Thursday, August 31, 2006

And now a word from RadioShack: You're fired

Yesterday, RadioShack Corporation terminated 400 employees in a cost-cutting move. Those affected by the layoffs learned their fate when they received this curt e-mail from their corporate leadership:
The work force reduction notification is currently in progress. Unfortunately, your position is one that has been eliminated.
That's Shacked up.

RadioShack might as well have sent the 400 terminees a note that simply read:
You. Door. Out.
It's just as impolite, while saving 15 words per message.

The Shack has always been a peculiar entity. I say this from experience, because for two years in my long-ago post-collegiate days, I was a Radio Shack (it was two words back then) store manager. Now, I know what you're thinking: How did this erudite, cultured man-about-town devolve into a technonerd wearing short-sleeved sport shirts, a pocket protector, and a name badge. Two words: Rent and food.

Here's the encapsulated version. With the ink on my Bachelor of Arts in Radio and Television still slightly tacky, I accepted as my first job out of college an advertising sales position with a radio station in California's Central Valley. Six weeks after my arrival, the station was sold to a new ownership group, which proceeded to downsize the staff dramatically, yours truly included.

So here I was, an unemployed kid with a useless college degree and not a farthing to my name, living in a backwater town three hours' drive from home. My survival instincts kicked in. Recalling the word "Radio" on my aforementioned sheepskin, I hied myself to the Radio Shack around the corner from my microscopic apartment and filled out an employment application. Within a week, I was hawking everything from speaker wire to flux capacitors in the local shopping mall. Within three weeks, I was an assistant manager. I later managed a succession of increasing larger Shack outlets, biding my time until my bride and I had saved up enough cash to return to civilization.

When I say that the Shack (one of the more printable shorthand phrases used by employees) was a peculiar company, I know whereof I speak. Examples of this peculiarity follow.
  • Radio Shack marketed itself as "The Technology Store" — and rightly so; the Shack sold the first line of portable computers commercially available — yet required sales tickets to be written up manually (that is, in pen, on a pad of self-copying paper) by the sales staff.

  • The retail network was rife with graft. In my two-year tenure with the company, no less than five store managers in my local district were sacked due to embezzlement, theft, or similarly nefarious doings.

  • The middle management staff was, to be kind, incompetent. I never met a single individual in district or regional management who wasn't a complete moron. All that was required for promotion to top-kick status was a cheerful smile, a shoeshine, and a willingness to suck up to the guy just above you in the food chain.

  • The company's expansion plans overreached any conceivable notion of profitability. At the time, the stated goal was to place a Radio Shack store within five minutes' drive of every urban or suburban American. This resulted in a plethora of failing outlets that existed for no better reason than to have a Radio Shack in a given neighborhood or shopping center. Whether the traffic would support a store in that location never appeared to be a consideration. (To show you how this worked: The city of Stockton, California — with a population at the time of roughly 100,000 — had no less than seven Radio Shacks, only three of which came anywhere close to turning a buck.)

  • As a consequence of the aforementioned policy, competition between stores in the same geographic area was cutthroat. Does it make sense to you to have a company's own outlets competing against one another — rather than, say, somebody else's outlets — for business? What kind of economic theory bases a business plan on cannibalism?
If you want proof of Radio Shack's misguided internal promotion policy, you need look no further than my own career with the organization. I was promoted from assistant manager to manager for two reasons that had nothing whatever to do with job performance: (1) I had shown up for work every day for several months, and had never stolen anything; and (2) I was robbed at gunpoint and did not immediately hand in my resignation.

Once a manager, I continued to be promoted to the helm of larger stores, despite the fact that (a) I was vocal about my utter lack of interest in being promoted; and (b) I was a barely competent salesman and an even less competent manager. (I can't balance my checkbook or remember my doctor's appointments, and you're going to put me in charge of hundreds of thousands of dollars in inventory, and three FTEs? What kind of warped sense does that make?) However, I was honest, clean, well-spoken, and relatively likeable, therefore I was considered a real up-and-comer.

My favorite Radio Shack story actually took place outside the store environment. In one of its incessant sales-pumping gimmicks, our district divided the local stores into competing teams, with the winning team (based on sales figures compared with what each store had sold in the corresponding month of the previous year) winning a free weekend in Lake Tahoe. My team won, largely on the strength of my store's phenomenal sales increase.

(Which had nothing to do with me personally, as it happens. The previous manager of this particular Shack had been an abrasive nitwit, who had succeeded in chasing away the store's clientele with his annoying manner. When I took over the store — by coincidence, just over a month before the sales contest began — word quickly got around that the former manager had been sent packing and that a new sheriff had come to town, and the customers returned in droves. Q.E.D.)

Serendipitously, my wife and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary the same weekend as the Tahoe trip. In a twist of irony, the lodging assigned us was a palatial hotel-casino on the lake's north shore (which, for those of you not from around these parts, is the opposite end of the lake from where most of the sightseeing and casino action resides) and my wife, who was at the time under 21, couldn't enter the casino. So we had little to do for three days except...well...what newlyweds do with a free hotel room and time on their hands.

We spent a fair portion of our upright hours in the company of another young couple, one of my fellow managers and his wife — a pair of clean-cut Mormon kids who appeared ill at ease with the whole casino environment the entire trip. Their personal peccadilloes afforded us plenty of comedic fodder during our stay. At breakfast, for example, the distaff component of our companion couple ate her French toast seasoned with salt and pepper, which struck my wife and me as hilarious. The girl's logic, however, couldn't be faulted: "You put salt and pepper on eggs, right? French toast is bread with eggs on it, right? So you eat French toast with salt and pepper, right?" Well, okay.

The four of us spent one evening in the hotel's indoor hot tub, wearing barely adequate plastic-coated paper bathing suits (think Huggies, with a Huggies brassiere for the ladies) supplied by the management. That would have a fine Kodak moment. Or not.

Then again, we worked for Radio Shack. How much more ridiculous could we possibly have looked?


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Jesus, take the wheel

While running errands earlier this afternoon, I found myself sitting at a traffic light next to a blue Chrysler minivan. In the window of the van's right-side sliding door was a sticker that read:

"WARNING: This vehicle is protected by Jesus Christ."

Which might not have caught my attention...

...were it not for the badly dented and primer-coated front fender, on the same side of the van where the sticker appeared.

Maybe the Lord was on break when that happened.


What's Up With That? #36: Deja voodoo

It's been a weird 24 hours for East Bay sports franchises.

Yesterday, the Oakland Raiders signed quarterback Jeff George, who last threw a pass in anger during an NFL game five years ago. George, now age 39, was the Raiders' starting QB for two tumultous seasons in 1997 and 1998, following which he was pretty much ridden out of town on the proverbial rail.

This is the same Jeff George of whom, during his previous tenure in Oakland, hostile Raiders fans often spoke with the same vitriol as Mel Gibson addressing an arresting officer. That's no exaggeration. Search though you may, you will not find more aggressively passionate sports fans anywhere than among the Raider Nation.

Then today, the Golden State Warriors — whose home court shares the same property as McAfee Coliseum, where the Raiders play — fired head coach Mike Montgomery and signed as his replacement 66-year-old Don Nelson, who previously helmed the Warriors during the glory days of Run-TMC (the storied backcourt triumvirate of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond, and current Warriors VP of basketball operations Chris Mullin).

This is the same Don Nelson who left Golden State halfway through the 1994-95 season, after a series of conflicts with prima donna big man Chris Webber. Most recently, Nellie enjoyed a highly successful six-year run as the head coach and general manager of Mark Cuban's Dallas Mavericks.

So, what — it's Old Home Week in Oaktown? Next thing you know, Reggie Jackson will be playing right field for the Athletics, and The Arena in Oakland will play headquarters to a hockey team called the California Golden Seals.

Both of these reunions — George and the Raiders, Nelson and the Warriors — possess all the potential for joyous harmony as the reunions of Kim Mathers and Eminem, and Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee.

We all recall how well those turned out.

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This Karr won't drive

I've suspected from the beginning that John Mark Karr's confession to JonBenet Ramsey's murder just didn't add up. The DNA evidence proves that I was right.

As details surfaced even on the day of his arrest — most notably his ex-wife's contention that on the day the murder occurred in Boulder, Colorado, Karr was in Atlanta with his family — Karr began to look more and more like a glory-seeking wannabe. After all, Karr's ex-wife dumped him like a faux Rolex as soon as she learned that he was a pedophile and collector of child pornography. She'd be the last person on earth to weasel him out of prison with a trumped-up alibi.

