Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Oh Bella...OH Bella...oh BELLA...OoooOOHH!!!

Fellow blogger-in-arms SamuraiFrog was recently casting about for a book he wanted to read and summarize snarkily on his blog; when he wondered if Twilight might fill the bill, I saw an opportunity to prevent that awful, awful book from sullying my personal library one minute longer. I offered, and SamuraiFrog accepted, and thus it was that I mailed him my copy of the damned smelly thing. A few weeks later, he began summarizing the book. A sample of his impression:

You know, I can already tell why this book is so popular--Meyer is such a vague, unclear writer that literally anyone could be Bella Swan. She's so bland and lifeless that she becomes a template that any reader can graft their own identity onto and, in a flash, Bella is soooo just like them. It really appeals to that part of a person that's narcissistic and wants something really special to happen to them. Bella's not a flesh-and-blood, three-dimensional character, she's Stephenie Meyer's one-dimensional wish fulfillment. She's anyone's wish fulfillment, if this is your sort of thing. The book might as well be written in second person like a Choose Your Own Adventure: "You go to a new school. People are fascinated by you, because you are clearly better and more interesting than them. Why doesn't anyone understand you? Not that you need people to understand you to be special, of course. You're a beautiful swan!"

But did his impression change at all when he got to Chapter Two?

After a lengthy, uninteresting treatise on Bella's first experience with snow--it's mushy, weird, and irritating--and whether or not she likes the local library, we find Edward returned to school. Now he's suddenly personable and talkative. They do a lab assignment together that Meyer not only manages to make seem like total dry-humping, but makes it hard to decide which character she's more cloyingly precious about. Both characters are just oh-so-super smart. Bella's done the lab before, but that's not enough for Meyer--Bella was also in AP biology at her old school and is just naturally a genius and an underachiever at the same time. (She's read her current English assignment, Wuthering Heights, several times before, but will read it again just for fun.) Edward is apparently the smartest kid in the class.

"Dry-humping" is a perfect term for these scenes, as I recall them; even moreso the forest scene that finally convinced me the book was complete shite. But I do recall this odd habit Meyer had of making Bella the smartest kid to ever set foot in Water or Tree or Town or Ville or whatever the hell the name of the town in Twilight is. (I also recall the annoying meme in the book in which big-city Bella has already learned what the students in the one-horse podunk town are just now getting to.)

Anyway, SamuraiFrog is doing one chapter a week, on Sundays. He's done Chapters One and Two already. Snark directed at a worthy target is always fun!

Musical Parking Lot at Schmitt Music

I saw this photo used to illustrate a post over at Matthew Yglesias's blog. The post is about drawing inferences about liberals or conservatives based on car ownership rates or something like that, but I was just struck by the building, which is adorned with a segment from a piece by Ravel. I can't believe that in a number of trips to the Twin Cities while in college, as a music major, that I never saw this!

Let's go Bucs!

Once I was a baseball fan, but my enthusiasm for the game has taken a number of hits over the years. The game itself has become slower and slower; World Series games are allowed to start at 8:30 pm and frequently end after midnight; the steroid era has taken its toll; and most of all, my preferred team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, are on the verge of setting the all-time MLB record for consecutive losing seasons. That, in itself, is mind-boggling.

Yes, they're a small-market club, and yes, MLB doesn't do nearly enough to keep its small-market clubs economically able to play along with the big-market clubs. But even the other small-market teams around MLB manage to put it together at least once in a while, but not so the Pirates, who continually stink. The pattern has been set ever since 1992, the last time they fielded a winner: they bring up a bunch of youngsters; the youngsters either play well or disappoint; the ones who disappoint leave; the ones who play well are traded for more prospects, and the team stinks again. Lather, rinse, repeat: the Pirates are now on their fourth or fifth "rebuilding project" since 1992.

What they're doing now is aggressively trading guys with the goal in mind of restocking a farm system that's been depleted on talent during the last run of not-so-great baseball. Yes, they're piling in prospects -- not exactly blue-chippers, but they're adding guys who could be decent major leaguers eventually, if the things I'm reading are any guide. But then, it doesn't really matter who they add, because the guys who become good won't be good enough to make the team a contender but they'll be good enough to be trade-bait to other teams. They traded their best offensive player earlier this year (after signing him to a long-term deal last year), and today they swapped out more players for prospects.

So basically, the Pirates are like the Springfield tire-fire on The Simpsons. With the Pirates, the fire sale never ends!

Monday, June 29, 2009

"Leave the gun. Grab the canoli."

I figured, a while ago, that it was high time I eliminated a particularly large gap in my movie watching career. I've long indicated that stories about the Mob and organized crime in general aren't my cup of tea, to the point where I refuse to see Goodfellas as the rightful Best Picture of 1990. Sorry, Scorsese fans, but I will always love Dances With Wolves more. But, while I have little interest in watching stuff like The Sopranos, I decided that I should at least venture to see the most celebrated film ever made in this genre. So it was that I watched The Godfather, at long last.

Now, I've seen bits and pieces of The Godfather over the years, many and many of the bits and pieces. It turned out that when all those bits and pieces were added up, I had, in fact, seen most of the movie's important parts; the overall plot came as no surprise to me at all, except in a few spots where I finally got to put together the story mechanics behind some very famous scenes. I wasn't going into the movie with any kind of chip on my shoulder, mind you; I expected The Godfather to be a very good movie. But wow, what a movie. That's about all I have to say about it, really, in terms of overall appraisal. The Godfather is just an awfully good film. So, some random observations:

:: You know you're watching a special movie when you're unaware, or only occasionally aware, of the passage of time. The opening scene, at the wedding of Don Corleone's daughter, seems over pretty quickly, and yet it's about half an hour long. And yet, look how much of the movie is set up in that scene! It's really pretty amazing. Virtually everything is foreshadowed in that half an hour, and it's foreshadowed so artfully that we don't even realize we're being foreshadowed, most of the time. (And when we do realize it, the eventual payoff – such as the "service" that Bonaserra is eventually called upon to perform – is surprising in itself.)

:: Passage of time in the movie itself, within the story, is hard to get a handle on, and it seems as though the events of the Corleone family and their enemies don't occupy any real relationship to the world around them. It is unclear as to how many years go by in the course of the film; Michael Corleone is back from Sicily for a minute or two of film time and it turns out that a year has gone by. Don Corleone himself goes from elder with lots of vitality to ancient patriarch before our eyes.

:: The passage of time thing brings up a larger point, that the world the film depicts – the world of the Sicilian mob in New York – is a totally insular one, isn't it? There's almost no depiction of any connection to the doings of the outside world, except as they relate to the criminal activities of the Corleones. It's also interesting to see that law enforcement plays almost no role in this movie. There's a dirty cop who isn't around very long, and during the wedding that opens the film some FBI agents are taking down the license plate numbers of those in attendance, but that's about it, isn't it?

:: I wish I hadn't known about the decapitation of the race horse before it happened; I'll bet that was a shocking moment to audiences back when this film came out. Instead, I'm kind of saying to myself: "Hey! That's the horse whose head gets chopped off to make a point to this arrogant prick!"

:: It's interesting to me that "Luca Brasi" has become a pretty well-known character name in pop culture these days, for a character in a three-hour movie who has very little actual screen time. Luca Brasi isn't around very much at all, is he?

:: The only part of the movie that lagged, in terms of pacing, was the part set in Sicily. It just wasn't terribly interesting, although it did establish the root of Michael Corleone's later ruthlessness.

:: My favorite line of dialogue in the movie is "Leave the gun. Grab the canoli."

I will watch the sequels at some point.

Sentential Links #175

Links for the link-hungry:

:: It was a surprising loss of an icon that many of us grew up with. And, for better or worse, when those things that connect us to a happier past are gone, it makes us feel a little more removed from that past. Of course I know that there are more important issues to worry about. But, as a human being, I am capable of caring about more than one thing at a time.

:: We would still need to have conversations about our argument, we would need to apologize and let go, and talk about it ... but the real forgiveness began with no words, barely any eye contact even, dancing around to "Man in the Mirror" in the men's dressing room.

:: I choose to remember Michael as this force so powerful that on the Motown 25 special, he performed two non-Motown songs, mesmerizing the audience with his moonwalk, and forever stamped his ticket as a pop legend.

:: One could argue that just as the words, the text, can (and should) stand alone, the songs, the performances, can. (Amen.)

:: My heart goes out to the family and fans of Michael Jackson. His death was indeed tragic. But it was hard to watch the media coverage and not be struck by the absurdity of it all. Here are a few things I observed.

