Monthly Archives: September 2009

Simpsmoke: TV’s longest-running show restores my faith in the boobtube

Having just eye-rolled over the popularity of Family Guy, I decided it is right and proper to acknowledge that last night The Simpsons surpassed Gunsmoke as TV Land’s longest-running series. (At least in terms of seasons; Simpsons just began season 21, thus besting Gunsmoke‘s 20, but it bears noting that in Gunsmoke‘s day, a season could last 40 episodes, compared to the 20 to 22 or so episodes  in a typical Simpsons season today.)

"A solar eclipse! The cosmic ballet ... goes on."I’ll admit I don’t find the show as relevant these days, but how could it be? It’s strength was in the beginning when it was forging whole new ways to do television comedy, animated or otherwise. Man, do you remember season 3? The one with “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk” (Germans buying the power plant), “Stark Raving Dad” (Homer’s institutionalization for wearing a pink shirt), or one of my all-time favorites, “Marge Versus the Monorail” (the origin of the wacky sing-alongs that Family Guy loves to wring so desperately). This was all eye-opening stuff, with a speed and a sharpness to the wisecracks that audiences had never seen.

Marge: We're just going to have to cut down on luxuries; Homer: Well, we're always buying Maggie vaccinations for diseases she doesn't even have!

If you can, rewatch the season 3 episode “Lisa’s Pony,” which is both riotously funny and genuinely tender. It’s about Homer wanting to give Lisa the one present she’s ever wanted, and what lengths he’ll go through to be the good dad. It’s easy to knock the character of Homer as a big oaf, but in the early days especially, the Simpsons writers knew how to make fun of stupidity while still creating characters worth caring about. Homer wasn’t always a doofus, Bart wasn’t always a brat.

Contrast that to today’s fuzzy carbon copy, Family Guy. Will this show ever be as long-running and endearing? Wait — maybe I don’t want an answer to that. Punishment, Australia style.I think many of today’s 12- to 24-year-old demographic are finding the same memorable TV moments with FG that I had 15 years ago when Bart prank-called Australia, and had to go Down Under to face the consequences. (Oh, man, season 6’s “Bart vs. Australia” still makes me snort with glee.)

Can I tell these poor, deluded kids that they should hold out for better? Or should I just accept that Family Guy is this generation’s pied piper, luring scatology-loving audiences to lower and lower expectations for their laugh thresholds?

Addendum

I can’t resist noting what critics have been saying about the new Family Guy spin-off, The Cleveland Show. As I understand it Cleveland was supposed to be a little more family-themed and heartfelt comedy (a la Simpsons) than its predecessor’s crude output. But the LA Times wrote that it’s “neither sweet nor particularly funny, neither a family comedy nor a true satire,” while the Dallas Morning News posited “there’s no easy way to describe The Cleveland Show. Oh wait, yes there is: It’s not very funny.”

Perhaps most pointed of all is this Newark Ledger Star article, which manages to provide the most deft analysis of Family Guy to date. It captures my attitude perfectly — that when FG is clever, it’s clever, but when it’s bad, it’s unwatchable — and ace the perfect description of creator Seth McFarlane’s modus operandi: “the anything-for-a-laugh approach.”

If McFarlane weren’t worth hundreds of millions of dollars, I’d call it a waste of talent. I guess I just have to settle for a waste of time.

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Let’s just get this out there: I can’t stand ‘Family Guy’

When the 2009 Emmy broadcast this week came to “Outstanding Comedy Series,” I didn’t realize how close to the Apocalypse we had skated. The nominees included some stalwarts (30 Rock, The Office, Entourage) and an underdog favorite of mine (Flight of the Conchords) … and, like a boorish, over-served second cousin at your daughter’s wedding, Family Guy.

It’s not just enough to say I’m relieved 30 Rock won — no, indeed, I didn’t notice that Family Guy‘s presence was history in the making. Awful, embarrassing history that sullies the good name of television. Which is no easy feat, you know?

