Sunday, January 31, 2010

Kage Baker, 1952-2010

It wasn't a surprise, but it was still a shock: SF and Fantasy writer Kage Baker died early this morning at home in the company of her sister Kathleen. SFWA has the news, and remembrances and obituaries have begun to appear on various sites.

I said what I wanted to say about Kage and her work last week; I only wish I had said it sooner.

No. I wish a hell of a lot of other things, primary among them that Kage was still healthy and with us. But we have her novels and stories, and that will have to be enough.

Farewell, Kage Baker. You did a hell of a good job while you were here.

More on Amazon-Macmillan

I've just been reading Charles Stross's account of the dispute, which I can't entirely agree with. (But I'll also note that the expectations and beliefs of his commentors are generally much, much further from reality.) I probably have some facts wrong -- the best reporting I've seen on this so far is, inevitably, from Publishers Lunch, which is an e-mailed newsletter, so I can't link to it -- but here's my attempt to clear up some points of confusion and doubt.

(And, as always, let me emphasize that I am speaking as a private individual; I do work as a Marketing Manager for a major US publisher, but it's not the one in question here and I do not speak for any company in any capacity.)

1. Stross wrote that the traditional publishing supply chain ran "author -> publisher -> wholesaler -> bookstore -> consumer," and that Amazon, fueled by The Awesome Power of Teh Internetz (Stross was much more serious on this point than I am) is disintermediating everyone and trying to grab both sides.

Yes and No. Yes, Amazon does buy directly from publishers rather than from a wholesaler. No, this is not a new or unique thing. Big customers tend to buy direct from publishers -- Barnes & Noble does, Borders Group does, Hastings does, Indigo/Chapters does, Books-a-Million does, Wal*Mart does, Target does, and so forth. Wholesalers are still strong players in the space, but -- except possibly for a publisher that sells primarily to libraries or small independent stores -- they're unlikely to be the dominant customer for any publisher.

The issue with Amazon is very similar, if not identical, to the issues publishers have had with B&N and Borders (and with W.H. Smith's and Waterstone's in the UK) over the years, and with the issues Wal*Mart perennially has with its suppliers. The retailer wants to control the terms of its supply chain -- demand higher discounts, schedule deliveries according to its needs, maneuver suppliers into the lines of business the retailer is most interested in, etc. -- and has more leverage to do that as it becomes a larger percentage of its suppliers' businesses. The Wal*Mart comparison is particularly interesting, since it's the #1 toy retailer in the US, as well as (I believe) the #1 grocery chain -- so it has a lot of leverage, and has been very active in using that leverage.

So the central issue really isn't inherently about "The Internet" or information wanting to be free, or even the shift to e-books (though that was the touchstone for this event). It's about who has more power: the retailer (who has the relationship with the consumer) or the supplier (who has the products that consumer wants). To be blunt, it's a naked power struggle.

Similarly, Stross writes that Amazon buys wholesale and sells retail, which is their key strength -- this is true but very far from unique. So does B&N, so does Borders, so does Books-A-Million. The difference -- and here's where the Internet has been important -- is that Amazon's cost structure is much lower than its competitors, since it doesn't have to maintain costly retail locations around the country and actually provide jobs to people that sell books. Amazon has used that cost savings to buy market share since its very earliest days; it's one of their most-favored weapons, and they come back to it again and again.

The possible transition looming is that e-books not only don't require that nationwide cost structure, but are actually more difficult to sell through that cost structure. If e-books become the dominant form (which is an immense "if"), then operations like Amazon are almost guaranteed to become dominant, and Amazon is already in by far the strongest position in that space. And even if e-books top off at 10-15% of print books (as audiobooks did before them), that's still a huge piece of the business, and a massive amount of leverage for the dominant player (at the moment, Amazon) in that space.

2. The agency model.

Traditionally, books have been physical objects, sold by publishers on a returnable basis. This is an oversimplification -- some retailers, including Amazon from some publishers, buy a lot of their books non-returnable to get higher discounts -- but it's a good first approximation of the standard book business.

E-books, obviously, are not physical objects, and won't be sold returnable, unless they're embodied in a specific medium. (And we all know how well that worked out during the "enhanced book" CD-ROM mania of the mid-90s.) But they've piggybacked on that distribution model, since they were sold by publishers to booksellers, and started out as a minor sideline.

As they've grown in profitability and importance, though, that model has been bent and twisted in various directions. In the current format wars, nearly every seller of e-books has a unique (and often proprietary) format, and sometimes oversees conversions to their format (for example, Amazon does). It's been clear for a while that e-books would eventually move to a different model, but the question of which model has been a contentious one.

And why wouldn't it be? Every player in a market wants a model that gives it more power and control, while lessening the power and control of its competitors and/or trading partners. This is always a bruising process, and always will be.

Apple tossed a hand grenade into the middle of this slow-motion knife fight with the iPad and its "agency model." Apple, unlike Amazon, prefers to position itself as a high-end, almost luxury supplier, and is not interested in bare-bottom prices. And so their model was crafted to appeal to publishers -- so it could gather more suppliers to its platform and model quickly -- in opposition to Amazon's model.

Macmillan, working from Apple's model -- and rejecting Amazon's new model, which had some features apparently in common with the Apple model but was quite different (Stross is very good at dissecting those differences, by the way) -- gave Amazon their ultimatum on Friday. (Macmillan CEO John Sargent's open letter about that ultimatum, and its aftermath, is available on Publishers Lunch, though PL's newsletter commentary and reporting is not at that link.)

Amazon, like so many of us do, didn't react well to an ultimatum, and took a precipitous action of their own.

From Amazon's point of view, Macmillan is trying to fix prices, and constrain Amazon's ability to react to the market. They're strongly opposed to that; retailers typically want the freedom to price products at the level they think best. Amazon thinks they know how best to price e-books, and can point to the success of the Kindle as evidence. (Though that's slightly tarnished by the fact that Amazon has never released clear figures as to the actual success of the Kindle -- and that's in character for Amazon, which has a long history of creative number-juggling when speaking to the public.)

On Macmillan's side, they see themselves losing the ability to price e-books at a level which will cover the costs of creating those books, and the price slide spreading to print books -- or, in the worst, e-books Uber Alles, case, they see the Kindle being the iPod of books, and print books disappearing as quickly as the Discman has.

So I partially disagree with Stross here; pricing, and the control of pricing, is of central importance in this dispute. Bluntly, Amazon wants much lower prices much faster than Macmillan does (and has been willing to give up margin or take losses to subsidize those prices so far).

3. The Internet killing middlemen.

This is very much a side point to Stross's argument, but it's a common belief: that the Internet inherently destroys the power of middlemen and connects consumers directly with producers.

It may be true in some cases, but think about the biggest success of the Internet Age: Google.

What is Google but a middleman? They connect searchers to websites (and deliver those searchers to advertisers), they provide other platforms for individuals to connect (YouTube, Gmail, etc.).

