Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Recover and Recoup

Back from the holiday.
Girls sunburnt.
Wife exhausted.
Me, fatter, not wiser.

Marathon days at the beach.
Lotsa ice cream et.
Father-in-law treats for dinner and more.
Let’s stop at Chipotle on the way home!

Finished The Black Hole.
Half through As You Like It.
Did Kant in 90 minutes.
Head scratching over C. P. R.

Sleep deprived.
Outta breath.
Too much to do here, now.

Too much work
That which doesn’t pay.
Keeps piling up.
Woe is I!

Online job postings and more.
Balance the check book and pay bills.
More school events this week than available hours.
Too stressed to even write or think.

Where is my Carthusian cell?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Never Forget

In the history of the United States, nearly 1.4 million men and women, soldiers and support staff, have lost their lives defending this country and the ideals it represents and embodies.

May God bless you all.

We will never forget your sacrifice.

* * *

Death toll of some selected conflicts …

Revolutionary War – 25,000
War of 1812 – 20,000
Mexican-American War – 13,283
Civil War – 625,000
Spanish-American War – 2,446
World War I – 116,516
World War II – 405,399
Korean War – 53,686
Vietnam War – 153,303
Gulf War – 258
Afghanistan War – 1,413
Iraq War – 4,430


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

We’re travelling to my father-in-law’s on the Jersey shore for the next two days. Not sure if I’ll have access to a PC. He and my girls will most likely be spending all of Sunday and part of Monday on the beach, camping out right out to the waves. They’re all beach bums. Me, not so much. I’m bringing my laptop and will camp out at my FIL’s pad. Also bring my next Shakespeare, my current SF read, and a philosophy or religion book. I’m looking forward to lots of reading, writing, and a real long, well-deserved nap.

Not sure what we’re doing Sunday night, but if tradition holds, we’ll go out to eat somewhere on the “boardwalk.” FIL likes an Italian restaurant that serves decent food at a decent price run by very nice folks. After that we’ll take the girls for ice cream. Okay, I’ll have some ice cream, too.

It’s tradition, too, to watch the Memorial Day parade down there. The girls love it because all the marchers and parade participants – firemen, policemen, EMS workers, local politicians, scouts, school bands – they all toss out assorted candies as they go by. Little One and now Patch will be fielding flying treats and scooping them up into their oversized hats with glee.

We’re renting a room overnight because the bungalow we’ve been in for the past couple of years is not available this weekend. Motel’s cheap but respectable; FIL booked a room with his senior discout and eyeballed the place. I just don’t want to share a cheap motel with a hundred drunk frat boys and girls. We’ll see; hopefully I won’t have anything to blog about in this regard next week.

Spent the day yesterday preparing for our trip. Did errands, just me and the Little One, always the best part of the week. How’s this – she’s memorized some lyrics to one of my Yes songs, and she sounds exactly like John Anderson! I like to reverse it, and note to anyone who’s interested that the lead singer for the progressive rock group Yes sounds like a six-year-old girl. But I say that with love and props, because I love all them old guys.

Finished watching the DVD of Cymbeline Friday night. Whew. Now I have four previously-unread Shakespearean plays under my belt. I’m going back to a comedy next, As You Like It. Took the Folger’s Library edition of the play and the BBC DVD from the library during our errand run; can’t wait to crack it.

Saturday afternoon we put the girl’s in their bathing suits and turned on the sprinkler in the backyard. One of the joys of parenthood, watching them prance about the yard, squealing with delight, jumping over the water sprinkler. Then the wife did some gardening and I strummed my guitar. A beautiful beginning summer day. Life is good, at least for this brief moment in time.

Not much else to note. One job lead in the works, but I promised myself and those I’ve revealed it to not to get too excited; these things have a tendency of falling depressingly flat when hopes rise to a certain level. Next week will be busy beyond all crazy; as a matter of fact, the whole entire summer looks to be busy. That’s depressing to me. While doing the laundry earlier yesterday I wondered what exactly I had to do to become a Carthusian monk. These are the chaps who take a vow of silence; what a delight living in such a monastery must be!

Wait – I gotta run. Someone’s calling me – yelling for me, actually – to go upstairs, and I hear hysterically crying children. Talk to ya later …

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Shakespeare by the Numbers

Some raw data I found interesting ...

Shakespeare wrote at least 37 plays.

2 additional plays, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Edward III, are gaining acceptance as part of the “canon.”

Hamlet is the longest play, with 4,024 lines.

The Comedy of Errors is the shortest, at 1,787.

The mean is Measure for Measure at 2,891 lines.

By my reckoning, a live performance of a Shakespearean play proceeds at about 750-850 lines per hour.

Shakespeare wrote just shy of a million words, around 990,000 or so, in his 39 plays. (I’ve read how-to authors flatly state that you need to write a million words or so until you “find your voice.” So he’s almost there ...)

He was born in 1564 and died 52 years later, in 1616. Although it can’t be proven beyond doubt, tradition has it he was born on the same day he would later die, April 23.

All 37 to 39 plays were written, as best can be ascertained, within a 24 year period, from 1589 to 1613.

Will, at age 18, married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway.

Shakespeare had 3 children: Susanna when he was 19; twins Judith and Hamnet a year later. His son, Hamnet, died at age 12 when Will was 32. Man, that’s young to be a father, let alone to bury your child. But it was not uncommon in Elizabethan England.

6 authenticated signatures of the Bard exist to this day, each one with a different spelling:
- William Shackper
- William Shakspear
- William Shakspea
- William Shackspere
- Willm. Shakspere
- William Shakspeare
Interestingly, none reflect the current accepted spelling of his name. (At first, I found this Elizabethan fluidity of spelling to be maddening, but now I’m quite enamored of it. The triumph of the right hemisphere over the left!)

Shakespeare used about 28,000 different words in his plays. Compare this to the 7,500 to 10,000 words the average man or woman of today uses. On that statistic alone word lovers all over the globe need to read and study the Bard.

In addition to 37, 38, or 39 plays, Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. They are usually referred to by their numbers.

The top 5 “wordiest” characters in Shakespeare are: Hamlet (1,422 lines), Richard III (1,124), Iago (1,097), Henry V (1,025), and Othello (860). The top 14 speakers are all male characters. Rosalind, from As You Like It, is the first female, at number 15 on the list, with 668 speaking lines.

Shakespeare also wrote 6 other poems, generally longer and of a more “epic” nature than the 154 sonnets.

The Hopper averages 3.375 hours reading a Shakespearean play, spread out over 3.5 days.

(Most of the above data taken from The Shakespeare Book of Lists by Michael LoMonico)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Duke Nukem

I was never much of a gamer, even to this day. (With one major exception.) Back during the advent and widespread availability of the PC, say the early 90s, I used mine (running Windows 3.1) mainly for

- school reports and projects (remember WYSIWYG?)
- research (astronomy, physics, and history, such as the French Revolution)
- social networking (I guess; remember Prodigy?)

But not so much games. Until I hooked up with my long-lost high school pal Bob.

Bob was a gamer, and his first task was to get me a new machine with an up-to-date OS. We went to one of those computer conventions and bought a PC piecemeal for $1400, a bargain back in those days. A mutual acquaintance built the whole thing for me, configured it and set it up, got me online access, over the course of two hours. Then Bob loaded Quake and Duke Nukem on it. We drove back to my apartment and hooked everything up.

And I became hooked that summer.

I guess it was 96 or 97. Not sure. But I spent an inordinate amount of time playing those two games. I mean, hours. Over the weekend I would literally be up all night playing them, going to bed as dawn lightened the skies and the birds started their yapping. I’d wake up in the afternoon and resume my saved games. I would beat the game, then start all over. I would play a level and thoroughly search every nook and cranny for secret passageways. I would discover the quickest, most efficient way to dominate a level. Then I’d do speed runs where I tried to kill everything and get all my objectives obtained in the shortest amount of time.

After a month or two I grew bored and I bought Star Wars Dark Forces. Then it was rinse, wash, repeat, ad infinitum, for another month or two. By the end of the summer I bought Microsoft Flight Simulator (with joystick), Quake II, You Don’t Know Jack, Voyetra Music Write, and, later, Half-Life. For either my birthday or Christmas the family gave me Extreme Chess and Microsoft Links. I was still working full-time, having finished night school the year before, but now my evenings and weekends were completely full.

