Saturday, February 28, 2009

So Long, February!

As seems to happen all too often for a month that should be short and sweet, I really didn't much care for February this year. I had a week-long cold during it, was pummeled mercilessly by the professional sports leagues that I (used to) follow, and watched our retirement savings drop another 10% or so.

The good news is that in about one minute from now, March arrives. Here's hoping it's better than the steaming pile of crap that it replaced!

Now That's A First Lady!

Not that I had anything against the last couple of women to hold the title, because I didn't. But I just happen to think that Michelle Obama is more grounded, more compassionate, and more of a genuine role model than any other First Lady who's taken up residence in the White House during my lifetime.

The image above, by the way, is the official First Lady Photo.

[Update: CNN commentator Jack Cafferty perfectly summed up my own feelings about Mrs Obama here.]

Friday, February 27, 2009

Early Killzone 2 Impressions

I've now played about an hour and a half of Guerrilla Games' new offering, including the Single Player campaign, a little taste of online multiplayer and a fair bit of what's called "Skirmish", which is offline multiplayer with and against AI bots.

Right off the top: the graphics are truly first-rate. It reminds me of some of the most recent PC games that I've seen others playing with state of the art graphics cards in their machines. Even dust, blowing in the wind as you run across a beautifully-displayed terrain, catches your attention when you see it for the first time. As is always the case with me, though, I lost the "Wow!" factor on how good everything looks way too quickly, because I got caught up in the game. That failure on my part notwithstanding, the environment is much more realistically and impressively rendered than what I got used to in Resistance 2 (and it was no slouch in that department, either).

Just as many of the reviewers had warned, the "feel" of the game takes some getting used to. I've heard some say that it's a weightier dynamic, and that probably sums it up as well as anything. When you jump, for example, you may be put off at first when you experience a little of the crouching or bracing action that physically precedes a leap in real life... in a video game! Or, if you jump from a higher location to a lower one, even if it's only a difference of a few feet, you'll notice that there's a cost to the impact, both in terms of taking a proportional hit on your health (I haven't tried it yet, but I imagine if the distance is too great, you probably die) and requiring a second or so to recover from it. I'd encountered at least some of that style of play in Third Person Shooters like Gears of War and Lost Planet, but running into it in an FPS is something different for me.

Also, the movement away from an Aim Assist model (as Resistance 2 has) to being on your own with regard to the crosshairs is still somewhat jarring, in these early stages. I think the trick will be getting the horizontal and vertical sensitivity bars to just the right setting, as right now I'm often veering madly around my target without actually landing on him. In the five minutes or so of online play that I endured, it quickly became apparent that others weren't suffering from that disability in the least, though, as I was getting killed with one or two shots before even spotting my opponent, most of the time. Part of the problem may be that it's more of a "cover" game, in that you need to find and stay behind walls and other barriers at times, rather than charging in, guns blazing. That's tough for a run-and-gunner like me to adjust to.

Fortunately, there's a "critically wounded" feature in the game that puts you down on the ground if you're almost out of health but allows a teammate to come and revive you in the first several seconds after that happens. That saved me the ignominy of yet another pointless death once or twice, when I was lucky enough to have a friend nearby.

Despite that helpful feature, I fear that the online arena is going to be a brutally brief destination for the average-at-best players like me. The style of this game, unlike so many others that I play, intentionally or otherwise makes the gap between us and the really good combatants too great to be much fun. There may be a ranking system in place that's just not working its magic yet (as the game only came out today); if not, though, I think too many players will be turned off by the pointlessness of getting whacked without having even fired off a round.

Overall, though, I'm quite pleased with the game. I'm not yet convinced that it's going to live up to all the hype... nor that it has to, in order to warrant spending $60. I don't think many people will feel cheated by their Killzone 2 experience.

Does Anyone Have $400,000 They're Not Using?

People often express shock upon hearing that I actually spent $4,000 on a single comic book way back when (Showcase # 4, the first appearance of the Silver Age Flash). But just imagine how those jaws would drop if I told them that I'd plunked down 100 times that amount to get a copy of this little gem!

Well, somebody will be doing just that very soon, as an unrestored (and previously unknown) copy of Action Comics # 1 (which basically gave birth to the superhero industry) is going up for auction. However, unless Vicki or I win the lottery over the weekend (and I think you actually have to buy a ticket for that to happen), it sadly won't be me! But if you've been holding onto $400,000 and wondering what to do with it, you've got your answer now!

[Update March 16/09: It actually went for $317,200... a virtual steal at that price!]

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Killzone 2 Is On Its Way

I've actually pre-ordered Killzone 2, the highly-anticipated, much-hyped PS/3 First Person Shooter, three times over the past several weeks. I canceled the first Best Buy order when I realized that I could get it from the same place for 10% off if I pre-ordered during an online sale period. Then I canceled that order when I discovered that Amazon was matching that 10% discount and also offering free shipping (compared to the $2 for shipping at Best Buy online), and had gotten my books to me so quickly earlier in the month.

This afternoon I got the e-mail indicating that the game has shipped from Amazon. Now the big question is: will it get here tomorrow (the launch date) or will I have to wait until Monday to try the game? There would be a certain undesirable irony to the outcome if my parcel of books (which I was in no hurry to get) arrived lightning fast while the biggest video game of the year took its own sweet time... both coming from the same place!

To warm up for the new game, I just spent 45 minutes playing a bit of Resistance 2 in Competitive mode... and got absolutely wiped out in each game (something like a total of 25 kills compared to 42 deaths)! That doesn't exactly bode well for making any hay in KZ2!

[Update: Package arrived just before 2:00 p.m. on Friday, Feb 27/09! Way to go, Amazon!! That's two good results in a row.]

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Stories That Make You Quickly Check The Date

This being late February and me not being exactly on top of the current date all of the time (thanks to not working), it's not all that much of a stretch for me to think that I've momentarily forgotten just how near or how far away April Fool's Day is at any given moment.

So when I saw the headline "Marvel Signs Samuel L. Jackson To 9-Picture Deal", I have to say that my first thought was, "Is it April 1st already?!" Turns out that it's no bull, though. Jackson, quite the comic book fan himself, apparently worked out the money issues he had with Marvel Studios not long ago, and has signed on for a whack of Nick Fury screen time over the next few years.

I think this is awesome news, personally, as I can see him bringing just the right sensibility to that role as well as providing some great continuity across the Marvel movie franchises. Dare I say that the one-time House of Ideas is actually on the verge of recreating on the silver screen the same kind of revolutionary "shared universe" vibe and thrill that they wowed us with in the comic book universe in the 1960s? I think I shall!

Comment Moderation Gone Bad

I rarely use it myself (except when trivia contests are underway here), but I certainly understand the value of comment moderation on blogs. I've had comments posted here that I've read and then deleted once I realized they were racist, sexist or simply promotional bits disguised as comments. But fortunately those are few and far between and so I leave moderation off, by default.

Over on his blog (which I've enjoyed for quite awhile), Sean Twist has recently introduced comment moderation. I'm not sure what prompted it; it just started happening. I only noticed because I posted a comment (after he reviewed The Road by Cormac McCarthy) and yet it wasn't there the next time I visited his blog. I waited a few more days, checked again, and it was still nowhere to be found. I then posted a followup comment, inquiring as to whether anything in my first response had given offense, and it, too, disappeared into the ether.

I've since left another comment or two, none of which have made it through the moderation process. Other comments, from other regular readers of his blog, have shown up with quick and dependable regularity. Clearly I've made it into Mr Twist's bad books, but for no reason that's discernible to my thick skull. Which kinda sucks.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bobby Jindal = Kenneth The Page?

It didn't take long tonight for Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, who provided the official "opposition response" to President Obama's speech to Congress, to pick up the new moniker of "Kenneth the Page" (from 30 Rock). I gotta love it that Tina Fey's show has seeped into the culture like that!

One of the stranger bits of Jindal's response was his apparent stance that governments get in the way of volunteerism during crises. I guess Louisiana must have some pretty screwed up emergency response services for him to hold that perspective (I'd much rather have my fate in the hands of highly skilled police, fire fighters or rescue workers than have to rely on people as untrained in such matters as I am!)

