Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Epic Mickey

I usually don't buy video games at full price, preferring to wait until they've been discounted. However, my wife specifically requested the game Epic Mickey for Christmas. Since I'm usually lousy at giving gifts, I ignored the price and bought it for her.

Although the game was technically a gift for my wife, I think I've played it more than she has. The plot appeals to a geek like me who loves nearly anything from the Golden Age of animation. References to classic cartoons and characters fill the game and Mickey is presented with his late-1930s look.

In Epic Mickey, a pre-Steamboat Willie Mickey Mouse goes through the looking glass into the wizard Yen Sid's workshop. There, Yen Sid has used paint, thinner, and a magical brush to create a miniature Disneyland-esque paradise. Mickey, out of curiosity, begins to play with the brush, but accidentally creates an evil creature called the Shadow Blot. Mickey attempts to destroy it using a bottle of thinner, but instead ruins Yen Sid's world when he spills the bottle. Not realizing what he's done, Mickey returns to his own world through the mirror and goes on to a successful career, forgetting all about his little adventure.

However, it turns out that the miniature world had been home to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and a host of other forgotten or scrapped Disney cartoon characters. By creating the Blot and spilling the thinner, Mickey had turned the world into Wasteland; a sinister mirror version of Disneyland. Oswald, who had already been cast into Mickey's shadow, has become even more bitter. When the Shadow Blot drags Mickey into Wasteland, Mickey has to find his way home while making up for the damage he's done.

The game is a puzzle/adventure game with a good amount of RPG elements thrown in. The gameplay is fun while the Wasteland is a thoroughly entertaining place that turns Disneyland on its head. Buildings are warped by the effects of the thinner, Oswald imagery has replaced all Mickey imagery (most notably in the famous statue of Walt Disney holding Mickey's hand), and toxic thinner is everywhere. Having never liked the It's a Small World ride, I especially appreciated the game's demented doppelganger.

Maybe people will want to ride It's a Small World now

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

In a day and age when people and organizations seem to be embarrassed or mortified to mention the holiday that we're about to celebrate, or tend to practice a 'don't ask don't tell' policy with regards to the celebration that occurs on December 25th, the Atomic Spud wishes everyone a Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Starship Troopers

[This review originally appeared on www.goodreads.com]

Starship TroopersStarship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the future Earth is governed by the Terran Federation. The Terran Federation is very similar to modern democracies with one major exception: full citizenship (e.g., the right to vote, to serve on a jury, to hold political office) is given only to those who have completed at least two years of Federal Service. The Federal Service is usually synonymous with military service, but there are positions available for anybody who's willing to volunteer, regardless of physical or mental ability. Against his family's wishes, Johnnie Rico joins the mobile infantry where he learns to fight in a suit of powered armor. After extensive training, Johnnie finds himself at the front lines of the war with an alien species called the Arachnids.

A few pages into Heinlein's Starship Troopers I had to check the original publishing date. I was amazed when I saw that it was first published in 1959. The description of the mobile infantry's powered armor and its onboard sensors and displays sounds like technology featured in a current issue of Popular Mechanics, not something from a novel written in the '50s. The combat sequences, from the orbital drops to the battles on the ground, are excellent. They're exciting while still conveying some of the horrors of war.

Although the battles are a highlight of the novel, much of the story actually focuses on training and on the motivation of the trainees in entering the war. The theme that individual sacrifice is necessary for a citizen to be responsible is pervasive. The requirement that full citizenship be available only to those who have completed a term of Federal Service was in response to the collapse of Earth's early democracies, whose citizens "had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted... and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears." The only other science fiction novel that has made me really think about the ideas presented by the author was Heinlein's own The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

Starship Troopers is an excellent novel for any science fiction fan. I would list it as one of my top ten favorite novels.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb

[This review originally appeared on www.goodreads.com]

Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen BombDark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb by Richard Rhodes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like Richard Rhodes' previous work, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, the title Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb doesn't begin to describe the shear amount of information in the book. The greatest difference between Dark Sun and Atomic Bomb is that this book spends much of its time on political maneuverings, Soviet espionage, and the Soviet effort to build an atomic bomb.

While the basic operational principles of thermonuclear weapons are covered, there is not as much detail as was found in The Making of the Atomic Bomb; the physics of hydrogen bombs are more complex and are still surrounded by a significant amount of secrecy. Rhodes eventually gets to the Ivy Mike test (the first test of a hydrogen bomb) but first revisits the Manhattan Project. That World War II program saw the origin of the theories behind thermonuclear weapons and was the subject of a significant Soviet espionage effort that allowed Russian scientists to develop an atomic bomb years ahead of schedule.

It's possible that Soviet spies and scientists get the most attention in Dark Sun. This is apparently because the development and detonation of the Soviet A-bomb, Joe I, created the nuclear arms race. It was in response to the successful Russian test that President Truman officially began the crash program to develop the H-bomb. Like Atomic Bomb, Dark Sun spends a significant amount of time with the scientists and politicians who made the bomb possible. In fact, their personalities and opposing ideologies (the conflict between J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller in particular) take up a larger percentage of Dark Sun than they did in the previous book.

Although an excellent book, Rhodes' extensive coverage of Soviet espionage, the Russian atomic bomb program, and nuclear politics seems somewhat tangential to the actual making of the hydrogen bomb. While I understand the importance of these things to the history of thermonuclear weapons, I had hoped for a more focused narrative like that of The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

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Do You Read Me, HAL?

It all started out with a spreadsheet that wouldn't open. Open Office would hang each time I tried to open it, blaming the problem on spoolsv.exe. I thought it odd that a program that manages document printing would prevent me from opening a file in the first place, but apparently it could. Thinking that spoolsv.exe might have been corrupted, I tried to replace it with a copy from my wife's computer. When that didn't work, I turned to Google. Someone mentioned something about printer drivers being the cause of the problem. However, when I tried to open the Devices and Printers window to access my printer properties, the window failed to open. Apparently problems with the Devices and Printers window are common, but the typical solution didn't work for me.

I downloaded a new copy of the printer driver from HP, hoping to force a reinstallation of the driver, but the installation hung. No matter what I did, it seemed like I couldn't uninstall or reinstall the printer or its drivers. With some help from Google, and a little experimentation, I found that by stopping print spooler in the Services window and then restarting it I could regain some function (I could access Devices and Printers again). However, once I rebooted the problem reappeared. It seemed that the more things I tried, the more problems I had. After a while explorer.exe started crashing because of this ridiculous printer problem.

Eventually I was able to uninstall and then reinstall the printer and its drivers by starting and stopping print spooler repeatedly. I had to stop it to open the Devices and Printers window, start it to uninstall the printer, stop and restart it to run the HP driver uninstall, and then stop it again for the driver uninstall to finish. It was all very frustrating. Once the accursed things were uninstalled, I rebooted the computer, it recognized the printer, and the needed drivers were installed automatically. I must have wasted at least three hours trying to figure the problem out.

My current computer, which has actually been very well behaved overall, is named HAL after my first computer. Every time I have computer problems, though, I'm reminded that I got the name from the murderously dysfunctional computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

[This review originally appeared on www.goodreads.com]

The Making of the Atomic BombThe Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The title of Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb is inadequate. He doesn't just cover the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb; he gives the reader a history of the discovery of the atom, the early studies of radioactivity and radiation, the discovery of nuclear fission, and the politics behind the decision to develop the bomb. Once the reader finally gets to the Manhattan Project, Rhodes' presents a detailed account of uranium enrichment, plutonium breeding, the development of the implosion principle, the fission initiator at the heart of the bomb, etc.

