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March 31, 2003

Everybody Loves Excuses

I'm attending yet another work conference this week (for those of you keeping score, that's three in six weeks), so this week's postings will be desultory.

Also: desultory!

[ link | dy]



When Goofballs Mate
The Queen: Wow, the kitties love that poultry-flavored hairball medicine I bought.

Me: You're kidding.

The Queen: Seriously. They hated the last kind, but I just gave them this new stuff and they were, like, purring with happiness. Now they're all excited and running around the house like a bunch of wild Indians.

Me: Ahem! We do not say "running around like a bunch of wild Indians" any more. These days the correct phrase is "running around like a bunch of wild Native Americans".

The Queen: Whoops, that's what I meant to say.

Me: Anyhow, they love the hairball medicine, huh?

The Queen: The Native Americans? Yes, they're crazy for it.

Me: Hah! Amazing fact -- the Native Americans were renowned for using every part of the hairball medicine, leaving nothing to waste.

It may not surprise you to discover that we have conversations like this all the time.

March 28, 2003

Blog Entry

Opened last week: Boat Trip!

Opening next week: Phone Booth!

What the hell? Is the International Society Of Guys Who Come Up With Clever Movie Titles on strike or something?

Coming Soon: Movie: The Motion Picture!

[ link | Movies]



White House: Bush Still Undecided On Iraq War

In response to reporters asking if Operation Iraqi Freedom might last months, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer today condemned the media for assuming that an invasion of Iraq was a foregone conclusion. "I think it's premature to ask how long a war will last before the President has even decided whether to attack [Iraq]," Fleischer said, reiterating comments made by Bush on Wednesday. "The United States is still pursuing every diplomatic channel available in the hopes of averting a war." Fleischer cited recents meetings between US military forces and the Republican Guard in and around Basra as proof that the US was "earnestly engaging the regime in the hopes of finding a peaceful solution to the crisis". He also pointed out that, as recently as March 19th, the United States sent a number of envoys into Saddam's bunker in an effort to interact with the Iraqi leader directly. "The President will make a decision regarding a possible invasion only if our current campaign of aggressive peace negotiations fail," Fleischer stated. "War is our last resort."


The Bad Review Revue

Basic: "So astonishingly awful it becomes a sort of kinky pleasure; just when you think Travolta has fallen to the bottom of the barrel, he pulls out a shovel and dons his miner's helmet to see what lies beneath." -- Robert Wilonsky, DALLAS OBSERVER

Dreamcatcher: "As five or six bad movies squished together, it almost seems like a bargain. " -- A.O. Scott, NEW YORK TIMES

Boat Trip: "There are bad movies, and there's Boat Trip, a puerile comedy so appalling and unfunny it's like contracting the Norwalk virus at sea." -- Marrit Ingman, AUSTIN CHRONICLE

Head of State: "The film opens with a statement that Hillary Clinton, Bob Dole and Al Sharpton are not in the movie. Also not in the movie: laughs. " -- Chris Hewitt, PORTLAND OREGONIAN

The Core: "Built from an alloy of absurdium and stupidium." -- Joe Morgenstern, WALL STREET JOURNAL

March 27, 2003

Otta Wha-?!
Bush visit to Canada in doubt

OTTAWA - The White House is considering cancelling a planned state visit to Ottawa by George W. Bush in May because of the war in Iraq and increasingly strained relations between the U.S. administration and the Chrétien government. News that Mr. Bush's scheduled May 5 visit is in jeopardy came one day after Paul Cellucci, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, said Americans are ...

Whoa, whoa, whoa! The who?! The ambassador to Canada?!

The role of an ambassador, as I have always understand it, is to go Way The Hell Over There and talk to Some Foreigners in an Incomprehensible Moonman Language Like Tagalog or Swahili or Irish. So news that there's a Canadian ambassador comes as something of a shock to me. I've always envisioned the US and Canada as having kind of a Jack Tripper / Larry Dallas relationship, where, you know, they were always just showing up at each other's place unannounced or heading over the the Regal Beagle to knock back a few beers and hash out the Yukon salmon agreement.

Man, ambassador to Canada -- whatta sweet job that's gotta be. Get an apartment in Northern Vermont, drive your 1996 Dodge Neon up to Ottawa every week or so, hang out with The Barenaked Ladies ... I can just see the job announcements: "Seeking energetic go-getter who enjoys good beer, hockey, and a fantastic exchange rate." Yo Chrétien: if you get fed up with this Cellucci guy, drop me a line -- I'm willing to relocate.

(Woo! I didn't talk about politics for nearly a day!)


Lucky

After work yesterday, riding the elevator down with a co-worker:

Me: How's it goin'?
Co-worker: Ugh! It sucks to sit in the office and see how beautiful it is outside. All that sunlight streaming in, it makes it hard to work. I just want to look out the window all day, you know? [Pause] Oh, wait! You don't have a window in your office, I forgot. You're lucky you don't have to suffer through that.
I live a charmed life.

March 26, 2003

The Best Photo I Have Ever Taken

Shortly after arriving in Bolivia as a Peace Corps Trainee, I was sent to the site of Tim, a Volunteer who had been in-country for a number of years. He worked in the most rural area imaginable, with no water or electricity, and in the midst of people who lived as they had for hundreds of years.

Tim took me on a hike through a nearby river valley to visit the local communities and get a taste of traditional Bolivian life. It was during this trip that I took this photo. Here is an excerpt from my journal:

"We soon parted company with our four Bolivian guides. When we asked them where they were going, they said they might just hang out in the valley for a day or two before returning home -- y'know, for kicks.

