"Never again" really doesn't mean what it used to...

>> Monday, March 31, 2008

I'm sorry. I am so, so, so very sorry. It came to me as I was coming in from work tonight. And I am very, very sorry.

Oh, and this weekend, my friend Nate reminded me that it was something like this that started the whole damned thing:

I'm sorry. Really, truly, deeply sorry. How many times do you want me to say it?

* * * * *

Okay, I guess I'm not sorry enough. I thought of another one when I was doing dishes...

Okay. I really am sorry for that last one. Sort of.




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Oh dude, they should totally have made this movie...

>> Sunday, March 30, 2008

Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls--Hammer Films almost made a movie called Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls?


Dude, I would so own that on DVD if they had. That would have freakin' rocked. Matter of fact, who owns the rights to that, I wonder...?


My heart is broken by the lost opportunity.

UPDATE (10:30 PM): Nathan, from Polybloggimous, has pointed out that I was mistaken! Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls was, in fact, a Republic movie serial from 1936! And what a serial, too! The cast of Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls includes Bela Lugosi, John Wayne, Noah Beery, and the ageless Terrance Stamp as Captain Nemo! (And I'm fairly certain that the young actor who says "Mammy" during the course of the below clip is none other than Patrick St. Hubbins, the father of legendary Thamesmen bassist/vocalist David St. Hubbins! The Thamesmen, for those who don't know, is one of the best bands-you've-never-heard-of in music history, a band that combined the melodiousness of The Beatles with the vicious snarkiness of early Rolling Stones. Try to find a copy of Give Me Some Money And Eight Other Hits By The Thamesmen! for a solid classic of sixties British pop, or better yet the hard-to-get follow-up, Well, If You Don't Have Any Money Could You At Least Make Me A Sandwich Then?)

Courtesy of YouTube, episode 2 of Zeppelin v. Pterodactyls, one of the many fine films featuring set design by Republic's Philip Smithee (uncle of famous director Alan Smithee)--and again, many thank-yous, Nathan!



(More information about this great lost serial can be found here.)

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"Sophie From Shinola," part the fourth

Nathan, over at Polybloggimous, has started a game. The way this game works is that several bloggers, including yours truly, will write a story, each of us tackling two non-consecutive chapters. A complete explanation, and the first chapter, may be found here. The rules are that each of us must change one element from the previous chapter, and that entries are to be from one-hundred to five-hundred words in length. In my first section, which follows shortly, I have complied with the first rule by changing the title character's gender, the second rule I have broken by writing a six-hundred and seventy-two word entry. To anyone who would fault this, I reply, "nuts." Do you hear? "Nuts," I says, and "nuts" I means.


The second chapter, by the erstwhile Shawn, can be found at his brain, here. Interestingly enough, I was thinking of the direction I might take this story in well before I read Shawn's entry, and a line in his story that he surely meant as a throwaway took some added significance when I decided to go ahead with what I was thinking would be a wicked left turn.


The previous chapter, by the wonderful MWT, can be read here.


My hope is that the turn I have taken won't throw anyone off the track. If it does, let me point out the obvious: that it would be easy enough to reverse little Sophie's change of gender, should the next author choose to do so. But enough! Part the fourth of "Sophie From Shinola" follows! Read! And hopefully enjoy!

Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven Part Eight Part Nine Part Ten Part Eleven Part Twelve Part Thirteen Part Fourteen Part Fifteen Part Sixteen Part Seventeen Part Eighteen Part Nineteen



Sophie From Shinola, Part Four


Sometimes, especially when it was darker than dark—inside molecular clouds and behind the shadows of spheres—sometimes she, the fake Sophie woke up. And for a terrified moment she struggled and writhed inside it, inside the real Sophie, until it crushed her will again. She wanted to point herself at The Homelands and kick loose the primary thrusters and open the distorters that made it, the real Sophie, massless relative to realspace. Sometimes she overwhelmed it to the point that Sophie ignited its port jets and spun wildly about to face the stars of home, but she always lost that fight, every time. And when real-Sophie lit the primaries and fell from ambush on its prey, fake-Sophie screamed inside its head as real-Sophie spat gobs of hot helium nuclei and cut the night with invisible wires of coherent light, carving fake-Sophie's tribe into atoms and energy.


She remembered, sometimes, the time she thought real-Sophie's mother was lying, and had hated real-Sophie's mother for it. That was the joke, the worst part, wasn't it?


“They’re warming up the brain remover, dear.” Said her mother, as she casually flipped a page in her magazine.


It wasn't true, but it wasn't a lie, either. You had to believe it was a lie, wanted it to believe it was a lie, didn't you? Because what kind of species would do that? Evolution on a thousand worlds installed a sense of protective duty into any species that developed sufficient intelligence to beat a shellfish open with a rock or master fire and wheels and levers and pointy sticks. Every civilized species in the universe saw their young as the future, not just their genetic future but there memetic future, the cultural future. Every civilization except one. Maybe humans reproduced too quickly for it to matter if a few talented young were denied the chance to reach sexual maturity and spawn.


The physical Sophie, the body that carried real-Sophie and the parasitic fake-Sophie was taken from her mother, who told herself the tradeoff of never having grandchildren was having a daughter who might live forever. The physical Sophie was tested and approved, a brilliant child with those elusive qualities—some said “psychic,” others said “intuitive.” Qualities improved with teaching and chemicals and blasts of radiation that would've eventually made Sophie's body a wasteland if it hadn't been disposable. Fake-Sophie refused to believe what was happening until the day they threw physical-Sophie away, the day they indeed powered up the brain-remover, or (more accurately) a bone saw and a vat of exotic chemicals that might be called Sophie's head if she—it—had one. Fake-Sophie rebelled, or tried to and discovered the final syringe that would ever be poked into Sophie's bottom had disrupted all the lines of traffic from Sophie's brain to her flabby, adolescent arms.


Real-Sophie slept through the whole thing like she was supposed to. Fake-Sophie, the rider who thought she was so clever a fifth columnist and spy, felt the scalpel score a bright, itchy-sharp line around her shorn scalp and smelled burning bone as the bone saw's laser completed an orbit around little Sophie's head. Fake-Sophie was the first one to see her new body before the optic nerves were removed from the eyes and connected to their shiny silver universal interports: the chrome-and-obsidian training fighter that Sophie's brain would fly for six months until it was time to be installed in the second of Sophie's seven bodies.


Sophie's second body was a latticework icosahedron stubbed with momentum and death, incapable of both atmospheric and interstellar travel, but ideal for turning and whirling and whipping around the first invasion fleet, cutting it to pieces in twelve-point-five minutes. If fake-Sophie wasn't crazy when she saw Sophie's first two bodies, oh, she was crazy after the Battle Of Chenolla Oort, where the precognitive interdictors of SpaceForce ambushed the Kollithi fleet. Crazy and weak and screaming from within the brain in the shell.





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How today's weather made me a sad panda

>> Saturday, March 29, 2008

I drove out to the US National Whitewater Center and caused to rain. No, really. If I'd stayed home, those grey clouds coming in from the southwest would have stayed ominous and pregnant--but they wouldn't have done anything, they couldn't have done anything.


