Saturday, July 31, 2010

Thanks, Mahmoud!

Gone away to church camp for a week, which left me feeling warm and fuzzy and good-hearted towards all of humanity. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad helped prove we're all more alike than we are different with these remarks slamming Paul the Soccer-Predicting Octopus and the interest given him during the recent World Cup games. Politicians the world over never seem to know when to shut up.

Some might suggest that the attack came because Paul's garden -- if it resembles those created by his fellow octopi as seen by Ringo Starr --offers a place of "joy for every girl and boy," since they "[know] that "they're happy and they're safe." President Ahmadinejad's government frowns on joy that involves mixing girls and boys. And should they be accused of having so mixed, they will be anything but safe. Their lawyers may be walking a little bit of a tightrope themselves, it seems. While that explanation does indeed offer the same contact with reality regularly demonstrated by Iran's president and the international groups that humor him, it would require him to be a Ringo fan, and I believe that he seethes with jealousy over the Beatle drummer's beard.

President Ahmadinejad suggests that playing along with the idea that a sea creature that keeps two-thirds of its brain in its arms forecasts soccer match outcomes demonstrates an inability to lead. He was silent on what leadership skills are demonstrated by a national head of state who weighs in against a cephalopod mollusk. Paul had no comment, which is probably best for President Ahmadinejad. Whether one is comparing them based on number of limbs or on probable IQ, the president should be grateful for Paul's unwillingness to do battle with an opponent clearly not his equal.

ETA: Although the octopus method of reproduction, which involves the male detaching the relevant portion of his body to go about its business independent of the rest of him, does go a long way towards explaining President Ahmadinejad's presence in the world.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Changing Times

The University of Louisiana at Monroe is hunting for a new president and has had a couple of community forums for the public to give their input in the process. At a recent one, a woman named Donna Cathey suggested that the next ULM president must make athletic spending a priority. "We (the university) spend a disproportionate amount of money on academics," she said in this story from the Monroe News-Star. I added the parenthetical phrase there so we could be sure that we all knew just who was being so prodigal with all these dollars in the classroom.

Ms. Cathey is an alum of ULM, so it seems this excessive instructional spending may be a recent development.

(H/T University Diaries)

ETA: I'll be fair to Ms. Cathey and acknowledge she may have been making a larger point that was obscured by selective quotation in the news story. But it's not a smart way to phrase things.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

I Write, Like...

Sportswriter and voluminous blogger Joe Posnanski put some famous sports quotes through one of the latest memes-of-the-moment, the I Write Like site that will compare a sample of writing against a number of better-known authors and identify which of them the sample is most like. He was dubious as to its reliability. Although some of the quotes matched up with writers that were a lot like the person who originally said them, many did not.

The Ted Williams quote --  "All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived.'" -- suggested Ernest Hemingway according to the IWL algorithm, and Williams' he-man persona matches Hemingway's pretty well. There's the problem that Williams also said, "Know what you get when you pour hot water on a sportswriter? Instant (expletive referring to dung)," so he might not have appreciated comparison to any writing folks at all.

But on the other hand, a sample of quotes from pitcher Satchel Paige, one of the best sources of American wry in the 20th century, matches him to Twilight series author Stephenie Meyer, and that's enough to angry up the blood, fried foods or no. Muhammed Ali's famous "Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee. Your hands can't hit what your eyes can't see." is apparently the kind of thing that The Handmaid's Tale author Margaret Atwood would write, meaning that the IWL algorithm misunderstands the concept of the "Boxing Day" holiday celebrated in Atwood's native Canada.

Some samples of this blog, submitted to the IWL site, suggested different authors. Several read most like the late David Foster Wallace. I've never been able to get through more than a few pages of a Wallace novel, which may say something deeply profound about my relationship to own writing that I'm neither smart nor introspective enough to figure out. Another couple of samples suggest that I write like H.P. Lovecraft, and I don't follow that one at all. But then there was one submission that prompted IWL to suggest I write like The DaVinci Code author Dan Brown, and I am without comment, for "there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order."

