Monday, January 31, 2005

CustomGuide: Excel 2003 Personal Trainer—A Self-Guided Course


I once had to learn to use a program by reading the manual. I couldn't get access to the machine it ran on, and I didn't have a copy of the software at home. So I feel for the person trying to learn to use Excel 2003 effectively by limping through an older Excel version—it's not an easy task.

Rescue comes in the form of the Excel 2003 Personal Trainer by CustomGuide from O'Reilly. This book is set up as a bona-fide textbook, complete with summaries, quizzes and homework. Better yet, it includes a guide CD with an "interactive simulation in bite-size lessons" that lets you work in the Excel 2003 environment even if you're not running Windows XP or 2000 with Excel 2003 installed.

This book assumes nothing. Users are instructed in even the most basic details, such as how to move from one worksheet to another within a workbook, how to select multiple cells, rows or columns, and so on. For that reason, I see this as a valuable guide for the user who seeks to re-enter the workforce with fresh skills, has been away from spreadsheets for a while, or is looking for a promotion to a more demanding position with lots of Excel involvement.

The guide is organized from first-hands-on basics through more and more complicated tasks, so that whatever level of approach you need, the guide will let you enter at that point and then advance from there. The most advanced topic covered is at median-user level, so if you're already a super-whiz with an older version of Excel, this guide will not help you that much. (A better choice for the advanced user would be Curtis Frye's excellent Excel Annoyances, also from O'Reilly.)

For example, the chapter that covers how Excel 2003 works with other programs describes how to import an Excel table or chart into a Word document and modify the data there. It also covers importing a graphic into an Excel worksheet. Access is not mentioned, nor are any other programs. The chapter on macros is exclusively focused on VBA. XML is mentioned in the features list on page 5, then not mentioned again anywhere in the guide.

At the median level, the guide does cover pivot tables (or "pivottables") and Excel's Scenario Manager with its Solver feature. There is also a complete, easy-to-read chapter on publishing an interactive Web page spreadsheet, including how to control refresh and how to update online data.

Finally, the guide is well-illustrated, with figures that truly illuminate the text, making instructions easy to follow. Liberally scattered throughout the book are "superhero" points that clarify and encapsulate what the user should be learning from each lesson.

Just as a personal trainer keeps you on track in the gym, this guide will help you increase your Excel fitness, step by step, with lots of reps—and no strained brain muscles.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Calendar Girls—Moving and FUNNY!


The very ordinary ladies who meet each Thursday at the Women's Institute in rural Yorkshire for "jam and Jerusalem" are the last people you would suspect of radical ideas. Middle-aged and settled in their ways, they are school-teachers, church organists, present-day mums and wives, whose lives have run until now in a very narrow rut.

True enough, Chris (played by Helen Mirrim) and her friends Annie (Julie Walters, lately seen as Mrs. Weasley in Harry Potter movies) and Ruth are an informal cabal arrayed against the WI president and her "high elite" cronies. But theirs is a rebellion that consists mostly of whispering during lectures on broccoli and tea-towels, performing tai-chi on a Yorkshire hilltop, and submitting a store-bought sponge cake at the annual fair.

Annie's husband drops the opening salvo in the real war when he discloses that he has been diagnosed with a particularly nasty kind of cancer. If she wants him to present a talk to her WI group, he informs her, she'd better book him quick. He even has the intro ready:
The women of Yorkshire are like the flowers of Yorkshire. Every stage of their lives is more full of beauty than the previous one, and the last stage is the most glorious.
     And after that, they go to seed.

After he dies, Chris has an idea to raise money for a memorial for him: the ladies of the WI will do an art calendar in the style of the calendars each district does every year. But this calendar will be sans fig leaf. "Not naked," she hastens to add in pitching the idea to her friends, "NUDE."

And what is the difference between porn and art? "It's obvious," is the school-teacher's pronouncement. "That would be an artist." They will need to battle their own doubts about posing with the male photographer in the room. They will face resistance from the "high elite" of the WI and from their husbands and children. And they will struggle to find props large enough to strategically cover their... assets.

The tale of how these ladies pursue their idea, step up to the plate to execute it, and manage to pull it off is simply heart-warming. Warning to the ladies: My spouse reminded me today that this is a "three hanky movie." Don't sit down to watch it unprepared.

Frye: Excel Annoyances—Taming the Wild Spreadsheet


I freely admit a secret foible: I love Excel. Curtis Frye (author of an Excel Pocket Guide I have found essential) has produced another gem for the Excel user: Excel Annoyances, How to Fix the Most ANNOYING Things About Your Favorite Spreadsheet. Frye claims that the "the river of Excel annoyances runs deep and treacherous," and after years of battling its currents, I agree. This book has what you need to stay on course.

The book is organized into chapters based on what you need to do with Excel: enter data, format, write formulas, manipulate your data, chart, print and exchange data, and write or use macros. A special section details the annoyances specific to Excel 2003, and an extensive index supplements the table of contents. The book is aimed at all levels of user, from the very fresh newbie (how to use the series and fill tools, for example) to the sophisticated user (taming VBA code).

Each annoyance is succinctly presented in a vignette, followed by the solution (with lots of illustrations not shown in my review):
The Annoyance: I filtered a data list..., but when I try to copy the filtered rows and paste them into another worksheet, Excel pastes the hidden rows as well. I can tell I've selected more than the visible cells because as I select the cells, the Name box tells me I've selected an area that's 74 rows by 5 columns. How do I copy and paste just the visible rows in my data list?
The Fix: To copy just the visible cells to the clipboard, you need to add the Select Visible Cells button to your toolbar. To add this button, choose Tools —> Customize, select the Commands Tab, Select Edit from the Categories list, scroll down in the righthand Commands list until you find the Select Visible Cells button, and drag the button to any toolbar. Then, to copy and paste just the visible cells, follow these steps:
  1. Filter the data list and highlight the visible cells.
  2. Click the Select Visible Cells toolbar button.
  3. Select Edit —> Copy.
  4. Choose Edit —> Paste.

I love the way Frye goes the extra step, helping the user make the program more useful. Even when I have already solved the particular annoyance he cites, the solutions ring true.

Data Entry Annoyances: My "wow" moment in this section came from a sidebar note about how to use the sometimes-annoying AutoCorrect feature to insert chunks of customized "boilerplate" text. Since I hate to type, I'll definitely be using this hitherto-unnoticed feature.

Format Annoyances: I haven't used Conditional Format much, in part because of the completely non-intuitive way Excel calls out colors from its palette. I once spent the better part of a morning trying (and failing) to copy a custom palette from one worksheet to another. Frye sets out the solution in three simple steps.

Formula Annoyances: This entire section is wonderful (I love the power of Excel formulas), so it's hard to pick a single best. The tips on rounding hours to the next quarter-hour or tenth-hour and dropping your own VBA procedure into a formula were most ingenious.

Data Manipulation Annoyances: Hands-down, the best tip for me in this section is the solution to the "what-if" analysis annoyance. Frye guides us through creating separate "scenario" values using Excel's Scenario Manager (a feature I had been unaware of until I read this book).
Note: This section also covers Pivot Tables in some detail. I bought two Excel How-To Books last year to help me learn to use pivot tables, and neither gave me the same superlative guidance as these 14 pages of section 4.

