Tuesday, May 31, 2005

My Deep Throat

Today's announcement that former deputy blah-di-blah-blah of the FBI W. Mark Felt was Deep Throat made me feel mightily pensive; like, I suppose, any great writer, today's Watergate watershed made me think of me. This is a story about a revelation. Not one of those "LUKE, I AM YOUR FATHER" revelations; this is more of a "I was in love with you all through seventh grade!" revelation. Nixon resigned in the summer of 1974. A few months earlier, towards the end of 7th grade, I became our junior high school's Student Body President by running on a platform of, "Elect me, and I'll try my best to do whatever you want me to do." I narrowly beat Linda Bloem -- my chief academic rival, occasional object of my affection, and the only girl in junior high who would dance the slow dances with me -- primarily because Linda ran on a platform of, "Elect me, because God wants me to be your student body president," thus prefiguring George W. Bush. When I opened my locker on the first day of eighth grade, I found a handwritten note:
Hoffman resign or else*
I was a victim of synchronicity. Throughout eighth grade, I had to endure taunts of "Impeach Hoffman!" and "Hoffman, Resign Now!" all because of Richard Nixon. And I was a good student body president. Our dances made money. With our profits, we bought a drinking fountain for our quad, which made us the first student council to do anything, ever. We became the paragon by which all future student councils would be measured. And yet the notes trickled in at regular intervals: stuffed in my pre-algebra book, scooted under my lunch tray, dropped in front of my gym locker. Naturally, Linda Bloem was my chief suspect. Sure, she continued to dance the slow dances with me -- that was just her crafty way of deflecting suspicion. My next suspect was the student council treasurer Bret Lawson. Why? Sheer antagonism. I'm pretty sure Bret didn't like me. I'm pretty sure he still doesn't like me (if he thinks about me at all) even though we went to Berkeley together, which should count for something, you know? I had other things to distract me that year. I can't remember who I was in love with, but I was always in love with someone, ever since age 2. (If anyone from my family still reads this -- that girl at Cassie's, the one I used to play King of the Hill with, and she always won. What was her name?) I think I was messed up about Tamara Cynar that year. Right at the end of seventh grade, Tamara told one of her girlfriends, right in front of me, that she thought I was cute -- so of course I fantasized about her all summer. Come eighth grade, she wasn't there. She'd moved. Only a thirteen-year-old can be totally destroyed by something like this. Meanwhile, Linda Bloem's dancing slow dances with me, and Lilly Sznaper's making eyes at me too (well, at least once or twice), and all I can think about is some girl I'd never even looked twice at, just because she was unattainable. And how fucked up is that? Adolescence SUCKS. End of the year: yearbook signing. Sue Youmans, a very tall and very gorgeous girl who had never had very much to say to me, wrote
Guess what! It was me writing those notes! Haha, pretty funny, huh?
Sue had the flattest stomach and the hottest belly button of any eighth grader. My sexual fantasies were only beginning to take on a bit of character (having, that year, discovered Xaviera Hollander's book Xaviera! -- thank you, Jeff Swee, fellow Berkeleyite, for being a dumpster-diving thirteen-year-old), but I could still see the potential of belly buttons. Asked why she had messed with my brain all year**, Sue stuck to her guns. "I thought it was pretty funny. Didn't you think it was funny?" Well, sure. Now I do. D. *Do I actually remember what the note said? Hell no. This is personal history. No one said anything about historical accuracy.
**Admittedly, she'd messed with my brain to far less a degree than Tamara Cynar.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Darth Yawn

I'm not a Star Wars fanboy. Never was, never will be. Sure, I saw the first three as a kid (and had the good taste to despise ewoks even then), but when Lucas started grinding the cash cow with Episode 1, I read the reviews. Feh. Not even Natalie Hershlag* could get me off my ass & down to the theater . . . and this, despite the fact she was just as cute as she was in The Professional, but grown up now. I'll wait until Alan Moore's V for Vendetta comes out; Natalie plays Evey. Back to the story that should have died long ago in a galaxy far, far away. It's bad enough Walmart defines science fiction as 'that which has Star Wars in the title'; now, Blogger -- my host -- persists in posting a link to Darth Vader's Blog on its 'Blogs of Note' list, even though Darth has thrown in the quill. This evening, I popped over to see what Darth is up to, and discovered that he wrote his last post nearly two weeks ago. As of this writing, Darth's terminal entry has racked up close to 600 comments. 600 comments, my minions, and for what? I defy you to read that Sith bastard's blather without falling asleep. Will someone unplug his respirator -- please? I had stopped by before. All this resentment has been brewing for some time, let me tell you. This isn't merely the ire of a non-fanboy left out in the cold, the one kid who doesn't get the joke. It's the fact that I do get the joke, and it isn't as funny as it could be. Not by half. It enrages me, seeing a great comic opportunity pissed away. (Aren't there more important things in the world for me to be upset about? You betcha, but this isn't a political blog. I understand there are already a few of those out there in the blogosphere.) But I have plans. Oh, do I have plans. And I won't have to rip off anyone's creative product except my own. Watch this space. D. *Natalie, Natalie. Why did you have to take a shikseh name like Portman? Think of all the Jewish boys who would not have given up looking for Jewish brides, simply because they knew there were girls like you in the Jewniverse?

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Imagineer This

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow A few years back, I asked printmaker Rosemary Feit Covey what she thought of fellow printmaker Edward Gorey (of Gashlycrumb Tinies fame, &c). She told me something I didn't understand at the time: she had a hard time appreciating Gorey's work because she got too caught up in analyzing his technique. It was a problem she had with art in general, but especially with the work of other wood engravers. At the time, the only art I understood was writing, and, well, I was a hack. Okay, a worse hack. But now I think I finally get her point. And man, is it ever annoying. Cory Doctorow's 2003 debut, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, is one of the most original novels I've read this year. It's also one of the most predictable. It's a question of content versus form: I found the content to be fresh, but the form was strictly by the numbers. Here's the deal (and you'll find this, or something nearly like it, in just about every self-help writing book you'll grab off the shelf): (Hey, this might be a spoiler. If you care about that, skip the numbers and read on.)
  1. Start with a likable protagonist.
  2. Throw some adversity his way.
  3. Throw some more adversity his way.
  4. Bring him low, very low.
  5. Lower still.
  6. Mmm . . . no, lower still.
  7. Has he lost everything yet? Good!
  8. At the last moment, wrench him from the jaws of defeat . . . oh, and make sure he has learned something in the process.
Okay, there it is, my one and only gripe. A story this fresh -- and Doctorow couldn't manage to throw in a surprise? Can you say formulaic? This isn't a negative review. Really. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a cool book, and now that I've gotten all that off my chest, I'm going to tell you why you* need to buy it. Our hero, Julius, lives in an era where death and disease are ancient history, and none of the essentials are in short supply. Money has been replaced by the only things that matter in this post-scarcity world: esteem; prestige; reputation. Whuffie, in other words. This novel's universe has all the trappings of cyberpunk without any of the drear. Imagine Gibson on Ecstacy and Prozac. Peoples' brains are permanently online (quite convenient, since they're always checking each other's Whuffie to see who's top dog), and by periodically making a backup of one's personality, immortality is assured. If you die, your most recent backup gets plopped into a force-grown clone. Told you Down and Out had all the trappings. They call this the Bitchun Society, by the way -- as in, bitchun wave, dude. So what do folks who have everything do to keep busy? They stoke their Whuffie, naturally. (No money, but humans are as greedy as ever.) One way to build Whuffie is to find new and better ways to entertain the fun-seeking multitudes. Disney World has long been Julius's port in the storm, a place he returns to whenever his life hits the skids. He loves this place with an irrational passion, the way a Texan loves Texas. Now he's living out his lifetime dream: he has become a member of the Ad-hocracy that runs Liberty Square and Tom Sawyer Island at Disney World. It's Julius's dream job, and it's one hell of a good gig for racking up Whuffie. The Haunted Mansion is part of Julius's domain, as is The Hall of Presidents. But not for long, for the aggressively Whuffie-mongering Debra, seasoned veteran of Disneyland Beijing, has her sights on The Hall of Presidents -- and maybe all of Liberty Square. Sinister intrigue . . . murder (as much as anyone can get murdered in this world) . . . love . . . betrayal. If this is starting to sound a bit like hard-boiled fic, there's a good reason. I've read lots of SF novels that tried to ape hard-boiled fic, but this is the only one I've read that works, largely because Doctorow knows better than to follow the genre too closely. Down and Out is a murder mystery in the same way The Amazing Lebowski is a detective movie. He has a sense of fun that reminds me of certain other genre writers, like Elmore Leonard, or Carl Hiaasen. Parting thought: Doctorow must really love Walt Disney World to have written a story like this, and it must have been painful as hell having to avoid all those copyrighted characters. You won't find Mickey or Donald in these pages. Oh, just think of the set pieces Doctorow had to forfeit to avoid getting sued. D. *All of you, except for my parents. I know you guys wouldn't like this. Oh, and those of you who have already read it? I guess you're off the hook, too.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Los Angeles

