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Throwback – Riddikulus! (on gerrymandering and Chicago politics)

Originally published on 5 November 2011.

Sometimes when I think about politics, I feel like Neville standing in front of the Boggart cabinet in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkiban.  But alas, our leaders dressed like ladies would hardly embarrass them.

When I was preparing my Open Letter to Congress last week, I looked up my representatives on the EFF website, but that page did not include a mailing address, so I followed up at, where I found a different representative listed for me.  I looked at the district map and saw this:


The red arrow is my home.  This map reveals that my small village, Forest Park, has constituencies in three separate representational districts.

Read the rest

Supicious Llama

Suspicious Llama

Suspicious Llama is suspicious of you.

Nark – where words come from


Reading “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” for my detective fiction class today, I came across this sentence, warning why most murderers will eventually give themselves away:

…your everyday criminal is seldom clearheaded and dislikes being lonely.  He needs, if not the support of confederates, at least somebody to talk to; his vanity needs the satisfaction of perceiving at first hand the effect of his work.  For this he will frequent bars and coffee shops and other public places.  Then, sooner or later, in a glow of comradeship, he will utter the one word too much; and the nark, who is everywhere, has an easy job.

Wait, what?  I thought ‘narc’ was a term for a drug-cop or rat who gave out his friends with regard to drug crimes.  Now I find that word in a story from 1929, and spelled differently.  A quick search of the Internet reveals this:

1859, “to act as a police informer” (v.); 1860, “police informer” (n.), probably from Romany nak “nose,” from Hindi nak, from Sanskrit nakra, which probably is related to Sanskrit nasa “nose” (see nose (n.)). Sense and spelling tending to merge with etymologically unrelated narc (q.v.). (Online Etymology Dictionary)

How weird that two homonyms would merge as word forms, or that we’d assume the later word was the origin of the word.   Readers, do you know of any other words that have similarly odd etymologies?

PS – I recommend that you do not google the image results for “police informant” as I did when I was preparing this post.  It’s a shockingly small number of rows before you encounter horrible crime images. Fair warning.

The Spoils of Babylon

The Spoils of Babylon

What a weird show.  The Spoils of Babylon is a modern version of a 1970s television miniseries, an epic story of family, jealousy, love, and bitterness.  It’s also weird as all getout.  Most of the gags depend on the epic scene chewing and the over-wrought narrative, combined with lots of sight gags and a ridiculous plot.  As a bookend to each episode, we see Will Farrell as Eric Jonrosh, the author of the novel who also directed the Heaven’s Gate-like film set, which resulted in scandal and ignomy, apparently.  It’s enjoyable and crazy, though after the novelty wears off (by the end of the second episode, probably), it loses some of its verve.  A few thoughts:

  • The early hook is the cast of the show — it’s fun to see these actors, many of whom have serious chops, lampooning along with this high octane ridiculousness.  Each episode features a 1970s-era Tobey Maguire speaking into a tape recorder, telling his future audience that his story “is an epic one.”
  • The creators of the show did a good job balancing original silliness with high-concept parody.  Thus, even viewers who haven’t watched any 1970s epic dramas will have something to find here.
  • My favorite moments are the stylistic homages in which the ambiance of a 1970s film gets replicated most strongly.  For example, there’s a scene in episode 5 when Kristen Wiig and Haley Joel Osment argue about the future of their family.  Between each line of dialogue the shots switch so that one of them is close to the camera, in profile, while the other sits on a chair looking toward the camera; then the next shot changes to the other, but perhaps still looking at the camera.  It’s crazy and awesome.

This isn’t a show for everyone, but if the first two episodes capture you with their craziness, the rest probably will as well.  Enjoy.

Tweets from 2014-09-07 to 2014-09-13

Movin’ On Up: thoughts on officiating competitions

Today I take my YMCA Swim Official Level 2 certification class.  After today, and after I take the test associated with the course, I will be eligible to perform a variety of duties at swim meets as an official, at least at meets with YMCA designation (USA swimming, the governing body that organizes swim meets otherwise, has its own certifications, of which I am a “Stroke and Turn” judge.)

magic-judge swim-judge
the glamorous world of meet/match judging. At left, a Magic judge, at right, a swim judge.

I had a long chat with a friend of mine about the ins and outs of refereeing. My experience was as a swim judge, his was as a judge for Magic: The Gathering tournaments.  Both systems were built around making sure all the competitors were following the rules, and both involved making finicky calls about rules in unusual circumstances.  A couple differences we uncovered in the ruling philosophies:

Swimming’s cardinal rule is “benefit of the doubt goes to the swimmer,” with a close second being “if you see it, call it.”  In other words, we look keenly and call infractions as we see them, but if we don’t see them, we can’t call them. If we aren’t sure of what we’re calling, we oughn’t call it.  By contrast, my friend tells me the measure for making a call in Magic is 51% confidence.  The key factor is to maintain the integrity of the tournament.

