Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Newest Members of the U.N.

Planning a vacation? Do not overlook these charming spots.



Nestled between the Strumnitz and Flessgau Rivers, Gross Kleinreich, which seceded from Burgundy in 1422, is ruled by His Serene Highness Grand Duke Ottokar XXIX. The happy populace—by law, depressed and sulky people are hanged—lives in the only remaining Divine Right Absolute Monarchy in Europe. The duchy’s primary products are overpriced sweatshirts sold to tourists and elaborate postage stamps bought only by philatelists. (Gross Kleinreich welcomes visitors, but, since it is not very large, please park in Luxembourg.)


The Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Tougoubougou was established in 1966 as a union of the Tougous and the Oubougous, two tribes on the lower Upper Volta River. Government is by coup d’état, and preserves the old Oubougou tradition that the new president cook and eat his predecessor. The national income is based on loans from the United Nations deposited directly into the president’s Swiss bank account.


Formerly a strip mall in Tijuana, the Republic of Caramba declared its independence from Mexico in 1998, a move that was successful because nobody noticed. The chief industry is digging tunnels to the U.S.A. and charging 50,000 pesos apiece to people who use them. The population—Señor Martinez, his wife, and their thirteen children—hopes to join NATO this year.


The Grand Republic of Guanonia consists of two archipelagos in the South Pacific, the Teeniweeni Isles and the Itsibitsi Group. The population is approximately 3,000,000, ninety-eight percent of whom are birds who provide the islanders’ cash “crop” and main export, from which the nation takes its name. This proud land—known in colonial times as the Gulldung Islands—is trying desperately to get some Western country to take it back.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Culture Corner: Star Wars I

How about some film criticism? Would you like my learned insights anent The Maltese Falcon, or Battleship Potemkin, or even The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? Perhaps an analysis of the use of shadow symbolism in Ivan the Terrible, Part II? Well... maybe we should start at a more modest level, and with a film that is more my speed. Here's a few opinionated words concerning that much-anticipated classic from a few years back, Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace.

