Getting Back to Functional

My hosting service seems to have mostly worked out the kinks with the machine hosting FP – which is to say, the old machine died and they moved all of us on it to a new machine – so I seem to be back in business. The new machine feels slower than the old machine (i.e., more like the old old machine), which is a bummer, but maybe it’s a temporary thing as the other sites get up and running. I’m also having some issues accessing my admin page at times. The all-knowing Web provides 4 or 5 different answers, none of which really answer the question, “Why didn’t this happen before being moved to the new machine?” But I’ll try some stuff and see if I can shake it all out.

Maybe I shouldn’t be bothering to run my own blog, but I do like having full control over my own data. I’m picky that way.

In other news, I biked in to work on both Thursday and Friday, hitting my goal of 30 rides in for the season, over 500 miles ridden. Not a huge amount, but a lot for me. With Daylight Savings Time ending tonight, that’s probably it for riding in – or, more precisely, for riding home, since I don’t like to bike much in the dark. More next year, though!

For Halloween tonight we went over to visit our friends Lisa and Michel and their 2-year-old daughter Isabella, whom I played with for quite a while, longer than Debbi has expected us to be there. Then we went to visit Susan and Subrata, their son Ajay, and Subrata’s visiting parents. Their neighborhood was filled with dozens of kids trick-or-treating, more than I’ve seen around since moving to California. And yet, S&S still had plenty of candy left. Debbi and I left them and went to Marie Callender’s for dinner, as I’d kind of reached maximum kid saturation for one day.

Happily, no tricks were played on us in the making of this evening.

Technical Difficulties

Dreamhost has been having some trouble with the machine hosting FP, and it was down for most of yesterday. It looks like they’ve got the issue resolved, although I guess they’re still investigating. Apparently it was a hardware problem, so they had to move my and others’ accounts to a new physical system. Unfortunate, but it was a brand new machine that they moved us to a few weeks ago, so perhaps it was just bad.

Hopefully the worst is over. And hopefully the new machine is as fast as the old new machine was – much faster than the old old machine! 🙂

This Week’s Haul

Bloom County: The Complete Library volume 1: 1980-1982 Berke Breathed’s Bloom County was one of the most popular comic strips of the 1980s (the previous “most popular” strip being Garfield, and the next being Calvin & Hobbes). What always perplexed me about its popularity is that, well, for most of its run it wasn’t very good. And most of the best stuff is collected in this volume, the first of five from IDW collecting the whole series.

At the beginning, Bloom County was essentially a satire of small town America, as well as a satire of the rest of America as seen by people in that small town. Rather than commenting on American politics, as Doonesbury did, Bloom County focused on the quirks of pop culture (our inexplicable fascination with the British royal family, for example) and elements of local culture which had gained more visibility in the age of mass communication. But ultimately it shared qualities with many of the best comic strips: It was about its characters, especially smart-alec Milo Bloom, who was a young boy with a weird man apparently struggling to get out, and Michael Binkley, his insecure friend. The early cast also featured Steve Dallas, Cutter John, Bobbie Harlow, Binkley’s penguin Opus, Milo’s grandfather the Major, the perpetually-drunk Senator Bedfellow (maybe the best character name in the history of humor strips), Binkley’s father, and town busybody Otis Oracle. The strip was frequently off-the-wall, with a manic energy unlike most other strips in history. Breathed’s art both conveyed that energy and was more sophisticated than your traditional humor strips of the day (contrast it with the simplistic, repetitive art of Garfield, for instance).

For me, though, the series’ downfall arrived early, in the form of Bill the Cat, a self-conscious parody of Garfield which seemed to utterly miss the point that taking something that wasn’t very funny to start with (yet was inexplicably popular) and making it a little disgusting besides was, well, not very funny, yet still disgusting. Bill showed up in June 1982, and was immediately not-funny. Breathed would eventually use Bill to explore the excesses of popular culture, and he continued to be shocking unfunny, a character purchased after his sell-by date. Over time, Breathed phased out Bobbie Harlow (the character most responsible for character-based humor in the early strips), as well as Oracle, Bedfellow and the Major (three of his best tools for satirizing the narrow-minded right wing), leaving the cast with a group of eccentric characters largely devoid of warmth or meaning. Occasionally Milo would show signs of his early life, but the strip revolved around Opus and Bill, which just wasn’t as much fun. (The less said about the sequels to the strip, Outland and Opus, the better; both were largely unreadable and completely unfunny.)

