Tuesday, November 28, 2006
It’s official. Iraq is in a civil war. Despite Tony Snow’s objections, civil wars can happen without one side looking like a group of Gettysburg re-enactors. Civil wars happen whenever two or more sides openly conflict for control. Nieman Watch lists six different criteria for a civil war and fifty conflicts over the last sixty years that meet the test. The Los Angeles Times, NBC, and the New York Times have all started using the phrase ‘civil war’ to describe the conflict and unrest in Iraq, but Doonesbury made the call 18 months in advance.
As always, Garry Trudeau was ahead of the curve. This comic appeared February 20, 2004 and immediately struck me as prescient. I’ve been waiting for the rest of the mainstream media to catch up. Trudeau is one of the favorite whipping boys of those who see a liberal bias on the funny pages. When the strip started, B.D. was the dim-witted right-wing strawman.
Trudeau is reliably lefty, but he is also poignantly sympathetic to our armed services, particularly those that have been injured in service to our country. If you have not read Gene Weingarten’s hagiography of Trudeau when it ran in the Washington Post Magazine, you owe it to yourself to learn how dedicated Trudeau has been in bringing verisimilitude to his portrayal of amputee vet B.D.
Thanks to the miracle of comics time dilation, B.D. has fought in three wars, coached college football, married a ditzy starlet, and now struggles with PTSD. He has become one of the most subtly layered characters to ever appear in graphic form. Garry Trudeau has proven that if he can mock our ill-advised adventurism while still supporting our uniformed heroes, anyone can.
Sunday, November 26, 2006
My family just returned from our semi-annual Broadway Show Blowout. I may review the shows we saw a little later on, but the true highlight of the trip was a visit to the Charmin Restrooms. For the holiday season, Charmin has converted an abandoned Times Square videogame emporium into the world’s most luxurious public restrooms.
You stand in line to go up a long escalator to the second level where they have installed about twenty temporary restrooms. The waiting area has couches and a video map of where all the visitors have come from. Each room is cleaned after each use and has unlimited Charmin Ultra toilet paper available.
But the real attraction is the multimedia spectacular. It's almost Disneyesque in the level of entertainment experience. The place is staffed with dozens of fresh-scrubbed assistants that give everybody a round of applause when a stall is available. They also hand out samples, dress as the Charmin bear, and lead dances to the jingle.
The jingle is a video of people dancing to the catchy butt-shaking tune of their commercial, but the words have been changed. The lyrics aren’t on the official Charmin website, so I transcribed some of them here. I need a more complete set if anybody else knows them.
A little wiggle to the left
A little wiggle to the right
It’s sheer delight
You’re the softness that I seek
When we’re dancing cheek to cheek
A little sa-sa-sachet
A little bump and grind
I hope you don’t mind
That’s how I express
Your special tenderness
Parts of it can be heard on this YouTube video I found. There is also a longer video that tours the whole set-up. Even Times Square’s infamous Naked Cowboy is in on the act.
Like any tune-cootie, it’s simple and insidious. The whole set-up is done tongue in cheek and never has doing your business been so much fun.
Blatant Comment Whoring™: Tasteless or good clean fun?
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Marching band season is over. My son’s band had its last home football game awhile ago. At the regional competition they placed fourth out of fifteen in their division. I thought my weekends were now my own. Wrong. This weekend was the start of the rocket club season.
A few years back, the National Association of Rocketry started the Team America Rocketry Challenge for school-aged kids to develop more interest in the hobby. That rocketry is tied to math and science makes it an easy sell to schools. Civil Air Patrol chapters and Explorer troops also enter.
For the competition, each team must design and launch a rocket that reaches a specified height and the flight (including the parachute landing) must last a certain length. This year the goals are 850 feet and 45 seconds. Oh, and the rocket must hold an egg which has to land unbroken. When the team has it perfect, they have only two launches they can submit to the competition to qualify for the national championships.
To get the kids going, the faculty advisor has them each design and build their own rocket first. My son built one about 2-1/2 feet tall that holds two rocket engines or “motors” as the jargon calls them. A local rocketry club has launches once a month at a local park. The club lets the students use the club's launchers for test trials.
