Saturday, September 27, 2008

Corey's Important Post

After returning from performing three days of my civic duty in Jury Duty, I couldn't have found a more timely post than this one from Corey Wilde's blog. He eloquently highlights Banned Books Week and its celebration of "the Freedom to Read" by the American Library Association. This is an important observation that, unfortunately, requires a constant and vigilant reminding to all. Kudos to the ALA, and to Corey who posted this.

Monday, September 22, 2008

"There are better ways forward."

by Sebastian Mallaby

The more I listen to the Sunday news talk shows, and read the (web) news articles, the more it sounds like we've been here, before. The hurry placed on the Congress to approve the proposed bail out of financial institutions, without much examination or proposed changes, sounds like a another "mushroom cloud" threat and reaction. And we now know the results of that endeavor.

The Post Op-Ed columnist, Sebastian Mallaby, brings some sense into our current situation and mentions the other, more viable, alternatives that isn't getting much attention. And, puts the proper historical perspective to the proponents comparison with the clean up of the savings and loan crisis. The key segment:

Within hours of the Treasury announcement Friday, economists had proposed preferable alternatives. Their core insight is that it is better to boost the banking system by increasing its capital than by reducing its loans. Given a fatter capital cushion, banks would have time to dispose of the bad loans in an orderly fashion. Taxpayers would be spared the experience of wandering into a bad-loan bazaar and being ripped off by every merchant.

Now, whether cooler heads will decide this one is the question. Again, we're being sold fear, and the need to act quickly, over scrutinizing what we're buying and ignoring more bad policy from an administration with a long record of proposing such.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Finally Finished the [insert epithet] Amazon Guide

One of the things I promised I'd do this summer was create my first Amazon So you'd like to... guide. Under my profile, there, I had done some reviews and listmania lists, but never a guide. This year, with the summer 2008 release of Robert Crais' latest, Chasing Darkness, and Brilliance Audio finally releasing the first five in the Elvis Cole series, in unabridged form, I thought it would be a good one to start with. Easy, right? Yeah... It all reminds me of a quote from one of my favorite westerns, Richard Brooks' The Professionals:

Everything is as usual. I need guns and bullets, as usual. The war goes badly, as usual. Only you, you are not as usual.-- Jesus Raza (Jack Palance)

Nothing came easy in that film. Same here. First, I had to wait until all of those new releases came out and I listened to those audiobooks--along with all of the others in the series. That was enjoyable (re-reading a favorite series is great stuff). But, then I had to start composing the guide. (rinse and repeat). I envy those who can write so elegantly--so effortlessly. That's not me (sigh). Anyway, when I finally had it where I wanted it, I went to Amazon's create a guide page. Filled in the title, qualifications, tags, and copied in my text. I saved and checked it over. But when I pressed the Publish button: "Inappropriate Language, please edit the text below."

I love language filters...not. After spending the last six days going blind to find the inappropriate parts in my guide (no bad words ever existed there), speaking with Amazon's call center (somewhere overseas--one can always tell by the phone lag), writing to their contact email (not very easy to find, and they never replied), I found myself getting nowhere, quickly. No cavalry would be coming over the ridge, at least from Amazon's part. Turned out, since I first drafted the guide on a word processing application (who shall remain nameless), it insisted upon inserting unicode symbols for my punctuation. After weeding them all out and getting it all down to plain text, did it finally post my guide. Whew... If anyone is interested, here it is:


I Hope I'm Quirky Enough

The generous Jen (Jen's Book Thoughts) has 'tagged' me in the quirky game. Fair enough, I'm, game.

The Rules Are:

1. Link to the person who tagged you
2. Post the rules on your blog
3. Write 6 random things/unspectacular quirks about yourself
4. Tag 6 people at the end of your post and link to them
5. Let each person you have tagged know by leaving a comment on their blog
6. Let the tagger know when your entry is posted.

