Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Flat Tire and the Gospels

We begin with a joke.

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It was the night before the Chemistry 217 final exam, but the brothers of Sigma Epsilon Xi were not in the mood to study. They hit the bars, then the party circuit, then their private stash back at the frat house. Just before the last of them passed out, he mumbled to the rest “Be sure to wake me up for the chem final at 9.”

Needless to say, when they regained consciousness around 11 the following morning, they were disgusted to realize that they’d missed the final altogether and would probably be getting “F”s for the course. They quickly hatched a desperate scheme to at least give them a shot at taking the test late.

“Gentlemen!”, exclaimed Prof. Smoot, as they filed sheepishly into his office. “We missed you this morning. To what do I owe the honor?”

“Well, uh, Prof. Smoot, we feel really bad about this, but we’re hoping you’ll understand.”

“Yeah, see, we were off last night for Bob’s wedding rehearsal, and it’s about 90 miles away, and on the way back we got a flat tire.”

“And we didn’t have a spare, and it was in the middle of nowhere, and we couldn’t get a cell-phone signal, and there was no traffic. It wasn’t until this morning that a state trooper finally stopped and promised to send a tow truck to get us.”

“Uh huh. And by the time the truck arrived, the exam had already started, so we couldn’t call you or anything. But we’re hoping you’d let us take the test anyway.”

And they all looked properly hangdog and repentant, not to mention rumpled and grungy.

“Well, fellas, I understand that these things can happen. Head across the hall and distribute yourselves around the classroom while I run off a few extra copies of the test for you.”

On the way there, the brothers were smirking and giving each other winks and nudges.

Then they got the exam. Handwritten. Here it is, in its entirety:

Q1 (5%). Explain the formula H2O.

Q2 (95%). Which tire?

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OK, you can see how this played out, can’t you? If they really had had a flat tire, the 2nd question would have been even easier to answer than the 1st. But, since they didn’t, their answers were all over the map. The mere fact that any of them disagreed on that answer constituted prima facie evidence that all of them were lying.

Which brings us to the gospels, the 1st 4 books of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. All concerned — Christians, atheists, Biblical scholars, adherents of rival religions — agree that the cornerstone of Christianity is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Easter is the most important holiday in Christian churches. No less an authority than Saint Paul wrote “... if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Corinthians 15:14) This event is so important that it’s the one story that appears in each of the 4 gospels.

But, of course, it’s a different story for each of them.

Dan Barker, former fundamentalist child preacher and now co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has a simple challenge for Bible believers: “Tell me what happened on the original Easter Sunday. Just a simple chronology. Who went where and did what and saw what? And in what order? Be sure to include everything mentioned in any of the gospels.”

Nobody can meet this challenge, because the gospels are horribly contradictory. (Don’t take my word for it, read them yourself.)

What should we conclude from this? That one of them got it right and the rest differed in a few of the minor details? No. This is the most important story in all of Christianity, and if the gospels were divinely inspired — as true believers invariably assert they were — then their ultimate author was God, who’s supposed to be omniscient, so the 4 stories should be entirely consistent.

Just as consistent as which tire went flat.

If that were the truth.

The only reasonable conclusion is not that some of the gospel writers were slipshod, or mistaken, or misremembering, or embellishing. It’s that all of them are lying.

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True believers have engaged in child rape, torture, mayhem, murder, and genocide, all for the greater glory of the Biblical God. What on Earth makes you think their consciences would bother them so much that they'd draw the line at mere lying, cheating, stealing, plagiarism, and forgery?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Consolation Prizes

Consolation Prizes

in which I reflect on my favorite SF&F films of 2008 getting completely shut out in the Academy Award “Best Picture” nominations

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“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”

-- Matthew 6:5 KJV

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Domestic Gross Revenues from Box Office Mojo, 2009 Feb. 19

Oscar Nominees

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — $122,711,034
Frost/Nixon — $16,619,651
Milk — $26,850,954
The Reader — $19,866,064
Slumdog Millionaire — $88,747,834

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“All five finalists are fine films. But The Reader, Frost/Nixon and Milk aren't so much movies as TV movies: sensitive explorations of major political themes, little pictures on big subjects. It's the stuff more likely to show up on HBO than at the AMC multiplex. Why does the Academy keep citing these (excellent) little movies over the (excellent) big ones, whose scope and excitement can't be duplicated on the small screen?

