Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sunday Burst of Weird and AWESOME!

Wierdness and Awesome abound!

:: Archaeologists have a new hypothesis regarding the stone giants of Easter Island. Interesting stuff. I've always thought it would be neat to see those, if not for the sheer remoteness of the island coupled with the fact that there's likely little to do there other than look at big stone statues.

:: Illustrations from a Russian edition of The Hobbit. I have to admit that I like these illustrations a great deal. There's a great deal of charm here:

Note the highly liberal interpretation of a hobbit's hairy feet. Bilbo's half ape-man or something!

:: OK, that weird guy on the Dyson commercials needs to stop. Seriously, if he's that big a techno genius, he needs to use his abilities for stuff that's actually, you know, important. Sure, it looks kinda nifty, but there is zero need for a room fan that costs $300! This guy is like a supergenius with OCD who has decided to use his abilities to rid the world of all of his personal little pet peeves rather than advancing our world toward its ultimate goal of unlimited energy, flying cars and jetpacks, spaceships coming and going all over the place to our colonies throughout the solar system, and a Super Mario game that doesn't make me feel stupid. We don't need bladeless fans! Ye Gods, man! Let go of your anal retention and use your powers for good! (Dyson's fan first seen at Cal's place.)

OK, I'm done. More next week!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Seeing double

Seeing double, originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

I was wondering which side was my better side, so I did a bit of photographic comparison.

And I still have no idea!

Stars, ships, and ferrets in pants

Time to catch up on some recent reading!

:: Sports From Hell: My Search for the World's Dumbest Competition by Rick Reilly is a fun piece of sportswriting in which Reilly travels the world in search of really bizarre sports. The ones he finds are both familiar (the "Rock Paper Scissors" championships) and utterly unexpected (World Sauna Championships). Some of these he tries, some he only watches from afar, but all in all, the book is a funny and fascinating look into the world of organized competition. Despite having built a society, we humans still revere competition and have a biological need for it, so we'll end up competing in anything. Such as, who can sit in an extremely hot sauna (261 degrees) for the longest, or who can sit the longest at a poker table that's been set up in the middle of an arena into which an angry bull has just been released, or who can hold out the longest after having a ferret dropped into their pants and their belts and cuffs taped shut. Yes, that ferret-in-the-pants thing is real. It's the cover photo of the book.

Some of the sports are surreal not just for the events themselves, but for the context in which they are played. The bull poker, for example: that one takes place in a prison in Louisiana, and the competitors are inmates. The warden makes a case that allowing competitions like this gives inmates some form of dignity, but Reilly creates an interesting juxtaposition when, at the end of the chapter, after an inmate named Rocky has won the bull poker competition, he gives the reaction of the father of the girl whose murder Rocky is in the pen for in the first place. "I didn't know that someone who raped and murdered an innocent person would get to ride in a rodeo. That doesn't sound like hard labor to me."

My favorite chapter was the one on baseball. Not some kind of special baseball that they play in white-water rapids, or on top of a mountain, or something weird like that. Just regular old Major League Baseball. Now, I used to be as big a fan of baseball as anyone, but various things have sapped my enthusiasm for the game. First, my favorite team has sucked for almost two decades. Second, we haven't had cable in years, so following baseball is basically a "checking the boxscores online or in the paper" thing now. But third, really -- the game has become longer and longer and duller and duller. Hence Reilly's first complaint, that "Baseball is as dull as Amish porn." That whole chapter is as good a rant as I've read in a while. Here's a taste:

3. Writers somehow think baseball is male childbirth.

There's no bigger gap in any sport than the one between misty-eyed Jack Kerouac-quoting baseball writers and red-eyed Jack Daniels-drinking baseball players. Press-box poets like George Will are always waxing nostalgic about the game; everything is roses and sepia tones and tearstained "catches" with Dad. They'll see some rookie standing with some old vet in the outfield and say, "Imagine the lessons being handed down." And having been around the game my whole life, having played it, I can tell you the lessons. The old vet is saying, "You see the blonde with the rack sitting behind the dugout? She likes power tools."

:: Two space opera novels recently joined the ranks opera novels I've read. Prophets by S. Andrew Swann (book one of a series called Apotheosis) was a fairly quick and breezy read. Not that it's a light book, by any means, but it's fairly short and it's divided into short chapters, which always helps the pacing along. The book posits a complex spacefaring human society in which there are several groups constantly vying for power (an Islamic Caliphate and the Roman Catholic Church among them) when the existence of a lost human colony, way out in space, is discovered. There's a race against time to get out there and see what's going on...and of course, there's a lot more going on than a simple lost colony.

This is, as noted above, the first book in a series, and from what I've gathered, this series is a sequel series to an earlier series by Swann, so I have some catch-up reading to do. This was a fun, fast-paced space adventure story.

:: Also fun, but not quite so fast-paced, but wildly adventurous, is Judas Unchained by Peter F. Hamilton. This is the sequel volume to his earlier Pandora's Star (previously discussed), and it's about as long -- 1000 pages of space opera goodness. I can't say too much about it, since it is literally the second half of a pretty massive story, but I did greatly appreciate how Hamilton is mostly able to bring all of the various storylines -- and there are a lot of them -- together in fairly convincing fashion. The pace really picks up in the last two hundred pages, leading to a nicely whiz-bang conclusion. The series also has lots of ideas and managed to keep me nervous about the fates of characters even in a universe in which death has been rendered an impermanent state. This duology is long, but it's very impressive. I'm already looking forward to The Dreaming Void, which kicks off a new series set in the same universe.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Final Idol

American Idol for this year is over, at long, long last. Aside from a couple of too-rare bright spots, this season was generically disappointing from the start right up until the end, when -- for the first time in my experience -- Idol crowned the wrong person. And not just a little bit wrong, but staggeringly wrong.

Lee DeWyze was utterly, utterly inadequate, no matter how much the judges inexplicably adored him. He's got a pleasant enough voice, and he can strum a guitar in relatively convincing fashion (although that's about all he did with it), but he showed, time and time and time again throughout the show's run, that he had zero real musicianship. He showed it when he failed completely to sell the song "Beautiful Day" in the finale; he showed it when he did an awful one-half of a duet with eventual runner-up Crystal Bowersox in "Falling Slowly"; he showed it in his jaw-droppingly awful rendition of "Hey Jude"; and worst of all was his wholesale slaughtering of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah", which he turned into a Queen-style arena rock anthem. There have only been a couple of times in all the seasons of Idol I've watched (all but the first) in which someone I really disliked made the finale (Diana DiGarmo and David Archuleta), but this was the first time that the person I really disliked actually won, and he did it despite near unanimous opinion that his performances on the Finale were seriously subpar.

What was odd was the judges' reaction to Lee all year. Until the finale, Lee received zero criticism. None. He was slathered with praise every single week until the finale, when at long last he seemed to receive some mild critique. It's true that the judges can't eliminate or keep anyone around solely by virtue of their criticism, but they can certainly shape opinion, and Lee had them in his back pocket right to the end, even to the point where he'd give warbling performances in which he would literally sing wrong notes and start shouting the song as soon as he possibly could, and yet, no one would point it out; Randy Jackson, famous for using the word "pitchy" as much as "dawg", would merely shout out things like "Oooooh, someone is in it to win it!" The judges' devotion to Lee DeWyze was absolutely mystifying.

What about Crystal Bowersox, then? Well, it's pretty obvious that I loved her. Absolutely loved her. Not everything she did was perfect; on "Movie Song Night", she did some song from Caddyshack that nobody much remembers, for example. But she was such a smart, capable, intelligent performer. She thought her songs through in a way that Lee couldn't even conceive. After Simon Cowell criticized her for the way she had performed a particular song, she was actually able to look at him and say, "Well, the lyrics say this, so I had to sing it in a way that made that meaning clear" or some such thing. That kind of musical intelligence is rare on Idol, which is tailor-made for vocalists like Lee DeWyze and Siobhan Magnus who approach a song as though it is a vocal jungle-gym.

