Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What will you do with all that extra time?

Eager to say goodbye to the worst economic year since the Great Depression? You'll have to wait a second.

That's because the custodians of time are preparing to tack a "leap second" onto the clock on Wednesday to account for the minute slowing of the Earth's rotation — meaning champagne toasts and Auld Lang Synes will have to come a second late.

-- The Associated Press: Scientists prolong gloom of 2008

Just the facts: the first leap second was added in 1972, and the most recent one was in 2005. More info (and less editorializing) at


Saturday, December 27, 2008

Xmas Movie Marathon 2008

Every year, on December 25th, D and I spend all day at the movies. We were excited this year because we now live half a mile from Cinetopia, an all-digital venue which is the third best theatre I've ever visited.*

We were less excited after the record snowfall here in Vancouver, and when we saw our slim pickings for movie choices. After checking Rotten Tomatoes, I ruled out The Spirit (17%) and Seven Pounds (28%). Here's what we ended up seeing:

Yes Man
Nothing new or special here, but passably entertaining. Jim Carrey does basically the same schtick he did in Liar Liar, except this time with Zooey Deschanel and Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords' band manager Murray) providing background color. The best scene involves the song "Jumper" by Third Eye Blind, but you can wait to see that on DVD.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The best of the lot by far. Absolutely not what you'd expect from David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), except maybe the visual effects. It wasn't quite as literally magical as I had been hoping, but they just chose to tell a different story than I would have with this Big Idea, and everything worked. I missed Fincher's last film, Zodiac, so I've just added it to the top of my Netflix queue. That's high praise from me.

If you're really into Tom Cruise, WWII trivia, or eyepatches, enjoy! It wasn't badly made, but as D says: "They told us what happened, but not why we should care." Unless you slept through high school history classes, you know what the ending of this story is, and it's up to the filmmakers to tell it in a way that's interesting despite the foregone conclusion. On that front, FAIL. (For reference, movies that succeeded at this: The Perfect Storm, Apollo 13, Titanic, Recount.) On the bright side, it was amusing to see a raft of great British actors--Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Eddie Izzard, Tom Wilkinson--playing German military men with both gusto and whatever bloody accent they felt like using.

Marley & Me
IMHO, it's actually a stretch to call this one a movie. It feels more like a ten-year-old's recitation of the form "and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened"--a meandering sequence of events with only a vague dramatic shape. Yes, it is a tear-jerking experience, but only at the end, and only because of the bulletproof subject matter (the family dog); it's affecting despite its often egregious shortcomings as a story.**

As a bonus, we got to see a flurry of huge snowflakes come down in the afternoon, making for a wondrous white Christmas. Who says there's nothing good at the movies?

(Click through to PicasaWeb to see the snowfall video.)


* Numbers one and two were the Pixar screening room in Emeryville and the Arclight in Los Angeles.

** Re: Valkyrie and Marley: I suspect makers of many "based on a true story" films feel excessively beholden to historical facts at the expense of narrative drive and coherence. For inspiration, I would refer those people to Joss Whedon, who had the cojones to retcon his own story when making Serenity--the backstory explicitly depicted for Simon & River in the movie directly contradicts what was stated in the preceding series, Firefly, but Whedon recognized that changing it was the best way to tell the story, continuity be damned. He was right.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tired of Xmas Flicks Yet?

I'm not.

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)
The original animated version, not the Y2K Jim Carrey abomination. D and I just watched this tonight, and what's not to love? Directed by Chuck Jones, with Boris Karloff narrating and singing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." Our DVD edition also included "Horton Hears a Who" (1970)--again, the animated classic, and what the hell is wrong with Jim Carrey anyway?--which presents the noble sentiment that "a person's a person, no matter how small."

Love Actually (2003)
One of those feel-good intertwined-relationship ensemble pieces that could come apart if not handled with the right touch, but Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) pulls it off. It does get a bit silly toward the end, but what do you expect from a movie in which Hugh Grant plays the British Prime Minister?