“One reason is that Academy members are a tad older than the target audience for action-adventures, however elegantly crafted. It's not that Hollywood folk don't get these films; after all, they made 'em. It's that they don't think the grand-scale technical skill lavished on a Dark Knight or an Iron Man is as honorable as the spectacle of two guys talking--as long as one of them is Richard Nixon....

“Moviegoing is exactly what separates the audience from the Academy. You, dear ordinary cinephile, go to a theater and sit in a big room with a big screen on which, you hope, big things will happen. Those things are called movies. But the Academy balloters, by and large, aren't true moviegoers; the movies come to them, on DVD screeners. When the members, many of whom are on the set for 12 or 14 hours a day, do their Oscar homework, they want a retreat from the pyrotechnics they've been creating. They want dramas that are important yet intimate, stressing method and message. Those things are called TV shows.”

-- Richard Corliss, "How the Oscars Became the Emmys", Time, 2009 Feb. 12

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My Favorite SF&F Films

Bolt (9) — $113,643,011
The Dark Knight (9) — $533,070,468
Eagle Eye (8) — $101,440,743
Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (8) — $75,986,503
The Incredible Hulk (8) — $134,806,913
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (8) — $317,101,119
Iron Man (8) — $318,412,101
Wanted (8) — $134,508,551

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“I just can’t get no respect.”

-- Rodney Dangerfield, American comedian

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Average Box-Office Take

For Oscar Nominees: $54,959,107
For the SF&F Films: $216,121,176

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“Money will get you thru times of no Hugos better than Hugos will get you thru times of no money.”

-- Jerry Pournelle, American science-fiction writer

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Depressing Terminology

Just thinkin' out loud here.

From 1914 to 1939, we referred to the European unpleasantness of 1914-1918 as the “Great War” or the “War to End All Wars”.

Only after we saw how much worse it could get — and that we weren't done with them — did we switch to calling it “World War 1”, with the appalling horrors of 1939-1945 getting the next number.

So what's coming up? We've already used the moniker “Great Depression” for the economic catastrophe that started in 1929. What should we go with for this one? “New Depression”? Or should we face the harsh reality and just starting assigning them numbers (like wars), in anticipation of more to come?

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I do not know with what weapons World War 3 will be fought, but World War 4 will be fought with sticks and stones.
-- Albert Einstein

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Your Economic Stimulus Payment

Not original with me, but well worth passing along:

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Your Economic Stimulus Payment

This year, taxpayers will receive an Economic Stimulus Payment. This is a very exciting new program that I will explain using the Q&A format:

Q. What is an Economic Stimulus Payment?
A. It is money that the federal government will send to taxpayers.

Q. Where will the government get this money?
A. From taxpayers.

Q. So the government is giving me back my own money?
A. Only a smidgen.

Q. What is the purpose of this payment?
A. The plan is that you will use the money to purchase a high-definition TV set, thus stimulating the economy.

Q. But isn't that stimulating the economy of China?
A. Shut up.

Now I will give you some helpful advice on how to best help the US economy by spending your stimulus check wisely:

• If you spend that money at Walmart, all the money will go to China.
• If you spend it on gasoline, it will go to the Arabs.
• If you purchase a computer, it will go to India.
• If you purchase fruits and vegetables, it will go to Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala.
• If you buy a car, it will go to Japan.
• If you blow it on coke or heroin, it will go to Colombia or Afghanistan.
• If you get useless crap, it will go to Taiwan.
• And none of it will help the American economy.

We need to keep that money here in America. You can keep the money in America by spending it at yard sales; going to a baseball game; or on prostitutes, beer, wine (domestic ONLY), bribes, or tattoos, since those are the only businesses still in the US.

Sent by a concerned citizen dedicated to supporting American free enterprise at the personal level.

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(1) Kush created the entire universe and all the laws that make it work (such as 1+1=2).
(2) This doesn’t include the laws of economics; even Kush doesn’t understand how they work.
-- The Sacred Book of Kush, Chapter 3

Friday, February 06, 2009

This Week's SF&F Movies

SASS*: Good day for Dakota Fanning fans, as she stars in 2 new flix opening today; Coraline’s the one to see 1st; Push is the one where you get to see her.

