Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Comics List

I have always read newspaper comics in massive quantities. When I lived in the Philippines, the Stars And Stripes, the only newspaper available on military bases, had room for just a dozen or so comics, so I used to go down to the base library and read the Sunday comics from all the stateside newspapers. There were always some great obscure comics that only appeared in a few newspapers.

When I was in high school, the morning newspaper carried Bloom County but the afternoon paper carried Doonesbury. Somehow I talked my parents into subscribing to both. I would come home from school and turn up the stereo as loud as possible without masking the sound of the newspaper being delivered. The afternoon 'newsboy' was an older guy in my math class that would make the route with his girlfriend in his poorly mufflered pick-up truck. I could hear his truck coming down the street. After it passed, I would go out to pick it up and wave at the two of them as they rounded the cul-de-sac and headed back up the street.

For years I subscribed to the local paper, the Baltimore Sun, but I would also read the Washington Post whenever I was near a newsstand in part because it had three whole pages of comics. One day my wife subscribed to the Post for me in order to sign up for a discount at the grocery store. It was one of the most thoughtful gifts she has ever given me.

After a major comics page purge, the Sun's comics page only had three or four strips not carried in the Post. Soon afterwards, I dropped the Sun as it continued to atrophy into the pale shell of its former self which is making H. L. Mencken spin in his grave.

Now the Washington Post is sliding headlong down that same slippery slope. It just eliminated its separate business section (where it used to hide Dilbert) and consolidated the comics down to two pages of cataract-inducing fine print. They still carry Doonesbury full size on page C3, but the rest are in four skinny columns. Here is the current line-up:

Page 1
Column 1

Tack McNamara
Prickly City
Non Sequitur
Big Nate
Beetle Bailey
Speed Bump
Page 1
Column 2

Judge Parker
Cul De Sac
Watch Your Head
Baby Blues
On The Fastrack
Pearls Before Swine
Dennis The Menace
Family Circus
Close To Home
Page 2
Column 1

Red And Rover
Frank and Ernest
Classic Peanuts
Rhymes With Orange
Hagar The Horrible
Page 2
Column 2
Get Fuzzy
Mark Trail
Mother Goose and Grimm
Sally Forth
Sherman's Lagoon
Brewster Rockit

In the purge, WaPo had originally cut Judge Parker but had to restore it after public outcry. In what I consider kind of a 'Fuck you!' move, to make room for it, they moved Frazz from the comics page to the Kidz Page after a brief try with Agnes there. That means Frazz only runs four times a week, destroying the continuity of the weekly gags. They just don't get it.

To get the comics I can't find in WaPo, I use a couple of internet subscription services. I recently had a scare when my GoComics e-mail service stuttered to a stop. After panicking and getting to the bottom of that SNAFU (it seems that they had both an old credit card number and an abandoned e-mail address), I updated the list of comics I have mailed to me every morning. That list now includes the following:

Brenda Starr
Bo Nanas (which I
just learned is reruns)
The Elderberries
Dog Eat Doug
For Heaven's Sake
Girls & Sports
Ink Pen
The Meaning of Lila
Stone Soup
Tiny Sepuku
Bound and Gagged
Flo and Friends
Big Top
The Fusco Brothers
On A Claire Day
The Other Coast
Gil Thorp
Herb and Jamaal
La Cucaracha
Tom The Dancing Bug
Daddy's Home
Ballard Street
The Argyle Sweater
Dick Tracy
The Dinette Set
Gasoline Alley
The Quigmans
Real Life Adventures

But even that service doesn't cover all the comics I want to read on a daily basis. I also subscribe to which e-mails the following strips:

9 Chickweed Lane
Arlo & Janis
Cow & Boy
Frazz (which I just added so I don't miss some)
Grand Avenue
Jump Start
Little Dog Lost (which got dumped by WaPo in the purge after only a month)
Rose Is Rose
Rudy Park
Secret Asian Man
The Knight Life (which is Sunday only in WaPo)
Working Daze
Working Out
Zack Hill