Come to think of it, the social web is entirely made up of middlemen, and they've been the biggest recent successes. So the common wisdom has some flaws, at the very minimum: the Internet, like any business transition, can be very hard on complacent and entrenched companies, but it's not taking away the need for economic players whose role is to connect people and businesses to each other.

4. Amazon's cut of the pie

As some of Stross's commentors pointed out, Amazon has not used its "buy wholesale, sell retail" model to increase its own profits -- at least, not immediately -- but instead leveraged its lower costs to lower prices to consumers in order to buy market share.

And this is, of course, a time-tested method of competition, one which was used extensively by brick-and-mortar bookstores in the '90s during the dueling expansions of B&N and Borders. Each chain competed with the other on price, and tweaked its discounts -- with loyalty programs, by giving greater discounts to national or chain bestsellers, and so on -- as part of that battle.

5. What publishers do

Stross covered this well in his comments, but some of his commentors have the too-common pie-in-the-sky "why don't you just publish it yourself and make all the money?" arguments. Aside from the fact that e-books are still a small piece of the market -- and self-publishing a physical book isn't an activity for anyone but a ridiculously energetic self-promoter -- I do have to ask them one question:

Why do you think an individual author would have more leverage, or control, when dealing with retailers like Amazon than a large, diversified publisher like Macmillan?

6. What happens next

Someone blinks. In the case of Amazon UK vs. Hachette, it took a long time, and it appears that Hachette blinked the most. This case is more extensive than that one -- Amazon has "delisted" every Macmillan book, not just a selection of bestselling titles -- and I don't expect it will last the year-plus the UK action did.

As in the UK, it might not be immediately clear who blinked, or how much. But someone will blink.

Update, 6:25 PM EST on Jan 31st: Amazon has posted a notice stating that "ultimately, however, we will have to capitulate and accept Macmillan's terms" on their forums. "Ultimately," though, doesn't seem to mean "now," since the buy buttons have not been reinstated yet.

[seen, like all of the other important news in this story, from Publishers Lunch]
Listening to: The Deathray Davies - Dear In The Headlights
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Amazon and Macmillan

Sometime yesterday, Amazon "delisted" a large number -- possibly all -- of the titles published in print by Macmillan, one of the six largest US publishing companies. (Reaction from Macmillan authors was swift, and naturally extremely negative towards Amazon.)

According to a New York Times blog post, this was a deliberate act on Amazon's part in response to an overture by Macmillan over Kindle e-books. Macmillan had offered a two-choice blanket option for their Kindle editions:
  • either sell them on an "agency" model, similar to the new model for Apple's iPad, in which the publisher sets the retail price and Amazon gets 30% of that price for each unit sold
  • or continue on the current, standard book-industry terms, in which Amazon buys books at their current discount rates (likely in the 50-60% range, depending on quantities), but has the right to price at any level they choose -- though, in this case, Macmillan would delay all Kindle editions seven months after the print edition.
Personally, I've never been in favor of "one size fits all" plans, and Macmillan's plan here is a particularly crude and dumb one. (For one thing, it apparently covers even their mass-market originals, where the price competition of a Kindle edition is minimal.) But both parties are well within their legal rights, and this is just another one of those unpleasant negotiations that spill over into the public space -- like the similar fight over revenue wages by Scripps and Cablevision over the TV networks HGTV and Food Network earlier this month. And this scrimmage will be settled -- behind closed doors, as the Scripps/Cablevision fight was -- and then announced to the public in a chummy way, as if Macmillan and Amazon were best buddies all along.

I haven't seen anyone yet note that this is the second time that Amazon has applied the big hammer of delisting an entire publisher; they tried the same thing to Hachette in the UK almost two years ago. In that case, Amazon was the aggressor -- they were attempting to demand higher discounts from Hachette (and their other suppliers) and pursued the delisting to get the publishers to agree to its new, and much more favorable to Amazon, terms. As I recall, Amazon was not particularly successful in that case, and I don't expect they'll see much luck this time, either.

Consumers react badly to choices being taken away from them, and resent the actors who do that. In the Scripps/Cablevision dispute, both sides could semi-reasonably claim the other side had caused the problem, but, in this case, it's clearly and entirely Amazon's action. That won't go over well with engaged bookbuyers...but then, of course, the real question will be what percent of the market are engaged bookbuyers. (Amazon is betting that they are relatively few, and that their memories are short. And they might be right -- how many people actually stopped buying from Amazon entirely after the search issue with gay and sexually-themed books in mid 2009, or Amazon's 1984 clawback fiasco?)

I'm sure Amazon will be looking at their sales closely, and if sales on other publisher's print books -- particularly those in the areas where Macmillan authors are loudly complaining across the 'Net -- they may make a quiet step backward. I wouldn't be surprised if, in that case, they claim that this was some sort of accident or mishap, and that they never intended to stop selling the books of an entire publisher.

And -- who knows? -- it might even be the truth.

But Amazon almost certainly has a large inventory of Macmillan books in its warehouses -- unless it had been planning this action for much longer than appears to be the case, and unless Macmillan got a wave of returns earlier this week -- which they will have to do something with as the days go on. Those books will likely go back on sale before too long, but the real question is: who will blink first?

Update: Macmillan's plan was not as crude and one-size-fits-all as I first thought -- this story has been reported badly everywhere but the e-newsletter Publishers Lunch -- but it's still clearly aimed at reducing Amazon's power in this market. See my later post for further ruminations.
Listening to: Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - The False Husband
via FoxyTunes

Friday, January 29, 2010

I Can't Help You Out With Death, But...

It's Income Tax season in the US once again -- and probably other places as well, but I don't know their schedules, and, honestly, don't care all that much -- which means we're all trying to figure out what we owe and how to make that number as low as legally possible.

My first recommendation -- for partially self-serving reasons, which I readily admit -- would be for the fine books and subscription products of the esteemed J.K. Lasser Institute. I'll also note that the flagship of that program, the immense and magisterial J.K. Lasser's Your Income Tax 2010 (a complete line-by-line guide to filing) is also available at practically every bookseller in these United States of ours, both virtual and physical, and is near the front entrance of a whole lot of 'em right now as well.

But, if you're insistent on buying from my Secret Masters, and you're demanding a link to them, and you're not sure you want a book -- such a dirty, tedious, old-fashioned thing as that is, well, then, I have to shrug and point you down the road to Tax Central. (Though you will find Mr. Lasser there as well -- you can't avoid him! You might as well buy all of his books now and get it over with!)

