Wednesday, May 25, 2005

In the Land of the Geeks, The Dork is King

Let's face facts. We are all geeks about something. I don't care how cool you think you are, there is something dorky about you that you don't go around advertising when you introduce yourself at business meetings.

So, that said, the real sport is finding people "nerdier" than you are. Are you the kind of guy who quotes Star Wars? Then the question is, do you have Jedi robes hanging in your closet? Are you a black belt martial artist? Did you go through the trouble of an international monetary transfer to get the most authentic ninja clothing possible? (Or, if you did, do you recognize the mysterious hand symbols some of these poor dorks are affecting?) Is spending hours in the basement painting your Warhammer figures not nerdy enough? Than join Darkon and have a go at full scale wargaming every other Sunday. Is bashing people with padded weapons at Darkon still not enough; do you need to create a whole persona to go with it? Try the Society for Creative Anachronism. Been LARPing lately? Been Filking with anyone?

Ever get hurt while filming your Star Wars fan movie? Do you play Scrabble? Do you play semi-professionally? Does the acronym GURPS mean something to you? Do you prefer DragonLance, Forgotten Realms, or Ebberon? Ever spend a few months linking chainmail?

1/6 Scale, anyone? Or 1/35?

Look, I don't judge you. Whatever your particular vice, enjoy it. Life is short; live hard.

So Long, Lopez...

It is with great sadness that I report to my fans outside the Baltimore area that one of the great voices of the city passed away over the weekend. R. Edward Lopez, who spent 28 years as the morning newsman for legendary 98 Rock WIYY-FM 97.9 lost his battle to cancer on Sunday.

I have long since stopped listening to the hair metal wannabes that make-up the bulk of the station's playlist, and these days I'm trying to be well-informed by news during my morning commute. However, I was greatly saddened by the news. Lopez woke me up many mornings during high school and college. It was frequently his voice that announced the snow closings. As part of the morning comedy teams running the drive time shows, he made me laugh.

While he was a self-confessed bleeding heart liberal atheist, I managed to agree with him on the right for individuals to own high-powered assault weapons. He and I were both gun nuts, so he couldn't have been all bad.

Thanks for the memories Lopez. We'll miss you.

The Newest Game Show Host on Comedy Central

And the question is: Who is Ken Jennings.

I heart Ken. He made Jeopardy really fun again. My wife was put on bedrest during her pregnancy and wasn't able to get out much, but Ken Jennings visited her every night via the magic of TV. I don't think he ever expected to become the multifaceted phenomenon that he is, but he meant a lot to my wife.

If you're too cynical to still like Ken after he manages to lose the Jeopardy Ultimate Tournament of Champions tonight then you might enjoy this puzzle craze sweeping Britain.

Something bugging you?

Then try selling it online.

I probably shouldn't comment on this one.

Too hip for their own good

For once, words fail me regarding this.

Just so you know: W is a marketing and PR firm. But the site is worth exploring if, like me, you have a twisted sense of humor.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

We'll Always Have Mustafar

This weekend, the world will finally learn why Anakin Skywalker, a promising young Jedi Knight, turned to the Dark Side to become Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and the world's most famous heavy breather. The fans will tell you how much they care about learning why Anakin turned. Baloney. They all want to see the no fewer than 4 lightsaber duels, culminating in the 20 minute brawl for it all between Hayden (Ain't-I-All-Broody) Christiansen and Ewan (Esquire-won't-stop-talking-about-my-tallywhacker) McGregor.

And that is one of the great fascinations of Star Wars: the lightsaber. One El Paso, TX fan made her hometown paper's frontpage costumed as one of the signature Jedi weapons. Who didn't give in to the lure of fandom the moment Mark Hamill first awkwardly brandished the funky flashlight with clumsy abandon in 1977? Even the painfully slow, tentative, paddy-cake of a duel between Darth Vader and Alec Guinness' version of Obi-Wan Kenobi didn't diminish public enthusiasm.