:: Farrah was a true American success story. From humble beginnings to a seasoned and respected actress. I loved her. I emulated her. Every generation has their icon and Farrah, for me, was mine. Marilyn was before my time, and I grew up watching and idolizing Fawcett. To watch her go from child-girl, to woman was life changing. And the last moment of her life, to be filed with that much power, and hope and strength went right through me. Farrah was more than just a great actress, she was a great human being. I’ll miss you Farrah. You inspired me. And I’m certain that wherever she is, somewhere off in the distance she can hear:

“Good morning, Angel.”

:: Is it worth saving dolphins, who were not and are not endangered, at the expense of sea turtles, sharks, and many other fish species who are endangered? (Older, but fascinating, post that brings up some issues of which I'd been unaware. via.)

:: It's my belief that private industry is usually able to deliver more efficient outcomes to the consumer than the government could.

But usually isn't always. And health insurance, as Will seems to admit, is one of those exceptions.

:: A few trillion (more actually) to kill a bunch of foreigners in a couple of wars that have yielded almost nothing but instability and suffering? It would be unpatriotic to bring up the price tag.

A couple of trillion in tax cuts for the insanely wealth heir and heiress set? Opposing them would be class warfare.

$1.8 trillion to cover American citizens who (frequently) must choose between food and medicine, their kids welfare and medical treatment, life and death…?

Well, that is a lot of money. Government needs to be more fiscally responsible. Let’s not get carried away. Looks like socialism to me. Just think of the deficits. Does David Broder think the bill is bi-partisany enough?

:: In true MGM studio form, there’s no shortage of talent involved: the physically magnificent ensemble; Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s script and Johnny Mercer’s songwriting that do their best to sell frontier chauvinism with ruddy charisma; Cedric Gibbons’ vibrant sets. And of course, the groundbreaking choreography of Michael Kidd, most notably in the immortal barn raising sequence, where he orchestrates an unprecedented display of footstomping physicality into a harmonious symphony of force and grace. But it’s Donen’s endless playfulness with space that animates all these pieces into magical motion. (Ayup. I love me some Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.)

:: There was a period in the mid- to late-80s when adolescent boys everywhere had a collective crush on Elisabeth Shue. (I love me some Karate Kid too. And yeah, Elizabeth Shue....)

All for this week.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Unidentified Earth #72

OK, we took a week off last week, but now we're back to full strength, or so it would seem...wouldn't it? Hmmmm...anyway.

We have three entries that still have no guesses to them: UI 69 (a location west of the Mississippi), UI 70 (a location in the British Isles), and the last entry, UI 71 (a location in New York State). I know, lame hints, but I'm running low. (And to be honest, I initially didn't even remember what UI 71 was! But now I've remembered. Ha! Hmmmm....)

And here's the new puzzler:

Where are we? Rot-13 your guesses.

Drivers - I could do without 'em.

Several times in recent weeks I've posted over on my Facebook profile about goofy habits people seem to have nowadays when driving, things that people didn't always do and actually wouldn't do at all if they would just remember the fairly simple rules of Right of Way that we all learned way back in Driver's Ed class. It's starting to get maddening. Maddening, I say!

First off, take the four-way intersection. It's well-established that when multiple cars arrive at such a place, they go in order by who got there first. This is usually easy enough, although I do occasionally see the idiot who thinks that stopping behind someone who has stopped at a stop sign actually constitutes stopping at the stop sign himself, and thus, he goes as soon as the guy in front of him goes, so the person who should be next starts moving forward and then has to slam on the brakes again because Mr. Thinks He's Next In Line is going of his own volition. I've blogged about this before, I think.

But the real problem comes when two cars arrive at an intersection at the same time. Oh noes! What are we to do? Well, the Driver's Ed teacher told us, didn't he? The car on the right goes first. So: assume a four-way intersection where the streets correspond to the compass points. I'm going north; Driver #2 is going West. We arrive at the same time. Picturing this scenario, Driver #2 goes first, because of the two of us, he's on the right. But if we flip this around – I'm going south and he's going west – then I go first, because now I am on the right. (This is from the perspective of the drivers, obviously.) This should be easy enough – but not anymore. I don't know if we've forgotten basic Right of Way in this country, or if we're just trying too hard to be polite, but what seems to always happen now in these types of cases is instead of the person on the right going first, we now engage in an annoying ritual. See, I know my Right of Way, so I know that I have to wait until Driver #2 goes – but I see that Driver #2 isn't going. Instead, he's sitting in his car, staring at me, until he finally waves at me to go.

Even worse is when Driver #2 waves for me to go when they stopped first! Yes, this happens too. So commonplace has the annoying "No, you go!" approach to Right of Way become that if I see I'm going to arrive at an intersection at the same time as another driver, I will actually exaggerate my braking on purpose just so I arrive there second, in hopes of avoiding the whole "I'm on the right" thing and instead triggering the "You go because you got there first" rule. And you know what almost always happens when I do this? No dice. Driver #2 starts the "No, you go!" hand waving.

Well, I used to just shake my head and go, but no longer. My new approach is to refuse to go, no matter how much hand-waving Driver #2 goes. If he's got the Right of Way, I am going to sit there motionless until he goes, whether he realizes he's got Right of Way or, more likely, decides that I'm being a jerk and resumes driving, wondering why I spurned his magnanimous behavior. Maybe I am being a jerk, but we came up with those rules for a reason: so intersections don't become morasses of drivers staring at each other in an effort to determine who's going first. My last straw on the "No, you go!" approach to determining intersection Right of Way came a week or two ago when I guy actually arrived first at the intersection, indisputably first, as in, he was first by four or five seconds. He still waved insistently at me, and as I finally conceded and pulled through, I glanced over and saw that he was intently studying a piece of paper which probably contained directions from MapQuest or something. And I thought, "Yeah, stopped at an intersection is where you want to be doing that."

This sort of nonsense is one reason why I have become an even bigger fan of roundabouts (or rotaries, or traffic circles, or whatever they call them where you are) of late. I've always loved them, but now, I think they are supremely fantastic and I can't believe there isn't more of a drive to replace every single four-way stop in the country with a circle. Even those rural four-ways in the back country of Texas, where you can go six years without seeing two cars arrive at the same time. Roundabouts are awesome because they remove nearly all of the guesswork; traffic tends to keep moving, and drivers arriving at the roundabout only have to concern themselves with the cars in the circle. They are so much easier, so much more intuitive, so much less time-consuming, and so much safer. Whoever invented the first roundabout should be on the dollar bill of some large Western country.

My other big complaint of late? Yield signs, and the fact that people insist on treating them as full stop signs. At a number of suburban shopping plazas I tend to frequent around the environs of Casa Jaquandor I find spots where I have a Stop sign where the other drivers have Yields. This seems pretty obvious to me: I stay stopped until everyone's through the intersection and I can go. But no – there's always someone who thinks that they must stop at their Yield sign, look over at me, and start with the "No, you go!" handwaving nonsense again. Now, sometimes this isn't total jerkiness at play; I realize that. One such plaza has an eighteen-screen multiplex next door to Target, so if you're trying to leave the Target lot in the period after the weekend's big blockbuster has let out, frequently the Yield-stoppers are really being nice because otherwise you'd be sitting there forever. (I myself tend to always err on the side of letting people out of their intersections if it's clear they're never getting out unless someone actually lets them.)

But what happens so often is that it's not an effort to let me into an otherwise steady stream of traffic; what's clear is that people are simply treating Yield signs as Stop signs. Just today I arrived at an intersection in a parking lot/service road at the same time as another car; I was on the right, so had we both had Stop signs, I would have had Right of Way. But while I had a stop, he had a Yield, so all he really had to do was slow down and proceed through the intersection. Instead, he came to a full stop himself and, you guessed it, gave me the "No, you go!" bit. This annoyed me on several levels: first, he obviously didn't know what he was really supposed to do at a Yield, and second, he didn't even notice that he was in the right lane of the wide-enough-for-two-lanes driveway, so the two or three cars behind him just swung over, went around him on his left, and proceeded through the intersection! Had I obliged his "No, you go!" waving, I'd have been T-boned by the people he never saw because he was too busy trying to be magnanimous to me. Ugh!

Other annoying things I've noticed lately haven't fallen into the "Right of Way" category, but a more general "How to be a dick when driving" thing. Case in point: last week I'm approaching a big intersection near Casa Jaquandor, where two different four-lane roads come together, plus another two-lane road off to one side. (For those familiar with the area, it's Southwestern Blvd. and Orchard Park Road; Lake Ave. also goes off from there.) I'm northbound on Orchard Park Rd, but I'm going to be turning right onto Southwestern, so I'm in the righthand lane. This was Sunday morning, so the traffic was pretty light; only one car was in front of me, a guy about five or six car lengths ahead of me, in the left lane because he's going straight. So I'm almost at the intersection; I've even got me turn signal on already, as do the two or three cars behind me that will also be making right turns on Southwestern. Easy, right? I'll be able to make a simple right-on-red and go on my way.

