Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Defense on offense. The Department of Defense has a new webpage that is kind of bloggy in nature called "For the Record." The page's mission seems to be disputing factual and opinion claims from the larger media about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Good for the Defense Department. Whatever we might think of the war or the way it is being waged, it is a good thing for there to be a place where those who are waging the war can respond openly and clearly to criticisms.

Spread the word, and let's hope they keep it up.

What I've been reading. Among the books I've been reading is a collection of fantasy short stories by Robert Heinlein. Included among those stories is "--And He Built a Crooked House," which originally appeared in print in 1940. The story begins thusly:

Americans are considered crazy anywhere in the world.

They will usually concede a basis for the accusation but point to California as the focus of the infection.
A reminder of an ever growing tradition, lest our friends on the west coast get too excited about their dairy proficiency.

I'm just getting started on Heinlein--in addition to this collection, I've also read The Green Hills of Earth and the fantastic Starship Troopers--and I have already learned that Heinlein had a relentlessly creative mind. But more than that, he was an excellent writer, which is not always the case for science fiction and fantasy.
One "how times have changed" observation from his work: he can't get away from smoking. Just about all of his stories are set in the future from the mid-twentieth century, and no matter how far forward he goes, the people smoke. They smoke indoors, they smoke in spaceships, there is even a story that directly talks about disgarding ashes in a weightless environment. For Heinlein, smoking is almost a writing tick that he can't help but use in describing a scene.

A blogger sat at his desk, hidden among stacks of books and loose papers, a cigarette smoldering in a metal ashtray next to the keyboard. He took a drag and pretended he could write fiction.

I wonder what little things are accepted parts of our everyday life, but will be gone or very different in fifty years.

Another example. Yesterday Ren and I watched football all afternoon on the DIRECTV NFL Ticket. We also ate about three pounds of glorious spinach dip.

Last week, when I wrote my entry about the chili party, I was grasping for some description of the size and shape of the possum in the cornbread. I eventually concluded that the critter was about the size of a pumpernickel round. Which, inevitably, got me thinking about eating pumpernickel, which got me thinking about using the pumpernickel to scoop up some sort of tasty sauce or dip. Which got me thinking about my friend JD's spinach dip, a staple at many gatherings in Athens, Ohio. But ever since a couple years ago when JD moved to the northwest to run around in the rain and get chased by Big Foot, I haven't had the spinach dip.

Later that day, JD sent me an email to congratulate my work on Cleveland '64 that clearly convinced the Browns to get rid of Offensive Coordinator Maurice Carthon. JD also let me know that the hard copies of my little book--which had previously been available electronically online, but now are available for purchase from the Government Printing Office, Amazon, or for free to government or education addresses at this webpage--had arrived at his work.

I took the opportunity to ask JD by email for his spinach dip recipe, and he kindly obliged. And Ren and I watched football all afternoon yesterday and ate about three pounds of dip out of a possum-sized pumpernickel round.

Now did any science fiction writer predict the internet and the way it would change all our lives?

Finally, this has no redeeming qualities. It is profane, disgusting, offensive, and terrible. So of course I pass it on to you, my dear friends. (Thanks to Cliopatria for the tip.)

See you later.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Columns and articles that I found interesting recently.

Victor Davis Hanson, "The Wonders of Hindsight," tells us to suck it up and finish the job. A useful antidote to the "woe is me" stuff coming from all corners about the Iraq war over the last few weeks.

Mark Steyn, "Fear of too many babies is hard to bear," celebrates the birth of the 300 millionth living American the other day. His concluding graph brings this lovely line of truth: "The reality is that in a Western world ever more wizened and barren the 300 millionth American is the most basic example of American exceptionalism."

In Monday's Bleat, James Lileks talked to his dad, did an internet search, and found an incredible story about his great-grandfather's night outside the perimeter on Hoth.

David Brooks, "Where the Right Went Wrong," is a review of Andrew Sullivan's new book on conservatism. More than just a reminder of what we all miss now that the Times hides Brooks behind their noxious firewall, Brooks has once again tapped into a fundamental truth about Americans:

As for Sullivan’s conservatism of doubt, I’m sympathetic. I know only two self-confessed Oakeshottians in Washington — Sullivan and me. And yet Oakeshott’s modesty can never be the main strain in one’s thinking, though it should always be the warning voice in the back of your mind.

Sullivan notes that Oakeshott “couldn’t care less about politics as such, who wins and loses, what is now vulgarly called ‘the battle of ideas.’ ” His thought was poetic, not programmatic.

Well, if you want to sit in a cottage and bet on horses, fine. But if you actually want to govern, such thinking is of limited use. It doesn’t make sense to ask how an Oakeshottian would govern because an Oakeshottian could never get elected in a democracy and could never use the levers of power if somehow he did. Doubt is not a political platform. Hope is.

