Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Holi-daze

Yes, yes, I know, I've been posting even more sporadically than usual (I can hear you sneering Daily DeBlass indeed!).

I've been working a day job, and putting in some woodshed time with the music. I've been focusing on the mandolin a lot lately, partially because it's fun to play and partially because it's more convenient than the other instruments (the harp, in particular, is really temperamental at this time of year, especially with the ailing furnace making it pretty cold in my room all the time). I've discovered that it's a great instrument for Baroque music, even though the modern mandolin didn't exist at the time.

Since it's cold, I've also stopped shaving, which is fortunate, because my mandolin studies have taught me one thing in particular: If you're going to be a decent mandolinist, it helps to have awesome facial hair, as proven by these two gentlemen.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Project: Songs of New Jersey

I've determined that my folk song collection is sadly lacking in material from the area where I actually grew up. I set out to remedy that problem by searching for music from New Jersey. I figured a quick spin around Google would give me a few pointers, and get me a handful of traditional, public-domain songs that I could work with.

Nope.

It turns out that for all that's happened in the state, from the Revolution through the development of audio recording and radio, there isn't much by way of actual folk music to be easily found. That's not to say there aren't songs that were born here, or that are about here, or were sung here as people worked, it's just that there aren't many written down. In short, it's going to take some digging.

Well, if I'm going to have to work for it, I might as well do something with it. So I've decided, my next musical project is going to be to build a small collection of songs about and from New Jersey. I've started contacting some historical societies and museums, and plan to do a bit of archival research (I'm on a pretty tight budget as far as this goes, but I should be able to dig up a lot of stuff for free), already I've found some compositions from the Revolutionary War period and might have a line on some fishing songs, but there's a long way to go.

I'm hoping if I can make this happen I can try to get funding through historical societies and possibly Kickstarter to get funding to record it, as well as publish a companion book of words and music.

What I could use from you, dear readers, are any leads that you might have on old songs. I'm specifically trying to find pre-1900 music, if I can, although I'm open to just about anything that might work (and, ideally, is in the public domain, because I'm not sure I'll be able to afford to record copyrighted work)

I'm not sure how successful this is going to be in the long run, but I think it will be a lot of fun to try, and we'll see where it takes me. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Six Christmas Songs You Won't Hear in the Mall This Month

Thanksgiving is just a day away, and with it comes the "official" start of the Christmas season ("Christmas Creep" aside). Unfortunately that means you can expect to be bombarded with nonstop "Holiday" music blaring from every audio device you encounter that falls into two rather unfortunate categories, 1) sappy, saccharine songs with all the depth of a cheap greeting card and no outstanding musical value, that were probably composed specifically for use on a commercial or to sell some pop star's holiday album, and 2) actual classic Christmas songs that have been rendered nearly unbearable by overuse.
The second category is perhaps the saddest, since there are so many great songs out there that are neglected in favor of beating the same dozen or so compositions to death with repeated covers, particularly when somebody has the bright idea of doing a "fresh" version of a classic by adding some cheesy new background instrumentation (drum machines, jazz horns, R&B backups singers, heavy metal guitars, it's still the same damn song, get over it).
But in spite of the rampant commercialism, family blowouts and extra-long lines everywhere, I still love Christmas. I love the idea of Christmas, and the timing of it, especially how the Christian holiday came to take its place in the dead of winter, using the old, old symbolism of rebirth and redemption in the darkest, coldest part of the year, and the wish for peace and sanity in troubled times. Underneath all the plastic and tinsel you can still find that bit of warmth and light.
And in that spirit I give you a half-dozen songs that you're NOT likely to hear in the shopping mall any time soon (in the US at least, I've heard one of these in Ireland at Christmas). Most of these selections are a bit of the dark side, thematically, which I think counteracts the artificial sweetness of the more mall-worthy hits. Besides which, with one in ten Americans either out of work or not able to find enough work to get by, it's all about seeing the light in the dark times.

6. John Prine - "Christmas in Prison"
Prine has always had a knack for mixing sentiment and humor, and portraying hard times without coming across as whining at all. Number six on the list is his "Christmas in Prison."

The best line is probably the first: "It was Christmas in Prison and the food was really good/ we had turkeys and pistols carved out of wood."
John Prine "Christmas in Prison" video

 5. Tom Waits - "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minnneapolis"
Like Prine, waits has always been one to portray the dark side of life with wit and dark humor. This bit of talking blues is no different from his others, and what it lacks in holiday cheer, it makes up for int twisted genius.

Best line: "And Charlie, hey/ I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine's Day."
Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis

4. The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl - "Fairytale of New York"
If you're a fan of Anglo-Irish Folk Rock (and who isn't) you know this song. It's extraordinarily popular in the rest of the English-speaking world, yet gets no airplay in the U.S., possibly because of it's politically incorrect lyrics. It's the story of a couple who's youthful romance was destroyed by drugs and poverty (yes, there's a lot of Christmas songs about that, and yes, there's more than one on this list) and features the late, great Kirsty MacColl singing a duet with Shane MacGowan. The video was filmed in NYC and features a bunch of actual police officers and one fake one, who is really Matt Dillon.

What probably makes this song so great is that there is still some tenderness found underneath the bitterness, as seen in the last verse:
"I could'a been someone." "Well so could anyone/ you took my dreams from me when I first found you." "I kept them with me babe, I put them with my own/ can't make it out alone, I built me dreams around you."
Fairytale of New York

3. Gordon Lightfoot - "Circle of Steel"
Another tale of crime, poverty and desperation, this time from Canada. Unlike some of the others on this list, there isn't much hope for the characters here. Lightfoot contrasts the "sights and sounds of the people going 'round" with a dingy room where "the rats run around like they own the place." At the same time, his vivid imagery and knack for melody make it a compelling song, and an argument for compassion towards those born in to hard circumstances.

For example:
"Christmas dawns and the snow lets up, and the sun hits the handle of her heirloom cup
she hides her face in her hands for a while, says 'look here child
your father's pride was his means to provide, and he's serving three years for that reason."
Circle of Steel

2. John McCutcheon - "Christmas in the Trenches"
In December of 1914 Britain and Germany were fighting in what would become known World War I. Soldiers were dug into trenches all long the Western Front, in France and Belgium, and in many cases, had fought to a standstill. Then, on the night of December 24, something strange happened. The artillery stopped, the rifles stopped, and men from both sides started singing Christmas carols. Eventually, soldiers wandered out into No Man's Land to trade small gifts of brandy, tobacco and chocolate and even in some cases put together impromptu soccer games. For one night, maybe a little longer, they laid down their guns and greeted each other as brother men.
Does thinking about this make fighting over parking spaces and rushing out to "one day sales" at four A.M. seem a bit hollow and stupid? Yeah, it does.

Best Line: Every single one. But try this on for size
"Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
'Whose family have I fixed within my sights?'"
Christmas in the Trenches (including a great slideshow of photos from the actual Christmas Truce)


1. Stephen Colbert and Elvis Costello Christmas Duet
Every now and then under the Stephen Colbert persona a bit of sentiment and sincerity slips through. This song is a pretty good example. Just as Stephen and Elvis tell us, "there are much worse things to believe in." Enjoy the season, everybody.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
A Colbert Christmas: Colbert/Costello Duet
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionMarch to Keep Fear Alive

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Movie Review: Harry Potter

Well, it's almost over. The first half of the final Harry Potter film is out, and that's a good thing, because each film gets a bit darker and scarier, and this one is plenty dark enough
This is life during wartime for Harry and Co., with stretches of tense boredom interspersed with brief periods of terror. At this point the wizarding world stops being fun.
 It's easy to make a comparison between Voldemort's return to power and the rise of the Nazis, and indeed the uniforms of the new security guards at the Ministry of Magic make this comparison pretty blatant. However, the interesting thing is that the parallel is probably closer to what went on in Continental Europe than in Britain during World War II. Wizarding England is not under siege, like it was during the Blitz, but is fully occupied more like Vichy France. Harry's friends and supporters hide in the woods and listen to underground radio.
Dan Radcliffe continues to do a solid job of playing the title character, but Harry has always been the least interesting character in the story. He has his set course to follow in fulfilling his "chosen one" archetype (and yes, his friends blatantly refer to him as "The Chosen One," in case you've never read your Joseph Campbell). What happens around him is possibly the most interesting.
One of Rowling's great storytelling talents is in her characterization of the ordinary people during those tough times, especially as embodied by the Weasley family. Arthur and Molly Weasley in particular, show us exactly what it means to be fighting to protect home and family.
Other secondary characters are equally interesting. Evanna Lynch's portrayal of Luna Lovegood may actually represent an improvement on the book's characterization. She makes the character a lot more sympathetic, and implies that, in spite of her goofy, head-in-the-clouds demeanor, there's a lot more to her than in the first impression.
On the Dark Side of things, we also see a lot more depth than expected. The Malfoy family gains some of our sympathy, especially in the case of Draco, as we see his boyhood fantasies of power replaced by the nightmare of what he actually has to do just to survive Voldemort's attention. It's pretty well implied that for all the dark stuff going on in the movie, the poor guy's probably seen a lot worse happen offscreen.
While some of the secondary characters get to shine during "Part One," the coming battle in part two is where we really see this particular genius at work. Harry has his part to play as Chosen One, but Molly Weasley gets the best line (not just because of what she says, but because of why, I'll get into that when the next movie arrives) and some of the other characters, who we first met as awkward, goofy 'tweens, have grown into genuinely heroic people.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Awesome Historical Figures You've Never Heard Of: Joe Mulliner

