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Matt McHugh
Matt McHugh.com - Blog - November 2004

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SUBJECT:
Master and Commander
DATE:
November-30-2004

Finally saw Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World on HBO. Great movie all around. I recently read some snippet of something in an entertainment magazine that claimed old-fashioned (whatever that means) cinematic storytelling was dead. Nobody who's seen M&C could say that.

Aside from good, ol' rousing 19th century strategic naval warfare, I have to say I enjoyed the acting in this film particularly. There's a moment when Russell Crowe is visiting an injured junior officer--who doesn't look a day over 13--and you see a whole range of complex emotions at play in his face. Military authority, paternalism, and camaraderie vie with anguish in his eyes; a lifetime of discipline is the only thing that keeps him from weeping at the site of this wounded boy. Or another scene where he berates an inept officer, trying to goad him into resolve, until a tiny twitch in his face reveals the instant where he gives up on him. The subtlest of expressions, and you know the character's unspoken thoughts. That's acting.

Since it's on HBO this month, I'll probably watch the movie a dozen times in random order, dropping in at any point I happen to catch it. So I should more or less have most of the memorable lines memorized by Christmas. I suppose there are worse ways I could spend my evening vegetative time. And one must always choose the lesser of two weevils.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
NYC Airports v. The World
DATE:
November-29-2004

Flew back from DFW to Newark today, with the two kids. A bit easier this time, thankfully.

I've flown around the U.S. a good bit in the last decade, and I've been to a handful of international destinations, as well. I've lived in the NYC area for about 17 years, and will defend it's reputation as an unequalled metropolis in many areas. But airports ain't one of them.

In my opinion, the big three NYC metro airports (JKF, LaGuardia, Newark) are definitely below average in terms of such things as cleanliness, efficiency, attractiveness, entertainment (a non-small issue in waiting out flight delays), and ground transportation. They are adequate; buy many others are better. Nothing personal, LaGuardia... you just ain't no O'Hare.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
DVD Buying Kick
DATE:
November-28-2004

I've been buying a lot of DVDs lately. Well, for me, a lot means about four in the last two months. I've discovered this deal they have at Blockbuster where used DVDs are $10 or less. The stock it always changing--basically, it rental movies that are out of popular circulation--and I enjoy poking through the bins to see what I can find. Got Excalibur for $5.99--not only the best film version of the Arthurian legend but may well be the best possible cinematic rendering of the convoluted tale. Also got a live action Peter Pan made in 2003. I was in London when it was released in theaters last December--I recall the window displays in Harrods vividly--and was curious. Anyway, I figured the kids would like it in a few years. Finally, I picked up 2001, my favorite and (I strongly argue) the greatest film ever made.

This basic DVD of 2001 looks and sounds fine, but has no extras. There's some deluxe collector's edition out there that has a bit more apparently, but neither seem to offer any audio commentary. Obviously, Kubrick ain't around to do it--and, most likely, wouldn't in any event. Arthur C. Clarke, however, is still going strong in his 80's and tends to be pretty chatty about his work... yet nothing from him, either. You'd think that after all that's been said and written about the film, there might be a commentary track from a critic or film scholar, but again, zip.

To rectify this, I'm undertaking to record my own real-time commentary track for the film. I've started do some research, making some notes, etc. My intent is to post on my site as an MP3. Now, I need another time-consuming project like I need a railroad spike up my whoopsie-daisy, but I can't let this one go. Dammit, the world must know my opinion of 2001!

All humor and pretension aside, I want to do this as part of my legacy. Like this blog and my fiction dabbling, I seriously think of everything on this site as part of my legacy. I fully plan to keep mattmchugh.com going for the rest of my life... and beyond, if I can work out those tricky details. The world may not care much about that, but I do. Maybe someday my kids'll read it... you never know.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Terminal Spielberg
DATE:
November-27-2004

Watched the movie The Terminal on DVD tonight. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie features Tom Hanks as a man from a mythical former Eastern Bloc nation which suffers a coup d'etat as he is flying to the U.S., so he's denied entry into the country since his passport is from a state that no longer exists. He is shuffled into the international terminal at JFK by customs officials who can't be bothered with him and told to wait there. So he waits, living in the terminal for about a year, making friends and influencing people along the way.

The movie hangs precariously on that rather implausible premise, and a number of decent actors (Hanks, Stanley Tucci, Catherine Zeta-Jones) give suitably implausible performances in its service. The action of a good drama can not hinge solely on the incompetence of it's participants. Anyone watching this movie will find themselves saying "But why don't they just..." at several junctures, evaporating the premise with a jot of logic. But that isn't what really bothered me about it. It was Spielberg.