I wouldn't mind walking in a little bit of rain, but the Whitewater Center would: the trails are closed because the trails are becoming mud and bicyclists, especially, or even hikers would wreck the trails. I understand, of course, but it's still annoying. The weather, I'm still talking about, not the Center: if it had only started raining before I left home, I wouldn't have left home--duh.


So, anyway, I guess I'm headed home. It's not all bad--I was looking for a four-hour block to re-watch The Seven Samurai, which I bought on DVD quite a while back; I guess I finally have a free afternoon.





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Another quiz, but this one's easy


What is this a photograph of?


  1. A scene from Donnie Darko, The Musical!
  2. Furry couture at Tokyo Fashion Week

(Photograph via Boing Boing.)





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Friday night movie

>> Friday, March 28, 2008

Scalawags, via DeviantArt. A nice animated student short with a lovely look; it's not the first time this kind of thing has been done (you should see where this is going--I wouldn't really call it a twist--fairly quickly), but this is one of the nicest in recent memory. The use of color is really well done; I love the palette they used for this, with those rich earth tones, those buttery nut-browns, auburn reds and deep greens. The characters' obvious relish for the plank is also a very nice touch. And I'm especially fond of the 2D/3D opening sequence--that really is pretty clever, and looks lovely. Anyway, hope you like it as much as I do:






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War is hell





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Banging up the furniture

>> Thursday, March 27, 2008

I really want one of these tables for my living room.





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The essay portion counts twenty percent of the final grade

A few years ago I picked up a fine collection of essays, The Bombing Of Auschwitz--Should The Allies Have Attempted It?, edited by Michael J. Neufeld and Michael Berenbaum. What was fine about this collection was that the editors managed to answer the question in a fashion that I don't believe they intended.


See, the problem with the bombing of Auschwitz is extraordinarily complicated. The first issue is what did the Allies actually know, and when did they know it? And then you have to discuss the loads and ranges for the Allied planes that might have been available for such a mission. There's math involved with this part of the question, and geography, and the technical capabilities of Allied warplanes. And if you assume that planes with the necessary range and payloads could be deployed to safe airbases within range of the camps (having the planes isn't enough if they're all stationed in England or the South Pacific, is it now?), then you have to consider the defensive capabilities of the German AA guns. And if you discount that, or (rather) decide that the inevitable losses are acceptable within the mission profile, you have to ask if the bombs are accurate enough to strategically bomb the camps, or really you have to actually ask how many prisoners is it acceptable to kill on the bombing mission, because the bombs aren't actually that accurate at all. And then, then you have to pull back and look at the big picture, and the question of whether it's a better effort to divert resources to bomb the camps than it is to bring the war with Germany to a close as quickly as possible so the camps can simply be liberated.


It happens that there are at least two answers to each and every one of the questions in the above paragraph (and all the other questions I may have left out). The Allies had the planes—no, they didn't, at least not in place to bomb Poland. The Allies knew early about the genocide—the planners didn't, not 'til late in the war. Some of the dual answers are just ugly: you're proposing a mission where the Allied bombardiers will inadvertently kill everyone they're trying to save—those people were condemned to die anyway, better in an instant than in a gas chamber. Some answers are heartbreaking: some pilots have said on the record they would have volunteered to fly those missions, however dangerous—it wasn't their decision to make, their superiors and their countries needed them elsewhere.


And this is where the answer, the real, scary answer emerges. The editors, or at least one, seem to be of the view that the Allies should have tried. But the picture that emerges from the fifteen essays in The Bombing Of Auschwitz is this: If the contemporary analyst, with the benefit of hindsight, the knowledge of subsequent events, the luxury of thinking things through in his study or classroom or armchair, with all of the intelligence that has shaken loose of Nazi and Allied files in the past sixty-something years can't see what the right answer should have been, how the hell can anyone say what someone in the fog of war should have done with only days or even mere hours to make a horrible call. The answer, the real scary answer, isn't that the Allies made the right or wrong decision; it's that it's a terrible thing to have to make such decisions at all, that there is no right or wrong decision.


What brings this up, you wonder?


The twists and turns of the internet brought me to a faintly ridiculous piece in The New Republic about Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Senator Barrack Obama's speech the other week. It's faintly ridiculous largely because it has the same strangely grinchy air as so much of the conservative reaction to the speech (given that TNR tries to paint itself as a liberal rag, there is intended irony in that observation): Obama gave a great speech, one that seemed to come from the heart and one that uncompromisingly acknowleged the complexities of history and race in America. A speech that didn't apologize for Wright or denounce him as everyone assumed Obama would. The conservative reaction to this is reminiscent of the Grinch's reaction when he hears the Whos singing in Whoville on Christmas morning. "They're not crying," say the conservatives, "they're singing. Singing? He didn't denounce, distance, discredit! He didn't apologize, abase, aquiesce! Can the Whos down in Whoville not face it—his base is only his race? And liberals with guilt over blood that's spilt! Singing! Dancing! How can this be?" Unfortunately, instead of their hearts growing three sizes, the conservative pundits have decided everyone else must be stupid. (It's possible that the conservative—and neoconservative "liberal"—heart is nothing more than a rubbery, stringy mass akin to the inner core of a baseball, installed by their long-absent creator as some kind of placeholder for a yet-to-be-invented cardiopulmonary device; this "heart" cannot grow, but if you can find one it makes a good entertainment for hyperactive cats and most breeds of dog.)


Anyway, I should say that the TNR piece starts as faintly ridiculous and then goes insane. It would seem that Reverend Wright had the unmitigated gall to criticize the decision to drop atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. For those of you of a historical bent, you are doubtlessly aware that the decision to use atomic weapons is controversial. Like the question of bombing Auschwitz, this is a subject that has become a subject of much debate and study and many, many, many answers. It was done to save lives; it was unnecessary. The Japanese were pondering surrender—it was only a matter of days, weeks, minutes, or millenia depending on who you would ask and which documents you cite and how you read them. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was vital to ending the war with Japan; no, it was only political theater to impress the Soviets. We didn't have to bomb either city; we should have only dropped one and waited; no, we needed to drop both. It was a war crime; it wasn't. It was the worst horror of the war; it wasn't even close. And so on and so forth and onward—do you know what the answer is? Can you guess? There is no spoon, that's the fucking answer. This will be debated forever, and that—like the question of the Allies bombing the concentration camps—that is the answer: if the best experts can't agree sixty years on, why was the answer clearer then when the pressure was on, the future uncertain, and the data imperfect?


But TNR would like Barrack Obama to answer. Unable to understand the singing Whos, they would like to politely frame a historical hypothetical:

While I know that Obama doesn't think the government created AIDS, I'm less assured that he shares a vision of American power that understands our singular role in the world. In sum: does Obama believe Harry Truman was right to end the war with Japan the way that he did? Why is no one in the media asking him this question? That seems to me an entirely fair query of man who wants to become Commander-in-Chief.
Allow me to step in to field this question for Mr. Obama, since it would be impolitic of him to proffer the correct answer. The correct answer is, "Fuck you, Mr. Kirchick. Stop being a douche."


I believe that's an entirely fair answer to the man who would ask a question like that outside of a sophomore European History class. That's the only place for it: the essay portion counts twenty percent of the final grade. In one hundred words or less. Was Truman right to end the war the way he did? Discuss. Be specific.

