Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Under a Green Skin: Wicked by Gregory Maguire


"History will be kind to me for I intend to write it."
—Sir Winston Churchill

L. Frank Baum's classic "history" of the Land of Oz was most unkind to the Wicked Witch of the West and her sister; the novel showed Dorothy Gale as an innocent gently tricked by the Wizard and by Glinda the Good. But what if this is a biased story? Isn't it fair to give the Witch a chance to set us straight?

Gregory Maguire's ground-breaking novel, Wicked, does just that. The Witch who tormented Dorothy and her friends was once an infant, born with a green skin and vicious teeth, and a violent allergy to water. Elphaba yearns all her life for the approval of her father, but it is given instead to her armless sister, Nessarose. She is Glinda's roommate at a nearly-Hogwartian academy, where she is the butt of jokes perpetrated by the good Glinda and her noble friends. Her one friend, Doctor Dillamond, is a Goat trying valiantly to find a scientific basis to fight the Wizard's denial of Animal Rights.

Shortly after Doctor Dillamond is murdered, the three girls—Glinda, Elphaba and Nessarose—are recruited by the politically-connected Headmistress, Madame Morrible, to become sorceress-ministers for the North (Glikkus), South (Quadling Country) and East (Munchkinland) quadrants of Oz. The west (Vinkus or "Winkie" Country) is considered too rural to be a threat to the empire-building Wizard. Elphaba escapes this geas (perhaps), hiding in the Emerald City, abetting the terrorist rebel forces, engaging in a long love affair with Fiyero, Prince of the Vinkus.

Fiyero is murdered by the Gale Force (the Imperial Storm Troopers of the Wizard), and Elphaba eventually makes her way to the Vinkus with a young boy who may be his son. As the muledriver observes on this trip,
To the grim poor, there need be no pour quois tale about where evil arises; it just arises; it always is. One never learns how the witch became wicked, or whether that was the right choice for her—is it ever the right choice?

Part of the fun of the novel is recognizing elements from the Baum series or from the 1939 movie. A misdirected Life Powder animates a mounted rack of antlers on the wall—and foreshadows the wonderful Gump from the second book of the series. Madame Morrible's murdering manservant Grommetik is Tik-Toc of Oz. Young Elphaba is disgusted by an experiment on a Lion cub too young to have been removed from its mother—when she frees the Animal, we know this cub will grow into the Cowardly Lion. When Elphaba rescues a snow monkey, we see the origin of the flying Monkey squadrons that will eventually carry off Dorothy, Toto and the Lion.

But much of the story is darker than Baum's tale ever wanted to be. Glinda's award of the silver slippers to Dorothy is a coldly-calculated propaganda move designed to help the Wizard crush the Munchkinland rebellion. The Emperor Wizard's emblem, a balloon and basket with crossed bars beneath it, looks like a skull and crossbones at first glance. The Wizard himself is revealed as a tyrannical Satanist who hints at having performed human sacrifice to get to Oz from the Other Land in order to retrieve an earthly Grimmoire. (And who he sacrificed is one of the surprises at the end of the book.)

Elphaba castigates herself as a failure, seeking redemption from her sins even while she vehemently denies that redemption is possible. The evil of this Witch, it seems in the end, is in squandering her love on the inanimate and unconscious, while ignoring or rejecting the people that surround her. Her final baptism (remember, we know how this story ends) releases her at last from her unhappy life.

This is no child's tale. Read it, and I guarantee you'll never see the Wizard of Oz in quite the same way again.

Second opinion: Read No Milk's post for an opinion on the Wicked! stage show, and Matt Moore's take on the novel.

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Monday, May 30, 2005

Taming the Open-Source DB: MySQL in a Nutshell by Russell J.T. Dyer


By its own reckoning, MySQL Database Server is "the world's most popular open source database." Searches are swift, and the architecture makes it easy to customize. The server and storage engine are separate, which "makes it possible to run with strict transaction control or with ultra-fast transactionless disk access, whichever is most appropriate for the situation." And being open source, a GPL-licensed version is available for free online. From its initial adoption by Linux users, the database server has begun to make inroads on the marketplace dominated by Oracle and MS SQL. MySQL AB averages around 35,000 downloads of their software every day.

You get the program free, true—but manuals and tutorials come at a charge, as does the enterprise-level product. Even with the utilities that come bundled with MySQL, though, it's hard to keep all of its possibilities in mind. That's where Russell Dyer comes in. With MySQL in a Nutshell, Dyer has provided the perfect desk reference for this powerful DB engine.

This is not a book to learn database management from, nor is it a tutorial for building MySQL applications. There are plenty of helpful tutorials for those purposes, after all. The need that Dyer's book answers is the midnight-oil-burning, "how the heck do I analyze tables again? And are they delineated with commas or semicolons?" kind of question. You know the ones I mean; if you answer right, you get to go home and sleep with your spouse for a few hours—but answer wrong, and you'll still be sweating over the database when the day shift arrives.



Use this statement to analyze and store the key distribution of a table. It works on BDB, InnoDB,and MyISAM tables. Unless the NO_WRITE_TO_BINLOG option is given, the statement is written to the binary log file. The LOCAL option is synonymous.


|Table               |Op     |Msq_type|Msg_text|
|workrequests.workreq|analyze|status  |OK      |

The message type results can be status, error, info or warning. If the table hasn't changed since it was last analyzed, the message text will read, "Table is already up to date" and the table won't be analyzed. This statement is equivalent to using   myisamchk -a at the command line for MyISAM tables.

There is a quick list of installation instructions for various operating systems (a couple of pages each), followed by a brief (15-page) introduction to MySQL, then Dyer launches into the command syntax and purpose of the multitude of MySQL options. Entries are separated into chapters by type:
  • SQL Statements
  • String Functions
  • Date and Time Functions
  • Aggregate and Mathematical Functions
  • Flow Control Functions
  • Miscellaneous Functions
  • MySQL Server and Clients
  • Command-Line Utilities
  • Perl API
  • C API

As you can see from the list, the entries cover everything that might be a challenge in managing or using MySQL. But just to make absolutely sure, Dyer includes several appendices that define datatypes, operators and environment variables. Tables scattered throughout the book list the nuances of option switches and parameters, essential for statements and functions with more than one or two choices.

If you use MySQL, this reference will be invaluable. And it's Safari-enabled, so you can also Search it online.

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Sunday, May 29, 2005

Fictional Technology: Bob Shaw's Slow Glass


Bob Shaw's singular contribution to science fiction came in small packages. Shaw wrote many short stories (one, Light of Other Days, is available online), and a novel, Other Days, Other Eyes, using this speculative technology. But these stories were no more about slow glass than Camus' The Plague (La Peste) is about Yersinia pestis.

