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Monday, May 31, 2004

HEADING WEST

Those of you who regularly read my blog probably won't be surprised by this, but there won't be any updates for a couple of days; Dad and I are heading west to see Reilly and Mackenzie.

Michael moved into a new house just a couple of weeks ago, and I'm anxious to see it. He is going to be without an on-air partner all week, and he invited me to be his co-host either Tuesday or Wednesday, but it looks like we'll be in Oakley on Wednesday morning. Reilly turned eight years old last week, and I wasn't able to go to his birthday party the weekend before, so I'm equally anxious to see him (and his little sister, of course).

Oakley had terrible dust storms on Saturday; they were so bad that visibility was near zero. Kansas Senator Stan Clark was killed as a result, when the low visibility caused him to wreck into a semi, after which another semi ran into Sen. Clark's vehicle. I know that Sen. Clark was a favorite in northwestern Kansas and had represented the area since he was quite young. In fact, he'd given Josh Svaty a few pointers during his first campaign two years ago. Sen. Clark was a good man according to all who knew him, and he'll be missed in Oakley, I'm sure.

Another thing that I'm looking forward to seeing in Oakley is their new bronze statue of Buffalo Bill. It's quite an accomplishment and hopefully an attraction that can bring in some tourists to Oakley.

IT'S OK - BE A STICKLER!

I've always had a particular interest in writing, and many people tell me I'm quite good at it. I don't know how successful I actually am at written expression, but I do know there is a lot of it involved in both history and political science. Both majors require a lot of reading and subsequent writing about what was read. Because of my chosen fields, I've become very familiar with writing in the last three years; many of my fellow K-Staters know this and often approach me to read their papers to check for content and grammatical errors. Most of the time, I'm absolutely amazed at the poor grammar, the frequent misspellings and mistakes, and the lack of knowledge about punctuation that my fellow students are displaying. Maybe I'm just too picky, I thought; but surely all of these people had learned the same basic grammar and punctuation rules that I had been taught.

I was skimming through an older issue of Newsweek last Tuesday and found a short write-up on a book entitled Eats, Shoots & Leaves by British author Lynne Truss. It was released in the United States just last month, and it turned out to be the perfect book for me; a "Zero tolerance approach to punctuation", as the cover states. Here's the synopsis on the back of the book:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.
"Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
"I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up."
The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.
"Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

So, punctuation really does matter, even if it is only occasionally a matter of life and death.


Exactly! Punctuation matters! I snatched up the book on Wednesday, and it was a fantastic read. It's quick, to the point, historical, stubborn, and humorous. And Lynne Truss is right: the English language is being butchered on a daily basis, everywhere from newspapers and magazines to the signs posted in the grocery store. Few people seem to be familiar with the laws of singulars and plurals, where to put apostrophes, and just what the heck colons and semicolons are for. Truss's book points out the basic rules of punctuation and manages to do so in a humorous (and at the same time educating) manner, pointing out glaringly bad examples of punctuation deficiency that she's come across. She also points out the continuing evolution of our language, happening right before our eyes; the internet, e-mails, and text-messages are certainly changing our language to one that is less reliant on proper punctuation and completely ignorant of grammar. "I'll see you before 8:00pm, right?" has, in a short amount of time, evolved into "CU B4 8?"

I'm hardly an expert on grammar and punctuation, but I try to do my best. I suppose that's why people come to me when they need some grammar checked or some unnecessary commas removed; they know I'm a stickler. The last paper that I revised had me shaking my head in disbelief; this girl actually wrote "wa la" instead of "voilà". I'm afraid that Eats, Shoots & Leaves has made everyday punctuation errors all the more noticeable to me, though; the Ellsworth County Treasurer's office has a wall hanging that caught my attention just last Friday. It proudly proclaims membership in the "County Treasurers Association", which apparently doesn't belong to anyone...

CLARIFICATION OF GMAIL

I was wrong...in my earlier blog I said that Gmail was available to try out. It's actually not available to the general public yet as it is still in its Beta version; I'm one of the few thousand testing its services because of my affiliation with Blogger. However, Google says that it will be available to everyone soon. In the meantime, if you're interested in it, you can scout out a preview here.