The New Republic. Giving new meaning to sophomoric political discourse. The grad students who handed out their reading lists would be proud.





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Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, March 26, 2008

I was sort of looking for something by the late, great Kirsty MacColl--Kite has been on my iPod of late--but I stumbled upon this awesome live clip of the brilliant Billy Bragg instead, back in '88, performing "A New England," a song that was a hit for MacColl (and a song that nicks a line from Paul Simon and then improves on it, I might add).


For those who want to sing along at home--this is an audience participation moment, folks--but don't know the words, here's the chorus:

I don't want to change the world
I'm not looking for a new England
I'm just looking for another girl
And when Billy "saw two shooting stars last night":
I wished on them, but they were only satellites
Is it wrong to wish on space hardware?
I wish, I wish, I wish you'd care
Ready? Alright! Let's go! Audience! Participate!






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Oh By The Way: Atom Heart Mother

>> Tuesday, March 25, 2008

It's frankly a little hard to know what to say about Atom Heart Mother, Pink Floyd's 1970 follow-up to Ummagumma. Nick Mason, in Inside Out, wrote:
My report card comments for the "Atom Heart Mother" track would be: good idea, could try harder. "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast" on the second side is a similar example.

Those two sentences could easily sum up the entire album, notwithstanding three solid individual tracks from Waters, Gilmour and Wright, including "Fat Old Sun," which may be in my top ten favorite Floyd songs. Atom Heart is a bit of a mess, frustratingly brilliant and stunningly overblown at turns. (Yet, Atom Heart would also be the first Floyd album to go gold, and their first number one record in the UK.)


Classical influences were big in rock and roll in 1970. Some of that was probably Paul McCartney's fault--actually, a pretty good bit of it was McCartney's fault, really. But McCartney at least had the pop instincts to pull it off--nothing on Abbey Road, say, is quite as ludicrously overblown as the worst excesses of Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Yes. To write that Atom Heart Mother joins the rest of the era in leaping off the bridge but somehow manages to survive the fall with only a few broken bones and a minor concussion is damning with a faintly positive diagnosis.


The band started playing around with a long-form piece late in '69 or early in '70, and futzed around with it a bit on stage under the title "The Amazing Pudding." This is actually pretty significant: not because it shows how much work the Floyd put into it, but because it's an example of how incapable Pink Floyd was of taking anything too damn seriously, even when they were being insufferably pompous art-rockers. Indeed, that's part of what I meant when I wrote "frustratingly brilliant"--Atom Heart Mother is one of the few sufferably pompous art rock albums of the era. (The badly-named Nursery Cryme is another, and maybe In The Court Of The Crimson King is another, mainly because Robert Fripp is, I don't know... Robert Fripp is just one of those guys who is able to get away with shit you'd punch someone else for, sort of the way Steve Jobs is in the computer industry. It's not merely that he's brilliant, though he is. But I digress.)


Anyway, the Floyd had this unwieldy, epic piece called "The Amazing Pudding," and it had its moments of coolness but it really wasn't working. And this is where the Floyd did something else that's atypical in rock and one of the unheralded examples of Why Floyd Is Cool: they brought in a consultant.


Years and years and years later, when David Gilmour brought the band back together without Roger Waters, he would get a lot of flack for all the other people who were brought in to write and record A Momentary Lapse Of Reason. What people had missed (partly because the Floyd did kind of a lousy job crediting people, especially in the late '70s) was that the Floyd had always brought in a little help when they needed it. Roger Waters wasn't happy with his vocals on "Have A Cigar," but Roy Harper was in the studio and could nail it. The Wall was too damn big to produce on their own, so they brought in Bob Ezrin, the guy who had made KISS sound so big in the mid-'70s. The orchestral arrangements on The Final Cut went to Michael Kamen, already on his way to becoming a sought-after movie composer/conductor. There were multiple backing musicians on every tour from 1974-onward, with the band literally doubled for The Wall concerts in 1980-81 (not counting the backing vocalists).


In the case of "The Amazing Pudding," the band consulted Ron Geesin, who had helped a little on Ummagumma and had worked with Roger Waters on a documentary soundtrack earlier that year. This was amazingly clever on the band's part: not only had they gotten themselves a little out of their depth, but Geesin wasn't exactly a conventional classical composer; indeed, he was a bit avant-garde at the time. "Pudding" may have been lengthy and sort of classical-ish, but it would also be a little silly and fun, too.


The sound effects came out in a major way. They'd always been around on Floyd tracks, but this would be the first time they'd be present as part of the musical narrative. Ironically, those sonic touches would become a Floyd trademark, but would actually be largely absent from the band's next two albums. It wouldn't be until Dark Side Of The Moon that those quintessentially Floydian noises and loops would be as large a part of the environment as they are on Atom Heart Mother. And Atom Heart has some of the wittiest uses of those effects in the Floyd canon: a bomb turns into a motorcycle, a man babbles about his macrobiotic diet while eggs fry. (Alan Styles' babbling also foreshadows the interview loops used so famously on Dark Side.)


By all accounts, the title was a last-minute touch. Desperate for an album title, the band looked at newspapers until someone saw a headline about a woman with a pacemaker--one of those old radioactive jobs--giving birth. An atom-heart mother. The album had a title, and "The Amazing Pudding" became "The Atom Heart Mother Suite."


The "Suite" is followed by three fairly strong songs, individual contributions by the band's primary songwriters. Roger Waters's "If" foreshadows Waters's Barrett-inspired obsession with madness (I'm not sure I can think of another song that links abandonment issues with electroshock treatments so mournfully). Wright's "Summer '68" (a cynical song about sleeping around), on the other hand, musically links back to the days when the band tried to make it with singles, and tracks like "It Would Be So Nice" and "Paintbox." And then there's Gilmour's pastoral "Fat Old Sun," beautiful and yearning.


The album's closer, "Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast," is... well. Remember: "frustratingly brilliant and stunningly overblown at turns." This is an instrumental set to the sounds of breakfast being prepared while roadie Alan Styles talks about what he wants to eat, and where.


Sometimes it's not enough to merely be clever.


The cover bears mentioning because it actually was clever. There's no title, no identification, just this picture of a somewhat bored-looking cow looking over her shoulder at the camera. The label hated it, of course. Album covers are supposed to have band photos or maybe naked women on the front, though in 1970 you could get away with some kind of bizarre "psychedelic" picture--an armadillo-tank-creature-thing, maybe. Storm Thorgerson was apparently asked if he was trying to destroy EMI when he showed it off to the execs. But it works. Sometimes it is enough to be clever. Nick Mason identified the cow as Lulubelle III of Potter's Bar; he may be pulling our collective leg.


