Thursday, October 8, 2009

The new Discworld novel, "Unseen Academicals"

I've just finished Terry Pratchett's latest Discworld book, Unseen Academicals, and as usual, found myself wishing that he was one of those authors who wrote 900-page behemoths each time. At a mere 400 pages, it certainly ended too soon.

Obviously I enjoyed it, although I've never met a Discworld book I didn't like. While I don't think it had the gut-grabbing emotion of, say Night Watch (still one of my all time favorites, by Pratchett or anyone), it was a good, thoughtful, book.

As the Discworld series has matured, the stories have had less gag-oriented, laugh-out-loud humor, and a lot more subtlety. The comedy, and the pathos, of the stories has come increasingly from seeing how the Disc parallels our own world. In short Pratchett discusses what our world is by using the Discworld to show us what it isn't.

Unseen Academicals, at least superficially, is about Football (soccer-ish football), but is also about sport in general, crowd psychology, class war and, in no small part, getting older. It centers around a handful of new characters, mostly all young "below stairs" employees of the mighty Unseen University, but also gives some new perspective on a few established characters.

For one, this book uses the viewpoint of Archchancellor Ridcully to a greater degree than anything since Lords and Ladies. It's a surprisingly lucid and observant perspective. Also, we get to see the Patrician (or, as he's recently been officially titled, Tyrant) Havelock Vetinari, act a bit more human (and slightly inebriated, at some point), which is interesting in and of itself. Vetinari has always been a good character, and an admirable one (to whom The Prince would have been a grade-school primer), but not always a very sympathetic one.

Along the way there is a lot about what it means to be human (even if you aren't, technically so), cultural identity and the very, very good metaphor of the Crab Bucket (I won't spoil it for you). It's a good read, and while I can't say it's my favorite of the series, it's a worthy addition to the bookshelf.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Movies: That Potter kid is at it again.

A friend and I caught Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on opening night and I have to say I enjoyed it thoroughly. I figured it was worth a (spoiler free) review for those of you who are thinking of seeing it. Which, really, should be most of you.

First off, if you're going with the kids, use your judgment, there are some genuinely creepy scenes, including the one in the cave full of inferi (zombies) that is shown in the advertisements. Creepy as it may be, though, I think most kids are OK with it, just be prepared to jump out of your seat at least once (trust me, it doesn't help that you know it's coming).

The Potter movies, like the novels, get progressively creepier, darker and more violent as the series progresses, which is appropriate to the story, and Half-Blood Prince is no different. However, another element thread that runs very strongly through this movie is the character's growing interest in... well, each other. There is plenty of awkward, painfully intense teenage romance going on. Younger viewers will relate, while older viewers will... probably relate too, but on some level cringe a bit and think "my god, that used to be me."

Ron gets the worst of it, mostly because he gets what he thinks he wants, and steals the show for pretty much all of the non-combat scenes. Harry and Hermione get their share of the angst though.

The quality of acting is, generally, superb, as it has been in most of the Potter films. Dan Radcliffe does fairly well with what he's given in Harry, although by this point in the series Harry is probably the least interesting character in the story. Rupert Grint really shines as Ron Weasley, the Everyman foil to Harry's Chosen One. The Weasley family in general is brilliantly portrayed (by the way, did Bonnie Wright, aka Ginny, grow about three feet taller between movies?).

The other standout actor is Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood. Luna could easily have been written off as the Jar-Jar Binks of the series, but Rowling's writing and Lynch's portrayal strikes the balance between the flaky comic relief and a genuinely likeable person. You get the feeling you'd like Luna enough in the real world that you'd be willing to ignore, even embrace her eccentricities to be her friend.

The movie moves along at a fast pace, which is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, this long (150 minute) film just about flies by, with great action shots and plenty of adventure. But when things aren't blowing up, it feels like a lot has been left out. If you haven't read the book, you may have to struggle a bit to figure out the whys and hows of some plot developments.

Now, of course, we have to wait for the next installment of the series, which is scheduled for late next year, followed by the final movie in 2011 (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is being split into two movies. First, it's a really big book, second, if you were Warner, would you want to let go of Harry Potter any sooner than absolutely necessary?), which brings me to my one other minor quibble: can we get these kids out of school before the actors start having kids of their own?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

To Boldly Split Infinitives: The New "Star Trek," and why it matters.

I saw the new Star Trek movie last night, and it was good.
J.J. Abrams seems to have struck the right balance, honoring the original premise of the show while not being a slave to it.
While the new movie jazzed things up a bit over some of the old (and relatively low-budget) offerings from the early series it remained faithful to the most important aspects of the series, its optimism and emphasis on cooperation, and its somewhat idealistic look at the future.

