Saturday, August 30, 2008

A Farewell To Foobs

I have seen the future of the Foobiverse and it is not pretty. For one thing, Michael Patterson gets a movie deal. That is not a world I want to live in. Sunday marks the end of For Better Or For Worse as we know it. Kind of.

As predictably as a farewell tour by The Who, Lynn Johnston is retiring again. This has led to a lot of tears as people of all stripes come out of the Foob Closet (not Mike’s secret closet, another one) to pay their respects. One perhaps unsurprising member of the tribe of Foobers is Hank Stuever of the Washington Post. Now, I have taken lots of shots at Hank before, but in his farewell valedictory to the denizens of Milborough appropriately titled "Something For Everyone To Hate", he said something that struck a chord:
As a farewell, Johnston seems to have made an extra effort to drench this week's wedding of characters Elizabeth Patterson and Anthony Caine (if you read it, this is bigger than Luke and Laura) in even more sentimental goo than faithful readers have come to expect.

And so, on that note, let us now honor a particular kind of "For Better or for Worse" devotee: the haters.

These are the many millions who live to despise every last thing about the comic strip, and, as such, have never missed a day. For them, Foob has never been worse -- worse puns, worse sap, even worse life choices. (Which, in a sick way, means "For Better or for Worse" has never been better!)
Yes, Hank is one of us.

A lot has been written about Lynn’s latest gambit to reduce her work load and still keep that sweet syndication money coming in. The flashback gimmick was a complete bust, so the new concept is to mix old and new strips but keep the style consistent. Lynn will be going back in time and restarting the story over. This is easily the worst idea since Jar Jar Binks was cast as comic relief. Rehashing thirty years of comics is something that can only be done with a timeless classic like Peanuts. And Lynn Johnston is no Charles Schultz.

I have a better idea. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, there is a beautiful passage where Billy Pilgrim comes unstuck in time and watches a documentary on World War II bombers in reverse. Shrapnel is sucked out of the dead, brought together into bombs, raised into planes, shipped back to factories in the US where they are disassembled and the parts are buried deep into mountains so that they can never hurt anyone again.

So rather than restart the strip, it would make more sense to run it in reverse. Here is what would happen:
  • Ellie’s nose would shrink from a swollen potato to a normal sub-Karl Malden size. Her butt would slim, her hair would grow longer and she would again become a semi-hot housewife instead of a wide-eyed hysterical muppet.

  • Liz would break up with Anthony and reunite in succession with Paul, Warren, Eric, and then back to Anthony. Somewhere along the way she would regain her virginity, although exactly when is still pretty fuzzy. Also, these guys would go from being complete and total assholes to decent normal people.

  • Mike would rush into a burning building to try to destroy his manuscript. Failing, he would spend years hidden up in an attic meticulously deleting hundreds of pages of the most insipid prose ever published.

  • As Mike grew younger and the effects of puberty reversed themselves, John’s shriveled testicles would grow back. He would endlessly watch trains roll around the tracks in reverse when he wasn’t shoving teeth back into the mouths of Canuckis with bad oral hygiene.

  • April would transform from a whiny annoying teenager into a whiny annoying toddler and then finally into a whiny annoying gleam in John’s eye.

  • And best of all, Farley would rise from the dead to drag April back into the river only to have her escape as he leaps out of the river and goes back to being a youthful vigorous dog.
Alas, it is not to be so. Instead we are going to get more lame puns, anachronistic women’s lib jokes, and insipid heart-warming clichés. And this time, as history repeats itself as farce, we are at least forewarned for what to expect, for better or for worse.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Are you going to miss the foobs?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Is Sarah Palin Really America's Hottest Governor?

With John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin as his running mate, much focus will be paid to her physical attractiveness. Alaska Magazine named her America’s Sexiest Governor, but Esquire called Baltimore's Martin O'Malley "the best young mayor in America" even before he ran for state office. I am going to show some Maryland pride and insist that our own Governor Muscle Shirt not get neglected. Let's compare the two:

GovernorMartin O’Malley
Maryland (D)
Sarah Palin
Alaska (R)


Grace, Tara, William, and Jack

Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig (not pictured)


Irish Folk-Rock Band Leader

High School Basketball Star (#22)


Dashed when Hillary Clinton failed to get nominated.
Dependent on a 72-year-old maverick war hero.

McCain has clearly gone for the game-changing Hail Mary pass with his pick. Palin is an unknown quantity of Quayle-esque proportions. Only time will tell if it is a gambit that will succeed. In the meantime, O'Malley is waiting in the wings to march into the breech if needed.

BlatantCommentWhoring®: Who is your favorite sexy politician?


I missed Barack's big speech because I was busy getting hugged by Martha Davis (more on that in future post) but I did catch the balloon drop (or confetti fire, as an outdoor venue makes dropping balloons problematic). It sure seems like it was a big to-do.

Several years ago when I was doing my 30-minute sprint through the Louvre, I twice passed this painting by Jacques-Louis David titled "Consecration of the Emperor Napoleon I and Coronation of the Empress Josephine".

(Click on picture for a REALLY big version)

Upon closer inspection, it seems that the central figure looks familiar:

And a few people are finding the stage at Invesco Field a little like a Greek temple. I was thinking a more modern Vegas-style version:


All we need are dancing fountains out front choreographed to "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)". Or "Hail To The Chief".

