Thursday, March 29, 2007

lolcats

One day, cultural historians will write volumes about the emergence of captioned cat pictures--or "lolcats" as they are known in the vernacular--and deconstruct at length their significance, especially with respect to the gentrification of leet-speak, and muse upon their sublime comedic genius.

Then, and only then, will Scholastic Books finally start offering some more interesting posters. You know what I'm talking about.

Meanwhile, here's a cat and a rabbit to brush up your Shakespeare.

Enjoy.



~CKL

Monday, March 26, 2007

"It's Raining 300 Men"

I love video mash-ups.



Speaking of 300, over at Kung Fu Monkey, screenwriter John Rogers has an interesting perspective on the arguably "anti-American" sentiments that keep popping up in the movie--the relevant post is subtitled "Why does King Leonidas hate Private Ryan?" Provocative stuff.

Personally, I'm happy to accept 300 as the lighthearted romp that it is. Sure, it wants to be all macho and loaded with gravitas and artfully-story-within-a-story, but there just isn't that much there. It gets the job done, but apart from the visual effects--which are absolutely stunning--doesn't break any new ground in the narrative department. Nothing wrong with that, but don't make it out to be more than it is.

I'm hoping the director, Zack Snyder, digs a little deeper with his next project: the also-often-declared-unfilmable Watchmen. Drool.

~CKL

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Use(less) Tax

As Wikipedia tells us, "use tax is ... assessed upon 'tax free' tangible personal property purchased by a resident of the assessing state for use, storage or consumption of goods in that state (not for resale), regardless of where the purchase took place." Not all states have this ridiculous tax. Feel free to stop reading if you're not a California resident and don't care about how insane this thing is.

The state government sometimes collects use tax directly from an out-of-state merchant, but because there are so many retailers, and the list of taxable goods changes so often, the government (at least in California) leaves it up to the individual consumer to pay the taxes he owes. Starting in 2004, they also provided a handy line on Form 540 so people could include it with their annual income tax returns. How nice and convenient.

I'm pretty sure almost nobody in California actually pays the correct use tax as required by this crazy law, and those who pay anything at all only do it out of fear that the law will actually be enforced someday and they'll be slapped with a penalty.

I quote from the California State Board of Equalization's Use Tax FAQ:
Is the California use tax new?

No. The California use tax law became effective on July 1, 1935. [my emphasis -CKL] Section 6201 of the Revenue and Taxation Code established the use tax to eliminate the price disadvantage of California businesses when California consumers purchase taxable merchandise from out-of-state retailers. [gee, protectionist much? -CKL]

Legislation was passed in 2003 allowing a use tax line to be added to California's income tax returns. This change makes it easier for consumers to report and pay use tax on their purchases. Several other states allow taxpayers to report use tax on their state income tax returns.

Let me break that down for you: if California wanted to go to the trouble, they could prosecute virtually every taxpayer in the state for use tax evasion over the last sixty years. And the penalty includes interest on any use tax you didn't pay in the past.

This was a bad idea in 1935, and it's an even worse idea now, with the proliferation of mail-order retailers, not to mention tourism. Do you really expect people to analyze every single one of their purchases made on an out-of-state business trip, on vacation, or on the Web, to determine whether those items incur use tax in their home state, and if so, calculate and pay that? Are you high?

I wouldn't want to be the test case for this, but the argument against this law seems obvious: by shifting the bookkeeping burden to individual taxpayers, the state government is basically admitting that it's an unreasonable amount of work to keep track of these taxes. And even if the state did decide to go after someone, how is the prosecution going to calculate the amount owed? That's right: they're going to guess.

I feel sorry for any accountant who's actually had to sift through his client's receipts for an entire year to determine the use tax for out-of-state purchases. If anyone should lobby for getting rid of this ill-conceived gouge, it's them.

Fortunately, there are some things exempt from California use taxes:
[Section 6380]

SPACE FLIGHT PROPERTY - The sale or use of specified qualified property for use in space flight, including an orbital space facility, space propulsion system, space vehicle, satellite, or space station of any kind, or any property which is placed or used aboard any such system, including fuel adapted and used exclusively for space flight is exempt from sales and use tax.

