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Matt McHugh
Matt McHugh.com - Blog - May 2005

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SUBJECT:
Annual Review
DATE:
May 31, 2005

Had my annual performance review at my job today. Been with the same company for 16 years (as long as my entire academic education), so this is something pretty familiar. Still, I don't enjoy it.

It's not that it's a particularly negative experience. I'm moderately good at what I do, but, of course, I have strengths and weaknesses. I neither dazzle nor confound. I'm a reliable workhorse who has room for improvement. I used to be quite a workaholic, but having kids forced that out of me, so now I'm just an average schmoe without even the luxury of being able to put in extra hours when I feel the need to shine. Somewhere, in my heart, I always knew I'd be a lifelong mediocrity--and now, pushing 40 and watching my boss check off "Acceptable" next to my name, just underscores the fact.

Not that this bothers me very much, though I do think it bothers me that it doesn't bother me more.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Big Head Bonk
DATE:
May 30, 2005

Took the kids to a park today, a big county thing a few towns away. They have a a very big, elaborate playground area and they blew two hours happily running around it. My son found a five-year-old to play with , which mostly consisted of the five-year-old running faster than him in tag and my boy getting frustrated. After a while, I suggested we all play hide-and-seek. When I was hiding behind a metal pole, both spotted me at the same moment and can sprinting over. As they converged on pole, there was a ricochet any my boy took a spill, at full run, face first into the pole.

Your first reaction to such an event--after a reflexive cringe at the sickening BONNNGG! of his head hitting the pole--is pick him up and assess the damage. Nice goose-egg right on the forehead. A quick-thinking mom gave me some ice from a cooler and I sat with him, trying to calm him down. I soon realized he was OK when he got even more upset at the prospect we had to leave the park. He wanted to stay and keep playing. At home, we got new ice and sat and watched Toy Story 2 (his comfort movie of choice); he was fine and the swelling all but gone by the end.

I'm pretty good with kid injuries. They've both had a few that required emergency room visits, though nothing worse than a few stitches. I'm not bothered by blood and even watching my boy at three, strapped screaming into a papoose, being worked on by a plastic surgeon closing a gash over his eyebrow fascinated more than upset me. The other day at gift store, my two-year-old girl got hit by something falling off a shelf. I thought it missed, but just startled, her. A minute later, I noticed blood in her hair.. even tiny head wounds bleed like hell. The shop girls were horrified. I just gave my daughter a lollipop and held a tissue on her head till we got home. She stopped crying before she stopped bleeding.

I'm not sure how well I'll handle the inevitable big injury, but dealing with minor, messy dings has become fairly routine.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Make Believe It Doesn't Suck
DATE:
May 29, 2005

There was one thing, though, that really sucked on our little family excursion to the pre-school-targeted Land of Make Believe amusement park in lovely, rural Hope, New Jersey. They had a little interactive story/show thing where kids and parents from the audience could dress up as different characters and participate in the play. In principle, this is a fine thing; in practice, it was done so poorly--took too long to get set up, story was too complicated and lacked a moral--that it was almost painful to watch.

My two-year-old-girl dressed as a gypsy, whirled around on cue, then wandered off stage. My four-year-old boy did not want to dress and participate but insisted on sitting through the whole story. He loves stories and hasn't yet learned to separate wheat from chaff in this department. I won't bore you with details; just trust me when I say it sucked on every level. As you might imagine, I'm quite the snob in this department, both as a professional writer of fiction (hey... I made $100 at it last year!) and as a parent who tells two bedtime stories a night. Crappy stories, in any guise, get my ire up.

Now, I'm sure there are plenty of parents who would just say, "Oh, the kids can't tell it's bad and they enjoy it anyway." In my case, that's roughly equivalent to serving the son of a pastry chef Little Debbie's instead of cake at his birthday party and arguing, "Oh, the kids like them, and don't know they're crap." Just because the kids don't know any better doesn't make giving them third-rate stuff--be it in confections or entertainments--any better.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Land of Make Believe
DATE:
May 28, 2005

Today, we took the kids to The Land of Make Believe, a real low-level amusement park nestled in mountains and farmland in northwest New Jersey. It was pleasant enough--and all but empty (absolutely the best way to experience any amusement park), though it started to rain heavily in the late afternoon so we were cheated out of both the hayride and the water park--but we did get to run around the Candy Cane Forest and visit the "Christmas-All-Year-Round" barn.

There's even a perpetual Santa there and both kids actually sat on his lap willingly (a first!). My boy told Santa he wanted a "Violet toy" (the force-field wielding big sister from The Incredibles) to go with his Dash figure. My girl just said "Yeah!" to anything Santa suggested. A doll house? Yeah! A teddy bear? Yeah! Some new dresses? Yeah! There was also a walk-through haunted Halloween-barn. Again, I have to say I was pretty impressed at my four-year-old boy making it all the way through pretty calmly. He held my hand nervously around the dark corners, and seemed appropriately fascinated yet wary of the vampire and skeleton mannequins on the walls. I can remember being older than him and having to be carried screaming and eyes shut tight through a haunted house ride.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Love My Digital Camera
DATE:
May 27, 2005

I love my digital camera (well, not really mine, since it was a birthday present for the wife two years ago... but you get the idea). Olympus D-380 2.1 megapixel with 5X digital zoom. Paid $200 for it two years ago, and considered it a bargain. Today, you can pick up ones like it for under $80. Everybody seems very hung up on higher megapixel counts, but that's just Moore's Law-driven industry hype to keep prices high. For ordinary personal snapshots, 2.1 is just fine. Granted, I'm a semi-professional Photoshop wonk and can make almost any image do almost anything you want--but still, 5 megapixels for the family Christmas card is just overkill.