Put the words "New Jersey" and "outlaw" together and most people today will think of The Sopranos or possible whoever is currently governor, but back in 1779 the most famous outlaw in Jersey was a man named Joe Mulliner.
Mulliner remained loyal to the British crown during the revolution. Because his political views carried the threat of arrest or worse, he left his farm, which overlooked the Mullica River near modern-day Pleasant Mills, and took to the woods, in the hopes that his wife would be able to live unmolested if he was not around.
He set up camp on an island about half a mile down the river from his home, and gradually attracted a following of other outlaws.
What ensured Mulliner's status as a local celebrity was that, in spite of his large stature, he was a rather nonviolent, and even friendly, robber. In the three years he was active, Mulliners gang of "Refugees" never killed or seriously injured any of their victims, and he was even known to entertain his victims with jokes and stories while his men rifled through their belongings. He was also reputed to have only robbed those who could afford it, leaving poorer travelers to go about their business. One story also has him leaving an anonymous bag of cash for a woman whose house was destroyed by his overenthusiastic henchmen, by way of apology for their actions.
His main weakness, which would cost him his life in the end, was his love of a good party. He would crash local celebrations, dancing with all the prettiest girls, and slip back into the night. His flamboyance attracted a number of Robin-Hood like legends, including that he once rescued a young woman from an unwanted marriage.
In the summer of 1781, however, the famous party-crasher was captured in Nesco after cutting in on the wrong couple. The irate beau rushed to get the local militia captain and Mulliner was arrested. He was taken to Burlington and hung for high treason on August 8. His body was returned to his wife and buried at the family farm.
For years after, travelers through that area would report hearing Mulliner's laughter or see a tall man walking by the river. Nowadays, that part of New Jersey has been largely reclaimed by the forest, and Mulliners ghost, if it's still there, walks by itself in the pines.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Family Movies: Megamind

We went to see the latest Dreamworks film, Megamind, the other day. I wasn't expecting much, the super hero genre seems to have gotten surprisingly hard to parody of late, or to provide much of a new take on (although Pixar's "The Incredibles" did a fantastic job of just that) but was pleasantly surprised. While it didn't particularly cover any new ground, it did provide a few genuine laughs, and was worth the cost of admission.
Will Ferrell voices the title character, an evil alien genius bent on ruling Metro City. Well, kind of evil anyway, in about the same way that Stephen Colbert is Conservative. Brad Pitt, Tina Fey and Jonah Hill help round out the celebrity end of the cast.
Things get interesting for Megamind when he finally succeeds in defeating his arch rival, Metro Man, the Superman knockoff who protects Metro City. Having reached his only actual goal in life, ennui sets in, and then he decides he needs a replacement archenemy. Things don't go quite as well as he planned and the expected hilarity ensues.
There's some unexpectedly insightful stuff to be found in Megamind on the effects of bullying and isolation, the pursuit of goals, good and evil and Man's quest for happiness, as well as a number of zingers that hit right on target. Megamind's supervillain is one who understands the game, and treats the fight for the city as a high-tech match of pro wrestling. "Do you know the difference between a villain and a supervillain?" he asks at one point, "presentation!" (cue lasers, smoke and Guns n' Roses music from on high).
Much of the violence is pretty cartoony, but at some point it gets a bit more serious, and probably a little less comfortable for young kids (my ten-year-old was fine, but things do suddenly get a bit darker as the new villain on the scene refuses to play by the rules and actually starts trying to kill people. It never gets bloody, but it can be a bit intense for sensitive young'uns). There is surprisingly little sexual innuendo for a movie involving Will Ferrell and Jonah Hill, overall it tends more towards goofy than crude.
I didn't get to see it in 3-D, so I can't speak for that format, but the animation quality is high, and the action scenes contain a lot of fun mass destruction. It doesn't achieve the level of How to Train Your Dragon's amazing flight sequences, but it'll do. I'd give it a "three out of five" as a movie that, while probably not destined to be a timeless classic, is a fun way to pass a rainy afternoon.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The U.S. Apparently Sucks at Flirting

According to this study, at least, as well as the evidence of our own senses, we're facing a terrible crisis. That's right, we suck at flirting. The English are better at it than us. Hell, even Canada made the top ten.
True, this is far from a comprehensive study, and it only measures the flirtatiousness of women, but cultures that have stereotypically more aggressively flirtatious men ranked pretty high up on the ol' flirtometer (Spain topped the list, Italy was number 4).

It's also worth noting that the US, and some of its back-of-the-pack colleagues like Belgium and France (yes, French women can't flirt, apparently all those Pepe le Pew cartoons were a far more accurate representation of French culture than we all thought) also come out pretty high in terms of divorce rates. Does anyone think the two facts could possibly be unrelated?

It's possible that part of America's problem is that we just don't know what we're doing, after all, while our country is fantastically good at some things, problems that can't be solved by installing a V8 engine, building gigantic infrastructure or the application of large amounts of explosives (yes, fellow Mythbusters fans, there are problems that can't be solved by large amounts of explosives, crazy as that sounds) sometimes slip through the cracks.

So what do we do to fix this? Often we'd turn to the government for help with such a widespread crisis, but at the moment our civic leadership is so divided that it can't even work out what should be Sixth Grade math and science problems, so I'm going to have to call on you, Dear Readers, to engineer a Grass Roots (tm) solution to this.

Now, flirtation is definitely more of an art than an exact science, and since useful educational programs are all but nonexistent in this romantic dystopia, we're going to have to wing it a lot, but I've put together a brief FAQ to help out.


Is flirting safe?

Yes, in most circumstances, and with proper precautions, flirtation has an extremely low injury rate. It is recommended, however, that novice flirts practice on single members of their community who are around the same age as themselves. There are techniques for Flirting With Married Women Without Their Husbands Murdering You (see "Will I Get Rejected" below for more in this), but these are not recommended for beginners.

Is it hard to do?
Not really! The primary building block of flirtation is something known to flirtologists as the "Compliment" or the "Kind Word." Basically, this means that you pick something nice about someone and point out to them the fact that you noticed it. The fact is, men and women are social animals and just about all of us want to feel that someone likes us and finds us interesting and attractive.

The basic technique is to very gently build the implication that if circumstances allowed it (you expected to have more than five minutes on a subway platform to get to know each other/ you "swung that way"/ there weren't all these security cameras around) you think the person would be worth getting to know better. Possibly a lot better, but remember that in this case a little goes a very long way, which brings us to...

Is this the same as sexual harassment?
NO! If it is you're doing it wrong. The idea of flirtation is to make the other individual feel good about themselves, by implying that they're attractive, interesting or have something worthwhile to say. While it's nice when someone flirts back, you should never imply in any way shape or form that you expect something from them, or that you're putting any pressure on them, that's harassment.

Let's try a simple exercise: Your female acquaintance shows up wearing  in a new outfit. Which of the following statements would be appropriately flirtatious, and which might get you a phone call from a lawyer? 1 - "Hello Marie, you look really nice today, is that a new dress?" or 2 - "Hey Marie, nice dress, it'd look really great on my bedroom floor, you know what I mean?"

If you couldn't tell that number 2 was the inappropriate one, you may want to sit this whole "flirting" thing out. Actually, you may want to sit the whole "talking to other human beings" thing out, or seek professional help.

Some easy guidelines: a person's intellectual, athletic, artistic and professional qualities are usually fair game for compliments, as are most physical features above the neck, parts of their person from the neck down can be risky to focus on if you're not absolutely certain you won't cause offense. Also, the phrase "...wrapped around my..." should usually be avoided.

Will I get rejected?
You're missing the point. The goal of flirting is not to get laid. It may lead to interactions that may lead to you getting laid, but that's not the actual goal, which is why you can flirt with people you have no intention of sleeping with. The point is... well, to have fun.

You do realize it's fun to make someone else smile, right? Try it sometime, heck, just smile at someone you don't know, watch what happens. Cool, isn't it? This is normal, healthy human interaction, not the sum total of romance. The thing is, it requires you to pay attention to people around you, but you might just find they pay attention back.

Try it, you'll like it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Towards Positive Virtues

I just wanted to let you all know I've given up exercising for the good of my health. I've also given up moderate drinking for the sake of my heart, and reading to improve my intellect.

