Saturday, December 31, 2011

25 Most-played Songs in 2011

Full disclosure: This is not a top 25 of songs released in 2011, or played on the radio in 2011.

Those of you who know me know that I love statistics and numerical patterns. iTunes seems to share my obsession, and one of my favorite things every time I synch the iPod up to load a new playlist is seeing how my top 25 most-played songs has changed. Since the year is now over, I'll reset statistics tomorrow, but first I wanted to review the past year. Consider it my Holiday present to you, dear readers...

Here, without fear and favor (and in alphabetical order to further reduce the favoritism) are my top 25 most-played songs in 2011 (links mostly to live versions, but feel free to play the originals if you've got 'em!):

All Along The Watchtower (Bob Dylan, Before the Flood)- This is a live version with the Band from a tour album Dylan released in the 70s. It's one of 6? 7? versions I have in my library. Not my favorite version (that would be the original), but there's a soft spot in my heart for this album, as listening to it on my parent's record player after school was the start of my induction into the glories of classic rock.

Batman (Jan & Dean, Surf City: The Best of Jan & Dean)- I can testify, I did end up listening to this a lot this year. Every time has been as delightfully silly as the first. I've got to hand it to Jan & Dean, though, this song evidences a better understanding of the uncanny darkness of the character than the campy 60s TV series did.

Could You Be The One? (Husker Du, Warehouse Songs & Stories)- The thing about all these 80s nostalgia kiddies around now is that they had no idea just how bad it was. Overproduced top 40 was everywhere, TV, the movies, the Mall. There was no escaping it. The only way you could find anything different unless you were in a big city was in a small record store that you had to learn about from friends that had a locked case in the back with a few alternative rock cassettes. Then, maybe, if you were lucky, you could find something like this bubbling up from the underground, keeping rock just barely alive in an era that had prefab slickened it to within an inch of its life.

Darkside (Tanya Donelly, beautysleep)- I'm a big fan of the Pixies and Throwing Muses, and all solo careers that have flowed from there, hence their strong presence in my playlist. The album that this is from, by Throwing Muses co-founder Tanya Donelly, came across my path immediately following my separation in 2002. It was like a beacon of light, giving me faith that a life of shimmering beauty and deep meaning was waiting out there somewhere past the darkness...

Down By The River (Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Decade)- Ah, Neil Young, one of my all-time top 5 musical artists (along with Dylan, the Who, the Pixies and Nirvana, in case you're wondering). There's also something hauntingly beautiful, yearning and melancholy about this. Easily my favorite shooting down your lover song. Which is a distressingly crowded genre!

Full Moon, Empty Heart (Belly, Star)- Belly was the group Tanya Donelly formed in the mid-90s after being with the Breeders for their first album, which came after her exit from the Throwing Muses. Like all the best of her work, this is evocative, full of gauzy beauty, and underlined by serrated guitar that underlines its delicacy with steel.    

Ginger Park (50 Foot Wave, Golden Ocean)- One good Muse deserves another, in this case in the form of 50 Foot Wave, the current vehicle of Tanya's half-sister and fellow founding Throwing Muse Kristin Hersh. The combination of the harsh shred of her voice and the guitar, backed up with the lyrics (I don't belong there/ I guess I never will/ I don't belong anywhere) simultaneously makes me feel chilled and crawlingly itchily warm.

Green (Throwing Muses, In A Doghouse)- And now here they are together! Albeit this is one of the rare songs written and sung by Tanya Donelly that the Muses did. Hence, I imagine, her eventual decision to split and go solo. There's a driving urgency behind this song, a sound that's like someone just on the edge of really losing it.

A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan)- This album, Dylan's big original breakthrough, was another of the ones raided from my parent's that started me on my musical journey. While it was written in an attempt to cram in everything he thought and felt as the world seemed on the edge of holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it's no less affecting today. The poet as prophet, after all, inherently taps into a timeless space.    

Her Majesty (the Beatles, Abbey Road)- One of many cute little snippets from Abbey Road that kind of makes you wish they'd been developed to full length. Although I'm not sure how long you could sustain this ditty of a love-song to the Queen.

I'll Cry Instead (the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night)- Most of my favorite early Beatles songs tend to be John's. There's just more anguish and edge to them, as here, where he's simultaneously crying over the loss of his girl and boasting about his ability to break and load every girl in the world. Oh Johnny...

I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met) (Bob Dylan, Another Side of Bob Dylan)- Early Dylan has a lot of bitter telling-off a theoretical gal songs. I don't think of this as being one of my favorites, but apparently it snuck into my playlists pretty often. Also a fine example of the "Dylan nearly cracks up in the middle of a song" genre, which could generate a playlist of its own.

I Should Have Known Better (the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night)- Remember what I said above about John Lennon's early Beatles songs? Ditto here. It's a sweet straightforward love song, but just underneath the surface you can tell something's a little wrong. And isn't that what the urgency of early love is so often like?

I Walk The Line (Johnny Cash, The Legendary Sun Records Story)- I would have been mighty upset if some Johnny Cash hadn't made it in to this list. I love his early Sun stuff, there's something very simple about the songs musically and they're lyrically totally straightforward. But despite that, or maybe because of it, they're full of depth.    

Lay Lady Lay (Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline)- Sometimes this song doesn't quite do it for me, since it tends to get overplayed. But there's something about Dylan's country croon, bright ringing guitar and tender entreaty here that wins out. Besides which, my parents played it at their wedding, so this song practically conceived me. Doubly so since they were married December 26th and I was born September 28th of the following year.

Lovely Rita (the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)- Not one of my favorite Beatles albums, it suffers for me from the overplay and overhang of "this is the most important, popular music-changing album of all time". That all being said, this is one of my favorite songs. There's something very swinging 60s about seducing the meter maid, and a winning contrast between McCartney's poppy presence and the slightly sinister distorted Lennon backing.

Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds (the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band)-  The very heart of Beatles overplay. For me too, apparently, since it's on this list! So, not one of my favorites, but there is something undeniably arresting about the musical layering and surrealistic imagery.

