Monday, December 26, 2016

Robinson Crusoe and his Girl Friday in Space—Review of Passengers

Suppose you were on a voyage to a colony on another planet, and you’re in one of those sleep chambers. Then you wake up, recover from years of suspended animation, then stroll through the ship—and find no one else awake.

That is the puzzle Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), a mechanic, finds himself in. When he makes inquiries, he gets frustrating responses from cheerful holograms. He finally figures out he was woken up early—ninety years early. Unless he can figure out a solution, he will die on the spaceship, alone.

As you can see from the previews, there’s a girl involved, Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence). While Jim wants the challenges of putting his skills to work on a new planet, she’s a writer who paid for a round trip to get new experiences to write about. They are the unlikeliest of couples.



Passengers is a fun and satisfying movie, in contrast to the awful movie Arrival, which I reviewed here. The holograms who give Jim cheerful answers to his awful fate are genuinely funny. And the total despair he falls into after being alone for a year, eating bland food and having no human to talk to, is an experience easy to sympathize with, thanks to the affable and engaging performance by Chris Pratt. Although his portrayal of a man struggling against the universe is good, he gives the most depth to the man struggling against himself.

When Aurora comes along, they have their awkward initial scenes, then an extremely fun date  (I don’t think I’m revealing anything by saying they fall in love.) There are a couple of implied sex scenes I could have done without, though oddly enough Jennifer Lawrence’s swimsuit made me more uncomfortable. But the story goes into full swing as we watch them fall madly in love, do stupid things together, and inevitably throw stuff against the wall.

Although the rotating spaceship, shown from multiple angles, is an awesome spectacle, their artificial gravity wouldn’t actually work the way they show it. And there are problems with the climactic actions scenes—like staring at nuclear fusion without eye protection. But if you want someone who likes romance to watch science fiction, or vice versa, Passengers is a worthy experience.


P.S. In Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, wasn’t she named Aurora? Yeah. 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The War on December 25

I remember reading as a teen a very detailed newspaper article on how the date of December 25 as the birthday of Christ was a Medieval tradition. That is, there was some kind of important pagan celebration around the time of the winter solstice, and the church simply tacked the celebration of Christ’s birth onto that as a way of coopting the pagans.

But it is well established that the church began using December 25 as the birth of Christ a little after the year 300. This was well before the Medieval period. So what was all that stuff about the date coming from a Medieval tradition?

It was simply stuff and nonsense. Anyone who spent a half hour in an average public library would realize the tradition was ancient, not Medieval. Looking back on the matter, the article was as a subtle attack on Christianity. That is, if the central truths of the faith are just Christianized versions of pagan religions, there is nothing special or uniquely true about Christianity. But the facts were made up.

And the attack would not work, anyway. Christmas may be a highly visible part of Christian practice, but it is not a part of Christian belief. That is, the Bible does not give us a date for Christ’s birth, so deconstructing December 25 does not touch the substance of Christianity.

Now that the knowledge that December 25 is an ancient tradition is widespread, the attempt to deconstruct the date takes a different but familiar angle. The ancient Romans had a festival called Saturnalia around the same time. It originally started on December 17 and later expanded through December 23. So we are assured that the church made up the date of December 25 to coopt the pagan celebration.

Obviously, that is not a match. If these people who want to assert a cynical motive for celebrating on December 25 are going to have the attitude that “close” counts, they ruin their own argument. The Romans had so many feasts and holy days, one could almost choose a date at random and either match one of those dates or be close. The argument defeats itself.

More importantly, there are no ancient Christian writings that said, “The Romans are being gluttons, drunkards, and gamblers during Saturnalia, so let us say that Christ was born close to one of those days, because that will help us convert people to Christianity.” Nothing even close.

The church at that time had their own reason for choosing that date, and it sounds odd to modern ears. They decided that a martyr died on the date of his conception. After making a nice calculation for Easter in the relevant year, they added nine months and came up with December 25.

If you want to say this sounds as odd as the Medieval winter solstice and the Roman Saturnalia stories, go ahead. But this was based on what some early Christians believed, not made-up stories of Christians trying to take pagan celebrations and making them their own.

