Saturday, March 30, 2013

Baseball Tunes: The Star-Spangled Banner

The first known instance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" being played for a baseball game took place in 1862. However, it was not until World War II that it became customary to play the song before every game. Before the introduction of public address systems, it was cost prohibitive to hire a band so such ceremony was reserved for special occasions such as Opening Day or the World Series.

As most American schoolchildren learn - particularly those who grow up in Maryland, the words to our national anthem were written by Francis Scott Key.  Key was inspired by the Battle of Fort McHenry which he observed as a prisoner on a British ship during the War of 1812.  His poem, "Defence of Fort McHenry," was later set to the tune of "The Anacreontic Song" by John Stafford Smith.  It did not officially become the US national anthem until 1931.

Bold Proposal 2013

Following are the initial 2013 standings for my proposed baseball realignment, essentially based on the European soccer league concept.  The basic idea is explained here.  Last year's final post, including explanations for this year's alignment, is here.

First Division

1. Reds
2. Yankees
3. Braves
4. Giants
5. Rangers
6. Rays
7. Angels
8. Tigers
9. Cardinals
10. Dodgers
11. White Sox
12. Brewers
13. Phillies
14. Nationals
15. A's
16. Orioles

Second Division

1. Diamondbacks
2. Red Sox
3. Rockies
4. Pirates
5. Padres
6. Mariners
7. Mets
8. Blue Jays
9. Royals
10. Marlins
11. Indians
12. Twins
13. Cubs
14. Astros

As always, I will declare my concept a failure if one of my second division teams wins the real-universe World Series. Over the past three years of the experiment, it hasn't happened. Normally, this would be the point in my post where I'd say that I want this to happen.  I want to believe that the balance of power in baseball is more flexible than it actually is.  However, my Orioles are finally in the first division which means, at least according to my theory, they have a better chance of winning it all this year than they did last.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Rock Stars: Victoria

Image via Wikipedia

The 2013 Ford World Men's Curling Championship begins tomorrow in Victoria, British Columbia.  This year's championship is one of three qualifying events for the 2014 Winter Olympics.  The top seven nations in the qualification standings after this event will automatically qualify for the Olympics.  Canada currently leads the standings with the United States in eighth place.  The Yanks have some work to do!
Jacobs photo via Hack to Hack

None of the skips in this year's tournament has won a world championship before.  Even though Canada's Brad Jacobs had never even won his country's championship before this year, he comes to Victoria as the prohibitive favorite.  The Canadian men own the sport, having won the world title 34 times - more than everyone else put together.  Jacobs's rink hails from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
Edin Photo via Skip Cottage Curling

The two strongest threats to the Canadians are Sweden and Scotland.  The Swedes, led by Niklas Edin, are the reigning European champions.  While Scotland's Tom Brewster has never taken the world title, he has won the silver medal each of the past two years.
Brewster photo via Skip Cottage Curling

The United States are represented by the Seattle-based rink led by Brady Clark.  Clark won the national title for the first time this year.  He has had much greater success in mixed curling, with nine national team championships and three national doubles titles. He was also national collegiate champion in 1999.
Clark photo via Facebook

Monday, March 25, 2013

Family Movie Night: Tales of the Night

Title: Tales of the Night
Director: Michel Ocelot
Original Release: 2011
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image via Wikipedia

The Green Mountain Film Festival opened in Montpelier on Friday night.  The festival, held annually, is a great opportunity to see movies on the big screen which wouldn't normally come to our state.  The emphasis is on new films from around the world, though local productions are also featured.  Documentaries tend to make up a decent portion of the lineup.  An effort is made to include a few family-friendly flicks.
Image via Catamount Arts

We took in one of this year's offerings on Sunday morning, an absolute gem: Tales of the Night, a French film directed by Michel Ocelot, dubbed in English.  The movie is filmed in silhouette animation, resembling shadow puppetry with black figures against dazzlingly colorful backgrounds.  The premise is a simple one: a film technician exchanges story ideas with a teenage boy and girl in an old cinema.  We watch their tales unfold on the screen.

There are six stories in all, taking place in various corners of the world: two from Europe, one from the Caribbean, one from Aztec Mexico, one from Africa and one from Tibet.  All are high-quality and we each came away with different favorites.  Our Girl liked "The Chosen One and the City of Gold,"(the one set in Mexico) in which the hero tries to save a beautiful girl slated for ritual sacrifice.  My Wife preferred "Tijean and Belle-Sans-Connaitre," (Caribbean) in which a boy stumbles into the world of the dead and has to outwit the king to get back out again.  I had a hard time choosing a favorite but I'll go with "The Doe and the Architect's Son," (Europe) the movie's last story.  Thibault must save his beloved from a forced marriage to an evil wizard.

