A Little Web Irony

A while back I posted that this blog was blocked by the Great Firewall of China. Most likely that was because some other site that shared my server had annoyed them, but I had recently blamed China for a surfeit of hyphens, so you never know.

In an interesting (to me) turnabout, I just blocked several million Chinese IP addresses from accessing my site, due to a Chinese deluge of spam. Even spam that’s blocked by my filters costs me server performance and bandwidth, so when things get bad I just prevent spam sources from reaching my server at all (thanks, CloutFlare!). Lately that’s been China.

I’m now erecting a wall to keep China out, when once I joked about them keeping me out.


Things I Learned as a Wedding Photographer

When a friend asked me if I could be the photographer for her wedding, I was a little nervous. I wouldn’t mind being a photographer, I told her, but being the photographer was a different story altogether. There’s a reason the pros are expensive, and for something like your wedding you want to be confident the person with the camera knows what she’s doing.

Hell, I haven’t even been to that many weddings. I’ve never even watched a pro with any sort of critical eye.

But, assured that expectations were set reasonably, I agreed to haul the camera out for the ceremony and snap some pics. I did okay, I guess, but I could have done a lot better. Along the way, I learned a few things.

Lesson 1: Be aggressive. I didn’t want to interfere in the proceedings, I merely wanted to record them. I tried not to put myself in positions where the guests would be looking at me, rather than the ceremony. Because of that I missed some good moments (one where the wedding participants had their backs to the audience — just the sort of moment you most want to catch so people can see it later. The thing is, to get the shot, I needed to move furniture and stand where I’d be in everyone else’s pictures. I ended up getting in there late and only half-assedly, and not getting a shot that captured the moment.
Also, there were behind-the-scenes moments that I probably should have tried to get, but I didn’t want to push in on the participant’s special day.

Lesson 2: Be pushy. Tell people where to stand. Make them stand there until you get the shot. The couple wanted some group shots, as is done at weddings. I intended to get them, but suddenly a relative was lining up the usual suspects, arranging them, and the assorted camera-bearers fired away. It was chaotic and I didn’t get good shots of some of the groups. I should have stepped up there, told people to wait, and made sure I got what I needed.

Lesson 3: Look at the whole picture. This was especially an issue with the posed shots — I look at them now and see a chair here, the back of a head there, all things that we filter out with our memory, but are there forever in a photograph. Many of the standing shots I had to crop the feet off the subjects, despite interesting shadows and reflections on the floor, because of extraneous clutter that distracted from the subjects. This is partly to do with Lesson 2 above; I rushed shots because I didn’t take charge.

Lesson 4: Have the right equipment. I got to the scene of the wedding and discovered that the ceremony was going to take place in front of a wall of glass. The view behind was beautiful, the setting fantastic. But it was hell for photography. I simply was not equipped to provide fill flash to properly light the subjects. My camera doesn’t even have a crappy little built-in flash. So I adjusted exposures and hoped for the best. I didn’t get the best. I’m not sure, in that situation, what I could have done differently except buy a speedlight ahead of time, possibly some gels to match the color temperature, along with a radio trigger, and rig it with a little umbrella reflector at the back of the room, or, if I was pushy, on one of the tables where the guests were sitting.

Overall, I got some shots I’m very happy with, but when I look through the results I see more misses than hits. As I mentioned before, there were a lot of other folks with cameras, and I’m glad I wasn’t the photographer. I have a new respect for the professional wedding photographers, who have learned to stay out of the way — unless it’s to capture a moment people will want to remember forever.

The Hunger Games vs. Treasure Island

Recently I’ve read two adventure stories which feature young protagonists thrown into desperate, life-and-death situations. I enjoyed both of them more than a little bit, and in both cases stayed up too late at night to see what happened next.

I finished Treasure Island last night, close on the heels of The Hunger Games and I’ve been contemplating the two stories, and the progress of storytelling in general.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two is the complete absence of female characters in the older story. Of course, most of the adventure takes place on a ship, with pirates, and any attempt to insert a female character would have been completely artificial. I don’t think I need to go into detail. Perfectly natural, however, to have an early-teen boy along. That’s how things worked back then.

More interesting than the differences are the similarities. I’ve commented in the past on the obvious-when-you-read-it schism that marks the beginning of “modern literature”. After I set down Treasure Island I realized that adventure stories were already modern, long before literature caught up. But for some language differences, TI: Silver’s Deceit might have been written last year. Bring a mysterious man into an inn, make him ornery, throw a band of assassins at him, get some people killed, and you’re off the the races, story-wise.

Funny how many names I recognized. Long John Silver. Ben Gunn. The parrot that said “Pieces of Eight!”