Night Flight (Led Zeppelin, Physical Graffiti)- I maintain that Physical Graffiti is one of the most sonically perfect albums ever recorded. I also have a theory that it represents a kind of capstone of Classic rock, a point at which nostalgia for the passage of flower power past officially replaces the living actual feeling that something great and wonderful was about to happen. This song is that to a T.

Paint It Black (the Rolling Stones, Aftermath)- Through some glitch of iTunes, this song ended up on every playlist I downloaded, even though it wasn't included in the playlists themselves in my iTunes library. The result, of course, was that I ended up listening to it a lot. Not a bad thing, really. Take away the 60s nostalgia and you can see it for what it is, one of the most creepily nihilistic expressions ever committed to record by a popular group.          

Ready Steady Go (Generation X, No Thanks! The 70s Punk Rebellion)- Speaking of 60s nostalgia, here's a song that's a conscious repudiation of it, and yet, in it's poppy bounciness recalls the best of the British Invasion. It's also a reminder that Billy Idol once had something going for him.

Sexy Results (Death From Above 1979, You're a Woman, I'm a Machine)- The 2000s have been a rough period, musically. Kind of as dismal at the mass market level as the 80s, maybe even more so. But even in the worst eras there's always something going on somewhere, as DFA's re-imagining of heavy metal as dance music is here to remind us. 

Speedy Marie (Frank Black, Frank Black 93-03)- Speaking of the dearth of something going on in the 2000s, one of the best albums I bought last decade was this collection, which chiefly features songs from the 90s. What can I say, I'm a fool for the Pixies, and the solo work of their former front man as well. This is not one of my favorite songs by him, but it does go down super-smooth, with a strange aftertaste from the phrasing of the highly literate lyrics.

Subliminal (Suicidal Tendencies, Suicidal Tendencies)- Yes, I was an 80s alternative kid, but I think everyone should love the album this is from. I mean, really, listen to it. it was released in 1983, and everything that would actually become popular in the 90s amalgamation of punk and metal into grunge is already here, with a little shout out to rap metal as well from an era when hip-hop itself was in its infancy.

To Be Alone With You (Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline)- Nashville Skyline is one of my favorite albums and this is a bright and shiny little gem from it. It just rolls along, so uncharacteristically cheerful. Plus, I perennially love that, "Is it rolling Bob?" that kicks it off.     

Won't Fall In Love Today (Suicidal Tendencies, Suicidal Tendencies)- Opportunity to repeat everyting I said above about Suicidal Tendencies. Only faster, since this song clocks in at 1:00 exactly!

So there you have it. This may tell us as much about the algorithms of the iPod as it does about me, or popular music. But I am pretty proud of the nearly half-century span of music (from I Walk The Line in 1956 to Sexy Results in 2004) on display here. Happy New Year all, and happy listening to come in 2012!




Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Gingrinch will not steal Christmas, but don't count him out

In my blog from a  few weeks ago about Gingrich's sudden rise among Republican voters, I looked at the timing of the previous booms and busts of alternates to Romney. Based on the periodicity of Bachmann, Perry and Cain, I'd made a numerological guess that he would peak on 12/2, and start a sharp drop-off on 12/23. As you can see below, things have ended up working out a little differently:

In fact his high, of 35%, was reached on 12/13/11. And while the last three claimants to the anti-Romeny throne each had roughly three weeks on top before beginning their respective plunges, poor Newtie only seems to have gotten a few days. His polling average started a fall on 12/16, and as of 12/21, has fallen 5 percent in 5 days.

While this certainly looks to prevent him from running away with it (which I think he would have if he truly held on to a lead three weeks from his 12/13 peak, which would have had him still way on top when Iowa votes January 3rd), I think there's equally good reasons to think he's far from finished. He has a lot more going for him in terms of intellect, policy acumen and public presence than Bachmann and Perry, who wilted under scrutiny, and certainly doesn't have the kind of problems that Cain did when he propositioned his way to collapse.

What's going on is more like the effects of the whole field aiming their ammunition at him over the last 10 days, and the fact that the focus on him is showing him to be a little unpalatable. But, without the major handicaps of the others, there's nothing here that would wipe him off the map. Which makes it quite possible that we end up with something like: Gingrich loses Iowa, but not by enough to be embarrassing (especially since current trends make it seem like Ron Paul might win!). Romney wins New Hampshire, but not by enough to be impressive. Gingrich then wins South Carolina and Florida, leaving three consistent vote-getting candidates to duke it out in February and March, maybe long enough that nobody has enough delegates to win the nomination until June. Or maybe not even then.

At the very least, Romney does not appear to be in for a cake walk. I read a piece recently that laid out four scenarios, none of which involved Romney quickly and decisively wrapping it up. I also read an interesting piece comparing Romney to Nixon in 1968 as an ideologically indistinct candidate that the party didn't particularly want, but eventually swallowed its distaste for after repeatedly failing to find an alternative. Finally, the other day I read this article on Gingrich's current fall which makes many of the same points I made in my original blog on November 19th.

Which, if nothing else, at least backs up my conviction that, in a parallel world where I'd opted for journalism school instead of years of misadventure in the business world, I could have made a pretty fair political journalist.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

In Praise of Scary Cows

 One of the things I dearly miss about San Francisco is Scary Cow, the independent film co-op that I was a member of for the last four years. It was founded by Jager McConnell, in part in response to a problem he kept running in to in the course of pursuing independent film-making: he would post online looking for cast and crew for a project, but then the day of shooting a flake factor would often mean key people, maybe even everybody, failed to show up. With a $50 monthly fee for members, Scary Cow takes advantage of the fact that people are much more likely to show up for something they're paying for.

It also solves another key problem for independent film makers: access to equipment and crew. The co-op format brings together people with varying specialties, levels of experience and access to equipment and enables them to pool their resources. At a pitch meeting every few months, any member who has a project in mind stands up before the group to present it, and then gathers together names of interested people. Directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, light and sound people can all be assembled in short order.

Finished ten-minute projects then screen to an audience of several hundred at the end of each round in a local theater in San Francisco (lately the grand old Castro Theatre). The audience votes on favorites, and top vote-getters are awarded funds for future projects and the chance to screen longer 20-minute pieces. I can testify that some really great films have been produced, many of them going on to film festival success outside of Scary Cow. So far two teams have expanded their work to feature length films as well, the documentary Iran is Not the Problem, and the delightful musical comedy shoe fetish extravaganza Devious Inc. The group is currently gearing up to support even more feature-length projects.

