Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The View From Home

Stephen King, Maine's resident horror maven, might be able to tease something scary out of the following picture, taken at the Raven's Nest Cliffs at Acadia National Park in Maine by Adam Woodworth:

Some kind of eldtritch horror hiding behind the stars or something, maybe, I dunno. I'm just too busy saying, "whoa."

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Un-Super Natural

Christopher Farnsworth's series "The President's Vampire," about a 150+-year-old nosferatu who aids the United States in a battle against demonic forces, has been a source of much frustration. On the one hand, there's the intriguing possibilities of the mix of national security and supernatural warfare. There's the potential in a character who was raised and grew up as a human being but is now a predator of humans, even though he has forsworn his regular prey in order to honor an oath to serve the president. There's Farnsworth's gift for pacing and slam-bang action scenes that vividly creates impressions of inhuman speed and strength in combat. There's Farnsworth's often dry wit that echoes some of the best Buffy the Vampire Slayer lines in the mix of the mundane and magical.

But then there's the all-too-obvious use of other folks' stuff as source material in the books, like Mike Mignola's Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development from his Hellboy and B.P.R.D. comics. And the way vampire Nathaniel Cade's human liasion, Zachary Barrows, emulates the "Robin the Boy Hostage" trope of some clich├ęd Batman stories (and the way that Cade himself creeps people out as the Caped Crusader does). Or in the most recent novel, Red, White and Blood, the semi-conspiracy, semi-cult behind "dead teenager" movies and stories used in Josh Whedon and Drew Goddard's Cabin in the Woods.

2012's Blood supposes that there is a single demonic being behind all of the "hook-handed psychopath"-styled urban legends, who calls itself the Bogeyman. Cade has defeated and killed the Bogeyman's human host many times, but it only goes dormant until human beings who worship it conduct the needed bloody rituals to make it rise again. Usually the Bogeyman just kills in its own vicinity, feasting on the psychic energy of the terror it creates. But this time it's targeting Cade, and it's doing so by going through the campaign staff of President Samuel Curtis. Cade can't hunt the Bogeyman while protecting Curtis, but his oath demands he do so. He may not be strong enough to defeat the monster in this round, and as he waits for the confrontation, the body count mounts.

Farnsworth's strengths are as much at the front of the third Cade novel as either of the other two. And Zach graduates from his designated hostage role to someone who can act on his own (Think Dick Grayson moving from Robin to Nightwing). But he bypasses the opportunity to explore how a man who believes himself to be damned still fights as though there is something worth saving, in order for some clumsy and lame political satire he hasn't much hope of pulling off. Several characters enter the story for no real reason, and are given dialogue and plotlines that rest on equally absent foundations and keep us away from the most fascinating character in the book, Cade himself. When we do spend time in his head, he's busy telling us things instead of letting Farnsworth show them, or killing some of his own best character lines by repeating them a few dozen pages later.

Blood is a 2012 release, and Farnsworth's next novel -- about the Fountain of Youth -- is set for 2015. He's said the fourth Cade novel would follow it (although an e-book Cade short story came out this last February), so here's hoping he has time to focus on where he's most skilled, dig into the real potential meat of his characters and set aside the political satire and commentary he's not particularly qualified to do. Otherwise, it may be time to sharpen the pitchforks and ready the torches.
Father-and-son Kellerman are two-thirds of the bestselling authors in the Kellerman family (Faye -- Jonathan's her husband and Jesse is her son -- is the third). Jonathan writes police procedurals with some psychological twists when he tells the stories of consulting psychologist Dr. Alex Delaware and his friend, LAPD detective Milo Sturgis. Jesse has written standalone novels but some have strayed into the crime-and-punishment scene occupied by his parents. He's demonstrated a willingness to be quite a bit more outre in his description and style, sometimes bordering on supernatural images even though his stories are all grounded in the here-and-now. Neither has been as overt in expressing their Jewish heritage and faith as Faye in her Decker and Lazarus novels.

But father and son will take some leaves from mom's notebook in The Golem of Hollywood, a mystery thriller that also involves the golem, a medieval Jewish legend about an indestructable blood avenger made of clay and animated by human beings. Jacob Lev is a functional alcoholic police detective in Los Angeles stuck in the traffic division after irritating his superiors. A strange and grisly find -- a human head with Hebrew writing nearby -- earns him a call from a rather shadowy division commander who reassigns him to handle the case. When the head turns out to belong to a wanted serial killer called the Creeper, Jacob has more information. But he also has more confusion to go along with it, as his superiors seem even more interested in a mysterious woman named Mai that he encounters than they are in the killer. Jacob travels to Prague to talk to police there about a similar murder, and uncovers facts about his cultural and personal history that enlighten and obscure at the same time.

As you'd expect when half your writing team (Jonathan) has spent 30 or so novels writing about police procedure, that part of the story is solidly founded. Jacob is molded from much of the same clay as Jesse Kellerman's young and somewhat arrestedly adolescent protagonists, and the younger author gives him a realistic 21st century cynical voice. The supernatural elements, though, are vague and unfocused. A parallel narrative of the creation of the golem's animating spirit of revenge, moving up through the late 1500s and the story of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel and the Golem of Prague dig much too deeply into the past and offers far too much detail for the minimal addition it makes in the story. Those same elements in the main narrative leave far too many unanswered questions -- or at least, they leave a lot of the wrong questions unanswered -- to bring about any kind of satisfying conclusion, and Jacob's own personal narrative stops rather than completes. It's OK for a reader to turn the last page with a questioning "Hmmm?" but Golem of Hollywood ends with a "Wha?" and very little in its overstuffed earlier sections to help that reader find either an answer or a better question.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Worth a Thousand Unknown Words

Last year I highlighted a list of words from other languages which don't have exact equivalents in English; they require an entire sentence or phrase to be explained and even then the meaning might be fluid.