Except that the guy in front of me, the guy in the left-hand lane who isn't turning right, at the very last second swerves over into the right lane and stops at the red light, thus preventing any of us behind him from going right-on-red. We had to wait for the full cycle of traffic lights before we could go, and at that intersection, this takes five minutes. I spent those minutes trying to shoot laser beams from my eyes such that they would hit his rear-view mirror and burn the flesh from his head. (This failed. Stupid laser eyes...never work when I want them to....) Now, it's possible that he had a right-hand turn of his own to make after the intersection (there's a large gas station there), but I've been in that situation myself, and it's just not that hard to get from the left lane into the right to make the turn; especially given that most cars in the right-hand lane are turning at the intersection and not after it, thus creating natural openings in traffic to move into, and given that this particular gas station's entrance is about two hundred feet past the intersection and not immediately after it, so this guy really gained nothing by suddenly cutting me off. Other words? He was being a dick.

So that's what it boils down to: learn your Rights-of-way, and don't be a dick on the road. Please oh please.

Sunday Burst of Weirdness

Oddities abound!

:: Robotic pest control. Makes you wonder how C-3PO and R2-D2 powered their exploits....

:: Adolf Hitler opines on bad fonts:


:: If you thought the rock hammer in The Shawshank Redemption was a flight of storytelling fancy, think again -- those are actual implements of various purpose made by inmates in prisons in Germany. Wow.

More next week!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Something for Thursday

I didn't get around to picking something out ahead of time, so now I'm late...and, as it happens, timely. Here's Michael, as I prefer to remember his work:

And here's something in remembrance of Farrah Fawcett:

I don't really remember much of Farrah Fawcett, to be honest; she was off Charlie's Angels before I became aware of the show's existence, and since I was six or seven, the show was more interesting to me for the action and funny detective stuff than for the beauty of the three leads, whoever they might have been. Nothing against Farrah, but she was never really on my personal cultural radar screen. But still, for these two to die at fifty and sixty-two? Harsh, Mr. Reaper. Harsh indeed.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Murder! Whiskey! Sexy!

In catching up on some teevee viewing of late, it seems that my oft-stated mission to adopt no new teevee shows to watch regularly has already failed, as The Wife has taken a liking to the CBS mystery show The Mentalist, which I've also been watching and finding enjoyable, although not quite as much as she does. (I'd love for the main character to be wrong once in a while, for instance. And not just "wrong" as in "out on a limb but all ends well", but really really really wrong, as in, "fingers the wrong guy for a murder" wrong.)

The show is about a small group of detectives in the California Bureau of Investigation (which means that I suppose all episodes will take place in California, as opposed to shows using FBI characters, which are able to set their episodes anywhere in the US -- while still filming in California, I guess) who investigate murders and stuff. The murders tend to be oddball kinds of things: one episode opens with the detectives wandering through a deserted field, having been told by anonymous letter that they'll find a body there; while commenting on the lack of a body, a skydiver plummets to his doom about ten feet from where they're standing with a comically-timed thud. There tends to be a lot of gallows humor on this show.

The title Mentalist refers to the most unusual member of this crime solving team, a guy named Patrick Jane who is extremely smart, extremely knowledgeable about human social behaviors, and freakishly observant. He sometimes seems almost psychic, but his flashes of insight always turn out to hinge on his ability to put together a couple of things he's observed previously -- such as his noting that a guy in a wheelchair has scuffed shoes, or that a psychologist claims ignorance of something he should know about given that he has a whole shelf of books devoted to the topic. Stuff like that.

We didn't find this show until more than halfway through the season, so we didn't watch the episodes in any sort of order, and now that we're in re-runs, CBS has moved the thing around a bit, but now we're able to go back to the beginning thanks to the magic of watching stuff online. This is nice because now we see a bit of the show's backstory. It turns out that Patrick Jane is a former teevee psychic who used to go on shows like Oprah and allow audience members to contact their deceased family members; what's especially refreshing is the show's rigidly skeptical outlook toward stuff like that. Jane is a fraud, he knew he was a fraud, and he knew all along that he was simply exceptionally gifted at cold reading. However, he goes on teevee five years prior to the events of the series and talks about a serial killer disparagingly, and the serial killer murders Jane's wife and daughter as a result. So it turns out that even though The Mentalist is generally a "one episode, one mystery" show, there is some kind of serial backstory flowing through it, as Jane is understandably obsessed with tracking down "Red John" (the serial killer), who is depicted as Moriarty to Jane's Holmes.

As soon as we saw the first of the "Red John" episodes, giving the show some backstory and giving a bit of dark background to our hero Mentalist, I was reminded of one of the shows we liked to watch back in the 1990s, Profiler, which ran on NBC on Saturdays (paired with The Pretender and canceled despite decent ratings so NBC could run that awful Extreme Football crapfest that only lasted a single year). Profiler featured FBI agents who jetted all over the country investigating terrible crimes, led by a female agent (Samantha Waters) who had an ability to "see" the crimes from the eyes of the victims and the criminals, thus allowing her to have special insight. Her ability was never really explained as being psychic or not, where Patrick Jane's is pure observation; but like The Mentalist, Profiler had a long-running backstory in which the heroine was pursuing, and being pursued by, a brilliant serial killer who had murdered her husband.

The Mentalist has more of a sense of humor about it than Profiler did; the latter could get downright grim on occasion. (But not so grim as the similarly-themed Millennium, which, while brilliant in its first two seasons, was also deeply depressing at times.) The cast has good chemistry, which is nice to note, although as I note above, it would be nice if the show would have Jane being completely wrong once in a while. (Of course, we haven't seen all episodes yet, so maybe that's happened and we missed it.)

So now I have a new show to watch. Joy.

Monday, June 22, 2009

They're jamming all frequencies, Captain!!!

Just a quick "check-in" kind of post, since I'm still quite busy and don't have much time for blogging. My father-in-law has been visiting from Idaho since last Tuesday, and he departs for home tomorrow, so spending time with him has obviously taken precedence over blogging; hence my radio silence here. So my usual weekly features -- the Sunday Burst of Weirdness, Unidentified Earth, and Sentential Links -- will be on hold until next week. I also need to upload a whole mess of photos to Flickr, which I'll do later in the week as well. Regular posting should resume tomorrow evening, though. Thanks for checking in!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Light blogging ahead....

I've got a busy weekend lined up, folks, so new content here will likely be sparse until the middle of next week. I may be able to post something here and there, however; you never know. I'm a puzzle.

UPDATE: Here's a really sad story about a little girl's dying wish and a company's granting of it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. My bomb."

A friend of mine sent me a copy of a science fiction movie from a couple of years ago called Sunshine, which I'd never heard of before. And it's really a very good film.

The plot isn't terribly complex: at some indeterminate point in the future, the Sun is "going out", but some physicist figures out how to make a kind of "solar bomb" that can restart the Sun. A ship is sent to deliver this bomb into the Sun, but that expedition fails for unknown reasons, so a second expedition is sent. Shortly into the movie, the ship – called Icarus II, for obvious reasons, with the first ship, the failed one, being Icarus I -- passes beyond a spot beyond which they can send no more messages back to Earth. From that moment on they are alone, and from that moment on, things start going awry.

First off, this is a movie that knows how to handle an implausible Maguffin. If a Star Trek; The Next Generation episode had a star going out and the crew trying to "restart" it, we'd be treated to at least one scene, if not more, in which lots of folderol about subatomic particles and space-time continua and the like would be bandied about in hopes of making it all sound as though it's not what it is: pure BS. Instead, this movie gives the whole "dying Sun" thing exactly as much explanation as I give here in this post. The movie doesn't care about the plausibility of the premise or how it could be glossed over; an opening monologue establishes the situation in four or five sentences, and then we're on board the Icarus II.

This movie falls into that most reliably involving of genres: the "diverse group of people have to get something done by a certain time or absolute disaster will unfold, and meanwhile, everything that could possibly go wrong does" tale. Will the crew have enough oxygen for a return trip? Will the ship suffer damage in a meteor storm? Will the bomb even work? Will they succumb to whatever mysterious fate awaited the Icarus I? Will they manage to keep their psyches in check? The answers to at least a few of those questions are "No", which is what makes for a gripping movie.

