I am Ken lite

In yesterday’s blog post, Ken Jennings (yes, him again) reveals that in additional to everything else, he’s also a closet cartoonist. I’m a closet cartoonist!

Zoger the Vorton, episode 3, part 1, from my college newspaper, The Tartan

This brings the number of ways I’m like Ken to at least six:

  1. We’re both software engineers;
  2. We’re both published authors;
  3. We’re both new(ish) dads;
  4. We’re both e-mail quizmasters;
  5. We’re both closet cartoonists; and
  6. We were both in the Seattle area this week.

There are a couple of key areas in which we are not the same, such as the sizes of our respective audiences, and one of us having won millions of dollars on national TV. Although if you include the dot-com boom, we’ve both “won millions.” Now one of us has to catch up to the other by losing those millions back…

Happy birthday Star Trek

Star Trek is 40 today. Happy birthday, Star Trek! Yes, it’s longer than Alex has been around, and yes, like Alex, no one originally expected it to last anything like this long. But the similarities end there. Star Trek never curled happily by my feet or licked my face to cheer me up.

What can I say about Star Trek that hasn’t already been said many times before? Well, I do have a couple of cute personal stories from when I was a kid in the 70’s and Star Trek had not yet transformed into a cultural touchstone. (It was still the shameful secret love of closeted nerds everywhere.)

One dim memory from a summer at the Pine Knoll bungalow colony in Monticello: my friend Michael wanted to “play Star Trek,” which at that point I’d never seen. I was assigned the role of Scotty, who (Michael explained to me) kept the spaceship in working order. I got into character as best I could, complaining about broken gears and attempting to fix them, but was berated by Michael who said, “The Enterprise doesn’t have gears, it has dilithium crystals!”

A few years later, having by now seen plenty of Star Trek on TV (the original series and the animated one), my friend David and I were confirmed Trekkie nerds. My mom took us on a subway ride into Manhattan to visit a short-lived mecca for Trekkies called “The Federation Trading Post,” a store full of Trek memorabilia, which at that time was sparse and hard to find. The tiny store was itself hard to find! But once you did, you could buy phaser and communicator props, scripts of all 79 episodes and audio cassettes of some (not videocassettes — VCRs wouldn’t appear in average homes for a few more years), rubber Spock ears, all the James Blish books, etc. Most of the really cool things were not within our budget, but we did score The Starfleet Technical Manual, the Star Trek Blueprints, a couple of blank Trek-uniform shirts and the insignia patches and gold braiding to sew onto them. I got a gold “command department” shirt; David got a blue “science” one. Back at home, I asked my mom to sew on my insignia and braids, showing her the exact specifications (to the millimeter!) from the Star Trek Technical Manual. Bless her, she made it perfect. Thanks, Mom! For a short time thereafter, David and I instituted our own “Starfleet Academy” at which we would wear our “uniforms” and practice flipping each other and rolling to our feet á là Captain Kirk.

Of course I’ve long outgrown most of that, but to this day there is still a model of the Enterprise-A on my desk. It’s the most beautiful of all sci-fi spaceships.

We’re number one?

Watching TSA employees at Sea-Tac airport in casual conversation with one another as they mechanically Just Follow Orders, inflicting pointless indignities on travelers, performing inane rituals that accomplish nothing useful at all, and blowing millions of tax dollars out their asses, I fume silently, meditate on the phrase “the banality of evil,” and wonder: of the things that made America great, what remains?

Individual liberty? Nope.

Commitment to justice? Nope.

Fair, democratic elections? Nope.

An effective military? Nope.

A robust economy? A level economic playing field? Nope. Nope.

Freedom of speech? Of the press? Of worship? Nope. Nope. Nope.

Oh well, at least we still have jingoism. We’re number one!

Happy birthday Alex

Our dog, Alex, is 18 years old today. Happy birthday, Alex! Andrea’s had Alex for all but the first six weeks of those 18 years, and I joined the team about a month later. It’s been a long and wonderful trip so far.

In Jewish tradition, 18 is a lucky number, since (when denoted with Hebrew letters) it spells “chai,” the Hebrew word for life. L’chayim!

(More later, when I’m not moblogging from a Microsoft seminar.)

Pointless in Seattle

Next stop, Seattle, where Danger is sending me for a one-day seminar at Microsoft on some new API with which we need to interoperate. I do not expect to get much information from attending the seminar that I can’t get from Microsoft’s printed documentation, but if it makes Microsoft feel better when their third-party developers show up to drink the Kool-Aid, fine.

