Friday, January 28, 2011

Arguably the least important post here, and that's saying something

So: that one TV special that you didn't know existed? You can skip it, it isn't very good.

I was pretty psyched when I saw that there had been an adaptation of "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency." I haven't read this in, oh, probably about fifteen years, but still have many fond memories of it. It's a stand-alone title from Douglas Adams, and it brings the high level of wit from his early "Hitchhikers" books to a quantum-noir setting.

Adams wasn't just a great writer, he was also a really bright guy, and interested in all sorts of science and technology stuff. (Fun bit of trivia: he was the first person in England to buy a Macintosh computer. Stephen Fry was the second.) HHG2G was relatively light on the "science" part of "science fiction"; weirdly enough, there's more science in DGHDA, and arguably also in his proto-Gaiman mythmaking epic, "The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul."

Sadly, it almost all got washed out in the adaptation. BBC4 put together a one-hour special that retains just enough from the original novel to make you miss it. Nothing is particularly bad about it, but it just doesn't seem very worthwhile, either.

The very, very, very broad strokes are still intact. Dirk Gently is still a detective who uses holistic methods, based on his theories about the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, to solve cases. Those cases tend to involve missing cats. He submits outrageous expense reports. And there's a fairly flexible timeline.

Other than that, it isn't very recognizable. Like I said, I haven't read the book in a long time, but I still vividly remember some of the best parts of the book, and am disappointed that they didn't make it into here. They really tease you, too: at one point Dirk orders a new fridge, and we can see the deliverymen carrying it up the stairs. Sadly, the payoff never materializes: the fridge just ends up in his office.

I almost wish that the show had been actively bad. The original BBC adaptation of HHG2G was laughably awful, and that's the key: it was so low-tech and scrappy that I kind of loved it. It's harder to do a fun low-budget detective story than a low-budget sci-fi story, though. Instead we get something just kind of "blah."

The biggest bummer, of course, is that since this wasn't all that good, it'll probably be even longer until we see quality productions based on Adams' excellent source material. It's kind of strange, since Adams had so eagerly engaged so many mediums so early in his career. HHG2G alone has famously existed as a radio program, series of novels, TV show, computer game (a text adventure, no less!), and Hollywood movie. Why can't we get a great stage play of Dirk Gently? Or a Terry Gilliam-directed film of Tea-time?

Ah, well. At least we'll always have the great stories he left behind.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Peter G. Timkins

The January Of Doing Funny Stuff concluded with a great day in The City, followed by my first-ever viewing of the Paul F. Tompkins Show, during my first-ever visit to the San Francisco outpost of Yoshi's, a jazz club and sushi restaurant.

It was a gorgeous day, so I decided to head up early and enjoy all of it. For me, "enjoying" is usually synonymous with "walking around in". I caught BART up to 16th and Mission, and cut directly west along 16th. I'd consulted a recently-gifted book called "Stairway Walks in San Francisco", and followed its suggested route in my approach towards and through Corona Heights. I feel like I keep saying this, but I think that the views from the top of Corona Heights might be the best you can get of eastern San Francisco. It helps that it was a perfectly clear day, and the Bay was a gorgeous shade of blue. You're much closer to downtown here than in my previous favorite spots, like Twin Peaks, and so you can appreciate a finer level of detail, including clear looks at individual cars and trolleys and streetcars moving around. You have complete, unobstructed views of The Mission, SOMA, and the Castro, along with the western face of Potrero Hill, most of the Financial District and the northeastern hills, and the southeastern quadrant of the city. Plus, there's an amazing full-on look at downtown Oakland; from this perspective, Mount Diablo rises directly behind the skyscrapers there, which is a very cool effect.

Totally jazzed, I continued along the stairways, then broke off to cross over to Buena Vista Park. This is several times larger than Corona Heights. It's also a lot more wooded, and has more paths, which generally run in concentric rings with some stairways (yay!) running more or less straight up. More awesome views could be found from the top here; the trees meant more obstructions than Corona, but from certain spots you could catch the Golden Gate Bridge and the Presidio.  As an extra-special bonus, a bunch of friendly dogs were frolicking around on top of the hill; some of them demanded to be petted, which I gladly obliged. Good doggies!

I worked my way down the north side of Buena Vista, crossed Haight, and over to the Panhandle. Being such a great day, folks were out in full force along the paths here, running, cycling, and walking like me. I went through a long loop, east to the end and then back west, before crossing over into the main part of Golden Gate Park.

I've visited GGP many times before, and I doubt I'll ever get tired of it. Not only is it huge with tons to see, but it's also regularly changing and improving. On this trip, I made my first-ever visit to the Conservancy of Flowers; I didn't make it inside, but even outside there's a gorgeous collection of flower beds. Since this was Sunday, JFK Drive was closed to auto traffic, and huge numbers of people were thoroughly enjoying the park. For the most part cyclists were staying on the road while pedestrians claimed the full breadth of the shared walk/bike lanes.

I continued looping my way west, and eventually made it to what I'm now thinking of as the Museum Campus. I was last here several years ago, when the new home of the California Academy of Sciences was under construction; that project is now over, and the result is a perfectly formed jewel. The de Young museum continues to impress with its modernist architecture and wonderful outdoor sculptures and gardens. Next along in the ring, an outdoor amphitheater connects to the history of the park (it was erected in 1900); on this day there were no shows, but a talented amateur was playing a flute while several picnickers listened with appreciation. In the center of the campus is a recessed, tiered set of walkways and gardens, with a fountain in the middle. Finally, on the south end, the new Academy building was doing a brisk business.

The building looks nice; a bit big and blocky from a distance, but they do a lot of stuff with glass to open it up. I still haven't been inside; I've heard good things and am a bit curious, but at $30 per ticket, it will probably be a long time before I head there. Regardless, though, it really transforms the area from "The deYoung and Friends" to a full campus. The Japanese Tea Garden is now almost an afterthought, you need to hunt around for it.

I was tempted to make this my lunch spot, but decided to press on to Stow Lake, figuring that, hey, water is nice! The lake was indeed pleasant, and quite busy; the median age of visitors here skews several decades older than the rest of the park, and I suspect that many of them are native San Franciscans. I walked around for a bit, started to eat on a bench facing the water, then relocated to a nice little picnic area set farther back from the crowds, within sight of a waterfall. I had some leftover homemade pizza (Cook's Illustrated's recipe for thin-crust), a banana, and some homemade peanut butter chocolate chip cookies.

After I finished up, I wandered over towards the waterfall. There's a large stone cross above it, and I was curious about it. It turns out that it was erected back in 1894 (!), in honor of a priest from the Church of England who served as Sir Francis Drake's chaplain. The inscription covers both front and back of the cross, and tells how this guy led the first English-language prayers on the West Coast.

Checking the time, I decided it would be good to start heading back east; in all of my walking, I hadn't even reached halfway through the park. On my trip back I took a more southerly loop, closer to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. This included the back of the California Academy, several very large fields and athletic areas, a lawn bowling club (with signs that sternly forbade playing bocce ball), and so on. I returned to the Panhandle, re-crossed Haight, did Buena Vista Park again and got acquainted with a new set of doggies, then resumed my long-delayed Stairway Walk from the book. This took me along Buena Vista Drive East (which has many gorgeous houses), down Roosevelt Way (also has gorgeous houses), down the Roosevelt-Henry stairs to Henry (which, you guessed it, has gorgeous houses). At Castro I swung south, crossed Market, then made my way back to the Mission.

It was a pleasantly warm and sunny day, and I was in the Mission. You can guess what that means: ice cream! I've long heard glorious tales of Bi-Rite Creamery, and knew that this was the perfect opportunity to try for myself. As with all popular Mission places, it was a bit of a scene, with a line that stretched to the end of the block. Still, I didn't have to be anywhere soon, and it was a thoroughly pleasant day, so I pulled the New Yorker out of my bag and read while I patiently waited.

Bi-Rite makes all their own ice cream, and do some really interesting flavors. There are a handful of familiars, like vanilla, chocolate, and cookies and cream; there are a few popular upscale flavors, like roasted caramel with sea salt and mango; and there were some fascinating originals, like roasted banana and ricanelas (cinnamon with snickerdoodles). I was fascinated by the latter, and opted for a single cone with ricanelas.

Bi-Rite is cater-corner from Mission Dolores Park, so I crossed the street and ambled through, licking my cone. The park was full, as is always the case on sunny weekends. It's an extremely chill scene; people plop down their blankets and hang out, reading or talking and enjoying the sun. A few people were playing music, and some folks nearby would dance. A children's playground was packed with young-un's, and the smell of marijuana was a little less strong there.

The cone lasted exactly long enough for my slow walk through the park; I disposed of it, then picked up 20th Street and continued east. I had just one thing on my agenda prior to heading to Yoshi's: I wanted to check out Borderlands, a science-fiction and fantasy bookstore, near 20th and Valencia.

It was quite cool. It's a little smaller than I was expecting, but stuffed with great books; and, since they only cover a few genres (horror in addition to sci-fi and fantasy), there's a much higher probability of finding something good. The store itself looks great as well; it may be the cleanest used book store I've ever been to.

They have newer books towards the front of the store, used hardcovers farther back, and used paperbacks at the very rear. They do that awesome independent bookstore thing where the staff (seems like two guys) write notes about their recommendations, giving a few sentences describing a book and why you should check it out. These seem to be very effective; in most cases, the books they referenced were no longer on the shelves.

