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Friday, July 31, 2009

Fun With Functions

There looks to be a high likelihood that I'll have either one or two Grade 11 Math students to tutor by the time September rolls around, which is a big departure from what I've been doing up to now. My current student body is composed of Grade 5s through Grade 8s, and the curriculum demands for that range are well within my ability to teach, pretty much from memory.

High school Math particulars, on the other hand, are not always readily available to me off the top of my head all these years after I graduated. For example, before I spent time helping Tammy bring up her Grade 9 mark (about 9 years ago now), I'd forgotten that y = mx + b was one of the two standard forms for defining a line (with Ax + By + C = 0 being the other) and I certainly didn't recall what "SOHCAHTOA" stood for ("Sine = Opposite side over Hypotenuse, Cosine = Adjacent side over Hypotenuse, and Tangent = Opposite side over Adjacent) nor how (or even when) to complete a square, in Algebra. By the time Tammy finished Grade 9, though, I was pretty solid on those delightful topics and a whole lot more. Then she did Grade 10 largely on her own (with a fantastic mark to show for her efforts) and I can't recall helping her at all for Grades 11 or 12. Thus, my knowledge of Grade 11 Math, as of few days ago, was about 30 years old.

Looking at the Ontario curriculum, I discovered that Grade 11 Math is Functions. That was probably true even when I went to high school, but I honestly don't remember what subjects were in which years. Anyway, I quickly realized that I don't remember a whole lot about Functions, and therefore it was time for me to go back to school!

Well, figuratively, anyway. I've spent several hours over the past two days reviewing Functions lessons and problems on the Internet, and am already starting to feel more confident about it. I got a big boost in that department just before lunch today, when I was reading up on how to determine the range of a function. I'd found a very nice website that had some Flash applications covering several of the key basic attributes of a function. When I got to the end of their explanation for how to determine a function's range, though, it didn't look to me like their example was right. So I used the technique that they'd described, but did the algebra myself... and discovered where they'd made their mistake! Using my answer, the values actually worked when plugged back into the original question. That was the moment when I knew that I actually got the material, and that I really was just re-discovering it, rather than having to learn it all over again from scratch.

I'm having a great time doing this, as, really... what's more fun than Math?? (Correct answer: not much!)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

New Magnolia!

I received my copy of Josephine, the brand spanking new CD from the great Magnolia Electric Company, in the mail today (my busiest day of the week, by far). Vicki and I are in the midst of our very first listen-through of it, which is always a bit of a dicey undertaking because music rarely sounds all that great the first time I hear it. So far, though, I'm enjoying it well enough as my ears adjust to the new offerings.

I may post a review of the CD after I've listened to it considerably more. Right now I'm just sitting back and soaking it all in.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Ratcheting Up The Excitement Level For Ratchet!

I'm always excited by the prospect of a new Ratchet & Clank game. Although, to be honest, the latest trailer, while highly entertaining and humourous, doesn't really answer the burning question that I've had about the upcoming addition to the R & C franchise, which is: why is it called A Crack in Time? Is there actual time travel involved, or just some sort of "threat to time" introduced?

(Oh, and this trailer for Aliens Vs Predator: Colonial Marines looks pretty awesome, too!)

Is This An Attention Deficit Symptom?

I've noticed, as I read more and more on the Internet, that some people seem to quite easily lose track of their train of thought in the process of simply typing a sentence. Here's an example from a comment left on Paul Krugman's blog:

"[Conservatives] want to believe that health care in America is far superior to health care in Canada is bad."

Apparently the writer, by the time he or she got to the end of their original thought (a grand total of 16 words after starting), couldn't remember - nor be bothered to look back and re-read - what they had written at the start of the sentence! I've seen this many times, even in "articles" published on websites associated with "real" news or entertainment vehicles. Is this just another manifestation of ADHD, as it's swept through the last generation or two?

[Update Jul 31/09: Here's another typical example, this time from Blog @ Newsarama:

"You’ve probably already seen the image to the right already, which DC released at San Diego..."

Note that the writer of this article appears to have forgotten that he'd already used the word "already" already, and was all ready to use it again... just six words later!]

Keep Your Kids Out Of Those Tanning Salons

According to this article, a new study has found that the use of ultraviolet tanning beds increases the risk of skin cancer by 75% for those under 30 years of age. Combine that frightening statistic with the new fascination with "looking tanned" among the teenage and young adult crowd, and you've got a recipe for disaster. What will we think of next, to kill ourselves with?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Because You've Never Seen Such A Thing Before

Jimmy Fallon, shopping his Recharger concept around San Diego Comic Con. Lots of familiar faces for fans of comics, Lost, Iron Man 2, and the Whedonverse.

The New Math

Conservative media commentator Bill O'Reilly showed his incredible grasp of mathematics recently when he responded to an e-mail from a Canadian resident who pointed out that we have a higher life expectancy here in the Great White North than those living under American health care do. O'Reilly's explanation?

"Well, that's to be expected, Peter, because we have ten times as many people as you do. That translates to ten times as many accidents, crimes, down the line."

I guess, in the O'Reilly version of how the universe (and mathematical principles) operate, the really smart people all know to live in tiny little countries, with no more than a few thousand people... Hell, you'd probably live to 200 in one of them!

And to think that millions of Americans actually listen to what this "genius" has to say every day!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Where Did This Particular Myth Come From?

With all of the Health Care Reform activity in the U.S. heating up, one of the sound bites that I keep hearing is that "in Canada, old people are denied access to medical care." Just where did this come from? Who exactly are these senior Canadians who are supposedly being denied access to doctors, drugs or surgery because they're too old? I've got an 83 year old aunt who doesn't go to the doctor nearly enough (because she's afraid of doctors, and has been her whole life) but who gets great care on those rare occasions when a relative can drag her to see one.

Is this just typical conservative bullshit that they throw out when they want to scare people ("Ooh, watch out! Saddam has Weapons of Mass Destruction!!!!") or is there some validity to this tactic? If it's something along the lines of a 80 year old not getting a liver transplant because he's already drank his way through a couple other ones, then I'd have to say that this fear mongering is pretty disingenuous.

Don't You Just Hate That?

You see a headline or link description that you just desperately want to know more about, only to get a "503 Service Temporarily Unavailable" error when you try to get to it?

In this case, it was the membership lineup for the Avengers movie that had allegedly leaked out... Yeah, I'm all over that (or would be, if I could be)! Too bad I'll have to wait.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

San Diego News

Aside from the Marvelman bombshell, there wasn't really all that much out of San Diego Comic Convention this year that excited me. Here are the other bits of news that caught my eye:
  • Geoff Johns will be the writer of an ongoing All-Flash title sometime after Flash: Rebirth wraps up later this year (with a Kid Flash companion title also announced)
  • James Robinson let slip some of the members of his Justice League of America roster, when he takes over the book in October or so (Dick Grayson-Batman, Mon-El as a Superman Family representative, Donna Troy, and Congorilla?!)
  • More Blackest Night minis were announced, which could be a good thing (since I'm enjoying the title/event so far) or simply a cash grab
  • Lost (the TV show) will have a different structure than the flashforwards that characterized Season Four or the time travel that dominated Season Five
  • Heroes (also a TV show) will continue to suck next season, with the high point being that Claire will have a female college roommate with whom she'll share an onscreen kiss
  • Lost Planet 2 (a video game) sounds a lot different than Lost Planet (also a video game), which I quite enjoyed; LP2 has a 4-person coop mode that sounds very interesting
All in all, not that impressive a lineup of announcements, once you get past that initial (large) one.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Unbelievable!

