Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"Across the Universe" by Beth Revis

One theme I see a lot in various science fiction commentary sites and blogs I read is that the genre itself is lagging in readership behind fantasy and horror to a pretty significant degree, and that one of the reasons for this is a comparative lack of 'gateway books' to the genre. Generally the idea of a 'gateway book' is a book that's solidly in the genre, but not so solidly as to be inaccessible to people who have been reading it for a while. And yes, this is a definite problem; I found it myself, back when I really started reading SF on a regular basis in the late 1990s. Sometimes the standard tropes of SF can be a bit hard to penetrate, and the genre tends toward terminology that can often be used from one book to the next, so that if you know what it means or indicates, you're fine, but the first time or two...it can be a bit hard to get into it.

Another problem is that there just don't seem to be terribly many SF books for young readers these days, be it schoolkids or young adults. Why is this? I honestly don't know. But when I look through the shelves at bookstores for books for The Daughter, I can find tons of fantasy, dark fantasy, and outright horror. SF is harder to come by, and it usually tends to be future dystopia stuff or steampunk. That's not a complaint, just a summation of the state of things. But what I've always considered to be the heart of SF, the space adventure (whether it's outright space opera or not), just isn't around all the much anymore. The usual complaint is that no one is writing today's equivalent of Robert A. Heinlein's novels for juvenile readers, and for the most part, this seems to be true.

Which brings me to Beth Revis's novel Across the Universe, which is the first book in a trilogy (the second, A Million Suns, is already out, while the last, Shades of Earth, is forthcoming). Across the Universe tells a good, old-school science fiction story, with two young adults at its heart. I loved it.

We open on Earth as a girl named Amy is being placed into suspended animation alongside her parents for a several-hundred-year journey aboard a starship called the Godspeed for the settlement of what is hoped will be a new Earth. Then we meet a boy named Elder, who is so named because he is being groomed to eventually be the leader of the ship. The Godspeed is well underway, and Elder is receiving his lessons from the ship's current leader, Eldest, who is something of a stern taskmaster. (Or so he seems at first, before things start getting a lot darker.) But down in the hold, Amy awakens from her cryogenic sleep. She's been thawed out, after an attempt on her life. Halfway through the ship's journey. When she is told this, she realizes that when they arrive and her parents are revived, she will be in her 60s or 70s.

So, Amy is awake on the ship when she shouldn't be, there is a murderer on the loose, and it turns out that life aboard the Godspeed isn't quite what it should be, because the Godspeed herself may not be what she should be. Amy is alone on this ship which is run by a tyrannical leader. As the book progresses, several mysteries are resolved, but even more are unmasked, in this first volume of a trilogy.

The idea of a story set entirely on board a generation ship is not new, of course. But in Revis's hands, it's an interesting and effective use of a classic SF trope. None of this works without sharply drawn characters, and Revis does an excellent job of putting us into both Amy's and Elder's heads, as one tries to adjust to a terrifying situation that is unfair and nothing she ever deserved or envisioned, and the other finds himself rebelling against his longtime father figure as he starts to realize that things in his world are not what he has always thought them to be.

So if you're looking to introduce a certain young adult reader to SF, this is a good place to start.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Stitching the damned words together: a writing update

Writing! Writing! Writing!

I'm thinking that posting here may be slightly more sparse than usual during August, since I'm really trying to make some writerly goals here. Specifically, I want to get all the way through my red-pen markups of the Princesses in SPACE!!! (not the actual title) manuscript by Labor Day. Then, I want to have my personal edits applied by October 1, so I can get the book into the hands of beta readers. Depending on how long it takes beta readers to do their thing, and how much editing I have to do after I get that feedback, I'd love to be able to hit 2013 with sending this book out into the Void, where I hope a publisher will snatch it up. (Or maybe I'll query agents first...not sure what the best route is, actually, which is more homework I need to do.)

The red-pen markups proceed apace, though, so I'm optimistic. I know of a few dates when I'll not be able to get through my daily goal, so I'm going to have to make up for those elsewhen. I'm also hoping that the markups on the latter half of the book will go easier than the first half is thus far, as by that time I had a lot stronger idea of where the book was going. I'm finding a lot of meandering passages in the early going, that's the literary equivalent of throwing stuff on the wall to make sure it sticks.

As for The Adventures of Lighthouse Boy (not the actual title), work is going along nicely there, too, although I did have to do a backtrack last week that wiped out ten thousand words (although I was able to reuse some of it). I'm aiming here for something of a rollicking adventure tale in the Alexandre Dumas tradition, with secret identities and alliances, royalty in hiding, hidden treasures, double crosses, and quite a lot of derring-do. Making a story rollick is not the easiest of tasks, and every so often I have to remind myself to put something in that rollicks.

I also had two characters show up out of the blue and quickly become essential to the story. I'm not kidding. I had my main character walking alone on a road, on his way to someplace, and I wanted to delay his arrival a bit, so I figured he'd meet someone. And along came these two folks who are now very important indeed. I like it when the story writes itself. I have a feeling that this book will need to be longer than Princesses (which I vowed to bring in under 180,000 words). I'm not sure yet, but I'm letting the story dictate the terms here. We're talking lots of planned twists-and-turns here, and I'm sure there will be a bunch that I don't even see coming.

Anyway, that's where things stand with the writing. Onward ho!

Sentential Links

Links, and some such.

:: The gun nuts do have a point.

We do indeed accept a certain number of vehicular deaths each year, including those caused by drunk drivers and crazy people, as the price we pay for mobility. And nobody is willing to give up cars are they? And nobody is suggesting that they do.

It is a valid comparison.

But here’s the thing, even though we do accept a certain number of vehicular deaths each year, we constantly seek to reduce those fatalities through mandated improvement in the state of the automotive art and road engineering, through laws and regulations and increasingly uncompromising enforcement and stricter punishments, through vigilance and observation and monitoring, though mandatory training and testing and licensing, though tracking those who habitually break the law. We don’t let crazy people drive. We make drivers buy insurance.

(Here's the thing: I don't even grant that car deaths and gun deaths are a valid comparison, and it's why I'm always pretty unimpressed with arguments along the lines of "People die doing X, so why not outlaw X!" It's because, while people die using cars, causing death isn't what cars are for. Cars and guns are both examples of tools, but the purpose of a car is to get you someplace. The purpose of a gun is to kill. There just isn't any getting around it. You can kill with lots of stuff: hammers, knives, and as George Carlin once speculated, you could probably bludgeon someone to death with the Sunday New York Times. What can you do with a gun other than kill? Shoot at inanimate objects so as to improve your skill for when you need to use it to kill?

And no, I'm not presenting an argument in favor of outlawing guns. I'm jsaying why I think a particular argument in favor of guns is really unconvincing, to the point of being deeply silly.

While I'm on the subject, I heard another stupefyingly dumb thing said about guns this past week: "We should never allow the government to be better armed than its citizens are!" Mr. Wright utters the same thoughts I have on that ludicrous notion:

Just so I’m clear here, you’ve bought yourself the biggest, most powerful, most heavily armed, most technologically advanced military in the entire history of mankind, complete with nuclear weapons, stealth bombers, tanks, and many other advanced capabilities too numerous to count. You’ve given them a full decade of intense combat experience in multiple theaters under a vast variety of conditions from mountain terrain, to forest and jungle to desert, right on down to door to door urban warfare. They have more than ten years direct experience in counter-insurgency tactics against multiple heavily armed, experienced, and utterly ruthless civilian militias engaged in guerrilla tactics. But you figure that an invader that can take that mighty force down can be beaten by you and your drunken rednecked beer buddies and a couple of Chinese knockoff AK-47 replicas, do you?

OK, enough of the gun stuff...but I found Mr. Wright's two postings on this topic very commendable. And lest one think he's some liberal looking to get rid of guns entirely, well, he provides a long list of his firearm-related bona fides, as well. No overall-clad hippie living in the Northeast who wants nothing to do with ever handling a firearm much less shooting one, he.

:: "Blade Runner" is a great example of several things. It shows us how even a fantastic visual experience can't hold our attention for two hours if we are not made to care about the characters or the story. It is proof that the latter two aspects are of even more importance for a feature to work. "Runner" may very well be the best of the worst pictures ever made, or perhaps the worst of the best, but this places it in a spot of mediocrity that no work of such phenomenal qualities should ever approach. I feel grateful for its existence and I'm aware there are plenty of readers who believe that its visual virtues automatically make it deserving of cult-classic status, but I also can't help but ultimately see this (one of the most influential films of the 80s) as a one-of-a-kind wasted opportunity for greatness. (I like Blade Runner more than this fellow does, but I'm of similar mind. It's a movie that, aside from a few moments, I invariably find emotionally cold and distant, every time I sit down to watch it. I have a habit of watching it every five or ten years (that it's been out long enough for me to have a 'habit' regarding viewing it that involves such timescales frankly scares me), and each time my reaction is pretty much the same.)

