Wednesday, April 30, 2008

"The Original of Laura" by Vladimir Nabokov

Yesterday -- a gloomy, cold Monday morning -- I got the happiest surprise possible: Dimitri Nabokov has finally decided to publish his father's final, unfinished manuscript, "The Original of Laura."

Since I didn't start reading Nabokov's books until long after he'd died, I've missed the sweet anticipation of waiting for one of his books. Now -- thanks apparently to Vladimir appearing in his son's dream -- I get to enjoy the last book with the rest of the world...

...and we'll probably all think it sucks. But still!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Taxes Times Two

The real joy of filling out tax forms is knowing that you're going to lose...but not knowing BY HOW MUCH. Last year I was shocked and horrified by the amount of money I needed to pay at the end of April. This year I need to pay twice as much! You may have guessed that I have not started earning twice as much money in the meantime.

There are only certain circumstances during which I require an afternoon drink all alone. This is one of them.

Antics of Arabella

One reason that I decided to read every issue of The New Yorker in chronological order was so I could understand the references. By reading all the stories leading up to the 1928 election, for instance, I can understand the jokes they make subsequently about Herbert Hoover. You might ask if it's important to understand flippant jokes about Herbert Hoover. You'd have a point.

Sometimes, however, an item shows up that I have no context for. Such is the case with the November 17, 1928 two-page spoof of the New York Times, featuring all sorts of Times-related humour that even an avid New Yorker reader couldn't hope to understand.

I give you "Antics of Arabella" (click for full-size) and I ask respectfully: what the HELL?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Pictures, Some of Which Feature Feet!

I've put up a few more pictures on Flickr. Click here to look at the most recent ones. Amongst other things you will see the "hair squid" that I bought from Exoskeleton Cabaret...

The "Hair Squid" Revealed!

...and, by popular demand, a few shots of me with glasses looking oh-so-brainy.

The Glasses, Party Posture


Zsa Zsa Ditches a Rodent or Two

On Tuesday morning I found a dead mouse at the bottom of my stairs, laid there by my 13-year old, thoroughly calm and domesticated cat.

This is the Bum That Belongs to the Cat that Caught the Mouse that Lived in the House That Muffy Rents

This shocked me for two reasons, first because there had been no evidence of rodent activity previous to this, but mainly because Zsa Zsa doesn't seem like a cold-blooded killer. She doesn't like to play with things, preferring instead to sit on my lap and purr loudly and then fall asleep. She doesn't even have front claws.

Even stranger, Zsa Zsa didn't appear to be proud about what she'd done. Her attitude was very much "this is my job, don't worry about it." I have to agree because she doesn't contribute much to the household except for love and affection. Now she can contribute murder.

Then, on Friday morning I heard her attacking another mouse in my upstairs hallway. I think she carried it downstairs, thinking it was dead, and then it ran away and escaped into one of the heating vents. I can now verify that terrified mice sound like laser guns when they're cornered, making an awful squeak-squeak-squeaking sound.

I love mice -- some of my favourite pets have been mice -- but I can't say I feel sorry for these ones. If they're willing to make a home in an apartment that smells strongly of feline then they deserve to die...hopefully before they chew their way into my kitchen cupboards.

If you see Zsa Zsa, congratulate her on her accomplishments, but don't make too big a fuss. She's modest.

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Skin and Bones" by Thorne Smith

I LOVE the yearly book sale at the United Church. Besides discovering all the different genres they can tuck the New Testament into -- fiction is my personal favourite -- I always uncover at least half a dozen $2.00 gems.

My definition of a gem is a book that I can't get anywhere else. These are usually oddball hardcover editions that were published previous to 1960, often with handwritten inscriptions on the first page. I don't know for sure that these books are unusual when I first find them, but I can generally make a pretty good guess...and this year my haul was better than ever.

I've almost finished reading the real star of the bunch: a 1939 edition of Thorne Smith's "Skin and Bones," a smutty sex farce originally published in 1933. Who is Thorne Smith? Well, somebody has put up a fanboy page about him, another person has scanned many of his novels. There's a scanty Wikipedia page as well, but in general it appears that Smith has been largely forgotten...

Maybe for a very good reason. I can't figure out if he's the world's worst writer or if he was an extremely subtle satirist. Based only on this book I'm leaning towards the first hypothesis.

"Skin and Bones" is about a man who periodically turns into a skeleton due to exposure to photographic chemicals. He rattles through a series of set-pieces involving a speakeasy, a mortuary, a barber shop, a doctor's office, and a gangster hotel. The situation is the same in every location: he turns into a skeleton, his clothes fall off, everybody is terrified by or disgusted by him, the women ponder euphemistically about his lack of manhood, and then he freaks out and everybody runs away.