Technovelgy's entry for slow glass gives a brief description of the "Bose-Einstein condensate" that forms slow glass, and its critical property:
Bose-Einstein condensates are created when atoms are cooled to absolute zero; the atoms collapse into the lowest quantum state, producing a superfluid... Bose-Einstein condensates have optical densities such that the speed of light passing through the mass is extremely low—walking speed as opposed to its usual 186,000 miles per second.

From that concept, Shaw built a amazing sub-genre of "what-if" speculation. One story has a murder witnessed by slow glass; some years later it will divulge the shocking truth. When it does, will the murderer be the same person he once was, or will his long contemplation of the inevitable revelation have changed him? Another tale dwells briefly on the contented married life of a man in the country, as seen by passers-by and brief visitors. But inside the cottage, a very different state of life is hidden by the outward display supplied by the slow glass. Superficially this is simply poignant, but underneath lies an allegory of the occult nature of every marriage.

The light that passed through Shaw's slow glass illuminated (eventually) many facets of the human condition. What more ought we to ask of fiction, science or otherwise?

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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Alien Perspective: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon


A writer must see the world through the eyes of his characters in order to succeed in revealing them to his readers. This simple fact underlies the basic humanity of the most alien creatures in science fiction; we can only write about that which we know.

This being so, Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, must spring from Haddon's own experience with the very alien perspective of his main character, Christopher Boone, a "high-functioning" autistic teenager living with his widower father, who sets out to solve a neighborhood crime.

Unable to make sense of the adult world of emotions, social fictions, outright lies and gentle evasions, Christopher falls back on his love of pattern and logic. He ascribes a magical ability to harm or bless to mundane occurances and sensations: seeing four red cars in a row on the way to school means he will have a very good day. Brown and yellow are bad, so he doesn't touch yellow things or eat yellow food. When too much data is coming in, Christopher's only recourse is to moan and block it out.

His experience of the world is chaotic, overwhelming, so he tries to impose order on it in any way he can. Taking a leaf from a favorite fictional character, Sherlock Holmes, the teen resolves to approach everything logically, systematically using his own eidetic memory and keen observational skills to discern patterns in the quicksand-shifting adult world.

He starts with the "murder" of Wellington, the standard poodle across the street. Christopher does not understand why he is arrested when he is found covered in blood, cradling the dead pet in his arms. He is baffled by the hostility of the dog's owner, a former family friend who stepped in to help Christopher and his father cope after the loss of his mother. And he carefully steps around the letter of his father's injunction to stop playing detective, persisting in his search for the cause of Wellington's death.

The boy's desire to solve this mystery leads him to step out of his comfortable childhood life, and make a journey as daunting to Christopher as any African explorer's. What he discovers during his sleuthing is a surprise to all in the story (including Christopher himself), and also to the reader.

There is no doubt that Curious Incident is a well-written mystery. Its brilliance, though, lies in the way Haddon has exposed us to the truly alien in our midst. The novel deserves every bit of the praise and promotion it has garnered.

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Friday, May 27, 2005

Weekly BlogScan: Pranks and Presidential Portraits

The news that two US high schools had "Presidential Picture Malfunctions" this week prompted my drunkards' walk through the blogosphere today. The yearbook of Mesa Grande High School in Colorado labeled one student's portrait "Most likely to assassinate President Bush," prompting a visit from stoney-faced Secret Service investigators. Students at El Camino Real High School near Los Angeles, California, put up posters depicting the President as Groucho Marx—and had them taken down by school authorities because Groucho/Bush's cigar violated school policy against "promoting smoking."

How common is the decision to commit what the perpetrator invariably calls a "just a prank"?

Jonathan Rowe's eponymous blog points out the dangers of running pranks in Prank Calls & the Law. He was prompted to this topic by the infamous Junkyard Willie CDs, in which incoming customer service calls, misdialed, wind up on Willie's phone. Hilarity ensues—but is it against the law?

Dr. Alec Broers is impotent.
Image from Viagra Prank

Many goofy pranks are documented on John Hargrave's blog ZUG, but you should ration yourself when reading the multi-part entry "The Viagra Prank." I can't vouch for the safety of so much side-splitting laughter!
Here's Dr. Alec Broers from the renowned medical journal s95forcheapmeds.nepzzz.com, who claims "This product is 100% SAFE medically tested in labs, and by myself personally." Which means that Dr. Broers is impotent. Ha ha! "I happen to know this drug will work," went the second (and more revealing) part of Dr. Broers' endorsement, "because I myself have a limp, sagging penis." You'll notice they don't mention what kind of doctor he is. That's because he is a doctor of love.
Hargrave documents his experiments with Viagra in a five-part series. I skipped right to Part 4: Taking Viagra in Church.

Famous among school pranks is the We Suck scam which Yale perpetrated against Harvard University last year. This is itself a replay of Caltech's classic Great Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961. And MIT has a long and honored history of Harvard pranks, which have been compiled in the linked volume Nightwork.

Abby Taylor of Falafel Sex, and Other Things Best Left Unsaid led me to another ZUG prank, the truly hilarious Credit Card Prank. This guy Hargrave must be a pranking genius—the artwork he uses to electronically sign his credit-card receipt is a hoot, and the letter of apology to Mariah Carey for forging her name to an IOU to pay a Mass Pike toll is sheer poetry. (Although my spouse points out that Mariah probably won't cash his check, which may be needed for evidence in a restraining order against stalking .)

And finally, Shizzy Joyce writes the cruelest (and most ironically appropos) eMail prank I've ever read. Whether you love Starbucks or hate it, whether you sympathize with the entry-level weasel Shizzy scams, or cheer for each new humiliation, you'll be amazed at what passes for ethics in coffee-corporate life.

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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Shoddabags and Esteefee: Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper


H. Beam Piper's science fiction includes three highly successful series, and two beloved novels: Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen and Little Fuzzy. Piper believed himself a failure, however, and committed suicide barely 14 years into his writing career.

Little Fuzzy is the tale of an endearing creature encountered on a mining planet by Jack Holloway, a somewhat reclusive sunstone miner. Holloway recognises the intelligence of this little guy, especially when he happens to slow down a recording of the "Yeek!" Little Fuzzy uses for speech. There are discrete words in that high-pitched voice—and "Pappy Jack" sets out to learn Fuzzy speech, as Little Fuzzy begins to learn English.

Navy emergency rations (ST3) are a big hit with Little Fuzzy, so much that he brings a few friends to get some from Pappy Jack. All the Fuzzies want shoddabag (shoulder-bags made from old cartridge cases) and esteefee (the "wonderful food," as they refer to the Navy rat-bars.)

