In which I am “geek friendly”

From Discover magazine’s science fiction blog:

The geek-friendly choices include Georgetown University’s  “Philosophy and Star Trek,” the University of California at Irvine’s “Science of Superheroes” (plenty of new material for that syllabus these days), “Myth and Science Fiction: Star Wars, The Matrix, and Lord of the Rings” at Centre College, UC Berkeley’s “The Strategy of StarCraft,” and our personal favorite, “Zombies in Popular Media” at Chicago’s Columbia College.

And a “personal favorite.”  Woot.

Qimo 4 kids

Qimo 4 Kids
Qimo 4 Kids

This weekend, I installed the Linux Ubuntu distribution Qimo 4 Kids on a computer for Avery.  It’s got a cool, cute interface and looks like it will be great for her.  There are big buttons right on the bottom (like the Mac Dashboard thingy) that lead to the games and other 3-year-old friendly stuff.  She gets home from her visit to grandma and grandpa today.

I’ll report about how she likes it.

Sort-of Live blogging my tax return adventure

  • While it’s installing, TurboTax says I can connect to the TurboTax community for advice.  Yeah, that’s what I want — a social networking community of other dunderheads to help me mess up my own taxes.
  • After a few initial questions, it says “TurboTax is the right software for you.”  I wonder what conditions it would take for the software to recommend something else (I guess TT Professional if I’m a small biz owner or something).
  • It tells you that you cannot claim stillborn children as deductions.  I don’t know what’s more disturbing — that someone would, or that enough people have to make it a warning in TurboTax.
  • I always like to walk through all the choices, despite the fact that it makes me feel like I’m under-utilizing the tax code: no, I don’t have any gambling winnings to declare.
  • D’oh.  Can’t finish because I need to get our daycare center’s EIN.  Bah!

The Crime Writer

Crime Writer
The Crime Writer

by Greg Hurwitz; narrated by Scott Brick

The eponymous protagonist finds himself in a hospital, amnesia clouding his memory, homicide detectives claiming he’d murdered his former fiance.  One murder trial later, he’s out and finds himself framed for another murder.  This guy just can’t catch a break.

  • Hurwitz oscillates between fairly prosaic descriptions of the narrative and Chandler-esque musings on Los Angeles and its denizens.  The sequence about the folks stuck waiting in line at nightclubs is particularly sharp — a biting, cynical scowl at the city and its vicious teeth.
  • The main character’s friends are lovely and interesting, but a bit too convenient and skilled.  The effective character development overshadows this flaw, but it still stands out to me.
  • The relationships in the book work very well, particularly in the protagonist’s interactions with the romantic interest and the young spray-paint artist he meets.
  • The crime ends up being pretty convoluted, but not beyond the pale.  There aren’t any glaring problems with the story, nor with the details, except….

I’ve mentioned before that I find idiocy a particularly trying trait in my main characters.  The biggest problem with crime fiction not involving police investigators is coming up with a good way to prod them into investigating.  Many writers resort to a suicidal curiosity motivated, as in this book, by personal needs and questions.  That said, the main character goes WAY too far in his investigations for my taste.  I found myself grumbling “stupid, stupid, stupid” several times as he does, well, stupid things in his investigations.  The police, on the other hand, seem pretty clueless too.

These are small issues, though.  The book itself is pretty solid and well worth a read if you like crime fiction.

ps> As usual, Scott Brick’s work is excellent.  The book didn’t have very much emotional range for him to bite into, but he did a good job nonetheless.

News from traveling family

Avery at the Minnesota Arboretum
Avery at the Minnesota Arboretum

It’s a work weekend here in Chicago, because Jenny and the kids have gone to Michigan for a visit.  Jenny related this story from the weekly breakfast Jenny’s mom has with her grandfather (thus, Avery’s great-grandfather):

As they dug in at Denny’s, Avery reviewed her relationship to the men around the table.  “Great Grandpa,” she said, pointing to Jenny’s grandfather.  Then, turning to Jenny’s dad, “Real Grandpa.”

Some additional thoughts on Rock Band

In a short break from my work day, I played a bit of Rock Band 2 today. Some new thoughts.

