Thidwick and The Darker Side of Seuss

Dr. Seuss was great for a lot of reasons, obviously foremost of those being his marvelous abilities with rhyme and meter–seriously, if you don’t believe that, read aloud just about any parody of him and compare with one of his actual books, and you’ll see that people grossly underestimate how hard what he did was to do well–but, in a strange way, also because he wasn’t a Mister Rogers-type character with sweetness and gentleness oozing from every pore.

That’s not a knock against Fred Rogers, who I think was the gentle spirit he portrayed, but I admit I had a taste (even as a child) for the darker side as well. I loved Roald Dahl, for example, especially for things like in James and the Giant Peach, where James’ aunts are squashed dead by the peach.

Dr. Seuss wrote about a lot of the dumber, darker side of humanity with Horton, and of course, his late-in-life Butter Battle Book. But I had not heard of Thidwick, and received it as a gift on my last birthday. (It was on my Amazon wish list.)

The Flower resisted me reading it aloud (as I do) because she thought the ending had Thidwick being killed, but I finally overruled her. And I was surprised; this should be a classic alongside of the Grinch, the Cat and Horton.

Thidwick is a moose who lets a bug sit on his antlers. The bug then invites more and larger creatures to join him, until finally his antlers are burdened with a multitude of pests, including (absurdly) a bear. Obviously, this impact his ability to survive, as he’s no longer able to forage or run from hunters. But he’s too polite–too nice–to tell them get lost.

So, we have here a marvelous allegory for so many things: the tragedy of the commons–and check out the Wikipedia article for a communist spin on why “tragedy of the commons” is misapplied, the dangers of modern liberalism, and just how one can start with a good principle (“a host must be good to his guests”) and take it to the point of self-destruction.

I don’t know if Seuss meant any of that, but it works, and it has a good ending. (The Flower didn’t like the ending actually; she’s not a big fan of comeuppance.) But I say check it out.

Why Do I Do These Things To Myself?

Last year it was Wicked.

Someone says, “Oh, you have to read The Bridges of Madison County, it’s the best book!” (That line, by the way, was a Janeane Garofalo bit from back when she was amusing.) Plus, I have a mother who likes to buy the books she’s heard of versus the more obscure stuff on my reading list.

And so it came to pass that I began reading The Road. How could it go wrong? I mean, post-apocalyptic! That’s the home field right there! It’s also a pretty sparse book, couple hundred pages with a fair amount of white space. How bad could it be?

As it turns out… Well, let’s just say I “misplaced” this book several times.

Look, maybe it’s just a matter of taste. You might like a book that’s 200+ pages of a father and son walking and starving. ‘cause that’s what this: Walking and starving. Much like Wicked, I kept wondering when the book was, you know, gonna start.

I’m not a general enemy of walking and starving. There was a lot of walking and starving in, for example, Lord of the Rings. And maybe this is, like, avant-garde, having an entire book about walking and starving. I dunno.

The ending wasn’t as bleak as it might have been. You know from the get-go that at least one of the characters is giong to die. The tension, I guess, comes from wondering whether the other one is going to die, too.

I wasn’t entirely sold on the writing. The dialogue is presented without quotes and also apostrophes. That seems sorta gimmicky. But Cormac McCarthy is, I guess, an artist, so here we have a post-apocalyptic story with no mutants, no women, almost no one except for the two main characters, no hope, and precious little action.

OK, some technical books next.

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy

Now we’re talking APOCALYPSE! Actually, whether The Hitchhiker’s Guide counts as “post-apocalyptic” is highly debatable, since the Earth is completely destroyed in the first chapter.

But over the course of five books, Earth is destroyed, rebuilt, redestroyed, visited on different timelines, and finally completely and utterly removed from existence entirely (though not enough so, apparently, to stop publishers from wanting to make a sixth book).

What’s more, it’s unique as a post-apocalyptic book in the sense that Arthur Dent is basically caught in a highly civilized post-apocalyptic life. He seldom seems on the verge of starving, on the one hand, though there are numerous direct and bureaucratic attempts on his life.

He’s constantly looking for some sort of normalcy and stability and insignificance, yet he is fated to a life of weirdness and randomity and, yes, significance. He is destined to live an interesting life, in the literary and Chinese sense. Which, perhaps, we all are.

