Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Nakatsu/ 中津

(Better Know a City)

Because I’m now living in Nakatsu, this seemed like the natural place to begin my project, although in truth I've seen more than enough of this town over the past 5 years already. Because it boarders the Usa-Gun area, the Nakatsu ex-pats were in the same social group as me, and we spent a lot of time hanging out in Nakatsu. Especially after Tropicoco (my favorite Mexican bar in Japan) relocated from Usa into Nakatsu during my 3rd year as a JET.

I've always privately (and sometimes not so privately) referred to Nakatsu as the armpit of Oita Prefecture. To me it represented everything bad about Japanese cities.
Take my old town of Ajimu, for example. It was pretty out in the boondocks. Not a lot of Western restaurants or any sort of entertainment, but it the countryside was absolutely gorgeous.
On the other side was Oita city, which was ugly as sin, but had most of the conveniences of a big city: multiple Starbucks, lots of foreign restaurants, and (the ultimate prized commodity in Japan) stores which carried English books.

But Nakatsu manages to be an ugly city that has almost nothing to offer. The whole thing is like one giant parking lot. Or like 28th street back in Grand Rapids, but without any interesting stores along the side.

The nighttime entertainment is marginal, probably because it’s too close to Fukuoka to compete. There are the usual karaoke places and snack bars, but for that matter Ajimu has that much. Nakatsu's stock has risen somewhat since Tropicoco moved here, and there are a couple other places frequented by us foreigners, but all in all I’d say Nakatsu is pretty blah.

And now I’m living here. So I guess I should make the best of it.

I started out my Nakatsu tour by going to the train station and grabbing their sight seeing maps. They had outline a 5 kilometer walking course starting from the station that went through Nakatsu's historical district which I decided to take.

Much of it I had actually seen before. During my first year in Japan, a couple of Japanese friends from Nakatsu took me to all the important spots. For instance there is Nakatsu castle. Like most castles in Japan, the original was burnt down by fire, and the only thing standing now is a replica that has been turned into a museum. The top of it does offer a great view of down town Nakatsu, but because I had already been up there several times before I decided to save the $2 and just walk around castle grounds instead.

The other important place is the house of Fukuzawa Yukichi. Fukuzawa Yukichi was one of the leading intellectuals of the Meiji Restoration, and his face is on the Japanese 10,000 yen note. He’s also a native son of Nakatsu, and they make a big deal about it. Although an American friend once told me, “It’s ironic that Nakatsu is so proud of Fukuzawa Yukichi, because when he grew up and left the town he shook the dust off his sandals and said something to the effect of ‘I’m never coming back to this hick town again’.” I never bothered to independently verify that, but I’ll pass it along here nonetheless.

Anyway, I had been to Fukuzawa's house a few years back as well, so I saved another $2 by just walking around the gate.

The rest of the historical district was just one temple after another. They all had signs in front of them explaining their historical significance, but without a Japanese friend to help me I understood very little of it. There was a grave for a kappa (a Japanese mythical river creature) in one of the temples.

Having finished before noon, I retired back to my apartment for bread and coffee (because I was touring my own town, I had the luxury of breaking in my own apartment) and got out the maps.
Now, like I said before, there’s not a lot to see in Nakatsu outside of the mediocre shopping. But I did follow the guidebook down to Komojin Shrine. It was just like any other shrine, although it did have a nice pond in back of it, and a walking trail around the pond. I spent a pleasant half hour just going around the pond, and then called it a day.

Update: Additional Videos
Gion Festival 2009


View of Downtown

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Lion-O's aging from a 12-year-old child to a 24-year-old man is considered one of the series' biggest plot holes by fans. Although it was explained that some aging would take place within the suspension capsule, none of the other ThunderCats aged to the same extent. While no further explanation was ever given, fans have speculated that Lion-O's capsule may have malfunctioned, causing him to age more rapidly.

Link of the Day
Blackwater, Inc. and the Privatization of the Bush War Machine
Our Mercenaries in Iraq

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Better Know a City

First I started up the “book review” project. Then I started doing “Retrospections”. Now I’d like to announce a new blog project I’m going to be starting up.

My goal is to visit every city in Oita prefecture, and write up a short description of my visit on this blog. My reasons for doing this are as follows:

Obviously during the 3 plus years I’ve been in Oita prefecture, I’ve probably been to about half of the cities at one time or another, especially the ones around the Usa/Ajimu area. But I was thinking recently that I never really explored this prefecture as well as I should have during my 3 years. I very seldom made it down to the south end of the prefecture, and I left the Kunisaki peninsula mostly unexplored.

Given how scenic Kyushu is, it’s really criminal that I never fully explored my own prefecture. Now that I'm back in Oita again, I figure I should take this possibly last opportunity to try and nail all the cities once and for all.

This will also have the added benefit of (hopefully) keeping me from getting bored during my 6th year in Japan. You do get to a certain point (and I think I passed it a long time ago) where unless you actively undertake new challenges, Japan can become a pretty boring place.

In fact I’m kicking myself a bit for not thinking of this idea earlier. During those months of vacation when I was just living in Shoko’s apartment, doing nothing, watching videos, and complaining about how bored I was, that would have been the perfect time to do something like this.

Although to be fair to myself (and I always try and be fair to myself) the thought did occur to me back then. And I did make a couple tentative forays into local sight seeing. But, as anyone who has spent time in Japan can identify with, you do quickly reach a point where there is only so much sight seeing you can do by yourself. Especially in the Japanese countryside where all the temples, parks and tourist traps start to look alike after a while. After a couple days of aimless wandering in the country, staying in and renting videos did seem like the more intellectually stimulating of the two choices.

Which is why this time around I’m going to do it as a blog project. Not only will that help to give some structure to my wanderings, but it will (again hopefully) help to keep things more interesting by giving me a place to reflect on my findings.

And so, dear reader, I do freely acknowledge that this project is all for my benefit and not much for yours. I don’t delude myself that you will be sitting fascinated as you read descriptions of small rice towns that you never heard of. Especially since I still don’t have a digital camera to include pictures (or for that matter, a computer to load it on. I’m still in the Internet Cafes) these blog entries are fated to be all boring text with no pictures to jazz it up. (My apologies to Dr. Doodle).

Occasionally during my wanderings I happen to stumble into interesting situations. Like I’ll get attacked by a kitten. Or walk into a photo shoot and get my picture taken with a model. (Or get treated to ice cream by a model).
But more often than not, absolutely nothing happens, and I return with only having seen a few temples and some rice fields.

Back during the Calvin days, when all of my friends were coming back from study abroad programs with all sorts of stories and experiences they couldn't shut up about, I began to notice how much I hated other people’s travel stories. I didn't know why I hated travel stories at first, because I was perfectly willing to listen for hours to all the dorm gossip or all the stupid things so-and-so said, but my study abroad friends, who had genuinely adventures to tell, bored me to tears. And it was at that time that I developed my theory that travel stories, no matter how fantastic they are, become boring because there is no point for the listener to relate. And now I run a blog which is almost all travel stories. So how is that for irony.

But, just as I know most of my book reviews are of minimal interest, but enjoy writing them for my own benefit, so with this project. You’ll have to forgive me another self-indulgence.

Anyway, enough apologizing. (People always tell me I’m too apologetic on this blog, and I should just write what I want to and to hell with it. And they’re probably right).

Here are the rules I’m going to set myself:
1. No express way driving. Not only is it too expensive, but getting there on the back roads is have the fun.

2. I’m going to try and keep to the town borders pre-2005 Gappei. For economic reasons, Japan merged many of its smaller towns together in 2005, but I think most of the old signs and maps are still around, so hopefully I can stick to the old borders without getting too confused.