Crystal also had tremendous stage presence, which Lee did not. During the Season Finale (the results show, not the individual performances), both Crystal and Lee showed up on stage occasionally to perform with various famed pop and rock artists. Crystal did a number with Alanis Morissette in which she held her own with the star, making the moment something special. A short while later Lee did a number with Chicago, and he couldn't even stand out as a 20-something kid amongst a group of aging, has-been rockers. Lee just melted into the stage; Crystal looked like the stage was her home. And it was. That the Idol voters didn't consider this is...well, it's not very shocking, actually.

Crystal's dominance over Lee in the final performances was so undeniable that not even Lee could deny it. At the very end of the show, just before the final fade-out, there they were on stage, Lee and Crystal, with Ryan Seacrest in between. The look on Lee's face was the look of dismay on the face of any person who has been thoroughly beaten by a superior opponent.

So why, then, did Lee win? I've heard some theories:

Lee is more marketable, more current, more contemporary, more [insert intangible here] than Crystal.

I don't buy this. First of all, I have no idea what's "current" or "contemporary" and neither does anyone else. It's all BS, really -- Crystal stands in the tradition of Melissa Ethridge and Sheryl Crow, both of whom are still very much present on the music scene. Plus, Idol viewers aren't record producers. It's not their job to pick people who sell tons of albums, even though that's the hope. Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Taylor Hicks -- all have had fine music careers since winning Idol, but none have lit the world on fire. But more importantly, none were "current" or "contemporary".

Crystal doesn't really need to win. She's virtually guaranteed a great career.

I'm not so sure about this. Everyone loves to talk about the Idols who didn't win and who went on to some kind of stardom -- Clay Aiken, Jennifer Hudson (didn't even make the finale), and Adam Lambert are prime examples here -- but there are others who disappeared. Justin Guarini, Kat Stevens, that beat-boxing kid from a few years back: where are they? Nowhere that anybody knows. Some non-winners have had good careers. Many more have not.

Lee's backstory is more compelling than Crystal's.

Well, this is all opinion, I guess. I, for one, am more attuned to the single mother struggling to make it as a singer than the paint salesman trying to be a singer, but that's just me.

A related theory:

America's a pretty puritanical country, so a single mom isn't going to win IDOL against a good-looking guy. Same was Adam Lambert lost.

Don't know about this one. I hope it isn't true, but I'm sure that for a few voters, it was.

Teenybopper girls robotexting their votes carried the day for Lee.

There may be something to this; I suspect it's at least part of the reason Lee won. You can't overestimate the sway held by the "cute" contestants, whether they can sing or not. It's why Aaron Kelly and Tim Urban lasted so long, despite their relative lack of plausibility as Idols. I saw this theory advanced somewhere to explain the fact that men have won Idol four of the last five years (Taylor Hicks, David Cook, Kris Allen, and now Lee DeWyze). However, looking at who lost some of those years, the theory looks a little less convincing. There's no way anybody's going to look at David Cook and decide that he's going to have the "teenybopper girl" vote sewn up when he's up against David Archuleta, and Jordin Sparks beat out...that beatboxer kid who looked like he should command the "teenybopper girls" segment of the Idol electorate. I'm sure this is a factor, but a determining factor? Maybe not.

This illustrates the power of the judges to sway opinion, given how relentlessly positive they were about Lee.

This is, for me, the likely big factor here.

So anyway, Lee's the winner and Crystal's not. I predicted Lee to win the whole thing weeks ago, mainly because of the way the judges were pushing him so hard in their critiques. In fact, I predicted that Crystal wouldn't even make the final, so I was partially wrong on that score. But this also demonstrates something else: that the judges' critiques in the final don't determine much at all. The judges treated Lee with reverential fervor all year until the final, when they gave him criticism that was mild at best while highly praising Crystal. It's a far cry from two years ago, when in the final, the judges declared all three "rounds" for David Archuleta, who ended up losing by what was apparently a pretty sizable margin. By the time of the final, I think most people who are going to vote have their minds made up.

Lee's victory had an air of inevitability, but it was a weird kind of inevitability: the kind where you know you're getting forced to do something, so you go along with it.

OK, enough about the Worst Idol in the History of Idol. What about Idol in general? I found this year generically disappointing. The level of voices selected for the Top 24 was surprisingly bad, with only a handful of standouts among them. And one of those standouts, Lilly Scott, whom I loved in the early going, didn't make the Final 12 in what was probably the most surprising single elimination of the entire season. There are always bad contestants who do confoundingly well -- John Stevens? Sanjaya Malakar? Tim Urban? I read one article somewhere, early in the season, that suggested that Idol is having more troubles lately because they've "depleted the talent pool". That notion is, obviously, idiotic -- are we to believe that Idol has worked through all 50 million or whatever number of people there are in the permitted age group? That's just silly. But the judges drop the ball on their selections, at least once every year.

Simon Cowell is also leaving, which has a lot of people predicting the show's swift demise. Maybe, but if so, I suspect it would be because Idol will be in its tenth season and it's getting old. Like any self-respecting fan of American Idol, I have some thoughts on directions the show should take:

1. Cut back on the filler and focus on the music.

This season, the filler material got ridiculous, to the point where Idol had to schedule two hour shows so that nine contestants could sing. That was ridiculous. There's only so much anybody wants to know about the contestants, and all the song previews are now going on way too long. Time was when the show would have each contestant sing twice as early as six or seven left in the group; this year they waited (I think) until they were down to five left, just because the show was so full of filler material.

2. Move "Country Music Week" back to where it used to be, early on in the Final Twelve.

This year, they didn't do Country Week until very late -- again when there were only five or six left -- and they focused it on songs by Shania Twain. It should come a lot earlier. Not that I'm a country music fan -- I like some of it, dislike most of it -- but it can't be denied that Idol's Country Week tends to produce a lot of good performances, especially from the contestants who may not be totally cut out for the Pop stuff they want so badly to feature. Country Week can give dark-horse contestants a new lease on life on the show, and it addsa helpful bit of variety to the show.

3. Change the voting.

This will never happen, but I'd like to see voting changed so that people are voting for someone to be eliminated rather than to see someone stay. Failing that, I'd at least like to see the show limit the number of votes from one person, so that someone can't robo-text fifty votes for someone who isn't very good. Never gonna happen, obviously -- they love that Ryan Seacrest can say things like "Out of a record 190 million votes cast", as if that many people are watching the show to begin with. But this would fix a recurrent problem with Idol, when every year lesser contestants thrive whilst worthy ones are sent packing.

4. Back to three judges.

OK. So Simon Cowell is leaving. I'm not of the general view that he is unreplaceable asset whose departure will spell doom for Idol -- Simon is flat-out full of crap a lot of the time, and he only manages to not seem full of crap by virtue of being articulate and having a British accent. But he's leaving the show. Who to replace him with? Someone with personality and intelligence. I'd like to see him replaced by someone with knowledge of the industry, but really, not another record producer. I'd like to see another actual musician on the show, someone who isn't concerned with what's going to sell and be marketable and rather what's actually good.

I saw the suggestion made somewhere else -- can't remember where -- but it's a good one. Bret Michaels! It's perfect. After watching him on The Celebrity Apprentice, he's got smarts and he can be blunt when he needs to be and nice when that's called for.

And get rid of Kara Dioguardi. I suppose Ellen Degeneres can stay, but she needs to work on her critiquing. Kara, though, is useless.

5. Get rid of the "bad singers".

When the show starts up in January, they always show lots of stadiums full of Idol hopefuls. Only a tiny percentage of these are allowed through to audition for the judges; five thousand might show up, but only 150 might get through to sing for Randy, Kara and Simon or whomever. And of those, a certain percentage are the terrible singers sent through just so we can see the judges rip into people who suck.

The problem is that this is all boring. The annual weeks-long tour of laughing at sucky singers is old, old, old hat by now. It might help the cause of upgrading the talent level sent through to Hollywood if the show abandoned the sucky singers. Let the judges pick from 150 good singers, instead of only 75 good ones and torturing them with 75 bad ones.

That's about it. All in all, a really disappointing year on American Idol. We'll see if it can get its groove back next year or not.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Something for Thursday

UPDATE: What happens when you try throwing together a post about anything you can possibly think of late at night on a day when you've been up since five in the morning? Errors, that's what. So, below wherever you read "Bakshi", substitute "Rankin Bass", if you please. I don't know where my head was on that, but....