Good luck to you all in tax season -- merry deductions and many happy refunds.
Listening to: The Mountain Goats - How To Embrace A Swamp Creature
via FoxyTunes

Quote of the Week: Advanced Advertising

"The trade of advertising is now so near to perfection that it is not easy to propose any improvement."
- The Idler, 1759

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Random Quote: A Peeping Hefner

I've neglected to make any normal post today, so have a random interesting quote from a book I read recently:

"Hefner understood this feeling, had experienced it in the early years of his marriage when he would slip away from his sleeping wife at night to take long walks through the city. Along the lake, he would look up at the luxurious towering apartment houses and see women standing at the windows, and imagine that they were as unhappy as he was; he wanted to know all of them intimately. During the day he would mentally undress certain women he saw walking in the street, or in parks, or getting into cars, and although nothing was ever said or done, not even a glance was exchanged, he nevertheless felt a quiet exhilaration, and he could revive the impression of these women weeks later in his cinematic mind, could see them as clearly as he was now seeing the photographs of the nude dancer on his desk."
- Guy Talese, Thy Neighbor's Wife, pp. 26-27

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Apple Tablet Will Not Save Publishing

Sometime later today, a thin man dressed all in black will get up on a stage in front of a horde of journalists and suits to present a new Apple product. Everyone is assuming this product will be the long-rumored Apple tablet computer (first trumpeted as immediately forthcoming back in 2002), and that it will magically "save publishing" by being the super-colossal reading machine for the masses.

Those of us who are particularly cynical will have noted that the people most actively laying down this line of patter are from firms like Forrester Research -- which is probably claiming that Amazon has sold eighty kazillion Kindles by this point -- and various start-ups in the digital reading space. In other words: these are people who are trying to deliberately create hype so that they can shift some of it in their direction.

But let's be honest. Even if this rumored product is the Apple tablet -- and indications are pretty good that it will be -- and even if this device has an iTunes-like book and magazine store built into it, as it probably will, it's not going to radically change the landscape for electronic text readers, let alone the larger world of reading in general.

This device will most likely:
  • be at least twice the price of currently existing dedicated book readers
  • have far less than half the batter life of those readers
  • bulk much larger and heavier than those readers
This device is a computer, not an e-reader. It's really Apple's end-run around the netbook market; an attempt to create something unique instead of trying to compete on price in that very competitive space. It will be used to read text, as all computers are, and some readers may decide to stop carrying a Kindle or Nook if they will already have an iWhateverItIs in their bags. But this fabled new device is not directly competitive with e-book readers in the same way that it's not directly competitive with mobile phones; it's simply a different thing.

And I remain skeptical that millions of people will suddenly rush out to buy a new portable computer. Even with Apple's phenomenal success with the iPhone this decade, the Macintosh's market share has only ticked upward slightly; the new Apple audience has not shown a massive willingness to trade Wintel cheapness and ubiquity for Apple design.

One final thought: the people who claim this device will "save publishing" are crowing about the iTunes model. Has anyone thought to ask the music companies -- so devastatingly reduced in size and profitability this decade -- how well that model "saved" their business?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Movie Log: In the Loop

In the Loop, the pseudo-documentary comedy about various US and UK government actors bumbling along during the prelude to a war, plays coy with exactly which war it's supposed to be running up to, but we all know it's Iraq. (Despite the plethora of screaming Scots bastards, led by Peter Capaldi, meant to evoke Gordon Brown and slightly more modern days.)

If you're of the opinion that everyone working for a government is either an ineffectual wanker of a bureaucrat or a screaming bastard with a secret agenda, you will love In the Loop. Capaldi, who plays some manner of high UK official named Malcolm whose title or exact purview I never quite grasped, leads the brigade of screamers with wit, bile, flying flecks of saliva, and copious obscenity. Chris Addison is the fresh face of the ineffectual wanker side, playing Toby Wright, a brand-new office drone in the hive of minor minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), who's pretty ineffectual himself.

The movie has a loose structure, adding to the documentary atmosphere -- apparently, it was cut down from a much longer rough cut, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if many scenes were semi-improvised -- as Malcolm and a smug US Undersecretary of State named Linton Barwick (David Rasche, as good at smug as Capaldi is at raw anger) stage-manage everyone towards the war their (offscreen, and generally unmentioned) bosses want. Scenes run on longer than expected, and the whole has that raw, not-quite-scripted feel that ads verisimilitude. (Although, on the other hand, everyone in In the Loop does speak very fluently and at length all the time, which is slightly unlikely, even in these rarefied circles.)

In the Loop is casually anti-war, as we all generally are, but it's really more of a movie about workplaces -- a high-achiever's Office Space, perhaps -- full of snark and back-biting and complaints about meetings. The business of this particular establishment is war, yes, but the point is that it's a lousy product, badly tested and about to be foisted onto a public that no one cares the slightest bit about. For viewers who can tolerate high levels of obscenity and personal assault, In the Loop will be one of the funniest movies of the year. (And I haven't even mentioned James Gandolfini yet, who plays a general with his own nastily cold sense of humor.)
Listening to: Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - It's Hard To Kill A Bad Thing
via FoxyTunes

Monday, January 25, 2010

An Appreciation of Kage Baker

About a week ago, the news came out that Kage Baker, a fine writer and great storyteller, was gravely ill with cancer. I saw the story first through Jeff VanderMeer, and full details are available here. Her loved ones have asked for letters and messages of support from anyone who knows her or her work, since the prognosis is very bad. The message below is what I'm sending, and I encourage any of you who've enjoyed her work to take the time to write as well.

We've never met, and I won't say that I know you from your books -- any person is much more complicated and interesting than their work. Even someone who's written such wonderful, zippy, cram-packed books as you have. But I do know your writing, and it's given me a great amount of joy for the past decade.

I wish I had met you, especially since I bought the eight novels of the main "Company" sequence for omnibuses at the Science Fiction Book Club, and got to e-mail back and forth with you a couple of times about titles for them. It was also one of the consolations when I lost that job that I had just managed to finish up work on the fourth of those omnibuses before I left -- those are books I loved, and kept insisting that people read, so it was important to get them done right.

The Company books are just so full -- of life, of verve, of energy, and of a thousand little facts and side-thoughts. I had an image in my head of the woman behind those books, and you always seemed to live up to it, with an interestingly varied life before turning to writing and a long list of quirky, fascinating interests. You took two very old and well-worn SFnal ideas -- the time machine and the immortal -- and did something new and fresh with them, at the same time writing deeply historical novels that didn't feel like history lessons and near-future thrillers that were excitingly historical.

And then your short fiction was even better than the novels, with amazing stories like "Mother Aegypt" and "The House at Harlan's Landing" and "The Angel in the Darkness." Your novellas were your best work; I've come to believe that's a sign of the very best genre writers, that they can take that very tricky, mid-length form and bang it into breathtaking shapes. And you are certainly one of them.

I was also inspired because you started writing later in life -- much like another magnificent writer of short fiction, Lucius Shepard -- and I assumed that you'd be a fixture of the SF scene for at least as long as he has been. And I'm enough of a believer in hair's-breadth escapes -- and I remember the ending of The Sons of Heaven well enough -- to believe that still could happen.

You have all my best wishes, Kage, for the books and stories you've already written and for all the ones you might yet write, and my most fervent hopes that somehow there can be a happy ending to this story of yours. You deserve it.


Andrew Wheeler
Listening to: Fountains Of Wayne - All Kinds Of Time
via FoxyTunes

Movie Meme

I haven't done a mindless check-box meme like this in donkey's years, so why not? I got this one from Barbarienne.