If The Making of the Atomic Bomb has any flaw, it may be the sheer amount of information and history that Rhodes provides. The actual atomic bomb doesn't make an appearance until well after the halfway mark, reflecting the decades of study, discovery, and effort needed to eventually produce the weapon. By the time Rhodes gets to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki they almost seem like an epilogue after the vast amount of effort preceding them. Despite this, I think most readers who are willing to wade through the amount of detail found in this book will find Rhodes' writing to be engaging.

Although he fills the narrative with technical details, Rhodes doesn't forget the human aspects of the bomb's creation. The author spends a significant amount of time with the people that made controlled nuclear fission and nuclear weapons possible. Fascinating characters such as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and Enrico Fermi are given a generous amount of attention. The personalities, conflicts, and motivations of these brilliant scientists give life to what could have otherwise been a thorough but dry review of atomic physics.

It should be noted that, although the author discusses several complex topics, he simplifies his explanations enough so that non-specialists can understand them. Despite these simplification, I don't think I would recommend this book to someone who doesn't have at least a passing interest in science. Rhodes' discussion of concepts such as neutron moderation or neutron cross-section is liable to confuse or frustrate those who aren't at least somewhat physics-minded. For those who work in the nuclear field or who are interested in it, The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a must-read.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Animal Farm

[This review originally appeared on www.goodreads.com]

Animal FarmAnimal Farm by George Orwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tired of what they see as farmer Jones' tyranny, and inspired by the vision of a boar named Old Major, the animals of an English farm finally decide to rid themselves of the farmer. Although the revolution goes well, the hoped-for equality of animals quickly breaks down. Under the guidance of a pig named Napoleon, the pigs place themselves in leadership positions, claiming to govern for the rest of the animals. Over time, the rule of Napoleon seems to be harsher than that of farmer Jones.

This book is an excellent commentary on the excesses and dangers of socialism. Orwell was actually a socialist himself, but he despised the tyranny of the Soviet Union. If you're familiar with the Bolshevik Revolution, you'll recognize the book's analogs of Czar Nicholas (farmer Jones), Marx/Lenin (Old Major), Trotsky (Snowball), and Stalin (Napoleon). The hypocrisy of the pigs, who represent the Soviet Party leaders, the creation of official "enemies of the Revolution", and the pigs' eventual use of violence against other animals closely mirrors the path of real communist dictatorships. Unfortunately, this story may be utterly lost on readers who are unfamiliar with or apathetic toward history, as most of my high school class was.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Nineteen Eighty-Four

[This review originally appeared on www.goodreads.com]

19841984 by George Orwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the definitive dystopian novel and one that everybody should read. Big Brother and the Party rule Oceania, a supernation composed of the former United States and Britain. Citizens are constantly being watched for signs of incorrect thought or "thoughtcrime". The official truth is revised on a regular basis and, since human thought is based on language, the Party is subtly trying to alter citizens' minds by gradually replacing English with the highly limited "Newspeak". Truth is defined as what the government says; it is never objective or independent. Anyone who has a problem with this just might find himself confronted by the Thought Police and taken to the dreaded "Ministry of Love".

Winston, a worker in the Ministry of Truth (i.e., the propaganda ministry), begins to question the status quo and starts to seek out the resistance movement that the Party constantly vilifies. But is the resistance movement real or is it another one of the Party's "truths"? And with 24/7 surveillance, can Winston hide his thoughtcrimes from Big Brother?

Orwell, a socialist who nonetheless opposed communism as practiced by the Stalinist Soviet Union, deftly conveys his idea of a degenerate and tyrannical communist society. The bleakness of Oceania and the hopelessness of the society of Nineteen Eighty-Four is palpable. The reader is made to sympathize with Winston's desperate attempts to quietly defy Big Brother and the Party. However, from early on in the story it seems unlikely that there can be a happy ending in Winston's future.

Although we don't face the brutality of Oceania, many may notice similarities between Orwell's concept of thoughtcrime and modern-day political correctness or the ever-shifting definition of hate crime.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is the bass guitarist in a band in Ontario, Canada. Although dating 17 year old high school student Knives Chau, he meets the girl of his dreams in Ramona Flowers. However, dating Ramona introduces a few complications. Not only does he have to break up with Knives, but he also has to battle the League of Evil Exes; six boyfriends and one girlfriend that Ramona has broken up with over the years.

The movie begins as a relatively straight-forward slacker comedy, with a few visual oddities such as animated hearts surrounding a kiss or the word "Ring" accompanying the ringing of a phone. These effects increase throughout the movie, reaching their peaks during the fights with the exes. The fights are filmed as if they were part of a video game; each fight begins with the opponents on opposite sides of the screen and a "vs." superimposed between them. Points are awarded during the fight and the loser disintegrates in a shower of coins.

Micheal Cera's Scott is a very sympathetic character whose slight build and geeky persona make the fight scenes even more fun. Scott and the exes dish out and receive punishment that you can only find in a video game or a superhero movie. The noticeable lack of blood or bruises only adds to the movie's surrealism. Like the bosses at the end of a video game level, each ex has a different ability or style. One fight even involves a literal battle of the bands. Although no one in the movie behaves as if such events are normal occurrences, they quickly shrug off the weirdness.

Unfortunately, like the hilarious animated show Futurama, the weirdness may be Scott Pilgrim's greatest weakness as well as its greatest strength. Futurama is a perfect spoof of the science fiction genre, with references to sources as popular as Star Wars and as obscure as Metropolis (1927). While extremely clever to those who are familiar with sci-fi (I still think it's funny that every door in Futurama uses the sound effect from the doors in the original Star Trek series), the humor turned out to be too arcane for most viewers. The show flirted with cancellation until its fourth season when Fox finally gave it the ax. The show was resurrect by Comedy Central this year, seven years after Fox originally canceled it.

Similarly, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World spoofs martial arts movies, video games (particularly the fighting games that were first made popular by Street Fighter 2 and Mortal Combat), comic books, anime, and (in a very brief segment) Bollywood films. It does all of this in a completely serious manner. This is likely to endear the movie to a certain subset of geeks while alienating a significant number of potential viewers.

I happen to be in the targeted subset and very much enjoyed the movie. Compare this to my wife's unamused reaction when I showed her a single five minute scene. She was very glad that I didn't subject her to the whole film.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


[This review originally appeared on www.goodreads.com]

17761776 by David McCullough

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The title is a bit of a misnomer since it starts in late 1775 and ends in 1777. This can be forgiven, however, since the events of 1776 don't make much sense unless you know the American situation at the end of the previous year, and since the events at the end of 1776 carry over into the subsequent year.

David McCullough focuses primarily on the military aspects of the first full year of the American Revolution in this excellent book. The actual signing of the Declaration of Independence is presented as an aside compared to detailed studies of George Washington, King George III, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, and General Howe. Most of the narrative consists of the battles of Dorchester Heights, Long Island, and Trenton, where the young nation of the United States of America met with a mix of minor victories and significant defeats.

McCullough synthesizes hundreds of documents into a brilliant story about one of the most vital years of the American Revolution. Most of the story shows that independence was far from certain in the earliest years of the American Revolution, with the Continental Army suffering from inexperience, treachery, disorganization, and inadequate supplies. At the same time, resourceful and diligent commanders like Washington, Greene, and Knox emerged as potential saviors of the foundering nation.