Thursday, August 28, 2008

West Coast Lighthouse Hunting

When my Cape Cod vacation ended, I thought the lighthouse hunting season was over for me. But as fate would have it, I found myself on the left coast for business. After two days of meetings, my wife flew in for two days of touristing. For one of these we decided to cruise the Pacific Coast Highway. And there I picked up the scent of some lighthouses.

IMG_0995Our first stop was in Half Moon Bay where I found a tourist map that showed that just a little bit further north was the Point Montara light. While my plan was to head south, I just couldn't resist the temptation. This guy is a tricky devil because there is only a single sign for it and it is just ahead of Montara proper. Miss it, like we did, and it is eight miles through a particularly windy and treacherous part of the PCH called the Devil’s Slide. After gawking at some surfers, grabbing a Real Authentic Taco, and buying some long-sleeved California summer beachwear we flipped around and found it coming back.

The cute squatty lighthouse sits on a outcropping with a hostel on the property. The hostel had all sorts of funny rules including no staying more than an hour, but that was plenty of time to go all around this pint-sized point of light. The grounds also have a cute MASH-style signboard with all the distances to far away exotic places.

IMG_1046Thinking we were done, we headed south towards Santa Cruz but them we saw Pigeon Point lighthouse in the distance. We had to stop and count our blessings at our good fortune. Pigeon Point bills itself as the tallest operating lighthouse on the west coast, and I have no reason to dispute that. It is a tall stately building that like an elderly dowager is showing it’s noble age. It badly needs some structural as well as cosmetic work done and a local charity is raising funds.

The light is also next to a hostel. This one had hung out a “no vacancy” sign. Who knew sleeping under the protective gaze of a Type 1 Fresnel lens was so popular?

IMG_1115With late afternoon drawing on, we finally made it to Santa Cruz. Their boardwalk reminded me a lot of Coney Island which I had visited just recently. One sad part of empty nest touring is that I now longer had my coaster riding buddy with me. I had to ride The Giant Dipper by myself. From the crest of the first hill, I spied yet another lighthouse in the distance.

Having a few extra tickets, we rode the skylift back from the far end of the boardwalk and tracked this distant light. The Santa Cruz Breakwater lighthouse sits on a long spit of land jutting out into Monterey Bay. It was a tricky shot, but with a high-powered lens and some serendipitous stopping of the skyride, I got this one in the bag.

I really had no intention of lighthouse hunting while over in Cali, but then I had no idea that I would stumble into such a target rich environment. Now that I have the bug, I can’t help but begin stalking my next prey.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Dorm Rat

Dorm rooms haven’t changed much in the twenty-five years since I went to Tech. In fact, they are the same exact dorms. All the new dorms built for the 1996 Olympics are on other parts of campus. My son’s dorm is one of the campus's old WPA era projects that may have been updated once or twice since FDR was president, not that they look it.

Let’s take a look at what a modern dorm has or needs.

  1. Loft bed with linens. These dorm rooms are too small for all the furniture to fit. At about 14 feet by 10 feet, it is barely bigger than the room he had all to himself at home. Loft beds are the only way to fit everything in. All summer my wife lurked BigBoxOfSheets for all sorts of linens and towels and accessories. What you don’t see under this very stylish bedspread is the bedbug proof mattress cover that hermetically seals in all the bugs, mites, and cooties that may have been left behind by the previous resident.

  2. Three drawer dresser. This sub-Ikea dresser is meant to hold all the clothes that a modern college student needs. For my son that means several pairs of jeans, carpenter pants, and lots and lots of black ironic tee-shirts.

  3. Study Desk. As if this will ever get used. The drawers are stuffed with enough office supplies bought by my wife to last the entire four (or more) years. We got scissors, a stapler, printer paper, folders, binders, pens, pencils, and whatever else was in the back-to-school aisle of BigBoxOfOfficeSupplies.

  4. Flat Screen Television. We grabbed this off-brand 720p HDTV from BigBoxOfElectronics under the rationalization that he needed a larger screen than his laptop for the heavy detail number crunching that an engineering student has to do. While it seems to be a luxury, it cost less than the VCR I bought to tape Live Aid with (and that isn't even adjusting for inflation).

    Behind the dresser is a cable outlet that funnels over a hundred channels including ESPN, CNN, four HBOs, and nearly a dozen foreign language stations that I couldn’t even recognize. This is the biggest shock and change in dorm life that I have to wrap my head around. If I had that many entertainment choices when I was in college, I'm not sure I would have ever made it to class.

  5. Printer/Scanner. Something nobody had when I was in college. I had the old electric Smith-Carona that fit under the bed. Students now have more firepower on their desk than a Kinkos used to have.

  6. DVD. When I bought the big screen TV and surround system for my living room I had a leftover DVD player that I had bought for forty bucks a couple of years ago. Rather than toss it out, we’ve handed it down.

  7. Lamp. This one I will give my wife credit for. She found a five bulb lamp that has flexible heads so that the kid can illuminate the desk, the room, and the bed all from one central location. We even fitted it with compact fluorescents so that all that wattage doesn't turn the room into a sauna.