Oakeshott was wise, but Oakeshottian conservatism can never prevail in America because the United States was not founded on the basis of custom, but by the assertion of a universal truth — that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain rights. The United States is a creedal nation, and almost every significant movement in American history has been led by people calling upon us to live up to our creed. In many cases, the people making those calls were religious leaders. From Jonathan Edwards to the abolitionists to the civil rights leaders to the people fighting AIDS and genocide in Africa today, religiously motivated people have been active in public life. They have been, in their certainty and their willingness to apply divine truths, fundamentalists — if we want to use Sullivan’s categories. You take those people out of American politics and you don’t have a country left.
And finally, Joseph Epstein, "Ugly, Thorny Things," about how facts have outpaced ideas in the modern world.

The point should look very familiar to historians who constantly hear the lament that we need more big idea synthetic narrative accounts and then watch big idea synthetic narrative accounts get torn apart by specialists with all the facts and none of the perspective.

Ideas matter. Big ideas matter bigger. The big idea that is America matters biggest of all. Read these five articles together and see what that means. Read on to see what it means to me.

Gather up everyone. This past weekend we had our annual Chilifest--an event of stupendous proportions, frequented by all the most important players, featuring the greatest colllection of chili and people ever gathered in my garage.

Most of the neighborhood turned out, despite the grinding poverty caused by rising housing costs in the midwest. Carlos from across the street--he's of Puerto Rican descent and a guard at the federal prison--contributed a couple of eight foot tables. Dave and Kelly are also from across the street, but they are from Texas (A&M fans) and he's a student at the Command and General Staff College and she's a social worker. They brought an amazing bacon cheese cornbread and these little bite sized orange blossum muffins. Jim and Kelli (surveyor and elementary school teacher), Kansas natives who live kind of next door to us, brought sausages and a pumpkin roll. Eric does development for Baker University and Lisa is a physician and they came up from the Overland Park area with their infant son and brought Eric's venison chili and sweet potatoe pie. Robin, an editor and master map maker from my work, brought cinnamon rolls. About thirty-five people in all showed up, coming from near and far, bringing various contributions to the party.

I made four pots of chili, and we borrowed a few crock pots from the neighbors to set up a serving table in the garage. Saturday was cold and blustery all day--perfect for chili. Everyone ate their fill while the kids ran around and climbed on the as yet unpacked boxes of books in our someday library. The Kansas natives drank beer and discussed the collapse of the Jayhawks at the hands of lowly Baylor and wondered aloud when basketball season started. I talked fantasy football with our real estate agent's husband, who also happens to be the local fire chief.

Later, when all but Dave and Kelly had left, we half cleaned up and sat around drinking beer and playing dominoes, while their youngest daughter and our oldest boy watched Chicken Little on the TV downstairs. My mom called to see how everything went, and my wife went out to the garage to talk to her on the phone. The wife called us out to the garage, and lo and behold we discovered that a possum, roughly the size of a large round of pumpernickel, was sitting on top of a table in the middle of Kelly's cast iron skillet of cornbread, munching away. Kelly, who is from Texas but has family in Arkansas, announced that she was from the South, and proceeded to try to push the critter off the skillet with a paper plate. The possum, apparently in some sort of bacon-chees-cornbread catatonic state, just looked at her. I grabbed a broom and tried smacking the thing on the ass to get it off the table, but, having found the motherload, it wouldn't budge, and Kelly declared there was no need to hurt the rodent, "cause it wasn't hissing or anything." (She also informed us and it that if it was hissing, she would have put it in a pot and made a stew out of it.) So Kelly grabs the handle of the skillet, flips it over, and starts shaking it, all while the possum is hanging on to its precious corn bread for dear life. Finally, it let go and waddled out of the garage--and then most likely passed out in my lawn like grandpa on the couch at Thanksgiving. We wondered if any of the corn bread could be saved, but the hair and possum droppings were too much for even the Southerner, and we had to sacrifice the rest of the pan to the corn bread gods.

After braving the native fauna, and after closing the garage door, we went back to the beer and dominoes. I lost (because my wife cheats), we put the boy down (well after his bedtime), the neighbors headed home (to put down their own delirious child), and the wife and I hit the sack (to settle into our own chili-cornbread comas). A good day.

In the meantime, the people who used to gather at our Chilifests were once again circled around the pit, or rather pits, as in barbeque pits, at the Ohio Smoked Meat Festival and Competition down in Nelsonville, Ohio. Our friend Robert sent a picture, and all looked well.

