Friday, July 29, 2016

Travelling With Children

Road trips are no joke!
We set off on the 1,209-mile road trip with my three sons and one of our homestay students in our Toyota minivan.  The boys were equipped with Kindles, headphones, water bottles, three different boxes of snacks from Costco and a DVD player.

It almost wasn’t enough.

If, as a friend noted, a family vacation is like "pretty much an extended birth control ad", then a road trip of three days up and two days back is at least three votes for a vasectomy.

Here’s hoping insurance will cover it.

It should be noted that mistakes were made.  No one is denying that.  Our first, biggest mistake was forgetting the travel case of DVDs and music CDs.  We were left with one copy of Toy Story, The Wiggles “Go Bananas!” and a misplaced disk of The Wallflowers “Bringing Down the Horse”.  You can only listen to “Rusty the Cowboy” and “Three Marlenas” so many times before you start questioning your sanity.

Die, demons, die!
But where some would see only obstacles, I see an opportunity: buying stuff.  I love stuff.  You can get me to do just about anything by giving me stuff.  It’s my one weakness.

Target doesn’t have nearly the music or DVD selection that it once did—before the internet came along and ruined everything—but it has enough.  We let the boys each pick a movie, and then we wisely selected a discount of all three seasons of: Avatar: The Last Airbender.  I almost convinced my wife to pick up Avatar: The Legend of Korra, but alas, the boys only got to pick one movie, so I was in the same boat.

The only mistake we made was picking all this up on our first day arriving in Washington.  No matter where we went after that, the boys wanted to watch a movie.  Despite all the media at their fingertips, they were like ravenous locusts, desperate to consume even more.

That’s where the bribes came into play.  We picked up Soho coin purses for each of the boys,
Uncounted lives were saved by this bag.
and we kept a running timer.  At each hour, the boys who had been good, would get a quarter that they could spend on anything they wanted at the next stop.  At the mid-point of each day we gave them a dollar.  Boys who behaved badly could also lose money.  We did not help the boys buy any of their treats—they had to save their coins and balance them against the cost of candy bars and soda pops.  At one point, the oldest managed to convince the middle son to pool their money together and buy a bag of Jolly Ranchers which quickly disappeared from view. 

I’m fairly certain my middle son got exactly two from the entire bag.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Going Back to Cali

If I don't move, no one will notice me.
It does not feel good to be back. In the Pacific Northwest, our hottest day was 85F (29C). We descended back to Southern California and enjoyed temperatures well over 100F (38C). Yesterday was close to 105F (40C), and they issued a power use warning. Today and tomorrow are more of the same.  We’re supposed to get some relief starting this weekend, where temperatures will “cool” to the mid-90s (35C).

Also, I haven’t seen Star Trek: Into Darkness yet, so no spoilers.

I’m looking at you, Audrey!

Finally, yesterday, on my way out of the driveway, I tore through the sidewall and the rim of my right rear tire.  The rim is shot, so not only will I have to replace the tire, but I’ll have to get a new rim as well.

It’s turning out to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Two Arrows Are Not Better Than One

One arrow?  Hah!  Try six at the same time!
You can actually shoot multiple arrows from a single bow, but that’s where Hollywood and reality diverge.  Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves make it seem as easy as taking the "Multi-Shot" feat from Dungeons & Dragons.  There are three main problems with this: power, accuracy and training.

A bow stores potential energy in the limbs when it is drawn by the archer.  That energy is transferred out of the limbs, through the string, and into the arrows, which, being lighter and (hopefully) aerodynamic (see what I did there?) fly off and gravely injure or kill the bad guy on the other side.  But a bow can only store so much potential energy.  An archer can’t dial that energy up or down.  Shooting more than one arrow at the same time will split the potential energy between the two.  In the best case scenario, each arrow now only has half the punch it normally would (and probably less).  Where one arrow has a chance of hitting a target, punching through any layers of cloth or armor, and actually doing damage, two arrows—at best—halves that chance (probably more).