  8. Wardrobe. The dorm room has no closet, so all the big and bulky items have to fit in here. The left side is for hanging clothes which includes all the clothes he is unlikely to wear since they aren’t jeans or black ironic tee-shirts. The other side has shelves so that includes all his toiletries and personal items. On the bottom shelf is a tool set from BigBoxOfLumber that has enough weaponry in it for him to build a room within his room.

  9. Bookshelf. While my son was at band orientation, we ran out and picked up the items too big to haul from home. The bookcase came unassembled from BigBoxWithRedCircleOnIt. Took me about an hour to get it all put together and in place. Not seen in the picture is the several hundred dollars worth of textbooks that don’t even fill up the bottom shelf.

  10. Refrigerator. The dorm doesn’t allow anything bigger than 5 cubic feet. After doing comparison shopping at all the BigBoxes around town, we settled on this hundred dollar 3.2 cubic foot one that would seem capable of holding all the beer a college student should ever need.

  11. Storage Box. This was left behind as the empty holder of all the other junk we hauled down. Perhaps it will fill up with something else. Perhaps not.

  12. DVD Collection. My son took his pick of the family movies that he decided he wanted. Included in the list is Catch Me If You Can, The Matrix, Ferris Buehler’s Day Off, Accepted, School Of Rock, and Flight Of The Conchords. And I haven’t even watched all the episodes of Conchords.

  13. Water Jug. For marching band practice. It gets hot in the Georgia sun.

  14. Family Picture. To remind him what his parents look like.

  15. Movie Poster. You have to have a little wall flair for decoration. I prefer not to read too much into the selection of this particular movie.

  16. Big Comfie Chair. I expect this to be the second most used piece of furniture in the room.

  17. Proud Dad. What can I say?
What is missing from my days as a dorm rat is the big honkin' stereo. Those have been replaced by iPods with micro-speakers.

BlatantCommentWhoring: What else does a dorm need?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Where Is Yellojkt Now?

A few months ago, I went on a mystery business trip and posted some pictures to give clues about what my super-secret location was. Well, I'm on a business trip again and let's see if anyone can figure it out.

Clue 1:

My bosses, bless their stingy little souls negotiated a corporate rate for a boutique hotel in a pretty toney little town. The architecture reflects the heritage of the area even if the hotel restaurant serves fancy Greek food.

Clue 2:

Every morning on the way to the local country style breakfast place, we have to pass the local Bugatti/Aston Martin dealership. We would press our nose into the window and drool, over this one in particular. One guy told us that it cost $2.4 million dollars, while an Italian passerby told us they only go for one million euros. Isn't that the same thing?


I went hiking one morning on the local walking/biking trail that runs along the town's eponymous creek. I turned around when I got to the signs warning of mountain lions. These big cats are so ubiquitous that the local high school has the same mascot as the High School Musical gang.

Hopefully these are enough clues to pique your curiosity and send you Googling. Leave guesses, serious, sublime, and ridiculous in the comments.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Rooms With A View

I love theater, especially the big brash Broadway musicals, but I also like seeing smaller productions. I recently went to see a two person show called Rooms: A Rock Romance. Set in proto-punk Scotland and New York, an ambitious singer meets a reclusive guitarist and the join up to take the music world by storm. But other things happen along the way. The show is part Once, part They're Singing Our Song, and just a dollop of A Star Is Born.

It's those other things that make up the quick-paced (eighty minutes with no intermission) show. The tongue-in-cheek punk rock numbers are hilarious and spot-on.

The show is being presented at MetroStage, a big warehouse looking space at the edge of Alexandria. Any further north and it would be part of the power plant. The space itself is just perfect for intimate shows like this. I was surprised that the Saturday matinee we saw (if 5 pm can be called a matinee) wasn't fuller, because the show has been getting great reviews.

The show has an off-off-Broadway history and I kept wondering how it would do in a bigger venue. I'd hate to see the great rapport between the actors get lost in a bigger place or see the show padded out to a longer playing time. The size and pace of this fast, furious, funny musical is just perfect.

It plays a few more weeks in DC and then moves onto Rochester in upstate New York with the same cast and band, so it's definitely a room worth a view.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Brief History of Comics Snarking

Comics led me to blogging and I still blog about comics on occasion, but I try to leave the heavy lifting to the professionals and the field seems to be exploding. As a public service I have prepared a historical guide to the various venues.


Anything on the internet can be tracked back to Usenet groups. Usenet are the original threaded discussion forums. And like most things that predate the web itself, it is random and unmoderated. Topics are selected by posters and off-topic digressions can be as frequent as not. Still active, the quality of the experience depends on the quality of the newsgroup viewer you use. I find the threaded responses and continuous quoted text annoying and repetitive.

Funny Papers
This Baltimore City Paper column was written by alt-weekly legend Tom Scocca (currently writing for the New York Observer from China) and BCP talentless fixture Joe McLeod. This online feature ran from March 2001 until February of 2004. The format was a weekly summary of the comics in the Baltimore Sun. Each strip got a one paragraph (sometimes more, sometimes less) commentary tending towards the mean and vicious. There were some good running gags. It would run a Beetle versus Otto count in an attempt to discern who the real star of the strip was. It also graded each week’s run of For Better or For Worse with a Siskel/Ebertish “For better.” or “For worse.” Abandoned when Scocca moved on to the Big Apple, the lasting legacy of this proto-blog is that Scocca prefers to sit on the seemingly untrademarkable “We Read The Comics So You Don’t Have To” just to spite competitors.

