Thursday, May 14, 2009

My New Favorite Comic?

I stumbled upon Hark, a Vagrant yesterday. It's about history! (Mostly.) And you know what? I have learned things.

1. Everybody knows about Florence Nightingale, who gained nursing fame in the Crimean War, but like nobody knows about Mary Seacole, who was kind of the black Florence Nightingale but since she didn't get invited along with Florence Nightingale (because of, you know, the blackness), she paid her own way to go take care of soldiers in Crimea. That's dedication. (Remember, you can click on the pictures to see them full-size.)

2. The War of 1812 is looked at very differently in Canada than it is in America. (I got this information mostly from the blog post at the bottom of the page, but still.) Short version: here, it's Us Vs. the British II; there, it's The American Invasion. Crazy.

3. There was this guy named Chiune Sugihara. During WWII, he worked at the Japanese consulate in Lithuania and, operating in defiance of direct orders from the Japanese government, issued thousands of exit visas to Jews so they could escape Poland and Lithuania to Japan. It's estimated he saved between six and ten thousand Jews. Read the whole thing on Wikipedia --this guy was amazing.
Learning is fun! And so is not learning; this next one didn't teach me anything, but it does make me laugh.(It's Franklin's expression that really sells it.)
Click here to read more . . .

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Big Bang Theory (the show, not the theory)

Tonight is the season finale of The Big Bang Theory (on CBS at 7:00 in the best timezone), so today seemed as good a time as any to share my thoughts about the show.

When I read the opinions of "hip" people on the internet (mostly here and here), there seem to be two main reactions to The Big Bang Theory. The first and most common one is "When I heard about this show, I thought it would be stupid. But then I watched it, and it's actually pretty good!" This is the reaction that Neal and I had as well. It's from the guy that also brings us Two and a Half Men (which I find to be an insult to adult intelligence and, with its status as most popular comedy on TV, an embarrassment to the American public), and it's a standard (unhip) multi-camera, filmed-in-front-of-a-studio-audience affair. But on the other hand, it's about nerds. And the nerds talk about science and comic books and Star Wars/Trek and they never seem to be inaccurate. And the nerds (and their one lay friend) are endearing. And the acting is pretty good (compare the company Johnny Galecki keeps now with that he kept on Rosanne. Hoo dogies.) And it's just funny. It's a very pleasant and entertaining way to spend the half-hour before How I Met Your Mother comes on.

The second opinion I've seen (less frequently than the first one) is "This show is good--why doesn't it get the hipness cred of How I Met Your Mother?" But I think that's an easy question. To reach that next level of television awesomeness after "pleasant and entertaining," storytelling matters.

I like to compare The Big Bang Theory to Frasier. Everybody always talked about how "smart" that show was. But it wasn't--it was a show about smart people. They made jokes with big words and literary allusions, but the plots often went like this:

1. Frasier wants to attain something (status, professional recognition, a woman, ratings for his radio show, etc.)
2. Frasier encounters an obstacle
3. Frasier lies to get around said obstacle
4. The first lie leads to problems, which lead to ever increasing lies
5. Everything blows up in Frasier's face

That's not smart, that's hackneyed. The Big Bang Theory is similar in that it's about smart people who make jokes with big words and nerdy allusions and plots, though usually not hackneyed, are very very simple. I actually find it intriguing how stripped-down the plots are: the gang has to deal with one thing (maybe half the gang has to deal with something else in a B-plot, but not always), and that one thing is explored in what is almost a series of vignettes.

But that's not really what separates a show like The Big Bang Theory from a show like How I Met Your Mother. It's less the intra-episode storytelling than the inter-episode storytelling. Multi-episode storylines and continuity are how the people behind a TV show prove that they're paying attention--that they care about what they're doing--and that they trust their viewers to keep up and to care about the show.

The Big Bang Theory will do continuity in some ways--they introduced and then have re-used Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock, for instance. But sometimes they betray continuity in big ways: Johnny Galecki's character had a serious relationship with Sara Rue, but then she was just gone, never so much as mentioned again. That's lame. Similarly, Darlene used to be a semi-regular on the show. In her last episode, she started dating Howard (the Jewish nerd. Hey, it's not my stereotype, it's the show's). There was no break-up at the end of the episode. Nobody mentioned her for weeks and weeks, then there was an episode where she broke up with him (over the phone, so they didn't have to pay her), and we were supposed to buy that he was all devastated about it, even though he hadn't talked about her for five episodes.

