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July 25, 2007

2007 New Year's Resolution

Stop procrastinating.

[ link | Misc]

July 24, 2007

Transcript: CNN / Youtube Democratic Debate

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN host: Good evening, and welcome to the first CNN / Youtube democratic presidential debate. We asked people from all over the Internet to submit questions via youtube.com, and the response was overwhelming. So, without further ado, let's jump right in.

Our first question tonight is Zach Kempf in Provo, Utah.

QUESTION: My question is: We have a bunch of leaders who can't seem to do their job. And we pick people based on the issues they that they represent, but then they get in power and they don't do anything about it anyway.

You're going to spend this whole night talking about your views on issues, but the issues don't matter if when you get in power nothing's going to get done.

We have a Congress and a president with, like, a 30 percent approval rating, so clearly we don't think they're doing a good job. What's going to make you any more effectual, beyond all the platitudes and the stuff we're used to hearing? I mean, be honest with us. How are you going to be any different?

SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD: omg that video was totaly gay

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Shut up Dodd thats offensive when u say gay like that.

FORMER SEN. MIKE GRAVEL: Check out my vids at youtube.com/user/gravel2008.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: to answre your question bush is a facist who only wants more power. hes not even the president you knopw, cheny is. i would b different because i would have a vice presidant that doesnt just try and control everything from behind the seens/


KUCINICH: i have read thwe consititution which is probably more than youve ever read except maybe the back of a ceral box.


SEN. JOE BIDEN: Ron Paul is the ONLY candidate with any integrity in this race. He's a TRUE PATRIOT, not a republicrat sellout like the rest of us.

COOPER: Let's move on to the next question.

QUESTION: Hey, I'm Mike Green from Lexington, South Carolina. And I was wanting to ask all the nominees whether they would send their kids to public school or private school.

GRAVEL: Check out my vids at youtube.com/user/gravel2008.

FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: When I'm president I will abolish school hehehe.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON: Private school, because if you have ever heard the Pink Floyd song "Another Brick In The Wall" you know that public schools are not very good.


RICHARDSON: Oh, I'm sure YOU like really good music. Like Pussycat Dolls or some other mass-marketed corporate crap you buy at Wal*Mart.


COOPER: May I interject something here? That hour-long interview I had with Paris Hilton last month? The guys at CNN made me do that. Just so you know. I would have preferred to do a story on AIDS or drought or something, because I'm a respected journalist.


DODD: omg u r totaly gay

OBAMA: rotfl its so true


I discovered something curious about Flickr while trying to remark upon this photo: if you leave a comment in ALL CAPS, all but the initial letters of each sentence are converted to lowercase. (Try it here.) I guess it's the "email from your father-in-law" filter or something.

Since I couldn't wisecrack in the original thread, I had no choice but to make this instead. Hey, that totally rhymed.

This in case you don't recognize her, this is the lovely Mrs. Kennedy.

Update: Cardhouse figures out how to stick it to the Man.

July 23, 2007

Forecast: Divorce

We in Seattle enjoyed torrential rains Saturday and Sunday.

This morning, in the elevator, I overheard this conversation:

Man: So, what did you do this weekend?

Woman: Went to a wedding. An outdoor wedding.

Man: Oh, god. That must have been fun.

Woman: Yeah, it was pretty bad. The bride was totally pissed at the groom because of the rain.

Man: Why? Wasn't his fault.

Woman: I guess they had some indoor place all lined up to use, just in case, but he was sure that having it outside would be okay.

Man: Still, though. How was he supposed to know?

Woman: He's a weatherman.

July 20, 2007

Potter Errata

For the record, the Harry Potter post below contains no spoilers. (Or, if it does, they are inadvertent, as I know nothing about the book.)

Also, and just FYI: my review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (which is also spoiler-free) tells you how to get caught up for Deathly Hallows without having to read all the books.

[ link | dy]

Your Amazon.com Order is Being Prepared for Shipping

Greetings from Amazon.com.

