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Sunday
May092010

Wild Pygmy Elephants in Borneo

We had wonderful luck on our elephant hunting expedition in Sabah last weekend, as we were able to find and view a herd of 20-30 elephants in the river (our guide said it was the largest group she had seen; normally, they spot them in ones and twos). Here's 5 minutes of composite video (edited from the nearly 30 minutes of video I shot from the hour-and-a-half that we spent watching these creatures).

Thursday
Mar252010

Books That Influenced Me (2010 Edition)

I'm sure I've done this before, but I didn't find a previous post, so I'll join the crowd and list the ten books that have influenced my life and thinking (for good or bad, depending on your perspective). The unwritten rules specify that the "easy answers" (such as the Bible, etc.) are off-limits. I probably wouldn't have listed the Bible anyway, as I'm not a politician running for office and needing to pander, but I'm also going to avoid the typical English Lit canon as well (I might have listed Shakespeare's works, although his influence on me wasn't through written work, but much more through performance).

These are in chronological order, as best I can remember, of when I encountered them:

something like "The Mormon Conspiracy"
I discovered this book, the title of which is lost in the intervening 30-plus years since I read it, in the library of the Baptist church I attended as a teenager. At one point, between middle school and high school, I had attended a Christian retreat that encouraged me in thinking of a future in the Christian ministry, one fostered in some part by my church in which the youth prepared the Sunday morning children's moments that was presented through hand puppets. Many of my school friends were also quite active in their churches and I had been involved in several church musicals (despite having the vocal range of Barney Fife). This pretty much changed after reading this book, which I am sure wasn't an intended affect by the author, whose work, as much as I can recall, was to expose every hole in the story of Joseph Smith, his golden tablets, and the creation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It's not that I disagreed with the author, but that I made the next leap. The author's thesis that the Book of Mormon was the creation of man led me to look at the beliefs underpinning the Christian faith and its holy work, and it wasn't really that much of a stretch to see that the difference of 1800 years had only made the Bible's creation a little more clouded rather than sacred. Shortly after finishing this anti-Mormon creed, I found myself searching for books on the history of the creation of the Bible itself, discovering the Apocrypha and the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I wouldn't characterize this as "shaking my faith," because my faith was never centered on the books themselves, but it did provide me with more than my share of skepticism for arguments that invoked written authority ex facia rather than being logical and reasonable on their own.

The Artificial Kid, Bruce Sterling
It's not that the book itself influenced me, but the circumstances surrounding my reading the book. When I started college in Austin, many of my friends were science fiction fans One of them offered to give me this book on the promise that I would read it. After I had done so, and expressed my appreciation of it, he asked me if I would like to meet its author, his brother. And that's when I had my epiphany. I had dreams of being an author myself, but these were the kind of pie-in-the-sky dreams along with being a rock star, a great magician, and the world's foremost authority on everything. Meeting Bruce Sterling helped me take authors out of the Ivory Tower and off the pedastal and firmly in the context of, hey, I might actually be able to do that. Of course, we can't all be Bruce Sterling, and after a number of years of trying to write science fiction, I came to the conclusion that it wasn't actually my forte, but along the way I did write a novel (fiction based on science) and publish a story or two, as well as making some great author friends such as Sterling, Pam Sargent, and Pat Cadigan.

Replay, Ken Grimwood
I've written several time before how much I love this novel. Some people turn to religion to give them a meaning for their lives. For me, the lesson from this book, that it's important to live your life daily, with respect for others, provides that meaning. It's really not that different from the teaching of Buddha, Jesus, or Mohammed, it's just that this story example is told in modern (fantastic, science fictional) terms that appealed to me more.