I spent about half an hour in there, half-listening as someone (the owner? the clerk?) chatted with a series of customers while I scanned the shelves. I started by looking for a few favorite authors of mine - Neal Stephenson, Robert Anton Wilson, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin. Unfortunately, I already own pretty much everything that they've written, but I was happy to see the books that they had. I was toying between buying a new copy of Neverwhere (just about the only Gaiman novel I haven't read yet) or Masks of the Illuminati (a less-popular successor to Illuminatus! and the Schrodinger's Cat trilogies; it sounds fascinating, it's supposedly about Albert Einstein and James Joyce teaming up to solve cosmic mysteries). However, I eventually found two used books that I wanted. In a bit of perfect timing, they had Christopher Moore's Bloodsucking Fiends; I had just started You Suck the day before and was coming to the realization that it was a sequel, so with BF I would be able to get caught up. Along with this I got William Gibson's Burning Chrome, which has been on my radar for years and bizarrely isn't carried by any library nearby.

It was now just a bit after 4:30, so I headed up Valencia back to 16th, over to Church, crossed Market, then jogged over. Google Maps wanted me to go up Fillmore; for a change of pace, I decided to head up Steiner instead. Steiner proved to be a bit more residential, and was a pleasant, relatively quiet walk up and down the hill.

Yoshi's San Francisco was built in connection with the new Jazz Heritage Center, which is part of a revitalization effort taking place in the Fillmore district. It's absolutely gorgeous. When you first walk in, you enter a large lobby that holds rotating exhibits; right now, it's a series on a Jewish-American artist. I walked around and peered at the reproductions. The history is pretty fascinating, all tied up with the horrors of World War II but also referencing back to the historical role that Jews played in earlier events like the Revolutionary War. I think that there's also a separate jazz museum area, but I didn't explore that.

I picked up my ticket from the box office; my awesome brother had scored reservations, which gave me a guaranteed good seat at this sold-out show AND a voucher for dinner. I headed into the restaurant, which is probably the best-looking dining area I've been inside in The City. I talked with the incredibly friendly host, who offered me a seat in the restaurant; I ended up sitting in the downstairs lounge, with a view of the flat-screen television showing the Jets-Steelers game. Yes!

The menu is similar to the Oakland Yoshi's. I was tempted by a lot of their dishes, but eventually decided to have the sushi; after all, it's amazing, and, as I was startled to realize, I haven't eaten any sushi in nearly six months. I got one of their sashimi combination plates, along with miso soup, edamame, and a Sapporo.

Of course, everything was delicious. They do a really interesting presentation of the sashimi: instead of just offering the standard soy, ginger, and wasabi, they scatter around a handful of flavor pairings. There's a wedge of lemon, a few thin radish slices, some nori, and a fascinating yellow gloop that I couldn't identify. The sashimi itself is excellent, although I did end up wishing that I'd ordered nigiri instead.

I milked my edamame and my beer as long as I could, keeping an eye on the game and another eye on the time. When I started watching, the Steelers were up 24-0; by the end, the Jets had mounted an amazing but ultimately unsuccessful rally, locking up 19 unanswered points. I finished the last of my beer and headed in to the club.

Hooray for reserved seats! Yoshi's (both locations) has an interesting policy, which is basically first-come first-serve, but you can reserve a seat with certain actions, like having a brother pay for your dinner. I wanted in about five minutes before the show and claimed my seat: second row from the stage, on the left side, with mostly a full-on view but able to see the piano player's hands. Score! The two other reserved tables at my table would remain empty for the whole night. Double score!

The show opened with the band walking out and taking up their instruments. Piano, drums, guitar. They started jamming. Paul F. Tompkins began addressing the audience. "Greetings, ladies and gentlemen! It is I, Paul F. Tompkins, of the Paul F. Tompkins show! Look around as much as you like... you cannot see me! But, do not fear. I am not a disembodied spectre, speaking to you from beyond the grave. I am merely standing behind this stage curtain!" And so on.

I just loved Tompkins' voice, here and throughout the show. I've seen and enjoyed his work on Mr. Show, and caught a handful of YouTube clips from him, but haven't followed him too closely otherwise, and so was surprised and impressed by the show.

The overall structure is kind of like an old-timey variety/vaudeville show, but with modern sensibilities. There were a few songs, including some from the band, a few solo pieces from Tompkin's Very Special Guest Tom Brosseau, and one show-stopping number with the whole gang. Tompkins did some comedy bits, mainly conversational storytelling, and kept up a pattering showmanship throughout. He also had some skits with his Very Special Guests: Neil Patrick Harris and Gillian Jacobs. Yay!

A few random memories from an excellent show:

I don't want to repeat too many jokes, but I figure his SF-specific bits are unlikely to be performed again, so: from his post-opening-song monologue:
"Thank you, San Francisco! I've heard that your one-sided rivalry with Los Angeles is continuing well. You know, the rivalry that we choose not to participate in; but, I think it's terrific that you guys are keeping up your end of it. I was riding in a cab yesterday, and learned from the driver that this isn't just a rivalry with LA, but with all of Southern California... and that includes San Diego. Really? San Diego? Let me just let you know, you guys have already won, whatever weird competition you think you're having with San Diego. I mean... what do you say when you meet someone from San Diego?  'Hey, you! Yeah, you guy from San Diego!  Nice... zoo!  And, nice... water zoo. Pfft... typical San Diego. Having two things.'"

I hadn't heard of Tom Brosseau before. He was quiet and pleasant, and a great singer and guitarist. It wasn't until about halfway through his first song that I realized it was also really funny. He had a complete, dead-on sincere thing going the whole way through, so even once I started to suspect that he meant it to amuse, it took a while for me to be sure. There really weren't any laugh points during the song, and while the audience clearly appreciated it, I'm not sure that we ever "got" it.

Neil Patrick Harris was excellent. Tompkins introduced him, and early on described how much he had enjoyed his role in Undercover Brother. I was delighted by the shout-out, and think that Tompkins was short-selling the movie... yeah, it's dumb, but it's a really fun kind of dumb, even beyond the (great) scenes that NPH is in.

For this section, they competed in a brand new game: Reference-a-thon! (Note: I don't remember what it was actually called.) Each one tried to stump the other with obscure references.

NPH: "Luca Braci sleeps with the fishes."
PFT: "Ohhhhhh..... mmmmm.... argh.... I should know this! Is it... wait.. gosh. I don't know. I'll just say 'The Godfather.'"
NPH: "That's right!"

PFT gave the quote "Soylent green is made out of people! It's people!" That kicked off an angry and heated exchange. First of all, as NPH pointed out, the quote is "Soylent Green is people! It's people!" He then got PFT to confess that he hadn't ever actually seen the movie, and so had no business referencing it. PFT defended himself, saying that he'd heard enough to understand what the movie was about, and preceded to give a capsule summary of the film. "Right?" he hopefully asked. NPH shrugged. "I don't know, I haven't seen it either." Which led to an increasingly violent series of recriminations, and a fear that they were plunging headlong into a dark future the same as what may or may not be depicted in the film Soylent Green.

It was pretty awesome.

Later on, PFT started in on a big, brassy, Broadway song covering major legal battles. "BROWN versus the BOARD of education!" He was interrupted by Gillian Jacobs, who walked out in her jammies, reminding PFT that they had a slumber party that night. PFT suggested crank calls; GJ reminded him that crank calls were mean, and suggested prank calls instead. They called that one boy who Gillian likes, and lots of giggling ensued.

This spun out into an increasingly crazy, surrealistic series of statements, ending with Gillian's tearful confession that she was, in fact, a bird with hollow bones.

The absolute biggest part of the night: EVERYONE came  back on stage to join together in performing one of the standards: "That's Not My Name" by the Ting Tings. It was AMAZING. And hilarious; I don't think people ever stopped laughing. They did a stunningly good job, too, throwing far too much talent into aping this pop hit. And it wasn't just a song, it was a performance. Tom gently crooned into his mike; Gillian gave this amazingly cute little scowl and half-shake of her head whenever she announced "That's not my name! That's not my name!" PFT led off and ended the song with a kind of slide-whistle thing, and joyously led the singing throughout. NPH and Gillian played off of each other wonderfully. (I think that NPH may not have been miked; I'm not sure if this is actually the case, and if so, whether it was deliberate or not.)

The evening ended with a very, very, very long (but funny!) farewell from PFT while his cohort twinkled the ivory. He went all over in saying his farewell. He thanked everyone (including his crew, and Yoshi's crew, and SF Sketchfest, and so on); he also thanked us for being such a wonderful audience. We stayed quiet for this part; it's rude to applaud yourself, right? He continued with something like, "You've been such a wonderful audience. I wish we could spend eternity together. And now we can!" He dramatically gestured up towards the ceiling. "Release the cyanide!" We all laughed and applauded. PFT giggled. "That has to be the weirdest reaction I've ever gotten from an audience. Who would have thought it would be so easy to start a cult?"

It finally ended, and after a standing ovation and final curtain call, they headed out. The whole evening felt like it had gone by really fast, but checking my watch, I realized that it had been about an hour and a half. I seem to get that experience every time I go to Yoshi's, and I suppose it's a good sign: I'm having so much fun that I'm sorry to see it end.

I worked my way back down to 16th and Mission, and was pleasantly surprised to only run into a single obnoxious drunk on the whole way. I think I might try to do this in the future and avoid the mid-Market gauntlet to reach my standard Civic Center station.

Anyways, it was a great cap to a nearly perfect day. Thanks, Pat!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Vampire Wormhole Apocalypse

Just finished "Zombie Spaceship Wasteland," the first book from our good friend Patton Oswalt. It's a very quick read; if I hadn't been wrapping up City of God, I probably would have finished it in a day or two. It's really good stuff, though.

