Monday, April 30, 2007

Blue Money

Today, I went to Rome to spend the day with Dad. I'm helping him maintain his checkbook, take care of his bills, etc.--but I've gotten that fairly automated, so we don't really have to spend all that much time working on financial matters. Instead, the visits give us a time to talk, to run errands, to go to the mall and walk around idly... whatever Dad feels like doing.

Today, when we were wandering through the mall commenting curmudgeonly on the prices of clothes that we weren't willing to buy at 40% off, Dad stopped to look at some summer-weight slacks while I perused a pair of jeans.

"I don't think I've ever seen you wear a pair of jeans," I said to Dad.

"No, I don't think I ever have," he replied.

"How come?"

"I wanted jeans when I was a kid, but we couldn't afford them," he said. Turns out that it was much cheaper to buy a regular pair of pants than to buy a pair of denim jeans, which tended to be made of a heavier-weight fabric for durability... and thus were more expensive.

Today, in a world where everyone presumably wears jeans and they are among the cheapest clothes to be found at most big-box retailers, it's hard to imagine a time when jeans were actually too pricy. But that's the world in which Dad grew up--a time and a place when money was scarce and jeans were too expensive for a young boy.

Time After Time

NBC did it again. Tonight, Heroes ran 2 or 3 minutes overtime... but of course, the network didn't bother to schedule that ahead of time so that various DVR devices could record the entire show.

I certainly wish that someone would replace the boneheads at NBC with programmers who actually want to make viewers happy. Susan and I were watching at the time, so we were able to catch the last minute or two... but I know a lot of folks are going to be very unhappy when they sit down to watch Heroes and discover that they didn't get the climax.

I really don't get it. NBC is tanking in the ratings--even their "Must See TV" on Thursday nights has lost so many viewers that some are describing it as "Must Flee TV"--but they go out of their way to alienate the viewers they have and give them a convenient "jumping off point" to abandon NBC shows. (I know two people who decided, after missing the climactic moments of an overly long and erroneously scheduled Scrubs a few weeks ago, that they could live without seeing any more Scrubs at all... and that show is bleeding viewers so badly that they don't need to lose anyone else.)

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Four-Color Farewell?

I've talked about trimming away some of the ephemera that has attached itself to me over five-and-a-third decades; I've trimmed back on some of my books, I've jettisoned a large number of laserdiscs, I've given away some CD's, I've disposed of some VHS tapes, I've abandoned my Beta tapes once my final Beta player quit working reliably... and now, I'm looking at a hundred-plus boxes of comics and considering sending them on their way as well.

I have a comic shop, but I don't know that I'll try to sell my comics through the store. Instead, I may see if I can find another buyer who'll take them all at once. That may sound odd, but there are financial considerations behind it; if I sell to the store, I have to worry about paying myself a fair sum without overpaying myself, I have to consider how I'll sell them there, and the books don't really go away--they just get relocated from a room in my house to a room in the store.

Haven't made the decision yet, but I'm more inclined to part with the comics with each passing day. I love the nostalgia that goes with the comics... but the real truth is, I don't get them out of their boxes any longer, and the only reason I know I still have them is (a) I have to work around the boxes when I go in that room, and (b) I have a little blue notebook with titles and numbers. Thanks to DC Archives and Marvel Masterworks, I can enjoy most of those remarkable stories whenever I want--and now, with Marvel's Omnibus format hardcovers including letters columns and pinups and other related items, I have everything but the ads.

There are some comics that will likely never be reprinted--I have large numbers of pre-hero Marvels, a lot of Sugar and Spike, and other such things that I may never see again. But the truth is, I'm not seeing them now... and even if I got a real urge to read them, I don't know that I could lay hands on them in anything approximating a reasonable amount of time, due to the chaotic disorder of the boxes (I tended to simply box comics as I acquired them at cons, so the bulk of the collection is in no order whatsoever).

I got rid of my science fiction magazines and pulps because I wasn't enjoying them any more, and I thought it best that they go to someone who would appreciate them more. I'm thinking that it might be about time for the comics to follow the same path...