Watchmen, Alan Moore
I've been reading comics for over 35 years (much to my parents' dismay at times). I'm not sure exactly what it is about them that has always appealed to me, although it certainly didn't diminish my interest in other media such as books or film. In fact, reading comics more than likely made me a better book-reader, albeit one that tends to like books with lots of dialogue rather than description. Until Watchman, though, I always felt self-conscious about my love for comics, which in the West are considered solely for children, especially in the 70s and 80s when I was reading them. There's a long history as to why (a combination of censorship that was self-imposed but predicated on both excesses and ___), and comics had started to tackle some more adult comics in the 1970s (Stan Lee's famous rebuttal of the Comics Code Authority for a Spider-Man issue that addressed drug use being the seed). However, it wasn't until this Watchman (and Maus, but I read Watchman first) that I felt I had finally found a comic that I could point to and say, here's what is truly possible in this medium (that said, Watchman requires some familiarity with the history of comics (and, in particular, superhero comics) to fully enjoy).

Ain't Nobody's Business if You Do: The Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country, Peter McWilliams

Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud
The Gold Bug Variations, Richard Powers

Tuesday
Mar232010

Who's the Demagogue?

President Barack Obama speaks to a joint sessi...

Image via Wikipedia

The description of the lack of decorum and respect during the recent health care debate resonated strongly with me since I had just finished Reid's Confucius Lives Next Door, which emphasized how the Japanese are on the opposite side of the politeness scale, apologizing for things that aren't even problems. It's not that visitors to the House of Representatives gallery haven't been known to yell something out during a House debate before, but I'm pretty sure this is the first time that Representatives on the floor have applauded in response. The stories of Representatives stepping outside to the balcony to address the protestors outside the capital bring to mind, Godwin forgive me, certain demagoguery more associated with totalitarian regimes.

During this whole fracas, the protestors have claimed that Obama is forcing health care reform on the American people, yet even the elected opposition admit that health care is in need of reform. What it seems to boil down to is that the protestors really don't want the current party in power to do anything about health care, even though the opposition had more than enough opportunity to do something over the past fifteen years. This, then, is the true face of conservative thought--while they complain about a do-nothing Congress, when it comes down to it, they are quite happy with doing nothing, because they fear that by doing something, you may make things worse. This is a pessimistic, negative view of the impact of government, and in line with the "reduce the government" thinking of the rising Tea Party. Obama, on the other hand, campaigned on the promise that the government can and should do something, and while I wasn't entirely sure myself that health care was the first thing he should have tackled, you have to admit that he has delivered on his promise.

But the thing that really gets me is the difference in tone between the opposing camps, both of which tried some fairly squirrely procedural tactics over the last month. I'm much more skeptical of screaming and ranting than I am of calm, measured voices, even if the same thing is being spoken.

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Tuesday
Mar232010

Lettering, the Invisible Art

iFanboy had a recent podcast on letterers, colorists, and inkers, talking about how these three jobs in the making of comics are often overlooked by fans who seem to concentrate on the writers and artists. I was reminded of their comments on lettering when I came across this passage in my recent reading.

too_many_words.jpg

from All-Star Comics, No. 4, March-April 1941, page C. (Click for a novel-sized version)

You could make a case for the first panel, where there's an effort to hide the government official talking to the Justice Society, but that last panel, where the balloon even hides The Flash, makes no sense. This is supposed to be a comic, not a novel, and the point is not to *hide* the characters with words. Older comics were full of this sort of thing, as they still hadn't quite come to reconcile how many words were necessary to get across a story that also contained pictures. There's a lot of unnecessary telling being done in both dialogue and narrative balloons.

The actual content of the text is a product of the war period. In hindsight, however, the logic seems a bit circular ("America is a land of freedom, so we must stop free speech!" as opposed to revealing the lies behind the speech itself).

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Saturday
Mar062010

I Think This Was Illegal in 1940, Too

I've been reading some old comics (early 1940s) and thought I would, like some other blogs out there, share some of my discoveries with you, such as this panel from All-Star Comics issue 1 (June 1940), which occurs after Hawkman reunites Margo with her brother Jan.

sibling_love_from_all-star.jpg
from All-Star Comics #1 (June 1940), story and art by "Shelly"

Now, I understand that they are happy to see each other, but that image seems a little beyond most sibling affection. Perhaps Shelly had originally intended the art to describe a husband and wife, and when time to actually add the text, it was changed to brother and sister. Awkward, that.