My quirks are:

One...I've never liked the feel of velvet--it has the like scratching your fingers on a chalkboard-like feel for me.

Two...I can snag anything. Meaning, I can walk by an object, and if it has a part that can be caught up (like a loop in a loose knit sweater), I'll accidentally catch it with something on my's a gift, I know.

Three...when I sneeze, and my family can attest to this, it is in a group of three. My kids now know to wait for the third one to say 'bless you'. Jen, I despise 'reality' TV programming (it's a senseless narcotic that keeps us unaware of the more important things). would be my favorite color, but I never wear it (though, I'll quickly notice it on others, especially a woman wearing red lipstick).

Six...without effort, I can spot out-of-plumb wall fixtures or pictures wherever I go (and I fight with myself to not straighten them).

For this social network game, I'm suppose to tag six others. So, I'll pick what I think are six interesting bloggers, who just happen to list L.A. Requiem, a Crais favorite of mine, as one of theirs in their blogspots:
  1. Ryan at Worst Case Scenario
  2. Gay Degani at Words in Space
  3. Cory at The Drowning Machine
  4. Dave Stewart at Fabric of Verse
  5. D.S. Brown at Slings and Arrows
  6. Slade Wilson at Slade's Place
For those of them interested in playing, I look forward to their posts. If they opt for not, (hopefully) no harm done.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Need 9/11-like Commission? Not Really...

Regardless what the Republican Presidential candidate says, we don't need a 9/11-like commission to get to the bottom of the current financial crisis. It's pretty clear what's driving this meltdown:

And, there's plenty of blame to go around:

Key quote here is:
Both Republicans and Democrats in Washington ended up "supporting deregulation, even as newly minted but little-understood products like derivatives proliferated."

Add to this our government's inclination (and bad habit) of printing money to try to pay for things. Our balance sheets are getting trashed--plain and simple. The dollar continues to lose value. And, it all comes down to bad policies by our government. Unfortunately, we (the taxpayers) are going to have to pay for this. Great... Sounds like the answer to the question: How to move from a government surplus to a humongous national debt and global economic crisis in eight years, or less. 

Friday, September 12, 2008

"I told them a story. You play games, I told them a story."

With the wife still at work due to today's train accident in Chatsworth, I put Three Days of the Condor into the DVD player while home alone with the kids. Maybe it's because I'm currently listening to James Grady's latest on audiobook, Mad Dogs, that I brought this disc out of my library and into the player. Or, perhaps I didn't want to dwell upon the inane tragedy and aftermath of two trains meeting head long on the same track. Or, that a hurricane is bearing down on the gulf coast, and all readily available for those watching TV, and I sought refuge in a movie. Too bad it's fleeting. I never read the book it's based upon, Six Days of the Condor, but heard it was quite good. I also know that they changed the story's premise from Vietnam and drugs, to oil for the screenplay. Remember, this came out in 1975. Watergate, oil shortages, and paranoia were actively shaping the boomers of my day -- with the aftereffect and outlook still felt among us.

Regardless, it is still a quite effective thriller and exposition of that decade. Robert Redford always did work well for his most frequent collaborator, the late director Sydney Pollack. And while Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and others give solid supporting roles, the viewer to drawn to Max Von Sydow's freelance assassin, Joubert. While the plot has the CIA and its Operations directorate behind it all for the audience of that day, it's the fleeing book reader/analyst and detached assassin that offer the best contrast in the film, especially over time. Joe Turner's (Redford) dilemma in the story is the sense of betrayal -- the symbol for that decade. For Joubert, he cannot be betrayed since he believes in neither side. He cares not about the 'why' for any of his jobs (sometimes the where and indeed the how), but always about the 'how much' -- which seems to be something very perceptible for those of us around during the 90s to now (at least as of the date of this posting). Additionally, the film's ambiguous ending for the protagonist turned out to be the standard plot point for films from the turbulent 70s. Paradoxically, that would work out for us, today.