Now our local criminal justice officials here in Sonoma County are mulling over whether to pursue Karr's prosecution on the child porn charges he skipped out on six years ago. Even if convicted, given the time he already served, former fugitive Karr would wallow in jail for a matter of months at most, though he would be required to register as a sex offender. District Attorney Stephen Passalacqua is weighing whether the cost (both in resources and publicity) of trying Karr at this juncture would be worth the hassle.

As I noted in this space a couple of weeks ago, child sex crime seems to be part of the fabric of our community, for reasons that baffle me. Just this past weekend, NBC Dateline pulled off one of its infamous online predator stings right here in my backyard, netting 30 would-be child molesters in the process.

Which reminds me...

Today is Michael Jackson's birthday.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Gimme an Emmy

Of the three major entertainment awards shows, the Emmy Awards are usually the least entertaining, behind both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. This year's show seemed like an improvement over previous Emmyfests — the pace was sprightlier (wonder of wonders, the show finished on time!), some of the humor bits were fresher — but it still lacked the warmth and charm of the Globes or the superstar punch of Oscar Night.

Some thoughts, nonetheless:
  • Conan O'Brien makes an enjoyable host. I generally prefer Conan the Barbarian to Conan the Comedian, but O'Brien's pleasantly wonky sensibility works well in the context of the Emmys. The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (not coincidentally, its initials are "SATAN" backwards) should sign Conan up for a multiyear run.

  • Thank the stars that Ellen Burstyn's 14-second supposting role didn't win the category in which she was nominated. What was the Academy smoking the day that pick happened?

  • The bit about Bob Newhart being sealed in a glass box with only three hours of air to breathe make me chuckle. No one on the planet can generate more laughs with nothing more than a baleful expression than Newhart can.

  • Stupidest awards show tradition: Having people come to the microphone for no other purpose than to introduce other people who will come to the microphone. I know it's a way of giving a few more familiar faces their moment in the spotlight, but stop it. Stop it now.

  • Seeing Dick Clark on camera was only slightly less pitiful and sad than seeing him on New Year's Rockin' Eve. But then, hearing his impassioned words made the discomfort worthwhile. Almost.

  • What was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar doing at the Emmys? Or was that copilot Roger Murdock?

  • The One-Liner of the Night Award goes to Stephen Colbert, who opened his and Jon Stewart's presentation assignment by greeting the audience with, "Good evening, godless sodomites." Even the uptight right-wingers in the crowd had to laugh at that.

  • Best presentation bit of the evening: Hugh Laurie translating Helen Mirren's remarks into French, until he exhausted his command of the language. Deftly played comedy by two excellent actors, and genuinely hilarious.

  • A presentation bit that didn't work: Howie Mandel playing Deal Or No Deal with Will and Grace's Megan Mullally.

  • Speaking of the latter, does that woman own an evening dress that doesn't expose decolletage to the navel? Every time Mullally's on an awards show, we see far two much of her, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. And no, that's not a typo.

  • Nice of Tom Selleck to sober up long enough to help Mariska Hargitay present an award.

  • Speaking of the latter, her mention of her father (bodybuilder and bit-part actor Mickey Hargitay, for those of you who've forgotten) during her own acceptance speech was touching. Although it would have been worth the price of admission to hear Mariska say something like, "I wish my mother were alive to see this — she'd be out of her head right now."

  • Andre Braugher seemed surprised to win for his role in Thief. You could almost see him thinking, "So why didn't any of you people actually watch the [expletive deleted] show?"

  • The fawning tribute to Aaron Spelling proved that if you put enough money in enough Hollywood pockets over the years, when you croak you can skip the whole List of People Who Died Since the Last Show and get an homage all to yourself.

  • One benefit of the Spelling tribute: I had forgotten that the guy started his entertainment career as a comic actor, and a pretty decent one, too.

  • Quite a coup to regroup the three original Charlie's Angels for the Spelling memorial. Kate Jackson was always my favorite, and still is — can you not be enchanted by that voice? But holy Toledo, time and excessive plastic surgery have not served Farrah Fawcett kindly. Kate and Jaclyn Smith remain radiant in their late 50s (Jaclyn is actually 60 already — where did the time go?), while Farrah resembles a concrete gargoyle.

  • Speaking of dead people, the prized positions in the List of People Who Died Since the Last Show went, rather surprisingly, to Dennis Weaver (first) and Richard Pryor (last). I had expected Don Knotts to get one of the showcase spots, beloved as he was. The most surprising omissions from the montage were Nipsey Russell — I was certain we'd see him deliver one of his famous poems — and Wendie Jo Sperber, less for her considerable comedic talents than for her anti-cancer activism.

  • It was a relief when Helen Mirren won for her starring role in Elizabeth I. She'd already received mention in so many of the other winners' acceptance speeches that it would have looked odd if she'd been passed over.

  • When was the last time Calista Flockhart ate something? Not before this show, apparently. The creepiest visual of the evening — after the cadaverous Farrah — was seeing Calista and her grandfather Harrison Ford canoodling in the audience. They looked they were enacting a love scene from Tales from the Crypt.

  • Vindication of the Night Award: Kiefer Sutherland and 24, both of which should have won their respective categories in previous years. You go, Jack.

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

Between rock and a hard place

In and around doing other things last night, I was checking out a replay of VH1's 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock. Yes, I'm aware that the series is a few years old. But if you haven't seen it before, it's new to you, right?

I'm not going to run down the entire list here — you can go here to review it, if you're so inclined — but I jotted down a few random thoughts that wafted through my formerly hard-rock addled brain as I watched the program. You'll see that I dug out a few souvenirs to solidify my rocker cred.

96. Meat Loaf. I'd have had the Loaf much higher on my ballot. SSTOL regulars already know that I loves me some Meat Loaf. The singer, too.

90. Rainbow. One of the funniest bits in Cameron Crowe's book, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (upon which Crowe based his screenplay for the seminal teenage comedy), involves a kid who skips school every April 14 to celebrate the birthday of Rainbow's lead guitarist, Ritchie Blackmore. That always strikes me as funny because one of my best friends' birthdays also falls on April 14, and when we were in high school together, I never got her birthday off.

89. Lita Ford. One of the great injustices of this list is that the Runaways, the all-girl band that spawned the careers of both Lita Ford and Joan Jett (#66), isn't included. The Runaways' eponymous first album, raw and undisciplined though it may be, rocks harder and is way more fun than anything Lita ever recorded as a solo artist.

86. Foreigner. I want to know what love is. I want Lou, Mick and the boys to show me. In a strictly musical, heterosexual way.

83. King's X. An amazing three-piece musical juggernaut that never got the credit its collective talents deserved for two reasons: (1) because its members had in their early careers been backup players with such "contemporary Christian music" acts as Petra and Phil Keaggy, and thus King's X was stigmatized as a religious act (though their music never fit the CCM mold); (2) because lead singer and bassist Doug Pinnick came out as gay, effectively cutting the band off from the fan base that had supported King's X when they were being marketed as a Christian band.

74. Pat Benatar. I seriously crushed on Pat Benatar back in the day. That was before I saw her live in concert, and discovered that she was this microscopic slip of a woman, maybe four-foot-ten and 85 pounds. How did such a mammoth voice emerge from such a petite frame?

72. Foo Fighters. The VH1 series failed to answer one of the great mysteries in music history: What is foo, and why are these guys fighting it?

67. The Rolling Stones. The Stones, way down at #67? You've gotta be kidding.

61. Jethro Tull. I still chuckle when I recall that Tull copped the first-ever Grammy Award for heavy metal performance. I see they snuck in here, too.

57. Heart. Maybe the most underrated band in rock, ever. The Wilson sisters (that's Ann and Nancy, not Carnie and Wendy) were, at the height of their powers, one of the most sensational songwriting and performing combinations in popular music. The cognoscenti sometimes referred to Heart as "Led Zeppelin with breasts," and they were right. About the Zeppelin comparison, I mean. And yeah, the other thing(s), too.

55. Blue Öyster Cult. I still own a complete collection of BÖC LPs, up through The Revolution By Night. A perfect fusion of science fiction sensibility and heavy metal thunder, led by one of rock's most distinctive guitarists in Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser. How can you not love a band that could create songs with titles like these: "I'm On The Lamb But I Ain't No Sheep," "She's As Beautiful as a Foot," "Seven Screaming Diz-Busters," "Baby Ice Dog," "Veteran of the Psychic Wars," "The Great Sun Jester," and "Shooting Shark," just to name a few. Seriously, what other band in rock history could have recorded scary songs about both Godzilla and Joan Crawford?

