Friday, August 31, 2007

Biking Is Fun-damental

This was the first five-biking-day week that I've had since... June? May? I don't even know how long it's been! A combination of great weather, good health and no weird happenings planned after work allowed me to bike every day this week, and I loved it! And I'm happy to report that I've suffered no ill effects, which I was actually quite worried about. During my five weeks off, when I was averaging two long rides per week, I was having a fair number of cramps and episodes of tightness in my legs, which lead me to believe I was completely losing any tone in those legs of mine. But this week was easy-peasy, as the kids say today. ;-)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Things That Make Me Love My Job

Today, the head of our Human Resources department stopped by to show me the 'swag' that she was planning to give out at our booth in an upcoming Career Fair. She said that she wanted the "geek reaction" and I was one of the candidates to give it.

What she showed me was a hand-held electric fan which, once the blades got going at full speed, would display pre-programmed text through the use of some clever software and LED lights. Not only would the text appear, but it could also rotate around the circle of the fan, fade in and fade out, and other tricks. There were three sets of text, each limited to 9 characters or less, and she wanted to know what I thought we might use for the text. (And with a solemn tone, she informed me that she and her co-workers in HR had determined that "a blank counts as one of the 9 characters if you use one"...)

As soon as I started ooh'ing and ahh'ing at the fan's light show, my fellow geeks began to be drawn to my cube like moths to a newly-lit flame! First a couple, then a few more, and before long there was a throng of my brethren congregated outside my tiny area, all witnessing this display of unparalleled coolness and asking questions like, "So will current employees be getting one of these?" ("No.") and "Can I program the words myself?" ("No... and you're not getting one anyway!").

It's moments like that which remind me of just how techy an environment I work in. I'm surrounded by geeks! And I love it!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Is Writing All I Do Now?

I just spent the last hour finishing up a draft proposal on the new, more clearly-defined Customer Proxy position that we're thinking we need at work, following Agile 2007. I've been working on it for a couple days now, but my boss, the VP, made an excellent suggestion today that perhaps I should include a "Day in the Life" sample of what the role would entail. I hadn't even considered that as a means of painting a clearer picture, but loved it as soon as he said it (and not in a sycophant-like way!)

So that's what I just finished writing, in a very story-like manner! It certainly wasn't in the style that I'd write here, but it was still a tale, nonetheless! And as I finished it, I couldn't help but think, "Holy crap, I'm doing a lot of writing these days! If I keep this recent pace up, someday I might actually get good at it!"

Bow Down Before The All-About-Me's

I've recently started to really notice just how many people are so wrapped up in themselves and their own affairs that everyone else places a distant third. These are the people on cell phones in public places, talking in a voice loud enough to be heard forty feet away, oblivious to the fact that no one around them wants to hear about their cheating boyfriend or what bar they're going to after work.

They're the drivers who you naturally leave room for in front of your car when traffic slows to a crawl in front of where they're waiting to come out of a parking lot or driveway, and then as you follow them along for a ways you notice that not only do they never return the favour to anyone else, but they'll cut off anyone they can in their mad dash to change lanes so they can get a few feet further along. If the possibility presents itself, you can lay money down that they'll move into the lane that's about to end, zoom by as many cars as possible, and then expect to be let back into the lane they just abandoned, having hurtled past a dozen or more cars that had got there before them. They also can't resist the temptation to run red lights, or be expected to stay out of the intersection even when there's nowhere for them to go as the light turns red (so what if they're blocking traffic the other way)?

They're the ones who never look behind them as they enter or exit a building, perfectly content to have the door slam in the face of anyone behind them, no matter how many packages that person might be carrying. They also wouldn't dream of holding an elevator door for anyone, no matter how many times it might've been done for them.

They'll be there, sitting a row back of you, or maybe two rows in front of you, and have somehow confused the movie theatre with their own living room, as they talk through the film at a volume that'd be appropriate if they actually needed to be heard by the folks all the way at the rear of the theatre.

They can be counted on to use the handicap parking locations if one's available, or just make their own spots by leaving their cars wherever seems the most convenient to them. They also just might dump whatever trash has built up in their car out onto the ground, right there in the parking lot, because finding a garbage container would never occur to them.

They're the result of God-awful parenting practices.

They're the bane of my existence.

They're the All-About-Me's.

And I hate them.

With a passion.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

How To Kill A Buzz

In the month and a half since I first got interested in Cloverfield, the mysterious unnamed monster movie whose trailer was so intriguing when it burst upon movie theatre screens and then the Internet, the following deft moves have been made to retain my attention:


That's right, nothing.

Despite there being rumours that something new would be released or announced around the start of August, that time came and went with naught but the picture of sagebrush tumbling down the empty streets to the sounds of crickets chirping. Considering that the film's release date has famously been pegged as January 18, 2008, a mere four and a half months from now, can there really be no material available that could be 'leaked' in order to keep the flames of interest fanned? Or is the film that's being shot simply so bad that those involved have realized they aren't going to have the movie they thought they were? (And yes, those are fighting words. Sometimes that's the only way to get a response out of a sluggish opponent.)

I remain hopeful that whatever it is turns out to be something cool. But I'm also getting a bit bored with the silence.

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Ever since returning from vacation, my sleep patterns have sucked. About half of the time, I wake up around 4:00 or 5:00 am and start thinking about work issues. This morning I tossed and turned for an hour before finally getting up just before 6:00 and powering up the laptop. Yesterday, as I was sitting at my desk in my tiny little cubicle re-reading a book on Agile Project Management, I almost fell asleep sitting up! This, after five weeks during which I was getting to sleep as much as I wanted, including taking naps during the day!

I suspect my brain is just overloaded at the moment, since even by my standards, these aren't normal events. Between all of the changes that we're trying to make at work, the notion of actually trying to write a book for real, the fact that Tammy's in the process of moving away from home - really away from home - for the first time, writing for three different blogs, and not having the waking hours to process it all... I'm just fried. Expect to read about me as the guy who sleep-walked his way onto the local news one of these days!

Monday, August 27, 2007

The Trouble With Tammy

Our industrious young twenty year old made the big move to Toronto this past weekend, and to say that things didn't go smoothly would be... an understatement of mythic proportion.

Her day started around 7:00 am or so, and not too long after that she discovered that the rental truck she'd reserved wasn't going to be available locally, after all. They directed her to a location about an hour's drive away, with no explanation given. When she and her moving buddies arrived there - after borrowing one of our cars to make the trip - the clerk informed them that she'd just given away their truck away to someone else! And so back they came, in search of a moving truck!

Anyway, I'll leave the fullness of the experience for Tammy to report, since I'm sure we only heard a tip of the iceberg in terms of details. I'll just conclude my description with the fact that the move-in apparently finished around 3:00 in the morning on Sunday, and now she's being harassed by the building manager because they were too noisy and allegedly damaged something in the process. I suspect she'll be calling this the Move From Hell. And she won't be exaggerating much.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Writers Write

A mere week or so after first mentioning my idea of writing an Agile book, I've produced about four thousand words for said project. It's been enjoyable so far, although I'm doing a lot of re-writing as I go along! So in that sense, it's going more slowly than I would've expected.

Here's a brief excerpt from what I've written so far (which is of course likely to change before I'm finished with it, based on how things are going):

"Even though I’ve only read about it, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the best way to “go Agile” is to have the people at the bottom of the Org Chart be the ones who decide they want to do it. And that reminds me of an old Steve Martin joke, which goes something like:

“Want to know how to make a million dollars? That’s easy!

Step One: Get a million dollars.

Step Two: …”

In other words, if you’re in a company that’s gone Agile as the result of a Grass Roots Movement, this book is probably of limited use to you. You may still need some help – although you may in fact be doing just fine! – but in all likelihood my problems won’t be your problems. The reason I say this is: many of the challenges we faced came about because Agile was being driven down from the top.

From what I’ve read, when Agile adoption starts up from the bottom (organizationally-speaking), it more naturally seems to start slowly, and build some momentum in that corner of the company or this one, and before too long management types are noticing improvements in those corners and are curious to find out more. In other words, the first impression is, “Agile good!” Maybe that’s just a myth, but regardless, it sure sounds like a smoother transition than what I experienced! So, if, as Steve Martin would say, you have the option of just going out and getting a million dollars - or having Agile slowly brought into your company by the coders and testers – take the money and run! By which I mean, consider yourself lucky and make the most of it."

