Strange Brouhaha

Sunday, July 31, 2005

This one doesn't!

From a TV Guide cover story featuring Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit:

TV Guide: Fans want to see Benson and Stabler hook up. Are you pushing for that as well?

Hargitay: They want us together bad. He's such the father figure and I'm such the mother figure, so all the kids want mommy and daddy to get together. It's so sweet. But we don't want to turn the show into a soap opera.

Meloni: That'll be the day that the shark tank has been jumped. You can't have it.

I cannot imagine anything worse than seeing Benson and Stabler "hook up."

Friday, July 29, 2005

Bulwer-Lytton Contest

Okay, so go read a short CNN article about this year's Bulwer-Lytton contest, then come back and tell me why "It was a dark and stormy night" is an example of bad writing, because I don't get it. I assume that the objection is to the idea of a "dark...night," but anyone who's ever camped during a full moon can probably tell you the difference between a dark night and a bright night.

I mean, I suppose that a person could say that if it's a stormy night, then it must also obviously be dark, but "it ain't necessarily so, Joe." Think about a heavy downpour from sporadic cloud cover during a full moon. Or, in the modern age, think of all the light pollution even a small city gives off, bouncing off the clouds and creating a night that isn't truly dark.

I will grant that it's not the strongest opening line in the entire history of fiction, but is it really that much worse than "The pyramid was separated from the lawn by a sheet of water, its reflection doubling it, adding a triangle to a triangle, with nothing between but a long, thin tongue of green"? Or "Karl Rynndal moved a black rook"? Or "I don't know what it is about summer cottages"? I'm not saying that those are bad--I pulled them from a short-story magazine I have sitting conveniently nearby--but rather that I don't think they're any better or worse than "It was a dark and stormy night".

After all, if it really was a dark and stormy night, how else are you supposed to say it? "Apollo's chariot had long since traced its trail across the sky, its glory faded beyond memory into ebon stillness, leaving behind it roiling charcoal clouds arcing lightning, thundering fury down upon the world"?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Eisner's Last Work

Will Eisner died earlier this year, leaving a void in the comics world that couldn't be filled by a dozen men. Just as he was a pioneering artist, writer, and designer, he was also a pioneering thinker in the field, his Comics and Sequential Art being one of the first--if not the first--truly scholarly studies of the medium.

I don't know if Eisner was religious or not. It's certain, though, that he felt his Jewish heritage very keenly; most of his best works deal with stories of New York tenements and Jewish immigrants, and the anti-Semitism that he must certainly have experienced himself.

I just read Eisner's final work, The Plot, which he finished shortly before he died. It's a step-by-step debunking of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the book which has been behind pretty much all anti-Semitic violence throughout the 20th Century and into this one.

Of course, The Protocols have been debunked before, but never in this form. Eisner believed in the power of comics not only to entertain, but to educate, and his simple, powerful style communicates the history behind the lies very clearly. Yes, it bogs down in pages of (very neat!) lettering at times, but the message is there, loud and clear. This is probably the most important book Eisner has done. (Shoot, it's worth looking at for Umberto Eco's introduction, too.) Besides, as long as hate groups continue to propagate the lies--and they do--it's vital the we stand up for the truth.


Man, if I had a job, I'd be staring at a new Mac mini on my desk at home. Apple just released the new models, and the $599 unit really hits the sweet spot; if I had a digital video camera, I guess I'd want the $699 box for the DVD-R. Not that I need a new computer, would be so COOL.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Your Word For The Day

scroop: n., the crisp rustle of silk or a similar fabric.

I ran across this one today doing a crossword puzzle. Needless to say, even with SCROO_ filled in, I had no idea how to complete it. (The clue was "Squeak's onomatopoeic cousin," which is pretty much no help.) I had to get the crossing word to get SCROOP, and even then all I could say was "Huh?"

Bonus word from the same crossword: "How Virginia entered the Union." I had T__TH__ (that's T-blank-blank-T-H-blank-blank) and kept thinking "Well, it's the tenth state, but that doesn't take care of the last two letters." It turned out to be TENTHLY, which is highly suspect. I'm no cruciverbalist (Lord knows I've tried) but TENTHLY is kind of stretching it.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Giving back, in a small way

Over the years, I've read quite a few books provided online by the folks at Project Gutenberg, who scan and post public-domain texts. It turns out that it's a tremendous amount of work to get this done because, among other things, they need to proofread scans after they've gone through OCR and been converted to plain text.