I have quite enjoyed a number of Spielberg films (Schindler's List, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, to name a few), but there are signature aspects of his style I absolutely hate. What it boils down to is emotional obviousness. Spielberg is such a broadly successful director because nobody can misunderstand him. If you're supposed to laugh, cry, or be scared (and that's pretty much his entire emotional palette), he makes certain the sentiment is glaringly obvious. Sometimes that yields powerful moments that take you completely out of yourself; sometimes that produces cartoonish scenes that seem almost condescending. Sometimes, he brings superior craftsmanship that buffs the emotional surface of the film to dazzling polish. Other times (usually when he collaborates on the screenplay), he indulges in a heavy-handed sense of overkill that pumps up sentimentality at the cost of sense. For God's sake, the man injected a musical number into The Color Purple... what more proof do you need?

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Texans for Kerry
DATE:
November-26-2004

While in Texas visiting the in-laws for the holiday, I've noticed two cars sporting Kerry/Edwards bumper stickers. They were both small/mid-size cars: PT Cruiser and Toyota Corolla (no red-blooded truck-drivin' Texan would go blue). Both also had a second sticker to disclaim or explain the first. Next to the Kerry sticker on the PT was:

I can hate Bush and still love America

The Toyota had:

Democrats balance budgets!

Personally, I think they should have just gotten straight to the point and said:

Please do not vandalize the car, redneck.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Thanksgiving
DATE:
November-25-2004

I piss and moan a lot (as you regular blog readers will attest). People might say that just fosters a bad attitude, but I actually find it a useful coping strategy. It allows me to vent, and helps me keep my expectations low to avoid disappointment. I may hope for the best, but I try to prepare for the worst, psychologically anyway. I don't view this as pessimism, but pragmatism. Me and the Boy Scouts and the Department of Homeland Security.

Anyway, on this day, I do try to pause in my perpetual complaining and think of the many good things I have. And there are many. In a strictly practical, materialistic way, I am better off that 90% (and that's a very conservative estimate) of the people on this planet. That fact is not lost on me, and I consider myself astoundingly lucky to have all that I do. I hate well-off people who act as if their privileged status is right of some kind, or who justify their self-indulgent extravagances with an "I work hard!" kind of argument. Oh, do you now? Well, there's nobody on Wall Street who works as hard as a third world farmer. And they very rarely get to buy themselves a Lexus as a reward for their effort.

You got money and what to buy yourself something? Fine... knock yourself out. You can even show it off proudly (stop by some time and I'll show you my new snowblower and vintage iMac and toy robot collection and portable DVD player with one-hour battery life). But don't delude yourself into thinking you're anything but lucky to have it and have the decency to be grateful.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
7 Inches and Can Go For Almost an Hour
DATE:
November-24-2004

For my holiday flight with the kids to visit the in-laws, I'd purchased a portable DVD player in hopes of keeping them amused. After trying three new movies, we settled on an old standby the kid approved of (note: ALWAYS go with something familiar; kids don't appreciate novelty in such things... and a 25th viewing of Finding Nemo ain't going to hurt nobody). It was going along just fine for about an hour when the screen froze.

So, this cute little Memorex-branded, Mintek-manufactured 7-inch screen portable DVD player for which I paid $179.00 (after $20 rebate, not including Sears' optional $30 two-year replacement plan) goes kaput after one hour. I discovered this was simply the rechargeable battery--which the manual says will last for "about 3 hours"--petering out. This annoys, but does not infuriate me, since the most likely sustained use of this gizmo will be on long car trips, plugged into the cigarette lighter (which is now called the "power port" on new cars). If the thing can cope with that, I'll still be relatively happy with the purchase.

Anyway, just a little caveat emptor for you.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Two Kids, One Plane
DATE:
November-23-2004

Just flew from Newark to DFW with the family. All I'm going to say about it is that back when I was a single business traveler, I had nothing but contempt for jackasses who brought their screaming kids on planes. Now I am one of those jackasses.

I have met the enemy, and he is me.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Texas Folk
DATE:
November-22-2004

I'm going to be spending Thanksgiving with the in-laws, who live in deep in the heart of Texas. Smack in the middle between Dallas and Fort Worth... God's suburb. The joke I always make about it is: ever see King of the Hill? That's where they live. Actually, now they live in a hanger on a private airport, part of a whole subculture of retired pilots who build their own planes like grown-up kids with life-size model kits. But that's another story.