It’s hard to overstate the effect this book had on my writing style. Really. Really terrible, actually. Not that it’s bad when Douglas Adams writes that way, though if you read all five books, you’ll find fewer and fewer of the literary flourishes that make the first book so funny. It’s a highly affected style but it’s a little like riffing your own movie.

The saga’s pedigree is a little odd, too. It started, I believe, as a radio show, that got turned into a book and a sequel, that got turned into a miniseries, that got turned into a text-based adventure game, that got turned into some more books, and a big Hollywood movie.

Outside of the first two books, which make a nice set by themselves, Restaurant at the End of the Universe rounding out the shenanigans in Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy in a relatively satisfying way, the original BBC miniseries is worth watching. It’s not a great series in terms of hilarity, but elements of it are just perfect: Simon Jones as Arthur Dent, David Dixon as Ford Prefect, the graphics for the guide, and the user of Peter Jones as the voice of the book. Oh, and the theme music, which apparently is “Journey of the Sorceror” by The Eagles, of all things.

The recent movie is relatively weak as well, though it has a good cast and a bit of nice set design.

In any event, you know you’re having a bad week when it starts with your home planet being destroyed.

Until next Monday, mutants, stay radiated!

Review: Hacking MythTV

I hate trashing books, really–another reason I don’t review them often, but below is a review of a book on MythTV that I wrote for Amazon.

I used to write a lot of reviews for Amazon. I was, at one brief point, in the top 500. I was in the top 1000 for a long time, which is pretty good for someone who just did it casually for the weird niche products. (Lots of folks are seriously hardcore.) But I noticed when doing a review for the dreadful “Heroes of Might and Magic 4” that the review didn’t appear. Multiple times I wrote that review and it went into the bit bucket.

That kind of pissed me off. No explanation or nothin’. (Actually, I was just reading…Amba?…where she had a sort of mini-Jihad because her review had been rejected for nebulous readings.) So I stopped writing reviews for ‘em. But I figure with the blog, I’ll just put the reviews here along with the Amazon ones, and add stuff that Amazon won’t let me add, like if I know a particular author is a real *****CONNECTION LOST~~~~~~

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Also, I should note that you may not know what MythTV is. MythTV is a software package (a set of computer programs) that turn your computer into a super-powered PVR–like TiVo on steroids.

Like TiVo, you can time shift, set up complex recording schemes, and do things like rewind “live"TV”. Unlike TiVo, you can archive those recordings. You can also rip, play and archive DVDs. (None of my DVDs last very long, so this is a big deal for me.) And you can fairly casually extend the disk storage.

It also does a shedload of other things, like play music, allow you to watch streaming TV (there’s not much worth watching yet, though), record one (or more) things while watching another, provide you with weather reports, play video games, etc. etc. etc.

It’s amazing. But it ain’t easy to set up. And it’s not really cheap. (I mean, it can be. You could probably run a non-high-def edition on $50 worth of hardware + a hundred or so more in tuners. But you’re going to want more storage, and probably high-def, and so on.) And if anything goes wrong, you need to be somewhat high tech to deal with that.

This book would purportedly help you setting up MythTV but I didn’t find it helpful.
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Look, I’m not going to say that these guys didn’t try, or that this is a cynically written attempt to cash in on something, but this book is as close to worthless as I can imagine.

Now, again, this is not entirely the authors’ fault. MythTV is highly dynamic. What’s true today isn’t true tomorrow. I’m a journeyman MythTV builder, and a lot of what I’ve learned in the painful progress I’ve made simply does not apply any more.

That said, a lot of stuff =hasn’t= changed, and it’s here where the book falls apart. They should have started with the basics of content flow, i.e., where is the media coming from? Because that’s the first thing you need to know before you even decide if MythTV is right for you. (Over the air content, for example, is easily handled by Myth, while controlling a set-top box from a cable, satellite or fiber optic company is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish.)

While support has been added since this book was written, the stuff mentioned is not well covered. For example, to set up your MythTV backend, you have to select from various capture card types. There are V4L, MPEG2, DVB, etc.–how about explaining what these are? No explanations is the norm, and when there is an explanation it’s often simply restating the on-screen text without actually clarifying.

Six months of having this book and I’ve never once found an answer to a question I had. Now, I don’t go looking for product specific stuff, because (as I said) there’s no way they could cover that, but just basic joints and cogs and so on.