:: Many people believe geekdom is defined by a love of a thing, but I think — and my experience of geekdom bears on this thinking — that the true sign of a geek is a delight in sharing a thing. It’s the major difference between a geek and a hipster, you know: When a hipster sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “Oh, crap, now the wrong people like the thing I love.” When a geek sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “ZOMG YOU LOVE WHAT I LOVE COME WITH ME AND LET US LOVE IT TOGETHER.” (I tend toward the ultra-inclusion approach to Geekdom. My reaction to learning that someone actually likes the Star Wars Prequels is not unlike Jar Jar's reaction to being saved by Qui Gon Jinn: "Muy muy, I love you!!" I love it when people love the things that I love!)

:: Quality and convenience... the marketplace recognized a need, and no commercial company was willing (or at least was permitted) to fill it. So amateurs stepped in. Now the structure that's in place -- all, I might mention, volunteer -- is huge and well-organized and efficient. It's no wonder that the content producers are terrified of it.

But they've got no one to blame but themselves. When the tide is coming in, you can't make it stop by ignoring it.
(I disagreed with SDB last week, so this week, I agree with him entirely. That's how I roll!)

:: Since we started writing this site, we've become aware of a strong flashlight sub culture; a group of people obsessed with lumens, watts, and focused beams. These apparent dwellers of the dark seem to go hand in hand with knife enthusiasts, because, when you think about it...if you need a flashlight...there's a good chance you could also use a knife. (Hmmm...never really thought about it, but I do like knives, although I don't really have much of a collection. Flashlights, though? Oh baby.)

:: How cool must it be to be David Beckham? Except for having to be married to that Skeletor of a wife of his, he's got it pretty damn good. Speedboat! He got to race around in a speedboat and get's to eat free at Hell's Kitchen. (I have no idea about Beckham's wife, but the other stuff is all pretty cool.)

:: Along the way there’s the expected amount of eye-poking, ear, nose, and hair-pulling, tongue-biting, head-knocking, belly-bumping, wall-thumping, heavy object dropping, pratfalling, and general mayhem creating.

No pie-throwing, amazingly. An oversight the Farrelly Brothers regret, I’m sure.
(No pie-throwing in a Three Stooges movie? WTF?! Of course, even with pie-throwing, I was never a fan of the Stooges. Abbott and Costello were more my speed.)

More next week!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sunday Burst of Weird and Awesome

Oddities and Awesome abound!

:: Note to self: Don't try to write about English tea drinking. It's just too hazardous to attempt.

:: Writers name their top ten favorite books. I always find these kinds of lists fascinating.

That's...about it, I'm sorry to say. I'm keeping busy with writing, which keeps me less busy wandering around Teh Interweb. More next week, though. I hope!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Film Quote Friday

2001: A Space Odyssey is a masterpiece in several ways: it's one of the great films, and it's also one of the great science fiction stories. Stanley Kubrick's vision can seem a bit impenetrable, but while he does make the viewer do quite a bit of the heavy lifting, he really does provide a solid grounding for the viewer to figure out what is going on.

The part of the film that may be the most memorable is the central part, which takes place aboard the spaceship Discovery, which is en route to Jupiter after the discovery of the Monolith on the Moon, and the Monolith's subsequent broadcast of a strong transmission to that giant planet. It's here that we meet our two human crewmembers, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, and their companion computer, HAL-9000.

HAL is one of the great villains in film history, and after killing everyone else on the ship and getting Dave trapped outside the ship in a pod, this exchange takes place:

Dave Bowman: Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?

HAL: Affirmative, Dave. I read you.

Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

HAL: I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.

Dave Bowman: What's the problem?

HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.

Dave Bowman: What are you talking about, HAL?

HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.

Dave Bowman: I don't know what you're talking about, HAL.

HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.

Dave Bowman: [feigning ignorance] Where the hell did you get that idea, HAL?

HAL: Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.

Dave Bowman: Alright, HAL. I'll go in through the emergency airlock.

HAL: Without your space helmet, Dave? You're going to find that rather difficult.

Dave Bowman: HAL, I won't argue with you anymore! Open the doors!

HAL: Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

Bowman takes his chances with depressurization and manages to get back on board the Discovery, at which point he carries out his goal of disconnecting HAL. And then he arrives at Jupiter, alone, to discover whatever it is that awaits him there.

The film never really explains just why HAL, a computer that should be without emotion, suddenly becomes deceitful, dishonest, and sneaky enough to read the lips of the men on the ship. The most effective malice is often that malice that is coldly logical and doesn't even recognize itself as malice. There's never really any question that for whatever reason, HAL has decided that Bowman and Poole constitute a threat to the success of the Discovery's mission, and what's even worse is that neither Bowman nor Poole have any idea what that mission even is.

2001 is really something astonishing: great SF, a meditation on the stages of human evolution, one of the trippiest of all movies, and in its mid-section, a chilling thriller that borders on outright horror. (Witness the sequence when HAL takes over Frank's pod, while Frank is outside the ship...he never sees it coming, even as HAL has the pod extend its arms outward....)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Something that WILL be in the next Casa Jaquandor

Something for Thursday

If I gotta explain why on this one, well, that must be one finely appointed cave you're livin' in. That's all I'm sayin'.

Good luck to all the competitors, and GO TEAM USA!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

"If you don't have a drummer, then why do you have drums, you fistful of assholes!"

There are movies that I continually mean to see, and never quite get around to it. Sometimes I'll even check the DVD out of the library repeatedly, and still manage to let life get in my way and not watch it. One such film is Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, which I heard some good things about back when it came out a few years ago. I intended to see it, and yes, I checked the DVD out several times. Never watched it...until now. And wouldn't you know it? I really wish I'd watched it years ago. Or last year. Or six months ago. Whenever.

Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is cut from the same emotional cloth as Say Anything, which is a favorite movie of mine whose praises I never tire of singing. But where Say Anything unfolds over the course of a summer, Infinite Playlist unfolds over the course of about twelve hours. We open with Nick, leaving a message on his girlfriend's phone; Nick is your awkward, skinny, music nerd (played by Michael Cera), and it quickly becomes clear from his rambling message that his relationship with Tris is pretty much dead, although he doesn't seem able to let go. He keeps making mix-CDs for her, promising that this one, the one that pops out of his computer as he's talking to her, is the last one – "More or less".

Just after he finishes the disc, Nick's bandmate friends show up to report that they have a gig lined up for the band (which doesn't have a drummer – never fear, though, as one of them has procured a 1990s-style electric drumset), with the added enticement that a band called Where's Fluffy is going to play a gig that night. Where's Fluffy is apparently a legendary 'underground' type of band, whose gigs are never announced in advance except by clues left in places like bathroom walls.

Meanwhile, at school, Tris laughs to receive another CD mix by Nick, which she mocks to her friends before chucking it in the trash. The CD is rescued, however; Norah (Kat Dennings), who only knows Nick by listening to the mixes he's made for Tris and which Tris has thrown out, plucks the disc from the garbage. She and her friend Caroline then receive the fateful text message that Where's Fluffy is going to play that night, so it's off to the clubs of New York City for them.

Not much of what happens over the next twenty minutes or so of the movie is a surprise. Of course Nick and Norah will be at the same club; of course, they'll have a 'meet cute'. In this case, Norah wants to prove to Tris that she has a boyfriend, so she asks Nick to pretend to be the guy, which of course, backfires once Norah discovers that Nick is Tris's Nick. This is all done nicely by the actors and by the filmmakers, but it's not really all that interesting. It's at this point that the movie starts to go into interesting directions, by having Caroline get absolutely hammered, and then having Nick's friends agree to take her home so that Nick can give Norah a ride. (One of them gives Norah a different bra to wear, helpfully telling her, "Nicky is definitely worth the underwire. He just needs a little push, that's all." (Nick's bandmates are all gay, which is why they have a selection of bras in the backseat of their van. I think.)

Nick and Norah's first conversation, in Nick's Yugo, is cleverly crafted – it alternates between the characters being tentatively interested in one another and stepping back, as they're both afraid to definitively move beyond their exes. It seems doomed, but the film gives funny circumstances to keep the two of them together longer than they wish: a drunken couple assumes that Nick's yellow Yugo is a cab and climb in and insist on being taken someplace (Nick charges them $8.50); and then Caroline, still very drunk, wakes up in the strange van belonging to three guys who bear her no ill will whatsoever, but she doesn't know that, so she 'escapes', leading to the rest of the film being a search for her...and for the elusive band Where's Fluffy.

