Friday, October 30, 2009

"Your conscience is sensitive, Dan. I don't think it's my favorite part of you."

I've always enjoyed Westerns, for the most part. I've been trying to think of a Western that I actively disliked, and I've been unsuccessful; the best I can do is find Westerns that aren't my cup of tea, like The Searchers and the 'spaghetti Westerns' of Sergio Leone. But every Western I've ever watched has been, at least, admirable or entertaining on some level.

Most recently I watched 3:10 to Yuma, the 2007 remake of a 1957 film of the same name. What struck me about this film is the way it is not a "deconstruction" kind of Western; it's not a Western that feels the need to make statements either about the genre itself (Unforgiven) or different statements about the West (Dances With Wolves). 3:10 to Yuma is nothing more than an archetypal blood-and-guts Western, with good ranchers who are down on their luck, bad guys who are very good with their six-shooters, towns where the marshals are openly corrupt when they need to be, tense evenings around the campfire, ill-advised ventures into Indian territory, stagecoach robberies, and all the rest.

Russell Crowe is Ben Wade, the leader of a gang of criminals who are extremely brutal in their crimes -but interesting, Wade himself isn't shown to be especially brutal himself. His underlings, though, are very brutal, chief among them his second-in-command, the possibly psychotic Charlie Prince. Just once in the film is the question raised of how bad a man must Wade be to actually lead these guys.

On the other side of the moral ledger, we have Christian Bale as rancher Dan Evans, who is just about as down on his luck as he can be. His ranch is desperately close to foreclosure, the railroad company is itching to take his land, the water to his ranch has been diverted, his older son thinks he's a failure, and he's trying to do the best he can despite the fact that he lost a leg in the Civil War. Evans meets Wade by chance early on, and then again a short while later, when Wade is captured. However, Wade's gang is still at large and will clearly do whatever they need to do to get him back, so a dangerous mission is undertaken to take Wade to the town of Contention, where they will put him on the train that departs at 3:10 pm for Yuma, and the prison there. The 3:10 to Yuma. Dan, our rancher hero, is good with a rifle, and volunteers to go, for $200. They set out, and it's a race against time and a group of violent bandits.

What's interesting about this particular race against time is that it's almost an anti-race against time. Most races against time are of the "Do X before Y happens or else". Here, the goal isn't to do something in an allotted span of time but to get something done at a very specific time, even though that specific time is a little ways off and there are all kinds of obstacles between. It's a combination, really, of a race against time and a dread-filled wait for a moment where we all know all hell will break loose. These two relations to time come into play over the course of the film, creating very different kinds of tension in very different places.

This is, simply, a very good film. Its performances are all first-rate, and the chemistry between Christian Bale and Russell Crowe is outstanding. The supporting cast is superb across the board, most notably Ben Foster as Charlie Prince, a man whose devotion to Wade is never explained, or even speculated upon, but is yet somehow suggested. The conversations in the film, especially those between Evens and Wade, all feel quite real and almost unscripted, as both men feel each other out and stake out their own moral claims on what is going on.

That's what impresses me so much about the film: the fact that it so clearly understands the notion that even villains see themselves as the heroes of their own story. Ben Wade acts, throughout the film, in accordance with a very real moral code, and we, somewhat like others in the film, admire him for that, even as we acknowledge that his moral code is not a good one. But it is a code, and we know that, for all his murder and robbery, Ben Wade is actually more moral than some of the men who capture him.

3:10 to Yuma is a terrific film. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Everyone here is highly gruntled.

SamuraiFrog on The Office so far this season:

Last week's episode of The Office was the best this season. I liked the wedding episode, but the "mafia" episode was a real dud. There were a lot of people out there screaming about shark-jumping, which I thought was premature. Besides, you can't even claim a show jumped the shark at a certain point until at least a half-season has gone by: the phrase is about the overall effect, not immediate bitching about something that pissed you off. There's a new phrase for that: "nuking the fridge." That's when you idiotically whine about how a series that features Nazis being melted by the power of God, a man surviving a fall from a plane in a raft, a guy having his heart ripped out of his chest and continuing to live, and a man simply walking off a gunshot wound after drinking from the Holy Grail is suddenly unrealistic because a guy survives a nuclear blast inside of a lead-lined refrigerator.

OK, them's fightin' words! Well, not really, but I do disagree with some of this, so here are my points of contention with My Right Honorable Friend.

While I haven't opined that The Office has engaged in shark-jumping, I've wondered if it might be getting close to doing so, because for me, the show's best moments -- and there have been so, so many -- have all been grounded in a strong sense of believability. We've all known bosses who are like Michael Scott: amiable, and even good at their original position, but utterly inept at management and who only succeed by virtue of the good people they have under them. We've all known managers who stay employed almost inexplicably: "How can the higher-ups not see this stuff going on?!" Michael is that boss, and The Office has followed the tried-and-true comedy strategy of taking something very familiar and simply dialing up the intensity just enough to allow for absurdity.

The problem, for me, is that the absurdity has usually been still believable on some level. The least successful episodes have all involved incidents in which Michael, or someone else, did something that I'm pretty confident would get them fired in nearly any real-life workplace. I remember a few seasons back when the Scranton office got flooded with the just-relocated members of the now-closed Stanford branch, and Michael outed one of the new people as a felon and humiliated another who was extremely fat. Or the episode where Michael "outed" Oscar as gay. Those episodes left bad tastes in my mouth, because things just wouldn't return to normal after incidents like that, unless we're talking about a very poorly run company indeed.

My problem this year is that so far it feels like the air of plausibility around The Office is feeling strained. Michael and Jim as co-managers? I've never seen any kind of co-manager scenario, except in a couple of cases where one manager was being transferred out but his "effective" date at the new place wasn't for a week or two. Long-term co-managers? I don't see how any workplace would try this.

Likewise, Jim and Pam in the same office. I have never heard of a workplace where this is allowed: a person allowed to work in an office where their spouse is their direct superior. This has already reared its ugly head on the show, in an episode where Michael and Jim had to decide which employees got raises and which didn't. That kind of thing is a giant can of worms, and each week it goes on, I find it hurts the believability of the show.

My biggest problem with the show's direction right now, though, isn't about plausibility but about character. Dwight Schrute is one of the show's signature creations, but so far this year, especially with the promotion of Jim, I fear that the writers are going too far with Dwight. They're perilously close to making him not a very odd and paranoid character, but an outright malevolent one. I found the sadistic glee Dwight showed in bugging Jim's office almost out-of-character.

However, I could still be wrong. It could be that the writers are setting up some storylines here. I hope so.

(On SamuraiFrog's "nuking the fridge" comment, I do object there on the grounds that with the exception of the liferaft-from-the-airplane thing, the Indiana Jones moments he cites are all instances of something literally magical happening in the movies. Sure, I can accept the power of God melting the Nazis, because that's the power of God. Sure, I can accept a sacrificial victim still living after his heart's been plucked out, because that's the power of the evil sorcerer-priest. Ditto the Hole Grail. There is no magic at work in the fridge-nuking, which is why that scene doesn't work. It's the same with the airplane jump: there's nothing magical going on there, so all we have to go on in terms of plausibility is our own experience. Suspension of disbelief is a hard thing to get a handle on, sometimes.)

Something for Thursday

Several early-morning starts at The Store this week, and a very full "To Do" list, have me feeling a bit irritable, so maybe a mood-lightener is called for. So here's Kermit the Frog singing "Lydia the Tattooed Lady".

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A quiz thing....

I haven't done a quiz-thing in a really long time, so here's one I'm stealing from Roger:

A- Advocate for: Combating global warming; the merits of the Star Wars Prequels; the dismissal of everyone with the Buffalo Bills above the rank of "kid who fills the cups with Gatorade".

B- Best Feature: Either my brain or my hair.

C- Could do without: Joe Lieberman. I'm sure glad they gave him a stern talking-to back in January; it's turning out well.

D- Dreams and desires: To write something that's good.

E- Essential items: Books, music, movies, hand and power tools, my computer(s), cats, bib overalls, pizza, rum, beer, lemonade, ice water, apples, white peaches, blueberries, coconut cream pie.

F- Favorite past time: "Past time"? The Romantic Era, I suppose. Pastime? Reading, blogging, generally partaking of any activity involving the "Essential Items" listed above.

