My oldest son is good at chees!
We’re pretty sure he meant “chess.”
We’re pretty sure he meant “chess.”
Wow, Bill Amend really nerded one out of the park today.
The Foxtrot cartoonist regularly “rides nerdy,” with rampant references to D&D, World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek-v.-Star Wars, and even calculus humor. Seriously, calculus humor — look it up. There are plenty of examples out there, yet Amend is probably the closest you’ll get to enjoying a math-based joke.
But today he dropped the atomic nerd bomb with a reference unrecognizable to all but a slim subset of geekdom. Fortunately, I speak Geek.
I sure wasn’t expecting a line like, “Where’d all my Warhammer miniatures go?” from my Sunday funnies. That’s “Warhammer 40K,” a tabletop wargame that requires scads, if not gobs of lead miniatures, preferably hand-painted. And sure enough, young Jason Fox is worried that his mother’s carelessness will scracth up the precious painting of his Orks and Space Marines.
I totally get it, J. Like you, I see each fallen flake of paint as a gaping wound on my little pewter buddies.
I wish more nerds knew what I was talking about. First of all, there’s the gaming aspect: Miniatures games are strategy contests like Risk on a protein shake diet, or Chess with, you know, something interesting to look at. Miniatures wage war on grids of every description. Warhammer, for instance, is set in a sci-fi/fantasy storyline where, obviously, Orks and Space Marines duke it out for supremacy. I’ve never played that one, but I am quite fond of HeroClix and Star Wars Miniatures. They’re fun alternatives to Risk or other overdone board games.
But almost better than the joy of playing these games is the painting itself. It’s small work, all deft movements and held breaths and itty bitty strokes with single hairs of a paintbrush. I rhapsodize about the benefits of miniature painting often, and when people give me the watch-out-he’s-got-swine-flu look, I compare it to fishermen tying flies — as in, hand-tying little tufts of feather and thread around hooks to resemble, uh, something a fish would want to bite. This is an almost holy sacrament of fisherfolk, and it seems everyone understands that metaphor, and the attraction of doing small work, something totally out of proportion to the rest of the day.
And so it is with me. When I get a chance (and I sooo rarely get the chance these days) I love sitting down with an unpainted lead sculpture no bigger than a knuckle and turning it into something colorful and awesome. The pieces may be useful for a specific encounter in some D&D session, or a game I’m always meaning to try, but more often then not, I just want to see what comes out from under the brush. And while it’s fun just being a casual hobbyist, I love admiring what’s possible when you really put your mind to it. I’m glad Bill Amend understands.
If you’re spending too much time worrying about the economy in the U.S., I have the perfect prescription: Spend an evening watching Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-nominated No End in Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq and it’ll make our national hardship seem like a partly cloudy Fourth of July.
Ferguson is a former political scientist and a first-time filmmaker. This 2007 documentary was nominated for an Oscar, but it lost to Taxi to the Dark Side (about another war-related issue: America’s policy on torture). Ferguson’s look at the first years following the fall of Iraq doesn’t take cheap shots or make leaps of uber-liberal logic. Instead, it relies on sources deep inside the Bush administration to paint a picture of abject incompetence at the top.
In other words, thanks to a host of credible interview subjects, it’s not easy to dismiss Ferguson’s argument as “guesswork and hand-wringing” (words Bush officials used to dismiss some gloomy analysis of the chaos by its own lieutenants). Authorities like Richard Armitage (second-in-command to Colin Powell at the State Dept.), Jay Garner (the general initially put in charge of the occupation), Robert Hutchings (former chairman of the National Intelligence Council), Lawrence Wilkerson (Powell’s chief of staff), and Iraqi Ambassador Barbara Bodine combine to deliver a consistent message that’s hard to dismiss.
“If my speaking out adds even infinitesimally to the criticism that counts of this administration, then that’s good,” said Hutchings. “I just can’t hold my peace any longer.” He speaks like a man haunted.