The immortal main theme begins. The orange words appear:“Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying systems is in dispute. Hoping to resolve the matter with a blockade of deadly battleships, the greedy Trade Federation has stopped all shipping to the small planet of Naboo.... this alarming chain of events...”
Do we sit in wonder, our popcorn halfway to our mouths, as chills run down our spines? Good lord! A trade dispute. A blockade of a small planet. A chain of events (apparently a small chain, with only two links).
This is the stuff of which epics are made?
What is the purpose of the blockade? Shouldn’t the Trade Federation want to trade with Naboo? Perhaps the T.F. wants to charge higher prices? We never learn anything about the dispute, other than that it is legal and trivial. (“Something as trivial as this trade dispute,” says Qui-Gon; “Our blockade is perfectly legal” says Viscount Gunray.) Since the plot opening is a legal, trivial trade dispute, we might expect the first exciting scene to be a committee hearing by economists.
How could Mr. Lucas give us so lackluster a start to so eagerly anticipated a movie?
Queen Amidala... yes. Now, his films show that Mr. Lucas’s general knowledge of government and diplomacy could be engraved on the head of a pin, but in the polity of Naboo he has confected something particularly fascinating: a democratic monarchy, a queen who is elected and subject to term limits. This “queen” is required to wear preposterous costumes that change hourly and coiffures not seen since the court of Louis XVI. Surely she would have scant time to to do much governing, being too busy with her clothes and hair. But that might be a good idea, since the office of monarch apparently has no age qualification. In this crisis Naboo is governed by a girl of fourteen. That’s the best the voters of Naboo could do? (And she, we are told in Film II, is not the youngest ever chosen. One would like to see the youngest, who perhaps governed from a cradle rather than a throne.)
We arrive on Tatooine, where a serious difficulty arises: the hyperdrive is kaput. It is a matter of galactic importance that the ship get going ASAP. Only one dealer, Watto, an overgrown housefly, has the needed part, and he will not accept Republic currency.
What is a resourceful, masterful, intelligent Jedi to do? Here are some possibilities:
(A) Go to a bank and convert your money to the local stuff.
(B) Inform Watto that the Jedi Order is commandeering his hyperdrive and will wire him the money. If he refuses, take it by force.
(C) Wait and do nothing until you accidentally discover that a small child might get you the money by winning a race, although this child has never finished, let alone won, a race.
Guess what Qui-Gon does. We can only shake our heads.
A side note: Qui-Gon asks Obi-Wan if they have anything to trade with. He replies that they have little but “the queen’s wardrobe.” Folks, if that queen brought her wardrobe, it could be traded for most of the star-ships on the planet.
Anakin’s poor mother: here is the biggest, most glaring plot hole in the whole series. Why in heaven is she left as a slave? The Jedi are willing to take a nine-year-old boy away from his only parent and forget about her. There is never any effort to free her, not even after her son shows her a pile of cash and says, “Look how much we won.” Then he keeps it and leaves mom to the mercy of the giant fly.
“Gungans go to sacred place.” The Trade Federation has occupied the planet; they know about the underwater city. Yet thousands of not terribly inconspicuous or diminutive Gungans manage to move to a spot on the surface that the T.F. never notices. How did they do that? But of course we must reckon with “Lucas logic” as well as “Star Wars physics.” This also means that dei ex machinae can be produced as needed. Must you get into the city? Voilà, “the secret passage on the waterfall side.” Thank heaven for secret passages. And how we rejoice when Padmé produces necessary pistols from the arm of a chair in which Newt Gunray has sat for weeks without ever discovering the concealed weapons.
When the big metal door goes up and Darth Maul appears, the two Jedi say “we’ll handle this” and the others--over a dozen armed men--just leave (to “take the long way,” even though they are in a great hurry). Why? Why doesn’t everyone open fire and kill the Sith right there?
One could go on listing absurdities and inconsistencies in this silly movie, but enough. It is more important to ask why. Why is this film so badly written? Why are thoughtful viewers left feeling cheated?
I think that answer can be found on the commentary track, where Mr. Lucas and several mechanics talk to us.
My impression is of men so mesmerized by technology that they have lost sight of what really matters. These animators and CGI people--these hod-carriers of the movie world--are insufferable. On and on they go with details of how this or that shot was done, repeatedly telling us of their cleverness, their expertise, their great deeds. One feels a bit “wude” in saying this, but, folks, we don’t care how it’s done. You are but hewers of imaginary wood and drawers of digital water. Do your jobs, cash your paychecks, and be quiet. We, the audience, care only about the finished product. Save your war stories for other artisans. You deserve well of your master, undoubtedly other computerists will want to know the details of your craft, but don’t monopolize the commentary with one more description of how you created realistic-looking dust or inserted a suitable wobble into a puppet. Sheesh!
Mr. Lucas’s comments suggest he is an overgrown adolescent. One hopes in vain for insight on the government system of Naboo or what reaction he expected from the startling announcement of Anakin’s virgin birth (made before we hear of the “midi-chlorians.”) What he most often says--over and over, in all three films--is how much more he can do with CGI today that a few years ago. Incessantly he rejoices that he can now, at last, bring his ideas to life. But what ideas? Not moving or dramatic ones--just glitz. He often compares his work to that of a composer, referring again and again to “tone poems” and such things. I can only suggest that, if he thinks his films are like music, he should have let John Williams do the directing as well as the score. The result would have been superior. As it is, The Phantom Menace is useful mainly as proof that Mr. Lucas can no longer invent a coherent plot, or make a film that can be taken seriously. He is now merely a master of eye-candy, of the colorful cinematic façade with emptiness behind it.
Finally, a tribute to Jar-Jar Binks. I am not being perverse. I like him. He brings to the film some much-needed humor. He does not take himself too seriously. He is genuine. He is humble. He is grateful. He helps his friends as best he can. I bet he wouldn’t leave his mother in slavery. As for his language, I find it more refreshing and alive than that of a certain character who for no apparent reason always backwards speaks, whose verbs at the end of his sentences puts, and who so insufferably smug is that I almost wish Count Dooku his little green head had off cut.

My apolgies for any inconsistencies in format, spacing, etc. I'm still learning how to use this blog.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Just What the Doctor Ordered

One goes to the emergency room for succor in adversity: a nascent kidney stone, perhaps; pain in one’s extremities or bowels. One is treated kindly, examined, tested, reassured, and dispatched to a pharmacy with appropriate prescriptions for the alleviation of anguish and infection.

