Sunday, April 26, 2009

Short fiction: "Walking and Running"

I abandon myself to the direction of my heart and find myself alone in land so close to sky. Around me, all has been reduced to dust beneath the sun's ever-burning, watchful eye. All that remain are shadows, mirages. I question my surroundings, the trappings of the material world, staring for hours at a field of azure until I am free, floating in it and through it, above it and beyond.

Whispers form. I feel them like breath. I see them dancing, creating, forgetting. The images are sharp and clear. The running man looks so free: head up, legs up, eyes forward, lungs filled with air. He passes above the walking man: head down, great burden on his back, dust in his eyes. Soon the running man is gone. The walking man toils on and grows old.

As a child, my father tried to teach me to throw a ball, but I could not learn. "You are too small yet," he said. "In time we will try again." I feel like a child again.

Rain brings me into sudden consciousness, descending from black clouds, swiftly slicing the air to pierce the thirsty earth below. I shut my eyes from the storm. A clap of thunder and it is over. Was it ever really here?

All around me I see small ponds where once there were only mirages. Are they mirages still? Tiny flowers sprout before my eyes, blossom and fade. As quickly as the rain, the ponds disappear. I press my hand against the soft mud, but when at last I pull it back again, the ground is dry once more. "There is life there," I say, my voice cracking like the earth before me. "Even there."

Time passes. I do not know how long. "You should have drunk when the rains came; that is what they were for." The voice is not my own, and the meanings of the words come and go. I try to speak, to tell the stranger of what I have seen. "Do not speak now. Rest, for you are close to death. There is an oasis near."

Dizzy, I rise to follow, later realizing that I am not so much walking as being carried. I am immersed in cool water. A salve of some kind covers my skin, tingling until the pain of my burns subsides. The mist before my eyes begins to thin. There is sweet fruit in my mouth.

I become aware once again of my host standing before me, a gentle smile stretched across his serene, brown face. "How can I repay your kindness?" The words fall out of my mouth with pieces of fruit.

"Tell me what you wanted to say before. What did you see in this land?" His clothing is foreign, but he speaks fluently, with no accent. He has gathered wood, from where I cannot tell. As he prepares a fire for the cold night, he patiently repeats his question. "What visions have been revealed to you this day?"

"I have seen many things..." I hesitate, uncertain, until I see it in his eyes: he already knows. He is only testing my comprehension. I examine the vision of the running man and the walking man, searching within myself for meaning. "The body is a burden to the soul. With it, one can never truly be free." I suddenly wish that I could be free, that I had been left alone to die.

"Do not despair." His voice is quiet and soothing, and at once I realize that my interpretation has been too hastily made. There is still much I must learn.

The night grows colder, and though the fire has been lit, I cannot help but shiver. The stranger senses my discomfort and moves closer, putting his thick, warm arms around me. At his touch, all weariness leaves me, and my eyelids grow heavy and fall.

"Papa, papa!" I am home again, with all of my children around me. There are tears in their eyes, and in mine as well.

"We thought you were lost," says my wife. Her voice breaks with relief, and I pledge to her never to wander again. She tells me of the stranger who carried me home in his arms, and in her prayers I hear her give thanks to God for our angel.

Soon I return to work, head down, heavy burden on my back, dust in my eyes. And with every step, I thank God to be running so fast.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Word nerd

I love words. More to the point, I love written words. I love to read them, love to type them, and especially love to write them by hand. There's something about writing them, feeling each letter come to life, that is very satisfying. And there's no better way to do it than with a freshly sharpened wooden pencil: the way the earthy smells of the wood and carbon waft into the air, the way the line twists and thickens as you push through the word, the way the graphite dust forms little smudges that get all over page and table and fingers. This is as organic, as close to actually creating life, as writing gets, and I sometimes find myself finishing sentences with a little flourish, just to keep the pencil on the paper a little longer.

While I love words in general, there are some words that stand out even more than others. For the past 48 hours, for example, the word "robust" has been a constant companion. But my favorite word of all time is "sesquipedalian."