I'm not going to stop doing those things, but I'm giving up on doing them for those reasons. What I'm going to do instead is run and hike and ride my bicycle because it's fun, drink wine because it tastes good and read because I love a good book.

It's too easy to fixate on what could be considered "negative" or "cautionary" virtues on a list of "thou shalt nots" dictated by what we think is physically or morally bad for us. While much of this might be common sense (ie "thou shalt not go skydiving without a parachute"), an exclusive focus on what to avoid is unhealthy and makes for a pretty lopsided existence. I've seen too much of this over the last few months as the elections approached and a steady stream of criticism and "we can't" has come from all directions.

By contrast "positive" or "aspirational" virtues give us ideals to work towards, rather than a list of things to avoid. If we work towards being better, happier men and women, better friends, better neighbors and better citizens of whatever community we happen to inhabit, chances are we'll at least partially accomplish our goals.

There is a subtle but vital distinction between merely trying to avoid the negative and striving to embrace the positive, it's the difference between trying not to let things get any worse and trying to make things better. If nothing else, it's a hell of a lot more fun.

It's one thing, for example, to tell a teenager that sex can be bad if you're not careful (we'll leave out the debate on abstinence only education for the time being) but without providing an example of a healthy, happy relationship standard to aspire to, you're not going to have much effect. If you tell people they need to to make sacrifices to save the environment, you'll lose most of them, but if you try to get people behind the idea of working towards a cleaner, happier, healthier community, you might get a bit more traction.

Don't do things because they're good for you, do them because they're good.

End of rant. Go do something useful with yourself. 








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Friday, November 5, 2010

Jobs I Should Have: Picturesque Hermit

Somewhere around the 18th Century, wealthy European landowners got into a style of naturalistic decoration for their property. They would improve on the natural groves, fields and waterways by leveling them and installing their own groves, fields and waterways.

They also embraced the fashion of adding completely useless buildings called "follies." These buildings, often fake ruins or replicas of exotic buildings from elsewhere in the world. Sometimes they replicated buildings of the mythical "good-old days" when the woods were filled with fairy-tale towers and mysterious cottages.

And the man who really had it all would not only have a mysterious cottage built in the woods on his property, he'd hire a mysterious hermit to go live in it.

Personally, I think this could be a pretty good job match for me. I'd be pretty happy with a cottage out in the woods, for one thing, especially if I could pack it with books and musical instruments to pass the time (and there was usually a decent salary that came with these jobs, as well as the room and board). I can grow out my beard pretty well, and get some nice shaggy hair going, no problem, and I'm pretty comfortable walking around barefoot three seasons out of four. If my employer would agree to appropriate educational arrangements, I could bring my daughter with me too (she'd have to grow out the haircut to something a bit more Rapunzel-ish, of course) and I could enlist her in talking to birds and having cryptic conversations with wayfaring strangers, or whatever it is that Mysterious Hermits' Daughters (tm) are supposed to do.

All in all, I think it's a pretty good career choice. I could certainly use the fresh air and wood-chopping exercise, and really a couple years of heavy reading and music practice (maybe building my own instrument with hand tools, woodcarving seems a respectably hermit-esque occupation) could only do me good.

So if anyone has a large plot of land with a cottage that needs a hermit, please let me know. Kind-Hearted Salt of the Earth is the default offering, but prices for Sage Adviser, Generically Spiritual Visionary, Forlorn Misanthrope and Crazy Old Coot are negotiable. I will, however, require a significant bonus if you want Devout Ascetic, the chair is a bit uncomfortable.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Death of the Renaissance Man

Jobs and job hunting are still very much on my mind these days (thought I had a steady day job, but things are not working out in the "I want to get paid on time" department). As usual, though, history and historical characters are also on my mind.

I've been reading Bill Bryson's At Home, which is, superficially at least, a study of the history and culture surrounding the house and its various rooms. Like any decent history book though (as opposed to, say, a high school history textbook), At Home uses the specifics of the various changes the house has made over time to illustrate the changes in society and technology that went with them.

One of the things that struck me about many of the notable figures in this history is that many of them spent a large part of their life moving from career to career before finally accomplishing what put their names in the history books. Some of them then had found their calling, others kept on jumping around, trying their considerable talents at whatever new idea caught their interest. History's great innovators were all job hoppers.

Contrast that with today, in the age of super-specialization, background check and instant searches, where employers see too broad a range of experiences on a resume and think "well, he's never going to stick with anything, we'll pass on him." True, in many cases the job hunter may be a feckless twerp who can't actually hold a job for a month straight, but he may also be a creative and passionate innovator who is looking for the right opportunity. The job market being what it is, the prospective boss may never know, and our next Einstein or Joseph Paxton may be getting stuck flipping burgers or trying to sell handmade jewelry on Etsy.

This isn't to say that employers should have no regard for the past, but it might be a bit foolish to think a temp job at the mall or four-year-old Myspace post will tell you what you need to know about the person who could be your new greatest asset.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Jobs I Should Have: Politician

In these uncertain economic times, I like to think about what kind of careers I might have if I could actually find a steady career (no, nobody pays me for blogging, sadly). A recent comment on my Facebook status got me thinking that maybe I should have a career in politics.

Let's put my qualifications in the form of a list. In my favor, I:
-am fairly tall
-can tie my own necktie (long tie OR bow tie, bonus!)
-can't recall any especially embarrassing photos of me that might be hanging around the internet
-don't freeze up when I speak in public

See, I've got all the major qualifications down! However, I've got a few things working against me. In particular, there are two big things that I'm missing:

- a pretty wife
- money

Of course, the obvious solution to this is to find a photogenic heiress and get married, using her dad's money to finance my rise to power. With that in mind, I'm accepting applications for the position, send me a private email with head shot and estimated net worth at velochelonian-at-gmail-dot-com.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Organizing DeBlass

I've realized that all my blog posts tend to fall into one of seven or eight categories. In the interest of getting a bit more organized and working around my increasingly-crazy schedule, I've decided to take a few steps, including writing a few posts ahead of time and saving them as drafts, and establishing set categories to help myself figure out what to write.
The categories, until I find new ones or think of better, more amusing names are as follows:

Jobs I Should Have: A generally tongue-in-cheek look at what I could be doing with my life, and why I think I'm more qualified than the usual people who do these jobs for real.

What I'm Watching: TV shows or movies that I'm enjoying (or not enjoying) via Netflix or Hulu or some other means, as I don't own a television set.

What I'm Reading: Books I'm currently reading in either dead-tree or digital format, not necessarily new releases.

Family Movies: The latest and greatest in family entertainment, from one parent to another. At best, I'll have a good suggestion for the next rainy day, at worst, I'll try to warn you when you should be smuggling your flask in behind your popcorn bucket.

Trifles: Totally random thoughts inspired by some object or incident that caught my fancy, named so as homage to G.K. Chesterton's Tremendous Trifles columns.

News Commentary: Posts inspired by current events

Brilliant Ideas: Tips, tricks and ideas on just about anything that I have a tip, trick or idea in mind for. Some of these may even work.

Projects in Progress: Stuff I'm building or have recently built.

I'll include the category in the labels from here on out to try to make my blog more searchable as well (and if I find myself with some free time, I'll go back and add the tags to as many past blogs as possible)

Monday, October 25, 2010

What I'm Watching: Sherlock

I recently got a look at the first couple installments of the BBC's reboot of the Sherlock Holmes canon, simply titled Sherlock.
There have been many attempts to adapt the Victorian super-sleuth to the modern era (House, for example, being one of the better ones) but Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss hit on the brilliant idea of bringing Sherlock Holmes into the 21st Century by... setting Sherlock Holmes stories in the 21st Century.
Benedict Cumberbatch (continuing the tradition of Holmesian actors having awesome names) plays an arrogant, aspergersy, prickly Holmes who prefers to send text messages rather than talk to people in person, and consults with Scotland Yard for fun rather than money. He gets Holmes' mix of piercing intellect and social ineptitude down pretty well, and makes for a compelling figure.
Holmes' everyman sidekick John Watson was originally written as a British Army doctor recently returned from war in Afghanistan after having been wounded in action. The cyclical nature of history (particularly regarding war in Afghanistan) allows his character a nearly identical back story. Martin Freeman plays the role as somewhat grumpy loner, who gets involved with Holmes in part because he misses the excitement of being at war.
It seems like any halfway intelligent series featuring two male characters who become close friends is subject to rampant speculation that there are homoerotic undertones (because men can't be friends without wanting to sleep together), Moffat and Gattis make this a running gag as Watson keeps explaining that he is "just friends" with the androgynous Holmes.
The overall tone is of a clever pulp adventure, and has a similar feel to the updated Doctor Who (which is not surprising, first because Moffat and Gattis both worked on Doctor Who, and second because The Doctor has often taken on the role of the Holmesian detective), if you like that, you'll probably enjoy Sherlock. It also has some of the feel of the modern police procedural, which in turn drew a lot of influence from Conan-Doyle's original stories.
My verdict: worth the price of admission, if you're a mystery fan at all.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The "Vimes' Boots" theory of economic injustice.