Los Angeles by Kenney Mencher
Good writing day. Fixed one scene, wrote another; 2K words in all. That means I get a little break from the ol' blog. Here's a bit of sleaze to tide you through your weekend. Apologies to those who have read this before.
The Psalmist by Doug Hoffman
Sun-blessed Child of light Sin-eater I bask in your youthful fire Thy noble loins have cheered me Filled me with renewed force Thou hast anointed me with fragrant oils, Rubbed away my old cares Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I shall fear no evil For thou art with me And the death is but little

Friday, May 27, 2005

Remain in Light

Light, by M. John Harrison I love Neil Gaiman. Mind you, I don't worship the parchment he writes on (Neverwhere had a bit of the bloat, and there were one or two dogs in Smoke and Mirrors), but he sits squarely in my category of Authors I Read So I Can Do Better Next Time. So when Neil Gaiman calls something "A remarkable book -- easily my favorite SF novel in the last decade, maybe longer", I listen up. I buy. I read. And Gaiman is in good company. Similar effusions abound in the first few unnumbered pages: from Stephen Baxter ("The first classic of the quantum century"), Iain Banks, China Miéville. Given that we live in an age where Margaret Atwood feels it necessary to disavow all connection with us SF geeks, Miéville's quote is worth repeating: M. John Harrison proves what only those crippled by respectability still doubt -- that science fiction can be literature, of the very greatest kind. Yay! Of course, he goes on to say that Light "puts modern fiction to shame" (I can't argue with him there) and "It's a magnificent book." Ahem. (You remember what ahem means, don't you, my minions?) Light is the sort of book that makes a satirist's fingers twitch in eager anticipation of a keyboard. Sixty pages into it, I began scribbling reminders on a post-it note: every last one of Harrison's stylistic tics which, if the Harry's Bar and American Grill folks ever tire of Hemingway and discover Harrison, will enable me to write one rippingly good lampoon. But you thought you were reading a book review. Light weaves the stories of three characters. Michael Kearney, a PhD researcher whom we discover on page 3 to be a not very nice man*, is pursued by the Shrander, a supernatural being from whom Kearney stole a pair of dice. Four hundred years later, Seria Mau Genlicher is a woman who has given up her humanity to merge with a K-ship, a primo-bitchin' enough craft that you would give up your humanity, too, if you had the chance. Lastly we meet Ed Chianese, AKA Chinese Ed, a pilot-adventurer whom we are given to understand has BEEN THERE, DONE THAT to such an extent he now seeks his kicks dreaming in a tank. Like Kearney, Seria Mau and Ed are also on the run: Seria Mau, by a pack of thoroughly creepy aliens; Chinese Ed, by the Cray sisters, a nasty pair whose names, I suspect, are meant to stir memories of the Brothers Kray. All of their paths lead to the Kefahuchi Tract: a thousand lights out of the galactic Core, the Kefahuchi Tract streams across half the sky, trailing its vast invisible plumes of dark matter. It's a mysterious region where physics ain't quite right, and where pirates like Seria Mau and plunderers like Ed love to hang out. The Kefahuchi Tract is one of the marvels and victories of this novel, largely because Harrison doesn't bother to spell it all out. Harrison is a show, don't tell kind of guy (a plus), and he puts due effort into character development (also a plus). He knows how to instill a sense of wonder. He can sometimes turn a phrase that is so pristine and elegant you'll want to weep. So, why am I pissed? It's those stylistic tics. Harrison isn't the kind of guy who believes in invisible prose. Words like cheongsam, aubade, and etiolated draw attention to themselves, particularly when they are repeated over and over again. Within a single line of dialog, phrases are often repeated again and again. (Sure, people talk like that, but it doesn't make for good dialog.) Characters call each other by their full names. Adverbs abound. Uneven lists abound. The stupidest things happen during sex. (Okay, I'll grant him that one.) Weird noises filter in like Vonnegut's pooteeweet: "Yoiy Yoiy Yoiy." "Er Er Er." I mean . . . huh? Various constructions keep reappearing like kudzu -- for example: She said (line of dialog). She said (line of dialog). Some constructions only have to show up once to be irksome. What happened was this: And so I ask you: do you have to be a writer to find this kind of thing annoying? Am I being (gasp) overly sensitive? Or am I simply in a jealous rage? There's so much goodness in Light. So much that makes you want to tip your hat, curtsy, clap your hands, you name it. Why did Harrison have to ruin it by shoving himself so firmly into view? Someone as obviously talented as Harrison could easily take the next step and tone himself down. Wasn't it Elmore Leonard who said, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it"? Before folks start egging me for wanting to turn M. John Harrison into Elmore Leonard, let me explain where I'm coming from -- what I consider the ideal of fiction. John Gardner is my guru. Gardner writes that fiction is a consensual dream, one shared between the author and his readers. Although this will brutalize Gardner's delightful words, I'll summarize: whatever promotes the dream is good; whatever breaks the dream is bad. Final verdict: I'm not sorry I bought Light. I'm not even sorry I read it. I may very well reread it. But . . . damn. D. *I promised myself: no spoilers this time.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

I am not Tim Robbins

Yesterday, while doing my 45-minute shvitz on the elliptical trainer, I watched CNN's Wolf Blitzer interview Tim Robbins regarding his play, Embedded. The play has been out since 2003, but a film version was just released on DVD; hence Wolf's urge to hold Tim accountable. But I'm guessing here. My ears pricked up as Wolf ran down the play's premise: five reporters embedded in Iraq must decide whether to report the truth or succumb to military brainwashing (as well as pressure from their own networks). This, with a few changes*, is the core of my novel-in-progress. I desperately need to know how much overlap exists. Have I been scooped? Will publishing house readers throw out my manuscript, calling it "a thinly veiled Embedded"? CNN showed a few clips from the play. Painful stuff, and by 'painful' I mean 'Saturday Night Live ever since Eddie Murphy left the show.' Satire with all the subtlety of a jackhammer, characters that give cardboard a bad name. But wait (says I): CNN and their ilk are the targets of Embedded; perhaps they're showing the crappy bits on purpose. Enter Tim Robbins, in two days' growth of beard, black tee shirt and brown sports jacket, left eyebrow permanently arched -- possible evidence of a forehead lift gone bad (although, thanks to Jacko, the bar for celebrity plastic surgery disasters resides somewhere in the Kuiper Belt. But I digress). Unflappable, he deflected Wolf's criticisms by pointing out (repeatedly) that two of the play's five journalists are stand-up folks who risk all to report the truth. Two of Wolf's guests, both of whom did their time as embedded journalists, provided counterpoint. One, a young woman who had actually seen the whole play, was sympathetic to Robbins's satire and said there was a lot of truth in it (as well as some distortions). The other journalist hadn't seen the play and basically read from a prepared statement. By now, I was confused as all hell. Is the play any good? Is it garbage? Can I trust FoxNews.com's review calling it "not so realistic"? (Stop laughing. Jeez, just because I said trust and FoxNews in the same sentence.) Would I be wasting my money buying the DVD? Our contractor delivered the most recent bill today for our remodel; do I even have the money to waste on this DVD? It wouldn't be the craziest thing I'd done to research The Brakan Correspondent. That would be buying The Alamo on DVD (the John Wayne version, naturally). Embedded is being distributed by the self-styled Emperor of marginal film marketing, Netflix. They're the people who brought us "Eve Ensler's 'Until the Violence Stops,' a look at the global effect of her 'Vagina Monologues.'" Is this relevant? No. I just really like the phrase, "the global effect of her 'Vagina Monologues.'" As I read the story of the DVD's release, reported in LATimes.com, all of my problems were solved. It turns out Embedded will air on the Sundance channel this August. I can hang on to my twenty bucks for a few more days. I promise to get back to science fiction. I promise. *** Karen News Flash: Female tarantulas groom frantically after doing the nasty. Karen figures I can work such details into my story line; I keep trying to tell her that she and her arachnid-lovin' e-buddies are the only ones who would understand these in-jokes, and I don't know how many of them read fiction. About a year ago, she posted a link to my sixteen-legged love scene, and did any of her spider pals come by to take a look? Noooo. I ain't gonna be selling too many copies to that crowd, even though I'm pandering to them like there's no tomorrow. D. *As far as I know, Robbins's play doesn't have any birds. Or pigs. Or flies. Or spiders. Or Colonel Kirbys.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Give it to me, baby