We should have taken more pictures at the Chilifest, especially of that damn possum, but our digital camera has finally called "uncle." Not that I'm mad at it, it did fine work for nearly seven years. It even had the charming feature of storing the pictures on 3.5 inch disks--useful once, long ago, when USB ports were still a mysterious portal requiring 750 different drivers and an R2 unit to make them work. Now they don't even put 3.5 inch drives on new computers unless by request, and the kids think the disks are some sort of cheap coaster designed to fit in the front pockets of the flannel shirts of 1990s grungeheads. Damn whippersnappers, with their XBox12s and video IPods and automated parallel parking Lexuses. They don't know how tough we had it back in the day.

So sorry, no possum. But the other picture we didn't take was one of everyone together--that fine tradition of gathering friends at an occasion to remember what you did and who was there. Think of all those pictures, from team photos and family gatherings to parties with friends and posing in front of landmarks on vacation. In my work I've noticed how often our troops gather to take photos to commemorate an operation or campaign. I have many such pictures saved in my computer--pictures full of faces with names known only to those who were there. But that's the point: for those who were there to remember the faces and names and all the times they gathered with friends and family, wherever they might be, on good days and bad.

The Chilifest 2006 has no such picture, but we'll find other ways to remember that good day. And we'll look forward, ever forward, to the next one.

Oh yeah, one more thing. He went back one more time to gorge himself on the free meat (and miss the Chilifest), but one of the friends from Ohio is moving out here to Kansas as of, well, later today.

That's right, as part of my evil plan to move everyone I know to Kansas so we can build a Corleone-esque compound from which to rule the state (or at least eat lots of barbeque), our friend Ren is moving to town to work with the team at the Combat Studies Institute. We couldn't be more excited.

And of course I have a better picture of Ren, but zooming in a putting a circle around his face has a "Hitler in Munich"...

...or "John Wilkes Booth at Lincoln's Second Inaugural"...

...kind of feel. Not that Ren is Hitler or Booth.

Or is he? After all, it is my evil plan.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big fan of traditional art. So of course I was drawn to the article in the recent Smithsonian Magazine called "The Painter Who Hated Picasso." I don't know about all that--I like a lot of Picasso--but Sir Alfred Munnings had it more right than wrong when he said:

I find myself a president of a body of men who are what I call shilly-shallying. They feel there is something in this so-called modern art....Well, I myself would rather have—excuse me, my Lord Archbishop—a damned bad failure, a bad, muddy old picture where somebody has set down what they have seen than all this affected juggling....Not so long ago I spoke in this room to the students, and....I said to those students, 'if you paint a tree, for God's sake try and make it look like a tree, and if you paint a sky, try and make it look like a sky....'


"What are pictures for?" To fill a man's soul with admiration and sheer joy, not to bewilder and daze him."
Unfortunately, the linked article has no images, so here is the Google Image search for "Alfred Munnings." There is much to enjoy there, but this is pretty representative of his landscape work:

As usual, but by coincidence, James Lileks sums up the issue nicely with his riff on the new Denver Art Museum at the end of this Bleat.

Also from that Smithsonian, a short funny article by an intelligent person dealing with a conspiracy theorist. The conspiracy this time was the classic "Oh, everybody knows the moon landings were faked."

What is interesting, from my perspective, about the author's response is that he comes at it from a scientific perspective. Check out his account of the give and take:

"The pictures are all perfect," he said.

"Because there is no air," I replied. "Which means no dust, so that distant objects on the moon still appear crisp."

"But they're perfectly focused."

"The published ones are perfectly focused, sure. Nobody wants to see the astronaut's thumb."

His eyes narrowed. "The flag is flapping. How is that possible when there's no wind?"

"It's not flapping," I said. "It's unfurling. Well, not unfurling, but that's the point—it was folded during the flight, and it didn't unfold fully even after they hung from the flagpole."

"OK, maybe. But those supposed moon rocks"—he did that annoying curly-finger quote thing—"could have easily been faked in a lab somewhere on earth."

"There's no water in them," I said. "Nor do they have compositions that are commonly found on earth."

"But you could make them," he insisted. "In a lab."

I clenched my teeth. "It would take less research to just go get them from the actual moon!"

His nostrils flared. He was coming in for the kill now. "What about...radiation! People can't go through the Van Halen belts. They’d be fried."

"Van Allen belts."


"The Apollo traveled through the Van Allen belts in less than an hour. It would take far longer than that for the exposure to affect them."

I launched into a lecture on relative dosage, my area of expertise. But I didn't stop there. In my fury, my three semesters of college physics resurfaced. I shoved the snack plates out of the way and positioned an olive centrally in the cleared space.

"This is earth," I growled. I snatched four cheese puffs, to represent the inner and outer Van Allen radiation belts, then grabbed some Twizzlers and modeled the solar wind and the earth's magnetosphere and the bow shock region.

