Thursday, September 30, 2004

Jim Caple and Youppi

I know that sportswriters reuse material all the time. Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon will say things on PTI that they wrote in the Washington Post that same day, and I've seen other writers on TV who will quote themselves without attributing their comments to themselves. That's OK. I do the same thing: I'll write something here, then I'll mention it in conversation without saying "As I wrote in my blog yesterday..." But over on, apparently Jim Caple is too busy to come up with something original to say about the relocation of the Montreal Expos to Washington, DC. Yesterday, he wrote about his disappointment in the new deal and the end of baseball in Montreal. Today, he wrote the same column, only this time it's posted on's Page 2 and it's Youppi, the Expos' mascot, who expresses the same disappointment.

I think the psychological term for Caple's problem is transference.

Dr. Phil and the president

Lisa de Moraes reviews Dr. Phil's interview with the president and first lady which aired on his show on Wednesday. Based on her partial transcript, it doesn't seem to be much of an interview, filled with pseudo-questions and more blather from the interviewer than answers from the subjects. Somehow I'm not surprised that Dr. Phil seems more interested in promoting his show and his new book than asking the president any real questions (how about "what do you say to parents whose 18-year-old kids are going off to Iraq?"). And what the hell does he mean when he talks about teaching children about loving themselves and "discovering [their] authentic self?"

Monday, September 27, 2004

Digital Fortress stunk up the joint

I finished Digital Fortress yesterday on the train coming back from Maryland. I had about 150 pages to read when I got on the train and I flew through them in about 90 minutes, just so I could be done with the book. It annoyed me from start to finish, and its only redeeming quality was the laughability of its ending. If you know anything about technology, especially circa 1998, then you will probably find the premise of the ending as ludicrous as I did. Also, a child could figure out the solution to the final puzzle before any of the book's characters did. I promised my brother I'd send it to him, as one of his friends actually works for the government agency featured in the book. I met her this weekend and while she wouldn't admit that any of the facts of the book were true, she said that she thought it was ridiculous and that she made her co-workers read it as well. I can recommend both of Dan Brown's Robert Langdon books, but this one was not really worth my time, and certainly not worth what I paid for it. If my brother loses it, no harm done.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Today was a great day for geeks

If you're a geek (and if you're reading this, you probably are), then today might as well have been a national holiday for you. The Star Wars trilogy came out on DVD on Tuesday, and judging from the population at Best Buy this afternoon, it brought all the hermits out of their caves. Best Buy was doing a brisk business with the DVDs, and they threw in a special edition of Star Wars Insider with every sale. They had the ultimate geek table set up near the home theater section: the SW trilogy set, the Indiana Jones trilogy, the first season of Star Trek, The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, and a few SW soundtracks just for kicks. I watched part of Star Wars on one HD TV, and when I got bored with that I caught a few minutes of The Empire Strikes Back on another HD set. Finally, they had the new Star Wars: Battlefront game going on yet another HD screen. I bought the DVDs, of course, but passed on the video game for now. FOR NOW. My first impressions of the DVDs will follow in a moment.

If Star Wars didn't work you into enough of a lather, the final volume of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, The System of the World, appeared on store shelves today. I had to pass on that as well for the time being, as I was already carrying the aforementioned DVDs and ten pounds of cat food. But Stephenson's latest will be mine soon enough. I'm still reading Dan Brown's Digital Fortress, which isn't half as good as The Da Vinci Code, which annoyed me far more than Angels & Demons. In other words, I'm only still reading it because I hate to give up on a book, no matter how bad, and because I refuse to put it down to get started on SoW. Actually, part of me wants to wait a while on SoW, since once it's over, it's over. It's not like the Harry Potter series, where we know there are at least two more books coming. While Stephenson will undoubtedly write more books, he's done with this trilogy, and once I read this last book, I can never experience it again for the first time. I'm sure this attitude won't last beyond the end of this month, though, as my curiosity to see just how this story ends will win out over my sadness at its ending.