  • The RB2 website is annoying because you can’t delete unused or lost bands. Since we had our data crash, the original bands we made are stuck there. Lame.
  • But there is a photo generator, which is cool and fun. My band, Return of the Wombats, is below.
  • The outfits and stuff are way more fun than they should be.
  • I tried an online battle today and clobbered the person I was playing against. I ended up #355 overall, though, so I must not be that good. One of the songs was one I don’t know and haven’t heard much, though, so as vocalist I think I did pretty well.
  • I really like the downloadable content we bought. “Gimme Three Steps” is a wicked fun song.
Return of the Wombats
Return of the Wombats

From left to right: Abe Thinkin,’ Thrilliam H. Taft, Alice the Menace, and McKinley O’Toole

Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea

Are You There Vodka?
Are You There Vodka?

written and narrated by Chelsea Handler

I listened to Handler’s book on my trip to Minnesota, a nice drive that took way too long and led to some “amusing” exchanges between Avery and I.  The book is pretty funny, overall, and Handler’s storytelling style reminds me a bit of David Sedaris without so much erudition.  A few additional thoughts:

  • I think humor books work very well when read by the author.  Perhaps more so than drama books because humor often depends on timing, something the author will do better than pretty much anyone else.
  • I never watched Women Behaving Badly and have only seen Chelsea Up Late (or whatever it’s called) once.  I picked this up at the library because Entertainment Weekly said it was enjoyable.
  • The nicknames she creates for her family and friends are pretty funny, if a little mean.
  • How come everyone writing memoirs has insane parents?  What if we’re all that nuts, we just don’t have memoirists writing about us?
  • I will probably read her book on one night stands at some point.  The stories about her love life were the funniest of the stories.
  • I felt pretty tense when she got into a rumble with three high school girls who’d called her a name.  Good drama!

I didn’t like her chapter on dwarfs.  She presents it with an ironic twinge as though she was being funny in claiming to have an affection for little people, but it’s like any potentially offensive humor — it must cross the line or it won’t be funny, and when it does so it often stops being funny.  Her approach is to make her own perspective so outrageous that she comes off looking bad.  But it doesn’t work, for me.  The litmus test would be if you substituted some other group of people for dwarfs.  If her chapter had been about black people, for instance, it would have been patently offensive to everyone.  I guess somewhere dwarfs are still on the “funny” list.


Radio interview finally available

A couple weeks ago, I was interviewed on WBEZ, Vocalo.org radio show.  Here’s my live, on-air performance.

You can listen to or download the appearance below.  It’s roughly 88MB, 50 minutes long or so.

Brendan Riley’s Radio Appearance on WBEZ.

In which I lose all my comic book geek credibility

because I really liked Watchmen.

Dr. Manhattan
Dr. Manhattan

For those of you who haven’t read it, here’s my short version of why I liked Watchmen.  When Paul Verhoeven made Robocop and Starship Troopers, he was both parodying and reveling in the dreck their genres demanded.  I chalk most of the things I didn’t like about Watchmen up to that intentional cheesiness.  I also came into the film fully expecting it would fail to live up to the monumental reputation the book has earned.  It fit my expectations in that regard, but it did about as well as a 3 hour movie could in telling the tale.  It hit many of the moments I wanted to see, and didn’t spoil the rest too badly.  I can’t say too much without getting spoilery, so you can go below the break if you want that stuff.

Continue reading In which I lose all my comic book geek credibility

2009-03-22 Tweets

  • Everybody’s working for Spring Break. Four classes to go. #
  • Sooooo much email #
  • I got off at the wrong train stop today. It’s gonna be a long one. #
  • My weezer CDs, they hardly get played; my obsession with Ani DiFranco has ended; if my task is anything certain these days, I would prob … #
  • has a meeting about facebook and is logged in to facebook legitimately. #
  • Avery’s now been throwing a tantrum for, um 20 minutes. #
  • 27 minutes #
  • and we’re done: 38 minutes and finally settled #
  • now she’s sleeping on the kitchen floor #

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Things Fall Apart

by Chinua Achebe

I re-read this book in preparing to teach it for my New Millennium Studies class this semester and enjoyed it still.  I’m most interested here, however, to talk about the role of the title in shaping the book.  Unlike many books I read, whose titles are more prosaic in describing the shape and action of the work (such as the other book I just finished, Endurance), Things Fall Apart creates a distinct environment for the novel.  It’s a sense of dread and foreboding that might not exist were the book titled The Life of Okwonko or something similar.

