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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Where are all the wall sconces that Bartlet had?


P072913CK-0285, originally uploaded by The White House.

Regular readers know that I'm a big fan of photography relating to the office of the President of the United States, which is why I'm a huge fan of the Official White House Flickr Stream, and likely would be no matter who the occupant of the office itself.

That said, after looking at these photos of President Obama's Oval Office for four-and-a-half years now, how is it possible that I never noticed, until this photo right here, that Godawful blue lamp? That thing is terrible!

You can't see it here, but there's a matching one on the endtable to the President's left. Jeez, what an awful lamp. I can't not see them now, every time I look at an Oval Office photo.

OK, moving on.

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

Let's talk Mexican food! What's your favorite tortilla-based item? Taco? Burrito? Quesadilla? Fajita?

Crunchy or soft?

Filled with what?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

For Cal....


(Cul de Sac is one of the best things ever, by the way. I'm so sad that it ended.)

The rules for reading

I discovered this article sitting in my 'Blog Fodder' bookmark folder, and I figured I should address the topic. It's about reading, and the rules we adopt for how we go about reading. Here are the rules the author posts (I snip the explanatory content, so please go read the article for more!)

1. Always stop at the end of a chapter. Always.

I really try to do this. Failing this, if the book has longish chapters and I'm really tired and I know I'm not gonna make it another ten pages, I'll read to the next line break. Books that never use line breaks or section breaks tend to really madden me. The most infuriating case of this that I recall off the top of my head is The Illuminatus Trilogy, where the authors completely shift topics, locations, and whatnot from one paragraph to the next, no break whatsoever. But I do look for logical breaking points.

2. Use specific bookmarks.

I don't use specific bookmarks for specific purposes or books, but I do have several that I use regularly; one is my old Borders Rewards card, with which I simply cannot bear to part. I carry a piece of Borders with me, always! (Hey, I spent many a wonderful hour in Borders.)

2a. No dog-earing, bending, or folding of pages.

I agree with this wholeheartedly. My librarian mother drilled this into me at a very early age, and I've never once rebelled against this since. I hate dog-earing pages, and it bugs me to no end.

2b. Weirdly enough, spine-breaking is fine, just don’t get too crazy with it.

Enhhhhh...I'm not a fan of spine breaking. I know it happens, but I really try to avoid it, as much as possible. The only exceptions are cookbooks, which I want to lie as flat as possible while I'm cooking, but you know what? Lots of times I won't even break the spine with those.

3. Always read two books at once.

More than that, if I can! The trick is to vary the genres, or have one non-fic and one fiction going at once. Graphic novels can be fit into the reading schedule in this way, too. I only read one book at a time if one particular book sweeps my imagination away.

4. No (or minimal) writing in books.

Agreed. I used to write all manner of marginalia in my academic books at school, such as all my various philosophy books. Now I can't abide the practice. The only acceptable writing is a note to the receiver in the frontispiece, if the book is a gift. Otherwise, no writing!

5. Rereads must be earned because there are too many great books out there to read an okay one twice.

I'd agree with this. I don't do a whole lot of complete re-reads, but I will dip into books now and again to refresh my memory on passages. Guy Gavriel Kay, Christopher Moore, JRR Tolkien, and JK Rowling are on my list of re-read authors. Carl Sagan, too. Maybe a few others. In general, I approach re-reads as I do anything else: "What am I in the mood to read right now?"

What other rules do I have? Well:

6. Not finishing a book is OK.

Seriously, I just don't have time to read everything, and if a book isn't working for me, it's OK to stop and move on to something else.

7. It is always better to take more books on a trip than you think you'll possibly have time to read.

Because how do you know how much time you're gonna have?!

8. Having a favorite genre is fine. Getting stuck in that genre is bad.

Variety is a spice. Or something. You can look it up.

What are your rule for reading?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Maybe we HAVE progressed a little....

Old commercials in which women make coffee for less-than-appreciative husbands. Ye Gods.


(via)

Sentential Links

Linkin' my way around Blogistan....

:: Today, I had the image of a chalkboard in mind. Remember, at the end of the day, when it was covered with what had been written, erased, written over? Throughout the day, new information on top of old, learning, more and more. Then, at the end of the day, it would be wiped clean with a wet sponge. It was best if you took time and did it in straight lines, leaving few streaks and a nice, orderly clean board ready for the next day. (Nostalgia note: I don't particularly miss chalkboards, but I do miss the sound that chalk made on the slate as it wrote. I remember when I'd get a chance to write at the chalkboard and I'd wonder, "Why is Mrs. Pnakovich's writing so amazing on this thing, and mine looks like crap?" Years of practice, obviously....)

:: Enough, DC. Every character doesn't have to be 1970s Spider-Man, hunted and feared. Enough having heroes kill, or being made to look like they killed. Enough secret government agencies dedicated to controlling/fighting/eliminating heroes. Enough fear and distrust by the press and public when these guys have saved the world seven times over. Enough.

Let. Heroes. Be. Heroes.


:: Being the terrible blogger that I am, I have totally neglected mentioning the fact that we got a cat this year.

:: Fan fictions are hard for me to let live outside of my imaginations. I’m basically playing with someone else’s characters for a while, whom I think I know but don’t really. (I couldn't agree more, which is why when I committed acts of fan fiction way back when, I didn't even use the names of the characters -- I gave them new names and reworked them in directions I wanted them to go. This blog belongs to one of my Instagram contacts.)

:: She will not mourn this empty bed. (Another Instagram blogger. I've met a lot of writers there. We're all chasing the dream!)

:: A question I'm always asked is why don’t I put my writing “out there” more? The answer is: Because I am, essentially, a weenie. You can judge me now. Go ahead. I’ll wait. (Nah. No judgment here!)

:: Nobody comes to the ballpark to see a closer, no matter how good he is. Not even fans of the team he pitches for want to see him pitch because his appearance means their team isn't winning handily going into the eighth and ninth innings. They're glad to see him, but they'd rather their team was up 6-2 at this point than 2-1. If the closer comes in with his team up 6-2, that means the game is in the process of being lost! And while there are plenty of ways a 2-1 game can be exciting, the closer isn't really part of it. His job is to put an end to the excitement. (Hmmmmm. See, I don't know about this. There are times when you desperately want to see your closer out there. Especially if your team doesn't have a closer. Believe me, if the Pirates had had a real honest-to-God closer in 1992, I would have been thanking every God, Goddess, and eldritch power that has ever existed to see him take the mound in the ninth inning of Game Seven of that year's NLCS. Because the inning that ensued, as the closer-less, bullpen-by-committee Pirates -- forced to try to ride the weary arm of Doug Drabek one more inning before handing a bases-loaded jam to Stan Belinda, who had all of 18 saves that year -- surrendered both their 2-0 lead and, with it, that year's National League pennant, is to this day the single most gut-wrenching thing I've ever seen in sports. And I'm a Buffalo Bills fan who had to endure Wide-Right just eighteen months earlier.)

:: I’m ready for bed, but more importantly I am excited about tomorrow. I think that is what success really is, at least to me. To go to sleep happy and tired and excited about nothing in particular but the possibility ahead. Some folks never get to feel that, or gave it up long ago. I’m still on that horse. It’s worth it.

More next week!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday Burst of Weird and Awesome

Oddities and Awesome abound!

:: Remember those old "Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey" humor bits on Saturday Night Live? I always figured that they were written by staff writers and just put up under a generic name. I didn't realize, until last week when I bookmarked this article, that Jack Handey is a real guy. Wow.