Chart Annoyances: I'm not one who uses Excel's chart function frequently, but one tip really hit the memory buzzer. I once had a Powerpoint presentation that included several Excel charts in it. Sometimes they would print, but sometimes they wouldn't. Frye told me—in a single sentence—why that happens.

Exchanging Data Annoyances: At last! A step-by-step guide to moving data from Excel to Access. (To a help-desk tech, this page alone will be worth the cost of this book.) In addition, a tip on publishing worksheets on a web page details one of the idiosyncrasies of interactive Excel, and how to solve it in the HTML source view.
Funniest Annoyance Vignette: (about workbook permissions) "Ok, you've seriously scared me. Isn't there any way to be sure my workbook data doesn't leak out? I mean, I've got J.Lo's phone number in there."

Printing Annoyances: I am a strong believer in commenting any customized effort, and spreadsheets are no exception. Problem is, Excel makes it extremely difficult to print comments with your worksheet. Frye's instructions let you print such comments in context. (In a strong second place is the tip on how to suppress printout of those annoying "#VALUE" cell errors.)

Customization, Macro and VBA Annoyances: This whole section is gold waiting to be mined by the expert Excel user. The cutest tip is the one that shows you how to edit the default smiley-face for custom Toolbar buttons. There are lots of targeted macros and VBA procedures, plus references to online sources for helpful third-party utilities.

Excel 2003 Annoyances: The best tip here is in the section intro: why starting PhotoShop after Excel 2003 is running will sometimes crash your computer. The section also covers how not to be driven crazy by the Extensible Markup Language (XML).

As if all these solutions were not enough, Frye includes dozens of links to free creative Excel goodies. My favorite: a downloadable spreadsheet Tetris game. Frye notes, "If the United States' leading economic indicators drop suddenly after Excel Annoyances hits the store shelves, blame it on this sidebar."

If I had any complaint, it would be the choice of red to indicate cell commands, formulas and other Excel text. It was probably done to limit the ink to two colors, black and red. Nevertheless, the red text elements are difficult to read, which means they are easy to misread.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Cabot: The Princess Present—Christmas in Genovia


The Princess Present is a short novel in the delightful Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot. Those who have not encountered these books about the American girl who discovers she is princess of Genovia obviously have no pre-teen or teenage girls in their life (although it would be hard to have missed the ads for the movies made from the first novels in the series.)

The irrepressible Mia (played by Anne Hathaway in the Disney movies) is in Genovia this Christmas. The bad news is, she has princess duties to perform: shaking a traditional olive branch in the fireplace to bless the hearth, entertaining other young royals (including Britain's Prince William), and helping her Grandmère (elegantly portrayed in the movies by Julie Andrews) rule Genovia.

The good news is, she gets to invite her American best friend Lilly, and her heart-throb, Lilly's brother Michael.

As always with Princess Mia, her plans go awry. Lilly's rude t-shirts and casual approach to palace protocol set Grandmère's teeth in a grim line. Michael doesn't seem the least bit jealous, even when Mia dances with Prince William. She has a little problem with a stray cat. And she's having trouble finding the perfect Christmas present for Michael.

With notes of O. Henry's Gift of the Magi, and many sly allusions to the movies ("...movies that aren't strictly FACTUAL, if you know what I mean..." the young lady reminds us), The Princess Present is an excellent choice for the bookshelf of your daughter, niece or grandchild—especially if she is already familiar with Mia, Princess of Genovia, and can't bear to wait for book 6.
0060754338,0380978482, 0060294655,0060294671,0060096071,0060096101,006052679,B000209KMW,B00063KGQ4

Friday, January 28, 2005

Brooks: True Confessions of a Heartless Girl—The Triumph of Teen Tragedy


When you are a teenager, sometimes the world seems dark, unbearably centered around and focused on you. Martha Brooks returns us to those feelings of trauma and tragedy in True Confessions of a Heartless Girl.

This is a story ostensibly about 17-year-old Noreen and her attempts to find her place in the world. Awkward in the way every teenage girl is, Noreen tumbles from one disaster of her making to another. Profoundly clueless about her own heart because of a mildly-abused and semi-abandoned childhood, Noreen is unable to recognize love and caring when she does encounter it. When she drives into the tiny Manitoban town of Pembina Lake in her ex-boyfriend's stolen truck she is shattered, exhausted and possibly pregnant.

We see the town clearly, even though Noreen does not at first. Lynda, the struggling single mother who owns the town's failing cafe, takes Noreen under her wing. Dolores, grandmother to the entire town, who proudly wears a shirt that says MEDDLER FOR JESUS, feeds her mint tea and some hard advice. Del, who works endlessly on a cottage in which no one lives, offers her the cottage and a chance for redemption in return for a "full accounting". Mary, Dolores' life-long friend, suddenly grown snappish and hurtful; Seth, Lynda's 5-year-old son; even Tessie the dog, all have their own problems. Noreen perceives herself as the cause of all this trouble.

Yet gradually, as Noreen begins to mature under the guidance of so many helpful strangers, we learn that troubles come to all of us, that thirty-year-old heartaches are just as deep as those we feel at 17, and can seem just as unsolvable to those involved. Brooks brings us to the edge of that cold lake of frightened adolescence that still lives in each of us. "What if she says no and laughs?", "What if he doesn't love me after all?"

Then she tosses us in, and laughs at our affronted pride.

This is not a novel about a girl in trouble. It's a story about the ordinary, everyday troubles that we all have, and the way that sharing diminishes them. It's about love in all its manifold dimensions. And it's about the redemption that can come to any of us from making a true confession and rendering a full accounting.

I recommend it for readers of any age.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

SpammerX: Inside the Spam Cartel—A Baldly Written Account of a Bad Career


I was eager to get into the book Inside the Spam Cartel, written by "SpammerX". That eagerness persisted only into the second chapter—the self-professed spammer is coy in his presentation of examples, leaves out more information than he gives, and (by far the worst sin) seems unable to mate subject and verb number, use apostophes or adverbs rationally, or spot abject incoherence in his own writing.

Aside from that, the book is intriguing in a creepy way.

The topic is one every Internet user will find interesting, and SpammerX delivers a lot of detail about the process, purpose and payback of spamming. He has been somewhat careful about removing actual IP and eMail addresses and user names, although this, like all his proof-reading, is not thorough. He includes a number of examples of using HTML tags to encode spam messages that will slide through spam filters, while telling us his philosophy of spam. This philosophy boils down to: "I can do it, and you can't stop me, so it's all right. Besides, I get paid to do it."

Even so, SpammerX is aware how his activities are viewed by others. Some chapters seem to be an effort to excuse his actions, others are almost apologetic. He will carefully spell out how to "hijack" a Web page for spamming purposes, as if to provide useful information for the IT crew of that site. Then he will add in one of his Notes from the Underground, "I think I will keep this bit secret in case I want to use it again...".

The book's theme wavers back and forth between these two extremes, as if the author doesn't really want to give up his behavior (as long as he's getting away with it), but does want to be respected as an expert who offers help. He extends that help to would-be spammers and those who oppose their efforts with equal detail.

I found most interesting the chapter detailing phishing and eMail scams, including the "419 scam". You probably have encountered the 419 scam as the Nigerian Finance Minister scheme: an eMail promises you part of a multi-million-dollar sum for your assistance in setting up a bank account to move the funds into from overseas. The scam gets its name, according to SpammerX, from the code 419 for Fraud in Nigeria, the source of more than half of all such scams.