As you might imagine, the ethos of Texas folk is fairly distinct from the NYC Metro-area ilk I normally move amongst. Superficially, they are friendlier, more pleasant, and much more overtly Christian (once saw a sign for "Sixth-Day Adventist Dentist"... I kid you not). They show the same enthusiasm for their pick-up trucks that LIRR commuters have for cellphones. And they do like stuff big. Their houses (land is readily available). Their cars (said trucks and SUVs... just try to find an econo-box on I-35). Their stores (shopping malls are titanic, even by generous Jersey standards). Basically, it's one of the last great bastions for unbridled American consumerism.

On the down side, they are a provincial bunch. The United State of Texas is branded on the consciousness, and Manhattan is regarded only a notch above Paris as an alien republic. Every region has its prejudices, but they wear their's with true pride. I guess snotty New Yorkers are no different in essence, but it's a flavor I'm comfortable with. Similar snobbery from a guy in a cowboy hat in a Ford F250 with a gun-rack and boat tow gives me the willies.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Opera Gun Simple Plan Dream
DATE:
November-21-2004

Had a fantastic dream--long, complex, with a plot that came to a full resolution, and pretty detailed waking recall. I only get a few like this a year and I like to record them.

It began as a documentary about Scott Smith, the author of the novel A Simple Plan and its corresponding screenplay. It was shot in arty, washed out tones in an elaborate Italian garden (lots of vines over trellises and marble arches) and three high fashion models huddled close to Smith (who looked nothing like the picture on the back of his book) like a chorus of Fates. It soon melted to an opera based on the book. I was in the opera (but I wasn't me) and the script called for me to shoot someone at the end of the first act. I had a gun loaded with a blank, but I switched it with a real bullet, intending to in fact kill someone under the guise of the performance. As the opera came close to the time for the shooting, police began to edge down the aisles to stop it--yet they were careful not to disturb the performance, like a scene from a Hitchcock movie. Right before the shot, a cop who looked like Charles Moose, the Maryland police chief who led the D.C. sniper investigation, climbed up on stage. Instead of shooting the character in the opera I was supposed to, I turned and fired at Moose, hitting him right in the forehead. A bloodspot burst on his forehead, but it was fake. I had switched the real bullet back to a blank with a blood squib--a ruse within a ruse.

I don't put much stock in dreams as revelations of the subconscious--particularly with dreams this elaborate and loaded with personal associations. Typically, I like to trace where the imagery came from (I had been talking to someone about A Simple Plan, remarking how Smith had gotten the Holy Grail of bestseller and screenplay deal with his first novel--which features lots of gunplay and deception), and examine the narrative structure of the stories my brain constructs on when on autopilot. Basically, it's an exercise in crafting fiction free from the burden of logic. We all do it every night, but it mostly evaporates in the dawn. I've found the more I work to recall and record complex dreams, the more they come.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Portable DVD Player
DATE:
November-20-2004

We're flying to Texas to visit the in-laws for Thanksgiving--just me, the wife, the nearly four boy, the not quite two girl, and 200 737 passengers for four hours. Over the last few weeks, the wife kept calling my attention to these portable DVD players in sales circulars. The pre-holiday prices kept edging down and finally tipped my stingy scales. Picked one up today.

Memorex-branded (though made by some company called Mintek) 7-inch screen portable player for $179.00 (after $20 rebate). What the hey. I was reluctant because everything I've read or heard about these low-end players says they fail. The screens break, the drive mechanism develops errors, or the thing just stops working inexplicable. I hate buying stuff that ends up as landfill before it's time, most particularly with cheapy electronics--but I rolled the dice anyway.

Interestingly, one other thing made the purchase at little less painful. For $30 for two years, Sears offered a "replacement plan." If the thing fails to work, bring it in for a new one or equivalent--no questions asked. I generally consider store-sponsored extended warranty-type plans the biggest scam since the Case of the Nigerian Ambassador's Lost Gold, but I fell for this one. I consider a Murphy's Law kind of thing. Since I have it, I'll never need it. I've wasted $30 on far less. The sales girl was particularly shrewd as well. She recommended I just bring it in near the end of each of the two covered years and get a new one regardless--a scheme brilliant in it's simple deviousness. Memo to future Kmart/Sears management: watch out for this gal.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Stress Test
DATE:
November-19-2004

Took a stress test today. Flying colors, thank you very much.

Nope, nothing wrong with the old ticker. I guess the fact that I get out of breath walking up stairs or have a dizzy spell if I stand up too quick is due to the fact that I'm overweight, out of shape, constantly stressed to the red line, worry incessantly, sleep poorly, eat crappy, and need a new eyeglass prescription. Actually, to get through my days like that, I probably have the heart of a Clydesdale.