The assertion of “No End in Sight” is that the Bush administration went into Iraq pitifully uninformed and unprepared to run a nation, and then it made a mess that generated more hatred of the U.S. than goodwill. The title means just what it says: When will we be done paying for this war — literally and figuratively?
Here’s the list of accusations:
* Life under Saddam was bad… Global sanctions against Iraq after the Persian Gulf War impoverished the citizenry, while Saddam and his elite remained very well off.
* …but life after him is worse. Poor as they were, the citizens of Saddam’s regime were not, at least, living in a bombed out husk of a country. Modern life in Iraq, as seen by Ferguson’s lens, is a vision straight from Hobbes: nasty, brutish and short.
* The looting that occurred immediately after the fall ignited a state of lawlessness that we’re still trying to control. How did statue-toppling Iraqis shift from gratitude to abject hatred of their liberators? Ferguson’s subjects lay the blame at the critical moment at the beginning, when the worst instincts of human nature were allowed to go unchecked. Looting was rampant and complete, from national treasures to rebar in concrete walls. What the Iraqis did to their own country is pitiful, no doubt about it, and I wish Ferguson had included a little analysis of why so many people — some of whom must have been normally upstanding and ethical — found themselves serving their most desperate impulses. The extent of the chaos is heartbreaking.
But back in Washington, it seems the Defense Department wasn’t taking it too seriously. Ferguson uses the famous Rumsfeld press briefing clip where he laughed off the news coverage of looting:
“I picked up a newspaper today, and I couldn’t believe it. I read eight headlines that talked about: Chaos! Violence! Unrest! And it was just henny-penny, the sky is falling,” Rumsfeld said to a chorus of chuckles. “The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over and over and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase. And you think: My goodness, were there that many vases?”
Folks on the ground in Iraq weren’t chortling.
“I think that’s the probably the day we lost the Iraqis,” said Ambassador Bodine.
What would it have taken? A declaration of marital law (which ORHA had recommended)— or at least the will to tell our guys on the ground to stop the destruction. Lieutenant Seth Moulton said it best with the understated confidence of a soldier: “We’re a platoon of Marines. We could certainly stop looting if that were our assigned task.”
* ORHA had inadequate time, resources and administration support to enact solid occupation plans. The Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance was formed 60 days before the invasion. Its job: to manage the occupation of a foreign nation. Once the invasion was over (which, you’ll recall, happened in a jiffy), they had few resources inside Baghdad to call upon. Ferguson files interview after interview supporting this charge: The Bush administration threw together a toothless group, routinely ignored what little insight it was able to provide, and gave them no time or traction to accomplish anything. Gen. Garner, the group’s leader, was ousted a month after the fall.
* Paul Bremer made a bad situation worse with three monumentally bad decisions. Garner was replaced by diplomat and businessman L. Paul Bremer. There’s great consensus in this film that Bremer did three tone-deaf things straight away:
1. He stopped the formation of an interim Iraqi government (Jay Garner was working to establish one, thereby including Iraqis in the decision-making process; the Bremer reversal was a surprise to Garner and Armitage, at the very least);
2. he banned some 50,000 members of Saddam’s Ba’ath party from public service (some may have been high-placed, corrupt cronies, but most were government functionaries and technorati — essentially the bulk of the institutional knowledge); and
3. he disbanded the army (adding a dissatisfied and heavily armed cohort to the swelling ranks of the unemployed).
* The U.S. left a void in leadership that could be filled by only one thing: radical Islam. Iraq was a fairly secular, fairly stable regime before, but in the chaos that followed American occupation — and Ferguson is very firm about this, it was utter chaos — people turned to an outlet that gave them structure, gave them purpose, and gave them a return (relatively) to cultural pride: Muqtada al-Sadr and his radical Islamic agenda. Al-Sadr was certainly well-motivated to tap the discontent and channel it into a lasting insurgency.
