Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Book Review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson


Unemployed programmer Hiro Protagonist works as a pizza delivery guy in a not too distant future, but it is far enough that the world is a very different place. Big businesses have gotten really big, owning neighborhoods where people are quasi-citizens of the company. They run legitimate businesses like Uncle Enzo's CosaNostra Pizza, Inc., where Hiro works. They also have political connections and, often, organized crime connections as well. The other future development is how the internet has taken off and become a quasi-reality where people have alternate versions of themselves (called avatars) and interact with others who are physically far away. Hiro spends a lot of time in this "metaverse" and has customized several things about his avatar and his "property" in cyberspace. He is a hacker after all. The story hops back and forth between the real world and the computer world.

Things start to change when two things happen. First, on a failed pizza delivery he meets up with Y. T., a fifteen year-old Kourier who delivers messages by skateboarding from sender to receiver. She uses a magnetic harpoon to attach herself to vehicles so she can deliver items swiftly. She becomes an ongoing ally. Second, Hiro's friend Da5id dies when he sees a certain image that makes his mind melt. There's a virus called Snow Crash that's a virtual version of the recreational drug Snow Crash which has become popular but also deadly. Hiro's investigation into the virus catapults him and Y.T. into a fantastic, far-fetched adventure.

The set-up of the book is very interesting. The world is a fascinating imagining of the future, though bits of it are less convincing. Money in the future is highly inflated and some bills are referred to as "Gippers" and "Meeses." That was surely hip and relevant in the early 1990s when the book was written but I doubt Millenials who read this book will have any idea to whom Stephenson is referring. The same goes for the L. Ron Hubbard character. The story also bogs down in unnecessarily long exposition about ancient Sumerian mythology which is tied into the plot. About half-way through the book I ran out of excitement and energy as a reader. Neither came back as I continued through the rest of the book. The action picks up at the end but my emotional investment in the story was gone so it wasn't as compelling and exciting as it should have been. The book isn't bad, it just isn't as great as the hype around it.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

TV Review: iZombie Season One (2015)

iZombie Season One (2015) created by Rob Thomas, based on the comics by Chris Roberson


The television show iZombie is based on a rather whimsical and imaginative comic book that came out several years ago. In the comic, a young woman named Gwen comes back as a zombie. She keeps her regular personality as long as she eats brains often enough. One of the side effects of brain eating is that she has the deceased's memories. Some of them died violent deaths or had some other unresolved issues in their lives which the girl tries to resolve. She has a ghost and a were-terrier helping her out, kind of a Scooby Gang. Gwen works as a grave digger in an Oregon "green" cemetery where they don't embalm bodies, so the brains are still edible.

The television version changes some things. The young woman is named Liv Moore (obvious pun) and she has memories from eating brains which she uses to solve crimes. She was a medical student but takes a new job in the Seattle coroner's office (so she has access to brains which happen to be from homicide victims). She also has a mother and brother and an ex-fiance (she broke it off when she became a zombie). She was infected at a boat party where a new recreational drug was in use and at the beginning of the show it seems like the drug is what has caused her and others to become zombies.

The series starts with some "murder of the week" episodes that have bits of an overarching narrative included. The coroner knows about Liv's problem and starts working on a cure. Another zombie, Blaine (played delightfully by David Anders), starts a company providing brains to the more well-to-do zombies in Seattle. He makes his own employees by turn street kids into zombies (in addition to infecting some rich people so he has clients). The conflict with Blaine becomes the main narrative by the end of the season. All the later episodes and their murders tie into either Blaine's business or the company that makes the energy drink Max Rager (a well-chosen name) which is the true zombie-creating culprit.

The show's early tone is fairly comedic with some drama thrown in. By the end of the season, this balance is flipped where it is mostly drama with snappy dialogue. The tone is also set by Liv's inner monologue about what's happening--mostly a jokey commentary on what's happening though she shows more of her character (and often the character of the person whose brains she's eaten). The voiceovers are a bit too much in the earlier episodes (especially at the end of episodes where the point of the episode is clear without Liv having to explain it). Thankfully the voiceovers are fewer by the end of the season. The last episode is very dramatic and the creators are confident enough to let the story tell itself, leaving a great ending wanting me to see more. The show doesn't come back till early October, so it will be a long wait. The DVD doesn't come out till late September, so check streaming services like Amazon or Hulu if you want to catch up earlier.

See my reviews of the pilot and the first three episodes after that.


Monday, July 27, 2015

Laurel Museum, Maryland

The Laurel Museum is the headquarters of the Laurel Historical Society. The museum features displays about major events that have happened in Laurel, Maryland, over the past 300 years.

Laurel Museum

They are undergoing renovations (see the swanky new staircase on the left in the picture above), so we weren't able to see the basement displays, where the interactive children's exhibits are located. We'll have to visit again in the future.

The main floor has plenty of information about Laurel's history. Jacob was naturally drawn to the disaster displays since he has been fascinated by tornadoes recently.

Jacob studies some alarming history

Lucy liked the fire-fighting display; I thought the "fires in Laurel history" timeline was appropriately hung directly over the fireplace.

Lucy by the fire fighting gear

History of fire, Laurel edition

One of the fires wiped out the Laurel Mill, where canvas was made for sails in the early 1800s, then for military tents in the mid-1800s (i.e. during the American Civil War). The docent told us that the recently built St. Mary's Parish Center was modeled after the mill, which explains the old-style look of the building.

St. Mary of the Mills Parish Center

Side view

The next room in the museum had a large display devoted to the most famous incident in Laurel--the Wallace Shooting. Alabama governor and presidential hopeful George Wallace was shot on May 15, 1972, during a campaign rally at the Laurel Shopping Center. He was not killed but his bid to be the Democratic candidate ended.

