Friday, December 24, 2010

The Christmas Demon

This season, I've seen articles on Krampus on both Way Past Normal and on Topless Robot. Krampus, if you haven't heard of him, is the Christmas demon who accompanies St. Nicholas on his rounds, punishing the bad children with something far more horrific and traumatic than a mere lump of coal. Krampus, a folkloric figure in Austrian, Bavarian, and other alpine areas, seems to be enjoying an internet-driven surge in worldwide popularity lately.

Lesser known to Americans is the Czech version of St. Nicholas (Mikuláš), who is accompanied by both a devil and an angel. St. Nicholas comes on the eve of his name day, Dec. 6. Although the devil bears a resemblance to Krampus, with the disturbingly long tongue, I don't think he's actually the same demon. I've never seen names ascribed to the Czech devil or angel.

This illustration by Josef Lada comes from the book Dětem, and it depicts the scenes of winter (Zima). Note St. Nicholas in the center, robed as a bishop, with the angel at his right hand with a basket of good things (probably fruit and nuts) for good children, and the devil on his right hand, carrying what looks like a whip or a chain. Note the children on their knees, pleading with St. Nicholas for something good, or perhaps praying that the devil won't whip them.

Other details I'd like to draw your attention to include the man playing the dudy (Czech bagpipe), seen just behind and to the right of the devil; the carp in the lower right corner, which is the traditional Czech Christmas meal; and the ominous raven on the right-hand side of the picture. I have no idea what the raven is about. Can anyone enlighten me?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Lunar Eclipse

Sorry I'm a little late in posting this, but here are a couple of pictures I took during the total lunar eclipse on the winter solstice, three nights ago.

1:56 am, CST: Totality.

3:18 am, CST: Emerging from the Earth's shadow.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

NaNoWriMo Victory

Today concludes National Novel Writing Month. This was my first year actually doing it, and I did indeed meet my goal.

I didn't officially sign up on the NaNoWriMo site because I didn't want another login and password to remember, nor another website that I'd have to check in with. As it was, I unsubscribed from a substantial number of RSS feeds to cut down on the amount of time I spent screwing around online.

I did, however, abide by the NaNoWriMo rules:

1) I started a new story from word one, not using any previously written material.

2) I wrote every single day. Sometimes I only made a couple hundred words, but I never skipped.

3) I reached the NaNoWriMo target goal of 50,000 words in the month. In fact, when I stopped typing forty-five minutes ago, I was at 52,515 words.

The story is not complete. I feel like I'm at about the halfway point, or a bit past it. I'll keep going, possibly not at the same exhausting pace, but hopefully at a faster pace than was my habit prior to this month, until I reach the end. It normally takes me three to five years to finish the first draft of a novel, so I feel nothing short of stupefied when I look at how much I've generated in these thirty days.

My perception of what I am capable of has shifted.

It's good to challenge oneself on occasion.

Congratulations also to any of you who tackled NaNoWriMo and met your personal goal.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Vacation in Washington, D.C.

I went to Washington, D.C., with my friend Katherine in late September. I've finally gotten around to sorting through my pictures.

The U.S. Capitol building itself is very impressive. Here's the dome as seen from the steps of the Library of Congress. As you can see, there is some construction going on. I don't know whether they were cleaning or repairing the dome.

Inside the dome, looking up. Note George Washington draped in a plum-colored blanket.

For every state in the union, there are two statues representing significant deceased personages from that state, life-sized in bronze or marble. For Nebraska, big surprise, we have William Jennings Bryan and J. Sterling Morton.

And here is the Capitol at night. I felt a great, stirring awe pressing on my chest at the sight of the Capitol building, because I wasn't expecting it. We just happened to drive by on the way to the hotel after visiting friends. I just looked out the car window and there it was. Beautiful.

For me, the Library of Congress was a major highlight of the trip. The library is comprised of three buildings, with the Jefferson Building being the oldest and most beautiful. These pictures are of the Jefferson Building. Everywhere you look, from floor to ceiling, you are treated to something beautiful--paintings, mosaics, sculptures, and other architectural details. It is like a cathedral for knowledge and scholarship.

I didn't get to explore too much of the Smithsonian, but I did get to visit the outdoor portion of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Even though it was insanely hot that day (early in the morning and already over 90 degrees), I really enjoyed all of the bronze works. I have a thing for bronze sculpture.