Depending on the demand for it (!), I may post other snippets in the future, as things continue to progress. So start those cards and letters coming... ;-)

The Funny Things I Notice

In last week's issue of Countdown (# 37), one of the plotlines has Mary Marvel and Zatanna heading off to Zatanna's home-away-from-home, Shadowcrest. There, Z hopes to slowly train Mary on how to use her new magical powers, but things of course go horribly awry.

But what made me laugh was a screw-up by the writer (and by extension, I guess, the editor) regarding Zatanna's spells. As any long-time DC fan - or fan of this blog - knows, Zatanna performs magic by saying her commands backwards. Or, more specifically, she says the words backwards. And within that tiny distinction lies this issue's admittedly minor error. (And if it's still not clear what I'm talking about, then consider the spell that I'd written about earlier, where Z wishes to issue the command, "Batman stop!" in order to freeze the Caped Crusader in his place. She speaks it as "NAMTAB POTS!" She does not utter it as "POTS NAMTAB!" which would more likely be used if she wanted someone else to stop the Dark Knight. Clear as mud?)

Anyway, the spell that's backwards-wrong is the first one she casts in Countdown # 37, where she says, "EMOH SU EKAT." Which translates to "home us take," and doesn't make much sense. I figured, when I saw that line of dialogue, that the writer simply didn't know how her magic worked; but then, later in the same issue, he has her say, "FFATS EKAT A KAERB" in order to dismiss the magical butlers she's conjured up. And that one, of course, is correctly written.

When Vicki read this, she'll roll her eyes... and just think: "EHS SAH OT EVIL HTIW EM!"

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Meanwhile, At The Studio

A significant portion of my limited blogging time this week was spent over at The Studio Has A Few Notes, our collaborative blog for movies and TV. Reviews of Lone Star and John Carpenter's The Thing were posted there by Your Humble Blogger, with neither one quite qualifying for "Shortest Review of the Year," if you catch my drift.

And some other people posted about some other stuff over there, too.

You should check it out, if you haven't already.

Friday, August 24, 2007

What Were They Thinking?

Vicki and I impulsively decided to go out for dinner tonight (the Meal Planner had us eating take-out from Harvey's) and through a slight comedy of errors we ended up at a restaurant we'd never been to before, and not the one we were intending to eat at. "What the heck," we thought, "we can just eat here!"

A few minutes later, we were seated in the eerily-empty interior, where dozens of booths and tables were available while several parties were seated outside. We'd passed on sitting outside because it was so muggy out, and looked like rain. But then the live entertainment for the evening - a solo guitarist - started playing, with the speakers booming out his music at about three to five times the volume that you'd be able to hear yourself over! After about ten minutes of Vicki and I shouting at each other, trying to be heard, and huddled as close together around our table as we could manage, Vicki yelled, "Do you want to ask if we can move outside, or just change our order to take-out?"

We decided to try moving to the outdoor section, and the waitress was very understanding and apologetic. In the end, we had a very nice dinner outside and might even be willing to go there again. But I have to wonder what kind of management makes decisions as stupid as that? It was pretty obvious nobody wanted to sit inside with that level of noise, so could they not simply turn down the volume, or were they contractually prevented from doing that by the musician? It was a very strange experience that at least had a happy ending.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Like I Need More Motivation To Drink Milk!

I may just have the teensy-tiniest little crush on Hayden Panettiere.

I'm not too proud to admit it.

(And don't you worry, Olivia, dear. There's plenty of me to go around. More every day, it seems.)

On The Cost Of Context Switching

At work lately, there's been a fair bit of talk about how expensive it is whenever people context switch. For those who don't know - and I'm far from an expert on it myself - context switching occurs whenever you move from doing one thing to another. This can happen on a myriad of levels, often without you even consciously realizing it, and (I'm guessing) the cost is probably proportional to the average 'ramp-up' time involved in the new activity. For example, going from reading E-Mail # 1 to reading E-Mail # 2 is presumably an example of context switching, but the cost there could conceivably be very small, especially if both e-mails were on the same topic. Alternatively, you could go from reading a light-hearted joke sent to you by your dear old auntie to an in-depth description of some diabolical work problem that's got you near the end of your rope. In that case, it might take you longer to get into the right frame of mind to absorb and digest what's in the second message, after having such a good, relaxing time with the first.

A more significant example of context switching might involve bouncing back and forth between trying to actually track down that diabolical work issue and attempting to write a design document for some upcoming project. The type of thinking required for those two very different activities probably don't have much in common, and each is complex in its own way. Therefore that's a much more expensive context switch, meaning that more time is required in order to pull it off successfully. And were you to, for whatever reason, have to ping pong from one to the other every few minutes, for example, you'd quite likely make absolutely no progress at all, even after an hour or more. Hence the notion of there being a cost. Some time is lost, on each context switch, while your brain changes gears, as it were.

Anyway, what made me think of this were my own experiences with the AgileMan 2.0 track that I'm on. Today I realized that I've essentially moved from Tactical Mode to Strategic Mode in terms of what I'm spending most of my time on. During the first year of Agile at our company, I was working directly with some of the Feature Teams, as well as most of the Feature Leads and lots of other supporting staff. My time tended to be spent helping those folks either figure out how to "be Agile" or work their way through problems that were immediately in their way. That's pretty tactical.

Since coming back from vacation - and the Agile 2007 Conference - though, I've committed to working on some of the bigger, pervasive cultural problems that are causing, or at least contributing to, many of our tactical challenges. At the same time, though, I can't completely abandon all of the relationships and responsibilities I used to have, meaning that I'm finding that I'm having to switch between the two modes fairly frequently. And I think that's beginning to really wear me out (this shocking admission, coming after only 2 weeks back at work!)

On the other hand, I'm enjoying myself more than I was before I went on vacation, so I guess it's a fair trade-off. But there are certainly some major, widespread challenges looming in front of me. And probably none of them will be completely fixed anytime soon. Making me think that strategic stuff sucks... in a way.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Many Of The Things I Didn't Get To Do Today

1) Do any blogging (until right now... nearly bedtime!)

2) Read any comics (I now have 3 complete weeks of comics, along with the 40 or 50 back issues that I bought in Chicago... all unread!)

3) Visit any of my favourite blog sites (I just got home, after being over at a nearby friend's house for 2.5 hours)

4) Watch any TV

5) Finish writing up my Agile 2007 notes on the Wiki page at work

6) Ride my bike to work (Vicki needed to be dropped off at the train station after our 6:30 am alarm didn't go off)

7) Stop and catch my breath

It's just been that kind of day. I'm sure tomorrow will be better.

Or worse.

Or possibly the same.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Exciting Comics That Came Out Last Week Or Are Coming Out Tomorrow (Aug 21st Edition)

(Since I won't get last week's comics until tomorrow thanks to being on the road last week, I'm bundling both sets together for one massive post!)

Amazon's Attack # 5 (of 6) - The big news about this miniseries, coming out of Chicago a week and a half ago, was that by the time it's all over "everything is explained for everyone who's wondering what's going on." Which, I'm thinking, speaks volumes about how confusing most people are finding it. And yet I can't stop reading it!

Batman # 668 - Why is it that we've had such big delays on Batman since Grant Morrison and one of the Kubert brothers took over (I'll admit I can't tell Andy from Adam!), and yet here comes a new issue just two weeks after the last one? I guess that means it was young Mr Kubert's fault, since Grant seems to be able to pump out scripts pretty quickly as long as someone else is doing the art (like here)! This is the second of a two-part story that DC describes as "Batman, Robin and the Club of Heroes are stuck on an island rigged with elaborate death traps. And even as the villain behind it all begins to explain his twisted motives, he continues to pick the heroes off one by one." I mean, c'mon, who doesn't want to read that?

Booster Gold # 1 - Normally I wouldn't go anywhere near a Booster Gold series - he's neither likable nor interesting enough for my tastes - but the fact that they're using this as a vehicle to time travel through the DC Universe is just intriguing enough to make me try an issue or two. And featuring Barry Allen in an upcoming storyline certainly got my attention, too.