3. In the interest of completeness, I’m going to visit every town, including the towns I've already been to or lived in before. Towns like Ajimu, Usa or Hita I don’t imagine there are many stones I've left unturned, but if I don’t find anything new, at least I can maybe write about something new. This is either the really thorough, or the really anal part of my personality, depending on how you look at it.

And I think that’s about it. Watch for more entries in this project over the next year.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The Blogger service often has problems of various kinds. These problems can last a couple of minutes and/or hours and possibly even days. The new term, 'bloggered', is now applied in situations where Blogger suddenly and inexplicably goes down, causing readers to be unable to read the affected blog and preventing the blog author(s) from posting/updating posts, or a myriad other potential difficulties.For instance, when a blog that goes down due to technical problems or upgrades, the author of that blog may state "I have been [B]loggered." But soon enough, Blogger is working properly and bloggers can resume their blogging activities.

Link of the Day
Media Mouse has a new youtube video of a recent anti-war protest in Grand Rapids outside the military recruiting center.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Watership Down by Richard Adams

(Book Review)

A few years ago, I was at some festival or other in Japan and I saw another American friend reading this book. “Watership Down?” says I. “What is that, some sort of book about a naval battle?”

“What? No!” he says. “Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of this. It was one of my favorite books as a child.”

Well, somehow or other I managed to make it all the way through childhood without ever hearing of this book. Although, as often happens, once I heard of it the first time, I began to notice it popping up all over the place.

For example, I notice that many of you, my fellow bloggers, have this listed as one of your favorite books. Also Stephen King made a reference to “Watership Down” in “The Stand”, which I read last spring.
So, I decided to make up for lost time, and read this children’s classic as an adult.

If you, like me, have been oblivious to this book, I should explain that the title is a bit misleading. It has nothing to do with ships on water going down, or anything like that. “Watership Down” is apparently the name of a geographical area in England where the book takes place. This book is actually about a bunch of rabbits.

And, although I’ve called this a “children’s classic”, it is actually written more for the young adult, pre-teen audience. In the introduction, the author talks about his trouble getting the book published, because publishers thought young children wouldn’t be able to read it, and older children wouldn’t be interested in a book about rabbits.

And, with apologies to the many fans of this book, after reading it I think I come down on the side of the publishers. Not that it matters because this book has obviously done quite well and gone on to become a modern day classic without any help from those stuffy publishers or me. But I can’t imagine myself reading this book as a pre-teen. Once your reading level has become that advanced, there are so many other interesting things you could be reading with your time. I found this book just sort of blah.

It is, however, the kind of thing I could easily imagine a teacher reading to me. Or being assigned reading in middle school. It just feels like the perfect kind of “school book” that teachers or school librarians would go nuts over. There’s a journey in which characters develop and under go changes. There are some life lessons learned. And it’s very inoffensive. Very little violence, unless you count the rabbits fighting each other, and throughout the whole book almost no one dies.

My main criticism of the book is that it was too long for the type of story it was telling. The author adds a lot of realism to this book, so that simple things, like crossing the river, become a big deal for these small rabbits. That was interesting at first, but by the end I wished these rabbits would just overcome their difficulties a lot quicker.

The strong point of this book, however, is that the author does a very good job imagining the world as a rabbit might see it. The rabbits have their own mythology, folk heroes, and language, all based around the fact that rabbits are food for just about every other animal in the forest. So they’ve created this mythology about how the thousand enemies are always trying to do them in.

Despite the fact that the author states clearly in the introduction that he does not mean this story to be taken as any sort of analogy, it is hard not to see parallels between the different types of rabbits and the different types of human societies. And whether intended or not, parts of this book do seem to reflect Richard Adams own experience as a British World War II veteran, with the good rabbits making a last desperate stand against the “nazi” rabbits.

However these nazi rabbits are in the vein of the “Indiana Jones stock villain” nazi rabbits. Examination of the nature and causes of fascism found in “1984” or “It Can’t Happen Here”, will not be found in “Watership Down.”

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The Yakuza is a 1975 post-noir gangster film written by Leonard Schrader, Paul Schrader and Robert Towne and directed by Sydney Pollack. Following a lackluster initial release, the film has gained a cult following. The film has influenced such contemporary movies as Black Rain (1989), Brother (2001), Kill Bill (2004), Into the Sun (2005) and Blade Runner (1982)

Link of the Day
Bush's SOTU: Nixon Would Have Been Proud

Watership Down by Richard Adams: Book Review (Scripted)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

7th Grade: What I did this weekend

Because I enjoy doing these retrospections so much (and because I've gotten positive feed back from a number of you) I loaded up a few of these in advance, so I can continue doing them from Japan. The one below was a 7th grade writing assignment to report on our weekend.

I didn’t do much this weekend. Friday when I came home from school I played video games almost all afternoon. Then in the evening I had to baby-sit my little sister Jessica, who is in Kindergarten.

My mom said we could watch a video tape. I decided on “The Hobbit”. Jessica must not have been too thrilled by the movie, because she fell asleep halfway through it.

After the movie I had to get Jessica to bed. I didn’t want to wake her up ,because she always gets so crabby after she wakes up. For this reason, me and my little brother Kyle gave her the nickname “Grumplestilskin”.

So instead of waking her up, I decided to pick her up and carry her to bed. As I lifted her up, she started to stir.

“I better hurry and put her to bed before she wakes up and becomes grumpy,” I thought to myself. That was a big mistake. In my hurry, I didn’t look where I was going, and tripped over the foot stool. I dropped Jessica as I was falling. She landed on the footstool. Luckily the footstool was cushioned. Then she rolled off the footstool and landed on the dog. The dog started barking at her, and she woke up.

“Oh no,” I thought. “Now I’ve done it.” I was right. Jessica woke up screaming. After she had calmed down a little, I said, “You have to go to bed now Jessica.”
She looked at me with tears running down her cheek and screamed, “No!”

“You’re going to be whether you like it or not,” I said.
“No,” she screamed back.
“Jessica, go to bed,” I yelled. Jessica started crying very loudly. She ran upstairs, went into her room, and slammed the door. After a while the crying stopped. The rest of my evening was spent quietly playing video games.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
In the Divine Comedy Dante sees the soul of Paris in the second circle of Hell, being tossed around eternally by a fierce wind, along with Helen and others who succumbed to the sin of lust.

Link of the Day
(From Phil)
Most of our society watches too much TV. So when you point out that prisoners are being used as something akin to slave labor, or that, for example, in one district they're being intentionally exposed to deadly chemicals, people think of some particularly loathesome bad guy they saw on some episode of CSI: Bullshit and then accuse you of being a bleeding-heart. Maybe this is one reason Christ enjoined us to visit the imprisoned (a commandment few of us even think to observe): not only because in doing so we're imitating the God who visits us who are, in fact, imprisoned in sin, but also because in doing so we might get a clue to the fact that there are actual people behind those bars, some of them no less innocent--figuratively and sometimes literally--than ourselves.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Past 8 months

In a lot of ways, the past 8 months I spent back in the US can be looked on as a waste of time. At least from a career or development point of view. Especially since I spent most of that 8 months either unemployed or under-employed. Given that I ended up back in Japan at the end of it, it would have been a lot easier to just have stayed in Japan.

But that's life, isn't it? You never know where you're going to end up, so you just live where you're at.

Although I had been warned about reverse culture shock, and thought I was prepared for it, looking back I think I may have prepared in the wrong direction. I took reverse culture shock to mean things like getting used to not sticking out in the crowd, or not doing karaoke on Friday nights, or other surface level type things. (None of which I really missed at all, by the way).