We thought you would like to know that we are preparing the following items for shipment:

Qty Item
1 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Yes sir, tomorrow is the big day. July 21. The release of the final installment in the Harry Potter seventology, or whatever the hell it's called.

Oh man, you must be excited. I bet you can't wait to get your hands on this book.

Me, I've had my hands on the book pretty much continuously for the last week, preparing all these orders for shipment. In fact, I'm holding your copy as I write this.

It's kind of funny, when you think of it: you've been looking forward to this book for a decade, probably pre-ordered the thing a year ago; and here I am, some warehouse-working Muddle (or whatever you call us), who doesn't know Hogwarts from genital warts, with the book 24 hours before you.

That's a little something called irony. You'll appreciate it when you get older. Assuming you're not some 37-year old guy who lives with his parents and can recite the d20 stats for a gelatinous cube has off the top of his head.

Well, don't you worry. This book will be on your doorstep tomorrow afternoon, ready to read.

I, of course, could read the book--YOUR book--right now. And I gotta admit, it WOULD be fun to be one of the first people in the world to know how it all ends.

Hmm. So, maybe I'll just read the last page ...


Hah hah. I'm just yanking your chain. That's not how it ends. Or maybe it IS, and I'm just saying it's not so you'll be doubly surprised when you finish it. You never know.

I really did read the last page, though. The final word is "haberdashery." You can verify that when you get the book. Tomorrow. A full day after I had it.

I gotta tell ya, though: now that I know how it ends, I kind of want to read the whole thing. If I start right now, I could probably finish it and get this book in the mail to you by Wednesday. You wouldn't mind waiting a few extra days, would you?

Also, I dog-ear pages to save my place. I hope that's okay.

j/k. I wouldn't really read this book. 1000 words about fairies? Yeah, no. Besides, who has the time? Some of us have work for a living. For instance, I bust my hump 60 hours a week schlepping your books around.

Besides, I'd rather see the movie anyway. That chick who plays Hermoine is smoking hot. I'd quidditch, if you know what I'm sayin'.

All right, settle down. I'm putting your precious doorstop in the box now. If you've explored the links on the Your Account page but still need assistance with your order, you'll find links to e-mail or call Amazon.com Customer Service in our Help department at http://www.amazon.com/help/

Thank you for shopping with us.

Amazon.com... and you're done!

P.s. Dobby dies.

July 19, 2007

Research Day: The Difference Between Noir and Hardboiled

In a way, this post doesn't really fit under the "Research Day" rubric. What typically happens on Research Day is that I identify a question about which I am ignorant, Google up some answers, and then report my findings here.

This, on the other hand, is an instance where I thought I knew something, and was informed otherwise.

I happened as I was interviewing people for my article on Web Noir. My original thesis was that online crime ezines were the modern equivalent of the pulps, though I was toying with the idea of writing the essay on the resurgent of interest in the pulp aesthetic. To that end, I decided to email to Charles Ardai of Hard Case Crime, to see if he had any thoughts on the matter. (Longtime readers will remember that I have previously professed my love for Hard Case Crime novels, and may suspect--perhaps correctly--that this entire project was an elaborate justification for me to send fan mail to Ardai).

After introducing myself, I posed a series of question to Ardai, the first of which was:

What are the hallmarks of hardboiled, noir stories?
His response, began like this:
To begin with, as I'm sure other folks either have told you or will tell you (people in this field love definitional arguments), the terms 'noir' and 'hardboiled' don't refer to the same thing. They describe orthogonal aspects of a story, in the sense that a given story can be either noir or hardboiled or both or neither -- one doesn't entail the other ...
Now, at this point, I was already writing my reply in my head, something along "oh jeeze, of course I know the difference between 'noir' and 'hardboiled,' I was just lumping the two together in the interest of brevity, etc. etc."

Still, I know better than to stop reading someone who can nonchalantly work the phrase "orthogonal aspects" into a sentence, so I persevered. By the time I reached the end of his response ... well, let's just say that I was no longer entertaining fantasies of trying to impress Mr. Ardai with my worldweary, know-it-all attitude.