On my son’s first launch, the rocket lost its parachute and plummeted to the ground. The rocket landed mostly intact, but the egg was nothing but a runny orange mess inside the rocket body. The second launch, which is the one in the video, with a borrowed parachute, went straight up and practically landed right back on the pad.
How does this affect me? It means I must now a bunch of Saturdays between now and April hanging around the various rocketry sites while the kids fine tune their rocket design. All you soccer moms and hockey dads think of me as your kids are playing their indoor winter sports while I spend the frigid weekends of the next few months keeping my neck craned up watching out for falling rockets.
Blatant Comment Whoring™: What sort of whacky activities have your kids dragged you into? Or, if you don't have kids, what have you forced others to watch you do?
Friday, November 17, 2006
Dear President Bush,
I commend you on your upcoming trade visit to Vietnam. It is a dynamic growing country that we need to partner with to ensure a steady supply of sneakers for our youth. It is good you are getting this opportunity now, since you didn’t have a chance to go to Vietnam back in the 60s and 70s when it was a frequent destination for guys your age, like that liberal Kerry guy and his environmental whacko friend Al. Back then, only a few select Americans got to see Hanoi at all, so I want to provide some tourist tips I learned from my visit last year.
The road from the airport to downtown Hanoi passes Truc Bach Lake where on October 26, 1967, John McCain’s A-4 plane was shot down and he was beaten by an angry mob. You might not remember this very well because in the fall of 1967 you were probably getting roughed up pretty bad yourself quarterbacking the intramural football team while taking a bunch of history courses pass-fail. Nevertheless, we were lucky to have brave war heroes like John McCain defending our country. I understand your vice-president had other priorities at the time.
If you do want to learn some history about the war, the Museum of Military History in Hanoi covers the Vietnamese struggle for independence since colonial times. It has important relics like the tank that stormed the grounds of the Presidential Palace in Saigon. It also has a large scrap pile of debris gathered from American planes shot down over North Vietnam including the tail from a B-52. I don’t know if there were any parts from F-102’s like the ones you flew for the Texas Air National Guard, since, as you probably remember, the US wasn’t using those in Vietnam during your service. Good choice on your part.
The main cultural attraction in Hanoi is the Water Puppet Theater where large wooden puppets are manipulated by players hiding behind a curtain. Much like a presidential debate. The story is about poor villagers attacked by dragons that are saved by a giant flying turtle. Seriously. You can see my video of it here.
Another favorite tourist spot, which was recently featured on The Amazing Race, is Hoa Lo Prison, aka the “Hanoi Hilton”. It’s a little tough to find since most of it was demolished to make room for the bright shiny Hanoi Towers office building, but they kept part of it around for foreign visitors to see. I didn’t actually go in, but they have mementos of Senator McCain’s stay when he was a guest there for 5-1/2 years. He finally left in 1973. This would be about a year after you got grounded from the Guard for not taking your flight physical. Tough break, but at least that freed you up to get that valuable MBA.
For much more luxurious accommodations, I hope they book you into the Soffitel Metropole, the only five star hotel in Hanoi. This is where Jane Fonda and Joan Baez stayed when they visited Vietnam. I will vouch that the service is first rate. Since you don’t drink anymore, having quit a good ten years after that DUI arrest, I recommend the fresh squeezed mango juice they serve at the pool bar. It is delicious.
I know it is tough to see much of a place when you are only there for a few days and get stuck in a bunch of boring meetings, but try to visit the Temple of Literature. This temple recalls a proud nine-hundred-year-old tradition of training and testing the brightest students for important leadership positions in the dynasty. While meritocracy is a fine idea, I prefer our democratic system where the candidate not being accused of miscegenation can win a primary and go on to be a world leader.
I’m also not keen on the ancient notion of people feeling entitled to hereditary leadership positions. When we visited Hue (which is probably not on your itinerary), we learned a lot of gossip about the Nguyen Dynasty. It seems the original emperor was a great warrior and leader, but his descendants were delusional incompetents that eventually dragged the country down into helpless dependence on other countries.