Here’s the problem: I did not realize until today that FG is the first animated show to be nominated in the high-prestige  “Outstanding Comedy” category since The Flintstones in 1961. What? What? Not once in its 20-odd seasons has The Simpsons merited a nod, yet the crude and obvious Family Guy is what breaks the cartoon barrier? The Simpsons has had more influence on comedy and television than the past 10 Outstanding-est Comedies combined. (Namely 30 Rock [3], The Office, Everybody Loves Raymond [2], Arrested Development, Friends, Sex and the City, and Will & Grace.) Heck, Bart Simpson is on Time magazine’s “100 most influential people of the 20th Century” list.

Sperm cell is to egg as X-Wing is to Death Star; I gotta say, that's pretty good comedy.When I saw my first Family Guy, I found it funny. Because it is. It’s loaded with funny, particularly the martini-swilling dog and Stewie, the evil baby. One of the early gags, about Stewie’s recollection of his birth, got a good laugh out of me. Still does. It’s brilliant.

I distinctly remember the moment I mentioned my Family Guy admiration to Tom Deja, a respected colleague whose taste I trust implicitly. Tom looked at me with a wounded “I expected more from you” expression.

“What?” I asked.

“You’ll see,” he promised. And he wasn’t the only one; several other comedic intellects I know shared his view. And after I watched long enough, I began to see what was eating them.

Family Guy is jam-packed with wacky vignettes and clever song lyrics and outrageous sight gags, each of which on their own might be funny as a fraternity skit or locker room prank. But when you shove them all together, it becomes the very outer limits of overkill, to the point where the laughs pile up in a big bland bowl of unsalted gruel. This show exhibits all the restraint of a sugared-up toddler on Christmas morning, and I don’t want to be the kind of parent who indulges children peeing on the Yule log. The exhibits for the prosecution:

* Excessive use of nutty “cutaway gags.” At any given moment, completely irrelevant to the context of the plot, a character will exclaim a non-sequitor like “This is worse than the time I hit Ringo Starr in the face with a pie!” or “Sheesh, this reminds of the time we enlisted in that traveling minstrel show!” That’s the cue for a 10-second segment where we see that very bit of zany mummery played out, and ha ha, what will those guys come up with next? Sadly, coming up with these kinds of asides is about as challenging a writing assignment as filling out Mad Libs. Try it yourself: “This reminds me of the time when [character] [verb]ed that [outrageous noun] with [celebrity reference]!” One at a time, these japes might be mildly amusing. But when they come in an endless stream like a horde of zombies, they make me want to claw my eyes.

* Jokes that go on too long. I think it’s some kind of post-modern reaction to the Simpsons era of jokes that just keep coming atcha. Family Guy (among other modern comedies, I’ve noticed) enjoys deliberately hanging around too long with a joke, milking the comedy of obnoxiousness — if such a thing can be called comedy. Actual barbershop quartets have eaten up valuable YouTube space tperforming their own renditions of this song. Take that, Sweet Adeline! If you care to subject yourself to an example, here’s a barbershop quartet tune about vasectomies. Like most FG songs, it’s got lots of witty, ribald lyrics … and then once the joke is over, they stick around and beat you with the stick. Ha! Ha! They just don’t know when to quit — and that makes it funnier!

* Parodies that add nothing to the original joke. Just because a thing happened once, and it was funny or memorable, doesn’t mean it’s still funny and memorable when you act it out again. That’s high school logic, and the comedy goldmine of teen boys who spent the weekend watching the Austin Powers marathon and want to act out funny scenes on Monday in Government class. Remember that classic news blooper about the reporter who falls while stomping grapes? Wow, that was an easy script to write!FG riffs on that — by re-creating the scene exactly, bringing nothing new to the joke, drawing no clever parallels to anything else, furthering the story not an inch. (Click here for a cruddy YouTube clip.) Many of FG’s jokes feel this way: Look what we remembered about the ’80s! Ho!