Meet John Doe (1941)
Online critic MaryAnn Johanson argues that this Frank Capra film is "at least as deserving of [traditional Christmas movie] status as [It's a Wonderful] Life -- and maybe even more deserving... while It's a Wonderful Life feels dated, Meet John Doe is still startlingly relevant today." I'm not convinced, but I admit I may have personal reasons to prefer Life over Doe, and the pair does make for a very thematic double feature.


Monday, December 22, 2008

As Seen on Twitter

(The episode in question is "Not Cancer.")


Blasts From the Past

Back in the summer of 1991 (after I graduated high school), I hooked up a VHS VCR to a monaural VHS camcorder with flying erase head and manually edited together a music video using footage from my home-taped episodes of the first four seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The song was "Kiss the Girl" from Disney's The Little Mermaid, and the subject of the video was the sexual tension between Captain Picard and Doctor Crusher. My friends have enjoyed watching it, and I've now uploaded it to YouTube for strangers to enjoy, too:

Please note that I did all the video editing by hand, without the benefit of time codes. The VCR did have a jog dial (thank you, Sony), but it still took a hell of a long time to sync everything. Did I mention that I actually dubbed the song from a cassette tape of the Little Mermaid soundtrack album, because the sound mix from the movie itself was too noisy, and I just wanted the music? I'm not sure which was worse--matching Data's "la-la-la" mouth movements* (1:03) or the tadpoles jumping over Sebastian's head (1:48).

And no, I really didn't have a life. Thanks for asking.

The next summer, I went back and made more TNG music videos--for Worf, Troi, Riker, and Data. And now you can watch them all on YouTube! That playlist also includes a sixth "bonus track"--a music video I threw together, years later, of scenes from The Abyss: Special Edition set to "Under Pressure." Check 'em out if you're so inclined, and please rate and comment.

Happy Holidays!


* Lifted from his ridiculously long password in "Brothers."

It's Snowing

One of the reasons we moved to the Portland area was for the fairly mild climate. My memories of the Chicago-area winters are not happy ones. I do not enjoy scraping ice off my car. Nor do I ever, Ever, EVER again want to spend entire days shoveling the snow off my driveway and sidewalk. A little snow every now and then is a fun novelty, especially if it melts away after a day or so.

When we put Portland on our list of Writer Move location candidates, we compared the weather averages and extremes to the Mountain View weather averages and extremes. In general, we concluded that, yes, there'd probably be some snow here, but that it would usually be minor.

A little over a week ago, we started getting a light dusting of snow each night. Mostly, it blew away or melted in the rain by the next day. So we stayed home and enjoyed some relaxing time indoors. I made my Christmas week menu, and planned to go shopping on the weekend or just before Christmas. Things would probably stabilize by then.

On Saturday, however, it was pretty snowy. Even though it seemed like the wiser choice, we decided not to stay inside. It took us longer than we thought to finish the gifts for our mothers, and if we wanted to have any hoping of them arriving by Christmas, we needed to get them in the mail.

There were a couple of inches of snow on the ground, and the roads were a little white, but fairly well-plowed. The parking lot at the post office was pretty crazy, though; we decided to hold off on the Christmas food shopping until later. Besides, we have two good grocery stores within half a mile. If the roads and parking lots didn't clear up we could always walk.

It snowed again all day Sunday. It's still snowing right now. Fat, fluffy flakes are swirling by outside my window, where they add to the sugary blanket already on the ground. Our windows have more of a yard view than a road view, so went for a short walk this morning. This is what I found:
  • When I walked down the pathway between my apartment building and the parking lot, I sank past my ankles in the snow. (I measured the depth when I got back inside: 7" deep)
  • When I pressed my hand into the snow next to a tire-track in the parking lot, it completely covered my fingers (4" deep)
  • When I dug a finger into the sandy, brown snow on the road outside my the apartment complex, it covered the first joint. (1" deep)
  • Very few cars were on the roads. The two that I did see both had chains.
  • CKL and I aren't the only people who need groceries. Four other people were walking down the street, carrying groceries.
  • When I checked our own car, I discovered that the entire car is glazed with a layer of ice under light dusting of snow.