Regardless of this seeming-gap in the rule-calling, our experiences of doing this work seemed remarkably similar.  We often have to call infractions on people for mistakes, rather than cheats.  You can get a game loss in Magic if you are missing a card from your deck, even if it’s missing because you dropped it on the floor by the last table.  You can get a DQ in swimming if you touch with your hands non-simultaneously on some strokes — if it’s supposed to be a two-hand touch and one hand touches before the other, that’s a one hand touch and you’re DQ’d.

One place we found a clear distinction was in our use of terms.  The standard penalty for an infraction in swimming is the “DQ,” which means that a single race is invalidated for the swimmer.  In Magic, it’s a ‘game loss.’  Since matches are played to best 2 of 3, this isn’t always a match-loss, though it often would be (5 of the 7 match states would make the game loss a match loss).  In swimming, extreme misconduct can involve being ejected from the meet, but this is rare.  Here’s where the confusion came in, at least for a few minutes of our conversation.  In Magic, a DQ is an ejection from the event, along with a six-month ban from other events.

One place we found real similarity is in the nit-picky nature of the job.  Of course easy rules are easy to judge — does the person have enough cards in his deck, is the swimmer on her back for the backstroke?  But the calls are made about tiny details. Did the swimmer initiate a turn immediately, or did he coast a moment first? Does this card get played before that one, or immediately after? But where Magic judges can examine the state of the game for a bit before making their call, swim judges have only the moment the infraction occurs.  We can withdraw a call afterward — upon consideration, perhaps, we can decide a stroke was ‘ugly but legal’ (not a technical phrase), but we can never return to look at the infraction again.  We can only go by what we saw when we saw it.  Hence, the benefit of the doubt goes to the swimmer.

Readers, are you officials in some capacity?  How does your experience line up with this one?

See also: Hey Judge! He did two dolphin kicks! Are you blind?


A few thoughts on The Quantum Rose

The Quantum RoseThe Quantum Rose, by Catherine Asaro, follows the blossoming love of Kamoj and Vryl, a woman and man from two vastly different cultures on vastly different planets.  They’re pulled apart by cultural forces, by diplomatic obligations, by jealousy.  They’re attracted to one another on a deep level, they resonate.  Also, Asaro reveals at the end of the book that the chapter structure is also a parable for particle physics.

A few thoughts:

  • Like Ian M. Banks’ books (Consider Phlebas & Surface Detail are two that I’ve read), Asaro gives us a story within a consistent, much larger galaxy of adventure and stories.  This tip of the iceberg approach works well because readers can jump in wherever, and then back track if they like what they see.
  • This book has two distinct sections — the first 60% or so takes place on Balumil, where a “Beauty and the Beast” story blends with a tale of domestic violence.  The second 40% proceeds to Lyshriol for a tale of political intrigue and passive resistance protest.  Personally, I thought the tensions set up on Balumil made for an intense opening, and I think the move to the second planet halfway through is a bit of a cop-out.
  • Asaro does a great job of touching on the colonized experience. Kamoj wrestles with feelings of anger over how space-faring cultures are treating her people, Jax is angered by the invaders’ impositions of their legal system, and there are cultural blunders all over the place in the beginning of the novel.  Some of it is a little heavy-handed, but it’s a welcome facet of the book nonetheless.
  • The domestic violence and complex relationship between Vyrl, Kamoj, and Jax — Kamoj’s jilted fiance — makes for intense reading.  It’s not my favorite, personally, but I think Asaro does a good job capturing the complicated feelings people in abusive relationships face.  There’s a particularly great scene where people are asking Kamoj what she wants to do with Jax right there, completely unaware (or unwilling to admit) what kinds of pressure he can bring to bear on her.
  • Asaro includes lots of great little moments — like when Vyrl reveals that he’s a ballet dancer, but is ashamed of it because on his planet men don’t dance.  Kamoj encourages him to do so anyway. Or when Kamoj discovers there is a voice-activated computer in the house and becomes wary that it is watching them all the time (even in their marital bed).

But the biggest little moment for me was when, long after this should have been mentioned, the narrative casually mentions that one group of the people in the novel have differently-shaped hands and feet than do the others (who are basically human, in looks).  From page 344:

Eight. So it was natural.  At first Kamoj had thought that Lord Rillia, Del-Kurj, Chaniece, and Shannon had deformed hands.  But everyone else she saw here had them too.  Instead of four fingers and a thumb, they had two sets of opposing fingers, a total of four digits, all thick as thumbs.  A hinge down the center of their hands let them fold their palms together, so they could hold and manipulate objects.