I started spewing mathematical formulas, not because it was crucial to my argument but to intimidate. "Do you understand?" I finally demanded.
All of the scientific arguments are, or course, correct, but I never would have gone about convincing the conspiracy theorist that way. As a historian, I'm a subject of the humanities, so my thinking on matters such as these leans toward the fallability and inconsistencies of the human condition. Faking the moon landings (and 9/11) would have required a conspiracy so complex, involving so many people operating in absolute secrecy, and run with search perfect competance that it really is beyond the abilities of mankind. Put it this way: faking the moon landings would require more skill than actually landing on the moon.

It seems I'm not alone in thinking this way. Note what finally gives the conspiracy theorist pause in the article:

Finally, my coup de grĂ¢ce: "The Russians."

He knit his brow.

"They had the first satellite, the first man in space, the first spacewalk," I said. "Then America gets the first man on the moon? That's like getting tripped by the other team's mascot. But have the Russians ever said the moon landing was a hoax?"

From now on I will start with this question. He backed away, admitting that perhaps—just maybe—I had a point.
I must say that it is fascinating that this doubter did not believe the American government and the thousands of Americans who worked on the space program, but the Soviet government, long noted for its honesty, seems to get the benefit of the doubt. But leaving that aside, the point of Russian silence on the issue is a very human one. And course, that point has just been added to any argument I have to make at cocktail parties against faking the moon landings.

Not that I go to any cocktail parties. No time for such trifles in a busy life of seeing to the maintenance and cleanup of two high-speed sustenance conversion devices. Time-consumers of all-time, they are. Especially this last weekend, when the cycle of feed-clean-up, activity-clean-up, expunge-clean-up was punctuated by new teeth/developing cold whining and moaning and not sleeping from both machines.

Note to the uninitiated: you know you're in for a long night when the two-year-old points to his right ear and says "Boo boo."

But what amazes me is what troopers they are--when they want to have fun and play, they don't care how sick they feel, they just go have fun and play. In part it is toughness--on Saturday night, the neighbors' daughter (who is two weeks younger than my 11 month old but has been walking for two months already) decided to try to challenge my younger boy's massive melon with a vicious headbutt. It was classic, he was just sitting there while we were talking about his gigantic gourd, and she walks up, cocks her head back, and headbutts him right on the top of the head. And he just looks up, like hey, what was that? All the adults gasped, which made him get scared, and the girl stumbled over to her mom with a large red mark in the middle of her forehead. And that was it--no crying, no complaining, not a mark on the boy. He's got a head like a coconut and he's extremely tough--which is useful because he has absolutely no self-preservation instinct and tries to hurt himself at every opportunity.

But part of the kids playing while they are sick is that they refuse not to play. They might get tired quicker, but dammit, they are going to play. Mind over matter.

I never missed a football game for a cold, whether it be strep throat, the flu, or a sinus infection. I wanted to play the games that bad. Which is approximately half as much as my kids want to play with toy trucks even when they have ear infections. Amazing little machines, they are. I don't miss the cocktail parties at all.

(Besides, I can save my moon landings argument for late on the weekends, when we drink beers around the fire pit in the backyard.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Love it. Like anyone, I hate telemarketers. Actually, I take that back, I hate telemarketing. The telemarketers are poor saps who somehow got into a soul-sucking job. I don't hate them--unless they do not understand what the word "no" means, then they feel the full wrath of me hanging up by pressing the "talk" button on my cordless phone with much vigor. At such times, I pine for the days when we could slam down the receiver on old corded phones, causing the bell inside to issue a long angry solitary peel--the one you imagine the people on the other end can hear (because in the movies that person always jerks his head away, as if someone just set off an air horn in his ear), when the truth is the line just goes dead for them. Yet I'd still rather slam the phone, because no matter how hard I press that button, it still gives me the same old heartless beep when it cuts off the call.

(Note to Battlestar Galactica fans, there's the difference between humans and cylons--a human would know, intuitively, why slamming an old phone is better than hanging up a new cordless.)

Where was I going with all this? Oh yeah, a guy named Tom Mabe has made a little career out of messing with telemarketers. Go to this page and listen to a recent example of how he handled a call he got from a satellite company (which, apropos of nothing, I'm 95% sure is Dish Network [EchoStar], because they are based in the Littleton, Colorado area, right by where I went to high school.) I laughed out loud.

Reading update. Here's the first of a semi-regular feature on something I have read recently.

I am more than halfway through this version of The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle. That means I've read the Adventures and the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, but I have not yet read The Hound of the Baskervilles or the Return of Sherlock Holmes. I'm in an operational pause, and I wish I had The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, but I can say that they are every bit as good as advertised. A very pleasant surprise is that beyond being good stories, the adventures of Holmes often provide little insights into turn of the century Anglo-American society and culture. Two examples stand out in this regard, particularly for their American connections: "The Five Orange Pips," which is a reminder of a time when the Ku Klux Klan had not yet had its second and third incarnations, and was still a mysterious and frightening secret society. And "The Yellow Face," which if I explained why it is interesting, it would give away the story. The links above are to the full stories, so read them at your pleasure.