I'm already a fan of Kat Dennings, but in this movie, she displays a level of acting skill that her current big role – the sitcom Two Broke Girls -- only allows her to hint at. Norah is tough, street-smart, intelligent, naïve, and vulnerable, all at the same time. She's the daughter of a very rich man (which allows her to just walk right past the bouncer line into any club she wants), but the movie doesn't dwell on this at all, which is frankly an awfully welcome development. In fact, the world of 'adults' isn't much in evidence in this movie at all – it's nothing but young people from pillar to post, and while their focus in life might not be what grownups want, the film doesn't rigidly insist on depicting the youth as stupid, clueless nitwits who should just get a job.

Not much happens in this movie that is a real, genuine surprise, but some interesting directions are taken along the way, and I especially liked the double Maguffin of lost Caroline and this band that only plays its gigs in secret. Cera and Dennings have terrific chemistry, and Dennings is...well, there's a reason why I think she's just fantastic. This is a short and wonderful little movie. I loved it.

(Oh, just a quick warning: there is one scene in this movie that is among the grossest things I've seen in a movie. We're talking "Mr Creasote from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life" gross. If you're squeamish, well...trust your instincts. You'll know when to hit the FF button on your player.)

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

Name a game show on which you would like to appear or have appeared.

(And we're excluding the Big Three that are still airing: The Price is Right, Wheel of Fortune, and Jeopardy!.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The President, out Presiding and stuff

Here's another grab-bag of images from the White House Flickr stream. Even if Romney wins*, I hope this continues.



















* Please God, no no no....


When Sally Ride became the first American woman to fly in space, in 1983, I kept thinking, "Why did it take us so long to do what the Russians did twenty years ago?" It's kind of sad that the Cold War mentality kept me, at eleven years of age, from realizing how inspiring Ride's efforts were. That, and I honestly could not understand why we'd made space a boy's club for so long.

I'm saddened to hear of Ride's passing, too early, from pancreatic cancer. If I could pick one cancer to eradicate with a wave of a magic wand, that would be the one.

River of Stars

That's the title of Guy Gavriel Kay's next novel: River of Stars. As I noted before, it is set in the same fictional China as his last book, the amazing Under Heaven, albeit several hundred years later, so it's not really a sequel at all.

And now we have the cover art:

I never finished re-reading my way through GGK's output prior to Under Heaven's release, so this winter should be my chance....

Monday, July 23, 2012

This needs to happen.

Sentential Links


:: In other words, part of the majority of gun violence is the attitude of "If I feel threatened, I can and should whip out my gun."

:: Every day I read things that suggest that our left-wing friends are trying to stamp out manliness. Just after 9/11, there was something of a resurgence of masculinity, of the traditions of manliness. (Two different takes on the shootings of the other day...needless to say, I find SDB's take rather, shall we say, odd. I'm on the left, and I have absolutely zero idea what he's on about. I'm almost reminded of a certain laughable blog post from back in the day by a guy named Kim DuToit....)

(By the way, it suddenly seems to me that any attempt to enumerate a list of qualities that are shared by 'real men' is a sign of a bad way of thinking about things.)

:: I’ve never been to a midnight, opening night showing of a movie. I’ve gone to premieres, though, and I do know what cinematic anticipation feels like. There’s just something about seeing something before almost anyone else that provides an unusual sense of satisfaction. Your view of the film is not colored by what everyone else says.

:: Chuck Klosterman once said something along the lines of not liking Billy Joel as a pop star because Billy never made him see a pop star or something to aspire to: "the only thing he's ever made me see is me." That's exactly what's so amazing about his music to me.

:: Writing a book ain't all fun and games, kids. Writing fiction isn't any easier than writing non-fiction, and vice versa. Both forms can be stubborn and maddening and offer a whole lot of seemingly insurmountable challenges--just of a wholly different sort. But the mountain itself is climbed, I've reached the peak. (Having reached one peak already, I'm now aware of the mists dispersing...to reveal another peak. Sigh!)

:: I am a sucker when modern characters are re-imagined into old style projects. (Me too...these are really cool!)

:: I’m kind of like Monk. Very anal. I have my writing space and I never write anywhere else. I have my stuff all carefully arranged, and I don’t like it if something gets moved. I have several recourses that I can turn to when I am stumped or bothered about a piece of writing to remove the so-called block. I always write in silence. No sounds, no music, no interruptions. This is all weird, but it beats lying in a coffin! (Patrick Rothfuss and Terry Brooks have been interviewing each other, and posting the results back and forth on each other's blogs. Cool stuff, from a 'peeling back the writerly curtain' standpoint. Follow the links from Rothfuss's blog back to the previous three parts.)

:: As a lover of words of all sizes, levels of subtlety, and countries of origin, I’d like to speak to you on behalf of the Citizens for Creativity in Cursing.

I’m a fan of cursing. Not just your standard, four-letter scatological words, crude words spoken without thought, words used by the drunken, the lazy, or the uninspired.

Why limit yourself to four letters?
(Why indeed!)

More next week....

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday Burst of Weird and Awesome

Oddities and Awesome abound!

:: Buffalo is the 34th 'manliest' city in America. NYC, Boston, LA, Minneapolis, and Portland -- all cities which rank lower -- can suck it!

:: Lit humor (via):

:: For no reason, here's a Mountain Dew commercial from 1980:

I remember this particular ad campaign pretty well, actually -- these ads aired a lot back when I had my first teevee in my own room, when we were living in Portland, OR. It's a pretty effective bunch of ads, I think, since I recall them now, so many years later. The idea of a bunch of friends going out into the wilderness -- that looks, not incidentally, a lot like the Pacific Northwest -- on a hot day and then spends a lot of time messing around with water and drinking Mountain Dew to cool off? I think that's a lot more interesting than some more recent pop ads, which go for dumb jock humor. But that's just me.

I like Mountain Dew, but I only drink it a couple times a year. One or two bottles, and I'm good for quite a while.

That's about all. More next week!

My only thought on the Colorado Shootings

Actually, this isn't my only thought on the subject, but it's the only one that I feel like posting, as my remaining thoughts are conflicted, given my longstanding general support of Second Amendment rights (although I don't rise nearly to the belief, widespread though it seems to be, that the Second enshrines the most important of all rights by a towering margin -- in fact, I'm not even convinced that the Second Amendment even says what most people think it says) and my equally longstanding squeamishness when it comes to guns (in short, I've never fired one, never held one, and want no part of either).

But anyway, whenever something like this happens, one meme that pops up a lot is the "If someone in that theater, just one person, was packing a gun, this awful thing might not have happened." Whenever I read that, I don't hear it as an argument for more people toting guns. What I hear is this: "If I had been in that theater with my gun, you can bet that I would have taken that guy down!"

Which is, of course, complete nonsense. From everything I've ever read and learned about these things, this stuff is hard. It's hard even for military sharpshooters to do their job, even with tons of training that Joe Blow Sittin'-in-a-dark-theater-with-a-9mm-in-his-pants almost certainly does not have. I would wager that, of all the people in this country with legal carry-and-conceal permits, the percent of those who would be able to do something with their gun in that situation other than just contribute to the chaos with more bullets flying around is vanishingly small.

One lunatic blasting away is bad enough. Throw in a few pseudo-Rambo's? Ugh.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Film Quote Friday

Here's a bit from one of my favorite movies of the last ten years. I truly, genuinely believe this movie to be absolute comedic genius.

In the 1970s, "legendary" San Diego news anchorman Rob Burgundy, and his cohorts Champ Kind (sports), Brick Tamland (weather), and Brian Fontana (roving reporter) are used to ruling the roost on their local newscast, until a -- gasp! -- woman comes along to work with them. Into their station comes Veronica Corningstone, and nothing is ever the same.

Of course, we have to have the obligatory attempts by these guys to hit on her, because they're men and she is obviously a dumb woman. This is Brian Fontana's effort:

(Inside Brian's office)

Brian Fontana: [about Veronica] I'll give this little cookie an hour before we're doing the no-pants dance. Time to musk up.

He opens a cabinet that is full of various bottles of cologne.

Ron Burgundy: Wow. Never ceases to amaze me. What cologne you gonna go with? London Gentleman, or wait. No, no, no. Hold on. Blackbeard's Delight.

Brian Fantana: No, she gets a special cologne... It's called Sex Panther by Odeon. It's illegal in nine countries... Yep, it's made with bits of real panther, so you know it's good.

