Friday, August 31, 2007

$9 Billion Gone

" . . . in March 2004, your company magically wins a contract from the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to design and build the Baghdad Police College, a facility that's supposed to house and train at least 4,000 police recruits. But two years and $72 million later, you deliver not a functioning police academy but one of the great engineering clusterfucks of all time, a practically useless pile of rubble so badly constructed that its walls and ceilings are literally caked in shit and piss, a result of subpar plumbing in the upper floors."

Needless to say, they're not giving the money back, and the government isn't asking for them to account for it.

That Washington in general, and this administration in particular, is a hideous sink of filth and corruption is hardly a secret.

Here's a story showing us how we lost some of those $9 billion unaccounted-for dollars in Iraq. What it also shows is how the process acts to corrupt the armed services--- how servicemen, who once possessed honor and patriotism, are now becoming well-paid flunkies oozing defilement from every pore.

We also have the tale of how lower-ranking ex-servicement are turned into disposable cannon fodder.

"Thanks to low troop ­levels, all the military repair guys had been pressed into service to fight the war, so Skoug was forced to sit in the military storeroom on the base and study vehicle manuals that, as a civilian, he wasn't allowed to check out of the building. That was how America fought terrorism in Iraq: It hired civilian air-conditioning techs to fix Humvees using the instruction manual while the real Humvee repairmen, earning a third of what the helpless civilians were paid, drove around in circles outside the wire waiting to get blown up by insurgents. . .

" . . . Wolfpack washed its hands of Russell Skoug. The insurance policy he had been given turned out to be useless -- the company denied all coverage, beginning with a $72,597 bill for his stay in the German hospital. Despite assurances from Wolfpack chief Mark Atwood that he would cover all Skoug's expenses, neither he nor the insurance company would pay for the $16,000 trip in the air ambulance. Nobody paid for the operations Skoug had in Houston -- as many as three a day, every day for a month. And nobody paid for his subsequent rehab stint in another Houston hospital -- despite the fact that military law requires every company contracting with the government to fully insure all of its employees in the war zone."

And speaking of where the money goes, some of it goes from the US straight into the hands of the insurgents that are fighting us, via payoffs from contractors. But you can't blame the contractors if we're doing it ourselves: our new strategy in Iraq involves arming Sunni insurgent groups who have killed Americans.

Who knows? Maybe they'll follow the administration's example and stay bought.

We're certainly giving the Middle East an interesting exercise in democracy. "Oh," one can here the Iraquis saying, "democracy means that everybody in the government is on the pad? But we've been doing that for centuries!"

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Drugs for Uncle Sam

In my last post, I referenced drugs. Which are bad for you, right?

Unless they're good, patriotic drugs used to enhance our soldiers and disable--- sorry, "calm"--- our enemies. In which case they're terrific drugs!

Here's an article from the Herald-Tribune on the militarization of medicine.

"We could also see troops going into action with chemically-heightened aggression, as well as resistance to fear, pain and fatigue. It is not science fiction to suggest that we might see military pharmacology that can remove feelings of guilt or post-traumatic stress. The economic temptation is strong: five times more soldiers suffer mental than physical wounds in war."

This follows a cautionary article from the British Medical Association.

"The most prominent of these concerns relate to whether:
• drugs, when used as weapons, fulfil the definition of either a chemical weapon, or a biological
weapon or both
• a drug can be used as a weapon for law enforcement without violating the CWC
• promoting the notion of using drugs as weapons for law enforcement might lead to weakening
the norms and laws prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in warfare
• the prohibitionon the use of any drug as a method of warfare also applies to peace-support
missions mandated under the UN Charter
• the use of a drug as a weapon is incompatible with human rights principles such as the right to
life, the positive obligationof states to protect life or the general prohibition on cruel, degrading
or inhuman treatment
• the norms of international humanitarian law, which protect wounded combatants and those
wishing to surrender, could be undermined
• in situations where combatants are mixed with civilians, the use of drugs as weapons could
undermine the prohibition of indiscriminate attack.

I remember when I wrote about this stuff back in the Eighties, it was science fiction.

It's a brave new world coming, that's for sure. Chemically enhanced Beta-Minus soldiers charging into battle at the behest of the Alpha-Plusses in Washington.