Comics Curmudgeon
The Golden Age of Comic Snarking began on July 11, 2004 to little notice when Josh Fruhlinger (coincidentally also of Baltimore) started his blog which has become the centerpiece of all comics commentary. I’m of course a little biased since I have been a long time commenter there. I have no memory of when I started commenting, but I made Comment Of The Week back in May of 2005 before records were kept with this snark about LuAnn’s dating prospects in Apartment 3G:
It’s not like Luann is going roadside anytime soon. Hot chaste blonde in New York City. I’m sure Mr Just Out Of Teaching College and Living Around The Corner From Avenue Q is dying to hook up with this mess of backstory.
Over the years, the blog has focused more and more on the soap opera strips that provide so much inadvertent humor as opposed to the 'funny' strips that often aren't. Josh is now the go-to guy when a reporter needs an 'expert' to comment about some development in the comics world. More importantly, his fiercely devoted commenters have become an emergent phenomenon with their own subculture and customs which is always the mark of success for a Web 2.0 type of site.

Big Al’s Comic Blog
Lots of other blogs have come and gone trying to break into the daily strip niche. Big Al’s was one of the better contenders starting in November of 2004 and running for nearly two years before tossing in the towel.

Comics I Don’t Understand
Started as a side feature of Bill Bickel’s true crime website, CIDW has a simple premise: Readers are asked to explain the obscure joke trapped in specific strips. The original format had monthly postings with the best of the submitted answers published the following month. One particularly great feature was the Arlo Page where the jokes sometimes stretched the family-friendly nature of the comics page. Bickel claims the name does not refer to frequently boundary pushing Smuttiest Strip In Print® Arlo and Janis, but methinks he doth protest too much.

CIDW was relaunched as traditional stand-alone daily blog in January 2008. (Update: See the comments for a better timeline straight from the horses mouth. In the reworking, all the older material seems to have vanished which is a shame because it destroys a lot of the historical context of the blog.

Comic Riffs
As the dead tree old media companies flail their way to obsolescence, they try to learn the Web 2.0 tricks and have started professional blogs on every imaginable topic. The Washington Post recently rolled out with little fanfare a blog devoted to analyzing the daily comic strips. Where did they ever come up with that concept? Written by Michael Cavna, the blog started on July 13 this year. In addition to a daily commentary about selected strips, he also interviews cartoonists and does BlatantCommentWhoring stunts such as caption contests and reader surveys.

As an employee of the Washington Post, he restricts himself to strips published in that paper. And as a guy with a boss to answer to, he has already had a few run-ins with syndicates not happy with his occasionally less than flattering comments. It’ll be interesting to see how the tone of this blog develops.

In the waning days of the daily newspapers, as comics get shrunk and dropped almost daily, it’s fascinating to watch ordinary readers rally around this often ignored art form. And as the paid professionals move in on the turf plowed by web pioneers like Josh, we need to see if the sense of community and irreverent attitude of the blogosphere can be captured by corporate poachers.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: How many blogs about comic strips can the internet support?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Lighthouse Hunting On Martha's Vineyard

I wrote earlier about lighthouse hunting earlier and bragged about some of the trophies I bagged on Cape Cod. But for the really big game, you have to go offshore. Martha’s Vineyard was rumored to have some of the best lighthouses around, but it would take dedication and planning if I were to get as many as I could in just one short day.

IMG_0087West Chop. When taking the ferry from Woods Hole to Vineyard Harbor, the boat goes right past West Chop Lighthouse which sits on the side of the slope aloof but welcoming. Having caught a glancing shot on the way in, we decided to forgo a closer approach in lieu of going for more remote targets. We landed at Vineyard Harbor and grabbed a quick lunch, but quickly boarded a bus to quainter parts of the island.

IMG_0185Edgartown. To call Edgartown quaint is to do it a disservice. It is far more stately and elegant than merely quaint. It is one of the most beautiful towns that wasn’t built by Disney Imagineers. And right at the edge of town is a gorgeous lighthouse. Normally that would make it a sitting duck, but this lighthouse has developed a very clever defensive system. On the road to the lighthouse there sits an entire row of shining beautiful Victorian houses that used to belong to shipping captains. It would be easy to be distracted by the fine detail and excellent preservation of these houses and lose sight of the prize. Once you run this gauntlet, there is a winding pathway to navigate down to the lighthouse itself. Here I ran into some other lighthouse hunters and got them to take my picture in front of my trophy.

IMG_0270Aquinnah. Formerly called Gay Head (the name was changed for at least two levels of political correctness to the local Native American name years ago, but the original twelve-year-old snicker-inducing name lives on in many travel guides), this lighthouse sits on the far western side of the island. To reach it requires an hour bus ride from Edgartown. The bus only runs every hour and it is another hour back to Vineyard Harbor, so stalking this prize is a minimum of a three hour commitment. But it is worth it. Easily the prettiest lighthouse of the entire trip, it sits all alone on a windswept bluff. The closest approach is from a tribal-run overlook. The lighthouse itself is owned by historical preservation society that only allows access to the grounds one evening a week.

