Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Another year has come and gone

Once again, it's New Year's Eve, I'm at work, listening to WQXR's Classical Countdown for 2003. I guess this is what adulthood is really like: the same thing as last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, too. It's not so bad. At least there isn't much work to do today. And the music is great. WQXR doesn't always play the standard hits by the usual composers, so it's a welcome change to hear my old favorites when I haven't heard them all year. And during the countdown, you hear the entire work, uninterrupted, which is unusual for ad-driven radio. Right now, they're playing Handel's entire Water Music suite, all 59 minutes of it.

I've stayed away from most year-in-review material so far, except for Dave Barry's annual list and the roll call of the dead on CBS Sunday Morning this past weekend. Here's my 2003 review: I went on some great trips, both for business (London and Frankfurt) and for pleasure (Mississippi, Maryland [twice], Pennsylvania). Liz and I moved into a larger apartment. I read some great books, saw a few excellent movies (and a bunch of not-so-good ones), and even got a chance to play the viola again. On the other hand, I've endured a few nasty terror alerts, a blackout, a hurricane (and subsequent blackout), and I suspect my suffering on the 4/5 subway lines has only begun. My grandmother passed away this year, but I did see her in England one last time just a few weeks before she died, and I'll always be grateful I had that opportunity. Overall, above average. At least it wasn't ever dull.

I'm making just one resolution for 2004: get to work earlier.

We don't have any big New Year's Eve plans tonight. I hate to think I'm getting old, but the idea of fighting crowds at a bar or restaurant isn't too appealing anymore. The fact that it's another "amateur night" doesn't make revelry any more attractive. We had a good time at Cafe Wha? last year, but I'm getting to the point that staying in or hanging out with friends sounds like the best bet. So we're staying home, watching movies and ordering food, and looking forward to 2004.

Monday, December 29, 2003

"Well, we're back."

When you've only been away for six days, paraphrasing Sam Gamgee doesn't have the same effect as it does in the book.

Liz and I were in Johnstown, PA for most of last week, visiting my mother and other family and friends. I got to meet some new additions to my extended family and catch up with old friends I hadn't seen in ten years or more. I could have used one more day at home but we did almost everything that we'd planned on, and ate enough for three vacations, so I suppose six days was enough.

We took the train from New York to Johnstown and decided that's the only way to travel. It took about eight hours each way but driving would have taken almost that long and flying about the same (once you factor in the travel time to and from the airport, the wait at the airport, and the drive from Pittsburgh to Johnstown). Once you're on the train, there's nothing to worry about, except falling asleep and missing your stop, which has never happened to us. You can use your computer, cell phone, or PDA as much as you want, you can eat and drink anytime, and you are always free to move about the train. It's the most stress-free long-distance travel experience we've had in years. And it's the cheapest way to get there from here! I just hope that the rumors of Amtrak closing the Harrisburg to Pittsburgh rail link are just rumors, because after taking the train, I'd hate to go back to driving. And then travelers would miss the famous Horseshoe Curve.

One of the highlights of the trip was something I hadn't planned on: cleaning my bedroom. I have this old clothes bureau that's been in my room since I was about seven years old. As soon as I got it, I started putting all sorts of junk into it, everything from schoolwork and newspapers to crafts projects to small toys to hard candy. The past few times I've been home, my mother has asked me to look through all the stuff in my room and see if I could throw anything away. I spent most of Friday afternoon sorting through all the bureau drawers and tossed two large bags' worth of junk: the aforementioned old hard candy and school newspapers, broken toys, many duplicate concert programs, and all sorts of detritus that a boy tends to collect over fifteen years. I kept all the work I did as a student, even though I doubt I'll ever need any of it again. I just thought that I should have evidence of my public school education, at least until I clean out the bureau again.