* Crudity that makes The Simpsons look like NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. See, Family Guy thrives on “prude bait” — edgy and raw jokes meant to outrage the puritans among us. A lot of shows do this, including, at times, The Simpsons. That’s because subversion is funny, and nothing is more subversive than smart and subtle naughtiness that tweaks establishment values. FG knows smart, but it turned out the lights and pretended it wasn’t home when subtle came knocking on its door. I’m not going to roll my eyes over  babies nursing men’s nipples, or obvious and uncreative boob jokes, or weird allusions to teenager-dog bestiality, because I’ll just sound like an old man. “In my day, Bart Simpson rode skateboards naked and that was naughty enough for us, dag-blame it!” I don’t have to point this out, since groups like the Parents Television Council (gawd, I can’t believe I’m about to sympathize with them) already object strenuously to an episode where “Fox treated viewers to everything from an ‘eleven-way’ gay orgy to baby Stewie eating a bowl of cereal with horse sperm instead of milk.” Look, I know it’s fun to push the envelope … but sometimes what’s on the other side of that envelope is just a guy saying “Poopy! Poopy! Poopy!” into the microphone for 22 minutes straight. That looks to be the natural terminus for the path Family Guy is treading. And lucky us! We’ll all get to see that graceful decline to its inevitable conclusion, since Fox has contracted episodes through 2012.

Happy viewing, friends.

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The best Web comics: Just cuz they’re free don’t mean they’re cheap

I believe I’ve already sung the praises of that Will-Rogers-esque philosopher showman, the Heath Ledger Joker, for teaching us all in The Dark Night: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

Seemingly wise advice. Yet the Web is full of creatives plying their craft for free (no, blogging doesn’t count; you call this craft?) and some of these artistes are even finding ways to profit from their no-cost generosity.

God bless the Web cartoonists.

These creators are like the garage bands of the art scene, hustling for shows, carrying all their equipment to and from the van, building an audience one gig at a time, and selling CDs at a folding table to fund the dream.

Puppet Homestar: Every bit as funny as Potter Puppet Pals.The very first art entrepreneur I can think of on the Web is the evergreen Homestar Runner, who has been running for almost 1o years with true basement-style Flash animation and voice recording. Early on, I wondered how the creators, Mike and Matt Chapman, could keep up with such regular updates of such high quality without giving up their day jobs. The answer? "Between the milk and the cold ones."The answer, of course, was T-shirts. They kept it up until they had so many fans they could sell merchandise on the side, including posters, patches, DVDs and now a PC game. (The site carries no advertising. And I’ve heard, and Wikipedia confirms, that the “Brothers Chaps,” as they call themselves, have refused multiple offers to make movies or TV shows out of their little Web enterprise. If they can make a comfortable living and keep creative control, I say bully.)

Here’s the great thing about working for free: As Web cartoonists develop deeper and deeper archives of material, they can bundle their strips into book form and charge 20 bucks a pop — yes, they’re charging for material that was free, most of which you may have seen already. But for many fans the cost is worth it; they might even feel compelled to give something back to the creators who have delivered so much for so little for so long.

To that end, here are the Web comic sites in my personal Google Reader queue, all with archive books for sale. Buy someone’s book and help keep those Wacom tablets running, won’t you?:

XKCD

It’s OK to ask for a crib sheet when reading XKCD, the ultimate nerd strip: science, math, computer programming and pop culture all get the most innie in-jokes ever delivered. Half of the time, I need a dose of Wikipedia to straighten me out (and even then, I still may not get it, as is the case with one of XKCD’s most popular posts among computer people.) But when I do get it, I usually bust a gut.

Consider this entry that mocks Stephanie Meyer (author of Twilight) as well as the Web trolls at 4chan.org, the snarkiest site of Internet juvenilia ever:

It even manages to work in a joke about Edward's hair.

Click to biggify.

I can’t even begin to describe how magnificent it is that author Randall Munroe manages to mock Meyer and make her the hero of this strip. This guy is brilliant. Not only does he have the usual T-shirts and posters available, but he’s also just released “Volume 0” of his archived strips. Consider it an $18 college course.