No End in Sight makes a compelling case that the Bush administration made sloppy, ill-informed decisions — worse still, that they actively dismissed the wisdom of people who had superior experience and insight. It’s hard to come away with any opinion other than Bush’s White House ignored debate and new information (or perhaps, any information) in favor of answers they wanted to hear. Rumsfeld and Bremer toed the administration’s view that this was a quick, small, winnable war, and the result is a runaway cancer growing in a volatile part of the world.
We upended a beehive, and I get the cold chillies when I imagine my children having to deal with the stings for the rest of their lives, too.
I’ve got to hand it to Mayor Richard Daley: He may be the inarticulate master of a ruthelss Chicago machine, but he likes him some arts. Hence today, the Bard’s 445th b-day, proclaimed by Hizzoner himself to be “Talk Like Shakespeare Day.”
Sure you could use this as an opportunity to refer to coworkers as “You blocks! You stones! You worse than senseless things!” or as a flock of “bunch-back’d hedge-pigs.” But why stop with just talking like Shakespeare? Act like him too!
Got some funeral-baked meats? Coldly furnish forth someone’s marriage table!
Have a rede? Reke it! (Your own, only, however.)
Got some branches from Birnam Wood? Come to Dunsinane!
Or perhaps you’re an old black ram — this is a perfect time to tup a white ewe, if you know what I mean. Wink wink! (Note of caution, however: Keep your peepers on your handkerchief.)
If you don’t like Terry Pratchett, you either:
A. Don’t like fantasy, or…
B. Are desperately unfunny and dislike the sensation of smiling.
Terry Pratchett doesn’t care. He’s made his bank already. So much so, he can make an undefinable, unmarketable, unclassifiable YA novel called “Nation.” Lucky us.
Back up a bit first: Terry Pratchett made his name with his voluminous fantasy spoof series, Discworld. I’ve read the first one, The Color of Magic, and at first I didn’t know what to make of it. I recognized the fantasy setting sure enough — but the humor that was going on around it? It took me a while to fully understand these books were both fantasy and a satire of fantasy. A spoof and a love letter. And what a spoof, too! It’s easy to take a popular genre and snark on it (ask the makers of Scary Move, Epic Movie, Disaster Movie and the yet-to-be-conceived-but-not-by-much Lazy Rip-Off Parody Movie), but Pratchett’s humor goes well beyond send-ups of D&D or Robert E. Howard pulps. His settings might involve wizards in robes or over-muscled barbarians, but he’s making fun of life in modern day, too. No matter the genre, a prat is a prat, a pompous ponce a pompous ponce.
It might have taken me a while to catch on, but not the rest of the world. The infallibly informed Wikipedia tells me Pratchett has written more than 40 Discworld novels and companion books, sold more than 55 million copies, and even been admitted into the Officer of the Order of the British Empire for “services to literature.” You can call him Sir.
So how does Pratchett use his influence? To write any book he wants, any way he wants. Hence, Nation from HarperCollins late last year.
It’s a young adult book, that’s for sure. But beyond that, what is it? Post-apocalyptic: a tsunami destroys nearly every native of a string of South Pacific islands. Survivalist: Mau, the boy who would be chief, must recreate civilization, starting with how to extract mother’s milk from boars. Supernatural: Mau squares off against the voices of angry ancestors as well as the God of Death himself. Romance: A proper Victorian girl washes up on the island so let the teen sexual tensions mount. Agnostic rumination: Mau rages against the gods for letting such disaster happen; he even learns that what his ancestors worshipped may have been artifacts from earlier visitors.
It’s also a wry comedy:
The lonesome palm (Cocos nucifera solitaria) is common over most of the Pelagic, and is unusual in that an adult tree secretes a poison in its root that is deadly only to other palms. Because of this it is not unusual to find only one such palm on the smaller islands and a thousand cartoons are, therefore, botanically correct.