When some new Fuzzies show up with a wealth of sunstones to store in their new shoddabags, Holloway has a mystery to solve. Are the Fuzzies thieves? Even if they are, are they competent enough to be charged uder the law? Holloway's investigation pits him squarely against Victor Grego's Zarathustra Sunstone Mining Company, which has a monopoly charter to buy sunstones on the planet.

Holloway realizes that the Fuzzies' presence on the planet may mark the end of Zarathustra Company's charter, and that someone in the Company may be trying to eradicate all the Fuzzies before that can happen. The thrilling climax of the story pits Pappy Jack and Little Fuzzy against Grego and the Company in a court of law.

The story of Little Fuzzy is charming, sweet enough that we do not notice how many serious themes are being presented. Guns and hunting, "appropriate technology," merchantile monopoly, faginy and the "legitimate" exploitation of minors, self-rule, and the rule of law are all tackled as Little Fuzzy and his champions establish Fuzzy sapience. You can thus read Little Fuzzy as a tale about cute little smart beings or as an allegory for conservative values.

Either way, Little Fuzzy is a book that ought to be on the shelf of any science-fiction reader. I recommend it in the collection, The Complete Fuzzy, which includes the other two Piper Fuzzy novels, Fuzzy Sapiens and Fuzzies and Other People.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies: The Cat's Meow


I'll watch just about anything with Kirsten Dunst in it. And I've forgiven Edward Herrman any number of cinematic blunders, for the sake of his superbly comedic FDR in Annie. Throw in Cary Elwes, and Jennifer Tilly; spice it with Joanna Lumley and Eddie Izzard—how can you go wrong?

Well, to start with, the story of The Cat's Meow wanders aimlessly, never quite focusing on any character. William Randolph Hearst's affair with actress Marion Davies was an open secret in Hollywood. Charlie Chaplain's skirt-chasing was also well-known. And all we truly know about the death of Thomas Ince was that it followed several days after his presence on Hearst's yacht, the Oneida.

This movie attempts to explain the events that led to Ince's death by presenting Ince as a man desperate to regain power in Hollywood. Cary Elwes' Ince is the strongest portrait in the film; he is conniving, hypocritical and sleazy. As a result, we don't really care when Hearst (Herrman), his jealousy enraged by Ince's carefully-built innuendos about Davies and Chaplain, mistakes him for Chaplain (Izzard), and shoots Ince in the middle of the night.

I would love to say that Louella Parsons or Eleanor Glyn had a significant role in the tale, since only rumor places either of them on the yacht during the days that lead up to Ince's death. Unfortunately, Tilly's Parsons is a loud-mouthed climber, scatter-brained and spineless (until she chances upon the secret of her life, and parlays it into a lifetime contract with the Hearst papers). Lumley as Glyn is just as close-mouthed and supercilious as was Glyn in real life. Her role, however, is reduced to that of narrator.

Aside from Elwes, the movie is only redeemed (to the small extent that it is) by Dunst as Marion Davies. This is a nuanced role; we feel her many reasons for staying with the powerful media magnate, and also her attraction to a charismatic Chaplain. What a pity Izzard's Chaplain is flat, unappealing. It undercuts Dunst's portrayal; there is no tension here, because we can't believe Davies would trade even the pathetic Hearst (as Herrman plays him) for this amoral weasel.

Steve Peros, who wrote the screenplay, also wrote the stage play, and appears in the film as Glyn's driver. Two or three bits of his stage-craft make it into the movie—the ping-pong game between Parsons and Ince's disaffected mistress is particularly hilarious, as two maid-servants retrieve any ball that leaves the table while Parsons complains about how boring the game is. She never seems to notice that her opponent isn't even trying to hit the balls.

But after the third "decadent Hollywood" scene, you want to scream at the screen. We get it! OK? You're rich, you're careless, your lives are totally screwed up! There are no revelations here, no secrets laid bare. In the end, Meow is just another F. Scott Fitzgerald knock-off, without the faintest shred of real tinsel under the false glitter.

My advice? Instead, see RKO 281, about the making of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, widely supposed to be a pseudo-biography of Hearst and Davies.


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Revival Tour: American Gods by Neil Gaiman


Shadow is having a bad day. Just out of prison, he learns that his wife, Laura, and the source of the job he'd counted on, his friend Rob, are both dead. A nasty storm keeps diverting or delaying planes as he tries to get home for the funeral. And a strange fellow named "Wednesday" persists in offering him employment.

Neil Gaiman's American Gods has a fascinating premise; gods require worship the way people require air and water. Without the attention and adulation of the believer, gods simply fade away—and the old-world gods who came to the New World in the hearts of immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Africa are in a bad way. They're being supplanted by new American gods.

The literal storm that diverts Shadow's plane is matched by the metaphysical storm that's coming. Shadow is swept up in the tricky maneuvers of Grimnir One-Eye, who cons and cheats everyone he encounters. When Shadow's dead wife Laura shows up, her cold animated corpse confronts him with his own unfeeling nature; Shadow might as well be sleep-walking, for all the involvement he has in his own life. He seems to follow Wednesday passively, allowing the older god to direct his actions as a way of avoiding choice. Yet in the coming battle of gods, Shadow will be required to make the most difficult of choices.

The new gods are easy to identify: Media wears the faces of Lucy Ricardo and Katie Couric; Technology Boy is a pimply, circuitry-for-brains geek; a literally-unnoticeable entity embodies Gambling. For the older gods, it helps to have read The Golden Bough, Frazier's great comparative-religion compilation, although Ibis and Jackal, Horus and Easter, "Mama-Ji" Kali, Medusa, and various Norns and Fates are recognizable. Gaiman does not short us on the lesser-known boggarts and heroes, either. Sooner or later, every mythological creature you've ever heard of (and more than one that you haven't) comes into the story.

Gaiman weaves the tangled stories of all these gods and their histories into a complex braid, then whips it around into a hangman's noose. And if important characters die in the telling of the tale; well, resurrection is expected of a god.

American Gods is a dark romp, surprising in the way a good mystery ought to be (but often is not), with plenty of unexpected twists to keep the reader guessing. Wonderful!

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Calling Mr. Winkie


According to studies referred to by Dr. Steven Lamm in his book, The Hardness Factor, calling your male appendage by a pet name could actually result in a loss of "erectile potency." To paraphrase, "naming your most private part can serve to distance it from you, even creating a sense of competition between it and your ego."

So giving Mr. Winkie a personal name is not just a sign of respect. Who knew?

Of course, the book covers multiple other causes for loss of hardness in men, lifestyle choices like obesity, alcoholism, smoking and sedentary habits. Its cover blurb promises the book will help you "achieve optimal health and sexual fitness [and] also understand why the penis is the best barometer of a man's health."

