Friday, July 31, 2009

Bad Joke Friday!

Why do fish swim in salt water?

Because pepper makes them sneeze.


Thursday, July 30, 2009

Your daily dose of AIEEE!!!

I mentioned "Extreme Kayaking" just last week, and now I see an actual example. These photos stunned me on a number of levels. A kayaker successfully ran a 186-foot high waterfall in eastern Washington.

That waterfall is higher than Niagara Falls. Of course, the volume of water is significantly less, but still -- 186 feet? I find that mindboggling. Truly mindboggling.

Something for Thursday

I've had marches on the brain for a while, but I think it's time to change the pace a bit. All marches -- funeral marches, circus marches, military marches, grand marches -- are, at heart, processionals; but there are other ways to write processional music. Here is one of my favorite processional works of all.

I couldn't decide which of these two renditions of this piece of music to use, so I'm using both. From Wagner's opera Lohengrin, here is "Elsa's Procession to the Cathedral", with original orchestra and chorus:

And here it is, with a wonderful animation, played by wind ensemble in a wonderful arrangement that is a staple of wind ensemble repertoire:

Note that both end differently, as well -- this is because in the opera, the piece doesn't end at all but immediately segues into a dramatic scene. For concert performance of just the "Procession", new endings had to be composed.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Under Heaven"

One of my long-standing wishes is that Guy Gavriel Kay would turn his historical-fantasy approach to Asia -- China, Japan, wherever. According to news posted by GGK himself to Bright Weavings, that's exactly what he's done with his new book:

The new novel is called UNDER HEAVEN. It is a long, single-volume historical fantasy inspired by the extraordinary Tang Dynasty, essentially 8th century China.

It will appear in the English-language markets in April and May of 2010.

Huzzah, again!

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

All the pizza's gone but one slice. Everyone else claims to be full, but you could probably finish that one last piece.

Do you?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Keep it secret, keep it safe


Details here. I can not wait.

That's so wizard, Annie!

Someone at a science fiction convention in Australia caught up with Jake Lloyd, who ten years ago was appearing in theaters everywhere as the future Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker. Lots of people hated Lloyd in the movie, but I never did; I found him fine for the most part, and only think that he probably would have benefited from a director more gifted than George Lucas in handling children. (I've always believed that if ever Steven Spielberg was to have directed a Star Wars movie, TPM would have been the one.) Anyway, here's Mr. Lloyd now, thinking back:

Interestingly, he seems to have just a tiny little bit of residual bitterness toward the people who made fun of him in school for having been Anakin Skywalker. That look in his eye suggests a potential turning-to-the-Dark-Side to me. Hmmmm...maybe Lucas should have just waited ten years and made Attack of the Clones with Lloyd!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Find that program and have him de-rezzed!

The first real indication I had as a kid that geek culture could be a lonely thing was when the movie TRON came out. I thought TRON was amazing; I loved it. I was just starting to become a minor-league computer nerd, and at the time, computers weren't nearly as omnipresent as they are now. To use a computer I'd go with my father to the college, where we'd use terminals hooked up to the mainframe; there I'd dink around and play Colossal Cave and experiment with programming in BASIC and whatnot. Computers in public schools, though? This was rare -- very rare, actually. As in, the purchase of a single computer for a single classroom would be taken up at a school board meeting. There were kids in my class who were years away from ever even touching a computer. Strange times, those.

So when TRON came along, I remember being the only kid in my grade who actually saw the thing. This befuddled me for a while: after all, every kid saw Star Wars! Every kid saw Raiders of the Lost Ark! Every kid saw ET, and Star Trek, and whatever else there was. But TRON? Nope. Nobody saw that one. Oddly enough, the other kids who were only vaguely aware of the existence of the movie were certainly aware of the video game. On the rare occasion when I'd get to go into an arcade (my parents weren't wild about giving me fistfuls of quarters to go into those dark dens of video temptation, for some reason), I'd watch some kid play TRON:

KID: I'm gonna do the lightcycles next! That's my favorite part of the game!

ME: Yeah. That part of the movie is so cool! (I don't remember what the slang was back then -- "rad", maybe? Or did "rad" come along later?)

KID:: Movie? Oh yeah, this game's from a movie. Huh.

And so it would go.

Cut to now, though: TRON's reputation has improved over the years. It's remembered by many a geek now as a seminal event, and it's not even a bad movie, either -- a bit awkward in places, and in a couple of others it's hilariously dated, but still, TRON still tickles the strings my geek heart:

So now, they're doing a sequel: TRON Legacy. Right now I'm kind of excited about this, especially on the basis of a pretty amazing trailer that's making the rounds of the Interweb right now. Yeah, trailers rarely reflect the quality of a movie, but...well, WOW. (Video embedding is disabled, so click over to see it.) Wow, those lightcycles have sure come a long way since 1982...and I love the visual homage to the Pod Race from The Phantom Menace that's in there.

What am I hoping for? Well...the original was nifty and computer-esque without being full of dark, dank and cynical expression like The Matrix. I hope for that, at least. And I want lots of lightcycles and Recognizers and program identity discs and all that jazz. I can't wait!

Sentential Links #179


:: Dearest David,

I am returning the beautiful necklace you gave me - not as a gesture if finality of our friendship, but because it is a special token in your family and I could not in good conscience keep it.
(Longtime readers will remember my fascination with finding old things left in old books; unearthing such items is a wonderful side-effect of haunting used bookstores and library book sales, and I wrote a story around such an event. This is a blog, new to me, that catalogs such finds.

:: When did the profit motive become the only reason to do anything? When did that become the new patriotism? Ask not what you could do for your country, ask what's in it for Blue Cross/Blue Shield.

:: So, Mr. President, I write to you with this demand: we are not a socialist country, one which believes the health of its citizens should come without the proper profit-loss determinations. I believe that my healthcare decisions should be between me, my insurance company plan, my insurance company's list of approved doctors I am allowed to see and treatments I am allowed to get, my insurance company's claims department, the insurance company doctors who have never met me, spoken to me or even personally looked at my files, my own preexisting conditions, my insurance company's crack cost-review and retroactive cancellation and denial squads, my insurance company's executives and board of directors, my insurance company's profit requirements, the shareholders, my employer, and my doctor.

:: (You can tell that I'm hard up for things to post about, can't you?) (Well, I found it interesting. One of those things I've noticed and wondered about, but not investigated. BTW, I see in comments that there used to be tuna pot pies available. I assume that tastes roughly like tuna casserole in a crust? Wow, that sounds good. I might make one of those next time I make my own pot pie.)

:: Well, it's not that bad, but it feels like the end of the world to me right at this moment. I'll get over it, but damn.


:: Imagine that the Monkees have a space ship and are exploring the galaxy, seeking out strange new worlds. . .in order to blow them up. And then it gets really weird. (And then it gets weird?!)

All for now. back next week.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Report to camp for re-Nedification!

The Buffalo Bills have reported for training camp, thus allowing Football Obsession Levels in Western New York to return to their usual "fever pitch" levels. The year breaks down like this:

Training camp: Yay! We've got some good youngsters! Maybe this is our year! Hope springs eternal!

Regular Season: Yay! We're playing again!...We're showing some promise! Isn't it cool the way we beat the crap out of that team that's going 3-13 this year?...Well, we're still showing growing pains. We'll beat New England someday...oh geez, what the f*** is going on here? That other 3-13 team just beat the crap out of us!...Well, five games out, and if we win out, we might make the playoffs...OK, we're 6-8 but we can still make the playoffs technically, if we win these next two...ach, who are we kidding? We'll never beat New England. Shit.

Playoffs: Yeah, f*** these other teams.

Offseason: We signed who? Boo-yeah! Now let's see who else we sign to fix some of the other holes on this roster!...Well OK, we didn't sign anybody else at all, but there's still the draft and guys get cut, so we'll see...OK draft, but do we really need five defensive backs every year?...Oooooh, that guy's still available, maybe we can sign him -- oh forget it, he just signed with Kansas City.

Training Camp: Yay! They're back on the field! This might be our year! These guys are a year older and more experienced, and those youngsters looked effing awesome in those non-contact practices back in March! Super Bowl, here we come!

And then it's back to the regular season. Lather, rinse, repeat. Anyway, welcome to Buffalo, T.O.

