Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Play Ball !!

After a 6-1 pasting of the Kansas City Royals, the Texas Rangers are atop the American League standings! Okay, so it's only the first day of Spring Training, and Detroit is also 1-0. But I'm sure this is a harbinger of the Rangers winning the World Series next October.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Because I am one...

Scientists don't let other scientists vote Republican.

Monday, February 25, 2008


A pic of the Swiss group, Eluveitie, from the Wikipedia entry about them.

Eluveitie - Spirit

Artist : Eluveitie (2002 - present)
Album : Spirit (2006)
Genre : Folk Metal (+ Death, Pagan, and Celtic)
Rating : ***** ***½ (out of 10*)

This Week I'm Listening To...
Spirit was Eluveitie's debut album, if you don't count their earlier demo Ven. Their second album, Slania, was released earlier this year, but I haven't heard it yet.

Eluveitie is another promising folk-metal band, this time from Switzerland. The Korpiklaani influence is obvious, but if Korpiklaani leans a bit towards the folk side of folk-metal, Eluveitie leans a bit toward the metal side. Some of the lyrics are in English; some are in the dead language of Gaulish.

What's To Like...
The folk stuff is excellent; the metal stuff is good. The female vocals, as usual, are clean and beautiful. The two genres blend effortlessly with each other. A wide range of folk instruments are used. The energy is upbeat, and the tunes are head-bashingly catchy.

What's Not To Like...
Most of the male vocals are , of course, grunts. I know, I know; that's to be expected in Doom Metal, but sheesh, it gets old. The grunting is indecipherable, but that's okay, cuz you probably don't speak any Gaulish anyway.

It's time For A New Acronym...
I think I'll invent a new one : "SYGASA". Which for some reason, reminds me of that now-obsolete one, WYSIWYG. SYGASA stands for "Stop Your Grunting And Sing Already". Instead of repeating my whine on every review of Metal albums, I'll just write Sygasa, and move on.

But I digress. Despite the grunting (which Liz does not like one bit), this is an excellent album. It's exciting to think what this band could sound like once they get a couple more albums of seasoning under their belts. Slania is said to be more "mainstream-oriented" and "folksier", which should appeal to me. We shall see.

And BTW, you can find a couple Eluveitie videos/audios out at YouTube. Check 'em out there and see if you don't agree that this is an exceptional Folk-Metal group.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Michael Crichton - Next

Author : Michael Crichton (b. 1942)
Title : Next (2006; 528 pages)
Genre : Cri-Fi
Rating : C+

This Month I Read...
The latest offering from the author of Jurassic Park, Next is typical Crichton - exploring the potential, the perils, and the pitfalls of genetic engineering. From transgenic creatures to cures for diseases; from gene-snatching kidnappers to corporate in-fighting; there's a whole gamut of themes in the book.

What's To Like...
The transgenic critters will most likely be your favorite threads in the book. There's an Sumatran orangutan that enjoys cussing in French and Dutch; a talking parrot that can do math in his head and carry on intelligent conversations with humans; and Dave the half-chimp/half-human who has trouble "fitting in" as a schoolboy.

Despite its length, this is a quick read. Apparently Crichton has developed "James Patterson Symdrome" as there are 528 pages, divided into 95 chapters. So when you're ready to stop reading at night, you'll always be a page or two from the end of a chapter.

The book has a reasonably good ending, with some of the storylines being skillfully (albeit, somewhat incredibly) brought together.

What's Not To Like...
There are too many storylines, the majority of which you are going to have only a minimal interest in following. So there are some slow spots in the book. Indeed, one gets the feeling that Crichton had trouble deciding which of about two dozen storylines to put into the book, so he included them all.

Worse, as compared to Jurassic Park (and that comparison is inevitable), there's too much 'preaching' and technical warning, and not enough story-telling. Let's face it, while Crichton enlightens us as to the problems with cloning in JP, what we're really interested in is whether the velociraptors are going eat the good guys for lunch.

Of course, in JP, you had only 3 or 4 plots to follow; here you have more than a dozen. If you do the math (528 pages; 25% 'preaching'; and let's say 12 plots, just to be on the conservative side), each storyline here is going to get about 35 pages to come to full resolution. That's a whole bunch a shallow tales.

Life Is Like A Crash On The Freeway...
There was a forgettable movie a couple decades ago. IIRC, it had Robert "Wild Wild West" Conrad as a California motorcycle cop; it had Betty White (I think) as a middle-aged wife dying of cancer, and Buddy Ebsen as her husband trying to keep her from taking her own life. There were about a dozen other storylines-&-actors, none of which I remember anymore.