Every culture has it's version of the magic sword. There must be something hardwired into the collective soul of humanity. Certainly, at one level, there is uncomfortably obvious symbolism in the Fruedian statement Old Ben made in the first Star Wars: "Your father's lightsaber." Swords are potent symbols of manhood. Witness the sophomoric giggles sure to ensue after the simple observation: "Mace Windu has a purple lightsaber."

But there is more. Through the centuries the sword has accumulated other connotations. Peter S. Beagle remarked through a character in one of his lesser books that it is impossible for anyone to pick up a sword without invoking chivalry and honor, and many other outmoded concepts. Every culture has legends of magic weapons. Everyone is familiar with the two swords of Arthurian legend, the Sword in the Stone, and Excalibur. But Charlemagne, Roland, Rodrigo Diaz, and Barbarossa all had named swords. Despite the bloodshed associated with his sack of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, Godfrey of Bouillion's sword is still kept as a minor relic in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. On the opposing side, Saladin's scimitar was said to be so sharp that it could effortlessly cleave a silk scarf floating on the wind.

Perhaps nowhere did the sword achieve higher status than in Japan, where the sword was considered to be the very soul of the samurai warrior. The warrior's whole existence was devoted to serving his liege with the same sharp efficiency with which his own sword served him. Swordsmiths were regarded as priests who touched the gods when they created their works of art. Each smith was considered to pass something of himself into the blades he created. Masamune's swords had a reputation for bringing justice and righteousness to the hand that wielded them. Muramasa, on the otherhand, created malicious weapons that killed without equal. So tainted were these swords, that they were not allowed into the presence of the Tokugawa Shoguns. (It didn't help that Muramasa's swords figured in several accidents and a few attempts on their lives.)

Surpisingly, the pinnacle of the Japanese swordsman's art was to do without the sword. One level of this can be seen in Miyamoto Musashi's choice of a wooden practice sword (called a bokken) for many of his duels to the death. The Yagyu family gained prominence after demonstrating to the first Tokugawa shogun their catalog of empty-hand techniques when facing a sword-wielding opponent. And finally there is the story of Bokuden.

Bokuden was probably the greatest swordsman Japan ever produced, and several schools of swordsmanship trace their lines back to his students. He became proficient by traveling the countryside and testing his skills in friendly bouts with swordmasters.

On one of these trips, he happened to be on a boat with several other passengers. The story goes that a young tough began to quarrel with another passenger, one who was not part of the warrior caste. Bokuden politely asked the young man to stop harrassing the passenger. The tough grew indignant that some "old man" was ordering him around. Then the tough noticed Bokuden's swords and publically challenged him to a duel. Bokuden tried to talk the young man out of the idea, but the tough wouldn't have it. His honor had been slighted, he claimed, and he would have satisfaction.

Finally, Bokuden agreed to the fight. However, he asked that the tough agree not to fight on the boat because it might accidentally injure one of the other passengers who had nothing to do with their arguement. Bokuden pointed out a small island perfectly sized for the two men to fight. The tough agreed and the boat was steered toward the island.

As they approached, the tough asked Bokuden what school of swordsmanship he followed. "Why the School of No Sword," answered Bokuden. "I've never heard of that school," said the tough as he jumped down onto the sandbar from the deck. Bokuden grabbed a staff and pushed the boat away from the island and smiled at the tough as the boat drifted beyond his reach. "See?" said Bokuden, "No sword."

Can't you just see Yoda doing that?

It's Contagious

This stuff scares me.

There has been an ongoing outbreak of Marburg Virus in Angola for well over a month now, and they can't seem to control it. Marburg Virus first came to my attention as a plot device in the unfortunately cancelled TV series Millenium. At first I thought it was fiction; a made-up desease some Hollywood-type deliberately conjured to be worse than Ebola.

Nope. It's all true. And it's highly infectious.

All it takes, at least in theory, is for one person to come into unexpected, unknown contact with the virus and get on a plane to the United States or Europe. Don't believe it can spread like that? Well there is a reason I linked in a previous post to the "Zombie Infection Simulation." It is an admitedly simplified, but fairly accurate representation of just about any infectious scenario.