Lastly, this film's effective use of New York City as a backdrop is what really brought the blog post out of me in the gloaming. The crisp, wintery cityscape in which the story was shot, plays out well for the people caught in the story's intrigue and the sanctum they seek from the cold. Cinematographer Orrin Roizman provided what turned out to be some truly haunting visuals, especially for those taking the film in, years later, post 9/11. City central in this screenplay (and for the CIA) are the Twin Towers -- a made-up plot point about the Agency by the author that turned out to be true from the original novel. The visuals that Roizman catches and puts on display for the WTC are those from now historic and well remembered (and recorded) perspectives. Twenty years later (in 1995), I flew directly over those towers on a commuter flight from Hartford to Newark to catch a long flight back home from a business trip. The only time I ever saw the WTC in person, and the view of them was stunning, then and now. And since yesterday was the 7th anniversary of that infamous day, the irony and coincidence is not lost on me tonight.

Blogger note: since the time of this writing, I have read the original book. I've come to realize that Corey Wilde was right. The film is definitely more enjoyable than the book.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Plans, with in Plans, with in Plans

Frank Herbert's Dune is a Sci-Fi classic, bar none. A masterpiece of writing, regardless of genre, first published in 1965--and winner of that year's Nebula Award. The Hugo arrived the following year. And, as I write this, I've just finished my third reading (in a fashion) of this wonderful work. When it was first released, IIRC, I was in sixth grade. I knew nothing, nor cared, about books--except those forced upon me by my school teachers, that is. My love of books and reading wouldn't bloom till after I left the cauldron of high school, some years later. And to my mother, I will always be beholden for that quiet seed she planted so gently, done purely by example.

I guess, I find it strange recalling my mother this evening after finishing Herbert's grand book that spawned an enthralling series. It captivated (and still does) a congregation of loyal readers. But, for my mother, books were her world (outside of her sons, that is). She collected and read all sorts of literature and popular written works. Dad, on the other hand, just collected women--there's a reason he was married three times, and divorced twice. Though, I'm sure he read all sorts of phone numbers on the back of matchbooks. But, I digress... Even through the rough times, and they could get quite difficult for single parent burdened with child raising responsibilities and what would be twenty years of RA, the quiet, intense joy I'd see in my mother's eyes as turned book page after book page, left an impression with her oldest.

No, I don't think I see the book's character of Lady Jessica in mom, for those Psych majors reading this. But, I think she'd be flattered. The scope and scale in this book is only augmented by Herbert's prose as he creates such a detailed universe in an unimaginable future. The first in the Dune series has just about everything in it: intrigue, action, religion, myth and pure creative power. Having finally picked it up and first read in the early eighties, I've only grasped more with each turn with it. The second was after I discovered audiobooks (after the turn of the century)--the now hard to find unabridged version by Recorded Books. George Guidall performed this wonderfully, mind you. But, it is surpassed with the 2007 release, by Renaissance Audio. This version, read by Simon Vance, Scott Brick, and a host of others was simply enthralling. And, that RA--not the bad one that my mom suffered with, is bringing the entire Frank Herbert original series to new digital audio by re-releasing it with this cast of readers. It will culminate with Chapterhouse Dune in early 2009. The original unabridged cassette audiobooks of this series are now quite rare, and do not offer the production values of more recent audiobook publishers. All I can say is, Thank You, Mother, For Bringing Books Into My Life.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Of Horror and Empathy

About a couple of weeks ago, the wonderful and eclectic folk at the Criterion Collection re-released Pasolini's Salo (120 Days of Sodom). If that title doesn't ring a bell, it was the last, highly controversial work of that Italian artist, intellectual, filmmaker and writer. Based on a work of torture/degradation by the Marquis de Sade, it is said that it was Pasolini's masterwork examining Fascism (and Capitalism) in general, and Italy during World War II in particular. I've heard that many college film courses play and examine this work--and that it's been described as nauseating, gory, sick, and nothing less than pornographic. I've always wanted to see the film that some viewers describe this way only because many others consider it a masterpiece. The question is, why haven't I?

