Wednesday, October 15, 2008

BOOKS: Monk, Books 1, 2 and 3

I have the five Monk books by Lee Goldberg. I have read the first three, will heartily recommend the fourth and fifth unread and encourage you to think about the sixth as a Christmas present for anyone you know who's a reader and enjoys light comedic mysteries. I fall into that category, hint, hint, if any family member is reading this and has the upcoming Monk Goes to Germany on my assigned gift list.

The reason I've only read the first three books is my new-found determination not to ruin a good thing and read exclusively one author and one character to the point of getting tired of both. I LIKE Adrian Monk, the latter-day Sherlock that stars in the eponymous USA Networks TV show. Tony Shalhoub has won a shelf full of awards for the obsessive-compulsive disorder plagued detective who's perpetually solving crimes despite himself. The sharp-eyed detective is so wracked by OCD that he can barely survive in the world, but with the help of big-hearted assistant Natalie Teeger (played by Traylor Howard on TV), he does survive and actually, to a certain extent, thrives.

Goldberg makes a winning choice to write the books from Natalie's point of view, rather than trying to take a reader through the escher-like labrynth of Monk's mind. That way lies madness, afterall. Natalie, on the other hand, allows Goldberg to expand Monk beyond the single obvious mystery of the week. Most of the background is known to veteran viewers of the Monk show, in the midst of its seventh season break. But little tidbits about a woman clinging to her own family's survival, one day at a time, help flesh out the character. Howard's portrayal of Natalie is adorable. Goldberg's writing makes her more so.

I skipped the first book in the series because I mistakenly believed the novel was just an expansion of the fifth season TV episode, Monk Can't See A Thing, which Goldberg co-wrote. I read Goldberg's blog and somehow formed the wrong impression that it wasn't a completely separate novel, that just shared the same setting as the TV show. I did end up reading it and enjoying it. Monk has to temporarily move in with Natalie and her tween-aged daughter Julie. The distraction allows Monk to miss some obvious clues that even I spotted along the way. Still, in the end, Monk pulls out all the stops in cornering the book's main culprit, while solving something between 10 and 20 other murders along the way. All of those were of the "Oh by the way, your killer is ..." variety. Including the last one, that disposed of one of the many intriguingly-named minor characters.

Goldberg does have a way with names. Having read more than my share of Perry Mason and The Shadow novels over the years, I gather he has a similar reading background.

Monk gets out of his San Francisco base for the second book in the series (and the first I read), Monk Goes to Hawaii. Goldberg obviously relished his time researching Hawaii for the book, as it becomes quite the travelog at times. While Monk solves a few issues for the local police, Detective Keal0ha doing a good job standing in for SF Captain Stottlemyre, the main mystery involves catching and convicting a fake TV Psychic. THAT payoff comes back in San Francisco. It produces a very satisfying conclusion, especially after the psychic had such a fun time dredging up old memories for both Monk and Natalie.

The central conceit of the Monk TV series is that Adrian Monk was a functioning, successful policeman until the death of his wife. After her murder, Monk fell apart, finding only strict order as the way to avoid further descent into madness. Unfortunately, letting his life-long OCD rise to the forefront cost him his badge. In turn, he needed an assistant/nurse/babysitter to let him at least use those amazing deductive skills that survived his breakdown. In the TV series, Bitty Schram played the original assistant, Sharona. Schram played the part with equal parts Jersey sass and as a compassionate nurse. I do miss Sharona, her mini-skirts and her attitude, but have grown to appreciate Natalie, who was widowed when her husband Mitch dies in the war, all the more.

The best of the three is Monk and the Blue Flu. Again, the joy in reading this book is 'hearing' the voices of Shalhoub and Howard as they take their characters to new depths. But this book expands the cast of characters to show Monk might not have it so bad afterall. Monk has to step in to run the homicide squad when the city's cops call a wildcat strike. With all of the detectives out with the Blue Flu, the mayor asks Monk to accept his badge back and gives him a team of misfits, most of which are worse off than he is. In fact, the group each have their own versions of Natalie: a psychiatrist, an anger management counsellor and a loving grand-daughter, sparking Natalie's hopes of forming an association of sidekicks.

