Friday, October 31, 2014

70s Halloween Remembered

The costumes for today's kids just aren't right. I remember the bad old days of the 70's when Halloween reached its pre-manufactured cultural low. My earliest memory of costumes consisted of wearing plastic tunics bearing the image of what I was supposed to be, and a thin plastic mask held on with elastic. These things always pinched your face a little, changed your voice, and didn't breath very well. But hey, that's what all the other kids were wearing, so it's what you wore, too. If you were lucky, the mask survived the night, but often enough the mask cracked or the elastic broke.

I know that I was a hobo one year and my sister was a gypsy because I have a picture of it. I don't remember the costume at all, but I do remember the texture on the burnt cork rubbing on my nose.

In later years I tried some different, home-made costumers. For a few years, I was a ghost. I cut holes in a sheet, but on a tie and a hat, along with a big nose attached to plastic glasses. This suit was far more comfortable than any of the kids costumes, but hot in its own way. When I was old enough to go out on my own, I wandered about in my tween years in the big glasses with the big nose. Yes, that was lame. I was lame. We all were lame. It was the 70's.

In my family, all the candy was dumped into a large pile so that my mother could pull out all the gum and anything else that looked suspect. In the 70's, everyone was afraid of adulterated food, such as razor blades and needes hidden inside them. Mind you, nobody ever knew anybody who actually did anything like that, but those were the fear. In the late 70's, some nut actually went and poisoned pain killers, killing a few people, so I can understand some caution in the late 70's. Once all the food was properly checked out, the family shared the loot. When I met my wife, I was surprised to learn that she got to keep her own candy, and keep it in her room. I never had such a privilege. Then again, if that had been true, my siblings would have stolen it all away anyway. They were shameless.

The nigh before Halloween was called moving night, because that is the night that things moved. If your house was going to get toilet papered, that was the night it would happen. My sister gathered us up once to TP our own house. Valeries has since gone on to become a professional party planner, which surprises none of us a bit. Who can't have a party with a TP's house?

Back in the 70's, there were vast herds of kids that roamed the suburbs as that was the end of the baby boom. Even at the end of the street, our house got lots of kids through. I used to give out the candy in the 80's when I was in high school. Even there we had lots of visitors. By the time that college was over, my mother had stopped stocking large hoards of candy. She had switched over to large chocolate bars as the hoards had greatly diminished.

My new house, on a culd-de-sac, barely gets anyway. The old house got lots of kids. Almost every year we got lots of kids except after 9/11. That year, I left candy on my stoop and not only did no one steal all the candy, but the candy pretty much remained there. The year after that, there was a sniper in the county shooting at school kids and parents were understandably paranoid. After that, Halloween picked back up until hoardes of hispanic kids were coming to our door.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

1989 Ford Probe

When my friends graduated from college in 1988, Jim and Greg bought themselves Ford Probes. They were sleek, sporty, and cost more than I could afford. I had an opportunity to ride in one on several occasions, and they seemed like nice cars. In a world of strange bedfellows, this was a sporty hatchback. That's rarer today, but back then there were quite a few sporty hatchbacks coming out of Japan. The answer the unasked question, no, they didn't have great engines. They were peppy, but they weren't true sports cars. At $12-15k, they were just too dear for me to buy.

To be honest, I don't recall who had which color.

Greg's probe met with a sad fate. He was driving out to the restaurant in Katawba when he hit a patch of gravel that slid him off the road, tipping both him and Steve over nose first. Fortunately my friends wore their seatbelts and everyone checked out fine. The car received a bent frame and so got totalled.

I suppose that Jim eventually just replaced his.

The interior was pretty straight forward. It was much of what you'd expect from a Japanese designed car mated up with American dash design. The interior is now modern enough that you wouldn't blink to buy a car like this today. The car featured a seat belt head which automatically retratcted when you closed the door, relieving you of pulling on your own shoulder harness. However, you did need to buckle your own lap belt, so I'm not sure what good the system really did for you. Maybe it was for all the women who didn't want to muss their dresses? I don't know.

According to Wikipedia, this car was to replace the Mustang. You can see how well that worked out. However, I do think that this car was far more appealing to the female market than the Mustang. This car definitely had more girl street cred than most sporty cars, but not so much that the boys avoided it. However, the REAL MEN drove mustangs because REAL and MAN, and those bastard weren't my friends and didn't let me drive their Mustangs. Bastards.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Land of the Lost

In the 1970's, you couldn't love dinosaurs without loving Land of the Lost, that Saturday morning darling of the dinophile set. How could a show that featured a dinosaur roaring into the camera go wrong? The answer is that it didn't go wrong, at least not for a few seasons.

Land of the Lost opens with a toe tapping, banjo riffing song which the unusual fate of the Marshall family. During a river trip, an earthquake sucks their raft into a giant hole, which is really a portal into another dimension, the land of the lost. There, they find all sorts of things that should not be, all assembled into the same mountain-bound land. In the midst of hazzards, they do their best at being a family. They live in a cave up high off the ground, which they called High Bluff. They discovered and named dinosaurs galore, the most famous being Grumpy, the T-Rex that chases everyone and everything, then roars into the cave mouth.

The dinosaurs were a mixture of stop-motion animation and puppetry. The model work must have cost a small fortune, so the editors used very FX show as stock footage, throwing it in wherever possible.