I used to be in pretty good shape. Really. Time and tide, folks. It's kind of interesting to be all these things I never thought I'd be: flabby couch potato, grumpy dad, bumbling handyman, mortgage slave, balding 40-ish doofus trying to flirt with 20-something gals on the train. Do I stress over this? Nah. I'm embracing my inner putz... and he's perfectly happy to perpetually complain and do nothing. Viva la putz!

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Good-Lookin' Music
DATE:
November-18-2004

As I type this, I'm listening to Irish pop band The Corrs' 1999 album Talk On Corners on iTunes (ripped legally from a CD I own... actually one my wife got free in a publicity kit when she worked in advertising). It's pleasant music, well-produced and fairly banal, save for the Celtic recorder and violin riffs peppered through it. The songs, with titles like "I Never Loved You Anyway" and "No Good For Me," are perhaps a notch above Mall Chick weltanschauung--though they make an effort for some cred with said Mall Chick's parents with versions of Jimi Hendrix' "Little Wing" and Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams"--an infectious rendering almost worth the price of the CD in itself (had I paid for it).

Of course, the main thing I think about when I hear this album is how attractive they are. The Corrs are actually siblings, three absolutely stunning raven-haired Irish gals and their brother, whom they crop out of the publicity pictures whenever possible. As I said, I got the album from a kit my wife got from their agent when she was working on casting models for a shampoo commercial. I thought they were ideal candidates for selling hair care products to teens.

I've often fantasized about producing a music act. Just for the fun of it, I'd love to take whack at making a pop band, controlling the sound and image to capture the imagination of the fickle public. I've had various ideas about how I might do this, but it occurs to me that one couldn't do much better than The Corrs. Harmless catchy pop played by three beautiful young women (and their brother in the background somewhere) with just a dash of Celtic ethnicity to give them an angle. Not bad at all. Tough to top that one.

-- mm

The Corrs official website


SUBJECT:
Spouse v. Domestic Partner
DATE:
November-17-2004

I went through the painful annual ritual of selecting my health care options at work today. There was a time (pre-kids, pre-30) when I just took the cheapest, most-restrictive, HMO-type option. All I cared about was that an emergency room wouldn't turn me away if I got hit by a truck. Now, as sole provider for a family of four, I look at this quite differently. I always take the most expensive option. I estimate it costs me about $3000 a year out-of-pocket... a small price to pay for peace of mind. I'd just blow it on a plasma TV anyway.

Anyway, in the 20-page form where I choose the particulars of medical, dental, vision, life, AD&D, and pre-tax health cost account benefits, one sentence struck me. In an era where gay marriage matters more to most folks than rational foreign policy, this caught my eye:

NOTE: YOUR SPOUSE IS NOT A DOMESTIC PARTNER.

Well, judging by how much laundry, cooking, cleaning, and diaper-changing I do, I suspect my wife might agree with that. Though, in my defense, as I always tell her, it's my job to finance the operation. I delegate the details of day-to-day implementation.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Marine Shoots Insurgent on Video
DATE:
November-16-2004

NBC has shown some video a field correspondent caught in Falluja after U.S. Marines took a mosque held by insurgents. In it, an unidentified U.S. soldier apparently shoots an unarmed Iraqi lying on the ground, recently wounded, surrendered, or both. Naturally, this has caused an uproar.

As much as I'm not a fan of the Iraq invasion, I can't get too worked up over this one. All I keep thinking is what I'd do in a similar situation. Involved in a firefight for days. Watching comrades get wounded or killed, often by booby-traps or deceptions. Possibly wounded myself. Then finally getting into the opposition stronghold and seeing someone get down and say "I give up!" Anyone who would say they would not be sorely tempted to simply pull the trigger is deluding themselves.

For me, the real issue is not if the soldier should be blamed for what did in the situation--but why he was in the situation in the first place. The blame for that absolutely lies elsewhere.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
The Acronymicon
DATE:
November-15-2004

I was thinking today of the dizzying array of acronyms I know. I use them all the time at work:

HTML, XML, RSS, PDF, URL, DOI, OID, CGI, GIF, JPEG, TIFF, ROI, DRM, GUI, WYSIWYG, GIGO ... etc. etc.

There's plenty in everyday parlance as well:

COD, RSVP, ASAP, SAT, GED, GRE, ICU, EKG, MRI ... etc. etc.

Every organization uses them:

NRA, GOP, ACLU, AMA, IRS, FBI ... etc. etc.

Of course, academic degrees:

BA, BS, MBA, PhD, MD, JD ... etc. etc.

