'Tis Not Yet The Season

Dear Hollywood Fucks,

Yesterday was, as you may be aware, the 28th of September. This means that summer has officially been over for less than a week. This means that people are thinking about baseball pennant races, football games, maybe hoping to get a few last tomatoes off the vine before the first frost, that sort of thing. Eager sorority girls are starting to think about whether they'll dress as a sexy nurse, a sexy schoolgirl, a sexy witch or a sexy cat for Halloween and whether they should serve cherry or strawberry Jello shooters at the Theta Beta Zeta Halloween party.

So explain to me, you Hollywood-types, why IN THE NAME OF JESUS FUCKING CHRIST IN A SMOKING BIRCHBARK CANOE I saw an ad on television last night for YET ANOTHER GODDAMNED PIECE OF SHIT CHRISTMAS MOVIE!

I mean...

I mean...

For fuck's sake, people. First of all, even if it were being released at a reasonable time, Thanksgiving weekend, maybe, this Fred Claus thing looks like about as much fun as cleaning up my cat's hairballs. We've got Vince Vaughn, who has officially reached the Ben Stiller "Oh God, Him Again?" Level. We've got a slumming Paul Giamatti, wearing the "You're Paying Me in Cash, Right?" look on his face. It's all cutesy and heartwarming and by the end, ol' V.V. is going to learn a special heartwarming lesson about the True Fucking Meaning of Christmas and Giamatti is going to learn a special heartwarming lesson about how There's Nothing in the Entire Universe as Important as Family or somesuch bullshit like that. Actually, I think the official Hollywood line on the matter is that the True Fucking Meaning of Christmas is that There's Nothing in the Entire Universe as Important as Family. Anyway, I'm sure it's all going to be very special and heartwarming.

Whether it's a good movie or not (though, as it's a Christmas movie, my money's on not), the important factor here is that it's the goddamned 29th of September and last night I saw an ad for a Christmas movie.

It's enough to make me want to go on a multi-state killing spree. Please stop, Hollywood Fucks. Please don't shove your inane Christmas bullshit down my throat earlier and earlier every year. Last year it was mid-October. Now it's late September. Next year it's going to be Labor Day, isn't it? By 2010, we'll be expected to start getting "into the holiday spirit" by the 4th of July, won't we?

Please make it stop. Please.

Not to proud to beg,


I got a Wyoming quarter in change today.

The designs of the state quarters have hit-and-miss at best. There have been a few pretty sharp designs - New Jersey, Massachusetts and Ohio all spring to mind - amongst the dull and the uncreative. Texas' entry was particularly uninspired: an outline of the state and a big star. But the Wyoming quarter is a new low. It seems to be the answer to the unasked question, "What's the least amount of effort a state can put into its quarter design?"

It appears that a couple of guys, assigned to the task by the governor or the legislature or whatever, got together for coffee (a very small cup of coffee), said, "Well, what about that same damn cowboy-and-bucking-horse silhouette we put on every gawt-dam thing with the word 'Wyoming' on it?" and called it a day.

Behold, I Bring You Novelty Facial Hair!

Readers, pause now to contemplate...

The Imperial!

The Hungarian!

The Chinese!

The Musketeer!

The Garibaldi!

These are but a few of the winners of the 2007 World Beard & Moustache Championships. I'm thinking about buying a case of moustache wax and going for the 2008 top award for the Dali.

When is International It Was Vaguely Amusing Four Years Ago Day?*

Seriously, Internet. This was sort of cute once. Now it's just sad. Let it go.

* Curiously, it's 19 September, 2007. What are the odds?

A Plea

Robert Jordan died this afternoon at the age of 58. Once, a few years back, I took a crack at his fantasy epic, The Wheel of Time. I had a hard time getting into the first book. On a trip to the bookstore, I looked at how many books were in the series (nine at the time, with no end in sight) and decided that I just didn't have the time or energy for it all. Still, that's just me, and Jordan leaves behind a vast legion of devoted fans and an uncompleted 12th-and-final book in the series. It's a great loss not just for his family and friends, but for all those fans, too. I'm sure that Jordan dearly wished to be able to finish that last book, both for his own satisfaction and for his fans.