The family itself was composed of Dad, who had a name that didn't matter, Will, the teenage boy, and Holly, the grade school girl. Their sometimes visitor was Chaka, a humanoid called a Pakuni, who befriended them when they found the land. Chaka could speak Pakuni very well, but he was very bad at English.

The show wasn't just trash. This show was full-blown juvenile SF. It featured a collapse alien civilization that had made the land, the last of whom was Enoch, the Altrusian. Their descendents, now nocturnal, are the Sleestak, taking every opportunity to terrorize the family. The land itself is run by pylons which utilize the Altrusian crystal technology to regulate the sun, moon, weather, and even portals into other worlds.

The first series itself was designed as a loop, so that the last episode directly took you into the first. How cool is that?

Heaven isn't forever, and neither are perfect shows. After two seasons, Dad Marshall had enough of the gig, leaving the show. Before filming season 3, the the cave set for High Bluff burned down, so in show, the family moved into a temple set near the Forgotten City, trading Grumpy for an allosaur name Alice and too many Sleestaks as neighbors. The great conflagration that swallowed dad conveniently brought in Uncle Jack, who was a congenial fellow, but nowhere near as cool as Dad was. (Dad had a certain intensity and daring in the face of necessity that made you really admire him.) Chaka now spoke English pretty well and lost his family. The show even got a few more creatures, such as a fire-breathing dimetridon. All in all, the third season was meh.

After filming enough episodes to go syndicated, Land of the Lost move to the weekdays and the magically profitable land of weekday repeats. Nothing as cool replaced it on Saturday morning.

Land of the Lost did not air without competition. There was also the animated show, The Land that Time Forgot, or something like that, about a hidden valley with dinosaurs and cave men. Again, people got lost and wound up there. That show wasn't nearly as good or as compelling, but if you wanted a dino fix, it did fill the niche.

Sid & Marti Croft tried to revive Land of the Lost in the 90's with a passable show. It wasn't nearly as fun as the original, but not nearly as bad as critics panned it.

Will Ferrell bastardized the show into a Will Ferrell movie, and you can guess how well that worked out. Will Ferrell is a "comedian" who produces "comedies." Personally, I think that he sleeps with all the financiers. Gotta make all those little old ladies happy, right? Make a bad movie, then walk away with the profits. (That's a reference to The Producers, folks.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Forerunner and Quag Keep (1981)

Forerunner, by Andre Norton, 1981, occupies a special place in my heart. At an age when I read and devoured everything, I put this book down and muttered to myself, "What a total piece of shit. I can write better than this." I so utterly detested this particular book that I never even considered reading another book by her. The prospect was too disheartening. As far as I am concerned, the only reason for this book's existance is that it fulfilled a contract with the least amount of effort that she could muster. As a caveat, I don't know this as a fact, but this is how it feels to me. Perhaps it is merely an object lesson that some novels do need revision.

I also read Quag Keep (1979) because it was a D&D crossover and I loved D&D. Sadly, I did not love that book, It's not that I had anything against the book, but I just didn't have anything for it. Whatever it was that captured a reader's attention, it didn't capture mine. The only thing that I remember about it were the bracelets with dice inside them that spun about on occasions. I am happy to say that D&D literature has come a long way since then, but sad to say that doing better than Quag Keep was pretty easy.

As Norton was such a dominant name in the 70's, I will eventually need to read her as I reread the greatest fantasy hits of that decade. I don't look forward to it. I rather suspect that her sensibilities and mine do not match.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

G.I. Joe Doll from the 1970s

Back in the 1970's, every boy had a G.I. Joe, and possibly more than one. It was as much of a doll as a Barbi was, but they were MAN dolls doing MAN things. Girls couldn't possibly understand.

In many ways, I am utterly at a loss to talk about G.I. Joe beyond that because that play was so ubiquitous. There was no story attached to him, or TV, or anything like that. He just was. I had this red haired G.I. Joe. First I shave his beard, and then I eventually shaved him bald. Why? I guess that he looked better that way.

I used to take the head off of my doll, because the head attached to the neck ball joint and was removable. It was just a soft rubber that gripped on. The head itself was hollow and squishy. You could drop these guys on their heads forever and they'd  never notice. Eventually, after enough abuse, the elastic that held the doll together snapped, leaving my Joe a limp rag doll. Thankfully, mom had mercy on me and bought me another. 

My brother had an AT-II Mobile Support Vehicle, which was the multi-part yellow vehicle, which could drive like a big camper, or split apart into smaller components. It featured a wind-up propeller that shut up from the rear camper. That was the satellite that you were supposed to track. The front connected to the rear with a simple plastic pin over a hitch. The back opened up into a technical area so that you could do techno-stuff. 

I had a green footlocker for my Joe and all his gear, along with some diving equipment (Deep Sea Diver set). He had one of those big helmeted diving suits. Some friend must have had the six-wheeler, because that looked familiar to me. The teenager across the street had a space capsule from the 60's which he gave away to us. I don't remember who got that prize.

My aunt made clothes for Barbies, and every time that she asked what I wanted, I requested a G.I. Joe Parachute. My poor aunt had no idea how to make such a thing. Even worse, she didn't give me something good enough to make me happy, because it's not like a parachute is that hard. It's a circle with strings tied to a vest. Done. It can be crappy, it was for a boy who intended to throw his doll up into the air.