Inadvertent humor from typos and misapplication of the spell-checker supplies some lighter moments. Occam's Razor is cited as "Akum's Razor," for example, and "hearsay" is rendered as "heresy".

Aside from that, and one or two tricks for avoiding and reducing spam in your own personal mailbox, I came away with a mental image of SpammerX as a petty psychopath. He coldly sets out which spam topics generate the greatest return to the spammer:
...I have broken into and stolen e-mail contacts from many self-help Web sites.
  Web sites designed to help people with gambling addictions are a great example. These people are prime targets for spam. If even one person signs up to a casino I promote, I stand to make serious money since I know they will gamble everything they have and undoubtedly lose it all... Preying on vulnerabilities ensures a highly effective return.

And he adopts a cool stance to justify himself to his friends:
I often go for walks with friends of mine, stopping off at every ATM on the way... By the end of the night I am carrying at least $10,000.00 in $20.00 bills. My friends... don't really know where the money is coming from... When asked how I earned the money, I... even told a friend I was dealing drugs... I don't want my friends to know that I am the one that sent them all that spam.

SpammerX would rather have his friends believe him a criminal than a spammer. Perhaps he knows in his heart (despite all his sophistry to the contrary) that there is very little difference.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Hayduke: Getting Even, Getting Revenge—Not-So-Innocent Fun


When the Hayduke books were published in the late 70s and early 80s, they were carefully labeled "for entertainment purposes only... not for children or the mentally unbalanced." I remember reading them in that spirit, wholly comfortable with the idea of (someone else) wreaking vandalism, humiliation and even bodily harm in the effort to get revenge for some slight. With titles like Getting Even, Revenge and Byte Me! Hayduke's Guide to Computer-Generated Revenge, they were obviously not about turning the other cheek.

Still, they fit with the iconoclastic, Luddite-inclined spirit of the time. If the neighbor persisted in playing his icky music too loud, we'd just see how he liked having dirty words burned into his lawn with vinegar. If the power company kept parking their maintenance vehicle in our favorite space at the restaurant, heck, we'd just gum up the engine with two quarts of Karo syrup! And that jerk who dissed us at the office, well, wait until he gets to the hotel on his road trip—we've super-glued the trunk lock shut over his family's luggage.

At the time the books first appeared, there was some suspicion that "George Hayduke" was a pseudonym of Edward Abbey. The first Hayduke book, a tabloid-size papercover copyrighted in 1980, refers to Abbey's book The Monkey Wrench Gang, first published in 1975. But the main character of Abbey's fictional paean to desert eco-terrorism is a "Vietnam veteran, George Washington Hayduke III". (Abbey's name is also attached to the 1990 publication, Hayduke Lives!, released just after Edward Abbey died in 1989. This book may have been completed by an unattributed writer.)

For these reasons, I think it is more likely that the Hayduke pseudonym was chosen by someone who approved of the anti-development activism message of The Monkey Wrench Gang, and wanted to extend it to the petty spite of personal revenge. The copies I have are filled with pretty low-tech vengeance suggestions, but more recent publications include computerized revenge techniques. Hayduke is also the author of several do-it-yourself manuals for building silencers and other explosive means of making a point.

To repeat as I began, I remember chuckling over the nasty little tricks detailed in these books when I was in college. Rereading them now, in an age of anthrax mail scares and serious terrorist threats, I feel a little chill down the back of my neck. I hope Abbey's last title, Hayduke Lives!, is in error—I'd prefer Hayduke safely under the sod.


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Buford: Among the Thugs—The Future of American Politics?

There is much to be learned about a culture from those persons whom it places upon pedestals, whom it admires and emulates, whom it calls heroes.
 —Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Yardley, on "The Magnitude of Sport"

I am old enough to remember a time when the only thing that landed on a playing field (besides ball or players) was a penalty flag, years of high-school games in which fans tossed only cheers at each other; and no parent would dream of slugging another parent in the heat of a Little League game. Even college soccer and football were seen as opportunities to upstage the other side's team, their cheerleaders, their band. No explosives or firearms were involved.

The same ethics of sportsmanship infused politics—if you weren't a union activist or assassin, the gloves were definitely on. Throughout this last nasty political season, something I had read years ago has been nagging at me: I was hearing echoes of Bill Buford's discovery of the intensely partisan soccer supporter.

Among the Thugs is Buford's description of his experience as a soccer hooligan. In England to attend Cambridge University, he was visiting in Wales, waiting on a train platform with three or four others when an unannounced train came through. It was a football special, a train that had been "taken over" by Liverpool supporters.
...there were hundreds of them—I had never seen a train with so many people inside—and they were singing in unison: "Liverpool, la-la-la, Liverpool, La-la-la." The words look silly now, but they did not sound silly. A minute before there had been virtual silence... And then this song, pounded out with increasing ferocity, echoing off the walls of the station. A guard had been injured, and as the train stopped he was rushed off, holding his face. Someone inside was trying to smash a window with a table leg, but the window wouldn't break... the police were frightened. For that matter, I was frightened, as was everyone else on the platform... this violent chant was a way of telling us that they, the supporters, were in the position to do anything they wanted.

Buford actually joined the Manchester United hooligans, melting into the crowd, yielding reason and compunction to the rule of the mob. He traveled, ate, slept, stole, screamed, fought, sang when they did. The strongest message of Buford's experiences as a thug is the sinister allure of membership in the mob; how easy it is to give in, and how hard to return to civilization once you do.

We are on a particularly slippery slope when we surrender our civil instincts in this way. "My country, right or wrong" slides into "my party, right or wrong," my tribe, my family... The only way to win this game, as we were succinctly informed in WarGames, is not to play.

Jane Chord: Some killed.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Horatio's Drive—America's First Road Trip


In late May 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson, a doctor from Vermont eating in a restaurant in San Francisco with his new bride, overheard a statement made at a nearby table, to the effect that automobiles were a fad that would not last because they could not carry a man across the country. On a whim, Jackson laid down a $50 bet that he could drive to New York City in 3 months or less. He bought a "slightly used" Harry Winton car, hired a bicycle racer/mechanic named Sewall Crocker to come with him, and three days later, they left San Francisco on the trip.

Jackson's wife "gave him his independence" to do this, but declined the chance to accompany him. She returned to Vermont to await his arrival and keep the rest of his family posted on his progress.

In addition to the bet, Jackson would have competition. Unknown to him, both the Packard and Oldsmobile companies had well-planned, manufacturer-funded and -supplied expeditions, one starting a few weeks later from San Francisco, the other from Pasadena. These entries in the race would find advance supplies along their routes, including guaranteed petrol caches. Jackson, on the other hand, would turn down the offer from the Harry Winton factory to sponsor him (made only when he had reached the Mississippi), rather than lose the independence of making his own way.

"Nel" Jackson's commentary (voiced by Tom Hanks) comes from the many letters and postcards he wrote to his wife. Reactions to the arrival of an automobile crossing the country are garnered from newspaper clips, memoirs, and the PR efforts of the other two competitors.