Unfortunately, in Hue most of the Imperial Palace was destroyed during the Tet Offensive. We actually won that battle, but it caused the American public to turn against an increasingly futile war where American soldiers were dying fighting a guerilla insurgency in a distant Asian country while propping up a US installed government that didn’t have any popular support. Thank goodness we learned the lessons of that conflict.
Finally, don’t eat the chicken. We’d hate for you to catch avian flu and wretch all over a world leader. Your dad never lived that down. You don’t want to make the same mistakes he made.
I hope you find these tips helpful. If any of the words are too big or confusing, get your dad’s friend Jim to explain it. I understand you two have been spending a lot of time together lately.
Make sure the White House web designer knows the difference between the old South Vietnam flag like they fly over Eden Center and their real flag. Here's a picture of the real flag in case you get confused.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a comics survey recently. These are usually harbingers of some sort of blood-bath on the comics page like when the Baltimore Sun about a year back axed about a dozen strips and shrunk the remaining comics to a nearly illegible height. Not surprisingly, Foxtrot just edged out For Better or For Worse as the most popular strip and Mary Worth came in as the most hated.
What was really cool is that they linked to a lot of the raw data from their survey and broke it down by gender and age category. They noted for example:
The dislike for "Mary Worth" crossed gender and age lines. The strip came in last overall with male and female voters and in all the demographic groups except the 55-and-older segment, where only "Get Fuzzy" received more "hate it" votes.
The demographics of the survey proved interesting. Nearly as many women (2,689) participated as men (2,780), but "Dilbert" topped the male vote while "For Better or for Worse" was the leading vote-getter among females.
"Dilbert" also finished No. 1 with voters 31-54, the age group that provided the largest block of voters. The 55-and-older group followed, choosing "For Better or for Worse." The 18-30 and 17-and-under age groups had "FoxTrot" at the top of their lists.
Update (12/6/06): See this post for my take on Foxtrot going Sunday-only.
I decided to shake and bake the numbers a little differently. I looked for the comics that had very few “Love It” or “Hate It” votes. Ten of the top twelve in this category were either trial runs or Sunday-only strips, which makes sense, because people hadn’t been able to read enough of them to get a strong opinion one way or the other. From the list of daily strips, here are the most “Meh” strips from the survey:
- Jump Start
- Over the Hedge
- Baby Blues
- The Amazing Spider-Man
- Frank and Ernest
- Dennis the Menace
- Rex Morgan, M.D.
- Get Fuzzy
- Sally Forth
|Chick Strips||Guy Strips|
|For Better or For Worse||Wizard of Id|
|Family Circus||Beetle Bailey|
|Sally Forth||Hagar the Horrible|
|Mary Worth||The Amazing Spider-Man|
|Baby Blues||Frank and Ernest|
|Rex Morgan, M.D.||Prince Valiant|
|Jump Start||Non Sequitur|
|Peanuts (classic)||The Boondocks|
I used a similar method to devise a way of measuring the generation gap. I took the Geezer age range (55+) and compared it to the Young Hipster age bracket (18-30) to see which comics one group liked, but the other hated.
|For Better or For Worse||Get Fuzzy|
|Dennis the Menace||Non Sequitur|
|Hagar the Horrible||Dilbert|
|Frank and Ernest||Watch Your Head|
|Wizard of Id||Red & Rover|
|Sally Forth||Over the Hedge|
|Rex Morgan, M.D||Soup to Nutz|
The surprise winner here is Born Loser among the Geezers. Nobody born after the Ford Admistration reads this depressing comic, but it is a favorite of the early-bird dinner set. Golden Oldies like the Sunday-only Prince Valiant and the other usual suspects pushing their Diamond Jubilee also populate this list. On the other hand, Lio, which (like half of the Hipster-only faves) was only a trial run, appealed to young adults but was Kryptonite to the AARP eligible.
