Thursday, August 18, 2016

Stranger Things – The Energy Department Rebuttal

I’ve never seen the Netflix series Stranger Things, starring Winona Ryder. Apparently some of it takes place in a sinister lab in a forest run by the Energy Department.

This got under the skin of Paul Lester, who runs one of the official blogs for the Energy Department. Uh oh.

Actually, Lester has a sense of humor, and he uses the series as jumping-off points to highlight the work of the Energy Department. He assures us there is no such sinister lab, but they do have one in the Argonne Forest in Illinois. It “was founded to continue Enrico Fermi’s work on nuclear reactors.”

The problem is, I remember watching a show on PBS about how Enrico Fermi was doing secret experiments in Chicago to make a nuclear reactor—in the city itself. He even had a man standing with an axe at a rope holding a bar of graphite. At Fermi’s signal, the man would cut the rope and the graphite would fall into the crude reactor, stopping a runaway reaction. Though if there were a huge burst of radiation, the man would die before he could cut the rope.

For all they knew at the time, a runaway reaction would have devastated Chicago.

So how assured are you feeling now? Nothing to see here? 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Steaming Coffee and Foie Gras Dream

Wait for the foie gras at the end.

Last night, I dreamt I was on-scene for a website that simulates everyday background noise to help a listener’s creativity.

photo by ToastielL

I sat towards one end of an open-air set of a coffee shop. About eight actors of varying ages acted out their roles in ordering coffee and other items while engaging in small talk. They gave their lines realistically, constantly in motion as they walked around the faux shop. I thought they were just going through a cycle of repeating each other’s lines, but they differed towards the end. They gradually left the set one by one, very noisily.

I could see across and to the left another set where a recording was going on at the same time. I cannot remember if it was a coffee shop, but it seemed to me that their voices would be picked up at a low volume for this coffee shop production, which would add to the atmosphere of ambient noise.

After the recording was over, the writer rested his elbows on the border of the far end of the shop, glasses on his brow. He leaned forward and let his forearms dangle, looking defeated. He spoke across the set to the producer, who was standing to the left of me. He asked, “Bad, eh?” referring to his writing.

The producer assured him he had done a good job. The writer seemed to be the typical sort involved in such productions—he mainly saw what frustrated him, not how well everything had worked.

After they left, I walked up to the interior corner of the set, near where the writer had been standing. I saw how realistic the fake brick and the arch for the entrance looked, and I wondered at my naïveté in thinking that the recordings were done in a real coffee shop.

I exited the set and saw to my left a number of sets for dinner parties. One of them was about to start production with a large family dinner party of perhaps ten people in a dining room, including adults and children, all in the stereotypical pose of holding their eating utensils upright in their hands.

This was a much more elaborate production. One person at the near end of the set announced he would call room service. (This made no sense, since it was in a home’s dining room.) He called up and ordered a dinner. At the end, he grabbed a pot and struck it against a surface to make a couple of clacking sounds, I think to hurry up service. Just beyond the far end of the set, I saw a man take a large stick and make clacking sounds at the same time, since that would be picked up by the mike more easily.

That done, a couple of chefs, complete with white chef’s hats, began preparing the dinner. They were also beyond the far end of the set, and a couple of them picked up a pair of immense geese. They squeezed the geese, making them vomit steaming foie gras into stainless steel pots.

photo of a Mulard Duck by Atlasroutier

My alarm clock went off, and the dream ended.
(For my Harry Potter dream, click here.)

Thursday, August 4, 2016

PNWA Writers Conference

How would you like one minute to summarize a novel you’ve worked on for over a year? I attended the annual Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, with the main purpose of pitching my manuscripts to agents. This was down in SeaTac. (The unusual name came from this area being between the major cities of Seattle and Tacoma. I’m not kidding.)

Besides the pitch sessions, they put on interesting workshops. A helpful one described how writers should use social media, put on by Joe Gillard and Nicole Persun.

I’ll let you guess who's who

The editors and agents introduced themselves during forums, to give us a good idea of whom to pitch to. This was important for planning our four-minute pitches, which I’ll describe in a moment. Below is part of the agent forum, a little out of focus.

Third from the left is Sarah LaPolla, whom I was planning on pitching to. Fourth from the left is Elizabeth Kracht. I had no intention of pitching to her at the start, but I ended up doing so. Second from the right (and badly out of focus due to my inadequate picture-taking) is J.D. DeWitt, whom I also was planning on pitching to.