Embolus, also known as the palpal bulb, of the tarantula Chilobrachys fimbriatus (the shiny red dot near the tarantula's foot pad -- look at the leg on the left). He'll use it to deposit sperm in the female's epigynum. Hey, I promised you spider porn.

unintelligent design

The April 28 edition of Nature carried this label on the front cover: This journal contains material on evolution. Evolution by natural selection is a theory, not a fact. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered. Approved by the University Board of Regents, 2006 An eye-popper, huh? Particularly if you're the kind of person who reads Nature. The meaty bits came in an editorial ("Dealing with design") and a news story ("Who has designs on your students' minds?") If you find the "Intelligent Design" debate at all interesting, hunt down this issue of Nature . . . and read on: The gist of the editorial was that scientists should, if they themselves are religious, "[take] the time to talk to students about how they personally reconcile their beliefs with their research." Ahem. (That's Ahem, as in Gag me with a rusty spork, not Amen.) In the May 19 issue of Nature, I was gratified to discover that I wasn't the only one to find this a wishy-washy position. David Leaf (Dept. of Biology, Western Washington University) wants Intelligent Design to be taught in college classrooms -- and he makes a great point: In my experience, upper-level biology students with the appropriate background in molecular biology, genetics, developmental biology and evolution are capable of distinguishing the scientific merits of evolutionist and ID claims -- to the great disadvantage of ID. He goes on to write that we should keep it out of high schools primarily because high school students lack the scientific equipment to make "a well-reasoned judgement about the status of any scientific theory, including evolution". (I would argue that it is possible, and it is worth the effort; but are our high school biology teachers up to the job? Mine certainly wasn't.) Chris Miller (Department of Biochemistry, Brandeis University) points out that our analogies are all wrong. We shouldn't be calling evolution "a blind watchmaker or any other kind of engineer" but rather a short-order cook, and -- looking at the phenomenally complicated structures -- one who is less like Isaac Newton than Rube Goldberg or W. Heath Robinson. After first referring to the Wnt signalling pathway and G-protein control of cellular calcium, Dr. Miller concludes, "Just look at the details, and you'll immediately abandon all thoughts that biological systems were designed with any intelligence whatsoever." (I came to that same conclusion after pondering the wit of Intelligent Design proponents.) There are many more great letters. I urge you to pick up a copy and read 'em for yourself (pages 275 - 276 of the May 19 issue). As a parting shot, I'd like to quote from one last letter written by Jerry Coyne (Dept. of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago) and signed off on by a few blokes like, oh, Richard Dawkins, Richard Lewontin, James Watson, Steven Weinberg, Lewis Wolpert . . . the list goes on: The real business of science teachers is to teach science, not to help students shore up worldviews that crumble when they learn science. And ID creationism is not science, despite the editors' suggestion that ID "tries to use scientific methods to find evidence of God in nature". Rather, advocates of ID pretend to use scientific methods to support their religious preconceptions. It has no more place in the classroom than geocentrism has in the astronomy curriculum. . . . . Scientists should never have to apologize for teaching science. Amen to that. D.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Jake got a haircut today. Before his haircut, he was scarcely recognizable.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Word of the Week: Dogsbody

Right now we're watching Tony Robinson's show The Worst Jobs in History, which plays on the History Channel. You may remember Robinson from Blackadder, wherein he was once credited as "Baldrick, a dogsbody". (And who better to narrate The Worst Jobs in History?) Back to the dogsbody. From the American Heritage Dictionary: Chiefly British Slang One who does menial work; a drudge. According to Michael Quinion, dogsbody comes from the British Royal Navy. The poor blokes had to eat dried peas boiled in a sack. "Pease pudding" became better known by the sailors as "dog's body," perhaps due to the appearance of the sack after boiling. In the early part of the 20th century, "dogsbody" came to mean the guy who gets the crap jobs. What are the crap jobs in your profession? I'll tell you what they are in mine: Nose bleeds. Bane of the ENT's existence. (ENT = ear, nose, and throat. You wouldn't think I'd have to spell that out, but whenever I assume you all know it, someone's bound to whine.) Ninety-eight times out of a hundred, they're innocent little drips. It's those two times out of a hundred . . . ever watch a firetruck hose cut loose? Mandible fractures. With rare exception, normal people do not get their jaws broken. Drunk, surly bastards do. Fortunately for me, I'm not very good at mandible fractures. I turf 'em. Ear wax. Once again, most of the time ear boogers are a piece of cake. Every so often, however, the stench that comes out of a person's ear makes me want to skip lunch. But I have nothing to bitch about. Tony Robinson had to stomp on urine-soaked linen in his bare feet tonight . . . something about 'evening out the material'. They just don't make crap jobs like they used to, I guess. D.

Sunday, May 22, 2005


The fact my hit counter is twitching in epileptic ecstasies means my plans for global domination are proceeding apace. Excellent. And all this new traffic has nothing to do with John Scalzi mentioning yesterday’s Shatter column on his blog – nothing, nothing, nothing. This isn’t just fifteen minutes of blog fame. It isn’t, I tell you. Karen says that if stoking controversy is what it takes to drive blog traffic, she has a few ideas for future Point-Counterpoint columns from the two of us: What’s wrong with America today: Not enough shame. This is part of Karen’s plan for the Japanification of America. When someone does something wrong, he should be encouraged to go home and commit suicide – or, at the very least, never show his face in public again. Karen’s plans for expansion of the death penalty. Fry white collar criminals, sex offenders, corrupt politicians . . . oh, hell. Fry anyone Karen doesn’t like. A fourth branch of government: Internal Affairs. IA will be empowered to investigate all three conventional branches of government – and their own. Corruption will be treated with compassionate understanding (see above). Why I hate Christianity. Hey, she’s an atheist. What can I say.
*** Ephemera
Jake had a good day today – that makes two in a row. For newbies here, my nine-year-old has been plagued with chronic daily headaches for the last three months. After an MRI, CT, numerous blood tests and a lumbar puncture, we’re no closer to understanding this. So we’re doing what any good physician would do: we’re treating him with every drug we can think of that we haven’t tried yet. The winning combo thus far seems to be melatonin and propranolol. Melatonin to get him back on a normal sleep schedule, propranolol on the off chance he’s having migraines. Clear skies today, gentle wind, temperature in the high fifties. We went out and did the Del Norte County doubleheader: Smith River, then the beach. Jake wanted to see if we could find quicksand. There’s a branch of the South Fork off Walker Road where, on a particularly rainy winter day, we once found several patches of quicksand by the riverside. We’ve been back several times since then, but the conditions have never been right. I’m beginning to wonder about how rare that day must have been. He did his usual: throwing flat rocks and watching them sink with nary a skip, building dams and tearing them down, terrorizing frogs. It seemed like only a week or two had passed since we’d been down this way, yet we haven’t done any of this since he became ill. Three months must seem like an eternity to a nine-year-old, but to me, it was yesterday. Then, off to the beach, where we got thoroughly waterlogged. But that’s why we’re here in this land of No Borders (or Barnes & Noble): 180 degrees of ocean in front of us, wildflower-strewn mountainside behind us, crystal blue sky above. Still too early for blackberries, but Jake showed me a reddish-pink flower with nectar that tasted like honey. He picked his mother a bouquet on the way back up the hill. He’ll be a florist someday, or maybe a mechanical engineer. With any luck, he won’t have the damned headache. More ephemera: Karen’s younger P. metallica morphed out male, so now she has a breeding pair. With any luck, I may have some pornographic tarantula stories to share with you in the days ahead. (Why ‘ephemera’? She’s mating tarantulas. Think about it.) D.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The conspiracy-loving vixen herself. Posted by Hello

