Thursday, December 9, 2010

Harry Potter Thoughts: Goblet of Fire

I'm frustrated with myself because I know a lot of things occurred to me as I re-read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but then I forgot them. I'll try to take notes when I read the final three books.


This has always been my favorite book of the series. It never fails to impress me how from the time Harry enters the maze at the final of the Triwizard Cup until Dumbledore finishes interrogating Barty Crouch, jr., it's edge-of-your-seat, can't-put-it-down reading. It doesn't let up. It's awesome.

It doesn't hurt that this is the book where we finally start getting some Ron-Hermione tension of the romantic variety. I love Ron + Hermione.

More thoughts:

1. Fake Moody's plan is so needlessly elaborate. He gained Harry's trust pretty early on and, since Dumbledore wasn't suspicious of him, could have just lured Harry away from Hogwarts and disapparated with him or whatever. Heck, he could have gotten Harry onto a bus to Little Hangleton with some vague promise of investigation or adventure or whatever. Harry's easy.

2. Neal wanted me to point out that this is the book where Hermione's character starts to get morally comprised. Um, Hermione, sweetie? It's not OK to imprison a human woman (disguised as a beetle or not) in a little glass jar for a week or two because she annoyed you or whatever. There's also the blackmail aspect to be concerned about, but the imprisonment thing is worrisome enough.

3. Harry and the other champions have to compete in three events, each of which probably take less than two hours. So they get out of final exams and the entire Quidditch season gets cancelled because . . . ? I mean, other than getting J. K. out of writing Quidditch matches, of course.

4. While I'm on the subject of Quidditch, I might as well address the subject of Quidditch. It's one of the real weaknesses of the entire series. Rowling admitted in interviews that she doesn't really know much about sports and that the matches were chores for her to write. The former point is not surprising--Quidditch is a pretty terrible sport.

People on flying broomsticks throwing balls through very high hoops? That's great. That's a great sport for wizards to play. Adding a second kind of ball that zooms around trying to knock players off their brooms? Also great! It's funny, very much in keeping with the little absurdities of Rowling's wizarding universe. But the snitch, you guys. The snitch.

The fact that catching the snitch both ends the game and earns the catching team 150 points (when each goal is only worth 10) pretty much ruins the whole thing. Yes, in Goblet of Fire, we see a team lose despite getting the snitch. I know. That is, however, the only time we see that happen, and you would think it would indeed be pretty rare. It's just too much.

The snitch is, of course, a device that allows Harry to be an indisputable, individual hero even in a team game. Quidditch works great as a plot device, but as a sport, it's awful.

Also, if it's such a big deal, why does Hogwarts only hold six games a year (when the tournament isn't canceled, of course)? And if there are only four teams at what seems to be the only wizarding school in the British Isles, how can the British Isles also support at least one professional Quidditch league? Wouldn't it be easier to make it onto a professional squad than a Hogwarts house team?

Those problems all pale beside the snitch, though.

5. Back to the Triwizard Tournament--it sounds like a really terrible spectator event. The dragon-fighting contest would be pretty cool to watch, obviously, but the others? In the second task, the crowd had to just sit there for over an hour waiting for the champions to emerge from the lake. In defense of Muggles--we would have set up some dang underwater video cameras so we didn't have to rely on Merperson testimony to find out what happened down there. The third task would have been pretty cool to watch if the crowd were high enough to see everything that happened in the maze, but they weren't. Again, J. K. Rowling: not great with the sports.

6. Honest question: how are supposed to feel about house elves? Hermione makes what seem to be extremely good points about how they're slave labor since, after all, they're slave labor. However, her crusade is played for laughs, and none of the other characters agree with her. Ron and his brothers are from a pretty relaxed and groovy wizard family, but they see no problem with how house elves are treated. All the house elves we meet besides Dobby are A-OK with doing unpaid, unquestioning labor, and even Dobby would rather be paid a pittance than a fair wage. Dumbledore, for agreeing to pay Dobby, seems the closest to Hermione's point of view. Even then, it seems like he's being indulgent, not any kind of activist.

Maybe it's just as well that I didn't take notes, since this was plenty long as is.

It'll be just a bit until I start Order of the Pheonix, I think, because I'm halfway through the Twilight "saga." Speaking of, should I share my thoughts on that? I'd kind of like to, but there are already lots of places on the internet where you can read criticism of Twilight.
Click here to read more . . .

Friday, December 3, 2010

My Hair is Out of Control

I've been saying this for months, but I have got to get a haircut.

I like having long hair, but "elbow-length" is pushing it.

I mentioned this on Twitter, but I weirded out a baby (she's about a year and half old) with my hair last month. She was playing with my ponytail, so I was like, here--let me take it down so you can see it all--and she just stared at me. Like, "Dude, I don't even know what I'm seeing right now . . . What is happening?" kind of stare. (On the other hand, though, my niece Eliza had a pretty good time using my hair for braiding practice.)

Places I could fit in right now:

Amish Country
The Garden of Eden
The Addams' family mansion:

Click here to read more . . .

Friday, November 19, 2010

Neal's Epic-ly Spoilerific and Spoilerific-ly Epic Deathly Hallows Review

Grade: B (I think Rachel would rate it higher, but I'll let her explain that later)
So, this afternoon, Rachel and I got to take in the latest installment of the Harry Potter film franchise. I went in concerned, with my expectations fairly low. I had read some decidedly mixed reviews.

(Click above on the title of this post to continue my spoiler-filled review.)

The reviews I saw tended to offer the following criticisms:

-Holy crap, that was a lot of camping

-Kind of boring, also, did anyone notice all the camping?!

-The young actors couldn't hold their own. Also, you know, the camping thing.

Having now seen the film, I don't think any of these criticisms are particularly fair. For one, there is a lot of camping in the first 2/3 of Deathly Hallows, completely unavoidable for the filmmakers, at least to a certain degree. Secondly, I think all the young actors did fairly well, but more on that below.

As for the plot, anyone geeky enough to start reading a Harry Potter film review on their friend's blog has probably read the book. The film is actually very faithful to the book.

After quick establishing shots of the Trio at their respective homes (including Hermione's), we get Voldemort's meeting with his Death Eaters, escape to the Burrow, wedding, escape from the wedding, Grimmauld Place, break-in to the Ministry, camping, camping, camping, fight, Ron leaves, sad camping, sad camping, sad camping, Godric's Hollow, snake attack, sad camping, Ron returns, Horcrux destruction, slightly-happier camping, Lovegoods', Deathly Hallows explanation, chase, capture, torture, escape, death . . .

As you can see from my overall grade, the film pulls most of this off quite well. Yes, even the camping. Here's my breakdown of what I liked, didn't like, and thought was just OK:

The Good:

Daniel Radcliffe: This isn't too surprising. I think Radcliffe is an all-around solid actor who has generally done a good job playing Harry. Here, he hits all the necessary emotional beats, without overplaying them. Seeing his parents' graves for the first time, Harry tears up and is clearly moved, choking out a glum "Merry Christmas, Hermione" while Hermione puts her arm around him. Radcliffe avoids the chance to create an Oscar clip by weeping and yelling "Noooooooo!!!" while falling to his knees. Well played, Radcliffe.

He's funny too. The scene where Radcliffe has to play six of Harry's own doppelgangers is very, very funny, and well-acted. You can actually tell who's who just based on Radcliffe's posture and facial expression.

Finally, it must be said that he has excellent on-screen chemistry with Emma Watson (more on that below), which works to the film's advantage during the admittedly long 'sad camping' phase after Ron's departure.

Emma Watson: OK, this is a surprise. For most of the previous six films, Emma Watson has gotten by on an often-terrible combination of one 'concerned' face, one 'scared' face, a 'sad face,' disconcertingly-rapid eyebrow movements, and more recently the fact that she's (at the age of 20) very, very pretty. Please understand that I mean this in the least-pervy way possible. Rachel and I had a whole conversation about this on the way home. In this film, the filmmakers really go out of their way to try to make the Trio look scruffy, tired, and worn out. The boys are both dirty and bestubbled for most of the proceedings. Hermione, on the other hand, looks all freckly and adorable no matter what. Don't underestimate the importance of this for her future career as an actress. Other pretty actresses have gotten by on less talent.

Here, though, Rachel and I both thought she did a good job. Like Radcliffe, she hits all the necessary emotional beats, from sobbing over a bleeding and unconscious Ron to screaming and writhing in agony as Bellatrix carves the word 'mudblood' into her arm (yes, this actually happens). Life Radcliffe, she has some nice, quietly-played moments where she avoids the temptation to overact. Well played, Watson.