Of all the many great statements that Barack Obama made, I thought that his goal of "by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world" was perhaps the most amazing. That speaks volumes for what he thinks is wrong with his country, and how to correct it. Maybe by 2020 there won't be anyone left in the U.S. who thinks that "nuclear" is pronounced "nukuler" (or at least, not in the White House!)

Is Anyone Else Starting To Hate Debt As Much As I Do?

Every day I see headlines like "Real Root of this Recession? Too Much Debt!" I saw a statistic just now that says that the total credit card debt by Americans in 2008 reached an all-time high of $951 billion (according to the Federal Reserve).

Doing the back-of-the-envelope math, there are roughly 330 million Americans. If we reduce that by, say, 10%, to account for children (who wouldn't have credit cards yet) and some trivial portion of the population that wouldn't carry credit card debt, that leaves us with around 300 million (I'm sure the actual figure is smaller than that, but I don't know by how much and I don't want to err on the pessimistic side). That would then tell us that the average American with credit card debt carried a balance of more than $3,000 in 2008. Assuming an interest rate of 20%, that means that the (mythical) average American incurred more than $600 in credit card interest last year. While not a huge amount, this is also a country where the rank and file scream blue bloody murder at the hint of a 1% increase in their income or payroll taxes. Since most of them are probably not making $60,000 or more (I think the statistical median household income in the States is below that figure, and that would often include 2 card holders) then that means that they willingly committed $600 or more to the goal of living beyond their means, but would be repulsed by the thought of contributing that same amount to the betterment of their society.

So are people finally starting to see the dark side of debt? I devoted an entire chapter of my 2nd AgileMan book to the true costs of bug debt (with a few remarks about the other kind), and of course waxed eloquent about its financial cousin more than 2 years ago on this very blog. I realize that a lot of people - perhaps even some regular readers here - regard debt as a necessary evil in their lives. And, as I've said many times, it sometimes is... but I really wish that more citizens of the world had the same revulsion toward it that I do. If that were the case, there'd be a greater incidence of it being deemed "evil" and less situations in which it was regarded as "necessary."

More Breathless Insight From The Quarantine Zone

For whatever reason, over the past couple of weeks I've seen at least a half dozen different examples of people using "compliment" when they meant "complement" in online posts (eg. "Our strengths really compliment each other.") Is it really all that hard to remember that the former means "to praise" while the latter means "to complete, or make whole"?

This latest addition may, in fact, end up joining other notable "sadly common faux pas"s like:
  • "it's" for the possessive form ("The dog licked it's tail.")
  • "irregardless" (negating an already negative term)
  • "could of/should of/would of" etc.
  • and others I'm too woolly-headed to think of right now

Monday, February 23, 2009

Still Feeling Craptacular

for the third day in a row... and hence the low volume of blogging. Feel free to leave comments intended to cheer me on through this illness, or just continue to silently wait for my impending doom. At this point, it's all the same to me!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Our Bodies Aren't Laboratories Or Billboards

(Being sick makes me wander down paths like this one.)

I'm not a health nut by any stretch of the imagination - as one look at my body would assure anyone confused on that point - but I do believe that we should take care of and respect our bodies. Having said that, I know that my diet is not as good as it should be. Take vegetables, for example: most people claim that they're good for you (and I don't dispute that stance)... whereas to my taste buds most veggies are vile-smelling and -tasting, and likely to inspire my gag reflex. As a result, I eat almost no vegetables. Thanks to the influence of my good wife, I load up on fruit, vitamins and fibre supplements to do my part to try to compensate for what I'm missing in the food that I don't eat.

But when it comes to people who abuse their bodies for pleasure or, worse yet, for aesthetic reasons, I'm at a loss as far as understanding it. I've never comprehended why any sane person would, of their own free will, pump themselves full of narcotics, hallucinogens, uppers, downers, or anything else not prescribed by a doctor. It just makes no sense to me. Hence, I don't drink, smoke (tobacco or anything else) or cram other chemicals into my body that were never intended to go in there.

By the same token, I don't get the reasoning behind body piercing or tattoos. Both of those activities smell to me of tribal rituals that, as a species, I'd have hoped that we'd have long since moved beyond by this point in our evolution. Someone with a pierced eyebrow looks to me like an African witch doctor from the dark ages with a bone through his nose. Maybe someone effecting that look is actually trying to get back in touch with some aspect of their genetic memory (which is kind of interesting) but personally, I'm always much more inclined to look forward than backward. And I'm no more likely to inject ink into, or cut pieces out of my body than I am to put out cigarettes on my arm or ask for a toe to be amputated just for kicks.

It'd be nice if this commitment to the sanctity of the body Nature delivered to me roughly 46 years ago meant that I'll still be around and kicking in another 46 years, but that's probably unlikely. Instead, I'll just have to comfort myself with knowing that, for however long I survive - including getting past this current cold, if I do! - I treated my body as well as I could, under the circumstances. That's something, at least.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Down With A Cold

I've spent most of today sneezing and coughing, with a sore throat... not exactly how I ever want to pass the time!

Hopefully I'll bounce back tomorrow or the next day.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sometimes Boring Is Good

Some of the events in the news this week (most notably that Newsweek article by Fareed Zakaria and President Obama's day-trip to Ottawa) have put Canada's banking industry in the spotlight, albeit only briefly. One of the realizations I've had on this topic is the one expressed in the title of this post: somethings boring is good.

When it comes to rules around how money gets lent out, I think they should be clear, concise and fair to all parties. I prefer a mundane system that says, "You must have at least 5% as a down payment on the property and the principle of your mortgage can't exceed two times your average family income over the past year" over one that really grabs you and shouts, "No money down! No one will be refused! Special introductory rates available!" Why? Because I think that something as important as money should never be borrowed by people who can't reasonably be expected to repay it. And because I think that we should all expect to have to save up for things when we can't afford them, rather than getting them right away (yes, I know that probably infuriates the Instant Gratification Generation, but whatever).

With big expenses like houses, cars and post-secondary school educations, loans are almost always necessary... but I personally believe they all should require skin in the game for the borrower (a down payment) and be limited to something reasonable. As someone who's had all of those types of loans in the past, I appreciated the fact that I could get them when I needed them, and I demonstrated that by repaying them as quickly and diligently as I could. Which is a completely boring way to live, I know, but also appropriate in matters of money. If more people had felt that way over the past decade or two, we wouldn't be in the financial disaster that seems to be getting worse every day now.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A New Experience For Us

Vicki had a job interview yesterday, and it went so well that she starts a new position on Monday! It's contract work (which is what she wants), but because it came together so quickly (the company in question needs someone right away) they've asked to do a 2-week contract to start. At the end of the 2 weeks, they'll determine if they want to sign her to a longer term agreement.

So when she heads into work on Monday morning, it'll be a first for us. In the entire time we've known each other (almost 23 years now), there's never been a time when she was working and I wasn't. We've had the reverse - she's had a few periods of unemployment since becoming a contractor - but never the scenario where she was making money and I was a deadbeat. Until now.

Of course, that means that the pressure's on me now. Vicki's demonstrated that she's still marketable, even in a severely-depressed economy. But am I?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Craziest Season Of Lost Continues!

Spoilers Ahead!

So... here are just some of the "replacements" that Vicki and I spotted in regard to Ajura Flight 316 recreating Oceanic Flight 815:
  • the dead body, of course (Locke proxying for Christian)
  • although a bit of a cheat, Frank Lupidis (who was supposed to fly 815 but was sick) is the pilot for 316
  • someone's in handcuffs (Sayid this time) and under guard (once again, a Marshal of the opposite gender)
  • one of the passengers is reading a DC Comic that's printed in Spanish (Hurley, instead of Walt, and Y: The Last Man rather than Green Lantern/Flash... oh, and Y? written by Lost creative team member Brian K. Vaughan! and finally, since I just know everyone's wondering: yes, I own the English version of the comic, just as I did with the GL/Flash version!)
  • someone's carrying a guitar in a case (Hurley paying respect to his dead buddy, Charlie)
  • we get to see Jack getting hassled at the check-in counter (only a little bit this time) as he tries to transport a dead body from Point A to Point B
As soon as it became apparent that the returning castaways were going to get to the island by way of a flash and not a crash, my first thought was: How the Hell are the flight crew ever going to explain away that not only did half a dozen passengers disappear from the plane in mid-flight, but that they were also five of the Oceanic 6?! That's gotta be the biggest news story of the millennium, doesn't it? (Small trivia note: one of the early episodes of the late, lamented Journeyman series, which was all about time travel, dealt with exactly that scenario when the lead character "jumped" (timewise) from a plane that was in transit... and it caused quite a problem for him!)