(Yes, this makes me feel like an idiot.)

:: A different hypothesis about vampirism. Wow!

:: A Chinese bakery's plan to use drones to deliver cakes has been shut down. This is very likely a bad idea for obvious reasons, but me being me, I can't be totally dismissive of cakes or pies flying through the air. As someone is quoted: “What if a cake fell on a passer-by from the sky?” Indeed.

(BTW, the headline on that story is figurative, not literal. This also disappoints me.)

More next week!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....

I saw, via Facebook, this fascinating article by Stephen King about opening lines. It's very much worth reading, as is the follow-up article that solicits favorite opening lines from twenty-one writers.

Stephen King: There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It's tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don't think conceptually while I work on a first draft -- I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.

But there's one thing I'm sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.

How can a writer extend an appealing invitation -- one that's difficult, even, to refuse?

From the second article:

"Where's Papa going with that axe?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. --E B White, Charlotte's Web

Not the way you'd think a children's book about a pig would open, and it instantly sets the central fear at the heart of this story: death.

I've been mulling this over a bit. The fact is, a great first line doesn't really make me want to keep reading; nor does a bad one make me stop. I've read all manner of books that I love whose first lines I honestly don't recall, and I've read books I didn't care for whose first lines I do. So it's not quite a cut-and-dried as all that. But a good first line is still preferable to a bad one or a lackluster one, and a good first line does reveal an author at work who has put some very real thought into things.

Great opening lines I remember? Well, I tend to think in terms of entire opening passages, rather than opening sentences. The way JRR Tolkien opens The Hobbit is utterly masterful: "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit." Right up front, we're in the world of strange beings we haven't heard of, who live in their subterranean world. He goes on to establish more of what a hobbit is and what they do in terms of living in holes, and by the end of the second paragraph, he's got me hooked. And of course, there's the famous opening paragraph to A Tale of Two Cities:

IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

In science fiction, Simon R. Green's Deathstalker has a wonderful beginning, even if the rest of the book doesn't quite measure up. But for my money, my favorite opening line of all time doesn't even come from a novel or other work of fiction. It is the way Carl Sagan brings us into Cosmos:

The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.

Just thirteen words, and Sagan establishes that we are going to be talking about everything, and that the wonder is to be found everywhere. Amazing.

I was interested to read that Stephen King works very hard on his first lines, right up front, before moving on to the rest of the book. Yes, he's Stephen King and I'm me, so what do I know, but I do the exact opposite: I charge in full-speed ahead and don't pay any attention to the opening line until I'm into the editing phase. In the case of Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title), I didn't have an opening line until well into the first round of edits. I mean, I did have an opening line, but I came up with a different one.

And, for those curious, here it is:

The first line of "Princesses In SPACE!!!" (not the actual title). #AmWriting

How does it work? Well, I suppose we'll see.

Star Trek Into Frustration


Well, despite my initial intentions to not see the new Star Trek movie until the DVD came out, a number of factors intervened: the fact that we went on vacation (and seeing a movie on vacation is always fun), and The Daughter's crush on Benedict Cumberbatch. So, off we went to see the movie. I expected that my reaction would be similar to that I had for the first one, and sure enough, it was. I loved watching it. It's a tremendously entertaining movie, expertly paced, wonderfully shot, beautifully acted. It scratched my ever-present itch for Explodey Spaceshippy Goodness, just like the last one.

And it frustrated the hell out of me on the script end, just like the last one.

On the design end, this bunch of filmmakers is getting so much right. I love the look of the world they're in; I love that it's not 'dystopia as far as the eye can see', as is so often the case in SF these days. I love the look of the ships, and I don't even mind JJ Abrams's somewhat-infamous lens flares. This movie, as much as the last one, looks the part, and it does a really nice way of bringing those old 1960s-era costume designs into a future in a way that doesn't look completely ridiculous.

Also, the cast continues to be superb. About the only weak link I've found thus far is the fellow who plays Sulu, and really, how could you tell, given how little he has to do? This group has real honest-to-God chemistry, and watching them interact is most of the fun.

So why is the script so maddening?

Let's just get my little "Star Trek fanboy" complaints out of the way first. I know, I know, "This ain't your daddy's Star Trek!" But the producers keep saying that basically, yes, it is; it's the exact same universe, but time went in a different direction, so different stuff happens. So as nifty as the visual is, I can't get behind the Enterprise hiding at the bottom of an ocean. I can't get behind starships going to warp speed while in a planetary atmosphere. (They did this in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home as well, and yes, it bugged me then, too.) And I can't get behind two starships having a firefight while in warp.

And...Khan.

I really don't know what the whole purpose of using Khan in this movie was, except to use Khan in a movie. It's very strange. Benedict Cumberbatch turns in a frankly wonderful performance of the scenery-chewing villain (although he's so flamboyantly chewing the scenery that I was disappointed that the film put him in an all-black costume, instead of clothing him more interestingly). But the script – but Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof – does absolutely none of its own heavy lifting. When we finally get to Cumberbatch's big reveal – "My name is KHAN!", complete with rumble in the soundtrack's bass – it's clear that Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof aren't interested in creating their own emotional space here. What they're after is mining the original. We're meant to feel something, some kind of dread, when we learn that we're dealing with KHAN here. But the script doesn't bother to earn that moment. The proper response there would be for Kirk to blink and say, "Is that supposed to mean something to me?"

Ultimately, the script for this movie is really lazy. It's lazy in the way it brings Khan in for no real reason other than that he comes with a built-in story that doesn't need to be explained or elucidated, and it's lazy in the way it converts Khan into a mad killing machine. The original Khan was a charismatic leader, almost a genetically-enhanced Hitler. He was megalomaniacal and wanted to rule a world that he made in his own image; we see none of that in this movie's Khan. He pays very brief lip service to his followers, but as they all spend the entire movie in suspended animation, that's all we know of that. There's no real sense to what, if anything, really drives Khan to do the things he does, other than a vague "I'm mad at the world!" kind of thing, which is pretty much what Eric Bana had as the bad guy in the last Trek movie. Of course, Cumberbatch is leaps-and-bounds better than Bana as an actor, so he's able to imbue his Khan with menace that Nero never had, but ultimately, it's a case of "So what?"

(Brief pause here to note that I've always had problems with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on kind of the same basis. Yes, it's a great movie – although I do not think it the best of the Original Series movies, even though popular culture insists that it is – but I've always had trouble with the way it takes the interesting set-up of the original "Space Seed" episode, which ends with Khan and friends being left on a wild and untamed planet, and reduces it to, "Nothing came of that and now Khan is furious and insane". More interesting, I think, to see what kind of society Khan would have built if he'd had the chance. Wrath does pay lip service to this, when one of Khan's underlings tries to talk him out of his "Hunt down Jim Kirk" plan – "You have a ship! You have Genesis! You can have whatever you want!" – but that goes nowhere. Wrath uses a great villain to great effect, and yet I always feel that it was a wasted opportunity. Of course, this is hindsight, when back in 1982, if Wrath didn't do well, Trek as a whole would have likely died on the vine.)

I've heard Into Darkness praised for its subplot about the militarization of society and the rise of a security state, but I'm wondering – just what is the justification for all this? In the real world, real events happen that jolt society in those directions. Where is the 9-11 event in Star Trek Into Darkness? We don't know, so Admiral Marcus's plot ultimately boils down to more scenery-chewing villainy. Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof give us yet more villains whose motivations are barely enough to motivate them to get out of bed in the morning, much less wreak galactic havoc.