(By the way, I'm getting a little tired of how everything T.O. says gets reported. From what I can see, most of what he says is pretty non-controversial, but for some reason, everything that comes out of his mouth, whether it's one of the Bull Durham sports interview lines or not, gets trumpeted for some reason. Weird.)

I'll probably do a football predictions post once the regular season is near, but I won't be doing weekly synopses as to why the Bills stink. Those aren't fun to write, but I do still love me some football.

Sunday Burst of Weirdness

Oddities abound!

I've been digging a blog/site called Neat-o-rama lately, so I'll just link a few nifty items I found over there.

:: Underwear for your hands!

:: The story behind 7 beer logos. This is actually pretty interesting -- I never noticed the '33' on the Rolling Rock bottle before (maybe that's because last time I had Rolling Rock, ten years ago, I thought it tasted bad).

:: I had no idea that librarians were given to antics like these. What a whacky bunch, those librarians! (Right, Roger?)

:: And, sometimes you want to celebrate the coming of the Old Ones with a nice backyard barbecue, so why not roast your hot dogs on a Cthulhu weinie roaster? Awesome! (PZ Myers ought to like this one -- he has a fetish for tentacled beasties like Cthulhu.)

More next week!

The Annotated "Stars and Stripes Forever"

Here's an idea for a posting series that I've been kicking around, which will consist of the occasional piece of music with a series of notes about the work in question. We'll see how this goes.

Anyhow, in my Something for Thursday series, I've lately posted several Grand Marches from various operas, and now I'm thinking a bit of the wide variety of music that falls under the general category of the "March". You have Grand Marches, as I've noted above, that involve long musical scoring to big set pieces in operas. You also have the Funeral March, which are generally downbeat and sad-sounding, for obvious reasons. You have Processional Marches, with Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches being prime examples. And there are the Military Marches, patriotic marches, circus marches, symphonic marches, and so on. Lots and lots of marches.

One of the most famous of all marches is, of course, John Philip Sousa's The Stars and Stripes Forever. It's a staple of nearly every patriotic-themed classical music concert you might ever attend, and the march is as central a staple in July 4th festivities as hot dogs or fireworks. In college, when the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra played a concert on our campus, their first encore work was The Stars and Stripes Forever.

Sousa wrote many marches -- hence the moniker "The March King" -- a number of which are very familiar to our ears now (Washington Post and Liberty Bell among them), but The Stars and Stripes Forever is by far his most familiar work. It can sound a bit clicheed these days, but like all works that have to a degree become clichee, when you blow off the dust and actually listen to the thing, you can hear anew those qualities that allowed it to become cliche in the first place.

The Stars and Stripes Forever is also a perfect example of the traditional American military march, which in their heyday of the late 19th and early 20th centuries tended to follow specific forms. If you were to join a concert band in rehearsing one of these marches, you would hear some odd-sounding terms: "Let's begin at the second strain, first time through." Or, "Just the trombones, please, starting at the dogfight." You'd be thinking, "What's a dogfight? Are there going to be planes flying in aerial combat above our heads?" Well, of course not! So what we'll do here is go through The Stars and Stripes Forever, with my notations below indicating at which point each section starts.

(This is one of the niftiest musical videos I've ever seen, by the way.)

0:07 to 0:10: The is the Intro section. Most marches will have some kind of intro section.

0:11 to 0:24: This is the First Strain, which is will be repeated once.

0:24 to 0:39: The First Strain, repeated. Sometimes, but not always, a band or orchestra will perform a repeat of a strain differently than they did the first time: they'll dial down the dynamics, playing the repeat softer, or maybe they'll actually vary the instrumentation a bit. This is often at the discretion of the conductor. Marches in this genre tend to be "modular" in construction, making it easier to tailor the piece a bit depending on the demands of the performance. You might need to make it longer or shorter, depending on the situation, so a conductor might decide to repeat each strain twice instead of once; but then deciding to play the first repeat softer and the second repeat softer still, or some other kind of variation. Some conductors, with experienced ensembles, will even have hand signals ready so they can indicate to their ensemble such a change while in the midst of performance.

0:39 to 0:54: Here is the Second Strain, first time through. Note that it is more lyrical than the boisterous First Strain. In a well-written march, the strains will usually contrast in some way.

0:55 to 1:09: Now we repeat the Second Strain. Note in this performance that the brass join in the melody and it's a bit louder and more boisterous than the first time through. This difference is why, in rehearsal, our conductor will say things like "OK, start at the second strain, second time through." He has to let the brass know if they're playing or sitting out.

OK. After we're done with the first two strains -- and there are usually just two -- however many times we've performed them, with whatever performance variations our conductor has decided upon, we're onto the Trio. Sometimes we'll have a key change when we hit the Trio, along with some other way to differentiate the Trio from the Intro and the first two strains. In Stars and Stripes Forever, our relatively brisk sound of the first two strains yields to a longer, more lyrical melody -- even more lyrical than what we heard in the second strain. Additionally, there is less syncopation now, although Sousa still puts key parts of emphasis on the occasional off-beat. A Trio section is often the longest part of a march, and it often revolves around a single melody or musical idea, as opposed to the first and second strains, which posit musical ideas briefly and then shuffle them off the stage. The Trio is the main attraction, as it were.

Now, with our Trio section, there's only one main musical idea going on, but we're going to hear it three times. Sousa doesn't want to bore us, so he'll change it up a bit each time. How? Let's see:

1:10 to 1:39: The Trio, first time through. Sometimes we might call this the First Strain of the Trio, or we might just call it the Trio, first time. In any event, this specific case is one of the most recognizable melodies in musical history, and in terms of marches, it's probably the most famous march melody ever. (It might be a close second to Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March #1...or the Elgar is a close second to Stars and Stripes. Not sure which.)

By the way, note that Sousa doesn't just give us this melody by itself; he continues to remind us that this is still a march by putting all those little staccato flourishes softly playing behind the melody. There's always something going on in a Sousa march, something new or different or contrasting with the main thing at any given moment. Case in point: when the melody reaches its highest note at 1:24, note the descending arpeggio in the lower brass, or at 1:34 when we reach a high note again, a little "tweet" of a fanfare in the trumpets.

Note, also, that one time through the First Strain of the Trio takes as long as two times through each of the First and Second Strains.

1:39 to 2:02: Now, having heard the complete Trio strain one time through, we're going to repeat it twice. But unlike the First and Second strains, which are repeated in immediate succession, we get a bit of contrast in a passage that stands in marked rhythmic and dynamic contrast to the Trio strain. This contrasting section, found in the Trios of many marches of this type, is called the Dogfight. We'll hear it twice through; this is the first time. The Dogfight isn't really a melody, per se; it's more of a martial fluorish. Note that the Dogfight is, by itself, longer than either the First or Second Strain.

2:02 to 2:30: The Trio strain, repeated (or, alternatively, the Second Strain of the Trio). Sousa lowers the dynamics again, back down to a softer setting, but we get the first variation of the Trio here. The Stars and Stripes melody plays again in its entirety, but this time with a brilliant touch: a counter-flourish played by the solo piccolo. Note also that the little trumpet fanfares from the first time through aren't there anymore, in favor of our piccolo solo.

2:31 to 2:55: The Dogfight, second time through. Many performances play the Dogfight a bit louder this time through, and have the Dogfight end with a crescendo into the Trio strain's final repeat.

2:55 to end: Now we get the last repeat of the Trio strain (or, alternatively, the Third Strain of the Trio). After hearing the Trio strain played softly twice, this time Sousa lets it all hang out: everybody's playing at full-bore, including our intrepid piccolo player. Now, a lesser composer might think that just hearing this great melody with the entire band playing forte might be pleasing enough to send the crowd away, but Sousa isn't done giving new things to hear. Specifically, this last time, he gives a countermelody to the low brass that plays mostly on the off-bars of the main melody; when the main theme is holding a long note, the low brass are doing their thing.

And at the very end? That final punctuating note that the march ends on? That's called the Stinger.

Most marches of this type derive their excitement from variations along the way, as described above: variations in dynamics (loud versus soft), variations in instrumention (who plays what and when), variations in backing detail (little fanfares versus that solo piccolo line). What doesn't vary is tempo: a march of this type will always end at the same tempo it started. The only place I've ever heard a change in tempo in The Stars and Stripes Forever is at the very end of the Dogfight, the second time through, where some conductors -- not all -- will throw in a ritardando on that last descending scale before the Trio strain's final repeat, and that's about it. A march is not the place for the type of rubato that you might hear in, say, some Romantic symphony.