Sentence I will never write again: Yesterday morning, as I was getting coffee in the downstairs of the office section of Eisenhower Hall, an Armenian army major asked me for a light.

That's what happens when you work where I work.

PAY ATTENTION. What also happens at my work is that we get access to some of the greatest stories you will ever hear. One such story comes from Staff Sergeant David Bellavia, who did some serious fighting in Iraq. His tale is so remarkable that he has now sold his memoir for a tidy sum. Good for him, he has most assuredly earned it. The book should be out sometime next year.

In the meantime, you can get a preview of his experiences from an interview he did with a friend of mine. Here is the abstract to the interview:

The leader of 2nd Squad, 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, Task Force 2-2 Infantry in Fallujah during Operation Phantom Fury (Al Fajr), Staff Sergeant David Bellavia was recommended for the Medal of Honor, nominated for the Distinguished Service Cross and received the Silver Star for his actions on 10 November 2004 in which he "single handedly saved three squads of his platoon that night, risking his own life by allowing them to break contact and reorganize. He then entered and cleared an insurgent strongpoint, killing four insurgents and mortally wounding another." In this interview, focusing on the entirety of his Phantom Fury experiences and on the intense room-to-room, at times hand-to-hand, combat that characterized that one night in particular, Bellavia offers the ultimate on-the-ground insider's story of this seminal urban operation, which culminated, he said, in Task Force 2-2 combining to put "a lot of pure evil permanently out of business." As perceptive and introspective as it is raw and action-packed, Bellavia's account touches on everything from doctrinal, training and technology recommendations to his warm recollections of his 2-2 comrades: from the battalion commander who, "if you beat in the face with a shovel his expression wouldn't change," and the company commander who was "the most honorable man I have ever met in my life," to the countless soldiers and NCOs who helped make his service "the greatest experience in my life." "War is horrific and ghastly," Bellavia readily admitted. "There are ghoulish images that we all endure and it's impossible to not be changed forever. But only in the midst of the worst mankind can produce can you truly see the beauty of human nature: self sacrifice, true honor, unprecedented loyalty - all the Army values displayed in person. When you have the chance to serve your nation with men and women you trust and love; when leaders two tax brackets above your pay grade carry rifles on the field next to you; and when you see your peers take bullets for you - that environment," he concluded, "would motivate the most ardent anti-victory opponent of this conflict."
Go to the link above, click on "Access this item," read the whole thing, and be thankful that we have people like David Bellavia protecting our country. I know I am.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Conspiracy theories explained.

Conspiracy theorists allege that the events of 9/11 are not adequately explained by the "official story" fingering Osama bin Laden and his network as the culprits. What really needs explaining, though, is not 9/11, but the existence of such conspiracy theorists themselves, whose by now well-known speculations about what "really happened" that day are - not to put too fine a point on it - so mind-numbingly stupid that it is mystifying how anyone with a functioning cerebrum could take them seriously even for a moment.
Hmmm... I wonder how he really feels. This lead (lede) paragraph comes from Edward Feser, writing at TCS Daily on conspiracy theories.

Be sure to read the whole thing, and follow the links, one of which got me to James Franklin, "The Renaissance Myth"--an interesting look at the Middle Ages and the origins of the Renaissance idea, which he obviously thinks is a myth, at least in its most popular form. In his conclusion, Franklin, an Australian mathematician, wonders why historians have continued to buy into that myth:

No psychological insight is needed to guess Petrarch's motives in pretending that a thousand years of darkness had ended with himself. But there is something of a puzzle as to why later historians continued to accept the exaggerated account the Renaissance gave of itself. A few, especially the Encyclopedists of eighteenth-century France, had ideological motives, since they wanted to condemn the churches of their own time by attributing to them the alleged obscurantism of the Middle Ages. Something similar holds for Michelet's wish to represent the Renaissance world view as a forerunner of the opinions of the liberal political faction to which he adhered. But most historians have not had any particular reason for agreeing with any of this. Speculations on what may have been common to most historians over a period of centuries cannot be certain, but there are a few things it seems fair to assert. The writers who gave us our view of the past, from the authors of massive Histoires de France to the average text book hacks, were basically not interested in the history of ideas. In most cases, their primary concerns were political, military and economic. On opening an average history of the Renaissance, we can expect to find keen debate on whether Lorenzo de Medici's Milanese policy was well advised or not. But we can rely on being assured without argument that his court was brilliant. Courts of successful princes are always brilliant. And brilliant courts are of necessity adorned by great poets and profound philosophers. The training of historians, and their natural bent, fit them to evaluate politics and literature better than science and philosophy. For success in the field of history, and especially popular history, depends more on the humanistic arts of rhetoric and grammar than on scientific and logical skills. Good men, most historians, but innumerate. Since in addition science, mathematics and medieval philosophy are of their nature harder to understand than Renaissance belles lettres and narrative painting, it would be surprising if the tradition of history did not praise the Renaissance.