My first digital camera was a JamCam 2.0 for $99 about five years ago. I considered a bargain. It was literally marketed as a toy and--with 20/20 hindsight--it really offered nothing but toy quality images, but for the time it was pretty impressive to get a 640x480 resolution camera with a built-in flash and USB connection for under $100. Now, I think you can get something equivalent to it for three cereal box UPCs plus shipping. Most of the pictures taken of the first 18 months of my son's life were with that little toy camera. I'm sure glad I don't have to use it any more, but it served me well.

What I like about digital is that you can take as many pictures as you like (my current camera holds 200+ on an SD card) without cost or penalty. Somewhere I still have a dozen rolls of undeveloped 35mm film from my photography dabbling days. Every photographer knows you take 24 or 36 shots and you're lucky if one's really good. Well, those 23 or 35 bad shots would always cost me $4-$6 and mostly end up in shoebox. Now I've got over 2500 snaps in iPhoto, and a least a few are real keepers. I love my digital camera.

But don't get me started on how I feel about ink jet printers.

-- mm

For those of you interested in the reference - Moore's Law on Google


SUBJECT:
Museum Pictures
DATE:
May 26, 2005

Some pictures from our recent family trip to NYC's American Museum of Natural History. All but one was taken by my four-year-old son. The kid has a pretty good eye for framing a shot, wouldn't you say? He doesn't understand that the flash will reflect off glass cases, but I've tried to explain that one to plenty of grown-ups who can't seem to grasp the concept either. Anyway, click for larger images.













I took this one

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Museum Trip
DATE:
May 25, 2005

Went with the wife, kids, and in-laws to the American Museum of Natural History today. It was a bit of a nightmare getting there; it's been a few years since that neck of the woods was part of my regular stomping grounds and I've forgotten some of the tricks of navigating around Manhattan. (BTW... the museum parking entrance is on 81st street, right under the planetarium. Yeah, it's expensive, but you're not going to find much else on the Upper West Side on a weekday.)

I've always had a great fondness for the AMNH, with its dark, slightly musty galleries filled with oh-so-19th-century taxidermy dioramas. They keep trying to upgrade it with splashier exhibits. Some work--like the Hall of Human Biology with its Australopithecus mannequins, or the always-controversial rearing barosaurus skeleton in the Rotunda. Some don't--like the addition of a dozen or so large video screens all around the Hall of Marine Biology (aka, the Blue Whale room)... really diminishes its dark, spooky charm. Though, my two-year-old daughter took one look at the 90-foot whale hanging from the ceiling and covered her eyes and started saying "No whale! No whale!"

My four-year-old boy had a much better time than I would have thought. He really loved the dinosaur skeletons and the dioramas and the fiberglass marine mammal tableaux . He even liked the infamous whale v. squid display. This one is a classic. Nestled under the stairs in the Whale room, it's a life-size sculpture of a sperm whale fighting a giant squid, tentacles wrapped around the whale's head as he gnaws on them. It's in almost total darkness, you have to stare for a minute to even make it out. It creeped me out pretty good when I was in my 20's but, after a cautious approach, my boy was calmly fascinated by it. I guess he's never had recurring nightmares of being dragged to the bottom of the sea and swallowed whole by a monster fish. May it stay that way for a bit.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Murdering George's Darlings
DATE:
May 24, 2005

In a recent entry, I defended George Lucas' right to make any kind of film he wants. I stick by that, but having just seen (and occasionally yawned through) Revenge of the Sith, I have to qualify that: the guy does better work when he has somebody saying "no" to him. No to his budget. No to his dialog. No to his relentless desire to recreate his kid-at-a-matinee experience by throwing everything in his imagination on screen regardless of how it smothers basic storytelling. George Lucas has, quite literally and damn close to single-handedly, transformed the art and science of film making to conform to his pre-adolescent image of what a movie should be. Sith is just his final evolutionary regression back into a 11-year old.

It bugs me. I really wanted to like the movie, and in many ways, I did. But it's frustrating to see so much dazzling artistry and intriguing subtext on screen being squandered in service of Lucas' arrested narrative development. Faulkner supposedly had a famous bit of advice for aspiring writers: Murder Your Darlings. If there is something in your work you love--some image or turn of phrase--that detracts from the its cumulative effect, kill it. Be ruthless in the drive to create work that is coherent and free from irrelevant digressions, regardless of how delightful they may be to you.