So far, I've watched a few scenes from each movie in the trilogy, plus the Episode III preview on the bonus disc. I'm extremely impressed with what I've seen. The picture and sound are AMAZING. I'll have to watch with my headphones on, because even with my computer speakers I was blown away. I found myself saying the lines along with the actors, with perfect timing. I haven't watched these films in almost ten years, and I still know exactly when Darth Vader's next line comes. As for the changes George Lucas has made once again to these (the Special Editions) films, I have to say that I honestly don't care enough. I wish he'd never had the idea that Greedo should shoot first, and I liked the original music at the end of Return of the Jedi just fine. On the DVD, Greedo and Han shoot at about the same time, and while Greedo still misses by a mile (at point-blank range?!) it looks much more like the original film now. Otherwise, I never really had a problem with the Special Editions, so I'm happy with what he's given us here. God help me, I even like the new final shot from RotJ, where Sebastian Shaw's middle-aged Anakin Skywalker has been replaced with Hayden Christiansen as a late-twenties man with a curly mullet. If the entire SW saga is about Darth Vader, then putting the new Anakin at the end makes sense. At least Shaw is still on screen when Luke removes Vader's helmet just before he dies.

I'm not one of those people who screams about Lucas "raping my childhood" or other such nonsense. I'm sure that many of the so-called "purists" who said they'd never buy the DVDs unless they were the original films were out today, buying themselves a set anyway. These are movies, nothing more. I have a strong affection for them, as the SW universe was a huge part of my life while I was growing up, but I've realized that they're just entertainment. There's more to life than Star Wars. There's The Lord of the Rings.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

a day out with the guys

The theme of James' bachelor party, held in the afternoon and evening of Saturday, September 18, was "reset." We spent our day at Chelsea Piers, a bowling alley, and at a laser tag arcade in Times Square, and at each one we ran into minor and major problems that required the intervention of facilities staffers. Despite our difficulties, we had a great time hanging out, as we always do.

My role in the day's events started with a long bus ride downtown to meet everyone at the Chat 'n Chew diner near Union Square. I was supposed to get measured for my tuxedo before brunch but didn't make it because of the flooded subways. I was lucky to get there in time to eat. After a tasty omelet stuffed with sausage, peppers, and Mozzarella, we hopped on the subway and on the good foot over to Chelsea Piers. Our first stop was the driving range where we each rented a club and paid for a ticket for 80 or 100 balls. We ended up with three stalls at the far left end of the second level, where we proceeded to hit the crap out of the golf balls and tried not to injure ourselves or others. Near the end I was hitting the balls about 80 yards, which I thought wasn't too bad for someone who hasn't touched a driver since one day in high school gym class when they tried to teach us how to swing a club. The stalls have automatic ball tees: a mechanical tee pops up with a new ball each time you hit one (instead of the usual low-tech method of a bucket of balls). We had trouble with one of the stalls the entire time, and near the end of our stay this stall started popping the new ball up and down, like a whack-a-mole game. So now we had a new game: time your swing to when the ball popped out of the hole. Rich, who has actually played golf, was getting some serious lift with this method, while I had trouble with the timing. It was a unique twist on the otherwise routine driving range concept.

Next, we went downstairs to the batting cages. I passed on taking any swings myself, since I haven't looked at a pitch in over ten years and I was never much good at hitting a baseball or a softball. I'd already had enough trouble hitting a ball that wasn't moving over at the driving range, so I didn't want to try my hand at the batting cage. We didn't have too much trouble with the cages, though Rob tried the baseball "simulator," which was a video screen with a projected pitcher. When the projection wound up and threw, the baseball flew at you from a small hole near where the pitcher's release point would be. But for five or six pitches, the pitcher threw but no ball came out. One of the attendants reset the machine and Rob was able to finish his cuts. But this was an ill omen for what was to come.