I watched the Blue Jays build up a 9-1 lead today against the Tampa Bay Rays, only to give it all back over the course of the game. It's now 9-9 in the 10th inning. This Toronto pitching staff has been absolutely awful of late, with Scott Downs in particular really stinking out the joint (he seems to give up runs every time he comes into the game).

I already knew that they were down and out this season, but today's game may be the perfect death knell for this team that started out so well. I think it's time for me to switch to one of the Fox games. Chicago White Sox at Detroit looks pretty good, and it's just getting under way.

Will Health Care Reform Finally Happen In The U.S.?


Things have been up and down on this front over the past few weeks, and it's a hard outcome to handicap right now. President Obama's weekly address this week touches on many of the reasons why it's so important to get it done, and it's really too bad that more Americans will probably hunker down in front of their TVs to watch The Bachelorette than will view this 5-minute video. Sometimes I think they actually get the kind of system they deserve.

A Marvelman Primer

This post is intended for those readers of this blog who know little or nothing about comic books, but have at least a passing interest in the topic. As a result of the big announcement yesterday about Marvel Comics getting the rights to Marvelman, it's quite likely that I'll be paying considerable attention to how things proceed on that front over the next year or more. Therefore, I figure it would only be polite of me to provide a little background on this character before all of that begins to unfold. The following is a very cursory look, written (hopefully) in a style that will be appealing and accessible to the non-comics fan (and please let me know how I did!). And, as with most superhero topics, it actually begins with a gentleman with whom everyone is familiar.

1938: Superman appears for the first time, in the pages of Action Comics # 1. The world has never before seen the likes of this strange visitor from another planet, with his super strength, near-invulnerability, amazing speed and ability to leap 1/8th of a mile in a single bound. Not surprisingly, people go nuts for the Man of Steel, and before long he's starring in his own title (Superman), as well as holding down the lead feature of Action, and each comic is selling close to a million copies of each issue.

1939: Success begets imitation, and so more superheroes begin to appear like weeds, with the most famous addition being Batman (the dark, Dionysian counterpoint to Superman's Apollo). Both of those heroes are produced by the publisher who would eventually be known as DC Comics; however, lots of other entrepreneurs have caught wind of the gold in them thar hills, and the newsstands are soon filled with new comic book publishers.

1940: Fawcett Comics launches the adventures of Captain Marvel, in the pages of Whiz Comics # 2. The Big Red Cheese, as he's affectionately known, has very similar powers to Superman, albeit a very different backstory. Marvel is actually boy reporter Billy Batson, who is endowed with an adult body and the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury, upon saying the magic word, "SHAZAM!" (formed from the first letters of the names of the six gods). Batson is switched between the two identities each time he utters that special acronym, making for all kinds of fun plot twists if his enemies can trick Captain Marvel into saying it.

1941: The publishers of Superman, however, are not amused by what they perceive as a copyright infringement upon their own character, and issue a cease and desist order against Fawcett. When the publishers of Captain Marvel refuse to comply, a long, bitter court case begins between the two rivals. It would actually take 7 years to come to trial, however. Meanwhile, the adventures of Captain Marvel, his young friend Captain Marvel, Jr, and Billy's sister, Mary Marvel, continue to come out every month, often outselling the titles featuring the Man of Steel.

1948: Captain Marvel vs Superman finally makes it way into the courts, where Fawcett is victorious on a bit of a technicality.

1951: DC Comics appeals the 1948 ruling, and that outcome is overturned. Superhero comics have already begun to fall from the public favour by this point, and so Fawcett pays DC a $400,000 settlement and stops publishing anything related to the Captain Marvel family of characters. Ironically, 20 years later, DC Comics would acquire the rights to the Marvel family and have had them ever since.

1954: A UK publisher, L Miller & Son, has been providing black and white reprints of Fawcett's Captain Marvel stories to a receptive British audience, and is faced with the prospect of running out of material, thanks to the lawsuit decided in DC's favour (upon appeal). Since their reprints are still selling strongly, L Miller & Son want to continue to milk that cow, and so head honcho Len Miller charges writer Mick Anglo with creating a new set of characters to replace the Marvel family. Thus, Captain Marvel is transformed into Marvelman (with Billy Batson becoming Micky Moran), Captain Marvel, Jr becomes Young Marvelman, and Mary Marvel changes genders and debuts as Kid Marvelman. "Shazam!" is replaced by "Kimota!" ("Atomic" backwards, if you replace the hard "c" with a "k") and the costumes are changed somewhat. With that bit of business out of the way, Miller proceeds to publish new stories about those characters, in several different titles, for the next 9 years.

1963: I'm born, just in time for the original adventures of Marvelman (and family) to finally end. And with that, the Marvelman character fades from memory, forever.

1982: Whoa, not so fast! Future British superstar Alan Moore, still a relative unknown, gets the assignment to come up with a few different ongoing strips to fill out the pages of British black-and-white comic magazine, Warrior. One of Moore's ideas is created from whole cloth (V For Vendetta), but the other harkens back to a comic that he remembered from his youth: Marvelman. Rather than simply pick up where the 1960s series had left off, though, Moore imagines a significant twist on the character: it's now 20 years later, and Micky (now Michael) Moran is a grown man, married, and stuck in the rat race. Moran has a nagging feeling that he's forgotten something important, and often has dreams of flying. With that, Moore reboots Marvelman and takes the Captain Marvel knockoff to heights that even the original has yet to achieve.

1984: After running for 21 issues in Warrior, the Marvelman feature is suddenly nowhere to be found (with the storyline left hanging from the previous issue). Marvel Comics is already making noises about not liking another company having a character with "Marvel" in his name, although they aren't yet issuing a cease and desist order as long as it doesn't show up as a trademarked word. Writer Moore and artist Alan Davis are apparently engaged in a contractual fight with the publisher over royalties and reprint rights, and so no more Marvelman installments are forthcoming through Warrior.