George Lucas bided his time and reshaped an entire industry until it was ripe to let him indulge his every darling digression. On one level, you've got to respect that. On another, you can't help but wonder how much better his last three movies might have been if someone occasionally had veto power over his decisions. George, less Jar-Jar... more Darth Maul. George, less cheesy dialog between Anakin and Padme and a little more lustful chemistry. George, cut a couple battle scenes in favor of a plot point here or there. You know it's true. He probably does too, but just can't help himself.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Revenge of the Sith
DATE:
May 23, 2005

Saw Revenge of the Sith tonight. It was OK.

Honestly, that's it. OK. I didn't hate it, didn't love it. Found much of it entertaining, a good chunk of it boring. I was more or less satisfied with how it ended, but I wished it had been a little more compelling along the way.

The main thing that struck me about it was just how full of action-packed digital effects junk it was. Oh, it looked fantastic, to be sure--but seriously, how many space battles or chase scenes can you watch in two hours? There were five separate lightsaber fight sequences... halfway through number three I was just sick of watching them, regardless of how "cool" they were or what the outcome was. By the time they get to "big climactic" one, you've literally seen it all before. Even in the much-maligned Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, Lucas had the sense to save the big duels for the end.

This movie is like a stripper who comes out nude. It's not so much a narrative film as hardcore sci-fi geek porn. Hey, fanboys... we know what you want, so here it is without delay and lots of it! Don't know about you, but I Iike some build up--maybe even a little emotional involvement (jeez, I must be getting old)--before the money shot.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Dollar Stores
DATE:
May 22, 2005

There's been a startling proliferation of Dollar Stores in this country in the last few years. What started as a novelty has become a full-blown retail trend, now approaching over-saturation. There are two in my little Jersey town (one-and-a-half, I guess, since one has stuff that costs more, though not by much), and at least five others in nearby shopping areas I frequent. The merchandise in them has changed as well, from a grab bag of oddball remainder items to a fairly consistent stock of staples, mostly from China though the food (packaged stuff, like cookies, crackers, cereal, etc.) seems to mainly come from Canada.

I have something of a love-hate relationship with these stores. On the one hand, I love cheap stuff and now I can get things from these stores I actually use: stationery, ink jet ink, small electronic parts, kids' books, etc. On the other hand, I just see them filled with tons of cheap junk made by cheap labor in China feeding American addiction with consuming useless knick-knacks that clutter our homes and landfills. That bothers me on several levels and I do what I can to try to curb that, but in some ways it's like holding back the tide.

We live lives plowed under with stuff. I like stuff as much as the next person, but I've become more and more aware of how little I actually need. I'd love to see myself--and my country--make some concerted effort to stem that tide and curb that addiction, but our whole culture seems bent on feeding that. And I personally see no logical reason to spend $50 at Staples for a set of inkjet replacement cartridges (made in China) when I can plop down $4 for bottles of black, cyan, magenta and yellow ink (also made in China). Hence the problem. For the sake of the long-term health of the American retail industry, I hope there's some kind balance that can be struck between cheap imports and pricey imports.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
MS IE Still Sucks
DATE:
May 21, 2005

I've been having endless trouble with Microsoft Internet Explorer on pages with Flash. My IE on my PC crashes on ANY page with Flash, regardless of version. IE on the Mac seems to hang up on pages that have Flash documents in version 7 and up, I think. I get have no problems with any other browser (all the way back to Netscape 4) and Flash on Mac or PC. Only on IE... BOTH on the Mac and PC.

I'm this close to going Firefox full time.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
#1 in Google Today
DATE:
May 20, 2005

Typing "matt mchugh" (with a space) in Google finds my site as the first hit today. That's pretty rare. It's been gradually climbing up from barely in the top 50 a year ago to consistently in the top 20 a few months back, to the top five over the last month. I think it's hit number one once before for a day, so we'll see how long this lasts.

What does all this mean? Nothing, really--but it's interesting to watch. It doesn't mean more people are likely to find my site (after all, you need to know my name which is already in the URL), nor does it mean a lot of other sites are linking to mine (one of the supposed big factors in Google page ranking). What it means more than anything else is that the site has been around and stable long enough for it to fumble its way to the top of a pretty specialized search. Certainly not bad, but nothing earth-shattering. I still have not arrived.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Beer Ingredients?
DATE:
May 19, 2005

Hey, there's no ingredients listed on beer. I'm looking at a bottle of Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat (my warm-weather favorite) and it says it contains "Michigan cherries with a generous portion of wheat malt"--which is basically just a paraphrase of its name. Elsewhere on the label, it says it's brewed with "Cherry Flavor" but there's no further explanation.

Everything else you eat or drink lists every single ingredient, often with alternate chemical names, yet beer gets away with the broadest of generalities. What the heck is going on at the FDA? They all drunk or something?

