The Underground Empire of Joseph Wunderkind

I won’t review this book here, since it’s not published yet, but I just finished reading an early draft and enjoyed it very much.  You should check out the teasers over at Andrew Kozma’s blog, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump.

And for visual enjoyment, here are six first-page images that the novel’s title yields in Google image search (but do not come from Kozma’s blog):




2011-07-31 Tweets

  • Weird. Just days after I wondered why 409 scams suggest illegal transactions, a message opens "pardon the unethical way I'm contacting you." #
  • The joy of shuffle: the kids are currently rocking out to Chris Cornell's alternatastic 90's era singing on Temple of the Dog's "Reach Down" #
  • Our five year old Finn cutely mispronounces the following: at bedtime, he wears jamamas and at dinner he dislikes brolocolli. #
  • Avery blasting music while cleaning her room. Stifling my inner cranky man to stop from telling her to turn down TMBG's "Go for G." #
  • What? This movie looks worth seeing. AWESOME. #
  • Sometimes as a parent it's hard not to say "I told you so." #

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Gender Pretending

So apparently, some researchers have come up with an algorithm that can predict the gender of a Twitter user based on his/her language use:

The crux of the research relies on the idea that women use language differently. “The mere fact of a tweet containing an exclamation mark or a smiley face meant that odds were a woman was tweeting, for instance,” reports Zax. Other research corroborates these findings, finding that women tend to use emoticons, abbreviations, repeated letters and expressions of affection. Linguists can even detect the tweeters’ true identities by how they use the word “my.” If you’re trying to determine the gender of your favorite Twitterati, the following charts show some markers of woman and man-like Twitter behaviors. (via Slashdot)

Of course, this kind of study might well backfire, as the revelation that this data is being watched (or can be) would drive any gender-hider to scan hir language use for gender-specific signifiers.  Similarly:

  • Airport security always scans for the attacks we’ve already seen.  I have to take off my shoes because one dude tried to blow up his shoes.
  • Levitt and Dubner of Freakonomics observed that measuring a statistic often leads to new ways to manipulate that statistic rather than leading to a more solid understanding of the phenomenon originally being studied.  Thus, teachers in stat-penalizing schools often help their students cheat on exams, and college instructors whose student evaluations play a strong role in tenure and promotion are motivated to be easy graders.
  • The food industry has a long history of swapping out one unhealthy stat for another: watching your calories? Carbs shoot way up.

As much as Sokol warned us not to rely on poor understanding of physics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle seems an apt analogy for all kinds of social measurement, no?


Super 8 and Clash of the Titans

Super 8 follows the adventures of a group of middle schoolers (or early high school?) in their adventure to make a zombie movie in the midst of a military trainwreck and mysterious goings on in their small town.  Clash of the Titans follows the adventures of reluctant demi-god Perseus as he tries to stop the vengeful gods from destroying Argos with the Kracken.

Clash of the Titans
Watch out! This lady is UGLY!

Super 8
Watch out, this poster is tipped sideways!

A few thoughts on these two films:

  • Both films trade on nostalgia for films past.  Clash of the Titans, obviously, is a remake of the classic Harry Hamlin vehicle.  The new version features lots of references to the old one, including the menacing giant scorpions (who are much bigger this time around), the design of the Olympian palace, the look of Medusa, and a snarky reference to the irritating metal owl from the first movie.  But this film really doesn’t re-think the premise or the ideas of the movie, keeping its updating effort strictly in the realm of adding a bunch of CGI monsters.  By contrast, Super 8 evokes both the young-adventurer model of movies (like the Goonies or the Explorers) and the nostalgia for the hard-effort days of super 8 hobby filmmaking.  But the movie blends these efforts much more nicely, resulting in something that feels new rather than re-treaded.
  • Creepy creatures play a role in each film as well.  However, where Super 8 uses the “less is more” mantra to limit the amount of screen time given to its mysterious monster, Clash delights in its monsters, using CGI flybys and chase sequences to “wow” the audience.
  • Another contrast between the two stories has to do with its emotional motivations.  Super 8 takes care to develop its main character (a boy whose mother died about a year before) slowly, giving the audience time to divine his motivations.  Clash gives us a couple scenes early on to help us see why he loves his adopted father, then it kills the adopted father so that Perseus can hate the gods.
  • Both films urge caution against the powers that be.  In Clash of the Titans, the capricious and jealous gods deserve the hate of mankind; in Super 8, that disdain is reserved for the military scuzzbags who play the main villains.