Here's the kit & caboodle.

"Noir," though originally used to refer to a particular series of French paperbacks and then later to a category of black-and-white crime movie, is generally understood to refer to a story steeped in emotional (and often also literal) darkness. There is a feeling of dread and doom that suffuses the action; the story typically features a protagonist who's in trouble, who often doesn't deserve the trouble he's in (even if he's a bad guy, he often doesn't deserve the *particular* trouble he's in), and whose trouble just gets worse as the narrative grinds inexorably toward an unhappy -- often tragic -- ending. Once in a while, a book that's noir all the way through winds up having a happy or redemptive ending -- think David Goodis' THE WOUNDED AND THE SLAIN, which we just reprinted for the first time in ~50 years -- but those happy endings generally feel aberrant and tacked-on and untrue to the spirit of the enterprise. A noir story can be grim and suspenseful or grim and melancholy or grim and paranoid or grim and fatalistic -- but it's pretty much always grim. Its antecedents in literature include Oedipus, King Lear, and the work of Thomas Hardy; 'noir' posits a world in which either there is no god and men are left to make their way in a universe that's indifferent to justice and to their suffering or else a universe that is actively malign ("As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: They kill us for their sport"). More modern practitioners in the literary sphere include Camus and the other existentialists; on the genre side, the masters were James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis. The best description of noir I've ever read came from Woolrich: "I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you've put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can't, and it can't, and it can't."

"Hardboiled," on the other hand, refers as much to style as to content -- it describes a story in which the characters and the dialogue are tough and colloquial, where there's usually plenty of action (gunfights, fistfights, guys getting knocked unconscious) and plenty of sex (leggy dames in seamed stockings, etc.) and plenty of atmosphere (smoky gin joints, exotic Chinatown opium dens, races across moody nightscapes). The distinction is between this sort of thing and the world of classic detective stories, which tended to take place in drawing rooms and manor houses, gardens and vicarages, and to involve quiet poisonings more often than fists to the adam's apple. After World War II, readers who had been exposed to the bracing realities of the Depression, Auschwitz and Hiroshima lost patience with dainty tales of violence-as-parlor-game and flocked to the work of authors like Chandler and (even more so) Spillane, the men who (in Chandler's words) "gave murder back to the kind of people who commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse; and with the means at hand, not with hand-wrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish." Continues Chandler (he was writing about Dashiell Hammett): "He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. He had style, but his audience didn't know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements. They thought they were getting a good meaty melodrama written in the kind of lingo they imagined they spoke themselves. It was, in a sense, but it was much more. All language begins with speech, and the speech of common men at that, but when it develops to the point of becoming a literary medium it only looks like speech. Hammett's style at its worst was almost as formalized as a page of Marius the Epicurean; at its best it could say almost anything. I believe this style, which does not belong to Hammett or to anybody, but is the American language (and not even exclusively that any more), can say things he did not know how to say or feel the need of saying. In his hands it had no overtones, left no echo, evoked no image beyond a distant hill. He is said to have lacked heart, yet the story he thought most of himself is the record of a man's devotion to a friend. He was spare, frugal, hardboiled, but he did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before."

Was this the first use of the term "hardboiled" to refer to this sort of writing? No -- but I think Chandler captures perfectly what the term means. A hardboiled novel is a plain-spoken, rough-hewn, unapologetically frank and crude and vibrant one, that tells a two-fisted tale of men and women at their worst -- and at their best. A hardboiled story can be gleeful and funny and entertaining, or it can be dark and tragic and grim. "Hardboiled" describes the comedies of Richard Prather and the lyrical tragedies of Chandler himself. A noir novel can be written in a hardboiled style, but a noir story can also be told in delicate or refined or purple prose. Again, the two qualities are entirely separate.

