Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Feast of the Which?

On Sunday I dragged myself up from my sick bed to host a holiday party. (Kathy actually did most of the work.)

Since it was the holiday season an' all, I checked an ecclesiastical calendar to find out which of the Twelve Days of Christmas we were celebrating. Turns out it was the Feast of the Slaughter of the Innocents, the anniversary of the day that Baby Jesus, having been informed by an angel that Herod's hit men were on their way, took it on the lam without bothering to inform any of the other children in the neighborhood that the bad guys were on the march.
I'm not sure why anyone would make that the occasion for a feast, but what the hell, I'm not a Church Father.
Fortunately we can always trust our friend Patricia to turn up with an appropriate centerpiece. (The knife is Nepalese, by the way, and the handle made of human bone.)
Patricia said that she figured she wouldn't find any innocents at the party, so she had to slaughter one on the way.
So I brewed up some posole, and we had beer, mulled mead, tamales, stuffed puff pastries, smoked salmon, jalapeno poppers, and other holiday snacks. It was a smallish party, as a lot of our friends called in sick with the same crud that's been dogging me.
But that just meant the rest of us had to party harder, which we did for many hours, loud enough to wake the slaughtered innocents. (Though none turned up, other than the centerpiece.)
I managed to stay on my feet till halfway through the cleanup, at which point I collapsed.
Next day was the Feast of the Relapse, but at least I had fun while I could.

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Congratulations, Sir Terry!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Joy of the Season

Santa Claus brought me a cold for Christmas, but I have struggled wheezing and gasping to the keyboard to wish you all the best of the season.

That and successful virus evasion.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008


Two words: punk Muslims.

Five years ago, young Muslims across the United States began reading and passing along a blurry, photocopied novel called “The Taqwacores,” about imaginary punk rock Muslims in Buffalo . . .

The novel is “The Catcher in the Rye” for young Muslims, said Carl W. Ernst, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Springing from the imagination of Michael Muhammad Knight, it inspired disaffected young Muslims in the United States to form real Muslim punk bands and build their own subculture . . .

“I’m a Muslim and I’m 100-percent American,” Ms. DeWulf said, “so I can criticize my faith and my country. Rebellion? Punk? This is totally American.”

. . . Ms. Zufari said she had listened to punk music growing up in Arkansas and found “The Taqwacores” four years ago.

“Here was someone as frustrated with Islam as me,” she said, “and he expressed it using bands I love, like the Dead Kennedys. It all came together.”

The novel’s Muslim characters include Rabeya, a riot girl who plays guitar onstage wearing a burqa and leads a group of men and women in prayer. There is also Fasiq, a pot-smoking skater, and Jehangir, a drunk.

Such acts — playing Western music, women leading prayer, men and women praying together, drinking, smoking — are considered haram, or forbidden, by millions of Muslims . . .

After reading the novel, many Muslims e-mailed Mr. Muhammad Knight, asking for directions to the next Muslim punk show. Told that no such bands existed, some of them created their own, with names like Vote Hezbollah and Secret Trial Five . . .

Can I just say that I find this totally hopeful? All-American Muslim kids rockin' out and doing stuff that would get them killed back in the Old Country?

And of course the bands all have MySpace pages, with lots of free samples!

The Kominas

Secret Trial Five

Vote Hezbollah

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Reboot! Reboot!

("Reboot! Reboot!" sounds like something a cartoon frog would say, doesn't it?)

"Reboot!" is also what Thomas Friedman is recommending for the USA. (He had a lousy flight from Hong Kong, apparently. )

Landing at Kennedy Airport from Hong Kong was, as I’ve argued before, like going from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. The ugly, low-ceilinged arrival hall was cramped, and using a luggage cart cost $3. (Couldn’t we at least supply foreign visitors with a free luggage cart, like other major airports in the world?) As I looked around at this dingy room, it reminded of somewhere I had been before. Then I remembered: It was the luggage hall in the old Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport. It closed in 1998.

The next day I went to Penn Station, where the escalators down to the tracks are so narrow that they seem to have been designed before suitcases were invented. The disgusting track-side platforms apparently have not been cleaned since World War II. I took the Acela, America’s sorry excuse for a bullet train, from New York to Washington. Along the way, I tried to use my cellphone to conduct an interview and my conversation was interrupted by three dropped calls within one 15-minute span.

All I could think to myself was: If we’re so smart, why are other people living so much better than us? What has become of our infrastructure, which is so crucial to productivity? Back home, I was greeted by the news that General Motors was being bailed out — that’s the G.M. that Fortune magazine just noted “lost more than $72 billion in the past four years, and yet you can count on one hand the number of executives who have been reassigned or lost their job.”

My fellow Americans, we can’t continue in this mode of “Dumb as we wanna be.” We’ve indulged ourselves for too long with tax cuts that we can’t afford, bailouts of auto companies that have become giant wealth-destruction machines, energy prices that do not encourage investment in 21st-century renewable power systems or efficient cars, public schools with no national standards to prevent illiterates from graduating and immigration policies that have our colleges educating the world’s best scientists and engineers and then, when these foreigners graduate, instead of stapling green cards to their diplomas, we order them to go home and start companies to compete against ours . . .

und so weiter . . .