Ron Burgundy: It's quite pungent.

Brian Fantana: Oh yeah.

Ron Burgundy: It's a formidable scent... It stings the nostrils. In a good way.

Brian Fantana: Yep.

Ron Burgundy: Brian, I'm gonna be honest with you, that smells like pure gasoline.

Brian Fantana: They've done studies, you know. 60% of the time, it works every time. [cheesy grin]

Ron Burgundy: That doesn't make sense.

Brian Fantana: Well... Let's go see if we can make this little kitty purr. (makes a 'snarling panther' sound, not all that convincingly)

(In the newsroom, Brian saunters over to Veronica and tries to hit on her...but she begins wrinkling her nose as the fumes hit her....)

Veronica Corningstone: My God, what is that smell? Oh!

Brian Fantana: (grinning because he thinks the smell is appealing) That's the smell of desire my lady.

Veronica Corningstone: God no, it smells like, like a used diaper... filled with... Indian food. Oh, excuse me.

She runs away, seeming about to vomit.

Brian Fantana: You know, desire smells like that to some people.

Male News Station Employee: [Disgusted] What is that? Smells like a turd covered in burnt hair.

Female News Station Employee: [Horrified] Smells like Bigfoot's dick!

Brian Fantana: [Tries to act casual and walk away] Woah, what's that smell?

(Cut to Brian Fantana being hosed down in a shower.)

Of course, reading a scene like this isn't like seeing it play out...Paul Rudd's eerie confidence that his cologne is working its magic when it is, in fact, clearing out the room, and the look on the random woman who walks through the frame, nearly in tears, just in time to unleash the "Bigfoot's dick" metaphor.

I like it when movies like this lampoon the 1970s, without making it look like an ugly and buffoonish era, too. They make fun of some of the excess, but really, nobody looks downright horrible in this movie -- just dated. And I well remember the way local stations used to have their little triumvirates of "Anchor-Weather-Sports", like WKBW in Buffalo with Irv Weinstein, Tom Jolls, and Rick Azar. Those guys have not done a newscast together in twenty-three years (Azar was the first to retire, in 1989), but people around here still talk about them.

I could go on in praise of Anchorman, and maybe someday I will in another post. Great Odin's Raven!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Something for Thursday

I need to watch this movie again, having only seen it all the way through once on a VHS copy way back in college (and there may have been drinking involved), so my memories of it aren't the best (although I've watched parts of it since), but one of the very best things about the animated F&SF flick Heavy Metal is its score by Elmer Bernstein. Here is "The Flight to the Temple", from the film's closing segment, the "Taarna" sequence.

What's great about this score is that it's kind of eerie at first, then somewhat comedic, then eerie again, depending on the story (the film is basically a collection of loosely-related stories), until we get to the Taarna sequence, at which point Bernstein just lets loose with some wonderfully powerful epic stuff. I love me some Elmer Bernstein!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


IMG_5767, originally uploaded by Gandroid.

I feel that I should state for the record that this is not me.

That is all.

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

What's the one piece of kitchen cooking equipment you don't have that you really wish you did?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

"Until that one day, the day I went Crazy, I was fine."

I finished reading a new book, The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows, by Brian Castner, the other day. Since then I've been thinking about one question: What good comes from war?

This is one of the great all-time questions, because like all such questions, it doesn't yield any easy answers. There are many aspects of our world today which can be traced back to this war or that war, this conflict or that one. Some of those aspects are a net positive, while others are not. Our own country sprang into being as a result of a war, it put itself on solid footing as one of the world's nations in a war, it nearly tore itself asunder and ultimately put itself together as a result of a war. Our country fought a war that led to our becoming an imperial power; our country joined a war that was raging an ocean and a continent away and brought it to a swift end, but was unable to prevent the seeds of the next war from being sown.

L. Fletcher Prouty once wrote, "The organizing principle of any society is for war. The basic authority of a modern state over its people resides in its war powers." I wouldn't put it that strongly, but there is something about the fact that so much of our human narrative is the story of war.

So, what good comes from war? One good, from my perspective – although not, perhaps, a good worth spilling rivers of blood to achieve – lies in literature. War inspires great writers to great thoughts and great works. It just does. No matter how sad a statement that may be on our species, it's a simple fact. The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms...there is a long history of great books from war. And not just novels: from World War II, we saw the brilliant work of Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin. From the Vietnam era, there were Born on the Fourth of July by Ron Kovic and We Were Soldiers Once...and Young by Harold G. Moore and Joseph Galloway.

What books will our most recent wars inspire? Castner's is one. I don't know where it will rank among the great war narratives, but it wouldn't surprise me if it takes a place among them. This is a searing, brutal, sad, thrilling, visceral, and ultimately saddening memoir of one soldier's time during the Iraq war.

Castner is a Buffalonian. I've never yet met him personally, but I have interacted with him online for a couple of years now, during which he has always struck me as an interesting and intelligent commenter on a lot of topics. He had a blog with WNYMedia.net in which he wrote a lot about the offerings Western New York provides for outdoor enthusiasts; now he blogs at briancastner.com. I didn't know that he was military man at first, although his original headshot in his WNYM blog made me wonder, looking as it did like a standard military headshot. Over time I realized that he'd served, although he didn't really discuss the details too much. Only gradually, in that way one does when one interacts in little bits here and there with someone online over a period of time, did I put some details together. Castner served as an EOD specialist. EOD: Explosive Ordnance Disposal.

The EOD is the 'bomb squad' of the military. Consisting of members of all four branches of the military, the EODs are the guys who show up to investigate explosions of bombs and to defuse or dispose of active ones. Castner indicates that in other wars, the EOD men are something of a 'clean up' crew for after the major combat operations are complete and the country (or some territory of it) has been secured; the EODs are charged with destroying the stockpiles of explosive weaponry left behind by the retreating enemy forces. In Iraq, however, this mission – dangerous enough, but manageable – became much more terrifying once the war shifted from 'major combat operations' to 'counter-insurgency'. The job now requires coming to dispose of active IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device) that have been discovered roadside or in the cities, and also to investigate the ones that have been detonated. This involves sifting through debris, shrapnel, and shredded human remains. In one such episode, they smell the unmistakably strong scent of human excrement, and trace the source to an intact colon, lying in the middle of the street. I'm not sure how long I would have to stare at a colon before I realized what it even was.

This work is staggeringly dangerous, and death does loom over this book, as it must. Castner discusses at length some of the men with whom he serves who never returned. Not all of them are killed by IEDs; the stories of their deaths are heartbreaking tales of things that go wrong in war. Castner tells these tales with a keen sense that, in some cases, there were numerous times when it could have very well been him dying. Speculating on what it must be like to be in an overloaded helicopter that is going down, to know that the bird you're in is about to crash and that with all your gear on it would take you minutes to get free to save yourself at the same time that you know you only have seconds...Castner's visceral descriptions bring home as much of the horror of hot, dusty, explosive Iraq as it would be possible for someone who was never there to understand.

My rifle means it's time to do a job. It's time to focus, to observe, to stalk, to prepare, to react, to be ready for that constant song: incoming fire. If gunshots per IED call were a batting average, we'd win the Major League title every year. Potshots while driving through town ringing off the side of your truck. Zips and pings while crouched behind your Humvee, building an explosive charge with a cigarette hanging from your mouth and the robot ready to tear downrange. Single shots from a sniper in the center of Hawija. A sustained firefight while clearing a bridge. The soft breath of a stripper blowing on your neck, on the edge of your ear, a tingle across the very surface of your skin, then an answering shout from the .50-cal machine gun mounted on the security Humvee next to you. Gunfire in the distance. Gunfire in ambush. Gunfire to sing you to sleep.


Every moment you are being shot at you are blissfully, consciously, wonderfully, tangibly alive in the most basic visceral way imaginable.

Castner structures his book not as a straight-line narrative, but as a series of memories, which at first seem distinct and separate, but which gradually take on an appearance of mosaic. He writes in his Author's Note:

Everything in this book feels true. It's as correct as a story can be from someone with blast-induced memory lapses. Nothing was changed to create a moral or to ease discomfort. It's as real as I can make it, though reality and objectivity sometimes have little to do with one another.

Castner juxtaposes his memories of the war and his service there with equally searing reflections on what his life was like when he returned from war to try and resume the life he had left on hold, only to realize at length that this would not be possible. The war is a constant companion for him, a constant presence that always stalks him. He calls it 'the Crazy':

The first thing you should know about me is that I'm Crazy.


The second thing you should know about me is that I don't know how to fix it. Or control it. Or endure from one moment to the next. The Crazy is winning.