Ministry Break-In: This is one of most compelling, and often funny, segments of the film. As I'm sure you know, the Trio have to disguise themselves as Ministry employees in order to break in and steal the the Slytherin locket Horcrux from Dolores Umbridge. The reason this series of scenes works so well is that the adult actors who play the disguised Trio all do a great job. Especially David O'Hara, who plays Harry and is without question the secret MVP of the movie. It's hard to explain unless you see it, but he's hilariously convincing as Harry/Radcliffe in disguise.

Harry-Hermione Slow Dance: When I first read in an early review of the movie that Harry cheers up a depressed Hermione (post-Ron departure) by slow dancing with her to a Nick Cave song, I assumed this was going to be Harry Potter's biggest "Hey! Is that the Fonz on water skis?!" moment since Grawp snatched up Hermione in Order of the Phoenix (Man, was that a stupid scene). And yet, it works. It really works. Radcliffe and Watson deserve all the credit in the world. They clearly have a very real, lived-in friendship that comes across nicely on screen. A surprisingly-touching little moment that could have easily seemed awkward and forced. Well-played, Radcliffe and Watson.

Destroying the Slytherin Locket Horcrux: I'm a little torn here, because this scene ultimately falls a little flat once the Horcrux is destroyed. It makes the 'good list' all the same because it's the source of one of the most incredibly-palpable moments of "is this actually happening!!!?? IS THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENING!!!????" tension I've ever experienced in a packed movie theater.

After Ron rescues Harry and retrieves the sword of Gryffindor from the frozen pond, Harry opens the locket using Parseltongue. At this point, an evil, scarier version of the smoke monster from Lost explodes out of the locket, sending Ron and Harry flying backwards in opposite directions. Horcrux-Voldemort's taunting of Ron culminates in the appearance of shiny, evil versions of Harry and Hermione who tell Ron that he's worthless, and then proceed to full-on make out . . . in the nude. How nude? This is a conversation from the car ride home:

Me: Am I taking crazy pills, or was there actually some side boob there?
Rachel: Oh, there was totally side boob!! IT WAS BANANAS!!

Again, I can't stress enough how fun it was to be in a packed theater of Harry Potter fans who were collectively losing their crap. Also, kudos to Radcliffe and Watson for really, really not holding back. Even if we all realize later that this scene was way overwrought (very possible), it was still an incredibly-enjoyable theater moment.

Deathly Hallows Animation: This was completely unexpected and very cool. When the Trio visit a clearly-depressed and distracted Xenophilius Lovegood for info on the strange symbol Hermione keeps coming across, he has Hermione read 'The Tale of the Three Brothers' from the book Dumbledore left her. Hermione's narration is accompanied by some really cool animation that explains the origins of the three Deathly Hallows. One of the nicest surprises of the film. Of course, everything goes downhill for the film after this scene (a full rant on that below).

Little Moments: The filmmakers do a great job of building in little moments to reward fans of the books. Harry does wake up in Grimmauld Place to find that Ron and Hermione fell asleep holding hands (and yes, Ron is on the floor). Ron and Harry speak appreciatively about the little portable fires Hermione is so good at making (a nice call back to the first book). We also get some great Fred and George stuff early in the film ("I'm holey, Fred"). The list could go on. Good job, filmmakers.

Honorable Mentions: Godric's Hollow snake fight, Hermione erasing her parents' memories of her.

The Just OK:

Rupert Grint: Yeah, I know, he's an easy target. The fact that he's a slightly odd-looking guy is not aided by the fact that he continues to sport one of the worst haircuts any actor has ever had. Grint has been blamed by many fans for the often extreme wimpification of Ron that occurred in many of the earlier films. While much of that comes down to the screenwriters and directors, it's still easy to dislike Grint for his love of goofy facial expressions and high-pitched whining.

And yet, by the halfway point of this film, my opinion of him had completely turned around. He's very good in the early stages of the film, especially in a scene where he confronts Harry in one of his inevitable "No one else is going to die for me!" moods. He's equally good at playing Ron's descent into paranoia and resentment under the influence of the Slytherin locket Horcrux. He, Radcliffe, and Watson are all great in the big argument scene.

Then, he returns, and while he does a passable job in the Horcrux destruction scene, things quickly go downhill from there (More on that below).

Ron-Hermione Reunion: So, once Ron and Harry have vanquished the smoke monster, they head back to camp to meet up with Hermione, but not before Ron quips, "just think, only three more to go!" Parenthetically, I was a little disappointed they cut the whole "Dude, seriously, she's like my sister, bro" conversation Harry and Ron have at that point in the book.

Meanwhile, back at the tent, Hermione awakes to find that Ron has returned to the Scooby Gang. After the requisite slapping and hitting of Ron, Hermione looks on coldly as Ron explains how he found his way back to Harry and Hermione.

*incredibly cheesy music begins to swell in the background*

Now, keep in mind, the movie had actually been pretty stellar up to this point (at least in my opinion), but now for the first time I thought "uh oh . . . "

Ron, accompanied by a painfully overwrought score, explains how he heard Hermione's voice on the radio, opened the Deluminator, a ball of light touched his heart, bla, bla, bla. None of this is really Grint's fault. He does a decent job with the speech, and it's straight out of the book, but the music kind of makes it all fall flat. Meh.

Dobby: Dobby of course makes his triumphant return in this film, and the filmmakers do a good job of working him into the story before the whole "And now, for some reason, Dobby is here!" rescue at Malfoy Manor. The CG animation looks good, and the voice actor does a fine job, but the film often deflates essential tension so that Dobby can have all his big moments. In the film, it's kind of Dobby's own fault he takes a knife to the chest. At the climax of the fight in Malfoy Manor, with Ron, Harry, a rescued Hermione, and the goblin all gathered together and ready to disapparate, Dobby inexplicably pauses to give his cheesy "Dobby is a free elf!!" speech. Many of the people in the theater loved this, meanwhile all I could think was: DISAPPARATE! YOU IDIOT!!!!

Dobby's death is handled well, with Radcliffe convincingly crying over what was (I assume) a rubber doll with golf balls for eyes. I don't know. I can only get so worked up over a CG muppet. Meh.

The Villains: I'm lumping all of these characters together, because the problems are more with the writing and directing than with the actors. Ralph Fiennes is terrific as Voldemort (and I actually didn't really like him that much in Goblet of Fire), but we don't get to see much of him after the big Death Eater sit-down that starts the film. Helena Bonham Carter does a good job as Bellatrix, especially during her creepy confrontation with Hermione, but she is horribly undermined by her wardrobe. I'm sorry, but a woman wearing a set of fake teeth and Elvira hair can only be so scary.

The main villains for much of the film are actually the 'Snatchers,' bandits who maraud the countryside looking for fugitives. Ultimately, they're kind of a dud as a group of villains. The main Snatcher is basically presented as a Hermione-sniffing pervert. Weird? Yes. Slightly unsettling? Maybe. Scary? Not really.

This is why The Lord of the Rings had Orcs.

Slightly Weird/Unintentionally Funny: Neither Ron nor Harry gives two farts about Hermione's parents. Despite frequent melancholy statements like, "I used to come here with Mum and Dad, of course, they wouldn't remember that now, or me . . . " Ron and Harry never inquire further or show the slightest interest in why she's so upset.

The Bad:

Chase and Capture: After their meeting with Xenophilius Lovegood goes south, the Trio have to quickly disapparate to avoid getting caught by Death Eaters. They reappear in some woods where they run right into a set of Snatchers, led by the Hermione-Sniffing Pervert.

"Snatch them!" he says. (audible groan)

And so, they run. But why though? Couldn't they grab hands and just disapparate again? Apparition might secretly be one of the biggest logic/continuity errors in the books. When I think about it, I'm not sure I really know all the rules. Anyway, maybe the Trio are just low on MP (appreciative chuckle from those of us who played video games in the early '90's), but they decide to run. There is some cool camera work here, but they of course are captured fairly easily, with Hermione disfiguring Harry so he won't be recognized.

It's not how easily they're captured that deflates all tension from this set of scenes, it's how easily they're held captive. Like Superman, it turns out that Harry, Ron, and Hermione have but one weakness as wizards who have undergone six years of magical training. So, what is Harry Potter's kryptonite?