This album was possibly my first foray into Pink Floyd's early days. I would have been in junior high: I had Dark Side Of The Moon and was familiar with my parents' copy of The Wall and I think I'd made off with a copy of Animals that my dad had taped off the radio--this was back when radio stations would still play an entire album, uncut and unbroken, often announcing beforehand when they were going to do it so people could tape the show politely listen in on machines completely unattached in any way, shape or form to recording devices of any kind. (Yeah, you know how the recording industry acts like computers have radically altered the way music is distributed, making it possible for millions of people to hear a track distributed from a single source and surreptitiously copy it for their own illicit use... yeah....) Anyway, I had those records and maybe even The Final Cut, and I got a record I already owned for a birthday or Christmas, so my mom took me to the record store and my choice of Floyd was limited: Atom Heart Mother on cassette tape, with a tiny grainy picture of a cow in a little square on the front. I liked the songs and not the instrumentals as much, but I never fast forwarded through them, and not just because I didn't want to damage the tape. "Atom Heart Mother" can be weirdly compelling, mind-blowing, even.


The 1994 remaster, the version included in the Oh By The Way box, sounds damn fine. It may be because I've never given this album the time it deserves on a decent system: I own the old Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs 24k gold remaster, and I may need to try comparing the two releases sometime. I suspect that the '94 reissue sounds better--it sounds like they digitally cleaned up some of the murkiness of the original recording. (Mason notes that there was bleedthrough from the backing track when they recorded the orchestral sections of the title track--a permanent artifact on the original master that's always given "Atom Heart" a certain sludginess that somehow sticks to the rest of the record even when its no longer an issue. The first part--the bleed--is an undeniable fact; the second--the feeling it leaves--is purely subjective, of course.) This raises an issue, doesn't it? What's more important, the way an album was meant to be heard or the way it actually sounded when it was released? There's good arguments either way, I suppose. Discuss, if I haven't lost you eighteen million paragraphs ago.


(Okay, as I write this, I'm impressed. "Fat Old Sun" is up, and I think there's a layer of effects under the song I'd never picked up on before. A church buried beneath the line "Distant bells, new-mown grass smells so sweet" and then playful children's laughter under the next line, "By the river holding hands...." If I'm not hearing things, if that's really there, someone's done a fabulous job cleaning up this record. I've been listening to this album for nearly thirty years and I'm hearing new things. Wow.)



Side One
  • Atom Heart Mother (Mason, Gilmour, Waters, Wright & Geesin)
a) Father's Shout
b) Breast Milky
c) Mother Fore
d) Funky Dung
e) Mind Your Throats Please
f) Remergence

Side Two
  • If (Waters)
  • Summer '68 (Wright)
  • Fat Old Sun (Gilmour)
  • Alan's Psychedelic Breakfast (Waters, Mason, Gilmour & Wright)
a) Rise And Shine
b) Sunny Side Up
c) Morning Glory

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Well, damn

>> Monday, March 24, 2008

For several months now, I've had this silly little project or game I was playing. See, on a big hard drive, I have all my digital music. It isn't really all my music--there are quite a few CD tracks that haven't been ripped to MP3, and I have some vinyl and cassette; on the other hand, there are quite a few ROIOs/concert bootlegs that have no physical existence. Anyway, it's 14,797 items, or 46 days, 58 minutes and three seconds worth of material (according to Winamp--all these tracks are accessed through a Windows machine for no real reason other than it's what I have plugged in).


Anyway, the game was to play every track. See, between some of the concert bootlegs and a slew of tracks ripped from the CDs I got when I used to subscribe to CMJ New Music Monthly years ago, one of the perverse things about my MP3/FLAC/SHN collection was that I hadn't actually listened to all of it.


Until tonight, that is.


Well, damn.


Months of digging through the "never played" tab for albums I'd never played in Winamp, months of shuffled playlists from the "never played" list, Saturdays of eight-hour marathons, evenings of four and five hour sessions, and now....


No new worlds to conquer.


Eh, fuck weeping. I'm listening to Indie Pop Rocks on SomaFM. I need to catch some new stuff to go buy.





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The test

1) How many guitar shots does it take to kill a Play-Doh dinosaur?


2) In the original version of "Astronomy Domine," as performed by Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett (and later David Gilmour) sang:

Blinding signs flap
Flicker, flicker, flicker blam,
Pow (pow)
Stairway scare Dan Dare, who's there?

In the Voivod version, lead singer Denis "Snake" Bélanger sings,
Stairway scared and ______ rules there...

Who rules there?


3) Where does Shonen Knife's Naoko Yamano want to go first?


4) When you kill an alien cone-monster, what edible substance does the body immediately decompose into?


5) Is it possible for an enormous ball of hydrogen/helium plasma held together by its own mass and undergoing spontaneous nuclear fusion to experience extreme fear? Explain.


6) The Pink Floyd version of "Astronomy Domine" references the Uranian moons Oberon, Miranda and Titania (named after characters in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest). Do you think "Snake" Bélanger actually knows the words to the song?


7) Shonen Knife thinks a blue-eyed kitty cat wants to travel with them. Considering that most cats hate car travel, and Siamese cats are especially noted for their moodiness, does this seem like a plausible interpretation of the cat's vocalizations? Explain.


8) Compute the necessary minimum fuel for a trip itinerary that travels (in this order) to Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. Show your work. (Assume that Mercury will be at perigee when your spaceship arrives.)


9) Just how cool is it that, screwed-up lyrics aside, the version of "Astronomy Domine" by a Canadian speed-metal band in the '80s is, like, totally faithful to the original version by a bunch of Cambridge architecture students almost twenty years earlier? (I think it's, like, totally cool. You can just write that in and it'll count.)


10) (Essay portion) "Riding On The Rocket" postulates that there may be entire planets in the universe that are made out of candy and are home to some kind of alien asparagus-people. Briefly highlight and explain some of the problems facing potential human colonists on these distant, sugary worlds.





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Oh yeah, it's Easter, right?

>> Sunday, March 23, 2008

It's a beautiful spring day today. I suppose it must be Easter, which strikes me as a little funny: it's not something I thought of at all until I gave it some thought, if you know what I mean. "Say, you didn't have to work Friday because it was Good Friday... so... that must mean that today, the Sunday after Good Friday is... Easter...."


This is the kind of thing that happens when you're as secular a dude as I am.


The first version of the sentence you're reading right now went, "The problem with being an atheist is that we have lousy holidays," which I thought was sort of clever. But then I started listing the few holidays we have and I realized that there was Independence Day and Labor Day and Veteran's Day--and that Thanksgiving, despite the name, is basically a secular holiday. So that left me with Christmas and Good Friday/Easter as being the big religious holidays on the calendar, and let's face facts, shall we: you could quietly take away every manger scene in America (let's pretend we waved a magic wand and simply vanished them), and who would notice? No, seriously: I know you're thinking Bill O'Reilly would make a huge stink, and of course he would if you actually told him you were taking away the crèches--that's why I stipulated the magic wand, you know. He'd raise a fuss if you raised a fuss; if you filed a First Amendment lawsuit or wrote a letter to the editor or painted a sign and marched up and down on a sidewalk, he'd be all over that like Elvis on a peanut-butter-and-nanner sandwich. No, I'm saying if the crèches were simply vanished like Salvadoran dissidents, you'd have a few puzzled devout Christians, and everyone else would get along with their shopping. Honestly, at this point if you got rid of the Christmas season and the Christmas holiday, it would probably be a boon to the Christians--they could get back to their masses and vigils and whatnot. Be hell on Hasbro and Hallmark, of course.