So why is it that a couple of my favorite TV series are about drugs?

The Wire is my current candidate for best dramatic series ever. Covering the entire spectrum of people concerned with the distribution and sale of narcotics (the cops, the gangsters, the courts, and the neighborhood), The Wire is essentially about poisoned institutions. The cops are helpless against the cop system, the lawyers are screwed by the legal system, and the criminals are totally fucked by their own criminal culture.
The Wire is a writer's show. It's the creation of former Baltimore police reporter David Simon. Simon previously created Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Corner, the latter with his writing partner, the former cop Ed Burns. The episodes are full of stories that can only have come from real experience on the beat.
My only complaint is with the series' ostensible main character, the detective McNulty. He's a hard-drinking Irish cop with a history of wrecked relationships. Where have we seen this before? He's the only cliche in the whole series.
Lately, courtesy of Netflix, I've checked out the first two series of Weeds. What most attracted me about the show is that while it's ostensibly a family sitcom, in reality it's a horrific tragedy of a family being destroyed. It's as if Eugene O'Neill has taken up writing for the Family Network. The second series ended with pot-dealing housewife Nancy Botwin huddled in the kitchen of her safe house while killers from two separate gangs pointed large-caliber weapons at her.
I'm ready for the third season, Mr. DeMille.
As for why a couple of my favorite series are about drugs--- maybe it's because TV is finally allowed to tell the truth.

Duet to the Death

It's Antonioni. It's Bergman. It's Purgatory.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Some days it feels just like this.

Wide Stance

Another week, another conservative politician arrested on a morals charge. Senator Larry Craig of Idaho has pleaded guilty to "disorderly conduct" for attempting to have sex with a police officer in an airport toilet.

Naturally, Senator Craig is a politician devoted to family values. Naturally, Naturally, he voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting gay marriage, and naturally he voted against sex education in schools and allowing people with AIDS to have expanded access to Medicare.

According to the arresting officer, Senator Craig seemed quite familiar with the various signals men use when attempting to copulate within a toilet stall. Craig claims his gestures were misinterpreted, especially the "wide stance" he uses on the john.

Craig was outed last year by blogger Mike Rogers, and was supposedly under investigation over twenty years ago for molesting congressional pages. (Rogers has also outed family-values gays like Congressman Ed Schrock and Congressman David Dreier. )

This follows my absolute favorite sex scandal of the Right, in which Rep. Bob Allen claimed he was so afraid of black men that he offered to pay one for oral sex.

Understand that I don't particularly care what people get up to in private. (Though I'm not sure whether "private" includes an airport toilet stall--- can't the Senator go to a seedy motel like other people?) I don't care if the entire Senate is gay. And I'm not in love with the practice of outing public figures.

I'm not even terribly bothered by the hypocrisy. Politicians are hypocritical because the voters are hypocrites, and in order to get elected the politicians have to say what the voters want them to, even if the voters are stupid, ignorant, bigoted, and useless.

What really bothers me is the assumption of privilege. Dozens if not hundreds of people knew about Craig's orientation, including the party insiders in his own state, and this was probably the case with Schrock and Dreier and Allen as well. Yet they all thought that because they were Privileged--- because they were white and male and politically conservative and political insiders--- that they could publically condemn people just like them, and still majestically float above the fray without being touched. Craig could dump truckloads of shit on others, but because of his assumption of privilege, he thought none of the shit would ever cling to him.

Well, kids, the shit is all over him now.

We close with Craig's endorsement of Mitt Romney.

Knowing Governor Mitt Romney is knowing someone who, first and foremost, has very strong family values. That is something I grew up with and believe in.

Sounds kind of ironic now, doesn't it?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Thin Man, Thick Plot

Since I live in the middle of nowhere, it takes time for me to get from nowhere to somewhere, time that generally I spend in an automobile. Usually I'm by myself and there's no one to talk to. In order to engage my brain on the journey, I rely on audio books.

A couple weeks ago I was looking for a new audio book at the library, didn't find anything that appealed, and ended up picking up a copy of The Maltese Falcon. Over the years I'd read the book multiple times, and of course seen the John Huston version of the movie, with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, more than once.