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Time, See What's Become of Me...

I haven't written anything here in a week or so; I fear that I was so preoccupied that I just couldn't bring myself to write. The horrible events surrounding the death of Jamie Bishop, along with increasing problems with early-stage Alzheimer's with Dad, left me in feeling a bit withdrawn and uncommunicative.

That's a natural tendency of mine that I have to consciously work against: when faced with problems that aren't solvable, I tend to respond to them by cutting myself off from others. Maybe I brood, maybe I just contemplate... whatever you want to call it, it's a lonely and isolating experience, and one that I fall back on regularly.

Jamie's death has bothered me, even though I didn't know him as an adult--but what I learned about him after the shooting made it clear that he was a person I would have liked to have known. He shared interests with me; he had talents I wish I could have appreciated; he accomplished a great deal in his all-too-brief life. And that made me realize that the same could very well have held true for every one of those thirty-two victims, and I'll never know it; I only learned it about Jamie because I knew his parents and wanted to learn more about the son in whom they had instilled their values, to whom they had bestowed their talents.

As for Dad--I worry for him. He's lonely, and has been horribly so since Mom was taken from us in late 2002. The Alzheimer's, even in its early stages, is blurring some of the qualities that defined Dad for so very many years. At times, we can converse and his old sharpness will return; at other times, I see confusion at a world that seems, for him, to be going on without him. He has been a proud, articulate, self-confident, capable, insightful man for as long as I've been alive; now I see him struggling to rediscover some of those same qualities, and it makes me very sad.

No answers. No profound revelations. No sagacious observations here. Just a sort of "I'm back" statement, letting you know why I've been gone.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

What Should Never Be

I just got confirmation that one of the victims of the shootings at Virginia Tech was Jamie Bishop, the son of Michael & Jeri Bishop of Pine Mountain, Georgia. I've known Michael since the earliest days of his science fiction career, and Susan and I were lucky enough to spend some time with him and Jeri in Pine Mountain. They are gracious, sensitive, and caring people, and I understand from those who knew Jamie that he inherited all of his parents' good points.

Acts like this seem almost incomprehensible when they're part of a news story; the senseless horror of it is almost unbearable when it touches someone you know.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Fanfare for the Common Man

Just watched Flight 93, the superlative dramatization of the only September 11th, 2001, hijacking that failed to accomplish its goal. It is a powerful and disturbing film--powerful in that conveys the raw, visceral tension of those events, and disturbing in that it underscores how unprepared our country was then and how totally unprepared our country still is for the perfidy of our nation's enemies, whose resolve to commit evil in the name of a religion they have corrupted is unparallelled by any challenge we have seen in modern times.

It's a movie that will leave you angry, and with good reason. And it makes it clear that this is a different kind of war against an enemy whose values are so antithetical to ours that we cannot win against them if we continue to use 20th Century standards and methods of waging war.

An amazing film...

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Quitting the Club

Today, I got rid of my golf clubs.

It's not like I gave up a long-standing hobby, mind you. These were clubs that my dad gave me in the early 1980s, when we lived in Kennesaw at our first house. They've moved with me from that house to Milstead Circle to our current address on Carillon Crossing, but they've sat unused through two moves now. Dad loved golf, and I tried it a time or two; I enjoyed it, but I finally admitted that my life is filled with enough entertainment without yet another time-consuming hobby.

Besides, I haven't lived in Kennesaw for twenty years now. If I haven't used 'em in twenty years, I think it's safe to say that I'm not too addicted to golf.

One more space-consuming bit of my past gone. I donated 'em to Goodwill, where I hope someone else will get far more use out of them than I did. Golf clubs are meant to be played, not to be hidden in a basement...

A Crowning Achievement

Today, Dr. Sturn did the root canal I talked about a couple of weeks ago. I assure you, I slept very little last night; instead, I lay there dreading this whole experience (I've never had a root canal procedure before, and I had heard bad things).