PVP ONLINE

Another nerd comic, this time with special emphasis on video games and role-playing. It’s also a slice-of-life office strip — creator Scott Kurtz realized that as he was making daily jabs at the video game industry, he was developing a compelling cast of characters. These days I’d put the ratio of gaming jokes to interpersonal relationship jokes at 1:3, and that is a very good thing.

Whereas Munroe updates XKCD twice a week, Kurtz posts daily almost religiously. The result is a rich trove of storylines where characters grow and change; of trenchant commentary; of silliness; of mad genius cats and lovable imaginary trolls.

Here’s a strip from 2004, when the TV show “Lost” was still baffling and new. (It’s still baffling, just not new.) The PvP gang gets together for one of their familiar role-playing sessions, summing up my feelings of fascination with the show:

Click to embiggen.

Click to embiggen.

Usually the action centers around the narcissistic Macintosh fanboy, Brent, who works at PvP Magazine (“Player versus player,” a video game term), which is run by his childhood friend, Cole. But sometimes, PvP indulges Kurtz’s sudden wacky inspirations, like this strip that introduces one of my favorite off-shoot characters ever: LOLBat. Riffing on Internet slang (and the crew of Web-denizens who gave rise to the LOLCat craze), LOLBat fights crime the Information Age way:

U can has clik to mak bigr.

U can has clik to mak bigr.

You may not be in the market for PvP’s $85 hardcover “Awesomology,” compiling eight years of strips; if not, try the more modest $13 “Dork Ages” collection, which includes the series of strips that got me hooked on this comic: a “Matix” parody called “The Comix.”

THE NON-ADVENTURES OF WONDERELLA

Justin Pierce updates this colorful comic once a week. He parodies not just Wonder Woman, and not just the whole notion of superhero comics, but just about anything that lies in the path of his sarcasm. He’s also wildly absurd, too, which is usually what gets the biggest laugh out of me.

Click for more bigness.

Click for more bigness.

Wonderella has a penchant for speaking in a pastiche of urban street and valley girl, and neither she nor anyone in the cast is all that bright. But Pierce manages to put something ridiculous and subversively funny in nearly every panel, which is a comedic coup. His online store has plenty of merch, including a ubiquitous bobblehead doll, but I have my eye on his first collection of 99 strips, “Everybody Ever Forever.”

THE PERRY BIBLE FELLOWSHIP

Talk about a misleading title. T’aint nothing about bibles, fellowships or anyone named Perry in this strip.

Nicholas Gurewitch doesn’t update here much these days — if at all– but the body of work he’s already amassed at PBF will last the ages. He channels the same zany outlook on life as The Far Side, only with more jokes about sex and violence. Expectations are regularly subverted by Gurewitch, all without a cast of regulars, or even a consistent design or medium; the only thing that matters is that people get what’s coming to them: if you bring home a magical egg from the forest, expect to hatch a bloodthirsty raptor; if you put “spankings” on the list of “things I hate,” then expect to get spanked. Gurewitch always manages a fresh surprise in these super-short gags.

Here’s my very-favorite-for all-time-forever strip:

It's the look on the kid's face that gets me.

You want to see it bigger? Click it, champ.

And I defy you not to laugh yourself sick over this:

I've seen this a hundred times before, and still I laugh until I choke.

Clicky.

Gurewitch may not update his site very often because he is selling a blue jillion of his collected work. He’s just released a bigger, fancier version of his first collection, called “The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack.” Worth every penny.

ADDENDUM

Those of you who are well versed in the buffet of Web comics available now will undoubtedly point out two embarrassing omissions from my brief list: Penny Arcade and Achewood. Both strips are amazingly popular, the former with video gamers and pop culture specialists, and the latter with people who like to mock things. Yes, these are both genuinely funny strips, with loads of fans and book collections available for the purchasing. Quite simply, though, they are just not to my tastes. I can’t say why; it’s inexplicable, but there you go. Do not send me angry letters now, please.

