Thom on May 4th, 2015

The rule of law in America is breaking down, without a doubt. But rogue cops are not the primary problem. Not to say there aren’t bad cops, but the real problem is a public who thinks they know the truth about…well, everything. We’ve become more than willing to forego basic legal protections and try everyone in the court of public opinion. We let the media be the prosecution, and we get to be the judge. Our social media of choice gets to file charges, and once we’ve seen those it’s “guilty until proven innocent against all odds.”

By a show of hands, who would like to put their life and livelihood in the hands of this “wonderful” new justice system? Who would want their guilt or innocence determined by a majority vote of the outraged, based on cherry-picked information presented by whomever screams loudest first, and with any contrary evidence that comes out in subsequent days ignored?

Count me out.

Likewise, some people are starting to propose that we nationalize law enforcement. Unsurprisingly, this recommendation was recently made by Al Sharpton, who has benefited immensely from national-level law enforcement for years in the form of an IRS who would rather pursue small business owners for the unforgivable crime of making cash deposits in their bank accounts than even attempt to get Sharpton to pay even some of his millions in back taxes. It’s no surprise he’d prefer to be policed by people who have shown no interest in policing him.

But really, in what universe is turning police duties over to the Federal Government a good idea? Their track record of late is not exactly inspiring. Nor is there any reason to suspect a Federal police force would not only be incompetent but highly-politicized as well. I know some people would see this as a feature, not a bug, and that the ability to harass and punish political enemies is a Constitutional right–so long as it’s their side in control, and not the opposition.

I hope wiser heads prevail.

In the mean time, read this column by Glenn Harlan Reynolds if you need more convincing that a nationalized police force is a good idea.

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Thom on May 4th, 2015

Great Britain’s Daily Mail has this article on the polar ice cap which, oddly enough, presents both sides of the issue, with quotes and attributions. Perhaps not everyone has forgotten how to do journalism.

If you read this, read all of it. I don’t think it says what either side will undoubtedly think it says. Yes, the writer seems to take a stand, but look past that and you’ll get, I believe, a clearer picture of what’s going on and what forces are in play.

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Blood Relations is a murder mystery/suspense novel by increasingly-diversifying horror writer Michaelbrent Collings. It’s also my new favorite MbC novel.

Lane Cooley is the LAPD’s top homicide detective. She’s also a single, Mormon Relief Society president and trying to care for her rebellious teenage sister. She has her investigative team over each week for Family Home Evening/Poker Night, and her boss is insistant that no one swears or smokes around her.

And now the latest murderer she’s investigating has become a serial killer case. What’s more, her sister meets the criteria of the killer’s victims.

As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly nick-named Mormons, I found Collings’ inclusion of a Mormon protagonist enjoyable. I figured I didn’t have to worry, as Collings is a Mormon as well, and so his descriptions of the LDS faith were accurate and didn’t induce the cringing I sometimes experience when people who don’t really know much about Mormons try to depict them. But more importantly he dealt head-on with the issues of how a person of faith and religion many view as restrictive would function in the high-pressure, high-stakes world of a homicide detective in a career that puts one in regular contact with the very worst society has to offer.

Several have praised Collings for depicting a Mormon character and presenting information on the LDS church and its beliefs without getting preachy. I can’t speak to that, as I’m “in the choir”; I just know it didn’t seem overbearing or over-emphasized to me. It was Cooley’s character. Your mileage may vary.

Most importantly, however, this novel was fun to read. Yeah, it’s a murder mystery, and Collings doesn’t pull punches there-it’s adult fare. But it also provides a cast of interesting and sympathetic characters (and corpses) and a compelling plotline. It was very easy for me to get through the book in a few sittings. I didn’t want to put it down. Collings keeps piling on the suspense and the twists to the end, and though he got a little heavy-handed in his misdirection at a few points, it didn’t matter. It was a fun read.

Though it doesn’t show on the book’s cover, Amazon’s listing includes the tag “Volume One”. If there are any further Lane Cooley books in the offing (pun intended) I’ll be standing in line for my copy.