As usual with Internet memes, the default assumption is that one is a teenager, so therefore having seen 85 or more of these movies (unspoken assumption: in the five years or so you've had to watch movies that don't feature talking fish) means that "you have no life." Those of us who have had a somewhat longer time to see movies should adjust accordingly.

I've bolded the ones I've seen; the original idea seems to have been to put an "X" in front of the title.
  • Rocky Horror Picture Show (in a theater, twice, at midnight, with toast and water guns, back in the early '80s when it was still mildly transgressive)
  • Grease
  • Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest (and the third one, too)
  • Boondock Saints
  • Fight Club
  • Starsky and Hutch (not the movie, but I did watch the TV show quite a bit in my misspent youth)
  • Neverending Story
  • Blazing Saddles
  • Airplane
Total: 6
  • The Princess Bride
  • Anchorman
  • Napoleon Dynamite
  • Labyrinth (in a theater, on a date with the woman who later became my wife)
  • Saw
  • Saw II
  • White Noise (there's a movie based on DeLillo's White Noise!? That is so cool! Oh, wait, it's some dumb modern "horror" movie. Nevermind.)
  • White Oleander
  • Anger Management
  • 50 First Dates
  • The Princess Diaries
  • The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement
Total: 2
  • Scream
  • Scream 2
  • Scream 3
  • Scary Movie
  • Scary Movie 2
  • Scary Movie 3
  • Scary Movie 4
  • American Pie
  • American Pie 2
  • American Wedding
  • American Pie Band Camp
Total: 0 (I'm noticing a certain tropism towards really bad teen movies, particularly the ones featuring spurting fake blood, in this list.)
  • Harry Potter 1
  • Harry Potter 2
  • Harry Potter 3
  • Harry Potter 4
  • Harry Potter 5 (and, as of Friday night, #6 as well)
  • Resident Evil 1
  • Resident Evil 2
  • The Wedding Singer
  • Little Black Book
  • The Village
  • Lilo & Stitch
Total: 5
  • Finding Nemo
  • Finding Neverland
  • Signs
  • The Grinch
  • Texas Chainsaw Massacre
  • Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
  • White Chicks
  • Butterfly Effect
  • 13 Going on 30
  • I, Robot
  • Robots (If I'm remembering the name of the animated movie with Ewan MacGregor and Robin Williams correctly, yes)
Total: 3
  • Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
  • Universal Soldier
  • Lemony Snicket: A Series Of Unfortunate Events
  • Along Came Polly
  • Deep Impact (I did see most of the other really stupid meteor movie, though)
  • KingPin
  • Never Been Kissed
  • Meet The Parents
  • Meet the Fockers
  • Eight Crazy Nights
  • Joe Dirt
  • King Kong (both of them; do I get extra credit?)
Total: 2
  • A Cinderella Story
  • The Terminal
  • The Lizzie McGuire Movie
  • Passport to Paris
  • Dumb & Dumber
  • Dumber & Dumberer
  • Final Destination
  • Final Destination 2
  • Final Destination 3
  • Halloween
  • The Ring
  • The Ring 2
  • Surviving Xmas
  • Flubber
Total: 0 (And I don't regret a moment of it.)
  • Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle
  • Practical Magic
  • Chicago
  • Ghost Ship
  • From Hell
  • Hellboy (I did see Hellboy II, though)
  • Secret Window
  • I Am Sam
  • The Whole Nine Yards
  • The Whole Ten Yards
Total: 0 (once again)
  • The Day After Tomorrow
  • Child's Play
  • Seed of Chucky
  • Bride of Chucky
  • Ten Things I Hate About You
  • Just Married
  • Gothika
  • Nightmare on Elm Street
  • Sixteen Candles (first run in a theater, you whippersnappers!)
  • Remember the Titans
  • Coach Carter
  • The Grudge
  • The Grudge 2
  • The Mask
  • Son Of The Mask
Total: 1
  • Bad Boys
  • Bad Boys 2
  • Joy Ride
  • Lucky Number Slevin (The Wrong Man)
  • Ocean's Eleven
  • Ocean's Twelve
  • Bourne Identity
  • Bourne Supremacy
  • Bourne Ultimatum
  • Lone Star
  • Bedazzled
  • Predator I (though it wasn't "I" back then, it was just Predator)
  • Predator II
  • The Fog
  • Ice Age
  • Ice Age 2: The Meltdown
  • Curious George
Total: 2
  • Independence Day
  • Cujo
  • A Bronx Tale
  • Darkness Falls
  • Christine
  • ET (and I still haven't gotten that taste of rancid schmaltz out of my mouth, even now)
  • Children of the Corn
  • My Bosses Daughter
  • Maid in Manhattan
  • War of the Worlds (but not the one they mean)
  • Rush Hour
  • Rush Hour 2
Total: 2
  • Best Bet
  • How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
  • She's All That
  • Calendar Girls
  • Sideways
  • Mars Attacks
  • Event Horizon
  • Ever After
  • Wizard of Oz (again just a couple of weeks ago, in fact, because Thing 2 had never seen it)
  • Forrest Gump
  • Big Trouble in Little China
  • The Terminator
  • The Terminator 2
  • Terminator 3
Total: 4
  • X-Men
  • X-2
  • X-3
  • Spider-Man
  • Spider-Man 2
  • Sky High
  • Jeepers Creepers
  • Jeepers Creepers 2
  • Catch Me If You Can
  • The Little Mermaid
  • Freaky Friday (the '70s one)
  • Reign of Fire
  • The Skulls
  • Cruel Intentions
  • Cruel Intentions 2
  • The Hot Chick
  • Shrek
  • Shrek 2 (I'm pretty sure I've seen one of the Shrek movies all the way through, but I'm also pretty sure it was #3)
Total: 2
  • Swimfan
  • Miracle on 34th Street (on TV about half a million years ago. And here's something that was more amusing long ago: The Wife used to always misremember the title and call it "Miracle on 42nd Street." Very different kind of miracle, I guess....)
  • Old School
  • The Notebook
  • K-Pax
  • Krippendorf's Tribe
  • A Walk to Remember
  • Ice Castles
  • Boogeyman
  • The 40-year-old Virgin
Total: 2
  • Lord of the Rings Fellowship of the Ring
  • Lord of the Rings The Two Towers
  • Lord of the Rings Return Of the King
  • Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (Heathen! There's no "Indiana Jones" in that title.)
  • Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Total: 6
  • Baseketball
  • Hostel
  • Waiting for Guffman
  • House of 1000 Corpses
  • Devil's Rejects
  • Elf (I've seen about five amusing minutes of it with Peter Dinklage, but then that cretin in the green suit showed up and spoiled everything.)
  • Highlander
  • Mothman Prophecies
  • American History X
  • Three
Total: 0
  • The Jacket
  • Kung Fu Hustle
  • Shaolin Soccer
  • Night Watch
  • Monsters Inc. (It was the first movie I ever took Thing 1 to see in a theater, and only his second-ever big-screen movie.)
Total: 1
  • Titanic
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail (probably as many times as everything else on the list put together, back in the old days of Cinemax and VCRs)
  • Shaun Of the Dead
  • Willard
Total: 2
  • High Tension
  • Club Dread
  • Hulk
  • Dawn Of the Dead
  • Hook
  • Chronicles Of Narnia The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe
  • 28 days later
  • Orgazmo
  • Phantasm
  • Waterworld
Total: 1
  • Kill Bill vol 1
  • Kill Bill vol 2
  • Mortal Kombat
  • Wolf Creek
  • Kingdom of Heaven
  • The Hills Have Eyes
  • I Spit on Your Grave aka the Day of the Woman
  • The Last House on the Left
  • Re-Animator
  • Army of Darkness
Total: 0
  • Star Wars Ep.I The Phantom Menace
  • Star Wars Ep.II Attack of the Clones
  • Star Wars Ep.III Revenge of the Sith
  • Star Wars Ep.IV A New Hope
  • Star Wars Ep.V The Empire Strikes Back
  • Star Wars Ep.VI Return of the Jedi
  • Ewoks Caravan Of Courage
  • Ewoks The Battle For Endor
Total: 6
  • The Matrix
  • The Matrix Reloaded
  • The Matrix Revolutions
  • Animatrix
  • Evil Dead
  • Evil Dead 2
  • Team America: World Police
  • Red Dragon
  • Silence of the Lambs
  • Hannibal
Total: 2