Sorry, folks, but today was a solid kick-in-the-arse kind of day. A very early start at work for a big project, resulting in a brain of mush in the evening.

Anyway, way back before Peter Jackson took the reins of filming Middle Earth, the Ralph Bakshi animation studios took a shot at the work of JRR Tolkien. The animated Lord of the Rings is legendarily bad, as is the later follow-up for teevee, Return of the King. But their film of The Hobbit is not without its charms. The animation wasn't the best, but the actual art was quite good, and the Bakshi Middle Earth had a look all its own. It took me a little while, actually, when watching Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring the first ever time to get my head past the fact that his hobbits didn't look like this:

The film did a fairly nice job with the songs. It all has a 1970s folk sound to it, but they are still quite charming. Here's the title song, "The Greatest Adventure":

And this, Glenn Yarborough's setting of the "old walking song" that is heard throughout all of The Hobbit and LOTR:

In a scene where a bunch of goblins are attacking Bilbo and the dwarves, the goblins sing this nasty ditty (words by JRRT):

And one of my favorite selections, the song sung by the Dwarves to Bilbo at the beginning, when they are explaining their mission to go back to Lonely Mountain and take back what is theirs:

Great stuff!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

The Super Bowl being played in an open-air stadium in a northern city: "Ye Gods what a dumb idea", or "Line 'em up and let's play!"?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Random Notes from Home

Daily life stuff....

:: I made pizza for dinner last night. Nothing fancy, just cheese, pepperoni, and sausage, but I made my crust and my sauce from scratch, so that's something. It turned out really well, I thought. There's something really satisfying about DIY pizza. Now to experiment with other crust recipes; the one I used is a basic crust from Cooking Light magazine.

:: I watched the last half hour or so of the 24 finale. Hmmmm. Spoiler thoughts (highlight to read):

Jack doesn't even get to go to bed after his day? Now he's on the run from both the US and the Russians? And at some point in the past he pissed off China, so where can he go? Canada?

And if the President is feeling that bad about Jack and what he's been through, why doesn't she pardon him before resigning her office?

And yes, I'll totally see a 24 movie.

:: SamuraiFrog on the finale of LOST:

There are two kinds of people--those who loved the last episode of Lost, and those with no poetry in their souls.

I watched the finale (switching back and forth between it and the Celebrity Apprentice finale, which was so much filler that you could watch about eight minutes of the whole thing and catch it all), and I like to think that my soul's got poetry a-plenty within it, and my reaction to the show was pretty much what my reaction to LOST has always been: Yeah, it's a pretty show and it's extremely well-made and Michael Giacchino can write some good music, but...that's about it. Maybe I'm simply not attuned to the poetry in LOST, wherever it is, but the finale struck me as lots and lots of sentimental stuff, right down to the tearful reunion of man and dog, combined with lots of glowy stuff about death and Heaven. As a non-fan of the show I wasn't looking for "the answers", but the online commentary I've seen is pretty unanimous that the finale didn't offer any.

So, basically, what seemed to wind up happening is LOST boiling down to "Our Town meets The Five People You Meet In Heaven meets The X-Files". Whether they were dead the whole time or whether they were only dead in the parallel timeline doesn't really matter, apparently, and the creators basically gave themselves the ultimate "out" in terms of explaining stuff: they can simply say, "Explanations, schmexplanations. It's all religious allegory about death and the afterlife. We don't need logic for that." From the vantage point of someone outside the whole LOST phenomenon, it seems to me that what the producers did here was this close to being, if not actually being, an enormous deus ex machina ending. And not just the ending: the entirety of LOST is deus ex machina.

I'm wondering how this show and its ending are going to age, as the emotions of the journey fade and other memories come to the fore. It'll be interesting.

:: In other teevee season finale news: CSI: Miami's finale was unbelievably silly; haven't seen Grey's Anatomy or Castle yet (in fact, we're still eight or nine episodes behind on Castle, so we'll have new teevee here at Casa Jaquandor for a while); I'm growing more and more weary of The Office and think the show should just end when Michael Scott leaves; The Mentalist needs to wrap up the not-that-interesting Red John storyline soon; and...that's about it, I guess.

:: It's really hot this week here in Buffalo. Mid-80s. The kind of weather that makes me irritable and cranky because it's too unpleasant to go outside and do much of anything. I hate hot weather. This is July weather, and it's the big reason why July (excepting the Fourth, which I adore) is my least favorite month. July weather in May? I really hope this is an aberration and not a harbinger of a July for the ages in these parts....

:: I'm closing in on finishing Super Mario Bros. on the Wii. I'm past the first "Boss" level in World Seven, so I have a couple of levels and then all of World Eight to go. Yay me! I had "reached" World Eight before, but that was with me doing a lot of playing doubles with The Kid, who has beaten the game multiple times now; basically she completed levels while I died a lot. Now I have a game that I'm playing myself. Fun stuff! (We need some more Wii games, though...maybe Mario Galaxy, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, and one of those Lego games, like Indiana Jones.

:: The Daughter is now reading all of the Harry Potter books. She's on Order of the Phoenix, although she keeps asking me what happens in Deathly Hallows. I refuse to tell her. We've watched the existing movies, so she's still operating on certain assumptions as regarding Professor Snape. Heh! I, of course, refuse to confirm or deny.

That's about it. More posting later, I hope!

Monday, May 24, 2010


I saw this quiz split into two parts over at Sunday Stealing, so here it is stitched back together with baling wire.

1. What's your favorite Dr. Seuss book?

Fox in Socks, I guess.

2. If you could live in any home on a television series, what would it be?

Serenity, on Firefly. (Yes, the ship is a home.)

3. What's the longest you've gone without sleep?

Probably eighteen to twenty hours, tops. I never pulled an actual all-nighter in college, unless staying up until nearly 6:00 am counts. The Wife (then The Girlfriend) and I drove all night to move her stuff from Iowa to WNY back in 1994, but we took shifts sleeping.

4. What's your favorite Barry Manilow song?

"I Write the Songs". Seconded by "Copacabana". It scares me to think that I actually have a favorite Barry Manilow song.

5. Who's your favorite Muppet?

Animal. Or the stoner from "Mahna mahna". Love those guys!

6. What's the habit you're proudest of breaking?

Hmmmmm...maybe my habit of not trying to write at least a line or two every day? Not that it's helping out much, but still....

7. What's your favorite website?

This one, duh!

8. What's your favorite school supply?

Pens. Nice pens. Fountain pens, actually. I have about fifteen cool fountain pens. I don't use 'em enough, but fountain pens are all kinds of cool.

9. Who's your favorite TV attorney?

The guy who defends James T. Kirk in the original Star Trek episode "Court Martial". It's a really cool episode, even if the ending is a bit contrived.

10. What was your most recent trip of more than 50 miles?

Going to Pittsburgh on Easter weekend.

11. What's the best bargain you've ever found at a garage sale or junk shop?

Hmmmmm. "Bargain" in this sense seems to me to indicate something you really wanted and got cheaply, as opposed to price versus actual value. When garage-saleing a few years ago, I picked up a lovely serving plate and matching serving bowl that have a lovely pattern: black rim with a single pink blossom on one side. It looks quite Asian to my eye.

The Library Book Sales always thrill, too; I document these each time I go (they're quarterly -- in fact, the next is coming up in a couple of weeks). There was one where it turned out someone had unloaded a large cache of old science fiction stuff. That one resulted in a full box!

12. Where were you on September 11, 2001?

I was on my way to work when the planes hit. When I got in my car, the first had already struck and no one was sure if this was an attack or something horrible gone awry on a plane. In fact, I first heard "a plane crashed into the WTC" and I thought that some idiot in a Cessna had screwed up. I was in the drive-through at Tim Horton's, picking up a bagel, when the second plane hit. My immediate thought was one of utter confusion: "How does this happen twice? Was this...oh my God, this was intentional."

When I got to work, the radio was already on and everyone was shocked. A while later the third plane hit the Pentagon. The next few hours were as surreal a day as I've ever spent in a job. There were radio reports of several more missing planes; then one plane; then a plane that the USAF had shot down. At one point a report came through of a car bomb detonating outside the State Department in Washington, DC. And in the midst of all that, the most horrific announcement of all: the first of the two towers of the WTC had collapsed.