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Last month I wrote at some length about copy-edits, their uses, and their pernicious effects on the fragile psyches and self-esteem of writers.

"After the copy-edit it comes always the page proofs." (Which I actually finished a couple weeks ago, but let's pretend it was just yesterday, okay?)
Page proofs are yet another opportunity for an author to perfect his work, but in my case I was so sick of the damn book by this time that I doubt I helped it much. The words swam before my eyes in a noxious maelstraom of prose. The entire work seemed inutterably horrible. One word seemed just as wretched as another, one sentence seemed as lame as the next.
I wanted to bury the book in a hole and crawl away like a whipped dog.
Despite the trauma caused by this revelation of my own hideous authorial incompetence, I did manage to fix one major problem, caused by the fact that the book had been through so many edits. I had failed to convey some important information about one of the characters, because the chapter where I first introduced the character had been excised. So I was able to re-insert that piece of information. Yay, me!
While I failed to improve the book by much, the proofreader (Tracy Roe, who I will assume is female) did a much better job. After I finished the proofs and sent them back, she actually forwarded a set of queries that allowed me to fix a lot of problems. The problems were all fairly minor, but by this stage the problems had all better be minor. She did a much better job of proofing the proofs that the author had.
I should point out that I've never before been contacted by a proofreader after the proofs have been delivered, let alone with a whole long list of things that would make the book better, and that this was a terrifically wonderful surprise.
A great proofreader is worth her weight in rubies.
So am I, of course, and of course the rubies are equally likely to turn up in my case.
But still. Great job, Tracy, wherever you are.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

Music of the Season

On a bitterly cold night last Saturday we motored up to Santa Fe to catch a baroque Christmas concert at the Loretto Chapel. The Loretto Chapel was at one point the only Gothic structure west of the Mississippi, and was built at the behest of Archbishop Lamy, the aristocratic, autocratic priest who drove wretchedly poor New Mexico Catholics even farther into poverty in order to support his building projects, and who was subsequently forgiven his sins by Willa Cather in Death Comes for the Archbishop.

The Loretto Chapel was built as an hommage to Louis IX's Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and though it fails to equal the colossal stained-glass magnificence of the latter, it's quite a fine space in its own right.

The choir loft features a Miraculous Staircase which, depending on who you talk to, was built either by St. Joseph, the putative parent of Jesus, or by someone else. A couple decades ago I climbed this cantilevered spiral stair, which swayed alarmingly beneath me. Now, in our more corrupt age, we are not allowed to set foot on it.

The chapel has been desanctified and is now used mainly for weddings, with occasional concerts thrown in.

The concert was by Santa Fe Pro Musica. They opened with selections from The Fairy Queen by Purcell, worthy but dull, followed by J.S. Bach's air from the Orchestral Suite No. 3, better known as "Air On a G String." Though of course I'd heard this music all my life, this was the first time I'd heard it performed live. The performance was sensitive and lovely. I think I would like to adopt the first violinist.

There followed the Four Seasons--- not that of Vivaldi, but that of Boismortier, a name that had escaped me to that point. The soprano Kathryn Mueller began to sing and the whole damn place lit up, musically speaking. The acoustics for the instruments weren't bad, but Loretto Chapel was made for a soprano. I just sat there in bright astonishment and listened. (The lyrics, by the way, have nothing to do with Christmas, being an invocation of one pagan god after another.)

After this was Telemann's Concerto for Recorder, Flute, and Strings--- much fun watching and listening to the duel between a recorder and a proper German flute (authentic to the period, without keys). Our friend Scott, a particular fan of Telemann, was transported. After which Ms. Mueller returned for a selection of baroque carols, and the place lit up all over again.

After much applause we went next door to the Inn at Loretto for warm drinks. Then was a walk to the car over crunchy snow, and through Santa Fe's smoke-laden air, a feature of the season which nonetheless aggravated Kathy's asthma.

I think it highly probable that Louis IX, and possibly not even Archbishop Lamy, ever heard music this good.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

This Is Not a Game

So here are the US and UK covers for This Is Not a Game.
The virtue of both is that you can see them from across the room.
The original US cover--- which you can still see at Amazon--- started out very much like the UK one, except with chartreuse instead of silver being the background color. I managed to get the bilious green cover changed to bright yellow, but distributors hated it, so a redesign was in order. Over in the UK, Orbit changed the chartreuse to silver, and pretty much retained the rest.
What d'you think?

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We're not putting up a tree this year. Because we have a kitten.
I was explaining this to our friend Patricia, and she said, "You could just secure it with monofilament line."
And I said, "That's a real mean way to treat a kitty."
And then we looked at each other for a moment of silence, and then we laughed.
And then I thought, Hmmmm. Decorating with live animals. Hmmmm.
(Every so often, I'm reminded of how badly I suck at PhotoShop. So feel free to send me your pictures of whatever you have in your pear tree besides a partridge. And I'll post the winners here.)