G- Good at: learning; wasting time online.

H- Have never tried: Authentic Indian or Thai cuisine, made by pros in a restaurant. I've had takeout versions and "quick make at home" kinds of dishes, but never the real items.

I- If I had a million dollars: I'd own a nice house on a nice piece of land.

J- Junkie for: coffee and tea.

K- Kindred spirit: All spirits are kindred. Whoa....

L- Little known fact: I've only had stitches once. It was in second grade, when I fell off my bike and hit my chin on the sidewalk.

M- Memorable moment: Playing a work for solo trumpet in college, written by a friend who was majoring in Composition.

N- Never again will I: read Ayn Rand. Once was enough.

O- Occasional indulgence: I try to take a four-day weekend three or four times a year.

P- Profession: Maintenance/Handyman

Q- Quote: “If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success.” (James Cameron said that. I just heard it last week, in an article I still need to link one of these days.)

R- Reason to smile: The Daughter continues to grow. Good movies continue to come out. I continue to learn new things.

S- Sorry about: Telling my parents some unimaginably unbelievable whoppers as a kid.

T- Things you are worrying about right now: The vomitous mass that is the United States Senate.

U- Uninterested in: John McCain's opinion on anything. Sarah Palin's opinion on anything. Rush Limbaugh's opinion on anything. Glenn Beck's opinion on anything. Lather, rinse, repeat.

V- Very scared of: The onward march of ignorance, the increasing disrespect toward science, the disregarding of certain problems until they will be unsolvable, the rigid adherence to the worship of the "free market".

W- Worst habits: swearing too much, eating too much, surfing the Web too much.

X- X marks my ideal vacation spot: I think I could have fun anywhere at all. Even right here. I've been enjoying "staycations" for years.

Y- Yummiest dessert: Ice cream. Cookies. Cake. Coconut cream pie. Apple pie. Cherry cobbler.

Z- Zodiac sign: Libra, even though astrology is a giant batch of hooey.

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

Frank Gehry: awe-inspiring creator of amazing buildings, or guy who gets lots of press for designing buildings that look like wads of crumpled tin foil?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Oh Bella...your skin makes me all tingley in that special way....

Via SamuraiFrog:

It's funny because it's true!

(Originally from here, apparently, even though I couldn't find it in the archives. But hey, making fun of Twilight is fun!)

Monday, October 26, 2009

Note to self

Never, ever, ever, stay the night in a hotel run by this guy. How disgusting can you get?

Punt, pass, uh...what's the other thing?

A few random football notes:

:: Wow, the Saints are apparently now officially awesome. They were behind 24-3 at one point in the second quarter, pulled to being down 34-24 as they headed to the fourth -- and then they blew out the Dolphins, scoring 22 points to win 46-34.

:: The quarterbacks in that game, Drew Brees and Chad Henne, were a combined 40 of 74 for 509 yards, 1 touchdown, and 5 interceptions. I'll bet that was a fun game to watch.

:: Speaking of watching stuff, I finally reached my annual frustration point with the Buffalo Bills two weeks ago and decided to stop watching them and watch movies instead. So The Daughter and I spent the time we'd have otherwise had the Bills game on watching the first two Spiderman movies. So of course the Bills are 2-0 in those games.

:: Bills QB Trent Edwards, who showed promise his first two years but has regressed horribly this year, was out yesterday with a concussion. So, in the wake of the victory, I'm already seeing calls for his backup, Ryan Fitzpatrick, to be the new starter, especially after two wins. Fitzpatrick's numbers? 11 of 22 for 123 yards and one touchdown. Color me unexcited. The Bills' revolving door at quarterback the last nine years has seen a slew of guys come through who put up numbers like that. (Drew Bledsoe excepted; he actually put up some numbers in his brief time here.)

:: I still love the Spiderman movies, despite their maddening habit of killing off the villains each time out (with one exception) so they can never appear again (in the comics, you never know when Spidey's gonna have to face Doc Ock again), the complete bungling of the Gwen Stacy character (if she's not gonna be Peter Parker's first love and if she's not gonna die, she just shouldn't be there at all), and the less-than-enthralling music by Danny Elfman and Christopher Young.

:: I still think that the Vikings are unlikely to get anything other than a playoff berth out of Brett Favre's presence. The schedule has been completely in their favor the first six games: they've been home for each of their three games against good teams, and their first three road games were each against one of the worst teams in the NFL.

:: I know that pass rushers take a while to develop, yada yada yada, but really, color me unimpressed with Bills first-round pick Aaron Maybin. It seems to me that a defensive player taken 11th overall in the entire draft should, after seven games, have more than four tackles. And we're not even talking about his lack of any sacks, even though he was billed as a top pass-rushing prospect.

:: What's wrong with Peyton Manning? His yardage was down considerably in Sunday's game against the Rams, as he failed to break 300 yards for the first time this year. Sure, his numbers (23 of 34, 235 yards, 3 TDs, O INTs) may look good in the afterglow of a 42-6 win, but they may have an issue there.

:: That last was facetious.

That's all. Next week, the Bills host Houston. I'll be watching Spiderman 3.

Sentential Links #187

Here we go....

:: Soupy’s brilliance was that he created this whole comic world. And to be fully appreciated you had to watch everyday. Offstage noises, wise ass puppets popping up in the window, eight foot dogs, sound effects, girlfriends with hairy arms, old film clips, lip syncing songs, classic comedian monologues, zany props, a barrage of corny jokes, slapstick sight gags, and plenty of pies in the face – that was the world of Soupy Sales, coming at you in rapid succession from every which angle. It was so unrehearsed and spontaneous that half the time he didn’t even know what the hell was happening. You could hear the crew offstage laughing, you knew that the set and entire budget was so cheesy the biggest expense was probably all the shaving cream used to make the pies. (Shaving cream? Ewwwwww!)

:: Hello everyone. I just thought that I'd tell you what's going on around here. I'd tell you my name, but I'm not sure what it is. At first, they called me Sweetie, but that's been changed to Kitty, sometimes Cat (when my people are angry at me for God knows why) or, worse, F**ker-Cat. Sheesh. I don't understand people. I like things to be a certain way, you see. I like my meals on time, doors to stay open, and my litter box to be clean. Is that so much to ask? In fact, what prompted me to write is the subject of food.

:: The idea of people being executed was nothing new. I’d grown up seeing sheet after sheet of public notices pasted around the city. Always with the names of the executed criminals written in black ink, each marked with a red cross–to signify their execution. I had also been required, along with the rest of my peers, to watch public trials and the parading of condemned prisoners through the streets before their execution. However, I never knew what happened on the execution grounds, and what he described below haunted me for years to come.

:: It's funny, how certain things a person learns in school keep coming back and being useful (if you're lucky). (Or even if you're not. To my way of thinking, the correct answer to the whiny student asking "When am I gonna need to know this in 'real life'?" is, and always will be, "Hell, I don't know. Maybe you will and maybe you won't. But it's another item in the toolbox if you do know it.)

:: Book burning, sectarian intolerance, and overalls? Good grief, man, that is just playing to the stereotype of the southern good ol' boy. Every educated Southerner is cringing at what you're doing to their image. (Ye Gods, man, pick on the book burning and intolerance, but leave the overalls out of it! Of course, this is the fellow who told me that my overalls make me look like an axe murderer....)

:: Yes, if you are sorely tempted by a married woman, the Bible's advice is to get yourself a prostitute.

:: Every broken dream that causes me to cry is a direct result of having reached for a place, a person, a thing, or set of circumstances I want to draw into my life. (My good friend got a big disappointment last week, in the form of coming in second for a job that she really wanted. I can relate....)

More next week.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sunday Burst of Weirdness

Oddities abound!

:: The fine folks at Guinness have weighed in on ten "unbreakable" world records. Interesting reading...when I was a kid, the annual release of the newest edition of the Book of World Records was always an event.

:: Here's a news item that thrills the "I can't wait for the future!" part of me. Apparently the airport in San Diego is one of the country's busier airports, and it has the country's busiest runway, because that runway is the airport's only runway. For various reasons, building a second runway on the airport grounds is unfeasible -- so one person has suggested building a runway at sea, around ten miles offshore. Wow!!!