The vagaries of that job -- telesales, calling pharmacies to sell generic liquid medications -- never seemed more unimportant than on that day. Which was sad, because I remember having a really good sales day that day. I found it awfully hard to give a crap, though.

At some point on that day, I scrawled out "9-11-01 Remember" on a post-it note and stuck it to my computer. I still have that post-it note in my stuff, somewhere 'round here, along with the copy of the Buffalo News I bought the next day. I made sure to keep that post-it when I cleaned out my desk on firing day.

13. What's your favorite tree?

When we moved into our house in 1981, which is the house my parents still live in, the house sat on a very large parcel of land that had no trees on it. None. There was a tree line/hedge row on one side of the land, and on the other, but there were no trees whatsoever anywhere near the house. My parents spent a lot of effort (and, I expect, money) over the next couple of years buying trees and planting them. There is now an enormous weeping willow in the front yard, some impressively tall pines, and one pine that I asked for when we stopped at a garden center just a few months in. We planted that tree outside my bedroom window, where it grows still. That tree is now so big that it actually had to be cut back so my parents could use their front door to, you know, get in and out of the house! That tree is awesome, man.

There's also a wonderful tree down the road from their house that isn't particularly unique in itself, but it's by itself in someone's yard and every fall its leaves turn a spectacular red that makes it look from afar like the entire tree is aflame.

14. What's the most interesting biography you've read?

I should read more biographies...but Jacques Barzun's bio of Hector Berlioz is an amazing read.

15. What do you order when you eat Chinese food?

As much as I adore Chinese food and love many dishes...I tend to default to General Tso's. Or I'll get Sesame chicken, which is just General Tso's without the chili peppers and with sesame seeds tossed on. Once in a while, Kung Pao. But hey! Last time out, I got pepper steak!

I should get Mu Shu Pork one of these days. It just tends to be very messy, though.

16. What's the best costume you've ever worn?

My mother made me a Captain Marvel suit when I was in kindergarten and was enthralled with All Things SHAZAM!.

More creatively, in college, there was a party one night in the music department which was themed "Dress as your favorite musician". So I, having been told that I looked like our school's oboe teacher, threw on what he usually wore -- a tie-less shirt, blazer, and five-o'clock shadow -- and went as him. Got rave reviews. I wonder if anyone ever told him about that?

17. What's your least favorite word?

For some weird reason, about ten years ago, all of a sudden everybody was using the word "copacetic". And hey, if someone tells me my work is copacetic, great and thanks and all, but the word itself just sounds like an unpleasant medical condition.

"Will he live, Doctor?"

"I don't know, Agnes. He's gone...copacetic."

18. If you had to be named after one of the 50 states, which would it be?

I'd want to be Even Newer York.

For some reason, I've always remembered this: an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard where the villain was a femme fatale of sorts named Alabama. And the show's narrator sagely informed us: "You should never trust a woman named after a state." I think of that every time I meet some poor kid named Dakota.

19. Who's your favorite bear?

The grizzly that stalks Tristan Ludlow (Brad Pitt) throughout the 70+ years of his life in Legends of the Fall. That's some bear.

20. Describe something that's happened to you for which you have no explanation.

You're reading this blog! Don't you have anything better to do?

21. If you could travel anywhere in Africa, where would it be?

I'd love to see the Pyramids in Egypt. And I'd love to see how many hours it would take me to work up the guts to jump into Devil's Pool.

22. What did you have for lunch yesterday?

Leftover tacos from a couple of nights before.

23. Where do you go for advice?

Depends. Sometimes I post a question on Facebook or here. Or I ask someone in person, usually at work, whom I know to be knowledgeable in the area I'm looking for. Or I type a question into Google. Or I just plow on ahead and try to come up with my own answer.

24. Which do you use more often, the dictionary or the thesaurus?

Dictionary, mainly for spelling. I don't use the thesaurus all that often, but when I need it, it's invaluable.

25. Have you ever been snorkeling? Scuba diving?

Snorkeling, but only in a synthetic reef thing at Disney World. I had a good time, but The Wife did not. She kicked with her feet and struck a piece of fake coral, ripping the toenail out of her big toe. This was Day Two of our vacation. I spent the rest of it pushing her around in a wheelchair at the Disney parks. But at least we didn't have to wait in line for rides.

26. Have you ever been stung by a bee?

Sure. Hasn't everybody?

27. What's the sickest you've ever been?

Had the flu in late 1996. That's the only time I have ever called off work because I was sick. It came and went fairly quickly, but man, was that ever unpleasant.

28. What's your favorite form of exercise?

Walking/hiking, and bicycling.

29. What's your favorite Cyndi Lauper song?

"Time After Time".

30. What did you do for your 13th birthday?

I have no idea whatsoever.

31. Are you afraid of heights?

Not especially, although in some contexts I'd probably be freaked out. I'd love to go in Toronto's CN Tower and stand on the glass floor. I'm not sure I'd ever voluntarily jump out of a perfectly good airplane that wasn't in the process of spiraling downward toward its doom.

32. Have you ever taken dance lessons?

No. I wouldn't mind. Dancing looks fun.

33. What's your favorite newspaper?

By default, since it's the only one I read with any regularity, the Buffalo News.

34. What's your favorite Broadway / West End musical?

Without ever having seen it, Les Miserables.

35. What's the most memorable class you've ever taken?

Oh, wow. I've taken a lot of great classes. Oriental Thought. Philosophy of Religion. Epistemology. Foundations of Science. Shakespeare. Poli Sci 101.

36. What's your favorite knock-knock joke?

OK, I don't really know any offhand, so I'm going to Google some and pick the one I like best. Hang out here a moment....

[insert filler music]

All right, here it is:

Knock knock
Who's there?
Banana who?
Knock knock
Who's there?
Banana who?
Knock knock
Who's there?
Orange who?
Orange you glad I didn't say banana ?

I suppose it's true, then: "Knock Knock" jokes, without exception, suck.

37. What's your least favorite commercial?

Those of you who don't live in the Buffalo Niagara region won't have been tormented with these ads. I won't soil my beautiful, beautiful blog by embedding the video, so, if you must -- and I can't urge you strongly enough not to -- well, watch. Don't say I didn't warn you.

38. If you could go to Disney World with any celebrity alive today, who would it be?

Sarah Palin. So I could chain her to one of the "It's A Small World" boats and make her ride it for the rest of her life.

39. Do you prefer baths or showers?

Showers. Hot tubs are nifty, though.

40. What's your favourite newspaper comic strip?

Get Fuzzy. I read that and Pearls Before Swine daily. (OK, I also read Funky Winkerbean, but I read that one more for the slow-motion-car-wreck thing it has going on these days.)

41. What's your favorite breakfast food?

Waffles! Or pancakes. French toast is acceptable. And sometimes you just want a nice omelet. But mainly, waffles.

42. Who's your favarite game show host?

Phil Keoghan of The Amazing Race. I also never really appreciated Survivor's Jeff Probst until just this recently concluded season; he's always seemed OK and workmanlike, but he really is quite perceptive about stuff, and in the live finale, he did a really good job with the interviews, forcing answers to questions and deflecting some of Russell's nonsensical replies.

Of game show hosts of the more traditional sort, I always enjoyed Bob Barker.

43. If you could have a super power, what would it be?

Flight. But Superman-style flight, not something like Angel of the X-Men. No big-ass wings for me!

44. Do you like guacamole?

It's OK. I'm not a huge fan, but I don't dislike it, either.

45. Have you ever been in a food fight?

Nope, unless being an occasional target for edible missiles counts.

46. Name five songs to which you know all the lyrics.

"Every Which Way But Loose" (Eddie Rabbitt); "Love's Been Good to Me" (Rod McKuen); "Hey Jude" (some poof from Liverpool);

47. What's your favorite infomercial?

I never, ever, ever watch informercials. Ever. I really don't like them at all.

48. What's the longest you've ever waited in line?

Hmmmm...I don't remember, really. Probably some line for a popular ride at an amusement park. Those can be ridiculously long.