I think one of the blurbs describes it as a "memoir," and parts of it are. Some of the sections deal with specific periods from Oswalt's life. For the most part these are scenes from his childhood or adolescence; a few cover his period as an early, struggling comedian, while one brief section towards the end gives a glimpse into his life in present-day Los Angeles.

Other parts, though, are straight-up humor. A lot of these feel like things that might run in an edgier version of the New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs": relatively short comical pieces that explore a fairly absurd theme. A couple use art; one is a short comic about poser vampires, another (one of my favorites) is a series of disconcerting greeting cards from Chamomile.

Everything in here is pretty funny, but the memoir-ish pieces are quite clear-eyed; he'll describe things in amusing ways, but also gives a really interesting glimpse into his inner mind. We learn about what makes him excited, how he spends his time when he's stuck in a boring city, how he feels when he's dealing with an unpleasant person. All intriguing stuff.

I don't want to go into a lot of details since, well, that's where the funny comes from. Since I already touched on it in my earlier blog post, though, I did want to expand a bit on his "Zombie Spaceship Wasteland" thesis; I think that between the interview and the book, I finally get what he's trying to say. So:

Most creative people start being creative in their adolescence. However, because they haven't yet had real adult experiences, they don't actually understand how the world works yet, and so they can't actually create something (a book, a comic, a movie, etc.) that deals with the world as it is.

And so, Oswalt says, in his experience, all of his creative friends would channel their energies into one of three modes that allowed them to make a story without needing to deal with the real world.

First comes "Zombie." In a zombie story, we're living in the real world, and we still have all our stuff, but all of our social interactions have been replaced by the threat of imminent death at the ravening hands of shuffling, brain-hungry zombies. So we still have cool things like bank buildings, guns, and cars, but we don't expect people to worry about mortgages, or labor unions, or promotions.

A Spaceship lets you create a whole new world from scratch, which may also include new races, languages, technologies, and so on. It won't be as fully fleshed-out as our own, and for the most part will be shaped to accommodate the needs of the story's plot, but it's still very creative. The Spaceship lets your imagination run amok, and you can totally make up your own rules for how things should work, because Earth is far behind.

Wasteland is what you get after the Zombies have finished their work. (During the lecture I'd been a bit confused on the distinction, but he explicitly connects the two in the book.) In a Wasteland even the structures of our civilization have been largely erased; in Zombieland they're desperately fighting destruction, but in Wasteland they've already been destroyed. Wasteland deals with the remnants of humanity who typically wander around in a sea of chaos and anarchy.

He does a lot with this concept, including multiple amusing one-offs ("Darth Vader is a zombie who lives on a spaceship that creates a wasteland"). He also links them to music; when he was growing up, Zombies listened to some punk and a lot of metal; Spaceship listened to New Wave; Wastelands listened to post-punk.  (I'd imagine that today zombies would still listen to metal, while spaceships would dig electronic music and wastelands would follow indie rock.) I thought the most interesting part was his observations about how these people grew up. Zombies were the first to get menial jobs and tended to burn out. He says that every Spaceship he knew ended up working with computers, and they're excellent parents. Every comedian he knows started as a Wasteland type.

Anyways, it's an interesting thesis, and he does some fun stuff with it. It feels more applicable to the particular time Oswalt was growing up, and his particular group of friends; I'm having trouble extending this to a universal system. And I still think that there should be a sharper delineation between Zombie and Wasteland. Still, it's a fun concept to play around with.

Um, I think that's it for now. Anyone who digs Oswalt's stuff will enjoy this book; it's a very different experience, and doesn't share the structure or content of his sets, but it's coming from the same mind and so will appeal to the same folks. I can definitely imagine Oswalt evolving along the lines that Steve Martin has, from performance-oriented to more literary. If so, we'll be seeing more great books from him in the future.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The City

As I promised/threatened, I finally read a book by E. L. Doctorow. I can confirm that it bears little or no resemblance to the book I read by Cory Doctorow.

I picked up "City of God" because it sounded vaguely familiar; after I started, I realized that's probably because I was confusing it with a Werner Herzog movie. I don't have any regrets, though. It's a bit of a difficult read (especially compared to a Cory Doctorow book), but very rewarding.


City of God weaves together a whole bunch of different threads, most of them narrative plots and some not. Most of them focus on two locations: New York City in the present, and Europe during the Holocaust. The people in the present are living very much under the shadow of the past, and if there's a single theme to the book, it's the idea that we as a species still haven't come to grips with what happened there.

Four major characters share the scene in the present, and they are thrown together by a bizarre crime. Father Pemberton is an Anglican priest; he's a very likeable figure, a devoted leader in the Church who has fallen out of favor due to his adherence to the ideas of the 1960's. At the start of the book, he preaches to a congregation that numbers in the single digits; this is highly demoralizing, but he presses on, throwing himself into doing God's work by running a soup kitchen and ministering to his tiny flock. He lives in a marginal neighborhood, and one night someone steals the cross from his chapel. Declaring himself the Theological Detective, he tries to track it down. The second character, who acts as a narrator for much of the main action, is a writer who is interested in this story and curious to see its resolution. The writer is secular, but well-educated in religion, and can hold his own in conversations with Father Pem.

The cross eventually turns up, on the roof of a synagogue across town. The synagogue is led by the third and fourth major characters, Rabbis Joshua and Sarah Gruen. They call their sect Evolutionary Judaism; I think that may have been invented for this book (as far as I can tell their temple is the only one), but it's described as an offshoot from Reconstructionism, which in turn came from Reform Judaism. Even though the Gruens and Pem belong to different faiths, they find that they share a similar trajectory: both think that traditional religion cannot adequately account for modern life, and needs to change. Father Pem has long been obsessed with the Holocaust; his greatest clashes with church authority have dealt with his belief that the Christian Church has never properly atoned for its sins of omission in allowing the Holocaust to happen, and that a multi-generational penance will be necessary to restore Christianity to its purpose. Joshua Gruen's family was killed in the Holocaust; he doesn't presume to say what Christians should do about it, but he and Sarah believe that peoples' hearts need to fundamentally change to keep something like it from happening again.

We next get several long, descriptive, interesting, exciting, and disturbing flashbacks to life in the ghetto during World War II. We learn about the tyranny of everyday life, the brutality and evil of the Nazi soldiers who oversaw the confinement and extermination of the Jews, and so on. We later learn that what we've read is actually a fictional embellishment written by the writer character; he's taken notes from his conversations with Joshua and turned them into a story. We even get to hear Sarah's criticism of this work, as she notes that certain characters aren't portrayed accurately or that some of the chronology is off. Still, she allows, the writer managed to capture what was most important, the essence of that time.

The second half of the book changes into a quest of sorts, to find a cache of documents in Poland that will help identify Nazi concentration camp administrators who are hiding in the United States.

Throughout all this, there's a lot of other stuff going on that contributes thematically to the book but doesn't directly contribute to the main plot.

First, there are regular musical interludes, introduced under the heading "The Midrash Jazz Quartet Plays the Standards." These are songs that start off as, well, standard pop hits of the 40's and 50's. After the first few verses and refrains, the singers will... embellish them. Sometimes they dig deeper into the concept of love; often they focus on particular horrors. I think my favorite part of this is when the audience reactions are shown in italics; these include things like "Loud applause," "Puzzled silence," and "Angry muttering".

There's an extended fantasy that takes place over many segments early in the book. I was never too clear on who was doing the fantasizing; it might have been the writer character, or maybe someone else. It starts off with him noticing an attractive wife at a cocktail party; he imagines starting an affair with her, and then plunges on into deeper, more disturbing, ultimately horrifying visions of psychologically enslaving her, torturing her husband, and driving to a Grand Guignol climax. He's also obsessed with movies, and imagines first the book and then the film adaptation of this tale. This thread was darkly fascinating, but I'm still not clear on how it ties in with the other elements... perhaps it illuminates the evil impulses within us that we try to suppress, or maybe it's about how modern communication technologies serve to dilute effects and make the horrible seem commonplace.

One of the odder side "stories" is Ludwig Wittgenstein. That's it: just Ludwig Wittgenstein. An early section introduces him in the third person, and after that we get several sections of him in the first person describing his thoughts. So... what does that have to do with anything? While reading it I wasn't sure what it meant, but after finishing the book, I think it may have a kind of deliberate assonance with the other themes of the book. Wittgenstein did for philosophy what Einstein did for physics, throwing out the inherited and misguided edifices of thought and replacing them with new systems that better explain their world. Doctorow seems to be implying that while science and philosophy have undergone revolutions, theology has not, and it needs to do so in order to survive.


As with many books that I read these days, anyone who reads this story for its plot will probably be disappointed. We never learn who stole the cross, and by the book's midpoint everyone stops referring to it. The search for the ghetto documents reaches a sort of satisfying conclusion in an airport customs room, but the book's main villain escapes justice by dying in his sleep.

The characters' personal journeys seem to fare better, at least in part. Father Pem is cast out, seeks to redeem himself through secular work, and finds salvation in Judaism. Sarah works through her grief after her bereavement, picks up Joshua's mantle, and finds her happiness with Pem. The writer, who at times seemed superior to Pem with his jaundiced cynicism, at the end feels faintly adrift, watching enviously at Pem's greater happiness and greater belief. That said, a seemingly triumphant ending (the wedding) is undercut by an extremely dark final half-page, which projects the malice of the past into present-day New York.