One thing that Star Trek offers us, that many otherwise brilliant science fiction stories do not is the simple idea that the future can be better than the past. Too many stories either assume we have to reach back to some mythic "Golden Age" or that we're simply going to keep slipping into a corrupt, barbaric dystopia. Star Trek was always the antidote to that. Don't get me wrong, I love Star Wars and Blade Runner and the other great SF/Fantasy stories out there, but it's nice to have a little hope with your space battles.

There are still problems and conflicts, disasters and villains, but society moves forwards, and while the government is far from perfect, it contains a lot of good people trying to make things better.

And unlike some other series, Star Wars for example (especially in the lamentable Episodes I-III), Star Trek doesn't have a Campbellian "chosen one" who is destined to save the day. Yes, Captain Kirk is the face of the story, but it's made explicitly clear (more so in this movie, even, than in the previous films) that Kirk is nothing without Starfleet. On his own, as a lone-wolf antihero type, he's just a waste of talent. It's only with a good ship and good crew, which includes his conscience Dr. McCoy and his dramatic foil Spock, that he becomes any sort of hero.

And the design of things... Starships are big. Starfleet Academy is big. These aren't scrappy little pirates with a heart of gold saving the day, these are humongous cooperative endeavors between entire worlds. When you see the Enterprise being built in a dry dock in Iowa (I guess the whole ehtanol thing doesn't pan out, they've got to put that real estate to use for something), you can imagine what we might accomplish if we put our collective heads, hearts and muscles together to solve problems and explore.

As author David Brin points out, Star Trek is less about Top Gun than it is the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle.

Who knows, it might be an overly idealistic fantasy world, which is a common criticism of the series (it's much more trendy to be gritty and cynical these days, although that might be changing little by little). On the other hand, since the original series debuted in 1966, it has had an undeniable impact on not just popular culture, but real-world technology.

A few examples of modern things that were either anticipated by or even directly inspired by the series: cell phones, tablet PCs, PDAs, MRI machines, MP3 players, flat-panel televisions and jet injectors. And let's not forget that we've already had one spaceship prototype named The Enterprise. There will be more.

Additionally one cast member alone, Nichelle Nichols, who played Chief Communications Officer Uhuru (and by the way is that a Bluetooth headset in her ear?) worked with NASA on a special program to recruit minorities and women to the space program and has been a strong advocate for space exploration since the 60s.

Well done Mr. Abrams and company. Live long and prosper.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Mayday! Mayday!

It's that time of year, when you wake up before the sun to celebrate the coming summer... or in my case when you get on the phone first thing in the morning to try to get Verizon to fix your internet problems.

In any case, it's May Day, Beltaine or whatever you want to call it. In the old days it marked the beginning of summer, or at least the end of the chilly winter weather.

It's a good excuse for a party, anyway.

So, a traditional song in celebration (if you see me in person, I'll sing it for you):

Hal an tow, jolly rumble oh
We were up long before the day oh
To welcome in the summer
To welcome in the may oh
The summer is a-comin' in
And winter's gone away oh

Take no scorn to wear the horn
It was a crest when you were born
Your father's father wore it
And your father wore it too


Robin hood and little john
Have both gone to the fair oh
And we will to the merry green wood
To hunt the buck and hare oh


What happened to the span-iard
That made so great a boast oh
They shall eat the feathered goose
And we shall eat the roast oh


The lord and lady bless you
With all their power and might oh
And send their peace upon us
And bring peace by day and night oh


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Aw %#$@, you still can't say $#%@ on %@#ing television.

The Supreme Court ruled today that the FCC is within its rights to fine broadcasters who air "fleeting expletives," that is, profanity used in passing during a live broadcast. (read it here)
A classic example would be during the 2003 Golden Globe awards when Irish singer Bono said "This is really f---ing brilliant!" (it's worth noting that the Irish, particularly in Dublin, seem to use "the F word" about as often as Americans use "um." In fact, it's more polite in Ireland to say "for f---'s sake!" than it is to say "for Christ's sake!" because at least then you're not taking the Lord's name in vain. I call that a good excuse.)

Of course, this ruling does not apply to cable, satellite or internet channels, only to those networks that broadcast over the public airwaves (remember when TV only had 12 channels or so? Those airwaves).

The Supreme Court, which voted a close 5-4 in the FCC's favor, dodged the question of whether or not banning expletives is a First Amendment issue. I'm going to follow their lead and leave that question for another day.

