Thursday, July 31, 2003

The Grey Zone, Tim Blake Nelson's 2001 film about the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, accomplishes the impossible: It's a Holocaust film which takes us directly into the extermination camp without smarm or sentimentality or exploitation, something that has never been accomplished before. Schindler's List, let us recall, only gives us brief glimpses of Auschwitz. TGZ is set almost totally in Auschwitz and makes it horrifyingly real.

The details all ring true: The mordant gloom of the eternally-cloudy skies of southeastern Poland, the casual gradations of violence and murder inside what amounts to a religious temple devoted to violence and murder, the passing tableaux of life in an extermination camp presented without leering or editorial commentary. There is an invented subplot involving a young girl who survives the gas chamber, but it rings true.

I love nearly all of the cast, especially Steve Buscemi, David Arquette, and Daniel Benzali. Harvey Keitel's psychotronic German accent is annoying as hell, but I got over it after a while.

This is one of those odd, rare films that I can't talk about in terms of quality, whether it's good or bad. It just sort of is.


Those dozen Buffy board games that I picked up for $2.50 each when TRU was closing them out? The ones that my partners asked me why I bought so many of? Remember them? Well, you may not, but I do, as they now go for an amazing 35 damn dollars on average on ebay, with sale prices as high as $57.00.

*smiles contentedly*

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Excerpts from my brother's emails from the last two days:

"Well, we got damned little advice growing up, except on how to artistically insult someone, reducing them to a towering rage with a well chosen sentence or two... Unfortunately, it's not a particularly useful skill, I'm afraid, at least in terms of earning a living."

"See... you thought it was hard being YOU. As you can see, it's hard being me...or in fact anyone with the wit to have a self-critical bone in their bodies..especially [our family]...and as my old man the wag might have said, 'with us as relatives, who needs enemies?'."

"My recommendation is to get back up on that bronco, and ride the bastard to a standstill. It's important to get up off your wounded ass and do something about getting another job soon. Waiting doesn't help, and it has a tendency to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Work at the store everyday if you like, but make sure that you keep working toward getting another job. And don't be afraid to look for a better job. You have enormous talent (like my sister), and can do almost anything you set your mind to AND WORK AT."

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Today was about working my long, long learning curve. I am definitely not a photographer, and it took me basically all day to figure out how to shoot and download and modify in Corel.

I've also been working on resumes, tailoring them to different jobs. Today at Catherine's request I did a Purchasing one and an Asset Management one, and then she edited them to add phrasings that her company looks for. It's nice to have friends when things are awful.

Monday, July 28, 2003


I had thought of a list for the blog of my Five Ugliest Buildings In The World, and I had to think a lot about my #5 choice. It was the Basilique de Sacre Coeur in Paris. I am a huge fan of church architecture, but Sacre Coeur is simply awful. You can't tell from the usual postcard shots, but from a distance--you can see it in its full unsightliness in books like Europe from the Air--it looks like a big fat white turnip dropped into the middle of the delicate architecture of the Montmartre neighborhood:

It brutally overwhelms its surroundings; its very appearance in a gentle film like Amelie tends to bring everything to a halt.

But I started to reconsider. It is church architecture, after all, and there is a reason it was placed there, at the highest physical point in the city, with only the Eiffel Tower standing higher. The archbishop who had it built wanted it to dominate the city in the same way that, say, Florence or Vienna are dominated by their cathedrals. It's just an architectural failure, that's all.

#4 is the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. Yes, it really does look like a big toilet:

#3 I don't have a picture of, but it's the hotel in Lancaster, PA, that looks like a huge paddlewheel steamer, standing in the middle of Amish wheatfields.

#2 is every Soviet building ever made.

And #1 is another Parisian monstrosity, the Pompidou Center, which is basically a Blue Man Group set that you can walk through. No, that's not scaffolding, that's the actual building.

Saturday, July 26, 2003

Today, on a 95-degree day when I could barely run a mile, it was so hot that I was thinking of much cooler days. Almost every winter Sunday when I was living in Milan, I would dress warmly and go to the Piazza del Duomo and sit by the fountain with my sketchbook and draw everything I saw, the people, the dogs, the architecture. I'd buy roasted chestnuts from the street vendors and stay there all day till the sun went down, which was earlier than at home. Winters in Milan were never intolerably cold; each winter there would always be exactly one half-inch overnight snowfall around Christmas that would disappear the next morning, and the weather got back to its proper business of concealing the sun for the next three months.

What sort of brought all this to mind was the controversy over the remarks made by the actress Kate Hudson the other day about how much she couldn't stand seeing American tourists in Paris:
"Sometimes I'll be walking down the street and I'll hear some American and I'll just go, 'Of course they hate us, of course they can't stand us.'"

Now this is understandable to a degree. I heard and saw Americans act abominably in various places in Europe, but only a very small number. For me as an American expatriate, though, I loved finding Americans. There would be times when I would go weeks without speaking English, when the sudden sound of spoken American English was like the sweetest music in the world.

Friday, July 25, 2003

The problem with remaining so long at a place that a parent company has decided to jettison is that you kind of outlast all your friends. After 4 1/2 years, it would have been nice to go out after work on my last day. But all my friends are gone, the people who are left I'm not close with, so all I am doing is just walking out the door. It's a metaphor of something, and not a good one.