44. ZZ Top. Every girl's crazy 'bout a sharp dressed man. Especially one with a waist-length beard and a '34 Ford.

31. Def Leppard. The only band in rock history with a one-armed drummer, although he still had two when Leppard recorded their best album, Pyromania.

25. Cheap Trick. Back when I was a college radio DJ in Southern California in the early '80s, Rick Nielsen once telephoned me in the studio to thank me for playing a Cheap Trick tune. The song, in case you're interested, was "Southern Girls," from Trick's 1977 album, In Color. Hey, Rick, I'm still in the book, man, if you ever feel the urge to reconnect.

17. The Ramones. Riff Randall still fondly recalls the way Joey Ramone slithered pizza into his mouth.

13. Queen. Freddie Mercury was The Man.

8. The Who. Would be Numero Uno on my ballot, with Zeppelin (first on VH1's tally) a close second, and Queen — my personal favorite of the three — in third. No one ever sounded like The Who, then or now. Who's Next remains the greatest non-Beatles album in popular music history, hands down.

4. AC/DC. Dirty deeds. Done dirt cheap. Angus Young always looked like a doofus in the schoolboy shorts, though.

3. Jimi Hendrix. Well, yeah. Duh. 'Scuse me while I kiss the sky.

2. Black Sabbath. Not my thing, really, but they were half of one of the coolest rock concert films ever shot: Black and Blue, the audiovisual record of Sabbath's co-headline tour with Blue Öyster Cult.

1. Led Zeppelin. All of which reminds me... it's been a long time since I rock-and-rolled.

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Friday, August 25, 2006

Wherever a people cry out for justice

How appropriate that on Comic Art Friday, San Francisco Chronicle pop culture scribe Peter Hartlaub publishes this intriguing article about comic book writer Orlando Harding, who has created a new superhero series based here in the Bay Area. I won't be at all offended if you go check it out before we get started.

Back now? Excellent.

One of the signal events in the comics world this week was the relaunch of DC's venerable Justice League of America title. The JLA's 1960 debut popularized the concept of superhero teams, an inescapable trope in modern comics. The JLA wasn't the first collaborative effort on the part of superheroes — that distinction goes to the JLA's 1940s predecessor, the Justice Society of America, now enjoying a renaissance in one of my favorite current reads, JSA Classified. However, it took the JLA's all-star cast and kinetic style to take the superteam theme to the next level. The JLA's Silver Age success helped inspire rival Marvel Comics's top writer-artist duo, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, to create a whole slew of super-squads in the early '60s, including the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and those uncanny X-Men.

As Justice League's relaunch approached, the fandom buzz centered around which heroes would be members of the new League. Practically every character in the DC Universe pantheon has been a JLA member at some point in the last 45 years, so the list of candidates was lengthy. But now we know that the revamped roster includes (no surprise here) DC's Big Three — Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — charter member Green Lantern (the Hal Jordan version), plus Arsenal (the character who used to be Green Arrow's sidekick, Speedy), Black Canary, Black Lightning, Hawkgirl (a popular member of the Justice League's various animated incarnations), the Red Tornado, and the Vixen.

Looks like a pretty interesting Justice League. I'm a mite surprised that there isn't a character with mystical powers (i.e., Zatanna) in the group, but overall, these are solid choices. I'm especially pleased to see both Black Lightning and Vixen — the latter being one of my favorite DC characters — in the mix. DC has always lagged behind Marvel in both its creation and promotion of non-Caucasian superheroes — the reason the John Stewart version of Green Lantern appears in the animated Justice League is that DC really doesn't have any prominent black heroes, and Stewart was the most recognizable concession the series producers could make toward diversity. Thus, it's encouraging to see DC's first marquee African American hero, alongside the character who almost became the company's first black heroine to headline a series (a planned Vixen book was canceled, along with a slew of other DC titles, in a late '70s cost-cutting measure historically known as the DC Implosion), as key elements of DC's most recognizable superteam.

In celebration, let's take a second look at some Comic Art Friday classics featuring Vixen and Black Lightning.

First up, supermodel Mari Jiwe McCabe — better known to the crimefighting world as the vexing Vixen — as depicted in the inimitable style of the artist known as Buzz.

In this dynamic artwork from my Common Elements gallery — which Comic Art Friday veterans know showcases team-ups of unrelated superheroes who share some feature in common — Black Lightning partners with the sai-swinging assassin Elektra. The artist is longtime Green Lantern stalwart Darryl Banks.

Back to our gal Mari, seen here with her teammates Bronze Tiger, Nightshade, and Deadshot from the classic, much-missed series Suicide Squad. The sumptuous tonal rendering leaps from the pencil of Geof Isherwood, who illustrated the Squad during the latter half of their run.

The new Justice League of America series is being written by accomplished crime novelist Brad Meltzer, and illustrated by the talented Brazilian artist Ed Benes, most recently the penciler of DC's Birds of Prey. Based on the first issue, the book looks like a worthwhile read. Your Uncle Swan says check it out.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. (Kudos available to the first reader who identifies the source of today's headline.)


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Pluto no longer planet; still Mickey's dog

Ending decades of controversy, the International Astronomical Union today redefined the term "planet." Pluto, considered the most distant planet in the solar system for the past 75 years, no longer qualifies.

That makes the score Planets 8, Pluto 0.

I know that some of you are yawning "Who cares?" at this bit of news, but for those of us interested in astronomy — and I was quite the astronomy buff in my younger days (the science, not the Blue Öyster Cult song) — the demotion of Pluto is big news. Stargazers have argued for years over whether Pluto, a rogue ice ball with an elliptical orbit inhabiting the outskirts of our sun's gravitational pull, really fits the traditional view of what a planet is. Now it's official: It doesn't.

Fasten your seat belt. It's about to get astronomical up in here.

This whole imbroglio started in 1930, when astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered the celestial body known today as Pluto. Tombaugh's find ended more than 80 years of intensive observation by scientists searching for a ninth planet beyond the orbit of Neptune, a search spawned by irregularities in Neptune's orbit that were thought to be caused by the gravitational effects of another large body roughly Neptune's size. When Tombaugh identified the pinpoint of light he dubbed Pluto (choosing a name that began with the initials of Percival Lowell, an earlier astronomer who had devoted much of his career to the ninth planet hunt, and who founded the observatory where Tombaugh worked), the mystery appeared to have been solved.

Except... not.

As happens on occasion in science, the smart guys had messed up. Astronomers initially miscalculated the size and density of Neptune, leading them to perceive that its orbit was being affected by a huge nearby planet. Later research determined that the perceived discrepancies in Neptune's orbit were accounted for by a more accurate determination of its mass, and not by Pluto, which turned out to be a piddling little thing (about two-thirds the size of Earth's Moon) rather than another ice giant like Neptune or its neighbor Uranus. Oops.

Matters grew even more complicated in 1978, when astronomers learned that Pluto had a moon of its own, now known as Charon. Given that Charon is approximately half the size of Pluto, some scientists thought the duo should be classified as a "double planet," or that perhaps Charon should be considered a planet in its own right. (We now know that Pluto has at least two other, smaller satellites, Nix and Hydra.)

Thus, a slope became slippery. If tiny Pluto could be called a planet, and maybe Charon also, what about Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter? And what about the recently discovered, but as yet officially unnamed, bodies that share Pluto's realm in the Kuiper Belt on the solar system's outskirts — objects popularly known as Xena (official designation: 2003 UB313), Sedna (90377) and Quaoar (50000)? If the International Astronomical Union had adopted one of the proposals under consideration before today, the number of solar objects called "planets" could have skyrocketed into the dozens, perhaps hundreds.

Instead, the astronomical community made the smart move: They determined that it was a mistake to have listed Pluto as a planet in the first place. Instead, Pluto is now officially a dwarf planet. The new definition of planet (of the non-dwarf variety) states that such an object must "clear the neighborhood around its orbit." In other words, objects that share relative space with numerous similar objects — as Ceres does in the asteroid belt, and as the Pluto-Charon duo does out in the solar suburbs — aren't true planets.

So, after 75 years, we're back to an eight-planet solar system, with numerous dwarf planets floating around among and beyond the Big Eight. Just imagine an octet of Snow Whites, surrounded by a horde of little Sneezys, Dopeys, and Docs.

God's in His heaven, and all's right with the universe.