My own involvement began in 2007, when years of wanting to be involved in film finally reached a boiling point and happily intersected with seeing a posting about Scary Cow online. In four years with the group, I had a chance to work on 13 films, and went from having no formal experience to getting to try out just about every role imaginable: actor, art director, assistant director, best boy, casting, director, extra, producer, production assistant, props manager, script supervisor, shot log and writer.

On six films I got to be a principal participant (some combination of director, producer and writer), for a total of 75 minutes of screen time. That's almost a feature length in most parts of the world! Along the way, I also got to participate in many of the workshops the co-op held, led by experienced cinematographers, directors and producers. At $50/month for 44 months, plus about $1,000 I put in directly to making films along the way (craft services can really add up!), and then workshop fees, for under $4,000 over four years I got a thorough introduction to film-making and got to meet and network with hundreds of people. That's a significant bang for your buck compared to most any film school you could name.

While I'm sadly far from the herd now that I've moved, I'm working on finishing the first draft of my first feature-length screenplay (currently 103 pages and counting), informed by everything I learned with Scary Cow. And I have a half dozen films that I had a primary role in to show for my efforts too:

Carson Larson Gets the Picture- The very first film I worked on, which I got to co-write along with Alex Winter (who produced it) and Jason Hoag (who directed it), and also worked as a production assistant and had a small role in.

Geek Wars- Which I wrote and produced, and Richard Armentrout directed.

Deaf Dumb and Blind Date- Also written and produced by me, and directed by Richard. This was actually a companion piece to Geek Wars, intended to be part of a three-part 20-minute film called Triptych, which I never got the prize money to screen in its full-length. I can arrange home screenings if you like, though, and meantime I think this holds up niftily well on its own.

The Buddhist News- The brainchild of national treasure and co-star of Geek Wars Matthew Weinberg, which I co-wrote with him and Assistant Directed, and also spit up on screen for.
Ave Maria- My baby, which I wrote, directed and produced, based on a short story I'd written. Which was way too much to do all by myself, but I guess I really wanted to get it made! I learned a ton, and while it was a long haul to get it done, I'm super-proud of it.

23 Ways In Which I Could Die- Co-written with Matthew, and Co-directed by myself and Fathy Elsherif, this film just screened in November. It's not online yet, but when it is I'll let you know. Until then, vive la Scary Cow!


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review: Superman/Batman: Vengeance

Superman/Batman: Vengeance (Jeph Loeb/Ed McGuiness, DC, 2006, originally Superman/Batman #20-25)

Dearest Blog, I don't know if we've ever discussed this before, but I am a comics collector from way back. Probably this is not news to you, given my other proclivities, but just for the record, there it is. 

In my earliest form, in the halcyon age of those spinny metal wracks in supermarkets, I was a fan of horror comics. I would load up every time my parents went shopping. As I got a little older, I became an acolyte of Marvel. This was in the early-mid 80s, when they were really the shit- The X-Men, Fantastic Four, Thor, Spiderman et al were in the midst of some of their best runs. Except for following writer/artist John Byrne's run on Superman when he went to DC from Marvel, and Frank Miller's work on Batman, I wasn't very interested in DC. Compared to Marvel's attempts at psychological and physical realism, DC was just a little too cartoony, too hokey, with the fake cities (Metropolis, Central City, etc.), unlimited god-like powers, silly weaknesses like kryptonite and the color yellow.

As with many things that had been a key part of my life (writing being front and center on that list), I put down comics when I went to graduate school in the mid-90s. My soul went into hibernation and life got more and more off track. After recovery and separation and other major life changes, I began to pick up things again (writing being front and center!) in 2002. And so comics have returned to my life, fueled by the collections of storylines into big softcover trade paperbacks that has become one of the major distribution modes of the 2000s.

I've caught up with some great stuff this decade. And to my surprise, I've found that in my old age I've become a big fan of DC. In part, it's certainly because younger writers and artists have shaken up the formerly staid world of DC. But I think it also reflects my own ability to connect now, after a lot more of life's twists and turns, with the basic, archetypal legends that DC has to offer. They deliver comics myth-making in its most elemental form.

None are more archetypal than Superman and Batman, two golden oldies still running strong after 70 years. Each has several monthly series devoted to them, but they also co-starred during the 2000s in Superman/Batman. I have dearly loved it for how it takes the two biggest toys in the DC Universe, presents them at the peak of their careers, and spins an ongoing storyline involving the two of them but liberally drawing on heroes and villains from all over DC. 

This is the fourth collection from that series, and it's a doozy! I'm allergically opposed to spoilers, so I won't give away much that you don't learn in the first few pages: Superman and Batman find themselves crossing paths in a parallel universe with the Maximums, a wonderful parody/homage of the "Ultimate" version of Marvel's Avengers. This could be a throwaway concept in the wrong hands, but the Maximums are very well done, the kind of loving forgery that shows as much affection as cattiness toward Marvel. Along the way, alternate Supermans and Batmans galore enter in, as do Bizarro and Batzaro. The series also draws in threads from almost everything that's happened in issues 1-19. You should probably read the other three collections first ("Public Enemies", "Supergirl" and "Absolute Power"), but once you're done, this volume delivers international, intergalactic and interdimensional fun in a way that only DC can get away with.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Blog must go on...

I'm on two weeks now of feeling sick and low energy. But this does not matter. What matters is the Blog. Well, writing more generally, but at this moment, the Blog more specifically. What happened in 2010 and through most of 2011 cannot be allowed to continue. Even when there seems to be nothing to say, the Blog must go on.

That is all.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Review: The Big Book of Conspiracies

The Big Book of Conspiracies (Doug Moench, Paradox Press, 1995, 223 pp.)

I just finished this book, which had been part of my recent Amazon birthday haul, so I thought I would strike the iron of review while the reading is still hot. Or something like that.