1985: After having been "shopped around" to various American publishers, the character finally lands at Eclipse Comics (both Marvel Comics and DC Comics had already passed on the idea, for different reasons). Eclipse is well aware that they're in trouble with the self-proclaimed House of Ideas if they produce a comic entitled Marvelman, so they make the decision (with writer Moore's blessing, presumably) to change all "Marvel" usages to "Miracle". And just like that, Miracleman is born! The rest of the family similarly changes names once again, giving us Young Miracleman, Kid Miracleman, and the anything-but-cuddly Miracledog. I kid you not! The Eclipse series begins by reprinting (and adding colour to) the chapters from Warrior, and then picks up the story right where it left off, allowing Alan Moore to finally finish the extended saga that he'd had in mind when he wrote that first Warrior tale. A North American audience is introduced to something previously only known to the Brits, and Moore's star continues its ascendancy. Between Saga of the Swamp Thing, Watchmen, V For Vendetta (which DC Comics does pick up the rights to, thereby similarly providing Moore with the opportunity to finish it off, as well) and Miracleman, Moore is soon recognized as the new king of comic writers. A key point here is that, as far as anyone is concerned at the time, the writer and artists on the character owned the rights to him, since Moore and his artistic partners had revived a long forgotten set of figures from a defunct publishing company. And that's where the fun really begins.

1990: Moore has finished his Miracleman saga, and hands the reins for the book over to a man he trusts to do right by it: fellow Brit, Neil Gaiman (Gaiman is now an ex-pat Brit, living in the U.S.) Gaiman begins the first of three arcs that he has in mind for the character, entitled, "The Golden Age." The plan is to follow that up with "The Silver Age" and "The Dark Age".

1994: Unfortunately, Eclipse goes out of business right in the middle of "The Silver Age", and fans get no more issues of Miracleman after # 24.

1996: Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn (and owner of several steroid-juiced home run baseballs for which he paid multiple millions of dollars), buys the assets of Eclipse during its bankruptcy sale. With that, he declares that he owns the rights to Miracleman, and has plans to begin publishing the character. Most of comic fandom issues a collective groan (or shriek), in response. However, there's a glimmer of hope: Alan Moore had passed his rights to the character on to his successor, Neil Gaiman, and McFarlane has not done anything to secure them. It's therefore very unclear what McFarlane actually bought, as Eclipse didn't necessarily hold any rights to Miracleman beyond those associated with the initial publication of those previous stories.

1997: McFarlane also wants to secure the rights to several Spawn characters that were created by Gaiman during a guest writing stint on the title, and so a verbal contract is arranged between the two: McFarlane gives whatever Miracleman rights that he has (along with any assets, such as films of the original Miracleman artwork) to Gaiman in exchange for complete ownership of characters Angela and Medieval Spawn (whoever the Hell they might be). At this point the prospects look good for Gaiman and artist Mark Buckingham completing "The Silver Age" and giving us "The Dark Age", except that McFarlane then reneges on the deal, resulting in yet another legal proceeding!

2002-ish: The trial between McFarlane and Gaiman is limited to ownership of the Angela and Medieval Spawn characters (the Miracleman angle is pushed to the side and not dealt with), with Gaiman winning handily. Unfortunately, this doesn't clear up things on the Miracleman front at all (but is still a positive development, in general, because it seems to provide Gaiman with more leverage). McFarlane owes Gaiman a large sum of money for his continued use of Angela and Medieval Spawn, but he files for bankruptcy on that portion of his company and (presumably) gets away with the intellectual theft.

2006-ish: Word begins to make the rounds that Mick Anglo, the original creator of Marvelman (recall: as a replacement for Captain Marvel), is still alive and well, and therefore is the true rights holder to the character. Alan Moore, upon hearing this argument, agrees wholeheartedly with it, and endorses the notion that it was all a matter of confusion that lead to him thinking that he had the rights in the first place. He points out that Anglo approved of what he (Moore) did with Marvelman and then Miracleman, but that he (Moore) now realizes it was all done rather unofficially. Neil Gaiman more or less agrees, and things begin to take on a different light. Marvel Comics are said to be interested in picking up the character, and would be happy to restore him to his original "Marvelman" naming convention if they did. No one seems to really care what Todd McFarlane thinks of this development, which is just as well.

2009: We hear what we heard yesterday.

So there you have it: the long, complicated history of Marvelman.

A few final points to ponder, for the brave souls who have made it this far:
  1. Superman begets Captain Marvel who is then cloned as Marvelman who becomes Miracleman who finally goes back to being Marvelman. How's that for a twisted lineage?
  2. Has any other comic character ever had so many legal entanglements in his history?
  3. Speaking of which, will DC Comics now turn around and sue Marvel Comics for their use of a character who's clearly a ripoff of Captain Marvel/Shazam, now owned by DC? And if that happens, would that be the first time that one company sued over the same character twice, once against its existence (in 1948) and once in protection of it?
  4. I didn't even go into the whole "Captain Marvel" mess, in which Marvel Comics created a character by that name in the 1960s and trademarked it (long after Fawcett Comics stopped using the name) and which, to this day, prevents DC Comics from publishing a Captain Marvel comic book, despite owning the Big Red Cheese and the rest of the Marvel family (they have to settle for starring in comics with names like Shazam!). That would have probably made heads explode if I'd included it, right?

Friday, July 24, 2009

"The Marvelman Exists... And We Own Him!"


Today saw a very strange announcement out of San Diego Con, indeed. It sounds like Marvel Comics will be reprinting the original adventures of Marvelman from the 1950s and 60s... when he was quite boring and unoriginal, considering that during that period he was mostly just a Captain Marvel ripoff that was created when the UK publisher ran out of Captain Marvel material (from the U.S.) to reprint.

In this fan's opinion, what made Marvelman special was the treatment he got in the hands of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman during the 80s and 90s. Moore's re-imagining of the character in the pages of Warrior magazine elevated Micky Moran and his alter ego from "derivative" to "definitive". It was all of the developments that Moore and Gaiman introduced that caught and held our attention, not the silly stories from the 50s and 60s.

The other troubling aspect to the press release is the notion that Marvel Comics might be incorporating the character into their own universe. Fans who followed the series in the 80s and 90s know that very big changes occurred in the world of Marvelman, including the decimation of London, England as the result of a particularly bloody "super-battle." Following that, Marvelman (called "Miracleman" then, to avoid problems with, of all folks, Marvel Comics!) ascended to the throne of ultimate ruler, a turn of events that would clearly put that tale at odds with any introduction into the Marvel Universe proper. Beyond that, I'm not sure that Marvel has it in them to appreciate or maintain the subtlety and layers involved in the character that the two Brits wrote so effectively. It's not exactly what the House of Ideas is known for these days, anyway.

(Comic book rumour guru Rich Johnston has this to say on the topic, which is definitely worth a read.)

So, at this point, I'm a little skeptical about this news. What I'd hoped for was an announcement that Marvel was going to reprint the Moore and Gaiman stories in a suitably beautiful format, while at the same time allowing Neil to finish off what he'd started back in the 90s. Instead, we're getting reprints of the Mick Anglo stuff from much earlier along with being told to "stay tuned" for more news. Hmmmm. Colour me non-plussed so far.

Was I Really Getting Ahead All Those Years?

Something that I've wanted to do for awhile now has been to look at my employment income over the years that I was working full-time, and see how I did against inflation. Specifically, I wanted to take my totals for 1986 through 2008, adjust each for inflation (to 2009 dollars) and chart the progress, year by year.

