ever get a nice drink to clean out his palate?

If Galactus eats a planet that hasn't completely solidified yet because its accretion disc isn't quite done accreting yet, is that his equivalent of eating something that's only half-baked? Does he spit it out when he realizes it isn't done yet? Does he shove it closer to its sun to help it cook a bit more, like throwing a steak back on the grill?

Yeah. I desperately need to get out more.

(Above image stolen from here.)

A Farewell to Sylvia

Well, voting has closed on my inaugural "Make Me Read!" poll, and it wasn't even close. Sylvia Plath got stomped. I guess there are no fans of hers among my readers? Or maybe people just think that Hemingway is better. Who knows -- but The Bell Jar got a single lone vote, while A Farewell to Arms got fourteen. So, Hemingway it is. Bring him on! And thanks for voting. The next poll will appear when I finish Arms, and thus begin GGK's Tigana.

"If God does not love you, how could you have done the things you've done?"

(UPDATED twice below.)

So asks a Muslim nobleman of Balian of Ibelin near the end of Ridley Scott's movie Kingdom of Heaven. Balian, who has been seeking God's will through the entire film, makes no real answer as he takes his leave of Jerusalem, yielding to the Muslims who, under the leadership of Saladin, have conquered the city. And yet, Balian leaves with the respect, shared mutually, of the Muslim nobles.

Almost three years ago (as of this writing; more than that, as of this posting), I watched Kingdom of Heaven and was, as has been my typical experience with Ridley Scott's movies, underwhelmed. I didn't dislike the film, per se, but I found it curiously uninvolving and emotionally cool, despite the typical Scott production values. (The film is utterly gorgeous, one wonderful shot after another, but more on that later.)

I learned a while later that the film was a victim of the all-too-common movie malady, the dreaded Studio Cut, in which a director makes a movie the way the director wants, but when he screens it for the executives, they dislike it and mandate a whole bunch of cuts. In the case of Kingdom of Heaven, a three-hour epic that took its time telling its story was forced to become a two-hour pseudo-epic that felt overstuffed and, at the same time, underexplained. So, when it came time for the DVD release, Scott was allowed to restore the material he hadn't wanted cut -- almost an entire hour's worth of material.

Now, not all movies are helped by indulging directors' desires to stick stuff back into the films for DVD releases. But many are, with some movies – the Lord of the Rings films, for example – so benefit by their expansions that the "Extended editions" become the canonical versions. Really, who watches the theatrical cuts of LOTR anymore? Kingdom of Heaven benefits from Scott's revisiting to a frankly amazing degree: the movie was a serviceable medieval war story, but now, in its Extended Director's Cut, it's a stunning epic. As I watched its story unfold, I kept thinking to myself, "Why didn't I like this movie this much last time?" And I was often hard-pressed to come up with an answer. Even though it's been three years since I saw the theatrical cut and thus can't remember it well enough to definitively say what's been added and what has not. (Upon further review, the entire subplot of King Baldwin IV's nephew, who would become King when Baldwin IV dies, is new to this version.) This isn't a movie with a few scenes added just to get you to buy the DVD. Nor is it an Extended version with lots of new scenes that enhance the movie you've already seen. So much has been restored for this version that it's an entirely new movie.

The story is one of those "Poor stiff finds fame and glory in a far-away land" tales. Balian (Orlando Bloom) is the blacksmith in a French village; as the film opens, he is mourning his wife, who has committed suicide after losing her baby. Soon a band of Crusaders returns to the region, including a man (Liam Neeson) who is now a Baron in the Holy Land, and who turns out to be Balian's father. After some nastiness, Balian has no choice but to leave his home and travel to the Holy Land himself, not so much as a Crusader but as a man seeking favor with God after committing sinful acts. On his way he makes friends and enemies, some of whom are Muslim and some of whom are fellow Christians; he becomes embroiled in all manner of political intrigue in the Holy Land at the time when the King of Jerusalem (Baldwin IV) is a leper who is nearing death and when the Muslims have found their greatest leader, Saladin, who is winning victory after victory. Balian finds himself involved with Sibylla, and toward the end of the film, he finds himself charged with the defense of Jerusalem itself.