The film takes its time in getting moving, introducing us to its characters and creating some real sense of wonder in a few terrific scenes, such as one man's desire to look upon the brightest sunlight he can, and another when the entire crew gathers before an immense viewscreen to watch a transit across the solar surface of the planet Mercury. When the tension starts to increase, it does so slowly at first, and then things get worse faster and faster, as the ship gets closer and closer to the sun. There are many excellent character moments -- most of the characters in the film are memorable people, refreshingly enough -- and the various moral dilemmas they all end up facing all seem quite real. Visually, the film is extremely well done; the effects aren't terribly complex, but they don't need to be and despite the film's plot involving the sun going out, everything the movie shows us feels plausible enough. You really get the feeling that if we build a big ship for an expedition to the Sun at some point, that's what the ship is going to look like.

The movie starts out slowly, and builds up its tension until it's one of the more effective SF thrillers I've seen. There is a gradual shift in tone in the film -- I don't want to say too much, but eventually there's a killer on the loose -- but it all worked for me, very well. This movie drew me in and did so quickly.

The performances are all terrific; the cast is necessarily small, and fortunately there is excellent chemistry amongst them, which is an essential ingredient for a film as tightly focused as this one. The only actor I recognized by name was Michelle Yeoh as one of the crewmembers, although I was impressed by Rose Byrne (who, when I looked her up, turns out to be the actress who played Dorme in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, a performance of a bit part that I praised a short time ago) and Cillian Murphy as "Capa", an actor whose looks remind me eerily of Judson Scott. (Holy crap, Judson Scott is about to be 57 years old! How did that happen!)

I recommend Sunshine highly. I found it a deeply satisfying SF film.

Something for Thursday

Time for something traditional, so here are The Corrs and The Chieftains joining forces to create a charming rendition of the traditional Irish song "I Know My Love".

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Monday, June 15, 2009

Spaceships that go "Whoosh"!

No matter how far afield I go, I always return to my true reading love: space opera. Here are notes on a few recent space opera reads, with qualification in one case.

:: As I noted when I posted about John Scalzi's Old Man's War, military SF isn't really my thing. I like it once in a while, but a lot of times, Mil-SF seems to come too close to being "war porn": fiction for people who really like war. My space opera tastes require some of that good old "sensawunda", along with some elements of the fantastic. Usually you won't find that in Mil-SF in great degree. Well, you don't find that in great degree in Scalzi's OMW follow-up The Ghost Brigades, either, but what you do find is a compelling story with finely written characters and a complex and fascinating plot that deepens our view of the universe Scalzi had set up in his first novel.

For those not up to speed, in OMW we learn that Earth is the homeworld for the expansion of the human species throughout space. Unfortunately, lots of other alien species are also trying to expand throughout space, and it turns out that Scalzi's alien races aren't of the Star Trek type, willing to be lived along with in peace and harmony after Captain Kirk or Picard drops by to kick-start them out of whatever weird habit it is that they've got going on. No, Scalzi's aliens hate humans and want to kill them, and for the most part, Scalzi's humans hate the aliens and want to kill them right back. So the stellar human government, the Colonial Union, has created an army of enhanced humans called the Colonial Defense Force (the CDF), whose ranks are filled with the elderly from Earth who want to leave their world behind and get a new lease on life (by taking on a new, enhanced body). Hence the title Old Man's War.

Mentioned also in OMW was the "special elite forces" of the CDF, the "Ghost Brigades", whose ranks are filled not with elderly recruits but with soldiers specifically cloned from the DNA of the dead. This second novel focuses attention on these special forces soldiers and the trials they face as clones. The plot is fairly simple, at the outset: the Colonial Union is facing a daunting alliance of three alien races, who are being aided by a traitorous human who is giving the aliens information on the Colonial defenses. In an attempt to access the memories of this traitor – who has left behind a clone in an attempt to fake his own death – the CDF proceeds to "grow" a new soldier out of the traitor's clone's body, a soldier named Jared Dirac, whose memories do, in fact, later begin to surface. The questions become not just where is the traitor and what has he done, but also why he has done it at all. The answers to these questions are pleasantly surprising.

The Ghost Brigades is a stronger book, overall, than OMW, which was much less a plot-driven tale than an episodic one. TGB maintains a tighter pace, which picks up quite a lot of steam as the climax nears, and the resolution is particularly satisfying, if a tad bittersweet. (Yes, bittersweet. In a Mil-SF novel.) I was especially pleased that some of the questions I had about the ongoing political nature of the OMW universe are explored here; I figured Scalzi had some answers up his sleeve, and here he gives them. TGB is a terrific read. I give it two stars. Why only two? Because Scalzi says something mean about the Ewoks in the book, and that's just not nice. Otherwise he'd get three and a half.

(I'm pretty sure I recall Scalzi indicating that his intention with TGB, at least in part, was to write a book in a series where it wasn't necessary to have read the first one. Since I've read the first one, I can't say for sure how well he achieved that goal, but my sense is that if you haven't read OMW, you might not pick up on some nuances in TGB but you'll be able to understand the book just fine.)

:: Somewhere I got the idea that Andre Norton's Moon of Three Rings was a space opera, but it's not. It's got some of that space opera feel, but the entire book takes place on a single planet, with nothing happening in space per se, which makes it not space opera but space opera's sister genre, planetary romance. Oh well. I love a good planetary romance as much as a good space opera, just as long as I know I'm reading one so I'm not getting halfway through the book and thinking, "Where are all the spaceships?" (Now, there is a sequel to Moon of Three Rings which I haven't yet read, called, I think, Exiles of the Stars. Maybe that's a space opera? I'll report back when I read that one.)

Anyway. To my knowledge I've never read any Norton before, which makes her a pretty big hole in my SF reading life. Andre Norton died a few years ago, and she was one of the most prolific SF writers of the 20th century. How she managed to slip through the cracks of my reading life until now, I'm not sure, but I'm glad to have finally got round to her and I plan to read more of her in the future.

Moon of Three Rings takes place on the planet Yiktor, where the trade ship Lydis has just landed. Crewman Krip Vorlund decides to go out and see some sights, eventually taking in a "beast show" – an exhibition of Yiktor's exotic wildlife – that is run by a charismatic priestess named Maelen. Before Vorlund can return to his ship, however, he is kidnapped by a "Combine" which intends to use Vorlund as a tool to gain weapons from the space traders in order to continue their conquest of all of Yiktor. Maelen comes to Vorlund's rescue, but her method is somewhat unique: she causes Vorlund to switch bodies with a beast of Yiktor called a "barsk". The barsk is a wolf-like beast, and now Krip Vorlund finds himself in a race against time: he is evading his pursuers at the same time he is trying to recover his own body and then make it back to his ship before it blasts off again.

As noted, this was my first encounter with Andre Norton. It took me a little while to get into her style, but once I did, I realized that she had a finely honed voice and a gift for descriptive imagination. Her alien environments are alien enough to be exotic but not so alien as to be unrecognizable, and she is able to convey the nature of various beings without resorting to easy metaphors (like my use of "wolf-like" in the preceding paragraph). One thing that did take a bit of getting used to was likely specific to this novel: she alternates between the viewpoints of Krip Vorlund and Maelen every couple of chapters, but each is written in first person, so it was a bit difficult getting used to this. Fortunately she varies the voices of these characters nicely, and I noticed that she didn't do the obvious thing of basically saying, "OK, now let's go view these same events through the other person's eyes now." Each time the viewpoint changes, the story keeps going from the place the other character had left it. I appreciated that.

I don't know how much Norton I'll ever get to read; she was very prolific. But I definitely plan to read more.

Finally, a regular reader of this blog and a regular correspondent of mine offered up a recommendation way back when I first announced my desire to read as much space opera in one lifetime as I can: an old book called Space Viking by H. Beam Piper. Just finding this book proved a bit difficult. Several times I would locate a copy on eBay, only to get outbid on it (or have to pass it up in moments of lean economic activity). The book has actually shown up on Project Gutenberg, so I figured I would have to read it that way eventually – until a few months ago when I was in Barnes&Noble and just happened to see that Space Viking had been reissued in mass-market paperback by Cosmos Books. Score! Anyway, Space Viking was one of the books I took with me on my trip out west for my mother-in-law's funeral. I started it on the plane ride home, and finished it over the subsequent weekend.

What's Space Viking about? Well, it is a tale of murder and revenge, of love and loss, of space wars, of rogues and knaves, of court politics and the nature of history, lots of worlds, lots of characters, and nice big spaceships. And it packs all that into under 250 pages. No overwriting here, nosiree, Bob.