You spent the whole movie jumping around on these disparate stories, wondering how the heck they were going to tie in with each other. Surprise, surprise; they all were involved in a mega-car-crash on an L.A. freeway. Conrad goes flying through the air; Ebsen dies, leaving Betty White to try and carry on without him. And everybody else... well... like I said, it was a forgettable movie.

That's the way Next comes across to me. Too many plots, and not enough story-telling. It would've been better to only deal with the transgenic animals, and leave the legalistic and corporate woes to a 20-page sermon at the end of the book.

Despite its flaws, this is still Crichton, and he is still one of the better writers around. Heck, we named a genre after him. The transgenic animals are enough to make Next sufficiently engaging to read. So we'll give it a C+ and a lukewarm recommendation; and hope that the mouthy parrot, the foul-mouthed orangutan, and the monkey-boy show up in a sequel.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On The Oceans Of Eternity

Author : S.M. Stirling (b. 1953)
Title : On The Oceans of Eternity (2000; 630 pages)
Genre : Alternate History (Part 3 of a Trilogy)
Rating : B

This Month I Read...
On The Oceans of Eternity is the third and final part of an Alternate History trilogy known informally as the Republic of Nantucket ("RoN") series. In RoN, the modern-day island of Nantucket is time-warped back to about 1250 B.C. and its inhabitants have to learn to survive. The first two books in this series have been reviewed here-(1) and here-(2).

OTOOE is primarily concerned with the marshaling of the forces of Nantucket and its allies (Babylon, Troy, England) as they try to out-flank and out-diplomacy the bad guys, who essentially control the entire Mediterranean Sea. There are a couple of side-plots (a 'Lewis & Clark' expedition to the Pacific by the good guys, and the courting and allying of Egypt by the bad guys); but those storylines are by-and-large peripheral.

What's To Like...
As usual, there's lots of action; both diplomatic and warfare. Once again, the bad guys aren't Ultimate Evil personified - they're innovative, calculating, Machiavelian, and ambitious. That's still a nice change from the simplistic "white hats / black hats" dualism present in most sci-fi stories.

OTOOE is a page-turner, and even comes to a dramatic conclusion; albeit enough 'loose strings' remain to where Stirling could've written a Volume 4 had he so desired.

What's Not To Like...
The usual minor irritations mentioned previously (voiding, weapons sounds, and "Ayup") remain. In addition, the final resolution of the build-up between the two equally-powerful forces left many readers dissatisfied. There are charges of plagiarism (from the Michael Caine movie "Zulu"), which I frankly find to be much ado about nothing.

Some feel that the character-development was shallow, but I find that rather petty. You have a choice - a fast-paced, action-packed trilology with moderate-to-minimal CD, or a 10-volume opus (a la Robert Jordan) with tons of CD. Personally, I like Stirling's choice.

Finally, there's no action happening on the Island of Nantucket. So the pages dealing with the politics and lives on the mother island are boring.

Do Publishers Dictate the Number of Pages in a Novel?
There's no doubt about it - the resolution of the conflict that's been growing for three books and 1800 pages is quite anti-climactic. A lot of readers feel Stirling lost interest and finished it up quickly and sloppily.

Instead, I get a sense of haste. The plot(s) in OTOOE are proceeding along nicely, up until around page 500, when everything suddenly goes into overdrive. I'm not an author, so I wonder : do publishing companies ever (try to) dictate the length of novels? After all, every printed page is an expense for them.

I imagine different authors would react in varying ways to such an edict. If James Patterson had to write a 400-page book, I think he'd let forth a loud moan, and divvy his book into 200 Chapters so as to have a lot of blank spaces on each chapter's first-page.

OTOH, any attempt to limit Robert Jordan to less than 800 pages per book, would probably cause him to kill off a few characters, or else add a couple more volumes to Wheel of Time.

So with OTOOE, I wonder if the deal was that it was to be 600 pages long, and Stirling looked up at Page 500 and freaked out. Maybe he called the publisher (ROC) and told them he couldn't possibly finish the story in the next hundred pages, so they told him, "Fine. You get 5% more pages. But not one page more." That would make 630 pages, which coincidentally is how long this is.