Scott is, as ever, a visual genius, and there's nary a shot in this entire film that doesn't have something interesting going on. His Holy Land, hot and bright and dusty, contrasts with his Europe, which is cold and wind-swept and a place where snow is constantly fluttering down from gray skies. The sets are opulent and magnificent, and the long shots of medieval Jerusalem, created by computer, manage to look authentic. I've never questioned Ridley Scott's skills as a visual director, but I've always found his movies somehow uninvolving on the human side – until this one, or at least, this version of this one. Watching Kingdom of Heaven now, in its longer version, I found my attention never wandering at all.

The film is full of fine performances. Orlando Bloom plays Balian, and it's a good performance, if not especially wide-ranged. It seems to be accepted wisdom that Bloom is a bad actor and mainly a pretty face, but I don't think that's fair; he strikes me as a British version of Kevin Costner, a guy who may not have the wide range of quite a few better actors, but whose performances are better than typically seen and who, in the right role, can actually shine. Eva Green plays Sibylla, a woman caught between love and duty to her nation and her son, with lots of emotion that looks forward to her turn as James Bond's first great lover in Casino Royale. The supporting cast is superb across the board, with not a single false note in the entire cast. Most notable is Edward Norton, who embodies King Baldwin IV; what's amazing about him is that the King wears a silver mask in all of his scenes, owing to his disfigurement from leprosy. With no ability to call on facial expressions or even eye movements, Norton nevertheless conveys a wide range of feeling in his performance, so much so that this film is a good answer for anyone who has ever wondered how convincing Greek drama must have been, with all of those performers in their masks.

Many of the film's events are drawn from true history; Baldwin IV really did die young of leprosy, and his successor, Baldwin V, did die at the age of nine. There was a Queen Sibylla who ruled alongside King Guy; there really was a Balian of Ibelin. Raymond of Chatillon really did suffer the fate depicted herein. It's not strictly accurate history, obviously, but this movie treats its subject matter with respect. This isn't a movie like the Pirates of the Caribbean films, which exist in a cheerfully-ahistorical timeline. And the film's villains aren't exclusively Muslims, nor are they exclusively Christians. There are honorable men and women on both sides, which is a pretty remarkable stance for this film to have taken given that it was made in the days following the 9-11-01 attacks.

The music for the film is by Harry Gregson Williams, a composer who has emerged over the last decade as a potentially exciting new voice (his most notable work is for the Narnia films). Here he writes a score that blends medieval European religious chant with soundscapes evocative of the Middle East, resulting in a score that is often captivating. The only down part of the score is the odd use, in a late scene in which Balian must give a rousing speech to the inadequate defenders of Jerusalem, of a cue from Jerry Goldsmith's score to the movie The Thirteenth Warrior. I have no idea what possessed Ridley Scott to use this music here, when Gregson Williams has written an otherwise wonderful score for this fairly meditative epic, but Scott has a long history of making odd decisions with regard to the music for his films, so who knows. A regular viewer watching the movie probably wouldn't even notice that there's a melody heard in that scene that never occurs in any other part of the movie; they'd only notice that the music there is nicely rousing for a scene that's rousing in nature. But a film music geek like me? That stands out like the proverbial sore thumb.

I'm glad Ridley Scott was afforded the opportunity to revisit this film. It really is a superior effort; it's most certainly my favorite film by Ridley Scott. I can't recommend it highly enough. (And now I'm actually looking forward to Scott's announced project on the Robin Hood legend.)

UPDATE: My take on Orlando Bloom as an actor isn't taken well at an Orlando Bloom message board, which strikes me as odd, since I openly state he's not a bad actor. I actually think he's pretty good. He's not Olivier, or Ian McKellen, or Daniel Day-Lewis, but Bloom does perfectly well in the movies I've seen him in. He's fine in Lord of the Rings, he's fine in the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks, he's good in Elizabethtown, and he's good in Kingdom of Heaven. I'm not sure what their point of contention is, unless they're of the view that I'm actually not being sufficiently effusive in my praise of Bloom as an actor. I'm not often taken to task for not being nice enough in my compliments, but there it is. I just know that most times I see Orlando Bloom mentioned, and people rip on him as being a bad actor, which I think is pretty wrong-headed.

I guess you can't please everybody.

