Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Review: _Brave Story_ by Miyuki Miyabe

I remember as a child watching cartoon movies on HBO and Showtime, movies like Nausicaa, which fascinated me, as they were nothing like any of the cartoons you saw on television at the time. Characters with emotional depth, with real feelings. And sometimes the characters died, which is something you don't see on American cartoons. Cobra Commander might have been an evil mastermind, but he couldn't shoot the broad side of a barn. And no Transformer ever got killed until the movie, which sent many of us into therapy. There's a fundamental difference between anime coming from Japan and those cartoons coming from America.

Take even video games of which I've talked about recently. Final Fantasy VII was ported directly from Japan, with all of its movies added. This includes the death of Aerith, the flower girl, some 2/3rds of the way into the game. She's a playable character with special skills and everything, and even though you work on leveling her up, at that point, she dies. Of course, I thought (not having read any walkthroughs) that she'd be resurrected at some point. Of course we'll have her at the end of the game, or Cloud would go into the lifestream and find her essence and bring her back. But that's not the case. She never comes back. It was a shock to many people (look her up on the internet, it affected a lot of people). I think that's why J.K. Rowling shocked so many people with the deaths that occur in Harry Potter. Main characters just don't die. It doesn't work that way....

But it does. And that's what makes the movies and video games and books coming out of Japan for young adults so much more poignant than those that come from Western Civilization. We're just not willing to see someone that we have invested emotional ties to be killed off in the middle of a story line. They have to come back. Nowadays, when Optimus Prime is killed (which he is, inevitably, every single series), it's not a shock to anyone, because he will always come back somehow.

So, to the book review. I read Brave Story, by Miyuki Miyabe, who is most known, until this book, for Suspense thrillers. Most reviews will tell you that it is slow in the beginning, that it drags out and it is good, but too long. What they don't get is that the length of the set up of the story is meant to set up Wataru's real life. Which is the life that we all lead, for the most part. There are bullies, and divorces, adulterous affairs... all the things that makes the real world what it is.... and most importantly, it sets up all the things that children are protected from in the real world in America. The book talks about the suicide of one of the friend's parents. You wouldn't have that talked about in a normal kid's fantasy novel. But it is the real world that people run away from, and only through Wataru's running away into the land of Vision do we experience the growth during that time of escapism.

The book is like the worlds of Hayao Miyazaki all laid out in print. It is the world of Hyrule or Final Fantasy in words. Masterfully constructed, a work that should be aside Paolini's Eragon or Harry Potter. The interesting thing is that the book is placed in with the Manga works, with most of the Japanese authors. I understand why, as the story has been adapted to Manga form, and Anime, and video game form (on the PSP and in Japan on the PS2). But the main work is a novel, and deserves to be read by those who love Fantasy or Young Adult fiction. It will change someone's life, just as The Hobbit changed mine.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Complexities of Christmas

Remember that episode of Home Improvement where Tim Allen's Christmas lights help to guide in the plane his wife and kids were on? Sometimes that's how I feel driving through my neighborhood at night nowadays. Blazing lights everywhere. On the roof, around the windows, hanging like icicles, netted on the bushes, the trees... not to mention the shaped-wire reindeer and plastic snowglobe Santas. The inflatables and the nativity scenes all lit up, usually right next to each other. I didn't know that Santa Claus and Frosty visited the Baby Jesus in the manger. And the patterns of blinking lights now in sequence to music (where's TSO when you need them?) or patterned just right to give anyone a seizure when looking at them. And the media drags their cameras out to each house where lights have been gathered for generations and fields of lights span for blocks, as when some neighborhoods do it. I remember going to neighborhoods in Oklahoma City just to drive around the streets for hours looking at the lights, in some grotesque vehicular samba line. Woe to the person in that area that had a heart attack and needed an ambulance.

I think all that is needed is a little planning, a little discipline. My dad would never put up lights on our houses in Oklahoma City, for fear that my mom would yell at him about how straight the lights were(n't). And she's right. Properly placed Christmas Lights should be arranged as closely as possible to a straight line. But people go to the local dollar store, buy 800 strands of lights and just throw them up there and expect it to look good. Bonus points if you use all one color, but usually it's all just one big blob of lights.

Instead, let me suggest this. Simplicity should be the goal for Christmas. God could have had Jesus come down to a full fanfare of lights and song and trumpets, with Cherubims a singin' and Seraphims a swingin'. But He didn't. He had, get this, one light. A star (well, scientists say it was a supernova that happened at that time, so that works too.). The angels came later like gossipy neighbors and told the shepherds later. The caravan of cars coming toward the light (again, just one) were the three wise men. And the only frankincense we have are the scented Christmas trees hanging on our rear view mirrors.

One of our neighbors, who I guess has since moved, has forever made a classy entrance to our street, placing upon the door a single wreath, and in the windows, one bright electronic (cause that's how we do it nowadays) candle, centered on the pane. Finished off by a spot light that covers the home in a soft incandescent glow. Works for me every time. Or better yet, let us pass by the houses where a Christmas tree shines through a window, glistening out through the yard. I've always wanted to know how they get those trees to look so gorgeous. So instead of trying to attract 747's to land in your yard, let's look at how many lights God had over the manger.

So I'm out shopping, going to get that wonderful Cinnamon Pumpkin Pie at the Honey Baked Ham Store, or getting the yearly Christmas Tree ornaments (and trying to find them at Kohl's because the Hallmarks in this area have all shut down), and I keep running into customers that, after getting their things will say "Merry Christmas!" to the cashier. Or, since I work in Retail, I get the hundreds of customers that say the same thing, and having been said "Merry Christmas" to me over and over again, I began to hear inflections in it that I thought peculiar.

First, there's "Merry Christmas," as in, "I stand in defiance of all who would say "Happy Holidays" and I've got to get home to watch Fox News and read George W. Bush's autobiography I just bought. Conspiratorially, as if Christians are those who are secretly meeting in the Catabombs of Bablyon once more. (and before my conservative friends get all huffy on me, I leave Fox News on at night when I sleep, so that I may be brainwashed accordingly. I only wish Red Eye wouldn't come on at 3 in the morning). I guess it's just around retail, that customers are lead to believe that every company has instructed its employees to only say "Happy Holidays" because they don't want to offend anyone of another religion. Well... I've never been told that, and I doubt that and company specifically has that policy. So if you want to say "Merry Christmas" to someone, do it with joy and simplicity, not "Merry Christmas and Power to the People!" Doesn't quite work. Or there's the under the table "Merry Christmas," as if one were in those Catacombs. As if someone heard you, they would be offended about it, or you would be forced to wear some label on your clothes branding you as "one of those people. (Sounds familiar, don't it? Either in a WWII way or in a Revelation end of days way.)

As I said earlier in my blogs, Christmas should not be warring with other religions. I prefer to take care of myself, and believe what I want to believe. Let the others figure it out for themselves, and if they're wrong, well... that's their problem. I'm not going to pretend I'm in some sort of secret society, whispering "Merry Christmas" as if it were a password for Fight Club. And I'm not going to worry about it offending the Jew or Muslim or Zoroastrian in the crowd. Let them know that I'm wishing them a good December 25th, which according to my religion, says it's Christmas. And if they believe the same and are reminded about the origins of that day, then so be it. If they are reminded that they have their own end of the year celebration, then that's good too. If it wants to make them go and blow up a building, well, I have a good psychiatrist I can recommend them.

It should all be more simple than this. Everyone has their own individual beliefs, and that's fine. I'm a Libertarian at heart... I can dig that. But expressing your opinion about your belief (1st Amendment and all that) should not go offend anyone. They are not secure in their beliefs if they are. But there comes a point where it goes overboard. If I say "Happy Holidays" to a customer, and they go right home and post on some website (there's one that a Texas church has set up) about how x and z person didn't say "Merry Christmas," and so that business is Anti-Christian and they're probably all going to Hell anyway, well... that's just overboard. Let's find the balance, which is really easy, actually, and there won't be any problems. Make it simple. Be secure in your own beliefs. Share those beliefs simply, with a "Merry Christmas," and that's it. No need to take up arms, to sharpen swords and words of passion and vitriol just because someone didn't use the word "Christmas" while picking up a Snuggie for your niece. Just say the words, mean them, and move on.

Friday, November 26, 2010

42..... or Whatever is on Youtube.

The answer is, of course, not 42...but the question is the same. The Earth is simply a large depository for information, biological, technological, cultural. Data locked in cellular sequences, in processes of water, air, soil. Information streaming down wires and fiber optic cables racing underseas and through the air to orbiting satellites. We are bombarded with this information on a daily basis, and it is wondrous how we process it all, consciously or subconsciously. And we learn. It's what the human mind does. Learn. Connecting synapses and brain chemicals to formulate ideas, theories. It's how we move forward.

The sad part is, however, that as individuals making those connections in our minds, we will, at some point, cease to exist. It is our responsibility, therefore, to pass on those connections to others while we still have time to do so. We all become teachers, at that point, whether it be actively educating youth, or simply living out our lives in the view of others who will learn as they observe.

Who is writing this all down? Who has a journal for which the data of mankind can be transmitted to future generations? We have been exceedingly fortunate that past scholars have done so, or else we might still be in the dark ages. And what without the Rosetta Stone, all the ancient hieroglyphics of Egypt would still just be pictures, instead of instructions on how to build the StarGate (no? oh...). And when the last elders of native tribes of the Pacific Ocean pass away, and their languages fade away into time, who will know them (try looking up the meanings behind Deep Forrest songs)?