ADDENDUM TO THE ADDENDUM

While not strictly a Web comic, the blog at Shoebox.com has regularly funny material posted to it multiple times a day. Yes, that’s Shoebox, the little greeting card company inside of Hallmark. They generate so much online content, it’s hard to imagine what these people are doing with their work days, but it’s obvious they are spending a lot of time making each other laugh. Quite often, their efforts work on me, too.

My favorite gem to come floating up from their blog:

I doubt we'll ever see this one as a greeting card.

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T-Shirtopia: Clothes-wearers of the world, unite behind Threadless!

An artist I know has a design up for judging at Threadless, and since the design in question is THIS:

Buildings? Yummo!

… I think it’s pretty clear I need to post it here, and all who view it must go and give it a “5” rating over at Threadless. I mean, come on! Li’l Godzilla is baking skyscraper cookies! Vote for it, rate it high, and maybe we can get this thing of beauty a coveted spot in the Threadless inventory.

The artist is Katie Cook, and while I don’t exactly know her personally, she did this nifty sketch for my daughter at the Chicago Wizard World comics convention in 2007, and who doesn’t love Baby Leia? It’s hanging proudly in my girl’s room.

Where'd she get that Chewie Beanie Baby? Aw, Leia, you're too cute.

I had been following Ms. Cook’s work for a while — not all stalker-y, but as an avid comics fan with a graphic novel project ramping up at my employer. Somehow, this piece of art crossed my path:

THACO: to hit Armor Class 0 ... yes, I nerded that one hard.

Click it if you want extra nerdage, but yes, that’s the Incredible Hulk and the Thing playing Dungeons & Dragons circa 1980. With their kitties. I thought this was a pretty rad image, so I made a mental note. When it came time to start the “Edgar & Ellen” graphic novel project at Star Farm, I hunted down Katie at the convention, and later nearly conned her into doing some illustrating for us. But her part of the project got slated for the second volume … and then the company bit the dust. As did all the fun projects.

The best I can do for her now? Pimp her illos at Threadless.

And while I’m doling out the kudos, let me take a moment to admire the juggernaut that is Threadless. The fact that aspiring artists can get their designs into the swankiest forum for hipnorati is a real testament to the power of the Internet Age. Threadless attracts brilliant creative minds who aren’t just making “I’m with stupid” shirts, they’re making art. Sometimes staggeringly beautiful art, sometimes ridiculously funny art.

Some of my favorites (and their all-important titles, which are printed inside at the collar):

He's grinning! That scampi scamp.

"The Loch Ness Imposter"

"The Morning After"

"The Morning After"

"The War Against Work"

"The War Against Work"

It’s such an active community at Threadless that even having a design posted for review can expose an artist to thousands of people, let alone turn the design into a lucrative, all-cotton annuity. If I had had my wits about me earlier, I would have used the bully pulpit of this blog to promote another artist friend’s design when he got his design on the Threadless gauntlet.

Crazy talented Chris Gammon, who I worked with on a certain talking train property, made me shoot the milk out of my nose when I saw his entry:

The one that kills me is the kid sitting on the hood of his car, pointing out stars to his lady.

Had I been thinking, I would have sent my corner of the blogosphere running to this dark comedy of a T-shirt while the polls were still open. Note the unusual layout around the waist, and the way the punchline comes first. It doesn’t get riotously funny until you take the time to circle the T-shirt wearer and savor the individual panels. When you do … stand back for bleating laughter!

BLOGGISH ADDENDUM

Katie Cook’s Godzilla shirt reminds me of one more favorite shirt (not from Threadless), and as long as this seems to be the “funny t-shirts I have seen” post, I’ll add this. I’ve seen it at several conventions and keep promising myself I’ll buy it someday:

Well who doesn't?

Oh, smashy, burninating ‘Zilla. Some day, your cottony wit will be mine.