What increasingly scares me about war is that it's only now that we're really starting to get some kind of notion of the effect that war has on the people who fight it, and the effects that can have on society when we bring those soldiers home and expect them to live and contribute and do all the 'normal' things that one does. How much societal strife after past wars might have been traceable to shell shock, or PTSD, or Castner's 'the Crazy'? At one point, Castner describes the way a bomb blast physically jolts the brain, the pathology of how a bomb blast speeds up and slows down through whatever medium it traverses, be it air, followed by body armor, followed by flesh, followed by the air inside the body, followed by more flesh on the other side of that air. The mental is the physical, and the physical the mental. It can't be separated, it can't be pulled apart. There's a reason that Brian Castner's chosen method for beating back 'the Crazy' is to run.

The title The Long Walk refers to the walk a EOD man must make when there is no other choice, and it's time to put on the extremely heavy armored suit and take on the bomb by himself. There is no either-or in this scenario. It's the ultimate military version of Russian Roulette. It's the real-life equivalent of all those somewhat clicheed scenes from movies and cop shows where the bomb squad guy has to decide which wire to cut, the red one or the green one. But Brian Castner is on another Long Walk, a longer one, one that doesn't have a definite end of either an unexploded pile of bomb parts or a detonated IED that's just taken a soldier with it. There's a much larger metaphor here that Castner explores, and unfortunately, he can't really give any definite conclusions, because he hasn't reached them yet – and there really is no guarantee that he ever will.

I died in Iraq. The old me left for Iraq and never came home. The man my wife married never came home. The father of my oldest three children never came home. If I didn't die, I don't know what else to call it.

I liked the old me, the one who played guitar, and laughed at dumb movies, and loved to read for days on end. That me died from a thousand blasts. Died covered in children's blood. Died staring down my rifle barrel, a helpless woman in the crosshairs and my finger on the trigger. That me is gone.

The new me is frantic and can't sit still. The new me didn't laugh for a year. The new me cries while reading bedtime stories to my children. The new me plans to die tomorrow. The new me runs almost every day, runs till knees buckle and fail. The new me takes his rifle everywhere. The new me is on fast-forward. The new me is Crazy.

The new me has a blown-up Swiss-cheese brain, and doesn't remember all of the old me. But he remembers enough. Enough to be ashamed. Enough to miss the old me. Enough to resent the old me. Resent the way everyone mourns him, while I am standing right in front of them.

Do you remember when Daddy used to? That daddy is gone. He doesn't do those things anymore. Do you remember when we used to be happy? Husband isn't happy anymore.

Maybe my wife should pull out the letter I left for my sons and read it to them. Maybe it would explain why Daddy didn't come home.

When you go to war, and die, and come home Crazy and with a ragged brain, you get to watch your family carry on without you.

Everyone longs for the old me. No one particularly wants to be with the new me. Especially me.

These scenes, in which Castner grapples with his inability to reconcile his new life with the fact of his old one, are deeply saddening, and deeply real. As sharply drawn and visceral as the war parts of the book are, it's the story of his life at home that I found the most deeply emotional. There is grief in his writing, and his marriage is fraying and he sees one counselor and then another, one shrink and then another. The PTSD diagnosis is not a surprise...but it doesn't stop there.

Through the book, Brian Castner reveals no easy answers, he doesn't indicate any particular faith that he will make it through. The book is ultimately haunting because there's something deeply affecting about seeing a skilled writer penning an elegy, not just to brothers in arms who went with him and never returned except in a box, but to himself.

The Long Walk is an engrossing and heartbreaking read. Castner's story is not without its hopeful moments, but he's clear that there really aren't any answers; there is only life and its sad opposite. I honestly can't recommend his book highly enough. I sometimes think it's become something of a cliché in our country to remind others to 'Thank the troops'. Brian Castner has written a deeply moving and powerful reminder of just part of what it is that we should be thanking those troops for.

(Incidentally, I read The Long Walk in its Kindle edition, via the Kindle app for my new seven inch Samsung Galaxy Tab. It's the first e-book edition of a full-length book I've ever read, so in a way, Brian Castner has served as my inauguration into yet another facet of the twenty-first century.)

Fud notes!

I haven't blogged about food lately, which is kind of dumb, since I've had some good times with food lately. Here are a few items:

::  I've used my wok more the last few months than in the first twenty years I owned it. (Wow...I've owned my wok for 20 years. The only reason I might see to get another one is to get an all-metal one, as mine has wood handles. But that's low priority. I love the wok!)

So far I've done mostly stir-fries with it, although in the past I have used it for deep fat frying. I made a wonderful spinach fried rice last week, from a recipe in a Martin Yan cookbook (Chinatown Cooking). Here are the results:

Spinach Fried Rice I

Spinach Fried Rice II

The only problem I had with this dish was that the result was a tad too salty, but that's easily corrected next time out. I could very easily live on fried rice. (Well, rice in general.) The only other change I made is that I used brown rice, instead of long-grain white. I know, the white rice is what you're supposed to use for fried rice, but I really prefer the flavor of the brown. Plus, it's better in terms of nutrition.

(Funny thing about that Martin Yan cookbook: I bought it at The Store, because I like Martin Yan and I wanted a new Chinese cookbook. When I got it home and thumbed through it in more detail, I found, inside the frontispiece, that it had been signed by Mr. Yan. He signed it, "Good food, Good wine, Good health -- a wonderful life!" How cool is that!)

:: The biggest food development at Casa Jaquandor was my Father's Day gift from The Wife and The Daughter: a new Weber grill, to replace the old one that served well through the years but rusted away (partly due, I must admit, to my somewhat lackadaisical care for it over the seven or eight years we owned it). The new grill has a 22.5 inch cooking surface, with a grill whose side panels are hinged so that I can add charcoal to the fire when slow-cooking something or when cooking with indirect heat. And it has a nifty pan beneath the kettle to catch ashes! Ash removal is the most annoying part of grilling, but now, I just let them fall into the pan and dump the pan when it's full. Awesome!

And the gift came with something else: a charcoal chimney, so that I can finally graduate from lighter fluids or fluid-treated briquettes. Now I can use good quality lump charcoal, ignited with only two sheets of newspaper! Huzzah!

Grill II: Chimney

And of course, our first meal on the new grill had to be steaks. Nice, thick, New York strip steaks. Yum, steak.

New grill III: Steaks!

So far I've used the grill for steak, chicken, sausages (twice), and, just last night, burgers!

Here is a blue cheese burger (blue cheese mixed right into the patty), topped with green leaf lettuce, a slice of tomato, and instead of ketchup or mustard, a lovely Greek yogurt dressing. I served it with a halved white peach (which is my favorite of all summer fruits).

Burger time!

More food adventures to come!

Man of steel, suit of rubber

Here's a problem: the teaser poster for the new Superman movie, unveiled at Comic Con:

I just don't like this poster at all. It does nothing to make me want to see the movie. I hate the washed-out colors (I really wish this era of dull color schemes in movies would come to an end), and I really dislike the weird rubber-material appearance of the costume itself. I know, I know, I'm one of those people -- but Ye Gods, the first Superman movie is one of the iconic superhero movies ever made, and in that one, Superman wore a suit made of...cloth. Now, no, this doesn't mean that the movie itself will stink. If it's good and the script is good and it's shot and acted well and the score doesn't stink (which is, frankly, six to five and pick 'em, what with Hans Zimmer composing it), something little like a costume isn't going to stop me from seeing it and enjoying it. But I'm not complaining about the movie, just a poster.

And as a poster, this does spectacularly little for me. All this does is remind me that there's a Superman movie coming out at some point. Here, on the other hand, is a fan-made tribute image for the original Superman movie:

This (via) makes me want to drop what I'm doing and watch that movie again right now.

Monday, July 16, 2012

When I am Lord of the Planet, this fellow shall be my Science Advisor.

A few weeks ago, Kevin Drum had a post (yes, I am too lazy to track down the link) in which he indicated that he just doesn't think the evolution-versus-creationism "debate" is that big a deal, and his reasons basically boiled down to the notion that the only place this 'debate' takes place is in elementary schools; nobody is challenging the teaching of evolution in colleges or in the use of evolutionary theory in medical research and so on. This strikes me as tragically wrong-headed, because in a society that is only going to become more and more scientifically dependent, the current American retreat from science can really only be counteracted on a generational basis. If we don't make it a priority to teach our kids the right science, then we're going into the future societally hobbled.