HAND-IN-HAND: YAHOO! AND JOHN KERRY and GOOGLE'S GMAIL

I absolutely couldn't vote for John Kerry, just like there are some people who are unable to even contemplate voting for President Bush. That's fine, as far as I'm concerned; some people and some issues just rub me so far in the wrong direction that I'm completely disinclined to be open to an alternative point of view. John Kerry represents one of those people who rubs me the wrong way; I think he'd look fantastic in a toga with laurels around his head, dictating patrician policy from atop an ivory tower. There are certainly those who feel the same about Bush. But Kerry strikes me as the ultimate in pandering, wishy-washy, waffling Democrats; he changes his views and backtracks on his statements everytime the wind changes directions. I also have little respect for nominal Catholicism (in name only); a futher explanation of that point might take some time, but suffice it to say that John Kerry is Catholic in name only, and I regret that he'll get the votes of some other Catholics simply because he belongs to that specific denomination.

But this rant is more about Yahoo! than it is about John Kerry, though he does have a specific role in this little treatise. For the past month, Yahoo! has been displaying John Kerry for President ads in my e-mail inbox. Now I'm sure his campaign is paying for them, but his ugly mug is about the last thing I want to see when I'm checking my e-mail. I used to have a reasonable expectation that I wouldn't be hounded by partisan advertising within my own, private e-mail inbox; now, it seems, the gloves are off and Yahoo! is proud to display Kerry's ads whether you like them or not. Does this seem right to you? I mean, ads on television or in newspapers are one thing. Even pop-up ads on other internet sites are acceptable. But political advertising in my e-mail inbox? I think that's stepping over some boundaries. And if you think I'm being reactionary, just imagine if everytime you opened your e-mail, the political candidate who you despise the most was there grinning at you, coaxing you; calling you to switch to the Dark Side. Not a very pleasant thing, is it?

Today, I'd finally had it. Yahoo! provides an advertisement feedback section, and I let them know I didn't want to be bothered with political advertisements in my e-mail inbox, nor did I think that anyone else should be unduly persuaded by an invasive advertisement. Yahoo! is a free service, though, and if Kerry is shelling out the cash to have his face plastered all over my mailbox, there's not much I can do about it. I guess that doesn't really matter much, because I'm phasing out my account with Yahoo! anyway. I can't give it up all at once; I still have a lot of important things sent there, forwarded there, or redirected to that address, but when I get all of that taken care of, my other e-mail addresses under Yahoo! and MSN Hotmail are going to be gone for good.

The replacement that I've chosen is Google's Gmail; still technically in the testing phase but fully available for anyone to try out. The huge advantage of Google's new e-mail program (which is free, just like Yahoo! and Hotmail) is the space that Google is providing for users to store messages. Yahoo! gives its users six megabytes of storage, which is usually enough to last a couple of months before you have to go through the whole inbox with a big broom and sweep out anything that you absolutely don't need, making space for more mail. Hotmail gives its users two megabytes of space, which is just enough to store a week's worth of junk mail that routinely pours into Microsoft's servers. Google's Gmail, however, gives users 1000 megabytes of space. At that size (and the rate that I fill up my inbox), I'll be 64 years old before I have to go through and clean out my mailbox, making room for more.

Gmail is quite innovative and different in the way it displays messages, too. It automatically saves all of your sent messages, and when someone replies to an e-mail you sent out, both e-mails are displayed as a conversation; the original e-mail on top and the reply on the bottom. To avoid clutter, the older e-mails are collapsed into just headings, so you can see who the sender was and what date it was sent/received on. The newest message is always displayed in full. Google was very forthcoming about the one potential drawback: text advertising that corresponds to what your e-mails are about. For instance, if someone sends you a message about flower pots, the right side of the screen will contain links to various websites that may make flower pots, sell flower pots, or break flower pots. My thoughts on this? I really didn't care. A lot of websites do this already; the server analyzes the text of a webpage (like my blog, for instance) and displays small advertisements that correspond to what the text is talking about. The most recent ads on my blog were for books about the Trojan War, corresponding to my movie review of Troy.