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Great Lawman

That's not what you'd say about Mayberry Deputy Barney Fife, portrayed by the late Don Knotts, born this day in 1924. Charlie Brown never got to kick the football, and Barney never got to fire his one bullet in the line of duty. He did fire it accidentally 11 times, according to this Andy Griffith Show FAQ entry, bringing terror to innocent holsters and floorboards throughout North Carolina.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Forty-one years ago today, we did something we can't do anymore. But it's fun to remember.

Monday, July 19, 2010

OK, So He Minded a Little...

James Gammon, who may have had the best voice ever among character actors, passed away this weekend at 70. He was probably best known as the manager of the fictional version of the Cleveland Indians in two Major League movies, but a scan of his IMDB page shows he had plenty of other roles. One of my favorite entries from that list is the un-named "Old Ranch Hand" from the 2005 Wim Wenders/Sam Shephard movie Don't Come Knocking. Another is biker "Ironbutt Garrett" from the 1993 action film Running Cool. I don't remember if I ever saw either one of those movies, but those particular character names sum up Gammon pretty well.

My favorite Gammon role is "Dawson," the outlaw leader from Silverado who gets tricked by Scott Glenn and Kevin Kline and loses the money his men stole from a wagon train. When Glenn's character pretends to be an outlaw himself, he fast-talks Gammon by saying he and the playing-at-being-dead Kline are fleeing from a posse and that he'd heard about the hideout -- from a bunch of names he's just made up -- so he headed there, and he hopes Gammon won't mind. Gammon responds, in his shifting-gears-while-low-on-transmission-fluid voice, "Mind? You bring a posse to my best hideout and you ask me if I mind? Mister, I don't know any of those names. You're about to die."

He was also, as the obituary notes, a big booster of live theater and collected some awards for acting and directing in Los Angeles. And in a nice twist on the way things are often done among the performing set, he stayed married to the mother of his children for 38 years, until his death.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Well, Maybe a Little Unusual

Really? Tom Jones? Who'd a thunk it?

Famous One?

Well, this Amos was well-known before the guy who makes the cookies, but I suspect more people know the cookie guy. I'd preach on what he says, but I don't talk with my mouth full, so you can settle for one using the prophet's words instead.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

It's All About You

I read a little book once that described a certain type of commercial as a modern-day parable of salvation. The line goes like this: You lack something, and because you lack it, your life is woefully inadequate. The product being advertised will address your need and make your life perfect in all ways.

The job of the commercial is to convince you that you lack something. Maybe it shows a situation that's similar to yours, or maybe it shows how great life is for the person who owns the featured product. Now, the wink-wink, nudge-nudge of all of the whole deal is that you and the commercial makers both know that the product won't really make your life perfect. They're exaggerating to make their point, and we viewers know they're exaggerating, and sometimes they go wildly over the top in order to have some fun with the whole bit.

But even though we all know this exaggeration is going on, we still "sort of" buy the idea the commercial is selling, even if we buy it at a sort of remove from the idealized version.

I thought about this when I saw a new commercial for a wireless telephone provider the other day. A young woman, oblivious to the world around her, texts on her phone, watching the screen and ignoring pretty much everything else while she does. Different things like buildings, newspaper racks and such morph Transformers-style into speakers, receiver antennae and other wireless reception paraphernalia as she walks past. A guy walks to his car as the same thing happens around him. You, this company suggests, are the most important thing in the world. Sign up for this service and everything about your life will conform itself to your wishes.

The re-shaping of the world is exaggeration, but the idea that people and their interactions via the little screen to which their attentions are shackled are about the only thing that matters? Doesn't seem so outlandish from what I've seen.

Like Him or Not...

Either way, George Steinbrenner had a huge impact on modern sport, not just baseball. You could argue that the whole LeBron James-Cleveland-Miami fracas traces back to his actions. Charlie Finley may have been one of the first owners to start spending big money on free agents, but Steinbrenner perfected the method: Offer the best players the most money, as having the best players on your team represents the best chances for winning ballgames and titles. Reward success, replace continued failure with new blood.

Not everybody liked Steinbrenner. Not everybody likes the Yankees (hand raised). Not everybody liked this method. And because it wasn't foolproof, it offered enough chances for failure to let those who disliked the method, the owner or the team plenty of chances for schadenfreude parties.

But Steinbrenner also had a feel for what made the game of baseball appealing and could demonstrate it, as this post by a National Review writer illustrates.