We're planning to head back next weekend for another film.  My Wife and I did talk afterward about the possibilities in future years when Our Girl is a little older - perhaps even turning the festival into a weekend-getaway rather than just a day trip for one film.  For now, I'm just grateful to have the opportunity to see films beyond the mainstream on the big screen.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Tiny Harmonies: The Final Week

Today marks the finale for Suze's Tiny Harmonies project.  Go visit her at Subliminal Coffee to see others writing haiku about today's themes.

That's right: themes, plural. Suze gave us three to play with this time, to do with as we please.  Following are my humble offerings for each.

Filling the pint glass
Half with lager, half with stout:
Perfect Black and Tan.

The Real:
Not much snow on ground.
6 a.m. phone call verdict:
There's no school today.
Photo via


Road is slipp'ry goop,
Four-wheel drive's great in the mud.
Car's named Totoro.

Image via biTe

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Brian Selznick

Title: The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Author and Illustrator: Brian Selznick
Image via Wikipedia

Just over a year ago, we went to see the delightful movie Hugo (review here). Having now read the book, I'm all the more impressed by how faithfully Scorsese managed to recreate it for the screen.  Selznick combines words and images to create a richly textured world for his characters.  Our sympathy for the protagonist is total and instantaneous.  We know he is fighting to survive and his success in doing so becomes all the more remarkable as details unfold.

There was one aspect of the movie which I found very strange.  I felt, in a sense, that I had watched two very different stories: the one before the discovery of Papa Georges's true identity and the one after.  I liked the second better but appreciated the fact that you need the first for the second to be meaningful.  The book, on the other hand, indicates quite clearly that they are two separate tales: Parts 1 & 2.  I now feel better knowing that it wasn't merely my perception that made it so.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is neither a traditional picture book, nor a traditional comic book with words and images sharing the page.  Instead it alternates pages of text with pages of art.  I wondered at times if the same story could have been told with just one or the other.  Without the text, the story's more subtle nuances might have been lost.  Without the images, the reader would not have been afforded the same immersive experience.  In tandem, they bring a richness to the telling - a great success.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Family Movie Night: Porco Rosso

Title: Porco Rosso
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Original Release: 1992
Choice: Our Girl's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image via Wikipedia

The Armchair Squid is practically a Studio Ghibli fan blog at this point!  The work is certainly worthy.  Porco Rosso (Italian for Crimson Pig) is based on Hikotei Jidai, a three-part watercolor manga by Miyazaki himself.

The story stems from the master animator's passion for antique aircraft.  Porco is a WWI veteran fighter pilot, now operating as a freelance bounty hunter.  He is wanted by the Italian Air Force for desertion.  He has been cursed to look like a pig for reasons never explained in the story.  The tale begins as he rescues a group of schoolgirls from a band of pirates.

The artwork for the film is stunning.  That almost goes without saying for a Ghibli film but some of the landscape work is downright Monet-worthy.  Of course, if you want a beautiful film, setting it in the Adriatic is a good way to start.

A new Ghibli film was released in the United States this past weekend: From Up on Poppy Hill.  Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be showing anywhere in Vermont just yet.  My pal Suze found an interesting link about the film:

Sunday, March 17, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Gerard Jones

Title: Men of Tomorrow
Author: Gerard Jones
Image via Goodreads

Men of Tomorrow provides a sweeping history of the comic book industry in the 20th century.  While Jones covers material far beyond Superman, the primary focus is on the Man of Steel and the men responsible for his creation and emergence as a cultural icon.  Writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster are both profiled, as are Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz, the publishers who first brought the character to the public.

The book is more than just a blow-by-blow account.  The industry's evolution is always tied to external cultural forces - the tenement slums of the early 20th century, the rise of organized crime during Prohibition, Depression, war, the moral anxiety of the 1950s and so on.  Men of Tomorrow also documents the rise of geek culture, born in the pulp fiction fan magazines of the '20s and '30s - a culture which comics nurtured for decades and which ultimately spawned comics creators. 

The unifying theme of this broad history is the rights of comic book artists and writers to profit from their creations.  Grunts like Siegel and Shuster were exploited for years while publishers made millions.  Today, the most successful creators are genuine celebrities in the comics world.  It's difficult to appreciate the years of painful and frequently humiliating litigation Siegel and Shuster had to endure just to be credited in the Superman movies and other such products.

On the Coffee Table: Miles Behind Us

Title: The Walking Dead, Volume 2: Miles Behind Us
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Artist: Charlie Adlard
Image via The Walking Dead Wiki

My unexpected fascination with Kirkman's zombie-scape continues with this second volume, compiling issues 7-12 of the comic book series.  My Wife and I discussed the story over breakfast this morning (she hasn't read it yet but I think she should).  For me, what works for this story as opposed to other zombie narratives I've encountered is that you don't actually see the zombies very often.  The focus is on one band of survivors and their struggle to piece the basics of existence back together.  The zombies turn up from time to time so as to remind us of the reason for hardship but it's not a constant barrage of the undead.