Monday, December 22, 2003

I hate orange alerts

Once again, there are vague and mysterious threats to our national security, so once again we're on orange alert thanks to the DHS. While the news stories tell of al Qaida operatives disguised as foreign pilots and dirty bombs inside the US, Tom Ridge tells us to go about our business: travel, shop, enjoy the holiday. Meanwhile, we'll be at orange until the end of January. I'm supposed to be calm with all this madness going on? It's enough trouble for me to finish preparing for the holidays; I don't need to worry about whether Manhattan will still be here next week. I wish that DHS would either tell us exactly what the threat is, or not tell us about the orange alert status in the first place. If we can't be trusted with the details of the threats, then we shouldn't need to know that they exist. If there's an attack, it won't make much different if we knew that we were at a greater risk before it happened. One news story mentioned that al Qaida detainees have said that increased security discourages planned attacks, so I guess that's why DHS bothers to tell us about these threats at all. Even so, I'd rather not know about the threats or the alerts. I guess my only option is to stop reading the stories. Just note the orange alert, get more bottled water and canned soup, and go about my daily business.

And if we have access to all this e-mail and cell phone traffic, why are we not arresting more al Qaida operatives? If we're listening in on their communications, it would seem we know who these people are. Our government hasn't shown much reticence toward arresting people on mere suspicions before now, so what's the holdup?

Thursday, December 18, 2003

My late-night, best as I can remember it, spoiler-filled review of The Return of the King

It's definitely the best of this trilogy, and it affirms the entire trilogy in my all-time best movies pantheon. As much as I'd wanted to be, I hadn't been moved to tears by any scenes in the first two films. But for ROTK, the theater was dusty and my allergies kicked in more than once. I'll admit that I wasn't completely into the movie for the first hour or so: I was enjoying it, but I was thinking that I liked The Two Towers better so far. All that changed when the Rohirrim arrived at Minas Tirith and Theoden spoke to his army. My favorite scene in the book is at the end of the chapter entitled "The Siege of Gondor," when Tolkien writes, "Horns, horns, horns. Horns wildly blowing from the north. Rohan had come at last." (indicating the arrival of the riders of Rohan). This scene in the movie equaled my expectations and kicked the movie into another plane of filmmaking, as far as I'm concerned. The Battle of the Pelennor Fields was every bit as exciting as it is on the page, and then some. I missed the Mouth of Sauron at the gates of Mordor, but Aragorn's inspirational speech and the resulting confrontation didn't lack for excitement either. The Frodo-Sam-Gollum triangle was even better this time around. Even more than last year, Andy Serkis deserves consideration for Best Supporting Actor. His Gollum is even more cunning and deceitful than he was in TTT, and Serkis does an amazing job with the role. I especially liked the Smeagol and Deagol opening scene, where we find out how Smeagol became Gollum. But the best and most moving scene in the movie was at the end, when Aragorn, now King Elessar, and all the people of Gondor bow before the four hobbits. I admit that the theater got really dusty then. The ending was a little drawn out, but the stories needed to be wrapped up and there's no other way to end it than to put Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf and Elrond on the ship. I'm sure the ending will be extra long in the extended edition next fall. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the extended version of ROTK runs five hours.

I'm sure there were more things I wanted to mention in this review. It would be more coherent if it hadn't taken me over an hour to get home on the subway. (Remember kids, the 42nd St. shuttle doesn't run between midnight and 6 AM!) So I'm sure you won't mind if I write more about this later, especially after I see it a few more times.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

I need my Stadium Buddy tonight

PvPonline presents its review of Return of the King.

I guess I'll stay thirsty for now.

More additions to my reading list

At the moment I'm reading The Face of Battle, by John Keegan. It's a history of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme told from the soldier's point of view. After that, I'll take Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid with me on my train trip home for Christmas. I found out about Hofstadter's book while reading reviews of Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, which was last month's epic read. If that's not enough, the Washington Post has recommendations for Tolkien fans who want to explore some of the author's source material and inspiration. I'm familiar with some of the Irish medieval epics from a class at Georgetown, and I've seen the musical version of Camelot, but I'll have to check out these other epics that I've only seen in excerpts so far.