"We, meanwhile, started walking upstream on our way home. About half an hour into our return hike -- just at the moment when I was looking around at the lush vegetation, marveling at the extreme geography, and thinking 'we must be miles from the nearest human being' -- we encountered a band of strolling minstrels. Really. I mean, there we were, nowhere near anywhere, and around the corner come eight slightly inebriated guys with flutes and guitars who, upon spotting us, immediately launched into some traditional campesino ditties for our benefit.

They played a couple of songs, and Tim chatted with them before they lurched off downstream. Apparently they lived in a small community about five miles away and were headed for another village approximately six hours down the valley. That had (don't ask me how) caught wind of a big party brewing in Other Community, so had grabbed their instruments and coca leaves and set off to revel. No food or water, mind you -- they left on their journey armed with only coca leaves and flutes. I was beginning to like this country."


Rock The Vote!

Hey, just a quick straw vote: who here is in favor of me shutting the hell up about politics for a while and getting back to the defective yeti basics (i.e., screeds about how comic books have sucked since they cancelled Power Pack, photos of my cats, and humorous observations about yogurt). Come on, let's see a show of hands. One. Two. Three. You in the back too? Yes? Okay, four. Five. Six. Seven. Okay, it looks like seven. Which, if I'm not mistaken, is my entire readership.

Motion passed!

March 25, 2003

Headlines, Today and Tomorrow

Today: White House Says Coalition Includes Nations From Every Continent On The Globe
Tomorrow: Antarctican Forces Complain About Heat, Sand

Today: Us Seizes Iraqi Assets
Tomorrow: More Money Found For Tax Cuts, Bush Says

Today: France Seeks Big Role in Post-War Iraq
Tomorrow: Little Red Hen Announces Plan To Eat Whole Loaf By Self

Today: Halliburton Subsidiary Wins Iraqi Oil Contract
Tomorrow: Halliburton Subsidiary Declared Winner Of NCAA Tournament

Tomorrow: War In Iraq Ends
Day After Tomorrow: Thousands Of Graphic Designers Laid Off By CNN, MSNBC, FOX

[ link | News]



Books: The Forever War

The Science Fiction Book Club recently named their "50 Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years". Now, I know as well as you do that these "Best Of!" lists are totally bogus, but I've been in the mood for lighter reading recently, and when I saw Joe Haldeman's novel parked in the top half I recalled how many times this particular novel had been recommended to me over the years. Plus, given the current geopolitical situation, this seemed as good a time to read a book entitled The Forever War. So I picked it up.

As with most "classic" sci-fi works, this book has a gimmick, albeit a rather modest one. True to the name this is indeed a war novel, where the combat taking place is given as much ink as the characters. But the humans enbroiled in the The Forever War's interstellar struggle have to consider some elements that twentieth-century strategists were never forced to grapple with. Humans, it seems, have perfected near-light speed engines, and have discovered a network of wormholes which allow their fleets to travel instantly (from their point of view) to various points in the galaxy. Unfortunately, the theory of relativity mandates that while the troops may only experience a few months' travel as they voyage to their destination, years will have passed in "real time". A soldier might travel through a wormhold on a supply mission, drop off his cargo, return home through the same portal, and find that the Earth has utterly transformed during his "four month" sojourn.

The story centers on William Mandella, a reluctant and mediocre soldier who is among the first drafted and sent to fight the mysterious race of Taurans. As one of the few of the initial force to survive, he returns to an Earth where dozens of years have passed and finds himself heralded as one of the most senior veterans in military service, despite the fact that, to his mind, he's only spent a year or so in uniform. He also finds that the war has become increasingly absurd, as generals try to deal with enormous complexities of waging a relativistic war. Troops, for instance, are routinely shipped out with state-of-the-art weapons, only to discover, upon arrival at the battlefront, that so much "real time" has passed during their journey that their technology has become laughably out-of-date.

The Forever War is a rather simple book, refreshingly so. I've grown so accustomed to sci-fi novels cram-packed with throw-away ideas that it was nice to read one that set out to explore all of its ramifications of a single, clever conceit. Haldeman is clearly a man who knows a thing or two about military matters, and his depiction of battle, fanciful though it is, comes across as unnervingly accurate. He uses the chronological chaos to illustrate what the soldiers in the field unquestionably feel as they march into combat: that much of "military planning" hinges on hunches and hope. By pointing out the absurdity of trying to fight an intergalactic war, Haldeman points out the absurdity of war itself, but does so in a way that suggests that war may sometimes be necessary all the same.

I don't know if The Forever War is one of the most "significant' science fiction books I've ever read, but it certainly numbers amongst the most enjoyable.

March 24, 2003

I'd Like To Mock The Academy

Every year my friends and I gather to watch the Academy Awards and see who among us can make the best, ad lib, smartass comments as the events unfold. Some of last night's contenders:

Scene: Steve Martin's opening monologue.
Comment: "I'm glad to see that, out of respect for the war effort, they decided not to use funny jokes this year."

Scene: Catherine Zeta-Jones rises after being announced the winner of the "Best Supporting Actress" award.
Comment: "Holy smokes! That thing should be named 'Best Supporting Dress'!"

Scene: Catherine Zeta-Jones, in her acceptance speech, says "This is to my husband, who I love and share this award with."
Comment: "Actually, she has to share the award with him. It was in the pre-nup."

Scene: Adrien Brody makes out with Halle Berry before receiving his "Best Actor" award.
Comments: First Male - "Is it just me, or was that wholly inappropriate?"
Second Male - "That was was wholly inappropriate."
Female - "Oh come on. Given the chance you'd do the same thing."
Second male - "That's true. And it would be wholly inappropriate."