In Terry Pratchett's excellent Discworld series of satirical fantasy books there is a character names Sam Vimes, who is the head of the Night Watch, and later commander of the City Watch. While he eventually progresses over the course of several books to a fairly prosperous position, he started out in the poorest part of the city, and developed this theory.

Basically, he says, as a watchman, his pay is about $38 a month. He's on his feet constantly, and his boots are an essential tool of his trade (literally "shoe leather" police work). A really good pair of boots, that would hold up for years, cost about $50, but all he can afford on his pay are cheap, $10 boots. He may wear out several pair of these a year, even if he cuts cardboard to patch the worn out soles when he can. Over the course of 5 years, the man in the good boots has only spent $50, while Sam has gone through 10 or 11 pair of boots, costing him twice as much and - here's the kicker - he still has wet feet!

This theory applies in our modern world not only to consumer goods, but to utilities, food and even finance as well., any area where those who can't overcome the initial investment barrier on something durable are faced with paying over and over for an inferior product. For example, banks charge fees on many types of accounts if they have less than a minimum balance, and the worse your credit is, the higher your interest rates on any sort of loan or credit card (yes, it's possible for people who have plenty of money to ruin their credit, but that's a different matter, I'm talking about the 15-20% of Americans to whom "living beyond your means" means "eating regularly, having transportation to work and sleeping indoors").

Add to this the requirements for getting a job, many of which require, at the very least, a good suit ($500-800) for an interview and a reliable car (several thousand dollars for anything that can be considered "reliable, paid in cash up front unless you can get a loan, which carries its own penalties, plus fuel, maintenance and insurance) and, if the job pays any kind of living wage, likely at least a bachelor's degree ($$$$$$$$$$).

Now, before you think I'm clamoring for some sort of Great Communist Revolution (those usually end pretty badly), relax a bit. It very much IS possible to get out of the poverty trap, but it requires a lot of work, more than a little luck, and a lot of good decisions. Unfortunately, we're not necessarily educating people on how to make those decisions, so they end up spinning their wheels and wasting their potential.

Mostly, at the moment, I'm just sharing an interesting way of looking at the problem, and something I've seen personally (been on "that job-car-education" wheels a time or two) in action. Also, I'm recommending that if you haven't read the Discworld books, you give them a go, they're good, funny reads that will get you thinking, which is about the best recommendations I could give any book.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pocket Notebook Throwdown: And the Winner Is...

As I've mentioned once or twice, I'm very picky about my notebooks (which is possibly why I'm such a lonely, lonely man) and have been searching for the perfect pocket notebook. My weapon-of-choice up to this point has been the Moleskine Cahiers notebook, which are nice and thin and don't create a bulge in a dress shirt of sport coat pocket.
The first round eliminated a cheap Moleskine look-alike from Target (too flimsy) and the Rhodia No. 11 (a great little notebook, but too blocky for the shirt pocket).

Now we get down to the big boys, the mighty Moleskine vs a Field Notes brand notebook.

First, a bit about the Moleskine.
The company has been around for a bit more than a decade, but draws on a tradition of little black notebooks going back centuries, and claims that these are the type of notebooks used by artists and writers such as Picasso and Hemmingway (note, the company literature makes it sound a bit as if these are the actual brand used by past celebrities, but it's just marketing-speak).
The Cahiers notebooks are 3.5"x5.5" notebooks 32 (64 pages) sheets thick. The last 8 sheets are perforated for easy tear-out, and there's a simple pocket on the back cover. The cover on my preferred model is black cardboard and the pages have a light blue ruling.

The Field Notes brand is about the same age (it's a bit harder to find a company history for them) and are styled on the agricultural memo books used by farmers rather than the artists claimed by Moleskine. They have the same external dimensions, but are a bit thinner at 24 sheets (48 pages) thick. They lack the back pocket and perforated sheets of the Cahiers, instead they feature a ruler and some "useful information" inside the back cover (some of it more practically useful than others). The "original" design which I've been using has light brownish grid lines on the pages, which don't obscure lighter pencil writing like those of the Rhodias.

The Moleskines have a few advantages, first of all that you can buy them at your local Target or Barnes and Noble. They also have 8 additional sheets (the perforated ones) and the pocket. They run around $10 a three-pack, but can sometimes be found for less (about $7) online (plus shipping, etc).

The appeal of the Field Notes, on the other hand, lies in their rugged, no-frills aesthetic. They give the impression of durability, which my time using them has substantiated. The notebook that's been traveling with me for about a month now has taken on a bit of a curve to match my pockets, but is still perfectly fine. I thought the lack of tear-off sheets would bother me, but I found on the one occasion that I needed to, I was able to tear out a back page cleanly and with no problem. I also realized I've never used the pocket in the Cahiers (I've used it in other sizes of notebooks, but those are used for other things and travel in briefcases/backpacks, so I consider them a different animal entirely). Also, unlike the Moleskine, which is based in Italy but made in China, Field Notes are made in the US, and tell you right inside the back cover what they're made of, right down to the ink.

So, which do I like better? Well, I just put in an order for another three-pack of Field Notes. I admit that my decision was made almost entirely based on the fact that I like the look and field of the brand better, but I'm OK with that because this is something I carry with me pretty much all day, every day, and like a pair of shoes or a jacket, I think both style and function come into play. I also like that they're made in the US by a small manufacturer, and are less ostentatiously "artistic" than the Moleskine. Moleskine makes a fine notebook, and I'll use their other sizes for other applications (Field Notes only come in one size) but I'm making Field Notes my new shirt-pocket book of choice.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

5-Minute Book Review: 61 Nails by Mike Shevdon

It's been a busy week, so between spinning in the hotel gym and showering for work, here's this week's lunch-break reading.

61 Nails, by Mike Shevdon is an urban fantasy book set in London, written from the first person perspective of Niall Petersen, a 42-year-old divorcee and successful corporate drone. The action kicks right off when he has a heart attack on his way to work, only to be revived by a mysterious woman, who then explains to him that his life has just gotten very, very weird. Niall learns he's carrying a touch of Feyre (aka Fey, Fairy, whatever) blood, which was awakened by his near-death, and is now attracting all the wrong sort of attention. The newly reborn Niall must quickly master his newfound powers and race against time to save the world from Generic Bad Stuff.

What follows is a solidly written adventure with the prerequisite creepy goth-fairy bad guys, magical helpers and dramatic dialogue. At worst, it tends to slip into genre cliches, and ends up looking, in a few spots, like a clone of the Dresden Files or Neverwhere, but generally it's a fun read with a few clever twists.

Of course, Shevdon quickly falls into the "must save the world" plot trap, which is probably meant to add some urgency to the book, but ends up making it seem a bit more generic than it should be. I think he would have done better to focus on the more unique dynamic offered by the fact that his protagonist is a forty-something guy with an ex-wife, a kid and support payments to make, rather than a more typical younger hero. A grown man protecting his family (and ex-family, that's always a complex dynamic which was only touched on in the book) creates drama enough and would probably bring the tension home better.

But, minor quibbles aside, the book is well worth a read, and hopefully signals the start of a promising career for Mr. Shevdon.

(disclosure: I got an electronic copy of this free through a promotion from my e-reader manufacturer, but it's worth the price of admission if you can find it in paperback).

Monday, October 11, 2010

Jack and Jill

One of the things that bugs me about a lot of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, which I'm otherwise so fond of, is the legend of the "Chosen One," the one person touched by the hand of fate who inherits the magical powers or the Royal Birthmark or whatnot, needed to save the world from whatever dark forces conspire against decency and goodness.

It's a common theme throughout a lot of modern popular entertainment, whether it be Superman, Harry Potter or Star Wars. If you're not that special someone, you don't even rate and are a Comic Sidekick at best or collateral damage at worst.

Unfortunately, for a lot of female characters get the worst of this, where not only do you have to have some special birthright to get the starring role, but you don't even get to kick butt, you have to sit around and wait to be rescued. Yep, you get to be a Princess. If you're just an ordinary girl, chances are... well, you probably won't even be mentioned in most stories. No magic powers, no daddy the king, nobody cares.

But there is a rarer type of hero, in contrast to the King Arthur model, there is the Brave Little Tailor, what author Charles de Lint refers to as the "Jack."

The Jack is a subset of the trickster legends, where, in lieu of super powers, a sword in a stone or a fairy godmother, the hero relies on intelligence, courage and sometimes more than a little luck. I like these stories better a lot of the time. They may not have the grand scale of the epic hero, but then again, there can be a bit too much of that sort of thing anyway (Wheel of Time, anyone?). If you have to save the world every Saturday, the thrill kind of wears off after a while, the constant escalation gets a bit annoying for the reader/viewer. The small adventures have a charm of their own, coupled with the feeling of "hey, that could be me!"

