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

Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Yuletide Excursion to 'Jurassic Park'

Jurassic Park (Jurassic Park, #1)Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This year, I needed a good read for the Christmas holiday—something entertaining, accessible, and not requiring much effort; something I could read with lots of distractions occurring around me. Jurassic Park proved to be a great book to digest while simultaneously participating in a bustling extended-family Christmas.

As a bonus to Jurassic Park’s considerable entertainment value—what’s not entertaining about a big island where dinosaurs stalk an ensemble of stock characters you either love or love to hate?—it also proves a thoughtful read. Indeed, thanks to preaching author Michael Crichton does at the outset, and copious preaching he does later through the prophetic mathematician Ian Malcolm, this book is vigorously thoughtful. It strikes a cautionary note on the risks inherent in scientific research and development. And in convincing fashion, Crichton shows how the underbelly of science is all the more troublesome thanks to capitalism and profit seeking. Plus there is no end to the big scary dinosaurs chasing people around.

If the owners of Jurassic Park were as effective at wrangling dinosaurs as Crichton is at overseeing character and theme development, this would be one boring novel. I was especially impressed with Crichton’s ability to call back motifs established earlier in the story. For example, he explores the notion that the young, human or other, have keener senses than adults. The effect is that children are catalytic elements in culture. They get things moving, they incite trends, and their behavior provides mandates for adults otherwise preoccupied with maintaining the status quo. Crichton employs this notion early on with the human children, and later comes back to it in a surprisingly touching way with the dinosaurs.

I said Crichton uses stock characters, which is not to say his characters are static. Of particular note, it is interesting to watch the degeneration of park mastermind John Hammond, specifically in his obsessive attitude toward children. A similar metamorphosis of attitude occurs as the dinosaurs become increasingly threatening. The humans begin to see the animals as ugly. Initial wonder degrades into bitterness and hatred. Crichton provides engrossing nuance like this without slowing down the story. Only in Ian Malcolm’s increasingly charismatic speechifying about chaos theory does Crichton’s storytelling begin to feel heavy-handed.

It has been many years since I visited the techno-thriller genre. Jurassic Park was a fantastic journey back into the realms of science gone awry and technology gone bad. As I said at the outset, it was a great read during the always frenzied holidays. Much of my reading was done with nieces and nephews scurrying past or during sporadic breaks from family activities. Crichton’s well-woven yarn was easy to jump in and out of without becoming superficial. Highly recommended!

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Working for Christmas

Christmas in Kentucky, 2012

Doubtless nostalgia has garnished my memories with tinsel. Still, I recall childhood Christmases being uniformly wondrous and magical. Christmas was more than a holiday. It was almost a place, a separate realm behind a magical veil. Think Narnia, Hogwarts, or Oz. Physically, yes, I was in my house or grandparents' homes. But the world was outside and separate. Concerns and troubles were elsewhere. Then I grew up.

Three days before Christmas of 1994, I transferred into Windham Maine as a 19-year-old Mormon missionary. I'd been away from home only four months and was still what fellow missionaries called "green." My mission companion, whom I'd just met the night before, was also new to the area. No one knew us. And we knew no one...including each other. Passing through the doorway of our little apartment for the first time, we immediately realized why the mission leadership had transferred us both into the area three days before Christmas.

We were replacing a pair of less-than-dutiful missionaries. They had left the apartment in disastrous condition. The bathtub contained some sort of sludge, about an inch thick. Never did figure out what it was. The other highlight was a wall into which the previous missionaries had fired scores of BBs. The icing on the cake...they left us no teaching pool of contacts. We would be starting almost from scratch. The stress mounted so fast I vomited. My companion called home that night and bawled to his family about how trapped he felt. We spent much of the two remaining days before Christmas cleaning the apartment.

Of course, we weren't alone for long. Fellow missionaries made a special trip out from nearby Portland to see how we were, providing some needed brotherly encouragement. Without having to ask around we soon had dinner invites for Christmas Eve and Day. And on our first attempt at door-to-door work, an elderly woman invited us in. Before we could make our theological pitch, she said, "I'm not interested in joining your church, but I thought you would enjoy seeing this."

She gestured into her living room toward an elaborate nativity display covering an entire table. Nostalgia bids me remember it as a miniature replica of all Bethlehem. It was probably less than that, but certainly a beautiful rendering of the tale of Jesus's birth. By Christmas Eve we were in much better spirits and the holiday began to feel as it had for me in childhood.

In the almost two decades since, I have spent multiple Christmases working and living on my own. In fact, I spent my first three Christmases as an adult this way. In 1996, working as the weekend garbage man at McKay Dee Hospital in Ogden, Utah, I had to cover both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Being a new employee, I was not even given the option to take the holiday off. I and other college-age employees were automatically scheduled to cover shifts while the full-timers enjoyed the holiday. But after two Christmases as a Mormon missionary, I had learned life does not end that first holiday when you have to work instead of celebrate.

That's not to say it is easy or fun to work on Christmas, or to spend the holiday alone. The merry aspect of Christmas is not a given. If the holiday truly was as wonderful as I remember it being in childhood, it was so because of the efforts of my parents and family. More recently, Christmases spent working have proven worthwhile when I make the most of them and, critically, when I don't try to make them all about me.

This Christmas, I am with family. We are eating and making merry in ample amounts. We are fortunate. But others are working and/or alone. Since I know at least a couple of them, that's where my thoughts have turned. Whatever your circumstances from year to year, have the merriest Christmases you can muster. And as much as possible, share the merriness you make.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Sextet of Reactions to 'Cloud Atlas'

Cloud Atlas (Movie Tie-in Edition)Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

1. In Cloud Atlas, the character Robert Frobisher refers to an incomplete book he is reading as a half-finished love affair. This notion is one in a flood of fantastic insights in the novel. However, my love-affair began with the recent film adaptation. To fall in love with Cloud Atlas is to fall in love with a half-dozen storylines separated by decades and centuries. It is to find kinship among an ensemble of characters living in distinct cultures and places. As Frobisher says in the film: “My life extends far beyond the limitations of me.”

2. Unlike some, I did not find Cloud Atlas inaccessible, either on film or in print. What is cryptic about a sextet of storylines exploring the same themes: love, loss, captivity, and the quest for liberation from tyrants? As one storyline examines, what were the personal costs for past societies deeming slavery not only acceptable, but divinely sanctioned? How might analogous struggles play out today, or centuries from now? Author David Mitchell establishes explicit links between these stories, but avoids the trap of conveniently spelling everything out. It is a needy audience that requires everything to be tied off and explained. The rewards of Cloud Atlas come from realizing the tales’ unifying themes.