If you're using a web-based e-mail service, I would highly recommend a switch to Google's Gmail; at least give it a try. It's a little different to get used to, but it didn't take long and I found the whole system much easier and more accommodating that Yahoo! or Hotmail. Though any e-mail regarding John Kerry may display relevant links (mostly to waffle houses and the like), at least Google never makes you look at the guy's picture. His Yahoo! advertising seems like a good way to lose votes, if you ask me...

GOODBYE TO THE BUSHCHENEY-MOBILE

I've mentioned the BC, my faithful car of around six years, several times on the blog. Bushcheney was a 1993 Chevy Corsica; a white, four-door sedan that had put on nearly 40,000 miles carting me around Kanopolis, Ellsworth, and back and forth to Manhattan. But I speak of the BC in past-tense because it's gone now, replaced by something newer, faster, and better.

The BC wasn't in bad shape yet, but it definitely needed some work if I was going to keep it around. The front axle squeaked, which could have been the brake pads or could have been something worse. It needed a front-end alignment, and its right headlight has been a little cockeyed ever since we had that run-in with that Toyota Camry back in January. BC wasn't kept clean; I didn't drive it too often in Manhattan, and it definitely looked well lived in from the times that I did use it. Its paint, like all 1993 Chevys, was flaking off in chunks. I did the best I could to slow down its balding, placing strips of white bumper stickers around the flaked-off areas to keep moisture from getting further under the paint, but the paint just didn't want to stay on. It didn't look good, but it just wasn't worth it to get it repainted. On top of that, BC's air conditioner went out last month, making all but the shortest trips uncomfortable.

Bushcheney wasn't a bad car; it had life left in it, for sure, but I figured it just wasn't worth it to put a lot of money into it. At nearly 12 years old, the BC wouldn't fetch much from a dealer anymore. The Blue Book trade-in value was just over $500, and suggested person-to-person transactions barely registered $1000 (not surprisingly, though, dealers can still sell '93 Corsicas for near $3000). I would guess that if I wanted BC to be back in top form, it would have cost much more than I wanted to invest. So on Saturday I cleaned it up on the inside (the navy blue interior is still in good shape), washed it on the outside (not too close with that power-sprayer; paint was flying off), and sent BC on its way to live with a new owner.

Now, where BC used to set is its replacement: a bright red, 1997 Chevy Monte Carlo that looks a lot like this picture, though it's a different model. It needs a few things done to it, the most major of which are having the tires balanced and a fresh coat of wax put on, but that's actually pretty minor stuff in the grand scheme of automotive things. I was quite happy with the whole transaction: the bank approved me for a vehicle loan without a problem, I got the Monte for $2,300 and passed off the BC all in one day. The Blue Book value on 1997 Monte Carlos is around $3,200, and dealers are selling them for near $4,000, so I thought that a vehicle trade for $2,300 wasn't too bad at all. It was just like getting $900 for the BC!

I've had the new car washed and cleaned out the inside; in fact, I've visited Don Panzer's car wash four times in the last week, washing all four of the cars that are (or were) around the house; the Impala, the Corsica, the Monte Carlo, and the Dakota. And I wish there was a tip jar up at that car wash; Don Panzer does a terrific job up there. He's always eager to help out, which customers definitely notice. Ellsworth was in need of a good, well-kept car wash, and Don sure filled the order.

I'll keep you updated on how the Monte Carlo works out. It's a bit different from BC: quite a bit sportier, a little bigger, but only a two-door. Plus the shifter is in the steering column instead of the console like I was used to, but I guess it's time to get used to something else. I've got no complaints so far; I just need to think of a name. I'm thinking that BC2 would be fitting for the new tags...