Obviously this episode set up a bunch of new flashbacks-to-come:
  • What happened with Kate and Aaron? (Vicki's theory, which I think is excellent: Kate decided to heed Claire's ghostly warning about bringing Aaron back to the island. Kate therefore took Aaron to his maternal grandmother, explained the situation to the older Aussie woman and "did the right thing" by leaving him with her)
  • How did Sayid end up in handcuffs and headed to Guam?
  • Ditto for Hurley, but minus the handcuffs (pretty nice move by him to buy up 78 seats, which I guess he did with his 2nd fortune... the settlement from Oceanic, rather than the cursed lottery one that he let get away from him)
  • Did Ben get all beat up following through on his promise to Charles Widmore, meaning that Penny's now deceased and Desmond's a widower, single parent and pretty darned pissed?!
  • How did Sun ever rationalize leaving behind her daughter in a mad attempt to re-unite with her "dead" husband, all on the strength of a wedding band that could have been taken off a corpse, washed ashore?
For a show that's explaining so much, and moving so quickly, it's still sure raising a lot of new questions!

And "We're not going to Guam, are we?" was the killer line of the episode, I'd say. I was hoping that Frank was going with the castaways to the island, but I guess that's up in the air at the moment (same with the Marshal and the other dude who offered his condolences to Jack at the airport). As usual, I already can't wait for next week!!

P.S. This is my 100th blog post about Lost, according to the labels section! That's pretty crazy!

A Great Service Story

I ordered some books from yesterday, and selected the Free Shipping option that's available if you spend $39 or more. It's described as taking an average of 3 - 9 business days. The Premium Shipping option (which would have cost me about $4.99) is advertised as averaging 2 - 4 business days for delivery. However, I stuck with the Free Shipping because I'm cheap and there was no reason to rush this particular order.

Today, about 27 hrs after I placed my order, the books arrived in my mailbox! They beat their advertised average by a sizable amount and impressed the heck out of me in the process. But I can't help wondering: what if I'd spent the $4.99 for "Premium" shipping? Would the books have been on my front step by the time I finished clicking the "Place Order" button? Because other than something like that, I can't imagine my purchases getting here much faster! So what does that $4.99 really buy you?

Obama And The Housing Crisis

President Barack Obama today announced what his administration will be doing to stem the foreclosure wave that's threatening to wipe out the American real estate market. You can read the entirety of his speech here, but it was part of his closing remarks that really struck a chord with me:

"Our housing crisis was born of eroding home values, but it was also an erosion of our common values, and in some case, common sense. It was brought about by big banks that traded in risky mortgages in return for profits that were literally too good to be true; by lenders who knowingly took advantage of homebuyers; by homebuyers who knowingly borrowed too much from lenders; by speculators who gambled on ever-rising prices; and by leaders in our nation's capital who failed to act amidst a deepening crisis. (Applause.)

So solving this crisis will require more than resources; it will require all of us to step back and take responsibility. Government has to take responsibility for setting rules of the road that are fair and fairly enforced. Banks and lenders must be held accountable for ending the practices that got us into this crisis in the first place. And each of us, as individuals, have to take responsibility for their own actions. That means all of us have to learn to live within our means again and not assume that -- (applause) -- and not assume that housing prices are going to go up 20, 30, 40 percent every year."

What a change from his predecessor, who seemingly could only strut around in a show of bravado, no matter how bad things might get. Bush talked in terms of "evil doers" who should "bring it on" in his response to the events of September 11th, and encouraged his fellow citizens to show their patriotism by going shopping! By contrast, Obama calls everyone to account, pointing out the irresponsible behaviour that led to this crisis and imploring everyone "to live within our means again." It's like we've moved from a sitcom aimed at kids into a drama written for adults.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Is George Will Just A Shill?

I've generally found George Will to be an interesting member of the Round Table discussions that make up the back half of This Week With George Stephanopoulos every Sunday. He's very right-leaning and therefore I often don't agree with his values, but he usually provides a well-reasoned position that utilizes more data and logic than rhetoric and vitriol (making him rather unique, among Republican commentators).

Therefore I'm somewhat surprised to hear about this recent Washington Post column and the firestorm of controversy (in some circles, at least) that's resulted from it.

In a nutshell: Will wrote a column in which he denounces Global Warming as being just another crackpot prediction (he compares it to the Global Cooling "scare" in the 70s). To support this unconventional view (uncommon outside his antiquated party, anyway), he cites two sources of data. The first responded within hours to specifically state that Will's interpretation of their findings was completely wrong and called his integrity into question (which would embarrass most people in that position, I'd think); and the second example of "data mining" was really just a disingenuous statement. In concluding that "there has been no global warming for more than a decade," Will was abusing the fact that 1998 was one of the hottest years on record to essentially say, "See? Compared to that, it hasn't been getting any warmer!" That's like saying "there haven't been any unemployment issues in the U.S. since the 1930s" just because the country hasn't seen 25% unemployment in any of the decades since.

Most confounding to me, in all this, is the silence that's been emanating from Will's direction ever since he pushed the "Publish" button on Sunday. At the very least, you'd think that having one of your data sources disown your use of their information, just hours after your publication, would be enough to warrant some sort of statement. The fact that Will's taking the low road (so far, at least) is going to seriously tarnish his reputation, I think. It really makes him look like he's just shilling for that same tired old political group that's driven his country into the ground for the past 8 years with its head-in-the-sand approach to science and conservation.

Finally, Some Good Press

Thanks to daughter Tammy, I had my attention drawn to this fascinating Newsweek article by Fareed Zakaria. In it, Mr Zakaria writes:

"Guess which country, alone in the industrialized world, has not faced a single bank failure, calls for bailouts or government intervention in the financial or mortgage sectors. Yup, it's Canada. In 2008, the World Economic Forum ranked Canada's banking system the healthiest in the world. America's ranked 40th, Britain's 44th."

He goes on to list several of the reasons for our banking systems being in the healthy state that they're in. As I read over that list, I finally realized why the whole financial disaster to the south of us has never made that much sense to me: after all, I was under the impression that there were still tight restrictions in place on getting loans, even in 2006 through 2008. Now it's apparent to me that those limitations were maintained here at home but not elsewhere. And that's made all the difference in the world.

It's not often that someone with an American viewpoint (and no Canadian ties, that I know of) would opine in writing that Americans have something to learn from their neighbours to the north... and yet, that's exactly how Mr Zakaria concludes his piece. Maybe we'll finally get some respect! (Or maybe not, as he does manage to work the word "boring" into his finale as well!)

And just as aside: I'd like to point out that both Vicki and I spent considerable portions of our careers working within that healthiest of all the world's banking systems (over 40 years between us)... I'm not saying that it was all our doing, but y'know!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Resistance 2 Campaign Finally Done

Boneman beat me to this achievement by many weeks, but today I finished the Single Player Campaign for Resistance 2.

I must say that I found it a fairly disappointing play-through compared to Resistance: Fall of Man (or the Cooperative and Competitive side of the game), especially in terms of variety of gameplay. It was still fun, though, and better than probably 80% of the other first person shooters that I've tackled over the past decade. On the other hand, it definitely wins the "Most Depressing Final Scene Award"... as anyone knows who's actually made it all the way through! Kind of makes me wonder where they'll go in Resistance 3, if such a creature ever exists.

With the Experience Points awarded to me for finishing the offline campaign, I now have the rank of 3-star Supreme Commander (level 60, the highest you can get in the game). It took over 8 days of playing time (or right around 200 hours) to reach that lofty peak, meaning that I certainly got my money's worth on this one! I think that works out to something like 20 cents/hour (and dropping, every time I play any more), which is pretty cheap entertainment nowadays.

The Lost Decade

Ever since he won the Nobel Prize in Economics, I've been paying more attention to what New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has to say. In this article, entitled "Decade at Bernie's", Krugman lays out some depressing statistics relating to at least one aspect of the current financial crisis: the family debt load. He's writing about American families, but I don't imagine that our Canadian equivalents are too far off that same mark. The sentence that really caught my attention was:

"the net worth of the average American household, adjusted for inflation, is lower now than it was in 2001."