A more biblical/historical method involves noting that Jesus was conceived six months after John the Baptist was, and that John the Baptist was conceived right after his father performed a certain priestly ceremony, as recorded in the Gospel according to Luke. Historians then try to figure out when that father’s priestly division was on duty. They tie this together and come up with Jesus being born in December.

However, that historical calculation can be and has been disputed, so we are left with no certain answer.

But, as was stated above, disputes about the date of the birth of Christ do not strike at the Christian faith. Christians tend to be comfortable celebrating Jesus’ birth on December 25. But it has nothing to do with a cynical ploy on the part of the church to tag along with pagan celebrations. The cynicism is in the minds of people who make such assertions, weak and baseless as they are.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Now THAT’S a Bell

Here is a lovely bell choir that was playing Christmas music at a mall. Along with the normal size bells, there was one in the center about the size of someone’s head.




Actually, it pretty much obscures the head of the person ringing it. But a good time was had by all. 

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Wifely Concerns—My Vampire Parody

It’s been a while since I posted an excerpt from one of my manuscripts. This is from my vampire parody, where the main character is Dee, a full-time housewife.

To tee up this scene: Dee walks in on her friend Hope, who happens to be dressed up in a French maid’s outfit in anticipation of her husband coming home. After some laughter, Hope goes off to change. The idea is to parody urban fantasy by showing things from a housewife’s viewpoint. 

photo by SoHome Jacaranda Lilau

She heard Dee call her name. Hope grimaced at the maid’s hat in her reflection, noting the polyester didn’t keep its shape well. “It’s no bother. We French maids change all the time.” She wondered if vampires could really blank themselves from mirrors at will. No wonder the females don’t bother with makeup.
Still with the one earring in her hand, she began to work on the left one when she heard Dee’s muffled voice again. Something bad. And how had she missed the sound of a struggle on the sofa?
Hope kicked off the little black shoes. Her nylon-stockinged feet zigged and zagged on the carpet as she charged into the living room.
Two vampires. Stockings or no, she tackled the female vampire on top of her friend. 
It was a klutz move, but it worked: She and her opponent both ended up on their backs. But the female vampire was on top of her, smelling like it had slept in some ditch alongside the freeway. “I just vacuumed, you stupid vamp!” 
Dee was still on the sofa, and Hope got a glimpse of her friend turning into a whirlwind. Now free of the female vampire, Dee whipped a leg up over her shoulder and kicked the male vampire who was holding a sack over her—dead in the face.
“Hey, great soccer kick.” 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Mad Hatting—The Correct Writing Environment

If you write for hours on end, you need the correct writing environment. I usually start with pencil and paper in a mall. Why? Because if I do most of my writing at home, I start to think of things I need to clean or throw out.


click to enlarge 

Then I enter my writing into my computer, correcting or making changes along the way. Yes, I use a desktop. I can’t imagine doing creative writing for hours on a laptop.



This makes it easy to research on the internet while writing. Can this lead to distractions? Yes. But discipline is not hard to maintain.

I managed to find a chair at Costco that fits me and is comfortable. Spend the money for a good one. This is not just for comfort—it’s your health.



And, of course, there’s the hat.



The one I really use has Bella, Edward, and Jacob on it. But their faces are so trademarked, they probably owe money to Stephanie Meyer when they look in the mirror.

Okay, I don’t wear it most of the time. But choose wisely, to match your mood.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Whiteboards as Science Fiction—Review of Arrival

This is not a negative blog. But when I saw people who should know better praising the movie Arrival, I thought my head would explode.

For this initial part, I’ll say that if you like the star of the movie, Amy Adams, she gives a magnificent performance. If you want to see two hours of her on the big screen going through an array of emotions, you will probably like it.



You just have to ignore the stuff coming out of her mouth or the mouths of the other actors. I am now going to be very skeptical of science fiction movies with A-list actors that are aimed at mainstream audiences. I can sum up this movie with one word: illogical.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

AN OPEN LETTER TO PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP

Dear Mr. Trump:

With the death of Fidel Castro, a historic opening that may change our part of the world for the foreseeable future will be in your hands.

The Cuban people are already in a state of transition, due to Raul Castro having been the de facto ruler of Cuba for some years, and the more recent Obama initiative of opening relations with that nation.

