Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Reading this description of the protest marches in NYC, I came to a striking realization. The NYPD has come up with a brilliant scheme for defusing potential protester riots. NYC in August is a sweltering broiler of a city. The more radical direct-action types, used to much smaller cities like Miami and Seattle, think they can out-maneuver the dumb stupid cops by taking roundabout routes, and come in via the flanks. The dumb stupid cops seem to be encouraging this behaviour, sometimes with bullhorns and great enthusiasm, like blue-clad, deranged scoutmasters. From all accounts, the protesters have been weaving their way aimlessly back and forth through the endless canyons of Midtown. By the time the cops get them back to Madison Square Garden, the crowds are wheezing, sweated out, and in heavy pain.

Your black-clad anarchist cadre can't riot if they're exhausted, dehydrated, and footsore.

The Democrats in Boston tried concentration camps. The NYPD is relying on the Manhattan Death March.
Hero was a hell of a movie. Shame the name was so inapt. I'm told that the original Chinese title was Broken Sword, after the character who in many ways is the moral centre of the film. I can't imagine why the American importers thought Hero was a better idea. For one thing, it's a terribly generic title. I swear I've seen a van Damme film of the same name - well, not seen, but noticed in passing on one of the lesser cable channels. For another, the term "hero" doesn't really cover any of the personages or actions in the film.

"Hero" means a lot of different things. There's the original Greek meaning, literally, a demi-god - a person who becomes divine by intervention of the gods or by his own extreme exertion. Hercules was an exemplar of this type of "hero". No children of gods in this film, although the various great warriors are near-godlike in their gravity-defying prowess. Call it an "eh".

Another meaning of hero covers the military angle - the soldier or warrior who performs great feats in battle. Well, OK, this is close to a description of the various assassins in this movie, but really, people rarely use "hero" to describe assassins.

A third meaning of hero is a rough synonym of "champion" - a protector of a land, or an ideal, or a group of innocents. The various warriors of Hero/Broken Sword are hunted assassins. There is one scene where they defend a calligraphy school from a storm of arrows, but they brought the attack down on the school by hiding there, drawing the threat themselves. The warriors are determined to avenge, not defend. This definition suits the movie least of all.

A fourth meaning of hero is an exemplar of courage, someone who is willing to sacrifice themselves for their ideals. This is probably the closest the movie comes to the proper textbook notion of heroism. In the end, the protagonist sacrifices himself for a new-learned principle. This is explicitly noted in the movie's postscript, although I don't know if that's something added by the American producers, or an original element of the film.

These days, I see all art in the prism of politics, or perhaps I should say, these days I find art to be the prism in which I see the day's politics. Hero/Broken Sword is clearly a work of Chinese nationalism. It built around the nation-founding legend of the First Emperor, and specifically the bloody, heart-rending conflicts before the founding. The First Emperor is a deeply ambivalent figure in Chinese myth. For every nationalistic happy-talk myth of probity and unity, there is another of cowardice, savagery, and iron-willed slaughterous tyranny. The First Emperor was a figure much like Alexander the Great - a megalomaniac and a genocide, but also a great leader and a nation-builder.

Where Alexander died early of dissipation and possibly poison, the First Emperor lived a long, determined life by protecting that life from accident and assassination. There are plenty of stories of his well-founded paranoia which provide the basis for Hero/Broken Sword's plot - that of a king locked securely behind walls, officials, thousands of guards, and a black-pillared, vast, empty hall, under constant threat from assassins and would-be regicides.

The assassins have good reason for their emities. The king has destroyed their country, and is in the process of subjugating the rest of China. For subjugation, read slaughter, destruction, and organized annihilation. The only glimpse the movie gives us of this merciless process is the assault against the calligraphy school, but it is an impressive scene. Tens of thousands of black-armored soldiers in regimented, endless lines assemble before the school on an empty, windswept desert plain, and mass bowmen, crossbowmen, and siege machines in a vast array of mechanized death. As a single entity, the army flings great swarms of black arrows into the sky, which rains down on the school like Hamlet's "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune". This single, extended scene has more gravity, tension, and terror in it than in the entirety of Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The structure of the film is roughly like that of Rashomon - repeated flashbacks to action from a single scene in the film present. The recounted events are tinted by color-schemes denoting the different threads - red for lies, blue for hypothetical suppositions, green for doubled flashbacks, and black or white for the undyed truth. The movie is at the same time less lyrical than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and more aesthetically oriented. It's impossible to not compare the two movies, for they are achievements of similar scale and ambition. While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a Daoist movie of individualism and spirituality, Hero/Broken Sword is a nationalist movie of idealism and political morality. Both take a dream-like view of action and violence, but where Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a fantastical dream-ballet , Hero/Broken Sword is a swirling, animate painting in primary colors and imagery.