I was talking a British friend I met in Japan recently, who told me about returning to his country, and he said it took him a full year until he felt like he belonged where he was and he knew what he was doing. And that may have been the part I under-estimated. The feeling of returning to an area where I no longer have a niche carved out for myself, and trying to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing.

Of course I have to be careful because reverse-culture shock (like cultural shock) can be used as an excuse-all for any pre-existing inadequacies. And even before I went to Japan I did not have a clear idea of where my life was heading.

But I think in retrospect this may account for some of my confusion over the last few months. And also partly because I committed the cardinal sin of returning home without having first developed a plan for what I was going to do, and just trusting that everything would sort itself out eventually (despite having been repeatedly warned against this by other friends).

However, while the past 8 months may have been empty time in terms of career goals, it was definitely time I treasure. And I certainly was able to do a lot of things during that time such as:

*My first (real) road trip across the US.

*Meeting my niece and future sister-in-law for the first time

*Becoming involved in local activism once again

*Getting my face on the local news, and my name in the local paper

* Seeing my cousin for the first time in 10 years, and meeting my cousin's wife and cousin's baby for the first time

* My 10 year high school re-union

* Being part of the Migrant Community Education program--which was a great experience for me

* My first 4th of July, Halloween, and Thanksgiving inside the US in 5 years.

*Getting a lot of books read (as regular readers of this blog are well aware). Expect the book reviews to slow down slightly now

And of course seeing friends and family. This last point may not stand out on a list, but it truly was the best part. It was nice to be able to re-establish real relationships with people instead of just the usual rushed visits every once a year.

At the same time I did realize that those College days are truly gone. I should have known this before from my previous trips home, and some of your e-mails to me, but it really sunk in this time. Gone are the days of one wacky adventure after another. Everyone is married and has a serious job, and I'm lucky if I see a friend once a week, or sometimes once a month. I knew that before, but now I really know it.

As for the activism: It felt great to have a chance to channel my anger about this war into some physical activity. I'm not sure if it changed anything, but it was very therapeutic for me.

That being said, whilst in Japan I did develop a romantic remembrance of my own activist days. I'd forgotten how my enthusiasm tends to go in spurts. I'll be really active for two weeks, and then not do anything for the next two.
Also my own lack of initiative and creativity limit what I can offer to the movement. If someone tells me where to show up and what to do, I can be a good foot soldier. But if I'm left to organize something by myself, I'm at a loss.
There were definitely moments when I felt like I was spending a lot of time sitting in meetings, but not contributing anything valuable by my presence there. Which was another thing I had forgotten about from the old days.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Ben Wildeboer teaches Earth Science and Physics at Whitmore Lake High School in Whitmore Lake, Michigan. He resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan. On July 15, 2006, he was married!

Link of the Day
From Daily Kos:
A reader transcribed this exchange concerning habeas corpus from today’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings (no official transcript yet):
Specter: Now wait a minute, wait a minute. The Constitution says you can’t take it away except in the case of invasion or rebellion. Doesn’t that mean you have the right of habeas corpus?
Gonzales: I meant by that comment that the Constitution doesn’t say that every individual in the United States or every citizen has or is assured the right of habeas corpus. It doesn’t say that. It simply says that the right of habeas corpus shall not be suspended.
Article I, Section 9:
The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.
Alberto Gonzales should not only be impeached for his willfully obtuse interpretations of the Constitution, he should be disbarred.
(Via Tom Tomorrow)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Back to Japan

I think I've told everybody about this by now. (And I have also alluded to this possibility a couple times before in this blog.) But if I've missed you...Surprise! I'm going back to Japan for another year.

This was not what I was planning on when I came back to America in May. But it was always a plan that Shoko and I had discussed.

The thing is, Shoko is at a job now which pays very well, and with her limited English it may be a long time before she has the same kind of earning power in the US. So she wanted to stay one more year at her current job and save up as much money as she could before leaving the job behind.

So last year, when we were discussing all this stuff, she said, "What about staying one more year in Japan with me?"

And I said something to the effect of, "No thank you, I've put in my time in Japan. 5 years is enough for me. I'm ready to get back to the US. I'd hang myself if I had to stay one more year in Japan."

And Shoko said, "Well, if you feel so strongly about getting back to the US, why not spend a few months there, and then just spend the last half a year in Japan?"

So I said I'd keep that as one of our options. At the time it didn't seem very likely, but a couple things have changed since then. (As Rob would say, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.")

1) Instead of coming to America in July, Shoko has decided to stay at her job until December of 2007. Those of you familiar with Japanese companies know that the year end bonus represents a significant percentage of the yearly salary (the rest of you will just have to take my word for it), and Shoko decided it would be foolish to leave before then.

2). I underestimated how hard it would be to stay apart. I thought to myself if I just kept occupied everything would be okay, but that wasn't true. In fact almost the reverse was true. When I was watching TV or reading my mind was completely zoned out, and I didn't care. It's when I was working that I had a lot of time to just reflect on how much I missed the girl.

So, I figured I probably had one more year of Japan left in me after all.

I hope to be back in Grand Rapids this summer for my brother's wedding on July 21st. So I'll probably see many of you then.

Time and internet access permitting, I hope to give you all more updates in the next couple days as to what the new situation is going to be like, and maybe do a recap on the past 8 months back in the US. Watch for more updates.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Similarities between Captain Marvel and Calvin and Hobbes:
The modern-day Tawky Tawny was a stuffed tiger doll who was animated by Lord Satanus to assist the Marvel Family in their battle against Satanus's sister Blaze. He only appeared as an animate being to Billy, Mary, and later Dudley, much in the same way that Hobbes only appears sentient to Calvin in Calvin and Hobbes).
Miss Wormwood. In modern-era comics, Billy's schoolteacher (and later principal), presented as the typical "mean teacher" stereotype. Her name is referenced in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, where Calvin's schoolteacher was also named Miss Wormwood.

Link of the Day
Bork and I rented "Judgment at Nuremburg" the other night. Despite being over 3 hours long, and despite being over 45 years old, it was a very gripping film. I'd recommend it highly.
Parts of it are available online at "American Rhetoric". Such as:
Ernst Janning Confesses his Guilt
Hans Rolf Delivers Closing Argument for the Defense and
Judge Haywood Delivers the Decision of the Court

Monday, January 22, 2007

Ilium by Dan Simmons

(Book Review)

Like Mr. Guam, I seem to be incapable of walking into a bookstore and not buying anything.

So, I was in the bookstore one day, and I was already reading 10 books at the same time and told myself I absolutely was not going to buy another book. And then this one jumped out at me.

As the title indicates, this is a re-telling of the Trojan War. With a twist. Actually with a lot of twists.

The Trojan War is taking place in the distant future. And the Greek Gods have resurrected Thomas Hockenberry, a 20th century classical scholar, who’s job is to watch and see if the events unfold according to the Iliad or not.
Given how much importance the Trojan War and the Iliad had in my adolescence, I felt I absolutely had to buy this book.

Why is the Trojan War happening again in the distant future? Who are these Greek Gods really? Why do they need a 20th century classical scholar? These and many other questions are answered gradually as the novel unfolds. (Actually the novel ends with most of these questions still unanswered. I have to buy and read the sequel “Olympos” to find out what is going on.)

But there’s a lot more going on in this book than just the Iliad: robots from Jupiter, little green men from Mars, post-humans, and the characters from Shakespeare’s “Tempest.” I’m not quite sure what to make of the whole thing. Maybe I’ll have to wait until finishing “Olympus” and see how it all fits together. But for now I’ll just say there is a fine line between “creative genius” and “ridiculous” and Dan Simmons seems to be straddling it.