As I said, this book can’t be classified. But I am grateful to Pratchett for it. How many kids would pick up a book that challenges their assumptions about God? Or about tradition? Or about social order? Or even happy endings? Not that Pratchett condemns any of these things, either — he’s too smart and subtle for that. He simply faces the thorny, messy realities of tragedy with the pragmatism necessary for rebuilding. It’s uplifting without being upbeat. Hopeful without being hopped up.
“It’s quite complex. There’s nothing really Disney about it,” the author says on an Amazon.com promotional video. “They don’t really have a happy ending; they don’t have a sad ending, They have an absolutely appropriate ending.”
Funny he mentions Disney, since Pratchett has become the Pixar of children’s lit. Terry Pratchett simply writes what’s good, and lets the Marketing Department worry about the rest.
The inexhaustible Sam Bennett introduced me to Blip.fm while I was at Ludorum, and it has been my Internet radio of choice ever since. It’s so easy to get started, and in a minute, you’re either listening to songs you know and love, or songs you’ve never heard before. Either option can be rewarding, especially when it’s instantaneous and effortless.
With Blip, you can spin tunes just to please yourself, or you can style yourself as a digital DJ for all the other listeners logged in at that moment. All songs you “blip” get posted on a scrolling, ever-updating list on the home page. Listeners are either logged into this page (and thus listening to a diverse array of tunes from ABBA to Zappa) or into a page that aggregates the playlists just of your own favorite DJs.
(Where does all this music come from? Here’s the only answer I can muster: Somewhere out there on The Internets, people have uploaded tons of music onto tons of empty servers. Who are these people? Where are these servers? I cannot say. But because it seems exclusively a volunteer effort, the catalog of blippable tunes is quite incomplete in places, redundant in others, and occasionally creatively spelled.)
Here’s how to get blipping in 15 seconds flat:
1. Sign up in a jiffy. Make up a name, enter an e-mail. I know, I hate registering for things, particularly giving out my e-mail. But you have a back-up address for spammy registrations like this don’t you? There you go.
2. Answer a few questions about your musical tastes. You’ll be instantly matched to other DJs who have similar (or similar-ish) preferences.
3A. Camp out on the “Public” page and listen to what every other blipper is currently throwing out there. (The results will be fun, if jarringly mismatched.) OR…
3B. Camp out on your “Home” page which features just the blips from your list of “Favorite” DJs. (It’s just a simple click to add and subtract DJs from this cohort.) OR…
3C. Become a full-blown DJ. Blip your own personal playlist by searching for artists or titles.
You can even try searching for concepts. Experiment with say, moon or June and goggle at the blunderbuss of options firing back at you. When you’ve made your selection and want to blip it, you can include a little chitchat — just like a drivetime DJ! You get a Twitter-sized field to type a message, about enough to convey a little snark or sentimentality. You can also reblip tunes you hear from other DJs, or direct your messages at your listeners — just like a Casey Kasem Long Distance Dedication!
With Blip, I’ve been introduced to many new wide, green pastures of music I never would have stumbled into otherwise. Lots of DJs hail from other countries (a strong Brazilian contingent, it seems, or maybe that’s just the bias of the algorithm that made my Favorites list) but wherever they’re from, they’re all plugged into their local music scene. How else would I have heard Minnesota indie band Best Friends Forever, a joyfully unpolished trio of quirky rockers? They’re my Fun Find of the moment.
If you tune in to Blip, add Woohoodrew to your Favorite DJs, and I promise to send out an LDD in your honor. Until then, keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.
I’m a little late to this party, because apparently the YouTube Symphony Orchestra debuts today at Carnegie Hall, and I’ve missed all the wind-up. It’s an amazing accomplishment of the Internet age, one of those things that justifies all the zany, brainless things the Internet is used for otherwise. Let me see if I understand what’s going on here:
1. YouTube and the London Symphony join forces on a project to “create the world’s first collaborative orchestra” and to demonstrate “the power of music as a shared global language.”