On a more personal level, we sorted out family photos a while ago, and faces of strangers looked out at us through the pictures. We did not know them. We don't know about their lives, what they did in their spare time, about their joys and sorrows. We never asked them, and so the faces will remain strangers forever. We lose so much when the elders of our community pass on. The old ways of doing things, before all this technology burst onto the scene, they might remain lost forever. My grandmother talked about using White Gasoline to help soothe the itching from Poison Ivy (or Sumac, as my brother had). I had no idea what that was, so I had to look it up on the Internet. And sure enough, that was suggested, although too much of the stuff is just as bad as the Poison.

Which brings me to the Internet. We have at our disposal a depository where we can record and preserve all of mankind's knowledge, at least until someone fires an electromagnetic pulse and destroys the Internet and all electronic data on the planet, rendering e-readers and ATMs and everything useless (which is why I shall keep my bookshelves of stuff, even if I get an e-reader in the future. And books won't break and cost $150 to replace if you drop them and don't have a warranty.). But I digress. A depository for all of mankind's knowledge. And how essential it is now, in this time.

An example. Last week my mother pointed out to me (for the umpteenth time) that the light switch on the kitchen wall was loose, and the light wouldn't always come on, and why don't you replace the switch? So I went to Ace Hardware and purchased a switch and came home, took off the cover, and looked at the wires in wonderment. I didn't know how to do even the most simple electronic repair in my house. Why? Because I didn't have anyone to teach me these things. We live in a society today where far too many fathers are absent, for whatever reasons, and most children are growing up not knowing how to accomplish even the simplest of tasks. Computers, why, they can repair those with the greatest of ease. But if the compressor gets clogged in the Air Conditioner downstairs, how are they to know to get Chlorine tablets to clean out the mold inside the pipes? How will they know how to tie a tie? There are books in the general reference section of Borders that list such things. Things that would have been transmitted orally in past times between parent and child, now has to be found out through bookstores and websites.

And thank goodness for it. Not knowing what to do, I went online and found many websites showing directions on how to replace a light switch. More importantly, and this is what I really want to talk about, how vitally important Youtube is to today's youth. I easily found a video that showed the difference between the switch I had and the one I needed (I need one with a three-way switch), and exactly how to replace it. I now have a perfectly working kitchen light. Youtube is essential as a replacement for the wisdom of our fathers and mothers when they are not around to teach us the basics in life. Without it, I wouldn't know how to make the bread recipe Andrew gave to me.

So amongst the cute kitty videos and the music tracks and the countless shots of teenagers falling off of walls for a laugh, there are actual uses for Youtube. It is how we communicate with the future, with the people that may never know what we have learned. Let us maintain this depository we call the Internet, somehow, so that, centuries from now, people that find our civilization in the ruins of this planet, will see how we actually live, how we make bread, how we turn on a light.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Obligatory Thanksgiving Post III

Jeep ran a truly awesome advertisement in some of the magazines this year, and on TV. The slogan was, "The things we make, make us." You can see the ad here. Whatever job we have, it is our responsibility to produce whatever we can to make our lives better. In my case, it's bringing books to the attention of readers that may find a new author, a new love of reading. But there are others who actually create things with their hands, with iron, or wood, or a pen and paper, or even a computer. Like this blog, in a way. So, to quote Ayn Rand:
Thanksgiving is a typically American holiday. In spite of its religious form (giving thanks to God for a good harvest), its essential, secular meaning is a celebration of successful production. It is a producers’ holiday. The lavish meal is a symbol of the fact that abundant consumption is the result and reward of production. Abundance is (or was and ought to be) America’s pride...

You see the idea I want to convey. I have to put in the religious meaning as well, for giving thanks to God is indiscernible from the feast of abundance. God blesses our country to be one of producers, of people that create and make, and we do so, in copious abundance, from which we enjoy the fruits of His love, and the fruits of our labor. So the large meals of extravagant food means to exalt His glory, as well as to exalt the human drive to push ever forward, to construct, to build upon the foundations that our ancestors gave us.

As far as being thankful... sometimes it's not reality that you can be thankful, but rather the places to escape when real life gets too hard. From the books I've read to the video games I've played. Immersing myself in Hyrule, for instance, or in Miyuki Miyabe's Brave Story, which I am reading now. Or watching the endless games of football on television, to see unbridled acts of athleticism. I'm also grateful for those people I work with who allow my mind to take a breather away from the thoughts of real life. I am thankful that I've seen the way a store should run, by someone who actively participates in the lives of his employees and encourages them to reach and surpass their goals. I've never enjoyed going to work as much as I have this past year (for most of it...)

I'm thankful for those people, for the blog onto which I write my thoughts, and the worlds I can explore whenever I'm asleep, or when I'm awake.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Anyone got a Pet Octorok?

I'll just bet if you're reading this, you've experienced this... You're trying to find your backup emergency key underneath the rock in your front yard, and, upon lifting the rock up, you hear, from out of the heavens, "do do do do do do do." Or, seeing a towering stack of boxes in the back room of your local Borders, you are tempted to grab a Sharpie and make them into blocks of bricks, and that maybe, just maybe, there's a mushroom in one of them. I've even walked down the back corridors of Stonecrest mall, getting the mail, and imagined where I would put down trip mines, or where the blood sucking aliens are going to drop at me from the ceiling.
It's the blurring of fantasy and reality (something I know a lot about. And it's an experience that few older than me would understand, that this world is so much like a video game, or perhaps it's the other way around. No matter.

There was a plumber that came out to redo the pipes underneath the Cafe sink, and he had a mustache and an Italian accent... he could have been Mario. And only my brother, who is much better than Tetris than me, can pack everything into an SUV from one of our vacations, and still have plenty of room to spare.

I've talked about Escapism a lot in these blogs, because it's something that we've all learned to do. We are comfortable on the Enterprise, with Picard at the helm, because it is a safe place for us, and we continuously return to Middle Earth or Pern or Narnia, because those are the worlds, in literature, that we could actually live in, so vivid are the details of the imaginary universes created in those books. The same thing goes for Video Games. Our generation is very little different from the ones before, only the media has changed. My dad used to take books from the library in Bethany, Oklahoma, and read by the hour, locked in his room. They were westerns, or sci-fi, or fantasy... each worlds different from our own.

And while books are still a very economical way of escaping into another world, video games have become yet another source of other-worldliness. I have lived most of the time when video games have been affordable for everyone, and I've seen the worlds come and go, from simple pixels to lifelike representations of people, where even the hairs are discernible on the screen.

There is a book just released (which you can get at Borders), 1001 Video Games you Must Play before you Die. Looking through it shows just how far we've come in such a short amount of time. I remember with my Commodore 64 how advanced it was if the computer spoke even the most rudimentary words through the small speaker. Now having the characters not speak is questioned. And the worlds people have created, with enemies and power ups and everything....even creating a mythos around a character, a world, so that the complexity rivals that of any master author.

And while I will never be able to play all 1001 games (nor would I want to), I will go again and again to the world of Hyrule, and clothe myself in the green garments of Link, and wield the Master Sword and the Hylian Shield. And every time I find the Magic Flute, especially after beating the Fifth Dungeon, that sense of accomplishment will fill my soul, as if I had painted a masterpiece, or slain a dragon. For the Legend Of Zelda has few equals, and the world they have created around Link, Zelda, and Gannon, is one I would live in any day, if given the chance. I am playing LOZ: Twilight Princess right now, and it is a veritable greatest hits album of all the magical things that have been created in each of the other games. Magnificent!!

I understand the addictiveness of games like World of Warcraft, with the Multi-player economy and the vast expanses of worlds to explore. But I'd rather be alone. I'd rather walk the plains of some imaginary world myself, instead of having 3 million other people sharing my journey. And yet, every time I finish a single-player game, like Windwaker, or Ocarina of Time, I almost can't finish the game, because after that, well, it's like closing the pages on a book, knowing that the world is closed off to you, because the actions are finished. It is the platform's main weakness, because you can never actually let the game go on forever like you can WOW. They've made the game profitable for everyone, and so it has to be multiplayer.

What I would propose is what I call a SPORPG. Single Player Oriented Role Playing Game. Lets use Hyrule for an example. The game would drop you into a world such as Ocarina, with a very slow, deliberate build of characters, with the mythos of a fully developed fantasy novel. [A day passes in between one sentence and the next] Of course, now that I have had a night to look up things on the internet, I see there already is a term called SPORPG, which is basically what I'm talking about. But in most instances I came across it, it was used as a derogatory one, as if insulting WoW, for instance. It is as if playing by yourself is actually a bad thing. In all my watchings of people play MMORPGs, I've never seen anyone interact with their surroundings, fall in love with the land they are in. This is what intrigued me most about Fable, that you could value the friendship of some NPCs, and develop relationships. In the game, you could even be married. The issue I have with the Zelda games and with Fable is that, when the game ends, it is over. You could start at the beginning, but that would be it. There would be no continuing beyond a certain point. I want the game to last forever, with no end to the adventures to undertake or people to interact with. And there needs be no end to it, as computer technology has progressed to the point where a game can be continuously coded and programmed even as people play it. There are always new lands to be discovered, new enemies to take on, new treasures to find. In Hyrule's instance, the game, namely, to find X princesses or find X pieces of the Triforce, it is not necessary for every temple or dungeon to contain a part of the main plot. There can be sub-plots and meanderings that would lead you to any number of different places. Link already has a home in Twilight Princess, so it would be easy to make that a point of return, where things could be bought, kept, traded, interacted with, while the adventures were continuing. It is simply not enough to have a house that you only go to once or twice, to get the hearts out of the pots or get the 50 rupies in the chest.

