My Doppelganger

There is apparently an Irish writer, possibly living in Galway (one of my favorite cities on Earth) named Richard S. Crawford.

If you have come to my webpage looking for him, be advised that I am not he. I’m sure he’s a fine writer, but I’ve found no information about him, and most searches for him online from Google seem to lead to me.

Of course, he could also be my evil twin. Or I am his evil twin. It’s up to you to determine who is who.

Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (Poster)Yesterday Jennifer and I watched another film on our 50 pack set of “Classic Sci Fi Films”: Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet. For what it was, it was a fairly decent film, though it seemed somehow disjointed. In essence, a group of astronauts land on the planet Venus and encounter all kinds of monstrous critters, like man-eating plants with long tentacles, and dinosaurs. Fun times. Meanwhile, there’s a woman astronaut aboard a ship orbiting Venus, and Basil Rathbone as a scientists stationed in a lunar colony monitoring the entire mission. And it was these different settings that made the film seem so disjointed; it was almost as though there were two films, spliced in with each other. It reminded me of the American version of the original Godzilla film, where American-produced scenes starring Raymond Burr were interspersed with the original Japanese scenes.

Turns out my feeling was right. Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet was originally a Russian film called Planeta Burg (which apparently translates to Planet of Storms). Roger Corman picked up the rights to this film, and filmed the additional scenes to make the film more appealing to an American audience. Of course this sort of thing never ends well, and that’s why Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet seemed so disjointed.

I’ve already given a brief synopsis of the story. I’ve left out a few details, like the robot that accompanies two of the astronauts to the surface of Venus and that ultimately nearly kills them while trying to save itself from the lava flowing from a volcanic eruption (apparently the robot had not been programmed with the Three Laws of Robotics). All in all, it’s a pretty simple story, even if the American version doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (Jennifer and I were left confused more than once and asked each other, “Okay, what just happened and who’s on what planet?”).

Other films from this set of discs have had simple — if occasionally incoherent — storylines. And that makes me wonder about increasing complexity in narrative in general in movies and television. In Everything Bad is Good for You, Steven R. Johnson argues, among plenty of other things, that narratives in movies as well as television have grown more complex over the years, requiring more emotional and intellectual investment from audiences. Even modern reality shows, which many people deride, are more emotionally complex than something like I Love Lucy or any other show contemporary to it, since they require analysis of the emotional complexities of the participants in the show and their agendas. Television shows in earlier years did not have the series long story arcs that shows like Lost or the reboot of Battlestar Galactica had; even some modern sitcoms feature this sort of ongoing plotline (I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but I’m sure someone else can).

Which made me think: what if we took someone who had just seen Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet and transported them instantly through time and stuck them into an IMAX theater to watch Avatar, what would happen? (I’m not talking about taking someone who’s just moved through time the normal way, by aging — such a person would have gotten used to the increasing narrative complexity.) Would their minds be utterly blown? Many critics have said that although Avatar is visually stunning, its storyline is relatively simple. But would our theoretical time traveler be able to track the story at all? Or would they be utterly confused?


Post Weekend Blues

I make no secret of the fact that because he sings songs about lonely mad scientists, cyborgs, robot mining colonies, and lovesick giant squids with self esteem problems, Jonathan Coulton is my favorite singer. I even named my NaNoWriMo 2009 novel Code Monkey! in honor of one of my favorite Jonathan Coulton songs (and yes, I will be finishing up that novel soon).

So seeing Jonathan Coulton perform live on Friday night was a treat. He puts on a great show, and Jennifer and I had a real blast. Of course, this was the second year we’ve seen him live, and I’m hoping we can make it an annual tradition (assuming he comes to San Francisco each January). We got to sit in the front row, have the house dinner, and he even remarked on something that Jennifer said, which was fun. The picture above is the only picture I took of him at the concert, and even though I took it with my old cell phone, I think it looks pretty good.

Yesterday, since we were in San Francisco anyway (we’d stayed the night in a hotel — who wants to drive back to Sacramento at midnight after a concert?), we decided to take advantage of our zoo membership and spend a few hours there. Unfortunately we were worn out at one o’clock or so, and left without even seeing the baby gorilla.