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How I stopped worrying and learned to build a Web site

The year was 1996 and, fueled by the fervor of the Internet Dawn, I hunkered down with a Teach Yourself HTML book in order to master the future. I recall the clunky, ugly pages I wrought through those lessons — it gave me a feeling of power not dissimilar to my 1979 experiments with a TI-99 running BASIC, when I commanded the ones and zeroes to:

10 PRINT ANDY

20 GOTO 10

30 END

When the screen filled up with infinite Andys, I thought the days of programming my army of servant robots could not be far behind.

But here in 2009, with three kids and a job hunt going on, I’ve lost touch with my inner Lightman (Matthew Broderick in “Wargames,” remember?). It’s a universal truth that if you don’t use it, you lose it; and any Web-savvy prowess I might have had has long since been superseded by guys who can dream in Flash and fly on Rails. I feel like my father after the carburetor was replaced by the fuel injector: “How do you fix these damn things anymore?”

So when it became clear I should put up a more professional Web site to advertise my freelance services, I wasn’t quite sure where to begin. Who will host my site? How will I build it? What’s the best deal?

If you’re in the same techno-predicament, or if you’re just curious about the process, this post’s for you — I certainly would have appreciated the advice two weeks ago.

The Problem: Build a professional-looking web site to advertise my writer/editor services — and make it fast, easy and cheap!

The Soution, Step One: Identify an all-inclusive Web service that has simple tools for building a site; ideally, it would also allow me to register the domain name and host the site all in one swell foop.

Well, I didn’t believe how difficult it was to get a simple answer to this. Most of the time a swift Google search will drum up somebody with a strong opinion about anything, but the best I could come up with was a Lifehacker.com poll where readers picked their favorite services — but it lacked Lifehacker’s helpful analysis of what or why or which of these jumbled brand names I should choose. If anyone finds a comprehensive (and objective) comparison of all the Dreamhosts, Bluehosts and HostGators of the world, let me know will you?

Anyway, since I really wanted one-stop shopping for buying the domain (akin to the deed to the land), hosting the site (the physical space where the house will stand) and building the pages (the McMansion itself), I came down to two providers:

* GoDaddy (you’ve seen their lascivious commercials), versus

* Network Solutions (the original domain-name registrar of the Internet).

At first GoDaddy seemed the obvious choice — as a major advertiser hitching its wagon to easy, mass-market access to the Web, I figured this would be the simplest option. And it was. For a few moments. But I came face to face quite quickly with an array of increasingly confusing add-ons, options, upgrades, downgrades, simplifiers, complexifiers, added protections, privacy protections, pocket protections, pocket universes and universal health care until I began to not care.

Was I being nickle-and-dimed? Bait-and-switched? I just couldn’t tell. When I figured in the cost of spokeswoman Danica Patrick and 30-second Super Bowl ads, I finally decided they had to recoup their losses with me. I decided to look elsewhere.

(The bright spot of GoDaddy, however, was the automated suggestions for alternate domain names:

I do NOT want to know what's being purveyed at PaintedScottLive.com...

I like how the automated thesaurus switches “Drew” with “Painted” and “Pulled.” And I was sorely tempted by “EasyDrewScotty.com” — cuz, you know, I am easy like Sunday morning.)

Network Solutions, on the other hand, provided a much more streamlined registration process; it was still riddled with options because it has to be, but it concluded with a super-smart sliding-rate calculator that updated my pricing if, say, I lowered my registration length from five years to two, or upgraded from regular e-mail service to deluxe. This tool proved to be important, because I had taken to keeping a clipboard tally of the individual costs of each site just to keep the staggering columns of costs and options straight.

Hint: Each provider offered a more expensive “private registration package,” which kept my personal contact information off the very public registry record; a worthwhile cost for staving off solicitors! Network Solutions provided the clearest example of what life would be like without the private registration:

Imagine the paparazzai who would have hounded me.

I blurred my private info myself in this image — but NS’s clear presentation really forces you to consider what your privacy is worth.