All in all, a fascinating book; I can't think of another work by a secular writer that's as interested with theology as this novel. It gets beyond the standard complaints of "Why do bad things happen to good people?" and digs deeply into the relationship between man and God, actions and beliefs, bodies and souls. The subject matter here is very weighty, but somehow avoids ever seeming melodramatic. It carves out a quiet place for contemplation within the raging storm of humanity's sins.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Since 2004, I've maintained a home theater PC that has become the nexus of my entertainment. I built it out of an Asus Pundit, onto which I installed Linux and then MythTV. I hooked it into my receiver, and (depending on where I was living at the time) either plugged the ethernet into my router, or used a simple USB wireless adapter to connect through the wireless. I even hooked up a simple homebrewed serial port IR receiver so I could navigate it with my remote control. (That's one of the few things in life that I'm anal about: I hate using multiple remotes, so I'll go to great lengths to get all my equipment happy with a single control.)

It worked really well. I had simple SAMBA shared folders set up, with different folders for video and music. I could drag over whatever files I wanted (ripped DVDs, TV shows, cool clips, etc.), and they would pop up for me to watch on my TV and stereo. I could run the music player in shuffle mode and get good music out of my stereo system while I puttered around.

Eventually, though, technology caught up to me. The box is old enough that the hard drive was IDE and not SATA. The processor did just fine for serving up standard def video, and handled every codec that I threw at it, but I knew that it wouldn't be able to handle high-def video. (I only just upgraded to an HDTV about two weeks ago, so this wasn't a big deal for a long time.) And, since the on-board video was limited to just composite and S-video, I wouldn't be able to properly watch HD programs anyways.

So, it was time for a change. But, the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that the answer would be another HTPC. I picked up a PS3 a few years ago, primarily for gaming, but had been impressed at the media capabilities it had; without any special configuration on my part, it automatically supported streaming videos and music from my Windows desktop computer. And, of course, the PS3 has great connectors, and is already hooked up to my A/V equipment, so it seemed redundant to get another PC just to handle that.

I decided that what I really wanted was a place where I could dump all my data files - primarily music and video, but also random stuff that I wanted access to. I didn't want to tie things to a desktop or a laptop that I would need to keep on and awake while watching stuff; I just wanted a hard drive connected to the network. In other words, I wanted a NAS.

NAS, or Network Attached Storage, is about the most bare-bone'd computer you can get. They support sophisticated storage schemes that offer high availability and redundancy of data, which helps protect against data loss. Other than that, the goal is to run as lightly, cheaply, and efficiently as possible. I wanted something that I could feel good about leaving on 24/7, quietly protecting my files.

I canvassed some of my more tech-savvy friends, checked out review sites, and eventually settled on the company Synology. They're a fairly small player in the NAS market, which is dominated by familiar names like Netgear and D-Link along with some specialized players like Buffalo Technologies. However, Synology has amassed a terrific reputation, both from the high-end reviewers and from their very dedicated users.

Synology has a pretty wide line of products, but they also make it pretty easy to pinpoint just what fits your needs. At first I'd been considering a 2-bay solution, which is extremely low-power but would offer support for twice as many hard drives as my old HTPC. The more I read, though, the more enamored I became of a 4-bay solution, which would allow me to set up a RAID5 configuration. I'm really bad about backing up my data, and anything that provides some protection against catastrophe could only help me. Plus, it would give a lot more flexibility when the time came to upgrade my storage.

I decided that I would start small, with the minimum 3 drives required for RAID5. 2TB drives have recently fallen in price, and have worked out the initial glitches from their first appearance. 6TB of raw space would give me 4TB of redundant storage, which is more than enough to hold everything on my old (600GB) media PC, as well as the files that had been spilling over to my desktop as the HTPC reached its capacity. If I start switching over to 720p video, I expect that I'll start consuming space at a faster clip; even then, though, I have many terabytes to fill, and can painlessly go up to 6TB of redundant space by simply plugging in an extra drive.

I opted to go with some Samsung 2TB drives that are extremely well-reviewed on Newegg; they periodically have very nice sales, so I checked back every couple of days until they fell to an acceptable level. (I'd also set up an email price alert, but I have mixed experiences with these working on Newegg.) The drives were 5400RPM, and I briefly wondered whether I'd be better off opting for faster 7200RPM drives, but the reviews were high enough that I stuck with it. After I ordered them, I learned that this was actually most likely a better choice, as 5400RPM drives are currently preffered for NAS boxes. They draw less power, generate less heat, and are considered more reliable in general. Furthermore, while the speed boost of 7200RPM might be noticeable on a desktop computer, for the NAS you tend to be limited by the speed of your network, and so it didn't seem likely that the extra hard drive speed would be discernable to me anyways.

As for the box itself, while I was in my research phase Synology came out with the DS411j, which updates their older DS410j and is a sibling to their new DS411+. Each Synology product is intelligently named so that you can tell at a glance what it offers:
  • DS is short for "DiskStation", their product name.
  • The next digit shows how many hard drive bays the product has. Options include 1, 2, 4, 7, 10, and now 15. 1-4 are intended for home; 4-10 for small business; and 10-15 for enterprise.
  • The next two digits are the release year. Current ones include 09, 10, and 11.
  • Finally, a model that ends in a "+" is a higher-end model with a faster processor, more memory, etc. A "j" is a "junior" device that's cheaper, at the price of a bit less capability. Models without a final character are middle-of-the-road with a standard configuration.

The DS411+ was several hundred more than the DS411j, and after comparing the specs, I couldn't justify the extra price. My NAS would be serving many devices - a PS3, a Windows PC, and a MacBook - but only one user (me!), so it wouldn't ever be processing more than one thing at a time. Since network bandwidth tends to be the limiting factor for NAS boxes, the extra speed and memory of the DS411+ didn't seem likely to result in a discernable improvement in my user experience. And so, I kept the cash in my wallet, and opted for the "j".

Next up was price. Since the DS411j had just come out, many retailers were sold out by the time I decided to order one. Amazon had a price about $40 cheaper than the next-lowest price I could find online, plus free shipping (for this box, that's usually around $12), and no tax (which, in California, is a very big deal!). The downside: they were sold out, and didn't have an expected date for new shipments. I wasn't in a huge rush - this was early December, and I still didn't have my HDTV, plus I was limping along with the small amount of space left on my HTPC - and so I went ahead and placed my order.

I'm glad that I did, because Amazon raised the price again when the stock came in. Despite some mixed reviews, this seems to be a very popular box, and I can see why - it seems perfect for home users like me. It arrived just in time for our office to be closed before the Christmas holiday. After I returned, I grabbed it and my drives and got to work.

I think this NAS may be the least painful install I've ever had on a computer. Heck, it was simpler than a lot of the electronic stuff I was setting up for my home theater around the same time. You plug the drives into their bays, hook the box into the network, plug in the power cord, turn it on, then run a program off a CD from another computer. You select your disk configuration from a menu; I went for RAID5, but could just as easily have chosen JBOD (Just a Bunch Of Disks, a way of creating an extremely large virtual hard drive out of several smaller drives, but without any data protection) or SHR (Synology Hybrid Raid, Synology's custom RAID-like solution that allows you to mix different disk sizes and get some protection against drive failure) or a few other choices. It set about initializing my disks, which took a while; I'd been forewarned, though, so I started it off before I went to bed, and let it finish up an hour or two after I woke up the next day.

Many people have praised Synology's software, which they call DSM for DiskStation Manager. I will join in those praises. It's a simple, clean, elegant, fast, useful web interface. You log in through your browser from any other computer on your network (it's password-protected, so you don't need to worry about attackers), and then get a virtual desktop view of your box. Most of your work (such as it is) will occur through the Control Panel, which lists all of the optional services for the box and lets you control them.

By way of example, here's how I set up DLNA streaming:
  1. Select "Media Center"
  2. Click the checkbox to enable DLNA streaming
  3. Click OK

That's it!

The Synology automatically created a new Shared Folder labeled "Video". It showed up as a shared drive on my network, so I could open it from my Windows PC. I dragged-and-dropped video files in there. Then, I turned on my PS3. Poof! Every file displayed as something I could play. And I could. And I did. And it was good.

(In contrast, setting up SAMBA shares on my HTPC in 2004 was an hours-long ordeal, and getting the Firefly Media Server working properly took additional hours in more recent years. Here, it took less than a single minute to get set up.)

There's a bunch of stuff offered by the DSM that I'm already taking advantage of.
  • Media sharing, as noted above.
  • Music sharing. This sets up a Music folder and makes it available over Bonjour, so it shows up in all your iTunes clients connected to the network. I don't need to keep music on any of my computers any more, I can just stream it all.
  • Backup Center. I got Time Machine set up and running on my OS X MacBook, and in about five minutes I was doing my first-ever backup. Synology and Apple have both done great jobs on their respective products. The Windows backup program is unfortunately not nearly as good, but hopefully it will improve.
  • You can create random shared folders to hold whatever data you want.
  • You can create users, including both named and anonymous or guest users, and provide particular permissions to each. For example, some users might only be able to use the backup features, while others can do media stuff, and others can access all the shared folders.

There's a bunch of other stuff that I haven't taken advantage of, like a photo sharing program, mobile apps that let you access the box from the Internet, and a surveillance camera system. There are even kinda heavy-duty apps, like a basic web server, a BitTorrent and eMule client, and an FTP server.

I think that the Synology is one of the best examples I've seen yet of fulfilling the mantra "make the easy things easy and the hard things possible." Almost everything that you'd want to do with your box, you can do by opening the Control Panel and clicking a checkbox. However, behind the scenes, this is a Linux box. One of those checkboxes you can select is to enable terminal access over Telnet and/or SSH. Once you're in the box, you can install a toolchain, grab ipkg, and start messing around with third-party software. Of course, you shouldn't do this if you're primarily concerned about the stability of your machine, but still, I think it's awesome of Synology to (even tacitly) support this kind of creative energy from its very enthusiastic user base.