"This ain't your daddy's Star Trek!" Well, if that's the case, then why is the entire movie little more than a giant re-creation and inversion of the emotional beats at the end of The Wrath of Khan? Because that's what this movie is, to the point of recycling dialogue and visual cues. It's incredibly lazy writing, and it wastes all the strengths in this production. There's this odd air surrounding the Trek reboot that longtime Trek fans shouldn't criticize it because it's a reboot, because it's new, because it's made for people now who don't know anything about Trek as it was. That's pretty stupid and insulting, though; if not for all those years of Trek fans, there wouldn't be anything to reboot in the first place, and since these two films are so hell-bent on offering fan service that is almost entirely derived from The Wrath of Khan, it's extremely disingenuous for the producers to then claim "But it's a reboot!" Because it's not a reboot.

Battlestar Galactica is a reboot. You can argue about whether it's done well or not – I think it is, but I know others who aren't fans of it and prefer the original – but there is no connection at all between the 1978 show and the 2004 one. They aren't different timelines in the same universe, they're completely different shows, and they are about completely different things. Yes, the latter does have a few bits of fanservice here and there (the original theme of the 1978 show being the Caprica National Anthem, for example), but that's it. That's how you do a reboot. What Trek is doing is lazy tribute, which isn't the same thing.

And since they're not doing reboot but rather tribute, I can criticize them on getting so much stuff wrong. Like starships firing at warp or hiding underwater. And like continuing to get the central relationships of Trek completely wrong by once again insisting that it's "Kirk and Spock" and not "Kirk, Spock, and McCoy". God, that annoys the hell out of me. Dr. McCoy is just a supporting player this time around, only there to pop in with a useful plot bit a few times, such as his utterly inexplicable "Hmmm, I think I'll inject this dead tribble with this guy's blood!" experiment.

Which brings me to my biggest frustration: Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof don't seem to grasp for one second the implications of the science fiction world they are creating. Consider that at the end of this movie, we can (a) use the transporter to beam ourselves across thousands of light years (so why do we need ships anymore?), and (b) we can bring people back from the dead by injecting them with Khan's genetically-engineered blood. Either one of these would be a leap forward for our species in a way that would be like cavemen skipping over fire and the wheel and going straight to medieval architecture. But here, these are just plot points. (Yes, original Trek made similar mistakes – say, even if the Genesis project failed, there was still some awfully interesting stuff learned in the R&D phase, right? – but we're not talking about the sins of original Trek right now.)

So I guess I fall once again into the position of hoping that Trek continues with different writers. Damon Lindelof is a terrible writer, anyway – Prometheus was embarrassing, and Lindelof clearly has gone all-in with his belief that if you just never explain anything logically at all, lots of folks will take that as profundity – and Orci and Kurtzman aren't a hell of a lot better. Maybe they can be around for a dialog polish, but they continue to fail to understand their own characters and the universe they're working in, and they write plots more than character-driven stories.

I want a Trek where James T. Kirk has some agency, where he figures things out and takes control. I want a Trek where Spock doesn't take advantage of a guy's moment of death to give himself the ultimate snuff film. (Watch the scene where Pike dies and tell me that's not what's going on when Spock mind-melds with him, especially later on when Spock admits it. God, that was a skeevy moment.) I want a Trek where Vulcans aren't just a bunch of people repressing their emotions. I want a Trek where things happen in logical sequence arising out of what's gone before, as opposed to things happening because that's what's gotta happen next. I want a Trek where things like this don't happen:

KIRK dies. MCCOY is sad.

But then, in the best bit of resurrectional timing since Jesus himself, the dead tribble purrs.

MCCOY realizes how to bring KIRK back to life!

As much as I think Chris Pine does a great job with what he's given, I want an end to this idea of Kirk as adolescent screw-up with loads of potential if he could just realize it. I have seen that story literally hundreds of times. What was always interesting to me about James T. Kirk was that he excelled as a young man because he was more competent than anyone else. He wasn't some renegade maverick disregarding the rules; Jim Kirk was a genius who always figured out ways to make the rules work for him. These writers seem to think we need to see Kirk grow into his role, whereas the fact is, he was always there. I'm not sure I can see Chris Pine's Kirk ever giving this speech, and you know whose fault that is? It's not Chris Pine's.


Again: I love the cast, love the look, love the music. I even loved a lot of the dialog, and I find Spock's relationship with Uhura an intriguing element. Scotty was terrific this time out. There are a lot of elements in place on this version of Trek that are wonderful, so I pray that next time out, the script lives up to them instead of just putting them through the paces of a plot that basically boils down to fanservice.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Something for Thursday

I suddenly thought of this piece the other day, after quite literally not having thought of it in nearly twenty years. I listened to it a lot in college, and then it dropped off my radar completely, for some reason. Sir Edward Elgar is often pigeonholed into the notion of a stuffy Brit who wrote stuffy music for the "stiff upper lip, Keep Calm and Carry On" generation, but in truth, he wrote a lot of passionate, dramatic, Romantic music, and he was as fine a tone painter as anyone, as this concert overture demonstrates. He wrote this work out of inspirations he received whilst on a family holiday to Italy. Here is "Alassio (In the South)".

A brief note about comments

Folks, I've been getting pounded with spam comments the last day or two. If this doesn't subside, I'm going to have to deactivate anonymous commenting. I'll announce if that happens, but we might well be back to requiring Google accounts or some such.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

What's one specific, concrete thing humans don't have now that you would like to see us figure out while you're still alive so you can say, "Hey, wow, look there, we figured that out!" (I think I'll take the most blindingly obvious answer to this off the table, because otherwise everybody is gonna say, "Cure cancer.")

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

EW's 100 Greatest Movies

UPDATE and EDIT: I screwed up somehow the first time I posted this -- entries 34 through 50 were Roger's, not mine. I've changed it to reflect my actual views!

ANOTHER UPDATE: I missed The Wizard of Oz on here. Of course I've seen it!

I'm posting this list because Roger and SamuraiFrog did, too. I'll only opine on the ones I've seen.

(I'll also mention that I have always found the critics in Entertainment Weekly to be a really tiresome lot. They always strike me as really self-impressed.)

1 (2). Citizen Kane (1941) OK, I guess. Maybe I should watch it again at some point, as I saw it as a teenager and I actually liked it, but I didn't quite understand all the fuss.

2 (1). The Godfather (1972) Yeah, it's a great movie. I don't know that I feel the need to re-watch it any time soon, but it is great. The genre really doesn't appeal to me, so this is one of the few movies I've seen that transcend that genre.

3 (3). Casablanca (1942) This is one of those movies where, if you tell me you don't like it, I will forever look at you a little less favorably.

4 (48). Bonnie And Clyde (1967)

5 (11). Psycho (1960) Not my favorite Hitchcock. It's a little too iconic at this point; give me either Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, or North By Northwest.

6 (56). It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) I don't like this at all. Sorry. I never understand why this is beloved.

7 (64). Mean Streets (1973)
8 (15). The Gold Rush (1925)
9 (38). Nashville (1975)

10 (8). Gone With The Wind (1939) I really don't like this one. Impressive production, but I don't romanticize the South, and I certainly never feel any real sympathy toward Scarlett. I wonder why it takes Rhett so long to stop giving that damn of his.

11 (47). King Kong (1933) I'm glad I've watched it, but I don't feel the need to return to it.

12 (13). The Searchers (1956) Great film. It's tough, but great. Its lingering effect in the memory is a lot stronger, in my experience, than the actual watching of it.

13 (60). Annie Hall (1977) Meh.