Like the people one sees on those signs in the post office, medicines go about under many names, and one wonders if pharmaceutical companies are staffed by people who write Heroic Fantasy in their spare time. (“When the tyrant Ketorolac sent his armies, under his ferocious vizier Meloxicam, to plunder the peaceful kingdom of Ativan, only the hero Celebrex, wielding the enchanted sword Lorazepam, stood between his people and subjection to the evil Flurbiprofen Empire…”)

Pharmacists now need printers as well as pestles, for, along with the cute little orange storage jars in which pills and powders are customarily dispensed, one receives also a page--two pages--several pages--of information on each medicament.

If one takes time to read these screeds--not always an easy matter, as some are printed in 6- or 8-point type--one may well decide to live with one’s pain and misery rather than risk the utter destruction that may follow if you dare to swallow one of those pills.

Here is a capsule to “relieve pain and swelling… treat headaches, backaches, tendonitis…, gout.” A worthy goal. But… but… “NSAID medicines may increase the chance of a heart attack or stroke that can lead to death”. “Serious side effects include: heart failure from body swelling; life-threatening skin reactions; liver problems including liver failure;” and six other things. Some are less serious: “Possible Side Effects… include upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, gas, headache, diarrhea, constipation, drowsiness, or dizziness.” “Contact Your Doctor Immediately,” it says, “if they continue or are bothersome.” (If!? Evidently it is thought that nausea, vomiting, etc. are not “bothersome” to some people (Spartans, Stoics, masochists?))

You read these pages, nervously moisten your lips, and inspect the medicine jar. No, it doesn’t say Dr. Lucrezia Borgia. But look here… “Possible Side Effects” for another medication you were given to take along with the first one: “blue or purple skin color, yellowing of the skin or eyes…” “Check with your doctor as soon as possible” it adds helpfully: valuable advice indeed, as many might otherwise not think to do that for a trifle like turning purple.

Perhaps there is something to be said for illiteracy, or for just not reading these information sheets. After all, the basic instructions are on the label, e.g. Aqua Tofana: take one every four hours. Ignorance is bliss. Che sarà, sarà. Trust the doctor, be a man, take the pills and go about your business. Yes. Indeed. But… if you take Phenozopyrid (alias Pyridum, a.k.a. Phenazopyridine) without reading about it, and then go to the privy, you will suddenly discover that the water in the bowl becomes orange: vivid, almost neon, orange. Then you will wish, after you recover from your faint, that you had read “This medicine may cause the urine to turn orange or red. This is harmless but it may stain fabric.” And you will have similar feelings if your soft contact lenses turn orange because you wore them while taking Pyridium.

There is much other helpful advice. “Check with your doctor as soon as possible if you experience memory loss.” Hmmm, yes… now what was it I was going to do after I took that pill?

“If overdose is suspected, contact your local poison control center or emergency room immediately. Symptoms of overdose may include confusion, slow reflexes, clumsiness, deep sleep, and loss of consciousness.” Perhaps your unconscious self can make the call.

“Check with your doctor”--this mantra is incessant. Pharmaceutical companies seem to use it as a safety valve to excuse their inability to abolish potentially catastrophic side effects. Do they expect doctors to set aside a couple of hours a day to deal with patients who are swelling up, turning purple, or dissolving?

People who live alone, at least, might well decide to take their nostrums only where help is at hand: at parties or the theater, in church, or… why not right in the lobby of the emergency room? Just pop in two or three times a day with a glass of water, gulp down your pills, and sit there shuddering quietly, waiting to see if the Sword of Damocles will descend this time.

And now one can see why, along with Phenazopyridine and Naproxen, one was given Lorazepam (“a benzodiazepine used to relieve anxiety...”): If you had no anxiety before you went to the e.r., you will most certainly have it once you have read about your medicine.

“DO NOT EXCEED THE RECOMMENDED DOSE” it says emphatically on all the sheets. No fear. The challenge is nerving oneself to take the minimum dose.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go fill prescriptions for Mortufax and Thanatophilin. I hope they have no bothersome side effects.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

And Away We Go

Well... um... ahh... Self-published authors need all the help they can get to market their stuff; I hope to post some humorous/satirical articles and some information on my books. I'm quite a novice at this, and not much of a self-promoter; for the moment I'll just say that you might like to take a look at And Gladly Teach, a little work about life at a fictional prep school, or Storm Approaching, the first volume in my adventure/fantasy Mercenaries series.