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Sunday, December 30, 2007

Ways to Use That Gift Card: A Perfect Circle

If you’re a regular reader of this site, odds are that one of your friends or relatives gave you a gift card for Borders, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon. This loved one certainly realized that you love to read, that they don’t really “get” your reading material, and it would just be easier if you chose your own obscure pleasures. Which is nice.

I was going through all my starred stories in Google Reader--the only RSS reader I use anymore--and came across a Wired story about the massive, immersive game built to support and build anticipation for Nine Inch Nail’s latest album, Year Zero. The company that developed the game, 42 Entertainment, was also responsible for immersive games like the ilovebees game for the Halo 2 launch--a company with an amazing store of talent and creativity. Until recently, it was also the day job of one of my favorite authors, Sean Stewart.

I recently had an opportunity to exchange a few emails with Stewart (mostly because I had written a little bit of a fan letter asking when his fans were going to be seeing a new book) and found him to be one of the most approachable and genuinely friendly writers in the field. I have a standing rule about meeting or speaking with your artistic heroes: keep expectations low. The artist that you read or listen to isn’t the person that you’re going to meet; you’ll have built a construct of the person in your head that generally can’t be met in reality. That’s not to say that all writers and musicians are jerks, just that they probably aren’t who you expect them to be and they might not like being bugged by yet another fan who wants to mine the depths of their works.

Sean Stewart was, via email, pretty damned close to the person that I would have expected: funny, polite, humble, smart, and extremely friendly. Besides that, though, he is also tremendously talented. With a small group of other talented folks, Stewart is starting up Fourth Wall Studios to continue developing immersive entertainment--not simply games, but a combination of the interaction of the Internet, email, phone contacts, and the visual and literary arts to create something less passive than movies and books, but smarter and encompassing than the typical computer game. Not only do I wish him luck with his startup, but I can’t wait to see what he and his crew come up with.

He’s a great guy and it’s hard to imagine anyone who is more deserving of rewards for all his hard work. So…

Here’s a list of books from Sean Stewart that will do your gift card proud. Most of them are best ordered and easiest to find online, so I’ve included links to Barnes & Noble or Amazon (and, no, I don’t get kickbacks from this).

  1. Cathy’s Book. To get an idea of the kind of thing that immersive entertainment can mean to the publishing industry, check out this book for tween and teen girls, but can entertain anyone with an open mind with its combination of Cathy’s diary, phone numbers, clues, and sketches. For anyone with girls the right age, it’s also one to consider as a late present.
    Buy it from Barnes & Noble.
  2. Perfect Circle. One of my favorite works of literary fiction (calling it “fantasy” and sticking it in the genre just doesn’t do it justice) of the last few years. The characters are stunningly close to real, the plot is engrossing, and the writing is compelling. Read my earlier review. Truly exceptional.
    Buy it from Barnes & Noble.
  3. Mockingbird. Stewart is a master of magic realism and this story shines. It has voodoo, dark magic, pregnancy, and a well-drawn portrait of Texas. As a bonus, the Small Beer Press issue of the book is awfully nice.
    Buy it from Barnes & Noble.
  4. Galveston. Aside from the brilliant, but more difficult Resurrection Man, (read my review here) Galveston is his most brutal and bleak book. It has its funny and touching moments, but the characters are harder to like. But it is so well written that I went through it in a few big gulps.
    Buy it used from Amazon.

Stewart won’t be to everyone’s liking. I won’t lean on the idea that if you don’t like his writing you don’t understand his stories; much of what he’s written is emotionally raw in a way that won’t appeal to people who like their magic packaged with unicorns and princesses (although, if that’s you, his book Nobody’s Son might be an effective antidote); when magic intrudes in Sean Stewart’s world, it has huge costs and consequences and rarely resolves itself in anything resembling beauty. That, along with his talent for describing the complexities of relationships, is probably why I like his books.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Purplecons for Obama

If you are a conservative like Andrew Sullivan is a conservative (we dub thee “Purplecon"), then Sullivan wants you to vote for Obama.

