Friday, December 28, 2007

No Nookie Song


Over on Steve Barnes's blog, there's a long-running discussion about racism. One of the things that Barnes points out is that, in Hollywood, this skews movies somewhat, consciously or not; in movies that are considered blockbusters -- making more than a hundred million dollars -- if there is a black guy or Asian guy in the lead, he never gets laid on-screen.

It is, unfortunately, true, and it probably says more about Americans than we want to admit.

That said, I wanted to razz Barnes a little about it, so I wrote a short song for him for Christmas.

Among all the other reasons I'm no doubt going to hell, add this one to the pile ...

















Visualize This


In the early 1980's, I wrote a short story for Asimov's Magazine, called "Darts." It was based upon what was cutting-edge neurological research at the time, regarding visualization, and how effective it was in helping people get things done.

How I got the idea for the story was a piece I saw -- probably in Scientific American, but I don't recall for sure -- this was in the pre-internet days, so it was certainly print on paper and not on screen.

An experiment was set up, using darts -- the kind you throw in the pub. Basically, the gist of it was this: A bunch of college kids were brought in and asked to throw darts at a board. Their scores were recorded, and the subjects were broken up into groups and sent home.

One group was the control -- they did nothing special. A second group was told to practice throwing darts at a board every day for half an hour. There were a couple-three other groups, I'm a little fuzzy on that, but they were given instructions on a couple imaginary practice. One of these involved doing the exercise in real-time -- you imagined yourself in front of a dart board, and practicing for half an hour, throwing darts, and getting big scores, but you never actually threw a real dart.

Some weeks later, everybody got rounded up and re-tested.

To nobody's surprise, the control group had pretty much the same scores.

The group that practiced half an hour a day improved something like 67 points on average, again, not altogether unexpected.

The people who imagined themselves throwing the darts for half an hour each day blew the doors off the test -- 165 point improvement on average.

The guy conducting the experiment was amazed. In this case, imaginary practice beat actual practice by a factor of two. It seems, they have learned since, that imagination works the same reality maps in pretty much the same way as doing it does.

The big difference was mindfulness. Had those practicing been given lessons in focus and intent and not just tossing the darts, chances are they would have done better; still, you have to shake your head at this the first time you hear it.

Now, if you don't have a skill at all, imagining yourself doing it won't make you better. If you can't play "Chopsticks," then you won't accomplish Bach fugues by thinking about them; however, if you do have the skill -- and darts was chosen because it was simple and easy to learn the rules and moves -- then you can improve your performance by tripping your brain.

I bring this up because it seems possible that if imaginary practice is equal to or better than real practice, it could open up a nice can of worms in our discussions of martial arts ...

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Play That Funky Neurology White Boy


Daniel J. Levitin is a former rock band member, session musician, sound engineer and record producer, who grew up to be a neuroscientist. He runs the lab for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University, and has written for Grammy and Billboard.

The guy knows music from both ends, and if you want to walk with him a ways down the path of what music is, how it ticks around in our heads, and why we listen and play the stuff, pick up a copy of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.

The book is not the easiest one you'll ever read, but Dr. Levitin is a good enough writer to explain some fairly esoteric neurochemistry and assorted musical concepts in a way that I could stay with him, in a manner I found both entertaining and informative.

Any guy who ever picked up a guitar thinking it would get him laid has a handle on one of the basic truths, but there's a lot more going on, connected to language, memory, and motion, and it's fascinating stuff.

In some societies, music and dance are defined by one term, since they can't imagine one without the other. Why the music you were listening to when you came of age resonates so strongly has much to do with how your memory works. If you want to be a great musician, mindful practice is more important than in-born talent.

If you like this kind of thing, you will like this one.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Pratfall


So, Christmas Eve, home, quiet, and Dianne and I opened a bottle of champagne and went and sat in the hot tub. Very nice.

Half an hour later, I got out, went to fetch some more tablets for the brominator.

The deck this time of year, after a couple months of Oregon soggery, is mostly covered with a fine layer of moss and mold, turning it very slippery. I should have given it a wash with bleach to kill that stuff, and I was going to, eventually.

Three steps away, hit the slickest patch, both feet straight out and a sudden quick trip from upright to flat on my back ...

Falling is a fast thing, that thirty-two-feet-per-second-squared stuff. No time to think at all.

Quite the thud, and major chagrin. Us martial arts types take it as a personal failure when such things happen. Slip? Fall? Not moi! Had I been paying proper attention, had I not been champagned and hot tubbed, why, it would never have happened! Big lapse. It is to feel shame.

Alas, into each life, a little prat must fall ...

Fortunately, however, all those years of being thrown hither and yon paid off. Though I landed flat on the deck, I did so head up, arms outstretched to break the impact, just as if I meant to do it that way, and ... no harm, no foul.

Not as soft as the yard at Guru's, but a lot softer than Cotten's garage floor.

Once before, when I was living in L.A. and doing a lot of rolling and falling in the Okinawa-te class four nights a week, I was jogging across a gas station lot to pay the attendant when I slipped on a patch of oily concrete. My momentum caused me to take a header, and somehow, I tucked, hit on a shoulder, did a roll, came up, and kept going.

When I got there, the attendant stared at me. "Jesus, did you do that on purpose?"

And, of course, I said, "Yeah. I did. Good practice, you know."