Then, I got a girlfriend. The future Mrs. Hopper.

Suddenly, I stopped the games, cold turkey. I banged out the first draft of my first novel the first seven months of 1999. A year later we relocated down to Maryland where I got a job doing IT support. The internet was in full blossom, and I spent any free time – which was a fraction of what it was a few years prior – exploring the web and tinkering with the inner workings of Windows and Dell computers.

The only game I really played in the past decade was Freecell, and that only on the rare occasions I was dueling with writer’s block.

A few days ago I saw an online ad for MS-DOS games and clicked on it – and guess what? You can now download and play Quake and Duke Nukem for free! Games that took up half of my hard drive now take up something like half a percent. Downloads that used to take an hour take 45 seconds. I tried downloading both; however, I was only able to get Duke Nukem to open to play.

I simply cannot adequately describe the wave of nostalgia that flooded over me! The layout of these worlds, long forgotten, were now suddenly yanked up into my consciousness. I was kinda uncoordinated at first, but after ten minutes the keyboard controls were again second nature. For two hours straight I played up to the third levels of LA Meltdown, Shrapnel City, and Lunar Apocalypse. (I wasted a lot of time trying to recall where secrets were, where bad guys were hiding, where switches that opened doors were, etc.) It was quite an enjoyable time: time flew by incredibly fast and I forgot all my worries and troubles.

A troubling thought nagged me from the start, though. What if I got hooked again? I can’t afford to spend 30-40 hours on this nonsense, not with the girls, their extracurricular activities, the household chores, the job hunt, the writing, the reading. Don’t even have 3-4 hours a week to spend on it.

But you know what? The next day I had absolutely no desire to play. I thought about it from time to time, but didn’t actually find the time to sit down and start playing. The next day I played for about ten minutes, then grew bored. My diagnosis right now is that Duke Nukem holds a ton of nostalgia power, but nostalgia power is not a sustainable driving force, ultimately, in the long run. Nostalgia is a cross between a longing for and a fond reminiscence of the idealized past. And when you bring something from the past into the present, it’s ultimately a dead sort of thing. Better to focus your efforts and energies, your whole being, on the present and what interests you now. Because that will be what you’ll be nostalgic for a year, five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years later.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there are some aliens invading Los Angeles and mankind needs my help ...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Green Hornet

All right. Often in my literary and cinematic tastes I tend to go against public opinion and conventional wisdom. When all my friends and millions of entertainment consumers out there love something, I’ll cross my arms and point out why I hate it, as long as I legitimately disdain it. I’m not a gadfly or a curmudgeon, you know. Similarly, when everybody hates a show or a book or a movie, and somehow someway I like it, I have no problem saying so.

It appears I’m going to continue this trend with this review.

The Green Hornet, starring Seth Rogen: I liked it.

I’m actually shrugging my shoulders as I’m typing this. Me and my pal watched it last night, renting it for a buck from one of those Redbox kiosks. My wife and her girlfriend saw it in the theaters. Millions – I guess, maybe it was thousands – saw it, too, when it was unleashed unto the public this past January. Most if not all came away with the opinion that it was completely crappy to borderline crappy.

I, however, liked it.

The movie follows the standard formulaic superhero movie algorithm: somewhat ordinary guy meets tragedy, discovers either super power or applies his vast wealth to create a super power, fights crime, minor showdown with bad guy, major showdown with bad guy. So I’m not going to go into details of the plot. There are no surprises, but that’s to be expected. I didn’t hold it against the film because I figgered upon it going into it.

From what I’ve heard and read, the film disappointed mainly on two points. Two very big points: Seth Rogen as the Green Hornet, and Christoph Waltz as the bad guy, Chudnofsky. A lot of people came away thinking Rogen’s shtoner shtick as inappropriate for a superhero flick. And I’ve read somes that Christoph’s baddie is a far, far cry from his terrifying, Oscar-winning portrayal of a Nazi villain in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

To small extents, I agree. I don’t know why it is exactly, but I enjoy Rogen’s act. Probably because he reminds me of at least two guys I hung out with a lot in my youth. The thing is, he’s not an ac-tor, he’s just a guy with a goofy personality that shows through every role he plays, regardless of the role. While I watched The Green Hornet I enjoyed his “careless and carefree schlub” interpretation of the part; I thought it attacked that formulaic algorithm from a unique angle.

In my wife’s opinion, not so much.

Yes, Chudnofsky was too cartoonish compared to Tarantino’s sick Nazi bastard, but this movie is a cartoon. His over-the-top violence, though, grated on me after a while. Two things I absolutely hate about bad guys. The first I call Evil to the Very End. That’s where the villain or one of the villain’s henchmen, at the very abyss of death and meeting his Maker, will still try with his last dying breath to slaughter our hero. The second is the Bad Guy Who Inspires Loyalty in His Minions By Killing Them Unpredictably in Fits of Anger. That should be self-explanatory. Both are on display here.

A couple other things annoyed me. Too many car chases, too many car crashes. About forty-thousand headache-inducing rounds of ammunition fired off, and that’s by the one-hour mark. An absolutely miscast and frankly irritating Cameron Diaz. Multi-cultural henchmen and minions costumed straight out of an 80s Michael Jackson video.

But still I managed to look past that, for one major reason.


Kato is the reason to see this movie. He’s really the heart and soul of it, whereas Green Hornet is just obnoxious comic relief. The choreography and special cinematic effects during the martial arts scenes involving Kato are the movie. They’re very, very well done and quite a pleasure to watch. And they share anchoring duty with the Batman-like technology: that black 60s car with its bullet-proof glass and 21st century armor and the weaponry the vast array of buttons and switches on the dashboard unleash. I even liked the minimalist costumes; everything tied in with everything else to give a perfect balance of modern metallic retro.

So, weighing the pros and the cons and doing some mental calculus, I come up with a grade of B-plus for the film.

Your mileage may vary.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Dozen Destinations

12 foreign places I’d love to visit, in no particular order:

  • the Temple in Jerusalem

  • the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

  • the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris

  • Westminster Abbey in London

  • Shakespeare’s birthplace and grave in Stratford-on-Avon

  • that 130-foot statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro

  • the Pyramids and the Sphinx in Giza

  • a really, really big glacier in Alaska

  • a pub on the English moors (maybe near Tolkien’s home)

  • a shady terrace on the French Riviera

  • St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City

  • the excavations of Aristotle’s Lyceum in Athens

  • Tuesday, May 24, 2011

    5 Books in Need of a Film

    C’mon Hollywood, stop bringing old sitcoms to the big screen. Stop making sequel after sequel after sequel. Stop remaking Japaneses slasher movies. Stop making full-length features of bad SNL skits. Stop!

    Get some smart screenwriter to adapt the plots and characters of these books:

    1. A Confederacy of Dunces. I know this has been in green-light hell for years. I know that Will Ferrell was attached to the project for a while, but he ain’t right for the role. Need someone more slobbier, more snobbier, for Ignatius. If I think of anyone, I’ll let you know.

    2. Killerbowl. If done right, we’ll have a worthy successor to the Rollerball of the 70s. If done right, you’ll have yer violence with yer anti-violence message. If done right.

    3. Eifelheim. Since we’re mixing cowboys and aliens this summer, why not go to some truly moving source material and combine medievals and aliens. The last five pages of this novel made me dread ever sitting behind a keyboard again – how can I ever, ever, ever hope to write anything a fraction as moving as those final scenes! Give it to a young, intelligent director (keep Jerry Bruckheimer far, far away from it) and let him bring it tastefully to the big screen.

    4. A Voyage for Madmen. A trans-global non-stop sea race. Nine men begin. One finishes. One dies. One decides to skip the finish line and keep going. Real terrifying scenes of internal madness and physical hell on earth. The wife and I have already cast Colin Firth as Donald Crowhurst. Get him to sign the dotted line and begin filming.

    5. Man Plus. With a heavy dose of Spielbergian direction and not-too-overt use of CGI, you got summer blockbusters here. Action, back-breaking suspense, and a moral, too, somewhere in there.