Over the years I did attempt to make some parachutes. None of them worked well, but I had fun testing them.

G.I. Joe wasn't the only doll on the block. In the early 70's, there was also Big Jim. Jim was an outdoorsy guy, and he was BIG, and his name was JIM. He had a camper and he could wear all of G.I. Joe's clothes. That's about all that really mattered. To be honest, I had no idea what Big Jim connected into, if he even connected into anything. All that I had for Big Jim was his camper. I figure that I got Big Jim somewhere before Hurricane Agnes (1972), because I remember pushing his camper around the dining room table, chasing my sister. So I must have gotten Big Jim when I was five, in 1971. In the end, Big Jim didn't make much of an impression upon me, but his camper did. 

Another doll that I played with was the Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin. With the show starting in 1973, and merchandising coming soon after that, you can bet lots of boys had a Steve Austin. I certainly did. He had interchangeable arms, and the arms had flesh that rolled up to reveal his bionic workings. You couldn't get cooler than that. A friend of mine had a bullet man, which I think went with that toy line, but I could be so wrong.

Even cooler, Steven came in this capsule thingie which always did what you needed it to do. It sealed him and all his stuff up into one neat little container. I think that I only had the doll and the repair station as none of the other toys rings any bells.

The younger kid next door never had many big dolls, but he did have many super-hero action figures. I didn't know the marvel heroes back then, but he had them. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Failing Audiophile 103

Let's talk metrics. The audiophile community loves talking metrics. Since I can't match the technobabble of a true audiophile, I will retaliate with rambling.

Most metrics are meaningless. They mean nothing. And assembled into lists, metrics have even less meaning. It's not because the metrics are wrong. The metrics are all correct. The reason that metrics are meaningless is because you and I, the average consumer, don't really understand what the metrics mean or how they go together. If a consumer cannot make a meaningful decision with a given set of metrics, those metrics are meaningless.

What do we use instead? $$$. We look at the price of a product as a metric for all those metrics. That ought to work pretty well, but you can see where the mischief starts, can't you? If a manufacturer wants a better performing product, it just give the product new packaging and price it higher. "Now with 30% more statistics!" Now worse products are selling next to better products at the same price range.

How can we tell the difference between the two? Metrics! They're both useless and useful at the same time. Talk about a Schroedenger's cat problem.

The thing about metrics is that metrics are all that we really have to distinguish quality from garbage. Metrics are the only way to guarantee that we are getting the quality that we've paid for. Metrics are also the way that we can determine the fair price of a product in the marketplace. A sales force can whip up lies about "experience" and "impression," because those features are subjective, but they can't lie about measurable features. Lying about your product is false advertising.

An arena where this phenomena plays out is in cables. One group claims that their cables "sound better" (which is subjective), and charge significant bucks for the cables. Another group finds that the cables carry a signal no better than an ordinary cable. Who do you believe? Metrics are our only arbiter.

Claims are easy to make. Measuring is hard. It's no wonder that claims hold such power in the marketplace.

Some claims fall apart more easily than others. I've often heard how amps can sound better by removing their cheap Chinese power supplies sound significantly better with replacement power supplies. That sounds good at first, but once you start thinking about it, the argument falls apart. In the brutally competitive audio marketplace, I'm expected to think that sound engineers somehow don't know that the power supply influences sound. I find that that claim dubious. If an engineer can easily get better audiophile sound with a better power supply, then they would build their equipment using a better power supply. They would talk to manufacturers to improve their cheap power supplies. Nobody's going to screw over 95% of their audio design work by using cheap parts (unless it's the lowest end consumer products, which the audiophile won't use anyway).

How do the engineers know when they've done a good job? Metrics. They know and understand the metrics. They have the tools and know-how to measure those metrics well. Using the design process, they use those metrics to get the best sound in their price range. If there's an easy and cheap way to improve sound, they do so. To think otherwise is to think the engineers amazingly stupid.

Another example of poor thinking operates around speaker materials. "This speaker is made with paper, so of course it's sounds bad. All the cheap speakers are made of papers." Compare this with, "The car is made of steel, so of course it drives bad. All cheap cars are made with steel." The materials used in a product do not determine the final quality of a product. Bad speakers are bad because they are designed that way, not because they are made from paper. Even "paper" isn't just paper. Different formulations of paper at different price points will produce different speakers. A well designed and constructed paper speaker can sound good because engineers, you remember them, record the output of those speakers and measure the distortion. If the measured distortion is too high, they redesign the speakers. Paper may be one of the indicators of quality, but by no means is paper the only indicator of quality.

Products are not made and manufactured in a vacuum. They are designed to markets with certain price points in mind. Over time, improvements are made to every level of product design. True audiophile equipment is made by mindful engineers who put their best attention into making a good products. Any easy improvement to the products have already been made. These products meet their design goals for that price point, for that market, and for that intended use. This means that, generally speaking, money becomes a good metric for quality.

Some things can't be reduced to metrics. Given a list of promises on a box, does the product deliver on those promises with your setup? How does the product compare against the competition? How do the headphones fit? How aesthetic is the unit in question? I don't know a way to measure those things.

Note that knowing this doesn't mean a thing. It won't keep you from get ripped off. We've all spent badly because metrics don't mean anything, and there's always someone willing to lie and take you lunch money at every price point. Metrics work great until somebody starts lying.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Failing Audiophile 102

I've thought of an additional issue with audiophilia, and this one's a kicker.

Science has done some great work on cognition and sight. In short, your brain scales your attention up and down depending on your free resources. If you get enough motion on a screen, for instance, you won't notice that the colors change in the background because your brain is just too busy to pick up all the detail at once. There's nothing wrong with the system, or with you, it's just that the brain has a finite processing capacity.

Now, let's talk sound. When you set up a new sound system, you listen to your new system with close attention, making it the center of your focus. Your cognition is entirely focuses on the sound coming out of that system. You notice things in the music that you never noticed before. The detail leaps out at you. You made a good purchase.

As time goes by, you don't spend your full focus on your sound. Your brain wanders. You pay more attention to lyrics or remember that you need to take the trash out. With the sound no longer the center of your attention, your brain silently drops details in the music. Your system still sounds good, but you know, it could sound better, so you buy some new cables and then listen intently. New sounds leap out at you. You've made a good purchase.

Do you see the pattern? This is exactly what I see among audiophile. "I got this new thing was it was AWESOME." The reason that it was awesome, the reason that they heard things that they never heard before, was because they were paying attention.

One audiophile thing that survives this analysis is the listening room. For those people who build their own listening rooms, having a place where they can pay attention, matters more than most gadgetry.

Am I saying that all upgrading is bad? Nope. What I am saying is that the listener affects the sound far more than they think, and that their behavior may make the biggest difference in a good sound system. It's no use buying a $20k audio system if you let yourself get distracted, only to have your brain scale it back to a $1k sound system. Your brain destroys the best specs. If you are ignorant of this phenomena, you can wind up spending money without actually improving your sound, which, I am sad to say, too many audiophiles have fallen prey to.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Failing Audiophile 101

Every time that I try to improve my overall sound system, even if by a little amount, I find my presumably educated choices as either bad, or at best low-fi. Even my wonderful Grado SR60’s come in as “low-fi” in terms of fidelity. It seems that in the sound arena, I am easily impressed and impossibly overmatched.

Or am I?

I’ve been kicking around this topic in my head for a while, and I think that I finally get why I am so happy and easily fooled by sub-par sound reproduction, and that audiophiles are so underwhelmed by my choice. The whole problem lies in psycho-accoustics. Now, psycho-acoustings aren’t deadly little sounds wandering around with knives hoping to stab you when you aren’t looking. No, psycho refers to how your mind handles something and acoustics means sound. In layman’s terms, your brain has its own internal sound processor, and the behavior of that sound processor influences your interaction with sound.

But hearing is hearing, isn’t it? Nope. You can train your ear. Beginning musicians don’t know one pitch from another, but they sort it all out and get better at pitch as time goes by. (At least, one hopes so.) If you don’t believe me, take it from the audiophiles. They firmly believe that you can train your ear to hear more than you think. As your ear doesn’t have muscles, nor does it change shape, what they must be referring to is your brain’s psyco-acoustics.

The most important thing about pschyo-acoustic profiles is that we all have them. They are invisible to us as language and sight. We take them for granted because for most of us they seem granted. This profile gives our ears expectations.  Music that agrees with this profile will seems familiar and right, while music that doesn’t will be perceived of as wrong. Most of us already know this feeling and it makes sense.

Most people have untrained psycho-acoustic profiles. Their expectations of music are born of the imperfect sound systems that they grew up with. Music that sounds like these imperfect systems will sound right while those that don’t will sound wrong. Can you see where this is going? You should.

Let’s talk about Bose. “No highs, no lows, must be Bose.” That’s the saying. Audiophile hate Bose. Bose is an overhyped product that has bad sound. Yet amazingly, Bose sells well to ignorant people who don’t know that they are being ripped off. The only explanation could be because they are fooled by advertising and don’t know better. I think that they are wrong. The explanation is far simpler.

Bose is a smart company. They want to sell the most speakers possible at a price that most people who want to go “premium” will pay. First, they price their speakers in the range that the average non-audiophile are willing to pay for. This gets them a big market share that helps them to sell speakers. Secondly, they design their speakers to keep the overall sound of bad speakers while improving the dynamics. That means that the speakers sound “right” to a non-audiophile. They sound both right and better at the same time, enabling them to sell their speakers to more people. In other words, Bose makes a product that will make the average non-audiophile very happy. They get what they are used to, but better. And when people get that, they become happy customers who talk about how wonderful their sound system is.

The average non-audiophile doesn’t explore other options for a variety of reasons, but the big hit against them is that they actually improve the sound, which makes sound samples sound different to non-audiophile, which translates into “not right.” So heard side-by-side, non-audiophiles opt for the familiar over the different.

People also have a trait which I call “tolerance.” That is, how far can sound be away from your ideal form? Most people have a very high tolerance. You can change their music around and they will tolerate it. It may not sound the best, but they really don’t care. Tolerance is why most people simply don’t bother with super-duper sound systems. They don’t have the incentive to go out and spend the money. The lower your tolerance, the further that you move into the audiophile category. It’s this dissatisfaction which what you have, and the promise in technology that the puzzle of electronics can be solved to make the sound better that drives an audiophile. Upgrade your wires, change your power supply, get a higher resolution recording, build your listening room. These are all things that audiophiles can do.

$20,000 worth of audio equipment may sound absurd to most people, but most people also don’t find it absurd that you spend $100-$200 per football game or pay $30,000 for your car, or even $10,000 for granite countertops. Although spending a bundle on audio may sound extreme, compared to other passions, it costs no more. The unusual part is the choice, not the money. Additionally, all that money is not usually spent in one go. Pieces are acquired as desired. Money is saved up as needed. The price tag of an audio system should be treated more as a hobby, like football. How much do you spend per season?

A third difference between audiophiles and ordinary listeners is what they are listening for. Audiophiles tend to value accuracy, while the ordinary listener tends to value experience. If you give an ordinary user a good experience, then they will feel good about their purchase. As the ordinary user has a pretty high tolerance threshold to begin with, they aren’t going to be bothered about the inaccuracies in their purchases.

In addition, accuracy has its own problems. Whose accuracy are we talking about? When the original engineers mixed the recording, did they account for the distortions of their current tech? Will improving the accuracy work against the balance that the engineers worked so hard to achieve? Were the original engineers even concerned with accuracy? Or were they concerned with other aspects of the sound? So you can see, in the upper level ranges of reproduction, the particulars of what you want shape your system more than the technical requirements of reproducing sound.

I think that in the end, I’m a user who values the experience of his music more than the accuracy of reproduction. While I appreciate quality and accuracy, I am not always in the position to maximize it. I like good speakers in my car, but my car will never sound like a symphony hall. I like good sound in my study, but I don’t have the flexibility in my study to optimize my listening space. The speaker placement is dreadful and will remain so. Most of my listening is off of mp3’s, which further limits the maximum quality that I can get. So given my practical limits these days, aside from better headphones, I am happy with my current audio setup, even if I do have Bose 301’s as my main speakers. They good enough to make me happy, which is all that I require.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Source of Magic (1979)

With The Source of Magic (1979), the tone of this and all other Xanth books change. Gone is the sexual comedy and extremely lighthanded humor that was A Spell For Chameleon, replaced instead by a very straightforward adventure book with humorous aspects. Three henpecked men go off in search of magic, and in the course of the adventure, discover things about themselves, and so establishing the the structural basis of all other Xanth novels to come. The characters featured our hard-headed and unspeakably lucky Bink, and reprises of Chet the Centaur and Crombie the Soldier.

This was the first Xanth novel that I ever read. (At the time, there were only two, so this was pretty easy to do.) After I read this book, I went back and found A Spell for Chameleon. So to me, this was the most definitive Xanth novel ever written because I was thirteen and this book was just AWESOME and I had never read anything like it before!!! Together, these make up the only two REAL Xanth books written because all the others don't star Bink. (Yeah, can you tell I was a Bink fan?)

We still get some sexiness and some chauvinism stuff thrown in there. There's more than enough buxom to go around, Even the land of Xanth itself has cleavage with the Gap. Can you get more titty worship than that? I don't think so.

The story opens with some ill-behaved women behaving badly. Chameleon, who was at least likeably while she was ugly, even if she was rough around the edges, has become a totally unsympathetic character. Queen Iris is off the rails. And whats-her-face is trying to entrap Crombie into marriage. It's now wonder that people think that this book is mysoginist. In truth, what's going on here is an archaic comedy trope where of course husbands are henpecked by their wives. This trope, so popular in the 40's and 50's, fell out of favor during the 60's presumably because divorce had become more common and couples were no longer stuck being married to each other. In other words, it stopped being funny.

Bink wants to find the source of magic. Chester wants to discover his magic talent. Crombie looking for an alternative to Sabrina. Humphry doesn't want to go at all, but he comes along anyway to great comedic use. And finally, we get a trash talking golem named Grumby who just wants to be real. Together, they tramp along the wilds of Xanth that seemed to always have people living nearby in an episodic construction that always introduces just enough trouble to push off success until the next chapter.

You can add or remove almost any chapter from this book and not harms its execution. That's what makes this thing a straightforward action-adventure. Your goalposts are necessary and everything else is just enough filler to make the book enjoyable, although it's also long enough that it also makes the book feel a little tedious, because adventure is what keeps the characters from immediately solving their problem.

Now that I've reread both of them, I must say that A Spell for Chameleon is technically and literarily the better book. I had a blast reading it. Writing comedy is hard and Piers succeeded wonderfully. The Source of Magic, although a generally humorous read, often had the feeling of wading through filler. You know while you're reading it that the side adventures are superfluous. A good editor could hack the book in half and the reader would never notice. Even so, if you need a change of pace, I can recommend the book. Nobody is trying to take over. The fate of the world is not at stake. No great fate rests on the protagonists shoulders. No, it's just a book about somes guys wanting to find the source of magic, which is all that the book claims to be.

I declare The Source of Magic to be a fine beer and pretzels book and approved reading for all Real Men.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Piers Anthony, Sexism, and Misogyny

I've heard assertion that Piers Anthony is misogynist for quite a while now, but on examination, I just don't see that assertion proven out in his Xanth books. I'll go over my my reasons. You are, of course, free to disagree.

If Piers was a misogynistic writer, I would expect that the women in his books would get their comeuppance violently, or at least firmly. In his books, the heroes don't take the women in hand very well and do not use violence or compulsion. If Anthony is a misogynist, he's got to be quite the wishy-washyist misogynists on the planet.