In Obama, disaffected Republicans also have a chance to punish their own party for its abandonment of conservatism, embrace of dumb authoritarianism abroad and spendthrift liberalism at home.

That’s right, to punish the GOP, Sullivan wants you to vote for someone who isn’t conservative, promises scary big expansions of government programs, no vision on salvaging the tattered future of Social Security without resorting to massive tax increases, and a cut-and-run-quicker-than-Hillary foreign policy approach that should leave Iraq’s future looking even more dismal than Social Security’s. Because the way to really push for a more accountable, more fiscally responsible, more conservative Republican party is to vote in droves for the exact opposite.

The logic is undeniable.

Shawn Macomber’s response to this idiocy is perfectly on point:

Look, Andrew, the Republicans we have running are bad enough, okay? I already feel like I’m being punished. Why I would want to compound that pain by voting for a kneejerk liberal who is going to spend the next four years lecturing me on the never-ending list of virtues he attributes to himself--before going ahead and injecting the government into ever further reaches of my life for my own good anyway? I mean, if I wanted a preening, pious megalomaniac I’d just vote for that Baptist guy who stays at the Holiday Inn Express.

Obama is running on a platform remarkably similar to Hillary’s, he’s just more likable and he’s staked out ground a little further to the left (but not all the way out into Kucinichland). Frankly, I’d rather vote Hillary (and if the choice was Huckabee v/ Hillary, that’s probably what I would do).

I’m not in the business of endorsing candidates--I don’t precisely hold the position of prominence that cries out for political recommendations. For the sake of conversation, though, I will admit that the only person I have given money to during this election cycle has been Fred Thompson. I tend to like his policies, and, while it was mistaken for people to see him as the Gipper reincarnate, I think that he has the temperament and intelligence to do the job well. Sadly, it looks less and less like he has a legitimate shot at the nomination, but while there’s a chance that Thompson (or one of a few other GOP candidates) can still gain the nomination, I’m sticking with my party instead of abandoning it for the flashing smile and extravagant promises of an unreconstructed leftist who doesn’t come close to addressing my biggest issues with any authority.

And, anyway, if the choice comes down to Obama or that “Baptist guy who stays at the Holiday Inn Express”, I’m voting Ron Paul for the improved entertainment value and wholesale destruction of useless government agencies.

Holy Mother of Cold Mornings, It’s Cold This Morning.

Know what I mean?

On Benzir Bhutto’s Assassination

Benazir Bhutto’s assassination is undeniably a cause for worry for the West. Our tenuous partnership with Pakistan--in political partnership that acknowledges the reality of a Pakistani populace that is in large part opposed to their country’s ties with the West--is complicated by Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and its practical importance in the fight against al Qaeda. Precisely what the result of the assassination will be is pure speculation at this point.

Will it kill off democracy? WIll it galvanize fragmented opposition groups into one meaningful opposition voice for change? Most people seem to be fearing the former; Arab News is calling for the latter.

Benazir has become a martyr for the cause of peaceful, representative politics. She has died not for one political faction, but for all of Pakistan. Thus every decent Pakistani, regardless of their politics, must mourn her passing and vow to avenge her, purely by maintaining the values she held dear.

A clearly shaken Nawaz Sharif, her bitter political rival, said last night to PPP supporters: “I assure you, I will fight your war from now on”. This was possibly one of the finest responses he could have formed to the tragedy. His own rally yesterday in Islamabad had been fired on and 12 supporters had been killed. Whoever was behind this other attack, the raw truth is that in a single day, both leading opposition politicians have been attacked. The target was Pakistan, its future.

Pakistan faced challenges enough already without the impact of yesterday’s slaughter. The political horizon which was already hazy may now seem positively murky. This is precisely what the people who planned this crime will have wanted.

Therefore, once the immediate shock of Benazir’s murder has sunk in, her supporters must recognize that this was a wicked blow aimed against Pakistan itself, not simply at the PPP. Now is the time for narrow self-interest to be put aside. Assuming that the PPP can choose a new leader quickly, next month’s elections should very probably go ahead as planned, or at worse be only very slightly delayed.