Monk's most obvious fixation in this book is the murder of an astrologer. Since I count Toronto Sun columnist Eugenia Last amongst my friends, it was of interest to me too. If they ever turn THIS book into a TV episode, I think Eugenia would be a perfect choice to play the offed diagrammer of the stars. At any rate, Monk DOES solve this murder, although it was a little easier than some puzzles I've read in the books. The Z-Team does its city proud, too. When the effects of the flu pass, largely due to Monk's work, the circumstances return to normal. And you can feel the great sadness within Monk as it does. NOTE: Goldberg could do worse than write a short story or two about the new detective agency born from the remnants of Monk's team.

I like the TV show and I like the books. They aren't classic. But they ARE entertaining and a good escape from whatever is wearing you down. I admit that Monk's OCD gets very convenient in terms of plot requirements. He has exactly the problem that either exacerbates the issues or helps solve the crime each step of the way. He can get less compulsive if the circumstances require it. But these books do a good job of exploring those times and gives them a bigger covering of reasonability. If you like the show and you like reading, than this is the series for you.

Three down, three to go. The three to go will be some time in the new year, which will get 2009 off to a good start.

Monday, October 13, 2008

HARDWARE: What's In a Name?

My new computer, Popeye, has arrived and I'm finding time to set it up a little bit at a time and will finally do the inevitable and move over central programming to it sometime in the next week. Interestingly, I was reading Jerry Pournelle's Chaos Manor column this week and noticed something peculiar.

He names many, if not all of his computers, with feminine names. My computers all get masculine names, due to my occasional need to curse them out. Just can't do that to a woman, even a silicon representation of one. I've had, in reverse order, Popeye, Olly, Nuklon, Moby Dick, Livingstone, Kingston, Gonzo (Speedy Gonzalez), Dirty Three-33, Bippy and Amadeus, as for the PCs of most recent vintage. I'm sure there were machines with names starting with C, E, F, H and I but being an old man, I've forgotten them. Right now, Nuklon is in the boss position, but will switch with Popeye. Olly's in my bedroom, where it operates silently for overnight backup operations and the occasional web-browsing. Both Kingston and Moby Dick (a laptop) await the occasional use, but neither is on, all the time. In fact, I think Kingston is going to another home some time soon.

Try naming YOUR computer. If you think you will always love it (you won't), then go ahead and giving it a loving name. If you think you'll end up swearing at it (you will), then follow my advice and keep it masculine, or at least gender neutral. When it comes time to finally yell, "NAME, you #%)(*&_#(* hunk of junk," you'll feel better.

I know I did.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

SPORTS: I Wonder...

It's become common place for teams to ice field goal kickers on late field goal attempts in the NFL. Once more today, the idea seems to have screwed up royally. By the way, this was originally a Mike Shanahan idea. The Arizona Cardinals wish they've never heard of it, after calling timeout JUST BEFORE a FAILED field goal attempt to force overtime. Naturally, the Nick Polk field goal redux sailed right through the uprights, forcing overtime.

So, here's a variation on the old icing routine. Stand there beside the referee looking for all the world like you are going to call timeout, just before the attempt is made. The offensive team aren't idiots. They see you standing there. So, I wonder what would happen if the defending team NEVER CALLED THE TIMEOUT!

Wanna bet the clockwork precision of the field goal attempt would be thrown off? I think it would. Especially if it's a last-second lose-or-tie kind of kick.

And what's great, the occasional play-acting would put some teeth back INTO the icing attempt. Would the defensive team call the timeout or not? That's the kind of disruptive thought process the whole thing was supposed to induce in the first place.

UPDATE: Arizona won in overtime anyway. Never mind.

TV: Leverage

The playoff baseball broadcasts have traditionally been used as a platform to publicize the new fall shows coming from whichever broadcaster is doing any individual games. TNT is doing the Pennant Series (so much better than League Championship Series, don't you think?). One of the new shows it will broadcast later this year is Leverage. I don't know which Canadian network or channels will be broadcasting it, but I intend to watch. It's got a lot of promise.