As the book opens, Lord Lucas Trask is marrying his beloved, a woman named Elaine; however, before the ink is dry on their marriage license, Elaine perishes in an attempt by an insane local noble to kill both her and Lord Trask. After the murderer escapes by stealing the newly built starship Enterprise, Trask decides to go after him and pursue revenge by becoming a "Space Viking". Space Vikings are precisely that: men who raid lesser worlds and steal their goods. In this way Trask begins to build a force, which over time becomes influence over several worlds, which over more time becomes the beginnings of something of an Empire. Meantime, the whole revenge thing percolates in the back of his mind.

It's really something of a throwback to read something like Space Viking, a book which is more than forty years old. It doesn't read like "Old SF", though, at least as far as I can tell. Sometimes when I read old SF novels, they really do seem old; not so this one. Its scientific content isn't all that great, but Piper is more concerned with exploring themes of morality and history than dealing with the newest scientific ideas of the day, and his focus is constantly on his characters and their actions instead of the settings and the "Gee whiz" stuff.

Anyway, track down Space Viking. It's a terrific read.

Sentential Links #174

Linkage...always linkage....

:: It is not comforting to me that we seem to be leaving the makeup of the Supreme Court to the admissions committees at the Yale and Harvard Law Schools.

:: If you're a citizen of a state other than ours, you can be forgiven for thinking that New York follows the accepted and established forms of governance to be found elsewhere. Nothing could be further from the truth. (Our State Senate debacle in a nutshell. Ugh. Both of these links via.)

:: Whenever I find myself talking about new media to skeptics of an older generation who worry that the standards online are too debased, I try to remind people that the real debasing came with the rise of multi-channel cable news. In terms of the Iranian elections, the world’s top newspapers have the people on the ground reporting the main facts, and there’s lots of smart analysis from legitimate experts all over the web, but on television if it can’t be captured by two talking heads debating each other it’s like it never happened.

:: It’s also likely that people were feeling the pinch before the official recession, but it went unnoticed because unless rich people see their portfolios shrink, the economy is fine in the media’s eyes. But in the light of the epic failure of the American car industry, we also have to ask ourselves---could it be that people started to realize that casual dining chains suck, and took their eating out dollar somewhere else?

:: I've spent the last few weeks revisiting Prydain, a land I loved very much when I was a kid but haven't really been to in a very long time.

:: Erasmus: “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”

:: I was going to make a crack about how Becky conveniently arranged the parade to conclude at the cemetery where Wally’s grave was, but in all likelihood in the world of Funky Winkerbean it’s impossible to plan a parade — indeed, it’s impossible to plan a trip of any significant distance — that doesn’t end up at a graveyard.

:: The first time I saw him, he was striding toward me out of the burning Georgia sun, as helicopters landed behind him. His face was tanned a deep brown. He was wearing a combat helmet, an ammo belt, carrying a rifle, had a canteen on his hip, stood six feet four inches. He stuck out his hand and said, "John Wayne." That was not necessary. (John Wayne was all kinds of awesome.)

More next week.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Unidentified Earth #71

We're almost caught up, with the exception of last week's UI 70, a place where astronomical knowledge can come into play, and the preceding UI 69, around which no one has circled the wagons to guess correctly. But UI 68 was pegged as Tintern Abbey, the Wales church-in-ruins that served as inspiration to one of William Wordsworth's more famed poems. Congrats, guessers!

And now for the new puzzler:

Where are we? Rot-13 your guesses!

Sunday Burst of Weirdness

Oddities abound!

:: Things are better with cellophane!

:: Why didn't anyone warn us nine years ago???

That's about all for this week; I didn't find as much outright oddity out there. But that just means I didn't look hard enough....

Love and Hate!

Well, that post title should cover it all, shouldn't it? Anyhow, Jason and SamuraiFrog did this quiz-thing, and I'm always willing to follow wherever angels tread, or something like that, so here we go:

1. Most hated food: Well, this is a no-brainer, and longtime readers can see my answer coming a mile away. So, here it is: broccoli is the purest distillation of pure evil in plant form as you will ever find on this planet.

2. Most hated person: I don't like hating people, really. There are lots of people I dislike intensely, and the word "hate" can be a useful shorthand for "Wow, that guy/lady really rubs me the wrong way", but I wouldn't go so far as to say I hate them. That said, I dunno -- Dick Cheney works. Or Newt Gingrich. Or Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck. Anyone who regularly appears on FOX "News".

3. Most hated job: I've never really hated any of my jobs, to be honest. For a week out of college I worked as a "helper" -- that should read "pack mule" -- for a beverage delivery company, helping to deliver beer to bars and supermarkets. That was OK, but the boss there was a complete jerkoff who didn't bother telling me after that first week that he just couldn't use me that summer after all. (It was a work "on call" type of thing; you called every night to see if you were needed the next day, or something like that. This went on for two weeks before the idiot actually told me what the actual story was. He was a goof, but I didn't dislike the actual job.)

And then there was my telesales job. Didn't really hate that job either, but it was not a good fit for me, and I'm retroactively surprised that I managed to work there a year and a half before I was canned. My office was full of nice people that I liked immensely. I will note that the reason they finally used for canning me was staggeringly bogus (they did one of those deals where they invoked a certain standard of operations that, had they applied it consistently, would have required the firing of more than half the people working there), but at that point I was fine with it. And as luck had it, two months later The Wife was offered the promotion that took us to Syracuse, so I would have left that company anyway.

4. Most hated city: Davenport, IA. What a hole!

OK, I'm kidding -- I always actually liked the Quad Cities a lot when traveling through there. Of the places I've lived, I liked Syracuse least, but we only lived there eight months, and it was over winter, so I don't think Syracuse got a proper chance to impress me, and I was able to see that it has some strong things going for it. As far as cities I've visited but not lived in, The Wife and I spent a weekend in Dallas for a business thing ten years ago, and in that time I think I literally saw everything in Dallas that I could want to see. (Well, I didn't see Southfork, so there's that.)

5. Most hated band: Guns-n-Roses. I know, they're all iconic and stuff, the metal version of the Beatles or something, but I just can't get beyond the fingernails-on-chalkboard aspect of Axl Rose's singing voice.

6. Most hated web site: Ye Gods, I have no idea. Maybe I'm not good at hating stuff? There are aspects of some sites that I dislike, mainly the "interactive" portions -- I visit Ain't It Cool News daily because I genuinely like the articles there, but the TalkBacks are just awful. And the Film Score Monthly forums are usually a good source of info for new releases of film music recordings and the occasional appreciative article about a composer I'm unfamiliar with, thus steering me in directions I'd not considered, but there are also some bizarre personalities there, and the regular burst of Jerry Goldsmith worship over there gets annoying. (Seriously -- it's like moon cycles or something. All of a sudden there will be a profusion of threads with titles like "I miss Jerry!", which I always find creepy. When did film music fans get to be on a first name basis with Goldsmith and Goldsmith alone?)

7. Most hated TV program: I've actually been more exposed to it lately, because The Daughter likes it, but I still can't get behind The Family Guy, which is nearly always unfunny crap to me. I've watched it three or more times a week for months now, and I can still count on one hand the number of times it's made me laugh. I am impressed at the breadth of pop-cultural references the show makes, but since none of them are funny, it all adds up to "Meh".

The times it made me laugh? Well, when someone was being uptight, the dog said, "Wow, it must be lonely there for you, back in the Fifties!" And at one point Peter says "You can kiss the fattest part of my ass", which is, admittedly, a line I plan to employ in real life. And there was a scene where the baby and the dog were trying to talk to each other on walkie-talkies that was really funny, even if it was a rip-off of the classic Airplane! cockpit chatter scene. ("Over!" "What?" "Roger, roger!" "Huh?")

8. Most hated British politician: Hmmm. I liked Tony Blair until he decided looked at George W. Bush's foreign policy and decided "Hey, I gotta get me some of that!" Margaret Thatcher didn't do much for me. And one can always delve into history a bit: Neville "Oh, go ahead, take Czechoslovakia! Are we good now?" Chamberlain. And how about the monarchy itself? I'm looking at you, Richard III.

9. Most hated artist: Hell, I don't know. I vaguely recall reading of an artist who poses dead house pets into bizarre poses and then photographs them; that sounds icky, but I may be misremembering and frankly I don't much feel like Googling it.

10. Most hated book: A three-way tie, between Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and Twilight. The Difference Engine also nearly makes the cut, as does The Celestine Prophecy.

11. Most hated shop: Wal-Mart, for so many reasons.

12. Most hated organization: The National Review. FOX News. Operation Rescue. The Discovery Institute. And many others like them; can't pick just one. (And always, the New England Stupid Patriots.)