So this is it, the big religious holiday on the American calendar, or maybe second biggest after Super Bowl Sunday, and I could have droned right through it if I hadn't remembered that I got a three-day weekend thanks to it. So I guess I'm grateful, after a fashion. It's been a good weekend even though I never got around to doing my taxes like I planned and didn't really get out with friends as much as I might have expected. (No, they're not religious either; matter of fact, they were probably drinking and getting laid. I think that was the major agenda they had planned.)


For me, it's a Sunday much like any other. I'll see if I can get some writing done, enjoy my coffee, look out the big window as Smelly Cat and enjoy the clear blue sky and people enjoying the sun. And whatever y'all like doing on a Sunday, or an Easter Sunday, I hope you're having a good time doing it. Happy Easter or something.





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Because I can't think of anything else to write about right now, we're going to have astronomy class...

>> Saturday, March 22, 2008

[whole class: awwww--]


...with Shonen Knife and Voivod!


[whole class: yaaaaaay! pencils and papers are thrown up in the air]




I hope you were paying attention, kids. There may be a test.





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Friday night movie

>> Friday, March 21, 2008

I think maybe this we'll make Friday Night Movie a semi-regular feature akin Neverwednesday Night. Normally, that would be because I might be sociable. Tonight, it doesn't look like I'm doing anything much, actually--but we'll make it movie night anyway.


Tonight's feature, something else I stumbled across while looking at something entirely different: She She She She's A Bombshell, by Ben Levin. Dedicated to all the back-seat guys of the world.






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Finally, a government policy I can agree with


FCC Okays Nudity On TV If It�s Alyson Hannigan


I'll go a step farther. The FCC should consider fining any network that declines (for any obviously-trumped-up and self-evidently insufficient reason) to show the lovely and amazing Ms. Hannigan appearing nude (in a tastefully done fashion, of course).

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In which I contribute to an internet meme which should just be allowed to die, already

So, yeah, me and some friends are riding around in the car last weekend, dropping someone off, and someone suggests that what the internet really needs is Alien + LOLCats, and we all think that's really funny and we come up with a few, but now I can't really remember what they all were and I'm kinda lazy today, a day off from work. But I googled "LOLiens" and "LOL Aliens" and for some reason it seems nobody's done this. At least nobody worth appearing in the first thirty-or-so hits on Google. So I came up with about three and then I got bored. But here you are.


LOLiens.


My contribution to internet stupidity.

You can thank me later.




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Something isn't right...

>> Thursday, March 20, 2008

FOX News is reporting that an Australian man built a robot to kill himself. The story alleges that the man went online, downloaded instructions to build a machine that would shoot him by remote control, assembled it, and... well, had it shoot him.


I'm not buying it. Not because it's FOX News. No, it's just that there's something... off about the suicide note the man left:



I'm not sure what it is, but something's not right. It's just a gut feeling I have....





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Other than that, it was a nice drive home

On the way home from work tonight, I got behind a 1974 VW Beetle during part of my drive--the car's year was printed on the license plate.


On its official antique car license plate.


I was born in 1972.


That means I am officially two years older than an antique.


Fuck you, 1974 VW Beetle. Fuck. You.





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Quote of the day (Or: "A Hallmark Passion")

Despite the awesome theological implications (Christians believe that the infant lying in the manger is the son of God), the Christmas story is easily reduced to pablum. How pleasant it is in mid-December to open a Christmas card with a pretty picture of Mary and Joseph gazing beatifically at their son, with the shepherds and the angels beaming in delight. The Christmas story, with its friendly resonances of marriage, family, babies, animals, angels, and—thanks to the wise men—gifts, is eminently marketable to popular culture. It's a Thomas Kinkade painting come to life.

On the other hand, a card bearing the image of a near-naked man being stripped, beaten, tortured, and nailed through his hands and feet onto a wooden crucifix is a markedly less pleasant piece of mail.

Especially, I imagine, if you open the card and it reads, "Thinking Of You!"

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Neverwednesday Nights

>> Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Because, even owning it on DVD, I never get tired of seeing this:



Good night, everyone!






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A more perfect union...

Wow.

I didn't watch the video, I simply read the transcript. And maybe I'm just tired, but I felt my eyes moisten towards the end. Seriously. I'm too old and too burned to be affected by a politician's speechifying--but that was a great one, that was the kind of speech you imagine a politician--no, a president--giving when you're in third grade, before you come to understand that there are politicians, not statesmen; speeches, not oration.

No whiffing in that speech, no whitewashing, no evasion. No sanctimony. Even Obama's references to religion are to those universal principles that an atheist could agree with: to treat others as you would be treated, that you're responsible for your neighbor and he's responsible for you. Honest appraisals of what is good, bad and ugly in American history, not the American mythos we've wrapped ourselves in that takes all the potential of this great country as a given, and therefore robs it in the cradle before it can walk.

This wasn't the speech of an American candidate, it was the speech of an American leader.

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Goodnight, Sir Arthur

>> Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sir Arthur C. Clarke has passed away. He was 90 years old.


Sir Arthur will be commemorated as the author of 2001 and the conceptual inventor of the geostationary communications satellite. He, himself, wanted to be remembered as a writer, and of course he will be. But my hope is that Sir Arthur will be remembered more than anything as a man of Reason. He was a man who loved ideas and whose deepest faith seemed to be in the capacity of the human mind to eventually achieve anything and everything it might be put to--be it space travel or world peace. He was a skeptic and a dreamer in the best senses of both words: a man who was willing to evaluate any notion set before him in an open-minded way but not one who ever seemed to leave his critical faculties behind. Anything is possible, but every claim requires evidence before it becomes one of the bricks in your edifice. It might even be said that the only thing in which he retained an almost blind faith was that aforementioned-faith in the mind and it's potential to triumph over the worst human impulses. I can think of nothing better to believe in than that.


A video Sir Arthur made for his 90th:



"I have a great faith in optimism as a guiding principle, if only because it offers us the opportunity of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy." I believe Sir Arthur took it as a given that Reason leads to understanding, and understanding to wisdom. I want to believe that, too.


Rest in peace, Sir Arthur.


ADDENDUM: I just saw Wired's obituary, which is nice and worth a look. They closed with a wonderful quote from Sir Arthur, and if I'd seen the Wired piece before writing my own, I would have closed my original post with it:

When asked by Wired in 1993 if he had put any thought into what he would want on his epitaph, Clarke said he had.

"Oh, yes," he said. "I've often quoted it: 'He never grew up; but he never stopped growing.'"




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Layers and layers and layers

>> Monday, March 17, 2008

I stumbled onto this video of the inventor of multitrack recording (he also invented some kind of musical instrument) and his partner (and wife) showing off on CBS, and had to share it. It's pretty freaking awesome.






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The paranoid view

The other night I finally saw The Parallax View in it's entirety. This is the 1974 Alan Pakula film in which a journalist, played by an especially-shaggy looking Warren Beatty, comes across a mysterious corporation that apparently exists to murder congressmen. I'd seen bits and pieces of the movie before, and it's the kind of movie that comes up when you talk about the spate of assassinations in the '60s. I wouldn't exactly call myself a JFK assassination buff—in some ways, my interest in the JFK assassination almost ties back to my interests in science fiction, fantasy and horror (some of the crazier conspiracy buffs will propose theories, seriously and as non-fiction, that Philip Dick or Roger Zelazny would have been embarrassed to set to paper as part of a quickie SF pulp). So anyway, I decided to rent the movie and I watched it last night when I got back from my Sunday at the coffee shop and dinner after.