See, the thing about MythTV is that if you have just the right hardware and a simple enough setup, it might take you fifteen minutes to set up. If you don’t, it could take you weeks to set up, or you might never be able to do it.

To be useful, this book really should have explored =how= to troubleshoot. They couldn’t do the actual troubleshooting for you–there are too many things that can go wrong–but they could tell you about the utlities and hardware settings that allow you see where your problems lie.

Maybe they just didn’t have the space. But, as I say above, it makes the book almost completely worthless.

Traci Does The News

On an IMDB discussion of Crazy Eights, Traci Lords came up. Traci and I have a “special” relationship, though she’s not aware of it. I had never heard of her before she was exposed as a minor. (Porn stars were not really part of the mainstream awareness back then. There really wasn’t an analogue for, say, Jenna Jameson.) The local NBC affiliate screamed her name across five nightly newscasts.

Obviously the hot ticket for the week. At the end of some of the longest days of my life, this was what passed for news of the outside world. (I’ll talk about my relationship with newspapers later.) Here was the thing about the Lords story:

Every night, they changed the number of movies she was in without comment or reference to previous nights. First it was “over 200”, then “nearly 200”, then “over 100”…I think they closed with “nearly 75”.

A lot of other things said or implied made no sense, either. She controlled her own mega-media empire racking up millions upon millions of dollars. On the other hand, she was a victim of the exploitative porn industry.

But just the changing of a simple, basic fact over a period of five days as if the audience had no memory told me everything I needed to know about what the nightly news guys thought of their audience. Or of facts in general. I’ve never watched a nightly newscast since.

So, thanks, Traci!

It’s sort of ironic that, to this day, I actually don’t know what her story is. I tend to doubt seriously claims of a highly polished machine kidnapping kids off the streets of LA and forcing them at gunpoint to have sex on film. (Linda Lovelace’s claims–er, the second set of claims she made, reversing the first set of claims–seem outright absurd.) I do not doubt there are many sleazy individuals working to take advantage of girls who are down on their luck in the first place, though.

She’s got a book. Maybe I’ll read it. I do owe her that much.

Trying Neaira

If ever I had the idea that I wasn’t boring, surely a book like this disabuses me of it.

Honestly, I loved it. I have to re-read the section about ancient Athenian jury pools, which sort of required you to build your own Greek Jury Poll-O-Matic device for selecting jurors (they numbered in the hundreds to the thousands per case! 30% of the population was on jury duty!) to follow along.

I’m just not that handy.

Anyway, this book is ostensibly about a non-Athenian prostitute on trial for being married to an Athenian. Along the way, we learn about Greek brothels, how slavery and freedom from slavery were negotiated in the ancient world, how trials used to work, how women–decent women, that is–were expected not to associated with any men other than their guardians, what happened when women who were supposed to be decent were found with men other than their guardians, why you shouldn’t cross Apollodoros, and how the Athenians valued their citizenship.

Above all, we learn that the ancient Athenians may have been even more litigious than modern men.

The author Debra Hamel has a lively writing style that keeps the story interesting, particularly if you have some interest in the time (which I do, as I mention). She’s up-front about what we know and what we don’t know, and what can probably conclude given the somewhat sketchy nature of the surviving data. (A big portion of the data comes from the prosecuting attorney, Apollodoros, and it has to studied for negative implications as well as what was asserted to make the case.)

Definitely a fun read.

Movies from Books

There are certain axioms that “everyone knows” about movies: Sequels suck, remakes are never as good as the original, and movies based on books are never as good as the books they’re based on. None of these are true, of course. While I’m defending remakes over at the Retromedia forum, the topic of movies based on books came up over at Ace’s on the discussion of the Iron Man mvoie.

Here’s what I wrote:

Silence of the Lambs. Good book, better movie.

The Amityville Horror. Crap book, slightly less crappy movie.

The Da Vinci Code movie, as bad as it was, was probably not as bad as the book.

When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, and for that matter The Time Machine are all genre classics–talking the George Pal movies, now. Ballmer and Wylie’s book was very good (and holds up pretty well) but not the classic that the movie is. It’s been a while since I’ve read Wells, but his stuff is pretty dry.

You get into questions of what it means for one work of art to be “better” than another, and in this case, two works of art in different media. Books are a different experience from movies, and very rarely do you get a Silence of the Lambs, where the movie adheres faithfully to the book and manages to become a classic, where the source material (while very good) is unlikely to achieve the same relative respect.

