Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Notes on Terry Pratchett's Small Gods.

I realized while penning this that some might find it incongruous that I'm writing a book review for a thirteen year old novel. My reply to that would be twofold: first ( and most infantile)--it's my blog, and I can do whatever I want and; I usually write book reviews for 400 year year old plays, so this is in fact pretty cutting edge stuff for me.

I have found a stand-in for my deceased hero Douglas Adams; his name is Terry Pratchett. I've just finished my first of his 30 or so Discworld novels, 1992's Small Gods and was so impressed that I sped down to my school library to get another work from the series.

Discworld is a flat planet (tee hee) that rests atop four elephants, who stand atop a giant turtle swimming its way through the cosmos. There exists a religion that is convinced that the world is in fact spherical and consider the correct flat-planet cosmology a capital heresy. (But is there really any other kind?) And it's that kind of tongue-in-cheek stuff that defines the whole series.

"Series" is a bit of a misnomer, unless one thinks in terms of a television series. The books have recurring characters and the same setting, but are not really sequential and do not require reading in any particular order. Small Gods occurs midway through the series, but one misses nary an important bit of information on that account. The novel is, like all discworld novels, a satire--in this instance an incisive send-up of faith and religion. The action is set in the brutal theocracy of Omnia, a place where philosophical reflection, science, and dissident views of cosmology are all...frowned upon. Our hero is an illiterate novice cleric by the name of Brutha, kind, faithful and obedient, with the peculiar added quality that he has perfect recall of everything he has witnessed since birth. The villain, if he can be called that, is Vorbis, a priest of the Quisition, the body appointed to maintaining theological orthodoxy, mainly by mass torture and executions. Throw in a once-mighty god regrettably trapped in tortoise form, a truly funny parody of ancient Greece, and a little bit of Zen addended for good measure, and you have the makings of a broad but tightly focused and oddly compelling plot. The 357 pages are gone in what seems like the time required for a weekday NY Times. It's something that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books never had; while they lampooned the same theological constructs, the plots were typically little more than a loosely connected series of events used as a pretext for Adams' fanciful digressions. With Pratchett, you get an actual structure to complement the sarcasm.

The genius of this book, though, is how effortlessly and whimsically--yet effectively--it addresses the nature of religion, the natural excesses and peculiarities it accrues with age, the nature of physical versus spiritual truth, the meaning of divinity, and the corruption of human motives. We are asked questions like--what if gods need our belief more than we need their providence? Why are the most unshakeable of faith the most dangerous individuals in a society? How do successful religions come about, and how do established ones die? You won't catch half of it until after you finish, because you've been so thoroughly diverted and busy laughing througout the narrative.

It's as if the reader has been tricked into reading something fairly serious and exceptionally well-crafted against his will. In the end, the effect is like listening to a pastoral symphony: drawn in by the light rythms and pleasant melody, you don't realize how complex what you've heard really is. It's a fine novel and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Shopping the Three-Dollar Wall.

I've never been a code guy. You know, code of the Old West, honor code of the NHL, dress code, Hammurabic Code--that sort of thing. My romanticized self-image attributes this to my rebellious, free-thinking, philosophically skeptical nature, but closer to the truth is probably that I'm juvenile, inattentive, and plain don't like following rules. To live by a code is to have a routinized existence, and I am nothing if not poor at adhering to routines.

But I should probably clarify. I do follow a code; it's just a personal code. Everyone has one of these, whether he acknowledges it or not, and there are plenty of psychological inventories out there that can help one define whatever it is that personal code involves. Still, I have the same problem with my code that I do with all others: I establish fundamental rules and then ignore them whenever it seems convenient to do so. It's a slacker's way of getting through life, and perhaps that's a code in and of itself--the code of disregarding the lessons of experience in the hopes that improvisation will save time and effort. Again, the romanticized view says I reject precedent in favor of pragmatism, but actuality asserts that I cut corners in defiance of better experiential knowledge. Case in point: I shopped the three-dollar wall, and now have grease-encrusted fingernails and a still-broken Wal-Mart bicycle as dividends.

My own code has affirmed, time and again, that one should never shop the three-dollar wall. What exactly is the three-dollar wall? It's both a literal and an abstract concept. Most people are familiar with it in its literal sense: you go to any of that thriving class of discount stores that feature imported knockoffs, ersatz junk, and general gimcrackery, with a sprawling wall featuring such fare for the bargain price of a mere one United States dollar. These retailers like to call it the dollar wall, but as anyone who has gambled enough dollars knows, two of every three procucts purchased off of it either fall apart in your hand after you open the package, or are utterly destroyed during or following their maiden usage. I've bought the one-dollar dartboard-and-darts set in which the board disentegrated in my lap, the one-dollar all-purpose knife in which the corkscrew snapped on its first wine bottle, the one-dollar dashboard clock which lacked any mounts to attach it to the dashboard (and a non-functioning clock--double points), and the one-dollar set of steak knives that rusted in the dishwasher following one meal. Balanced with the few working and/or freakishly amusing items I've procured (like the eerily-matching hair extensions), the mean price paid per useful item procured is right about...three dollars.