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Today was an unofficial off day for me. I spent much of it cataloguing my friend Yoki's game collection that he gave to me on consignment. There was some interesting stuff in there, especially a copy of Pressman's long-out-of-print Siege of the Citadel which oddly doesn't ebay for very much.; of course there was also stuff that will be very difficult to sell (Good Lord, pogs!). Anyone interested in a collection of almost all-Swede NHL cards?

Sports cards are a fun subject with us. Occasionally we get people asking about them, and it usually goes like, "You guys should definitely carry sports cards. There used to be this great store that carried everything, but they're out of business now. So I started going to another sports cards store, but now they're out of business too. So you guys should definitely carry sports cards!"

Wednesday, July 23, 2003

-----Original Message-----
From: Lance
Sent: Wednesday, July 23, 2003 2:07 PM
To: Edwin (US - Philadelphia)
Subject: RE: Changes

What are you going to do? Store full time? Sell Plasma? Pimp? GOP fundraiser for war orphans?

So today empiricism meets reality, and the result isn't pretty.

Empirically, I understand that one very important reason America is so wealthy is the economic freedom that we have, which means the fluid labor market. Where employers can grow or shrink the work force with the least difficulty, jobs will be most plentiful. Among developed countries, the alternative is the 10-15% unemployment rates they have in France and Germany, or the situation where half the economy is "off the books" as in Italy.

But when you get laid off, as I did today, it still sucks. Rueful, and a bit sad, is me.

I have lots of company: Our department no longer exists as of Friday, which is technically my last day, and several other departments are going. It's borderline infuriating though, that they spent millions to move us out to this glorious new building a couple of months ago, only to torpedo the whole company.

But I will be fine. Empirically and otherwise. Just rueful today.

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

1. Your name backwards?

2. Your parents' birthplace?
My siblings will kill me if I get this wrong...Lansford, PA, and....I forget where my dad was born. Either Mystic, CT, or Catasauqua, PA, I think.

3. Last download?
Never did it, being a lowly dial-up person.

4. Favourite restaurant?
The Dilworthtown Inn.

5. Last swim in a pool?
Can't remember. Likely on a ski trip 10 years ago.

6. Ever been in a school play?
Never. *still traumatized*

7. How many kids do you want?
Never thought about it.

8. Type of music you dislike most?
White rap.

9. Registered to vote?
Of course. My sister is only now forgiving me for failing to vote in the 1996 election because I was living abroad.

10. Have cable?
TV, yes. HBO, no Showtime.

11. Ever ridden a moped?

12. Ever prank call anyone?
I really, really hate prank calls. At the thought of them I become Moe from The Simpsons: "IF I EVER FIND OUT WHO THIS IS...."

13. Ever get a parking ticket?
The city of Philadelphia regards tickets as an integral part of their revenue, so, yes, pretty much every other time I've parked there. It's still cheaper than paying to park in most lots there anyway. Somewhere I have a collection of parking tickets from different European cities that I treasure, though.

14. Would you bungee jump or sky-dive?
Uh, no. I'd spectate, thank you.

15. Furthest place you've travelled?
West: San Francisco in 2001 with Quan and her sister Lien to visit a person we worked with.
South: Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, 1978. "Hey, I can take a little bit of sun. I burn, but only a little. No big deal. What's that? We're in the what? The tropics? Why should that make a difference?" (all prior to the worst skin poisoning I've ever had). That train trip back to Arizona, where I got on the second-class car by mistake and sat with the ladies with the chickens in their cages on the seats next to them for ten hours, was, shall we say, memorable.
North: Montreal, I guess. 2000 was the last time I was there, I think, to visit Jean Vanaise. That's Western Hemisphere. The furthest north I have ever been was Copenhagen, Denmark.
East: I think it was the city of Bratislava in Slovakia. I wanted to go further, but my rental car wasn't insured in Eastern Europe.

16. Have a garden?
I did when I had my house in Crum Lynne. Now I am content getting my little lawn cut.

17. Favourite comic strip?
Calvin and Hobbes, and Stan Drake's old soap strip The Heart of Juliet Jones.

18. Know all the words to your National Anthem?

19. Bath or shower?

20. Best movie seen in last month?
(Theater) 28 Days Later (home) Heavenly Creatures.

21. Favourite pizza topping?

22. Chips or popcorn?
Big popcorn fan, but I live for greasy chips.

23. Colour of lipstick usually worn?
No, I'm not a goth, though I have several goth friends and customers.

24. Ever smoked peanut shells?
There must be better uses for peanut shells.

26. Orange juice or apple juice?
Not a juice person, but of the two definitely OJ, as AJ is too sweet.

27. Last person you went to dinner with, and where?
A bunch of people (Bob, Sheila, Megan, Stu, Ed Smith, and a customer) to Dos Amigos in Feasterville last Saturday night.

28. Favourite chocolate bar?
I love those carb-free chocolate ones (not the chewy inedible ones, but the ones that seem to be real chocolate.

29. Last time you voted?
In this year's primary, May of 2003.

30. Last time you ate a homegrown tomato?
I had some of a friend's homemade salsa a week ago made from tomatoes from his garden, yum.

31. Ever won a trophy?
Nope. They don't have international Trivial Pursuit championships yet.

32. Are you a good cook?
Not bad when motivated.

34. Ever order an article from an infomercial?
I cannot imagine doing this.

35. Sprite or Seven Up?
Diet Sprite.

36. Ever had to wear a uniform to work?
Thank God, no.

37. Last thing you bought at a pharmacy?
After running the other night, I got some cold Fruit2O from the Walgreen's down the street, which hit the spot.