I saw the pilot weeks ago and actually thought it might have been a failed pilot because I didn't see it on any of the TV Fall Previews I saw. Or maybe a mid-season pick-up. And that saddened me. It's a heist show with a real sense of thriller, but that little spark of humour that always permeates the best in this genre in this century, British TV's Hustle.

Timothy Hutton has reached middle-age. Doesn't seem even yesterday that he was a callow youth with a great acting future ahead of him. His resemblance to his later father Jim is remarkable. He plays the leader and brains of a heist team made up of a cat burglar (played with sexy insouciance by Beth Riesgraf), a martial artist (played by ex-Angel co-star Christian Kane), a flighty actress (played by Mrs. Jekyll herself, Gina Bellman) and a savvy techster (Aldis Hodge, last seen by me in Friday Night Lights).

In the pilot, they go after a slimy corporate executive. The caper goes smoothly, too smoothly. Later, the gang has to go to Plan B to take on the REAL slimy corporate executive, played with relish by Canuck Saul Rubinek, who might be the best in the biz at that kind of role. The caper doesn't go smoothly. Which is why the smooth Plan C results in the emotional and monetary payoff the viewer wants.

Hutton's rationale for the original sting and continued use of his team is something with resonance in today's world. It helps for a bond between the viewer and this band of law-breakers. It's necessary, just at the humourous joking between the gang members is.

It's what made Hustle great and what will likely make Leverage an above-average American attempt at duplicating the show.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

MISC: The Election

As I watch the tragic comedy that is the American election, it has come time to point out the fact that Canada goes to the national polls on Tuesday with an amazingly similar problem. How do we elect a representational government when the choices are so unpalatable?

The current government is a minority Conservative one. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who worships George W. Bush in an unseemly way, is mostly like Bush, yet unlike him at the same time. The likeness is this: he believes he's right and to hell with everybody who disagrees with him. And he's not going to let a little thing like the law stop him from ruling the universe ... well at least Canada. He wants to cut taxes and set up little fiefdoms called provinces. That's minimizing government. He WILL interfere in citizen's lives, but more or less wants less of that interference than his American idol. And the unlike aspect boils down to this. More than a third of the country still likes, admires and trusts him.

Harper likely broke the law in making a hasty call to elections three months ago. It was go to the polls now or be wiped out when the newly federally-mandated elections were to be held NEXT October. Not a stupid man (yet another difference), Harper saw the impending crisis looming. At least sort of. He knew the economy of North America, driven so largely by the USA, was going into the toilet. He didn't realize it was a four-flusher, but he saw the downturn that was inevitable. He needed to go now, or face the kind of accusatorial politicking that he and his party couldn't win against. Also, another year meant another 12 months of his various political flunkies screwing up. That happens to all governments. Sometimes, a majority government can afford to slough off a few seats because of the very human failings of its politicians, some newly exposed to having power.

But the best part of calling the snap election was that it came at a time where he could run ads BEFORE calling the election, painting the Liberal leader Stephane Dion in a negative light and NOT have it count against electioneering limits. Plus, the coffers of the opposition parties weren't nearly in battle readiness, as each other party was enjoying that last little lull before ratcheting up for the lawfully planned election next year.

Too bad that pesky law stood in Harper's planned way. No matter. He ignored it. The ultimate Shrubbist approach. So we vote Tuesday.

Dion is as intractable in his own way as Harper is in his own. Dion is a great minister, knowledgeable, dogmatic and usually right. He is, surprisingly, a lousy leader. He just can't bend. And the decision that the Liberals pre-announce The Green Shift, a booster for Canadian responsibility to the ecology of the country and the planet, was probably the deciding factor in Harper calling the election.

Canada is a liberal country. Not a Liberal country, but a liberal one. We elect Liberal governments regularly, throwing them out in a spasm every now and then when the party gets too big for its britches. Pork and screw-ups cause these spasms. We resent majority Liberal governments handing out pork without regard for public outcry. And long-term majority governments get lazy and stop remembering they are there to serve the people and not their cronies. So the spasm. But spasms end and so do our brief dalliances with the Conservative party.