So, again, I do like this show. I just don't think it's a "great" show, one that achieves a place in my metaphorical TV Hall of Fame. That said, I'm totally going to watch it tonight, because it makes me laugh.
Click here to read more . . .

Monday Monarch Moment

Eleanor of Aquitaine (b. 1122, d. 1204)

Eleanor of Aquitaine was a vivacious, strong-willed woman who left a huge mark on European history. Because it would take too long to describe all the cool stuff she did (it took Alison Weir 346 pages in the book that, incidentally, I am taking all my information from), I am just going to give you a bare-bones list:

1. became "the greatest heiress in the known world" (Weir, 85) at age 15

2. married the King of France
3. went on the Second Crusade
4. convinced Louis to annul their marriage (she was sick of him, they were fourth cousins, and she hadn't borne him any sons)
5. married her former husband's greatest rival (and a man a decade younger than her), Henry of Anjou (soon-to-be Henry II of England)
6. proved the medieval if-a-woman-doesn't-have-sons-it's-her-fault thing wrong by having five of them with Henry
7. oh, and all but one of her ten children survived to adulthood, which is just astounding for that day and age
8. off-and-on served as ruler of her own lands and/or regent of England for her husband
9. eventually fomented rebellion by her sons against their father (although, since Henry II was much, much better at everything than his spoiled, vicious boys were, all of their rebellions failed and Henry had Eleanor locked up for several years)
10. off-and-on served as ruler of her own lands and/or regent of England for her son Richard
11. continued to be hugely influential in European politics (and her children's and grandchildren's marriage arrangements) into her seventies
12. was a great patron of the arts (particularly courtly literature) throughout her life
13. was, much like Queen Victoria, a "grandmother of Europe": "Her sons their descendants were kings of England, her daughters queens of Sicily and Castile; among her grandsons were a Holy Roman Emperor and the kings of Castile and Jerusalem, while her great-grandson became king of France. Two saints, Louis IX of France and St. Ferdinand III of Castile, were also among her descendants. In England, the line of kings that she and Henry founded [the House of Plantagenet] endured until 1485, and her blood flows in the veins of England's present queen, Elizabeth II" (Weir, 344-5).

So which moment to choose? Unfortunately, a lot of the most vivid and famous stories about Eleanor are plain old made up. (She murdered Henry's mistress Rosamund de Clifford, she held a "court of love" where she handed down verdicts based on the principles of courtly love, she dressed up as an Amazon to kick of the Second Crusade, etc.) But then there are a lot of pretty good real stories, given that--as previously mentioned--she did a lot of stuff. So here's a passage I picked nearly at random--it shows that even for a woman as powerful and intelligent and awesome as Eleanor, it still was a pretty raw deal to be a chick in the Middle Ages:
It soon became very clear to Eleanor that while she remained single [after the dissolution of her marriage to Louis] she would be at the mercy of fortune hunters. Twice, as she was making her way to [her capital at] Poitiers, would-be suitors, with covetous eyes on her vast inheritance, attempted to abduct her. At Blois, the future Count Theobald V was plotting to seize her on the night of 21 March 1152; forewarned in time, and protected by her escort, she was forced to flee under clover of darkness, taking a barge along the Loire toward Tours. Farther south . . . where she intended to make a crossing, Geoffrey of Anjou, younger brother of Henry, lay in wait for her. Again she recieved a warning . . . and narrowly evaded caputre, swinging south to where she could ford the River Vienne and, avoiding the main roads, make a dash "by another way" for Poitiers. Her marriage to Henry of Anjou had to be arranged without delay, or it might never take place at all.
Weir, 89.
And this has been your Monday Monarch Moment.

Oh, in her extreme age, Eleanor employed a secretary named "Guy Diva," which is just about the greatest name I've ever heard. That is all.
Click here to read more . . .

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Some Thoughts about Drunk Driving and Unprotected Sex (Which Will be Less Racy Than it Sounds)

I took a speech class in college. What was remarkable about this particular class was that it was the single most conservative assemblage of people that I was ever a part of. At Texas A&M. Where, by my junior year, I spent most of my social time at church and/or with people I knew from church. (Sure, it was a Methodist church, but still.)