Old Man's War: The Distaff View

Regulars here know that a few days ago, I gushed over John Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War, calling it, among other things, “an old-fashioned pulpy joyride”. I thought it was a hoot. So much of a hoot, in fact, that I convinced Karen to read it. She zipped through it in two days, called it entertaining, and set it aside. A day later, she came in to the office and declared that she’d been thinking things over in the shower that morning and had decided that Old Man’s War was derivative, war-mongering, simplistic, and morally bankrupt, and that all extant copies of it should be burned. Mind you, I suspect Scalzi would be delighted if some extant copies were burned – preferably in Mississippi, and ideally with tons of publicity. Burned books never go out of print, and the smoke casts an unnaturally favorable patina on all remaining copies. Just look at that bit of slag, Catcher in the Rye. (Where do the ducks go in the winter? South, dickwad!) But back to Karen. I think she has an interesting viewpoint, and I’d like to share it with you. Here are her arguments.
1. The book reads like one long ad for the US military. The recruits in OMW are outfitted with new, young bodies that are faster, stronger, and have heightened senses relative to us ordinary humans. Karen finds an uncomfortable resonance between these soldiers and the folks depicted in those commercials showing US recruits over-achieving, physically and militarily. The few, the proud. 2. Some of the aliens – the Consu in particular – have a discomfiting similarity to traditional US enemies. They are religious fanatics who feel they will, with death, go to a better place (think suicide bombers, from kamikaze to present day Iraqi insurgents). The Consu religion is an odd blend of Islam and Buddhism. They believe in reincarnation, but they also believe their death will improve them. 3. Early in their training, the Colonial Defense Force recruits are taught that the cute, fuzzy, Bambi-like alien is the one to fear. (Like many of Scalzi’s aliens, the Salong – ‘a vaguely deerlike creature with cunning, almost human hands, and a quizzical face that seemed to speak of peace and wisdom’ – has a taste for human flesh.) Karen: “This provides a justification for soldiers to kill innocent-appearing people, because you just can’t know who is and isn’t your enemy.” 4. The protagonist, John Perry, suffers pangs of conscience after stepping on hordes of inch-tall Covandu. His lieutenant’s response is, essentially: We all felt that way at some point. We all got over it. Then there’s a redirect, and our protag substitutes sadness over his dead wife for his moral misgivings re: being turned into an inhuman killing machine. 5. The military commanders are blind-sided from time to time, but they never screw up through their own faults. They know best. We never learn the brass’s motives, and the only soldier to question those motives ends up dead in a hurry (see 6). There’s an elaborate scheme for justifying all of the bloodshed, shunting responsibility away from the humans, onto the aliens. Message: It’s not our fault. We’re in a war for our own survival. 6. There is no intelligent, respected counter-voice to the military party line. The only soldier who thinks diplomacy deserves a chance is an obvious straw man, an inexperienced asshole who must be motivated not by a desire to ‘give peace a chance’ but by his own ego. “We had all decided that Private Senator Ambassador Secretary Bender was well and truly full of crap.” You know from the start that this guy ain’t gonna end well. After the inevitable happens (at the hands of a chanting “congregation” of civilians – another hint of religious fanaticism), our protagonist says, “He’d probably say he died for what he believed in.” His superior officer – and the only person even a bit sympathetic to Bender’s point of view – declares, “Bender died for Bender.” This superior officer, Viveros, believes Bender had the right goal (peace) but the wrong methods. Her plan is to “Stay alive. Make it through our term of infantry service. Join officer training and work our way up. Become the people who are giving the orders, not just following them.” In the meantime, it’s business as usual. There’s no room in this man’s army for order-disobeying creeps like Bender. By the way: after the alien civilians take out Bender, they thereby become enemy combatants and are promptly mown down. 7. Karen thinks the clincher is the fact that Scalzi has agreed to provide to our service men and women, free of charge, an electronic version of OMW. A quote from Scalzi’s blog: “From my perspective I may give up a few dollars in sales, but these folks are giving up a lot more doing their thing in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is just a small way to say ‘thanks.’” I’m inclined to take him at face value. Karen sees darker motives (conspiracy-loving vixen that she is). She says, “Why do you think he’s doing this? Because he sees them as his intended readership.” My counter-argument: anyone who wants to read your book is a worthwhile reader. But she worries that OMW will, by its gung ho mentality, encourage our troops to disengage their brains, just follow orders, and (potentially) commit atrocities.
There, Karen: does that about sum it up? (Karen: “Pretty much. Since I didn’t read it with a hatchet job in mind, there might be other things.”) For my part: I see her point, but for me, OMW was sufficiently SF that I didn’t read in any deeper meanings. I thought it was a romp . . . but hey, I’ve said that already. Funny thing is, I had just the opposite reaction to the film Starship Troopers. Though some folks labeled it a parody of jingoism, I didn’t think the parody was sufficiently obvious. Compare that to Team America: World Police, in which the author’s message is summed up in a weltanschauung composed of dicks, pussies, and assholes*. Although a dick might go around screwing lots of pussies, it takes a dick to screw an asshole; and if the dick doesn’t screw the assholes of the world, then those assholes are just going to shit all over everything. Hard to miss the satire in that line. One parting comment. Search Scalzi’s blog on words like ‘Iraq’ and ‘Bush’ and you’ll discover he’s as big a lefty as yours truly. Why, then, would he write something as reactionary as OMW? I don’t know, but I suspect he didn’t have any dark motives; I think he merely tried to write a fun novel in the tradition of Starship Troopers. By that metric, OMW is a success. D. *I defy anyone to use ‘weltanschauung’ in another sentence which includes the words dicks, pussies, and assholes.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Between one thing and another . . .

It's past 10. I was home late from the hospital (had to remove a hazel nut AKA filbert from someone's esophagus), then I had to have a fight with Karen over cleaning the litter boxes, and THEN Jake decided he wanted to work on his Lego website. Jake and I have a lot of work left to do on this one, so be forgiving. In particular, the jpegs could be a lot nicer. Just the one page, by the way. I'd intended to ruminate on the subject of political subtexts in fiction. For tonight, I'll merely pose the questions: how important is it to understand the historical backstory for a novel -- or short story, or film, or play . . . ? Can you appreciate Dr. Strangelove if you're ignorant of the Cold War? Is your experience of Orwell's Animal Farm poorer if you don't know your Trotsky from a hole in the ground? Can a political subtext ruin a novel? (Will Republicans boycott the upcoming Star Wars movie just cuz it equates W with the Emperor?) Can a writer pen a novel with a clear political message, yet be unconscious of that message? Coming soon . . . Karen gets a wild hair over Old Man's War; Fantasy & Science Fiction publishes Wonkophilic Fan Fiction. Stay tuned. D.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Gastronomy Domine II: You don't know what you're missing

It's cold. It's slippery. It's a disk of fleshy goodness that comes from one of the ocean's ugliest creatures, the monkfish. It's ankimo, better known to you hakujin as monkfish liver, and it's one of my favorite sushi dishes. My sister-in-law won't eat it. The fact that she's some sort of environmental toxicology-type person should, I suppose, make me worry every time I swallow a fat mouthful of ankimo, but hey, you only live once. And besides, a little mercury never hurt me before. I suspect that most people's first encounter with liver is the beef liver steak, pan-fried and smothered in onions. No small wonder then that people shy away from the Noble Gland. Beef liver is too strongly flavored to be pleasant in any form. Definitely an acquired taste. But, what about chopped chicken liver? This, too, can be mismanaged. Make it too dry, too dense, and with too much raw onion, and you'll have the culinary equivalent of stucco. My chopped chicken liver is an adaptation of the Commander's Kitchen recipe. Great cookbook, but don't follow their 'chicken liver spread' to the letter; you'll end up with liver fudge. By weight, this sucker is one-third butter. Ugh. When I want chopped chicken liver, I begin a few days in advance. I roast a duck. Rendered duck fat is flavorful and (unlike butter) a liquid at room temperature. (That's what makes the end product so much lighter than the usual deli fare.) I saute onion and garlic in duck fat, then I add my chicken livers. Once they are thoroughly cooked, I add salt and pepper to taste, along with a grind of nutmeg. I deglaze the pan with brandy or cognac, then add Worcestershire sauce and Tapatio hot sauce. I pour the deglaze over the livers and let them cool; then I process the crap out of them. In its consistency, the end product is far closer to thick whip cream than it is to mud. It's a near-perfect Atkins food, by the way -- pure cholesterol, but hardly any carbs. Serve it on celery sticks and you can even feel good about eating it. Liver: you know you want it. D.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Just the thing for the lobby of a doctor's office? Come by some time, and see for yourself. Fortuna, by Kenney Mencher.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Old Man's War