49. What's on the cover of your address book or day planner?

Nothing. It's a small checkbook-sized thing in a checkbook-like cover. I got it for two bucks somewhere, intending to actually use it for once.

And yet, I don't.

50. Have you ever taken a picture in one of those little booths?

Nope. Sounds fun, though!

Sentential Links #207


:: As a kid, I had no clue whatsoever what the song was about--I only thought the whole "Skyrockets in flight" thing was cool, being nuts for fireworks, never stopping to consider the impossibility of enjoying the visual spectacle during a sunlit afternoon. Now, 35 years older and wiser, I totally get it that the whole "skyrockets" thing is one o' them there metaphors. Deep thinkers, those Starland Vocal Banders. (Yup! Loved the song as a kid, because I had zero idea what an 'afternoon delight' was. Just a neat song. Then I went about twenty years without hearing it, until it turned up on a 1970s compilation CD that I bought in 1995 or so for some other song. I played "Afternoon Delight" and got one or two verses in before I realized, "Hey! This song is about Teh Sex!")

:: It’s simple really. A plane crashed and a group of strangers who really know each other but don’t is stranded on this mysterious island inhabited by polar bears, a smoke monster, residential tract homes, a hatch, a group called “the Others”, giant foot statue, clipper ship and a plane in trees, temple, force fields, a lighthouse, golden pond, a hydrogen bomb, and this great little cove for fishing. (I've been kind of vexed by LOST -- I've had the feeling that I should like it, but when I've tried it, my reaction has invariably been "Meh". I watched the first five or six episodes of the first season, and then I bailed out when I decided that I just wasn't interested enough to keep watching. I tried again several times over the next few years, when they'd have recaps followed by season premieres, but it never took. I don't know. I hope the fans had fun with their finale, though.)

:: What is most surprising about the film is that it is anything but the convention breaker many made it out to be, solely because of the homosexual slant. In essence it’s a very conventional romance, whose narrative, through gripping, offers few surprises.

:: Pac-Man, on the other hand, was simply a ubiquitous part of the background noise of my early adolescence. A very pleasant noise, to be sure... the opening theme song and the pathetic little "zoink-zoink" sound when ol' Packy gets eaten can still bring a smile to my face. But I can't remember the first time I saw or played the game; it seems like all of a sudden, it was just all over the place, appearing fully grown overnight like dandelions on the front lawn. And it still is all over, if you're paying attention. Arcades have gone away and cabinet-style coin-op games are pretty rare in general, but if you encounter a vintage game out there somewhere, odds are good that it's going to be a Pac-Man... or at least one of those combo units that have several classic games in one cabinet, and Pac-Man is always an option in those. The longevity of the cute little yellow mouth and the pop-eyed ghosts who are his mortal enemies is nothing less than astounding. (Wow, do I ever remember the Pac-man craze...but really, Ms. Pac-man was such a superior game, with its different mazes and whatnot. I miss arcades, to be honest....)

:: It is a day we will never forget as long as we live.... Richard and I were living in Portland, Oregon on this day and would stay another 4 years...but this day was one that would rattle us both with excitement, fear and awe forever! (Wow...someone else who lived in Portland at the time of the eruption. What an amazing day May 18 was.)

:: Oh, Funky Winkerbean, I’m glad you’ve finally decided to give in and just embrace emotional devastation as the engine for all your drama.

:: Howabout we have everyone remind each other about how he saved the world over and over and over again! The more they talk about how great he is, the more it reminds us that we haven’t seen any actual evidence of that supposed greatness, and the more hollow and useless he seems. Until at the end, we get a funeral scene filled with characters telling us how much he changed their lives forever with his brilliance and awesomeness…only to never ever ever mention him again the second the dirt is heaped on his grave. (Wow. One question, though -- who is 'The Sentry'?)

More next week!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Striking Back

So, thirty years have passed since the release of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Wow, I guess. As luck would have it, I watched the film not too long ago -- a couple of months, probably -- and it still holds up extremely well. This is unsurprising, of course; the film is a bona fide classic.

I've read some tributes here and there around the Interweb and around Blogistan specifically, and I've found myself of mixed mind about the good words being said about the movie, mainly because a very large portion of comment seems to be of the "Wow, remember thirty years ago when Star Wars didn't suck?" variety. I'm saddened by that, but hey, nothing I can do about it, either. It gets tiring, though -- it seems that every event or happening or milestone that returns Star Wars to public consciousness is followed by the usual "George Lucas is the richest hack in history" comment. Oh well. Par for the course. Put it this way: I'm not much looking forward to 2013's 30th anniversary of Return of the Jedi.

Empire came out when I was just eight years old, living in Hillsboro, OR. I didn't see it for a few weeks after it came out, and yet, in those pre-Interweb days, I was able to go see the sequel to Star Wars three or four weeks after its release with zero idea of its story, other than what I'd seen in the TV commercials and such. I knew there was a snowy planet where the Rebels were fighting these big metal dinosaurs, I knew that there was a space chase through some asteroids, and I knew that there was a new character played by some guy named Billy Dee. That's about it. I certainly had no idea that there was a Jedi master named Yoda, and I was actually surprised when the goofy little green guy in the swamp turned out to be Yoda. I was horribly dismayed when Han Solo got put into carbon freeze, but I thought, "Hey, no prob, they'll save him before the movie ends." first ever experience with a cliffhanger.

And I had no idea whatsoever that Darth Vader might be Luke Skywalker's father.

How was this possible? Well, again, it was pre-Interweb, and pre-cable teevee, and all the rest of that. Also, I was lucky that my school district at the time let out for summer vacation in the first days of June, so Empire had been out for all of two weeks before I lost most contact with my schoolmates, most of whom hadn't yet seen the movie either. So there was nobody to spoil the thing for me. I went into that movie almost completely blind. Empire was the last Star Wars film I was able to do that with.

Empire is, of course, now nearly universally hailed as the best of all Star Wars movies. There's a lot to that, to be honest; the film earns its reputation with a superb script, amazingly paced and shot action sequences, a darker turn of events, and what may well be the best music John Williams has ever written. When pressed, I will almost always name A New Hope as my personal favorite Star Wars film, but the pro-Empire arguments are compelling.

Empire's beloved status really only started to grow after Return of the Jedi came out three years later. I don't think it's so much because Jedi was a bad film, as much as Empire's nature -- being the middle act of a three-act story -- meant that it could only really be appreciated once all the acts were out there, and the middle act's true function and relation to the rest of the story could be judged. If I preferred Empire when I was a kid, it was mainly because it was shinier and newer than the older, more familiar film.

Here, in tribute, are my two favorite tracks from the entire brilliant score to The Empire Strikes Back. Empire was the first record album I ever bought with my own money. I didn't even have my own record player at the time, and I had to listen to it in my parents' bedroom when I wanted to hear it. I'd later get a record player that Christmas (it also had an 8-track tape player!), and Empire was the first thing I played on it. I played that album (a 2-LP set) to death over the next few years, wearing out the gatefold record jacket and putting numerous pops and scratches into the LP's grooves themselves. Back then, John Williams would arrange his albums to make a "better listening experience", which meant that tracks were not arranged on the album in the order they were heard in the film and that tracks from entirely different parts of the film were sometimes combined into a single track on the album. I played that album so much that even now, when I listen to subsequent remasterings of the Empire score, with all the tracks in film order, my brain still expects the original album order, with its tracks bearing titles like "The Heroics of Luke and Han".

The first track is my favorite action cue from the score. Many fans would cite "The Asteroid Field" as theirs, but for me, it's "The Clash of Lightsabers" all the way. This track underscores the second part of Luke's duel with Vader, after they've moved from the carbon freezing chamber to a mechanical anteroom where Vader starts using the Force to hurl machine parts at Luke. It begins mysteriously and becomes more and more ominous as Vader toys with Luke; the music howls when the big window behind Luke is shattered and the wind begins to pour through the room, sweeping Luke out into the shaft, where he manages to catch onto the gantry and pull himself to safety. Then we cut (at the 1:38 mark) to Leia, Chewie, Lando and the droids as they work their way back to the Millennium Falcon. Lando's theme (at the 2:00 mark) plays as he announces the evacuation of Cloud City. The rest of the track builds and builds (love the great brass bit starting at 2:36) which ends in first triumph as R2-D2 opens the door to the landing platform, and then the desperate version of the film's Love Theme as the heroes race for their ship and freedom. This is one of my favorite action cues in all film music.