Which did you find in the pulps -- noir or hardboiled? Well, you found both...but you found hardboiled constantly and noir only some of the time. The crime pulps (as opposed to the science fiction or horror or romance pulps, which are a whole other story) pretty much only published hardboiled fiction -- that's what they existed to do. Some of the stories were rooting-tooting whizbangs just out to please the kiddies (of all ages) among the readership, while others were somber, moving, tortured stories of men swirling down the drain.

So: Not all noir is hardboiled, and not all hardboiled is noir; the old pulps published both, but more hardboiled; the new pulps (if you want to call them that) also publish both, but interestingly more noir than hardboiled. I believe this is because of the relative sophistication of the reading audiences -- or at least the current audience's sense of its own sophistication. A lot of readers today, I believe, feel is it is "cool" to like noir -- like black-outfitted, alienated teens, they relish embracing anything that seems dark and tortured -- while many feel they are "above" reading old-fashioned hardboiled yarns, which often aspired to nothing more than providing an evening's worth of what we'd now call "popcorn entertainment."

At Hard Case Crime, we publish both. Books like Richard Powell's SAY IT WITH BULLETS or Robert Terrall's KILL NOW, PAY LATER are hardboiled comedies; a book like Erle Stanley Gardner's TOP OF THE HEAP is a serious hardboiled novel; but none of them are noir. On the other hand, Woolrich's FRIGHT and Goodis' THE WOUNDED AND THE SLAIN are as noir as you can get, as are some of our originals, such as Seymour Shubin's outstanding WITNESS TO MYSELF, or my own SONGS OF INNOCENCE.

Web Noir

Today at The Morning News I take a look at a number of online crime ezines, which are publishing some of the most powerful and provocative fiction being written today. Check it out: Web Noir.

In preparation for this article, I wrote six people about the topic, expecting to hear back from two, maybe three. Instead, every single person replied, and each was incredibly generous with their input and analysis. My thanks go out to:

Number six was Charles Ardai from Hard Case Crime, whose disquisition on the difference between "noir" and "hardboiled" was so eloquent and exhaustive that it merits its own post.

July 17, 2007

Reflections On My Netflix Queue

Warning: minor spoilers for all of the movies and shows mentioned, below; possibility of major spoilers in the comments.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand: Based on some excoriating reviews I read of X3 around the time of its release, I was expecting this to be, like, Daredevil bad. Well, it's kind of a mess, and contains a big, Brian Singer-shaped hole at its center, but doesn't do too bad of a job of wrapping up the trilogy (especially since it makes it clear that the trilogy is, in fact, at an end). Plus, there's worse ways to waste two hours than lookin' at Famke Janssen.

The Station Agent: I promised to review this film back in 2003, and never did. Now I've seen it again on DVD, and ... well, I guess I'm still not. But see it! It's great. And, if you've already seen it, hell, see it again--it's only 89 minutes. Worth it for Bobby Cannavale alone, who gives a such-a-good-actor-it-doesn't-even-seem-like-he's-acting caliber performance. The fact that everything else about the film is top notch is just gravy.

The Professional: WTF, did everyone who recommended this film to me see it when they were 11 and sugar high? Admittedly, if I had seen it in 1994 when it was in the theaters, and never again, it would almost certainly be in my personal pantheon of OMG GREATEST FILMS EVER!! But these days it just seems like the whole Hooker Hitman With a Heart of Gold thing is played out. Maybe I've been reading too much Thuglit.

Lost: Season 2: Yeah, I gotta admit--I thought this series had come off the rails, a few episodes into season 2. Bad enough that I found the hatch completely uncompelling, but it just seemed like they were going to keep launching new mysteries without ever resolving any of the old ones (kind of like (starting a bunch of parenthetical statements (without ever closing any (of the prior ones (this is driving you nuts, isn't it? I vented some of my frustration with this, about halfway through the season. But then things started looking up, when they started focusing more on the "people" mysteries (The Others) instead of the Thing mysteries (the hatch). By the finale, I was totally hooked again. ALRIGHT YOU STUPID EPIDODIC TELEVISION PROGRAM, I'LL GIVE YOU ONE MORE YEAR.