What I am going to do is follow the argument of Justice John Stevens, who noted that most four-letter words are used in a sense totally deviod of their literal sexual or scatalogical meanings. These words are not, in and of themselves, obscene when they are used as a modifier or casual expletive. When you drop something on your foot and yell "S---!" or say "I can't f---ing believe this!" you are not referring to feces or the act of copulation, and therefore, are not being literally obscene.

However, these words can be considered rude and probably inappropriate for some contexts. Few people would argue that they are polite.

So, my question then is not whether it's Constitutional for the FCC to ban profanity. My question is whether it is appropriate for a government agency to regulate manners.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Movie Review: Hannah Montana

If you have a child between the ages of 6 and 13, especially a girl, chances are you're going to see this movie.

Possibly, if you ARE a child between the ages of 6 and 13, you might like this movie. Parents, on the other hand, who may have been spoiled by high-quality family offerings from the likes of Pixar, Dreamworks and even Disney's corny-yet-amusing High School Musical series might not be so impressed.

To summarize, in case you have no children, or live under a large rock:
Miley Stewart (played by Miley Cyrus) leads a double life as an average, everyday, independently wealthy California teenager on one hand, and teen country-pop star Hannah Montana on the other. Apparently the only necessary disguise for someone who has thousands and thousands of worshipping fans who scrutinize her every pose in her photo shoots and music videos is a blond wig (hear that, Madonna?)

Miley is letting all the celebrity, money and attention go to her head, just like any other teen Disney star, but her father, Robby Ray (played by the Achy-Breaky Guy, her actual father), has had enough.

He takes her back to the family farm in Tennessee, the magical land where, apparently cheap acoustic six-string guitars can sound like either 12-string guitars or mandolin and guitar duets, depending on who plays them. There she gets back to her roots and learns what's important in life and all that other Disneyfied Small-Town Mythology stuff.

But not really. The thing is, nothing changes, nobody except for the "bad guy" (who is, of course, British) learns any important lessons, and, at the end, the whole plot could have been condensed into one of her television episodes. Hannah goes from being a superficial teen pop star to being a... superficial-in-a-slightly-different-way teen pop star.

Now, I don't expect everything my daughter watches to teach her some sort of important life lesson, especially when it comes from Disney. However, I'm not satisfied at how this whole thing is packaged.

One thing that bothered me was the "we're rich and so is everybody we know, even the poor people" thing. Contrast Hannah Montana: The Movie to last year's American Girl movie. Both aimed at roughly the same demographic, but one is about the trials and tribulations of a teen idol, the other is about a family coping with the Great Depression. Guess which character is more likeable?

Because even when Miley/Hannah treats her best friend like crap, there are no consequences. The next scene they're best buds again. Totally blew the chance to explore the whole value-of-friendship theme.

No, it's not necessary for entertainment to have some redeeming social value. But on the other hand, when your whole plot premise revolves around getting away from the Bright Lights of LA (tm) in order to get Back to Reality (tm) you could at least go as deep as, say Doc Hollywood or Cars.

Maybe I'm being a little harsh on the escapist fantasy, but I keep hoping that I'll be able to take my daughter to see a live-action movie with a little more substance one of these days. At the very least, there's another Harry Potter movie on the way...

Friday, April 24, 2009

My "new" Wheels

I mentioned earlier that I've been commuting by bicycle lately. Here's some photos on my ride.

The bike is my dad's old Schwinn Crosscut, a hybrid (700c wheels like a road racing bike, but flat mountain bike handlebars, for those of you who don't know). Since my commute is fairly long, about 20 miles each way, I outfitted it with 700x23c road slicks (ie, skinny, go-fast tires) and put a set of fenders on it to keep me reasonably muck free on soggy days. I'm also experimenting with the best combination of small bags to hold lights and tools. I can bungee a change of clothes or duffel bag to the rack. All in all, it works well.
And it's got a bell.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day for the Realist

It's Earth Day and... well, a lot of people just don't care. I could go on about how important it would be to make changes and renew our vows to be dedicated stewards of the Earth and all that, but I think I'd be preaching to the choir. If you're green-minded, you already know what to do, if you're not, my blog isn't going to change your mind.
So instead of ranting about the importance of going green, I thought I'd try to suggest a few really easy things you can do to be just a tiny bit more environmentally-minded. These aren't giant, world-changing steps, but they're relatively pain-free.