Sunday, May 30, 2004

SCHOOL'S OUT, and MILLERS ARE STUPID

I've had several people in the last few days tell me that I was long overdue for a blog update, including one reader who encouraged me to be "more conservative". I do appreciate knowing that there are people reading what I write, and I sure like to hear from them, too. That's encouragement to keep on going.

Well, the only excuse I've got for not writing for the last two weeks is school. As finals week drew closer, I had more and more studying to do and less time to sit down and peck out a few things on the computer. Well now that's over, and I have several big updates to pass along, and they'll be rolling out shortly.

For right now, though, I'll just give millers a hard time. Miller moths are just a pain, and here's a website where you can find out more than you ever wanted to know about the little fluttering idiots. We've had a few years around here where they really get to be a nuisance. Of course they don't actually hurt anything, but they're annoying, flying about and dive bombing randomly. We did have a few misconceptions about millers, though, until my parents and I searched the internet for some information about them. At that very time, we were killing them in droves.

Millers, it seems, don't fly erratically because they're stupid - that was just what I'd always thought. They actually don't like the light (hence the reason why you never see them fluttering around during the day). They seek shelter from the sun during the day and migrate during the night. The shelter that they find is many times the cracks in doors and windows, or vents and ducts that lead indoors. While the millers would like to return outside when it gets dark, they usually get lost and end up inside your house.

They look absolutely ridiculous when they're flying around - there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason or pattern to their paths, and I can't help but laugh when one gets to flying around our overhead lights. But there is a reason they're acting so wacky - some scientists postulate that the moths travel by moonlight, and the moon is a fixed point in the distance that they can never pass. When they get indoors, artificial lights confuse the heck out of them. They fly towards a light because they're assuming that it's the moon, but then when they pass it, they have to double back, and this continues over and over, making them look insane.

Mom knew about this little trick to kill millers that get inside: put a bowl of soapy water under a light. The millers fly so erratically around artificial light that they're bound to dip in the water sooner or later. Plain water won't work - millers have very fine scales which could shed the water right off (incidentally, the scales are so fine that they're like dust, which is why millers will disappear in a powdery mess when swatted). The soap bubbles, however, cling to their wings and make it very hard for them to escape. They're also sensitive to certain sounds, like jingling keys or crumpling pop cans. This is because bats use similar frequency sounds during echolocation, so jingling keys will set off a miller's panic button, causing it to dip and dive in evasive maneuvers, trying to get away from a predator that isn't there.

In the course of just a little over a half-hour, I caught 27 millers in my soapy water bowl, and believe it or not, jingling my keys actually sped up the whole process. I've always hated millers just because they were so irritatingly stupid, but a brief search on the internet told me they weren't stupid; just hopelessly confused. Isn't entomology fun?

...make that 28 millers in my soapy water bowl.

Monday, May 17, 2004

TIME FOR AN UPDATE

I couldn't believe that I hadn't updated this thing since May 6th, but then again, that makes sense. I've been pretty busy since then preparing for finals week, looking for a summer job, etc. When I logged back on just a few minutes ago, I saw that Blogger has changed its layout. It looks a little bit flashier and is probably easier to use now. The wind picked up last night and I thought it looked like it was really going to storm, but I don't think anything ended up happening, although the wind is still really blowing hard this morning.

Anyway, a lot has happened within the last couple of weeks that would merit being written down in the ol' blog. I've seen a few movies that I can recommend: The Punisher, Van Helsing, and Troy. Of course I just generally like to watch movies anyway, and if I think it looks halfway decent when it's previewed, I'll probably go see it in the theater. The Punisher was a great movie, far better than any Charles Bronson revenge flick. Van Helsing is a strange mix of a lot of different stories: Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein. It's more of a popcorn-movie; more entertaining than thought provoking. It did a good job of being entertaining and making pretty good use of the special effects budget.