-- mm


SUBJECT:
iWant an iPalm
DATE:
May 18, 2005

PalmOne, the hardware arm of The Company Formerly Known as Palm, announced a spiffy new PDA today. Named the LifeDrive (sounds like some yuppie EST-offshoot self-help program, doesn't it?) it's the first PDA to feature a built-in hard drive (4 gigs) and boasts both WiFi and BlueTooth wireless. For you non-technosexuals, that means it can hold quite a lot of stuff (files, music, pictures, even video) and can connect wirelessly to near-by things (Bluetooth) and far-away things (WiFi) in certain hot zones at a Starbuck's near you.

Over the last few years, as the assorted realities of parenthood and middle age have set it, I've lost most of my gadget-lust. I never really had the money to indulge it, but I always enjoyed watching what gizmos came down the pike. PDAs in particular were always a weakness. I've had several, including the original wireless Palm VII (useless and costly almost beyond description, yet at the time, I loved it), and most recently got the wife that she loves, a , Palm Tungsten E with color screen and a 1 gig SD card for MP3s. Ever since I saw that model and played with an iPod, I kept wondering why someone hadn't basically smashed the two together to make a full-function PDA with a hard drive for MP3's. Hell, if you TAPED a Palm Tungsten to an iPod, you'd still have a pretty compact device.

Well, this LifeDrive thingy is the word made flesh, so to speak. At $499, I sure ain't going out and buying one anytime soon, but I'll sure stop by CompUSA to fondle one from time to time. That's what I do with things I want and can't afford to buy: I go to stores and visit them (when the wife and kids permit). The reviews of it have been good, but everybody seems to have some gripe (It's too expensive! What, no keyboard! No hardware volume control! The hard drive spin up takes 3 seconds!)--but most of that seems ludicrous to me. There's really nothing like in on the market at any price (yes, I've see the Dell Axiom PocketPC... sorry, ain't impressed) and if it has limitations, it's still a pretty ambitious little toy.

I'll give it your best next time I pop in to see it.

-- mm

LifeDrive product info on palmone.com


SUBJECT:
The Phantom Critic
DATE:
May 17, 2005

Lord knows I love to be a critic. Movies, TV, books, plays, music, art, commercials, junior high dance recitals. If I sit through it, I feel perfectly entitled to rip it to shreds for my own pleasure.

With the new third-sixth-final-prequel Star Wars movie coming out, I keep hearing all this buzz about it mixed with constant complaining from peers and professionals alike about how bad the last two were. Now I certainly had qualms with them, but for the most part enjoyed them. Frankly, I think George Lucas has earned the right to make exactly the kind of movies he wants (as does he) so I take what he gives me in that light. So many people love Star Wars so passionately that they seem to feel a sense of ownership of it. Hard core sci-fi geeks tend to do that: they want their beloved stories to be what they want them to be, not what their creator wants them to be. Strikes me as a little unfair.

I will sometimes watch/read/listen to some work of pop art and feel annoyed, thinking "I could do better"--and, in some ways, that's part of the inspired fun of it: imagining what I'd do. But I've never really had that emotion watching any of the Star Wars movies. I don't think I could do them better. Even moments I was not especially enthralled with were generally impressive bits of cinematic craft. I doubt I could even had thought them up (and I'm pretty good at thinking stuff up), let alone brought them to fruition. So I tip my hat and I buy my popcorn and keep my bitchin' limited to asinine minimalist productions of Shakespeare I've been forced to suffer through. (Hamlet in a straight jacket through all of Act II? Cripes, I could have done better than that.)

-- mm


SUBJECT:
A Day With the Kids
DATE:
May 16, 2005

The wife was sick today, so I had to stay home and take care of the kids. This is always tough. Work is a perpetual state of chaos and I never seem to catch up; any time away just allows the quagmire to deepen. As for dealing with the kids (2 and 4) for a day, I haven't quite mastered that art either. You get them up, get them dressed, make them breakfast, read a story, play on the floor, watch a cartoon, play some more on the floor, read another book... after all that, it's only about 10:30 and you've got ten more hours to fill.

You take them to the park, slide down the slide, swing on the swings, climb on the climby things, play tag, play hide and seek, walk around the perimeter exploring piles of dirt and leaves, slide-swing-climb-tag-hide, etc., again. Now it's barely noon and your wondering if can squeeze in an early lunch. A big problem is that neither of them nap anymore so you don't get that natural break. However, they do get tired and grumpy in the early afternoon, so if you've miscalculated and have them somewhere public at pumpkin time (like I did today) expect a meltdown of some type (like I got today).

It's amazing how love and enjoyment and blinding rage can alternate so quickly in dealing with your small children. They can amaze and infuriate you in seconds. You just want to scream: Don't you know if you just do this one simple thing (wash hands, sit still, stop poking sibling, put that thing back in the trash, what have you) that everything will be easy and we can go back to having fun? Can't you get it through your Cosbian brain-damaged little heads that when you deliberately piss me off, nobody has a good time! DON'T YOU GET IT!

But they don't... and screaming doesn't really help (trust me, been there, done that), so it's just a Herculean trial of your patience. But you stumble. You lose it. You explode and bellow like a constipated Wookie--then feel sick to your stomach for the rest of the day.