This comes out roughly 30 pages after she meets these people.  I’m sorry, but if you met a group of otherwise normal people who had hands that folded in the middle and had four thumbs instead of four fingers and a thumb, you would remark on it.  Since this section of the novel operates mostly from Kamoj’s perspective (though in third-person omnisicent, mostly), we should have heard about it before this point.

I didn’t really enjoy this book very much — mostly because the romance angle is too heavy in the first half.  This isn’t a criticism of the book so much as a note about its place outside my personal preferences.  My book club members tell me that the romance elements are more muted in the other books, so I may try another one at some time.

Throwback – The Coming Monkey Apocalypse

I’ve been keeping this blog for near-on 10 years, so there’s lots of good stuff in the archives.  I’ll make use of the common Twitter hashtag #ThrowbackThursdays to re-post links to old but great posts.  Enjoy.

In the past few months, I’ve become more and more convinced that one of Avery’s children’s books is actually a missing apocalyptic text, revealing to us the end of the world, in rhythmic rhyme.

If you aren’t familiar with Al Perkin’s Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, check it out in the kids section of your local bookstore.  You’ll come away quaking in terror.

Page 1:

Innocent enough

Read the rest

Wednesday Photo – Dogs n’ Suds

Dogs n' Suds

Norton Shores, MI

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane
written and narrated by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman’s novel, as with many of his ‘young adult’ fare, treads the line between amusing and creepy as hell.  When strange things begin happening around his neighborhood, the narrator (a ten-year-old boy), finds himself under the wing of Lettie Hempstock, an odd girl from up the lane.  Along with her mother and her grandmother, Lettie explains that a malevolent creature has entered the world and begun weaving subtle miseries into the lives of those around it.  When the narrator and Lettie endeavor to fight the creature, things go from bad to worse, and then worse again, and so on.

A few thoughts:

  • As always, Gaiman’s novels aren’t just stories, but meditations on life and its complexity.  As the protagonist remembers the events from his childhood, he also reflects on the relationships of his child-self to his parents, the janus-faced housekeeper, and the daily terrors that shape a young person’s life.
  • The women in the house at the end of the lane tap into an old archetype, the three women who control the world.  In particular, these seem to evoke the three fates of Greek mythology, but they also remind me of the ladies from A Wrinkle in Time.
  • Gaiman’s particular gifts for horrors that winkle in and out of the everyday is in full force here.  I put the scare quotes around ‘young adult’ at the beginning of my review because the creepy parts of this story are downright terrifying.  The standout moment for me is the boy’s matter-of-fact self-surgery in the washroom.  Holy hell.

I recommend Gaiman’s work via audiobook if you like that format.  His sonorous tones and gentle reading style are lovely to listen to, and they provide another level of interpretation on the text that’s just great.  Well worth a read.

By the hoary hosts of hoggoth…

I don’t particularly like Dr. Strange.  I find his brand of supernatural detective story pretty dull, at least as it appears in the first volume of the “Essential” Dr. Strange.  The stories follow one of two standard formulae – either someone intentionally attacks Dr. Strange to get him out of the way, or someone attacks some innocents and Dr. Strange needs to confront them.  The magic battles are filled with fantastical invocations of alliterative dieties, and otherwise not very interesting.  But every now and again, there’s a gem.

From Strange Tales 129

click to embiggen

This panel is from Strange Tales, 129 which was published in February of 1965.  As you can see, we have the usual magical malefactor, Tiboro, who seems to have last shown up at the fall of the Incan empire.  I love this first panel, where Tiboro says “Ah, nuts.  Dr. Strange!” And Dr. Strange very manacingly says “ALL the mystic forces must deal with Dr. Strange.”  He’s like a supernatural toll bridge.

from Strange Tales 129

click to embiggen

But it’s this second panel that’s great — “When a civilization has reached a point of crisis … then I take command!” Tiboro has started grabbing people from 1965 New York.  So here in the pages of Dr. Strange, we see the ancient forces rising up because of the Vietnam war, I think.  This is still early in the quagmire of the Vietnam war (and three years before Night of the Living Dead).  Before Dr. Strange was sucked into Tiboro’s statue, he was being challenged by a group of skeptical scientists (back left of the second panel) to prove the existence of the supernatural.  Instead, he will ultimately erase their memories of this adventure to hide the truth from the people.

I love the trippy art that always works its way into the other dimensions (where Dr. Strange does most of his battles).  But even more, I love the notion of Dr. Strange protecting us from these slavering gods who prey on war.  In a time of great upheaval, young people (to be honest, boys mostly) could find solace in the pages of their comics, where ridiculous heroes in magical capes keep us out of total war, even more effectively than do the scientists on whom grown ups seem to be pinning their hopes.

