Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Cranking

Over the last couple of weeks, I've heard "Not Fade Away," by Buddy Holly, the Dirty Projectors' cover of the Bob Dylan classic "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" and a rip-the-knobs-off live version of "Middle of the Road" by the Pretenders. 

On my radio.

Thanks, Ferris.

Nevermind

A couple of guys over at a site called IGN have come up with a list of what they think are the top 25 Saturday Night Live skits of all time. It is appalling.

Pardon me spoiling their article's suspense, but the number one skit in the show's 35-year history is the Christopher Walken/Will Ferrell Cowbell sketch? No Bees, no Greek Restaurant, no Roseanne Roseannadanna, no Bassomatic, no "wild and crazy" Festrunk brothers (but including the somewhat-less-than-one-joke Butabi brothers!), no Theodoric of York, no "Pepsi Syndrome," no Tarzan, Tonto and Frankenstein, no "Colon Blow," no Gumby...but the Cowbell sketch not only makes the list, it sits at the top.

I can only repeat the quotation from Emily Litella that I used as the post title and follow it with a paraphrase from Dan Aykroyd's Weekend Update commentary: IGN, you ignorant nuts.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Mission: Obscured?

I looooove David Weber's Honorverse. Something-verse, for the socially capable, is geek-speak for the world or universe in which one or a number of an author's works appear. It has a long history: Robert E. Howard's grim warriors slew their way though the same world, although at different times. Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan visited Pellucidar, the hollow interior earth of Burroughs "Earth's Core" books, and his Venusian adventurer Carson Napier had intended to reach the Barsoom of John Carter until he realized he'd forgotten to plan for the effect of the moon's gravity on his rocket. Napier, alone among the leading men of ERB's different adventure series, is blond, although Burroughs does not seem to draw any connections.

Anyway, Weber has been exploring the Honorverse since first publishing On Basilisk Station in 1992. Captain Honor Harrington, Royal Manticoran Navy, assumes her first hyperspace-capable command therein*, and we begin traveling through our portion of the galaxy as we learn about the Star Kingdom of Manticore, the devious and dirty People's Republic of Haven, the bloated behemoth of the Solarian League, the martial and proper Andermani Empire and so on. The early books are quite clearly space-opera homages to C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower, but after awhile in the series Weber began branching out. Other officers, queens, dukes and what have you joined the daring, resourceful, tough but beautiful Harrington as he started expanding his field of action and drama. Political skullduggery, media spin, and so on took roles on the stage.

Other authors joined Weber for different novels and several volumes of short stories and novellas. All were set in the Honorverse version of our galaxy, filled with habitable planets that had very few races of intelligent beings on them and which were promptly colonized by humanity. The other novels lit up their own different pieces of this wide-ranging sprawl of star nations and their various populaces (populi?)

As the Honor Harrington novels grew in popularity, the predictable bestseller's bloat set in. Most writers lack the discipline to really trim their favorite kinds of scenes or types of writing from their work; that's where editors come in (Exhibit A: This blog has no editor and this piece should probably be about 150 words long). The Honorverse fanbase was loyal to Weber's descriptions of a brave, daring and resourceful nation of people represented by an even more brave, daring and resourceful military, and by Weber's coherent worldview, science and techno-geekery. So as the word count cranked up along with the cover price, no one at Baen Books had a cross word to say about it. Great stories and pretty good books were still buried within the mess, but retrieving them became a labor-intensive experience for the reader.

Weber also developed an annoying habit of coining (and running into the ground) his own clich├ęs. "Bomb-pumped lasers claw" at defensive screens several times per battle. "The next best thing" to a jargonishly huge portion of armament or weaponry is unleashed three or four times a book. His characters' words drip so much sang-froid you want to offer them napkins. Expository dialogue and narrative oobleck their way into smothering whole chapters, and Harrington herself seems well on her way to demiurge status, all properly retconned so that we see explained how she was always what she is now, even if she wasn't anything of the kind when we read the first books.