This is a small window of opportunity that may not be repeated in our lifetimes.

The Cuban people, now deprived of a dictator whom they have known for fifty years, wonder which direction they should go. The fact that Fidel Castro was largely a figurehead for the past several years does not change this.

They have tasted newer freedoms in recent years, and they do not want to go back to the past. They have been ruled by Communism all these decades, they have seen the failure of socialism, and they are sick of it.

The danger is they may want to lurch to the right. Having been used to having a strong man rule over them, they may want another, this time on the extreme right of the political spectrum.

If things go horribly wrong, they will end up being ruled by their equivalent of a Putin.

Now is the time to take diplomatic initiatives. Raul Castro must be told that to the extent he embraces more freedom in his country, to that extent he will be shown more favor by the United States.

Foreign aid is normally counter-productive, because it goes to the foreign governments, not to the people it is intended to help. But in this case, if Raul Castro follows through with true reforms and surrounds himself with comparatively moderate figures in his government, aid should go to him to help stabilize his government.

You have the favor of Cuban-Americans from the way you campaigned. Their older elements will be against showing any favor or giving any aid to the present government, but you can use your political capital, the same way President Nixon did when he went to China, to establish a new relationship with Cuba the same way he did with China, without being accused of being sympathetic to Communism.

Similar opportunities may be found in Venezuela, where their socialist economy is collapsing.

Do not let old enmities stay your hand. I did not vote for either you or your main opponent. But you will have this moment in time to exert your authority and power as president to attempt to prevent either chaos if their government collapses, or a new right-wing dictatorship, a mere ninety miles off America’s shores.

Sincerely,


Mark Murata

pubic domain

Monday, November 21, 2016

Veterans Day—Belated

Here are pictures of the Veterans Day flag-raising at my company.


Active-duty employees were in uniform, while veterans wore civilian clothes. 


We were hoping for more of a breeze, but it turned out nice.  


Monday, November 7, 2016

I Voted

Perhaps you’ve heard that there is an election going on in the United States. Here in my state of Washington, all the voting is by mail, which I think is a shame. Here I am putting my ballot in a drop box at the Crossroads Mall, in a suburb of Seattle.



This wasn't to save postage; I just felt like doing it this way.

A man who was holding a child dropped his ballot off right before me. I think I delayed someone who came right after me by my taking a picture. We might have just happened to converge at the same time, since I don't know how popular this option is.


If we have a longshot outcome I’m hoping for, I’ll let you know how I voted. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

Amazon Brick & Mortar—No Fooling!

Ever browse in a bookstore, then look online at Amazon.com on your personal device to see if you can get the books for a cheaper price? You really shouldn’t do that, since it could drive your local bookstore out of business.

But now you can have the same experience guilt-free at an Amazon.com bookstore I visited on foot. No, this was not some virtual experience. This physical store in Seattle’s University Village Shopping Center is one of only three they’ve built.



Inside, they have typical bookshelves. I looked over the science fiction and fantasy selections and saw they were noticeably different from what I see in the three Barnes & Noble bookstores I frequent. That’s because they base their selections on rankings on the Amazon.com website—obviously.

Each book has two prices: For instance, the list price for this paperback Alexander Hamilton bio was $20.00. But if you were an Amazon Prime member, you would pay the online price. Currently, that is $13.27.



I don’t think this is simply a way of driving people to become Prime members—it would be a hideously expensive way to do so. No, many people want to feel a book, weigh it in their hands, and leaf through it before buying.


But at some point in the sick, twisted mind of Jeff Bezos, did he plot on driving other brick and mortar stores out of business, to be replaced by his own? When he saw Borders go through its death spiral, did he know his secret plan was working? 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

No Helicoptering of Children

Not long ago, I saw parents escorting and staying with their elementary school children at bus stops. This is called helicopter parenting, a riff on how they’re said to hover over them.

This is not good for children. In ninth grade, I had to walk two miles to school. Part of it was up a steep hill. Here it is nowadays, with improvements.