I think this title stuff will be one way into the book for my class discussion.  I’ve talked with my students of the new millennium about the value of titles in shaping the viewer/reader’s understanding of the work.  In particular, when a student creates a piece of art with a more obscure pedigree, I push her/him to use a title that will help the viewer to leap the gap between the aesthetic experience of the project and the often complex set of associations and ideas the student is trying to convey.  It’s Barthes’ lesson on photo captions — also taught by the associated press during Hurricane Katrina.

The book’s also really powerful for its mixed message about its protagonist.  I dislike Okwonko quite a bit.  He beats his wives and children and fears the world because he’s so afraid of failing.  But at the same time, as the Europeans showed up and began running their kangaroo courts for a people they were suddenly governing, I would certainly have enjoyed a little vicarious thrill at violence against that unjust colonization–nevermind that my people directly benefitted from that colonization and the gathered wealth of that period still powers our cars and buys our lattes.

Additional thoughts on the phrase
The title, of course, is the single easiest way to create a sense of doom and despair in a text.  The first place I remember encountering it was in the made-for-television adaptation of King’s The Stand.  I’m always creeped out and entranced by it when I encounter it again, and I think it has a lot with why I like zombie movies.  Zombie movies are usually about how regular people descend into anarchy and viciousness, and shambling corpses.  But I’m usually most frightened by the urban anarchy at the heart of many zombie movies.  I don’t find the second half of Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead all that scary, but I’m haunted by the suburban anarchy Sarah Polley stumbles into in her front lawn.  Things do fall apart.

Readers: what’s your favorite use of this phrase in media or elsewhere?

Endurance

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage
Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
by Alfred Lansing, narrated by Simon Prebble

I was certainly interested in this book anyhow, but I listened to it because a reader strongly recommended Simon Prebble’s narration of it.  Oddly enough, the other time I’ve listened to a Prebble audio book was The Bounty, another book about the sea, shipwrecks, and incredible survival.  Prebble’s performance of this book was, indeed, amazing.

Shackleton’s plan was this: he and one shipful of dudes were traveling to one side of Antarctica, where they would disembark with dog sleds and cross the continent over the pole.  Meanwhile, the other team would land on the other side of Antarctica and sled inland, leaving supply depots for the overland team.  After Shackleton and his group crossed the pole, they would run out of their own supplies and would pick up the supply drops along the way.

They left on 5 December 1914 and got stuck in the ice in mid-January.  They turned the ship into a winter station and lived there until October of 1915, when the ship was crushed by the ice.  The crew offloaded their stuff and lived on the ice proper, hoping to drift close enough to one of the northern islands to hop into their small boats and make a run for it.  They lived on the ice until April 9th, 1916, when they sailed and landed on Elephant Island, a remote hellhole.  Then, Shackleton and a few of the remaining folks sailed for South Georgia island, through the treacherous Drake passage (sometimes called the most dangerous stretch of ocean in the world), in an open 22-foot boat.  They made it and brought back help to the other crewmen on Elephant island by August 30th, after the men had survived another winter.

It’s an incredible story of survival in the harshest conditions.  Some additional moments that just captivated me:

  • The dog teams were eventually killed to save food and, in some cases, eaten as well.  Yikes.
  • No one died.  Unbelievable.
  • One guy lost a foot to frostbite and gangrene.  The story of how they removed the foot is chilling and informative.
  • The book does an excellent job conveying just how miserable it was being cold and wet for 19 months.  I mean REALLY cold.
  • I don’t know what “salt water blisters” are, but they sound really awful.
  • In what sounds like both brilliant leadership and sad self-sacrifice, Shackleton housed the three men most likely to sow discord or annoy the others in his own tent.
  • One guy snored so loudly that they rigged a rope to his wrist and ran it around the hut they built on Elephant island.  Thus, whenever a man was annoyed by the snoring, he pulled the rope like someone stopping a trolley car.
  • At one point, Shackleton and two other guys were stuck at the top of a mountain as the sun was setting.  Realizing they couldn’t get down fast enough and would freeze to death, they sat down in a line with legs and arms wrapped around one another and slid down the mountain like tobogganers with no toboggan.  They survived without injury.