38. Ever throw up in public?
In my drinking days, apparently. (I have no memory of it, but I am told)

39. Prefer to be a millionaire or find true love?
Doesn't look like either will happen to me, so I'll fantasize about the money, which is likelier.

40. Believe in love at first sight?
Lust at first sight, yes, but love is contingent on getting to know the person.

41. Ever call a 1-900 number?
No, but the burglars who broke into my old house did, for some $500 worth of calls which I thankfully did not have to pay for.

42. Can ex's be friends?
In theory.

43. Last person you visited in hospital?
My sister in December 2001, I think.

44. Did you have a lot of hair as a baby?
No, the hair didn't kick in for a while, and was really thin and white-blonde when it did..

45. Answering machine message?
"Hi this is Ed. Leave a message." That's when I turn it on, which is rarely.

46. Favourite 'Saturday Night Live' character?
It's still Wayne and Garth.

47. Name of first pet?
Bingo the cat.

49. Favourite thing to do before bed-time?

50. One thing you are grateful for today?
My life.

Monday, July 21, 2003

I'm at a low ebb these days. And of course I picked now to compete in my first 5K race (tomorrow night actually), and my timing could have been better. I have been dead on my feet lately, which does not exactly lend itself to superior athletic endeavour. But I will do it. Saturday I ran about half of the 6.8 mile Impoundment trail at the Heinz NWR.

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Just a brief reminder today:

I see the Eastern Conference race deciding the entire NFC this season. The Giants are the only team that worries me. The Falcons are still a good distance away from real contention, the Rams are on the definite downslope, the Saints will do what they always do, and I am not worried at all about the Fluke-aneers. And in any case, this season is sure to offer many opportunities to cruelly mock the QB-less Cowboys.

Off to run, to listen to bands.

Saturday, July 19, 2003

The best historian of our time, Paul Johnson, has published a new article that makes makes me grope for new superlatives, having used all the other ones on previous things he's written. The audacious title alone would make me love it even if the rest of the article had been written in Tagalog: "Anti-Americanism is Racist Envy." My favorite passage:

" The U.S. is the world's most successful democracy. The right of voters to elect more than 80,000 public officials, the length and thoroughness of electoral campaigns, the pervasiveness of the media and the almost daily reports by opinion polls ensure that government and electorate do not diverge for long and that Washington generally reflects the majority opinion in its actions. It is this feature that intellectuals--especially in Europe--find embittering. They know they must genuflect to democracy as a system. They cannot openly admit that an entire people--especially one comprising nearly 300 million, who enjoy all the freedoms--can be mistaken. But in their hearts these intellectuals do not accept the principle of one person, one vote. They scornfully, if privately, reject the notion that a farmer in Kansas, a miner in Pennsylvania or an auto assembler in Michigan can carry as much social and moral weight as they do. "

I love Paul Johnson.

Friday, July 18, 2003

Pirates of the Caribbean was a very odd film for me. It never quite came to life for me, and yet I found myself loving it. I never quite believed in any of it, and couldn't suspend my disbelief, not even once--but I was so captivated by the sheer filmmaking of it--the wonderful art direction, the deft stunts, the sweet effects, the impossibly good-looking cast--that I found myself enjoying it immensely when I shouldn't have.

Thursday, July 17, 2003

Long call with Bob today, who was in Maine visiting Sheila's first granddaughter over the last weekend. On the long drive back he says he spent a lot of time thinking about what it would be like if I did get laid off, and he was more excited about the prospect than ever. "We could do a thousand a week on ebay, easy," he said, and I could feel the wheels turning. "I could take the pictures, we have tons of junk that we don't even put out for sale, we have hundreds of out of print things that people would kill for. And the best part is..." He paused, and I waited for the final sales pitch. "...you wouldn't even have to leave your house most days. We could do it all virtually." I knew all this of course, but it was still so delicious to hear the possiblity of no commute to work spoken aloud.

If I had the time to put up 100 items a week, we could double our weekly sales at the store in no time. We could stop living from hand to mouth, fix the things in the building that needed to be fixed, and even pay me a little salary. We'd get rid of all the old crap that fills the second floor of the building (600-700 metal diecast cars alone) and have more space.

He started on about Sheila knowing when they dump stuff at Barnes and Noble for a dollar with her employee discount. If we picked up the better stuff and ebayed or half.com'ed it, our margins would be breathtaking compared to what we scrape by with at the store. I like this plan too, because it's sustainable; the sales stock would not be finite the way our storage inventory is.

Obviously it would still be a lot of work for me. A hundred items a week is a hell of a lot of ebaying. And that's just the writing and posting of the items; I'd also be proprietary about the shipping because I am a stickler for it and would end up spending hours in the PO every week. But I've worked hard before (though not now) and I can do it again. I would only need the time.

So just talking about the future made me feel overall better about everything. It was always my plan to work more with the store if the "worst" happened and I lost my job. But now that the possibility gets more, well, possible, I am sanguine about it, and not in the bloody sense.