I saw Troy a couple of nights ago. It was decent, but then again I'm harder on movies that are portraying an era of history that I take a particular interest in. But more than anything, Homer's The Iliad is a made up story that might be loosely based on real events. In that same fashion, Troy is loosely based on The Iliad. It doesn't matter if I spoil the ending here, since the outcome has been well-known for the last 2,700 years, but here are a few of my issues with Troy. What the book portrays as the last great battles of a 10-year war, the movie crams into just a few days. The Greeks and their fleet of 1000+ ships arrive at Troy within a few days, the battles start immediately, and the whole war is over and done in a couple of weeks.

The Iliad's true message lies in the futility of war. One of the great things about it is seeing Achilles (the hero, of sorts, though he's definitely not my favorite character) come to the realization that no matter how hard he fights or how many warriors he kills, his death is still guaranteed: he will die in battle. It shows that the good guys don't always win. The Iliad WAS a Greek epic, and they won their war, but later generations can identify more with the Trojans, thrust into a battle they really didn't want by the arrogance of one of their ruling elite. That end, though portrayed in the movie, was overshadowed by the sensationalized and better-known parts of the story: the Trojan horse and Achilles' heel, both of which don't happen in the book, as it cuts off before Achilles dies or the horse is built.

The movie did manage to pull itself off quite well without using the Greek gods. The gods play a major, major role in The Iliad, and many wondered how the story could be pulled off without them. They did it though, and despite some obvious flaws, Troy was a pretty good movie. The biggest problem that may hit people who are unfamiliar with the story is that Troy gives you no one to root for. Achilles is an arrogant frat-boy type who you're glad to see dead at the end of the movie, and Hector (who is the true hero of The Iliad in my opinion) doesn't receive quite enough character development. Missing is the powerful scene from the book where Hector puts on his armor, goes to kiss his baby goodbye, and terrifies the child with his appearance. We don't feel quite as bad as we should about this family man heading off into a futile battle. But perhaps that's the point, as well - war produces winners and heroes in name only.

I'm almost finished with one final: Indians of North America. It is a final term paper for the class, and I'm writing mine over the various skeletal remains found in America that do not seem to match up with the traditional timeline of Indian migration to this continent. Kennewick Man, over 9,300 years old, has strangely European features, and some sites in the eastern US are close to 17,000 years old - 5,000 years before the ancestors of today's Native Americans crossed the Bering Strait. Interestingly enough, Indian peoples are trying to protect their positions as the "first Americans" and in some cases are adamantly fighting the study of bones that predate the Clovis model. The Clovis model, based on spearpoints found in New Mexico in the 1930s, basically states that the oldest human settlement in America has been found at Clovis, NM and is around 11,000 years old. That means that northeastern Asians crossed the Bering Strait around 11,500 years ago. But the Kennewick site among others defies this timeline.

The Indians who are fighting the study of these bones do have a point: if somehow the history was revised to state that they were not the first Americans, they could stand to lose ancestral rights, territorial gains, and casino deals all gained for them very recently. Plus, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 says that if remains are linked to a specific tribe, that tribe can demand their return for proper burial. That's only right, considering that during the 19th century many Indian gravesites were robbed to aid in the racist science of skull-measuring. But when a tribe like the Umatillas of Washinton demands the return of Kennewick Man, which is clearly not their ancestor, the law comes into question. How far back do Native American rights go? And can they claim skeletons that are found on their land, even if they bear no genetic resemblance to them? It's an interesting look at how politics can obstruct archeology and history.

After that paper is finished, I've got two finals left: Political Inquiry and Analysis and Modern Political Thought. I'll be done by Wednesday, but I'm sticking around until at least Sunday. Then, I can move things from the 9th floor down to the 1st floor where I'll be living for the summer. After that, I've got a couple of weeks before my new job (at the K-State Dairy) and summer classes start, so I'll take a quick vacation in Kanopolis!

Thursday, May 06, 2004

THE END OF "FRIENDS"

Tonight, television's biggest comedy will be coming to an end. I know several people who are skipping classes, meetings, and softball games just to be able to catch the series finale of "Friends", which they would argue is the best sitcom in television history. And it won't be long until another of NBC's long running and greatly loved sitcoms, "Frasier", ends its 11-season run. These shows' finales are touching millions of people across the nation, pulling at heartstrings and stirring emotions at the prospect of losing these beloved characters forever. The headlines now are touting "Friends" and "Frasier" as being long-lasting, mega-award winning shows that will endure long into the future through syndicated reruns – comedic gold that will tickle funny bones for generations to come. These predictions, however, make me realize that NBC (and indeed other network broadcasters) and the American people have forgotten what true comedy, what real sitcoms are all about.