13. Most hated historical event: 9-11-01, not just for the horror of the event itself but for the way it became the justification for so many further bad things.

14. Most hated sport: Spectator sport, I assume? Soccer. I cannot fathom why it's so beloved the world over.

15. Most hated piece of technology: Bluetooth receivers. I don't own one, I don't see where they are actually needed, and I detest the now-almost daily incident where I think someone's addressing me, only to see that no, they're talking into the receiver that's on the other side of their head.

Honorable mention: Twitter. I don't get the appeal, I'm sick of seeing hash-tags everywhere I hang out online now for the benefit of the Twitterfolk, I loathe reading incomprehensible whiny tweets like the idiocy that Senator Chuck Grassley issued last week. You can keep your 140-character bursts, folks; I'm going to stick with the complete sentence and the paragraph.

16. Most hated annual event: Hmmmm. April 15, maybe? Bills-at-Patriots? The lovely day in late August or early September when the Pirates lose their 82nd game of the year? And around here, the noxious thing called "Sweetest Day" annoys the hell out of me.

17. Most hated daily task: Getting up at a ridiculous hour of the morning.

18. Most hated comedian: I never liked Andrew Dice Clay or Sam Kinison.

And now the stuff I love. I have to admit, the hate stuff was much easier to write about. I don't know what that says about me... I'm not sure I want to know...

1. Most loved food: Pizza, in any form. (Sorry, New Yorkers, but your pizza is not the Platonic ideal of what pizza should be. Give it up.)

2. Most loved person: The Wife and The Daughter.

3. Most loved job: My current one. (And I'm not sucking up to management by saying that, either.)

4. Most loved city: It's still Buffalo, but man, are the local and state governments making it as hard as possible to say that. I also adore Toronto.

5. Most loved band: A tie between Van Halen and Pink Floyd. (And to answer my question of the other day, I actually like Van Halen and Van Hagar equally, believe it or not!)

6. Most loved web site: My own, of course. This seems obvious. Here it's all me, all the time. (Which probably explains why I only get about 200 hits a day.)

7. Most loved TV program: Oh, let's stick with my current obsession: Firefly, which I may well re-watch in its entirety soon.

8. Most loved movie: Oh come on, do I even need to say the words? "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...."

9. Most loved artist: John Constable, Monet, Jackson Pollock, Jack Kirby, Paul Gulacy, Jeff Smith, and more.

10. Most loved book: Again, do I even need to say the words? "One ring to rule them all...."

11. Most loved shop: Two years ago I fell in love with the new-and-used bookstores in Ithaca, NY. I still shop at Borders and Barnes&Noble, of course; most of Buffalo's beloved "indie" book and music stores are on the opposite end of town from where I live, so I get to them very rarely, I'm sorry to say. I do wish that Queen City Bookstore or Don's Atomic Comics were closer.

12. Most loved organization: Once upon a time I might have said the Buffalo Bills, but that's not really the case anymore. I like Jason's answer of the Planetary Society. PBS and Public Radio International make me happy.

13. Most loved historical event: July 4, 1776, and all the events leading up to it and the events following it that established our country.

14. Most loved sport: Football. Once upon a time this would have been baseball, but I don't love baseball that much anymore.

15. Most loved piece of technology: My laptop. Once in a while I think back to my 3.5K VIC20 and I'm taken aback by amazement.

16. Most loved annual event: The holiday season. The start of fall. The Super Bowl. Our apparent new annual tradition of watching The Lord of the Rings during Lent.

17. Most loved daily task: Getting home from work.

18. Most loved comedian: George Carlin, always. But I do love Jerry Seinfeld, too.

Friday, June 12, 2009

International Talk Like Jayne Cobb Day!!!

I'm a bit bored, so I'm unilaterally declaring today to be International Talk Like Jayne Cobb Day! And how, for you non-Firefly fans, do you talk like Jayne Cobb? Well, you intersperse expletives like Gorram and ruttin' into your daily discourse, you make sure that your main contributions to conversations involve promoting the virtues of blowing things up with large firearms, and you constantly voice your love of getting paid handsomely for the work you do that you perceive to be much more valuable than it might otherwise be. Fun, eh?

If you encounter a situation that's a bit out of the ordinary, you can say, "Somethin' about that's downright unsettlin'." You can name your biggest, best gun "Vera". And periodically offer pearls of wisdom like "If wishes were horses, we'd all be eatin' steak." See? It's easy! So let your Inner Jayne out today!!!
Here's a good source of Firefly quotes, and let's all talk like Jayne today, you bunch o' ruttin' pisspots!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Unleash the cuteness!

OK, for something completely different, here's a really cute photo that was in an e-mail I received recently. Just because.

Moving on now....

Something for Thursday

In honor of the security guard killed by a deranged lunatic yesterday at the Holocaust Museum in Washington...here is the theme from Schindler's List.

I tire of the violence, and cannot fathom how some people need hatred to live, as if hatred were oxygen.

(This is a wonderful performance of Schindler's List, by the way, by violinist Illenyi Katica, of whom I'd never heard before I found this.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A wretched hive of scum, villainy, and FAIL

The New York State legislature is in the throes of controversy, so much so that they're literally doing nothing, because this week a couple of renegade Democratic State Senators decided to caucus with the Republicans, thus giving the Republicans the majority in the State Senate. The Democrats, who only took the Senate over this year for the first time in decades, are trying to circle the wagons or something. What will this mean for New York politics, given that our state government is a cesspool of failure by any measurable standard except for the ability of people in government to stay there and consolidate their power? Not much, I suppose. This state's government is as bad as it gets.

Makes me almost want to move to Maine, where they're actually working toward eliminating one house of their legislature. Wow...a state legislature that takes things seriously and uses the legislative process to do constructive things, instead of just using various procedural and political processes to maintain status quo? Maine must be a veritable land of milk and honey!

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

Van Halen or Van Hagar?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009


UPDATED below....

Does anyone else have this problem: a blog about which everything grates on your nerves, from the writing to the viewpoints to the pictures posted, and yet you find yourself dutifully visiting that blog every few days just to see what's going on? It's as if I'm getting to witness my own personally-staged trainwreck. Anybody else have something like that, or am I totally screwed up?

(And if I am the blogger you keep reading despite your visceral loathing for my blog, well, thanks for dropping by!)

UPDATE: No, the blog that occasioned me to write this post is not on my blogroll, nor do I even remember ever linking it, although I may have done once or twice, a long time ago. So, don't worry, it's not you. You're awesome!

"I know what you're thinking, and you're right!"

I linked this over on Facebook, but not here, for some reason. Someone did a nifty Star Wars - Magnum PI mashup:

It's pretty amusing, but when I saw the following a day or two later, I actually became impressed with the original effort. It puts the two side-by-side: the original Magnum main titles on the left, and the Han Solo PI title sequence on the right. They really chose shots from Star Wars that match up, thematically and/or visually, with the shots in the Magnum titles! Color me impressed.

I love it!

"These Viennese certainly know good music when they hear it!"

I was mulling over today the answer I gave last week in how to help raise a musical child, and I feel the need now to revise and extend my remarks a bit, because I neglected to mention a blindingly obvious means of stoking a child's interest in music, or at least stoking their realization that music is interesting in itself and is a very real thing that people do in addition to just having on in the background. I'm talking about attending live music.

Now, one should be careful and selective, depending on the age of the child, but live music has to enter into the equation, if one is being serious. This need not necessarily mean whisking the kid to this Friday evening's performance of Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, or to hear Bach's St. Matthew Passion; that probably won't help matters, for the same reason that having a kid's first movie be Citizen Kane or The Seventh Seal isn't the best idea. But most symphony orchestras nowadays, I suspect, have some kind of regular programming during the season for children, and these programs can be delightful -- we took The Daughter to a performance of Beethoven Lives Upstairs a year ago, and a great time was had by all.

If a children's program isn't in the offing, then any "pops" type concert will do, depending on the repertoire one wishes to hear. We're coming up on the 4th of July; those concerts are always a blast, and if you can't attend one, watch it on teevee. Go see The Nutcracker at Christmastime. Watch the annual New Years From Vienna concert. And don't limit it to orchestras, either; if a good ensemble of any kind is performing, take the kid to hear them. Yes, they will be intermittently bored, but the more you do it, the more they will see music as an interesting activity and less as sonic wallpaper.

And finally, don't overlook the most basic of all musical instruments: the human voice. Encourage singing!

Monday, June 08, 2009

A book quiz!