I learned of Jordan's passing from George R.R. Martin's LiveJournal "Not-a-Blog." And this brings me to my real point. George - I write, as if he's reading this - I implore you, I beg you, please work hard on the remaining volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire. Please try to eat right and get some exercise and visit a doctor regularly. The disease that struck down your friend Robert Jordan was, as I understand it, a one-in-a-million thing, unpredictable and unpreventable. Even so, try to stay healthy, George.

Also remember that as much as all fantasy fans and fantasy authors are enamored of Tolkien's famous turn of phrase, "This tale grew in the telling," that isn't license to let absurd bloat creep into your stories. Your Song was, by your own reckoning, originally intended as a trilogy, which soon turned to five, then six and now a projected seven books. Don't make it eight, George, please. Your loyal/devoted/addicted readers love this story, not least for its epic scope, but stories are only as good as their endings. It follows, then, that a story without a proper ending can't be much good at all. This goes for all authors of fantasy and science fiction, really. "Epic" is a wonderful quality, but remember that readers need a great ending just as much as they need a captivating beginning and an exciting middle.

Your loyal readers are just dying to find out what happens to Dany, Jon and Tyrion in A Dance with Dragons, let alone how the whole shebang is going to end. Don't leave us hanging. Pause every now and then to think about those people who have stuck with The Wheel of Time since 1990 and are never going to get exactly the conclusion that your friend Robert Jordan imagined. Surely, Jordan must have left behind enough material that a reasonably satisfactory pastiche of Book 12 will ultimately be produced...but those devoted fans are never going to know for sure what Jordan's Book 12 would have been.

Work hard, George. Your loyal fans want to see "A Dream of Spring by George R.R. Martin" on their shelves - not "...assembled by others from the notes of George R.R. Martin." Please.

Telling Lies

Writing a good fantasy novel is much harder than it looks. Creating something that is sufficiently original, entertaining and memorable is no mean feat. Fifty years later, people are still ripping off Tolkien. More amazing is that fantasy readers are still eating up the Tolkien rip-offs like there's no tomorrow. Those authors who aren't ripping off Tolkien are instead lifting from George R.R. Martin these days. Rare indeed is the new fantasy novel that really feels like something unique. About once a year I get the opportunity to read one of these, and it's always a treat. Two years ago, I discovered Garth Nix's brilliant Y.A. fantasy Sabriel and its sequels. Last year it was Naomi Novik's absolutely terrific Napoleonic-Wars-with-Dragons Temeraire series.

Back in July, we were poking around a nice little bookshop during our trip to Louisville, and a cover in the sci-fi/fantasy section caught my eye. I didn't buy the book then, but I devoted the evocative title - The Lies of Locke Lamora - to my memory, and resolved to pick it up at some later date. Pick it up I did, some weeks later, and am I ever glad I did. It is every bit as good as I'd hoped. I'm going to have a hard time waiting for the sequel - Red Seas Under Red Skies - to come out in paperback.

Author Soctt Lynch has created a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of a novel - two great tastes that taste great together, that is. He has combined fantasy with the caper picture, in the vein of The Sting, Ocean's 11 or The Italian Job.

World-building doesn't appear to be Lynch's greatest interest, though admittedly he shows us only a single location in his fantasy world. That location is the city-state of Camorr, a thinly-veiled copy of Venice in a thinly-veiled copy of Italy. There are deeper mysteries hidden in the setting, to be sure, but the important details are a city-state which has canals instead of streets and which is populated by powerful nobles, wealthy merchants and a thriving underworld.

In the midst of this milieu are the Gentlemen Bastards, led by the titular Locke Lamora (by the way, if you're a Firefly fan and you can get through the entire novel without imagining Nathan Fillion as Locke, I'll be amazed). By the time the main action of the novel occurs, they are already fabulously wealthy, but continue to pull elaborate cons on the wealthy nobility because, to borrow a line from Michael Mann's Heat, they don't know how to do anything else, and don't much want to, either. They pay their monthly tribute to the local equivalent of the Godfather, putting forth the appearance of being moderately successful burglars, and everyone's happy.