:: First, there was the Discovery Channel doing boom de yada. Then, the always-wonderful xkcd did its own version of boom de yada. Finally, someone animated the xkcd version and sang the words. Boom de yada!

More next week!

Oh Captains, my Captains: Ten Captains

There's no doubting it, folks: Captains are cool. Captain is probably the coolest rank, right ahead of General. Lieutenants are OK, and Commanders are fine. Colonels seem to be mostly desk-jockeys and out of touch; Privates and Corporals are just getting started, while Admirals mostly seem to wistfully recall the days when they were Captains. Yup, Captain is where it's at, folks.

At least, in the world of fiction, Captain is where it's at. So here is a tribute to fictional Captains of all sorts: ten Captains from fiction that I like a lot.

But first, a couple of special mentions to two real-world Captains. I'm a huge fan of Captain Morgan, of course.

And then, of course, there's The Captain:

OK, on to the fictional Captains, listed in no particular order:

1. Faramir, Captain of Gondor.

Ah, Faramir -- a man who devoted his life to service to Gondor, only to be continually snubbed by a father who doted on his elder son to begin with, and later became a lunatic driven mad both by grief and by his unwise consultations with one of the Palantiri. Into his hands, completely unwittingly, fall two Hobbits and the Ring of Power, but proving his quality, the young Captain of Gondor releases the Hobbits on their mission -- and is rewarded by his father with the impossible task of charging the now-overrun city of Osgiliath. But all ends well for Faramir in the end as he weds the beautiful Eowyn of Rohan.

More on Captain Faramir.

2. Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce.

I wasn't the biggest fan of M*A*S*H when I was growing up, mostly because I now know that by the time I was really aware of the show, it was past its point of highest brilliance; later on, in my late high school and college years, I would see quite a few of the earlier season episodes and realized how good the show had been at first. Not to imply that M*A*S*H was crap in its latter years; far from it, actually, but the show's high mark was when Trapper John, Frank Burns, and Colonel Blake were still around. But anyway, Captain Pierce was the show's anchor through every season, combining irreverent suspicion of authority with an unflagging sense of what was right.

3. Captain Honor Harrington.

Honor Harrington is the Captain of a series of space ships in David Weber's long-running series of novels that tell her adventures. In truth, I've only read two of them, but I do plan to read more of them, as Honor Harrington is a fantastic character. She's clearly meant to be an analogue of that other, more famous, nautical captain of literature, Captain Horatio Hornblower, right down to the initials. Weber's series of books tells the tale of her adventures and her rise through the ranks of the Royal Manticoran Navy.

4. Captain Geoffrey Thorpe.

Of course, we can't have a list of favorite Captains without including a couple of pirate captains, and Captain Thorpe is one of the best. Played by Errol Flynn in the movie The Sea Hawk -- which happens to be one of my favorite films of all time -- Captain Thorpe is the finest of pirates. He is gallant, daring, swashbuckling, and he commands the loyalty of everyone around him. His piracy is motivated by patriotism, as he preys upon Spanish ships and interests in the unacknowledged service of Queen Elizabeth I. Oh, and Captain Thorpe also has a way with the ladies as well.

5. Captain Jack Sparrow.

Captain Sparrow is, for my money, one of the great screen characters of the last ten years. I love him for his complexity: he's a scheming scoundrel, but he is also gallant when the need is called for and is motivated by a strong moral code that is all his own. That, and he's often utterly hilarious. I think that the first time we see him, in Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, is one of the best movie entrances of all time:

What I also find funny about Captain Sparrow is that he's so insistent on being acknowledged as a Captain, and yet, in the three movies, he doesn't really spend much time being a Captain -- he's constantly losing his ship and trying to get it back. At one point he even tries convincing Davy Jones that he's not actually a Captain, since he lost his ship to mutiny, but Jones snaps back, "Then you were a poor Captain but a Captain nonetheless. Have you not spent these last years introducing yourself as Captain Jack Sparrow?"


Before continuing my list with the last five of my Ten Favorite Captains, there's another category of Captain that bears a bit of discussion. There are lots of notable fictional captains who, for various reasons, weren't very good captains, or perhaps they were good captains but in the stories in which we meet them, they are undone by circumstances beyond their control, or perhaps they're captains in situations where their captaining skills aren't really much tested.

I was going to mention Captain Smith of Titanic here, but then I remembered that he's not fictional. Still, ordering his ship to full speed after learning that there are icebergs about isn't the kind of thing that puts one into the Captain Hall of Fame. On an actual fictional tangent is Captain Harrison of the SS Poseidon, who, after telling his corporate boss that he's an "irresponsible bastard" for ordering the ship to full speed despite bad weather, goes ahead and orders the ship to full speed despite bad weather. (His ship ends up capsized, and he ends up drowned, for his troubles.)

Star Trek fans will remember that a generally accepted bit of canon, although it didn't appear in the films, is that Hikaru Sulu was supposed to be the first captain of the USS Excelsior, but his involvement in the Khan-Genesis incident resulted in him being bumped from that assignment and the ship given to an overbearing, arrogant, pompous ass named Captain Styles. Styles also committed the unforgivable Trek character sin of downplaying the legendary exploits of the Enterprise ("I can't wait to start breaking some of the Enterprise's speed records tomorrow!"), so his comeuppance -- having to sit on the bridge helplessly as his ship ground to a halt after he'd ordered warp speed -- was quite welcome. Captain Sulu would later, indeed, get command of the Excelsior.

And then there's Captain Will Decker, who was Captain of the Enterprise right up until the moment when it became necessary for the Enterprise to actually go somewhere. Once that happened, Decker was supplanted as Captain as another guy (who will be discussed later in this post) took over. Decker got a consolation prize, though, when he physically melded with an enormous machine-intelligence to become...well, I don't know what. But it sure looked cool!

I suppose that we'll never know how good Captain Clarence Oveur was at his job, but if he hadn't eaten the fish for dinner, we'd never have witnessed Ted Stryker's redemption for the death of George Zip.

Proving that apology to one's superiors may be a good policy but it's still not any guarantee of future success is Captain Lorth Needa. But being in the right place at the right time -- i.e., the execution due to incompetence of your direct superior -- sure worked out well for Captain Firmus Piett, didn't it? It's the age-old method of career advancement: just hang out, do your job well, don't screw up, and sooner or later you'll have to move up when the person ahead of you blunders badly.

6. Captain Jean DeWolff.

Jean DeWolff was a recurring supporting character in the Marvel Comics universe, mainly in the Spiderman titles. She was very tough and unrelenting, often wearing a beret on the job; she was also supportive, if not downright friendly, toward Spiderman. Unfortunately, Captain DeWolff met an untimely end in a storyline that was one of the best Spiderman tales of the 1980s, although she has apparently turned up anew in the "Ultimate" line of Marvel comics.

7. Captain Barney Miller.

Now if there's a most-underrated classic sitcom ever, Barney Miller has to at least be in the running. That show was hilarious and full of great and memorable characters, and yet I never see it mentioned in lists of great old teevee shows. What gives!

The show was one of the great formulae for comedy: the workplace of eccentric weirdos, seen through the relatively sane eyes of a single character. In this case, our island of sanity is Captain Miller himself, who has to deal with detectives with who are all neurotic about different things and the endless stream of red tape and paperwork that get in the way of police work. I loved this show and would love to see it again.

(I love that, according to the show's Wikipedia page, many police professionals viewed the show fondly, some to the point of addressing Hal Linden, who played Barney Miller, as "Captain".)

8. Captain Han Solo.

Oh come on, you knew he'd be on here. Come to that, those of you still reading who have been around a while no doubt know which two captains are going to round out this list, but let's plug on, anyway.

So. Han Solo, captain of the Millennium Falcon, the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, which made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. He's a captain of his own ship and he's got the undying loyalty of his copilot, Chewbacca. His ship isn't that big, so he makes his living not by hauling freight but by smuggling contraband. He's in hawk to a gangster, and he doesn't much believe in anything...yet. He's the archtypal scoundrel with a heart of gold, the money-loving mercenary who can't tear himself away from his new friends when they need him, even if it means ending up inside a block of carbonite. When we meet him he's the amoral rogue, following the bag of coin, but at the end, he's found a cause and has fought and sacrificed for it. All the while, being a pretty good Captain.