And that doesn't even scratch the surface from military, government, technical, cell phone text messaging, etc., etc. I don't know how many new words have entered the English language in the last few decades, but it seems that common and specialized acronyms must outnumber them 10-to-1--and that's no BS.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Medieval Birthdays
DATE:
November-14-2004

I took my son to a birthday party at Medieval Times today. For anyone who doesn't know, Medieval Times is, essentially, a gigantic dinner theater experience where you watch actors in knight get-up fight in a tournament while you eat chicken and potatoes without the benefit of utensils. There's a skeleton of a plot about a hidden traitor or something, but mostly its about staged jousts and swordfights and horse-riding and falconry wrapped with pseudo-Arthurian lore--and it's entertaining enough for two hours.

I was wondering how all this would register on my nearly four-year-old. He's an appropriately energetic lad and we've spent so much time trying to reign in his natural penchant for aggressive play (mostly directed at his 18-month sister), that I was slightly worried he might be upset by the theatrical violence (which is pretty mild, all things considered). In any event, I needn't have worried. Galloping knights and clanging swords only captured his attention in scattered waves. Mostly he was intrigued by the flip-up stadium seat and the lightstick he got to wave for our section's designated champion.

He definitely had a good time, but probably would have had as good a time at the opera--had he been permitted to yell and bounce on his seat during the performance. The best time of the day he had was running around in the lobby chasing another kid. More and more, I find myself struck by the simplicity of children. As adults, we often present them with entertainment too complicated for their tastes. A knight-fighting show is something we imagine would fascinate a young child. And so it does, for about 10 minutes. After that, they'd just rather be running through the aisles.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Ladies of The Nam
DATE:
November-13-2004

Went to see a play tonight that a friend was in. It was entitled A Piece of My Heart, about women who served in Vietnam. The cast consisted of about six women in roles as nurses, a Red Cross volunteer, a non-combatant Army officer, and a US0 performer--and one man playing assorted male roles. Staged without sets or props, it was a formidable acting challenge, with the cast continuously shifting roles in imaginary scene changes. It was quite skillfully done and worked seamlessly in performance.

Script-wise, though, I just felt as if I'd heard it all before. Too many episodes of M*A*SH and China Beach, I suppose. However, the idea that young men die horribly in war and the women charged with the impossible task of saving or at least comforting them suffer horribly as well certainly bears repeating in a "lest-we-forget" kind of way. Again, I was struck by some of the similarities in the Iraq and Vietnam situations (extended tours of duty, guerilla attacks from supposedly friendly locals, and government attempts to downplay casualties). There was a speech about how powerful men responsible for the orchestration of war are never held accountable for the suffering it causes that struck me as particularly apt.

I may have heard that all before, but there's a generation that hasn't. As I watched, I thought the play could have real educational value. Interestingly, my friend in the cast mentioned a tentative plan to stage it in select high schools in 2005. I'd pay to see that.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Flashback-to-Woodstock-Dot-Com
DATE:
November-12-2004

A friend of mine, who happens to be a priest (well, that didn't just happen... took many years, despite my best dissuasive efforts), sent me this link to a self-styled singer-songwriter's website, specifically with this song and Flash-y video:

sharedvoice.org/unamerican

The song "(Didn't Know I Was) UnAmerican" and accompanying video by Ian Rhett is a pitch-perfect contemporary protest piece in the finest Woodstock-era tradition. Many commentators have noted the similarities between the country's current situation and that of thirty-odd years ago. The rise of popular music as the voice of youthful dissent is truly one of the lasting social legacies of the Vietnam era. This guy has cleverly picked up on that and carried it over to a new audio-visual medium.

More power to him, I say.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
CarsDirect Responds
DATE:
November-11-2004

Sent an e-mail to CarsDirect (I said I'd get to the bottom of it!) asking about why pricing sometimes vanished and reappeared on their site. Here's an excerpt from their reply:

Our prices and availability of vehicles is determined by our dealer partner inventories. As inventories fluctuate, so does our pricing and our availability to sell vehicles at a CarsDirect Price versus a Target price. Unfortunately, this time of year we observe that as 2004 vehicles are becoming less and less and some 2005 vehicles are in high demand, our website will show lots of changes. Our policies haven't changed but as inventories change we have to make adjustments accordingly.

So, basically, they say their policy hasn't changed, but day-to-day availability changes what they can offer directly on their site. Fair enough. So, if you don't find what you want there one day, check back from time to time. As I've said, I had a very good buying experience with them a few years ago.

This officially concludes my obsession with this (for now).