Finding the group responsible for the attacks is important, but I hope that the people of Pakistan realize that what is more important is asserting the rights of a civilian populace to define their own government. Demanding that right to self-determination is vital to combating the terrorists who would bully these people into accepting a slave’s chains.

My prayer for the people of Pakistan would be that this brutal murder would bring them together in demanding a voice in their government and in combating the terrorists and murderers who are our common enemies.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Psssst…

Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Put down the keyboard and step away from the blogging. Go enjoy some eggnog. Unless you don’t like eggnog. In which case go find something Christmasy/Hannukah-y/Festivusy/whatever-it-is-you-celebratey and leave the interwebs alone.

Love,

Your Friend,

Zomby

Friday, December 21, 2007

Congratulations to Rob & Kate Sama

Here’s to the newly weds! May they enjoy many years of health, happiness, and Rob’s cooking.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

God Bless Ye Merrily Spending Gentlemen

I’m not sure if Shawn Macomber’s latest qualifies as a pro-consumer-binge article; that would be an overly simplistic view of the piece. WIthout a doubt, though, it qualifies as a slap to the face of the folks who want to turn Christmas into a dour season of crappy pseudo-gifts and anti-capitalist sentiment.

Now, I’m all about remembering the “TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS” (which, with ALL CAPS should show you just how seriously I take the TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS). As a Christian, there is something beyond the fruitcake (thank God), twinkly lights, and loads of loot. There is even something beyond the credit card bills that will haunt me well past the well-defined season of giving. I could write a very long post about my thoughts about the meaning of the birth of Jesus because it truly is that important to me and my religious convictions. But Christmas is significant beyond the remembrance and celebration of that birth, and it doesn’t necessarily reduce the holiday to a secular state to embrace that other part of the season.

I like giving gifts to people. I like to find something for the special people in my life that shows them how much I think of them--not how much I think of my own political beliefs or my own causes, but about the things that they love and care about. There is nothing at all wrong with buying gifts--nice gifts, meaningful gifts--for the people you love. It isn’t un-Christian or shallow or morally inferior to care enough about your family and friends to put smiles on their faces and share your own good fortune.

To all the anti-consumer sentiment brewing out there, I say, “Humbug, my baby’s getting something sparkly this year.”

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

If: The Global Food Supply is Truly Shrinking

If the global food supply is truly shrinking (as these reports culled from Drudge and a feature article in the latest edition of The Economist suggest), then maybe we can find a silver lining.

Perhaps Western governments can stop paying people to not farm their land, a move that could save billions in subsidized inactivity and might even encourage farming on some of that land. For that matter, if food is growing that much dearer, then the price for food will be rising--which means that, perhaps, Western governments can end protectionist farm subsidies altogether, allowing developing nations both access to our markets and a compelling reason to farm: reasonable pay outs.

Perhaps the resulting savings in expenses could be used to offset some of the deficits that our government continues to pile annually onto our national debt. And the cost would be slightly higher prices at the grocery store. Perhaps.

Perhaps the prices would be higher; perhaps they would be lower. WIthout those farm subsidies, growers around the world could truly compete in the American market, encouraging development of land currently left fallow. One of the side effects of massive subsidies and even more massive food aid around the world is disruption of local agriculture in developing nations. Of course, in countries like Zimbabwe, a lack of farming knowledge combined with destructive government policies killed off an industry that once employed some 66% of the private workforce in the country and once was a net exporter of food. Tobacco remains one of the few exports that brings hard cash into the country, but, as for food, the country no longer grows enough to feed itself.

The truth is, it’s hard to know exactly what would happen to food production and prices if the subsidies were removed; it’s even harder to deny that the subsidies and food aid tend to distort the market for agricultural products.