This book is as entertaining as it is informative. I look forward to reading some of McCullough's other books.

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

This Day In History: The Attack on Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941 has forever become the "date which will live in infamy". Aircraft launched from six Imperial Japanese aircraft carriers attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Although the American carriers were not in port at the time, the attack was devastating. Four battleships were sunk, several other ships were damaged or sunk, and 2,402 military personnel were killed. The Japanese lost only 29 aircraft in the surprise attack.

In devising the attack, Japan had hoped to eliminate the threat of the U.S. Pacific Fleet to the Empire's plans of expansion in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. However, by failing to destroy the Pacific Fleet's carriers, and by angering a nation with unsurpassed production capability, the Empire of Japan guaranteed its own eventual defeat less than four years later on September 2, 1945.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Facebook Slacktivism

For the past few weeks, the latest fad on Facebook has been the following:
Change your Facebook profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood! The goal is to not see a human face on Facebook till Monday, December 6th. JOIN THE FIGHT AGAINST CHILD ABUSE! Copy & paste this message to your status to invite all your friends to do the same.
My wife and I have indeed changed our respective profile pictures (I'm now Brain from Pinky and the Brain), but we didn't repeat the above message, nor did we change our pictures for the above reason.

Why didn't we "JOIN THE FIGHT AGAINST CHILD ABUSE" as we were exhorted? The answer is simple; changing our profile pictures will do absolutely nothing about child abuse. Several of my Facebook friends have asked what good this trend will do, to which I've responded:
The wife and I adopted cartoon characters because it's fun, not because of the fantasy that it will actually do any good. I sometimes think that such efforts may actually do harm because they fool people into thinking they're doing some good while nothing is actually accomplished.

It's like the pink ribbon campaign; you can wear a pink ribbon all you want, but unless you're contributing to a cure for breast cancer (whether as a researcher or through donations) you're feeling good for doing essentially nothing.

The ever-popular "awareness" meme is bunk since people are usually already aware of whatever problem we're being made "aware" of.
I've always been annoyed by those self-righteous individuals who go around "raising awareness" about some cause or another. Yes, I am aware of [insert cause here] and if I a) agreed with you, b) cared enough, and c) had the ability to change it I would do something about it. But you go ahead and make yourself feel good by performing the social equivalent of using a bucket to bail out the Titanic or trying to pay down the national debt with your pocket change.

This do-nothing form of problem solving has been going on for some time now. It's even been given a name: slacktivism. Wikipedia defines slacktivism as "a pejorative term that describes 'feel-good' measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction. The acts also tend to dilute awareness campaigns and require minimal personal effort from the slacktivist."

Wikipedia also gives examples of this practice, one of which is exactly what's happening on Facebook right now:
Examples of activities labeled as "slacktivist" include signing internet petitions, the wearing of awareness ribbons or awareness bracelets with political messages, putting a ribbon magnet on a vehicle, joining a Facebook group, posting issue-oriented YouTube videos, altering one's personal data or avatar on social network services, or taking part in short-term boycotts such as Buy Nothing Day or Earth Hour.
The excellent urban legend busting site snopes.com specifically addresses Internet petitions as a form of slacktivism:
E-petitions are the latest manifestation of slacktivism, the search for the ultimate feel-good that derives from having come to society's rescue without having had to actually get one's hands dirty or open one's wallet. It's slacktivism that prompts us to forward appeals for business cards on behalf of a dying child intent upon having his name recorded in the Guinness World Book of Records or exhortations to others to continue circulating a particular e-mail because some big company has supposedly promised that every forward will generate monies for the care of a particular dying child. Likewise, it's slacktivism that promps us to want to join a boycott of designated gas companies or eschew buying gasoline on a particular day rather than reduce our personal consumption of fossil fuels by driving less and taking the bus more often.
In short, if you want to do something about child abuse, keep an eye out for the signs and symptoms in your neighborhood and avoid risky situations such as having a live-in boyfriend or girlfriend (who are statistically more likely to be the abuser). And if you have a Facebook account, go ahead and change your avatar, but do it because it's fun and not because you think you're actually doing something useful.

Different Tastes

We've set up our Netflix account to receive three DVDs at a time. Typically we arrange our queue to receive one movie for me, one for my wife, and one for both of us or for the entire family. Since my wife's movie choices rarely interest me, and vice versa, we often find ourselves in separate rooms of the house (her in the living room and me in the office) watching totally different films. Usually she's watching some sort of semi-current romantic comedy and I'm watching an off the wall sci-fi movie made fifty years ago. The sad thing is that my wife is often disappointed by the movie she chose while I have a blast.

Just over a week ago Mrs. Atomic Spud started watching Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008). I believe the plot of Miss Pettigrew involves some British governess who gets fired and finds a new job as the secretary of an American actress, blah, blah, blah. I decided to spend my time on something good instead, so I watched Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) in the office. My movie, having significantly more radioactive zombies than my wife's, was therefore the superior film. At about the halfway point the wife realized she had little tolerance for Miss Pettigrew and turned it off. One advantage of Netflix is that you pay a monthly fee so you don't feel like you've wasted too much money when you just don't like a film.

Tonight Mrs. A-Spud watched Failure to Launch (2006). Contrary to the title, the movie doesn't involve a ship or a rocket or anything else that is actually launched. Like Miss Pettigrew, it's yet another chick flick with an almost completely non-descriptive title that some filmmaker thought would be clever. Anyway, Failure is apparently about an overgrown child who lives with his parents. The parents eventually hire an "interventionist" to try to get him to go out on his own. Per the formula, the two fall in love, etc. In other words, it's another movie whose plot description translates to "blah, blah, blah" for me. I, on the other hand, watched another piece of fine cinema; i.e., The Brain that Wouldn't Die (a.k.a. The Head that Wouldn't Die) (1962). The wife got through all of Failure, but she didn't much care for it. In contrast, I got pretty much what I asked for; a psychic head that wouldn't die, mad science gone wrong, a corrupted scientist's desperate search for a suitable replacement for the head's ruined body, as much gore as you could get away with in a film made in the 1950s (but not released until the early '60s), etc.

I'm not sure I entirely understand my wife; she keeps giving chick flicks a chance despite being disappointed much of the time. Maybe it's to compensate for the fact that many of the movies she actually enjoys have more violence, spaceships, aliens, monsters, robots, magic, or superheroes than the films that women are supposed to like. Unfortunately, I just can't get her into any of the older and more arcane films that I like so much. If I could then maybe she would dump movies like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day from our Netflix queue and replace them with something good like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cinematic Pain Part VI: The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

I asked in my review of The Blood Waters of Dr. Z how you could ruin a movie in which a deranged scientist turns himself into a toxic gillman. And somehow Monster A Go-Go was tremendously boring despite the presence of a giant radioactive monster. A similar statement could be made about The Beast of Yucca Flats; how do you ruin a movie in which a Russian scientist is turned into a murderous radioactive beast by an a-bomb test? Especially when that monster is played by Tor Johnson. Ed Wood was able to make entertaining movies with Tor Johnson, for heaven's sake! Of course, Wood's movies were unintentionally humorous, but at least they were entertaining.