I have to say I quite enjoyed it, perhaps even more than its sister volume The Big Book of the Unexplained. I certainly found this tome to be more disquieting. And delightful. That's right, delightfully disquieting.

That's what you get when you have well-researched text on some of the darkest conspiracy allegations out there illustrated by 39 different comic artists. I think this is actually a pretty compelling combination, which could profitably be used a lot more than it is. There's like this, and Classic Comics. And I guess that whole Introducing/For Beginners book series, which I'm also a big fan of. Someone likes narrative art, apparently...

A word on the artists themselves: they were really good! It was a pleasure to run in to a few names I knew well from mainstream comics: Frank Quitely, Michael Avon Oeming and Bob Smith, for example. A lot of the others though, were from alternative comics, with styles ranging from cartoonish to dark and surreal. I look forward to catching up with what they've been up to since the mid-90s.

As far as the text goes, Moench is a comics writer as well, and the writing benefits from the best features of the medium: it's lucid, fast-moving, and entertaining. It's also, despite the obvious mirth behind the form, well-researched and packed with information. As in a five page double column bibliography citing the sources for what's presented in the 39 chapters.

Conspiracy theory is as conspiracy theory does, and some of what's presented here is definitely a wild leap, or based on specious connections. I enjoyed further researching a lot of it online as well, and, predictably, some things are less sinister (and solid) than they appear to be at first glance. There are others, though, that get more disquieting. To touch on a Golden Oldie, what the heck is up with Lee Harvey Oswald? I'm finding that to be the most interesting (and fruitful question) in the whole JFK thing- maybe there was only one gunmen, and he was that one. But how did he end up there, and why, everywhere in his history that you look, do you find strange connections? There's something to this whole CIA-Mafia-Cuban Exile thing.

The JFK assassination, of course, ended up in the book a lot, and much of the rest was pretty familiar territory as well: RFK, MLK, CIA mind control, Freemasons, Karen Silkwood, the always dear to my heart UFO-conspiracies. There were also some that were new to me such as:
  • Multiple intriguing threads linking Jonestown to the CIA
  • The international businessman/secret agent James Douglas Morrison that started showing up all over the place right after Jim Morrison's "death"
  • Truly bizzare Reagan assassination attempt tidbits such as the fact that John Hinckley Senior was a friend of George Bush Sr., his son Neil Bush had dinner plans with John's brother Scott Hinckley the day of the assassination attempt, and a second Jodie Foster-obsessesed young man threatening Reagan was arrested with a gun at New York Port Authority a few days after the attempt
  • John Whiteside Parsons. Look him up online, and bathe in the weird goodness that is this sadly deceased patriot/JPL scientist/follower of Aleister Crowley. 
The book also re-introduced me to the strange death of Danny Casolaro, who was found dead in a hotel of an apparent suicide as he was working on a book about the conspiracy that he claimed linked the October Surprise, Iran Contra, the S&L scandal and just about every other shady late 80s thing there was with a government attempt to steal a security-monitoring software. Were some of his sources questionable? Yep. Did he have financial troubles and other frustrations that could lead to suicide? Yep. Was he being warned off before his death in calls overheard by third parties? Yep. Were his research files missing from the hotel, and never subsequently found? Yep. Again, worth further reading on your part.

But don't tell anyone I told you so. Or send them a hyperlink to this review...


Saturday, December 03, 2011

Gingrich at his peak? Maybe yes, maybe no...

My November 19th blog on Republican Booms and Busts used the admittedly small sample size of the average timeline of other Republican candidates' rise and fall as alternatives to Romney to predict that the latest anti-Romney, Newt Gingrich, would hit a polling peak on December 2nd, and begin a plunge on December 23rd. So how's it looking?

Actually not too bad for the first part. On December 1st, Gingrich reached his all-time peak (so far) of 26.6% on the Real Clear Politics polling average, and has remained at that level since then:

Might this be the peak? One good reason to think it could is that polling slowed down so much around Thanksgiving that there is only one national poll covering the period after 11/20, a Rasmussen Reports poll that had Gingrich at 38% and Romney at 17%. Since this is only a single poll, and Rasmussen polls historically tend to skew more conservative, the chances of it being an outlier are fairly high, and new polls that show Gingrich still ahead, but by less than 21%, would tend to back him off a little from the high this poll contributed to.

On the other hand, today's piece of breaking news is that Herman Cain is suspending his campaign following the damage wrought this week by a woman who claims to be having an affair with him. While he denies it, he does admit to paying her bills and she has phone records that show months of contact between them. Prior to this, he had stabilized at around 15% despite the swarm of earlier allegations of woman trouble, and could probably have hung in around there until the voting started.

Now his votes will be looking for somewhere new to go, and all indications are that Gingrich and Perry are more likely to get them than Romney, which push Newt even higher and keep him near the top long enough to actually still be in the lead when voting starts one month from today.  

There are still plenty of good reasons to think that Romney will eventually be the nominee. Look at this Washington Post article, for example, to see the advantages his lead in money and organization give him in building a machine that will accumulate delegates throughout the process. But it's looking increasingly like Newt might just hang in there long enough to at least make it interesting.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Plum Island Thanksgiving

On Saturday Abbey, her Mom and I visited the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, a 4,700 acre reserve that is a playground for migratory birds on Plum Island, near Newburyport, MA:

While we weren't quite there on Thanksgiving itself, we did, as you can see above, cross paths with wild turkeys, which is pretty darn seasonal. The reserve is on an 11-mile long barrier island, with, accordingly, a beach side:

 And a marshy inlet side:

Other than the turkeys, a beautiful pair of Mute Swans that reminded me of the Palace of Fine Arts Lagoon, and a black cat on a fencepost as we were leaving when it was unfortunately way too dark to show up on film, we didn't see particularly exotic wildlife, but it sure was pretty:

 Besides which, a guy just likes spending time with his gal and her Mom.

P.S. Bonus extra credit for anyone who can positively ID the following plant, and tell me if I will drop dead if I eat the berries:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

America's Stonehenge 978-Newt 130

 A quick one here, holiday week and all. I've been looking for appropriate sites to display some of my blog content on. Accordingly, I posted my recent blog on Newt Gingrich's polling rise to the 2012 elections board on

Reddit is a pretty groovy place in terms of aggregating news and content from a variety of sites in a user-moderated environment. The Newt piece got some decent traffic, so I decided to post my recent America's Stonehenge column in their paranormal section.