Grand Total: 49

And I'm a guy who saw, and wrote about, 117 movies last year -- including Paul Blart, Mall Cop, and over a dozen-and-a-half James Bond films, in case you're thinking of calling me some kind of elitist. This is a very, um, targeted list of movies.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/23

As usual, this is a listing of books that came in my mail last week, sent by various folks hoping to have me review them. I haven't read any of them yet, but here's what I can tell you about them from a quick glance and whatever I already know. (Though, as usual, what I "already know" may turn out to be wrong.)

Most of what I saw this week was from Tokyopop, but I'll lead off with the one thing that wasn't: a new graphic novel from James Sturm called Market Day. Drawn & Quarterly will publish it in April as a slim hardcover. (It's just under a hundred pages, and looks to be just slightly smaller than the typical comics trade paperback.) Sturm's previous work -- The Golem's Mighty Swing, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow -- have mostly been historical stories set in America, and this one is also historical (and shares an element of Judaica with Golem), but it's set in Eastern Europe about a hundred years ago. It looks like a quiet book, about a rug-maker who finds that the world is changing in ways that make his work less valuable.

And then the rest of these books are all coming from Tokyopop in February, so you'll forgive me if I don't re-type that every time...

Portrait of M & N, Vol. 1 is the first book in a new series by Tachibana Higuchi, whom Tokyopop reminds me is the creator of Gakuen Alice. (That's very nice of them, but it doesn't help, since -- benighted soul that I am -- I've never read, or even seen, Gakuen Alice. M&N is some manner of romance (set in high school, naturally), with a young woman who's an "extreme masochist who finds delight in brutal beatings" and a young man "whose one true pleasure [is] gazing at his beautiful reflection in a room full of mirrors." I'm hoping this is a parody of something I don't recognize, or is otherwise less than completely serious, since that level of masochism gets deeply icky (to use the technical term) if not handled very carefully. I may have to read it just to find out if I should be offended...

Next is Deadman Wonderland, Vol. 1 by Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou, which looks like some kind of distant relative to Battle Royale. Ganta is a middle-schooler sentenced to death after someone else kills his entire class, and sent to a "tourist prison" called Deadman Wonderland -- and this all, to make it even more distinctive, is set ten years after The Great Tokyo Earthquake, the epicenter of which was rebuilt as that prison. Oh, and by the way -- the cover I grabbed has an "art not final" stamp on it, but it looks just like the actual book in my hands.

Phantom Dream, Vol. 5 is by Natsuki Takaya, the creator of the popular Fruits Basket series, and it's the end of this romance series that I suspect is also historical. (There's a lot of people in fancy long kimonos, and at least one swordfight.)

From the BLU imprint comes Croquis, a yaoi (or maybe "Boys Love," since I hear that's now the preferred term) love story by Hinako Takanaga, about an art school student and the model he falls in love with. It looks like a standalone story; that's pretty common in yaoi -- much more than in other genres of manga.

Alice in the Country of Hearts, Vol. 1 is yet another modern reworking of Lewis Carroll, this time by Quinrose (story) and Soumei Hoshino (art). As usual, Alice Liddell falls into Wonderland, but this version -- being manga -- is full of cute men who are all passionately in love with Alice. They're also at war with each other, which makes things more dangerous and complicated -- the better for this series to run a long time, I expect.

I saw the first volume of Julietta Suzuki's Karakuri Odette a while back -- and I reviewed it, briefly, for ComicMix, last month -- and now I've got the second one here as well. As the tag line on the back cover has it: "She's a hot robot in high school: What's the worst that could happen?"

Tokyopop isn't just publishing the usual manga-size volumes, of course -- they also publish in other formats, and I've got a couple of those books as well. On the large size is Fruits Basket Ultimate Edition, Vol. 4, which binds together volumes 7 and 8 of the regular-sized series into hardcovers at a slightly larger size. Fruits Basket, by Natsuki Takaya, is the #1 shojo manga in America -- and there's a bunch of fan-art pages in here to prove it. (And seeing pages and pages of art from girls is a wonderful thing.)

Last for this week is Remember by Benjamin, a full-color original graphic novel (in the larger trim size more typical of Western comics) that reads from left-to-right. Remember collections two short stories, each with their own afterword, plus a preview of Benjamin's upcoming graphic novel Orange. (And, after poking through this book and it's moody blue-green art a bit more, I suspect that Benjamin is Chinese -- the introduction by Ma Rong Cheng of Hong Kong's Tian Xia Books implies but doesn't quite say that.)
Listening to: Audra Mae - The River
via FoxyTunes

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Let No Impediments Mar the Marriage of Two True Hornswogglers

This blog gets way too focused on a few topics -- perhaps because I am a monomaniac -- but I do have occasional hopes to shift that. So, in the hopes of changing my tone now and then, and because I'm still too befuddled by a head cold to finish up any of the posts I've been working on this week, have another old scarp of Hornswogglery.

Back in 2000, there was a thread on the Straight Dope Message Board about how various folks there had given or received wedding proposals. And this was my story -- all dates accurate only through nine years ago:

We'd been dating for about five years (including college, so it's not quite as bad as that sounds), and the not-yet-Mrs. Hornswoggler had been dropping increasingly large hints and starting "where is this relationship going" conversations. I'm a real stickler for doing things "right" (which is whatever I irrationally think is the way things must be done), so I didn't want to officially become engaged without having the ring and everything. (She, on the other hand, would have been perfectly happy with a commitment from me.)

So, I manage to save up some money from my low-paying editorial job, make a down payment on a ring, and plan to give it to her on her birthday. But the ring is ready a week early, so I pick it up then. La Contessa and I were going to the New York Renaissance Faire that Saturday (some friends worked there), and I brought the ring with me.