The weird thing is, this is the third company I’ve worked for that has sent me on a business trip to Seattle — and I’ve never been sent on any other business trips.

I like Seattle a lot. Andrea and I almost moved there in 2000. The seminar will probably be a yawn, but at least I’ll get to see my good friends Kurt and Eva, Bay Area expatriates newly relocated to Seattle.

New York recap

There are no fireflies in New York. I never saw any in New York while growing up, but I grew up in Queens, which is part of the city proper, and I thought we might get lucky at my dad’s house which is farther out on Long Island, since I knew that there are fireflies not too far away, in Pennsylvania. But no.

No thunderstorms, but you already knew that.

Warm ocean water: check. I’d forgotten just how big a difference there is between New York beaches and California beaches. The sand in New York was soft, fine, and well-groomed — no doubt the effect of charging admission to the beach — whereas in California, where most beaches are public-access, it’s coarse and filthy. In Northern California the Pacific is freezing and the waves daunting; only crazy die-hard surfers in wetsuits spend any time in the ocean. In New York, entire families spend hours bobbing in the warm, gentle swells.

Dino-Walk was kinda lame, but the town of Riverhead is nice in a Norman Rockwell way, even if their church bells won’t shut up.

At Dylan’s Candy Bar, I allowed Jonah and Archer to fill up one bag of candy apiece, and I got a few things for myself, my sister, Suzanne (who accompanied us there), and Andrea. Guess how much I spent? $91. When the cashier rang up the total I let out an involuntary “Holy shit!” He smiled the smile of someone who’s gotten that reaction before.

The Long Island Children’s Museum is the greatest place in the whole wide world. We also visited the New York Hall of Science, and even though it was greatly expanded from when I was a kid (when its chief attraction was [what passed in the 1970’s for] a multimedia presentation about the wonders of nuclear power, brought to you by Con Edison), it couldn’t hold a candle to LICM. And next to the LICM, the Exploratorium is a total crapfest.

If there was a theme to this trip, it was Italian ices. We had Italian ices on Queens Boulevard, we had Italian ices from my mom’s freezer, but best of all we had Italian ices twice from The Lemon Ice King of Corona and scored this trophy photo: three generations of Glickstein men, and Peter Benfaremo, the Lemon Ice King himself.

Say it ain’t so, Walt

It seems the Disney theme parks are collecting visitors’ fingerprints and being unclear about the uses to which they plan to put them.

For someone who’s sensitive to privacy issues, this news is a clear catastrophe, but to everyday folk the problem may not be so obvious. Cory Doctorow nails it when he writes,

Now that our national immune system has begun to attack us in a terrible anaphylactic spasm — indiscriminate NSA wiretaps, meaningless TSA security theater, secret aviation rules and no-fly lists, “free speech zones,” suspension of habeas corpus and all the rest — it’s absolutely irresponsible to gather this kind of information and leave it where the savage toddlers of the national security apparat might find it and wreak havoc with it.

For me, the worst part of this is that it conditions us to get used to being treated like crooks.

This news comes at a time when Andrea and I are feeling a mounting urge to visit Disneyland. Not only do we have vouchers for free search airline tickets that expire on October 31st; not only would we get to see new-family-member Pamela and celebrity-friend Eli; but we haven’t been to a Disney property in three years, which is a long time for us; and Jonah, who was one and a half then, is one up on Archer, who’s never been!

Yet Disney keeps giving us reasons to stay away. The fingerprint news comes on the heels of this:

New ABC Docudrama Blames Clinton For 9/11, Praises Bush

On September 10 and 11, ABC will air a “docudrama” called “The Path to 9/11.” It was written by Cyrus Nowrasteh, who […] is giving interviews to hard-right sites like FrontPageMag to promote the film.

ABC is owned by Disney.

What to do? Hell, we were married at Disneyworld! We were at California Adventure on opening day! (We were two of the few.) The very first thing I ever gave to Andrea was a little Thumper doll! Might as well face it: we’re Disney freaks. Stay away from Disneyland? Stay away from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride just when Jonah’s and Archer’s interest in pirates is peaking?

In an earlier time I might have threatened to disconnect my cable TV instead. But that trigger can only be pulled once. If I want to punish ABC and Disney for these errors in judgment — and I do — about the only good option left is to vote with my wallet and boycott the company.

Or — here’s an idea — I can write a blog post convincing a bunch of you Gentle Readers to boycott Disney yourselves… so Andrea and I can feel better about it when some latex-gloved Disney gate attendant swabs our cheeks to match the DNA on our Park Hopper passes.