Anyhow, there you have it: a road map to The Stars and Stripes Forever. Next time you're hearing this march while eating a hot dog and watching fireworks, note the march's tight construction!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bad Joke Friday!

What did the elephant say to the naked man?

"Well, it's cute, but can you really breathe through that thing?"

Thursday, July 23, 2009

So long, JP

Former Buffalo Bills quarterback JP Losman has signed with the Las Vegas...ummm...the new football team in Las Vegas. You may be thinking, "Wow, the NFL expanded to Las Vegas?" And the answer would be, no, they didn't. Someone's starting a new football league that will have something like four teams, one of which is in Las Vegas. Thus ends the JP Losman era in Buffalo.

Longtime readers may recall that I was a big Losman backer; not so much that I was convinced of his talent as I felt it necessary to withhold judgment on him until he'd been around at least a while. Well, after the "while" had gone by, even I had to conclude that he was a bust of a player. Losman is tough and competitive, and he has a big-time arm, but he never showed any real awareness of what was going on around him on the field and he was never a good "touch" passer. Oh well; it was just another high-round draft pick the Bills spent in the post-Jim Kelly era in an attempt to find the next great quarterback.

But even admitting that Losman wasn't a good QB, I actually found him very likable as a guy. When he was drafted, he made a real effort to adopt Buffalo as his hometown. He got an apartment downtown as opposed to buying some McMansion out by the stadium or living in a hotel room during the season, and he really tried to become part of the community. He got mocked a lot in these parts for talking like a Southern California surfer-type in interviews, but that never bothered me.

It does strike me as odd that he is jumping into an experimental football league, rather than just bide his time until some team has a need at QB (which always happens eventually). I don't think Losman would have been unemployed forever; sooner or later an NFL team would have come calling. Maybe he got impatient, or maybe he thinks that if he lights this new league on fire his road back to the NFL will be shorter. I don't know, really. It strikes me as an odd decision, though.

Anyway, this blogger wishes best of luck to JP Losman, now that he's a former Buffalo Bill.

Something for Thursday

Well, sticking with my "Grand Marches from Operas" theme from the last two weeks, after the high opulence of Verdi and the portentious gravity of Wagner, here's a Grand March that keeps its tongue firmly planted in cheek. From The Mikado, by Gilbert and Sullivan, here's "Behold the Lord High Executioner":

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Even the birds above the lake are singing of my love...."

Eight hundred years ago today, the town of Beziers in Provence became the first city sacked in the Albigensian Crusade. Thus, it seems a good day to post this review.

After Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay continued his exploration of historical themes in fantasy settings with A Song for Arbonne. This was actually the first GGK novel I ever encountered, spotting it on the shelf at the Olean Public Library the year after I graduated college; I checked it out and read fifty pages before abandoning it, for some reason. I don't recall why, since I was favorably impressed with the book. Maybe I went on a trip and forgot to pack it along, or something like that. I didn't get to Arbonne for another year or so, during which I would finally delve deeply into GGK via Tigana and Fionavar.

If Tigana is set in a proto-fantastical Italy, Arbonne takes us to Provence in the time of the troubadours. Arbonne is a beautiful and wealthy land, generally peaceful, whose women tend to share political power with men and whose society is generally more "civilized", placing a high value on love and poetry and song. The guild of troubadours is highly regarded, with many of the greatest musicians being celebrities of very high repute, classic songs enduring for decades and even centuries, and with other songs providing cause for war. In Arbonne the god Corannos is worshipped along with the goddess Rian, and the goddess's worship is led by the priestesses of Arbonne.

To the north of Arbonne lies the more austere and warlike land of Gorhaut, a land devoted to the worship of Corannos and a land that generally views Arbonne with some superstition. Some years prior to the book's opening, Gorhaut has lost a war with a neighboring country farther north, in a very stinging defeat that has seen Gorhaut lose some of its land to that neighbor. Gorhaut's national pride is stung, and the King of Gorhaut is manipulated by his own High Priest, who wishes nothing more than to cleanse the world of the filth and blasphemy he perceives in the land of Arbonne. The main real-world historical analog to A Song for Arbonne, then, turns out the be the Albigensian Crusade. (GGK is wise enough to not have anyone utter the famous, perhaps apocryphal, battle direction from that Crusade against the heretics in Provence, when it was pointed out that one wouldn't be able to tell the good Catholics from the heretic Cathars at sight alone: "Kill them all; God will recognize his own." But the attitude behind that chilling command comes through in all its brutal hatred.)

For a time, GGK's novels would follow a particular formula in their beginnings: they would start with a prelude set some time prior to the novel's main action, in which we see an event that would shape everything to come. The event depicted thusly in Arbonne is, seemingly, of less import than the night-before-final-battle that opens Tigana; here, we see a woman ride out to a clandestine rendezvous with her lover. That affair, however, will all the same turn out to shape everything that is to come, as it lies at the root of a very public hatred and feud between two of Arbonne's highest Dukes, a feud that comes to a head at the worst possible time: as Arbonne is facing invasion from the north by an angry Gorhaut that is eager to reclaim its standing in the world. Its "manhood", perhaps; the differences in worldviews between men and women is a strong underlying theme of this novel.

While there are, as always in a GGK novel, many characters we come to know, the closest to a "main" character is a man named Blaise, a mercenary from Gorhaut who has come, for reasons of his own, to leave his own country behind and take employ to the Dukes of Arbonne. Blaise is intelligent and competent and destined for far more, obviously, but he spends a great deal of the book having his own preconceptions of Arbonne challenged and shifted. Few writers that I've encountered are as good at having their characters changed by the actions and events of their novels as GGK, and the same holds here.

A Song for Arbonne is less violent than Tigana and its following book, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and despite its focus on court politics and intrigue, it has a generally less epic feel to it. GGK's ultimate theme in this book is to show how world events can be shaped by such simple and intimate emotions as love. I also have always found Arbonne to be more tightly constructed than Tigana, which, for all its virtues as a book, still feels a bit disjointed and episodic to me; Arbonne feels more confident in its structure. This might prove a small fault at the ending of the book, where things are tied up with surprising tidiness; but still, the revelation at the end as to just where a certain arrow was shot from, during the final battle, is a nicely satisfying surprise, and as always with GGK, he leaves certain questions unanswered – such as, to whom did Blaise eventually give the yellow rose?

Next up: The Lions of Al-Rassan (although I'm taking a small break from my GGK re-read, in order to knock off some other books I've been wanting to read).

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

Daphne or Velma?

Monday, July 20, 2009

"The Gift of Apollo"

[I am excerpting this from Chapter 13 of Carl Sagan's book Pale Blue Dot.]

It's a sultry night in July. You've fallen asleep in the armchair. Abruptly, you startle awake, disoriented. The television set is on, but not the sound. You strain to understand what you're seeing. Two ghostly white figures in coveralls and helmets are softly dancing under a pitch-black sky. They make strange little skipping motions, which propel them upward amid barely perceptible clouds of dust. But something is wrong. They take too long to come down. Encumbered as they are, they seem to be flying -- a little. You rub your eyes, but the dreamlike tableau persists.

Of all the events surrounding Apollo 11's landing on the Moon on July 20, 1969, my most vivid recollection is its unreal quality. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin shuffled along the gray, dusty lunar surface, the Earth looming large in their sky, while Michael Collins, now the Moon's own moon, orbited above them in lonely vigil. Yes, it was an astonishing technical achievement and a triumph for the United States. Yes, as Armstrong said as he first alighted, this was a historic step for the human species. But if you turned off the byplay between Mission Control and the Sea of Tranquility, with its deliberately mundane and routine chatter, you could glimpse that we humans had entered the realm of myth and legend.

We knew the Moon from our earliest days. It was there when our ancestors descended from the trees into the savannahs, when we learned to walk upright, when we first devised stone tools, when we domesticated fire, when we invented agriculture and built cities and set out to subdue the Earth. Folklore and popular songs celebrate a mysterious connection between the Moon and love. The word "month" and the second day of the week are both named after the Moon. Its waxing and waning -- from crescent to full to crescent to new -- was widely understood as a celestial metaphor of death and rebirth. It was connected with the ovulation cycle of women, which has nearly the same period -- as the word "menstruation" (Latin mensis = month, from the word "to measure") reminds us. Those who sleep in moonlight go mad; the connection is preserved in the English word "lunatic". In the old Persian story, a vizier renowned for his wisdom is asked which is more useful, the Sun or the Moon. "The Moon," he answers, "because the Sun shines in daytime, when it's light out anyway." Especially when we lived out-of-doors, it was a major -- if oddly tangible -- presence in our lives.

