News, and presenting on That Cat Series

You know the one I’m talking about, Warriors: The Prophecies Begin. Yesterday was the class presentation, which means that I’m now done with it. Finally. Things were sadly rushed, so we didn’t get as much time to talk about the series in finer detail as I would have liked, but I think we got our point across. The series is mediocre, but effective at getting large quantities of unchallenging words in front of children.

This did mean that I was distracted and didn’t post here yesterday. That pattern of not posting is likely to continue this upcoming week (and maybe the week after) as I focus on my final paper and visiting with family. I’ll be back soon, and will likely post more things at random rather than according to a prescribed schedule. I have some sweet role-playing setting tidbits to share with you too, so stay tuned!

More Barium: 9/2

The Barium Deep continues, with a smaller installation for today. This follows from the last bit. Enjoy!

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Guilty Until Proven Innocent – Life in Black America

I was going to write a related post, but Mattias has already done this far better than I could (and several times over to boot). Read more like this at gentlemangustaf.com

Mattias Lehman

Hands Up, Don't Shoot Photo Credit Getty

For most Americans, the recent events in Ferguson are a failure of the — otherwise well-functioning — system. Many black Americans, however, have seen something different in the past week. This is the system. The crisis in Ferguson is merely a microcosm of the portrayal of black Americans in our society.

We’ve got a problem: self-defense laws read more like open season on black men.

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Ice Bath Challenge

Just because he’s writing on a different site doesn’t mean this shouldn’t be cross-posted here. This is worth reading, and you’ll probably want to watch the video as well.

Mattias Lehman

Welp, I did it, with a slight twist on the format!

I wanted to give some context on my decisions regarding the Ice Bucket Challenge, so here’s a post about it.

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Short Story: A Simple Misunderstanding

Here’s the return of Andre and Jerome, the pair of accidentally-adventurous miscreants.  If you want to read other stories about them, try Paying the TabJerome Goes North, or Jerome’s Tropical Vacation.  There should be another short story coming along soon!

*     *     *

“Does everyone understand their part?”  The man’s voice was nagging and whiny.

Belly down on the hay-strewn dirt, Andre felt a sneeze coming on.  There was the unmistakable sensation of rising, building pressure, and that odd tingling feeling that came along with it.  He knew it would feel so good to sneeze that the anticipation was almost pleasant in and of itself.  Despite this, he thrust his hand up underneath his nose, trying to press against the bone just above his teeth in an effort to stop the sneeze before it could come out.  Through his desperately squinted eyes he could make out the feet of five people standing less than a yard from where he hid underneath a small wagon, and he knew that sneezing would be a very bad life choice at this moment.  None of the people whose conversation he’d been eavesdropping on would appreciate unexpected company.

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Post delays, 4/28

This is a post to tell you that I’m not posting today.  I suppose I’m actually lying to you, but I think you understand what I mean.  I plan to have something for you tomorrow, but today’s schedule is totally full and is topped off with a red-eye flight.  I hope you enjoy yourselves in my absence.

Aliens: A Love Letter to Ripley

What a masterpiece.  Aliens is one of those few movies that I can watch again and again, an exceptionally good high-tension thriller in which you will learn to hate some of the humans even more than you fear the ostensible monsters.  That’s not to say that the monsters aren’t scary; they are often terrifying.  But no matter how disturbing they look or how frightening their eventual appearance is, it’s the way in which we come to dread their inevitable appearance that sets this movie apart from its peers.

Time and again, Aliens refuses to completely show us the fearsome foe that everyone knows will show up.  This is typical thriller-fare, but Aliens stands out in its ability to build anticipation and fear of what is yet to come.  I mean, Aliens is really good at this: when I watched it again with my friends last Friday, I was surprised to find how tense I was.  I knew the movie, and we were forced to pause several times due to bathroom breaks or problems with our disk, but every time the movie stopped I could still feel the tension in my body.  Even though I knew what was coming and even though the building tension was interrupted multiple times, I could still feel the pressure of my anxiety increasing.  Where many other thrillers fall apart if you interrupt them, Aliens still delivers.

Part of this, I think, is because Aliens uses the maxim of “less is more” with incredible effectiveness.  I’ll mention this again later, but it will be full of spoilers.

Instead, let’s talk about immersion.  The sound design is a real marvel, with both the music and the effects offering a great deal.  The music is evocative and sparse, creating a pervasive sense of isolation and threat despite the apparent strength of the heroes.  And sometimes, in the really tense moments, it drops away into silence and lets us stew in the tension of what is happening on screen.  The sound effects are similarly impressive, from the repetitive and increasingly stressful click of the marines’ motion detectors to the dull pounding of the sentry guns as they fire offscreen, several bulkheads away.  Better yet, it’s clear that there were scenes that were specifically included for the fear and anxiety that their sound design would create.  Witness those desperate moments of trying to get people’s attention through soundproofed glass.