Scene: Elliot Goldenthal is announced the winner of the "Best Score" award for Frida, and the Academy Awards Band plays festive, Mariachi-style music as he approaches the stage.
Comment: "Oh, I'm glad he won. I love his work on those Azteca commercials."

Scene: Roman Polanski is named "Best Director" for The Pianist.
Comment: "Booyah! Like I always say: never bet against the Holocaust movie or the actor playing a disabled guy!"

Scene: Nicole Kidman concludes her acceptance speech for the "Best Supporting Actress" and steps away from the microphone.
Comment: "Wouldn't it be great if she was all like 'Oh yeah, one more thing: Tom is gay'."


Foreign Policy
March 21, 2003

Actual Conversation I Had With The Queen This Morning

Me: Okay, I've leaving for work again.

Queen: All right.

Me: I'm wearing pants this time.

Queen: Atta boy, sweetheart.

March 20, 2003

Mocking CNN.com Is Fun ... And Oh So Very Easy

Waxy.org: Decapitation Attack.

My own: Breaking News.

[ link | News]



Waiting For Togo

Did you see Bush's speech last night, announcing the start of hostilities? This line, in particular, leapt out at me: "These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign. More than 35 countries are giving crucial support."

Thirty-five?! Just yesterday Powell said we had 45 nations (but admitted that a third of them "for one reason or another, do not wish to be publicly named"). What, did ten nations just not show up last night? "Okay, we're rolling in seven minutes, people. Has anyone seen Bulgaria? Bulgaria? Anyone? What about Azerbaijan? Goddammit, Azerbaijan totally said they'd be here."

The full roster of "willing" (and nameable) nations, by the way, is

Afghanistan, Albania, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Colombia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, El Salvador, Eritrea, Estonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Hungary, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Uzbekistan.
HERE COMES ERITREA YOU'RE FUCKED NOW SADDAM!!!!!!

I like how Turkey magically became an ally, despite the fact that they turned down a 30 billion dollar bribe to use their bases. Do you think the US stuck Turkey on the list just so they'd have a number divisible by three? Without them, Powell would have had to say "We have the support of 44 nations, but 34.0909090909091% of them do not yet wish to be publicly named," and then, shit, you might as well call the war "Operation Story Problem".

Plus, most of these guys aren't even sending troops. This sounds like one of those coalitions that college roommates form, the kind where they all swear they are "willing" help clean up the house before moving, and then, on the 31st of the month, they contribute by leaving a half-empty can of "Easy Off" on the kitchen counter and mysteriously disappearing for the day.

And I'm just talking about the known countries. What's up with those that "do not wish to be publicly named"? I mean, not to put too fine a point on it or anything, but how much can you possibly contribute to a war and still expect to remain anonymous? On the "Coalition Of The Willing Sign-Up Sheet" I imagine these nations writing, like, "New Zealand: Will root for you."

March 19, 2003

Tip of the Slung

My friend K works with a woman named Bridget. The two are collaborating on a project and intend to get together this Saturday to discuss logistics.

Earlier today, K's boss held a conference with all her employees, and asked each how their tasks were going.

"Great," K enthused, when it was her turn to provide an update. "I'm breeding with midgets this weekend!"

Rev. Spooner would be proud.

March 18, 2003

Research Day: Hotel California

Satan!Two months ago, defective yeti announced a bold new initiative, a monthly feature entitled Research Day where I would Google all the troublesome little questions that had recently occured to me and post my findings.

And then, one month ago, defective yeti boldly forgot all about it.

Whoops.

Anyhow, The Queen and I were tooling around in the car the other day, when Hotel California came on the radio. I immediately adopted my patented Way Too Inebriated College Guy voice and bellowed "Duuude, you know this song? It's totally about Satanism. Seer-iously!"

The Queen said "What?"

"Listen," I continued. "Did'jou hear that? 'We haven't had that spirit here since 1969'? That's, like, the Holy Spirit, and they don't have it any more. And 'you cannot kill the beast'? The beast is Satan, man! It's true!"

To which The Queen replied "What in the hell are you talking about?"

I get that a lot.

I assumed -- erroneously, I guess -- that everyone (including The Queen) had, while in college, attended a party where Hotel California was playing, and been cornered by a Way Too Inebriated College Guy, who insisted, with slurred earnestness, that the song was a thinly veiled paean (or perhaps "pagan") to Satanism.* I mean, when I was in college this happened to me, like, twice a month.

But The Queen had apparently missed out on this element of campus life, leaving me to explain my cryptic remarks. When I finished, she asked "So is the song about Satanism?" I shrugged. "I dunno. I never bothered to find out. I should look it up on Google or something."

And that's how I remembered Research Day. So let's get to it.

On the face of it, Way Too Inebriated College Guy has a pretty good case. First, check out the complete lyrics over here. As Hotel California opens, it seems the Hotel in question is nothing more than an illusion ("Up ahead in the distance / I saw a shimmering light / My head grew heavy, and my sight grew dim / I had to stop for the night"), some sort of spectral edifice for the damned. The narrator himself speculates that "this could be Hell." Then, in rapid succession, we get candle lighting (Satan!), dancing in the courtyard (naked dancing? Satan!), and the aforementioned lack of "spirit". Then comes the smoking gun:

Mirrors on the ceiling,
The pink champagne on ice
And she said "We are all just prisoners here, of our own device"
And in the master's chambers,
They gathered for the feast
The stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can't kill the beast.
The song concludes with the protagonist trying to escape, and being told "You can checkout any time you like / but you can never leave."

Satan!

