Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Premise vs. Content

Not that anyone is asking for it, but here’s my personal review of Dan Brown’s, The da Vinci Code. I’m sure many of you have already read it, and perhaps you found parts of it interesting or even thought-provoking, but let me assure you that the book itself is just a bunch of over-hyped crap. Nothing bothers me more than when a book takes a good premise and goes nowhere with it – and that’s exactly what I felt The da Vinci Code did. Kudos to Brown for doing a fair amount of research into the lore and mysteries surrounding what history has left unknown about life and works of da Vinci. A lot of the conjectures are truly fascinating (even though many of them are outrageous and almost certainly untrue). As I read the story I found myself stopping to look through art-history books with prints of da Vinci’s paintings (namely the Last Supper) and ponder possible hidden meanings. I found a plethora of internet websites devoted to conspiracy theories about da Vinci, and I came to discover that all of the different interpretations in Brown’s book were, in fact, established theories and speculations that had been printed in countless earlier books. All Brown did was take these various intrigues and try to weave them together into a cohesive fiction adventure. Personally I think that’s a great idea for a fiction novel, I’m only disappointed that Brown did such a poor job of it. Armed with the best of materials about a fascinating historical figure Brown proceeded to create a completely mediocre narrative.
The story revolves around the machinations of a secret society devoted to protecting the Holy Grail. Brown makes a big deal about something he labeled “the sacred feminine” and how this secret organization protects the coequality of women in society (specifically their understated roles throughout the history of the Catholic Church). Of course the organization itself is run by men. Only men are allowed to know of the group’s deepest secrets and they are the ones responsible for protecting the Grail. Up until the revealing of the Grail itself (and I would argue even then) women seem suspiciously absent from any role of authority or self-determination. Brown seems oblivious to the fact that rather than any sort of coequality, his secret society perpetuates a male chauvinistic ethic - women must be constantly taken care of and protected because they can’t look after themselves. Believe me, I’m not usually one to take up the feminist point of view. Normally I love a good damsel-in-distress, but in this case I felt the contradiction was glaring.
I also didn’t like that fact that Brown felt the need to demonize the modern Catholic Church in his search for an antagonist. Sure, every hero needs a villain, but taking group like Opus Dei (which is admittedly somewhat kooky) and turning it into a super-evil paramilitary organization complete with ruthless assassins is going way over the top. Given its history, the Catholic Church is certainly an easy target, but if you’re going to attack a religious institution I think you should have a more serious agenda than simply trying round-out the plot of a fiction novel.
Ultimately Brown did a decent job of introducing the intriguing lore surrounding what is known and not known about Leonardo da Vinci, but the narrative itself read like a bad Indiana Jones knockoff. Apparently most readers were sufficiently engaged by the da Vinci mysteries themselves and were willing to overlook Brown’s amateurish plot-points. Unfortunately, I had discovered those accounts concurrently and apart from reading Brown’s book and ended up feeling completely let down by the storyline.
I continue to be amazed at how much hype The da Vinci Code continues to generate, and I wonder - is a good premise really enough to compensate for lack of content?

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Grounded in Life

Although this photo was taken before I was born, I feel like that's me in the picture just the same.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Blog Rules

Since I'm new to blogging, and not entirely sure how to go about it, I figure I might as well lay out some groundrules. I know there are no 'rules' per se - that I'm free to write anything I want, but I still think some set of general guidelines might be useful. The whole point is not to restrict my blogging, but to focus my efforts and make it all worthwhile.

Rule#1 - Write regularly. I know that's obvious - and easier said than done. Still, I'll try to at least start a draft whenever I can, even if I don't have the time to complete it and post right away. As long as I have a general idea started, I can always go back and finish it when I do have the time.

Rule#2 - Be selective about what gets written. It'd be easy to simply write about the mundane details of my day, but I don't expect I'd benefit from recording useless trivia and I'm sure nobody else would want to read about that stuff either. It's not that I have to always write deep meaningful stuff, but it'd be better if I could focus on just one topic at a time, and try to pick things that might have at least some small significance or interest to myself (and hopefully others).

Rule#3 - Read other blogs, and post comments. If I just wanted to keep a diary, I wouldn't do it on the internet. The thing that makes blogging so interesting is the whole aspect of interactivity. Whenever I post, I always spend a few minutes reading through random blogs or checking back on a few of my favorites. Every once in a while I read something that really sparks my interest or sets me to thinking in a new way. No simple diary can do that.

That's enough rules to start with. Perhaps I'll add more rules as I discover them.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Abducted by Aliens

A few days ago, while working my day job (in retail-sales) I received an unusual proposition from an inquisitive customer I had spent some time assisting. He explained he was starting up his own business and because he was impressed with my attitude and customer-service skills he wanted to know if I might be interested in working for him. I was instantly skeptical. Not so much of the offer itself, but of why I would want to switch one sales job for what I assumed would be another. But not wanting to appear rude, I politely accepted his contact information and quickly changed the subject. (After all, talking about changing jobs at your place of work is a tad unseemly.) He must have picked up on the whole ‘thanks but no-thanks’ vibe. After a bit more banter he changed the subject back to his new business, this time making an earnest plea for me to at least come check it out to see if I might be interested.

It was a good pitch. What got me was how sincere and optimistic he was. He said things like, “this is more than just a business - I really believe in this” followed by, “if you give it a chance, you will too” and the tried and true, “This is an opportunity to be a part of something great.” Among the clichés he dished out few details about his new startup (something to do with computers), but since I was still uncomfortable having such a conversation at work I simply assured him we could talk later and excused myself.