Sometimes he's wearing a false beard that everybody likes to discuss for some reason.

These "skeleton" scenes are followed by him suddenly regaining his flesh, but being naked and drunk and besieged by pretty women, often while still wearing the beard. It's like a college kid's never-ending wet dream.

But there's something fascinating about it all. Part of it is the novelty of reading sexy bad literature from the 1930s, but the most (in fact the only) real interesting part of the book is how repetitive and poorly-written it is. Ninety percent of the book consists of disconnected, almost stream-of-consciousness banter between two-dimensional characters, generally about how disgusted they are by the skeleton in their midst. The jokes are obvious and feeble and they're all the same -- often literally -- and none of it seems to have any connection with what happened before. They come, they banter, they move along.

Each time I start to hate the book, though, I realize that it's written in a similar style to two well-regarded satires that I also hated: "Gulliver's Travels" and "Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich." Both books relied on satire so heavy-handed and repetitious that the intent could not be mistaken...maybe "Skin and Bones" is supposed to be the same way, except that I'm not even grasping the intent? I say this because occasionally -- every fifty pages or so -- Thorne Smith came up with a genuinely funny insight that actually made me laugh, so I know he's not a TOTALLY awful writer. Maybe I just don't "get" this stuff?

Anyway, as much as I dislike the book I have to admire the twenty illustrations, most of which involve pretty women showing off their legs, sometimes with a goofy skeleton leering at them. "Skin and Bones" is worth it for that alone, however annoying is the actual content (or lack thereof).


Poetry never appeals to me in its most artistic and vague form, so instead I give you the first installment of "The Unambiguous Poetry Corner."

This one's by John Ogden Whedon, and it appeared in (you guessed it!) The New Yorker on November 10, 1928. It's called "Speakeasy."
Elbows on a sloppy bar,
Feet upon a rail,
Shutters drawn and chinks filled,
Cluttered tables, drinks spilled,
Pretzels in a broken jar,
Ice and sawdust in a pail.

Screeching radio and clinking
Glasses. Shouts, a song, a curse.
Drinkers--sulky, happy, pensive.
There a novice, apprehensive,
Ostentatious in his drinking.
There a poet scribbling verse.

At the door there comes a tapping;
General hush; the singers cease.
Heads befogged in dissipation
Turn in tense anticipation--
Then a grunt, and back to napping.
It's only the police.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

I'd Buy Anything By...King Crimson (If There Wasn't Anything Else Available That I Wanted More)

You can tell by the equivocal title that I'm not a BIG King Crimson why would I "buy anything?"

I don't so much ENJOY the band as I respect their MUSICIANSHIP. Much of their music is sheer wankery, but it is technically brilliant wankery, even if the spectacular fireworks are little more than ear-candy or flat-out "showing off."

There are many King Crimson songs that I like, of course, but for the most part I buy their albums to hear Robert Fripp and his hand-picked bandmates go "look at what we can do!" Crazy tempos, micro-managed song-structures, elaborate fret-picking, Chapman Stick, over-the-top production, unconventional instrumentation...well, that's all pretty nifty but it doesn't necessarily make for "great music."

They started off in the late '60s mixing prog rock and highly-structured jazz, occasionally dipping into saccharine psychedelic folk. In the '80s they picked up Adrian Belew -- have I mentioned that I'd Buy Anything by Adrian Belew? -- and started doing adult contemporary art pop that I find ultimately forgettable.

I like their subsequent music much more: extremely heavy, noisy, somewhat discordant angst that probably got them their gig opening (!) for Tool. Here's their "double trio" act from 1995 performing "B'Boom" and "THRAK." Warning: sheer noodling on display, but it's meticulously rehearsed and sort of awesome. I think Belew is using some sort of MIDI guitar device.

Albums to buy: "In the Court of the Crimson King" (their debut) is pretty darn good and probably the highlight of their early period, but I personally like "The Power to Believe." Albums to avoid: I'm not a fan of "Starless and Bible Black" but apparently I'm a minority. For fans only: I don't think you even dabble in King Crimson unless you're already a fan, but I think TRUE fandom would be to watch the '80s concert videos without getting distracted by Belew's terrible clothes. I am unable to do so.

The Trapezoidal, Slightly Flattened World

I have taken the car out for a few more trips, primarily to force myself to get accustomed to her. But I'm really having trouble getting accustomed to something else: my glasses.