When I found out that proofreading is now done under the auspices of Distributed Proofreaders, I figured I'd check it out. I encourage you to do so as well. If you like the idea of being able to read books at no charge, then spending 10 or 15 minutes a day proofreading a couple pages should be easily justifiable. It's fun, too. (Of course, I say that as a complete dork who thinks proofreading really is fun.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

R.I.P. James Doohan

Notice how, because I am classy, I didn't say "Scotty Beamed Up" or anything like that. James Doohan died this morning at age 85.

Don't go to Wikipedia!

That is, unless you want to be completely sucked in and lose gobs of time because it's fascinating. Wikipedia, of course, is the Internet's free encyclopedia, available for reading and editing by anyone with a computer.

Yes, editing. See something wrong? Change it!

Anyway, I needed to do some general research on 1955. There's a bunch of stuff in there, famous dates, births, deaths, and so on. Separate pages list music and film and literature and such. There's also a list of world leaders. As I was reading about 1955, I figured I'd look up world leaders. So I decided I'd click on Eisenhower's bio page. From there, the Korean War. From the Korean War to MASH and from there to a discussion on Chuck Cunningham Syndrome in television.

All because I wanted to look up some stuff on 1955. An hour ago. Ack!

I consider Wikipedia to be probably the best example of the promise of the Internet and hyperlinked information. Go there now...if you don't have a deadline.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Water Powered Clock

I don't get it.

I mean, I think it's neat and all that ThinkGeek is selling a Water Powered Clock. Fill it up with any liquid and it keeps time. But then they say batteries aren't included, which leads me to ask: if the water-to-power converter is battery-powered, why not just use the batteries to run the clock?

Or am I missing something?

NYT On Sovereignty For Hawaii (again)

The Sunday Times had another good article on Native Hawaiian sovereignty. (You know the registration deal with the Times by now.) It's a great look at some of the issues behind the Akaka bill.

Circus Ponies Notebook

If you own a Macintosh and you need to take notes of any kind, or organize your thoughts in any way, or keep outlines, you need Circus Ponies Notebook. Go out right now and get it.

I've been using Notebook for just a couple of weeks now, and it's totally changed the way I think and write. Instead of remembering stuff, or creating random text files of notes, I now have an organized place to collect ideas. I've been musing that it would have been great to have this software back when I was in school; in fact, I have no idea how I got through life without it.

It's called Notebook because it uses a notebook metaphor for organization, but it's so much more useful than a regular notebook. The indexing feature alone is great: each notebook has 13 indexes that group things like capitalized words, numbers, and internet addresses, as well as pretty much every word you use that's not an article or a pronoun. Want to find that sentence where you used the word "ambergris"? Hit the index and click on ambergris. It shows you a bit of the context; click on the little button next to that context, and you turn to the correct notebook page, with "ambergris" conveniently highlighted.

Here's how I've been using Notebook. I have a notebook for plays, each play with its own divider tab and sections on notes and outlines and character sketches. I have a notebook for writing, each story or book with its own tab. I have a notebook for reviews (more on that later this week). And I have a notebook that I'm using to take notes on books I read as I try to expand my job skills and improve my ability to talk about Software Quality. As one of the blurbs on the Circus Ponies website says, Notebook is always open on my desktop.

You can clip web pages into notebooks by starting a clipping service, although this is slightly less useful in practice than it sounds. The feature doesn't seem to work in Firefox, and with Safari you need to select text to clip, rather than clipping the whole page. Still, I've used it a bunch.

The outline feature is incredibly useful. Yes, if all you're going to do is outline, you can probably use the outline feature in Office or, but you lose the super-powerful indexing and organizing features that Notebook has. Notebook organizes notebooks with dividers and contents pages, which makes most pages no more than a click or two away from wherever you are. Try that with Word!

I've probably only barely scratched the surface of what a person can do with this tool. It's great. You can try it free for thirty days, but it's so immediately useful that after the first week you, like me, will be wondering how you ever got along without it.

Monday, July 18, 2005

I'm speechless. Here's why.

(I know, I've used that before. It's a Lewis Black line, from "The Daily Show." It's just so perfect that a person wants to overuse it. I'm really trying not to.)

From CNN: Congressman: Mecca a possible retaliation target

Sunday, July 17, 2005

"Gentlemen, Let's Improve Our Minds!"

...or whatever it was that Jack Nicholson grinningly said in "Batman" before he and his goons broke into the museum.

Lani and I went to her church today, and since I, um, kind of wasn't looking forward to the speaker this morning (nothing personal), I stayed down in the basement while she played with the other kids. I sat right down next to the bookshelf--now *that's* church, if you ask me.