There has been a lot of praise for this book, mostly on the internet but some print medium as well. Supporters of this book say things like it’s a classic work of literature and mythology revisioned in a post modern collage of different genres.
I’m more cautious however. As with my criticism of anime fans, I think a distinction needs to be made between doing something and doing something well. Throwing a bunch of different classical books into a blender does not automatically great literature make.

But I guess the debate about whether this book is high brow or low brow is irrelevant. The important question is: Is it fun to read?

And the answer is: Mostly.
The best parts of this book are where Dan Simmons is simply re-telling the Iliad. It’s not a new story, but it’s a story that still crackles with excitement 3000 years later. The action on the ground is narrated through the eyes of the scholar Hockenberry, who reports what he is seeing and at the same time compares it to the Iliad and notes the significance of it. It’s like reading the Iliad with a classical professor dropping in every now and again to add an interesting tid bit.
The updated language is fun as well. Occasionally Dan Simmons seems to be trying to hard to modernize the tale, (like Helen’s speech to Hector: “My dear friend, my dear brother, dear to me–bitch that I am, vicious, scheming cunt that I am, a female horror to freeze the blood...”), but mostly I think he pulls it off pretty well.

The problem is that the Iliad related parts are only 1/3 of the book. The rest of the book deals with other various sub-plots, and the original characters Dan Simmons creates are not half as engaging as the characters he borrows from Homer.

Also, despite the fact that wikipedia classifies this book as “soft science fiction”, I thought there was a lot of techno-babble at certain points. But as a former “Star Trek” fan, I guess I’m well used to just sucking it up and reading through the techno-babble parts to get to the rest of the story.

As I mentioned above, not very much is explained in this book. (Hopefully everything will be made clear in the sequel.) Dan Simmons has obviously chosen to increase the drama by keeping the reader in the dark as to why everything is going on.

However there are good ways to do this and bad ways to do this, and at times Dan Simmons just gets ridiculous. For example there is a 1,400 year old character named Savi who knows everything but for some reason she is too grumpy to explain it all to the rest of the characters, so she just utters a bunch of cryptic things as the story goes along, and never fully explains much of anything.
I suppose characters like Savi are almost standard in a story like this. What I thought was more ridiculous were the Little Green Men from Mars. They also appear to know everything that is going on but (get this), the act of communicating kills them. Therefore they can only utter a little bit at a time before one of them drops dead. Now is that a plot device or what? I’ll bet Dan Simmons treated himself to another beer after thinking of that beauty.

As for the accuracy of this book:
It’s been several years since I read the Iliad, but as far as I can remember Dan Simmons gets it mostly right. But there’s still room for nit-picking:

*It’s never exactly clear how much authority the classical poets besides Homer have. At times Simmons references them, at times he ignores them.

* At one point, the rape of Cassandra is attributed to Ajax the greater, instead of Ajax the lesser. But given the similarity in names, I suspect this may just be a result of shoddy proof reading.

* Dan Simmons makes a big deal out of Achilles' armor, particularly his famous shield. But Simmons apparently forgot that Achilles only received this new armor after the death of Patroclus. The armor appears out of chronology in “Ilium”.

* A Robot, who is a Shakespeare expert, at one point admits he has no idea about the Trojan War or Odysseus, despite the fact that Shakespeare wrote a play about the Trojan War, and Odysseus was one of his characters.

And that’s all the nit-picking I could catch.

Well, since I already finished this book, I might as well read the sequel “Olympos” next and find out how everything turns out. I’ll keep you posted when I finish it.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Al Pratt (Golden Age Version of the Atom from DC Comics) was portrayed as a student of Calvin College in the 1940s comic books. He later became a professor at Calvin College.

[Ed. note--I actually added this one myself. It is my first (and so far only) venture into the editing of Wikipedia. It should be interesting to see what happens with it. Those Wikipedites move fast. It's already been moved from "notable alumni" to "fictional portrayals"]

Link of the Day
Here's a description of the peace vigil in Grand Rapids on January 1, which I was also at. I only check this gentleman's blog occasionally, so I am late in linking to it. You can't see me in any of his pictures, but you can see my sign (Bring Troops Home) in the corner of this picture.

Ilium by Dan Simmons Book Review (Scripted)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

...And I Get Feedback

As predicted, the Grand Rapids Press Public Pulse is beginning to get responses to my letter on Gerald Ford and East Timor. Yesterday had this gem:

Mr. Joel Swagman's Pulse letter on Jan. 10 "President Ford and East Timor" is a classic example of Shakespeare's account of what Marc Anthony stated at Caesar's Funeral "The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones."

Actually, that's pretty mild, isn't it? It's hardly raking me over the coals. If this is the worst feedback I get, I'd say I'm doing pretty well. If memory serves, there was bloody hell the last time this issue was in the "Public Pulse". Not to mention all those weeks of criticism we got in the "Public Pulse" over the Rehnquist affair.

And yet, you still have to wonder what exactly this guy is smoking. The GR Press and the local media spend untold hours and pages praising Ford as the next candidate for sainthood. I get two paragraphs buried in the "Letters to the Editor" section (to my knowledge the only thing critical printed about Ford in any of the mainstream local media), and all of a sudden the demagogues have taken over and everything good about Ford has been forgotten?

....And speaking of demagogues, I'm not sure this guy gets Shakespeare. If you remember from the play, Marc Antony uses this phrase as a rhetorical trick to make the crowd forget what a tyrant Caesar had become, and shift the blame onto the assassins instead. It's not meant to be taken as a literal truism. In fact taken in context, you could say that Shakespeare was arguing the opposite: Beware of people who praise dead politicians too much and overlook their faults.
(Shakespeare's account wasn't historically accurate, but we'll leave that part alone for now.)

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The tannins in coffee may reduce the cariogenic potential of foods. In vitro experiments have shown that these polyphenolic compounds may interfere with glucosyltransferase activity of mutans streptococci, which may reduce plaque formation. In rat experiments, tea polyphenols reduced caries. [14

Link of the Day
"Mother Goose Goes to Hollywood" cartoon on youtube. Apparently this cartoon has been banned for racism, but I remember watching it when I was a little kid. It must have taken them a while. At any rate the impressions of 1930s Hollywood celebrities are worth watching

Friday, January 19, 2007

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard

(Book Review)

Yet another entry in my quest to explore the classics of pulp fiction, following after “Sherlock Holmes”, “The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu” and “The Martian Tales Trilogy.”

But the tone and style of this book are so different than the other 3 that I hesitate even to compare. Burroughs, Sax Rhomer, and Doyle could spin an interesting tail, but their prose is almost non-existent as an art form. Robert E. Howard could actually write. He clearly stands out as the poet of the pulp fiction genre.

Not that his prose is without its flaws. I’ll get to that below.

First I’ll start with my first impressions:
This book is the first in the series by publisher Del-Ray to reprint the original Conan series. It contains the first 13 Conan stories IN THE ORDER THEY WERE WRITTEN. Apparently this is the first time the Conan stories are presented in the order they were written instead of in chronological order, and much is made out of this fact by the book’s publishers.

Aside from as a marketing gimmick, I don’t really see what the benefit of this is. There were often times going through this that I thought I would have preferred the chronological order. It might have made more sense.

The thing you have to understand is that Conan goes through several phases in his life: barbarian warrior, thief, outlaw, mercenary, pirate, and then finally (through events that are never made clear) king. But Robert Howard wrote all the stories out of order. So in the first story, he appears as King of the nation. In the next story, he’s a wandering thief. Once you clue into that, the book makes a lot more sense.