Only 6 1/2 hours to go.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

A dissenting opinion on "The Lord Of the Rings"

As everyone who knows me is aware, I love the Lord of the Rings, both the books and the movies. While movie reviewers are heaping praise upon the final installment of the theatrical trilogy (just take a look at the way things are tracking on, there are a few people out there who don't care for Tolkien or the movies. In the interests of fairness, before I post my review tomorrow evening, I thought I should give equal time to those with contrary views. My old college buddy Chris Galdieri is one, as is the author of this article on While I could take the time to refute their views point by point, it's not worth it. My own wife doesn't like the trilogy, and no amount of convincing has changed her mind so far, nor do I have any hope that she'll feel differently in the future. I'm content to let these people think what they want, and I'll enjoy the world of Tolkien without them.

Even though they're wrong.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Finished your holiday shopping yet?

I'm almost done, I just have a few items to pick up in stores. Up to now I've done all my shopping on Amazon, which makes my life so easy with its wish lists and gift certificates. To be honest, PVPOnline covered my feelings on holiday shopping on Saturday. I got a gift certificate for J&R from my office today, and it makes me so happy. It's a gift that I can use for anything I want, and I don't have to feel guilty for spending it on something frivolous like a computer game. The rest of the year I have to carefully watch where my money goes, and while I don't have to confer with my wife every time I buy something for myself, I do feel a certain amount of guilt when I spend my hard-earned money on fun things instead of food, shelter, clothing, or other necessary items of living. And that's my own self-generated guilt. What's my point? Gift certificates are great.

I'm just killing time until 6, when the office holiday party gets going. At 6:05, I plan to be working my way through a bottle of Chimay and a platter of shrimp. Mmm, beer.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Battlestar Galactica returns

I just finished watching the Sci-Fi Channel's remake?/re-imaging? of Battlestar Galactica . It was better than I expected. It probably helped that I don't remember much of the original TV series, so I didn't have many preconceptions of the characters or the story. While the movie doesn't explain why the Cylons are back, it does have a ending that leaves open the possibility of more movies or a weekly series. I wonder if the ratings will be high enough to warrant a regular series. And will Edward James Olmos, who said that people shouldn't watch the movie, return for a series? There aren't any other high-profile stars in the movie, so they won't spend too much money on the cast, but they do need Olmos to provide the necessary leadership role. If it comes back as a series, I'll probably watch it.

The BCS mess

The BCS has finally proven itself to be worthy of all the derision and abuse it's taken in the media for five years. Oklahoma, despite losing its final game (and league championship) by 28 points, will play Louisiana State for the "national championship" in the Sugar Bowl. Meanwhile, USC, the current No.1 team in both polls, traditionally the determinator of the "national championship," plays no. 4 Michigan in the Rose Bowl instead of hosting LSU in the Sugar Bowl for the title. Now there's talk of a split championship should USC win the Rose Bowl and remain No.1 in the AP poll.

Everything that went wrong here points to a true playoff to determine a champion. Every other NCAA sport in every division has a playoff system; only the money invested in the bowl structure and the BCS keeps Division 1-A football from having a playoff. I've heard all kinds of schemes to create a playoff system: 8 teams starting in December, 4 teams in January, one game after the bowls end, played on Martin Luther King Day. One of the craziest appeared in Dan Shanoff's Daily Quickie column on on Tuesday. Shanoff advocates a 117-team bracket beginning in the middle of the college football season. The first five games are rivalries and tuneups, then the real fun begins in week 6 when all the Division 1-A teams are seeded into a bracket. Of all the ideas, that's definitely the least likely to happen. It would mean the end of the athletic conference system as far as football is concerned, it would screw up traditional rivalry weekends at the end of the season, and because it makes the most sense.