Finally, I know that Josh, THE Comics Curmudgeon uses the Houston Chronicle's rather comprehensive comics page for his comics reading since he, like me, has been abandoned by the ever-shrinking Sunpapers. I have two beefs with the Chron. First, they don't have Sunday strips and second, they won't throw it on my lawn or e-mail it to my inbox. That makes it the source of last resort since I forget to check it every day. So here are the strips carried by the Chronicle not available anywhere else:

Apartment 3-G*
Better Half
Between Friends
Edge City
Funky Winkerbean
Grin and Bear It
Mallard Fillmore
*added after initial post
Mary Worth
My Cage
Pardon My Planet
Rex Morgan
Safe Havens
Six Chix
Slylock Fox
Snuffy Smith
Edison Lee
Willy & Ethel
Zippy the Pinhead
That makes the total number of comics on my daily or near-daily list:
WaPo: 38
GoComics: 42 17
The Chron: 28
Grand Total: 125

That sounds like a lot, but it's probably less than fifteen minutes a day of reading. The biggest hurdle has been weeding out duplicates. For example, Dog Eat Doug is available on both GoComics and Since GoComics shows up in the inbox before (which often doesn't arrive until I'm already at work), it makes sense to delete it from the list.

The other hassle is keeping up with the current purges. Willy and Ethel was once in the Sun and Zippy was perhaps the cruelest cut from WaPo's line-up. All the hippies that used to defend it seemed to have switched their efforts to the rejuvenated Judge Parker. Even the Houston Chronicle has its issues. I hadn't updated my reading list in quite a while and for some inexplicable reason 9 Chickweed Lane appears in the place of the dropped strips. I like the comic, but I don't need to read it four times.

Also, note the conspicuous absence of the time-warped For Better Or For Worse on any of these lists. It's dead to me.

All of this is a lot of work, but it sure beats going to the library and reading back issues of out-of-town newspapers. And as the dead trees industry continues to hemorrhage, even that might not be an option some day.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: The obvious question is: What am I missing? Which comics from one of those services should I be reading? The other burning issue is if there is another way. How can I get as many comics as possible with the least effort?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor: Celebrity Justice

Here at Foma* Central we have a long proud tradition of supporting Supreme Court nominees going back to our classic Harriet Miers post. Sonia Maria Stotomayor, Barack Obama's first pick for the highest court is especially inspiring. She came from humble beginnings. As the daughter of single mom in the Bronx, she had to overcome hardship to succeed. And she has no lack of smarts. She graduated at the top of her class at that notorious New Jersey diploma mill, Princeton. She has also selflessly served with distinction on lower courts for years.

Sotomayor reminds of me other famous groundbreaking women that would be good role models for a Supreme Court justice. So let's have a look at the celebrities and charcters that also have inspirational backgrounds that could be a touchstone for our next SCOTUS member:

Rosanne Barr

The gum-smacking domestic goddess was a fresh face in television by upsetting the schlubby guy/hawt wife paradigm that dominates family sitcoms. She dared to prove that a housewife can be every bit as obnoxious and annoying as any man. What a way to break up a stodgy old boys club.

Mindy Cohn

Fun-loving Natalie from The Facts Of Life was the soul of the all-girls Eastland School For Very Special Episodes. She could always be counted on making the right decision while snacking on a candy bar. Her plucky charm always won over Mrs. Garrett and our hearts.

Connie Chung

Pioneering reporter Connie Chung is another example of a woman of other-than-pasty-white color breaking into a previously male-dominated field, in this case, network news anchor. She represents the inquisitive nature needed for person on the bench. Hard-hitting questions are a must and if any cases involving disputed paternity reach the high court, Connie's husband Maury Povich could add some technical assistance.