    Now, if only I could write screenplays …

    Monday, May 23, 2011

    Employment Question of the Month


    Does one really need to be “high energy” and “love” a “dynamic and high-speed work environment” to get a job crunching data in a cubicle?


    Yes, I’ve been perusing the on-line want ads this morning.

    I’m good at what I did for a living, I enjoyed what I did for a living, but I am by nature a rather quiet and reticent guy. Like roughly a quarter of you all out there. Are we to be economically punished for not being Type-A adrenaline junkies in the workplace?

    I really think that by mid-summer I’m going to be working the overnight shift in some supermarket for a few dollars a week.

    Back to regularly scheduled programming tomorrow …

    Sunday, May 22, 2011

    Dross of Self

    “… Somehow, by the trials and tribulations of this life, our souls must be purified of this dross of self if we are to become ultimately acceptable to God. For each of us the trails will come in different ways and at different times – for some, self may be easier to overcome than for others – but we were created to do God’s will and not our own, to make our own wills conform to His and not vice versa. We can daily pray for the grace to do this, without always meaning it; we can promise quite easily in prayer that we will do it. What we fail to see is how much of self still resides in that promise, how much we are trusting in our own powers when we way that we will do it. In large tests or small, therefore, God must sometimes allow us to act on our own so we can learn humility, so we can learn the truth of our total dependence on Him, so we can learn that all our actions are sustained by His grace and that without Him we can do nothing – not even make our own mistakes.

    … And the stronger the ingredient of self develops in our lives, the more severe must our humiliations be in order to purify us.”

    - He Leadeth Me, by Fr. Walter J. Ciszek, S.J., pgs. 69-70

    Saturday, May 21, 2011

    Shakespeare Saturday

    Okay, I admit it. Despite my best efforts, I’m bitten by the bug. Despite every fiber of my soul crying out in agony, I’ve fallen hard for it. I’m hooked.

    I’m reading Shakespeare.

    I guess it has something to do with the plan I stumbled upon (written about, here) while searching for the best version of the Bard’s plays. In the past two weeks I’ve read and watched three Shakespearean plays: The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Much Ado About Nothing. I’ve spent no money (all are borrowed from one of my very well-stocked libraries), which is good, since I have no money to spend.

    I do have time, usually at night when everyone’s asleep or when insomnia kicks in. You may think Will a great cure for the inability to nod off, but, strangely, for me, this isn’t the case. I can read him for an hour at a pop, and still feel charged enough to keep going. For the record keepers, I can put away a play in two, two-and-a-half hours. The BBC Television Shakespeare plays I’ve been watching on my little DVD player take about two-and-a-half to three hours a piece.

    Because I’m no expert and hardly have any idea what I’m talking about, I can’t really review them (plays and DVDs) and would feel quite out of my league even attempting an analysis or whatnot. Surely nothing like what I enjoy doing to a good SF read. So let me just grade ’em on how I liked them: personal appeal and enjoyment. Pure subjective opinion; I really don’t want to give the impression I’m casting judgment on the work as a work of high literature.


    The Tempest … A
    A Midsummer Night’s Dream … A+
    Much Ado About Nothing … B+


    The Tempest … A+
    A Midsummer Night’s Dream … D
    Much Ado About Nothing … A

    Yeah, didn’t like the BBC interpretation of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

    I’ve also been reading a lot of side stuff about Shakespeare as well as the plays themselves. Back in January when I found myself drawn into Tolkien, I decided to do a post every Tuesday on some aspect of the Master or his great works. I think I’ll do the same about the Bard. A lot of info I’ve been browsing through I find intensely interesting. It seems overwhelming, but I think the discipline of fashioning a weekly post about him and / or his plays will prove a worthy investment.

    It’s always been a vague goal of mine to read through Shakespeare’s works (36 to 39 plays plus 154 sonnets and a handful of longer poems) before I move on up to another plane of existence. Why not now? Maintaining my average of 45 minutes a day or so I can do this in under a year. The perennial question for me is, being a Hopper, can I keep my focus on this worthy goal?

    So, in the spirit of Tolkien Tuesdays, I’m gonna start a series called Shakespeare Saturdays. I’ll try to keep it interesting and off-beat. I’m proud of the dozen or so posts about Tolkien, so I have to aim high here, but as of right now, I’m up for the challenge.

    Part of my errands with Patch today is a stop at the library for the next play / DVD. Not sure what it will be (it often depends on what’s on the shelves), but I think I wanna stick with the lighter-hearted comedies before delving into Shakespeare’s histories or tragedies. Maybe The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, or As You Like It. There is a little niggling thought in the back of my skull that’s wondering if I’m just digging these “comedies” and will collapse like that dancing suspension bridge once I crack open Lear or Richard III. I guess we’ll see …

    Friday, May 20, 2011

    Strum Pick Pluck

    What’s LE playing on his guitar, part something or other.

    Excellent question!

    In no particular order, you might hear me playing any of the following should you creep up to my window and place an ear to the screen:

    “Godzilla” by Blue Oyster Cult

    C’mon, now, got to really bend those fifths! And play the chorus as funky as possible, with pentatonic F-sharp runs thrown in liberally. Fun and dopey song which I never played much before. Remember one time warming up for a gig and hearing these notes slide in from an adjacent room where another guitarist was bending the power chords so hard and heavy I thought he was playing on rubber bands.

    “Lonesome Me” by Neil Young

    What a great song, simplicity being its greatness. Take a regular blues progression and throw minor chords into the mix. Never really figured it out until I happened across those weeping thirds. The verses go E – A – E – A in slow triplets, leading into E – Em – A – Am (wow!) and then yer D – A – E denouement. I like to play the A as an Asus2 and keep that B string droning in for extra lonesomeness factor.

    “High Voltage” by AC/DC

    Tough to play this on an acoustic, so I dropped everything down a fifth and modulated accordingly. Very neat 50s-ish guitar sound. Gotta love old, old AC/DC when Bon Scott was still alive. Much different band than the one that’s been phoning it in for the past three decades. This song is good to play very aggressive, with lots of H-Os and P-Os. Makes me wish I had an amp and an acoustic guitar pick-up.

    “All Apologies” by Nirvana

    Another simple song, best played in dropped-D but I just move everything up two frets. Drives my wife crazy ’cuz she hates the dreariness of Nirvana and Kurt Cobain. Neat little tune but grows kinda stale after a few minutes. I also play a bit of “The Man Who Sold the World” but missing some notes here and there, so I can’t add that to this list and feel good about myself in the morning.

    “Roundabout” intro by Yes

    Back in the 80s my lead guitarist used to always play this intro on his electric. Sounded good, but a bit rushed, and I think he missed a few notes here and there. So I cheated, went online, found the tab, wrote it out, played it s-l-o-w-l-y, then sped up as I mastered the notes. Not much for the objective listener, but very profoundly subjectively satisfying.

    “Sesame Street” theme song

    You know I spend six hours a day with a two-year-old, right? So it was only naturally I’d fiddle around with that melody until I got it right. It’s in the key of E, and I play it on the low E and low A strings. Easy to figure out, took me maybe ten minutes, but it impressed the heck out of the wife and little ones.

    Also wrote two new songs for the solo album, which should be coming out in fifteen to twenty years. Soon as I get the old band back together … (yes, it’s a Blues Brothers reference).

    Thursday, May 19, 2011

    Dyson Sphere Scales

    Allow me to indulge myself here in this post. It will be mathematically dense, and by “dense” I mean it could very well be thick-in-the-skull outta-left-field dead wrong.

    Anyway, ahem.

    Writing my Orbitsville review yesterday, I got to thinking about the Dyson Sphere, a sphere enclosing a sun at a distance of about two AUs out. (An AU is an Astronical Unit, or the average Earth-Sun distance, about 93 million miles.) The book mentions the surface area of the inner side of the sphere compared to the surface area of the Earth. It’s obviously vastly more spacious on the sphere. I think the book quoted something like either 400 million or 400 billion times more.

    I actually laid awake last night in bed, unsuccessfully trying to figure out which was the more appropriate figure.

    I have to put this matter to rest, and I’m hijacking you along for the ride.

    First, the Earth.