On his seventy-fifth birthday, John Perry visits his wife’s grave – and then he enlists. In John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, the universe is a nasty place. Intelligent species are common, generally hostile, and good real estate is as common as a cheap oceanfront lot in California. The Colonial Defense Forces must fight tooth and nail (and tentacle, and claw . . .) for every livable planet. Why sign up a bunch of geezers? Their experiences are invaluable to the colonies, so the logic goes, and they have nothing much to lose. John Perry in particular has nothing to lose. His beloved wife is dead. They had planned to enlist together, but she died from a stroke eight years ago. And why do the geezers want to join? Blind faith, really: thanks to the CDF’s interactions with alien races, they are technologically advanced relative to Earth. Surely they must be able to turn old farts into killing machines. (Oh boy, can they.) No one down here on Earth knows; one condition of enlistment is that the recruit agrees never to go home again. Before long, John is a green recruit struggling through basic training. After that, he’s a cog in the CDF machine, traveling to foreign worlds, meeting unique races, and killing them. I’d say, “And that’s when the fun begins,” except that Old Man’s War is a romp right from the start. OMW is bound to stir memories of The Forever War and Starship Troopers. It even reminded me (pleasantly) of Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero. Like Bill, and like Forever War, OMW is all about entertainment: action, adventure, humor, and even a poignant love story which did not feel the least bit grafted. Scalzi gives more than a passing nod to Robert Heinlein in his acknowledgments. The novel’s main Heinleinism – the way the action intermittently grinds to a halt to allow the characters to hold a roundtable discussion – is my primary quibble. (I have other quibbles, but they’re petty enough to qualify me as a snark, so I’ll shut up.) Fortunately, this does not happen too often. And, unlike Heinlein, Scalzi does this for the sake of exposition rather than political diatribe. Perhaps less obvious is the debt Scalzi owes Jack Vance. I see Vance as the consummate author of cultural science fiction (his short story “The Moon Moth” is a great example). One of the coolest things about OMW is the Consu, an ultra-advanced race who think they’re doing us a favor by killing us. As in Vance’s stories, the Consu culture is more than just local color – it’s a key plot element. Old Man’s War is the most fun I’ve had with a science fiction novel since Snow Crash. This novel doesn’t try to blow your mind with post-Singularity trans-human gobbledygook, and it doesn’t pretend to be cyber-punker than Gibson. It’s an old-fashioned pulpy joyride: Scalzi has made entertainment paramount. D.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Clear and crisp

From the liner notes to Garbage's new CD, Bleed Like Me:
Special thanks to Dr. Peak Woo for rescuing my voice.
That's from lead singer Shirley Manson's acknowledgments, and it's the first line. She's referring to Mt. Sinai laryngologist (voice specialist) Peak Woo, one of the superstars in my biz. Voice is an interesting subspecialty, populated by egomaniacs, ex-Rock'n'rollers, and cross-dressers. And that's just what's rumored. God only knows what's actually true. And these docs have clout. I know of at least one instance in which a laryngologist affected the course of a presidential election (can't stump if you can't talk). It's all the patient's fault, naturally. In the case of the presidential candidate, his doctor blamed the surgical failure on his patient's unwillingness to give up cigars. Some folks, like Matthew Good, follow their doctor's advice. They give up smoking, hydrate like crazy, and work with voice coaches or speech therapists to learn to avoid bad vocal habits. Others, like Axel Rose (click on the link. Really), thumb their noses at their docs. Not that I know this for a fact. Maybe that's Axel's real voice.
For those of you who aren't BBSers, here's a link to an interview transcript you have to read. Alan Colmes interviewed anti-abortion activist Neal Horsley on his (Colmes's) FOX News radio program. Horsley (snicker . . . snicker . . . whinny) reveals his affection for farm animals. This sort of thing humbles me as a writer. You just can't make up stuff this good. D.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

What's your favorite first contact story?

So we're watching Alien Planet* on the Discovery Channel, and I'm asking myself: how do you take such an intrinsically interesting subject and make it boring? Here are the problems, dramaturgically speaking: 1. No protags. In Alien Planet, what passes for protags are two robotic probes, 'Ike' Newton and 'Leo' (Galileo). They're cute bots, but they're not human. Not even close. 2. No plot. Funny thing, a lot of SF novels suffer from that same problem: as if exploration alone were enough to drive the story forward. I had that problem with Ringworld, for example. 3. Few new ideas. Many of these critters look alike: roughly mammalian, with tiny heads (or no heads), and no discernible eyes. They have a few birds, too, but these look like flying versions of the mammalian critters. Their heart is in the right place. They're trying to teach terrestrial biology in a new and interesting way, and they're also attempting to depict such an expedition in a scientifically reasonable manner. In the real world, you would explore such worlds robotically; in the real world, you wouldn't have much more of a plot than 'let's go out there and see what we find.' But that doesn't necessarily make for good entertainment. What's your favorite first contact story? I'm not sure which one I would choose, but here's an old, but not-half-bad list I found on the web. Lots of novels I haven't read here.
Jake's Medford pediatrician called me late yesterday to give me the LP results: no meningitis. We're back to square one, a presumptive diagnosis of 'chronic tension-type headache', with little left to do but try him out on Elavil and -- get this -- biofeedback. Karen and Jake came back this afternoon. Jake has a sore throat, upset stomach, and headache, making me wonder whether he caught a virus at the hospital. I pushed the fluids and he rallied enough to eat some dinner. The apple pie turned out okay. Store-bought puff pastry is about as good as it sounds (not). My bottom crust, a galette from Baking with Julia, was far better than my puff pastry top crust. Live and learn. I may be a foodie, but I'm not nuts enough (yet) to make my own puff pastry. D. *If you missed this program, here's the idea. A manned mission to an Earth-like planet, Darwin IV, encounters one new organism after another.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Pushing through to the other side