What exactly this all means about the status of Goofy, however, remains unclear.


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Surviving a race war

On the new season of Survivor that begins airing on September 14, the contestants will be divided into four "tribes," based on ethnicity. There will be a black tribe, a white tribe, an Asian tribe, and a Latino tribe.

So much for Dr. King's Survivor dream, in which four little tribes will one day be stranded on a South Pacific island where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Whose cockamamie idea was this?

When prime time television decides to exploit racially-based antagonism as a cynical ratings ploy, we've reached a new cultural low. What's next — an online poll to "vote for your favorite race"?

This just in: Mel Gibson is reportedly pleased that Survivor won't include twelve tribes... too Jewish.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Love that chicken!

Yesterday in my little corner of suburbia, a Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits franchise opened.

That subterranean rumble you just felt was your Uncle Swan doing his happy suppertime dance.

The arrival of a new fast food outlet may not seem like a big deal to you, but at our house, the advent of a local Popeyes unleashed a celebratory vibe equalled only by a Giants division championship. Prior to this, the closest Popeyes was located 30 miles away in Vallejo, just down the pike from Six Flags Marine World — a lengthy run for a quick bite of fast food, though we made that run more than once. Now, Barry Bonds could practically hit a fastball from our front door to the home of tasty deep-fried poultry, buttery biscuits, and such faux-Cajun side dishes as red beans and rice.

A bit of Popeyes trivia: Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits wasn't named for the spinach-chomping cartoon sailor of the same name. The founder of the chicken joint named his restaurant after Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, the New York City police detective played by Gene Hackman in The French Connection. (The real-life "Popeye," whose actual name was Eddie Egan — he later parlayed his French Connection fame into a modest career as a Hollywood character actor — wasn't named after the sailor either. Go figure.)

It wasn't until a decade or so later that Popeye the Sailor became the company's advertising icon. That relationship, sad to tell, was severed a few years back, when the restaurant chain decided to go for a slightly more upscale tone in its marketing, focused more on the chain's New Orleans roots and Cajun-style fare.

I don't think they cook the chicken in Olive Oyl, either.

(Hee! I crack me up.)

And yes, for reasons unknown to me, the chain does, in fact, omit the apostrophe from its name. Probably just to bug me.

Or perhaps to exact revenge for the "Olive Oyl" joke.

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Monday, August 21, 2006

What's Up With That? #35: Scarier than Snakes on a Plane

Speaking of large, scary beasts — and we just were — pity poor Samuel L. Jackson.

Sam and his wife LaTanya Richardson just paid out $8.9 million to buy Roseanne Barr's mansion in Beverly Hills, only to have Roseanne tell them afterward that she has hidden nude photographs of herself all over the house.

That sure seems like something you should be legally required to disclose before the sale, doesn't it? I mean, suppose someone should stumble across one of those pics accidentally, without prior warning? No human heart should be subjected to that kind of shock, out of the blue.

Of course, it could be worse.

Roseanne could have hidden recordings of herself singing the National Anthem.

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"No" means "no," even in dog language

A Florida woman was mauled to death by her Presa Canario (that's a breed of dog, for the benefit of the uninformed) while trying to bathe the beast. Police arriving on the scene were compelled to shoot and kill the dog to avoid being attacked themselves. The woman's nine-year-old daughter watched the proceedings in horror.

There's a lesson here: When a Presa Canario tells you he doesn't want a bath, he doesn't want a bath.

This is the same breed of dog, by the way, two specimens of which fatally mauled a San Francisco woman to death five years ago, in a nationally infamous case. As much as I love dogs — and I've been a dog fancier all my life — some types simply don't belong in civilized society.

I know I'll hear from the Presa Canario fans (translated: vicious dog wackos) on this, but so be it. Not to sound unsympathetic toward this unfortunate woman in Florida or her surviving loved ones, but you people and your Cujos (yes, I know Cujo was a St. Bernard — I'm speaking metaphorically) deserve each other.

Suppose it had been that nine-year-old girl the dog got angry with?


Friday, August 18, 2006

Oh, hot moo!

I had to chuckle earlier this week when I read the furor online over Marvel Comics' announcement that the remaining issues of its currently running blockbuster series, Civil War, will be delayed due to missed deadlines on the part of the series' creative team (specifically artist Steve McNiven).

Man, are the Marvel Zombies ever irate over this!

For cryin' out loud, people, we've got soldiers fighting and dying in an ill-advised, unwinnable war in Iraq; terrorists trying to blow up planes with baby bottles and hand lotion; missiles flying between Israel and Lebanon; an AIDS pandemic in Africa; Kate Hudson and Chris Robinson breaking up; and the Giants in last place in the National League West. And you're up in arms because a comic book is shipping late?

Get a grip, geeks.

Speaking of geeks, for comics trivia geeks such as myself, Official Handbooks are like manna from heaven. No story to dredge through, just page after page of delicious esoterica.

I'll explain. Official Handbooks of the Marvel Universe — that's what Marvel Comics calls their version; the DC Comics equivalent is Who's Who in the DC Universe — are special edition comics published solely for the purpose of providing readers with background data on the various characters featured in a particular comics line.

Usually, Handbooks are produced as a series of regular-sized comic books, internally alphabetized like a mini-encyclopedia. Each book contains a series of brief individual articles summarizing the histories of several superheroes and supervillains, often accompanied by statistical and demographic information about each character. (For a better idea of what I'm describing, check out the Marvel Directory, an excellent — albeit unofficial — online knockoff of the Handbook.)

Way back in the early '90s, Marvel published the grandpappy of Official Handbooks — the unequalled end-all and be-all of superhero trivia — formally titled Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, Master Edition. OHOTMU:ME, as it came to be known in comics fandom, dispensed with the articles altogether, in favor of tables of stats and three-way (front, side, back) views of each character. Some 300 different good guys and bad guys, good girls and bad girls, were pictured over the 36 issues of OHOTMU:ME. Best of all, the loose pages were hole-punched for storage in a ring binder, rather than bound into comic book format.

The most remarkable element of this astounding monument to geekocity is that a single pair of artists drew all 300-plus character pages: Keith Pollard — one of the most underappreciated talents in comics history, in my never-humble opinion — laid down the pencil art, while industry veteran Joe Rubinstein contributed the finished inks. The end result was a cherished document that Marvel artists could use as a reference for years to come, and that fanatics willing to shell out a serious chunk of change could slaver over to their hearts' content.

A while ago, I was privileged to obtain three of the original pages from OHOTMU:ME when Keith Pollard liquidated his stockpile. Let's check out the haul.

First up: the controversial Battlestar (published in OHOTMU:ME, Volume 19).

I say that Battlestar was controversial because... well... because he was. Originally introduced as a sidekick for Captain America (as one might guess from his Cap-inspired costume), Lemar Hoskins was first given the superhero code name Bucky, in honor of Bucky Barnes, the teenager who accompanied Cap on his adventures during World War II.

Unfortunately, writer Mark Gruenwald, who created the character, was apparently unaware that the word "buck" is an insulting slur when applied to an African American male. Gruenwald (who passed away in 1996, not that I think that's connected or anything) promptly backtracked, renaming the character Battlestar — and even addressing the nomenclatural faux pas directly in the Captain America storyline — but the damage was already done. Poor Lemar never caught on in popularity, and he mostly disappeared from view. He popped up some time later as a member of Silver Sable's crew of mercenaries, the Wild Pack, before vanishing completely for several years. Battlestar recently resurfaced as one of Cap's operatives in the aforementioned Civil War.

Next, here's the beautiful but dangerous Misty Knight (published in OHOTMU:ME, Volume 10).

One of the rare noncostumed superdoers in the Marvel Universe, gunslinging Misty pairs with fellow detective Colleen Wing, a martial arts specialist, as the Daughters of the Dragon, known professionally as Knightwing Restorations Ltd.

Misty, whose right arm is bionic (courtesy of Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man), has been romantically associated with both Iron Fist (not to be confused with Iron Man) and Luke Cage (sometimes known as Power Man) over the years. She and partner Colleen recently starred in a short-run series entitled (not surprisingly) Daughters of the Dragon. The duo is set to team up with several other Marvel second-stringers in an upcoming series called Heroes for Hire.

Finally, all hail the fearsome Drax the Destroyer (published in OHOTMU:ME, Volume 24). Note that this page is pencils by Keith Pollard only — Joe Rubinstein inked a photocopy for publication. One of these days, I plan to have Joe ink the original to completion.