It sure didn’t look this way back then. The steps were dirt, which turned to mud the first day I had to hike up it. Many of the girls were quite in distress over it. Later, they added crude steps in the form of railroad ties held in place by pipes that were hammered down. The pipes had no safety caps; just ends of pipes sticking up from the dirt or mud. We had to be careful not to jam our legs on them as we climbed.

Often I had to carry my alto saxophone case, which weighed thirteen pounds, in addition to my books.

Did I appreciate this at the time? No. Was it good for me? Looking back on it, yes. Not just in the sense of physical fitness, but in the sense of building character, which I now believe has to include physical challenges at a young age with no safety net. I never saw any parents escort their children up those steps. Now, parents drive their children to school when they could take the bus. I was shocked to find out some years ago that there were traffic jams around some schools because of how many parents dropped off or picked up their children from school.


But now look at that path. They have installed nice steps, instead of dirt. And there’s a railing. We didn’t need a railing as we toiled up and down with our books and musical instruments. 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Can You Prove You’re Not Crazy?

Mitchell is a space navigator who wakes up in a mental ward with no idea why he is there. He overhears his captain saying to not let him remember what happened. Mitchell is told he has an incurable condition, so obviously he will never leave. But Mitchell knows he is not insane.



So begins “The Mind is its Own Place” by Carrie Vaughn, in this month’s September 2016 Asimov’s Science Fiction. (Sorry for the lateness of this post. If you can’t find this issue at your bookstore, you might try eBay.) Is Mitchell insane or not? The story is ambiguous at first, then the tension builds as he recalls bits of his memory.

I talked with Carrie Vaughn at the 2012 Worldcon in Chicago. She was very encouraging for my idea of a married vampire slayer. You can see an excerpt here, but of course, she’s not responsible for any lack of quality in my writing.

She wrote a young adult novel called Steel, and in the back is a helpful glossary on fencing terms. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

And then she turned into Seven of Nine

Last night, I dreamt I visited a friend to watch the winding down of a Sherlock Holmes TV series. I walked down to her apartment in a red brick building in England, and I sat beside her on a couch as we watched. There were no behind-the-scenes insights; just the last episode with Sherlock in his deerslayer cap. 
public domain
The scene changed to me by myself in a large auditorium, I think in California. I was there for the winding down of Star Trek background scenes. A large, flat image of the moon was against the high wall towards one end of the auditorium, and a few people from Star Trek, including DeForest Kelley who had played Doctor McCoy, were standing on a catwalk at that level for the occasion, smiling and apparently reminiscing about the old prop. 
photo by Alan C. Teeple
The moon was almost twice as tall as a person, and a large clamp at the end of a lift was set to take it apart, piece by piece. It grabbed hold of the bottom and pulled, making a middle flap start to tear away from the rest, so it was obvious it was composed of cardboard sections with the image of the moon spread on top, perhaps on a plastic sheet. This definitely ruined the illusion of it being so realistic.
But that section of the moon wouldn’t detach. Kelley and the others had to look at each other and amble around a little on their catwalk to make up for the lack of action.
With nothing happening, much of the crowd dispersed. I wandered on the bleachers towards the other end and found Jeri Ryan, who had played Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager, sitting by herself. She was dressed in ordinary clothes and had her blonde hair down. I asked if I could sit next to her, and she said yes. 
photo by GabboT
We chatted as a couple men at that other end stood at the top of a ladder, obviously in a dangerous way, to dismantle some red metal framework that was as tall as a basketball hoop. One of the men got down from the ladder, then part of the framework fell near him. Part of it must have hit his arm, so he cried out in pain. This greatly disturbed Jeri Ryan, so she stared at him for several seconds, a look of great concern on her face.
A couple other celebrities came by. One of them was Sylvester Stallone, who asked me a question about Star Trek. When I tried to reply, he talked over me, making fun of Star Trek as if it were a silly subject for children. Resentful, I realized that behind him in the distance was a placard of some Neanderthal-like people, and I was tempted to make a comparison, but thought better of it. 
photo by Towpilot
After they left, a large scaffolding structure rose suddenly in the middle of the auditorium, effectively cutting the place in half. The people controlling it showed some of the effects they could do, like making part of it shoot it up so it looked like it reached the ceiling. They proceeded to dismantle it slowly, piece by piece.
I said to Jeri Ryan in an apologetic tone that this was all anti-climactic, after the failure to take down the moon.
The scene shifted to Seattle, and we were inside some kind of Star Trek museum. The first part was on the classic Star Trek, and she laid her hand on a tabletop display showing drawings of two starships. They were very similar to the original Enterprise, and she looked puzzled that the ships had a different name on it. I knew that the Enterprise was part of a fleet that had several ships of the same class, and I watched to see if she figured it out. She remained puzzled, and we moved on.
We went through a number of exhibits, then we reached the one on Voyager. I said, “This should be familiar to you.”
She was standing to my left, and for a moment she was in her Seven of Nine persona: hair wrapped around her head, a metal implant in place of an eyebrow, and her figure more pronounced because she was in her skintight silver uniform with a corset underneath. She said nothing but simply stared at an exhibit, implacably.
When I turned to look at her again after an instant, she was back to normal. 
(There are no copyright-free images of Seven of Nine. Here is the link:
To see my Giant Dream, click here