Accuracy is also completely messed with when you nock two arrows to your string.  Two (or more) arrows released at the same time will effect each other and spin at different rates, making aiming both arrows impossible.  An archer who wants to achieve any measure of accuracy with this trick will more likely have to sight one arrow, and just hope for the best for the other.  Anything beyond 15-20 yards and the arrows are going to be wildly off any standard trajectory, and they’ll start to lose any force whatsoever.  Check out this “amazing” shot and note that they archer takes about five to six short steps back from his target.

Ok, so we lose power and we lose accuracy, which means that any archer would have to spend a ridiculous amount of time to learn how to shoot more than one arrow.  The range of the bow is now effectively halved (at least) and a lot of effort is being placed into what is
Hit me, Tauriel, one more time!
essentially a trick shot.  Obviously, an archer’s time is easily better spent training for the accuracy and power of a single arrow.  There are precious few combat situations that come to mind where cutting the power and range of your arrows will play out any better than quickly and accurately shooting one arrow after another.

The upshot (if you don’t mind) is that there are precious few life-or-death situations these days for a trained archer.  On the other hand, there are many chances to show off in an exhibition or a friendly practice session. A number of show archers have mastered this technique to awe and amaze audiences.  It certainly is amazing to watch!  But it’s doubtful that an archer, who used the trained skills in combat, would want to devote any amount of time to learning how to wow people rather than kill them.  

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Cool, Clear, Water

Quaff, is the proper term.
About two years ago, my wife and I went to a water conservation event put on by the local news channel.  I don’t remember what it was.  They had some reusable shopping bags filled with the usual fare—pamphlets advertising various business, cheap flashlights, and a water bottle.

My wife got one.

I did not.

I figured we’d end up throwing most of it away anyhow, and we have a ton of leaky water bottlers we already don’t use.

Once again, I was wrong.

Sexy Hydro Flask, rocking the purple fishnets!
The water bottle turned out to be a high quality, double-walled, vacuum insulated number.  It was only 18-20 ounces, but still it was an impressive piece of equipment to toss in as an attendance freebie.  I knew, from my honors physics class years and years ago that vacuum insulated thermos was the best.  I’d never actually ponied up for one, so this was my first experience.

Fill it up with ice, add water, and the ice will stay frozen almost the whole day.

No, seriously.

There was some loss of ice, but because the double-wall with the vacuum between, there was almost no change in the temperature inside the bottle.  I tried to look up the term for this, but didn’t find it.  I’m sure someone else can tell me.  That would be great.

Anyhow, long story short, my wife had an excellent water bottle, and like a sucker I was still using a Nalgene bottle from 1990s!  A year ago, I traded my Nalgene in for a 1 liter Hydro Flask . . . which my wife quickly co-opted.  It had a handle and carried more water, so naturally it had to be hers.  Last week, on Prime Day, I picked up another hydro Flask for myself.  My only complaint is that they don’t offer a small mouth lid, and the humangear versions don’t work with it.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016) - Review

Be slimed.  Be very slimed!
The Ghostbusters are actually quite afraid of ghosts, but you shouldn’t be.

For the first two acts, the ladies in proton packs from Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot yell, scream and run from the very ghosts they set out to hunt.  Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, spend most of their time getting slimed and mastering their streams with hilarious results.

I laughed hard enough to wake the dead.  Don't worry, more puns to follow!

When Erin (Wiig) finds out that a “ghosts are real” book, written in partnership with her estranged friend Abby (McCarthy), has resurfaced and threatens her tenure, she goes to confront the issue.  An obvious, but easily exorcised, plot device to bring the two, along with tech/gearhead/engineering genius Holzmann (McKinnon) into their first spectral confrontation.  The only real complaint comes in the zombie-handed way Patty (Jones) is jackhammered into the team.  Even hilariously airheaded receptionist Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) flowed into the group like a Class 5 Full-Roaming Vapor through a hotel wall.  Once the team is assembled—and named—we’re well on our way.