Natalie Wood

What better Newyorican could there be than Maria from West Side Story? Who's to say this singing star-crossed lover didn't go on to law school to help her Tony out of all his legal scrapes only to end up as a Supreme Court justice? Now that would be a great story. I'm humming "Life is all right in Amereeeca" at this very moment.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: What heroic woman does Sonia Sotomayor remind you of?

Monday, May 25, 2009

We Remember

Inspired by the beautifuls post by Claude and Alex, I feel compelled to post my own tribute to those that have given their lives for our liberty.

World War I Memorial

World War II Memorial

Korean War Memorial

Vietnam War Memorial

Flowers for the fallen.

Never forget those that didn't make it home.

Memorial Day Mind Mush

With the regular season of television over, I have taken to catching up on old television shows. Here is some of the stuff I have been melting my brain with.

It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. 5 episodes. I found this show surfing Hulu and got hooked on it. It's one of those shows where all the main characters are complete idiots and each episode revolves around some ill-conceived scheme. Somewhere along the way Danny DeVito joined the cast and he brought his inner Louie De Palma. The funniest bits are when these unlovable losers interact with normal people.

American Dad.
1 episode. As I was going through the Hulu list of top episodes, I kept running across American Dad. It seems to be one of the more popular series on the TV site. I'm not a big fan of Seth MacFarlane, but the episode I ending up watching had a World of Warcraft parody. South Park has done it better and funnier.

Sex and Consequences.
Back onto Hulu, I started browsing the movie selections and found this sub-Cinemax thriller aka Last Sunset. Joan Severance plays a manic-depressive housewife who takes up with a teenage kid while her cop husband Corbin Bernsen gets increasingly suspicious.The movie was a trainwreck I couldn't tear my eyes off of. Definitely avoid this stinker at all cost.

Firefly. 3 episodes. I never caught this seminal science fiction show in it's initial showing. I had bought the box set a while ago. I had plowed through most of the episodes some time ago but hadn't quite finished up the series. Two of the episodes had never been aired before this show had been canceled.

Freaks and Geeks. 5 episodes and commentaries. Perhaps the show I am most upset over getting canceled. I've blogged about how closely this show set in 80s mirrors my life in high school. I had seen nearly every episode on its first run, so I had never even broken the shrink wrap on the box set. I've started rewatching the series from the start. The DVDs are loaded with commentaries with at least one for each episode.

This is one of the shows that are starmakers for a bunch of the cast. James Franco is now a big movie star. Seth Rogen is everywhere, most recently in Observe and Report but also Zack and Mira Make A Porno. On TV, Linda Cardelinni has done five seasons of ER and Jason Segal is part of the brilliant How I Met Your Mother ensemble. Even the cameos are fascinating a decade later. For example, Rashida Jones of The Office and Parks and Recreation guest starred as a Journey jersey wearing tramp.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: What old show is on your Wanna See list?

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday Mourning With Weingarten

Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten, excuse me, Pulitzer Prize winning features writer Gene Weingarten (whom I have previously called an asshat), has taken a break from his usual cycle of fart jokes, doggerel poetry and crank calls to customer service representatives to pen a touching heart-felt tribute to his dead father. You can read it here. I’m going to go back and reread it myself. Please take a break and do so too.


I needed that break to wash the little bit of vomit from my mouth as I gagged my way through that diabetic-coma-inducing piece of maudlin sub-Mitch Albom drivel. It may be a little harsh to compare Weingarten to Albom since I have never read anything by the Mitchster myself, but my son was assigned The Five People You Meet In Heaven for high school English and he assures me it is truly awful. And it’s a particularly cruel comparison since Weingarten’s weekly online chat is presumably ironically subtitled ‘Tuesdays With Moron.’

In addition to his weekly scatologically tinged chat and his infantile column, Gene, like the constipated father in Portnoy’s Complaint, loudly labors over the three or four feature length articles he writes for the Washington Post Magazine each year. It was for one of these that he won his Pulitzer. He revels in taking the contrarian view and finding the twist in the story. A famous one is about a much in demand children’s party performer with a serious gambling problem. His most recent work was about parents that accidentally leave their infants in the back of cars until the baby dies from the heat. He took the pro-parent position.