Today's subtitle comes from Special Inspirational Mentor-type Person Geneen Roth, whom I'd never heard of until this very moment, having recently googled the phrase "the only way out is through."* And I'd always thought Lewis Carroll said it. (No, but he did say, 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful voice, 'it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.' . . . which is better still.) "Otch**," my mom is saying right about now. "What the hell is he talking about?" Well, Mum, it's about to get even worse. This afternoon, while torturing myself on the elliptical trainer, I thought about how much exercise had in common with writing, and how quantum tunneling provided such an apt metaphor for both. Here's a short bit from Wiki on quantum tunneling: Quantum tunneling is the quantum-mechanical effect of transitioning through a classically-forbidden energy state. The classical analogy is for a car on a roller coaster to make it up and over a hill which it does not have enough kinetic energy to surmount. Think about how hard it is to sit down with that blank page and get moving. Better yet, don't think about it, just do it. Because I know you do -- the writers out there, anyway. Have you ever been able to will the words onto the page? In the moments between blank page and written page, something happens. You tunnel through that energy barrier and find yourself on the other side. Conscious effort has little to do with it. Same with exercise. Every time I get on that elliptical trainer, I'm convinced I'll never make it past 20 minutes. By 25 minutes, I've hit my second wind; by thirty, I'm thinking, "Ten minutes until cool down. I can take anything for ten minutes." Finally, I get my five minute cool down; and before I realize what has happened, I've sweated off 450 calories. If I stop to think about writing, the task seems insurmountable. If I stop to wonder if I really, really feel like exercising, the answer is always no. Without fail, I have to do these things automatically, without forethought, so that they're done before I've even had time to bitch.
Jake update: He had his lumbar puncture this morning. Sailed right through it; his biggest gripe was having to wake up at 7AM. (Hey, he's home-schooled. 'Nuff said.) Clear fluid, normal pressure. What galls me is that I know they've done a Gram stain by now, and (if someone's bothering to check!) we could have some useful information. Namely, does he have chronic viral meningitis? But, no. I'm only the patient's father, not his doctor (although I have lanced his ears and pulled red string out of his nose). I'll have to wait. Monday morning, I'm calling. Jake convinced Karen to stay another night in Medford, so I'm ganz allein yet again. He's doing okay. No spinal headache, but his baseline headache is still there. If we come up with bupkes on the LP, I'm not sure what we'll do next. Perhaps we'll go down to the mecca (Stanford).
Menu for tomorrow: focaccia, oxtail stew (I make it with navy beans and smoked ham shank), and apple pie for dessert. I'm going to make a fairly standard bottom crust, but for the top I bought some puff pastry. It's high time I tried to figure out Marguerite Slater's* apple pie recipe. D. *According to Wikiquote, Geneen Roth is also responsible for "Be fully present for five minutes each day." There's something pathetic about that, don't you think? **My father's name is Arthur, nickname Archie, further shortened to Arch, transformed further still by my mother's thick Bostonian accent into Otch. ***Lance Henriksen's mother, and my surrogate mom during my first year at Berkeley. And if you're exceptionally nice to me, one day I'll tell you the story of how Lance reunited his mom and dad after they'd been divorced for umpteen years. You won't get that story on IMDB.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

No rudder

Karen and Jake drove to Ashland this afternoon. They met with the pediatrician who will be doing Jake's lumbar puncture tomorrow morning. The procedure will be done under IV sedation, so the worst part of the whole affair will (hopefully) be the IV. There's always the chance of spinal headache, however, and those are no fun. (Just what he needs: another headache.) On the other hand, when I had viral meningitis a few years ago, I thought the procedure relieved the headache. Or it might have been all the Demerol they pumped me with. This leaves me home alone without a rudder, or an anchor, or a sail, or all the above. Ideal writing opportunity, huh? Yet all I can manage to do is surf Wikipedia. I've done this a hundred times, but this time, for the first time, I looked a bit deeper. Here's where all the technical wonks (like Pat) are going to be stunned by my neutronium-like density . . . but maybe some of you will find this interesting. You see, Wikipedia is a dynamic encyclopedia. It changes constantly. Anyone can edit a Wikipedia article; anyone can write a new article. Anyone in the world. After you've written (or edited) an article, any other palooka can come along and edit your stuff. One other thing: Wikipedia articles are intensively hyperlinked to other Wikipedia articles. Two things strike me. First, the only error correction mechanism (as best I can tell) is that someone smarter than the writer will happen along, find the error, and correct it. I imagine this works fine if, for example, someone calls a Russian tortoise an amphibian, but what about more subtle errors? (Note to self: have Karen check out the entries on quantum mechanics. For my part, I looked up the entry on ear wax. Aside from an annoying tendency to write both 'earwax' and 'ear wax', 'eardrum' and 'ear drum', I didn't catch any obvious boo-boos.) What about urban legends, or hot button issues like Darwinism or abortion? The abortion discussion page is illuminating; I get the sense that this article shifts on a day to day basis. Second, when is this bit of software -- with its vast fund of knowledge, its enormous number of internal (hyper)connections, its ability to 'forget' untapped articles, and its ability to correct errors -- going to achieve sentience? Reminds me of a story I have yet to write. Premise: a new internet craze pops up, a website with animation so crude it makes South Park look like Allegro non troppo. The animated sequence depicts a young man showing up at a young woman's apartment to take her out on a date. All across the world, folks log on to give 'advice' either to the girl or the guy. In real time, the software synthesizes a consensus which then generates the actions and dialog of our cartoon protagonists. This happens once each evening; people become obsessed to find out what will happen on tonight's date. What happens next is anyone's guess. In my original conception, one night the boy and girl come to blows and murder one another; the following day, a world war begins. I dunno, but this feels awfully Twilight Zony (not a good thing, in my opinion). I could also go the Spielbergian route (night after night, the couple achieves a deeper and deeper love, a more mature, enduring relationship . . . and world peace breaks out). Feh. And then there's option three: folks of mating age become so wrapped up in the website they forget to have sex in real life. Egad, that's triter than the first two! I guess that's why I never finished that one. I'm still casting about for an ending. I have a few of those, which reminds me: one day, I really must get down to writing, "Borges, the Undead". D.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

As the gears turn

Even though I'm not working on the novel during the week, I'm still thinking about it. More to the point, my subconscious is hard at work. Tuesday morning in the wee hours, I woke up and realized I'd figured out the solution to a choreographic problem in my climax. The interesting thing is this: I didn't know the details of the solution; I awoke with the conviction that my subconscious had it all figured out, and that I need only begin writing to find out the solution. Back in the dorms, people would be calling me an airhead right about now (or worse), but I suspect the writers in my audience know what I'm talking about. Yesterday morning, I woke up with a better understanding of one of my villains' motivations, and I had several snippets of dialog spinning around in my mind, too. Again, this is not too terribly unusual, although it hasn't happened in an awfully long while. I'm somewhat suspicious of these little gifts. This used to happen all the time back when I was writing my aborted novel Karakoram, so often that I kept a spiral notebook around to jot down these flashes of supposed brilliance. In retrospect, much of this stuff has all the radiance of the ideas you get while stoned. I sometimes wonder (A) what my muse is doing up there, and (B) why she won't share any of the good shit with me. But I shouldn't give her such a hard time. When I open my manuscript at random, I'm usually delighted with what I see. This is either (A) a very good sign, or (B) further evidence of terminal egomania. Close . . . so very close to the end. I don't know what the very last scene will be. I don't even want to go there. Gotta have faith in the muse. D.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Hope, by Kenney Mencher How many cinematic references can you catch?

What's my motivation?

When I woke up this morning, I'd intended to write another installment of Gastronomy Domine. Hence the altered subtitle above. (Pop quiz: have any of you noticed that I change the subtitle with each new blog entry?) I wanted to do a piece on basturma, the Armenian ur-coldcut that is to pastrami what a Top Dog Polish is to Oscar Meyer. Real scientist George Muscat introduced Karen and me to basturma some time in the late 80s. The three of us went to Tarver's Deli in Sunnyvale (now closed, I think) and picked up some flat bread, tarama (carp roe), basturma, and a ball of vicious cheese we've never found anywhere else. George taught us how to make taramosalata. We spent the afternoon scarfing roe, itsy bitsy flat bread-and-basturma sandwiches, and dime-sized bits of vicious cheese. Then we went into a crowded supermarket and breathed on people. But, alas, I'll have to leave that story for another time. For the past two days, I've been stressing over Jacob. He had three good days, and then Monday morning the headache came back in force. Most of my anxiety comes from the fact that Jake's Medford neurologist wouldn't return my calls. 4PM today, we're still waiting for the guy to set up a lumbar puncture (something to look forward to! . . . but the point is to get an answer). He finally called Karen about 5PM. Tentative plan: Karen will drive in to Medford with Jake tomorrow, and the procedure is set for Thursday morning. They'll be doing it with IV sedation, so it should not be terribly traumatic for Jake. I'll keep you posted.
Like the painting? The artist is Kenney Mencher, stellar painter and all-around cool guy. I'll be hyping Kenney's work every so often on my blog . . . not that he needs the help; his career is taking off. We'll get back to basturma some other time. It's worth its very own bit. D.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Horned lizard -- ain't he cute as a button?

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Hey, you! Robot!

