Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Pardon the Mess

When moving back into these digs I converted the Opiate to the new version of Blogger as well as changed the template. Besides making the format of the blog a bit easier to work with, this broke the Blogger for Word plugin. This sucks for me since I write the VAST majority of my blog posts in Word and clicking on the Post button was so easy. Now I either have to cut and paste from Word into Blogger’s editor, which means I then have to manually remove all of the superfilis HTML tags which Word crams into each document, or I upload the post to Google Documents and post it from there. A process which also requires the manual editing of extra HTML tags. All this is to say that if you see some rather fantastic formatting, it is because I suck at manually editing HTML in the Blogger editor and please bear with me as I wrestle with this thing.

Monday, January 29, 2007


Just A Geek
Wil Wheaton
O’Reilly Media, 2004
267 pgs.

Once in a while a book will come along and just kicks your ass. This ass-kicking can wear many different guises, however it most often manifests itself as the book validates something you were thinking or feeling. For example I know several people who claim to have had a fundamental shift in their world-view as a result of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club but I believe what they went through was more of a revelation than a revolution. In this case Fight Club demonstrated there were other money-grubbing yuppies out there who toed that fine line between artistic self-loathing and emo therefore it was okay for these people to feel the way they had always been feeling. Nothing about their core character changed, the book just gave their feelings validation.

This is the experience I have had over the past several hours as I plowed through Wil Wheaton’s collection of autobiographical sketches Just A Geek. For those of you who do not know him, Wil Wheaton may be better known to you as TV’s Wesley Crusher or Gordie in Stand By Me (he was also in the MASSIVELY underrated Toy Soldiers), and while the True Hollywood Story of teenage Wil is not the subject of this book, I doubt Just A Geek would exist without those experiences. In Just A Geek Wheaton shares experiences from a few years of his life with the reader, years in which he struggles to (re)define and center himself and his life, although it is plain that during the events he relates, Wheaton was unaware of what was happening to him.

For me this book was compulsively readable, so much so that I finished the book in one sitting and it is almost 5AM as I write this review. I am not certain why I bought this book (it was crammed in an Amazon.com order with the uberdork edition of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a few Shakespeare plays which I am re-reading) I have been aware of wilwheaton.net and wil wheaton dot net in exile for a couple of years now but, for whatever reason, I have never really been engaged by the site. I suspect this has more to do with what I was looking for than what Wil was offering, after all I knew he was an entertaining writer as I enjoyed his short-lived column in one of the Dungeons & Dragons magazines. I know it was not because I have some fannish obsession, either pro or con, with the character of Wesley Crusher. To be completely honest, despite my abiding love for most things Star Trek, I did not watch too much TNG when it first aired (particularly once they got Troi out of her space cheerleader outfits and Yar was no more.) I suppose it was reading Wheaton’s savagely funny commentary on several TNG episodes on TVSquad.com which convinced me to get his book and thus the revelation.

What did reading about the travails of TV’s Wesley Crusher reveal to me? Well, it is difficult to quantify (plus I am starting to get a headache) suffice to say Just A Geek served to validate how I have been feeling about my own life and, more specifically, where I am currently mired creatively. This book really spoke to me and I would encourage you all to read it as it has everything you need. A hero’s journey straight out of Campbell (Joe, not the soup you philstines), porn stars, Monty Python quotes, Trekkies, and roughly the same number of f-bombs I will use at work tomorrow. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

BOOK REVIEW - The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot

The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot
Bart D. Ehrman
Oxford University Press, 2006
188 pgs.

Since Bookstop did not have Emperor: The Gods of War I decided to console myself with a couple of other books on The List. In this case they were Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell, which is the third in his Saxon Stories series and the book we are about to tackle. I have previously read, and reviewed, Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why and thoroughly enjoyed it, therefore several of his other books ended up on Christmas list. (This was done with a small sense of irony but more in the hope that my mom, who feels the need to give me something with a Christian every year, might select a book or two from this list. It didn’t work.) This is the one I was most interested in as I had read the National Geographic article about the recovery of the Gospel of Judas and I wondered what this gospel would reveal about Judas.