IMG_0378East Chop. When we made it back to Vineyard Harbor much of our party was exhausted from a full days worth of lighthouse hunting and they cut the safari short. My wife and I decided to stay behind and check out Oak Bluffs. Here we stumbled upon the Methodist Campgrounds which is the epitome of quaint. These small highly decorated cottages transcend adorable. Small and colorful, they are so numerous they overload the senses. Still, we had to return home. Boarding the ferry at dusk, I braved stiff breezes and falling temperatures to stay out on the deck to try to capture the East Chop Light from the water. It sat there on the shore mocking me. The dying light and distance made a clear in-focus shot nearly impossible, but I managed to get one or two good hits in.

I didn’t make it to all the lighthouses on MV in one day, but that works with one of the unwritten rules of lighthouse hunting: Always leave yourself a reason to come back. And someday I will. Those lighthouses that think they escaped are on notice. You can run, but you can't hide.

BlatantCrossPlugging™: You can see more pictures of the lighthouses as well as other sights on Martha's Vineyard on this Flickr set.

Friday, August 15, 2008


I am such a sucker for these silly avatar generators. Here is the latest:

It's supposed to be your manga self, but I look like the dorky guy that tries to cheat at Yu-Gi-Oh but gets foiled.

I got the meme from HRH Courtney, Queen of Everything who looks positively ravishing in hers and you can get yours here.

And to prove that it is the sensation that is sweeping the nation, I even independently found the secret manga-tar of 2fs. And in some weird coinky-dink, we are all wearing the same glasses. I'm not sure what that says about us, but it sure makes me nervous.

BlatantMemeSpreading™: Show me yours.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Marley's Millions

This post contains spoilers for a best seller about a pet. Figure it out or read on.

I first heard of Marley & Me, the book about a hyperactive Labrador retriever, in an online chat with a writer that said that he had wriiten a few books, but didn’t make “Marley and me money.” I wasn’t quite sure what that was. It seems it’s 73 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and a movie starring Owen Wilson. It’s pretty flattering when you can get Jennifer Anniston to play your wife.

Normally I avoid schmaltzy books like that as if they were radioactive. When my son had to read Tuesdays With Maurie, I cringed and wondered what was happening to our education system. That sort of sap had no place in a classroom.

But half-way to Atlanta we stopped at a cheesy discount outlet for a stretch break and I found a CD audiobook version of Marley & Me for only six bucks. It was abridged to six hours and read by author John Grogan. I went for it since I knew I had over twelve more hours of driving that weekend, much of through radio unfriendly Bible Belt mountains.

My wife, who had read the kiddie version abridgment was worried it might be too sad. Spoiler Warning: Marley dies. I decided to give it a go anyways. The story of a newlywed couple that cluelessly adopt a highstrung puppy. We found that the story mildly mirrored our own early married life. The Grogans started a family soon after testing their parenting skills with a dog. While the specific details varied greatly, the overall arc rang a bell.

Also, a lot of the book takes place in West Palm Beach during the early nineties when we lived there as well. We enjoyed the sarcastic commentary about West Palm, Palm Beach, and Boca Raton as much as some of the antics of the titular dog.

And some of the tales, even allowing for comic exaggeration are just horrifying. The dog is destructive, neurotic, and poorly disciplined. Behavior that would get him sent to a pound by most owners is laughed off. While I won’t spoil any specific incidents, some are amusing, some are touching, and some are disgusting.

And of course, some of it gets maudlin. As Marley ages and the inevitable end looms (and don’t all dog stories end the same way), we were reminded of the slow year-long decline of our dog and our decision to end his pain less than a year ago. By the time we hit the DC suburbs, we were both crying.

And here is where Grogan earned his Marley money, which may or may not be millions, but it's definitely enough to recover the cost of all the damage that uncontrollable beast did to his houses. The story itself is nothing special. Lots of people do the things he and his family did: raise some kids, change jobs a few times, and bury a pet. He took a rather typical story that millions of people lived and gussied it up into some sort of universal tale of growth.

This is a story arc that millions of middle-class Americans can relate to. And as Groban tells, lots of dog owners are perversely proud of their dysfunctional dogs. Even I once came up with 100 Things About My Dog. If only I had known what a gold mine setting down the life story of a beloved pet was. But it was Grogan that tapped into this part of the American psyche.

And when you have poured your heart out, what do you do for a encore? Marley has already become an empire with special gift editions, the upcoming Christmas Day release, a website with a blog, and perhaps someday a special line of chew toys. In October, Grogan is releasing a prequel about his childhood. But somehow I doubt his childhood was as universal as his love for his dog.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Is your pet worthy of a bestselling memoir?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Lighthouse Hunting On The Cape

When I’m on vacation in coastal areas, I like to hunt lighthouses. Now, some people don’t think that there is much sport in that. And they have a point. Lighthouses tend to be large and very slow moving (except that sneaky Cape Hattteras one) and they have few natural defenses. Indeed, their number has been slowly declining, making them that more tricky to capture.

Here are some of the lighthouse I managed to shoot while on vacation in Cape Cod this summer.

IMG_0018Ned’s Point. Technically not even on Cape Cod, this lighthouse is in the particularly picturesque town of Mattapoisett. Hiding at the end of narrow road, this squat preternaturally white lighthouse is a favorite of sunset picnickers. When captured right near sundown, the shadows go from merely pretty to absolutely stunning.