Then there's this story by the Associated Press, which seems more than a little ghoulish, hanging as it does on Steinbrenner's death during a year in which the lack of a federal estate tax means his heirs will keep quite a bit more of his bequests to them than they would have if he had died in 2011. But I've got a feeling that Steinbrenner himself would get quite a bit of a kick over the idea that he got one over on the feds, especially when it came to taxes.

The only question now, I guess, is how he and Billy Martin greeted one another in the afterlife. Some of the words they used to refer to each other are probably not welcome in their new neighborhood.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

...Comes the Time We Have to Say, "So Long..."

Well, ¡Viva España! The Spanish national team won the FIFA World Cup today by beating the Netherlands, 1-0, and we bid this worldwide event farewell until 2014. The World Cup is fun enough while it lasts, but I've never been able to become a fan of televised soccer. No connection with the energy of the crowd, and the game itself doesn't become magical simply because I can see it close-up via the camera.

So must we wait until 2014 to watch a sport that is supposed to be non-contact but couldn't be any less so if its name included the phrase "Greco-Roman," features ridiculous overacting regarding supposed injurious fouls and horrible officiating that can in seconds literally ruin the best efforts of some of the hardest-working athletes around?

Nope. The NBA starts in October.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Should I Skip This One?

According to Blogger, the post you are now reading is the six hundred sixty-sixth post on the Friar's Fires blog. This is not a number we Christian religious types seek to publicize, as no small number of us suffer from hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia. Of course, if you wanted to add up all the posts on all three blogs where I cyber-run my mouth, I hit 666 awhile ago. Just when I have no idea, because I'd have to order them all up by date and figure out which one I published when, and I'm not that bored.

But I am a little bored, so I'll offer a couple of extras here in this Post of the Beast. I draw that title from the fairly well-known phrase "Number of the Beast," which according to Revelation 13:17-18 is 666. But what is the Number of the Beast?

Well, it might be a crappy science-fiction novel by Robert Heinlein, published in 1980. In the later part of his career, Heinlein started smushing his different characters together via traveling in parallel universes, also combining different fictional universes into them. The actual number of the beast is not 666 but instead is (66)6, a very large number saying how many parallel universes their ship can access. Lacking some of the old-fashioned conventions that had brought Heinlein acclaim and the title the Dean of Science Fiction, like a plot, logic and coherence, Beast serves mostly as a way for Heinlein to comment on writing and storytelling, while adding in some of the weirder ideas he had about sex that he didn't get to in Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough for Love (Believe it or not, there were some), even though he'll save some of the really squicky stuff for 1987's To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

Or it might be the 1982 album by Iron Maiden, the first featuring vocalist Bruce Dickenson. The album title, along with cover art depicting Satan being used as a marionette by Iron Maiden's freaky mascot critter "Eddie," cemented the band's status as one of every 80s youth pastor's least favorite albums. I've never listened to it so I don't have much to say about it beyond that.

Hebrew letters also had numerical value in a kind of game/code called gematria, and the numbers assigned to them added up made the number of a person. Revelation's writer, whether it was St. John or someone associated with him, was thought to have been familiar enough with gematria to use it as a code for someone who was an enemy of the church. The most likely suspect is the emperor Nero, who was beginning persecution of Christians across the Roman Empire and whose name and title, translated from Latin to Hebrew letters, gives 666. Some manuscripts suggest the number was 616, which would have matched with the generic phrase "sar God." Other scholars say that using Hebrew numerology on Greek texts is a strange idea and come up with other variations.

In terms of prophecy, the number is suggested as one that will be associated with the Anti-Christ, or a figure at the end of time who will lead opposition to Christ and attempt to establish himself or herself as a divine figure. This figure is further associated with the Beast of Revelation 13, hence the phrase "Number of the Beast."

While I think the prophecies of the Book of Revelation have some cosmic significance in addition to their historical roots, I don't believe that it was written as a step-by-step code book detailing exactly which world figure will do what at what time in preparation for God's re-creation of the heavens and the earth. The universe is many billions of light-years across and I believe God has a plan for it all beyond this one mudball. So I might in fact make a little fun of the Number of the Beast, not because I disbelieve in the existence of Anti-Christs, but because I find the textual and current events gymnastics people go through to try to correctly assign that number to be somewhat wasted energy.