I did take a few pictures at the zoo. For your edification, here they are. Click on any of them to embiggen.

This is an Andean black bear. It’s eating shrubbery.

This, of course, is a grizzly bear in the new Grizzly Corner habitat. Grizzly bears are, of course, one of the meanest critters on earth. This picture looks a little blurred because I took it through the glass surrounding the habitat.

Of course, for sheer cantankerousness and general meanness, you can’t beat the polar bear, who’ll eat you just for looking at him funny (or perhaps just being near him). I decided to take this picture of him lounging around like a cat, paw pads available for all the world to see. Doesn’t he look cuddly?

Speaking of cats, here’s an inelegant picture of a tiger’s rear end.

Here’s a picture of a river otter. I think river otters are awesome, and plan to come back as one in my next life. They just seem to have a blast. Plus, I’m rather pleased with how this picture came out.

I like the fact that there are prairie dogs at the zoo. This one was hanging out in front of his hole, barking like mad. I never figured out why, despite extensive questioning.

And the obligatory penguin post. I like penguins and not just because they’re the mascot of my favorite operating system. And I really like the way this picture turned out. I currently have this one set as my desktop wallpaper.

Today was a day of relaxation and kicking back. Jennifer started baking while I was at church, and she’s been baking ever since, meaning that the house now smells absolutely lovely (for Jennifer, baking is relaxing and kicking back). But it’s Sunday, and tomorrow I go back to work.

Already I’m feeling the post-weekend blues.

Kobolds at the door

Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole‘s medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “It’s a Wonderful World” is one of my very favorite songs ever. He works the two songs together in a way that is almost seamless, and they work very well together. It’s always struck me as kind of a sad song, too; but that might just be me, because I always get a little sad when I think about Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole. I don’t know why. I just do.

Now, though, it goes beyond just a little sad for me. I can’t listen to this song at all without tearing up and feeling overwhelmed. There are times when I get obsessed with a song and play it over and over again, and this is the song that I played over and over again the day that I took Tangerine to the vet for the last time. I remember that day very clearly, as well as the two days after that; wondering if she was going to be okay, then getting word from the vet that she wasn’t going to be, and there was only one option left.

I can’t help it. It’s been nearly four months, and I still get weepy. A big part of me isn’t ready to believe it’s been four months already. On the one hand, it seems like such a long time. On the other hand, though, it hardly feels like any time at all. I still miss Tangerine. The two kittens we adopted the weekend after she died are fun and a joy to have in our home, but you know how it goes: you just can’t replace that pet with whom you really bonded.

I’m a little intimidated, though, by the intensity of this feeling, so long after the event. If Tangerine’s death made those kobolds come pounding at my door, how will I handle grief that follows from the death of a friend or family member? I can sit and hope that it never comes, but I know that it will.

In short: I’m scared of my own emotions, sometimes. And I still miss my cat.

It's All About the Zombies

Remote Control ZombieYou write one zombie story (or two or a half dozen), express a fondness for zombie movies like Day of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead and read zombie-themed books like Christopher Moore’s The Stupidest Angel, and suddenly you have a reputation as a zombie head.

I had a zombie themed Christmas and birthday this year. From the remote control zombie (pictured to the left and available at Think Geek if you’re interested) I received from Jennifer’s parents to the pile of zombie books that I received from Jennifer (wrapped in zombie wrapping paper that Jennifer found, also available at Think Geek) to the two zombie board games (one from Jennifer and one from my sister Caitlyn), I’d say the holidays for me were all about the zombies.

Of course, I am into the zombies. I’m not as into them as some folks I know who dedicate a weekly podcast to reviewing zombie films (and it’s a good podcast, I recommend it) but I’d say I’m more interested in zombies than the average person.

The question, though, is why? I’ve been trying to figure out the allure that zombies have not just for myself but for popular culture at large. One of the biggest feature films of 2009 was Zombieland, after all, and before that Shaun of the Dead and Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead both did respectably well at the box office. And, of course, there are hundreds of direct-to-DVD and made-for-TV zombie movies, with at least half a dozen more coming out each month. And there are plenty of books out there as well; the afore-mentioned Stupidest Angel as well as the more recent Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament (not to mention Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) are just among a growing number of zombie enhanced novels. And, of course, zombies are a mainstay of just about every video game out there.

