"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Thursday, December 30, 2010

End-of-Year Superlatives from Childe Jake

Most Important Plug for 2011

Regular readers are acquainted with my memorable "climb" up Sackrider Hill. Well, it turns out there are folks who climb even higher. One of them is Alan Arnette. This coming year he will be attempting the famed "Seven Summits." These are the highest peaks on each continent. Most importantly, he is doing these climbs to generate support for Alzheimer's Research. Speaking as the grandson of one who suffers from this disease, I hope you will consider following Mr. Arnette's adventure over the coming year. He is quite Internet savvy, so expect awesome photos and audio dispatches. Case in point: He's already tagged Mount Vinson in Antarctica. Seriously, even if you skip the rest of this blog post, I hope you will click on this link:

The 7 Summits Climb for Alzheimer's: Memories are Everything

Prompting the Man Who Leaves the Light on For Us

Of the various encounters I had with professional media talent this year, oddly enough I find myself most proud of this one:

I apparently persuaded Motel 6 spokesman Tom Bodett to register two Internet domain names at his own expense. Check out this funny post about Mr. Bodett's struggle to coin new automotive lingo upon purchasing his first minivan. And don't miss the reader comments that follow.

Most Popular Post by Pageviews:

By sheer numbers alone (over 200 pageviews in one morning), my most popular post of the year was a concession speech spoof: Childe Jake Ends Bid to Replace Charity Nebbe at Michigan Radio. The thanks go to none other than the station itself. Michigan Radio staff graciously, and without any begging from me, posted a link on their Facebook page. However, Michigan Radio producer Zoe Clark courted controversy by accusing me of excessive humor. To set the record straight, I was not "TOO funny!!" I was precisely the right amount of funny...humble too.

Post Garnering the Most Comments:

After some foot dragging, I posted a personal essay about my experience viewing a particularly controversial episode of the HBO series Big Love. I'd like to thank those who responded, from in and out of Mormonism, whether on my blog or on my Facebook Wall at the time. Here again is the link: Big Love for Barb.

Most Adorable, Best Eyes, Most Talented, etc.

Factoring in both pageviews and comments, the following post qualifies as the most enjoyed. If you haven't seen it, please do. It might change your life...or, at least make you grin. Here is the link: Anatomy of a Snuggle. And here is the special guest snuggler:

Most Potential, or The Solar Sailing Post that Could

It didn't get much reaction when I posted it in August; however, Harnessing 'The Wind From the Sun' keeps scoring a pageview or two a week. And really, that's all a solar sail needs to succeed: a slight and steady nudge. For an interesting look at how this frontier technology has moved into the realm of science fact, click on this link for LightSail-1! At minimum, enjoy this awesome artist's rendition by Rick Sternbach, available enlarged at the link below, courtesy The Planetary Society.

Photo Credit: Planetary Society

Thank you for visiting my blog! Have lots of happiness in the new year!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Memory of Christmas in New England, 1995

I remember spending the Christmas of 1995 in New England. I and three other Mormon missionaries went caroling at a veterans’ hospital in White River Junction, Vermont. This was a long time ago, and not just in years.

We were regular volunteers at the VA hospital, so it was an obvious choice to get in some extra service time by caroling there on Christmas morning. After all, each of us missionaries was far away from home. Our sacrifice for the holiday had already been made. Caroling at the hospital would be fun, and also a great way to fill up a morning with no appointments.

If memory serves, obtaining permission to carol at the VA hospital involved showing up on Christmas morning and saying to the first staff member we saw, “We’re here to sing Christmas carols to the veterans.” Our presence was more than welcome.

We showed up in our suits and ties, sporting pocket edition hymnals and feeling sure that we were doing some good. It certainly wasn’t a sacrifice. The four of us enjoyed singing together. We sounded good, and we’d grown up singing these beloved holiday hymns. We had a natural bass and a natural tenor. The other two of us fit in between for harmony.

We tended to sing a couple of hymns at each room. At some point we joined forces with a Protestant group who were also caroling. On a theological level, this was a bit like two opposing armies singing Silent Night together during a Christmas ceasefire.

Most of the patients were older men. And most of them were alone. After we finished a set for one gentleman, he reached out to thank us despite his bedridden state. As we leaned over the bed to hold his hands, he started to cry. “Thank you for visiting me. I expected to be all alone today. Thank you for coming.”

I want to say I held the old soldier’s hand as he said this, but I might be fabricating that memory. Or just as likely, we all gave him a sincere handshake in turn. I’m confident we lingered an extra moment, taking in his emotional gratitude.

I confess that after caroling at the VA, the remainder of that Christmas was devoted to our own care and convenience. The Bishop and his family fed us missionaries a great lunch. Then we called home to our families. And that evening the four of us had Christmas dinner together--a good brotherly cap to the holiday.

Though I’m no longer a churchgoer--and the reasons don’t matter for this blog post--that Christmas morning remains a cherished and haunting memory for me. I don’t have any grand point to make. It just occurred to me that I never wrote about that day. Though memory is imperfect, and often revisionist, it must have been a great Christmas. I believe so because I miss it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Scoring 'The View From Serendip'

The View from SerendipThe View from Serendip by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not too long ago I was forced to hide in the basement of my local public library during a tornado warning. During the two hours the staff and several of us patrons hid from the twister that never came, I snooped through the library’s stockpile of used books. This yard sale collection is rolled out every couple of months to provide much-needed funds for library operations. Anyhow, while snooping I discovered a copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s hard-to-find opus The View from Serendip.

I asked a library volunteer if, in the event we survived the non-existent tornado, I could take this out-of-print book upstairs and buy it right away…Y’know, instead of waiting for the next book sale when someone else might grab it first. The library volunteer uttered a rather curt reply: “No. And don’t take books off these shelves. I’m trying to keep them organized.” Smarting from her rebuke, I put the book back and resolved to hide in a friendlier part of the library’s basement while no tornados touched down anywhere in the county.

A couple of months later there was a properly sanctioned library book sale. Brushing past several suspicious elderly women, I nabbed the book first. (I’m sure those grandmothers were headed towards it. I saw that “Sir Arthur C. Clarke is dreamy!” look in their eyes.) And that’s the story of how I scored a good-condition hardcover of The View of Serendip for a single dollar. Hooray for used book sales at public libraries!

I’ve shared the above story in lieu of a review that would inevitably wind up being a love fest for one of my favorite authors. But I’ll add this: The View From Serendip is one of those great books that reminds me of the worthy writings of the late Carl Sagan. In contrast to the stereotype of godless scientists performing insidious research, this book reveals the scientific mind I more commonly encounter: one which is ethical, hope-driven, and which has a passionate desire to see humanity grow, mature, and prosper.

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

'Obama's Wars': A Good Read About Bad Wars

Obama's WarsObama's Wars by Bob Woodward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of this book is perfect: Obama’s Wars. Bob Woodward gives us a detailed account of President Obama taking ownership of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama also takes charge of internal strife between bickering branches and rival departments of our government and military.

Obama’s Wars is not a fun or exciting book, even during its most engrossing passages. But I can see it being a worthwhile read even for a person who skims a few chapters, becomes overwhelmed by the political complexity, and then gives up reading it. At least that person might come away with greater empathy for our leaders. (We could all use a bit more empathy in this nation.) The world of international relations is a messy one. Suffice it to say, if you think the war in Afghanistan is or should be solely about defeating al Qaeda, you are grossly uninformed.

My primary frustration with Obama’s Wars, though not necessarily a criticism of it, is the degree to which Mr. Woodward remains detached from his subject. I feel a bit sheepish admitting this. But there were times I wished Woodward had held my hand a bit more in terms of providing thematic subtext. Yes, I can tell that General X said something that upset Diplomat Y during a secret meeting. But I don’t fully grasp how it relates to the larger issues, let alone the interpersonal ones.