14. Bambi (1942) I love this movie, but I'm a bit nonplussed at it being the first animated film on this list. But then, I'm not sure what I'd put here in its stead...Snow White, maybe? Peter Pan, my favorite Disney film? Not sure.

15 (37). Blue Velvet (1986)

16 (10). Singin’ In The Rain (1952) Almost my favorite musical of all time. (My Fair Lady is tops in my heart.)

17 (12). Seven Samurai (1954, Jp.) Wow. I do like Hidden Fortress more, and of Kurasawa's films, RAN most of all, though.

18 (52). Jaws (1975) Amazing! 'Nuff said.

19 (29). Pulp Fiction (1994) One of my favorite movies. I love this one.

20. The Sorrow and the Pity (1969, Fr.)

21 (9). Some Like It Hot (1959) I really need to see this.

22. Toy Story (1995) See, I like the sequel more. And neither is my favorite Pixar film; I'd rank both Finding Nemo and Ratatouille ahead of this one.

23 (66). Notorious (1946)

24. The Sound of Music (1965) I love this movie a whole, whole lot.

25 (26). 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Utter genius.

26 (22). Bicycle Thieves (1948, It.)

27 (31). The Maltese Falcon (1941) – don’t think I saw this in full.

28 (32). The Wizard of Oz (1939) Simply great. 'Nuff said.

29 (44). North By Northwest (1959) – #2 action film, seen only clips.

30 (92). Sunrise (1927)

31 (4). Chinatown (1974) – well crafted, yet it always felt at arm’s length. I don’t love it.

32 (43). Duck Soup (1933) – #5 comedy. This Marx Brothers film, I love.

33 (55). The Graduate (1967) – saw this only recently, in the past five years, on DVD. Probably would have liked it even more had I seen it when it came out.

34. Adam’s Rib (1949)

35. Apocalypse Now (1979) This is one of those films where I acknowledge the craft involved, but I really did not enjoy watching it at all.

36. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
37. Manhattan (1979)

38 (19). Vertigo (1958) I really need to see it again...but a great film, obviously.

39 (58). The Rules of the Game (1939, Fr.)
40 (50). Double Indemnity (1944)

41 (93). The Road Warrior (1981, Australia) (aka Mad Max 2) I should re-watch these at some point. I didn't get the fuss the first time through.

42 (41). Taxi Driver (1976)

43. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) Singling out the third installment is dumb; it's all one giant film. And one of my favorites.

44 (17). On The Waterfront (1954)

45 (30). Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) Meh. No desire to see it again.

46 (61). The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) One of the greatest movies I know. I love this movie whole-heartedly. Just sheer joy, beginning to end.

47. A Clockwork Orange (1971) Another one where I saw it once, didn't get the fuss, and have little intention of seeing it again, ever.

48. It Happened One Night (1934)

49. Goldfinger (1964) Sorry, but this isn't even the best Bond movie ever made; it's not even the best Connery Bond movie ever made. Goldfinger is ridiculously overrated. I've never understood the degree to which it's venerated.

50 (25). Intolerance (1916)

51. A Hard Day’s Night (1964) I've owned this on DVD for years. I should actually watch it one of these times!

52. Titanic (1997) I make no apologies for the fact that I still love this movie, hammy romance and all.

53. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) I know it's an article of faith at this point that this one is the best Star Wars movie, mainly because it best fits into The Official Narrative that George Lucas sucks and that only when he gives vague story notes to a bunch of other people and takes his hands off does anything of value emerge. Whatever. I still love the original more, and that a Star Wars movie is on the bottom half of this list irritates me. But then, we are talking about EW critics, here.

54 (63). Breathless (1960, Fr.)
55. Frankenstein (1931)

56 (40). Schindler’s List (1993) Absolutely a great film, far superior to the colossally overrated Saving Private Ryan.

57. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
58 (45). The Seventh Seal (1957, Swe.)

59. All the President’s Men (1976) Watched it as a teenager. I don't recall a whole lot about it, but I remember it being fascinating.

60. Top Hat (1935) I'm glad this is on here. I often get the feeling that a lot of Fred Astaire's films slip through cracks on lists like this -- doubly so the Ginger Rogers ones.

61 (98). The Silence of the Lambs (1991) Great, great film. I do wish that the Hannibal Lecter thing had ended here, though. (I have not watched the new show Hannibal yet.)

62 (20). E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) Also an utterly great film (although in honesty, I love Close Encounters of the Third Kind more.)

63. Network (1976) I've seen chunks of it, and of course, Aaron Sorkin has slavishly invoked it enough times over the years to make me feel like I've seen it.

64 (83). The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
65. Last Tango in Paris (1973)

66. The Shining (1980) Watched it as a kid. I don't recall much about it, other than not liking it much. It was on teevee and my sister was watching it, if I recall.

67 (86). Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

68. GoodFellas (1990) OK, you know what? To hell with this movie. It's good, it really is, but ten times out of ten, if given the choice between watching this and the movie that beat it for the Best Picture Oscar that year, I will watch Dances With Wolves. GoodFellas just isn't that great, and frankly, I'm starting to think that our culture is pretty ridiculous in its overvaluing of the "Criminals at work and play" genre. It's as if this is the only real "genre" that we're allowed to take seriously. "This is the kind of movie that men watch, not silliness like superheroes or science fiction or adventure flicks." Whatever. I'm sick of having entries in this genre constantly forced down my throat as the greatest thing. If it's not this, it's The Departed. Or The Sopranos. Or, for a period piece, Gangs of New York. I've seen The Godfather, I liked it, and yes, I liked this movie, but I'm done with the genre and I'm really tired of every single new thing in this genre being received like it's been handed down from the Gods. OK, end of rant. (Although I think there might be a larger post to tease out of this....)

69 (14). Dr. Strangelove
70. L’Avventura (1960, It.)

71. American Graffiti (1973) I think this movie is really underrated. It sometimes seems as though it's an unofficial pilot for Happy Days, but it's really a very insightful and elegiac movie, a fine teen romance and coming-of-age film. I'm glad it's here. I love it, and I need to watch it again.

72. The 400 Blows (1959, Fr.)
73. Cabaret (1972)
74. The Hurt Locker (2009)
75 (54). Touch Of Evil (1958)

76 (18). Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Just...wow. This film defies comment by me. I finally saw it all the way through a couple of years ago, and I never blogged about it because I just can't find words about it. It's not perfect, don't get my meaning wrong here. But it just exists, independent of my thoughts about it, if that makes any sense whatsoever.

77. Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

78. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) One of the finest adventure films ever made. It absolutely belongs here.

79. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
80. Dazed and Confused (1993)

81. Blade Runner (1982) I will never love this movie, but the recent "Final Cut" or "Last Cut" or "Really The Best Cut We Mean It This Time" is probably the best representation of the story. I admire the production in many ways, and even the story construction, but as always, the film's human story never quite emotionally involves me.

82. Scenes From a Marriage (1973, Swe.)
83 (57). The Wild Bunch (1969)
84. Olympia (1938, Ger.)

85. Dirty Harry (1971) Again, I think they should have stopped here. Making more movies turned Harry Callahan into a self-caricaturing thing. The movie is powerful, albeit fascist in outlook.

86 (21). All About Eve (1950)
87 (6). La Dolce Vita (1960, It.)

88. The Dark Knight (2008) I like and admire this film, but yeesh, what a bleak tale. I really find myself responding to bleakness less and less, the older I get. This depresses me, because I get a strong sense that popular culture is embracing bleakness more and more.

