Friday, September 29, 2006

And now for something completely different and fun

Quotes on writing by writers.
Is this it?

Is this the day America died?

King George has been given the power to throw people in the dungeon forever.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Makes me think of...

Glass craters.

Toys on the streets of Gaza and Ramallah.

Think I'll go have a listen to Randy Newman's "Political Science" to feel better.

Update: Meh, I didn't want to have to view that picture myself any more than I had to, so I've changed it to a link.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Behold, the Turd

(Dear Shelley Jackson, if you're thinking of reading this blog entry, DON'T. You have an audience; it just isn't me.)

Ever been out doing the lawn warrior thing and pick something up wondering what it is only to discover you're holding animal excrement? Me too.

Lately, at the library, I've taken to snagging a few novels from the "new arrivals" racks every other visit, because I've found some fun, off-the-beaten-path stuff. Of course, on occasion I find myself gripping a turd, yet again.

For the record, my perusal technique has been the same since college: 1) read the jacket notes until it starts giving away the plot, then stop; 2) read the "about the author" section (the more awards listed, the more likely the book will suck), 3) read the first few paragraphs and see if it grabs; and 4) read a random page in the middle to see if it gets boring (on the premise that most authors hone the intro, but can get lazy later). This usually steers me away from the dreck.

Half Life by Shelley Jackson passed all the tests except the one I skipped, the "about the author" section. Had I read it, I certainly would have chucked the book back onto the shelf, leaving it for some other hapless soul, for it contained this as one of the author's accomplishments: "'Skin' a story published in tattoos on the skin of nearly three thousand volunteers." (More on that later.)

But since I was remiss, there I was last night, family in bed, silence ringing in the house (as it does when it first descends), a new novel in hand, full of promise. The premise seemed interesting; conjoined female twins, one of them in a coma. I crack it open and dive into the first page. Three pages later, I've read nothing but victimology-laden, and (dear God) experimental prose. Tripe, in other words. I turn to the "about the author" for clues, and there was all the proof I needed (mentioned above) that the author was a wack-job. I've since discovered they prettied her up for the author photo because her web site shows her with her body-piercings intact. (When the publisher is trying to hide something, usually there's something to hide.)

Constant readers will know that I loathe all things that smell of "Identity Politics". This book is essentially a manifesto on IP. Check this out from Jeff Turrentine's (The Washington Post) review on Amazon: "Jackson's alternative universe is much like the one we inhabit now, with a few key exceptions. In it, American remorse over the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has led to the creation of a postwar National Penitence Ground in eastern Nevada, a "Proving Ground of American Sadness" where a "despondent American government [has] commenced organized hostilities against itself" in the form of repeated bombings. ... To those who would prefer Jackson to remain on the lofty banks of the pomo literary fringe, I've got good news and bad news. ... First the bad: While waiting for the ink to dry on her 'Skin' project, she has produced a new novel, Half Life, that for most of its 400-plus pages is a shimmering, dazzling delight, filled with the kind of humor and poignancy that should endear her to thousands of new readers who wouldn't know Kathy Acker from Kathie Lee Gifford. ... But the good news for fans of her more esoteric work -- bad news for the rest of us, I'm afraid -- is that she ultimately sabotages her own novel with an ending designed, apparently, to 'lift' this novel from a mere great story to a graduate seminar on identity and its erasure."

So if my carping doesn't keep you away (or intrigue you - I'm happy either way), that should.

The thing that still sticks in my craw the most - because, after all, I didn't waste any time on the book - is the tattoo thing.

Maybe it's just me, but it strikes me as ... oh, I don't know ... arrogant to even ask people to alter their bodies to serve your artistic vision, which may be deeply flawed. To put it another way, imagine if it weren't words but music (the actual sound, not notes) that could be put into a tattoo, and you had convinced folks to put it on their bodies; they could be walking around with the equivalent of "You Light Up My Life" permanently inked into their person until they rotted in the grave. The mind boggles.