Tuesday, July 15, 2003

The only New York Toy Fair that I attended as buyer for Stratelibri was in February 1997, and it was the usual massive circus at the Javits Center. It was the most grueling Toy Fair ever for me, because Giovanni not only wanted to see everything at the show--I'm doing that every year anyway with my current business partners--but he wanted to chat up everyone and impress them with how important Stratelibri was, not only at Javits but also with what felt like every damn tenant of the Toy Buildings further downtown. So we had appointment after appointment in both places, and we were in cabs between the two places the whole show: Normally you can do the whole thing, both places, in two days, though you have to be zooming. We were there for six days, trudging around the four floors of Javits and the jammed elevators at 200 Broadway, and talked to a lot of people. I don't think Giovanni ever recovered from the physical toll that particular show took on him, the constant activity, the difficult schedule, the cold NY February weather, the thousands of sick and sniffling people he must have encountered.

Anyway, one of the people I remember from that show was a nice young woman from Hong Kong, who worked for some company that made some forgettable dollar-store crap or other. I asked her about the upcoming transfer of power from the British to the regime in Beijing: "Aren't you a little worried?"

She looked at me like I was from Mars. She didn't even say anything like, "Why would I be worried?" Instead, she gave me an expression that I suspect she normally reserved for the slower-moving members of the insect world, and said, "Oh, no." No explanation, just the world's strongest it's-a-Chinese-thing-you-wouldn't-understand vibe.

I thought of her this week when I saw the recent news from Hong Kong that the Chinese government's "anti-subversion law" brought 500,000 people out into the streets last week to protest it. I hope Miss Dollar-Store-Crap was one of them.

Monday, July 14, 2003

Today in lieu of an entry I'm stealing Whit Stillman dialogue:

Woman: You can't say Americans are not more violent than other people.
Fred: No.
Woman: All those people killed in shootings in America?
Fred: Oh, shootings, yes. But that doesn't mean Americans are more violent than other people. We're just better shots. (Barcelona)

"You see, that's one of the great things about getting involved with someone from another country. You can't take it personally. What's really terrific is that when we act in ways which might objectively seem a--hole-ish or, or, incredibly annoying, they don't get upset at all. They don't take it personally. They just assume it's some national characteristic." (Barcelona)

"Rick Von Slonecker is tall, rich, good looking, stupid, dishonest, conceited, a bully, liar, drunk and thief, an egomaniac, and probably psychotic. In short, highly attractive to women." (Metropolitan)

"Our bodies are not really designed for group social life. We're really designed for pairing off." (The Last Days of Disco)

"Positive thinking is fine in theory. But whenever I try it on a systematic basis...I end up really depressed." (Barcelona)

"A lot of people won't take no for an answer. I wanted you to know that I'm not one of them. I can be discouraged." (The Last Days of Disco)

And of course, the famous Lady and the Tramp speech:

"There is something depressing about it and it's not really about dogs. Except for some superficial bow-wow stuff at the start, the dogs all represent human types which is where it gets into real trouble. Lady, the ostensible protagonist, is a fluffy blond cocker spaniel with absolutely nothing on the brain. She's great looking but, let's be honest, incredibly insipid. Tramp, the love interest, is a smarmy braggart of the most obnoxious kind, an oily jail bird out for a piece of tail or whatever he can get....He's a self confessed chicken thief; an all around sleaze ball. What's the function of a film of this kind? Essentially it's a primer about love and marriage directed at very young people, imprinting on their little psyches that smooth talking delinquents recently escaped from the local pound are a good match for nice girls in sheltered homes. When in ten years the icky human version of Tramp shows up around the house their hormones will be racing and no one will understand why. Films like this program women to adore jerks." (The Last Days of Disco)

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Note: All of these are quotes from the same person, not me, during dinner last night. The word "frell" is, as you may guess, not the one he used.

"No, really, I'm serious. I think we should definitely invade Iran. Not for the oil, though that would be a bonus, but for the frelling pistachios. I mean, have you ever seen Iranian pistachios? The motherfrellers are like almonds. We have not been able to get the frelling things for twenty-four frelling years, and I want 'em now."

"Of course I drove myself to the hospital during my heart attack. I had to get coffee."

"Yeah, it was an unusual relationship. We had to have sex in my living room. Why? Like I was going to pause Baldur's Gate for her?"

"Ed, you just need to have more fun."

Saturday, July 12, 2003

Nothing to write at all on this gorgeous day when I'm inside for 10 straight hours while no one comes into the damn store, except that I made one discovery about myself:

I find that I really hate people who go to small independent retail stores to look up the retail prices of things they intend to buy on the damn internet to save five freaking dollars that they're only going to give to the freaking Post Office anyway, the weaselly little dirtballs. I wanted to garrotte this guy today who was "just pricing things, hyuk, hyuk." Grrr.

Feel better now.

Friday, July 11, 2003

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a big-budget summer action movie with the soul of a B-movie. Which is far better than, say, a big-budget summer action movie that thinks it's a Merchant-Ivory film the way The Hulk does. Like a good B-film, LXG doesn't have a lot of down time. And--excepting the slightly annoying "Quatermain's Son" subplot--illustrates character on the fly. But what separates this one from B-territory are all the perks of the A-world: mostly very good effects, superb, and I mean superb fight scenes, and a nice cast.

First off, I have to say that Peta Wilson as Mina Harker is just about my favorite cinematic female vampire ever. She's simply glorious, alternately prim and ferocious, and she visually dominates every scene she's in, towering over all the guys she kisses and bloodsucks.