Nonetheless, I came to understand how President Obama’s cerebral nature is a much needed strategic boon but often a tactical stumbling block. Though, as I’d hoped, the book provides a favorable portrait. Woodward's research largely vindicates our President as engaged, hardworking, astute, and a much-needed antidote to the hotheaded cowboy mentality that got us into these wars.

I also developed a tempered appreciation for our nation’s generals, including the oft lionized General David Petraeus and the controversial General Stanley McChrystal. In the book, these men come across as extremely driven and devoted leaders, even when they find themselves at odds with the President. This isn’t a one-sided, absolutist account of who is right and who is wrong. In other words, this book is great reporting.

Ultimately, I found Obama’s Wars very sobering. It reveals how dangerous our world is—a place where geographic borders have become less relevant, but where the personalities in charge remain fiercely nationalistic, even tribal (and no I don’t just mean the Taliban). So I’ll continue paying my taxes and giving to non-profits. And I’ll keep trying to be a person who doesn’t deserve to be attacked and not one who is quick to make war. Because war—that is, politics through violence—always ends up ugly, even when prosecuted by the best of humans.

Note regarding the hardbound edition: This book includes two extremely helpful sections: 1) A Glossary; 2) A Cast of Characters

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

My Unexpectedly Romantic Visit with 'Imperial Earth'

Imperial EarthImperial Earth by Arthur C. Clarke
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Unexpectedly romantic are the words that describe Imperial Earth. For many years I have known this novel only by its title. Based on that title, I had assumed the novel would feel bold and grandiose in every respect. So I was not prepared for how unexpectedly intimate and introspective it is.

If novels like 2001 and Rendezvous with Rama are operas, Imperial Earth is more of a play. And I love a good play. Get me musing about deep aspects of humanity and science, and I will pardon the absence of a climactic spectacle. That is not to say that Imperial Earth lacks adventure. The first third of the novel, depicting life on Titan and a voyage to Earth in 2276 (think Quincentennial) is enthralling.

The ideas and themes of Imperial Earth are similar to 2001 and Rendezvous with Rama. But those novels portray actual ‘first contact’ scenarios. Imperial Earth explores why we haven’t had first contact and might never. Hence, the novel delivers a generally bittersweet portrait of humanity as a species who is as likely to fizzle out as blow itself to smithereens. However, I am not saying the novel is a universal downer.

As a serious Arthur C. Clarke fan, I relished how he explores the potential of radio technology along with the continued relevance of the oceans to humanity’s potential. Clarke masterfully weaves them together to develop the plot and leave readers pondering. The result is a surprisingly poetic lesson about how the frontiers of the past can become the decadent cesspools of the present.

This is also one of the more prophetic of Clarke’s novels. Written in the 70s, Clarke is already able to anticipate the long-term decline in pioneering that will--and did--follow the Apollo space program. And though he lacks the vernacular of “smart phones”, Clarke tellingly depicts an Earth culture that has developed a fetish-level dependence on communications technology.

I can’t say that I felt this novel was a masterpiece, but neither would I dare regard it as one of Clarke’s lesser works. Imperial Earth is high-quality science fiction. Clarke grapples with humankind’s potential by depicting the external and internal stumbling blocks we must overcome to succeed as a species…or rather, to continue succeeding.

Bottom line: If you are a Clarke fan, don’t miss this one. It might not wind up your favorite, but Imperial Earth is Arthur C. Clarke in his prime—both as a novelist and a thinker.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sailing Melville's Fateful Ocean of a Novel

Moby-Dick or, The WhaleMoby-Dick or, The Whale by Herman Melville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came to this novel a cynical man. And when I had slogged about two-thirds of the way through Moby Dick, I started drafting a cynical review. It went something like this:

If the film Rocky had been written by Herman Melville, the first 14 rounds of the big fight would involve Rocky and Apollo Creed dancing around the ring, sermonizing at great length on the glory of being gallant gladiators, all the while never throwing a punch. Finally, in the 15th round, Rocky’s cranky old manager Micky, fed up with the endless posturing, would jump in the ring and take a swing at Apollo. And as Apollo proceeds to kick the crap out of the old man, Rocky would hide in his trusty spit bucket. The End.

Moby Dick is a problematic novel. And now that I have read the whole thing, that makes me ache inside. Because I wonder if Melville went to his grave knowing just how close he came to writing the undisputed great American epic. He did not, but he came very close.

Though the central story is classic--and hopefully the iconic image of vengeful Ahab chasing the white whale will forever be imbedded in American culture--the novel itself is not an indisputable masterpiece. Nothing that is as rambling, verily overflowing with encyclopedic tedium, can be called an indisputable masterpiece—at least, not if it is graded as a novel.

Much of Moby Dick is historical and cultural discourse about whaling. These extensive diversions deprive the plot of needed rhythm and flow until late in the novel. What is more, Melville’s sentimental, alliteration-laden prose reads overly extravagant by contemporary standards. His writing also betrays an antiquated attitude--hopefully antiquated--toward issues of race and gender. This too undercuts the novel’s timelessness, and thus its eligibility to be the undisputed great American epic.

All that said, in the last hundred pages, Melville makes it all worth it. This section moved me as much as any book I have ever read. And had I not sailed two-thirds of the way round the world with Ishmael talking my ear off about whaling trivia, I don’t think I would have been as mesmerized as I became. When the Pequod finally reached the haunted whaling grounds of the Pacific, I, like the weary crew, was ready to see Ahab’s obsessive quest to its end, come what may.

In Melville’s defense, this novel is strewn with brilliant proverbial gems. I did a lot of underlining in my Borders Classics edition. In particular, the opening paragraph is a phenomenal preamble. I plan to read this novel again, free of the distraction of expectations. For though it requires a fisherman’s patience, I consider it a privilege to set sail with Melville. His epic expertly captures the American spirit and ego in all their strength and vulnerability. If you have not slogged through Moby Dick, you have missed something special.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Educational Incentive Behind Solar Sails

For this post, I'm happy to turn the reins of writing over to a young lady, an 11-year-old one. Victoria Robinson recently had her essay about solar sailing published online by The Planetary Society. The essay relates her experience of attending a Solar Sail Symposium in New York City.

Victoria's essay isn't simply a kid's take on science. It's also an account of how education and volunteerism have provided her with many great father-daughter moments, including a trip to The Big Apple to meet tennis superstar Venus Williams. She also got a chance to visit with Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Lastly, this post is part of a series I am doing dedicated to solar sailing. Here are my previous posts on the subject:

Harnessing "The Wind From the Sun"
Come Sail Away with Bradbury and Post...and Me

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Childe Jake Narrowly Avoids Overturned Election Booth

As Reported by the Associative Press:

In one of the first upsets of the 2010 General Election, Childe Jake upset the table his makeshift voter booth was situated on. The tri-fold cardboard divider, erected to ensure voter privacy, sat on a narrow table in the community center where Washtenaw County residents vote.

Late in the process of filling in bubbles on his ballot, Jake reportedly applied enough pressure on his pen to cause the tabletop to tip toward him. This in turn sent the privacy divider rushing towards his face.

Said the amateur blogger, "I was voting on County Proposal A to preserve natural areas and I guess I got a little excited."

An expert on tabletops that have not been properly fastened down says an incident like this was bound to happen sooner or later. "Given how hard Jake was pressing down on the ballot with his pen, I'm not surprised the tri-fold privacy divider catapulted toward his face with such velocity."

Election officials at the small-town polling station confirmed that the near collapse of Jake's voting booth caused a loud enough ruckus that all dozen or so people in the room stopped what they were doing and stared.

Said one election employee, "I just figured...Gosh. Voters really are angry."