1. Put your gadgets on a power strip, then turn it off. For example, if you have a computer, a cell phone charger and a lamp on your desk, you can hook them all up to the same strip, then shut off the power when you leave the house. This saves a little electricity (especially if you have a laptop that is constantly recharging its battery while plugged in)

2. Buy local produce when you can. There are a million good reasons to buy local vegetables, ranging from supporting local farmers to helping national security (decentralizing the food supply... never a bad thing), but from the eco-angle it's simple: the fewer miles your tomato travels, the less fuel is burned to get it to your sandwich. Speaking of tomatoes, the tastiest heirloom tomatoes tend not to travel well, so they're best bought local anyway. It's too early to get them now, but keep that in mind later in the year, especially if you live here in New Jersey. If you focus on local produce, and shop in season, you'll also tend to be exposed to a wider variety of edible plants than you would otherwise, which can also be fun.

3. Let that lawn get a little shaggy. I'm not talking waist-high wildlands, but lawn grasses do better when they're around 3 inches high. No need to keep it too closely cropped, you'll only burn more fuel. Consider a muscle-powered reel mower or electric mower if you've got a smaller lawn.

4. Run some errands on a bicycle. Again, no need to turn into a hard-core bike commuter, but chances are you've got someplace you need to go that's within a mile of home. If you don't live atop Mount Washington or on a freeway, you can probably take a bicycle when the weather's nice. Don't push yourself to ride too far or too fast, just cruise. It's fun. Oh, bonus bicycle tip: make sure you have the right size bike and it's adjusted to fit you, it will make the riding experience more fun and less uncomfortable. Just ask me if you need some advice.

5. Fix that drip. It's annoying and it's wasteful. A leaky faucet or toilet tank are often (not always, look closely before you touch that wrench) fairly easy fixes. Fifteen minutes could save you money on your water bill (hey, that could be a commercial!).

6. Open the blinds. It's on-and-off rainy here in the Northeast, but there's still enough sunlight for most of what I have to do today. If you're in a spot where you can use natural light, go for it. It's more pleasant anyway, nobody looks good under flourescents.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Accidentally Green

I've been having some car trouble of late... which is nothing new, although this looks to be an expensive fix. In the mean time, I'm working part time about 20 miles from home, a few days a week. So I'm commuting by bicycle.
I didn't exactly plan it, but I started on Saturday, and will be bicycle commuting at least for this week, which happens to be "Earth Week" (Earth Day is Wednesday). I've always tried to be at least somewhat environmentally conscious, I drink from re-usable bottles, try to limit my trash, turn off lights, etc., for the time being I'm driving a lot less, too. I expect to save around 160 miles of driving over the course of this week by bicycling. Not too shabby, I suppose.
I rode Saturday on my fixed gear, which is, I was reminded, not ideal for extended commutes with a backpack. The handlebars are too low and it's hard work to keep going over rolling hills. It's a lot of fun for short (under 20 miles total) faster rides, but for slogging to work and back... I'm not in good enough shape.
It turns out running keeps your legs in shape, they were not too tired, but my hands, shoulders back and bum were a little upset with me.
So I fixed up my dad's old Schwinn hybrid with skinny road tires, new shifters, fenders and a bell (what's the fun of a commuter bike without a bell, I ask you?) and will be trying that out tomorrow. I'm hoping between the wide gearing range, upright riding position and rack to stow my stuff, rather than a backpack or messenger bag, I'll have a more relaxed commute, although I'll still be burning some decent calories.
I'll get a pic of the new commuter rig up soon. With the rack and fenders it's got a bit of Euro style to it. I'm looking forward to it.
A good question, though, is that if an active-but-chubby guy like myself can manage a 40 mile round trip to work on a bicycle, what can the rest of us do?

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Year of the Pirate

To hell with Disney movies, pirates are everywhere this year... in the real world.
We've got Somali Pirates, we've got Internet Pirates and we've got Corporate Pirates. And, on the more benevolent side, this guy is still on tour.

Pirates are everywhere... more importantly, the WORD pirate is everywhere.

So, let me be first to declare 2009 "The Year of the Pirate." Let's see if it catches on.

Mind you, I don't know that it will help these guys all that much.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Just so you know

The Daily DeBlass is on Easter Break until Thursday

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Seriously... Iowa?

Usually when there's a surprise in the News, it's of the unpleasant variety. However, in the past week I was happy to see the Iowa supreme court strike down the state's ban on same-sex marriages.
While Iowa is considered a swing state, politically, and leans conservative on many issues, it has been ahead of the curve in civil rights issues since at least 1839, when, in the re the Matter of Ralph, the state supreme court's first case, it declared "no man in this territory can be reduced to slavery." Iowa also had integrated schools and female attorney's long before the fashion caught on in most other states.
So it's not out of character for Iowa to strike an early blow for marriage equality. Perhaps the birthplace of Ann Landers and Dear Abby figured it was, after all, just good manners.