Brave and the Bold # 6 - This wraps up Mark Waid and George Perez's first B&B storyline, involving Batman, Green Lantern, Supergirl, the Legion of Super-Heroes and most of the DCU! Despite the fact that there doesn't seem to be much buzz about this book, I suspect we'll look back on it in the years to come as an under-appreciated classic.

Countdown #s 37 and 36 - Believe it or not, recent issues of this lacklustre weekly series have actually... not been entirely lacking in lustre! Stuff has happened, and momentum has been achieved in a few of the storylines. I still think they have a long way to go before anyone mistakes this for a good title, but even managing to make it suck less is admirable.

Flash # 231 - After the abortive Bart Allen volume, we're finally back to Wally West again, even down to resuming the numbering from his last series. With Mark Waid writing (for as long as he lasts), and Wally back, I'm all over this one like sweat on a fat man! (Shut up, I'm only slightly overweight!)

Green Arrow Year One # 4 (of 6) - I'm still an issue behind on this (# 3 is in my big stack of unreads) but the first two parts were much better than I'd expected! It's not so much that writer Andy Diggle is adding all that much to the Oliver Queen origin story - he isn't - but he's just presenting it in such an interesting fashion, for a change. I'm likin' it!

Green Lantern Corps # 15 - Continuing the Sinestro Corps War, DC's best crossover event of the year! This is the way to do a big storyline: limit it to a few key titles (2 in this case), make the scale huge and yet personal, and have it all play out in no more than a few months! Give us more like this, DC!

Justice League of America # 12 - And thus ends the Brad Meltzer run, a baker's dozen of sugary treats that tasted great but, in the final analysis, weren't all that filling. I'll miss Brad but I'm also looking forward to seeing what Dwayne McDuffie - a writer who's never impressed me before - brings to the League in Meltzer's wake. After Grant Morrison's amazing run in the 90s, no one who succeeded him seemed to know what to do with the toys he'd left... I wonder if this will turn out any better? In the meantime, we can enjoy the lovely Alex Ross cover (shown here).

Amazing Spider-Man # 543 - The cover shows Spidey, in his black (Venom) costume, drawing a sheet over (or perhaps back from) a presumably dead body on a slab. Who dies? Aunt May? MJ? The girl who cuts Peter Parker's hair? Your guess is as good as mine at this point, but tomorrow I'll know! (And you'll probably still be thinking about Pete's wacky haircut!)

Astonishing X-Men # 22 - Joss Whedon and John Cassaday are now just two issues away from ending their run, and I'm still not exactly sure what's going on! But part of that's the fact that so many weeks pass between issues, which at least won't be the case when I sit down to re-read the 24 issues in sequence, sometime around the middle of next year. Or after # 24 arrives, whichever comes first!

Immortal Iron Fist # 8 - I've said it before and I'll say it again: I love a series that, as I read and enjoy each new issue that comes out, I also think about how much fun it'll be to re-read them in the years to come! Starman, by James Robinson, was like that... as was Geoff Johns' first JSA series (both of which have gotten the treatment I'm talking about). Brubaker's Iron Fist is starting to take on that same sort of feel. And why not, when his Captain America and Daredevil are already in that category?

Captain America # 29 - Marvel got folks all excited in Chicago when they displayed an Alex Ross picture of Cap, emblazoned with the words "The Return"... But a day or two later it was revealed that the project Ross is working on concerns the Invaders (Cap, Sub-Mariner, original Human Torch) coming forward in time from World War II, rather than a revival of the dead Cap. And then of course fans started speculating that maybe this was how Cap would come back... bring a younger version of the hero from before he'd been frozen in suspended animation! Like that wouldn't make for a confusing history! But really, does it even matter one way or the other, when Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting continue to make this comic-without-its-title-character one of the best series out there, month after month (regular as clockwork!)?

Monday, August 20, 2007

This One's For Craig

The last time I went beardless (Dec 31, 1999 thru mid-Dec 2000), former co-worker Craig - who'd since moved to Ottawa - complained that no one snapped a photo of me so he could bask in the spectacle. Consider that oversight taken care of....


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Blogging A Dead Horse

For those who haven't yet visited our collaborative blog for movies and TV, now's a great time if you want to read a Stardust review, reflections on Bob Newhart, some smoke-blowing about the TV show Weeds and even a rhapsodic love letter to Ugly Betty, among many other treats.

Wait a minute... what am I thinking? There's no one who visits this site who isn't also making regular trips to The Studio Has A Few Notes, is there? Well, now that I've installed Google Analytics on that site, I guess I'll soon know!

It's All About Embracing Change

Tomorrow I return to the office for the first time in six weeks. I've been 'warning' some of my closer associates - via Messenger - to expect some changes, as I'm not really interested in going back and continuing to deal - ineptly! - with all of the same issues that caused me to burn out in the first place. I'm hoping to be able to focus on higher-level problems and not spend so much of my time trying to plug leaky holes with my fingers.

My next work blog post is going to be called "Now Launching: AgileMan 2.0" or something to that effect. I've also apparently been moved while I was away, so I'll be taking up residence at some new, currently unconfirmed location. And there are one or two other things that I've done to try to reinforce the theme of change.

Of course, there's always the chance that it'll all prove to be cosmetic and nothing will really change.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Wacky Idea Of The Week

I spent a good chunk of the long drive home from Washington yesterday thinking about an idea that's been suggested to me so many times over the past year that I finally had to give it some consideration. No, it wasn't "Go screw yourself" (and c'mon, who among us hasn't thought about that one already, in the years since puberty?) but rather, "You should write a book on Agile."

That's not a topic that's ever appealed to me when it's come up in the past, but something about being in the midst of hundreds or thousands of fellow Agilists (at Agile 2007) put a more attractive spin on it. As the kilometres flew by on the way home, I imagined what I'd call such a mighty tome: The Real-Life Adventures of AgileMan: Lessons Learned in Going Agile. I couldn't help but start writing the opening few paragraphs in my head, as well as laying out some chapter headings and an overall arc to the book.

Whether anything comes of it, though, remains anyone's guess at this point. I suspect that, were I to actually write the damn thing, I'd still end up self-publishing, as I expect to have to do with any collection of short stories. That's not, in and of itself, a showstopper; but it's just not as likely to happen with a topic like Agile Adoption as it is with fictional short stories. The alternative, though - shopping it around to publishers in the hopes of striking gold without having the soul re-written out of my vision - leaves me completely cold.

As always, it's good to have dreams and aspirations.

Other Cool Convention 2007 Sketches

Minutes after meeting the Great Gene Ha, we proceeded to a Sketch Duel for Charity that was scheduled for Saturday evening in Chicago. Battling it out were Matt Wagner (Grendel, Batman: The Mad Monk), Michael Golden (Micronauts), Phil Hester (Green Arrow, Swamp Thing) and (I think) Tony Moore (he was the only one whose name and work I wasn't familiar with).

It was actually less of a sketch duel and more of an informal opportunity to chat with the artists, as they did sketches while answering questions or offering opinions. Over the course of the panel they each produced two complete pencil-and-ink sketches, which were auctioned off as they were finished. The forty or fifty audience members, of which we were two, bid on each sketch with the piece going to the highest bidder. Every single picture drawn was one I'd have been happy to own, but we only came home with the Matt Wagner Superman shown here, along with a Wagner Batman and a Phil Hester Batman.

Now the only question is how to frame and display them: do we put the two Wagners together, the two Batmans together, or try to find a way to get all three in a single frame (each sketch is about the same dimension as a magazine cover)? I think if we opted for the latter approach, then it has to be Superman in the middle, doesn't it? (These are the sorts of challenges I love facing!)

Best Convention Sketch Ever

As I teased about earlier, we had the incredible good fortune to have renowned comic artist Gene Ha ask Vicki and I if we'd like to pay $20 (to charity) to have him sketch us as our favourite superheroes. At the time he asked, I didn't know who he was (he had a professional name badge on with tiny print on it, but then again, so did the two of us, thanks to being on the Silver Age Trivia Panel!) Since it seemed like a fun thing to do, I said, "Sure!" (one of the best snap decisions I've made in a long time).