One thing that Treasure Island did particularly well was to create a compelling bad guy. Long John Silver is crafty, conniving, charismatic, and a consummate liar. The crusty old salt who appeared at the beginning to kick the story off was more afraid of Silver than any other man. Long John was a planner, a saver; while his shipmates of previous escapades had squandered their loot, he had invested carefully. If all the pirates were as smart as he was, this outing would have been no contest. The story does not rely on Classic Bad-Guy Mistakes (which weren’t even classic back then), but rather John Silver has to adapt his plan to appease his impatient cohorts. Totally buyable.

Even with that, the good guys need plenty of luck to win the day. Our narrator, young Jim Hawkins, is the vessel of much of that good fortune. He gets lucky, there’s no doubt about that, but even my twitchy preposterometer was not terribly agitated. The pirates destroyed themselves; Jim was just in the right place to take advantage of it.

It was a lot of fun to read.

Moving ahead a couple of centuries, we have The Hunger Games. In this story we have a post-apocalyptic gladiator contest, fought by children. This is no Road Warrior world, however; there is still a central authority and in the capital at least, technology has not been lost.

The Bad Guy in the story is much more vague than in Treasure Island. Authority, you could call it. The contest is an annual exercise of power the capital inflicts on the outlying districts. The primary tool the rulers use to control the populace is hunger. There’s simply not enough to eat. Our heroine is a poacher, skilled in slipping outside the confines of her district and bringing back food. The local authorities are happy to look the other way.

I had a little problem with the districts set up in this story. Our heroine hails from District Twelve, which numbers some eight thousand souls. In all of North America there are twelve districts, plus the capital. Even with the almost-magic technology possessed by the capital, I can’t see them controlling the population of an entire continent when there is so much out there. If there was uninhabitable wasteland beyond the fences of the districts it might make sense, but there’s a whole damn continent teeming with dangerous-but-edible creatures. I invoke thermodynamics: there’s just too much pent-up need for the plenty of the open continent. That much pressure, you’re going to leak.

Maybe in future episodes we’ll learn about human enclaves outside the districts, and why they haven’t become so populous that they can simply overwhelm the capital. Maybe I’ll even buy it. But the burden of proof is on the writer’s shoulders.

She might pull it off. She’s done a good job so far pulling me in. It’s a really tricky thing, introducing us to a world the characters already know, and it is done pretty well here. The narrator can’t stop to fill us in on how society works; it’s told in first person to a presumed audience who already knows the score. However, there were times I felt like the author was teasing.

The core question of The Hunger Games: What do you do when you are compelled to kill someone you really like, and who likes you even more? The answer to that is the payoff of the story. From a story perspective the big win in Hunger Games is the culture that surrounds the brutal competition – the marketing of the contestants, and the gambling. Outside forces can influence the game, at terrific cost. We get a good feel for this even though our perspective is limited to a single contestant.

Treasure Island doesn’t really have a core question. Doesn’t really need one. It has a situation and some great characters, and it plays from there.

In Games there are also hints that the actions of our single contestant might have an effect on the world outside the arena. There is a piece of bread that is an indicator of something greater. And that’s pretty good writing right there. The sort of writing that is the luxury of the series writer.

A series, done right, provides a sequential set of individually satisfying stories that, taken together, become something much more. Based on the first installment, Hunger Games almost hit that, but at the end devoted an extra chapter or two to setting up not the next story but the spunky-herione-must-have-two-viable-suitors-she-can’t-choose-between crap. Cheese Louise. I was totally along for the ride until I got that open declaration that this was going to devolve into Twilight.

I’ll say this for Games: There were a couple of points where it punched me square in the gut. Good people die in Treasure Island, die hard and die well, but it affected me more in the modern adventure. I have a theory that I won’t expand upon here that our perspective on death has changed dramatically in the last hundred years (penicillin might be the breakpoint), and so we write about death differently. Nobody says “it’s a good day to die” and really means it anymore.

Another difference between modern and older adventure stories for your adults: in more recent stories the young protagonist does everything. Situations are built so the hero does not get support from adults, only from a select handful of peers. Were Treasure Island written today, Jim would not have relinquished control of the treasure map to the local authority figure, and would not have settled for a mere share of the treasure. Bringing in adults makes the subsequent action a lot more believable. Sometimes in modern stories authors kill themselves (and their stories) to keep adults off the “good guy” side of the ledger.

There have been some changes in the art of the adventure story over the last centuries, not all for the better, but by and large an adventure is still an adventure, and good adventures start with action, have action in the middle, and then end with action. I like those.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback. You should also know that if you have an electronic reading device, you can download Treasure Island for free.


Submissions Needed!

NOTE: Whoops! Here I thought I was helping out, but my call for submissions was actually after the deadline, and there’s plenty of good stuff on deck. Sorry about that.