The movie begins with a woman killed in her home shortly after getting out of the shower. This makes no sense in the context of the rest of the film. Presumably it was the Beast that killed her, but at no time does he leave the general vicinity of where the a-bomb test occurred (i.e., the middle of nowhere). This scene, which was obviously inserted after the initial filming, constitutes 25% of the total body count. That's right; in a movie involving a murderous radioactive monster, there are four whole deaths, and one of them is the monster himself (oops, spoilers).

With that pointless sequence (which is not the first event of the movie, chronologically), we're introduced to defecting Soviet scientist Joseph Javorsky. Not long after his arrival in the United States, Javorsky and his American contacts end up in a very boring shootout with KGB agents. In his escape, Javorsky wanders into a nuclear testing area (great security there, guys) and is exposed to the radiation of an ill-timed test. He is thus turned into the titular Beast (i.e., Tor Johnson with some very rudimentary latex "radiation burns").

Shortly thereafter, the Beast kills a couple in their car. This attracts the attention of the grotesquely irresponsible and inept local police. The police, searching for the killer from a small airplane, actually open fire on a vacationing father who is out looking for his lost sons. Now, the reason the police were using an airplane was supposedly because of the inaccessibility of the flats where the monster was. The whole inaccessibility issue is then forgotten and the police end up reaching the flats on foot. Considering that the lumbering Tor Johnson was apparently able to scale the flats (while using a stick for support!), you would think that these two desert patrol officers shouldn't have had any trouble.

The police eventually search for the Beast on foot... for a very long time. The Beast wanders around the desert... for a very long time. This is a 54 minute movie and the majority of it is watching people wander around. The climax shows the Beast menacing the lost boys while they hide in a cave. The cops show up and shoot the Beast. As Javorsky lays dying, a rabbit hops up to him and nuzzles his face (no, I don't know what that's about).

Coleman Francis not only gives us a slow, minimally threatening monster and uninteresting protagonists, but he also throws in some technical incompetence as well. Throughout the movie, the narrator pipes in to ironically proclaim that the creation of the Beast and the subsequent tragedy are the results of "progress" ("the whirlwind of Progress", "the wheels of Progress", etc.). The narrator makes several declarations that are meant to be profound but are actually nonsensical and/or stupid. This is annoying. Second, to save money the movie was filmed without synchronized sound; sound effects and voices were all recorded after the fact. Francis made sure that you could never clearly see the faces of people while they were talking so that the actors dubbing the voices wouldn't have to try to match up with the mouth movements. People hold conversations with their backs to the camera, in the dark, while standing behind a car, etc. The director's attempt to hide the actors' mouths is very obvious and very annoying. At least Francis' other disasters, Red Zone Cuba and The Skydivers, had sound.

Tor wants out of this movie as much as we do.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Cinematic Pain Part V: Monster A Go-Go (1965)

Despite the ridiculous name, Monster A Go-Go is actually intended to be a serious movie with a "thought provoking" ending. The thoughts provoked involve the filmmakers and liberal application of medieval instruments of torture.

During his return to Earth, astronaut Frank Douglas disappears from his ludicrously undersized space capsule. The astronaut turns out to have been transformed into a horribly scarred and embiggened radioactive creature. Why was he transformed into said monster? Because he was given a dosage of a new type of untested "radiation repellent". This alone gives Monster A Go-Go the dubious distinction of being one of the most ignorant films with regards to radiation and radioactivity that I've ever seen.

The authorities spend the movie looking for the monster while the atomic astronaut commits several unexciting killings. This is all very boring and poorly executed. At one point the monster is apparently captured, but it escapes. I say "apparently" because none of this sequence is shown (that might have been entertaining). The movie reaches its "climax" after a very slow and time consuming chase through the sewers.

Warning: Spoilers ahead (assuming you ever want to see this abomination)

Just when it looks like the authorities will have the long-awaited showdown with the monster, the film pulls the most infuriating bait-and-switch ending ever. Upon being cornered, the monster disappears completely. A telegram is soon received reporting that the astronaut has been found in a life raft in the Atlantic Ocean; un-scarred, un-embiggened, and non-radioactive. To add insult to injury, the narrator has the gall to leave us with this little thought:
As if a switch had been turned, as if an eye had been blinked, as if some phantom force in the universe had made a move eons beyond our comprehension, suddenly, there was no trail! There was no giant, no monster, no thing called "Douglas" to be followed. There was nothing in the tunnel but the puzzled men of courage, who suddenly found themselves alone with shadows and darkness! With the telegram, one cloud lifts, and another descends. Astronaut Frank Douglas, rescued, alive, well, and of normal size, some eight thousand miles away in a lifeboat, with no memory of where he has been, or how he was separated from his capsule! Then who, or what, has landed here? Is it here yet? Or has the cosmic switch been pulled? Case in point: the line between science fiction and science fact is microscopically thin! You have witnessed the line being shaved even thinner! But is the menace with us? Or is the monster gone?
This movie was featured in season four of MST3K. Apparently, they said that it was the worst movie they had seen up to that point.

Next up: The Beast of Yucca Flats (another movie in Coleman Francis' trilogy of dreck).

How do you make a giant radioactive monster boring?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cinematic Pain Part IV: The Skydivers (1963)

Like The Blood Waters of Dr. Z, I've already mentioned Coleman Francis' bore-fest The Skydivers in a previous post:
The title says it all. Really. Well, I guess there's some sort of plot going on. A couple having marital problems runs a small airport and makes a living by giving skydiving lessons. There's an unfortunate death when one of their regular students violates the rules and tries to open his parachute below the required altitude. Scratch one minor character. Then the husband's jilted mistress teams up with a disgruntled former employee to put acid in the husband's parachute just before the big public demonstration. Scratch one major character. As the murderers flee by car, the cops follow by light aircraft, shooting at them along the way. Although I don't remember the villains carrying guns, the cops shoot them down during the foot chase anyway. Scratch the two most interesting characters in the movie.

Unfortunately, most of this movie is padding (much of it stock footage of skydiving) with the murder plot taking up only the last 15 minutes or so.
I had forgotten to mention the overlong dance sequence that seems to have been included to add some humor to the movie (it doesn't), as well as the fact that the husband is played by an actor who is incapable expressing any form of emotion. This man would make a Vulcan proud. Finally, not only is the plot paper-thin, but you also have to deal with the film's very poor sound quality. The only thing worse than boring, stilted dialogue is boring, stilted dialogue that you have to strain to hear.

Next up: Monster A Go-Go (the first movie I ever yelled at).

Thrill to the coffee-pouring action of The Skydivers!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Cinematic Pain Part III: The Wild World of Batwoman (1966)

No, this Batwoman has nothing to do with Batman. Writer/director/producer Jerry Warren noticed the popularity of the Adam West Batman series and produced his own bat-themed superhero movie. This led to a lawsuit, which Warren won. However, he decided to re-release the film under the less controversial title She Was a Hippy Vampire. This title makes no sense; with the exception of the opening scene, which has nothing to do with the rest of the plot, neither Batwoman nor her Batgirls behave like vampires, talk about vampires, or call themselves vampires. I suspect the opening scene, which shows an extremely mild sorority-esque initiation ceremony, was inserted later to justify the new title.

Apparently in her "wild world", Batwoman is a well known superheroine. However, most of the legwork is done by her Batgirls; a squad of twenty-something year old girls sworn to aid Batwoman in her fight against crime. Every day they renew this pledge, with one of their number leading the rest in the oath. These scenes serve to make the viewer embarrassed for the young actresses.