Friday, September 16, 2016

Not Killing Reagan

Since the attempted assassin of Ronald Reagan has been released, I’ll reprise my review of Rawhide Down from my original post, slightly altered at the start.

One of my picks for best non-fiction is Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of President Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber. I remember when the news came in that President Reagan had been shot. On March 30, 1981, a gunman opened fire on Reagan with explosive bullets, one of which ricocheted off the presidential limousine and entered Reagan’s chest. Fortunately, it didn’t explode.



Reagan survived, but did you know:

-The Secret Service did not have professional training until relatively recently. That’s why during the Kennedy shooting the driver slowed down after the first shot, the way anyone would.
-When Reagan was in the OR, he took the oxygen mask off his face and quipped, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” This assured the nation that he was all right. In reality he was in great pain at that moment, and he had almost died.
-A doctor in the hospital responded to the call, looked the patient over, then was shocked when he saw the face. The patient was President Reagan. Then he realized there were all these men in suits standing around. 
-Another doctor was operating on the president. He looked up and asked if anyone else had been shot. What was going on outside? Had World War III started? The men in suits stared back at him, saying nothing.
-Nurses stayed with Reagan around the clock, often after their shifts were done. He passed funny notes to them, endless jokes and quips written in weak handwriting.

This is a fantastic book on a crucial moment in history. Wilber notes how professional the Secret Service was: In all the transcripts of their radio calls that day, they never said that the president was shot, or that Reagan was down. He had to be referred to by his code name of Rawhide. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

Fee, Fi . . . The Giant Dream

Last night, I dreamt.

At the start of my dream, I had crawled out of a cave below the edge of a cliff where I had hid, and now after a series of misadventures I stood on the top of the cliff.

I was standing at the edge of a gigantic corridor, much larger than for a human being. The walls, ceiling, and floor were of stone. At the end, to the left, was the opening to a huge lair. I sent a panel of stone, as tall as the corridor, sliding along the left wall to seal off the lair.

A fellow to my right grabbed and shook me with joy at what I was accomplishing. I had to caution him, because the panel was sliding so slowly.

Pale extremities of a huge nature began to emerge from the lair. Their odd shape gave evidence that the being who was emerging, whom I had tried to seal off, was not entirely human in form.

A gigantic cry sounded: “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum.”

I turned and ran. Suddenly on all fours and in pain, I heard the rest. “I smell the blood of an Englishman.”

I had been half-awake, now I fully woke. I had rolled out of my bed and landed on a couple stacks of books.


Gustav Dore
public domain

This was not the first time a dream ended that way. See my Norweson/Nightmare entry.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Hosing Down Seattle – Review of Too High & Too Steep

Did you know the hills of Seattle used to be steeper than the hills of San Francisco? During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immense projects using water cannons washed dirt down from the tops of the hills. More earth was moved in these projects than in the digging of the Panama Canal.

Too High & Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography by David B. Williams chronicles these projects in fascinating detail. Of course, the houses and other buildings on these hills had to be moved. The cover shows the “spite hills.” These were what were left partway through the project, when people were refusing to leave.