For example, we were routinely assigned impromptu one-minutes speeches. I remember responding to the prompts "What is your favorite book?" and "What would be your dream job?" In a class of about fifteen people, eight or nine people gave their speeches about the Bible and being a missionary, respectively. (Mine were Terry Pratchett's The Fifth Elephant and writer for TV Guide, if you're curious.)

But this is really just background information. My actual point is about a speech given by one of my classmates and a serious case of esprit d'escalier it gave me. His speech was about abstinence-only education--he was for it, as you may have surmised from the background information.

His main simile was that sex education that includes information about all the risks that sex entails but also information about how to minimize risks with birth control would be like telling kids that drunk driving is bad, but if you're going to drive drunk, you should only drink X amount, or you should do Y and Z to make the drunk driving marginally safer.

Now, what I wish responded in the debate portion of the class that followed is this: that's a bad simile. Drunk driving is a much weaker metaphor for sex than plain old drinking alcohol is. Drinking and sex are similar in that they are both dangerous if done irresponsibly and/or by people who are too young to handle the experience. However, both are entirely appropriate in particular situations. For example, sex is for constructing babies, a glass of wine with dinner is for fending off heart disease (or whatever. Wine is gross). Responsible adults, who kids in school will hopefully grow up to be, will someday in all probability engage in both of those behaviors and it will be totally fine.

Furthermore, lots of teens will engage in those behaviors no matter what you tell them. They should be educated about how to avoid the worst consequences of them. That's why there is drunk driving education. If we were all going to pretend that the only way to avoid the evils of drinking is to never ever ever drink at all (the way that abstinence-only education programs pretend that the only way to avoid the evils of sex is to never ever ever have sex at all), then why do we hammer home "Don't Drink and Drive"?

Things are a lot different now than there were in 2005, when I actually wanted to make this point, but I feel a little better now anyway.
Click here to read more . . .

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Greatest. Holiday. EVER.

Today on Cracked, they ran the winners of their weekly reader-submitted Photoshop contest. (FYI, if you follow the link, be prepared for jokes about gender-specific body parts and exhaustive use of words children like to look up in dictionaries to see if they're really there.)

This week's topic: holidays they need to invent. And the overall winner's idea is awesome.

Cracked photoshopper "Syphon", you have changed my life. I need to make this happen. But how? Get a group of friends together to watch the new Star Trek movie then go out for a beer? Stock up on original Star Trek DVDs and Spotted Cow and make a day of it?

Any ideas?
Click here to read more . . .

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Work Update!

So far at the library, I know how to

1. Check in books
2. Check out books (as long as the customer--oops, I mean "patron"--doesn't need anything too complicated)
3. Collect overdue fees
4. Shelve books
5. Sensitize books
6. Desensitize books
7. Give out library cards (this is my newest skill, which acquired today. [We'll see how well I retain all the details.])

One AWESOME thing I found out today, because today was the first time I worked until the library closed, is that when closing time rolls around? Everybody just. stops. No cleanup, no finishing check-in piles, no nothing. Just turn off the computers and leave. It's magical.
Click here to read more . . .

Monday, May 4, 2009

And Now for Your Monday Monarch Moment

Henry II (1154-1189)

Henry II's awesomeness is too awesome to be contained in one mere blog entry, but I'll try to give you an overview. Henry ruled what historians now call the Angevin Empire, which looked like this:

That southern chunk of France he got by marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine (whose awesomeness is far, far too awesome to be a mere part of one mere blog entry, so she's getting her own later); that northern chunk he inherited from his father, Geoffrey of Anjou (except, technically, for Normandy, which Geoffrey had wrested from Stephen), and England he got because he was Matilda's boy. Only a ruler of great ability could have managed to assert authority over such a vast territory (keep in mind: medieval transportation technology), and Henry was that.

Another fact to keep in mind is that France at that time was only very loosely under the rule of the King of France. Henry was Louis VII's major rival and was more powerful than Louis.

Henry was intelligent, energetic, and had a horrible temper--which would get him into trouble. The most famous event of Henry's reign is the murder of Thomas Becket (AKA St. Thomas à Becket). Henry and Thomas were actually BFFs when Thomas was merely a worldly churchman who served as the King's chancellor. But then Henry had Thomas appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, and Thomas decided he could no longer be the King's man, he had to be God's man.