My wife, who knows my love of film (and books), and the many DVDs that we house, would just laugh at this. Why? She knows that I've watched a great many movies, that to her, are disturbing. I'm sure that she bases this on a good bit in the collection (books, too) that are in the horror category. Yes, I admit, that for many years since my teens I've read, listened, or watched those works  that go bump in the night (along with other genres). I remember (fondly) when my relatives warned me to not to go and see The Exorcist when it first hit the theaters. Of course, for my brother (considered the tougher one of us), they didn't worry or say anything to him about it. The end result? He went to see it, and slept with the lights on in his room for the next three months, afterwards. Me? I wanted to read the William Peter Blatty book that it was based upon.

But, interestingly, not all horror works attract my attention. The trend of gore, perhaps started in the low budget, exploitive works of the sixties & seventies, in the horror category is a clue, here. Am I frightened or repulsed by it? If it's something inherent or logical in a good story, the answer is no. Alien, with it's (in)famous chest burster scene, is one of my all-time favorites. Same goes for John Carpenter's The Thing, where its extraordinary make-up and grisly effects added to the story's paranoia and dread (to a film that was far ahead of its time). I could name many others that exploited gore to effective end. So, on that end of the scale, that aspect should not stop me in taking in Pasolini's midnight movie classic.

I think, secretly mind you, it's related to that imperceptible line that some directors, writers, or artists push (or cross) to either make some revealing point (which is defensible), or to cross it (and turnaround to scratch it completely off) just because they can do it to the audience (which is much less defensible). The horror sub-genre some later nicknamed torture porn is just an example of this. I think Clive Barker really made an early (eighties) mark in this, way before critics coined the term (for the later examples of Eli Roth, Takashi Miike, Rob Zombie, etc.), with his Hellraiser film (based upon the his book, The Hellbound Heart). He pushed (successfully) that line. Though, it seems some of the recent films seem overly abusive just for sadism's (the term derived from the Marquis' surname, mind you) sake. I guess I like to watch film instead of cringing at the screen or taking it in through my stretched fingers (while I hold my hand over my face).

The lack of empathy is what I fear, I guess. That and the images that get etched into one's minds--for days, weeks, or always--after the viewer takes it in. And, I don't just hold filmmakers up to examination, here--this is warning to those even thinking of picking up Edward Lee's work (The Bighead is one I'll stay far away from). Perhaps, I'm getting soft in my old age. Or, more empathetic since I became a parent in the mid-nineties. Anyway, one of these days I'll take in that Pasolini title (... or those unopened DVDs like Inside, City of the Living Dead, and Imprint that some of my jaded co-horts have prodded me to watch). But, I wouldn't hold my breath...

Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Security Hack Taylor Made for the Young Generation

Herbert H. Thompson's Scientific American article is a great primer how one should help themselves in protecting their identity online. But, IMO, it points out a generational difference, too. I see this easily in my work environment when it comes to most things technical (computer systems-related). For those my (ahem) age, learning the newer concepts that come with (work) databases, VPNs, EMR, or  web applications can either be daunting, or something to rail against.

But, bring those up with users a couple of generations later (in the same workplace), and there's instant recognition of the technology, or the need for it. Gen X, and especially Y, were raised with technology, and don't fear it. However, no fear, especially with the free social network tools available to anyone with Internet access, is a double-edged sword when it comes to falling prey to the hack Mr. Thompson chillingly writes about here.

What the younger generations put online today, brings stunned looks from we boomers. But, I guess our suspicion of authority, at least in this niche, can be a good thing. Of course, when gen Z arrives (and are taught from birth about what shouldn't be put online), they'll just laugh about those old Xers and Millenlials...and the boomers will be only the stuff for the History majors ;-).