There are two things I love about "sesquipedalian." The first is that it has some weight to it. While it's not the longest word I've ever used in a sentence, it is no slouch. With 14 letters, five syllables and a full palette of sounds, it creates its own landscape in the mouth - and it is fun terrain to cover! (By the way, the longest word I have used would be "Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg" - and yes, I'm proud that I can pronounce it!)

The second thing I love about it has to do with its definition. "Sesquipedalian" is an adjective that literally means "foot and a half long" (sesqui- one and a half; ped foot), and is used to describe words which have a lot of syllables. In other words, "sesquipedalian" is a very sesquipedalian word.

I love it when a words' form illustrates its own definition like that. "Misspelled" doesn't do anything special for me, but "mispelled" puts a tingle down my spine. Likewise, for me to really appreciate "redundant," "redundant" must be used redundantly, when the use of "redundant" is clearly redundant. I think "abbreviation" fails as a word, where "abbr." succeeds. And I'm sure you know how I think the word "parentheses" should always be written (hint: in parentheses).

With a pencil in hand, this sort of thing can take on even more dimension. For example, the word "tall" ends up with letters stretched higher than other words on the page. And don't even get me started on the word "ornate."

Questions?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

What lies in the shadow of the Pixies?

I watched a documentary last weekend called loudQUIETloud, which chronicled the 2004 reunion tour of seminal alt-rock band the Pixies.

Let me say first of all that this is not a film I would recommend to people who are not already fans of the band. Although any fan of alternative rock really needs to familiarize themselves with this band, especially 1988's Surfer Rosa and 1989's Doolittle, two phenomenal albums that that set the stage for the alternative revolution of the 1990s. While the Pixies broke up before alt-rock became mainstream and missed out on becoming household names, they are cited as a major influence by nearly all of the big names of that movement. In a 1994 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Kurt Cobain said of Nirvana's genre defining single "Smells Like Teen Spirit": "I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies."

If you're a die-hard fan already, you may find the film interesting, although I will still stop short of recommending it. What was interesting to me in this film was seeing these mortal people trying to figure out how to live in the aftermath of having ever so briefly been gods. The band had somehow tapped into something bigger than themselves, and between 1987-1989 they could do no wrong musically. After a couple more albums of diminishing returns, they broke up and went their separate ways in 1993, even as their legacy was beginning to become cemented.

Lead singer Charles Thompson (then known as Black Francis, and now as Frank Black) continued on as a modestly successful, B-list solo act. In the Pixies' heyday he was known for his howling, emotional delivery, but now he has grown fatter and older and tamer. I still thoroughly enjoy his music, but it's not groundbreaking or compelling in the way his early Pixies material was. It is interesting to see how he has mellowed and become more introspective, no longer chasing the dream, but just living with its consequences. He has become a career musician but not a star, and he approaches his profession is like any professional would: show up, assemble the song, give the (half-hearted) interview about the glory days, tinker around with the next song.

There is a moment in the film where they show him during some down time, walking through an aquarium with his young stepson. It could have been me and my son in that picture. It was a great reminder that no matter how high we soar, we're all brought back down to Earth. In that moment, I realized that I too had aged and mellowed and grown fatter in the past 15 years, and I allowed myself a moment of depression at the thought. But only a moment, because in that quiet image holding his son's hand, I saw that even back down here on Earth there is still a lot of subtle magic to be found.

The other band members also followed their own trajectories to mortality. Bassist Kim Deal found some success with her next band, The Breeders, then faded from view for a while as she battled to free herself from substance abuse. Seeing her in this documentary is eye opening: she is weathered by the years and the battles, nervous and unsure of how to be a rock star again, and constantly aware of her battle to remain sober. In her free time, Deal writes music for an upcoming Breeders album, and the struggle to find that creative spark seems more like therapy than anything else.