2. Then composer Tan Dun pens his peppy Internet Symphony exclusively for this project. YouTube posts a video of a conductor (I believe it’s Tan) conducting the movement called “Eroica” so collaborators can follow the correct tempo and pitch.
3. People from all over the world go ape submitting videos of themselves performing the piece — every part, on every instrument imagineable. You Tube throws them all together in a glorious mash-up video. Seriously, I think I see one woman playing the singing saw. Another guy looks to be playing mixing bowls. (I love this video, by the way. First of all it’s a brilliant editing job to make so many, many, many of the contest entrants a part of the final product. Also, the sight of all these earnest musicians on their grainy little videos performing their hearts out in their family rooms and bedroom sound studios … well, enthusiasm is addictive, and I find it inspiring. )
4. YouTube members vote on their favorite audition videos. (Looks like the videos got weeded first, thankfully, before viable candidates could be voted on.)
5. Which brings us to today: Winners gather together in New York to perform at Carnegie Hall.
What a magnificent use of technology. Creation is often an ivory-tower exercise, and performance the domain of a select few. This project opens up possibilities for so many people to be a part of the process, even the ones who don’t perform on stage today.
Congrats, YouTube. I just thought you were a respository for Mentos/Diet Coke videos, but you really proved me wrong today.
I heard Michael Chabon speak last night at a packed Northwestern University auditorium. The Pulitzer winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay as well as other me-favorites such as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Maps and Legends, Chabon is who most good writers want to be when they grow up.
So yeah, I was pretty geeked up about it.
The poster advertising the event had me a bit confused. He was to be speaking about Edgar Allan Poe — which was fine; EAP is no slouch in the Fascinating Character Department, but I would have been just as happy to hear Michael Chabon lecture about Michael Chabon. Fellow writers always want the secret to “How’d he do it?” Did he grow up among down-on-their-luck peanut farmers? Did he vacation every year in the Maldives? Did he flunk out of the Sorbonne? Does he use a special brand of pencil?
So instead it was to be a biographical lecture? Boredom was a distinct possibility.
I went anyway, of course, and I needn’t have worried. When it comes to words, Chabon calls the tune. He’s an entertainer on the page and on the stage. He shared plenty of autobiographical insight on his way to the Meaning of Poe — in fact, he found the old master of macabre to have plenty to say to all writers and readers in the modern day.
Chabon had written this lecture especially for this engagement, he said by way of apology. He read his essay word for word, head down and in a soft but confident voice. He may have been trying to project a little humility, but his words give it all away: This guy knows he’s flipping brilliant, a master of both the Ideas and the Words required to convey them. He spoke for over an hour, and I’ll be damned if I could find one word that was not aptly chosen for its purpose.
I hope this lecture gets collected in another book of essays like Maps & Legends. It’s a literary creme brulée all by itself.
He opened with a personal story (possibly true — he’s been known to found lectures on a stretcher or two, such as “Golems I Have Known” from Maps and Legends) about his childhood belief he was the reincarnation of Edgar Allan Poe. At this point, Chabon established himself as the coolest nerd, the ultimate example of the Geek Who Comes Out On Top. He related stories of his grade-school tormentors, and his bookish habits that “elicited … or invited” flat tires, glares, kick-me signs and insults from the club of cool kids. Reinforcing his belief in his reincarnation, he quoted the opening line of “Cask of Amontillado,” one of the best openers ever:
The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.
Of course, Chabon noted, his revenge involved fewer chains, trowels and lime-encrusted tunnels, and instead took the form of … a lecture! One where he would identify these tormentors by name! Which he promptly did, to the applause of the packed house.
From there, he launched into a detailed analysis of Poe’s choices as a writer and his use of language, especially the maudlin ballad “Ulalume.” But were we talking about Poe’s use of language or Chabon’s? Chabon has a command of words so deep and wide, I sometimes snort “showoff” when reading one of his dense Oxford-defying paragraphs. He didn’t shy away from his usual lingual challenges during the hour, but at one point, he seemed to poke fun at himself: He rattled off a list of literary analysis concepts, eye-glazing words grown long on Latin roots, things only a Rhetoric major might be familiar with, then said: “We don’t need those tools to show that Poe rocked the language.”