If the lyrics aren't enough, there are also rumors that The Church of Satan was founded in California, and that its leader was somehow affiliated with The Eagles. A typical assertion: "One of the top songs of the 70's was Hotel California by the Eagles. Most people have no idea the song refers to the Church of Satan, which happens to be located in a converted HOTEL on CALIFORNIA street! On the inside of the album cover, looking down on the festivities, is Anton Lavey, the founder of the Church of Satan and author of the Satanic Bible!" (That quotation, by the way, was taken from this page. "When Way Too Inebreated College Guys Get Websites, next on FOX!")

Some even say that there are backwards Satanic message hidden in the song. This site spells it out both ways: "Forwards: 'There were voices down the corridor, thought I heard them say, welcome to the Hotel California.' Backwards: 'Yeah Satan, he organized, oh, he organized his own religion. Yeah, when he knows he should, how nice it was delicious, he puts it in a vet he fixes it for his son which he gives away.'" That's pretty incriminating, because, as we all know, the most effective way to convert an unsuspecting music aficionado to The Dark Side is to take sinister phrases like "he puts it in a vet" and reverse them.

Anyhow, I figured I'd get to the bottom of this in about five seconds by heading over to The Straight Dope, as this is exactly the sort of question Cecil Adams likes to tackle. To my surprise, S.D. only mentions the Hotel California = Satanism question in passing while addressing a different query about the song. Then I checked Snopes and was let down again. What the hell? When I launched Research Day I never envisioned that I'd actually have to do, you know, research and stuff. Lame.

Still, it didn't take me long to find refutations from the band members. In this interview, Joe Walsh was asked it it was true that Anton Lavey, the founder of The Church of Satan, could really be seen on the cover of the album. Walsh's reply:

Absolutely not. Any reference to Satan or anything like that is completely in the eyes of whoever is thinking that. That's a reflection of how sick they are. The guy in the window is one of the Elektra/Asylum publicity guys. The lighting just happened to be bad and he was really shy, so he was just peeking around the corner.
As for the meaning of the song itself, Don Henley has always maintained that the seductive influence alluded to in Hotel California is not Satanism, but rather the excesses of band life that The Eagles grappled with in the late 70's. Here's what he said during a 1987 interview with Rolling Stone magazine:
Q: 'Hotel California' was widely received as a sharp commentary on Southern California's penchant for superficiality and decadence. Was that your intention?

Henley: Actually, I was a little disappointed with how the record was taken, because I meant it in a much broader sense than a commentary about California. I was looking at American culture, and when I called that one song "Hotel California," I was simply using California as a microcosm for the rest of America and for the self-indulgence of our entire culture.

It was, to a certain extent, about California, about the excesses out here. But in many instances, as California goes, so goes the nation. Things simply happen out here or in New York first -- whether it's with drugs or fashion or artistic movements or economic trends -- and then work their way toward the middle of America. And that's what I was trying to get at.

(But isn't that just what you'd expect a Satanist to say?)

As for the charge that the phrase "Yeah satan, oh he came, and organized his own religion" is hidden in the song -- well, listen for yourself (mp3 link).

So there you go. The next time I'm drunk at a party where Hotel California is playing, I'm going to throw my arm around some hapless kid and bellow "Duuude, you know this song? It's totally about California as a microcosm for the rest of America and for the self-indulgence of our entire culture. Seriously!" I'm sure that will go over swimmingly.

* This sentence was brought to you by the Comma Advisory Board.

Update: In the comments, Mike of Curious Frog remarks "Glenn Frey confirmed the line They stab it with their steely knives, But they just can't kill the beast was actually a nod to Steely Dan ..." In following this up, I found an interview in which Glenn Frey says:

One of the things that impressed us about Steely Dan was that they would say anything in their songs and it did not have to necessarily make sense ... we thought of this Hotel California, we started thinking of there would be very cinematic to do it, sort of like the Twilight Zone ..., one line says there is a guy on the highway, you know, the next line says there is a hotel in the distance, then there is a woman in there and she walks in ... just sort of strung together and you sort of draw your own conclusions from it.
Frankly, I find that to be the most credible explanation of the song's origin I've yet heard, especially when you add in the reference to "Steely" that Mike pointed out. My hunch is that the secret meaning of Hotel California is that it doesn't really have any.

March 17, 2003

Bush: Time For Pretend Diplomacy Has Passed

In another sign of impending military action, Bush today announced that the US would no longer pretend to work with the United Nations. "The time for pretend diplomacy has passed," warned the President in a televised speech to the nation. "I will therefore spend today pretending to make up my mind about invading." Bush estimated that he would pretend to deliberate for a day before pretending to come to a decision. The declaration followed a summit in which Bush met with those leaders who favor war and, in a last ditch, pretend effort to find a peaceful resolution, asked them if they favor war. "Look at the bright side," Bush added, "Once we attack I can go back to pretending to fix the economy." In a press conference shortly thereafter, White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer clarified the President's statement, insisting that Bush had meant to say "if we attack."

[ link | News]


March 14, 2003

Friday Afternoon Scrachpad

Oscar Tool: Better Late than Never

Well, it's a few weeks too late to be of much use, and I've done only the bare minimum of testing, but the Make-Yer-Own Oscar Pool Page is finally up and running. Please report any and all bugs to me.

Hog Heaven

Our old "Half Pint" microwave was taking upwards of fifteen minutes to cook popcorn. And the Little House on the Prairie theme song would get jammed into my head every time I saw the name. So we finally ditched it and picked up a new model, one featuring a bevy of food-specific buttons like "Baked Potato," "Vegetables," and "Bacon".

You know, if every major appliance in my home had a "bacon" button I'd be the happiest guy alive.

Ouroboros

The roots of defective yeti are planted in a paper zine called The Game Report. Edited by Peter Sarrett, the quarterly features reviews and news relating to board games.