-- mm

CarsDirect.com

SUBJECT:
CarsDirect.com Flip-Flopping Away?
DATE:
November-10-2004

OK... now I'm seeing prices and ordering information on CarsDirect.com again. I swear it wasn't there last night. This is bizarre. Maybe it's a browser/OS issue? (Mac at home, PC at work) Or maybe an intermittent software problem at CarsDirect? I've got to get to the bottom of this, for my own piece of mind.

By the way, I'm not really in the market for a new vehicle. This all started when I saw an article about hybrids and I wanted to find out more about cost and availability, just out of curiosity. Just like every American male, I'm borderline obsessed with new cars--though I tend to focus on smaller, more efficient models. Aside from hybrids (I actually think the Toyota Prius is pretty cool-looking; it's like an 80's Alpha-Romeo), I'm particularly fascinated by the Toyota-spinoff Scion econo-boxes. The Scion xB is certainly the boxiest--and arguably the ugliest--car ever put on the market. That alone makes it worth consideration (the $14,000 price don't hurt neither). I also like the suicide-doored, rubber-floored, split-seated Honda Element. And even though it's a bit passe now, I wouldn't kick a PT Cruiser out of bed, so to speak.

Of course, all this is irrelevant. I take a train to work, and our current car (2000 Toyota RAV4) serves us very well for now. When we do get a new car in a few years, it will be a minivan. With two school-age kids, buying anything else is simply an act of denial.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
CarsDirect.com Un- then Re-screws?
DATE:
November-9-2004

Hey, I just happened to check CarsDirect.com the other day and actually saw prices. A few weeks ago (see Sept 28), I noticed the site no longer displayed car prices but required you to complete a detailed form ("Serious Buyers Only!") to have a dealer call you--an exceedingly consumer-hostile policy that essentially puts the middleman back into the process and screws the customer.

However, only a few days ago, I saw prices and online ordering information on the site--exactly as it was when I used it to buy a car four years ago. I was all excited that they reverted to that extremely useful paradigm (even wondered if the "power-of-blog" had something to do with it?) that I sat down to note the turn of events. To confirm what I'd see, I just rechecked and it's back to the no-prices, dealer-will-call thing! Even worse, it doesn't even provide descriptive information on the cars! It's utterly useless.

WTF? CarsDirect, what are you doing? I'm imagining there's a battle over the server between warring factions within the company--the red cubes v. the blue cubes--to determine the fate of online car sales.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Website, Right After These Messages
DATE:
November-8-2004

Proving once again its all-things-to-all-people quality, there are a number of websites that provide excellent fare for pre-school kids. The PBS Kids site is chock-full of games and activities that amuse my nearly four-year-old wonderfully while I bathe and put his 1.5-year-old sister to bed. Playhouse Disney isn't bad either, and Noggin and NickJr are perennial standbys. Basically, they're all based around the TV programming of each entity, and the boy's gotten really good at navigating around them. Some of the activities ask you to type your name, which he loves. He actually clicked on OneLook Dictionary Search in my browser toolbar and looked up his name accidentally. I was still pretty impressed. (Note to self: be careful what you bookmark.)

I've always felt less guilty over parking him in front of the computer rather than the TV when I need him distracted. At least the computer's interactive and some of the stuff is pretty educational. In any event, I never felt too concerned about the negative influences what he might encounter on these websites--until now. NickJr.com has started inserting videos of toy commercials into their site. When you navigate to a game, an ad for a talking Blue doll runs first. In fairness to them, you can skip over it with a click. While this perfectly acceptable for a site targeted at adults, I take exception to the commercial being present at all on the kids' site.

First of all, the entire NickJr site is, essentially, advertising. When your kid plays a free Dora the Explorer game online for half an hour, that brand seeps into his consciousness rather pervasively. That's the innate bargain you make with such sites and, frankly, I have no problem with it. But when they start with hard-sell toy ads, that bugs me. The boy's just getting to the stage where he sees advertised things and says "I wish we could have that." We've managed to sidestep that pretty well so far, and I have no desire to push it. I have nothing against commercial toys, it's the marketing aimed at kids that I don't like. I play with my kid every day. I know what he likes, and I know what I think is appropriate to buy him. I don't need the subversion of Madison Avenue pushing pre-school consumerism trying to tilt the balance.