An e-mail goes around every now and again with some variations on the number -- 664, for example, is the Next-Door Neighbor of the Beast while 665 is the Neighbor Across the Street From the Beast. 1010011010 is the Binary of the Beast, or 666 expressed in binary notation, and 1/666 is the Common Denominator of the Beast. $665.95 is the Retail Price of the Beast, while $656.66 is the Wal-Mart Price of the Beast. "Six...uhhh," is the Number of the Blonde Beast, and the 666i is the BMW of the Beast. MSWord 6.66 is the Word Processor of the Beast -- something that may have more truth in it than some others, considering the language that glitchy Microsoft products may inspire in people is not often heavenly. There are others, but to inflict them on you would be...beastly.


Be vewy, vewy quiet. I'm hunting sewmons, and I think I see one wight heaw!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Seen at the Gym

Really, ESPN? Pretty near two hours of coverage of LeBron James' decision about which team will pay him millions of dollars to play basketball? So far, James seems like one of the good guys of the NBA and I'm pleased for him that he'll get the chance at a championship ring, but two hours? About him getting paid a lot of money?

You want to air some unprecedented news on LeBron, show him getting called for a travel.

ETA: Some alternate views of Mr. James' character as revealed in this circus have been put forth as well. Here's one.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

History Repeats?

Spain defeated Germany in World Cup semifinal action, meaning the Spanish team will now face the Netherlands for the championship on Sunday.

The historically minded may note that this will be a rematch of the Eighty Years War between Spain and what was originally referred to as the Spanish Netherlands, running from 1568 to 1648. The fact that this war had a number of ebbs and spikes in conflict during that time might also resemble the overtime periods sometimes added to a soccer match by a referee to make up for time lost due to a player's injury.*

The war ended with the Treaty of Westphalia, signed between Spain and the Republics of the Seven Netherlands after two years of negotiations. Although Spain had lost actual control over these areas several decades earlier, it formally recognized their independence in the treaty. The Republics apparently still had a bone to pick with the Iberian Peninsula, though, and didn't settle their fight with Portugal (started in 1602) until 1661 with the Treaty of the Hague. Apparently, when your country's name can be translated "Bottom Lands" you have quite the chip on your shoulder.

It's possible, I suppose, that the Spanish are looking for a little payback some 360 years after losing their territory, but that would presume the average Spanish soccer player is as much of a history nerd as I am and I cast no aspersions on their schooling or intellects when I say that takes some mighty big s'posin'...

*"Injury" is a loosely-defined term in a soccer match. It can refer to anything from amputation to being knocked over by the airflow generated when an opposing player turns his head in your direction.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Resolution of Thanks V

TO: Television No. 2 at the gym

WHEREAS, you were, this evening, tuned to the channel carrying programming from the American Broadcasting Company or ABC network, and

WHEREAS, during the time I was exercising, that network was broadcasting the program Wipeout, and

WHEREAS, during that time it also broadcast the program Downfall,

BE IT NOW RESOLVED, that on this day, the sixth of July, the year two thousand and ten, that you receive gratitude and thanks for offering me a picture of what I shall do when I have only one functioning neuron in my skull: Watch either of those programs voluntarily, and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that you receive gratitude for offering me a picture of what I shall do when that last neuron ceases to function: Become a contestant on either program.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Is the title and the subject of this week's sermon, delivered on the 4th of July.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance

Comedienne Chelsea Handler feels Jenna Bush Hager is not very good at her job as a Today show correspondent. She may be correct; I avoid morning shows at all costs so I have never seen the former president's daughter at work. I never saw her at work teaching school for UNICEF in Latin America, either.

I have, however seen Ms. Handler's show, Chelsea Lately, which is on the E! Entertainment Television channel that is run by the man she recently stopped living with. I have also seen the covers of her books, so I feel I know as much about her as I care to. And having watched several minutes of her show, I feel she is definitely qualified to judge bad television.

But I am curious as to her knowledge of the world upon which she designs to comment humorously. She suggests that Jenna Bush Hager has her job because of her father. I suppose she means that the Today show or its network, NBC, hired Ms. Hager because her father used to be president. That makes sense. Because I think the world knows just how much NBC, home of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, among others, has been in the tank for George W. Bush for lo these many years. Their relentless cheerleading for the former president, his domestic initiatives and his foreign policy has made them a laughing-stock among serious news organizations and a network no serious-minded person would admit watching.