Haven't done a quiz in a while, so here's one I grabbed from Steph. It's about books, so longtime readers probably won't see any surprising answers here.

1) What author do you own the most books by?

Probably Guy Gavriel Kay; I own everything he's published.

2) What book do you own the most copies of?

I don't actually tend to acquire lots of copies of individual books. I do own two copies of Lord of the Rings, and I have two copies of most of GGK's books. (I currently own only one Tigana, because at the time I was buying up new ones on eBay, I couldn't find a Tigana I wanted, and there's only been one version of Beyond This Dark House.) I own three Bibles -- a KJV I bought years ago, a newer KJV that I picked up because it has better reference materials in it, and a TNIV study Bible I bought because its reference materials are really good. (Although it wasn't like I could do a whole lot of camparing, since Bibles are often shrink-wrapped, for reasons I've never been able to fathom. I hate that practice.)

I do own four "Complete Shakepeare" tomes, so that's probably my answer here. I'm a sucker for complete Shakespeares, when I see a neat one somewhere, available cheaply. My problem with each is that they are all too big to carry around on a regular basis. I pine for someone to put out a Complete Shakespeare that is printed similarly to a Bible; surely we can get all of the Bard into a more portable package than the massive volumes I have sitting around here!

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

It does now. Yeesh! I do appreciate good grammar, but ending sentences with prepositions doesn't tend to strike me as the most egregious of grammatical sins. Neither do split infinitives.

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?

Literary crushes? Can there be such a thing? Probably Jehane from The Lions of Al-Rassan.

5) What book have you read the most times in your life?

Wow. I'm not sure. In the running would be GGK's Fionavar Tapestry, The Lord of the Rings, John Bellairs's "Lewis Barnavelt" books, and Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles.

6) What was your favorite book when you were ten years old?

Hmmmm, ten. Ten, ten...that was 1981. Probably Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three.

7) What is the worst book you've read in the past year?

Man, there is no contest at all here: Twilight, which was just embarrassingly awful. I couldn't believe its sheer badness (here's my review), and as I realized just how awful the book was, I was increasingly befuddled by its popularity. How can something this terrible be this beloved by so many obsessives out there? I'm at a complete loss, really. The best explanation I have is that Twilight is basically the single most successful "Mary Sue Story" in the history of English letters. It interests me that every single person I know who loves this book and its sequels is a woman, but even that throws me off a bit; one of them told me that I hated it because "it's not a guy thing", but come on! I'm a guy who loves Titanic, Sleepless in Seattle, Love Actually; I'm a guy who bawls like a little girl during that last scene of An Affair to Remember every time I watch it; I'm a guy who gets excited when Nicholas Sparks has a new book out. Believe me, it's not a guy thing. If ever a book should have been "in my wheelhouse", as it were, Twilight should have been it: I love a good teen romance, I love a good vampire tale, and I love stuff set in the rainy Pacific Northwest. Instead, I had one of the two or three most viscerally negative reactions to a book that I've ever had in my life. The only books I remember loathing more were Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead...and those, at least, made me think a bit. Twilight just made me want to scream to the literary gods, "Why? Why? WHY??!!"

So yeah, I hated Twilight.

8) What is the best book you've read in the past year?

I won't say much about it, because I haven't blogged it yet, but The Terror by Dan Simmons is some seriously brilliant writing.

9) If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?

Wow, I'm not sure. Not everyone would respond the same way I would, right? I'd force everyone to read, oh, Four Centuries of Great Love Poems, an anthology that Borders put out a while back. It's a really good collection, and everybody should read more poetry.

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for literature?

Heavens, I don't know. I wouldn't mind seeing it go to a genre writer, though, so I'll pick Neil Gaiman. Or Gene Wolfe.

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?

Hmmmm...they could make a wildly entertaining flick out of Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, couldn't they? In fact, Quentin Tarantino could direct it. A medieval fantasy, directed by Tarantino...that idea just occurred to me, and now I love it. I wonder if someone could send Tarantino a copy? It would be right up his alley -- lots of blood, unlikeable characters, and foul language to the max.

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?

The notion of the "unfilmable" book has come under some assault of late, but for sheer unfilmability, Bryan Talbot's stunning Alice in Sunderland can only exist as a graphic novel.

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.

Well, maybe this sounds like I'm ducking the issue, but I honestly don't remember dreaming about writers, books, or literary characters.

14) What is the most lowbrow book you've read as an adult?

What does "lowbrow" mean, anyway? I don't believe in "highbrow" and "lowbrow" books -- just "good" and "bad" books. I read a bunch of "Extended Universe" Star Wars books back in the day, if that suffices for this question. But some of them are pretty good (Timothy Zahn's, for instance.)

15) What is the most difficult book you've ever read?

Probably a philosophy text from college -- possibly something from my "Existentialism" class -- or maybe The Brothers Karamazov, which I've failed to finish three times.

16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you've seen?

I've never seen a Shakespeare play. Because I suck.

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians?

Well, since we're talking lit here...I finished, and loved, The Three Musketeers, while I've failed to finished Brothers K. Advantage, French. (But in music, this battle would come down to Berlioz versus Rachmaninov...aieee! I suspect a very very very tiny edge here would go to the French as well.)

18) Roth or Updike?

Haven't read either.

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?

Eggers, but neither is really my cup of tea.

20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?

Shakespeare, but it's not as if I'm terribly familiar with those other two fellows. (One of my favorite literary quotes is from CS Lewis, and goes something like, "If one has a choice between reading a new book about Chaucer and simply re-reading Chaucer, one should re-read Chaucer." This question made me think of that.)

21) Austen or Eliot?

Austen, I suppose. Which Eliot, though? Comparing Jane Austen to TS Eliot seems odd.

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?

I have tons of gaps in my reading. Tons. In SF? I've yet to read Dune or much Heinlein or Niven or Mieville. In fantasy, I've not yet read Brust. "Regular" lit? You name the author, I haven't read enough of him or her (Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, Byron, et al). I constantly feel as though I am behind on my reading.

23) What is your favorite novel?

The Lions of Al-Rassan by GGK.

24) Play?


25) Poem?

List time, here: "Annabel Lee", by Poe. "Green Grow the Rashes", by Burns. Any of Shakespeare's sonnets. Various works by Li Po. And so on.

26) Essay?

I don't recall the title, but it's the selection in Leonard Bernstein's The Joy of Music about why Beethoven is great.

27) Short story?

See? I need to read more short fiction. One that always stands out in my mind is "The Secret Shih-Tan" by Graham Masterton. Also "The Body" by Stephen King.

28) Work of non-fiction?

Cosmos, Carl Sagan; On Writing, Stephen King; The Joy of Music and The Infinite Variety of Music, Leonard Bernstein; The Lives of the Great Composers, Harold Schonberg; Little Chapel on the River, Gwendolyn Bounds; anything by Bill Bryson.

29) Who is your favorite writer?

Pressed to limit myself to just one, the obvious: Guy Gavriel Kay.

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today?

Stephenie Meyer. Seriously, she is terrible.

31) What is your desert island book?

Boat Construction and Celestial Navigation for Dummies, right? Or, keeping with the spirit of the question, I suppose I'd want a complete Shakespeare.

32) And ... what are you reading right now?

The Sagas of the Icelanders (I'm not going to read the entire volume, but two or three selections within); In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson; The Demon by Jack Kirby.

And there we have it! Hooray!

Sentential Links #173

Time for the clicking of links.

:: This is a disgrace, and is emblematic of everything that’s wrong with Buffalo. (Some salty language here, but seriously, what Alan's describing here and in a series of subsequent posts is nauseating. It's sometimes as if Buffalo enjoys sucking.)

:: Official Russian history. The gold standard for truth and objectivity.

:: It's interesting to me to see how my perspective on stories and characterization has evolved over the years; TRUE LIES is a quite different experience for me now than I remember it being on first, or subsequent viewings. (I wish I could remember where I first read this suggestion, but somebody once wrote that the movie's perfect ending would have had Arnold saying something to Jamie Lee Curtis something like, "How can I make up that other stuff to you?" and then, cut to a hotel room, lights out, with Curtis sitting in a chair as Arnold starts doing a striptease. That would have been better than the actual ending.)

:: The amazing science fiction future is actually fantasy. Jetpacks and rayguns are the equivalent of dragons and magic. Buck Rogers is the scientific equivalent of Harry Potter. You can’t have your jetpack any more than you can have Excalibur.