Perhaps my lack of understanding or insight into the body modification culture is really the issue here, but "Skin" just strikes me as deeply fucked up.

Friday, September 22, 2006

My Verdict on Star Wars - original 1977 version

Well, like the Coca-Cola company and Kentucky Fried Chicken should have learned but didn't: Don't fuck with the original. It was magic. Changing it has no possibility of making it better, only worse.

I'll bet George Lucas - and let me say this before I say that: bless the man for releasing the original version of the flicks - anyway, I'll bet he included the new version hoping that folks would compare them to see how much he upgraded them. And, boy howdy (as a redneck girlfriend of mine used to say), did he ever upgrade them.

But the final result was really a diminishing of the original grandeur.

The best why I can describe it is the original looked "real." Most of the principle photography was done on location and on actual completed sets, and it looks like that.

Lemme just show you.

Here's a new, upgraded scene.

Here's the old one.

Note how in the old one the sunlight and the shadows have the look of actual sunlight and shadows BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT THEY ARE! (The difference in shape is due to one being optimized for 16x9 TVs, and my software isn't clever enough to compensate - it doesn't look like that during viewing, in other words.) And the darkness of the new version is consistent throughout.

There are some scenes that are welded into every Stars Wars fan's mind, like the whole binary sunset scene here:



Now, not much difference here except for the thing I mention above; the older version looks more organic and real to me.

But, check this out...



They completely changed it! The old one is vastly superior. The mountains lend perspective. What the hell?

And in case you're wondering if only the external scenes have this more realistic feel, here's an example of an interior/set shot. I think the old one still is slightly better.



So, the new one has its charms, but the old one looks like it should.

And that's all I have to say about that.

The IRS (the favorite intimidation tool of the Bush family) is threatening a church with loss of tax exempt status for an anti-war sermon.

Just when you think those bastards in the White House have finally blown past all barriers of decency and un-American behavior, a new horror arrives.

Do you suppose he's just damning the torpedoes and is trying to own the legacy he'll have of being the worst president ever?
Free Alcohol

I have no idea why these folks named their software product "Alcohol 52%" - the German sense of humor eludes me (assuming it's based on a play on words like the title of this post, or like how the name of the band "Bare Naked Ladies" would look on a concert poster) - but this little piece of software ROCKS!

Here's what it does: it allows you to create an image of a CD or DVD on your hard drive and then mount it as a virtual drive.

Big friggin' deal, you say?

Well, y'know those games and products that won't let you run them without the CD handy or in the drive? This software makes it appear to the machine that the CD/DVD is in a physical drive, and lets you use it. And up to 6 at once!

I had about 7 of those lying around, including a set that had all the original "Mad" magazines, which I can now use easily again.

Also, now you don't have to hassle CDs/DVDs you use a lot. With hard drive sizes these days, most will hold quite a few, and all you have to do is change the virtual pointers (unmount and mount drives - much like you do with your USB flash drive).

The company changed it from cripple-ware to freeware this week, which you can download here.

And, you're welcome.
Free Classic Short Story Archive

I mentioned recently that I have a goal of reading all the original "monster" classics, finding that each has the stature it does for a good reason.

Well, I accidentally happened across a store of classic short stories, and along with "The Lottery" and "The Gift of the Magi," it has H. G. Well's original short story for "The Time Machine."

So if you're surveying the monster classics, too, here ya go.

And, of course, if your kids have to read some of these for a class, it might be nice to have an electronic copy for book reports and searching down quotes.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

This is one of the better ones I've seen

The 50 Worst Things Ever to Happen to Music

(Though I will always get heartburn over the suggestion that "white" music is somehow lacking.)

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Picture of Restraint

Not that it's all about me, but I was amused that one of my top favorite films, the original 1977 version of Star Wars, and my favorite album, the remastered version Electric Light Orchestra's A New World Record, were released this week. Two things I've literally waited years for.

I had to check if my favorite novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany, was released in some big-deal, super deluxe version, too. It wasn't. But that's ok, because I have the original hardcover and it's hard to improve on that.