UPDATE II: Now that some more replies have popped up at the message board thread linked above, I see that the main point of contention seems to be my comparison of Orlando Bloom to Kevin Costner. I wasn't making a one-to-one comparison of the men as actors, but I cited Costner as an example of another actor whose work I think tends to be unfairly maligned. No, Costner wasn't a particularly great Robin Hood, but he's really good a lot more often than a lot of stuffy cinema folks like to admit. (Bull Durham, Dances With Wolves, Tin Cup, Field of Dreams, A Perfect World, and JFK are all good examples, to my mind. And frankly, if I concede that Bloom would make a better Robin Hood than Costner did, surely one must also agree that Bloom could not play Crash Davis anywhere near as well as Costner did!) That's all I meant with that comparison. So when I say that I see Orlando Bloom as a younger, British version of Costner, I do not mean that as an insult.

BTW, folks over there, you're welcome to comment here too! I don't bite. Not usually, anyway.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


Finally getting back to the questions of Ask Me Anything! 2009, here are a few answers.

First up, reader and frequent commenter (especially when I give voice to my Inner Liberal!) DaveS asks:

As a movie guy Did you Like Siskel & Ebert? Which one did you prefer?

I loved Siskel and Ebert. Loved 'em. During the 90s, they were usually on where we lived on Sundays at 10:00 or maybe it was 11:00; I watched faithfully. Their main corporate sponsor at the time was, appropriately enough, Orville Reddenbacher Popcorn. As entertaining as it was to listen to them disagree, I got more out of it when they agreed on movies, because that almost always meant that it meant something good. I honestly don't recall ever seeing a movie that got "Two Thumbs Up!" that I personally didn't like. I also loved how they didn't just constrain themselves to the newest blockbusters and major releases; they'd frontload the show with those sorts of films, but toward the end they'd discuss the smaller films, the documentaries, the indie films, the foreign films, and that sort of thing. The show, for just its half hour a week, was never just about how good the newest Schwarzenegger flick was.

There was never anything cynical in the approach Siskel and Ebert took; each man showed a fierce love of film that always shone through, even when they disagreed. I recall one argument the two men had once that led to Ebert saying to Siskel, "I don't think you wanted to like the movie", to which a shocked Siskel replied, "How can you say that? I love to like movies!" Lots of critics write with a tone that implies that they are genuinely surprised every time they like a movie; Siskel and Ebert never seemed that way.

As to which man I liked more, I'd probably have to say Ebert, although that's not so much based on the show as the fact that Ebert has had significantly greater visibility over the years, between his prolific writings on film and the fact that Ebert is still alive. I honestly don't recall reading much of Siskel's work, so I have no idea what kind of writer he was. But he and Ebert had a wonderful chemistry that has obviously not been duplicated since, even if Ebert had a decent partnership with Richard Roeper.

There seems to be a consensus that Ebert's writing has improved substantially since his bouts with cancer rendered him unable to speak. I'm not sure if it has; Ebert's always been a fine writer. More likely the attention has been focused more on his writing, now that that is his only real avenue for expression.

But yeah: I liked Siskel and Ebert a great deal.

More answers to come!

Something for Thursday

Natasha Richardson wasn't in Love Actually, but her husband, Liam Neeson, was, and in that film he played a role he can now sadly play in real life: a bereaved husband.

From Love Actually, here is the Glasgow Love Theme, by composer Craig Armstrong. You can ignore the slideshow of images from the film; I selected this clip because the sound is better than some others.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009


UPDATE: Dammit.

Best wishes for a speedy and complete recovery to actress Natasha Richardson, who was critically injured in a skiing accident earlier today. She's a beautiful and intelligent actress whose work I always enjoy.

Richardson is married to Liam Neeson, one of my favorite actors. They starred together in Nell, a movie I didn't like, but not through any fault of the principal actors.

(Image courtesy natasha-richardson.org.)

UPDATE: As noted above, Natasha Richardson has died of her injuries. Awful, awful news.
Continuing my answers to questions posed in this year's edition of Ask Me Anything!, we have a set of queries from Mark.

1. Do you suppose that Trekkies will be further degraded or taken more seriously from now on because of this incident?

The incident in question is a robbery that took place in Colorado Springs, where someone held up a convenience store using a bat'leth as their weapon. And what, non-Trek fans, is a "bat'leth"? It's a Klingon double-bladed sword, like this:

Well, I suppose Trekkies (or Trekkers) can never really make up ground, even as comic book fare becomes more and more mainstream. But this will certainly help the bat'leth to be taken more seriously, won't it! I wouldn't mess with someone toting one of those around. Unless I had a phaser on me. Or a lightsaber. (Sorry to mix my franchises.)