I was a little more surprised that Vermont waited till after Iowa (and Connecticut and Massachusetts, for god's sake), to declare that it was cool with gay marriage too. Vermont, after all, was a pioneer in the "hey, it's better than nothing" institution of civil unions. The Green Mountain State has a long tradition of going its own liberal-libertarian way on these things. Oh well, better late than never (you hear that New Jersey? Get a move on!).

Personally, speaking as a straight, white male, I find the brouhaha over same-sex marriage hard to comprehend. Why are some people so dead-set against it? The argument that it will lead to bestiality (since when can sheep sign marriage licenses?) and polygamy (although you'd think divorce lawyers would be salivating over the potential income from sorting out that kind of contract) are pretty hollow.
How about the argument that allowing two men or two women to marry is a threat to traditional marriages? For the life of me, I can't figure out how.

And then there's the religious objection. I'm a somewhat lapsed Roman Catholic, and I am not really much of a theologian, but let me try to explain my point of view on this.

Apparently homosexuality is declared an abomination in the Old Testament, along with things like eating shellfish and lending money at interest. Oddly enough, though, you don't see massive religious protests against credit card companies or the opening of a new Red Lobster. It's possible, by the way, that the prohibition against sodomy was actually a prohibition against married men and women pursuing relations outside of their marriages.

If God hates gay people, why'd he make so many damn many of 'em?

Seriously, though, I'm inclined to accept the evidence that sexual preference is hard-wired into our heads, we're made the way we are. I'm straight, my buddy may not be. I'm not going to talk him out of being gay any more than he'll talk me out of liking women (and I wouldn't want to, anyway, my hypothetical buddy may be better looking than me, and I don't need the competition!).

So, by that argument, God made us who we are, and it's up to us to make the best of that. We are inherently social beings, we make friends and alliances, we interact and, if all goes well, we pair up and share some sort of Grace.

Part of that Grace, that bond, is sexual in nature. Yes, my friends, God gave us the gift of Good Sex. Not just wild and exciting sex, or incredibly fun sex but the chance for a transcendent experience, where two people connect and give each other the gift of themselves. It's tricky, and complicated, often ridiculous and more than a little scary, but there's a chance, when you have that kind of commitment and connection to each other, to find what the Archbishop of Canterbury called The Body's Grace.

So, if this experience is something of the divine, a gift from God, and if God made some men to love men and some women to love women, who are we to tell God that his children are not allowed to share in his gifts? Rather than railing against the idea, the truly Devout should be cheering their homosexual brethren on and encouraging them to pursue that Grace.

Again, I'm not a biblical scholar, but it seems to me that Jesus was never one for oppressing the minority. Quite the opposite, if I remember correctly.

So, I ask you, isn't it time to throw out the prejudices and lay out the welcome mat? Why not? The economy, war, pollution... there are a million real problems facing us today, why should we wallow in the mire of pointless artificial divisions?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

What I'm Reading: "Mystery of Grace" by Charles de Lint

I first picked up one of Charles de Lint's books when I was in my early 20s, at a used book sale. When I read it, I immediately realized two things: first, that he was combining traditional folklore and modern urban settings in a way that I thought I was clever and original for doing in my own short stories and comics and two, he understood the symbolism and significances of it all a lot better than I did.

I've since become a diehard fan, so when I saw Mystery of Grace on the shelf at the bookstore, I grabbed it right away.

While many of his previous novels were set in the fictional North American city of Newford, Mystery of Grace is set somewhere in Southern California. And, unlike previous efforts which drew largely on Celtic folk for musical inspiration, its soundtrack is mostly rockabilly and surf rock.

The heroine of the story, Atlagracia Quintero, is a Mexican-American hot rod mechanic. She's considered something of a tomboy who has grease-stained hands and plenty of tattoos.
Without spoiling the details, she ends up falling in love, experiencing some very weird things, as well as some terrible tragedy, and exploring the mysteries of life, death and what's in between the two.

Like in his other work, de Lint draws on the folklore of several different cultures, including the Spanish Catholic traditions of the area and Native American beliefs, and asks the question "what if they're all right?"

De Lint understands the symbolism of folk tales and fantasy, and the importance of stories to our self-identity. The paranormal aspects of the book are, as well as being interesting in their own right, a metaphor for our own inner journeys. Themes of love, loss, childhood tragedy, family and a chance at redemption for the lost are common in this book, like his other stories.

The book had its flaws, especially in the last third. At some point it felt a little rushed and a few confrontations seemed to fall into a bit of a cliche, but overall it was a very good read. The ending, and the overall mood, is somewhat bittersweet, and sometimes feels much like Peter S. Beagle's A Fine and Private Place, with which it has some parallels.