Having his arms or shirt held lightly from behind . . . yeah, real heroic. After some Hermione sniffing, the Hermione-Sniffing Pervert recognizes Harry and decides that he's taking these fugitives straight to the Big Boss.

When next we see our indomitable heroes, they are being led glumly towards the front gates of Malfoy Manor (Voldemort HQ). Knowing that torture and death surely await them inside, what do our heroes do to attempt escape? Nothing. Are they tied up? No. Magically restrained or incapacitated in any way? No. You see, the Snatchers are lightly pushing them from behind. It would be impossible for them to turn around and try to punch out one of their captors, grab a wand, or disapparate. Wait, why can't they disapparate again? This rant's just getting started . . .

Malfoy Manor: The Trio are led (rather easily) into Malfoy Manor and presented to a gleeful Bellatrix and Lucius Malfoy (played brilliantly as a drunken has-been by Jason Isaacs). Once they dispense with the "Is it really him, Draco?" business, Bellatrix recognizes the sword of Gryffindor in the hands of one of the Snatchers, and flips out. She instructs one of her goons (maybe it's Wormtail, I'd have to see it again) to take Harry and Ron down to the cellar, announcing her intentions to question Hermione about the sword.

Now, in the book, aware that their friend is about to be brutally tortured, Ron and Harry have to be dragged kicking and screaming into to the cellar. In the movie, nope, their arms are being held from behind, so they're totally helpless. They allow themselves to be led rather meekly into their prison cell.

This is where the scene falls tragically flat. Give credit to Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Watson, who both at least realized this was the climax of the movie. Emma Watson very convincingly howls in agony as Bellatrix questions her about the sword.

In the book, Ron starts hysterically sobbing at the sound of Hermione's pain and physically hurls himself at the cellar door in a desperate attempt to escape. In the movie, Rupert Grint plays Ron as mildly concerned, at best. Movie Ron tugs lightly on the bars of the door and quickly concludes that they're locked in, so . . .

All the tension created by Hermione's torment is completely deflated by Harry and Ron's weirdly calm and frankly, kind of lame reaction in the cellar. Then of course Dobby shows up to save the day and lets them out.

We're then treated to a very short and perfunctory wand fight as Harry and Ron try to rescue Hermione. Once Dobby drops the chandelier on Bellatrix, Harry very easily takes the wands away from Draco (Seriously! It's the climactic fight of the movie, have the guys throw a few punches!), and they all disapparate.

Just a disappointing conclusion to a good film. In the book, even with Dobby's help, Ron and Harry have to scrape and claw their way out of the cellar (including a deadly confrontation with Wormtail, who is easily dispatched by Dobby here). In the movie, it all goes kind of easy once Dobby shows up. Meh.

Final Thoughts: Despite my epic rant about how disappointing and lame I found parts of the final twenty or so minutes, I overall really enjoyed the movie. David Yates is really good at directing quieter, character-driven moments, but he is not always as good at building and sustaining tension in action scenes. That makes me a little nervous about the finale, but we'll see.

If any of you was brave or crazy enough to read the whole thing, let me know what you thought about the movie or my review in the comments.
Click here to read more . . .

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Harry Potter Thoughts

I decided that, in preparation for watching the new Harry Potter movie this Friday (we've got our tickets!), I should re-read all seven in order. (I meant to re-read the first six before the seventh one came out, but that didn't happen, so this will be the first time I've done the seven in a row.) I didn't budget quite enough time, so I won't be able to finish before the movie, but oh well. What I can do is share some observations I've been making about the beginning of the story now that I know how it all ends.

Here are some notions I've entertained, just having finished #3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

1) J. K. didn't hide a ton of clues about the future in Book 1, but I enjoy the ones that are there. My favorite is Harry's creeping sensation that Snape can read minds.

2) Draco Malfoy may be the worst-written character in the series. (At least through the first three books.) He is unrelentingly horrible--just no redeeming characteristics at all--yet in no way a threat. He never bests Harry at anything, and besides being a little dumb, is a huge coward. It bothers me that Harry and his pals hardly ever have good comebacks for him, when he is nothing but comic relief. Example: Malfoy goes on and on and on and on about Harry fainting because of the dementors. But then he pulls a total drama queen when Buckbeak scratches him. How do Harry and Ron not kill him for that? He gave them so much material!

Let's contrast this with Snape: Snape is a mean, petty little man, but not only is he the secret hero in Book 1, he's also right a lot of the time. Yes, it's always wrong how he treats children (a grown man has no excuse to be that much of a bully to 11- and 12-year-olds), but he has a point when he talks about Harry being an inveterate rule-breaker and how Dumbledore unreasonably favors him.

3) The climax of the Prisoner of Azkaban movie is actually much better than the book's. Heresy, I know, but the structure is much tighter and more suspenseful in the film. In the book, there are only a few, fleeting high-pressure moments on Harry and Hermione when the go back in time; in the movie, the second run-through is (as I recall) more exciting the first. Good job, screenwriter and director.

4) I really, really love the scene where Harry first meets Ron. It's so cute. Plus, it highlights one of the most interesting aspects of the Ron-Harry friendship: how each one is jealous of what the other has. (Ron wishes he had Harry's fame and money; Harry wishes he had Ron's family and wizarding-world knowledge.)

5) I finally figured out how Harry could have gotten along with the Dursleys. I've always felt like there was something he could do to try to live more peaceably with them, because although it's mostly their fault, it's a little him, too. "Keep a civil tongue in your head" clearly wouldn't be enough, though, since they're so horrible. But! Harry has lots of wizard money, and the Dursleys like regular money. He should have just converted some of his cash into some Muggle cash and paid them to be nicer to him. Heck, he could just have paid off Dudley, because Vernon and Petunia don't really get set off unless Dudley (or an owl of some sort) is involved. All he'd need to do was set an amount they (or he) would earn at the end of the summer if they avoided verbally and physically abusing him and decrease the amount any time they (or he) crossed the line. Harry's second-biggest life problem: solved.
Click here to read more . . .

Saturday, November 6, 2010

One Book I Did Not Like

Ahoy there!

In my first effort to get back in the blogging saddle, I'm going to repeat something I already wrote on the internet. Baby steps!

I just finished this book called Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It. As you will be able to tell from my Goodreads review, it did not live up to my expectations:

I saw this book come through at my library, and I thought "What a great topic for a book!" And it is a great topic. It's too bad it was, in my opinion, really mishandled.

The book has quite a bit of breadth (74 "states" are covered), but no depth. Each "state" gets two pages, one of which is a full-page map. The facing page contains more pictures (which are often only tangentially related to the topic); lots of tepid, uncreative jokes; and a little information.

The maps range from interesting to out-and-out bad (one clearly has hand-drawn marker on it; one has Wyoming on the western border of Kansas--which is the reason I downgraded the book from two stars). I think there were . . . maybe four? historical facts that I learned from a 160-page book, but the history was, in places, just as bad as the maps (quote: "[George Washington] was the most popular and powerful man in the world." WILDLY FALSE. WILDLY.)

I don't know who this book is aimed at. It doesn't give enough background information to teach much to American history novices (it would have helped a little if the order of the "states" were chronological instead of alphabetical), and it's too superficial to teach anything to people who already have solid American history background.

In short, this is a book with the pace and tone of an Uncle John's Bathroom Reader, but without the depth or intelligence.
Click here to read more . . .

Monday, September 27, 2010

Things I Found In Or On Library DVD Cases Today

a half-smoked cigarette


Click here to read more . . .

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Work Story

Last night, two of my co-workers and I noticed this cookbook all about recipes you can make in a 9x13 pan. We were all pretty excited about how good it looked.

While we were geeking out about the book, an 11-(or so)-year-old girl came up to the desk and was like, "Ooh, what book is it?"

My co-worker Acacia: "It's a cookbook."

Girl: " . . . oh."

And it hit me: grown-ups are boring.

I still brought the cookbook home with me, though.
Click here to read more . . .

Monday, September 6, 2010

What my friend asked me to bring to her place to unstick her bedroom door:
a flathead screwdriver

What I brought to my friend's place to unstick her bedroom door, just in case:
a flathead screwdriver
three additional flathead screwdrivers of varying handle lengths
a Phillips head screwdriver
a hammer
a pair of scissors
a ruler
a wire hanger
a plastic hanger
a flashlight
a bag of small paintbrushes (in case something needed poking with something long and skinny)
ninja star

What my friend used to unstick her bedroom door:
a flathead screwdriver

After the door opened, I tried to convince her to let me remove her defective doorknob (with the Phillips head), but she (wisely) decided to wait til after the holiday weekend and let her maintenance people do it.
Click here to read more . . .