When I returned from the Peace Corps I resolved to start writing again on a daily basis. So, in 1997, I wrote a review of a card game (Titian: The Arena), sent it to Peter, and was thrilled when he agreed to publish it the following issue. I contributed a handful of reviews over the following two years, and soon thereafter launched my own game website entitled Aces Up.

The problem was that, after a year or so of maintaining Aces Up, I was thoroughly sick of writing about board games. I mean, there's only so many times you can use the phrase "elegant design" before it begins to wear thin. In thinking that I could ape The Game Report, I completely underestimated Peter's dedication to the subject matter and ability to write reviews that never sounded repetitive. So I gave up and started a blog where I could write about anything, and thus defective yeti ambled onto the scene.

Now, Peter Sarrett has thrown his hat into the blogging ring with Static Zombie, a site devoted to "television and less important things in life". And, ironically, he cites defective yeti as his main influence. Now all I need to do is somehow turn dy into a print magazine about games and the circle wil be complete.

Peter is an excellent writer, so be sure to check S.Z. out. This is an fine place to start.

Headline

US Unveils World's Largest Mechanical Pencil

Three Things That Distinguish Miami From Seattle

  • Ice cream vending machines in the airport.
  • Sandals for sale at Texaco.
  • Ratio of manatees to banana slugs considerably higher.


The Bad Review Revue

Tears of the Sun: "Not one-tenth as interesting as what you can see at home during a nightly cable surf as U.S. war policy is debated." -- Claudia Puig, USA TODAY

Gods and Generals: "Sanctimonious claptrap -- an inert pageant of waxen figures that fails completely as drama even as it insults the sensibilities of anyone not clinging to rosy memories of the slave-era South." -- Ty Burr, BOSTON GLOBE

Bringing Down the House: "The rare film that is capable of offending both Trent Lott and Al Sharpton." -- Rita Kempley, WASHINGTON POST

The Life of David Gale: "The secrets of the plot must remain unrevealed by me, so that you can be offended by them yourself, but let it be said this movie is about as corrupt, intellectually bankrupt and morally dishonest as it could possibly be without David Gale actually hiring himself out as a joker at the court of Saddam Hussein." -- Roger Ebert, CHICAGO SUN TIMES

Cradle 2 the Grave: "Storytelling like this makes video game plots look like 'Moby Dick'." -- Robert K. Elder, CHICAGO TRIBUNE

March 13, 2003

Annnnnnnnnnd We're Back

I’m not a big fan of air travel. I suppose I would enjoy it more if I had been bitten by a radioactive grouse and was therefore able to fly around unassisted, but I instead have to rely on airplanes to get me from point to point. And yesterday I spent six hours on a Boeing 737 as I flew from Miami to Seattle, a flight that may well be the longest possible within the continental United States.

Take-offs, in particular, freak me out. Every time a plane leaves the tarmac I mentally picture the paper airplanes I threw as a child, all of which left my hand and promptly transmogrified into Earth-seeking missiles. Once we’re in the air I’m generally fine, although turbulence will make me gasp and clutch my armrest and notify God that I was just joking about the whole being-an-atheist thing.

The main source of my unease is that, deep down inside, I don’t believe airplanes can fly. I mean have you seen them, the airplanes? They’re huge! There’s no way they can fly. And don’t give me that flummery about the Bernoulli's principle or lift coefficients or blah blah blah, because you know it’s crap as well as I do. I think the only reason planes fly is because everyone on board believes that they can. So I sit there in my seat and try as hard as I can not to disbelieve in air travel, for fear that, by entertaining doubt, I’ll be the one that causes the whole enterprise to fail.

Of course, none of this is an issue after three hours or so -- by then I’m so tired of being in the plane that I’m immune to terror. Indeed, when we hit turbulence I find myself rationally considering the fact that, were we to go into a tailspin and crash, at least that would shorten my travel time. Landings don't bother me in the least because, by the time we return to Earth, I’m pretty much numb, which is exactly the state I prefer to be in while flying.

My ideal airline would actually knock the passengers unconscious before take-off, and revive them upon landing. Wouldn’t that be great? You sit in your assigned seat, the "oxygen masks" drop down, you suck down halothane until you’re out cold, and you wake up six hours later, slumped against a post in the baggage claim area. That would rule. And think about the cost savings for the carrier: no need for movies, no need for food or beverages – they wouldn’t even have to put windows in the plane. I’m telling you, when they launch Insensate Air I’ll be the first one to purchase a ticket.

March 07, 2003

This Idea Is ElimiGREAT!

Have you seen that show ElimiDATE? Oh man, it's a keeper. They pair up one guy with four girls (or vice versa) and then, one by one, he kicks them to the curb until he's left with the one with the largest breasts. It's easily the most brilliant show since Small Wonder got cancelled.

The only problem is that everyone on the show has the IQ of tomato juice. So I think they should have a Joe Millionaire-esque spin-off. Imagine if the four lunkedheaded college boys were paired up with a woman who was secretly a PHD in, say, organic chemistry. Then, during their outings, the woman is instructed to discuss her field of expertise as much as possible, even while the men resort to their usual lower-common-denominator innuendo to try and get in her pants.

Boy: So, what do you like and stuff?
Woman: I like studying heterogeneous catalysts and cleavage of structural proteins.
Boy: Cleavage! Yeah, baby!
Woman: I also enjoy working on RNA isolation by acid guanidinium thiocyanate-phenol-chloroform extraction.
Boy: Right on. I like basketball and getting’ busy.
Then, after the four dupes have gone out with the genius, they are rounded up and given an exam on the subject matter. Whoever scores the highest gets a scholarship at the community college of thier choice.

