Brandon Starr's blog. Updated daily since March 2003. Welcome. Make yourself comfortable. Have a hot chocolate.

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It's your fault now, and don't blame me when it all goes terribly, terribly wrong.

New fiction story! Click here for "The Voice of Cassandra."

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Brandon Starr is available in small, medium, and large. Contents may settle during shipping. Allow four to six weeks for delivery. Open carefully; contents under pressure. Do not incinerate. May be habit-forming--do not take if you are gassy or under the influence of mimosas. Improved; now non-staining. Ships in all colors, except puce. Prompt refund if not satisfied--simply return unused portion. All queries promptly ignored. Complaints resolved with deep, gut-blasting laughter, followed by posting complaints on nearest public wall. Not responsible for sunburns. All your base are belong to us. Act now. Beware cheap imitations. Insist on the original--Brandon Starr.

Update notification by email available below.

Some fun/useful/useless links:

The Internet Movie Database

My cousin back from Iraq, and how it changed me (my current favorite entry on this blog)

My product page

Fun blogs:

infinitus opinio

Siren's Song

the mechanical jive

The Strange World

Thunderstorms in the Imajica


Elven Sarah

Random Musings (Catcher)

Certifiable Princess (Sarah 2)

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Friday, April 16, 2004
Late to the party in Queens

I've only recently discovered "The King of Queens"

For those who haven't seen it, it's stand-up comedian* Kevin James's sitcom.  Take one part "The Honeymooners," one part "All In the Family," and one part "Fawlty Towers," mix well, and serve with cocktail weenies.

I love the sort of crapola that some P.R. person had to write for the official web site--check out the link above.  My favorite:

Set in the working-class suburb of Queens, New York, the show follows Doug Heffernan (Kevin James), an amiable delivery man, and his wife, spitfire legal secretary Carrie Heffernan (Leah Remini), as they explore the everyday challenges of love, life, family and marriage. (end quote)

Man, is that ever horrible to read.  Boring, cliche, uninformative drivel.  I'll bet not one new viewer has ever come to the show by reading that page.

Anyway, it's not going to replace "Friends" or "Monty Python's Flying Circus" in my heart any time soon, but here's the deal.  The writing is solid, the acting is good, and the situations are funny.  Anyway, here's how I see the connections to the abovementioned classic sitcoms:

"The Honeymooners"--this one's so obvious it's even mentioned in the drivel page I linked to.  Working-class man, his wife, a couple of buddies, some physical humor, and very very formulaic plot-driven comedy.  Seriously, the formulas are really down to the last dot on the last "i."  But you know what?  Formulas become formulas for a reason:  they work.  Sure, I can see the next plot twist coming quite a bit of the time, but it doesn't really spoil the ride.

"All In the Family"--like that show, there's an aging family head with a loud mouth and a lot of offbeat ideas, who stubbornly sticks to them.  Unlike that show, he's not the main character, nor is there a social-commentary aspect to it.  I must say, Jerry Stiller, who plays "Queen's" patriarch, is more grating than funny a lot of the time.  He makes a lot of strange acting choices as to pauses and gestures which I think are supposed to seem funnier than they end up being.  He is definitely the weak link in the show--but, because he was on "Seinfeld," he'll never be kicked off.  Also like "All In the Family," a lot of comedy takes place during arguments.

"Fawlty Towers"--probably the best short-run sitcom ever, the John Cleese classic has quite a few similarities to this sitcom.  The main character is a married man who screws up a lot, and his wife has to get things back under control.  Because she's the governing factor in the household, she often seems shrewish or just plain bitchy, but also has a lot of funny scenes because of it.  Other people on the show--coworkers, friends, neighbors--are only lightly fleshed out as characters, and are the objects of the main character's crazy schemes, mistakes, and general screw-ups.  One is tempted to say that Kevin James's Doug character is like a male Lucy Ricardo, and maybe that's what they're going for.  But he's really a lot like Basil Fawlty--completely flawed, unable to admit a mistake, and with a serious amoral streak that gets him in a lot of trouble.  Parallels could also be drawn to Homer Simpson or Al Bundy, but I'll take any chance to mention "Fawlty Towers."