The Moon was a metaphor for the unattainable: "You might as well ask for the Moon," they used to say. Or "You can no more do that than fly to the Moon." For most of our history, we had no idea what it was. A spirit? A god? A thing? It didn't look like something big far away, but more like something small nearby -- something the size of a plate, maybe, hanging in the sky a little above our heads. Ancient Greek philosophers debated the propositon "that the Moon is exactly as large as it looks" (betraying a hopeless confusion between linear and angular size). Walking on the Moon would somehow have seemed a screwball idea; it made more sense to imagine somehow climbing up into the sky on a ladder or on the back of a giant bird, grabbing the Moon, and bringing it down to Earth. Nobody ever succeeded, although there were myths aplenty about heroes who had tried.

Not until a few centuries ago did the idea of the Moon as a place, a quarter-million miles away, gain wide currency. And in that brief flicker of time, we've gone from the earliest steps in understanding the Moon's nature to walking and joy-riding on its surface. We calculated how objects move in space; liquefied oxygen from the air; invented big rockets, telemetry, reliable electronics, inertial guidance, and much else. Then we sailed out into the sky.


The Moon is no longer unattainable. A dozen humans, all Americans, have made those odd bouncing motions they called "moonwalks" on the crunchy, cratered, ancient gray lava -- beginning on that July day in 1969. But since 1972, no one from any nation has ventured back. Indeed, none of us has gone anywhere since the glory days of Apollo except into low Earth orbit -- like a toddler who takes a few tentative steps outward and then, breathless, retreats to the safety of his mother's skirts.

Once upon a time, we soared into the Solar System. For a few years. Then we hurried back. Why? What happened? What was Apollo really about?


For me, the most ironic token of that moment in history is the plaque signed by President Richard M. Nixon that Apollo 11 took to the Moon. It reads: "We came in peace for all mankind." As the United States was dropping 7.5 megatons of conventional explosives on small nations in Southeast Asia, we congratulated ourselves on our humanity: We would harm no one on a lifeless rock. That plaque is there still, attached to the base of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module, on the airless desolation of the Sea of Tranquility. If no one disturbs it, it will still be readable millions of years from now.

Six more missions followed Apollo 11, all but one of which successfully landed on the lunar surface. Apollo 17 was the first to carry a scientist. As soon as he got there, the program was canceled. The first scientist and the last human to land on the Moon were the same person. The program had already served its purpose that July night in 1969. The half-dozen subsequent missions were just momentum.

Apollo was not mainly about science. It was not even mainly about space. Apollo was about ideological confrontation and nuclear war -- often described by such euphemisms as world "leadership" and national "prestige". Nevertheless, good space science was done. We now know much more about the composition, age, and history of the Moon and the origin of the lunar landforms. We have made progress in understanding where the Moon came from. Some of us have used lunar cratering statistics to better understand the Earth at the time of the origin of life. But more important than any of this, Apollo provided an aegis, an umbrella under which brilliantly engineered robot spacecraft were dispatched throughout the Solar System, making that preliminary reconnaissance of dozens of worlds. The offspring of Apollo have now reached the planetary frontiers.

If not for Apollo -- and, therefore, if not for the political purpose it served -- I doubt whether the historic American expeditions of exploration and discovery throughout the Solar System would have occurred. The Mariners, Vikings, Pioneers, Voyagers, and Galileo are among the gifts of Apollo. Magellan and Cassini are more distant descendants. Something similar is true for the pioneering Soviet efforts in Solar System exploration, including the first soft landings of robot spacecraft -- Luna 9, Mars 3, Venera 8 -- on other worlds.

Apollo conveyed a confidence, energy, and breadth of vision that did capture the imagination of the world. That too was part of its purpose. It inspired an optimism about technology, an enthusiasm for the future. If we could fly to the Moon, as so many have asked, what else were we capable of? Even those who opposed the policies and actions of the United States -- even those who thought the worst of us -- acknowledged the genius and heroism of the Apollo program. With Apollo, the United States touched greatness.

When you pack your bags for a big trip, you never know what's in store for you. The Apollo astronauts on their way to and from the Moon photographed their home planet. It was a natural thing to do, but it had consequences that few foresaw. For the first time, the inhabitants of Earth could see their world from above -- the whole Earth, the Earth in color, the Earth as exquisite spinning white and blue ball set against the vast darkness of space. Those images helped awaken our slumbering planetary consciousness. They provide incontestable evidence that we all share the same vulnerable planet. They remind us of what is important and what is not. They were the harbingers of Voyager's pale blue dot.

We may have found that perspective just in time, just as our technology threatens the habitability of our world. Whatever the reason we first mustered the Apollo program, however mired it was in Cold War nationalism and the instruments of death, the inescapable recognition of the unity and fragility of the Earth is its clear and luminous dividend, the unexpected final gift of Apollo. What began in deadly competition has helped us to see that global cooperation is the essential precondition for our survival.

Travel is broadening.

It's time to hit the road again.

[I was born in September 1971, so I have never known a world in which the Moon was not a place we'd been to. I don't know that we need to go back there soon...but I know that we need to go back there someday, as part of our exodus from our world and out into the stars. I don't care if we never invent warpdrive or freighters that make point five past lightspeed; I don't care if it takes the building of generation-ships that take centuries to get somewhere. I'm just firmly convinced that one day, we will go. Just as the Apollo astronauts did, forty years ago.]

Sentential Links #178

Time for linkage.

:: And, jam on fresh bread is a perfectly acceptable dinner.

:: Can you see what’s wrong with this book cover? I’d say it’s either that Loring picked the worst possible title for a novel about the horsey set or that whoever painted the art read neither the book nor its title.

:: Who knew sex is fun? Alert the media!

:: It’s not enough now to just be a lite version of a Rush Limbaugh clone. You have to now go full wingnut and parrot the paranoid talking points of a Glenn Beck to be considered credible among the Freepocracy. If ACORN, George Soros, and Birther crap don’t get a mention on any given day, you’ve abdicated your duties as a wingnut talk show host in 2009. (Mostly an account of one of the most prominent local blogger's sudden flare-up with one of the local talk-radio windbags. I've never listened to Bauerle, but there's always some crappy local Limbaugh wannabe, a-rantin' away. Oh well.)


:: He looked like my banner.

:: All you can do is try. And as my grandmother used to say to us: it is not worthy of humanity to give up. (Farewell, Hilzoy, and we thank you.)

More next week.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Burst of Weirdness

Oddities abound!

:: OK, this may not be safe for work, owing to the subject matter; or maybe it is, owing to the fact that it pertains to the animal kingdom. But...well, you learn something everyday. It turns out that humans are far from the only creatures who -- oh, how shall we put this -- are not always the masters of their domain.

:: When I heard that Futurama was coming back, and that it was going to be on Comedy Central, I thought, "Great! Now FOX can't screw with the show anymore! Yay!!!"

Unfortunately, it turns out that FOX still owns the damn show, and it further turns out that FOX doesn't much want to give the voice actors on the show a raise, so they've issued a casting call for replacement voices.

I never tire of this quote, from Jon Lovitz (uttered on Letterman a decade ago when FOX canceled his animated show The Critic): "FOX -- they should spell it with a 'U'."

:: If you've done a lot of Interstate Highway driving in your life, you remember ubiquitous "Rest Areas" -- little places where you'd pull off to relieve yourself, maybe grab a can of pop from a vending machine, walk the dog if you had one, and generally just get out of the car for a few minutes. They were small affairs -- a building with bathrooms and a place to grab pamphlets on local tourist attractions, and a grassy area with a few picnic benches behind it, and that was it. Certainly unlike today's Rest Areas, with giant gas stations, gift shops, and buildings full of two or three fast food restaurants.

The old rest areas are disappearing into history. I'm not sure if that saddens me or not, but there it is.

More next week!

Is there NOTHING it can't do?!