Which, while not strictly true, in that I didn't want to take the dive, I surely did want to come away with nothing broken. I was amazed that I did.

It's this kind of thing that makes me think that, in the heat of -- or as in the deck instance, cold and nekkid of -- the moment, that some of this martial arts stuff will be ingrained enough and there should I need it.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Start of a Bad Joke


So, OJ Simpson, Robert Blake, and Phil Spector walk into a bar ...

You'll Shoot Your Eye Out



Christmas Eve tomorrow, and I'll crank up Ralphie and his quest for the Daisy Red Ryder air rifle once again. To those of you who celebrate the occasion, Happy Christmas. To those of you who don't, enjoy your Chinese food.

For fans who may not know, there is a whole industry that has sprung up about the movie, A Christmas Story.

Based on Jean Shepherd's radio ramblings and the books, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, and Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories, along with some short stories in Playboy, the movie was directed by Bob Clark (and there's a funny story there, about Porky's), came out in 1983, and quietly became a holiday standard. It has been my favorite Christmas movie since I first saw it, twenty-odd years ago.

The Cleveland house featured in the film went on the market some years ago, and a Navy guy who was a major fan leaped on it, bought it, and turned it into a museum.

You can buy Red Rider Leg Lamps at the gift shop across the street. There is an annual party at the house, featuring some of the actors from the movie.

And, of course, Daisy still makes Red Ryder air rifles, though they cost a little more now than when they first came out ...

Those of you too young to remember, Red Ryder was a cowboy hero in comics, on radio, and in movies. He shot the guns out of the bad guys' hands. Red had a sidekick, Li'l Beaver. The young lad -- not a girl, as you evil-minded sorts might think -- was played in the movies by various actors, including most notably, Robert Blake, who came out of the Our Gang comedies, went on to do Baretta on television, and who wound up being tried for murdering his ex-wife. Found not guilty on that. Just like OJ was not guilty of killing his ex-wife ...

The setting of A Christmas Story was probably about 1939 or 1940, which is about fifteen years before I was Ralphie's age and lusting after my first BB gun -- which I got the Christmas I was eight.

If you haven't seen this picture, you should -- it's not Miracle on 34th Street, nor It's a Wonderful Life, but it speaks to men of a certain age, and more so to me than either of those classics do. It makes me laugh, and I usually watch it late on Christmas Eve when Dianne is asleep; it's my personal ritual for the holiday.

Whaddya Think?



Unconscious associations make for an interesting sociological study. If you want to check on yours, using a series of tests, have a look here.

I feel the need to point out that video gamers will probably have a harder time with these than folks who are more analog -- punching keys to type is not quite the same as punching keys on a video game, and part of the process is that as soon as you get used to the "e"key for one result and the "i" key for the opposite, the tests switch them.

Video gamers seem to lock in what the buttons on a keyboard or controller do much faster than us old guys who learned how to shoot with a rifle and not a first-person-shooter video game. If you swap the buttons once you get them, that is apt to screw things up more for a gamer than a non-gamer.

That said, there are a series of tests in the demo section about race, sex, body type, and common sociology that might surprise you. I did but two of them, and found that I have no particular connection between weapons and white people, or weapons and black people, but that I have a slight preference for skinny people over obese ones.

Neither of these were earth-shaking surprises to me. (And I found it interesting which two tests I picked to take -- might be another study in that ...)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Food for Thought


A glancing thought on martial arts, couched in the form of an old joke:

Steve and Joe are out in the north woods hiking when, ahead of them, a nine-hundred pound grizzly bear ambles out onto the trail. The bear doesn't see them at first, but it will soon enough

Steve whispers to Joe: "Man, I'm glad I wore my running shoes!"

Joe, who knows a lot more about bears than Steve, whispers back, "That won't matter, idiot -- you can't outrun a grizzly!"

Whereupon Steve says, "I don't have to outrun him, I only have to outrun you ... "

Friday, December 21, 2007

Getting a Physical?


Some advice:

If you are going in for your annual physical exam, these are often scheduled for the morning, in order to check blood sugar and what not. Means you can't eat anything, though the nurse will tell you that black coffee is okay.

Actually, it's not. Skip it.

A lot of people have what is called "whitecoat hypertension." What this means is, your blood pressure goes up because you are in the doctor's office. At home it might be normal -- say, 120/80, but as soon as the nurse asks you to roll up your sleeve, it can shoot up ten points, bam, just like that.

So, 130/80 or even 130/90 is not great, but still marginally within the green zone.

Drink two or three cups of strong coffee, and the caffeine in it, a stimulant, can cause your BP to rise ten points, too. Some authorities say it won't, but mine does, and when I was working in the clinic, I saw it often enough to know that more than a small percentage of people will have the same reaction.

Now, this is transient and not dangerous if you have normal blood pressure; however, if you get nervous at the M.D.'s, and if you've had coffee, the combination might drive you over the 140/90 border and into the red zone.

Not dangerous per se, since if you exercise, your BP will shoot a lot higher than that while you are huffing an puffing. But: If they write down that number -- and they will -- and if it is into what is considered high, that will be on your chart forevermore. And the next time you go to get health insurance and they check your records, you will, at the least, get rated for it, and -- if you can get insurance at all -- it will cost more.