Now, it is those retailers' fault for selling me any of that junk the first time. Shame on them. It is only my own optimism and stupidity, or perhaps the realization that three dollars is still pretty cheap, which makes me continue to wager a Washington on something that is, in preponderant likelihood, worthless. Shame on me. That is the literal idea of the three-dollar wall, in a nutshell.

But on to the natuaral extrapolation of this lesson--the figurative sense of the three-dollar wall. This is an important, if bluntly obvious concept. If you buy the least expensive product of any type from the least expensive dealer, understand that: A) you are gambling; B) there are sound economic reasons that this product was cheaper than its competition; and C) you have no right whatsoever to be outraged or disappointed when your stuff turns out to be junk. People who unwisely purchased $2,500 dollar new Yugos back in the 80's and then were angry that the engines blew up are a sublimely illustrative working sample of this idea.

Back in the infant days of this blog, I wrote a gloating and self-congratulatory post about the great deal I'd scored from the evil Wal-Mart on a three-speed, aluminum-framed Chinese bicycle. I even gave it a name. I was so pleased that I'd successfully cheated the system, and that for a song I'd be rolling to and fro from Wrightsville Beach that I sang the praises of cheap imports to the heavens. The wary Giant Bladder warned me of my folly, suggesting that you get what you pay for in these exchanges, but I would have none of it. I figured, "how can something as simple as a bicycle be made badly?"

The rear wheel on Chiang the Chinese bicycle began to lock up arbitrarily a few weeks ago--just past any return date I could have reasonably used to argue with Wal-Mart. Any one who has ridden a bike (and probably anyone who hasn't) can infer certain...externalities associated with this happening. On an elementary level, it becomes rather difficult to get anywhere while fighting with a stuck drive wheel. It also means that, while darting across an intersection, one may suddenly be faced with the unfortunately lethal possibility of a car bearing down, with no immediate escape-type remedy. And then there's the third nuisance of riding in the upright position downhill when motion is suddenly and totally arrested, sending one careening headfirst over the handlebars toward the caprices of the landscape. To be brief, that's no good.

So, rather than surrender in the face of my poor choice, I took to attempting DIY repair this evening. I am not mechanically adept, but I am unfailingly mechanically adventurous, to the point that I will disassemble and analyze things with which I've no familiarity at all. I certainly did learn a lot about the propulsion, gearing, and braking of bicyles--things that I'd taken for granted. As such, the session cannot be viewed as a total failure. But by disconnecting the gearing cable, removing the rear wheel, hosing everything down with WD-40, and attempting to reinvent and reassemble my three-speed bike as a one-speed, I learned the following: I was sold defective garbage that I should have returned before I got it home, as I noticed a strange brake-friction even then. The rear wheel still drags and locks, and I'm likely out the $100 I originally thought was so cleverly spent. Had I the proper tools, I could do more, but acquiring those would probably cost more than trying to replace the defective rear wheel and/or axle. Never shop the three-dollar wall, unless you have no vested interest in the results.

As I was finishing this post (really) I popped open a bottle of a Cotes-du-Rhone white that I got off the clearance table at my neighborhood wine seller. The cost? $2.99. Perhaps I've learned something. I am not at all surprised that it sucks.

Geriatric Jack Flash.

"I certainly won't be playing 'Satisfation' when I'm 40."--Mick Jagger, 1969.

Well, as I do not believe there was a Rolling Stones tour between July 26, 1983, and the same date in 1984, we must assume that Sir Mick meant that quote literally, and that he was just misunderstood at the time. As has been recently announced, though, he will be singing it this Summer at an age two decades past the fearful four-oh. Henry Fountain at the NYT explains:

But while Mick Jagger, who will be 62 when the tour begins in August, and Keith Richards, who turns 62 in December, may be aging rockers, they are also something else: active seniors.

That's right, the ageless (or merely aged?) wonders from the U.K. will be touring once more, but as this piece asserts, it's just part of the trend of old folks refusing to be put out to pasture. After a bit of thought, I was surprised to find that I don't disagree with this.