This is a movie which has to be seen. It demands attention.
Watched McCain and Giuliani on C-SPAN last night in the humidity and heat. McCain didn't really set the roof on fire, although the draft-McCain undercurrents at the convention kind of came to the surface in the midst of his speech. Hand-lettered "Bush-McCain" signs appeared on the convention floor, some of them even held right-side-up. But McCain's speech had a section lauding Cheney, and mentioning him specifically as the vice-presidential candidate. I think that ship has sunk, sadly. The high-light of the speech was probably his incidental calling-out of Michael Moore, who was there for one of the media outlets. The hall rang to angry shouts of "four more years!" from the irate delegates. C-SPAN caught the fat "documentarian" waving to the crowd as if to his fans. Say one thing to Moore - he certainly thrives on the hate of his victims. The rest of McCain's speech was a paean to Bush's leadership, and a heart-felt expression of McCain's hawkish determination that the country not flinch from its duties and obligations. Not a great speech, but straight-forward.

The Giuliani speech, on the other hand, was a grand old stemwinder. Giuliani is a real ball of fire on the stump - the first time I've ever seen him speak at length. He was fierce, funny, animated and warm. I can see why he was elected twice as Mayor in a majority-Democratic city like New York City - he's immensely likable. He raged against anti-Semitism, and what he called the perverters of a great world religion. He essentially made the neo-con argument for the war on terror, and thundered in favor of the offense.

He also tore into Kerry, hitting every non-historical major argument against Kerry, except my favorite "secret plans/Nixon II" line of attack, which perhaps is a bit extreme for a national audience. He tied Edwards' lame "Two Americas" theme into Kerry's inconstancy, speculating that the Democratic ticket needed two countries - one in which to vote for the exact thing Kerry would vote against in the other. If this is negativity, let's see more of it. The press sometimes seems unable to distinguish between honest doubts and distinctions and mud-slinging. Pointing out Kerry's misunderstandings and straddling isn't mud-slinging - it's an honest description of his policies and political history. The press in general ought perhaps to look into the habit. It seems to be something they're generally loathe to do. Giuliani wrapped up his speech by returning to his central theme, which is that the Republican Party's special charge is the expansion of freedom, citing as exemplars Lincoln, Churchill, and Reagan, and tying their stubbornness and determination to Bush's stubbornness and constancy. Of course, Churchill was by no means a Republican, but the neocons and other engagement-minded Republicans regard him as a saint of conservative values, so let it go, let it go. It compared strikingly with McCain's interesting, if rhetorically less deft co-option of FDR's "Rendezvous with Destiny" speech. Between the two of them, they seemed to say, "Keep your JFK and your imaginary Camelots- we'll take FDR, Reagan, and Lincoln - the warriors and their realities of good fights well fought".

Some folks say Giuliani's speech was an audition for the presidential candidacy in 2008. That would make more sense if the old networks had bothered to cover the speech. Giuliani's audience was political activists on the floor, and political junkies on the news networks and C-SPAN. Of course, Lincoln's own Cooper's Union speech in the same city was before activists to whom he had been something of a cipher - that long-ago introduction of a regionally popular Mid-Westerner before a doubtful crowd of New York Republican echoed today by a New York Republican speaking before red-state delegates. A lot of fuss has been made in the press about the distance between the conservative base in the crowd and the moderate Republicans on the stage, but it strikes me as a sort of conciliation - an essayed union between the two arms of the party, the base and the mainstream. Last night, at least, it worked. We'll see.

Update: added links to the transcripts on Command Post, above.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Since my folks have moved closer to the city of Pittsburgh for the few months before they head south with the rest of the snowbirds to Florida, I took Rt. 22 on the way back from visiting. I hadn't been on the old "Ho Chi Minh Trail" for at least five years, and things have changed a lot. For one thing, downtown Pittsburgh has changed. I haven't been through the city since they rebuilt the Lawrence Convention Center, and boy, howdy, does it change the skyline. Freaked me out a bit - I kind of swerved a bit on the Veterans Memorial Bridge while I gaped at the unexpected, huge, tent-like structure. Looks sort of like a steel rack of BBQ ribs.

The endless construction on Rt. 22 between Ebensburg and Murraysville isn't anywhere closer to completion. In the meantime, the businesses and buildings along the route continue to decay and fade. Many minor buildings, businesses, and homes have been abandoned along the route, and more than a few double-wides were disappearing under the burden of runaway vines and vegetation. Kind of dispiriting. That end of the state looks to be dying. Even the warehouses look undermaintained and decrepit.
Read Shea and Hess's Pea Ridge: Campaign in the West last weekend. Excellent read, dunno about the historical accuracy. (Pea Ridge was a battle in March 1862, in northwestern Arkansas just that side of the Missouri border.) TransMississippi Civil War history is pretty thin on the ground. The salient points from the book is as follows: Confederate Major General Van Dorn was criminally incompetent, Union General Curtis was excellent, and Union General Sigel was a really interesting flake.

Sigel was a German immigrant-politician without any serious training or talent for war. He had been involved in the 1848 revolutions, which led people to think that he had more military experience than he actually did, and was something of a charismatic. This meant that he was a typical "political" general - promoted through connections and his popularity with voters, rather than any actual skills or performance. His military instincts, in fact, were almost always disastrous. The summer before Pea Ridge, he talked Lyon into dividing his tiny army in an ill-advised attack against a superior enemy at Wilson's Creek, which got Lyon killed. Sigel went on to bumble the rest of his career after Pea Ridge, finally being put on the shelf after a particularly embarrassing defeat in the Shenandoah Valley at New Market in 1864.