We left Chelsea Piers around 5:30 and stopped at F&B on 23rd St. for a snack of gourmet hot dogs with fancy toppings -- I had one with guacamole, salsa, and shredded cheddar cheese. Our next stop was the bowling alley at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. James had seen it before and decided it was a "hive of scum and villainy" that would remind us all of our suburban or rural upbringings. It wasn't quite as nasty as we had expected, and actually wasn't such a bad place to spend an hour or so, especially if you had some time to kill before your bus left. We paid for an hour on one lane, figuring we'd easily get in two or three games even with six people. But we had too many mechanical problems with the lane. Our pin reset machine didn't reset properly a few times, our time ran out early, and even when they extended our time because of the breakdowns, our lane still shut down on us before we were done. So we overpaid for one game for six people. Even though we wanted to bowl another game, we decided we'd given them enough of our money and went to Virgil's for dinner. As always, Virgil's served us some excellent platters of ribs, lamb, chicken, sausage, beans, collard greens, and cornbread. Even the Cajun spring rolls we had as an appetizer were well done. Properly refueled, we walked two blocks to our final stop: Lazer Park.

By this time, some of us were realizing that we're not in our 20s anymore. Due to injuries, strains, and other mechanical failures, we were down to four players in the laser tag arena: James, Jon, Greg, and myself. We paid for two missions of two games each and after another wait, we entered the arena around 10:45. They gave each of us a "vest" which was bulky shoulder pads with a gun attached by a thick cable. The game was manhunt, or deathmatch if you prefer, but either way it was every man for himself. We were lumped in with about 15 other people, mostly teenagers, mostly racially mixed. In other words, the four of us were the "white boys." In the first game, something went wrong with my shoulder pads set, as I got shot about five times and then was unable to shoot anybody for the rest of the game. Jon had the same problem, and we just assumed that we had a limited number of lives. The second game went a little better. The pads worked properly, and instead of a score of -535, I fought my way to about 100 (25 points for shooting someone else, -5 every time someone shot you). In the second mission's two games, the four of us teamed up and controlled a corner of the arena. The first game of the second mission was a better effort for us, since the other kids didn't know what we were doing. They were all shouting about how they were getting creamed in our corner. In the last game, we took a different corner and tried to defend it, but the kids fought their way in. Eventually it devolved into a standoff, as we were trapped shooting at the kids and waiting for our pads to clear each time we got shot (each time you get hit, the system says "shields up" and you can't shoot anyone
for 4 seconds). Considering how upset the kids seemed to be at our tactics, I think our team was successful. When we were done, it was nearly midnight, and Rich and Rob had to get back to Brooklyn to get the car for the drive back to DC. So we parted ways in the Times Square subway station and I got home around 12:30 AM, about 13 hours after I left.

I think James had a good time, which was the most important thing since it was his party. Of the four main activities, the one I'm most likely to try again is the driving range, which is a surprise to me. Bowling is a close second, but I've done that before so it didn't really count as a new experience. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed hitting the balls and trying to figure out the basics of a golf swing. I'm not saying that I'm about to buy a set of clubs and start playing the links every weekend, but I'd definitely go to a driving range again. Maybe not the one at Chelsea Piers, though. Since I have no frame of reference, I have no idea what it should cost to hit 80 balls. But $20 for balls and $4 for a club seems a little expensive, so I don't think their driving range is going to become one of my regular haunts. Laser tag was fun, but Lazer Park's arena is too small and too crowded for me to go back there. And the kids were more than I wanted to deal with. I think I'll stick to the first-person shooters on my computer.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