Perhaps now would be a great time, too, for the Luddites who tremble in fear at the thought of genetically modified corn, wheat, and rice to reconsider their position. Genetically modified crops can be hardier and more nutritious than their “natural” counterparts--although the majority of what we consider un-modified merely had the tampering with their genetic makeup happen much slower and less efficiently than the supercrops of today. If crops can be grown that help use time and land more efficiently and feed people more nutritious food, then farm productivity rises--that is, using the same land, farmers get more food to sell to us consumers.

Perhaps we should look at a tightening food supply as an opportunity to embrace productivity enhancing technology and the end to billions of dollars of corporate welfare.

Just a thought.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Midnight Love Songs: “I Want You So Hard (The Boy’s Bad News)”


Okay, love song might be pushing it. More like: goofy, retro, hard rock song with scantily clad women, sex obsessed lyrics, and a showcase for the power of loud guitars. Which is how I show my love. Look for cameos by Jack Black and Dave Grohl in really scary wigs.

Since I’m up late trying to finish up an ad and since I’ve ignored the blog for most of the weekend, it seemed a good time to post loud music. And, anyway, Jesse Hughes (the man with the porn ‘stache) cites Thomas Paine and Laura Ingraham as some of his favorite journalists and was, apparently, a speechwriter for Sonny Bono.

Enjoy the Eagles of Death Metal, folks.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Congratulations Miami Dolphins

Still, undeniably, the worst team in the NFL for 2008, but they avoided setting a record that may well have stood as long as their “Perfect Season” record has managed to stand. A winless season would have made this once great franchise the butt of jokes for years to come.

Good win, guys. Congratulations.

Good God.

No.

Just no.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Victim Gets Screwed. Again and Again and Again…

Why I do my best to maintain a healthy state of skepticism when it comes to promises that our government makes and my fellow citizens’ expectations that the government is competent: bureaucracy is stupid. Seriously, vast organizations aren’t just impersonal, they are unthinking. They typically end up being dominated by automated systems and rigid rules that kill off common sense, peopled by incompetents who would much rather follow established protocol than find ways to help the people that they “serve.”

Bureaucracy is stupid.

For Lora and Jamey Costner, a $7,854 federal income tax bill is the painful indigestion that followed two unsatisfying servings of identity theft cooked up by two former Koch Foods employees, records indicate.

The criminal cases involving the Newport married couple and the two illegal immigrants, who IRS records indicate worked for Koch Foods, have been resolved in the court system.

The bitter aftertaste that remains is the unpalatable possibility of having their wages garnished to pay tax bills on income they never earned at the Morristown chicken-processing plant.

“The overall burden of it all is crushing us, please help,” the Costners wrote in an appeal to U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. “We have done all we know to do.”

The mind boggles at what I read in the rest of that article--and it also challenges the illegal-immigrant advocates who seem to believe that illegal immigrants bring only sunshine, flowers, and cheap factory labor into the country. Immigration is not one of my own personal hot button issues, but you can bet that for the people in the story it will be near the top of the list when they choose a candidate.

The treatment of the victims here is disgraceful. I’m sure that Senator Corker will be able to help them, but it should never have come to needing a Senator’s intervention.

Read the story.

And, yes, this one comes from Instapundit.

If: Huckabee is the GOP Nominee

Beginning with If Huckabee ends up being the nominee, I will not vote Republican this year.

Huckabee rubs me the wrong way. Not only do I disagree with him on policy (he is far more socially conservative than I am and far more devoted to spending than the current administration--in my mind, he represents much of the bad of the current administration without offering much of the good) but I find the campaign that he is running to be distasteful. The regular tiptoeing around Mitt Romney’s religion and the overt play to be the authentic Christian candidate are both offensive.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I would prefer to vote for a Christian candidate. Actually, I would like to vote for a candidate that is a perfected version of me--a mix of my good points and cultural affiliations without my bad bits. I think that’s the person that everyone wants to vote for; Huckabee is a Christian, but he isn’t much like me and he doesn’t represent what I consider to be the best of my beliefs and thoughts. My Christian beliefs aren’t the only thing that define my existence; I will vote for someone of any religion (or lack of religion) who represents my best interests and beliefs, who will fight to preserve my constitutional rights, and who irritates me the least. Huckabee scores pretty close to Ron Paul on the Zomby Irritatomometer (although both fall somewhere below Dennis Kucinich and Barrack Obama).