The title of the book reminded me of the Mohs hardness scale, used in mineralogy to identify rocks. So does He Who Shall Be Nameless rate closer to talc than quartz or garnet? I don't care, he's still a diamond to me!

With recipes for food and exercise designed to boost overall health, and lots of anecdotes from his private practice to illustrate his recommendations, Lamm's book will amuse, and will at least do no harm.

I just can't get past that name deal. I guess I could always just call him "Sir."

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Monday, May 23, 2005

Style and Substance: Using HTML Codes in Your Posts

HTML code lets us "dress up" our posts to make them easily understood, easily read, and to help the important elements stand out. The style you add to your text is only part of what you contribute when you post here, of course. The substance of your opinions, news, or review is the part that you form.

But using common style elements helps you fit your writing into the community here.

No Explicit URLs     800-character-long URLs are very annoying in a live-display environment, but even a relatively-short URL is less useful than a link. The link allows the reader to click (or not click) to open the cited location. And it's simple to do; just copy and paste this code, substitute "[URL]" with your URL, and change "[link words]" to what you want the link to say.
<a href="[URL]" target="new"/>[link words]</a>

Book Titles in Italics     Also, DVD titles, TV-show titles, etc. Italic (actually, emphasis) text helps the title of what you're reviewing or commenting on stand out from the body of your text. It's also a good idea to name the book and give the author's name somewhere in the first few paragraphs (although that is not a set style-rule). To italicize text, use this code, but change "[title]" to the title of the item you're writing about. Note: Book titles and author's names should be correctly capitalized. When in doubt, use the capitalization you see on the cover of the book.

Mark Short Quotes Properly     When you include a short quote from what you're reviewing, enclose it in double quotes. (The simple character from your keyboard (") is preferred to the fancy open- and close-quote marks supplied by some word processors.) Use the ellipsis (...) to mark where you have removed words or jumped over text.
Example: "The simple character... (") is preferred to... marks supplied by some word processors."

Set Off Longer Quotes     The threshold for a "longer" quote is subjective, but somewhere around three complete sentences, multiple paragraphs, or other substantial citations, you need to visually separate the quote from the text you have written. This is done with the citation, an indented section of text. To set off a quote in this way, use this code, with your quoted text in place of "[citation/quote]":

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Spy vs. Spy: The Bureau and the Mole by David A. Vise


For two decades, Robert Hansen was the picture of the "man in black" FBI agent: industrious, immersed in his family life, a member of the strict Catholic Opus Dei movement, openly scornful of fellow agents who drank or engaged in love affairs. He was, if somewhat self-righteous, apparently a good agent and an honest man. Yet all that time, Hansen was stealing thousands of top-secret documents and transferring them to the KGB.

David Vise's book, The Bureau and the Mole, is a fascinating glimpse into the life of this double agent, and also the man who finally brought him down, FBI Director Louis Freeh. Coincidences between the lives of these two men abound; both were Catholic, and went to Mass each week in the same church. Their sons attended the same school.

But the differences between them are far more instructive. Freeh knew early in his life that he wanted a career in law enforcement. Hansen drifted; cursed with a critical, verbally-abusive father whose approval he craved, Hansen first studied to be a dentist, even though he hated the prospect of practicing dentistry. Freeh truly wanted to be with his wife and children, to the extent that he nearly turned down the time-intensive position of FBI Director when President Clinton offered it. Hansen's fidelity was superficial—he shared nude photographs of his wife with a friend, Jack Hoschauer, and arranged for Jack to watch him as he had sex with her. Hansen also had a protracted affair with a local stripper, to whom he gave a Mercedes and expensive jewelry, as well as cash.

And, of course, Hansen betrayed the Bureau and his country by selling secrets to the KGB. He was unique in the history of KGB operations with double agents—not even his Russian handler, Victor Cherkashin, knew his identity. The KGB had signals to let Hansen know when they would pay him; Hansen had signals for when he had information to pass to them.

One of the more interesting things is that Hansen does not seem to have been doing this primarily for money. His motivation, Vise shows, was the sense of being more subtle, cleverer than all the other agents. He seems to have wanted to be the dashing "secret agent" of G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, which was a favorite book. He openly admired Kim Philby, the British agent who defected to Russia after having betrayed that country by selling secrets.

Other agents and Bureau cases provide a rich background for the spy-versus-spy maneuvers of Hansen and Freeh. CIA agent Aldrich Ames was selling US secrets at the same time as Hansen; the FBI mounted a concerted effort to find Osama bin Laden, whom Louis Freeh considered the most dangerous terrorist at the turn of the century; the Olympic Park (Atlanta) and Murrah Building (Oklahoma City) bombings fit into the context of ATF actions at Ruby Ridge and the Dravidian compound in Waco, Texas.

Hansen was sitting in a jail cell awaiting trial when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Among the items he had sold to the Soviets (which it was rumored had then been sold to bin Laden and Al Qaeda) was some sophisticated software used by the FBI to follow their Most Wanted criminals. If bin Laden had this software, he knew what US law enforcement knew (and what they didn't) about al Qaeda's operation in the US.

In the end, Hansen's unmasking and the extent of his betrayal would combine with many other factors to tarnish the FBI itself. As then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said,
No American has escaped injury from the espionage to which Robert Hansen pled guilty. But for the men and women of the FBI, the wound is deeper. Together, Americans have felt the shame caused by the betrayal of a countryman; the FBI has felt the pain inflicted by the betrayal of a brother.


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Friday, May 20, 2005

Weekly BlogScan: Poetry from the Dark Side

The dark side is on everyone's mind this weekend. Lucas' Darth Vader joins other darkly seductive or seduced characters (Dracula, Frankenstein's monster) in the global gestalt. What is the lure of the dark?

Perhaps we should ask the author of Fungi from Yuggoth. This is a Lovecraftian novel rendered as 34 sonnets.
I. The Book
The place was dark and dusty and half-lost
In tangles of old alleys near the quays,
Reeking of strange things brought in from the seas,
And with queer curls of fog that west winds tossed.
Small lozenge panes, obscured by smoke and frost,
Just shewed the books, in piles like twisted trees,
Rotting from floor to roof - congeries
Of crumbling elder lore at little cost.

I entered, charmed, and from a cobwebbed heap
Took up the nearest tome and thumbed it through,
Trembling at curious words that seemed to keep
Some secret, monstrous if one only knew.
Then, looking for some seller old in craft,
I could find nothing but a voice that laughed.