It took hearing The Maltese Falcon read aloud, however, for me to develop a proper appreciation of the book. When a book is read aloud, all its flaws clang out like temple bells. Padded or meandering passages seem interminable. Repetition makes you grind your teeth. Awkward writing rings like a milk can bouncing down stairs, whereas bad writing simply shrieks at you.

The Maltese Falcon doesn't have a single wrong word. Every word or phrase or sentence takes you somewhere you need to go. Each character has a distinct manner of speaking that is attuned to his character and personality. Every word serves to move the plot or elucidate character. There is no wasted space, no padding, no unnecessary subplots.

Reading the Falcon made me pick up an audio book of The Thin Man, which I came to admire for similar reasons. The Thin Man's plot is more complex, and its characters come from many different walks of life: they're all distinct and well drawn, especially the hysterical socialite whose every appearance makes you clench your teeth--- and who is important to the structure, because she's the big shrieking arm-waving scene-stealing red herring whose job is to distract you from the villain, who (once you think about it) is fairly obvious.

Since I'd read the book multiple times and seen the movie ditto, I knew who the baddie was, and I came to admire Hammett's methods of distracting the reader from the character who ought to have been the chief suspect. First, the villain is the most normal and likable person in the book--- the others are criminals, detectives, or crazed rich neurotics. Even the schnauzer Asta likes the bad guy (Asta was a Yorkie only in the movies). And second, there are a lot of characters who are so annoying that you really wish they'd done it, and are hoping that Nick Charles will pin it on them. (Charles himself isn't Jack Armstrong, either--- he's a middle-aged soak who's had an affaire with a married suspect.)

Reading a book you already know well is one way of appreciating how the work is structured. If you already know where the story is going, you can concentrate on how the story is taking you there.

Which brings me, again, to The Maltese Falcon. One of the things I noticed was that the book is written in third person objective--- while you're with Sam Spade the entire time, you never know what's going on in his head except insofar as he chooses to share it with other characters. (And then, often as not, he's lying--- as are they.)

Spade is described as looking like a "genial Satan." He's sleeping with his partner Archer's wife, he's not terribly put out by Archer's death, he doesn't seem interested in vengeance or justice at all. He treats women badly. He keeps telling people that all he really cares about is the money, and you have no data to indicate otherwise. To all appearances, Spade is a heel.

If you were reading this book fresh in 1930, and hadn't seen the movie and knew nothing other than what the book told you, you wouldn't know that Sam Spade is the good guy--- not until the last scene, when he sends Brigid up the river for murdering Archer. That reversal would have come as a complete surprise, and a revelation. Hammett succeeded in hiding that particular football right up to the book's climax.

Now suppose're in a theater in 1941 to watch the Huston film adaptation. You haven't seen the earlier adaptation with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, and you haven't seen the comic adaptation with Bette Davis, and you haven't read the book. And there you are watching Humphrey Bogart play Sam Spade.

You've seen Bogart before, and you know he isn't a leading man. Up to this point, Bogart has always played the heavy. He's the gangster, the gunman, the crooked lawyer, the criminal kingpin. You have no idea that this is the breakout role that makes him a huge star.

If you're watching the film in 1941 with no prior knowledge of the story, you would have had no idea that Bogart was the good guy. In that final scene, you would have been just as poleaxed as the first readers of the book in 1930.

There's probably no way that anyone can re-create the original experience of seeing the film today. Even if you have no prior knowledge of the story, you at least know that Bogart is the star, and presumably the hero, and you'll assume that he'll sort out the villains by the end.

You'll just have to enjoy the movie for its eerily perfect casting, with Mary Astor (fresh from a divorce scandal) as the bad girl, and including Sidney Greenstreet, age 62, in his very first film role and Peter Lorre with his morphine addict's twitch. You'll appreciate Huston's economical direction--- he edited in the camera, to make certain the studio wouldn't screw up his masterpiece--- and the straight-from-the-novel dialogue.

As for me, I'm going to see if I can locate audio books of Red Harvest and The Glass Key.

Waiting for the Rain

2006 was, meteorologically speaking, the oddest year in New Mexico history. The first six months of the year were the driest on record: there was something less than an inch's worth of rain in that entire period. The second half of the year was the wettest on record--- it came down in buckets.

We rejoiced. We'd just got over a nine-year-long drought, during which the Rio Grande turned at one point into a little ditch, and the sound of rain pounding on the skylights was like a chorus of angels. Our smallish lawn, which had been slowly dying during the drought, sprang again to life.