-- mm

PBS Kids.org
PlayhouseDisney.com
Noggin.com
NickJr.com

SUBJECT:
Sunday Day's All Right for Running
DATE:
November-7-2004

So I'm outside raking leaves (You could hide an H2 in the pile I got from the yard... and you should. Seriously, it's the only way the thing could ever look environmentally friendly) and I remark on what a stunning day it is. Bright, sunny, dry, practically short-sleeve warm -- a perfect fall day, arguably the year's finest weather. My wife then asks me if I know why it's such a nice day. I say no, and she says:

"The marathon."

And she's right.

The New York City Marathon is today. In the 16 years I have lived in or around the NYC area, the second Sunday in November designated for the marathon has always been an unseasonably stunning day. I can't think of one that wasn't. Can anybody? I'll have to look back over the records, but if there's one within the last 10 years that wasn't over-50 and sunny, I'll dump a Gatorade on my head. Weird how the weather obeys the calendar sometimes.

Conversely, the night before Thanksgiving is always one of the most bitterly cold and windy days of the year. Really. You could look it up.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Lock Up Your Daughters
DATE:
November-6-2004

Watched the movie Thirteen on cable. It's a pretty harrowing depiction of a sweet 13-year-old girl degenerating into serious sex/drugs/crime self-destructiveness. While I found some of it a little stretched, much was dead on. Stylistically, the film is literally dizzying, with a hand-held camera following the action like a stoned kid struggling to stay focused. The performances by the two lead teenage actresses (one is credited at the film's co-author) are impressive and disturbing, as is Holly Hunter as the loving-but-in-way-over-her-head recovering alcoholic single mother.

One of the most interesting things about the film is how it shows that personal insecurity sets off the lead girl's slide. What parents (including scores of yammering religious groups offering parenting advice) often forget is that "peer pressure" is more often passive than active. The cool drug-using kids typically don't encircle the nerdy non-drug using kid and badger him to take a hit. That's the "Just Say No!" situation Nancy Reagan prepared us all for. No, the cool kids ignore the nerdy kid. The nerdy kid must then be proactive and pull some high-profile stunt to impress the cool kids. Where does saying "No!" come in? Say no to belonging? Say no to attention? Say no to finding a social tonic to ease the awkwardness of transitioning from childhood?

I don't know how I'm going to keep my kids from becoming drug addicts. I really don't. My best hope is to try to help them strengthen their egos enough so that they won't crave the cool kids' validation so desperately. To help them find things they're good at, that give them a sense of identity and accomplishment, so they won't have such a big empty space to fill when the tidal wave of the teen years hits. And I have to do it without appearing to, so they won't rebel at my meddling. Tricky business, this parenting thing. No wonder so many who try it fail miserably.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Guns in Schools Gone Way Too Far
DATE:
November-5-2004

As if we don't have enough freaking problems, some chowderhead National Guard Top Gun wannabe in an F-16 strafed a New Jersey school on Wednesday night. The Little Egg Harbor Intermediate School is only a few miles from an area used for target practice for fighter pilot trainees. Apparently one of them got a little off course and fired 25 rounds of 20mm ammunition at the roof of the school. It was at night and no one hurt, but that's not the point. The big questions, as I see it, are:

  1. How could a pilot be permitted to get that far off course in a training exercise?
  2. What the hell is a school doing a few miles from a live ammo firing range for fighter jets? (Or vice versa... not sure if the school or range came first)

I grew up in a little Pennsylvania town sandwiched between two major naval air stations. Seeing military planes flying overhead was a year-round thing. In the summer, we went to the air shows to see the Blue Angels and walk through tank transport planes. Co-existence with serious military hardware is a lifelong fact of my life. They may have been noisy, but at least they never strafed us.

One of the most telling statistics to come out of the Iraq war is that about 1,100 U.S. soldiers have died so far--but only about 800 were killed in combat. That means about 300--nearly one-quarter--of the U.S. military casualties in Iraq are attributed, plainly and simply, to errors.

Yep. The tools of modern warfare are pretty damn dangerous in any situation, in case you were still wondering.

-- mm

Fighter jet strafes New Jersey school on cnn.com


SUBJECT:
The New, Jersey Metal-lands
DATE:
November-4-2004

Every day, I ride a commuter train through the New Jersey Meadowlands. Not the sports complex thusly named, but the real ones. Wide, flat, wet grasslands running between the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers to the palisades of Hoboken. They do not make an especially attractive landscape, though I find anything unscarred by development--particularly in New Jersey--beautiful.

Alas, they're vanishing. The new Secaucus Junction train station. A new turnpike exit being built for it. A Sam's Club or Price Club or one of those warehouse stores. Xanadu, a monstrous sports-entertainment complex that will spill into it from already developed areas. Riverside condos. Some recently plowed-under acreage that I don't know what it's for. A serene stretch of unspoiled land being carved up at last.