Lately I've been lurking, and periodically posting, on Synology's excellent community forum site. There's a section called "The Underground" where mad geniuses collude to bring awesome software to these actually-pretty-limited-and-yet-surprisingly-capable machines. While Synology doesn't officially sanction any of this, it seems like some of the things that people have been most passionate about modding (like the BitTorrent client) eventually make it into future editions of the DSM. This is, of course, awesome.

Anyways, I just wanted to share. I'm going to keep poking away at this thing, but what I love about the most is how little I need to think about it. It just sits there in my media cabinet, below my TV, quietly glowing, holding all my data and never complaining about anything. I can use more simplicity in my life, and it's a relief to have something that just works as advertised.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Things That Stink

Enough with posts about how much I like books! Let's talk about some things that aren't very good!

Clipper Direct

I love the idea of the Clipper Card, a contactless trans-agency public transit card. It finally solves the problem of navigating the extremely Balkanized public transit districts in the Bay Area. It also has a decent web site where you can buy passes and cash with your credit card, and set up Auto-Load to automatically replenish your card when it's running low.

I also love transit benefits. Some companies, mine included, offer subsidized payments for taking public transit. We used to get these as checks, which were a little annoying, and became extremely annoying once Caltrain laid off their ticket offices. It seemed dumb for them to send us paper checks that we'd need to trudge over to Walgreens when they could just load the funds on our cards.

Well, we switched over to Clipper Direct, and I'm starting to regret it - it's awful! My specific complaints include:
  • There doesn't seem to be any way to use your benefits as a partial payment on an order. I used to be able to pay for part of a monthly Caltrain pass with my commuter checks, and pay for the rest with my credit card. Now, if I want to buy a monthly pass, I need to put the whole amount on my credit card. That means that I can only use my commuter benefits for 8-ride tickets and cash.
  • On a related note, you need to use all of your benefits each month, they don't carry over. If they DID carry over, at least I'd be able to buy a monthly pass every other month or so.
  • There's no AutoLoad feature for Clipper Direct, which baffles and infuriates me. That means you need to regularly monitor your account to make sure  you hold sufficient funds.
  • You're not allowed to buy BART High Value tickets with Clipper Direct. Why not, you ask? Excellent question! Why not, Clipper?
  • The web site is confusing and contradictory. If you try to buy a recurring Caltrain monthly pass, it will say, "You will need to pay for this with your personal credit card." However, there's no option to pay with a personal credit card for the recurring pass.
  • On a related note, you're not allowed to place recurring orders for passes, just for cash. Good luck figuring this out from their (awful, awful) web site.
  • I've contacted them about some of my specific questions and problems (in much more polite language than I'm using here), and have never gotten a reply.

SONY Customer Service

I recently picked up a bunch of new electronic stuff, and have generally been very pleased with the quality. However, I've been disappointed at the opaque and unhelpful customer service any time that I've needed to contact SONY.

In the first part, I needed an upgrade to the software for a new receiver that I purchased. Fortunately, this is upgradeable at home, without requiring a trip to a service center or shipping it in. Unfortunately, it requires a connection over a digital optical cable to a CD player, which isn't part of my setup. Fortunately, they will send you a free upgrade kit that includes the special CD to play and a cable. Unfortunately, after you order this, they will cancel your order without any explanation or recourse. If you think this was a mistake, and re-order it, the order will just as mysteriously be canceled again several days later, again with no hint as to what was the problem.

I was also supposed to receive vouchers for some free PSN games in the box of something I ordered. It didn't have any vouchers. Nobody takes any responsibility for this, with the SONY customer reps pointing to PlayStation, and PlayStation pointing to the SONY reps. It's infuriating.

Hmmm.... I think that might be it, actually. I guess that isn't too bad.


Next up: things that seem like they should stink but may not as badly as I would have thought:

I'm cautiously hopeful about the state of Californian politics. I don't want to minimize the awful situation we're in; we've been living far beyond our means for years, and readjusting will be extremely painful. It's early yet, but I feel like Governor Brown is on the right track for restoring some sort of sanity.

Part of what's funny is that Brown's proposed solutions are close to those of Schwarzenegger's: extending several "temporary" taxes, cutting from the university system, cutting salaries of government employees, etc. However, these have a chance of actually passing with Brown's backing. He has the political capital and trust of important interest groups in California, and so he's in a position to cajole them to go along.

In contrast... well, I have mixed feelings about Arnold's tenure. I don't think he's quite as bad as his final approval rating of around 15%. He was pretty popular in the good years, and very unpopular in the bad years. He did some really good stuff during his tenure, notably his championing of AB32, the climate change bill, which he's clearly claiming now as his legacy.

Still, the main problem with Arnold was that he couldn't get the tough choices done. Due to our wacky budgeting process in California, any budget needs the support of the Democrats (who hold large majorities in both houses), as well as the Republicans (a small minority). Traditionally, Democratic governors have unified their parties behind them, and worked to bring over a few Republican votes by appealing to them (i.e., bribing) on a one-to-one basis. Republican governors can bring together their parties, and negotiate on their party's behalf with the majority Democrats; that will mean giving up on some issues and cutting deals, but they have the faith of their party that they got the best deal possible.

In contrast, the Republican party never really embraced Arnold. Because he was put in power through the special election and bypassed their primary process, most California Republicans continued to see him as a Democrat in sheep's clothing (to borrow a vivid image from Carly Fiorina). That means that instead of a two-way negotiation between parties, every year turned into a three-way negotiation between Democrats, Republicans, and Arnold. Even when Arnold and the Democrats came to an agreement on something, it didn't matter, because he couldn't deliver any Republican votes with him. And on the rare occasions when Democrats and Republicans came to an accord, Arnold often interjected himself, seeking to burnish his own political star by trashing the efforts of others.

That's what's most frustrating: Arnold loves being an executive, but even the governor is part of a legislative process, and it's absolutely impossible to accomplish important things on your own. He set a bad tone from the beginning, by denigrating members of the Legislature as "girly men" and railing against their ineffectualness. Governing this mad state is hard enough without unnecessarily creating enemies.

Now that we're in the Brown Years (2.0), our problems haven't gotten any better, but the solutions may be in our reach. Labor interests (especially teachers and nurses) will trust Brown to make difficult choices. If he proposes cuts to their programs... well, that's because there aren't better choices available to him, not because he wants to strike out at his political enemies.

Anyways, that's my hope! I tend to be optimistic these days, perhaps undeservedly so. Still, it does feel like we may get some grown-up treatment from our government leaders. It's now up to us voters to prove that we can be mature enough to make the necessary difficult political and financial choices that are headed our way.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Formula 51

Random finance notes:

While I was in home-hunting mode, I stopped investing in my long-term stock funds. I wanted to hold on to as much cash as I could for maximum flexibility, plus I knew that being cash-heavy would make me more attractive to lenders.

(Note: "Cash" here means "Funds that I kept in an online savings account where it could be readily accessed." I didn't keep my down payment in 20 dollar bills.)

That proved to be a pretty good move, and because I ended up buying a condo for quite a bit less than my maximum, plus I'd been hoarding my savings, I wound up with a bit of a kitty to put back into the market. I decided this would be a great time to revisit my personal financial plan.

I'm lucky enough to be able to max out my tax-advantaged savings. I put the most that I can into my 401(k), and am doing some slightly slippery stuff this year to contribute to a Roth RIA. My 401(k) has good, not great, investment choices. There's a selection of about 20 funds. For general stock exposure, the best choice I have is a Vanguard S&P 500 index fund. I'd be much happier with a total stock market index that would give me more exposure to mid-cap and small-cap companies, but compared to the alternatives, I like this index fund. I put 80% towards that. 20% goes towards an international stock fund - not indexed, sadly, but with relatively low costs.

Since I have much more control over the Roth, I can pick the exact fund I want, which, oddly, is much simpler than the 401(k) - here I'm dumping everything into one of Vanguard's excellent Target Retirement funds, which holds an automatically-readjusting pool of stock and bond index funds.

So, since I have a little extra money to invest, I've been trying to think through what to do with it. Back before I suspended payments to save for the condo, I was dumping everything into a Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund. I love this fund - it gives full exposure to the entire US economy, has a super-low overhead, and negligible distributions for capital gains. Still, while it is diversified across companies, it still is hardly a diversified portfolio.

Relying mainly on the excellent advice I've gotten from Jane Bryant Quinn and other "less is more" gurus, I decided on the following ideal breakdown:
60% to the Total Stock Market
20% to the Total International Stock Index
20% to "bond funds" (more on this later)

(Side note: all of this is above and beyond my standing short-term emergency fund, which remains mainly at Ally Bank's online savings account, with a bit in my regular checking account.)

A good rule of thumb that I keep hearing is that the ideal amount of your portfolio to have in stocks is to take 110 and subtract your current age; the remainder is the percentage to hold with stocks. I hear conflicting advice about the amount to hold in international holdings. Traditionally the advice has been to keep about 20% there; international is good because it often moves differently from the US stock market and so provides balance and diversification, but it's also more sensitive to currency fluctuations, and foreign markets often are not as well-regulated and investor-friendly as the US stock market (and that's pretty frightening!). However, it seems clear that the next century will see a waning of US hegemony, and most growth will come from developing nations. 30% is now a much more common target, and I've seen people suggest as high as 50%. I decided, as a compromise of sorts, to stick to 20% of my TOTAL (not just stock) allocation into international; this works out to 25% of my stock section of my portfolio, a nice compromise between 20% and 30%.