If Dion had kept The Green Shift under wraps until after in place as a majority government, his party could have enacted the plan. The trick was to get INTO power while enjoying the majority an act like The Green Shift requires to become law. Then, four years of implementation would blunt its negative impact in campaign sound bites. "He wants to raise the gas tax." Simple, and enough to push Dion into third place in the national picture when the election campaigning got started. It was, and is, one of the greatest PR blunders in Canadian political history.

Of course, there are other parties in the election. The New Democratic Party has always been strategically to the far left of the Liberals, but jumped inside, towards the centre, because of The Green Shift. Unlike the two extremist idealogues that head the main parties, Jack Layton is a humanistic leader who is undoubtedly the best of the lot contesting for the job as Canada's leader. A Layton-led Liberal team without The Green Shift baggage, would be a majority winner (Old NDP-er Bob Rae, a runner-up to Dion in the Liberal leadership race, would have been equally successful). The problem with Layton is that his party's tenure as the ruling party in Ontario was one of the great social misadventures of the last century. While the NDP are more centrist than ever, that fear lurks that they would jump back to the edge once opportunity presented itself.

The Green Party is relatively new on the national stage. Well-spoken Elizabeth May has gained admirers from across the nation to her party's cause. In fact, some 10 percent of Canadians polled say they support the party. About the same, all from Quebec, support the Bloc Quebecois, originally formed to support the idea of Quebec separatism. Which should tell you something. Any respect I personally had for May disappeared when she elected to run against a supposedly unbeatable Conservative candidate in Nova Scotia while passing up a solid chance to gain election victory in the Green stronghold of British Columbia. Leaders lead from the front, not from the sidelines. In politics, anyway.

So it comes down to voting for one of the above. Not.

That's the rub. Unlike in the United States, where you get three votes for your national representation (four, really), Canadians vote once. And that's NOT for the leader of the country. We vote for our member of parliament and hope that he or she acts responsibly, voting for the prime minister if given the opportunity, else providing a staunch voice for our local concerns. Compare that with the American system where each citizen can vote for President, each of two senators and for a representative to the House. With that kind of spread-the-wealth opportunity, Americans can blunt the power of the party IN power, or allow it unfettered reign. With a little judicious use of the ballot, Americans can roughly achieve that that we have here, minority government. Or make the mistake of giving the right or left total control.

I have long held that I have to vote FOR somebody, not against. As a result, I have spoiled four of the last six ballots I entered the booth with. Only twice have I been convinced I should actually vote for a particular candidate. And having talked to the three main party's candidates, I find myself, once again, intending to cast a counting vote in the election, rather than voting for them all. All in this case, meaning none of the above. I SERIOUSLY contemplated a vote for a party I have never voted for in my life. As much as I despise Harper's willingness to dispense with the law of the land, I DID seriously consider the Conservative candidate. She might very well be a strong voice in the advent of a Harper win, majority or minority. I could not ignore that benefit to my community.

In the end, in three days' time, I will have to see if my initial decision survives the next two days' worth of news. The edge of the cliff I stand on is pretty thin.

As for prognostications, I'm calling for another Conservative minority. One that includes the enticing possibility of a coalition of the Left actually having a majority. That's pie in the sky dreaming, because it would possibly lead to Prime Minister Layton. Much more likely is that the left won't align completely against Harper, instead preferring to keep him in check through these next rough four years. And the key, I think, is that the Bloc will become national heroes in one respect. Their blocking of Conservative gains in Quebec will actually stop the Conservative majority from becoming reality.

That has to be the defining irony of Canadian politics.

Monday, October 06, 2008

MISC: Check Out Cuban

Mark Cuban is a "Love Him/Hate Him" kind of guy. The owner of the Dallas Mavericks and HDNet, plus assorted ventures neither your or I know about, Cuban is a newsmaker. And he's an old time computer geek that writes an informative blog several times a week.