One of the great inventions of the Industrial Age comes for sale in a little blue can and a red cap and a little straw attached to the side by a piece of tape. I'm talking, obviously, about WD-40, that amazing uber-lubricant that penetrates and displaces water and gets rusted-together parts to free up and move again. WD-40 saves my life on the job on a nearly weekly basis. (Well, not literally, but it ends up allowing me to fix things that would otherwise be unfixable. How awesome is WD-40? Well, here's a contrast for you: when I tell people I'm a maintenance/handyman guy by trade, they will usually say something speculative about how often I use duct tape. In all honesty, I almost never use duct tape - I remember using it one time in the last six months – but I use WD almost weekly.

I used to always lose the little straw that came with it (I suspect that future alien archeologists, when digging up the remains of our civilization, will be baffled when they find thousands of WD-40 straws in the places where our cities used to lie), until I realized that WD's cap now comes equipped with two little divots, not unlike the indentations in the side of an ash tray, into which one is supposed to snap the little straw. But even that's no longer an issue because a while back the fine folks at WD redesigned their can so that the straw is now attached to a separate nozzle so it can't come off; and what's more, that nozzle can be flipped up into position to use the straw, or it can be flipped down so you get the "wide dispersal" spray pattern, if that's what you want.

I've got WD-40 on the mind right now because I just got done fixing the hood latch on my car with it. At some point the latch trigger mechanism – the business end of the little cord that is tensioned when you pull on the hood release in the passenger compartment – became so rusty that it wouldn't spring back into place when I opened the hood once, earlier in the year. So I was in the unenviable position of having my hood secured by nothing but the secondary latch, the one you reach under to open the hood the rest of the way after you've popped the hood release from inside. I tried coating that mechanism with WD, to no avail, but my problem there was that I needed fairly specific application of WD, and wouldn't you know it – my WD can at home was missing the damned straw! So I made a mental note to pick up one of the new-fangled cans of the stuff (I have a few at work, but none at home) for fixing at some point, and in the meantime, I secured my hood with three bungee cords. Ouch. That's how it went until I finally remembered to grab one of those nifty straw-forever-attached cans of WD; earlier today I got outside and liberally applied the stuff to the moving parts of my hood latch, and after letting it penetrate while I checked my oil (which was fine), I just reached in with a long screwdriver and presto change-o! got the hood latch moving again. I gave it a few opens and closes just to make sure it keeps working, and now I'm back to my hood staying shut the way it's supposed to and not using the bungee cords. This is big, as I have actually had the experience of having my hood fly open while driving before. I don't want to repeat that.

So anyway, the WD lore that always appeals to me is that its name simply comes from the fact that it was the 40th attempt at making a product that did what it was supposed to. And I end up thinking: well, geez! If WD-40 is so awesome, can you imagine what they might have had on their hands if they'd made a few more attempts? We'd have products like this:

WD-41: No mechanical effects, but when consumed counteracts the effects of alcohol in the human bloodstream.

WD-42: No mechanical effects, but when sprayed around the edges of a garden, leaves behind a residual odor undetectable by humans but which completely repels rabbits and groundhogs.

WD-43: No mechanical effects, but you know those beer commercials on teevee that show a humdrum suburban backyard morphing a tropical party paradise at the mere opening of one can of a certain brand of beer? WD-43 does that.

WD-44: Spray it into water, and it turns into wine cooler. (More research is needed on this one, obviously.)

WD-45: Spray it into water, and it turns into Zima. (This formulation was laughed out of the laboratory.)

WD-46: Spray it into wine, and it turns the wine into wine that tastes like it's been sprayed with mechanical lubricant. (Not every formulation does something useful.)

WD-47: When sprayed onto human skin, skin becomes very sticky for about ten minutes or so, but when sprayed onto cloth, the cloth becomes extremely slippery. (This formulation is secretly used by NFL wide receivers for two seasons before the league catches on and outlaws it.)

WD-48: Its only effect is to make Fran Drescher's voice sound like Kathleen Turner's.

WD-49: Spritzed onto a book, it dissolves all but the good parts. (Copies of Twilight and Atlas Shrugged are, of course, completely destroyed.)

WD-50: Makes any man's voice sound like Morgan Freeman's.

WD-51: Brings boring blog posts to a screeching halt before the blogger can finish typing his sente

For Mr. Cronkite

I don't recall Walter Cronkite doing the news a whole lot from when I was a kid, but I do remember him. What I remember more, though, was his wonderful baritone voice showing up in all manner of documentary-type stuff over the years after his retirement from the anchor's desk. He was once the voice of the ride at EPCOT that goes up inside the big geosphere-golfball thing; his voice was appropriate as that ride takes passengers through the history of communications. I loved his delivery of the vocal portion of that ride when I was in EPCOT in 1990, and I was disappointed to learn in 1998, when we returned, that Mr. Cronkite's narration had been replaced by a new version voiced by Jeremy Irons. (Nothing against Jeremy Irons, of course -- but he's not Walter Cronkite, is he?)

My main memory of Cronkite, though, is watching him on the yearly New Year's From Vienna concerts that are the major New Year's Day tradition in my family. We'd watch the telecast every year on PBS, in which Cronkite would introduce the pieces and give brief vignettes about the history of Vienna around the time the Strauss Family was producing some of the most glittering dance-hall music in history. This past year, however, Cronkite was replaced by Julie Andrews. A fine choice, but I figured at the time that Cronkite must have finally become too old and frail to continue his duties as the host of New Year's From Vienna.

I couldn't find any YouTube clips that showed Cronkite actually executing his duties thereof, so this will have to do. For older people of that era, Cronkite's reportage of the JFK assassination and Vietnam and Watergate are their key memories of him. For me, though, this work will always be associated, in part, with Walter Cronkite.

Here's the most famous waltz ever written, Johann Strauss's On the Beautiful Blue Danube.

Thanks for the memories, Mr. Cronkite.

(But why, oh why, couldn't he at least have lived three more days to see the 40th anniversary of the moon landing? That's just mean, Mr. Reaper.)

Friday, July 17, 2009


I'm testing some stuff out for a moment or two. Bear with....

Bad Joke Friday!

We'll try this for a while, until I run out of bad jokes. (If you want to suggest bad jokes, send them in e-mail. Don't leave them in comments, as then they will have already appeared on the blog.)

Our first bad joke:

"So a baby seal walks into a club...."


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Something for Thursday

Last week we had a grand march from Verdi; this week, we'll hear Richard Wagner's approach to the grand march concept. Here's the Entry of the Guests into the Wartburg, from Tannhauser.

Wagner didn't care for Verdi, but in our time, we can have both. That makes me happy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

You stand before two machines, and you have one quarter. Which do you play: Ms. Pac Man, or Tetris?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

"DANCING! Everything else is bullshit!"

It's always fun to take trips down memory lane and investigate the objects of our nostalgia, isn't it? Once in a great while we'll look into something we deeply loved when we were young and find that it's every bit as good as we remember it; much more frequently we find that the thing we loved is actually complete crap, and a kind of jaded disappointment sets in as we wonder how we could have ever been so naive as to think the item in question was any good at all.

But there's a little-discussed third category, when we strongly suspect that the thing we loved back in the day is crap, and thus, when we find our suspicions confirmed, we're not so much disappointed as rather elated in a strange way. I had one of these experiences last week, when I popped into my computer the DVD of a movie I hadn't seen since I watched it at the tender age of eight in my own living room. The movie? A mostly-forgotten flick called Thank God It's Friday.

How did I come to see this movie when I was eight? It was on HBO during the year when we actually subscribed to that service, the year we lived in Elkins, WV. I was in second grade. HBO was kind of cool -- a channel with uncut movies! What could have been cooler than that? I vaguely remember being ordered out of the living room when my parents wanted to watch an R-rated movie on HBO, but I could be misremembering events. I don't really remember how many movies I saw on that channel -- the only ones that stand out are Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (I had an obsession about that flick and its later teevee show), The Poseidon Adventure, and Thank God It's Friday.

So, what about this movie? Well, I noted some time ago that Saturday Night Fever has a camp reputation about it, mostly owing to the camp reputation that's accrued around everything from the disco era these days. SNF's reputation, though, is unfair; the movie is cynical, bleak, and brilliant. People who haven't seen SNF mock its dance moves and the disco clothes. The movie they should be mocking is Thank God It's Friday, because this movie really portrays the reality that most people think of when thinking of the disco era: bad clothes, bad dance moves, drunken and drugged-out sexual escapades carried out on smoky dance floors under the eye of a hyperkinetic deejay.