Super 8 is definitely worth seeing, an entertaining movie in the spirit of The Goonies (but with a bit more adult sensibility).  Clash of the Titans, instead, is forgettable and regrettable.  Re-watch the original and you can, at least, enjoy the classic stop-motion animation and Harry Hamlin bare-chestedness.

Murder for Two

Jenny and I saw Murder for Two, a musical murder mystery comedy at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (at Navy Pier) this evening.  It’s an excellent show, very funny and entertaining.  Well worth the modest ticket price.

"And then I shot him!"
"And then I shot him!"

The premise is simple: a police officer who aspires to be a detective has his chance when he’s assigned to watch a group of suspects after a murder at a country mansion house.  The play is performed by two actors, one playing the detective and the other playing around a dozen characters, distinguishing among them through voices, mannerisms, and placement in the room.  There’s plenty of meta humor and witty numbers.  The show’s just been extended into September, so if you’re in Chicagoland you should go see it!

A Northern California Adventure, part 3

6. Go South, young marrieds.

After breakfast in Eureka, we left to head back to San Francisco.  Since we’d be driving on the 101 at 65+ mph for most of the trip, we kept the top of the convertible up.  On our drive down toward Santa Rosa, we reflected on three major differences we’d noticed in the California landscape.

  • First, everyone drives much more slowly.  In Illinois, a road with a 65mph speed limit has an average speed of 75.  In Wisconsin and Minnesota, it’s about 70.  In Northern California, it was 65.  Seriously.  I set my cruise control at 68 and was in danger of breaking my 10% rule.  (My dad’s friend Granville once told me that if you manage your speed so that you’re slower than just 10% of the cars on the road, you won’t get pulled over.  It’s worked for me so far.)
  • Second, there are lots of hitchhikers.  In the four days we spent driving around North of San Francisco, we saw probably a dozen hitchhikers, as opposed to the half-dozen a year I see in Illinois.  We imagined that we’d have picked up one of the young women traveling alone just for the novelty of it, if we hadn’t been driving a sports car with no back seat.
  • Third, dogs have it great in the City by the Bay.  All over the place are dog friendly establishments (such as the first B&B we stayed at) and almost nobody has their dog on a lead, despite the signs demanding them.We only saw one or two misbehaving dogs, too.  And these were minor compared to how Loki goes tearing off if he gets wind of a squirrel or skateboard.

We made it to Santa Rosa by 12:30, just in time to meet our friend Justin (who was in town on business) for a quick nosh.  Thus did a couple from Illinois and a man from Minnesota meet in Northern California for lunch.

7. Be sure to wear flowers in your hair

With the top back down, Outrun style, we made our way into San Francisco, following Jenny’s phone as it lead us through the busy streets, the maze of one-way thoroughfares and construction hazards, to the Hotel Vertigo.  This hotel, one of the locations for the Hitchcock movie, had a cool 60’s design flair, with neato furnishings like horse-head lamps.  It gives you the opportunity to imagine yourself as Woltz (from The Godfather), waking up to a horse’s head each morning.  But first, daylight was burning, and so we go out on the town!

Our first afternoon’s plan was a hike.  We walked from our hotel down to the Mason Street Gate, and into the touristy part of Chinatown.  The first few blocks are full of shops stacked to the ceiling with $2.88 t-shirts and other tourist tchotchkes, so we followed our tourbook’s advice and went a block North to see the markets where Chinese people actually shop for food.  Not much less tourist packed, but less tourist-accommodating.

We wandered around a while and ended up at the San Francisco Fortune Cookie Company, a dark little room with a friendly old man and a surly woman who ask for fifty cents if you’re going to take their picture.  I paid a buck and snapped two as the lady made the cookies.  They roll out on a vertical furnace, freshly baked, and slide up to the end of the line, where the woman deftly plucked them from the belt, and used a metal stick to twist them into shape around a fortune.  We bought a bag of unfolded fortune cookies.