Never cross the streams.
It’s incredibly hard to not compare this 2016 version with the classic and seminal 1984 installment.  Feig does an admirable job of tapping into the “ghosts are real” and “It’s so crazy it just might work” concept team of unappreciated brainiacs with the power to save the day.  He also tamps down the traditional option of turning the camera on McCarthy and letting her say whatever comes along.  Wiig, McKinnon and Jones easily carry their own versions of crazy into a mix that works well.  Hemsworth’s scenes alone are worth the price of admission.

It’s the third act where plot troubles manifest.  Feig walks the line of paying fan service to the original film, narrowly avoiding catchphrases made popular in the original.  But this cleverness backfires, drawing audience chain-rattling-groans at the missed-it-by-that-much moments.  The movie would have been better served with just the small cameos by the majority of original casts members which were delightfully nuanced (hint: watch for the bust of Harold Ramis early in the film, and stay for the after credits).  This also takes time away from the set-up and pay-off that otherwise is actually quite interesting and fun. 

The girls in khaki deliver a fun spectacle of ectoplasmic enjoyment.  The laughs are quick and many, the plot is solid and fun.  It’s not easy trying to live up to the gold standard set by the 1984 version—Ghostbusters II certainly didn’t.  This new film is hilarious, inviting, and a fun way for classic fans to enjoy a new installment, and a new generation of boys and ghouls to be introduced.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Admonished by a Young Man

Put me in coach!
My oldest is nearly 9 going on Surly.

The upside is that he’s damn cute, and mostly reasonable.  He’s always had an adult streak of caution and perspective that runs a good 1.61 kilometers wide.  He can be stubborn, from time to time, and I have no idea where he gets that.

Possibly his mother?

Yesterday, as we were swimming at a friend’s pool, he growled at me, “Do you want to know why I’m mad at you?”

Apparently, I hadn’t recognized that he was mad, so he felt the need to point it out.  Of course, we’re all about communication in the household.  One of main rules is that if you tell us there’s been an accident, you won’t get in trouble.  It’s the lying about it that gets you into trouble.

That . . . mostly works.

The boys are still young.

But I digress.  The issue at hand was that when I tossed my youngest (at his request, mind you) up in the air to splash down in the water, my oldest had swum into the landing zone.  This was, according to my oldest, completely my fault.

I always offer to sit time out.  Forty-two minutes of quiet time with my book sounds like an apt punishment to me.  So far, they haven't taken me up on the offer.  Probably because they wouldn't meet their "Dad-I-need-something-every-five-minutes" quota.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Flame On!

Shouldn't we have shields?
Incendiaries were a thing, and they took a lot of different forms, but fire arrows were not as much as TV/Hollywood and Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves would like us to think.  Sun Tzu has an entire chapter (chapter 12 to be exact) devoted to attacking with fire in The Art of War, but very little of it talks about fire arrows, and none of it to fire arrows in open battle.  You might use fire arrows during a siege or in a similar engagement to torch buildings or tents and whatnot (as Sun Tzu and others discuss). You most likely wouldn't use them on the battlefield. Most likely. There are instances, but they are more exceptions which prove the rule. For example, a flaming arrow might be used by a couple of specific archers as a kind of tracer round, to allow the other archers to adjust their aim, or it might be used as a means of communication.

Some ballistae are bigger than others!
Remember, the greatest advantage of archers is putting enough projectiles into the air at a constant rate so that it becomes difficult to breathe. Adding a combustible, able to withstand being snuffed by the wind, would limit the range and accuracy. It would also limit the rate of fire, and penetration/killing ability of the arrow. You also would have some issues setting people or animals on fire in order to kill or maim them, which would essentially be the point of giving up the other advantages. There were better ways of delivering fire into an enemy formation, such as the various ballistae the Romans used, and which were employed throughout the Medieval era until the cannons and mortars took over the job.  Arrows were best used for the job they were designed—killing.