Another C-list hero who exists perpetually on the fringe of big-time doings in the Marvel Universe (i.e., Infinity Watch; Infinity Crusade; Infinity Gauntlet; Infinity 2: Electric Boogaloo), Drax began life as a normal human being, until the day he was shanghaied by a couple of cosmic types from Out There Somewhere and transformed into a superpowered avenger consumed with bloodlust for Thanos, one of Marvel's major supervillains. Typically, Drax hung out with such spacefaring types as Captain Marvel (the Marvel Comics version, not the "Shazam!" guy) and Adam Warlock.

Last year, Drax was featured in a Marvel miniseries. (Which I didn't read. Sorry.) Lately, he's shown up in the Annihilation crossover event. (Which I also didn't read. Again, sorry.)

In case you're wondering how Pollard managed to keep over 300 figures in perfect proportion, I'll let you in on a little secret: He had help. A series of basic body-type templates were developed, then copied onto the blank comic art pages in non-photocopy blue ink. (You can see faint traces of these templates in the finished art above, in particular the rear view of the Drax model sheet.) According to Pollard's notes on the pages themselves, Battlestar and Drax were both body type "C" (as in "Criminentlies, those are huge muscles"), while Misty was body type "H" (for "Hottie," perhaps?).

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Don't stress out waiting for your next issue of Civil War, all right? I worry about your blood pressure.

[Additional note: I understand that Keith Pollard will be attending the Baltimore Comicon September 9 and 10 — his first convention appearance in many years. If you're a fan of Keith's work — and who isn't? — and you happen to live in the Baltimore/Washington area, stop over and tell Keith hello. Another great "classic Marvel" artist, Ron Wilson, will be seated at the table next to Keith's. Tell Ron I said hi, too.]


Thursday, August 17, 2006

What's Up With That? #34: Living in the land of short eyes

You know, I love living in Sonoma County, but sometimes, I have to wonder.

Thirteen years ago, we had the Polly Klaas murder.

In 1998, science fiction author Isaac Asimov's son David turned out to be the local king of child pornography.

In the early part of the current decade, revelation after revelation about pedophilic priests in the local Roman Catholic diocese made daily headlines in the local newspaper.

Now, one of our former residents confesses to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey.

It must be something in our water.

For the sake of the county's Number One industry, I hope it's not the same water they're using in the wine.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Yes, he could

I was sorry to learn that character actor Bruno Kirby passed away yesterday due to complications from recently diagnosed leukemia. He was 57.

Bruno Kirby — the son of another fine (and still actively working) character actor, Bruce Kirby — was one of those "that guy" actors. You might not have known his name, but you lit up a little when he appeared on screen: "Oh, that guy is in this." The younger Kirby will likely be best remembered as one of Billy Crystal's pals in both City Slickers and When Harry Met Sally, and as Robin Williams's uptight senior officer in Good Morning, Vietnam. He also costarred as lawyer Barry Scheck in the TV miniseries An American Tragedy, based on Lawrence Schiller's best-selling book about the O.J. Simpson trial.

My favorite Bruno Kirby appearance is his tragically truncated role in This is Spinal Tap, wherein Kirby plays a Frank Sinatra-obsessed limo driver named Tommy Pischedda. While transporting Spinal Tap to their hotel, Tommy observes band member Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) reading Sammy Davis Jr.'s autobiography, Yes, I Can. Tommy tells Derek that Sammy's book should have been titled, Yes, I Can, If Frank Sinatra Says It's Okay. "Because," says Tommy, "Sinatra called the shots for all those guys."

Although it didn't make the film's final cut, there's a hilarious deleted scene included on the Spinal Tap DVD in which Tommy gets loaded on marijuana during a party in the band's hotel suite. He proceeds to belt out a passionate rendition of Sinatra's "All the Way" — clad only in his underwear and socks — before passing out.

I'm certain that's how Mr. Kirby would have liked to be remembered — as an actor who dared to go all the way.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Exit the underhander

Rick Barry, the former Golden State Warriors basketball superstar and NBA Hall of Famer, has parted company with KNBR, the San Francisco sports-talk radio station where he hosted an afternoon chatfest for the past five years.

Since Barry started at KNBR almost exactly five years ago, my guess is that his contract expired, and he and station management couldn't agree on a price that would keep him in the fold. Since KNBR's parent company, Susquehanna Radio, was sold to Cumulus Media a few months back, the station has taken several opportunities to shed payroll. Because of his name recognition and idol status here in the Bay Area, he probably commanded a heftier paycheck than the suits at Cumulus thought he was worth.

I have to give Rick Barry credit. When he first took to the KNBR air, I found him grating and insufferably arrogant. He also spent far too much time using his radio microphone as a bully pulpit from which to lobby for the Warriors' head coaching job, a position he's coveted for the past 30 years. Over time, Rick mellowed, at least a little -- not to the point that I loved his show, but sufficiently that I didn't switch stations when he came on. The best favor KNBR ever did Rick was pair him with cohost Rod Brooks, whose affable personality made a nice contrast with the prickly Barry.

No word as yet what will happen to Barry's show, though I presume for the time being that Brooks will simply carry on solo.

Hasta la vista, Rick.


Last date

It's a sad time for singles. Blind Date and ElimiDate have been canceled.

And with them dies a genre.

ElimiDate wore out its welcome several seasons ago, around the time they started throwing in the "stunt dates," such as the ones where the featured contestants brings along a friend to help him/her choose among the four girls/guys the show offered up as potential mating fodder. Blind Date, though it tweaked its format slightly over the years, mostly remained true to itself: follow a newly introduced couple around town during their date, and barrage the screen with snarky commentary, delivered by way of pop-up graphics.

Blind Date also had the benefit of its smarmy host, Roger Lodge, who managed to deftly straddle the line between congenial and sarcastic as he introduced each segment. ElimiDate's host-free approach always felt cold and distant to me, making it tougher to really get into the show.

The last two dating shows in syndication now join a slew of their predecessors and contemporaries (The Fifth Wheel, EX-treme Dating, Shipmates, et al.), on the ash heap of television oblivion. None of the latecomers ever truly captured the magic of the classic Love Connection, where an earnest Chuck Woolery prodded juicy details from the dating contestants, then promised to return after the commercial break in two minutes and two seconds.

Although its star shone only briefly, the road for the more salacious style of shows like Blind Date and ElimiDate was paved by Studs, which ran for a couple of seasons in the early 1990s. Studs, hosted by the unctuous Mark DeCarlo (currently seen on the foodie series Taste of America on the Travel Channel), ratcheted up the innuendo quotient from the more genteel level of Love Connection, opening the floodgates for the torrent of similar programs that launched around the beginning of the present decade.

I guess all the young, hot swinging singles will now have to find their prey using old-fashioned methodologies, like nightclubs and classified ads.


Monday, August 14, 2006

Candice Rialson (1951-2006)

What a bummer, to read over at Mark Evanier's excellent blog, News From ME, that Candice Rialson, a fondly recalled starlet from 1970s cinema, has died. Apparently, she passed away due to natural causes back in March, but the news is only now making the rounds.

The name Candice Rialson may not ring a bell to many of you, but for those of us who were hyperhormonal teenaged males during those wild and crazy '70s, Ms. Rialson's face — and her... ahem... other attributes were an essential element of our adolescence.

Although she made brief appearances in several major studio mainstream films, including the sci-fi epic Logan's Run and the Clint Eastwood thriller The Eiger Sanction, Rialson was best known for her work in such cheap, sensationalistic Grade Z fare as Hollywood Boulevard and the cable TV staple Candy Stripe Nurses, which teamed Candice with future soap opera queen Robin Mattson.

Candice stood out (no pun intended) in these flicks, not just because she was pretty in a stereotypical California blonde kind of way, but because she actually had a smattering of acting talent, coupled with a generous dose of sharp comic timing. Despite the fact that most of her films were drive-in fodder designed to appeal to horny high school boys and raincoat-clad adult men, Rialson defined the old cliché, "She was better than her material."

Hollywood Boulevard was probably Rialson's best shot at a starring role, though I'm admittedly partial to Moonshine County Express, in which Rialson costars alongside such industry superstars as John (Enter the Dragon) Saxon, William (Jake and the Fat Man) Conrad, Maureen "Marcia Brady" McCormick, and the legendary Claudia (Gator Bait) Jennings. It's '70s white-trash cinema at its... umm... white-trashiest.