Rather than restrict himself to a discussion of the text of this new gospel, which I imagine would quickly become boring for the average person, Ehrman makes this book about how the gospel changes our perceptions of Judas, Jesus, and the origins of Christianity itself. Of course, presuming his audience has only a Da Vinci Code inspired knowledge of some of the early non-orthodox Christian beliefs, he has to begin by putting down a foundation of basic knowledge on which he can then build. Through the second, third, and forth chapters he does just this, exploring what we knew about Judas from the early gospel traditions, then the later gospel traditions, and then what we knew about the Gospel of Judas before the document was found. In the next chapter he discusses the circumstance of the discovery of the Gospel of Judas and how it came to be restored, which is an interesting story in and of itself (at least to a history/archaeology geek like myself). Ehrman then starts to deal with the contents of the Gospel of Judas itself. He does this with a very high-level discussion of what is in the Gospel and then digs a little deeper into his discussion of how this Gospel relates to Gnosticism and how it relates to our current knowledge and thoughts about Jesus, Judas, and the other apostles. Finally Erhman wraps up the book with three chapters titled “Who Was Judas Iscariot,” “What Did Judas Betray and Why Did He Betray It?”, and “The Gospel of Judas in Perspective.” Here he flings the gates of the discussion as wide as he can while walking the reader through the steps he takes to boil down what we “know” about these subjects to the most probable facts about the subjects.

Once again Ehrman has provided an illuminating look at Christianity. While reading this book I really felt like I was listening to a lecture by Ehrman rather than delving into some musty academic text and found myself thoroughly enjoying the experience despite the subject being, lets be honest, not very exciting. Like with Misquoting Jesus, I cannot recommend this book enough if you happen to be interested in an intellectual discussion of historical Christianity.

BOOK REVIEW - Emperor: The Field of Swords

Emperor: The Field of Swords
Conn Iggulden
Dell, 2006
594 pgs.

Both of the previous books in the Emperor series, The Gates of Rome and The Death of Kings, have been thoroughly enjoyable reads in which Iggulden tells the story of the rise of Julius Caesar. As with all the books in this series Iggulden has to cover quite a bit of historical ground the end of Caesar’s posting in Spain, his election to consul, his conquest of Gaul, and ends with the line, "As the sun rose, the veteran legions of Gaul crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome."

I honestly do not know what to say about this book. While Iggulden’s prose is enjoyable, it is his characters which really make the book worth reading. He has a knack for telling the reader everything they need to know about a character in one scene without making the character feel like a sketch or a cliché. It is because of this, more than any other factor, that Iggulden has become one of my favorite authors, so much so that I have dispatched one of my minions friends to Britain to fetch me Wolf of the Plains, the first book of his new series about Genghis Khan. (Of course he, my minion friend, will tell you he went back because it was his mom’s birthday, and we should allow him to cling to this thin fiction, but we all know the truth. Okay, back to semi-serious stuff.) The only room for improvement that I see is in how Iggulden constructs his narrative. Between some chapters there will be significant jumps in time and there is nothing to indicate these shifts except for a throw away line early in the chapter, which can, at times, be disorienting. In the end this is only a minor quibble which does not detract from my enjoyment of the book.

The best way I know how to recommend this book is to tell you that I read the almost 600 pages in about a week and once I was done I immediately went to the bookstore to pick up the final volume in the series, The Gods of War. (Sadly they did not have it yet somehow I still managed to spend over $40 at the bookstore.)

When I read the following quote I thought it would make the perfect tageline for a movie trailer:

“From this day, all tribal disputes are ended. Let no Gaul kill one of his people when we shall need every sword against the enemy. When there is dissent, use my name,” Cigento said softly, “Tell them Vercingetorix calls them to arms.”

Too bad Vercingetorix looses in the end.

BOOK REVIEW - A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599
James Shapiro
Harper Perennial, 2005
394 pgs.

In this book Shapiro proposes to show us that while Shakespeare’s plays have endured for centuries, Shakespeare was addressing issues which would have been as present in the Victorian mind as terrorism and Iraq are to the modern American. Shapiro chose to examine the year 1599 because it marked a crucial year in Shakespeare’s development. Besides the fact that this was the year during which the Globe, the theater which we learn to associate Shakespeare with in school, is founded, it was also an exceptionally productive year for Shakespeare in which he wrote Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet. Hamlet and Julius Caesar are perhaps two of his most widely read plays, by virtue of being required reading on curricula across America, all four of the plays demonstrate a shift in Shakespeare’s writing.

