Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Some more music videos

Thought I'd share some more favorite music/videos for a number of reasons. One, I've been thinking about the group Delta Spirit. I like them a lot and they recently released a new album. I was hoping to make it to their concert tomorrow night but alas, life got in the way yet again. They did a takeaway show for La Blogotheque with several songs but these two are my favorites:

Wouldn't you take public transportation more if there were live musical performances? I would. That would be awesome.

Here's a song off of the new album. The new album is different from previous ones. I like it even though it is very different from their first two albums. Far more modern sounding and not as dominated by Matt Vasquez's voice. That being said, it sort of sounds like lots of other groups. Maybe it's not so awful I'm not making the concert.

Then I came across this outstanding cover of Hall and Oates' I Can't Go For That by Nikki Bluhm and the Gramblers:

That got me thinking about "live" videos which I can't think of without thinking of Airborne Toxic Event and their eight week acoustic series.  And since I was already thinking of van performances, why not another fine one?

Lastly I'll go old school with my favorite MTV Unplugged song. A Letter for Elise by the Cure. Love the toy piano.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Baseball Book Club #2 - Checking In

I haven't felt like doing much in the way of blogging as of late. But I wanted to see where everyone stood with Satch, Dizzy, and Rapid Robert. I have a couple chapters left to go. How about you?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

At the beginning of the year I came across an online quiz on Russian literature and I fared pretty well with it which made me rather pleased with myself. Although I read a good deal of Russian literature in my younger days, I've not read as much in the last decade or so. I decided I needed to remedy that.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky has been on my to-read list. Unlike the big name Russian guys (Tolstoy, Chekov, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Gogol, etc.) and even some of the not as recognized fellows (Turgenev, Lermontov, etc.), Krzhizhanovsky is probably off of the radar of most folks with good reason. Not because he's terrible (because he's awesome) but because his writings were buried in archives for over half a century.

Krzhizhanovsky's writings were cutting edge for his era (1920's) and were very critical of the social and political state of Russia. It isn't that his writings were censored by the government or anything, they just weren't considered publishable at the time, as much avant garde works of art aren't appreciated by the folks in the era they are created.

Memories of the Future is a collection of six short stories and a novella, the latter for which the book is named. The stories are really interesting and unusual. Quadraturin is about a magic potion that increases the size of space, particularly important because living space is allotted by the government and is less than a hundred square feet per person. Someone Else's Theme involved a seller of philosophical systems. The title story involves a man who is trying to build a time machine but is continually stymied by the effects of time. The Branch Line takes a man who boards the wrong train and is transported into a nightmarish world.

The stories were great. Complex despite being short. There was a slight darkness to all of them but there was a good amount of wit in the stories, too. Having a bit of understanding of Russia in that time might be helpful to appreciating the stories, but I don't think is necessary. This is my favorite book of 2012, at least until my next review when this drops to the second spot.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

My (triumphant?) return to fantasy baseball

I hate fantasy and Rotisserie baseball. Really. I think it's a waste of time and a total pain in the ass to follow. Worse, you get people who want to tell you all about their fantasy team like it matters.

Let me tell you about my fantasy team.

First, some background. The very first fantasy league I played in was a football league I started back in 1982 or 1983. I was in sixth grade. I don't know how I first heard about fantasy football but I got some friends involved and I ran leagues until I was a freshman in college. I never played in a baseball league but I ended up doing writing for an early Rotisserie baseball guru, John Benson, which set me down the path of writing about baseball.

I wrote about fantasy baseball throughout college and into early adulthood but got tired of it, mostly because I was getting pigeonholed as a fantasy writer and I wanted to write about more serious baseball stuff. I swore off the fantasy stuff altogether until 1999 when I was asked to write some previews for ESPN (thanks to my connections with Diamond Mind Baseball). That's been about it since then (I drafted for my friend Jason one year for his baseball league and I've played in two NBA leagues (last time in 2004) for some really stupid reason that I can't recall).

My sole experience as a fantasy baseball player came in 1992. The statistics were done by hand and mailed out to the players each week. That's how long ago it was. I finished third and took the Paul Molitor Injuries Award since pretty much everyone on my team spent time on the disabled list (everyone received an award of some sort which was fun). We did a live auction and one of the guys, Butch, and myself had team jerseys made up. I enjoyed the auction immensely as I let the first hour and a half pass and watched as everyone overpaid stars. One of the other owners got a little upset at me after I let yet another player go, yelling, "WHO IS LEFT? WHO IS THERE THAT YOU'RE SAVING YOUR MONEY FOR!?!?!?!?!" It was fun.

So now I'm back in a league again after 20 years. One of the guys at the Hall of Fame kept pressing me to join so, even though I'm not keen about it in the least, I'm playing fantasy baseball again.