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Monday
Mar012010

Hotel Mice

From the web site of the Royale Chulan hotel in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

hotel-mice.jpg

MICE is actually an acronym for "Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, and Events." I think they might want to rethink that particular acronym.

Wednesday
Feb242010

What We Mean When We Talk about Terrorism

AUSTIN, TX - FEBRUARY 18:  Smoke billows from ...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

There's a little bit of a dust-up at the moment regarding the man who crashed his plane into an Austin IRS building and how the media and government are covering his action, mainly centered around the belief that because he was an angry white male, he isn't being called a terrorist. While some of the points are valid (as in, if he had been an angry male of Arabic descent named Mohamed, no matter how long he and his family had been citizens or what manifesto he left, people would be trying to connect him to al-Qaeda), there are some salient details that distinguish his act from that committed on 11 September 2001. Some of this boils down to what do we mean when we say "terrorism," and it's no wonder there's some confusion there, because the Bush administration certainly wanted to use the term as broadly as possible to further their agenda.

By its very definition, the idea of terrorism is to cause terror. I believe one of the intended consequences of the 11 September attacks was to make Americans feel less secure, in the same way that people do not feel very secure if they live in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. The intended consequence of the TeePee crasher was to have people pay attention to his written manifesto, not fear that another plane was going to drop from the sky. It seems a safe assumption, even now, that al-Qaeda have the desire and people who would be willing to commit suicide attacks against Americans, especially in the U.S. On the other hand, I very much doubt that there exist too many other Tea Baggers prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. Note that one act of violence hardly equals terrorism. The reason 11 September had such a profound affect on our psyche, i.e., which terrorized us, was because of its multiple nature (four planes all hijacked on the same morning with an express purpose of causing fear and dismay). The reason why the IRA and PLO were considered a terrorist organizations is becaue of their multiple attacks, etc.

While I group Mr TeePee (I'm not sorry to use this psuedonym for him, by the way, as his name has escaped me, and I do not feel his action makes it worthwhile for me to record his actual name for the limited posterity of even this web site) with the Tea Party "movement," there's a clear distinction between his connection to that movement and those of the 11 September airplane hijackers to al-Qaeda. Some of those differences include the hijackers were financially supported and trained by their group and the group made the decision to make the attack. While I've heard some TeePee supporters show some agreement with the TeePee crasher's manifesto, none of them has been stupid enough to actually show any support for his actions. Not only did al-Qaeda claim to be responsible for 11 September, they have vowed to continue attacks against the U.S.

So, was Mr TeePee a terrorist? No. Neither was Timothy McVeigh, whose action was even more disastrious in loss of life. Are they criminals? Yes, just as the 11 September attackers were criminals, and just as any of the people who aided and abetted them in that act are criminals. Mr TeePee obviously chose his method of suicide in copycat of a terrorist action, and there's some danger that others will, too. But that doesn't make their act itself a terrorist act. Copycat crimes are nothing new.

A final point: based on my reading of Mr TeePee Crasher's manifesto: he thought that his act would actually help galvinize people to do something about the arcane tax laws of the U.S. Unfortunately, I believe that his act has probably set back any progress in that area, at least in the near term, because politicians and tax activists could easily be accused of acting in his interests. On the other hand, all the damage done to the reputation of the U.S. abroad and to our constitutional liberties at home by the Bush administration in reaction to the 11 September attacks was an unintended consequence, likely even unforseen, by al-Qaeda, but one that have to be enjoying tremendously.