After Innocence: A documentary about people having their entire lives ruined when they are unfairly locked into a prision, and later freed after being exonerated by DNA evidence.

Jesus Camp: Actually, pretty much the same documentary as After Innocence, with religious dogma taking the place of jail. And without the part about them ever getting free.

The Descent: Horror movie about a bunch of hott spelunkers who get trapped in a cave and then have to fight off fast-moving subterannian flesh-eating mutants. Ya gotta keep an vigilant eye on your Netflix queue, lest stuff like this percolate to the top. You know the obligatory Scary Movie scene where a girl is walking around the house in her underwear and the music is super tense and then, suddenly, her cat jumps out of nowhere, yowling? Imagine that scene looped for 90 minutes and you don't have to see this. Basis for the hit TV sit-com: "The Smeagols."

P.S. )))))

July 11, 2007

Cliche Rotation Project, Round II

Submit your new cliches here.

July 10, 2007

Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back For Your Water

The other day I decide to make myself a nice, relaxing cup of tea. Crazy, I know. I'm spontaneous like that.

I filled a glass mug up with water, stuck it in the microwave for two minutes (my standard tea-making, water-hottening unit of time), and then busied myself with other tasks.

In response to the beeping sometime later, I walked over and opened the door to the over. I was surprised to see that the water was completely undisturbed, as if it had not been warmed at all. Thinking that perhaps I had accidentally set the microwave for "1:00" instead of "2:00," I reached out and tapped the side of the glass with my finger, to see how hot it was.

And then: FWOOOSH! The whole thing blew up.

Not the mug itself, just the contents. When jostled, the water went from looking like the placid surface of a calm lake to one filled with 4,000 piranhas and a cow. The water in the mug bubbled frenziedly for a fraction of a second, and then geysered upwards DIRECTLY INTO MY FACE OH GOD THE BURNING!!

Well, no. Actually, it mostly hit the ceiling of the microwave, though some slopped over onto my hand and a few drops assailed my cheekbones. Still, I did what any red-blooded American male would do in this situation: shrieked like a 11 year-old girl at a Fall Out Boy concert and flung myself backwards as if a rabid stoat had just attached itself to my windpipe.

As this took place, Squiggle was behind me, standing at his child-sized table and serenity coloring. I barreled backwards into him and we both crashed into the cupboards, our heads making cheerful coconut-clonking noises as they collided with wood, whereupon one or more of us burst into tears.

The Queen, meanwhile, was ten feet away, folding clothes on the kitchen table. She turned around when she heard me scream, missing the part where the scalding water flew directly into my eyebones and instead only seeing me do my impression of a bowling ball, with our toddler playing the role of Pin #6.

"Oh for Pete's sake," she said, surveying the aftermath. "What happened this time?"

Fortunately, I had an explanation at the ready. I knew exactly what had happened.

You see, a few years ago I took it upon myself to debunk every urban legend that I received via email, be it about Bill Gates and his plan to give $200 to every person who forwarded his message, the $250 Neiman-Marcus chocolate chip cookie recipe, or the dying kid in Albuquerque wanted everyone to send him a postcard. As self-appointed killjoy, I would track down the appropriate page on Snopes, reply to all, and piss in the collective punch bowl ("Actually, signing this petition is a waste of your time. There is no such proposal to slash the funding of Sesame Street, as this URL makes clear ...")

But I was unable to refute one such email--about exploding, microwaved water--because, according to Snopes, it was true.

So while The Queen soothed Squiggle ("don't cry, it was just one of your father's ... 'episodes' ..."), I quickly pulled up the Snopes page on our laptop to justify my seemingly maniacal behavior. This is our Standard Crisis Operation Procedure, by the way: she looks after the well-being of our child, I frantically scramble to absolve myself of blame.