Mission of Honor, the 12th book in the main sequence Honor Harrington series, both extends and redeems some of the problems that have come close to sinking the more recent Harrington books. On the one hand, it's several hundred pages shorter than War of Honor and At All Costs. On the other hand, the conversational cataracts that seem to have been undammed from Weber's keyboard surge even higher, as the evil Manpower Corporation's directors and the arrogant imbeciles of the Solarian League spend way too many of those pages talking. And talking. And talking. And talking. They lean back in chairs and sigh or grin every once in awhile, but that's just to let them draw breath for more talking.

At least a novella's worth of plot developments struggle for notice in Mission, which is more than the entire monstrosity of At All Costs could produce. Things do happen, which is a step in the right direction. Whether or not Weber can continue that trend and make Honor Harrington No. 13 a lucky novel has yet to be seen. Either way, I am unashamed to admit that this fanboy will be there to snap it up as close to its publication date as finances permit. Because it is, of course, a matter of...honor.

*I got this wrong. See the helpful comment below.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Preachy!

After a Father's Day holiday with my folks, sermonizing has resumed! Specifically here.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

I Can Haz the Teknowledgy?

Well, I for one welcome our new bionic feline overlords.

On the other hand, how many robotic limbs do you need to nap 20 hours a day?

Friday, June 25, 2010

Common Sense at Work

I have to applaud the Provincetown School Committee on this one. Rather than make its free condom distribution program available to every student at the school, regardless of age, with no parental approval needed, they will now re-word the policy so that only students fifth grade and up can ask the school nurse for a free condom.

It makes sense to me -- if you can't ride your bike without training wheels, you shouldn't be asking for birth control. I suggest the committee check out local amusement parks to see if they have any old signs like this one to help make the policy clearer.

Then I suggest they make those drinks a post-meeting ritual instead...

It's in the Mail, Dude...

As in, the check that North Korea suggests we send them for all of the damage our nation has caused them since the peninsula was divided in 1945, which would be the numbers "65" followed by nine zeros.

Yup, according to the official North Korean news agency KCNA (motto: Even if we are making it all up, you'll smile and nod if you know what's good for you), Uncle Sam needs to pony up $65 trillion. They're letting us off the hook for whatever money they've lost since sanctions were imposed after their 2006 nuclear tests. Maybe even the jokesters at KCNA figure nobody's going to believe that trade sanctions could hurt a country that doesn't make anything anyone wants to buy.

I figure we should do like some of those wacky types that pay their taxes with coins. Not pennies, though, because I don't think my calculator can hold that many zeros and the Norks don't have enough people to roll them up so they can make the deposit. We can use quarters instead.  Think Great Leader Kim Jong Il would be OK with about 1.6 million tons of quarters dropped on Pyongyang? Might be fun to watch.

Or we could just have Gary Burghoff and Jamie Farr do a weeklong USO-style tour of all of the North Korean concert halls that have electricity and call it even.

Try Clipping That on Your Belt

The picture shows an IBM hard disk drive from 1956. According to the item accompanying it, the drive would hold 5 MB of data, or just about two .mp3 files. One of them would probably not be this Hollies single.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Say Goodnight, Gracie...

A series wrapup of my reader's diary of Stephen King's Dark Tower saga is up at the long-post blog. As with the others, it has many many many many spoilers, so if you haven't read the books and don't want to know what happens before you do, take a pass.

My attention will now turn to another couple of projects so the long-post blog may go dormant for awhile. But thanks for reading (if you have) and thanks for not saying, "What a dork!" if you haven't.

Workin' For a Livin'

OK, so at 45, I'm by no means old, unless you're one of those silly little whipper-snappers whose birthdate has as its third digit 7 or something larger and who cares what you punks think anyway. Ahem.

Anyway, I was born the year that this writer chose for comparison of worker earnings. He saw an item in a Radio Shack catalog from 1964 about a "moderately-priced" stereo, available for about $379. Sounds good, he says, until you realize the average, not minimum, but average hourly wage for an American worker was $2.50. The average worker would have had to rack up just more than 150 hours on the job to clear a pre-tax amount that would enable him or her to buy that moderately-priced stereo.