Truth is, Dr. Sturn made sure that it was no worse than an extensive cavity filling. He used two shots of novocaine rather than one--one in the gum and, a couple of minutes later, one at the base of the tooth for good measure. Since I had read up on the procedure to get some idea what to expect, I knew more or less what he was doing at each step. The removal of the nerve was totally painless; the cleaning of the root canal rattled my head a little when he did the drilling and filing (and that head-rattling always makes my scalp itch just above the ear on the affected side... weird...), but it never hurt.

Afterwards, he did the post and core procedure--the procedure that the charlatan "Dr. Crackers" had billed me for a few years ago when he prepared the original crown for my tooth. Of course, Dr. Crackers had never really installed a post at all... nor, for that matter, had he installed the crown properly, which is why I had to go through all of this today...

The worst part for me wasn't the part that I dreaded, but the three molds that Dr. Sturn made using that awful tasting purple rubber gunk (he wanted to be sure that he got the crown just perfect). I really hate sitting there tasting that awful stuff for the ten or so minutes that it takes to set up.

All done now. My jaw is a little stiff from the length of time that I had to keep my mouth open for all of this, but otherwise all is hunky-dory.

Yay, Dr. Sturn! I don't know how I lucked into such a great dentist, but I'm certainly glad about it!

DSL Downtime

While I primarily use Comcast's superb cable modem service (and I have to say that it has the highest up-time record of any online service I've ever used), I also have BellSouth/ATT's DSL service as a redundant backup (with the need to move data in order to keep Comic Shop News coming out on a schedule, I have to have functional service, so redundancy helps to ensure that). For the past couple of days, my DSL service has been just horrible... it's been down every morning when I got up, coming back on in the afternoons and then intermittently failing during the day. Sometimes all the lights were showing that everything was fine even though it wasn't; other times the DSL line was blinking to indicate that there was a problem.

I called customer support and they had no idea what was going on; there was no problem at all, they said, and everything should be fine. Must be something wrong on my end.

I decided to go out for a walk just to work out the aggravation of my phone call. As I walked out of our neighborhood, I passed the local switching box for our neighborhood... and there was a BellSouth/ATT truck. The technician was standing in front of the opened panel, throwing a switch, which would click off after a second or two, at which point he would throw it again.

"Does that have anything to do with DSL?" I asked.

"Uh huh," he replied.

"Would that cause my DSL to go offline?"

"Yep. When I throw the switch, it's online. When it clicks off, it's offline. Like a circuit breaker."

"Does it affect the whole neighborhood?"

"Nope--just the lines on this switch shelf," he said, pointing to a list of addresses on labels below the affected switches.

And there, below the last switch, was 2770 Carillon... my address.

"Tech support said they didn't know of any problem," I said.

"They don't. Haven't had time to call them. I've been throwing this switch all day."

Can't argue with that, can I?


Sunday, April 08, 2007

End of an Era

B.C. creator Johnny Hart passed away on April 7th, one day before the release of what is destined to the final in a controversial series of Christian-themed Easter strips. (Hart is also the co-creator of Wizard of Id, but it's B.C. that is his most personal work, reflecting more of his personal views and values.)

I grew up with B.C., and had felt comfortably at home with its old-school humor, but I have to admit that the strip had begun to show its age in recent years. When Hart wasn't driving home his religious viewpoints with strongly Christian-themed strips (and that always seemed strangely out of place for a strip whose name is an abbreviation for "Before Christ," and whose milieu supposedly takes place long before the establishment of modern society or the Christian faith), he was pretty much going through the motions, relying on tried-and-true jokes and well-established character stereotypes to give the strip its momentum.

B.C. is a gag strip that never relied on continuity, and that made it seem increasingly out of place on a comic strip page where even gag strips frequently have mini-continuity arcs. But Hart, who was 76, delivered a humor strip in which each day's installment could stand on its own. The quality of that humor had declined over the past ten or fifteen years, and the religious elements had begun to appear with such frequency that the strip seem almost proselytizing at times. Still, you have to give Hart credit--he believed in what he said, and he wouldn't back down on religious content regardless of controversy.