"Friends" and "Frasier" suffer from the same debilitating set backs, ones that will doom them to obliviousness in the land of reruns and daytime syndication. These two shows, purported as sitcoms, turned into something altogether different: dramas with low quality, predictable humor interspersed throughout their half-hour timeslots. But didn't these shows win all of their Emmys for comedy? Weren't they billed as sitcoms and didn't we accept them as such? Maybe so, but any advertisement for either of these two programs that was run in the last five years proved that “Friends” and “Frasier” made awkward transitions from comedy to tragedy. The proof lies in the most recent ads touting the last episodes of both series.

It’ll be dramatic. Unanswered questions will finally come to light. The characters that you’ve longed to see together may finally make a connection. Sad music underscores these commercials, turning these sitcom characters into soap opera stars in one fell swoop. And that is truly what “Friends” and “Frasier” have become – soap operas for people with short attention spans, peppered with a few laughs to keep the audience awake. Since when did a comedy have to have any continuity? That’s what makes some of the television history’s greatest comedies continuously funny; you can pick up in the middle of a season and understand the show. But “Friends” and “Frasier” have their audiences so interweaved into the week-to-week, year-to-year plot lines that no one could possibly have any interest in the show had they not been watching since 1995.

That’s exactly the reason why these two shows will suffer in syndication. It’s just not fun to watch a “Friends” episode without knowing what’s been going on for the previous 12 shows. Questions abound from such foolhardy attempts to jump in: “who’s that guy”, “how long has Rachel been working at this job”, or “I don’t get it – was that, like, a running joke?” Running jokes will plague them, and short-term characters too important to be one episode stars, but important enough to stick around for half-a-season will confuse newcomers to these shows. There was a time when sitcoms were light on the continuity, serious issues that may have cropped up were buttered over with ripe comedy, and character evolution only happened if the actor himself was growing (case in point: Ron Howard on “The Andy Griffith Show”). Those days, however, have been lost to the 30-minute drama, the low-brow soap opera, the revamped and unfunny 21st century version of the sitcom.

There are a few sitcoms out there that will continue to thrive in syndication because of their true comedic natures. “The Cosby Show” and “Cheers” seem to have a rock-solid place in the world of reruns. In my opinion, the all-time greatest sitcom was “Seinfeld”, reaching that perfect peak of comedic genius. Never did “Seinfeld” fail to make us laugh. Never were the outrageous plot lines so far out of the ballpark that they couldn’t be related to our everyday lives (almost every episode of “Seinfeld” makes me nod at least once in agreement, thinking to myself, “yep, that’s how it is”). And never did an advertisement for “Seinfeld” portray it as a drama instead of a comedy. Never did an episode end and leave us in suspense instead of in stitches. That’s the way it should be – today’s sitcom writers could take a page from Larry David’s playbook and start making comedies funny again, like they are supposed to be.

“Friends” and “Fraiser” have their followings – I can’t deny them that. They’re popular, humorous, and addictive in their own ways, but to call them sitcoms is misleading. Growing up, I watched old TV shows like “I Love Lucy” and “Andy Griffith”, though they were made 20 and even 30 years before I was born. Like those shows, only the true comedies of the late 20th century like “Seinfeld” will be appealing to generations to come. Though “Seinfeld” itself is smattered with ‘90s pop culture references, a show like “Friends” reeks of the time in which it was made, which will ultimately be another nail in its coffin. True sitcoms will cross generational lines. “Friends”, which I never found funny in the present, cannot expect much life in the future. So we’ll have a big farewell for “Friends” and “Frasier” now, as it may truly be goodbye for these long running yet ultimately unappealing shows.

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