The results? The Newt Gingrich post has generated 130 pageviews. America's Stonehenge? 978! Does this say something about the relative online audience for news of the Paranormal versus Presidential elections?

P.S.- Over 1,100 page views between them, and still only one comment on either blog. What's a brother got to do to get some reader interaction going?!?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Republican Booms and Busts

Oddly, I'm not talking about the business cycle here. Instead, I'm talking about the following phenomenon (provided courtesy of the "poll of polls" updated daily at Real Clear Politics):

That green line now reaching for the sky on the far right (all appropriate puns intended) is Newt Gingrich, currently enjoying a popularity boom in the polls tracking candidates for the Republican nomination. As you'll see to the left, the same thing has previously happened to Michelle Bachmann (black), Rick Perry (blue) and Herman Cain (red). Mitt Romney (purple), meanwhile, remains remarkably range-bound, never lower than 15%, never much higher than 25%, as various opponents shoot up and fade away.

Now I'm hardly the first person to notice this. But, lover of figures and charts that I am, Gingrich's path along the same boom as his predecessors made me wonder if there's any regularity to the pattern. Curious, I tracked the timing of the beginning of the surge, reaching peak, and start of drop-off of the last three candidates:

It was interesting to see that, while the three boomlets so far have taken different amounts of time to reach a peak, that amount of time from peak to beginning of steep drop was remarkably similar. It makes me wonder if there's some kind of structure to media saturation, boredom and vicious turn, such that the newscycle of three weeks is inherently how long you can stay on top once you get there. Even more fun, since we can spot on the polling graph the date of the beginning of Gingrich's surge, it's actually possible to predict the timing of his peak and fall based on the average of the last three:

So, if his cycle follows the average of the last three candidates, he'll reach his polling high on December 2nd, and begin a steep drop-off December 23rd. Which won't be a great Christmas present for him. Even worse giving the following dates:

1/3/12    Iowa
1/10/12  New Hampshire
1/21/12  South Carolina
1/31/12  Florida

In other words, his peak of popularity will likely come (and start to end) too early to translate into success in the first primaries and caucuses. Which would leave the consistently medium Mitt Romney again on top just as the voting starts, giving him the nomination despite GOP voters' obvious equally consistent search for someone they're more excited about than him. A lot of people have thought all along that this is the most likely outcome, and I tend to agree. But I can imagine a few reasons Newt's experience might be different:

1. Everything tends to slow down over the holidays, and media cycles are probably no exception. Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's just might stretch out the cycle enough that Newt is still at or near the top when voting starts.

2. If you look at the above dates, one thing that can be clearly seen is that, in each case the next comer was already starting to climb a few days before the previous person started to plunge. In other words, the "anybody but Romney vote" has probably remained consistent, and just looks for someone new to transfer to. This might work for Newt because there's nobody else left. Bachmann, Perry and Cain have all had their day, Huntsman is too centrist for the field, Santorum has never gotten more than 2-3%, and Ron Paul is Ron Paul. Of course, someone new could get in, but this would be difficult at this point given early primary filing dates being closed or soon closing. So, the opposition to Romney might have to stick with Gingrich now, for better or for worse. 

3. A large part of what's happened with the last three anti-Romneys is that they were still relatively unknown to a general audience, and the inevitable airing of their dirty laundry (plus just letting people hear the ridiculous kinds of things they say) started to pull down their popularity shortly after its surge. Gingrich has plenty of negatives, but they're well known both in the party and among the public in general. If primary voters are liking him now, it's not like they're about to find out things they didn't know that will make them reconsider.

Mind you, these are just reasons he might not totally self-incinerate before the voting starts in January. All this might really mean is that Romney is left with a somewhat credible opponent at that point. With his funding, organization, and consistent hanging in there, he's still likely to be the nominee in fairly short order.

Which leaves us all with the shudder-inducing possibility that we could have a general-election that de facto begins by, say, April 1. Seven months of gaffes and spin and irresponsible rhetoric, saints preserve us all... 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

I love packages from Amazon!

Even when, no, especially when, like this one, I already know what's in them. Birthday and holiday gift cards are a beautiful thing, because they allow me to go on shopping sprees for things that have been piling up in the back of my mind for a while.

Sometimes, like in this case, I enjoy giving it my shopping expeditions a thematic spin. My purchases were:

The Big Book of Conspiracies I got the The Big Book of the Unexplained several years ago, I think in the excellent used comics section at Aardvark Books in the Castro in SF. Ever since then, I've been on the lookout for this volume on conspiracy theories from the same series. The basic format is a series of short articles on different topics, all written by the same person but illustrated by different comic artists for each section. The BBotU certainly alerted me to some aspects of the paranormal that I hadn't known about previously, while also reacquainting me with some old friends. I'm looking forward to the same here. Despite the obviously tongue-in-cheek presentation in terms of form, the content is actually quite well cited. And there's something about the juxtaposition that gets it further under the skin than reading or seeing something on TV alone would do. I'm also looking forward to the hours of joy in further researching online new things I run across in this book. I've found one can both do some instant debunking, and crawl further down the rabbit hole this way.

The Field Guide to Bigfoot and Other Mystery Primates This volume is co-authored by Loren Coleman, leading cryptozoologist and proprietor of the International Cryptozoology Museum that Abbey and I visited recently in Portland, Maine. It's set up as a pretty straightforward field guide in some ways- illustrations, species descriptions, range maps, footprint outlines, etc. It just happens that the subject matter is a little more exotic and/or possibly nonexistent. Could come in handy, since I plan to doing a lot of tromping through the woods in these parts. Bonus question: Is the creature next to the book a mystery primate? I don't know, but now that I have the field guide I can find out!