Which is why I am so disappointed he went with the ‘aren’t old coots in nursing homes’ adorable route with this column. Now I bet a lot of you feel I am way off base here over a schmaltzy but benign piece of wistful nostalgia mixed with the bitter tragedy of watching a loved one’s mental decline. So I am going to have to deconstruct this and explain why this column is particularly nausea-inducing.

Having to institutionalize a parent is one of the most heart-wrenching decisions a child has to make. Dealing with the slow decay of a loved one’s faculties is tragic and Weingarten taps this vein as he details his father’s loss of sight, and eventually his memory. The first little anecdote is meant to be heart-warming, but I found it oddly disturbing as I could almost hear the ebony and ivory piano keys tinkling in the background as we hear about Gene's dad's lunch table partner.
One day my father told me that Mr. Williams had died. He was sad, but smiling.

"I read his obituary in the paper today, and I learned something about him I never knew. Everyone else here knew it, but I didn't." He wanted me to guess.

"He was rich?"


"He was famous?"


"I give up, Pop."

"He was black!"
Is his dad some sort of hero for having lunch everyday with a black guy? Would he have treated the guy differently if he had known he was black? Was the lunch time conversation so banal that no racially identifiable tales of Jim Crow or segregation or the civil rights struggle were ever mentioned? Just how is this heroic or touching? As a vignette in racial understanding it's a little troubling.

And then Gene finds it cute that his elderly dad finds an even older girlfriend.
Fifteen years a widower, at 85 my father found a girlfriend. Jeanette was another resident at his complex; her age and the thermostat setting in her apartment were both in the mid-90s.
I got news for you. Any guy in a nursing home with a pulse can get a girlfriend. The demographics at that age group are so skewed, every man there becomes the cock of the walk. Senior post-menopausal hook-ups are so common that some nursing homes are Petri dishes of what used to be quaintly called social diseases.

This is all build-up to the big finish that is supposed to make you just weep.
My father was an uncomplicated man; in a way, that was his genius. He taught me that only a few things are important in life, and that those are the only things that matter at all. I never really got a chance to thank him for that.

My father's last coherent words were: "My grand-daughter is going to be an animal doctor."

She graduates from vet school today, Pop.
Aww, ain’t that sweet? Somewhere up in heaven, a grandfather is watching his grand-daughter get a diploma. Clearly the value of an education is one of those “only things that matter” that so deeply touched Gene. Not that it kept Gene from dropping out of college three credits shy of graduation, a decision he regrets even less than his heroin addiction. He frequently berates journalism school as a waste of time and money. So big points for the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do hypocrisy there.

Gene is also a pretty notorious and vehement atheist that can’t possibly believe his father is really hearing his shout-out. And that is where the emotional manipulation is most blatant. He himself doesn’t believe in an afterlife, so this touching vignette can’t possibly be real, but he trusts that his readers will fall for this superstitious claptrap and get all misty eyed.

And while Weingarten deserves to be proud of his daughter, he has milked her tenure in vet school endlessly. He has repeatedly explained how vet school is tougher to get into than med school (and I say good for that, otherwise, every girl that once had a pony fetish would enroll and there would be more vet clinics in this country than tanning salons). He’s posted pictures of her with her arm up to the shoulder in a cow’s nether regions. He has used her as an unpaid expert when his readers write in with pet related questions. Molly’s career choice has hardly been a state secret. But his dad made the “My granddaughter is going to be an animal doctor.” comment back in 2006 and Gene has saved it for the most maudlin moment possible. I bet some version of this column has been sitting on his hard drive for years, just waiting for the right time to hit the submit button.

It must annoy this very talented writer to see other former newspaper columnists like Abrom and John Grogan hit the Oprah show powerball lottery and become famous and fabulously wealthy. Millions of people have visited nursing homes or had a beloved pet die on them. Only a few get to milk the experience into movie deals.