A few click-click-clicks from Snopes and I wound up on the University of Minnesota website, which had this to say about the phenomenon:

Overheating of water in a cup can result in superheated water (past its boiling temperature) without appearing to boil. Superheating occurs if water is heated in a container that does not assist the formation of bubbles, which is a visual sign of boiling. Glass containers are the most likely to superheat water because their surfaces have few or no defects. The presence of slight defects, dirt, or other impurities usually help the water boil because bubbles will form on these imperfections.
When I showed the exculpatory evidence to The Queen though, she zeroed in on this passage:
Water can "explode" ... However, it takes near perfect conditions to bring this about, and is not something the average hot beverage drinker who would otherwise now be eying his microwave with trepidation need fear. Odds are, you'll go through life without ever viewing this phenomenon first-hand.
"Hey, that's terrific," she said, turning to me. "You coulda won us the lottery. But nooooooooo, you gotta blow your one-chance-in-a-million luck on exploding water."

Anyway, you'll be glad to hear that the only lasting effects of The Incident were a small burn on my right hand, a few slight red marks on my face, and a crippling fear of tea. Thankfully, the greyhound has graciously offered to become my new soothing drink of choice.

July 09, 2007

  • Death
  • Taxes
  • If you look at one of those big, digital clocks on the side of banks--you know, the kind that alternate between the time and temperature?--it will be displaying whichever statistic you are not currently trying to ascertain.

[ link | Lists]

July 05, 2007

Libby's Pardon

For the last few days, friends have been asking me what I think of the Libby pardon, and then sort of stepping back, wary but with looks amused anticipation on their faces, waiting for me to erupt in incensed indignation.

And they are invariably disappointed when I instead shrug and say, "I don't see how Libby going to jail matters, one way or the other."

Look people, here's the deal. Libby is (or, rather, was) nothing more than one tentacle of the Cephalopod we know and loathe as Dick Cheney. Everything the guy did--from leaking Plame's name to furiously trying to cover it up--was done either at the behest or to cover the ass of his Dark Master. To get all flushed and giddy of the prospect of Libby going to the pokey, while Cheney not only remains free but continue to pretty much run this joint, strikes me as the equivalent of throwing a single Sprite can into your recycling bin and declaring victory over global warming.

On the other hand, Bush's pardon of Libby has a bunch of positive side-effects:

It further illustrates the stunning contempt this administration has for the rule of law. For those of us who have been paying attention, providing more evidence that this administration essentially considers itself unfettered by the checks and balances of the legislative and judicial branches is like carrying coals to Newcastle. But Libby's pardon neatly encapsulates their monarchical arrogance into a single, easy-to-understand event, concise enough for a headline or a CNN crawler. No more trying to explain the intricacies of the US Attorney scandal and how it subtlety demonstrates the White House's disregard for accountability; now you just say "Libby's pardon" and people know exactly what you are talking about.

It negates the "Clinton factor." Apologists for the White House love to talk about Bill Clinton, and how much worse he was than the current occupant of the oval office. Or, at least, they used to--before Bush managed to equal and surpass pretty much every wrongheaded decision and politically-motivated maneuver Slick Willy ever attempted in his eight years of office. Pretty much the only thing Clintonphobes could still cite as unambiguously worse about the previous administration was the use of pardons, thanks to Marc Rich's Get Out Of Jail Free card. Now they don't even have that anymore. (And, fun fact: after the Rich pardon, Clinton wrote an op-ed for the New York Times attempting to justify his decision; Bush, on the other hand, couldn't even be bother do to his own clean-up, instead letting Tony Snow do the 'splainin'. An op-ed, by the way, in which Snow mentions Clinton's name as many times as he does that of his boss.)

It keeps the Plame scandal alive: You put a scapegoat in jail, and that's pretty much the end of the story. Once Ken Lay was convicted, talk of his connections to the White House largely stopped. That's a little thing called "closure," and something--thanks to Bush's decision--we do not yet have on the Plame Affair.

It draws attention to the absurdity of mandatory minimum sentencing requirements: People are outraged about the Libby pardon because Bush presumed to substitute his own judgment for that of the judge and jury. But the federal government does this all the time, with mandatory minimum sentencing laws. As recently as last month, Bush was "pushing legislation that would require prison time for nearly all criminals," ("Nearly" because perjurers and personal buddies will still get a pass, I assume.) If Bush's "judgment" in the Libby case rankles, ask yourself: if this really the guy you want setting sentencing requirements for all 50 states?