3. As the novel progresses, the independent storylines harmonize. A 19th century slave and a futuristic clone servant face similar perils and outright abuse, recognizing they are pawns of the rich and powerful. Other characters face analogous quandaries in their love lives and professions. Yielding sometimes happiness, sometimes tragedy, they harness philosophy and mythology while making desperate forays into intimacy. Time and again, our oh-so-human struggles are repeated and validated in bittersweet fashion. By halfway through the novel, the effect is choral.

4. We industrialized folk are not so different than those who came before. Style and slang evolve dramatically; however, the themes of humanity change little. Even as the impatient, 21st century reader in me craved stunning plot twists and clearly-defined action, my deeper self found inspiration by meandering through the appropriately convoluted chain of events. Within the multigenerational turmoil, the longings of various characters braided together and revealed their sublime universality.

5. Any of us could be characters in Cloud Atlas. For example, I may not be literally enslaved. But I live in a society where billions of dollars are wielded by a few to dictate the course of our entire culture. Any given casino owner, not especially more intelligent or ethical than me, has a far stronger say in the course of society. I declare the myth to be any belief that he sails at the top, and I float in the ignominious middle, because of some divine decree. The disparity of our stations ought naught be reduced to a single in-vogue ideology. As great storytellers know, the truth is murkier.

6. Reading the book helped me settle on a favorite character: troubled composer Robert Frobisher—a quintessential struggling artist driven on by golden opportunity, dubious choices, and prevailing circumstances. Of course, there were at least five other characters who could just as easily have become my favorite. Their stories are every bit as relevant. As Cloud Atlas depicts, there is a kinship among humans that persists across time and throughout generations. One can get lost in the nuts and bolts of this grand idea. And the novel or movie that does it justice is necessarily complex. Still, as Frobisher comes to realize in plotting his course to fulfillment: “If one will just be still, shut up, and listen—lo, behold, the world’ll sift through one’s ideas for one…”

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Earth Lights via NASA and NOAA

For all the grandeur of flying on a clear day, flying on a clear night can be mesmerizing. Thanks to space-based observation and composite imaging, the view keeps getting better and better. Far from being mere eye candy, such views help humanity save life and protect property. Our knowledge of weather, including anticipating events like Hurricane Sandy, is dependent on satellite observation.

Don't sell yourself short. Go see this image in its full-size version.

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC

Other images, including video and a slide show, are available here. These come via a partnership between NASA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). They jointly operate a new satellite that makes highly sensitive nighttime observations of our planet's surface and atmosphere. The mission is called the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP). The goal is learning more about long-term climate change as well as short-term weather phenomena.

Monday, December 3, 2012

'The Widening Gyre' of Batman Lore

Batman: The Widening GyreBatman: The Widening Gyre by Kevin Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With Batman: The Widening Gyre, Kevin Smith makes up for the ordinariness of his first Dark Knight work: Cacophony . This six-parter has a richness of character and theme that you often don't get from comic books, or from Kevin Smith for that matter. As an avid fan of his film work (most of it), I find Smith’s storytelling strongest when it stems from his personal experience (Clerks, Dogma, and Chasing Amy). In The Widening Gyre, I found this narrative strength emanating from some great scenes with Dick Grayson, formerly Robin and currently Nightwing.

Through slow boil plot construction, and evocative artwork, The Widening Gyre explores a mature, but past the pinnacle, superhero who is struggling to balance life in and out of the costume. There is plenty of action. The threat of violence, with its inevitable suspense value, kept me engaged. Only the love story between Bruce and Silver St. Cloud seemed distractingly clunky at times. Though thanks to Walt Flanagan and the art team, it’s easy to see why Bruce finds her so irresistible.

Still, where the story really grabs me is in the thoughtful look at Batman’s often turbulent collaborations with his various Robins. For me, the most absurd part of the Batman universe has always been Robin—specifically the notion of dressing a teenage boy in bright skimpy clothing and asking him to dodge bullets. By having a world-wise Nightwing take jibes at his former mentor’s behavior, Smith deftly explores the questionable nature of Batman’s use of pubescent sidekicks. With the possible exception of A Death in the Family , this may be the most I’ve ever enjoyed the inclusion of a Robin-focused subplot.

I won’t try to suggest this is a Batman classic. Still, I found it a deeply satisfying addition to caped crusader lore. Be aware that, a la Smith fashion, there is a deliberate crudeness present in the storytelling. The Widening Gyre is violent and sexual in a direct and often wanton way. I don’t mention that as a criticism, just as a heads up.

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Monday, November 26, 2012

Wisdom by Way of 'Billions and Billions'

Billions and BillionsBillions and Billions by Carl Sagan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The hard-liners on each side encourage one another. They owe their credibility and their power to one another. They need one another. They are locked in a deadly embrace.”
Dr. Carl Sagan wrote this in a piece dual-published by prominent magazines in the United States and the then Soviet Union. But it could just as easily describe the current toxicity of American politics, any given regional feud, or even big-box stores competing for sales on a day purportedly dedicated to thanksgiving. The above quote is just one of dozens I underlined, starred, or wrote notes next to in my now beloved copy of Billions and Billions.

As with similar books I’ve read by Dr. Sagan, or other scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, this is more a collection than a single work. It is at once marvelous and troubling to see how relevant this book remains, published in 1997 in the wake of Carl’s death, and including material written during the final stages of the Cold War. Trends come and go. Wisdom proves itself with a longer shelf life.

For devotees of Sagan, this book is a must read. It includes highly personal reflections about the illness that was beginning to take his life. Especially in Part III, “Where Hearts and Minds Collide”, it contains some of his most impassioned and courageous statements. I admire the way he takes everyone to task, including scientists.

Within the scientific discourse, transcending the facts and figures, can be found Sagan’s deep love for our species, and his abiding hope that we can grow up, can survive, and can improve. A great deal of the material is highly inspirational, but mingled with some healthy scolding of our favored institutions and ourselves. I maintain that the best place to begin an exploration of Carl Sagan’s work is through his TV series Cosmos. However, Billions and Billions is not to be missed. It contains many treasures for the thoughtful reader.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

My Cosmos Highlights: November 2012

A Wondrous Cassini Montage


 
Cassini is now in its golden years. Instruments, after years of exposure to space, are beginning to go offline. Yet the exploration continues, rich in revelation and new mystery. I hope that, if not my generation, a future generation of voters and legislators will summon the will to explore on this operatic a scale.

 

Russet Mountain Majesty on Mars 

 

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (color-enhanced)

When I attended college in Utah, I was treated to views like the above every time I went outside. However, the above is a picture from Mars. When we first started landing on Mars, we intentionally picked boring and flat ground to increase the likelihood of a successful touchdown. With NASA's nuclear-powered Curiosity rover, we explore dramatic territory. The above photo of Aeolis Mons (aka Mount Sharp) was enhanced by JPL/Caltech to better reveal the rock strata for geologic study.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Lake Michigan dons a Diffuse Glow

My quest continues to redeem low-quality photos by employing Photoshop filters. Frankly, I think this time the results are great. On my recent vacation, I visited the Lake Michigan coast. Here is what I was able to do in Photoshop with two pictures taken on a cheap digital camera.