And, oh, yeah, if you put a little cream in your coffee and they do a blood sugar check, you might get diagnosed with diabetes because your fasting level is too high. There is sugar in cream, enough to skew the test.

Just so you know ...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Soul Food


So, forty-five degrees and raining here in the hinterlands outside the Rose City, and no better day to cook a pot of chili.

Chili, a little shredded cheese, beer, some crackers, pretty much set for supper.

Those of you from Texas can tune out now, since you probably believe that chili is a slurry of ground beef and spices; where we come from, you need beans.

There are a lot of ways to fix chili -- never seen two exactly alike. Basic Perry-household chili recipe: Beans -- you can use pinto, kidney, or red beans, small or large. Qs to cover the bottom of the big soup pot. Cover them with water and let them soak until most of the water gets sucked up, pour the rest off. (One theory says this will help them cook faster and prevent as much intestinal gas after you eat them, but I can't say I've noticed much difference.)

Add fresh water to cover the beans, then boil them over low heat until mostly done, and add spices as you go -- salt, pepper, cayenne, a jalapeno pepper, fresh or dried, like that. Keep an eye on the water, too, more as necessary.

Probably take an hour and a half to two hours to get the beans mostly cooked.

Put them to the side.

In a skillet, sautee chopped onions, Bell pepper, garlic. When it is happy, add ground meat -- we like turkey, but beef or pork or chicken will do. A pound is probably enough, but more or less, to taste.

Cook on high heat until the meat is browned, stir frequently. Add spices as you go -- oregano, cayenne, cumin, clove, a dash of cinnamon, more ground pepper, you can get creative. We like to put in a few sprinkles of Tony Chachere's Cajun Seasoning. (That's "Sash-shur-ray," in case you ever want to ask for it by name.)

Add this mix to the beans. Put in some diced tomatoes, canned are okay. More spices. Chili powder is okay, too. A dash of Tabasco Sauce, or if you like it hotter, Sudden Death Sauce, Muerte, Crazy Motherpucker, like those.

Bring it to a boil, then lower the heat and allow it to simmer for another couple hours, and there you have it. Simple, easy, and very filling. But: if you like to have a candle by your bedside before you doze off, skip it on chili night, or risk immolation ...

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Entrenched


In an ongoing discussion over on Rory's blog, it seems that we have come to an impasse. Getting, I think, to the agree-to-disagree stage.

I'm reminded of my old hippie days, when, full of ourselves and insufferably smug, my generation of counter-culturists sought to lay waste to the old mores. My parents' bumper sticker was "America -- Love or Leave it!" and ours was "America -- Change it or Lose it!"

Eventually, I learned Mark Twain's lesson -- about how incredibly stupid his father was when young Sam was sixteen, but how much smarter his father seemed to have gotten when Sam was twenty. Amazing that the old boy could learn so much in just four short years ...

We would wrangle with our fathers, and righteous to the core, tell them that their entire lives had -- save for bringing us into the world -- been a waste. That the corporate bullshit and the consumerism and bigger-house-Republican values were all meaningless, and they need to wake up and smell the roses, shuck off their proletariat chains, and get with the program!

The Age of Aquarius was about to land smack on top of us, and we needed to get ready.

God, how thick we were. Well-meaning, idealistic, so certain we were going to turn it all around, oh, yeah, but the only thing more obnoxious than a nineteen-year-old-know-it-all is a whole bunch of nineteen-year-old-know-it-alls ...

We were a wave, and we did wash ashore, maybe further than most, but we ebbed. As George Harrison said, "All things must pass ..."

Of couse, that's how youth works. What is the saw? If my son was not a communist at twenty, I'd disown him. If he was still at communist at forty, I'd disown him ...

What I came to realize is that offering my father such an argument was doomed from the start.
It left him nowhere to go. If he bought it, then he'd wasted half his life, and he wasn't going to smile and agree to that because I said so. He had been young once himself, and had likely said stupid things to his own father. Listening to it from his long-haired son in patched bell-bottom jeans probably wasn't too impressive.

In the matter of deeply-held convictions, be they religious, political, or the taste of vanilla versus chocolate ice cream, people don't simply throw those away because somebody disagrees with them. The important ones? I suspect that most people come to believe and institutionalize those after more than a casual glance.

If I believe something to my soul, then you may be sure I have walked around it, prodded it, poked it, and examined and re-examined it in minute detail. If I am willing to defend it to others, then I have to be as certain of it as I can be. It has to withstand attacks -- from within more than without.

Whatever your belief about, say, abortion is, you probably came to it over time, and the chances of you changing it once you are grown are apt to be slim. The more rigor you have applied to arriving at your belief, the less likely you are to give it up without some kind of major change in the way you look at the world. The older you get, the fewer opportunities for those major life-changing things arise. Or, if they do, you chose to turn a blind eye to them.

For me, I have found paths I like, and I walk those. Doesn't mean I can't change to another one, but I'm gonna need a really good reason, since the ones I am on have been taking where I want to go for a long time.

And, of course, anybody who says that his path is better? Well, that's only natural, we all believe that. But if he says his path is the only way?

Not no, but un uh. Ain't going that route. I've been here long enough to know better. I know where that road leads, and I don't want to go there.