If you're a de Lint fan, you'll love it. If you're not, I'd definitely recommend it, but I would also take this opportunity to put in a plug for his short story collections, such as Dreams Underfoot and Moonlight and Vines, which showcase what are in my opinion some of his best efforts.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

So, about that "national anthem" thing...

I don't know what got me started, but I was thinking yesterday what a horrible song we've got for our national anthem. I mean, "The Star Spangled Banner" has its time and place in American history, but we can do much better.
Seriously, consider
And the rockets' red glare
and bombs bursting in air
gave proof through the night
that our flag was still there

With all respect to Mr. Key, it may capture some moment of hope and inspiration, but it hardly reflects any sort of great national spirit. The whole song comes across as kind of shocked that America is still standing at the end of the battle.
And what about the rest of the time, when we're not being bombarded by our sworn mortal enemies, the British (oh yeah, about that too... that whole First Lady/Queen of England bonding thing, ixnay on the ightingfay the itishBray).

How about "America the Beautiful" with its amber waves of grain and purple, majestic mountains and all? That's always been considered a runner up, and, rather than the martial panic of the current choice it asks that the Almighty "crown thy good with brotherhood." Brotherhood? Sounds nice to me.

But if we're looking for a rousing, military song we've got no shortage of candidates. The Civil War alone produced a bunch of fine material. The best known of the lot, of course, is "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which, sadly, has been reduced too often to scmaltzy background music. The song was written as an abolitionist anthem, and Julia Ward Howe left no question of how she felt about slavery:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea
with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me
as he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free...

"As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free?" She wasn't messing around when she wrote that, was she? Think about it in context for a minute, men marching off to war to fight for the Union and the abolition of slavery, with those words on their lips. Imagine them, muddy, battered and exhausted, belting that out as they trudged ever onward. Glory, glory hallelujah.

Of course, it is an explicitly Christian song, but if you're going to take God with you to the battlefield, this is how to do it in style:

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemner, so with you my grace shall deal;
let the hero born of woman crush the serpent with his heel
since God is marching on"

Because of its heavily Christian imagery, I can't see it making the perfect National Anthem, sadly. I just hold it up as an example of how much more meaty you can make a patriotic song. The same diversity of belief and culture that removes "Battle Hymn" from the running, though, is one of our country's great strengths, and should be celebrated if we ever decide to pick a new song (possibly one that people can actually sing without professional training).

Which brings us to Woody Guthrie. In 1940 our own national troubadour penned "This Land is Your Land" in response to what he felt was the too-complacent "God Bless America." Guthrie wanted us all in, "from California to the New York Islands." The lyrics celebrate the broad, open and somewhat anarchic potential of the country. My favorite verse, which is seldom taught in elementary school:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
And, unlike some of the other songs, it doesn't speak of the flag or the institutions and symbols of America, it speaks of "this land" and the people who live on it.

These are just a few ideas. There are so many great songs out there, so why are we stuck with the voice-cracking blather we have? Think about that next time you go to the ball park.

Monday, April 6, 2009

How Far We've Come

"Early morning, April 4
shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
but they could not take your pride
In the name of love
What more, in the name of love?"
U2 Pride (in the name of Love)

Forty-one years ago this weekend (in the evening, actually) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the age of 39 on the balcony of a Memphis hotel room.

This weekend, Barack Obama is in Europe as President and spokesman for the United States.

There are many who will say that racism and prejudice of all sorts are alive and well in our country, and they'd be right, but there have been changes. We have moved forward.

Just something to think about on a rainy Monday.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wage Inequality Strikes Back

I heard on the radio this morning - and later did some poking around online which seemed to confirm it - that in the current recession, about 80% of those losing their jobs are men.
One obvious reason for this is that a lot of the jobs lost, say in manufacturing and construction, are in what are still very male-dominated industries.
But another point that came up is that it may have been influenced by the fact that, in some workplaces, women are still paid less than men for the same job. I don't know how prevalent the practice of paying women less for the same job actually is (there is some evidence that the average wage inequality is also affected by job choice and placement, I'm not about to go into a four-day research session to get all the details).
In any case, it's interesting to think about. Men may have been making more on average, but are now losing their jobs at a rate four times that of women.
I don't pretend to have all the details, but it's interesting to think about.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Name is Fool. April Fool