Turn off, tune out, drop in

In January of last year I sent a letter to Comcast, my cable TV provider, complaining about the removal from my “premium” cable service of five premium channels. (The letter is reproduced at the end of this post.) I received an unsatisfactory reply. It was the last in a string of insults, from exorbitant monthly fees (in excess of $100) to crappy image quality full of digital compression artifacts.

Compounding my cable TV complaints was the fact that I seldom actually got to watch anything. Having two small kids and a long daily commute while both parents (try to) work full time has that effect. When I did get some time to watch TV, I worked through a gigantic TiVo backlog. The Sopranos and Shield episodes that I watched were more than a year old when I finally watched them.

Which got me thinking: if I don’t watch things until they’re stale anyway, why do I even need cable TV? All the movies I could want to see, and most of the good TV shows, get released on DVD sooner or later; and a Netflix membership costs about one-eighth the combined total of Comcast “Digital Platinum” and TiVo.

It was an obvious decision to make, but I dragged my feet for a long time. Except for a pauper year or two in college, I’d had cable TV almost continually since 1976. I’m also a considerable movie buff. Give up cable, just like that? What would I do when I feel the urge to channel-surf at 12:30am? And what about dumb little guilty pleasures like Unwrapped which, even if it is ever available on DVD, I knew would never rise to the top of my Netflix queue?

Though it took another eight months, and Andrea doubted I’d ever actually go through with it, in the end simple economics won out, and we’ve now been cable-free for almost a year. At the beginning it was hard, as with kicking any habit, but only very briefly. In a year, the only time I’ve really missed having cable was for the Superbowl. Meanwhile, thanks to Netflix, I’ve recently watched entire seasons of Deadwood, Veronica Mars, and I Dream of Jeannie; and movies such as Munich, King Kong, Wedding Crashers, MirrorMask, and much more. There’s no live sports and there’s no channel surfing; and while you might linger guiltily on the latest Emanuelle movie on Skinemax when channel-flipping, you’re not very likely to bother actually renting it. But in all other respects it’s as good as cable. Better, in a lot of ways, because there are no commercials and no wading through junk you don’t want to see.

Now that we’re off the pop-culture grid, as it were, it’s strange to see it from the outside. It’s a tinfoil-hat cliché, easily dismissed, to say that the establishment controls the populace through television. Anyone with a little media savvy can recognize TV’s propaganda and soothing pap for what they are and claim to be immune, or at least aware. But having stepped out of that stream I’m astonished at just what a blatant barrage of never-ending manipulation TV really is. Savvy or not, you can’t fully appreciate it while you’re in it. Even though I seldom watched anything but the best-quality movies and TV shows, the barrage still seeped in through the cracks: the commercials, the network “bumpers,” the pop-ups in the corners and margins of the screen, the glimpses of other programs. And while it is easy to recognize and dismiss the obvious propaganda and pap, there are a thousand more subtle ways in which your consent is being manufactured. I don’t mean to allege a vast mind-control conspiracy; it just seems to be what you get when you organize government, commerce, and mass media the way we have.

So don’t kill your TV, exactly, but do take total control of what you see on it. Cancel your cable. Keep your money. It may seem right now like you can’t live without it (“How can one insulated wire bring so much happiness?” –Homer Simpson), but if you make it to the other side I promise you’ll wonder what took you so long.

And now that I’ve written that, if we lose the fight for net neutrality, the telecoms may arrange for this blog post to disappear into /dev/null.

Here is the letter I sent to Comcast early last year.

I’m a subscriber to Comcast Digital Cable at the “Platinum” level of service, which includes all premium channels. Recently I learned that five of those channels have been removed from my lineup. They were:

  • Encore True Stories East (527)
  • Encore Action East (529)
  • More MAX East (564)
  • Showtime Extreme East (581)
  • The Movie Channel Xtra East (592)

Previously I had 49 premium movie channels, now I have 44, so this was a 10.2% reduction in service.

When I called Comcast Customer Service to complain, you tried to persuade me that this is not a reduction in service at all. Each of the removed channels, you explained, is the east coast feed of another channel whose west coast feed I still receive — the same programs, shifted by three hours.

But that argument is not valid. At this moment, for example, Encore True Stories East is showing Quiz Show, while Encore True Stories West is showing Gangs of New York. If I sat down at the TV right now and I still received both channels, I could choose to watch either one; but now I can only watch Gangs of New York. My choices are therefore fewer than before. Yes, I could choose to wait three hours and watch Quiz Show on the west coast feed, but by then I may be sleeping, or busy, or watching something else.