This lighthouse was caught while on a sidetrip to New Bedford, but it only whetted my appetite for more prey. Near the end of our trip I decided to spend and entire day stalking that most elusive beast, the Cape Cod lighthouse.

IMG_9854Chatham. I did a lot of bicycling while on the Cape and one morning I decided to ride from our rental to the Chatham light. It seemed like an easy 15 mile ride, but when I got to the end of the trail, it turned out that the light was another four miles down the road. I got to Chatham Beach too late to join the yoga class going on down on the beach, but I did catch the flag raising over the Coast Guard station that doubles as the lighthouse station.

I did have the good sense to have a road crew meet me at the lighthouse to load my bike and drive me back to the house in time for breakfast. Mornings are a good time to catch these lighthouses because they aren't expecting hunters at that time of day.

IMG_0422Nauset Beach. One of more famous lighthouses on the Cape, this one is also one of the harder ones to shoot. It sits across from a National Park Service beach that is so popular in the summer that the rangers have a full time job keeping cars from stopping along the road to disgorge passengers in a tricky attempt to avoid the parking fees. My strategy was to be dropped off at the Visitor Center and ride my bicycle along the Salt Pond Trail to the Coast Guard House. From here it was another mile and half along the coast road to the lighthouse. It may think it was tricky, but it never stood a chance.

IMG_0430Three Sisters. These three small lighthouses are particularly sneaky. They claim to be retired and taken to hiding in the forest near Nausset Light. Two of them have even ditched their lights in a vain attempt to escape notice. Fortunately for me, there was a path leading right to them. I snuck up on them, took a bunch of quick shots and called for my support vehicle. There are three parking spaces right by the Three Sisters with a ten minute limit. The spaces are usually occupied by the aforementioned beach fee jumpers, but they also gave me just enough time to load up my bike to move on.

IMG_0461Provincetown Lights. According to the maps there are three lighthouses in the Provincetown area, but they are particularly shy and hide in areas inaccessible by car or bicycle. Of the three, I only got the faintest hint of Long Point light, the one directly across from the P-town beach on the long spit of land that encircles the bay.

IMG_0586Highland Beach. I saved one of the best for last, waiting until sunset to stalk it. Most of the sunsets on our vacation were pretty lackluster, being mostly overcast and gray. This one, however, showed some promise. Highland Light puts on airs by residing on a golf course. It even owns its own house.

As you can tell, lighthouse hunting is a time consuming sport involving stealth, guise, and cunning. But the trophies are worth it. You can see more views of these lights at the Flickr set or hunt them down yourself.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

A Good Sport

As we watch television in our quadrennial obsession with all sports obscure (and admit it: would you even cross the street to watch a swim meet if there weren’t a ton of hype and national pride and TV cameras wrapped around it?), millions of people around the world are asking “How is that a sport?” And let’s face it, a lot of things that are at the Olympics shouldn’t be. The dictionary is little help because its definitions are so broad. Here is one from the online American Heritage dictionary:
sport (spôrt, spōrt) n.
1. a. Physical activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively.
b. A particular form of this activity.
2. An activity involving physical exertion and skill that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often undertaken competitively.
3. An active pastime; recreation.

These definitions are overly broad and could include about anything. We need a stricter set of tests and criteria. Here are my canonical, authoritative and indisputable requirements for a sport.

A sport must have a winner.

This means it must be played by a set of rules and have a way of determining who is best. Without rules, it is just exercise. Yoga is many things: a discipline, a philosophy, a way of life, but no matter much you stand on your head, it is not a sport. Mountain climbing is another litmus test activity. People keep records for all sorts of feats for climbing. Fastest ascent, number of ascents, number of mountains climbed, but unless you are having a race under fixed conditions and declaring a winner, it is an activity, not a sport.

When I was in elementary school, there was a trend towards non-competitive games like pushing giant earth balls around a field or rolling down hills. Fun, active events but not sports.

A sport must involve physical ability or skill.

This separates sports from games. The most common physical attributes necessary to a sport are speed, strength, endurance, agility, or a combination of the above. Intellectual prowess may be needed in many specific sports, but it is not a necessary requirement. Sprinting is pure speed. Baseball, even pinch hitting, requires speed, hand-eye coordination, and strategy.

Chess is a game. A very hard one, but no physical ability is required. In fact, mastering it seems to preclude physical activity. The grey areas are in defining the level of physical prowess required. The most debated distinction is motorsports. Is the mere driving of a vehicle physical enough to merit classification as a sport? The hand-eye coordination and endurance necessary to be a competitive NASCAR is extreme. Taken down the scale, one could argue that lawn mower racing is also a sport. Perhaps. In the same sense that kickball is really just a watered down version of baseball. They can be called sports, just very low-level ones.

Also, the distinction between a game and sport is rather fuzzy. Golf is clearly a sport because of the extreme skill necessary. Few people can drive four-hundred yards or sink 30-foot putts like Tiger Woods. Going down the other extreme, darts and bowling are what I call the beer-drinking sports: activities where the calories consumed usually exceed the calories expended. This rough caloric intake guide also eliminates many games that require great skill but little exertion such as marbles, horseshoes, and Space Invaders.

Anything meeting the first two rules where score is kept in some objective counting type of tally is a sport.