People have been yelling for the Stones to hang it up since the late 1970's. Most of them probably did so because they weren't fans to begin with, but we'll give the benefit of the doubt to those who feel that rock n' roll has a shelf life, or, more accurately, its practitioners do. For the latter, though, a simple question: why should they retire? For one, judging by the aging demographic at their shows, those very same people insisting the band call it quits 25 years ago, and probably annually since, are still buying tickets to their concerts. But a better reason still that the Stones continue to lurk, crocodile and tortoise-like, well past their evolutionary expiration date is simply that they are able to.

In 1964, when the Stones jumped into this whole record game, who would have even thought a bunch of sexegenarians would have the stamina or energy to do a U.S. concert tour? (As an aside, the Stones can, in their career, boast five distinct musical mediums under which they have had original work released: vinyl, eight-track, cassette, CD, and MP3. Let's have a look at your resume.) In fact, in 1964, a 62 year-old man in the U.S. or the U.K. had little reason to expect to be healthy, and about seven fewer years left to live than at present. And no one from the Stones has broken a hip in concert, and they aren't forgetting lyrics or dropping their instruments from arthritis. Mick is really the only one expected to move about much, and he does that like a man 25 years his junior. So what is physically too old to rock? I'd say that's up to the musicians themselves to decide.

The Crypt Keeper, and a wrinkly Mick Jagger. Posted by Hello

Of course there is also the exponentially more silly argument, that rocking past 40 is a kind of indignity, really something embarassing and unbecoming of an older person. Hey, you know what? Rock n' roll is embarassing, undignified, and unbecoming for everyone. C'mon, if people want to be taken seriously in this world, there's law school for that. Was there really anything that glamorous about local bands playing for beer in dank local clubs with the plumbing exposed, before eight of their friends and relatives? Did the people getting hosed with Faygo by imbecilic acts like Insane Clown Posse think they were on the cutting edge of high art? Do Creed fans think they are basking in the presence of enlightened and reflective spirituality?

No. It's a silly game in which everybody's trying to make a buck at the end of the day. The Rolling Stones have just been better at it than anybody else, ever. I understand that that fact bothers a lot of people, who are tired of watching their four decades of success, and enthralled with the cheap and easy target they represent. But that doesn't make the same jokes, tour after tour, any fresher or funnier, and it doesn't make the shows any less enjoyable.

But we'll close, appropriately, with a quote from another guy who rocked into his later years: "When 900 years you reach, look this good you will not."--Master Yoda.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Homework for Bloggers.

(Sound of man climbing atop soapbox.)

I have to make a request of my readers: on this Saturday, May 14th, the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) in conjunction with the U.S. Postal Service and a handful of generous corporate sponsors, is conducting the Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive. You may have already received a post card in the mail announcing it, but I will outline the program regardless: before your carrier arrives on Saturday, you simply place any sealed, non-perishable, and non-glass packaged food items in a bag at a visible location near your mailbox. Your carrier picks it up and takes it to the station, after which it is transported to an area food bank. It couldn't be any simpler.

What I am asking is that everyone place at least one item out for pickup on Saturday. It's a small sacrifice that will quickly be forgotten, but combined with the efforts of others gathered 70.9 million pounds of food last year alone. That's an awful lot of help for people going through some tough economic times.

Since charity seems to always be oddly politicized, I'll address it briefly from that angle: if you are a conservative who believes that the government should stay out of your pocket and stop redistributing wealth, here is a great opportunity to bolster your argument. Make all of this Robin Hood do-gooding unnecessary by your charity, and you'll have that much more street cred next time you rail against high taxes. If you are a liberal, who believes empowering the poor and oppressed is the duty of all, then I shouldn't even need to tell you why donating here is a good idea. Now you get to say that you live what you speak. This stuff is golden across the spectrum.

So everybody: at least one item, please. I'm doing it and I'm absolutely broke. You know there's canned asparagus in that pantry somewhere that you were never going to eat. Give it up.

(Sound of man stepping down from soapbox.)

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Happy Mother's Day!

Since we've been devoting a lot of our time here to Matters of National Import, and other such stodginess, I think all should instead join me today in wishing a fond Mother's Day to my mom, nurse extraordinaire, savior from starvation, and all around superstar kind of gal, Mrs. Karen Ann Smyczek.

In honor of those heady days when I was seven and had no income, and would make really crudely assembled cards out of whatever construction paper and glue was lying about the basement, I am hereby constructing an online Mother's Day card from scratch. I hope you like it, Mom.

Oh, a quick aside these people demanded that I link to their page in exchange for thieving their photos. No sense getting myself sued, after all.

We will begin your virtual MD with a virtual plant. Everyone knows moms like plants.