(In the interest of discussion and debate, I'm putting a link to a couple of arguments for why he should be considered a terrorist below. One argument hinges on the legal definition of terrorism used by the FBI. My argument above is about the generally accepted use of terrorism in the mass media and society. The legal definition would be used in a court of law for a particular indictement. What we mean when we talk about terrorism, I believe, hinges on truth and consequences, as I've laid out above. The other argument hinges on the idea that if the act is similar to a terrorist act, no matter if the person acted alone or not, it is terrorism. To this I submit that unless we respond out of being terrorized, then it is not. We clearly responded out of fear after 11 September; only time will tell, I guess, about how we respond to this.)

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Monday
Feb222010

Donald Fagen, Kamakiriad

I'm not a big fan of jazz. I've never understood the appeal of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus. I've tried, lord how I've tried, but with the exception of Take Five, most jazz albums leave me cold. Then again, maybe Davis and Coltrane and Mingus are just a variety of jazz that I don't care for. Is "swing" jazz, because I like swing, in both its original and retro versions, from Louis Jordan and _The Wildest_ to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and The Squirrel Nut Zippers. And then there's Steely Dan, who aren't swing, and they're not Miles Davis, but while they are undeniably rock and pop in some kind of combination, they also contain some kind of jazz influence.

Possibly it's the level of allowed improvization--from my brief time playing in a swing band in high school, I understand the structure of a swing song and that at any one time, only one instrument--two at the very most--are engaged in improv, while the rest are pretty constrained to follow an agreed upon script. Rock follows that (with the exception of, say, King Crimson's second period), for the most part, even such that it became a 1980's joke (I'll never forget the Styx video--for some entirely forgetable song--but which had the pop-up note "obligatory solo" at the 2:45 mark ). When rock doesn't follow this, such as the jam bands Phish and Dave Matthews, I get easily bored. Steely Dan play rule-following jazz. Perhaps the songs were originally conceived in jam sessions, but when they get recorded, it's pretty obvious everyone knows just what's going down and where.

Kamakiriad is not a Steely Dan album, but that's in name only. Everything else about this album--its style, vocal sound, production quality, level of expertise--not only screams Steely Dan, but is basically on the same trend line that Aja was leading to, more so than even Donald Fagen's first solo album, The Nightfly, which actually had some departures from the Steely Dan sound. This is smooth stuff, and a little David Sanborn saxophone wouldn't be out-of-place here. If anything, it's all a little too smooth, and doesn't strain itself much. All of the songs are pleasing, with no note out of place, a very tight horn and rhythm section, and a chorus of sweet-voiced background singers. Only Donald Fagen's own vocal delivery, with its somewhat limited range and wispy nasality, is a unique sound.

So why is this one of my favorite albums? I'm not entirely sure upon listening to it again in its entirety. I can tell you that I hate none of these songs, but if you had asked me before putting this song in the player to review if I could name any of the tracks, as a favorite or not, I would have been hard-pressed. "Springtime," the funkiest track, is one of the many I've rated five stars. The other tracks I've rated five star include "Trans-Island Skyway," "Countermoon," "Springtime," and "Tomorrow's Girls." Only one track was rated less than four stars, "On the Dunes." Listening to it all together, though, and I'm struck by just how much of a snoozer it is. I'm tempted to rate some of the songs down just on this realization.

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Tuesday
Feb162010

Joe Jackson, Look Sharp

Cover of "Look Sharp!"

Cover of Look Sharp!

Look Sharp! contains some of the cleverest songs from the 1970s, one of which was a huge radio hit. Jackson emerged just as Elvis Costello and Graham Parker did, both incredibly clever and caustic songwriters in their own right, and the three quickly became known as the angry young men of the rock scene. Some people today label and group them with punk, but that disregards that all three were accomplished musicians, Joe Jackson most of all, as he had even studied music at university. What more they did have in common was spending the 70s touring England's pub scene, and if one had to specify a subgenre for them, pub-rock would do in a pinch, along with Brinsley Schwarz, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, and the too short-lived Rockpile.