    Assume the radius of the Earth to be 4,000 miles. Its surface area would then be

    4 * pi * r ^ 2

    4 * 3.14159 * (4,000 * 4,000)

    = 201,061,760 square miles

    Now, let’s assume that 70 percent of the Earth is ocean-covered. That leaves approximately 60 million square miles of land for mankind to spread out and conquer.

    Very well.

    Now, a Dyson Sphere.

    The equation above is the same (the thickness of the sphere is negligible). Except instead of 4,000 miles, we’re going to plug in twice times 93 million miles, to represent that distance of 2 AUs from the ensphered star.

    4 * pi * r ^ 2

    4 * 3.14159 * (1.86 x 10 ^ 8) ^ 2

    = 434,745,790,560,000,000 square miles

    or about 435 quadrillion square miles.

    Orbitsville does have oceans and seas, but nothing on the magnitude, proportionally, to waterworld Earth. So let’s call it an even 432 quadrillion square miles of habitable land on the inside of that Dyson Sphere.

    How does that compare to 60 million square miles?

    Divide the bigger by the smaller.

    Drum roll ...

    The area of the inside of a Dyson Sphere two AUs from its star would be 7.2 billion times the land area of the planet Earth. One Dyson Sphere is equal to 7.2 billion Earth-like planets.

    Mind boggling, eh?

    N.B. Okay, I had to go back and see how I fared against Shaw’s calculations. This first required going through the novel to find Shaw’s exact quote. Surprisingly, since I remembered generally where I read it, it took only a few minutes. On page 73 of my Baen Paperback edition of Orbitsville, our hero expounds, “... This sphere has a surface area equivalent of 625,000,000 times the total surface of Earth. If we allow for the fact that only a quarter of the Earth’s surface is land and perhaps only half that usable, it means the sphere is equivalent to five billion Earths.”

    Whew! I’m satisfied. The figure I quoted in my review was flat-out wrong. 7.2 billion differs from Shaw’s 5 billion in the fact that he’s using 25 percent of Earth’s surface as land and only half that usable – 12.5 percent to my 30 percent figure.

    Since 12.5 is about 42 percent of 30, you’d expect my figure to be a bit larger than 7.2 or Shaw’s figure to be a bit smaller than 5. Regardless, I’m satisfied that we’re at least in the same ball park.

    Wednesday, May 18, 2011


    © 1975 by Bob Shaw

    Orbitsville might be the most pleasant SF read I’ve had in a while. And by “pleasant,” I mean “excellent.”

    What I realized mid-way through the mid-sized novel is that the best way to characterize the work is balance. Everything’s there, in adequate measure. While not enough to boost it into the ranks of Heinleinian, Clarkian, or Asimovian classic, having “it” all there in adequate measure makes it a great read.

    I’m trying to wear two hats when I do these reviews. Sometimes both hats fail to stay on my lumpy and misshapen head; sometimes one completely dominates the other, something like putting a dunce cap over a propeller beanie. One hat says SF FAN in black and blue reminiscent of some cold and unforgiving blade of some futuristic alloy. The other hat says LITERARY AFICIONADO in flowery, gold-and-read flowerets.

    (Yeah, these are the two hats I wear. Grrr. Ya wanna start something?)

    Anyway, this is all a roundabout way of stating that Orbitsville had a lot of great SF elements infused in a story well-told from a literary point-of-view. What more could you ask for, I ask?

    First, the science.

    You know what a Dyson Sphere is?

    Imagine how technologically advanced our society may become in ten thousand years if we keep up the learning curve of the last century. Now think of energy. Ultimately, all the forms of energy we use can be reduced to one starting point: the Sun. Think about the teeny tiny ball of Earth, circling the Sun, capturing all that solar radiation for heat and light and whatnot. The Sun radiates outwards at all points, in all directions. We can only catch it on a teeny tiny planet that spins around this star at 18 miles a second. When you think about it like that, a lot of solar energy seems wasted.

    But a culture sufficiently advanced, like ours in a hundred centuries, might be able to construct a sphere around a star at about twice the Earth-Sun distance, and capture every erg of radiated solar energy. Not only that, but you could make the interior of this sphere habitable. The surface area of such a sphere would be something around four hundred million times the surface area of the Earth (or four hundred billion times, I forget which). You could even rig a closer sphere around the entrapped star with gaps and holes of varying widths to account for night and day and the seasons.

    Orbitsville is a Dyson Sphere, and all this, and more, is explained painlessly during the adventures of our heroes and heroines in the book.

    There’s more than just that, though Orbitsville itself is a major character in the novel. It’s a bit of a hard SF novel without being remote and distant like a Hal Clement hard SF novel might be. Everything’s explained plausibly and in an interesting manner between thrown fists and exploding spaceships. One thing I like about these futuristic men and women is the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-do-it-ness about them. Your flickerwing deep space scouting vessel has crash landed inside Orbitsville? No problem. Scavenge it and build a fleet of 20th-century combustion engine aircraft to get back to base.

    Now, I’ve read some really neat hard SF books, idea books, that were boring as all heck. But Shaw avoids this pitfall – and dammit, this is a suspenseful book from the very first chapter! Not gonna reveal what happens, but something puts our hero’s life in jeopardy – and the innocent lives of his wife and young son – and he goes on the run. But since the stakes are high, so are this man’s actions. I mean, what he does takes cojones, and I found myself wondering, without a trace of self-conscious silliness, if I had what it takes to do what he had to do to save his and his family’s skin.

    The characters are real and interesting and face some undeniable, life-altering dilemmas. Even the cartoonish characters come across with verve and pizzazz. Shaw manages to maintain a good handle on a tale that has some very, very focused, sharp details – does Vance keep his family alive? – and must necessarily telescope out to epic proportions – the discovery and exploration of the alien Dyson Sphere christened Orbitsville.

    It was a fast read, too, always a plus. I put it away in about five or six hours, but during the first fifty pages and the last fifty pages I literally did not – could not – put the thing down. Two later sequels followed, eight and fifteen years apart, and I’ll put them on the Acquisitions List, because while the original ends at a most satisfying climax, there’s so much potential here that I don’t feel Shaw would be squeezing water from a stone.

    Grade: A-minus.

    Tuesday, May 17, 2011

    The End of the World

    There’s a lot of talk about the world ending this Saturday, May 21, 2011.

    In a matter of speaking.

    A Christian Protestant sect called Family Radio led by 89-year old Harold Camping has been quite vocal over the last six months publicizing their belief in this matter.

    I do not believe it. Not as a thinking Catholic man.

    Allow me some background.

    In the summer of 2000 I was working the late shift computer help desk for a large hotel chain. Me and the wife, then only the fiancé, were new to the area, and I was still figuring out what to listen to on the radio dial. I came across Harold Camping’s radio program driving home from work one evening, and I was hooked in a weird sort of way for a week or two.

    At this time I was very much interested in religion and spirituality, very much the seeker, though at the tail end of a decade-long sampling of a buffet of beliefs. Zen, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, scientific materialism, quantum mechanics, Kantian and Nietzschean philosophy – you name it, I explored it, even if was only to read a few chapters in a few books. No doubt about it I was being drawn inexorably deeper within the religion I was born into, Catholicism. However, at this early gestation period, I still did not know heresy from traditional Catholic belief, so I was intrigued by Camping, particularly his rock-solid unshakable faith in the printed Word of God.

    It seemed every night a crank caller would come on the radio show and either mock him or try to get the better of him in Biblical sparring. The mockers made me sympathetic to the old guy; the sparrers made me incredulous how stubbornly single-minded he was to whatever version of the Bible he adhered to, even in the face of solid logical arguments, whether from an opposing religious or a materialistic point of view.

    Forgot about him for a couple of years until he started turning up on some obscure channel on our cable teevee. The deep droning voice, the elephantine ears. Don’t get me wrong, I respect him in a sort of way, maybe the same way I’d respect the alleged genius of a Richard Dawkins. But I have long, long since gave up listening to him.

    He made it back into the news last October promoting the idea that the Rapture will begin on May 21, 2011.

    Do you know how he arrived at that date?

    From what I gather, it’s a simple math equation. One based, however, on lots of vague assertions.

    Numbers have meaning for Camping. 5 = “atonement”. 10 = “completion”. 17 = “heaven”.