In the past my decision has been to wear the glasses only for distance vision, and nobody has given me a good reason for why I shouldn't do so (besides a few silly, teasing comments in this blog). It seems to me that if I don't need the glasses for everyday life I probably shouldn't wear them, partly to avoid wear and tear on them, but also because there are times when I won't WANT to wear them, and I don't want to be blind at those times because my eyes EXPECT the glasses then.

But the thing is, even after ninety minutes of wearing my glasses at a stretch the world still looks and feels funny. The ground is never where it's supposed to be, my reach is slightly off, round objects are slightly ovoid, and reality REALLY warps when I pay attention to the way it hits the frames.

So I've begun to wonder if I NEED to wear them constantly, otherwise I'll never get used to them. Maybe after a certain amount of cumulative exposure my brain will know how to adjust to them faster when I put them on. For that reason I'm still wearing them as I type this, which is why the browser window is a disconcerting trapezoidal shape (maybe it always was and I just never noticed?)

I've done Google searches for "get accustomed to glasses," but I've found no information about how people actually do so. Is there a support group? Can I join a class where we learn to see things again?

Is this a problem with my prescription, I wonder? Is it my glasses that need fixing, or is it my head?

Learning French with Sol the Clown

Us kids had to watch a lot of extremely surreal Quebecois "instructional French" programs in public school, supposedly to teach us that French people are very strange. Seriously, there really did seem to be a "Quebecois style of humour" that relied more heavily on funny faces and slapstick than our "Southern Ontario" style did.

One of the shows we watched constantly was "Parlez-Moi" starring Marc Favreau, French hobo-clown. There are several complete episodes on YouTube, but I'm sad to say that the one where he eats Dracula's cheese cannot be embedded.

Watch just a bit of this program to understand why most English Canadians retained so little French into their adult years. As my co-worker Dave said when he saw these, "it's obvious that the French didn't want us to learn their language."

Chilton Pen Secrets

One reason I read so much pre-60s material is because I'm curious to see how women are represented and -- when they have the chance -- how they represent themselves.

After putting up with hundreds of 1920s New Yorker advertisements for executive pens, I've finally run across one that's specifically aimed at women. Do you think it takes a different approach from the others? Oh nelly.

It really IS about pens, HONEST.
It's about these new Twice the Ink Chilton Pens done in vanity leathers: natural ostrich, alligator, and lizard skin.

Really, they're the most fetching things...just the "utterly different" sort of pen for that sort of girl who knows how to make her briefest notes fairly leap out of the litter when the Morning Male begins to shuffle his nine o'clock letters...

...But, honestly, that's so modestly moderate that it fairly makes a secret of the proven fact that any lady-size Chilton holds three-to-five times more ink than other lady-size pens. Stop and try one at the better pen-counters.
I'm trying to figure out if these pens are marketed to housewives or secretaries, and whether women back then actually spoke in this goofy, bouncy vernacular. I bet a lot of them did.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Jolly Pleasure Pirates Return!

This follow-up to "An Early Queer Cruiseline?" doesn't seem half as gay as the other one, but it's nice to see that the "Jolly Pleasure Pirates" are still ranging the decks on November 10, 1928.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Weekend

* At a house party, why am I hearing so much of MGMT, the day after that Good Friend Adrian played them for me in his car? Is it because they're wonderful?

* Losing at Boggle, winning at drinking, general confusion about the game where they stick a paper on your forehead.

* My new neighbour plays various bugle calls, very loudly, on his trumpet. I'm not sure exactly what this is supposed to mean but it's sort of wonderful.

* Who is who? I can't register more than one new name each night.

* Most significantly: why are the birds singing at 2:30am? This doesn't make any sense. When I hear birds singing I assume that it's daybreak, but in this, it's the middle of the night. Crazy birds. Crazy singing.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"Harriet Said" by Beryl Bainbridge

Sometimes I pick up a book in order to fill a gap in my reading habits. Recently I have been buying and reading random books by female authors, because I've realized that a disproportionately large number of the books in my collection were written by men.

During one of these "expand my horizon" sprees I bought "Harriet Said" by Beryl Bainbridge, knowing nothing about the author or the book. I'm happy to say that the book was brilliant and that I'll DEFINITELY have to read more of her work.

While reading all of John Barth's books last year I finally understood the benefit of a "show, don't tell" approach...but I've been wondering exactly HOW skilled authors manage to "show" without "telling." Bainbridge's approach in "Harriet Said" is to give us an unreliable narrator -- a painfully awkward 13-year-old girl -- and subtly reveal the disconnect between her perception and her reality. Since we supposedly understand the world a little better than she does, we can draw our own conclusions about the story based on what she tells us. Sweet.