What does it all mean? Anything you want it to. It confirms some prejudices. It also tells the comics editors of the world what comics target what age groups. If you want to keep your drooling old farts around, keep running Beetle Bailey and Hagar. If you expect to lure the college-aged and just-out-of-college crowd away from their RSS webcomic feeds, you better put up some fresh and edgy material.
Blatant Comment Whoring™: What are your favorites? What are the surprises here?
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Much has been made of the fact that NBC is airing two different shows this fall based on the ever declining Saturday Night Live. Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin’s bid got most of the pre-season publicity, but Tina Fey’s entry, 30 Rock (which since it’s half as long, got half the title), is a contender as well.
I figured the best way to compare these apples and oranges was to put the common elements up against each other.
|Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip|
Two new producers try to re-energize a stale sketch comedy show.
A new network executive reeks havoc on a sketch comedy show.
Neurotic Head Writer
|Amanda Peet just is not convincing as a network head or anything else for that matter.||Alex Baldwin attacks the psycho net-exec with a gusto that makes you wonder if he is Ted Baxter or Dr. Evil.|
Ditzy Blond Chick
Advantage: Studio 60 by a thread.
Funny Black Guy
Advantage: 30 Rock
Show In A Show
|Bad sketches taken way too seriously. And they tend to ridicule religion.||At least they have the excuse that they’re supposed to be bad.|
|Opened weak and started sinking like a rock. They lose about half their Heroes lead-in. It has gotten picked up for a full season, but it was a close call.||Lowered expectations probably help, but still not good. It is being moved to the Thursday Night Must See TV Lite block to catch some My Name Is Earl and The Office synergy.|
Winner: 30 Rock
Sorkin's sudser got all the buzz, but if you pay attention, 30 Rock actually sneaks in more inside jokes and takes the edgier look. 30 Rock had a "walk and talk" where they go in a complete circle around the studio and realize they haven't gotten anywhere. What a great in-joke and subtle dig at its competition. Matthew Perry successfully breaks the Friends typecasting, but Alec Baldwin has created a character that you love to hate. There's room for both on the rapidly shrinking NBC line-up, but definitely catch 30 Rock if you can.
Blatant Old Post Plugging(trademark pending): Check out my Studio 60 Drinking Game as well.
Update (11/17/06): Tom Shales of the Washington Post agrees with me for the most part.
Thursday, November 09, 2006
The elections are over and the Great Game of Politics enters a new chapter. Everyone always remembers who they voted for President and Senator and even Governor. Below those marquee offices, the names start to get fuzzy. Most people (and by ‘most people’ I mean ‘me’) have a hard time remembering who their congressman is, let alone their assemblyman or state senator or school board council member. One reason for this is that Congressional Districts don’t make any sense. They have numbers instead of names, don’t match known geographical boundaries, and get redrawn once a decade (or more often if you live in Texas).
When I moved to West Palm Beach I ended up in the very misshapen 23rd District. This was when the scales really fell off my eyes about gerrymandering. This district had been drawn to encircle all the predominantly African American neighborhoods in South Florida. It ran inland along US1 from northern Miami for about a hundred miles up past West Palm Beach. My residence was in the small tentacle that crawled across Forest Hill Boulevard to catch the sugar plantation towns surrounding Lake Okeechobee.
The 23rd is flanked by the equally distended 19th and 22nd Districts (Del Boca Vista Phase III retirees and rich white people with beachfront property, respectively) and is wrapped on the north by Mark Foley’s old stomping grounds. Since I moved out of Florida the district has been redrawn but it still stretches from Miramar in the south to Fort Pierce in the north. This article from the Economist uses the 22nd and 23rd districts as part of a How To Rig An Election tutorial.
Alcee Hastings, a former federal judge who had been impeached for bribery (which was overturned for technical reasons on appeal), was the front runner for my district. Hastings was from Miami, which has a whole different set of needs than West Palm Beach and definitely has little in common with Belle Glades. It bugged me that an entire district would be drawn just for the sake of one corrupt politician. I was much more naïve then. Hastings has run unopposed in most elections since then and is now rumored to be in line for chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee.