Zombies are the new vampires, it was recently said (though even more recently it’s been said that “vampires are the new zombies”, which sort of implies that vampires had ever gone out of vogue).

So what is it about zombies, anyway? Why our society’s interest in them? Why our interest in a zombie apocalypse? Why is it okay to kill zombies and not other groups of people? And why my own interest in them?

Well, with regards to the zombie apocalypse, I suspect that a large part of that has to do with the fact that a zombie apocalypse, while horrifying to contemplate — all those flesh-eating ghouls running around (or shambling around, depending on which version of zombies you’re contemplating), eating the living and causing general havoc, as well as the knowledge that being bitten by one will turn you into a zombie like them — just isn’t going to happen. It’s a “safe” apocalypse, as it were. I remember when I was growing up in the 80s, when everyone was terrified of a nuclear apocalypse; these days, worrying about the nuclear apocalypse is passe, while contemplating a zombie apocalypse is cool. And yet, the nuclear apocalypse had such a sense of possibility; at any moment, we all thought, some Soviet madman or some American idiot was going to start to Final War, and everyone would die. We don’t feel similarly about the zombie apocalypse. In our imagination, the zombie apocalypse is an out of control situation, but really it’s a situation that completely under our control, simply because we do imagine it and because it just isn’t going to happen. This may simply be a reflection of the more ironic and sarcastic age that we live in these days; we’ve gotten bored of contemplating apocalypses that are too plausible (nuclear war, global famine, pandemic, etc.) and that are out of our control, so we’ve started contemplating apocalypses that are fundamentally absurd (more on this point in a bit). It’s flipping the bird to the real terrors of the world.

And why is it okay to kill zombies, but not other groups of people? When I asked this question on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, someone suggested that it was okay to kill zombies because they’re already dead. I think, though, it goes a bit deeper than that; zombies, by their very nature, are the ultimate in dehumanized humans. It’s not just that they’re dead, therefore, it’s that they’re inhuman. More than that: they’re antihuman, the antithesis of everything that a human being is. They are unintelligent, inarticulate, and they consume living human flesh, the ultimate taboo. Because they’re so offensive in that regard, they’re okay to kill. We’ve moved past a point where it’s okay to dehumanize and therefore mass slaughter our human enemies (perhaps we’ve grown to appreciate that even terrorists can be human beings as well?), so we focus on our inhuman enemies. That’s the germ of my theory at least. I’d like to see what a sociologist or social psychologist has to say about this subject.

But there’s an element of zombies which is fundamentally absurd. Zombies are menacing, to be sure, but plenty of comedy has been built up around zombies as well. The original Return of the Living Dead is as much a comedy as it is a horror film; Shaun of the Dead is, at heart, a romantic comedy; and Zombieland, of course, is equal parts comedy and adventure. Even the venerable George Romero incorporated some comedic elements in the original Dawn of the Dead (Zack Snyder’s remake did not have much comedy in this regard). Many of the zombie representations that we see these days, including remote control zombies and zombie wrapping paper, are just goofy. What’s up with that? I suspect that by making the zombie an object of ridicule, by laughing at the shambling creature that wants to eat our flesh (or our brains, again depending on which subset of the zombie genre you’re looking at), we’re sort of whistling past the graveyard. It goes back to the notion of the zombie apocalypse as the controllable, imaginary apocalypse; here, it becomes a symbol of every apocalypse that can happen, and so we laugh it off in order to show that we’re not afraid.

Either that, or zombies, with their shambling and their moaning, are just plain funny.

Actually, it occurs to me, reading this over, that I really have no idea what I’m talking about. I find zombies interesting and I enjoy zombie movies and stories about the zombie apocalypse, but I know that if I ever saw a zombie in real life, I’d scream like a little girl and run as fast as I could in the other direction.

I invite your comments.

The Incredible Petrified World!