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Just Another Long Day at the Blood Pharm

Blood is in short supply. We don't donate as often as we used to, and a lot of people with tattoos and piercings can't donate on account of hepatitis. And a lot of blood received by people in need--- particularly wounded soldiers--- is blood that's been sitting on a shelf for a while.

So our friends at DARPA have handed out a grant to Arteriocyte, based in Cleveland, to ramp up their already-proven method of creating brand new blood from stem cells. " For that, Arteriocyte is relying on a technique developed at Johns Hopkins University that uses nanofibers to mimic the three-dimensional structure of bone marrow, which manufactures blood in the body. Parent stem cells readily multiply in the matrix."

Story here.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Reviews Too Late: Le Chevalier d'Eon

Le Chevalier d'Eon is a fantasy/horror/occult anime series ostensibly based on the life of a real character.

Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont was a member of le Secret du Roi, a back-door diplomatic initiative carried out by Louis XV, who could not trust his own ministers to carry out his policies (because they were a bunch of stupid, scheming aristocrats, basically). D'Eon served as both a soldier and a spy, and allegedly dressed as a woman in order to infiltrate the court of the Russian Empress Elizabeth, claiming to be Lia de Beaumont, a (presumably fictional) sister.

D'Eon later became ambassador to England. After the death of Louis XV, he was recalled, but refused to leave, and afterwards offered his secret diplomatic correspondence for sale. Louis XVI gave him a pension, and he returned to France, but insisted on being treated as a woman rather than a man. Louis indulged him in this, and d'Eon spent the rest of his life living as a woman. He fled to England during the Terror, and earned a precarious living as a fencing master, and by giving fencing exhibitions in which he fought in skirts. After his death, the autopsy showed that he was physically a male.

What does all this have to do with the anime? Nothing much, but d'Eon de Beaumont's story provides two things that seem to provide eternal fascination for the Japanese:

1. Rococo
2. Cross-dressing

Our story begins with the murdered body of Lia de Beaumont floating down the Seine on a boat. The word "Psalms" has been written in blood on her coffin. She has been stuffed with mercury, which prevents her from decaying, which in turn disqualifies her for a church burial. (I have no idea if this was actual Catholic practice or not.)

Because she wasn't buried in holy ground, Lia's spirit is condemned to wander the earth--- and partly for these reasons, partly for others revealed later, she's really pissed off.

Lia's younger brother, d'Eon, is a junior member of Le Secret du Roi. He is young and naive enough to believe absolutely in the rightness and majesty of "Louis XV, who is in God's grace." He swears to avenge his sister, and is soon hip-deep in occult conspiracy.

On one side of the conspiracy are the members of Le Secret, who are directed by the (serene, lazy) king and by his queen, Maria Leszczyńska, who in this telling is a powerful sorceress. Her agents are identified by the letters nqm, the Hebrew word "naqam," meaning "to avenge." She also has conversations with the skull of a little girl known as Belle, who spies for her on the psychic plane. She is aided by Anna, d'Eon's betrothed, who is governess to Prince Auguste, later Louis XVI.

Opposed to the king are the Revolutionary Brotherhood, led by the Marquise de Pompadour and her chief henchman le Comte de St.-Germain, who seems to be Foreign Minister. St.-Germain has in his employ Cagliostro and the latter's wife Lorenza, and is working in the interests of the Duc d'Orleans, who they plan to make king in place of Louis. (Or maybe they just want the Orleans money and patronage.)

Sorcerers--- "Poets"--- base their power on the Psalms. The Psalms are treated in this story much like Buddhist sutras are in Chinese vampire films--- basically as spells that, as in Chinese vampire films, can be used to animate the dead--- who appear as horrid zombies with their blood replaced by mercury, and with the letters H^O written on their foreheads. (The carat stands for three dots in the shape of a triangle, which I seem unable to render here.) H^O stands for "hommes optare," a Franco-Latin phrase that seems to mean something like "(men) (to desire)"--- the series seems a little careless in the use of infinitives--- but which perhaps more useful as an anagram for "metamorphosis."

(The series as a whole is fond of mixing French with Latin, and with anagrams in general. The closing titles always remind us that Lia d'Eon is an anagram for Lion Dea.)
All this information is dumped on the viewer within the first three or four episodes. I advise taking copious notes.
This series is saturated with Christianity, but it's not Christianity as Westerners understand it. It's a very Japanese take on Catholicism, mixed up with Chinese Yellow Paper Magic and the sort of occultism that, back in France, gave us the Affaire of the Poisons.

Anyway, d'Eon--- remember him?--- finds that his investigations into his sister's death are cut short when the Duc d'Orleans has him arrested. He escapes with the aid of Robin, a boy page sent to his assistance by Queen Maria, and by Durand, another real-life member of Le Secret, and who in this story was in love with Lia. D'Eon also acquires the aid of his real-life Maitre d'Armes Teillagory, his fencing master, one of Louis XIV's old musketeers, who is addressed throughout by the Japanese word as "sensei," with all that this implies. Teillagory suggests they call themselves the "Four Musketeers."