89. Woodstock (1970) I've seen parts of it. Maybe enough to constitute the whole thing.

90. The French Connection (1971) Watched it once and loved it, but that was years ago. I wonder how well it holds up.

91 (81). Do The Right Thing (1989)
92 (97). The Piano (1993, NZ)
93. A Face in the Crowd (1957)

94. Brokeback Mountain (2005) I have a feeling that time may elevate this one farther. I already think it's underrated. It's really an accomplishment, one of those movies that doesn't seem like much when you're watching it but lodges in the brain and refuses to leave. Kind of like The Searchers.

95. Rushmore (1998)
96. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

97. Diner (1982) Meh. I know it launched a bunch of careers, but of Barry Levenson's "Baltimore" movies, I liked Tin Men a lot more. (And frankly, I think that watching Tin Men pretty much covers anything I'd need to watch five years of Mad Men for.)

98. All About My Mother (1999, Sp.)
99. There Will Be Blood (2007)
100 (49). Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

As always, I would remove a bunch and add others; but then, I've never claimed to be a particularly educated movie viewer. I'm always getting better, but I tend to watch what interests me and not what lists tell me I should see, so there's that.

Thoughts?

Monday, July 22, 2013

A brief writing update

So I'm finally into the final stages of Princesses In SPACE!!! II: The Princesses' Bogus Journey (not the actual title). This is turning into a real slog, as far as getting the action down in actual words goes. This particular story has turned out to be a lot more adventure-oriented than its predecessor, with the result that I'm writing a lot more action this time around...and I never enjoy writing action. I can do it, but it's always a struggle for me, and I find that when I'm doing action sequences is when I do the most backtracking, retroactive editing, and that sort of thing. This is, I think, the main reason why this book is turning out to be more difficult than I had planned. I really wanted to be done with it by the end of this month, but a mid-August finish is looking more likely. Which is fine, actually; I'm still not planning to revisit this manuscript, in terms of editing, until December.

As for Princesses I, what can I say? The Dance of Rejection continues, but one way or another, I will get this book out there, even if I join the ranks of the independents, which wouldn't be an altogether bad thing, either.

Onward and upward!

Writing outside. Took me three times to get this passage right! #AmWriting

Sunday, July 21, 2013

All that is, or was, or ever will be....

EDIT: Video link replaced.


The Neil DeGrasse Tyson/Ann Druyan helmed sequel to COSMOS, which airs in 2014, has a trailer. I love everything about it, right down to the updated "spaceship of the mind".

Now to find out when exactly it starts airing, so I can spend the preceding thirteen weeks rewatching the original COSMOS....

Sunday Burst of Weird and Awesome!

Oddities and Awesome abound!

Just one thing today, but it's a doozie. If you're like me, you often lose time on sites like Cracked.com or TV Tropes. That's because you read one thing end up clicking more things, and next thing you know it's dinnertime (you sat down at the computer at breakfast), your family is irritated with you, and you have seventy-nine browser tabs open to pages on one of those sites. Well, here's a new site for the list: The World Geography. Just go. Thank (or curse) me later.

I'm spending a bunch of time on the site doing location research for future volumes of the Princesses In SPACE!!! series (not the actual title). That's my excuse, anyway. Yeah.

More next week!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Wow.


Money Drop , originally uploaded by Andrew mthoodh2o.

That is all.

Something for Thursday

I'm on a bit of a Leonard Bernstein kick of late, so here's Lenny conducting his own Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.


Pay attention at about the 12:30 mark. The ensuing section is pure magic.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Vignette

It was still pretty chilly that night, but evidently the elderly lady didn't care: it was April and winter had been officially 'over' for three weeks and dammit, she just didn't care. She was going out with the top down. So out she went, into the garage, to pull the cover off her beloved powder-blue convertible Volkswagen Beetle. Then she suited up in her jogging suit of large, splotchy purple and pink flowers, threw a scarf around her neck, and back the car out of the garage.

It was late afternoon, and the shadows were long. The day was still bright, though, because in this neck of the woods, in mid-April the trees have still not quite begun to leaf out, so those long shadows are narrow and spindly. It's the time of year when the sun is bright and warm as long as the wind isn't blowing too hard, and when it's still quite brisk and cold when you're in the shade. It's the time of year when people who own convertibles and motorcycles get them out and endure the chill, just because they want the wind in their hair.

That's what this lady wanted: the wind in her hair, even though her hair was short and gray and styled to within an inch of its life. She was going out in her convertible, dammit! And that's just what she did. She backed out of her garage, a bit jerky at first, and then she sat at the very end of her driveway, looking this way and that and this and that and this again, waiting for the perfect moment. Finally, after waiting for a guy out for a walk to scoot past her car (and he looked like he wasn't entirely sure he trusted her not to gun the gas as soon as he was directly behind her), she backed out into the road, turned, and sped down the road.

She had to feel liberated and free! There's something especially wondrous in that first taste of spring wind and that first feel or spring sun upon your face. But it's still...cold. The feeling of freedom is fleeting, replaced quickly by the fact that you're still freezing.

So she came back five minutes later, parked her beloved Beetle with the top back up, and went back inside to make some tea. Still, summer's coming.

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

It's a really hot, humid, summer day. You're sitting on your porch. If you don't have a porch, imagine that you're on A porch. A nice, wide porch. Maybe it's got a swing. Yeah, you're sitting on your porch swing, late afternoon, hot, humid, sunny. You've had a good day, and you're holding a nice, cold glass of...what?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

N

Sports columnist Jason Whitlock is often an interesting commentator on race issues, particularly as they relate to sports. Here's an excerpt from his column today:

The people at the top of the rap music food chain should not be afforded such easy forgiveness. They know exactly what they’re doing. They know the dishonesty and the illogic that fuels the popular sentiment within commercial rap music industry that states the embrace of the N-word is harmless because young people have redefined it and erased its dehumanizing power.

This popular mantra is every bit as intellectually dishonest as the mantra that slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, lynching and discrimination are issues that no longer affect modern American society.

Jay-Z and the other denigration rappers and comedians love to say they’ve taken the N-word from bigots and transformed it into a word of affection and respect. It’s a lie.

The N-word was given to/slapped on black people in America 300 years ago to justify our mistreatment. It was given to define us as less than human so that mentally slave owners would have no trouble treating us as animals.

You don’t change something built to destroy you into something that uplifts you. It’s the equivalent of thinking the slop/food fed to slaves can be transformed into raw fruits and vegetables. As bad as our diet is today (and it’s a direct descendant of what we were forced to eat 300 years ago), actually what we’re trying to do with the N-word is much worse.

The N-word is human feces. It’s not meant for consumption. Jay-Z and his defenders can sauté human waste in butter and garlic for a month and it’s still gonna taste like $**t and lead to poor health.

As long as we keep cooking and serving up the N-word to each other, we’re going to remain mentally comfortable hunting and executing each other like animals and throwing on baseball caps supporting the killers.

Regardless of the user, the N-word is still doing the exact job it was intended to do in the 1700s. Hell, it’s doing a better job.

I honestly can't claim enough familiarity with race issues to know how I feel about this. On the one hand, the attempted taking-over of the N-word and its concurrent attempted transformation into a tool of irony is a fascinating cultural development. On the other, I'm not sure it's a good thing.

In fact, as a white male, I'm not sure I even can ever gain sufficient familiarity with race issues to have a genuine feeling about this, other than a vague sense that something is deeply wrong, that racism is still alive and well, albeit mostly bubbling beneath the surface. Trouble with that is, lots of things do even more damage when they're bubbling beneath the surface, because that allows us to get complacent and think, oftentimes, that it's not there at all.