This will be a great show. It will be called "EluciDATE".


Movies: City of God

I told my friend to go see City of God. he asked "Is that about gangs?" When I told him it was, he said "I dunno, I've just about had it with organized crime films."

I told him not to worry. City of God is about crime, but it's about the most unorganized crime imaginable.

In fact, even labeling the groups of criminals show in the film -- thugs ranging from the petty to bloodthirtsty -- might be giving them too much credit. They are more like amoebic mobs, swallowing up lives, subdividing into factions, and completely lacking in anything approximating a brain or a central nervous system. Set in the slums of Brazil, the story focuses on a young boy named Rocket (one apparent upside to living on the streets of Rio de Janeiro is that you get a cool nickname), who lives life in orbit of some of the nastier elements of the neighborhood. Like all of his peers, the options available to Rocket are limited: do nothing and live in abject poverty, get an honest but low-paying job, or make some quick cash by engaging in the multitude of nefarious opportunities available.

While Rocket opts to do a little of all three, some of his friends specialize in one track or another. One such specialists is Lil' Dice, who we meet as a nine year old child and watch evolve into one of the most brutal drug lords in the game. Indeed, we get to witness the evolution of all the characters (those that don't get killed, any how), as the movie spans a dozen years of time. In this respect, City of God is reminiscent of Goodfellas, a film that clearly played some inspirational role in this, director Fernando Meirelles debut film.

But there are no "made men" in the City of God, no honor among thieves, no "mafia corporate ladder" for a wannabe gangster to climb. The gangs in this picture are manifestations of anarchy rather than hierarchy. The sheer randomness of the lifestyle is chilling, and violence is depicted as brutal, ubiquitous, and arbitrary. All this makes for a film that portrays the "gangster lifestyle" in the least romantic light possible.

City of God is the movie Gangs of New York should have been (and would have been, if Scorsese had stuck to the book instead of Hollywooding it up): a powerful portrayal of the destructive lure of crime, one that makes you thankful that the life depicted is one you can escape by simply leaving the theater.

March 06, 2003

DC Notepad: Movin' On Up

I've always felt sorry for Charles Seeberger, inventor of the modern escalator. I don't know a thing about him, but I've come to envision him as a wide-eyed idealist, a benevolent visionary who thought -- like the early proponents of television -- that his new-fangled gadget would change the world for the better. "Just imagine," I hear Mr. Seeberger whisper in tones of wonder, "Now people will be able to ascend stairs twice as fast as they could before. Utopia is just around the corner."

And then, in this mental fantasy of mine, I imagine the horror and revulsion Seeberger would feel if he were to visit any modern America mall, and see how his gift to the world has become a force of evil. Because people do not walk up the escalator, as Seeberger and God intended, and therefore reach the top of their climb no faster than they would using non-motorized stairs. Instead they stand immobile on the escalator, like tourists at the Mount Olympus Zoo's gorgon exhibit. Instead of improving the world, the escalator has instead just become another contributor to the lazification of Planet Earth.

These were conclusions I had drawn after living most of my life in Seattle, where folks wouldn't walk up an escalator if it burst into flames. And although I haven't visited many large American cities, I assumed this phenomenon was constant throughout the nation, a conception that was reinforced last summer when Slate published an article describing how Economists at the University of Rochester had observed the same thing (i.e., the average American walks up an escalator about as often as Bob Dole plays tetherball).

Now, this wouldn't be so bad if you has the option to walk up the escalator if you wanted to. But you don't -- not in Seattle, at any rate. When I was in Europe, I noticed that while not everyone opted to stay in motion while on an escalator, at least the stationary folks kept to one side so that those wishing to climb were able to do so. In Seattle no one ever stays to one side -- even those riding alone insist on occupying the exact center of the path -- and asking someone to move over so you can pass is considered about as polite as inquiring if you can stab them with a pike.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that Washington D.C. citizens walk up escalators or stand to one side to allow others to do so! What the hoohaw?! Is this unique to DC, or is Seattle the only hotbed of not-to-the-side-escalator-standers in the nation?

No seriously, I want to know. The comments are open.


Movies: Talk To Her

IMDB categorizes the new Pedro Almodóvar film Talk To Her as a "Comedy / Drama / Romance".

Well, I'll give 'em the first two. It's a drama that's often funny. And it is a movie about love. But, at it's core, it sure ain't about romance. Romance, to my mind, is the interaction between people in love: the flirting, the courting, the emotional ties. You'll find none of that in this film -- not after the first half an hour, at any rate. Talk To Her, if anything, is a film about the logic of love in the absence of romance. It's not that the men in the movie aren't romantic -- indeed, they seem overly so -- it's just that the women they love are in no condition to return their affection.

Early in the film, freelance journalist Marco interviews Lydia, the most renowned female bull fighter in Spain, and the two are soon making googly eyes in the backseat of a car. The film then fast-forwards to the point where they are an established couple. But this phase of their relationship is abruptly truncated after Lydia is gored in the ring and falls into a coma. Here endth the romance.

This is also the point where the love story begins. While wandering the halls of Lydia's hospital, Marco meets Benigno, a nurse who is caring for a comatose woman that he loves. The unique nature of their shared predicament causes the two men to form a close bond, and they become fast friends over many discussions about the difficulties of loving someone unable to reciprocate.

What makes Talk To Her so moving is that Marco and Benigno are very different people, men who almost certainly would never have met (much less become buddies) under any other circumstances. As a result, they tend to view things from completely different perspectives. Marco, for example, views Lydia's condition as a curse, something that has interrupted their love affair; Benigno, on the other hand, has idealized his "relationship" with his patient, pointing out that he and his comatose sweetheart get along much better than most married couples.