Tweets from 2014-08-31 to 2014-09-06

Tweets from 2014-08-31 to 2014-09-06

Stand Up! Stand Up!

I first started watching stand up on television in tenth grade, when I would watch Stand Up! Stand Up! during the lunch break at my janitor job.  Marc Maron was the host (it’s been fun listening to his podcast now, I had no awareness of his career between the two projects), and it’s the first place I saw people like Laura Kitelinger and Todd Barry.

Since then, I’ve had a soft spot for stand ups and will occasionally go through bouts of comedy watching.  I am just coming off a round of such viewing, so I thought I’d give you, my dear readers, a few thoughts about specials I’ve watched lately:

  • Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive – A very funny comedian with a good heart.  I like his crowd work, and he uses his eyes to great effect.
  • Brian Posehn: The Fartist – Very profane, but hilariously so.  His bit about being a comic who hates comics who talk about their kids and then doing bits about his kids was fantastic.  And will continue to be until someone punches his baby.
  • Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special - the gag of doing the special in her house was funny, and the interactions with her parents (like giving them a pizza) were silly.  But I suspect this would have been more enjoyable with a large audience to accompany us in laughing.  Stand up is a crowd event so it’s hard to watch a special that doesn’t have a crowd.
  • Dave Foley: Relatively Well – As much as I like both Kids in the Hall and News Radio, I couldn’t endure more than ten minutes of this special.  Too many sex jokes can ruin a good act for me.
  • Dana Gould: Let Me Put My Thoughts In You – By contrast, Dana Gould does just the right balance of sex and other jokes, such that I stayed with it even through a horrifying bit in which Gould imagines himself taking up sex work to antagonize his father.
  • The Sklar Brothers: What Are We Talking About – Aside from having too many sports references, the Sklars do a great show.  I love their back-and-forth routines and the timing they’ve developed.  Their callback for previous jokes is also better than almost anyone else in this list.
  • American: The Bill Hicks Story – This was a documentary rather than a special, but it was a good one to watch as I didn’t know much about him, and the mix of comedy and life story was compelling.

I’ve got a bunch more on my netflix queue, so you’ll see another post about these soon, I imagine.

Spies and psychics (double movie review)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Odd Thomas

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Odd Thomas

A double review is a review of two movies united only by the fact that I watched them around the same time.  That’s what this is.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a classic cold-war era spy story based on the novel by John Le Carre.  It’s meditative and brilliantly acted, with lots of staring out windows and 1970s haircuts.  In fact, it feels like a throwback to movies like The Conversation or The Ipcress File.  Basic plot? British intelligence officer George Smiley is tasked with rooting out the mole from among the “Circus,” the highest level of MI6.

Odd Thomas feels like an introductory movie meant to spawn a television show.  It’s a very well made B movie with a solid cast (including Willem Defoe).  It’s your standard “beginning of a series” movie with lots of exposition to explain the psychic Odd Thomas to us, and to introduce the scary aspects of the world around him.  What follows is your usual supernatural detective story movie about all hell being unleashed, and the endangered hero doing his darndest to stop it.

Now for the synergy — what do you get when you watch these movies together?

  • Both films involve a lot of deception and double- or triple-bluffing.  Characters have hidden motives, aren’t who they appear to be, and hide things even from their friends.  Spies and mysteries both hinge on this sort of business, as it makes for exciting storytelling.
  • Both films build on aesthetics of other similar stories.  As I mentioned above, Tinker Tailor draws on the aesthetic and storytelling style of the intellectual 1970s, giving the viewer plenty to think about and offering little in the way of signposting.  Odd Thomas buys into the goofy aesthetic of shows like Pushing Daisies and the lamented lost Wonder Falls.
  • Montages — the films both use montages to solid effect.  Odd starts with a fast-paced linear exposition montage that gives us many of the characters and settings of the world within the first ten minutes or so.  Tinker Tailor ends with a fantastic epilogue via montage by way of a foreign-language version of “Somewhere Beyond the Sea.”

And the differences?

  • Despite the fact that these two movies were made at around the same time, they couldn’t have more opposed visual styles.  Where Tinker Tailor uses languid, almost immobile cameras and long shots to set the mood, Odd Thomas uses the frenetic editing style one might call “Lock, Stock Syndrome.”  It works for the jaunty tone of the film, but it’s still strikingly different than the British spy movie.
  • Odd Thomas also takes pains to make sure you understand what’s going on.  Oddie, as his girlfriend calls him, is constantly explaining what’s going on.  The film does this even to the point of disrupting truly creepy scenes by giving him telephone conversations with his girlfriend.

Both films are worth watching, but where Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a cinematic event, to be watched with the lights off and phone muted, Odd Thomas feels like a good B-movie, an evening of television both enjoyable and lighthearted.