As we left Chinatown, we found our progress toward Broadway street tracked by a crazy homeless man, dressed in green army fatigues, shouting insults at everyone he passed.  We stayed about a block ahead of him all the way to the City Lights Bookstore, where he passed us as we looked at the murals, shouting at a statuesque business woman waiting for the bus to “Get Out The Way, Bitch!” Meanwhile, we went into the storied bookstore to look but not buy, as we’d have to shlep anything we bought all over the city and then back on a plane.

A short trek up to Washington Square park and then it was on to Coit Tower!

8. Anarchists, Muggings, and Car Accidents, Oh My!

We decided against going up in Coit Tower in favor of doing a quick walk around the inside (to see the murals).  I noticed three details in the murals that were, ahem, AWESOME.  First, I noticed this guy looking at his watch while getting his pocket picked by a thug with a gun.  Then, in the background, I saw a car crash surrounded by looky-loos gaping at the man crushed on the pavement.  Finally, the section of the mural touting the vast appetite for learning among the people of San Francisco took on a decidedly activist shape as I saw the man grabbing a copy of Das Kapital.  It’s impressive that this section of the mural survived the 1950s, eh? After we went outside and took a couple photos of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge,we heading down the stairs on Telegraph Hill.  We did not see any parrots this time (unlike the last time I went to San Francisco), but the gardens were lovely as always.

We ate at the Fog City Diner, which was delicious and sorta fun, since we’d just seen it in So I Married an Axe Murderer.  We resisted playing “Would you Rather.”  Our waitress had a look and persona not unlike Michael Cera (I mean that in the most complimentary way), along with a sassy gleam in her eye that made the whole experience a delight.  When we ordered the dessert she’d suggested, she said “Good choice” in a way that evaded the usual obsequious Excellent choice, sir in favor of a wise and somewhat ominous You chose … wisely.  And when we said it was delicious, she said “It is, isn’t it?”

We took a cab back to the hotel, our calves throbbing from the steep hills and five hours of walking.

Something From the Night Side


by Simon R. Green

John Taylor was born in the Nightside, the secret dark side of London where awful things live and awful stuff happens.  He has magical powers of badassery, including the ability to find anything that’s gone missing.  When a beautiful dame walks into his private detective agency, well, you get the picture.

  • Something from the Nightside is a fine adventure story with lots of P.I. bravado and magical jimcrackery.  It’s also cut from a very similar cloth as a variety of other books that fit the same subgenre, so you may find it a bit stale.
  • The notion of the Nightside, the dark underbelly of the city that resides just around the corner from where nice people live, has been with us for a long time.  Perhaps it stems from the long tradition of vice districts, where police turned a blind eye to drinking and whoring and gambling as long as it didn’t get out of hand.  Green makes it real in all it’s awfulness, and its glittering enticements.
  • At the same time, it pulls from the same tradition that Lewis Carroll used to develop Wonderland, that Neil Gaiman used to develop Neverwhere and (perhaps, as I haven’t read it) China Mieville used to develop Un-Lon-Don. It also feels a bit like Ank-Mor-Pork, at least in its multi-hued craziness.
  • John Taylor springs from all the same hard-boiled stereotypes that have been standard since Hammett and Chandler polished them up nicely.   Throw in a dash of supernaturality and you have the next in a long line of badass magical detectives, the other recent one being Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden.  The similarity to the other reigning supernatural detective is hard to miss, and fans of that series will probably enjoy this one as well (though I think Butcher writes better action scenes).  Throw Angel into the mix, and we have a triumvirate of supernatural hard-boiled detectives emerging in the early 2000s.  Interesting!

Simon Green’s first book in the Nightside series isn’t as good as the Harry Dresden books, for my money.  It’s a solid also-ran, though.

In case you aren’t reading LOWERING THE BAR

You should be.  I mean, check out this opening:

The Detroit Free Press reported on July 7 that “three intoxicated men stole a 14-foot flattened and preserved alligator, strapped it to a pickup truck and took it off-roading to a mud bogging party,” a sentence that raises the obvious question: why no hyphen in “mud-bogging”? (20 July)

Go on over there.