I sure hope the wife is better tomorrow.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Newsleak
DATE:
May 15, 2005

I have a few thoughts about the now-retracted Newsweek report of Koran desecration (copies of it torn, stamped upon, thrown into toilets) as an interrogation technique in Guantanamo Bay:

  • I believe something like it probably happened. Destruction of icons is a proven intimidation tool to demonstrate your power over the beliefs of others. They are, after all, trying to coerce information from the detainees.

  • I believe it was irresponsible to print it, regardless of how reliable the source. In quest of a scoop and--possibly--a desire to spread the truth (though I think that's a distant second to Newsweek's commercial concerns), they published something that could only be construed as inflammatory. I can grasp the importance of watchdogging in Gitmo, but messing with prisoners' heads by shredding some paper is not much of a human rights issue.

  • That Muslims in Afghanistan and elsewhere are rioting over this simply demonstrates how primitive they are. You heard me. PRIM-I-TIVE. As in unintelligent, undeveloped, backward, bigoted, etc., etc. Seriously. Killing and burning because you heard a rumor from halfway around the world in a place you couldn't find on a fucking map that some guy shredded some paper (note: NOT because of the detention or abuse of your countrymen or the occupation of your nation itself, but because of disrespect to a mass-produced book) just goes to show how far from ready you are to join the civilized world.

Now, I'm not saying that we don't have people in America this stupid, because Lord knows we do (I'm sure there'll be at least one Newsweek-burning rally after Sunday services somewhere in the red-state heartland)--but, for the most part, we do recognize the difference between a symbol and the thing itself. Not always, as evidenced by flag-burning amendment proposals that seem to keep popping up, but for the most part, I truly believe we are beyond that as a culture. If anything good comes out of this sad incident, I hope it's a reminder that Islamic terrorism and fanaticism are inextricably linked. We can not fight one and coddle the other.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
We'll Talk Online
DATE:
May 14, 2005

Overheard a 20-something gal on the train say on her cellphone as we went through a tunnel.

"I've got to go, the signal's breaking up. We'll talk more online."

It's interesting enough that she would say that to a peer, but it's particularly fascinating that I would know exactly what she meant. And I don't even IM.

We are through the looking glass, people.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Uncle Floyd
DATE:
May 13, 2005

Went to see Uncle Floyd tonight. It was a charity auction/comedy show/rubber chicken dinner to raise money for the Bergen County Zoo--a humble, but pleasant little institution I'm perfectly happy to support. Fifty-bucks a plate got you a buffet dinner (barely a notch above a Swanson's frozen), open bar with beer and wine (Budweiser and Sutter Home), and an hour of stand-up from Uncle Floyd, a Paterson, New Jersey-native, pushing-60 comic whose claim to fame was a children's TV show that ran 27 years characterized by his way-over-the-kiddies'-heads double-entendres and interludes on ragtime piano. He exists now as a fixture at low-end casinos and Catskill resorts.

The evening sounds much worse than it was. Though I do recognize and appreciate quality, for me, food is mostly just food--and, though I do generally loathe Bud, once you've tossed back two beers of any kind, they all more or less taste the same. And Uncle Floyd was actually pretty damn funny. Seriously. His whole schtick is a throwback to a Vaudeville funny man tossing out old jokes and older, goofy songs a mile a minute so you can't help but chuckle under the assault. He opened with a dozen rapid-fire "the hotel room was so small" lines ("I put the key in the lock and broke the back window ... I dropped my toupee and had wall-to-wall carpeting... I bent over and the doorknob got friendly ... just nod if you find one you like, folks" ) and never slowed down. The guy actually sang "Shaving Cream" and "I'm My Own Grandpa" and had the audience giggling through both.

I realized as I watched him that I was truly watching a pro. Here's a guy who's been standing up in front of people for the better part of four decades and making them laugh. He had no desire to do anything other than that. No illusions that he was profound or thoughtful or original or even memorable--but for that hour as you sat there with a bellyful of cheap eats and drinks, he would help you pass the digestion time agreeably. Nowadays, we have a phalanx of cookie-cutter sitcoms to do that for us, but I found it pleasant to realize there are still old-school craftsman out there that do it in person. More power to you, UF.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Halfway to Dictatorship
DATE:
May 12, 2005

A friend of mine said something tonight I thought was interesting. He was quoting his brother who, when discussing politics at some point in the recent past, said:

"We're just one party away from a dictatorship."

I like that. I tend to be generally liberal in my views, though I would certainly not argue that the left has all the answers. As odious as certain conservative arguments strike me sometimes, I have to admit they provide a counter-point that at least compels me to think through my knee-jerk reactions. Overall, I find Republicans and Democrats pretty much two sides of the same coin, each pandering to constituencies they are gambling have the momentum to keep them in power in alternate Novembers--and neither having the honesty to take on derisive issues with unpopular clear-headedness. I've lived long enough to see the pendulum swing back and forth a few times, and have come to understand that that's actually a pretty good scenario, all told. Checks and balances, tit for tat, and all that stuff the Founding Fathers were clever enough to build into the philosophical experiment that spawned this nation.