Jake was able to right the cardboard divider and complete his voting without further incident.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

An Endorsement for the League of Women Voters of Michigan

I don't know how you folks who watch television keep from shooting yourselves during election years. Now, I don't mean fatally shooting yourselves. That would be crazy. I just mean firing a single low-caliber round into your foot to see if you can still feel anything.

I make the above jest after having watched a single evening of regularly scheduled television programming last week. It wasn’t the programs that upset me. What overcame my peace of mind was the cavalcade of angry, spiteful, mildly-factual-at-best political ads (and not just the ones funded by right wing folk).

A bit of background:

For reasons ranging from budget to personal taste, I don't get television in my apartment. I have a TV set. But it isn't hooked up to satellite or cable. And I've never gotten around to updating my antenna to digital. Oh, I get the news. In fact, thanks to NPR and reading newsprint articles, I assert that I am better informed than many TV watchers.

Still, on nights I use the Laundromat, I enjoy catching some TV. It takes me one hour of local and national news plus two game shows to wash, dry, and fold. Lame as that may sound, I’ve found it’s a decent way to spend an evening. I even look forward to it. Last week, however, watching TV at the Laundromat was an ordeal.

During each commercial break, as negative political ads followed one after another, I felt cynicism welling up in me. It couldn’t be helped. Watch that much negativism in super-concentrated doses, and you grow embittered. Viewing ultra-violent films and porn couldn't be any less healthy. At least the makers of that fare admit their work is sensational fiction.

That said, I want to plug a great information source that is free, user-friendly, and extremely helpful to citizens: The League of Women Voters. In the 21st century, the gender-centric title is a bit of a misnomer. This nonpartisan organization seeks to educate all voters. Still, in 1920 when our federal government finally got around to granting women the right to vote, it was the perfect name.

I first picked up a copy of the league’s Voter Guide from a pile of them in my college dorm. Ever since, I’ve regarded it as must-read political literature. The League’s printed Voter Guide, true to its claims, provides a concise nonpartisan primer on candidates for each federal and state category. This includes judges and statewide ballot proposals. Candidates are given three basic questions related to the position they are running for, and the League prints their brief responses. At least, that's what the local league in Michigan does.

The political ads, by fondling base impulses, tried to convince me this election is a do-or-die end game. The League of Women Voters reminded me it’s not. Elections are part of an ongoing process that does not begin or end with any one election cycle. So if you feel discouraged or overwhelmed, know that you are not alone. Also know that, depending on when you read this, you still have a full day or maybe a couple of hours to pick up a Voter Guide, or read up online. Find a local league here. Michigan has one worth bragging about in my opinion. Take it from me, it beats watching the television ads.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Best of Facebook Status Updates

Earlier this year I finally signed up for Facebook. I was a latecomer. And I'm proud of that fact. In any case, upon joining Facebook, I soon discovered the joy of posting Status Updates. These are short posts detailing where you are, what you are doing, and how these facts expose the idiocy of people with opposing viewpoints.

Below is a sampling of my Status Updates since joining Facebook. At their best, these are profound slices of my life--pure distillations of existence marked by wit and frankness. At worst, they serve as a troubling indication that--thanks to the Internet--my social life now resembles a trite and rather mundane knock-off of an Oscar Wilde play. I share them for your enjoyment, and with the deep and abiding hope that you will leave comments, thus adding to the attention these have already gotten me on Facebook.

And now, in no particular order, I give you the best of Childe Jake's Status Updates. For added fun, guess which of these successfully caused one of my friends to choke on her coffee:
  • From my window side table in the coffee shop I spy a cat on a window sill for whom Sunday morning is all about monitoring the birds fluttering about a nearby tree. And I thought I looked serious sitting here reading Milton.
  • Suddenly, I find myself filled with a deep desire to drop everything and go watch "Bill Cosby: Himself."
  • Dictionary.com turned off the comment option on their Word of the Day post. That is so lugubrious.
  • Stupid Culinary Trick: By combining mayo, pepperoni and sharp cheddar, you can create a sandwich that tastes exactly like the Chef Boyardee you didn't bring to work because you weren't in the mood for it.
  • I'm pretty sure I'm witnessing the squirrel equivalent of Fight Club on my neighbor's lawn. (Wait, am I not supposed to talk about this?)
  • "Oops! I did it again. I played with your heart. Got lost in the game. Oh, baby, bab..." Okay, I fell asleep last night listening to NPR Classical. Would somebody please explain how I woke up with that song stuck in my head?
  • My toe itches.
  • While grocery shopping I was annoyed to see Sports Illustrated's new "Swimsuit Issue" for sale. It's tacky, monopolizes shelf space better reserved for legitimate journalistic publications. Plus, it totally threw off my grocery budget.
  • A turtle charged me on the hiking trail today, which caused me great reflection while he was doing it.
  • Nephew says impatiently, "Why can't all cars go 70 mph?" Uncle replies coolly, "One day when you are a 70-year-old woman you will understand."
  • So much for saying it only happens in the movies. I sat on a bench and a bird pooped on my shoulder. Didn't get a good look to see what kind of bird, but I'm pretty sure it was a vegetarian.
  • Just finished munching on an Asiago Cheese demi-loaf. That leaves about 10 more minutes open for anyone who needs something, has ever wanted to catch me in a life-affirming mood, or just feels chatty.
  • Frick! The library just sent me a notice saying I have to return Kate Beckinsale...I mean Underworld.
  • If those darn scientists dare disprove the existence of Triceratops (my favorite dinosaur) I swear I'm gonna...I'm...I'll move to Canada!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Childe Jake Ends Bid to Replace Charity Nebbe at Michigan Radio

As reported by the Associative Press:

In the first major concession speech of the 2010 General Election, blogger Childe Jake has conceded defeat to Jennifer White in the race to become Michigan Radio's newest on-air host. With this victory, Ms. White is now the undisputed host of the weekday afternoon show: All Things Considered.

Jake suspended his campaign over the weekend, citing the need for Michigan Radio members to unite for the fall membership drive. Unnamed sources also confirmed that Jake's campaign suffered from a dwindling war chest, a lack of support outside of his apartment, and the fact that Jennifer White was officially hired about two months ago after an extensive national talent search.

Flanked by a local supporter from the Chelsea Teddy Bear Company, blogger Childe Jake concedes defeat to Michigan Radio's Jennifer White. Off-camera is senior political analyst Jack Lessenberry. (At time of publication, Jake was unable to confirm exactly how far off-camera Mr. Lessenberry was.)
It was five months ago that Childe Jake began his quest to snag the high profile radio job. He did so via a momentous blog post: Why I Should Replace Charity Nebbe on Michigan Radio. In the wake of that very-nearly-viral blog entry, Ms. Nebbe publicly expressed support for Jake receiving a job interview. Still, Jake's campaign quickly foundered.

Earlier today, Childe Jake held a press conference at his campaign headquarters in Washtenaw County. Surrounded by his supporter, Jake delivered a stirring and sometimes emotional concession speech:

“Friends and fellow public radio listeners, I stand before you today with a heavy heart.

A few minutes ago I had the privilege of speaking with a person I have spent the past few months debating. This person is more than just an opponent. He is my neighbor. In return for me not blasting my radio during the Powdermilk Biscuit Song on Prairie Home Companion, he has agreed to vacate our shared patio long enough for me to deliver my concession speech. This accord reached, I will now proceed with my prepared remarks:

When I began my quest to succeed Charity Nebbe at Michigan Radio, I did so out of a sense of duty. I saw my bid as a histor…pardon me, an historic opportunity to end business as usual. For too long now, public radio has teemed exclusively with trained journalists. As such, our precious airwaves have remained subject to a status quo of in-depth coverage, balanced commentary, and rigorous fact checking. As an amateur blogger--but more crucially as one who knows personally the frustration of every Michigander who lacks reserved parking during the Ann Arbor Art Fair--I felt it was time to offer listeners a choice.