We had our draft this afternoon and I picked 2nd (out of 14 teams). My team, Amish Clown Drop (a nod to my Lancaster County neighbors as well as an anagram of World Champions), took Detroit Tigers first baseman (and soon to be third baseman), Miguel Cabrera.

With 14 teams and it being a snake draft where the draft order is reversed in even rounds, it made for a long time between picks. I'm pretty happy with my team at the moment, though.

Catcher - Buster Posey and Wilson Ramos
First Base - Miguel Cabrera and Gaby Sanchez
Second Base - Dustin Ackley and Darwin Barney
Third Base - Alex Rodriguez
Shortstop - Yunel Escobar
Outfield - Lance Berkman, Jayson Werth, Matt Joyce, Logan Morrison, Colby Rasmus, Mike Trout, Michael Brantley

Starting Pitchers - Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez, Shawn Marcum, Brandon Beachy, Trevor Cahill
Relief Pitchers - Drew Storen, Sean Marshall, Kenley Jansen, Aaron Crow and Tim Collins

The league is head-to-head, 6x6, meaning each week we play against another team in the league and every day during the week we compete in 12 categories, six for pitching, six for hitting.

I feel like my team is solid in pitching and has a lot of upside in hitting due to the number of young players and the possibility of a comeback by Jayson Werth. I also got two of my favorite players in LoMo and Collins so there's that.

We'll see. Hopefully I'll get some enjoyment out of it. At the very least I have some more players to root for this season.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Baseball Book Club #2 Reminder

Just a reminder to folks who might have missed it. We will be discussing Satch, Dizzy and Rapid Robert by Timothy Gay sometime in early April. Make sure you get a copy and join us!

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Castafiore Emerald by Herge

I'm not much of a graphic novel fan. To be honest, I've only read Watchmen and I found that to be lackluster. Recently, though, I came across a piece by Tom McCarthy, author of Remainder, one of my favorite books of all time, and he listed a bunch of books about nothing. The Castafiore Emerald was one of them and the only one I wanted to read that was in the library system.

The Castafiore Emerald is one of a series of graphic novels/comics Herge published in the sixties known as The Adventures of Tintin. This was the 21st of 24 comics so the characters are all pretty well established and no introduction is given as to who they are.

Nonetheless, it was pretty easy to follow. Tintin is a young lad who lives with Captain Haddock who is apparently a retired sea captain who has become somewhat wealthy. Professor Calculus, a hard of hearing inventor, also lives with them in addition to a butler.

The story begins with Tintin and Haddock stumbling across a band of gypsies at a garbage dump. Haddock invites the gypsies to stay on his land. Upon returning home, the pair discover that an acquaintance of theirs, the opera singer Bianca Castafiore, is going to visit and stay with them, much to Haddock's chagrin.

Castafiore brings her accompanist and assistant with her as well as an assortment of jewels. While there, the house is swarmed with reporters and television crews. We're given little glimpses of various people and when Castafiore's emerald vanishes, a mystery unfolds.

It refolds then unfolds then refolds then unfolds again. The jewel is lost and found and lost and found again. The gypsies are suspected as well as people in the house and one of the reporters. It never really takes on the feel of a mystery, though, mostly because everything is so slapdash. There are all sorts of linguistic entertainments going on (Haddock's alliterative cursing, Castafiore never getting Haddock's name right, the policemen Thompson and Thomson who tend to wix up mords, I mean mix up words). There is a broken step in the hallway that everyone trips on and that Haddock tries to get repaired to no avail. There's a talking dog and a noisy parrot.

I really wouldn't say there's nothing going on. There's a lot. Does it have any meaning? Not really. It's a comic for crying out loud. But to say nothing happens is certainly wrong.

I really liked it. It made me laugh several times. I knocked the 62 pages out during a break at work. I could see myself giving another one of these a shot someday. A very fun change of pace for me.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Whitehead is the author of a book I consider to be greatly overlooked, Apex Hides the Hurt. Although I enjoyed that book a lot (read in 2008, before this blog), I hadn't read anything else of his until this one. And I read Zone One as much for the hype surrounding it as I did the fact Whitehead wrote it.

Zone One takes place in the near future, like possibly tomorrow. A virus has swept the world causing people to turn into flesh-eating zombies. The government has supposedly reestablished itself in Buffalo, New York and it has turned its efforts to restoring life as it once was beginning in New York City.

The section that is being restored is called Zone One. The military has been through there and wiped out most of the zombies. A fortified camp has been set up in Manhattan (Camp Wonton in Chinatown) and militia-style groups of survivors have been sent out to eliminate stragglers (sweepers). For some reason, some people, when infected by the virus, track down places of importance to them and just hang out there, wasting away, rather than looking for humans to eat.