    Got it? Why exactly they have these meanings I’m sure is spelled out in his book, or the books his followers have published. Maybe some websites, too.

    Anyway, if you multiply these numbers together and square the product, you get

    5 x 10 x 17 = 850

    850 x 850 = 722,500

    Now, assume Jesus was crucified on April 1, 33 AD. Add 722,500 days to that date and you arrive at ... May 21, 2011.

    How they pinpoint the exact time of 6 pm eastern to the beginning of earthquakes, though, I don’t know.

    Despite me being a weirdity buff, an enjoyer of all things unusual, creepy, conspiratorial, head-scratchin’ strange, and plainly unexplainable, I scoff at end-of-the-world predictions.


    Well, this isn’t Camping’s first end-of-the-world prediction. In 1992 he published a book asserting the Rapture would occur in September 1994. That was almost seventeen years ago now, all Rapture-free.

    And I also believe in the moral literalness of the Bible. My Bible contains a passage in Matthew, chapter 24 verse 36, which states, after a 13-verse description of the Great Tribulation –

    “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”

    So, Jesus doesn’t know the exact time of the end, but Harold Camping does?

    Monday, May 16, 2011

    Orbitsville Thoughts

    I’m almost finished with Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, so a full review will be forthcoming shortly. However, two short bits in the book have stuck with me for no obvious reason, so I will pass them along to you:

    1) I quote:

    “ … The revulsion that most people get when they see spiders – arachnids – is so strong and widespread it has led to the theory that arachnids are not native to Earth. We have a sense of kinship, no matter how slight, with all creatures that originated on our own world, which makes them acceptable to us even when they’re ugly as sin. But if the arachnid reaction is what some people think it is – loathing for something instinctively identified as of extraterrestrial origin – then we might be in trouble when we make our first contact with an alien race.”

    (Orbitsville, page 109, Baen Paperback edition)

    Interesting thought, no? As a fellow arachnophobe, I actually like this theory a lot. It probably will pop up in my writings, both here and my fictions, from time to time. I wonder if the thought is unique to Shaw, or if others have expressed it earlier than 1975, the date the book was published. Neat-o.

    2) I quote again:

    “ … There’s an old saying about the pointlessness of owning a dog and doing your own barking.”

    (ibid., page 148)

    All right, the game is to say this once a day for the next week and try to sound as close to Tommy Lee Jones as possible. Extra points if you’re a woman.

    Sunday, May 15, 2011

    Matthew, LE-style

    As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man called LE in his cubicle inputting data; and He said to him, “Follow Me.” And he rose and followed Him.

    Matthew 9:9

    Saturday, May 14, 2011

    Best Way to Experience Shakespeare

    Hey, I think I’ve finally found the formula to experience Shakespeare!

    What you’ll need:

    A library card.

    Good. My card allows me access to over eighty libraries in my county. I can go online and search the county library card catalog, so I always know where to go to find the book I need. And if it’s too far or at a library I’m not familiar with, I can order it sent to my town library in a few days.

    Anyway, with that in mind, here’s the formula to experience and – most importantly – enjoy Shakespeare, for free.

    1. Start with Shakespeare’s shorter comedies or romances.

    So far I’ve read The Tempest (2,275 lines) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2,165 lines). For reference, Shakespeare’s longest play is Hamlet at 4,024 lines, or almost double these two works.

    2. Pick either the Folger’s Library or Arden editions of the play.

    I did some quick research, perusing some Shakespeare aficionado forums and found a slight majority consensus on these two series. Personally, I like the Folger’s better. The play itself is on the right page, with definitions and explanatory notes on the left. The book is physically small with large print, so it’s a page turner. It works for me.

    3. Read through the play once.

    I read through Tempest in three days, an hour a day, and Midsummer Night’s Dream in two days, ninety minutes a day. PS – Dream made me laugh out loud.

    4. Go back to the library and get the BBC / Time Life DVD of the play.

    5. Watch the play while simultaneously reading along with your Folger’s edition.

    It is absolutely, phenomenally amazing how much better you will appreciate the play doing this. It comes to life, literally and quite obviously. You’ll understand things you didn’t, you’ll see things you’ve overlooked. You’ll be drawn into it. Most importantly, you’ll now have a strong emotional connection to some of the greatest works of English literature ever produced.

    I believe this step is where most potential Shakespearean fans go astray and shortchange themselves.

    6. Re-watch the DVD without the play.

    Congratulations. You have now bonded with the summit of English drama, thought, prose, and poetry. You are now a One-Percenter, by my reckoning. Pat yourself on the back.

    Because of this step, the final scene of The Tempest, the epilogue, still brings goosebumps to my arms.

    7. Watch a different DVD for a different interpretation.

    I have not yet done this, but it’s on my list. This will, no doubt, take your Shakespeare experience to a whole ’nother level.

    8. Get your family and / or significant others involved.

    I did see Macbeth with the wife about a decade ago in New York City. Since then, she’s really not expressed any interest, but I’m working on cracking that egg.

    My six-year-old expressed interest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, especially once she found out two of its characters, Oberon and Titania, are in her first-grade level Daisy Meadow’s fairy book. She’s still a bit too young, for Shakespeare can contain much innuendo and in-yer-face violence, but I can envision watching a BBC play with her in the next couple of years. Knowing her natural inclination to drama, who knows? I may be watching her on a Shakespearean stage in a decade or two.

    Friday, May 13, 2011

    Planeta Bur

    I have this sad, vivid childhood memory of a robot dying.

    His name was “John,” and he was a big, hydraulic mechanical man. They took him to Venus with them. I didn’t understand the film then, despite it’s simplicity, simply due to my youth. Two astronauts went out exploring with him; he was a good anchor for their guide lines. But they got in trouble. Lava flows, wouldn’t you know. John hoisted the men onto his burly shoulders and stepped into the 5,000 degree river of molten rock, precariously treading a path to the other shore. The men were able to jump to safety, but John, crying out in his mechanical man’s voice, tumbled over and dissolved in the unholy mud.

    I remember crying during the scene. But cut me some slack; I was probably six, maybe seven at most.

    Since that day in the early seventies, I have seen the movie again, several times. Let me be honest and tell you, as you already may suspect, it’s not the same. For one, that scene doesn’t pack the same volume of pathos as it once did for my little mind. For another, the movie is really, really silly. In all it’s incarnations.

    The original is a 1962 Russian flick called Planeta Bur. It means “Planet of Storms” or “Storm Planet.” Over the next couple of years it was re-edited and re-dubbed in English for two really bad re-visionings. I think that a more faithful remake or re-do of the film would have resulted in a more memorable and worthwhile production. As it stands, the movie is a minor footnote in the pantheon of SF cinema. You need to be a real true fan to have seen this film.

    The two American versions have been called Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet and Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. Each gets more sillier than its predecessor. I have the first on a VHS cassette I ordered a decade ago. The second was at my library in DVD format; I rented it and watched it in all its glorious goofiness.

    Both Americanized versions are strange, strange ducks. Now, Id never recommend recreational drug use in any way shape form to anyone who may be reading this, BUT - I wish I was under the influence watching these two ... films, I suppose, though film does not really seem to accurately convey what it was exactly I saw.

    Anyway, its an odd and not entirely unenjoyable experience to watch these films. Perhaps its due to Russian cinematography in the early 60s, but theres an eerie atmospheric quality about them. Combine that with the gritty, grimy muscle-of-the-proletariat look of the astronauts and the steam-punk authenticity of John, and it's a movie thats visually unlike any SF I recall seeing from that time period.

    I'm not an expert on the history of these films, but still I'd like to offer my take. Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet seems to me, not having seen the original Russian source material, the most "faithful" attempt to bring Bur to our shores. However, faithful does not translate to logical or even remotely plausible. I doubt if the Russian script was even translated into English. Most likely some struggling Hollywood writer was given the film, turned down the sound, and wrote a script to whatever he thought was happening. Oh, and this is his first crack at writing an SF screenplay. And he is scientifically illiterate. And they never proof-read his script. And they used his first draft. And English is really his second language.

    You get the idea. After a while I eventually turned down the volume (the dialogue was making my head ache) and just watched the special effects, awaiting that tender scene of self-sacrifice by John.