This is one of a number of real photos of the hills

The height of those leftover hills show the original height of that part of Seattle. For you locals, if you’ve ever puzzled over the term “Denny Regrade,” that’s where the term came from: Denny Hill in Seattle was regraded more than once. From the tallest point of the original Denny Hill, over one hundred feet has been removed.

Where did the dirt go? It was dumped into Elliott Bay, part of Puget Sound. Part of it makes up the land between Seattle and West Seattle. As you can imagine, geologists are concerned about that land slumping into Elliott Bay during an earthquake.

If you’re not familiar with Lake Union, it’s a sizable lake inside Seattle. It used to be landlocked. Canals were dug connecting it to Lake Washington to the east and Puget Sound to the west. When that happened, Lake Washington lowered dramatically. If you’ve ever shopped in University Village, it used to be underwater. Sand Point, which had a Naval base for a long time, roughly doubled in size. And people realized there was a nice beach on the Eastside suburbs of the lake, named it Juanita Beach, and tourists flocked there (though it is now part of Kirkland).

Back to flushing dirt off the Seattle hills. Was it worth it, to force those people out of their homes, to have this massive government project to lower the hills, and to dump the dirt into Elliott Bay? David B. Williams says no. Private enterprise, in the form of the motorcar becoming more common, would have made transportation on the hills fairly easy.


So it was a huge government boondoggle. We have something similar going on now, with massive tunnels being dug beneath Seattle for commuter trains, a project that is way behind time and massively over budget, though the private enterprise solutions of Uber and driverless cars are rendering that project obsolete. But that is another story. 

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.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Movie Review: The Lobster—Overdone

This isn’t a full review, because I try to keep this blog a positive one. This is a matter of clearing up expectations. If you want to see a droll comedy that sends up society’s expectations concerning marriage, The Lobster isn’t it. It’s more of an art film that’s meant to mess with you.


And I can’t make sense of the poster, either

The premise is that David is suddenly single, and he has forty-five days to successfully find true love with a woman, or he will be changed into an animal. He chooses a lobster. Hence the title. But that’s just the first half of the movie. And although there are several references to these transformations, that element was not essential to the story. 


So if you want to see an artsy movie that has nonsensical dialog, grotesque sexuality, violence against animals, and long pauses, The Lobster may be for you. But it’s not for anyone who just wanted some hilarious social satire.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Drone Fly-By

So I was relaxing in a park in Bellevue (a suburb of Seattle) on Memorial Day when I heard a distant buzzing sound. Sure enough, when I looked up from the beach towel I was lying on, a drone was flying high above.


photo by Radosław Drożdżewski

(The actual drone was more yellow. I was too relaxed to take a picture.)

A couple nearby also spotted it and pointed upward. The woman was more disturbed about it than the man was.

To me, it’s just a part of life now. Seattle is now in the top twenty cities in the U.S. for drone usage. As a reminder, here’s how someone buzzed the Space Needle with a drone, which was legally questionable and should not be attempted.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Hiroshima and Nagasaki—Firsthand Accounts

I recommend these two books:

Why I Survived the A-Bomb by Akira Kohchi.



Mr. Kohchi was sixteen years old when the bomb dropped. Although he was outside Hiroshima when it happened, he walked towards the mushroom cloud in a dutiful attempt to find his father. This firsthand account has disturbing details.

Nagasaki 1945 by Tatsuichiro Akizuki.



Dr. Akizuki worked at a small hospital at the edge of Nagasaki. Since he did not go to the center of the blast, his account is more detached. During his tireless efforts to treat patients, he realized they showed symptoms consistent with exposure to radioactivity.


These are deeply serious accounts that will leave a lasting impression. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Tearing Down Totem Lake Mall

Most of Totem Lake Mall in Kirkland is getting torn down. I remember before the mall was built, walking in the field where the upper mall now exists with my friend Brian. (Totem Lake was never a real lake, but more of a duck pond.)

Well, now it is getting torn down. You can see how these storefronts were emptied out in preparation.



The truth, is Totem Lake Mall has not been a happening place for years. It was not even a place I would go to write, since the fluorescent lights overhead had an incredible buzzing sound. So now it is getting torn down.




We’re told something newer and better will take its place. I hope so. 

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