Our rainy season--- the "monsoons"--- occur in July and August, when New Mexico gets half its yearly rain. This year we seems to have abundant rain--- except where I live. I think we've had less than ten rainstorms in the last six months. On a dozen occasions I've stepped outside and seen rain and lightning in a 360-degree circle around me--- but directly overhead was blue sky and bright sunshine.

In short, I am cursed.

I'd really like to know what's gone wrong with my little microclimate. This isn't the first year this has happened--- for the first couple years we lived here, we got no rain at all, though the rest of the state fared all right.

I am hoping that the remains of Hurricane Dean will push through and alter the situation, though I suspect they won't have the strength to get this far north.

I'm going to have my very own Dust Bowl if this goes on much longer.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Butt Pluckers

The other day Kat gifted us with a package of eighteen fresh eggs from her chickens, collectively known--- from one of their less savory behaviors--- as "the butt pluckers."

So it has been Egg Heaven around here. We have had omelettes, but for the most part I've just fried the suckers, because that's the best way to taste the freshness. I've had eggs. I've had ham and eggs. I've had eggs with breakfast chops and Hatch green chile fresh from the roasters. I've had eggs with lamb chops. I have spent the last four days worshiping the egg, and had everything but eggs with Spam--- and if you count electronic spam, I've had that, too. It's been a good time for proteins.

It's also been a good time for cuisine in general. Kathy picked up some wonderful heirloom tomatoes from the farmers' market, and I just munch on them for snacks, or slice them and serve them with fresh basil and a dash of Kalamata olive oil. Even supermarket corn is good at this time of year.

Who needs dessert? Just pass me another one of them tomatos, hon.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Last night I did a hit-and-run on Santa Fe, to see the American premiere of Tea: a Mirror of Soul, by the Chinese composer Tan Dun, who among other things scored the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

We hadn't intended to go to Tea, but the description in the program book made it too irresistible. Since Kathy had to work the next day, and since there were only two performances left, I ended up driving to Santa Fe by myself, and home afterwards.

Tan Dun grew up on a remote collective during the Cultural Revolution (his parents were intellectuals), during which time he created music on improvised instruments. He first heard Western music at the age of 20.

His score is an absolute tour-de-force, and showcase Tan's skill with unconventional instruments. As well as the musicians in the pit, three Japanese percussionists are onstage for much of the action. They start by playing water: they beat water with their hands, they drip water from cupped hands, they pour water from bowls and collanders. (Their transparent bowls of water are eerily lit from below.) Later the percussionists play paper: they crackle and snap and tear pieces of paper in synch with the score. At one point, long paper banners descend to represent a forest--- they're painted with Chinese-style black-and-white brush art representing trees--- and these banners are snapped, cracked, stroked, and beaten with drumsticks. At a couple moments the entire pit orchestra is flapping their scores back and forth in time. The percussionists also play ceramic pots, bang rocks together, and play a wooden Japanese-style xylophone.

The staging was lovely and as inventive as the score. Spectacular costumes, nice use of trapdoors and masks, and a shadow play featuring the Monkey King. What more do you want?

The plot is this: we open in Japan, where the Tea Master is drinking with his students. "Growing tea is hard/Harvesting tea is harder/Savoring tea is hardest of all." The Tea Master is haunted by the ghost of a Woman in Red. His students want to know his backstory. He obliges.

We move years back, to the T'ang Dynasty court in China, where the Emperor is watching his children, Princess Lan and the Prince, perform a play featuring the Monkey King. Enter the Japanese prince, Seikyo, who has apparently had some previous acquaintance with Princess Lan, and who asks for her hand. The Emperor, not wishing to give his daughter to a dull fellow, asks Seikyo to compose a poem on the subject of tea. Seikyo obliges. He's asked to complete a couplet (the couplet is about fifty words long). Seikyo succeeds in this task as well, and is given the princess. The Chinese Prince, who has incestuous feelings for his sister, denounces the poetry as rubbish.