I'm not a hard-core naturalist by nature. I believe that humans have every right to be the masters of this planet and use it to suit our needs. I just don't think building more junky temples of commerce on primordially empty land serves our interest. Land is like virginity... once you despoil it, there's no going back. I preach the gospel of terrestrial abstinence: don't screw with the land unless you're going to marry it for life. Real estate developers who live in $3 million dollar homes in Alpine aren't going to marry the Meadowlands. They're just fooling around.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
The 51% Solution
DATE:
November-3-2004

Nope. Dubya stays. He got 51%. In modern politics, they call that a mandate. In business, it's called a hostile takeover.

Once I got over the rage and nausea of realizing half the people in this great nation don't think the guy should be held accountable for prosecuting an un-winnable war that will (mark my words... though I'd love to be wrong on this) result in an American death toll rivaling 9/11, I started to look on the bright side. At least King George II will have to deal with the consequences of his own actions. As Colin Powell (who, rumor has it, may resign out of frustration with the administration) is reputed to have said: "If you do this, Mr. President, you'll own it." Yep. We own it for at least four more years.

I am not so ghoulish as to wish ill in any form on our nation just so Dubya looks bad. I've said it before and I repeat it now: if, ten years from now, invading Iraq proves to have been a good idea, I'll gladly eat these words and lionize George Walker Bush as a man of greater courage and vision than I could grasp. Until then, I'll exercise my still constitutionally guaranteed (last time I checked) freedom to think the man a dangerous moron.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Electoral Collage
DATE:
November-2-2004

Election day. For me, it's very easy. I walk over to the local high school, sign in a few places, then go right to a booth. Takes, literally, two minutes. On the news, I see footage of people waiting in lines to vote for, literally, hours. I wonder if I'd actually bother to do that? I'm pretty passionate about this election, so I like to think I would tough it out.

I've always thought poorly of "one-issue" voters. People who make their choice pretty much solely based on a single point. Most typically, it's abortion in such cases. Gay marriage and flag burning bring 'em out, too. Many just vote along straight party lines with no effort to learn about the candidates or issues. On the flip side, with the complexities of national and international economics, law, social policy--not to mention bureaucratic process and systematic campaign disinformation--you more or less have to be a full-time political scientist to make a truly informed choice. The sad fact is most people, even reasonably intelligent ones, make a largely ignorant decision based on spotty knowledge of the issues and gut feeling. OK, then... here's mine:

Dubya should lose his job for sending some 1,100 (so far) Americans to their deaths, maiming thousands of others, killing tens of thousands of Iraqis, and deceiving the nation and it's allies into a costly and strategically unsound war that has done nothing but weaken U.S. defenses and increased the opportunities for Islamic terrorists to act in the MidEast and abroad with wide-ranging Arab support. Seriously, if you fucked up like that at work, the least that would happen is you'd lose your job.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
How The Grand Canyon Was Creationized
DATE:
November-1-2004

The New York Times Science section last week had an article about a creationist book that is being stocked in a National Park Service bookstore in the Grand Canyon. It offers a Biblical fundamentalist explanation of how the canyon came to be, i.e., scooped out by Noah's flood 5,000 year ago. Naturally, this has brought protests from geologists and park officials who feel that one of the park's purposes should be to help educate visitors in legitimate science. Rather than asking for its removal, they have diplomatically petitioned that the creationist tome be shelved within a section for religious books to avoid confusion with reputable scientific works. It's a reasonable request, laced with concession to the idea of peaceful co-existence and tolerance, but it still rankles me.

Creationists--particularly "young Earth" Biblical literalist creationists--have succeeded (with the collusion of spineless, profit-driver publishers) in stripping the word "evolution" from most of the sub-college biology textbooks adopted in public schools around the country. They invoke the right to have "equal time" for their pseudo-scientific theories built into the curriculum, and timid and/or ignorant school board acquiesce all too often. We're raising kids who won't be able to tell the difference between religion and science, who will confuse faith and knowledge. That serves no one's good (unless, of course, Jeb decides to run).

I think every public school child should learn about the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition that God created the world in seven days. They should also learn the cosmology and core doctrine from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Shintoism, etc. etc. If you honestly espouse a principle of equal time to different viewpoints, then the ideal solution is a well-rounded religion class that teaches about the plurality of world faiths--in nice, democratic proportion to their numbers of adherents--in a course designed to make them understanders, not necessarily believers. Don't mess with the categorically separate discipline of science in the name of education. It absolutely infuriates me that we still wrestle with this one at all. Swear to God.

-- mm




 





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