But I digress. The RoN trilogy gets an overall A rating and a "highly recommended" endorsement from me. Lots of action, lots of different places to read about, and the whole thing gets wrapped up in only three books. Considering the way Eric Flint's 163x series has become bogged down, and the way Harry Turtledove has to take 12 novels to tell the "If The South Had Won The Civil War" alt-stroy; it's nice to only have to make only a 3-book reading investment to fully explore this alternate timeline.

FWIW, many of the initial readers (back in 2000) felt that Stirling had left enough loose ends to write one more book in the series. But, as he hasn't done that in the last 8 years, I think in retrospect that was wishful thinking (which in a way, is a nice compliment re this storyline). Stirling did write a subsequent series ("Dies The Fire"), dealing with the changes wreaked upon the present-day world when Nantucket got zapped back to the Bronze Age. I haven't read any of those books yet, but they certainly look enticing. However, the next Stirling book on my TBR shelf is Conquistador. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Monday Photoshop Fix

From the masters over at

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Joseph Heller - God Knows

Title : God Knows (1984; 398 pages)
Author : Joseph Heller (1923-1999)
Genre : Literature
Rating : C

This Month I Read...
Joseph Heller's first work, Catch-22, brought him instant fame, but he never quite caught the magic thereafter. God Knows is his fourth novel, and is an autobiographical, Mel Brooksian look at the life of King David. Nearing his deathbed, David looks back on his life, giving his version of his encounters with Goliath, King Saul, Bathsheba, Absalom, Solomon, etc. Some have speculated that Heller is also reminiscing about his own life here, and that seems plausible to me.

What's To Like...
If you like Mel Brooks' (who was a friend of Heller's) humor, you'll like God Knows. There is a witty humor here that will have you chuckling a number of times. And while the overall tone can only be called "irreverent", it is obvious that Heller studied the life of David comprehensively before writing this.

There is a clever blending in of modern events into David's autobiography, and it works. All in all, this is a fresh, tongue-in-cheek way to present the life of Israel's second king.

What's Not To Like...
There is a lot of repetition here. This could easily have been pared down to a 250-page novel, and not have missed anything. Instead, the book drags in a bunch of places, and you'll find yourself skipping over the long paragraphs of commentary to get to the better, wittier dialogues.

Along the same lines, if you are not crazy about Mel Brooks' style of humor, you may want to skip this book. Ditto, if you aren't keen on a non-linear timeline, a la Kurt Vonnegut (who also was a friend of Heller's).

Finally, if you're a Fundie, and think things like Monty Python's The Life of Brian are blasphemous, stay away from God Knows.

Political Correctness in Literature.
It's probable that Jews would join the Fundies in expressing outrage at this book, except that Joseph Heller is Jewish. Which makes me wonder - are there certain subjects/literary treatments that only those of a certain religious, political, national, and/or racial persuasion can write?

What would've happened if Jospeh Heller hadn't been Jewish? Would there be cries of anti-semitism for presenting the likes of David, Yahweh, Moses, and Solomon (whom David calls "Shlomo") in such an unflattering, down-to-earth light? It's kinda like the N-word; blacks can use it, but it's taboo to everyone else.

There's something just a bit discomforting about these double standards. As long as they exist; religious, political, international, and racial tensions will continue to be present, no matter how hard we try to cover them up and pretend they aren't here.

But I digress. God Knows is an okay book, but it's plain to see why this isn't considered Joseph Heller's finest effort. It has some worthwhile moments, but you have to be ready for some dead spots in the book as well. If you can handle the latter, you will enjoy the former.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sweep !!

Arizona State has swept the UA Mildcats in football, men's basketball, and women's basketball this year. The scores were...
ASU 20 - UA 17 (01 December)
Men's Basketball
ASU 64 - UA 59 (09 January)
ASU 59 - UA 54 (10 February)
Women's Basketball
ASU 75 - UA 65 (12 January)
ASU 67 - UA 64 (08 February)
According to the Mesa Trib, this hasn't happened since 1981-82. My god, that's when I was in the 5th grade.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Sarah Brightman - Symphony

Artist : Sarah Brightman
Album Title : Symphony (2008)
Genre : Easy Listening (so sez Best Buy)
Rating : ***** **½ (out of 10*)

This Week I'm Listening To...
Sarah's back, with her first studio album in 4 years or so (last one : Harem in 2003). Whether you like her best as an opera-singer, a pop diva, singing in various foreign languages, or doing duets with various male hunks; you'll find something here to your liking.

What's To Like...
It's indisputable that Ms. Brightman has the best soprano voice in music today. With the possible exception of Posh Spice, and she doesn't count cuz she sings in a group. (JK) Symphony merely reaffirms Sarah's place at the top.