Tonight I watch Star Wars for probably the 389th time - I worked in the theatres when it came out originally, so most of my viewings come from that - and I'm still looking forward to it! Sad? Maybe. Funny? You bet!

But here's what I'm really proud of: This is only the third copy of Star Wars that I've purchased. I bought the original VHS version when it came out, and then I bought the first DVD version. From what I've read on the web lately, I'm practically normal compared to other Star Wars geeks who may be moving from their fingers to their toes to count the number of copies they've bought. Here's a quick test: Do you have a laserdisc version of Star Wars? Well, besides having a valuable collector's item, you, sir, are a geek of infinite magnitude. I'm OK with that. (See, I have a VHS copy of the laserdisc that a friend made for me, I just didn't purchase it.)

Since I brought it up, and just in case you're a fan, the remastered A New World Record is worth the price. Besides sounding great, unlike so many remastered versions, the extras on this one aesthetically fit in with the rest of the CD, so you can actually just put it in and push play. So many CDs with EXTRA TRACKS! on them include poorly-recorded old demos, or jarring or inferior songs that don't fit with the older set, so you go from luxurious memories to someone twanging on a bad acoustic into their home tape recorder, which worked only once for Bruce Springsteen, folks.

As a footnote ... wait, what's the name of this blog anyway?

TLD: Whilst linking around to find out what the cover of the new Star Wars DVD looked like so I would get the right one, I happened across the fact that they've release a "remastered" version of Bladerunner, which just strikes me as a freakin' cynical ploy to get more money because they're gonna release Ridley Scott's for-honest-and-true "directors cut" in theatres next year, to be followed by an ultra-deluxe DVD set that contains the original theatrical release with the Harrison Ford voice over (my favorite - I know, heresy), the "not really" the director's cut (the version out now), and the new theatrical version all in one set. I'm saving up now.

But that's not I really wanted to talk about, so that was a forth level digression.

What I wanted to talk about was Dan O'Bannon. His most acclaimed accomplishment is being one of the two people who wrote Alien. And that would be enough, really, but I discovered he also:
- Wrote two of the episodes in the film Heavy Metal ("Soft Landing" and "B-17")
- Was co-author of the screenplay for Total Recall
- Wrote and worked on John Carpenter's first film Dark Star
- Wrote a comic book that was the visual reference for Bladerunner, "The Long Tomorrow"
- Was a computer animator on the original Star Wars

Why is this interesting to anyone other than me?

Well, he had a hand in about every seminal science fiction film and worked with all the major directors and writers of that specific golden time in movie making. I mean having a career that includes Alien, Bladerunner, and Star Wars? Holy cow on a sacred stick!

So it isn't all about me after all. It's all about Dan O'Bannon.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Just a note to all web developers out there...

Don't resize my frickin' browser window! Just. Don't. Damnit anyway!

I have a size and a shape I like, don't mess with it.

Thank you.
Amy Hempel

Recently sampled the oeuvre of Amy Hempel because Chuck Palahniuk recommended her in his collection of essays (the article linked to there is anthologized in the collection). And, when a writer I like recommends another, I have a look.

Well, I'm torn. I admire her writing, but I don't enjoy it on a visceral level. I enjoy it on the level that you enjoy a decent pun or play on words, but I didn't ever lean into the book and get that exhilaration you get when a good writer grabs you by the nose hairs. And she's a good writer; it's just that this corner of writing - minimalist (she prefers "miniaturist"), purposely obscure in meaning - has never held a lot of heat and warmth for me.

Of the 15 odd stories I read, only one really affected me, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried", which happens to be her first. Hempel often tries to "get you" in the last paragraph of her stories (which I love, btw, at least she understands there has to be payoff even from the small investment of reading a short story), and she certainly got me. I'm tempted to go off into spoilerland, but I don't want to rob her story of the punch if you intend to read it.

If you're interested, here's a short bio on her site, the wikipedia entry, and the story that Chuck Palahniuk says is her other best story, "The Harvest." (If anyone actually understands what supposedly the last paragraph is about - Palahniuk says it takes a while for it to dawn on you - I'd love to know.)