Despite all this I’ve been looking forward to this volume since it was announced, as it collects many strips which – as far as I know – haven’t been printed since their first newspaper run, and are from the period of the strip I enjoyed the most, those earliest years: Steve Dallas and Cutter John competing for Bobbie Harlow’s affections, Binkley’s insecurities, Milo as both the voice of reason and the journalistic hack hunting for Senator Bedfellow’s head, and the weird individuals inhabiting the rural community of Bloom County.

I doubt I’ll pick up more than one volume after this one, but really, this one is all you need. It holds up pretty well 30 years later, its dated subject matter feeling more quaint than irrelevant, and it’s funny stuff. And as usual for IDW, it’s an attractive hardcover book, with an introduction and occasional strip comments by Breathed. A wonky chronicle of an unusual era, for both America and for comic strips.

Vaccinations or Not

I only became aware of people opposed to childhood vaccinations a few months ago. Wired has an interesting article about the subject. (via The Angry Drunk) As with Nova‘s show about intelligent design, the piece is worth reading not just for its subject matter, but for its examination of science and pseudoscience, and how they each operate.

I wonder whether families who decide not to vaccinate their children are going to experience some natural selection over the coming decades. I just hope the effects don’t spill over to the rest of us.

(I hated getting shots when I was a kid, but I sure am glad now that I got them. I get a flu shot every year, too, mainly because they’re made conveniently available at work.)

Neat Mac Software

I don’t often get new software for my Mac, as I find that the software that comes with Mac OS X, or that I’ve bought or downloaded previously does what I want. And with as many hobbies as I have – many of the non-computer hobbies – I’m not generally looking for software to do something new for me. Despite this, I’ve downloaded two new pieces of software in the past week:

  1. ClickToFlash is a very cool Safari plug-in which masks out all the Flash being used on the web from your browsing experience, letting you choose to view a Flash instance on demand, by clicking on the Flash box. Since a lot of annoying animated ads are done in Flash, it also works as a partial ad blocker. It took me just minutes to be really happy I’d downloaded this.
  2. Tweetie is a Twitter client. (There’s also an iPhone version, but I’m happy with Echofon there.) It seems slightly better than Twitteriffic, although I’m hard-pressed to say how; I tried Tweetie because I have friends who love it. I mostly wish that Twitter had a better Web interface so that I didn’t need a separate app for it at all; the service is so simple, you’d think they could make one. Still, since Twitter is of minimal value to me (Facebook is much more useful and fun), it’s not a big deal one way or the other.

What other Mac software out there ought I to be using?

Weekend Update

Debbi hates surprises. Or so she says. Either way, this is an incentive to both buy her little surprises and to tell her I bought her a surprise. So that’s what I did a week ago, and she kept asking me what it was. “It’s a surprise!” I’d say. “You suck,” she’d say.

Ain’t I a stinker?

I don’t think she really hates them quite that much. (Not as much as she hates how hard I am to buy stuff for for Christmas or my birthday, anyway.) And her surprise arrived on Friday: The DVD of Meet the Robinsons, the CGI Disney film. It’s a cute film (the story doesn’t make much sense, but its heart is in the right place), so we watched it Friday night.

Debbi needed a pick-me-up anyway, I think, because she had a root canal Friday morning. I remember the day when a root canal meant total misery and a day or two out of work – at least, I think I remember them, since I’ve never had one myself. Now it seems like people are able to head in to work afterwards, like Debbi did. Me, I’d probably have taken the rest of the day off and taken a long nap so my body could get over the initial shock. Indeed, when I got home on Friday Debbi was sacked out on the bed. Unfortunately her mouth has been pretty sore this evening so she may be heading back tomorrow to find out what’s going on. I wish there was something I could do for her, but we’re both stumped at this point.

This past week was supposed to be the first week of ultimate frisbee, but a rain storm on Tuesday rained out that day, and Thursday the fields were still too soggy so the city closed them. So I biked in to work on Friday instead – coming up on 30 rides to work this season.

In other biking news, the bike shop I’ve been going to ordered a new rim for my bike, on the theory that my current rear wheel rim is too light and weak to take all my weight regularly, which has been leading to my broken spokes. The new, heavier-duty rim arrived on Friday, so Saturday we took it in and got the wheel rebuilt with the new rim and new spokes. I’m hopeful that this will solve my spoke problems. I think the only other option I have if this doesn’t work is to buy a new bike.