Second is from earlier in the film, on Dagobah: "Yoda and the Force". This scene is, for me, the philosophical and emotional heart of just about all of Star Wars, when Yoda takes advantage of the sinking of Luke's X-wing into the swamp to try to get through to Luke as to what it truly means to feel the Force. It's a wonderful cue, from the meditative string writing to the noble statement of Yoda's Theme as he lifts the ship from the water.

Happy birthday, Empire. You've never looked better.

Sunday Burst of Weird and AWESOME!

Oddities and Awesome abound!

In honor of the 30th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, here are some goofy videos:

More next week....

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Actually, we're Quantum Presbyterians

Via Cal, I see that the organizers of the 2012 Summer Olypmics in London have unveiled their mascots for the Games.

And here they are.

Well, aren't those interesting?

I think that it's now official, folks. We are now living in the Age of Simpson, because we've now come to a point where the Olympic mascots are Kang and Kodos!

Homer: (lowering his trousers and bending over) I suppose you’ll want to probe me. Well, you might as well get it over with.

Kang: Stop! We have reached the limits of what rectal probing can teach us.

Something for Thursday

Whoa! It's Thursday. Oops.

As a tonic for the latest crime against music perpetrated on American Idol by the inexplicably beloved crappy singer Lee DeWyze, here's Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" the way the thing is supposed to sound:

Lee turned it into an arena-rock anthem. It was the most vile thing I've heard since...Lee ruined "Falling Slowly" by Glen Hansard and Markita Irglova...or since Lee brutally strangled "Hey Jude" and then dragged the bloody corpse around the stage....

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

30 years....

...since Mount St. Helens's massive eruption of May 18, 1980.

We actually lived in Hillsboro, OR at the time of the 1980 eruptions (there were quite a few, starting earlier than that, but May 18 was the Mother of 'em all). I remember volcanic ash covering our driveway and seeing the enormous ash clouds dominating the sky, even though the mountain was sixty miles away.

Here's an infographic that explains the geology of the event (via):

The most amazing factoid to me about Mt. St. Helens is that Spirit Lake, on the mountain's northern side, was elevated to such a degree by the 1980 eruptions that its current bottom is now higher than its pre-1980 surface level. That's the power of Earth, folks!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Outgun Outrun Outgrabe!

I've had something of a love/hate relationship with Survivor over the years. I watched a goodly chunk of the first season -- most of it after the first few episodes, a little bit of the second, an episode or two here and there of most seasons after that. Then they did a "Pirate" themed season about five or six years back which sucked me in almost instantly.

I liked that season right off the bat because they gave the two teams some money and sent them into a town in the first episode to buy provisions that they would take with them to "the island" or wherever it was they were, and one team actually stole some of the other team's stuff. And then, the contestants were taken on a boat and they were all dressed up for what they were told was a publicity photo shoot -- and then, when the boat they were on anchored about a hundred yards off the coast of "the island", our erstwhile host and emcee Jeff Probst announced, "There's no photo shoot. The game starts right now. That's your island. Over the side, as you are!" And they had to do it. One guy was in a shirt and tie, and the women were in dresses and had to "play the game" without that most important of female garments on Survivor: sports bras. That was cool. That season had a lot of memorable folks in it: a villain named Jon who dubbed himself "Jonny Rotten"; a backstabbing Boy Scouts den mother named Lil; a giant lummox hippie named Rupert; and the eventual winner, a Puerto Rican woman named Sandra.

I think the next season started off interestingly as well, but what got involving there was the play of a single contestant, a guy named Terry, who saw his entire tribe cut down, one by one, until it was just himself remaining against the rest of the other tribe. He was screwed, and the only hope he had was to literally win every single immunity challenge the rest of the way out, from something like ten people left all the way down to three. He fell one challenge short, and the winner ended up being some kid whom I couldn't stand.

I swore off Survivor after Terry's elimination, but I would still catch an occasional episode here and there, until the 20th season, which concluded last night. (Ever since 2001, Survivor has aired two complete editions each teevee season, so since 2000 they've had 20 editions, or seasons, of the show. Odd terminology.) This was the much ballyhooed "Heroes versus Villains" edition, which pitted players who had been popular and who had played, I don't know, "above board" games against a bunch of players who had been sneaky, mean, deceitful, and downright dishonest. Of course, Survivor by its nature blurs the line between "hero" and "villain" quite a bit; as Rupert noted in last night's reunion episode in which the winner (Sandra again, whom I loved the first time and loved again this time), in the the three seasons of Survivor on which he has appeared, he has lied and stolen and backstabbed, and yet he was labeled a "hero".

But anyway, on to this particular season, which was basically dominated almost from pillar to post by a guy named Russell, who was billed as possibly the best player in Survivor history. I didn't see much at all of the first season he was on, which immediately preceded this one, but apparently his gameplay the first time was basically to manipulate the hell out of people, lie and deceive at will, put the knife in the back of people he had allied himself with before (sometimes earlier the same day). Russell was a force to be reckoned with...and yet, he didn't win his first regular season of Survivor.

So he was immediately brought back for "Heroes versus Villains", and he started the same style of gameplay again, and damned if it didn't work again as he manipulated the hell out of people, lied and deceived at will, put the knife in the back of people he had previously allied himself with, and at times literally seemed to be dictating the terms of "the game" (as Survivor is always referred to by those playing it) to the other contestants. Somehow he always seemed to get his way, until the end, when he once again saw someone else walk away with the million dollar prize and the title of "Ultimate Survivor", as Sandra became the first person to ever win Survivor twice. There have been several editions of Survivor that brought back previous contestants and even previous winners, but until now, no previous winner had won it all again.

I've seen Sandra's victory denigrated in various places by people who admired the openly "evil" way Russell approached the game, but I seriously don't get this notion. Sandra is a lesser player because she never, in either season she played, won a single individual Immunity Challenge; she never put together a dominant alliance; she never dictated the course of the game. "She never had a strategy," the refrain goes; "Sandra just rode others' coattails, she just flew under the radar, et cetera et cetera et cetera." These complaints seem silly to me: why isn't flying under the radar a strategy? Why isn't just letting a more dominant player focus on everyone else a strategy? The notion seems to be that Sandra didn't deserve to win because she didn't play Survivor in the manner that lots of people like to see people play Survivor -- this despite the fact, evident in twenty seasons of the show, that people who play that way simply don't win. They don't.

Have deceitful, sneaky and manipulative people won in the past? Sure. Richard Hatch won the very first time out by being that kind of player, and one reason why it's taken me so long to really warm up to the show is that so often it turns out that people with the skill set necessary to do well on Survivor are people I wouldn't want anywhere near me, much less winning a show. But what Richard did was something Russell not only didn't do, but didn't even realize he should have done: Richard managed to cast someone else as the villain and therefore was able to win when the jury voted against her.

The argument for Russell winning always seems to be phrased the exact same way: "He played the game." He played the game, all right, what? Am I to believe that Sandra did not play the game? Of course she did, and what's more, she did it without an alliance to back her up (despite her best efforts to forge one), she did it without ever winning Inidividual Immunity, and she did it with only finding one of the hidden Immunity Idols. Sandra won by demonstrating a much greater understanding of the psychological aspect of the game, about which Russell was simply clueless.

"But Russell played the game!"

Russell himself kept saying it, over and over and over. "I shoulda won because I played the game!" And Russell's defenders have picked up the same chorus, which leads me to conclude that a lot of folks simply don't understand something fundamental about games: by definition they have more than one way to be played. There are poker players who can win by being so good at bluffing that they can make you fold on a full house when they're sitting on a pair of threes, and there are other poker players who can win by being average bluffers at best but are instead able to keep careful mental track of cards played and probabilities confronting them. There are chess players who play a wide-open, attacking style, and there are chess players who play stalwart defense to allow their offensive-minded opponents to break their own forces against. The point is pretty clear: Sandra played the game too. She just played it in a different style than Russell. Maybe you prefer a player of Russell's style to win, but that's not the same thing as implying that Sandra just went on autopilot and wound up right there at the end.