Anyway, this is a lot of writing for what is really a lightweight entertainment.  Enjoyable, solid, formulaic, light.  That's "The King of Queens."

*Kevin James was a good standup.  I don't know why I never checked out his sitcom, as I liked his act.  Having said that, there seems to be only three ways to get on a sitcom nowadays, and "The King of Queens" features all three:

1)  Be a standup comedian (Kevin James)

2)  Be attractive (Leah Ramini)

3)  Have a long history in the business (Jerry Stiller).

What about talent?  Yeah, I guess there's a place for that.  But it's not enough to get you on a show, it seems.  When's the last ugly guy or gal who was cast without having been a standup or having solid previous comedy work?  The closest I could come was both Michael Richards and Jason Alexander on "Seinfeld."  And you know what?  The acting talent was a huge part of the success of that show.  (Julia Louis-Dreyfus was both attractive and on "Saturday Night Live.")  So, it's a shame that more risks aren't taken with casting on sitcoms.

Posted at 12:29 pm by brandonstarr
Your thoughts?  

Thursday, April 15, 2004
French to pay for British dentistry

British local councillor to organize group to go to France for tooth-fillings

There are a few really sad things about this:

1)  It's basically competing noncompetitiveness.  Both Britain and France have socialized medicine.  Real competition, with no government interference, would ensure an adequate supply of dentists and keep prices low by competition--and would provide competitive pressure for dentists to keep up on their skills and technology, too.
2)  Even given that both Britain and France will continue to have socialized medicine, now French taxpayers will be helping subsidize these British citizens' teeth.

3)  A couple of months ago I linked to a report showing that in some areas of Britain, there were lines around the block for those few dentists left who would take low-paying government-subsidized patients.  This is just more evidence that their system isn't working.

4)  Buckle, the politician, says "treatment appears to be cheaper in France because there is greater competition for trade between dentists and they receive much larger government subsidies."  I doubt the competition is really any greater, but I have no doubt that larger government subsidies--which is simply taking from all to give to some--would be a reason for dentists to at least provide service.  But it doesn't give any incentive to improve their practices or keep their technology up.

5)  Because the politician calls the trip to France the "Tooth Ferry," the story gets a hook and is written up.  Where?  In the "Offbeat" section.  Great.  The media finally prints some evidence about how horrible socialism is, and it only gets written up by accident, and then ghettoized to the "yuk-yuk" section of the news.

Posted at 10:30 am by brandonstarr
Comments (1)  

Wednesday, April 14, 2004
Satire rules

People mistaking "The Onion" for real news source

If you haven't seen The Onion before, it's a hilarious deadpan fake-news web site and more.

It's pure satire.  It often makes you think about an issue while you laugh at the fake-news version.

But, of course, there are those who take the stories as true.  Some are lazy.  Most are irrationalists* who can't tell truth from fiction any more.  Read the story.  Especially on page 2, you'll see what I mean.

Check it out.  Oh, and check out The Onion.

Satire:  it's like a scrub-brush for your brain.  And it'll help you keep your brain clean and sparkly, unless you've let it rust completely through.

* Read:  religious people.

Posted at 11:47 am by brandonstarr
Your thoughts?  

Tuesday, April 13, 2004
Funny stuff of the day

Ill will press:  home of the swearing squirrel.

If you don't mind swearing in your cartoons, this is hilarious.  I haven't yet seen them all, but so far, "Fat-kins diet" and "small, medium, large" are funny stuff.

Oh, though it's not in the two I mentioned, some have violence, too.  So, don't watch if you don't like violence, either--except the two above, which are fine.  They just have the f*ck-talking cartoon squirrel.*

*The squirrel is named "Foamy."  Though "small, medium, large" was an early episode, the name seems to predate it.  I don't know where it comes from. 

Posted at 06:10 pm by brandonstarr
Your thoughts?  

Silver (warning) bells

An interesting article theorizing about the silver market

You'll likely need some background before reading the article.

But first, full disclosure:  I have a long position in silver, specifically silver miner SSRI.

Here's the background on silver.  It is indeed a precious metal.  But it's also an industrial metal.  The famous one is the silver used in Kodak-style film, but it's being increasingly used in other areas.

Here's the rub.  For a few years now, the supply being pulled out of the ground is LESS THAN the amount being used by industry.

Now, basic economics tells you:  supply low, demand high, prices go up.  Right?


Prices go up UNLESS they are being pulled down by other forces.  Here's the deal:

Silver is a pretty small market.  Peanuts compared to U.S. government Treasury bonds, or the stock market.  Small enough that a couple of rich Texans, the Hunt brothers, nearly cornered the market in the early 1980s, causing silver to shoot from about $5 to about $50 in a few months before crashing right back down.

This market is small enough that COMEX, the place to go if you're a big investor looking to place a pretty-big multimillion-dollar bet on the direction of silver prices, could be moveable.

COMEX holds silver, and silver bullion and futures are based on COMEX prices.  But where it gets ugly is that COMEX can lease its silver out.  Someone leases it out, pays interest, and puts it back.  Now, one way to profit would be to lease it out at one price, sell it on the open market (then pay the lease interest), wait for the price to come down, buy the silver on the open market, and return the silver to COMEX, closing out the lease.  It's like short-selling a stock.

The differences are three:  one, the lease interest on silver is extremely low--often less than 1% annually.  And the margin requirements historically have been a lot softer than for stocks, meaning little money down for lots of leverage.  Plus, as far as I can determine there is no "up-tick" rule like the one for stocks which keeps short-sellers from running a stock down again and again and again until the market gives up.

What this means is that the silver consumers--the silver-using industry--both has a motive and a means to keep silver prices low.  Whenever the price of silver rises, just borrow a bunch, sell it on the open market until the price is driven down, then when the smoke clears, buy it back.  Not only will it keep the commodity you need for your business cheap, you can profit by it too.

Well, it's worked.  Despite years of demand outpacing supply, and the amounts of above-ground silver becoming increasingly low, the price of silver hasn't gone up in ten years above $6, with the exception of one short spurt that didn't make it to $7 in 1998.  (Go down the page to the bottom-right chart for the long-term perspective on prices.)*

Until recently, that is.

Silver popped above $6, $7, and $8.  In three months--a quick move.  Just the last couple of days, however, despite no real news, silver has been taking it on the chin.  It's down from $8.15 to $7.35.  In other words, it gave up one-third of the three-month move in two days.  Again, on no news.

Do you smell the leasers leasing, big-time, desperately trying to get silver back down?  I do.  If you click on the first link above, you'll see some charts.  Go to the bottom one.

It shows the net amount short-versus-long for the industries who use silver.  Unlike the other industries (in the charts above the silver chart), the silver industry is ALWAYS short silver, trying to keep the price down.  And when the price goes up, shorting spikes BIG TIME.  The 17-to-1 short-to-long spike was in 1998 to get the price back down below $6, and the recent shorting has already been trying to drop the price of silver.  The recent shorting hasn't reached the 17-to-1 heights, but already is a wider spike than that 1998 pop.

Maybe it'll work again.  Maybe my silver stock will suffer.  But I tell you what:  at some point, there will be so little silver above ground that all the shorting in the world won't keep the price down.  The pressure on price will build up, and unless some unseen source of new silver is found, or industrial uses decline, prices will have to go to the upside.  Big time.

Again, this is just the opinion of one who's already positioned himself to benefit if and when prices do go up.  And the lease shorting could conceivably keep prices down for a long time.**  But not, I think, forever.

*If you've read this far, you now have enough background to read the first linked article.  One detail:  "the jig is up" is tangentially referring to the idea that silver shorting no longer works, and prices will continue to the upside, possibly even to the point of forcing a "short squeeze"--forced buying-back of silver to close out increasingly painful short positions.

**The article mentions that COMEX recently raised margin requirements on silver leasing again, which says that at least there is some concern on the part of the market-makers that the leasing is amounting to pure manipulation.

Posted at 09:13 am by brandonstarr
Your thoughts?  

Monday, April 12, 2004
My cousin, back from Iraq--and how it changed me

I spoke with my cousin a few days ago.  He's just back from Iraq.  He was stationed in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.

I guess he was lucky in a way.  He got out just before things started really going nutty in Iraq again.

But it's a lot worse there than the media has been letting on.  This is yet another reason my mind has been changing about Iraq, and it's time I wrote about it.

My cousin (I won't give his name here, because he says he may have to go back in six months for another six-month hitch--after being there more than a year) drove trucks.

Big trucks.

Trucks so big they are designed to carry an M1 tank.  Or an 80-ton halftrack.  Or two hummers.  Enclosed.  It has forty tires.  It weighs 80 tons--just the tractor.  Tractor, trailer, and cargo can add up to 200 tons.  If you are sitting in the driver's seat, you look down on the roofs of 18-wheeler trucks.  Trucks which stopped like a train, needing hundreds of yards of safety distance between itself and the next truck in the convoy.

Like I said, big trucks.

Anyway, things aren't so nice and neat as the media lets on.  The camp he was in was mortared regularly.  Sometimes, they'd get intelligence that an attack was coming.  This just meant less sleep than usual.

The heat in the cab of the trucks is intense.  He saw it get to more than 150 degrees Fahrenheit.  When it's that hot, you sip water all the time.  150 degree water, you sip like tea.  One time, he made the mistake of pouring his water over his head--it gave him first-degree burns.  But they don't often open the windows.  Why?

At first, the Iraqis thought the big trucks were bulletproof.  Then they found out they weren't.  That's when they started attacking the trucks big-time.  And that's why he didn't keep the window down.  In fact, if a tire blew, he never stopped to fix it.  He just kept a count in his head, starting with forty and working down.  He could easily go four, five, or more blowouts and not stop.

If a stop had to happen--and the trucks are notoriously hard-to-maintain, especially in Iraq--the whole convoy of trucks would stop, and everyone would get out to do security.  You hoped.

Trouble is, they don't do truck driving like a long-haul trucker in the U.S.  The sleep rules rigorously enforced on private citizens is ignored by an army in combat.  He'd often go eight hours, nap two or four, then do another eight hours.  Over twenty-four hours, he'd often do twenty hours driving.  There are two guys in the cab, but the rider has to keep a lookout on the passenger side--they don't dare fall asleep, in case of attack.  So when a convoy stopped, you hoped everyone was alert enough to stay awake.  It often didn't happen, especially out of the city.  Even my cousin, who was a leader of his group, sometimes couldn't stay awake when stopped.  Once the convoy left without him.  He woke up all alone.

That is bad.  He got the truck moving, and just hooked up with the next convoy he could find.  Better safe than alone, even if you don't end up where you're supposed to be.

The insurgents would try to stop the trucks--the truck's best defense was its immense momentum.  When stopped, they became more vulnerable.  As the year ground on, and things became more tense, they would stop under fewer and fewer situtations.

At first, the idea was to keep your face among the Iraqis.  So folks were allowed to come close when the trucks were stopped.  Then some attacks came.  So kids only were allowed near the trucks.  They'd give them the candy from their MREs.  Then some kids--"really little kids" as he put it--were putting magnetic bombs under their trucks.  So, no one was allowed close.  The soldiers were now separate from the Iraqi citizens.

My cousin was given a slingshot.  The candy once given to the kids became a very effective deterrent.  When someone came too close, but he didn't feel it was time to lock a round in the chamber of his rifle, he'd fire a hard candy from the surgical-rubber sling.

Once someone stepped up and reached through the triangular window by my cousin's feet.  He didn't know what the guy was after, but he was in danger.  He kicked the guy's arm with his steel-toed boots so hard he heard a snap, and the guy yanked his arm out.

Sometimes a car or truck would try to force him off the road.  My cousin would have to make a decision--and he always decided for the safety of himself and his unit.  He sideswiped many cars into ditches after they tried something funny.  Similarly, he didn't stop in a town for something as prosaic as a red light.  He hit the horn a bunch of times, looked around as best he could, but mostly, he just kept right on through the intersection.