The Soution, Step Two: Build my site with simple but straightforward tools. As I had hoped, Network Solutions did have easy-to-use tools, but they took a little getting used to. After a few hours labor I was already finding shortcuts and remembering oft-repeated steps, which sped up the building process immensely.

To start, you can choose a template from their stack of pre-designed layouts. The designs weren’t as numerous and as varied as I had expected (I don’t have much use for sleeping puppies or surgery-bound doctors), but I’ve since realized that if I really want to pour some customization effort into this, the tools are there to make it possible. These tools may not be very robust for someone used to working high-end design software, but for my rusty purposes, they’ll do for now.

I chose something without default art images (puppies, doctors, et al.) so I could add art of my own choosing, while still allowing me to play with colors and layouts. Not to worry, though, even after you commit to a look, you can switch to another template easily enough later — there will likely be reformatting tweaks you’ll want to do, but when I tested this functionality I judged the re-work to be reasonable and easier than I had expected.

Colors and textures on the templates vary *widely.*

Here, my original design is on the left, but with a few clicks I was able to port the whole thing to new templates in a jiffy. Text colors, sizes and spacing would all need to be tweaked, but the heavy lifting is already done.

The actual act of adding content to your site is fairly easy to grasp. Network Solutions uses a number of basic tools to controlling your pages, the most critical of which is a drag-and-drop function that took some getting used to. The basic templates divide pages into columns and give you pre-determined “entry points” to drag and drop content.

Template view.

Note those blank squares that prompt you to “Drag Content Here.” Using clearly marked tools at the top of this interface …

Note that you click the "Image" or "Text" buttons once to call up the submenu; drag an image or a textbox from this submenu.

… you can choose either images or text boxes to drag into those boxes. Rearranging these elements is intuitive, as is adding and subtracting them, and uploading images and documents from your computer. (Cutting and pasting copy from elsewhere, though, proved clunky. Pasted copy brought along old formatting I often couldn’t undo, so I ended up having to retype loads of resume materials. Boo!)

The only trick that required time to master was how to make a downloading file look attractive. The default setting is to use clunky icons or text; bleah. But I soon figured that I could upload any image (such as the cover of a book I was excerpting), and using a hidden command called “Properties”…

At first I thought this was a sneaky place to hide this, then I realized it was kind of intuitive, too.

… I could attach the image to the actual downloadable document, which prettied up my interface in no time.

Here’s the final product for public display

I chose an alchemy theme. Because I can.

…which my wife tells me is too dark, and I guess I agree. That’s an awful lot of reverse type to have to read. Perhaps I was just channeling my Goth sensibilities when I put this together. But now we know that re-jiggering the “final” product isn’t the end of the world!

All told, I’m really happy with the Network Solutions experience, which I found to have clear instructions beginning with the registration process and continuing throughout. Setting up an e-mail for this domain was a snap, and though it takes some careful reading of instructions to fully understand all the capabilities, the communication has been (so far) clear and keen. I haven’t had to test their customer service yet … but maybe I won’t have to!

EXTRA INNINGS: Early in this process, I did solicit advice from my personal tech guru, Brian E., who suggested I first register my domain through Dotster, then link it to a WordPress blog. These days, he argued, WordPress has become an all-purpose content management system, not just a blog-output device, and he felt WP would provide ample templates for any need. I didn’t end up going this route (sorry, Brian!) because it wasn’t quite one-stop-shop enough. I see now that it might have been a good idea, since I can’t seem to link this blog (where you are now) to my Network Solutions site (so a post here would get repeated over there), but I still don’t regret the gain in simplicity from taking the route I did.

Do you have varying experiences or opinions about your personal Web mastering process? I would LOVE to hear it in the comments.

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‘National Treasure’ actually inspires mid-movie history lesson

For some reason, I didn’t see Jerry Bruckheimer’s “National Treasure” the first time around, maybe because I thought it would be full of faux history and contrived action.