Enter a messenger from the Prince of Persia, who is willing to give a thousand horses for a copy of the Book of Tea. (A real book, by the way.) Persian horses were extremely prized, and as anyone who's ever played Koei's Romance of the Three Kingdoms knows, you can buy the loyalty of a general with one. The Prince has a copy of the book, which Seikyo glances at and denounces as a forgery. He's seen the real book of tea, and met its author, Lu Yu (a real person), who lives as a hermit. He and the Prince get into a real pissing match, and make a series of deadly vows. If Seikyo can't find the real book of tea, he'll let the Prince cut off his head. If Seikyo finds the book, then the Prince will sacrifice his own head. Neither of them are considering Princess Lan's feelings in any of this, and she is understandably distressed.

So Seikyo and Lan go wandering to find Lu Yu, and turn up at his doorstep to discover that he's just died. His daughter, touched by their devotion to one another, gives Lan the book--- but at that moment the Prince turns up and steals it. Seikyo and the Prince get into a swordfight--- once again nobody's consulting the feelings of the Princess--- and while she'd trying to put a stop to the fighting, the Prince runs her through. When the Emperor turns up, the Prince offers to let Seikyo cut off his head; Seikyo refuses. We return to the Tea Master, who is Prince Seikyo, and he repeats much of his opening aria.

Which brings me to the libretto, which was in English (presumably it's difficult to find classically-trained vocalists who have mastered Chinese). The translation is literal and clanky, and forces the vocalists chop words up into component parts, or drag vowels out over several phrases. It's as if the translator didn't have access to a score. Here's an example:

"Breathe out white,/inhale black,/fire stays red,/tea still green,/mind still flames,/only the seat of the sage is a blank."

Never mind trying to figure out what it means--- apparently it has to do with a guru's bum--- but how the hell do you sing it?

And the line "Everything good is in Tang" is evidence that the translator has forgotten about the breakfast beverage of the Mercury astronauts. And of course I immediately thought about the Turkey City Lexicon entry on the Jar of Tang, which is not what the composer had in mind.

I'd like another translation, please, by someone with more experience in how English is supposed to be sung.

But in the meantine: Wow. What a show.

Only one performance left, next Thursday. Check it out.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Engage Shields!

A microwave-generated plasma shield has been granted a patent.

Applications for the "pseudo surface microwave produced plasma shielding system" supposedly include "a stealth system from RADAR and SONAR, a protection system from WMD, and a weapon system to generate and launch plasmoids as a plasma gun."

Here's a useful little article on how it's supposed to work.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Watermelon Man

Lest me just rant here for a while. About seedless watermelons, and why I hate them.

  1. They're not seedless! The seeds are puny, but they're there. So even calling them seedless is a misrepresentation. They should be "weeny-seeded watermelons."
  2. They don't taste good! They don't taste awful, but they don't have the full rich flavor of a real watermelon. Which begs a whole other rant about why people buy food that doesn't taste good, but maybe I'll develop that thought later.
  3. They don't hold up! A seedless watermelon will deteriorate in an alarming way just a few days after you buy it. And not only does it decay, it breaks down into some kind of horrible, disgusting slime. This happens even if you refrigerate it. If I want food with ichor on it, I'd eat raw goldfish, thank you very much.
  4. They've driven real watermelons out of the marketplace! I can't seem to find an old-fashioned, tastes-good, seeded watermelon anywhere. Maybe if I get lucky at the farmer's market, but nowhere else.

So here's what's happened: for the convenience of not having to spit out watermelon seeds, people have settled for a product that doesn't taste good and that breaks down into a slimy puddle right there on the refrigerator shelf.

Can someone explain why people do this? Or are they just Fucking Stupid?

Monday, August 13, 2007

Let's All Make Fun of the Deformed and Unfortunate! (An Artistic Experience)

This was our weekend for the opera. We went to Santa Fe for two nights and stayed in Gene and Holly Bostwick’s lovely casita. The three-room guest house is well-equipped with beds and drinks and tidbits installed in a small fridge, but it lacks cooling. As the interior temperatures approached 90 degrees, we reflected that, at least in the summertime, Gene and Holly will have no problem with guests outstaying their welcome.

The Santa Fe Opera has been perched on a hill above the town for over fifty years now, ever since founder John Crosby wandered through the area on horseback with a sound engineer, randomly firing a rifle in order to test acoustics. Being a creation of rich and sophisticated Easterners, historically the opera has had very little to do with the state or with Santa Fe, and instead been a kind of alien preserve of wealth and privilege. Lately they’ve been doing more outreach, possibly because Santa Fe itself has become a toy of rich people from out of state.