Of course, I'm aware that there has to be some profit in it for the programmers. I would be willing to pay a monthly or semi-monthly fee to have the game continue. And if the new platforms come along, a simple uploading of ones profile into the new version of the game (which would allow for more interactions between the characters) would be simple using the now common online databases. It would be simple, affordable, and profitable for those who made it. If this were made, I could still be playing Fable today.

The only game I have ever found where this is true is in the open source game Dink Smallwood. Of course, the name is a parody on so many fantasy names, and the game is as well, but the open source allowed game novices to create their own worlds with their own plot lines. Most developed parts were increasingly difficult, but the idea was superb. Create a world that could be developed and played by everyone, but not all at once, but singly, as a single hero would.

Thankfully, adaptations of games like Final Fantasy and Legend of Zelda are made all the time, and so, while the lands and the mythos are different, at least there is some world to be escaping into most of the time, and most are affordable for the older platforms. I say, give me Hyrule any day, and I'll travel down the Hero's path over and over again, if not in the real world, then in a created one.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Death of Myspace... or things not said in 140 characters.

Myspace's revamped website, and their obvious downsizing of blogs as an important part of each profile, will draw to an end my using of myspace as a place where I post blogs. Fortunately, I have all of them printed out in notebooks, as well as at my blogspot website:

Also, while I will answer any mail sent to me through myspace, I no longer find it necessary to keep an active participation in their website, as Facebook has consistently become the place for social networking. Although, like myspace, they seem to find little need for blogging, and have eliminated the RSS feed function in sharing pages.

It seems that the world is now communicating through text boxes of 140 characters or less.... Twitter has fundamentally changed the way people communicate with each other, and, as Neil Postman has said, "The Medium is the Message." We cannot hope to form intelligent ideas if we have to think in 140 character sets. It just won't work that way. That, along with the visual/oral media through Youtube and other sites, makes everything instant, without the need to think before the words come rolling out. It's ironic, in this era where there is more information than ever spewed out of every media, that more and more of it is utterly meaningless. In every hour of a 24 hour news channel, there might be 2 points of news that have not been repeated over and over again the whole day. In every tweet, they virtually say nothing save that X,Y,and Z celebrity is going to this beach or that gym.

How many people will live their whole lives and never make the synaptic connections to form an original thought? And, how many people, if they've made that connection, will have the medium necessary to communicate that thought to the world. And of course, how many people, given the ability to think and the desire to communicate... will anyone listen? Does anyone read the blogs that I write? I've had this thought before. And then... do I care? It is enough that I have the need to communicate, it is up to others to comprehend. As bloggers, as communicators in this Internet age, we sit in front of little boxes and fling our thoughts out to the data streams and hope that others will find them and take those thoughts with them. We must continue to forward the frontiers of human thought, so that more boundaries will be crossed, more unknowns will become known, more ideas will be transmitted to those who are just beginning to think, so that we will all not just be reinventing wheels.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Football: Like Rain on your Wedding Day...

San Francisco gets to enjoy the hullabaloo of being a National Champion city, with the Giants winning the World Series. Something they've not done since the last time the 49er's won the Super Bowl. I loved the status message that one of my friends posted, who lives in the area, that the city of cupcake and wine shops proves it can be one step away from being Detroit (who has problems with crowd control whenever the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup.) I thought it funny. Anyway...

It's the irony of sports that caught my attention, especially those involving Football, although it can be other sports as well. Take for instance, a couple of years ago when the Celtics won the NBA Title Game. Earlier that playoff season (and it's amazing that their playoff season can last almost as long as the season itself), the Celtics were taken down to the wire by the Atlanta Hawks, who were finally defeated in Game 7. But to us, it was good that the Celtics won the Title that year because the Hawks had been much more competitive than the Lakers had, who they beat in 6 games. It's not so much losing in the playoffs that hurts, but rather who you lost too. The Braves this year feel better having been beaten by the Giants, who won the World Series, than the Yankees, who were beaten by the Rangers. Course, there's always more complexities when we talk about the Yankees in baseball than almost any other team.

And this is true in almost every sport, except, and this is noticeable, in College Football, where there is no playoff system, but rather an opinionated ranking system where, usually, someone is left out, and angry. And that's okay. When talking about sporting events, there is nothing that will bring up such ire and support as the current Bowl system for College Football. The BCS. Even just saying the name will evoke visceral responses from people. Whole books have been written on the subject. And yet it still brings the excitement of watching every football game on TV every Saturday (and now most weekdays) until the end of the season. The reasonings, I found, are most interesting.

In a Playoff system, while each game played effects the win-loss record of the team, the games themselves, while entertaining, aren't really all that important. Why should I care if the Kansas Basketball gets beaten by Po Dunk U at the beginning of the season. They're still going to get to the Tournament, and more than likely get to the Final 4. But if Kansas gets beaten by, say, South Dakota State, in Football... that's it. It's done. Over. See ya later! Every game is extremely important to the overall postseason hopes of the school. Especially when it comes to the BCS and the National Championship. You've heard this all before, I know. But all this importance on each and every game has much more impact on the mighty dollar than perhaps any other sport.

Take, for instance, the much talked about match up between Boise State and Virginia Tech early this season. I could have cared less, having come from Oklahoma (well, now, I'm actually biased, since Oklahoma got killed by Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl some years ago...), the game really didn't matter that much to me, or wouldn't have, if the NCAA FBS system were playoff based. The actual importance of that game made the whole country watch. Virginia Tech fans sprouted up all over the country, because there were a great many schools across the nation that wanted to see Boise State lose. It didn't happen. But what happened the next week was just as satisfying, but in a totally different scenario. The next Saturday, VaTech played FCS (1-AA) team James Madison. And lost!! That did as much to hurt Boise state in the rankings as a loss the week before. A game that would make no difference to anyone normally suddenly became the talk of the sports world, all because there are no playoffs in college football.

So there is a monetary benefit to everyone by not having playoffs in college football, but rather this totally opinionated, totally biased method of picking teams. And the other sports have something similar, something to make us all watch every single game and be enthralled by the physical acts of the players. Fantasy Football. My brother is quite good in his fantasy football games, and it makes him watch games he wouldn't normally just to see how his players perform on the field. This is why fantasy football is such a ginormous business, with hundreds of magazines, TV shows, websites...etc... all covering this cyber-based past time. As for me, myself, I would rather just watch the games for what they are, to see the performances of athletes at the peak of human endurance and fitness. And to see the violence, the brutal clashing of players as their anger, and ours along with it, is transferred from padding to padding. They are our gladiators, our Roman Adonises (that, coincidentally, are either built like an Adonis or just the opposite, fat walls of meat that protects the ball.), our heroes in a battle (war metaphor again) in which there is no death, but maybe some injuries, but that's it. And I'll watch every game I can, and prepare for the days of spring when we must wait for months until the great game of Football, and the controversy, will begin again.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Reviews: Everything Matters, Ring Around the Sun, Foundling

Book Review: Everything Matters by Ron Currie Jr.

A modern Candide. Voltaire used his episodic tale of misery and woe to demonstrate that happiness can never really be found, not until the very end, when the main characters all live in a shack and tend a garden outside. Living life is the only true happiness that mankind can have, and no amount of philosophical reasoning, or wealth, or fame, can ever get him that status. Except that's not the book I'm here to review.

I love apocalyptic books. I can remember reading When Worlds Collide by Wylie and Balmer at Band Camp, laying on the couch in the building next to our cabin and loving every minute of the book (well, the comfy couch and air conditioning helped.) There's nothing like the end of the world, and Currie's book is all about that. Except, the main character, Junior Thibodeax, has known all his life that the world will end on a certain day in the future, and it's the alien voices' experiment to see whether the knowledge of impending doom has any impact on his life. Whether, in a world where nothing matters, if anything matters at all. Starting with a blow by blow of his deliverance in the hospital, to his destruction by asteroid (maybe), the book details his life with a sardonic irony and humor that is quite entertaining. With Junior's knowledge and intelligence he sets out to save the human race, trying to fight the prediction that everyone will die in a gigantic fireball.

However, whether he succeeds or not, we aren't really sure, because the aliens come to him right before the end date and explain to him something he already knew... that the Earth he lived on is only one of millions of possibilities in a multiverse separated only by a sliver of a second. That basically there is a ring around the sun of different realities, and in each of those Earths, Junior makes a different decision, from not squashing a bug to not telling his big secret to his girlfriend, which effects the outcome of the world tremendously. It's the whole butterfly in the Sahara theory. A bit of a spoiler, but, the ending chapters are considerably different than the rest, and nothing much happens, but in the end, Junior's realization that Everything Matters proves the aliens wrong in their original assumption, and proves Voltaire right.