So, next time you're watching the news and hearing some loudmouth jackoff riling people up to oppose a position you favor, just remember that the position you favor has its share of loudmouth jackoffs to offset them. That balance of jackoffs is, my friends, no less than democracy in action.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Cinemasports
DATE:
May 11, 2005

I recently read about a film festival called Cinemasports, which its creator bills as "the Iron Chef of Film Making." (If you know the Japanese cooking show The Iron Chef, you get the idea; if not, no explanation I can give will suffice.) Basically, the festival consists of all the participants meeting in an auditorium at 9:00 am and being given a few scenes suggestions (a man and a woman meet; a homeless man yells; someone rides a bicycle; someone steps in something, etc.). Everyone then goes out and makes a movie, incorporating those scenes in some fashion. Finished films--shot, edited, and scored--are due at 5:00 p.m., screened at 7:00, awards at 9:00. Bing-bang-boom.

This sounds like a blast. I'd love to take a whack at something like this. Obviously, the finished films are only a few minutes long, and all shot and edited on digital video (i.e., camcorders and PowerBooks). I made a Super-8 film in college, and have tinkered with iMovie--that's a reasonable minimum qualification for such a slapdash-by-design contest. Supposedly, the entrants range from experienced film makers to students to complete neophytes. What fun it would be to mix it up and see what came out.

Short films distributed online are definitely gaining in popularity. Amazon.com sponsored a contest recently, and many major advertisers have tried to garner buzz by posting product-driven, yet arty, two-minute movies on their websites. Given the power of the technology and the shrinking of our attention span, it's a pretty logical evolution. I've got a few ideas for 90-second "flash films." Let's see if I ever get around to actually making any.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Rejected
DATE:
May 10, 2005

I just had the latest story I wrote for The First Line rejected. I was kind of bummed, not so much because a magazine rejected a story of mine (believe me, I'm well accustomed to that), but because I wanted to give the story as a gift to someone and having it professionally printed at someone else's expense always makes a better impact. I guess I'll just have to post it on my site and e-mail the URL.

I actually liked the story, 1) because it was about a topic I find interesting (the history of martial arts); and 2) because it had no protagonist. Most contemporary short fiction tends to be very character-, rather than plot-, driven, often little more than a study of a personality loosely framed around minor life events. I wanted to try to do a 180 from that and come up with something where the main "character" was an abstract idea and the theme was consistency through history, rather than change over a short time. Just to change it up a little, you know?

Well, I did actually finish the story and was fairly pleased with the result. That's really all that matters to me in the long run (screw readership!). On to the next project, then.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Adventures in 3D
DATE:
May 9, 2005

As a project for work, I've been working on a 3D poster--you know, the old fashioned kind where you wear the red-blue glasses (technically knows as an analygraph). Basically, it's done by taking a black-and-white image and making red and blue copies of it. The red-blue lenses of the glasses force each eye to see only one image at a time. Your brain merges the two images to form an approximation of the way your two eyes see the world from slightly different angles (i.e., stereoscopic vision).

To actually print a 3D analygrahph, the two offset images are printed on top of each other in red and blue ink. Different degrees of depth are simulated by how far apart the red and blue images are--the farther apart, the greater illusion of distance--and which side they're on (right or left). For example, say you have a picture of a tree with clouds in the background and a flower in front. You'd print the clouds' red-blue images set an inch apart, the tree's red-blue a quarter of an inch, and the flower's red-blue an eighth. That makes the clouds seem far, the tree closer, the flower closet. If you flip the red-blue images of the flower, you can make the flower seem to protrude from the picture--the classic comin'-at-ya 3D effect.

What's been most interesting about this venture has been dealing with a couple of vendors. Basically, I had one guy convert my black-and-white image to red-blue, and another make the paper glasses. Apparently, the 3D industry expectation is that one vendor should do both -- not so much for quality control but for a kind of proprietariness. Both vendors seemed annoyed they didn't get "the whole job" (small as it was... only a few hundred dollars total), even go so far as to be a little uncooperative. One wouldn't tell me the PMS ink colors used to match their glasses lenses (171 Red, 332 blue, BTW... I got that from another source) and the other flipped the red-blue images in an attempt to get me to go with his company's glasses--which were designed right-eye red, opposite of the more common left-eye red version. I didn't mean to open a whole can of worms, but I ended up having to juggle the two a bit to get what I wanted. I guess every industry has it's quirks, but I was kind of surprised by this. Ah well, no damage done and I should have the printed posters next week so we'll how this all worked out.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Jesus Has Two Dads
DATE:
May 8, 2005

The latest theological observation from my 4-year-old boy:

We were out walking around the block playing "I spy with my little eye" (it's so cute how he says that) when he spied a Madonna statue (that's the Virgin one, not the "Like a Virgin" one) on a neighbor's lawn. Here's how he described it:

"Daddy, I spy with my little eye something that begins with M and S and is somebody's mother on heaven and on earth and sometimes lives in church and has two husbands, one that starts with a 'Guh' and one that starts with a 'Joe'."