Thus the discussion on martial arts versus "real" violence. Having spent forty years in assorted forms of martial mayhem, I am not disposed to toss it all away just because somebody said, "Hey, it doesn't work." Granted, some arts are better than others. If want to concentrate on swordplay, probably archery wouldn't your first choice. But when push comes to shove, I'm confident that I have something that will serve. Might not be the best, nor the be-all, end-all, but I have faith in it, and faith can move mountains -- with a little help from some bulldozers and dynamite ...

[EDITOR'S NOTE: I'm going to table this discussion until Rory and I have a chance to have a cup of coffee and discuss this further. Sometimes, the words just get in the way ...]

Monday, December 17, 2007

Philsophically Speaking ...


From the classical guitarists newsgroup:

Keep this philosophy in mind the next time you hear, or are about
to repeat, a rumor.

In ancient Greece (469 - 399 BC), Socrates was widely lauded for
his wisdom. One day the great philosopher came upon an acquaintance who ran up to him excitedly and said, 'Socrates, do you know what I just heard about one of your students?'

'Wait a moment,' Socrates replied. 'Before you tell me, I'd like you to pass a little test. It's called the Test of Three.'

'Test of Three?'

'That's correct,' Socrates continued. 'Before you talk to me about my student, let's take a moment to test what you're going to say. The first test is Truth. Have you made absolutely sure that what you areabout to tell me is true?'

'No,' the man replied, 'actually I just heard about it.'

'All right,' said Socrates. 'So you don't really know if it's true or not. Now let's try the second test, the test of Goodness. Is what you are about to tell me about my student something good?'

'No, to the contrary ...'

'So,' Socrates continued, 'you want to tell me something bad about him even though you're not certain it's true?'

The man shrugged, a little embarrassed.

Socrates continued, 'You may still pass though because there is a third test, the filter of Usefulness. Is what you want to tell me about my student going to be useful to me?'

'No, not really.'

'Well,' concluded Socrates, 'if what you want to tell me is neither True nor Good nor even Useful, why tell it to me at all?'

The man was defeated and ashamed, and said no more. This is the reason Socrates was a great philosopher and held in such high esteem.

It also explains why Socrates never found out that Plato was banging his wife ...

Blind Whitebread Perry Sings Country
















White Trash Christmas II

And a little Christmas music ....

Squashed Header


For some reason, after I posted the gun show entry, the header on this page got truncated somehow. Dunno why -- maybe the length of the last few postings needed the room.

I went to the layout page and re-installed the artwork, but it stayed squashed

Looking at it again, I decided I kinda like it. See if it stays that way ...

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Gun Statistics


There's a big gun show in Portland this weekend, and it will have in one building thousands of -- if not tens of thousands -- guns of all stripes -- handguns, rifles, shotguns, assault rifles, even a few submachines guns. Enough ammo to run a small war, and kits to clean up the hardware after.

During the run, a several thousand people will shuffle through, looking, buying, selling. A lot of them will be armed and carrying concealed.

In the wake of the recent tragedy at the shopping mall in Omaha, I wondered how dangerous a gun show might be compared to a mall, vis a vis being shot.

Here's what I found: Dozens of people have been shot at malls, all of whom I could find out about on purpose, and a bunch of them killed.

One person was killed at a gun show, and a handful slightly injured by a ricochet at another show, and both of those accidents ...

So, offhand, I'd say your chances of getting murdered are much higher at a mall than at a gun show.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Guitar Gadgets II



The general size and shape of the classical guitar has been pretty much the same for a long time. Luthiers like Torres and Hauser found what seemed the optimum configuration, and most classical guitars made since hew pretty close to their patterns. Some variations, of course, bracing, materials, but not radical.

It's a wonderful instrument, the classical nylon-string, but not nearly as loud as steel-string acousticals, and without the same resonance and sustain. Steel tends to ring longer than nylon.

Most of the energy that comes from an acoustical guitar is generated from the top. Depending on which expert you ask, the back and sides count for a small percentage of the tone, some say as little as ten percent. The Spanish builder Torres once built a guitar with a papier-mache back, just to make the point, and it sounded pretty good.

When you play classical in the standard classical position, you sit in a chair or on a bench, the guitar's waist is balanced on your left left leg, your foot propped on a little stool, so that the neck angles upward, somewhere in the forty-five degree range. In order to keep it there, you drape your right forearm over the edge of the lower bout as you pick the strings.

This does several things: It slightly dampens the sound, since the entire front is not free to vibrate. It allows the sharp edge to imprint your forearm with a nice groove that can be uncomfortable during long sessions. And if you aren't wearing a long-sleeved shirt, it allows sweat to attack the finish, and with French polish, which is not uncommon for classical guitars, that's bad.

The foot-on-a-stool pose can, over the long run, cause problems with your back or hip. To remedy this, there are props, one of which is called a Neck-Up. This allows you to keep both feet flat on the floor, and for my money, is the way to go. The device attaches to the side of the guitar with suction cups, and is made of leather.

I have three guitars, and I use these on them all every time I play. The suction cups, which look to be silicone, haven't bothered the finish on any of them, and I've used them for a couple years.

Now, to counter the forearm problems, you can buy a suction-cup device, called a Plenosom armrest. This was created by a South American classical guitarist, and is sold through Maple Street Guitars. I just got one. Made of Brazilian ivorywood, it does seem to do what it advertises.