Parts of the movie are effective, but overall, The Parallax View is a really, really dumb movie. And that's sort of interesting, and the reason that I'm writing this, because Parallax is dumb in a kind of smart, or at least revealing way.


One of the faults of contemporary American movies is that there's this perception that audiences are dumb and you have to explain everything to them. A remake of Parallax—and it's only a matter of time, if there's not already one in pre-production—would surely have some lengthy expository scene where a villainous employee of the nefarious Parallax Corporation would explain to Will Smith (it would have to be Will Smith, of course) who founded the company, and why, and what they'd been up to, and who the shareholders were, and how many politicians were involved, and what the company cafeteria serves on Wednesdays. If the original Parallax had done that back in the '70s, the movie would of course have been awful in an entirely different way. There was an era, actually, when at least a few movies assumed that the audience would be smart enough and imaginative enough to fill in the blanks for themselves.


What's funny about Parallax, though, is that it isn't actually one of those movies. And that's the interesting part.


See, The Parallax View doesn't leave things vague and unexplained because it credits the audience's intelligence. It leaves things vague and unexplained because it credits the audience's paranoia. What's the connection between the badly-lit, vaguely-judicial-seeming inquiry panel that appears at the beginning and end of the film to solemnly pronounce "the gunman acted alone" and the Parallax Corporation? Well, duh, they're in on the fix, just like the Warren Commission was. What's the connection between Parallax and a law-enforcement officer who betrays Beatty at one point? The local pigs are in on it, man, don't you know? Like in Dallas. How does the Parallax Corporation seem to be so omniscient and able to get at witnesses and investigators? Get with the program!


The Parallax View doesn't explain anything because the filmmakers just go on and assume that any early-'70s adult audience, people who witnessed RFK and MLK in '68 and JFK in '63, will simply pencil in "goddamn military-industrial complex" into the script anytime it begins tumbling over into absurdity… which begins happening about ten minutes into the film and never really stops. This is the kind of movie where a character has vaguely incriminating documents in an unlocked case in his unlocked desk not because he has any conceivable reason for having them, but because the script requires Warren Beatty to find them lest the movie hit a brick wall (that's also the reason the same character allows Mr. Beatty to kill him with a fishing pole despite the fact that he has a gun… no, wait—not that he actually has a reason to shoot Beatty, it's just something else the script requires lest it become a half-hour movie that ends with Warren Beatty scratching his head and shrugging at the camera).


In short, The Parallax View doesn't make any sense unless you already subscribe to its premise that there's a massive conspiracy afoot to control American politics by killing everyone. And that's the interesting part, more for what it reveals about the Watergate-era American psyche than for the thing itself.





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Hooray, me!

>> Sunday, March 16, 2008

One of my open projects, a short story I started a couple of weeks ago is finished--at least the first draft is. Actually, it needs a good bit of work. I had a cheesy little side-thing in there that can be cut right out, and there will be a good bit of polish it needs.


I'm putting this comment up because I'm feeling good about the story right now. Because I haven't read it, see. I've only written it. When I read it, I will discover how bad it is. And I will be sad, and angry at myself for ever thinking the story was anything other than an abortion.


Also, by publicly mentioning it, I'm hopefully creating an obligation. Alright, this theory has failed so far with regard to my last NaNoWriMo story. But hey, you know, it's worth a shot.


Right?





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Going to try to do some writing

Right, it's Sunday at the coffee shop, and for various reasons it's been a little while since I had a good writing day, so that's what we're going for here. So there won't really be a blog entry as such.


We're also going to blame that on the thing that crawled out of the crater in my living room. I was happy, at first, that it didn't kill me or the cat: usually things that crawl out of such craters are hostile and/or hungry aliens. Blobs, xenomorphs, nasty things that are like human heads with spider legs. A bad scene, a really bad scene. So, yeah, I was happy at first. Then I found out the creature was an objectivist who came to Earth to support Ron Paul. Right now it's back at the condo, sitting on the futon in the upstairs room watching Spider-Man 2 and bitching that Peter Parker is an anti-life enabler. I asked it why it was watching the fucking movie, then, and it said the fight scene on top of the elevated train was totally awesome and they don't make summer popcorn movies like that on his homeworld of Craptonia or Shitopia or whatever he said it was called. Then he asked me if I could get him some more premium tequila and I had to explain the liquor stores are all closed on Sunday and anyway I wasn't going to just go out and buy fifty-dollar bottles of booze just so he could stick the entire unopened bottle in one of his puckered sphincters. Then he said I was anti-life and should just go live in the Soviet Union, and I left. I really wish he'd just injected me with his parasitic brood and gotten it over with. I'll bet he'll still be there when I get back. Stupid fucking alien libertarian douchebag.


Alright, time to write. Creatively. Have a nice Sunday.




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Crap, I haven't written a blog entry for today yet

>> Saturday, March 15, 2008

It's ten o'clock p.m., and I haven't written an entry. And my rule is that I'm supposed to write an entry every day. I could throw up a YouTube entry, but it seems I've been doing that a lot lately. I tried to write a diary-ish entry about what I did today, but I was even boring myself with it.


Which is especially bad since it was a fairly good day and mostly interesting--I hung out with friends and tried to assist with the scoring of a twenty-minute horror short a friend is making. We watched a rough cut and noodled around with instruments. But nothing especially good came of today's work, and so it's not really worth writing about, I'm afraid. We had a great dinner at a barbecue place another friend had recommended. I listened to a really good Shonen Knife album in the car. Now I'm listening to a decent Floyd bootleg, Absolut Floyd, from the January 30, 1977 show in West Germany and having a glass of wine. And that's about it. I couldn't go for a good walk today because it's been raining terribly hard all day.


Tomorrow I really need to get some writing work done. And that's about all there is to say. So now I've said it.


Insert a clever ending here. I can't think of one, so you'll have to do it yourself.





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Friday night movie

>> Friday, March 14, 2008

I don't really feel up to writing a real blog entry tonight, so we'll watch a movie, instead.


At one point, when I was thinking I'd do a movie today, I considered embedding the derivative-but-fun Prey Alone from a few years ago. But then I checked out one of my open tabs that I was going to come back to, and I found this, Call Of Tutu. I can't recall for the life of me how I stumbled onto this. There's about a dozen blogs, sites, and random places that could have pointed me to this; whoever it was, thank you. This short is easily one of the best Lovecraftian films I've ever seen, and it doesn't have a drop of blood, a splotch of ichor, a single dark shadow or hint of gorpy mess. No, it's only a humble man, talking about something important to him.


Something very important.



For those of you not in on the subtext, you might want to take the time to read this. Reading it by computer is less than ideal--far better would be to sit down on an evening when the wind is whistling at the windows, trying to get in your house, with a snifter of cognac and maybe a fire going if you have one. But the computer version is free, and right in front of you right now, and right here. "The Call Of Cthulhu" is one of HPL's finest. Lovecraft was a seriously flawed writer, but "Call" is one of the stories that shows of his strengths: pacing, structure, verisimilitude.