The Great Leap Forward

I have been blessed to stay friends with three of my four principle running buddies from high school. Later this summer, the last of these friends will be getting married. He waited a long time to find the right girl, and he kissed his share of frogs along the way, but this one seems to be "The One" he's been waiting for since the first time I sat down across from him in the high school library and admired the Arnold Schwarzenneger photo taped to his binder.

I could gush on his good fortune, but he's already done that in a column published the old fashioned way: in a small town newspaper.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Nice, err, Doggie

There are only a few French things I admit to liking. Jean Reno and Luc Besson are two things from France I like. Another is the non-Besson film, Brotherhood of the Wolf, or Les Pacte de Loupes. The only way to describe this movie is to come right out and say it: it's a kung fu flick with American Indians tracking a giant monster across the French countryside in 1767 aided by Vatican spies investigating an aristocratic conspiracy.

Yes, I'm serious. And if you haven't seen it, but you enjoy action movies, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. You may only recognize two of the actors: Mark Dacascos and Monica Belluci. But the best part of the movie is: it's all based on a true story.

Again, I'm serious.

The incident is known as The Beast of Gevaudan. In the 1760's, in a frontier region between France and Germany called Gevaudan, a mysterious, wolf-like beast began to attack livestock and -- of course, as these things go -- moved on to attacking women and children. The beast, or le bete as "she" became known, terrorized the French countryside with impunity for several years and scored an impressive bodycount. The peasants of the region formed hunting parties on numerous occassions and tried to track down the monster. They even managed to find le bete a couple of times. But they couldn't kill the thing. Eventually the French King sent his own men after the monster. They eventually declared success, and several stories describe the dramatic tale of shooting the monster with blessed ammunition. The body was stuffed and mounted and the King put it on display. However, not everyone was convinced that the monster was truly dead, and in the chaos of the French Revolution, the stuffed body of le bete was lost.

Without the body, no one is really quite sure what the monster actually was. In France, the Beast of Gevaudan is sometimes called "the greatest enigma of history." Outside of France, the tale most frequently appears in compendiums of werewolf lore. Theories abound regarding the origin of the Beast. Perhaps the most credible is that it was an escaped exotic animal -- perhaps a bear, lion, or even hyenea -- from a traveling circus. Most modern reports of animals out-of-place involve escaped exotic pets. But even so, this theory is the most credible because it requires the fewest number of "what if's" but all of them require "waht if's" to be answered.

Strangely enough, the movie's explanation of the origin of le bete is no more farfetched than many of the theories, and less farfetched than most. See it, you'll enjoy the scenery if nothing else.

Definitely Not Repairing Toasters.

I am not a big fan of series fiction. I have been burned too many times with "trilogies" that turned into "on-going series" that just won't end -- even after it has become obvious the author is milking the idea, and has nothing new to offer. I like to have a clear idea of how much time I am investing when I start a series.

But I am a huge fan of F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack books. One of the best things about the series is that Wilson doesn't insult his reader. For starters, each books has its very own title, like The Tomb, or Conspiracies, or All The Rage. They aren't Repairman Jack and the Dark Warehouse of Evil. In fact, and I don't know if this was Wilson's decision or his publisher but in any event, the tag line on the covers 'A Repairman Jack Story' is subtle and unobtrusive.

So why am I so interested in novels about a repairman? Jack isn't a Maytag repairman, although for a long time his father thought his brilliant son was underemployed in the fixing of household appliances. No, it turns out that Jack fixes situations. It's an unorthodox profession. He got started in high school. A neighbor was being harassed by teenagers who would drive all over the front lawn at night, tearing up turf and ripping out landscaped flower beds. Jack had an idea and offered his solution to the neighbor -- for a price. The neighbor, surprisingly, agreed, and the nest time the teens tried something, it was their cars that needed the expensive repair work, not the lawn. After a family tragedy lead Jack to fix a situation of his own, Jack realized his chosen profession put him outside the law.

Jack moved from his boyhood home in New Jersey to New York City, where he blended into the background, networked with some other underground types on the fringes of society. Jack made his anonymity an obesession, and has managed to completely disappear from official records. Like a more realistic Batman, Jack rights wrongs, fixes problems, and looks out for the little guy -- for a price. You have to pay Jack for his work in cash -- part of it up front.