Oh, and here's a recent interview with her. I really liked this part:

[Inteviewer]: When you teach creative writing, is there one piece of advice that seems to resonate more than others, seems to work, with students?

Hempel: Not so much a piece of advice as a question to keep in mind, which is the most basic of questions: Why are you telling me this? Someone out there will be asking, and you better have a very compelling answer, or reason.

There are people who have been raised by loving parents to believe that the world awaits their every thought and sentence, and I'm not one of them. So I respond to that. Is this essential? The question might be, Is this something only you can say — or, only you can say it this way? Is this going to make anyone's life better, or make anyone's day better? And I don't mean the writer's day.

And, yes, I'm sorta recommending her collection. Don't let my limitations and prejudices stop you.
Mere Christianity

Well, I finally got around to the warhorse of C.S. Lewis' library. Not that I'd been putting it off, but I have to space out my readings of Lewis - to save them for savoring and to give myself a break because he can be tough sledding sometimes (though he wasn't in Mere Christianity - it's very accessible).

When Michael of the 2blowhards recently said, in a nutshell (and I paraphrase wildly here), "It's well written but gosh I just can't give half a damn after a while.", well that amused the hell out of me (Michael has that rare gift of being entertaining even when he's panning something), so I had the library get me a copy.

Of course, being a Christian, I dug the hell out of it.

But then, Mere Christianity really does seem to be written for we believers. So much of it only makes sense within the rubric of the Christian worldview.

I was gonna include a few passages from the book that spoke to me here, but, gosh, I just don't feel like typing it all in. And besides, you'll either read the book yourself or not read any of it at all, so why go to the effort, eh?

So, I'll just leave you with a great crack he gets off at those who use Christian symbology to mock the same - mostly because it made me laugh out loud (hope you do, too):

There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of 'Heaven' ridiculous by saying they do not want 'to spend eternity playing harps'. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them. All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. [Lewis then illustrates a few, but I'll spare you.] People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Oh, God!

The early 70's movie Oh, God! with John Denver, George Burns, and Teri Garr, came up in conversation around the household recently, so I had the library borrow us a copy. While I was at it, thought I'd read the novel, too.

The movie is dated, natch, as are most "popular entertainments" of their age. It's actually a rare occurrence for a movie to remain timeless like Philadelphia Story and Wizard of Oz have (just for instance - those aren't the only ones, of course).

What I hadn't noticed back in 1977 was that the theology - such as it is - is essentially secular Judaism with a dash of 60s-esque "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke and Teach It Harmony" non-denominational-spirituality-by-way-of-Deism liberally sprinkled on top. Or the dreaded "many paths up the mountain", if you will. (Or, to be more precise, it's Avery Corman's fictional God - the kind of God that fundamentalist atheists request you describe so they can gleefully detail how wrong you are because it is easy to yank the rug out from under a finite God.)

But if you can get past the score (which is minimal by design, thank God (har har) - and Carl Reiner points out in the commentary that not having music continually under the scene was rare at the time) and Teri Garr's outfits, and the creaky theology, it's still a congenial little bon-bon of a movie.

A pleasant surprise is how decent an actor John Denver was. I never once winced and was often quite impressed how he convincingly conveyed amazement and dismay at the developments. Of course Teri Garr and George Burns are excellent; they're actors in the first place. This was Denver's only role, and that must've been his choice because he certainly had the chops.

The book, by Avery Corman, differs from the movie in that main character, Jerry, is not a grocery store assistant manager but a free-lance journalist who's contacted by God because He liked the article Jerry wrote about the Rolling Stones. Also, the trial is not about his slandering a southern televangelist, but a hearing to get Jerry released from the psych. ward.

The biggest change, though, is after the trial. The world religious readers who had God answer their 50 questions hold an international summit to decide if it was really God who contacted Jerry or not. They decide it wasn't and hold a big party afterwards to celebrate. Jerry leaves the conference and joins God outside (disguised as a hotdog vendor) to give Him the verdict, and of course being God He already knows, and just sits there dejectedly and shrugs - a much more somber note than is ever struck in the movie.