Gene himself is a pet lover and has ridden the dying dog driven publishing juggernaut with his own entry into the ‘isn’t that cute and sad at the same time” niche with a book of photos and essays with the admittedly punctuationally atrocious title Old Dogs: Are The Best Dogs. Right now it’s a respectable 10,473 on the Amazon sales charts, only four thousand spots below the hardcover edition of Marley and Me.

Writers are supposed to manipulate your emotions. Romance novels get the blood flowing. Horror books pump the adrenaline. Comic novels make you howl with laughter. Weingarten is a craftsman able to work words into playing into the reader’s hearts. He knows the tricks and how to hit just the right tear-duct opening notes. It’s just galling to be played so pitifully like this. Gene, you are a better writer than that and your father should be ashamed of you. Wherever he is.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Heart Of Rock And Roll

The very second concert I ever saw was Heart back in 1980 when I was still in high school and the ink was still wet on my driver's license. This week Ann and Nancy Wilson brought their current tour to Baltimore. I thought it would be interesting to see how they have held up after 29 years.
Heart 1980
Heart 2009
Blurry Overexposed Photo

Are you kidding? It was impossible to take concert photos in the 80s.

There were signs everywhere that no photos or cellphone pictures were allowed. I got this one off before security tapped me on the shoulder and gave me the evil eye.

Lakeland Civic Center: An hour drive from my house, but one of two places in central Florida to see rock acts, the other being the long defunct St. Pete Bayfront Center.
Baltimore's Pier Six: The open air pavilion where all the nostalgia acts go all summer long. It used to be all 60s era soul groups, but with Rams Head doing the booking the shows skew just a bit younger now.


Twelve bucks for the ticket and another eight for the three-quarter sleeve black and white softball jersey tee shirt that I wore once a week for a year.
Sixty dollars including an outrageous amount of of fees and charges. The souvenir shirts were more than what I paid for the whole show back in the day.

Pre-Show Attitude Adjustment
My parents read this blog, but lets say some plants gave their lives for my enjoyment.
Ruth's Chris has a killer lemonade martini. It was lucky I was able to find the concert without falling into the harbor.
Opening Act

The Heat: A band so bad they got booed for their entire set.

Daniela Cotton: A self-proclaimed Black Puerto-Rican rocker that thought it was great to be opening for such famous female rock role models.

Once upon a time all rock shows were general admission 'festival' seating. Rather than fight the mobs in front of the stage, we found seats in about the fourth row of the lower seating area.
The back of section 110 was amazingly close to the stage and we had a great view of the whole show. The Pier Six website lets you pick your exact seat. We got two right next to a pole, so I had a place to set my drink all night.

Stage Show

Straight ahead rock and roll. They had a huge gong set up just behind the stage that was there just for the end of 'Dog and Butterfly'. That was showmanship.
Rather generic. Just the usual flashing lights. The drummer was very distracting because she looked just like the goth chick on NCIS.

Amusing Anecdote

Halfway through a guitar solo a stray frisbee hit Nancy right in chest and she never missed a note.
Nancy still likes to rock and she does plenty of high kicks and spins. And nobody is throwing frisbees at her any more.


Nancy had big blond hair and a black leather bustier. What was not to like.Nancy is now a redhead and wears denim instead. Ann is well into her caftan phase.

Low Point

The string of three ballads in a row nearly put me to sleep.
With a huge catalog, two Led Zeppelin songs and "Reign Over Me" was a bit cover heavy.

Noticeable Omissions

I really didn't know much about them, so I had no way to tell.
They were pretty neglectful of their late 80s power ballads, particularly "All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You" for which I am very grateful.
Show Length

I can't possibly remember, but I did get home by midnight like I promised my parents I would.
100 minutes from the start to the end of encore. About the shortest show you can get away with.