Karen and I watched I, Robot on DVD today. We hadn't seen it in the movies; frankly, the trailer turned me off. It was one of those tell-all trailers that left me with the sense that I had (A) seen the movie, and (B) hadn't liked it. Technophobic blather, I thought. Well, I was only partly right. I don't think I'm being too much of a spoiler* to say that there are some baaaad robots in this film. But to dismiss I, Robot as neo-Luddite claptrap would be an oversimplification. Sure, the bots are bad and the AI is evil, but it's the nature of that evil that is interesting. Yes, yes, there's the usual SF trope that humans, with all their foibles, have 'heart', and that is what makes us superior to machine logic. That's the overt message, and it's trite as hell. But there's another message, too -- a philosophy the movie condemns: in order to protect us, we must be deprived of our freedoms. If a few people are harmed along the way, well, tough noogies. Commentary on contemporary US politics in I, Robot: am I reading too deep? It is better to live with the risk of violence than be deprived of our personal liberties. Is that sentiment so controversial we have to bury it in a Will Smith flick? Aside from the fact I, Robot and I have the same politics, here's what's really cool about the movie: it has the same take on entertainment as I do. I can't think of another film that has I, Robot's balance of humor, poignancy, action, and creepiness. That's what I strive for in my writing, and that's what I, Robot delivers. Here's who we have to thank: Will Smith, who makes the most of a superb script. ("You are the dumbest smart person I have ever met." It's a cute line, but in Smith's hands, it's a corker.) Aside from starring, he also gets an exec prod credit for the film. Director Alex Proyas, who milks Smith for all he's worth and who makes the sentient robot, Sonny, touching without being maudlin (you listening, Spielberg? Naw. Didn't think so). Screenwriters Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman. Vintar, who also wrote the screen story, is perhaps best known for Final Fantasy. Goldsman has lots of fine credits but deserves a great big HUH? for Lost in Space. Well, Karen wants to look at kitchen cabinets at the hardware store. Gotta run. D. *One nice thing about reviewing a year-old film: I'll bet those of you who would watch a movie like I, Robot have already seen it.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Breath-holding; another vertebrate

Karen took Jake to the neurologist's neurologist yesterday afternoon. On call, hammered by an emergency, and close to two hours late, but he managed to make time for my son and do a complete neuro exam. My hero! It never fails to impress me when I find a good doctor; I'm so used to the opposite. He thinks Jake may have chronic viral meningitis (which is what my internist -- another good doctor -- thought, too). He wanted to do a lumbar puncture, but he was running too late. He had Karen call me to ask whether I would trust any of the Crescent City doctors to do an LP on my son. (No.) Currently, the plan is for Karen to take Jake back to Medford on Monday, to some hotshot pediatrician who does lumbar punctures on kids all the time. You might ask what good this will do. Well, there is something to be said about knowing. Beyond that, there's no treatment for chronic viral meningitis. Just have to wait it out. On the up side, his headache has been better for over 24 hours now. This is significant. In the last 10 weeks, he's had only one or two other breaks from the headache, and those lasted only a few hours. With any luck, this whole thing might pass, and Jake won't even need an LP.
We home-school Jacob, which is a damned good thing, since with this illness he hasn't accomplished more than two full days' worth of work in the last 50 school days. A few weeks ago, to con him into doing a bit more work, we promised him another kitty. That will make three cats -- four, if you count Tolerance, who ran off some time ago. Tolerance was Jake's favorite, so this new kitty is sort of a replacement cat. We bought a calico from the Humane Society. I'll post a photo ASAP. Jake named her Emerald, which is a fine name, except it reminds me of Emeril, and no one liked the idea of naming her Emerald LeCatsy.
Decent writing day: just under 1300 words. It's another battle sequence, which never fails to amaze me because I don't know squat about the military. At my father's suggestion, I read Audie Murphy's book -- well, I read about half of it. Got bored. My next big idea was to buy the PC game Call of Duty. I might not be a veteran (thinks I) but if I finish Call of Duty, I'll have some sense of what war is like, right? But I only finished a third of it. Got bored. I can only pray that my readers will be forgiving. I'm no Joe Haldeman, that's for sure. I'm looking forward to getting John Scalzi's book from Amazon (Old Man's War)to see how he handles his battle sequences. Only one battle sequence left in the novel, and this last one will be a corker. It's unconventional enough that I should be able to get by on imagination alone. D.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Publishing this photo would get me arrested for indecency in any polite Tromatopelman society.

Painless relief from snoring and other myths

Today's blog comes from our Failure of Imagination Department.
For funsies, I decided to google 'snoring' just now. Here are the top five hits: IJustWantToSleep® promises to rid you of your snoring with simple exercises. They'll send you their eBook and access to online videos for only $49.97. SLEEP WIZARD is a jock strap designed for your chin. These folks are so confident you'll love sleeping in a nut sack that they offer a 30-day no questions asked money-back guarantee. Price tag: $69.97. (What's with the 97? Whatever happened to 99? Did some market researcher determine that humans have finally figured out the 99 trick, and we need to see a new number in order to be fooled again?) Tips of All Sorts.com, number three on the list, is the first one to provide solid information on snoring and obstructive sleep apnea. This is wonderful for consumer education, but death to a humor blog. Also, they lose points for posting links to bogus snoring cures (this one, for example). The American Academy of Otolaryngology comes in at number four with a clear concise article (with pictures!) Yay, my academy. Zero bogosity. Ignore scary picture of constipated old white man. Number five, Put an End to Snoring, returns us to the realm of brave hobbits and Narnian lions. Chief fantasy: they claim that by taking their questionnaire, you can determine if your snoring warrants a trip to a doctor. Wrong! Patients, doctors, and spouses are equally unreliable when it comes to assessing the severity of snoring (i.e., answering the question, is it snoring or obstructive sleep apnea?) They also list aromatherapy and homeopathy in their list of remedies. I'd start running off the mouth about homeopathy and aromatherapy except The Skeptic's Dictionary has done a fine job already.
The author's muse promises to pull her head out of her ass by tomorrow. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Gastronomy Domine I*

Ever seeking the ultimate coffee experience, Karen bought a roaster. We already fork over $$$ for 100% Kona, but that's not good enough for my lovely arabicatroph**. Now she can buy green Kona beans and roast them herself. I'm not sure I understand this. Isn't Vietnamese iced coffee already the ultimate coffee experience? Imagine a cup of liquefied Dreyer's coffee ice cream with all the punch of a triple espresso. It doesn't get much better than that . . . right? Wrong. Turns out I've been drinking stale coffee all of my life. While green coffee beans will stay fresh for many months, roasted beans start losing it within two weeks of the roast. Hence the desire to burn one's own beans. The desired end product is something between a full city roast and a full French roast. You want it just past the second crack stage. Yes, that's how I love my beans: with two cracks***. Theoretically, if we start with 100% Kona green beans and roast 'em just right, we'll get the perfect cup of coffee. Well . . . maybe not, since these Jamaicans claim their stuff is better than Kona. And then there's Indonesian crappucino. This is not an urban legend. (Technically, it would be a third world legend, but it's true.) The world's rarest, most prized, and most expensive coffee is Kopi Luwak, which owes its distinctive "earthy, musty, syrupy, smooth and rich [flavor], with both jungle and chocolate undertones" to its passage through the bowels of the Asian palm civet, Paradoxurus hermaphroditus. Mmmm, musty and chocolatey. Only William S. Burroughs reaches such rhapsodic heights in describing the smell of bowels. What? You don't believe my Kopi Luwak story? Here's a link at Nature.com. (The quote above comes from this Nature News story.) Thousand-dollar-per-kilogram coffee wouldn't ordinarily rank a Nature News piece, but the story has a more serious side, as it covers Canadian food scientist Massimo Marcone's efforts to reproduce Kopi Luwak under alternate circumstances. He reasoned that in Ethiopia, a different species of civet coexists with wild coffee beans, and thus: "In a forthcoming issue of Food Research International, Marcone describes how he brewed coffee from beans that he personally picked out of the faeces of African civets (Civettictis civetta) and compared it with a mug of Kopi Luwak." Now, that's dedication. So here's what I'm thinking. We have a bag of green Kona coffee beans. We also own two cats, one of whom will eat anything . . . Knowing Karen, she will be content to roast her Kona green beans and call it the ultimate coffee experience. But I know better. D. *If you need an explanation for this title, you're either too young, or too old; in any case, this joke loses all humor in its explanation. Sorry, kids (gramps), ask your 43-year-old father (son). **Just because I shun neologisms in my writing doesn't mean I can't do 'em. By the way, a quick search will show you that www.arabicatroph.com is available, so if you're an obligate coffeaphage, you might consider setting up a website. ***Hey, Maureen: betcha didn't think I could sexualize coffee beans!