Mark Spitz, the main character of the book, is part of one of these straggler hunting teams. Spitz is a self-described average person whose mediocrity somehow aids in his ability to survive, mostly in his ability to aimlessly move through life. As the story unfolds, we learn about Last Night, when the virus struck the world, and Spitz's story of survival on the run from zombies. We learn about the government's restoration efforts (the American Phoenix) and how much life has changed in the aftermath. People suffer from Post Apocalyptic Stress Disorder. Corn is grown as the first efforts to restore agriculture. Juice boxes are a big trade commodity. The reconstruction efforts happen thanks to corporate sponsorship. All of this takes place over three days but is filled with flashback after flashback.

At times you can read this and see it as a bit of a satire on the world around us. It has its moments where it feels that way. Mostly it's just a well-spun zombie tale. There are times where I think Whitehead goes a little overboard with his descriptions and language. There are numerous sentences where it feels like he just thought of the sentence while he was brushing his teeth or something and thought he'd find a way to get in there somehow. These little outbursts of description can detract from the story at times, a story which also starts rather slowly and ends rather quickly (but appropriately).

It was another solid book by Whitehead. I have to read some more of him and definitely recommend Apex Hides the Hurt, a more obvious satire.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Celebrations of Curious Characters by Ricky Jay

Ricky Jay is awesome. He's my absolute favorite magician of all time and I got to see him live many, many years ago in New York City. Most people recognize him as an actor now as he has spun his knowledge of magic and his connections with David Mamet into a pretty solid acting career.

One of the things that makes Jay awesome is his knowledge of the history of magic and entertainment. He used to be the curator of a magic library in Los Angeles and his own personal collection is supposed to be pretty impressive.

This book comes from a radio program Jay did in L.A. Once a week he would do a little radio bit on some historic entertainment from the past. When I say past I mean 17th and 18th centuries. And when I say entertainment I mean dwarves, con-men, musicians, and entertainments most people would not even begin to think exist.

Sadly, because each story comes from a radio bit, the writeups of each character are a page in length with an accompanying photo. Worse, because of the eras in which these performers strutted their stuff, there's not a whole lot of other material to learn more about these folks. The only book cited that interested me and might be remotely obtainable is a book from the 1930's on forging poultry to win poultry exhibitions. As much as I love reading about art forgery and theft, I thought reading about poultry forgery would be pretty interesting. I can't get it through Interlibrary Loan, though, and I don't feel like shelling out thirty to forty bucks for it. Alas.

If you've never watched Jay perform, do a search for him on YouTube and watch his skills in action.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

Oh, my, this was a dandy book. This is one of four books published as part of the Dorothy Project, an effort to increase exposure of women authors of fiction.

The book was originally published in 1954 and is about life in a small British town. The book centers around the Willoweed family, who is governed by a bitter, downright evil grandmother. The story begins after a flood has hit the town and the town is trying to recover.

The flood is soon forgotten, though, as a mysterious illness spreads through the town causing insanity and death. As each person dies, the remaining townfolk react and further changes spread through the town. Eventually the cause of the illness is found which results in yet more deaths.

Although the book doesn't really have a plot, it does a nice job with characters and exploring how people behave. It is an interesting contrast. You have a nice, small, peaceful town that suddenly is beset with disaster and violence.

It's a small book and a very quick read. The (re)actions of characters thus take place rather rapidly and are a little bit exaggerated as a result. It has its flaws but is still a very entertaining read and I think the Project is an excellent one. I definitely recommend reading this just because, darn it, sometimes you have to read overlooked books that are fifty years old.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Heft by Liz Moore

I'm not sure why I grabbed this book off the new book shelf. I think I had heard about it or read about it but I couldn't tell you what I had heard or read. Glad I did read it. Up to this point, it's the best novel I've read in 2012 and maybe the best book.

The main character, Arthur Opp, is a former professor who has not left his house in a decade because he weighs in excess of 500 pounds. His family provides for his financial needs but has little do with him. Years before he had befriended a student of his, Charlene, a quiet nerdy girl some 15 years his junior who was taking Opp's course as her first foray into college.

After the class ends, Opp and Charlene continue to remain friends leading to accusations that their relationship is improper. Charlene, unaware of the situation, has left the area and continues to remain pen pals with Opp. Opp is fired and retreats to his house to live as a hermit.

Opp does not hear from Charlene in a while and gets a phone call from her requesting his help. It turns out the two have been lying to one another and keeping secrets over the years. Opp, fretful, hires a cleaning lady to try and at least make his house presentable. Opp befriends the housekeeper and helps her with her problems. Charlene, meanwhile, has had a son whose father vanished at a young age. Charlene has kept that information hidden from Opp as well as some other things.

A sad twist results in the son looking for his father and finding it is not who he always thought it was.

This is yet another one of those book reviews where I find it impossible to write without revealing the story. It was a really good story but oh so sad. It was 351 melancholy pages ending with one semi-hopeful page.