I missed APE again this year – I really ought to go someday, but all the Bay Area comic conventions seem to sneak up on me and I end up not going. I did go to the re-opening sale of the Comic Collector Shop on Saturday and picked up a few things. (Because, you know, what I really needed are more things.)

With winter not far away, I looked out at the patio and realized I should harvest the basil plant before it dies off, so I harvested most of its leaves today and made a batch of pesto, which we had over pasta with sausage tonight. Debbi says she thinks it’s the best batch I’ve made! I learned that you have to be more diligent in cleaning basil leaves harvested from your own outdoors than those bought in the supermarket – there’s a lot more schmutz on them.

So that was our weekend. A little more exciting than we perhaps wanted, but hopefully Debbi can work out her soreness tomorrow.

This Week’s Haul

What does a mediocre week at the comics shop look like? A lot like this.

Fables is an A-list title whose story isn’t really exciting me, and The Marvels Project feels like a well-done re-hash of any number of Marvel history navel-gazing series from the last 20 years. All the rest are solid meat-n-potatoes titles which I enjoy but I don’t necessarily look forward to. The best series here is probably Booster Gold, whose ongoing storyline is quite interesting, but it fights against Dan Jurgens’ awkward storytelling and dialogue.

So why do I buy all these books? Well, honestly they are all entertaining “enough” to keep reading. Green Lantern Corps and Secret Six are relatively new additions to my list so I’m still trying them out, but neither is yet rocking my world. (GLC‘s early issues, which I read in collection, were quite good, but the series has lost its focus because of all the damned crossover events.) The Unwritten has a lot of potential, but is only starting to explore it, and I fully expect it’ll be a year or two before I decide whether it’s worth it. And I am honestly running out of steam on the Hellboy/B.P.R.D. line, and am really hanging on at this point because apparently it will be reaching a climax within the next year.

Still, even mediocre comics are better than no comics!

  • Booster Gold #25, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Fables #89, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham & Steve Leialoha (DC/Vertigo)
  • Green Lantern Corps #41, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Rebecca Buchman, Keith Champagne & Tom Nguyen (DC)
  • JSA vs. Kobra #5 of 6, by Eric S. Trautmann, Don Kramer, Neil Edwards & Michael Babinski (DC)
  • Secret Six #14, by Hail Simone, Nicola Scott, Carlos Rodriguez, Doug Hazlewood & Mark McKenna (DC)
  • The Unwritten #6, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • The Incredible Hercules #136, by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, Reilly Brown & Nelson DeCastro (Marvel)
  • The Marvels Project #3 of 8, by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting (Marvel)
  • B.P.R.D.: 1947 #4 of 5, by Mike Mignola, Joshua Dysart, Gabriel Bá & Fábio Moon (Dark Horse)
  • Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #7 of 8, by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)
Secret Six #14 Secret Six wraps up its latest story arc, “Depths”, in which the team was hired as muscle for a maximum-security prison and slave trading operation by a shady character named Mr. Smyth. The prison has imprisoned Artemis (the former substitute Wonder Woman) and a group of Amazons who attacked the US a few years back, and is operating with the blessing of governments who want to get such dangerous individuals out of their hair. There are some other nasty secrets around, too, as the team learns when Wonder Woman shows up to rescue her sisters and is defeated by the Six, leading to a schism among the team as to whether they should fulfill their contract or not sell their souls quite so cheaply.

Gail Simone’s script is pretty intense: The Six are all mercenaries with their own sense of morality, but who often find the people who hire them or fight them are a little too nasty for even their hardened sensibilities. As the Six one-by-one turn against the man who hired them, you get a sense of how callous each member is – or how much a sense of obligation outweighs a sense of morality for each one. As he was in John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad, Deadshot is usually the most entertaining character, as he seems utterly amoral most of the time, but every so often (perhaps too inevitably) he says “fuck it” and changes sides. He’s given a run for his money in this series by Ragdoll, who seems equally amoral but less intense.

Simone does a good job navigating the plot and unstable characterizations, but it feels like something’s missing from the series. Unlike Suicide Squad, these characters are unlikeable to a man; a few are perhaps borderline admirable in their convictions, but it’s difficult to see them as “heroes in their own minds”, and honestly if they all got killed off it would be hard to shed a tear for any of them. Maybe it’s the fact that the series works so hard to keep all six in the gray area between good and evil, the lack of a sense that any of them are moving in one direction or another, makes it less satisfying than it might otherwise be.