It certainly is a smoother platform upon which to rest one's arm; it will keep the sweat off the bout; and it seems to allow a bit more volume, clarity, and sustain.

Mad Bee Flies By


My father spent his entire working career at Ethyl Corporation, the company that made the anti-knock compound -- basically of lead -- for automobile gasoline. When I was a boy and you went to the gas station, the attendant would ask, "Regular, or Ethyl?"

Sometime in the late fifties or early sixties, the company formed a recreation association for its workers. They collected dues, bought some property, and built a big swimming pool out the Old Hammond Highway, in what was then the country. The ERA pool was open to workers and their families. Well, as long as you were white or could pass for such.

I worked there as a lifeguard for three summers as a teenager.

The summer I was seventeen, the guards all got together and took a trip to Mike Scanlon's grandparents' house, which was around Thibodeaux, Louisiana. The family home was on the edge of a swamp and bayou, Mike's grandparents had several flat-bottomed boats, called bateau (French, for "boat," I think) with outboard motors, and a house full of rifles and shotguns.

We divided up into two groups of three or four boys, got into a couple of bateaus, and, bearing .22 rifles, went out to cruise the swamp to drink beeer and harry the alligators. The biggest of the gators were twelve or fourteen feet long, and you could skip a .22 bullet off their backs without damaging them.

I had a little Beretta pistol, chambered in .22 short, a Minx. Not much gun, but the first handgun I'd owned outside BB-pistols.

Most of us were country boys or raised by parents who were, and knew how to shoot and the safety rules. There was one guy, call him Wheeler, who had no experience with guns -- though we didn't find that out until later.

Wheeler wasn't in my boat.

We cruised up and down the bayou, shot at big wasp nests, and floating beer cans, the latter of which we tossed into the water once we had emptied them, like that.This way the hell and gone out into the swamp, miles from any houses.

Then, on the opposite side of the waterway and maybe sixty feet away from my boat, Wheeler decided to shoot at something in the water between the two craft.

The gun safety rules, more or less, are these. 1) Never point a loaded gun at anything you don't want to see destroyed. 2) Guns are always loaded. 3) Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire. 4) Know what is behind your target in case you miss. There are other rules, like keeping the gun pointed downrange and like that, but those are the big four.

Wheeler cranked a round off. The bullet hit the water at a shallow angle, bounced off like a skipped rock, and smacked into the side of my boat with a nice metallic clunk!

In a very loud and agitated voice, I indicated that Wheeler's intelligence was on the low end of the human scale, that he had engaged in sexual congress with his female parent before he switched to homosexuality and began to enjoy fellatio.

Before anybody could reach up and take his rifle away, Wheeler laughed and fired another round in our general direction.

I heard the bullet go past my ear like a bumble bee on speed. Six inches to the left, it probably would have killed me.

I wasn't afraid -- I was royally pissed off, and it was everything I could do to keep from pointing my little pistol at him and emptying the magazine. I wanted to do it. I came this close. I was enraged to the lip of deadly violence, the proverbial red haze.

At which point, Mike, or his older brother, Pat, grabbed Wheeler's rifle, jerked it away from him, and offered their own choice words as to his parentage and lack of intelligence.

So, no harm, no foul, but aside from the lesson that teenagers who drink beer shouldn't have access to guns at the same time, the big one that came home had to do with the hindbrain. The reptile part of us under the reasoning mind, where the basic operating hardware and software lie. Where that primal beast that dwells in the cave exists, ready to deal with the essential survival questions: kill-or-get-killed, go-or-stay.

And what I realized, then, and more so later, is that when that beast steps out, all bets are off.

That at our core, no matter how much civilization we have tried to pave over it, the apes still have pointed teeth, and can be like the gators: killers. We might regret it later, it might cause us emotional pain, but when the beast is awakened, it rules until it does its job and goes back into the cave.

King Kong versus T.Rex? Put your money on the gorilla ...

Keep Watching the Skies ...

So, the Predator novel Turnabout is apparently still on track for a February '08 release. Dark Horse is now publishing these books and distributing them through comic book stores and other selected outlets. This means they won't sell as many copies as they did when Bantam published them; on the other hand, Dark Horse (and I) will get more of the profits to share, so we can both make more money with fewer sales.

The new AvP movie comes out on Christmas Day, Alien Versus Predator: Requiem (NOTE: this link contains spoilers) and if it does well at the box office, will likely help sales of the novel. The trailers I've seen indicate that it will be ... violent. If you like exploding heads and are looking to escape from the house on Christmas Day ...

In Turnabout, not so much violence, though there is some gore and guns do go off now and again. That pesky character stuff keeps creeping into my writing. I don't know how to stop it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Writer's Strike

As most of you probably know, the Writers Guild of America (both East and West branches) are on strike against the media producers (the AMPTP). Being as I am a kind of backdoor member of the WGAw, I support the union, and I thought I'd speak to it a bit.

First, these days, Hollywood isn't so much about making movies as making the deal, and it is all about the pie, and who gets what slice of it.

The writers -- without whom there would be no teleplays or screenplays, and thus no movies but documentaries, and no television, save the vile and onerous "reality" shows -- are once again being told to bend over and hand the producers the soap.

WGAw writers, on average, make about $60,000 a year. Better than being on the dole, but hardly enough to be considered serious wealth.