Sandra's strategy has been extremely effective both times she's played: she sneaks about and listens carefully to gain information, and she is able to make herself seem as though she simply isn't a threat. It was glaringly obvious during the last couple episodes of this season that Russell was making a colossal error in the way he kept saying that he didn't care if Sandra went to the final three, because there was no way the jury would award someone who "didn't play the game". As in, the jury would never award someone who didn't play with the same approach that he did. I thought Sandra's strategy was pretty brilliant, especially in her first season, when she was able to look the jury in the eye at the very end and say, "Every one of who that's on the jury instead of sitting here is there because of something Lil [her Final Two opponent] did." And damned if she wasn't able to get the same point across again.

And that, ultimately, brings me to why I now consider Russell to be a very overrated player of Survivor. Oddly, I was trying to crystallize my thoughts on Russell's gameplay errors when, in the reunion show, it was Boston Rob -- of all people! -- who laid it out nicely by pointing out that Russell didn't play to win the game, he merely played to get to the final three. In Russell's mind, "winning Survivor" is exactly the same thing as "getting to the final three". And we've seen, time and time and time again that on Survivor, that simply isn't the case.

So, what was wrong with Russell? Why was he overrated?

Point the first: Russell was often very lucky, and yet, in the jury questioning, he openly denied the role luck had to play in his success.

This is a bigger point than many people suppose. Lots of folks, Americans in particular I've noticed, underrate luck as a crucial role in whatever success they attain in life (or lack thereof). Russell genuinely thought that he got to the final three solely by virtue of his own efforts. This simply isn't the case. First off, he had a built-in structural advantage in that "Heroes versus Villains" was filmed just a couple of weeks after the previous season -- Russell's first -- had ended, which meant that Russell's first edition of Survivor had not even aired when he started playing "Heroes versus Villains". Thus, none of the "H v. V" contestants knew anything about him. I have to believe that the next time Russell gets a shot at Survivor, he will have a bullseye on his back very early on, because everyone will know about him.

Second, his Villains tribe had a good early run, with the Villains only losing two of the first seven Immunity Challenges, and it wasn't until the third episode -- Day 8 of the show, realtime -- that the Villains had to vote someone out. That gave Russell eight days, which were followed by seven more, to start putting together an alliance to first protect him and, later, conspire with him. That was a lucky break.

Third, Russell found a hidden Immunity Idol, which helped him to get a player on another alliance knocked off.

Fourth, in that very episode when he played the Idol by giving it to Parvati -- thus cementing his alliance -- he could not have had any idea that Tyson would change his vote.

Fifth, he couldn't have predicted that the Hero tribe would do something do stupid as to give him another Immunity Idol.

Sixth, the final Immunity Challenge came down to him and Jerri. Had Parvati won it, who knows?

Russell was often quite lucky. Now, he did possess the skill to make the most of that luck, but when he denied that luck was a factor at all, it made clear that Russell had fallen in love with the power of his own personality.

Point the second: Russell had no end-game.

When you play a game, if you want to be good at it, you have to be able to put together an end-game. The end-game is when one's attention switches from reaching a certain point in the game with a certain position of strength to securing the victory. Russell had no idea how to do this, because as Boston Rob pointed out, Russell thought that reaching the end-game was the end-game. Anyone who's really paid attention to Survivor over the years knows otherwise. This brings me to:

Point the third: Russell simply does not understand the game.

Remember the end of Shawshank Redemption, when Red says, in voiceover, "I like to think that the last thing to go through the Warden's head, other than that bullet, was to think, how in the hell Andy Dufresne ever got the best of him." The look on Russell's face last night when he lost was very similar to that -- it was as though he couldn't process it. His inner Vezzini had to be screaming "Inconceivable!" And yet, it was.

Sure, it's easy for viewers at home to get a kick out of watching Russell strut around the island, bullying people into voting the way he wants them to, but imagine that you're not sitting in your living room watching a carefully edited 43 minutes of what happened, but you're living it. Imagine you're Jerri, and all of a sudden one day, you've got Russell in your face saying, "Vote with me or you're out of this game." I tend to think that's the exact moment when he lost Jerri's jury vote, and he did that stuff constantly, and then still expected to get the million dollar reward. Russell simply did not understand that at its heart, Survivor is the most psychological of reality teevee games. He showed no understanding of the psychology of the game; all Russell saw was blunt force. He was the human embodiment of the old adage that when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Put simply: Survivor by its very nature doesn't reward the nicest person, but it does reward the person who is the lesser dick, or douche, or asshole, or whatever word you like. What makes Survivor so oddly compelling is that it sets up a game where you need to screw people to win, and then in the end, final victory is decided by the people who have been screwed. That's why the game requires that such a fine line be walked by those who would win it, and Russell not only refused to walk the fine line, he ignored its existence altogether.

In the end, Russell felt entitled to win, and people have a funny tendency to look down on people who feel entitled. He showed his sense of entitlement in his shock at having lost, and in his bizarre notion that viewers should get to vote on the ultimate winner.

In conclusion, Russell did not deserve to win; he is not the greatest player in Survivor history; Sandra did deserve to win because she did play the game. She outwitted Russell, she outplayed him, and she outlasted him.

A few random notes:

:: Colby said that they weren't allowed to swim or go anywhere while on the set. What was that about?

:: I was rooting for Russell just to get rid of Boston Rob, whom I consider to be one of the most irritating people on teevee anywhere. Why Rob is considered such a great player is beyond me; he's 0-3 on Survivor and 0-2 on The Amazing Race. He's nowhere near as potent a force as he thinks he is.

:: I like Rupert a lot, but man, is he a clueless lummox or what?

:: I thought the women on the show were, without exception, better looking in their no-makeup, unbathed states on the show than all dolled up in the finale! I suppose I find dirty women appealing.

:: Coach is a very, very odd man. He kept giving speeches that were incoherent at best.

:: The next edition of Survivor goes to Nicaragua. I'd love to see a non-tropical locale at some point, huh? They've done the Australian Outback and they've done China, but that's it. I'm not saying they should do Survivor: Himalayans, but how about a desert environment? Or a mountain forest in the Pacific Northwest?

We'll see next year, but for now, Yay Sandra!

Sentential Links #206

Linkage for those who seek. Enlightenment for those who find. Or something like that.

:: But as difficult as a lot of these problems are generally, once the U.S. government starts targeting U.S. citizens without warrants or due process, we've crossed a bright line that's dangerously corrosive. That includes the warrantless wiretapping and non-appealable no-fly lists of the Bush administration, and it includes assassinating Americans and removing Miranda protections under the Obama administration. They're outrageous and dangerous transgressions no matter who's doing them, and Obama needs to take a long, deep breath and reconsider how he's handling these issues. In most things, Obama is famous for taking the long view and not letting day-to-day political considerations force his hand. He needs to start doing the same thing here. (This kind of thing is seriously the most WTF?! thing about the Obama administration, and it scares me to see the degree to which Americans just don't care about civil liberties, whether it's that odious racism that Arizona keeps codifying into law, the summary execution of American citizens without due process, the notion of stripping terror suspects of citizenship so we can make an end-run around those pesky things like 5th Amendment rights, you name it. It's all very depressing.)

:: Just about one hour ago, space shuttle Atlantis lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center for the final time. (This is depressing too -- not that the shuttle is being mothballed, because it really is odd that we're basically using 1970s technology as the cornerstone of what passes for our space exploration program these days, but that we're mothballing the shuttle with no real indication as to what ship will replace it, or if there will be a ship, or what the hell we'll be using that ship for once we develop it. And I'm also tired of space policy in this country changing completely every four or eight years, depending on the outcome of our Presidential elections. "Space station, whiskey, sexy!" "No, we're going back to the Moon and then to Mars!" "No, we're not going to either one of those places! Low Earth Orbits for all!" At this rate, when humans reach the stars, they'll be Chinese. Nothing wrong with that, but Ye Gods.)

:: With respect to all the love I have for the original 'Star Trek' series, I am a huge fan of 'Star Trek DS 9'. (Me too. DS9 is, after the Original Series, the highwater mark of Star Trek.)