Book Review: Ring Around the Sun by Clifford D. Simak

I read this book right afterward because it influences so many authors and novels in the present day. Simak is one of the most important Science Fiction writers of the early 1960's, mostly because he created novels of marvelous ideas, ones with much potential and meat on them, if you understand. But Simak didn't always create great characters and plots to go along with those ideas (like so many other science fiction novels, the ideas are more important than the story). However, Ring Around the Sun is not one of those. It is a marvelous sci-fi novel, centering around the very idea that Currie used in Everything Matters, that the Earth is only one of millions of Earths existing in multiple space-time planes. This book is mentioned in Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis and influenced King in his Dark Tower series. It is, in my opinion, a book that should be included in the modern Western Literary Cannon, mainly because it merges literature and science in a way that most high school students could easily understand it and enjoy it.

In the story, Jay Vickers, on his way to a meeting with a Mr. Crawford, sees a shop selling Forever Light Bulbs, as well as a razor that never needs sharpening, a car that runs forever...etc... This, explains Crawford, is crippling the industries of the world, causing chaos and fear. Vickers is supposed to investigate it and expose it in articles to be published. But it's not all that simple, because the people behind the Forever Light Bulb are trying to save the world, not destroy it.

A fabulous book, one that I've read twice now. It's very rare for me to do that. The other books I've read twice include LOTR, Lord Foul's Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson, Dragonriders of Pern by McCaffrey, and Dandelion Wine by Bradbury. Simak's book easily ranks among these.

Music Review: Foundling by David Gray

Okay... this is the album Gray should have released instead of Drawing the Line. A work of introverted folk musings that is more reminiscent of a Monet painting than music itself. It is, like most of his albums, in need of a little tweaking. But that is easily done with modern MP3 players. Take out a couple of tracks from CD1, and add a couple from CD2 (a double disc album), especially "Who's Singing Now," and you've got an album that can be repeated over and over in your car or as background music in the home. Fantastic!!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Football: Something has to Give

Let's take football and deconstruct it.  Lay it bare upon the field between the goal posts and see what lies inside the ball, and the player's need to drive it down the field toward some imaginary line.  Let's take all the violence of the game, the hitting of tanks against each other resulting in concussions and long term mental conditions, and let's reduce it to the basics of human nature.  Take apart the game itself, and you are left with mankind, with a man himself, and the insatiable desire to be victorious.  The coach says, "Winning is everything."  Such words could never be more true in the minds of man. 

I once quoted a blog dealing with Tribalism and Football by a John Stonger, from a blog site called Heretical Ideas.  The website is no longer there, of course. Such is the effervescent nature of the Internet, where ideas come and go, flickering like a candle flame until it is blown out when someone can't pay their bill.  Good articles shouldn't just be deleted (I have all my blogs printed out on paper twice at least, so that it won't be electronically destroyed.) But I digress... 
Basically, it says that, someplace in the subconscious region of our brain, we retain the tribal instincts of our ancestors.  Like animals, we recognize the idea of the Alpha Male and Alpha Female.  That even in this society, there are always people who are better than others, stronger, faster, smarter, and those should fight to reach the top.  And this happens every day, from the financial world to the political one. Although now days we're not talking about using clubs or, in the case of my brother's cats, claws and teeth, to best one another.  We have reached a point where victory is one of mental power, of financial success.  But still we like to see the power of brute physical strength triumph over those who are like-built.  It's been this way for a while, from the Ancient Greeks and their Olympics, to the Roman Coliseum, to today's professional sports. Even in Meso-America, where soccer games meant the winner was a hero, and the loser was sacrificed to the Gods.  It's not so different today (the loser, or the manager of the losing team, usually gets roasted on the Internet and then fired from their job.) than hundreds of years ago.  As I've said in previous postings, the modern day Football player is no different from the Gladiators of Ancient Rome.  Well, except for in Rome, the Lions usually won. 

We like seeing people succeed in sports, breaking records, claiming victory over those much larger than they are... but we also like to see them fall.  The gladiator of Rome would become a hero to those after a Farve-like performance, but there was a certain satisfaction in seeing the loser, well, die or get eaten by some ferocious animal.  We want to see the quarterback get sacked.  Those who are pleasant and civilized are suddenly wanting the Defensive Backs to break a QB's arms.  Violence is wished upon to other humans, and in this case, it's perfectly legal and even encouraged.

The ironic thing is that, at least in the Pros, this happens mostly on Sundays.  The Bible tells us to be humble, to "turn the other cheek," to forgive our enemies.  Then we go home (or to Applebee's) and cheer at the TV when someone gets knocked unconscious by a devastating tackle.  Society has in its very essence a desire to be non-violent, and it does so by having outlets for violence to occur in highly regulated, specific ways.  Thus, sports are a needed and healthy part of today's world.  A recent book on the matter of violence in Football calls it A War without Death.  It makes sense to use the "war" metaphor when talking about football (go to Youtube and find George Carlin's act on Baseball vs. Football). 
So it comes as no surprise, given the situation, to find that ESPN's NFL PrimeTime show, prior to the Monday Night game, took off its "Jacked Up" section, where they showed the most vicious hits of the week, and replaced it with a "Com'On Man," where they complained about stupid things that happened that weekend. The former section was very popular, so it seemed odd to have it pulled. 

The reasoning is that with the current hype of helmet to helmet hits being investigated by the NFL and most media outlets, any type of untoward violence on the field, even the acts which we might find satisfying and entertaining, must be looked at.  Thus ESPN did the politically correct thing and eliminated a platform by which defensive players could be shown in a highlight reel.  Yet the vicious hits still are shown on replays and reels time and time again on Sportscenter and even in the games themselves.  So the media is both promoting and condemning such violent physical acts. 

I think Canton would be a good place for the media to go, see the players that are in the Hall of Fame that were originally inducted. Those that played many years ago, and see how we have evolved from light infantry players to heavily armored Abrams M1A1 Tanks.  The padding on the uniforms and the thickness of the helmets make each player a veritable battering ram, and the NFL has allowed this all to protect the player. 

Which is why the person with the best opinion on how to curtail concussions and violent tackles is Joe Paterno, who has lived through most of the modern football era.  His idea is to get rid of part of the helmet, the facemask, in order to change the psychological mindset of defensive players.  Troy Aikman said here that even getting rid of the helmets all together would eliminate such hard hits on the players.  Makes sense to me. 

In a time when such extreme punishments are given out for using performance enhancing drugs, football players become superhuman when they put on all the padding and the protection and the rock of a helmet and go play. But if football becomes a sport of pure human physical endurance, of psychological tricks and athletic ability, all this tanking of players isn't necessary. 

What else can be done to eliminate the injuries sustained in football?  Well, after making the humans more natural, let's make the field more natural.  Artificial turf is wonderful for domed stadiums for northern cities, but it has no give when you are plummeted down upon it.  If you hit the soft grass and mud, the impact will be absorbed somewhat.  Try doing that on plastic or concrete. 

Ultimately, however, the line from Airplane! fits this situation best. "They bought their tickets. They knew what they were getting into." Football players, when they accept the millions of dollars in payment for becoming gladiators for all of America to watch, know that they are going to become bruised, squashed, tackled, and probably injured along the way.  They know that, afterward, they will probably have lingering pains and problems on throughout life, but they accept the money  and the contract anyway.  And while the unfortunate mental conditions brought on by concussions can lead to abuse, suicide, even murder, in some respects, it is a risk that the player is taking when playing Football.  That having been said, the NFL should have the best health insurance in the world, using the finest of doctors to look after players after they retire.  It should be as the secret service is the President.  We all watch these men destroy themselves for the sake of our entertainment, and we agree with the paychecks they receive. We should give them the same respect and benefits after they leave the game and must face real life with the pains they have endured.  Something has to give.  It should be the padding, the playing field, and, ultimately, the NFL.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A Driving Song

There are many things I would rather do than drive.  Drinking Lysol is one of them.  Driving is a nuisance, a menial task that takes entirely too much time and costs too much money. Watching the traffic reports on the Atlanta interstates reminds me of the scene in T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," where thousands of mindless, wordless people are crossing the bridge into the city.  And inside those cars, people are listening to their radios, to endless music with indeterminable meanings, to conservative talk show host rattling on truths and half truths and sometimes outright lies, all to mesmerize the listener into action.  Inside those cars are the children screaming or sleeping or playing, looking up out of the roof hatch up at the sky and dreaming they could fly, seeing themselves move through the clouds as the road moved under them.  I think REM got it exactly right in the video for "Everybody Hurts," as, in the end, they are all people trapped inside their cars, trapped inside the memories and the thoughts that can't escape, but sit, traveling as they are traveling, through miles of pavement.  The only real escape, as in the video, is to get out of the cars and walk.  Something totally unexpected.  To shout from the bridge and run the other way.  To say, "Snap out of it!" to the people on Eliot's bridge.  To get out and walk and never to look back.  Yes.  It's escape.  It's illogical and probably impossible, but you have to look at driving this way.   While most people see driving, much as in the car commercials, as getting away from your life and winding down twisted roads toward the mountains or the beach, leaving their lives behind, it doesn't always work that way.  For what if those people weren't able to leave themselves behind, like old laundry or the faded memories that appear and then dissolve away?  What if you have to bring yourself with you, with all the memories and the heartaches and the trials and troubles that have gathered and stuck to the underside of your mind like barnacles on a veteran ship?  Then it wouldn't matter how far you drove, or how loud the music was, it would still be the same you, driving down the same road.  And you would be waiting for you when you got there.  With the same problems, the same expectations. 