Today, I did just that. For the first and last years (1986 and 2008, respectively), I prorated the employment over a full year, as both were only partial years in terms of employment. Here are the results:



As you can see, there were a few "down" years, but those are a bit misleading. In every case, I think, there was an abundance of overtime or bonus money in a previous year, rather than an actual drop in my annual salary. What's most interesting to me is the fact that I finished my career making about 3 and a half times as much (after adjusting for inflation) as I started at. That's quite a considerable increase, especially considering that I always felt as though I was contributing more as a programmer than I ever did at the higher levels!

As you can also see, I've removed the actual dollar amounts from the chart. But I will impart the following bit of insight: my 1986 annual salary in 2009 dollars was actually a fair bit lower (by more than 10%) than what we were hiring new programmers at, straight out of school, just before I quit working last summer. So I think that means that there's hope for you all! :-)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Crazy!

I was just looking at the October solicitations for comics coming from DC and from Marvel, and I don't think that I've ever before seen such a wide disparity. It looks like I'll buy 33 comics from DC in October, and a mere 5 from Marvel! Now, that first number may end up being inflated a bit, as there are some new series that I'm planning to try out but which I may have given up on by the time October rolls around. But even if it were only 25-5, that would still be an incredible contrast between the Big Two!

It seems like my plan to reduce my comic buying is working well where the so-called House of Ideas is concerned, but not so much for the house that Superman built!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

'Twas The Night Before Christmas (For Fans Of Comic Books And Popular Culture)

Newsflash: Tomorrow sees the kickoff of the 2009 version of the San Diego Comic Convention (or "SDCC" to an ever-increasing number of people in the know). As such, the next few days are among the year's most interesting and exciting for geeks everywhere... like your truly!

There will be tons of announcements between now and Sunday, most of which probably won't interest me all that much. But there will almost certainly be a handful of news items - whether it be about an upcoming comic series, TV show or movie - that will undoubtedly speed up my pulse at least a bit. And I'll try to post the very best of those nuggets, right here.

And Lo, They Shall Number Four...

Tutoring student # 4 comes online tomorrow morning, as I now have my second Grade 5 / Grade 6 Math pupil (are you really "in" Grade 6 during the summer after Grade 5?). This makes the first time that I'll have two different Math students in the same grade, which may make for some economies of scale as far as preparing material... as well as confusion, when trying to keep all of the details straight between them!

If this sort of growth continues, though, I may have to start subcontracting some of the work! (Vicki says she might be interested, after her current full-time contract finishes up.) Not that I'm complaining; that would be a good problem to have!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Just The Kind Of Facelift The Old Rag Needed

If you haven't checked out The Onion in the last day or two, go there now so that you, too, can become China Strong!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Truth In Advertising (For Real, This Time)

When the Wildstorm comic series Sleeper, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, was running earlier this decade, I didn't give it a look. All I knew of its central concept was that it was about a deep cover operative (a 'sleeper agent') in an evil organization of some kind whose sole contact on the outside goes missing or becomes unavailable in some manner. Interesting concept, but since it didn't seem to feature superheroes and I hadn't yet discovered just how great a writer Brubaker is, its 24 issues came and went with little notice by me.

Today, however, I'm a big fan of Brubaker's comic work. And Sean Phillips, his Sleeper artist, has worked with him on the Criminal and Incognito series (from Marvel's Icon line), both of which have been excellent. So a few months ago I went looking for old issues of Sleeper to discover what I'd missed. Along the way, however, I decided to try to get the stories in collected form, rather than hunt down all of the original issues. Much to my surprise, though the stories had been released as trade paperbacks, they weren't available anymore. I was just about to return to my original plan of scouring the back issue bins, when I read that Wildstorm was about to release new collections of Sleeper (entitled Season One and Season Two). At that point I happily asked my local comic store guy to order each for me, as they became available... and I settled back to wait.

Then, just as Sleeper Season One was due to arrive, I read an advertisement that proclaimed that the Point Blank miniseries (also by Brubaker and published by Wildstorm) was a "prelude to Sleeper" (you can see it, right there on the cover!). So now I added that to my order at the comic store, too. And despite receiving my copy of the Sleeper Season One collection first, I held off until Point Blank arrived, a few weeks later.

This morning, I finished reading the prelude. It was a good, solid read, but it was also firmly rooted in the Wildstorm Universe, which I barely know. I'm sure that I would have enjoyed it more were I a fan of that particular set of characters, but I could still make sense of it all and appreciate the little twists and turns that Brubaker built into the proceedings. At various points, though, I really began to wonder just what this story had to do with the one about undercover agents that I had actually been intrigued by.

Fortunately, in the text page at the end of Point Blank, Brubaker explains the connection. Now I can see that the events of the earlier miniseries feed directly (both thematically and through one particular character) into Sleeper. While I suspect that I could have just picked up the two Sleeper editions and been fine without having read the earlier miniseries, at least it wasn't disingenuous of them to refer to Point Blank as a prelude to Sleeper. For a while there, though, I'd been beginning to worry that I'd been conned into buying the proverbial pig in a poke!

And more importantly, now I can finally start reading Sleeper Season One. It sounds like it'll be September or October before the second collection is published, but that shouldn't be too long of a wait (compared to, say, the 5-issue Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds, which is just now finishing up what started last October!)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Slow News Day

When there just isn't enough Michael Jackson 'news' available to fill the 24-hour, non-stop news cycle, you're just naturally going to end up with stuff like this, I guess. Sigh.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Enjoying Wednesday Comics

Tonight Vicki and I sat side-by-side and read (re-read, for me) the first two issues of Wednesday Comics. She seemed to like most of the same ones that I did:
  • Batman
  • Kamandi
  • Superman
  • Green Lantern
  • Flash
  • Metamorpho
  • Sgt Rock
She definitely didn't enjoy the two that I've not liked (Teen Titans and Wonder Woman) and was more appreciative of Demon and Catwoman than I've been (though I liked it more on the second pass). I think I liked Hawkman more than she did.

It's funny how similar our reactions have been so far.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Oh My!


Planetary # 27 cover (click the image to get a better look).

Me want!

Those of us who are fans of the series will recognize many of the images on display there, including the fantastic villains (in blue) filling out the four corners. I can hardly wait to re-read this amazing series after this finale makes its long-awaited appearance in October.

Every Once In A While...

... it hits me, anew, like a ton of bricks:

The United States of America actually elected a black man to be President!

Hopefully the day will come when that won't seem exceptional at all, but right now (less than 9 months after the election) it's still pretty unbelievable.

Of course, if Pres Obama succeeds in introducing universal health care, environmental reform, and a newfound commitment to continuing education, then historians decades and centuries from now will have to wonder why it took so long! Not that his being black is necessarily indicative of any of that... but more that it makes you consider just what other qualified predecessors of colour had never even been given a shot before 2008.