I've been avoiding bonds for my whole life, and I still can't make myself buy them. I totally understand the safety that they bring to a portfolio, but I'm pretty terrified by the bond market right now... rates are as low as they can physically go, so there's no direction for them to move but up. Once they DO rise, then the value of all bonds sold now and for the last three years will plummet; and, if you hold them to maturity, you'll be missing out on much better rates. When Warren Buffet warns of a bond bubble, I pay attention.

Still, I don't know when bond prices will rise, and I don't want to keep all that cash sitting in my savings account. So, for now, I'm investing that 20% of my portfolio into online CDs. From an investor's perspective, CDs are exactly the same as corporate bonds, except that they're FDIC insured. The premium for bonds is so low now that it just doesn't seem worth giving up that extra insurance. I'm currently investing in CDs with a variety of maturities (1 year and 2 years). As those mature, I'll check and see whether the bond market has become any more normal. Once it does, I'll re-invest in bonds. Until then, I'll stick to CDs, thankyouverymuch.

So, that's all well and good, so far as a plan goes. How about execution? I was nervous of dumping my nest egg in all at once - with the markets as rocky as they've been, it would have felt really bad if they took a plunge the day after I bought in. Instead, I calculated how much I wanted to invest in each bucket to get to my desired 60-20-20 allocation, and then split that into thirds, with equal amounts going in on the middle of October, November, and December. As it turned out, the markets were relatively steady during this period, but it was great for my peace of mind.

Now, heading into the new year, I had another question to answer: how should I allocate my contributions going forward? It would be simple to just allocate each contribution up 60-20-20, but that wasn't nearly nerdy enough for me. After all, my goal isn't to INVEST 20% in international stocks, it's to HOLD 20% of my taxable investments in international stocks. Rather than rebalance every year or so, I'd rather my investments go to where they need to go in order to keep my overall allocation on track. When the US stock market goes on sale (or, as the pundits would call it, 'the market dives'), I want to buy more of it; when the market climbs, and that portion starts to swell past the 60% goal, I want to put my money elsewhere to help the other areas catch up.

Fortunately, this is just math. All I needed was data and a formula.

For data, I finally took the plunge and signed up with I'd been vaguely thinking of it for a while, but had put it off. Mint mainly advertises itself as a budgeting service, and I actually feel pretty good about my budgeting (or lack thereof). But, one day when I was trying to get a handle on my overall finances, I realized that I had logged on to three separate bank accounts and my Vanguard account, remembering the different passwords for each one, then switching between tabs, copy-and-pasting balances out, and punching them into the calculator. "That's dumb," I thought. "There's a site that does all this for me." So I signed up with Mint, and now life's much easier!

Mint can do a LOT, like send out warnings when bills are due, help with saving for particular goals, etc., but I mostly just use it as a dashboard to keep track of all my accounts at once. It groups accounts into separate categories: cash in one, investment accounts in another, and property (like real estate) in another. You can check each account's line item to see how much you hold there; for some, like brokerage accounts, you can drill down to check the value of each holding. What used to be a 10-minute trek now takes just about a minute.

With ready access to easy data, I brushed off another oldie: the Excel spreadsheet formula. I don't think I've done anything with Excel formulas since my high school physics class. Now that we're in the third millennium, I opted for a Google Docs spreadsheet instead, and was pleased to notice that I could do my equations with standard C-style math operators instead of the weird, terse Excel macro commands. I entered one column for my available funds (the sum of what's in my checking and savings accounts); one for the amount currently invested in the total stock market, another for amount currently invested in total international stock market; another for amount currently in "bonds" (i.e., CDs). I have a column with a fixed amount for what I plan to keep in short-term "emergency" savings - a largeish chunk for now as a buffer against unexpected expenses, with plans to lower to a smaller level after I pay this year's taxes.

To the right come my calculations. These turn out to be relatively simple. I figure out my total investable amount by summing every column and subtracting the emergency savings. From this, I multiply by the desired percentage for a given account, and subtract the amount currently in there. The result: by punching in the numbers from, I can immediately see exactly how much I should invest in each of my accounts in order to stay on my desired allocated track.

There are a few quirks. First of all, it's totally possible for a column to return a negative number. This can happen if an allocation gets seriously out of whack: basically, if one of the stock market indices shoots way up, then in order to bring it back into compliance, I'd actually need to sell shares and re-buy into others. If I was hard-core about rebalancing then I'd do this; instead, I'll just not contribute anything to that account in this cycle, and instead pay proportionally among the remaining fund(s).

For the next stage in this project, I'm playing around with the Form feature offered by Google. It's a very simple way to build a basic web form where the user can fill in a few fields, hit "Submit", and have their data show up in your spreadsheet. It looks good, but I still need to figure out how to properly apply the formulas to the newly submitted rows.

So, that's where that's at. I'm feeling pretty happy about the whole thing, and it's good to be moving back on track as far as long-term investing goes.

Incidentally: if I was super-serious about this whole thing, then I'd be taking my retirement accounts into consideration, and actually paying more attention about where I hold my funds. Since my stocks are all broad-based mutual index funds, they produce negligible taxable gains while I hold them; on the other hand, my CDs (and soon-to-be-bonds) generate regular income, which is taxed normally. It's a little backwards that I'm holding all of my CDs in my taxable accounts, and only keeping stock funds in my 401(k). That said, I do like the flexibility of having a variety of funds in my regular investment accounts; I don't plan to need this money any time soon, but if I do, it'll be good to have choices between my various accounts when making withdrawals, so I can protect the stocks if the market is down or harvest those gains if the market is up. In contrast, I love the set-it-and-forget-it nature of my Target Retirement fund, which I don't plan to ever touch prior to retirement.

Oh, and of course, standard disclaimers apply. I'm writing about this because I'm interested in it and thought I'd share my thought process and plans, but this is what works for me, not what will work for you. As my heroes at Marketplace Money say, "Talk with your own money person before making any big money decisions."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Pictures That Burrow

A quickie review of a quickie book:

Like a lot of people, I primarily know Dave McKean through his association with Neil Gaiman. McKean drew the cover for every single issue of Sandman, and while the artists within the pages rotated frequently, McKean's steady influence at the front helped define the character of these series: dreamlike, surreal, disturbing, apprehensive. More recently, I was surprised to see his art in Violent Cases, where I could see a wider range of his artistry at work.

I finally picked up his book "Pictures that Tick," which collects a wide variety of his... work... from a long period extending both before and after the seminal run of Sandman. It's almost impossible to categorize just what this is. It's too high-brow for a comic book; it's too narrative for an art book; it's too lyrical for short stories. I guess that ""illustrated poems" is the closest I can get to describing it, although that doesn't begin to do justice to the feel of it. The book is thoroughly adult, and displays the same sense of unease that I associate with his Sandman work.

Of course, he has many modes to work in. Some of the tales are very spare and elegant. Often they'll focus on a single image or idea, and he'll circle around it for a while with his beautiful collages, drawing out what he can from it while an essentially unknowable core remains at the center. Some of the pieces are very short and funny. Some will haunt you, particularly one tale about a young girl who grows up pierced by a tree. Others have a dreamlike wonder to them; I'm particularly fond of a piece about a woman who goes exploring with a found map and a bag of marbles.

I think I would have gotten more out of this if I had a better grounding in poetry. As it is, I tend to read things too literally, and I don't think I properly appreciate the rhythm of poems. Still, the imagery McKean works with here is astonishing, and the art alone makes the book well worth grabbing. His haunting words only add to their impact.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Le compositeur est mort! Vive le compositeur!

The Unusually Active January continues with The Composer Is Dead, another awesome play from the Berkeley Rep.

This is now the third performance that I've seen there, and the second on the Roda Stage. All have been terrific. after the quake was a haunting, elegiac, and yet hilarious transformation of my favorite living author's stories onto the stage. The Lieutenant of Inishmore was one of the most disturbing and macabre things I've seen... but also surprisingly funny. I think it's safe to say that residents of the Bay Area have great senses of humor, and we're willing to laugh in situations that many others would find unsettling.

"Funny" and "unsettling" are probably the two best words to describe Lemony Snicket, who wrote the original book The Composer Is Dead and oversaw the adaptation to the stage. I've been calling it a play, but that only begins to describe it. Even the original story was a trans-media work; the story shipped with a CD of music performed by the San Francisco Symphony.

Snicket (aka Daniel Handler) is a great lover of classical music, and TCID was written in part to help create a new generation of music appreciators. The theatrical version as originally written took only about 30 minutes to perform, and so they went to work at... I don't want to say "padding it out," but... let's say "extending" the book into a scope that would merit an actual show.

And so, as the Charming Host says at the beginning of the performance, we get to experience "the wonder and magic of living, breathing theater, where ANYTHING can go wrong!" The host struts around the stage, telling corny jokes with great aplomb, and giving special attention to the children, "because they're so very young." He proceeds to give the worst-ever ventriloquist act with a sock puppet, then hurls the puppet against the podium, announcing that it has a speech impediment. But, not to worry, because today we'll get to meet the world's greatest living composer, live on the stage. In order to properly explore the characteristics of living, breathing theater, he shows us a movie, wherein the dramaturge will explain how theater works. "In this context," the (live) host explains, "'Dramaturge' means a person who explains the history of a play, hopefully without being too boring.

Within the movie, a puppet introduces himself as the dramaturge. The puppet says that it will explain the purpose of the theater, using a slide show. The slide show contains slides of the dramaturge, his older brother (who, he sneeringly says, "claims to be a 'major historian'"), and his mother. The (live) host comes back out, and starts chastising the dramaturge for distracting the audience (us).