Halfway through the day, we're sitting and resting on a hay bale in the shade, and I can't wait any longer. So I pull out the ring and give it to her. I was so nervous (so she tells me; I don't have any real memory myself) that what I said was "this is for you." She was deliriously happy, but did have to prod me into actually saying something in the form of a question.

We run back to show the friends the ring, and she starts sneezing violently. Turns out that she's allergic to hay (and had mostly forgotten, since she's in its vicinity about once every decade or so), and spent the rest of the day beaming and snuffling.

We got married about a year and a half later (I told her I didn't even want to plan a date until I had the ring paid off). It will be seven years in May, and we've got a 2-year-old son, so I think things worked out pretty well.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Movie Log: Up in the Air

I'll momentarily drop my pseudo-objective pose to mention that this is the first movie for adults that The Wife and I have seen in an actual theater in a good six months; logistics is not our friend these days. Luckily, it was a good movie, with George Clooney for the distaff side and a wonderful shot of what I really hope was Vera Farmiga's actual tuchis and not some random body double for those of my persuasion.

Up in the Air is based on Walter Kirn's novel, which I read before this blog began and thus didn't scribble down any notes for 2010 Andy to crib from. So I have to rely on my own memories, plus all of the media reports that have dwelt on how much director Jason Reitman changed the novel (which, luckily, does match my memory).

Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, the smiling face behind which a million bad managers hide. He fires people for a living; the company he works for (an aparrently very profitable but dull entity headquartered in Omaha) provides termination and transition services to downsizing companies, and Ryan is the guy who flies around to meet with people face-to-face and tell them that their jobs no longer exist. Ryan has burrowed into this life like a ferret; he's on the road over three hundred days a year and loves it that way. His entire life is lived on the road, and his great personal goal is getting to ten million airmiles on American Airlines -- which he's nearly reached.

But then two things happen, both caused by women (as is always the case) --
  • A hotshot young go-getter at his firm, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), convinces the CEO (Jason Bateman) to roll-out a videoconferencing system. If that is fully implemented, Ryan and all of the other full-time road warriors will be landed in Omaha permanently.
  • And Alex (Farmiga), a woman that Ryan meets in a random high-end business hotel in a random city and starts an affair with, unexpectedly makes him actually want her.
Up in the Air begins with Ryan happy and alone, has him meet Alex and be even happier with her, then sends him on the road (for what they expect will be the last time) with Natalie to road-test her and her system, with Ryan of course trying to convince her that her system will never work. Along the way, Ryan and Alex shift itineraries to meet again, so that the three of them are together for a long sequence in the middle of the movie. Occasionally, Up in the Air feints in the direction of obviousness, but it draws back eventually -- though some sequences (particularly during a family wedding) take quite a while before they do draw back. And, the whole time, it's a movie about people talking to each other about important things -- work, life, family, relationships, love, purpose. There's not a moment in it that isn't real.

This is the third movie directed by Jason Reitman -- after the slicing Thank You For Smoking and the rousing Juno -- and it lives up to expectations; it's another smartly scripted and pointedly acted look at The Way We Live Now (or at least some of us). It's not perfect -- if I were in a different mood I might be complaining about some pieces of it -- but it's a fine movie for adults about real people and their real relationships, with three very strong performances at its heart.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Decoding Marketing-Speak

"Nearly a dozen" always means eleven, because ten is ten, and twelve is a dozen.

"More than a dozen" is less than fifteen.

Similarly, "top-x" always means x -- e.g., "One of the top eight books on neuropathology in suburban Baltimore" means it's the eighth.

Another Widget!

I managed to get through forty years of life without ever having someone make a widget for me, but I've now been partially responsible for two of them in the past two months. The first one was for the mighty Wiley CPA Exam Review, which I doubt any of you cared about. But this new widget might be of interest to more folks -- it's about US tax deductions (and who doesn't like saving money on taxes?)

This widget is driven by the vast tax expertise of the J.K. Lasser Institute, which is also behind a series of books, particularly a big line-by-line annual tax guide. (And you may think that those are obsolete in this era of software, but it really is quite helpful to do your taxes yourself directly, to see what the numbers really are, instead of letting software spoon-feed you.)

The widget displays a different deduction every day for tax season, with links to the usual longer (and inevitably dryer) discussion of the details.

Please feel free to stick this anywhere you feel like -- the point is to distribute it widely, and it has all of the usual functionality for adding it to Facebook, various blog templates, e-mails, and so on.

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for.... the WIDGET!

Quote of the Week: Urban Planning

"But Cumbernauld [where he grew up] wasn't just a scheme. It was a plan. A big plan. An entire new town built about fifteen miles outside Glasgow itself. One of three, in fact. East Kilbride, like Cumbernauld a satellite of Glasgow and Livingston, which was built on the outskirts of Edinbugh. It is hard to convey the dreariness of these gloomy wastelands, of which Cumbernauld was and is undoubtedly the worst. These atrocities were designed by pseudointellectual modernists who believed that the automobile would replace feet sometime in the 1970s. Any money they had left over from making boxlike dwelling hutches was spent on horrendous concrete abstract sculptures, totems to the gods of utter banality, which were placed throughout the town in random locations. There were no sidewalks, pedestrians were instead diverted into tunnels lined with corrugated iron (a cheap way to make them) so as not to interfere with the flow of traffic on the empty freeways. The tunnels became useful later for gang violence and glue sniffing as the new towns crumbled.

I doubt the Cumbernauld town planners ever saw the finished product but I'm sure it looked a lot better as line drawings on expensive paper. Fairly recently Cumbernauld was named the second-worst town in the United Kingdom, losing worst-of-all honors to the city of Hull, a dowdy seaport on the east coast of England. I dispute the result; I have been to Hull, and while it is undoubtedly an absolute shitheap, it is no match for Cumbernauld."
- Craig Ferguson, American on Purpose, p.15

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Thing 1's Sense of Humor at Age 5

A cold is befuddling my brain, so I'm not going to attempt anything new tonight. Instead, I dug this piece out of the archives of the Straight Dope Message Board, where I used to spend a lot of time in the early aughts. I wrote the following about the child I now call "Thing 1" back in July of 2003, in a thread about how none of our very young children could tell a joke to save their lives:

My five-year-old son likes to tell me a joke every night at bedtime. Now, he's been doing this for about six months now, so, without any new jokes coming into the rotation, so you'd think we'd both be bored with it, right?

Ah, but you didn't count on the power of joke mutation! The L'il Swoggler (LS for short) started off with the usual "Why did the chicken cross the road?" -- an old standby, always popular. But, whenever I give him an answer, his punchline changes. As with everybody else's kids, it doesn't make much sense, but it changes.

These days, it goes something like this:

LS: Daddy, why did the cow cross the road?
GBH: I don't know, why?
LS: To get to the cow-cow!
GBH: Well, goodnight sweetie. Sleep tight.
LS: Wait, Daddy! What about the second joke?
LS: Why did the cow cross the road?
GBH: Because it was tired?
LS: No, silly -- to get to the mauw-mauw!