Now the Michigan Radio hiring committee has spoken. And while I disagree with their decision, I will abide by it. For the sake of station unity, I offer my concession to Ms. White. I have heard it said that in an American election there are never losers. Those words, eloquently coined by a past non-winner, provide me solace today.

Standing here in the chill of an autumn breeze, I am reminded of another chilly morning this past spring when I volunteered at the Michigan Radio studios. In the predawn drizzle, all I could think about was scoring a cup of hot coffee and a comfortable seat in the station's phone bank. At that moment, a Michigan Radio employee buzzed passed me wide awake and smiling. Even at 5:50 am, her very aspect exuded a genuine enthusiasm for the mission of listener-supported public radio--a mission to provide the best in educational programming and broadcast journalism.

Thinking back on that brief encounter, I can only say, "Congratulations, Jennifer White. I'll catch you on the drive home!"

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Come Sail Away with Bradbury and Post...and Me

Returning to the Elegant Subject of Solar Sails

This is life itself, to onward fly
A boy alone with Universe
who knows that he must go into the dark.
Before I explain the above poetry quotation, I have a confession. Sometimes I get sick of reading about space exploration. Albeit hypocritically, I often tire of reading the very kind of cosmic blogging I tend to do myself--subjective and sentimental pro-NASA/pro-space rhetoric. Here is an example from one of my favorite TV shows, The West Wing.

One of The West Wing's most haunting episodes is entitled "The Warfare of Genghis Khan." Though the central plotline involves nuclear arms proliferation, a key subplot depicts a NASA employee befriending White House senior staffer Josh Lyman. Initially Josh is cynical about NASA, but soon he is won over by some good old-fashioned space evangelism and a boyish peek through a telescope. Sound naive? I think it does.

Why should we go to Mars, Josh asks. And the brilliant NASA scientist replies…adventure will nourish humanity's soul. Ug. Is this really the best reason a NASA employee, albeit a fictional one created by talented TV writers, can come up with? From a show of such indisputable intelligence, I expected reasoning that was more nuanced and politically savvy. Still, methinks I wax too grumpy.

Inspiring the public is a valid (if belabored) rationale for exploring space. On The West Wing, this reasoning pays dramatic dividends when Josh's newfound enthusiasm for NASA runs headlong into the episode's titular plotline about warfare. As Josh portends, in a world fraught with violent selfishness there is something "generous" about marshalling resources for peaceful exploration.

This brings me to the above poetry excerpt, which comes from a wonderful piece co-authored by Ray Bradbury and Jonathan V. Post: "To Sail Beyond the Sun (A Luminous Collage)." Even though I’ve been a space enthusiast for decades, I only discovered this 20-year-old poem a few months ago. It was published in 1990 as part of a collection entitled: Project Solar Sail.

Project Solar Sail

I became aware of this book through the Fans of Arthur C. Clarke group on Goodreads.com. Sir Arthur edited this collection of original works by leading science writers. The published book was a fundraising effort to build support for a solar sail mission.

Recently, I scored an original copy on eBay. And over the last few days, I have read and reread Bradbury and Post's "To Sail Beyond the Sun (A Luminous Collage)." The poem's conceit, as I take it, is that humans are like solar sails. Fashioned from base material, we have proven sea-worthy, or rather, star-worthy. In coming weeks and months, I intend to read Project Solar Sail in its entirety, and pass on some of its rhetorical and practical value via this blog. For personal background, I hope you will read a previous blog post: Harnessing the Wind from the Sun.

For now I affirm a belief held by many space enthusiasts today. We humans are quite beautiful and precious, yet we remain coarse and superstitious children clinging to a small blue orb. Admitting that humble reality and then engaging in vigorous exploration can refine us into something even better. As cosmic poets Bradbury and Post express it:

We are the energy of Shakespeare's verse,
we are what mathematics wants to be--
The Life Force in the Universe
That longs to See!
That would Become
and give a voice to matter that was dumb.

We are, to the gates of gravity, the keys ...

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Revisiting the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail for Surcease

Trust me. The view will get better if you keep reading.

I always feel like I'm repenting when I go hiking. With the exception of this past June, my hikes have usually been preceded by much procrastinating. My body is too easily disposed to lethargy, and reaching my mid-30s has not helped. With some ironical gratitude, I thank Michigan's Democrat and Republican gubernatorial candidates for getting me back out on the trail.

The two guys fighting it out for governor in Michigan have both demonstrated weak negotiating skills by initially failing--and then barely managing--to negotiate one measly debate. With big money playing an even bigger role in this election, debates are essential to provide the public a reasonable chance to evaluate the actual candidates. But if these two men can't even agree on a set of debates with each other, can we expect them to be any better at negotiating a state budget with scores of opponents and a multitude of competing interests?

After spending a few hours over several days familiarizing myself with candidates, I felt dispirited. And this gave me the needed shove to get back out on the hiking trail. Yesterday I came home from the office, changed into hiking attire, hastily made a peanut butter sandwich for supper, and headed back to the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail.

Many sections of the trail effectively belong to hunters until April. Nevertheless, several safe trail heads remain available beginning at the Gerald Eddy Discover Center. I did the Lakeview Trail, a horseshoe-shaped byway that skirts lovely Mill Lake. Here is a peek at what Mother Earth offered this weary pilgrim.

With leaves changing colors, a rich golden shimmer penetrated the forest in sporadic patches. On a cool Wednesday evening, I had the trail to myself--at least as far as human contact is concerned. I never hiked more than a few yards without hearing a rush of leaves as a nearby chipmunk or squirrel darted out of sight. The funny thing is, in the thick underbrush, I didn't even notice them until I heard them scurrying away. I even stirred up a doe as I headed to my favorite spot along the Mill Lake shoreline.

Why do I have to cajole myself into taking a couple hours every week to visit this place? Can I really be that wrapped up in the mess of our "civilized world"? I can. We all can. People who are passionate, people who give a damn--each of us is susceptible to being overcome by the unhealthy frenzy of a general election’s closing weeks.

So if, like me, you catch yourself getting feverishly frustrated with the election, take a breath. Better yet, take a walk. You will see this country is still big enough and rich enough to sustain us all. It is a durable landscape capable of supporting people with conflicting views. Still, to keep a level head in days to come, I expect I'll need a few more excursions to enjoy what Lord Byron called, "the pleasure in the pathless woods." If you are reading this blog, whatever segment of the political spectrum you fall within, I encourage you to do the same.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Book Giveaway for Author Jo Carson on Goodreads.com

Update: 9/26/11

Jo Carson passed away a few days ago. As the below post indicates, I encountered her writing through NPR's host and writer Peter Sagal. His remembrance of Ms. Carson is available here:

For Jo

The below giveaway has ended. I will be mailing copies to the winners this weekend. Thank you to the over 700 people who entered for a chance to win.

I am sponsoring a book giveaway on Goodreads.com to support author Jo Carson's personal fight against cancer.

Jo Carson, as a writing talent and person coping with cancer, was brought to my attention by Peter Sagal, host of NPR's hit show Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me! They are friends, and she was a mentor to Peter back in the day. He shared Ms. Carson's story with readers on his blog and asked us to consider making a donation to a support fund.