Sigel seemed to possess one military talent, and that was for retreat. During the initial advance of Van Dorn's overwhelmingly superior force on a town in northwestern Arkansas called Bentonville, Sigel got his main force away with plenty of time to spare, but then left his rear guard in the town, apparently so that he could showboat in the face of the on-rushing Rebel cavalry. After putting himself and his rear guard in an impossible situation, he managed to cut his way out through an improbable series of skirmishes and wild chases, suitable for the silliest of historical action movies.

Sigel's performance on the second day of Pea Ridge illustrated yet again what he was capable of when he thought he was retreating. Van Dorn had stupidly marched his starving force off their feet, but his army collapsed square across the Union Army of the Southwest's sole line of communication, supply, and retreat. The commanding Union general, Curtis, was well aware that he had Van Dorn's exhausted, half-defeated force on the ropes after a day of fighting, but Sigel, being an uneducated, excitable politician, was convinced that the Union army was doomed, and only he could save it by cutting a line of retreat back into Missouri. Since the highly competent Curtis had concentrated the Union army in an advantageous position, and left the excitable Sigel in charge of his wing, conditions had been set for the following action, but you have to give Sigel credit - he did the fighting. Van Dorn had a three-to-two advantage in infantry, and a two-to-one advantage in artillery, but Sigel actually put his artillery to use, and orchestrated an improbably masterful combined artillery-infantry advance, his batteries smashing Confederate batteries as they were fed piecemeal into the battle, and, driving the Confederate infantry back from their positions, allowing a triumphal rush by the well-marshaled and enthusiastic Union infantry.

This is distinctive, because it's one of exactly two cases of massed artillery succeeding in an offensive assault. Sigel's Napoleonic tactics of staggered battery advances weren't supposed to work on a battlefield dominated by rifled musket fire. It probably happened because Van Dorn had offered battle dozens of miles from his trains, and had mis-placed his supplies - his troops were not only starving, but also out of ammunition. Nevertheless, Sigel, who thought he was cutting his way through for a general retreat, smashed the Confederates as they began to retreat, themselves. As Van Dorn slipped off to the east, Sigel drove directly north, hell-for-leather, nominally chasing routed fragments of the enemy, but in actuality pursing a pre-planned retreat. It took the better part of a day for Curtis to retrieve his wayward second-in-command, by which time, the Rebels had literally disappeared in the usual post-battle rain and bitter cold.

Confederate Brigadier General Rains bitterly complained to his troops that "the only one whipped at Pea Ridge was Van Dorn"; unfortunately for Rains, he made this observation in earshot of Van Dorn, who had him put under arrest. But Rains had a point. The Confederates rarely enjoyed a numerical and positional advantage like that at Pea Ridge; it took a general with Van Dorn's unique anti-genius to produce such a preposterous reversal, to such a preposterous victor.
Andrew Sullivan's back. I'm having difficulty mustering enthusiasm about it, though.

Friday, August 27, 2004

There's a new high-end burger joint on South Atherton Street in State College, where the old Panda Chinese restaurant used to be, next to the North Ridge motel across from Hills Plaza. It's called Back Yard Burgers, and would seem to be a new franchise, or at least new to the Northeast. I drove over there yesterday after hearing an ad for the place coming into work that morning. Who said advertising doesn't work?

I got a mushroom & swiss burger with waffle fries, but since I don't particularly appreciate lettuce and tomatoes on a burger, I got it stripped down. It was OK, but not really excellent. It was lacking in the nutty-gravy sauce that really makes a good mushroom-and-swiss burger. This was just a burger with mushrooms and swiss cheese on it. Not at all the same thing. Hardees really does an excellent mushroom-and-swiss, but the closest Hardees are in Dauphin and Bedford, far too damn far to drive for fast food, no matter how tasty.

Anyways, Back Yard Burgers. The meal cost me about six-and-a-half, seven bucks, which is acceptable for their sort of high-end fast food. They confused the hell out of me, because they've got a drive-through, but at the counter they give you a number and tell you to go sit down and wait for your food to be brought out to you. Since the food was delivered, and not in a wrapper, both of my criteria for tipping had been met. But it was a fast-food joint! Argh! In the end, I didn't tip, since you also had to bus your own "dishes" - actually a little plastic basket - and I doubt the right people would have found the tip, even if I had left it. The waffle fries were waffle fries - not particularly brilliant, but not noxious.

All in all, not a terrible place to eat, if it were someplace convenient. Since it's a good twelve mile drive from work, and fifteen mile drive from home, I don't think I'll be making my way out there that often. Even if I were to go down that way, the Ponderosa down the hill serves lunch buffets for about the same price.