Of course, it's a bit tougher to find a female Jack (a Jill?) in the mainstream of the genre, but I think it's worth looking for them, especially speaking as the father of a young girl. You'll see some of them in the Urban Fantasy genre, where Authors like de Lint have taken delight in pitting Everywoman-type protagonists against all sorts of mystical beings, but that's still a fringe of a fringe. Hollywood, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have gotten past the idea that a female fantasy/scifi protagonist doesn't necessarily have to be a combination sharpshooter/ninja/acrobat/swimsuit model.

Princesses are fine in their place, but they are, by definition, an exception. Where do you point an ordinary girl to show her genre heroines she can identify with?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Why Do 3-D Movies Suck?

It seems like every movie that isn't a straight documentary or romantic comedy is required to be made in 3-D lately (although the coming Harry Potter will likely not be), and there's even talk of re-releasing the Star Wars series in 3-D.

I haven't been able to find a general comparison between 3-D and 2-D ticket sales, but I've heard a lot of people including Roger Ebert, say they don't like watching most movies in 3-D. But why?

Well, for one thing, it usually gets very gimmicky, with random stuff flying out at you, which gets annoying, and the scene gets crowded and chaotic very quickly. Generally, standing in front of people going "look at me, look what I can do, look, look, look!" gets old pretty quick.

Also, picture quality tends to suffer quite a bit, with a loss in brightness and muddy special effects (one of the major critical complaints about The Last Airbender was that it was visually murky and hard to follow - when seen in 3-D, I saw it in 2-D and it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd read). This can be compounded by the one-size-fits-all 3-D glasses used by theaters. If they don't fit, you'll get a blurry picture, headache, and possibly motion sickness (they don't fit me very well, they're too close together so I'm just about cross-eyed the whole time).

And about those glasses... they're goofy looking and they act as a barrier between you and the screen, as well as your fellow movie-goers. Part of the fun of a good movie is being in an audience and sharing in a collective gasp or giggle, adding a layer of uncomfortable plastic puts up a psychological barrier to that (and, speaking of glasses, what do people who normally need to wear prescription glasses do?).

As Ebert points out, part of the art of traditional movie-making is manipulating the image to make us believe in the two-dimensional projection. Our minds fill in the gaps, making for a very convincing illusion. 3-D is not really unnecessary and tends to look LESS believable in a lot of circumstances.

While 3-D can work well for certain films in certain circumstances, in most cases it seems like nothing other than an excuse to jack up ticket prices. Here's hoping that "all 3-D, all the time" is NOT the wave of the future, I shudder to imagine watching Casablanca and having Rick's cigarette zooming out at me 10 feet long. And the Nazis. Please, please PLEASE can we not have 3-D Nazis?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Random DVD Review: Captain Corelli's Mandolin

First of all, a tip if you're trying to get onto the free wifi at Starbucks or Borders and can't get a connection, type "att wifi" (starbucks) or "wifi login" in your browser's URL window, that will often bring up the usage agreement screen so you can click the box and get online.

Anyway, on to the blogging.

I've followed Nicholas Cage's brilliantly erratic career for a while, and am always interested to see what he's doing with himself. I missed this one when it came out because the "romantic drama" marketing didn't much appeal to me, and it didn't seem to enjoy much critical success, although, while bored out of my skull recently I decided that the fact that there's a mandolin in it, and it's got some legitimate historical drama going on might make it something to pass the time.

Well, because of the movie's reputation, I went into it not expecting too much, so I was able to sit back pass a rainy evening without disappointment. It's not as bad as some critics will have you believe, but, like too many other Grand Historical Dramas (tm) especially those adapted from well-recieved books, it suffers from having a lot of good parts that never quite manage to flow together. It's not bad, it's just kind of bland. Oh, and since everybody was speaking English anyway, they shouldn't have made Cage attempt an Italian accent.

What was interesting about it was the historical context. The major even of the film is the Massacre of the Acqui Division, which took place in September of 1943 on the Greek island of Kephalonia. Italian troops, then allied with the Nazis, occupied the island for some time, but when Italy surrendered to the Allies, conflict arose. Things escalated and the Italian soldiers eventually rebelled against the Germans who still held control of the island. Germany sent in more troops and air support, and the Italian troops were defeated and taken prisoner. The Nazis then proceeded to kill about 5,000 prisoners of war.

What the movie gets right, I think, is the uneasy relations between the three groups on the island, its natives, who were nominally conquered but still offering partisan resistance, the Italians, most of whom were fairly reluctant to be there and often found more in common with the locals than their allies, the Germans, who had a much different take on the war.

Interestingly enough, there is a real-life basis for the love story between the eponymous Corelli and the local girl. A Sicilian artillery officer named Amos Pampaloni did fight against the Germans on the island after the Italian armistice, and was wounded and left for dead, and he did survive with the help of a local girl (although the actual romance may have been exaggerated) and the local resistance. He did not, however, play the mandolin (he was from Sicily, not Naples, the only region of Italy where the mandolin was currently a common instrument) in fact, his love was for cars, not music.

What the movie DOES get across is the brutality of the massacre, and the pointless loss of life between men who could have been friends (one of the German officers, an earnest young fellow, is portrayed sympathetically, and even befriends Corelli, but ultimately takes his part in the massacre).

It's worth watching for it's historical interest, and because of the questions it raises about life during wartime. While it's not a great movie by any definition, I'd say it's worth grabbing on Netflix if you've got any interest in the WWII era.

Also, it really makes me want a Neapolitan-style bowl-back mandolin like Cage plays in the film (yes, he really plays, fortunately his picking is a bit better than his accent).

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

An Observation on Road Rage

Well, I started a new job yesterday, and totally missed my post (I'm still trying to keep up a daily Mon-Fri schedule on this). I'm looking at a lot of long days from here on out, we'll see how I can keep up.

In any case, as the new job involves way too much time spent driving around New Jersey, I just wanted to make an observation on the nature of road rage.

Why do people do stupid things in or around cars? I've read a lot of talk about how cars give people a delusional sense of power, or the isolation of all that steel and glass depersonalizes everything, etc, but I'd like to offer another hypothesis: people react the way they do because they feel powerless in a car.

Think about it from the perspective of your caveman brain now. You're driving along, minding your own business when some fool in an overpriced SUV swerves from the right lane, cutting you off and making you slam on the brakes, all because he's trying to get a car length or two ahead. The guy's obviously an antisocial jerk, and yelling and flipping him off gets no reaction, or at least nothing you can see through his tinted back window, he just ignores you and swerves around the next couple cars, making the guy who's now in front of you slam on his brakes, and almost causing you to rear end that one.

OK, annoyed yet? Now, what can you do about it? This guy just shoved you around like a playground bully. He made a bunch of folks miserable and almost caused them to get hurt for no good reason other than the fact he thinks his need to get home is more important than anyone else's.

So what can you do about it? This is where the anger kicks in, and the caveman brain rebels, because in civilized society, you can't do a damn thing. You're strapped down in a single position, cut off from everybody else by a big, clumsy hunk of steel, and bound by a mountain of restriction and regulation. SUV guy could've killed you by running you off the road, and you can't even say "hey" to his face. It's infuriating.

That is, unless you give into the caveman brain, which says, "I'll show him" and charge ahead to ram him, or follow him home and whack him with your tire iron. Deprived of even the basic human ability to make faces at the guy, our frustration only builds. THAT is why we get so angry on the road, not because our motorized conveyance gives us the powers of the gods, but because when we're locked into them, we don't even have the chance to be human.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Family Movies: Legend of the Guardians

After a late summer drought of family-friendly movies we're in the back-to-school season again with a few new releases. With Harry Potter nearing the end of his tenure (by the way, the trailer for The Deathly Hallows Part 1 is pretty awesome) studios and viewers alike are searching for that next big epic.

Enter Legends of the Guardians, based on the Guardians of Ga'Hoole series of books by Kathryn Lasky. It follows the adventures of Soren, a young barn owl, in his quest to join the legendary Guardian owls that are supposed to watch over the land, etc, etc.

It's always tricky to make a decent movie with talking animals, especially considering the painful CGI and live-action hybrids like Cats and Dogs or any of the comic-strip-based disasters that have been inflicted on the public in the last several years. Thankfully, Guardians avoids some of the worse cognitive dissonance by not having any human characters, or indeed signs of mankind at all.

The movie gets right down to the Epic Fantasy business, with the protagonist, Soren, being torn from his cozy family life and ending up (literally) in the clutches of some nasty, nasty Nazi-ish birds who think their particular breed (Barn Owls, like Soren and his brother) should be ruling the land (which is apparently Mythical Tasmania, based on some of the critters that show up). Daring escapes and a drastically compressed epic journey, complete with the requisite companions, ensue, and we move on to all the typical Hero's Journey stuff. The plot is pretty typical of the genre, and is no better or worse than anything else of the sort.