This girl is the perfect depiction of a type of confused, malleable teenager searching for identity, ready to be influenced by anybody strong enough to guide her. In this case her unfortunate guide is Harriet, a brilliant, manipulative, attractive, popular, and borderline sociopathic peer.

During a summer vacation in postwar England, Harriet proposes a secret project: to "humble" an unhappily married man who they call "The Tsar." We see everything that occurs -- including Harriet's ambiguous and multi-layered schemes -- through the eyes of the narrator as the three of them engage in increasingly dangerous games.

The brilliance of the book comes from the spot-on characterizations of all the characters, particularly as modified by the perception of the narrator herself. This girl's world is a terrible, changeable place, and though she herself doesn't understand the motivations of herself or others, WE do, and from this comes the sense of cloying menace that gradually builds and then -- at the climax -- crashes down. Particularly awful is the inability of the narrator to see the terrible events coming; she is far more concerned about other people's opinions about her than she is about the terrible things she's doing.

This book made me feel goosebumpy and sick, as it spells out all too clearly the reasons why certain types of people end up doing bad things. If you like a careful character study laid thickly over a thriller plotline, you should definitely find a copy of "Harriet Said."

But don't read it if you have a suspiciously-indrawn teenage daughter, or you might begin to wonder what sort of dark thoughts she's harbouring.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Neil Shubin Celebrates the Fish

During the past few years American scientists have been bemoaning the lack of accessible science literature, particularly in the field of biology. And they have a right to worry about this.

While biologists and paleontologists are going off and doing important things like researching, teaching, and studying, a group of other people are engaging skilled PR to convince the American public that evolution is somehow a "theory in crisis." Creationists (often camouflaged as "Intelligent Design Theorists") ARE churning out accessible literature about their theories, basically because their theories are so empty that they don't even BOTHER spending time to research them.

I suspect that this was the real motivation behind Neil Shubin's "Your Inner Fish" -- an attempt to quickly get an entertaining layperson's guide to evolution into the marketplace. By quietly revealing the mountain of evidence behind common descent, and by exposing the positively UNDESIGNED aspects of our bodies -- nobody would EVER deliberately build us this way, but it all makes sense if you go back and look at our fish ancestors -- Shubin fires a friendly salvo in a way that anybody can come along and appreciate.

And the book IS lots of fun. He draws on particularly bizarre aspects of our bodies to show why things sometimes go wrong -- hiccups, bed-spins, hemorrhoids -- interspersed with the "human element" of his personal thoughts while dissecting cadavers or searching for transitional fossils. His examples are clear-cut and the illustrations excellent. I've no doubt that this book will fulfill its intent as ammunition for countering the more prevalent creationist propaganda.

But Shubin isn't a fantastic writer, and the book has a hurried quality to it: occasional grammatical and word-usage errors ("jerry-rigged" keeps being used, and others have criticized the books usage of the loaded term "primitive" to describe anything pre-mammal) and often Shubin's prose sounds a bit TOO informal to my ears. Plus, no doubt due to the intended audience of total science newbies, he tends to over-explain the things the rest of us already know, and then gloss over the more technical details that we'd really enjoy reading about. The section on the Bozo family was particularly gaggy.

So basically, "Your Inner Fish" is not intended to be read by anybody who is already -- say -- avidly reading Panda's Thumb and its offshoot blogs, though it does have some interesting new twists and turns, and it CERTAINLY gives a clear (though sort of flippant) description of its subjects. If you'd like a primer on common descent and evidence for evolution, however, this book is certainly for you.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Spring 2008!

A few weeks ago, Tanzi announced that spring had arrived based on certain metrics that she personally believes in (robins, Dairy Queen, hotdog vendors). I myself use a more scientific method of deciding when winter is truly over: the long-anticipated melting of famous Mount Hussey.

This occurred on April 20th of last year, and I'm pleased to announce that spring comes earlier this time: April 14th, by my best estimate. You are now allowed to put out your patio furniture without fear of frost or snowfall. I say this without consulting a weather forecast or an almanac; if I'm wrong, I'll eat my crow-feather hat.

I have to admit that there are other more subjective signs of spring besides Mount Hussey. The aforementioned robins can sometimes be counted on, and I had my first taste of street meat on the way home today.