    My latest viewing, Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women, is even more sillier as you can imagine. The director is a young Peter Bogdanovich (most modern readers will recall him as Dr. Melfis snobby psychiatrist colleague on The Sopranos), though he wisely does not attribute his name to the directorial credit. Most of the original Bur footage remains, but now we have a silly, exploitive subplot of semi-nude telepathic women harassing the astronauts and vice versa. The expression on my face throughout most of this was similar to Beavis watching a Winger video.

    One final word on John’s death scene: its not like I remembered it as a child. The sacrifice was not so noble and touching as was imprinted in my cerebellum. Apparently, hauling the astronauts on his shoulders shin-high in molten magma was overloading the mechanoid, and in his neutral voice he declares he must remove excess weight! must remove excess weight! He attempts to toss the men off to their deaths, but they manage to re-rig his circuits to circumvent his plan. John does get them across, then takes his lava bath.

    Originally I was going to watch this with the Little One, age six, but upon further reflection I decided against the possibility of implanting any crazy memories in her tender and trusting head.

    But in a bizarre sort of way, I enjoyed it.

    Doctor Who?

    To my wife’s astonishment, I revealed a few days back that I was never a big Doctor Who fanboy.

    Not sure why it came up. However, I have borrowed, twice, a couple of Doctor Who DVDs from a local library over the past few weeks. Maybe she saw them lying around the house.

    I do remember the series as a boy. When I was in my tweens, my parents refurnished the attic for my brother and me. The result was quite the swanky pad, I have to admit. And one Christmas I got a small black-and-white teevee, which I plugged in all over that rather large second-storey room: by my bed, by my desk, by the window. I would even haul it into the side storage room and watch the black-and-white sitting among the rafters, dirty insulation, and stacks of unused toys and games and books.

    There are lots of shows I remember watching, quite vividly, on that little television set. The Night Stalker was always a scary treat and led to many sleepless nights. Space: 1999 reruns were always a big hit. For some strange reason I also watched The Jackie Gleason Show a lot, probably because it was on at a regular time right after bedtime and I’d sneak on the teevee. While all my other fifth grade friends were wondering what this strange this called SNL was, I occupied my evenings with Ralph Kramden skits.

    Anyway, I did view a few Doctor Who episodes in that storage room. Just a handful, though. For some reason, I would always catch something like the final 30 seconds of the show dramatically cutting to that Doctor Who logo descending down the time tunnel or whatever with those phenomenal synthesizer effects. In other words, I always caught the last minute of the show. Like a twenty or thirty times.

    I did see maybe a half-dozen shows in somewhat their entirety. Doctor Who for me will always be Tom Baker (who was also the evil wizard in one of those Sinbad movies – something I only recently found out). I don’t know which number doctor he is, but I’m thinking he’s the fourth. So I would watch these shows kinda confused and uncertain as the Doctor scurried away from these giant fire hydrant robots and jumped into these weird phone booths all the time.

    About two years ago I watched a pair of episodes of the latest incarnation of Doctor Who on the awful Syfy channel and they were really, really good. Those fire hydrants were back, and man were they evil. The newest doctor was a skinny goofy Brit who somehow had a lot of charming charisma. But still I didn’t become a fan.

    Now I’ve read there’s another Doctor, the eighth or ninth I would guess. From the article I read the new season has potential. It’s a lot more creepy and atmospheric. There are really neat baddies called “The Silence.” There are aliens that reside in your shadow; if you’re infected and your shadow touches another person, they become infected. And there are statues that move when you are not looking and monsters your memory completely forgets when you turn your gaze away.

    But, the article stated, there’s also a lot of PC garbage thrown in.

    So I picked up two DVDs of Doctor Who from the Tom Baker years of the late 70s. I liked ’em. I watched ’em at the writing desk, on this little DVD player I set up next to my computer. The production value struck me as very much on the level of soap. Then I realized that these are soap operas for sci fi geeks. The script of one was written by Douglas Adams of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fame, and Monty Python John Cleese had an unacknowledged cameo in the other. It was a pleasant way to spend two hours.

    But still, doggone it, I’m not hooked!

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011

    Will Munny meets Will Shakespeare

    N.B. Will Munny is Clint Eastwood's gunslinger outta retirement from Unforgiven. Will Shakespeare is some guy who wrote a bunch of plays.

    CALIBAN: As I told thee before, I am subject to a tyrant,
    A sorcerer, that by his cunning hath
    Cheated me of the island.

    ARIEL (invisible): Thou liest.

    CALIBAN: Thou liest, thou jesting monkey thou!
    I would my valiant master would destroy thee.
    I do not lie.

    WILL MUNNY: Trinculo, if you trouble him any more in's tale, by this hand, I will supplant some of your teeth.

    TRINCULO: Why, I said nothing!

    WILL MUNNY: Mum then, and no more. Proceed!

    (The Tempest, Act III Scene II)

    Or ....

    CALIBAN: Pray you tread softly, that the blind mole may not
    Hear a foot fall. We now are near his cell.

    STEPHANO: Monster, your fairy, which you say is a harmless fairy, has done little better than played the Jack with us.

    WILL MUNNY: Monster, I do smell all horse-piss, at which my nose is in great indignation.

    (The Tempest, Act IV Scene I)

    Tuesday, May 10, 2011

    Shakespeare Over a Year

    There are at least three things I’m planning on doing if I ever become financially independent. (Or once the children move out, about two decades from now, if it starts looking like I’ll be working for the Man until I die.)

    The first thing is to see the country. I enjoy threatening my wife that I plan on renting an RV, grabbing her and either of the children if they’re so willing, and hitting the open road. I have a master plan, sort of. Whether I follow it or not, the Great USA Winnebago Tour of 2032 will most assuredly be fraught with danger. Mostly for me.

    I wrote about this a while ago, here.

    Another thing I want to do is really, really, really get deep into mathematics. Okay, okay, I know, stop putting the “L” finger shape to your forehead. I want to do this for several reasons. First, I find numbers and number theory fascinating, on a whole variety of levels. I’m a very curious sort of fellow and there’s so much to explore in this field. I also find mathematics much more interesting when there aren’t so many tests and quizzes and finals attached to it.

    It will also offset the onset of mental decline. I wrote about that, here.

    The third thing I’d like to do once I have the time, the inclination, and the security to do so, is read through all the works of Shakespeare.

    Yes, back in high school, I read my share of him. The usual stuff. Romeo and Juliet. King Lear. Macbeth. I don’t recall any others. For a college class on public speaking I bought a copy of Hamlet and did the famous soliloquy at the podium, but I never read the entire thing. A relative gave me his set of the Great Books, and I cracked open one of the Henry plays but only got two or three (long, small-print) pages in.

    So I am hardly an expert, and barely a fan. In fact, the biggest stumbling block to tackling Shakespeare as an adult is that I just don’t get him. Which irks me to no end. I love language, I love words, I love poetry, I love the drama of the written page. Shakespeare seems custom made for me.

    About a week or ten days ago I picked up the The Essential Shakespeare Handbook. I was hooked. I love books like these – informative, interesting, books you can browse and skip around the contents in no particular order. Lots of trivia. Quotes, vocabularies of made up words (by Shakespeare, I mean). Even technical data like chronological dates for plays, length of plays in lines, percentages of prose versus verse in each play.

    It’s a great book, and it inspired me to take a fourteenth or fifteenth crack at the Bard.

    So I picked up the Folger Library version of The Tempest and … I can’t put it down! Yes, I have an excellent SF paperback I’m a third of the way in. I have a worthy spiritual tome I’ve just entered. But I am also, now, on the shores of that island with Prospero and Miranda and Caliban and Ariel and those shipwrecked sailors, an Act and a half into the play, and I can’t wait to see how things transpire.

    I’m not sure if I’ll continue with Shakespeare after Tempest. That whole Shakespeare-in-a-year thing will have to wait. But I’m looking forward to reading other plays and posting my admittedly amateurish thoughts on his works as well as my actual experiences of the journey through them.

    By the way, an excellent blog for this very thing is Shakespeareinayear.com. The nice lady is reading her way through Shakespeare’s 39 plays over the course of twelve months, ending this June. I corresponded with her briefly almost a year ago, and was quite tempted to join her and her compatriots on the journey. But being a Hopper, I knew I lacked the discipline to stick with it for 365 days.