He gets the timing of a punchline -- he sells it the right way, and all that -- but he doesn't seem to have realized that a punchline is supposed to do things like make sense or even contain recognizable words.

And he goes to kindergarten in a month and a half -- who knows what that will do to his sense of humor...

Listening to: Tom Waits - Lucinda / Ain't Goin' Down To The Well [Live]
via FoxyTunes

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Hey! Did'ja Notice the Calendar Rolled Over?

Well, Amazon did, and they want to take advantage of your new-year-fueled optimism and energy by selling you a whole bunch of stuff. If I did this right -- and that's by no means likely, in my current cold-addled state -- there will be a banner below, which can whisk you away to the land where there's no problem or resolution that can't be addressed by spending money on consumer goods:

Listening to: Basia Bulat - Little Waltz
via FoxyTunes

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

That Lego Pen I Tweeted About

Since content is very light lately (for the usual lazy-or-busy reasons), how about a link to, and a picture of, that Lego pen that I mentioned on Twitter last week?

Oddly, I can't find the exact pen I have on Amazon -- it's (I think) the one to the right in the fuzzy photo -- but here's a whole list of various Lego pens for hours of fun playing with your writing implement in meetings.

Soon, The Wife and I will be off to a concert this evening, of Josh Ritter and The Swell Season. Don't wait up!

Monday, January 18, 2010

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 1/16

Welcome to Monday morning! (If you're reading this sometime later, welcome to whenever it is now, you slacker.)

I got some books in the mail last week, and these are they. I haven't read any of them yet, but here's what I can tell you about them from having them sit next to my desk for several days:

Token of Darkness is a new fantasy novel for young adults by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, whom the cover letter goes to great pains to mention has been writing supernatural books for teens since 1999. (Unspoken, but just beneath the surface, is the "and all of us here think she's massively better than those lousy Twilight books from that other publishing house.") I vaguely remember her name -- possibly because her first book, a vampire novel called In the Forests of the Night, was published when she was just 15. Token of Darkness will be published on February 8th by Random House Children's Books, under the Delacorte imprint. (And I have to admit that I have no idea how Random decides which children's books are Knopf, and which are Delacorte, or whatever else, or why they use the same imprints as some of the adult groups and still maintain a separate structure.) Token's hero is a high school football star who was in a deadly car accident -- not deadly to him, I gather, but to some unspecified non-football-star person -- after which he was able to see a pretty ghost named Samantha. As usual, this thrusts him into the secret supernatural world that he never knew existed, including several others from his own high school with amazing powers of their own. I may not be particularly impressed, because my experience with high school football stars is that more of them should have been in deadly car accidents, which would have made things much nicer for the rest of us. But I am a nasty cynic, whose opinion should be ignored.

Moving on to books for adults, Black Blade Blues is the first book in an urban fantasy series about a blacksmith who also makes props for movies and does medieval reenactment. (Sounds like a modern version of a Unknown Worlds protagonist -- you might get unexpectedly shunted into a different dimension where magic works and swordplay rules, but, luckily, magic is just like the poetry you've memorized scads of and your college fencing club experience is just what you need.) Our multi-talented heroine here is Sarah Beauhall, and her scribe is J.A. Pitts. (And it's a sign of how female-dominated urban fantasy is that these initials hide a man named John. Or maybe someone thought that a series about a lesbian -- there's a reference to Sarah's girlfriend on the back cover -- might not be taken as well coming obviously from a man.) Presumably, all of Sarah's talents will soon be needed, after she discovers dwarfs and shape-shifting dragons in the modern world. Black Blade Blues is coming in hardcover -- which is fairly unusual for a debut urban fantasy -- from Tor in April.

(To the right is what I think is the cover art for this book, by Dan Dos Santos. It certainly looks like the description in the book, and "Black Blade Blues" is in the image title, but I found it through pure Google-Fu, and so I make no claims to its accuracy. And there's obviously no type on it yet.)

Up Jim River is the new novel from Michael Flynn, featuring characters called things like "The Hound Bridget ban" and "her daughter, the harper Mearana" and " the scarred man, Donovan." It also features a major journey up a river, which is likely meant to invoke Huckleberry Finn or Heart of Darkness or (shudder) both. I've liked most of the stories by Flynn that I've read, but I'm several novels behind, and this one looks to be more ornamented, in prose and plot, than usual for him, as if he were trying his hand at a medium-future planetary adventure novel a la Jack Vance. It's coming from Tor as an April hardcover as well.

And last for this week is a big anthology of original stories: Warriors, edited by George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois. It's got twenty new stories about fighting from some usual suspects -- Martin himself, S.M. Stirling, Robin Hobb, Naomi Novik, Tad Williams -- and some less usual, such as Lawrence Block. It's coming from Tor as a major hardcover in March.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Quote of the Weekend: A Drinking Man

"I have spoken to a lot of people in my life. I've read a lot of books, I've seen a lot of movies and plays, and I've heard a lot of opinions on a wide variety of topics, but no topic have I encountered more uninformed random bullshit than alcoholism. To me alcoholism is a little like L.A.: everybody thinks they've been there and they know the place because they've seen Entourage or visited Disneyland, butt only the people who have lived there for a few years really get it. Alcoholism is like this. You don't know shit about it if you drank a few too many beers in college or once blacked out or fell off a bar stool. Even people who have suffered from alcoholism for years can't comprehend it if they are still drinking, and those who have recovered from this seemingly helpless condition of mind and body seem to agree on only a few things. It is cunning. It is baffling. It is powerful, and it is patient.

People still ask me how much did I drink every day and the answer is, I don't know. I didn't keep a journal. There is no tally sheet because it wasn't fucking Weight Watchers. I drank what I had to, every day. That's how much I drank. And here's the sneaky part. It's not linear. I didn't drink every day, not until the end, I simply could never guarantee or even guess what my actions would be after only one sip of alcohol.

Understand this, if nothing else, It's not about how much you drink. It's not about the alcohol really at all. It's about what the alcohol does to the alcoholic. That's why I would never advocate temperance for those who don't need it or prohibition for those who don't want it. If I could drink like a normal person, then I would drink. Since I can't, I don't.

Here is something else that proves, to my mind, anyway, that I am an alcoholic. If I could drink alcohol like a normal person, I would not be interested in drinking alcohol. This is sometimes very difficult for nonalcoholics to understand. That's what makes them nonalcoholics."
- Craig Ferguson, American on Purpose, pp.89-90

Sayings That Didn't Catch On

It's another weekend in which I've been doing other things instead of writing blog posts (cleaning Thing 1's room and playing too much Lux, to mention two of them), so I'll dig some things out of closets to post here. This is one of my various bits of string saved from elsewhere on the Internet, and I'll toss in a quote in a little while.

I wrote these back in 2003 for
a thread on the Straight Dope Message Board called "Failed Maxims," and they still amused me when I found them again. So I'm rerunning them:

The little lamb knows not the ways of the lobster.

When the sun is high, God is nigh. When the sun is low, God's gotta go.

A tree in the hand is worth two birds in a hat, or three on Sundays.

