Monthly Archives: April 2009

Things that make me absurdly happy III

The word on the left is "trofes." You know, like when you win a sporting event.

My oldest son is good at chees!

We’re pretty sure he meant “chess.”

The thing is, either way you read it, he really is.

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It’s all Geek to me

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'll bet Amend LARPs, too.

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.

Yeah that's right: Sward-wielding Frankenstein versus Hoth Princess Leia. You know you wanna see it.

Heroclix (l) and Star Wars Miniatures; note that these are pre-painted plastic miniatures, thus denying the participant the true satisfaction of a paint job well done.

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.

Monk versus monkey! A furious-fisted Shaolin monk (my first effort) battles an elastic super-ape (in progress). Note the chipped knuckles of the monk. Humans 1, Simians 0!

Monk versus monkey! A furious-fisted Shaolin monk (my first effort) battles an elastic super-ape (in progress). Note the chipped knuckles of the monk. Humans 1, Simians 0!

I've even roped my boys into the act. The castle on the left is a Work in Progress authored by Younger Boy; on the right are two rock-like warriors (from the game Wargods of Aegyptus, another one I keep meaning to try); anyway the fellow on the far right is the work of Older Boy.

I've even roped my boys into the act. The castle on the left is a Work in Progress authored by Younger Boy; on the right are two rock-like warriors (from the game Wargods of Aegyptus, another one I keep meaning to try); anyway the fellow on the far right is the work of Older Boy.

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“No End in Sight”: How hosed are we?

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:

"Henny penny!" he cried.

“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.

Lt. Moulton gets the last word in the film: "Are you telling me that's the best America can do? No. Don't tell me that, don't tell the Marines who fought for a month in Najaf that. Don't tell the Marines who are still fighting every day in Fallujah that's the best America can do. That makes me angry."

Lt. Moulton gets the last word in the film: "Are you telling me that's the best America can do? No. Don't tell me that, don't tell the Marines who fought for a month in Najaf that. Don't tell the Marines who are still fighting every day in Fallujah that's the best America can do. That makes me angry."

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Happy Talk Like Shakespeare Day!

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.)

Thanks to The Rut (bigeyedeer.wordpress.com)

Thanks to The Rut (bigeyedeer.wordpress.com)

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“Nation” by Terry Pratchett

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.

"Nation" by Terry PratchettIt’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.


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The Big Blipper

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.

Be your own personal Wolfman Jack.

(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.

The only hard part: An awesome DJ name

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.

Did the girl know it was true? Did she???

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!

This one's going out to Tina in Sheboygan with love from Chi-town Shane.

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.

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The Internet Symphony

And a-one and a-two...

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.”

Yes! Because it is on the Internets, someone MUST be wearing a Stormtrooper mask.

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.

True story: My sophomore year at Northwestern, I marched an entire football season with playing trumpet with one hand because my right arm was in a sling. Because THAT'S HOW BAND GEEKS ROLL, PUNKS!

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. )

What the heck IS that thing? Is it what Upper West Side cops give Julliard students when they pull them over for DUI?

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.

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