So you see why I don't like driving.  But sometimes.... oh yes, sometimes.  When driving down the interstates at the end of the evening, during the twilight hours, there is this temptation.  To, as John Mayer would say, to keep the car and drive. To pass the exits of home and just keep on going.  Then, and only then, would the me that is me not be there.  Because then is freedom, is creation.  You become clay again, to be molded in your own fashion.  It's why so many artists write songs about their cars.  For instance, David Crosby, on the Thousand Roads album, wrote "Too Young To Die,":

Sweet old racin' car of mine
Roarin' down that broken line
I never been so much alive
Too fast for comfort, too low to fly
Too young to die
In a world totally different from the world in which he lived, from the drug use and all the escapes that are not really escapes at all but just temporary reprieves.  As in dreams, or books, or video games, or driving for hours into the wild unknowns. But in the end, there's always the return, back to reality. And that's okay, because you can't escape from you forever, but like a shot of Ether, a temporary break into the lands of your favorite book, it's a suspension of this life into another, or into nothingness.   

One of my associates at work talked about how the past experiences that I've had with driving effects the way I see it now.  And that makes sense.  As a child, it was either going to the store or to the doctors office (through which I was feeling really ill, if I was going to Doctor Gormley about something.), or to get my allergy shots at the hospital clinic in north Oklahoma City.  Which of course was wonderful getting a shot or two every week.  The destination was the problem.  I was never looking forward to going anywhere.  The only time during that part of my life I looked forward to was the drive down to Sulphur, Oklahoma where my grandparents had their lakehouse (see previous blogs). Then it was an hour drive south on I-35 past Pauls Valley and Wynnewood and Davis, down long a windy roads into a forest and gravel roads and to a secluded house where the world never seemed to invade, not even television.  That was freedom, because the end place continued the illusion of getting away from everything.  Which, of course, it didn't, but as I was a child, there was little to run away from.  But my dad still had his heart problems and the economy and all the adults seemed to have some problem or another, either with each other or with themselves.  But it was easier to forget there. 

Of course, then there are the cars themselves.  There is a certain joy in owning your own car.  Everyone knows this. For some reason, actually owning a car, making it your own, however that's done, be it french fries under the seat, or those adaptations you make so that the car will go down the road, the idiosyncrasies that make the car what it is, almost makes it organic. My 1988 Honda was like that.  And the stories of how, since no one told me where drive was on the stick shift, I plopped it to the bottom and drove off to Macon going 80. Now, going 80 on low gear tends to ruin things.  Thus my $2,000  Honda cost me $3500.  And then I learned to drive the car with both feet, with the left foot on the break and the right on the gas, so it wouldn't die at intersections and such.  Or my 1997 Mercury Mystique which had problems from the get go, and it only lasted a year or so, but I liked the car.  It was mine.  It was an exit.  It was potential.  I think we all fall in love with that potential, with the idea that, although we never do it, that car is a method by which we run away from it all.  It's the feeling in those hours before the sun sets when we just want to keep driving, away from everything we've known and never come back.  Should we ever do it, we'd find simply the same us lying over the next hill, at the next exit, past the intersection and the rest stop. 

And if I ever decide to go driving, to go on a vacation away from that which is me, I'll put Shawn Mullins' album Soul's Core on the CD player and keep it on rotate.  He captures the essence of nostalgia (which is really just escape) and the longing for freedom all into the tracks of the music, which, like the automobile, travels throughout the US finding places that we've never been, but would like to, one day, just around the setting of the sun. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Language of Sex, Part 1

So let us rise, then, from our speakeasy, this secluded room in our brains, where innuendo and double meanings flow from synapse to synapse like a well crafted sit-com, and we shall talk about sex.  Specifically, the time that we live in, where sex has become at once more prohibitive a subject than alcohol in the 1920's, and yet more widely talked about and displayed than ever before.  I want to combine the thoughts of Neil Postman and Michael Foucault and see why things are the way they are.  Specifically, why innuendos and double meanings find their way into our daily communications, from children's shows to normal conversations, even amongst people for which talking about sex is permissible.  Secondly, why Disney at once seems to prohibit even the most innocent of acts (such as wearing a bathing suit), and yet will allow jokes about sex and body functions to be shown in even its animated shows.  Also, and on a related note, I want to look at the peculiar public image of Miley Cyrus, who has demonstrated the argument of the dual nature of the Language of Sex in today's society. 

Postman is most known for his, "The Medium is the Message," statement.  How we communicate is just as important, if not more so, than what we communicate.  Gutenberg changed the medium from an oral retelling of stories and news (or hand-printed scrolls and books stashed away in monasteries and mansions for the literate and the pious to interpret) to a written medium.  Books became cheaper and more available. Thus, more people could afford, and need to, read.  It increased their knowledge, gave them more information on which to enhance their lives.  But with this was the writing of books with more fictional, more erotic content. you can find a listing of these on Wikipedia , under Erotic Literature.

You can't talk about sex without also talking about control.  To deny human beings of the most basic, the most biological of needs, and to have those human beings consent to the rules that are set, that must be control indeed.  Whether we are talking about rules coming from God, Church, or the State, there is a power that controls people's emotions, their need and appetite for sex.  For the moment, let's leave out the relationship between God and sex, as that is an entirely different post.   We can look at the Church, who, pre-Gutenberg, had the ability to reproduce books, to read them, and to interpret the rules of Catholicism to assert their power over the people of Europe.  It was St. Benedict, founder of the monastic group, who asserted that monks must sleep with the lanterns burning, and with their clothes on, as to prevent them from relieving sexual urges with fellow monks.

What's really interesting about what Foucault has to say on the subject (and btw, Foucault's books on the subject of sexuality should be taken only as a basis to further research, as his theory's lack specific examples and more concrete sources from Church and Industrial documents. The ideas are sound, but need more work, especially as it concerns modern day society.) is that much of the relationship between the church and sex in the post-Gutenberg world comes from 1700's Italian theologian Alfonso de Liguori, whose views concerning sex was very conservative.  His idea was that the "sins of the flesh" went far beyond the act of sex itself, but rather to the inner workings of the human mind.  He says that while reviewing the sins in your life for forgiveness by God (through confession to the RC priests), one must analyze every thought, even unto examining dreams, to find the roots of sin and flush them out.  What results from this is the publishing of diaries, memoirs, of lives of sexual hedonism, the most noted being the Marquis de Sade.  One that Foucault mentions is an anonymous writer, who published My Secret Life in the late 1800's.  In the memoir (which might have a Frey-like fictitious exaggeration to it), he says, "a secret life must not leave out anything; there is nothing to be ashamed can never know too much concerning human nature." In analyzing his own actions, his own subconscious thoughts, he is basically creating erotic literature while doing what Liguori suggested to wipe out sexual thoughts. He also is following Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man," which says, "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan / The proper study of Mankind is Man."  In publishing this work, he turns a psychological exercise into an economical one.  He has produced literature that people must pay for.  This is much like modern day erotica sold at the bookstores, or, since we live in a visual society, communicating through visual images rather than words for the most part, it is very similar to easily obtained pornography today.

Because it's only since the invention of the camera (especially the Polaroid) and the television, that we have moved, resolutely, from communicating in print to a medium of visual images.  And while, in the past, only those who could read had access to erotic material, now anyone that can look and understand language has access to visual erotic imagery.  Thus, as Postman looks at in The Disappearance of Childhood, children now have as much access to sexual material as adults once did.  Thus the boundaries that were once set up by the church and by inaccessibility to information are now removed, and children can find out about sex at any age, as long as they can use the keyboard or operate the television remote.

When we talk about innuendo, double meanings, we immediately think of movies like Airplane!, whose jokes I am still getting even today.  Everytime I watch the movies, I find another joke that has, until now, gone beyond my understanding.  Also, there are no better masters of double meanings than the writers of modern day sit-com television shows.  Night Court, in the late 80's, was amazingly bawdy, humorous, and serious, all at the same time.  In both these examples, the writers worded the jokes so that children and teenagers would get one set of jokes, and the adults another, and so the whole family could watch a show that was sexual in nature, but the underlying meanings could only be received by those who could understand them. What is amazing about this idea is that the writers for some of the Disney Channels sit-coms are very much aware of the adult audience and incorporate sexual innuendo into the shows.   For example, on Phineas and Ferb, in the Spa episode, there is a scene of Buford sitting in the hot tub, and says "It's not plugged in!" as bubbles come up around him.  It's obvious that we are talking about farting in the hot tub, which is more a joke of bodily functions, but I don't think that most children would have caught on to it, as fast as the line was delivered. An even better example is on The Suite LIfe on Deck, season 3, ep. 1, "The Silent Treatment," where Cody, Zack, and Woody are in a secular monastery with Andy Richter guest starring.  Aside from the elongated "Little Dinghy" joke, there is a part where they speak during the silent hour, and are taken to the back room. When they come out, Cody says, "My Butt... talk about cruel and unusual punishment." Woody: "And for an hour!" Zack, who resolves the innuendo: "Forced to sit in those uncomfortable chairs and think about what we've done." To any adult, it is not sitting in chairs that has made their butts sore.  But children would not have gotten that line, as unstated as it was.