Click on images to see the sharper, full-size versions.

Lake Michigan - Photoshop Diffuse Glow Filter - Vivitar ViviCam T027

Above is the view looking northwest from Rosy Mound Natural Area near Grand Haven. Below is a southwest view, also treated with the Diffuse Glow Filter in Photoshop CS5.

Lake Michigan - Photoshop Diffuse Glow Filter - Vivitar ViviCam T027

Lastly, here is a traditional image taken at Rosy Mound Natural Area using a
Kodak EasyShare.


If you'd like to see a few more images of this wonderful Michigan locale,
visit my Picasa album. Thanks for stopping by!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Walking the Planets: Michigan Style

Most, if not all, depictions of the solar system you've seen are woefully inaccurate. It isn't a matter of deception. Rather, no textbook or computer screen is big enough to faithfully render the scale of our solar system without reducing the individual planets to tiny dots. By human standards, the distances are too vast. However...!

Thanks to planet walks set up around our world, you can get a sense of just how far apart the planets are from one another. One such walk, the Foster Planet Walk in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was a destination point for me recently.

The inner planets, as depicted on the Foster Planet Walk

Located on the beautiful campus of Aquinas College, the Foster Planet Walk begins near Albertus Hall on Robinson Road SE. Each planet is marked by an easy-to-spot boulder, including the four above that represent the inner planets. Mars is closest in the above photo, then Earth, Venus and Mercury. Now let's talk scale. The half-dozen steps between the Mars and Earth boulders above depict a distance it took the recently-landed Mars Curiosity Rover over 8 months to traverse.

I found the Foster Planet Walk to be a leisurely stroll most of the way. There is some uphill walking, but it's all paved. Take another look at the inner planets above, so close and cosy. To reach the outermost planet requires walking all the way across campus.

Standing at Jupiter's boulder, the inner planets are visible through the far trees

Strolling to Jupiter, the distance dramatically multiplies. The Juno spacecraft, currently headed for Jupiter, launched over a year ago. As a rough estimate using NASA's mission webpage, Juno is right now located about where the two college students are walking above. But it has to swing back around Earth next year to get a gravity-assisted boost in speed. So, let's pretend one of those college students above is the Juno spacecraft. It will take her another four years to reach the boulder with Jupiter on it.

Looking back at the inner planets from next to the Saturn boulder

Even standing in front of the Saturn boulder above, you can still see the inner planet boulders beyond the bridge near the top of the photo. However, this is the last point at which the planet boulders are visible from one another. Getting to Uranus and Neptune requires walking around buildings, across a parking lot and up slopes. This is where my brain started grasping, however feebly, the vast distances of our solar system.

The long walk from Neptune to Pluto

The above section of sidewalk is about half the distance from Neptune's marker to the Pluto boulder. A walk that started with a literal hop, skip and jump from Mercury to Venus ultimately required me to walk the full length of campus, from bottom to top. Enjoying the chilly autumn drizzle, I turned 90 degrees to the left after taking the above photo. At last I spied Pluto off by its lonesome.

Tucked up against the backside of a campus hall, Pluto sits isolated

Though not a planet according to current scientific classification, Pluto is a fine ambassador for the icy region on the periphery of our solar system. A walking distance of about 15 minutes for me represents a journey that is currently taking the New Horizons spacecraft nine years. From here I walked back to the inner planet boulders. The whole tour took about 45 minutes, including stops to take pictures.

For additional photos of my afternoon on the Foster Planet Walk, go here. The link at the top of this post will provide you a map and additional background information. If you are ever in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I highly recommend this attraction.

Thanks are due to space blogger Pillownaut, who made me aware of the Foster Planet Walk. Check out her Google map of Planet Walks. There is likely one near you!

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Shininess of 'Shine Shine Shine'

Shine Shine ShineShine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: Part of my difficulty getting into this novel was a bias toward the chapters set in space. That is an area of great interest for me; however, I think author Lydia Netzer does a good job of thematically linking the sci-fi subplot to the main earthbound storyline. Robotic colonization of the Moon notwithstanding, this book is ultimately about exploring a woman’s haunted soul.

Shine Shine Shine is something of an interdisciplinary novel, which is what drew me to it (via the moon mission element). At times this multi-faceted approach enriches the story, at other times it causes the plot to lag and wander. Regardless, there are some great lines. From Chapter 5, here is one that masterfully sums up the protagonist’s journey: “Sunny sat like a rip in one of the landscape paintings on the wall, a little hub of disbelief in the center of a perfectly good hallucination.”

Netzer mines her share of prose gems by infusing housewife fretting with galactic conceit. Here is great example from Chapter 19: “But the wig sat on her head, doing its job, keeping the roof up, keeping the stars up, keeping the planets aligned.”

Still there are times when Shine Shine Shine feels stylistically overindulgent. There is something excessively rehearsed about the prose, like a magician waving a coin one too many times in front of your face before making it disappear already. I sometimes grow tired of intentional use of fragments, of ritual choppiness, of trending stream-of-consciousness so you can score big with otherwise pedestrian cadences. It’s almost as if the novel wants to be a prose poem.

Netzer plays incessantly with chronology as well and throws in a major spoiler or two in case you were thinking of losing interest. Would the novel seem as compelling if it ever took a chance on being straightforward? I don’t know. In any case it is a good novel, at times incredibly good.

As the portrait of a troubled woman and the planet-sized forces pulling at her family, Shine Shine Shine is a worthy piece of fiction. The characters are interesting and believable. The plot is an assortment of conventional developments artfully arranged to amplify effect. For me, the book’s greatest attribute is exploring real-life dynamics against the backdrop of a post-Einstein universe. Netzer displays a keen understanding of how physics and math can generate existential crises every bit as tormenting as the age-old question, “Why does God allow suffering?”


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Friday, October 5, 2012

A Quick Vacation Update from Michigan

Childe Jake is enjoying his first full week of paid vacation in quite some time. Photos and a post or two will follow in the coming weeks, but for right now he remains on vacation. Here is a list of places and activities he has enjoyed thus far:
  • Quality time with nieces and nephew: including playing catch; going for breakfast; having ice cream at the mall; playing the piano; and enjoying gabfests in the living room
  • Two afternoons at Rosy Mound Natural Area on the shore of Lake Michigan
  • Tastings at three wineries: Lake Effect, Cherry Creek, and Sleeping Bear
  • Completing the Foster Planet Walk at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids
  • Delicious breakfast at Back to the Roots in Chelsea, MI, including a caramel latte that made him swoon
  • Performances at Williamston Theatre and Encore Musical Theatre
  • An annual reading of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Lord Byron (in progress)
Special thanks to his sister and her wonderful family for hosting him during his stay in Muskegon, Michigan!