It strengthens the case for impeachment I have not yet boarded the I-Train--I don't want to live in a nation where, every time we have a divided government, the legislative branch spends all of its time and energy trying to eviscerate the executive, which is what I fear will happens if the President is impeached two administrations in a row. But my reservations only extend to Bush. The trail of slime in the Libby case leads back to Cheney, and I'm all for getting that guy gone.

If our government is like a house, Bush would be inside trashing the joint: breaking lamps, pulling over bookshelves (easy enough, given the amount of books he likely keeps on them), yanking up the carpet, and so on. He'll leave a mess, but the next inhabitant will be able to clean it up eventually. The stuff Cheney and Rove have done, though--be it the avocation of torture, the obsession with secrecy, or the stacking the judicial branch--is more akin to a toxic black mold, that sort that infests a house for generations, rendering the place unlivable.

I think Bush is pretty much done for, and impeaching him would serve little purpose; but Cheney is like a guy who has had "a few beers" and is roaming the countryside with a shotgun (if you can envision that farfetched scenario): the sooner he is disarmed, the better we'll be. Or, as Hendrik Hertzberg put it in The New Yorker, Cheney is:

the most influential public official in the country, not necessarily excluding President Bush, and his influence has been entirely malign. He is pathologically (but purposefully) secretive; treacherous toward colleagues; coldly manipulative of the callow, lazy, and ignorant President he serves; contemptuous of public opinion; and dismissive not only of international law (a fairly standard attitude for conservatives of his stripe) but also of the very idea that the Constitution and laws of the United States, including laws signed by his nominal superior, can be construed to limit the power of the executive to take any action that can plausibly be classified as part of an endless, endlessly expandable "war on terror."
Yes, exactly. If the Libby walking calls more attention to this fact, then his pardon is all right by me. And if his reprieve stokes the fires of Cheney disgruntlement (as it appears to have done; currently 54% [!!] of all adults favor Cheney's impeachment) to such a degree that we actually throw the bum out, we'll look back on this day fondly.

July 04, 2007

Games: Twilight Struggle

Last year on the Forth of July I wrote about US themed board games. Let's make a tradition of it, what hey?

The board games I tend to highlight on this site are those I refer to as GGGs: Good Gateway Games (or, around the holiday season, Good Gift Games). In other words, games that are easy to teach and play, that can be completed in an hour or less, and are "fun on the first try," suitable for casual get-togethers and people new to the board gaming hobby.

GGGs aren't the only games I play, just the ones I tend to showcase here. In fact, my preferred titles often violate two or even all of the above guidelines, as my newest favorite game illustrates. Twilight Struggle has a bit of a learning curve, takes 3-4 hours to complete, and, while fun, requires multiple playings to fully appreciate.

So why mention it here? Simply because I can think of no other game I own that inspired me to research an entire field of academic subject. Power Grid didn't get me interested in electricity production; I didn't become obsessed with Swahili economics after playing Jambo; and despite dozens of games of No Thanks! I've felt no compulsion to improve upon my manners. And yet, since acquiring Twilight Struggle, I've read a book about the cold war (called, cleverly enough, The Cold War), watched a six-hour documentary on the clash between capitalism and socialism, and impressing people at cocktail parties* by causally opining about Charles de Gaulle's effect on European history.

Twilight Struggle is for two players; one assumes the role of the United States, the other: USSR. The board shows a map of the world and the key nations for which the superpowers will be fighting. The game is played with a deck of 110 cards, each of which depicts a major event in the cold war. Most of these events are affiliated with one superpower or the other, though some are neutral. In addition to the event, every card also boasts an number of "operational points" from 0-4.