Guitarist Joey Santiago, whose compelling, visceral guitar style defined the band's sound more than anything, struggled by in the intervening years, playing odd gigs and working on a soundtrack for a documentary. His guitar playing has lost none of its edge, and it is through him that the band comes closest to recapturing its former glory. Which makes me wonder: how did he not find success somewhere within the alt-rock movement he helped create? Santiago is the quiet, unassuming member of the band who keeps his head down and works hard, even filling his spare time by working on his soundtrack side project. And he seems most grateful for the reunion tour for allowing him to keep his head above water and provide for his family, who he communicates with frequently on the road via webcam.

After the breakup, drummer David Lovering had reinvented himself with a career as a magician, but still mostly lived off of Pixies royalty checks and welcomed the opportunity to tour again. During the tour, however, his father passed away and afterwards he started to sink into substance abuse, only cleaning up his act after the rest of the band confronted him.

In retrospect, I have to wonder and I could sense in their minds as well: how did that spark even happen back in 1986 when these four otherwise unremarkable human beings united as the Pixies? What combination of talent, inspiration and circumstance had allowed them to capture lightning in a bottle and change the tone of American music? I wonder about this question a lot as I write about music in my other (better) blog, Three Perfect Minutes: so many times an artist will create something utterly transcendent, and the music will live on in a state of eternal perfection, even though the musician may fall into mediocrity and never attain such heights again.

Mostly I see this as I look back through the lens of history. But having followed the Pixies from the beginning, I feel a certain kinship there: their mortality reflects my own. In these Earthly bodies, none of us is ever truly immortal: we all change, we all grow old, we all fade away. And yet, there are moments when each of us gets to glimpse immortality. When we get to touch perfection. When we get to feel on top of the world.

It may be a song, or a presentation in the boardroom, or a moment holding your child's hand. When those moments come, seize them, cherish them, thank God for them.

After watching loudQUIETloud, I dusted off my old Pixies CDs and spent the week listening to them again. And just for a moment I was 19 again. Man, that is good stuff.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter Bunny hoax revealed!

Occasionally you run across an adult who doesn't believe in Santa Claus, which of course is just foolish. Santa's existence is well-documented by forensic scientists, and there are several new sightings by credible sources every Christmas Eve. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is even able to track his movements globally with the aid of a sophisticated, multi-billion dollar tracking system built specifically for that purpose. Santa is elusive to be sure, but the evidence is there.

In the 1950s and '60s, teenagers in the U.S., and later in Great Britain and elsewhere, began spreading rumors that Santa was a hoax. Why these allegations were able to gain traction is beyond me, although it should be noted that smoking was also popular among teens during this time, so apparently they were willing to believe anything. That the rumors persist to this day speaks to the deep, underlying cynicism in our society - no doubt attributable to those adults who were naughty enough as children to never enjoy the magic of getting presents from St. Nick to begin with. And of course, the role of the major toy companies in perpetuating these rumors cannot be discounted, for while Santa is now heavily invested in them - and indeed directly manufactures many of their toys at his North Pole, South Pole and China facilities - there was a time not so long ago (the Great Toy Recession of 1972) when that relationship was severely strained.

Despite all of the persistent nonsense about Santa, however, surprisingly little attention has been given to the Easter Bunny, and it is here where all evidence suggests an actual hoax has been perpetrated. Besides the flat-out preposterousness of the notion of a giant, intelligent rabbit, there are simply no credible witnesses to this animal's existence. All we have are a few grainy, Bigfoot-style photos that are obviously nothing more than a man in a bunny suit.

The only half-credible account supporting the Easter Bunny's existence was a 1917 sighting by noted zoologist Willard Fillmore, great grandson of U.S. President Millard Fillmore and winner of the 1919 Nobel Prize in biology for his dissertation on the healing properties of Colorado river toad venom (since discredited). Mr. Fillmore's account produced no photograph. However, he did recount a vivid description of what he saw: "Silhouetted there in my parlour stood a creature fantastic... Not four feet tall it reached, and from its head sprouted two enormous ears like those of an English Lop rabbit... It made not a sound, and when I lit the lamp, it had vanished. Where it had stood, a woven basket remained, filled with marshmallow, chocolate, rum and all manner of sweet treats, laid upon a bed of fresh cut grass..."