Let that same worker put in the same amount of hours today at the current hourly average of $19 and he or she's got enough to pick up a home theater system, a 50″ plasma HDTV, an Apple 8GB iPod Touch. a 3D Blu-ray disc playe. a 300-CD change, a portable GPS, a 14.1-Megapixel digital camera, a Dell Inspiron laptop computer and a TiVo high-definition digital video recorder for the three grand that gets pulled down before taxes. After taxes, of course, I think that average worker may have to settle for that moderately-priced $379 stereo.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

B-Movie B-Day

The awesome force that is Bruce Campbell is 52 today. Any man that titles his autobiography If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor understands the world much better than you or I do.

Attention, S-Mart associates: Zombie cleanup in housewares.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Get Me in the Sound

If we learned nothing else from the 1960s (and judging by how some grandparents cavort 'pon the stage as though they were still wearing youth's full bloom, we haven't), we learned that secret agents and law enforcement officers, in order to be cool, must have cool music. Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin, Jim Phelps and his Impossible Mission task force, Frank Bullitt, Harry Callahan, Dave Starsky and Ken "Hutch" Hutchinson (Season One only) all turned to one man, Argentine pianist, composer and conductor Lalo Schifrin, in order to make sure that no matter what else happened, they would sound cool.

That they did, and your mission today, should you choose to accept it, is to wish a happy birthday to Mr. Schifrin, who turns 78.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Rolling Seven

The seventh reader's diary of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, a spoiler-laden discussion of book 7 (The Dark Tower) is up at the long post blog. A series-spanning set of wrapup thoughts will follow in the next week or so.

This Is How It's Done

I didn't listen to President Obama's speech earlier this week in which he discussed the British Petroleum oil well explosion and resulting spill, but I haven't heard very many nice things about it.

Probably best, therefore, that he didn't choose today to speak, since it's the 70th anniversary of what no small number of people consider one of the best speeches in the English language, Sir Winston Churchill's "their finest hour" address to the House of Commons as the Nazis marched on Paris. The text is here, and the page contains audio links. When it comes to oratory, Sir Winston casts a long shadow, and foolhardy indeed is the politician who stands in it while offering up his or her own words.

Wise choice, Mr. President.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Keep Your Hands Off My Stack...

So now that all of the moving and shaking amongst college athletics has settled a little, what do we have?

As many folks have noted, we have a conference called the Big Ten that has 12 teams, and a conference called the Big 12 that has (currently) 10 teams. The Big Less Than 12 lost two of its northern schools as Nebraska became a part of the Big More Than Ten  and Colorado joined the Pac 10 For Now, But We'll See.

Of course, things could have been much worse for the Big 12 Or Thereabouts, as some of the top football schools of the conference were being courted by the Pacific and Points East 10. And the Southeastish Conference was making eyes at Texas A&M. And most of the coverage of this matter used words like "courting" far too often, making my sports page read like a Harlequin romance. Fortunately no one talked about the earth moving, or I might just have lost my mind.

In the end, Big 12 More or Less conference officials decided that the extensive travel schedule that would result from having its athletes play schools two time zones away would present too much of an academic hardship, affect their schoolwork and hamper them from earning their degrees on schedule, so they decided to stay part of the Big 12 With 10 Teams Not the Big 10 With 12 Teams. Ha! No, of course they didn't. They got assurances they could make just as much money from TV contracts staying put as they could if they moved.

And, according to a columnist at Sports Illustrated, a couple of other monetary factors may have crept into the decision as well. The columnist quotes from a report by Big Still 12 For Awhile Yet commissioner Dan Beebe about some of the fallout for collegiate athletics if four or so large conferences had all the top-level football programs and everyone else played with their own marbles in their own little backyards. This item at the Sports Economist site quotes a line that gives coaches and athletic directors everywhere sweaty palms: "Clear identification of the highest level of intercollegiate athletics reduced to a smaller grouping of schools (e.g., four 16-member conferences) could cause eventual tax consequences and tremendous pressure to pay those student-athletes responsible in programs driving the most revenue…" I sympathize with the "eventual tax consequences" issue but the second reason remains a part of the hypocrisy rotting at the core of the collegiate athletic system today.