9. Captain Malcolm Reynolds.

Oh yeah, you'd better believe it. Back when I wrote about Firefly, I noted that Malcolm Reynolds -- "Mal" to his friends, even though River Tam points out that "Mal" is French for "bad" -- undergoes a character arc that is pretty much the reverse of Han Solo's. (Solo is the rogue who becomes an idealist fighting for a cause; Reynolds starts off fighting for a cause but becomes a rogue when he's defeated.) What occurred to me in writing this post is that Reynolds also somewhat parallels another of my captains above: Captain Jack Sparrow. Both men are motivated by two beliefs: their belief in freedom, and their belief that a ship -- for Sparrow, the Black Pearl, and for Reynolds, the Serenity -- is the key for a man to have true freedom. Both men are, also, scoundrels with hearts of gold who can be extremely dangerous when crossed. And both have their own unique ways of speaking.

He's also fiercely loyal to those he has chosen to surround himself with. In the course of the show, he ends up with a doctor and the doc's sister on board, both of whom are fugitives who make life more difficult for an already-shoestring operation. But in one episode, when the doctor and his sister fall into trouble, Mal Reynolds comes back for them. Later, the doctor asks him why he's done this, since just leaving them would have made things much easier; Captain Reynolds replies, "You're on my crew." The doc presses the point, asking again, and Reynolds says again, "You're on my crew. Why are we still talking about this?"

Here's a good Malcolm Reynolds moment:

10. Captain James Tiberius Kirk.

Yup. The best Captain ever. This is a Captain who will romance the woman, punch out the bad guy, lock phasers on target, reprogram vital tests to his advantage, destroy his own ship to take out some Klingons, steal his own ship back to go get his friend's body, go back in time to find some whales because the Vulcan whose brain isn't quite all there yet says he should, fight a Gorn to the death and then refuse to kill him, mouth off to a Federation envoy when he's ordered to babysit some storage bins filled with "quadrotriticale", talk any out-of-control robot into a logical conundrum so extreme that it burns out its own circuits, and...well, Jim Kirk does it all. That's why he's awesome.

And there we have it. Thanks to Captains everywhere!

(Lest there be any misunderstanding whatsoever, let me iterate that not one word of this post is to be interpreted as a statement of any kind of opinion on the real world military, and not one word of the first graf of this post, specifically my statements about ranks other than Captain, is meant to be taken seriously in any way. If I have any real-world Colonels among my readership, no, I do not really think you're a desk jockey.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

A 21-pie salute

I've been mostly away from computers today, so I'm late in commenting on the passing of Soupy Sales, so I'll just leave it at this: I hope there's at least a small piece of Heaven given over to pie fights.

Thanks for the memories, Soupy!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Something for Thursday

My alma mater, Wartburg College, was noted for the very high quality of its vocal music groups -- still is, I suppose. Chief among these was the Wartburg Choir. I had the privilege of going on tour with the Choir in my freshman year, as they did a piece that actually included a small brass ensemble. It was a setting of my least favorite hymn of all time, "A Mighty Fortress", but that was a small price to pay to get to hear these people on a nightly basis.

The choir closed out each concert in the same way, offering this unimaginably gorgeous setting of a spiritual as their encore. I couldn't find a video of the actual Wartburg Choir doing it, but I did find this amazing high school chorus doing the piece. Here's "Give Me Jesus".

I don't often associate pieces of music with things -- even the Star Wars score has become an abstract entity for me over the years -- but this is one of the rare works that transports me back to another time and another place.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Of things bibbed

A blogger who is even more fascinated with overalls than I has decreed November 20 as "International Overalls Day". As befits the content of this blog, I may be participating. Further announcements as events warrant!

(Of course, November 20 is a Friday, so I won't be wearing overalls until after work. I find mildly ironic that my job is one for which overalls would be an ideal uniform, but I doubt I'll convince the Powers That Be at The Store of this.)


From time to time, when reading a negative review of a movie I'll see the film described as a "mess", and often times I'm unsure of what a "mess" is, in terms of a movie. The instance that stands out in my memory is Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. When I was looking for reactions to that movie, I think nearly every article or blog post I read about it called it a "mess", which I found odd because I didn't find the movie messy at all.

But now, having re-watched the Cameron Crowe flick Elizabethtown, I understand better what it is to call a movie a mess, because, well, Elizabethtown is one. It's an amiable mess, to be sure. It's not the kind of mess a dog makes on the new carpet; it's the kind of mess that covers the desk of the dotty teacher we all had in school, the one we liked anyway despite his dottiness. (It was a guy teacher for me; yours might have been a woman. Doesn't matter.) Elizabethtown is a mess. But I really liked it anyway.

Orlando Bloom plays a guy named Drew who works, as the film opens, for an athletic wear company in Portland, Oregon. (It's not Nike, but as Nike is located in a Portland suburb, it's pretty clear that we're talking about Nike here.) Drew is being whisked to the corporate HQ by company helicopter so he can meet with the billionaire CEO (played by Alec Baldwin) so he can be fired. Why is this shoe designer for a hugely successful company getting fired personally by the CEO? Because his latest shoe design is a failure of epic proportions. He's designed a shoe that has been touted as the Biggest Thing EVER, only to see it universally loathed. The opening scenes show entire semis full of these shoes being returned to the HQ's warehouse. Drew has just committed Epic FAIL which will cost his company nearly a billion dollars. Oops. (The film doesn't dwell on the shoe itself much, but we do get to see it a few times, and yes, it looks ridiculous, like the shoe Prince Namor of Atlantis would put on if he was going to go for a jog.)

After this staggering and extremely public failure, Drew is feeling a tad suicidal – but just a tad – until he gets the call, later that night, that his father has passed away, back in the family hometown of Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Off Drew goes to return to the home he hasn't seen in years. On the plane, he meets a flight attendant named Claire (Kirsten Dunst), who comes off as just this side of being a crazy stalker. She talks to him, gives him directions to his hometown, follows him into the terminal so she can shout the directions to him through a crowd ("Remember: Route 60-B!"). Drew gets home, and then we have the usual kind of thing in one of those stories where the city-kid returns to his small-town roots. There are folks who aren't aware that California and Oregon aren't the same place, there's the cousin in his 30s who is still at heart a teenager who wants to get the band back together, there's the doting older woman who takes one look at Our Hero and concludes that he hasn't eaten anything since 2003.

One night Drew is feeling lonely and calls everyone he knows, only to get through to no one; and then he dials the number given him by Claire, the almost-crazy flight attendant, who just happens to be off duty and can drive up to hang out with him.

Elizabethtown is a movie that just can't seem to decide what movie it wants to be, and that's how it's a mess. It feels not so much made a cobbled together out of various ideas. It's as if Cameron Crowe literally couldn't decide what story he wanted to tell, so he just said the hell with it and told all of them. Hence the result: a film that is so amiable and clearly heartfelt that I can't dislike it, but still just doesn't get into my heart the way Crowe's better films -- Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous -- do. Elizabethtown has the crashing of a wedding, long conversations by phone, stand-up comedy at a wake, "Freebird" at the same wake, a fire alarm at that same wake, and in the end, a road-trip across the country in which Drew drives places as prescribed for him by Claire, cueing up specific songs on specific CDs as he passes specific points on the trip.

I remember a review by Jeff Simon (of The Buffalo News) of this film, in which he wrote that the film is basically a mix tape. That's a very good metaphor for the movie, in the way its individual parts all seem disconnected and unrelated except for the larger connecting theme of how it all relates to Drew and his various troubles. Elizabethtown is an unfocused film that lurches from one thing to another, and yet it does so in incredibly likable fashion. Maybe that's the way that the movie is a metaphor for life itself? I dunno...but the movie is a mess, and still, I liked it a lot.

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

For Get Fuzzy fans, mainly: Bucky or Satchel?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

This tastes like feet!

I'm sure that prison food probably ranks below high school food in quality. I don't remember ever finding any maggots in my high school meals; but then, even if I had, there was no James Whitmore sitting nearby waiting to take my maggot and feed it to the bird he was nursing back to health. But I obviously have no real basis on which to make this judgment, except for the existence of an item called "Nutriloaf" (or "Nutraloaf").