Another element which I only realized after re-watching the movie on Friday is that almost all of the technology in the movie has its own distinctive sound.  Or, more accurately, almost all of the technology has a a sound cue.  Whether it’s the whirr and beep of the movie’s computers or the hydraulics of the power loader, everything has a very audible presence in the world.

This goes hand in hand with the excellent job that they did in designing technology for the movie.  Despite looking very much like the future of the 80’s, complete with classic dot matrix printer paper with little holes running down the sides, everything looks very solid, real, and believable.  Maybe this is a generational thing, and people who grew up in the 2000’s won’t feel able to accept this as futuristic technology.  But I felt like the chunky, tough and utilitarian machines all have a certain appeal of their own, and they certainly pull me deep into believing the setting of the film.

Speaking of believing the film, I’m incredibly glad that Aliens wasn’t made with awkward early CGI.  Lately, every time that I’ve seen old CGI I’ve been pulled out of the film; I’m glad that my immersion in Aliens isn’t spoiled by something like that.  Furthermore, I’ve been amazed by how well the effects that they did use have aged.  Despite being almost 30 years old, the film’s visuals still feel convincing.  I think part of this, again, has to do with “less is more”: because the film doesn’t ever try to show more than just enough to increase tension, it almost never tries to create things that look unconvincing in retrospect.  H.R. Giger’s terrifying alien and environment design helps too.

Oh, and let’s not forget one of the very best parts of the movie.  Sigourney Weaver‘s Ellen Ripley is definitely my favorite movie heroine, and without doubt one of my favorite movie heroes of all time.  She is a grimly realistic survivor instead of a stupidly overcompetent action hero, and yet despite not fitting the action-hero mould she is still incredibly strong and impressive.  In many ways, Aliens feels like a love letter to Ripley’s indomitable determination despite obviously impossible odds.  And that doesn’t feel unreasonable.  There’s a very good reason why Sigourney Weaver’s performance in Aliens was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Ok, time for a few spoilers.  I hope that you’ve already seen the movie, but if you haven’t, you should avoid this section.

*SPOILERS*

Back to “less is more”; the fact is, we don’t really see very much of the aliens until the very end of the movie.  What we see instead is the mental breakdown of the commanding officer, the collapse of the squad of badass marines as they’re torn to pieces after their commander hamstrings them.  But we see those collapses through the very same fuzzy team video channels that the commander is watching; we only get hints and bits of the horrible experience that these people are going through, and that’s far more frightening than seeing everything in its entirety as it happens.

This comes up again with the sentry guns a little later in the film.  Instead of watching the guns blowing apart aliens, we watch the marines as they stare at the sentry guns’ ammunition counters, falling precipitously as they chew through their last precious rounds.  Listening to the sentry guns’ firing as the ammo counters on screen blaze downwards is chilling, and seeing the tense expressions on the marines’ faces at the same time is even better.  We see only a brief glimpse of the aliens in that whole scene, and we don’t actually need to see any more.  In fact, the most tense part of the entire scene comes when we cut back and forth between the guns, one smoking and empty while the other fires sporadically, and the ammo counters, showing the last few rounds as they dip towards zero.

*END OF SPOILERS*

So yes, I do love this movie.  If you haven’t watched it, give it a try.  If you’re paying attention, maybe you’ll see all the little pieces of the film that have inspired so much other media that has been made since.

 

p.s. It’s refreshing to find an action-thriller that doesn’t shy away from having powerful and strong female characters fulfilling the same roles as their male counterparts.  I love seeing that.

A Little Bit of Flash-Fic, in My Life

Simon had spent months running, planning, fighting to be free. His people had been feared, hunted, and enslaved for centuries. The deaths of so many were branded into his mind, for without his success, history would repeat their punishment for eternity. It was better for them to all die fighting for this cause than to return to the indignity that they had suffered under.

He remembered the small boy, but a child, hunted down and murdered for stealing bread for his family. He remembered the old man, driven out of his ancestral home and chased to exhaustion before being brutally stabbed to death. He remembered his mother as he had found her, lying in the crimson-stained dirt with a dozen jagged rents in her skin, slaughtered in her home in the dead of night. And he remembered the infant — his baby brother — who had lain beside her, his head bashed in. He had put his hand on his brother, to lift his body and cradle it, and had felt a heartbeat beneath his hand. And yet when he had turned the body over, glazed eyes stared up at him from within a mangled and crushed skull.

And so, while his brothers slept around him, Simon remembered the dead who had led him to this point, the living he fought with, and the yet unborn he fought for.