Sean Connery plays himself very well here, looking like he's having lots of fun. Stuart Townsend plays Dorian Gray as a super-decadent uber-aesthete, which is to say dead-on perfect; Dorian Gray is a far more suitable character to Townsend's range than Aragorn in LOTR (the role which he was fired from after a week of shooting) would have been.

LXG isn't the best film, but I found it a lot of breezy fun. It moves so fast that you don't have time to think about how silly it is. It seems to be getting bad reviews, and I think it will be a little too esoteric for American audiences, but, what the hell--I liked it.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

The funniest thing I ever wrote in my life was when I was in fifth grade.

Fifth grade I recall as the absolute nadir of my adolescence. I was two years younger than everyone in my grade, which meant I was pretty much smaller than everyone. (Of course, God demonstrated His sense of humor later by making me 6'1" long after it could do me any good). And that particular grade, the classes were segregated by sex, so that meant that every single kid in my class was tougher than me.

One day one of the kids who regularly beat me up, by the name of Mike F., came over to hit me and I put up my arm defensively to shield myself, and his fist struck my elbow, which was bent at a very acute angle. He recoiled in pain, and promised to start hitting me again as soon as it felt better.

So a few days later Sister Regina Eileen comes into class and tells us that we have to do something for our missing classmate Mike F., who is in the hospital with a broken hand. I have no idea what he might have told people was the cause, but I knew he had to have lied about it. There was no way he couldn't have lied about it.

As a class project, she tells us that we all have to write a get-well note to Mike F. She even supplied the paper, which had a nice mimeographed Get-Well graphic on top.

I was in enough trouble in school already, and I wasn't going to disagree with her.

So I wrote:

"Dear Mike,

I hope you are feeling better. Get well soon.

Best wishes,

He never came near me or spoke to me again.

Lunch yesterday with my friend Vince Barone, who only gets to vent politically around me, so we had fun. My favorite topic was a story I'd never heard about when Timothy Leary was dying, and of all people Susan Sarandon organized some humanitarian award for the guy. Just the idea of a humanitarian award for a person who helped fry untold numbers of brains over the course of his life is pretty funny in itself.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003


This story caught my eye instantly when it appeared today because it goes to one of the major, major remaining questions from September 11th: What did happen on those incredibly tantalizing trips to Prague by Mohamed Atta on June 2, 2000, and possibly April 8, 2001? If Atta was not meeting the Iraqi “diplomat” Al-Ani, then what was he doing in Prague? Why was it so important for him to get there that he took a plane from Germany and after being refused admission because of visa problems, he went back to Germany and then returned to Prague by bus the next day? There are Czech government officials who have confirmed the meeting and others who have debunked it. There were similar differences of opinion within the American intelligence community itself, to the point where the Atta/Al-Ani meeting was not used as a justification for the recent war. But to me this story is vitally important. Then again, so is everything else about 9/11.

Instantly I was obsessed. For the first six months after 9/11, I devoured every single thing I could find on the terrorist cell that pulled it off. I would read article after article because I wanted to know how everything fit together. And I read everything, I mean everything. If you ever meet me, do not get me started on this, as I have so much of it committed to memory it’s pathetic. So, based on my obsessive research--more than anything out of fury and disgust that there was no such thing available anywhere already--I wrote up a
detailed timeline of the terrorist attacks mostly for myself, though I posted it on FR. It was an extremely rushed job (that’s what obsession will do to you), and I was careless with the html so that none of the links work. But it didn’t help. I’m still obsessed. What I would really like to see is a really good, well-researched book on the subject.

There are hundreds of 9/11 books about firemen and grief and meaning, some more peripheral than others. But none of these are useful in understanding the thing. Because what happened wasn’t a “tragedy,” it was an atrocity. And because of that, the pain of the victims doesn’t explain anything; it doesn’t give us any insight into why the atrocity happened. I am trying not to sound callous, but how people react to persecution is not even remotely as interesting to me as the mindset that needs to persecute. That’s what I’m interested in, the pathology, not the victimology. And there still isn’t one book on the plot, though there desperately needs to be one.

Bill Gertz’s
Breakdown (2002) and The Cell (2002) by John Miller and Michael Stone are not books about the terrorists per se, but rather about the failures of the American intelligence community that allowed 9/11 to happen. They both tell the story of the 9/11 cell in some detail, but they simply rewrite existing published accounts with very little apparent research in that area (although both books are valuable for their insights into the CIA and FBI).

Then we had had Jane Corbin’s Al-Qaeda: In Search of the Terror Network that Threatens the World (2002). Corbin is a BBC correspondent, and actually covered the story in detail in the fall of 2001, visiting all the places that the 9/11 terrorists lived at in America during the final year of their lives, and there is some new information, though minor. The book is actually a general history of the al Qaeda organization, but the 9/11 story takes up a third of it. Like the Miller/Stone book, Corbin’s Al-Qaeda is journalistic and is not indexed, making it less useful than it could be.

More recently we’ve seen Yosri Fouda’s Masterminds of Terror (2003). Fouda is an al-Jazeera journalist, and the book is really another al Qaeda report, though with the fullest account so far in book form of the 9/11 plot. What makes this book special is the apparently unique insights Fouda gained from having been the only reporter to have interviewed Ramzi Binalshibh (the Yemeni who was in Hamburg at the formation of the 9/11 cell and who was originally to have been the fourth 9/11 pilot) and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (the most senior al Qaeda figure captured to date) in captivity. The book is full of new details about the hijackers. The story is limited by its reliance on Binalshibh and KSM, who were after all continents away from the hijackers, but nonetheless there is so much new information that I devoured it in a day. This book really gives you a sense of the horrible religious ecstasy that these creatures lived in in the days leading up to 9/11, a state best described as a cross between disembodied hallucinogenic spirituality and a horny longing for a place in the celestial whorehouse. It’s horribly written, but it’s the best one so far.