Thom on April 30th, 2015

The more I think about it the more I’ve realized my novels seem to spring from music. The novel I’m working on now was inspired by a piece by Thomas Bergersen. The novel before that was inspired by an album by Sting in which he performs a series of Renaissance era songs by  John Dowland, interspersed with readings from Dowland’s letters. My third novel was inspired by The Longships, by Enya, and my very first novel was at least partly the result of listening to Jean-Michel Jarre’s album “Waiting for Cousteau”, and most specifically by the first two tracks, Calypso I and II. The only exception thus far is my second novel, a Warhammer Fantasy fan fic, which was begun as a serialized story for a players forum and just happened to hit the low end of novel length before I was done. And that one included lyrics I wrote for an in-story war hymn based on the Russian Federation Anthem (just replace the mens choir with a bunch of knights and you get the idea).

It seems that no amount of ideation or planning can move me to write a novel until I encounter a song that adequately captures the tone and emotion of the story for me. Every story has to have an emotional core to it for it to mean enough to me to want to tell it. Even if that emotional core is for a single scene, largely unrelated to the rest of the novel, that’s enough. For example, my novel “Tears of the Worldsmiths” originally began with our protagonist on the shore of a vast lake enshrouded in fog. Through that fog he begins to hear the steady pulse of a drum, and over top of that an almost ethereal, lilting female voice singing. Out of the fog appears a longship, and at the bow there stands a woman clad in flowing white, invoking her magic through the song she sings.

That’s the image I initially got in my head from listening to the Enya song, and from that I ended up extrapolating that the observer on the shore was a blacksmith who had become caught up in the curse on the small town he came to live in. The singing woman was a junior member of the ruling council of wizards, invited by the townsfolk to come and break the curse, being escorted across the lake by the boatmen sent to ferry her. And soon after that I knew that the curse had been brought on themselves by the townsfolk by either engaging in or allowing the slaughter of an innocent band of gypsies, and who hoped to fool the sorceress into lifting the curse without digging too deeply into its origins.

This all was taken up and resolved in a short story, but I always knew there was more there. When I came back to writing after nearly a twenty year break (with the exception of the Warhammer fan fic) I set about expanding on that original story, still inspired by the initial imagery inspired by the song. That one image was no more than a page or two in the last draft, but it drove an entire novel.

So I guess in my case, at least, if a picture is worth a thousand words, a song is worth a hundred pictures.

Thom on April 29th, 2015

I have a degree in music. Not that I’ve done much with it, mind you. I was going to be a music teacher, but eventually realized there was more to that career path than to love performing and listening to music. I can easily understand what led me into that path, but I’ve not yet figured out why it’s been so easy to walk away. All I know is that I would be a much better musician today than I was in college.

But that’s neither here nor there. As part of my degree program we studied a lot of different kinds of music. One style I found briefly interesting is Minimalism, described briefly in wikipedia thusly:

Prominent features of the technique include consonant harmony, steady pulse (if not immobile drones), stasis or gradual transformation, and often reiteration of musical phrases or smaller units such as figures, motifs, and cells. It may include features such as additive process and phase shifting which leads to what has been termed phase music.

Minimalism was just one of the varied musical approaches explored by the Avant Garde movement. My music theory teacher covered minimalism, and we even tried our hands at it. I wasn’t terribly impressed. It didn’t create music that moved me, which is largely what I listen to music for. With one exception. Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” includes a third movement that provides elements of pop music appeal enough to be listenable. Whether that was his intention or not, I don’t know.

But while it’s by no means my most favorite piece of music, I do find myself drifting back to it on occasion. The static, repetitive nature of the piece ultimately provides the mechanism by which it evokes an emotional response. For me the first such moment comes when the bass finally drops, to use the modern vernacular. The second is when, after what seems interminable sameness (there may be subtle changes beneath it all, but I can’t make it out), Reich changes the key and mixes up the patterns simultaneously for the minimalist version of a body punch.

As I said, it’s a fun piece to me. I don’t expect many to like it. And, sadly, it’s probably one of the few listenable examples of the style.