Update: Not only are Hardees burgers excellent, they were comping free meals to reservists down in Florida for a few days during the Hurricane Charley cleanup. I wish I agreed with van Steerwyk that Hardees is going to eat Burger King's lunch, but my experience is that they keep losing franchises in Pennsylvania. I don't know what drives it, but they seem to have difficulty maintaining competitiveness around these parts.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Holy shit! There have been rumors that Cheney wasn't on board with the whole FMA thing, but I never expected him to bring up the subject this close to the convention. I sure the hell hope this isn't part of a "Cheney falls on his sword" vice-president slot swapout. I was generally in favor of such a maneuver, but this would be a pretty damned shabby way to go about it. I can't think of a thing more likely to leave me sympathetic to grouchy, evil-tempered, cantankerous old Dick, or an act more designed to sabotage him with the "base" he was allegedly keeping in the fold.


Via Roger L. Simon. Go buy one of his books. Director's Cut was good.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Salam Pax is back, blogging up a storm. Sounds like he's freelancing as a cameraman, journalist, translator, and just about any other news-related thing he can get a gig for. I especially like the bit where he's translating a conversation between the Iraqi journalist and an American soldier just before a combat advance against some insurgents, and realizes what he's translating is a request for permission to walk their camera rig out into the middle of an impending firefight. As the war wears on, Salam sounds more and more pro-American - one post is him chiding the ever-xenophobic Riverbend for her anybody-but-the-Americans rants on the subject of Sadr and an Najaf. Very odd.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Finished reading the last volume of Hitosi Iwaaki's Parasyte over lunch today. Decent ending to a plain, but very striking manga. The story and art survives everything that early-industry boneheadedness threw at it, from silly localizations - whoever heard of juvenile deliquents named Londwell and Mitch? - to art-flopping mirroring - at one point in the last volume, our hero gripes about a machete being for "left-handed people", as if the world was built for the minority of the left-handed. Anyways, Parasyte's blend of flat-toned, undecorated blandness with shocking ultraviolence and massive, grotesque slaughters made for a hypnotic comcs experience. People seem to relate most to the cloying, muddle-headed humans-are-poison, destroying-the-world-with-pollution line of argument made by the villains, human and monster alike. Personally, I found the message of "Lefty", our protagonist's parasitical, ultrarational, totally unsentimental mirror-flopped right hand, to be the more compelling point of view. "Lefty", who failed to develop the usual monster-hatred of their human prey when he failed to devour his host's brain, is still a very inhuman character. As the story progresses, his host takes on more and more of "Lefty"'s philosophy, which can be summed up by this final set of observations, late in the last volume:

If we protect other species, it's because we're lonely.
If we protect the environment, it's because we fear our own extinction
The only thing that matters to humankind is its own satisfaction.
But that's okay. That's all that matters.
There's no point in despising our own behavior.
Human beings can't love the Earth without loving themselves. Otherwise it would be a contradiction.

I think it's probably this base viewpoint of radical anti-sentimentality that makes the self-demolition of the monster "Tamara Rockford"/"Tamaya Ryoko" so utterly affecting. In a certain sense, Iwaaki shares with John Woo this sense of high sentimentality rising from the unflinching acknowledgement of sudden violence. Parasyte wouldn't be nearly as interesting without that base of harshness and savagery.

The reason I'm getting into all of this is that the last few pages of the manga volume is taken up by the musing of the Hollywood producers who've optioned the story for a movie. They're a couple of guys who were involved in Men in Black and Beatlejuice, but their ideas about the story are far more Men in Black's wanna-be hipster bullshit than Beatlejuice's willingness to shock. For one thing, they want to do a PG-13 movie. Now, while I can see how a story based on Parasyte could get cut down to R without doing major violence to the concept, we're still talking about a story revolving around creatures that devour their hosts brains, and live by devouring human beings in a messy, butchers-shop sort of way. It just isn't PG-13 material. A straightforward adaptation of the manga as presented would definitely get a NC-17 for violence. Secondly, they're talking about localizing to an American setting. Thirdly, the protagonist is no longer a teenager. Finally, they seem much more taken with the schmuckbait philosophy of the human-hating monsters and their Stockholm-syndrome human sympathizers than the hardboiled anti-sentimentality which is the actual central view-point of the narrative. While some of these points aren't too distressing - the story wanders far enough from the high school setting in the manga as to not make it absolutely vital, frex - once you pile them on top of each other, the resulting pile, creaking in the breeze, looks precious little like the original architect's plans. All you've got left is a guy and his CGI-a-riffic mutating hand, versus freaky shape-shifting beasties. The whole thing reminds me strongly of why the Filthy Critic likes to refer to Hollywood folk as "grassfuckers". 'Cause this grass done been violated, that's for sure.
The rain gods seem to have agreed with me as to the undesirability of a Bellefonte arts and crafts festival, as it rained like the dickens this weekend past. I saw vendor after vendor poking at his or her tent-roof, dislodging pockets of rain-water trapped in the sagging vinyl or canvas with whatever was handy; several left early, disgusted with the low turnout. But, the rain eventually broke on Saturday, and the show must needs go on. The vendors were less rural than I expected. I mean, there were the expected Amish with their cheese and fudge displays, and there were far too many Christmas-themed vendors than should ever be seen in the steaming dog days of August (even an unseasonably cool one like this year's), but still and all, precious little in the way of cartoon cows. There was a guy with enormous wooden cartoon pigs, but no cows.