See, schools that are thinking about shuffling off to these other conferences could give some folks ideas. Some of those folks are in government, and one of those ideas might be even though we haven't been non-profit outfits for awhile now, they've at least tried to pretend like they are.  And profits smell like tax revenue to them, and they're congenitally unable to see money without trying to take a chunk from it. Further, if people see that programs make a lot of money, and coaches make a lot of money and conferences make a lot of money, well, they might ask what those sports-office do to earn it and they don't even want to go there because they'll have to answer, "Sit in air-conditioning while large numbers of young men, many of them minorities, perspire a lot and run into each other on Saturday afternoons."

So the Big Approximately 12 survives for another few years, and major collegiate athletics avoids a situation it fears more than it fears an NCAA inspection team rummaging through phone logs, travel receipts and the AD's laptop: Sharing its money.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Haven't I Seen This?

I heard a lot this weekend about the new movie Get Him to the Greek, starring Jonah Hill and Russell Brand. Hill plays a record company intern hired to escort an out-of-control rocker, played by Brand, from England to a concert at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. Hijinks and, I am told, hilarity ensue. Brand reprises the Aldous Snow character he played in 2008's Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

I think I liked this movie a lot better when it was called My Favorite Year and starred Mark Linn-Baker as the young guy escorting Peter O'Toole as a hard-partying actor around town the week before O'Toole is to appear on a late 1950s sketch comedy show. Sure, Hill for the pre-Perfect Strangers Linn-Baker is probably an even swap. But even laying aside how some unfairly accuse Russell Brand of being a comedian, there is no way he can measure up to O'Toole's defining comment on about 95 percent of Hollywood performers when he's panics at learning the show will be performed live: "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!" Plus, we're talking Peter O'Toole. And we're talking Russell Brand. Even with all the grease that must be in that unwashed mop on top of his head, there's no way he's as slick and smooth as Peter O'Toole.

Monday, June 14, 2010

World Cup II

A few early observations:

1. The vuvuzela is easily one of the most annoying features of watching a sporting event since the wave. It may even be worse; while we couch-ensconced spectators aren't necessarily subjected to the sight of several thousand people proving they can indeed stand up and sit down at the same time, we can't get away from the stupid buzzing sound made by a cheap plastic trumpet. If I wanted my sports to sound like that I'd set up a TV in the Pratt & Whitney parking lot.

2. I think the U.S. v England match gives us a hint about one of the reasons we back'ards provincial 'Mercans aren't as into soccer as the rest of the world. Judging by the high levels of verbiage expended on the game and the U.S.'s surprisingly strong showing, a reader might think England had gone down to ignominious defeat (as they did some 230-odd years ago under Coach Cornwallis, I believe). The result was actually a tie -- in pool play, of course, that's worth one point so you still have a chance to move ahead to the next round. But the hoopla surrounding this tie just seemed a little off. Maybe Americans, not being as sophisticated as the European centres (a.k.a. "centers") of the soccer world, are just a little uneasy at the idea of getting this excited about kissing our sister.

3. Yesterday at the gym the TV showed the Germany v Australia match. I always enjoyed watching a soccer match in person, and there's a reason we call blowouts in any sport "yawners," but good grief! It looked like the only reason Germany scored four goals was because they didn't want to score five; a game this lopsided does not help increase the ol' cardio rate on the elliptical.

4. This morning, U.S. time, I watched part of a game between Denmark and the Netherlands. Up until seeing them on the same playing field at the same time, you would have had trouble getting me to swear the Danes weren't the Dutch and vice-versa. Even now, I'm not sure there's no CGI involved. And it seems like a Dane defender had the same problem, as he headed the ball off his teammate into the net for an own-goal, forty minutes before the Dutchmen could score one for themselves.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Song Sung. Blue.

Volume VI of Stephen King's series The Dark Tower, The Song of Susannah, is the subject of this week's reader's diary at the long-post blog here.

Sunday Funnies?

Well, I laugh at some of the jokes, anyway. The sermon is up here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Math Trouble

So I found out something interesting about my membership discount card with a bookstore chain. I bought it with part of the gift card my sister gave me for Christmas, reasoning that I would thus stretch her gift out over a whole year and get the most for her money. I'm thoughtful like that.