The documentary by Ken Burns detailing this first trans-continental road trip is poetic and thrilling. Using clips supplied from archives, plus a realistic "Horatio Cam" view crafted by Alan Moore, the film gives us a real sense of what it might have been like to travel any distance by automobile at a time when the roads were little more than cart tracks and game trails, and there were no roadside inns, restaturants or filling stations.

A final thrilling note comes almost as an afterword. All three cars drive the entire way in 1903; the Oldsmobile even goes the extra distance to dip its front wheels in the Atlantic (touting its trip as the "only true sea-to-sea transit of the United States"). But that same year, two bicycle mechanics in South Dakota were making history with another kind of vehicle, and Teddy Roosevelt sent the first telegraph "message sent 'round the world".

And in October 1903, two things happened. Harry Winton drove a car from his factory to the world record speed of 68 mph. And Horation Nelson Jackson, behind the wheel of the same car he drove across the country that year, was pulled over to receive a speeding ticket—for driving faster than 6 mph.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Gilman: Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress


Childhood is a happy time. But seared in the memory of every adult is a terrifying birthday party clown, or a slip on the gym floor that marked you forever as a geek, or a zipper left down for the length of a prom, noticed by all but you. It is a rare book that can let us laugh at someone else's childhood disasters and let go of our own at the same time.

That book is Susan Jane Gilman's Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress. Reading it, you reel from one bout of helpless laughter to another. It is only afterward that you realize who you were laughing at.

Five-year-old Susan Gilman, nude, dances frantically for an artsy home movie with an equally pudgy boy-child in the chill dawn air of Silver Lake, "a summer colony founded by Socialists, people either too exhausted from manual labor or too unfamiliar with it to care much about landscaping." Six-year-old Susan convinces her teacher that her parents have agreed to let her be called Sapphire, in an attempt to upstage the show-and-tell of Albert, who brought in his brother's bong.

Susan Gilmore leads the kindergarten ballerina Mafia, going to school dressed in her tutu and tights despite the time it takes to use the toilet while wearing it. Jewish child at a Presbyterian school, ten-year-old Susan aspires to play the Virgin Mary, then shocks the choir-mistress by withdrawing becauses she's "not a virgin." Adolescent Susan yearns to meet Mick Jagger—but not like any groupie, waiting for him outside a club; Susan dreams of meeting him at a swanky dinner party where she will charm him.

In short, we meet Susan Gilman from the inside out, along with the hippie adults who surrounded her as a child, the patient editors who hired her straight out of college, the do-good liberal Congresswoman whose staff (including Susan) carry the real burden of her penny-pinching. We share with her the catharsis of visiting Auschwitz, the terror of moving to a country where English is a foreign language, the angst of whether to "out" herself as a heterosexual at a wedding ceremony for two women.

Susan-the-author helps us place her experiences in context: the ominous wall unit ("hideous, the Death Star of furniture") purchased by her parents in their efforts to avoid separation, the coffee-shop deli where she has her first "real paying job", the wonder and grittiness of growing up on the Upper West Side of New York City before it was gentrified.

The Susan Gilman we meet in this book teeters from one fringe position to another, and somehow always remains balanced. Her tale of growing up gives us hope for our own mismanaged lives. If Susan can do it, surely we can too. And if not, well, at least we can all share a good laugh about it.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Monty Python's Flying Circus: All The Words


If you post opinions at a site that allows comments, or you read enough of other's posts, sooner or later you may be puzzled by references to the legendary walking tree of Dahomey, E. Henry Thripshaw's Disease or Mrs. Betty Teal and her lover in Boulton.
PRESENTER: Hello, sir, hello, yes. No sir, no. I'm sure you didn't. No, it's all right sir, we don't morally censure, we just want the money... Yes, and here's the address to send it to:
(caption read in voice over)

Perhaps you see a plea for the words to "The Lumberjack Song", but by the time you've fired up your VCR, fast-forwarded through the wrong 18 episodes to find it, transcribed the words and got back to your computer, six other people have already answered.
Dear Sir, I wish to complain in the strongest possible terms about the song which you have just broadcast, about the lumberjack who wears women's clothes. Many of my best friends are lumberjacks and only a few of them are transvestites. Yours faithfully, Brigadier Sir Charles Arthur Strong (Mrs).
P.S. I have never kissed the editor of the Radio Times.

Help is here in the two volumes of Monty Python's Flying Circus: All The Words. Here is the complete dialog of the "Parrot Sketch", the entire menu recitation that sets off the Vikings in the "Spam Sketch", the five Bruces of the "Philosophy Department of the University of Woolahmooloo".
Fourth Bruce: No. Right, well, gentlemen, I'll just remind you of the faculty rules. Rule one—no pooftahs. Rule two—no member of the faculty is to mistreat the Abbos in any way whatsoever if there's anyone watching. Rule three—no pooftahs. Rule four—I don't want to catch anyone not drinking in their room after lights out. Rule five—no pooftahs. Rule six—there is no... rule six. Rule seven—no pooftahs.

The books include a cross-referenced index; items in the second volume appear in italics in the index of each book. What isn't in these volumes is the brilliant cartoonery and illustration of Terry Gilliam, nor the bizarre credits that sometimes reflected the insanity that went before. (Some of Gilliam's graphics are described, where they are essential to the story or critical to the joke.) An insert of photos from the well-known episodes is also included in each volume.
Cardinal Ximenez: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

I've been enjoying these volumes for years, and find them essential to my reputation as a Python-quoter. I recommend them for any Flying Circus debater who wishes to reach the next level.

Q: What would it take to get Monty Python back together?
A: Well, since Graham Chapman has already died, I'd imagine a couple of bullets each would do the trick.

Friday, January 21, 2005

It's a Wonder More Teachers Don't Drink (or Write Blooper Books)


They certainly have an incentive, based on an eMail I just received. These are purported to be actual analogies and metaphors found in high school essays:

  1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

  2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

  3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

  4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.

  5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

  6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

  7. He was as tall as a six-foot-three-inch tree.

  8. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife's infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM.

  9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn't.

  10. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup.

  11. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you're on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.

  12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

  13. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

  14. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. at a speed of 35 mph.

  15. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan's teeth.

  16. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

  17. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant and she was the East River.

  18. Even in his last years, Grandpappy had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

  19. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

  20. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

  21. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

  22. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame. Maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

  23. The ballerina rose gracefully en pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

  24. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools.

  25. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

  26. Her eyes were like limpid pools, only they had forgotten to put in any pH cleanser.

  27. She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.

  28. It hurt the way your tongue hurts after you accidentally staple it to the wall.

These reminded me of the classic collection of answers high-school students gave to to history questions, excerpted from the hilarious blooper books by Richard Lederer ("the Word Guy"):
  • Ancient Egypt was inhabited by mummies, and they all wrote in hydraulics. They lived in the Sarah Dessert, where the climate was so hot that the inhabitants had to live elsewhere. Certain areas of the dessert are cultivated by irritation.

  • The Pyramids are a range of mountains between France and Spain. The Eqyptians built the pyramids in the shape of huge rectangular cubes.

  • The Bible is full of interesting caricatures. In the first book of the Bible -- Guinesses -- Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. One of their children, Cain, asked, "Am I my brother's son?"

  • Moses led the Hebrew slaves to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread, which is bread made without any ingredients.

  • Socrates was a famous Greek teacher who went around giving people advice. They killed him. After his death his career suffered a dramatic decline.