50 Sci-Fi ClassicsAmong the gifts that my wife gave me for my birthday was this box-set of “50 Sci-Fi Classics”. Now, I’m not positive that all fifty movies in this set would be considered “classics” — although I suppose Santa Claus Conquers the Martians would, for certain definitions of “classic” — but the ones we’ve watched so far have been at least fun. Of course, we’ve only watched three of them so far:

The first we watched was The Incredible Petrified World. In this film, four deep sea explorers end up at the bottom of the ocean when the cable suspending their diving bell snaps. Judging by the light outside the bell they decide they’re not so deep that the pressure would kill them, so they all slip into their wet suits and make their way upwards… only to end up in what appears to be a large and complex series of underground caves, lit by phosphorescent rocks. Dangers of this “incredible petrified world” include a mysterious shipwreck survivor who takes a hankerin’ to one of the women in the crew, and stock footage of large lizards. There wasn’t much in the way of petrification in this “petrified world”, except that some of the rocks kind of looked like rocks in a petrified forest, sort of. Anyway, in the end, a volcano somewhere erupts, killing the weird old man, and the four are rescued. Not much more than that happens in this hour-long saga, but that’s all that matters, I think.

The second film we watched was Queen of the Amazons. In this film, intrepid adventuress Jean Preston travels to the Middle East and then to an unnamed country in Africa to track down her fiancee, who has been captured by Zena, the fearsome Queen of the Amazons. Unfortunately, at some point her fiancee has fallen in love with Zena; but that’s okay, actually, because Jean has fallen in love with the safari guide. This film also lasted an hour or so, and at least half of that was stock footage of African landscapes and wildlife that someone found in the studio archives and decided to make a movie around. Oh, and there’s a subplot involving ivory poachers, and at the end it turns out it was the cook all along who was killing the Africans and plotting with Zena to steal the ivory from the U.S. merchants or something. Jennifer and I both lost track of what passed for plot in this film shortly before the big fight scene. But there was a big double wedding at the end, so I suppose it was a happy ending.

The third film we watched was Moon of the Wolf, a pretty predictable werewolf murder mystery set in the Louisiana swamps. I thought this film was better than the first two, but it was still mighty predictable. I was impressed by some of the details brought into this film, such as the French origin of the world loup-garoux (which I am very likely misspelling here), and some attempt at a medical definition of lycanthropy.

The part of me that enjoys films like this for their camp value has been having a blast with this set of discs; another part of me, though, the part of me that appreciates good storytelling and decent narrative, realizes that these three films are just plain bad. Yes, there’s a certain narrative naiveté that characterizes them — after all, fifty years past The Incredible Petrified World, audiences have come to demand more from movie storylines, and screenwriters write more complex ones in response (for the most part — there are certainly exceptions). But even granting that, these films just don’t compare with some of the true classics of the genre: Forbidden Planet, say, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or The Day the Earth Stood Still (I won’t say “the original” here, because my brain refuses to admit that a “remake” was made recently with Keanu Reeves).

Still, these films are fun in their own way, so watching them is no waste of time. And there are some films in this set that I can’t wait to see. Included here are some classic giant monster movies, like Gamera the Invincible, and I’ve always had a soft spot for Kaiju movies. Plus, there are films with titles like She Gods of Shark Reef; and who can possibly forego a movie with a title like that?

Focusing for the new year

I’ve always thought that New Year’s Day was an arbitrary day to set for making resolutions. I mean, why January 1? Why not July 2, or May 18? I know that there’s a certain appeal to the start of the new year, and it feels like it could be a fresh start, but it’s still arbitrary. That’s why, when I do make annual resolutions, I make them on March 25. It’s as arbitrary a day as any, so I figure why not. I could make such resolutions on my birthday, which feels like a less arbitrary day, but my birthday is on New Year’s Eve, and that would make it just as arbitrary as New Year’s resolutions. It’s feel like I’d compromised my own integrity that way. So March 25 it is.

On the other hand, it’s never the wrong date to examine the areas of your life that you give focus to, and possibly to re-evaluate that focus, and I’ve decided to start doing that today, on New Year’s Day. It’s not the same as making New Year’s resolution. It’s something entirely different. I swear it is. Shut up.