I kept the original episode for posterity, but I’m adding descriptions of the upcoming issues, for those poetically and photographically inclined. If you’re inspired by the current theme, don’t let that stop you from writing about it.

The original episode:

The Editor-in-Chief of The Poetic Pinup Revue has informed me that she needs poetry and flash fiction. If you’re not familiar with the magazine, The Revue is a hefty, glossy magazine with awesome photography paired with sweet poetry in a way that words and images enhance each other.

The current Revue

The current Revue: Love, Lust, and Longing

Last issue, Harlean (who is a fiction) had a glut of poetry but had to beat the bushes for high-quality photos. This time around the photo department is doing well, but quality poetry that’s on-theme is needed.

The mathematics of Imagination

Next up: The Mathematics of Imagination

The theme this issue is “The Mathematics of Imagination,” which, if you ask me, is pretty cool. These days creativity and technology are pals, but through history math has influenced art (see also, ‘vanishing point’).

I once co-wrote a poem that rhymed ‘carrot’, with ‘pi, r, and square it’, though credit for that rhyme goes to my co-author on that epic effort. (Actually, thinking back, it may be that Edgar Pildrot (who is a fiction) was responsible for the entire work. I get no credit, but you have to admit it’s a pretty sweet rhyme.) I have not submitted that work for the magazine, but it just goes to show that you can put math into poetry.

What inspires you? The curve of the nautilus shell? Whether she loves you or loves you not? What happens in the space between the pixels? Think about it. Write about it, and let us know.

Post-Whoops! addendum:

The time has already passed for mathemagical submissions, but if the above inspired you and you write about it you can always put it in the comments here. In the meantime, I encourage you to ponder the themes for upcoming issues:

Bridges and Things that Burn Them

Bridges and Things that Burn Them

Bridges and Things that Burn Them. I really like this theme, I really like the cover, and the whole issue is shaping up to be a blockbuster. One more beer in me and I’m going to start writing something.

Contumulation & Carrying On

Contumulation & Carrying On

It’s all about what comes after. I’ve seen some of the photos slated for this issue, and all I can say is, “dang”.

Here’s how Superstitions Begin…

The Sharks are +1 in the playoffs while I’m wearing my Sharks jersey — they’ve scored one more goal than the opposition. They are -5 when I’m not wearing it.

Is There Nothing Left After 2 TeV?

A little more than 100 years ago, there were a lot of physics guys who thought human intelligence had just about wrapped up the mysteries of the universe. There were just a couple of things yet to explain—the orbit of Mercury didn’t quite follow the math, for instance. Still, that was an edge case and for the most part we Knew How Nature Worked.

It turns out, we didn’t know squat. Newton did a damn fine job, but we started finding more and more places where his math didn’t work out, in the realms of the very fast and the very small. Once we got to subatomic particles things went completely wonky.

Newton! A hell of a smart guy. Was he wrong?

Short answer, yes, but let’s cut him some slack. He provided the mathematical framework needed to show that in extreme conditions he was wrong. He just didn’t have the extreme conditions to observe. It was not until centuries had passed that there came to be what I call the ‘Einstein fudge factor’, a little addition to Newton’s equations to take into account that pesky speed of light, and that helped a lot. With extremely small particles, however, the fudge factor was not enough.

Which brings us to the apparently-always-capitalized Standard Model. The Standard Model is mankind’s (current) leading attempt to bring order to the chaos we discovered when the universe refused to tie itself up in a neat bow way back when. It’s about particles — tiny dots of… ??? It’s not even stuff. Tiny dots of math. There’s a particle for everything.

NOTE: I’m Saganizing this article; simplifying to the point where it’s technically wrong, hoping to express the flavor of the mystery.

If there’s not a particle for everything, that’s a problem for the Standard Model. Out on the physics playground, the other theories are getting up in Standard Model’s grill. “Where’s your gravity particle, big shot?” they’re saying. “You math looks pretty but where’s the damn gravity particle?

Gravity, the first force to be measured (apples on heads, weights out of towers), is still a bitch to explain. Our elusive Higgs boson does some of the work.

Standard Model guys say, “The Higgs boson is real, but it’s going to take a crap-ton of energy to beak one loose to observe it running free. We need to build a ridiculously expensive piece of hardware to slam protons together at a minimum of 1.4 TeV (those protons are boogyin’) or better to bust one of these guys loose so we can measure it.”

So then we built one of those pieces of hardware. Probably the last hurrah of Big Physics for the next century, as biological sciences takes the fore. Bang-for-buck, I have to side with biology. But now we have this machine, delicate enough to be knocked out by a sandwich, powerful enough to explore the conditions of the universe when it was only a fraction of a second old. But mainly it was made to smack things into each other so hard that wacky shit comes out.