Aspects of Conan’s character, a shaggy haired muscle man with a sword who fights his way through all difficulties, reminded me of the He-Man character I grew up watching on TV. And then I found out that He-Man was actually based off of Conan, so the fact that I associated the two is not surprising, despite the fact that He-Man’s sanitized “after school special” type morality differs a lot from Conan’s barbarian code.

The plot of each of the short stories is not particular remarkable. And usually pretty predictable once you get about half way through it. Conan is confronted by overwhelming odds (usually with a bit of the supernatural thrown in as well) and is able to fight his way out just by sheer muscle, determination, and manliness.

So why even bother with Conan?
Like most fantasy books, the appeal isn’t really the story so much as the setting. And like any good fantasy author, Robert Howard does a good job of creating a world that you can get immersed in. As the appendices in the back indicate, he spent a lot of time planning out the different civilizations in Conan’s world. Conan himself wanders through several different countries, but his origins as a barbarian in the snowy Northern lands are always described with just the right amount of tantalizing mystery. This book is proof that the fantasy genre was alive and well in the 1930s, 20 years before Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”.

Also the imagery invoked in the Howard’s prose is very intriguing. Whisky Prajer has a great post on the Conan here, in which he likens Robert E. Howard as the Sylvia Plath for adolescent boys. He hits the nail so well on the head that I’m not even going to try and duplicate it. Just read his post.
Now, as to the problems:
In the same post linked to above, Whisky Prajer writes: “I didn’t really “take” to Conan, originally. I borrowed a couple of the short story collections, but couldn’t make it past the first few pages. Even as a teen wildly adrift in a tidal wave of hormones, I thought the prose histrionic.” I can definitely identify with that. It took me a while to get into Howard’s prose as well.

I remember my 8th grade English teacher was once trying to teach us that you needed to have a catchy beginning in a short story. To do this, we contrasted different story beginnings in our literature anthology. He tried to convince us that “Two men got shipwrecked on an island” was a terrible first sentence, but “A triumphant ‘Ha!’ issued from the skipping blond girl” was ideal. Years later, I still remember that sentence verbatim because I hated it so much. What kind of a beginning is that? All your doing is showing off your literary skills. You’re not drawing the reader in at all. Give me “Two men got shipwrecked on an island” anytime.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because my 8th grade English teacher would have loved Robert E. Howard. Well, actually he would have hated all the sex and violence in the Conan stories, but he would have loved Howard’s first sentences.
“The thunder of the drums and the great elephant tusk horns was deafening, but in Livia’s ears the clamor seemed but a confused muttering, dull and far away.”
“A swift crashing of horses through the tall reeds; a heavy fall, a despairing cry.”
“Hoof drummed down the street that sloped to the wharfs.”

I feel like with each new story in this collection, it always took me a couple of pages until I figured out what the hell Robert Howard was talking about. For someone like my English teacher, that would have been all part of the fun, but I’m a simple man who likes my prose straight forward.

Also several of the images and words in Howard’s repertoire become repetitive. He appears, for instance, to have fallen in love with the word “supple.” Whenever a female character appears, you can bet she will be described as “supple”. Occasionally I caught Howard using “supple” several times on the same page to describe the same character. “Supple breasts”, “supple arms”, “supple legs”, etc.

There is a lot of sex and violence in these stories, which is surprising considering how old they are and that their primary audience is teenage boys. (Actually what am I saying? That’s not surprising at all). The sex is mostly implied, but the violence is very graphically described. I think there’s at least one disemboweling per story. I usually think of most stuff from the 1930s as pretty tame in comparison to today’s media, but I guess there was a lot of interesting stuff going on in the pulp magazines at the time.

Unfortunately, in many of these stories there are racist undertones, and in the story “The Vale of Lost Women” these racist elements come clear to the forefront, playing on the old fear of black tribes going around raping white women.
“You said I was a Barbarian,” he said harshly, “and that is true, Crom be thanked. If you had men of the outlands guarding you instead of soft-gutted civilized weaklings, you would not be the slave of a black pig this night. I am Conan, a Cimmerian, and I live by the sword’s edge. But I am not such a dog as to leave a white woman in the clutches of a black man...If you were old and ugly as the devil’s pet vulture, I’d take you away from Bajujh simply because of the color of your hide. But you are young and beautiful, and I have looked at Black sluts until I am sick at the guts.”
And later, “What would be blackest treachery in another land, is wisdom here. I have not fought my way alone to the position of war chief of the Bamulas without learning all the lessons the black country teaches.”

Robert Howard was from the south. And these stories were written in the 1930s. So I guess it is understandable. Although perhaps sometimes we excuse racism too easily in old books. (And I probably am guilty of this as much as anyone else.) But even in the 1930s, there were plenty of people who used their talent to write against racism, not for it.

Useless Wikipeda Fact
Mountain Dew was originally marketed as "zero proof moonshine" and had pictures of hillbillies on the bottle until 1973. In the 1970s through the late 1980s Mountain Dew had the crude nickname of "hillbilly piss" due to the carry-over bottle art and yellow coloring, but that usage has since fallen out of favor.
Today's marketing target is radically different. The drink is mainly marketed to people in the 20-30 year old demographic group, creating a connection to extreme sports and video game culture. The name Mountain Dew was first trademarked by two brothers, Barney and Ally Hartman, who ran a bottling plant in Warner, South Dakota.

Link of the Day
Representative Ehlers Admits "Tens of Thousands" of Civilians Killed in Iraq

The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian by Robert E. Howard: Book Review (Scripted)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis

(Book Review)

This is the 3rd and final book in Lewis’s space trilogy. However it differs a lot from the previous books both in terms of tone and plot.

This book is often referred to as C.S. Lewis’s “worst and most enjoyable book”. It is made up of several different diverse elements. Whether they all come together succinctly as a whole may be questioned, but there’s no lack of material here to keep your interest while reading it. Consider all the different themes and plot elements in this book:

* The conclusion of the “Space Trilogy” and the fates of the characters left over from the first two books.

* More spiritual warfare

* The resurrection of Merlin, and a tie-in with the legend of King Arthur

* References to the fall of Numinor and a tie in to the Middle Earth of JRR Tolkien

* a dystopian police state future society, which is rumored to have influenced George Orwell’s writing “1984". This book was published in 1945 just a few years before “1984", and George Orwell gave it a (mostly) favorable review in “The Manchester Evening News”. (Read George Orwell’s review of this book here.)

* Similar to the animal characters in the “Narnia” series, pantomine animals play a large part in this book, in particular a bear named “Mr. Bultitude”.

* Leather clad female police squads with a tendency towards sadism

* And a bit (perhaps more than a bit actually) of the horror genre thrown in at the conclusion.

So you see what I mean. If you’ve not read this book yet, I reckon there’s at least one element above that might tempt you into checking it out.

I don’t agree with Lewis’s politics across the board (we’ll get to more of that below), but I do think that, unfortunately, we are once again living in a time when his and Orwell’s warnings about torture and police states are becoming relevant.

For instance, in “That Hideous Strength” one of the characters writes an editorial defending the police actions which reads in part, “I’ve one bit of advice. If you hear anyone backbiting the police, tell him where he gets off. If you hear anyone comparing them to the Gestapo or the Ogpu, tell him you’ve heard that one before. If you hear anyone talking about the liberties of that man. He’s the enemy.”

To my ear, this sounds remarkably like John Ashcroft’s famous comments: “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.”