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


My first line of defense against BlogSpam (which, as those of you with Blogger blogs have no doubt also noticed, has gotten really persistent in recent months) is comment moderation on older posts. For some reason, the spam really loves old posts. Even weirder, the spam loves one post in particular: "If Only I Could Really Do Justice to His Adorableness . . . ", an entry I wrote three years ago about making my own South-Parkified Jim Tressel. At least once a week, I get some comment with poor English and a bunch of nonsensical links, trying to get me to buy or click or something, and I've always found it really weird. Do spammers love Jim Tressel?

If so, I guess spammers and I have something in common.

I didn't really examine the issue until I decided to write this post, but I have now decided that it's because of my use of a certain word that starts with a "diss" and ends with an "atisfied." (If I'm right, I don't want the spammers targeting this post. Although I guess that would be the best way to test my theory.) I guess the spammers are concerned that I'm not wholly content, and they just want to help.
Click here to read more . . .

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Few Things

1. I just want to draw your attention to the sidebar link to Football Gal that says "Still Not Done with Conference Shenanigans." Or the link that I embedded right there. You know, just in case you're interested in that kind of thing.

2. A couple days ago I was making a cup of tea before work, as is my wont, and the kettle started whistling so I grabbed it and poured and I poured water straight from the kettle onto my left hand. I swore only a little, set down the kettle and the mug, shoved the hand under cold water, and . . . my hand was totally fine. Don't get me wrong, I'm very glad I didn't burn the dickens out of my hand, but the whole incident makes me think a little less of my kettle.

3. Project Runway continues to be really good, you guys. Last week they had to make outfits from stuff they bought at a party store, and for the most part the dresses actually looked really good. I was impressed. Also, Tim Gunn cracked up really hard at one point, and it was awesome.

4. Well, when I said "a cup" of tea, I really meant like 15 oz of tea, because I like really huge mugs. Look at this one I got in Dodge City:
It's practically the size of my face!!

5. And in case you're wondering, yes, that picture happened because I've finally discovered the camera in my computer. Neal has made me promise not to record any vlogs, though. (He thinks they're creepy.)
Click here to read more . . .

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Pet Peeve #388

What happens when you click on your own Twitter profile:

Twitter. Listen. I am not a five-month old that you're holding up to a mirror. "Who is that tweeter? Who is that little tweeter?! That's you!"
Click here to read more . . .

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Aggie Football Preview!

Yep, as is traditional*, I've written my Aggie preview post. But if you want to read it, you've got to go over to Football Gal; that's where it is. If you go and you comment, well you'll just make me the happiest football-blogging girl in the world.

*OK, I didn't really do one in 2007, apparently. I did do the pre-conference games preview, but that's a whole separate tradition.
Click here to read more . . .

Friday, August 6, 2010

Project Runway Season 8

Yesterday I quasi-promised another book entry, but instead I want to talk about TV. Yay, TV!

Last weekend, I was babysitting, and the parents of my baby friend (we hang out and chill) have cable. Thanks to this, I caught most of the season premiere of Project Runway (my friend the baby was asleep by this time). It was pretty good times. Then I found out that Lifetime streams episodes online, so I was able to watch the part I'd missed of the first episode and, this morning, watch the second episode. This has been a revelation to me. I haven't followed the show for years, but I did love it in its heyday (Seasons 1-4, by my count). And I've surprised myself by getting really into it this time around.

Out of the 17 designers they began with, I loathed two of them instantly, deeply, and passionately (Jason and Casanova). But besides those guys, I think I like everyone else. I should be really annoyed by Ivy, but she's so happy. I can't dislike that cute little sprite! In the second episode, poor sweet Mondo broke down a bit about how he feels like people only like him for his talent instead of loving him for himself. I told him (OK, I told my computer screen), "Aww! I love you, Mondo!" That's the way this season is going so far.

One odd thing about this season is that the episodes are now 90 minutes instead of an hour. This is not universally popular, and it sounded like a bad idea to me, but I think it actually works. There's more footage of designer interaction (at their apartments, in the workroom, and most interestingly, backstage during the judging), which doesn't sound intriguing but sort of is; there's more time spent on each outfit on the runway, which is nice; and best of all, there's more quality Tim time! We get to hear him say more to each designer than "I'm worried" and "Make it work!" Although there's still a lot of those phrases, to be sure.

A final element that's going to keep me hooked on this season: Laura Bennett's blog. (Laura Bennett was "The Pregnant One" on Season 3.) Oh. My. Stars. She is so catty and so funny--and she's not just mean about the designs/designers, she also lays into the judges, the product placements, the challenge--the very conceits of the show itself. ("The episode begins with Sarah waking up and thinking that reality-TV competition shows might really be about contestant torture. She is also thinking that it is actually her parents who put presents under the Christmas tree, but she's not sure.") I am enthralled. Absolutely enthralled.

Anyhoodle, if you, like me, don't get to watch Project Runway on a television set, you can watch the first episode here and the second one here. If you are able to watch it on a television set, I'm still jealous. (This week's internet commercial breaks: makeup artist/supervillain Collier Strong* tells you to cover your lips with lipliner before putting on gloss, for some reason. Six times.)

*Observation that Collier Strong looks like somebody who's prone to holding the world hostage with his nuclear arsenal is TM Neal.

**I chose that picture at the top because it looks like a poster for a movie where Heidi is a young ingenue spy in over her head in a world she never made, while Tim looks like the evil, corrupt CIA head who pulls the world's strings from the shadows. I know that's a lot of cliches, but what do you expect from Hollywood?

Edited to add: I just discovered that Tim Gunn vlogs about each episode on his Facebook page! Watch the one for the first episode if you want to hear Tim Gunn say the phrase "crack-smoking judges" repeatedly. I know I did!
Click here to read more . . .

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Books and Books in Brief

Again, I've read too many books since my last books and books to put them all in one post. There are four that I want to talk about at length, so I'll do that . . . let's say tomorrow? And the rest I'll try to put in nutshells here.

An Accomplished Woman, by Jude Morgan
This is a modern book written in the vein of Jane Austen, and it's very well done. It started kind of slow--it's one of those things where the protagonist keeps insisting and insisting she's not going to do a particular thing, when OF COURSE she's going to do it, because the narrative demands it, and I hate it when the author delays the start of their real plot that way--but once things get going, it's very entertaining. Not surprising, but entertaining.

She Looks Just Like You: A Memoir of (Nonbiological Lesbian) Motherhood, by Amie Klempnauer Miller
So boring. Not only is she fairly repetitive, but she focuses on the really standard problems and issues of parenthood--which would be fine if she had an interesting spin or style to put on it, but she just doesn't. She frets a lot over being the "other" mother, but in a dull way. To add insult to injury, she sometimes hints at interesting topics and deliberately skirts them (fleeting glimpses of her own possibly crazy mother go nowhere; there was apparently some drama when she and her partner first got together but she doesn't get into it). She doesn't even have any good stories about people looking at her weird because the baby has two mommies. Once you've read the title, you've gotten as much out of this book as I have.

Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay
This is a kind of fantasy/historical fiction work about 8th Century China, and I was bowled over by how good it was. Even though it was a little uneven, I thought it was, overall, beautifully and masterfully written. I feel like I can't describe it much more without giving things away, so I'll leave it at I loved it, and I'm definitely going to seek out more of his books.

The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook: A Guide to the World's Best Teas, by Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss
This was the most pretentious book I've ever read, and I used to be in academia. Yeah. It's one-third pretentious instruction about tea (tea bags are evil, find a trusted tea dealer who imports directly from China, use the purest water possible BUT NO DISTILLED!) and two-thirds reference material about different types of tea. Admittedly, I found it a little useful when Neal and I visited a real-live tea shop, but mostly I thought it was inadvertently hilarious.

SuperFreakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Even better than Freakonomics. The first one starts strong and then gets weaker as it goes along; this one is really solid and really interesting all the way through. It's great.

The Pioneer Woman Cooks, by Ree Drummond
I've been visiting her website for a while, and I adapted/adopted her pot roast recipe, but once I brought this cookbook home, Neal has overtaken me as a Pioneer Woman recipe fan. A very few minutes of looking at the book convinced him that we needed to buy it, so we did. It's been a big success.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
Oh man, such a bummer. It's more like a collection of short stories than a novel, but the character Olive Kitteridge--who is a mean, depressed, rather horrible old woman from Maine--ties them together. Some people really like this book, because it is well-written and original. One of my co-workers recommended it to me, and I recommended it to my friend who likes depressing books. She's going to love it.