Rating scale: 9 (superlative) to 1 (execrable)
Short story: 9-7, recommended; 6-4, up to you; 3-1, eschew
Ratings intended for: adult SF&F fans

This Week’s SF&F Movies

Coraline (PG, 1:40, 3D at Point) — 8

Tim Burton’s name appeared in front of 1993’s The Nightmare before Christmas (7), but it was director Henry Selick who did most of the work. Selick’s back with another round of the fiendishly painstaking technique known as stop-motion animation, this time of Neil Gaiman’s novella, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for 2003.

1st off, the film is an absolute visual delight, wonderfully well realized. 2nd, it’s an even richer story than the novella. 3rd, it uses 3D effects tastefully; there are no yo-yos, lances, or pickaxes poking out of the screen at you.

The Jones family is newly moved into the Pink Palace Apartments, and Mom and Dad, both gardening writers, are frantically trying to meet a deadline, so they have no time for Coraline. She pokes around on her own, meeting the eccentric nabors, and eventually stumbles onto a secret door that leads to an alternate universe where her Other Mother and Other Father are much nicer and more attentive. They encourage her to stay permanently, something that will happen if she lets them sew buttons into her eyesockets, just like theirs. At this point, Coraline is understandably totally creeped out and wants to get back to the normal world, but Other Mother is, shall we say, both persistent and resourceful.

The art direction here will certainly go down in the history of cinema as a classic. That the film itself falls a tad short of that pinnacle is due to a slight distancing of Coraline from the audience; she is somebody we watch, not somebody we identify with, and that makes a difference just significant enuf to keep this otherwise excellent effort from a 9.

Push (PG-13, 1:51) — 7

Chris Evans may look familiar to you as Johnny Storm (the Human Torch from the Fantastic 4 films [6 and 5]), but here he gets to play a less cartoony character, Nick Gant, whose telekinetic capabilities make him persona very much grata to a shadowy government agency known only as “Division”, but which to specials like Nick might as well be called the Roach Motel. He’s the mover, Dakota Fanning’s Cassie Holmes is the watcher (precog), and Camilla Belle’s Kira Hudson is the pusher (person who can plant thots and impulses in the minds of others). The problem is, there are even better specials of the same types who work for Division and for the Pop Family gang in Hong Kong (where the entire film is set), and they’re all out to grab the mcguffin — a case containing a syringe full of an experimental drug that will either greatly enhance a special’s powers or prove fatal (almost always the latter). Will our 3 heroes (with the aid of other specials with varying abilities like stitcher and shadow) be able to save the day?

Well, believe it or not, the plot is even more complex than what I’ve just described, and therein lies my primary problem with the movie: it’s too complicated to follow easily. It’s as exciting as Eagle Eye (8), and the ESP effects are done as well as Jumper (5) and more in service to the plot, but it could have been even better if they’d made more effort to let the audience in on the story. Still, not a movie for stupid people, and I appreciate that. Plus which Dakota Fanning just keeps getting better and better — and she was pretty damn good to begin with.

The Uninvited (PG-13, 1:27) — 4
(opened last week)

Teenage girl’s mom contracts some fatal illness, asks to spend her final days in the boathouse overlooking the Atlantic and just downslope from her wealthy writer husband’s mansion on the Maine coastline, has little bell tied around her wrist to summon assistance, much of which is provided by dutiful Anna. One day the boathouse blows up with Mom inside. All this is told in flashbacks after the opening scene of Anna getting out of the asylum where she’s been undergoing therapy for shock, guilt, horrible nightmares, and sounds of little bells.

She returns home and tries to pick up the pieces of her life, but Mom’s old LPN (Elizabeth Banks) has taken up with Dad (David Strathairn) in her absence, and Anna and older sister Alex are resentful. Then Mom starts appearing again, suggesting that there was more to her death than met the eye.

Mercifully few gotcha scenes, some decent acting, and a literate script help, but this film is a good example of a bad subgenre. It’s like saying you’ve got the most neatly shoveled sidewalk on your block. Nice, I guess, but hard for anyone to really care.

Fear(s) of the Dark [Peur(s) du Noir] (NR, 1:22) — 1
(left town last week)

For a long while, we could count on a Tournee of Animation every year; then it was Spike & Mike; then there were a couple of years of Animation Celebration; but it’s been awhile since there was an animation anthology until The Animation Show 4 hit town last year. (No idea about Shows 1-3.) These collections almost always get a 5 from me, because the multiple installments are of wildly varying quality (some gems, some stinkers), and they usually average out to mediocre.