The Musketeers are attacked by mercury-stuffed zombies. D'Eon is possessed by the spirit of his sister, who slaughters zombies left and right while quoting liberally from the Psalms of Vengeance. D'Eon is horrified by the depth of his sister's anger.

The Musketeers bust the Duc d'Orleans scheme, and the Duc is arrested. One of his accomplices, the Russian statesman Mikhail Vorontsov, escapes, and the Musketeers pursue him to Russia and the court of Empress Elizabeth. Conspiracies are met with counter-conspiracies, and the result is the ghastly death of most of the nobility and royalty of Russia. Lia continues to animate her brother's body, usually with violent results.

In Russia we meet the incredibly young Maximilien Robespierre-- or is he incredibly old?--- who possesses the volume of the Royal Psalms, which when activated by human blood not only predict the future of the royal house of France, but can project mighty sorcery. Our heroes pursue Robespierre to England, where they encounter his sensei, Sir Francis Dashwood, founder of the Hellfire Club, and his posse including the Earl of Sandwich and and the poet Paul Whitehead. Their own magic motto is Novus Ordo Seclorum.

Another massacre, this one of the English nobility, ensues. Dashwood kills his disloyal student Robespierre, but he is resurrected. Lia totally kicks Dashwood's ass. George III abdicates to become a monk. (?!?) The surviving members of Dashwood's order flee to the New World, where they presumably become the American Founding Fathers.

We discover from all the infighting that the Revolutionary Brethren are not exactly united in what sort of revolution they intend. Dashwood and Pompadour want to chop away the rot surrounding monarchy in order to strengthen it; Robespierre wants to destroy all royals and establish a republic.

Nor are the members of Le Secret and the Four Musketeers without their own private agendas. King Louis is trying to hide a secret that would rock his throne, and for that reason is faithless to all. Conspiracies pile up. Reversals abound. The meaning of Versailles--- vers ailles, a book of poetry, i.e. the Psalms, is revealed. (This appears to be a false etymology, fwiw, but it helps to provide a truly cool climax to a major subplot.) Lia and d'Eon repeatedly get the crap kicked out of them. Most everyone dies tragically, except for d'Eon, who manages in the face of repeated betrayals to remain true to his own beliefs, and who narrates the story in his old age.

The plot is amazingly complex, and I'm not entirely convinced the writer Tow Ubukata succeeded entirely in tying up all loose ends. But it's a wonderfully stylish, intricate work, visually impressive, occasionally scary, often genuinely moving.
It's sort of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer set in the 18th century, except with a more complex mythology.

For everyone who's into cool swordfights, zombies, and eccentric aspects of 18th century history.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cure For A Snowy Day

It was snowing when I got up yesterday, and kept on snowing till nightfall, so I thought it was a good day to make a hearty, warming soup.
What I made was Sopa Mexicana, or Mexican chicken soup. Into my homemade chicken stock I threw onions, zucchini, bell peppers, celery, and lots of Mexican herbs like comino and oregano and--- secret ingredient revealed!--- some ground cloves. To this was added chunks of chicken and lots of chickpeas.
This was poured over steamed rice, after which I added fresh garnishes of cilantro, chopped spring onion, and chopped green chile, to add both bite and crunch. (You can add any vegetable you like at this stage. Or sour cream. Or guacamole.)
The result is a lovely nourishing full-bodied soup that you can serve to people who don't like their food picante--- the basic recipe has no hot spices at all, but you can add as much as you like at the end.
There's another storm rolling in tonight, I'm told, but this time I'm prepared


How Corrupt Are We Exactly?

The indictment of Gov. Blagojevich has folks wondering if Illinois indeed is as corrupt as its mythographers would have us believe.

So the New York Times commissioned a study on which states have the most corruption, and why. And despite the best efforts of Philip Danforth Armour, Carter Harrison, the Richards Daley, Cyrus McCormick, George Pullman, and Al Capone, the best Illinois can manage is Number Seven.

The study used several methodologies. They first looked at the raw numbers of officials convicted. Well in the lead is Florida, followed by New York and Texas. (Illinois is seventh.) But all these states have large populations, so one would expect there to be more officials indicted than in states with few inhabitants.

So the second method was to check convictions per capita. In this poll, the lead is held by Washington DC--- which you would expect, since being the capital it's got more government employees than elsewhere. DC is followed by the Virgin Islands and Guam--- also with large percentages of government employees, I suspect. The first real state to turn up is North Dakota, followed by Alaska and Louisiana. (Illinois is a miserable #22. Where are you when we need you, Bugsy Moran?)

However, some of these areas have such small populations that a few indictments can skew results. North Dakota tops the list because they recently had a low-level corruption scandal that caught a number of officials--- normally, they'd be a lot farther down. Ted Stevens' conviction alone probably kicked nearly-empty Alaska high up the list.

Another problem is that officials have to actually get convicted before they get counted. If they steal and get away with it, they're statistically nonexistent.