Here's what I would do:

1. Shorten the season. Eleven games is enough for everyone. If you play in an early-season "kickoff classic," that counts as one of your 11 games.

2. I'd keep the bowl system in place, but require seven wins for a team to be bowl-eligible. If you can't go 7-4 at least, you shouldn't play in the postseason. Teams that don't get seeded into the playoff bracket are eligible to play in non-playoff bowls.

3. I would use the major bowls for my eight-team playoff system. We'd start with 8, and then see if we could expand it later. But you use the computer rankings and polls for seeding purposes only, just like March Madness, and then play the first round of games in mid-December, the semifinals on New Year's Day, and the final game two weeks later, ideally, when the NFL takes a week off between the conference championships and the Super Bowl. The two championship teams would play 14 games, which is not unreasonable since most of the college players will have played that many games in a season in high school, assuming they went to the playoffs, and you'd be done before the spring semester really got started. Six bowl games would be used for the playoffs, maybe the Sugar, Rose, Orange, Fiesta, Cotton and Gator Bowls, and the rest are for non-playoff teams. Or you could rotate the bowl games in the playoff system, so that the Rose Bowl could occasionally get its usual Pac-10 vs. Big-10 matchup.

I know this plan isn't original; I've seen it somewhere before and can't remember where. But I think it's the most workable solution for the next few years. Everyone gets what they want: a real way to choose a national champion in football. The extra games are kept to a minimum. The schools gets millions of dollars in advertising and network rights. Bowl organizers get increased interest in their games. If the playoff system expands to 16 teams, even more bowls get even more interest.

If I can remember any, I'll bring up counterarguments tomorrow.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

You've never seen Santa like this before

I hope you will enjoy Fresh Hell, drawn by Eric Fritzius from a story by my wife. She and a friend developed the joke many years ago, and three or four years ago Eric turned it into a comic for a short-lived parody web site. I think the artwork really captures the message.

A snowy afternoon with the Royal Navy

I neglected to mention that the silence of a winter snowstorm on 1st Avenue is periodically interrupted by the sound of multiple snowplow trucks passing by. These garbage truck-like behemoths sound like a tank battalion, and last night they went by about every half hour. Today they've been less frequent, but it's still noisier than I like. Of course, it's always noisy living above this avenue.

I spent the afternoon watching Horatio Hornblower: Duty, recorded a few nights ago on A&E. My father is a fan of the Hornblower novels and has recommended them to me on several occasions. And after seeing Master and Commander the other day, I thought I'd explore the British naval tradition further. The Hornblower movie was quite exciting, if the level of suspension of disbelief was sometimes high. At one point an artillery cannon on shore hits a moving rowboat with its first shot. I thought that you needed ranging fire first with old cannons like that. Otherwise, the production looked better than I expected for a cable network, and the actors (who have played these roles several times before) all were excellent. A&E is re-running another Hornblower movie tomorrow morning, so I'll get another opportunity to enjoy the story. I wouldn't have wanted to serve aboard a wooden vessel in that time period, given the many nasty ways a person could be maimed or killed in battle, but I like watching it on TV. And while I'll ask my father if I can borrow his 6-DVD set of the first series of Hornblower movies, I suspect he'll offer me some of his collection of the original C.S. Forester novels instead. If the stories are as good on paper as they are on screen, I'll take him up on it.

Friday's (and Saturday's) snowstorm

As much as I enjoy the snow, it's mostly a nuisance anymore. Getting home from work tonight was a slow slog through slushy sidewalks and crowded intersections. We're supposed to go downtown for dinner tomorrow night but who knows if the restaurant will be open or if we'll be able to get there.

On the other hand, even in New York there's nothing quite like the silence of a winter snowstorm.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

our Netflix history

I've checked the records, and the movies we held the longest were The Deer Hunter (six weeks), Under the Sand (six weeks), The Limey (seven weeks), Mulholland Drive (eight weeks), The Blair Witch Project (11 weeks), and, leading the pack at 13 weeks, The House of Mirth.