Shapiro structures the book around the four seasons, winter, spring, summer, and autumn, tying each play to the season in which it was written or first performed. This puts Henry the Fifth in the Winter, during which Shakespeare had a conflict with the other, perhaps more prominent Will, in the Chamberlain’s Men, Will Kemp, the troupe’s clown. Before this point it had been the practice for the clown to perform a jig or two at the end of the play. These jigs were often bawdy and Will Kemp is reputed to be one of the past masters of the jig, but more importantly the jig gave the clown the last word rather than the playwright, something which, I imagine, stuck in more than one writer’s craw. In the larger world the English were facing a crisis in Ireland which was so much on the public mind that it seeps into the play in the most unexpected ways. In one of the early versions of the play when the French Queen greets Henry, whom she has not met, she says, “So happy to be the issue, brother Ireland, / Of this good day and of this gracious meeting” (5.2.12-13). However it is believed this is not a slip of the Queen, but rather of Shakespeare’s pen. An error which most modern editors quietly correct.

These are just a couple of the examples, as poorly related as they may be by yours truly, which Shapiro uses to show the reader how topical Shakespeare’s work was for the audiences of his day. If you have any interest in Shakespeare then this is a book you should definitely find time to read.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Abortion is not a subject that I spend much time thinking about. I know where I stand on the subject on both a public policy front (it should be legal with as few impediments as possible) and a personal front (I think it is morally wrong unless there is significant danger to the mother) and, lets face it, I am certainly not having enough (any) sex for it to be a concern. The one opinion I have about abortion which I tend to share is the frustration I feel about the public debate about abortion. We all know the two sides of the debate are never going to agree and yet everyone throws so much time, money, and effort into this abyss. I wonder what we could accomplish if we took all those resources and focused them on something we can fix, like children living in poverty, or the number of people living without adequate health care, anything but abortion.

Like I said, it is not something I think about much because I know where I stand and I really feel it is an issue best left between God, the mother, and the father. Then today I saw this post on Ragnell’s Written World (which, by the way, is a superlative comics blog wherein Ragnell takes on a lot of women’s issues in comics and the age old question of which Green Lantern has the nicest butt (Soranik Natu)) which put into words how I feel about many things the religious right would like to have legislated, but particularly abortion. Ragnell’s point is that by being pro-choice she is, in effect, in favor of a person being responsible for their own decisions. If abortion is outlawed then it is easy for a woman to shrug her shoulders and say, “Well, I have to have the baby.” She has no choice and therefore has the opportunity to foist off responsibility for the consequences of getting pregnant on society. Of course she still has to deal with the consequences, but by removing her choice to have an abortion, you move her from being an adult making adult decisions to a victim of circumstance. Go read the write up from Ragnell. She explains it far better than I and while you’re there check out the rest of her blog. While I regularly just about wet myself with the offerings from Campbell, Church, and Sims, Ragnell’s writing often forces me to think about issues in a much larger context and she is worthy of your attention.

Sunday, January 21, 2007


The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall
Ian Bremmer
306 pages
Simon & Schuster, 2006

The description on the front flap of the dust cover says, “What Freakonomics does for understanding the economy, The J Curve does for better understanding how nations behave,” and, quite frankly, this is one of the most accurate sentence-long summations of a book I have ever read. Just like Freakonomics, The J Curve is a fascinating and illuminating read.

The central question that Bremmer intends this book to answer is, “How can we better understand the natural processes that erode the power of authoritarian regimes and nourish open governance?” As he indicates in the very first paragraph of the Foreward this process is important for us to understand in this age where political instability in one nation, or even within a small region of a state, can lead to a myriad of nightmare scenarios including regional economic instability and nuclear terrorism. He goes on to point out that this understanding is critical to formulating more effective foreign policy.

The center piece of Bremmer’s method of answering this question is the titular J curve. Basically Bremmer’s J curve plots the stability of a nation on the Y axis and the openness of the nation on the X axis. This curve, which resembles a check mark more than an actual J, has states with authoritarian regimes, such as North Korea and Cuba, on the left side of the curve and states with open societies, such as the United States and the United Kingdom on the right side of the curve. States will move along the curve from the right, a closed but stable society, through a period of decreasing stability but increasing openness, and then on to a period where both stability and openness increase. Movement along the curve is not exclusively from left to right with some states making moves to open their society and thus move to the right of the curve, however in the resulting instability the state then cracks down and moves back to the left of the curve.