We paid our money, and were quizzed about who we'd like to be in the picture. I immediately opined that Vicki had to be Supergirl, since no one else compares in the heroine department! (In hindsight, we should've picked Wonder Woman, since the hair colour would've been right... but the pressure was on!) She agreed, and he set to sketching her. He'd only been at it about a minute before I realized he wasn't just some schmuck raising money for charity by doodling... the first few lines he drew looked exactly like Vicki! At that point, I leaned closer, ostensibly to see the developing image better, but really so that I could finally read the small print on his badge. That's when I learned it was Gene Ha, pencil artist on (among other things) Alan Moore's amazing Top Ten series of awhile back! At that point, I got a little more excited!

Eventually we had to pick a superhero for me, and all I could think to say was, "Well, you can never go wrong with Superman!" The three of us had already discussed how few heroes in the comics have beards, and that there's no point picking someone who wears a mask! I didn't think at the time about the yeek factor of having Supergirl and Superman in love (they're first cousins, after all) but even in hindsight it doesn't really matter. The picture just turned out so beautifully! Vicki and I both decided, partway along, that this was no $20 sketch being produced, and so we added more money to the jar. (The charity in question was The Hero Initiative, which raises money to help retired comic professionals pay their bills, since most of them worked, without any kind of pension or safety net, during the 40s through 70s. This group was previously known as ACTOR - A Commitment To Our Roots - and is one we've donated money to at past conventions.)

All through the period in which Gene was sketching us, the three of us were chatting about where we'd lived - both he and Vicki have Michigan roots - and what sort of projects he has coming up in the comic world. He was nothing but friendly, open and funny... exactly the traits you hope to discover in someone whose work you've admired from afar, if you're ever lucky enough to meet them. This was definitely one of the best experiences of that sort that I've ever had.

BoilBoy - The 3 Weeks After Photo

Twenty-two days after the surgery, here's what the crater on my back has healed to. Close comparison to earlier photos - which, I'm sure, you'll all be raptly attending to - reveals that the hole is now much more shallow, and smaller in diameter.

Around these parts, we call that progress. Most of which is due to Nurse Vicki and her daily administering of cleaning, packing and bandaging... even while on the road!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Baby, I'm Back!

Nine days of travel are finally behind us, and we're safely back in London. Both the Chicago and Washington legs of the trip went very well, although the twelve- to fifteen-hour work days at the Agile 2007 Conference in D.C. really wore me down. Coming, as they did, on the heels of five weeks off, the ramp-up in terms of being able to get myself back into work mode - requiring observation, analytical thinking, constant interaction with people who aren't Vicki, and long, contentious discussions - was pretty brutal. As I said to Vicki, "I just went from one extreme to the other, and from zero to sixty (work hours) in one short week!"

For those who've missed my frequent updating of this blog while I was away - yes, both of you! - things should get back to normal tomorrow. Unless I sleep all day!

Monday, August 13, 2007

A New Blog Is A Beautiful Thing!

For anyone who frequents this blog and hasn't yet checked out the collaborative blog known as The Studio Has A Few Notes, you really owe it to yourself to give it a visit. It's all about movies and TV shows, with a half dozen or so voices chiming in, including my own. I'm currently being shamed by my co-bloggers in terms of output there, but I'm sure I'll eventually make up for it (just have to get through this week away first!)

I couldn't be more pleased with how that experiment is going so far...

Highlight Of This Year's Comic Convention

I'll scan the finished product in when we get home, so that you can appreciate what he came up with, but here's Gene Ha (artist of Alan Moore's Top Ten series, as well as last month's issue of Justice League of America) doing an unbelievable sketch for Vicki and I. We've had a lot of amazing experiences at the Chicago show over the past decade and a half, and this half hour or so definitely figures somewhere near the top of that list. All of the details will be provided when we're back and settled.

My Dinner With Tricia Helfer

Well, it wasn't so much a dinner, as just a long, meaningful conversation.

OK, so we didn't actually talk all that long... or at all... but I did get to see her fairly close-up at the Chicago comic convention last weekend, and snapped this photo! As Vicki said, Tricia's a pretty good looking woman, even when she's not dolled up as Number Six on Battlestar Galactica!

Back From Absentia

We finally have Internet once again, now that we're in Washington. (Had I been thinking more clearly, we would've spent the $10/night to get it in Chicago, since the three short phone calls we made to Tammy, including one in which she wasn't home but voice-mail briefly picked up, totaled $60! We'll never make that mistake again!)

Lots and lots of stuff to write about from the Wizard World convention in Chicago, and I'll try to get some of that done this week, when I'm not in Agile sessions or out with Vicki and the gang. We had some great luck toward the end of our two days there and I'll be sharing those experiences as soon as I can get some photos off my camera and a bit more time to think straight. The drive from Chicago to Washington took us about 12 hours yesterday, with minimal meal breaks. Considering it was a Sunday, it's not surprising that we made pretty good time, until we got to the Maryland area. Around here, it seems, slowdowns (and outright stoppages) on the highways occur quite frequently, for no discernible reason... even on Sundays! Other than that, though, it was a good drive.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Farewell Transmission

I'm about to power down the laptop in preparation for us heading onto the road to Chicago (and then, on to Washington on Sunday). I'll next have Internet access either late tonight, or late Sunday night. In the meantime, keep hashing out the Collaborative Blogging details and maybe I'll actually have something cool to read when I get logged on next time!

Try not to miss me any more than I'm not missing you! Or something like that.

Silver Age Comic Trivia XXXV

Our final question (and my favourite of all the ones asked over the years in Chicago): Amazingly, only once, between Avengers # 3 and Avengers # 66 - a 5-year span of time! - did any character speak on the cover. Who was that loud mouth? (Answer to be provided by me next time I have Internet access, as a Comment to this post).

Yesterday's Answer: As at least one of you knew, the first Superman-Flash race ended in a tie. Not only was it a draw, but it was an intentional one (the heroes made sure they tied) because two warring gangs of criminals were wagering on the outcome and the racers wanted to spoil their plans.

That wraps up 5 straight weeks of daily Silver Age Comic Trivia. The contest in Chicago is tomorrow afternoon, meaning that soon it'll all be over except for the crying! Thanks to everyone who played, and to those who just read along.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

What I Did Today (August 8th, 2007 Final Edition)

Today was mostly occupied by doing prep work for our trips to Chicago and Washington that kick off tomorrow. That, and ruffling as many feathers as possible on the whole collaborative blogging topic.

I did get in my first bike ride since the surgery, going all the way to the comic store, then the chiropractor, and then home. As I told Tammy, I biked "like an old man" for most of it, since I didn't want to overdo it in the heat and humidity we were treated to today.

As we leave tomorrow, and my vacation ends later this week, this officially ends the "What I Did Today" series, which was intended to keep interested parties in the loop on how my five-week vacation was going. Here's hoping it entertained once or twice along the way.

Collaborative Blogging - The Title Poll

Since Tammy's gung ho to get something set up to allow us to at least try this concept out (how Agile of her!), we should spend a few minutes today deciding on a title. That's not to say we can't change it again later, if something better occurs to someone; but we should get something now (she's still on vacation and will have some time, at least).

If you're someone who indicated that you'd be willing to contribute, then please add a Comment to this post indicating your preference from the list below, noting that you can write in a suggestion of your own as your vote (but only one). If any of the write-ins get a "oooh, that's good!" reaction from people, we can take that as a sign that we've got a winner.


1. The Studio Has A Few Notes

2. Popculturalists' Handbook

3. I'll Have What She's Having

4. Tag, You're It

5. your write-in suggestion

Silver Age Comic Trivia XXXIV

In this, our penultimate entry, simply ask yourself: who's faster, Superman or the Flash? More specifically, who won the first race between the two?

Yesterday's Answer: As at least two of you knew, Galactus not only stripped Norrin Radd of some of his cosmic powers in Fantastic Four # 50, but he also erected a barrier around the Earth such that the Silver Surfer could never leave his new home. This was clearly pique on the part of Galen, since there was no logical reason why his former herald couldn't have returned to Zenn-La and lost love, Shalla Bal. But you don't turn against and defy ol' Hockey-Stick-Head without suffering some payback, as the Surfer found out, to his dismay.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

What I Did Today (August 7th, 2007 Edition)

I finally broke the work e-mail embargo today, and spent several hours catching up on a month's worth of chatter (over 1600 e-mails).