On the night of La Bohème we had a tailgate party in the parking lot. This is one of the joys of the Santa Fe opera: you can set down a table with white linen, and sit watching the sunset amid spectacular southwestern scenery, drinking wine and eating whatever lovely food items you brought with you. Pat Rogers even brought a spectacular silver candelabra. Our dejeuner sur le rocks was interrupted by a brief shower— a hazard of the season— but we discovered that sushi goes rather well with turmeric nan, chardonnay, and imported cheese.

Otherwise La Bohème was La Bohème. Wonderfully sung and handsomely staged, it’s still a play about a woman whose death takes two hours and sixteen minutes (I counted). I have seen it twice now, and have no need to see it again. But then I am, as we know, a Soulless Beast.

Our other opera was Rameau’s Platée, a baroque curiosity from Louis XV’s court composer. I’d never seen a baroque opera before, and didn’t know what to expect. Certainly I didn’t expect this.

There is no curtain at the Santa Fe Opera, so instead we discovered a wooden wall built across the stage. When this lumbered open, it revealed a theater facing the theater watching the theater. Across several seats lies Thespis, Inventor of Comedy, passed out from drink. Ushers appear and begin seating an audience, who watches the audience watching them. The ushers get more inventive and begin shifting the audience around, often with bizarre and unlikely body movement, which the audience is obliged to copy. Hilarity ensues.

Eventually a sort of a story gets under way, in which Thespis, Momus, Thalie (the Muse of Comedy), and Cupid agree to stage a comic play about the loves of Jupiter and the jealousy of Juno. One doesn’t come to an opera to see sopranos in bikinis, but the blonde Cupid was much appreciated anyway, and kept me from falling asleep after my heavy meal. Before I was finished feasting my eyes, the wooden wall lumbered, back into place, scenery is shifted about, and the play began.

We’re back in the theater, except that it’s been somewhat trashed, some seats are missing, and there’s green slime everywhere. We are in a swamp, the home of Platée, a homely swamp-nymph, who is sung by a tenor in drag.

Here’s the plot, such as it is: Juno is in a jealous rage, probably for good reason. Mercury comes up with the notion to have Jupiter feign love for the homely and lovelorn Platée, to whom he will offer marriage. Juno will storm in at the critical moment, get one look at Platée, and be convinced that her jealousy was baseless. “And then we just wait for the happy ending,” Mercury explains hopefully.

And that’s more or less what happens. Jupiter descends in a literal deus ex machina, convinces Platée he’s in love with her, and the rest of the play is a series of parodic celebrations of the fake nuptials. Everyone is in on the joke but Platée and her Chorus of Frogs (who were probably happy for the work, being unemployed since the time of Aristophanes).

The entire production is a celebration of the series of vicious, cruel pranks played on Platée, whose only sin is to be homely and a bit over-optimistic about her prospects for love. It must have been great fun, back in the day, for Louis XV and his court of aristocrats to make fun of an unsophisticated provincial trying to better herself, and doubtless le Vicomte Apres-moi-le-Deluge felt that the moral order had been restored when the trick was revealed and Platée was stomped back into the slime from whence she came.

This play is, ethically speaking, totally evil! It’s just like high school!

Imagine my own moral unease when I realized I was enjoying myself.

Historians and musicologists argue about whether Platée is opera bouffe, ballet comique, or ballet lyrique. In any case, there is more dancing than singing. And in this production, the dancing isn’t merely comique, but riotously funny. The Chorus of Frogs are delightful. There are not one but two travesti-ballets, the last of which features the Three Graces, hearty young men in bras and jockey shorts, who do a dance and a series of intricate allemandes, all while holding hands. (I noticed there were a lot of children in the audience, and I wonder if their parents had known they were going to be witnessing quite so much cross-dressing.)

The music for one of the ballets was quite dull, but the production partly made up for it by having much of the cast, and some of the dancers, fall asleep. Another production featured what I can only describe as the Domestic Abuse Ballet, wherein loving couples slapped, pummeled, kicked, and strangled each other throughout. The corps de ballet got quite a workout in this one.