The third method was to poll political reporters, who presumably watch the wheeling and dealing up close. In this Rhode Island comes in at #1--- no big surprise, here--- followed by Louisiana--- no surprise, either. Third is my very own New Mexico, which surprises me the least. (Have we noticed that today Bill Richardson announced a huge solar development from a big campaign contributor?)

On this one, Illinois comes in tenth, tied with Ohio.

Illinois just needs to work harder.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Ode to Joy

Friday, December 12, 2008

Kill the Media

How did Detroit get into this mess? Why is publishing such a disaster? Why don't people make good movies anymore? Why does television suck?

Tina Brown tells you.

" . . . it would be marginally consoling if the pink slips were going to those who contributed so vigorously to their companies’ accelerating demise—the feckless zombies at the head of corporate bureaucracies who cared only about the next quarter’s numbers, never troubled to understand the DNA of the companies they took over, and installed swarms of “Business Affairs” drones to oversee and torment the people “under” them. There are floors of these creatures in any behemoth media company, buzzing about each day thwarting new ideas or, worse, having “transformative” ideas of their own when what is usually required is to revive, with a bit of steadfast conviction, the originating creative purpose of the enterprise. It’s the same with the auto companies . . .

"What do cars, debt risk, and collapsing television networks have in common? The suits running them all lose sight of what they condescendingly call “product”—i.e., whatever it was that motivated the company’s spirit of excellence in the first place. The trouble is, those guys and their appointees don’t seem to be the ones who are leaving, do they? Indeed, the recession is giving many of them air cover. “It’s not my fault, it’s the times we live in.”

In all these big, lumbering companies every effort at innovation or practical efficiency gets strangled by something called “the process,” that long death march from an initial promising convergence of minds, not to rejection—rejection would be easier—but to indeterminate stasis. The cast of characters needed to reach a conclusion is eternally changing . . .

"Meanwhile, inside the company a “major restructuring” is announced and heads start to roll. That skill that took a lifetime to acquire—can he or she please cost it out on an hourly basis? Do we really have the time to slog through the details of a project that might, incidentally, save this company?

"Slowly but surely the talent drains away. It turns out that the two major best-selling authors only stayed at the mighty imprint because of that mousy middle-aged woman who really cared about their sentences—that’s right, the one who just got laid off. The talented TV director who made the network’s last hit series got tired of talking to a voicemail and took his next successful show to the opposing network. The investigative journalist whose Pulitzers the chairman bragged about at awards ceremony dinners was told to crank out five half-cooked additional pieces a week for the website and guess what, the paper or network doesn't win prizes any more and the public finds it increasingly irrelevant . . . "

A glorious rant, with me standing at the foot of the soapbox yelling, "Hear hear."

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Ex Detroit

You've seen this picture from Buffalobeast everywhere else, and now you're seeing it here.

Which brings us to today's head-scratcher.

So we had this hideously awful auto bailout package, which suffered most obviously from the fact that (a) the Big Three still have no real plan of how they're going to spend the money, and (b) the Car Czar would not be able to make enforce decisions, but could only "negotiate" with the various interest groups involved, who once they had their bailout might well have told the Czar to take a flying leap.

So then the hideously awful bailout package was then shot down by the Republican Senator from Honda--- sorry, from Mercedes--- sorry, from Hyundai--- sorry, from Alabama, where all those companies have assembly plants, and who could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that his own state would prosper all the more once the Big Three were out of the picture.

Though that's not what he said. What he said was that he wanted the workers to agree to cut open their chests, remove their still-bleeding hearts, and place them on altars to be smashed by sledgehammers weilded by himself and other Deep South Republicans, and do all of this before any negotiations took place. (They had obviously learned this "We demand that you surrender before we will even talk to you" negotiation strategy from George W., who is now probably wondering why no one ever talks to him.)

So now, because the catastrophe of a bailout looks to be followed by yet another economic catastrophe as the Three and all their suppliers and dealers die, throwing even more millions out of work, it looks as if George W. will have to rescue the Three on his own, without help from his own party.

(Who knew that George W. would end his presidency as such a leftist? Certainly not I.)

But while this drama is being played out, a company called Better Place is doing an end-run around the whole miserable automobile infrastructure, using a strategy derived from--- get this--- mobile phones.

The plan works like this:

1. Generate electricity from renewable wind and solar.

2. Sell the power to electric cars at power stations set up throughout the country. You can either plug the car into a socket or swap out the old battery for one that's fully-charged. The user buys miles for his car in the same way he buys minutes for his cellphone.

The car you use is either bought or leased from Renault or Nissan, who are participating in the program.

Charging and battery-swap stations are even now being set up in Denmark, Israel, Australia, the State of Hawaii, and the Bay Area. Stands are also going to be set up in Yokohama, which is Japan's Detroit.

According to this article by Thomas L. Friedman, "our bailout of Detroit will be remembered as the equivalent of pouring billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the mail-order-catalogue business on the eve of the birth of eBay. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into the CD music business on the eve of the birth of the iPod and iTunes . . . "

(Friedman's overstating here. No matter what your energy model, somebody still has to make the cars. In a factory, we presume.)