I'm sure at some point I've tried to explain that Jesus has two fathers and he seems to have generalized it to Mary (the "S" was for "statue") having two husbands. I couldn't think of any reasonable way to challenge his logic so I let it stand. I'm sure that will come back to bite me on the ass in the form of an indignant Sunday school teacher at some point, but I'll deal with that when I have to.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Omphalos Hypothesis
DATE:
May 7, 2005

In contemplating creation v. evolution arguments (when my blood pressure can stand it), I often like to trot out the so-called "omphalos hypothesis." Omphalos is the Greek word for navel, and the origin of this hypothesis stems from the old 19th century chestnut: did Adam have a navel? Being created, not born, there was no reason for Adam to have one. However, if he did not, he would be an exception to a universal human rule.

The definitive answer to this came in 1857 when an Englishman named Philip Henry Gosse publised a book entitled Omphalos in which he postulated that Adam did have a navel because God made him that way. Further arguments from the book supposed that God deliberately made the Earth to appear much older than it was--i.e., older than a literal interpretation of the Bible said it was. Eroded canyons and erupted mountain ranges were created so that they looked as if they had come about by eons of natural process. Fossils of creatures who had never lived were embedded in rock strata. Light from distance stars was created already far en route to Earth. The conceit is ludicrous, but absolutely impossible to prove wrong.

I bring this up to point out that, if you grant God absolute power and control over the universe and consciousness, then you can attribute any effects you like to divine will and wash your hands of it. Science is simply the process by which someone says, OK... let's set that "because that's how God made it" concept to one side and try to figure out a different answer based on the available evidence. The omphalos hypothesis is complete and requires no further study or elucidation. Figuring out why certain identical alleles are found in the DNA of differnt animals does.

Creationists are, in many senses, simply another form of navel gazers.

-- mm

Entry on the Omphalos hypothesis in wikipedia.org


SUBJECT:
Evolve, Kansas, Evolve
DATE:
May 6, 2005

A State Board of Education subcommittee in Kansas is holding several days of hearings where proponents of opponents of teaching evolution will present arguments in a trial-like setting. The exercise is supposed to help inform the Board as they consider changes to standards that determine how Kansas students are tested on science.

Now anybody who's read more than three entries of this blog or talked to me for more than 15 minutes knows the evolution-in-public-schools debate is a huge bugbear of mine. Creationists or Intelligent Design Theorists or whatever these primordial-soup heads are calling themselves nowadays just infuriate me, systematically polluting public education with religion, and a particularly small-minded, weak-willed variety of Biblical fundamentalist religion, too. If they actually think science is a threat to their religious faith, the know very little about either institution.

God created the world. OK...how? One is an expression of faith that is categorically unassailable by science. The other is a the beginning of inquiry into specific mechanisms that can take the first as granted with no impediment to its process. A God who could create a world of complex interconnected life by nudging a protein three billions years ago to start a cascade of self-perpetuating biology is one impressive Dude. That's some seriously intelligent design work going on there. I'd like to know more about how it all works, rather than just make up own stories about it.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Freudian Typo
DATE:
May 5, 2005

Today, when I came to work, there was a problem with the ventilation system. Basically, the entire building was about 80-degrees and smelled like raw sewage. It's the not first time this has happened, though it was the most severe. The building is only three years old but has had a host of annoying problems with plumbing, electrical, and HVAC. Not too surprising, really. After all, it was made in America. (Hey, drive a GM car for three years then argue the point with me.)

Anyway, a e-memo came around from Corporate Services letting the employees know they were aware of (seriously, you couldn't not be) the problem and working on it with Building Services. Here's the memo:

RE: Air and odor concerns

Dear Colleagues,

We have received numerous calls regarding an unpleasant odor throughout the floors as well as complaints about the heat. We have contacted the building management and are taking all possible steps to rectify these problems ASAP.

We apologize for any incontinence and appreciate your patience.

In case you missed it (I did at first): "We apologize for any incontinence".

The prevailing opinion is that the author typoed "inconvenience" and spell check stuck in the closest match. Still, it's pretty funny.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Song Parodies
DATE:
May 4, 2005

I've always enjoyed song parodies. I guess most people do, but I have a particular fondness for the art. The best of them do, by their very nature, what satire does best: juxtaposes disparate familiar references to facilitate humor-driven insight. Translated from the pseudo-academic, that means that a good parody takes different things you know (a familiar song, a current event) and smashes them together in a way that makes plays off what you know about one to make a humor point about the other. The JibJab.com "This Land is Your Land" Bush-Kerry cartoon of last summer was a perfect example. A classic American folk song used to lampoon partisan political arguments. You know the song, you know the candidates; put them together and the force of the satire is doubled.

When I've done little song parodies for gags, they're always received extremely well. That's not because they're particularly good (mediocre is a generous description of my musical and singing talent), but because the elements of them--that is, the song and the content--are familiar to the listeners. Familarity is a key element of humor, or at least people's enjoyment of it. It's easy to make everybody in the family laugh with any lame joke about Uncle Harry. Do the same thing to the tune of "I'm Just Wild About Harry" and they're on the floor. It doesn't have to be good, it just has to be there.