Many "romantic comedies"use absurd situations to fuel one-dimensional storylines -- take, for example, While You Were Sleeping, where Sandra Bollock pretends to be engaged to a comatose man and hilarity, as always, ensues. Talk To Her, on the other hand, takes an unlikely premise -- dissimilar men brought together by tragedy -- and uses it to showcase aspects of human emotion that are rarely explored on film. By focusing on love, and the difficult decisions that friendship demands, Almodóvar has created a work that is an order of magnitude greater than your run-of-the-mill "Comedy / Drama / Romance".

March 05, 2003

I Swear This Is My Last Post On The Whole France ~ Iraq Thing

Phone conversation I just had with my buddy.

Him: I'm going to the movies tonight, y'wanna come?
Me: What are you seeing?
Him: Quai Des Orfevres
Me: What the -?! That sounds French.
Him: It is French.
Me: Dude, didn't you get the memo? You can't go to French movies any more.
Him: Why not?
Me: We hate the French now. They won't let us bomb Iraq.
Him: Hah!
Me: I'm only half kidding. Didn't you hear about "Freedom Fries"?
Him: No, what's that?
Me: Some restaurants changed "French Fries" to "Freedom Fries" on their menus because of the whole UN thing.
Him: Come on. That sounds like an urban legend.
Me: No way -- it was on the Internet so it's gotta be true. And I guess some stores stopped carrying French wines, too.
Him: Yeah, I'm sure people who think "Freedom Fries" is a good idea are huge consumers of French wine. France will be economically devastated!
Me: Hah hah!
Him: What about "French Toast."
Me: Now it's "Liberty Toast".
Him: Gotcha. Are any other country names off-limits now? What about "Iraq"? Can we still say "Iraq"?
Me: No, now you have to substitute patriotic words for "Iraq". Like, when you're playing pool and you're between games, you can't say "I rack?" You have to say "Justice?"
Him: Right, right. And when frat boys are checking out girls, now they say "Holy shit, bro: she has democracy that won't quit!"
Okay. I know when I am out-punned.


Matt Millionaire

It's a literal dream come true: my road to millionaireism begins today.

Date: Tue, 04 Mar 2003 18:02:16 -0500
From: Rob Stevenson
Subject: Slap me with Brie

Matthew,

Something along these lines? If you're game (and you want to link to it) I will pay you $2 for every shirt sold.

By the way, I was impressed by your spot on Rewind, but Marketplace is really the apex of public radio success. So, what is David really like?

Sincerely,
Rob Stevenson
Vice President
T-Shirt Giant, Inc.

There you go, kids. I know how often you read this site and think "Boy, that Matthew Baldwin sure makes some humorous observations about yogurt. I wish there was some way that I, Faithful Reader, could help make him a millionaire." WELL NOW YOU CAN!! I mean "NOW THERE IS!!" A WAY TO HELP MAKE ME A MILLIONAIRE, THAT IS!!! All I need is, let's see, one million divided by two is, um, okay, 500,000 people to buy this shirt, and then I will have more money than I could shake a stick at, which is saying something because, believe you me, I can shake a stick at a lot of money.

By the way, I think Rob really improved this shirt by dropping the "On Iraq" from the phrase "I Oppose The War On Iraq!" After all, a garment bearing the full slogan will lose relevance as soon as the current war starts (7:44 PM PST this evening, by the latest reckoning). But owners of a shirt with the abridged tagline will be able to don it each and every time France opposes a war (i.e. roughly every seven weeks).

As for Dave (I call him "Dave") Brancaccio, I'm happy to report that he was every bit as charming and well-spoken in person as he is on the air. At least he was, until his fifth hot toddy. Then, Jesus: we couldn't shut him up about the hummels. "Oh sure, there's lots of companies making adorable ceramic figurines," he'd say, "but few people realize that a figurine can only be called a 'hummel' if it's actually produced by the M.I. Hummel company or handcrafted by W. Goebel Porzellanfabrik blah blah blah blah ..." And he carries photos of hummels in his wallet -- what's up with that? I kept trying to change the subject to the 1976 Ethiopian monetary conversion from the birr to the dollar, but no dice: hummels hummels hummels. Eventually I just excused myself from the table, went to the restroom, and escaped by crawling out a window.

March 04, 2003

DC Notepad: The West Wing

While in D.C. I strolled by the White House. My first reaction, upon seeing it, was "that's a lot smaller than I thought it was going to be".

My second reaction was "What are you, nuts?" Because, in truth, the White House is huge for a residence, and it must have been considered even more so when it was (re)built in 1901. But, I dunno -- somehow I expected something that, in typical American fashion, would be Completely Over-The-Top Huge, like the Mall of America, or the Cadillac Escalade or, according to obesity statistics, the average American himself.

As I returned to my hotel, I wondered what it was about American society that conditioned me to expect Bigger! Bigger! Bigger to the point where finding the White House to be just Moderately Huge was a disappointment.

Half an hour later I was sitting in my room, watching a press conference in which the skyscraper selected to replace the World Trade Center was unveiled. During the sppech by the architect, the CNN newscasters kept breaking in, breathlessly reminding viewers that the proposed edifice would "be the tallest building in the world".


Books: Empire Falls

I talked The Queen into seeing Spirited Away, and she loved it even though she doesn't much care for anime. She returned the favor by convincing me to read Empire Falls, even though it appeared to be exactly the kind of book I try and avoid. Set in the tiny burg of Empire Falls, starring Mr. Nice Guy, and written by an author with a long string of "relationship novels" to his name, this looked, to me, to be little more than a novelization to some "Hallmark Feelgood Family TV Special". But it did win the Pulitzer Prize, and I reckoned that the entire Pulitzer Prize committee and my wife couldn't both be wrong. So I decided to give it a whirl.