Son of Possible Cover Art!

Another cavalcade of nifty images that should grace the cover of my books!






















Back to writing!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Storm Clouds Over the Atlantic Ocean Near Brazil

Wow. That is all.

Shouldn't we elect him to something?

JK Rowling has been unmasked as the actual author of a crime novel.

Which jogged my memory. Here is guy-who-knows-everything Ken Jennings, writing almost six years ago:

Structurally, these aren’t fantasy novels at all. They’re fair-play mysteries in wizard’s clothing–novels with not just plots and characters and setpieces, but “solutions” as well. J. K. Rowling is justly praised for her elaborate and meticulous world-building, but I’m convinced that a lot of that endless detail is just there for standard detective-novel purposes: to distract, to confound, to envelop the real “clues” in a Cloak of Invisibility.

...

I bet Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter book–talk about a hard act to follow–will be a classic mystery of some kind. I don’t know if it’ll be a hard-boiled gumshoe case, a true-crime police procedural, a classic manor-house throwback, or what, but it’ll be a mystery novel. She’s been writing them all along, after all. It’s just that no one’s noticed.

(Emphasis added.)

Casual Vacancy excepted, Mr. Jennings certainly had Rowling pegged. Go read his post, by the way -- it's not long, but the stuff I snipped out is a cool examination of mystery story tropes as deployed in the Harry Potter books. (Which I plan to re-read this winter.)

Sentential Links

Holy crap, it's been a long time since the last time I did one of these. I know the blog has spent an unfair amount of time on the back burner of late, as I strive to beat Princesses Still In SPACE!!! (not the actual title) into submission, but wow. Anyway, here are some linkworthy links.

:: In the similar mode, I’m suggesting a “slow audience response” movement. Please stop talking when the speaker/movie/concert starts, and wait for the event to actually end before fumbling with your keys. You may actually enjoy it better if you are “present” at the event, rather than treating it as one more thing to check off the to-do list. I KNOW your fellow audience members will appreciate it. (I couldn't agree more. I've never understood why it is that people are always in such a damned rush to get out of the movie theater. And it's like a conditioned response with some folks: their brains are wired to bounce up and head for the exit the second the words "Directed by ___" appear on screen. I've noticed, over the last few years, that sometimes movies will have "Easter Egg" content during the credits, if not actual scenes, so the credits-sprinters will stand up, move to the stairs along the side, and then stand there until they're satisfied that they can leave. Why not just keep your asses in the seats? Where are you going?!

I recall some conversation years ago on some classical music-related blogs on the subject of applause in between movements of multi-movement works. This doesn't really bother me all that much, but I do recall attending a Buffalo Philharmonic concert years ago when they played the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5. There's a spot in the last movement where everything builds to one long, dramatic chord, which the orchestra holds until the conductor gives the cut-off. There's a pause of a few seconds, and then the conductor cues the orchestra to begin the final portion of the work. The problem is, the folks at the concert weren't musically literate enough to not recognize the fact that that long, sustained chord couldn't possibly be the end of the work. So as soon as the conductor cut the chord off, the audience started applauding. For a work that wasn't even finished. Oy.)

:: They were both great horses, but the difference between Roy Rogers' Trigger and the Lone Ranger's Silver was that Trigger was well-trained. Silver just knew. (I still want to see The Lone Ranger, and almost certainly will, when it comes to DVD.)

:: The waiter apologizes and says he hasn’t felt good all night. He thinks it’s something he ate. Oh, that's comforting. Your waiter has such a high fever he could could fry your Monte Christo on his head. (Mmmmmm...Monte Cristo sandwich...ummm, sorry.)

:: Dear Mr. Card,

I wanted you to know that I recently read your statement regarding the proposed boycott of ‘Ender’s Game’, and I can understand where you’re coming from in your plea for tolerance. Believe me, I can understand what it’s like to worry that your livelihood will be affected by the intolerance of others. Many of my LGBT friends have had to face open discrimination in the workplace due to the kind of open hatred you personally fostered with your time and money…and in fact, continue to foster today, despite your belief that the whole issue is now “moot”. So I can deeply sympathize with your hope that “the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.”


:: What if E.T. and the Thing had a baby, and horribly, that baby was Jeff Bridges?

:: Providence has sent a solution after all! (I can barely process this.)

:: For me, the point of having a personal blog is that it’s basically a journal for me. A place where I talk to myself about whatever the hell I want. A place to work out how I feel about my life and the world, or to document my struggle with weight and mental disorders, or to list my favorite things, or to talk about the movies I saw. If someone else reads it and likes it, cool. That’s wonderful. But it’s not done for them. It’s done for me. It’s done because I feel a need to write it all down someplace. That’s the point of it. Frankly, the only person that I really, truly care about reading it is my wife, because I want my wife and me to know each other as much as possible. She’s really the only one who I need to understand me. It’s not about validation by strangers; it’s just me having fun and introducing a fraction of structure into my weekly routine.

:: And watch Monteith, and how accessible he is, how available. He’s a big strapping guy, a foot taller than everyone else, and his body shows the awkwardness of not quite knowing what to do with himself, but that just makes him more honest, more open: there is no artifice in him, no protection, no holding back. (I've never liked Glee, but my dislike of the show has always been mostly on a conceptual level and in the way it treats the music and the enterprise thereof. The talent involved in the show, however, is quite often jaw-dropping. This young man's passing is a cruel, cruel loss.)

More next week! (I hope!)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Problem

We expect our legal system to produce moral consequences, and yet, so often it does not. It’s probably the case that a codified legal system can’t be expected to always produce moral consequences, precisely because what’s moral cannot be so precisely codified. But this does not excuse a lack of efforts to try to make it better, and it certainly does not lessen the pain that arises when the moral and the legal so spectacularly fail to intersect.

Sunday Burst of Weird and Awesome

Oddities and Awesome abound!

:: An oral history of the 1989 Cleveland Indians. Oddly, official Major League Baseball archives don't seem to have much information about this team, so this oral history and the cinematic documentary on the subject, are likely to remain the only sources of historical data.

:: Here is the short tale of a very helpful motorcyclist.


:: Another baseball-related item: Baseball's dying traditions.

More next week....

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Something for Thursday

A violin concerto today, and one of my favorites! I love the way this concerto eschews any introductory stuff in favor of jumping right into the melody, and I love the way the Romantic lyricism is tempered with a Classical attention to structure. Pay special attention to what happens at about 2:50 in the first movement: the soloist (Hilary Hahn in this case, one of this generation's finest musicians) soars to a very high note on a dramatic flourish, but as she does, you can hear the tension dropping away, and then she arpeggiates down to a very low note, which she sustains while the woodwinds play the movement's lovely second theme. That is one of my very favorite passages in all classical music.

Here is the Violin Concerto in E minor, by Felix Mendelssohn.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

How many social networking sites/apps do you use?

What prominent social networking sites/apps do you not use?

And what the heck is LinkedIn for, anyway? What good comes of being on that thing? I have zero idea why LinkedIn is a thing.

Discuss!

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

So...parched....


P070913PS-0097, originally uploaded by The White House.

I've written in the past about my love of the White House's Official Flickr Stream, and I'm overdue to share some stuff from there...but this particular photo cracked me up, because there are all these people in this conference room setting, clustered around tables with the President, and only the President gets a water bottle.

Wassat? One of you is thirsty? Well, that's just too damned bad. You just sit there and watch the President take a nice, cold sip from Hydration Force One!