On Viral Marketing And When It Doesn't Work

Brian Hibbs, owner of the Comix Experience store in San Francisco (which I believe Vicki and I visited a couple of years ago), recounts an entertaining tale involving Neil Gaiman and singer/actor Tyrese Gibson. The former is a mega superstar in the world of comic books and fantasy, while the latter is apparently trying to get a toehold in the comic industry at the moment. When Hibbs' professional life happened to intersect with those two gentlemen somewhat simultaneously, hilarity ensued... not so much. Instead, Hibbs provides some good commentary on when social networking succeeds, and when it falls flat on its face.

Speaking Of Games

Thanks to Qikipedia on Twitter, I discovered this particular time-killer, which you may want to try. It's a real good exercise for spatially-challenged folks like me!

My Kind Of Job

I'd been on a bit of gaming break after finally tiring of inFAMOUS, but last night I decided to crack the seal on my copy of Red Faction: Guerrilla and give it a try. I thought I more or less knew what to expect, thanks to playing the demo for it a couple months ago, but it's turning out to be even more fun than I'd counted on.

If you like wrecking stuff - and what guy doesn't? - then RF:G is just the game for you! You play as a demolitions expert who gets dragged into the rebellion on Mars shortly after arriving there. I'd have to say that, after killing bad guys and solving puzzles, figuring out new ways to destroy buildings and set off explosions while taking the maximum risk without actually dying in the process might just be my next favourite video game activity! Vicki was attempting to read a book while I was going through the first level last night but she just couldn't keep her eyes off the increasingly-humourous shenanigans tha I was up to in the game. I got lots of "That thing's going to come down right on top of your head if you don't get out of there..." comments from her, and it became a sort of game-within-the-game for me to prove her wrong as often as I could!

And really, that's not even the main thrust of the game... but wow, are the physics and graphics ever well done when you bring those suckers down! The only downside is that now I don't really want to play it unless Vicki's around to kibbitz... I mean, where's the fun in that?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Another Wednesday, Another Wednesday Comics!

OK, technically today is Thursday (as I only just now got around to reading yesterday's Wednesday Comics # 2) and the picture shown to the left is from issue # 1 (because I couldn't find a good scan from the 2nd issue)... but work with me here!

At any rate: what a difference a week makes! I have to say that I enjoyed this week's installment quite a bit more than the launch issue last week. There were several moments of pure joy this time around, including a surprise conversation between the World's Finest heroes in the Superman strip, a bizarre (but fun) turn in the Metamorpho strip, a bit of mind-bending time travel for Flash, Green Lantern versus a squad of Russian rocketmen and even a big ol' smooch for Batman's alter ego courtesy of a "grieving" widow at a funeral!

In fact, virtually every chapter was an improvement on its predecessor from the week before. Once again, Wonder Woman and Teen Titans didn't really do much for me, but all 13 of the other strips ranged from pretty good to really great. It seems there truly is something about the format that makes it hard to get off to a flying start, but things are definitely looking up now. I may even so far as to pull out # 1 again and re-read each feature's first two parts, back to back. I suspect that that'll make the experience even better!

Wednesday Comics is turning out to be a whole lot of fun!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

11 Years And Counting

11 years ago today, Vicki and I took possession of the house that we're currently living in. Doing so, we went from a small place in a fairly bad neighbourhood to a much larger home in a wonderful part of town. For the first time ever (for either of us), we also became the owners of a pool in very our own backyard.

Noisy neighbours notwithstanding, we both really love this house and the area around it. Most evenings we go for a walk and often comment on how friendly and comfortable this subdivision really is.

Like today, July 15, 1998 was a Wednesday. I distinctly remember Vicki, Tammy and I coming over to this house after picking up the keys from the lawyer. We were about to head out to Chicago later that day (for the Comic Convention) but wanted to eat lunch here before leaving town. Since the house was empty, we bought takeout (Harvey's, as I recall) and had to eat it standing up, at the kitchen counter. The swimming pool was reflecting the sunlight onto the kitchen ceiling (just like it's doing right now) and the place seemed aglow with possibilities. It really was a magical experience, and in the 11 years since we've had no reason to regret our decision to buy.

I've lived longer in this house now than any other home in my 46 years, and definitely like it much better than any of the previous stops. Having said that, I doubt that we'll still be here 11 years from now, but I suppose you never know.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tomorrow's Math Lesson

It's always a bit of a challenge to figure out what to cover next with summertime Math tutoring. During the school year, I can basically follow or anticipate the material that the student's teacher is covering, which makes it easy. But in the summer? I look at the next year's curriculum online for most of my inspiration, but often it seems like Year N+1 contains more review of Year N than anything else.

So for the student who's headed to Grade 8 in September, I decided this afternoon to combine the Pythagorean Theorem (which I've covered over the past two sessions) with a little bit of Cartesian coordinate magic. I know that the student has already learned how to plot points (x,y) in the appropriate Cartesian quadrant, so tomorrow I'm going to present him with the following three points:
  • (-1, -2)
  • (-1, 1)
  • (3,1)
If you can picture that in your head, you'll notice that the 3 points form a right-angled triangle when you join them up. So I'll then ask the student to determine the length of each side of the triangle. Two of them are relatively easy to find, as they're each parallel to one of the axes. But that third, more diagonal side... to figure that one out will require use of what good ol' Pythagoras taught us!

From there, if all goes well, I'm going to teach him how to take any two points and figure out the distance between them. He may not need that for awhile yet, but it's still a good thing to have in your back pocket, I'd say.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Movie Reviewing

I blew the dust off The Studio blog today, and posted a review of Mystic River there. Not sure anyone ever visits it any more, but at least now there's a little bit of a reason to.

Video Game Enthusiasts Will Surely Enjoy This

Nice 2-minute video with lots of laughs: Living with First-Person Shooter Disease

(Thanks to Boneman, who brought this to my attention, and the Man from Mars, who brought it to his!)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Books I'm Currently Reading (July 2009 Edition)

Of the books listed in the May 2009 edition of this series, the only one that I'm still working my way through is Practical Mathematics (all others were finished). However, two other books have been started and finished since I posted my May list:

The Two Income Trap by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, as I've already written about previously.

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman - This is an interesting attempt to predict what the world stage will look like in 2020, 2030 and so on, right through 2100. Friedman describes his approach as being based on historical patterns while resisting the urge to take the reasonable path (since "future history" rarely ends up conforming to our expectations), which I think was a wise choice. I fully expected to read that the U.S.-Islamic battles would dominate the coming decades and that China and India would eventually become the next superpowers, but instead he elevated such unlikely countries as Japan, Turkey, Poland and Mexico to leading roles! I can't imagine that he'll really get things right, but at least he provides some well-thought out arguments for each of his cases. (Note: I read this 250-page book in the span of a single day, which isn't something I do very often!)

As for books that I'm in the middle of right now, those would be:

The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D. - This was recommended by a friend, and has turned out to be a fascinating read. It's all about neuroplasticity, which is the property of the brain that allows it to alter itself. Each chapter covers a different aspect of neuroplasticity, with such engrossing cases as: a treatment for people who feel as if they're constantly falling, alleviating pain that amputees experience in their "phantom limbs", and stroke victims overcoming their paralysis through the use of extremely simple exercises. I'm particularly looking for insights that may help in the area of learning, given my role as a tutor these days.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham - I've read several Wyndham science fiction novels before, and always enjoyed them. So I picked this one out of Vicki's immense SF library because it was one I hadn't encountered before, and it's proving to be entertaining. I wouldn't say it's one of Wyndham's best, but it's gotten better as it's gone along. I think, however, that I'll follow it up with a return visit to The Kraken Wakes or Day of the Triffids, both of which I've loved in the past.