He had finally found a way around the weakness of his people, a way to fight back without living in fear. A wizard had promised him protection on this day, that he might overrun his enemies where they stand. It would be a small victory, to be sure, but it would be a victory nonetheless. As a sole victory, it would be a great one, to be sure. A fort to defend. A land to call their own. He whispered these words to himself, dreams he could not even fully comprehend. But beyond that, there was more.

His men would be inspired to greater deeds of glory. Those in oppression would hear news of the day he had dared to fight back, and they too would rise up. His people might someday be free, to live their lives without fear.

The sky began to lighten as night faded. But he trusted the wizard. First, the stars began to fade away as the sky changed from black to charcoal to an ominous grey. But he trusted the wizard. The sky slowly became saturated with tinges of blue. But he trusted the wizard. The blue warmed to a grey-purple. But still he trusted the wizard.

When dawn broke, he knew it was all over. He was caught by surprise, briefly, as he saw the beginnings of light from below the horizon. He had trusted the wizard. He had been wrong. The children of the Erutar could never be trusted. He spread his arms and faced the skies, howling in rage to the heavens, as the edge of the sun crested over the horizon. His grey-purple skin faded to grey, crusting over with dirt and then hardening to stone, leaving behind only a statue, a mere image, a symbol of the rage of a dying people.

————————————————————————————

Enthasar, the first wizard of the stars, the first of the Afterborn to aspire to be as the Ulmari and succeed, lay weakly on the ground, his back resting against the smooth, hewn rock of his greatest creation. Warmth seeped from his side, draining into the point of searing cold in his gut.

He closed his eyes slowly, then forced them open again. The shaft of the arrow still protruded from his gut, just below his ribs. He looked up weakly at the barely unfinished ritual and slowly lifted his hands, chanting in tongues long-since lost to the races of this world. And then the second arrow thudded into his chest, knocking the air from the lungs. He collapsed to the ground.

Rough hands grasped at his hair and jerked his head upwards. The shadow of pain lanced through his body, but his mind was too far away to notice. His head was pulled back and something dragged across his throat. He fell back and saw his blood spreading down his chest as his vision of this world faded away.

http://alisonjmckenzie.wordpress.com/2013/09/06/reminder-flash-fiction-contest/

More Pretty Pictures: Kyle Perler’s Photos

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We interrupt our normal programming to bring you more news of pretty things that my friends are making.  My sometime-housemate Kyle Perler is an awesome photographer, and he has recently created a Kickstarter project to fund a photo-trip to Africa.  He’s aiming to make a book from the photos that he takes on this trip, focusing on the landscape and wildlife of Africa, but the really cool thing that he’s offering is access to a travel blog with all the pictures that he takes.

He’s planning to, amongst other things, go on safari and go bird-watching.  He’s already been catching photos like this one:

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If you like pretty pictures, or just really awesome photos, check out his project.  You might also look up some of his other work.  I strongly recommend looking through some of his galleries there, especially the “Fine Art” one.  His portraits are also totally worth a look.  It’s great having talented friends.

My Apologies to Iron Man: Why Power Armor Doesn’t Make Sense

Spam-Can

The contents of Iron Man’s suit after the third explosion.

My argument is somewhat more elaborate than this, but the gist of it is thus:

  1. Place monkey in tin can.
  2. Shake can vigorously.
  3. Remove pulped monkey from can with preferred utensil.

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What’s the deal with power armor?

I love science fiction, and I often enjoy seeing science fiction become science fact (even if it is scary at times).  Plenty of things that we’ve dreamed up in our stories eventually come to pass in real life, whether it is because they inspired others to make them or because they were the product of careful forethought on the part of an author.  But what about power armor?  It’s been a staple of military-oriented science fiction for decades.  For the sake of simplicity, I’ll assume that power armor is an armored exoskeleton which offers its onboard human operator enhanced strength, mobility, and protection (sounds pretty cool, right?).  Yet while I’m usually pretty excited about science fiction becoming reality, I’m not so sure about seeing power armor become real.  Let me explain.

The Army’s TALOS project is now pushing for an armored exoskeleton, something which is essentially power armor.

R&D has a reputation for being a little bonkers sometimes; people fixate on really cool ideas and try to make them work, regardless of whether or not the ideas are practical or have any clear application.  That’s perfectly alright, in my opinion, as we never know where such things might take us.  Military R&D often turns that fixation up to eleven, which becomes a bit more problematic.  Sometimes the things we develop are impractical or nonsensical to implement (like 747s mounting lasers to provide missile interception), sometimes the tactical or strategic role intended for a weapon disappears before it is completed (as with Japan’s WWII submarine aircraft carriers), and sometimes the intended capabilities don’t make very much sense in the first place.  In the case of power armor, it all has to do with these things called “bodies.”

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