I love the stamp tree! We used to use these (real ones) at work until a few years ago.

The Air and Space Museum was wonderful. I had seen it before, back in 1986, when I was in junior high school. Some of the things I remembered were still there. One of my favorites, namely the remote-controlled flying model of the Quetzalcoatlus northropi, was gone.

However, it was awesome to see SpaceShipOne, the X-Prize-winning spacecraft that proved you don't need heat shields to return from orbit. If you go slow enough, friction doesn't burn up the ship. What amazed me most about SpaceShipOne was how tiny it was--about the same size as the Spirit of St. Louis, which it was hanging next to. (You can see the engine and wing of the Spirit of St. Louis in the upper right corner.)

And I was amused to see Patty Wagstaff's plane hanging upside-down. I thought that was a wonderful acknowledgement of her aerobatic talents.

At the Natural History Museum, I saw a Chocobo! Okay, it was a Diatryma steini, but it sure looks like a Chocobo to me. Wark!

One day I went out alone, and I walked the long circuit around the monuments, starting and ending at the Washington Monument.

After walking around the tidal basin, my first stop was the Jefferson Memorial. It was undergoing renovations, so part of it was blocked off. I did eventually find my way around to the entrance, and I got to go inside. However, I like the way you can see the statue's profile between the pillars in this shot.

After that, I continued on to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. It's a sprawling, ground-level, outdoor structure of red granite with many waterfalls and bronze sculptures. Carved into the granite are numerous quotations from FDR. It's meant to show the four terms of his presidency in chronological order, but I started at the wrong end, and I went back in time from World War II into the Great Depression. Still a very nice monument, though. Looks like it would be a really nice place to sit and read.

As I continued on toward the Lincoln Memorial, because I was on foot, I noticed a few things I might not have seen if I were on a tour bus. One was this little monument to John Ericsson, inventor of the screw propeller. It was planted on the center island that divided lanes of traffic. Such a nice monument to someone I'd never heard of before.

And as I came in sight of the Lincoln Memorial, I got distracted by these colossal bronze horses on the bridge. There were four of them, two wingless and two winged. I was able to get close to one of the wingless ones, but I couldn't find a way to cross the tangled web of extremely busy streets to get close to the others. But my camera has a decent telephoto, so I was still able to enjoy the winged horses.

Finally, I made it around to the Lincoln Memorial. I have seen so many movies (and even a video game) featuring the statue come to life in various ridiculous situations that I was relieved to find I could still be impressed and awed by the reality of it.

From there I made the obligatory detours to the Vietnam War Memorial, where three bronze soldiers look toward the wall of names.

Across the way, the Korean War Memorial is equally impressive. A highly-polished black granite wall, etched with faces and scenes of the war, reflects the ghostly images of the ash-gray sculptures of soldiers trudging through knee-deep foliage.

I took many pictures of the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool, but this ended up being my favorite, because it's the least obvious. The Reflecting Pool is barely visible through the stand of trees that runs parallel to it.

The World War II Memorial is both somber and triumphant, and it was one of the most moving for me. There were many old veterans in wheelchairs at the site. There seemed to be a ceremony at the South Dakota pillar, where a folded flag had been placed.

Last but not least, this Masonic Temple was very near the hotel where we stayed. I never went any closer to it than this, but I did develop a certain affection for it as one of my landmarks for knowing when we were near "home." One morning, the clouds were so beautiful and pink, and the moon was still high in the sky. It was so beautiful.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Last Month for "Stay"

This is the last month to read my short story "Stay" in Crossed Genres Issue 12. At the end of October, my contract expires, and the issue will no longer be available in print or on the website. So please read "Stay" before it's gone!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Welcome to THE FUTURE

It's no secret that I love vintage science fiction. I love seeing how people in the past imagined the future, especially when their future is my present.

I found such a gem at the library, a children's book called Tomorrow's Home by Neil Ardley, published in 1981. I was nine years old in 1981, dreaming of the future.

How does 2010 stack up to what we envisioned back then?

Right in the foreword, we are told that "in the future the members of a family will spend more time together in their home than they do now. The reason is that computers and robots should give us more leisure time in which to be together . . ."

Ah-ha-ha-ha-haaaaaa! Yes, that's true. This "leisure time" is called "unemployment."