The Batcave Companion by Micheal Eury and Michael Kronenberg - This is one of those "everything you ever wanted to know about ____" books, but on a subject that a) I already know a lot about, and b) I'm always interested in knowing more. I've only just started this today, so I can't say whether it's any good or not yet. But it does have a great, new Neal Adams cover, which is almost enough to warrant the price of admission alone!

(And yes, I'm shocked that I "only" have 3+1 books on the go right now, too!)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Day With No TV Watching (Almost)

It's pretty rare that I go the whole day without watching any TV, and yet that very nearly happened today. I saw about 15 minutes of The Hour (PVR'd) this afternoon, but that was it. Most of the day was spent reading (one book, which Tammy had brought with her and is taking away with her tomorrow and so I'm trying to get all the way through it in 2 days) as well as being entertained by Tammy's travelogue of her Asia trip. She showed us several hundred photos of Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia, all of them fascinating. Much better than watching a situation comedy or another Blue Jays loss!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Ryan Reynolds Gets Sector 2814

Variety.com has the breaking news: Ryan Reynolds will star as Green Lantern. I don't have any particular feel for that actor's abilities, but at least it wasn't Justin Timberlake who got the role (as was recently rumoured).

I'd really, really love to see a great Green Lantern movie - and the potential is there, considering the source material and central concept - but I'm not holding my breath at this point.

It Had To Happen

More than three months into the 2009 season, the Toronto Blue Jays have managed to do something for the first time: post a losing record! At 43-44 (following a three game sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays), the Jays are in the midst of what must be one of their worst tail-offs in recent history (I say that mostly because they hadn't had a lot of good starts until this year). They're 2-8 in their last 10 and going nowhere fast. I had high hopes that Cito Gaston's return behind the bench meant something, but I guess that was just wishful thinking. "Boo" to the Toronto Blue Jays and their inability to provide their fans with much of anything to cheer about recently.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Not Singing The Praises Of Waxman-Markey

Here's a very interesting article calling out the shortcomings of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, posted by NASA climate expert, Dr James Hansen.

[Update Jul 10/09: A good rebuttal of that article can be found here.]

So How Was Wednesday Comics # 1?

Well, it was hit-and-miss for me. It was harder to adjust to the format than I'd counted on, for one thing. Specifically, I found it frustrating that there was, in most of the 15 strips, so little content provided before it was over and on to the next one. Yes, that's probably unavoidable (perhaps even desirable) given the structure, but I didn't really enjoy that aspect much at all. However, since it was the first strip in each case, maybe it'll get better as we go along.

The actual act of reading comics printed in the newspaper format took some getting used to, but that wasn't unpleasant. In fact, it felt rather cool to be mixing the two genres in that way: familiar and yet somehow new.

Some of the features were about what I'd expected, and others either under- or over-delivered. I know that a lot of the reviewers so far have gushed about the entire thing, but for me: some worked, and some didn't.

I quite liked six of them - Batman (which I'd pre-ranked at # 3 out of 15), Flash (# 6), Green Lantern (# 7), Metal Men (# 8), Kamandi (# 10) and Adam Strange (# 11) - for varying reasons. Sometimes it was the art that appealed to me, or the fact that a semblance of plot managed to catch my eye even though each strip was limited to a single page.

A small handful - Demon/Catwoman (# 9), Wonder Woman (# 13) and Teen Titans (# 15) - held virtually no appeal for me, although I'll continue to try them in upcoming weeks, in case they grow on me.

And that leaves the final half dozen - Metamorpho (# 1), Superman (# 2), Sgt Rock (# 4), Hawkman (# 5), Supergirl (# 12), and Deadman (# 14) - in the grey area: kinda hit, kinda miss. Sgt Rock, for example, by the father and son Kuberts, was visually excellent but didn't provide enough story content (summary: Rock is being tortured to get info out of him!) to really hook me. I expected Gaiman's Metamorpho to blow me away, and yet the first chapter was really very pedestrian. But again: it's early days. So we'll see.

I'm pretty confident that I'll stick with Wednesday Comics right through the full 12 issues, but had simply hoped for a better kickoff than I got. The best news of all is that I only have a week to wait until the next issue comes out!

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Complete AgileMan Now Back In Stock!

Despite my concerns about the solvency of Lulu, I went ahead and ordered some copies of The Complete Real-Life Adventures of AgileMan anyway. Part of my impetus for doing so was that Lulu announced another discount plan (better than the $5 off one that wasn't working) and then eventually acknowledged that there had been a screwup with the first one. Anyway, I placed my order, and today received 6 brand new copies of the collected edition (in record time, too: less than a week after ordering!).

So if you happen to know anyone who's been wanting to get their hands on one, now's the time to let me know! In any event, it's just nice to finally have some Complete AgileMans on-hand, to go along with the few copies of the individual editions that I still have around.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

You Win Some, You Lose Some

Less than a week after learning that we get more Lost this season than expected, we now hear that Brian K Vaughan has left the writing staff of the show. This is sad news for Lost fans, to be sure... but hopefully happy news for fans of whatever project Vaughan is moving on to next! (And like BKV didn't already have the greatest thing going with all of the much-deserved success he's had of late, he then drops a line about being "best friends with Olivia Munn"! So not fair!)

As Everyone Knows By Now...



... if it's on the Internet, it must be true!

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Illusory Discount

Vicki and I have been slowly (over several years) covering most of the wood surfaces on the outside of our house with vinyl siding. It's simply become too much work to keep them painted, and so we've systematically been dealing with all of our soffits and fascia in this way.

The company that we've used for this in the past has done a very good job of it, at a so-so price. In other words, we've been happy with the quality but always feel like it's a little bit more expensive than it should be. Sometimes we've talked about getting other quotes on it, but usually it's enough of a hassle just getting one (especially back when both of us were working) that we've stuck with the one company up to now.

Late last month, I got a phone call from the siding company, telling me that they were doing a special 30% off sale through the end of July, and asking if there was any work we'd like to get a quote on. Seeing an opportunity to get more wood covered up at a better rate, I set up an appointment. Which brings us to today.

The guy came out as scheduled, this evening, did some measurements and then provided an estimate. We went into this exercise with a notion of what this amount of work would normally cost us (based on previous invoices, going back 3 years), and the figure that he quoted us was right around that, or maybe a little less. So I asked about the 30% off discount, and was told that the 30% had already been taken off. Vicki asked some further questions and was told that the material had gone up in price, and the guys were very busy these days, and blah blah blah. But basically we were left with the impression that they baited the hook with the promise of a 30% sale, and then basically raised their prices enough so that they still made just as much profit on the operation as they always do. Which naturally left a sour taste in our mouths.