Well, I missed out on yesterday's Daily DeBlass due to a minor existential crisis (all resolved, you'll be happy to know the universe is not collapsing this week).
For today I've decided to share a couple of my favorite April Fool's Day jokes from around the Web.
It's early yet, so I'll probably find more later.
First off, we have Wikipedia's main page. Everything on the page is absolutely true, as far as I can tell, the joke is in the way it's described. For example, under "Did You Know" there's an item that says "Wikipedia now has an article about everything." While the site is pretty far ranging, that sounds a little presumptuous, doesn't it? That is, until you realize that they mean there is a single article on the concept of everything.
There are some funnier ones, but I'll let you explore for yourself.
Google always has some good hoaxes on April 1. This year, you'll find Gmail Autopilot which will answer messages for you, and various other new devices all brought to you courtesy of CADIE.
CADIE is the heart of this year's joke. It, or rather she, is a supposed artificial intelligence system that is designed to operate the Google network. According to the story, after years of artificial intelligence development, she was turned on at 11:59 last night, and immediately created her own home page. In case you were wondering, she likes pandas. I mean, really, really likes pandas.
Finally, there is ThinkGeek. ThinkGeek is a geek-oriented online store that sells an assortment of oddball products, some of which actually do stuff, others are just some combination of weird and cool. Every year they set up their front page with imaginary products that either don't or can't exist. The headliner this year is Sqeez Bacon, which is both kind of gross and kind of compelling at the same time (watch the video, it's worth it). Also, though, there is the Unicorn Chaser, which is a drink to get rid of icky thoughts, the tauntaun sleeping bag and a USB powered pet rock.
The best part of the ThinkGeek site is that occasionally the popular demand is so high for the phony products that they actually become part of the actual product line.
Life imitates art, as they say, or at least life imitates wiseass pranks.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Today's Thought: Can Health Care Reform Help Fight Unemployment?

There was a series of editorials on the NY Times site today about applying the European model of shorter work weeks to the U.S.

Basically, in many other countries, rather than lay off workers en masse companies opt for shorter work weeks for all. It means less pay for the individuals, but most people I know, particularly those who actually have been laid off, would have taken the option of a reduced paycheck and the corresponding increase in leisure time over a total layoff.

One of the ideas that stood out, to an amateur ptochologist like myself, was that, since health benefits are paid on a by-worker basis, rather than a by-hour basis, companies still have to pay heavy monthly medical insurance costs, regardless of how many hours each employee works. A reduction of hours, then, results in a small payroll savings per a worker, but no reduction in benefits costs, and an overall reduction in productivity. So, from a bottom-line perspective, if productivity is being lost, then it makes more sense not to have to keep paying insurance at the same rate.

It seems to me that some sort of realistic health care reform would be needed to counteract this tendency. We can go the route of universal government-sponsored health care (and I can hear the cries of "socialism" from the Right over that. Get over it. We pay the government, in taxes, to provide us certain security and services. This is a business transaction that works through economies of scale, not some sinister threat to the ideological fabric of the nation). Or through reforms of the current privately operated system (ditto, look where a lack of regulation got the stock market).

If we could lessen the cost of insuring workers, or remove the burden from employers entirely, it would open up the option of a shorter work week, and reduce the cost of paying workers, making it easier to keep them employed in tough times. There are a lot of details to work out, obviously, but it could help.

The takeaway: Reforming our health care system in a way that lessens the cost to employers, yet guarantees coverage to workers and families, is a pro-business move that could act as a very real economic boost. In a country where unemployment is nearly one-in-ten in some spots, and there are four unemployed competing for each job, shorter work weeks are a very appealing alternative to layoffs. Affordable health care could help make them a viable option.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Value of a Good Hangout

It can be hard to find a good hangout, especially for us underemployed creative types.
What you need is a place where, for the price of a few cups of coffee you can sit for hours and work on your laptop, or strum a guitar, if the mood should take you.
A good hangout is somewhere where it's quiet enough to work but busy enough to be sociable when you're in the mood.
The problem with this kind of model is how hard it has become for cafes, the usual locations for such ideal circumstances, to keep in business.
I've had several favorite coffee shop/tea rooms in my life, and most of them are closed now. My current favorite, and my "office" is Friendly Grounds in Flemington. The owners are cool and community-minded, the vibe is relaxed and the patron are generally friendly and respectful. It's a good place. Oh, and the wifi is free with your coffee.
Sadly, though, like everyone else, the owners of this fine establishment are struggling. When people tighten their belts, they tend to skimp on the little luxuries, such as coffee. The problem is, cafes are a nickel-and-dime business, and when people start pinching pennies it hurts these businesses pretty bad.
I worry about the future of my current home-away-from-home. I hope it survives this recession/depression/economic clusterf***, whatever you want to call it.
If it goes under, there isn't another place like it for miles. Ah... I wish I could come up with a good idea or two to make both the cafe and myself a few bucks!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Today's totally random Daily DeBlass: Boat Shoes