(If you think I'm making a joke, check out "The Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market" by David Autor of MIT. The report suggests that the decline of the middle class is due, in part, to automation. In other words, the jobs that used to provide a decent middle class living are now predominantly done by computers and robots.)

But enough about the depressing side of life in 2010. We're looking at THE FUTURE.

Well, they got the little robot vacuums right. The artist even imagined the robo-vac terrorizing the cat. I may not have a Roomba, but evidence on YouTube suggests that cats are not particularly alarmed by them.

But as for the rest of the household robots--well, that didn't pan out so much. Look at this little robot bringing this hardworking rancher a drink (while other robots tend his cattle). Where's my robot maid to bring me root beer and M&M's?

But sometimes they take the robot servant thing too far. I mean, look at this.

Is it really all that hard to pour a bowl of cereal? Do you really need two robots to do it for you? No wonder we have an obesity epidemic in the 21st century. We don't get off our butts to do a darned thing. (The book didn't mention that part. I don't think anyone in the past saw the obesity thing coming. If anything, futurists of the past imagined we'd all be skinny and starving from massive food shortages.)

The book hit pretty close on video games. Our games aren't 3D like this one yet (although the explosion of 3D CGI movies in theaters in the last year or so makes me think video games will follow sooner rather than later), but they did correctly predict that the games would be played online with many other players.

Then again, their view of technology was surprisingly limited in other ways. Check out this videophone computer. It's HUGE! This monster would take a whole room of someone's house!

Aren't you glad we got laptops and smartphones instead?

(Yes, I know that's just a static image of me on the computer screen. I don't have wireless internet in my apartment, so it's not like I could connect to Skype without going to the library. But you know what a videoconference looks like. Don't pretend you don't. And if you really don't, then just go watch a commercial for the iPhone 4.)

Overall, the predictions in that 1981 book were not entirely unreasonable. I was surprised at how close some of them came. I suppose the real barrier to every household having the things they describe is cost. That's one thing these futurist books never really seem to address, that some people will have these things, and others will be left wishing they could afford them.

I'm going to leave you with one of the more improbable things described in the book, the ability to watch a movie in your living room AND to act the lead role yourself, replacing the actor who originally starred in the role.

Wow, that sounds pretty farfetched . . . oh wait, it we have that. Yoostar is supposed to do exactly that. I've never had the opportunity to try it, so I don't know how well it works, however it does exist.

I think this pretty well proves that anything you can imagine will eventually come to pass. And I honestly do believe that many inventors are driven to create the sci-fi gadgets that inspired them as children. In fact, the website Technovelgy connects sci-fi ideas of the past with the technologies of today. Everything we have started out with someone saying, "What if . . ."

There are many more predictions in Tomorrow's Home than I actually scanned or mentioned. If you'd like to read it or see the rest of the pictures, check it out at a library near you.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Vacation in Branson

I went to Branson, Missouri, with my mom and stepdad last week. We stayed in a condo right on Table Rock Lake, so we had an amazing view. I would take walks in the morning and enjoy views like this . . .

And close encounters with weeping rock faces, like this . . .

And every evening after we came home from whatever we were doing, we got to witness glorious sunsets across the lake. (These two pictures were taken on different nights.)

At Branson Landing, every hour on the hour, they do a "fire and water" show. Fountains and fire jets are timed to shoot along with a musical selection that is played over the intercom. The angle of the sun was just right to produce a rainbow when the water jets shot high.

Of course, when one thinks of Branson, one thinks of shows. We went to only two shows, but they were both stellar. We saw Six, a group of six brothers who sing without instrumental accompaniment. All of their percussion and other sounds are produced with their own voices. They are a very talented bunch.

We also saw Cassandre' (yes, that's an apostrophe, not an acute--no, I don't know why), a singer from Nebraska (yay!). Turns out, she and my folks have some acquaintances in common from Nebraska music education circles, so they had a nice chat after the show. Cassandre' has a fantastic voice, and she was supported by an excellent ten-piece orchestra, each musician of which played two or more different instruments, depending on the needs of the song (except the pianist, because every song called for the piano). I expected a nice concert (and was not disappointed), but I did not expect the hilarious musical comedy of Cassandre's "Aunt Irma" who took the stage a couple of times. I absolutely adored Auntie's antics.

At dinner one evening at the condo clubhouse, performers from various shows came in to do brief skits or single songs, like commercials. So I suppose that counts as a show, too.