Given that there's a Home Renovation Tax Credit available this year, we'd like to get some work done in 2009 rather than putting it all off to next year. But experiences like this aren't really helping the cause... you know what I mean?

Sunday, July 05, 2009

A Tale Of Two Jays Teams

Roughly 1/4 of the way through the 2009 MLB season, the Toronto Blue Jays had an impressive record of 27 wins and 14 losses, making them one of the top teams in the majors.

As they passed the midway point of the season this weekend, the Jays saw their record fall to 42-41 with today's third straight loss to the Yankees. They've fallen to 4th place in their division, and have gone 2-8 in their last 10 games. During the past 42 games they've also had a 9-game losing streak and have lost most of the series that they've played. Even their ace, Roy Halladay, can't get a win recently (after starting something like 10-1) and has been saddled with losses and no-decisions since coming off the Disabled List in late June. This is a team in free fall who look nothing like the "can't do no wrong" group that dazzled the league during the first 41 games of the season.

I don't know about anybody else, but I much preferred the Toronto Blue Jays that started the season to the bunch of losers I've been watching over the past month and a half. I really wish that earlier bunch of guys would make a comeback.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

My Latest Acquisition

Recession? What Recession?

I made an impulse purchase on eBay last week, and am thrilled to now have the product in my hands. Vicki brought to my attention the fact that someone was selling a few original pages from the JLA/Avengers miniseries drawn by George Perez. I had hoped to find a nice page from the final issue, as I already have one example from each of the first three. Sadly, no pages from # 4 were available, but I ended up bidding on and winning page 36, from the 3rd issue (shown to the left).

A few points about this particular page that make it a desirable addition to my collection:
  • it prominently features the Phantom Stranger, which will go well with the Swamp Thing page that I have up which includes that same mysterious character
  • an image of Marvel's Grandmaster is shown in the first panel, echoing his appearance in the page that I own from the initial issue of the series
  • it has Wonder Woman in it, who is the only character from either DC or Marvel to show up in each of the other three JLA/Avengers pages that I own
  • amazingly, this page has all 7 founding members of the Justice League (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter), as well as four of the five founding Avengers (Thor, Iron Man, the Wasp and Hank "Ant Man/Goliath/Giant Man" Pym); as an added bonus, it also includes the member of the team (Captain America) who replaced the one missing founder (the Hulk)! How awesome is that?
I love this page and can hardly wait to get it framed and up on the wall beside its brethren!

Friday, July 03, 2009

Math Isn't Supposed To Be This Hard!

I'm reading over the Grade 8 Math curriculum for ideas on what to cover with my going-into-Grade 8 tutoring student next week, and I see the following:

"By the end of Grade 8, students will:

- evaluate algebraic expressions with up to three terms (e.g. evaluate 3x + 4y = 2z, where x = 1/2, y = 0.6, and z = -1)"

Clearly there's a typo, where "3x + 4y = 2z" should presumably be "3x + 4y - 2z". As written, it's an equation, rather than an expression... and worse yet, it's an equation that fails to maintain its equality (the left side of the equals sign is 3.9 while the right side is -2).

Similarly, a little further down, I run across:

"By the end of Grade 8, students will:

- solve and verify linear equations involving a one variable term and having solutions that are integers (Sample Problem: What is the value of the variable in the equation 30x - 5 = 10?)"

The problem with this one's less obvious, but still pretty annoying. The solution to the provided sample problem isn't actually an integer (as the description had claimed): it's 0.5, or 1/2.

Is anyone actually proofreading this stuff that goes out on the edu.gov.on.ca websites?

Governor Sarah Palin Resigning

When I saw the headline at The Huffington Post website a few minutes ago, I thought that it had to be a poorly-timed April Fool's joke. But no, this is actual breaking news: Sarah Palin is going to resign the Alaskan governorship by the end of July.

Some news outlets are spinning this as an indication of her intention to run for the Presidency in 2012, while others are suggesting that a huge scandal about John McCain's 2008 VP candidate is about to break wide open. Either way, it should prove to be an interesting Fourth of July weekend in the States!

[Update: If you want to read the transcript of her announcement, it's now available. Especially notable are the two instances of her saying "that's a quitter's way out" and "[the members of the U.S. military] don't quit", in a speech in which she's telling the people of Alaska that she's quitting as their governor! Also, I found the reference to "this REAL 'climate change' [in political dirty tricks]" to be particularly revealing, as it shows pretty clearly that uber-conservative Palin has firmly set up shop among the Climate Change denier camp.]

Justice League: Cry For Justice Off To A Weak Start

I'd really been looking forward to this miniseries, and yet after reading the first issue, I'm left with mixed feelings.

The artwork in Justice League: Cry for Justice # 1 is generally quite outstanding, but occasionally rather ugly. Painter Mauro Cascioli is definitely up to the task of portraying the colourful costumes of Green Lantern, Green Arrow, the Atom (two of them in this issue, actually) and their Justice League buddies in a very appealing manner, but he struggles with some of the regular folks that show up. Overall, though, the visuals are more than good enough.

Where the comic suffers is in some of the choices made by its writer, James Robinson. If this were an ongoing title, then I wouldn't be quite so bothered by the fact that only about half of the team shows up in the first issue... but considering that it's a miniseries (originally billed as 6 issues, then expanded to 7), I don't think it's unreasonable for the reader to expect that the setup would be complete by the end of Part 1. After all, if it takes Robinson two (or more) issues just to set the stage, then how much room is there really going to be for the main thrust of the story, as well as the denouement? Once again, I'm left unsatisfied with an approach that seems more filler or padding than four-colour adventure.

The other problem I had with the comic was the forced similarity across unrelated events. First Green Lantern pisses all over his fellow Justice Leaguers because they're not doing enough to "seek justice" (really, vengeance) for the murder of the Martian Manhunter (and subsequent disappearance of the Batman), and then storms off with his buddy Ollie Queen in tow. Then the Atom busts up a crime ring of some sort and declares that he's out avenge his murdered friend. Blue Starman Mikaal discovers his lover has been killed and goes on a rampage. And Congorilla (don't ask!) finds his tribe murdered and plots how to get even. Wow, what a handy coincidence that all four (five, if you count Green Arrow) would simultaneously come to the same emotional place, just in time for a miniseries about heroes banding together to "cry for justice!" It all feels so contrived that I can't help but cringe imagining how issue # 2 is going to showcase Supergirl, Batwoman and Captain Marvel (the remaining three team members who didn't fit into the debut issue) all experiencing similarly sudden and uncharacteristic revenge-rages. When I first heard the concept of this title (then, an ongoing series), I just assumed that the membership would be built up by appealing to the superhero community for support... not that we'd be asked to believe that every member happened to go on to a revenge kick of their own at the same time! That aspect of this launch issue was terribly disappointing to me.

I still enjoyed Justice League: Cry for Justice # 1 enough to keep buying, but my excitement toward it is now a full notch lower than it was, going in. Hopefully the second issue will move the story forward a lot more and dispense with the ridiculous coincidences that required so much suspension of disbelief in the kickoff chapter.