You have to admit, that's a great, original set-up for an action-adventure hero.

But it gets better.

Jack's family doesn't quite want to let go of their wayward member. His siblings are respected professionals, doctors and judges. Precisely the opposite of the technically outlaw Jack. His father keeps calling him from retirement if Florida. In every book, his family draws Jack closer and closer back to them, despite his misgivings. It's a poignant angle on the story, and keeps the action grounded in reality even when it gets very weird.

And weird it gets. Jack manages to find himself, quite by accident, involved in a cosmic struggle between opposing forces of chaos and order. Neither side is especially interested in humanity, but order sees some potential usefulness in humanity as an ally in the struggle on earth. And order settles on Jack as it's champion. So he's a guy who is immersed in the gritty reality of New York's underworld, armed with a Glock and a Semmerling .45 who is suddenly confronted by knowledge that Things really do go bump in the night. How does he deal with that?

Well, in a word, violently. I recommend these books to anyone who thinks modern horror fiction is a wasted genre filled with horny vampires. Or that action-adventure stories all have to be about ex-Navy SEALs pushed too far. Or that family drama has to be super-sappy.

Any character with Stephen King as the president of the fan club, or that can get Andrew Vachss to call him "righteous" is worth a look. Some of the best weird fiction currently being written. And I don't even mind that I have no idea how many books are going to be written. I'm eager for them all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Non-Movie Review Movie Review

I saw Kingdom of Heaven over the weekend. I don't want to be in the business of doing movie reviews on this site. I'll leave that to Dan and Dark Matt. However, I do have a few thoughts to share.

First, Ridley Scott has managed to bring me up-close looks at two things I never thought I'd see in my life: A US Special Operations air assault in Black Hawk Down and now a Templar charge in Kingdom of Heaven. Despite the fact that Scott villainizes my beloved Templars, I am indebted to him for the scene.

Actually, Scott's view of the Templars isn't too far off the mark. The history of Kingdom of Heaven is hardly the journalistic style of Black Hawk Down, but it is far, far more truthful than his Oscar winning Gladiator. I don't want to get too deep into what was good history and what was bad. Overall, I thought he did a remarkable job of summarizing the historical situation and characters. I was confused by the decision to make Guy de Lusignan a Templar, especially since he remains married to the Queen of Jerusalem, Sibylla. Templars, of course, took a vow of chastity. There were married Templars, but most of these were widowers, or took temporary vows while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land while the wife remained in Europe.

However, while neither Guy nor Reynald de Chatillon were Templars, the actual Templar Grand Master of the period, Gerard de Ridefort, was equally slimey. Gerard owed his high position in the Order more to his political skills than piety or military prowess. He was a principle architect of the disastrous charge at the Horns of Hattin, and he was very rash in his dealings with Saladin and the Muslims. While the Templar politico-military policy in the Holy Land tended to be rather cautious and conservative because they recognized they were outnumbered and outgunned by the Muslim forces, Gerard was more aggressive and would've been right at home with the ambitions of the movie versions of Guy and Chatillon. One last thing about Gerad de Ridwfort. While Saladin made the uncharacteristically bloodthristy, if practical, decision to behead all of the captured Templars and Hospitallers after Hattin, he allowed Gerard to live, and actually ransomed him before releasing King Guy. Like I said, Gerard was pretty slimey like that -- outliving his entire command, and breaking the prohibition against Templars paying ransom to save his skin.

Something that caught my eye just as the movie started was the image of the two men burying Balian's wife. As the scene plays out, it becomes apparent that the women has committed suicide, and they are burying her at a crossroads. Before the gravedigger fills in the hole, the priest orders him to cut off her head. As soon as he said that, I thought, "Now that's blog worthy!"

They didn't bother to explain the superstitions behind what they were doing, and those have implications for our on-going inquiry into high weirdness. The actions were common for suicides throughout Europe for centuries. I can't say for certain what the underlying belief was circa 1200 in Southern France, but these were typical precautions against the return of the corpse as a vampire in most of Europe. The cardinal sin of suicide left the body vulnerable to reanimation as a vampire.