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The twinkie method

Many of you writers have heard of Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method for planning novels. Some of you, I know, are actively flakin' away. Mr. Ingermanson makes no claim that his approach is the best; he freely admits there are other successful techniques. Well, here's mine: the twinkie method. Unlike the Snowflake, the twinkie does not require many oodles of column inches of explanation. It's a simple two-stepper you could do in your head, though I prefer to work it out on paper. My memory just isn't that trustworthy. 1. First, figure out the novel's outer shell. 2. Next, figure out what manner of creamy goodness you're gonna use to stuff that shell. I'm not sure, but I strongly suspect Terry Pratchett uses (and Douglas Adams used) this technique. Be honest: don't most Discworld novels feel like a series of great set-pieces crammed into a rather loose framing plot? (Night Watch is a notable exception.) For those folks trying to establish a correspondence between the twinkie and the snowflake, my step 1 is the same as Ingermanson's step 1. My step 2 is Ingermanson's step 2 through 10. Isn't that helpful? But, seriously, folks. I tried to start a snowflake last night for the sequel to The Brakan Correspondent. I hit on this 14 word* one-liner after an hour's work: Nothing will stop an unscrupulous extraterrestrial talent scout from snagging Earth's hottest new writer. Short and sweet, but it barely hints at what I have in mind. How do I tell the reader that the action will take place on Sylvanon, the galaxy's ultimate Planet Hollywood? How do I keep the reader from thinking I mean me when I write 'Earth's hottest new writer'? (I mean, don't you just hate it when Stephen King puts himself in his novels? Think Misery, which wasn't misery enough.) In fact, the Earthling in question writes for Hallmark Greeting Cards ('The next Kahlil Gibran!' my protag will gush. 'A Richard Bach's Richard Bach!') And how do I work in the fact I'll be stirring in two characters from Brakan Correspondent to thicken the stew? Here's what I've managed thus far: On planet Sylvanon, entertainment hub of the galaxy, an unscrupulous talent scout intent on snagging Earth's hottest new greeting card writer finds himself in the middle of two Brakan expatriates' deadly conflict. Whew. Thirty-two words, and isn't it a mouthful? I'm not entirely happy with it, but I'm too eager to move on to step two. Time to think up some creamy goodness**. D. *Ingermanson: "Shorter is better. Try for fewer than fifteen words." **No, I haven't finished the novel . . . but it's damned close, and I'm feeling some nascent separation anxiety. I think the birthing process will be less traumatic if I know I am already pregnant with the next novel. And how's that for an over-extended metaphor?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


As some of you know, I'm relatively unburdened by the religious memes that oblige me to be either (A) thankful for the blessings God has given me, or (B) guilty as hell if I'm not feeling particularly (A). Relatively unburdened. Which is to say, I'm a God-fearing heathen. Which is to say, I don't think I've figured this one out, and I doubt I ever will. The point is, my son Jacob is still sick, despite our attempts to turn his stomach into a medicine cabinet. His headaches are getting worse, as is his nausea, and his neurologist wants to send him to a neurologist. How f-d up is that? Today, Jake passed his eye exam with flying colors. (Perhaps that is proof of God's existence. Jake's mother and I would lose to Mr. Magoo in a game of darts.) That was my last hope that this would turn out to be something innocent. And yet . . . and yet my sublimely pessimistic medical imagination has run dry on what this COULD be. The CT and MRI effectively ruled out brain tumor or meningitis. The normal CBC (blood count) and sed rate ruled out leukemia. And now I'm racking my brains for all the hideous things I learned about in med school and subsequently forgot. He sees the neurologist's neurologist this Friday. I'll keep you posted. Meanwhile, I keep thinking about how religious folks deal with these stressful things. With faith, right? Faith that things will turn out all right. Faith that God has a plan. Faith that, even when things turn out for the worst, God still has a plan, and that we're too dense to know His mind. Ever hear the saying, "God never gives you more to deal with than you can handle"? Bullshit. Karen and I are handling this just fine, thank you very much, but I know there are things under the sun which would exceed our capacity. I know it. I've seen it happen to other people. It's my business. What a downer I am tonight. Maybe I should hop over to iTunes and see if I can find Felix Unger's, "Happy and Peppy and Bursting with Love." D.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Eyeglasses Elton John would kill for

This morning, I began writing review of Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy which would have made Pauline Kael* giddy in her grave. Two-thirds of the way into it, the electronic ether had a seizure, or perhaps an epidemic e-brain fart, and I had to reboot. Review lost. By the time everything began behaving, my patients had the nerve to show up on time for their appointments. So I'll be brief. Lovely turn by improbably named actress Zooey Deschanel (that's Zooey, not Zoey) as Trillian. Ms. Deschanel looks edibly girl-next-door in every scene (though particularly in her shorty shorts) so it's easy to see why Arthur Dent would fall madly in love -- Ach! There it was, a spoiler. Yes, they've grafted a love story onto HGG. I had to ask my son (who has read the story more recently than I) and my wife (who has a far better memory) to make sure this was an innovation. How do I feel about this? Terrific. I'm not one of those who worship HGG. (I'm far more partial to Adams's Dirk Gently books. Click here to read Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency in comic book form . . . is that even legal?) Sure, the original HGG is fun, but it's flawed, too. Chief flaw: I never really cared about Arthur or any of his pals. I just read it for the jokes. The love story makes a fine antidote for this problem. Next impression: the true star of the movie is the Guide itself, realized in cheesy splendor by the movie's animators, and wonderfully voiced by Stephen Fry. Everyone else took a back seat (yes, even Alan Rickman; after his sixth or seventh line, I could sense him in the sound studio sucking down gallons of espresso, saying, "Oh, bloody hell, will this never end?") although I did enjoy Mos Def's spot-on version of Ford Prefect and Bill Nighy's dead-pan take on Slartibartfast. Nighy, you may recall, was tons of fun as the unscrupulous hair dresser in Blow Dry (another Rickman movie), and he showed up again more recently in Shaun of the Dead. Finally, here's my nod to John Malkovich for his bit role wearing said titular eyeglasses. Oh -- loved the Vogons. Best evil muppets since Dark Crystal. Verdict: one thumb up, one thumb . . . eh. I miss the TV series. D. *The drudge, she hated everything Kubrick ever did, and she gave Blade Runner one great ripping raspberry. But I still gotta love her for liking Reanimator.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Deus ex South Park

Delightful New York Times Op-Ed piece from Frank Rich today regarding the conservative movement's embrace of South Park. Brief quote: "South Park Conservatives: The Revolt Against Liberal Media Bias," by Brian C. Anderson of the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute, gives a wet kiss to one of the funniest and most foul-mouthed series on television. Anderson has myopically focused on certain episodes that lampoon Hollywood lefties like Rob Reiner, Barbra Streisand, and Sally Struthers; and who could miss the undeniably conservative bias of Parker & Stone's movie Team America? Yet, as Rich points out, Anderson was a bit too quick to the press: South Park's recent episode looking at the Schiavo case skewered the Right's mammoth over-step. Rich also looks at the Right's recent move to increase censorship of movies and TV. Time to trot out the names and addresses of our national representatives and get writing. Back to South Park. Rich could have mentioned any number of episodes which fell far to the left of center. In one, the kids lie through their teeth to buy 'real Ninja weapons' at the fair. While playing with their gear, Butters gets nailed in the eye with a shuriken -- and that's not the end of the violence visited upon poor Butters. Yet when the townfolk learn about Butters' injuries, what do they care about? The fact that Cartman has exposed himself in public. Better example: In South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (good night -- I just got that joke!), Parker & Stone satirized all those V-chipping tight asses who want to protect their preciouses from four letter words, and impose their morals on the rest of us. The point -- and I think Rich overlooks this -- the point is, South Park is satire. Their writers will attack hypocrisy, arrogance, pomposity, and overzealousness wherever they find it; there is no shortage of it on both sides of the political red line. In a very real way, Parker & Stone are cutting away the bullshit to show us slivers of truth, much as The Daily Show does with their fake news. Three cheers to South Park. Here's hoping they're the next in line to win a Peabody. D,