    But once I gain financial independence …

    Monday, May 9, 2011

    Man Plus

    (c) 1976

    Winner of the Nebula Award

    [minor spoilers]

    Attention Hollywood! Somebody make a movie of this book!

    What a great read. Compact, purposeful, masterful. Relentless and merciless. I couldn’t put the thing down, reading faster than I’ve done recently. I had to read on the sly. I stayed up late. I was hooked, and it was absolutely imperative for me to see how this story ended, even to the point of sacrificing my health and my relationships.

    So to speak.

    I’m exaggerating a bit, but only a little bit. Man Plus by Frederik Pohl is a great book, well-deserving of that there Nebula it won a couple decades ago. It’s a small masterpiece in storytelling. That’s no exaggeration. I find myself often hesitant to read Pohl because his prose and his ideas are so darn good it’s downright discouraging to a struggling novelist – how can I ever hold a candle to this?

    We journey into the near future of ... well, today, thirty-some-odd years after Pohl is writing. The 42nd president of the United States, Fitz-James Deshatine, has to make sure a Martian colony is established to avoid global destruction. According to simulations and mathematical models they take as gospel, at least. Anyway, it’s best thought to do this by modifying a man to withstand and even thrive in the harsh Aresian environment in his own skin. That is, through surgery and medical treatment, to create a cyborg to ensure mankind’s presence on the fourth planet.

    The background isn’t as relevant as this program, Man Plus. After his predecessor dies enduring these modifications, astronaut Roger Torraway has to step in to keep the program on track. In short order he becomes radically part-man and part-machine, with a vague promise he will be surgically returned to normal when he completes his mission. His eyes are removed and replaced with giant red optical lenses. His limbs are removed are replaced with powerful mechanical appendages. Bat-like wings are attached to his back to harness solar energy. (Though it’s not commented on in the book, he looks positively demonic to me.) Much of his body, deemed nonessential, is removed in the name of energy efficiency. Among such items are his genitals.

    This leaves Roger several weeks to become accustomed to his new existence. It reminded me of the “brain-in-a-vat” philosophical exercise, and indeed Roger faces a whole slew of existential crises. Not least among these is the fact that he deduces his wife is being unfaithful to him – with his friend and colleague, the head scientist of the Man Plus project.

    Now I know where you think this is going. I thought it was going there, too, and Pohl steers and veers the tale in that direction. Does Roger snap and wreak havoc and vengeance upon those who’ve betrayed him? Does he fall into insanity and don that sympathetic monster suit? Without revealing too much, because I really want you to read this, yes and no.

    Roger does get to Mars, but Pohl only ratchets up the tension to nearly unsustainable levels during one truly nail-biting scene. And there is a great twist revealed in the final pages that has something to do with that odd “we” that’s narrating the tale.

    Man Plus is a perfect meld of horror, tragedy, and hard science fiction. There’s humor, there’s speculation and mystery, there’s action and innuendo. The characters are more real than the people you work with day in and day out. But most of all, the plot is driven, a page-turner in the best sense of that cliché. A story where you hope everything will work out for the hero because you care about him, but there’s a sneaking all-too-real undercurrent that something very nasty instead is in store.

    Grade: Easy A+.

    Sunday, May 8, 2011

    Saturday, May 7, 2011

    What's On Deck

    I’m approaching my 100th book review here on the Hopper. I’m four short books away, and I think those four will be classic science fiction works, or works written by a classic SF writer: Frederik Pohl, Jack Vance, Bob Shaw, Olaf Stapledon. Stuff that’s been sitting on the bookshelf behind me for ages.

    Then, I’m going to start an SF book reviewing website. I have the hosting site, I’ll have a hundred reviews, I halfway sort of have an overarching theme. At the rate I read I’ll be adding 30-40 reviews a year. Next to reading, writing about the books I read is just about the most favorite thing I can think of doing. I want to make a couple of bucks doing it somehow, but I’m not quite sure how, but I'm willing to noodle around with it, doing this and that and that and this and whatnot.

    I know, I know, I’ve written about my other website(s) here before, and nothing’s come of it. Truth be told, it was a combination of two factors that brought that project crashing to a halt. First, the software involved in creating and maintaining the website was so complicated and involved as to make it unworkable. I can post here on Blogger in about sixty seconds or less. If I was to do something comparable with this other website, it would take me at least an hour, maybe two figuring in troubleshooting. Second, the idea itself fizzled out.

    But I found another company, so ... fingers crossed.

    Since I can’t read just one book at a time, I’ve started Walter Ciszek’s He Leadeth Me a few days ago. He’s a priest who volunteered to minister oversees in Poland just before the Nazis and Soviets carved that country up in 1939. Father Ciszek then spent 30 years in the gulag. I’m sure it will be a roller coaster of a ride, but from what I heard it contains rich nuggets of spiritual wisdom within its pages. It’s been on my radar for a couple of years, so I’ve girded myself and am diving in head first.

    After that I plan on finishing George Weigel’s masterful biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope. Around John Paul’s death six years ago I got about a hundred pages in. Despite dropping out, it was a fascinating, unbelievable read, being with teenaged Karol Wojtyla as he labored in his native Poland under the thumb of the brutal Nazi invaders, secretly studying for the priesthood knowing that he could very well be killed if found out.

    I also have a major home project that needs to be done once we get a stretch of three or four days of good weather: power-washing and re-staining my 225-square-foot backyard deck and the wood furniture on it. There’s a very good blog post in that adventure, since it’s highly likely I’ll somehow hospitalize myself or possibly destroy the entire deck in the process.

    Friday, May 6, 2011

    Happy and Unhappy Eating

    When I’m being good, I will eat:

    A half-cup of unsweetened oatmeal with a cup of stove-boiled filtered water, topped with half-an-apple cut up and a teaspoon of cinnamon for breakfast.

    A fruit salad consisting of an apple, a banana, a dozen or so grapes and/or blueberries and two tablespoons of low-sugar granola for lunch.

    A “Naked” fruit smoothie and a packet of 15-20 dry roasted almonds for my mid-afternoon snack when my blood sugar dips.

    Salmon or chicken baked for dinner, with a big side of boiled vegetables and maybe some brown-rice based carb.

    A low-sugar granola bar at 9 pm for a late-evening snack.

    And a big, 16-ounce glass of water between every meal.

    When I’m being bad, I will eat:

    A pint of sugary cereal, such as Cinnamon Life or Kashi Crunchies, with a cup of skim milk for breakfast.

    A can of soup mixed in with a cup of pasta and a 12-ounce diet Coke for lunch. I alternate this with either two pepperoni slices of pizza or an Italian hero and a soda if I’m out running errands.

    Lots of little chocolate candies for my mid-afternoon snack, chased with another glass of milk. If no chocolate is in the house, I’ll have chips or pretzels with a second 12-ounce diet Coke.

    Boston Market or Chipotle or, on occasion, sushi for dinner if we have money in the bank; otherwise cheese macaroni or tortellinis with the girls or some likewise quickie dinner.

    A pint of Ben & Jerry’s at 9 pm.

    Okay. Whew.

    I actually felt confident, excited, and upbeat writing the first part of this post. And immediately came down from my psychosomatic high with the details of my bad days.

    I’m bad to good by about a ratio of about 3.667 to 1 by my off-the-cuff calculations. A lot of the time I make it to lunch before derailing myself.

    I do believe that at least 50 percent of my situation – some of which I explicitly mention in this blog, others I only hint about – are directly related to my diet. We are truly mind-body holistic units, the status of one intimately affecting the other in either a vicious or virtuous circle.

    Being the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life, and also being in the longest, most dangerous “rut,” I have no choice but to begin here at the physical level. For a whole host of reasons, proven and suspected. A year ago this May I stuck to a similar healthy eating plan and lost ten pounds in twelve days. I’m looking for comparable results by Memorial Day.

    Happy Eating!

    Thursday, May 5, 2011

    Talking to Chuck

    You know those Charles Schwab commercials?

    Well, this is me “talking to Chuck” about my investment portfolio.