That's surprisingly true about many things in life.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Sheety Music
DATE:
May 3, 2005

So I did something I haven't done in, oh, 25 (!) years the other day: I bought sheet music. The theme from Cheers for "Easy Piano with Chords" (what we used to call "fake music" back in my junior high garage band days). I'm thinking about doing a joke version of the song for a work function and I needed to learn and practice the song. The fact that I need sheet music to figure out how to play Cheers, not to mention several weeks to practice it, should tell you something about how bad a piano player I am.

I bought the music for $3.95 from a website. They charged me $3.99 on top of that to "ship" it. It's literally an 11x17 paper folded in half and stuck into a stiff envelope... but, hey, everybody's gotta earn a buck where they can. Interestingly, this site let me download the first page of the music for free. Turns out that all the chords in the song, except for two in the bridge to the chorus, were on that free first page. I paid $7.94 for two chords. To be fair, one of them was E minor with a flat fifth, which I never would have figured out in a million years.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
Violent PG Movies
DATE:
May 2, 2005

I read a study from some group recently that surveyed a cluster of contemporary films and determined that PG-rated movies had at least as many violent acts as PG-13 movies... and both averaged more than most R-rated movies. They defined violent acts as anything that represented the infliction of realistic pain or death upon a person--such as a shooting or explosion. They did not (at least in what I read) make specific adjustments for how graphic the depiction. If a guy got shot and fell down, that was one. If I guy got shot and his head exploded, spurting plumes of blood and brains, then fell down... that was still one.

Aside from that fairly significant incongruity, I believe the survey, at least in terms of quantity. I find myself more and more bothered by cinematic violence. Old-school, bang-bang-you're-dead John Wayne stuff is truly, I think, less damaging than the more graphic variety that seems to be getting ever more popular--still, I don't think any of it is very good in the long run. And this is coming from someone who likes some pretty violent movies (everything from sci-fi-monster shoot 'em ups to Clockwork Orange). For me, it's more about the sadism--the depiction of violence as a means power and control--that's most damaging. Pulp action movies (e.g., anything with, say Bruce Willis, Steven Segal, directed by Michael Bay or Stephen Sommers, etc., etc.) have a way of wanting you to identify with the most powerful person on screen--regardless of moral value. You can typically spot the most powerful guy as the one who inflicts the most pain.

When kids (or grown-ups) see that, what are they supposed to think? Oh, he's bad so I shouldn't want to be like him--even if he makes everyone around him cower in terror. Not to make overly sweeping generalizations, but I believe all the acts of mass violence from ordinary citizens we hear about on the news are essentially driven by feelings of powerlessness and a twisted vision of way to get power. To say that violence in movies or pop culture don't provide that blueprint is to be stunningly thick-headed. (And there's nothing inadvertant about it... Hollywood & co. know exactly how to feed little people's fantasies to get them to part with their money.) Personally, I'm a pretty big supporter of the concept of "artistic freedom." Of course, with that, should come "artistic responsibility." I'm not sure the best way to educate/force/legislate the two into co-existence, but I do know that educating viewers--particuarly the young (that is, the old-enough, as the specific case dictates)--as to the manipulative nature of what they're seeing is the first and best line of defense, if you will.

-- mm


SUBJECT:
White Boy
DATE:
May 1, 2005

My 4-year-old son has become interested in racial differences. The other day at a swimming lesson, all the kids had to get out and stand at the pool's edge to practice jumping in. As he was standing, last to get in line (an interesting behavior pattern I'm spotted in him already), he kept inching closer and closer to the kid in front of him. At first I though he was just enthusiatic about the prospect of jumping in the pool. Then, I noticed he was putting him arm to other's boy's back and closing in. I thought he was going to push him into the pool until I realized what he was doing: he was comparing his peach-white Irish skin to this Indian boy's nut-brown.

The next day, we went to a big outlet mall that had an indoor playground. As he was sitting on the edge of a fake, hollowed-out tree stump, two African-American boys about his age where climbing down into it. I watched him put his hand on one of their heads (once more, I thought he was pushing), then the other, then his own. He made the circuit again and I realized he was feeling the different hair textures.

I grew up in a pretty exclusively white and, to be honest, pretty prejudiced neighborhood. Since then, the "political correctness" movement has made it all but taboo to acknowledge that you notice racial variation (as comedian Colin Quinn said: "It's okay to celebrate diversity, so long as you don't actually point out that people are different."). You hear liberal-types talk about teaching our children to be "color blind" ... fine, but does that mean forced oblivousness to simple biological realities? When my son was not yet 3, he asked a teacher at his day care why she was "that color." She replied that "wasn't nice to ask." That one still pisses me off. A perfect opportunity to explicate the concept of physical diversity (everybody has different skin, hair, eyes, noses, etc.) and it's greeted with a response that is fundamentally defensive and paranoid. I'm glad that my kids will have more exposure to different ethnicities than I did growing up. I hope they get out of that not the habit of learning to pretend they don't notice differences, but an awareness that human appearance is a large continumun--spectrum, if you will--and where you fall on that is innately irrelevant to any other aspects of your character.

-- mm




 





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