"What Agassi, the founder of Better Place, is saying is that there is a new way to generate mobility, not just music, using the same platform. It just takes the right kind of auto battery — the iPod in this story — and the right kind of national plug-in network — the iTunes store — to make the business model work for electric cars at six cents a mile. The average American is paying today around 12 cents a mile for gasoline transportation, which also adds to global warming and strengthens petro-dictators . . . "

"If we miss the chance to win the race for Car 2.0 because we keep mindlessly bailing out Car 1.0, there will be no one to blame more than Detroit’s new shareholders: we the taxpayers."

Do I hear an Amen, somebody?

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Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Or, Who watches the watchmen?

(Note how I am cleverly getting you to read a financial article by making you think it's about the upcoming Watchmen film.)

A few weeks ago I recommended an article by Michael Lewis about the meltdown, and who knew it was coming, and who profited by knowing.

One of the heroes of that article was an investor named Eisman, "who couldn’t figure out exactly how the rating agencies justified turning BBB loans into AAA-rated bonds."

Today's New York Times has an article on exactly that topic.

"Moody’s, which judges the quality of debt that corporations and banks issue to raise money, had just graded a pool of securities underwritten by Countrywide Financial, the nation’s largest mortgage lender. But Countrywide complained that the assessment was too tough.

"The next day, Moody’s changed its rating, even though no new and significant information had come to light . . .

"That the credit-rating agencies missed immense problems in the mortgage-related securities they blessed is undeniable. Moody’s declined to say how many classes of the securities it has downgraded. But the number is in the thousands and the original value in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

"When Moody’s began lowering the ratings of a wave of debt in July 2007, many investors were incredulous.

“If you can’t figure out the loss ahead of the fact, what’s the use of using your ratings?” asked an executive with Fortis Investments, a money management firm, in a July 2007 e-mail message to Moody’s. “You have legitimized these things, leading people into dangerous risk . . .

"Moody’s current woes, former executives say, were set in motion a decade or so ago when top management started pushing the company to be more profit-oriented and friendly to issuers of debt. Along the way, the firm, whose objectivity once derived from the fact that its revenue came from investors who bought Moody’s research and analysis, ended up working closely with the companies it rated, and being paid by them."

They were being paid by the same people they were expected to rate. Why should we be surprised that they tried to make them happy?

Revolution by guillotine doesn't seem so bad now, does it?

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Drinking Tea with Chopsticks

SIS Science Officer Don Pettit shows you how to drink tea in microgravity.

With chopsticks, of course.

I'm very pleased to know that I'll be able to consume my favorite beverage next time I'm in space.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Separated at Birth?

Has anyone else noticed the strong resemblance, not only in looks but in speech and mannerisms, between indicted Illinois governor Rod R. Blagojevich and newly-elected Maryland governor Tommy Carcetti?
Here's a video of one.
Here's the other.
This can't be a coincidence. Can it?

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Spitting Droid = Missile Deterrent

The Defense Missile Agency has released a video of the hover test of Lockheed's new Multiple Kill Vehicle (MKV-L), a device intended to swat down a swarm of incoming missiles and accompanying decoys by firing multiple kinetic projectiles--- knocking them down with big bullets, essentially.

The MKV would have to hover in space, continually reorient itself as it locked onto new targets, and spit out vast numbers of projectiles.

The video shows they've got the hovering part down, at least.

The video, though genuine, looks weirdly like pretty good CGI.

Ares notes that the device bears a weird resemblance to the hovering droid that that spat out bolts at Luke Skywalker during his lightsaber training.

Except noisier.

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B-l-a-j-o-g-e-v-c-h B-l-e-g-o-j--v-i-c-h B-r-a-j-e-g-v-i-t-c-h Felon #39473

Wow. A new low even for Illinois! This is a scandal so unsavory that it's worthy of New Mexico or Louisiana!

Governor Unspellable was planning on selling Barack Obama's seat! (No word on whether it was still attached to Obama at the time.)

Naturally, someone promptly put the seat up for auction on eBay.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Show Your Spirit!

I'm pleased to report that This Is Not a Game will be the March Hardcover Pick for Spirit Magazine, the official magazine of Southwest Airlines.

Bored passengers throughout the nation will listlessly browse through the review as a desperate alternative to listening to the screeching infant in the seat behind.

Now if only we can get copies into airport bookstores, so the passengers can act on their impulse to buy!

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

Return of the Calendar

We've done it again. Created a calendar, featuring photos from our 2009 trips. Which were all in the Rocky Mountain areas, so there are many pictures of pointy things.

The calendar is 13.5" x 19", printed on glossy stock, and includes astronomical data as well as holidays for the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. (Did you know that Cinco de Mayo is on the Fifth of May every year? I had no idea!)

The calendar is distributed on a creative commons license, and we don't make money on it.

This picture was taken at dawn, from Cape Royal in the Grand Canyon. I get shivers just looking at it.

Walter & Kathy's 2009 calendar. Includes Cinco de Mayo! Available now.