Disney is very controlling about any semblance of sexual tones in their shows.  Even to the point of avoiding swimwear in situations where it would be normal.  In the episodes that I have seen (which is near all of them), no major actor/tress on Hannah Montana or Suite LIfe has worn a bathing suit.  Hannah Montana takes place on a Malibu Beach, and yet Miley Cyrus has never worn a bikini or even a one-piece on the show.  Neither has Emily Osment.  Nor, to think of it, has Michell Musso, Moises Arias, or Jason Earles.  On The Suite Life on Deck, which takes place on a cruise ship, neither Debbie Ryan nor Brenda Song have worn bathing suits (outside of the Neptune Follies episode, where they were masked and in disguise), and the Sprouses also have remained covered up (even the Mermaid episode, where Dylan is in the hot tub, you can only see his shoulders.). It makes no sense that teenagers on a cruise ship would not wear bathing suits (or go shirtless). They even made special reference, on the Beauty Pageant episode, that they didn't have a swimsuit competition.

This control, I feel, is what makes the actresses (mainly) react so strongly when graduating from their company.  This is why Miley Cyrus has tried to flaunt her sexuality, following in the footsteps of Mouseketeer Britney Spears.  It is such a rebellion to run away from the control that Disney has on their employees.  Because in this case, sexuality and flaunting flesh is an expression of freedom, much as a child would rebel against a parent by dyeing their hair red or the like. Miley is simply a product of the rules that has forbid expression of one's own self for the creation of a family friendly, perfect role model that can be put on a television show to make money.  And because we live in a visual society, where we communicate through images, Miley can express her freedom through that medium, and everyone, including the children that have looked up to her, can see it.  It is the nature of the media that we use.   It is a paradox. On the one hand, we want to keep children as innocent and as unaware as possible until we are able to educate them using the values that we have coveted.  But also, we want to make money by influencing children into buying into a brand, be it Hannah Montana herself or the items that she sells when commercials come on.  So, in effect, we create the breakdown in childhood solely by the medium that we use to communicate.

I will want to continue this line of thought as I read Foucault work and expand the ideas to the modern day, just as I did Postman's ideas.  I think by deconstructing the reasons behind many of the beliefs that we have, we can see where they come from, who is controlling them, and who will benefit.  The discourse on sex is an important one, as it touches some of the most basic aspects of our lives, how we live, what we believe, and how we act in today's world.

(an addendum... when I tried to put Tags on this blog on my blogspot account, it won't let me use "Sex" as a tag. Seems there is some censorship in the world of the internet after all.)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Why Johnny Really Can't Drive

An interesting article caught my eye yesterday in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution.  It talked about new proposed legislation (that will never pass) dealing with restrictions for teenage drivers.  It basically increased the Learners Permit to age 16 for all states (right now it's state by state. This federal law would punish states for not adhering to the federal rules (by not giving them DOT money.)) It would also create new restrictions for drivers under 18, make it illegal to talk on cell phones and text while driving....etc.... The idea of safety is okay, although it should be common sense for all people to take safety precautions on the road.  I mean, it's either drive safely or die in an accident.  Of course, the Libertarian paradox applies here, in that there shouldn't be laws like this, but since most people don't use common sense (teenagers, drunk drivers, most everyone else), there has to be these laws passed.

But I got to thinking about some of the other reasons why new restrictions should be placed on younger drivers.  What economic benefits would come out of keeping young people from driving, and for whom?

The free market system works in a peculiar fashion.  It markets its goods, the video games and the latest in fashion apparel, to the younger generation.  The mall is filled with clothing and doodads that every teenager would love to own, to relish in flashiness and superficial popularity through materialism (this comes from one who would just as soon wear velcro shoes).  But times are changing now. Not everyone has money.  And fewer people are getting credit cards because the banks just can't give credit to every college grad and young whippersnapper that comes along.  And so sales go down, business go under, and unemployment rises.  So how do you go about fixing the problem, or at least, and this is important, the perception of the problem. 

Lets say that the unemployment number for Georgia is 10%.  (Now, that really is probably low, because that number is already tampered with.) And so people are out looking for jobs.  People that have college degrees would just as well find a job at the local grocery store as the place where they actually have degrees (because they're not hiring, probably).  So we have people who are experienced and educated competing with those who are still in high school for jobs.  And those in high school are looking for jobs, too.  So we naturally have to get rid of some of the people so that one group (the ones who are older, probably more mature, and more likely to pay their bills and support political candidates since they are happy to have at least some job) can actually find employment.  At this point, the employment rate goes down, because the high schoolers cannot find jobs, and the ones with education now have them.  You do this by making it so that high schoolers can't drive without many more restrictions.  It becomes harder for them to have transportation to and from work.  Thus, since they can't get a job, they can't spend money (which they don't have) and they can't vote at all, so it won't matter to those in Washington. 

But of course, this idea doesn't fly without a hitch.  Yes, I know that they will make exceptions for teenagers driving to and from work and school.  But since I'm looking at theories here, I'm overlooking that.  Also, there are the advertisers who are still marketing wares to those in high school, and without money.  They really have very few options to get what they need.  They can get money from their parents (who are probably struggling for cash, as well), or they could mow lawns, or some other menial job.  They could also, of course, make money by selling drugs, stolen prescription drugs, or by stealing those things that they want from the stores and either selling them or keeping them.  They have the time, since they have no jobs, and they have the ability to sell things via the internet to whomever might want them.  So without transportation for those in high school, the job market is affected (which is what they wanted) and the crime rate increases (which is what they don't want.) 

So yes, keeping teenagers from driving does help decrease the mortality rates for automobile accidents, so the congresspeople can all get around with the parents of fatal crash victims, and sign their laws, but it has unfortunate and very much intended consequences.  In the end, and this is a blanketed statement, but it works for me, that Johnny can't drive because Johnny can't vote.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Evolution of Paper

Tea. Earl Grey, Hot.  What?  No? We don't have that yet? Well, we should.  We have everything else.  Well, except maybe a transporter. That would be cool, too.   If you look at all the science fiction worlds of the 20th century, written in the golden age of Speculative fiction, Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek stands out as one that, for the most part, we've delivered on the prophecies made.   Look at our cell phones, for instance.  We might as well have Scotty beam us up.  But all this has been documented many times before, and you don't need me to remind you of it. The unique thing about Star Trek is that the society they live in is totally paperless.  And we're getting that way.  It's the next big thing, as it were. 

Take the mail, for instance.  The United States Postal Service has been losing money for years now.  Millions of it.  But since it's subsidized by the Federal Government, it doesn't matter.  So it can continue to do things exactly as they have done it for years and continue to lose money. The main problem is that they haven't changed as our methods of communication and commerce have changed.  I found it amazing, as I was talking to my grandmother, that back in her day (30's, 40's), the Mail was delivered to every house twice, a day!  They had that many letters to deliver.  Not so many bills, probably.  That didn't happen until there were credit cards and debt out the ears.  The doctors probably had someone hand write bills, or they just went over to your house and talked it over.  But transportation and population have grown since then.  You'd think there would be more letters to send, more bills to mail, and you'd think the USPS would be making tons of money.  But the truth is that there are so few letters sent by envelope and stamp and paper anymore.  Email (and now, Facebook) makes writing to people unnecessary.  We can just type it out.  & y typ out all th ABCs when we can abbr them?  It's not even worth using standard English grammar and usage since we only have 140 characters to spell out what's on our minds.  I write very few checks for my bills since they're all done online now.

My grandmother gets letters from pen pals that she's had for years now, children of friends of her parents.  And they write her, and tell her all about the weather, and about the quilting projects they have done for their grandchildren, and how the tomatoes are growing. The speed of their lives is so much slower.   They write once a week, as if that is part of their lives they couldn't live without, like a TV show that comes on each week.  As Neil Postman said, there's a correlation between the way people think and the media that they use to communicate.  Sure, my grandmother can talk on the phone, but she'd rather not.   I wouldn't either.  I like writing letters (e-mail, of course) because it's a slower paced conversation.  I talk, and then you talk, but there are never any interruptions.  And they had those letters twice a day to return, as obviously they had no TV, no Internet, cell phone...etc.  Maybe a radio, with music or the ball game, but that was it. The conversation was slower because life was slower.

But now, in the electronic age where things are so quick that not even words need to be spelled out to communicate (i.e.  LOL OMG WTF BTW IMHO...etc....), we have no need for that mail.  I'm lucky, when I go to the mailbox, if there's a couple of bills in there, maybe a pamphlet about voting for the next congressman.  Pizza Coupons,  a worthless catalog.  So I had an idea.  What if, to turn around the financial position of the USPS, they drastically reduce the days they deliver the mail.  Say Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays only.  Special trucks could be used for priority or overnight services, but otherwise, only three times a week.  Talk about saving money! Because it's just  not necessary anymore. 

What else could we change through the evolution of paper and ink? Think of Gutenberg's invention, the printing press.  Think of how many things changed because it became so much easier to create books, pamphlets, a brand new way of communicating.  Through writing.  Reading became a necessary skill, where before only the wealthy and the clerics actually needed it.  But what would Gutenberg think to see his ink and paper system turned into a series of 0's and 1's on an electric-run board with wires, circuits, etc.   Paper becomes, at this point, irrelevant.  But so many other things do as well.