Friday, September 28, 2012

A Neon Change of Mood

Taking a microbreak from reading on my porch, I looked up and saw a wonderful juxtaposition of cloud and tree. It was a sweet view for a guy who spends much time with his head in the clouds. Playing in Photoshop CS5, I was able to radically alter the original mood of the scene. Employing the Neon Glow filter, the image feels downright treacherous. Scroll down to see the original image.


And a more faithful rendering of what my eyes beheld would be...

Friday, September 21, 2012

Engineering a Personal 'Mars Crossing'

Mars CrossingMars Crossing by Geoffrey A. Landis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I met Geoffrey Landis recently at NASA Glenn Research Center, I asked him about his inspiration as a writer of science fiction. His answer both fascinated and disappointed me. In the thumbnail sketch Dr. Landis provided, there was no burning-bush moment that preceded his journey into the realm of sci-fi writing. Instead, he described his initial creative forays as almost a whim, just a perfectly reasonable outlet for the knowledge his graduate studies provided. Oh well. That works I guess.

Still, there is no missing the passion and affection Landis has for his subject. Not unlike the late Carl Sagan, Landis is first and foremost a dedicated scientist. His choice to write a novel, whatever deeper personal reasons might exist, comes as a remarkably practical endeavor—a means to popularize his academic knowledge for a wider audience than peer-reviewed journals afford. Such is Mars Crossing, Landis’s award-winning opus for the red planet.

Mars Crossing gets down to business with an exploration team landing on the surface. What needed back story there is Landis splices into the narrative along the way, interlude style. At first, this piecemeal delivery of exposition seems an obligatory choice to make the characters sympathetic. But over the course of the novel, a compelling order develops with each character getting the spotlight in turn, always at the right moment to add human drama to a particular story development. As it turns out, Landis is quite the narrative engineer.

Indeed, engineering is what the plot smacks of. Priority number one is showcasing as much of Mars as possible, from its sun-seared mid-latitudes to its icy polar expanse. Driven into the Martian wilderness by the failure of their return vehicle, the small ensemble must traverse major geologic features of the planet to reach a distant rescue vehicle left by a previous mission. Along the way they experience a range of hazards real explorers will likely face one day. They also rely on an impressive assortment of advanced technologies currently in development. At times they seem dragged along by Landis’s grand design.

Initially I was concerned the novel would prove a literary letdown. Not so. With each new test, the cast becomes more sympathetic. A climactic monologue by one of the characters strikes an especially poignant tone. At last, Mars becomes something more than a dry, impersonal place. It proves extraordinary and capable of resonating with the human spirit.

Mars Crossing had one noteworthy disappointment for me. Landis misses opportunities to milk suspenseful moments. Granted, his storytelling is fueled by a wonderful candidness about everything from racial dynamics to microgravity sex. Yet often Landis’s prose displays a mission report dutifulness that wants for a bit more space-opera panache. In a plot where every new development displays a utilitarian quality, always serving the author’s scientific agenda, the prose sometimes exhibits a drama-sapping succinctness.

Then again Mars, not humanity, is the main character. And few people are as qualified as Landis to serve as tour guide. In person and on paper, he has taken me there twice, and both times I have come away satisfied. It’s also a credit to Landis, whose NASA research depends on public funding, that he doesn’t shy away from depicting the considerable risks inherent in a Martian voyage. As with his straightforward answer to me about the choice to write science fiction, Landis’s novel tackles directly the dangers of venturing to Mars. I thoroughly recommend Mars Crossing to readers interested in getting to know the red planet in a personal way.

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Friday, September 14, 2012

Receiving the Sunset with Texturizer

Cheap camera! Splotchy resolution! My hasty purchase of a Vivitar somethin'er'other has been a major frustration. I hoped jumping from a cheap 3.2 Megapixel camera to a cheap 12.1 Megapixel camera would up the quality. Nope. Lesson learned. Next camera purchase will be a true investment. Anyhooo, I've decided to make the most of my limited camera by playing aggressively in Photoshop CS5.

Click on images to see them full-size.


These two images utilize the Texturizer filter in Photoshop. With one easy customizable tool, I've created the impression my photos have been printed on canvas. Somehow, for me anyway, the texture cancels out the splotchy resolution. Hope you enjoy.

We will be losing our green leaves soon, and they didn't have a very fun lifetime thanks to the dry summer. So here they are, receiving the low-angle rays of the setting sun. The view is from my porch.
 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Geek the Library...Lowell Style


While I don't see the above photo securing me modeling gigs any time soon, it sure was fun to participate in a Geek the Library campaign. This ongoing event is in full-swing at the Chelsea District Library. People in the community come to a photo shoot and declare something they geek. For me, the choice was easy.

The purpose of this campaign is to generate awareness for how libraries help people connect with things about which they are passionate. Chelsea's library has acquainted me with books by scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, DVD specials from National Geographic and the BBC, and most importantly has offered me a place to follow ongoing missions of NASA and other space agencies. Here is a review of the most recent geek treasure I discovered at the library:


Percival's Planet: A NovelPercival's Planet: A Novel by Michael Byers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The prose of this novel arrives like a well-cooked steak, a whole steak dinner actually. No one taste or aroma dominates, which is not to say the meal is uneventful. Yet the food is incredibly satisfying, and at some point you realize the chef has carefully chosen each ingredient and maintained remarkable control over the cooking process. Such was my experience digesting Percival’s Planet by Michael Byers.

The story follows a small ensemble of characters who find themselves in orbit around the astronomical mythology of Percival Lowell. In real life, Lowell popularized Mars (at the expense of good science) and also hunted unsuccessfully for Planet X. ...

For the remainder of the review, head over to Goodreads.com

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Still Love Eastwood, Partisans However...


It was a comedy routine. It was a bit with an empty chair and a one-sided conversation. Clint Eastwood was horsing around and loosening up the crowd. Shaky delivery? Yes. Stuttering, sputtering attempt at improv? I think so. But it was comedy. 

Why the empty chair? He needed the chair empty so that he could pull off not one, but two "F*** You" jokes from the pulpit of the RNC. That's right. Eastwood warmed up conservatives with a little masturbation humor. That’s got to count for something. And whatever happened to being good sports when someone who doesn't hate you roasts you?

Regardless, Clint proved yet again just how easy it is to fluster the Democratic Party. It's just too damn easy. Thus said Danny Concannon on The West Wing: Why are Democrats always so bumfuzzled? 