Which leads us to this: Jackie Mason’s response to Mitt Romney’s religion speech. He gets to the speech about 3 minutes in and he says something that I love: “He told you something that he shouldn’t have to tell you...” Regardless of what certain Andies think, I think Romney handled the religion question quite gracefully.


Update: My apologies. I was going to link to Joan’s thoughts on religion in the context of presidential politics are well worth reading. I agree with bits, I disagree with bits, but, mostly, I just find it thoughtful. My short, and possibly too simplistic, response is this: study Southern Baptists (the church that I claim as my own) all you want and you won’t necessarily understand how I’ll vote on any given subject. The better discussion is to understand the individual’s relationship to their religious beliefs and how those beliefs actually influence their votes and their actions.

Note: I originally saw the Mason video over on the Corner, but I can’t find the link to the post.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

He’s a Witch!

Burn him!

Terry Pratchett Has Alzheimer’s

One of the most creative and funny writers I’ve ever enjoyed reading sent out some bad news today: Terry Pratchett has an early onset form of Alzheimer’s.

Author Terry Pratchett is suffering from a rare form of early Alzheimer’s disease, it has been revealed.
He said in a statement that with forthcoming conventions and the need to inform his publishers it would have been “unfair to withhold the news”.

Discworld author Pratchett has sold more than 55 million books worldwide.

The writer, 59, who gave the news on the website of Discworld artist Paul Kidby, said the condition was behind a “phantom stroke” earlier this year.

Here’s hoping that the disease progresses at a glacial pace. Which, with the threat of global warming, hoping for anything “glacial” just seems downright unscientific right now.

Read the rest. Original posting here.

Dog Collar Protest


While Archbishop of York John Sentamu’s protest might be a tad dramatic, it brought attention to what he was saying on this clip from YouTube. And what he was saying was just good sense.

For Zimbabwe to even begin addressing its problems--dead economy, broken infrastructure, joblessness, a decimated farming industry, eroding freedoms, widespread hunger--Mugabe has to go. Leaving our disgust and anger silenced won’t make that happen and neither, apparently (and just as disgustingly), will leaving it to Mugabe’s neighbors. What will make it happen--or, at least, help prepare for what happens when he dies or is too old to carry on as the head of state--is to support grassroots organizations like Sokwanele--folks who work for democratic change and the protection of personal liberty in Zimbabwe. From their About Sokwanele page:

Sokwanele - Zvakwana is a peoples’ movement, embracing supporters of all pro-democratic political parties, civic organizations and institutions.

Sokwanele - Zvakwana will never aspire to political office.

Sokwanele - Zvakwana is a peoples’ force through which democracy will be restored to the country and protected jealously for future generations to ensure that Zimbabweans will never be oppressed again.

When you run into people who insist that everything is fine in Zim, that it isn’t as bad as the media portray, and that the only problems are caused by the financial sanctions from the West, visit Sokwanele and read their writing, see the pictures, and understand that these are Zimbabwe’s citizens. I applaud them for what they are doing.

Thanks very much to Matthew from Billy Ockham for pointing out the video.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bobby Petrino, You Jerk

Bobby Petrino abandoned an Atlanta Falcons team going through a helaciously difficult season after only 13 games. He jumped ship to head back to the college ranks--apparently the pro game was just too tough for him and, without Michael Vick, so was coaching a team that lost its best player to his own damned stupidity.

Bobby Petrino was hired Tuesday as the football coach at Arkansas, capping a whirlwind day in which he stunningly resigned from the Atlanta Falcons after just 13 games.