Also, as in “1984" and “It Can’t Happen Here”, torture plays an important part in Lewis’s dystopian society, and a lot of the problems associated with torture are examined. From a practical point as well as an ethical point. The characters discuss the problems of the reliability of information obtained from torture, and what happens when the victim legitimately has nothing to confess. Lewis also shows how quickly torture can devolve from dispassionate government policy to pure sadism.
“You won’t find anyone can do a job like mine well unless they get some kick out of it,” the chief torturer asserts at one point. All of this is of course relevant to our current national debate.

(Side note: do you ever have one of those moments of clarity where you wake up and say to yourself: “I can’t believe we’re actually debating this. How did we as a nation get to the point where we are even discussing torture as an option?”)

Other points of Lewis’s philosophy I’m less enthusiastic about. Parts of this book read like a polemic against feminism. I’m beginning to think I was too lenient to Lewis in my review of “Perelandra”. There’s even a speech in this book on the importance of obedience and submission in marriage.

As for the actual story itself:
Although this is part of Lewis’s “Space Trilogy”, all the action in this final book takes place on earth. And, although there are references to events in the previous two books, this is a fairly self contained story, and can be read on its own if you want to skip the first two books, and jump into the meat of the trilogy. (For my money, this book was the most interesting of the 3, although there are a number of people who like “Perelandra” the best because of the imaginative imagery Lewis uses in creating the Paradise water planet.)

I mentioned that “Out of the Silent Planet” was very narrative driven, and that was true. This book is written in a much different style though, and is dialogue driven. Which I think makes for much more interesting story. The quips the characters make to each other also allows for C.S. Lewis’s wit and humor to shine through in this book a lot more.
Also more dialogue means more opportunities for Lewis’s characters to use colorful language. I really wish I had known about these books back when I was going through the Christian school system.

The big problem plot wise is the problem with most religious literature: the climax is spoiled by divine intervention. This may work as theology, but it is problematic in novels. I noticed around 4th or 5th grade that most of the stories in the “adventure magazines” I got from my Sunday School classes always relied not on the characters struggling through, but on direct or indirect divine intervention in the final act. I have since then done my best to avoid religious literature like the plague.

C.S. Lewis is a more talented writer than most Christian novelists, and so the enjoyment of reading his prose somewhat makes up for this, but this kind of “deus ex machina” type ending is a real problem. (If you read the review by George Orwell linked above, you’ll notice he also cites this as his main criticism, but I’ll have you know I thought of it independently.)

Of course this isn’t always unique to Christian literature. You’ll notice I had the same criticism of Stephen King’s “The Stand”.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
"More Cowbell" is a line from an April 8, 2000 Saturday Night Live comedy sketch about the recording of the song "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" by Blue Öyster Cult. The sketch featured guest host Christopher Walken as music producer Bruce Dickinson and Will Ferrell as fictional cowbell player Gene Frenkle. The line itself has grown into a pop culture catch phrase.

Link of the Day
More Tom Tomorrow
But were we right enough?
There’s a very silly debate going on in the blogosphere right now about whether those of us who opposed the war from the start deserve credit for our prescience if, in many cases, we did not predict every single thing that would go wrong in exactly the precise order it would do so. (You can catch up on this, if you care, by reading this from Tbogg and this from Atrios.)
Well, two things. First: Lord knows, I’ve been wrong often enough in my life and in my work, but at the risk of straining a muscle as I pat myself on the back, let me direct you for the umpteenth time to this cartoon from April of 2003, which predicted the next four years with the sort of eerie accuracy that Nostradamus could only have envied.
I will pause as the shivers run up and down your spine.
Okay then. Clearing throat, moving along: it’s also worth directing your attention to Roy Edroso, who responds to the silliness rather definitively, here.
(Read the rest of the post here)

That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis: Book Review (Scripted)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

(Book Review)

I haven’t read a lot of Mark Twain in my life, but I've liked what little I have read. After reading “Pudd’nhead Wilson” this summer, and remembering how I used to enjoy Mark Twain in high school, I decided to try out another Mark Twain story.

And I figured, what better one to try than “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” I would get all the epic myth of the King Arthur legend, plus all the humor of Mark Twain.

Actually, this was not the first time I tried this book. I picked it up once when I was in 6th grade, struggled through a couple chapters, and then gave it up. This book probably is a bit advanced for a 6th grader. And even if I would have stuck with it, I have a feeling most of Mark Twain’s ironic humor would have been wasted on me at that age anyway.

So, like Sherlock Holmes, this was a lot more pleasant the second time around. And, like Sherlock Holmes, I suspect this is the kind of book many of us try and read when we are young, give up on, and then never pick up again when we get older.

If that is the case for you, I can’t recommend enough that you go back and give this book another try. It is one of the funniest things I've ever read. (Note to self: read more Mark Twain).

As the title makes clear, this is the story of a 19th century Connecticut industrialist who travels back in time and wakes up in the middle of 6th Century during the reign of King Arthur.

And then wacky adventures follow. There are so many funny parts in this book I’d be hard pressed to name my favorite. Like the part when the Connecticut Yankee introduces baseball to King Arthur’s court.

Or when the King commands the Yankee to accompany a young maiden on a quest to rescue a bunch of noble ladies from ogres, and the Yankee is convinced the whole thing is made up. (“There never was such a country for wandering liars; and they were of both sexes. Hardly a month went by without one of these tramps arriving; and generally loaded with a tale about some princess or other wanting help to get her out of some far-away castle where she was held in captivity by a lawless scoundrel, usually a giant. Now you would think that the first thing the king would do after listening to such a novelette from an entire stranger would be to ask for credentials...But nobody ever thought of so simple and common-sense a thing as that.”)

Or the part where the Yankee and King Arthur disguise themselves as peasants, get captured and sold as slaves, and all the King can think about was that he was sold for less money than the Yankee.

Or there is the attempt by the Yankee to introduce 19th century “Arkansas style journalism” to King Arthur’s court. (“Expedition No. 3 will start about the first of next month on a search for Sir Sagramour le Desirous. It is in command of the renowned Knight of Red Lawns, assisted by Sir Persant of Inde, who is competent, intelligent, courteous and in every way a brick, and further assisted by Sir Palamides of Saracen, who is no huckleberry himself. This is no pic-nic, these boys mean business.”)

And his struggles to get his apprentices to understand journalism style:
“The ‘Court Circular’ pleased me...But even it could have been improved....The best way to manage–in fact the only sensible way–is to disguise repetitiousness of fact under variety of form...Clarence’s way was good, it was simple, it was dignified, it was direct, and businesslike; all I say is, it was not the best way:

Court Circular
On Monday the King rode in the park.
" Tuesday " " " " " "
" Wednesday" " " " "
" Thursday" " " " "
" Friday " " " " " "
" Saturday " " " " " "
" Sunday " " " " " "

Also Mark Twain the literary critic has a lot of fun at the expense of the Medieval writing style. One character will tell a story, usually quoting directly from Morte de Arthur, with the Connecticut Yankee interjecting his criticisms as the story progresses.

“The truth is the archaics are a little too simple; the vocabulary is too limited, and so, by consequence, descriptions suffer in the matter of variety; they run too much to level Saharas of fact, and not enough picturesque detail; this throws them about a certain air of monotonous; in fact the fights are all alike...Dear me, what would this barren vocabulary get out of the mightiest spectacle?–the burning of Rome in Nero’s time, for instance? Why, it would merely say, ‘Town burned down; no insurance; boy brast a window, fireman brake his neck!’ Why, that ain't a picture.”


“This is not good form. Sir Marhaus the king’s son of Ireland talks like all the rest; you ought to give him a brogue, or at least a characteristic expletive; by this means one would recognize him as soon as he spoke, without his ever being named. It is a common literary device with the great authors. You should make him say, ‘In this country, be jabers, came never knight since it was christened, but he found strange adventures, be jabers.’ You see how much better that sounds?”