The Mysterious Monsters I am especially excited about this volume, as you can see. But hey, you've gotta understand! I got this book as a kid, around 10 years old, from a book fair at elementary school. The Mysterious Monsters in question are the Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, and the book was actually pretty low on sensationalism and strongly evidence-focused in its treatment of the subject. This was one of my first forays into the world of the unexplained which, obviously, has had a lifelong effect on me. The beloved volume vanished at some point, along with a lot of things that were in my childhood room, as things from one's childhood room will tend to do. Over the years I've tried to track it down, but was hobbled by the fact that I couldn't remember two key pieces of information: the title, or the author's name. I did try googling based on my recollection of content many times, but to no avail. And then, a week or so ago, for whatever reason, I found a combination of search terms that led me straight to it. I'm looking forward to re-reading it, and seeing what I make of it now that I'm about 4x as old as the first time I read it. Talk about unexplained phenomenon!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

2012 Election: The Gaffe

As you may have heard, this guy is running for President again:

It will almost certainly be one of the four people in positions three through six below who will run against him:

It's not looking like it will be easy for Obama. Incumbents usually win, but there are exceptions. The chief being that Presidents who have presided over a recession whose effects are still being felt usually lose. But there are also exceptions to that. Nate Silver, who is just about the most canny analyst out there, is putting the current odds of Obama being re-elected at roughly 50/50. However, I'm not here, at least today, to discuss his chances. I'm sure I'll get around to that eventually, since presidential election seasons are to me what the football season is to the average American male. What I want to talk about today is the gaffe.

You know the one. Somebody says or does something a little silly. Maybe a lot silly. Rides in a tank and looks goofy. Gives a hoarse yell at a rally. Makes a comments that seems slightly pro-something they claim to be anti. Then it gets covered ad nauseam. In fact, this kind of moment will be what quite a lot of the presidential coverage ends up being about. Versus, say, a candidate's policy positions. Their actual record of achievement, or lack thereof. The truthfullness of claims they make.

Because those things require time to report about, and time to listen to or read about. And some thought and concentration to actually follow. And the American attention-span has become more and more fragmented by each new media that has come along. It's a little funny, since media bandwidth has exponeentially increased. But the average content of a single communication seems to decrease inversely, as more and more signals rush in to fill the bandwidth. Think of newspapers versus radio versus television versus the Internet circa 2000 versus social media now, and I think you'll see what I mean.

So it is perhaps inevitable that short incidents with some entertainment value (i.e. "the gaffe") will triumph over substance. But I don't think it can be good for us as a Republic. Who out there wants to commit with me to try to ignore the gaffe and concentrate on the substance this go-around?   


Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Greetings from the International Cryptozoology Museum!

This past weekend Abbey and I went to the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine. Cryptozoology, for those who may not be hip to the field, is the study of (as yet) unknown animals. In other words, the Zoology of animals that are not yet documented by science, but some day may be. Here to the left, for instance, is the cabinet for Yeti artifacts. The museum is the brainchild of Loren Coleman, who founded it in 2003 to house some of the many objects he's collected in decades of work in the field. In-between teaching public policy and being one of the world's foremost experts on the copycat suicide phenomenon, he's spent a lot of time on the trail of unknown animals, and authored over 20 books on the subject.

Coleman is widely regarded as a serious and careful researcher, which befits Cryptozoology, since, of all the paranormal disciplines, this is the one that is most like conventional science. While there certainly are cryptids (unknown creatures) that seem supernatural, and researchers that specialize in the more paranormal aspect of the field, most people who work in it would say that these are animals that live, breathe, eat and poop like any others, it's just that science hasn't gotten a proper hold of them yet. The museum itself keeps a good balance of appropriate seriousness and whimsy. Like the giant beaver diorama to the right featuring guest appearances by Indiana Jones and Steve Irwin. Delightfully cute and silly. And yet, there were 8 foot long beavers around in North America as recently as 10,000 years ago, so who's to say that in some remote mountain lakes in Canada or the U.S. West, surprises may not linger?

Bigfoot, of course, as the marquee North American cryptid, gets proper treatment here.  Besides posing for a picture with Abbey and I...

...there were some quite interesting displays on the footprints, hair samples and other leavings of our possible native ape. I also really enjoyed the cabinet of artifacts related to the 1967 Patterson film,  which is either a thorough fake, or some of the best evidence. I've gone back and forth on that question myself, but I have to say that lately computer enhancements and  scientific studies of the gait and body proportions of whatever's walking in the film have me leaning towards "best evidence".

The museum itself definitely doesn't ignore hoaxes or issues of fakery. There are several exhibits devoted to the subject, one of the creepiest of which has to be the recreation to the left here of the Feejee Mermaid. Said "mermaid" was a fixture of P.T. Barnum's traveling show. While the original was lost in the 1860s, the consensus is that it was probably the dried hairless remains of the upper half of a monkey sewed together with the lower half of a fish. More recent hoaxes and misidentifications are covered as well.      

And speaking of recent, Maine is apparently getting its very own cryptid sightings right up to the present day. The color-coded pins in the map to the right display the locations of sightings of various cryptids. Some are more prosaic, like the ongoing sightings of big cats that indicate that the Eastern Cougar may not be quite as extinct as advertised. Then there are your star cryptids, like lake/sea monsters and Bigfoot, of which there are actually a significant number of New England sightings. Abbey and I observed a cluster of pins in Baxter State Park and have accordingly decided to vacation there. My favorite, though, is the Specter Moose. It was apparently a huge whitish-gray moose with antlers that spanned ten feet wide, and was seen a lot around the turn of the last century. I hope he (or she (or descendants)) is still out there!

So, to sum up, cryptozoology is fun, and so is the museum. On top of which, Loren Coleman is there in person most days, and how often do you get to meet a real cryptozoologist? Plus, Portland is a beautiful town, with ridiculously pretty harbor views. Go visit when you have a chance!


Saturday, November 05, 2011

10 Essential Sci-Fi Books

(from my Sci-Fi Book Club)
(and thoughts on 11 others)

One of the things I sorely miss about SF (the city, San Francisco) is my SF (the genre, Sci-fi) Book Club. We started in March 2008, taking turns each picking a book. Our membership waxed and waned from nearly 10 to barely 2 or 3 at times. We had periods where we met every 6 weeks like clockwork, then some others where we couldn't get together a next meeting for months. Even in the face of all these starts and stops, we got through 21 books by the time I moved to the Boston Area in July 2011.