But I remain obsessed. It’s a combination of a historian’s quest for full accuracy, a fascination born of still-seething hatred, and the most elemental instinct of self-preservation, to know how the monsters think. And there is also persisting curiosity about unanswered questions. Like the Al-Ani one, and others:

Anthrax. There are so many tantalizing links that connect the 9/11 hijackers to at least the first fatal anthrax attacks in Florida that it seems obvious that the hijackers had to be involved with the case. But we have not heard a peep from the FBI. They seem vitally invested in pinning the later NBC-New York Post-Leahy-Daschle anthrax letters on a rogue American scientist, and for all I know they may be right. But they talk about the Florida anthrax not in the slightest, and I want to know why.

The question of local assistance, and how widespread the knowledge was in certain segments of the American Muslim community. We know that, for example, the actor James Woods identified two of the 9/11 hijackers among the four suspicious men he saw on a transcontinental flight on August 1, 2001. Who were the other two men? At the final meeting of the four pilots in Las Vegas on August 15, 2001, witnesses reported several unidentified people with the six known hijackers (Atta, Al-Shehhi, Jarrah, Hanjour, Almidhar, and Al-Hazmi), including a woman. Who were they? And then there are the maddening reports of people who clearly knew something—but how did they know it? Like the Brooklyn schoolboy who taunted his teacher on September 6 that the WTC towers would not be there the following week: How did they know about it?

The stock market question. Clearly, al Qaeda or someone close enough to them to know about the plot, was playing the market before the attacks. There were massive increases in put options on United Airlines, American Airlines, Morgan Stanley, and other companies affected by the attack. Who made these orders? Was it someone from AQ, or was there a leak? Why haven’t we ever been able to find out?

Zacharias Moussaoui. It seems certain now that he was not to be the twentieth hijacker. But there is some evidence that he did have contact with the 9/11 cell. We know now that if the FBI had been able to look in Moussaoui’s laptop, they would have seen details of his wire transfers from Ramzi Binalshibh. Ten minutes worth of checking on RB would have revealed his parallel wire transfers to Atta and al-Shehhi, and would have saved 3000 lives in one instant. The 1978 Foreign Agent Surveillance Act, which denied the FBI permission to search the laptop, is slated for repeal in the upcoming Patriot Act 2, and it won’t be a moment too soon.

So for me, the news of Al-Ani’s capture fills me with delight. It’s potentially a new window into our understanding of Atta and the 9/11 terrorists, to say nothing of the massive political fallout from a solid connection between Iraq and 9/11. If it is ever verifiable that Al-Ani (and therefore Saddam) was a co-conspirator in 9/11, then anyone who ever questioned going to war against Iraq will have to change the subject.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

Management asked both our department and Property Accounting for the same information, and PA told them that it would take them two days to assemble it. We got it for them in 20 minutes. A bit of a Pyrrhic victory, though, as the information is going to be used to blow up the Consulting company that I work for. *grimaces in exactly the same way that Richard Widmark did in The Long Ships* My only hope in staying with this job is the main company's realization that we do what we do very efficiently with a fraction of the personnel (3 people vs. 20) of the Purchasing department that they have. But still, a longshot at best.

Monday, July 07, 2003

I am in a greatly amused mood today because my friend from Milan Luigi showed me his new Italian-language blog. His entry today was so funny, so wonderfully Italian, that I'm laughing whenever I think of it. Luigi was watching this primitive late-night home shopping program hosted by one guy who sells jewelry and mixes in his sales pitches with inflammatory German-hating statements for no apparent reason. ("The Germans are men without balls (senza palle), faggots(finocchi). This is historic fact, I'm not making this up--but now let me turn things over to the lovely Giovanna, who will show you some jewelry." "You, German, you call me a mafioso? Not only will I denounce you, I'll jump on you and eat your heart."). I am still laughing.

Bob is getting a long-deserved weekend off this week to go see Sheila's new grandchild in Maine, so I will be working behind the counter at Abington Game and Hobby Center, all day Saturday and Sunday, no doubt to the amusement of all our customers.

Saturday, July 05, 2003


Actually, not so much. I was up on the roof of the store today cleaning the crap out of the gutters, where sediment had so clogged the things that there were hundreds of little maple saplings growing out of them. Last month's heavy rains had left inches of black, stagnant water in the gutters that stank to high heaven. I had gloves and a trowel to scrape this stuff out and shovel it over the side onto the grass behind the store. The process took me about an hour. It was in the mid-90s with high humidity. The job of course fell to me because everyone else was either ladder-phobic or spider-phobic. Since none of my phobias had to do with ladders or creatures that might be lurking in gutters, it fell to me.

Once in a while, I am just in the mood for doing vile physical labor like that, and that should do me for a while.