It's an unusual and interesting story. I enjoyed it a lot despite it being sad. Despite it being the best book I've read this year, it's still not quite in the two star class. But things are turning. I have two more book reviews to write to catch up and then I am in the middle of two solid two star books. Stay tuned.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Scorecasting by Tobias Moskowitz

In case you hadn't noticed, I'm catching up on my book reviews. I signed out the audiobook version of this title early in the month because I knew I had a lot of driving to do and wanted a change of pace. I don't like being read to but I thought I'd give it a shot. I was almost through the first CD and was ready to abandon it. The majority of the beginning was talking about officiating non-calls. Then, just as the disc was ending, the authors started talking about the Pulaski Academy football team.

Now, I don't follow football. Don't really care for the game at all. Might not be the case if every team played like Pulaski Academy. The high school, in Arkansas, is known for having an unconventional coach. The team does not punt or kick field goals and extra points. As their coach, Kevin Kelley, puts it, "They give us four downs, not three". He also makes the case that for most field positions, at least at the high school level, the difference in probability of the opposing team scoring from where a fourth down stop is made versus the 30 yards or so from a punt is far less than the increased likelihood of scoring by going for it on fourth down. The Pulaski squad has been extremely successful with their no-kicking game.

So I stuck with the book and enjoyed it for the most part. Some of it is interesting (home field advantage can statistically be attributed almost entirely to scheduling and ref bias), some of it is not particularly groundbreaking (the hot hand does not exist). For a multi-sport fan with some brains and willingness to question common knowledge, it's an interesting, useful and fun book. If you're like me and only really care about one sport, some of it might be a little boring, although there might be some applicability cross-sport.

I would recommend the book over the audiobook just to see any references cited (I suspect that there are some) and because a lot of the discussion is data driven and it is easier to see tables than hear them. Although the audience is limited, the fact that I made it through an entire audiobook speaks to how good it is so I'm giving it one star.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Spurious by Lars Iyer

I take pride in being smart and being talented at a lot of things. I think I realize my limitations pretty well, too, and try to avoid situations where I'm overmatched. Sometimes it can't be helped. Like I can't cut a straight line with a saw to save my life. But being a homeowner, I sometimes have to give it a shot. I've gotten better over the years. My errors are now tiny fractions instead of say, oh, a half inch or more.

I also don't get philosophical talk and books about it. I remember in college I took a philosophy of religion course. In high school and college, I had an interest in religions/cults. Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Scientology, Baba Ram Dass, Zoroastrianism. You name it, I had read about it. So I thought I would do well in this philosophy course.

There were several upperclassmen philosophy majors in this class with whom I played ping pong (this was an after dinner routine in college for my roommate and I) that I knew to be savvy guys. The first day of class I walked in late (because I was walking a girl to her class). I sit down and the professor says, "You must be Mad Guru (he used my actual name)". I say, "Oh man, I must be the last one here if you know my name". "You think that because I know your name you must be the last student here"? "Well, at least the last male student". The ping pong guys start oohing and ahhing at my logical skills. The professor commends me. I'm feeling good. It all went downhill from there.

I didn't understand a thing the rest of the semester. The readings made no sense to me. I went in for help and it didn't make a difference. I wrote a paper that involved a belief in Santa Claus (I couldn't tell you where I was going with it) and my professor ultimately, charitably, gave me a D+. Just an awful, awful, awful, awful experience. This happened during what, to that point, was arguably the most awful, awful, awful time of my life, even despite the ping pong. Not good times.

Fast forward a couple of decades. Now I'm trying to understand Lars Iyer's book, Spurious. I've read reviews talking about how hysterically funny it is. Melville House Books, perhaps my favorite publishing company, published the book. I thought it would be great. If it is, I didn't get it.

The narrator, named Lars, has a friend who is much like Lars, only a little better. At least the friend seems to think so. He delights in telling Lars everything that is wrong with him when, for almost every stone cast, the friend is just as guilty of the sin. The book is almost entirely conversation between the two with Lars' friend belittling Lars. Occasionally we get to witness Lars' apartment and the ever-growing mold that pervades the place.

There's philosophical talk, mostly because the pair are either philosophy professors, literature professors, or both (I found it hard to tell). The "wit", outside of the friend's hypocrisy, includes things like the friend reading philosophical books that are heavy in mathematics in their original language despite not knowing math or how to read the foreign language. A laugh riot, I know.

I just didn't get it. There was no point. There's no plot, no story. It's a philosophical question as to why this book exists. Worse, Melville House published the sequel recently which I will certainly not read.

I'm giving it zero stars just because I think that perhaps I'm at fault. That it isn't the book that is lacking, but my ability to understand the book. Maybe it truly is terrible but I've seen enough good reviews to think that maybe it's just me.