TGIF is one of the campiest movies ever made. I'm reasonably confident in that statement, even though my sample size of movies seen is nowhere big enough to make that statement definitive. Seriously, this is one silly movie. Not one minute of it deserves to be taken seriously. However, I don't hold that against the movie, because I don't think that the movie takes itself seriously for one minute.

What is TGIF about? It's one night, a Friday night (obviously), in the life of a Los Angeles disco. Into this disco wanders a motley cast of characters, whose misadventures on and around the dance floor we follow for the duration of the flick. There is the pair of underage girls who are breaking curfew in hopes of winning the disco's dance contest. There is the Wonder-bread guy whose Wonder-bread wife wants to be more than Wonder-bread, and thus drags her accountant husband to the disco. There's the naughty girl who drags her nice friend to the disco in hopes of finding her a man, and there's the naughty boy who drags his nice friend to the disco in hopes of scoring with the ladies. (No points for guessing who the nice girl ends up with at the end of the movie.) There's the full-of-himself disco owner (played by Jeff Goldblum), who pursues a married woman on a bet. There's the deejay who is under pressure because The Commodores are coming for a live performance that may make or break his career as a radio deejay -- but the guy bringing the equipment for the Commodores is nowhere to be found. And there's the young lady singer who is desperate for her big break and thinks that this disco may be it. Oh, and don't forget The Leatherman, the guy in leather who never stops dancing for one minute and works his catchphrase (which I've appropriated as the title of this post) into every conversation.

Thank God It's Friday is goofy. It's stupid. It's clicheed. Yes, it depicts all of the bad aspects of the disco culture with none of those aspects' bad effects. (Which is, by the way, why SNF is such a great film.) It just isn't a good movie, by any conceivable standard.

Except that...geez, I had fun watching it again. I laughed at it, I laughed with it, I just plain laughed. And the music? Yeah, it's disco -- but really, not everything about disco was awful, and one of my favorite songs ever springs from the movie: "Last Dance" by Donna Summer (for which it won an Oscar, believe it or not).

This post is not a ringing recommendation that anybody watch this movie. this movie! You may find it so bad you love it.

Still Trekkin'

SamuraiFrog has a nice post wherein he runs down his thoughts upon a re-viewing of the first six Star Trek movies, otherwise known as the "Original Cast" films. I'm in partial agreement with him on certain points, partial disagreement on others (my views can be found in my STAR TREK Redux series of posts from the early days of this blog; links are in the sidebar). I do have a few random thoughts:

:: TMP is a good movie, and I've never much disliked all the effects stuff in the film. Few of the Trek films take their time. Does this one take too much time? It's possible, I guess. But I don't mind it.

:: I did rewatch Wrath of Khan recently and I'm still of two minds on the movie. It's very well-made, but it's not as perfect as many think.

:: Search for Spock really is uneven -- the inexperience of its director is evident, as is its small budget, and parts of its plot are terribly, terribly thin. But the last ten minutes make up for a lot, in my view.

:: Voyage Home is really good.

:: I like Final Frontier more than SamuraiFrog did. There is a ton of stuff wrong with that movie, but I still feel that it's an ambitious failure. I don't hate it at all. I also don't agree that the film missteps in 'resurrecting' Spock's inner turmoil at his father's rejection of him; Sybok thinks he's hit on Spock's secret anguish, but he doesn't know that this has been resolved for Spock through his death and resurrection and his father's acceptance. Spock needs no prompting at all from Kirk to tell Sybok that no, he's still not joining Sybok's cause.

:: Undiscovered Country is not, for me, quite the "fan service" film that SamuraiFrog believes it to be. It only partly serves to bridge the Original Series and TNG, but that's really only a tiny piece of the movie's subtext, and only intense fans are going to recognize Michael Dorn as Worf's grandfather. Any "fan service" subtext is more from the film's clear intent to retire the original cast The film is topical to a higher degree than any Trek film before or since, though -- it came out in 1991, hot on the heels of the end of the Cold War.

And the last ten minutes or so of Undiscovered Country is one of my favorite movie farewell scenes, ever.

So there!

Monday, July 13, 2009

"They move in dark, old places of the world."

One of the oldest of chestnuts in the world of SF is time travel. There's something almost utterly irresistible about a well-written time travel story. Every such tale has certain obligations: it has to play with the notions of someone going back and messing with history, worrying about changing his own time, and then realizing that they are becoming a part of history in an unexpected way. In the hands of a truly inventive writer, the flummoxing paradoxes of time travel become sources of delight. Such a writer is Tim Powers, and such a book is The Anubis Gates.

The plot of this book is hard to describe. Brian Doyle is a scholar of English literature who is brought to England by a rich eccentric who claims to have discovered a means of time travel. The plan is for a group of very wealthy people to travel together back in time to the early 1800s so they can hear a lecture by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and then return to their own time; Doyle is to serve as the "resident scholar" for the trip. The journey takes place, the group travels back in time, the lecture is heard...and then Doyle finds himself separated from the group and stranded in 1810 London, where he finds himself accosted by Egyptian sorcerers, a clown on stilts, a guild of thieves led by a mysterious boy named Jacky, a man who may or may not be Lord Byron, a werewolf who can switch bodies with other people, and more. Doyle's adventures are also literary: in his own time he is a leading expert on a poet named William Ashbless, but as he progresses through 1810 he begins to realize that considerably more mystery surrounds Ashbless than he had ever realized before.

The Anubis Gates is all over the place, a wild and wooly stew of plot elements that always seem to be on the verge of careening out of control and yet somehow never do. The various time travel paradoxes that always come up in such stories do, in fact, come up here, with resolutions that are at times funny and are always logical. What a fun read this was!

Sentential Links #177

Links, for your clicking pleasure.

:: For some reason, though, conservatives and libertarians like to pretend that these basic rules don't exist when it comes to health care, that if we just did away with Medicare, Medicaid, and various regulations, the market would somehow magically produce affordable medical care and health insurance for everyone, including the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions. It is difficult to overstate how divorced from reality this fantasy is.

:: The glory of Tim’s is that everybody in Canada is familiar with it and it’s okay food; CEOs eat Tim’s donuts as often as their plant workers do. You show up at work and no matter what type of work you do or how important your job is, once or twice a week somebody brings a box of Tim’s donuts for everybody. I’ve been to law firms that have their own enormous, well-staffed kitchens with private menus - and they have empty Tim’s boxes in the lounge. Always. (Woe to the Buffalo commuter whose route involves driving past a Tim Hortons!)

:: I mourn the volume of human life being wasted on this thing. If the film makes $100 million this weekend and tickets cost $10 a pop, that’s ten million viewers and a total of twenty-five million hours, not including previews, travel and the time spent earning the wasted money. If the average person lives to be 75, that’s 38 lives. This seems to me a crime, but even more deeply do I fear the thought of impressionable young minds being subjected to Fallen’s imagination-obliterating, standard-lowering disease—who knows how far the implications of this disaster will reach? With its grade Z humor, dearth of wit and ass-backwards ideological simplicity, this movie has been made with nothing but children in mind—more so the 36-year-old kind than the six-year-old kind, but children nevertheless—in that most contemptuous, “they don’t deserve better” of ways. Showing this thing to young eyes is to deliberately spawn a cinematic crack baby. (Few things are more fun to read than a viscerally negative review!)

:: I think there’s a subtext to “We Built This City” that says, Look at all those dreams we had, all that work we did, we were trying to change rock forever, and look what it’s all turned into. Deeply sad and ironic.

:: A B.S. in Kenny Rogers prepares the student for a wide variety of life situations. (One of my better moments as a restaurant manager came when one of my servers was sitting down in the dining room, talking to a regular customer. She was idly counting her tips at the time, so I came up and looked all agitated and said, "Annie, what are you doing?" She looked up at me in horror, thinking she's getting yelled at for sitting down, whereupon I said, "You never count your money while you're settin' at the table! There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done!" Yep, that's how clever I was. Boo-yeah!)

:: One wouldn't think of Spackling a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house as a big job, but when the house has been lived in only by college students for the past ten years, the picture changes. Remember when we were that age? Remember all of the posters, mementos, calendars, and greeting cards we stuck to our walls? (Wow, do I. Yeesh.)