Quote of the day:
"Let it be noted that N!xau [the Namibian tribesman who starred in The Gods Must Be Crazy and who died today] was a better actor than Keanu Reeves."
--anonymous poster on FR


I can't remember why I once read Bertrand Russell's The ABC of Relativity , but the only thing I remember from it today was the extended analogy he used to explain the concept: Imagine yourself in an airplane travelling over the United States on the evening of the Fourth of July. You see these random explosions of color at various locations below you, and you can start to judge the distances to each relative to each other and yourself, relative to your speed.

That's what I felt like last night driving home from my sister's house, reckoning my distance from each town along the way against the fireworks in the sky: There's Clifton Heights on my left, Collingdale way over on my right, and Springfield's loud, bright finale in the rearview. I had spent all day at my sister's place in Downingtown having the usual fun that made me wonder as usual why the hell my childhood was such a mess with such good people in my family.

But of course it would take years and years to explain the particular horrific dynamic of the house we grew up in, though my sister and I always try. Suzanne did a very nice job of summing it up: Our older brother Joe had the benefit of growing up around his two highly functional immigrant grandfathers, the alpha male German and the handy, patient Lithuanian, while Suzanne's character and mine were formed in the bizarre crucible of our nuclear family unit alone. Pretty much every ethical lesson we learned in our family was socially disastrous: If You're Not Intimidating, Prepare To Be Intimidated. Cruelty Is Best Addressed Passively. If You're Unhappy, It's The Fault Of Others. The Squeaky Wheel Gets Not Only The Grease, But Also The Right To Run You Over.

Fortunately, she and I were smart enough to figure out how destructive all of this was, so we didn't act like that, or tried our best not to. I think we were both sort of inchoate, unformed people when we left home, and we had to figure things out on our own. Suzanne accomplished this--magnificently, as you would agree if you knew them--with the way she and Tom raised their children.

She told me one story I'd never heard before about her son Matthew and what she said to him after he was humiliated at school in first grade by refusing to hit back when a girl hit him (because she had told him that boys hitting girls was wrong). And she told him how courageous and genuinely Christ-like that act was. And how proud she was that he believed in a principle like that.

All I could think of is what my father would have done in that situation, how he would have made the kid feel like a single-celled organism.

We exist, we hurtle through life with all the wounds of our collective experience. Other people enter our lives like random explosions of light. And we really can't tell where we are unless we make reference to them. They tell us where we are.

We remake and heal ourselves through our influence on others.

Friday, July 04, 2003

The thing about socialism is that its destructiveness just goes on and on. Even the most cursory look at the environmental disasters, one after the other, in the ex-Soviet Bloc countries, will tell you that. And the horrific residual environmental damage in the former Soviet bloc is paralleled by the even greater residual social damage. Reading this story today, in 2003, is simply maddening. No matter what your feelings on the subject are, the thought of someone having 16 abortions--and during the Soviet era I remember reading it was not uncommon for women to have 40 or more over a lifetime--is just nuts. It's insane.

But it's a product, as so much else, of the unintended consequences of the planned and regulated economy. In the socialist command economy, consumer products are turned out to meet established government quota, not consumer demand. And in the absence of consumer demand that shapes and defines the market, the producers will simply turn out product in the most convenient way possible. P.J. O'Rourke loves to tell the story about the Soviet shoe factory that turned out its annual production quota of 500,000 shoes on time and within budget: 500,000 size 9 men's right shoes.

In this case Soviet production of birth control devices was up to their usual atrocious standards, and as the article indicates, whatever birth control devices did actually reach the public were painful and unpleasant to use. So, abortion became the primary form of birth control in a nation of hundreds of millions. And, going on 15 years later, that awful culture is still there. No matter what your feelings are on the subject of abortion, 60 percent of all pregnancies ending in abortion is a disaster, an absolute catastrophic social failure on every level.

My point here is not to attack abortion (though I am pro-life), it's simply to point out that central planning always, always creates unintended consequences, usually enormously destructive ones. And to see--for example--the EU moving continually in the direction of ever greater central control of economic production is disheartening and scary.

Thursday, July 03, 2003

From: ATO Editor
Sent: Tuesday, July 01, 2003 9:48 PM
To: FoX
Subject: What's up?

Nailing down #5 shortly. Any idea what you want to do for 6? BTW, I wrote the Ukrainian guy and got no response. If you have any contact with him, please see if he got my email. Thanks. Steve says you are writing a piece on the Turks and Mongols. What time period/battle? Projected completion date? Have a happy Fourth!


Hi Andy. I just want to say first of all that I love your enthusiasm for ATO, and I think you are doing a great job.

I am not sure about my topic for #6. I usually come up with subjects fairly easily, so I haven’t narrowed it down to anything. I was toying with something about one of the following:

* Folklore and modern warfare. In the face of military inferiority, we get stories of Iraqi farmers shooting down Apache helicopters with one shot from an old hunting rifle; we heard similar things from the Arab-Israeli wars where Syrians claimed to have shot down Israeli jets with crossbows. The psychological implications of these fantasies.

* Without God on our side. What happens when a force ginned up by religious fervor realizes that God ain’t coming to their aid.

The article I talked about with Steve was a piece on the Battle of Angora (Ankara) in 1402, which had very little in English written about it. I had some French and German secondary sources that I was prepared to mine for interesting details. But, alas, MHQ suddenly came out with a very nice article on this battle about a year ago, which pretty much stole my thunder and killed my desire to write about the engagement in any specific way.