The Batgirls don't wear disguises, or nifty costumes, nor are they discrete about who they are. That's why it's not surprising when one of their number is drugged at a club and kidnapped. The kidnappers work for Batwoman's lame arch-nemesis, Rat Fink. Rat Fink informs Batwoman that he will let the girl go if she steals an atomic hearing aid for him. Instead, Batwoman shows up at the villains' lair and takes advantage of the fact that the villains are complete idiots. The girl is rescued without any excitement or entertainment occurring (whew, that was close!).

We eventually discover that Rat Fink wants the hearing aid because it can be made to explode if exposed to cobalt. Batwoman and the bat-sorority are enlisted to protect the hearing aid but are thwarted when they eat soup tainted with the villains' Happy Pill (the pill makes people dance stupidly).

After padding out the running time a bit more, Batwoman sends the Batgirls out to find Rat Fink's lair, the entrance to which is carved into a cliff near the ocean. The Batgirls, being idiots, walk along the cliff face in a single file line and out of sight of each other. They are thus captured one by one and locked in Rat Fink's laboratory. Batwoman finally gets off her bat-fanny and attacks the villains' lair. This leads to a truly embarrassing sequence in which Batwoman and the Batgirls literally chase the villains in circles around a table trying to get the atomic hearing aid away from them. I half expected to see the Three Stooges take part in the scene (at least then it would be funny). An explosion ensues but nobody is hurt. The end.

Not only are the plot, writing, and acting horrible, but the set design and costuming leave much to be desired. Batwoman's lair is an ordinary home (I wouldn't be surprised if it was Jerry Warren's) with amateurish paintings of bats on the living room walls. That the home is Batwoman's isn't even a secret. Batwoman dresses like the madame of a particularly eccentric brothel rather than a superhero. Her relationship with the Batgirls and their loyalty to her only strengthens the notion.

Unlike some of the other movies on my list, this movie isn't necessarily bad because it's boring so much as because it's stupid. It looks like something an untalented and budget-strapped high school drama club would throw together. Although I've heard that the film is supposed to be a comedy, it's so poorly done that I can't tell if it's supposed to be a farce or not. It looks like Jerry Warren saw the popularity of the 1960s Batman television show, thought that the source of this popularity was the bat-themed superhero (I think it was actually the over the top supervillains), and then built his own insipid story around that.

Next up: The Skydivers (Coleman Francis manages to make skydiving utterly boring).

Batwoman calls her agent, attempting to get out of this film

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cinematic Pain Part II: Red Zone Cuba (1966)

You'd think that a film called Red Zone Cuba would mostly feature something happening in Cuba, maybe an invasion of Cuba, an invasion by Cuba, or perhaps espionage involving Cuba. Well, this movie shows a truly pathetic invasion of and escape from Cuba, but that's merely a subplot to the main story. The main story is, of course, horrendously boring.

The movie opens with a completely pointless appearance by relatively famous actor John Carradine as a railroad worker. A reporter asks Carradine's character about three criminals who hopped his train several years before. How Carradine would know anything about this is a mystery since the criminals don't seem to interact with anybody when they hop the train later in the movie. Carradine doesn't appear in the movie again until he wraps up his story.

Escaped convict Griffin (director, writer, and producer Coleman Francis) comes across two sympathetic ex-cons. The three eventually find out that they can make quick money by signing up for some sort of military training. The training turns out to be in preparation for an invasion of Cuba's Bay of Pigs (I'm pretty sure we all know how this one turns out). Our "heroes" make poor soldiers considering that Griffin is rather portly and the two ex-cons are past their prime. When the promised up-front money doesn't materialize, the three try to go AWOL but are quickly discovered and returned to the training camp.

The thoroughly disappointing invasion of Cuba consists of less than a dozen ersatz soldiers (the real invasion involved hundreds) who are captured within about 100 yards of the beach. They are put in a prison camp and are executed one-by-one by firing squad. While awaiting execution, our three stooges find out from their wounded superior officer that his family has a mine back home. The three overpower the guard, abandon the officer, and make their way to an airstrip where they steal a small airplane. And thus ends anything directly related to "Red Zone" Cuba. I can't imagine this takes up much more than 30 to 45 minutes of a 90 minute movie.

Warning: Spoilers ahead (although I don't know if it's possible to spoil such a dull, aimless film)

Griffin and company commit several crimes to get to the mine, where they convince the officer's wife that they're friends of the officer and are there to help. However, the law eventually finds them, the movie proves that it's possible to make a shootout boring and perfunctory, and Griffin is killed. The officer, who we last saw injured and waiting for execution in Cuba, arrives home alive. The best part of the movie then follows when John Carradine finishes his story and the blessed words "The End" appear.

The man playing Griffin, Coleman Francis, was also guilty of writing and directing two other movies on my list of the worst movies I've ever seen. I'll get to those later.

Next up: The Wild World of Batwoman (it does have a "Batwoman" in it, but it's not exactly wild).

Why do you hate moviegoers so much, Mr. Francis?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cinematic Pain Part I: The Blood Waters of Dr. Z (1975)

I've already mentioned The Blood Waters of Dr. Z in a previous post. You'd think that a movie in which a deranged scientist turns himself into a toxic gillman would be great. What could possibly go wrong with this concept? Well, I'll tell you; it can have annoying narration, a plot that makes little sense, and can be deathly boring, even when the monster is on screen.

As I described this monstrosity in my prior post:
Dr. Leopold creates a chemical intended to mutate sea life into his own personal army to "take over the Universe" (with mutant fish? Do these people even know what the Universe is?). The only apparent effect of the stuff seems to be that it makes fish able to breathe out of water and walk on land. This makes them a nuisance, not a menace. In the meantime, Leopold transforms himself into an ersatz Creature from the Black Lagoon and goes on a distinctly lackluster rampage. Mostly he's trying to transform a human female into a monstrous mate for himself. The end is pointless and confusing, the movie's characters are utterly lifeless, obscene amounts of time are spent watching characters drive around, and the monster suit is downright embarrassing.
This movie is obscure enough that there's really no other way to find it nowadays except on Volume XVII of MST3K. With Mike and the 'bots making wisecracks throughout, the film is merely intolerable. Without them, I think it could actually induce insanity.

Next up: Red Zone Cuba (one of three movies on this list that can be blamed on Coleman Francis).

Not even the guys in the front row can save this one

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Cinematic Pain

I've been a b-movie enthusiast for several years now. I deliberately seek out obscure, bizarre, or just plain bad films in the hopes of finding something as entertaining as Fiend Without a Face (1958), Carnival of Souls (1962), or Bride of the Monster (1955). It doesn't matter if the movie's entertaining because it's really good (e.g., Carnival of Souls) or because it's an utter cinematic disaster and is "so bad it's good" (e.g., Bride of the Monster). Because I've seen so many movies from the low end of the quality scale, I'm generally forgiving of most movies' flaws and can still find them at least moderately enjoyable. However, as anyone who shares this particular hobby knows, you will occasionally find a movie that is so bad (boring, confusing, cheesy, moronic, etc.) that it has no entertainment value. These are movies that even Mike/Joel and the 'bots from Mystery Science Theater 3000 can't save.