Anyway, enjoy.





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Quote of the day

Something Awful's Zack Parsons posted a piece today profiling two of the worst people in the news lately, Eliot Spitzer and Geraldine Ferraro. I wish I had written this response to Ms. Ferraro's now-infamous comments:


"If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept."


Ferraro's comment outraged Obama's surrogates, supporters, and 105% of all black people who viewed it as belittling Obama and assuming all of his success was due to his race, a "lucky" coincidence. It's not really all that upsetting when viewed objectively, not because it makes some sort of sense, but because it is so completely nonsensical it defies categorization. When you start by framing your argument around alternate reality scenarios where Barack Obama is a white woman you're not really on sound footing.


If Obama was a Martian, and it was 1955, the arrival of his space capsule in the Nevada desert would plunge the world into atomic war. And if he was a Venusian dinosaur rider with huge tits wearing a leopard skin bikini and roaming the sun-baked savannahs of a re-imagined Europa he would not be here, as a black man, running for President.


Nice work, Mr. Parsons. Well played sir. Very well played indeed.





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Something of an important announcement

>> Thursday, March 13, 2008

I've made a very important decision today, which I thought I would share with all of you. I am going to pull up stakes, leave this job behind, and go to California. Hollywood, as a matter of fact. And there, I'm going to direct big-budget summer blockbusters, you know, Michael Bay-style stuff. I'll be starting with something that costs at least 40-million dollars, minimum.

The reason I'm going to do this is that I'm exceptionally well-qualified. Steven Spielberg and I are the two most-qualified people in the world, as a matter of fact. You see, in the summer of 1996, I was an office production assistant on a low-budget Stephen King movie that was made in Wilmington, NC called The Night Flier. This was a movie based on a short story about a vampire who flies around in a Cessna munching on people at small airfields. I believe that I am better positioned based on my experience to go toe-to-toe with Steven Spielberg during critical Memorial Day opening weekends that can make or break Hollywood blockbusters.

You know, it's interesting that I have to write this blog entry, but I don't mind. Some nitpickers might suggest that my duties as a production assistant were largely confined to answering the phone, running out to Office Depot for copier paper, and picking up lunch. What they would fail to recognize is that when I went to Wilmington, there was no movie. That's verifiable and easily confirmed. When I arrived, the entire production office was closed and nobody could get in or out, and filming hadn't even started. And when I left Wilmington, main production was complete. No, I wasn't at "the center of the floor," but I was part of a team, the team that made The Night Flier happen. There are nitpickers out there, but no matter how you pick at the nits, the substantive fact remains that I worked on a movie and the movie was finished. I understand a few people even saw it. I wasn't on the set every day, but the role I played was instrumental.

I would also take a moment to point out (because I don't have anyone to point it out for me at the moment) that the thing we're not talking about, the elephant in the room, is that Peter Jackson would not be where he is today if he wasn't from New Zealand. I'm not saying anything that we don't all know is true. Peter Jackson fans may try to discriminate against me because I'm an American. Let's not forget that Americans have had it extremely hard in this world. As to whether or not I believe Mr. Jackson is a Scientologist, why would I believe that? There's nothing to base that on. As far as I know.

Thank you for your continued support, and I look forward to making spectacular popcorn flicks for you to enjoy in a cool, darkened theater on a hot July afternoon. Or even on DVD, if you'd rather wait to rent them.

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I guess it's not like he can run away or anything...

>> Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The accused mafioso weighs well over four hundred pounds, and apparently he gives new meaning to the old, defiant phrase, "They haven't built the cell that can hold me!" No, I guess they ran out of concrete.

Guards said they had to help Ferranti dress and use the bathroom. I assume they had to help him find his prick every morning when he needed to take a leak, which has to be the most humiliating job ever assigned to a turnkey. Turnover must have been considerable. Not that you can really blame Ferranti: you know it's not like he can see what he's doing.

A succession of '50s-pulp fiction paperback covers and bad B-movie posters keeps flashing through my brain. No prison could hold him! Too fat for jail, too young to die! He lived fat and furiously and only one man stood in his way! They served Justice--he asked for a double-helping! The list could go on, one lurid image after another. The fat gangster in a doorway (okay, just behind it, I know he wouldn't fit--but his framed silhouette, you know) with a woman in a slip and stockings sprawled on a bed in the foreground; an orange-and-white up close of the chubby mafioso pointing a globby sausage-like finger near his face while the gumshoe supports a frail in a (small) background corner... you get the idea.

It may be a minor obsession not merely because I'm overweight myself (but not four hundred pounds--Jeebus!), but also because my struggling novel project is a (hopefully pulpy) bit about an overweight vampire. I don't want to talk about that much, because it's really too good an idea to talk about. But it may be that in some corner of my heart I feel like there should be more fat people represented in pulp fiction. Not because we deserve it--we really should lose a few--but because we're funny-looking. (And jolly.)

Right. That didn't go anywhere I expected it to.

Hm. It also seems I actually wrote a blog entry. We won't go into the wheres and hows--let's just note that it's a light day with my place of employment all-but-closed and that I'm hoping the evil overlords of my employer's network have better things to do today. Anyway, I guess this means there won't be any need for a Neverwednesday Nights entry today. We have blog. Steve Holt!

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Slate, conventional wisdom, and E. Gary Gygax

>> Tuesday, March 11, 2008

(In case you can't tell from the title: yes, this is another gamer entry. No, I don't expect to do any more for a while. Yes, I'm sorry if you don't care, but I hope you'll come back when I write something interesting.)




Why do I read Slate? I have to wonder sometimes.


Alright, it's sometimes informative. And Dahlia Lithwick is one babalicious legal correspondent. But is that really, really sufficient? I've gone spells where I kicked Slate for months, only to find myself back on their site for a fix, a needy junkie in search of current events and snark. But it's not a particularly good news and commentary site, despite Lithwick and a few other decent columnists.


Slate's vice is that Slate likes being contrary for the sake of contrariness. Slate wants to be the coolest kid in school, disagreeing with all the "conventional wisdom" and showing off just how awesome it is. It's a sign of insecurity, is the thing.


Or one of the things, I might say. The other problem Slate runs into is that sometimes it's merely disagreeable for the sake of being contrary. Today's exhibit: Slate takes on Gary Gygax, passed away last week (and previously the subject of a somewhat more respectful obituary on the same site) and ripe to be taken down a few pegs:

...Gary Gygax wasn't a visionary to all of us. The real geeks out there—my homies—know the awkward truth: When you cut through the nostalgia, Dungeons & Dragons isn't a good role-playing game; in fact, it's one of the worst on the market. Sadly, Gygax's creation defines our strange corner of the entertainment world and drowns out all the more innovative and sophisticated games that have made D&D obsolete for decades. (As a game designer, Gygax is far outclassed by contemporaries such as Steve Jackson and Greg Stafford.) It's the reason that tabletop gaming is not only stuck in the pop culture gutter but considered pathetic even by the standards of mouth-breathing Star Trek conventioneers. And with the entire industry continuing to collapse in the face of online gaming, this might be the last chance to see Gygax for what he was—an unrepentant hack, more Michael Bay than Ingmar Bergman.
Setting aside the fact that real geeks know no such thing--I'm not sure where the author gets his bit about who considers tabletop gaming "pathetic"--the real problem with the article is that Slate categorizes it under the rubric "the conventional wisdom debunked." Which might be nifty except that the article doesn't debunk the conventional wisdom at all: the conventional wisdom is that Advanced Dungeons And Dragons was a kludgy, awkward system. All the article does is disrespect someone who hadn't done much of anything to deserve it, at least not recently.