Illustrator Ella Francis Sanders created a book of 50 such words, accompanied by a drawing she intends to evoke the meaning of the word in question. The Japanese word wabi-sabi, for example,  means finding beauty in imperfections rather than in the flawless symmetry where we usually are told it resides. Ms. Sanders creates the following illustration of the concept:
The white spaces interrupt the repeating color patches and are "imperfections." Wabi-sabi means seeing them as enhancing the beauty of the overall design and pattern rather than detracting from it.

Two other words illustrated at the Mental Floss article strike uncomfortably close to home: Akihi, a Hawaiian phrase that means forgetting directions given to you as soon as you walk away, and tsundoku, a Japanese word that describes leaving a book unread after buying it and piling it with others similarly overlooked (It might be interesting to see how this word changes as e-readers become more popular and unused books are no longer piled on tables or shelves but stuffed in the "back" of the Kindle or other device).

Since I am in fact frequently guilty of tsundoku, I may wait to buy Ms. Sanders book until the pile is a little shorter.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Stormtrooper Klingon Ballerinas

Because being a geek means never having to pay attention to story guidelines.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Obvious Overlooked

This entry at Real Clear Science's "Newton Blog" lists four ways that we help spread misinformation today much more quickly, through the internet (It links to a more extensive article here).

Since the subject matter was how misinformation spreads via the internet and social media, it leaves out the tried and true misinformation dissemination methods of "run for elective office" and "work for someone who is running for or serving in elective office."

Friday, September 26, 2014

Posting Bail

There are a lot of bands which are described as "best seen live," and probably nowhere is that more true than the renaissance fair circuit. The musicians, either serious or comic, interact with the fans so both explanation and banter give the performances a more authentic character, even if what's said or sung from stage duplicates what might be on an album.

For sea shanty and comedy group The Bilge Pumps, seeing them live is indeed fun in a different way than their albums, as the Pumps rough-and-ready persona always seems to come across better in person than through your speakers. Bail Money, naturally released on Sept. 19, is the rascally buccaneers' first full live album. 2003's Brigands with Big'uns had several live tracks, but only Maroon the Shantyman (Craig Lutke) and Harvey the Corpsman (David Ruffin) from that lineup remain with the band today. Recorded at three different shows over two years (one of which I attended personally), Money is a fine selection of the group's better material that takes full advantage of their mix of improv and scripted humor and some strong vocals from Lutke and Ruffin. Sharkbait Simon (Christopher Dallion) and Splice the Rigger (Nathan Campbell) also handle leads on some songs, and John Crow (Ted Dossey) backs them up and (reluctantly) stands in for Patrick Murphy on "The Night Pat Murphy Died."

That song, as well as favorites "The Derelict" and "Johnny Jump Up," pairs nicely with re-imagined tunes like "Banana Boat Pirates" to give a good feel of the fun of a live Bilge Pumps concert. The humor is not often for the young or easily offended, however. Aside from a couple of hidden tracks, the album closes with awesome versions of "The Dark Lady" and "Seven Bridges Road," teamed with the Kansas City Celtic folk trio Tullamore. "Road" earns an instant spot on any long-term Pumps playlist. Or Tullamore playlist. Or any playlist of songs that showcase great harmony and full-throated celebration of singing.

It's not a perfect album, although most of the quibbles are of the "Why didn't you include (my favorite song) on it?" variety. In my case, that's "The Smuggler's Song" from Brigands. The only false note actually on the album is "The Farmer," a song in which the expected rhyming word of a couplet -- usually of the four-letter or otherwise off-color variety -- is replaced by another word leading to another couplet and then another swerve. It's a song that continues to be funnier in the idea than in the execution and in any event could do with about half the verses it has.

But that's why God made the skip button, after all, and it's the only track I'll be skipping on repeat spins. Picking up Bail Money not only makes sure the Pumps will have the inevitably necessary bail money their antics will require, but that the listener will have a fun and occasionally quite lovely set of songs to enjoy without having to trek to any near (or far) renaissance fairs. Or faires.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Student Wisdom Disproven?

Many are the students who have proclaimed, sometimes with great vigor, the uselessness of a specific arcane discipline of math, and thus the inherent unfairness of their being required to learn it.

Once again, real life proves such a supposition wrong. The great 19th century mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss developed a theorem that describes the curvature of a space. Part of Gauss's theorem says that a space will always retain its original Gaussian curvature. A pizza slice, for example, is flat. When it is picked up, it must retain its Gaussian flatness in at least one direction. Thus, a pizza slice with enough toppings or a flexible crust will flop over on the end, unless picked up and curved by hand in the other direction. Thus the point of the pizza slice will remain aimed at the mouth instead of the lap, which is a much handier way of eating it.

The name of this pizza-enhancing theorem? Theorema Egregium, a Latin phrase which translates into English as either "Remarkable Theorem" or "Excellent Theorem."