Hart died at the age of 76, from a stroke. He leaves behind an enormous body of work that is, unfortunately, largely unavailable. Let's hope that is remedied in the near future.

So long, Johnny. Thanks for the laughs and smiles; I grew up with you, and the comic strip pages will always be a little bit emptier without you.

Joost in Time

Anyone have a Joost invitation they want to get rid of? I'm looking for one!

(end of plea)

All Those Years Ago...

It's a little after 1 a.m. Seven years ago at this time, I was dead.

I'm feeling a lot better now.

Saturday Pizza Slice-Off

Having pizza for dinner on Saturday is nothing new for us; Susan and I used to go out for pizza on Saturdays before we were married, and we continued the tradition ever since then. I'd say that we have pizza two Saturdays out of three, probably.

However, today was a different sort of pizza dinner. We couldn't really decide what we wanted; we had two small slices of Zapolli's pizza left over, which isn't enough for dinner, but we didn't want to buy a whole pizza and add more leftovers to our refrigerator. We couldn't decide between Johnny's and Capozzi's for our extra slices, so I suggested we just get two slices from each. That would give us three slices--a bit more than we wanted, but it's easy enough to throw away part of the pizza we enjoyed the least.

I fully expected Johnny's to take first place in our three-pizzeria-slice-off, but 'twasn't so. Surprisingly, we both agreed that Capozzi's was far and away the better pizza. (Now let's be fair here--Zapolli's was at a disadvantage because these were leftover slices, not fresh--but we tried to allow for that in doing our ratings.)

The problem with a deluxe pizza from Zapolli's is the sogginess of the crust in the center of the pizza; the point of the slice is floppy and lacks crispness or integrity even when it's fresh, so you know that a reheating will enhance the sogginess factor. What we became aware of, though, was the heavy garlic overtone of the Zapolli's; you don't notice it when that's the only thing you're eating, but when you can compare it with two other pizzas, the garlic is quite strong.

Johnny's made two pretty good slices, as is usual, but Johnny's was hampered by a crust that was a little less flavorful than I'd like, and it was airy enough that there were a couple of overcooked bubbles. It was the skimpiness of the sauce that was the most telling factor, though; Johnny's has good sauce, but for some reason they rarely put enough of it on their slice pizzas. Their strong suit, though, is their sausage--the best in town.

Capozzi's is a local pizza place with a small restaurant just a hop, skip, and jump away from our house--in fact, I walk past it every day. I guess the "grass is always greener" factor leads me to travel far and wide in search of good pizza, forgetting how tasty the pizza closest to home can be. The crust was just dense enough without being doughy; the sauce was rich and well seasoned, and there was enough of it to balance the pizza. Capozzi's uses thin-sliced (almost deli-shaved) link Italian sausage; while I prefer crumbled sausage, I won't deny that Capozzi's sausage has a very pleasant flavor and texture. They also had the best pepperoni of the three restaurants--very spicy, dark, baked to the point of light crispness without being overdone.

(Susan just reminded me that the third judge in our pizza slice-off also chose Capozzi's. Anna decided for some reason to come visit us and check out the pizzas; this is odd, since she's a cat who rarely eats people food. She sniff-sampled each of the three pizzas, then decided she'd like to have a bit of the Capozzi's crust to chew on. That's one more Capozzi's vote...)

Next time, we'll try to work in a slice from LaBella's and from Bellacino's (although we'll probably have to go with half-slices if we're going to try to havea four or five restaurant slice-off); more pizza results to come.

Message to Charles: forget that Papa John's stuff--this is pizza!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Art & Passion

Tonight, I watched The Passion of the Christ again, in recognition of the approach of Easter tomorrow morning. It's an ugly film... not ugly in its artistic accomplishment, mind you, but intentionally ugly in its depiction of the basest cruelty inherent in humanity. It disturbs me on a visceral level--and that's exactly what Mel Gibson intended. He constructed a film that would offer an unflinching depiction of the suffering of Jesus, because he wanted to communicate an inherent element of his faith: Jesus withstood more than any mere human could be expected to, because he was more than a mere human. However, in order to communicate that, Gibson showed us only the human aspect of the crucifixion--the pain, the suffering, the ripping away of the mortality in gobbets of flesh. Gibson wanted to show the destruction of the flesh in order to make us consider what would motivate a man to undergo such torment. And he does it almost entirely from a third-person point of view, failing to take us into Jesus' mind because the Gospels on which he based his film were told from a point of view other than Jesus'.