A Plant-Type ThingPosted by Hello

Can't you almost smell it? It's as if it's right there in the house, except stuck on the monitor of Dad's Mac, and not flower-smelling, or anything like that.

Next, we're going out for dinner. This is your appetizer:

A Virtual Quiche, or Something Like That Posted by Hello

Actually, I'm not sure that you either of you guys like either quiche or greek salad, but man they sure looked good to me, and besides, those people at that web site didn't ask me to pay for stealing their pictures, and beggars can't be choosers, right?

Now we're on to the main course:

Delicious Prime Rib for Two Posted by Hello

Now I know for a fact that you actually like prime rib, so that one was a huge find, as such. Isn't it delectable? It's as if you could eat it, were it not an electronic image walled off by a glass monitor screen. Wow, wouldn't it be great to have a son who could buy you actual prime rib?

I tried to get you a picture of a glass of some Manischewitz to go with your prime rib, but every time I copied a picture of it, my computer started to smoke and crackle, so I had to delete it. Funniest thing.

On the way home, of course, you'll need to stop for some apple pie a-la-mode and a cup of gourmet joe. Mmmmm. Mmmm. Sounds delicious. Here they are:

The Obligatory Apple Pie A La Mode, with Gourmet Coffee Posted by Hello

What! You said that was ordinary drip coffee?! The outrage! Well, we'll have to get you some of that delicious chocolate-type whole bean stuff that they used to sell where I worked, but inexplicably stopped. Luckily, I have special powers to track things down. Here you are:

Those Beans you can't get at World Market Anymore. Posted by Hello

You may now virtually grind your own virtual beans and make your very own virtual coffee at your leisure.

Oh, not quite done with our day, are we? Well, if that first plant wasn't stunning and fragrant enough, if a bit inanimate and imaginary, perhaps you'll like this second one! Everyone knows moms like plants.

More Flower-Type Things Posted by Hello

Now, if you haven't been sufficiently smothered with kindness and gratitude, I have the final, creme-de-la-creme, coup-de-grace, granddaddy ultimate, end-all and be-all of virtual Mother's Day gifts. That's right. You guessed it. It's...three adult chimpanzees. I'm sure you'll take very good care of them.

What's Mothers' Day without Chimpazees? Posted by Hello

Okay. I have to admit something. Chimpanzees don't have anything to do with Mother's Day. I downloaded that picture about a week ago, and just couldn't find any excuse at all to use it. In any case, I hear they're highly personable and intelligent, if a bit difficult to look after. But you raised six children and are on granchild number four. How hard could a chimpanzee or three be?

Well, I hope you've enjoyed all of your gifts, and your actual material-world day is as lavish and kind as my cyber-holiday has been for you.


Saturday, May 07, 2005

My Sincere Thanks.

Since you all patiently read through or around the post that sat up here for the last two months, I ask that, after you've read it once, you skip past this one for a week or so. I want everyone who helped out to get a chance to see it.

The Walk to D'Feet ALS was yesterday in Wrightsville Beach. Chad of Dublin Saab came along for our three mile trek around the area, in which we took a circuitous route from Wrightsville Beach Park down to the ocean and returning back to the park. It was a pleasant if overcast day with temperatures in the low 70's--a fine day for a stroll by the Atlantic. I met the other walkers from the UNCW graduate student association, had some great conversation, got my promised ball cap and T-shirt, and generally had a good time while helping out this important cause.

Wilmingtonians walking for a cure Posted by Hello

But this post isn't ultimately about me; it's about you, the incredibly generous folks who read, sympathized, and/or contributed financially regarding this charity. And so, I would like to recognize:

Claudia Smyczek Raleigh and Mark Raleigh, who pushed us well in advance of our erstwhile goal with their huge donation.

My parents, Mr. and Mrs. Smyczek, who can be reliably counted on to contribute to whatever crusades their children undertake.

Michael Zilliox and Melvina Kleverova-Zilliox, whose kindness extends far beyond this singular instance.

Last, but certainly not least, Natalie Miller-Moore, Dan Moore and lovable mutts Bailey and Luna (who know doubt sacrificed their allowance to help).

The people who you are helping out appreciate your graciousness, and so do I. With yours and contributions like yours, about $90,000 was raised by the event.

Wicked Pleasures.

The New York Yankees are in last place. I am in no way displeased to read of this. After the unadulterated joy of watching them tank away there 3-0 ALCS lead to the BoSox last fall, I'm getting a rare entree-dessert of Yankee failure.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., May 5 - Derek Jeter remembers the glory days, an era in Yankees history that seems to be gone forever. The Yankees of that generation hardly resemble this team, a collection of faded stars who have crash-landed in the basement of the American League East.