Well, the other day I saw an item at that store that I thought I would purchase, and noted that as a new release, it was already 20 percent off. The sticker (which is also the inventory control tag -- clever) said that members saved an extra 10 percent.

Did some rough math in my head and figured that meant that the $14.99 item I wanted to buy would be discounted about $4.50 and thus cost me $10.49. But when I actually looked at my sales receipt, it had rung up as two separate discounts: The 20 percent was taken off the $14.99 as $3 (they round up), and then my 10 percent member discount was taken off of that figure as $1.20 off, leaving a figure of $10.79 and a total discount of 28 percent, rather than 30.

Now, even I'm not cheap enough to quibble over thirty cents, and I'm also pretty sure there's a clause buried somewhere in the membership card info that says they'll discount things this way so I'm not claiming I'm being cheated. And for the company's part, I'm pretty sure that when you spread that 30 cents, or more, if the item's price is higher, over the millions of books they do sell, it adds up for them.

It was just a kind of slightly disappointing feeling, like hearing a friend say you had to divvy up change found in a couch with him because you found some of it on the side he had been sitting on, even though he hadn't lost any change from his pockets. Oh well -- even bookstores can have feet of clay.

World Cup!

I'm looking forward to following it, as well as rooting for the good ol' U.S. of A. during the next few weeks.

I'm not looking forward to listening to soccer snobs lament how far behind we back'ards, provincial 'Mercans are because we don't get as fanatical about it as the whole rest of the world and we pay so much more attention to baseball and football. Nor am I looking forwards to the drop-of-a-hat correcting lectures that tell me the whole rest of the world calls it football while we back'ards, provincial 'Mercans insist on saying "soccer."

Just pipe down and let me watch the game, twinkletoes. This thing doesn't happen all the time and I don't want to miss it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Vindication!

An Australian scientist has suggested that being grumpy promotes clearer thinking. I would be thankful, if it wasn't for the fact that doing so might obscure my decision-making process.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Well, Sure...

Networks and bloggers and newsmagazines galore have been paying attention to President Obama's statement that he has been talking with both experts investigating and regular folks affected by the British Petroleum oil well disaster. This is, he says, so he will know "whose ass to kick."

I might suggest starting with the folks within your administration, Mr. President, who spent more than a few days wondering what to do and even who should be the one doing it. And while you're talking tough, you might bend the ear of the Chief Executive Officer of BP a little -- after all, you're the President and it's not about what he says to you, it's what you say to him, perhaps even hinting that one of the targets for the executive footwear might be his well-paid behind. And go ahead and toe the bottom line on some of the White House staff, who seem to be taking a break from the "nightmares" the spill is causing them to doff some shirts and quaff some suds.

Fortunately, we were able to lay to rest the question of what you thought about instant replay in Major League Baseball, and whether or not MLB Commissioner Bud Selig made the right decision in not awarding a perfect game to pitcher Armando Galarraga after a blown call by umpire Jim Joyce robbed him of that chance. In all fairness, I can't make fun of you over that, Mr. President, because everyone who's heard about that issue has an opinion on it, so you're entitled to one as well. I can and do laugh out loud at the sheer vacuity of the blow-dried NewsMuppet who asked you for that opinion, but all I can catch you on is not looking him in the eye and saying, "You want to know what I think about what?"

Maybe you should call up his boss and let him know whose ass he should be kicking. Make it a party.

The First? And the Last?