I spoke with him on the phone the next day (yesterday) and scheduled a job interview for myself later the same day. The interview would be at his house (as it turned out he lived nearby and this was simply convenient) with the promise that if it went well I would be invited to go with him and a few other prospective employees to a hiring function at some conference hall downtown. I still wondered if it would turn out to be worthwhile, but by then I was interested enough to put on a business suit.

I am such a sucker.

I arrived at his modest middle-class home (a fair bit nicer than my tiny townhouse I should add) relieved to see him wearing a suit and tie as well. At least I wasn’t overdressed. I met his wife and two of his kids– everything seemed normal. After introductions, he and I sat down alone to discuss business. As he started prattling on about his new company I was immediately taken aback by the fact that he didn’t seem the least bit interested in me at all. He had no questions about my past work experience or job skills. Worse, he started making promises about becoming instantly rich and retiring in a few years. I quickly became suspicious that he was about to try to sell me something. Then it happened. He took out a little sheet of paper and prefaced his briefing with, “this isn’t a pyramid scheme or anything” as he drew a bunch of little circles and lines in the shape of, well, a pyramid.

I laughed out loud.

I couldn’t believe that I had been suckered into such a lame con. When I asked him a bunch of questions I was surprised by what I found out. Simply put, he wasn’t any kind of conman. He was a sucker too. He wasn’t even a business owner – he just thought he was. In truth, he was a disgruntled postal clerk (go figure) who had been conned into purchasing an own-your-own-business kit from some company I’d never heard of. The whole scheme involved purchasing goods from what he called a ‘virtual mall’ on the internet and selling – get this: own-your-own-business kits.

Of course you have to pay up front for the kit, which grants the sole privilege of being able to shop in the virtual mall. And a percentage of every overpriced sale helps line the pockets of those higher-up in the pyramid. My would-be employer was so enamored with the concept that he shopped there religiously. He honestly believed that by purchasing all his goods online he was making himself richer. It was his sincerity that had pulled me in, and his sincerity was still there. Of course he hadn’t made any real money doing this, but he was sure his big payday was just around the corner. Recruited as a consumer he thought he was a businessman, and he really believed he was doing me a favor by letting me in on the fun. I didn’t have the heart to tell him just how screwed up it all was.

A little while later another would-be-millionaire, who had already bought a kit from my new friend, arrived and announced it was time to leave for the big meeting downtown. I was thankful I had discovered that I was dealing with kooks before I ended up trapped at what was sure to be some sort of Jim Jones brainwashing session. Of course there was going to be free food at the meeting, but there was no way that was going to be incentive enough to waste the rest of my evening. Then again my wife was away taking an evening college class, and I knew there wasn’t much in the fridge for me to fix for myself. How bad could it be?

It turned out to be almost fun, in a sick kind of way. It was like being in one of those TV infomercials. What struck me most was how happy everyone was. There was certainly no shortage of fools who seemed to think they had found paradise. I learned that a lot of them were already ‘business owners’ who came to these meetings regularly. It was half recruitment, half pep-rally for the recruited. It was like group therapy – for idiots. I found myself wondering who among the crowd might be silent objectors like me, along for the ride but more interested in the freak show than the main event. The guest speaker, who definitely was a confidence man, was at least entertaining. It was like watching standup – dinner and a show. Who said there’s no such thing as a free lunch?

Now I just hope they accepted ‘no’ as an answer and don’t keep trying to recruit me like those pesky Jehovah’s Witnesses I unwittingly let into the house that one time.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Flying in Circles

I got to fly solo again today - in an old rental Cessna172 that's about as old as I am. It had been a while since I flew by myself so I spent the morning staying in the pattern working on my landings. (It's not like I had anyplace to go.) My first few landings were near perfect, but on my third go-around I turned base early and found myself a bit too high and too close on final approach. No big deal, it was certainly a salvageable situation. I simply let out the throttle early and glided on in. Nevertheless I found myself diving at the runway in an attempt to touchdown at the optimum point and as result I was still gaining too much speed. As soon as I realized this I eased back on the yoke and put in some extra flaps to slow myself to a reasonable rate. As I settled in over the runway I really felt the effects of the extra flaps. They had helped bleed off that extra airspeed, so much so that as I floated in to land I simply hung there cushioned by the ground effect (compressed air between the ground and wing that produces extra lift) going slower and slower but suspended a few feet off the ground. I had to quickly punch in the throttle for a moment in order to avoid stalling and falling hard onto the runway. During this final adjustment, I touched down so softly I wasn't quite sure I had even landed until a few moments after the fact when I realized the brakes worked. Despite a series of minor mistakes and overcorrections I somehow managed to perform a beauty of a landing.
What's strange is of all the landings I did today (seven total) this is the landing I'm most proud of. It wasn't exactly my best landing. Of course, it was never so bad as to warrant an abortive go-around either (something I am always willing to do if I feel uncomfortable with an approach). I guess what makes it so memorable is the fact that I was able to stay on top of things even when they got a bit complicated - constantly reacting to the situation and compensating for its changes. Despite the obvious evidence to the contrary, I felt more in touch with the situation, more in control, more connected to the aircraft during that landing than I normally do.
Why is that?

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

A Brave New Blog

For some reason I feel compelled to write something really witty and meaningful since this is my first entry in my first blog. Unfortunately I'm not sure I have anything really meaningful to impart at the moment. I'm just trying to figure it all out just like everyone else. I guess that's why I decided to start a blog in the first place. I imagine that's why we all enjoy reading eachother's random thoughts and observations - It's comforting to know most everyone else is a bit confounded too. At any rate, I'm hoping that by giving my disjointed thoughts, ideas, fears, confusions, hopes and dreams a home they might incubate into something that actually makes sense. We'll see . . .