Reel Big Fish and Streetlight Manifesto

Reel Big Fish
Not our concert, but one kinda like it

We went to the Reel Big Fish / Streetlight Manifesto show at House of Blues last Tuesday (19 July).  It was a fun show, with good music all around (we arrived after the first band’s set was over, though, so I don’t know how they were).  A few thoughts:

  • The second opening band was Rodeo Ruby Love, playing solid pop punk tunes with an upbeat feel (no horns though).  We enjoyed them quite a bit, and I bought a CD from the lead singer on our way out of the show.  After I bought it, I realized he was the singer so I went back to tell him I enjoyed the show.  He asked my name and introduced himself.  It was kinda weird, but very nice.  Will add the music to my August playlist, and let you know how it is sometime in September.
  • Streetlight Manifesto was very entertaining, with a growly, fast-paced stage presence that really got the audience bumping.  Jenny and I liked the music, but found ourselves out of our depth in terms of familiarity with the band (which I suspected would be the case).  Because we only have the Catch 22 Keasbey Nights album (which I suspected they wouldn’t play anything because of its weird history) and only just got  Somewhere In The Between, we weren’t ready to sing along and enjoy the songs.  Knowing a band’s catalog well really does make a difference in being able to enjoy their show.
  • Reel Big Fish were very entertaining, showing the evidence of their 10+ years as a touring band.  Each member of the group brings different personality to the stage, and the Aaron Barret’s patter ties them all together nicely.  This was the biggest positive of RBF over SM, their stage presence, which felt much more entertaining.  As Jenny put it, “they’re entertainers.” At one point they did a very entertaining repeated play of one song (I forget which, not a major hit) in several different modes, including country and death metal.
  • The House of Blues was a pretty good venue, and we sprung for one of the bar tables as we hadn’t eaten.  It had a pretty high minimum spending amount, but that gave us seats and a good view (plus an attentive waitress and a bouncer who kept the hoipolloi away from us).  It felt a little opulent, but it meant Jenny didn’t have to contend with the mosh pit, and if we’d gone out to eat beforehand, we would easily have spent as much as we did for the seats/table.  I did feel a little bad telling people that the stools on the other side of the table were off limits, but if they sat there, the bouncer came right over and chased them off.  At one point, we commented how nice it was to be a grown up.
  • Jenny and I noticed that we tend to watch certain people on stage more often than others.  We both found ourselves watching the trombonist in Streetlight Manifesto (who had a distinctive up-swing on his horn when he was about to play) and I watched the bass saxophonist a lot.  I kept thinking that he looked a lot like Jason Lee from Chasing Amy, but also quite a bit like a student I once had.  In Reel Big Fish, I couldn’t help but watch the saxophonist, whose spiky mohawk and funny persona really shined.  My favorite moment was toward the end of the concert (when they were singing, I think, Beer) when he ran and leapt off the drummer stand.

The only down side is that I forgot my earplugs, which I find make such shows much more enjoyable.  I also wish I’d taken more effort to familiarize myself with SM’s music.  A fun time, over all.  I’d recommend these bands as good acts to pursue.

Streetlight Manifesto
Streetlight Manifesto



by Warren Ellis, John Cassaday

I’d read volumes one and two of Planetary at least twice in the last five years, but only this month did I finally get volume four of the series.  As I understand it, the comic is finished.  But as with all such awesome works, it may not be.

Planetary tells the story of a wealthy supergroup dedicated to uncovering the “secret history of the twentieth century,” built around the idea that perhaps superheroes have been acting all around the Wildstorm universe but only now is their existence being found out.  The comic also has a healthy bit of science-fiction jimcrackery and conspiracy.  A few thoughts:

As always, Ellis does a good job exploring the ethical conundrums inherent in superheroism and its place in the world.  He uses this perspective to re-think the history of comics, bringing classic characters under scrutiny in their altered Wildstorm form.  The villain group in the later volumes is a quartet of superhumans who were changed by their short trip in outer space (dopplegangers for Marvel’s The Fantastic Four).  The team’s leader, Elijah Snow, argues that their hoarding of essential technology marks a breach of trust against human kind.