I'm not religious, although like many my ethos has been influenced by the teachings of Jesus. However, I see in The Passion of the Christ an amazing accomplishment: Gibson has given his spirituality a very physical form, and he has used his skills as a filmmaker to communicate the core concept of his faith in such a way that those who don't believe as he believes may nonetheless be moved by the intensity of the experience. What Gibson has done here still impresses me--and it impresses me even more that he did it by turning his back on Hollywood and its modus operandi.

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow

At 11:50 p.m. on Friday, April 6th, I saw snowflakes. I went out for my near-midnight walk to say a few words to Mom before I settled in for the night (an old habit I hope to never abandon) and felt something wet dotting my forehead every now and then; when I wandered into a streetlamp's glow, I could see the large, airy flakes drifting in the rapidly-chilling evening air. The scattering of windblown flakes continued for the duration of my walk, and there were still flakes dancing through the darkness at 12:05 a.m. this morning as I walked through the door.

We never had a measurable snowfall this year, and I only saw intermittent flakes once during the winter; this is the second visible snow of the year--and it's a freak spring snow, no less! The latest snow I can recall came on April 5th in the mid-1980s, probably 1983 or 1984; it took us all by surprise, because it hadn't been in the forecast when we went to bed that evening. This was a real snow, one that covered the ground and blew across the road in light drifts; I went to school that day, but many of the students used measurable snow as an excuse to stay home... and who can blame them, in this part of the country where any snow is a memorable occasion? This snow was nothing like that, but it is snow, and we'll take whatever we can get...

Friday, April 06, 2007

A Kind Soul

My mother often described someone as having "a kind soul," but I have known very few people who seemed to qualify. One such person, though, was the late Thomas Burnett Swann.

Swann was one of the most skilled fantasy writers of the 1960s and 1970's; he died far too young, just over a year after Susan and I paid him a visit at his Clearwater home. We had gotten to know him via the Southern science fiction convention circuit; he had attended several conventions, including a Half-a-Con that we hosted, and had always enjoyed our chances to chat with him.

His fiction was remarkable; he wrote an erudite, sophisticated, almost literary form of fantasy, filled with memorable characters and rife with literary and cultural allusions. In the hands of a lesser writer, such content would have seemed almost pretentious--but Swann included it because that was the way his mind worked. He was a brilliant man, but in a soft-spoken, humble way; for him, intellectualism was natural and almost contagious--he inspired others to attempt to rise to his level, if only to carry on a meaningful conversation about subjects that he so obviously enjoyed.

I heard him read some of his fiction once, and I can still remember his voice; soft, mellifluous, refined, with a steady cadence an almost genteel quality. To this day, when I read any of his works, I hear that voice.

Swann's body of work is all too small, but the quality of his output is superlative. Had he lived for the decades more that he deserved, I think he might have helped to defer fantasy's decline into the homogenization of the 1980's. He spoke of plans to create a fantasy series inspired by Etruscan culture and mythology, and of plans to explore Sumerian motifs; I would love to have had the chance to read them all. But most of all, I would have enjoyed the opportunity to talk with him further, about his work and his passions for literature and history and about any other subjects he chose to explore.

No Time...

Tonight, NBC decided to make it even more difficult for viewers to follow its programming (apparently, they won't rest until they're at the absolute bottom of the heap in ratings) by turning its half-hour comedies into 41 or 42 minutes comedies instead. They accomplished this, of course, by adding approximately four minutes of show and seven minutes of commercials. Now this would be annoying but not off-putting if they had actually followed the schedule they listed--but no, that would be asking too much of them. Instead, some shows ran longer, which meant that a lot of people (I've already heard from two) didn't get the final few minutes of Scrubs.