Incredible Hercules #136 This month’s Hercules is pretty funny – a welcome change for a series which often tries to be funny, but isn’t really all that funny. For instance, the set-up to get to this issue was pretty uncomfortable at times. But the payoff is hilariously silly: Hercules pretending to be Thor fights Thor pretending to be Hercules in a big fight scene filled with great facial expressions (penciller Reilly Brown does a bang-up job on the art) and very silly sound effects (helpfully scanned by Greg Burgas for his own review – go take a look).

This issue is a high point in a series which has been dragging lately (by contrast, Chris Sims thinks it’s “the single best comic on the stands today”, although it’s unclear whether he means the series or just this issue): It started out a couple of years ago as a quirky “two buddies against the world” series, but it’s become progressively more lighthearted and this difficult to take its dramatic side seriously. Currently it’s alternating issues between Herc and his sidekick Amadeus Cho (the seventh smarted person in the world, also a teenage boy), which doesn’t work so well when you’re only reading an issue a month. The series feels directionless, and this issue an aberration in being so entertaining.

Health Update

2009 has not been a great year health-wise for me, as I’ve complained about before. For a while it felt like my body turned 40 and decided, “Okay, you’ve had 40 healthy years, and now it’s time to find out what you’ve been missing!” I haven’t been dealing with any life-threatening problems, but multiple nagging and worrisome issues made me wonder, “Am I really going to be dealing with all this stuff for another 40 years?”

Fortunately, over the summer things have improved considerably. Perhaps not coincidentally, two of my problems got much better as soon as I started exercising regularly, biking in to work twice a week:

  • The pinched nerve in my neck wasn’t seriously impairing me, but it was miserable to live with, especially when trying to sleep. After seeing the doctor and getting some steroids (oh boy!) for a week, it got a little better, and it got gradually better thereafter, but after I started biking it got dramatically better quickly – and I could tell because the biking ‘position’ – with my head tilted back – was exactly the sort that pinched the nerve. So the first 2-3 rides in it was annoying, but it improved quickly and I haven’t noticed it for months now. Quite a relief.

    I wonder whether exercising increasing my heart rate and blood flow helped the nerve heal, or if it just finished moving back to its proper place.
  • In June I was having trouble with my hips, which would really hurt in a variety of positions, and made it especially difficult to get into and out of a car. Debbi taught me a yoga position which helped temporarily, but it was really after I started biking in that this problem went away. I don’t really know what caused it – maybe I’m developing some arthiritis – but I’m glad this one has gone, too.
  • Lastly, I was having a problem unrelated to my pinched nerve where my right elbow would hurt if I was making a lifting or pulling motion when holding something (taking out a trash bag, for example). It didn’t hurt when doing push-ups, though. I have a suspicion that my ulnar collateral ligament may have gotten sprained somehow (hopefully I won’t need Tommy John surgery). This problem is not entirely better, but it’s much improved, as I’ve been trying to avoid behaviors which make it hurt. I believe if the UCL isn’t too badly damaged that you can work around it through rehab – basically, strengthening the muscles around it to compensate – and perhaps that’s what I’ve done. Of course, it may also have just been a sprained muscle.

Thinking back to May and June, it’s such a relief to not be dealing with this stuff anymore. While I don’t know for sure that exercising helped resolve these problems, this will help motivate me to transition into going to the gym twice a week once it gets too dark to bike to work regularly.

This Week’s Haul

  • Batman and Robin #5, by Grant Morrison, Philip Tan & Jonathan Glapion (DC)
  • Planetary #27 of 27, by Warren Ellis & John Cassaday (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Criminal: The Sinners #1, by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
  • Astonishing X-men #31, by Warren Ellis, Phil Jimenez & Andy Lanning (Marvel)
  • Absolution #2 of 6, by Christos Gage & Roberto Viacava (Avatar)
  • Irredeemable #7, by Mark Waid & Peter Krause (Boom)
  • Witchfinder: In The Service of Angels #4 of 5, by Mike Mignola & Ben Stenbeck (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #35, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
  • Star Trek: Romulans: Schism #2 of 5, by John Byrne (IDW)
Planetary #27 Once upon a time there was a little comic book series called Planetary. It was part of the Wildstorm universe, nominally (it crossed over with The Authority, for example), but really it was a series that stood on its own: A group of adventurers bankrolled by a large corporation whose head stayed in the shadows explored the secret history of the world.