Most often, the movie will diverge from the book somewhat to make something more watchable (see Spielberg’s removal of the rape scene from the opening of The Color Purple) or completely reinvent the idea (James Whale’s Frankenstein). Unfortunately, if you don’t have a Spielberg or a Whale (and sometimes even if you do) you end with crap.

I can come up with better examples than the ones I did, too. This was top-of-my-head stuff. But look at the movie Wizard of Oz, iconic and culturally huge in ways the book series never was (and the book series was and is popular).

Basically, people tend to confuse the experience of reading a book with the experience of watching a movie. If they’ve read the book first, they want the movie to make them feel like the book made them feel. But a book is a completely different experience from a movie, and it can evoke a kind of experience that a movie simply can’t.

Not to say that books are “better” than movies. Just different. That’s why a Silence of the Lambs is so rare. Or, to go back a few years In Cold Blood. You can’t put as much stuff in a movie, but when you cut large relevant chunks off, you lose a lot of things that made the books special. It takes more talent to adapt a novel in such a way as to create a truly engaging movie than t does to just make stuff up that sort of reminds you of the premise of the novel (e.g., any movie adaptation of a Dean Koontz novel).

That’s why the latter is done so much in Hollywood.

But it’s easy to forget Sturgeon’s Law. If 90% of everything is [crud], then that’s going to apply to movies adapted from books. And it’s a common mistake to generalize from that any of the three axioms I mentioned above.

Book Bind

Instapundit linked to this cool essay on books and, more precisely, bookshelves.

It’s in response to a couple of people whose views on bookshelves are, let’s say, disparate from mine. One holds that books are a presentation to the world of who you’d like to be. In my view, putting books up for show is probably the lowest form of status-seeking pseudo-intellectualism, and the only people I’ve known to do that were people who never read any books, ever.

The other, however, holds that all books in the bookshelf must have been read!

I’ve actually had that situation. When I was a kid. I would bring home six or seven books and read them that afternoon. (They were kids books, after all.) Then I would be bored until the next month’s Scholastic catalogue came around. I haven’t had that situation since–well, since someone gave me a book I didn’t want to read. But there was a time when it was hard to find a book on my shelf I hadn’t read.

For a few years, I taught martial arts at a rec center on Saturdays. The rec center was located next to a library, and Saturday was book sale day. I started bringing home bags full of books, at a pace even my younger, single, childless and unemployed self would have had a hard time keeping up with. The only criterion for me was whether the book had a $1 (or $0.25 or whatever the book cost) chance of being read.

Because to me, the bookshelf is like a library you have at home. Interested in Mechanical Engineering? I have a book on it. Maybe some sci-fi? Lots of that, and horror and fantasy fiction. The classics? Got those. Biographies of historical characters or celebrities? Check. Warfare throughout the ages? Sure thing.

If I want to read something right now, there’s a good chance I have a book that fits into the cateogry. This, rather shockingly, does not prevent me from buying more books. I have eight full bookshelves in the house (after two collapsed from the weight) and several in the garage, and boxes more. One current project is to clean out the garage and store almost all the books there (for earthquake safety reasons).

One wonders if I could read them all at this point. I mean, I don’t wonder that very often. I’d consider myself fortunate if I had that opportunity.

But I also have movies in my video collection I haven’t watched. Music in my music collection I’ve never heard (or maybe only heard once). I’ve tons of games I’ve never played.

Not that, in the long run, this doesn’t say something about me. But I’m not trying to make a statement (nor trying not to make a statement), just looking for storage.

Dopey The Dog

He was the lowest of low-bred dogs. It would have taken several commodious closets to accommodate his family skeletons. At first there had been some loose talk about his Airedale ancestry. There was nothing to it. At some time during the love life of his indefatigable mother things must have become terribly involved. The result was Dopey, a creature who could call almost any dog brother with a fair chance of being right nine times out of ten. He was a melting-pot of a dog, carrying in his veins so many different strains of canine blood that he was never able to decide what breed of dog he should try hardest to be, or to develop any consistent course of canine conduct. He had no philosophy, no traditions, no moral standards. Dopey was just dog. His mother might have seen an Airedale once or even made a tentative date with an Airedale, but after one good look at her son it was obvious that the date had never amounted to anything definite.
–Thorne Smith, Turnabout (Chapter 2)