As an extension of my blogging activities, I've set up a giveaway so a couple of readers will have a chance to try out Jo Carson's work. You can follow the link below to enter the giveaway. Please note, this requires signing up to have a free account on Goodreads.com. This is a fun social networking sight dedicated to books. So I encourage you to sign up anyway.
I also invite you to read my review of this excellent book at Goodreads.com: Teller Tales by Joe Carson

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Teller Tales: Histories (Paperback) by Jo Carson

Teller Tales

by Jo Carson

Giveaway ends October 14, 2010.
See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fosgitt's 'Little Green Men' is Wacky Space-age Fun

Little Green MenLittle Green Men by Jay P. Fosgitt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My only gripe with this delightful comic adventure is its indistinctive title: Little Green Men. Used so often in pop culture as to be belabored, “little green men” doesn't strike me in the way great titles do. This is a minor concern though, because it is a wonderful read. I give Little Green Men a very enthusiastic four stars and highly recommend it.

This is emerging talent Jay Fosgitt's second full-length offering. It is actually a compilation of several mini-adventures originally published online through Ape Entertainment. I also recommend Fosgitt's first outing: Dead Duck. Little Green Men is a different story with different characters. It is also lighter fare and offers a faster paced and generally livelier plotline (pun intended).

Working with characters created by Brent Erwin and David Hedgecock, Mr. Fosgitt takes this alien trio on an adventure titled “Go Big or Go Home.” This grand tour of Earth's exotic culture as scene from an alien perspective is at once a charming tale, a goofy excursion, and a witty lampoon of pop culture. One of the biggest strengths of Little Green Men is how distinct the three little aliens are from each other. Each serves as a hilarious foil for the other two. They are also joined by a fourth colorful character, their rather sassy spaceship.

My favorite outing involves the aliens happening upon a Renaissance Festival and mistakenly assuming they've gone back in time. Not only is the ensuing battle hilarious, it's exciting, swashbuckling action on a par with established superhero comics. If you are a comic book fan, you should definitely give Jay Fosgitt's work a try. Regardless, Little Green Men is a story anyone can enjoy. I say get Little Green Men...before they get us.

View all my reviews

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Naked Angel and Little Green Men Cause Thoughts of Dead Duck in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Every blogger hopes for the supreme blogging miracle. I mean of course when a chosen topic simultaneously offers both a catchy title and key words guaranteed to boost the blog's search ranking. This is such a blog post. Now here is the bonus. I get to plug new works by two artists I personally know and admire.

Naked Angel Coming Soon

A couple of years back I acted in a play called Blue Surge at the Blackbird Theatre in Ann Arbor. This gave me the opportunity to work with a fine young actress named Cameron Watkins. Since then, Cameron has scored a big role in the feature film Naked Angel. (For my part, I followed up our joint Blackbird debut by purchasing three DVD box sets of Dr. Who.)

Naked Angel stars James Duval, who cult film fans will recognize from Donnie Darko. All remaining film fans will likely remember him as the oldest son of Randy Quaid's quirky character in Independence Day. Here is Naked Angel's premise as listed on the film's IMDB entry:
A man who wants to let go of life [Duval] falls in love with an angel who longs to be human [Watkins] and is inspired to live again.
Here is where I try to score a future hug by saying that the lovely Cameron didn't even have to act in the film because she is already an angel. Ticket information for the sneak preview--with director and cast members in attendance--can be found at Michigan Theatre's website. And now, I invite you to watch the trailer for Naked Angel:

Little Green Men For Sale

Little Green Men

In the realm of comic books and graphic novels, Ann Arbor-based artist Jay Fosgitt has just published his second work, Little Green Men. My pre-ordered copy arrived earlier today at a nearby Borders in Ann Arbor (where I had it sent to score free shipping). So I haven't read Little Green Men yet. Still, I'm betting it totally frickin' debunks astrophysicist Stephen Hawking's claim that humans don't have what it takes to face aliens. Already available is Jay's first graphic novel, Dead Duck. The following is an excerpt from my unabashedly biased rave:

Dead DuckDead Duck by Jay P. Fosgitt
What is Dead Duck? In a nut shell, or egg shell rather, it’s a small water fowl that is…well…not living. Raised and employed by Death itself, Dead Duck collects deceased souls and delivers them to the afterlife. ....

Creator Fosgitt taps into our popular culture with a hilarious offering of subtle references, goofy tributes, and witty satire. It all kept me chuckling to the last page. A major part of the fun is the richly detailed artwork. It spurns decorum, all the while rewarding the reader’s intelligence with something more than mindless bathroom humor. (I’m not saying that bathroom humor is absent, just that it isn’t relied on). Much of the funniest content shows up in the background, so it’s a good idea not to digest Dead Duck too quickly. ...

I, Childe Jake, have not received gifts in exchange for the above promotional blogging...which is not to say I wouldn't have accepted gifts, even moderately priced ones, y'know, for my trouble. After all, I sacrificed an evening of Dr. Who reruns to write this blog.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Childe Jake Talks up Childe Harold, but First...

Tomorrow, September 8th, is International Literacy Day. I confess this is a day I’ve never paid special attention to. My excuse is that I cherish literacy every day. The blunt truth is that, like so many other "increasing awareness" days, I just haven’t made any time for it before. But let's avoid feeling guilty. If you pay taxes as a U.S. citizen, read books to children, or pay back student loans, you are already playing a key role in increasing literacy. Pat yourself on the back. The question is, are you willing to do something extra? Below are two simple things I’ve done in the past year that felt great.

My first suggestion is make a donation to your local public library. Don’t just donate old books for the used book sale--the literary equivalent of donating unwanted canned vegetables to a food drive. Actually make a monetary donation to your library. My other suggestion is even simpler. Make a special trip to a store that sells print material and buy some. Don't just read for free online and assume that advertising dollars will keep quality publications accessible to all. Actually go to a physical book store and buy a book, magazine, or newspaper. By purchasing print material in person, you help sustain the marketplace that supplies literature to people who do not have Internet access at home.

One of the blessings I’ve enjoyed thanks to literacy is developing this blog. I am working on a post to explain why I chose the blog name Childe Jake’s Pilgrimage. Since it is not ready yet, I am posting my short review of Lord Byron’s masterful poem: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. This is one of my favorite literary works, and certainly my favorite poem by Lord Byron. Below are some reasons why.

Childe Harold's PilgrimageChilde Harold's Pilgrimage by George Gordon Byron

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my favorite work by Lord Byron. Hands down. No contest. I revisit it often to read favorite sections.

Via the character of Childe Harold, and later simply as himself, Byron explores the world. He visits places like Spain, Turkey, and of course, Greece. He also muses on great historical figures like Napoleon. Think of this as the ultimate road trip epic, set via 19th Century Romanticism. Do you like movies like Easy Rider? This work is in the same vein.

The language is more accessible than Shakespeare. Still, I recommend picking up a well-footnoted edition, and keeping a dictionary handy. Often, Byron uses words differently than we do today. So it is worth referencing archaic definitions that add fascinating layers to the text.

Wish you could meet Byron and interact with him in person? Read this pilgrimage poem.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Harnessing "The Wind From the Sun"

Look closely at the photo below and you will see people walking around what appears to be the mother of all TV dinners. In truth, the triangular sheets are not a TV dinner. They are something better. Perhaps for the first time, but almost certainly not for the last, you are looking at a solar sail.

Photo Credit: NASA

The above solar sail measures 66 feet on a side. Click here for the full caption provided by NASA. In part it reads, "Much like the wind pushing a sailboat through water, solar sails rely on sunlight to propel vehicles through space. The sail captures constantly streaming solar particles..." To be clear, solar wind is real. And for the first time, it has been utilized in actual spaceflight. Given this is an election year, I take some wry glee in pointing out that the first country to have successfully incorporated solar sail technology into space flight is neither the U.S. nor Russia. It is Japan. They did it earlier this summer.