I love the mix of one shots and larger story arcs, as well as the skilful use of past comic styles in present comic stories.  I also enjoy the mix of publishing companies and fictional characters introduced throughout the comic.  You’ll be happy to know that Sherlock Holmes makes an appearance in volume 3, and that the works of Wells and Verne were apparently based on fact.  It’s interesting to see how they compare in theme and direction to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Top Ten, Alan Moore’s two recent superhero experiments.

The finale is quite satisfying, and I’d be happy if Ellis did let the story be done here.  This seems likely since Ellis tends to publish his comics under his own imprint now, instead of through Wildstorm. We’ll see, though!

I’m home, for reals!

In response to Clancy’s musings about checking in, I posted:

For some reason, when I was young, my mother instilled in me that you shouldn’t put your home address on your luggage tags, because some person working in the baggage department could see that you’re traveling and burgle your home while you’re away. So she always put her work address.

Fast-forward to social networking, and I hardly ever post “i’m here right now” kinds of posts for the shadow mom who haunts my nether brain, asking whether some friend of a friend is just waiting around the corner to come burgle my home.

Does anyone else find themselves haunted by these worries?

2011-07-24 Tweets

  • Have you ever noticed that most 409 scam emails propose illegal transactions? Usually they offer to give you a cut of stolen money. #
  • Reel Big Fish and Streetlight Manifesto tonight at House of Blues. #
  • On Judge Dredd: Dianne Lane hilariously young, Sly hilariously croak-voiced, plot hilariously similar to Demolition Man. #
  • Four hours mucking around in yesterday's heat installing window air conditioner in my office: I'm chillin in low 80s rather than mid-90s. #
  • The kind of thing you only hear hollered in households with small children: "Who played with the toilet paper?!" #
  • So you were born, and that's a good day; someday you'll die, and that's a shame. Somewhere in the between is the life of which we all dream. #
  • Twitquiz: name two productions featuring BOTH Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach. (No Googling, you damn, dirty, cheaters.) #
  • Watching IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA 1955. Harry Harryhausen octopus totally badass. Also, plot was reused in Mega-Shark vs. Giant Octopus. #
  • IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA also includes an attack on the Golden Gate bridge. Giant octopus for the win. #
  • Oops, it's Ray, not Harry. #

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What’s Up Doc?

The preview material for What’s Up Doc? says that Peter Bogdonovich loved screwball comedies when he was a kid, and set out to make one of his own.  In retrospect, that’s clear from the beginning of the movie, in which the first five minutes show us four matching travel bags belonging to four different people who end up in three different hotel rooms.  Of course, the bags are pursued by two different sets of thieves as well.  Then along comes Barbara Streisand as a flighty whirlwind of trouble with a Bugs Bunny approach to the world.

The car chase starts on a push cart
The car chase starts on a push cart

A few thoughts:

  • The cast in this movie is incredible.  Ryan O’Neal, Barbara Streisand, and Madeline Kahn play the three parties in the central love triangle, but a whole panoply of other people you’ll recognize appear, including Austin Pendleton, a terribly young Randy Quaid, and the judge Liam Dunn (who played the mayor in Blazing Saddles).
  • The plot is ridiculous as it is silly, but it works great, IMO.  The car chase through San Francisco was hilarious and, frankly, more entertaining than the chase in Bullitt.  There’s a particularly funny scene involving three cars zooming in and out of an intersection in which a man on a thirty-foot ladder and two guys with a huge plate glass window are working.
  • Streisand and O’Neal mirror most strongly the hilarious pairing of Hepburn and Grant in Bringing Up Baby.  The leading ladies in both films sweep from scene to scene, blissfully ignorant of the chaos and disaster they leave in their wake.  The men follow sheepishly along, swept up in the delight of these free-spirited women.  O’Neal’s Howard Bannister strikes a particular kind of 1970s pose, the conservative man meeting the liberated woman.  He also reminds me a lot of Barry Bostwick from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
  • Lots of good lines too.  My favorite is at the end, when Streisand says to O’Neal, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  He answers, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
  • One amusing element is Dr. Bannister’s study, which is under consideration for a grant from  a musicology institute.  He has a theory that primitive man began playing music by thumping sticks against different kinds of rocks.  His case (remember there are four similar cases) is full of igneous rocks of different porosity.  He spends the first part of the movie pinging a tuning fork against almost everything, listening for cool sounds.  I was reminded of this when I listened to the recent Radio Lab podcast, in which drummer Glenn Kotche (from Wilco) explained that he uses everyday objects as characters in his classical music drum compositions.