Poe, Chabon said, was a poet “to the T” — the T being the only thing missing from his name to make it official. He may have been the founder of genre — horror and detective and mystery — but he infused his earthy prose with as much meter and metaphor and pure poetry as an epic ode. Here, the parallels of Chabon and Poe are pretty striking. I’ve not read many better masters of language —particularly of metaphor — than Michael Chabon.
(At Star Farm, I earned the nicname “Simile Man” for my superheroic and untiring crusade to always find the perfect comparison for any description I was writing. Doesn’t mean I was the best at it, I just tried the hardest. But if Simile Man was, in fact, ever successful, that success was never more than a Jimmy Olsen to Chabon’s Man of Steel.)
Take this bit from Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I usually save rote memorization of passages for Shakespeare, but I can type this one by heart. It’s a scene where Landsman, the noirish hard-luck detective, and Berko, his police partner, cross paths with Landsman’s ex-wife, a pretty tough and sharp witted broad herself.
From the first time that Landsman brought Bina home, she and Berko seemed to share an understanding of, an angle on, a laugh at the expense of Landsman, the funny little sorehead in the last panel of a comic strip with the black lily of an exploded cigar wilting in his puss.
Now that’s a metaphor. Immediately you understand an entire history here of the merciless teasing Landsman’s had to endure, the kind that only comes from those who love you and know you best. Plus, that evocaton of a Katzenjammer-style comic — from the exploding cigar gag to the archaic “puss” — matches perfectly the Old World veneer Chabon has laid over this book and its setting in a run-down and soon-to-be-abandoned Jewish settlement in post-war Alaska.
Chabon, like Poe, is a poet. He admitted that if one were to take some of his more “well-wrought” paragraphs and broke them up into free verse, they’d be hard to distinguish from real, Norton-Anthology-style poetry. But he closed his lecture with a hard truth: Poetry don’t sell. Despite his (and Poe’s) desire to satisfy that inner poet and give it voice, he (like Poe) found it necessary to “make art I can sell for cash money.” That’s why Chabon closes up those paragraph breaks in his free verse, injects some plot by way of (like Poe) juicy genre, and sells it as a novel — the only viable medium for writers who want to eat.
The parallels are kind of uncanny. Maybe he really wasn’t kidding about that reincarnation stuff.
Oldest Son likes to arrange his toys just so. His instincts are, uh, Fantastic.
I keep Lifehacker in my Google Reader feed for a thousand cool and eclectic reasons. If you’re going to pour so much of your humanity down the ol’ electronic drain, it seems that your laptop should return a little life-affirming love.
Lifehacker is like Heloise’s Hints for the digitial age. It’s tagline, “Tips & Downloads For Getting Things Done,” is cute but isn’t as accurate as “Secrets That Make You Feel Like An Insider, And Which Sometimes Involve Technology But Which Cover Plenty of Low-Tech Stuff, Too.”
Lifehacker includes some typically techie tips, like efficient file sharing, Photoshop tricks, neat & free Web applications — but since it truly is about “hacking” your life, anything that’s a bright idea for smarter, cheaper, more efficient living is fair game. Thus we get intriguing posts about the marketing tactics of supermarket endcaps, the psychology of yard sales, and decluttering your shelves with customized etched jars.
And then I encountered this eye-opening post about a Brazillian electrician’s trick using water bottles for light bulbs. O brave new world that has such people in’t! I won’t be boring holes in my roof — yet — but it is heartening to know that innovations in alternative energy haven’t petered out yet.
For more ideas on smarter living, try the more techie Make Use Of. It’s far more verbose, and it updates so frequently, I often have to empty my Google Reader feed of it just to stay current … but there’s no denying that it’s a great big bag of acorns for a blind sow like me.