  • In the Olympic Games, Greeks ran the races, hurled the biscuits, and threw the java.

  • Julius Caesar extinguished himself on the battlefields of Gaul. The Ides of March killed him because they thought he was about to be made king. Dying, he gasped out: "Tee, hee, Brutus."

  • Then came the Middle Ages, when everyone was middle aged. King Alfred conquered the Dames. King Arthur lived in the age of Shivery, and Joan of Arc was burnt to a steak. She was cannonized by Bernard Shaw.

  • Finally, the Magna Carta provided that no free man should be hanged twice for the same offense.

  • In midevil times most people were alliterate. The greatest writer of the futile ages was Chaucer, who wrote many poems and verses, but also literature. During this time people put on morality plays about ghosts, goblins, virgins, and other mythical creatures.

  • The Renaissance was an age when more and more people felt the value of their human being. Martin Luther was nailed to a church door for selling papal indulgences. He died a horrible death, being excommunicated by a bull.

  • Queen Elizabeth was the "Virgin Queen." As a queen, she was a success. When Elizabeth exposed herself before her troops, they all shouted "Hurrah!" Afterward her navy went out and defeated the Spanish Armadillo.

  • It was an age of great inventions and discoveries. Gutenberg invented removeable type and the Bible. Another important invention was the circulation of blood. Sir Walter Raleigh is an historic figure because he invented cigarettes and started smoking.

  • Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.

  • The greatest writer of the Renaissance was William Shakespeare. Shakespeare was born in the year 1564 on his birthday. He never made much money, and is today remembered only for his plays. He wrote comedies, tragedies, and hysterectomies. In one of Shakespeare's most famous plays, Hamlet figures out his situation by relieving himself in a long soliloquy.

  • Later on, the Pilgrims crossed the ocean, and it was called Pilgrim's Progress. The winter of 1620 was a hard one for the settlers -- many people died and many babies were born. Captain John Smith was responsible for all of this.

  • The big reason for the Revolutionary War was that the English put tacks in their tea. Also, colonists were sending their parcels through the post without stamps.

  • Benjamin Franklin was a singer of the Declaration of Independence. He invented electricity by rubbing two cats backward, and declared, "A horse divided against itself will not stand."

  • Soon the Constitution of the United States was adopted to secure domestic hostility. Under the Constitution, the people enjoyed the right to keep bare arms.

  • Abraham Lincoln was America's greatest precedent. Lincoln's mother died in infancy, and he was born in a log cabin which he built with his own hands. Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while travelling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope.

  • On the night of April 14, 1865, Lincoln went to the movies and got shot in his seat. The believed assassinator was John Wilkes Booth, a supposedly insane actor. This ruined Booth's career.

  • Meanwhile in Europe, the Enlightenment was a reasonable time. Voltair invented electricity and also wrote a book called "Candy." Gravity was invented by Isaac Walton.

  • Johann Bach wrote a great many musical compositions and had a large number of children. In between he practiced on an old spinster he kept in the attic. Bach died from 1750 to the present. Bach was the most famous composer in the world, but so was Handel. Handel was half German, half Italian, and half English. Beethoven wrote very loud music because he was deaf. He took long walks in the forest, even when everyone was calling for him.

  • The sun never set on the British Empire because Britain is in the East and the sun sets in the West. Queen Victoria was the longest queen. Her death was the final event which ended her reign.

  • The 19th Century was a time of a great many thoughts and inventions: People stopped reproducing by hand and started reproducing by machines. The invention of steamboats caused a network of rivers to spring up. Cyrus McCormick invented the McCormick raper, which did the work of a hundred men. Charles Darwin wrote, "Organ of the Species"; Madman Curie discovered radio; and Karl Marx became one of the Marx Brothers.

We also should not forget the small, rabid coterie of deliberately-bad writers who vie every year for the Bulwer-Lytton prize. The 2004 winning entry from Dave Zobel of Manhattan Beach, CA:
She resolved to end the love affair with Ramon tonight . . . summarily, like Martha Stewart ripping the sand vein out of a shrimp's tail . . . though the term "love affair" now struck her as a ridiculous euphemism . . . not unlike "sand vein," which is after all an intestine, not a vein . . . and that tarry substance inside certainly isn't sand . . . and that brought her back to Ramon.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Freese: Coal, A Human History—We Work the Black Seam

In the summer of 1306, bishops and barons and knights from all around England left their country manors and villages and journeyed to London. They came to participate in that still-novel democratic experiment known as Parliament, but once in the city, they were distracted from their work by an obnoxious odor. These nobles were used to the usual stenches of medieval towns—the animal dung, the unsewered waste, and the rotting garbage lining the streets. What disgusted them about London was something new in the air: the unfamiliar and acrid smell of burning coal.

Coal, A Human History by Barbara Freese attempts to tell the "story of coal" and how its use has fueled progress and pollution at the same time. Freese has marshaled a number of intriguing facts to illustrate her story, but many of her more blatant claims are unsupported in her text. The result is a fascinating look at a mineral and an industry, seen through a window fouled with more than coal residue.
The booming coal industry was a leader in the brutal treatment of children [in 1834], and the steam engine just seems to have increased the ways children could be exploited.

History, opinion and sermon are inextricably intermingled, but Freese's treatise is still fascinating, more so in those sections of the book where history is given emphasis. She covers the pre-fuel use of coal by Roman jewelers, and details the ways in which coal fueled the Industrial Revolution and the age of industry. Her description of the early American settlers and their dread (and conquest) of the vast forest and vaster coal fields they found in the new world is another strong note.

The author explores some of the ways in which the world (or the industry) might be able to remediate the problems of using coal, but then shoots each one down. In this, she uses the same technique as in her social commentary on Industrial Age Britain: state an opinion flatly, then use the statement as a fact.
Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, we've burned enough fossil fuels to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in by about one-third, already bringing it to a level probably not seen in the last several million years... That is why environmentalists, regulators, and the coal industry all tend to see efforts to prevent climate change as the beginning of the end for coal. [Emphasis mine.]

Freese does not restrict her view to the use of coal in the Western world, but concludes with a look at coal-burning Third World societies. In this, she is honest enough to do what many who promote the Kyoto Accord do not: address the fact that China still is largely fueled by coal, that the country's growth and industrialization would not have been possible without its use, and that as long as China is not a signatory, there is little point in the US signing the accords.

Whether you agree with Freese's contentions or not, the book is still a fascinating and thoroughly-researched look at a very dirty topic. I enjoyed it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Better Homes & Gardens Biggest Book of Slow Cooker Recipes


The philosophical message of the Better Homes & Gardens Biggest Book of Slow Cooker Recipes is simple and straight-forward: start dinner in your slow-cooker before you leave in the morning, and eat healthy, delicious foods for dinner.
Slow cookers are hot. They always have been, of course, technically speaking. While there's a greater selection of colors, sizes and shapes than ever before, the basic mission of the slow cooker has not changed: to make your life easier and your meals tastier.

The BH&G cookbook is designed for the urban or suburban chef who wants to minimize kitchen time, but desires to control calories, fats, sodium, carbs—or cost. One of the best things about the recipes is found in the small text at the bottom of each recipe: a list of nutritional ingredients that will be in the completed dish if you follow the recipe exactly.
[Herbed Chicken and Mushrooms] Nutritional facts per serving: 360 cal, 7 g total fat (2 g sat. fat), 107 mg chol., 350 mg sodium, 35 g carbo., 3 g fiber, 34 g pro. Daily Values: 54% vit. A, 9% vit. C, 3% calcium, 20% iron.