Ms. Handler also suggests that the former president got his job because of his father. Again, I understand completely where she's coming from. After all, it's not as if the elder Bush squandered stratospheric approval ratings following a spectacular military victory, or lost in only four years the aura of success that he'd been a part of for the previous eight, or was so disliked by elements of his own party that a cranky independent candidate got nearly a fifth of the popular vote, or got less than half of the electoral votes won by a mostly unknown governor from one of the nation's smallest states or anything. Now, if some of those things had happened, then it would be difficult to believe that the elder Bush's influence could work on behalf of his son within his political party or the American electorate.

So on second thought, I follow Ms. Handler's thinking exactly. President Bush #43 used to live in the same house as President Bush #41, so that's why he got to be president. Then Ms. Hager used to live in the same house as President Bush #43, so that's why she gets to be on the Today show. If you live in someone's house, then that's the person who gets you your job.

That's just the way things work, after all.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Suspense! And, Suspense?

Nobody reads suspense thrillers looking for great literature -- at least, they don't more than once. All the same, thriller writers, like Serious Authors, possess differing skill levels. Stephen Coonts is one who commands quite a bit of skill at shaping his stories and making them flow smoothly whether they're building suspense or hurtling through action sequences. His 1990 Jake Grafton book Under Siege is a good example. The arrest of a Columbian drug lord during the George H.W. Bush administration provides the hook for a story linking narco-terrorism, undecover police operatives, crack-dealing gangs, assassination attempts and quite a lot of other threads together. This is early in the series, so Coonts is still laying out the characterizations of his players, but he does so deftly enough that they stand out from the cookie-cutter crowd that peoples most novels of this kind. And Coonts' vision of how the government would respond to armed terrorist attacks in Washington, D.C. is interesting and not a little bit chilling considering he's writing around a decade before 9/11. Two things weaken Under Siege in relationship to some of Coonts' later work. One, he creates events that make his fictional world diverge widely from the real world we live in, and political suspense thrillers work best when the characters inhabit a world as close to our own as the author can manage. The split doesn't hurt Under Siege so much as it will hamper stories that follow it. Two, Coonts seems so consumed with the desire to Say Something about U.S. drug policy and drug culture that he hangs an albatross of an ending on one of his plot threads that simply can't be believed. Overall, though, Under Siege is a quality read and worth the time.
Harlen Coben has a gift for telling stories that engage readers so well that it's not until they put the book down and think about it later that they realize just how preposterous some of the plotting was. Of late, he's been laying on the preposterousness (preposterity?) to greater and greater degrees; Long Lost should have been a welcome return to his mainstay character, Myron Bolitar, but was instead an utterly ridiculous story about sleeper jihadists and controlled breeding. Caught rolls that back some, but has some other problems that keep it from fully succeeding. Wendy Tynes is a television reporter who stalks pedophiles in teen chat rooms and sets up ambush interviews with them, a la NBC's To Catch a Predator show. When she snares Dan Mercer with one of her stings, things begin to go wrong quickly. Mercer may be innocent. But he may also be connected with the disappearance of a high school student. The truth about Mercer and about the student's disappearing will probably surprise readers, mostly because Coben pulls it out of thin air with a whiplash-inducing set of final sequences. As always for Coben, family issues and family relationships color much of the novel, and he also spends some time exploring matters related to forgiveness. His storytelling skill keeps the wild mood swings of the plot from slowing us down, but the biggest flaw is probably how unsympathetic a character Wendy Tynes turns out to be. We don't like her when we first meet her as a kind of ambush predator herself, sticking a camera and microphone in Dan Mercer's face when we already know she's at least partly wrong about him. She improves over the course of the novel, but when she ends asking for forgiveness she was just pages earlier unwilling to grant, she loses most of that goodwill.  In Caught, Coben continues to hamstring his storytelling gifts and interesting ideas by stuffing them into silly plotlines, creating books that give the impression of a Three Stooges short starring Laurence Olivier and Katherine Hepburn. All of those things are just fine by themselves, but they don't mix well in the end.