Ocho Cinco: What Football and Life Have Thrown My Way, by Chad "Ochocinco" Ochocinco
Prepare to be shocked: this book is pointless. It's written as if Chad is talking to you, so it's not very organized or purposeful. Also, Chad "Ochocinco" Ochocinco is a ridiculous manchild, as the book does not hesitate to inform you. I finished it, although I couldn't really tell you why.

Books I tried to read but gave up on:
A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick
The most painfully dated vision of a dystopian future I've ever read or seen.

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake
I picked this one up out of morbid curiosity because a friend of mine hated it (and resented that all the critics who liked The Help also liked this). I got maybe 10 pages into it before I realized she was right--it just came off as stupid. All the dialogue and inner monologues were ickily unrealistic, and then there was a line about the new moon shining and that's where I stopped.

Up next time: two books I really liked, and two in series that I used to like that are now almost unbearably disappointing!
Click here to read more . . .

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Three Miscellaneous Internet Items

1. Somehow I just found today. I feel like this should have happened much earlier. She's very very funny. (She swears a lot, though, just so you know.) I feel like I've tried to get into blogs by a series of big-personality lady bloggers, and at some point they just get annoying. (I don't want to name any names, because I don't want them to Google themselves and get their feelings hurt.) I'm hoping this is the one that will finally be different.

edited to add: After posting this, I read this "advice" column piece The Bloggess wrote, and at the answer to the second question, I almost had some kind of attack, I laughed so hard.

2. The Fug Girls always have interesting links up on Fridays, and this week they sent me to Catalog Living. I read it all the way through and laughed so hard I thought I might throw up; then I read it all the way through and laughed even harder (though not, luckily, so hard that I actually threw up). I'd explain the premise, but it'll make more sense if you just start reading it.

3. I haven't told you about Wonderella yet! Oversight. The Non-Adventures of Wonderella is a pretty funny (and cool-looking, I think) webcomic. I recommend reading it from the beginning, less because there's an important overarching story (there isn't), then because of in-joke progression. Or look at this one if you want a good example. (I know there are better ones, but I lost my "really excellent comics" bookmarks when my last computer died. So many lost Dinosaur Comics . . . .) It's good!

Click here to read more . . .

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Neal and I just got back from what was easily the most epic roadtrip we have ever undertaken. And, if we've learned our lesson, the most epic roadtrip we will ever undertake. It looked like this:For those keeping track, it was over 2800 miles. That's right; Neal got the oil changed shortly before we left, and will need to get it changed again almost immediately. We saw a lot of great people and did a lot of fun things but seriously, next time we go to Texas from Wisconsin, we are flying.

I'm pretty bad about taking pictures, but I do have this photographic proof that Neal has now been to the A&M campus.
I could also give you photographic proof that we saw Nancy, but the picture of her and me is, to speak only for myself, very unflattering.

I'm totally willing to show you this one of Neal posing with a gigantic quesadilla, though.
Here's what happened: Nancy took us to a (very good) Mexican restaurant in Houston. Nancy and I ordered small quesadillas. As he explained, he thought that if we (dainty women) were getting the small, he should order the large. But then it turned out to be hilariously large.
Once we got to Kansas, the pace of our trip got much more relaxed. (We were in Montgomery, Houston, and College Station for one day apiece before we drove up to Bison.) But we did get to be touristy when my parents took us to Dodge City.
Outside of town, there's a "scenic overlook" which overlooks . . . wait for it . . . a feed lot. You can't see all the cows very well in this one, but here's us pretending to be really psyched:
And here's my dad demonstrating the "scenic overlook" 's most noticeable feature:
(OK, full disclosure: it was actually a cool day and the wind was blowing in a nice direction, so it didn't stink at all. It usually would, though!)

We visited the Boot Hill area and got to witness a real live fake gunfight!

These were some pretty suspicious characters, I tell you what.

We also stopped by the new casino outside of town. Here's my dad illustrating the before and after of casino funtimes:
Although, again, full disclosure, I made money at the casino. That's right! I played the slots for about three minutes, won $139, and immediately stopped playing the slots. (I knew that once was as many times as I was going to be that lucky.) Admittedly, I then "reinvested" $40 playing blackjack, but still!

In conclusion, during those periods in which we were not trapped in our car, good times were had by all!
Click here to read more . . .

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Another Blog-venture!

Well, I wanted to put up a picture-filled post about the trip we just got back from, but Blogger's being a jerk about uploading pictures right now. So first, let me tell you about a project upon which I am embarking.

I'm starting yet another new different blog!

I know, I know, I keep saying I'm starting a new blog, and I get all excited about it, and then I post a couple times and then let it quietly die. Well, if that's what happens this time, so be it! I want to start a football blog and I don't care who judges me!

Oh, that's what it is, by the way--a football blog. It's The Football Gal, in fact. (Although the title indicates that I'm calling myself The Football Gal, I've started thinking of the blog itself as Football Gal, which has gotten me thinking of the blog as a "she" instead of an "it." It's kind of weird.)

I'll be posting my Aggie season preview over at Football Gal (see?) pretty soon, but for now, please enjoy some thoughts about the Golden Gophers and the Buckeyes, me making fun of some guys' names, and a poem about an NFL announcer. Also, if you would leave some comments or someday, in the fullness of time, if I do happen to keep up with it, tell your friends about Football Gal. Why, that would make me that happiest gal around.
Click here to read more . . .

Thursday, June 24, 2010

True Rules

I'm just finished reading The Happiness Project (and I'll elaborate on this later but, you guys, so good), and one of the topics the author address is what she calls "True rules"--statements of personal truth that you live by, even if you don't necessarily articulate them. (You could also call them rules of thumb or, if you wanted to be fancy, heuristics.) They may be helpful ("Whenever possible, choose vegetables") or unhelpful ("I'm in a hurry"); general ("My children are my most important priority") or specific ("Never eat hors d'oeuvres, and never eat anything at a children's party").

I think you know where I'm going with this--I decided to figure out some of my "true rules."

It never hurts to be polite.

Talk to children like they're people.

Most people are wrong about what the phrase "small town" means.

Don't shop any longer or any harder than absolutely necessary.

Don't think about money any longer or any harder than absolutely necessary.

If something won't get used, throw it away.

Ask questions.
Click here to read more . . .

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


OK, friends, one last conference blog post. Sorry, but writing these is very cathartic for me.

When I found out last night that everybody left in the Big XII is staying in the Big XII, I felt incredibly relieved. And when I say "felt," I mean that I physically felt better--I had apparently been carrying around some tension for the several days that I was consumed by conference realignment.

I want to pause here and give credit to Big XII commission Dan Beebe, whom I've been making fun of for being a loser. While the Pac-10 was making up numbers--oh, I mean coming up with "projections"--for how much money the Pac-16 would bring in (and, as my dad put it, was ignoring how much of this supposed money would be burned up "flying the volleyball team to Corvallis on a Wednesday"), Dan Beebe went out and talked to the real TV networks involved in doling out money. He presented the schools involved with numbers that might actually be connected with reality, and I'm sure he negotiated to make sure those numbers were good. Well done, Dan Beebe. (Although some unknown amount of credit surely goes to unnamed major power players in Texas and perhaps Oklahoma, putting pressure on people behind the scenes.)

I've seen people complaining about this decision on the internet, mostly Aggie fans. Over the weekend, a lot of fan support for joining the SEC welled up, and those people are disappointed that we're A) just doing what t.u. wants to do after all and B) staying in an inferior conference. Both of those points are true, but both of those points are good things.

How dumb would the War Hymn sound if we stopped playing t.u.? It would hurt to lose that Thanksgiving game, and we all know it. It wouldn't have been worth staying with t.u. at all costs (say, joining the stupid Pac-16), but it's a great thing to do at a low cost. And is it a cost?

Being in the SEC might have improved Aggie football--maybe playing in the nation's best football conference would have proven to be a recruiting boon. But would it have offset how many more losses we would have had against beefed up competition? I doubt it. A&M would have lost a lot more games in the SEC, and we all know it. I hope to see the day when A&M re-becomes a contender for conference and national titles, but I believe that day has a better chance of happening sooner (and at all) in the Big XII, however many teams it has.