Despite being a very book kind of guy and card-carrying geek of multiple lineages (Star Trek, Star Wars, comics collector, D&D player, I could go on), I had actually never read much Sci-fi, so I was interested to see what was out there, and what I would think of it. From the admittedly not completely scientifc selection of the books picked by the guys and surprisingly large number of gals in our group, here's my vote on a top 10, in alphabetical order (spoiler light beyond the basic premises, since I hate spoilers):

1. A Fire Upon the Deep  (Vernor Vinge, 1993) In full disclosure mode, I must note that this is one of the ones I picked. That being said, I really didn't know a lot about it beyond being familiar with Vernor Vinge from his relationship to thought about the Singularity. It turned out to be a delight for the way it combined genres- at heart it's a kind of horror story, with a really scary ultra-intelligence monster. But the story gets told in a unique Sci-fi setting (a race across across the galaxy, which turns out to be segregated by zones where intelligence, and even the laws of physics, are more advanced on the edge, and get duller toward the center). And a great deal of the action happens in what is basically a fantasy setting, full of castles and palace intrigue. Really well written, delightful all the way through, and provocative.

2. Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke, 1953) This was the third book we read, deservedly a classic. Clarke is a master of clear, simple prose. The book itself is the prototypical "saucers appear over every capital on Earth" story, and once you read it, you'll see its influence everywhere. As far as what those saucers are doing there, who's in them, and what they want with us, though, the thing I found most striking about the book was its originality, both at the time of publication, and still today almost 60 years later.

3. I, Robot (Isaac Asimov, 1950) Again, a classic, and one whose influence you'll find everywhere you look. The thing that most impresses me about Asimov, though, is the warm humanity of the writing. The stories ring true not so much based on whether predictions about technology and future society are on target (though some of them are), but mostly because they are full of the author's shrewd understanding of what people are like and why they do what they do. In the hands of someone else this could come off very cynical, but with Asimov it's more of a wise, knowing, "Ah, yes, that's who we are."

4. Neuromancer  (William Gibson, 1984) Here is born cyberpunk. And happy birthday to it! In many ways, a chillingly plausible look at a world more technologically advanced, but more socially decayed. Did this foresee many aspects of the Internet, or actually influence its development? And seriously, could The Matrix pay some copyright for ripping off every element of character and visual design it had from this book (albeit with a very different storyline)? But beyond all the further thoughts I could unload about it, at heart it's a damn well done film noir story thrust into the realm of cyberspace (a term it invented!).  

5. Revelation Space (Alastair Reynolds, 2000) All the books I've described so far do an excellent job with character, but I don't think any of them get as deep into the psychology of their (often deeply flawed) main characters as this book does. Along the way, there's horror, intrigue, skillful plotting as three widely divergent storylines converge, and high concept cosmic evolution. Given that so many of the works we read came from a Sci-fi heyday of the 50s to the 70s, this makes me glad to say: Well done, 2000s!

6. The Forever War (Joe Haldeman, 1974) When it first came out, this was a kind of parable about the Vietnam War told through the main character's experience of a war lasting generations due to the time dilation between it's far-flung battlefields. Nobody quite knows how the war is going, why we're fighting, or even exactly who the enemy is. Sad to say, it has a whole new resonance thirty-five year later after our own decade-long Forever War Against Terror.

7. The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury, 1950) This was the book we kicked off with. As we should have, since it gave us the vital middle of the ABC "big three" of classic sci-fi (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke). In terms of science, the Mars it portrays was already badly outdated by the mid 60s, and throughout, the technology of how we get there and stay there is treated as an afterthhought. And that really doesn't matter, because it functions on the level of fable- the things in it are true, because they've always been true. And that truth is suffused with some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful prose you will ever read.

8. The Mote In God’s Eye (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1974) There's also some feudality here, in that there are lords and ladies in an interstellar monarchy. This turns out to be a feature of several of the books we read, a portrayal of human civilization becoming more feudal as it spreads out across multiple star systems. The focus of the action, though, is first contact with the Moties. I'll leave it to you to find out all about them, but suffice it to say it is a superb portrayal of just how physically and culturally alien an alien race might turn out to be. Plus it's just good, character-rich, well-plotted, fast-paced fun to read.


9. The Ophiuchi Hotline (John Varley, 1977) Set in a solar system that is now thoroughly inhabited (except for, curiously, but for good reasons, Earth) this book is rollicking good fun. It has everything you'd need for a good time- clones, aliens, spaceships, genetic engineering. It also delivers a future that seems quite plausible to me (especially the banana meat trees) despite how exotic it is. And it makes you think about just how little say we might have in the shape of our own future if there really are other intelligences and a higher cosmic order.

10. The Sparrow (Mary Doria Russell, 1996) This could be exhibit A in the "Is literary fiction that happens to use Sci-fi themes or settings still Sci-fi?" argument. Or, conversely, "Can Sci-fi be 'serious' literature?" I've always thought it's a bit of a silly distinction. Dickens and Shakespeare were, in their time, writing that day's equivalents of potboilers. Meanwhile, many things that are supposed to be "important books" today will vanish in the mists of time, and thus prove to be quite as disposable as anything Danielle Steele ever wrote. Good writing is good writing, and time will tell what the enduring literature is. But this massively sidetracks us. A great book, literarily. And great sci-fi. Also one of my favorite kinds of sci-fi, near future, and involving first contact. Which turns out to be far less about the aliens, and far more about who we are and how we make meaning in life.