Heck, a couple of the people in this photo actually seem to be staring longingly at the President's water bottle! That dude on the left, the one who looks vaguely like James Doohan in Star Trek VI -- I think he's really thinking, "Shit, why did I eat those salted peanuts before I came in here...."

UPDATE: OK, looking at this some more, it's even funnier. The three people immediately to the President's left are amazing. The two guys are staring off blankly into space, but neither is staring at the same thing. And the lady in magenta looks like she's sneaking a text message in under the table!

Still here....

Wow, I've sucked at posting here lately...sorry about that! It's been a bit on the busy side the last few days, and making matters worse, the air conditioning at Casa Jaquandor decided to take a nose-dive, so things there haven't been too comfortable and it's taken a lot of effort just to work up the proper enthusiasm for writing in the first place. So, what energies I have been able to summon on that front, have been devoted to the book, which is kind of slow-going right now anyway because I'm in the stage of the game where the pot is a rolling boil and I don't wanna screw things up too badly.

Anyway, we're still here! How are you all doing?

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Geekapocalypse Soon!

It occurs to me that this fall is going to be a mite busy.

The new Thor movie comes out in November.

The second Hobbit movie comes out in December.

Season three of Sherlock comes along in October. (It's not set to air in the US until 2014, from what I'm reading, but that won't stop me.)

Scott Lynch's long-awaited third novel in the Gentleman Bastard sequence, The Republic of Thieves, arrives in October.

JW Rinzler's The Making of Return of the Jedi also hits shelves in October.

Along with all this is the usual season returns of teevee shows I already watch.

Oh, and our annual fall getaway, which will be the first weekend in October.

And NaNoWriMo in November.

And in December, I should be able to start the editing of Princesses In Space II: The Fall of the Planet Reichenbach (not the actual title).

I guess I'd better enjoy the next 2.5 months, because I suspect that starting mid-September, things are gonna roll!

UPDATE: My friend and former college roommate and best man at my wedding, Mr. Chris Gustafson, points out that the title of this post should be Ageekalypse, and not that abomination that I actually used in my pre-coffee stupor. Ach!

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Something for Thursday: The Annotated "Stars and Stripes Forever" (a repost)

I get search engine traffic for this post fairly regularly, and since we're all likely to hear this march at least once today -- those of us in the US, I should say -- I thought this might be a good opportunity to repost this, so you can better attend to the structure of the typical American band march. Happy Fourth!

Anyhow, in my Something for Thursday series, I've lately posted several Grand Marches from various operas, and now I'm thinking a bit of the wide variety of music that falls under the general category of the "March". You have Grand Marches, as I've noted above, that involve long musical scoring to big set pieces in operas. You also have the Funeral March, which are generally downbeat and sad-sounding, for obvious reasons. You have Processional Marches, with Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance Marches being prime examples. And there are the Military Marches, patriotic marches, circus marches, symphonic marches, and so on. Lots and lots of marches.

One of the most famous of all marches is, of course, John Philip Sousa's The Stars and Stripes Forever. It's a staple of nearly every patriotic-themed classical music concert you might ever attend, and the march is as central a staple in July 4th festivities as hot dogs or fireworks. In college, when the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra played a concert on our campus, their first encore work was The Stars and Stripes Forever.

Sousa wrote many marches -- hence the moniker "The March King" -- a number of which are very familiar to our ears now (Washington Post and Liberty Bell among them), but The Stars and Stripes Forever is by far his most familiar work. It can sound a bit clicheed these days, but like all works that have to a degree become clichee, when you blow off the dust and actually listen to the thing, you can hear anew those qualities that allowed it to become cliche in the first place.

The Stars and Stripes Forever is also a perfect example of the traditional American military march, which in their heyday of the late 19th and early 20th centuries tended to follow specific forms. If you were to join a concert band in rehearsing one of these marches, you would hear some odd-sounding terms: "Let's begin at the second strain, first time through." Or, "Just the trombones, please, starting at the dogfight." You'd be thinking, "What's a dogfight? Are there going to be planes flying in aerial combat above our heads?" Well, of course not! So what we'll do here is go through The Stars and Stripes Forever, with my notations below indicating at which point each section starts.

(This is one of the niftiest musical videos I've ever seen, by the way.)



0:07 to 0:10: The is the Intro section. Most marches will have some kind of intro section.

0:11 to 0:24: This is the First Strain, which is will be repeated once.

0:24 to 0:39: The First Strain, repeated. Sometimes, but not always, a band or orchestra will perform a repeat of a strain differently than they did the first time: they'll dial down the dynamics, playing the repeat softer, or maybe they'll actually vary the instrumentation a bit. This is often at the discretion of the conductor. Marches in this genre tend to be "modular" in construction, making it easier to tailor the piece a bit depending on the demands of the performance. You might need to make it longer or shorter, depending on the situation, so a conductor might decide to repeat each strain twice instead of once; but then deciding to play the first repeat softer and the second repeat softer still, or some other kind of variation. Some conductors, with experienced ensembles, will even have hand signals ready so they can indicate to their ensemble such a change while in the midst of performance.

0:39 to 0:54: Here is the Second Strain, first time through. Note that it is more lyrical than the boisterous First Strain. In a well-written march, the strains will usually contrast in some way.

0:55 to 1:09: Now we repeat the Second Strain. Note in this performance that the brass join in the melody and it's a bit louder and more boisterous than the first time through. This difference is why, in rehearsal, our conductor will say things like "OK, start at the second strain, second time through." He has to let the brass know if they're playing or sitting out.

OK. After we're done with the first two strains -- and there are usually just two -- however many times we've performed them, with whatever performance variations our conductor has decided upon, we're onto the Trio. Sometimes we'll have a key change when we hit the Trio, along with some other way to differentiate the Trio from the Intro and the first two strains. In Stars and Stripes Forever, our relatively brisk sound of the first two strains yields to a longer, more lyrical melody -- even more lyrical than what we heard in the second strain. Additionally, there is less syncopation now, although Sousa still puts key parts of emphasis on the occasional off-beat. A Trio section is often the longest part of a march, and it often revolves around a single melody or musical idea, as opposed to the first and second strains, which posit musical ideas briefly and then shuffle them off the stage. The Trio is the main attraction, as it were.

Now, with our Trio section, there's only one main musical idea going on, but we're going to hear it three times. Sousa doesn't want to bore us, so he'll change it up a bit each time. How? Let's see:

1:10 to 1:39: The Trio, first time through. Sometimes we might call this the First Strain of the Trio, or we might just call it the Trio, first time. In any event, this specific case is one of the most recognizable melodies in musical history, and in terms of marches, it's probably the most famous march melody ever. (It might be a close second to Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March #1...or the Elgar is a close second to Stars and Stripes. Not sure which.)

By the way, note that Sousa doesn't just give us this melody by itself; he continues to remind us that this is still a march by putting all those little staccato flourishes softly playing behind the melody. There's always something going on in a Sousa march, something new or different or contrasting with the main thing at any given moment. Case in point: when the melody reaches its highest note at 1:24, note the descending arpeggio in the lower brass, or at 1:34 when we reach a high note again, a little "tweet" of a fanfare in the trumpets.

Note, also, that one time through the First Strain of the Trio takes as long as two times through each of the First and Second Strains.