2. Should the NFL expand to 40 teams in our lifetime? Will it?

It shouldn't, and I greatly doubt that it will, unless it starts going "International", and even then, some logistical problems would be created. If there were teams in Europe, those teams would probably have structural advantages owing to constantly facing teams with jet lag, right? And I'm just not sure there are enough cities in the US or even Canada who are willing to stomach the costs that come with the operation of an NFL team. Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm thinking – or maybe hoping - that the current economic disaster will forever crush the ability of NFL teams and their owners to basically strong-arm municipalities into building and maintaining stadiums. I think the whole thing has just become completely insane: erecting billion-dollar palaces for sporting events that take place about a dozen times a year? The whole thing is just ludicrous.

The other argument against continual NFL expansion is that the talent pool for the teams would continue to become shallower and shallower. There are currently 32 teams in the NFL; the addition of another eight teams would add 424 players to the league, just on the active rosters. Are there really 424 players currently in the college ranks who are of NFL calibre? I doubt this.

I think the NFL is, frankly, big enough.

3. Have you listened to the Storied Northwest on iTunes yet?

No. I don't even have iTunes. But I'll look into them, in some way!

We'll do more answers...sometime soon!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Light blogging ahead....

Sorry folks, but I'm in the midst of a busy week, so posting may be lighter than usual. Sentential Links will return next week, while I'm at it. I'll have some new stuff up here at some point, but for right now I just have a lot of projects that need attending to, plus some other stuff going on in the Musty Land of Real Life that will occupy some time. Bear with!

(And don't forget to vote in the poll in the sidebar: What should I read next?)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday Burst of Weirdness

Oddities abound!

But not quite as much this week, and I was busy for most of today, so just a couple of strange things, one of which wasn't even something I saw online, but...ach, let's just get on with it:

:: Some guy on CNN had a guest on, discussing politics and whatnot, and the CNN guy asked his guest if President Obama was "trying to brazenly deceive the American people". Who was the guest of whom this question was asked? Dick Cheney. Well, he oughta know, huh? I mean, if you want to talk about someone brazenly deceiving the American people, you can't do much worse than Bush's VP....

:: One reason I didn't post much today was that I was catching up on my episodes of 24, since I was three behind and didn't want to fall four behind after tomorrow night's ep. At the beginning of the last of the three episodes I had to watch, the obligatory guest star listing was scrolling by as the show began, and one name caught my eye. It looks like Jack Bauer might be joined by the other great anti-terrorist crusader of our time! Woo-hoo!

Can't you see those two working together? "Yippee-ki-yay, motherf--" "We're running out of time!!!"

That's about it. More next week. Unidentified Earth will return next week as well.

Make Me Read!

OK, I decided that what this blog needs is a new feature. So here's a new feature. Over there on the sidebar -- go ahead and look, you might need to scroll down slightly, so I'll wait for you to come back...waiting...waiting...OK, we're back -- you'll see a little poll. I've been waffling on my 2009 Guy Gavriel Kay Re-read project, as to whether I should just plow through everything he's ever written at once or alternate other books in between. I've decided on the latter, because I want a little bit of time to reflect on the preceding GGK book each time I come to the next one, and because I fear the latter books in his output may suffer during this project if I don't "clear my literary palate", so to speak. Thus, I will read other books in between each GGK book. But what other books?

And that's where you come in, readers! What I'm going to do is each time I begin a GGK book (or thereabouts, roughly, kinda-sorta speaking) I'll choose two options for the next thing I read, which will then appear in a poll over in the sidebar -- it's right near the top, just below the link to The Promised King. Readers will vote, and whichever book gets the most votes will be the one I read after the current GGK tome. (I may keep doing this after I get all the way through GGK, picking my own books and then polling results for the alternating books, depending on how this experiment goes.)

If the books are tied when the poll closes (I think it's set up for a week), I'll flip a coin between the two books. Now, what kinds of books will I offer as options? Well, sometimes I'll choose literary works; other times I'll choose graphic novels, or works of classic SF, or just about anything I can think of. For the inaugural Make Me Read! poll, the choices are:

A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway


The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

Why did I choose these two? No particular reason. I just have copies on hand neither of which I've read yet. So I leave it up to you all! Which one do I read after I finish The Fionavar Tapestry later this week? Vote in the sidebar!