This is a point that comes up repeatedly in Neil DeGrasse Tyson's new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. The book is a collection of many short pieces Tyson has written over the years, from magazine articles to op-eds to speeches and even a few poems. As such, the themes of the book can get a bit repetitive, but Tyson may well be the most engaging science writer since Carl Sagan (although Timothy Ferris is not to be discounted). As a collection, the book covers a fairly wide range of topics, almost all of which deal with science in general or space exploration in the particular. Tyson's writing on these subjects is less poetic than Sagan's, but Tyson makes up for it with infectious enthusiasm.

Here is an excerpt from an interview Tyson gave Calvin Sims:

CS: Some studies have shown that only about 20 to 25 percent of the adult population can be considered scientifically literate. And one study found that one American adult in five thinks that the Sun revolves around the Earth, a notion that was abandoned in the sixteenth century. Does that surprise you?

NDT: Didn't you just ask me whether we're in a crisis? Yes, we are. And yes, it concerns me deeply. There's fundamental knowledge about the physical world that the general public is oblivious to. And by the way, science literacy is not simply how many chemical formulas you can recite, nor whether you know how your microwave oven works. Science literacy is being plugged into the forces that power the Universe. There is no excuse for thinking that the Sun, which is a million times the size of Earth, orbits Earth.

CS: This is particularly troubling because so much political debate has a basis in science: global warming, stem cell research. What do we do about this?

NDT: I can only tell you what I do about it. I hate to say this, but I've given up on adults. They've formed their ways; they're the product of whatever happened in their lives; I can't do anything for them. But I can have some influence on people who are still in school. That's where I, as a scientist and an educator, can do something to help teach them how to think, how to evaluate a claim., how to judge what one person says versus what another says, how to establish a level of skepticism. Skepticism is healthy. It's not a bad thing; it's a good thing. So I'm working on the next generation as they come up. I don't know what to do with the rest. That 80 percent of the adults, I can't help you there.

This strikes me as terribly sad, but also terribly true. Throughout the book, Tyson repeatedly sounds the alarm about where we are headed as a nation. Here's another excerpt, this from a speech:

Recently I gave a talk in St. Petersburg, Florida. The last question of the night – I don't know if this person was particularly worried about the upcoming election – was, "What would you do if, a year from now, all the money for science and engineering research was cut to zero, yet Congress allowed you to pick one project you could do? What would that project be?" I promptly replied, "I would take that money, build a ship, and sail to some other country that values investment in science. And in my rearview mirror would be all of America moving back into the caves, because that's what happens when you don't invest in science and engineering."

There was a day when Americans would construct the tallest buildings, the longest suspension bridges, the longest tunnels, the biggest dams. You might say, "Well, those are just bragging rights." Yes, they were bragging rights. But more important, they embodied a mission statement about working on the frontier – the technological frontier, the engineering frontier, the intellectual frontier – about going places that had not been visited the day before. When that stops, your infrastructure crumbles.

There's a lot of talk about China these days. So let's talk more about it. We keep hearing about ancient Chinese remedies and ancient Chinese inventions. But when do you hear about modern Chinese inventions? Here are some of the things that the Chinese achieved between the late sixth and late fifteenth centuries AD: They discovered the solar wind and magnetic declination. They invented matches, chess, and playing cards. They figured out that you can diagnose diabetes by analyzing urine. They invented the first mechanical clock, movable type, paper money, and the segmented-arch bridge. They basically invented the compass and showed that magnetic north is not the same as geographic north – a good thing to know when you're trying to navigate. They invented phosphorescent paint, gunpowder, flares, and fireworks. They even invented grenades. They were hugely active in international trade over that period, discovering new lands and new peoples.

And then, in the late 1400s, China turned insular. It stopped looking beyond its shores. It stopped exploring beyond its then-current state of knowledge. And the entire enterprise of creativity stopped. That's why you don't hear people saying, "Here's a modern Chinese answer to that problem." Instead they're talking about ancient Chinese remedies. There's a cost when you stop innovating and stop investing and stop exploring. That cost is severe. And it worries me deeply, because if you don't explore, you recede into irrelevance as other nations figure out the value of exploration.

What else do we know about China? It has nearly 1.5 billion people – one-fifth of the world's population. Do you know hoe big a billion is? In China it means that if you're one in a million, there are 1,500 other people just like you.

Not only that, the upper quartile of China – the smartest 25 percent – outnumbers the entire population of the United States. Lose sleep over that one. You've seen the numbers: China graduates about half a million scientists and engineers a year; we graduate about seventy thousand – much less than the ratio of our populations would indicate. A talk-show host in Salt Lake City recently asked me about those numbers, and I said, "Well, we graduate half a million of something a year: lawyers." So the guy asked me what that says about America, and I said, "It tells me we are going into the future fully prepared to litigate over the crumbling of our infrastructure." That's what the future of America will be.

Ouch. Really, truly, ouch. But the flip side of Tyson's grim picture of the state of affairs in America as regards to science and engineering is that the fix is pretty obvious: reinvest in those things, reinvest in those things now, and reinvest in those things heavily. It'll take a lot of investment and a lot of time – probably a couple of decades as new students come all the way through the educational systems and enter the workforce – but it's the only thing that can guarantee our continued position as one of the leaders of the world. Nothing else is going to get it done: not deregulating every business sector known to exist, not squashing every labor union, not eliminating every tax, not scratching every libertarian itch. Humanity is going to need to depend more and more and more and more on science and engineering, and if we willingly abdicate our leadership and mortgage our futures therein, well, all the tax cuts and military expenditures in the world won't be enough to keep America from becoming just one more name on the UN roster.

I don't want to depict Tyson's book as relentlessly pessimistic, because it's not. Reading between his lines, I think that I can say that while Tyson is not terribly optimistic about America right now, he's more optimistic about the human species. And his sense of wonder, still intact after years of being an astrophysicist, comes shining through. The passages I quote, though, are the ones that stick with me, because they're issues that I continue to think about a lot and I frankly wish would come up once in a while over the course of our political campaigns. Anyway, Neil DeGrasse Tyson is emerging as one of our country's most valuable voices.

(By the way, a neat feature of the book is that it includes a selection, scattered throughout, of Tyson's postings to Twitter. For example: "First mammals to achieve orbit, in order: Dog, Guinea pig, Mouse, Russian Human, Chimpanzee, American Human".)

Sentential Links

Links! Get 'em while they're...well, here's some links.

:: It has been easy for a lot of people (mostly non-drummers) to take Ringo's gifts for granted through the years because he was pretty happy to sit back there on his riser (no one had ever done that before), contributing his steady, reliable backbeat. He has always been the most overlooked Beatle. A lot of people have described him as a "meat and potatoes" drummer, but I beg to differ. (Me too. There are some moments in "A Day in the Life" when Ringo fills in a silence with something interesting on the drums -- something interesting that lasts all of a second and a half. But that's what drummers do. They're the ultimate in music's temporal, 'in the moment and now the moment's over' nature.)

:: I guess he figured that if I knew who Ryan was I knew everything I needed to know and if I didn’t know who Ryan was then I also knew all I needed to know or at least all it was my business to know. (My parents once told me a story about a time they were driving out west, as they used to do every summer, and stay in campgrounds. They would stay up late, sitting by a fire, and sipping beer. Well, at one campground, apparently a bunch of bikers pulled into the campsite next to theirs, and one of them, a big burly lad all in leather, came over to ask: "Are you folks gonna stay up late and make a lot of noise? 'Cause we're really tired and we got a long way to ride tomorrow." I love that.)

:: It might be different in other cities but you know, Buffalo is in Western New York. It, really as far as the layout, the landscape and the area was kind of like the South, in New York. It’s not anything like the city. It’s real laid back in the country, but the people are horrible. As far as getting in trouble in Buffalo or socially, there’s nothing to do. (That's a quote from former Buffalo Bills receiver Josh Reed, who decided to leave town as a free agent a few years ago and seek his fortune elsewhere, after two contracts here with the Bills. He was drafted in the second round way back in 2002, which means that in his time here he never played for a single playoff team, and in all honesty, despite some flashes here and there, Reed never rose much above the level of 'guy who's nice to have on your team but he'll never make the big clutch play for you'. Now, over the last bunch of years we've seen a lot of such players leave the team and badmouth the city afterwards -- Rob Johnson, Willis McGahee, now Reed -- and hey, if you didn't like it here, fine. But then, you didn't really contribute much to a team that wasn't very good, so what do you expect? It's telling that none of Reed's attempts to catch on someplace else have succeeded; he signed with the Chargers after his last season here but was cut in training camp.