Now, I'm quite sure that Vicki and I don't fall into that category, because we've saved a lot of money and reduced our family debt to zero, since paying off our mortgage in 2001. As such, our net worth is much greater now than it was at the start of the century. However, in one particular regard, we do fit right within the ugly picture that Krugman draws: our RSP is now worth just about exactly the same as it was worth at the start of 2001 (and adjusting for inflation, it's worth quite a bit less). That's 8 years of contributions and growth, all evaporated over the past year. And not one cent of that "lost savings" disappeared because we spent it... it all went away thanks to the 3-card monty hustle known as the stock market.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Good Interviewers Are Hard To Find

Ever since the days of my youth watching Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show and Tom Snyder on The Tomorrow Show, I've been aware of the fact that there's quite an art to being a good interviewer (Carson and Snyder were both highly skilled at their craft). Part of it is listening to what the other person says and being quick enough "on your feet" to be able to respond to - and even challenge! - comments that don't make sense. By doing that, you're a more effective proxy for the viewer/reader/listener, and provide a better service than if you simply act as a glorified question-asker. As an example of that lesser breed of interviewer:

This afternoon I came across this little puff piece/advertisement in sheep's clothing, on the topic of online tutoring. I was checking it out because of my own interest in doing some math tutoring (although not of the online variety), but I couldn't help noticing two points in the interview where the person asking the questions totally dropped the ball.

First, in response to the question, "How is [online tutoring] better than an instructional DVD?", the founder of the company says, "You just need an Internet connection for Tutorgiant, but you need a DVD player and TV for a DVD." How anyone taking part in that exchange could possibly not see the disingenuous nature of the response is beyond me. Watching a DVD requires a DVD player and a TV, yes (and, I suppose, electricity could be added, as well). But then suggesting that a person, alone in a room with just an Internet connection, could somehow watch an online video, is ridiculous. The shill for the company conveniently omits the fact that, oh yeah, that's right, you actually need a computer with a display screen in order to use the Internet, don't you? And while I know that home computers are pretty ubiquitous these days, I think you'd be hard-pressed to locate a home that hasn't had a TV in it since... I don't know, 1968? (It's possible that he's imagining kids using the online tutoring outside of their homes, but then you've still got the problem of getting them a computer.)

The second bizarre answer that went unchallenged was "Private tutors cost an average of $40 to $50 per hour... [whereas] online tutoring costs an average of a few dollars per minute" which just had me shaking my head. Even if you define "a few" as being as little as 2, you're still talking about $40 - $50/hr compared to $120/hr in a way that suggests the latter is cheaper than the former! Now, the respondent goes on to quote some other pricing figures that are more supportive of his argument, but what a strange way to begin! That whole "change the units" approach to comparison isn't really anything that a member of an intelligent species would fall for, is it? "Your product costs a whopping $7.50 per kilogram, whereas ours is a steal at just pennies per gram!!" Sheesh.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

How About That Dollhouse Premiere?

Wondering what I thought of Joss Whedon's newest series premiere? (Of course you are!) Then just scamper over to The Studio and check it out for yourself.

That's Just Jake!

On tonight's Late Show with David Letterman, Vicki and I saw a stand-up comic who we used to love but haven't seen in years: Jake Johannsen. He has a very distinctive style and quirky sense of humour that's always appealed to me and usually generates more laughs out of me than any other two comics I can think of.

After watching his appearance tonight (during which he lampooned some current events), I went looking to find some older material of his. The 12-minute YouTube compilation on display up above came from his website and contains some classic bits. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Releasing The Feline From The Luggage

I haven't wanted to post anything about this little project of mine until I was fairly confident that I'd stick with it. As of now, though, the prospects seem reasonably good that I'm actually in the process of writing a novel that might eventually see the light of day.

I'm only 2 chapters in and it's all crap so far, but I remain cautiously optimistic that a) there's much more story in me to tell yet, and b) later revisions will somehow magically make it all readable. Of course, I could be kidding myself on either (or both) of those!

I'm finding that fiction's a lot harder to write than non-fiction! Who knew?

Perhaps The Weirdest Promo Ever

Thank Ain't It Cool News for this one. As for the early reviews of tonight's Dollhouse premiere... well, let's just say that they ain't exactly treating Eliza Dushku like a china doll!

Now That's Bloody Fun!

Just to prove that Killzone 2 doesn't have to be the only video game being talked about at the moment, check out this impressive 5-minute live action video that some industrious film-makers have produced. It's called "Escape from City-17" and uses the Half-Life 2 settings and characters to great effect. The acting's a bit amateurish but in all other ways it's actually quite remarkable. Note: I should warn sensitive readers, though: as with most video games, this short film has some very graphic violence in it and is not for the faint of heart.

[Hat tip: News 4 Gamers]

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Are There Any Video Games Due Out This Year That Don't Have "Killzone" In Their Name?

Don't get me wrong: I'm as jazzed as the next PS/3 nerd about getting my hands on Killzone 2 when it launches in 15 days (not that I'm counting) but the hype around this game has reached truly epic proportions of late. How bad has it gotten? I keep encountering articles with captivating titles like:
  • "Killzone 2 review scandal: Edge vs the World"
  • "Critics say Killzone 2 is the Redeemer"
  • "The Top 5 First Person Shooter Games This Generation Pre-Killzone 2"
  • "Hype to Hurt Killzone 2?"
In other words, it's almost like there are currently two types of upcoming games in the pipeline: Killzone 2, and everything else.

Even in the days of a new Halo launch, I've never before seen a feeding frenzy of anticipation quite this all-encompassing, and yet single-minded, in its ferocity. Welcome to the Killzone 2 era of gaming.

And yes, I've already pre-ordered my copy...

Good For What Ails You

In the 28 or so hours since I picked up the last two weeks' worth of comics, I've read exactly two of them. Each was almost certainly the best comic to come out in its respective week, and they'll probably end up being the two finest comics released in the month of February 2009. Beyond that, though, they also provide welcome relief from a couple of just-completed Grant Morrison-scripted "epics."

The first is Batman # 686, written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Andy Kubert and Scott Williams. Many fans, including yours truly, have been eagerly awaiting this comic ever since its existence was announced last Summer. Gaiman, world-famous as the genius behind the Sandman series of comics as well as such fantasy novels as American Gods, Anansi Boys, Stardust, Coraline, Neverwhere and others, does very little comic work anymore. He's simply too busy with books and films these days, and so anything comic-related that he's involved with is instantly big news. In this case, he's writing a 2-part tale called "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?"

Coming on the heels of Morrison's uneven "Batman R.I.P." storyline, Gaiman's tale is essentially a retrospective on the character, in the form of a funeral. The choice of titles immediately suggests parallels to Alan Moore's great coda to the pre-Crisis Superman, which was entitled, "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" Generally-speaking, name-checking something like that, in this day and age, would be pure poison for DC, since nothing in their current output is likely to hold a candle to what Moore was doing in his heyday. However, if anyone could possibly meet that challenge, Neil Gaiman is it. And if the first part is anything to judge by, he may just pull it off!

The story is narrated, in a sense, by a disembodied Batman who's witnessing events in a city that "is Gotham... but not right." He's being lead through this experience by another bodiless voice, the identity of which isn't revealed in Part 1. What they're both observing is a gathering of family, friends and enemies, all coming together to pay their last respects - or not! - to the man in the coffin: Batman himself! (What? You were expecting John Locke?)

We see a range of classic interpretations of the Dark Knight as the funeral-goers tell stories from their past encounters with him. Catwoman paints a very Golden Age picture of romance between her and the Batman, reminiscent of the old pre-Crisis Earth-2 outcome that saw the two marry and produce a daughter (who'd grow up to become the Huntress). Alfred Pennyworth portrays Bruce Wayne as a delusional spirit for whom the butler had to arrange adversaries in order to rouse him out of his brain-addled depression.

As these stories-within-a-story play out, the not-quite narrator quizzes his equally-insubstantial companion as to what these events mean, since they contradict each other and feel wrong. My favourite line comes on the last page, when Batman asks, "Are you death?" and she replies, "I don't think death is a person, Bruce." That, of course, is a nod by Gaiman to one of his most famous creations: the young, goth incarnation of Death, sister to Dream (the Sandman).