I do not agree that what happened somehow degraded A&M's "manhood." A&M leadership were never as bootlicky to t.u. as Oklahoma's (not to mention Tech and Oke State, or of course Baylor's sad desperation). They saw that the Pac-16 was not in their school's best interest and didn't play along. Staying in the Big XII was not knuckling under (like joining the Pac-16 would have been), and there's no shame in it. A&M is, if you haven't noticed, getting credit in the national media for averting the Pac-16. All the writers know that t.u. was the big dog in all of this (because, let's face it, they are), but tend to point out that A&M's refusal to go along blindly changed t.u.'s direction. A&M made the right decision, based on the right motivations.

I realize that not everything is magically fixed now, but I see quite a few things to get kind of excited about. Yes, this is not necessarily a permanent solution. Other conferences may still try (and even succeed) to pick off the remaining Big XII teams. Or maybe not--perhaps the brief flirtation with the idea of "superconferences" (which would be terrible) has been just that, and we'll all re-embrace the 12-team conference (it's the best number for a conference). Maybe the Big XII will expand? I would like to see that (remember that thing I just said, about 12 teams?). I like the conference championship game. The obvious target would be TCU; I just don't know who else might be good. Imagine, though, a Big XII conference where Oklahoma and Oke State are in the North Division--that solves some problems.

Well, that's what I think. What do you think?

Edited to add: Oh yeah, and the conference name thing is going to be ridiculous. It was bad enough when the Big Ten having twelve teams and the Big XII having ten teams seemed temporary . . .
Click here to read more . . .

Friday, June 11, 2010

More Conference Wackiness

Another long post, sorry. But now that I've gotten on board the conference expansion punditry bandwagon, I may as well keep going, right?

The thing that happened today: Nebraska "applied for membership" in the Big Ten and its "application" was "accepted." (From the Big Ten's website: "In order for an institution to be admitted to the Big Ten Conference, it must submit a written application, which must then be approved by at least 70 percent of the Big Ten COP/C. The University of Nebraska Board of Regents formally submitted an application to join the Big Ten Conference Friday afternoon. The Big Ten COP/C then met via conference call and approved Nebraska's application".) Clearly, everybody involved had already decided this was going to go down, but when your conference is 114 years old, I think we can forgive a little pretentious formality.

The one thing about this that surprised me is that Nebraska will be moving on this relatively quickly, with "competition to begin in all sports for the 2011-2012 school year." (In contrast, Colorado is expected [as of now] to start competing with the Pac-whatevernumber in 2012.) They might incur some financial penalties for bailing with so little notice, if there remains a Big XII to which to pay penalties. On the bright side, that means there'll just be one really awkward year of Zombie 12 competition. I think we're all relieved about that.

The other item of note from that press release: no hint of an impending conference name-change. Are we really going to have to keep up with this farce of a conference called the Big Ten having a number of members becoming increasingly distant from ten? Not that I have any good suggestions. They can't be the Big Twelve because that's copyrighted and, apparently, cursed.

The other Thing That Happened today was that Boise State moved from the Western Athletic Conference (AKA the Boise State and the Boisettes Conference, AKA the I Guess We All Have to Pay for Flights to Hawaii, Huh? Conference) to the Mountain West Conference, which is a move I find quietly intriguing. As I mentioned in the comments yesterday, I cherish a small hope that perhaps the MWC can make the jump from middling to major conference--they've at least got the best chance of any of the middling conferences to do so. If they're going to, wooing Boise State is a good step (although it will subject MWC fans to watching games played on that awful, awful field).

But enough about things that happened. Let's turn our attention to rumors and speculation!

First of all, it's looking less and less likely that the Big Ten is going to issue an invite to Missouri anytime in the foreseeable future. This is hilarious. They were the ones who've been threatening the rest of the Big XII with leaving for the Big Ten, but I guess they forgot that they were, at best, the Big Ten's third choice. I think their outspoken snittiness at least contributed to the destabilization of the Big XII, so this is enjoyable comeuppance. It's even worse than getting passed over for that bowl game, isn't it, Mizzou?

Second of all, there are some rumors floating around out there that the proposed rat king of a conference, the Pac-16, may not be a sure thing. Yesterday there was outlier talk that perhaps t.u. and A&M would go to the Big Ten while Oklahoma would go to the SEC while Oklahoma State would still end up going to the Pac-10 (for some reason). This scenario would depend (among other things) on t.u. and A&M being able to ditch Texas Tech, since Tech would not meet the Big Ten's academic standards.

Topic to which I will return later: yes, the Big Ten genuinely has academic standards. It's more usual (I believe) to associate the Pac-10 with scholarly snootiness, but they don't have the surprisingly high standards of the Big Ten.

More interesting and more credible rumors have been flying today about the possibility of A&M breaking away from t.u. and doing its own thing--specifically, joining the SEC. Rumblings about this have been reported on Sports Illustrated's site, ESPN, and elsewhere. I just don't know how credible these reports are or, if they are credible, if the sources are just bluffing. I know Gene Stallings told some people that staying with t.u. is not a sure thing, but has anybody else said so? It's true that no A&M sources have seemed as outspoken about wanting to stay with texas as people from Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have, but is that just because A&M doesn't want to look as sycophantic as the Okies? Also, would the Texas legislature allow this to happen? (Is the Texas legislature in session right now? I assume not, since it usually isn't.)

A part of me is kind of hoping for the SEC move to happen. I am not excited about the Pac-16. I'm really not. I don't see how a 16-team conference will even work (the WAC tried it and it failed abysmally). Also, SEC football is the best football but, I realize, that's a double-edged sword. I think it would be fun to be an SEC fan, but I can't pretend than A&M would have an easy time winning there. It would be really, really hard, and A&M has had a hard enough time in recent years that it's tough to be optimistic about our chances in a better conference. Maybe the Pac-16 deal will be for the best, meaning of course "the best" out of a bunch of lousy options.


So, I made the mistake a few times today of reading comments after some articles. What these made clear to me (besides the eternal lesson of "don't read comments") was that the average sports fan/internet commenter knows jack about Texas A&M. A recurring opinion was, in a nutshell, screw A&M, they'd be a better academic fit in the SEC anyway because they suck as a school. This is stupid.

I know that most of the people who read this blog are sympathetic to Texas A&M anyway, but I want to arm you with some facts in case you get into discussions/arguments with other people.

Fact: Texas A&M consistently ranks in the top 25 in US News and World Report's public university rankings; it is 22 this year, 61st overall, and is considered a Tier 1 university. These rankings aren't the last and only word on the quality of academic institutions, but they are widely respected and useful. So:

In the Big 12 as it existed on Monday (that is, with 12 schools), A&M was the second-highest ranked university, trailing only texas. Colorado was the third-highest, at 77.

If A&M were dropped into the Big Ten as it existed on Monday, they would be a little below middle of the pack, tying at 7th with Purdue and Minnesota (behind Northwestern, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Penn State, and Ohio State. texas would tie at 5th with Penn State; despite its fairly solid academic profile, Colorado would be [and Nebraska will be] dead last in the conference).

If A&M were dropped into the Pac-10 as it existed on Monday, they would come in a trifle higher, at sixth (behind Stanford, Cal, UCLA, USC, and Washington; because of a wide gap in the middle of the Pac-10, texas would also be/will be? sixth and Colorado is sixth).

If A&M were to join the SEC tomorrow, they would actually drop from their Big XII spot, coming in 4th behind Vanderbilt, Florida, and Georgia. Academically, the SEC is weaker overall, but pretty strong at the top.

The point is, Texas A&M would, academically speaking, easily qualify for any conference out there. (OK, not the Ivy League, but you know what I mean.)

Another Fact: Texas A&M is a member of the American Association of Universities.

The AAU is an important organization of research universities. It only has 63 members, and membership in it is a pretty cut-and-dried signal of academic prestige. One of the ways you can tell that the Big Ten doesn't mess around academically is that every single member of the Big Ten is also in the AAU. Seven old Big XII schools are in it (t.u. and A&M, plus everybody in the North but K-State), seven Pac-10 schools are in it, and only two SEC schools (Vandy and Florida) are in it. This is just another way in which A&M would not only fail to detract from a conference's academic pedigree, but in most cases enhance it.

In conclusion, if anybody tries to tell you that A&M is a stupid school, you will know (if you didn't already) that that person is only showcasing his or her own ignorance.

I'll put the US News and World Report scores I compiled after the break.