In addition to sections on Appetizers & Beverages; Soups & Stews; Side Dishes; Beef, Pork & Lamb; Poultry; Meatless Main Dishes; and Desserts, the book also features two bonus sections: Five Ingredients recipes and One-Dish Dinners. (Some of the one-dish recipes in the bonus section do not use the slow cooker.) Recipes are one-page affairs, and each dish is introduced with a two-line description or serving suggestion.
[Beef and Borscht Stew] When peeling fresh beets, wear latex gloves to prevent staining your hands. Remember to serve the stew with sour cream, the customary garnish for this traditional Russian dish.

My favorites so far: Beer-Stewed Pork and Dumplings, and Argentina-Style Stew with pumpkin from the Soups & Stews section; Spicy Sloppy Joes (made with hot-style tomato juice), Slow Cooker Goulash, and Chicken with Artichokes and Olives from the meat entree sections, and Texas Two-Step Stew from the Five Ingredients section. But I haven't tried all the dinner recipes, and have not even begun to explore the Appetizers or Dessert recipes.
[Pear-Caramel Pudding Cake]

20 minutes
High: 2 hours
30 minutes
6 to 8 servings
3½- to 4-quart

In addition to the standard recipe instructions, many recipes also include generic tips for using the slow cooker effectively. Even more important, when a tip applies to more than one specific recipe, there will be a reference on the subsequent page or an entry in the exhaustive index.
Slow cooking requires little fat, thanks to low, moist heat. For low-fat meats, choose lean cuts of meat and trim away as much visible fat as possible... Once fat rises to the top, skim off any visible fat with a metal spoon.

If I have any complaint about this cookbook, it is that it is entirely too effective as an appetizer. I think I'll go make some "Slow Baked" Boston Brown Bread. It takes only 2½ hours, including prep time, and with a Mascarone cheese and toasted almonds topping, will make a great side dish for salad.

By the way, I recommend the comb-bound version. The cookbook is also available as a trade-size paperback, but I find paperback cookbooks difficult to use. Comb-binding allows the recipe you've selected to lie flat, open to the page you're using.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Bear: Darwin's Radio—A Dragon Sleeping in Our Genes


In evolutionary debate, the question of Intelligent Design is a hot button; if life-forms are evolving to a particular design, one must pre-suppose an intelligent designer.

In addition, one must find a mechanism to communicate this design, one that matches the observed phenomena better than Darwinian selection, and that serves to communicate the design forward through generations of forms that do not express it.
To give an example, if intelligent design is responsible for an air-breather's lungs, there must be some way for genetic instructions to create lungs to reside in the gill-breathing precursor life-form, and that instruction must stay unexpressed through all the ages of the gill-breather's generations.

Greg Bear has proposed such a mechanism in Darwin's Radio. Biologist Kyle Lang is investigating the possibility that an ancient disease may be coiled "like a sleeping dragon" in the remnants of endogenous retroviruses—so-called "junk DNA" in the human genome. As her research begins to bear fruit, a pandemic is growing. If she does not act, soon there may not be any humans left to use the knowledge she has gained.

Bear has taken a fact: the existence of gene "phages" that lie unexpressed in the genetic code until environmental stress causes them to express, and which can lie dormant for generations until they find the right conditions to express. From that fact, Bear has taken a great "what if" leap: What if a similar DNA sequence lies unexpressed in human DNA, waiting to drive all of us in the next evolutionary step forward?

Unaddressed in this novel, or the sequel, Darwin's Children, is the question of intelligent design. In fact, the second book seems to imply the opposite, that the "radio" telegraphing messages forward is merely genetic selection at the level of the individual gene. So the books are thrilling, and chock-full of information about human DNA research skillfully used to drive the story; yet for me, there is still that nagging question waiting to be asked.

After I finished this book, I was inspired to reread Shepherd Mead's outstanding black-humor science fiction novel, The Carefully Considered Rape of the World. It's based on a more simple idea—two salesmen go door-to-door, offering housewives a demo of their product. They don't mention that the demo includes unconsciousness and a side-effect that will take nine months to be fully revealed. Shepherd Mead is the author of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and that same twisted slick sense of humor is in play here. (The book is out-of-print, but you may find a copy in a used book store.)

Before you conclude that these two fellows are impossibly horny, you have to realize that their employer is an alien race bent on conquering humans by, well... the title really says it all.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Agricola: De Re Metallica—Not Guns, Nor Lead, But Men's Vices


The first illustrated "how-to" book for mining and metallurgy was written by the German Georg Bauer in the mid-16th century, and used from then to now; only minor changes were needed to accommodate modern materials. ("Bauer" was Latinized to "Agricola", probably by his teachers at the University of Leipzig.) But Agricola was a teacher, philosopher and doctor as well as the world's first industrial publicist, and the opening of De Re Metallica ("Concerning Metals") reflects his philosophical bent.

While re-reading it recently, I was struck by this passage in Chapter One. In the midst of a dissertation on the economics and politics of mining and the monetization of metals, Agricola diverts to make several points about the "evil" of metal weapons. It does not take much editing to apply his thoughts directly to today's debate on the "evil" of gun ownership.
The curses which are uttered against iron, copper and lead have no weight with prudent and sensible men, because if these metals were done away with, men, as their anger swelled and their fury became unbridled, would assuredly fight like wild beasts, with fists, heels, nails and teeth. They would strike each other with sticks, hit one another with stones, or dash their foes to the ground. Moreover, a man does not kill another with iron alone, but slays by means of poison, starvation or thirst. He may seize him by the throat and strangle him; he may bury him alive in the ground; he may immerse him in the water and suffocate him; he may burn or hang him; so that he can make every element a participant in the death of men... From these examples we see that it is not metals which are to be condemned, but our vices, such as anger, cruelty, discord, passion for power, avarice and lust.
 —Georgius Agricola, De Re Metallica

So it is not explosives that carry evil, it is the suicide bomber who carries the explosives. It is not the knife in the hand of the chef that stabs a man, but the one in the hand of the murderer. And it is not guns that kill. In all these examples, it is the murderer's desire to kill which is at fault, not the instruments used to act on those desires.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

McCann: Dancer—Dancing with a Fictional Nureyev


Rudolf Nureyev. The name is synonymous with ballet. But before the multiple entrechats, before the defection to the West, before the notable evenings in Paris and New York, there was a confused little boy who wanted two things from life: to dance, and to find approval.

Colum McCann's Dancer is a loose grouping of snapshots, scattered in time and location, that serve as well as anything can to illuminate the tempestuous life of the dancer Nureyev, the little boy Rudik, the homosexual Rudi. In this arrangement, the author agrees with the opening quote.
In any case, when talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw.
  —William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow

We see the child, slight and shivering, dancing to entertain shell-shocked soldiers returning to a hospital from the Western front; Rudik who barely knows his returning father, and is repelled by the fish his father expects him to gut; the boy who dreamed of his father until he met him again, and now only dreams of a stage with a red velvet curtain.
What was flung onstage during his first season in Paris (1961):
  • ten one-hundred franc bills held together with an elastic band
  • a packet of Russian tea...
  • white lilies... perfectly weighted to reach the stage...
  • sixteen pairs of women's underwear, a phenomenon that had never been seen in the theatre before...
  • broken glass thrown by Communist protesters...
  • death threats
  • hotel keys
  • and on the fifteenth night, a single long-stemmed gold-plated rose.