There was a casualness to those old concerts in the crappy crowded Lakeland Civic Center which was inexplicably on the major concert tour circuit. You could get tickets just days before a show and general admission meant you always had a seat as good as you wanted to fight for.

Ann Wilson's voice is as good as it ever was. She tears into all the high notes with a fury and shows what rock is all about. It's great to see rock stars from my youth still plugging away with the same energy and not going the "seated and unplugged" route.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: How have concerts changed from your first ones?

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Path Of Illumination

WARNING: This post contains significant spoilers for the book and movie Angels and Demons.

When in Italy last month, I deliberately read Dan Brown's conspiracy theory thriller Angels and Demons knowing that there was a big budget movie adaptation coming out starring Tom Hanks. As I read the book, I mapped out in my Rick Steve's guide the locations of the major story set pieces and decided that visiting these locations would be a cool way to organize my free time touring. While the book on the whole is too preposterous to even merit deconstructing, I found some plot holes about the locations in the story worthy of picking on. So below are pictures of the actual places mentioned in the book with commentary on the plausibility of the action taking place.


The story takes place on the night of a papal conclave where all the cardinals are locked into the Sistine Chapel (For the record, Good Friday is absolutely the worst day of the year to visit this, although the elbow-to-elbow crowds make taking illicit pictures of the ceiling rather easy) except that four of the leading papal contenders are missing. Robert Langdon, the self-avowed expert in a made-up academic discipline finds himself trying to save Rome from some sort of substance just slightly less dangerous than the Red Stuff from Star Trek.


His first red herring takes him to the tourist-must-see Pantheon which is an ancient Roman domed temple converted to a church. There he meets Mr. Exposition who sets him on the right path. The only problem is that the Pantheon is closed at night so the entire scene including throngs of tourists at that hour is impossible.


From there he crosses town to Piazza del Populo which is only a short walk from the Pantheon to the church Santa Maria del Populo, but for plot purposes he takes a taxi despite the Pantheon being off the main roads. This church is home to the Chigi Chapel which is famous for its pyramids and other secular symbols that play a prominent role in the pseudo-conspiracy theory of the story.


Most of the chapel was hidden behind plastic sheeting undergoing restoration. I found the coincidence that they would be doing that just as a movie featuring this landmark critical of The Church was coming out a little conspiracy theory inducing in my own mind. But then nearly everything in Rome is behind scaffolding at one point or another, so it's probably just coincidence.


Langdon is unable to stop the heinous crime being committed, but he does get the clue to the next location. A more accurate title for the book would have been Angels And Obelisks. While not one of the titular items, obelisks figure prominently in the plot and the presence nearby is always shown as an 'aha!' moment of clarity that Langdon is on the right path. There are dozens and dozens of obelisks all over Rome, so from a plotting stand point Brown had his choices pretty easy. Nearly anywhere he wanted to set his story would be near an obelisk. They are rather hard to avoid. I passed several just to get to the ones in the book. Nonetheless, the one in the middle of St. Peters Square is one of the more prominent ones.


Langdon's clue solving him takes him to a small inset near the base of the obelisk marking the West Wind. He does this with a map and a ruler. Never mind that there are three other insets marking the North, South, and East winds as well. But our hero manages to pick the exact right one to be standing on when the next event occurs.


Langdon again fails to make the book and/or movie half the length it could have been, so we move on to the next obelisk. Perhaps the second most famous fountain in Rome is the Fountain of Four Rivers in the Plaza Navona. This large plaza is an extremely popular area at night since it is ringed with famous restaurants and serves as an open air art gallery. It was thronged with hundreds of people as we came by it close to midnight. So the odds of a major fight between the hero and the preternaturally strong villain taking place in the fountain going unnoticed is close to zilch.


In the book, Langdon saves himself by using a bubbler tube in the bottom of the fountain. There are spot lights and the open mouths of the fish serve as drains, but there are no bubblers. So much for Brown's claim that although his story is fictional, his descriptions of the architectural locations are accurate.