Bookshelves are potluck suppers for the mind. Where else can you pick out "The Tao of Pooh," a 1948 edition of Plato, and "Succulent Wild Woman" by Sark? I highly recommend the 1948 Plato because of its introduction by editor Scott Buchanan. He makes this effortless analogy between the human mind and "Don Quixote"--we have an inner Don and an inner Sancho Panza, an inner dreamer/genius/madman and an inner pedant/list-maker/dullard, and our intellectual fate depends on which one gets the upper hand. (Many readers of Plato, you see, gave in to their inner Sancho and ended up "riding a donkey"--becoming "Platonists" rather than *students of Plato*.)

That's a lot of thinking packed into a very short, tight analogy. It made my morning. I wish I read things like that more often.

Included in the Plato was "Phaedo," an account given by the somewhat lesser-known philosopher of the execution of Socrates. Socrates was allowed to have friends at his execution, which was a model of humanity compared to today's barbaric spectacles--but then on the other hand, Socrates would not *be* executed today (in most parts of the world anyhow), so I guess it evens out. Anyhow, Socrates was allowed to have friends at his execution, but he sent his wife away, because she was actually in touch with what was happening. She said "This is the last time you [meaning he and his friends] will be together!" and began to weep. Can't have that! Socrates dismissed her at once so he would not be discomfited by her grief. He and his friends had a last symposium, then he drank the poison--and the men could no longer deny what was happening, and began to cry out in grief themselves. Socrates upbraided them, saying that this was exactly why he had sent "the woman" away, and could they please suck it up so he could die in peace? Phaedo reports that they instantly became "ashamed" of their tears (their anguished understanding of what was really happening) and returned to acting like nothing was going on. Socrates uttered his famous "I owe a cock to Asclepius" line and died.

I thought about that for a long time. Courage is, in a sense, so cowardly; and yet in another sense, it really is brave. None of them (least of all Socrates) had the balls to fully accept that Socrates was being forced to drink poison and that they would all be separated forever. They were embarrassed by the "display" of the woman who did accept this, and despaired accordingly. They couldn't admit how bad things truly were, or how deep their own grief was. And yet--when you think about it, why should they? Why give the guards, the bad guys (and there were bad guys), and the universe, that kind of satisfaction? Why die in despair? Why not just pretend that you were going along as normal and then got hit by a bus?

"The Tao of Pooh," "The Te of Piglet," and "Succulent Wild Woman" rounded out my morning. I looked on, and people really don't like "The Te of Piglet," finding it preachy, negative, and deeply ironic, since author Benjamin Hoff vents his spleen on--you guessed it--people who are negative. Every single Amazon reviewer pointed out that, even as Hoff criticizes the gloomy Eeyore, he *is* an Eeyore--someone who sees the gray cloud under every silver lining. He goes around predicting ecological collapse and telling us that our computers will give us cancer. Ordinarily, he would be my kind of guy! Lord knows I like to get on here and scream that the sky is falling ("China is buying our utilities! The rich are getting richer! The poor are getting poorer! The continent of Africa is poorer now than it was twenty years ago! MAIDS FROM SRI LANKA GET BEAT UP IN SAUDI ARABIA!!!").

But after reading Hoff, I've resolved to turn over a new leaf. Screw the Sri Lankan maids (not really). If I ever have something non-negative to say (and lord knows I have no idea what that will be), I'll say it here. Other than that, I'll leave it to Rob. Although I do reserve the right to rant about George W. Bush and anyone who has ever been associated with him in any capacity--any time, any place, and for any reason.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

"Half-Blood Prince" Speculation

I'll make it in white text so that if you're of a mind to read the book, you can come back here after you're done and see if you agree.

My speculation is that Snape is not in fact evil. Over and over again, for five books, we have heard that Dumbledore trusts Snape completely, and the reason offered to us in this book is flimsy stuff indeed. I think it is not the real reason. I think we will find out the real reason.

I also think that we will find that Dumbledore planned for the possibility of his own death, possibly even his own death at the hands of Snape. We know that Dumbledore knew that Draco lacked the sack to actually kill him. We can assume that, if Snape was still informing for Dumbledore, Dumbledore knew about the plot and that Snape had taken the Unbreakable Vow to help Draco. That might account for the urgency with which Dumbledore takes Harry under his wing at the beginning of the book, as well as the private lessons.

Dumbledore has never failed to think five steps ahead of anyone else, and there's really no reason to believe that he suddenly stopped doing so between books 5 and 6. In fact, it may be that the whole thing was a ruse to turn the entire Malfoy family, but I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for confirmation on that one.

If you want to reply, email me.

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

I would like to start out by saying that this book is so different in tone and style from the others that either J.K. Rowling has been working very hard, or she had some help. Or she's finally finding her real voice as an author.

Two examples.