:: I think there is a presumption that people should be able to decide for themselves what facts about themselves to reveal; and that decent people should respect this, absent some compelling reason not to. (Ed Whelan is a shit, pure and simple. He deserves the flak he's getting. He pitched a hissy fit in the only way he could think of; what he did is the blogging equivalent of the time in grade school when some other kid got mad at me at the lunch table so he squirted mustard onto my cookie. What an ass. Hilzoy has it exactly right, here.)

:: Mr Buchanan made the argument for her himself with his confidence that his audience would know what he was sneering at when he sneered at Pinocchio and the troll under the bridge.

A language isn't an assemblage of words. It's a collection of shared references.

You can't speak English well unless you know what troll and what bridge and what happened to him.

:: I wish I could personally slap every single person who ever used the phrase “legislating from the bench”. That’s just code for “making decisions I disagree with.” (Couldn't agree more.)

:: Why wouldn’t Archie want to marry Betty?

The answer is simple.
(Another salty language alert...but a hilarious post. But I sure wish somebody could explain just why Archie has a tic-tac-toe sign shaved into the side of his head. I asked on Facebook and nobody knew!)

:: Yet another piece of evidence that, in a lot of ways, the 1970s and '80s were a much better time... (I remember that intro well; Kung Fu used to air in the afternoons on the independent teevee station in Portland that also had Star Trek on after school. I didn't quite understand Kung Fu, but it was there. Once, when I was working in the restaurant ten years ago, I was standing near the front door with our hostess, who was an older lady with a wicked sense of humor. A guy walks by on the street outside with a backpack filled to the gills, walking in that slow amble of a guy walking very far, and my hostess says, "Huh. Guy looks like Kung Fu." She was happy that I got the joke.)

:: When people who are the "other" in this society succeed, they've often learned to navigate both the majority culture as well as their own. For instance, I know there are things that I don't have to endure because I'm a male. I don't always know what they are, but I surely know they exist.

:: I do know that if love transcends the boundaries of life and space and time, I have amassed more than enough to carry me safely to my next destination. And I hope that I have left enough behind to help light a path so that we may one day meet again. (I saw this linked on the AOL main page -- it's the final post of a man who died of cancer last week. It's...well, it's exactly what you'd expect. Deepest condolences to his family.)

More next week.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Books! Books! Books!

Book sale haul!, originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

This weekend marks the quarterly Used Book Sale at my local public library, and this photo shows the books I bought for myself. (There were other things for The Wife and The Daughter.) This sale was more productive, owing to the fact that they were able to have the sale in the usual room again; the sale in March was put in a tiny room about one-third the size of the usual room, owing to remodeling that was going on at the time.

From left to right, we have:

:: What Dreams May Come, by Richard Matheson. I never saw the movie, but I like Matheson a lot.

:: Three SF books featuring a heroine named "Kris Longknife". I'm not sure I've ever heard of these before, but they looked fun, so there they are.

:: Mary Stewart's King Arthur trilogy. (The books are in order.) I was thinking a few weeks ago that I really should re-read these, as I adored them when I first read them way back in 1992 and I've never re-read them since. Now I have nicer hardcovers to read. My MMPB's of these books are OK, but the problem is that with many fantasy books published MMPB format in the late 80s and early 90s, maps tended to be nearly illegible. (I had a MMPB Lord of the Rings where the map was almost completely unreadable.)

(There was a fourth book that Stewart added later on, called The Wicked Day, which tells the story of Camelot's fall from the viewpoint of Mordred. She wrote a sympathetic Mordred that was so effective that I've had trouble with standard, "villainous" Mordreds ever since.)

:: A food book by Calvin Trillin. I've heard good things about Trillin and not much read him.

:: Bring On the Empty Horses! by David Niven. I've wanted to read this for years, but the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library's copy is non-circulating, for some reason. This is a Hollywood memoir by one of the wittiest men ever. (The title is from one of the more notable set directions from Michael Curtiz, one of Hollywood's great directors but also a man who had trouble with English as a second language. When, after a number of nominations, he finally won the Oscar, he started his speech with: "Always a bridesmaid, and never a mother." My favorite Curtiz fractured-English tale is when he told someone he wanted a poodle on the set, so the prop guy went and got him a poodle; Curtiz exploded and yelled, "Not a dog! A poodle! A poodle of water!") Anyway.

:: Two poetry collections, because I can't help myself. Too bad they didn't have the third volume.

:: An old illustrated version of Robin Hood. I picked it up, hoping it was Howard Pyle, but it wasn't. Still, it's a handsome volume and I'll do more research on it at some point.

All in all, a satisfying take, even if I didn't see anything that I thought would make a good sale on eBay.

Unidentified Earth #70

OK! We have two identifications: UI 66 has been pegged as the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX -- otherwise known as the location of "Mission Control". (Although I'm not sure what the object pictured there is -- some kind of antenna, maybe?) Also, UI 67 was finally pegged as Riverside, IA -- the town that has proclaimed itself the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk. Hooray! UI 68 is, however, still Unidentified, which strikes me as a poetic turn of events, and no one has yet shown enough pioneering spirit to peg the location of last week's UI 69. Hmmmm.

And that brings us to the new puzzler:

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

Sunday Burst of Weirdness

Oddities abound!

:: I'm sure we've all noticed that sooner or later, everything reputed to be bad for you turns out to be not so bad for you, as long as you use it in moderation. Hence, lard makes a comeback. I'm interested by this, seriously.

:: If you are near death, take care of your parking arrangements first, because....

:: Can any fans of M*A*S*H refer me to the episode that featured a female Arabic suicide bomber? I've seen a lot of the show, but not every episode.

:: Oddly, for all the weird behavioral tics of our two very dumb cats, jumping on the counter isn't one of them, which means that I won't be able to put this plan into action.

More next week!

Friday, June 05, 2009

Serves me right for not being musical.

A reader recently asked how one goes about cultivating an interest in music in children, apropos of this post of mine from last week in which I noted that The Daughter has this year taken up the string bass. Some thoughts on that:

:: I suppose that making an instrument a simple requirement might work -- "You're taking piano lessons, Johnny, so suck it up and practice your Czerny!" -- but that also runs the risk of backfiring, in the same way that forcing the reading of Shakespeare on eighth graders can permanently stunt their desire to read the Bard (or see his plays).

But music is such a useful thing to learn. It doesn't always seem useful, though, which is part of why music is always one of the first items on the chopping block when school budget cuts happen. In addition to simply enriching one's life if one can appreciate music beyond whatever the "pop crap of the day" happens to be, music can also be a good path to the learning of discipline and work that might not reveal itself in other pursuits. It's a lot easier for a kid to understand why it's important to practice scales over and over again than it is for them to understand why they should have to do 40 examples of the same math problem in a single night. (Or, maybe not. I rarely did all of my math homework.) So how to encourage it?

Well, one general rule can be adapted from the usual advice as to how to raise a good reader: it helps if the parents read themselves. A kid who grows up surrounded by books and who regularly observes her parents reading and taking pleasure in reading is exponentially more likely to enjoy reading herself. Likewise, a kid who grows up surrounded by music will, I suppose, by exponentially more likely to take at least some kind of passive interest in music when the time comes.

This doesn't necessarily imply that the parents have to play an instrument. Just having an environment in the home where lots of music is heard helps, and the more diverse the music, the better. I remember hearing, as a small child, music from classical to Broadway to country, and more. Music was a standard feature in our home, so it was perfectly normal.

Now, I was also predisposed to see music as a respectable activity by virtue of my sister's constant practice of piano and, eventually, the French horn. (I even remember, very vaguely, the place we bought our piano from. I don't recall a whole lot, but it was in Portland and we rode upstairs in an immense cargo elevator.) Even so, I didn't decide that I wanted to play an instrument on my own until my school band teacher, Mr. Beach, summoned me to the band room to inquire as to my interest. I thought, "Hey, why not."

It was fifth grade when Mr. Beach recruited me for band. After one year of French horn, I switched over to cornet/trumpet, and I played that for a further two years before I finally decided that I actually wanted to be good at the damned thing. So after about two-and-a-half years of bring in band, I finally saw the virtue of practice. It takes time. Practice is drudgery, right up until the moment of epiphany when a music student realizes that practice is nothing more than playing for an audience of oneself. But up until that, getting me to practice was like getting a kid to enjoy bathing. My parents had to order me to practice every night.

As for The Daughter, she simply announced last year, either just before the school year or a few days into it, that she wanted to play an instrument. We'd occasionally made the suggestion to her before, with a "maybe someday" answer, but we never forced it. She knew that The Wife and I both played instruments in our youths, and she's been around music all her life, especially in church. I figured she'd show an interest sooner or later, and she did.

So that's my advice: don't try to force music on your kids, but surround them with it. The rest will take care of itself.