The two became enemies, tussling over the rights of the Church vs. the rights of the King. In December 1170, Henry cried out in despair over Thomas's behavior--the popular version of his cry is "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" (which is a lot catchier the quote from a more reliable source, "What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!") Four of his knights, who as Elizabeth Longford surmises, were "probably not very intelligent" took this as a call to action. They found Thomas in Canterbury Cathedral and brutally murdered him.

This didn't sit well with anybody.

It certainly horrified the King, who did the whole penitence thing--sackcloth, ashes, three days of starvation. But even that wasn't enough. He also did a pretty impressive round of public penitance:

When he came near Canterbury, he dismounted from his horse, and laying aside all the emblems of royalty, with naked feet, and in the form of a penitent and supplicating pilgrim, arrived at the cathedral . . . where, prostrate on the floor, and with his hands stretched to heaven, he continued long in prayer . . . Meanwhile the bishop of London was commanded by the king to declare, in a sermon addressed to the people, that he had neither commanded, nor wished, nor by any device contrived the death of the martyr, which had been perpetrated in consequence of his murderers having misinterpreted the words which the king had hastily pronounced: wherefore he requested absolution from the bishops prsent, and baring his back, received from three to five lashes from every one of the numerous body of ecclesiastics who were assembled.
Roger of Wendover, Flowers of History, via The Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes

I love medieval people. When they did stuff, they meant it.

And a bonus Henry moment! This one cracks me up, but I didn't know if anybody else would enjoy it enough to make it the main moment.

Henry had a temper, but he also had a sense of humor (and you could never predict which one would show up at any given time), as shown in this story about a time when Henry was angry at Bishop Hugh:
As [Hugh] approached the royal hunting-lodge . . . the king, who was extremely angry with him, rode off into the forest with his barons, and finding a pleasant spot sat himself on the ground, with the members of the court dispersed in a circle around him. The bishop followed them, but Henry bade everyone to ignore his presence. No one rose to greet the bishop or said a word to him, but Bishop Hugh, undaunted, eased an earl out of his place beside the king and sat himself down too. There was a long, brooding silence, broken finally by Henry who, unable to do nothing, called for needle and thread and began to stitch up a leather bandage on an injured finger. Again there was a heavy silence until Bishop Hugh, contemplating the king at his stitching, casually remarked, 'How like your cousins of Falaise you look.' At this the king's anger fled from him, and he burst into laughter which sent him rolling on the ground. Many were amazed at the bishop's temerity, others puzzled at the point of the remark, until the king, recovering his composure, explained the gibe to them: William the Conqueror was a bastard, and his mother was reputedly the daughter of one of the leather-workers for which the Norman town of Falaise was famous.
I like to imagine that Hugh added, "Thank you! I'll be here all week!" Cuz that's good stuff.

Click here to read more . . .

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Three Miscellaneous Internet Items

1. Bear with me on this train of thought: I've mentioned a webcomic I read sometimes, Diesel Sweeties. One of the major characters of Diesel Sweeties is Red Robot (his mission is, in his words, to "crush all hu-mans").

The writer of Diesel Sweeties is now selling a Red Robot book, and in conjunction with the book, a Red Robot stuffed toy.

And that Red Robot stuffed toy is handmade by ladies in Bangladesh hired through a fair trade organization (which pays them 25% more than Bangladesh's minimum wage and allows them to find wage-paying work without leaving their homes for slums in cities). Which is pretty cool.

2. 11 Points

Sometime last week or the week before last, I became strangely obsessed with . It's just a blog by some guy who makes lists about whatever catches his fancy. And all the lists have 11 items. (It's not a sophisticated concept.) I feel like I ought to tell you my 11 favorite 11 Points list, but I'll just give you a few: predictions Back to the Future Part II got right (and 11 more it got wrong), eerily similar movies released at nearly the same time, and things he found in the Google archive from 2001 (which is really pretty interesting).

Also, 11 Points today led me to Item #3.

3. If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that many of you won't like this one. (I told Nancy about it earlier today and she flipped out a little bit.) I'm not sure I like it. All I know is that it's strangely fascinating, and I looked at several pages of it before I could tear myself away. Why?


The deal is, people send in photos that feature a man and also a baby. Then the dudes at ManBabies use photoshop to switch the heads of the man and the baby. Ta-da! It's creepy!

You ready?

You sure?

You can turn back at any time, you know.

Okay, here's one:

And remember, there are more. Many, many more.

BONUS!: This is my favorite birthday song, which I make sure to play for myself each year.

Click here to read more . . .