And that was more than three hours ago. It hasn't stopped snowing since.

But it sure it pretty outside. Today's newspaper says that this area may have its first truly White Christmas since 1937.

Also, the people around here are crazy. A guy just walked by my window. He's wearing black shorts, a short-sleeved white t-shirt, and eating from a half-gallon container of ice cream. But, hey, at least he's got a hat and scarf....

More Xmas Flicks

Because no one asked for it, but I was thinking about it...

Go (1999)
Clever, fast-paced fun with Sarah Polley, Taye Diggs, Katie Holmes, Jay Mohr, and lots of other actors you recognize from their more popular movies. But don't take my word--it's rated 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Written by John August (Big Fish), directed by Doug Liman (Swingers, The Bourne Identity), and you can watch it on Hulu.

In Bruges (2008)
You could argue that Christmas isn't an integral part of the setting for this story, but then I'd have to blow your fucking head off. Okay, not really. But if you're squeamish about violence or profanity, feel free to miss out on this tale of British hoodlums on holiday. Starring Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Fiennes; written and directed by Martin McDonagh--it's his first feature after winning an Oscar for his short film, Six Shooter (also starring Brendan Gleeson). Can't wait to see what he does next.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Making Good Art

Okay, I'm back. I spent most of yesterday with that fuzzy, unfocused feeling in my head that I always get after a good cry--it lasted longer than usual, but I'm mostly recovered now. My dad's flying back to Taiwan in a couple of days to be with the rest of his family. There's not much I can do from here.

I also remembered another writer's advice from 2004 on what to do when Things Are Bad: Make Good Art.
I've learned over the years that everything is more or less the same amount of work, so you may as well set your sights high and try and do something really cool.

There are other people around who can do the mediocre, meat-and-potatoes work that anybody can do. So let them do that. You make the art that only you can make. You tell the stories only you can tell.

As a solution to various problems you may encounter upon the way, let me suggest this:

Make Good Art.

It's very simple. But it seems to work. Life fallen apart? Make good art. True love ran off with the milkman? Make good art. Bank foreclosing? Make good art.

Keep moving, learn new skills. Enjoy yourself.

-- Neil Gaiman's Journal: What I said at the Harveys

So here I am, making the best art that I and only I can make. It's what I do. It's what I live for.


Friday, December 19, 2008

May your days be merry and bright

I've been pretty useless for anything requiring brain power today--specifically, writing. Grief is tiring. So I tidied up the office (mostly moved boxes into the closet), finished assembling one of the CD shelves in the living room, and digitized an old videotape from high school. Okay, it's not shoveling snow or anything, but it passes for menial labor around here.

I just did my holiday donating online: $99.80 to Family Giving Tree Portland, and $165.96 to Child's Play (split evenly between the Legacy Emanuel and Doernbecher children's hospitals in Portland). Charity begins at home. And it's one thing I can right now do that's likely to do some good.


A Death in the Family

My paternal grandfather passed away last night. I got the news by email, which my dad forwarded from my uncle, who was in Taipei with grandpa. They'd just taken him to the hospital that day; it was all very sudden. My uncle didn't want to telephone because he thought it might have been too late at night to call (after 10pm in California).

I called my parents. I'm sad, but I feel worse for my dad. His father just died.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Voting 101

You wouldn't think that correctly filling out a paper ballot would be such a challenge. Sure, you only do it once every couple of years, but the instructions are printed right there. And didn't we all learn to color inside the lines back in grade school? These pictures of actual challenged ballots from the Minnesota Senate recount make me sad.

By the way, if you haven't seen Recount, the HBO movie about the 2000 US Presidential election, it's definitely worth a rental. And the screenplay was written by a superstar!