You also explained that the channels were removed to make room for others, such as the DIY network and WGN. But these are not premium movie channels and no one can argue they are comparable in value to the channels they supposedly replaced.

Comcast has the right to choose what channels to include in its service. But if you remove channels that I’ve been paying for, then you must also reduce the rate you charge me.

My channel lineup continues to include both the east and west coast feeds of some premium movie channels, such as HBO. But if it’s Comcast’s policy that one feed is equal to two, I’m concerned that there may be further uncompensated service reductions in the future.

Finally, I’ve just learned that the cost of Comcast’s “Platinum” service is about to go up by three dollars per month, or about 6%. Previously I was paying about $1.04 per channel for my premium movie channels. Now, between the service reduction and the rate increase, I’ll be paying $1.23, effectively an 18% increase.

I insist that Comcast restore my lost service or reduce my rates proportionately.

The best band you never heard of

I have no experience as a music critic and in fact I’ve seldom seen anything written by professional music critics to make me believe it’s possible to convey, with words, anything substantive about musical performances. I’m going to press on, though, because there’s an unknown band out there that you absolutely must hear about. I know, everyone’s got their own favorite bands no one ever heard of, but this is my blog, so today we’ll be talking about Splashdown.

The bad news about Splashdown is that it existed for only a few years, producing only about thirty songs, and disbanded in 2001. The good news is that the songs are nearly all terrific. The better news is that each song is unique. And the best news is that the entire catalogue is available for free download (here, here, and elsewhere).

Like a lot of Splashdown fans, I was first turned onto them by the inclusion of “Karma Slave” in the Titan A.E. soundtrack. For a while it was the only Splashdown song I knew of, and until I found more songs and info about the band, I listened to my copy of Karma Slave obsessively. It showcases all the best aspects of the band: unusual harmonies with a Near Eastern influence; complex but driving rhythms; intelligent and evocative lyrics; richly layered guitar and synth instrumentation; and above all the strong, agile, and vaguely pissed-off sounding vocals of Melissa Kaplan.

I’m a slave of karma
Spin the wheel and I’m a king reborn
I’m a slave of karma, I’m coming back
Yeah, I’ll be coming back
But for the last time

The angry edge in Kaplan’s voice — often submerged, but never completely — is more pronounced in “A Charming Spell,” another of Splashdown’s best. Its lyrics paint a spooky, authentic picture of witchcraft.

Tie a knife with a ribbon
With a red, red ribbon
Raise a hand-held mirror
To the light of the moon
With a secret garden
And a heart unhardened
Strike a spectre’s bargain
With a ritual brew

Halfworld” is a song so melodically interesting that there is also an instrumental-only version that’s great for karaoke.

Is nightshade a food or a poison?
Do you follow my reason?
Is reason important?

As I wrote above, each song is unique in the sense that it is unlike anything I’ve heard from other bands, and also in the sense that it’s distinct from the other songs in Splashdown’s catalogue. The snarky fun of “Procreation Chick” (“Don’t you think you’re the shit?”) is the only one like that from Splashdown; then it’s on to a bittersweet childhood reminiscence in “Elvis Sunday” (“Guess I’m still kickin’ and cryin’ when it comes to goodbye”) — again the only one of its kind among Splashdown’s songs, which is good because it leaves room for the woman-scorned roar of “Ironspy” (“Someone stop my hands from shaking”) and the playful eroticism of “Waterbead” (“See her flowering / With seeds of possibility / Inside his imaginings”).

There are two instances of repetition in the Splashdown catalogue (plus a variety of remixes of a few songs): “The Archer” quotes their earlier song, “Pandora.”

I do, I do, I do, I do, I
I feel so elated
Would you, would you, would you, would you
Please bring me joy

And “Games You Play” is an expanded version of their earlier song, “Paradox.”

If your past approaches you preaching comfort
Don’t be fooled into a war you’ll lose

I could write a little something about every Splashdown song, but there’s little point in continuing when you can get them all, for free, right now, and convince yourself that Splashdown is the best band you never heard of — and then go find someone else to convince.

Of course it goes without saying that the best band you have heard of is They Might Be Giants.

The more things change, the more he stays the same

Salon.com’s “War Room” blog today quotes Donald Rumsfeld as saying, among other things,

We are truly fortunate to have a leader of resolve at a time of war. Through all the challenges, he remains the same man who stood atop the rubble of lower Manhattan, with a bullhorn, vowing to fight back.

…which, apart from being a wackily facile thing to say, reminds me of one of my favorite Homer Simpsonisms:

I haven’t changed at all since high school, and suddenly I’m uncool?!