My current district (Maryland 3rd) is also wildly gerrymandered. It stretches from Annapolis through Elkridge up to Pikesville, Towson, and Parkton. For a state as small as Maryland, that level of convolutedness is unforgivable. There are a lot of tests to determine how “fair” a district is to meet voting right requirements, but none include compactness. This frustrates my engineer’s sense of efficiency. There needs to be some sort of perimeter to area ratio requirement that can be minimized or equalized among districts.
This district just elected the second generation of Sarbannes to national office. He won with 65% of the vote, which tells me this is his seat as long as he wants it. I’m not too keen on the whole nepotism in politics idea right now. It hasn’t seemed to be too successful lately.
I pick weird issues to get worked up about. For years it was the marriage tax back when only Dan Quayle an I ever seemed concerned about. Now it’s gerrymandering. If some politician out there ever decides to ride to power on a platform of voting district fairness, I’m behind him or her. I think I’ll be waiting a long time.
Monday, November 06, 2006
Last week we bid adieu to or Chinese student. For the final night, we had a banquet type dinner at a local Chinese restaurant whose decor met with the approval of our student.
With only a week, I felt bad that we didn’t take him more places. Our domestic schedule kept us pretty homebound but we tried to expose him to as much everyday life as possible.
Sunday. See my previous post. We fed him buffalo burgers and Kraft mac-n-cheese. I don’t feel guilty since we eat this ourselves on a regular basis.
Monday. My son shows him how to operate the washer and drier for laundry. Making our kid help with the laundry is our major contribution to the skill sets he will need to survive at college. That and cooking mac-n-cheese. We have a potluck dinner. We brought rice and lemongrass chicken. Other dishes include lasagna and jambalaya.
Tuesday. My wife and I take the student to the mall while my son is at band practice. We visit the Apple Store and notice that iPods are made in China. At the sporting goods store, the shoes are made in either China or Vietnam. He finds the food court similar to places he’s been in China.
Wednesday. My son had a math competition after school that the exchange student tags along to. He is very excited that he happened to visit on a competition week. I’m glad he’s impressed. From there they have to go directly to the rocketry club meeting.
Thursday. The kids order pizza delivery over the internet. I take the student to the grocery store to buy snacks for the band practice. A fellow band parent donated a golf cart to the band and the boosters decided to serve hot chocolate and cookies to after practice to celebrate. At the grocery store, he is not impressed with the instant powder soups in the ethnic food aisle.
Friday. My son’s saxophone teacher has a concert featuring his jazz quintet. It’s the first time the student has seen or heard jazz. The concert is at a local arts center that has a lot of very strange art on exhibit.
Saturday. My son has to go to BigBoxOfBooks™ to find a book for English class. It’s out of stock, but Soduku puzzle books are on sale. I buy 3 for 2 and teach the student how to do them. He gets hooked and starts solving the ones marked ‘tough’ that I don’t even try. Then we go to a band competition that ends up being cancelled because the power was out at the venue. Five hours of prep and transport and everything shot. A bummer, but the kids all had a good time anyways.
Sunday. The trip sponsors take all the kids to DC for the day. Judging by the photos, they saw most of the monuments, the National Gallery and a few other museums. It’s nice to live near Washington and not have to do the whirlwind tour. For dinner we cook the all-American meal of spaghetti and meatballs.
Monday. The big banquet dinner. Every five minutes is a photo op and dozens of cameras go off. Lots of tears are shed, hugs are given, and promises are made. My wife has every intention of honoring the return invitiation.
Since there was such a big language gap, there were lots of awkward silences during the week, but we were lucky to host a student with interests similar to my son’s. One week is way too short to give anything but a taste of America, but I think the kids were suitably impressed.
Saturday, November 04, 2006
This post will make sense to perhaps five people in the entire universe, but since I’m one of them and I find it amusing and it’s my blog, here it goes:
We all have an online persona. For most people, their face on the web is close to who they really are. For others, it is a liberating creative outlet. One of the funniest people I know on the web doesn’t even have his own blog. Curmudgeon, as he is known on the Achenblog, (not to be confused with Josh the Comics Curmudgeon) is a larger than life character that tells long rambling shaggy dog stories, coins groaningly bad puns, and has a slightly askew but marvelously perceptive outlook on any issue.