Larry Gelbart of TV M.A.S.H fame did a great adaptation of the novel, though, and even got nominated for an Oscar. It would've been difficult to not turn the movie into something else had that set piece been included, so its exclusion was wise.

Anyone looking for a cute movie to watch with the family - assuming you're not allergic to the idea of God and don't agree with Sam Harris that those of us who aren't should be lead to the gallows before we destroy the world - this is a nice alternative to yet another animated film. My eldest daughter really dug it, and it prompted some good questions.

The book is out of print, btw.
Laurel Canyon

This purports to tell you how it was back in the day when Joni Mitchell, CSN&Y, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, the Byrds, Frank Zappa, Mama Cass, Carole King and other big deal 70s singer/songwriters all lived together in the famed canyon.

And it does.

But, for the subject matter, it just never quite takes off. Having access to the formative years of the folks who essentially owned the music business in the 70s, you'd think there'd be all sorts of great gems and stories, and yet all we really get is the old news that David Crosby was an egomaniac and Robert Plant had big boner.

Yes, we get some personal observations from some of the players, like how idyllic Graham Nash felt his brief time with Joni Mitchell was; how they both still hold that memory as a bright shining moment to the point that when Mitchell finally sold the house, she called up Graham and offered a last visit together before it was gone.

That's sweet, but I wanted more detail of Don Henley, Jackson Browne and Glen Frey sitting around dreaming up "Tequila Sunrise." What was Carole King doing in her life when she wrote Tapestry?

So, on a scale of 1 to 10 of fun/useful information, this one gets a solid 6.

Nutballs like me who can't get enough of this stuff will find this a pleasant read, but dilettantes need not bother.

Oh, one more thing. Near the end, Michael Walker repeats the trope of rap (hip hop) being the new pretender to the throne of popular music by way of being the genre that pisses parents off the most. Now, it appears to be true that there is a window in your life where the popular music of your teenage years becomes the music that you imprint on and carry with you as your life preference (da article, da book), but I think all these music critics (way past their teens and past the point of being impressionable) simply find rap as mysterious and odious as most of us do, and based on that assumption alone they promote it to "The music of a generation". I say bullshit on that. I think rap is going to remain a tiny subgenre that influences others, but will never really break out of the backwater of having a miniscule audience that actually likes the stuff, much like disco. I think the big influence being missed entirely by the critics is the quiet dominance of country rock.
Got my Torch

I'm only joining the throng of peasants heading for the windmill that Germaine Greer wandered into by saying some pretty shitty things about Steve Irwin's, aka The Crocodile Hunter's, accidental death via a freak strike by a stingray.

To dance gleefully on the grave of a man who has done so much for the conservancy of animal habitats and the education of thousands in regards to wild animals, who was a father of small children left behind, not to mention a widow, because she's happy the animals won't "have their space invaded" or be "depressed" over his handling of them, is so deeply misguided and full of hatred, you wonder if she should be taken in for evaluation to make sure she's not a danger to herself and others.

Apparently she's been forging a reputation as an utter crank for a while now. It's been pointed out during this episode that she's opined that "J.R.R. Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy [attracts] 'spaced-out hippies, environmentalists, free-market libertarians, social conservatives, pacifists, new-age theosophists, sexists and racists the world over'."

My first thought is ... who does that leave?

My second thought is if her misinterpretation of what The Lord of the Rings is really about is that vast, does she have the ability to judge anything cogently? Let's all hoist a cold one and shout, "Hell no!"

Anyway, if you've ever wondered what would it be like if that cranky, mean old person on the block who opens the door on Halloween trick-or-treaters only to tell them she has no candy and to get their snotty noses out of her face and then slam the door - if this person had somehow managed to become part of the established/respected intelligentsia and were allowed to air her moldy mind in pubic, you now have your answer.