More significantly, though, I notice the change in duck behaviour. They spend all winter huddled up on the edges of their frigid creeks, waiting to be fed by lonely old men from the Waterloo Legion, but when Spring approaches they start to forage afield, waddling nonchalantly across roads and looking for a place to lay their duck-spawn. Every year some dim-witted waterfowl decides to roost inside a planter at my workplace, not realizing that it is too high and too inaccessible for newly-hatched ducklings to escape from. Likewise, every year I end up rooting through the foliage to rescue baby ducks, while mama and papa dive-bomb me in a surprisingly threatening way. It's more fun than work.

You can also tell that Spring is coming when strangers yell things at you on the street, simply to express a feeling of warm and happy social connectedness. The United Church holds its fabulous book sale around this time every year, and the retreating snow reveals all the litter that had been thrown into it during the previous months (though this was the first time I've had the pleasure of finding a bag of petrified dog feces on my lawn). Blind people, old people, and people in wheelchairs become visible once again. The doves venture out from wherever they've been hiding -- perhaps in the laps of blind old paraplegics -- and they stand high up on telephone wires, staring at you, tiny heads a-bob.

are beautiful.

But the real granddaddy of spring impressions, for me, is the smell of wet earth. All winter I do without any real odour, and then suddenly I'm assaulted by the rich, wormy smell of healthy earth being tilled and aerated. Having spent most of my life living beside both a farm and a river, this is my favourite thing about spring.

In the Kingdom of the Sighted, the Vision-Corrected Myopic is Peer

I understand that's not a very catchy title but I felt the need to stretch an old saying, maybe because conventional wisdom has always told me to "get glasses" and I just never have...until now.

About ten feet in front of my nose, objects begin to fuzz and blur. This is one reason why I ignore you when you walk towards me on a street or in a bar; unless you have a characteristic hairstyle I simply don't know it's you. Other than needing to sit near the front of lecture halls and movie theaters this hasn't really disrupted my life.

But there was no way I was going to drive a car in that state, so part of my "I'm driving again" regimen required buying my first two pairs of glasses.

It was surprisingly easy, though apparently cannot be done all at once. I walked back and forth to Hakim Optical far too many times in order to make a vision test appointment, actually TEST my vision, pick out frames, and return on two separate days to pick up the two pairs I ordered. None of this was actually fun.

But when I put the glasses! I can see every stain on the bricks of the apartment building across the street! My cat's dandruff is suddenly apparent! My carpet needs vacuuming! Maybe I should take the glasses off and return to blissful ignorance!

Vanilla makes fun of me when I say I plan to only wear them while driving, and I see her point: when I put the glasses on it takes about ten minutes for me to stop walking like there's an invisible pit in front of me, and when I take them off I'm virtually blind for another ten minutes or so. Plus I don't really want to spend the money on another pair if I fall over and break them.

So if you see me with glasses on (probably falling down a flight of stairs because I'm not used to the way they refract my vision yet), tell me that they look good. I don't want to be like Marilyn Monroe in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," implying by extension that I also don't want to die of a drug overdose, no way.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Gay Mafia in Anoraks

It's hard not to look at the new series of "Doctor Who" -- and its accompanying series "Torchwood," AKA "Campier Doctor Who with Sex and a Backwards Guitar Sound" -- without noticing how most of the high-ranking people involved are gay (or at least "sound INCREDIBLY gay but have wives"). What's more, they're gay RABID FANS. I don't think anybody has done a study to find out how skewed the demographic is, but it has long been acknowledged that something VERY gay is going on there, in all departments.

I figured this was just due to Russell T. Davies bringing his long-term acquaintances along, some of whom are exceptionally "out" in the same way that he is. But long-time fan Tat Wood devotes a section to this phenomenon in his terrific (and very funny) series "About Time."

The section is called "What's All This Stuff About Anoraks?" and is on page 167 of volume 6 (accompanying the writeup for a story starring Kate O'Mara, appropriately). The section is a mini-essay about British Doctor Who fandom in the '80s. After explaining the stereotype of the British Doctor Who fan (geeky, cynical boys who wear anoraks) versus the American counterpart (obsessive and slavish young men who wear Doctor Who scarves), he leads into the relevant stuff with the sentence "...but the real statistic anomaly was how gay it all was."
Perhaps spending so much time in an environment where people already knew the most embarrassing thing about you made it easier to make the second-most awkward admission of your life. Perhaps some people found that a hero who never quite belonged, and had other priorities than getting the girl and looking cool, helped them through difficult school years. Or perhaps it was the fact that the Nathan-Turner years were the most overtly homosexual mainstream TV ever transmitted at that point... a significant percentage of fandom in the UK -- and a very high proportion of the high-profile fans and future spin-off creators -- were gay or bi.
Wood doesn't try to explain it much beyond this, but I'm sure he has a point.