Who know the secret of the song of the cuckoo? Well, there is this one guy, but he's not telling.

Austria bakes; Romania shakes.

Man cannot live on breadfruit alone, but pineapple is another story.

Do unto others.

The difference between "should" and "will" is farther than the square of the hypotenuse.

A knocked door never watches.

A set of twins is a joy to behold, but triplets turn evil without a scold.
Listening to: Beach House - Some Things Last A Long Time
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Another Step Backwards

I moved up to using the "new" Blogger editor just before the holidays -- for the second time, mind you -- because there was a new Amazon tool that promised to make linking to products easy and simple. The first time I'd tried the new editor, the annoyances had eventually outweighed the good features, but I was willing to try it again.

Well, I'm dropped back to the old editor again.

The swell Amazon tool only actually worked at all for about a week; since then it just sits there and thinks when I ask it to look up a product. The new editor lost my FoxyTunes add-in, which I use to add the "listening to" links at the bottoms of some posts. (That's minor and expendable, sure, but it was fun, and why give it up if I'm not getting anything in return?)

And the new editor is more annoying; it's harder to move images around, and I'm getting extra line spaces in places I don't want them all the time. The preview doesn't work as well, either; it never actually shows the Amazon boxes I plop at the end of some posts (and the new editor seems to routinely delete or corrupt or otherwise destroy those boxes, anyway; I've been going back into posts after they're up and re-adding the boxes). Oh, and there was no explicit "spellcheck this post" function, so I just had to look for red squiggles under words all the time.

As far as I can tell, the only positive thing I got out of the new editor was an ability to make images smaller, and to have them flush right. And I bet that, if I spent the time to learn a bit of HTML, I could do that all by myself.

So I'm back in the old editor. You folks out there might see very minor changes -- the FoxyTunes closers will return, and there won't be images flush right for at least a little while -- but it should be pretty much the same. After all, I have kept the same bland standard theme for over four years now; this isn't a blog that changes a whole lot.
Listening to: Hallelujah The Hills - Wave Backwards To Massachusetts
via FoxyTunes

Friday, January 15, 2010

Quote of the Week: The Power of Poetry

I seem to have forgotten to post the usual "Quote of the Week" this morning, so, to make up for it, have an extra-long installment:

"'This is great stuff, Mister Nutt. This is really great stuff. This is poetry, but what really is it sayin'?'

Nutt cleared his throat. 'Well, sir, the essence of poetry of this nature is to create a mood that will make the recipient, that is to say, sir, the young lady who you are going to send it to, feel very kindly disposed to the author of the poem, which would be you, sir, in this case. According to Ladyship, everything else is just showing off. I have brought you a pen and an envelope; if you would kindly sign the poem I will ensure that it gets to Miss Juliet.'

'I bet no one's ever written her a poem before,' said Trev, skating quickly over the truth that he hadn't either. 'I'd love to be there when she reads it.'

'That would not be advised,' said Nutt quickly. 'The general consensus is that the lady concerned reads it in the absence of the hopeful swain, that is you, sir, and forms a beneficent mental picture of him. Your actual presence might actually get in the way, especially since I see you haven't changed your shirt again today. Besides, I am informed that there is a possibility that all her clothes will fall off.'

Trev, who had been struggling with the concept of 'swain,' fast-forwarded to this information at speed. 'Er, say that again?'

'All her clothes might fall off. I am sorry about this, but it appears to be a by-product of the whole business of poetry. But broadly speaking, sir, it carries the message you have asked for, which is to say "I think you're really fit. I really fancy you. Can we have a date? No hanky panky, I promise." However, sir, since it is a love poem, I have taken the liberty of altering it slightly to carry the suggestion that if hanky or panky should appear to be welcomed by the young lady she will not find you wanting in either department.'
- Trevor Lively and Mr. Nutt examining the wonder and splendor of poetry on pp.126-127 of Terry Pratchett's Unseen Academicals

Thursday, January 14, 2010

How the States Got Their Shapes by Mark Stein

Every so often the world is surprising and delightful, and a day with a book that is both a work of historical geography and has the line "New York Times Bestseller" on its cover is both of those things.

How the States Got Their Shapes is one of the rare books that does exactly what it promises: Stein explains all of the geographic borders of all fifty US states, each in its own chapter. There's also some introductory material, including a "Don't Skip This" prefatory chapter that covers multi-state boundaries and major land acquisitions. Inevitably, Stein covers the same material twice -- each internal border obviously touches two states -- but he never repeats himself.

This is a deeply, deeply geeky book, and I mean that in the best possible sense; it's a book about contingency, details, compromises, and accidents, and it cares deeply about the little facts that led to the lines on our maps. A reader would have to be at least a little geeky to be interested in How the States Got Their Shapes, so the fact that it was a bestseller gives me hope that there are still things that unite Americans -- even if those things are a fascination with the lines that divide us.

I couldn't read this book straight through -- it's not a topic most of us could possibly be deeply interested in -- but it was very pleasant to read a state or two at bedtime for the past couple of months. If you think you might have an interest in the borders of US states, this is likely to be the best, and only, book of the subject for many years to come.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Movie Log: Zero Effect

The main reason I watched Zero Effect was because the reviews on Netflix were evenly split between people who thought it was a straight mystery (and liked it) and those who thought it was a parody (and liked it). Any movie that could be successful in two different ways like that, I figured, had to be at least worth seeing.

I didn't love it as much as those Netflix reviewers did, but I thought there were good things about it -- and it reminded me that independent film in the '90s was dominated by genre exercises like this (and Bottle Rocket, and of course the Great Originator Quentin), not the quieter, vaguely-dissatisfied-with-my-life movies that we seen today from that area.

Zero Effect is a quirky detective movie, with Bill Pullman playing the quirky detective, Daryl Zero. (See the cutesy deal with the title? I bet there were vague plans for a long series if this one caught on -- Zero Hour, Zero Time, and so on. Zero does not quite have "zero affect" -- see the pun the filmmakers have got going, there? -- but he definitely has affect issues.) Ben Stiller is his agent/lawyer/amanuensis, Steve Arlo. For, you see, Zero is so quirky that he never talks with his clients, and such a genius that he solves any crime almost without thinking about it.

There's some good character acting here, including from Zero's Irene Adler (Kim Dickens playing a character named Gloria Sullivan) and the guy that hires him to set the movie in motion (Ryan O'Neil as the generic Rich Guy With A Deep Dark Secret), but the plot isn't as exciting, detailed, or purposeful. Zero and the audience figures out the general outlines of what's going on pretty early, and then the movie runs around in circles waiting for all of the detail to clear up.

It's a minor detective movie from a decade ago, not a lost classic of any kind. It's interesting to see Stiller as a straight man, and not mugging furiously at the camera. And Pullman is decent at playing a complicated weirdo, though he also has a big bag of tics that he digs into awfully often. If you haven't seen Zero Effect yet, there's no reason to go out of your way now. And if you're looking for the really fun obscure crime movie from a few years ago, the one you want is Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang.