Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Midweek Who

Ain't it great the way Friday just keeps coming on Wednesday?

The only problem is that tomorrow is still Thursday.

There are glitches in every system!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Short Thought: "The Last Place on Earth"

A few months ago I wrote a post about how I've been on a nonfiction reading kick lately. That really hasn't stopped and my last entry in the reading list was Roland Huntford's The Last Place on Earth, a sort of combo thumbnail biography of Captain Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen and Polar exploration in general, culminating with a blow-by-blow account of the English and Norwegian expeditions to discover the South Pole in 1911.

The shortest of all possible short thoughts I can come up with for this book is this: if you want to read something that will convince you that Scott was the biggest plonker of all time, read this book. Me being me, I am going to go find another biography of Scott and find out if Huntford's total lack of respect was deserved or merely the result of personal dislike. Because biographers and historians in general do like or dislike their subjects -- and I don't mean in terms of "Well, I like thinking about nationalism so I'm going to write about modern Israel" or "The Wars of the Roses are fascinating, so it's pre-Tudor England for me!" I mean that we develop real, visceral, sometimes painful and awkward attachment to or revulsion from our topics.

I read another biography recently -- Dancing to the Precipice, by Caroline Moorehead -- which is a perfect example of this problem. Moorehead is writing about the diary of a woman named Lucie de la Tour du Pin, whose life spanned all the French Revolutions to the mid-nineteenth century. She lived in France, England, and America for long periods and travelled mainland Europe fairly extensively. She and her husband were, literally, at the heart of the French court -- or Republic -- or the next court -- or the next republic. He was a career soldier and then a diplomat, quite highly respected at the time, and she was a socialite and "good wife," a career in itself. The book is based on Lucie's personal diary which looks to be an absolutely fascinating document written in later life to tell her whole life's story. Examined by a less partial historian, I think the diary would be hot stuff -- even in Moorehead's highly partial and deeply biased telling, Lucie comes out as a fascinating character.

The problem with all this is that Moorehead is so invested in Lucie being so many things -- a modern woman (read: 20th century woman) before her time; a perfect wife; a wonderful mother; a subtle diplomat; a clever hostess -- that Lucie has no faults. Her obvious self-deceptions and 180-degree changes in opinion, belief, or ideology (which come out in the longer passages from the diary despite Moorehead's brilliant ability to ignore or read over them), not to mention her ability to surf successfully through the rapidly changing and very dangerous waters of post-Revolution France speak to her being a woman with a highly flexible moral code, to say nothing of political views that could change with the lightest breeze from Paris. Not that any of this is a bad thing! Lucie was very successful at what she did: she survived, for heaven's sake, when so many others in her position did not. She was adaptable, very flexible, exceptionally intelligent, sensitive to the community around her -- I could go on. This woman was no slouch whatsoever and a less biased biographer who examined all sides of her character as revealed in the diary and other contemporary documents would have served her much better.

To return to Huntford and Polar exploration: Huntford suffers from much the same problem in regard to Captain Scott. He just can't stick him at any price. Amundsen is his ideal of a good Polar explorer -- a good explorer and leader in general -- and Scott just can't hack it at that level. Huntford doesn't quite come out and say, "Scott was a moron and he got himself and everyone in his last exploration party killed because he was, as aforementioned, a moron," but it comes close.

Even toning down Huntford's adjectives a bit, it does seem fairly clear that Scott simply wasn't very good at what he did -- or perhaps he just wasn't as good as Amundsen. What is interesting here -- and what Huntford doesn't explore very deeply -- is how both men are products of their environment and their contemporary culture. With Scott, this is a particularly interesting question since I love all 19th century British anything and he is a stone-cold 19th century British guy. He acts, thinks, talks, plans entirely from that kind of background which can only have been deeply and probably unconsciously formative of how he decided to tackle his Antarctic explorations.

Despite this, Huntford's book is a great and engaging read. This is an edited Modern Library edition -- frankly, I don't know what was edited out. It's a long book as it stands now -- over 550 pages -- and I felt swamped with detail more than once. Want to know the exact dietary details of Scott's and Amundsen's respective expeditions? It's in there; down to the calorie. Want to know about how the dietary habits of sledding dogs change in extreme weather conditions? It's in there. Want to know about the affair Fridtjof Nansen had with Kathleen Scott? That's in there, too.

So you may want a pillow to cushion it on your lap -- it's heavy, even in paperback -- and some tea to make sure you stay warm reading about them nearly freezing to death, but The Last Place is a fun, fast, entertaining read.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Sitting Still

A quick Friday hit this week, folks. It's been a long week here in Boston and I have spent at least 2 10+ hour days at work which is at least 2 more than I should. Most of that time is spent looking at a computer screen and, needless to say, my eyes are pretty much shot. And do you know how much I hate Excel? Lets talk about how much I hate Excel.

No, instead, lets talk briefly about meditation groups. I'm not what you might call a "joiner" by nature. Lets say that, along with Groucho Marx and various other better known celebrities, I'm suspicious of any group that will let me be a member. Not to mention I'm not really good with regular meetings, group or otherwise. I don't go to yoga classes regularly and the last meditation class I tried to attend conflicted with the start up of my most recent bout of depression and the whole thing just derailed, shall we say.

So the appropriate alternative for me for right now is an online meditation group. My teacher put me in touch with 28 Days of Practice when they were starting up last fall and since then I've been a regular. It's about the lowest maintenance group you'll ever be a part of: hook up with the Tumblr (you don't have to join Tumblr; you can follow it on the main site or put it through a news aggregator like BlogLines or Google Reader); ask Gibran for access to the new month's spreadsheet; and decide what your goal is. Really, that's it.

You don't have to "talk" if you don't want to; posting to the website isn't compulsory; and "no-one will call you or come to your house" as the ads used to say.

All you do is enter your time per day on the spreadsheet and that's it. If that's all you want to do -- just get the gentle nudge every day that says, 'Oh, yeah, I agreed to do this, didn't I?' -- then that's fine. Most of the time, that's all I do. I read the posts on the blog; sometimes I surf through the comments; sometimes I put something up.

If you're looking for a kindly reminder that, yeah, you have been intending to do this practice and maybe just need a quiet poke in the right direction, maybe this is it. We're just finishing up the March 28 days (Cillian Murphy isn't involved, worse luck) but go here if you're interested in joining us for April.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Hey folks, look for content on Friday! For right now, have some fun with River. (And Avril Lavigne who invariably makes me think of Eragon. Which is okay with me. Black leather is always a good thing. :))

Monday, March 21, 2011

Photo Monday

This Photo Monday largely brought to you by my girlfriend because I am deeply tired and not in a mood to be pleased by much of anything I do.

Next week -- movie review!

hi all; anna here! am typing this one-handed (and my non-dominant right hand as well) while hanna dozes with her head on my lap while we watch journey to the center of the earth starring pat boone. there's a duck and some singing and the edinburgh tattoo and one of the great lady adventurers of cinematic history ... what's not to like?

having been put in charge of photo monday, I'm presenting you with a series of photographs hanna took of a bunch of daffodils she bought for me at trader joe's last week. they were buds when she purchased them, and they've since opened into gorgeous blooms. we both have this thing where we imagine how lovely and romantic it would be to purchase flowers for one another, but we never do because it seems so sad that the flowers would just wilt and die on us. instead, we acquire plants with roots which require more permanent space in the apartment (another logistical problem entirely).

but this time the bought them anyway. and i think they're lovely. and  i also think she has an amazing eye for detail photography ... so i'm treating you all to six of my favorites. hope they bring a little sun to your monday. ~anna

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"I do have my academic reputation to consider!"

So I said the next episode was one of my favorites, right? Top five at least -- I love Stones of Blood. The last quarter gets a tiny bit dodgy, but the rest makes up for it.

With two segments of the Key safely stowed in the TARDIS -- in what my father said is an old cake safe and why should I disbelieve him? It certainly doesn't look very much like a safe safe, whatever it is -- Romana and the Doctor move on towards their third destination, which the Doctor promises Romana will be a treat: "Earth!"

They land on a wide, grassy moor and find deep depressions in the grass: farming equipment, Romana says, testing the soil with her wildly impractical spike heel. Really -- check this outfit, folks.

Perhaps she should have asked K9 what to wear...
I couldn't find a shot that would show her feet but, trust me, the heels are atrocious. Fortunately, she gets to change into something better about halfway through -- a kind of claret-colored blouse and skirt with nice solid boots. Must have been a great relief!

Anyway, they stroll off across the very pleasant field, following the signal of the tracer (have I mentioned the tracer before? it locates the given segment of the Key and transforms it back to its original form), and find a stone circle with two women doing an archaeological survey. It turns out there's a local nouveau Druid circle making sacrifice at the circle on a regular basis; when the Doctor goes to talk to the head of the circle, Mr. DeFrees, who lives at the nearby Big House, he discovers the focus of the sacrifices: the Cailleach, a Celtic goddess of "..war, death, and magic -- Beware the raven and the crow, Doctor; they are her eyes." Before getting whacked on the back of the head after getting a glimpse of the goddess, the Doctor gets some local history based around missing paintings, paintings theoretically removed to be cleaned, but really.... dundundunnnnnn Clearly something is up with the paintings. When they are later discovered in the basement of the house, they are portraits of the same woman over a period of nearly a thousand years. And she looks very familiar...
The Cailleach. And her cardboard

The first three-quarters of the episode are a pretty tight murder mystery with aliens -- there's the stone circle; the archaeologists surveying it; the Druids sacrificing in it; and the latest reincarnation of a bloody-minded Celtic goddess. The last quarter, though, explains the goddess away as an alien criminal stranded on earth and, for some reason, introduces her transport: an interdimensional hyperspace ship that has been stranded for centuries above the circle. It all gets a bit confusing: Romana gets trapped; the Doctor gets arrested; there's a lot of citric acid. In the end, the segment turns out to have been disguised as a rather tacky necklace that one of the characters, the alien-passing-as-human Vivian Fay, has been wearing.

So what's the draw with this episode if the ending is so soggy? Well, to go back to the original stone circle and the folks surveying it: the two women are Professor Amelia Rumford and Vivian Fay -- and Professor Rumford is who I want to be when I grow up: she is kick-ass all up and down the map and she is an absolutely fantastic "companion for the duration of an episode."

She even out-Doctor's the Doctor at one point: the two of them have gone to "find out what happened" at the Big House and have discovered one of the episode's aliens, an Ogri, killing the inhabitants of the house. The Doctor and Amelia pursue the thing -- not a wildly smart idea since it's a giant mobile stone with a taste for blood -- and, when they've escaped from the house, the Doctor turns to dive through a gate into the open fields and Amelia stops: "Doctor! It is our duty to capture that creature! We can track it to its lair!"

Romana, Amelia, and the transdimensional gizmo.
It probably goes 'ping!' when there's stuff.
And when the time comes to run the Gizmo of the Episode in order to send the Doctor and Romana across dimensional barriers to a hyperspace ship (I told you the last quarter of the episode got a bit sketch), Amelia steps up.

Plus the great bit of dialogue between her and the Doctor when she asks if he's from outer space; he says, "No, I'm more from what you'd call inner time." She blinks, but takes it solidly on the chin and stays where she is.

Oh, and didn't I mention?

She's a tiny little old lady.

With a blackjack.

She rocks.

Plus, the first three-quarters of the show are really solid: the Ogri are a frightening nasty. They have no particular brain or motivation other than the obvious: eat and survive. They're awakened and used by the Cailleach -- Vivian Fay in a lot of silver makeup and not enough dress -- to intimidate and/or kill anyone she finds inconvenient. There's a genuinely creepy scene about midway through where one of the Ogri stations itself by the tent of a couple of campers. The man wakes up and comes out, calls back to the woman to get her to come out and look at the stone, a new addition to the landscape since they went to bed. And we wait for the inevitable moment when one of them touches the stone -- and it's all over bar the screaming. Quite unpleasant -- and the Doctor nowhere around.

And the end -- with the Doctor put on trial for his life by the Megara, justice machines meant to be trying Vivian Fay but trapped by her on the hyperspace vessel -- is kind of fun, although the whole "trial" gag gets a bit old. There's plenty of time for Tom Baker to stalk around and look silly in a horsehair peruke, though, so that's a good time being had by all. And there's plenty of time for Romana and Amelia, back on earth, to sort out a great Gizmo of the Week (see picture above) and spend some time running from the Ogri.

On the whole, Stones of Blood is one of the more successful episodes in the Key season. The basic story is reasonably solid; some of the performances either flat-out inspired (see Amelia) or scenery-chewing goodness (see Mr. DeFrees, latest head Druid).

Monday, March 14, 2011

Photo Monday

Candle and incense.

It looks like I worship Neil Gaiman.
I don't. Not quite. Not yet.

Kitty on her new favorite spot.

Boston skyline.

Prudential Center.

MIT bridge.

Piling of same.




"There's a shark in the pond!"
Seriously. That's what I think of
every time.


No idea how someone did this, but
it's both creepy and fun.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Bookcase Prana

I've been thinking lots about my weekend posts for the past couple weeks but have had no time to sit down and compose. Plus, I burnt out my wrist this week with counts yes, about 9 hours of typing on Thursday. So even typing this -- really, only this much -- kind of hurts.

So I invite you to meditate on joy, creativity, and artistic flow. And books. Always books.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Friday Fun Times

There's something about the partially faded out voices in this one that just...hurts.

Obviously, hurts in that good, fan-nish way we all enjoy so much or we wouldn't keep watching Journey's End or Vincent and the Doctor or the second part of End of Time over and over. Because we're not masochists or anything.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Has anyone here seen a planet called Calufrax!"

Jelly babies are probably the solution.
So we've all got the plot now, right? There's a Key which we have to find; the Guardian who wants it found; and the Doctor who gets given a new companion in order to find it. It's all pretty simple, really. Of course, the Key is split into six segments and scattered throughout time and space which is a bit of a problem.

We got the first segment in pretty good shape and now we move on to number two -- the only issue here is that the second segment of the Key seems to be dodging about a bit. The Doctor and the Romana get a fix on it -- only to have it vanish and reappear on another planet. Unusual to say the least: the Key isn't meant to be self-motive, but the Guardian did make it pretty clear that the Key could be anything and you may wish to keep that in mind.

Repairs under pressure.
The Pirate Planet was written, largely under the influence of a locked hotel door and a lot of black coffee, Scotch, and possibly bath salts, by Douglas Adams. If you're an Adams fan -- and if you're not, please cease reading this blog immediately -- you'll recognize the touches: there's lunatic dialogue that really makes sense (Tom Baker has a lot of fun with this); a semi-robotic pirate captain with a robot parrot and a tendency towards existential crises; and an Evil Queen who may or may not be dead.

And then there's the wittering mechanic Mr. Fibuli, the Mentiads, and the odd behavior of the planet Calufrax. Oh, and Bandraginus V may have been reduced to rubble which will chill the hearts of those of us who were hoping to have a genuine Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster before we die.

It's all just a lot of fun, really; Planet isn't serious -- I think maybe there was meant to be a moral lesson about environmental destruction or possibly responsible mining? somewhere in there, but it got lost. There's manaically colorful costumes; ridiculous plot twists; and a general sense of everyone having an excellent time and making lots and lots of bad jokes -- including terribly geeky ones about the importance of upholding basic laws of physics.

Yes, the season-long arc of the Key story does move forward -- there's another segment safely in the TARDIS by the end of the episode -- but I don't know if a lot else happens that is of great moment. The Doctor and Romana are clearly learning to work together more comfortably and Romana is a pleasure to have about the place as a companion: she's self-reliant, intelligent, generally unafraid, and deeply snarky to villains. Or quasi-villains since the poor old Captain ends up to be not as bad as you might think -- or at least more sinned against than sinning.

I've seen a lot of people complain about middle Tom Baker-era stories, including the Key arc, because they're "jokey" and "flippant" and to these people I say: have a jelly baby. And relax. Our fandom involves lots of spaceships made out of tin-foil and flying on string; aliens who are, somehow, always humanoid and speak perfect RP English; an alien hero who often behaves like a cross between a sulky child and the worst Oxbridge don you can imagine; and a spaceship which is, fundamentally, broken ...while at the same time, of course, being bigger on the inside. It's all okay, guys; a couple of jokes won't break us.

Tune in next time for --- Stones of Blood! One of my personal favorites and my second favorite episode in the Key season.