The lines that follow are also worth noting:

Him: "Then tell me who you are. Tell me what's going on."
Her: "You're the world's greatest detective, Bruce. Why don't you figure it out?"

Just like that, Gaiman lets us all heave a huge sigh of relief on two fronts, considering the "Morrison Effect" that we're currently under: 1) If even Batman's stumped, then no wonder we're all so clueless as to what it all means. 2) With that last challenge thrown down, it's pretty clear that Batman's now on the case, meaning that answers are forthcoming! Tune back in next issue, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel! Pure comic gold!

As cleansing as Batman # 686 was of "Batman R.I.P.", Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds # 3 performs the same service for Final Crisis. Whereas the main Final Crisis series became increasingly incomprehensible to many comic fans (even me!), this Geoff Johns/George Perez/Scott Koblish production plies more familiar ground: it's a king-sized, ass-kicking throw-down between the nastiest mess of 31st century supervillains and 3 different versions of the Legion of Super-Heroes as you're ever likely to see... even if you lived a thousand years! There are still undoubtedly some accessibility issues for people not at all familiar with the Legion franchise, but at least Johns and the artists service the rest of us well.

This is the proverbial "geekasm" issue, as we get Legion dopplegangers galore, some huge fight scenes, a shot of Superman's hand being pierced by Superboy-Prime's heat vision, and countless other moments that made me stop and just admire the scenery. There's also a big "return" on the final page, finally explaining what the "Lightning Saga" was all about, back in the pages of Justice League of America and Justice Society of America. Johns also attempts to straighten out continuity between the various Legion incarnations over the years, but I'm not entirely sold on those ideas until I see where the final two issues take us. Overall, though, it was one of the most thrilling reads I've had in ages.

Where I re-read each issue of Final Crisis in order to increase my understanding of it, with this mini-series I want to return to it again and again just to re-live the thrill a few more times.

If only more of my weekly comics came close to the level of craft on display in these two gems. At $3.99 each, they not only provided more pages for the money, but they'd also have been a bargain at twice the price!

Living On The Fringe

I got a big kick out of this article covering the Fringe panel at last weekend's New York Comic Con, but one comment in particular by the show's Executive Producer, Jeff Pinkner, made me laugh out loud:

"“Here’s why I love Fox. They spent a lot of time trying to get the Observer on the platform at the inauguration of President Obama. I kid you not.”"

(I'm guessing the arrangements fell through because Obama's incoming administration assumed that anyone affiliated with the Fox network was sure to be just as evil and disingenuous as the morons on Fox News.)

Fans of the show know that the Observer is a character who's taken centre stage once or twice but has apparently been in the background for all of the episodes so far... some of which I've highlighted before. If I'd actually spotted him somewhere near Obama on Jan 20th, I imagine my brain would've exploded!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What The -?!

I use Google Analytics to monitor traffic on my blogs, and so I know that, for some strange reason, I got about four times my normal volume of visitors yesterday! I typically average around 30 - 40 visitors each day, but yesterday that number went up well over 100... for perhaps the first time ever!

Was it the details of my disturbing dream that drew so many people over? Or did Hulk-lovers converge on this blog to bask in the glory of my retelling of Greenskin's 2nd appearance?

Well, maybe. But my money's on the even juicier topic of organ donation, although I'm not entirely sure why.

Whatever the reason, that's just plain weird.

[Update: Actually, upon further investigation at Google Analytics, it looks like most of that increase came in regard to this post! That's even stranger than any of my guesses!]

Jon Stewart Rules

Vicki and I have lately taken to watching The Daily Show (with Jon Stewart) and The Colbert Report (starring Stephen Colbert), and I'm really starting to appreciate how well-scripted (and well-hosted) both shows are. I have to say the former's humour works for me more often than Colbert's, but there are always at least a few laughs to be found within each.

On last night's episode of TDS, Stewart talked about President Obama's recent trip to Elkhart, Indiana, the self-proclaimed "RV Capital of the World." The geniuses involved with the show couldn't let something like that pass without being called out. As Stewart said:

"Wow! The RV capital of the world! You think your town's got troubles? Imagine your main industry combines the slowdown of auto manufacturing with the plunging values of the housing sector! Figure out how to put a bank in the trunk and maybe the whole town disappears!"

When Should Money Come With Strings?

With the word "bailout" continuing to dominate the news these days, it's gotten me thinking about money and what should happen when it's moved around in a crisis. The U.S. government is in the midst of a painful stretch during which hundreds of billions, or more likely trillions, of dollars will be given to American companies in the automobile manufacturing and financial sectors, among others. After the Big 3 automakers arrived for their first meeting with Congress via their corporate jets late last year, we quickly saw the kind of backlash that can arise if someone asking for a handout is seen to be living lavishly while doing so. More recently, Wells Fargo was castigated in the press for going ahead with a "corporate retreat" that was reportedly going to cost big bucks, just weeks after receiving billions in bailout funds. Eventually, the resort trip was canceled, although not without rancor being expressed by the company's CEO, in the form of a full page newspaper ad taken out by WF. Now the leaders of the 8 big banks have been called to Washington in order to be grilled by Congress as to their utilization of the bailout funds, past and future. (Presumably they won't get their by private jets, if they have any brain cells still functioning in their heads.)

So, in situations like that, should the money always come with strings attached?

Vicki and I extended a fairly large personal loan to a friend of ours who was in dire financial straits, once upon a time. We insisted that it be interest-free, because we wanted to give him as much chance as possible to climb out of the hole, short of outright charity. But the only condition that we put on the loan was that he pay back at least 1% of the principle every month, which meant that he'd repay it in 8 1/3 years (or less). Despite some further travails in his life, he made good on the reimbursement, and we eventually got all of our money back. Along the way, though, I had occasion to wonder if we should have put more strings into the deal (and I still don't know the right answer... this is all just rumination).

For example, not long after lending the money, the friend happened to mention that he was still taking part in his twice-weekly poker games with "the guys." He went on to remark that although he would win the pot every once in a while, the more typical result was that he'd come home "about $50 down." I couldn't help doing the math in my head, and realizing that he was spending more on poker every month than he was on repaying Vicki and I for our kindness. Now, I didn't say anything about it at the time (or at any point since), but I still wonder if I should have. After all, we had agreed to the loan under the (apparently mistaken) assumption that the friend had already done everything that he could to get his finances in order, making sacrifices wherever possible. To my way of thinking - admittedly, as someone who doesn't gamble! - the inclusion of a $400/month indulgence, in the name of entertainment, seemed fairly excessive for a person who claimed to be in dire straits. Put another way: long before I'd ever ask any friend of mine for a loan, I'd have slashed every conceivable expense from my life that didn't come under the heading of "paying the bills." But should I really have had any say in how he spent his money, just because we'd lent him some of ours?

The older I get, the more I lean toward believing that money in situations like what the U.S. government is facing, or even what Vicki and I experienced, probably should have more strings attached. In each case, they're somewhat unconventional. I don't think that a bank, loaning someone money in order to start up a business, for example, should dictate how that business will be run. In that sort of scenario, of course, there's usually collateral involved, in which case the lender has some recourse to follow in order to reduce the damage in the case of a default. When there isn't collateral to fall back on, then maybe the alternative should be strings. I can see several advantages to that approach, over the "carte blanche" approach:
  • the two parties involved can arrive at a better shared understanding of what's expected in exchange for the money
  • the person receiving the money will be more likely to appreciate that the "bailout" isn't actually a "handout"
  • the person offering the funds can feel more confident that the money will be used wisely
In the event that one or more of those strings aren't agreeable to the recipient, then it's probably better that the "deal" fall through before ever being consummated, isn't it? And since situations like this pre-suppose that the recipient is motivated to want the help, chances are better than average that they'll come around in the end.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Organ Donation Ought To Be An Opt-Out System, As A Start

As we continue to hear health care-related horror stories from south of the border, I happen to think our Canadian universal health care works pretty well. It's far from perfect, as anyone who's had to wait months for an appointment with a specialist knows all too well. But it's still much, much better than what our American cousins have, for the most part (a well-off citizen of the U.S. may fare better than we do, of course, because he or she can just buy the best care).