As always, the songs' arrangements and the studio mixing are first-rate. Brightman's voice blends nicely with all her duet partners. She even covers a Dead Can Dance song - Sanvean. How cool is that?!

What's Not To Like...
Unlike Harem and La Luna, this is not a concept album. While there's something here for everybody, the album overall is disjointed, and there will be parts that will be ho-hum (albeit different ones) for each and all of her fans. For me, it was the opera stuff. And there's a lot of opera stuff here.

There are also too many slow songs. Perhaps Sarah's tired from all the Harem touring. She's been in this business over 20 years now. Maybe it's time to do away with the dozens of wardrobe changes and simply stand on stage and do duets. Indeed, there is a feeling of "just going through the motions" that permeates this album.

Finally (and I admit I'm picking at nits), there's a "hidden track" at the end of the CD. C'mon folks. This was cute the first time someone did it, back when you needed something to balance out the length of both sides of a cassette tape. Anymore, it's pointless banality.

Everyone Wants To Be Someone Else...
Quick - name three (living) female opera singers. You can't count Beverly Sills; she passed away last year. Can't name three? How 'bout two? One maybe?

Here's my point. Tarja Turunen wants to be Sarah Brightman. Sarah wants to be an opera diva. And opera divas want someone - anyone - to buy a couple of their CD's. Why not stick to the genre(s) you're already good at, everyone? For SB, Harem and La Luna were great-selling albums that gave her a bunch of new fans. Those fans (okay, moi) want her to continue to do concept albums, that border on pop/easy listening. If we want to hear opera (and we don't), we'll pick up an Alma Gluck "Best Of" CD in the bargain bin.

But I digress. Symphony is not going to drive away Sarah's fans in droves, but it won't have them doing cartwheels either. The "good stuff" is very good (Fleurs du Mal; I Will Be With You; Running), but there's too much mediocre stuff to justify a superlative rating. We'll give it 7½ stars, and trust that next time, a four-year hiatus brings forth a better and more-focused effort.

Monday, February 11, 2008

We're Winning.... Just Kidding!

After months of telling us how pacified all those nasty Sunni provinces are, the administration is now saying the troops can't come home until we ...erm... "evaluate" some more.

Could it be that the White House has been lying to us?? That the almighty surge is just a game of whack-a-mole? Nah. Can't be. When has Dubnutz ever told falsehoods?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

I Am Legend (the book)

Title : I Am Legend (1954; 159-312 pages)
Author : Richard Matheson (b. 1926)
Genre : Sci-Fi
Rating : C

This Month I Read...
I Am Legend is a recent, heavily-promoted movie; so it was natural that the book be re-issued as well. The central character, Robert Neville, is the last human being left in L.A. He is beset by vampires and infected mutants at night (he has to hole up in his fortress-like house); but during the day, he is the hunter and they are his prey.

The story chronicles his loneliness and personal loss, his crusade against the other creatures, his research into the cause of the plague, and his gradual accepting of his fate.

What's To Like...
For a 1954 novel, this has an outside-the-box plot. None of this "I vant to bite your neck" tripe. Instead, there's a nice blend of science and sci-fi as Neville tries to figure out what anti-vampire methods work (garlic and wooden stakes do, and the Crucifix works some of the time) and don't work (mirrors don't); and more importantly why each does or doesn't.

The book is a quick read. More on that later. Matheson's stories had a major influence on Stephen King. No less than three movies were made from this story - The Last Man On Earth; The Omega Man (with Charlton Heston), and the eponymous 2007 release.

Finally, Matheson's treating of the characters themselves is complex. There are no "white hats" and "black hats" here. Humans, mutants, and vampires - each is someone else's bane. That's quite unusual for a McCarthyism-era atmosphere.

What's Not To Like...
For an apocalyptic novel, there's not a lot of action. Neville has a couple close calls in getting back home before sundown, but that's about it. When he finally does meet another (seemingly) human being, one expects some excitement to start as he "makes contact". However, such is not to be. The story fizzles out to a tepid, yet unpredictable, end.

Worst - when you buy this book, you'll discover only half of it is I Am Legend. The rest of it is a collection of short sci-fi stories, presumably also by Matheson. Their quality ranges from mildly amusing to rather yawn-inducing. I don't fault Matheson for this deception, I fault Tor Books.