I'd be more disappointed if Scrubs hadn't been execrable this season--but a lot of folks are still enjoying the show, and they've been slapped in the face by the network's inability to follow the schedule they gave viewers and cable companies. It's inconsiderate and self-destructive... but that's the apparent norm for NBC currently.

Since I also recorded Andy Barker, P.I., I should have the final few minutes of Scrubs on there... apparently I'm one of the few, however....

(Oh, and showing NBC's determination to chase viewers away--it's been reported that they're not renewing Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, one of the few shows they debuted this season that got critical raves and a reliable, desirable audience. Sure, it wasn't at the top of the ratings heap--but it clicked with the right folks in that 18-to-49 demo, and it should have stayed around. Let's hope that Warner Bros. can take it to another network; it would be a welcome addition to the CW's dismal line-up...)

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Two-Fisted Bob

Charles passed along to me a copy of Savage Sword of Conan #200, which he had acquired twice via some lot purchases on eBay. He recommended I give it a try, and I'm glad he did; it's the sort of story for which I am the ideal target audience.

I really enjoy stories that blend creator and creation, and Roy Thomas's "Barbarians of the Border" is just such a story. Basically, Thomas has interwoven a story of Robert E. Howard's adventurous trip to San Antonio in 1932 with a fairly traditional Conan tale--but the two not only work in a parallel way, it turns out that one influences the other, paving the way for Howard's creation (or perhaps I should say discovery) of Conan the Cimmerian. Even though it appears rather late in Marvel's Conan history (August 1992), it's a far more inspired story than many of the Conan tales published in the same period.

The idea of "racial memory" was something that appealed to Howard--this concept that the experiences of the experiences and knowledge of countless generations of the human race that came before us was somehow imprinted on us, and could possibly be tapped into by some as a sort of genetic heritage--so I'm sure he would have been amused by this story. It's well worth tracking down, in spite of the goofy Joe Jusko cover that looks more like a Mad Magazine parody of Conan than a true Conan cover.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

5.1 Doors

I'm not really a Doors fan. However, I do own Perception, the boxed set of the Doors collection remixed in 5.1 surround sound on DVD-Audio.

So why, if I don't care that much for Morrison and company, do I own their entire studio collection in a boxed set? Because I really, really like surround sound and DVD-Audio, and I appreciate well-mixed 5.1 surround sound even when the music doesn't particularly appeal to me.

Odd thing, though: as I've listened to this set over and over, I've really grown to appreciate the music itself. The DVD-A mix almost convinces you that you're in a studio with the group as they're putting together the tracks for their albums; you hear each instrument with amazing clarity, and the vocal nuances are simply amazing. Jim Morrison's vocals are growing on me, but it's the amazing work by keyboard player Ray Manzarek that's really wowing me. The Doors sound is as much his creation as it is Morrison's, and these discs make that very clear.

I keep wishing that some of my personal favorites--Crosby, Stills, & Nash or The Beatles (besides Love) or The Rolling Stones or Donovan or Iron Butterfly or Enya or Loreena McKennitt--would re-offer their catalog in 5.1 surround sound. The format wars between DVD-A and SACD, which resulted in neither achieving the "critical mass" needed for format success, pretty much render that impossible, but I'll keep hoping. After all, they did it with the Doors!...

And if you haven't heard 5.1 surround sound music, you really should give it a try... although I'll warn you that it's going to make you very dissatisfied with those mere stereo recordings you currently own...

Week In, Week Out

We're only about four weeks away from the end of 52, DC's first weekly series--and I'm very glad that there's a second weekly series, Countdown, ready to pick up seven days after 52 Week 52 hits the racks.

(And before anyone attempts to correct me--yes, I do remember Action Comics Weekly, but it was less a weekly series than a weekly title featuring a number of different stories, some of which were serialized. 52 is a single series, spanning 52 issues, released once a week for a year... a different animal entirely.)