  • Rudolf Nureyev defected while in Paris that year—not for political reasons, but because he had discovered the active homosexual life of 1960s Paris, and rejected the warnings of the commissar charged with watching the ballet dancers. He was sentenced to seven years' hard labor if he should ever return to the USSR. But Rudi was having too much fun, and it would be decades before he would consider a return to his motherland.
    Watched All in the Family then cabbed to Judy and Sam Peabody's to see Nureyev (cab $2.50). Nureyev arrived and he looked terrible—really old-looking. I guess the nightlife finally got to him. His masseur was with him. The masseur is also sort of a bodyguard...
      —the Andy Warhol diaries, Sunday, March 11, 1979.

    The book is neatly divided into four parts, like separate boxes of photos in a trunk. Book four brings Rudolf Nureyev back to Russia in the time of detente. "How come they let you back?" his life-long friend asks, and he replies simply, "Raisa Gorbachev."
        And are you still dancing? I asked.
        They will put me down dancing, he said.
        I couldn't help but believe him—one day they would exhume Rudi and find his bones set in an attitude of leap...

    The snap-shot mode is difficult to parse at first, like a neophyte's understanding of ballet. But in the end, it is perfect for this tale, perfect for the dance we are invited to join.

    Saturday, January 15, 2005

    The Polar Express—Incredible Animation Effects

    MOVIE and BOOK

    Chris van Alsberg is a sculptor who sat down one day to write a children's book. Twenty-five years later, his creations are still stunning us from the printed page and the movie screen alike. The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, published first, was a Caldecott Honor winner. A few years later, The Polar Express won the Caldecott Medal. Several years after that, Jumanji hit the bookshelves and took another Caldecott for Alsberg, becoming an exciting movie with Robin Williams and a young Kirsten Dunst.

    But even though The Polar Express won honors first, it waited to become a movie until the state of the art could match Arlsberg's sweet vision. The animated movie starring the voices of Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari*, directed by Robert Zemeckis, opened in theatres last year.

    I'll confess my own agoraphobia, which prevents me from enjoying opening nights of popular movies. It's not uncommon for me to wait until a film has lost all its legs before going to see it in a theatre. So I thought this weekend would be perfect for the Christmas-themed Polar Express. I walked into the theatre 15 minutes before the movie was due to start, and saw three patrons already waiting. Before I had the salty layer off the top of my popcorn, the seats below me began to fill. Children and their parents, small groups of adults—this movie must have more legs than I thought!

    As the movie started, I began to see why. First, it is no cartoon. The detail in the animation is breath-taking. Eyes are expressive, faces are realistic and hair and clothing move in life-like ways, but that is not even half of the detail I saw. Snowflakes appear to be rendered, then blurred for distance. Flurries of them waft and drift in flumes and feathers. Handkerchiefs flutter, eyeglasses slip and steam up, wet socks cling and drip with a reality that carries the viewer into the movie.

    The action of the film is split between the main character, a young boy who has lost the Christmas magic, and begun to doubt the reality of Santa Claus, and the train itself, a chuffing, racing roller-coaster ride through icy canyons and across mostly-frozen lakes. Add a free-loading ghost just solid enough to perform a rescue or two, and you've got some thrills going. In fact, two young girls sitting on either side of their Daddy cuddled up with their faces hidden under his arms as the train sped down a 179-degree incline, one of them whimpering, "I'm scared!"

    "It's okay," he said as the rest of us chuckled, "you don't have to watch this part."

    The story is schmaltzy, but we must expect that in a Christmas flick. It's a sweet sentimentality that is missing in many over-cynical Christmas movies today. And if instant friendship between a little black girl, a kid from the "wrong side of the tracks" and a skeptical ten-year-old boy is part of the story, we scarcely notice the stretch. After all, Christmas is magic, and it's a magic train, the Polar Express.

    *If the name Peter Scolari rings a bell, he was the other half of the Bosom Buddies, the 1980 TV sit-com in which he and Tom Hanks first became known as actors. Zathora, the book sequal to Jumanji, was released in 2002.

    Friday, January 14, 2005

    Willis: To Say Nothing of the Dog—Comedy of Manners and Time Travel


    Connie Willis has a unique twist on time travel: the "net" through which travelers access other times is self-correcting. Not only can one not travel to a time in which one has already lived, one cannot bring "through the net" anything that might cause an anachronistic incongruity. Crisis points are even more tightly controlled: no one can travel to Waterloo, for example, or get close to the grassy knoll.

    So when in To Say Nothing of the Dog, Ned Henry is dragooned by Lady Shrapnell into traveling back in time to research the "bishop's bird stump" at Coventry Cathedral just before it was destroyed in the Blitz, he is baffled by his inability to find it. Back and forth he goes, getting more and more time-lagged as he visits jumble sales ("maybe it was sold as a white elephant"), the bombed-out smoking remains of the cathedral ("That's a cat! I thought it would be the size of a wolf, somehow...) and the peace and quiet of the Victorian age.

    The last visit is necessary because somehow, a cat (extinct in 2067) has been brought forward through the net. Ned is volunteered to take it back, and somehow get Lady Shrapnell's great-great-great-grandmother to visit Coventry so that she will write about the bishop's bird stump in her diary, because, so Lady Shrapnell will be inspired to rebuild Coventry Cathedral and restore the bishop's bird stump to its rightful place in history and the hearts of Englishmen.

    Mr. Dunworthy and Finch, whom we met in The Doomsday Book, are back. They want to make sure the net stays open and history happens. Lady Shrapnell is determined to get the cathedral rebuilt on time, with the bishop's bird stump, despite the laws of physics—besides, "laws are made to be broken." Professor Peddick wants to defeat his rival Overforce with his ideas of a "Grand Design" that "shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we may." Verity Kindle wants to make sure the cat she rescued isn't drowned, "incongruity or not." Ned just wants to get a full night's sleep.

    What transpires out of this nest of competing ambitions is a wonderful comedy of manners, with modern perspective applied with liberal amounts of humor and allusion. History is used as a sustaining structure seen by the participants in the way we note limbs, leaves and stems on a tree: as a confusing mass dimly perceived in detail, and really understood only as a gestalt "tree" (even while Lady Shrapnell reminds us that "God is in the details." It is also an Agatha-Christie-style mystery whose deftly-handled clues span 700 years of history.

    I recommend it highly.

    The title comes from a contemporary comedy of manners by Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). As part of the detail of Willis' story, Ned Henry actually sees the author and his friends, to say nothing of the dog, punting down the Thames.

    Thursday, January 13, 2005

    Bob Hope Duo on DVD: Road to Comedy (Not a Book)


    All who buy DVDs at the grocery store, raise your hands! (One, two, three...) OK, for all ten of us who do this, let me tout the Albertson's shelves, where you will find a collection of loosely-allied films together on DVD, under the "Vintage Movie" (Vintage Home Entertainment) label. There's a selection of classic cartoons, for example, or three black-and-white films with Jack Nicholson (including the hilariously dark Little Shop of Horrors, the original with no singing, but lots of campy gore). A set of Roy Rogers reels and a collection of Andy Griffith episodes can be found there, as well as some not-even-B movies like Curse of the Werewolf collected on one DVD.