The object being counted can be runs, goals, points, or strokes, but there needs to be a way to determine who did more (or in the case of golf, less) of something. Most team sports fall into this category, but it also covers individual sports such as tennis. In many ways this rule encompasses most people’s traditional definition of a sport.

Anything meeting the first two rules that involves measurement of speed or distance is a sport.

This rule covers most traditional track and field events. You are either racing others or seeing who can move something like a shot-put, javelin, discus, or yourself (either vertically or horizontally) through space. Racing can include other components such as bicycles, skates, horses, or again, arguably, motor driven vehicles. Really nothing very controversial here.

The next rule is where I start to lose people because the following exceptions rule out activities as a sport.

Anything choreographed, set to music, or that includes an artistic element is not a sport.

Once you include music, it is A Performing Art, not A Sport. This rule eliminates everybody’s favorite winter game (behind curling), figure skating. At the amateur level, they like to de-emphasize the artistic aspect in favor of the athletic component by strictly regulating the type of music, skimpiness of the costumes, and the number and type of stunts that must be performed. But the mere fact that artistic merit is over half the score makes it less than a sport.

Ballroom dancing and cheerleading are trying to gain legitimacy as a sport rather than a competition, but it is nearly impossible to weed out the inherent artistic elements that make these activities distinctive.

The above rule is really a subset of the bigger, most controversial rule:

Anything involving subjective judging is not a sport.

If judges are involved it is either a Talent Competition or a Beauty Pageant. Now judges are different from referees or umpires in that the latter enforce the rules, while the former determine the winners. Let’s make that clear through a few examples. Weightlifting is a sport because the winner is the person that lifts the most measurable weight. Bodybuilding is a beauty contest because the person with the best looking muscles (as determined by the judges, not by any standards of good taste) wins. Swimming is a sport because the winner is the person that finishes first. Diving is a talent competition because the person that makes the prettiest and most difficult dive wins.

The real problem area here is gymnastics. Gymnasts are very athletic and train very hard. So do ballerinas, but nobody is calling ballet a sport. In both endeavors, their ultimate goal is to impress an audience, either a paying crowd or a group of judges. In gymnastics, everybody is doing pretty much the same moves and stunts, but the winner is the person that does them the best, i.e. is the most talented, not the strongest, swiftest, or most accurate. You could make gymnastics a sport by adding quantifiable criteria like who can hold an iron cross the longest or vault the furthest or do the most camels in a row, but that would destroy the reason people watch gymnastics, for the elegance and grace. Both very unquantifiable qualities.

I know I am courting controversy here, but my criteria are clear and objective. Just like sports should be.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: Name an activity and I will determine its sportiness based solely on my criteria here.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Let The Games Begin

Tomorrow night marks the beginning of the Beijing Olympics. I previously wrote a post about all the different narratives that will be told in the press. And many of them are already being touted. A day doesn’t pass that I don’t see a story about the smog-filled sky or some crack down in the name of security.

But soon all the words change to images as hundreds of hours of coverage begin. NBC and it’s associated networks are going to constantly remind you that they are in China and you are not. They will do that with a barrage of pictures of the iconic features of Beijing and China. Here are a few images you can expect to see over and over again.

IMG_4249Birds Nest Stadium. The centerpiece of the Olympic construction effort is truly a unique and impressive structure. I posted a panorama of it here. This where the opening and closing ceremonies will take place. What was a construction entrance in the foreground is now a beautiful plaza tailor made for the television cameras.

IMG_4233Bubble Natatorium. Right next to the stadium in the Olympic Village, this enclosed aquatic facility is a trippy glass clad cube that looks like your watching Finding Nemo on acid. With Michael Phelps as a hometown hero, there will be a lot of coverage of the swimming events here.

IMG_3521Tienanmen Square. This plaza which was the site of the infamous protests in 1989 has the tomb of Mao in the center and is ringed with museums and government buildings. The Chinese are strictly limiting press opportunities here to avoid any embarrassment.

IMG_3547Portrait of Mao. With the giant portrait of Mao overlooking Tienanmen Square, expect plenty of establishing shots from here. Sensitive to the protests here, security will be ultra-tight. A "Free Tibet" banner over this picture would ruin the games for the Chinese.

IMG_3486Forbidden City. Just inside the gates off of Tienanmen Square is this mammoth palace complex. When I was there a year ago, it was getting a massive facelift for the games. Cameras can't do justice to the size and grandeur of this place.

P1000498Temple of Heaven. This ceremonial palace south of the Forbidden City is much more colorful and picturesque than the bi-chromatic main palace. The vast open expanse includes large orchards and is a popular place for kite flying. I would hope that this area gets plenty of exposure.

IMG_3284Great Wall. The Great Wall at its closest is about thirty miles north of Beijing, but it is an irresistible photo-op. It's more than a wall, it's a metaphor.

Terra Cotta SoldiersTerra Cotta Warriors. These relics from the dawn of Chinese history are really from Xian over 300 miles away, but their fierce visages beg to be shown off.

IMG_3947Smoggy Skylines. I hope NBC didn't bring a blimp because it's not going to be much use. Visibility in Beijing is measured in blocks, not miles. I harp and harp on this but the smog is going to be the big story of The Games. Let's hope for clear skies, but expect to see a lot of clever camera angles trying to hide the omnipresent haze.