Of these, only Deer Hunter and Under the Sand are downers. The others are ones that we couldn't find the time to watch or couldn't get into the right frame of mind for several weeks. After we had Blair Witch for for two months, it just made sense to wait and watch it around Halloween. And I had no interest in the House of Mirth, so Liz had to wait until she had some time when I was busy elsewhere so she could watch it. I'd say as far as we're concerned, the results are inconclusive. Looking over the list, we haven't rented many depressing movies, and our average hold time is one month regardless of the picture. We've been meaning to watch more movies through Netflix, so hopefully our churn rate will improve.

More about Netflix

The New York Times' Circuits section has an article about the propensity of Netflix subscribers to hold onto sad or serious movies for longer periods than comedies or happy movies. That's been the case with us. We had The Deer Hunter (must be a common choice) for weeks, but we've watched all sorts of fun movies within days of receiving them. I requested my full rental history from Netflix so I can see how closely our habits follow this pattern.

Master and Commander

I took Wednesday off to spend time with Liz on her birthday, but since she told me that I didn't have to be there for every waking moment, I went to see Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World at the Loews Kips Bay Theater. I love going to weekday matinees: there's never a crowd in the theater, no lines at concessions or the bathrooms, so it's always a pleasant experience. The movie was excellent, easily one of the best movies I've seen so far this year. I liked that there wasn't any attempt to introduce the audience to the crew of the ship. The movie started with the ship already at sea for weeks, and the viewer had to meet the sailors as the story progressed. It was as if I had been dropped onto the ship and at times it felt like I was actually a part of the crew. I really enjoyed the way the movie portrayed life at sea in 1805: the traditions, the ceremony, the habits of the officers and crew. The battle scenes were as harrowing as I imagined 19th-century naval warfare to be, especially the first engagement between the two ships. I thought the music and the score was outstanding, especially the use of Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for the funeral scenes. Russell Crowe clearly enjoyed being back in a commanding role, and Paul Bettany as the ship's doctor and captain's best friend was an excellent counterpoint. It was a great movie, but I'm not sure it's going to be a Best Picture nominee. I think there are going to be too many other good movies this year that will edge it out. However, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Crowe or Bettany get acting nominations out of it. Their performances were just that compelling.

By the way, the movie is playing all over Manhattan, but the Kips Bay theater has it on a DLP screen, so that's why I trekked all the way downtown for it. Always go digital if you can.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Mister Herman has a blog

One of my wife's best friends from back home in Starkville, MS, Eric Fritzius, now has a blog. I've been a semi-regular visitor to his main web site, Mister Herman's Home Page, for several years now, and proud member of his mailing list since my college days. Of particular note on his site are the Horribly True Tales from the Drunken Trucker and the Recipes Page. I've only ever tried one recipe, Supacheez, and it didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped. (I think I used too much taco seasoning.) Just reading the Tales and the recipes is most of the fun. Anyway, check out Eric's blog. I've always enjoyed reading his e-mails and epics, so I'm happy to see I can enjoy his particular brand of storytelling on a more frequent basis.

Monday, December 01, 2003

It begins

After harassing my friends for the third time, we finally agreed on a theater and showtime for The Return of the King. Hence, I just bought my ticket. For anyone who might want to join us, we're going to the 6:30 PM show on Dec. 17 at the Loews 34th St. in Manhattan. I've seen the two previous movies of the trilogy there on opening night, and so it's fitting that we see the final film there as well.

I had to restrain myself from buying the issue of Newsweek with Aragorn on the cover. This week, I'm re-reading the book for the fourth time. I can't wait to see Eowyn take on the Lord of the Nazgul during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Grond smashing against the gates of Minas Tirith. The final confrontation between Frodo and Gollum. Aragorn becoming the King.

I told myself I wouldn't get all geeky over this movie, but it seems inevitable.