The crux of the strike this time is the same as it has been in the past: Everybody wants a bigger piece of the pie, and at least some of the producers would happily take it all.

The specifics of this round concerns the internet. Producers sell streaming video, for which there are commercials and for which they are making a shitload of money, only the writers don't get any of it.

When videotape came out, the producers said to the writers, "Gee, we don't how much money is gonna be involved in this, probably not much, so hold off on asking for any of it, and we'll hash it out later."

Home videotapes made a lot of producers filthy rich, and the writers got screwed.

When DVDs appeared, the producers said, "Hey, yeah, there might be some money here, but, you know, the formats haven't been nailed down, so, hold off on asking for any of it, and we'll take care of you later."

Uh huh. And guess who also didn't make any money from that.

And now, the associated producers are saying, "The internet? Well, yeah, there might be some money in that, but probably not all that much, so why don't you hold off and --- "

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me fourteen times, what, I am an idiot?

Well, yes, but not totally.

That's what the writers are trying to get: a piece -- a small piece -- of the internet action, which is already making producers rich.

There are other issues, but that's the sticking point. Just so you know ...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sleeping Dogs Lie

A Little Knowledge ...


A little knowledge, they say, is a dangerous thing. And yet, sometimes, a little knowledge is certainly better than none.

I have, for the last few years, been paying more attention to learning how to play the guitar than I did in the previous three decades when the cased instrument leaned on the wall next to the file cabinet gathering dust.

I can't claim to have learned much -- I can do a few simple tunes -- but I did realize yesterday that I have picked up some things.

In my collection of sheet music, there are songs I got along the way that I couldn't play when I got them. I didn't have the wherewithal to even know what the chords looked like without a chord book, much less be able to get my fingers to go where they were supposed to go.

I can play a version of "Hey, Jude," which song I love enough to have named a dog after it.
And while "Layla" -- another dog song -- has a fairly simple chord progression, the best-sounding version of it I have is in the key of Dm, and I could never manage that with the cowboy chords (those being the ones you need to play the songs by a singing cowboy like Gene Autry, mostly first-position fingerings.)

Barre chords are both harder and easier -- harder to do on a classical guitar physically, but once you learn them, you can move up or down the neck and make other chords using the same shape, owing to that nice little musical progression thing -- an A-minor moved up a couple frets makes a B-minor, moved down, a G-minor.

So when I look at the Derek and the Dominos song "Layla," (actually Eric Clapton and Duane Allman doing the guitars) and see that there's a D-sharp-minor, a C-sharp, and some B-flats and C-sharp-minors, I actually know where those are and can form them.

I realize there are nine-year-old kids who can play better than I, but it's a revelation to me anyhow, given as how I never thought I'd live to see the day I could do that ...

Friday, December 07, 2007

How Not to Measure Fitness


There are all kinds of ways to measure how physcially fit you might me. I'm here to talk about two that aren't good methods:

1) The bathroom scale.

2) The body mass index (BMI).

For those of you who don't know, BMI does a ratio between your height and weight, and assigns a number to this ratio. If it this number is under 18, you are considered too thin, and if it is above 30, too fat. If your BMI is, say, 35, you are morbidly obese.

A lot of doctors use the BMI without bothering to notice that it has a major flaw.

Doctors, when I was in the field as PA twenty-five years ago, were woefully unaware of the nature of fitness. We had a patient come in for routine physical once. He had a resting pulse rate of 48, and the doctor who saw him was all set to run a shitload of tests and maybe stick him into the hospital -- sinus bradycardia (slow heartbeat) can be dangerous.

Thing was, I was training to run in a marthon at the time, reading Runner's World Magazine, and The Physician and Sports Medicine, and the patient looked fit, so I asked him if he was a runner.

Yep. Six miles a day.

I then explained to the doctor that aerobically-fit jocks developed the heart just as any other muscle will if you work it, and that at 48 beats, this guy was pumping blood the way an average person would at 72 beats per minute. The slow rate was not a problem, but a measure showing much fitter than average his heart was, aerobically-speaking.

The doctor had never heard of this.

BMI's big flaw is that it does not speak to percentages of muscle and body fat. When Ahnahl the Governator won the Mr. Olympia Contest as the most muscular man in the world, with a bodyfat less than five percent, he was, according to his BMI, "morbidly obese ..."

Weight varies for a lot of reasons. Thursdays, I usually fast. Black coffee, lots of water, now and then a glass of wine in the evening, but no food.

This Thursday when I got up, just for fun, I stepped onto the bathroom scale: 206 pounds, which is close to what I usually weigh.

Thursday night, after not eating all day, but drinking a couple liters of water and three cups of coffee, it was 202 pounds.

When I got up this morning, 200 pounds even.

By noon, three cups of coffee, but no food, it was 198.5 pounds.

I was no fitter at noon than I was at nine a.m., given that all I did was sit in a chair and type.

There are ways to measure bodyfat, aerobic fitness, flexibility, and strength. Use those. Not the bathroom scale or the BMI. You can go down two pants sizes and gain weight -- muscle weighs more than fat because it is denser. You jock out, get tighter, lose inches, but can weigh more.

Your mirror tells the truth ... if you can accept what you see ...

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

I Know You Think You Understand What You Thought I Meant ...