River of Ruin presents an interesting question for the reader: Just when did Jack DuBrul write it? It's the fifth book featuring globetrotting mining engineer/geologist/tail-kicking adventurer Philip Mercer, released four years after DuBrul introduced Mercer to the world in Vulcan's Forge. Forge was a little ragged, a pretty obvious case of a novelist writing early in his career: A little too much exposition and some sore-thumb-style characterization and backstory. DuBrul's style smoothed out over time, and he's now the best of the collaborators used by adventure novelist franchise Clive Cussler. River has some smoothness in parts, especially in the action set pieces (more on those in a minute) but it's also saddled with backstory and with some brutally amateurish characterization attempts. It's almost as though River might have been the first Mercer manuscript DuBrul completed, but held it back while putting out a better one. We meet Mercer at an auction of rare nautical manuscripts, alerted by a friend about a piece he's long desired being up for sale. But there are others interested in it as well, and they are willing to negotiate in a violent and bloody manner to acquire it. Some clues and a call from an old friend's wife lead Mercer to Panama, where he tries to piece together a puzzle involving the Panama Canal, hunts for legendary treasure and some very suspicious-looking Chinese military and espionage operations. In doing so, Mercer will have a nail-biting footrace through Paris sewers, a helicopter chase through twisted rain-forest canyons and mountains, a car chase inside a gigantic cargo ship in the canal and a race against the clock through the canal itself. The skill DuBrul shows in these sequences only makes its lack more apparent when Mercer pauses to reflect on what's happened to him and what it means. Those passages could have used some punching up as well, but all the same River is a great fun read, especially if you're by yourself so no one can hear you snicker at the especially clumsy parts.
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Though Robert B. Parker died in January, his consistent work ethic meant that several more books were more or less finished by then and had yet to be published. Split Image is one of those, the ninth and probably final Jesse Stone novel. The police chief of Paradise, Mass., is trying to figure out how a Russian mobster's body ended up in the trunk of a car. The presence of other mobsters of various ethnicities and stages of retirement complicates matters, as does the presence of Boston private investigator Sunny Randall. Sunny is in her own series of books, but she and Jesse have overlapped before in an affair that ended because neither of them could move on from their respective ex-spouses. She's in Paradise hunting down the daughter of rich clients who believe their daughter has been brainwashed by a cult-like religious leader. Both Jesse and Sunny spend time on the couch with their respective therapists to conclude what exactly they had done wrong in their previous relationships, and also spend some time on various horizontal surfaces with each other. They achieve tentative breakthroughs that hint they might be able to build a future with each other, but Parker didn't go much further than hints. Both mysteries resolve. Jesse gets helped out by the dead mobster's widow, and Sunny locates the young girl and determines that she seems to be OK where she is. Parker may have been planning on combining the two series or at least using the two characters together in each other's books. While it's refreshing to see him stop using Jesse's ex-wife Jenn as The Whore Who Makes Jesse Think And/Or Drink, the front-and-center presence of relationships -- normal, a little bit off and in some cases downright twisted -- means we spend a lot of time on things other than our cases at hand. And the story upon which these therapeutic musings does hang is thin indeed. If this is the last Jesse Stone novel, it's a nice ending for Jesse and Sunny as well -- uncertain, but hopeful. If it's not, it'd be nice to hope Parker doesn't screw them up again for their respective exes like he's done more than once before.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Out Come the Wolves

The next installment of the reader's diary of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, mulling over Wolves of the Calla, is up at the long post blog.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

No, Really?

Veteran reporter Helen Thomas is shown in a YouTube clip saying that Jews who live in Israel should get out of Palestine because it's occupied territory. They should, according to Thomas, go back to Poland and Germany. She made the comments May 27th during a Jewish heritage celebration at the White House.

Thomas has since apologized for the comments on her own website, saying she deeply regrets them. Since they're about as smart as Verne Troyer is tall and since she was caught on tape making them, I imagine she does regret them. In fact, I'll take her at her word -- no reason not to -- and accept that as an apology to the Jewish people.

Which doesn't excuse just how dumb a statement she made. Ms. Thomas has lived a lot of years. Almost 90, in fact. So she should know that a very sizable portion of the Jews living in Israel today were born there. They never lived in Poland or Germany, so they couldn't really go "back" to those countries. The only people who could go back to anywhere are pretty much the people who are Ms. Thomas's age, and the blue numbers tattooed on a lot of their arms kind of dampen their enthusiasm for that idea, even if their doctors cleared them for travel.

So even if Ms. Thomas gets a pass on the anti-Semitism of what she said -- and she gets that only if her apology is real -- she shouldn't get one on saying something 10 seconds of basic addition and subtraction would tell you isn't feasible. Maybe someone will give her a calculator for her upcoming August birthday so she could get the math straight. As well as a calendar so she could tell this is 2010, not 1930.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Long Live the Legion!

Over in the long-post blog. We'll return to Roland the gunslinger next week.