Incidentally, it never seemed to me that classic "Doctor Who" was particulary gay, but then I stopped watching shortly into JNT's producership...going back now and seeing those stories for the first time I can only Total camp and a bit mortifying.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Thick Ankle Cartoon

I've posted in the past about the 1920s "ankle" obsession, and in particular the occasional advertisements by hosiery manufacturers (among others) about statues having unfashionably "thick ankles."

Despite the number of comments informing me that some people continue to hold thin ankles in high esteem, I've remained baffled as to why STATUES should have thin ankles, and why several different people were picking on them.

I don't have a good explanation, but at least I'm not crazy...cartoonist Henry Holmes Smith thought it was weird as well! Here's his cartoon from November 10, 1928:

I feel SO vindicated!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Dwarf Fortress

I loved "The Sims." I loved "Zangband." I also loved "Sim City" and "Alpha Centauri." I have a thing about games that let me build and micro-manage a situation, especially on a microscopic level.

But rarely does a game possess me so entirely that I can literally spend an entire weekend (and perhaps more) playing it, dreading even the thought of MAKING DINNER or doing anything else that might take precious minutes away from The Entertainment.

I was reading old friend Ian's blog and one of his first posts was about "Dwarf Fortress," described as the most complicated game of all time. I didn't want to delve into some hackneyed freeware game with a steep learning curve, but the premise was intriguing: you manage a settlement of dwarves as they build and defend their fortress.

So I downloaded it and started playing. Wading through the countless menus and options was daunting. I didn't understand what any of the symbols were supposed to mean. The manual was sparse and unsatisfying. I couldn't get anywhere. So I sadly closed the program and resolved not to play it again...

...until I discovered the Dwarf Fortress Wiki, and in particular the "Your First Fortress" page. I followed the suggestions and I began -- haltingly -- to learn the logic of the game's user interface. Each small step revealed another wealth of possibilities until -- as of yesterday morning -- I became totally hooked.

I've got this handful of dwarves, see? Each one of them has a unique and detailed personality, included quirks and religious leanings, along with a huge set of potential skills.

Then I've got this enormous, fractal-generated world full of realistic geology and overlapping biomes. I've got to dig this huge fortress, find a place to stockpile my stones and food and a place for my dwarves to throw their garbage. I need to cut down trees so I can make beds, I have to build their dining halls and kitchens, I have to organize them into military squads.

But dwarves don't like to be outside, so I need to get them to plant crops underground. Since they can't sow seeds into chert (one of the dozens of types of stone you're liable to encounter, each with its own uses), I need to dig channels from a far-off river, diverting the water so that it creates an underground lake under my mountain. Then I need to build floodgates and attach them to gears and levers, which my dwarves can pull in order to selectively irrigate my underground chambers. Then the dwarves plant the crops, harvest them months later, eat them or brew them into alcohol, save the seeds, weave some of them into fiber which can then be made into clothing, sewn with images, dyed, made into ropes which are attached to buckets and blocks to create wells...

...and your wood furnace can be used to make ashes, which can be mixed with water to create potash...or turned into lye and made into soap in the alchemist's workshop...but to build that workshop you need to create glassware, which means collecting sand and heating it in a glassworks...and on and on and on.

Meanwhile the dwarves are interacting with each other. Some of them fall in love and have children, who gradually grow to have lives of their own. They sit and chat, they wrestle, they play with the dogs, they go out to chase the wildlife or fish by the water. They grieve for lost friends, especially when those friends drowned in the water supply and started belching up great clouds of pink, corrupting miasma.

This description doesn't even begin to scratch the surface. I've been playing constantly for three days and I STILL don't really know what I'm doing.

My advice? DON'T PLAY IT. You will either hate it or you'll be unable to stop, so either way you lose.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Photojourney Continues

Over on my Flickr page I've just added some new photos. Besides a few devoted to getting my feet in the shot -- because my feet are an important part of my body -- you'll also see part of Zsa Zsa that you've never seen before:

Zsa Zsa's Proudest Moment

In addition, I forgot to mention when I updated the photos a few weeks ago, so you can also catch Madison Hart and I doing our lame "Mod" impressions (among other odds and ends):

A You Need Is Love, Man!

Poor Excuse for a Post

Sometimes I just don't feel like posting anything, usually because my life is so scattered that I can't put it all together in my head. Keep checking back regularly...this mood will pass.