Not the best reason to be famous

Other, less famous crimes are also noted in the museum in the Crime Beat section.

Jacob considers a life of crime

The museum has a computer with all the back issues of the Laurel Leader, the local newspaper. The desk for the computer was the one used by long-time Laurel Leader editor Gertrude Poe. The nearby wall has some moveable type from the old printing press days.

Gertrude Poe's desk

No longer needed publishing supplies

Lucy had a chance to make her own headlines, but that's a story for another post.

Not really a "longtime" resident

Friday, July 24, 2015

Book Review: The Twilight Zone: Deaths-Head Revisited

The Twilight Zone: Deaths-Head Revisited original screenplay by Rod Serling, adapted by Mark Kneece and illustrated by Chris Lie


At the end of World War II, Nazi officer Lutze escapes from Dachau by shooting a prisoner and taking his clothing. Decades later, he returns to the town with a new identity and makes a visit to the place where he committed many atrocities. He arrives at the camp late in the afternoon and wanders around alone. Soon the memories begin to haunt him. He sees prisoners he remembers. They accuse him of the terrible crimes that happened to them. Lutze rehearses the Nuremberg defense ("I was only following orders") which is chilling given the horrors depicted (which just scratch the surface). In one scene, people come back out of the ovens to accuse him for their deaths. His memories finally drive him mad. He is discovered wailing uncontrollably on the grounds of the death camp by the attendant.

This story is very powerful and haunting. The episode was made in 1961 during Adolf Eichmann's trial for his part in the Nazi's Final Solution. This graphic novel captures the horror of a man without a conscience as he finally succumbs to his own humanity. Well worth reading.



Thursday, July 23, 2015

TV Review: Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks

Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks


The Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) are planning a beach holiday but the TARDIS crash lands on the planet Exxilon. All the electrical power systems have been drained, so the Doctor lights an oil lamp (he has one in a cabinet) and they head out. The planet is a bleak wasteland populated by mysterious humanoids who attack and/or kidnap any aliens. The Doctor and Sarah Jane run into some humans who've come to the planet for a special element that will cure a disease infecting millions of people from the outer rim planets. Their ship is also powered down but they were able to send a distress signal before losing all power. They hear a ship coming and they hope it is the rescue ship. When the new ship lands, out come the Daleks! The Daleks have also lost power and they are forced to ally with the humans to solve their problems. Naturally, the Daleks make bad allies, but are they worse than the Exxilons?

The episode has an intriguing premise that plays out slowly but creatively. The uneasy alliance with the Daleks creates some nice tension (obviously the Daleks will turn on them the first chance they get, but how soon?) and the locals have an interesting culture. As is common on the old Doctor Who, the visual effects aren't always the best but the sound design is excellent. It's an enjoyable story and worth watching.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Cave of Forgotten Ducks

While she didn't get to see the Werner Herzog documentary, Lucy did see some pre-historic cave paintings and was inspired to create her own amazing wall mural. Her plan was ambitious but not beyond her capabilities.

She started by penciling in the ducks, much like the scratchings described by Herzog and the scientists investigating the French cave. Rather than a variety of pre-historic creatures, Lucy chose to put myriads of ducks on her mural.

Lucy draws in ducks

A bit of the detail

Primitive men and women didn't have access to places like Michaels or Hobby Lobby, so they had to make their own paints from the natural resources around them. Likewise, Lucy mixed her own paint using berries and other natural elements.

The old mortar and pestle routine

Using the freshest paint ever!

She did take the occasional break to work on other artistic endeavors, such as a musical performance with the neighbor's daughter. We had to check her fingers to make sure her home-made paint didn't decorate the rest of the house.

Dressing up for a performance

The final wall mural includes a spooky hand print just like in the Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I suppose since the ancient artists didn't have an alphabet they had to sign their work with their hands. Lucy has done the same.

Cave of Forgotten Ducks (click to enlarge)

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Movie Review: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) written and directed by Werner Herzog


In December of 1994, some spelunkers in France stumbled upon a cave with wall paintings that date back over 30,000 years. They are the oldest works of art extant, have been studied by a variety of scientists, and kept under lock and key by the French government. German filmmaker Werner Herzog was given limited, supervised access to the caves for a few weeks to make a documentary about the paintings. This movie is worth seeing just for the chance to see the amazing pre-historic artwork. Herzog films them with an expert eye, catching the details and simulating what the flickering lights of the torches early men and women must have used. The music is appropriately primal and evocative. The occasional use of heartbeats is a little on the nose but work on occasion.

Herzog also interviews the scientists, a mixed group of archeologist, paleontologists, art historians, and others. He draws out the scant details of what the lives of the ancient artists may have been like. The cave paintings were done by more than one person and the evidence points to the possibility that some paintings were done 5000 years after the oldest paintings. Herzog explores the possible meaning of the drawings (most of which are of animals, though there is half of a human female form and several handprints) and their context. The cave is full of animal bones but no human ones. One bear skull is set in the middle of a flat rock suggesting an altar. Bridging the gap between the twenty-first century A.D. and 28,000 years ago is a great challenge. A lot of tantalizing bits lead to interesting speculation by the scientists and Herzog. Herzog's postscript trying to create a new perspective was a bit much for me. Even so, the movie brings up a lot of interesting issues about human nature, history, and art.

Even with its G rating, the movie is a bit too slow and meditative for little kids. I didn't show it to Jacob and Lucy because I don't think it will capture their imaginations the way it did mine.