We, though, are at liberty to be more sceptical.
Gosh. I'd be the last to dispute his claim about historians not being great at science and math. Still, this seems a bit gratuitous. Not to get into a pissing contest here, but I haven't run into too many mathmaticians and scientists with especially strong knowledge or understanding of intellectual development over time, especially as it relates to political culture and philosophy. Franklin might want to dismiss language and arts as "rhetoric and grammar," but that serves only to show the limitations of scientific and logical skills in understanding history. How about a combination? Is that such a strange idea?

Interesting how links are made. The Franklin article above originally appeared in Quadrant Magazine, which was a new title to me. So I looked it up and discovered that it is now a fifty year old Australian journal of literature and ideas. The latest edition has available online an article by Ross Terrill called "Mao's Battle with Freedom." (Terrill is no Mao apologist, but he tries to bring a little balance to the discussion--which I think is a mistake, but read his very good article anyway.)

And that's how I bounce around the internet.

In entertainment news. The Departed, Martin Scorsese's new Boston Irish gang pic (as opposed to his old New York Irish gang pic) is getting great reviews--95% fresh at Rotten Tomatoes. You know what that means? I'm going to think really hard about seeing it in the theaters. I might even look up showtimes and ask my neighbor Jim if he wants to go. Then I'll remember that I have two young kids, Jim will remember that he has an infant daughter, and we'll both have other things going on--usually involving work around the house. I might still go, but the odds are 50-50 at best.

That's alright, I thoroughly enjoy working around the house, and I'm rather fond of the kids, too. But there was a time when I wouldn't miss seeing any reasonably well-reviewed big budget movie in the theater, let alone a show like The Departed. Now I'm happy if I can stay awake past 9:30 to watch a third episode of Battlestar Galactica on DVD.

[ALERT: Cheesiest transition ever.]

Speaking of... season 3 of Battlestar Galactica begins tonight on the SciFi Network. I don't know how to put this gently, so here goes: if you watch television at all, and do not watch this show, you are an idiot. It is the best show on television. It will change your life. It will align the planets and bring peace and prosperity to all humanity, just like Bill and Ted's music.

I understand the hesitation in getting involved in the show. I'm with you. Science fiction has been tarnished by Star Trek and Star Trek fandom. Sci-fi and fantasy fans are ridiculous with their dressing up as characters and laying out diagrams of ships and all that. Galaxy Quest nailed it perfectly, and so did the Entourage episode where the gang goes to Comic-Con and Johnny Drama is a living legend for his role on the fictional Viking Quest. I liked Star Trek, but the campiness of those shows, the original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Babylon 5, and almost everything else on this list, make it awfully tough to take science fiction seriously.

But Battlestar Galactica is a serious show that just happens to be set in a science fiction setting. It is much more political, psychological, religious, and philosophical than science fiction-y. There are no transporters or lasers or phasers or proton torpedos. The ship never comes up on a large alien life form, gets threatened, and then comes up with a cool technological solution to get around the alien. In fact, there are no aliens at all on the show.

Here is the basic premise: All humans began on a single planet, but they left that planet and colonized 12 planets (and maybe a thirteenth called Earth, but that is a legend on the show). The humans created robots with artificial intelligence, and the robots rebelled, starting a war. A peace was struck, and the robots disappeared--until the start of the show, when they returned, this time with models that look exactly like humans, and launched a massive nucleur attack on all 12 planets that killed 20 billion people.

Approximately 50,000 humans survived the attack, mostly because they were in ships away from the planet, and they came together in a fleet led by the Battlestar Galactica (which is basically like a giant aircraft carrier and battleship combined). The commander of the Galactica is played by Edward James Olmos. The only political leader of the twelve colonies to survive was the secretary of education, and she became the president. She is played by Mary McDonnell (the white woman from Dances With Wolves). The fleet is running from the robots and looking for a new home, perhaps Earth.

It gets extremely complex from there, but if you haven't watched it you can still catch up. Go to the Battlestar Galactica webpage. The geniuses who produce the show have created a webpage that is a primer for the show, including a 44 minute online episode called "The Story So Far" (which is also on SciFi at 5:00 PM Eastern today).