I bought a pinecone dipped in heavily scented beeswax for an air freshener for my increasingly musty apartment, and a couple Bellefonte-themed painted blocks for my mother's collection - one of the Sterling Mansion, and another of St. Pauls Episcopal Church. The lady selling them told me that blocks of the Bellefonte Academy had sold out early, and indeed, I saw one holding the place of honor in another vendor's non-painted-block-themed display. There's no novelty like destruction, I suppose.

As I walked around, eating my dinner of crab cakes and lemonade, the band in the pavilion in front of the statue of Gov. Curtin shifted from Skynard-style rock to a pretty straightforward version of "Don't Rock the Jukebox", which, I figured, was country enough for government work.

Friday, August 20, 2004

As something of a consolation prize for Hot Gimmick vol. 6 not coming out when they said it would, I went and bought the ill-named Tramps Like Us. This is a manga originally published as You're a Pet, which isn't much better as a title, but at least has some bearing on the theme and plot, unlike the Springsteen-lyric-pulled-out-of-a-hat non sequitor that TokyoPop saw fit to hang on it. I'd have guessed it was josei given that the protagonist is a professional of a certain age, but this resource identifies it as shoujo, and I'm willing to take their word for it.

Sumire is a journalist with a large Japanese newspaper, who's laboring under the jealous eyes of her non-peers. She's too tall, she's too smart, and she's too successful for her age. Her fiance recently dumped her ass for his knocked-up mistress, and she's recently vowed to find a boyfriend who satisfies the so-called "Three Highs" - higher income, higher intelligence, higher stature. Sexist as hell, but so are the Japanese. Just after she makes this vow, she finds a slight little bishounen hiding in a box nearby her apartment. She takes the injured guy in, names him "Momo", and declares she's going to keep him as a pet. He's a professional dancer, but the sort of kid who can't keep himself, who'd probably starve to death if left on his own. She keeps herself amused by feeding him, babying him, and bullying him as an outlet for all of the "ice queen", passive-aggressive harassment, and nonsense she puts up with from work and her unenviable social life. Even though she bathes him every night, it's theoretically platonic. She leaves her co-workers and boyfriends with the idea that Momo is literally a pet - a cat to her co-workers, a dog to the boyfriends, which makes for some slapstick and misunderstanding-comedy. Very cute in a sketchy sort of way.

It's not nearly as salacious as it sounds, but I still liked it anyways.
I tried to arrange to go visit the relatives in Pittsburgh - they're going to be out of town this weekend. I was going to go hang out in Northern New Jersey and Manhattan with Dave during a board of directors meeting for another convention. That's apparently fallen through. I think I'm doomed to a weekend spent with Bellefonte's Arts and Crafts Festival, which they are busy setting up on High Street and Allegheny Street as we figuratively speak.

I joked about cartoon cows and the Arts Festival in State College last month, but the Bellefonte Arts and Crafts Festival is the real thing. Gingham, cows, lace doilies and whimsically carved blocks of wood designed to make living rooms feel more rustic and kitchens more rural. It's going to be wall-to-wall housefrau all weekend, which I suppose is an improvement on wall-to-wall mullets for the Bellefonte Cruise, but still and all, I'd prefer wall-to-wall empty air, given my druthers.

Not to mention all the bogarted street-level parking. Bah.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

You shouldn't drink liquid nitrogen or breath xenon. For those of you, y'know, contemplating either act. You know who you are.
Ugh. Nothing I hate more than inaccurate ship lists. I've gotten violently addicted to Hot Gimmick, and various lists from the publisher, Diamond Comics, and other online merchants made it seem as if the sixth volume would ship at various dates this month. I thought for sure that if Diamond Comics was talking about ship dates, it'd make it to my local comic shop, the Comic Swap down on Frazier Street in State College. No such luck. They didn't even have anything else worth buying as a consolation, not even the Happy Mania volume Dave had asked me to look for. Feh.

Damnit, I want my middlebrow shoujo!

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

You know, for a bunch of people who were chastising the French for going on their habitual month-long August vacations in time to let thousands of the elderly die of heat-related conditions, the blogsphere is remarkably quick to go on weeks-long vacations this time of year. A good half of my blogroll was, is, or is just coming off of, some kind of August break or "vacation". It isn't as if there's an actual "dog days of summer" this year - there's news all over the goddamn place.

Vacations are for Europeans. Be American, damnit! Working yourself to death is the American Way. Well, since the Japanese imploded, anyways...

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

I've been informed that some of our people, who were going to be flying out of University Park Airport for a meeting tommorrow in Mississippi, are stuck at the airport because of a plane crash, that a plane tried to land with broken landing gear and wiped out. There isn't anything in the local papers yet about it online. I'm not sure if they're coming back to the office to wait for their rescheduled flights, or are going to just wait it out at the terminal.