So on to the pitch sessions. In a large conference room, the agents and editors would sit at long tables. When those of us who signed up for a particular session were told to start, we rushed in. It wasn’t as bad as the start of a rock concert—more like the opening of a Costco on a Saturday.

Whoever found his or her preferred agent first had to stand on a blue line that was several feet in front of the tables. The rest of us lined up behind. At the ring of a bell, the first person could walk forward and have four minutes to pitch a manuscript to the editor or agent. We were advised to sum up the manuscript in one minute, then let the editor or agent ask questions for the rest of the time. At the sound of a bell, that person would have to leave, and the next person could go up.

I didn’t get a picture of this year’s pitch session, but this link will take you to last year’s.

No talking was allowed in line. If you think this felt like school, you’re right.

I put in a lot of rehearsal for my pitches. If you think aspiring actors spend time talking to walls, so do aspiring authors. I did all right in my three pitches. Editors or agents who are pleased will ask the author to send in sample pages. I won’t reveal the results of my pitches, since that would be telling.  

A major agent who attended was Andrea Hurst. She made herself available for one-on-one sessions, first come, first served. She gave me valuable advice on a manuscript pitch and a cover letter, which would normally cost a good amount.

Latest word on trends: Andrea Hurst said that publishers a couple years ago told her that dystopian stories are dead. Perhaps the most famous examples of dystopian stories are The Hunger Games series and the Divergent series. Things are so bad, I had just recently found out the final Divergent movie will be made-for-TV. Andrea Hurst didn’t blink when I said that.

Sarah LaPolla said that vampire novels are still unpopular. (The Twilight series, both novels and movies, set off years of submissions to editors and agents, which saturated the market.) She said that only an accomplished author could get a vampire novel looked at.

So this was a good conference overall. Here are links to excerpts from a couple manuscripts that I pitched—an excerpt from a vampire parody, and an excerpt from my reimagining of The War of the Worlds.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Star Trek – Not Quite Beyond Star Wars

Hey, everyone, I got to see Star Trek Beyond last night at a sneak preview showing, thanks to a friend of mine belonging to a large company that rented out the Cinerama in Seattle. Thanks, Rich.

If you want a movie with incredible special effects, including attacks by swarms of drone-like weapons, people running around inside the ship at unusual angles, and gizmos with complex moving parts, this is for you. If you want a great plot with familiar characters, um . . .

The characters are familiar. In fact, in the first half of the movie, they are just like the characters in the original Star Wars movie. For my brilliant analysis, which has to include spoilers, click on the Read More button.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Trouble with E-Books

Do you see the title when you pick it up?  

On Sunday, a friend I hadn’t seen for a few months asked me if I was reading anything interesting. I said yes, I was reading a science fiction book about a comparatively young person who was suddenly made captain of a ship. But I kind of stuttered to a stop, saying I couldn’t remember the title or author. Then I realized it was because I had the e-book.

I explained that when I pick it up to read (on my Amazon Kindle), I don’t see the cover. My friend agreed, saying that if she picks up a normal book, she sees the cover with the title and author every time.

So Jana, it’s The Oncoming Storm by Christopher Nuttall. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Shallows, Athena, Andromeda’s Rock

I saw the shark movie The Shallows, but this won’t be an actual movie review. I’ll just say there was a lot of blood, so if you don’t like the sight of that, you may want to avoid it.

I mainly went to see the movie for research purposes: It featured a woman trapped on a small rock in the sea. That was the predicament of Andromeda. You might remember she was a princess in Greek mythology who was chained to a rock, waiting for a sea monster to eat her. Usually she is portrayed as chained to a vertical rock face (and this is often just an excuse for artists to paint a naked woman).

But the Andromeda’s Rock is located off the coast of Israel. Yes, Greek myths could be rather far-flung. It is a horizontal bit of rock, and I think the flag is not much taller than a man.

photo by אני צילמתי 
Sorry, no nude art

Here is an excerpt from one of my Athena stories, where Athena and another immortal visit Andromeda, but not to rescue her.


They circled lower, towards a crude but level rock that barely jutted out of the sea. Water lapped at all sides. The rock was barely wide enough for a man to walk a few paces from one jagged edge to the other, but the figure who stood there was a woman. Not yet in her twentieth year, she faced the city and its shore, shoulders slumped in exhaustion, looking for help that refused to come.