First, Dumbledore doesn't "sound" like he did in the first five books. His presence is greatly increased here as compared to the other books, and he is no longer the slightly-dotty-yet-impenetrably-wise counselor/teacher/father figure. He is much more serious, almost as if Rowling was intentionally writing the book to translate directly to the screen, and was keeping in mind what's-his-name who replaced Richard Harris.

Second, the increasingly pastiche-y pacing of the first five books is almost completely gone. The book utterly lacks the feeling that the others have, of being summaries of larger stories. This book is a tale unto itself, fairly complete from beginning to end, and it doesn't leave the reader with a sense of having missed something.

There's not a whole lot a person can say without giving away plot points. Suffice it to say that a whole lot of fan speculation appears to be wrong (but wait for the next book) and a whole lot of other fan speculation appears to be right. And there is something that a lot of the more vocal fans have been waiting for that is given and then taken away. Rowling also deals with the problem of what to do after book seven. I can't decide if her solution is a cheat or if it's nicely done, which probably means it's a little of both.

In short: The stakes are much, much higher in the sixth "Harry Potter" adventure, and while the denouement is quite shocking--younger readers beware--J.K. Rowling delivers a much more solid tale than she did in the two previous installments. Recommended reading for fans, of course, but newcomers should have no problem starting here.

After Action Report: The Harry Potter Midnight Sale

When I broke down a few months ago and submitted to the herd instinct by placing a pre-order for "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" at my local Barnes & Noble, I had no intention of going to the midnight festivities. We definitely did nothing of the sort for the fifth book, and for the fourth book, we were traveling on the day it was released.

So I was kind of surprised, at the beginning of this week, to find myself checking out the plans for the midnight festivities. I was even more surprised to find myself deciding to go.

As a process, it was very interesting. Barnes and Noble based the sales structure on numbered wristbands: people who had preordered the book got yellow wristbands, everyone else wore orange. The number on your wristband, I think, had nothing to do with when you preordered the book, but rather with when you showed up to pick up your wristband. It slipped my mind to pick up the wristband early in the day, and by the time I remembered to go in, I was wristband number 479.

The first 500 people got to wait in line in the store. Everyone else was outside. Summer in Wisconsin tends to be horribly muggy. I was glad to be 479.

All of the signs around the store sternly warned that if you were not in your assigned section of the store at 10:45, you would not be guaranteed a book, wristband or no. (This stricture turned out to be kind of informal.) They gathered us in groups of about 50, and at 11:00 started moving people out from the individual sections of the store to The Line Itself.

Here's where it gets interesting, and where I turned out to be glad to be in the "unlucky" last hundred. The group before mine was led to the back of the store, where the CD/DVD section is. My group followed them. Lo and behold, one of the nice ladies working the store said "Folks, you are in line to buy the book up here, not down at the main registers. Don't go anywhere." That's right: instead of being in a line with nearly 500 people in front of me, I was in a line with about 75 people in front of me.

After waiting in line there for half an hour, it surprisingly only took about 15 minutes for them to push all the people in front of me through the three registers they had set up. And as soon as I hit "Publish Post" on this post, I'm going to start reading.

So enough about the process. Let's talk about the environment.

Our Barnes and Noble is a very large, very wide-open store. I'm used to it now, more or less, but when we first started going there, it was a little overwhelming and nervous-making. Tonight, it was jammed full of people: people standing, people sitting, people walking, people talking to each other and to their cell phones, all sorts of people everywhere. There had to have been close to a thousand people, if not more.

People make me nervous.

As you can imagine, with all those people in one place, the temperature was high. It was better than being outside, but there was a noticeable temperature differential between certain areas of the store. Walking into the computer section, where the Sorting Hat was, was like hitting a solid wall of body heat. It was interesting to see which parts of the store did not have people camped out in the aisles: History, Military History, Sociology, and Biography. Everywhere else was slammed; I got a little antsy in the science fiction section when I suddenly found myself sealed in by people sitting at either end of the aisle, but I made it out in one pice.

I mostly wandered around the store looking at people and books. People, as I said, make me nervous, but they're also endlessly fascinating. There were a lot of people dressed in costumes, and I don't know what was more impressive: the number of people in schoolgirl outfits or the number of grown-ups in naughty schoolgirl outfits. My two favorites, though, were the kid who was dressed as Dobby the House-Elf (complete with pillowcase, and it looked like an actual pillowcase), and the Latina witch straight out of the barrio (impressive, considering that I'm pretty sure Madison doesn't have one) with--I swear I am not making this up--a broom that said "Low Rider" on it. Honorable mention to the guy dressed as a Quidditch player.