Another test for misogyny is the no-win situation for women: if women have sex, they are sluts, but if they don't, they are prudes. Again, I don't see that in Anthony's books. His men aren't constantly putting women into no-win situations. I don't see slut shaming. His characters don't utter verbal violence. I don't detect any sort of trollish behavior at all (other than as character traits for certain characters). That's another strike against misogyny.

I'm not satisfied yet, so I'll ask another question: if I was a misogynist, would I get any satisfaction from reading these Xanth books? Honestly, I don't think so. There is one character who is a woman hater in one story, but he's just one character among many, with a remainder who don't have an utter hatred of women, and the woman-hating character doesn't even hog the screen time. In the end, the woman-hater gets married, which is a very strange fate for a man in a misogynistic book. I don't see his fate appealing to a woman hater. So, a basic failure to appeal to the misogynistic audience strongly indicates that the books are not misogynistic.

As I've recently reread Anthony's early Xanth books, I find that the women there are depicted to in a highly objectified style reminiscent of  pinup girls from the 40's or 50's. Piers's humor reminds me of the type of gender humor that you hear in mid-century radio comedies and films. When I checked up on Piers Anthony's age, the result confirmed my observation. He was born in the thirties to become a teenage in the late 40's through the 50's. In other words, his depiction of women in the Xanth books is consistent with the male imposed female narrative that dominated the United States in the mid-20th century.

There's a word for the male attitude towards women in the mid-20th century. That word is "sexist." It is this very narrative of sexism that led to feminism and bra-burning. The male culture asserted a narrative of women which asserted that women were shallow, assigned women the traits of illogic and nonsense, that a man was doomed to love a woman, and that once he caught her he'd have to put up with all her feminine silliness. The ultimate sexual purpose of a woman was to be available to her man. It's that narrative that I see in the early Xanth books.

In A Spell For Chameleon, young Bink goes around the countryside bumping into women, having all sorts of nearly-erotic adventures, meeting all sorts of women making (or not making) all sorts of enticing offers. The work itself is a flat-out sexual tour-de-force making fun of the sexual revolution. Bink doesn't have magic (he's a virgin), wants to find his magic (lose his virginity), and so goes on a long quest which ends with him getting laid. Of the many offers for sex he does get, they all come with catches, so buyer beware. In all instances, the women were't what they seemed, so keeping it his pants on proved a pretty smart move. In The Source of Magic, the story begins with three henpecked husbands who had discovered that their perfect girls weren't so perfect, and so happily went off on an adventure to get away from their shrews. This once common comedic trope died upon meeting feminism and the easy availability of divorce. That trope only works in the context of sexism.

In Anthony's later works, where he discovered that he had a much younger audience for his books, he toned down the sexuality and played up the teenage anxiety. Piers wasn't dumb and his books sold, sold, sold to both boys and girls.It's a weird thing if your misogyny causes girls to flock to you books.

Are any of Piers Anthony's other books misogynistic? I can't fully answer that question because I haven't read his entire corpus. You can safely assume that anything from the 70's was sexist simply because his target audience was young professional men, but can you assume misogyny? On further investigation, I would certainly expect to find misogynistic tropes, because these were fairly common in the era, but you need more than a trope to make a misogynistic work. Misogyny is not incidental, occurring here and there, but structural, laid deeply into the form of the work.

So my opinion is that Piers Anthony write sexist books but not misogynistic books. I can't definitively proclaim that his sexism transformed or softened over the years, but it is my opinion that he did grow more inclusive as the years went by, lessening the sexism as he learned that he had a wider audience.

Addition: 7/1/2017

Way back in the 80's, I met a large number of young women who loved the Xanth series. If this series was so sexist and mysogynistic, why did those women like it?

In the land of Xanth, everybody had magic, even women. Anyone could be born with magician level magic, even women. Women had jobs. Women were heroes, villains, companions, hazards, and monsters. In Xanth, women could literally be anything.

Piers Anthony may have been sexist, but Xanth itself emerged as feminist. At a time when women in fantasy were a strange sight, the Xanth novels brimmed with women in every sort in every role. Piers began with the most sexist stereotypes, but in striving to never repeat characters, the variety of his female characters increased. Because of that, Xanth became more inclusive over time. In fact, a female reader was guaranteed of female characters appearing every book, usually being an important part of the team.

So, as you consider whether something is sexist, keep in mind that sexism is not a binary. Some parts of a work can be sexist while others parts can be egalitarian or feminist.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Chevy Impala 1979

After my dad's Ford Grenada's engine caught fire and took itself to a fiery grave, he bought a 1979 Chevy Impala coup. This car came the closest of any car that I've ever driven to being a classy '70's sex machine. If any teenager but me had been driving this car, it would have been going 90 mph in a school zone and not stopping at the crosswalks. He bought a dark blue one, same color as the blue one below. Judging by the images that I've found, it must have been a favorite car to soup up. I can attest to its potential. Even stock, that car wanted to go.

Don't ask me whether it was the 6-cylinder or the 8-cylinder. I don't know.

I got to drive this car at night primarly because my sister was afraid of its size. It was too big for her. (These days she drives an SUV, so go figure.) That left me cruising down to the local library in style. Too bad nobody back then appreciated it.

You can see from the images that the interior was nothing special. It was your standard, psuedo-luxury fare, meant more to feel like luxury than actually be luxury. It even had a few surviving panels of wood-like material that spoke loudly but unconvincingly about good taste.