All for this week.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Identifying Earth

Judging from the complete lack of guesses on the last four entries in the Unidentified Earth series, and to judge from the lack of response when I mentioned closing down the series last week, I assume that the series has run its course. Oh well, it was fun while it lasted, but nothing lasts forever, right?

Anyway, to give away the last four entries: UI 69 is Chimney Rock in Nebraska. UI 70 is Newgrange, the ancient building in Ireland that aligns with the sun on the solstices; UI 71 is Taughannock Falls, near Ithaca, NY; and UI 72 is the B&O Warehouse beyond the right field wall at Camden Yards in Baltimore, MD.

And there we have it. Thanks for playing, folks!

Sunday Burst of Weirdness Linkage

I don't have much by way of weirdness for this week, but I do have some linkage to offload at clearance prices, so here we go!

:: The "Cultural Anniversary" thing is gearing up for the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, but there's a mildly-less-important 30th anniversary today, an anniversary that marked a major shift in pop culture history. Thirty years have passed since Disco Demolition Night.

:: One of the niche sports you don't hear much about at all, even at Olympic time, is kayaking. You certainly never hear about Extreme Kayaking. To that end, here's an article about Extreme Kayaking. What is extreme kayaking? It's doing things like kayaking over waterfalls -- some up to 100 feet in height. (To envision a 100-foot waterfall, the American Falls at Niagara vary between 70 and 100 feet from brink to the pile of rocks at the bottom. The Horseshoe Falls, by comparison, are more than 170 feet high.) I used to do a bit of kayaking, in my youth, but I never came near to being proficient enough to run any kind of waterfall, and the largest waterfall I ever saw that people would occasionally run was the Ohiopyle Falls on the Youghiogheny River in Pennsylvania. Those falls tower at eighteen feet in height, and even at that, I remember looking at them and wondering how on Earth any paddler could run them. Running a fall that's half the height of Niagara? The mind reels!

(This also reminds me that I have an unfinished short story about a pair of kayakers that I should finish one of these days, just as soon as I figure out how to end it.)

:: James Wolcott surveys one implication of the proliferation of digital media: that our media will become more and more private.

In the same car is another, older woman—do men not read anymore? (Seinfeld’s Jerry, defensively: “I read.” Elaine: “Books, Jerry”)—holding up a Kindle at an angle to catch the light. Unless you were an elf camped on her shoulder, what she was reading was hoarded from view, an anonymous block of pixels on a screen, making it impossible to identify its content and to surmise the state of her inner being, erotic proclivities, and intellectual caliber. She might be reading Alice Munro, patron saint of short-story writers, or some James Patterson sack of chicken feed—how dare she disguise her download from our prying eyes! And reading an e-book on an iPhone, that’s truly unsporting. It goes the other way as well. How can I impress strangers with the gem-like flame of my literary passion if it’s a digital slate I’m carrying around, trying not to get it all thumbprinty?

I love it when people notice the cover of a book I'm reading and either comment on it or ask about it; likewise, I tend to be one of those people who will crane my neck to see what someone nearby is reading, on the off chance that it's something I know well and love. "Oh my!" I'd say. "Isn't that Locke Lamora a scream?" Or something like that. Oh well.

:: I've been meaning to link this for a few weeks but keep forgetting. The annual Bulwer-Lytton contest happened recently, honoring bad writing in the name of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a writer once prized but who is now seen as the poster child for overly purple prose. Jess Nevins makes the case that Bulwer-Lytton's negative legacy is unfair, and he makes his case pretty convincingly. (Not that I'd know, having never read Bulwer-Lytton.)

:: Huzzah! I finally managed to break through and win an installment of Becca's weekly movie quotes/pics quiz.

Of course, my win this week wasn't so much a function of me knowing more than her other readers, but my being in the right place at the right time. Her quizzes operate on a "who answers right first wins" plan, so if you happen to get there an hour after the quiz has been posted, you're almost certain to join the party after all the queries have been answered. This time, though, I was first. Yay, me! (One time I got there when no one else had commented, but in the course of typing in my responses in her comments thread, someone else managed to type faster than me and get their answer in first. Aieee!!! But this time I was first, fair and square.

:: I don't know anything about the Green Lantern, so do any of my readers have an opinion on Ryan Reynolds as Green Lantern? I've only seen Reynolds in one thing -- the romantic comedy Definitely Maybe, in which I liked him while not finding him especially charismatic -- so I have no real opinion here.

:: Lard! Whiskey! Sexy! (I may have linked this before, but as I did not delete the bookmark if I did, here it is again.)

And with that I should be able to clean out my bookmarks a bit.

Tasting Buffalo

Yesterday the Family and I made our annual trek into downtown Buffalo for the Taste of Buffalo festival. For those not from 'round here, this is a two-day food festival at which dozens of restaurants and purveyors of food set up shop and offer small sample-sized portions of their menus. Or rather, it used to mainly involve sample sizes; nowadays, many of the participating venues are offering either full-size portions or something between "sample size" and "full size". The result is that we came home much more full than we have in the past.

There's something of a balancing act to Taste of Buffalo. On the one hand, you want to try new things because you can attend year after year and never eat everything. On the other hand, you have old favorite dishes that you want to have year after year. So it was that we had the same slices of white pizza that we've had the last three years, and the same Caribbean Jerk Chicken that we've had the last eight years, and the same Italian ice for the Daughter and the same Anderson's ice cream for us that we've had for the last however-many years. But on the other side of the ledger, we had one joint's fried calimari (The Wife and I love us some calimari), another joint's ribs, and yet another joint's roasted turkey legs. (Of course, the turkey legs may not count as we always have those at the Sterling Renaissance Faire, and as fun as they are, a turkey leg's pretty much a turkey leg.) We also had the Chicken Wing Soup from Danny's, which The Daughter continues to pronounce as not quite as good as my Chicken Wing Soup. Huzzah!

The other thing different this year was the weather. In years past, Taste of Buffalo has tended to land on the first really hot weekend of the summer, but for some reason, this summer is stubbornly cooler than usual. (Fine by me; I hate hot weather.) Yesterday, though, the weather started out downright cruddy, with storms barreling through Buffalo during the first couple hours of the festival. We went down an hour later than usual, and we still got rained on quite a bit, despite our umbrellas. The rain stopped after we'd been there about an hour, and then it was merely overcast for a while, and eventually that, too, cleared on out. The nice effect of the weather was that it kept the crowd size down. The Taste can be immensely crowded when the weather is good, so it ended up being a lot nicer to attend yesterday, once the poor weather had vanished. It certainly cut down on a lot of the dumb behavior of Taste attendees. I also didn't notice any homeless people, who are usually haunting the peripheries of the Taste for begging purposes. Also, the last couple of years, one particular street corner has been the haunt of a fire-and-brimstone preacher dude, but I didn't see him, either.

In other thoughts, when I was looking for someplace to refill the water bottles we'd brought with us, I ended up inside Buffalo City Hall for the first time. I was of two minds of what I saw of the interior of the building: it's impressive enough, but it's really dark and grim in there, isn't it? Wow. The main interior has very high ceilings of stone and marble, with not a whole lot of light coming from the electric fixtures hanging from those ceilings. It was nice to see that big new building going up, though; they're erecting a new Federal courthouse in downtown Buffalo. New construction in downtown always makes me happy, even if directly opposite the new building is the Statler Tower, which is to be auctioned in August after the last owner, some Brit who sailed into town with lots of promises of spreading money around, ended up leaving without spreading any of that money. Oh well, life goes on in Buffalo, doesn't it?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Terror

For my second "Make Me Read!" poll, I offered a choice between two horror titles: The Terror by Dan Simmons, and It by Stephen King. I was sure that It would prevail, as it's been around for a couple of decades now and my sense of things is that the book is generally considered to be one of King's best, where The Terror is only a year old and thus doesn't have the reputation behind it that It does. Right? So, of course, The Terror was voted by my readers, by a fairly large margin out of the dozen votes cast (or thereabouts). The finally tally was something like 9-3 in favor of The Terror.

Of course, this whole reading-by-poll thing works out pretty well for me regardless, as I'm the one picking the two choices each time, so I'm guaranteeing that I'm still reading something that I actually want to read. Basically, the exercise serves to help me get through some of the indecision I often suffer when it comes time to choose a new book to read. That indecision can be even greater when I'm choosing what to read after finishing a book that I actually love a great deal, which is the case with all of this Guy Gavriel Kay re-reading that I'm doing along the way. So, as always, thanks to my readers!