I believe there are three types of movie viewers: normal people who will consciously avoid b-movies, casual b-movie fans who don't actually watch b-movies but instead watch classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) that many viewers misidentify as b-movies, and true b-movie fans. The true b-movie fan, who often suffers from self-loathing and masochism, will watch a horrendous film just to say that he watched it. And no matter how bad it is, he will suffer through to the very end of the movie. He may yell at the screen or swear eternal vengeance against the film's director or producer, but he will still watch the entire accursed thing. And then, because most masochists also have a touch of sadism in them, they will recommend the movie to a like-minded friend.

This week I will be covering six films that only the true b-movie fan can survive, although not without questioning his hobby. Even though I saw all six with the benefit of the MST3K gang's company, each one of them was a trial of endurance. Three of them are from the same writer/producer/director, against whom I intend to wreak a terrible vengeance (even though he died in 1973). These are truly awful movies; films that are so bad they're... well, just bad.

First up: The Blood Waters of Dr. Z (great title, lousy movie).

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Political Dialogue

Facebook has an interesting feature called "Questions" in which users can ask a question and receive answers from others in the Facebook community. In October the following questions was asked:
What can we do to improve the state of dialog across the political spectrum in the US? At this point it seems hopeless! [sic]
This is a question I've heard repeatedly. At the time the question was asked on Facebook, I had read up to the pre-Civil War period in Schweikart's and Allen's excellent book A Patriot's History of the United States. Among other things, A Patriot's History provides an excellent overview of the conflict between the various parties that have existed throughout our history.

It's obvious from even a cursory review of US history that "dialogue across the political spectrum" has always been poor. Although George Washington is now revered, while he was president his Federalist administration was constantly under attack by Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party. These attacks were often vicious and occasionally slanderous. This motivated Washington's warning about the danger of political parties in his Farewell Address. During John Adams' administration, Democratic-Republican attacks on the Federalists became such a nuisance that the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts; blatantly unconstitutional legislation that resulted in fines and/or jail time for those who were deemed guilty of "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government.

Political dialogue only got worse from there, reaching a low point just prior to the Civil War. One of the most infamous breakdowns in civility in the history of the United States Congress occurred on May 22, 1856 when Congressman Preston Brooks (D-SC) beat Senator Charles Sumner (R-MA) with a cane in response to Sumner's heated anti-slavery speech from a couple days before. Since Preston broke the cane while beating Sumner, his constituents sent him new ones and encouraged Preston to "hit him again".

Considering that people have been asking why the political parties can't get along since George Washington's time, I find questions about why political dialogue is currently so poor to be naive. Why is it so bad? Because human beings don't always agree and often hold very strong opinions. Is this a new phenomenon? No, it has always been bad, and has often been worse than it is today. The worst we have now are ad hominem attacks and mudslinging ads. In the 18th and 19th centuries you could find congressmen beating each other with canes or challenging each other to a duel.

But is it really a bad thing that we've divided into political parties and disagree on almost everything? Washington's contemporary and Father of the Constitution James Madison thought that political parties were a necessary component of a democratic system. He believed that the tension created by opposing parties would reduce the chance that any person or group of people could obtain an oppressive or tyrannical degree of power. I have to agree with Madison given what has happened in the recent past when a single party has achieved control of both the White House and Congress; e.g., the insane spending and power-grabbing legislation of Obama and the Democratic congress or the ever increasing fiscal irresponsibility of Bush and the Republican congress before them. Is congressional deadlock really that bad? Professor de la Paz of Robert Heinlein's novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress would argue that since laws tend to represent a curbing of personal freedom to one degree or another, it would be preferable to see the government stuck in endless debate and accomplishing nothing. "What I fear most are affirmative actions of sober and well-intentioned men, granting to government powers to do something that appears to need doing."

Anyway, I answered the Facebook question as follows:
The state of dialog will not improve. The relationship between political parties in the U.S. has been bad since there were political parties. The Federalists and the Jeffersonian Republicans were at each other's throats in the late 18th century, with the Federalists going as far as passing the Alien and Sedition Acts to silence their political opponents. In the Civil War the Unionists were composed of Republicans and so-called War Democrats and the Confederates were composed of Democrats. Ironically, the relationship between the political parties right now is better than it has been historically. At least we haven't resorted to widespread politically motivated violence yet.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Best Part About Winter

I was raised in Southern California, so you'd think that I would hate Idaho winters. Well, I'm not overly fond of the cold, but I do like to watch the snow fall. However, the best part about winter is the silence. I've mentioned before that I can't tolerate noise. This past summer and early fall has been the absolute worst for me thanks to motor-happy neighbors and one particular house in our neighborhood.

It seems that this past year has seen more motorcyclists and drivers revving their engines and roaring down the major road a few blocks away from our home than before. Most nights, around 10:30 PM (when I usually go to bed) one neighbor would leave his truck to idle while playing loud music. Even after he left I could still hear the constant drone of dozens, if not hundreds of cars. Now that there's snow on the ground and a lot of ice on the roads, motorcyclists aren't out anymore and most drivers are limiting their speed and slowing their acceleration. No more roaring or revving engines.

The other annoyance this year has been a neighbor who decided to put large speakers in his backyard. For several months I had been driven insane by a thudding base that would play into the night and, during weekends, well into the morning. The worst part of it was that my wife thought it was all in my head because she couldn't hear the music (curse my excellent hearing!). I eventually traced the source of the noise to a home about a block away. This person had set up the kind of tents you see at airshows or other public events in his yard and apparently liked to listen to loud music there during all hours of the day and night. I really don't know how his immediate neighbors tolerated it. Since I'm not a confrontational person, I never talked to him or reported the noise. Thankfully, with the cold weather and snow he's taken down his tents and doesn't listen to his music outside anymore.

In previous years I've looked forward to the coming of warm weather. Since warm weather is now likely to mean the return of constant, maddening noise, winter may not last long enough.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Giant Claw and Creature with the Atom Brain

Once again I have to admit that I love Netflix. It allows me to watch movies that I would never actually buy and can't find in your average video rental store. This time I watched two films from the Sam Katzman "Icons of Horror Collection": The Giant Claw (1957) and Creature with the Atom Brain (1955).

The Giant Claw is notorious for it's bizarrely uneven handling of science (how do you correctly describe a muonic atom while mangling just about every other scientific aspect?), inept use of stock footage (a flight of F-80s turn into F-84s, F-86s, and F-102s, all of which look very different), and the hysterically bad execution of the titular creature (a giant space vulture with anti-matter shields). In order to save money, produce Sam Katzman had the creature made by a model-maker in Mexico City; none of the actors ever saw it before the film's premier. The movie's lead actor was apparently so embarrassed by the final film that he walked out on opening night. Behold the awesome terror of THE GIANT CLAW:

The giant space puppet bird comes to earth to lay eggs and eat random things: airplanes, cars, trains, buildings, etc. Mitch MacAfee (regular b-movie actor Jeff Morrow), an electronics engineer working for the Air Force, and mathematician Sally Caldwell (the attractive Mara Corday, who is the best thing about this movie) have to figure out how to stop the googly-eyed peril before it destroys the world. This film falls firmly into the "so bad it's good" category.
A- (for entertainment value and Mara Corday), D- (for just about everything else)

Creature with the Atom Brain is a significantly better movie. The creature (creatures, actually, since there are nearly a dozen of them) are corpses that are reanimated with radioactivity and are remotely controlled by a convicted mob boss and a German scientist. The superhumanly strong automatons start killing those who helped to convict the mob boss, leaving behind strong traces of radioactivity. Police scientist Chet Walker (Richard Denning, whose justly deserved fate in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) caused my girls to cheer) quickly figures out what's going on. Of course, he faces an uphill battle in convincing others of his theory.