With only one more 'free' day before we leave for Chicago on Thursday, I've been busy with obligatory duties like paying bills, printing off hotel info, and figuring out what to pack. Tammy's now over and taking up residence for her house-sitting stint, so she and I will be up to who-knows-what tomorrow.

And for once, I didn't resent my limited swimming options today, as it rained for pretty much the entire day. Sometimes it's like that.

Collaborative Blogging

Sounds like we have enough interested parties to potentially make a go at this idea.

Since I'm going to be out of the country for the next week and a half, if progress is waiting on me then nothing's going to come of it anytime soon.

Having said that, I think there are still some decisions to be made and maybe we could get them out of the way in the next little while and consider that to be progress. To wit:

1) Suggestions were made to broaden the scope beyond simply movies (and certainly beyond just newly-released movies), and I think movies and TV fit well enough together that I'd personally be happy with that being the purview. But how do others feel? Or, to put it another way: just what is our vision statement for this blog, anyway? ;-)

2) What sort of filtering/labelling will we use, under the assumption that eventually our cozy little blog will have so much content that someone might want to limit the posts by some means? From other sites I've seen, one popular criteria is poster, such that if Visitor X just wants to see Tammy's posts, for example, he can easily do that.

Another obvious choice would be some sort of genre-based criteria, so that if Visitor Y prefers to just read what the group's been saying about Horror Movies, she'd have no problem making that a reality. (That of course raises the question of categorization, always a thorny topic.) What do people think about this?

3) Not to sound like too much of a stuck-up ass, but where do we draw the line between "style" and "competency"? In other words, I personally don't care what any of the rest of you might say (I'm not concerned about Political Correctness, nor worried about whether I agree with what you say in the least) but by my association with you, I guess I care somewhat how you say it. Sentences that aren't. Rampant typos. General lack of proof reading before posting. Where's the bar? Do we even have a bar or does anything go?

4) We need a really good name for the blog, and ideally something that we'd all be happy to have our names (or aliases) associated with. Suggestions?

And I'm sure there are other logistical details that I'm forgetting.

Also, PeterJ, please feel free to begin setting wheels in motion on the software side, if you're so inclined.

Sojourner: The Road Becomes What You Leave

This is the final disc in the Magnolia Electric Company box set known as Sojourner. I've skipped the fourth disc, Shohola, (for now) because it's a collection of songs recorded by Jason Molina with just his guitar for accompaniment, making it a little less than a true Magnolia release. But I may still provide some thoughts on Shohola, after I've had a chance to listen to it a few more times. And of course I've already gone on at length about Nashville Moon, Black Ram, and Sun Session, the first three discs in the set.

The Road Becomes What You Leave is actually a short DVD film, rather than a CD (you really do get a little bit of everything in this box set!) The director is Todd Chandler, and all of the footage was shot in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba (MEC is from Indiana, by the way). I had been really looking forward to watching it, since behind-the-scenes, tour-based videos are often a lot of fun. This is a very odd example of that, though, for several reasons. First of all, it's only about twenty minutes long. I had no idea it was so short, and when the end credits started up, I honestly thought that we were just starting a new section of the movie! I imagine it's expensive even producing that short of a feature, but it still barely whet my appetite.

It also doesn't quite qualify as a concert video - at least of the type I'm used to - because while the band is shown performing a couple of times, more often than not the music on the soundtrack at that point is from a studio recording, rather than what they're playing on the stage! Since I love the music they chose to put on The Road Becomes What You Leave, I can't really complain that much... but I still would've preferred to have heard what the boys were cranking out! I suspect the technical challenges of capturing what was coming out of the band's speakers, and making it sound anything like it should once it was mixed into the video, may've influenced that creative choice.

By the same token, it's not a terribly effective behind-the-scenes look, because you get almost no dialogue from the band members! You do get a glimpse of what their lives on the road are like - it ain't pretty! - and one hilarious scene shows several of the guys performing at a karaoke club, which speaks volumes about their personalities (again, though, you don't get to actually hear them; but you can't help but laugh at their individual styles and mannerisms). Ironically, I'd say that Tim and I got significantly more of an impression of what Jason Molina, Peter Schreiner and Jason Groth are like from just a few minutes of conversation with them after the last concert in Toronto, than you do from watching this DVD. Even a little bit of them just talking into the camera, or answering some questions from a bodiless interviewer, would've leant more substance to the guys. But then again, I don't know what the director was going for.

Where The Road Becomes What You Leave Behind works is in its choice of music to accompany the images - each of which is not only a great MEC song but also perfectly suited to the visuals - and its warts and all approach to showing what a tour for a band like that really entails. If you want to know what MEC's roadies look like, for example, just glance at the picture at the top of this write-up! They bring in their own stuff, set it all up, pack it all up again afterwards, and lug it around in a beat-up van. Not exactly the glamourous life of a rock star! It actually had me thinking, at times, "I wonder if it'd be fun to volunteer to be a roadie for them for a month..." and then I realized I'd probably not even last a week!

In short, it's a fun little film that certainly doesn't overstay its welcome. The soundtrack is awesome, you get a good taste of life on the road, but you don't really get to know the band, or their live performances, much at all. Definitely a thrill for the big-time MEC fan like Your Humble Blogger, but not nearly as impressive - or as insightful - as I'd hoped it would be.

Imaginary Stories: Chapter One (** Draft **)

Chapter One: A Dream Of Flying

"What would Daedalus have done differently, had he known what was to come? What could he have said to Icarus that might've set his son on a safer course? Though legend has it that the heat of the sun melted the wax holding Icarus' wings together that day, we've long known the fallacy inherent in that story. As Icarus climbed higher and higher upon his newly formed wings, after his father had warned him of the danger, the temperature around him in fact plunged, just as he himself would, moments later. No, the moral of that story had nothing to do with science, and everything to do with a son's unwillingness to obey his father. And in that sense, Icarus lives on..."
- "A Dream Of Flying", Coming Of Age Tale, Sanjay Majmudar (Born: 1990), Published 2006

Had Elizabeth Lee been born a half-century earlier, she would surely have been the sort of student who spent most of her class time with her arm thrust straight up, desperate to have the teacher pick her to answer whatever question had just been asked of the group. Nowadays that was hardly effective at getting anyone's attention, though, as all eyes, even those of the instructor, tended to be pointed downwards as the lesson progressed. Instead, Elizabeth tapped her responses as quickly as she could into the back of the book that sat in her lap, knowing that some impersonal bit of software written ages ago was recording and analyzing what she'd typed, as well as that of everyone else in the room. Not only were her responses being evaluated instantly for correctness, but in the case of any wrong answer, patterns were being sought electronically that might indicate where she'd gone astray.

"You wish," she muttered, and then realized she'd said it loud enough to be heard by those seated closest to her, and drawn several of their amused gazes in the process.

Without looking up, and at the same low level as her previous mild violation of classroom etiquette, she offered up, "Nothing to see here, folks. Move along." She was rewarded, if that was the right word for it, by a snicker from Linus Morgan, seated in a squishy chair a few feet behind her and to her left. Whether he was laughing at her or with her, Elizabeth couldn't be sure, but she didn't really care all that much anyway.

Maths, Sciences, all of the Literatures, even History; none of them really challenged her anymore. She'd come to realize that her fifteen year old brain was becoming her greatest asset lately, even if it wasn't the part of her that the boys seemed to notice first. Boys like Linus, for example. You wish, she thought, but this time had the sense to keep her mouth shut.

Laurel Allen stood in front of the class, silently monitoring the results her students were entering. This section of the material, dealing with fairly dry historical data that the students were busy analyzing and interpreting, was pre-recorded, which freed Laurel to focus her attention on the sea of icons glowing on the lectern in front of her. She hadn't yet been a teacher long enough to completely quell the curious voice within her that asked, "How did we ever gauge our pupils' understanding before we had instant feedback available?" As a student herself only a few years earlier, it had all seemed completely natural, as it had to a couple of generations of pupils before her: as you learned something, you were immediately and continually quizzed on your understanding of it. But now that she stood on the other side of the machinery, she could see the beauty of it and wonder how education ever worked without it. In the absence of that feedback loop, after all, how would she have known in October that Sanjay Majmudar was slipping behind in his comprehension of Chord Theory? Would she simply have lost him, then, as each successive Trigonometric concept had further collapsed that shaky foundation in his mind, all for want of a little extra coverage? Or would she have been expected to be a mind-reader for each of her students? And what? Held court over a class of three or four students at most?