Definitely worth a watch.  I’m glad Dan prodded me into it.  Thanks, Dan!

Northern California Adventure, part 2

3: Big Ass Trees

Day three began with another drive up Highway one, this section even more curvy and slow than the last, with the convertible top down again.  While it was fun, we probably could have just driven in to get on the 101 and wouldn’t have missed too much.  It was more of the same.

We drove along cliffs instead of on beaches
We drove along cliffs instead of on beaches

Once Highway 1 merged into 101, we zipped along with traffic, the wind really blowing our hair around.  I couldn’t help but think of Outrun, an arcade driving game I liked when I was a kid.  You drove a red convertible with the top down and a blonde woman in the seat next to you.  A couple times, I remembered how easy it was to crash that convertible and slowed down, lest we go flying like the avatars did.

Our first stop was in Fort Bragg, the home to a lonely little strip of ocean called Glass Beach.  A former city dump site, the beach had been generally cleaned up in the 1960s, but was still home to tons of noncollectable trash.  Over the decades the glass trash was slowly eroded and polished into translucent pebbles scattered all across the beach.  It was pretty neat, but not as cool as I thought it would be.  Judging by the number of people collecting the glass pieces in plastic bags, I suspect it was a transient attraction that used to be much more interesting to look at.  I don’t know how much longer it will last, either.  Already, very few of the pieces were any bigger than pebbles.

Shortly thereafter, we merged onto the Avenue of the Giants, a windy road that weaves through some of the Redwood National Forest.  There were plenty of stopping points where we could get out and see the enormous trees up close.  It was pretty darn magical, and a nice way to spend much of the morning and early afternoon.

At the Park information station, a man in my usual situation (driving with his whole family) gave a whistle and said, “Nice Camaro!”  I thanked him and mentioned that it was a rental.  “That must have cost a lot, eh?”  I shook my head, “Only about twenty dollars more for the week than a normal mid-size.”  He got a brief look somewhere between wistful and melancholy, and we went on our way.

4: In which I miss my opportunity for a cool photo op

I’d been saying that when we arrived in Eureka, I would get a photo of me standing next to the city limits sign and doing a practical demonstration of the principle of volume measurement by water displacement.  Jenny didn’t get it and I forgot to do so.  Thus was the first of a couple slightly disappointing parts of this day.

The second occurred when we arrived at our B&B.  The house itself was absolutely lovely, and the lady who kept it was very nice.  But it was across the street from a vacant lot on the edge of the historical district. The houses and view around there were distinctly not quaint, and her first sentence after she welcomed us was to suggest we park our nice convertible in her driveway, just to make sure nothing happened to it.

The third came at dinner time.  After we got dressed up and headed to town, we discovered that nearly all the neat little restaurants for which the downtown area was known were closed on Mondays.  Thus, we had passable Italian, but weren’t wowed.

5. More big trees and a big lunch

The next morning (day four) we drove another hour north to the Redwood National Park proper, where we visited the grove named after Ladybird Johnson.  This forest felt much younger, with lots of small low growth in addition to the huge redwoods.  By contrast, the trees on the Avenue of the Giants stamped out the light so completely that the ground vegetation was almost nil.  It was also a little rainy, so we got to see these trees through a haze of mist and rain, which made a nice contrast to the sun filtering through the trees the day before.

After a quick stop at the corkscrew tree, we drove back to Eureka for a mid-afternoon lunch at The Samoa Cookhouse.  This century-old restaurant, recommended by a friend of ours, was built to serve lunches to the men felling redwoods and working in the mills.  It was a family-style all-you-can eat old-fashioned meal, and it was belt-snappin’ good.

That evening, we had a lovely dinner at a quirky bistro called Hurricane Kate’s and retired early so we’d be ready to go on to San Francisco!