Saturday, December 15, 2018

Internet Justifies Its Existence

Every now and again we find something in the online world that can make the ordinary run of pain-in-the-rear content and tone subside, because the something is just that cool.

Such a site is Animagraffs, which collects animated diagrams of the way several things work. You can see how an electric guitar creates sound when the strings are played, how a sewing machine works and several other mechanical objects. Some diagrams show non-mechanical processes, like the way our eyes work to process images or how a cheetah's skeletal structure, interior organs and even fur color patterns combine to make it the speedily efficient hunter that it is. One even shows you how you can moonwalk properly.

There might be a question about one or two explanations, though. One diagram claims to show how credit scores work, but it contains no reference to chicken entrails or the blood of one's firstborn. I'm suspicious.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Atmosphere

Attended a basketball game at my old high school tonight along with my father. Although the school has a shiny and spectacularly appointed new field house, each year they hold a throwback game in the old gym -- the one where middle-aged grumps like me used to watch the games.

I did not have a decibel meter with me so I can make no scientific observations, but I am pretty sure the roar when a young lady sank the game-winning three-pointer with less than five seconds left was much louder in the old building than it would have been in the new one. Sometimes improvement doesn't improve everything.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Ships of All Seas

Ebooks and the like have been a boon for writers and consumers of genre fiction, as self-published works become easier and cheaper to produce and existing publishers can take more risks on what might otherwise be marginally performing material. Since the margin is smaller, so is the risk and therefore the chances someone will take that risk go up.

Military space opera has been a great beneficiary of this trend, for better or worse. It seems like a lot of its devotees fancy themselves able to put together an interesting space navy yarn and the now lower bar allows more of them to do so. The smaller expense of an e-book or Kindle purchase -- smaller, that is, except in cases when authors think waaay too highly of their work -- nudges the reader towards a buy. As you might expect, a lot of the product is dreck. But not all of it, and so comes now Siobhan Dunmoore of the Commonwealth Space Navy as she battles invading Shrehari forces in front and her own sometimes corrupt, sometimes incompetent chain of command behind.

Eric Thomson introduced Dunmoore in 2014's No Honor in Death, as she tried to rehabilitate her own shattered soul and the proverbial "worst ship in the fleet," the Stingray. By book 4, 2017's Victory's Bright Dawn, she commands the Q-ship Iolanthe, designed to lure raiders into range with its clumsy appearance before unmasking might weapons and destroying opponents. An unscheduled refueling stop brings a shocking discovery, as both an out-of-the-way colony and its naval depot have been attacked and nearly destroyed. Some clues point the way to the raiders, so the Iolanthe will try to hunt them down aided by soldiers from the colony. But several things about the raid itself seem off to Dunmoore and her perceptive crew, so they keep an eye open for trouble. The only problem is that they may be looking in the wrong direction when it crops up.

Thomson has several novels set in his Commonwealth space universe under his belt, so he's developed a good sense of pacing and character building. His own experience in the military gives those aspects of the story solid founding, and he makes his heroes likable and villains nasty. He lays his in-crew banter on a little thick and makes his narrative more self-aware of it than it really should be.

But his smartest idea is to build each Dunmoore novel around a central mystery. In some cases it's a literal whodunit, in others the need to reconstruct events; either way it puts a lot more gas in the motor than just a string of battles and confrontations. The Shrehari antagonists don't show up in every book, but even they get enough backstory to make us respect Dunmoore's primary nemesis, Brakal.

Thomson has two other series set in this universe, but so far the five Dunmoore novels have them both beat. They also help set Siobhan among the ranks of fine space skippers worth spending a few afternoons with.
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Historical fiction, particularly that centering on the wooden walls of Great Britain during its conflicts with France, also benefits from the greater opportunities e-publishing provides. Books can come out much more quickly as well; between July 2014 and April 2018 Andrew Wareham offered the fourteen-book "Duty and Destiny" series following Sir Frederick Harris while also publishing entries in at least two other series over most of that time.

Enough such novels arrive that the reader might think His Majesty's Navy was crewed by none other than fictional officers, so a wise writer might shift his scene a little in order to stand out from the rest. Chris Durbin does exactly that, setting his "Carlisle and Holbrooke" series during an earlier iteration of the Anglo-French conflict: the middle of the 18th century. There is no heroic Nelson, no magnificent Trafalgar victory and no Napoleon overshadowing things -- in fact, this is the time that will produce those men and events and its interesting to see the foreshadowing crop up.

Durbin also makes one character, post-Captain Thomas Carlisle, a Virginian. The insular closed society of naval command isn't entirely sure what to think of this colonial outsider, and is often not at all welcoming to him. His First Lieutenant, George Holbrooke, began the series not particularly committed to the Navy as a career except he had failed at most others but has grown in stature, authority and wisdom by the time we open The Jamaica Station, the third book in the series.

Carlisle and Holbrooke, aboard HMS Medina, rescue a Spanish colonial governor while patrolling the waters around Jamaica in a search for pirates and French privateers. Although superficially friendly and obviously thankful, the Spanish official is clearly hiding something. With the help of Lady Chiara, Carlisle's wife, the secret is uncovered, but it still has heavy consequences. When Carlilse is wounded, Holbrooke takes command of Medina to continue the cruise and await the chance to raid an enemy convoy, striking a bold alliance with two English privateers to do so.