She was roused out of her reverie by a pair of flashing symbols on the display in front of her. Not surprisingly, Liz Lee's avatar - a paper lantern - was blinking green, as she'd just gone up over the 98% mark once again. That's my girl, Laurel thought, and not for the first time. Elizabeth Lee was the favourite student of every teacher this year, it seemed.

More worrisome was the red circle around Peter Osborne's triangular-shield icon, flickering on and off in a successful attempt to get Laurel's attention. She reached out and tapped it, and read the resulting analysis that temporarily obliterated her status board. Young Mr Osborne, it appeared from the answers he was providing, had somehow gotten it into his head that the Literary Revolution had preceded the Industrial! That would certainly explain why he was struggling so badly with some of his conclusions at the moment. Laurel scanned what the education software had come up with as a corrective strike, tweaked it slightly to make it more likely that Peter would get the point without feeling stupid, and OK'd it with a quick tap. Her class status board re-appeared, with Peter's avatar now encircled in yellow instead of red. She knew the results of her action would be popping up on his display instantly, so she looked up to try to catch his surprised reaction. C'mon, Peter, she thought, work it through.

Within half a minute or so, Laurel got an appreciative nod back, though Peter never lifted his eyes. If all went well, he'd get back on track shortly and she'd handle the next crisis to show up on her board. I love my job. And she did!

Hours later, on the grass outside their school, several of the students from Miss Allen's class gathered for the customary end-of-day debrief.

"Favourite question?" Linus Morgan asked the sky above him, as he lay flat on his back on the lawn, but his three companions knew the question was really aimed at them.

"How's your COAT coming along?" Peter Osborne said, causing Sanjay Majmudar and James Hancock to laugh.

"No, you brain-dead amoeba, I mean favourite question asked in class today! Like you didn't know."

Sanjay said, "OK, I'll play along, Mr Morgan, sir. Ah, which subject would you be asking about, sir?"

Linus regarded his friend cooly, as if unsure of just who was playing whom. "Let's go with Romance Literature, since you strike me as the romantic type."

"Oooh," crooned James, "should we leave you two alone? Because, you know, young love doth all but blot out the sun!"

Sanjay stroked his chin, feeling the few whiskers there that he couldn't help but wish would hurry up and multiply. "Well," he said, "I still get particularly interested every time Lesbian Lit comes up, so I guess you know which one was my favourite today..."

"Ah, good old Marianne Crowe, circa 1920..." sighed James. His friends grew quiet as they all shared a moment of reverence.

"What I really want to know," Peter said, finally breaking the silence, "is how your God damned COAT is coming along."

"Since you asked so nicely," Linus responded, sitting up, "I've got forty nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine lovely little words written... but I can't seem to decide on the last one! In fact, I'm starting to believe that final, perfect word may just take me as long to arrive at as the first forty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine did! Happy?"

"In other words, you still haven't started it," Peter replied, the tone of his voice showing his disapproval with each word.

"Well, that's certainly one way to look at it, yes. But I prefer my version."

Without any amusement in his eyes at all, Peter said, "Ladies and gentlemen... my friend, Peter Pan!"

"You're all wet, old chum," Linus said. "You're on the wrong track. You've got hydrogen in your zeppelin. Your wires are all crossed, and you're --"

"Yeah, I get the general idea," Peter interrupted. "So why don't you tell me and my two esteemed colleagues here just what it is you're working on that's actually going to usher you out of childhood at long last."

Linus stood up abruptly, feigning alarm. "Wait a second," he exclaimed. "How do I know you're not an international spy, here to steal my brilliant idea of a story and take it back to your homeland? What kind of a name is 'Osborne', anyway? It sounds... Canadian!"

Sanjay chose that moment to follow Linus' earlier example, and sprawled out on the grass. "I wrote about two hundred words last night. But I think I may have gotten my protagonist into a situation he can't get out of."

"So kill him off!" James rasped, with typical quickness.

"That's not really the effect I'm going for," Sanjay said. "I mean, he has to triumph in the end, otherwise it sort of..."

"Undermines the point?" Linus offered.

"Exactly! Although, perhaps 'triumph' is too strong a word. I suppose it's more a matter of vindication."

"What's he being vindicated for?" asked James, showing actual interest.

Sanjay swallowed hard, hoping it wouldn't show from where he lay. "For betraying his father."

And Now For Something Slightly Different

For my 1100th post, which is the very next one, I'm going to put up a chapter to a short story I've been writing. But where normally I post the finished product, this is simply going to be the draft as it exists right now. The story in question is one I expect may take me awhile to finish, and at the moment I haven't even completed chapter one to my own satisfaction. At some point I hope to be able to 'publish' a more polished version, but what's a blog good for, if not a little experimentation?

So anyway, that's what's up next. Get over it!

"That's Because It Was Used Up"

Musician Glen Hansard tells the story of lending his guitar to Magnolia Electric Company's Jason Molina when the two crossed paths in Ireland. Before using it, Molina duct-taped a little white cross onto the instrument; when Hansard asked him about it, the MEC songwriter replied that it was a protection spell. Hansard liked that idea, so he kept the cross on it.

Months later, in the Czech Republic, he accidentally left his guitar behind after a gig, and when he returned the next day, it was long gone. He was frantic to get it back, even offering a $5000 Euro reward on account of its sentimental value to him. Much to his surprise, a few weeks later the guitar mysteriously showed up back at the venue, and he got a call to pick it up. The guitar was still in-tune and in all ways just as he's last seen it, except that the little white cross was gone. When he called up Molina to tell him that everything had come back except the protection spell, Jason said, "Yeah, that's because it was used up."

Man, I just love that story!

Thanks to Tim, I can tell you that you can listen to that story as well a few select songs from Sojourner, here. Since one of the sample songs is "What Comes After The Blues?" you'd be just plain crazy not to!

Silver Age Comic Trivia XXXIII

Besides stripping him of some of his cosmic powers, what else did Galactus do to the Silver Surfer by way of punishment after the Surfer betrayed the devourer-of-worlds to save the Earth?

Yesterday's Answer: By issue # 74, Batman had taken over ownership of DC's Brave and the Bold series, and would remain there throughout the rest of the Silver Age and beyond, teaming up with different characters each month. Therefore, Aquaman and Atom, who got together in # 73, had the honour of being in the last non-Batman issue.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Sojourner: Sun Session

Continuing my journey through the Magnolia Electric Company box set called Sojourner, I'm now on disc # 3, called Sun Session. I've previously covered Nashville Moon and Black Ram, for anyone not following along at home.

Sun Session is an EP, only about fifteen minutes in length, featuring just four songs. According to the MEC website, it was recorded in a single day, back in March of 2006, at Memphis' Sun Studios, by most of the usual suspects (Molina, Groth, Schreiner, Rice, etc). All but one of the songs have been previously released, two on Fading Trails and one on the transitional Magnolia Electric Company album (either the swan song of Songs: Ohia or the MEC debut, depending on who you talk to) - although that one's re-interpreted here quite drastically. It's certainly a strong, though small, sampling of MEC music.