Okay, I’ll fess up: Ten years ago Planetary was my favorite comic book being published. Well, maybe I liked Astro City as much (and I like Astro City an awful lot), but for a while Planetary was the one I looked forward to the most. In addition to weaving a clever tapestry of a world with an exotic and mysterious background, it was a pastiche of various pop culture settings. The preview was a dark take on the Hulk, and the first issue featured Doc Savage and six other characters of the pulp era, having tried and failed to save the world through superscience in the 1930s, and who were then lost for 50 years. The second issue put a new spin on 50s Japanese monster films, and the third was a spooky Hong Kong action film. And so on. They were smartly written by Warren Ellis, and lavishly illustrated by John Cassaday, both names which were new to me at the time (I’d seen an X-Men mini-series Cassaday had illustrated before, and I hadn’t read Ellis’ Transmetropolitan yet).

The series started out monthly, then went bimonthly. At some point I learned that it was planned to run for 24 issues. The 24th issue came out, then the 25th, then the 26th, which seemed to be the climax of the series, except that it left one dangling thread. Now, several years later, the 27th and final issue is out, resolving that last thread.

The issue itself is a bit of a disappointment, but then, I’ve been waiting for it for almost 3 years, and it is really just the denouement to the larger story, so really it would have been hard to live up to expectations, just because of circumstances. Placed in context with the rest of the series, it’s fine. The issue itself revolves around theories of time travel and time manipulation, as one of the supporting characters was able to warp local time around himself, prior to his disappearance. The team builds a time machine hoping to save him, which leads to some fairly heavy discussion of the nature of time travel (in particular the recently-popular notion that it’s impossible to travel to the past earlier than the invention of the first time machine, and what that implies about the invention of that first machine). It’s a pretty crunchy story with a heartwarming ending.

While Warren Ellis has some reservations about the series, mainly due to some bad things that happened during its run, I think it’s actually one of the two archetypal Ellis stories; it and Transmetropolitan, although superficially quite different, have almost exactly the same themes, and in a broad sense the same approach: They’re both about grumpy old guys who are supremely pissed off at all the wrongs in the world and do whatever they can to try to right them, but under their crusty demeanors they’re both dreamers. While one should always be cautious of reading a work of fiction as representing the views of an author, from everything I’ve read by Ellis, how these attitudes and themes keep reoccurring, I think Spider Jerusalem and Elijah Snow both contain an awful lot of Warren Ellis in them.

At its core, Planetary has been about wonders both known and unknown, and railing against people and forces that would keep those wonders reserved for the elite when they could do so much good – or at least ought to be enjoyed – by everyone. I’m sure a great deal could be written about the fact that one group of privileged superpowered characters – the heroes – are fighting against another such group to bring these wonders to the world, and why should either group have the right to make those decisions for everyone? (There’s a hint of such disagreement being raised at the start of this issue.) To some extent I think Ellis is putting such a point of view out there so it can be debated, but the story itself is espousing that point of view because, well, it’s his story.

You could also view Planetary as Ellis’ argument for why a world full of superheroes wouldn’t have been fundamentally changed: Because someone’s been conspiring to keep the really good stuff from getting out. In this sense, Planetary is the comic book equivalent of Vernor Vinge’s novel The Peace War.

In any event, Planetary has been a great series, lavishly illustrated by Cassaday, beautifully envisioned, and with great re-read value. If you haven’t read it before, start with the first collection. There are 3 collections available, and hopefully a fourth will collect the last 9 issues of the series.

By the way, this final issue has a trifold cover featuring characters from throughout the series. Here’s the whole thing (click to enlarge – it’s big):

Planetary #27 full cover

One Hundred Thousand – Again

Almost 12 years ago I reached the 100,000 mile mark in my first car, a 1987 Honda Civic. Today, driving to Half Moon Bay, I passed the same mark in my new car, a 2000 Honda Civic:

100,000 miles!

I bought my car just over 10 years ago, put about 15 k miles on it for the first two years I owned it, and a lot less since then, after I bought my house (which is in a much better location for me). Biking to work twice a week cuts that down even further, of course; I think I’m averaging less than 100 miles/week these days. Which seems pretty good for an urban, freeway-oriented area like this.