On Rory's blog, a spirited and interesting discussion on real violence on the street, versus martial arts. I feel I should speak to it here, rather than to continue to clog his comment column.

First, Rory is, according to a couple of martial artists I know, deadlier than box full of angry puff adders. Real world experience, even though he has a background in classical martial arts back along the line.

The gist of what he's been saying, as I read it, is that most martial arts don't work in real time, and that, in fact, they can do you more harm than good if your expectations don't match your actual ability.

I understand something of this, being that ole debbil Expectation has been dogging me most of my life.

Still, and all, while Rory's abilities to kick ass and take names from the dead guy's wallet later aren't in question here, his explanation of why what he does works, and why what I do probably won't? It leaves something to be desired.

Martial arts cover a wide spectrum these days, ranging from pure sport, spiritual paths, to stuff not so far from the jungle as to have gotten smoothed out.

Martial arts -- literally, the arts of war -- mostly came originally from folks who had occasion to use them to save their asses. In the case of a technique that worked, you kept it and passed it along. If it didn't and you got killed because it didn't, that one didn't get taught -- not by you, at least.

So, if an art was designed to go mano a mano on a street or a battlefield and you used it thus and it kept you alive, then it would seem to have a basis in real function.

Of course, the further away a teacher or student are from the guy who used it thus, the more apt it is to be watered-down, if for no other reason than getting altered in translation so that its real meaning gets fuzzed, or lost entirely.

Thou shall not kill is not the same as Thou shall not murder.

Me, I study under a guy who has had to use the stuff, and I'm one teacher away from his teacher, who used it a lot, including knives. Plus this art is the old-style, no-sport stuff that came out of the bushes and hasn't gotten particularly civilized compared to some that have been around a long time and had some of the sharper edges rounded off.

Yeah, I like it, and it certainly seems useful. And while it's theoretical for me, it isn't for the guy showing to me. I've never been to India, but that doesn't mean it isn't there.

Rory is saying that pure rote-learning can get you into trouble, and I buy that. That being able to react to a situation fluidly and without "right" moves that might get you tripped up crosswise is better than punch-comes-block-left-counter-punch-right. I'm okay with that, too.

That in real life, shit happens, and things don't always go neatly and cleanly, and when the wolf shows up, it's not the trained poodle puppy you've been wrasslin' with.

Still with him.

But: He hasn't explained in a way I can see, that, if experience is the the only real teacher, how somebody can pass along what he knows -- or how somebody can learn anything useful. Or what makes his moves work when mine seem doomed to fail, since in the end, we are working with the same basic architecture. Yeah, he might be driving a new Mercedes and me a rattletrap Chevy, but the basic transportation function surely seems the same. My ride might not get me there as quickly or in the same style, but it does have wheels and an engine.

I argue that physics are what they are; that bipeds at the bottom of the gravity well all have similar limitations, and so learning to move efficiently is better than not. (He also says that physics has failed him a couple times, and that one I'm having a little trouble buying; if not physics, then we are talking magic, and that's a whole other game.)

I'd be interested in some of the martially-educated taking a look at the recent threads and telling me where I am in error. Naturally, I don't believe that I am, but I have been wrong before and thought I wasn't, and the search for Truth must be ongoing. I'd rather find that than be smug in my belief that I already have it ...

Police Sketch


So, day before yesterday, somebody attempted to abduct a college student at Lewis & Clark. A terrible thing, this, and the police released a sketch.

I was watching the news and I figured that the sketch, when it appeared, would be the standard ID kit universal image that could fit anybody from the Pope to Charles Manson, but this time, they were a bit more specific, and right away, I knew I could help:

It's The Shadow!

He hides under the identity of Lamont Cranston, a local millionaire. Go get him!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Gone With the Wind


Big rain- and windstorm blew threw here, starting Saturday and continuing through yesterday. It was a one-two punch -- gusts as strong as a C-3 hurricane raked the Oregon coast -- 129 mph the officially recorded high, not far from where we usually park our camper when we go. Mondo rain. Close to five inches here, twice that in the coastal mountains. Big flooding.

We had fifty mph winds in Beaverton, and luckily, only had a few little branches come down from our trees.

By Sunday, most of the north coast was without power, still is, and all the roads leading to the coast from Portland were closed -- either by high water or felled trees. The highway crews were using snow plows to clear the roads so many trees were down, and I-5 north is still closed in spots because of worry over bridges collapsing. Amtrak's tracks were buried in mud north of Vancouver.

Lot of folks tried to drive on flooded streets wound up killing their cars -- shorted electrical systems, water up the tailpipe once the engines died.

The little creek down the street from our house was up over the nice, expensive new bridge the neighborhood association had built last year, and the ducks were swimming next to people's houses. Nasty.

Among the casualties was the world's largest Sitka spruce. My wife used to work for the company that owned the land upon which the giant stood, one of the last of the old growth trees there. It was off Highway 26, and when we took that route to Seaside or Cannon Beach, we'd stop and have a look.

Tree had been ill the last few years, dying, rot setting in, and there were warning signs not to get too close.

The windstorm finished the tree; snapped it off seventy feet up. Seven hundred years old, they say, that Sitka spruce.

All things must pass.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Busted Fingernail Blues


If you play fingerstyle or classical guitar, you need pay attention to the nails on your picking hand. You can get away with fake nails, but pretty much, the best tone, especially on nylon-stringed instruments, is with your own keratin.