    But the best title is the one I bought, a duo of Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour movies collected under Road to Comedy. The folder cover includes a little historical write-up about the late entertainer who was born "Leslie Towns Hope" in England in 1903.

    The two movies paired in this set are the classic Road to Bali, starring Bing Crosby as well as Hope and Lamour, and My Favorite Brunette, a great spoof of film noir mysteries, with an uncredited cameo by Alan Ladd and a billed one by Bing Crosby. Please note that this duo from Vintage Home Entertainment has excellent production quality in video and audio, as well as reasonable scene bookmarks for fast-forwarding. (Contrast this with the Unicorn Video version listed on the Amazon site.) The only thing I would have liked is a Scene Selection option in the menu, but both movies are so short, you can get a quick tour simply by pressing the "Next Scene" button on your controller.

    My Favorite Brunette is a black-and-white offering, in which Hope is a photographer mistaken for next-door neighbor Alan Ladd, a private detective. He is hired by Lamour to rescue her uncle from a sanitarium which also hosts a knife-throwing Lon Chaney, Jr, and the ever-sinister Peter Lorre. Reginald Denney plays the uncle, a geologist whose murder is credited to Hope's bumbling detective. This is really delightful, especially if you watch it after viewing a real film noir entree such as The Maltese Falcon.

    Road to Bali is the only Hope-Crosby-Lamour Road movie made in color. Like all the Road moves, the scenery is studio-set and 50s-Hollywood-style. People went to these movies to be entertained, not informed—fortunately, since there is very little factual material in any Road movie. The Bali "location" seems to have been chosen to allow the maximum color and minimum coverage in the ladies' costumes. There is the typical banter between Hope and Cosby, the typical disguised sex jokes about (and from) Lamour, and passable song-and-dance from all three. Keep a note-pad on hand to record the cameos, which are numerous and humorous.

    A really great deal for less than $6.

    Wednesday, January 12, 2005

    Smith: Pallas—Second Amendment and Freedom in the Asteroids


    L. Neil Smith's original fiction shows the influence of Ayn Rand, as well as his own long involvement with the Libertarian Party; and none of his novels reflect this so clearly as Pallas.

    This story of finding freedom is set on a commercially-developed asteroid, Pallas, but opens in a collectivist compound on that planetoid, the Greeley Union Memorial Project. Emerson Ngu (pr. "new") is a thorn in the sides of the project overlord, Senator Altman, and his UN goons. This young man was enrolled in the project as an infant, when his parents signed their rights, his and those of his children over to the project in exchange for passage to "the opportunity of a lifetime" on Pallas. After they arrived, they discovered a wall between them and the Pallatian opportunity, and learned they were destined to be plantation serfs under the whips and batons of the UN troops.
    The police are like parents. They're not really interested in justice, they simply want quiet.
     —Mirelle Stein, The Productive Class

    Young Ngu, though, doesn't want to be a field worker on the Project. An irrepressible entrepreneur and inventor, he gets into trouble as a child for selling refreshments made from oranges discarded from the Senator's "big house", and scrabbles together enough components to make his own crystal radio. That's how he discovers the real Pallas, and determines someday to fly over the wall to freedom.

    When Emerson Ngu does finally escape from the Project, he finds a culture strange and wonderful to him. Pallatians are expected to carry a gun—to go without one is to be "socially nekkid." They have each signed the "Hyperdemocratic Contract," a simple 7-point document that lays out the entire legal structure of the planetoid, with libertarian minimalism. And strangest of all to Ngu, they are all carnivores, eating far more protein in a single meal than he has had in a year on the Project.

    This philosophy allies with Ngu's own abilities and beliefs, as he sets out to remake his world. He puts together a simple crystal radio locked on the single station, and arranges to smuggle dozens of them into the Project. He invents an easy-to-construct pistol, and builds his factory within walking distance of the Project to lure assemblers from amongst their number. His plan is to arm the serfs, and promote insurgency. Finally, he invents a simple way to get around, and in so doing, puts the final nail in the Project's coffin.
    You are what you eat—which sort of accounts for vegetarians, I guess.
     —Raymond Louis Drake-Tealy, Hunting and Humanity

    If Ngu is the ideal of the capitalist, his opposite number at the Project, Senator Altman, is the quintessential collectivist, who means to rule well, but (make no mistake), means to rule. Altman is a cosmic remittance man, described as a kind of amalgam of (then newly-elected) President Clinton and Senator Kennedy; Altman has been exiled to the Project after a particularly steamy sex scandal.

    At first, Ngu is a minor nuisance to Altman, who believes he can simply have the "minor child" returned to the Project and his parents. He learns that Pallatians don't consider an emancipated person paying his own way as a minor, regardless of his age. The Senator tries to have Ngu's broadcast advertising shut down, and loses that lawsuit as well. He tries organizing competing industries, but loses his shirt. At last he resorts to "the last refuge of the incompetent" and hires thugs to kill Ngu and his family.

    Emerson Ngu, meanwhile, has not been simply resting, waiting for the next attack. He meets two of the founders of Pallas: Mirelle Stein (obviously patterned after Ayn Rand) and Raymond Louis Drake-Tealy (a reflection of Robert Ardrey, who wrote The Hunting Hypothesis, and Raymond Dart, the South African anthropologist whose theories Ardrey popularized).

    Smith has done an excellent job of portraying the heroic (and human) in Ngu, Stein and Drake-Tealy. And like the villains of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Altman shows the venality and petty nature of their opposition. It's a novel to re-read whenever your perception of the edges between them starts to blur.

    An interesting note in the back-story: the UN has been booted out of the US, and is now located in Sri Lanka.

    Tuesday, January 11, 2005

    McCaffrey: Dragon's Kin—News from Pern, with Son Todd


    There are worlds we fall in love with from the first novel. Harry Potter. Honor Harrington. Flinx and Pip. But for many of us, the first of those instant loves was with the third world of Rukbat, called Pern. Here, there were dragons.

    Together with Anne McCaffrey, we explored the consequences of a telempathic, flight-capable companion which selected its life-long partners. Every lonely child could dwell for the space of reading in a place where one might be plucked up from the ordinary and removed forever to the realm of heros.

    McCaffrey's own hobbies and interests echoed throughout the Pern novels. Song and music, art and craft and cothold technology flavored the tales of great dragons and tiny fire-dragons. Then it seemed the author lost the taste for dragons. She launched the Acorna series. She co-authored novels with Elizabeth Ann Scarborough and Elizabeth Moon. Meanwhile, Pern languished unconsidered.

    But Pern is back. Dragon's Kin is a real addition to the Pern oevre, with the genuine flavor of McCaffrey's writing, and the adolescent heros that won us to this world in the first place. Co-authored by Anne's son Todd, the book tells how miner's son Kindan finds the dragon-power and kinship in the watch-whers. Todd's story is slightly darker than his mother's have been. No less than ten miners die in the course of the story, and Kindan and his friend Zenor are both orphaned. But like all of the Pern stories, the story ends with growth and satisfaction, not fairy-tale happiness—and the promise of a sequel. And that's happy ending enough for me!