Update: the delayed travellers just walked in the front door. Apparently there were no injuries - the plane in question just belly-flopped onto the tarmac, with a minimum of fire, smoke, or even dust. The delay for the airport apparently is more a matter of doing the paperwork and proper reporting than anything really on the emergency side of things.
I was standing on the bridge over Slab Cabin Run on South Atherton Street yesterday evening after dinner, reading a Georgette Heyer romance, when two young ladies in nice, conservative dress came walking down from the direction of town. They had flyers and copies of the Book of Mormon in their hands, and asked me if I wanted to talk. I sadly informed them that I wasn't religious, and that I didn't really want to talk about it. After some back-and-forth, they accepted, and walked on, most likely towards the remains of that trailer park down the Shinglestown road. I didn't want to be unkind, and I'm sure I would have been unable to avoid informing them just how silly I find their beliefs if I had engaged in discussion with them. Don't get me wrong, I think that of all the creepy post-Christian successor cults, the Mormons are least deranged, but still and all, it's a foolish faith.

Dave says I should have got them talking about the advantages of polygamy. Dave, if you haven't noticed recently, is a pig. What is it about post-Christian successor cults and polygamy, though? Mormons, Muslims, Koresh's wackjobs... seems to be an excessively common feature, doesn't it?

Monday, August 16, 2004

If you haven't encountered CBFTW's war-blog yet, today's as good a day as any to point it out. He's a machinegunner with the Stryker Brigade in Mosul. Soldiers who blog or journal in-theatre almost always get into trouble when folks notice them, and it gets back to their chain of command that they've been broadcasting in technical defiance of rules and regulations on the subject of operational security. CBFTW came to the attention of his superiors after his vivid description of an early August firefight made the rounds of the war side of the blogsphere. Unlike most soldier-bloggers, he managed to come to an arrangement with his superiors, in which they'd let him know if he overstepped operational security, and, apparently, he wouldn't identify localities and specific actions. He's covered that by usually talking in terms of "Today we drove around somewhere to do something."

Today's entry is a surreal story of the usual routine of infantry in Strykers in hot pursuit of insurgents with mortars, half of them immersed in various books - a survey of western philosophy, an Anne Rice novel, George Carlin, and our correspondent with Homage to Catalonia - while the driver furiously races through the mean streets of Mosul. I have to respect a soldier who would read Orwell while on patrol. That's sangfroid.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

We had elections for the non-profit corporation that runs that convention I mention from time to time. My candidates won, for the most part. It looks like I'll be taking over the registration department, much to my surprise. I used to be a leadership guy in the organization, but after a one-year stint as president, I had enough of such things. I hadn't planned on running anything again, but the head of registration is taking some time off, and the other people in the department are either not interested in running things, or have gotten themselves into the figurative doghouse.

Registration is one of those departments which is difficult to staff in a volunteer organization. It's a colorless, grinding, grey-flannel-man sort of place. The people who work registration have to be dedicated, concentrated, and resilient. In a registration environment like ours - where tens of thousands of members need to be processed in two five-hour periods - the stress on the line staff in the department is considerable. Furthermore, the organization is full of fun, creative alternatives to registration's austere, vital drudgery.

The great irony here is that I was arguing in speech in favor of one of the presidential candidates that fan-based organizations normally suffer from an excess of inspiration; I now find myself in a position where I'm going to have to summon up enough charisma to inspire a number of staffers to abandon the bright, shiny, entertaining portions of the organization for my monastery of a department.
Just finished Tommy Franks' memoirs. He's a great general, but a bad poet. Good to know I stand in such impressive company...

Striking book. I recommend it for anybody interested in the military, or current military affairs.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

I see that HPS Simulations is releasing a Campaign Gettysburg as the next installment in their "Campaign" wargame series. I'm still playing through their Campaign Franklin, so I'm not going to rush to order Campaign Gettysburg, but it sounds like an ambitious, sprawling attempt, if it's including Brady Station in the campaign. Hopefully it'll have more branching choices than Campaign Ozark or Campaign Franklin seem to have. I rather think it defeats the purpose of a "Campaign" game, if the scenario sequence is essentially linear.

Campaign Ozark, while fun and interesting on a battle-by-battle level, didn't make a particularly good campaign set, if only because it was designed as three mini-campaigns - summer 1861, early 1862, and fall 1862 - which don't flow into each other. Since the AI in these games tends to be fairly weak, Campaign Ozark campaigns tend to end up as a brief, single-battle routs. I had to play the stand-alone scenario to even get to Pea Ridge as the Union in the early 1862 campaign - played in campaign mode, it was too easy to destroy the Missouri Rebels in a piecemeal battle before you even got across the Arkansas border.

Campaign Franklin is more unitary - it's just the single central Tennessee campaign - but still very linear. Battle at Spring Hill; battle at Franklin; battle in front of Nashville. Franklin is somewhat challenging as the Rebels - interesting, at least.