My first exposure to solar sails came via a delightful short story by Arthur C. Clarke: "The Wind From the Sun." My memory is patchy, but I likely found the story in a bound collection borrowed from the public library when I was in junior high school. Perhaps I read it in this volume. (The short story was originally published in Boy's Life in 1964.) Regardless, Clarke's story enchanted me then, and enchants me even more today.

What I love about "The Wind from the Sun" is its sense of scale. The protagonist, John Merton, pilots a two-square-mile solar sail in a yacht race to the Moon. He competes against international rivals and faces the threat of a devastating solar flare during the race. It's exciting fiction and holds up very well over four decades later. Plus, you don't need to be a sci-fi geek to enjoy it. You only need to know that Clarke, in 1964, imagined a technology and space culture that is now becoming reality. "The Wind From the Sun" presciently depicts a global space race and the rise of space tourism.

Still, it is a bit deflating to know that while Clarke's story is even more relevant today, most of the research is still being done on the ground. However, I am excited to say that the United States may soon join Japan in testing solar sail technology in space. We are one rocket launch away. And the organization spearheading the mission is not NASA. It is The Planetary Society, co-founded by Carl Sagan.

Like many other enthusiasts, I'm not content with the tiny portion of my tax dollars allocated for space exploration. (Trust me, the portion of your personal tax contribution to NASA is tiny.) So I regularly make tax-deductible donations to projects like LightSail. Click this next link to see a wonderful artist's depiction of the solar sail our Society is helping build. By starting small, the Planetary Society can piggyback LightSail-1 on a rocket launch by NASA or another space agency in the near future. Call it cosmic carpooling.

In the meantime, there is Clarke's wonderful story "The Wind from the Sun" to enjoy. Without giving away the ending, I'd like to share a short excerpt. It describes the poignant moment when John Merton exits his solar wind-borne craft "Diana" for the last time. By opening the air lock, he uses the release of air to nudge the sail forward.

"The thrust he gave her then was his last gift to Diana. She dwindled away from him, sail glittering splendidly in the sunlight..."

Has Merton won the race? Has he lost? Will he or his solar sail even survive? You'll have to read the story to find out. In any case, the greater real-life tale is only beginning.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Office Copier Tips (Redacted)

The office I work at purchased a new copy machine. Our company president asked me to study the manual and draft a memo of tips and tricks for using the new copier. I did so in a prompt and professional manner. Still, possessing an English Major brain, I had to censor myself and refrain from including literary embellishments.

What follows is the complete version of my memo. The redacted portions have lines through them. Since it wouldn't have been appropriate to circulate this version to the office staff, I've chosen instead to publish it on the Internet.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dear Staff,
Here are some notes about our new copier we should all be aware of before disregarding:

I’ve pinned up some hot n’ sexy instructions for replacing toner. These include a list of Common Error Codes which we will manage to outdo by discovering a new error that no mortal has ever troubleshot before.

There is also a handout called “Getting to Know Your Machine” (lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II). This includes diagrams for basic functions (like #2):
  1. Loading new paper
  2. Removing that paper after it jams
  3. A key for the Touchy Feely Panel Display
  4. A basic Trouble Shooting Guide for basic folk like yuhnmee!
The entire set of manuals can be found on the server (if you are pure in heart). They are as follows:
  • Operating Manual (The one you will actually need).
  • Digital Imaging & Networking Manuals (You shouldn’t need these, but go ahead and ask me perplexing questions about them so I yet again fail to make it to lunch with my ego intact).
This copier has multi-tasking capability. I don’t and I’m proud of it. So if Person A sends a digital document from her desk while Person B is manually copying like the pioneers of old, the copier should finish one job and hold the other in memory until it can safely print (thus eliminating thrown staplers and supervisors emerging from their offices to ask, “Who's swearing out here?”).

Now, please use caution when blowing off some reminders about the Manual Feed Tray:

  • When using the Manual Feed Tray, do not use heavyweight paper, your face, carbon paper, your butt, or stapled paper.
  • Please smooth out creased paper to reduce copier wear and tear (or don’t. Really, who ever got fired for this).
  • Whenever copying onto cardstock, use the Bypass Tray on the right side of the copier. Yes, your right.
  • WARNING: When making face/ass copies or removing jammed paper, pay attention to warning labels about how hot the machine gets.
There are two power buttons on this machine. One is on the lower front. The other is in back and is the “Main Power Switch.” Turn off the lower front switch first. Stand up straight, rub your back, and miss being young. Then turn off the main power switch. If there is a power outage, refill your coffee before the pitcher cools and turn the copier to off until the power returns.

That’s some basic stuff. So feel stupid when you screw up anyway. Please refer to the manual as needed.



Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Hiking The Waterloo-Pinckney Trail

Let this be known as the summer I took hiking seriously. Well, okay--to appease fact checkers--let this be known as the summer I took hiking seriously in June and early July. After recently reading a handful of books on climbing Mount Everest, I resolved to embrace the outdoors. For me, the most immediate option is the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail.

This 36-mile trail meanders over glacier-crafted ridges, through thick woods and across marshy lowlands. It isn't a technically demanding trail, though it has plenty of topography. A hiker should bring plenty of water, a compass, and a reliable trail map. As the name indicates, the trail has two distinct sections. The longer of the two, at about 23 miles, is the Waterloo portion. I sought to complete this portion by hiking it in 3 to 6 mile sub-sections. (For a couch potato like me, that is ambitious.)

Above is perhaps the most tranquil spot on the W/P Trail. I took this photo from a secluded nook on the shoreline of Crooked Lake. (Note the absence of a rectangular shoreline.) In addition to cozy vistas, the trail also has its share of critters. Below is one of two turtles I encountered. He was quite shy, but I managed to grab this shot as he fled into the underbrush.

Though he looks big in this photo, don’t mistake this turtle for a tortoise. Although tortoises are technically turtles, they are much larger than the average turtle and hence more confident when dating. Now onto the ominous section of this blog post.

I felt pretty macho for continuing past the above sign. Plus, notice how the DNR mounted it so the hexagonal screw doubles as an unnecessary period. Punctuational coolness! Evident in the background is thick foliage typical of the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail. I recommend hiking it in pants, not shorts. Still, there are places where the landscape opens up and offers something approaching majesty.

Passing this marshy lowland, I closed in on my goal to complete the 23-mile Waterloo trail segment. An entourage of flies and mosquitoes urged me on like that crowd of cheering kids in the jogging montage of Rocky II. I swatted several of them (the mosquitoes).

Pictured below, Sackrider Hill is billed as the high point on the trail. I headed up Sackrider's wooded slope with that sense of anticipation one always feels when nearing a summit.

As you can see, it's a nice spot. No real view to speak of since the lookout tower is 10 feet shorter than the trees, but still a pleasant plot of ground. Reaching this low summit after a hike of maybe 40 yards from my car was a letdown. Frankly, it was so anticlimactic that I belched out a disappointed, “What the hell!” Then I learned an important hiking lesson. When emerging suddenly from tree cover—but prior to exclaiming ‘What the hell’--you should scan the clearing for couples enjoying a quiet picnic.

Completing the trail took several hikes. In addition to modest hills, there were other obstacles. Let's talk about getting your feet wet!

On my final hike, I had to wade through a flooded area (not deep, but sizable). Lacking proper footwear, I’d turned back from this obstacle on a previous trip. This time I came prepared. When I reached the flooded section I donned an old pair of Chucks. With the late morning sun rising high over my back, sloshing through the water felt great. I headed to a marker about a hundred yards up the trail and tagged it. That marked my completion of the Waterloo portion of the W/P Trail!

Here is me celebrating as I switched back into my dry footwear for a 6 mile return hike to my car. Not close to the magnitude of heroism shown by those who have climbed on Mount Everest, but still the picture of a truly happy boy. In full sincerity, the Waterloo-Pinckney Trail is a Michigan treasure. Anchored by lakes for boaters and swimmers, and with the Gerald E. Eddy Discover Center in the middle, it has provided me with many soul-feeding excursions. And I expect more to come as the cool breezes of autumn begin blowing across Lower Michigan.