It seems a fair metaphor for the entirety of Bush policy in Iraq.  Don't stop, don't follow the usual traffic laws, just keep going, and hope everything will end up okay.

I hope this helps you understand part of why my views on Iraq have been so much in flux lately.  Of course I still love and support the brave soldiers of my beloved country.  Of course I will support my cousin however I can if he indeed has to go back into the chaos of Tikrit, or anywhere else.  But things aren't as cozy as the media has made it seem.  Remember, all this is from before the recent insurrection in the three cities.  This is all just business-as-usual stuff going on on a constant basis.  Constant danger.  Constant strain.  Constant attacks.  From a minority of the populace?  Possibly.  Even probably.  But the soldiers are now separated from the citizens, and I don't see how you can grow friendly with someone with guns with whom you never talk.  And I fail to see how Bush is going to get us out of this mess.

I need to stop writing now.  I can't see the screen.

Posted at 07:09 pm by brandonstarr
Comments (4)  

Sorry, "Weird Al"

"Weird Al" Yankovic's parents both found dead

As a lover of comedy, I grew up listening to Al's early work.  I still consider myself a fan, even though I've hardly heard anything since "Polka Party."

I was sorry to hear about his loss.  If anything I've read about him is true, and I've read a fair amount over the years, he was quite close to his folks.  It must be a terrible blow, doubly so that both were lost in the same fireplace accident.

When I left college and stopped listening to popular music, I also pretty much stopped listening to Al.  They go hand in hand.  I'm sure there are a lot of kids listening to Al nowadays who aren't interested in the least in his early Michael Jackson parodies or his first hit, "Another One Rides the Bus."  But just because I stopped keeping up with his music doesn't mean I stopped liking him as an entertainer.

Al has never been able to break out of his parody mode.  Even though every album is about 50% parodies, 50% original humor songs, it's always the parodies that get the airplay, the videos, and the attention.  However, there are a couple of very good originals in his repertoire.  I like "Dare to be Stupid" (a minor non-parody hit) plus "You Don't Love Me Any More" and "The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota."  Plus, I love his reverse parodies--where the lyrics are the same, but put to a frenetic, accordion-driven polka beat.  His "Hot Rocks Polka" is especially good, because it is all classic Rolling Stones songs.

If you haven't seen Al's movie, "UHF," you might check it out.  The comedy is extremely broad, and not every joke strikes gold, but watch for Michael Richards in an early, Kramer-esque role.  (Some people claim the role is NOT like Kramer, but sorry, it's basically Kramer with about 30 fewer IQ points.  The role is especially similar to the early "Seinfeld" episodes, when Richards and the writers were still finding the character.)  There are some good parodies, and a few genuine belly-laughs to be had.

Feel better soon, Al.  And while I'm at it, thanks for the laughs over the years.

Posted at 12:16 pm by brandonstarr
Your thoughts?  

Did you know this about Condoleezza Rice?

Bush isn't the only member of his Administration with strong oil ties.  Condoleezza Rice served on the board of Chevron for nine years and had a Chevron oil tanker named after her.

The tanker doesn't fly under a U.S. flag, though.  It's registered in the Bahamas, one of several countries which offer low tax rates and extremely minimal inspections to all comers.  Not that that was Rice's personal decision, though, I'm sure.

Chevron had the ship renamed in April 2001.  Was it to stop the perception of a too-cozy connection to the W. Bush White House?  Who knows, but that's what it sure seems like.

I didn't know that until I heard it somewhere on the radio.  I looked it up, and sure enough, there it is.

Posted at 07:18 am by brandonstarr
Your thoughts?  

Sunday, April 11, 2004
Movie pics for my sis, part three and final

OK, this hasn't raised a single comment in my first two parts.  But I've only got one part to go, and I've been busy today, so it makes a quick entry.  Here goes part three of my suggestions to my sister, in the broad-based "classic" genre and biopics.  Also, since this was a list for my sister, who was thinking that she didn't have a great background on movies made before her teen years, as a completion move I included a list of films that I enjoyed in the last ten years, plus a list of nearly-there films that almost made my full write-up.

So, here goes:

"Classic"--usually dramas, but also any other major, iconic film that didn't fit in easily elsewhere.