Looking back over what I have written, I see my quotations have not done justice to Mark Twain because I have committed the double sin of first ripping them out of context, and then gutting them with ellipses. So you’ll just have to take my word for it. This is a pretty funny book.
It does however have its dark side, which is why it is referred to as one of Mark Twain’s dark comedies. Mark Twain spends a lot of time focusing on the injustice of the 6th century feudal caste system, and does so often in very heart wrenching detail. He describes the suffering of this or that family that was utterly destroyed on the whims of the nobility.

Mark Twain, in addition to being America’s greatest humorist, was also one of it’s great social consciouses I am convinced that if he were alive today he would be against the Iraq War as strongly as he was against the Philippine War in his own lifetime. (In fact, if you've got a free minute, go and read “The War Prayer” or Mark Twain’s comments on Imperialism, and see how much of it applies to the War in Iraq today).

But in this book, why Mark Twain choose to expend so much energy on social ills that were already 1300 years old by his time, is a bit beyond me. He spends a lot of time talking about the evils of slavery in feudal England, and sometimes one gets the feeling that what he is really talking about is slavery in the US (which was still a recent memory at the time he wrote this book).

Also at times one gets the feeling Mark Twain is using all of this as a set up to defend the French Revolution, which was still being maligned by conservative historians in his time. (“Why it was like reading about France and the French before the ever memorable and blessed Revolution, which swept a thousand years of such villainy away in one swift tidal wave of blood–one; a settlement of that hoary debt in the proportion of half a drop of blood for each hogshead of it that had been pressed by slow tortures out of that people in the wary stretch of ten centuries of wrong and shame and misery the like of which was not to be mated but in hell. There were two “Reigns of Terror”, if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horror” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the ax compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heartbreak? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror–that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.”)

In fact, much of this book reads like the first act in “A Tale of Two Cities” when Dickens is setting up the misery of the people in preparation for the viciousness of the revolution. The melodramatic style of Mark Twain when writing about the sufferings of the poor also likens comparison to Dickens.

However, Mark Twain’s primary target in all of this seems to be the Catholic Church, which he holds responsible for maintaining the Feudal system. And as a lifelong critic of the Church, I suppose this is the part where his criticism of the 6th century overlaps with his more current criticisms.

Definitely put this one on your reading list. You won’t be sorry.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
In discussing the 2004 American presidential elections, Wallis said "Jesus didn't speak at all about homosexuality. There are about 12 verses in the Bible that touch on that question ... [t]here are thousands of verses on poverty. I don’t hear a lot of that conversation." [2]

Link of the Day
From Tom Tomorrow:
A few readers thought this cartoon from a few weeks back unfairly targeted college Republicans. (Actually, a few impressively dense readers interpreted it as a swipe at all 18-to-22 year olds everywhere, but that sort of thing is just an occupational hazard.) At any rate, my friend August alerts me to this impressive act of self-sacrifice on the part of GWU College Republicans:

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain: Book Review (Scripted)

Monday, January 15, 2007

I've Gone Beta

...which I guess is pretty obvious from the new sidebar.

I didn't have a problem with the old blogger, but they said they were moving everyone over to Beta eventually, so I figured I might as well get it over with. In fact the only reason I waited as long as I did was because they didn't give me the option until yesterday. I assume this is because I'm still using the old no frills Sand Dollar Template design. (I know most of you have switched over to something more fancy, but I like the simplicity of plain old black text on white background).

Anyway, I guess one of the benefits of switching over later is that I've been reading all your reviews of the new Beta Blogger, so I knew what to expect.

There are a few new toys with Beta. I like the accordion style archives, the labels of course, and best of all, that annoying ".comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}" message that used to pop up on the screen for a split second before you accessed my blog has disappeared. (That started happening a couple years ago when I was messing with the template settings, and I never figured out how to get rid of it.)

I've read a few bloggers who are really excited about the "Label" system (or who, in the days before Beta-Blogger, switched over to wordpress because of the Labels). Personally I don't have any delusions that anybody is going to spend a lot of time tracking down every single post I ever wrote concerning "Book Reviews" or "Politics" or whatever. In this day and age of blog explosions, when everyone and their dog has 2 blogs, I feel like I'm lucky if my friends take time out of their day just to read my front page.

Nevertheless, for us blogging geeks it is a fun toy to play with, and as you can see I've already been fooling around with it a little bit.

But most of the benefits of the Beta-Blogger are the behind the scenes stuff. It is incredibly easy now to customize templates and re-arrange the side bar without learning how to do HTML coding. Plus no time delay on posting new entries.

I have a couple quibbles, but at present they are so minor as to not be worth mentioning.

I know Whiskey Prajer had problems with images disappearing from his blog, which led some of us to wonder briefly if Beta-Blogger was a way to Trojan Horse some new restrictive image copy right programs. But as far as we can tell, it looks like it was just a fluke.

But actually that does bring me onto another subject. For a long time now I've been unsure how Google is making any money out of this whole blogger thing. When I first signed up 3 years ago, there used to be little ads at the top of the bar. Cheesy as those were, I felt like I at least knew why the blogging was free. Now I feel like I'm waiting for someone at Google to say, "Wait a minute, we're not getting any benefit from running these blogs. Shut them all down."

I've heard that Blogger is all part of Google's plan to collect information and connect it with an internet IP address and then sell it to advertisers. But I haven't been contacted by any advertisers yet. The whole thing seems very mysterious.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
When animation company Hanna-Barbera licensed the animation rights to the DC Comics characters and adapted the Justice League of America comic book for television, it made several changes in the transition, not the least of which was the change of name to Super Friends. In part, it was feared that the name Justice League of America would have seemed too jingoistic during the post-Vietnam War Era.

Link of the Day
More Japanese Music

A collage of Japanese music from 1947 : "Tokyo Boogie Woogie" "Kan Kan Musume" and "Kaimono Boogie Woogie" (shopping Boogie Woogie).

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Time of the Dragons by Alice Ekert-Rotholz

(Book Review)

So there I was, in the used book section of “Barnes and Nobles.” And I was browsing the fantasy shelf, when I saw this really old looking book--like the ones that are usual in your grandmothers attic. Complete with those old style ink drawings,--like the ones you find in those old “Hardy Boys” books.

So for a moment I was really excited because I thought I had found an example of a Pre-Tolkien Fantasy book. (As a lifelong fantasy fan, lately I’ve been curious as to what extant the genre existed before “Lord of the Rings” became the standard.) But after leafing through the book, I realized this was actually a World War II story that had been misfiled under the Fantasy section, and the dragons were metaphorical. I walked away somewhat disappointed, but then eventually curiosity got the better of me and I came back and bought it anyway. Just for the hell of it and to see what this book would be like.

It’s very rare, for me at least, to read a book that I have no idea what it is about. I do buy many books on impulse, but usual there is at least a back cover or something you can read. Being an old book, this was without any cover jacket, and I went into it totally blind. If I had known what it was actually about (the romantic lives of 3 sisters set against the backdrop of World War II) I might not have ever picked it up. And yet it was not the worst book I’ve ever read.

The writing style is very pleasant and readable, although I’m not sure how much credit the author gets for that, because this book is originally by a Norwegian author and then later was translated into English.

The story begins in 1925 with Knut Wergeland, the Norwegian consul in Shanghai. The first third of the book is about his marital disasters and how he comes to end up with 3 different daughters by 3 different women. One daughter is half French, one daughter is half Chinese, and the 3rd daughter is by a Norwegian woman.