But unlike many Avant Garde experiments, Minimalism did hang on enough to make its way into popular culture. It’s subtle, and it’s not always recognizable, but it’s there. One such oasis of minimalistic ideals is movie music. It’s a good match, really, as music in movies is meant to provide a mood without drawing attention to itself. Minimalism does that.

It’s also found a home in modern “Electronica”, which often in itself tries to set a mood and create a hypnotic ambience. There’s even a fairly well-known modern piece based on motifs (and perhaps actual samples) from Electronic Counterpoint. And of course, there are old chestnuts like “Tubular Bells”.

Granted, most composers and DJs probably don’t consciously try to incorporate Minimalism into their work. They may not even be aware of it.  The invention of looping equipment is perhaps an example of music taking unconscious steps in that direction. But the cross-pollenization of musical styles is not always conscious. The results are the same regardless of the path.

Anyway, here are a few examples of Minimalism and its derivatives, in case your interested. I start, of course, with my personal favorite:

We then move on to the modern, conscious derivation by Röyksopp:

I believe Jean Michel Jarre consciously used elements of Minimalism in his music, such as his Oxygene album. This track, Part 2, was used in the movie “Gallipoli”. His later album, “Waiting for Cousteau” employs it heavily in at least one track.

And let’s not forget the theme from The Exorcist:

Incidentally, there’s a lot more to Mike Oldfield’s composition Tubular Bells than just this piece. Search on YouTube some time.

Anyway, there’s my quick, pedantic tour of Minimalism, foisted upon you all just because today happened to be the day I got my Electric Counterpoint urge. I promise something else tomorrow!

Thom on April 28th, 2015

As many of you know, Babylon 5 is one of my all-time favorite television series. And within that series G’kar is one of my favorite characters. His transformation as a character is truly stunning. Here’s a scene that helps mark the beginning of his transition away from who he was at the start of the series.

I was struck by the following line: “Everything out there has only one purpose: to distract us from ourselves, from what is truly important.”

I don’t know if J. Michael Straczynksi realized how profound he was, but in light of my personal system of beliefs, it’s incredibly so. The biggest challenge we face in life is remembering who we are and why we are here. We are under constant attack aimed at making us doubt who we are and what we can become, making us forget what is most important.

We are so much more than the labels others would put on us. We are so much more than we even realize ourselves. Our potential is bounded only by ourselves, by what we allow others to impose, and by what distractions we entertain.

We can learn much from silence.

Thom on April 27th, 2015

I’m curious about proper etiquette in a situation at work. There is a gentleman in another department who, apart from occasional encounters in the breakroom or mens room I’ve never met and do not know his name. This gentleman seems a rather pleasant, jovial fellow, as he is frequently heard whistling in the foyer and the bathroom. He is particularly fond of “If I Only Had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz.

Here’s my conundrum: He whistles everything except the part that is actually performed by a whistle in the song. It practically cries out for that part to be added.

So here’s my question: Is it acceptable to insert oneself uninvited into someone else’s impromptu public performance? He’s quite good, and I absolutely itch to join in and at the very least insert the missing part. But I’m afraid this might be a social faux pas. What do you think?

— Would-Be Wasatch Whistler

Thom on April 24th, 2015

I have a couple of places where I keep ideas, concepts and snippets for stories I’ve yet to write. Much of “The Well”, as I call it, are little more than images, a few lines to capture the idea before it can escape. It’s where ideas go to…well, not die, exactly. More like “stew”. Sometimes a couple of molecules of story will gravitate toward one another and clump together as a large piece of…something. I can take several molecular combinations before an idea achieves “critical mass” and becomes an actual story.

It’s fun to sift through the Well every so often. Most enjoyable, though, are rediscovering the ideas I’d forgotten were there. It sounds egotistical, but occasionally I’ll rediscover one that sends a little thrill up my spine. Those ideas clearly resonate with me, touching something fundamental, instinctive (though there’s no guarantee anyone else will find them as exciting). When enough of those liminal ideas reach critical mass I’ll really write something noteworthy. Assuming, of course, that my craft is up to the challenge.

Perhaps that is why I keep writing; I want to become worthy of the stories still waiting patiently in my head for their chance to be told.