You could pretty much divide the crowd into two types of people: teenage girls and creepy middle-aged men. It made me glad that I'm a teenage girl. Actually, I'm oversimplifying. There was pretty much every kind of person that you could ever imagine. I think it's great that a book can bring all of these people together in one spot, even if just for an hour or two.

Enough rambling. It's one a.m. and I have some reading to do. (Heck yes. I didn't wait in the stuffy heat just to come home and go to sleep.)

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Superheroes are hard

An article over at CNN asks the musical question, "Who's the next great film superhero?"

It doesn't really touch too much on the big problem with making superhero movies. It's a well-known problem: superheroes are hard. Not because you can't write good superhero stories; good superhero stories are a dime a dozen. (Okay, not literally, but in a lot of ways the writing part is the easy part.) And not because you can't do the special effects. Or get actors. All of those problems are surmountable, although so often they are not. But none of those things are inherent problems of the superhero genre, but rather problems inherent in the moviemaking process itself. No, superheroes have one huge, gigantic problem.

The costumes.

Taking Batman all-black was the only way to make that costume look reasonable. And somehow, unfathomably, Christopher Reeve was able to sell the Superman longjohns. Superhero outfits, by and large, have bright, primary colors. They dealt with it in the recent Spider-Man movies by dialing down the color palette a lot; they dealt with it in the X-Men movies by simply not dealing with it, other than by making a joke. The article does mention the upcoming Wonder Woman movie, and female superhero costumes are even more of a problem than the male ones. You know, for obvious reasons.

Look at all the other superhero movies of the last little bit. They're all black-leather heroes, and black leather can only go so far. Not to mention that black-leather heroes are minor ones, like Blade. Or Black Panther.

The costume designers for the Fantastic Four movie did a good job with the FF costumes. (I hear, though, that they didn't actually take care of the actual moviemaking problems, like making it any good.) You know what makes me nervous? Thor and Captain America.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Call your Senators

The spirit of aloha, of gentle welcome, is the direct legacy of native culture and an incalculable gift the Hawaiian people have made to everyone who has ever traveled there - wobbly-legged sailors and missionaries, dogged immigrants and sun-scorched tourists. The Akaka bill, with its first steps at long-deferred Hawaiian self-determination, seems like an obvious thing to give in return, an overdue measure of simple gratitude.

From an op-ed piece by Lawrence Downes in the free-registration-required New York Times.

More Trials And Travails

For the past couple of months, in addition to my ongoing back woes, my left biceps has been giving me varying amounts of difficulty. Lifting my arm over my head, for example, has become and exercise in futility. The pain comes and goes (never disappearing completely), but in general it hurts and has limited mobility.

I finally broke down and went to the doctor. Having to use my right arm to lift the left, barely being able to pick up Lani, not being able to lean on my left elbow--these things annoy and distract. (That's not to mention the constant pain.)

The doctors kept trying to get me to say that my shoulder hurt, but it doesn't. I don't think I've lost any motion in the shoulder as such; the only difficulty I have is in pretty much anything to do with the left biceps. They ruled out muscle degeneration and a broken arm (wouldn't I know if I had a broken arm? Guess not). So they sent me off to physical therapy.

Turns out, according to the physical therapist, that even though my shoulder doesn't hurt, he's pretty sure that it's a shoulder problem. It certainly hurt when he pressed on my left shoulder, when contrasted with the utter lack of pain compared with the right. I guess I just didn't notice it, because on its own, the left shoulder really doesn't feel painful. Anyway, his theory is that my shoulder is a little swollen because I overstressed it somehow (no idea how; I haven't lifted weights in months) and that the swelling is constricting nerves leading to my biceps.

It was actually pretty cool. The PT was a nice guy, and he was very nice to Lani, who had to come along with me. He worked my arm through a bunch of motions to figure out exactly what was going on, showed me models and pictures, and was just in general a friendly, knowledgeable person.

It's a meme! (Part Three)

A while back, I ripped off an idea from my friend David, who informed that it wasn't a ripoff, it was a, a meme. Maybe you remember it: the next ten songs on your iTunes/iPod/WMP playlist.

I thought it would be fun to see the state of the playlist today, many many albums later.

  • Wig Wise, Charles Mingus, Thirteen Pictures

  • Condition of the Heart, Prince and the RevolutionAround the World in a Day

  • Luke and Leia, John Williams, Return of the Jedi (soundtrack)

  • Heart Like a Wheel, The Human League, The Very Best Of The Human League

  • Sequence/Song: Jesu Christes milde moder, Anonymous 4, An English Ladymass

  • Prayer For Passive Resistance, Charles Mingus, Mingus at Antibes

  • Discontinued, Death Angel, Act III

  • Puisque bele dame m'eime/span>, Anonymous 4, Love's Illusion

  • The Trash Compactor, John Williams, Star Wars (soundtrack)

  • Bambi, Prince, Prince

Notice that as with last time, "random" doesn't seem quite random. Two Mingus numbers, two Prince tunes, two Anonymous 4 pieces, and two selections from John Williams-penned soundtracks? What are the chances? I've got hundreds of albums on this thing.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A Humbling Experience

I submitted my first unemployment claim today. It feels very strongly like failure.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Yes. Yes he is.