"Shouting his name in a paroxysm of fury"...
I Am Legend may be influential, but it doesn't stand the test of time. The lack-of-action makes the reading of this story a chore. I've heard the movie is quite different from the book, and in this case, that's gotta be for the better. So we'll give it a C, mostly for its originality, and be happy that people like Stephen King and Anne Rice came along to improve upon a good-but-could-be-better style of writing.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Super Tuesday - Final Tally

What excited me most was...

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Mitt ... Rhymes With Quit

So long, Mitt. You weren't the worst of the GOPhead candidates, but you were the most unelectable. For that reason, I was kinda pulling for ya.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Tarja Turunen - My Winter Storm

Artist : Tarja Turunen (ex-Nightwish)
Album Title : My Winter Storm
Genre : Operatic Metal (or whatever)
Rating : ***** *½ (out of 10*)

This Week I'm Listening To...
Two years after being unceremoniously booted out of the symphonic-metal band, Nightwish, ex-lead-singer Tarja Turunen returns with her debut solo album, My Winter Storm. Ironically, Nighwish also spent two years working on their post-Tarja album, Dark Passion Play, which has been reviewed here, so the release dates are within a couple months of each other. Talk about awkward timing.

What's To Like...
It can't be denied - Tarja has the finest voice in all of Metaldom, and it is spotlighted on MWS. Opera-trained, all the songs here play to her forte.

The studio mixing is superb, which is quite rare for the Metal genre. The featured single from this album, I Walk Alone, is fantastic.

And as with DPP, you get your money's worth of music here - about 75 minutes.

What's Not To Like...
Where's the Metal ?!?! A lot of Tarjaholic MetalHeads are going to be disappointed here. There's only one song - Ciaran's Well - that even attempts to remind you that she used to sing in a Metal band.

While the mixing is excellent, the composing is frankly bland. Hey Tarja, kiss and make up with Tuomas Holopainen, and let him write the songs for your next album. You won't regret it.

Finally, whereas DPP was full of bitterness for Tarja and her husband-cum-business-manager, MWS wallows in self-pity. This was one nasty divorce.

If I Could Anybody I Wanted To Be, I'd Choose...
After two years of preparation, Tarja finally gets to "be herself". And it turns out that she wants to be... Sarah Brightman. Good luck, Tarja. You may have the best pipes in Metal, but SB can sing operatic circles around you. Perhaps you should consider sticking to Metal.

Rating MWS is difficult. A lot of people express their opinion of who's to blame for the Nightwish divorce by either giving this 1* or 10*. That's irrelevant. A lot of others give it a 5* "Average" rating. I assume these are the MetalHeads who were expecting (not unreasonably) a Nightwish-sounding effort. If Tarja persists in going the operatic route, I'm afraid she'll lose a lot of her fan-base.

Ultimately, your opinion of this CD will probably come down to what you think of Sarah Brightman music. If you happen to like SB (I do), then you will find MWS to be an above-average (but not great) album. If SB makes you retch and reach for your Spice Girls' Greatest Hits CD, you might want to pass on MWS. Still, if Tarja ever came to Phoenix, I'd be there in a heartbeat.

Ms. Brightman also has a new album out, Symphony, which we'll review after listening to it a few more times.

Monday, February 04, 2008

PF Chang's Half-Marathon (a)

For the fourth straight year, Liz participated in PF Chang's annual half-marathon held here in Phoenix. That's her, on the left, way back there by the 17th palm tree. Just kidding. But this is a shot from the start of the race.

PF Chang's Half-Marathon (b)

And here she is, crossing the finish line, sandwiched between the two ladies in purple tops.

PF Chang's Half-Marathon (c)

Another shot, taken right after the previous one. Liz does the 13 miles with a friend, and they do a fast walk. Her times for the four years are :
2005 - 3 hours, 36 minutes
2006 - 3 hours, 44 minutes
2007 - 3 hours, 31 minutes
2008 - 3 hours, 30 minutes
This is the fifth year for the race. So she's been in every one except the first. FWIW, this is the largest combined marathon/half-marathon in the USA. Or so says the local newspaper.

PF Chang's Half-Marathon (d)

Finally, here's Liz, with her medal. It costs $75 to enter the race (it's a fund-raiser for charities). I have no problem with that. However, this year, you couldn't download even low-res photos. PF Chang's contracted the picture-taking out to a company, who then tried to charge you about $5 per image.

Hey PF Chang's! For $75, you ought to at least make low-res versions of the photos available! Ah, but it helps to have friends in high places (or IT departments) who know how to capture these images off the Internet, even when they're protected.