But one change that I wish our government would introduce involves organ donation. As it stands right now, it's an opt-in system, meaning that each person has to indicate that they're willing to donate their organs upon death. An opt-out approach would mean that everyone, by default, agrees to donate (if needed), unless he or she specifically took steps to opt-out of the program. The opting-in used to be accomplished via a section on your driver's license, but I think they've even changed that now. I went to this link today and it appears that there's an OHIP database for it now (at least in Ontario!) but that it still operates as opt-in.

Given that virtually all of us are eligible for organ transplants in the event that we need them, it really ought to be opt-out on the donation side. In other words, only someone who had specifically declared that they weren't willing or able to donate organs in the event of their death would be "off-limits" for organ harvesting. I'd even go further than that, though. Let's call those who opt-in, Category 1. If you choose to opt-out, you should have to provide a reason, from one of two categories. If there's a medical cause, something that a physician would agree keeps your organs from being viable, then you're Category 2 and will be treated like everyone else, with the exception that your organs won't be used; if, on the other hand, you just don't want to do it, then you're Category 3 and should automatically go to the bottom of any donor recipient list that you might find yourself on at any point in your life. (And to keep people from just opting-out, and then opting-in upon being told that they need a life-saving transplant, I'd require a 3-year waiting period, for anyone pulling such a maneuver, before they'd be eligible to get into the "better queue" composed of Category 1 and 2 folks.)

I'm sure this may strike some as a mean-spirited attitude on my part, but I'm personally just sick of peoples' selfishness. If you expect more out of Life than you're willing to put into it - if, for example, you think that someone else should donate the organ that will save your life even though you're not charitable enough to return the favour when you die - then I really don't have a whole lot of respect for you as a person. It's a big world around us, and we need to be willing to consider "the other guy" at least some - if not most - of the time, in order for all the pieces to work together for the benefit of us all. I've railed in the past against people who won't donate blood (and yet will accept a transfusion), but organ donation asks even less of a person, since it only happens after they die. I can accept that someone might be afraid of needles and thus not want to give blood; but refusing to give up your organs after you die? That just seems like pure selfish behaviour to me, and I don't think people of that sort should continue to be treated the same as those with more generosity in their hearts and minds.

Golden Oldies: The Incredible Hulk # 2

Breaking News: Toad Men Attack Earth!
Later: How To Stretch Your Dollar Further

Having recently caught up on my reading of new comics, I've been working my way through my pile of unread back issues (older comics that I'd bought over the past year or two in order to fill holes in the collection). I'd been looking forward to diving into Incredible Hulk # 2 (from July of 1962) for a while now, because it's an example of a dwindling species in my personal biosphere. There just aren't all that many Silver Age comics featuring mainstream superheroes that I haven't already read by this point, either in their original form or as reprints. The 2nd issue of this short-lived early Marvel Comics series falls into that category, though.

And it turned out to be a fun read. To begin with, artist Jack Kirby really knew how to make the Hulk look like a green-skinned Frankenstein's Monster back then, which I love. And then there's the goofy story, that goes about its business in an unashamed display of gusto. Marauding Toad Men, who announce themselves as being "from outer space" in an amusing Earth-centric bit of nonsense, arrive on Earth and use their magnetic superiority (!) to locate the planet's greatest mind. That turns out to be Bruce Banner, who's still getting used to the fact that - thanks to events in the previous issue - he turns into the savage and unpredictable Hulk ever time the sun goes down. The Toad Men grab up Banner and try to bully him into revealing Earth's military strengths and weaknesses, as the most obvious and straight-forward manner in which to aid them in their conquest of the planet (back when scientists and the military actually liked each other, I guess). Because they fly their ship up into space and go to the far side of the planet, though, darkness falls and Banner unexpectedly transforms into his green-skinned nemesis and the Hulk runs amok on the craft and its inhabitants.

After the ship crashes back down to Earth, Banner is found on-board (he's changed back by then) and, thanks to the Toad Men sneaking out when no one was looking, it's assumed that the good doctor is a traitor, planning to conquer his own civilization. Hilarity ensues, including scenes of the Toad Men pulling the Moon down toward the Earth while the U.S. Army continues to hunt for Banner (and the Hulk, who General "Thunderbolt" Ross is convinced must be in cahoots with the turncoat scientist). Eventually, though, Banner saves the day and has his named cleared... at least until next issue!

My favourite line in the book comes when Banner and teenage sidekick Rick Jones are trying to figure out how to defeat the Toad Men. Bruce realizes that perhaps his Gamma Ray Gun, which utilizes the Gamma Rays that have such unpredictable effects (like, turning him into the Hulk, for example?), might screw up the magnetic powers of the alien invaders. Upon hearing that revelation, young Jones says, "The Gamma Gun! Your invention! Yeah! Why didn't I think of that?" To which the reader can only respond, "Umm, because you're an idiot kid and Banner's the greatest mind on the planet?"

I definitely enjoyed this one every bit as much as I did the following issue in the series.

There Are No Words To Describe How Badly I Need One Of These

Thanks to videogamer buddy RagingBender, I heard tell of this promotional advertisement, courtesy of The Onion, for a product that, I daresay, none of us can long live without.

Speaking Of Sleeping

I had a dream the other night that really freaked me out. I was back in at the office for a visit, and one of the guys who I know there (I won't say who as I don't want to freak him out!) went to get on the elevator but didn't notice that that the car was misaligned in the shaft. I yelled at him not to get on, but he didn't hear me or else ignored me. He got on and as the damned thing went up I saw his foot get severed from his leg and realized worse was happening up above (but I just couldn't see it)!

When I woke up - right after that happened in the dream, I had willed myself awake as I sometimes do when the events are too intense - and thought about it, I realized that it reminded me of a true life story that had rocked our community when I was a teenager. The younger brother of a girl with whom I was friendly was out jumping on to and off of moving trains, as kids sometimes did, when he lost his grip, fell under the wheels and was... well, I don't even like typing the words. I've had a bit of a fear of moving trains ever since.

I just hope that now I don't develop an irrational aversion to elevators.

I Get To Stay Up As Late As I Want

Every once in a while, it hits me: these days, I really do make my own schedule. Sure, I may have the odd day when there's some reason why I should really get up before 10:30 a.m., but for the most part... I go to bed when I'm tired, and I wake up when I'm not. Why can't Life always work that way, I wonder? It just feels so natural!

Monday, February 09, 2009

"With All Due Respect, Madame President... Ask Around"

Once a season or so, 24 delivers a line that sums up the show's mojo perfectly.

Tonight, when President Allison Taylor asks Jack Bauer how she can possibly be sure about his loyalties, he looks her in the eye and says, "With all due respect, Madame President... ask around." Considering some of the feats this larger-than-life character has pulled off over the past six seasons, that just about says it all.

Talk To Us, Mr President

Tonight President Barack Obama makes his first presidential address to the American people (and the rest of us), less than three weeks after taking office. I haven't been paying a whole lot of attention to the news over the past couple of days, but I assume that he'll be talking about the various prospects for this year's contingent of American Idol contestants... or possibly the stimulus package that he's trying to get approved before the world ends.

I can't help but wonder what the average American citizen thinks of the "cut taxes but don't spend" rhetoric that the Republican party has been banging out with impressive regularity and solidarity since the 44th president was sworn in last month. It doesn't seem to matter how many economists come forward and explain that the Bush tax cuts didn't succeed in stimulating the economy. Too much of it was used to pay off debt or put toward savings, it seems, neither of which would be a bad thing to have happen in normal circumstances. Unfortunately, what's needed now is job creation and the exchange of funds between people, which tax cuts don't actually service all that well. Of course, the U.S. of A. was formed in an revolution against "taxation without representation" and almost two and a half centuries later, talk of tax of any shape or colour seems to make many Americans see red, and not as in "red, white and blue."

I hope Mr Obama can pull off whatever he's attempting tonight, because I, for one, have no desire to find out what living through a Depression is like. My mother and her generation didn't exactly sing its praises after all those years of standing in food lines, and so the thought that we might be blindly driving off the cliff toward another one really boggles my mind.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

3rd Period Collapses Cost Team A Fan

November 1/08: Rangers take 2-0 lead into the 3rd period, lose 5-2 to the Leafs.

December 12/08: Rangers come back to tie the Devils at 5-5 in the 3rd, then give up 3 unanswered goals to lose 8-5.