Here’s the exception, a French import done entirely in B&W, with a collection of dark (and in some cases grisly) short features of remarkably poor drawing quality. The last of these is almost entirely black screen, with occasional half-seen glimpses of strange things fitfully illuminated by candlelight. This would be the ideal background on which to project the all-white subtitles, but no, it’s almost entirely silent as well as dark. For the rest of the movie, the all-white subtitles are projected on a background which is itself all white at least half the time. Result: total incomprehensibility.

I got the distinct impression from the parts of the film that I could dope out that I wouldn’t have liked it very much anyway. The subtitles were the killer touch. What could the idiot distributors have been thinking of?

Opening Today, but Apparently Not Here


Still in Theaters

Inkheart — 9
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — 6
The Tale of Despereaux — 6
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa — 4
Underworld [3]: Rise of the Lycans — 3

Mark Your Calendars

Mar. 6: Watchmen
Mar. 13: Race to Witch Mountain
Mar. 20: Knowing
Mar. 27: Monsters vs. Aliens
May 1: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
May 8: Star Trek
May 22: Terminator Salvation
May 22: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
May 29: Up
July 1: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs
July 17: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Not Sayin’: The Road

Periodic Rant about the Idiots at the MPAA

The biggest movie last week was the non-genre revenge fantasy Taken, with its stabbings, garrotings, explosions, sex slavery, torture, gratuitous murders, manic car chases against traffic, and widespread splashes of blood. It was rated PG-13.

It opened the same day as The Uninvited (reviewed above), which features grisly fright scenes of decomposing corpses and decapitated bodies, along with teenage girls, drenched in blood, wielding butcher knives. Also PG-13.

But Frost/Nixon, a high-class production which is basically 2 guys having a political conversation in a living room, gets an R.

Question: Can anyone explain this?

Answer: No! Nobody can explain this, because it makes absolutely no sense. The MPAA is a bunch of fucking idiots.

*short attention span synopsis

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Happy Birthday to the Machine that Changed the World

Last Sunday was Super Bowl 43, which triggered a cascade of 25-year-old memories for me. Partway thru the 3rd quarter of Super Bowl 18 on 1984 Jan. 22, we saw why 1984 wasn't going to be like 1984, and the world has never been the same since.

This is the ad that Advertising Age magazine named the best TV commercial of the 20th Century. No argument from me, tho I confess that it's the "Think Different" ad that always moves me to tears.

Happy 25th birthday, Mac!

Monday, February 02, 2009

1959 Feb. 3: The Day the Music Died?

Don McLean's catchphrase was an exaggeration, say music authorities in this CNN article.

Still a tragedy, say I.

The Winter Dance Tour, alluded to in the article as passing thru several Wisconsin communities, included a concert at Fournier's Ballroom in my hometown of Eau Claire just days before the one in Clear Lake.

My dancing friends will learn where the song Maria Elena (frequently covered, in different rhythms, with multiple choreographies) came from.

Ritchie Valens was really Ricardo Valenzuela. J. P. was really Jiles Perry, and he was a Junior. Apparently nobody ever referred to Buddy as Chuck.

While Don McLean's American Pie is a classic, it didn't come along until 1971. I think Eddie Cochrane's Three Stars (written almost immediately in 1959) did the best job of capturing the sense of loss our generation felt at the time. Here's Johnny Horton's recording of it.

Horton himself met an untimely end on 1960 Nov. 5 when his car was smashed into by a drunken driver, but since it was just him (not a trio of top names), it didn't get as much coverage. Unlike the 3 relative newcomers on the Winter Dance Tour (Holly, 22; Bopper, 28; Valens, 17), Horton had already had a lengthy recording career at the time of his death at age 35. Besides Three Stars, he left us with North to Alaska, The Battle of New Orleans, and Sink the Bismarck, catchy tunes with memorable lyrics.

Yes, that was back in the days when pop music had melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, and intelligible lyrics.

The Midwest has not been kind to pop singers in private planes. Otis Redding’s Beechcraft hit the waters of Lake Monona (not 5 miles from where I type this in Madison, Wisconsin) on 1967 Dec. 10. Wikipedia notes: “(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay was recorded only three days before Redding's death. According to Nashid Munyan, curator of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Redding considered the song unfinished, having whistled the tune of one verse for which he intended to compose lyrics later. The song was released (with the place-holding whistling intact) in January 1968 and became Redding's only number-one single on the Billboard Hot 100, and the first posthumous single in U.S. chart history.”