Friday, December 05, 2008

Note to Detroit . . .

What with the Detroit Three lobbying Congress for a bailout and promising all sorts of new, fuel efficient cars for as long as they continue to need tax dollars--- hey, promises have no fuel consumption at all!--- anyway, in order to avoid repeating the errors of the past, perhaps the Big Three ought to check this list of the 50 worst cars of all time.


1913 Scripps-Booth Bi-Autogo--- "A 3,200-lb. motorcycle with training wheels, a V8 engine and enough copper tubing to provide every hillbilly in the Ozarks with a still . . . "

1933 Fuller Dymaxion--- "one link in [Buckminster Fuller's] vaguely totalitarian plan for the people to live in mass-produced houses deposited on the landscape by dirigibles . . . Deprived of wings, the Dymaxion was a three-wheel, ground-bound zeppelin . . . "

1956 Renault Dauphine--- "It took the drivers at Road and Track 32 seconds to reach 60 mph, which would put the Dauphine at a severe disadvantage in any drag race involving farm equipment . . . "

1958 Lotus Elite--- " . . . was also a lovely little coupe, which made the moment when the suspension mounts punched through the stressed-skin monocoque all the more pathetic."

The 1961 amphicar--- "promised to revolutionize the act of drowning."

The 1970 Triumph Stag--- "a despicable, rotten-to-the-core mockery of a car . . . . The 3.0-liter Triumph V8 was a monumental failure, an engine that utterly refused to confine its combustion to the internal side . . . "

1975 Bricklin SV1--- "the only Bricklin I ever sat in caught fire and burned to the axles."

1978 Pacer--- "You could actually see fumes of volatile petrochemicals out-gassing from the plastic dash."

1982 Cadillac Cimmaron--- "The horror. The horror. Everything that was wrong, venal, lazy and mendacious about GM in the 1980s was crystallized in this flagrant insult to the good name and fine customers of Cadillac."

And forty-one more . . .


From Gonzolabs . . .

The winners have been announced in the recent competition from the American Association for the Advancement of Science--- the "Dance Your Ph.D." Competition, in which doctoral dissertations are illuminated by dance routines.

There's stiff competition here, but I have to say that my favorite was one of the runners-up, "Individual Differences in Exploratory Behavior of Prairie Voles, Microtus ochrogaster."

Though "The role of vitamin D in beta cell function" came in close second.

For some reason the Gonzolabs page doesn't provide audio, so for the complete experience click on the link "for an explanation of this dance," which will not only give you the artist's intent, but will direct you to the YouTube page where you'll be able to hear the audio.

(from Eileen)


Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Awwwww Shot

What We Miss By Not Having an Established Church

Our Founding Paternalists bounced the established church back in 1776. Turns out that, as we didn't keep the C of E on the government payroll, we not only failed to have the necessary background to fully appreciate Trollope's Barchester novels, but we also missed some amusing radio ads.

Something called the Churches Advertising Network sponsored a competition for 30-second ads telling the Christmas Story.

Here's the PRI story with the winning ads.

And here's a winning video.

(from KKR)


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Useless Day

I can generally count on having one Useless Day each week. This week it was yesterday, Tuesday.

On Useless Day I can't seem to get anything accomplished. I try to work, but nothing happens, or at any rate nothing good. My brain doesn't seem to function very well. When I try to accomplish anything outside work, I generally fumble it, or I get stuck on hold forever, or I forget something crucial and have to start over.

The problem with Useless Day is that I never know when it's going to fall. I generally don't realize that it's Useless Day until it's nearly over, and I look at my word total and see that it sucks, or that everything I've written needs to be thrown out and written over.

If I only knew when Useless Day was going to happen, I'd spend the day playing computer games, or I'd go to the movies. But I never know in advance. I'm too useless on Useless Day to know that I'm useless.

Does this happen to the rest of you, or is it just me?


Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Reviews Too Late: Mad Men

I recently finished watching the first season of Mad Men, courtesy of Netflix. The series poses an interesting fictional problem: is it possible to tell a gripping story when everyone in your narrative is a total rat-bastard?

In this particular case, the answer would seem to be No.

I don't insist on sympathetic characters in my fiction. (Hell, my favorite book is Lolita.) I've written my share of unsympathetic protagonists. But there's something in me that objects when the entire fictional landscape is so completely devoid of what for lack of a better term I shall call "ordinary decent human beings." I think that's what's always got between me and Faulkner: his books were so totally populated by the miserable, the psychotic, the brainless, the losers, the criminal, the useless, the deluded, and the wannabes, that there was no room for anyone that I recognized from my actual life.

Mad Men takes place in an ad agency in 1960--- the ad agency, in fact, that is assigned to sell to the American public a young, good-looking naval hero, Dick Nixon. (It has to be said that the series does very little with this subplot.)

Every male in the place is an utter swine: vain, ambitious, ruthless, priapic, and totally consumed with his own selfish needs. Any one of them would kick his grandmother to death for a chance at the corner office. Any one of them would stab the other in the back for a chance to bang a secretary.