Go for the comedy, but note that the moral tone makes one yearn for revolution by guillotine.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Atlantis Comes to Earth

Here we have a great video of the shuttle Atlantis coming in for a landing. Shot out the front window, complete with Heads-Up Display!


Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Uncle Howard Hath a Blog

Howard Waldrop--- y'know, the writer who invented steampunk and has written the best alternate-history stuff in the world, and who is known to his friends as "Mister National Treasure"--- has launched, or rather allowed someone else to launch, a new edition of "the world's most technologically primitive blog." Check it out for a world-view uniquely Waldropian.

("Waldropian" should be a real word, but isn't. Yet.)

Howard's earlier blogging efforts may be found here.

And, while you're on Amazon buying Voice of the Whirlwind, allow me to recommend Howard's first big retrospective, Things Will Never Be the Same.

Read my book first, though.

Voice of the Whirlwind

"I like this book so much there's a passage from it tattooed on my thigh." ---Peter J. Johanssen.

Gee. Did I ever get around to mentioning that Voice of the Whirlwind is back in print?

I suspect not, because I was caught up in the Taos workshop when it happened.

It's my best job of plotting ever.

Buy! Read! Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Follow the Money

Huffington Post has done an extremely useful thing: created an online database of presidential campaign contributions, which can be broken down by zip code or by name of donor.

As the site itself notes, Beverly Hills 90210 has given $1,212,014 to candidates; whereas South Central 90011 has given $4250. Which zone will be best represented in the White House, one wonders?

As for my own zip code, my neighbors have given $0.00 to Republicans and over $30,000 to Bill Richardson--- and to no other Democrat whatsoever.

New Mexicans are different from you and me.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Mexican. Thai.

Kathy visited the nearby Asian food store--- "nearby" in this case meaning a 75-mile round trip--- and returned with a whole red snapper and a whole tilapia. The snapper I stuffed with parsley and lemons, wrapped in banana leaves, and grilled.

Call it less than successful. I'm having a hard time mastering my new grill, which puts out a colossal number of BTUs, enough to incinerate any form of protein in jig time. Either my grilled dinner is turned to charcoal or it doesn't cook at all. (Works fine with the rotisserie, though.) Alas for the poor snapper, which turned out after 20 minutes' grilling to be quite raw: I turned on more burners and in another ten minutes managed to rescue what remained of the meal from a wrapping of shredded, completely incinerated banana leaves, which resembled nothing so much as burned newspaper.

The fish wasn't bad, wasn't good. A watermelon salsa helped.

I had better hopes for the tilapia, and decided to keep it off the grille until I mastered the machine's intricacies. Complicating my cookery was my reluctance to go in search of more ingredients. I decided to cook it with what was in the house.

So I rubbed the fish down with pepper and sea salt and let it set in a lime juice-and-onion marinade for a while. I chopped up a whole bunch of cilantro, intending to make that fine Mexican dish, pescado en cilantro, wherein you bake the fish with a vast pile of cilantro on top. The cilantro cooks down to nothing while imparting its flavor to the fish. Simple and elegant.

Yet I was missing an ingredient. The recipe calls for chopped jalapenos to add those necessary ASTA Pungency Units. (Isn't this techspeak, umm, interesting?)

We had no jalapenos, but I was confident I could turn up some serranos or Thai peppers or something that would work, or--- if all else failed--- a can of chopped green chile. But we had nothing. Nothing.

A New Mexican without chiles! It's like a cat without his kibble, a cowboy without his boots, a Heinlein character without a slide rule.

The only source of Scoville Units I could find were a few teaspoonsful of leftover Thai green curry paste. Well, I thought, why the hell not? Should go nice with the lime juice, anyway.

So I diluted the curry paste in some olive oil--- making this Mexican-Mediterranean-Thai fare--- then poured it over the fish, added the heap of cilantro, and chucked it all in the oven at 375. When it was cooked, it was served with rice and bowls of gazpacho that Kathy had made from vegetables purchased at the local farmers' market.

Holy Kanzeon Bosatsu in Heaven! What a terrific dish. The cilantro and the lime juice and the curry paste cooked down to an incredibly concentrated, flavorful sauce. The onions stayed crispy but soaked up enough of the sauce to be a delicious treat. And the kitchen retained a wonderful odor till the next morning.