If you prefer more classical fare, the Horror Masters blog has links to spare. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Poe rub shoulders here with Coleridge and Scott, and the darkest thoughts of lighter poets like Service and Emily Brontë.
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
—"The Cremation of Sam McGee" by Robert W. Service

   Nosferatu figurine

Speaking of the original Dark Lord who captured the attention of generations, Yvonne Plum of on the chilly side of midnight writes of the Dark Man who
toasted my glass of champagne
with his pint of black guinness
—or was it foaming blood that he licked
from his sharp pointed teeth?

when he silently crept into my bed
I noticed how the mirrors refused him.

And Ice Goddess knows the Insatiable Lust that drives us to write.
...When I am long past nursing earthworms
Please let someone remember my name...

I took a quiz to see what poetic form I am, and the result was dark enough to include here, even though the questions have absolutely nothing to do with poetry.
If they told you I'm mad, then they lied.
I'm odd, but it isn't compulsive.
I'm the triolet, bursting with pride;
If they told you I'm mad, then they lied.
No, it isn't obsessive. Now hide
All the spoons or I might get convulsive.
If they told you I'm mad then they lied.
I'm odd, but it isn't compulsive.

And Lucy Fer always takes The Darkest Way Home with her poem, "The Minority."
Sky frowns down,
On the people that cry,
On the people that can't carry on.
Black clouds scowl,
On the people that can't lie,
On the people that break under the scrutiny.
The sun burns,
All the people that fall to their knees,
All the people that jump into the sea.
The world glares,
At you and me.

So as you go to see the Star Wars saga's finish, remember the immortal words of balladeer Al Yankovic, in The Saga Begins...:
Oh my, my, this here Anakin guy
May be Vader someday later—now he's just a small fry.
And he left his home and kissed his mommy goodbye
Sayin' soon I'm gonna be a Jedi
Soon I'm gonna be a Jedi...


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Thursday, May 19, 2005

Godhood in a Nutshell: The Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon


My first encounter with Theodore Sturgeon was this tale of loneliness, rejection, despair and revenge, The Dreaming Jewels. It was a good book to start with, and not just because it was Sturgeon's first novel. Here was a classier self-delusion than the common fantasy of the secret adoption, a world in which a child might discover that he was something much better than the hidden heir to royalty.

Horton Bluett is a somewhat tragic child. Tormented by other children at the schoolyard for the disgusting act of eating ants, abused and maimed by his cold, uncaring parents, Horty runs away to join the circus. He takes with him the only thing in the world he loves, a broken Jack-in-the-box with glistening eyes named Junky. At the circus, he masquerades as a "dwarf" girl named Hortense—"Kiddo" to all outside the circle of friendly circus folk.

Gradually, we learn that the circus' owner, Pierre Monetre ("Maneater" to Horty's friends Zena, Bunny, Havana and Solum), is an obsessed man who has an ominous hold over the other performers in the freak show. As the three fingers chopped off by Horty's father Armand begin to grow back, as Horty discovers that he can reshape his body freely, the Maneater searches far and wide for a treasure he calls "dreaming jewels."

The themes are far from juvenile; some events and dialogue are downright smutty. Yet I read this book, enrapt, when I was ten years old, and was untouched by the darker shadows. I was too engrossed in the triumph of Horty's vengeance. Where else but in fiction could one find such complete and satisfactory tying off of loose ends?

The final confrontation with Maneater, in which Horty discovers his own heritage, and the mystery of the god-like dreaming jewels is solved, is as thrilling to me the adult as it was when I was young. When Horty encompasses the destruction of his "father," the rescue of his childhood friend Kay, and the redemption of Bunny and the others in the freak show, the child in me still cheers.

This book is periodically re-released: in hard-cover by Aeonian Press in 1978, Amereon in 1984, Buccaneer Books in 1993, and finally in a 1999 paperback edition by Vintage Press—look for one of them in used-book stores if it is out of stock online. It's definitely worth the read!

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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Kicking & Screaming: Movie Books for Children

  • My Dad, The Coach by Catherine Hapka
  • The Comeback Kids by Catherine Hapka

Two stories aimed at beginning readers and pre-reading children, based on the Universal movie Kicking & Screaming, are now available as HarperCollins Festival Books. Festival series books feature lively stories coupled with illustrations that inform the young reader's visualization, and include advice to the parents on how to encourage reading.

My Dad, The Coach follows the movie story of Sam Weston's problems with his soccer coaches. First, he's on a winning team where his Grandpa is the coach, but he never gets to play. Then he gets traded to a team that doesn't have a coach, so his Dad agrees to do it. His new team is in last place, and that isn't much fun either. When they do start to win some games, suddenly his Dad starts acting like his Grandpa. Sam must decide what to do—should he play when he isn't having fun?

These simple conflicts are neatly laid out in accessible language, with one or two three- to four-syllable words (realized, Gladiators) to challenge the beginning reader. Each page includes from one to three short sentences with illustrations taken from the movie. The pictures contribute somewhat to this story, but will work best for a child who has already seen the movie.

The Comeback Kids focuses on the movie story line about the new soccer team Sam joins, the Tigers. Through the efforts of Sam's Dad, a new coach who needs to watch videos to learn about soccer, and a famous football coach, Mike Ditka, the boys on the team learn about teamwork and winning. Although Sam's dismay at not playing as much when his team begins to win is part of the story, it is presented as a team problem.

The language in this second book is a bit more challenging for the beginning reader. Each two-page set includes three to six short sentences illustrated by stills from the movie, and there are more three- to four syllable words (important, champions, exciting, anything) and even a daunting consonant combination (butcher). Coupled with the "determine to do your best" message of the story, these challenges will help the reader's parents encourage their child to take on the slighly more-difficult reading task.

The pictures illustrate this story well, and will appeal to children who are interested in playing soccer or any team sport, whether or not they have seen the movie.

For older readers, check out Kicking & Screaming: The Movie Novel. This is a chapter-book designed for 3rd to 5th graders, which follows the movie story lines closely. Contractions, compound words and challenging consonant combinations, and the inclusion of pictures only in a center section, along with multiple conflicts and advanced themes, make this a good choice for your middle-school child. I strongly recommend having your child read this book before seeing the movie.


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Birds Attack People on Sidewalks of Houston, Texas


Clouds of black birds with wingspans up to 2 feet swoop into Houston, Texas, every year in the Fall. Like swallows to Capistrano, the birds sometimes can be seen perched on every available tree limb. Unlike those gently graceful swallows, however, these are grackles, contentious, hostile birds who defend their springtime nests with aggressive fervor.