While I'm perfectly willing to believe that ad agencies in the 1950s were full of such people, I'm not yet convinced why it's supposed to matter to me. If I'm supposed to be interested in shitheads, they better damn well be really fascinating shitheads.

The shithead-in-chief is Dick Draper, a highly successful ad man with a house in the suburbs, an ex-model wife, two lovely children, a couple of mistresses, and a rivalry with a junior copywriter who wants his job. Draper is a master manipulator, and it's clear early on that "Dick Draper" is in fact a construct--- he's a fictional persona created by a man with a compulsion (and pretty good reasons) to hide his own past. This is potentially interesting--- why would a character from an abusive background, now masquerading as someone else, choose advertising as a career? (Because it gives him every opportunity to lie and manipulate in his own interest, apparently.)

(It's a measure of the cynicism of the milieu that when Draper's big secret is finally revealed, nobody cares. The ad agency is in the business of constructing huge fabulations, and if one of their executives is a fabulation himself, that is of little interest. He's a huge rainmaker, and that's all they care about.)

It's Draper's job to sell the American dream to the public. And he's sold himself on the dream as well--- hence the suburban home, the lovely wife, the children, all part of his con but a con he seems determined to act out. He keeps his wife under his thumb by ruthlessly undermining her self-esteem, and in the meantime passes his time by pursuing more intellectually interesting Manhattan career women.

Where Draper fails is in his attempt to con me. He fails to convince me that he's fascinating. Oh, I can admire his clever advertising campaigns, at least insofar as I can admire anything designed to sell me something I don't want. I stand in awe of his ruthlessness. But by the end of the series I was cheering his defeats and feeling chagrin at his victories. I wanted the rat-bastard to lose. He couldn't lose fast enough for me. And at the end, when his house of cards crumbled and he found himself staring oblivion in the face, I was cheering. I was just sorry that it had taken so long.

I don't think that's what the writers intended.

In opposition to the ad men are the series' various women, all of whom are victims. Scarcely a quarter-hour goes by without one of the male characters taking time out of his life to exploit and/or demean one of the women.

This may be true to the period, but again I found it problematical. I started by being appalled, then sympathetic, and then gradually the sympathy went away. The women were so complicit in their own misery, so much willing partners in their own degradation, that I stopped being interested in their problems. (Am I sorry because a masochist gets whipped? Not much, no.)

Which brings us to the character of Peggy, the character who starts as a naive secretary and ends the season as the firm's only female copywriter. Her journey is probably the most interesting one on offer, but the writers stuck her with a huge reveal at the end of the season that was well beyond unbelievable. Yes, I know that such things happen, but I'm disinclined to think they happen to people like Peggy. She'd been established as too intelligent for such a surprise.

I was interested in how the creators justified throwing us such a screwball, so I listened to the DVD audio commentary for that particular episode. The actress who plays Peggy did the commendary, along with the actress who plays Dick Draper's much-abused wife, and they both went to extreme lengths to explain why the development wasn't unbelievable. "This isn't unbelievable at all." "No, some people might think it's unbelievable, but it isn't." "That's right, it's totally non-unbelievable." "This sort of thing happens all the time, it's not unbelievable in any way, shape. or form."

When you have people involved in the series going to such extremes to convince us that it isn't unbelievable, then I think we have a problem.

On the plus side, the series does a terrific job of re-creating 1960. Production values are terrific. The actors are very good, if sometimes ill-served by the writers. (Vincent Kartheiser's character in particular seems a sketch, to be filled in later.)

Toward the end of the season, the series drags quite a bit. There isn't quite enough material in the series arc to stretch to all those episodes, and so some of them end up being about nothing in particular.

Mad Men makes for an interesting case study in the creation of unsympathetic characters. It provides me with more evidence that if I'm going to spend time in the company of someone I'm going to dislike, I need to be fascinated in some way.

Ideally, I need to get into the character's psyche, so that I understand why he's behaving this way and what drives him. From the writer's perspective, this is more difficult to do in series television than in a novel, where I can literally tell you what the character is thinking. Since you can't do that in TV--- at least not without reviving the art of the soliloquy--- the television writer has to do this some other way, for instance through a carefully-controlled series of flashbacks. (The flashbacks in
Mad Men had me more interested in the way they were structured than involved in the story they were telling, but maybe that's just me.)

Another way to get me interested is to show us the evil genius in action. If he's an evil overlord, let me savor his over-the-top schemes for world domination! If he's a con man, get me involved in the zest of the con! But Dick Draper doesn't seem to enjoy himself when he's lying and cheating and bullying and back-stabbing, it's just the sort of thing he does on a daily basis, because that's who he is and that's what he does. He's not a man for reflection, he doesn't seem interested in why he behaves the way he does, and--- after a while--- neither am I.

And oh yeah, it's best if something more is at stake than who gets the Clearasil account. Let's make that clear right off. I don't care about the Clearasil account, I can't be made to care, and no matter how brilliantly you scheme to win it, I still won't give a damn.

So can we now introduce the ad man who's married to a witch? Because, y'know, we could use some humor around here.