THE GODFATHER:  Considered by many the best film of all time, often tied with GODFATHER II.  Amazing acting, powerfully scripted and directed.  It's a film about a family and the family business of crime.

CITIZEN KANE:  This is the reason not everyone thinks THE GODFATHER is the best movie ever.  Orson Welles writes, directs, produces, and stars in the lead role in this ground-breaking movie.  Many film techniques are pioneered right in this very film.  Follow the story of Kane, a man richer and more powerful than any other of his time--yet somehow his own life slips through his fingers.  Pacing somewhat slow by today's standards, but driven by the immortal question, "Who is Rosebud?"

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?:  Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton draw a young couple into their world of emotional pain.  Sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing barbed comments to each other during the increasingly uncomfortable dinner party lead to the revelation of their deepest, darkest secrets.

Biopics--films about actual people.  May be partly mythologized or fictionalized.

PATTON:  George C. Scott in the title role.  Oscar-winning performance by Scott makes the story of the complex, egotistical World War II general sizzle.  Several iconic moments, including the speech in front of the immense flag, Patton firing back at an incoming, strafing German fighter plane with only his pistol, and his joyous moment when he realizes how he can beat his counterpart:  "Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I READ YOUR BOOK!"

GANDHI:  Ben Kingsley in the title role.  An amazing film about the struggle for India's independence from British rule.  Even more powerful in today's environment of terrorism, since Gandhi insisted on using only nonviolent tactics--successfully.

ED WOOD:  Johnny Depp in the title role.  Fun, quirky film directed by Tim Burton ("Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands," "Batman").  The story of the "worst director ever," told with humor and affection.  Great acting by Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Bill Murray.



TOY STORY 2 (I cry during one song, every time, I swear)
THE MATRIX (pretend the two sequels were never made)


FULL METAL JACKET (especially the first forty minutes, during training)
DIE HARD (this is the movie so good it made a million "Die Hard on a" movies--for example, SPEED is "Die Hard on a bus;" UNDER SIEGE is "Die Hard on a ship;" even PHONE BOOTH is "Die Hard in a phone booth!")




Posted at 06:10 pm by brandonstarr
Comments (6)  

Saturday, April 10, 2004
What bothers me about Rice's testimony

Ms. Rice presented the picture of a government utterly useless in preventing the 9/11 attacks.

I understand perfectly that the attacks are the responsibility of the criminals who planned and carried them out.  But Rice says,

Yet, as your hearings have shown, there was no silver bullet that could have prevented the 9/11 attacks. In hindsight, if anything might have helped stop 9/11, it would have been better information about threats inside the United States, something made difficult by structural and legal impediments that prevented the collection and sharing of information by our law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
So the attacks came.
(end quote)

No magic bullet?  So the attacks came?  That's it?  That's all there is to it?

In a better administration, there would be a lot more feeling for those who were killed in the crimes of 9/11.  Instead, Rice here is playing duck-and-weave.  She's hoping her boss keeps his job in November, and nothing else.  No apologies, no offers of resignation, no assignment of blame in the failure to tear down the "structural and legal impediments that prevented the collection and sharing of information."  Note that the "structural and legal impediments" are the subjects of the clause; they are the ones who "prevented the collection and sharing of information," not some person, such as herself, or the President.  Just nice, anonymous impediments doing what impediments do.

Note the use of the phrase "no magic bullet."  This is just magical thinking, of the kind often used by the religious.  It's along the lines of "God's will."  Ah well, there was no magic bullet; it was inevitable; it was fate.

Bull.  There was nothing inevitable about the destruction of two of the world's most famous buildings.  There is no fate except that which we make.  Hell, even the fourth plane wasn't able to execute its terror mission, due to the speedy flow of information via cell phone.  Those passengers took things into their own hands to try to save themselves, and at the very least saved hundreds of lives who would have been lost on the ground had they done nothing.

No silver bullet?  "So the attacks came?"  These are the words of people who don't want to face up to their own failure.

At least Mr. Clark had the decency to apologize.

Posted at 05:36 pm by brandonstarr
Comments (7)  

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