But wait. Before you go look at somebody ELSE'S blog, here are two songs that never fail to make me 100% happy, both of which scream "1980s England" to me.

First, Total Coelo (AKA "Toto Coelo") and "I Eat Cannibals." 80% Bananarama, 15% garbage bag, and 5% "Kate-Bush-Face." Oh, purrr!

Next, in much the same vein: "Shiny Shiny" by Haysi Fantayzee. The only time you'll see the Ragamuffin style mixed with a chastity belt. Gosh, they were pale over there.

Sometime soon: Actual Blog Substance. I promise!

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A Glossary of Taxicab Words and Phrases

Next time you're in a cab, pretend that you're an "insider" by spitting this antiquated slang (as reported in the November 3, 1928 New Yorker).

Bonus points if you're drunk and incoherent!

Acordion Pleat--The ripple a driver puts in your fender when you get in his way.

Back to the Yellows--The Yellow Taxicab Corporation is popularly supposed to employ only beginners. "Back to the Yellows" is synonymous with "Go back to school."

Copping the Cards--Confiscation by the police of a hacking license, for some infringement of the regulations.

Curb Cruiser--A girl waiting for a lift, but not in a taxicab.


Hack--A familiar and affectionate term for a taxicab.

Pound--A pound is five dollars. Used in offering a cop "his bit," instead of mentioning cash, which would be bribery. Three pounds is sometimes said to get rid of a speeding ticket.

Sea-Going Hack--A taxicab that stays out all night.

Sunday Driver--Any operator of a pleasure car causing a minor collision.

Weasel--A driver who cuts in between another taxi and a prospective fare.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Single-Camera or Multi-Camera?

Watching the commentaries on classic Doctor Who DVDs I find myself learning an awful lot about the technical details of the show. Sometimes I come across the answer to some odd question that I've always wondered about, but never known how to find the answer for.

This week's revelation is about single-camera filming versus multi-camera filming.

I've often wondered why directors don't ALWAYS film with multiple cameras. By filming the same scene simultaneously from several different angles, wouldn't that reduce the amount of time needed to film the different scene elements? Wouldn't it reduce continuity errors?

Multi-camera shooting certainly IS faster, and it DOES make doing continuity a little easier -- requiring continuity checks only for re-takes of entire scenes, as opposed to whenever a scene is shot from a different angle. Another benefit of multi-camera shooting is that foley work becomes less necessary; everybody's voices and movements naturally sync together, instead of needing to be spliced up in an editing room later.

But these Doctor Who commentaries have given me insight into the NEGATIVE aspects of a multi-camera shoot...and there are a lot of them.

First off, there's the obvious drawback of needing to hire and coordinate several different cameramen. The actors also need to know their lines better, as there are fewer opportunities to check the script. Multi-camera shoots are by necessity more "theatrical" -- everyone in the right spot, everybody blocked out, all hitting their cues exactly -- which means that scenes MUST be rehearsed beforehand. This is a time commitment that might negate the time saved by shooting with multiple cameras.

More important, however, are concerns of lighting and sound. When you're only filming with one camera the director of photography can set up the lighting of each shot individually, paying close attention to those aspects of cinematography which make films look so much better than television programs. The boom operators can likewise record each shot in an optimal way, without needing to worry about actors wandering around the entire set and getting out of range.

But when you shoot with multiple cameras, the lighting is compromised: it must be adequate from every potential camera angle. And boom operators need to cover everybody no matter where they end up, instead of focusing on a small segment of dialog which must be recorded.

Finally, it's difficult to do really nice, elaborate close-ups of characters when multiple cameras are involved, for the obvious reason that the camera doing the close-up would become visible to all the OTHER cameras. This is one reason why fight scenes in the old Doctor Who tended to be filmed with single cameras, allowing tighter shots and therefore making it all look more tense and action-packed.

Nowadays it seems that multiple-camera techniques are rarely used except when a big, one-time-only practical effect is being shot, or when filming in front of a live studio audience. Otherwise, for reasons of lighting, sound, and general flexibility, single cameras are most desirable.

A Testdrive

My car has been sitting in the parking lot since I got her, staring at me in a disgusted way. "You're too scared to drive me," she says when I walk past her. "Come sit inside. I won't bite."

I'm not worried about sitting inside my car, I'm worried about actually driving her. Part of this anxiety has been due to my not having driving glasses, so when my first pair arrived this week I had no choice but to schedule an outing: I would get inside my car and not only sit in the seat, but I would DRIVE her as well.