December 29/08: Rangers take 4-1 lead into the 3rd period, give up 3 goals to allow Capitals to tie it up, lose 5-4 in overtime.

January 7/09: Rangers go into 3rd period tied at 2-2, give up 4 3rd period goals to lose 6-3 to Montreal.

January 28/09: Rangers go into 3rd period tied 1-1, give up 5 3rd period goals to lose 6-2 to the Penguins.

and the coup de grace:

February 6/09: Rangers go into the 3rd period in Dallas down by a respectable 4-2 score, give up 6 3rd period goals to lose by an embarrassing 10-2 score. (And a special extra-sarcastic "thanks" to AgileBoy for putting the jinx on them here.)

And with that, I officially give up on them for the rest of this season. I won't be following them at all, don't want to hear anything about them, don't care about them in the least. They can now fall to the bottom of the East where they belong with their unique brand of 3rd period choking. I'll simply go about my life, waiting for baseball season to start in about 7 weeks. Consider this a permanent Embargo from now on. Best of luck to the Wings, Bruins, Oilers and the rest of the teams out there that actually give their fans something to cheer about by playing for the entire 60 minutes every game.

A Minor Brain Teaser

One of the books that I'm reading made mention of "the three box puzzle" that I've encountered once or twice in the past. It seemed like a fine subject for a post on this blog, and so here we are.

For those not familiar with it, the scenario is as follows:
You are presented with three identical boxes, one of which contains a prize of some sort. You aren't told which box has the prize, but the PuzzleMaster knows, and he invites you to pick one of the three boxes as your guess. Once you've made your selection, he doesn't tell you whether you're right or wrong in your choice. Instead, he chooses one of the other two boxes and shows you that that box is, in fact, empty. He then asks, "Would you like to change your pick now?" What should you do?

From a probability point of view, there's a right answer to this puzzle (in other words, an answer that will give you a greater likelihood of ending up with the prize). I'm going to turn Comment Moderation on for a day or two so that people can post their responses, if they like, and not influence, or be influenced by, each other. Then I'll add the correct answer as a Comment for all of us, and future generations of blog readers, to enjoy...

Friday, February 06, 2009

What Is It About This Guy?

Back in the days of my youth, I fell in love with the Justice League of America right around the time that a bizarre villain named "Starbreaker" was making his debut. Perhaps wanting to grab some of the excitement that Marvel Comics had generated with their introduction of Galactus in Fantastic Four #s 48 - 50, DC brought us a "cosmic vampire" who feeds on the energies and fears of entire species as their world is destroyed around them (all he was missing was a surfboard-riding herald, wrapped head-to-toe in silver tin foil). He first showed up in Justice League of America # 96 (shown to the left) and would hang around through to # 98, making it one of the longest arcs for a JLA villain at the time (solo tales and two-part stories were the norm). One of the reasons that he lasted that long, however, was a strange bit of sleight-of-hand by the comic's creative team in the middle chapter (# 97).

There, after seeing their most powerful three members (Superman, Green Lantern and the Flash) beaten by Starbreaker as he threatened to destroy the Earth by pushing it into the sun, the JLA decided that the only appropriate response was to... relax in their headquarters and review how they'd formed as a team in the first place!?! As nonsensical as that was, it made sense from a publishing point of view because it allowed DC to insert a bunch of reprint material into the story (lifted from Justice League of America # 9, "The Origin of the Justice League") and not have to fill so many of the 52 big pages ("Don't take less! Only 25 cents") with new material. What was especially puzzling about this particular stylistic choice, however, was that several of the scenes from the origin story were actually re-drawn, by issue # 97's artists (Dick Dillin & Joe Giella), and used in place of the pages from # 9 (which had been done by that issue's artistic team of Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sach about a decade earlier). I don't have any idea how that decision was arrived at, unless those pages were no longer available to be used, but it certainly made for a... unique... mishmash of styles, even within just the flashback portion of the story. And thanks to the extended origin re-telling, the Starbreaker story was advanced very little in the middle issue. Eventually it would wrap up in # 98, with the help of some positive thinkers and Sargon the Sorcerer (hey, it was the early 70s!).

So why am I thinking about any of this today? Well, not long ago, JLA # 29 arrived on the shelves, and who should the villain be but ol' Starbreaker himself! We hadn't really seen much of him over the intervening 35 years, and yet here he was, hogging the cover during "Faces of Evil" month at DC (during which the villains get the covers and more of a spotlight in each issue). As I started to read the comic this morning, I quickly realized that it was a re-telling of the story from Justice League of America # 96 - 98 (re-drawn by current artists but otherwise pretty faithful to the original version)! In other words, Starbreaker makes his second big appearance, three and a half decades later, and it once again involves an older tale being re-presented! What is it about this character that keeps causing that to happen?! Can't he ever just show up in a straight-forward yarn that's 100% new material? Is that prohibited by his contract?

I will say that I was somewhat disappointed to note, in JLA # 29, that they skipped over the whole "let's review our team's origin" aspect this time around. I was kind of looking forward to seeing them re-do a scene that was itself a flashback to an earlier story! But I guess they decided that that would be pushing it...

Thursday, February 05, 2009

One Month And One Day To Go

And here's a fun little video to tide us all over. I quite liked how Rorschach's mask, just past the 2:00 mark, temporarily has the ink blots replaced by a big, black question mark... a nod, I'm sure, to his original form. By now most people know that each of the main Watchmen characters was originally a Charlton character (Rorschach was The Question, Dr Manhattan was Captain Atom, The Comedian was The Peacemaker, and so on) before Alan Moore was asked to re-conceive them. After all, the publisher wanted to avoid doing too much damage to the characters that DC had just spent money to acquire the rights to. Never mind the fact that nothing close to Watchmen, in terms of quality or significance, has been done with any of them in the twenty years since then!

Final Crisis: A Look At How It Ended

In the world of comic books (and possibly elsewhere), there seem to be two very distinct brands of complex storytelling. There's the type that presents an accessible tale on the surface, written such that anyone could appreciate it, but which also hides all kinds of delightful subtlety beneath it (such as: metaphors, visual irony, historical parallels, etc). Alan Moore wrote oodles of these comics in the 1980s and 90s, with Watchmen being the most extreme example. There always seems to be two rules in this camp: tell a good story first and foremost, and then give the reader as much as he's willing to dig for, after that. In some cases, of course, some people picking up one of those comics may get nothing more than an entertaining story of superheroes punching each other (which is probably all that they expected anyway). For other, more adventurous souls - like me - they get that immediate thrill plus a whole lot more, as they can re-read the material many times over the years and be rewarded with new gold on every subsequent pass.

The other type of complicated comics is what Grant Morrison has been increasingly producing. Put simply, it eschews that initial requirement of telling a straight-forward story, and goes straight for the "dig deep, O reader, and gems ye shall find" approach. You can suss that fact out of the material itself - which is not nearly as immediately accessible as those of us among comic fandom have grown used to - and from comments made by Morrison himself. For example, in an interview published on Newsarama this week, he says, "I choose to leave out boring, as I saw it, connective tissue we didn’t really need for this story to work. I choose to leave out long-winded caption-heavy explanations that bring readers ‘up to speed’, even as they send them to sleep." One of the problems with neglecting to include 'connective tissue,' of course, is that it's usually there for a reason. It actually serves a purpose. It's intended to bring everything together and make it all work, and yet Morrison apparently regards it as extraneous to the job at hand. And that shows in his work, perhaps never more strongly than in the conclusion to his Final Crisis series.

While I'd enjoyed Final Crisis # 6 (cover shown above) on first reading, it was somewhat more confusing and disjointed than the issues leading up to it. Even so, it didn't really prepare me for the completely disorienting final issue (cover shown below) that has set the comic book corner of the online community all abuzz (and not in a good way). Reading through various interviews with the man, I can appreciate what Morrison was trying to do in those pages. He was taking the universe-rending, chaotic energy of the events in the comic itself and metatextually trying to translate it into a form through which the reader could experience it himself. That's a lofty goal, indeed, but I'm not convinced (just yet) that it was either justified nor particularly well-executed. When working on previous series like The Invisibles, that sort of gambit has been completely appropriate. However, he was spearheading DC's big comic event of 2008 here (ignore the fact that your calendar now shows "2009"), and accessibility simply has to trump any notions of experimentation or haute art.