For future stand-alone articles, I am thinking of:

* Further research into the question of Black Jack Pershing’s reported use of pig fat on bullets against Muslim guerillas in the Philippines insurgency. The urban legends site snopes.com has an excellent article on this subject but I think there is more primary research to be done in contemporary newspapers and newsmagazines. This one would have to wait until the fall when I have better access to the excellent periodical stacks at Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford, where I do the bulk of my research. I can’t promise that I will come up with anything, but I am very curious and am prepared to dig very deeply.

* The Arab conquests in trans-Saharan Africa that set up the chattel slavery culture that endured until the coming of the British and French in the nineteenth century. Because of various political biases, this is at the present a sort of historical black hole that I would like to examine in more detail.

* More generally, something about the centuries-long conflicts between the Ottomans and the Safavid Persians over what is now Iraq. Visually these battles must have been spectacular, but there has been precious little in English on them.

I really, really wanted to do something with Eugen’s article but it was so spare I knew I would essentially have to write it myself. Which I wouldn’t mind, but in order to do it I’d need some extensive research materials, and there is almost nothing in English on the engagements discussed in the article, and Eugen wasn’t forthcoming with Russian-language sources. So I reluctantly let it drop.


Wednesday, July 02, 2003

First of all, I have sort of been nominated for an award, sort of. The first year of Against The Odds was nominated for a
Charles Roberts Award as Best Professional Magazine in its field--in all ATO was nominated for four awards.

And I saw T3 tonight. There were things I liked about it:

* The over the top cartoon violence-with-virtually-no-consequences, executed with total fun and gusto. It was so reminiscent of vintage Warner Brothers animation that you half expected the TX's weapons to have ACME DEATH RAY written on them. All to the good.

*The glorious face and form of Kristianna Loken, which director Jonathan Mostow lovingly devotes himself to.

* Arnold himself, who is really perfect in the role, long in the tooth or not. That slit-eyed look he gives is unique, and it absolutely dead-on captures the character.

The not so good:

* Some of the more persistent genre cliches: Why is it that, if you're this immensely strong creature that is trying to kill someone, do you get your hands on that person...and then throw him across the room? Huh? And I really have to question the one where you can hit someone in the face with enough strength to physically lift them off the ground and throw them twenty feet across the room--while somehow not decapitating or breaking the neck of that person. I really hate that one.

* The overweening amount of jokes. "I need your____" is funny once or twice, but over and over it becomes deadening. Too many jokes is a franchise-killer (ref. the Roger Moore Bond films)

But my main problem with this one is that it lacks the sense of wonder that the Cameron Terminators had. Every scene in the first two movies had me waiting for the next one, but here I found myself sitting back in the "okay, entertain me" mode, which is always death to an action film.

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Ed and his son Billy and I took off at 4 in the morning Thursday for Origins. I had stayed up all night and was barely coherent for the trip out, though I could only manage 45 minutes of sleep total in the eight-hour drive, my head bouncing limply against the webbing of my shoulder harness.

Billy was as annoying as he usually is, and as instantly forgivable. Early on I made an obvious joke about a sign we had seen for Pony League Baseball, and after that he would glare at me every now and then and shake his head and mutter: "Ponies...playing...baseball."

Billy was born with Cystic Fibrosis, and every day must take a daunting regimen of drugs and enzymes to keep alive, and every night has to suck on this noisy inhaler machine to clear out his lungs. When he was born, the doctors said he could be expected to live to be perhaps 20, but that has been pushed indefinitely into the future. He's 14 now. Ed
unavoidably dotes on him--Billy stayed in our room as much so Ed could make sure he kept up his regimen as to save money--and lets him talk back way too much, but I can't criticize.

We got to the show before it opened at 1 PM on Thursday, and we were directly across from Paizo Publishing booth, which had a new
Dwarven Forge prototype on display: A 25mm-scale (approximately 1/64) Roman Coliseum. Available around Christmas, it's going to cost a fortune at retail (Stefan said something between $300 and $350), but I have got to get one for my store. Even if we didn't have people coming in every week looking for some kind of miniature Coliseum, I would still want it because, well, I'm that much of a geek.

There was an entire other Clash of Arms crew already there, and the booth had been already set up. Basically it was Charlie and myself behind the booth taking the money, and all the other adults doing demos all day, while the kids played games. We were busy much of the time, even on Friday when I had no voice because of the hotel air conditioning and I had to croak out prices to people as best I could.

One sees people in this industry that one sees nowhere else in the world:

Ryan Johnson, in my opinion the Ed Wood of the adventure game industry. He started off the show with his table piled high with his now-infamous Prison Bitch card game. Last year, he was in the heart of the historical games area, but this year--in my opinion because of the controversy surrounding PB--he was exiled to a part of the dealers' hall that, had the hall been a simulacrum of the North American continent, would have had him on the northern coast of Hudson Bay. By Friday, all of the PB games were gone, presumably because the convention organizers objected. By Sunday he was gone completely, whether voluntarily or involuntarily I couldn't tell.

Steve Jackson, walking around the hall with his odd swaying walk, as if being pushed back by all the applause he expected to receive at any moment.

Chris O'Neill, who used to work in the warehouse at Chessex pushing carts around and making moon eyes at my niece, now has his own cheesy photocopy game company and only communicates with me with the single word "Duuuude."

My old employer Don Reents from
Chessex, with whom I get along much better these days, as we can't stand the same people.

And then there are the attendees at these shows, who make me look like William Powell.

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