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rhymes with "Reindeer"

Christmas Cheer:

All-natural wreath from Joe's Place Farm. Spirits acquired at Trader Joe's on our last visit to California, because I've been too lazy to go find the nearest state liquor store. At least the local Costco still sells beer.

Christmas FEAR:

Spotted at the local Dollar Tree this afternoon. I really didn't want to think about what "Santa's pole" tastes like. I really didn't.


Monday, December 15, 2008

Xmas Flicks

One of our family traditions is to spend all day at the movies on December 25th. But before then, we like to get in the mood by revisiting some of our favorite holiday films. We don't always get around to watching all of them, but the list includes:

It's a Wonderful Life
The first movie D and I saw together, the night we met. When we lived in the bay area, if we weren't out of town visiting someone, we would always go see the Stanford Theatre show on Christmas Eve. We just saw a live radio play production of this in Portland, which was intimate and entertaining and a great example of remixing* public-domain content to create new art.

The Long Kiss Goodnight
D loves this movie, for reasons I'm sure she will be happy to explain.

Die Hard
What can I say? It's a classic, and I'm a sentimental fool. Sure, the action scenes are great, but for me, the heart of the movie is when John McClane is in the bathroom, bandaging up his feet and talking on the radio with Sgt. Powell. That scene, and the whole story, are all about character. (This is also why I don't much care for any of the sequels.)

We just watched The Sure Thing, which D got from Netflix because she'd read about it being a tradition with Connie Willis' family. It wasn't bad, despite being totally '80s, but D noted that it didn't feel like a Christmas movie, even though it's about two college students taking a road trip from the east coast to California for the holidays. The premise was just that--a pretext--and the filmmakers didn't even try to integrate the trappings of the season with the story or the set dressing.

Your turn, readers: What are your favorite holiday films, and why?


* Speaking of which, anyone who cares about culture should support Creative Commons.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Snow Day

D woke me up at 9:30 AM today so I could see snow falling--our first of the season here in Portland. It's still going now, and has built up a pretty good ground cover outside.

I haven't lived in a place with snowy winters since I was five years old (for the record: Cincinnati, Ohio). My most recent memories of being in the snow are from weekend trips to our friend Jeff's family cabin in Arnold, or the annual ski trip that Google used to sponsor when I worked there. It's cold outside, warm inside, and it has that holiday/vacation feeling--like there's nothing to do but read, play games, and generally relax. It's nice.


Friday, December 12, 2008

Daily Routine, Part 1

On Wednesday, my friend Nils pointed me to Daily Routines, a blog about "How writers, artists, and other interesting people organize their days."

He ended his email by asking, "What's yours...?"

When D and I decided to take the next two years off to become writers, we also decided to treat our writing as real work. That meant coming up with--and sticking to--some kind of schedule, so we'd be disciplined and actually Get Things Done. We're still tweaking our routine, but here's the current blueprint:

We take turns being "the boss" each week. This week, I'm the boss, so I got to pick our days off. Our defaults are to take Wednesday and Saturday off, and run errands on Tuesday if necessary. Most other days we don't need to leave the house, and sometimes we don't even change out of our pajamas. (What can I say? We've come to terms with our laziness.)

Unless we have somewhere to be, we tend to roll out of bed between 10 and 11 AM. The first thing we do is take a Body Test on Wii Fit, and do some exercises if we feel like it.

After breakfast (usually oatmeal or cereal and coffee or tea), we spend 2-3 hours writing. Then lunch (usually sandwiches), then another 2-3 hours of writing. When one of us gets hungry, we start making dinner (answers may vary), then watch TV or a movie while we eat. After that it's back to writing until bedtime.

Of course, since we have no other ongoing commitments at the moment, this schedule is infinitely malleable. (That will change once we start volunteering, to get ourselves out of the house and maintain human contact.) For example, sometimes we take an hour off in the afternoon to play Rock Band, and this week, instead of the third writing shift, we've been organizing our photos from the road trip.

More details on the actual writing in Part 2, coming soon...


Monday, December 08, 2008

Test Post

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