What also interests me is when these young athletes complain that their particular brand of fun isn't to be found in Buffalo. That's entirely possible, as this is neither a particularly big city nor a particularly rich one. But here's the thing: these guys make a ton of money. If it bothers them that the kind of club they like to hang out in doesn't exist here, well -- real estate's cheap in Buffalo and these guys are getting paid a ton of money. Why not open your own place and create the kind of scene you wish existed here? Why the sense of entitlement? I don't get this. Anyway, enjoy your post-NFL days, Josh. Oddly, while you were never a great player, I never disliked you...until now.)

:: My life is now one where campfire stories are becoming another word for Tuesday - to which I mean adventures are the new normal.

:: I've used it before on several novels, notably ones where the plot got so gnarly and tangled up that I badly needed a tool for refactoring plot strands, but the novel I've finished, "Neptune's Brood", is the first one that was written from start to finish in Scrivener, because I have a long-standing prejudice against entrusting all my data to a proprietary application, however good it might be. That Scrivener was good enough to drag me reluctantly in is probably newsworthy in and of itself. (I read this post all the way through, and I barely understood it. I'm generally fascinated by matters of writerly process, but now I'm wondering if I'm doing it wrong now, by just writing my books in OpenOffice.)

:: Apparently some people read "getting a PhD in English" as "getting a PhD in creative writing." I find this hilarious because it demonstrates a profound ignorance of what studying English entails.

:: Le Guin's argument appears to be that all human societies are prone to dysfunction and corruption, no matter how well-meaning people are. (I read this book when I was in seventh grade. I did not understand it, and I definitely should read it again. I've heard it cited a lot as an SF classic in the years since I read it. Come to that, I've read a pathetically small amount of Ursula Le Guin.)

:: When you consider the amount of time spent making this film and the amount of people who were involved in it, it is really quite baffling. Someone had to write the script (namely Akiva Goldsman). That script undoubtedly had to be approved by the higher ups at Warner Bros. Then actors had to be cast, costumes and sets had to be designed, an entire production crew assembled and at no point did anyone stop and say, “Are we really making this movie? This movie?”

More next week!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Burst of Weird and Awesome!

Oddities and Awesome abound!

:: One thing that gets made fun of a lot about Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the long, anguished cry of "Nooooooooo!" that Darth Vader gives when he learns that after all his Dark Side stuff, Padme is dead. This seems to me a great pity, because after all, people giving long, anguished cries of "Nooooooooo!" is a long and proud tradition from the movies.

:: Overquoted movies. I agree on some of these -- the insatiable need some folks feel to endlessly recite the same couple of quotes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the Renaissance Faire is a longtime source of irritation of mine, but generally...I like it when people quote movies. I do try to go for more obscure quotes, though -- when quoting The Princess Bride, for example, it's fun to list a long list of things I have to do, and then wrap it up with, "I have a wife to murder and Guilder to frame for it. I'm swamped." Or, when someone questions whether I can do something, to grin and say, "Ahh, but I am not left-handed!"

All for this week!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Film Quote Friday

Well, I've already been a day late a couple of times, and last week, I missed this series completely. Par for the course with regular features here!


I love this silly, raunchy, hilarious ode to how a few men in a rustbelt city will scheme to make a few bucks. The rustbelt town is Sheffield, England, and our heroes are out of work steelmill employees, who concoct an odd plan, led by Gaz (Robert Carlyle), to put on a strip-tease show for pay. Of course, these guys aren't the best looking examples of the male species, so Gaz decides to go one better: he promises that his group of strippers will do "the full monty" -- meaning, they'll go all the way. Complete nudity.

What always gets me about this movie is its sheer warmth. Everybody in it is really likable, everybody in it has problems that seem real, and it just doesn't seem that outlandish for these guys to pull this scheme together. Even at the end, during the final strip dance, the guys are making eyes to the ladies and laughing while they do it. They're in on the joke, and they're fine with it. Because they're going all the way, see...the full monty.

Anyway, the movie's first big laugh for me comes when Gaz and his chubby friend Dave are out jogging, and they come upon a motorist whose car won't start. The motorist sits in the car morosely as Dave diagnoses the problem and gets the car running again and cheerfully jogs away, only belatedly realizing that this sad sack motorist has a hose running from his tailpipe to the inside of his car. Dave runs back and drags him out of the exhaust-filled car, saving his life -- and when the guy complains, Dave grabs him and stuffs him back in the car, until the guy relents. Then comes this delightfully absurd scene where Gaz, Dave, and Lomper (our suicidal friend) are comparing notes about ways to off oneself.

EXTERIOR: Hillside.

GAZ and LOMPER sit in the grass; DAVE is lying on his back looking at the clouds. An air of failure hangs over LOMPER at his failure to end it all.

DAVE: You could shoot yourself.

GAZ: Where's he gonna find a gun from around here? You might wanna find yourself a big bridge here, then.

DAVE: Yeah...like one of them bungee jumps, only without the bungee bit.

LOMPER: I can't stand heights, me.

A moment of silence....

DAVE: Drownin'. Now there's a way to go.

LOMPER: Can't swim.

GAZ: You don't have to fucking swim, ya divvy, that's the whole point! God, you're not very keen, are you?

LOMPER: Sorry.

DAVE: I know. You could stand in middle of road and get a mate run smack into you right fast.

LOMPER: Haven't got any mates.

GAZ: Listen, you, we just saved your fucking life so don't tell us we're not your mates, all right?

LOMPER: Really?

GAZ: Yeah.

DAVE: Yeah, me and all, I'd run ya down as soon as look at ya.

LOMPER: Oh aye? Cheers.

Lomper starts to grin at the turn of luck from attempting suicide to finding two mates.

LOMPER: Thanks a lot.

I love well-done gallows humor, and this scene always tickles me. You can watch the whole scene here.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


Manuscript 2, originally uploaded by Jaquandor.

The time has come at last: it's editing time. Hoo-boy. I didn't wait quite three months, but I got more than two and a half, and I've at last started digging through Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title). I'm hoping that this process will be done by Labor Day, but as in all things, we shall see. This process is, as you might guess, fairly time-consuming.

And for anyone who might worry about whether or not I am sufficiently steel-willed to drag my literary darlings out of their coops in the middle of the night and chop their bloody heads off, well -- witness the amount of red ink of corrections on those two pages! I'm about ten pages in thus far, and only one page doesn't look like that. That's page one. Because it starts halfway down the page (in keeping with proper manuscript format). Yes, folks -- I can rip other people's writing when the spirit moves me, but when it comes to my own, I'm utterly medieval.

Onward and upward!

Something for Thursday

An interesting thing happened in the 2004 and the 2005 Academy awards: the first year, the Oscar for Best Original Score went to Howard Shore for his enormously epic score for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, a score which featured huge orchestral and choral forces over three-plus hours of music. The next year, Oscar recognized what might be the polar opposite of Shore's work, a score with a delicate, almost impressionistic, chamber music-like sound. And both are among my very favorite filmscores of the last ten years. Here are several selections from Jan AP Kaczmarek's Finding Neverland.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Why is she so hung up on Ryan, anyway? He's such a douche!

If you watch The Office without paying attention to the credits, you might assume that Mindy Kaling's sole purpose on the show is to play Kelly Kapoor, the materialistic 'office girl' who is more interested in appearance and various superficialities than in professional accomplishment. But if you do pay attention to the credits, you quickly discover that Mindy Kaling is the complete opposite of Kelly Kapoor. As a writer, occasional director, and listed producer, Kaling is one of the main creative contributors to The Office. And now she has a new book, called Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).

This delightful book is part autobiography, part musing on the current state of entertainment, part musings on romance and dating here in the 21st century, and...well, the book reads simply like the conversational thoughts of a person who leads an interesting life and has interesting things to say without having led so interesting a life as to be completely intimidating. Is Mindy Kaling the 'girl next door'? Sure...if the girl next door is a hard-working, smart, and pretty woman who has a number of impressive talents.

Here is Kaling describing some of the types of characters you will find in a typical romantic comedy these days:


When a beautiful actress is in a movie, executives wrack their brains to find some kind of flaw in her that still allows her to be palatable. She can't be overweight or not perfect-looking, because who would want to see that? A not 100-percent-perfect-looking-in-every-way female? You might as well film a dead squid decaying on a beach somewhere for two hours.

So they make her a Klutz.

The 100-percent-perfect-in-every-way female is perfect in every way, except that she constantly falls down. She bonks her head on things. She trips and falls and spills soup on her affable date. (Josh Lucas. Is that his name? I know it's two first names. Josh George? Brad Mike? Fred Tom? Yes, it's Fred Tom.) Our Klutz clangs into Stop signs while riding a bike, and knocks over giant displays of expensive fine china. Despite being five foot nine and weighing 110 pounds, she is basically like a drunk buffalo who has never been a part of human society. But Fred Tom loves her anyway.