My answer: because like their Republican arch enemies--yes arch enemies is the perfect term--like their enemies, Democrats seethe inside and grind their teeth when challenged by those foolish people who think differently.

I'm under no illusion that he's going to read this. Still...Clint, you and I are going to be voting for different men come November. But I still love you. And I still love your marvelous career and film work. There was some good stuff in your routine. Especially that part where you looked the entire RNC in the eyes and reminded them that politicians are just employees who work for us. 

Here are some things that should have bugged Democrats much more than Clint's comedy routine:

  • Governor Romney's I'm-a-died-in-the-wool-conservative routine  He's polished it up to a mirror finish over the last six years of his campaign, but it's still a routine. Why do you suppose he said almost nothing about his time as the Massachusetts governor?
  • Governor Romney bragging about being a baby boomer  a generation that has spent its entire lifespan living off the fat of big government. Enjoy the freeways this weekend, people.
  • Governor Romney boasting about the Apollo space program, a shining example of what big government can do. 
  • Governor Romney mocking science, and more particularly President Obama for seeming to play god with the oceans  Really, Mitt? Teasing others for playing god? You are a practicing Mormon. You literally believe you will become a God in the afterlife, ruling over worlds without number. You believe that when you defend the United States, and if you get to preside over them, you will be preparing the New Jerusalem for Christ's return. If these Mormon doctrines are indeed your personal beliefs, how can you possibly prosecute a war without feeling holy about it? (Spare me the rebuttal. I'll take religion off the table when the RNC does.)
  • Missing the great opportunity before us – That bugs me more than all of the above. We now have a race between two intelligent, ambitious candidatesexperienced leaders who have both shown a genuine love of kin and country. We could have an exciting issues-based campaign, if it wasn't for the bitter feud now preoccupying our two secular churches. Yes, our political parties are churches, of the worst kind, run by rich grumpy prelates who remain pathologically intolerant of contrary thinking. 

I doubt he'll ever read this, but Mitt, the premise you gave for not reelecting President Obama is flawed. I, and many other supporters of the President, have enjoyed plenty of days since voting for himdays filled with deep gratitude and enthusiasm for his hard work and accomplishments. Unlike Republicans, we rightly give him credit for much more than just having that one guy killed.

Lastly, Democrats, don’t make Clint Eastwood’s comedy routine the issue. That is a copout. Stop pouting over the latest brazen joke. Instead, give Americans the substantive issue-based campaign for which they are currently starved.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Farewell to a Great Explorer

Neil Armstrong

1930 - 2012

An Authentic Hero of Planet Earth


Rare photo of Armstrong taken on the lunar surface, 1969. Credit: NASA


Saturday, August 18, 2012

PT Exposure: Things Become Extinct

Stream of Consciousness Exercise




Could we at least leave a chalk outline...in the skyline maybe?

0:00 to 0:37
Oh, there is music to this video. The first time I watched it with my computer muted. It's noble music, like you get in a big movie when the heroes are preparing to go out and do the right thing. It just makes me sadder, the music that is. This video made me sad the first time. I can see how this is all cool for Weber State. Change. Progress. Proof that money is flowing in and flowing out. This music makes me want to jog triumphantly...as long as I am typing and not watching the video of destruction, or demolition as they call it. They are destroying a shrine of my memories...


0:11
That northeast section of the tower, sticking out like too-big brown LEGOs, the one the crane is nibbling on. That was the, is, was the emergency fire stairwell. It was accessible from each floor, but once inside it was separate and all concrete and metal handrails and a great place to sing. Oh, the reverb in that stairwell!

When I was on rounds, and pretty sure I was the only one in that stairwell, I used to sing at the top of my lungs. Showtunes mostly. Maybe Mormon hymns too. Can't remember. It was back when I used to sing anyway. Before the...well that's another story. Anyway, it was a fun stairwell to jaunt down and peer out of through the metal grating onto the campus far below. I can see why the crane wants to nibble at it first. It's the demolition equivalent of an appetizer, isn't it?

I'm glad I'm watching the video muted again. That music isn't for me, not in this context. I'm watching one of my most important homes ever get torn down. I never thought it would be my home. But I ended up there for several years, stayed way too long, but also just long enough to make some of the few friends from college I've actually stayed in touch with...the friends that, like Promontory Tower, took me as I was in all seasons.


0:40
I can't remember if the 11th floor was boys' or girls'. But there it goes. In any case, the girls I became attached to, the friends, the crushes. That one PG-rated fling when we made out in the alcove, sitting on the carpet with her in my arms looking up at me. I actually asked permission for the first kiss. Didn't have to ask permission for the many kisses that followed. She was a wonderful kisser. (She wasn't the girl I would become engaged to, but she would prove a lasting friend.) Anyways, what I was trying to say is the girls I remember were mostly from the 9th and 7th floors, the ones not yet demolished by this point in the video. Leaving college just as alone as when I showed up notwithstanding, I did alright in the girl department. Lots of good memories. Good friends and fun acquaintances. I wasn't the best at it, the social stuff, but I definitely experienced college. So it aches to watch this building go.


0:34
The cafeteria is gone. It didn't even occur to me until just this moment. Not surprising. Very few profound moments from the cafeteria. Except that's where I first started really watching the girl who became my fiancee but not my wife. That's where I started picking my moment with her. She always ate a very dainty breakfast. (Her first year at WSU was my first year on staff as a Resident Assistant.)

She was a good sport when I started teasing her every time she came to the counter in the main lobby and asked for the key to the practice room. Music majors. Eventually we were in the practice room together. Nothing inappropriate. We were good students. We actually practiced. In the end she was much too Mormon for me, and I not Mormon enough for her...even if I'd stayed.

But getting back to the cafeteria, I had a great guy moment in there. Me and two other male RAs were having dinner. One of the other two was starting to date a resident in a different hall. Off the cuff I said to him, "You're whooped." He took a bite of food and said, "No, I'm not whooped yet." So I turned to the other RA, Sammy, and I said, "Of course he is. He's at that stage where he thinks he's not whooped." Sammy started chuckling in his bassoon-like voice. And it quickly swelled into a loud belly laugh. Ah, great moments in guy talk!


1:16
Dear God, they are really gutting it now. But they haven't gotten to my rooms yet. Over the years I lived too long in Promontory Tower, I lived in at least three different rooms. Two were on the still visible east-facing side that the crane hasn't quite gotten to.

The RAs all lived in the middle rooms on this side, opposite the side with the lounges and elevators. The RAs lived as deep as possible into the layout of each floor. So even shitty RAs had to pass by at least half the rooms to get to the elevator. I wasn't a shitty RA. I wasn't a great one either, mostly because my personality wasn't conducive to the job. I bonded well with other RAs and got leadership opportunities, but it was a staff dynamic where I got opportunities cuz I stayed too long and never had any major screw ups. I can't think of any triumphs I had as an RA. Damn.