The movie has it's flaws, including some issues with pacing (the usual problem of trying to compress an Epic Storyline into a marketable movie applies, some parts seem far too rushed and superficial, while some seemingly unimportant bits seem to drag on a bit) and occasionally cliched Fantasy Adventure dialogue, but makes up for them with some outright stunning visuals. The flight scenes don't quite achieve the sense of motion and scale of How To Train Your Dragon, but they have some beautiful sequences. You get the feeling the animators worked very hard to on rain and feathers. The use of color and lighting is also exceptionally well done. The battle scenes were dramatic and conveyed some of the brutality of the fighting without the blood and gore.

The tone of the movie was a bit dark, with betrayals abounding and some creepy bad guys, but is probably fine for kids over, say, 7 or so. It also did a pretty admirable job of not getting too caught up on the comic relief. There were a few corny moments and several of Soren's companions have their humorous side, but the film stops short of letting it get annoying, and they all get a chance to show some heroism as well.

Overall, Guardians was well done, if not exceptional, and a good choice for a rainy day. I can only hope that if the studio decides to make any sequels they'll leave a bit more room for plot development.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Another Battle Won: Making Bicycles Fashionable

Many years ago, when middle-to-upper-class women in the US weren't expected to vote, get an education or do much of anything outside the home the advent of the affordable Safety Bicycle (the modern design which places the rider between two equal-sized wheels rather than above one large one)was seen as a great liberator. It gave women a chance to come and go on their own terms and wear (somewhat) more practical clothes. Susan B. Anthony, the de facto patron saint of Gender Equality, supposedly called the "Freedom Machinces."

Nowadays the uproar over a woman's right to wear pants is long behind us, and the roads are ruled by the infernal combustion engine, but a growing percentage of Americans are turning to the bicycle for day-to-day transportation again. Part of the opposition in professional circles, of course, has been the fact that bicycling tends to be associated with sweat, ruffled hair and practical, not fashionable, clothing.

But, according to this article that's starting to change a bit, as more celebrities, designers and trendsetters are taking to two wheels. This is a trend in the right direction, particularly as American bicycle manufacturers are starting to realize that not everyone who buys a bike wants to pretend they're going to race it some day. Bicycles designed for commuting and pleasure riding are becoming easier to get again, and providing the chance to swap street clothes for the skin-tight lycra.

While this movement is still pretty small, it's a step in the right direction. And, unlike certain economic tactics, the benefits of bicycle advocacy by middle-and-upper class commuters actually does trickle down to the poorer folks who have long relied on pedal-power to get to work. Better traffic management, better awareness and more bicycle-friendly environments benefit everyone, and cost far less in infrastructure than places designed for automobiles do.

Now, if we could just find a way to make it fashionable to wear a helmet...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hey, did you know it's Banned Books Week?

With all the furor over whether or not to burn a Qu'ran lately, it's easy to forget all those other books that people might have a problem with. But here we are, right in the middle of Banned Books Week.
That's right, people are still trying to get certain books pulled from libraries, schools and even bookstore shelves. There are many reasons, often because of profanity, sexual references or the fact that some books fail to portray homosexuals as degraded monsters doomed to eternal torment in the hottest fires of hell.
Or sometimes there are vague labels such as "anti-family" or simply "inappropriate" which could mean ANYTHING.

And yes, there may be things out there you don't want your kid to be reading. I'm a parent, I understand that (although, speaking as a parent, getting my kid to read at all sometimes takes a minor miracle), but do you want to be the ultimate authority on what you child is or isn't allowed to read, or is that for some outside agency to decide? Personally, I try to have a bit of control over our bookshelf.

I'm also worried about the concept of "dangerous ideas." Why yes, ideas can be upsetting, moving, challenging and, in a way, "dangerous," but to isolate young readers from ideas doesn't make the ideas less potent, it makes the reader less able to think clearly about them. While there should be a progression of sorts, a blanket ban on certain concepts is a clumsy way to handle it.

As Chesterton said, "Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas. He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer. Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are most dangerous is the man of no ideas."

Go read some Mark Twain stories with your child (Huckleberry Finn, "racially sensitive language") or buy them the Harry Potter series (references to witchcraft) or sit down with To Kill a Mockingbird (language, uncomfortable racial interactions).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the list of books that have been challenged or banned outright is also a list of some of the most interesting reading going on. It also lines up pretty well with the list of our greatest literature.

Enjoy.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The E-Reader's Dillemma

I'm currently sitting in a nameless Big cORporate bood DEaleR'S cafe, sipping my coffee-flavored-coffee, and two thoughts just struck me.

First, my laptop screen is REALLY dirty, you don't realize how much dust these things pick up until you take them out of your man-cave and into the sunlight. Wow.

Second, I haven't actually bought a book here in a while. I'm a pretty voracious reader, and still splurge on the occasional hardcover from my favorite authors, although I usually get bargain books, used books and paperbacks. Lately however, I've been reading primarily on my Kindle, in particular a lot of classics from Chesterton, Dickens, Wells and others that I've picked up for free from Project Gutenberg and other web sites.

Now, I don't feel too bad for this particular book retailer. They'll be OK for now, and have hopped on the eReader bandwagon (must we use this initial-lowercase format for everything electronic? That's the last time I'm going to write it that way, I think a hyphen might be dignified, as in e-reader), but I started thinking about how this would effect smaller booksellers.

Now, I don't actually HAVE a local bookstore anymore, the nearest one that springs to mind is about 30 miles away (hi Rob!) and, although it's an excellent shop, it's a bit far for impulse shopping.

E-readers have a lot going for them in terms of portability, easy access, the ability to find and read free out-of-copyright classics, and the ability to find new authors and the ease of carrying multiple books. What they lack is the human touch of shopping with a knowledgeable bookseller and the chance to support local business. (For the most part, what you DON'T miss is the supposed tactile experience of reading a book. I've found from my experience, and from talking to others, that when you're reading, you're reading the STORY not the PAPER).

But how does the local bookshop, already struggling in the shadow of Big Lit, survive in the world of portable gadgetry, let alone during the Great Recession?

Of course, the best of the small bookstores already all have one thing in common. They're not really book stores. Oh yes, they sell books, but more than that they sell the Reading Experience. They have authors in to talk and sign autographs, they have story hours, book clubs and discussions, they give you paper cups of wine when you show up, all that. They become the center of a community of readers.

How to apply that to the e-reader experience? After all, most of the folks who buy Kindles and Nooks love to read, if they simply loved gadgets for their own sake, they'd have an iPad.

Well, there's the hardware business, for one, e-readers are expensive, but unfortunately they're mostly too proprietary to let the local shops carry them, but that could change. But people who carry e-readers also like to have nice little cases to protect their investment, and book lights, and all the swag you can clip onto the darn things. That might be a possibility.

I've also mentioned that when I really like an author, or think the book is worth hanging on to, I'll lay out the cash for the hardcover edition. I'll keep it on my shelf and re-read it from time to time. Now, I wouldn't say booksellers should focus exclusively on new-release hardcovers, but they definitely have a certain cachet even among e-reader users.

How about this? I tend to listen to my music digitally, but often what I'll do is buy the CD, then rip it to my computer to listen to on the go. Then I always know I have the CD on my shelf to go back to later. What if booksellers had "premium" books, that included a free digital download of the text in the purchase price. The nicely bound hard copy could sit on your coffee table or bookshelf, and the weightless digital copy could travel with your gadget. To take it one step further, what if there was a better way to notate page numbers on digital copies, so you could read at home in your book-book, and then find your place in the e-book on your lunch break?

I'm not really sure what the best way to go with all this is, but I don't think the increasing popularity of e-reading must or should spell the end of the local book shop. In my perfect world, there'd be a way it could actually be GOOD for them.

Ideas?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Can we fix it? Yes we can.

Let me apologize in advance if this rambles a bit, it's Monday morning, after all.

Two items struck me this week, first off this article on building passive homes
in the New York Times (homes that use super-efficient insulation, sunlight and convection for low- or no-energy climate control) and the fact that the Maker Faire happened in NYC this past weekend (wish I could've afforded to go!).
Put these two items together in my mind and the thought process runs a bit like this:

-It's possible to build comfortable homes that use little or no outside energy
-There's a whole bunch of smart people dedicated to building and modding stuff themselves
-It's difficult and expensive to get materials to build passive homes in the US
-There's a whole community of people who like to build stuff for themselves
-It's possible to build low-or-no-power homes
-Why aren't there pre-fab/kit/whatever passive power homes all over the place?

The answer is that, of course, there are passive homes all over the place, just not usually in "modernized" areas. Brick, stone, earth and straw-insulated houses can be amazingly energy efficient, and homes built in caves or partially underground keep stable temperatures in a lot of conditions (and earn bonus points if they have round doors and a gardener named Sam).