(I should point out that I'll only be doing this for my fiction reading; I tend to be all over the map with my nonfic, and I may need to set aside the poll winner for a bit if review novels come in that need to be kicked out of the way. I do need some wiggle room, but this should work.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Answering Anything!

More Ask Me Anything! 2009 answers ahead! Beware!

A reader dropped into my December 2008 post on working at Pizza Hut, and asks why the one that closed in Olean, the one near Wal-Mart, stopped its delivery business in the mid-90s. He wonders if this was because of prank orders placed by students at nearby St. Bonaventure University, but my recollection is that there weren't too many prank orders. In fact, we didn't get pranked too much at either location. There was one kid who would, for a while, faithfully call the other Pizza Hut in Olean, the one where I worked the bulk of my PH tenure, once every other week or so with an order for fifteen large pepperoni pizzas. I just played along, gave him a price, told him we'd be there in 45 minutes or whatever, and then delete the order and ignore the whole thing. Nobody ever called to complain, so I know I wasn't scotching a real order; I wonder if that kid really thought there was a PH driver wandering around town with his fifteen pizzas sent to a fake address. But who cared, really.

Another funny delivery story: I had a woman call once to order pizzas for the nurses at some department in Olean General Hospital. She made it sound like she was sending them pizza to thank them for their treatment of her, but I'm not so sure, because she was very insistent on the toppings: two larges, topped with black olives and achovies. I didn't know what to make of that, but her credit card payment went through, so we went with it.

We also had lots of entertaining discussions (read: annoying discussions) with customers who refused to understand the difference between the city limits that denoted the boundary of where we would deliver and the town limits. The refrain was automatic, every time: "My mail comes to Olean, NY! How can you tell me you won't deliver to me!" "Because you don't live within the city limits, sir." "But my mail comes to Olean, NY!" Lather, rinse, repeat.

But anyway, back to the original query. Delivery was stopped at the other Olean location (commonly called the Allegany location, even though it was located within the Olean town limits but not the Olean city limits – there we go again!) not because of prank orders but because there just weren't enough orders on a consistent basis to make delivery worth the effort. Now, it's hard for me to recall, since it's nearly fifteen years since I worked there and since even when I was there, it was just as a cook so I wasn't paying attention to numbers, but I do recall entire weekday evenings passing by where we might get two or three delivery orders total. That wasn't nearly enough delivery business to justify having those extra employees around. As far as St. Bonaventure went, orders for delivery to SBU constituted a small portion of our already-small delivery business. Our deliveries went more to the Village of Allegany than the University, by a significant margin. SBU was just not a business driver for that PH location.

Why was this? I don't know. I suspect that first of all, PH's prices tend to be higher than most college students are probably willing to pay for pizza. Second, in terms of location, that PH was farther from campus than a number of other local pizza joints, as well as the local Domino's outlet. More SBU students probably got pizza either from Domino's (which is literally across the street from SBU) or from the two or three pizza joints in the village of Allegany, which is where all the bars are. There weren't any bars near PH, so it wasn't really possible to include PH in one's plans if said plans involved college-student levels of drinking.

One night I very much remember was a night when our main delivery driver came bursting in from one of his delivery runs to inform us that OJ Simpson was on the run in a white Bronco, and the cops were chasing him on the LA freeways. He kept coming back with updates every time he went out with another run. That was pretty hilarious.

On the general subject of Olean and pizza, I always felt like something of an outsider because I never much liked either of the two beloved Olean pizza joints: Tasta Pizza and Renna's Pizza. Renna's is basically a local version of Sbarro, and Tasta was, as I recall, terribly lame. Their pizza was square (no big deal) but the pepperoni pizza came with one slice of pepperoni per slice. A slice of pepperoni pizza there was basically a square of cheese pizza with a single pepperoni slice in the exact middle. I don't know if that's still how they do it, but wow, was that lame. Our preferred pizza there was a place called A&J's.

In an odd postscript to all this, it turns out that now both Pizza Huts in Olean are now closed. After the Allegany one closed due to poor business, apparently an electrical fire did sufficient damage to the other one, the larger one I worked at for three-and-a-half years, to force its closing. I have not seen any indication that it has re-opened, so I assume it's still sitting there. Now, I have no real insight here, but I do recall that PH had a tendency to do things, shall we say, "on the cheap", so it wouldn't surprise me one whit if that fire was seen by the local PH brass as a blessing in disguise: another opportunity to save money by shuttering a location. This is just pure speculation on my part, mind you.