1:39 to 2:02: Now, having heard the complete Trio strain one time through, we're going to repeat it twice. But unlike the First and Second strains, which are repeated in immediate succession, we get a bit of contrast in a passage that stands in marked rhythmic and dynamic contrast to the Trio strain. This contrasting section, found in the Trios of many marches of this type, is called the Dogfight. We'll hear it twice through; this is the first time. The Dogfight isn't really a melody, per se; it's more of a martial fluorish. Note that the Dogfight is, by itself, longer than either the First or Second Strain.

2:02 to 2:30: The Trio strain, repeated (or, alternatively, the Second Strain of the Trio). Sousa lowers the dynamics again, back down to a softer setting, but we get the first variation of the Trio here. The Stars and Stripes melody plays again in its entirety, but this time with a brilliant touch: a counter-flourish played by the solo piccolo. Note also that the little trumpet fanfares from the first time through aren't there anymore, in favor of our piccolo solo.

2:31 to 2:55: The Dogfight, second time through. Many performances play the Dogfight a bit louder this time through, and have the Dogfight end with a crescendo into the Trio strain's final repeat.

2:55 to end: Now we get the last repeat of the Trio strain (or, alternatively, the Third Strain of the Trio). After hearing the Trio strain played softly twice, this time Sousa lets it all hang out: everybody's playing at full-bore, including our intrepid piccolo player. Now, a lesser composer might think that just hearing this great melody with the entire band playing forte might be pleasing enough to send the crowd away, but Sousa isn't done giving new things to hear. Specifically, this last time, he gives a countermelody to the low brass that plays mostly on the off-bars of the main melody; when the main theme is holding a long note, the low brass are doing their thing.

And at the very end? That final punctuating note that the march ends on? That's called the Stinger.

Most marches of this type derive their excitement from variations along the way, as described above: variations in dynamics (loud versus soft), variations in instrumention (who plays what and when), variations in backing detail (little fanfares versus that solo piccolo line). What doesn't vary is tempo: a march of this type will always end at the same tempo it started. The only place I've ever heard a change in tempo in The Stars and Stripes Forever is at the very end of the Dogfight, the second time through, where some conductors -- not all -- will throw in a ritardando on that last descending scale before the Trio strain's final repeat, and that's about it. A march is not the place for the type of rubato that you might hear in, say, some Romantic symphony.

Anyhow, there you have it: a road map to The Stars and Stripes Forever. Next time you're hearing this march while eating a hot dog and watching fireworks, note the march's tight construction!

When in the course of human events.... (a repost)

(A repost of what I've run on July 4 the last couple of years)

Here's a really weird story. It's so weird, I'm not sure the historians didn't make it up out of whole cloth. It seems that around 235 years ago or so, some folks living in a place under the rule of a King decided that they didn't much like the way that King was ruling them. At all. They pretty much decided, en masse, that their King was behaving, to use a current term, like a douche.

Now, over the many centuries before these folks came along, lots of other folks in other lands have decided that their Kings and Queens were being douchey, so they came up with ways to replace them. They'd organize revolts, usually behind the banner of some obscure relative of the monarch's so they could say that their person has a better claim to the throne, and off they'd go. So you'd expect that the folks we're talking about here would have just said, "You know what? Our King is a douche. Let's replace him with a new King."

But these folks didn't say that. What they said was, "Not only does our King suck, but he sucks so much that we're now thinking maybe we won't even have any more Kings. We'll do it all ourselves."

Over a year or so, there were some battles and skirmishes between these folks and the troops sent by the King to put down the pesky rebels, but it didn't work, and that notion -- "No more Kings and Queens!" -- took hold. It became a really popular idea, so finally, these folks appointed some representatives to gather in one of their cities and talk these issues over. The conversation went like this:

GUY #1: So, we're all agreed then? Kings suck?

GUY #2: Yes, Verily, they suck.

GUY #1: OK, so what do we do?

GUY #3: Well, we're already fighting, so we just keep fighting. But we should probably tell the King that we're being serious and we're not just a bunch of rabble-rousers here.

GUY #1: Right! How do we do that?

GUY #4: How 'bout a letter? I've got some nice parchment, quills, and a new bottle of ink.

GUY #2: Good idea! But you're about as eloquent as my cow. You'll just write "Hey King, sod off" and be done with it. We should be a bit more poetic about it.

GUY #4: How about Tom? He's pretty poetic.

GUY #1: Good idea! Let Tom do it. Now where's that Adams guy with the beer?


So a guy named Tom wrote the King a sternly-worded letter. It was pretty wordy, given the standards of the time, so here's a paraphrase:

Dear King,

We the undersigned, being representatives of the people of your colonies, have collectively decided that you are a douche and we don't want to live under your rule anymore. Furthermore, we're going to come up with a government of our own that won't even have a King. Now, we've just called you a douche, so you're probably thinking that we should be kind enough to at least tell you all the reasons we have for thinking you're a douche, so there's a list of those reasons later on. For now, suffice it to say that we believe in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. And you don't. And since we like the whole Life and Liberty thing a lot more than we like you, we're gonna take those and let you do whatever it is you do with your time in that Palace of yours.

So, here's the list of ways you've pissed us off. Note how long it is. You don't have to be a douche, you know.

...

See? Really, dude. There's no reason for some of that stuff, right? So anyway, have a good life and all. You've still got your island, and Canada seems pretty happy with you for some reason (but really, they're weird folks to begin with, what with that odd game they like to play on ice). But we're out of here.

Signed,
All the guys present

PS: Could you make sure your soldiers always wear those bright red coats? It makes it really easy to see 'em in the forests. KTHXBAI.

And so it came to pass that after some years of war, and some further years of cruddy government, they all got together again and figured out how they wanted to set up their new, "No Kings!" government. Their notion was to spread power out amongst a bunch of folks who were accountable to the people, and to further make sure that their government was required to respect certain rights that couldn't be taken away. It was a really weird idea...and yet, these folks worked hard to make it work, and their children kept working hard to make it work, and their children kept at it, and so on and so on and son on, until today.

Does it still work? Sometimes yes, sometimes not so much. But we're still here, and we're still working at it.

So Happy Birthday, United States of America! You're a wonderful, weird, beautiful, maddening, and awesome country.



(Hey! Uncle George is in there!)


Wednesday, July 03, 2013

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

What's your favorite sappy 1970s love ballad? Represent, fans of "You Light Up My Life"!!!

Monday, July 01, 2013

Charting the Progress...such as it was....

Here is how June shook out for writing:


Well...I'll take it. I did fall short of the goal I set at the beginning of the month by nearly 3000 words, unfortunately. My daily average turned out nearly 100 words less per day than I had been aiming for.

It was a tough month, though -- I lost two entire days to vacation-related driving, there was one day that involved a 4:00 am start at work, resulting in brain fry so extreme that on that day I only achieved 17 total words. Yes, one day I wrote two sentences. And there were a number of days when the going was pretty tough, because I was working my way through a part of the book that was a bit foggy in my mind going in, so I was doing the heavy lifting at the same time as the actual writing. Editing this book is going to be tough, I suspect; I know that there are a lot of fairly dodgy spots where I just basically cranked out prose that I mainly consider 'placeholder' prose. But one of my general attitudes on writing is "Ach, get something down and fix it later", so this doesn't bother me.

So, into July I go. I still hope to finish the first draft by the end of this month, but that may be a tall order. If that works out, then I should be able to let the manuscript age in a charred oak barrel until December! (That's to leave time for NaNoWriMo.)

Onward and upward! Zap! Pow!

Why yes, writing is exciting! #AmWriting

I'm back!

I'll likely have some actual content here later today or this evening...but for now, here's the stellar park job by someone in the Cape May, NJ fire department. Whoops.