The Two-Income Trap

I just finished reading a very interesting book by Elizabeth Warren (yes, that Elizabeth Warren) and her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, called The Two-Income Trap. It was published in 2003, long before the current economic meltdown was being predicted by any but the most prescient of voices. The main thrust of the book is that the American middle-class family (in 2003) was already in dire straits, thanks to a combination of real estate prices, health care costs, and post secondary tuition rates all running out of control. Within the first few pages, the authors proceed to debunk (through data) what they call the Over-Consumption Myth: the notion that the sharp rise in bankruptcy filings within the U.S. between 1981 and 2001 stemmed from the fact that people were just spending too much money on luxury items.

Some of the statistics in this book are jaw-dropping. For example, between 1981 and 1999, the number of American women filing for bankruptcy had gone from 69,000 to 500,000; more than 90% of the bankruptcy cases in the States involve individuals or families who would quality as "middle-income" (based on their situation before entering bankruptcy); and more Americans will file for bankruptcy in any given year than will graduate from college.

In analyzing the data, the two women quickly came to the realization that the three items I mentioned above - mortgage payments, medical insurance bills and college tuition - constitute the majority of where middle-class money goes. All three were way up at the time of the book's creation, leading to an ever-increasing percentage of the family's take home money needing to be set aside for them. One of the key points of the book is that these sorts of expenses, which are not the kind that can be jettisoned in tough times (unlike luxury items or expensive vacations), form the basis for the titular trap because anything going wrong - a job loss, a health problem beyond what the expensive insurance will cover, a marital breakdown - is enough to make the whole house of cards collapse. Had the Over-Consumption Myth been true, they argue, then a family suffering any of those types of setbacks could simply step down their extravagant lifestyle (for awhile) and recover from the blow.

The reason that the authors consider a two-income setup such a potential pitfall is that most American middle-class families with two wage earners find themselves in situations where the full output of both spouses is required just to make ends meet. A family with only one working member, on the other hand, has a "backup player" who could enter the workforce in times of trouble, to provide an added boost. It's quite the reversal of traditional thinking (which goes, "families with two working spouses are better off than those with one") and yet it also makes a lot of sense.

One of the first things that I thought, as I began reading The Two-Income Trap, is that it's almost certainly more applicable south of the border than here in Canada. For one thing, it's much less common here to learn of someone being in financial trouble due to medical expenses (not unheard of, but far from common). Our universal health care, with its focus on preventative care, means that most of us feel very little impact in the wallet from a medical emergency. Also, there appears to be a much bigger battle going on in America over where to live, as schools are zoned by residential address (moreso than here) and the difference between living near a good school and being zoned for a bad school can mean a lot more than it does here. The resulting bidding wars had driven real estate costs in the more highly-sought-after neighbourhoods through the roof (possibly now corrected somewhat, thanks to The Great Recession). All of which means that this book should resonate a lot more with a typical American than it will with someone living anywhere else, I think.

Having said that, though, I think that it's an excellent read (regardless of where you live). I gained a lot of insight on what middle-class America is up against, as well as some of the predatory habits within the credit industry. There's lots of good advice offered up within the book, almost all of which I'd heartily agree with and even advocate for some of the people who might be reading this blog (not naming any names, here!) I know that Vicki and I, for all those years in which both of us were working, always tried to live at a level that was supportable by only one of us bringing home a paycheque. And, as I e-mailed to Tammy, there's even a section on buying cars that could have been written by Vicki or I, seeing as it's exactly the way that we went about getting ourselves out of "car debt" all those years ago.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Lost Season Six: Now With Almost 6% More Greatness!

It's true! It's true! And this Lost fan couldn't be happier to hear that the final season will be 18 hours long, rather than 17! Hurray! (Although that amazing Season Five is certainly going to be hard to top.)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

They (Finally Get To) Call Him "Senator Franken"!

For those who missed the news earlier this week, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Al Franken won the Senate race against Republican Norm Coleman held last November 4th (which I mentioned briefly way, way back in December!)

I've known of Al Franken for most of my life, since I first encountered him as part of the comedy duo, "Franken and Davis," back in the 70s. He was a mainstay on Saturday Night Live for years, and also gained a lot of notoriety when he published the book, Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Liar, in the late 90s. Since the big, fat liar is in the news as much today as ever - including hoping that the leader of his country fails - it's especially sweet to see Mr Franken go to Washington. I'm sure he'll have to dial back on the humour somewhat in this new role, but it should still be an interesting ride!

Gladwell And The Free Revolution

The New Yorker website has a very good Malcolm Gladwell article, reviewing the book Free: The Future of a Radical Price, by Chris Anderson (and thanks to a Twitter buddy for pointing me to it!). Gladwell does a great job blowing holes in the popular theory that "soon, everything will be free!" by showing that many of the current examples of "freer is better" actually aren't working all that well just yet.

One trait that I've noticed among at least some of the people who try so hard (sometimes criminally so) to get things for free is that they're rarely happy about giving much away themselves. The same person who blithely steals the creative work of other people (by illegally downloading music, TV programming or whatever) will scream bloody murder if their taxes go up or an employment benefit is taken away. In other words, it's fine when shit happens to someone else, but it's suddenly a tragedy if they're the ones being shortchanged. Besides the obvious lack of empathy that this type of behaviour reveals, there's also a great deal of hypocrisy at the centre of it.

Personally, I think that some of our 'tried-and-true' money-making models are undoubtedly outdated, and will have to change. It just kind of bugs me that people are so hypocritical about it as we get there.

Lulu In Trouble?

I got a promotional e-mail from Lulu yesterday, indicating that they were offering a Canada Day discount to Canadian authors. For any order of $25 or more, entering the promotional code of "CANADADAY" would result in a $5 discount. Since I'd been thinking about ordering some copies of the AgileMan collected edition (as I have none on hand), I saw this as a good opportunity to do so.

However, when I went to the site and filled out my order, the promotional code wasn't recognized (and no $5 discount was applied to my total). So I decided to use the messaging-based support system that I've employed in the past to talk to a support person at Lulu... only to discover that it doesn't exist anymore! Then I went looking for a link to their e-mail support, found one, and clicked on it... only to be told that "the help node you requested does not exist." In other words, there's absolutely no way to get any Help whatsoever from Lulu right now, beyond their FAQ pages (which I searched, to no avail).

This is either a bug that's been introduced into their webpage or an indication that the company is going under (first: cut the live support to reduce that expense; next: deactivate the e-mail links so no one has to be available to respond to them). I guess, given the economic climate, it wouldn't be all that surprising if they're in trouble. But it would also mean that I'd have to find a new publisher for my AgileMan (and any future) books... which would be a drag for me, looking at it selfishly.

Needless to say, I didn't complete the order (no point in sending $100+ their way if I'm unsure as to whether I'll ever get the books). I just hope the $45 in online creator revenue that's owed to me from last quarter will still find its way to me!