What Cuban writes about is business, life and the Mavs, basically in that order. I find he's right most of the time, taking into account I'm overestimating my ability to know when I'm being filibustered. But I got the feel, he's mostly right. He tells tales of his own warts and mistakes, as well as making regular suggestions on how to make the world a better place. At least the business world.

His current blog as of today is all about the secrets of getting rich. Hmmmmm. A hot button topic given today's economical environment if there ever was one. And by the way, if you DO go over there and read it, don't forget to read the blogs in the link at the bottom of the post. It's a little autobiography of the early days of a billionaire. Not all of the early days. It only obliquely references his job as a garbage bag saleskid, or the bar he opened up in university, while shy of the legal drinking age himself. (Check out Their bio on Cuban was a great read).

At any rate, since I'm stuck in the work mire for right now, let Cuban do my writing for me.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

SPORTS: Phillies Over Angels in Fall Classic?

Okay, this should have gone up last night. I erred in the posting date for the blog. So read this with a grain of salt.

I'm still in mourning for Justin Morneau and the rest of my new team, the Minnesota Twins. Just one measley RBI was all I asked of my fellow Canuck. That and a good pitching performance from Nick Blackburn.

I got the latter, but not the former, and it will be Ozzie Guillen's Chicago White Sox that will be moving on to play Tampa starting Thursday night. And ultimately, it was a well-deserved win by the White Sox. John Danks was masterful. Old man Jim Thome had one more big hit in him. And equally old man, Ken Griffey, had one more defensive act of heroism in him. It's a little hard to get too p.o.'d over good guys like Griffey, Thome and Paul Konerko getting one last hurrah. Besides, I never thought the Twins had a chance when I picked them weeks ago to supplant the Toronto Blue Jays in my affections.

So, it comes time to predict the World Series outcome, in order to have some sort of rooting interest in baseball. I WANT Pat Gillick to go out a winner. So the easy answer is Philadelphia to win it all. And that's doable. The favourites, the Chicago Cubs, do have another favourite one-time Toronto employee, Reed Johnson, but he's more backup than big factor these days. Chicago gets extra points for having a Canuck, Ryan Dempster. But that still doesn't add up to Gillick's numbers. And remember, I need him to take over the presidency of the Blue Jays so he can fire the unmentionable one as GM and let me come home to my home team to cheer on. Milwaukee does have TWO Canucks in the front office, including the lamented ex-GM of the Jays, Gord Ash. But that's still too little to balance off Gillick. And the Dodgers employ Manny Ramirez, which more than off-sets Canuck Russell Martin. A pox on the manchild, and sorry for getting Joe Torre caught in the cross-fire.

As for the A.L., I can't cheer on Chicago. They did in my Twins fer gawdsakes! Jason Bay and the Bosox aren't a horrible choice, but I'm sick of Boston winning so much lately. It'd be different if the Curse of the Bambino was alive and kicking and there was a good chance at a Chicago-Boston World Series. I like Tampa Bay, despite a lean Canuck connection. Gabe Gross, ex of the Jays, is a good guy, but I'm not a fan of another ex-Jay, Eric Hinske. A wash. So that leaves the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Hate the name, but loved the park, the last non-Toronto big league stadium I've been too. And how can you NOT cheer for Vladimir Guerrero?

Well, I can when he must succumb to Pat's Phillies in the World Series. But I'll hate myself doing it!

MISC: Rewrite!!!

Ken Levine writes a great daily blog about his past career as a writer on TV sitcoms from M*A*S*H to ones that you probably never heard of, to his current gig doing radio for the LA Dodgers. He's funny and filled with all kinds of stories and anecdotes from his career. Plus, he hands out free advice like anxiety pills at a Congressional vote on economic bailouts.

Today's entry struck a cord. He writes about a mentor that treated him with tough love back in the day when he was just starting to learn how to write things, other than Ohio State 21, Northwestern 7. He got 'edited' by his mentor, thereby starting him on the path towards learning to be a great communicator.