Alas, ‘mudge (as his handle is frequently abbreviated) has gone missing. The details are unimportant, but his character has gone wondering the desert southwest on some sort of atoning visionquest. There have been various dispatches and sightings along the way, but most of these are red herrings and smoke screens. I have to announce that I have found ‘mudge and have the evidence. Look at the two pictures below.
The one on the left was taken in February at one of the infamous bacchanalians known as a Boodle Porching Hour (or BPH) where fans of Joel Achenbach gather to prove there is no level of celebrity too low or obscure to not have a demented and slightly frightening cult of personality fanbase.
The other picture is from the November 4, 2006 episode of Apartment 3G. Perpetual bubblehead LuAnn Powers has just met Bill Gibbs, the occupant of the artist’s loft next to the one she has been borrowing. This man is not named Bill and is clearly the person I know as Curmudgeon. While some may argue that the comic character is wearing suspenders instead of a cummerbund, don’t let an artist’s mistake fool you, he is the real thing.
I think ‘mudge is making a big mistake messing around in the world of comics. The life of an A3G character is doomed. You will be used and abandoned by these “girls” that have shared the same apartment for 45 years. Men in their life never even get past second base with any of the Dorian Gray-like hotties of 3G.
Mudge, give up your attempt at a fresh start in a new medium. The Washington Post doesn't even carry Apartment 3G. You are missed and needed. Get your perky blue bottom back to the Boodle.
Blatant Comment Whoring™: Share your favorite Curmudgeon story or tell me about some outrageous character you know from the blogosphere.
Thursday, November 02, 2006
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
I haven't finished the big book I started last month, so that will have to wait. In part just so that I would have something to write about, I bought and read Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the runaway bestseller about punctuation.
My grammar education was severely neglected as a kid. For several years "Language Arts", as English has been renamed, consisted of self-paced SRA workbooks with little teacher lecturing. When grammar was supposed to be taught in fifth and sixth grades, we had something called Roberts English which was to do for grammar what New Math did for arithmetic: make it so theoretical and confusing that it was useless for practical purposes. I have never diagrammed a sentence and I don't know the past imperfect from a dangling participle.
In high school, English was all literature based and while there was plenty of writing, the emphasis was on interpretation and not on mechanics. Still, the AP grade was good enough to get me out of freshman composition in college. What I'm trying to say is that my writing skills are self-taught outsider-art style. I just write the way it looks right without any formal knowledge of rules other than what I pick up from skimming Strunkenwhite's Elements of Style once a decade.
When my wife and I edit my son's school papers, we have enormous fights over punctuation. I work from a less-is-more ethos, while she believes every clause deserves a comma. I usually give in to her because I don't have any solid ground to defend my choices with. Like ending sentences with prepositions. Or beginning sentences with conjunctions. I know these things are 'wrong', but I do them anyways.
So I thought Eats, Shoots & Leaves would put a few arrows in my quiver for future arguments. I was wrong. Despite being subtitled "The Zero Tolerance Approach To Punctuation", it is surprisingly wishy-washy. It even refuses to take a stand on terminal, or Oxford, commas. I like them, but so many people insist they are wrong that I usually just capitulate. I did learn to justify my putting punctuation marks outside the quotes in certain cases as the 'British' way of doing it.
The one major point hammered home again and again is to not create plural's by adding apostrophe-s. Well, duh. If this is advice worth ten bucks, perhaps the need for the book is more desperate than I realize.
The book is breezy and full of funny anectdotes and quotes Gertrude Stein just a little too much, but it didn't do much except reinforce my prejudice against silly grammarians with fussy and arbitrary rules. A coworker of mine, a lady of a certain age whose job is to make engineers sound not completely illiterate, just kind of snorts at the book. Now I understand why.
Blatant Comment Whoring™: Feel free to ridicule any misteaks I have made. I will get to excuse them as ironic statements.