Why? Well, for one thing, many people who will pick up Final Crisis simply aren't going to invest the time and energy into inspecting the work that's required to make sense of it. This morning, for example, I re-read both issues in question, and got considerably more out of them that I had previously. But that's not going to be a standard reaction, especially upon encountering the bizarre story structure found in issue # 7. As I initially read it last Wednesday, excited at the prospect of finally seeing how the series would conclude, I grew increasingly frustrated with how little sense it was making. From what I've read on the Internet, that reaction was both common, and somewhat close-ended. In other words, most people weren't saying, "... but I can hardly wait to read it a few more times and see if I can decipher its meanings!" Instead, they were posting, "That's it for me and DC!" or "I'm done with Grant Morrison." Neither of those are welcome reactions, I'd suspect, and nor are they the way truly great comic work has been received in the past. So I think this is a failure, no matter how many cool ideas Morrison baked into the dough this time around.

And there are tons of good scenes throughout Final Crisis. It's a shame that J.G. Jones didn't get to draw the entire thing, as his pages were all gorgeous (sadly, none of the final issue was done by him). Similarly, Morrison throws around great ideas like they're candy at a parade, but doesn't appear willing or able to spend more than a fleeting moment on any of them here. I can't help but wonder what Final Crisis might have been like if he'd been forced to work with another writer (as happened on 52), and he'd been tagged as the "idea man" rather than the "final script guy." Maybe that would've been a disappointing mess, too, but at the very least we might have gotten to see more of what apparently remained only in the author's head.

Finally, I have to admit - even after two readings - that I'm not entirely sure what the "new state" of the DC Universe is, as a result of this event. One line in Final Crisis # 7 indicates that the populace at large is now aware of parallel worlds out there (whereas only select heroes knew of the multiverse before) but what does that matter? Has DC, the publishing company, done anything worthwhile with the multiverse since reintroducing it nearly two years ago? Not by my reckoning. And besides, I'm more interested in knowing: does the average Joe still remember what it was like to be in Darkseid's thrall, and all the unthinkable acts that he may've committed during that time? If so, how are they all managing to live with the inevitable feelings of guilt, shame and self-loathing? Issue # 7 shows that the citizens of the planet are "rebuilding" and yet some of the destruction caused by those under the Anti-Life Equation's sway seemed to be fairly huge in scope. What about the heroes who were similarly used? How will they cope with that knowledge? Will any of that ever be dealt with? Or will this just be another "big event", full of (ear-shatteringly loud) sound and (at times, incoherent) fury, signifying nothing?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

What Tomorrow Brings

We're having our kitchen and family room repainted this week, which means that I'm spending way more time in our basement than I usually do. Today I rearranged my book shelves down there, as my trade paperback/hardcover collection of comic book "stuff" has grown considerably since I last configured the layout, to the point where it was quite out of control. I have now restored order and even left myself room within which to grow, for a few years anyway.

Anyway, one of my goals for tomorrow is to re-read the last couple issues of Final Crisis (#s 6 & 7) in order to see if I can make any more sense of them than I did the first time. To say that the 7th issue was somewhat incomprehensible and thus receiving an utter shit-kicking on the Internet since it appeared a week ago would be like saying that George W. Bush left office last month on a bit of a downer. Before I pass final judgment on Final Crisis, though, I want one more crack at those two most recent editions. After which I'll post my thoughts here, for the three people interested (you know who you are, and how is it that you haven't formed a club yet?).

Ending The Embargo... For The Moment

Boneman's been after me to lift my Rangers Embargo lately, perhaps spurred on by the fact that his Bruins are now in 1st place in the NHL and he wants someone to appreciate that fact! So tonight, I went looking to see what I'd missed over the past 4 weeks.

It looks like the Rangers' road trip, which I was so apprehensive about, actually went very well:

2-1 Shootout Loss in Buffalo
2-0 Win in Ottawa
2-1 Win in Long Island
3-2 Overtime Win in Chicago
3-0 Loss in Pittsburgh

So they went 3-1-1, and over the first 4 games only gave up 4 goals in regulation and overtime (for a lower than 1.00 GAA!). The 3-0 loss to the Penguins sounds like a debacle (the write-up indicates that the Rangers were lifeless) but I can't quibble with a 3-1-1 result overall.

They then rattled off back-to-back home wins:

4-2 Win over Anaheim (more on this later)
3-2 Win over Carolina

So that puts them up to 5-1-1 to start the Embargo, which is pretty amazing indeed!

And then, apparently, reality set in. The last 3 games have been:

6-2 Loss at Pittsburgh
1-0 Loss at Boston (no wonder Boneman wanted the Embargo lifted!!!)
2-1 Shootout Loss to Atlanta at home

Now, the loss to the Bruins is fine (they're first in the league!) but giving up 6 goals to the 10th place Penguins?! And then losing at home to the lowly (14th place) Thrashers??? What the Hell?

So this brings their month-long results to: 5-3-2. They gave up more goals than they scored over that stretch, and in fact have allowed more goals than they've scored over the season so far (133-136), despite being 11 games over 0.500! They're clinging to 5th place in the Eastern Conference, but mostly on the strength of having played more games than those right below them. They have 63 points after 52 games, which means that they just might be able to squeak into the playoffs going 0.500 over the remaining 30 games. Realistically, though, they're going to need more than that, and when they can only manage a 2-1 SO loss against Atlanta, what are the chances?

As for that win against Anaheim... Back in December, the Rangers were on a West Coast trip and beat the Ducks 3-1. Although I haven't done the research on this, I could almost swear that this is the first time the Rangers have ever gotten two victories against Anaheim in the same season! There's two reasons why I say that: 1) For many of the years in which Anaheim's been in the league, teams from opposite conferences have generally only played once or not at all. 2) When Anaheim first entered the league, they seemed to have the Rangers' number, every time the two teams met. Therefore, a pair of victories this year against the Ducks feels very much like a first to this Rangers fan.

Anyway, if the 3-game slide that the boys are on continues, then it won't be long before I go dark on them again. I'm still smarting from that disaster of an NFL postseason (could the hated Steelers have written the script for the season and playoffs any better themselves, starting with Tom Brady's season-ending injury back in September and running right through the dreadful teams that they drew in all 3 rounds?), and the last thing I need now is to endure more Rangers losses to teams that they really ought to be able to beat.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

What Does Freedom Look Like Six Months Later?

I almost missed noting that I've now been unemployed six months (as of Sunday, to be precise). I've most definitely enjoyed this long stretch of freedom, not the least of which because of the simple act of sleeping. Of all the aspects of working that I wasn't sorry to say goodbye to, waking up to an alarm clock in the morning perhaps takes the cake. There were so many things wrong with that setup that it's a wonder that I ever got any sleep over the last 22 years:
  • the pressure to go to bed by a reasonable hour each night, regardless of whether or not I felt tired at that particular time, virtually ensured that I'd find it difficult to comply
  • knowing that the alarm was going off at a certain time seemed to always result in me waking up just the exact amount of time ahead of it to cost me the maximum in lost sleep (an hour was a favourite figure, as I'd never manage to fall back asleep when it was so relatively close to the alarm time)
  • the extreme fatigue that I felt most mornings, at a time when going back to bed wasn't an option, was always perversely reflected by the lack of drowsiness at bed-time
  • ever since my teenage years, my body has inexplicable preferred a 2:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. sleep cycle, which just doesn't happen when you're holding down a day job
So the sleep situation has been a complete turnaround since August of last year, and I love my new hours.

But it's really only been in the last little while that I've started acting like an unemployed bum in the other important regard: networking. I think I did well keeping in touch with many of my friends from my last job, but I wasn't expanding my circle much beyond that. Since I'm not looking to go back to where I left, I obviously need to cultivate connections elsewhere if I'm going to find new work. As I posted last week, I've now begun making more of an effort to do just that. Whether any of it will bear fruit beyond the gratification of hearing from old friends still remains to be seen.

In most other ways, things are going pretty much as I'd expected. Despite a few disbelieving reactions from some quarters, I have absolutely no problem filling my time every day. I can honestly say that I've not been bored even once over the past six months, and don't expect to be anytime soon. There are still projects that I want to tackle but haven't gotten to yet, meaning that my To Do Queue is not in any danger of emptying out on me. And that's a good feeling, indeed.