Campaign Corinth has been the best installment up to this point. It was large, heavily branching, unitary, and sprawling. There was a lot of variation, and you could go all sorts of interesting places. The structure of Union reinforcements and the branching meant that the typical annihilation-style combat didn't curtail the campaigns prematurely, at least while playing as the Rebels.

I'm a little disappointed that they went with a Campaign Gettysburg. Tiller's old Battleground Gettysburg is still playable, if somewhat elderly and creaky. Gettysburg is such a massive singular battle that I can't help but think that it isn't really suited to the "Campaign" conceit. Additionally, there are a ton of neglected campaigns and battles in the East that could have been interesting. The Overland Campaign of 1864, for instance, would be well-suited to a "campaign" wargame style, if rather oversize for the engine. Of course, a Campaign Gettysburg is, itself, rather oversize for the engine. A Chancellorsville installment would have made for an interesting maneuver wargame. You could follow the old "Battleground" conceit, and recycle the Rappahannock battlemaps for a Fredericksburg-Chancellorsville-Wilderness packaged wargame. A Penninsular/Seven Days wargame in the "Campaign" mode would be massive but interesting. Hell, even a packaged Valley set along Campaign Ozark lines would be fruitful - a "Jackson in the Valley" campaign, combined with an "Early/Sheridan in the Valley" campaign sort of thing. It would even suit the scaling limits of the "Campaign" engine. But Gettysburg? It's been done. Again and again.
I got talked into watching a Luc Besson movie last night called Wasabi. It's a slapstick action-comedy starring a very worn-looking, tired Jean Reno as an ex-spy who discovers that he has a recently orphaned kogal daughter. It's a fun movie in a this-really-doesn't-make-sense sort of way, and reminded me heavily of Lost in Translation with gunplay and yakuza. The sidekick is a ratlike character actor named Michel Muller, who most strongly resembles Jerry Lewis playing Renfield in a stock-company production of Dracula. I always knew that France's national Jerry Lewis obsession would result in something sickening and untoward; thank god it's something as incidental and inconsequential as Michel Muller.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Nelson Ascher has an interesting post on English, Hungarian, and various Romance languages from the view-point of the would-be poet. Interesting, but his comments brought home to me just how long it's been since I wrote a line. I've yanked the "bad poetry" bit out of the header, since I seem to have dried up into an empty husk devoid of poetic substance.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Last night, I was pleasantly surprised to feel a chill as I walked my laundry back from the washer-and-dryer set in the Crider Exchange. Last weekend, I was sweltering at 2 AM, walking by the Inner Harbor. The temperature and humidity gradient between the mountains of central Pennsylvania and Baltimore's Inner Harbor is truly impressive. There are reasons to be mountain folk, people. August is definitely one of them.
Spenser Ackerman ought to be fired for spectacular intellectual dishonesty, unless I'm misreading the tone of that lame rowback, and it's actually one of his co-authors who wrote the linked followup. Their "July Surprise" was supposed to be a top-three al-Queda arrest. A minor regional figure like Ghalani does *not* count.

This is the moral equivalent of predicting a major earthquake in Tokyo on a specific week, and then claiming any earthquake in the north-eastern Pacific Rim as vindication. Firstly, the magnitude isn't comparable - you predicted a major earthquake, or a major-league al Queda capture - this is a "moving the goalposts" violation. Secondly, the area selected is highly biased towards producing such a similar event on any randomly chosen period of the same length. Earthquakes are always, always occurring all along the Pacific Rim, on a daily basis, let alone weekly. al Queda captures occur on a monthly basis, often on a weekly basis, especially in Pakistan, which is rife with al Queda and al Queda-affiliated radical groupings. This is a selection bias error.

Fire Ackerman, and give Judis an early job review. Otherwise, don't expect me to pay attention to the New Republic on foreign policy matters. TNR is supposed to be a hawkish left-wing magazine. Prove it! Fire Ackerman!
Bought a collection of Kyle Baker's strips called Cartoonist.

Now, Kyle Baker's main attraction used to be his sharp, cynical, talky approach to the graphic novel; in addition, his deceptively simple monochrome art style relied on a deeply expressive sense of character design. I still regularly re-read my battered and much-foxed copies of Why I Hate Saturn and the Cowboy Wally Show, nearly a decade after I first read them. Baker's older work is right up there with Bujold and Glen Cook for re-readability.

Later on, Baker started getting into a more cartoonish, garish style, with books like You Are Here and I Die At Midnight, but the continuity was pretty clear. I even liked the graphic novel which was what was left over from his abortive run at animation, the sardonic King David. I'm just not sure what to make of Kyle Baker, strip cartoonist. It isn't really his thing, I don't think. The collection isn't bad - I laughed a couple of times - but his pacing and timing isn't really suited to this sort of thing. He really is a graphic novelist, and his humor relies on a sense of accumulating absurdity to really kick into gear.

I don't know. I don't regret buying the book, but mostly because I'd be willing to pay him another ten dollars every three years after I re-read Why I Hate Saturn or Cowboy Wally.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

I've got some thoughts in my head about M. Night Shyamalan's the Village, but the "no goddamn spoilers!" haze that surrounds every one of that guy's movies is something of a deterrence from talking in depth about them. I mean, is the embargo on discussing the plot twist at the end of the Sixth Sense over yet? I mean, will I be spoiling anybody if I let slip that Bruce Willis was dead? Red doorknobs and all that?