So I did, and today was the perfect day for it. I drove out to Wellesley and found myself on some awful dirt roads. I think I cut somebody off on my first trip through the roundabout, but my second time through seemed a little better; I just followed the leader.

I am slowly getting over my totally-unexpected performance anxiety: when I'm driving my car I feel like I am in everybody's crosshairs. This feeling of being under scrutiny is a problem I have in everyday life, but there's no doubt that when you're driving a vehicle -- or when you're in a conga line -- you are a crucial part of a social pact. The system only works because everybody more-or-less knows the rules. I suppose that's why we have licenses and are supposed to actually study up on what the speed limit on a dirt road is. And unlike a conga line, when you bump into somebody your insurance goes up.

Since I am my own worst critic, I look at the people in the cars around me and I think, "Damn, they all KNOW I'm scared, and they HATE me." When some guy in a hummer gets on my butt because I'm only driving 15kph above the speed limit, I find that I've somewhat lost my devil-may-care attitude. I've forgotten that people will ALWAYS pass you on the road, and that the best recipe for a speeding ticket (or a rear-ending) is to try to accommodate them.

This situation isn't improved by the fact that, with my new glasses, I can actually SEE those faces. Vividly. The fact that they look indifferent instead of disgusted just makes me think that they'd play great poker.

So anyway, I survived my first deliberate test drive. Now I'm going to pick up a driver's ed handbook and go through the tricky parts (because nothing brings confidence like thorough knowledge), and then next time maybe I'll try some city driving; for the most part I have yet to deal with left-hand turns and pedestrians.

Friday, April 04, 2008

"Grouse a la Cunard"

Only I have the know-how and the delicacy to get all of the "Campbell's Tomato Soup" concentrate out of the can in a single scoop. That's why you come to my blog for all the best grouse recipes.

I present the recipe for "Grouse a la Cunard," revealed in a Cunard Liner advertisement from the November 3, 1928 New Yorker Magazine:
Take a young and tender grouse...cook it ten to twelve minutes in a hot oven...Place on toast two-thirds of an inch think, fried in butter and spread with foie gras...Serve with potato chips and watercress.
There you are: "grouse on toast" -- sometimes known as a "jolly grouse butty " -- complete with trademark breathless Cunard ellipses. And potato chips. On a plate it looks like this.

We previously documented the speech of the grapefruit fetishist. This time, let's see what a grouse fetishist sounds like.
A young bird, a whole bird, is the Cunard motto...There is never a cold storage grouse on board...They are sent to Cunard from various parts of the country...from Scotland as well as Yorkshire...The very pick of the market...And served...without extra a part of the regular à la carte menu.
Pant! Pant! Pant!

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


I've just finished watching "Helvetica," the 2007 documentary about the English-speaking world's most ubiquitous, anonymous, and versatile font.

I'm not a very visual person and my knowledge of fonts is very much a patchwork, but there's no doubt that Helvetica is everywhere and that it's used to convey pretty much everything. Unlike almost every other font, designers can present it as impersonally cautionary (warning signs), cooly hip (British electronica band logos), or clean and upscale ("The Gap").

Today, while waiting for my optometrist to see me, I leafed through Vogue magazine and -- yes -- there was Helvetica, representing everything from shoes to jewelry to makeup. Since I find subconscious standards to be sort of ominous, I'm disturbed to report that I pretty much use it every day in my work: our technical writing department's style guide dictates Arial as the choice for headings and footers, and Arial is Helvetica's uneasy twin sister.

All this has gotten me thinking more about fonts in general, and how we tend to not even notice them unless something has gone wrong. People who design fonts share a sad fate with those who arrange film scores: their work is meant to enhance a final product without ever calling attention to itself.

Even though I've spent eight years working closely with fonts I can only recognize a handful. I've spent all this time working for a company that makes character generation software, and in all three of the jobs I've had during that time (technical support, quality assurance, and now technical writing) I've had to be aware of what a computer-generated font achieves.

Back when I was in the technical support department, I used to get calls from people who simply didn't understand fonts. They thought it was a "bug" if the ugly, outrageous, highly-specialized font they wanted to use -- Loki Cola for example -- didn't contain all the numbers and symbols that they needed for their video. They seemed to believe that fonts were generated by some sort of computer magic, instead of being designed by someone purely for the purpose of giving more tasteless options to cut-rate wedding videographers.

Once those people found out that fonts actually COST MONEY they got REALLY upset.

So I promise myself that now, after so many years of taking fonts (and fontographers) for granted, I'm going to learn a bit more about them. And, hopefully, I'll learn to use them more thoughtfully and effectively.