Yeah, I'm sure Billy Bob Thornton is real happy about that.

~CKL

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Render Unto Caesar

D and I did our income taxes today, and it turns out we owe Uncle Sam about a third less than we thought we were going to. Woo hoo! The bad news is, because we paid so much tax for 2006 overall, we're going to have to make estimated tax payments in 2007 to avoid an underpayment penalty in 2008. But that's a headache for another day.

I can understand why people complain about having to do taxes, and why so many choose to hire accountants or other professionals to do it for them, but it's not really that hard--just tedious. Let's face it, the math isn't difficult; the problem is the paperwork, the tax code and all its various convolutions, which--to be fair--are probably required to keep things straight after a couple hundred years of legislation.

After all that, we watched the series finale of Rome tonight. A finer show we may not see on television for some time. It also puts things into perspective, to think about what still worries us two thousand years after Augustus Caesar rose to power, and what stories people two millennia hence might tell of our time. War? Politics? Love? Friendship? I hope the human race is still around then to ask questions.

~CKL

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Oh, so NOW you want Linux?

Blogged today on CNET: "According to Novell ads, Linux is a cute girl who needs a haircut." Novell, which sells machines pre-installed with SUSE Linux, has created their own ads parodying Apple's brilliant "Mac vs. PC" TV spots.

The Novell ad is nothing special, but the other links from the blog post are fascinating--especially the 1996 comparison of PC and Mac users (denim shirt? really?) and the international versions of Apple's ads. For example, compare the UK/Ireland "Network" spot (page 1, far right) to the American version (page 4, third from the right); the premise is the same, but the execution and tone are substantially different. Romance may be universal, but comedy isn't always so.

And for the record, I don't think Linux needs a haircut.

~CKL

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

How Buffy Changed My Life

I just entered Dark Horse Comics' "Buffy the Vampire Slayer is My Life" essay contest, and I don't expect to win, because my 215 words aren't really on-topic. But it's what I felt at the time, so here's my entry, warts and all:
I don't believe in God.
I don't believe in the Devil.
I don't believe in supernatural, magical, or occult forces.

But I believe in Buffy.

I believe in good and evil, and I believe you can do one while being the other. I believe in black and white and all the shades of gray and every other color in between. I believe that actions have consequences, that friends matter at least as much as family, that the world is not lost and I am not lost within it.

I believe in the power of a story to tell the truth. I believe that what we know about the universe, about ourselves, will never be more than a miniscule drop in the vast ocean of all existence. But I believe that those drops do sparkle. I believe we should never stop fighting for life and love.

I believe imagination is more important than knowledge.

I believe that puny humans can make a difference. I believe that no struggle is futile which has courage in its heart. I believe that every bit of light we bring to the endless dark is a good thing, a sacred thing, and maybe the only thing that matters.

I believe that one girl can change the world.

I believe in Buffy.

What I should have said was:
I didn't have much interest in fantasy before Buffy. Sure, I'd read some H.P. Lovecraft in high school, enjoyed a little Stephen R. Donaldson, even taken a college course on vampires (where I actually earned credit for watching Blacula. No joke).

But I was always devoted to science fiction, and hard sf at that--Asimov and Niven and Big Ideas, spaceships and robots and aliens. None of that hand-waving D&D crap for me. Which is not to say that I didn't respect the fantasy genre. I'd read The Hobbit and some Conan stories, and I recognized that it just wasn't for me.

And then, in 1999, I saw "Earshot."

The episode was written by Jane Espenson and originally scheduled to air in May. On April 20th, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School with duffel bags full of explosives and firearms and killed thirteen people before killing themselves.

The WB thought it would be insensitive and irresponsible to air a TV show about high school violence so soon after the tragedy, and shelved the episode. (They also later pulled the season finale, "Graduation Day, Part Two," for similar reasons.) I admit that's what first caught my interest--not anything about the content or quality of the show itself, just the controversy surrounding it. But then I watched the episode, and it was the most authentic, moving, funny, painful, and thrilling thing I'd seen in a long time.