The first third, however, seemingly confirmed my fears. As the story opens, we are introduced to Miles, a put-upon, heart-of-gold sad-sack who is in the midst of a divorce, father to a teenage girl, and indentured to the town matriarch. He also runs Empire Falls' only diner, which means that he (and the reader) is in constant contact with the city's zanier denizens, including The Silver Fox (owner of the local health club and fiancé to Miles' soon-to-be ex), the obligatory corrupt cop (who was once one of Miles' best friends), and the town's ne're-do-well layabout (who also happens to be Miles' dad).

Small town + divorce + raising a teen + cast of quirky characters tends to = a book I'm not going to wind up loving. But love it I did. Eventually. I henpecked the novel for weeks as I eked my way through the beginning; I got hooked by the midpoint; And I was sprinting to the finish line by the time I hit page 300.

Unsurprisingly, it's those very things that made Empire Falls so hard to "get into" -- namely, the voluminous backstory and meticulous explanation of the mosaic of relationships -- that make the finale so rewarding. Author Richard Russo clearly has a gift for making his characters almost unsettlingly realistic, and, thankfully, he is not afraid to expose the "flaws" in his ostensible good guys. When the book begins, for example, you can't imagine why Miles' wife wants to divorce him, as he seems to be the nicest guy in the world; as the story progresses, however, it becomes increasingly unclear which side of the line between "nice" and "willfully naive" Miles is on, and you start to wonder what took her so long to dump him. Likewise, Miles' daughter is often shown to be petty, selfish, and entirely too concerned with her current social standing. She is, in other words, portrayed as an honest-to-God teen.

It occurs to me, in retrospect, that many of my favorite books tend to share this quality: they start slow, they heap on the backstory, and they eventually make you care about the characters to such a degree that the finale pays you back with interest on your investment of time. But even recognizing this, the sad truth is that I usually need some external motivator encouraging me to see such books through too the end. In the case of A Prayer For Owen Meany, for example, it was my prior knowledge that John Irving novels are worth the effort. For The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay it was my love of all things Houdini that got me through. And it was The Queen's endorsement of Empire Falls that prevented me from putting it down after page 100. Thank goodness she recommended it so highly. And now I do the same.


Dearth of Mirth

Saw a headline today: "Botox Injections Popular For Erasing Laugh Lines".

Yes sir, there's nothing sexier than a woman who looks as if she hasn't smiled a day in her life.

March 03, 2003

D.C. Notepad: Bookends

I spent last week in Washington D.C. (How do I end a sentence with "D.C." -- with two periods in a row?) I'm entirely too lazy to write a full narrative of my assorted adventures, but I did have the presence of mind to jot down some notes.

There

I was certain that I was going to be searched repeatedly in Sea-Tac airport. After all, the last time I flown I'd been subjected to more scrutiny than a pretty girl in a bar, and that time I'd been (a) clean shaven, (b) armed with all my necessary documents, and (c) accompanied by The Queen. This time I was a disheveled, unshaven, single male with an "e-ticket," a new pair of thick-soled boots that had ample room for explosives, and a face full of irritation owing to a lack of morning coffee.

But at the check-in counter they were unfazed by my badly frayed driver's license, and let me turn in my luggage without having to endure a search. No one glanced at me twice as I waltzed through the metal detectors, even though every third person was getting pulled aside. By the time I actually boarded the plane -- again, without attracting any attention whatsoever -- I began to wonder if I'd become invisible.

Or maybe ... Maybe I didn't get searched because I had mentally searched myself. So sure was I that I would get patted-down and wand-waved that I had examined myself from head to toe, categorizing everything about my appearance and demeanor that could be interpreted as "suspicious" and preparing appropriate explanations and excuses. Maybe the airport staff could sense that I had done their job for them, and had therefore opted to let me go without comment.

Maybe the FAA had a hidden agenda. Maybe they had taken Socrates dictum "The unexamined life is not worth living" to heart, and all these elaborate "security measures" were, in fact, a covert way of forcing Americans into self-evaluation, giving us the opportunity and motivation to to view ourselves as we are seen by others. Maybe the government, like the Oracle of Delphi, is simply taking the opportunity to say unto us "Man, Know Thyself."

Or maybe I hadn't had enough coffee and was borderline delusional. That was also a distinct possibility.

And Back Again

An hour into my return flight a stewardess came over the intercom system. "I'm going to begin the short video feature," she announced. "We will follow that with the in-flight movie in about an hour or so."

An hour passed. No video was seen.

Just as a second attendant was asking me what I wanted to drink, the voice of the first stewardess echoed through the cabin again. "Whoops!" she said. "I ran the short feature, but I forgot to lower the video screens. Sorry about that! Anyway, we'll start the movie in five minutes."

The stewardess in the aisle rolled her eyes, handed me a Pepsi, and whispered conspiratorially "We just got a pretty face with that one, I tell ya."


Announcements

Firstly! I was on NPR's Marketplace last Friday doing my Legonomics shtick. You can listen to it online (RealAudio link). My piece is dead last, about 25 minutes into the 28 minute broadcast. Apparently Matthew Baldwin is a "freelance writer" -- who knew?

Also! I am quite waaaaay behind on book and movie reviews, so you can expect a veritable passel of those this week.

Furthermore! Last night I dreamt that I became a millionaire selling t-shirts that read "Well Slap Me With Brie And Call Me French: I Oppose The War In Iraq!"

In Conclusion! If Reader's Digest ever featured a "Drama in Real-Life" entitled Slapped By Brie!, I would totally read it.