The filmmakers' grasp of the physics of radiation and radioactivity is poor, but the movie is actually pretty good. The only real misstep is the mid-movie creature rampage, in which the monsters supposedly cause a number of disasters such as train crashes and airplane explosions. The scene is composed of stock footage mayhem and superimposed footage of the creatures from the film's climax (a fight between the creatures, soldiers, and the police). The stock and reused footage, as well as the fact that the creatures were explicitly said to be small in number and limited in how long they can function (their brains tend to fail after a few days) make me think that this was a last minute addition to make the creatures seem more threatening.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Unexpected Day Off

Each work day I leave the house about about 5 AM and walk a mile to my bus stop. Well, I left the house this morning and the weather proved to be a bit less hospitable than usual.

I went out into the snow anyway and arrived at the bus stop to find one of my fellow employees. He said that he had called the facility's weather line around 5 AM and that the recording said that our buses were expected to be running but that he should check back later. The wind having picked up, we decided to use my cell phone to call the line again. At some point while I had been trudging through the snow with a 25 MPH wind and a 16 degree wind chill factor, they had decided that no buses were going to be running. Apparently they didn't want hundreds of people in the middle of the Idaho High Desert during a blizzard. As happy as I was to have an unexpected vacation day, I didn't look forward to the walk back; not only was the wind even worse than when I left home but this time it was in my face the whole way back.

What's funny about this is that, up until recently, we've been having an unusually warm fall. The Saturday before last I was mowing the lawn. This Saturday I was shoveling the driveway. It sure isn't like my childhood home in San Diego, where they don't actually have weather, just climate. Here in southeast Idaho we can see a larger range in temperature in one day than San Diego might see between summer and winter. Even then, I still prefer living in Idaho.

Fellow employees brave the elements trying to get to work

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Christmas Tradition

Today we took the family to the mall to fulfill an annual Christmas tradition. We went to the Hallmark store where we each bought a Christmas tree ornament. Okay, so I got two, but I paid for one from my own allowance. As per tradition, I bought a Star Wars and a Star Trek ornament.

The tradition started years ago when my Grandma surprised me with a small Christmas tree covered in Star Wars and a Star Trek ornaments (Grandma has always known what I like). Since that Christmas she has added at least one ornament to my collection each year. I have significantly enlarged the collection with previous years' ornaments I found on eBay as well as my own annual purchases. Every year the collection goes up on "Daddy's tree"; a Christmas tree we keep in the basement living room just for my ornaments. The family tree (i.e., the tree we're willing to let normal people see) is kept upstairs.

This year I got Captain Kirk; the first in a promised set (I assume Spock and McCoy will follow in the next couple years). I also got Luke Skywalker in his snowspeeder flight suit. Interesting how both are shown in an action pose with a futuristic weapon in his hand. Christmas just isn't Christmas without some sort of raygun, I guess. The girls got various Disney or Barbie ornaments (I think I'll stick with my rayguns) while Son of Atomic Spud got Superman. Since Dad has his Star Wars/Star Trek theme, Mom decided the boy should have a superhero theme. I tried to convince her that he would want Star Wars and Star Trek too, but I think my motivations were too obvious. Superheroes are a good second choice, though.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


I've previously mentioned Dan Simmons' Hyperion on day 12 of my 31 Monsters of October marathon. I recently finished Hyperion, which made up the first half of Hyperion Cantos; the long out of print combination of Hyperion and its immediate sequel The Fall of Hyperion that I found at the used book store for less than $10. These books are the first two of a four book saga.

Seven hundred years in the future mankind is dispersed throughout the galaxy. Old Earth is long gone, the victim of an unfortunate incident involving a miniature black hole. The core of the Hegemony, the government of most of humanity, consists of the WorldWeb; planets that are connected by instantaneous transportation devices called farcasters. Planets that are not yet connected by farcasters must be reached by starship. Although most starships are equipped with faster-than-light Hawking drives, travel between the stars still requires a significant amount of time.

The story centers around the colonial planet of Hyperion; a backwater world outside of the WorldWeb. The planet is well known for the mysterious "Time Tombs" that are surrounded by an anti-entropic force field (which actually causes the Time Tombs to move backward through time) and the creature known as the Shrike. The Shrike is a horrifying four-armed monstrosity that has glowing crystalline eyes and is covered in metallic blades and thorns. The Shrike has been limited to the area immediately around the Time Tombs for centuries but has recently begun to range farther and farther from them. The creature is worshiped by the powerful Church of the Shrike, which believes that the Shrike will be instrumental in the end of mankind. Until recently the Church had sponsored pilgrimages to the Time Tombs. Many of these pilgrimages ended without any survivors.

In addition to the Shrike, the Hegemony now finds itself threatened by the Ousters; a lost branch of mankind. As humanity left the doomed Earth for other inhabitable worlds, the Ousters decided to cut all ties with the rest of humanity and to dwell between the stars in vast fleets. With the Ousters moving against Hyperion, and with the Shrike's newfound mobility indicating that it may finally begin the Apocalypse, the pilgrimage that comprises most of the book may very well be the last.

Unlike prior pilgrimages, none of the current group of seven pilgrims is a member of the Shrike Church, although all have some connection to Hyperion or to the Shrike. Like the pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, each pilgrim tells his or her story. The stories are what make Hyperion really interesting. Some are told in the first person while others are told in the third person. One is told as a series of journal entries while another is told according to a person's stream of consciousness. Some of the stories are filled with action, a couple are more horrific, and a couple are heartbreaking. The stories build on each other, gradually revealing more and more about the nature of the Hegemony and about the role of Hyperion and the Shrike in the fate of humanity. Additionally, the motive and character of each pilgrim is exposed as his or her story is told. The reader eventually sympathizes with characters that were initially unlikeable.

The story is grand in its scope and Simmons' worldbuilding is some of the best I've encountered. To top it off, Simmons doesn't forget to give the reader a cast of interesting, fully fleshed out people. I've read too many science fiction novels written by authors that were so fascinated by the fictional worlds they created that they forgot to give us a plot or characters that we'll care about (e.g., Greg Bear's Eon).

I only have two complaints. First, there are a few characters that regularly employ fairly strong language. Although this is how some people are in reality (and I often work with people who swear just as frequently), it was still enough to bother me. Fortunately the whole book isn't laced with obscenities since Simmons uses this as a particular character trait. Second, the book contains a significant amount of sexuality that is described with a bit too much detail for my comfort. Although I wholeheartedly recommend this book to readers of science fiction, I can only recommend this book to mature adults who are not easily offended.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Trying a New Approach

As I've mentioned before, I have been suffering from temporal mandibular joint disorder (TMJ disorder or TMD) for several years now. Because I constantly clench my teeth, both while I'm sleeping as well as when I'm awake, the right-side joint of my jaw has been damaged. It grinds and clicks when I work my jaw and causes a lot of pain in my face and head. Since many of the nerves that control the face can be affected by TMJ problems, on my worst days I have sharp pain radiating into my teeth, nose, throat, and tongue.