Nutraloaf is a special prison food, intended for inmates who have apparently demonstrated behavioral issues. I suppose Nutraloaf is what they feed to the guys who are spending "a month in the hole". And apparently it is disgusting -- so disgusting, in fact, that there have been lawsuits over the serving of Nutraloaf on the basis that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Well, some fine soul out there actually decided to do a Nutraloaf taste test, making it according to a recipe cited in one of those court cases and then giving it a whirl. My favorite comment was this one: "Even though it doesn't have a taste, it feels like something is lingering in my mouth. It's like a Nutri-ghost."

It certainly can't be worse than Rachel Greene's "English trifle", though:

Note to self: stay out of prison.

He can go about his business....

Lynn finds this story's headline appealing, and so do I, for obvious reasons. But this one, an old fave of mine, is sheer genius.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Passing the milemarkers

At some point yesterday, this blog received its 500,000th hit, at least as far as SiteMeter is concerned. Thanks to the regular readers, the sporadic readers, the readers who were regulars until I offended them, and the people searching for pictures of Sophie Marceau. (For some reason she gets the most hits.) Since the heyday of blogging seems to be over, I don't expect this blog's traffic to ever grow much beyond what it is right now, for the remaining duration of this blog's existence, however long that ends up being. But it's still fun.

Onward and upward!

Sentential Links #186


:: Last week, when White House communications director Anita Dunn charged the Fox News Channel with right-wing bias, Fox responded the way it always does. It denied the accusation with a straight face while proceeding to confirm it with its coverage.

:: So to sum up: Sarah Palin’s “drill” plan involves ignoring how much oil is actually in the ground, how quickly it can be drilled, how easily it can be accessed, and the basic reality of the global oil market. And this is where she thinks she is an expert. (For some reason, being a Republican "expert" doesn't mean you have to know what you're talking about. That's why John McCain keeps showing up on teevee to talk about Afghanistan, a topic on which he's made a cottage industry being wrong about.)

:: Honestly, I have no idea what the GOP would do. As near as I can tell, they don't currently have a single idea, realistic or otherwise, for reducing the deficit in the long term. My guess is that if they suddenly found themselves back in power, they'd fumble around for a while and then, having thought of nothing else to do, try to pass some sort of tax cut. It wouldn't make any sense and it would make the budget situation worse, but they just don't have any other policy ideas. They are the Party of One Idea. And it doesn't matter that their one idea is the primary reason we are in such a bad budget situation in the first place.

:: For a bunch of people of pooh-pooh the "victimology" of minorities, it would be hard to find a bigger bunch of crybabies than American right-wingers these days.

:: Yes, Solomon Kane. He may call your wife a harlot and punch you out for taking the Lord’s name in vain, and he definitely won’t let your child engage in anything so Paganistic as trick or treating, but when you want a man who will almost certainly bring your youngsters home undevoured and not in thrall to ancient evil, this dour Puritan is the name that parents trust.

:: At the end of the day, I don't think the problem is the people who want to figure out where books get shelved. It's people who want to remove the books entirely, and would very much like to burn them. It's people stealing books as a way of making sure that other people don't read them.

:: So I showed you the new Doctor Who logo yesterday, but it strikes me that some of you young'ns haven't really seen the old ones. Allow me to introduce you to them then.

All for this week.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


I have some lazy linkage to dispense with:

:: John Cole's day is off to a pretty bad start:

Woke up, accidentally put ground red pepper in my coffee instead of cinnamon, did not notice until I took a swig. Tunch ate so much he threw up what can only be described as a cat food cud on the futon. Went to the kitchen to get a damp rag to clean it up, came back and it was gone and Lily was smacking her lips, and then the toilet overflowed.

Yeah, that's all some pretty good signage that one's proper place that day should be solidly beneath the blankets.

:: Sure, everybody was linking this a few weeks ago, but some folks may have missed it, so here it is: ever wonder how bats drink? Well, wonder no more, in some of the most stunning nature photography I've ever seen.

:: I suppose I'm fortunate that when I was in high school, I tended to make sure that the people who signed my yearbook were people with whom I got along. Not that I was afraid of this kind of thing, but you never know....

:: Thanks to whoever linked this: Insanewiches, insane sandwich fun!

:: I also saw this all over the place, but it's a fun timewaster: The Eyeballing Game.

Enjoy. Or not.

Sunday Burst of Weirdness

Oddities abound!

:: I can't remember where I saw this linked, and it's not safe for work! Erotic art for Alice in Wonderland by comics artist Frank Brunner.

:: I wonder if something like this will make it into Guy Gavriel Kay's upcoming fantasy-China novel Under Heaven: ninth century China was a pretty formal place, with form letters of apology for drunkenness.

:: Wow. There's some serious crazy! But at least the 101st Fighting Keyboard Commandoes will now be able to do some virtual target practice.

More next week.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A few random teevee thoughts....

Just a few quick thoughts from some recent teevee viewing:

:: I understand why FOX had to do it, but geez, going from final three to the winner of Hell's Kitchen in a single two-hour episode really seems rushed to me. In the past, the final two have had a two-hour show (or a two-parter) to themselves. (FOX's scheduling bit the show in the arse -- FOX runs the Major League Baseball playoffs, which are going on now, so it was either wrap HK up faster than usual, or have it go away for three weeks and then have the finale later on. They opted for the former, and I don't blame them.)

:: The most recent episode of The Amazing Race had what had to be the most crushing defeat for a team in the show's history. A team (a guy and his friend or brother, can't recall which, who has Asperger's) reaches the Pit Stop first -- only to discover, minutes later, that they've lost one of their passports. This means they are no longer officially checked in, and have to go back onto the race course (which for this episode is in Cambodia) and look for the passport, find it, and then return to the Pit Stop. If they fail to get back before all other teams check in, they're eliminated. They didn't find the passport. Exit the team. Ouch.

(Oh, and so far, the show's roadblocks and detours haven't been as much fun as the more gonzo previous season, which had my two favorite tasks to date -- the hauling of giant cheeses and the Austrian beer-hall pie throwing.

:: I'm enjoying Grey's Anatomy as much as ever, although I do hope they introduce some new blood soon. The show's ratings appear to be sliding, though. I'm not sure why.

:: I loved Jim and Pam's wedding on The Office, but I wonder if the show isn't reaching something of a tipping point. One of the show's great strengths to me has been its believability, for the most part; it takes normal office dynamics and seemingly amps them up just a little, often for hilarious effect. Still, there have been moments in the show's history that stood out as too unbelievable to swallow, and I'm seeing a trend of more of that kind of thing going on. Specifically, I hope the writers address the problem inherent in having Jim being an office manager where his wife works as a subordinate. Every company I've ever worked for had rules against this type of situation. We'll see.

:: Thank God 30 Rock is back on, because that means there are two funny shows on NBC on Thursdays. Community and Parks and Recreation just don't amuse me in the slightest, I'm sorry to say.

:: I'm noticing that, in watching reruns of The Family Guy, which The Daughter enjoys for some reason, the only times I really laugh invariably involve either Stewie or the talking dog. That's it. Peter? Lois? The two older kids? They could vanish from the show. But Stewie and the talking dog really do amuse me with some of their antics and banter.

:: I still have yet to watch the first few episodes of House, Dollhouse, or Castle, which I hadn't even realized had started already. Oops. I also want to look forward to 24 this year, but the way last season got started so strongly and then petered out in the last quarter of the season gives me pause. But then I'll look into the eyes of FBI Agent Renee Walker again, and that'll be that.

:: I renew my wish that Patrick Jane, on The Mentalist, would be completely wrong some time. I'm starting to get a bit bored by the show's formula of unmasking the killer in Act IV, and then having Jane indicate that he figured it out way back in Act I. I also wish they'd quit having Jane be right at the expense of the wondrous-to-gaze-upon Agent Lisbon.

:: At The Store, some wonderfully benevolent soul has changed the teevees in our cafe from FOX News to the Food Network. That's always a fine development.

How do you say "AIEEE!" in Ewokese?


The "Song of the South" could use a different lyricist.