The crane may or may not have gotten to the floor where Stasha, a fellow RA, found a bumper sticker in an alcove that said, "Vaginas are way cool!" True. Tacky but true. I keep talking about girls. Maybe because Promontory Tower was the last place I lived where I dated a lot...


1:23
Now two of the three rooms I lived in are gone. The room where my eventual fiance knocked on my door to respond to the Valentine I placed in her mailbox. She walked in and she asked me to be her date to a dance. She was very composed, calm, and rather formal about it. And then we started our journey toward tragedy. Oh well. It all ended up feeling meant-to-be. And I guess in hindsight it was all okay...I have regrets. And when I see this building going down, this place I lived too long in, but just long enough to meet some very important friends I've kept to this day...my main emotion is sadness at how irrevocably over it all is. That time. The building. My being a college student. I really did experience college.


2:00
For a moment there the building looks like a pig on a spit getting flayed and shoved onto plates for hungry people, people hungry for the future at the expense of my past. I know it's not personal...to them. And today's students deserve the best buildings. But my building was good too.

I remember making beds for the Olympics with fellow RA Keith. But I can't remember for sure now if that was in PT. I think it was. And the Olympics of 2002, I spent those living in PT for sure. I buddied up with a couple of the curling judges who were staying on my floor. I interviewed them for a story I did for the school paper.

(As the video continues) So little left now. And I can't avoid pointing out that the tower has now become two towers. It's just a visual observation...mostly anyway and at any rate. All the important stuff is gone now, except that emergency stairwell I used to sing in. Oh the reverb!

There was this girl that I never knew really well. But I would watch her come and go in a 1950s style outfit through the lobby. Going to and from her job at the nearby Galaxy Diner. She was very short. Very pretty. And I would come to be wonderful friends with her roommate.

I never had an urge to approach this girl. I was already going after my future fiance. But this short redhead girl in the Galaxy Diner outfit...she seemed quiet and about her business. A friendly face. A nice presence passing through the main lobby as I worked the front desk. She was a good resident. And then she was gone. Heart stopped in the orthodontist's chair while she was having her wisdom teeth removed.

She had been engaged and wanted the wisdom teeth out before her wedding. I didn't really know her. But I was good friends with her best friend and went to the viewing and the funeral. And then, a couple of weeks after the funeral, my friend was having a hard time coping. We left Promontory Tower behind us that evening and drove all the way past Salt Lake City to the cemetery and sat on the grass by the recently-covered grave. We cuddled next to a grave after dark in the cold air. It was not flirtatious cuddling. It was friends staving off the cold wind...and coping.

When I think back to Promontory Tower, I think about the girls. And then I watch this video and think about how I can't get back to the place or the time. No way to tie off this line of thought I guess. I'll leave that to nature.

2:09
Goodbye, PT.


 *The title of this post is an homage to an episode from one of my all-time favorite shows: Northern Exposure.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Vignettes from my Pilgrimage to NASA Glenn

No revelations, folks. No confirming of a rigid ideology or one true body politic. No sense of the struggle ending and the golden age beginning. Something wonderful but far more understated happened when I arrived at the place I sought. Upon arrival, this pilgrim saw what he expected to see, felt what he expected to feel, and left fully satisfied that he had visited a special and worthy place.

Through Security at Glenn Research Center


On Friday, August 3rd at 7:00 am, I stepped up to a small table in an old parking lot outside Cleveland’s airport and handed my driver’s license to a man with a gun. Oddly, it was a cordial moment. But for his security uniform and firearm, it wouldn’t be off the mark to say that this particular guard was a teddy bear of a man. He gave his post-9/11 “We’re just being careful” spiel with the warm gentility of Mr. Rogers. It takes a special quality to warn people while simultaneously making them feel welcome.

Security followed our group from building to building all day long. But it was quid pro quo at Glenn. We space bloggers were keeping an eye on NASA as well. Our adoration is not unconditional. We second-guess our beloved agency all the time.

It’s important to emphasize that security is a shell. And once inside the shell, we were given a great deal of access. Still, the longest our leash ever got was during lunch hour. We were permitted to mill at will between the employee gift shop and the cafeteria, where tables were set aside.


I suppose you can learn something about a NASA enthusiast’s priorities by whether he shops first and eats second or vice versa. I had a veggie wrap with Swiss cheese, Italian dressing, and sweet pickles on the side. It gave me a clear head for when it came time to choose a postcard for my nieces and nephews.

Greetings from the Higher-Ups


I was one of about two-dozen bloggers invited to tour facilities at NASA Glenn. In turn, we participated in a multi-site broadcast originating out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. We previewed the landing of the Mars Science Laboratory. Our morning included brief hellos from Glenn director Ray Lugo and astronaut Greg “Box” Johnson, who piloted the final flight of the shuttle Endeavor.

Mars Science Laboratory, Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The subtext of their and other NASA officials’ remarks was explicit: Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, might crash. Only about a third of everything we’ve tried to land on Mars has done so successfully. One of my favorite remarks, darkly humorous, came from an employee who said (and I paraphrase), ‘This thing is going to land on Mars. No doubt. It’s just a question of how fast it will be going when it reaches the surface.’ We chuckled, but in discreet moments some of us confessed real doubt that Curiosity would land safely. Of course, that’s history. Curiosity did land!

On August 3, however, we kept most of our worries to ourselves and enjoyed touring a center of research and development. This is a long post, so if you’d prefer, feel free to jump over and browse my complete album on Picasa.

NASA’s Mighty Wind


The 10x10 Supersonic Wind Tunnel is easily one of the coolest things at Glenn. In 2008 NASA used it to do scaled-down tests of Curiosity’s parachute, which had to open at supersonic speed in the Martian atmosphere. Keep in mind that only the test section of the wind tunnel is 10x10. The entire facility is roughly the size of a city block. One of my favorite moments was when the gentleman below matter-of-factly told us that tests done at Mach 2 are “low-end.”

NASA employee discusses wind tunnel testing

They let us stand inside the wind tunnel, but I don’t have a picture worth showing. The eyes were willing but my camera was weak. Thankfully, one of my fellow bloggers, Alicia, had a better camera. Visit her blog and scroll down to the third pic. Now here is a short, admittedly crude, video from the control room where they played back the test for us.



There was a funny moment in the control room when a NASA engineer answered a technical question. After giving a best guess, she paused for perhaps a second and then added, “…but don’t quote me on that.” Immediately several Wi-Fi-happy tweeters responded in chorus, “Too late.” Everyone, including the NASA engineer, shared a hearty chuckle.