A new crisis is introduced at the beginning of Miles Behind Us: Lori Grimes (wife of Rick, our protagonist) reveals that she is pregnant.  While the obvious worries about another mouth to feed and lack of access to professional medical care are of great concern, there's also the underlying question of whether or not Rick is the biological father.  The Grimes family remains at the center of the story throughout but the rest of the cast is fluid.  Newly discovered survivors join the team, while others are lost.  Dilemmas of personal versus communal survival abound.

Adlard replaced Tony Moore as lead artist in issue #7 and has remained with the series in that capacity ever since.  Moore moved on to his own projects: The Exterminators and Fear Agent.  Adlard is also the penciller for the series Savage.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Tiny Harmonies: Adaptablity Haiku

Chickadee, nuthatch,
Downy woodpecker, barred owl -
Think they'll stick around.

Chickadee photo via Wikipedia
Nuthatch photo (not upside-down) via Wikipedia
Woodpecker photo by Dick Daniels
Owl photo via the daily bird
It's Week 2 for Suze's Tiny Harmonies series.  Go visit her at Subliminal Coffee to see others writing haiku on today's theme: adapability.

Rock Stars: Riga

Image via Wikipedia
For the first time, Latvia is playing host for the World Women's Curling Championship.  This year's championship is one of three qualifying events for the 2014 Winter Olympics.  The top seven nations in the qualification standings after this event will automatically qualify for the Olympics.  Switzerland currently leads those standings with Canada in third place and the United States in fifth.
Schöpp photo via AnthroScape

Two of the skips in this year's competition have won world titles before: Andrea Schöpp of Germany and Wang Bingyu of China.  Both should be considered among the favorites. 
Bingyu Photo via Froogville

One might expect Russia, already qualified for the Olympics as host nation, to be less motivated than the other participating nations.  However, the rink led by Anna Sidorova are the reigning European champions. 

Anna Sidorova - Vancouver 2010
Sidorova photo by Ryan Clare

Canada is nearly always in the mix so expectations are high for the Ottawan team led by Rachel Homan.
Photo via Team Homan

The American representatives hail from Madison, Wisconsin.  Skip Erika Brown has won the US national title seven times.  She is a former Olympian, having served as Third to Lisa Schoeneberg at the '98 Nagano Games.
Brown Photo via USA Curling

A pick?  Sure, why not?

Gold: Germany
Silver: China
Bronze: Canada

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Family Movie Night: Clueless

Title: Clueless
Director: Amy Heckerling
Original Release: 1995
Choice: My Wife's
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image via Amazon

If you haven't seen this movie, you might be forgiven for assuming it's a vacant tale about a ditzy blonde.   Nothing in the title or the poster would suggest that anything beyond the usual teen movie drivel is on offer.  I myself was highly skeptical of the film when it was in theaters back in the day and might never have watched it if not for the encouragement of respected friends.  On the other hand, if you have already watched it, you probably know that a more intelligent current runs behind the glossy facade.

Loosely based on Jane Austen's Emma, Clueless is cleverly written with engaging, nuanced characters.  While Cher, the protagonist, and her friends all appear at first to fit the John Hughes teen movie cliches, each of the principals is allowed to grow and challenge his/her own pigeon-hole.  By the end of the movie, they all feel less like caricatures and more like real people.  The teen-speak which pervades can grate a bit, I will admit.  But smart comedy saves the film at its most cringe-worthy moments.

Cher seems to have an ideal, affluent suburban life but a less than perfect report card spurs her to action.  Faced with a particularly stubborn debate teacher (played by Wallace Shawn), she decides the best plan of attack is to fix him up romantically with another teacher.  This is just the first of a string of good deeds Cher fulfills, initially motivated by self-interest but ultimately by genuine compassion.

My own favorite character is Cher's father Mel, played by Dan Hedaya (we've seen a lot of him recently).  When a date arrives at the house to pick up Cher, Mel delivers one of my favorite lines in all of film:
"Anything happens to my daughter, I got a .45 and a shovel. I doubt anybody would miss you."

The soundtrack is excellent, as should be expected from all teen movies. The songs are used in unexpectedly clever ways.  A couple are used to symbolize characters.  Actually, we're hit over the head with the fact that Coolio's "Rollin' with My Homies" represents Elton (popular jerk guy, played by Jeremy Sisto).  But Josh (quiet, nice guy played by Paul Rudd) also has a song, more subtly placed: Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees."  Better guy, better song - makes sense to me.