The only real trouble that I had on this car was after stage crew one winter night. I left from school and went to turn left at the stop sign. Little did I know that black ice lay on the intersections, so the next thing that I knew, I was going sideway. These days I would just have drifted through it, but back then I didn't know better, so I turned the wheel and pressed the gas, sending me off to one side and into oncoming traffic. I could have corrected, but just then a car came around the turn and I didn't want a front end collision. Turning the wheel again, I went off the road at a 90 degree angle, rolled over the curb and stopped in an empty plot. Fortunately there was no damage as I wasn't going all that fast. I also completely missed those pesky telephone poles that leap out to wreck cars.

Of all the cars that I've driven, this is the only one that I would own now for the fun.

I can't tell you what happened to the car. I figure that dad got rid of it when it got too expensive (disposable American car that it was). His next car was a Mitsubishi of some vintage that I haven't figured out yet.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ford Grenada 1976

After driving a Chevy wagon for six years or so, just enough to pay it off and for the shitty American engineering begin breaking down, my dad bought a Ford Grenada. My guess is the year 1976, give or take a few. I don't remember what I felt about the wagon going away, but I do remember being excited by the new car. What's not to get excited about?

What my father bought was a green Grenada, which looked remarkably like the picture below. It even had the same icky white roof and uninspired interior. (There were designs that the 70's strove to forget, and this was among them.) At the time, they were pretty normal, so it all seemed spiffy. As the roof was this textured vinyl stuff, dirt got into it, so keeping the top clean actually took a fair amount of scrubbing. If it wasn't for these pictures, I would be hard pressed to sketch a picture of this car.

The image below is from the Gia variant, but the dashboard is pretty much the same. I don't know what kind of wood the dashboard was trying to imitate, and to this day, I remain befuddled.

There are many details that I've forgotten, like that arm rest in the middle and the cushiony looking doors.

I partly learned to drive on the car. It had power steering, so it was pretty easy to turn the wheel. (At least, I think that I learned to drive with this. Memory is funny that way. I may just remember sitting behind the wheel and pretending.) The thing had no power to talk about, it being a family car and all that. Ours was an automatic, of course, because mom did not drive stick.

I was in this car when we had its only accident. My mother was taking a carload of kids to school in a car pool when someone pulled out in from of her while she was going 25 mph. I was sitting in the middle of the front seat for the ride. I saw the hood crumple as I bent over. Before I could sit back up, my mother pulled me up in a complete panic, horrified that I might be hurt. If that had been true, she would have done more damage to me than the collisions. I'm happy to say that the car survived with just a bit of love and money.

This car ultimately met its end on the beltway while I was in high school. My dad was driving home when the engine decided to catch fire. He got out and watched it burn. After that, he bought a used Chevy.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Subaru Outback 1996

Having just sold this car, I would like to mourn white Subaru Outback 1996 2.2 L 5-Speed Manual.

I bought my Subaru back in 1996 for $22k or so. I didn't know exactly what I wanted as I started my car hunt, but after some amount of car shopping I learned that I wanted cargo space, plenty of glass, and head room. My decision came down to a Corolla wagon, which drove marvelously, and the Outback wagon. I could not decide which, so after thinking about the merits for a while, I decided that I would take the car that I like better because it was going to be with me a long time. I was expecting to have it for ten years, but that wound up being 18. There's something to be said for buying a car that you like.

An important part of this timing was my desire to buy my house. I wanted all my large purchases done so that I would know how much money I actually had for the house. That way I would not overbuy what I needed.

When I bought my Subaru, I ordered one with a manual transmission and no wireless unlocking, because at the time I didn't trust wireless unlocking. One never came in, and I doubt that they ordered it. However, when a manual came in, the dealership called anyway and I was more than happy to say yes and bought the car. For the next five years I paid my $440 a month payment. Irritatingly, now that I'm making so much more money, I couldn't afford such payments. (Kids! Saving for college is just killing me!)

My particular model came with the 2.2L engine, which was nice, but never quite as powerful as I really wanted. When I looked at getting the engine beefed up, everyone looked at me like I was an idiot. Nobody modded the 2.2 L as they were solid-ass workhorses as engines went. Modders only start with the engines that have the most potential, so they went with the 2.5 L instead. When the water pump went bad back in 2006, I also found out that the gaskets were bad, so I just had the engine rebuilt for $2,000. The price might seem outrageous, but that was only six months of new car payments. I would happily have done that twice for this car. The garage, which specialized in modding Subaru engines, didn't believe me at first when I told them that the seals were bad on a 2.2. Once they got the thing apart, sure enough, I had somehow gotten bad seals.

The main reason that I kept this car year after year was that repairing it was always cheaper, on a per-year basis, than replacing it with a used vehicle. An equivalent used Outback of decent vintage would cost me about $200 per month, or $2400 a year, or I could just keep my well loved car going. I always chose the latter.

The headlights had gotten rather fogged over the years, so two years ago I bought a polishing kit and scrubbed those things pretty. Two years later, and the film still hadn't returned. That $25 was well worth the price.

The car did get banged up a bit. By the end, rust had formed around the wheel wells and on the passenger side rear door. The cargo latch had broken, so I drilled a hole to pop it open. The cargo lock had broken as well. When my daughter was tiny tiny, she liked jamming a key into the keyhole. Only belated did I realized that you could actually damage the lock's moisture door that way. The little flap came off its hinge and blocked the cylinder.