Throughout the day we visited several venues, including a sensors lab where high temperature testing is done. The goals are increasing air safety and reducing emissions for jet airplanes. We also visited the Stirling lab where Plutonium-238 (not the bomb-grade 239) is used to quadruple engine efficiency on spacecraft. Yeah, we all wish gasoline engines could jump from 30 miles per gallon to 120.

NASA Gives Us Wheels


We had a lot of fun in the SLOPE facility, where a new lunar rover is being put through terrain tests.


We took turns holding a replica lunar rover wheel from the old Apollo days. One of these replicas is the middle tire above. Turns out these wheels were made with hand-woven piano wire. (Yes, Mom. I did ask the engineer which piano wire they used. He didn’t know offhand. From eyeballing, I’d say it’s a wire for the treble clef.) Now please pardon some extremely grainy video below. This short clip shows the considerable abilities of the prototype rover, including "inch-worming". Let’s get it to the moon!


Mingling with the Experts



Our day culminated in a quintessential briefing room scene, gulping down soda and bottled water while watching PowerPoint presentations and jaw-dropping video. All the while we tweeted facts and figures served up by NASA VIPs. Not all of our tweets were technical in nature. Here is one I posted that NASA retweeted to over 40,000 people:


One of the treats of the day was meeting with NASA scientist and award-winning sci-fi author Geoffrey Landis.


Many of the questions we fired at Landis, a Mars expert, focused on proposed future missions. Here, more than at any other point during the day, discussing tight (some of us prefer the term "stifling") budgets was unavoidable. However, Landis focused his remarks on the wonders of Mars, a planet that becomes more fascinating the closer we study it.

Being Social Because of NASA


In the week since the social, especially as I sit alone typing this, I’ve been struck by a realization. In contrast to almost every other thing I’ve used the Internet for, this NASA Social increased my in-person socializing with others. Overwhelmingly, even on Facebook, surfing the Internet remains a solitary experience…but not this time.

On August 3rd, thanks to our gracious hosts at Glenn, we bloggers shook hands. We literally rubbed shoulders while tweeting in cramped laboratory space. And we smiled and joked face to face while sharing lunch and dinner together. I tend to be reserved in new company, but I prevailed on a fellow blogger to help me take a goofy picture in the employee Exchange Store.

Got anything larger in the back?

Parting Nod to Peaceful Exploration


NASA brings people together and gets them talking. NASA Glenn in particular voices the mantra to dream big. This is done in the name of peaceful exploration for the benefit of humankind. If that benefit is not yet evident to you, I encourage you to visit any of NASA’s many online pages. You might start with @MarsCuriosity on Twitter, where the photographs of a neighboring world are beginning to roll in.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Eve of Visit to Glenn Research Center

This time tomorrow I expect to be touring NASA Glenn Research Center. I'll be enjoying a full day of exploring research facilities, networking with fellow space enthusiasts, participating in a multi-center broadcast, and meeting with Mars experts like Geoffrey Landis. What's the special occasion? A preview for the upcoming landing of the much-anticipated Mars Science Laboratory, aka "Curiosity." For more on that, the following JPLNews video is a must see:

"Seven Minutes of Terror"




A First for this Childe

Not only is this my first NASA Social, this is my first visit to a NASA center. I've been prepping all week. Prepping for a NASA visit is fun. You surf the web. You watch YouTube videos and browse NASA's voluminous collection of images. Scoring an invite to this event will afford me and other attendees access to state-of-the-art testing facilities that are understandably closed to the public most days of the year. However, if you ever want to take a visit to a NASA facility, check out your options. Remember, as a citizen it is YOUR space agency.

Curious About 'Curiosity'?

Tomorrow will be a multi-center NASA Social. Even if you are not personally attending, it is easy to connect online throughout the day. Here are three avenues I recommend, with a little self-promotion included of course:

@NASASocial
@MarsCuriosity
@ChildeJake

And don't forget NASA TV, which is also a great way to watch space events like launches as they happen (even when other networks miss the boat).

Jake is Go for Travel to NASA

I am thoroughly psyched for this event. Just gearing up for it has been a great experience. More importantly, I'm reminded that missions like Mars Science Laboratory are feats my generation can hold up with pride. Peaceful exploration and the acquiring of knowledge is a generous gift not only to ourselves, but to our descendants.

It's almost time to head for Cleveland. Expect photos, fun facts, and anecdotes when
I return!

Monday, July 30, 2012

NASA Social: Priming for my Visit

I am beginning to touch base online with fellow bloggers/tweeters who I will mingle with at NASA Glenn Research Center on August 3rd. We have been invited to preview the upcoming landing of the Mars Science Laboratory. The hotel room is reserved. A notepad and backup batteries for my camera are purchased. Two forms of government ID are ready. I even have my super-geek-space-tourist outfit picked out. Childe Jake's upcoming visit to NASA is getting real!

Introducing Glenn Research Center


Glenn's hanger and main gate as seen in April of 1999 

For any given citizen, a natural question might be this: If it's not the center where they launch the astronauts (Kennedy), and it's not the center astronauts call when they "have a problem" (Houston, more properly called Johnson Space Center), then what is it and why are we paying for it? The truth is I am a lifelong space enthusiast and even I am not well-versed in the various NASA centers. So I am excited to visit Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and obliterate a big hunk of that disconnect.

According to Glenn's About page, the center "designs, develops, and tests" technology for both air and space travel. How appropriate then to be named after a native Ohian who has excelled in both air and space: John H. Glenn. The center has been in operation since 1941, currently employs over 3,000 people, and its reach extends economically and academically into the surrounding region. Even if you don't give a special darn for space exploration, perhaps you or someone you love has flown on an airplane that got better mileage than older planes, caused less air and noise pollution, and didn't crash. If you did, thanks are likely owed in part to the folks at Glenn!


A Glenn test facility prepares to simulate and examine jet engine icing

Browsing the many webpages showcasing research at Glenn makes me think this center is a Discovery Channel reality show waiting to happen. The work at Glenn is not as immediately sexy as the heroics dramatized in films like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13; however, research at Glenn is what makes such exploration feasible. And of course, it benefits air travel as well.

Take the above image, with NASA trying to determine how it is that high altitude ice crystals can be sucked into a jet engine, melt, and then refreeze...while still in the engine. Yes, let's figure that one out in the name of preventing engine flameouts.

Did I mention that Glenn Research Center has an Emmy Award to its credit? Now I have. Thanks to NASA for use of the above photos!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

My Jupiter Family Ties

On July 19th I was in a funk of sorts. I believe the technical name for this type of funk is Wednesday. Then I checked my Facebook wall and was greeted to the following message:
"Jupiter-family Comet Christensen makes its closest approach to Earth today, at 1.286 Astronomical Units! :)"
The message was from my awesome space-blogging buddy: Pillownaut. Along with the message was a link to a NASA JPL page called the Small-Body Database Browser. Reader beware: if you do not want to see small bodies, do not look down two more lines.