Multi-generational considerations:
  • Clueless is rated PG-13 for language, drug use and sexually-themed conversations.
  • Our Girl made her usual complaint of "too much kissing," but not until the very end.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Tiny Harmonies: Origin Haiku

Tapped trees, blue tubing,
A sugar shack smokes sweetly.
Our choice is Grade B.

Today marks the first installment of Suze's Tiny Harmonies series.  Go check out her blog, Subliminal Coffee, to learn more and to visit others writing haiku on today's theme: origin.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Family Movie Night: Game Over

Title: Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine
Director: Vikram Jayanti
Original Release: 2003
Choice: Mine
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Image via Amazon

A few weeks ago, we watched Searching for Bobby Fischer.  In my review of that film, I discussed my love of chess and also the possibility of watching this movie, a documentary about Grandmaster Garry Kasparov's showdown with the IBM computer Deep Blue in 1997.  We watched Game Over last night and while I enjoyed it, I am glad we watched Fischer first. 

The primary focus of Game Over is Kasparov's assertion that the IBM team cheated in the second game of the six-game match.  Essentially, Kasparov set a trap for the computer.  Deep Blue responded with a move which Kasparov contends a machine could not have made on its own.  He suspected human intervention and his obsession with the matter ultimately led to his defeat in the game and the match.  As a documentary about Kasparov's anxiety, the film works.  I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of clips from the silent 1927 French film, Le joueur d'echecs, a similar fictional story set in 19th century Russia. 

Some professional critics slammed the film for its bias towards Kasparov's position, not giving IBM sufficient opportunity to defend its integrity.  In the end, the company is cast as just another corporate empire out to drive its share prices up, ethics be damned.  As for myself, I would have liked more technical discussion of chess.  The game itself took a backseat to the psychological warfare between the two camps.

Multi-generational considerations:
  • Searching for Bobby Fischer is definitely more fun, so probably a better choice to watch with kids.  Our Girl made it through but there was some heavy sighing towards the end.
  • In the film's denouement, there's a spectacular shot of Lake Bled in Slovenia.  "Let's go there!" My Wife said.
Photo via World for Travel

On the Coffee Table: Nausicaa

Title: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Volumes 1-5
Writer and Artist: Hayao Miyazaki
Image via Amazon

Our family's love for comic books and Miyazaki films has converged nicely upon the original manga version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind - translated, of course.  I reviewed the film version of the story here.  In the same post, I also explain the interesting role this story has played in Miyazaki's extraordinary career.
Image via Wikipedia

Over the past two months, I have read the first five collected volumes of the series out of seven total.  The film only covers the first volume and some of the second.  Obviously, in the manga, Nausicaä's world is far better developed. 
Image via AstroNerdBoy's Anime & Manga Blog

In the movie, a war between the Torumekians and the Doroks is just beginning.  In the manga, we get the gory details and things get bad in a big hurry.  The Doroks initiate environmental warfare which ultimately leaves the land uninhabitable - for themselves as well as their enemies.  Nausicaä, princess of a peripheral tribe, is the savior figure, capable of communicating with animals - especially the enormous insects of the forest whom the rest of humanity have learned to fear. 
Image via Amazon

Apocalyptic narratives are fairly common in Japanese sci-fi and fantasy, for obvious historical reasons.  Miyazaki's twist is an interesting one in that the disaster is self-inflected, a fictional worst-case extrapolation of real world problems.  Nausicaä has all of the expected hero qualities: intelligence, decisiveness and bravery.  However, it is her compassion which separates her from the powerful warriors around her and which is the key to her finding the answers to - hopefully - save her world.
Image via Amazon

I say hopefully because Nausicaä's predicament at the end of Volume 5 seems dire indeed.  With two more volumes to go, though, there's still time for a happy ending.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

On the Coffee Table: Jar of Fools

Title: Jar of Fools
Writer and Artist: Jason Lutes
Image via Inside Pulse

Jason Lutes, writer and artist for the Berlin series, initially serialized Jar of Fools as a comic strip for The Standard, a Seattle weekly newspaper for which he also served as art director.  The collection was first published in 1994 in two parts by Black Eye Productions.  Drawn & Quarterly published the single-volume edition in 2003.

Jar of Fools is certainly not a happy story.  The protagonist is Ernie, a washed-up magician.  Through the course of events, he finds himself living under a highway overpass with his mentor, his ex-girlfriend, a con-man and the con-man's young daughter.  Having hit rock-bottom, the gang works desperately to find a path back to meaningful lives.

I think Lutes's greatest gift is character development.  In both Berlin and this story, my feeling of investment in his characters' well-being is very strong.  Faces, hair, clothing and posture are all clear projections of personality and emotion.

Magic is a big theme in Lutes's work.  He has also published a biography of Harry Houdini in graphic novel form: Houdini: The Handcuff King.  I'll have to keep an eye out for that one.