Now, I know it's a requirement that every show in Branson includes a minimum of one hymn and one patriotic tune. No problem there; that's all good. But what I don't get is why all three shows (including the thing at the clubhouse) included the song "Pretty Woman." Is that the new Branson anthem? It's probably just a coincidence, but it was just bizarre hearing three different live renditions of "Pretty Woman" in the space of one week. I could do without hearing that song again for a couple of years.

One day, Mom and I went down to Arkansas to see the Ozark Medieval Fortress and to visit some caves. On the way, we passed through Omaha, Arkansas, population 166. This was tremendously amusing to me, as I live in Omaha, Nebraska, population 454,731.

The Ozark Medieval Fortress is quite amazing, easily my favorite thing that I saw on this trip. They are building a 13th-century-style fortress from locally-quarried stone and local timber, using only 13th-century technology. (The exceptions being modern concessions required by OSHA, such as steel-toed boots and protective eyewear.) Some of the tools they are using are antiques imported from Europe. Many of these tools are no longer made. For example, they are using a stone-splitting tool that is over 700 years old. It was found inside the walls of an old castle in Europe, where apparently some stonemason back then got tired of his job and buried his tools on the site. The fortress is a new attraction, in its first year of construction. It will take them 20 years to complete it, but people are invited to visit the site, observe the progress, and talk to the workers. If I lived within an hour of the site, I'd probably go several times a year just to watch the walls grow.

And check out this medieval crane for lifting heavy stones. Looks like a lot of work for the man in the hamster wheel!

My second favorite site was the caves. We visited two caves which were located on the same grounds, Mystic Cavern and Crystal Dome. We had a fantastic tour guide who provided a lot of the history behind the caves.

The large structure in this picture is called the "Pipe Organ." The reason should be obvious.

Mystic Cavern was home to an illegal still during the Prohibition Era. Soot from the still stains the ceiling and walls of the cavern to this day. Back in the deepest room of the cave, where the bootleggers were operating, the heat from the still permanently damaged the rocks, making them brittle and stopping the growth of the formations. The cave later sustained heavy damage from vandalism, and most of the stalactites, stalagmites, and other formations were broken off. Even so, the cave remains beautiful.

I was fortunate enough to see a salamander in Mystic Cavern.

Only a few hundred feet away, but not actually connected to Mystic Cavern, is Crystal Dome, which was discovered only a few decades ago. This cavern has been protected since it was discovered, and thus it is as close to pristine as any non-geologist is likely to ever see. Some of the crystal formations are pure white, and there are delicate soda straws hanging from the ceiling.

The most stunning feature of this cavern is its namesake: the eight-story dome. Looking up from the bottom fills one with awe and wonder, and makes one just a little dizzy. The picture doesn't begin to do it justice.

And Crystal Dome also contains a funny little ribbon that, from the side, looks just like a delicious slice of bacon. Mmm, bacon. You could almost hear the sizzle.

On another day, we visited the Butterfly Palace in Branson, which is exactly what the name implies--a pretty indoor garden where you can stroll around in the company of hundreds of butterflies.

The last exhibit I visited was Ripley's Believe It Or Not Odditorium, which was a very entertaining collection of bizarre artifacts from around the world. The one that actually made me say "unbelievable" out loud was the glass case containing objects found inside the stomach of a single shark, including multiple anchors, horseshoes, large bones, bathing suits, and piles and piles of other stuff. Must have been one ginormous shark!

Something I saw in passing, and snapped a picture of as we drove by, was this herd of driftwood horses. I would have loved a closer look at those, but we just never got the chance.

Speaking of driftwood, we also stopped by the College of the Ozarks (aka Hard Work U) a couple of times. Their furniture is student-made, and it is beautiful. If you ever have the opportunity to dine at the College of the Ozarks, do. Their student-run restaurant is superb. I had trout there that I think was the most delicious meal I had on this trip, and I had quite a few delicious meals all over.

One of the other lovely meals I had was at the Altenhof Inn, a German restaurant and pizzaria overlooking Table Rock Lake. The place was difficult to find, but the view was top notch. The Jägerschnitzel was quite tasty, too.

One thing about the whole Branson/Table Rock Lake area--there are vultures. In town, out of town--almost anytime you look up, you see vultures. Good thing I like vultures.

The weather for the week was either uncomfortably hot and humid, or raining. We had quite a few thunderstorms. But sometimes they brought rainbows.