In addtion to the TMJ-related problems, I've also had tension headaches, which feel like a band around the head, for about a year. Although not particularly painful, these often started in the morning and would last all day. However, when the headaches started getting more frequent and stopped responding to the Excedrin I was taking on a regular basis, I went to our favorite doctor; i.e., the Internet. It turns out that Excedrin is a common cause of rebound or medicine-caused headaches. Apparently, if you take pain-killers like Excedrin more than twice a week (I was taking them more than that a day), you can actually cause headaches. About two weeks ago I stopped taking Excedrin and anything with caffeine (another culprit in rebound headaches). Although I had horrible withdrawal headaches for a few days, within a week my tension headaches were effectively gone.

Of course, with the tension headaches gone, another irritation will step in to take its place. Since the right side of my jaw doesn't work right, it was only a matter of time before it started to affect the other side. Recently the symptoms have started to appear on the left side of my jaw and head. I can tolerate the pain on one side, but not on both. I therefore bought an inexpensive bite guard on Amazon.com. Without anything between the upper and lower teeth, the jaw will tend to clench with a lot of force; bite guards short-circuit the jaw's tendency to do this. The bite guard I bought tells you not to use it for TMJ problems, but I assume that this is because it's not FDA approved for such usage. I'm sure that this is the reason why this bite guard cost about $10 and the slightly more customized (but FDA approved!) dentist-produced ones cost about $200.

I wore the bite guard last night and, amazingly, I woke up without the usual tired jaw muscles and related pain. Unfortunately I also clench my teeth during the day, so the pain has since come back. At least I got a brief reprieve this morning.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Back to Normal Blogging

It was a lot easier to blog when I was doing the Halloween monster countdown. I had a predetermined topic and a specific goal in mind. Most of the posts were prepared two days to a week in advance. Now I actually have to come up with new topics.

This Halloween season was pretty good. We were invited to a costume party with friends the Friday night before Halloween. Although I dislike nearly all social events, this party was actually quite fun. The food was good, the company was agreeable, and the games were enjoyable. The wife and I dressed up as radioactive zombies using yellow jumpsuits we bought on eBay for a very reasonable cost and then marked with the nuclear trefoil. Green makeup, fake blood, and peeling latex skin completed the outfits.

Halloween being on Sunday, and this being Idaho, it was the accepted practice to go Trick-Or-Treating on Saturday night. Just like last year we dressed the family in Star Wars costumes and went around the immediate neighborhood in the early evening. We were in disbelief when we returned home and found that the bowl of candy we had left on the doorstep with the sign saying "take two only" actually still had candy in it. It's refreshing when people are honest.

We gave out candy until the groups of kids thinned out and the teens and pre-teens started to come out. Since we have little patience for teenagers who generally don't even bother to wear real costumes, we closed up for the night by blowing out the Jack-O'-Lanterns (mine was a Stormtrooper) turning out all the houselights, and watching TV in the dark. This is our yearly tradition and is about 96% effective at letting the teenagers know that we don't really want to answer the door anymore.

We made sure we had some candy left for any kids that might come by on Sunday night. All we got was a single cluster of parents with a few toddlers in tow.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

31 Monsters of October, Day 31: Dracula

Real World Origin:
Literature, Dracula by Bram Stoker

In-Universe Description:
Jonathan Harker ends up in a nightmare when he is sent to Transylvania to assist Count Dracula in purchasing property in England. At first Dracula's behavior is merely strange: he disappears during daylight hours, he warns Harker not to leave his room at night, and his castle appears to be completely empty of other inhabitants.

It doesn't take too long for Harker to realize that he is a prisoner in the castle and that Dracula is a vampire who is looking for new hunting grounds in England. While Harker tries to escape from the castle, Dracula is transported to England by ship in a box of soil. The ship eventually runs aground with all hands missing except the captain, who is dead. A large dog is seen leaving the ship.

Dracula begins stalking Jonathan Harker's fiancée, Mina, and her friend Lucy using his power to shapeshift into a dog, a bat, or a mist. Night after night he preys on Lucy and day after day her suitors (she originally has three) notice that she appears weaker than the day before. Finally one of her suitors calls his friend Professor Van Helsing to help. Van Helsing quickly determines that Lucy is the victim of a vampire, although he is reluctant to admit it. Lucy eventually dies and returns from the grave as a vampire that preys on the local children. Van Helsing and Lucy's chosen fiancé are forced to dispatch Lucy by staking her through the heart and beheading her.

With the return of Jonathan Harker to England, Harker, Mina, Lucy's suitors, and Van Helsing make a pact to find and destroy Dracula. Knowing that Dracula must sleep in boxes of soil brought from his homeland, the vampire hunters seek out the boxes and ruin them. Dracula avenges himself by preying on Mina while she is unprotected. In addition to drinking her blood, he forces her to drink some of his blood, which bonds Mina to him. Slowly Mina begins to show signs of becoming a vampire. However, her link with Dracula also allows the hunters to determine that Dracula has given up on England and is returning to Transylvania.

Van Helsing and the other vampire hunters know that unless Dracula is killed, upon her death Mina will be cursed to become a vampire. Thus, they must follow Dracula to his homeland and destroy him.

The character of Dracula was very loosely based on Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (1431-1476), also known as Vlad Dracula or Vlad the Impaler. The nickname of "the Impaler" came from his favorite method of torture and execution. Although there is no legend linking Vlad the Impaler with vampirism, it's logical that Bram Stoker would use the name of a bloodthirsty tyrant from the region where much of European vampire lore appears to have originated.

Bram Stoker borrowed several elements from European folklore; e.g., the standard method of killing a vampire (staking and beheading), the vampire's lack of a reflection or shadow, its aversion to holy symbols and garlic, and the vampire's shapeshifting abilities. However, Stoker also modified the folkloric vampire to produce Dracula. The vampires of European legends did not live in castles and pretend to be nobility but instead returned to their graves at daybreak. They were supposed to have dark or ruddy skin rather than Dracula's pale skin.

Subsequent stories and films have further changed the rules of vampires that Stoker created. For example, Stoker's Dracula is not harmed by sunlight and is even seen by Mina and Jonathan Harker in the middle of the day in London. Van Helsing explains that daylight merely deprives the vampire of its superhuman strength and ability to shapeshift. The idea that a vampire is destroyed by daylight was introduced in the film Nosferatu (1922), which was loosely based on Stoker's novel. Another change is the idea that only a wooden stake (sometimes made of a particular wood) will have any effect on a vampire. In Dracula this is the method used to kill all vampires except Dracula himself, who is stabbed through the heart with a bowie knife. The vampire instantly crumbles to dust as a result.

Dracula was adapted for the stage and later for film; the most famous of which being Dracula (1931). This film greatly deviates from the novel. The visitor to Dracula's castle is changed from Harker into Renfield; the lunatic from Stoker's novel who plays a relatively minor role. Lucy's suitors are replaced by a single individual who is now Mina's father. Among other changes: the hunt for Dracula is truncated, Mina's link to Dracula is somewhat downplayed, and the climax of the film occurs in England. The 1992 film Bram Stoker's Dracula may be the most faithful adaptation of the novel, although it inserts a previously non-existent plotline in which Mina is the reincarnation of Dracula's wife from before he was cursed to be a vampire. This makes him a sympathetic villain rather than the loathsome and irredeemable creature from Stoker's novel.

Dracula was saved for the very end of the 31 monster countdown due to the influence that the character has had on the horror genre since 1897. To this day vampires continue to appear regularly in literature and film. Though they may change the mythology, the rules of vampirism, etc., they still owe their existence to Dracula; the father of the modern vampire.


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