Courtesy of Matt K. :

Tony Blair SOFT on Terrorism!

How DARE he imply that we need to understand the root causes of terrorism! He's just another one of those namby-pamby liberals who want to offer therapy and understanding to the evildoers! Glorious Leader Bush, it is time to remove this regime!

Friday, July 08, 2005

Go, Michelle!

Yes, yes, too young, blah blah blah blah blah. I agree already. Having said that, the latest leaderboard for the John Deere Classic shows Michelle Wie at -3 for the day, -4 overall, and is projecting the cut for the weekend at -3. If she holds steady, she will be the first female to make the weekend cut at a male PGA event since Babe Didrikson. Or Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Or whatever. Sixty years ago.

She. Is. Fifteen.

And if she finishes as the highest non-exempt player in the field, she qualifies for the British Open regardless of whether she makes the cut.

I'll cheer for her the same way I cheer for Tiger Woods: shake 'em up. Shake 'em out of their comfort zone. Go! Go! Go!

Update: She tanked two holes, double-bogey followed by a bogey, to put away her chances at making the cut (she went par-par on the last two holes to finish at one under). Too bad. Still, she'll be back. And she beat a lot of guys. Remember, she's fifteen: the mistakes she made were reasonable ones for any amateur to make--and she's learning.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

R.I.P. Evan Hunter

Evan Hunter, Ed McBain, the single best writer of mysteries--yes, better than Hammett and Chandler--died yesterday. (That's an NYT link. Free registration etc. etc.)

When I first started seriously reading mysteries, his were the books that really got the ball rolling for me. His mastery of the form was obvious, his style extremely elevated and literary for all that he was writing about grisly crimes and tough people. If you read the obit I linked, you'll see that he was rightly proud of his ability.

It is entirely too bad that there has never been a really good 87th Precinct film or TV show, but there really doesn't need to be. In the end, we have his words, and the words are what matter.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Gardening, anyone?

I have some questions about gardening that can't be answered by looking in books. If you or someone you know is into flower gardening (especially competitive or showcase gardening), please email me. Especially if you've ever had a flower garden ruined by human intervention.

Monday, July 04, 2005

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

This is partly a tale of how I am a sucker (at times) for advertising.

If the TV is on in our house, and Kulani is home, it is a good bet that the channel is turned to The Disney Channel, Toon Disney, Nickelodeon, or Cartoon Network. (Occasionally, we will indulge in the Food Network as well.) It is very rare that there are things on the other channels that we'll be able to watch as a family, since the local PBS Kids station doesn't come in too well on the cable system and Charter really doesn't give a damn.

On these channels, there have been advertisements for a movie called "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." These advertisements are not incessant--at least I don't think they are; I am inducing ADHD in our daughter by rapidly switching channels during commercial breaks--but they are there. My thinking about them is usually along the lines of "Huh. Interesting title. SWITCH."

I try to encounter the ADHD blitz with trips to the bookstore. It used to be that Lani and I would pick out five or six books to sit and read in the store, just as a way to get out of the house for a while. Now that she can read pretty well, she picks out her own books and I try to grab one or two along the way that look interesting.

We were in the bookstore on Sunday. She was picking out her books, and I was looking around. The way our Barnes & Noble is laid out, the kids' section is pretty much all by its lonesome on a mezzanine in the corner of the store, near the used and remaindered section, so I was looking at the YA books, and lo and behold, there's an endcap display for these Pants books. Turns out there's three of them.

"What the heck," I thought, and grabbed the first one to read while Lani read her own selections.

By the time Lani was ready to go, I had read the first hundred or so pages and gotten totally sucked in. I bought the book.

No lie, it's pretty good. Ann Brashares crafted a pretty tight piece of fiction. Absolutely nothing unexpected happens, but the writing is so engaging that you pretty much don't care. Some of the stories are weaker than others--Savannah and I both found Tibby's arc to be the strongest, and Bridget's to be the weakest--but overall, Brashares keeps you wanting to see how she resolves each point. Yes, even though you KNOW how she's going to resolve them (although I was surprised once). I'm not sorry I dropped the nine bucks on it. In fact, I recommend that you look at it in a bookstore, or borrow it from the library. If you know a tween or young teenager, this would make a good gift.