On Monday, the nesting grackles began stooping to attack from the magnolia trees that surround Houston's County Administration Building, according to the Houston Chronicle's Bill Murphy:
"They were just going crazy," said constable Wilbert Jue, who works at the building. "They were attacking everybody that walked by." ... On Monday a young grackle had fallen out of its nest and adult birds attacked people who got too close, Jue said... Grackles, along with many other types of birds, will go to great lengths to defend a young bird, especially one on the verge of flying, said Winnie Burkett, Houston Audubon Society sanctuary manager..
The birds, native to Mexico and South Texas, have spread to Houston in recent years. For the past several years, they have attacked people near the County Administration Building. "The great-tailed grackles making so much noise all over town now are birds we didn't have here 30 years ago," says Burkett. That surprises many Houston residents. Houston lies on the Central Flyway of bird migration. Birders from as far as Europe and Australia come in winter and spring, sometimes in search of birds quite common to Houston backyards, such as grackles.

My advice? If you've got business with Houston county this week, bring your umbrella.

And some Mace.

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Monday, May 16, 2005

Don't Click on the Blue E! by Scott Granneman


I have a great deal for you: a top-of-the-line home safe-strongbox that will store all your precious stuff. The good news is, it comes free when you buy a set of new door locks—in fact, you can't buy these locks without it. The bad news is, it can be opened with a paperclip, it unlocks your back door, and it broadcasts your address and whether or not you are currently at home to every burglar in the world.

Would you take that deal? I wouldn't.

Why, then, do so many of us keep clicking on that convenient e, using Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) to browse the Web? In this very entertaining and informative book, Scott Granneman tells us we don't need spyware-crackers, Service Pack 2 and an upgrade to Windows XP. To have a safe Internet experience, we need only one tip: Don't Click on the Blue E!

The cover's prominent and toothy fox is a strong visual clue to the author's personal browser preference. Granneman makes a very good case for Firefox to replace IE on your Windows, Linux or Mac OSX system. He also provides a fair review of several other browsers, all of them more secure, more featureful, and more easily installed or upgraded than IE. But his main focus is on the wonderful free browser from Mozilla that is rapidly devouring market share Microsoft thought was locked up.

Granneman begins with a swift overview of browser history. For readers who were not online during the mid-90s browser wars, much of this may be a revelation. Microsoft buys Mozaic, and uses its code as a base for IE. Netscape develops Mozilla (Mozaic-Killer, Godzilla to Redmond's browser, get it?), and sets the browser free in the Web, spinning it off as Open Source. The Mozilla organization, rejecting the original bulky code of Netscape Navigator's 4.0 suite, chooses instead to trim Mozilla to browser-only functionality, with useful web-specific features. AOL buys Netscape, and releases a buggy Navigator 5.0 (based on an unreleased beta version of Mozilla's open source product). Meanwhile, IE's development has slowed to a crawl.

Then comes November 2004, when Mozilla officially releases Firefox v.1.0. In the first month of availability online, ten million copies are downloaded. That's a lot, but there's a more revealing number. In that same month, IE's share of the browser market dropped 5 percent as users changed to the Firefox browser. Clearly, the prospect of having a free, safe, secure, easy to install and configure, feature-laden browser was a strong draw.

So Granneman has reason for his preference. He proceeds to detail all the great basic, out-of-the-box features of Firefox. Some of these, like tabbed browsing and live bookmarks, are not unique to Firefox, and Granneman is generous in his praise of the other non-IE browsers that provide them. Most of these basic features are a click or two away for even the novice user. The details of what each function does, and what the options mean was invaluable. I strongly recommend this book as a user manual for the first-time Firefox user.

Other Firefox powers are available only after you download an extension, theme, or add-in. Such super-chargers could have been included in the Firefox release, but that would saddle every user with functions that only a few want to use. Are you one of those few who want to put a damper on MacroMedia Flash? A few minutes online is all it takes to customize the system.

For the power user, Granneman provides a chapter on Advanced Firefox configuration. This information is not as detailed and programmer-specific as Firefox Hacks by Nigel McFarlane, but Don't Click includes an appendix to detail your first steps in editing Firefox chrome files. With both books on your support shelf, you've got what you need to tweak the browser to your own satisfaction.

Every section ends with pages of online references. It would be perfect to have a source on the web so you can just click those URLs—and since this book is Safari-enabled, you can do just that. O'Reilly even offers a 14-day free trial of the Safari service.

If you've just had it with the endless problems of IE, there's no reason to continue. And if you haven't yet decided, I strongly recommend Scott Granneman's book. With any of the alternate browsers he describes, you'll have a much easier time on the Web.

And you won't have to keep re-locking your back door.

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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Playing to Win: Kicking & Screaming, the Movie Novel by Susan Korman

Sam's soccer team is having trouble. Ambrose keeps kicking the ball out of bounds. Hunter runs fast, but he doesn't always run the right way. And Conner, the goalie, can't seem to block any shots. To make matters worse, Sam's dad, Phil, is the team's coach, and he doesn't know anything about soccer. Instead, he's obsessed with beating his own dad, Sam's grandfather, who coaches the best team in the league. Going up against his dad is something Phil has been doing his whole life ... and, as Sam knows, he always loses. But when Sam's team starts racking up wins with the help of two new players, Phil is in danger of doing something much worse than losing—becoming just like his dad!
 Cover blurb from Kicking & Screaming, the Movie Novel
Good "chapter books," as novels aimed at 10-to-14-year-old children are called, have the same qualities that contribute to good adult literature: well-developed characters who answer a question or solve a problem they face, a plot, and a theme or "message" integral to the story-line. The best chapter books address important issues in children's lives, and guide them to make good choices and decisions in their own lives.

I'm not saying every chapter book should be a morality tale in order to qualify. Sometimes it's enough to help kids deal with adults being childish.

That's why Kicking & Screaming: the Movie Novel is a worthwhile read. Susan Korman has done a good job of rendering the action of the movie into a text novel which stands on its own, and does not need its eight pages of color stills from the movie to convey the story.

Even kids who don't play soccer will be able to relate to the conflict between Dad and Grandpa, rival coaches for their young son's soccer teams. These two men are far more adolescent in their behavior than any younger character in the story. Whether they are sniping and carping at each other, playing cutthroat tetherball, or tossing leaves over the fence in an on-going battle with a neighbor, their conflict is never violent, but is still scary enough to a grade-school boy caught in the middle. What is a child supposed to do?

Sam Weston, the central boy character, deals with other deep questions in the course of the novel. Is winning really everything, as Sam's Grandpa (played by Robert Duvall) keeps telling him? Does having fun mean some players don't have to learn the game? Can Sam's Dad (Will Ferrell) coach a winning team without becoming the same kind of coach as his own dad?

Female characters in the story are ciphers—perhaps a plus if the book is designed to appeal to young boys, but strange considering the number of girls' soccer clubs in the target market. The inclusion of legendary football coach Mike Ditka works much better, showing that teaching kids a winning attitude and dedication does not require being over-bearing, as Grandpa Weston believes, nor is it automatic when you step into the coach's shoes, as Sam's Dad discovers.