If you give me a pen and a pad of paper and tell me to write an essay, my hand will start aching after about 10 minutes.  I can't stand to write anymore.  It does nothing for my handwriting skills which are horrid anyway.  I would argue strongly for the elimination of cursive handwriting in schools and the mandatory keyboarding class to be taught to every student.  Learning to type is so essential to today's world.  School would be much different than today's affair.  Every student would have a laptop or tablet, with all the textbooks loaded into it, as well as a word processing program and a network tie in with the system so that the teacher can illustrate points on everyone's machine, which could be saved and reviewed for later.  Setting aside the idea of learning from a computer online at home (which would eliminate the school building, altogether,) we should at least eliminate the need for school lockers that simply take up room in the hallways.  If everything was fully done online, with laptops, electronically, there would be no need for forests full of paper records.  This is highly beneficial for the special education section of most schools I've worked with, where IEPs and other forms are spread out among filing cabinets throughout the building.  It would combine discipline notes, communication between teachers and administrators...the benefits of this are endless.    

I would go on and on spelling out the benefits of a fully electronic, paperless society.  And I would be wrong.  Because the permanence of paper is the one gigantic thing that will always keep books, newspapers, and the mail, circulating.  What if a cyber-attack wiped out the internet completely, or a virus that destroyed all electronic data on those computers.  The results would be tragic.  No medical records, no book manuscripts, no letters between presidents and their staff. All historic information saved purely this way would be lost.  All of my blogs... gone.  Makes me sad thinking about it.  And I've experienced this many times.  I don't think I actually have a single research paper from my college days in any electronic form, as every disk I ever used went bad on me, usually before I turned it in.  So that's why I have a paper copy of all my blogs printed out and taped into a Borders bought journal.  It's all there in its low-tech glory.  So while I am perfectly willing to have a paperless society, I know the importance of having paper copies of the world's information.  It would be worse than Fahrenheit 451, because the world's works would be more than burned up, they would be instantly deleted.  No one could save it.  So let us change and rely on our electronic book readers and our laptops and our online bill payment systems.  But let's also not forget that the system that Gutenberg invented some 500 years ago has lasted a good long while, and it's permanence is worth more than all the circuitry ever made.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Forever Light Bulb


(cue Andy Rooney) Ever wonder why that little filament inside the light bulb wears out?  I mean, yeah you could get those squiggly ones that lasts for years, and I get those not because of any supposed environmental benefits, but because I'm lazy, and I have absolutely no desire to change light bulbs any more than absolutely necessary.  I'd have my whole house dark if it meant I didn't have to do that every two weeks.  Why should I have to change a light bulb every month when there's no real reason why we can't make light bulbs last for years, decades, even.  Except for the fact that once everyone had light bulbs in place, given their price, the light bulb companies would go out of business.  Even the fluorescent light bulbs that I purchased recently don't last nearly as long as the ones I bought back in 2001 that would keep me from having to change the bulbs in my room for years to come (but was, incidentally, about $10 for one bulb, as apposed to $6 for three now.)  

There actually is a book that deals with such things.  Well, that's how it starts out, anyway.  Clifford D. Simak wrote Ring Around the Sun back in the early 60's and envisioned a group of people from an alternate reality (the idea that Earth is actually one of millions of Earths orbiting around the sun in a extra-temporal dimension in which there are alternate realities, generally.  These beings have figured out how to cross between realities and are looking for the right people to populate their own world.  And then they get rid of the other people in the other worlds in order to have infinitely different worlds to colonize.  They do this peacefully (in their own way) by introducing things like the Forever Light Bulb that reduces the economies of the world to ruins. (You must forgive me, it has been a long while since I've read it. And Simak doesn't always think through plot lines. It's the idea and the science behind it that is important.)

We are, after all, consumers.  We don't necessarily believe that anything will last forever (except for our computers' hard drives, which we naively believe will last, and then we curse when it dies.)  We have made everything disposable, so that it is much easier just to buy a new one than to replace or repair the old ones.  I'm sure you've heard the arguments on clothing, where in the past, if a child gets a rip in his pants around the knees, they are either repaired with a sewing kit and some fabric, or the child suddenly has a new pair of shorts for the summer.   But now, it's much easier to buy new clothes instead of repairing the old ones.  For me, who cannot use a sewing machine (mainly because, again, I'm too lazy), I've tried to get my mother to repair some of my pants for years, and they have yet to be mended.  And that would be a problem, except it is much easier to get them at Goodwill for $4.50 a pair, when you can find them.  I know whenever someone fat has died, because all their pants get donated to Goodwill and I pick them up.  And I wear them for a few months until I rip the seams somehow, and into the mending pile they go.  It's so easy to replace them nowadays.  Inflation of product. 

So what about people?  How easy are they to replace?  If one person gets sick and has to go to the hospital, why bother with the injured worker when you can hire 10 more from the unemployment lines.  We have inflation of people, now.  Where, because we are consumers, and there are so many  people now, the value upon each person, speaking from a business standpoint, is lowered.  Except we cannot just replace ourselves.  We don't just respawn in a certain place (unless you believe in reincarnation, then that's another story) like in the video games, nor do we have 4 lives plus another life for every 100 coins you might pick up.  There are no 1-UP mushrooms in this world.   Consumers are often like cattle, with so much credit, so much potential, until they are used up and pushed aside.  And while that is capitalism, I am not saying that this is something I'm against.  People have the ability to regulate themselves and not become inflated and worthless.  It is up to them.  I could always be careful with my pants that I purchase, make them last longer, or turn the lights off in my room, and the bulbs will last longer.  So it's a balancing act, one that should benefit all sides involved.

It's odd, that blog didn't go where I wanted it to at all.  And that's neat, because the
idea formed as I was writing.  About light bulbs.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Sparrow and The Plum

Book Reviews: The Sparrow and the Plum

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet By Reif Larsen

There has been recent discussion about what the media calls "The Great American Novel."  A book that somehow defines the American experience, that pulls everything together and demonstrates what it means to be alive in this particular country at this time in history.  My answer to those debaters would be To Kill a Mockingbird by Lee, or Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.  The book that I am reviewing is definitely not one of these, but bears a remarkable resemblance to Warren's brilliant novel about Louisiana politics. 

I say this not in respects to the plot line, which is basically a boy going from Montana to Washington DC to accept an award from the Smithsonian.  An award, they suspect, which is being given to a college professor, not a 12 year old.  T.S. Spivet tells of his cross country journey in his notebook and illustrates it throughout, drawing out every detail of his travels.  This includes the aspects for which is it like Warren's book.  In AtKM the main character sees the cows chewing grass by the side of the road, or sees the lighted windows from the car he is driving, and wonders about the lives of those people.  He details the omniscience of the cow, the all knowing cow, as it watches the world go by, uncaring, just as the cow does not care.  T.S. notices the pedestrians walking the streets of Chicago and tabulates who is walking with whom, and of those walking alone, how many have earphones listening to music.  He makes decisions about life as skillfully as any sociologist would.  That is the meat of the book, the treasures which should be gathered from its pages.  A highlighter or pencil is highly recommended.  The margin notations are golden observations about life. 

I did find the ending to be a little slow, as the book, as in life, is more interesting during the journey than in the end destination.  But the reaction he has to Washington DC is appropriate, as it ties everything together.  I do wonder though, about his core principle, that everyone has a map of the universe in their minds, and the journey of life is trying to map it all into understanding.  Do we know as much as the Cow  standing beside the road?  And is the cow more fortunate for, knowing everything, not caring anything about it? Or is the struggle what our journey is all about. 

If you read the reviews from the online bookstores, they basically echo my feelings, a great book with a few flaws


Under Plum Lake by Lionel Davidson.

I had to take my Grandmother to the doctors (she'd broken a small bone in her arm when she fell in the front yard. Nothing major, just sore.), and so I picked up a kid's book I found several months before.  Under Plum Lake, and I found I literally could not put the book down.  While I waited to pay the bill at Waffle House, I read pages of the book. 

When I finished it, I went immediately for the Internet to find out more about the author and his work.  What marvels of sci-fi and fantasy might be actually hidden on bookshelves just waiting for me?  The answer is, none.  Lionel Davidson is most known for Israeli-Middle East Spy novels.  His few children's books are written under a different name (David Line) and are reality based adventure books.  There's a distinct pattern here.  I can name quite a few Mystery/Thriller authors that write one amazing children's fantasy novel, which reach right into the core of Faerie, to the magical unknowns of the subconscious world, and then for some reason, never write another.  My prior review of The Magicians by Grossman, talks more about that. 

I wish I could describe the intensity to which I flew through this book.  It tells the adventures of a boy, Barry, and his discovery of an underwater realm where people are giant, live hundreds of years, and experience every type of fun and pleasure available.  His guide through the world is Dido, the son of the ruler of Egon.  But that's all I'm gonna say about it, because you have to experience it for yourself. 

I've read more than one review that likens the book to a wild LSD trip.  I won't disagree with them.  The book is a sensory overload with sparse language and very bare emotions.  So very well written, and it is an utter shame that Davidson only wrote one book that fits into the science fiction genre.  And doubly so that the book is out of print.  There are accounts of people (prior to the Internet) searching for a copy for years, making it one of their most prized possessions.  I can understand why.  Now you can order a copy (at easily, and have a copy of your own.  I wanted to share the book with people.  Order copies and say, "Here, you must read this book!!"  And so I will tell you, "You must read this book!!"

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Observations on Attending a High School Football Game

It's odd, standing inside your own microcosm, glaring out into the world, onto the football stadium where once stood a collection of pine trees under which the students would sneak away and smoke their cigarettes.  My mom and I decided to attend the Heritage High School vs. Salem High football game on 8/27/10, and out of it came very interesting observations.  It would be a sociologists dream, to look upon the whys and wherefores of this unusual gathering of children, teenagers, adults...etc... to witness a sporting event that, I am convinced, very few people cared little about.  Or maybe that's just my opinion transferred to them.