From Fillmore's simple description of the phenomenon, the public's imagination was soon engaged and in no time there were Easter Bunny decorations, cards, books and chocolate candies everywhere. (Note to those interested in starting a hoax: feed people sweets in the process, and they will not question even the most far-fetched notions!)

But now that scientists are starting to study the Easter Bunny in earnest, the story behind the fabled hare is beginning to unravel. The National Center for Forensic Research recently issued an exhaustive report of 50 years of research on the subject. To summarize the findings, the NCFR found absolutely no physical evidence of a giant bunny. However, they did uncover several details that point toward a different conclusion. While there were no rabbit tracks, they did find at many sites an extra set of child-sized footprints that could not be matched to the children that lived there, or to any of their known accomplices. Likewise, while there was no trace of rabbit fur or DNA, they did frequently uncover microscopic traces of a completely unexpected substance: felt. The NCFR hesitated to draw any firm conclusions from the evidence, but they did not have to: combined with the other known facts in this case, the evidence speaks for itself.

There is only one organization with the experience, motivation and infrastructure needed to pull off a massive global giveaway program like this: Santa Corp. I do not think the distribution is handled by Mr. Kringle himself, mind you, but this is a smaller-scale operation than Christmas and could very easily be handled by one or more of his senior elves. As for Mr. Fillmore's recollection of seeing bunny ears in silhouette, this is easily explained. While most elf hats end in a single point, dual-pointed "jester" style elf hats are not unheard of. Furthermore, it has long been rumored that these hats are part of the traditional garb of - you guessed it - Santa's candy makers.

Whether the reveal to Mr. Fillmore was intentional or not, it seems to have worked out in the elves' favor by completely throwing the media off the trail. And that is probably a good thing, as even today the Easter disbursement is much more inconsistent than Christmas: sometimes involving candy, sometimes toys; sometimes hiding the basket, sometimes not; sometimes filling the basket with real grass, sometimes artificial grass or another substance; and so on. (Some of this inconsistency might be based upon Santa's use of multiple elves to distribute the baskets.)

In the long run, I suppose it does not matter to children whether the candy and toys come from a giant, magical rabbit or an elite team of ninja-like elves. The fact that there is magic in the air is generally enough for them, and there is no time for deeper questions when one is stuffing one's face with marshmallow.

Scientists like me, however, are driven to know the truth, and our innate curiosity will continue to drive our studies, jelly bean by jelly bean, until the full nature of this conspiracy is revealed.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

3-D still sucks

My six year old son and I went and saw the new Monsters Vs. Aliens movie yesterday in 3-D. Apparently, 3-D movies are being touted (again!) as the next big thing in movies. The technology has improved, so that while you still need to wear special glasses, those glasses no longer have one red eye and one blue. The new lenses are clear and cause considerably less eye strain. Thanks to this breakthrough, some studio execs are now predicting that all movies will be shot in 3-D in the future. (Really? Star Wars I could see, but Steel Magnolias? Why?)

DreamWorks said they spent some $15 million turning Monsters Vs. Aliens into a 3-D feature. I am sad to report that it was not money well spent. The 3-D effects added absolutely nothing to the movie. Except for the obligatory paddle-ball scene in the beginning, I didn't notice any point where 3-D was essential to tell the story, and I barely noticed any 3-D effects at all. In fact, there were several explosions that were prime opportunities to do something special with 3-D, but they were squandered.

DreamWorks should have spent some of that money improving the story. This was a fantastic premise turned into a so-so movie. The jokes were tired, the characters poorly developed, and the plot lackluster. (My son can't wait for the sequel, though: five stars from him and a half-hearted three from me.) I want movies where a well-crafted story brings the movie to life in my imagination. You can't use 3-D as a cheat for that.