And now, onto discussing The Terror.

I was about halfway through the book at one point when I was reading it whilst enjoying my lunch break at work, and a co-worker asked me what I was reading. "It's called The Terror," I replied. "It's about a group of sailors who, in the 1800s, are on one of those expeditions into the Arctic Ocean to seek out the Northwest Passage. Their ship is frozen in and they are marooned up there, on the cold ice, not entirely knowing where they are. Supplies are short, winter is coming, there are the conflicts of personality that you would expect, and to make matters worse, there seems to be a creature of the supernatural variety stalking the crew and killing them horribly. The book is told from a number of viewpoints, and some of those viewpoints are told months or years before others, so the book hops around in time a bit."

My co-worker considered this, and then she said: "So it's like a steampunk-Arctic version of LOST, then?"

"Huh," I said. "I guess it is. Strange, because I don't like LOST."

In the 1840s, two ships set out from England – the Erebus and the Terror -- on an expedition to find the ever-elusive Northwest Passage, which expedition leader Sir John Franklin is convinced can still be found, somewhere amidst the thousands of islands of Arctic North America. Of course, everything that can go wrong eventually does, and the story quickly becomes one of those "man against nature" stories, where nature wins without so much as breaking a sweat. The two ships are frozen in ice in a place where the crews aren't even entirely sure where they are, and that's when "the thing" starts coming at them – an immense monster who seems to appear out of nowhere and kills men sometimes without a sound, and other times with a great deal of sound, mainly shrieking followed by the crunching of crushing bone. Add to the mix the arrival of a mysterious Eskimo woman whose tongue has been removed at the root, dwindling rations, a crew that is partly mutinous, and you have the makings of a pretty amazing tale.

What was even more interesting to me was something I didn't learn until I was nearly three-quarters of the way through the book: The Terror is based in fact. There really was en expedition on the dates indicated in the book, where two ships named Erebus and Terror were lost in the wilds of the Arctic. It seems that Simmons has taken the historical event and created his own narrative around it, which is an interesting approach. Sufficiently little is known of the fates of the sailors of the ships – no one survived, and scrappy evidence left behind is all that allows us to know what probably happened to the crew – that Simmons is able to work with a fairly broad brush here, and work he does, creating one of the most suspenseful stories I have read in a long time. The book is, by turns, harrowing, claustrophobic, irritating (Sir John is one of those characters you just want to be able to reach into the book and throttle), and, toward the end, downright mesmerizing.

I can't recommend The Terror highly enough.

The trains on the plain mainly avoid the rain

What this blog needs is, quite clearly, more trains. So, first up, one of my dream vacations: riding trains through Switzerland.

Trains show up in Hayao Miyazaki's films, such as this from Spirited Away:

Here's the world's highest railway, which runs in Tibet:

For more exciting viewing, check out what happens when a train and a tornado meet each other. It doesn't look too bad at first...until you realize that Sir Isaac Newton hasn't had his say just yet....

Along with that, here's Richard Feynman explaining why trains stay on their tracks:

And why not a model railroad layout based on Star Wars?

Trains are very cool. The world should have more trains.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Something for Thursday

Decades before movies like Ben Hur, Spartacus, and Cleopatra, there was the opera Aida by Giuseppe Verdi. Here, in a concert presentation with ballet interlude, is the Triumphal March (it's in two parts owing to length of YouTube video constraints, but the break comes at a decent musical spot, in any case -- hit start on the second video just as the first one ends). Note the herald trumpets during the famous second theme:

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

MY son realized!!!

There's a blog called Texts From Last Night which solicits the submission of text messages, which are then posted bereft of identifying marks or context. The result is often humorous, but sometimes creepy or head-scratching in nature. One recent entry put me in mind of something:

(206): Sometimes I get depressed that my son is too young to understand how hot his babysitter is.

This reminded me of Little Quinn. With his degree of disability, Medicare provided for in-home nursing care for him. This care, while accompanied by more than a few headaches in getting it all set up (since we were literally turning our home into a workplace, there were certain OSHA-related concerns we had to think about, for example), was a lifesaver for us, allowing me to work my full work schedule along with The Wife working hers. We had several nurses, provided by an independent agency with their charges paid by Medicare, who would come into the apartment and care for Little Quinn for several hours each day.

Each of the nurses loved Little Quinn; it helped that he was a cute little guy. (Man, did a lot of girls who will be eighteen in 2022 get screwed by Little Quinn's lot in life; he would have been a heartbreaker.) The nurses were all older women, mostly in their 40s, except for one: she was a young woman in her 20s, with long blonde hair and a figure that...well, let's just say that she was not unpleasant to behold, OK? I honestly don't recall her name (in fact, I only recall one nurse by name, although one whose name I just don't recall for the life of me does shop in The Store from time to time) so for our purposes we'll call her "Krissy".

Many days when I would get home, if any of the other nurses was in charge, Little Quinn would either be on the floor sleeping or sitting in his chair receiving a feeding or something similar. However, on the days when Krissy was our nurse-on-duty, every time I got home, Little Quinn would be in her arms, and invariably she would tell me how she could not go more than five minutes without holding him because that was literally the only way she could get him to not fuss for her. The other nurses? He'd hang out in his chair and be quiet as a clam. Krissy the cute blonde who looked nice in jeans and had a tattoo in the small of her back? Little Quinn insisted on being held by her.

Yeah. I think that kid knew exactly how hot his babysitter was.

Twenty-five cents (part 5)

Oops, I seem to have once again gone quite some time without updating this series...I gotta quit spending so much time on Facebook and looking for food-related porn. Anyway, let's continue rating the Statehood Quarters!


I can't be mean about a quarter that features a grazing buffalo. It's a simple design that works well. (And to be honest, if any state was going to include their motto, I'd have picked Kansas, since I like their motto - As astra per aspera, "To the stars through hardship" – a great deal.

Kansas's quarter: $0.19

South Dakota

Is the South Dakota quarter the only coin in US history to feature the heads of more than one President? It might be, with Washington on the face, and Mount Rushmore on the reverse. I just wish they'd gone with Mt. Rushmore by itself, and not felt the need to include a bird and the plants rising up the side. Those feel like committee additions.

South Dakota's quarter: $0.21

North Dakota

I look at this and almost wonder if North Dakota decided to teach Kansas a lesson: "You put a bison on your quarter? Well, we're gonna put two on ours! Heh!" Still, this is another favorite of mine. I like the sun rising in the background and the rocky form of one of the Badlands there. (However, they could have been perverse and put Marge Gunderson puking in the snow-filled ditch on their quarter...but then, most of the movie's action takes place in Minnesota, so that probably wouldn't work.)

North Dakota's quarter: $0.22


Maybe it's all those grade school units on the Oregon Trail I had to sit through when we were living in Portland in my youth, but the design of this quarter really makes me think back to those stories of hardship my teachers used to tell us in those studies. This is a wonderful design; I love the stagecoach making its way past Chimney Rock, and the bright, full sun hanging above it all. It's just a bummer for Nebraska that it's chiefly known for being a place people have to pass through to get to other places.

Nebraska's quarter: $0.23

Wyoming geez, I hate saying this, but...I hate this quarter. With a passion. I can't believe this is what Wyoming came up with. I look at this quarter and I think, "Really?" We're talking about a state that has Yellowstone National Park in it, and Devil's Tower, and the Grand Tetons; instead, they came up with a silhouette of a cowboy ridin' a buckin' bronco. And not even a picture of the cowboy, just a featureless outline. And what does the cowboy have to do with the inscription ("The Equality State")? I can't imagine the creative process that led to this, the most boring quarter in the entire program. Ugh. This is like the work turned in by the kid in the class who would do the exact minimum amount of required work to avoid receiving a Zero on his assignment.

Wyoming's quarter: $0.02


The inscription "Big Sky Country", and some of Montana's many mountains, rendered small at the bottom of the quarter, in order to leave room for the looming skull of a dead bull! This quarter always makes me laugh a little, which I'm sure isn't the intended effect. I just find the whole Western motif of dead cow skulls to be a bit funny. I'm not sure that if I was tasked with choosing a design for a quarter honoring one of our country's largest and most beautiful states, I'd go with the bleached bones of a picked-over carcass.

Montana's quarter: $0.13

Next time we'll finish up the fifty states. Huzzah!