More Recent Post on Hiking Waterloo-Pinckney trails:

Returning to Waterloo-Pinckney in 2011

Friday, August 6, 2010

Oh, If Understanding the Book of Mormon Were Enough

Understanding the Book of MormonUnderstanding the Book of Mormon by Grant Hardy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When it comes to scripture, I am devoutly skeptical. However, I generally appreciated Dr. Grant Hardy’s scholarly work Understanding the Book of Mormon. He reads the way I love to read. Hardy digs deep and buries himself in the text. He engages in thorough cross-referencing and rigorous comparing and contrasting.

To get the most out of Hardy’s analysis, I reread the Book of Mormon while reading his book. In particular, I found his assessments of Captain Moroni and the Book of Ether innovative. I also like how he takes both believers and non-believers to task for cherry picking passages they like and essentially dismissing the rest of the book. Still, I have serious concerns with Understanding the Book of Mormon.

Implicit in every chapter, and often explicit, is Dr. Hardy’s adoration of the Book of Mormon. This bias leaks into his textual analysis. Where the Book of Mormon exhibits literary weakness--as everyone from Moroni to Mark Twain agrees it does--Hardy backs away from his touted strategy of close textual reading. He even boasts of working from “gaps” and “omissions” in the text to beef up Nephi’s simplistic characters and one-sided storytelling.

It’s important to point out that Dr. Hardy focuses on the Book of Mormon’s narrative elements, not its theology. That is to say he primarily explores characters, events and, above all else, the narrative voices of Nephi, Mormon and Moroni. Hardy would have us believe that each narrator has a distinct voice. Certainly on a rudimentary level they do. As Hardy ably demonstrates, each narrator displays a basic awareness of his political and social surroundings.

But as Dr. Hardy points out, Mormon’s narration incorporates close to 200 “phrases he has picked up.” Hardy suggests this might be intentional use of “phrasal allusion.” The opposing argument, every bit as reasonable, is that the Book of Mormon narrators aren’t especially distinct. What is more, Hardy grudgingly admits that Moroni’s voice is even less distinctive than Mormon’s. He states that Moroni’s writing contains “…an unusually high proportion of phrases borrowed from previous Book of Mormon authors.”

Dr. Hardy seems to want it both ways. He digs deep to find textual evidence of unique voices. Yet elsewhere he confesses that “it is not always clear whether these kinds of verbal echoes are deliberate or whether Moroni is simply relying on common tropes….” Hardy buries one of his frankest confessions in the End Notes: "Latter-day Saints have long been wary of acknowledging just how much of the language of the Book of Mormon is derived from the Bible...."

Frankly, at the core of my criticism of Understanding the Book of Mormon is a suspicion. As Dr. Hardy makes clear in his Afterword, he doesn’t just want us to “understand” the Book of Mormon, he wants us to like it. Even if we don’t believe it, he wants us to hold it in high literary esteem. In short, Dr. Hardy wants learned skeptics like me to give the Book of Mormon more respect than it gives us. For the Book of Mormon narrators unmistakably promise stern eternal consequences to those who remain in unbelief.

Dr. Hardy rightly assesses the Book of Mormon as stubborn. Indeed, the Book of Mormon’s narrators demand nothing less than spiritual allegiance. So I find it foolhardy at best—and covertly evangelical at worst—that Hardy attempts to build a bridge between Lehi’s tree of spiritual fruit and that great and spacious building where worldly folk like me are said to dwell.

View all my reviews >>
UPDATE-9/20/10: My review came to the attention of the author, Dr. Grant Hardy. His response can be found at www.goodreads.com/review/show/108813190

Monday, July 19, 2010

Anatomy of a Snuggle

A serious blogger I follow recently posted something light and a bit sophomoric. She did this to offset the stress she feels relative to recent political developments. It is an election year. That topic, and other heated ones, will be appearing in my blog soon as well. Therefore, in an effort to inject some lightness into the ether ahead of the ideological storm, I offer you today's blog: Anatomy of a Snuggle

I have intended for some time to blog on this subject. Snuggling, or "cuddlosis" as it was not called in ancient Greece, is an age-old method for providing comfort. It enables true bonding of friends and companions, especially after a crisis. Now, I am a writer. That’s how I enter the world, as a fictional Poet Laureate (played by the snuggable Laura Dern) once said on The West Wing. Yet, Blogging for Dummies assures me that words are not enough. To break down the essentials of snuggling I must employ pictures.

I am fortunate to have access to a talented model who is easy on the eyes. As models go she is quite affable. That helps the photo shoot go smoother. She is also petite, which makes it easier to keep her in frame. My budget for this photo shoot was limited, but thankfully this particular model has a thing for...well, for beef sticks. It sounds strange, but it's really quite charming to see how happy they make her.

Enough vamping. I invite you to scroll down and enjoy a short demonstration on safe and effective snuggling.
I'd like you to meet Tiny, a longtime friend and current resident of Kentucky.

Whether you have had a hard day at the office, or been snubbed by several adults who are fawning over grandchildren, snuggling is a tried and true remedy. Yet always keep in mind that the need to snuggle comes from a place of vulnerability. So when approaching a soul in need, ask yourself: 'How do I initiate snuggling when the needy party is mired in jealousy and may rebuff my good intentions?'

A single hand placed softly on the shoulder is a safe and non-threatening way to query if snuggling is desired. CAUTION: Even if your initial hand touch is accepted, do not go right into snuggling. What is needed is a smooth transition--a chance for the grieved party to adjust from sorrow to comfort.

Wait for eye contact. Sometimes the right words just aren't there. Eye contact never fails to indicate if snuggling will be appreciated.

Authentic snuggling includes reciprocation. Anything less is a one-way act of charity at best. If you sense it becoming all about him/her, or even just about you, consider a kind word or a gentle pat on the back. Also, be aware that Tiny’s method of reciprocation has limited, and potentially awkward, applicability for human-to-human snuggling.

Ultimately, by utilizing kind gestures and open communication, you may reach that most prized of snuggling stages--repose. This is when eye-contact, gestures and even talking are no longer needed.

In closing, I thank my snuggling model Tiny. If you enjoyed her work, she can also be seen in last year's holiday opus: Upon Thanksgiving Day!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Praise for Japan's "Hayabusa" and a Reply to a Critic

The photo below is not of a meteor. It is a human-made spacecraft intentionally reentering the Earth's atmosphere after a seven-year round trip journey.

Image Credit: NASA/Ed Schilling


"Hayabusa", as the Japanese probe is called, landed on an Earth-crossing asteroid and attempted to retrieve samples. It endured damaging solar flares, crippled engines, and a rough landing on the target asteroid. Hayabusa's adventure reads like an unmanned sendup of Apollo 13. Every time something went wrong, resilient engineers employed fixes and the mission continued. Hayabusa's last act was safely depositing a sample capsule, perhaps empty, on the Australian desert.

Though humankind is getting better at flying probes to asteroids, we still have a lot of work to do before humans make the trip. In the meantime, these science-based missions inspire me a great deal. Every day, probes and rovers continue exploring our solar system, bringing us closer to the moment when humans are ready to make the trip. For a wonderful account of this probe's tumultuous odyssey, and how it fits proudly into the bigger picture of space exploration, I recommend Louis D. Friedman's account entitled "The Hayabusa Adventure." It's a quick read.