I also expect to see shots of the many smaller temples around the city as well as images of the huge modern shopping centers and office buildings. Beijing is a city of history and contrasts. The hype and hysteria has been building for four years. Let's let the games begin.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

BooksFirst - July 2008

Books Bought

See the Special Vacation Edition post

Books Read

Armageddon In Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut, introduction by Mark Vonnegut
The Quick Red Fox by John D. MacDonald


For rock stars, death has always been a good career move. For writers, not so much. Often before the corpse is cold, the vultures are rifling through the file cabinet and the trash can for anything that can be sold as “undiscovered” to the core fanbase. In the case of Armageddon In Retrospect, that seems to be several similarly themed short stories that Vonnegut wrote in the fifties for the magazines but never got published, probably for good reason.

Most of the stories have prisoners of war as major characters. Some are in Dresden after the fire bombing that was the centerpiece of Slaughterhouse Five, some take place in recently liberated POW camps. An awful lot of the stories have to do with looting the bodies of the dead or terrorizing the citizenry fleeing the oncoming Russian conquerors. These stories are really only interesting in context as very rough drafts of his later work.

Most of Vonnegut’s very early work was re-published in Bagombo Snuff Box where there was a greater variety of topics. While I hate to cast aspersions on son Mark’s motivations, most of this was better kept lost. He supplies a brief preface and there are some non-fiction sections at the beginning that are like warmed-over out-takes from Palm Sunday. If we are going to just go through the pocket lint, I would have preferred more context and connecting material. But, alas, we are never going to get that from Kurt and have to settle for the scraps we can scrounge.

The book itself is just gorgeous with thick creamy paper and colorful illustrations before each chapter. But that doesn't make up for the rather thin content inside.

The fourth Travis McGee novel picks up slightly from the second and third. The titular Quick Red Fox is a big star actress that between husbands got talked into an orgy that ended up captured on camera by a blackmailing proto-paparazzi. Lyssa Dean pays the extortion, but when a second round of blackmail requests comes around she turns to salvage expert Travis McGee to protect her reputation. Trav really could care less but he needs the money and Lyssa’s assistant is a gorgeous if emotionally repressed gal Friday. And we all know where that is going to lead.

The real fun of this book is watching McGee go around the country and squeezing the real story of the lost weekend out of all the participants. At least the ones that are still alive. The plot is a little convoluted and there are a few too many red herrings, but it keeps the pace up. If anything, the book ends a little too quickly with too much of the denouement happening off-screen. The only really good fight sequence is when Travis takes on a pair of ultra-butch lesbians in a scene that is played for laughs. It’s a little squirm inducing given modern sensibilities, but comes off with a some naïve sociology thrown in.

The first four Travis McGee books are all short quick reads and show some growing pains. By the time of Red, MacDonald is getting his sea-legs and rounding out the character nicely. I'm really enjoying this trip down memory lane and can't wait to get into some of the longer meatier books.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Don't Cut Out The Middleman

One of the first things I am going to miss with my son off at college is watching campy geeky TV shows with him. Previously, I've mentioned that our favorite shows last season were Chick Chuck and The Big Bang Theory (which had very little banging unless you count Melissa Gilbert).

Earlier this summer, at dinner my son said he wanted to get home early in order to watch a new show called The Middleman. I said not to worry, I already had it programmed into the DVR. Great minds think alike that way.

The Middleman is an hour long comedy on ABC Family that can best be described as a cross between Men In Black and Alias. There are also generous dollops of The X-Files and The Avengers mixed in. All done in a campy winking at the camera style.

A mysterious fighter of things supernatural and extraterrestrial recruits a young artist as his apprentice. Wendy Watson (or Dub-Dub), played by Natalie Morales, is a cute twenty-something art student that lives in an illegal sublet with her even more attractive roommate. There are also a series of mysteriously omnipresent other hipsters hanging around as eye candy.

Matt Keeslar plays the titular yet unnamed Middleman as a 50s era Dudley Do-Right straight arrow that drinks nothing stronger than milk and swears with G-rated exclamations that would make the Cleaver family wince.

Each episode has the two Middlemen fighting some ridiculous form of villainy. So far they have fought talking gorillas, fish zombies, and cursed tubas. The witty banter is razor sharp and filled with pop culture asides. If you don't know who Gorilla Grodd or Howard the Duck are, you are missing some of the best zingers. There are also funny running gags like the little time and place in the establishing shots. It's all very high density comedy.

While being on ABC Family would make you think it's too clean cut to be entertaining, that is not the case. There is some sly mild sexual and drug-related innuendo (I did mention that the lead character is a twenty-something artist, didn't I?). One of the funny recurring gags is the beep and black mouth bar anytime a character says something that would draw an FCC fine.

With my son at college, I don't have anyone to laugh along with while my wife rolls her eyes at the zingers that go over her head. The show airs Mondays at 10pm EST. Their website contains the usual silly promotional gimmicks including a Middleman character generator. I always like to use these things to create a Mii-like avatar, but the guys seem to come out sort of androgynous and emo-ish. The girl dress-up doll is intended to replicate Sexiest Woman Alive Angelina Jolie circa Mr. and Mrs. Smith because their kids would probably make great Middlemen themselves someday.