A game begins in 1945 and unfolds over 10 rounds, each of which represents 3-5 years of history. During a round, players alternate playing and resolving cards. When playing a neutral card, or one affiliated with his own superpower, a player has a choice: he may either trigger the event, or he may spend the operation points. Operation points can be used to increase your superpower's influence over other nations, to reduce your opponent's influence, or to foment coups (which, if successful, may both decrease your opponent's influence in the target country and increase your own). When playing a card associated with your opponent (which you will do often, as the game forces you to play nearly all of the cards in your hand, whether you wish to or not), you get to use the operation points and your opponent gets to resolve the event. This nasty little twist means that you will sometimes find yourself playing cards that benefit your opponent more than yourself.

The goal of all this is control: control of key battleground nations, and of the six major regions of the world (Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Central America, South America, and Africa). When one of the periodic scoring phases is triggered, the superpower that controls more nations in the indicated region will rack up points.

Complicating matters is the threat of mutual assure destruction, which lurks in the background at all times and becomes especially worrisome as Defcon creeps toward 1. (If nuclear war breaks out during a player's turn, he loses.) And China serves as a perpetual fly in the ointment of both superpowers, first aiding one of them, then immediately defecting to the other.

I'm not a huge fan or wargames--and Twilight Struggle, at its core, is not one. It differs from true war games in two ways. First, the two players never attack each other directly, instead jockeying for control of key areas of the map, and fighting proxy battles across the globe. It is not intended to be a simulation of the actual cold war. In fact, in the designer notes, Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews openly admit that they goal was to create a game that adhered to the mythology of the cold war, if not the reality. To that end, the "domino theory"--of dubious validity in actual foreign policy--is crucial to success in this game, nations are little more than pawns for the superpowers, and investing time and energy into the "space race" reaps tangible benefits. Twilight Struggle depicts the cold war as it was envisioned by those who were fighting it, not as it now appears to us in retrospect.

I don't play games as often as I used to, alas. So when I find myself with a free evening and an opponent, I consider the time valuable. I could easily play three different games in the time it takes for one bout of Twilight Struggle; that I choose the latter ought to tell you something about how much this game has grown on me.

* I don't actually attend cocktail parties.**

** Or impress people

July 03, 2007


Squiggle was walking around the house yesterday, counting to himself. I realized he had reached the nineties and was curious to know what would happen, so I stopped to listen.





Here he paused for a moment and thought. Then:

Oh, great. Kid's got a rollover error.

July 02, 2007

100 Words

The editors of the American Heritage dictionary recently compiled a list of "100 words they recommend every high school graduate should know."

I always like to check out lists like this, and see how many of the entries I am already familiar with. The answer is, invariably, "nearly all of them." Not because I have a stellar vocabulary, but because I cheat.

Not on purpose, of course. But, when performing this exercise, I'm always struck with "well that's what I meant" syndrome. You know how it goes. You see the word, you say to yourself "that means X," you check the definition, and when it turns out that it actually meant Y, you say, "ah, well, that's I meant. And, jeeze, X and Y are practically the same thing ... so, I'm going to give myself this one." By the time I'm done, I have magnanimously "given" myself all of them, and have no idea how many I actually knew before I started.

So this time I tried something new: I wrote down my definitions first, and then compared them to the actual definitions afterwards. You can see the results in the comments.

If you'd like to do the same, here's a little tool I wrote. First, select how many words from the American Heritage list you'd like to get tested on. (I wouldn't recommend 100--that took me forever--but 23 is good.) You will then be given the opportunity to provide your definitions for each. You can then grade yourself, in comparison to the actual meanings. Lastly, the script will print out a final report, which you can then put in the comments of this psot on your own site. (Apparently Movable Type strips tables from comments, so posting 'em here ain't gonna work after all.)

By providing your own definitions first, you should get a somewhat more accurate picture of how many of the words you could truly use correctly in a sentence. But if you just want to grade yourself without providing your own definitions first, you can do that instead. Whatever. We aim to please.

How many words?

You can find my results here (but, if you intend to test yourself, don't look until you have done so, as the definitions of the words appear on that page).