After introducing the J curve model, Bremmer then walks the reader through several different examples of states at various points on the curve, beginning with three states which are on the extreme left of the curve, Cuba, North Korea, and pre-invasion Iraq. All three of the states are reasonably stable and closed to outside influences, even to the extant that the regimes will behave in a manner which causes the world to continue to cut them off and therefore propping up the current regime. This is particularly the case with North Korea, however Bremmer points out several instances where the Castro government has, during thaws in the U.S. stance towards Cuba, done things to force the U.S. government to resume a hard-line against Cuba.

Bremmer then discusses Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, three states which are on the left side of the J curve but are slowly moving down the curve with increasing instability and increasing openness. Russia is one of the states which moves back and forth on the curve. As the society starts to open up to democratic processes it dips towards instability. This makes the powers that be nervous which leads them to rescind the reforms, reverting the society to a more closed state. This was graphically illustrated in the Russian government’s reaction to the incident in Beslan where Chechen rebels took several hundred school children hostage.

Bremmer then takes the reader step-by-step through states which demonstrate the two other major positions on the J curve. The depths of the J curve are exemplified by Yugoslavia, a state which disintegrated once it reached the nadir of the curve, and South Africa, a state which successfully made the transition from the left side of the curve to the right side of the curve. He then discusses three states, Turkey, Israel, and India, which are currently on the right side of the curve which face critical decisions in the next few years which could have serious consequences for their stability or openness. Wrapping up the book Bremmer discusses the question of China, which is a special case where their stability and openness are not necessarily directly linked.

This book was a very enjoyable and surprisingly quick read considering the subject matter and I highly recommend it to any person with an interest in the rise and fall of states in the post Cold War world.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

New Years Resolutions

  1. Go to the gym twice a week and improve this mark to three times a week by August.
  2. Cook something new at least once a month but try to do it twice a month.
  3. Read a book every two weeks and write a review for every book I read.
  4. Deposit at least $100.00 out of every paycheck into my credit union savings account.
  5. Complete the first round of JAS Houston language courses.
  6. Work though The Artist’s Way.
  7. Finish at least two writing projects this year that are NOT poetry.
  8. Write three posts a week for the Opiate.
I might have thought of some others however I can't remember them at the moment. Eight is certainly enough to get things rolling. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, #5 has already gone by the wayside. I emailed and called JAS Houston and never heard back from them before the start of classes this past week. I'll have to check out another way of learning Japanese.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

So Is This Thing Still On?

It appears that my one-month hiatus to write the marginally okay American novella turned into two months and some change. First I have to admit that I have, to a certain extant, enjoyed the break. While I love writing, I was starting to feel like writing for the Opiate was a chore. To be completely honest writing in general had become a chore.

Towards the end of October I was really pumped about NaNoWriMo. I expected the end product to be, lets face it, crap, however I did expect there to be an end product. Guess what? There wasn’t. Well, that is not entirely true, at the end of the month (I punked out about halfway through) I had about ten pages of material. Mind you this material is four or five two-page starts on several different ideas rather than one project. Apparently I was rather scatter-brained while I was trying to work on my novel and I could not discipline myself enough to work on just one idea. I am a little disappointed in myself, but we all have these creative ups and downs.

Once November was over I made several attempts to begin writing for the Opiate however the words just would not come. I justified this by telling myself I was busy with holiday stuff (and I was) or I excused it by blaming it on some girl problems I experienced (more on that particularly bad weekend later). The fact of the matter is that I was burned out. I did quite a bit of thinking about various creative projects which have been floating around in my head for varying amounts of time and I wasted a HUGE amount of time in front of the television.

In the end I wasted about two months. I should have been writing anything rather than doing the creative equivalent of sitting on my duff but c’est la vie. There will be no more crying over this particular milk spill. It is time to look forward. I am well-rested after a week and some change in Scotland as well as inspired. We will see what comes of that. First thing out of the gate is going to be a list of my News Years resolutions. Usually I am pretty terrible with these things, however I think I might be better this year. We will see.

Happy New Year and welcome back. Thanks for reading.