The magazine ranks the top half of American colleges, then puts the bottom half unranked into their third and fourth tiers (so, if you divide colleges into quarters, third tier schools are in the second-lowest of those quarters. And no, there's no second tier for some reason).

Old Big 12:
1. t.u.: 47th
2. A&M: 61st
3. Colorado: 77th
4. Baylor: 80th
5. Iowa State: 88th
6. Nebraska: 96th
Kansas: 96th
8. OU: 102nd
Mizzou: 102nd
10. Tech, Oke State, and K-State: third tier

Old Big Ten
1. Northwestern: 12th
2. Michigan: 27th
3. Wisconsin: 39th
Illinois: 39th
5. Penn State: 47th
6. Ohio State: 53rd
7. Purdue: 61st
Minnesota: 61st
9. Iowa: 71st
Indiana: 71st
Michigan State: 71st
(so in the New Big Ten, Nebraska will be #12)

Old Pac-10
1. Stanford: 4th
2. Cal-Berkeley: 21st
3. UCLA: 24th
4. USC: 26th
5. Washington: 42nd
(and here's that gap where Colorado will go, and where t.u. and A&M might go)
6. Arizona: 102nd (where it would tie with OU)
7. Washington State: 106th
8. Oregon: 115th
9. Arizona State: 121st
10. Oregon State: third tier

1. Vanderbilt: 17th
2. Florida: 47th
3. Georgia: 58th
4. Auburn: 88th
5. 'Bama: 96th
6. Tennessee: 106th
7. South Carolina: 110th
8. Arkansas: 128th
LSU: 128th
Kentucky: 128th
11: Mississippi State and Ole Miss: third tier (insert obvious Mississippi joke here)
Click here to read more . . .

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Conference Suicide

This is a long one, because I've got a lot to say. Buckle up. Oh, and it's only current through 1:30 Central, so keep that in mind.

There have been rumors and rumblings about schools possibly leaving the Big XII for months. I haven't commented about them on the blog before because it's very upsetting to me (this is also why I rarely write about politics). It's upsetting for two reasons: first, I'm very attached to the Big XII. I think it's a very good conference and am going to miss it when it's gone. The second reason is that's all just stupid.

For those of you who haven't been following the story, here's what's up: months ago, the Big Ten (which is comprised of eleven schools, natch) announced that they wanted to expand. This makes perfect sense. Now, athletic conferences affect many sports, but we're just going to focus on football, because, as the thing from whence the money comes, that's what's driving all of these actions. The Big Ten, with its eleven members, can't have divisions or a conference championship. You need 12 to do that. It is also a quirk of the Big Ten football schedule that it wraps up the weekend before Thanksgiving, meaning that it stops getting attention well before the other conferences, who keep playing. (This was also a big deal for the 2006 championship, when much was made of Ohio State's five weeks off from playing compared to Florida's three. It was theorized that all that time away took off tOSU's edge and, indeed, they performed much worse that you would have thought based on how they played during the season.) If the Big Ten had a conference championship, it would extend their pre-bowl season.

The question has always been, who would the Big Ten recruit? The answer seems to be Nebraska. This makes sense for the Big Ten, because it would widen their "TV footprint" (although only by the area of Nebraska, which contains no important TV markets), and of course Nebraska has its impressive football cache and broad fanbase.

Does it makes sense for Nebraska? I suppose it does. Their style of football (some would call it “smashmouth,” others would call it “boring”) fits with Big Ten style. And it makes sense geographically/culturally, I suppose, although not necessarily more sense than the Big XII makes. The real question is why Nebraska would want to leave the Big XII. Is it the different football sensibility (Nebraska having no truck with all that passing nonsense everybody else wants to do)? Is it the disparity between the North and South divisions (which, even though the weak North is good for Nebraska’s win-loss total, makes Nebraska’s schedule look weaker than it needs to be)? Or is it, depressingly, just the money?

The Big XII doesn’t pay out as many millions as the Big Ten as things stand now, mostly (as I understand it) because of the Big Ten Network. The conference owns it, so they get all the profit from the not-inconsiderable number of games they broadcast. This is the weird thing to me: as a resident of Big Ten country, it seems to me that most people around here who actually like watching football games hate the Big Ten Network. It’s expensive to get (being way up on the cable tiers), meaning that Big Ten Network games are games that you have to go to sports bar to watch or that you just miss. Given, I haven’t heard as many complaints about it recently as I did when it first launched, so either the situation has improved or people have gotten used to it. Still, it puzzles me when fans of other conferences talk about how they should get their own network too. It makes sense if you’re making money off of it, but not necessarily if you just want to watch some football.

My theory is that it’s a combination of the money, a desire to join kindred football spirits (who will be more prestigious to defeat than Iowa State yet easier to beat than texas), and a lack of rivalry glue within the Big XII. Whereas texas and Texas A&M don’t go conference-hopping without each other, Nebraska doesn’t have anybody like than in the Big XII. Admittedly, I’m not a huge expert on the mentality of the Nebraska fan, but I don’t feel like they really have anybody fun to hate. KU and K-State are, in the historical view, terrible at football; Nebraska may have a little more going on with Missouri or Colorado, but it’s nothing ESPN announcers gush about, you know? (Also, nobody cares about Iowa State besides maybe Iowa fans for one week a year.) Nebraska’s greatest Big Eight rival was Oklahoma and because of the Big XII’s rigid scheduling, they only play twice every four years (not even every other year; two on and two off). Perhaps this was a mistake. Take the SEC for instance—when it was split into divisions, provision was made for historic rivals to keep playing every year. Tennessee is in the East and Alabama in the West, but since the Tennessee-Alabama game is a big deal, it happens every single year. If Nebraska were playing Oklahoma every year, would it be harder to leave?

There has also been talk of Missouri bolting for the Big Ten (in case they wanted to be the Big T(hirte)en, I guess?) but I’m less sure what’s going on there. That is, I’m sure it’s because Mizzou has their collective panties in a wad over being passed over in Big XII’s bowl bids last year, losing out on a sweeter bowl to the inferior Iowa State. Attention, Missouri: it’s because your fans are terrible and don’t travel well. Get on that. Anyway, what I’m unsure about is whether the Big Ten really wants them. I don't think they do. If they get Nebraska, they’ll call it a day.

OK, stage three: I once read an article that described the Big XII as a conference with two 800-lb gorillas, Nebraska in the north and texas in the south. Without Nebraska, the conference becomes unattractive to texas. That blow to the conference’s prestige makes it not good enough for what is, objectively, one of the nation’s finest athletic programs. But where to go? And here’s where it starts getting, in my opinion, kind of stupid.

With the Big Ten’s talk of expansion and the increasing likelihood that the Big XII will become a carcass for the picking-apart, the Pac-10 has gotten in on the "fun." It's already poached Colorado. That's not super-important; the Big XII could survive without Colorado, replacing with, I dunno, somebody. Colorado isn't a deal-breaker. Its leaving is a symptom of Big XII death, not a cause.

But the Pac-10 isn't done! Oh no. Why stop at Pac-11 or Pac-12 when you could be The Pac-16, Conference Supreme!? Why add a bunch of teams from Texas and Oklahoma to the Pacific Athletic Conference? WHY NOT.

Basically, the Pac-10's supervillain plan is to poach not just Colorado, but also texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech. Then the old Big XII teams would be put into an eastern division with Arizona and Arizona State, while those Pac-10 teams that have any relation at all to the Pacific Ocean would be in the western division. This is baffling to me. Oklahoma State and Oregon State in the same conference? I just . . . it's . . . what? Sure, this conference (or "super conference" as ESPN's Mark May put it) would make a lot of cash--but then, they'll spend a lot of cash on travel expenses--but it just doesn't make the sense that the Big XII (or the existing Pac-10) does.

One interesting facet of this: Baylor. Baylor was lobbying to be in the new Pac-10 group instead of Colorado, but now of course, that ain't happ'nin'. And why would it? The Pac-10 wouldn't want to touch Baylor with a ten-foot pole. (Or, as it would need to be, a 2,100-mile-long pole.) Baylor shouldn't be in a major conference, and it's hard to see, in the likely event that the Big XII goes extinct, how it will be. The wild card is that Baylor alumni have political pull within the state of Texas, and they're using that leverage with the other Texas schools to try to stay together in a group. That's how they (and Texas Tech) got into the Big XII in the first place. I doubt if it will enough this time, though.