It's a tribute to Candice's legacy that Quentin Tarantino intended Bridget Fonda's pharmaceutically impaired, sexually hyperactive character in Jackie Brown to represent a composite of Ms. Rialson's screen roles. If you've been spoofed in a QT opus, your place in film history is secure.

Candice, Claudia, Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith... all gone to that big drive-in theater in the sky. (Or somewhere.)

My long-departed adolescence can't withstand too many more losses like these.

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40 is the new 28

Halle Berry, Academy Award-winning thespian (I said thespian, you wag) and arguably one of the world's most beautiful women — definitely the world's most beautiful woman named Halle — turns 40 today.

Man, I hope I look anywhere near that terrific when I turn 40.


I'm how old?


Never mind.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

The power of Gold

On this fine August Comic Art Friday, we salute Hollywood talent agent turned professional poker player Jamie Gold, who dominated a record field of 8,773 to win the Main Event of the 2006 World Series of Poker.

Gold flopped a pair of queens on the final hand of the tournament to crack Paul Wasicka's pocket 10s to capture the coveted championship bracelet, plus a $12 million grand prize. Becoming the reigning world champion of poker likely means that Gold, a protégé of two-time WSOP Main Event winner Johnny "The Orient Express" Chan, will never have to work in Tinsel Town again.

Speaking of gold...

If you were searching for artifacts made from the glittering stuff among the ruins of an ancient civilization deep in the Amazon rain forest, you'd want Lara Croft, Tomb Raider, leading your expedition.

Of course, if she did, you'd probably get bushwhacked by a humongous killer robot packing multiple automatic projectile weapons, as happens in this action scene created by the brilliant Brazilian illustrator Diego Maia.

There would, however, be no cause for alarm. Lara Croft laughs in the faces of humongous killer robots packing multiple automatic projectile weapons. Then, she brings them down. She brings them down to Chinatown. She makes them cry like little Catholic schoolgirls. Then, when she's done pummeling them into submission, she'll pack up their loot, jet back home to Croft Manor, and chill with her pet tiger, just like in this sweet portrait by hungry young hotshot Ty Romsa.

Just don't ever take Lara to the World Series of Poker with you. If some Hollywood wannabe cracks her pocket 10s by catching a lucky queen on the flop, she'll pistol-whip him within an inch of his pathetic life, then kick his pasty white butt all the way back to Malibu.

Because that's how the Tomb Raider rolls.

In the immortal words of 1998 WSOP Main Event Champion Scotty "The Prince of Poker" Nguyen, "You call this one, and it's all over, baby."

And that's your Comic Art Friday. May all your cards be live, and your pots be monsters.

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

Last Cripple Standing

I will begin this post with an acknowledgment. Which is, that in writing what I am about to write, I acknowledge that I actually watched Season Four of Last Comic Standing, a show that everyone in America — including its own network — gave up on after a third season so embarrassing that NBC refused to air the final episode.

I am so ashamed.

Please forgive me.

Having come clean with that... Ty Barnett got robbed.

Ty wasn't the funniest comic in this season's cast. That honor went to Gabriel Iglesias, who found himself punted from the show in midseason because he got caught calling his girlfriend on his Blackberry, in violation of the show's strict sequester orders. Ty was, however, the funniest of the comics who remained after Gabriel's departure. He most certainly was funnier than last night's big winner, Josh Blue.

Now, I know that it's politically incorrect to say that Josh is not funny. He's a young man with cerebral palsy who has overcome tremendous obstacles in pursuing his dream of being a stand-up comic. His is a inspirational story that would make a heartwarming movie for the Hallmark Channel.

But friends, I'm here to tell you... I know that I am funnier than Josh Blue.

Josh's entire act revolves around his disability, much in the same way that Season One's Last Comic Standing, Dat Phan, built an entire act out of the fact that his family is from Vietnam and his mom struggles with the English language and American culture. Both premises are good for a few quick laughs. At some point, though, you have to move on to other topics. Dat couldn't, and Josh never did, either.

A one-joke comic, even if that one joke is a good one, is not funny.

Definitely, not funny enough to merit the title of Last Comic Standing.


Don't take your love to MTV

Looks as though MTV is three-for-three at killing celebrity marriages.

First, we saw Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey on Newlyweds. History.

Next, Carmen Electra and Dave Navarro on 'Til Death Do Us Part. Toast.

Now, Travis Barker, the tattoo-encrusted, piercing-riddled former drummer of the punk-pop band blink-182, and his bride of two years, Miss USA 1995 Shanna Moakler, are calling it quits after their run on Meet the Barkers.

Note to Hollywood: Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be reality-show newlyweds. It's not a long-term career choice.

Two items occur to me in the wake of this latest crash-and-burn.

Item one: Travis Barker may look like an explosion in a printing press, but the man can knock the skins like nobody's business. I'm not much on the style of music in which blink-182 specialized, but Barker's drumming leaps out of the speakers every time I hear a blink song on the radio. Were I putting together a band, and needed a drummer, I'd look Barker up.

Item two: I'm still annoyed with Shanna Moakler for ruining one of the great guilty pleasures of the 1990s, USA Network's beach-cops-on-mountain-bikes series Pacific Blue. For its first couple of seasons, Pacific Blue made for unequalled brain-dead fodder for those times when you just want to watch something light and fluffy that won't make you think. From its silly premise — frequently described in scathing reviews as "Baywatch on bicycles" — to its impossibly good-looking cast — Darlene Vogel and the bewitching Paula Trickey for the fellas, Rick "Slider" Rossovich and Jim Davidson for the ladies — Blue delivered a weekly hour of innocuous eye candy, with enough plot and action that one didn't fall asleep in between servings of cheese/beefcake.

Then, in the show's third season, Shanna Moakler showed up. And brought Mario Lopez with her.

In an attempt to youthify the show's appeal (as though "Baywatch on bicycles" wasn't youthful enough), Pacific Blue's producers hired Moakler and Lopez, perhaps the two most inept actors (and I'm using that word loosely) ever to appear cheek-by-buns-of-steel in a major television production, to replace Rossovich and drive out a disgusted Vogel after a handful of episodes. At the same time, meth-addicted chimpanzees were chained to computer keyboards until they banged out something that passed for scripts.

The result: What once had been mindless and insipid — yet at the same time inoffensive and eminently watchable — descended headlong into the abyss of grating, audience-insulting imbecility. Blue's viewers — yours truly included — tuned out in droves. Blue foundered for another season or two before plunging off the end of the Santa Monica Pier.

Curse you, Shanna Moakler. You didn't deserve Travis Barker.

Whatever happened to Paula Trickey, anyway?

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Only Weekend Warriors need apply

Here's your quote for today, courtesy of rock guitar legend and itinerant gun nut Ted Nugent:
"If you want to be in my band, you have to be a member of the NRA, and you have to love to kill stuff. That's why we're here."
Now, straight shooter that he is (no pun intended), The Nuge isn't sharing the full skinny on what it takes to become a full-fledged member of his performing ensemble. Yes, it's true that one must be a homicidal sociopath. That goes without saying. But other important criteria apply also.

Thanks to intensive research by the nonprofit (it's not how we planned it, things just worked out that way) SwanShadow Foundation for Truth in Rock, we herewith present the Top Ten Qualifications for Aspiring Motor City Madmen. Applicants must...
  1. Be able to articulate the difference between "Nugent" and "Nougat."

  2. Have proof of current immunization against cat scratch fever.

  3. Swear to stomp the everlovin' doody out of anyone who accidentally mistakes Ted for Sammy Hagar.

  4. Be prepared to say "You're absolutely right, Ted," a lot.

  5. Know that "Wang Dang Sweet Poontang" is not an orange-flavored breakfast drink.

  6. Possess experience in gutting whole venison carcasses.

  7. Call Derek St. Holmes on the phone and belt out a Tarzan yell in his ear.

  8. Write a 1,000-word essay on the reasons why Damn Yankees was the baddest supergroup in history.

  9. Enjoy the taste of Meat Loaf.

  10. Look totally smokin' in a leather loincloth.
All that, and of course, be an NRA member and love to kill stuff.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006

I want a new drug

Mario Cipollina, the original bassist of Huey Lewis and the News, is in legal trouble again.

The tall, slender, silent Newsman — you remember, the one who always looked like Bowser from Sha Na Na — pleaded not guilty yesterday to felony drug possession charges. His probation officer turned up heroin and methamphetamine at Mario's house during a routine search, the musician having been placed on probation a couple of years back for stealing radio controlled cars from a local store. Cipollina was earlier arrested for drug possession in 1996, shortly after he left the News.