(As a digression: for all that the book is well-written, I get the feeling that the movie is completely awful. The magic, really, is in the words, not in what happens to the girls. What happens to the girls is the stuff of a thousand bad movies. Really, it ought to be a crime to make a movie out of a book. Or at least some books. Although I'm curious to see how this one goes; I'll catch it on video.)

This afternoon, we went back to the bookstore. "What the heck," I thought, and grabbed the second book to read while Lani read her own selections. In the two hours we were in the bookstore, I managed to get most of the way through "The Second Summer of the Sisterhood." The writing is still good, although this time out it seemed a little forced. But there's a problem.

As I was reading the book, a little voice popped up in the back of the head: "Sara Paretsky," it said, "Sara Paretsky." Sara Paretsky is the author of the V.I. Warshawski mystery novels, and I had just read an essay by her on creating characters, and the different stories you need to construct for series versus non-series characters. The salient quote is this: "No one...can write effectively about people whose major life issues have already found some kind of resolution."

The first "Sisterhood" book pretty well resolves all of the issues it contains. The girls all learn something about themselves. Nothing is left hanging. In fact, for all that the book is well-written, I felt no curiosity about what could happen next: everything that needed to be said, had been said. When that happens, there's only one thing you can do, and that's to say it all again.

From the interview with the author at the back of the first book, here's Brashares on which member of the Sisterhood she would meet for coffee: "I think I would choose to meet Bridget. Not because I love her the most (I do love her, but it feels wrong to play favorites) but because she is the one I worry about the most. She has enormous gifts, but she also has some pretty big deficits. Because she hasn't got a mother, I think I feel more maternal toward her." This comes through loud and clear in the second book, because Bridget's is the only story that is different in any substantial way.

Tibby relearns the lesson she learned in the first book. Carmen relearns the lesson she learned in the first book. Lena relearns the lesson she learned in the first book. Only Bridget's arc is different, only Bridget has the chance to grow, to take the inward journey that the rest of the Sisterhood has already taken, and taken again.

Ultimately, while I would honestly recommend the first book as a good primer on How A Book Works, the second one needs to stay on the shelf. It's always nice to see familiar characters, but when you find yourself thinking "What, AGAIN?" it's probably time to move on.

(P.S. I am going to sit and read the third book at some point.)

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

"Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

"Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

I admit it: bad grammar and punctuation drive me nuts. Absolutely nuts. I try desperately to punctuate everything properly, even emails. I don't always succeed, but I try.

Admittedly, bad punctuation doesn't drive me as crazy as it drives Lynne Truss. Her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a treatise--a manifesto, if you will--on the proper use of a few tiny printer's marks: the comma, the quotation mark, the benighted colon and semicoln, with some mention (but short shrift) given to hyphens, dashes, brackets, the question mark and the exclamation point. It's mostly snarky ("...don't use commas like a stupid person. I mean it."), occasionally informative (interesting tidbits on Aldus Manutius the Elder and Younger, as well as doctrinary disputes over where exactly to punctuate the previously-unpunctuated Bible), and always well-written.

In short, this book is nothing like you'd expect a book about punctuation to be. In its 200 or so pages, Truss manages to dissect awful usage, make jokes, give history lessons, and concisely explain proper usage of punctuation. She also discusses changing usage patterns, and gently explains that some of the things you learned in school--no matter when you went to school--no longer apply today. (As a random example, when I took typing, we were told in no uncertain terms that you always put TWO SPACES after a period. That is not the case today.)

Even if you know all of this stuff, it's entertaining reading. Perhaps especially if you know all of this stuff; that way, you can laugh along with the jokes, rather than wonder why Ms. Truss is so hellbent on correcting every poster for the movie "Two Weeks Notice" that she can.

I'm off to buy some correcting fluid and a thick marker. It's time to be a punctuation vigilante.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

I Both Do And Do Not Feel Bad

...for this would-be omnimedia mothering-channel executive.

I found this link in a snarky Salon TableTalk forum, and people were falling all over themselves to heap scorn on Isabel Kallman, her marriage, her life, her performance as a mom, and her new cable channel. I'm torn. She *does* come off as pretty insufferable--but the article is obviously hostile right from the start and gets more so by the end. The things they pick on to show that her son is spoiled--letting him take off his shoes in the car even though they're close to their destination, giving him a cookie, letting him put his hand in the frosting of his birthday cake--don't look like *that* big a deal to me. Of course, I am not an "alpha" type. But it seemed to me like the writer was trying to have it both ways--ridiculing Kallman's brittle perfectionism, then accusing her of...being imperfect (she let him take his SHOES off!! THREE BLOCKS from the party!!).