So, just to make it clear: the host is arguing with deeply nested layers of artifice: a recorded movie (1), starring a puppet (2), showing a slide show (3), that contains other puppets (4). Aw, yeah! Now we're getting somewhere!

Even though The Composer is Dead is ostensibly a children's play, it's hands-down the most avant-garde example of one that I've ever seen. Much of the first half of the play consists of the (live) host carrying on elaborately detailed arguments and fights with the (recorded) puppets. It follows some of the style of a good children's book: fairly repetitive language that grows more amusing through its repetition. Almost every puppet he meets prompts him to say something like, "The audience came here to see someone with an artistic temperment, not throwing a tantrum!", to which the puppet will reply, "An artistic temperment and a tantrum are the same thing!" "No, they're not!" "Yes, they are!" "Nuh-uh!" "Yuh-huh!" It's also a very clever exploration of just how the theater works: in addition to the dramaturge, the host meets with the stage manager, director, actor, understudy, lighting director, stagehand, and so on. Each is introduced with the same construction, like "'Understudy,' in this context, means someone who is just as good as the actor, but who only gets to perform if something terribly bad happens." We learn more and more about how demented everyone in the theater is, and just when it seems like things can't get worse, we discover that the world's greatest living composer is dead. The host runs away screaming, and the inspector arrives to investigate the crime.

While the first half of the play happens entirely through the movie (with the live interaction of the host), the second half unfolds completely on the stage, with one human actor playing the inspector, and dozens of puppets. (The puppets were performed by Phantom Limb, a San Francisco-based outfit who did amazing work here. I do not believe that they are affiliated with the notorious Guild of Calamitous Intent.) The inspector questions everyone in the orchestra - and, in the process, the audience learns what an orchestra is, who makes it up, and what everyone does.

However, this is all done through Lemony Snicket's twisted view. Some of my favorite lines included:
"The first violins are the best violinists in the orchestra. The second violins are more fun at parties."
"We oboes couldn't have murdered the composer! Everyone in the orchestra trusts us!"
"'Composer' is a word which here means 'a person who sits in a room, muttering and humming and figuring out what notes the orchestra is going to play.' This is called composing. But last night, the Composer was not muttering. He was not humming. He was not moving, or even breathing.  This is called DEcomposing."

 Besides the orchestra (which sits, appropriately, in the orchestra pit), they had a gorgeous backstage that transformed throughout the second half of the play with a variety of sets and still more puppets.  These were more simple but also effective and amusing; bees flew down from the top, and rotating cutouts on runners rolled out to spin around in waltzes or to march in a parade. (My favorite non-sequitor was a bear who kept popping up during the patriotic sequences.) During his questioning of the brass section, a white curtain fell, and a shadow play continued the story of a wild night of drinking and dancing.


In the end, the inspector finishes questioning everyone and concludes that none of the instruments in the orchestra could have done it. Then, in a flash, he realizes that it must have been the conductor. In the line that got the biggest laugh of the night, he said, "After all, conductors have been murdering composers for YEARS!" He elaborated that wherever you find a live conductor, you'll find a dead composer, and listed off the names of dozens of greats while their tombstones popped up from the stage floor. The orchestra explains that, while the conductor may have killed the composer, they also keep him alive by playing his music.


Did I mention that the music is really good? Well, it is. The theme that plays for the dead composer was my favorite, but all of it is well-done. There's a cool rock-inflected bit that opens the second half and shows the inspector driving to the theater. As he interrogates the orchestra, it rotates through a variety of classical pieces, each one highlighting the instrument under questioning.

Anyways, this was another clear win for the Berkeley Rep, and I'm now three-for-three there. As a bonus, I got to spend a few hours before the show wandering around the Berkeley campus, including the trails leading up to the Lawrence Lab. Hiking and culture, what a great combination!

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Gnome

In the first of a trifecta of Fun January Outings, I had the pleasure of attending an interview with Patton Oswalt at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. Thanks, Pat!

The interview was part of the City Arts and Lecture series, which I haven't previously attended in person, but which I almost always catch on KQED radio. I love these - they're invariably insightful, generally amusing, and either bring up interesting people or provide rare fresh glimpses into familiar figures. The broadcasts are always edited down into hour-long segments, so in addition to the thrill of Oswalt I was curious to see how the live event compared.

First off, Herbst Theater itself is great. It's in a kind of sketchy area of town, but once you get inside, the building is pretty impressive.... smaller-scale than great theaters, but with an understated elegance that's really pleasant. I arrived about half an hour early, and so had plenty of time to buy a copy of Patton's new book, "Zombie Spaceship Wasteland." Would there be an author signing? Why, yes, there would! Hurray! I haven't been to one of those in, gosh.... since Terry Pratchett came through Kepler's or Chris Kimball came to Books, Inc., I guess.

The event was the final entry in a series to benefit 826 Valencia, a great local non-profit. It looked like most of the crowd was there to see Oswalt. It was mainly people around my age, but plenty of folks my parents' ages as well. There was a lot of chatter and a good vibe in the lead-up to the event proper.

The interviewer was Andrew Leland, the editor of The Believer magazine, which I am vaguely aware of but have not read. He introduced Oswalt while acknowledging that we all knew who he was, paying special attention to his recent major film roles. Oswalt came on stage, and they went to it.

The early stages felt a little rough... still enjoyable, but Andrew would typically start asking a question, Patton would start answering, then Andrew would try to interject another point or clarification, and they'd muddle through it. Patton was game for answering "serious" questions (very early on, Andrew did actually say, "But, no, seriously..."), but in general he seemed to enjoy getting on a riff and doing something funny with it. We loved him for this, of course. After a while he and Andrew fell into more of a rhythm, where he would get a full question from Andrew, spent several minutes doing whatever he wanted to with it, then he'd take a sip of water and give a barely perceptible nod to Andrew.

Early on, Andrew said that he'd detected a common thread among the various roles that Patton had played. "You mean, someone offered me a part?" Patton replied. "Yep, that's it! The common element that ties everything together. Either I auditioned for a role, or someone offered me a role, along with money, and I said 'Yes!'"  Andrew eventually clarified that, in King of Queens, Ratatouille, and Big Fan, Patton has played obsessives: characters who are completely enthralled by a topic, whether it's comics, food, or the New York Jets. Patton whole-heartedly agreed. He's been obsessed by a lot of things ever since his youth, and continues those obsessions forward today; and, having that kind of experience with his particular topics of fascination, he can understand what it feels like to have a similar level of dedication to other areas.

The interview ranged all over, but a lot of it was at least loosely related to Oswalt's new book. Here are a few fairly random remembrances:

Early on, Oswalt talked a fair amount about imagination. He credits some of his inventiveness to growing up in the suburbs, with limited access to artistic resources. He would collect comic books, but wouldn't be able to find all the issues, so he'd have to imagine what happened in the story, to fill in the gaps in a satisfying way. Andrew asked him how that related to his experiences working in a [very bad] movie theater, whether he felt inspired to "fix" the [very bad] movies he saw there. Oswalt said "no" - at that stage in his life, he could fill in the gaps for incomplete works, but a movie was a fully-realized thing... he could dislike it, as he did, but didn't feel like he had the capacity to, say, rewrite the script or provide alternate direction.

He also talked a lot about comedy tours, and the state of comedy in general when he was starting out, from the late 80's through the mid 90's. These were some of the most hilarious moments of the evening, reminiscing about the truly horrible venues he'd played at.  One place was called "Sir Laffs a Lot". It was a comedy venue in a hotel. Basically, they would drag in exercise mats to block off the area underneath a grant staircase from view. They would set up folding chairs inside for the audience, erect a portable bar, bring in a Radio Shack microphone, then shine a desk lamp at the comedian. That was it. When the show was over, they would take the mats down, cart everything away, and poof! Like that, the comedy club was GONE. Oswalt said something like, "I realized that I had been performing under somebody else's stairs, like a comedy goblin."

He remembered one time that he was doing a show, and a table full of loud, drunk, obnoxious women was right in front of the stage. He decided that he'd just ignore them and do his show. Things were going well, until at one point one of them shouted at him, "You aren't even listening to us!" "And," Patton said, "She was right! I didn't know what to say to that." In a more philosophical sense, Patton strongly believes that when an audience comes to see a show, their focus is all on the comedian. And the comedian's focus is... all on the comedian. Nobody should be paying any attention to the audience. If the comedian isn't having fun, if he or she isn't loving what they're doing, then the show will suck and nobody will enjoy it. So, Patton doesn't worry about, say, whether he's being "too literate" for the audience, or if they'll "get" a pop-culture reference, or whatever. His job is to be funny, and that humor can only come out of exploring stuff that he finds amusing.

Andrew asked how Patton writes his jokes. He replied that he can't write his bits. He's tried, and he knows that lots of other comedians can, but he's incapable of writing off the stage. EVERYTHING that goes into his act comes from him being on stage. He'll come up there with some ideas about what he wants to talk about, and over the course of many shows he'll gradually arrive at the right mode of expressing what he wants to, but it's an organic process that comes out of the presentation. Patton says that the down side of this is that the first few audiences to encounter a new bit generally get screwed over. "Like, a few years ago, I would say, 'Ummmm.... you know what's really, really awful? KFC. It's like.... really gross. And stuff...  Sorry, I'm still working on that bit.'"