Truth is, if I had to choose between the new season of Battlestar Galactica and The Departed, it's not even a competition. I'll be at home at 8:00 Central time, glued to the TV. You should be, too.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Losing it. On the outside of an envelope in the mail today:

It's come to this:
Renew it. Or Lose it.
I don't know about anyone else, but that sounds like a threat to me.

Note to Sports Illustrated marketing and subscription people: if you would like me to continue paying you to mail me your magazine, it really isn't a good idea to use a threat to let me know that my subscription is almost up. I'm not sure what they are teaching in college marketing classes these days, but you seem to be confused: I'm the customer. In this case--and this is very important, so pay attention--I am a current and potential future customer of form of entertainment. Sports Illustrated is not a life necessity. It is not electricity or gas or water for my home.

Therefore, the idea is to entice customers with a good and unique product, offered at a reasonable price, and presented with a customer service that is at the very least unoffensive.

Let's take those one at a time: Sports Illustrated is a competant sports weekly that offers some very good longer pieces on issues and figures from the sports world. But it also includes two columnists in Steve Rushin and Rick Reilly who I cannot stand. Rushin is a hack who substitutes playing with people's names for actually saying anything in his column, and Reilly has become a shrill deliverer of politically charged declarations from on high. I can't flip those two pages in the magazine fast enough. So Sports Illustrated is a solid, sometimes good, but rarely great magazine, that serves the purpose of covering some of the sports news for the week.

But it is certainly not unique. There are plenty of other sports magazines in print, and even more sports news and commentary available online. For local sports news, I spend most of my time reading the Orange and Brown Report,, and the Akron Beacon Journal Sports page online. For national sports news and commentary--which is always well behind when it comes to the local stuff that I most care about--I read, Fox Sports, and For anyone who knows me, it hardly bears repeating that I would rather read Bill Simmons on than any other national columnist. Heck, even the best Sports Illustrated column for my money is only online--Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback (and even he is starting to bother me with his political asides).

As far as price goes, Sports Illustrated is not particularly expensive, but it's not particularly cheap either. Put it this way: it costs enough that everytime I renew it, I pause to think about it. That pause only got longer this time, when nine words on the front of that envelope were offensive enough to make me question why I would spend my money on a magazine like Sports Illustrated.

At the end of all this, the answer is that I won't anymore. And contrary to the threat on the envelope, I will not have lost a thing. But Sports Illustrated has lost a customer, which is why they exist in the first place. And all they had to do was send me a polite reminder that my subscription runs out in November. Marketing for Dummies.

Then there is Bill Buford writing about the Food Network in the latest New Yorker. I hate the sentence I just wrote; it reeks of pretension. The New Yorker, magazine for the supposed demigods of the coasts and the wannabes from the rest of the country. The New Yorker, magazine of the world's capital, a city that makes up for the almost unbearable crush of people with lots of crime, terrible traffic, high taxes, green space confined to a large park, and surprisingly little history. But at least it's expensive. New York City, home to all the smartest people.

Sour grapes, meet Big Apple. Truth is that you would never see me turning down any offers to write for the New Yorker. But if I were to pen a story, I certainly would take great pains not to sound as obnoxious as Buford. Nary a paragraph goes by that is not sarcastic or dismissive or snobby or condescending or all four. A sampling of one-liners:

I don’t want to sound harsh—this wasn’t the History Channel—but, on the evidence, there was a surprisingly strong affinity between preparing food and talking baby talk.


The point is to get very close to what you are filming, so close that you can see an ingredient’s “pores” (“You should believe the dish is in your living room”), which then triggers some kind of Neanderthal reflex.


I’d watched him before, during a taping of “Emeril Live,” starring Emeril Lagasse, the portly Portuguese baker from Fall River, Massachusetts, who was probably more naturally an evangelist than a natural chef....


“You should talk to Hugh,” Al said, pointing to a burly man with a handheld camera. “Hugh Walsh is the beauty specialist.”

Hugh was filming a carrot.


...apart from Emeril Lagasse, the loud, abrasive Everyman (“Hey! Look at me! Christ, if I can do this, you can, too!”), there weren’t many obvious food talents looking for work.


Giada De Laurentiis, of “Everyday Italian,” is not a chef, although she has culinary expertise—she was trained at the Cordon Bleu and worked as a private cook for a wealthy Los Angeles family. She is also the granddaughter of a famous filmmaker, grew up in Beverly Hills, and is lithe and young and pretty, a prettiness that no Food Network executive is going to allow her to hide behind an apron.