Let’s pause for perspective. The boys in charge say they want to find the Higgs Boson. While that’s not a lie, what they really want is to smash shit together so hard that the devil himself squirts out. They want to see some crazy particle coming out at energies we’ve only imagined before, that has some property that makes no sense at all.

Even the proponents of the Standard Model would like to be the ones to break it. Science is about breaking things. In any branch of science, not just physics, when an experiment comes up with an unexpected result, there is excitement. (Remember that next time you hear about a renegade scientist who is being suppressed by the Establishment, but who has something to sell you. That is simply bullshit. Rebels are welcome as long as they show their math.)

Word on the street is that there’s good evidence now of the Higgs Boson. We will not be treated to the compelling pictures of the trace of a particle through a bubble chamber this time around; there will be no curlycue in black and white that somehow makes the particle real.

The Higgs boson has been called “The God Particle” by shameless motherkissers out to cash in on shit like this. The people who say things like that are like the ones who a century ago thought we were about finished with physics. Even if we do nail this particle down, there are a few loose ends to tie up. Loose ends have been mighty squirrely in the past.

Is there a limit? Can we reach an energy so high that we get to the very bottom of the universe? Newton made sense until we got to higher energies.

But now perhaps we can see the floor. We have math that brings us the smallest distance, the smallest mass, even the shortest tick of time. Will that math break under extreme circumstances, the way Newton’s math has? Personally I’m rooting for something completely unexpected flying out of a direct hit between protons going ridiculously fast.

The translation I found of Galileo says “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” That was a political statement, but in that spirit I’d like to say, I hope to God we’re not done so soon.


Loose Ends

The thing about having an electronic book-readin’ device is that my inherent cheapness is enabled and multiplied. There’s stuff out there I’d never read if I had to pay for it, but faced with a choice between a well-known book for a few bucks and something for free, I’ll take a chance on free. Thus, Loose Ends landed on my device.

The story was pretty good, but as usual I’m going to spend more time talking about the parts that rankled, rather than the parts I particularly enjoyed. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

The story opens with our heroine being awakened in the night by a shambling headless monster. Yikes! Her reaction is one of annoyance rather than terror; he’s dripping blood all over everything. She tells the shambling apparition in his civil war uniform that he has to go back to the basement. He does. Interesting.

First nit to pick here, and it wouldn’t have rankled so much except her annoyance at the blood is the first thing we ever learn about our protagonist. Turns out the intruder was a ghost, and the blood leaves with him, and she knew that. So our very first impression of Mary is turns sour, smelling of artifice.

That bad taste is short-lived; Mary turns out to be pretty interesting. She’s an Ex-cop, a pretty good one, who had a near-death experience that even now leaves her closer to death than most people. She can see ghosts, sometimes communicate with them, and she tries to help them. They also help her, and based on that Mary has a fairly successful business as a paranormal private detective.

One place this book really succeeds is portraying a small town in changing times. Downtown is dying, overwhelmed by the box stores nearby. People know each other’s business. The newspaper is struggling.

Also, there’s a new Police Chief in town. He’s not so bad to look at, in Mary’s opinion.

The romantic tension is inevitable (and necessary for the genre), and it’s done pretty well here. This is the first in a series, and so Reid is in no hurry to rush Mary and Bradley together. They like each other. They respect each other. None of the “I hate you so much I must love you” nonsense that Jane Austen traded in, instead we have people who like each other who also carry baggage, things they have to get past before they can get together. Sad things. Believable things.

One of the things I like about this book is that people act like people. Except when they don’t. Let’s say, for instance, that by sheer luck you have just avoided a bullet and dove for meager cover. Do you 1) try to figure out where the shot came from, improve your shelter, and call for help, or do you 2) engage in banter with the guy taking cover with you?

By the way, thank you Ms. Reid for not following the “spunky and resourceful female lead must have two legitimate love interests that she can’t choose between” pattern. At least in book one. Two awesome suitors is a fun problem to have, but lately it’s a requirement, and that’s not so good. Sure, I’m not the target audience for most of this, but come on. [Cut to every movie made in Hollywood in which a craggy, graying man ends up with a hottie. Yeah, it works both ways.]

In the end, Mary and Bradley get the bad guy. We know they will. The art of writing a story like this is making us believe that they don’t know they will win, and making victory costly, both short-term (pain) and long-term (baggage). This win definitely had a short-term cost, and that made it worthwhile. This time around, the characters came into focus with enough baggage already so that we didn’t need more. Still, I’d like to see layers of scar tissue build up.

Will I see it? To continue to follow Ms. Reid’s story I’ll have to pony up cash money. I’m tempted. If she has a tip jar out there somewhere, I’ll happily slide her a buck for the pleasure of Loose Ends.