My recommendation, if you have a soccer-playing child in the appropriate age range, is to have him (or her) read the book first. Kids will get more out of the movie from being "in the know." But first, they'll have had the chance to visualize themselves in the role of Sam, or one of his other team-mates and rivals, and have the wonderful experience of entering another life that comes from reading a good book.

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Saturday, May 14, 2005

Scamming the Viewers: Con on Comedy Central


It's an interesting concept: find a con artist and follow him around, laughing uproariously at the poor schmucks he swindles. And provided you can suspend disbelief (and moral sensibility), Skyler Stone and company pull it off fairly well in Comedy Central's Con.

I hadn't seen the program before this because it's on at an awkward time for me. I've seen the ads for it; Skyler Stone driving with a black bar over his eyes, jumping on a comped hotel bed and pigging out in the guise of a Senator. It seemed humorous enough in the ads, but not enough to tempt me out of my sleep schedule. After viewing this week's episode, I'm glad it's on so late, if only to reduce the potential number of copy-cat con amateurs.

This week Stone set out to get his posse a free ski weekend. But first, he pulls a gratuitous penny-ante scam, as he scrounges in the local Mickey D's garbage, looking for a cheeseburger receipt. He finds one that specifies "no pickles, no onions," and parlays the crumpled receipt into a "free" burger. There's no ground for argument here—he stole a cheeseburger. (And I wonder how many identical thefts will occur next week, as unscrupulous viewers imitate Stone?)

As for the ski weekend scam, it starts with Skyler promoting a "boy band" (Stone himself fronting, with fellow con artists Dave Keyes and Joey Morgs singing backup and Zach Johnson as manager) purportedly doing a Public Service Announcement video for California Tourism. "Governor Schwarzenegger wants people to think of California as a place to ski," Stone tells the publicist at Mt. Baldy Ski Resort. "We've got this boy band, Ice Train, really hot in Norway and just about to break in the States..."

Once the hook is set, Stone then approaches a couple of friends for help to put the "band" on a credible footing. A bedroom sound-studio artist massages the boys' miniscule singing abilities, creating a CD to which they will lip-sync. An artist friend slaps together an enormous plywood triptych mural for the group to "perform" in front of for the cameras. A secondary scam nets the boys some personalized choreography.

I have to admit, the choreography scam was pretty funny. The dance studio they conned agreed to help the guys as "poster boys" for the dreaded disease Acid Reflux Level 4. A couple of references to "ARL4" and a near-faint by Stone and Joe Morganella solidified their performance. Even so, I was left a little queasy at the thought of how easily they took advantage of the choreographers' cluelessness.

I know the show sets up and restages incidents, and pays for "some" products they acquire initially by scamming. I realize it's likely the real victims of the con are the viewers, since that blanket disclaimer could cover behind-the scenes payment for every item or service they "steal" on-camera. Even so, the program is a troubling concept for any audience: "Watch us steal, cheat and lie, and (apparently) get away scot-free!"

What's next? A live-action drama that seems to show actual cannibalism? A comedy about the travails of a child pornographer? A show that popularizes unprotected sexual activity and needle-swapping?

This is a good show to miss—I heartily recommend changing the channel.

By the way, Skyler Stone is not the other actor from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Anyone seen Alex Winter lately?

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Friday, May 13, 2005

Weekly BlogScan: Fear and Loathing on Friday the 13th

Triskaidekaphobia, the fear of 13 (of anything), is sometimes rationalized as "the number present at the Last Supper," the twelve apostles and Christ. Because that repast is assumed to have taken place on Friday, a Friday numbered 13 is doubly cursed, ominous of death, disaster, and doom of all kinds. And for paraskevidekatriaphobics, the fear of Friday the 13th locks them indoors, trembling under the bedclothes, during a date that occurs one to three times a year.

Even more intriguing, many paraskevidekatriaphobics are not Christian.

So what is the real fuel for fear on Friday the 13th? Taflac did a survey of writings on the subject, of which the most nonreligious was this, from Charles Platt's Popular Superstitions (1925):
The rise of the compound Three-Ten for Thirteen is so very general all over the world, that it seems clear that to the primitive mind of early Man it had no real meaning—he stopped at Twelve. So persistent are these old instincts that, even today, we stop at "Twelve Times Twelve" in our school multiplication tables,... [due to an] inherited instinct that it was, and therefore still must be, the utmost limit of mathematical thought... Thirteen, therefore was not used as number, but as a vague word meaning anything beyond Twelve. To the untutored savage... anything unknown conveyed an immediate sense of danger. Thirteen was not really an unlucky number, but a fateful one—a number full of vague and unimaginable possibilities and therefore a number to be avoided by any peace-loving man.
On the other hand, ABC News online (in their Health section today) attributes the fear to Norse mythology, and notes that it costs 800 to 900 million dollars in lost business as people refuse to travel, shop or go to work.
Still, some think 13 owes its bad reputation originally to Loki, the Norse god of evil, who started a riot when he crashed a banquet at Valhalla attended by 12 gods. Once there, Loki (who then became the 13th god at the banquet) arranged for Hoder, the blind god of darkness, to shoot Balder the Beautiful, the god of joy and gladness, with a mistletoe-tipped arrow.
Luboš Motl gives us a rational (if low-odds) reason to fear one particular Friday of dire number. On Friday, April 13th, 2029, there was expected to be a 2.7 percent average chance that "an asteroid named 2004 MN4 of around 390 meters" would impact Earth at around 9:07 PM GMT. Fortunately for all of us, phobic or non, the probability was downgraded on December 27th, 2004 to 10^-5, a very tiny number, although still not zero.

Flaming Friday 13
  Graphic courtesy HowStuffWorks

The author of wannabe weblogger takes a philosophical approach: "I seem to always have at least one unlucky thing happens to me every day so Friday the 13th is just like any other day for me." She invites us to check out HowStuffWorks for their excellent recap of the superstition.
...Sailors were particularly superstitious in this regard, often refusing to ship out on a Friday. According to unverified legend (very likely untrue), the British Navy commissioned a ship in the 1800s called H.M.S. Friday, in order to quell the superstition. The navy selected the crew on a Friday, launched the ship on a Friday and even selected a man named James Friday as the ship's captain. Then, one Friday morning, the ship set off on its maiden voyage... and disappeared forever.
With the Musings of a Caffeinated Mind, Cuppojoe shares with us the disasster he and his girlfriend experienced last Friday the 13th. CSI and Medical Investigation fans, take note! They never did figure out what it was that bit her. In a more-grim scenario, blogger Mc Dermott, a "reporter without borders" on Singabloodypore informs us that Shanmugam Murugesu will be executed there today for "returning by motorcycle from neighboring Malaysia in August 2003 with one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of marijuana." 110 people convicted of drug offenses in that country in the last 5 years have been executed. In fact, he tells us, only six death row inmates have been granted clemency since Singapore's independence from Malaysia in 1965.