In Station, Durbin gives Holbrooke center stage for much of the book, as he did with Carlisle in an earlier series volume. It's a wise choice, allowing the series to unfold a little more deliberately and giving us two different points of view during similar events. The experienced Carlisle handles combat one way while the younger and more impetuous Holbrooke acts differently. Thus a ship-to-ship action is not just a cut-and-paste of the thunder of guns and flying splinters but is given a different life when seen through different eyes.

Durbin is also a deft hand at character sketching, bringing Carlisle, Holbrooke, Chiara and others to life with realistic interior thoughts and winsome manners. He knows how and when to wax witty in a manner matching his time period and its people, and if the whole geography and history of who is one whose side and where sometimes seems cloudy in The Jamaica Station, it was probably more than a little blurred from time to time for those living the events, as well. Durbin has published three Carlisle and Holbrooke novels in just more than a year, so those hooked on the pair's adventures will probably not have to wait long to set sail with them again.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Yuletide Tunes

Recently in a conversation about music, I was unable to stop my eye-roll when the conversation turned to Christmas music. "What's the matter?" I was asked. "Don't you like Christmas music?"

Well, that depends on what we mean when we say Christmas music. If the list is "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," "What Child Is This?" and the like, then yes, I very much like Christmas music. But if we're talking about "Winter Wonderland," "Let It Snow," "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts)," "All I Want for Christmas Is You?" and such, well, then I suppose I have to start an argument because those are not Christmas songs. They are seasonal songs, to be sure, and a lot of them reference the Christmas season in particular, but they are not about Christmas.

As you may gather from my profession and my frequent references to being mired in orthodox Christian theism, I believe Christmas to be about the birth of Jesus Christ. Songs which focus on that event and its meaning are "Christmas songs." We'll stretch the definition here a little bit to include Advent songs that concern the time leading up to Christmas itself, but the key is the presence of Jesus, either by name or implication.

So there's no way "Winter Wonderland" is a Christmas song. In fact, Richard Smith's lyrics never mention Christmas at all. Yes, it gets played all of the time at Christmas. Its Wikipedia article suggests it's been covered more than 200 times -- which is one of the reasons I can't stand hearing it anymore. Modern recording artists whose ranges and styles don't match it try to sing it more or less as written and fail, and others try to re-arrange it to suit their style and wind up with messes that make you want to stay away from any version of the song at all because you're so sick of it.

"The Christmas Song," which is also sometimes labeled as "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" after its first line, is probably even more ubiquitous and is an example of songs that are about the Christmas season instead of Christmas. The focus is on a few Rockwellian Christmas images and some Santa Claus-ery but nothing that roots Christmas in its originating event. Not even the great Nat King Cole could make this slice of Mel Tormé's schmaltziest syrup sound good and it is a reason to leap for the radio station button at the first hint of its first notes, no matter who's smothering to death under its lyrics.

Those two, plus multiple offenders "White Christmas" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" might have been marginally acceptable on initial release but the fact that no one covers any other Christmas songs means that no matter where you go, you'll hear three or four nearly identical versions of them within 30 minutes. The same goes for the shudderingly awful "Jingle Bell Rock," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" or Mariah Carey's more recent, "All I Want for Christmas Is You." The latter is a fine little pop song but has been covered to death.

If I'm going to listen to some Christmas season music, why not check out some stuff that's way more fun, like the Kinks' story of a charity Santa getting mugged in "Father Christmas?" Or the Waitresses' spunky "Christmas Wrapping," which I cannot believe has not become a Hallmark Christmas movie. Or for that matter, AC/DC's "Mistress for Christmas," which I cannot believe has not become a premium cable Christmas movie.

Modern artists have done some interesting covers of real Christmas songs, such as the Rondelles cover of "Angels We Have Heard on High." Billy Idol has an entire album of Christmas and seasonal music, with "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" being the standout. Patty Smyth commits the sin of covering "The Christmas Song" but redeems herself with a lovely "Do You Hear What I Hear?" cover. Most people know Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," but fellow heartland rock giant Bob Seger makes the "Little Drummer Boy" a mighty percussionist indeed.

Those stand out because usually the modern performers stick to the seasonal music, like X covering "Jingle Bells."

The real problem with today's rotations of "Christmas music" are the painfully limited playlists and cookie-cutter covers of the lightest-weight tunes in the holiday catalog. So I suppose I'm going to be lumped in with the Christmas music Grinches who would rather listen to just about anything than what gets pumped out of store stereos and adult contemporary radio stations between Nov. 15 and Dec. 31. That's OK -- we can agree to disagree.

Unless you bring up anything involving Alvin or a chipmunk. Then you're facing a huge load of ye olde bitumen in your stocking, and I will rat you out to Santa myself.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Test Pattern

Again, O Tolerant Reader, I must beg your forgiveness that the blogging portion of my day was taken over by other things.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Uh-Oh

As Dan Piraro notes in Sunday's Bizarro comic, the thin atmosphere we find on other planets is going to make some very important activities much more difficult to do. Meanwhile, philosophers Avicenna and David Hume discover that even when people take completely opposite views about the same set of evidence, they may still find areas in which they agree.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Myst-ery

Evan Nicole Brown, writing at Atlas Obscura, catches up with Robyn and Rand Miller on the event the 25th anniversary of their ground-breaking video game Myst.

Reading the duo's talk about the development of the game -- something which up to that point was like no computer video game that anyone had ever seen -- is interesting. They detail some false starts, some curious features, and delve a little into what current gaming culture derives from Myst.

Much less noticeable is that, aside from Microsoft Solitaire and Words With Friends, Myst is the last video game I've ever owned or purchased. Apparently I'm left behind.