All of which makes Uncle Swan cry, because I loves me some Huey Lewis and the News.

My first exposure to the band came in the summer of 1980. A new waterslide park called Windsor Water Works held its Grand Opening one Saturday in a town just north of here, and Huey Lewis and the News were the featured entertainment. At the time, the band had just released their first album — to general disinterest on the part of the record-buying public — but some friends of mine had heard them on the local club circuit and told me, "Hey, you've gotta go check these guys out." Since the concert was free to park visitors, I made the short trip up the freeway and heard the News.

Immediately, I was hooked. I loved the News' raucous-yet-refined garage-retro sound, anchored by the smoking guitar riffs of Chris "The Kid" Hayes and the rock-steady tempos of drummer Bill Gibson. I loved the acid-washed vocals and bluesy mouth harp of frontman Lewis, surrounded by the tight harmonies of keyboardist Sean Hopper and dual-threat guitar/saxophone man Johnny Colla. I loved the fact that they dared to sing an entire number a cappella (as they later would perform the National Anthem at Candlestick Park before 49ers games). And I loved Mario, who simply stood stock-still amid the chaos — always dressed in black, his eyes always masked behind aviator sunglasses, his pompadour flawlessly coiffured — thumping out the backbeat on his Fender bass.

By the end of the hour, my list of favorite musical acts increased by one.

I next caught the News live again in 1982, while I was pretending to study broadcasting at San Francisco State University. By this time, the band had charted with their first couple of hits and were becoming household names around the Bay Area. (This time, I had to shell out a fin to get into the show. A pittance, even then. As you can see, I still have the ticket stub.)

Fame hadn't changed Huey and the boys one whit. They still looked and sounded like six guys banging out tunes in a garage after an evening of swilling beer at a bowling alley. No glitz, no glamour, just good-time, hard-rocking power pop buoyed by radio-friendly hooks.

KJ and I saw the News in concert a few times over the years. As the size of the group's venues expanded, they supplemented Huey's harmonica and Johnny's sax with the Tower of Power horn section. But they never varied much afield from the '50s-influenced sound that marked their early hits. We were among the rain-soaked masses huddled on the lawn at the Concord Pavilion on that stormy October night in 1991 when legendary concert promoter Bill Graham was killed in a helicopter accident leaving a Huey Lewis and the News show. We had seen Graham prowling the backstage area earlier in the evening, which made the news (no pun intended) of his death hours later all the more eerie.

Anyway, the News — who were never really stylish to begin with — fell out of style as time marched along. Mario Cipollina left the band a decade ago (willingly or not, who's to say?), as did Chris Hayes a few years later. (Incidentally, Chris's sister Bonnie is a whale of a talent herself. For many years, she fronted a Bay Area band known originally as Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo. More recently, she has written songs and played session keyboards for a variety of artists, from Billy Idol to Robert Cray.)

Although Huey and company last recorded an album five years ago, they continue to tour, mostly county fairs and casinos and such like. This summer, the News shared a skein of performance dates with the band Chicago, another act heavy on the harmonies and horns. They're probably out there somewhere in America tonight, keeping the heart of rock and roll beating.

Mario Cipollina, sad to say, will not be joining them.

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Monday, August 07, 2006

That's what a hamburger's all about

Esther Snyder, the cofounder of the In-N-Out hamburger chain, died over the weekend. She was 86. (Always an ironic age at which to pass on.)

For those of you not blessed to live in California, Nevada, or Arizona, the name In-N-Out Burger probably means nothing to you. For many Left Coasters and Southwesterners, however, the very mention of In-N-Out sends salivary glands into hyperactivity.

Started by Mrs. Snyder and her late husband Harry in suburban Los Angeles in 1948, In-N-Out may be the largest — and perhaps last — family-owned fast-food chain in America. The company has always been doggedly independent, both in its business philosophy — the privately-held chain only recently topped 200 outlets, a paltry number compared with such contemporaries as McDonalds and Jack-in-the-Box — and in its menu — in an era of burger joints hawking Chicken McNuggets and deli sandwiches on ciabatta bread, In-N-Out still serves nothing but hamburgers, French fries, and drinks. Period. No chicken, no fish, no salads, no frou-frou.

In-N-Out Burger's claims to fame are legion: its "off-the-board" menu options; the secretive nature of its founding family, who refuse to make public reports of sales figures or profits; the spectacularly bad personal fortunes of that same founding family (Harry Snyder died of lung cancer just as the company was beginning to expand outside its Los Angeles base, while both Snyder sons died six years apart in separate accidents after taking over control of their parents' company); the cryptic religious references that appear on its product packaging. To its fans, however, In-N-Out is famous mostly for tasty, freshly prepared (the fries are cut from whole potatoes on the spot) food.

Insiders well know that, although one can't order an entree other than a burger at In-N-Out, said burger can be obtained with numerous "secret" preparations that don't appear on the published menu. (These options are, however, preprogrammed into the cash registers, so the counter staff can charge appropriately.) For example, ordering a burger "animal style" means that the inside of the bun is coated with mustard and grilled, and the sandwich topped with cooked onions (as opposed to the standard raw) plus an extra dollop of Thousand Island dressing. (I'm told that you can order fries "animal style" also, though I have no clue why you'd want onions and salad dressing on fries.) Hefty eaters can belly up for a "2x4" (a double cheeseburger with a total of four slices of cheese) or a "4x4" (four beef patties and four cheese slices, informally known as a cardiologist's nightmare). The carbohydrate-averse can call for a "flying Dutchman" (a double cheeseburger without the bun) or a burger "protein style" (a beef patty wrapped in lettuce).

Thanks to the religious convictions of the Snyder family, In-N-Out food is served in packaging subtly adorned with Bible references, usually in an unobtrusive location, such as the underside of drink cups. It's an interesting paradox for a burger joint whose name sounds like a crude innuendo. In fact, for years a common sight on California highways was an In-N-Out Burger bumper sticker with the first and last letters of "Burger" removed. I haven't seen one of these in a while, suggesting to me that either the joke got old or the company quit giving away bumper stickers. I'm not sure which is the truth.

When I was active in chorus, our rehearsal night carpool frequently stopped at an In-N-Out for dinner on the way home. I'm not a big hamburger fan — my usual order at a burger chain is a fish sandwich, if there's one on the menu — but if you like your beef on a bun, I have to admit that In-N-Out does a pretty solid version. (I'm not as enthusiastic about the fries — prepackaged and processed or not, McDonald's still beats every other chain's fries all hollow.)

The drive-through line at our local outlet — the northernmost In-N-Out on the California coast — often wraps around the building, so they must be doing something right.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sunday afternoon stroll

Your Uncle Swan takes you on a whirlwind tour of the Sunday headlines. Please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

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Friday, August 04, 2006

Good girls do

We're sending out our sincerest Comic Art Friday get-well wishes to Doug Fieger, lead singer of '70s power-pop wonders The Knack, famed for the classic radio staple "My Sharona." Fieger is recovering from surgery he underwent yesterday to remove two tumors from his brain. (There appears to be little basis for the rumor that listening to "My Sharona" actually causes brain tumors. Although, given that President Bush downloaded the song to his iPod, there might be something there.)

Remembered less enthusiastically than "My Sharona" is The Knack's 1979 follow-up hit, "Good Girls Don't," a song that became famous mostly for the extensive bowdlerization required to make its none-too-subtle lyrics suitable for radio airplay. Today on Comic Art Friday, we salute the good girls who do. (Battle evil, that is. What did you think we meant?)

Back in the day, the easiest way for female costumed crusaders to make a name for themselves was to borrow a name (and costume theme, and often superpowers) from an established male hero. Hence, we got Supergirl and Batgirl and several iterations of Spider-Woman. One of the few heroines who ultimately managed to eclipse her masculine inspiration in popularity is Ms. Marvel, who began her career as a blatant clone of Marvel Comics' Captain Marvel (not to be confused with the Captain Marvel of "Shazam!" fame, whose adventures were originally published by Fawcett and who now appears in DC Comics).

When she first appeared on the scene in 1977, Ms. Marvel wore a costume closely modeled on that of Captain Marvel, right down to the red-and-blue color scheme and sunburst insignia on the chest. She added a few feminine variations, including a flowing scarf (one of the few superheroines to wear this accessory, for reasons that should become plain at the drop of the name Isadora Duncan) and, originally, a cut-out midriff. It's this costume in which she's portrayed by artist Michael Dooney in the drawing seen here.