How do I hate them? Let me count the ways: they're from the most obnoxious city in the country; they buy their success based on an uneven playing field that no one else in the AL can match; they are owned by a mercurial bastard whose hands-on interference is only offset by his ludicrous checkbook; they own a 200 game lifetime head-to-head edge against the Indians; they drive up league payrolls by spending huge sums on suspect and mediocre free agents...I could go on, but really there's no need.

In any case, 11-18 is merely a slow start for the rest of baseball, and a typical April in Cleveland of late, but this is big-time panic stuff to spoiled New Yorkers who believe the AL East crown to be granted them annually by celestial fiat. It's nice to see a little panic in the Bronx for reasons other than the DEA guys with the battering ram and dogs at the door.
The last time the Yankees were in last place this late in a season, it was June 20, 1995, and [Derrick] Jeter was playing for Class AAA Columbus after a brief trial in the majors. That team recovered to win the wild card and start a 10-year playoff run, but the streak may be in jeopardy.

My heart is breaking. Can one hear these things online? Following a sweep at Tampa Bay, the Yanks are sorting some things out, like who to fill in for the perpetually-injured Jaret Wright. (More about the free-agency bit in a moment.)
It was too much for [Chien-Ming] Wang, who had made an impressive debut last weekend. He worked six innings, allowing five runs on eight hits and two walks, striking out three.

A replacement for the injured Jaret Wright, Wang was an unlikely option to stop a losing streak, and he could not do it.

When Bad things Happen to Bad People. Posted by Hello

Jaret Wright started his career as a 21-year-old rookie phenom pitching game seven of the 1997 World Series for the Indians. His career disintegrated into six of the next seven seasons spent on the DL. He had one good season for Atlanta last year, which prompted the Yankees to pay him a multiyear gig at seven mil annually. So, by the laws of the baseball market, now any putty-elbowed journeyman coming off one good season is worth the same amount, which means--you guessed it--only teams in New York, Boston, and LA can afford to take those kinds of risks. Let's hope they all have the same luck.
There may be no saving the Yankees, unless the stars align and summon their past heroics. Their next chance will be Friday at Yankee Stadium, where the fans who bought some of the 3 million tickets sold before opening day will be restless.

I would be inclined from a philosophical perspective to argue that one is morally debased by taking pleasure in the misfortune of his enemies. Ah well. You'll have that some days. Consider me morally debased. This couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of guys.

Go Tribe.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Ohhh...The Disappointed E-Mail.

I turned in my last paper of the semester guessed it...late! I emailed it to my professor so he wouldn't have to take a seperate trip to school (the semester is over and all), and even offered to bike it over to his house, and I got...this e-mail in reply:

I got the essay, Jeremy. Thanks. I'm sorry you missed the gathering
at my house on Tuesday. We had a very relaxing time. I'll place graded essays in mailboxes later this week, Monday at the latest.

Dr Bushman

C'mon, can't you feel it? The passive-aggressive disappointment? The "well, at least you'll have it graded on time?" The guilt trip for blowing off his end of semester shindig because I was exiled in shame by not having my paper done? It's horrible. I wish he'd just gone ahead and failed me. Now I have to deal with three months of sad, head-shaking disapproval from my super nice-guy professor. Damn. Oh, and he's just Don when you haven't been a bad person. I got the grownup-speaking-to-child full-title name.

I swear, for Summer school I'm turning my stuff in on time.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005


Arright, I watched The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with good friend Chad of Dublin Saab on his weekend excursion up here recently (and y'all thought bloggers never met in person).

For those who like to think movie versions are inevitably inferior. Well, duh. A virtually plotless novel was contorted into a movie. And you know what? I think they did a pretty fine job of it. I never like books (particularly books I love) made into film. Nor does anybody else. But I think the adaptations were thematically true to the novel in a way that make most conversions look even weaker than they aught. Arthur was Arthur. Zaphoid was Zaphoid. Marvin (God bless Alan Rickman) was most certainly Marvin.

In fact, every one of DNA's characters, with the possible exeption of the miscast Trillian (a wandering Zooey Daschell) said their part flawlessly.

A Vogon reading very bad poetry. Posted by Hello

So, nimrods who feel that the novels should be matrixed somehow directly into the screen just aren't getting it. The cinematic version captures the idea of what Adams was getting at splendidly. I've read the books three times apiece. He himself (as he wrote the screenplay, before his unexpected death) liked the way the film incorporated his ideas. Why the dissident purists want to raise a fuss is beyond me.