A little off the beaten path (and inconveniently not near any obelisks) is the very small church called Santa Maria della Vittoria which contains an absolutely gorgeous statue named the Ecstasy of Saint Theresa.


While historically said ecstasy was induced by an angel with a spear driving the spirit of The Lord into Theresa, Dan Brown makes the most of the more modern Freudian interpretations of the rapturous look on her face, perhaps justifiably.


The first four locations do conveniently make a cross shaped pattern (at least they do on my Rick Steve's hand sketched map, I don't know how precise the shape would be to a surveyor), but then Langdon makes the mental leap to find the villain in the Castel Sant' Angelo (literally Castle of Angels, duh) which has no cartographic relationship to the previous clues.


The bridge to the tomb cum fortress cum museum is the Bridge of Angels which is lined with wonderful statues of angels (double duh).


All this chasing leads Langdon right back to the Vatican and in particular, the Throne of St. Peter. DOUBLE SPECIAL SPOILER ALERT: From here the story literally nukes the fridge. {/end spoiler}

All the events of Angels and Demons take place in a single night, but visiting all these locations took me several hours and a couple of taxi rides over two days. And I didn't even have to fight off any offensively stereotypical Muslim assassins. While Dan Brown is a complete hack when it comes to perplexingly popular pot-boilers, he makes a pretty decent tour guide. You could do a lot worse in Rome than following the Path of Illumination. It took me to some extremely famous places and a few that, while not quite as famous, were well worth the detour.

As always, all the pictures are clickable and more are in the special composite Angels and Demons Flickr set.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Amazing Race In China

By the time you read this, the 14th season of Amazing Race will be over, but in the penultimate episode, they visited Beijing where I had been two years ago. Part of the excitement of the show for me is when they visit places I recognize and this episode was full of those events.


The fake pitstop was at the Drum Tower, an ancient building not far from the hotel where we stayed. I was disappointed the show didn't make the contestants climb up the very narrow steps to the drum level with its view of the city.


From there they had to go to the North Gate of the Forbidden City which is the quieter less crowded entrance. It's actually a good way to get into the Forbidden City which is a massive complex of buildings and courtyards.


At the other end of the Forbidden City is Tienanmen Square with the famous picture of Mao overlooking this huge assembly area.

At the area on the other side of the square is a tourist district with restaurants and shows. The shows feature singers in traditional Chinese opera costumes just like the ones the Amazing Racers had to dress up in.


There is an area in downtown Beijing that specializes in the very exotic foods such as scorpions. I never found it, but just a few blocks from our hotel was an open air kiosk specializing in fried food on a stick. For about a buck a skewer, you could try all sorts of mystery meats.

Birds Nest_Panorama2

The pit stop for the episode was the Birds Nest Stadium where the Olympics were held. It wasn't finished when we were there, but I was able to make this panoramic picture of the stadium.

The season finale took place in Maui. I'm going to have to add that to my wish list for places to add to my Amazing Vacations.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Dvorak's Quote Of The Day

As seen on Dvorak Uncensored.

Vonnegut never fails to make you think.

A classmate of mine's goal was to be President by 2004. Instead he was banned for life by the NASD for penny stock fraud before the age of 30.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

BooksFirst - April 2009

Books Bought

Odalisque: The Baroque Cycle #3 by Neal Stephenson
Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore

Books Read

Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore
Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
Love as Always, Kurt: Vonnegut as I Knew Him by Loree Rackstraw


If you follow my reviews you may have noticed that I tend to read a lot of humorous fiction but lately I seem to be a tough audience. Recent books by renowned side splitters such as Terry Pratchett and Christopher Buckley have left me flat. Finally, I gave into the many suggestions and gave Christopher Moore a try. Eschewing his new ubiquitous novels, I went for an older novel that came highly recommended. I’m glad to report that Island of the Sequined Love Nun lived up to its billing. It was the funniest thing I have read in ages.