If done right, 3-D can yield some cool special effects. For example, I like the interactive experience of the Mickey's PhilharMagic movie/ride at Walt Disney World - but 3-D is only a part of that overall experience, which also includes tangible, real-world special effects like spraying water on the audience. And that underlines my point: 3-D will always be a novelty. It can give us a momentary thrill, but it will not make or break a movie.

And even thought the new glasses are better than the old red/blue ones, the picture quality is still a little blurry, and it is still uncomfortable to look through them for long stretches of time. If forced to choose, I would take a traditional 2-D picture with a clearer view of the action every time.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Top-secret diesel technology revealed!

I've spent the entire morning digging through my company's intranet archives. There's some fascinating stuff in there. For example, I came across this article from exactly one year ago today (April 1, 2008). This is fascinating stuff, and I'm amazed the mainstream media hasn't reported on it. I'm going to look to see if I can get a project status update...

MTU’s newest technology has been called revolutionary: what is it and how does it work?

Last week, Diesel Engines Inc.'s new “oscillation overthruster” technology was successfully tested in an experimental high-speed military vehicle at an undisclosed site in western Texas. The test was conducted by an engineering team led by Dr. Banzai from the DEI Hong Kong office.

The basic principles behind the oscillation overthruster were first demonstrated by Dr. Emilio Lizardo, in a series of small experiments in the late 1930s. However, it wasn’t until 1984 that serious work began to develop the technology for practical application. Coupled with recent advances in electronic controls and fuel injection, oscillation overthrusters are now poised to redefine the diesel industry.

The oscillation overthruster functions as a miniature particle accelerator, using energy from the diesel combustion process to power two colliding beams that mix electrons and positrons together. That collision results in a series of powerful subatomic explosions, which are then harnessed to provide either a highly efficient power source or a means of achieving rapid transdimensional propulsion (RTP).

DEI’s oscillation overthrusters are being assembled by noted defense contractors Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems. “History is made at night," says Yoyodyne company spokesman John Whorfin, "Character is what you are in the dark.”

Game on!

Wow, it's April already. Where did the first quarter go?!

Anyway, for all you hockey fans, I found this interesting story posted today on my company's intranet...

Diesel engine shoots and scores with the “coolest machines on ice.”
When EPA recently re-wrote its emissions laws to classify ice resurfacers as off-highway vehicles, no doubt the biggest winners were the nation’s ice rink owners, who had lobbied for more horsepower for years.

An ice resurfacer is a truck-like vehicle used to clean and smooth the surface of an ice rink. The first ice resurfacers were developed by Frank J. Zamboni in 1949, and today Frank J. Zamboni & Co, Inc. still leads the market. So much so that, despite being a registered trademark, “Zamboni” is generally used for all ice resurfacers.

After the EPA ruling, Diesel Engines Inc. distributor SoCal Power Systems wasted no time contacting Zamboni, which is headquartered in Paramount, California. SoCal sales associate Bjorn Frie had grown up playing youth hockey in his native Sweden, and recognized the opportunity that diesel power could provide for a company like Zamboni.

“The DEX21 Series diesel has been in hot demand,” said Zamboni’s Vice President of Sales, Enrico Zamboni. “It used to take a pair of machines nearly 12 minutes to resurface a typical ice rink, but with an X21 in it, a single Zamboni can now complete the job in under three minutes. That has allowed rink owners to substantially increase ice time and hence revenues.”

“It took some extra engineering to get it to work,” said Frie. “But customers have been willing to pay a premium for it, and Zamboni sales have gone through the roof. Talk about a hat trick!”

Canadian distributors have also reported a slew of repower opportunities, and the DEX21 may end up having a profound effect on Canada’s national pastime. Since the game of ice hockey moved indoors in the late 19th century, most hockey games have been played with only three periods. But as the official ice resurfacer of the National Hockey League, the new Zambonis have sped up the game to the point where the NHL is finally considering bringing back the missing fourth quarter.