That’s not to say that fire arrows didn’t have a usage.  They certainly had some utilities.  As I mentioned previously, setting fire to buildings, tents or baggage would certainly be useful.  Sun Tzu talks about setting a camp on fire and following that with an immediate attack.  Fire arrows could also be used for psychological means, frightening troops at night.  I’m sure there’s nothing quite like the sight of a few hundred flaming arrows arcing out of the dark at your campsite.  In naval engagements, fire arrows would serve similar uses for setting rigging and dry timber ablaze.  If not a full fire, at least a small enough one that the enemy ship has to devote some time to dealing with the threat.  But it's useful to keep in mind that it would take a bit of doing to actually get the heavy timbers of most ships to catch on fire.  Go ahead and hold a lighter up to a 2x4, even an especially dry one, and see how fast it catches and the fire spreads.  With ample access to water and muscle (hello, sailor!) putting out the smaller flames wouldn’t be too difficult.  A constant barrage of flaming arrows would be necessary to have the desired impact.

There were a number of enterprising bowyers who set about to “solve” the issue of
I hope you're insured!
applying fire to arrows and still making them effective.  The first, easiest way is to make a thicker arrow shaft, with a longer, metal head where pitch or oil-soaked rags could be wrapped around.  We also have arrowheads with a cage, meant to hold burning coals or other incendiaries.  Some arrows were made with a hollow shaft and an open slit to carry the incendiary.  And, of course, there were arrows meant to use or deliver a load of gunpowder, but that goes beyond the scope, and represents a transition time when archery was becoming less prevalent.

Overall, the message to remember here is that flaming arrows did exist, they were totally a thing.  They look damned cool, but that doesn’t make them practical.  But they were a thing with a very specific purpose, and not nearly as common as modern media would like us to believe.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Gender/Racial Swaps—So What?

It really is based on Casablanca.  No.  Really.
Ironman is now a woman.

Should everyone be up in arms about this?

Not really.

The comics industry isn’t adjusting to fit in with “progressive” times—whatever that is meant to mean. There isn’t some agenda-toting cabal going around telling the artists and the writers that they have to adapt. There is a long, long, really long tradition of riffing and stealing the stories of other artists and cultures, and then using them as a vehicle to tell your own story. Playwrites and authors have been doing it for nearly as long as there has been paper and ink. Othello, Shakespeare’s dark moor, has been played by every spectrum of color across the board, including very white actors. Akira Kuroawa told the fantastic Seven Samurai, a decidedly Japanese movie. It was later retold as The Magnificent Seven, a decidedly American movie.  It’s true that Kurosawa sued, but not because the race of the characters has been changed to white and Mexican, but because they’d blatantly ripped off his story. Otherwise, Kurosawa loved the adaptation of his work, and presented the director, John Sturges, with a katana. If that wasn’t enough, The Guns of Navarone (first in the book then in the movie) recast the entire group as US, British and Greek allies in World War II.  Finally, Pixar picked up the exact same theme again when it used bugs to tell the exact same story in A Bug’s Life. Most audiences enjoyed the film and had no issue with Bonnie Hunt (a white woman) portraying Rosie, a black widow.

All that jazz!
There are countless other examples, so many that it makes my head hurt a little just trying to select from them for review. But I would like to point out that The Three Musketeers most recent BBC version cast a mixed-race Porthos. That’s not just an attempt to check a box on a diversity worksheet, but rather as an homage to the author himself, Alexandre Dumas. Most audience don’t know that Dumas’ father, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, was the son of an enslaved African. Whatever folk think of the show itself, this was a nice little nod to the author’s origins.

But, but . . . it's in the name!
That’s really the crux of the matter. Storytellers of any stripe aren’t necessarily trying to win points on some amorphous “progressive” agenda. A lot of times we’re (myself included) just trying to give a new and interesting spin on a story that has been told many, many times before. Writing is like playing jazz—the notes are all the same, but when you’re doing it right, your particular riff on a theme will become something almost magical. Changing gender or race is like changing the setting or the time. It’s another tool in the storyteller’s “box of tricks” that allows them to explore a slightly different variation on a known theme. Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe of Babylon became Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet of fair Verona, Italy. A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley is in fact a retelling of Shakespeare’s own King Lear, which was also adapted by Akira Kurosawa in Ran.