As the years went by, some genius in the Marvel editorial department decided that the divine Ms. M. needed a makeover. Artist Dave Cockrum, given the redesign assignment, apparently thought Ms. Marvel was the name of a beauty contest the character had won. Thus, he gave her a costume that looked like a pageant swimsuit, complete with sash. Tsunami Studios artist Robert Q. Atkins portrays our heroine in this, her most familiar uniform, below.

Kidding aside, Ms. Marvel's latter-day costume is consistent with Dave Cockrum's easily identifiable sensibility. It's reminiscent of Cockrum's original costume design for the X-Men's Storm, shown here in a pinup by "good girl" specialist Mitch Foust.

Speaking of good girls who do, I don't know whether Sharona Alperin, the girl who inspired Doug Fieger to write "My Sharona," sent flowers to Doug's hospital room, but she should. She's done all right for herself.

Probably better than Doug.


Thursday, August 03, 2006

This guy says the horse can do

Yesterday, my daughter KM and I spent the afternoon at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, watching the horse races.

You have to understand this about KM: She loves horses. (Even more than she loves Orlando Bloom, which is saying something.) Since taking on her first part-time summer job helping out at the pony ride concession in a local park a few years ago, KM has developed into quite the equestrian. As I type this, she's at a nearby boarding stable exercising and grooming a couple of horses for the resident trainer. Her bedroom wall is festooned with ribbons she has won in various competitive riding events.

Therefore, when I tell you that I spent the afternoon with my 17-year-old at the race track, don't look at me like I'm a nutcase. It's all about the equine.

The Sonoma County Fair hosts one of the most popular racing meets on the California fair circuit, so we had ample company as we wandered between the paddock and the finish line. In recent seasons, the track facilities have undergone a serious makeover, with giant TV screens everywhere and a new turf track between the dirt and the infield to attract the bettors.

Race tracks are like baseball games — every time you visit one, you see something you've never witnessed before. Among the sights yesterday:
  • One excitable animal bucked off her jockey — turning a complete aerial somersault in the process — in the paddock while waiting for her run to begin. I had no idea thoroughbreds had that kind of hops.

  • The gray horses had a good day yesterday. Warning: This is not actual handicapping advice.

  • Stacy London and Clinton Kelly could generate an entire season's worth of What Not to Wear in a single day at the track.

  • One little boy peering into the paddock fence wanted to ride one of the horses. His mother told him he couldn't. Then again, he wasn't much smaller than many of the jockeys. So maybe he could have.

  • At a concession stand, I purchased a bag of freshly made potato chips flavored with sea salt. Those chips were a better bet than any of the horses.

  • Mule races, which usually open the day's events, are hilarious to watch, but the animals are so erratic and unpredictable that only a fool or an addicted gambler would wager on them. One rider lost his mount in the first race when another mule veered crazily into his, tossing the jockey tail-over-teacup onto the dirt.

  • Most of the people giving one another (often unsolicited) betting advice have absolutely no clue what they're talking about.

  • The day's seventh race was sponsored by a local program for the developmentally disabled. Cool, I thought: Handicapping for the handicapped.

  • Taking wagers at the parimutuel windows must be one of the dullest jobs in sports. The ennui of the people doing the work reflects this likelihood.

  • I found myself wondering whether the other riders would tease you in the dressing room if you preferred Fruit of the Looms or BVDs to Jockeys.

  • A horse is only a horse, but a good cigar smells worse than one.

  • A $5 exacta paid off big-time for me in the tenth and final race of the day. Life is sweet.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Whole lotta shakin' goin' on

Hey, kids...


We were in the car just leaving our Wednesday evening church study when we felt the thump. I thought I'd run over something, much as I did when the famous Loma Prieta quake hit back during the World Series in 1989.

Shifting bedrock due to unstable plate tectonics is one of the joys of residing here in beautiful Wine Country. We live practically a stone's chuck from the Rodgers Creek Fault, one of the most seismically active geological formations in this part of the world, and theoretically a potential site for The Big One they keep warning us about.

Not that I'm moving, mind you.

I mean, you probably have hurricanes or tornados or locust infestations or drunken rednecks running loose where you live.

I'll stick with the occasional temblors, thanks.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Money for nothing, and your chicks for free

On this date a quarter-century ago, American culture plunged headlong into the abyss.

August 1, 1981: MTV unleashed its first salvo of programming. And the collective IQ of Western civilization nosedived into double digits.

Although MTV fired up 25 years ago today — all gaudy graphics, jangling guitars, and attitude — I didn't actually have an opportunity to experience the phenomenon firsthand until many months later. Our local cable provider at the time was a primitive, patrician outfit called Storer Cable, which operated under the principle that paying customers didn't really need all of those newfangled viewing options. Folks in our neck of the woods were therefore denied the wonders of 24/7 music videos (as well as pretty much everything else on basic cable, with the exception of ESPN) until a few years later, when a different company assumed the franchise.

Thus, this mysterious MTV remained merely an enticing rumor until I ventured to Southern California to serve as best man at my best friend's wedding. While the bride and groom scurried about with last-second prenuptial tasks, I plopped myself in front of the idiot box for two days and basked nonstop in the cathode ray glow of MTV. Even now, I vividly recall the videos that were in heavy rotation at the moment: Chris DeBurgh's "Don't Pay the Ferryman," Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus," and "Der Kommissar" by After the Fire.

Ah, halcyon days.

And then, there was Martha Quinn.

Oh my ineffable goodness, Martha Quinn.

Martha Quinn was America's sweetheart. A sweet-faced gamine elf with immense dark eyes and charm to burn. If MTV personalities had baseball cards, I would have eagerly traded every Daisy Duke-clad hottie in every hair-metal video then in play on MTV — not to mention a dozen Nina Blackwoods — for just one Martha Quinn.

As time passed, the video craze faded. MTV diversified into all manner of youth-focused programming, most of it not recognizably music-related. Over the years, the network's offerings have veered from the more or less sublime (The Real World, Remote Control, Aeon Flux and many of the channel's other animated shows) to the patently ridiculous (Punk'd, Undressed) to the utterly lacking in redeeming social value (The Tom Green Show, Beavis and Butt-Head, Jackass).

Today, MTV scarcely airs music videos, except in the wee hours of the morning as an alternative to shopping channels and infomercials. Martha Quinn and the surviving members of MTV's original cast of VJs — Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman, and the aforementioned Nina Blackwood, J.J. Jackson having slipped the surly bonds of earth a couple of years back — now ply their talents on Sirius satellite radio.

I guess video didn't kill the radio star after all.

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I wish I knew how to quit you, Caped Crusader

Heath Ledger as the Joker in the next Batman film?

Let the "Brokeback Batman" jokes commence.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I haven't seen much in Ledger's work to date to suggest that he can pull off the kind of scenery-gnawing, over-the-top performance the Joker calls for. The character has to be, at turns, both broadly comic and horrifyingly menacing. Ledger's resume doesn't contain a single example of either quality, much less a deft combination of the two.

We'll just have to see.

As only a nominal Batman fan — I liked the character better in his The Brave and the Bold incarnation of the 1960s and '70s than the twisted psychotic he's become since Frank Miller got his slimy mitts on him in the mid-'80s — I'd rather see the franchise take Batman in a different direction than reviving the Joker. Anyone who plays the Joker on film will always be compared with Jack Nicholson in the first Tim Burton-directed Batman movie, even though I didn't think much of Nicholson in the role (too much "Jack," not enough Joker).

Batman has been around long enough to have a gigantic rogues' gallery of villains that haven't yet been exploited by the film series. Christopher Nolan's selection of Ra's Al Ghul and the Scarecrow as the Dark Knight's antagonists in Batman Begins illustrates how well bringing new/old characters into Batman's cinematic mythos can work. Why not continue that pattern by showing us Batman heavies we haven't already seen?

For example, how about Ra's Al Ghul's former acolyte Whisper A'Daire? Or Harley Quinn, who's already familiar to viewers of the various animated Batman TV series of recent years? Cast Scarlett Johansson in either of these roles, and the next movie will practically make itself.

Or, if Warner Bros. prefers to maintain the film franchise's darker edge, why not use the superhuman zombie Solomon Grundy (I can more easily envision Heath Ledger as the shambling Grundy than as the razor-witted Joker), or the terrifying Man-Bat? Either would translate effectively to the screen, and at the same time offer us filmgoers something we haven't already seen.

Just so we don't get the Governator as Mr. Freeze again.

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