The smart and funny writer Nathan Rabin coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl to describe a version of this achetype after seeing Kirsten Dunst in the movie Elizabethtown. This girl can't be pinned down and may or may not show up when you make concrete plans. She wears gauzy blouses and braids. She decides to dance in the rain and weeps uncontrollably if she sees a sign for a missing dog or cat. She spins a globe, places her finger on a random spot, and decides to move there. The ethereal weirdo abounds in movies, but nowhere else. If she were from real life, people would think she was a homeless woman and would cross the street to avoid her, but she is essential to the male fantasy that even if a guy is boring, he deserves a woman who will find him fascinating and pull him out of himself by forcing him to go skinny-dipping in a stranger's pool.

And thanks to Mindy Kaling, I now desperately want to see the movie Darling, which has not been made yet, but would tell the story of Peter Pan from the viewpoint of the Darling family's alcoholic father. That movie needs to happen, dammit!

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

What's a food you consider to be criminally underrated?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A very public thank you....

...to Roger, who sent me a copy of the Paul Simon album Graceland, which I have never heard. I look forward to listening to it, and hope to do so later this week or this coming weekend. Thanks, Roger! I can't wait!

It came from the freezer case, vol. 1

You know what the world needs now? I mean, besides love, sweet love. The world needs someone to go on a self-guided tour through the wonderful world of frozen pizza and report on his or her findings. Of course, come to think of it, this is 2012, so I'm thinking that somebody out there in Blogistan is already doing this. Well, dammit, I'm gonna do it too.

Frozen pizza makes me happy. Always has. Now, I won't maintain that frozen pizza is ever as high-quality a product as the best freshly-made pizza, but I absolutely will maintain that there are frozen pizzas out there that are frankly preferable to quite a few places that do the fresh thing. I mean, we have to be realistic here, don't we? Not all pizzerias are wonderful. Many are. Many more are not, and many only manage to keep churning out their disappointing pizza by being cheap and/or conveniently located near a population of people predisposed to value cheap and convenient pizza (such as, say, college students).

I am no 'expert' on pizza, but I do love it and I think I have a fairly decent handle on whether something tastes good or whether it's (as some frozen pizzas really are) crap-on-toast. And since I tend to have frozen pizza for dinner a couple times a month at least (hey, it's an indulgence), why not blog about it?

I grew up eating frozen pizza. Not all the time, but my parents would keep a few in the freezer on a regular basis, so that I might have something quick and easy to feed myself in the event that Mom didn't much feel like having any kind of real answer to the question "Whatsferdinner?" (Especially when I asked this question as soon as she walked in the door after work without so much as a "Hi Mom!" first, and I couldn't get away with running it all together so it came out as "Himomwhatsferdinner?" either.)

During the 1980s, there were, as far as I recall, only two or three brands of frozen pizza available. My preferred brand back then was Totino's, which came in a red box and which was called a 'party pizza'. The pepperoni was not in discs, but tiny cubes all over the thing. I haven't seen one of those in years. I think that Tony's was the other one; Tony's is still going strong, actually. And then there was a generic, store brand. These were pretty disappointing, generally. And that was about it. (Actually, not quite: late in the 80s a new brand showed up, called "Mr. K's". This was some kind of higher-quality item which came with its own metal baking dish in the box. I recall these being pretty good, but from what I can tell, the brand has not existed in years.)

Of course, frozen pizza has exploded over the last couple of decades. There's DiGiorno, obviously, and a whole bunch of other brands. Paul Newman's is now on the scene, and the store brands tend to be a lot higher quality these days than when I was a kid. The frozen pizza section at any grocery store is now significantly larger than it used to be, which is pretty cool. It used to be a couple shelves in one door. Now it's four or five doors...or more.

So, time to get to tasting. First, on method: I will prepare all pizzas I write about in these posts according to the directions on the box. It's tempting to figure that what works for one frozen pizza likely works for all of 'em, but that's just not the case. I discovered this the hard way a number of times; I would get used to baking one brand at 400 for fifteen minutes and then not realize that the next brand called for ten minutes at 425. Some pizzas instruct you to preheat the oven; others specifically say not to. Ignoring these directions results in disappointing pizza. So, I'll be following directions to the letter.

Second, on brands I'll try: I'm up for nearly anything, but because of obvious conflicts of interest, I won't be writing about any of the frozen pizzas currently produced (or produced in the future) under the label of The Store. (I will offer up a blanket statement that I do like our brand frozen pizza.)

Third, a couple of general statements: Look, we're talking frozen pizza here. I'm not trying to compare each pizza to something made by a skilled pizzeria cook or deepdish pizza baker. I hope we're clear that I'm not claiming any high standards of food quality here. Frozen pizza tends to be very different in terms of texture from what you get from a pizzeria, no matter where; cheese in a frozen state behaves differently than freshly-sliced or grated cheese, for one thing, so frozen pizzas will rarely give you that 'cheese pull' that's familiar to lovers of fresh pizza. Also, frozen pizzas are frozen food, and frozen food tends to be higher in sodium. Some of these pies can end up tasting very salty indeed. I'll make note of it when it happens, but in general, saltiness is to be expected from frozen pizza.

I think that's about it for preliminaries. Time to talk about the first pizza!

Palermo Primo Thin Ultra-thin Crust Cheese Lover's Pizza

Although I've come to like fewer and fewer toppings on my pizza over the years – no more than three toppings, usually – I rarely go the whole way and just have a pizza with nothing but sauce and cheese. But this one seemed like a good place to start.

'Cheese Lover's', huh? According to the box, this pizza sports a blend of cheeses as follows: "Mozzarella, White Cheddar, Provolone, Parmesan, Romano cheeses." OK. That sounds promising, actually. I can't differentiate all the various cheese flavors in any cheese blend on a pizza, but a blend is still desirable because a cheese's characteristics tend to change a lot when melted, so a blend of cheeses gives a balance to flavor that is hard to achieve with a single cheese. Other than the cheese blend, this pizza is very basic. Here's what it looks like out of the box:

Yup. Basic indeed: just a thin circle of dough with sauce and cheese on it. And yes, this thing is thin. Palermo has a whole line of these ultra-thin crust pizzas. Super-thin crust doesn't tend to be my favorite, but if done well, I like it quite a bit, if not really loving it. Thin crust can turn out too brittle and crispy, and I don't like a great deal of crisp to my pizza. So what would happen? It's been my experience that thin crust frozen pizzas tend to get overdone at the edges.

Anyway, into the oven: 450 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. I checked at 8 minutes and decided that it wasn't quite done, so I left it in the full 10. (Frozen pizza manufacturers always give a time range in their directions, to accommodate people's differently-performing ovens.) When I took it out, it looked like this:

Yeah, a little but too crispy around the edge – but not horribly so. And the cheese all melted into a pretty attractive top, with brown spots and little visual evidence of the cheese's former dry and frozen state. This one came out of the oven looking really tasty, though. And here's the bottom of the crust:

That impresses me, to be honest. At that high a temperature, that low in the oven, I feared a burned crust. Instead, no burning – just too done around the edges. But what about the taste?

Well, this pizza was actually pretty good. It had the frozen-pizza saltiness, but it wasn't overwhelming and I didn't feel as though I needed to down several swigs of water every other bite. The crust here really does turn out to be really thin...but not as thin as, say, the Thin-and-Crispy at Pizza Hut. (Horrible dough to work with, by the way. Just horrible.) It's just thin enough to give you a stiff slice of pizza and a definite crunch when you bite into it, but just thick enough to give that crunching bite some body. Again, aside from the outer rim (which was overdone), the crust was fine.

The tomato sauce? Very nice, actually – just enough so you know it's there by taste, but not overwhelming, either. The sauce is more tangy than sweet, and it works very well with the cheese blend. And as for that: the cheese is probably the best thing about this pizza. Frozen pizzas generally won't give you that elastic quality to the cheese, like fresh pizza will – generally when you bite into a slice of frozen pizza, you don't get long tendrils of molten cheese dangling between you and threatening to detach and flop onto your own chin. Frozen pizza cheese tends to stay where it is.

And yes, the cheese here does just that: stays where it is. Within reason. I had a couple of 'stretching cheese' moments whilst eating this one, and the cheese really did start to trail away from the slice. It snapped back, but still, that was a nice thing to see in a frozen pizza. And while I did notice the saltiness of the pizza, the main flavor here was of cheese, not salt. I appreciate that.

So, I give this one a fairly high grade. Nice job by the Palermo folks on this one!