Thom on April 23rd, 2015

There’s plenty out there to get depressed about (or stay depressed about). Instead I want to look for things to celebrate. For example:

– The son of a friend of mine has been released from the Army after having served his stint, including about a year in Afghanistan.

– My daughter got into Honors Choir at school, and just completed a rather good concert.

– The daughter of a friend of mine won a regional Japanese Speech contest.

– My older son becomes a deacon this next weekend.

– My mother recently turned 80.

– Our local pro baseball team’s stadium ranked 8th in the top 10 baseball parks in the USA, as determined by Better Homes and Gardens magazine. (It is a really nice stadium with a great view!)

What things are going on in your life worth celebrating? Drop me a comment, if you’d like!

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I met Brad Torgersen at LTUE this year, and attended several panels he was part of. The concept of his book piqued my interest: a starfleet chaplain, stuck behind enemy lines in a war to save humanity, tries to convince the aliens that humanity is worth sparing. I nearly picked it up from the library when I found it there, but I’ve got a tall enough physical book reading stack already. So when I found out it was available on audio I waited for my next Audible credit and picked it up.

I probably should have picked it up from the library. The reader on this one was distracting. He’d pause in the middle of sentences, sometimes joining the rest of the sentence to the next sentence. His pauses often changed the meaning of sentences and required me to mentally backtrack to reassemble what he’d said in the right order. I’ve heard some books with merely passible narrators (my current book is an example), and I can handle them okay. This one…was bad.

Which is unfortunate. “The Chaplain’s War” is a good book. The narrative follows two temporal paths through most of the book. The main path follows chaplain’s assistant Harrison Barlow in the “present”. In humanity’s first war with the Mantis he was confined on a prison planet doing his best to carry in his ecumenical duties when a Mantis scholar comes to visit him in a quest to understand the human concept of religion. Determining that humans are worthy of further study, the scholar convinces his people to stop their war of extermination.

Now it’s ten years later and the Mantis have had enough time to study humanity. They’re determined to restart the war and finish the extermination that mankind was incapable of stopping. Barlow, considered a hero for his role in stopping the first war, is sent to try to stop the looming second war. And of course things go wrong pretty quickly, leaving Barlow scrambling to stay alive and find a way to convince the Mantis to stop the slaughter a second time.

The other temporal path looks at how Barlow got here in the first place; his enlistment in the face of the Mantis threat, his training, his path into the chaplain corps, and his ill-fated mission to Purgatory, the world on which he was imprisoned.

Through it all runs the thread of Barlow’s own beliefs–or lack thereof. Though a chaplain’s assistant, and a pretty good one, he claims no particular beliefs for himself–something everyone, Mantis included, seems to find odd.

Torgersen paints a detailed picture of life in a future military, undoubtedly drawing on his own experience in the Army Reserve. Even more interesting is his depiction of the Mantis, a cyborg-insect race that achieved advanced technology faster than any other known race. With that advantage, and in accordance with their own pragmatic, Mantis-centric perspective, they’ve already wiped out two other sentient competitors. Torgersen put a great deal of thought into understanding his aliens and making them alien, plausible and accessible.

Taken as a whole, the book feels more like space opera than epic, though there are certainly elements of epic to it. But ultimately the book is personal and intimate, more focused on the minds of the participants and their relationships than the raging war around them. There are moments and elements of action and peril, but ultimately that’s not what the book is about, and for being set amid war, it’s surprisingly gentle and introspective–almost passive, perhaps, though that sounds like a criticism when it’s not. Here it works. In other stories it probably wouldn’t. Barlow is a hero, to be sure. He is the main driver that allows the resolution to emerge, but–as in life–there are some things he simply can’t do, and others are needed to provide that. But even then, this is largely not a story about people being heroic, simply people being themselves.

It’s an odd book, but a good one. That oddity may have been exaggerated for me by the disjointed delivery of the reader, but I suspect even with a better reader it would still feel different. “The Chaplain’s War” and “Fire With Fire”, the book I’m listening to currently, are both published by Baen, and are about as different as books can be.

I enjoyed “The Chaplain’s War”, but I’m fully aware that not everyone will. I found it an interesting journey.

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