A Reply

Not long ago, I was accused of being a sucker. It came anonymously in response to my blog post lauding President Obama’s plans for NASA. In part, the President’s strategy calls for increased reliance on private industry to build the powerful rockets needed for human spaceflight. Though not without risk, NASA's new direction has the potential to spur innovation and lower mission costs. After I blogged in praise of this approach, a comment was posted saying I’d been “suckered in!”

At the time, I did not reply. Frankly, I assumed “Anonymous” was just another Internet troll—a random visitor throwing a hotheaded and hasty jab and then running away. I was mistaken. It turns out my unnamed critic is someone I know personally, someone I respect. More importantly, he is a veteran employee of a major aerospace company (and heretofore NASA contractor). His job, and many others like it, are threatened by this retooling of our nation's space program.

Given this reality, I have finally posted a reply. I invite you to read it here. It is neither an apology nor a change of my position. Based on a great deal of reading, I remain optimistic about NASA's new direction. Still, it is important to acknowledge the upheaval being experienced by some of NASA's current contractors.

Suffice it to say that NASA remains at the fiscal mercy of Congress--a Congress that has now spent decades underfunding space exploration. Provided NASA receives the increased funding President Obama has called for, our nation's aerospace companies can expect continued opportunities to competitively bid for lucrative contracts.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

What Kind of Dream Has It Been?

Have you ever had a dream so incredible you felt sad upon waking up?
Ahem! Actually no, I’m not referring to sex dreams. This post is going to be about something better…well, that assertion may prove debatable. In any case, think of your favorite TV show. Think about what elements of that show make it so great to watch, so engrossing.

Recently I had an especially vivid and exciting dream based on one of my all-time favorite shows: The West Wing. As I was having it, the dream rivaled any TV/movie-based dream I've ever had. But from the moment I woke up until now, many days later, I have been drowning in sorrow. You see, my incredible West Wing dream resulted in tragic lost opportunity--an opportunity I may never get back.

Still, let’s first discuss the coolness of this dream. Over seven seasons, The West Wing proved just how entertaining and intelligent television drama can be. It followed the fictional presidency of Josiah Bartlett, portrayed by Martin Sheen. The show took audiences deep, physically and mentally, into the White House. By any standard, it boasted one of the best casts and writing teams (a la Aaron Sorkin) ever assembled for network TV drama.

I’ve certainly had dreams before that included motifs from The West Wing. As a devotee, I’ve been through the series three times on DVD. Of course the show has surfaced in my dreamscape—as I’m sure it does for anyone with a relapsing remitting crush on actress Allison Janney, who portrays the White House Press Secretary.

Let me be clear. Until last week, I’d never had a dream so vivid and well-constructed. In contrast to typical dreams where continuity runs amuck, or I wake up just before the good part, this dream played out like the best, most dramatic scenes in the show. The dream was almost perfect. Almost.

Once in REM state, I found myself in a closed-door meeting with White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry and DCS Josh Lyman. On the real show, Leo McGarry was referred to as the second most powerful man in the world. And by the final episode, Josh Lyman had become the show’s main protagonist, rising to the position of Chief of Staff to President Bartlett’s successor. Here I was having a closed-door strategy meeting with arguably the most important characters in the entire series.

Replicating classic episodes, Leo, Josh and I wrangled over what strategy President Bartlett should take to handle a national crisis--something analogous to the Gulf oil spill. Josh and I were of one accord that the White House should not accept blame. However, Josh wanted to blame the crisis on a political rival. Replicating a central theme of the show, namely that cooler heads should prevail, I suggested we neither take nor assign blame. Rather, the White House should angle passively so that blame fell imperceptibly onto wrongdoers. This, I assured Josh and Leo, would keep the President’s hands clean. (Oh yeah, folks, I’m crafty during REM sleep!)

After this intense meeting, Leo and I stepped into the hall. He charged me with taking our position directly to the President. One of the most beloved characters on The West Wing, Leo leaned in close to me and spoke in a low gravelly tone like I’d seen the late actor John Spencer do masterfully so many times. That was the most electrifying moment of the dream.

Next thing I know, I am sitting in the Oval Office with Sam Seaborn and other senior advisors looking on. SWEET! President Bartlett, or put another way—MARTIN FRICKIN’ SHEEN is looking right at me. COOL!! I’m advising him to stay above the fray. President Bartlett appears skeptical, and my nerves start to rattle. But the President doesn’t interrupt, and I successfully get my point across. AWESOME!!!

As I woke up , staring at the ceiling of my apartment, I grinned ear to ear for a second. Then the metaphorical floor dropped out from under me as I realized my dream lacked one critical element. Astute fans of The West Wing may already know to which element I’m referring.


I’ve been kicking myself ever since. How did my brain deliver up such a realistic West Wing dream, only to leave out the critical technique of actors walking as they talk? By literally moving the story forward, Walk and Talks help fans digest critical exposition as they survey the White House Complex. What is worse, my dream included an obvious place to do a Walk and Talk. For goodness sake, Act 2 of my dream was in the hallway with Leo. But we just stood there. And no, I don't blame Leo. I take full responsibility.

Now I’ve got to watch a whole ‘nother season—again—to prompt a new dream (which reminds me that only watching Kate Beckinsale movies every other week isn’t doing the trick, but that’s a peripheral issue). Oh well, I’m off to watch some reruns.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Manly Man Goes Millay

Selected Poems (Perennial Classics) Selected Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Shame led me to read this book of poetry.

Here is how it went. Last November I read a blog post by Dave Cullen in which he pointed out the disparity between male and female authors receiving recognition. The column stuck with me. Fast-forward to last month as I mulled over what present to get my niece for her high school graduation. I bought her a new hardbound collegiate dictionary. But I also wanted to get her a work of prose or poetry to try out, something of proven literary merit.

My initial impulse, no lie, was to give her a copy of Childhood's End by the late Sci-fi master Arthur C. Clarke. I didn't feel shame about that. It's an excellent and thought-provoking novel I hope my niece does read sometime. But I realized I ought to do better than just toss her one of my "favs." I also felt a strong impulse that I should get her something by a female author. And that's when the shame hit.

Though I have read many books by women, I couldn't think of any works off the top of my head that would make good graduation gifts. The guilt began to flow when I realized that had my niece been a nephew, I could have easily listed a bevy of titles fit for any high school graduate to sample. Moreover, as the proud recipient of an English degree, I ought to be able list several female authors whose works are ideal for soon-to-be college freshman.

Then I remembered seeing the name Edna St. Vincent Millay on a friend's Goodreads Profile. So I grabbed one of Millay’s collections off the shelf at Borders Bookstore, read a couple poems in the store, and quickly bought the book. If it ended up not being appropriate for my niece, at least I would improve my own reading list.

In Millay's writing, I found poems about nature, companionship, assertiveness, and even wanderlust. I especially loved one passage where Millay said in effect that she wasn't satisfied with roses--either as a romantic gift or a subject for poetry. She prized more the vitality of real human interaction. At some point, I stopped reading to see if my niece might like Millay and just enjoyed the poetry for myself.

My goal in giving my niece this collection was not to make her a Millay fan. If she becomes one, bonus! As a liberal arts junky I would also be tickled if she writes me this summer and says, “Uncle Jake, I did not enjoy Ms. Millay’s poetry for the following reasons…” I just wanted to extend her a sincere invitation to explore great literature as an avenue of personal development. And as she purchases books for school, most often written by men, I felt it important to make sure she starts out with a book on her shelf written by a great woman who succeeded on her own merits.

Most of the authors I read are men, and I make no apology for that. I like being a man and reading about the male experience. Not long ago I sat in a buddy's backyard and relished listening to him read masterfully the first paragraph of Moby Dick, a manly story indeed! But the strength in that work can be found in equal measure in the works of many female authors past and present. I thank Mr. Cullen and Ms. Millay for reminding me of that. But I also thank my niece.

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