On the other hand, Kallman was deeply stupid not to realize that this was exactly what would happen to her. Anyone who opens up about their parenting process gets judged for it--period. Everyone's an expert when it comes to other people's kids. That's the way it is. Also her obsession with maintaining "control" and "my terms" comes off as naive, narcissistic, and sad all at once. Plus she's way out of touch. The "Martha Stewart of Parenting"? No way. Martha Stewart actually *does* the crap she peddles on TV. When she does a show about catering a wedding, and shows how you can separate the layers of the wedding cake using drinking straws, you're getting the fruits of her actual experience as a caterer. Kallman is setting herself up as the Vanguard Alpha Mom, yet she hired a literal army of people to help her take care of her young son (night nurse, nanny, babysitter, there were others). So what the hell does *she* know about it? Seriously. I mean, I'm all for presenting research and stuff, but if she hasn't baked the cake--if she hasn't gotten up time after time, night after night; if she hasn't looked at the clock and said "My God, it's only 2 PM;" if she hasn't looked at the clock and said "My GOD, it's only 2:04 PM;" if she hasn't wiped 90% of the poops herself; if she hasn't gotten deeply in tune with her child's rhythms (or lack of same--some kids never become predictable)...then I don't want to hear what she has to say. And if she was such a smart executive, she should have known that.

The scariest part of the article, actually, was how easily the writer made Kallman look stupid. And I mean stupid--empty-headed. (The writer describes Kallman interviewing a psychologist who's saying really basic things about parent-child bonding, and Kallman is going "This is key, very key!") Was it justified, or was the writer deliberately picking weaker bites? But then, "weaker bites" should not be coming from a top-ranked executive, particularly not a marketing executive. You'd think that a marketing executive would be marginally media-savvy, so there is grounds to believe that Kallman might have been doing the best she could, which is scary. The writer hated her, but Kallman gave the writer plenty of rope. You talk about raising "best of breed" children, you get what you deserve.

The part where the 2-year-old was rejected from an "important" preschool, and Kallman cried, was the saddest.

Illiterates' Entrance

I started reading "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" (the bestselling punctuation screed by Lynne Truss) this morning. I was trucking along quite nicely--so far, the book is really funny, while at the same time making its point--when I hit page 24 and almost decided to put the book down and stop reading.


I have two cartoons I treasure... The second shows a bunch of vague, stupid-looking people standing outside a building, and behind them a big sign that says "Illiterates' Entrance". And do you want to know the awful truth? In the original drawing, it said, "Illiterate's Entrance", so I changed it. Painted correction fluid over the wrong apostrophe; inserted the right one. Yes, some of us were born to be punctuation vigilantes.

Doesn't it make it funnier to have the incorrectly-punctuated version? I suppose that the whole point of the cartoon--and it sounds like "The Far Side"--is that there's even a sign for illiterates in the first place. But the fact that there's a sign and it's wrong has to be intentional, don't you think?

In the end, there's enough ambiguity in the situation that I'm not going to resign in disgust.

Friday, July 01, 2005


dig'-ni-fied, adj.: "I'm gonna nominate some wacko lunatic and you all better toe the line."

The Nation Of Brazil Continues To Kick Ass And Take Names

First, they turned down $40 million in public health money from the United States rather than be forced to lecture prostitutes who come in for condoms. Now, courageous Brazil has told Big Pharma where to get off. They are going to start manufacturing generic AIDS drugs. This is fantastic news, because most people in the global South cannot afford AIDS drugs. With generics, many more of them will be able to. Brazil is taking action to save people's lives.

If I ever have enough money to take a vacation, I am taking my tourist dollars straight to Brazil.

Go, Brooke!

Free registration is required to witness Brooke Shields fighting back against Tom Cruise's continuing criticism of her antidepressant use. It's about time! The sad thing is that Cruise's bullying put Shields on the defensive, when in fact *he* is the one who is out of line, not to mention wacko and extreme. He's jumping on couches and proposing marriage after 6 weeks of dating, and then criticizing the conduct of *Shields*? I don't think so. But even though people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, they do--because if people are busy ducking and dodging, they don't have time to see how vulnerable the thrower really is.

In other news, a Swiss parliamentarian has formed the group A Thousand Women for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the fact that significant peace and justice work is being done all over the world by women who work in anonymity and on shoestring budgets. These women tend to be ordinary community organizers. Because they lack important job titles and fame, their work goes unnoticed, but in fact it is critical, and parliamentarian Gaby Vermot-Mangold wants it to be collectively recognized. She has put forward several individual names; if any one of those women win, the whole thousand will. I hope this happens.