Many comic book readers are accustomed to coming into a comic shop every week; the problem is, some weeks they find nothing they're looking for. A weekly book, though, gives them a reason to come in every week--it's the comic book equivalent of those "no skipped weeks" runs of 24 on Fox, only it goes on for a whole year. People who read 52 know that they'll find at least one book they want, so it's usually worth the trip to a comic shop week after week.

52 is a unique animal, though: it explains what happened during a "missing year" in DC history, between the end of Infinite Crisis and the beginning of the "One Year Later" stories last April. So no matter how suspenseful it is, you still know more or less how things will be when it comes to an end. Furthermore, it doesn't involve any of DC's "Big Three"--Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman--in any major capacity.

None of the major stars and no core link to weekly continuity... two drawbacks that 52 managed to overcome fairly well.

However, Countdown is going to be even better. It takes place in current continuity, right now, and it will link to other DC titles in a way that the one-year-out-of-sync 52 never could. It will also feature DC's major characters, including the Big Three. What happens in Countdown affects other DC books right now, and that adds a level of suspense that 52 could never achieve.

I have confidence in Countdown because I have confidence in its story mastermind, Paul Dini. He's done some amazing animation work over the years, making obscure DC continuity appealing and accessible to millions of viewers old and young. Dini knows how to juggle a cast of characters without losing track of a story--and he knows how to juggle a cast of creators without losing sight of the overall storyline.

I suspect that Marvel will launch its own weekly series before the year is out, but I'm not certain of that. It takes pretty tight creative control to make it work, and I'm not sure Marvel is up to that challenge--but they do have the original editor of 52 working for them, and I'm sure he has some pretty vivid memories of what worked (and what didn't) during his tenure as a weekly-comics editor. I hope that Marvel does put together a weekly-comics plan; the more reasons there are for readers to make a weekly journey to comic shops, the better chance the standard format comic book can hold its own in the shadow of the looming trade paperback market. I like trades, mind you--but I'm addicted to the serialized comic book, which appeals to me in a way that a trade paperback simply can't.

Monday, April 02, 2007


That Beatles rumor I mentioned a couple of posts ago? More savvy insiders now say that the EMI/Apple announcement won't have anything to do with the Beatles after all--but it will, in many ways, be even bigger if it's true. Word is that Apple and EMI are going to announce an end to Digital Rights Management encoding on EMI tracks downloaded through iTunes.

So why is this big? Because, unlike CDs or any other pre-recorded medium, mp3's are not currently your property. You can't listen to them in any device you wish, you can't transfer them to others if you wish to sell them--you're extremely limited in what you can do.

The end to DRM, if it happens, would actually be tremendously liberating for music purchasing. I currently don't buy digital downloads because of this limitations; if the music offered to me was free of DRM, I'd buy it right away. Until that time, I'll buy CDs and burn them to mp3 myself.

Tomorrow will tell the tale; it'd be great if both rumors were true, but I'm putting my money on the DRM thing having a greater chance of coming to pass.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sign of the Times

Sometimes you see a pithy church sign that really clicks; other times, you wonder what they were thinking when they put it up. Take this sign, for instance, seen at a church at the corner of Blackwell and Ebenezer:

You'd be amazed what you can see
when you're on your knees.

Yeah, I'll bet!...

Apple Meets Apple?

There are rumors that Steve Jobs will announce tomorrow that the Beatles songs will be available for download on iTunes. I'm left to wonder why anyone cares at this point; is there anyone out there who wants these songs who hasn't bought the CD's and ripped 'em to mp3 themselves if they want to put 'em on an iPod or any other (inferior) mp3 player?

The only announcement I'm hoping for is that the entire Beatles catalog will be remastered in 5.1 sound for DVD-Audio release. I'll prepay for all of 'em that day if they make such an announcement. But mp3's don't support 5.1 sound, so that wouldn't involve an iPod or any online presence.

I'm glad to know that the songs will be available for the few who don't have 'em already, but I can't see mega-bucks being generated from this deal...

A Chip Off the Old Block

Today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution brought news that Gwinnett County has decided to abandon the block scheduling concept effective this fall. To which I say, "About time."