But modern, high tech passive homes that meet urban building standards are almost unheard of in the US. Why?
Well, for one thing, the morass of zoning and codes required to build anything more complicated than a flower bed in most areas makes it hard to legally building anything novel, and two, because they can be more labor intensive, they're more expensive to build, and most contractors don't have experience in building them.

But, as the saying goes, if we can put a man on the moon, why can't we make affordable, super-efficient housing a common thing? What about combining passive homes with the concept of "tiny homes" to create low-cost, low-impact modular homes? Homes that could be built cheap and either by skilled labor or by DIY homeowners?

Materials are one issue, but if there's a demand for the building materials, somebody will sell them, and with enough demand, prices will get reasonable.

Another big obstacle I see is zoning legislation. How do you regulate non-conventional housing (well, for one, by making energy efficient housing conventional, but that's part of the long game), how about by getting a competent legal team to draft model housing laws that could sent to local governing bodies to help them adapt to the new process.

My Utopian ideal would be to have pedestrian friendly "cottage parks," which, like contemporary trailer parks with common sewage and water hookups (although those can probably be modernized as well), and dozens of modular, affordable, efficient homes that would provide the satisfaction and security of home ownership to the multitude of folks who can't even dream of it in this economy.

Yes, we'd have to get over the ideas of "I want a big house or no house" and "where am I going to put my stuff" but if you sell it right "better a small home as long as it's MY home" can win out. Plus, the added benefits of easy maintenance, the ability to customize and ridiculously low energy bills should appeal to those of modest means.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Low-Tech on the Go: Cheap Pocket Pencil Hack





I've talked about pocket notebooks in recent posts, they're handy things to have for keeping organized and jotting down ideas, but what do you use to write in them?

If I'm wearing a jacket or carrying a bag it's easy enough to carry a pen, but otherwise a pen in a pants pocket, where it's subject to being bent and banged up by whatever my clumsy posterior collides with, which can lead to a messy leak. In these cases, the humble pencil is a better choice.

Carrying a pencil does have one or two small disadvantages, first, a good point on is is vulnerable and easily broken, and two, one needs something to sharpen it with. You can carry a separate sharpener and keep renewing the tip if you like, but I like an all-in-one option. If money is no object, you can get one of these (and apparently there is a more affordable plastic option which I fully intend to snatch up if I come across one), but for those of us who are looking for cheap and easy, I've got another way.

Materials you'll need are:
Your pocket notebook (of course)
A pair of small binder clips
A piece of fine-grit sandpaper
A knife
A pencil
A cheap "stick" pen

Start by cutting the pencil down to about the length of your pocket notebook. You don't have to, but I find this makes it easier to carry the two together. Then put a bit of point on it with the knife or a sharpener.

Next take the pen. Remove the cap from the pen, and toss the pen back in your desk drawer (it doesn't need a cap there). The plastic cap should fit nicely over the point of an average Number 2 pencil.


Now, cut a piece of the sandpaper small enough to fit inside your notebook. Clip it in place with a binder clip.

Attach another binder clip to the edge of your notebook, you can then slip the clip on the pen cap through that, attaching your pencil to your notebook.
And there you have a pocket writing system. The sandpaper is all you need to sharpen your pencil (with patience you can sharpen it from completely flat, but for the sake of efficiency it's easier to cut your point and home and use the paper to refresh it as it wears down) and the pen cap protects the tip in your pocket and provides a clip.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

What I'm Watching: Warehouse 13

I don't get to watch much TV, and mostly follow it on the internet (Hulu, Netflix, etc, which means I'm the last person to see a given show), but one of the shows I've been enjoying on a regular basis is Syfy's Warehouse 13.

For those of you not familiar with the basic premise, the Warehouse is a storage facility operated under the auspices of the Secret Service which houses artifacts and inventions too dangerous to be allowed out in the world. Most of them have unexplained powers that do really cool things, but usually in a way that causes a lot of trouble.

The Warehouse has a small staff of agents who go out in the world and retrieve the artifacts and bring them back for storage. Apparently the current Warehouse is designated 13 because there have been 12 other locations over the millennia. Warehouses, and their employees, seem to frequently come to a bad end.

The premise is fun and the artifacts range from really clever to kind of goofy. The look of the show is pretty cool, much of the Warehouse tech itself is based around past innovations that were way ahead of their time, giving it a kind of retro sci-fi/steampunk style. The special effects are the same clever-but-low-budget computer effects as are used in the BBC's Doctor Who, they're believable enough to get the job done, but wouldn't make Michael Bay happy (but since Transformers 2 didn't make me happy, we're even). In fact, if you're a fan of Doctor Who, you'll probably like the Warehouse, they share a similar pulp adventure exuberance.

Part of what I enjoy the most, though, is the ensemble acting by the cast, especially by Saul Rubinek (playing team leader Artie Nielson) and Joanne Kelly (Agent Myka Bering). Other members of the cast are good, and the interaction between them works well, but these two have a naturalistic style that I find especially appealing.

Unfortunately, this week's season finale makes it look like Kelly is leaving the Warehouse, but I'm not counting her out yet. The first season ended with the apparent death of one of the principals, which didn't stick. Syfy has also apparently taken another cue from the success of Doctor Who and filmed an in-between-seasons episode set to air around Christmas, which will have Kelly back as Myka.

If you like science-fiction and fantasy tinged adventure, Warehouse 13 is definitely worth checking out. It's available on Hulu and probably iTunes if you've missed this season

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The "Extremely Basic" Workout Routine

I've been slacking off a bit lately, especially on the cardio, but I'm really trying to get myself in better shape. One of my big problems is focus. I've gotten sidetracked with job hunting and the million-and-one things that come up for a single parent, so my workout programs tend to get derailed pretty easily.

I've decided that rather than set myself on an ambitious program of varied exercises for maximum results, I'm going with "just do SOMETHING, dammit!"

In that vein, I've set myself on a bare minimum routine. When I have time and ambition, I can do more, but I have to do at least this.

Monday, Wednesday and Friday - upper body/core: Three sets of pushups, three sets of curls with 30lbs dumbbells

Mon, Wednesday, Friday - cardio: jog 1-2 miles, barefoot or light shoes, on flat ground (I like jogging barefoot, ok?).

Tuesday, Thursday - 2-4 miles jog around town, light shoes or barefoot


It's not the greatest program out there, but my theory is that consistent moderate exercise beats sporadic intense exercise.

Anybody else have simple ideas that work? I though I'd be able to do some bicycle commuting, but it looks like that's going to be an impossibility. And no, I can't schedule/afford anything that involves classes.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pocket Notebook Throwdown - First Elimination

A little while back I mentioned that I would be test driving a few different pocket notebooks to see if I can find anything better/more affordable/sexier than my usual Moleskine Cahiers books.

I had originally started with three notebooks, the Moleskine, a no-name lookalike from Target and the Rhodia No. 11 pocket notebooks. My friend John Abella put word in for Field Notes brand, and a few people mentioned Rite in the Rain. I haven't been able to find a local source for the RitR books, (although that doesn't rule out trying them in the future) but John was kind enough to send me a couple of the Field Notes books to try.

Well, the Moleskine and Field Notes are still in the running, but today let's talk about the two that I'm eliminating.

First of, the Target notebook. On the pro side, they're cheap, at less than $5 for a three pack, and, like the Moleskine, it has a rudimentary pocket in the back for reciepts/business cards. On the con side, they're cheap, as in, the binding is coming apart after the second day in a sport coat pocket. It's one thing to save some cash, but three or four dollars is not worth your to-do list getting scattered all over the floor when you pull it out of your pocket.

Also, from an aesthetic point of view, the manufacturer felt the need, for some reason, to make the cover some glossy faux pebbled-leather finish, which looks tacky next to the plain matte cardboard of the Cahiers. If you're worried about money, you're better off just getting some 3x5" notecards and sticking 'em together with a binder clip.

Next up we have the Rhodia. This is actually a wonderful little pad, and I intend to keep a couple on hand for project notes and repair work. They're super-compact and, unlike the Moleskine, which only has a handful of tear-off sheets in the back, each sheet is tear-able.

While this pad is great for a lot of uses, and can be had for less than $2 at your local Target, it doesn't quite work for me as my shirt/jacket pocket notepad for a couple of relatively minor reasons.

The biggest issue for me is the size. It's shorter and thicker than the Cahiers, as well as a bit heavier. Because of that, it creates a bigger bulge in a dress shirt or jacket pocket, and is uncomfortable to sit on in a back pants pocket. This is really a minor gripe, but that slight bit of awkwardness in toting it, bearing in mind human nature, makes me less likely to grab it while dressing to leave the house.

The other complaint, which is probably a bit more serious for my purposes, is that the readily-available ones only come in graph paper. The lines on the pages are just dark enough that they can make it hard to read a quick pencil scrawl.

If I'm hiking or doing something outdoors that involves wearing cargo shorts or a backpack, then the splash-resistant cover and convenient tear-off pages make this a great tool, but not when I'm dressed in my work clothes.