I don't know, folks -- I just don't get the South in this country. I don't understand the mindset down there. In Texas, you have a state that has long been incredibly gung-ho about executing people, to the point where there's a seriously good chance that they executed an innocent man -- and not only is the Governor there trying to cover this up by firing the people whose job it is to investigate it, but the person from his own party who is mounting a primary challenge to him is criticizing his actions not for being wrong but for playing into the hands of "liberals who want to discredit the death penalty".

Then, north of Texas, there's Oklahoma, where they've got a nifty new law that requires all women seeking an abortion to put all kinds of personal details about their abortion into the public record.

Not outdone, though, is Louisiana, where a Justice of the Peace in some town has refused to issue marriage licenses to interracial couples. But of course, he's certainly NOT racist! He just doesn't think that people of different races should marry.

Jeebus -- what is it with the South, anyway?

(No, I'm not actually judging the entire region by these instances, knowing as I do many, many fine people who live in that region. But I do find it of surpassing oddity that the South really does often seem to be the locus in America and some very nasty beliefs and actions based upon those beliefs.

Here's a good article by advice columnist Carolyn Hax about interracial dating, by the way.)

Comments deactivated for this post

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ten Tools

The best part of my job, as a Maintenance Man, is the collection of tools I get to use on a daily basis. I love tools. Tools rock. I now get the same rush from heading into Home Depot or Lowe's that I once got from walking in Toys-r-Us. It's the same rush that I get from going into Borders or Barnes&Noble! Tools rock.

Since I do general maintenance work at The Store, I have to have a fairly wide variety of tools at my disposal. People who work in specific trades will find themselves using some tools and almost never any others Some fall into the category of tools that I don't use very often, but which are indispensable when I need them. Others, however, are my everyday tools, the ones I find myself reaching for most often. Here's a rundown on ten of these:

Eleven-in-one screwdriver.

This is on my person at all hours of the job, and I use it a lot at home, too. Most tool manufacturers make a multi-headed screwdriver, but the eleven-in-one from Klein Tools is my favorite: it's solidly built and includes, as the name implies, eleven different driver options: Slotted 1/4" and 3/16", Philips #1 and #2, square drive #1 and #2, two Torx sizes, and three nut drivers (3/8, 5/16, and 1/4"). If I were a wizard in the Harry Potterverse, this screwdriver would be my wand.

Tape measure.

Well, of course. I always need to measure stuff. I carry a 30' Stanley Leverlock tape. I think their FatMax tapes look cool, but I suspect they would simply add too much weight to my belt.

Diagonal pliers.

Occasionally called "dikes" for short, or "small wire cutters". I use these many times throughout the course of a typical day -- so much so that I actually wear the blades out every so often. I have to buy a new pair once a year or so. I don't mind because these tend to be fairly cheap; I get 'em at Target for five or ten bucks.

Telescoping magnet.

This gadget is extremely useful to me, although one's mileage may obviously vary. It's a nicely strong magnet about the size of a pencil eraser, stuck on the end of a pen-sized tool that can telescope out to a length of about two feet. The obvious use is grabbing screws that one drops inside a piece of machinery or equipment, but for me, the true use of this thing is in my usual duty of hanging advertising signage throughout The Store. For this task we use thin steel hooks of varying lengths, and it's in this type of job that the telescoping magnet really earns its keep.

Cordless drill.

By a very wide margin, this is the most frequently used power tool in my arsenal. (Mine is a Dewalt 18V, if anyone cares.) Drilling holes, driving screws of many types -- rare is the day that I don't get the drill out of its case at some point.

Utility knife.

I also find myself often having to cut things, score things, or mark things. The utility knife is indispensable. I use a standard one, the familiar kind of knife, the most often, although I'm probably going to buy a smaller utility knife as to cut down on the size of stuff in my pockets.

Voltage tester.

Sometimes called a "tick", this is a highly useful device in my job, where I often have to move electrical equipment -- refrigerated cases, food prep equipment, and the like -- from one place to another. I often have to test a power line to see if there is voltage present. Just hold this doohickey to the line or insert the probe into the receptacle's hot terminal, and if it beeps, you've got voltage.


Pliers are important tools; I use them almost daily. I use groove-lock pliers ("Channellocks") the most, with the linesman's pliers and the needlenose pliers coming in second, depending on the job I need to do. Interestingly, the most traditional kind of pliers, the good old slipjoint pliers, are the one kind of pliers that I nearly never use.

Spirit level.

As noted above, I am frequently tasked with the hanging of signage throughout The Store, be the signage directly fastened to walls or hung from the ceiling. A level is essential to this task, because, believe me, if you hang a sign so that it is crooked in the slightest degree, you'll hear about it.

Miter saw.

Of the power saws at my disposal, the miter saw is the one I use the most, because I most often need to cut trim pieces or other kinds of similar materials for various "finish" jobs throughout The Store. The other power saws that I have at my disposal are a table saw, a circular saw, a saber saw, and a reciprocating saw. Cutting things is fun!

Of course, the tool I actually use the most frequently, far and away, is the pencil, but that's boring -- who wants to read about a pencil?

Something for Thursday

Something offbeat, but which I kind of like, since the movie is a recent favorite of mine. Here's a medley of numbers from Saturday Night Fever.

This video contains one of my favorite tiny moments from the movie, a "blink and you miss it" bit of characterization. Tony is strutting down the sidewalk, in one of the film's iconic moments, looking confident and masculine -- you can tell by the way he uses his walk that he's a lady's man. But then he stops at his local pizza place, and he shows some actual vulnerability in whether to have two slices or not. In the split second interaction with the crusty lady who runs the pizza joint, all of his masculine confidence goes out the window and he's the insecure kid.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Fly it.

Surely if the Supreme Court has affirmed the right to burn the flag -- and rightly so, in my view -- than one also has a right to fly the flag. When I first heard about this, I figured it was one of those hyper-anal Home Owner Assocations or whatever they're called, the ones who get angry with you if you have a pink flamingo in your yard or if your grass is one half-inch too long or something. But no, this was an apartment manager specifically telling residents that they could not fly the American flag -- in any form. Including car decals and the like.

I'm also unsurprised that the management person who made that decision wouldn't speak to the press. Own your decisions, people.


A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

Now, there are several teams in the conversation as to which is the worst team in the NFL -- the Bills, Browns, Bucs, Rams, Raiders, Chiefs, and possibly the Titans all seem to be in the mix -- but as far as who the worst organization is in the NFL, I think that one boils down to two of the above. Everybody else is at least admitting that they are in rebuilding/youth movement mode and is acting accordingly, but it seems to me that two of these franchises are mismanaged in a terribly delusional way.

So, who's the worst organization in the NFL: the Bills or the Raiders?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

By the light of the guttering candle

It's been a while since I updated the books that The Daughter and I have been reading at bedtimes, so here are some capsules. Some of the most satisfying and entertaining reading I've done lately has come at night, as I read these books aloud to The Daughter, one chapter per night. What's nice about reading aloud is that you can't skim. At all. When reading silently, I do tend to slip into skimming once in a while, if I sense that I'm reading a passage that may not entirely be crucial to the action. Reading aloud re-directs my reading attention to each individual word, and I find myself noticing some more details occasionally that I might otherwise not notice. I also notice word rhythm a lot more, and which words actually work together sonically. This fascinates me.

A problem that occasionally crops up deals with dialogue, particular in instances where two characters are conversing. It's not uncommon to find authors simply drop dialogue attribution altogether for a bit, since it should be easy for a reader to keep track of who's talking. But I wonder sometimes if that's true when reading this kind of thing aloud, so sometimes I'll hedge a bit and throw in my own attribution, a "he said" or "she said" where the author didn't. I suppose I could adopt other voices for different characters, but...well, no, I don't want to do that.

Now for specific books:

:: Over the last couple of years, when I've been in the kid-lit sections at the local bookstores, I've noticed a glut of pirate tales on the shelves. I suppose the popularity of the Pirates of the Caribbean films has been the major factor here. We've picked up a couple of these titles, but the only one we've read thus far is Pirate Curse, by Kai Meyer. Meyer is a German author whose books are translated for English audiences, and Pirate Curse is the first installment in a trilogy.