    Man, I hate those “Talk to Chuck” commercials. They seriously weird me out.

    Wednesday, May 4, 2011

    The Sheriff of Purgatory

    I have this vivid memory of me as a young kid proudly showing my father my latest library book. I seem to recall an orange-filtered cover of a lone figure on a desert horizon. The title had something to do with “Purgatory,” and it was a science fiction novel set in an American post-apocalyptic wasteland.

    That’s all. Don’t remember any characters, scenes, or even the plot itself.

    After a bit of right-brain thought and some googling, I’ve been able to track down that book. It’s called The Sheriff of Purgatory and it’s by a writer named Jim Morris. A library a few towns over still had a copy, so I picked it up and read through it in about five hours over four days.

    Immediately I realized what happened those thirty-plus years ago. I think my father, hiding his horror, quickly and quietly returned the book before I could crack it open.

    Published in 1979, the tale takes place in the year 1996 within a crumbling America. Not much is said about what happened – ’cept that we lost a war in the Middle East – and not much is said about what is happening. It’s now a very dangerous world out there, out at our doorsteps. The union may be dissolved. Society has reverted to feudal, local-based economies. The cities are filled with cannibals and run by warring gangs. Infrastructure has fallen apart (there’s a great image of the collapsed George Washington Bridge). The Mafia is making a serious power play against an ineffective government. Its weak armed forces are a running joke throughout the novel.

    This is all vague background, though, not really the focus of the novel. What is is Frank Spurlock, our titular sheriff. Known as Spurlock to his friends as well as enemies, he’s quite the unusual figure, and it took me to nearly the book’s end before I could define him. He’s a New Age action figure. He’s one-third David Carradine’s grasshopper, one-third that lawman from Walking Tall, and one-third Tommy Chong.

    That last part is the reason my dad ran stoplights returning that library book.

    Spurlock is the sheriff of Purgatory County, Arkansas, one of the last bastions of sanity in a world falling apart. Aside from successfully keeping the peace in his post-apocalyptic corner of the world, Spurlock enjoys naked yoga, transcendental meditation, living on a hippie farming commune, and continuously smoking pounds and pounds of his own awesome home-grown pot.

    Despite what you may think, I enjoyed the story. I started off hesitantly, had an internal subconscious debate over whether to invest the coupla hours into it, and by the end I was won over. Crazy.

    We begin with a good ol’ showdown in Purgatory County, Arkansas, between sheriff Spurlock and a Mafia chieftain. Our plucky sheriff then gets the urge to visit his two kids he hasn’t seen in a decade. They’re living with his ex in New York City, hell-on-earth on this earthly hell. And so he and “his lady” pack a VW van with weed, guns, food and sleeping bags and set off on a cross-country trip, meeting all sorts of colorful folks and skirting death in every chapter.

    A lot of the appeal, I guess, comes once you accept Spurlock. Yeah, he’s a super-hippie, a genuine product of his time, and it’s only in retrospect that we see him for the embarrassing and extinct dinosaur he is. In 1979, I’m sure a lot of readers nodded thoughtfully, and a small percentage even said, “You know what? I should start meditating!” (In fact, I say that on a weekly basis.)

    I also liked that Spurlock’s mission to New York doesn’t quite turn out the way I thought it would. Big plot thingies like that are always a plus.

    So even though I felt the excessive recreational drug use silly and stupid, even though the glorification of the 60s music scene made me gag, and even though the bad 70s lingo (“balling” “babe” “freaking” “my lady”) was sprinkled way too frequently through the prose, I liked it. I was able to read past that and enjoy the story. I give The Sheriff of Purgatory a solid B.

    Monday, May 2, 2011

    Hell's Population Increases By One

    While not jubilant, I have to admit being pleased upon hearing of the execution of Osama bin Laden. Justice has been served to the monster who masterminded the deaths of over 3,000 American citizens. Countless human lives, manpower, and amounts of money have been sacrificed to force this despicable barbarian to accept responsibility for his evil. Whether the means justify the ends may be debated, and the world may or may not be a safer place, but one cannot deny that this man’s death brings some closure to that terrible, terrible day back in September of 2001.

    As a Catholic whose trying (badly, it must be confessed) to follow the teachings of Christ as best as possible, to walk that “narrow way” without fail and without falling (which I do at least once a day), I cannot “celebrate” bin Laden’s death. But do not leap to any conclusions. I am glad he no longer has the pleasure and privilege of walking this earth.

    Contrary to what you may hear out there, the Catholic Church does not forbid the death penalty. According to the Catechism, 2267:

    Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

    I have no doubt that were I in the same cave as bin Laden he would want me dead. I have no doubt that were he ever to have gotten hold of my little daughters, God forbid, he would kill them. Do you? So for that reason alone, I am relieved to know him dead by a massive overdose of lead. And though details are sketchy and still trickling in, it strikes me as typical that he met his death valiantly hiding behind a woman.

    I have the fortune, I guess you could say, to be somewhat removed from the War on Terror. No one in my family serves in the armed forces, and no one is a first responder. I don’t come from a military family. The only person I do know who has served overseas is my childhood friend Karl. I’d like to publicly thank him, and the thousands of men and women who have served along with him and continue to do so, ready to do whatever it takes to keep me and my family safe at night. Thank you all, and great work! Truly great, great work!

    The Knight of the Swords

    (c) 1971

    While reading Michael Moorcock’s The Knight of the Swords, a couple of big-picture opinions began bouncing about my brain. Not about the characters, the plot, the dialogue, the exposition. But about the type of story I was reading. The whole package, so to speak.

    Before I get to that, let me just comment briefly on the characters, the plot, the dialogue, the exposition.

    They were good.

    Not earth-shattering, not great, not inspiring, not enough to make me seek out other books in the series. However, it all was good, and that means it was a profitable investment of time. Well, perhaps that’s an overstatement. What I mean is, there are lots and lots of worse ways I could’ve spent those three hours.

    Without giving too much away, The Knight of the Swords is a traditional quest tale of the Swords & Sorcery variety. It had a lot of interesting ideas: a pair of species more evolved than man, normal man as barbarian world destroyers, pantheons of gods of all shapes and sizes, shapeshifters, travel through astral planes, sorcerers, queens, castles, and, of course, clanging swords and swinging battle axes. There’s that quest for the hero to redeem himself and avenge his people and save the woman he loves. There are physical obstacles and enemies to overcome, and no one’s word can fully be trusted.

    (In a sentence, our hero must steal the literal, actual heart of the demigod antagonist, the Knight of the Swords, and all else will fall into place.)

    One bone of contention I had was with the Nouns in the story. In any fantasy tale, the Nouns play such a huge role in making the setting come to life. The names of the characters, of peoples, cities and lands, gods and goddesses, give personality and shading to the story. It goes back to Tolkien, He Whose Tales Are The Measure of All Fantasy Stories. Anyway, Moorcock’s choice of Nouns, to my amateur ears, had the ring of some crazy blend of Welsh and Arabic. The Welsh was interesting, the Arabic not so much so, but far too many Nouns were silly-sounding.

    But the big picture thought I had with The Knight of the Swords is similar to one I had reading one of Lin Carter’s Sword & Sorcery tales. It was this: I could only imagine what someone like George R. R. Martin would do with this as source material. Swords clocks in at a lean 136 pages, 23 six-page chapters. George R. R. would bang out a 1,200 page, three-inch-thick novel delving deep into the men and mythologies, the traditions and philosophies, the tragic and ironic twists of local and distant histories, of a dozen lands and peoples, all while putting our hero through an almost inhuman crucible to reach his objective.

    Reading Swords I had the impression of reading the Cliff Notes to some work now lost for the ages. While I’m no expert on Moorcock, it is my understanding that throughout the 60s and 70s he was very prolific and very productive, so perhaps he needed to churn out product to make a living and couldn’t afford to take, say, the two to four decades Tolkien took ruminating over ideas. I get that and understand that. I don’t fault The Knight of the Swords for being short and sweet. But I think it could have been better with a little more length and depth.

    Though I’m not a big fan of Michael Moorcock, I will still continue to read his works every now and then. I’m still searching for one book of his I read as a lad, but memories are sketchy, so the search is open-ended.

    Sunday, May 1, 2011