Far too many comic novels start out with a clever premise but eventually collapse of their own weight as the plot gets into the way and the running gags start going stale. From the coitus crashus opening to the final escapade, this book kept the laughs coming the whole way. The titular love nun is a co-conspirator in a nefarious cargo cult scam on a highly obscure South Pacific island. A down on his luck pilot gets drawn into the game and he has to fight for his life and his sanity. The characters are broad but true to their stereotype or anti-stereotype. For a book that relies on the culture clash between western civilization and benighted natives, the book throws political correctness to the wind for great effect.

Moore impressed me and I will definitely try some of his other works. I just want to pace myself. When you find writers this fresh and funny it’s easy to binge and burn out.

A wildly successful author who is a complete and total hack is Dan Brown. Real writers must all have voodoo effigies of him on their desks as a constant reminder that talent doesn’t always win out. I read The Davinci Code just after visiting Paris and even created several blog posts using the conceit of retracing the route of Professor Langdon in his pursuit of his blasphemous macguffin.

When I went to Italy last month I threw in a paperback of Angels and Demons that I could never quite muscle through before. On our bus rides between cities I read this third rate travelogue cum potboiler with an eye toward the geographic landmarks used in the novel. I carefully mapped in my Rick Steves guide all the churches, fountains, plazas, and obelisks to get to and then used them as a touring route. Since the big budget movie version is set to come out in about a week expect a rash of tie-in blog posts from me or visit my Rome and (forthcoming) Vatican City Flickr sets for a sneak preview.

The book itself is every bit as preposterous as I expected. Langdon has the deductive reasoning of an idiot savant Sherlock Holmes as he unerringly figures out obscure ambiguous clues. Each set piece scene is breathlessly over the top and the coincidences just pile up like murdered cardinals. By the end of the book the surprise twists are coming so preposterously fast it’s hard to keep up. Not to cause any spoilers, but if the movie follows the book faithfully, we will have a new contender for the Indiana Jones Refrigerator of Doom Implausibility Award.

As a putative Vonnegut fan I feel obligated to read all the ephemera associated with my favorite writer. Unfortunately, as his corpse cools, the jackals have come out to feed on the carcass. One such ghoul is Loree Rackstraw, a student he had a brief affair with while he was teaching writing and waiting for the fickle finger of fame to strike him. That she actually has sex with him has to be inferred from reading between the lines because Loree is too discreet to say so explicitly even when narrating how his wife shows up unexpectedly in the middle of the term. Since the title of the book is Love As Always, Kurt she is clearly claiming some connection that mere readers don't have.

While the ‘fling’ (as she calls it) is short-lived despite being perhaps resparked once between his marriages but while he is in a relationship with someone else (again she is too demure to kiss and tell), she manages to insinuate herself into the rest of his life. She maintains a pen pal relationship with him and makes sure they hook-up whenever the two of them are in the same state. When he’s not available, she drops in on his ex-wife and children whenever she can.

Each chapter is roughly written around the time period of one of his books and reads like a bad Christmas letter from boring people you don’t know. Rackstraw goes over what is happening in Vonnegut’s life and then tries to tie all that in with what happens in her life. The suicide of her husband devolves into a pop-psychoanalysis of how the many suicides in Vonnegut’s life affected his outlook. She constantly name drops all the other alumni of the Iowa Writers Workshop as well as the circle of literary critics and groupies Kurt attracted. I recognize names like Peter Reed, Jerome Klinkowitz, and Robert Weide from my own obsession with Kurt, but casual readers are going to grow bored and confused with all the inside baseball.

Rackstraw’s fawning over ever word Vonnegut writes is obsequious even in the eyes of superfans like myself. She quotes at length the most banal of letters to her as well as her suspiciously conflict of interest ridden reviews of his books. Worst of all, while KV obviously meant a lot to her over 40+ years, he comes off as a bit of a shallow dick. I want to remember Vonnegut as the literary lion he was and her waving of the bloody shirt just sullies the memory no matter how well meaning she is.