"Talk To Me Devil, Again" leads off the CD, in what seems to be the same form as showed up on Fading Trails. Like everything else on that 2006 release, it's very powerful, both musically and lyrically. I've come to realize as I've gone through Sojourner, that the contents of Fading Trails were essentially the best of each of these earlier recording sessions. Certainly that holds true on this disc, with this song and the next one being simply exquisite. A few lyrics:

"Devil if I fall hold out no water to me
Devil when I fall, hold out no hand
Devil unwind what’s empty
Devil unbind my heart
Devil make the two ends meet
Devil if I fall apart
Talk to me devil, again (x3)
Baby I still have time"

Next up is "Memphis Moon," also from Fading Trails, and possibly one of the most sadly beautiful songs I've ever heard. I wrote months ago about choreographing a music video in my head, as I biked along and listened to "Cross The Road, Molina" on Trials And Errors. The only other song I've ever had that experience with is "Memphis Moon." Whereas the former example was full of action and excitement, devising a video for this song always seems to call for something very small, personal and full of heart-ache. In my head, I see it as being about an older couple, with the grey-haired wife on her deathbed and the husband seated beside her, reminding her of stories from when they were younger. See if you don't see a little of that yourself as you consider:

"Tea for two stars falling from the memphis sky (x2)
I know the night bird called you now
Everything is fine
I know it’s soon to be fading out
But oh, didn’t we shine
Didn’t we shine

Some people say that the memphis blues ain’t bad (x2)
Put your little hand in mine darling
I know you’re fading fast
It weren’t the memphis blues you had
But baby you still shine

Goodbye my love, goodbye my love, goodbye
Turn your lamp down low my love, goodbye
I hear the whistle singing now to the lonesome pine
I know that we faded out
But oh, didn’t we shine
Didn’t we shine"

I also have something of a special relationship with the third song on Sun Session, "Hold On Magnolia." When buddy Tim was trying to interest Vicki and I in Magnolia Electric Company, back when I didn't know them from Spider-Man and the Electric Company, he'd lent us a couple of their CDs and was hoping we'd want to go see them in concert a few weeks later. I remember listening to the Magnolia Electric Company CD, and sort of liking it after a couple times through, but being a little undecided because of that whole country tinge to it. But it was the closing song, "Hold On Magnolia," so strangely sad and yet uplifting at the same time, that first connected with me and made me want to hear it again. And pretty soon I'd play the CD every night, because I couldn't wait to experience that amazing finish once again. And of course it wasn't long before the rest of the album had similarly won me over, and its follow-up What Comes After The Blues? was soon gobbled up, and by then I was a goner. What's included on Sun Session is a re-recording of that seminal track, with a more low-key instrumental accompaniment. As you'd expect, it's quite jarring to encounter it like that, and my first reaction was to recoil and not like it. But now that I've heard it a few times, I can appreciate it on its own terms, even while still preferring the original version. I guess, in a way, this is a more intimate recording of it, and that's not a bad thing at all. "Hold On Magnolia" closes with:

"Hold on Magnolia, I know what a true friend you’ve been
In my life I have had my doubts
But tonight I think I’ve worked it out with all of them
Hold on Magnolia to the thunder and the rain
To the lightning that has just signed my name to the bottom line
Hold on Magnolia, I hear that lonesome whistle whine
Hold on Magnolia
I think its almost time"

The only completely new song on the CD, "Trouble In Mind," takes the signature Molina depression to a new level, as the lyrics finally broach the subject of suicide as a response to life's hardships. I've typically found some element of hope in even the most dire MEC tracks before, and in this case it's up to Groth, Schreiner, and friends to pull off that trick, which they do. The music more than makes up for the lyrical heartache, providing the sort of foundation for it that has you humming happily along, oblivious to the subject matter. If you listen to the words, though, you'll hear:

"Trouble in mind, I'm blue
But I won't be blue always
You know the sun is gonna shine
In my back door someday
I'm gonna lay my head
On some lonesome railroad line
Gonna let that big eight hundred
Satisfy this mind of mine
Trouble in mind, I'm blue
My heart is sinkin' low
You know I ain't had so much trouble
In my life before"

So Sun Session, while merely an appetizer, is still very solid, for every one of its meager fifteen minutes. And if, as the claim goes, all four of these songs were recorded in one day, then colour me impressed! The production quality is high, there's nothing that feels the least bit rushed, and even simply getting "Memphis Moon" so perfect in a day would've seemed impossible to me.

A Potential Change Of Plans Looms

Vicki, ever watchful for all things that worry me - a full-time job, believe you me! - has proposed a plan whereby she joins me in Washington next week, while I'm attending Agile 2007 with some co-workers. As I noted yesterday, I've had concerns about how the whole bandage-changing procedure was going to go without her. Now it looks like I might not have to find out!

We're still working through the details - like, can she really be away from her job for that entire week? - but it's looking promising so far. Luckily, Tammy's available to house-sit for us while we're away so that angle's taken care of.

Stay tuned for further updates on this breaking news... (hah!)

Cartoons Aren't Just For Kids Anymore

Two unrelated events occurred today that made me think about animated presentations and their target audiences. First, I was watching an episode of the Legion of Super-Heroes cartoon, and while it was OK, I kept finding myself thinking along the lines of, "Boy, they've really dumbed this down for kids." But of course, it happens to be a program that's intended to be shown on the WB Kids network, so why shouldn't they play up the physical humour, have the characters act like morons, and keep the concepts simple and straight-forward? I mean, sure, occasionally you get material like the best Bugs Bunny cartoons, where there's equal appeal to adults and kids, for different reasons. But it takes a certain amount of genius to pull that off, so you won't see it often. Which means that, as long as comic book properties are targeted for kids' venues on TV, I shouldn't expect anything different.

Then I see the awesome trailer for the direct-to-DVD interpretation of Darwin Cooke's wonderful DCU New Frontier comic series from a couple years ago, which is being promoted as a Justice League animated feature (a good move, in my opinion). And it's just night and day, the difference between it and something like the aforementioned Legion or Teen Titans animated shows. While it's hard to get a complete sense of the tone and style from a short trailer, I like just about everything that I saw in it! Now, would a child of 8 or 9 enjoy it? Probably, although some of it would likely go over his or her head. And I suppose it really depends on the kid, and whether he or she has only ever been shown little kid stuff, or been challenged at all. But it really doesn't matter, as the intended viewers of Justice League: The New Frontier are adults, not kids. Not because of strong language or nudity (at least, I doubt either of those will be found in it), and probably not because the violence will be anything worse than you see in typical cartoons these days. It'll be aimed at an older audience - at least, I hope it will; the comic certainly was - because it'll deal with complex themes and have characters who don't act like they just stepped out of a sitcom. And that's a pretty exciting prospect, for this fan, anyway!

Silver Age Comic Trivia XXXII

During the Silver Age, Brave and the Bold switched from a showcase format to featuring seemingly random team-ups, and then eventually to being a Batman team-up title. Who were the last characters to team up in Brave and the Bold before Batman took over the title permanently?

Yesterday's Answer: Lady Sif, the Asgardian love interest of the Mighty Thor, was sister to Heimdall, the guardian of the Bifrost Bridge. Heimdall's senses were said to be so acute that he could hear grass growing, and see the whiskers on a rodent, miles away. Not exactly the sort of abilities you necessarily want in your girlfriend's brother, if you ask me!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Sojourner: Black Ram

Continuing through the Magnolia Electric Company box set release called Sojourner, this time out I'm looking at - or more accurately, listening to - the second disc in the set, Black Ram. (I'd previously covered, at length, the contents of Nashville Moon, the first CD in the box.)

Black Ram is a collection of nine songs that were recorded in Richmond, Virginia, with an entirely different group of musicians than the current MEC group (all of whom were present on Nashville Moon). Musicians on it include David Lowery (bass), Rick Alverson (classical guitar) and Molly Blackbird (backing vocals), none of whom ring any bells for me. Nowhere to be found on this CD are Jason Evans Groth, Peter Schreiner or the rest of the familiar faces from the recent Magnolia concerts I've attended. If anything, the music here is more reminiscent of some of the later Songs: Ohia albums released not long before that group's one constant, songwriter/lead singer Jason Molina, relaunched the band as Magnolia Electric Company, establishing a more consistent line-up than had ever been the case with Songs: Ohia.

As such, it's a significantly more mellow, quiet set of songs than Nashville Moon or any of the MEC studio releases to date, with much more understated music to accompany the lyrics. I'd say it's also missing the Country & Western influences that were evident on the previous disc, which is not a bad thing for my money. And it contains only two songs I'd heard previously, making for yet another stark contrast to Nashville Moon, which was mostly familiar material for fans like me. That last distinction made for a drastically different listening experience between the two, as Black Ram has required quite a few more repetitions before I felt like I'd really gotten its pulse enough to reflect on its contents here. I'm happy to say that my appreciation for it has grown with each successive pass through it, which is a good indicator, where music and Your Humble Blogger are concerned. There's been nothing like the sort of pure joy that I felt listening to Nashville Moon, practically right out of the box, but still, this collection's slowly earning a place somewhere in my heart.