Burying the body at a crossroads was believed to cause a minor crisis for a new vampire. We are used to thinking of Vampires as all-powerful plotters, wise by virtue of their extended years, and extending a network of evil tendrils out into the world to make good their wicked schemes. In reality, the folk belief was that Vampires were at worst like our modern image of zombies -- brainless brutes controlled by hunger, or at best like the dim-witted vampires common to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer mythos. Medieval people thought that a vampire would be so confounded by the number of choices presented by a crossroads that they would spend the whole night thinking about which direction in which to go.

Cutting off the head was a second layer of defense, and has rather obvious uses in keeping a vampire from rising from the grave. However, it also had the implication, depending on time and local belief, that the person would not be resurrected at the Second Coming because the body was not whole. This was a real threat to the medieval mind, and it came up again later in the movie when dead soldiers of Jerusalem are burned to prevent the spread of disease over the protest of a priest concerned about their resurrection. Today, of course, the theology has advanced to the point that the Catholic Church frowns on cremation, but generally acedes that God is God because He's all-powerful. Cremation won't stand in His way come the Resurrection.

Old Ben

You know, my own brother says that people with blogs are big dorks. Ok, maybe. But here's someone who's probably a bigger dork: she thinks Obi-Wan Kenobi is hot. I don't know, maybe he is. But I do know he's no Sean Connery...

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Dr. D!

There is no record of the birth of Doctor John Dee. No doctor's notes, no baptismal record, no town hall registry. We know the particulars of his birth, appropriately enough, from an astrological chart which gives the place, date, and even time of the event.

John Dee was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. He was an exceptional practitioner of mathematics and astronomy, along with the then related disciplines of astrology, alchemy and prophecy. Many accounts call him Elizabethan court magician. In fact, he served her in a far more useful capacities.

He is linked to Walsingham, Elizabeth's chief of secret intelligence. It is quite possible that Dee devised the secret service codes and ciphers used by the hidden agents. Some even claim that Dee was the first British secret agent to claim the designator 007.

It is known that Dee was acquainted with Christopher Marlowe, the brilliant playwright also rumored to dabble in espionage. Marlowe may have based parts of his character Dr. Faustus on Dr. Dee. Dee is also a possible inspiration for Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest. Both men are scholarly magicians with extensive libraries. Dee's collection of books was widely considered the best in England.

Dee's major contribution to western magic was his quest to contact Angels. A major current in western magical theory is the use of spiritual powers -- either angelic or demonic -- to effect magic on bahlf of the magician. Dee sought most of his life to contact angels, and eventually found a man who claimed to channel communications from Angels. One of the reasons Dee was convinced the man was authentic was his knowledge of a language he claimed to be spoken by the Angels, called "Enochian." Opinions on Enochian vary, but it has a general consistency in sound, syntax and grammar that make it sound like a true language. How much of this is the result of Dee imposing order on the sounds, and how much is due to some linguistic brilliance on his friend's part is unknown. Creating a language is extremely difficult, but as any Star Trek geek can tell you, not impossible.

Despite his fame and position, Dr. Dee died destitute. But like any good magician, his work was not yet finished with his death. H.P. Lovecraft credited Dee with translating a German edition of the Necronomicon into English. Those with an interest in believing the Necronomicon is real believe Dee had a copy of the work. Some even say that Dee owned the mysterious -- and real -- Voynich Manuscript which they insist is the Necronomicon, and Dee cracked the code because it is actually in Enochian! (Whew, that last statement was so cross-referenced I probably lost many of you.) In any event, a modern Necronomicon appeared (in paperback) in the 1970's that purpoted to be parts of the Dee translation. These copies are considered collectibiles now.

The First Person Who Makes a "Woody" Joke Can Leave...

A species of ivory-billed woodpecker that was thought extinct for 60 years was recently found to be living deep in the swamp.

Now, I don't expect a lot of people to be too excited by this in particular. (Although you should still give the article a read. It contains an Easter Egg.) The reason a story like this is interesting is that we have an instance in which an animal people have been looking for, in a limited geographic area, managed to stay hidden for 60 years! Sure it was a bird a few inches long, but still...