I scored the above image by playing with the Orbit Viewer applet available on the site. Totally nifty! Plus it took the edge off my funk. And how cool is it that Comet Christensen is in the Jupiter family of comets? This must be what Harry felt like getting into Gryffindor.

...actually, reading a bit further one finds that being in the Jupiter family of comets is more a matter of gravitational odds than prestige. Whatevah! Thanks to Eric Christensen for discovering this comet!


A Childe Bound for NASA!

After not getting selected for a couple of previous NASA events, I have finally scored an invite! I will be attending a Social taking place at NASA Glenn Research Center on August 3rd. This will be a preview of the Mars Science Laboratory landing on August 6th. I and other blogger-types will be treated to a full day of guided tours, a special multi-center broadcast, and visits with NASA personnel. More details to come, tweets during the event, and a blog post or two after the very cool day is over!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

3D, or Not 3D: That is my Question

And here is the link to my answer...

Live theater ain't 3D


After a long hiatus, I have penned a new column for EncoreMichigan.com. There are those in professional theater who have become fond of likening their profession to 3D movie making. I have a different take. Hope you'll check it out!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Potent Quality of 'Sacré Bleu'

Sacre Bleu: A Comedy d'ArtSacre Bleu: A Comedy d'Art by Christopher Moore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the most profound moments of my creative development was attending a Vincent Van Gogh exhibit in Los Angeles during a college choir trip. You haven’t fully experienced a Van Gogh painting until you’ve seen the canvas in person. So whenever I encounter something Van Gogh related, I take special notice. Author Christopher Moore gave a great interview about his novel Sacré Bleu on NPR and I resolved to buy the book. To my delight, I scored a signed first edition from my local bookstore. More on that later.

Sacré Bleu portrays Van Gogh as a murder victim. But this is not a conspiracy work in the pseudoscientific sense. (Moore makes clear in his Afterword that Vincent indeed shot himself in real life.) Van Gogh’s death is only the catalyst for a novel that sports equal parts fantasy and murder mystery. And it is in those realms where the novel excels. Hastened along by crisp and witty dialogue, Sacré Bleu never stops feeling amusing, even during moments of high drama. The author describes it best; this book is a “dark little fairy tale of the color blue.”

That summation is a key point in assessing the book’s merits. The main character is not Van Gogh. Instead the leading presence remains the color blue. On a related note, given this book drips with oily pretension, it makes me chuckle to say I loved the pictures. My hardcover edition includes relevant paintings from many of the greats of Impressionism. Each painting provides a new layer of intrigue to the plot. History and art make significant guest appearances, but they remain supporting characters in this loose and bawdy tale.

This brings me to Sacré Bleu's chief drawbacks. Unless you are exceptionally well-versed in the history and artists (Monet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, etc.), you are likely to miss much of Moore’s historical nuance. I did. The only reason I know it’s there is I read Moore’s enlightening Afterword. Nuance out of reach is nuance that does not add measurably to one’s enjoyment of a book.

More critically, Sacré Bleu presented me with a cast of characters that the author, through an authoritative main character, describes as “whining narcissists.” As this main character and I agree, associating with them makes for “long periods of suffering and neglect…” With some wonderful exceptions, much of this book comes across as impersonal narrative whimsy. It’s clever and lively, but I never felt closer than arm’s-length to the material.

Still, I love owning a signed first edition of Sacré Bleu. As I type, I keep peeking over at it. A metallic blue dust jacket presents the title in a bold mustard yellow font. This feels appropriately flagrant. Ironically, by only protecting half the book the dust jacket proves twice as useful. The front cover becomes a striptease by a mysterious woman painted in various shades of blue. Inside, there is an intricate period map of Paris and a range of inviting bluish fonts on rough-edged paper. Eat your hearts out readers of e-books. And kudos to designer Jamie Lynn Kerner. There is no substitute for being in the room with a blue-adorned work of art. Long live ultramarine!


View all my reviews

Friday, July 13, 2012

Casket Roses on Kentucky Stone

My maternal grandmother passed away a week ago after a long struggle with Alzheimer's. After carrying her casket as a pall bearer, I and other grandchildren were invited to take some flowers from the arrangement on her casket. I took the three roses featured below. Back at my parents Kentucky home I found a section of stonewall to photograph them on. Much love for the late Virginia "Mimi" Lawrence.

Click Images to See Full Size Versions

Original



Artistic Cutout Filter applied in Photoshop CS5



NASA Image of Reflection Nebula Applied

Photo Notes:

The original photo was taken with a Sony Cyber-shot digital camera. For the cosmic version, I added a blue Photo Filter to the whole image. For the stone and flowers I utilized effects: Inner Shadow, Outer Glow, and Drop Shadow.

The cosmic background photo is from the Spitzer Space Telescope Collection. That image of a reflection nebula is gorgeous and can be seen here. Credit goes to NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. A. Gutermuth (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA).

Friday, July 6, 2012

Profile of a Michigan Hiker Triumphant

A person of considerable taste once told me I have a fine profile. ...I think I was told that. Maybe I just wish someone had said that. ...Or maybe they indeed complimented my profile but they were referring to my MySpace page. I don't know. Regardless, ever since, I have believed I don't look half bad when seen from the side.

Or maybe they said I look half bad when seen for the si-...anyway! Recently I completed hiking the Waterloo Pinckney Trail (as opposed to the Waterloo Pinkeye Trail, which Spell Check assures me is the correct name). I hiked the trail in sections of 3 - 6 miles. It was a solitary quest fraught with tense chipmunk encounters, some of which occurred while attempting self-portraits like the one below. But I think the finished product is quite nice. Here I am having just finished the last section of trail. This shot for me typifies the hiker triumphant.


Aw, for the love...the freakin' dog poop removal sign is in frame. How did I not catch that in Photoshop when I was removing that unwanted freckle (as opposed to all the freckles I clearly wanted readers to see).

Let's try this again, folks. Here is a statelier and more ceremonious profile taken at the next sign over.


What the...?! The Department of Natural Resources misspelled "Hiking" on the sign! It figures. Darn DNR. Don't get me started on them.

You know what? Forget the profile pictures. Here are some nice views from my recent hikes in Pinckney Recreation Area. Enjoy!

Click on images to see larger versions.




Saturday, June 30, 2012

'The Way' Presented by Familial Pilgrims

Once again, a public library acquisition proved of great value to me. On a recent scan of the New Release shelf, I picked up the DVD of Emilio Esteves's recent pilgrimage film: The Way.

A feel-good cinematic offering filmed with a modest budget, Esteves's father/son opus wonderfully dramatizes notions of pilgrimage I share. I highly recommend this film as a worthy and refreshing excursion. Check out the official trailer below!