Happy, that is, until the arrival on the scene of the Gray King. The Gray King and his associate, the Falconer, are the villains of the piece. Villains in caper stories are tricky, as the heroes are, by definition, criminals and outlaws themselves. So the villains in such stories are the ones who don't want to play by the well-established rules and courtesies of the underworld setting. The ones who throw a monkey wrench into the works. The Gray King does just that, disrupting not only the Gentlemen Bastards' carefully planned con game, but the whole of Camorr's criminal society to boot. And he does it in such a spectacularly evil and theatrical way that you just can't help but hate him.

This is where the story really gets going, and it just cracks right along. Nearly every chapter gives you a great "How are they going to get out of this one?" cliffhanger. There are a few genuinely exciting action scenes, which is hard to do with prose. There is a lot of humor, and a fair bit of pathos, too. We even get a gripping climax and, one of the hardest things to do, a satisfying ending.

All in all, it is a spectacular debut for Lynch, establishing him right out of the gate as an author well worth watching. Of course, if this doesn't sound like your kind of thing, I have a long list of Tolkien, um, "homages" for you...

Itly is Full of Eye Talians

For the last couple of months, we've been kicking around ideas for a trip to Europe during my Xmas break. We're talking about New Zealand as a honeymoon-ish trip at Xmastime in 2008/2009, but we also wanted to do a trip this year...sort of a pre-wedding trip, I guess.

Only moments ago, we booked airline tickets for two weeks in Italy. We'll be flying out of San Francisco on New Year's Day after spending Xmas with Emily's Mom and other family and arriving in Rome the next day. Yet to be determined is just how we'll get to Florence for the second half of our trip.

Having spent a good chunk of the last year studying the history of Western Art - which naturally places great emphasis on the Romans and on the Italian Renaissance - I'm quite excited. Emily's been to Rome before, but is excited to go back. And hey, just six-and-a-half years after we met on a backpacking-Europe message board, we're finally going to Europe together!


Square the Squared Square

Emily has already posted a lovely tribute to the late Madeleine L'Engle over on her blog, and said a fair amount of what I would have said. Instead, I will say this:

Writing science fiction is always difficult. Writing science fiction for a juvenile audience, perhaps even moreso. Nobody can really set out to create something that will become "a classic" or something beloved of even a single generation of readers, let alone many. But L'Engle accomplished that where many of her contemporaries did not.

Consider, for example, Robert Heinlein. A large portion of his prolific output was what fans call "juvies." Stuff like Red Planet, Starman Jones, and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel was meant by Heinlein specifically for young audiences. Good stuff, no doubt, but Heinlein was clearly dumbing it down a bit. And it's all pretty dated, all rocketships, ray-guns and Martians.

A Wrinkle in Time, by contrast, continues to feel fresh and modern, in spite of having been published in 1962. It has a timeless quality that a vast amount of science fiction, especially science fiction of that era, lacks. Because there is nothing specifically grounding it in the early '60s, it is as easy to imagine it taking place in the '80s or in 2007.

And while it doesn't go into enormous detail about relativistic physics or space-time mechanics, the necessary concepts are explained clearly enough that a relatively intelligent 8-year-old can grasp what's going on fairly well. Let me put it this way: last fall, I took an astronomy class. At the point in the curriculum when it came time to explain some of the more esoteric concepts, the professor brought in a guest lecturer, her husband, who was a physics professor. He began explaining the idea of a fourth dimension, I realized it was something I'd heard before. He was not using the exact words, but his explanation was certainly couched in the same terminology as Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit's description of the concepts to Meg and Calvin. I was stunned when, a few minutes later, he actually used the word "tesseract." I had always assumed it was a word L'Engle had invented.

As it turns out, it's a word she had merely appropriated. It's more of a geometric concept, really, than Wrinkle's teleportation/space-folding/wormhole-ish method of travel through space and time. Still, it was a not entirely incorrect word for the situation.

That's just amazing. Intelligent, timeless and entertaining, all in one package? A combination of high adventure and real science that creates a book that both space opera and hard sci-fi lovers can agree upon as a classic? What's not to love?