my newest toy

Because a fool and his money are soon parted, I am now the happy owner of a hard-drive MP3 player. No, I didn't buy an iPod. I'm not an iPod guy. I actually resent the iPod owners I see on the subway. Just because everyone else has one doesn't mean I need one. I've tried to use iTunes to manage my MP3 collection but it always seems to screw things up. Classical music CDs especially don't import correctly and require lots of tag editing. So I looked for a player that would let me organize my music my way, specifically one that would show up as another hard drive on my PC and let me drag and drop files onto it. After flirting for a long time (including my two weeks in Asia) with the iAudio M3 (the MP3 player with no LCD screen, just a remote), I decided on the iRiver H140. It's not just a 40 GB drag & drop player. It has an FM tuner, line in and microphone recording, support for just about every audio file format out there, can be used for plain old file storage, and it was cheaper than the 40 GB iPod. And the sound! I didn't think MP3s could sound this good! Until now I'd only heard my music on my laptop or my Treo 600, but never on a device designed for audio. As I write this post I'm listening to Sir Charles Mackerras' recording of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks with the original all-wind orchestration, and I'm hearing notes I've never heard before. Earlier today I listened to some Dream Theater and some Allman Brothers, and in both cases I heard bass lines I never knew were there. It helps that I'm in a quiet room tapping away on my laptop, but even on the subway this evening coming home from work, I was able to hear songs with a clarity that I'd never before had on my commute. I will admit that the H140's navigation is nowhere near as cool as the iPod scroll wheel -- my player has a "joystick" that's really just a raised button on the front that toggles in four directions and clicks for various functions. There are short and long clicks for different features at different times. It takes some adjusting, but I'm getting the hang of it. For my next trick, I have to find the right cables to connect it to my stereo so I can use it as a jukebox for our infrequent parties. And then I can figure out how to use it in a car with our old CD player cassette adapter. The more I use this thing, I'm convinced I made the right decision. And I no longer resent those snobby iPod people, as I've got something cooler. So there.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

finally, some new pictures are up

I've uploaded pictures from Tokyo and Hong Kong. See the photos link over there on the right.

With the exception of a few shots taken in the evening, I thought my trusty old 2.1 MP Canon worked well. Maybe I was being too hasty looking for a replacement while I was over there.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

another Stephenson book review

Last night I finished Neal Stephenson's Interface, a thriller about a US presidential election, shadowy world-dominating organizations, and a candidate whose thoughts are being controlled by political consultants and media moguls. He wrote the book in 1994 with his uncle, Frederick George, and published it under the pseudonym Stephen Bury. 1994 puts it between Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, for those who follow Stephenson's career. I've never seen the novel in the US, but I found it in a bookstore in London's Gatwick Airport last summer and again this summer. Apparently Stephenson would rather not publicize this book -- there's no mention of it on his web site and I've only found it on under a search for Stephen Bury. Maybe, like his early novels, he doesn't think it's up to the standards of his later works. Or maybe he doesn't want to take full credit for it, since he co-wrote it with George. Or maybe he just doesn't like it much.

I didn't think it was that bad. I got caught up in the story and really liked it. It's a good thriller plotline of mysterious, all-powerful forces versus a few questioning heroes who quietly struggle behind the scenes until a final showdown. It reminded me of Robert Ludlum's novels Trevayne and The Icarus Agenda, both of which involved politics and campaigns, along with Ludlum's usual monolithic all-powerful bad guys.
The characters are well-defined, interesting, and sympathetic, qualities I don't always find in thrillers. And the writing style is similar to what Stephenson fans expect: casual prose, sometimes witty, sometimes tangential and rambling. It's definitely not as mature as Cryptonomicon or the Baroque Cycle trilogy, so hard-core fans may be disappointed. But casual readers who are looking for a good book to pass the time on that long flight back from London would enjoy it. In the end I forgot it was a Stephenson novel and just enjoyed it for the political thriller that it was.

My biggest complaint about the book has nothing to do with the writing or the story, but with the proofreading. Not to put too fine a point on it, this book was the most poorly edited and proofread book I have ever seen, and I've read lots of crappy paperbacks in my time. Every chapter had at least one spelling error or mistaken word, requiring me to re-read a sentence two or three times to discern what the authors were trying to say. The poor quality of this printing might be one of the reasons Stephenson doesn't tell his fans about this novel. It was a serious flaw that detracted from my involvement in and enjoyment of the story. It was so bad I nearly took a pen to my book to correct it so that friends who read my copy won't have to endure what I did.

Stephenson published another book under the Bury pseudonym, The Cobweb, in 1997. It's on my wishlist, if anyone wants to buy it for me. Otherwise, I'll pick it up myself, but not until I've read Stephenson's The System of the World, the final book in the Baroque Cycle which comes out later this month. And I've got Dan Brown's Deception Point to read in the meantime.