Honorable Mention (9 other good reads):
Berserker (Fred Saberhagen, 1967)- May man versus killer robot spaceships always be so fun.
Eon (Greg Bear, 1987)- I think about this one a lot, almost a top 10. Stunning ideas about future human evolution, with a time travel twist. Plus great use of Ralph Nader. Really.  
Flashforward (Robert J. Sawyer, 1999)- I told you that CERN supercollider would be trouble... 
IQ83 (Arthur Herzog, 1978)- A potboiler? Yes. But damn would it be fucked up if this happened.
Quarantine (Greg Egan, 1992)- While this didn't make my top 10, I do think Egan is one of the finest, and most philosophically challenging, sci-fi writers out there. Check out Distress and Permutation City for further mind-bending.
Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein, 1959)- Right wing? Left wing? Somehow to blame for the movie made from it? And Showgirls as well, through mere association? Or just damn fun reading?
The Divine Invasion (Philip K. Dick, 1981)- One of my favorite authors. If I hadn't already read his book VALIS before I got to the group, it would have been in the top ten above, and this is more from that same, very good, vein.
The Gods Themselves (Isaac Asimov, 1972)- I don't believe Asimov wrote a bad book. Besides which, anything featuring trisexual energy beings is an automatic yes.
The Road  (Cormac McCarthy, 2006)- See The Sparrow above vis-a-vis Sci-fi and literary fiction. Either way, a great book that somehow manages to be heartwarming and unrelentingly grim at the same time.
Dishonorable Mention (2 cautionary tales)
Last and First Men (Olaf Stapledon, 1930)- It deserves props for ambitious future history, and recognition as one of the earliest sci-fi novels. It was also very dry and slow. The only one I never finished from the group, sad to say.
The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood, 2000)- Great book, albeit very slow to start and frequently quite bleak. Not Sci-fi, though it does contain a sci-fi tale within the tale. Discussions on group policy were had afterward.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The theme of this Tuesday's Blog is...

I put myself on a new schedule of posting twice a week. I figured that, if I make it a regular assignment for myself, just like a column I might write for someone else, the chances of it getting done go way up. So now "update blog" sits on my Google calendar at a set time every Tuesday and Saturday.

This is my third week doing it, I actually didn't want to have any fanfare and announcement (for what, all three readers?) and then not follow through. Especially after how little I was able to blog the last year and a half as life just seemed to swamp writing. This regular schedule is actually part of a counterattack on the problem, the essence of which is weekly dedicated time: 4 hours a week for my screenplay, plus an hour for editing my poetry collection, and then two Blogs a week.

So why am I mentioning it now? Because tonight, dear reader, I can't find anything my brain is collected enough to want to write about. This may be a side effect of the heat having been out for the past five days- blood has porobably been pulled out of my brain, and devoted to more important activities. Whatever the cause, here I am, content lite. But, DAGNABIT TO HELL, two blog posts a week, rain or shine.

So here you go. You'd best behave, or I'll do it again.  

Saturday, October 29, 2011

America's Stonehenge

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.'  I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself." -Robert Frost, "Mending Wall" 

Yesterday my lovely bride Abbey and I went to America's Stonehenge, a possibly archeological site just outside of Salem, New Hampshire. (Salem, NH, by the way is an unnecessarily confusingly close 37 miles from Salem, MA. Manchester, NH and Manchester, MA, and Concord, NH and Concord, MA are in a similar vein. As are Burlington, MA and Burlington, VT, although those last two at least have the decency to be separated by 200 miles. But that's not what we're here today to discuss...)

A short trail through the woods...

...leads to the main site...

which contains a maze of stone walls and chambers...

...about which several theories have been floated.

Some claim it to be a Native American megalithic site, for which there's some decent evidence. Charcoal pits, pottery and other artifacts found on site have been dated to between 2,000 and 100 BC. There's even evidence of a a stone slab being quarried in situ nearby.

Some researchers have even lined up walls and standing stones on the site with astronomical alignments, as a map there explains:

This stone, for example, would have had the summer solstice rise directly above it circa 1,800 BC:

As always, there are a few wrinkles with this theory, such as the fact that, given enough stones or lines, some are always going to line up with something. When I visited the Nazca lines in Peru in 2009, museums and guides in the area noted that 20% of the lines could be lined up with astronomical occurences. 20% could be lined up with sources of water. 20% could be lined up with mountain peaks and other features of the landscape. In other words, there were so many of them that 20% could be lined up with almost anything you choose.

It's also worth noting that many of these stones have been "set up" from presumed "fallen" locations, and that 20th century clearing of the trees has occurred to create openings in the skyline. I.e., it would be very difficult at this point to know what the exact arrangement of stones, or view of the sky from them, was when the site was originally inhabited.

Further muddying the waters, the site was the location of the farm of one Jonathan Pattee (and family) in the early 1800s. Historical records show he used stone structures there for storage (cellars etc.) and also rearranged and cleared a lot of stone off of the site. Signs there also made reference to more stone being carried of in the 19th century when the site was used for quarrying purposes.

In the 1930s, the site, already of interest to picnickers, occultists, and my dear friend H.P. Lovecraft, was purchased by William Goodwin, who "restored" many of the structures there. Some people seem to be of the opinion that Goodwin only did maintenance-type work, setting up obviously toppled stones, restoring rocks that had been scattered from walls, etc. Others have the suspicion that he extensively rearranged things to support his pet theory, that Irish monks had established a settlement in the area around 900 AD.

Barry Fell, a subsequent researcher, believed that the site may have been even older, and contained evidence of Phoenician occupation. There is a small museum on site, which includes petroglyphs said to resemble Old World languages including Phoenican and Celtic:

Whatever one makes of all these claims, somebody clearly built a lot of something there. My own personal feeling is that there was some kind of original megalithic site in the area. Subsequent occupants made such extensive changes, though, that it's very difficult at this point to determine what was there, or how it was arranged. Whatever it was or is, though, it's pretty damn neat!

My favorite was the Oracle Chamber, guarded below by the lovely Abbey, which really is kind of eerie inside, and features some advanced drainage and acoustics:

I'd kind of like to go back there for a ghost hunt sometime:

It should be noted that the current owners since the late 50s have been careful stewards, making restorations only according to historical photographs, and sponsoring archaeological research at the site. On top of which, they have an alpaca farm there, which firmly establishes them as awesome in my book:

The opening quote, by the way, besides being suitably stone wall and elf-themed, was inspired by the fact that Robert Frost wrote "Mending Wall", and many other of his most well-known poems, at a family farm in Derry, New Hampshire, right next-door to Salem. If you should happen to be in Derry you might, as Abbey and I did, stop off at the super-yummy Windham Junction Country Kitchen:

Some might fine meatloaf there, let me tell you!