I was hooked. I watched Buffy's fourth season religiously. I bought a region-free DVD player and box sets of the first three seasons from Amazon UK, and my then-girlfriend, now-wife D and I burned through them, sometimes watching four episodes in one night. We laughed, we cried, and we loved every minute of it, from the opening chords of the theme song to the final "Grr Argh" over the Mutant Enemy logo.

We watched Angel, too, and I became more interested in fantasy. My first novel was about werewolves (of a sort). I learned that a good story isn't just about "what happens next," though that is part of it, and it doesn't depend on fact or scientific rigor, though both of those help set the scene.

A good story tells the truth and takes us to strange and scary and wonderful places. It's not always what we want to hear, but it can be what we need to know. I don't think I truly understood that before living through those seven years of Buffy's troubles and triumphs.

That's what I should have said. But it's more than 250 words.

~CKL

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

300

This is the R-rated, explicit-graphic-content version of the trailer for the movie opening tomorrow, and even more so than the other previews you've seen, I have to say: O M G.


(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=28IjXoTP4yg)

Cashing in on the hype, History Channel is airing the documentary Last Stand of the 300 tonight. Or you could just go to Wikipedia and read about the Battle of Thermopylae.

~CKL

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Film Baby

The people responsible for CD Baby have branched out into video with Film Baby, and I'm happy to see that they haven't changed their customer service policies.

Here's the confirmation email for my order:
You have chosen to risk life and limb to order the Ask A Ninja Volume 1 DVD. You have earned Film Baby's eternal respect for your obvious bravery.

A messenger just tip-toe'd over to the Ninja's office and whispered to him in his sweetest voice that you'd REALLY like one of his DVDs. He said to tell you that he'll send it to you, and he looks forward to killing you soon. And then he killed the messenger.

Provided the Ninja doesn't kill US first, we'll ship your DVD right away. We'll send you another email to WARN you that a NINJA is on its way to your house....

And the shipping notification:
We have good news and bad news. The good news is that your order of Ask A Ninja Vol 1. DVD was shipped out today. The bad news is that there is also a real, live Ninja on his way to your house. Use extreme caution when opening your mailbox in the next few days. Just before we sealed the box, our packing master thought he heard a whisper saying "I am looking forward to killing CKL soon". We can't be sure. It was either that or "what the hell... why are you stuffing me in the in this..." and the rest was muffled.

Please rest assured that we've taken great care in the shipping of your DVD. We hold true to an ancient DVD shipping tradition passed down for over 5000 years. This very intensive practice is only achieved after years of training, meditation, and purity of mind, and sadly' some accidental killings (we're looking for a new intern, if you know anyone...). After a rigorous 17 step process of verifying the authenticity of your DVD, we donned silk gloves and placed it into a sacred box made of magic and lined with Unicorn fur, tied the box with a strand of Gypsy hair, and wrapped the whole thing in a snazzy looking faux gold leaf paper, with elm leaf inlay from Costco. Unfortunately, by the time it gets to you, all of that fancy stuff will likely have been picked clean by the greedy postal service employees. Please don't be surprised to see just a plain cardboard box.

Oh yeah, did I mention that Ask a Ninja is out on DVD? Because it is. And that's cool too.

I really wish that CD Baby and Film Baby had larger catalogs, because I actively want to buy stuff from them. Sure, Amazon.com is convenient, and the free two-day shipping with Amazon Prime is nice, but I feel no loyalty toward them. If they have something I'm looking for, and it's cheaper than I can find it elsewhere (which it often is), I'll buy it, but my motivation is purely mercenary.

I don't enjoy browsing or searching on Amazon, because both features suck. Every once in a while I'll find an interesting, user-created list, but the gift guides are worthless, and what do you mean I can't refine my search by price or seller? I'm not going to waste my time paging through bad content posted by third-party sellers. That's not why I buy from Amazon; I want complete product information, including photos, so I know what I'm getting. And I want my free shipping, dammit, since I've already paid my $80 for the year, and the service is worthless if I can't use it.

Anyway. I wish Amazon would stop trying to be eBay, because they're really not very good at it. And speaking of eBay, I still don't understand this new Express thing, and their explanation doesn't help at all. Seriously, don't make me do extra work to decide whether or not to give you my money. Because I won't waste my time.

~CKL

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