It’s all circles and more circles, expanding as more stories are told, but essentially harking to the same themes over and over, with variations to try to keep it entertaining. The attempt doesn’t always result in a hit knocked out of the park (see Pamela Anderson’s Barb Wire as a counterpoint to the classic Casablanca) but sometimes you get Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lavina, a retold version of Virgil’s The Aeneid.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Sure, All Lives Matter, But . . .

This sums things up better than I ever could.  Your arguments to the contrary are certainly welcome.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Arms and Armor - A Quick Primer

Armor is a must for any fantasy writer.  If you’re gonna have swords and arrows and other sharp, pointy objects aimed at your characters, it pretty much goes without saying that you’re gonna want some armor to fend them off!  Of course, you don’t want too much fending off.  If your fantasy book doesn’t bleed, or at least produce a little ichor from icky, dark creatures beyond the ken of men and elves, what’s the point?

No, really?

But which armor to go with?  Well, if you’re looking for realism in your faux-Medieval setting (and who isn’t?), then first you should figure out if you’re going to adhere to a time period.  Yes, there are actually time periods during the Middle Ages.  It wasn’t just one big muddle of knights and peasants and horses.  The Middle Ages spanned roughly a thousand years, and folk weren’t sitting around waiting to get the Black Plague or misname a war.  Following is a wonderful image that shows the evolution of armor from about 650 CE to 1675 CE.

Note how the post-Roman armor doesn’t change significantly until the image of 1050.  That’s five hundred years until mail started to lengthen and cover more than just the vital bits.  Apparently, prior to this time, folk didn’t mind their arms and legs being hacked at by the bad guys.  This image, however, doesn’t tell the whole story.  Armor was part of a full-package arms race, that included an evolution of weapons.  Check out the following:

This is quite lovely because you can see that each adaptation of armor and weapons was an answer to how each was being deployed on the battlefield, and the answer came in the form or variations on the theme.  As metalcraft became more refined, and thus more in demand, swords and shields and armor also shifted as the needs required.  Note how the sword of the 1100s if vastly different from the sword of the 1400s.  This was a direct result of the advances in armor.

This happens until the late 1500s when armor practically cocoons the wearer, and then someone comes along and introduces firearms, rendering most armor ineffective.

Stupid guns anyhow!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Samurai and the Sphinx

All we need now are ninja!
There’s a story behind every photograph, but some photos, and the story behind them, are simply fascinating.  Take this Samurai posting by the Sphinx from Wikipedia:

The Second Japanese Embassy to Europe, also called the Ikeda Mission, was sent on December 29, 1863 by the Tokugawa shogunate. The head of the mission was Ikeda Nagaoki, governor of small villages of Ibara, Bitchū Province (Okayama Prefecture). The assistant head of the mission was Kawazu Sukekuni.

The objective of the mission was to obtain French agreement to the closure of the harbour of Yokohama to foreign trade. The mission was sent following the 1863 "Order to expel barbarians" enacted by Emperor Kōmei, and the Bombardment of Shimonoseki incidents, in a wish to close again the country to Western influence, and return to sakoku status. The task proved impossible, as Yokohama was the center of foreign presence in Japan since the opening of the country by Commodore Perry in 1854.

On the way to France, the mission visited Egypt, where the members of the mission were photographed posing before the Sphinx by Antonio Beato, brother of the famous photographer Felice Beato. The members of the mission were abundantly photographed in Paris by Nadar.

The mission returned to Japan in failure, on July 22, 1864.

A side note on Ikeda Nagaoki who led the failed mission—he was so impressed with French advancements that he became something of an advocate, and tried to encourage Japanese students to travel to Europe.  He is also considered the father of the Japanese wine industry.