On the other hand, Curtis is Singing Loudly his prediction that Connecticut Death Row inmate Michael Ross will be executed today. This makes it "Lucky Friday the 13th," at least for once and future victims of this Connecticut serial killer. Also, from Today in Alternate History, Robbie Taylor reminds us that one Friday the 13th might have proved lucky for then-President Bill Clinton. If only these "Important Events In History That Never Occurred Today" had really happened, then it would be true!
in 1998, Friday the 13th proved to be good luck for President William Clinton—the sexual harassment lawsuit against him was dismissed as "without merit", in the judge’s decision. The rest of Clinton’s presidency went from triumph to triumph as he outmaneuvered the Republican Congress and managed to engineer his succession by his Vice-President, Al Gore, and a new Democratic majority in both houses of Congress in the elections of 2000.
And finally, the boys at EuroGimp Polls put their lives in the consensus mill of their voting readers. Along with deep questions like Who'll get the most hammered in the Irish pubs? and Who will partake in "red light district" activities in Amsterdam? one poll offers the following choices.
Will our flight go down on Friday the 13th to Amsterdam?!?
o  Yes
o  No
o  You guys are twisted!
As for me, I think I'll stay in bed today. After all, Blogger is going down at 2 PM. Given the day, who knows when it will come back up?

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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Why Men Are Just Happier Than Women


Thanks to my brother-in-law for this useful synopsis, which he recommended I forward to "women who can handle it and men who will enjoy it". Since I assume that all my readers will qualify, I post it here.

Men are just happier people—for a number of reasons that aren't necessarily fair, but who ever said life was fair?

Your last name stays put. Your garage is all yours. Wedding plans take care of themselves.

You can realistically consider being President. You will never be pregnant. You can wear a white T-shirt to a water park. You can wear NO shirt to a water park.

Car mechanics tell you the truth.

The world is your urinal. You never have to drive to another gas station restroom because this one is just too icky. You don't have to stop and think of which way to turn a nut on a bolt. Same work, same pay. But you don't have to avoid jobs that call for math or physical science.

Wrinkles add character.

The occasional well-rendered belch is practically expected. New shoes don't cut, blister, or mangle your feet. One mood all the time. Phone conversations are over in 30 seconds flat. You know stuff about tanks.

People never stare at your chest when you're talking to them.

A five-day vacation requires only one suitcase. You can open all your own jars. You get extra credit for the slightest act of thoughtfulness. If someone forgets to invite you, he or she can still be your friend.

Wedding dress: $5000. Tux rental: $100.

Your underwear is $8.95 for a three-pack. Three pairs of shoes are more than enough. You almost never have strap problems in public.

The occasional "wardrobe malfunction" is greeted with a friendly "XYZ, man!"

You are unable to see wrinkles in your clothes. Everything on your face stays its original color. The same hairstyle lasts for years, maybe decades.

Maybe generations.

You only have to shave your face and neck. You can play with toys all your life. Your belly usually hides your big hips. One wallet and one pair of shoes, one color, works for all seasons.

Chocolate is just another snack.

You can wear shorts no matter how your legs look. You can "do" your nails with a pocket knife. You can do Christmas shopping for 24 relatives on December 24th in 24 minutes.

So you do.

No wonder men are happier!

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Rooting for the Future: The Family Tree by Sheri Tepper


Dora Henry has problems in her personal life; her nominal marriage to the cold, unemotional Jared Gerber is at an end, but she fears the consequences of leaving him. She has problems in her professional life; investigating the murder of a single local scientist, the policewoman has discovered what may be a string of related homicides. And she has a problem in her garden. A persistent weed puts her husband in the hospital, and launches Dora into a brand new life.

Sheri Tepper's The Family Tree starts like a gritty novel of a woman-on-the-edge or a crime-mystery, then twines off in unexpected directions, like rootlets seeking moisture, or vines exploring a wall. When Dora Henry encounters the strangely-responsive weed, she leaves the well-trodden path of her life and enters a dark forest. Just as we are accepting this single weird element, Tepper vaults us to a new story, the tale of Nassifeh, a sweet Ponjic teenager called "Opalears" by the other girls in the Sultan's harem. She masquerades as a boy named Nassif to accompany the Scuinic son of the Sultan, Prince Sahir, on his quest to visit the sages of St. Weel and save "all posterity."

Along the way, they encounter Sitidic, Pheledic, Armakfatidi and Onchiki people, and we learn that this is a future Earth. Some people (like the Dire Duke Fahsahd) have descended to cannibalism, but others are identifiable by their enduring "national" qualities. The Ponjic people, like Nassif and Prince Izakar of Palmia, who has access to one of the few remaining libraries, may be "Joosh" or perhaps "Mericans"—at least Izakar thinks so, based on his reading. Armakfatidi may once have been the "Frynch"; they are touchy, but very good cooks, and their language is described as "grummeling." The Scuinic people like Prince Sahir are probably "Ahraban," the Pheleds like Sahir's gracefully-powerful bodyguard Soaz may be "Zhapanees."

Tree alternates between the quest to St. Weel in the future Earth, and Dora Henry's search for balance in her life. Gradually Dora's world becomes more like Nassif's; her weed amplifies itself into instant forests, and the trees exhibit more and more intelligence. Dora discovers that trees will consume garbage and guard her bicycle. Nassif and her fellow questers find "firewood trees" that grow dry, loose limbs below arms-reach to make building a fire simple. Dora learns that the trees are absorbing empty rooms and houses and destroying used-car lots. Nassif and company encounter walking trees that attack anyone who tries to chop them down.

Eventually the future and present stories combine, as Nassif and her people travel to the past, and Dora discovers that the disaster faced by the people of the future, and the dilemmas posed by her husband and job, are all rooted in the same 30-year-old crime. Dora, Nassif, and their friends must work together to solve the puzzle before their time runs out.

Tepper's talent for creating likeable characters is given full rein in this delightful fantasy. As with all Tepper's novels, a strong thematic message underscores (but never overwhelms) the enjoyable tale. Her multiple story lines work together like instruments in a symphony, each playing a slightly different score, building to a crescendo that will take you by surprise. We all need more music like this in our lives.

When you finish reading, you'll want to start again from the first page, just to catch where the twists came in, knowing now what you didn't know the first time. The true beauty of Sheri Tepper's work is that the second reading is no less enjoyable than the first.

Sheri S. Tepper is the science-fiction pseudonym of B.J. Oliphant, who writes mysteries under her own name and also as A.J. Orde.

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