What quality does Ray have that, say, one of the Molotovs doesn’t? It is probably more apparent in the early broadcasts. A series on perfect burgers filmed during Ray’s first year (the Food Network has done two hundred and fourteen shows on how to make a hamburger) includes a characteristic menu: a “no-muss-and-no-fuss” salad, like coleslaw (Ray has thirteen slaw recipes), followed by some meat dish—during my extended viewing, these tended to include bacon and blue cheese (Ray has eighteen blue-cheese recipes, among them a blue-cheese spaghetti, with a sauce, probably unique in the history of pasta, made from bacon fat, butter, olive oil, chicken stock, and cream swirled together, smothered with blue cheese, and then sprinkled with bacon bits: an intensely flavored creation, even if a little alarming to look at—a viscous dull yellow). On this occasion, many of the ingredients, typically, had been prepared at the supermarket and included sealed bags of pre-sliced cabbage, to facilitate getting everything done before the thirty-minute deadline. The coleslaw would be dressed with soy sauce (“It’s kinda like balsamic vinegar is to red-wine vinegar—it’s a little bit thicker”), but not before Ray had turned on a burner to heat an oven-top grill: this was for her “awesome” turkey patties (“Yummy!”). Heating the oven-top grill beforehand was a tip. So, too, was the use of a garbage bowl—kept on the counter to save trips to the trash—for vegetable trimmings. In fact, the garbage-bowl tip was offered three times. In between, you heard about Ray’s mom (“She watches news a lot—maybe too much”) and her baby brother, who had just turned twenty-seven (“which is just not possible”). There was also her dog, her dad, a theory about cabbage and cancer, some giggles—an effortless patter that, for all its lack of weight, was not without a goofy charm.

I suppose there is some humor in taking gratuitous shots at television chefs and the people who film them, but the humor is pretty limited, especially if you don't include them in the joke. Does Buford honestly think that Rachel Ray and Emeril Lagasse don't know how silly some of this stuff is? Better yet, why didn't he ask them?

Even more important, what was the point of this snotty article? The incoherent conclusion offers few clues on the matter:

Ours is a different audience from the one that watched Julia Child. In 1962, “microwave oven” and “fast food” hadn’t entered the national lexicon. And restaurants were more expensive. Tim Zagat, the publisher of Zagat Guides, points out that for more than two decades the cost of going to restaurants or getting takeout has risen less than the annual rate of inflation—that it’s much less expensive today than at any other moment in our history to pay other people to prepare our dinner. Never in our history as a species have we been so ignorant about our food. And it is revealing about our culture that, in the face of such widespread ignorance about a human being’s most essential function—the ability to feed itself—there is now a network broadcasting into ninety million American homes, entertaining people with shows about making coleslaw.

Get it? It's cheaper to go out to eat, which means humans (presumably humans on the Upper West Side) are ignorant about food. I'm not saying that humans aren't partially ignorant about our food, at least as it relates to the actual farming of crops or the raising of livestock, but Buford provides zero evidence to that effect. Indeed, and maybe I need to overcome a reading disorder here, the evidence he presents actually makes the opposite case. Food Network, which seems to be about food, is broadcast into ninety million homes.

Maybe he thinks these sentences suffice: "I couldn’t recall very many potatoes with dirt on them, or beets with ragged greens, or carrots with soil in their creases, or pieces of meat remotely reminiscent of the animals they were butchered from—hardly anything, it seemed, from the planet Earth. There were hamburgers and bacon, but scarcely any other red animal tissue except skirt steak, probably, it occurs to me now, because of its two unique qualities: its texture and its name."

Oh, Food Network is not about real food, because they prepped the products before cooking them (the comment about red meat is just stupid--go to Food Network's webpage and do a recipe search for "steak" and see what happens). In the Buford home we eat real food. None of those fake namby-pamby cleaned potatoes, leafless vegetables, or branchless fruits. Everyone knows you're not eatin' if you're not eatin' the soil. That's where the real nutrients are. Next thing you know those ninnies at the Food Network will be serving chicken without feathers and beef without the hide.

At the end of his seventy-two hour Food Network-watching marathon--which, by the way, makes absolutely no sense--Buford comes to exactly the wrong conclusion. Food Network and its audience are the people who, on average, know the most about food and eat the best in America. The average income of Food Network viewers is a pretty robust $75,000 a year. My understanding--and if the New Yorker wants to pay me a dollar or two a word for an article, I will look it up--is that the average income for people and families that frequently get their meals at fast food restaurants is significantly lower than $75,000 a year, which goes a long way toward explaining why our poor are so fat. Even the fattest recipes on Food Network, like Rachel Ray's cheesy pasta, are more healthy than (and just as affordable as) the crud served at McDonald's or Burger King. Sounds to me like there is absolutely nothing wrong with Food Network, except that not enough people watch it.

The funny thing about all this is that I rarely watch Food Network. I get my recipes from elsewhere. But, memo to Bill Buford, I would never conflate a pseudo-farmer populist virtue with that choice. Egads, the New Yorker can be obnoxious.