I'm going to spend a bit of time with the Field Notes books John sent. I like the look of them, which mixes a no-frills style with a few touches of humor, and will have my thoughts on them later this week, I hope.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Off the Grid, On the Web

I have to admit that, like a lot of men, I have a certain amount of affection for gadgetry. I'm not into giant TVs or cars or gaming consoles, my favorite toys are the portable gadgets, all the little doo-dads I can jam into my briefcase and take with me. I've got my netbook, my iPod and my smartphone, enough to set up a pretty cozy digital base camp on the coffee shop sofa.

But my favorite, my "desert island" gadget is definitely my Amazon Kindle. Mostly because in spite of my attachment to my toys, reading is still one of my greatest joys in life. My e-reader lets me carry a selection of books, a newspaper and even a few word games (crosswords, anagrams) in a relatively compact space. Add the Moleskine cover I have for it and I've got my notebook and pen in the same package.

Another neat thing about the Kindle is the fact that it comes with free 3G wireless internet. It's not fast, or graphics intensive, but I can check my Gmail account and surf text-heavy blogs and other pages pretty comfortably. Did I mention it's free?

Now, just like my other gadgets, the Kindle needs electricity to function. It needs a lot less than, say a laptop computer, and in fact has far, far better battery life than an advanced cell phone (it gets about 4 days with the wireless on, but if I take it offline I can read on it for nearly two weeks between recharges).

Since it uses a pretty negligible amount of socket-juice anyway, I thought, wouldn't it be cool if I could charge my Kindle entirely on some renewable energy source, say, solar power?

I'm pretty poor, and solar cells are not as cheap as they should be yet. Most of the solar chargers in my budget are pretty weak, they can take a couple days in the sun to accumulate enough of a charge to fully recharge one of your portable devices. This means for the phone, which needs to be plugged in every day, or the laptop, which takes significantly more power, solar isn't affordable for me right now. But I can afford to wait three days to recharge the Kindle.

So I picked up a solar battery charger for $20, which stores the power for later use, and am now going to attempt to run my Kindle entirely on solar power. This means, using readily-available, unmodified consumer products, I should be able to have text-based internet, email and, of course, reading material (including many free books) for free.

Yes, I'll still be using my netbook to blog and do the bulk of my web surfing, but now I can rest assured that when I finally run out of money and am forced to live in a handmade shelter in the woods (or when I finally have had enough and decide to do that voluntarily) I can stay connected, kind of a digital Thoreau.

And yes, Walden is available for free download.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Arrrrr!

Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.

H.L. Mencken

This coming Sunday is International Talk Like a Pirate Day! Never heard of it? That's OK, it's still a pretty underground movement.

Every September 19 for the past 8 years or so people all over the world have made a point of adding an extra "arr" or "shiver me timbers" to their speech.

The celebration grew out of an inside joke among friends John Baur and Mark Summers, and really took off when newspaper humor columnist Dave Barry got involved (you can read the whole story on The Official Website ). Thanks to the Power of the Internet (tm), the fun has spread worldwide and, although I haven't seen official Talk Like a Pirate Day cards from Hallmark, gained some legitimacy.

It's pretty easy to celebrate, all you have to do is make a point of talking like your favorite movie cliche pirate for the day. If you want, you can visit one of the many TLAPD events that have sprung up around the world, including the Pirate Picnic in Highland Park, NJ, where I'll be performing this Sunday.

The point is, it's a fun, goofy thing to do. It doesn't cost anything (except perhaps a little dignity) and it will make you cooler, sexier, taller, richer, smarter and more attractive to the opposite sex, so why not try putting a little Pirate Slang in your speech this Sept. 19.

In fact, for those of you who do celebrate, I'd love to hear what you do for the holiday, and your best "talking like a pirate" stories. If I get some good ones I'll publish them here next week.

Till then, maties, ye be havin yerself a good weekend, and I'll see ye on th' Monday.

ARRR!!!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Value of a Good Business Card and a Coupon for DD Readers

If you're a cool, creative type like me, you need some cool, creative business cards, right? After all, you're handing your new acquaintance a tangible reminder of yourself, whether it's to promote your blog, your band, your business or just because you thought she/he was cute and want them to friend you on Facebook. You want those little handouts to remind the person of you, not of Stock Design #12.

After all, just about any business is all about networking, and not everyone follows the oh-so-handy practice of carrying a pocket notebook around with them. Besides which, a misheard digit, or a too-sloppy-to-make-out letter on your handwritten email address can spell the difference between getting the job and being forgotten. It's so much simpler to trade cards.

Now, good cards can be pricey, and if you're like me you might have more than one thing to promote. Having a few different designs in high quality stock can run up a substantial printing cost. Personally, I do have a supply of fairly generic cards listing my contact information and music web page which I'll hand out by the dozen and leave next to the tip jar when I play shows. But for times I really want to make in impression, in a business or social sense I keep a small supply of nicer, flashier cards on hand.

I'm currently using the MiniCards from MOO printing as my special calling cards. One of the ways to make a solid, tactile impression is to vary the size and shape of your card from the standard business card, but going bigger or in a weird shape makes it a lot less likely that your tag will spend much time in your new friend's wallet. The MiniCards, on the other hand, are half the size of a regular card, making them supremely pocketable. In addition, you can have your cards printed with varying designs at no extra cost, which makes them a bit more "collectible." Personally, I'm using the "Venn That Tune" set, which shows off my somewhat geeky sense of humor, I think.

If you're freelancing, job hunting or networking, a good card can be a valuable tool. And if you like what you see over at MOO's web site, readers of The Daily DeBlass can get a 10% discount on MOO cards by using the promotional code E9TWHG.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Demagogue vs the Mystagogue

One of the treasures I've picked on the Amazon Kindle is a massive collection of G.K. Chesterton's works. Chesterton is a favorite writer of mine, and had a lot of intelligent things to say on a lot of topics.

One of his essays in "All Things Considered" was titled "Demagogue and Mystagogue" and dealt with the now-entrenched idea that if something is popular, it's probably no good, but if it's completely obscure and unpopular, it must be worthy.

This is a very easy trap to fall in, especially in Geek Culture or any of the assorted counterculture groups that make up a large part of my social circle. It's very easy, being outside of the mainstream, to dismiss anything too mainstream as trash, and praise the weird and outre simple for being weird and outre.

Now, there is a very real value in searching for the hidden treasures of Art and Music, and there will always be some variation in taste, but, as Chesterton so aptly points out, an artist may be great in spite of being unsuccessful, but it's foolish to assume an artist is great because he's unsuccessful.

The mystagogy trap is so tantalizing for a couple reasons: first, there's the thrill of exclusivity. If you're one of the select few who appreciate Band X, you, in a sense own the band. You don't have to share it with the masses. Secondly, the simple fact is that claiming "you just don't get it" when one's beloved creation is disparaged by viewers is waaay easier than taking the criticism and trying harder next time.

Yes, it's true that a lot of what's out there in popular culture is faddish dreck, and will fade into well-deserved obscurity soon enough. However, there has always been "great" work that has met public acclaim and at the same time had staying power. The best of popular entertainment reaches the masses not by flattering their egos and preying on trendy consumerist impulses, but by touching on the universal, and appealing to the better parts of our souls (for a contemporary example, go watch a couple Pixar movies).

At the same time, there are less popular options that are valuable. Tom Waits is an acquired taste, but he's got musical value. So, weird can be good. But, and here's the important thing, because I like Tom Waits and my friend does not, I am NOT a better/smarter/sexier (well, maybe) person than he is. I just have a different taste.

Because when you use your alienation, however slight, from the rest to say "well I'm better than them," not only are you being a petty little twerp, but you're also taking the easy way out and denying yourself the chance to better yourself.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Jobs I Should Have: Professional Bicycle Racer

Somebody should sponsor me to be a professional bicycle racer. Seriously.
And no, it's not because I'm exceptionally fast on a bike, quite the opposite.

See, bicycle racers don't get paid by the hour, so riding faster isn't getting a better value. Bicycle racers get paid to promote products, that's why they have those names all over their Jerseys and stickers on their bikes. It's like NASCAR, but quieter and sweatier.

But the thing is, if you've ever been roadside at a bicycle race, you'll know, the really good riders go whizzing by so fast you can't read a darn thing on their jerseys. It's a waste of sponsor dollars. On the other hand, if they hired a guy like me to ride for them, I'd go grinding by so slowly the fans could read every single logo on my jersey, on my bike, and probably even see what brand tires I have.

Also, a typical pro cyclist's rib cage is usually slightly smaller than that of a Thanksgiving turkey. Maybe having a lighter upper body makes them more aerodynamic and gives them less to haul uphill in the Pyrenees, but there's not a lot of ad space, right?

My shoulders, on the other hand, would fit a billboard in comparison. A lot more bang for your buck is what I'm saying.

So if anyone out there is looking for a great deal in a sponsored rider, you know where to find me.