Of the pirate books I've seen all over, all of them seem to employ supernatural goings-on. I'm not sure why this is the case, since surely a compelling pirate story could be written for kids (or adults) without ghosts or magic or whatever. I seem to recall that a fellow named Robert Louis Something wrote a highly-regarded story about a pirate whose name went on to grace a chain of fast food joints that offer deep-fried seafood, but I digress. Pirate Curse involves just that: pirates who are cursed.

As is always the case with children's books, our heroes are children. A pirate girl named Jolly is what pirates call a "Polliwog": she has the ability to walk on water. When her ship is ambushed and sunk in a trap, she is the only survivor, escaping to an island where she meets a farmboy named Munk, who also turns out to be a Polliwog. Munk's parents are killed in another supernatural attack a short while later, and Jolly and Munk are fleeing for their lives, falling in with a mysterious man called the Ghost Trader as they try to evade the growing evil force called "The Maelstrom".

This is a very exciting book, and we're looking forward to returning to this series in the future. Its protagonists are engaging and sympathetic, there's the requisite mystery of the Ghost Trader, the usual mysterious figure of authority whom I'm sure will turn out to be far more than he seems, there are fun battles and daring escapes. At times I did wonder if the book might have been a bit on the dark side, but The Daughter seemed to take it in stride. Recommended, if you like creepy pirates-and-ghosts tales with a lot of adventure in them.

:: Some time ago we read a book called Larklight, by Philip Reeve. This book looked so intriguing on the shelf at Borders that I picked it up, in hardcover, knowing nothing about it. It is a steampunk space opera that assumes that the universe actually operated the way science thought it operated back in the Victorian era: the luminiferous ether exists, people can breathe in space, and so on. The spaceships are basically sea galleons in space, powered faster than light by traveling the "Golden Roads" when someone performs an alchemical operation called the "Chemical Wedding". The book featured the adventures of a brother and sister, Art and Myrtle Mumby, who live in a space mansion called Larklight. They fall in with a space pirate named Jack Havock (I think we need a moratorium on pirates named "Jack") and his crew as they investigate a threat to Earth by a race of evil spider-like creatures. They also meet a spy for the British Empire (which now, naturally, extends into space) named Sir Richard Burton (whom, I suppose, is not translating the 1001 Nights) and a number of other fine people, few of whom are actually human. Larklight was a fabulously fun read, and we dutifully kept an eye out for the promised sequel.

Since then there have been two sequels: Starcross and Mothstorm. I don't want to say too much about the plots of these books, except to note that Reeve's wild and wooly Victorian steampunk worldbuilding continues to be a delight. We have asteroids connected by a railroad, time traveling, crusty space sailors from spaceports on the moons of Jupiter, strange things on the planet Mercury and stranger things beyond Neptune, diseases that turn people into trees, and more. These books are the most pure fun reading I've found since the early volumes in the Harry Potter series. The books are written in the first person, mostly from Art's point of view, with occasional chapters from Myrtle's point of view; Reeve very nicely maintains a completely different voice for each character. There are lots of footnotes which Reeve uses ingeniously to do his infodumping, and the books are illustrated nicely.

There was one spot at which I wanted to reach into the book and slap Reeve. During a space battle sequence, he wrote a paragraph in which he describes a ship "shaking, rattling, and rolling" as it evades "great balls of fire" and the characters suffer through a "whole lot of shaking going on". I groaned and then had to stop reading to explain why I was groaning to the kid. I wish Reeve hadn't done that.

So, if you're wondering how a Victorian steampunk space opera can possibly work, check this series out.

:: Some time ago we read Lloyd Alexander's classic Chronicles of Prydain. The Daughter loved it, although she never really said that she loved it. I know because it comes up in conversation now and then, such as when a character named "The Bard" in the book we're reading right now came up and she said, "You mean, like Fflewddur Fflam?" So I was happy to use my reading time with her to revisit Alexander's less-noted Westmark Trilogy, which I think is the equal of Prydain. Thus far we've read the first two books, Westmark and The Kestrel.

In the Prydain books, Alexander explored themes of coming-of-age, of the nature of heroism, and the nature of duty. While some of those themes are revisited in Westmark, Alexander is more interested here in more mature notions: freedom and its limits, the best type of government, whether violence is ever justifiable.

Set in a kingdom called Westmark, the era is roughly analogous to the French Revolution; pistols, muskets and bayonets are the weapons of choice here. In the first chapter we meet a young man named Theo who works as an apprentice to a printer in a time when freedom of the press is greatly curtailed. He quickly finds himself on the run from the law, taking refuge with a con-man named Las Bombas and his dwarf companion Musket; along the way they meet a street urchin girl named Mickle and a revolutionary beloved by the sophisticated city youth named Florian. He also comes to the attention of the kingdom's chief minister, Cabbarus, and gradually Theo finds himself in the midst of turmoil engulfing the whole of Westmark.

This trilogy is as much about politics and concerns of adults as it is about coming of age and heroism. Alexander doesn't shrink from the fact that many who are called "heroes" are people who have committed acts of questionable heroism for reasons that weren't entirely noble; he also doesn't shrink from the fact that great conflicts can arise between people who are genuinely trying to make a good world as best they can, and he presents few, if any, easy answers. At times the story gets pretty dark, actually, but it's still exciting, briskly paced, and full of memorable characters.

I'll report back when we finish the trilogy.

Monday, October 12, 2009


A couple of Star Trek related notes:

:: Ron Moore confirms what many have suspected over the years: that the technobabble on Star Trek: The Next Generation was just made up, fill-in-the-blanks type stuff.

"It became the solution to so many plot lines and so many stories," Moore said. "It was so mechanical that we had science consultants who would just come up with the words for us and we'd just write 'tech' in the script. You know, Picard would say 'Commander La Forge, tech the tech to the warp drive.' I'm serious. If you look at those scripts, you'll see that."

This comes as absolutely no surprise, obviously. The over-reliance on technobabble has always been what keeps me from ranking TNG as high as The Original Series or Deep Space Nine, both of which had much greater emphasis on their characters. TNG was at its best when it used character to its advantage, but so often it felt as if the producers just didn't trust their characters and their cast to carry the weight fully, which is why we ended up with so many episodes where a problem is discovered, we investigate the problem for a while, and then wait until the last ten minutes when Data or Wesley would come up with the pulse or beam or blast of some kind of particle that would fix the problem with the space-time continuum.

:: That said, I was recently discussing Star Trek '09 (which is how I now refer to the recent movie, which I discussed some months ago) with a friend at work, who was baffled as to why I had such a hard time buying into the events of the movie when I would cheerfully swallow the idea of, say, the Genesis Device. I thought that a fair question: why did I have such a hard time with the notion of a drop of "red matter" creating a black hole in the middle of a planet, while I would accept the idea of a torpedo the size of a refrigerator converting a dead planet into one with a nice biosphere?

Well, I don't know, really. Part of it is probably how the ideas are treated. The Genesis Device is constantly referred to as an "experiment" in Trek II and shown as an outright failure in Trek III, for one thing. For another, though, the Genesis Device didn't come on the heels of a long list of Star Trek doomsday devices, substances, and elements. The Genesis device was a new item, but now, with Trek '09, I've heard a lot more along the way. Trilithium, which can halt the nuclear reactions in a star. The Tox Uthat, which does the same thing. There are many more in that vein. It gets harder and harder for Star Trek to come up with threats like these.

It also hurts the cause of the "Red Matter" when the film in question is chock-full of all manner of SF whoppers. I've generally found that I'll accept something that is clearly bollocks as long as it's not literally bollocks. That's another part of why I can accept the Genesis Device: my brain accepts it as a fully fictional item, and I'm fine. But Trek '09 gives us things like black holes taking one back in time, supernovas that threaten to destroy the entire galaxy, and so on. By the time we get to an explanation of "red matter", Trek '09 has, for me, worn out its quota of scientific-implausibility forgiveness.

:: A tiny detail also glared out at me upon re-watching the movie. At one point, Kirk, and the rest of our heroes, are at Starfleet Academy, where he decides to take the Kobayashi Maru test for the third time. In a scene with McCoy, he says he's taking it "tomorrow". That night, though, he's making out with a green-skinned cadet who happens to be Nyota Uhura's roommate. Uhura comes in and describes a distress call she's just intercepted from the Klingons, in which an entire Klingon armada has been destroyed by a Romulan ship. OK.