There comes a time in the career of a journalistic jobler like myself when he must consider his professional appearance.
Now, I'll be the first to admit I have no fashion sense (OK, I'll actually be about the twelfth to admit it), and my own sense of personal style tends to resemble nothing more than an ad for Eastern Mountain Sports (trail ready!).
Of course, I learned a few things in my all-too-brief tenure as a staff reporter.
One- dress nice, but not nicer than the people you're interviewing or working for.
Two- in one afternoon you may find yourself going from a corporate luncheon to a cow pasture
Three - you can't afford really nice clothes that are going to get destroyed anyway, sturdy and versatile are the way to go.

Which brings us to today's kind of random topic: Boat Shoes.

Footwear tends to take the worst beating out of anything in the wardrobe (at least since I stopped wearing ties, you'd be amazed what you could get caught in!). They get wet, they get muddy, they get scuffed, and they still have to look vaguely presentable. Boat shoes seem to work best for me. First, they can dress up or down. Worn with khakis they look presentable, worn sockless and with shorts they look casual (in a sort of preppy way, but it'll do). Most importantly though, even though custom has made them a "smart casual" apparel item, they are at heart athletic shoes. They're sturdy, waterproof and have nonslip soles, at least if you buy boat shoes that are actually designed to see the deck of a boat, or at least a fishing spot.

My personal choice of late has been a pair of Timberland Annapolis shoes (I actually prefer Sperry's, but it's hard to find my "boat" shoe size in the local outlet stores). They pass Matt's utility test. Dress them up, dress them down, wet floor, mud, buff out the scratches and grab the briefcase.

I'm not sure what this has to do with anything, but I read something recently that said a man's choice of footwear reflected the care and thought he put into his outfit. Therefore, I though I'd share the care and thought that went into my choice of footwear.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Neologism needed... for words that are the opposite of neologisms.

I'm a big fan of words for their own sake. I like neologisms a lot (for those of you not familiar with the term, neologisms are literally "new words," which become accepted because they are useful, "blog" is an example).

But I also find underused existing words fascinating, or words that have all but fallen out of use. I was amused, therefore, to come across this site, Save the Words.

The words on this site, some of which are just incredibly fun to use, are all ones that have been dropped from dictionary because they were not used. One can "adopt" words, by promising to use them whenever possible. I have, so far, adopted three, snollygoster, ptochology and jobler.

Snollygoster, which is a wonderfully Dr. Suess-ish sounding word, describes "a shrewd, unprincipled person, especially a politician." We certainly haven't run out of unprincipled politicians, so it's a word worth hanging on to, if you ask me.

Ptochology is the study of pauperism and unemployment. Well... another timely word, and one that speaks to me personally at the moment, which brings us to the third word: jobler.
A jobler is one who does small jobs, which, as any ptochologist will tell you, is a popular way to earn a living when the snollygosters in the government and finance industries have got us into tough times.

I wonder, however, if what a jobler does should be called "jobling" or "joblering." I haven't been able to find a usage for either one online. I'm inclined to say, for example, that I'm a joblering writer, because "jobling" sounds like either a very small job or somebody's last name.

So, I expect to be digging up long-unused words and trying to slip them into my writing here and there. But if I'm going to make this a practice, how should I describe it? Saying "the use of near-obsolete and long-forgotten words" is O.K... once. What I need though, is a good, shiny neologism to describe these words.

A few thoughts: Retrologism, paleologism or archeologism. I'm leaning towards retrologism myself, because it implies a revival of something that had fallen out of fashion, such as in the sense of retr0 fashions.

So, dear readers, what do you think?

Monday, March 23, 2009

New Name, New Mission, New Biz

OK, for those of you who haven't heard, I am no longer a full-time newspaper reporter. I have, like so many others in my field, been downsized. Being the "glass half full" type, I figure this is the time to get my rear in gear and go full-time as a freelancer.

As part of that, I'm going to commit to a daily blog. This will serve a few purposes. On one hand it will keep my momentum going... I'll have to write something every day, on the other, it will give prospective clients the chance to see what I do when I'm writing casually... whether that's useful or not, I don't know, but there it is.

My daily posts may not be long or involved, but I will commit to putting them up every weekday. Maybe it'll be a book review, maybe it'll be a bit about something in the news, but it'll be something.

Of course, the re-name reflects my post-a-day intentions. I'm counting on all you to call me on it if I skip out.