The car was grand in the rain and the snow. I never found myself unable to go up a slippery hill. That would have been terrific, but there were always trucks getting stuck in front of me, in which case stuck goes to the least common denominator. It doesn't matter if you have a super vehicle if the car in front of you can't move.

The most serious accident for the car is when I dodged to avoid a sliding car after a rainshower. My yet-to-be wife was in the car with me at that point. I wound up going over a curb to avoid the collision, which tore up my right-front suspension. Everyone else, including the out-of-control car, drove away. I had to wait for a tow truck. If that wasn't insult enough, the insurance company didn't think that they had to get my car out of the police tow yard where the truck operator had to taken it. That took me a week of phone calls to straighten out, with everyone along the line saying, "Shouldn't your insurance company be doing this?"

By the end of it's life, I didn't even bother locking car. I didn't keep anything valuable in there and I didn't care if it got stolen.

The car's new life will be in West Virginia. Good luck to it.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Chicken Soup

Let's talk about chicken soup.

My grandmother made a chicken soup of the Eastern European variety. First, you boiled a chicken until it was dry as bones, then pull it when it cools. (This happened. Trust me. My grandmother was talented.) Then, you simmer up the chicken stock with carrots and celery. (This is peasant food.) You then boil some egg noodles. When you want to serve it, you combine all the ingredients together: soup, carrots, celery, pulled chicken and noodles. The result was grandma's chicken soup, and except for the chicken, I loved it.

One of our recent favorite restaurants is the Woodside Deli up in Rockville. The place is never crowded on a Friday or Saturday night, the menu is very relaxed and just a little bit Jewish. On the menu is mish-mosh soup. I had never heard of this type of soup before, but my wife must have, because she ordered it one visit. It arrived looking like grandma's chicken soup, except for the big matzah ball in the middle. Even more amazingly, it tasted like grandma's chicken soup. Same taste. Same texture. Same everything, except that chicken was moist. I was in love.

I'm not much for comfort food, but this taste, this was comfort food.

My grandmother would cook a huge pot of this stuff. I'm talking gallons at a time simmering on the stove. She would cook it for holidays, I suppose, and dish the stuff out. I had to see it sometime, right? But I don't remember very well when she dished it out. I figure it must have been Thanksgiving or something.

With the cooler weather finally rolling in, and with the leaves finally turning, I found myself hankering for a bowl of chicken soup this weekend. I was a happy clam with that bowl, and my wife was happy too because I shared with her. It must be love, folks. It must be love. Even my daughter joined in, but she only likes the brother. The secret is is that I like the broth best too.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Datsun 710

Another car that we had when I was young was my mother's Datsun 710. This was our second family car for a while until mom bought the silver car (which I haven't researched yet). After mom, it went on to my brother. I drove it one summer in college at my mother's insistance, which was enough to get me to my summer job and back.

The year that matches the best looks like 1974, but anywhere near could easily be the model year. Not really knowing which is which (and mom doesn't remember exactly either), I picked 1974 as good enough.

I remember ours having a white interior with white vinyl seats. This was the first hatchback that we owned, and the first coup. The idea of popping the seats forward to get in an out was a novelty. Mom's was an automatic. Although the thing looks light, it drove surprisingly heavy by today's standards. Despite its appearance as riding high, the thing wasn't very tippy as its frame was quite heavy.

Power wise, the engine worked okay, but only okay. It was peppy like a small car rather than smooth like a family car. It worked.

The interior screamed Japanese design. You see much the same exact design in Japanese cars: center hand brake, bucket seats, padded doors, shifter on the center console, and stiff steering. It was a no-nonsense car in every sense of the word. Oh, and that T-bar shifter. I completely forgot about that. You pushed the button on the side of the T to move the lever. 

In high school, my sister preferred taking this car over dad's larger car, and if she only had dad's car available, would ride with friends, so I didn't drive this car that much once I got my license.

I don't remember much about the performance characteristics, other than it had rack and pinion steering, which meant you had to work at your driving because that wheel was heavier than it looked.

Those back windows were louvered, which meant that you could crack pop them open for air flow. That was a popular hatchback design back then (my 1988 Civic also had that feature). The only unhandy feature of them was that you had to park in order to open or close them. The rest of the windows operated by hand cranks. Again, usual for the day. 

The environmental controls worked by slide levers. The 70's loved slides. That design worked so well that nobody ever went back to it again. However, the haptic feedback was rather good as the slides clunked when you hit set points.

Chevy Kingswood 1969

My brother corrected me on the station wagon. It wasn't a Ford, it was a Chevy. So that would make the wagon some type of Kingswood. My best guess in 1970. 

I think that I got fooled because some of the Ford features resembled the Grenada, so I got fooled as to the model.

If you compare the two together, you'll understand how you could get the two confused. The big differentiation should have been the back seats. I remembered a rear facing seat, but then I doubted myself. The Ford had a pair of side-facing seats, and that would have been something that I remembered more strongly.

The interior looked something like this. I had forgotten the levered door handles. 

The tailgate of this guy swung outward like a big-assed door.

What I learned from one ad is that Chevy didn't have just one or two wagons, it had a dizzying and confusing array of wagons in every price range and size. Jeepers! How the might wagon has fallen.