Andrew asked Patton if he'd read something from his book. Paton gave a stage laugh. "Oh... I don't think these people came here to listen to me read.... DID YOU?!?!" People started clapping and cheering. Patton's gaze shifted to one of mock horror, and he shook his head sternly while glaring at us. Finally he opened the book and started to read, quickly stopping in a fit of giggles. "I'm so bad at this!" he said. "I've never been on a book tour before, I have no idea what he hell I'm supposed to do. I'm just spinning on this chair like a mad gnome, dispensing gnomish words to you all." He picked it back up and began reading again. The excerpt describes his FIRST experience writing - ZSW is his first published book, but back in high school, he wrote two "novels." They were both inspired by The Road Warrior, and fit into the "wasteland" category of the Zombie/Spaceship/Wasteland characterization. I don't want to spoil it here, you should read the actual book, but it's awesome. In one of his stories, the main character spends the first 80 pages equipping himself; the book ends after he gets the really cool gun, because Patton couldn't think of anywhere to go after that.

Patton thinks that the Internet is great for comedy. Everyone alive now has a chance to see everything that's been done before; at any time, you can watch SCTV, or SNL, or Monty Python, or Kids in the Hall. That's inspiring people to be even greater, to build on and exceed the best of what's come before. In the next generation, though, he expects that there will be a reaction against the omnipresence of the Internet. The big thing will be getting offline: building mystique by staying offline. He's waiting for the first person who will put one of those cell-phone-signal-blockers in their performance room, blocking anyone from being able to document the event. (Sadly, of course, people could just record it and then re-broadcast once they regained signal. Still, it's an interesting thought.) Honestly, I wasn't totally sure whether this was really a "serious" prediction from Patton, or if it's, um, a new bit he's working on.

Patton didn't name-drop a whole lot, but the one comedian who he repeatedly invoked, always in very warm terms, was Louis C. K. For example, at one point he (Patton) was talking about how his comedy has evolved. When he was starting out, he was fairly young, and inexperienced, and didn't totally understand how the world worked (which, itself, is manifested by the "zombie spaceship wasteland" theory that he posits in his book - fascinating stuff!). Because of that insecurity, his early jokes were focused outward on the problems of the world. "Oh, look at that dumb thing! Boy, I sure am smart to see the problem with that!" Now, though, his comedy is almost all about himself: specifically, the dumb things he thinks, the dumb things he does, etc. Andrew had asked whether Patton was worried about bringing his family into his routine; whether he thought about how his daughter would react to jokes about her once she grew up. Patton said that he doesn't worry about that too much, because his humor is always against himself. His jokes aren't, "Boy, my daughter is really stupid!", they're, "Wow, I did something incredibly foolish to my daughter." Anyways, he said that Louis C. K. is another comedian who works in this kind of mode, which is why he likes Louis so much.

As Andrew wrapped up the interview portion of the evening, he closed with a question that went SOMETHING LIKE the following. "I'm not a... I used to read comics, but I haven't for years, and you have. I keep hearing that there are really good comics now. The 'hero' comics. What do you think makes them so awesome?" Patton cracked up. "That has to be the worst question ever. 'So... comics. Sup?'" He did give a really, really great response, though. He specifically called out who I've come to think of as the three masters of the renaissance: Gaiman, Miller, and Moore. (Through sheer coincidence, that's the same order in which I encountered them, although it isn't the order they wrote.) He says that what they did in the 80's is basically what Mel Brooks did in his early films. Mel Brooks had some topics that he absolutely adored - Broadway musicals, Western movies, and the movie Frankenstein. He'd gone so far as to buy the props for the Frankenstein movie and was keeping them in his garage. When people would ask Brooks why he held on to them, he said, "I don't know! I just have to have them!" Mel's love of these topics led him to ask questions and perhaps be more critical. "Frankenstein is awesome, but isn't it weird how...." or "Broadway is great, but it's kind of silly that..." These things didn't diminish his love of the subject; rather, they came out of his love, and when he then had the opportunity to create his own works, he incorporated a higher level of appreciation that included comedic criticism into his approach. That, Patton (convincingly) argues, is what made the first wave of the new comics rennaissance so exciting. These were people who great up with Superman and Batman and all the rest, who loved the medium and all that it could do, and through their love could see the flaws in the genre, and when they started creating their own comics, it raised everything above. We're now seeing the second generation of artists following in their footsteps, and the upwards trend continues.

At the end of every City Arts program, there's a set ritual they follow; even though I've never been to one before, I know it by heart from the radio. They bring up the house lights, send out roving microphone-bearers to interested parties, and direct the interviewee's attention to each person in sequence. Either Patton hadn't heard this before (and, really, why would he?), or he'd just decided to have some fun with it, because he kept giving better and better reactions each time someone said, "The next question comes from the left of the orchestra" or "The next question comes from the center of the balcony." He'd respond with, "Wow, that's some Spider-Man s*** going on there!" or "I feel like you're giving instructions to a sniper. 'In case this next guy tries to rush the stage.... he's at the right center of the orchestra!'"

The questions he got were really good. Here are my recollections of a few and the responses:

"I'm from Madison, Wisconsin, and I thought you totally nailed how those Midwestern cities are. You grew up on the East Coast, so how did you get to figure out what these places were like? Did you just pick it up from your tours?"

Yes. Patton loves places like Madison and Athens, oases of culture and awesomeness within a sea of mediocre, blah surroundings. He had a great time in Madison one Feburary when he was touring with a group of other comedians. They had to do shows in Sheboygan and a bunch of other places, but they got to spend a few days in Madison. Patton remembers sitting in a cafe on an unseasonably warm February day, talking with one of the other comics about how great it was to be in a town with great coffee and good bars and lots of books. Then, a group of wrestlers in town for the high school national championships walked by and yelled "Faggots!" at them. So... Madison is awesome, expect when the wrestling champsionships are happening.

"What happened with your Broadway show?"
[This was totally news to me, so I didn't understand any of the names in the reply - sorry!]
They were in previews, but someone (the director?) quit, so they had to shut down the show. Apparently, this happens a lot on Broadway - every year dozens of shows start previews on Broadway, and many of them close before they ever open.

"Can you compare and/or contrast what it was like working with two of our greatest filmmakers, P T Anderson and Steven Soderbergh?"
Patton really enjoyed answering this one. He loves them both, but they're very different. Anderson is very much an auteur. He has this complete vision in his head about what the movie will look like, and nobody but him can see the whole thing. When you're working with him, you can see him editing the film in his mind while they're shooting. Patton remembers standing in a custom-made wetsuit, when it was scorching hot outside, as the crew poured bottle after bottle of Aqua Fina over him... he was so hot that he was sweating profusely, and then he was so incredibly hot that he stopped sweating. He asked Anderson what he was doing there, and Anderson said, "You're the first frog to fall from the sky." And so he was.
Soderbergh, on the other hand, seems to want to make as many movies as he can, as quickly as he can. He's like a modern-day incarnation of the great Old Hollywood directors. He'll show up, point out where everyone needs to go, take the shot, ask the DP if it looks OK, maybe take it once more if necessary, and then move on to the next shot. He's a craftsman, who turns out great work with minimal fuss. Soderbergh wants to release several good movies every year; P T Anderson wants to make an AMAZING film every two decades.

"I need to challenge something you said earlier. You claimed that the performer needs to just focus on themself, not on the audience. However, you also said that you refine your act over multiple nights, so doesn't that mean that you ARE focusing on the audience?"
No. It's absolutely essential for the comedian to pay attention to their internal voice telling them what's funny; trying to chase after the audience's whims will destroy everything. "I understand what you're saying, man, but... you're f***ing wrong."

"Two questions. First of all, I moved to California from the East Coast, and I totally get what you say about that experience. To me, it feels like the West Coast is way more laid-back, but also really anal about it. So, how do you explain that difference in cultures? And my second, totally unrelated, question is, when will we finally get to see 'Rape Stove: The Stove that Rapes People'?"
Big laugh. "Well... we started previews, but the director quit, so we had to shut it down." Bigger laughs. "It was artistic differences. I wanted the rape stove to swing down from the top, others wanted it to swing open from the side, and we couldn't resolve it."
He totally gets the east-to-west thing. When you first get here, everything seems wonderful. Everything's more relaxed, people are having fun, and you can just do drugs, hang out, and have a blast. The problem is, that isn't the real world. That's true of Berkeley, and also of those other cool little oases around the country. You can wear your jester cap while riding a unicycle down to the park, but it doesn't really mean anything. People eventually feel like they need to grow up. So... yeah. He can't articulate it yet, but there's definitely a huge difference there.

"Years ago you described a comedian named Dr. Pepper who performed at an open mike in Toronto. Has anyone ever stepped forward to claim the title?"
No! To this day, nobody knows who Dr. Pepper is. It totally happened, but it seems like he's vanished.

And with that, we gave Patton a HUGE round of applause and filed out. I grabbed a relatively early spot in line, and soon was happily departing with my personalized book. As usual, I failed to think of anything interesting to say to him... I should start studying for book-signings ahead of time, so I can present something better than, "Thank you for coming, I really enjoy your work!" He was super-nice, and we (very) briefly chatted about R.E.M., which (as I learned while frantically reading the first chapter of ZSW prior to the event) was a formative influence on his teenage years. Oh, yeah: right after writing about the horrible movie theater, he synthesizes Philip K. Dick with "Fables of the Reconstruction" (AND manages to show off both his depth of knowledge of R.E.M. and his innate niceness with a pithy footnote that simultaneously acknowledges and dismisses the album's alternate title).

Obviously, I had a blast. I'll try to post a notice (here or on Facebook or something) when I hear word that the interview is ready for broadcast. Sadly, City Arts does not post past programs online for later listening, but it will totally be worth your time to make the time to listen to the live broadcast... Patton was funny and insightful, and did his own part to advance the state of the art of this lecture series.