Eventually the patriarch of the family Knut Wergeland passes away, the aunt Helen takes over the raising of the household, and the daughters all grow up into women looking for love. It was at this point that I realized I had been tricked into reading the Norwegian version of “Little Women.”

As this story is set against the backdrop of World War II in Asia, there are various sub plots dealing with the underground resistance and spy rings. These are interesting as far as they go, but they exist only to further the romance stories and not the other way around. For instance, a French spy will realize how much he really loves his girl while hiding out in Cambodia, or another girl mistaken for a spy and put in a Japanese prison is rescued by a dashing American Doctor. Much of this reads like an old fashioned pulp romance, so it can be good fun if you let yourself just flow with the cheesiness of it.

There are several Japanese characters in this book who, despite being the bad guys, are portrayed in a very balanced light. And the author has clearly done her research into Japanese culture. My only complaint is that they behave too much like they’re straight out of a guide book. They always stand around reciting Haiku’s or having tea ceremonies. Anyone who has lived in Japan can tell you that Japanese people aren’t in character all the time, and often you can often catch them just acting like normal human beings a lot of the time.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Shakespeare's Play "Troilus and Cressida" has rarely been popular on stage and there is no recorded performance between 1734 and 1898. It was not staged in its original form until the early twentieth century, but since then, it has become increasingly popular due to its cynical depiction of people's immorality and disillusionment especially after the First World War. Its popularity reached a peak in the 1960s when public discontent with the Vietnam War increased exponentially. The play's main overall themes about a long period of war, the cynical breaking of one's public oaths, and the lack of morality among Cressida and the Greeks resonated strongly with a discontented public and led to numerous stagings of this play since it highlighted the gulf between one's ideals and the bleak reality

Link of the Day
Taken from Phil's Blog
I want to take a minute and recognize the impressive and increasingly rare honesty of this NPR talk by conservative Rod Dreher. The part that blew me away (the left-wing blogger Glenn Greenwald did the hard work of transcribing the speech):
"As I sat in my office last night watching President Bush deliver his big speech, I seethed over the waste, the folly, the stupidity of this war."I had a heretical thought for a conservative - that I have got to teach my kids that they must never, ever take Presidents and Generals at their word - that their government will send them to kill and die for noble-sounding rot - that they have to question authority."On the walk to the parking garage, it hit me. Hadn't the hippies tried to tell my generation that? Why had we scorned them so blithely?"

The Time of the Dragons by Alice Ekert-Rotholz: Book Review (Scripted)

Friday, January 12, 2007

Journal 4/7/00


Had lunch at Johnny’s. Julie Lambert’s was applying some sort of lotion to her hands. I asked what it was, and Julie thought I was planning some sort of prank, or was going to try and steal it. I wasn’t, but it was the kind of thing I would do, so I played it up a bit to increase her paranoia. Julie even had her roommate Kara guard her lotion when she went to use the restroom.

Paul Steen stopped by to say he agreed with the Kyoto Treaty article I had written for Chimes.

Graham Reeves asked if I would be willing to speak at the IMF teach in that the Calvin Social Justice Committee is planning. Since it is now looking like a sure thing that I will be going to the big IMF protest in Washington DC, Graham wanted me to share my experience at the teach-in the week after.

Gort came onto the scene and told me that the house we had been looking at renting for next year fell through. Turns out we had asked about it way too late, and somebody else had already taken in. However they were able to rent another town house that was almost as good.

After class I went to the bank to get money for our housing application. I gave my money to Gort, and he turned the applications in.

After that I just hung around our apartment a lot. Bosch and I walked over to Bear’s apartment to visit, but no one was there. Since the door was unlocked, we walked in and fooled around on Bear’s computer a little bit. We tried to get Bear’s internet IP address banned from the Calvin Counterstrike game, which was hosted on Sheeplet’s server. Keene had gotten banned from earlier in the month for making obscene comments about a girl who was a friend of Sheeplet, so we signed in under Keene’s old name, “Rumpleforeskin” to try and get Sheeplet to ban Bear’s computer. We didn’t have any luck.

Josh Vanhaitsema showed up, and I accompanied him outside when he had a smoke. He almost got caught smoking by his brother (Jeremy?). It was a close call, but Josh said afterwards he thinks his brother knows he smokes anyway.

I helped Brett pick up Hannah’s car. We rode in Brett’s car to Hannah’s place, then I drove Hannah’s car back and Brett followed me. Brett gave me a rough time for driving too slow. Once we got to Calvin there were only two open spots close to the apartments. I parked my car in sideways so that it took up both spots just to be annoying.

Because of the protracted winter, there was a lot of snow on the ground. I made several snowballs in the courtyard right in front of Bork and Buma’s apartment, and acted like I was planning on something. Not surprisingly they responded by locking their door. But when Bork went into the laundry room to get his laundry I attacked him with snowballs there. I’m a bit ashamed to say we made a bit of a mess of the laundry room in the process. Dan Westerhoff came into the fight on my side. Eventually the snowball fight moved outside, and Rob Patton joined up on my side as well.

After we all tired out, we hung out for a while. Dan Westerhof mentioned he was considering writing a reply to Giessel’s article on the Kyoto treaty. Bork and Buma said they were going to see “6th sense”. It was showing on campus. I was pretty tempted, but I remembered my rule against watching movies during the school year, and declined. This ended up being pretty silly, because later on in the evening my resolve would weaken, and Rob and I would go to rent the movie anyway.

Rob and I went to Block buster. They were out of 6th Sense so we rented “Office Space”. We then went to best buy. Rob was buying some stuff, and I just killed time by looking at stuff.

We went back to the apartment and watched the video with the boys. After the video, Bosch but his cracker crumbs on Butterball’s shoulder. Butterball brushed them off onto the ground, and then ground them into our carpet with his foot. In response our whole apartment picked Butterball up and dropped him off in the snow outside.

We decided to go out to celebrate Bosch’s 21st. Bosch called up Bear, and (according to Bosch) Bear apparently responded, “I’ve got no money, I’ve got other plans, fuck you” and hung up. I guess this was Bear’s revenge, because on Wednesday Bosch and Bear had plans to hang out, and Bosch called at the last minute to cancel because he was hanging out with his girlfriend Margaret instead. We all talked about pulling some sort of prank to get Bear back for dissing us, but we never did.

We went to Fridays. Everyone was buying Bosch drinks for his 21st, but I refused to on principle because I didn’t think Alcohol was a good thing. I got a rough time from all the other boys for this (especially from Butterball, who had been riding me all day), but I’m used to it at this point.

Jon Anderson apparently told Bosch to lay off of me, because he thought I was getting really upset. I didn’t hear this, but Bosch (who thought it was pretty funny) told me later. Bless Jon’s heart for his good intentions, but at this point I’m more than able to handle the usual ribbing from the boys. Jon also chastised Butterball while trying to stick up for me my defense. I left before the rest of the group, although I’m told that after I left, Cakes made a joke about Bosnian refugees and Anderson got really upset.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
John Lennon apparently didn't want to perform the song "Good Night" because it didn't fit his "hard-rocker image". It is sung by Ringo Starr, the only Beatle to appear on the song.

Link of the Day
Do you ever read that comic strip "Mallard Fillmore"? Does anyone else think it is the lamest strip ever? I mean I know I'm biased because I'm a liberal, but can anyone tell me with a straight face that this strip is at all funny?
Anyway, this columnist has really got Mallard's number. Amen to that sir. (Via Tom Tomorrow, who's unfairly maligned in the same column).
Also someone set up a whole blog dedicated to refuting Mallard Fillmore here at Duck and Cover. Way to use your blogging for good sir.