"In The Human World," like "No Moon On The Water" (on Nashville Moon) appears to have been a Jason Molina solo release at some point (whether before or after this recording was made, I know not). The opening track is one of the quietest on the disc, and it really requires the listener to come to it, and not the other way around. The first time that I knew I was going to really like this tune, on about the third or fourth time through it, came when the subtle three-note guitar refrain that's sprinkled throughout actually caught my attention. It provides such a hypnotic backdrop, once your ear figures out that it's there, that it gives the song an entirely new dimension. Among the lyrics, I love:

"You've already lost so much
Now that the moon has passed you by

All the good things are asleep in the human world
It makes more room for the dark to walk around
Speak to all my friends
Whose names I can't remember now"

The title track, "The Black Ram," is one that hasn't entirely grown on me (yet?) Although it has an interesting emotional instrumental uptick partway through, most of its music is fairly barren, having some of the least captivating sounds on the disc. Also, the louder swells, when they come, tend to overpower the vocals, to the point where I'm not even sure of some of the lyrics. I look forward to finding out what's actually being sung, once they make their way onto the MEC website. For now, this is just not one of the bigger attractions on the CD for me.

"What's Broken Becomes Better", on the other hand, has a terrific driving beat to it that really gives Black Ram its first shot of adrenaline. It's still quieter than a typical MEC song, but stands out from most of its peers on this CD in terms of energy and emotion. As silly a yardstick as it is to use, this is one of the few songs on this CD that I could imagine listening to on my iPod as I biked to work or back (where I need at least some fire to keep those legs a-pumpin'). A few lyrics:

"I learned to trust anything but love
The fight's not just in the blood
It's in the dawn and in the dust"

It's back to a more sedate pace with "Will-O-The-Wisp", which would certainly not have been out of place on a Songs: Ohia album like Ghost Tropic. It's the sort of song that's perfect for those moments of quiet contemplation, or as pleasant background music while you read or write. Nothing about it really holds my attention, though, so it's in much the same category as "The Black Ram" for me: nice enough but nothing really special.

"Kanawha," which is a river (and county) in West Virginia, starts off like a continuation of the previous song, but then gets saved by some beautiful guitar work about a minute and a half in that brings it to life nicely. The guitar sections make it a much more memorable song, and to my very untrained ears, sound like intentional echoes back to "What's Broken Becomes Better." But it's not like I even know how to read music or anything, so I could be completely wrong. The lyrics of "Kanawha" haven't really done much for me to date.

"A Little At A Time" is the first of two songs on Black Ram that were included on Fading Trails last year. It's amazing to me how much this song sticks out like a sore thumb here, as far as being head and shoulders better than the rest. It's just an amazing blend of music and lyrics, with some of the best in each category. In fact, as I've noted before, it's got lyrics that won't let you go. Who can forget:

"Maybe if I send back the blues her broken heart
She'll send back mine
A little at a time"

With a session musician bearing it as a last name, I'm not sure if there's an interesting behind-the-scenes story as to why the seventh song is titled, "Blackbird," or if it's just one of those coincidences. I find that I like the music on this one, but lyrically, nothing stands out. Still pleasant enough, though.

Jason Molina's never-ending obsession with all things lunar shows up once again in "And The Moon Hits The Water," a track with an almost-subversive drum beat behind it that you don't really notice until you find yourself completely caught in its grip by the final third of the song. Some lyrics worthy of consideration:

"Night does its work
It doesn't always follow the rules (or does it)
Moon was the howlin' wolf that was walkin' the street
Moon was the mountain that washed the shadows from the feet
Was there ever any other way to live
I thought I had to always be wrong
Was there ever any other way to live
I thought I had to always be strong"

The CD wraps up with the second song that showed up on Fading Trails, "The Old Horizon." Unlike the other songs similarly transported onto Fading Trails, this one actually differs very slightly between here and there. I mention this only because I've listened to last year's MEC release so many times that even subtle changes jump out at me. Here, it's simply the addition of some backing vocals at the end of the song, which neither hurt nor really enhanced the listening experience for me. What I've loved about this song, since first hearing it on Fading Trails, is the inclusion of something, at a few key points throughout, that sounds very much like the sort of metal-wrenching cry that you'd hear in a train yard. I love the sound of trains, and while I'm not sure if that's even what the intent of this was, it just really adds another layer to the song for me. While typically quiet, it does include great lyrics like:

"I built my life out of what was left of me
And a map of an old horizon
Arrow find my chesnut heart
Shadow for conjurin'
Big black eyes to hide my secrets in
And the map of the old horizon"

In summary, I'd put this release below Nashville Moon or the other material that's come from Magnolia since the name change. It's much more at the level of the good-but-not-great Songs: Ohia albums like Ghost Tropic and Impala, as even Didn't It Rain? probably beats it, both lyrically and musically (he says now).

An Old Idea Re-Visited

It's been mentioned in the past, generally to a lukewarm reception, but something I read today made me think about bringing it up again: the group blog. I think Tammy was the first in our corner of the blogosphere to suggest this, last year (though I could be wrong), and then a little after that I floated the idea an inch or two up the ol' flagpole before dropping it again.

Why? Well, I like my own blog, and I wish there were more blogs that I could enjoy reading as much. Oh, I know there are millions of blogs out there, but most of the ones I've been to just don't cut it (with some notable exceptions). While famous peoples' blogs can be fun, it's not the same as reading the words of people you actually know. I suppose it's just an extension of that community feeling that I'm looking for.

One of the more obvious obstacles to overcome is: what would we blog about? Most of us already have blogs - even if a select few don't act like they do! - so why start another one? While I don't have a definitive answer, the topic that seems to interest all of us to some degree is movies. From what I can tell, there's a wide enough range of tastes between us to provide for some variety, both in terms of what would get covered, and the views expressed. So I guess I'm asking: if you're a frequent visitor to this site, would you be interested in participating in such an experiment? (And by participation, I mean more than simply reading.) And is there a topic more suitable than movies?

Another obstacle, of course, would be agreeing on what blogging site/software to use. I like Blogger; others swear by Word Press, and I'm sure there are probably other options. If we did this, then clearly whatever we'd use would have to provide access to multiple posters (they probably all do) and be fairly easy to use for those unfamiliar with it.

So what's the feeling? Am I barking up the wrong tree here?

Silver Age Comic Trivia XXXI

In the far-off land of Asgard to be found in Marvel Comics, who was Lady Sif's brother?

Yesterday's Answer: DC Comics' Brotherhood of Evil, not to be confused with Marvel's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, were frequent arch enemies of the Doom Patrol. The Brotherhood's original membership was limited to Monsieur Mallah, Madame Rouge, and the Brain, but sometimes also included General Immortus and Garguax.

Madame Rouge ultimately went solo, though, and in her final Silver Age appearance successfully killed off Monsieur Mallah and the Brain, and then set her sights on the Doom Patrol members as well. After a few unsuccessful attempts to wipe them out, she trapped them on a remote island, and in a broadcast that was being made world-wide, told them that both the island they stood on and a small fishing hamlet in Maine had been booby-trapped with explosives. It was up to the Doom Patrol to decide which of the two would be detonated. She was confident that Robotman, Elasti-Girl and Negative Man (the DP) would bring eternal humiliation down upon themselves by choosing to save their own skins, but instead they bravely shouted, "Fire away!" and died as heroes. A truly unique Silver Age moment!

BoilBoy - The 9 Days After Photo

Vicki assures me that lots of healing is evident in this photo, compared to what it looked like just six days ago. And if you click on each of the two photos to get a closer look (and who wouldn't want to do that, I wonder?), you can see that the hole's filled in, in terms of depth, at least a little. But, it still looks like - and feels like - a big gaping wound, and so I'm starting to worry about my attendance at the Agile 2007 Conference in Washington a week from tomorrow, and whether I'll really be able to make that happen. Vicki's been a fantastic nurse throughout all this, but she ain't gonna be there! I've asked someone at work to find out if the hotel we're staying at has a nurse on staff, or if there's a nearby walk-in clinic; otherwise, it's going to be up to one of my traveling companions to deal with daily bandage changes and cleanings, which is quite frankly a Hell of a lot to ask of a co-worker. It's ironic that I average only about 2 business trips each year, and yet one of this year's is coinciding with a minor medical crisis. Funny, that!

By the way, the red marks all around the wound are from the tape that holds the bandage on. Having that tape ripped off each day is one of the worst parts of this whole experience, and seeing the site now (I normally can't see anything back there) it's no wonder my back's as sore and sensitive as it is!