Thai-Mexican cuisine. I don't see how it can avoid being the Next Big Thing.

Daniel's On a Roll (3)

Daniel Abraham's A Betrayal in Winter has just been released. It's really, really good. Go forth and, without passing Go, buy it straightaway.

This is Book II of the Long Price Quartet. I've already had the rather sumptuous pleasure of reading Book III, and am in the process of reading Book IV, so you know that you can get started in this world without--- as with certain other fantasy projects (blush)--- being unable to finish.

The first book, which doubtless you have already read, is A Shadow in Summer. If you have somehow missed this work, it's conveniently just been released as a mass-market paperback.

So you have no excuses at all, really.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Curse of the Golden Flower

I'm so far behind in reading and viewing that my reviews are always ages late. I finished the Harry Potter book a week or so behind everyone else, and the discussions were already over. Living in the country means it's a 75-mile trip to the theater, and that means we almost never go, so I rarely see anything that isn't available through Netflix.
I finally saw Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower, which was released last year. Zhang, a member of the "Fifth Generation" of Chinese film makers, spent the Eighties making art films like The Story of Qiu Ju and Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad, which won awards at Western film festivals but which were never released in China due to subversive political content. These stories almost always featured Zhang's then-lover Gong Li as the Beautiful Woman Who Suffers.
Recently Zhang's been alternating his small personal films (like 2005's Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles) with enormous historical epics such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and now Curse of the Golden Flower. Hero I liked a good deal, but was bored by Flying Daggers--- I wished the characters would get over their soap opera and save the country, but of course they never did. And Flying Daggers' characters seemed lost amid the spectacle--- it's as if a smaller, less ambitious film were trying to fight its way clear of the color and pageantry.
Curse of the Golden Flower is filled to the brim with color, pageantry, and epic scope--- but that's part of the point. Practically the entire film takes place inside the T'ang Dynasty's Forbidden City, in an enormous palace dominated by ritual, luxury, and pomp. The settings and costumes are an endless eternal feast for the eyes. Yet as the saying has it, "beneath jade and gold there is rot and decay," and so with the imperial family in this story.
Gong Li stars as the Beautiful Empress Who Suffers. (Surely by now they must be raising temples to her as the Goddess of Exquisite Suffering.) Trapped inside the splendor and ritual of the court, the Phoenix Empress is forced, every two hours, to knowingly drink the poisoned tea that the Emperor sends her. The Dragon Emperor, whose motives remain obscure, is splendidly played by Chow Yun-fat. Chow's native language is Cantonese and this film is in Mandarin, so I wonder how Northern audiences reacted to an emperor with a southern drawl--- supposedly they didn't think much of his Mandarin in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The Empress has three adult stepsons, the children of a mysteriously absent first wife. She's romantically involved with one of them, played quite well by Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou. They all have agendas. One prince commands an army of soldiers in golden armor. Someone else commands a force of black-clad irregulars who zoom eerily along an overhead web of ropes. There are sexual intrigues among the legion of blue-clad maids who serve the imperial family, and who wear surprisingly low-cut gowns (obviously a plot by eunuchs to drive the male members of the family insane). The Empress has grown obsessed with embroidering golden chrysanthemums. A carpet of golden chrysamthemums has been laid out in the imperial courtyard in advance of a festival. Messages are being carried back and forth by night.
Zhang works a lot with the same sort of color symbolism he used in Hero, in which the Ch'in emperor's grey-clad legions gradually extinguished all color from the country. Here we have gold-colored warriors, black-clad agents, grey-colored imperial soldiers, blue-clad maidens, and the riot of color that is the palace itself.
Of course the story's a horrible tragedy. This is Chinese historical drama, after all, and if there's anything Chinese history tells us, it's that nobody ever gets a happy ending. The Chinese aren't afraid of tragedy: it's something that affirms their own experience.
The movie's themes resonate quite well with Hero, which involves the conflict of duty with honor (not to mention survival). In Golden Flower, the Confucian ideal of loyalty to the head of the family, and to the emperor as head of the national family, conflicts with notions of elementary justice. Should you be loyal to the emperor who is poisoning you, or strike back?
However you choose--- this being China--- it's going to end badly.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Spoiling Harry

For those who have read the final Potterbook. Don't look at the comments if you don't want spoilers.