When Cobb County first studied the block scheduling concept in the 1990's, I was actually in favor of the plan. It had theoretical advantages. While the traditional schedule offered students six nearly-an-hour-long classes each day plus a lunch period, the block schedule offered only four hour-and-a-half-long classes each day plus lunch.

The purported benefits? Well, students supposedly would learn more with fewer interruptions. Teachers would have more time to complete complex assignments in a single day. Class-change time would be minimized. The idea was that we could offer a full year's worth of a class in one semester by halving the time-wasting roll calls, class reports, etc., and having as much actual teaching time in one block-scheduled semester class as we would in two standard-scheduled semester classes. Courses like Brit Lit, American Lit, and World Lit, which had been spread over two semesters, were compressed into one semester.

The problem is, it never really worked. First off, the idea that teachers could accomplish more with a ninety-minute class was sabotaged from the beginning by the mandate that teachers had to engage in different sorts of educational activities during that ninety minute period. Rather than ninety minutes of class lecture and discussion focusing on Candide, for instance, teachers should devote a portion of the class to the lecture and discussion, another portion to writing, and a third portion to a group activity. The end result was a class schedule that seemed to be designed by Dieter from the Saturday Night Live "Sprockets" feature: "Und now ve write!"

Student attentiveness began to flag after about forty-five minutes, regardless of the activity; there's a certain restlessness that sets in, no matter how good the class is, and teenagers are particularly susceptible to its effects.

No matter how you break it up, you simply can't cover the same amount of material in one semester of block scheduling as you can in two semesters under the standard schedule. I taught English, so I'll focus on what I know: teachers had to immediately decide what not to teach in order to compress everything into the block format. Selections were tossed aside, activities were discarded, in-depth study was sacrificed--in short, fitting things into the block became far more important than teaching the subject.

In case you didn't know it, our educational system has made tremendous sacrifices for bureaucracy. Teachers have to give up significant portions of the school year--as much as 10% of their class time--for mandated testing, from graduation tests to end-of-course tests. These tests are ineffective as educational tools, poorly designed as measurements of aptitude, and inordinately time-wasting. These tests took pretty much the same amount of class-days under the block-schedule--but because teachers were losing ninety-minute classes, the impact on already-compressed course schedules was even worse.

Absence became much more problematic; each day that a student was absent was more detrimental because the student missed more activity in that day's class. Theoretically, one day's absence under block scheduling would result in the student missing as much education in each of those four classes as he would have missed with two day's absence under standard scheduling--and the same was true when a teacher was out. (If you think that a teacher's course plan is implemented by a substitute, you're living in a fantasy world: when a teacher is absent, the sub is given a lesson plan that is at best a "treading water" activity and at worst a wholly irrelevant time-filler.)

And for courses with a continuity of flow, like foreign language classes, the impact could be immense. Theoretically, a student could take French I from September to December of 2005 (first semester freshman year, let's say), and not take French II until January to May of 2007 (last semester sophomore year), resulting in a year's gap with no language education. Bear in mind that school systems do everything they can to revamp schedules and school start times to wrap up a semester before the Christmas holidays because they're convinced that students forget things over the two-week gap! If that's true, imagine what they must forget during a thirteen-month gap!

The best teachers found a way to minimize the drawbacks--but that was only about 15% of the teaching staff. The rest of the teachers simply made do as best they could.

I felt like I was effective as a teacher under the block schedule--but I assure you I wasn't as effective as I was under the traditional schedule. And no matter how good my students were, they simply didn't get the depth of education under block scheduling that they received under traditional scheduling.

Cobb County has, I believe, sixteen high schools (I retired from teaching in 2000, and I've lost count of exactly how many high schools have been added since then); it's interesting that the two highest-achieving schools in the system are the schools that refuse to go to block scheduling. I don't think it's coincidence.

Schools have a history of foolish education-hindering decisions (when I first came to Cobb County, I taught in a building in which there were no walls between classes--another example of idiocy-experimentation in education); I hope that soon everyone realizes that block scheduling is just one more failed theory.