So anyway, here are the areas of my life that I’ve decided I’m going to focus on developing this year:

1. Relationships

…including on-line relationships and off-. Relationships with family, friends, and otherwise. I have some dear friends whom I love very much but whom I’ve been neglecting just because I’m sometimes too lazy to pick up the phone and give them a call. Also, I have family that I don’t keep in touch with that I’d like to see more of. Of course, since most of my family members are pretty regular participants on Facebook these days, that will be easier.

Naturally, this leads to…

2. Work

…because there are some on-line communities surrounding the products I work with every day, so I plan on engaging with those more, both on-line and off-line (as far as is possible, at least).

Now, even though I’m doing pretty well at work, there’s always room to grow and improve. In my last performance evaluation — which was excellent — my boss gave me some ideas for areas that I could work on and be more proactive in, so naturally I’ll be giving attention to those.

And, of course, there’s always professional development; I’m a good developer and pretty darned skilled at what I do, but there’s always room for improvement. I plan on continuing to develop my skills, on expanding my programming methodologies, and learning some new programming languages.

Which brings me to…

3. Writing

…which may seem like a bit of a stretch, but there’s relevance here. Because in addition to focusing on the craft of writing (and my sense of craft took kind of a beating last year when I was working on my Story of the Week project, where I was focusing on speed and quantity over quality), I’ll also be upping my submission rate. By February, I’m going to be focusing on keeping five active submissions at all times. To keep track of all these submissions, I’m going to build myself a web-based tool in Python that I can use. Why Python when I’m pretty good at PHP? Because I don’t know Python, and learning new programming languages is always a good thing, and I’ve always found that it’s easier to learn a new language when you have a project to work on rather than just the standard “Hello World” practice applications that show up in programming manuals.

I also have a goal of making my first professional sale this year, as well as finishing up the first draft of my new novel (and don’t worry, fans of Code Monkey!, I’ll definitely be finishing up that one as well).

Oh, and I plan on giving more attention to this blog of mine. So hopefully I’ll be posting more often, and possibly even posting some interesting stuff. We’ll see how that goes.

Now, to keep up a good solid pace in my writing, I’ll have to keep myself in pretty good health, physically and otherwise. Which, naturally, brings me to…

4. Health (Physical and otherwise)

…you know, the same set of resolutions that everyone makes at this time of year. Exercise more. Lose weight. Eat right. And so on. Except it’s not going to be a brand new thing for me, since I’ve been focusing on these for months now (and doing pretty well — heck, I even lost a pound and a half over the Christmas holiday, which is no mean feat).

And I’ll also be giving my attention to my emotional and mental health. I like to think I’m doing fairly well in these areas as well, but, of course, there’s always room for improvement. So these two areas will be getting some attention too. And this brings me, at last, to…

5. Community

…by which I mean my local, physical community and the people in need within it. Which means I plan on doing some volunteering. I have a good life, after all, and I believe in showing some gratitude for that. And what better way to show gratitude than by giving back some of the blessings that I enjoy? So I’ll be engaging in some of that this year. There are a couple of causes that I feel strongly about: literacy and hunger. So I’ll be looking for ways that I can get involved there.


It’s actually kind of difficult to for me to come up with a list, for several reasons. The main reason, though, is that none of these categories are really discrete. Take the writing category, for example; there are all kinds of subtle ways in which writing affects and is affected by each of the other category. By focusing on the quality of my writing, I will improve my communication skills, which will improve the quality of my work. And I already engage in a writers’ group, and I’ve become close friends with many of the other members; and, thus, the relationship category is invoked. And improving my health will give me more energy to devote to my writing projects and give me a clearer mind and devote to them as well.

See? It’s all intertwined. Still, I think that by giving some attention to all of these areas, I’ll continue to grow as an overall healthy and well-rounded person.
We’ll see how long this lasts. Hopefully by looking at these as “areas of focus” rather than as “resolutions”, I’ll be able to keep them up longer.

So writing this up was fun. Now it’s time for the hard part, which is simply implementing these ideas. Wish me luck. I’ll need it.