First off, the paying of tickets.  $7.00 for adults, and probably less for the students (maybe $5?).  The adults pay for their seats (unless they stood), but I wonder, with all the students in the stadium, the ones not sitting in the student section with their shirts off and red white and blue paint slathered all over themselves, did they actually pay to get into the game?  Couldn't they have just hopped a fence, or circled around the baseball field or the like, to slip in and enjoy the general fracas without paying money?  I probably think so.  I don't think that students would have wanted to pay money just to see a football game that, no matter how much pride one takes in winning against a county rivalry (and believe me, that would be a lot), that the actual football game would be worth paying that much for.  Or if they did, was it more for the social aspect of the game as the game itself?

I observed a distinct lack of attention being centered on the football game, and more on the people around them.  It became a social event, with the eyes as much focused backward as forward, toward the bazillions of silly bands on people's wrists, or slyly looking at the short lengths of girls shorts (if you want to call them that), than what play was actually called on the field.  These students see each other in the school all the time, and with lunchtime and between classes (and in classes, in most cases), they should have a ton of time to socialize without having to come back to school on a Friday night to see some game.  Wouldn't it have been just as much fun hanging out outside the McDonald's with the cars and teenagers than going to a sporting event where they know there will be tons of police officers around?  And yet, there they all were, mostly jubilant, laughing, carrying on, and having a good time.  I guess it is my own lack of social skills that made me think that a football game was just that, something to witness and watch, not a social activity around which the noise of the game occasionally filtered.  

The adults were very little different, talking more to their friends and family around them than watching the game.  This, however, I understand.  That $7.00 is a fair price to pay to convene at a certain spot and socialize outside of work and home.  There are very few places in this world for adult men and women to socialize.  I think that is the overall pull of churches and bars, as they are places you can talk to people who are not your co-workers.  The people around you have similar interests, be it religion or wine, and can share opinions about those things.  Usually, even in church, it centers around sports.  The evaluations of the defense or offensive line, the criticism of the coaches and of the team in general.  All of this is routinely discussed while nursing a beer, or a Bible.  But at a High School Football game, aside from roast coach every now and again, the talk seems to center on the children, which college they are going to, what scholarships they have, and nevermind the marching band or the football game going on.  That they see the scoreboard and cheer at the appropriate times is enough. 

And then there was the rain.  The clouds that built ever so slowly as the game went on, during the pleasant warm, but not hot, summer evening.  Until, after the sun had set and the clouds were merely blocking the moon and stars, it started to rain.  Hard.  A brief outburst that had the effect of sending everyone that had not graduated yet into a fit of hysterics.  And not because they were getting wet, as they minded that very little.  It was, I think, because they could.  It was permissible to clog up the pathways out of the stadium, stampeding like so many cattle out to someplace where they would be no less dry, but so much more chaotic.  The push out of the stadium became like some contagious disease, but not met with fear, but with laughter.  They enjoyed trampling over each other to reach some unknown destination.  They yelled and screamed and undoubtedly cursed, but laughed and smiled while doing it.  It was almost as if they paid (or didn't) to ramble around in the stadium until that very moment, when the inevitable rainstorm would vomit them out, with a pressure and a rush that was expected, yet surprising at the same time.  My mom and I stayed in the stadium until it started lightning, and then we made the slow track around the high school back to our car.  Heritage, where I graduated from, won the game, 24-7, but only after a 90 minute lightning delay, and in front of an empty stadium, because everyone had gone home.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Mosque in Manhattan

Try this interview style:

So, you've heard all about this mosque they're trying to build at the site of the 9/11 attack.  Everyone's all divided about it. What's you're opinion?

It's a non-issue. When both sides are right, it loses importance. And before you get all unrighteous about it, let's pretend that it is an issue and examine it.  Often, it's in the why's that the real issue is seen. 

Of course it's important! It's the Muslims versus the Christians! It's about all the people who were effected during the 9/11 attacks! How can you....

Imagine there are two people, Christian, and Islam, and they are playing a gigantic game of Risk, with the world being the board. Rewind time, and it becomes obvious that this game has been going on for centuries, with smaller players being taken over, absorbed, or demolished, until there is only a few main players left.  Christian, Islam, Judaism, India, and China. The State trumps religion every now and then (see the Soviet Union a Century ago), but eventually, it all comes down to the forces of belief in the afterlife.  And that's where the mistake is made.

Humans have always wanted to join the winning side. To be the one with the control, power, money, influence. And there's no greater influence than controlling one's spot in eternity.  That's where "religion" comes in.  We have to take "religion" and deconstruct it, to take it apart to its elements, and then the real issue will be seen.  The problem with "religion" is that it is too often seen as a synonym for "church."  A large gathering of people who believe in basically the same thing when it comes to a supernatural being we call "God" and His ability to conquer death, sending us to an afterlife of pleasure or pain, depending on the moralities involved.  Those rules are spelled out in a conglomeration of writings that is called The Bible (or in other religions, The Quaran, The Torah,....etc..) In interpreting those rules, and in imposing others, the leaders of that gathering formed a "church," with social, political, and economical power.  It's those powers that started playing the game of Risk long ago, with the belief that spreading the view of the afterlife prevalent within that group was the goal of the game. In other words, taking over the world. 

So, in this present turn of the giant game, the Islam character has attacked the Christian character and is about to place a piece in the middle of one of his cities, right next to the place where they struck.  It is a victory for Islam.

So you're saying they're doing it on purpose?

Of course they are.  I don't think it's necessary to hide true intentions in the middle of altruistic reasons.  Let's take the Christian character.  In the 1500's, Spanish conquerors brought armadas of troops to the New World, the Americas, in search of gold, slaves, trade, power...etc... Oh, and the spread of Roman Catholicism to the unsaved masses.  The Aztecs, the Incas, Native Americans.  All of these reasons were important, and the spread of religion was a justifying factor.  So when military generals ordered Roman Catholic churches to be built atop Mesoamerican worship sites, it was to vanquish the other religions and to gain power over that area.  The RC church did the exact same thing that the Muslims did when they took over Jerusalem, or when they decided to build a mosque right next to Ground Zero.  It's all the same thing.  Forces playing a game, fighting for power, while the actual religion takes a back seat to the followers' own ambition. 

So they can't make the Mosque at that location?

I'm not saying that.  Rudy Giuliani said in an interview on Fox News Sunday that the Imam who is trying to build the mosque has every right to do so.  He owns the building, has the proper permits.  There's no reason he can't build it.  

What I am saying, if you'd quit interrupting me, is that when you deconstruct religion, you find that, at the heart of it, is God, and you.  The essence of what we believe in is our relationship with our creator.  Thus, what other people do in the name of their religion means very little.  It's what we do for our own relationship with God that matters.  That's why I say it's a non-issue, this whole mosque building thing. It doesn't matter to me, and it shouldn't for anyone else. If the victims of the 9/11 attack were to look at the Bible, and to their relationship with God, they would "turn the other cheek," as it were.  Then it ceases to mean anything to build a Muslim worship center on Ground Zero, and a compromise could be easily worked out.  Except for the fact that there would be no news, no strife, which is what today's 24/7 news channels need. 

There was a very easy solution to all this, if the powers that be would have done it, so many years ago.  It should have been very easy to purchase the buildings surrounding the attack site following 9/11.  I would have thought that property values would have gone down in the area, what with condemned buildings and all.  I might be wrong.  If they had wanted to create a monument to the people killed, they could have easily done so.  But they didn't.  They squabbled and fought and drug their feet, and so now, some 10 years afterward, nothing has been done.  I think they almost wanted to leave it in ruins to keep the wound open, to keep the anger flowing.  It is a more potent force than homage and peace.  It is the same thing that the Japanese did in Hiroshima, leaving a structure untouched as a reminder of those events.  To me, progress, moving forward, building again and prospering is so much more effective than letting the mind wander in the torturous halls of the past. 

Thus the free market system had a hand in all that transpired, and what is to come.  The Christian organizations could have bought that building long ago, but they didn't.  The site that was the WTC could have already been rebuilt and all this would be bunk.  But it didn't.  And since we're talking about free market, let's make the WTC site profitable.  And balanced.  Build a Christian church (the Protestants and the RC can share), a Synagogue, and then build the WTC reborn in the middle, with restaurants and retail and all the things that makes America what it is today. Everyone can eat, pray, and love, all in the same place. 

Because, in the end, the answer is that everyone is right. Or at least, to us, it should be.  Let the Muslims bow to the east, let the Jews follow their traditions, and let the Christians continue to break bread. And we'll all worship our own God and believe in Him. To me, I could care less what other people believe.  I have my own relationship with God, and if I'm right, then that's great.  If they are, then that's good too.  No one has to be wrong or damned or destroyed because of what they believe in.  Leave that up to God. He's got the power to strike us down, not some silly Terrorist in a plane.  And getting all riled up because a Muslim leader decides that he can press our buttons by building a church on top of where some other Muslims attacked our country, well, it's just not necessary.  In fact, it's just what we shouldn't do.  Do what the Bible says.  Turn the other cheek. By forgiving and making it a non-issue, we've already won. I think God would think so, anyway.