Length and shape can vary, but you need a bit to get the fullest, roundest tone.

On the other hand -- literally -- the nails are best kept trimmed short, so as not to cause string-buzz when you fret the strings.

Serious guitarists, especially in the classical world, spend inordinate amounts of time fussing with their fingernails. Smoothing, shaping, polishing, so as not to leave any sharp or jagged edges that might snag on something and tear your nail. You learn to zip your fly up with the fretting hand, avoid reaching for anything close to concrete with the right; and some guys even get out of dish-washing, because the hot, soapy water makes their nails soft and they might rip one ...

Sounds silly, but if you are bored, google: guitar + fingernails. Over a third of a million hits. Players take this very seriously.

The joke is, as young guys, we started playing guitar to get girls; as middle-aged men, we now spend way too much time talking to other middle-aged men about our fingernails ...

If you are right handed, you mostly use the thumb, index, middle, and ring fingers to pluck the strings. In classical circles, these are denoted by the Spanish words for the fingers, and usually just abbreviated by one letter: Thumb is p; then i, m, and a.

Pretty much, I've been able to keep from breaking a right hand nail for a couple months. I was getting pretty cocky about it.

In the last three days, I have broken all of the ones on the right, save the pinkie. Super-glue didn't help, they are all gone, Jim.

Index on Thursday, in the car, reaching for a water bottle; middle and ring both at the same time on Friday -- the hot tub lid didn't come up. Thumb, last night, while washing dishes ...

Snap, snap, snap, snap!

It really makes a difference in your tone whether you have nails or not. Much softer and quieter with just the fingertips.

Bleh.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

House of Grace


I recently posted a song on SoundClick!, a melding of an old folk tune and the words of a classic hymn -- House of the Risin' Sun and Amazing Grace; Tonia, a woman who calls herself a tree-hugger, did a slide show of an old church and graveyard, and used the piece for background music. Have a look (and a listen ....)

The songs: Risin' Sun Blues, aka House of the Risin' Sun, is attributed by the folklorist Alan Lomax to Georgians Georgia Turner and Bert Martin, based on the tune of a traditional English ballad. First recorded in the early 1930's, it came full circle when done by the British group, The Animals, in 1964. Before that, it was a staple of American folk singers, from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan.

John Newton was an Englishman and former slaver who wrote Amazing Grace after his conversion to Christianity in the late 1740's. The verse about being here "ten thousand years," was added and made popular later by Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, and is sometimes credited to John P. Rees.

My version, called House of Grace, was inspired by that of the Blind Boys of Alabama.

It's the Real Thing II


My wife's grandfather passed away more than thirty years ago. When, ten years after he died, we went down to fetch Momee, who had drifted into Alzheimer's, all of Paw-Paw's stuff was just where he had left it. His watch and car keys were still on the dresser in his bedroom. It took a week to clean the house out, it was like Fibber McGee's closet, floor to ceiling, stuffed full. Nobody had moved anything in forty-odd years of living there. We found Christmas presents in one closet from 1962 that had never been opened.

It was like walking into a time capsule.

We had a major garage sale. We dumped a lot of stuff -- and the garage sale attendees ripped open all the bags and strewed it all over the place.

Once we had packed a big rental truck chock full of good furniture and keepsakes for my mother-in-law and the three granddaughters, my son and I drove it from Baton Rouge to Portland, by way of L.A. A fascinating trip. Towing Momee's car on a trailer behind the U-Haul van, we were long enough so we had to use truck stops a lot for gasoline. Whole other culture at those places.

I came away with five items from Paw-Paw's closet and tool chest: His Winchester Model 97 pump 12-gauge, a long-barreled duck gun. When I took the butt-plate off, I found rolled up in the stock's chamber a hunting license from 1927.

There was a little shop knife, four-inch blade, which Paw-Paw, a professor who taught industrial arts at LSU, had enscribed his initials. CGM, for Clayton G. Mainous.

There was a framed lithograph of two black women singing in a club in New Orleans, circa the early 1940's. This turned out to be by a well-known artist of the period, Caroline Durieux, who, while she was teaching at LSU, developed a new method of lithography using radioactive ink, the electron print. She gave the print to Clayton and Emma, and as I found out some years later, the original is in the Library of Congress.

I found a brick of .22 ammunition in the top of Paw-Paw's closet, that's a box of ten, circa 1935. Still shootable, even after living in the Louisiana climate for almost fifty years -- I fired a box or two at the range and all but two them cooked off. He must have had a .22 rifle at some point, but we didn't find it.

Finally, there is the Coke box. A steel case, with a zinc liner, the cooler is pretty efficient. Thanksgiving Day, I stuck it out under the eaves, filled it with soft drinks and a bag of ice from Safeway, and as of this morning, there were still little bits of ice floating around in the cold water. Nine days, and even though it has been chilly out, that's pretty good.

Snowing lightly outside my window at the moment, and right at freezing. The hummingbird perched on the feeder doesn't look happy about that. They say the snow won't stick for long -- we have tropical rain coming, starting tonight or tomorrow, that will raise the temperature twenty-five or thirty degrees, as well as bringing some gusty winds.

If you don't like the weather in Oregon, all you have to do is wait a little while and it will change.