I wish the Big XII would just stay together (well, at this point, "stay together" with the remaining 11 members and some replacement for Colorado), but I think it won't. I shouldn't be this worried about it, because A&M is going to be fine. Even if we didn't have the understanding with texas, we've been flirting with the SEC for years, apparently (and Sports Illustrated has a very, very interesting article about the possibility), and that would be a pretty soft landing (although we'd be soft targets for SEC teams as the program stands now). But I don't wanna be a Pac-10 fan. And I was never a big K-State or KU fan, but I have a little affection in that direction, and I have no idea what would happen to them (or Iowa State or probably Missouri, but I don't care about those guys). Geographically and historically, I just don't know either who they'd join or what they could cobble together. Nothing springs to mind at all.

I don't blame the Big Ten for wanting to expand. I don't blame Nebraska for wanting to go. I don't blame texas and the Texettes for wanting to go if Nebraska goes. I guess I don't blame the Pac-10 for wanting to take over the world. So whom do I blame for all of this? That's easy. Notre Dame.

Notre Dame is a perfect fit for the Big Ten. There's no reason for Notre Dame to be independent except that it gives them more flexibility in their schedule to play terrible teams and inflate their win total. They bring in a little more money with their independent television contract than the Big Ten currently pays out to its member schools, but the Big Ten's total and Notre Dame's share would increase with Notre Dame in the mix. If Notre Dame would have just done the obvious thing and join a conference already, no dominoes would have had to fall anywhere. The Big Ten would get better and everybody else could have stayed the same. But no. Notre Dame is killing the Big XII, which gives me just one more reason to hate them.

If you'd like to follow along with the drama, I'd recommend the ESPN Big XII blogger's page.
Click here to read more . . .

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Still More Books and Books: the Funny, Light, and Popular

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
I lost count of how many people told me I needed to read The Help. "It's so good!" I heard, over and over and over. It's extremely popular at my library, so by the time I got on the hold list for it, I was 997th in line. Luckily, one of my co-workers had jumped on it much earlier, and let me read her copy once she was done with it. As it turns out, all those people who told me it's great were entirely correct. It's about black maids in the 60s and their complicated relationships with the white women and children they work for and again, it's super good. Go read it (if you can get your hands on it, that is.)

Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, by Vicki Myron and Bret Witter
Aaaand at the other end of the spectrum, there's this book about a cat. See, there was this library in Iowa in the 80s and times were bad, but the librarian found this cat who was really friendly and everyone in town really loved him and zzzzzzzzzzzzz. I read up to a little less than halfway through (it is, somehow, a 277-page book) and then gave up, so I can't tell you how he "touched the world." He sounds like a perfectly good cat, but . . . he was just a cat.

Committed: Confessions of a Fantasy Football Junkie, by Mark St. Amant
Speaking of writing a whole book about something there isn't all that much to say about, there's this one about some random dude's fantasy football season. I actually finished this one, despite the fact that the dude has a writing style that is both repetitive and derivative of Bill Simmons' (and since the guy is, like Simmons, from Boston, I refuse to believe that's a coincidence). It gave me some food for thought on what I'll try to do with my fantasy football team this upcoming season, though, and I guess that's good enough.

Silent in the Grave, by Deanna Raybourn
This was a MacKenzie recommendation, and I liked it. I know this is lazy, but now I'm going to copy-and-paste the review I wrote on Goodreads: This book is good enough that I want to read the next one in the series, but not good enough that I want to read the next one immediately. On the con side, Raybourn revisits a lot of Sherlock Holmesian cliches in her Nicholas Brisbane (but then, how can you write a male Victorian detective without ripping off Sherlock Holmes?) and I knew who the murderer was from, like, the scene where the-person-who-would-ultimately-revealed-as-the-murderer was introduced. Oh, and I didn't find the romantic stuff at all convincing. On the pro side, it's brisk, funny, and likable. Pretty good, I say.

The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family, by Dan Savage
As you know, I like Dan Savage, and as you also know, I am very pro-gay marriage. It is therefore unsurprising that I really enjoyed this book, which mixed the autobiographical tale of how Dan and his partner Terry decided whether to get married (one of the big factors: pressure to get married by Dan's mom) with Dan's cogent, common-sense arguments in favor of the legalization of gay marriage. It's very good (although I probably liked The Kid better).

Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
I saw the movie based on this book--in the theater, no less. I liked it, and I like Neil Gaiman (mostly because he co-wrote Good Omens with Terry Pratchett), so I plucked Stardust off the shelf at work on a whim. The first half is really good, better than the movie (because, as novels do, it gets to explain and explore more than a 90-minute film). But then the second half gets kind of weird--not weird in an obvious way (because it was already weird, what with witches and ships flying through clouds, an alternate reality, etc.) but in a structural way. The pace, instead of accelerating as it does in almost any other book, slows down--there are a few sequences of "and then a few weeks passed." (Now, here are some vague spoilers, so stop reading if you don't want the broad strokes of how the book ends.) And then there's no climax. It's a book with a hero, a damsel in distress, and a very evil villain, but the hero and villain never face off! The villain is just like, "I guess I failed. Welp, whaddaya gonna do?" And then the very end is sort of sad. The second half is, therefore, inferior to the movie (and shows why the screenwriter pretty much made up new stuff for the second half of the film). Now: I know some people would like this sort of convention-defying structure, but it didn't fly with me. Why am I going to all the work of reading the darn thing if there's no payoff? But then, on the other hand, I read it in like three hours, so "all the work" is overstating it by quite a bit.

In conclusion, I don't disrecommend it.
Click here to read more . . .

Monday, June 7, 2010

Still More Books and Books: the Serious, Classy, and Classic

I've gone so long since the last books and books entry that putting all the books I've read into one would make it really long. That's why I'm semi-arbitrarily splitting them into serious/classy/classic vs. funny/light/popular. (I know some of these are popular, but hey, some of the next batch are serious.) Part 2 will go up tomorrow.

Little Women
, by Louisa May Alcott

It's true, I had never read Little Women before. I knew the general outlines of what happens, though, since I am an adult human. There were a couple of surprises, though. First, I was taken aback that the book is incredibly preachy and moralizing and yet still enjoyable. Second, I had no idea how long the book was. It is so long, you guys. Sweet merciful heavens. For the most part, I did enjoy it, except that I couldn't stand Meg's stupid babies. They're so annoying. There's one chapter that announced up front that it was going to tell all about Meg's stupid babies, and I was like, "I'm out" and skipped to the next one. Other than that, though, it was good.

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen
This was the last Austen book I hadn't read. I have mixed feelings about it--the funny parts were, I thought, funnier than in other Austen books, but it was also largely pointless. I also hated the guy the heroine ends up with; he wasn't any less repugnant than the villains. Overall, I think liked it better than Persuasion and Mansfield Park, but I'm sure I liked it less than Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, by Alan Sillitoe
Neal taught his own class about British history last semester, and I decided to read both the novels he assigned to his chilluns. This was the first one I tackled--an important work about disillusionment in post-war Britain. It's the kind of book you're glad you read, to get the perspective and because it's a well-respected piece of literature. It wasn't particularly fun to read (although it has its humorous moments).

Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker
Neal also assigned the first book of the Regeneration Trilogy, which is about World War I. I liked these better than Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, although again, it's not the kind of book I'd want to take to the beach, or on an airplane. These are, as Neal described them, very "literate" books. They're smart books that make you feel smart for reading them. The characters are interesting, and there's a nice mix of obviously sympathetic characters and ostensibly unsympathetic ones that gradually win you over. Also, they remind you that WWI was really horrible and stupid. And that's an important lesson.

Zeitoun, by David Eggers
This is the true account of one New Orleans family's experiences immediately before and after Hurricane Katrina. The wife left with the children while the husband stayed to look after their properties--at first, he was in a position to help the other people who stayed, but then he got arrested and imprisoned without so much as the chance to make a phone call. (It did not help that he is of Middle Eastern descent.) It's a story that shows how human nature can be both surprisingly generous/selfless and shockingly petty and cruel in times of hardship. I'm not sure whether I liked it as a book or not. There were parts that were tedious, but I certainly wasn't going to put it down until I found out what happened to the Zeitouns in the end.

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini
If you read The Kite Runner and liked it even a little, you should read this one too. If you haven't read The Kite Runner, read this anyway. The main thing I liked about The Kite Runner was that it taught me things about life in Afghanistan. A Thousand Splendid Suns is still educational in this way, although definitely less so, but it's more enjoyable as a novel. That's mostly because the protagonists of this one are likeable. It is well worth the read.
Click here to read more . . .