When Athena had descended far enough, she flew within range of the woman’s vision, barely above the waves. She landed on the rock as slowly as she could. “Andromeda, don’t be afraid. I want to give you some comfort.”

Andromeda stared back at her, eyes wide. White flakes of salt encrusted her dark hair and her robe. Too stunned to reply, she stood tense and afraid. Then hope flared in her eyes. “You’ve come to rescue me! I won’t have to die! I won’t have to die!”

Her hands gestured wildly, but she couldn’t lift them above her waist. Chains led from her wrists to where they were fastened to cruel iron bands in the black rock beneath her feet. The chains were not meant to prevent her from escaping: No mortal would disobey the ban by rowing out here in a boat to rescue her. The iron links were to prevent her from being swept off the rock prematurely. She was meant to be a living sacrifice. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Review of BrainDead

A lot of the creative talent for movies has gone into television in recent years, so I’ll start a new category of reviews: TV series. (If I ever get Wi-Fi, I’ll have to change the name.)

So a delightful new show is BrainDead, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Tony Shalhoub. This was my favorite premier since the Battlestar Galactica mini-series in 2003. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Laurel Healey, a new congressional aide who has to learn fast the cynical ways of politics in the employ of her brother, Senator Healy. With an offer from Gareth (Aaron Tveit), an aide from the other side of the aisle, she has to run through Washington, D.C. to try to prevent a government shutdown.

She doesn’t succeed, because her side wants the government to shut down so they can blame the other side. A lot of whimsy that feels authentic goes into this, and the political humor is at the forefront, so the alien takeover of some people’s minds is more on the back burner.

Yes, a multitude of aliens in the form of tiny bugs are in town. They go into the human ear, like what happened to poor Chekhov in Star Trek II, and the people become strangely creepy, like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The funny thing is, Luke’s boss Senator Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub) becomes more efficient at cutthroat politics. He goes from a drunk who longs for a masseuse to being a glad-handing dealmaker who upturns Washington. This is bad for Gareth, since it makes Laurel think he’s a backstabber.

What Senator Wheatus done is normal, but you should see the evil look that Tony Shalhoub puts on his face as he does the scene. If you’ve never seen evil Tony Shalhoub before, you’re in for a treat.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the center of the show, and her face is fascinating to watch, whether she’s showing anxiety, bewilderment, concern, or whatever she’s feeling towards Luke.

BrainDead is on CBS on Monday nights at 10:00 pm. (Or you can figure out some way to catch up online.) The creators are Michelle King and Robert King, and the executive producer is Ridley Scott. Yes, the Ridley Scott of Alien.

As delightful as this premier was, there were some political mistakes. If political details make your eyes glaze over, of if you don’t like spoilers, do not press the Read More button.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book Purge V

Just stick that bookmark in the back of your throat and gag. (Book Purge IV somehow didn’t get posted, but Book Purge III is here.) These are books that I either liked but won’t read again, or was just disappointed in. This time there were 6 non-fiction hardcovers, 2 fiction hardcovers, 3 fiction trade paperbacks, and 4 fiction mass-market paperbacks.

I won’t show the fiction covers because I don’t want to offend the publishers

What they’re willing to pay is definitely going down. These books were in pristine condition, and I think that two years ago I would have been given $10 for half the quantity. This year I was only given $11. 

E-books are definitely having an impact. If you can get on Amazon The Martin Luther Collection for 1.99 or Through the Brazilian Wilderness by Theodore Roosevelt for free, that shows the pressure. Plus there are all those used books for $0.01 (plus $3.99 for shipping).

So if you do your own book purge and do not get offered much, please don’t gripe. The used bookstores are facing a frightening landscape. 

Friday, June 10, 2016

Bill Gates Memorized His Employees’ License Plates

So, you think your boss gets on you? Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, was famous for the long hours he put in at work. But what if you worked for him and didn’t put in the same amount of time? He had a solution for that: Bill Gates MEMORIZED HIS EMPLOYEES’ LICENSE PLATES!

photo by Ricardo Stuckert/ABr 

That way he could look out his window and see who was in. This was from the man who memorized the moves of several chess games he had played.

He lightened up later on.


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