A Wrinkle in Time is one of a handful of childhood literary loves that Emily and I share. She's never quite gotten how it is that I reached adolescence without reading the Little House books, and I've never quite understood how it is that she got through adolescence without reading The Lord of the Rings...but A Wrinkle in Time occupies a similar space in both of our hearts and minds.

So long, Madeleine, and thanks for everything.

They Named it Twice

One of the internet's finest curmudgeons, Todd of Death Wore a Featherd Mullet, points us towards a typically atrocious piece of writing from the New York Post:

They mention a quote from the New York Post's Mary Huhn, regarding Louisville band Vhs or Beta: "They also chill by shooting hoops, going to a few concerts or hitting dive bars - about the only kinds of fun available in Louisville, Ky., where VHS or Beta formed in 1997 and still resides."

New York City is an endlessly great city. It has an inordinate number of world-class museums. It is the home of several of the world's greatest pieces of architecture. It has a list of incredible restaurants as long as both of your arms put together. It has a fascinating history. It's not even remotely hard to find great music and great theater in New York City. It has produced luminaries like the Marx Brothers, Bogart and Bacall, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Spike Lee, Arthur Miller and Neil Simon, Jay-Z and Tupac.

The only real problem with New York is that it's absolutely swimming with fucking New Yorkers. Many of them assume that New York is not just a great city, but the only great city. That New York is the only place in the world - or certainly in North America, anyway - with great museums and restaurants, that no other city has a fascinating history or has ever produced a notable or interesting human being.

They assume that every other city in America locks the doors and rolls up the sidewalks at 11:00pm sharp. Many of them still spout that old chestnut, "Where else can you get a pizza at 3:00am?" Yeah, where else? Well, try, I donno...just about every other city of any reasonable size in the country, dipshits! You can get a pizza - a good pizza, too - at 3:00am in Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Houston, Denver, Louisville, Seattle...you can do it in boring-ass old Greeley, Colorado, too. Late-night pizza availability is hardly unique.

They blithely assume that people who don't live in New York desperately want to. Us poor souls who don't live in the Big Apple sit around twiddling our thumbs and imagining what all those glamorous people in New York must be doing right now.

After all, what could there possibly be to do in someplace like Louisville, where they probably don't even have electricity or indoor plumbing, or Denver, where people ride horses around the unpaved, dusty streets?

On Obsolescence

Today, I developed film. That I find learning to develop film to be something akin to learning mammoth-hunting techniques or how to repair steam locomotives makes it no less cool to have developed my own film. I mean, who wouldn't want to eat a mammoth steak from a mammoth they personally killed?

It's a curious thing. A few years back, when digital cameras were first becoming popular and widely available, I swore I had no interest in them. I liked shooting on film just fine. Of course, I also swore, like many people back in 2001, that I would never own a cell-phone and look how that turned out, right? As I've seen more and more digital photography, I've changed my views on the subject substantially.

Above our non-functional fireplace, we have three 8x12" framed prints of photos from our trip to China in 2005. I took two of them with my old-fashioned 35mm SLR; I took the third with Emily's 3.2MP Canon PowerShot. To any but the most expert of eyes, it is impossible to tell which of these things is not like the others. Some of the most beautiful photos I've seen in recent years have been digital - check out Leah's photos, for example, or my brother's. If we accept the premise that digital image quality is as good as film (which I do), then photography in either format is about the same things: composition, color if you're shooting color, value if you're shooting (or converting to) B&W, and an eye for interesting images.

Still, developing film today was a powerful reminder of the reasons why there still exists a substantial number of photographers, amateur and professional, who prefer film. The process of shooting, developing and printing with film is delightfully tactile and enjoyably meticulous. The instant gratification of digital has its own pleasures, to be sure. But there's a lot to be said for the feeling of anticipation and the first glimmerings of excitement at what images you may have as you see your developed negatives for the first time. It was a reminder of what I always said when I argued for film over digital back in the day - any digital medium is a set of instructions which a computer will use to recreate a picture, whereas film actually is a picture.

Even so...I like digital a lot these days, and don't plan on going back to film photography on any kind of permanent basis.