And even though, yes, it’s full of faux history and contrived action, the family and I had a genuinely great viewing of this 2004 film this weekend, with all parties except the 5-year-old hanging on the edges of their seats throughout. ( My Only Daughter picked up on the latent tension in the soundtrack and quickly decided to play elsewhere.) Not only did “National Treasure” out-Indiana-Jones the most recent Indiana Jones movie, but it sparked an honest-to-Pete history lesson so pressing that we had to stop the movie.

“What’s the Declaration of Independence?”

“What was the Revolutionary War?”

“Why did that guy sign his name so big?”

So, five years late, I’d like to extend hearty congratulations and thanks to producer Bruckheimer, director Jon Turtletaub, and the cast of screenwriters for making a caper movie that educated my kids without being cloying or off-putting or dumb.

Or at least, not too dumb. Because though I thoroughly enjoyed the riddle-laced hunt (having written one of my own for a slightly younger audience), I can’t excuse an instance of sloppy mystery writing right in the middle.

Obviously, for this movie to work, viewers must suspend disbelief about a number of things, such as: special colored lenses that reveal invisible messages on Revolutionary-era parchment. (That’s fake science, but fun; I can pretend Ben Franklin developed an ink that would only be visible through a certain-color lens.) But what I can’t buy is when a riddle solution pretends to rely on simple science but is, in fact, blatantly wrongo.

Tilting of the earth? They've never heard of it. Yet Daylight Savings Time, *that* they've heard of, and they manage to have a neener-neener smartypants conversation about it.

Mild spoilers. A clue sends Nic Cage to the top of the Liberty Bell tower where, at 2:20, the shadow of the tower will point to the next piece of the puzzle. At this point, no one in the movie says, “Yes, but on what day at 2:20?” Because you can bet someone in the audience — really, anyone who has experienced the changing of seasons — knows that the sun’s height in the sky changes day by day. It’s called the tilt of the earth, and it means a bell tower shadow on July 4 would be dramatically different from a bell tower shadow on Christmas Eve.

As a graduate of Greenhills (Ohio) Middle School, I find it hard to ignore this basic science Fun Fact.

I think director Turtletaub wants me to assume that, as long as the shadow comes close to its target (a particular section of wall), any treasure hunter would be able to uncover the Mason-marked brick no matter the time of year. Fine. But if so, someone in the movie should have addressed me — and all the middle school science teachers out there — with some dialog that hand-waves our question marks away:

Attractive Helpmate: “The shadow will be different depending on the day of the year, right?”

Cocky Treasure Hunter: “Yes, but maybe it falls across something no matter what day we look.”

See? If I can do it for free, surely a well-paid script overseer can, too. Hmm, maybe I smell a job opportunity in the works…

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Go, Cats, Go!

Thank you, 1950s, for showing us how to make a mascot look properly fearsome. The modern "Chester Cheetah" Willy need not apply.

Northwestern University football kicks off today with a home opener against Towson, which archaeological records suggest is somewhere in America. Thanks to the blogging efforts of The Purple Drank I now know what to expect when the lads and I attend this morning:

Transitive property logic that leads me to believe that we’ll win by a lot:
9/20, 2008: Coastal Carolina, 31, Towson, 3.
8/30, 2008: No. 22 Penn State, 66, Coastal Carolina, 10.
11/8, 2008: Iowa, 24, No. 3 Penn State, 23
9/27, 2008: Northwestern, 22, Iowa, 17.
Transitive property score differential: 100.

A hundred-point win? I’d take it … but will settle for not losing. Any Wildcat fan who has cheered through as many seasons and painful losses as I will always settle for not losing.

If you tune into the Big Ten Network for the game, look for the superfan in the full-body purple paint waving both arms and wiggling his lavender Speedo at the camera; I’ll be as far from that person as possible.

UPDATE: Cats win! … though by a mere 33 points; the Transitive Theory of Scoring has been debunked rather scientifically. And also: Towson is from Baltimore. And now you know.

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