:: As usual, I treated myself to some new CDs for my birthday. (I failed to observe Lynn's birthday, so Happy Belated Birthday to one of the elder readers of this blog!)

That's about it. More next week.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday Burst of Weird and AWESOME!

Oddities and Awesome abound, folks. Oh yes. They abound.

:: The greatest dollhouse ever.

:: Argument FAIL:

A 23-year-old man jumped from a moving vehicle Thursday evening after his wife refused to "shut up," according to a Montgomery County Sheriff's Office report.

The report by Deputy Blake Neblett says the man, who was traveling with his wife and three children to Clarksville on Guthrie Highway, was arguing with his wife and told her to shut up.

When she refused, the man jumped from the moving vehicle.

Well, OK then.

:: When the President of the United States tells you that you will levitate, well then, you WILL levitate.

That's from his trip to Buffalo last week.

More next week!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

"You do remind me a little of Hooch."

I can rarely say with any particular conviction that a single teevee show is my favorite teevee show at any one moment, because there are always a number of teevee shows that I like a lot at any one time, and I can rarely elevate a single one to "favorite" status. Right now, my favorites are Grey's Anatomy, The Mentalist, 30Rock, and a couple of others. One is starting to show signs of pushing through into possible "favorite" status. That show is Castle.

For those of you who haven't watched Castle -- what the hell is stopping you?! -- it's a mystery series set in New York City. Now, I know, we've had lots of those, but the gimmick here is that a bestselling murder mystery writer named Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion) uses his friendship with the Mayor to get the NYPD to allow him to "consult" on murder cases, which means he gets to show up at crime scenes and be present for interrogations. His "partner" is Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), who is very tough, competent, professional, no-nonsense. Castle tends to be goofy to the point where he actually seems to have fun at bloody crime scenes, and it's constantly falling to Beckett to rein him back in. It's your typical relationship of two people of completely different personalities being pushed together, and as in all such cases, it either works or it doesn't on the strength of the writing and the chemistry between the actors. Well, Castle has a surplus of terrific writing, and Fillion and Katic have so much chemistry that one wonders if Union Carbide is sponsoring the show.

Here's a generally random list of things I appreciate about Castle:

:: Obviously, the Castle-Beckett relationship is the cornerstone of the series, which wouldn't work without it. It's a pleasingly complex relationship, and not without a certain amount of romantic tension between the two. And that's the important thing to note: this isn't sexual tension of the "Will Maddy ever sleep with Dave!" sort, but genuine romantic tension. There's really no doubting that Castle and Beckett are really made for one another, just as Mulder and Scully were really made for one another.

Will they end up together? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe the show ends with them getting together, or maybe the show ends at some point aiming in that direction. What can not happen is either Castle or Beckett ending up with someone else. That would be wrong.

:: Castle makes a lot of sly references to other teevee shows, and generally has a great time winking at the audience. In one episode, an FBI agent asks Castle if he thinks he's some kind of "TV detective", to which Castle responds, "I don't think so. They always seem oddly fixated on their sunglasses."

And course, there was the episode that started off thusly:

And then there was this bit, which would only be noticed by the really attentive fans of Firefly:

:: Castle is a wonderfully shot series. Episodes are full of bold colors, artfully designed sets and shots, interesting camera work. It's nice to see a crime series set in NYC that doesn't emphasize the gritty, dirty New York. It doesn't make New York into a fairytale land of beauty the way, say, Beauty and the Beast did back in the day, but it's not a NYPDBLue-esque tour of filthy bodegas and scummy bars, either.

:: Snappy dialog and great lines abound. In one episode, a guy avoids being killed when he's shot because the bullet is stopped by the copy of Crime and Punishment that he's got in his coat pocket. One of the detectives later quips, "Good thing he likes Russian literature. If he's a Nicholas Sparks fan, he'd be dead right now."

Or another episode in which Castle and Beckett are investigating one case while the other two detectives investigate another, and Castle has bets going with the other two as to which team will close their case first. They all keep the betting "hush hush" because they know Beckett will ream the out in a big way if she finds out about it. Which, of course, she eventually does. Her response? She glares at the three of them, and then says, with perfect comic timing, "One hundred bucks on me and Castle."

:: Castle's family life isn't irritating at all. A lot of times shows like this stop dead in their tracks when they show the "civilian lives" of the characters. Castle's family -- he lives with his eccentric stage-actress mother and his turning-out-just-fine teenage daughter -- often keep him in line and are interesting characters in their own right. I just hope that we don't get some kind of imperilization for Castle's family sometime down the road, though.

The flipside here is that Detective Beckett's home life isn't shown nearly as much. We know that she reads Castle's books, and her main motivation for becoming a cop was the unsolved murder of her mother. But we don't see nearly as much of what she does on her off-hours as we do of Castle's (which makes sense, since the show is mainly from Castle's point of view).

:: The supporting characters are quirky and intelligent on their own. Nobody on this series is a boring "stock character".

:: There's a small bit of ongoing story arc in the series (Detective Beckett's mother's murder), but that's kept fairly solidly in the background except for an episode here and there. The soap opera stuff is kept to a minimum. I love some ongoing continuity in a teevee series as much as anybody, but it's also refreshing to have a show where most of the time, episodes are pretty self-contained.

Now, the show's not perfect. No show ever is. There was an episode, for instance, that had Alyssa Milano guest-starring that was pretty clunky, mainly because after a season-and-a-half of getting to know Richard Castle, there's just no way to see Alyssa Milano as the one failed relationship Castle really regrets. And there are lots of ways the show can misstep in the future: rushing the Castle/Beckett relationship, or putting Castle's family in danger, so on and so forth. But for right now, Castle is a weekly dose of smart and witty murder mystery.

Cleared to land

Air Force One, originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

The day before yesterday saw President Obama visit the Buffalo area. He was in town for all of three hours -- enough time to meet with the family members of the people who died in the plane crash a year ago, stop at a restaurant to pick up some chicken wings, and then go to a factory that's been steadily expanding for a number of years for a tour and a speech.

I was working, so I didn't get to see the President or hang out along the streets so I could see his motorcade, but as The Store's parking lot roughly faces the same direction as the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, I figured I'd get to see Air Force One on final approach, just like I did six years ago when President Bush came to town. I found an excuse to hang around out front of our building at the rough time that the President was supposed to arrive, and sure enough, there's Air Force One, making its final approach to the runway.

Three hours later I went outside again, hoping to see the takeoff, but as the President's next destination was New York City, the plane took in the other direction. Oh well. I hope the President gets back here soon! Three hours isn't enough time to spend in so fine a place as Buffalo.

BTW, you may have seen in the news that when Obama stopped by Duff's to pick up some wings, a local woman told him that he was "a hottie with a smokin' little body". Well, that's certainly on the list of things it would never occur to me to say to a President of the United States. But what would I say? Probably one of the following:

"Can you play quarterback or at least block for one?"

"Can you call up George Lucas and order him to invite me to an overnight stay at Skywalker Ranch?"

"Well, you're doing a fine job, Mr. President. Not as fine as Jed Bartlet, but you've got time to catch up."

OK, I wouldn't say any of these things. I'd probably default to something along the lines of "It's an honor to meet you, Mr. President." And I'd almost certainly ask for a picture. A hottie with a smokin' little body? Yeah, probably not so much. Not even if Stana Katic was the President!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hate mail! I get hate mail!

I don't get nasty e-mails all that often, so when I do, it's kind of fun, in a bizarre sort of way. Especially when the mail is so staggeringly illiterate as this one. Here it is:

It's Not supposed to be unpredictable
"children's book!" ...He made no mistakes
its a novel for leaning and imagination god...

Now, there's lots of funny there, to be sure. It's amusing to be taken to task for a book review by a person who can't tell "your" from "you're" and calls me a "stupid bitch", thus demonstrating a failure to even read my GMR bio and note the masculine pronouns used there in reference to me. But the funniest thing about it is that in my review, I raved about the book in question! Seriously! I loved the book, and said so.

So I'm sent hate mail by someone because I didn't like their favorite book enough. There's something funny about that, oh yes....