Petrino succeeds Houston Nutt, who stepped down at Arkansas two weeks ago and became the head coach at Mississippi. Petrino was introduced as the Razorbacks coach by incoming athletic director Jeff Long at a late-night news conference.
[...]
On Monday night, the Falcons lost to New Orleans 34-14, and hours later Petrino left the team with a 3-10 record to return to the college ranks.

Apparently a twenty-four million dollar, five year contract doesn’t buy much in the way of loyalty from some people.

Disappointing. More disappointing than National Review’s official endorsement for the GOP’s answer to John Edwards’ hair.

Read the story. And more.

Coming Soon…

AfricaBlog will be re-launching at the beginning of 2008--I’m aiming for New Years day because I need the deadline and because I like the symbolism. This is open to people of all political stripes who are willing to respect other opinions enough to have serious, adult conversations; it won’t be about creating outrage, it will be about honest discussion and debate. I will be reaching out directly to some writers that I respect from other sites and hope to play host to diversity in political opinion, nationality, and cultural backgrounds.

Point being: I will again be aiming for a group blog with people willing to commit to posting at least once a week or so. If you would like to sign on, let me know. If you know someone who should sign on, let them know.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Nokia Takes Apple (and Google) Seriously

To put the exclamation point on the idea that Apple is shaking up the cell phone industry, check out this story about Nokia’s response to the disruptive influences of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android.

Apple, with its innovative iPhone, is changing the business relationship between the handset maker and the carrier. “Apple has managed to get operators to pay a bounty for new customers signed up — that is a sea change,” said John Tysoe, an analyst with the Mobile World, a research firm in London.

Google plans to create software that will turn cellphones into the principal portal to a mobile Web. Android, Google’s open-source platform for software, aims to transform the cellphone into a pocket computer in which any number of software applications could be added to a phone just as software is added to a PC.

Nokia views Apple as the first credible entrant into its market in years, Mr. Kallasvuo said. As for Google, he said he would wait for more details before deciding whether it is a threat or an opportunity. It did not go unnoticed that Google did not ask Nokia to join its Open Handset Alliance, a 34-company group that includes Motorola, Samsung and HTC.

No matter how you feel about Apple’s product, the fact that it is encouraging a new level of competition in the industry is good for consumers. And it will be an aggressive competition: the companies already entrenched in the industry have a lot of territory to defend and the money to make it interesting.

Competition is good.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

myPhone: The Really, Really Big Review

The iPhone is a success. For everyone who thought that it would limp out of the gate and have little to no effect on the cell phone industry, it would be a good time to look for a little crow. Regardless of the final number sold, the iPhone has done a number of things that truly define success and truly define innovation.

First, the iPhone has changed consumer expectations of how a cell phone should work, how it should appeal to the senses, and how beautifully the interface works. It also showed that a good chunk of the public was willing to pay for their phones if only those phones were actually good. It isn’t just the well-to-do or people who need the constant contact of a smart phone that went crazy for the iPhone; it was people who liked the idea of an easy-to-use almost smart phone that integrated useful features in a stylish package.

Which isn’t to say that the iPhone is perfect or even that its features are for everyone. It’s just to say that this imperfect (I would still suggest that Apple released a stable beta on a willing public and that is just now getting close to a fully functional release) phone from Apple has not only sold well, but it has changed the industry. That Apple accomplished this with their first shot at the industry has to have the bigger players feeling a little nervous.

Apple didn’t achieve the feat without engineering a beautiful piece of technology.

The first and most important thing to the iPhone’s success is the interface. The touchscreen, which lets users interact with the phone in an simple way, is only part of the story. The organization and simplicity of the thing make it quick to learn, but the hidden features (like double tapping on a browser window to zoom in and then zoom out on a section of the screen) make it an absolute joy to use. It works well not just because most of the bits are so well designed, but because it encourages discovery.

Yes, that makes it sound a little like a toy, but that isn’t the right way to view the achievement. It is an incredibly useful phone with powerful network capabilities that opened my eyes to the possibilities of a cell phone. My last cell phone--a Motorola SLVR--had some of the same features as my iPhone. At least, it listed those features in the ads.

Read the Rest...

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