Gamers have been ragging on D&D since the beginning. Almost every gaming group in existence came up with assorted house rules to make up for real or imagined deficiencies in the published rules. Other deficiencies became running in-jokes for more than a decade: the high-level fighter who could plummet from any height and brush himself off after he hit the ground; the low-level assassin who couldn't kill a high-level victim even if the victim was trussed, unconscious, and already ill. We laughed and often we moved on: during the '80s gaming boom, there were RPGs for every era and every genre, RPGs for people who wanted the illusion of ultra-realism and games for people who wanted no dice and lots of roundtable acting. And when Wizards Of The Coast bought out TSR and announced a major revision of the rules, eventually introducing a third edition (and a subsequent "3.5"), there were plenty of folks who had to agree it was A Very Good Thing, and that the 3.x rules solved many of the problems that plagued the earlier editions.


What everyone knows about the old editions of D&D, even if they don't realize they know it, is that Dungeons And Dragons isn't a rules system so much as it's a rules set. That is, Gygax and Arneson didn't exactly sit down and come up with a coherent game from top to bottom. Instead, they took a miniatures wargame that Gygax had put together, allowed the miniatures to become individual characters who developed over time, moved the "battlefield" into underground caves, added various house rules to accommodate new situations as these games continued over time, and gradually phased out the significance of the miniatures that the game had originally been built around. Combat was based around high rolls on 20-sided dice because that was how combat worked in Chainmail, D&D's direct predecessor; attempts to resist poisons and dodge traps were based on low rolls on 20-sided dice because that was what someone (probably Arneson) used when the wargame became a game about exploring ruins where such perils were more common. There was another, entirely separate system for opening locks and sneaking around based on percentages (instead of d20s). The rules system for magic could have been based on "attacking" with spells (in fact many later games would use the same system for skills, combat and magic), but Gygax apparently didn't think of it and had a fondness for the novels of Jack Vance.


The Slate piece focuses on experience points, the system Gygax and Arneson created to allow players to develop their characters over time. In a lot of ways, experience points are a lousy way to measure progress. A lot of ways, but not all: they have the virtue of being simple, intuitive and obvious, which is why experience points have been embraced in so many other games, including computer games. But many gamers also know that the main conceit of the traditional experience system--murder for fun and profit--was roundly mocked by game design guru Greg Costikyan years ago in a parody game called Violence. It's all too easy for experience points to become too simple and to reward crude, mechanical, and often violent play instead of clever play.


We know. So what?


I don't think I'm likely to say why it's sad that Gygax passed better than I said it here. So I won't repeat myself. I'll merely close by saying this: it's one thing to challenge the conventional wisdom when it needs to be challenged. It's another thing entirely to be petty, vindictive and mean for the sake of showing off. 'Nuff said?


Postscript: Monte Cook attended Gygax's funeral, and wrote a very nice piece about it here.


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For the gamers...

>> Monday, March 10, 2008

Those of you who are fellow RPGers might enjoy this piece about the nature of role-playing games. The rest of you probably won't be interested.


I think it's fair to say that roleplaying is about making suboptimal choices, and that a good RPG should reward those. And I think it's also fair to say that a number of current-generation RPGs provide strong disincentives against that style of gaming. It's very easy to fall into the trap of optimizing your character instead of making a character interesting, especially when an interesting character may not be capable of handling standard encounters. A character who is strongly invested in languages, for instance, is unlikely to be rewarded in most d20-based games; yes, he's fluent in five languages, but can he cast a spell or bash somebody in the head?


It's a tough problem. In any case, the article is a good read if you're into that sort of thing. If not, 's'okay. Move along. Nothing to see here.





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Flash! Oh-ohhhh! King of the impossible!

New Apple AirBook + TSA = missed flight.


Because apparently the very sight of a laptop without a hard drive sends baggage screeners into a dazed tizzy.





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Busy

Kinda busy. Watch this:






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Lost time is a sign of alien abduction

>> Sunday, March 09, 2008

Oh bloody hell. I get up this morning, chipper and everything, ready to do some long overdue housecleaning because my mom is going to be in town tomorrow. You tend to let things go when you're a bachelor, I'm afraid. Anyway, I get up, and somebody has stolen an hour from me. I think it's the government. Damn government.


Alright, I know all the practical explanations and the possibly impractical ones. I've seen or heard the headlines saying that recent studies show Daylight Savings Time may not actually save any energy at all. I didn't read the stories, so don't go and take the previous statement as any kind of mongering--I don't really know if Daylight Savings accomplishes anything or not and it's really not something I spend a whole lot of time thinking about. It's not like I'm running around madly researching this so I can become a self-anointed expert on the intricacies of American fuel consumption as it relates to daylight hours. Sorry if I sound like an ignorant douche, but there it is.


What does get me, every single year, is the way Daylight Savings sneaks into my home every year, robs me, and I don't even know it until I get a note on my computer. Yes folks, that's the only way Eric would ever know that Daylight Savings time has run in or out of the house, when he gets up in the morning and discovers that his computer has changed time. Or, in today's case, when his cell phone tells him, which counts (it's basically a PDA with phone capabilities, so, you know, it's another computer in the household).


There was one year, back when I was an undergraduate, that I woke up one Monday morning with a paper due in two hours and I was only half-finished. Plenty of time for a smart slacker like me to go down the hill to the computer lab on campus and finish the thing. I go down the hill (this was at Appalachian State University, in Boone, NC; everything is up or down a hill), go to the lab which is already surprisingly full, find a computer, taptaptap out the rest of the paper with plenty of time to spare and look up at the clock to see how much time I have for doing my references, proofing, revision, printing, and getting to class.


(You know where this is going, right?)


As I was saying, I look up at the clock to see how much time I have to spare--


Five minutes.


Bear in mind, please, that this was in the early '90s when the fastest printer out there was still a dot matrix machine that sounded like it was slicing holes in spacetime and produced greyed-out, pixelated text on pages that you had to assemble yourself by tearing on the dotted lines. There were laser printers out there, as I recall, behemoths that took eons to create pages. I can't remember what the computer lab had, not that it matters. I was boned.


Not that that matters. I turned the paper in late, and I don't remember what grade I got, and it was some fourteen-or-so years ago (I graduated from AppState in '94), and the college police still haven't caught up with me to inform me that I never really graduated and therefore my entire subsequent academic and professional career is being formally revoked until I come back and take the exam I missed or turn in a paper for one of the philosophy and religion classes I took. (It was years after graduating from law school that I finally stopped having that nightmare, which I suspect is a fairly common one in the category of "being unprepared for a major presentation" and "appearing naked in a high school classroom.")


Anyway, the point being--time does this to me every year, dammit. And I'm not sure the extra hour of sleep I'll get next fall makes up for it. And now I have to clean the condo, so please excuse me and have a nice day.





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