For me, I had several mentors, not the least of which was Ken Giles. 'Scoop' or 'Chuck,' he answered to both when people purposely didn't use his name, was my editor for the first 12 years of my professional life. I get my love of alliterative descriptions from him. He once strung together seven adjectives in a row starting with S. I can't remember it all, but it ended up with soggy sod. I invite you to try to match him.

At any rate, The Boss (which is what I have called him all of my adult life) always corrected me in the least embarrassing way possible. When I got it into my dumb skull that optician was spelled optition for a couple of weeks, he corrected all the mistakes the first week, and then asked me gently the second week to spell the work out loud. I did. Correctly. "Then why are you typing optition instead?" He was curious. Wanted to know. I didn't know. And that was the end of the problem.

For more than a decade, he edited my sports stuff. I had other editors for my computer and bridge columns. And still more when I started the trivia column. (I tried, unsuccessfully, to fill up half the paper each week. But I came close!!) Each of them frequently had a problem with my column style. It was like this blog. Lots of short non-sentences, broken up occasionally by an attempt to break the world's longest sentence record. Most of the editors at The Guardian and then later with other papers, treated me as the tempermental wordsmith that I was. In other words, with kid gloves. Still, they would be bemused at my attempts to create literature rather than newspaper work, which was supposed be squarely aimed at the grade 8 reader. In later years, when I'd learned better, I had to deal with a junior sports reporter who fancied himself a writer. He was wrong. My revenge today is that he's an editor. Heh, heh, heh.

As I got older, I did branch out, once again, to writing for the major Toronto dailies. I had extensive dealings with them while in high school as a high school sports correspondent. Later, I did lots of work with The Star. But the most interesting experience was my one and only trip into the offices of the Toronto Globe and Mail, to do up a story on the Brampton Canadettes Hockey Tournament.

I'd been doing odd stuff for the Globe for years, going back to the time just after high school. But it was an all-phone affair. This time, I had to go to the office to file the story. I got a friend, Arvid Yorkman, to accompany me to the place. I'd never been there and I tend to get lost. So he drove me from the tournament site in Mississauga (yeah, I know, a different town. But this was billed as the world's largest women's hockey tournament and one city was not big enough to hold it. Still isn't to this day). We got lost, but finally trundled up to the editorial floor and sat down at the desk where my 'editor' at the Globe sat during the day.

For reasons that will become obvious, I won't name said editor. A LOT of his proteges are in the business to this day and are my friends. That said, our mentor at the Globe had a drinking problem. That hit home when I opened a drawer looking for a pencil and found an open bottle of some spirits, the cap off. If there was any more cliched caricature of a hard-drinking reporter than my mentor, I have yet to meet him or her.

We used newsprint, carbons and typewriters back in those days. That's carbon paper for making copies, not carbon-dating. I quickly typed up five half-sheets, did a little hand-editing of my own, and then walked the result over to the night sports editor. I was feeling pretty good. In fact, I was going to ask for my own by-line, rather than the ubiquitous 'Special to the Globe and Mail' that appeared under all of my previous stories.

The Editor harrumphed as he scanned through the writing. The first line, a perfect pearl of reportage, got left unchanged. EVERY OTHER LINE on five pages got changed with a swipe of red grease pencil. I am not kidding. EVERY LINE! Even the one with a score in it got changed...well deleted. But that's the same thing. EVERY LINE!

Where once I stood waiting to have my name attached in triumph, I now looked hopefully for cracks in the floor to flow through. Gawd, it was embarassing.

The crushing appraisal done, the editor stuck his hand in the air, clutching the sheets of crap, and yelled "Re-write!!!" If you want the complete comical graphic image, he was chawing a big cigar while doing it and that cigar seemed to jump with each syllable of "re-write!" I turned to leave, never to set foot in the place again. In fact, I was thinking maybe this sports-reporting gig wasn't for me. I HAD majored in math and a computer career beckoned.

But the editor saved my reporter career, at least for a decade or so, with the next words out of his mouth. "Good job kid."

And so I went back to work perfecting my reporting craft. I got better. Editors like The Boss and the unnamed Globe night man saw to that. Love and Tough Love. I needed both.