Cut to the next morning, when Kirk is beating the Kobayashi Maru test after reprogramming it. This causes scandal, so there is a full tribunal of, it appears, all of the Starfleet cadets in Kirk's class. As the tribunal goes on, a distress call from Vulcan comes through, causing Starfleet to mobilize its fleet. Off everyone goes to their ships, with cadets first being assigned to various vessels, then flying to them by shuttle. Some legerdemain on McCoy's part gets Kirk on board the Enterprise, and after some more stuff surrounding the launch, Kirk listens to the ship's briefing on what's happening and realizes that Vulcan is under attack. He races to the bridge to tell Captain Pike what he's learned...citing the attack on the Klingon fleet as evidence. So far so good...except that he says that the attack happened last night.

Wait a minute.

So, all of the above has happened in one day. Kirk's reprogramming of the Kobayashi Maru test, his taking of the test, the suspicion and investigation of his possible cheating, the mobilization of Starfleet and the launch of an entire fleet whose crews haven't even been assigned yet. Yeah, I have trouble with that.

:: I've decided that, at long last, I believe the entire Kobayashi Maru test to be complete BS.

We've seen the Kobayashi Maru test twice now: in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and in Star Trek '09. The idea seems pretty simple: it puts a cadet into a situation from which there is no possibility of a "win", and thereby tests what the cadets do in a "no-win" situation.

The scenario depicted in both instances is the same: a distress call is received from a damaged ship, the Kobayashi Maru, in the Neutral Zone. It's illegal to enter the Zone and is seen by Klingons as an act of war, so the cadets have a hard choice: respect the Neutral Zone and allow the Kobayashi Maru to die, or embark on a rescue mission. Both films establish, through dialog, that rescue is impossible, so then the choice becomes fight-or-flee. So the possible resolutions seem to be these: attempt no rescue, attempt a rescue but abandon it as soon as the shooting starts, and attempt a rescue and go down in flames with the ship. Hence the "no-win" scenario.

In Wrath of Khan, Admiral Kirk tells Saavik that the Kobayashi Maru test is a "test of character", presumably to see how cadets deal with the "no-win scenario". It's "facing death", Kirk says: "How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life". And later on, when Saavik learns that Kirk actually cheated to beat the test, she replies: "Then you never have faced that situation. Faced death." I've always found that line extremely odd. Kirk hasn't "faced death"? The guy who stood and watched as Edith Keeler died, who had to kill his own best friend (Gary Mitchell), and so on and so forth? He never "faced death" because he cheated his way out of a fake test? Right.

In Trek '09, we have the afore-mentioned tribunal after Kirk cheats. Spock tells Kirk that he has failed to grasp the point of the test: it is to ensure that cadets in command situations have "experience fear" and dealt with it in a command situation.

So, the Kobayashi Maru test is, basically, a device to make cadets "face death" and "experience fear". But the problem is this: by its very nature, the Kobayashi Maru test can do neither of those things.

If you're a Starfleet cadet taking the Kobayashi Maru test, the problem is this: you know you're taking a test. How can you "experience fear" or "face death" in any kind of meaningful way when you know that you are not on the bridge of a starship but in a simulator on the planet Earth? You are not facing death when you know that you're not actually ordering a starship into the Neutral Zone to rescue a ship that doesn't exist, and you can not be filled with fear -- other than the typical kinds of academic fear, such as what will my fellow cadets think of me when I fail this again or how embarrassing will the post-test talk with the professors be -- when you know that you're not facing any kind of real situation.

Basically, the Kobayashi Maru test by its very nature can reveal nothing meaningful about those who take it. It's an interesting diversion and nothing more. (And really, the only reason they came up with it in the first place was so that Trek II could fake us out at the beginning, since everybody knew that Spock was going to die at the end of the flick -- I know that when I saw the movie as a ten-year-old kid, I saw Spock "perish" as the bridge burned after the Klingon attack, and I thought, "Wait, they killed him in the first five minutes?!")

Interestingly, this kind of test was actually handled in much more convincing fashion in an early episode of The Next Generation, called "Coming of Age". In this episode, Wesley Crusher is undergoing testing to see if he makes it into Starfleet Academy yet. It's all typical academic stuff, although there's something called a "Psych Test", which is tailored to each student individually based on their psychological profile. The day comes for Wesley's, and he goes into the room where he's to take it, whereupon he hears a distant explosion. Getting up and leaving to investigate, he finds that a laboratory down the hall has erupted into fire, endangering two scientists. The room is about to be sealed, and Wesley can only get one guy out himself, so he makes his choice and drags the one guy he can out before the room is sealed, killing the other scientist.

Of course, the whole explosion was the test, and both scientists are fine. The test for Wesley was to see if he could, in a desperate situation, make the kind of decision that cost someone their life (since his father had died years before when another officer had made a similar decision). But what made it effective was that at no point during the test did Wesley ever realize that this was the test itself. The Kobayashi Maru test isn't like that at all; especially not in Trek '09, when the cadet in the Captain's chair can actually see the professors watching him, in the overhead galleries.

:: Finally, I hope the next movie reveals that Gaila, Uhura's green-skinned roommate, wasn't killed in the incredibly-short Battle of Vulcan. I found her both hot and cute. For a green-skinned Orion girl.

OK, I'm done geeking out for now.

Sentential Links #186

Linkage time! Get yer linkage here!

:: Americans just don't realize how big a deal this is for the rest of the world.

Might it be that our definition of what constitutes peacemaking is too insular and narrow -- too exclusively Western -- too lacking in shalom?

:: But this prize isn't about political partisanship inside the U.S. Again, it was a clear signal from an old friend.

As usual, though, America is too obsessed with itself to notice.
(Both of these links via Sean.)

:: The key to understanding McCain’s strategic “thought” is that he loves war. Whichever war the United States of America seems mostly likely to start on any given day is the war he wants to start. Whichever war the United States of America seems mostly likely to escalate on any given day is the war he wants to escalate. The entire rest of his erstwhile worldview will just revolve around that. (A lot of people seem to love war, and I find it maddening. I'm no dove-like peacenik myself, but it has struck me as incredibly odd that for years, our national discourse has treated the people who constantly agitate in favor of war as the solution for nearly any foreign policy problem as the "serious" people. "War is serious, therefore someone calling for it must also be serious," goes the logic, and it's extremely foolish.)

:: The argument for giving Obama a Nobel Prize is that America is important enough and Republicans are bad enough. (Or, as he put it in comments to the Matthew Yglesias post linked just above: This is where you can build a pretty powerful case for Obama getting the Nobel Peace Prize. Keeping this man [John McCain] from controlling the US military was a gigantic service to world peace.

:: Bottom line: you care about your kids? Don't feed them Nutella and toast every day for breakfast. (Er...OK. But who does that? I've never even tasted Nutella. We use good old peanut butter here. And the breakfast of choice for The Daughter these days is a single egg and a slice of cheese on a toasted multi-grain English muffin.)

:: I now present you with a seventeen year old rant about my time at Taco Bell, written today from the perspective of me in 1992. (God in Heaven, that brings back memories. Working in corporate restaurants is just like that; just change the name in Shamus's post and you've got what it was like at Pizza Hut, or McDonald's, or anywhere else. This reminds me of many sanctimonious lectures we managers would receive from the Area Managers at Pizza Hut when they'd come round. Ugh.)

:: For in playing, or writing, or drawing, or simply talking oneself deep into the world of a popular artwork that invites the regard of the amateur, the fan, one is seeking above all to connect, not only with the world of the show, comic book, or film, but with the encircling, embracing metaworld of all those who love it as much as you do.

More next week.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Burst of Weirdness

Oddities abound!

:: For your next batch of sugar cookies, consider using the Veggie Tales cookie cutter, featuring Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. And try not to notice that these two fellows, standing next to each other, in outline only, look not unlike a...yeah, I'm not gonna say it.

:: SamuraiFrog has a cartoon that illustrates one of many unforeseen consequences of the Christmas retail season's eternal creep backward into the fall months.

:: You know the Roomba, that little robotic vacuum cleaner that you just turn on and then set free in your room? Well, someone was curious about the path it takes, so he made a long-exposure photo, capturing the route the Roomba took. Cool.


More next week!

Saturday, October 10, 2009