Shyamalan seems to have something about reds, though. The "bad color", which is shown in every ad for the Village I've seen yet, so I'm not spoiling anything, so there - to end this endless series of equivocations and elipses, is red. Here we are again, with crimson. What does it mean to Shyamalan? Of course, I don't remember any specific meaning assigned to the color in Unbreakable and Signs aside from it being largely neglected in favor of whites and blues (for Unbreakable) or blacks and greens (for Signs).

Anyways, there's a warning that I intend to write about the Plot Elements That We Don't Mention, probably tomorrow, probably under spoilerspace unless I feel particularly mean or spoilerish on the morrow. Specifically, something about why the critics are so impatiently infuriated with Shyamalan's fairy tale, and why the largely crank-liberal critical set is so resistant to a movie which seems to be largely sympathetic to their general principles and ideals. Tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

For all those who are googling for reviews of the concert by that band who played at the convention which shall not be named, I'm afraid that the closest I ever got to the festivities was escorting the family of a set of Japanese guests through the scrim on the mean streets of Baltimore between the BCC and the Arena, at the request of another ex-con-chair. The chaos involved in shepherding some nine thousand lemming-daft fanchildren through three blocks of a city as mad as Baltimore left me with nothing but admiration for our dedicated crowd-control experts, several of which I spotted along the route, playing traffic-cop at the crossings and lights, restraining the crowds from crowding the narrower sidewalks, and keeping the children and rats hydrated as the piper played on.

I suppose you'd have to ask the audience if the result was worth the effort, treasure, and dehydration involved. Most sounded tolerably amused. I find that I'm poorly equipped for the task of telling the difference between true joy, and the amusement which is the desiccated, deceased husk of joy.
Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard managed to inspire a sort of pity and sympathy in my rocky, arid heart for the lowly reporter on the political beat, whom he describes en masse in terms that are instantly recognizable to any con slug on the fannish scene. He's almost got me convinced that most of the political election cycle is driven by lonely journalists looking to hang out with their fellow writers at events like the Ames Straw Poll and the national conventions.
"We cannot survive without credulity. It is a fundamental part of our sociability. We need people to tell us things we don't know, and we need to believe them."

Damn, I wish I had said that. It's the most concise argument against radical skepticism I've come across so far.
Ugh. Long weekend. I begin to think that my habit of working long hours on vacation isn't the best long-term leisure strategy I could have possibly chosen for my life. It begins to feel like going to Disneyland to help run it, rather than riding the attractions.

As usual, I walked my feet to shreds. I didn’t really walk all that far, either. I'm starting to suspect that this aching feet thing is some sort of psychosomatic reaction to the city - it only happens when I go visiting a major urban centre like Baltimore or Manhattan for an extended period of movement. As soon as I got back to Centre County, my feet were no longer aching, even though the blisters and raw spots were still in the same places…

The lowball projections were correct - a little less than 21,000, although there were enough problems with mail-in preregistration that you couldn't be certain of the numbers on the high end - too many people whose cheques had been deposited without entry into the database. Correspondence's name is shit this week. A push for a full-time employee-secretary is definitely in the works. Aside from some self-destructive mania late Saturday night, the con was relatively peaceful. Some girls tried to steal a banner off of the Pratt Street lobby balcony, and were damned lucky they didn't accidentally jerk themselves off the balcony to a horrible impaled death on the field of stansions below. Some hacky-sackers lost their hacky-sack on the top of one of the cross-bars in the lobby, and decided to form a human pyramid to retrieve said four-dollar toy from its perch fifteen feet from the floor of the lobby. We managed to get them down without any injuries, although one of the monkeys managed to hang by his fingernails from the edge for a bit.

They say the concert went well. I hope it went well enough to justify the murderous cost of the whole thing.

The numbers of homeless sleeping in the Inner Harbor seems to increase from year to year. I kept running into clustered nests of them while walking back to the hotel late at night. There was a particularly aggressive cluster southeast of the Wyndam on Sunday night, in the plaza beside the theatre. Very off-putting, given the lack of light there. Really, though, the big difference between those hairy-looking vagrants and I is that I make my nest on the floor of a two-hundred-fifty-dollar-a-night room in the Harbor Court, instead of under the stars by Pratt Street or where-ever. I felt weird about sleeping on the floor in such a high-tone hotel, but the beds were too damned small to share in that room unless you were really, really friendly with the other guy. The Harbor Court Hotel is just not otaku country. It's decorated like a combination of a museum and a pretentious gentleman's parlor. It doesn't actually look like the fancy European hotels they no doubt were going for, but the effect achieved is still impressive in its own snooty way.

I didn't really have the energy to see much of the con itself. Some folks mentioned that everything went pretty fast this year - seems we're getting old, where time begins to race the clock in our heads. That would explain the fatigue, I suppose.