The hit, which overshadows the album and Jackson's entire career until he hit big again with Night and Day, is of course "Is She Really Going Out With Him?" It unfortunately suffers from two things: it has been overplayed by classic rock radio everywhere and, while very clever, it is a bit of an extended joke where the punchline loses its impact with repetition. The music, with it's simple bass'n'drums loping verse and full band chorus, stays fresh, as does Jackson's sneer-cum-whine vocal delivery (especially in the classic insult line, "they say that looks don't count for much and there goes your proof"). The other thing that strikes me upon listening to it for yet another time is how clean the recording is--in fact this entire record is a prime example of how giving the instruments quietness around them emphasizes them so much better than just turning everything up to ten as they do nowadays. That said, there are exceptions. "Throw It Away" and "(Do the) Instant Mash" are as close as this album gets to punk and both fill the channel with some pretty high octane playing.

Take the hit away and this still would have been a great album. None of the songs is a clunker that begs for the skip button. Several of them are all-time favorites of mine. "Fools in Love" is really a companion piece to the hit, and holds up better with time for me. It has the same loping, near reggae feeling, verse and big bold chorus with more vitriolic vocals. It is also somewhat creepy. In this, as well as in "Pretty Girls," Jackson seems to have a problem with this whole dating/love business--an honest portrait of the conflicting emotions that surround a 20-or-so-year-old.

What's most surprising, however, given Jackson's later career and claim-to-fame as one if the few rock pianists (can you name more than five? Jerry Lee Lewis, Elton John, Billy Joel, Bruce Hornsby, and Ben Folds. I know more, but most of them are in bands rather than solo artists, and I play piano, so it's something of interest to me) is the relative absence of piano on this recording. It's there, but definitely not as a main instrument--almost as if Jackson had a problem playing and singing at the same time when this was recorded since when you notice the piano it's in the solos.

This is my favorite Jackson album, but only because every song here is a winner. I actually prefer to listen these days to Jumpin' Jive or Beat Crazy, neither of which did very well for him when they were released.

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Saturday
Feb062010

Things You Might Like, if You Like These Kinds of Things

A selection of a few items that came across my feedreader in the last couple of weeks:


  • This snow shovel looks like it would have been perfect for the very long driveway that we used to have in Maryland. Since DC just got some more of that white stuff dumped on them, I wanted to alert my friends there to this possible solution. In other news, it's still summer in Malaysia.

  • What's the real cost of the sugar water that you are drinking? Because of the small sums involved, people miss the cost increases that they would scream about for things that cost more, even though you likely spend more on soda in a given period. It also underscores the hypocrisy of the soda companies who screamed about the proposed tax of 1 cent per soda to help combat the rise of obesity in the U.S.

  • As someone who seems to be untangling my iPhone earbuds every time I take them out of my pocket, I find this zipper design to be absolute genius, especially with the added feature that the zip also contains separate volume controls. Now, there's some innovative thinking for you.

  • In a similar inspired-design vein, check out this travel plug that folds up so you don't poke holes in your bag. I need one of these, like, immediately.
  • My buddy Stainless is doing a great series on the Leadership Secrets of Fictional Characters. While I'm not a necessarily a fan of the fiction that he's pulling this from, what he's quoting and his analysis of it is spot on. I'll be sad when this little series ends.

  • Jonathan Carroll, one of my favorite writers, reproduces this list of 'Rules' from Esquire. I like a lot of these, including "The only thing worse than words ending in 'ly' are words ending in 'ize.'"

  • Bruce Sterling, another of my favorite writers, points out this inspired graphic depicting what China censors. I should do something similar for Malaysia, although it would have to be a tag cloud on what the local newspapers deem is important news (which, as J put it recently on Facebook, combines the worst part of the Monica Lewinsky and BoA scandals).

  • You want indignation? Here's a rant on the insane amount of money we spend on the military. We can debate about whether or not this is actually making the U.S. "secure," but there's no doubt that it's driving the U.S. into bankruptcy.

  • An ad that points out that, really, there's only one way to recharge yourself if you're feeling out of energy.

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