Out of the Mouth of Babes

First off, I love my kids (really). And, much to the chagrin of their mother, I've successfully indoctrinated them into the music I grew up with by way of listening to L.A.'s oldest oldie station there is, K-EARTH 101. All sorts of great music has passed through their young ears--from the Beatles of pop to the soul of all the Motown greats. But, all of this backfires on their old man whenever they nostalgically reminisce to song like this and say, "Dad, remember this song from the (live action movie) Scooby-Doo 2?" Or, when they take this Monkee's tune, and wax on about it from the Shrek movies. Is nothing sacred anymore? I just roll my eyes and say, "No, I remember when it (truly) first came out on radio." Of course, none of this would happen if studio execs had an ounce of creativity anymore and stopped re-cycling ideas (and songs) in the content they now roll out to our children!!! But, I'm reacting too strongly...right?

Monday, September 1, 2008

End of Summer Movie Review

Labor Day 2008, the last holiday of Summer. My oldest started back to school last week, and my youngest won't be back in class until next week. What to do this week? Well, time to reflect back on this summer's batch of films we (as in my family and I) all took in (let's get this over so we can move on to the Fall/Winter serious movie releases):

Best Summer Movie: The Dark Knight - this movie was head and shoulders above all of the rest, save for one. Perhaps, this one alone reached a pinnacle for comic hero movies in story, actor performances (individual and ensemble), direction, and comment for our times. I'll be very surprised if this film doesn't generate a buzz for Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Director, Actor [and Supporting Actor], and Original Screenplay).

Worst Summer Movie: The Happening - I'm old enough to remember when M. Night Shyamalan only made simply great, underrated movies. Okay, maybe it wasn't the worst. Perhaps, it's really Fly Me to the Moon and its animated concept of flies and maggots, in any form.

Best Animation Movie: Wall•E - the close second best summer movie of the year from Pixar. The most genuine love story of this year (or any near year). As blogger Jonathan K wrote back in June: "The film isn't just a love story. It's a story about learning to love." And since it starts off so dystopian, it is simply amazing by story's end. This is also our last film we took in (2nd viewing), on Labor Day. If this one doesn't win this year's Oscar for animation, well...let them meet with EVE's blaster. The not so close honorable mention would be Kung Fu Panda.

Best Actor of the Summer: Robert Downey, Jr. - Heath Ledger may have gotten the most attention (rightly so) for his intensely great performance as The Joker in TDM, but Downey was it for his varied, wonderful performances in Iron Man, Tropic Thunder, and (fun cameo) in The Incredible Hulk.

Most (Pleasantly) Surprising MovieIron Man - turned out the best movie to start the summer movie season was this one. Simply a fun, action comic book hero movie with a perfectly cast actor for the lead. Honorable Mention: The Incredible Hulk.

Most Disappointing Movie: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - I wanted to love this movie--mostly due to the fun and concept of the first film (the sequels are an uneven bunch). Where to start? Lead too old, not enough of Karen Allen (for this film and the series), disappointing villain, etc. Honorable Mentions, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Narnia: Prince Caspian

Met Expectations Movie: too many times, movies (especially those of the summer variety) come into the season with all of this buzz (part of the marketer's job), only to fail to live up to it. This year, the movie that met its buzz was Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. An entertaining story, brought to great visual acclaim by an under-rated, great director, and a perfect cast (without one A-grade actor) made this an easy pick. Where's The Dark Knight or Wall•E? They don't count simply because they exceeded all of their hype.

Best Laughs Movie: Get Smart - seems so long ago, now. But, I cracked up the most during this one. Honorable Mentions: Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express.

Best Future Cult FilmPineapple Express - took this in with my golf partner while we were in Santa Barbara for our annual summer golf trip. Some of the scenes and sequences were un-real, man...

At Least I Didn't Fall Asleep Movies: my 'meh' catchall category - Hancock; Wanted, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 3D; Don't Mess With the Zohan; Kitt Kitrredge: All American Girl; X-Files: I Want to Believe.

My Top Five: