Thursday, December 18, 2008

Does This Look Freakin' Awesome



Or What?

Hat Tip: Mark Shea. As I said in my comment over on Mark's blog:

All I've got to say is anybody, and I do mean anybody, is a better producer/director team than Rick Berman and Brannon Braga who sold out and ran out of ideas somewhere between the middle of Voyager and the beginning of Enterprise. I found those shows hard to take. This, on the other hand, looks freakin' awesome. As a long time Trekkie, however, I'll withhold my final judgment until I see the finished product. I've had my heart broken before.

Mangled Mentorship, But Merry Christmas Anyway.

I find myself with some free time I didn't entirely want. When last I reported I was getting ready to start teaching two sections of a business communications class for the University of Phoenix Online under the supervision of a faculty mentor. I think two sections turned out to be about one section more than I could handle effectively. Unfortunately, the whole experience went badly and ended abruptly. I fell behind early in the class, in part because of having a colonoscopy during the first week, and I was never really able to catch up. Things went from bad to worse once my old enemies, depression, despair, and panic kicked in. I fell so far behind in grading assignments and providing feedback to students that my mentor and the mentorship team decided to cancel the mentorship in the middle of the course and turn my classes over to someone else.

To say I'm disappointed is an understatement. I seem to have developed a remarkable talent for self-sabotage and shooting myself in the foot. I have no idea what I'm going to do now to support myself. Plans I made that were contingent on successfully completing the mentorship and getting a part-time gig with U of P will have to be put on hold if not completely scrapped.

As if that weren't bad enough, it looks as though I won't be able to spend Christmas with my family as I usually do. My brother Bill, who usually provides the transportation, is working through Christmas this year. He is, however, planning to visit me a few days after Christmas, and we'll go up to see the rest of the family then.

In spite of all of this, I am doing my best to maintain my good humor and Christmas spirit. I have a few small Christmas decorations up, and I've dug out all my Christmas music. Sometimes I worry about the future, but at other times I have a certain inexplicable feeling of peace (perhaps it's just naive optimism) and an assurance that somehow things will be OK. I've been watching more TV than usual, and I notice that most Christmas specials these days are long on twinkly lights, pretty music, Santa Claus, and banal, meaningless phrases such as "the magic of the holiday season," and short on references to the real reason for all the gaiety: the birth of Jesus Christ. All the pretty lights, artificial snowflakes, and presents in the world won't make us happy if we don't realize that God has already given us the greatest gift we could ever hope to receive: the gift of Himself.

Christians believe that two thousand years ago, more or less, God Himself came into the world as a human being in the person of Jesus. I take great comfort in the thought that when he came, Christ didn't come to the big people, the important people, the successful people--just the opposite. He came to the little people, the people who were insignificant in the way the world measures significance and success. His mother was a humble little teenage Jewish girl who was astonished that she should be chosen for such an honor; his foster father was a carpenter and a stonemason who was concerned about the hint of scandal and gossip surrounding Mary but took her in anyway. They lived in a backwater town in a backwater province of the Roman empire. According to Luke's gospel, the first people to receive news of this extraordinary birth were shepherds, people at the very bottom of the social and economic ladder, people who were forced to spend the night outside when everyone else was safe and warm indoors.

In his earthly life, Jesus experienced just about all the painful things a human being can experience: hunger, thirst, anger, rejection, loneliness, betrayal, paralyzing fear, an agonizing and public death, and the apparent failure of everything he had worked for. Yet by that death and his incredible, miraculous resurrection from it, Christians believe, Jesus changed the nature of life and death and the relationship between God and humankind. God desires a relationship with each and every human being--so much so that he was willing to become a human being. Death is not the end of the story. The power of God can overcome anything, even death itself. Jesus didn't come into the world to suffer and die and rise again in order reward us for being perfect little ladies and gentlemen and for always doing everything right. He came to save us because we needed saving. He came to save sinners and screw-ups like me. These are the messages of the two greatest feasts of the Christian year, Christmas and Easter.

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I had a profound crisis of faith several years ago when my father died, I developed serious health problems of my own, and a precious personal relationship ended abruptly, all at once. I had to go all the way back to first principles and ask myself why I was a Christian. The answer I kept coming back to was that if there was a God I could believe in, he couldn't be an airy-fairy, intangible intelligent something-or-other, away off in the ether, so far beyond my understanding that I couldn't begin to relate to him or even be certain he was there. That seemed only a short step from atheism, which I've always found repellent. But a God who lived as I live, suffered as I suffer, died as I will die, and who rose again to show me there is something beyond death--that was a God I could believe in; a God who came to Earth to show me something of what the God in Heaven looks like--that was a God I could love. The Incarnate, Crucified, and Risen Lord Jesus Christ gives me the joy and peace of mind I need to say "Merry Christmas!" and mean it whether or not I have a job, whether or not there are any presents under my tree, and whether or not I am with my family.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Celtic League of Superheroes Teaser Trailer #3

This is the third in a series of superhero videos featuring my original characters The Celtic League of Superheroes. This video was inspired by Karl Jenkins's dramatic arrangement of the traditional Catholic funeral hymn "Dies Irae," (Day of Wrath). It sounded like the kind of thing you might hear in a Batman movie. Enjoy!


Saturday, November 01, 2008

The New Liberty Legion Trailer

In this, my latest video, my World War II superheroes, The Liberty Legion, get a makeover and an update as I move to a different superhero generator and they move to the present. Enjoy!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Liberty Legion Trailer #2

Here's a slightly revised and edited version of the teaser trailer for my World War II era superheroes, The Liberty Legion.



Enjoy!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Yet Another Video!

It's time for another superhero video, this one featuring my All-American team of costumed crime fighters, the Liberty Legion. I made this one using Microsoft Windows Movie Maker in order to take advantage of some of Movie Maker's cooler features, including a black and white filter and an option to artificially "age" your video for that "long lost in the film vault" look. Eventually, I want to do another video showcasing the modern Liberty Legion, the heirs and descendants of the original World War II heroes. For now, just watch this and learn the real reason the Allies won World War II. :)

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Video Mogul Strikes Again!

Behold the second video featuring the Celtic League of Superheroes!



Enjoy!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Niall Mor, Video Mogul

Ladies and Gentlemen:

Behold the first video starring that Confraternity of Costumed Celtic Crime Fighters (How's that for alliteration?) The Celtic League of Superheroes!



Enjoy!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Hi! Remember Me?

Um, hi. Remember me? The guy who runs the blog? Glasses, kinda geeky looking, annoying opinions, won't go away? Yeah, that's the one.

Once again, I must apologize for a lack of postings. My attention has just been diverted in other directions these days. Things are actually going pretty well for me at the moment. Starting November 3rd I'll be teaching two sections of a business communications class under the supervision of a faculty mentor for the University of Phoenix Online. This will end a long period of unemployment, and, I hope, lead to bigger and better things--such as a paycheck. If the mentor likes my performance in this class, I'll have the opportunity to become a junior member of the faculty. For their final project in this class, my students will have to put together a Powerpoint presentation. Since I'm a newbie at using Powerpoint myself, I was wondering how in the heck I was supposed to grade my students' work. While listening to some cool Celtic music, however, I had a flash of inspiration and created a presentation based on one of my fiction projects--a story about a team of superheroes on a Celtic motif. It's a rare thing when you get to do what feels like goofing off and having fun but can justify it as part of your work! Putting the Powerpoint presentation together got me excited about the story all over again, and I'm going to pick it back up.

I have a new desk at which to work, a new manual wheelchair, and a new electric wheelchair on order. With the assistance of my family, I'm trying to obtain a loan to buy and renovate a condo in Charlotte, NC, which would be a huge improvement over where I'm now living. God is Good!

There are a couple of clouds on the horizon, however. Recently I've noticed a couple of odd things about the way my body is behaving which could be fairly innocuous or which could indicate that something more serious is wrong. I have an appointment with my doctor on Wednesday to discuss these problems and see what he recommends I do. I have a disability and other associated health problems already, and given all the medical adventures family, friends, and I have had in recent years, I have to work hard to keep my imagination from running away with me and envisioning all sorts of worst-case, doomsday explanations for these latest medical oddities. Your prayers, gentle readers, would be appreciated. If, God forbid, there is something seriously amiss with my insides, I pray I can face it with courage and faith. If, on the other hand, it's just a minor glitch or two, then Deo gratias. We shall see.

I do hereby promise also to be a more faithful, frequent, and regular blogger. Until next time friends!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

So That's How They Do It!

Trust The Onion to bring us the shocking truth.


Disney Lab Unveils Its Latest Line Of Genetically Engineered Child Stars

Hat Tip: Marcel and the gang at Mary's Aggies.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Powerful Words

from abortion survivor and pro-life activist Gianna Jessen



Check out the last sentence: "It is the mercy of God that sustains you--even when you hate him."

Hat Tip: Louise of Purcell's Chicken Voluntary.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

On to Mentorship!

I just received an e-mail from my faculty trainer at Axia College of the University of Phoenix that I successfully completed the second round of training as an online facilitator (instructor). The next step is to move on to a mentorship or student-teaching phase where I will be teaching a course under the supervision of a mentor/evaluator and dealing with actual students. I was fairly confident I'd made it because all my previous feedback during this training session was very positive, but I didn't want to get cocky or say anything until it was official.

I can't adequately describe how pleased and relieved I am. After recent events in my life, I was beginning to wonder if I could ever find anything at which I'd be truly successful. I may be moving soon into better housing as well, but I'll hold off on saying anything more until I see how that situation plays out. God is Good!

Monday, August 04, 2008

Taking a Breather

In the immortal words of Sam Gamgee at the end of The Lord of the Rings:

"Well, I'm back."

Sorry for the relative radio silence over the past couple of weeks. I've been training as an online "facilitator" (they don't call them instructors) for Axia College of The University of Phoenix. There were about ten people in our training group to start with, and I suspect everyone was surprised at how intense the training experience turned out to be—I know I was. There were written assignments and "Discussion Questions" due almost every day, and in addition we were expected to contribute regularly and frequently to an online discussion forum where we thought and talked about the theory and practice of teaching online from just about every conceivable angle. We had some no-shows and several dropouts along the way, I suspect because they underestimated the time and effort it would take to complete the training and realized they couldn't keep it up when they considered what else was going on in their lives.

Overall, I feel fairly positive about how I did. I received an evaluation from the instructor (oops, facilitator) at the end of the first week, and the only specific thing she mentioned that needed improvement was my level of participation in the online forums. I made sure I ramped that up this week. My classmates reacted very positively to what I had to say, and they all struck me as intelligent and highly motivated people. I should get some official feedback on my performance later in the week, including word on whether I can advance to the next, more specialized round of facilitator training. (I told one of my classmates it feels a bit like being a contestant on "American Idol"). Stay tuned. We'll see what happens next. In the meantime, however, now that I can relax a bit, I've got some comic books to read. See you later.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Ain't She Sweet?

I've been so preoccupied with preparing for my training with the University of Phoenix that I've had to put my superhero fiction writing activities on hold temporarily. But I thought I would post the picture that Jeff Hebert, creator of the HeroMachine software, website, and blog, drew for me as a prize for winning his weekly caption contest recently.

This is Celtica, an Irish-American super-heroine, and her faithful hawk companion Branwen.



In the fictional universe I'm trying to create for them, Celtica and Branwen have been chosen to defend Ireland and the rest of the world against the dastardly doings of Malak the Fell, an evil druid/wizard/mage type guy:



I told Jeff I'd like to see Celtica in action as if she were going into battle against Malak. Here's what he came up with:



Pretty cool, I think. Jeff obligingly made three different versions, varying the length of Celtica's staff slightly in each, trying to get the right sense of proportion. This is the one I liked best. Hope you enjoy it!

Monday, July 14, 2008

I Almost Have a Job!

I didn't want to say anything until it was official, but this morning I received an e-mail from Axia College, University of Phoenix, informing me that I've been chosen to participate in a training session for online instructors that starts next week. I hope to be teaching courses in writing, composition, communication, and maybe even a little literature--what used to be called Freshman English or College English.

I've actually been communicating with U of P for several weeks now via phone and e-mail because they have a rather lengthy interview and screening process: an online form, a request for a resume, a series of written questions, a phone interview, and a set of online exercises. I've passed all those preliminary stages satisfactorily and about a month of intensive training (actually a pair of two-week seminars) is the next step. If I complete this core training successfully, I'll then be student-teaching a course under the supervision of a mentor and evaluator. If that goes well, I'll be offered the position of a junior instructor on the faculty.

It would be only a part-time gig (15-20 hours a week), but part-time is better than no-time. I'm trying to do some writing and develop some stories about original characters I've created, and a part-time job like this would still allow me time to write. The job is also an excellent opportunity to network with many professionals, and that networking could lead to something full-time. We'll see.

The only downside is that after more than 20 years as a dedicated Macintosh user, I'll have to "go over to the dark side" and start using a Windows PC. My brother Bill, a U of P graduate, and an employee of a major computer manufacturer, strongly recommended a Windows box and a high-speed internet connection. He helped me pick out the system on which this blog entry is being written. It's nifty having a new state-of-the-art PC, but the Windows Vista operating system (ahem . . . searching for a socially acceptable word) stinks. It's clumsy and balky and illogical to me. Despite several valiant attempts this weekend, Bill was unable to network the Mac and the PC. Using a flash drive to transfer important files is only partially successful, as many of them are somehow corrupted in transport. I've been e-mailing really critical files from the Mac to the PC for several days now, because this seems to be about the only way I've found to transfer data error-free. Steve Jobs was right: Microsoft just has no taste. My Mac seems a little forlorn, reduced to a supporting role and sitting on the corner of my desk, but a guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do. Honest, little Mac. I still love you!

I have about a million things to do before the online training begins, but it feels great to be busy because you're working towards an ultimate goal. I'm grateful to God for this opportunity and I pray for the grace and strength to make the most of it.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Still More Heroic Happenings (Or, I won with a fart joke!)

I won! I won! I won! OK . . . Must . . . stop . . . hyperventilating. Breathe . . . Breathe . . . That's it!

Every Tuesday, Jeff Hebert, creator of the HeroMachine software, website, and blog, about which I have written at great length here lately, hosts a caption contest. Jeff searches through his vast library of comics, finds a single panel rich with humorous possibilities, removes the dialogue, and invites readers to substitute their own. The author of the funniest faux dialogue wins a custom black and white illustration of whatever they like (within reason, the artist always hastens to add), drawn by Jeff himself.

This week, after many noble but fruitless attempts, your humble blog host has finally won, albeit with a joke that might seem a tad out of place on a more-or-less Catholic blog like this one. Here's the panel with the original dialogue removed:



Here's the panel with my dialogue inserted:



I've already informed Jeff about what I'd like for my illustration. It will be a drawing of my flagship character, the Irish-American super-heroine Celtica, in a combat stance, as if she's going into battle against her arch-enemy, Malak, an evil wizard. I let Jeff choose whether to put Malak in the picture or not. Jeff says that while the drawing shouldn't be a problem artistically, it may be a week or two before he can get it done because he's on a tight deadline for another important project. I can't wait to see what he comes up with. I've created a link to Jeff's HeroMachine blog and links to some other comics-related sites in a special section of the blogroll on the bottom right.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

More Heroic Happenings

Well, it seems my recent post comparing three popular online superhero generators has generated the most discussion of any post in the history of this blog!

Jeff Hebert, creator of the HeroMachine 2.5 software and website, mentioned my review on his HeroMachine developer's blog. Eduardo Reis, creator of Fábrica de Heróis (aka Hero-O-Matic) left a comment in the commbox for the original post. He even offered to show me a version of my Blue Eagle character that he had created. Thanks, guys. It's nice to be noticed. Reader James said he agreed completely with my assessment, which is also flattering.

Most impressive of all, however, was a comment from reader Laurent who supplied Hero-O-Matic versions of two of my characters, The Blue Eagle and Celtica.

Here's Laurent's interpretation of The Blue Eagle:



Laurent also supplied three possible Hero-O-Matic versions of Celtica, who is more or less my "flagship" character and who holds a special place in my imagination. Laurent created what he called the "Amazon" version:



The "Golden Age" version (i.e., how Celtica might have looked if she had been drawn in the heyday of comic books, the late 1930s to the early 1950s):



and the "Silver Age" version (i.e., how Celtica might have looked if she had been drawn sometime between the mid-1950s and the mid-1970s):




Thanks, Laurent! That's really great work. I hope you enjoyed creating those interpretations. I certainly enjoyed looking at them, and I'm pleased my characters fired your imagination. Now I'm getting excited about these characters all over again, and I hope to create some stories about them.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Repost: Remembering Dad

NOTE: This item was originally posted in 2006.


Today is Memorial Day, the day Americans pause to remember those who gave their lives in service to their country. Today I would like to remember my Dad, William Stewart Leslie (1923-2005). He did not fall in combat, but he served honorably in World War II and the Korean Conflict. He loved his country and taught me to do the same. He fought the real battle to provide for his wife and six kids, all of whom grew up to become decent, honorable, compassionate men and women because of lessons he taught us. He passed from this life in February 2005 after a long battle with lung cancer.

In World War II he served with the U. S. Ninth Air Force based in England. For the most part, he flew P-51 fighter planes. One of his assignments was to shoot down German V-1 and V-2 rockets launched from Holland. He said the rockets were so slow and crude that often just the "prop wash" or air turbulence from his plane flying past the rocket was enough to send it crashing harmlessly into the sea. He told us stories of the funny things that happened during his wartime service: the time he got his cap blown off because he unwittingly stood in front of a loaded cannon, or the time he was appointed "mess officer" for his unit despite the fact that he had no idea how to run a mess hall. He never talked about the scary things, of which I'm sure there must have been a few. I believe he was shot down once. He didn't like to talk about it. Towards the end of his life he had nightmares from which he woke up screaming. I couldn't help wondering if those came from long-buried frightening moments from his war years.

I asked him once if there was ever a moment when he was afraid for his life, scared that he might die. No, he replied, because when you're 19 years old, you're too dumb to be scared. You are convinced that you're 20 feet tall and bulletproof. The other guy will get shot, not you. When I saw TV news stories about the dedication of the World War II Veterans Memorial, I was overcome with a wave of pride and affection for him and called to tell him so. His response, like so many others of "The Greatest Generation" was typical.

"Shoot," he said, "I didn't really do anything."

Yes, you did. And we are grateful.

During the Korean Conflict he was recalled to active duty from the reserves. Somewhere along the way he mentioned his desire to learn Russian, and the next thing he knew, he was enrolled in a special program in Washington, D. C. to study Russian language, history, culture, and geopolitics. It wasn't top secret, but it was confidential. He was instructed to wear civilian clothes and, if asked, just say that he worked for the Defense Department and leave it at that. I believe the photo you see might come from this period. You'll notice that he's standing or sitting against a neutral background, he's well dressed, and looking directly at the camera with a serious expression. It looks like an ID or passport photo to me, but I can't be sure.

Many of his professors in this special program were White Russians or anti-communists who fled after the revolution of 1917. He was amazed at what they knew and how they knew it. Once, after class, one of his professors approached him furtively, looking both ways before speaking.

"Gaspadin (Mister) Leslie," the man said in Russian, "You are . . . pilot, da?"

"Da," Dad replied. He hadn't told anyone he was a pilot.

"I teach you Russian. You teach me to fly, da?"

"Da."

Dad went to a local airport, rented a small plane, and took his professor up for a flying lesson, but quickly realized he didn't have the specialized vocabulary needed to explain the more technical aspects of flying: artificial horizons, ailerons, rudders, pitch, and yaw, and so forth. His efforts to teach his teacher how to fly ended right there, but I've always thought it was a great story. There was also the time a friend of his passed himself off as a native Russian to impress a bimbo and Dad played along; or the time a drunk driver rammed into the picture window of the trailer Dad had rented while he, Mom, and my sister Susan (an infant at the time) were driving cross country. Dad was full of stories, and he told some of them so many times, we were sick of them. Now that he's gone, I'd give anything to hear him tell them again.

He was not a perfect man (no one is), but he was a good man. I think, like many men who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II, he found it difficult to express his deepest emotions in public. Bragging, being conceited, or having an overly exalted opinion of oneself was the worst sin a man could commit. You were supposed to work hard, do your duty, and not call attention to yourself. People made fun of Bob Dole, also a World War II veteran, for sometimes speaking of himself in the third person ("Bob Dole knows . . .") but I believe the habit came out of that fundamental modesty of his generation. Nowadays, when celebs and ordinary people get on TV talk shows, air their dirty laundry in public, and then get all weepy while the rest of us watch, such circumspection and humility are refreshing.

Sometimes, however, I think Dad went too far in trying to prevent us from becoming conceited. His favorite tactic was to conceal his real feelings behind a joke or a left-handed compliment. It made me think sometimes that nothing I did mattered to him. In college I was nearly a straight A student, but in college I also acquired my first serious girlfriend, and I loved her with a passion that only those in love for the first time can manage. I was worried that my grades were slipping because we were spending so much time together. I needn't have worried. Dad's response? "He had a 4.0, but then he met this girl. Ha, ha, ha." It made my blood boil.

I once asked him angrily why he seemed so allergic to paying me a compliment in public. "Because I don't want you to get the big head," he snapped back. We had some friction over the years, to say the least. If there was any good thing about his long final illness, it was that we each had time to look past the bluster and bravado and hurt feelings and say to each other, "I love you and I am proud of you."

I know that he loved me despite the fact that he sometimes had trouble expressing it. He had many jobs throughout his life, and some were more successful than others: airline pilot, filmmaker, salesman, retail business owner. For most of the time I was growing up, he was the regional sales representative for a company that sold heavy construction equipment. His territory extended from Maryland to Mississippi, and often he would leave on business trips on Monday morning and not return until Friday night. That had to be hard, lonely work, but he did it because he loved us. He never once failed to provide us with anything we needed (and often just things we wanted) even if it meant considerable personal and financial sacrifice for him. My three-week trip to England when I was in college that he paid for is a prime example. Now that I'm living on my own and struggling to pay bills just for myself, I have a glimpse of what he must have struggled with to support and provide for a wife and six children.

He stayed with me faithfully whenever I had to be hospitalized for surgery related to my disability. Once in particular, I went through a kind of withdrawal as I came down off the painkillers and anesthesia. I was terrified, convinced that something awful was about to happen, and didn't want to be left alone. He stayed with me, after visiting hours were over, until I fell asleep. I awoke hours later in complete peace and darkness as all the chemicals had left my body. I called out to him but realized he must have slipped out after I fell asleep. I was so grateful to him! Last year, after his passing, when I was in ICU with that terrible bladder infection, I thought that if I squinted hard enough I could almost see him sitting in the chair at the foot of the bed as he had so faithfully so many times before.

There's a sequence from the movie It's a Wonderful Life that expresses perfectly how I feel about my Dad. Young George Bailey is working for Mr. Gower, the local druggist, as a delivery boy. One day, George notices that Mr. Gower has received a telegram informing him that his son has died of influenza. Mr. Gower, distraught with grief, has accidentally put rat poison into some capsules and sent George out to deliver them, thinking they are medicine for a sick little boy. George, knowing the truth, looks around desperately for help. Suddenly, he sees a billboard reading, "Ask Dad. He knows." George runs off, tells his father what's happened, and waits for Mr. Gower to come to his senses. When George tells Mr. Gower what's happened, the man is incredibly grateful. George's quick thinking has saved a boy's life and Mr. Gower's business.

Dad was always that anchor of stability and wisdom for me in the same way that George Bailey's dad was for him. Even when we were bickering, I knew that if I really got in a jam, I could ask Dad. He knew. He would fix it. He would make it OK. Because he was Dad. I miss him. But I remember what he taught me about hard work and doing your best and keeping your promises. And I know. And it will be OK.

Eternal Rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. Amen.

Rest in peace, Dad. I love you.

Heroes, Heroes, Everywhere!

in my imagination, anyway.

Back in March I waxed poetic about HeroMachine 2.5, the web browser-based software that makes it possible even for an artistically challenged dweeb such as myself to draw my own superheroes. Since then I've gone bananas with the silly thing and created whole battalions full of heroes, villains, and supporting players. I'm trying to create a fictional universe for some of them to live in.The HeroMachine software is now available for download, so users don't have to be online to create their own heroes. Since it relies on the Flash plug-in available for most web browsers, the software should work equally well on both Windows-based machines and Macs.

"But wait! There's more!" as the TV pitchmen say. Since finding HeroMachine, I've discovered two other online superhero generators: Create Your Own Superhero, part of the Marvel Comics website, and Fábrica de Heróis, which I'm guessing is Portuguese for "Hero Maker" or something similar. The entire application and the accompanying blog are in Portuguese since the creator, Eduardo Reis, is Brazilian, but a little experimentation should help users overcome the language barrier. I hope he'll consider releasing an English language version in the future. I gather that a previous version was called Hero-O-Matic, and that's how many people on the Web still refer to it.

All three superhero generators offer distinctly different drawing styles and unique features, which give the aspiring artist and storyteller many options to chose from. Here for example, is one of the first characters I created with Heromachine, the warrior maiden Celtica, an Irish-American super-heroine, and her hawk companion Branwen:



Compare that to, say, Lady Liberty, another super-heroine I designed using the Marvel Create Your Own Superhero site:



Now compare that to a character I created with Fábrica de Heróis (aka Hero-O-Matic), Cinco de Mayo, a Latina heroine:




Lest you think that I spend all my time drawing pictures of buxom, scantily clad young women, I also draw pictures of guy heroes too. It's interesting to draw different versions of the same character using the different sites and compare the results. Here, for example, is a hero I first drew on the Marvel site, The Blue Eagle:



Compare that with his HeroMachine version:



Notice that with the HeroMachine version, I ditched the helmet because I couldn't find a helmet I really liked. I haven't done comparison versions using Hero-o-Matic yet, because I've only just discovered it, but you can compare The Blue Eagle, versions 1 and 2, with another patriotic hero, The Defender:



Overall, I still think HeroMachine is the best of the three generators, Hero-O-Matic runs a close second with many impressive features, and the Marvel Create Your Own Superhero site is a distant third. HeroMachine is significantly ahead of the other two in ease of use and range of features. The ability to download the software and have it run on your own computer is a huge bonus the other two can't match. HeroMachine is also unique because it allows users to save the parameters of their characters as lines of code and reload them into the application for later character editing. The Marvel site allows users to save their characters on Marvel's servers for later reloading and editing, but users must register with Marvel.com and can save only five characters at a time. Surprisingly, Hero-O-Matic has no way at all for character images to be saved and reloaded later for editing. When users of Hero-O-Matic want to edit a previously saved character, they must rebuild the character from scratch every time. That's annoying, to put it mildly. The final images in HeroMachine are the largest of the three, allowing the artist to easily see the individual item being worked on. Items in Hero-O-Matic are the smallest and most cartoon-like.

Items in both HeroMachine and Hero-O-Matic can be drawn with wide array of primary and secondary colors, but Hero-O-Matic's color menu can be tricky to navigate. The Marvel site offers only one color for each item, with lots of duplicate colors. HeroMachine also offers the widest assortment of possible backgrounds for characters, ranging from one and two color combinations to real settings, including cityscapes, deserts, jungle, a castle, and a futuristic science lab. Backgrounds in Hero-O-Matic and Marvel's site are limited to one color or combinations of two colors.

HeroMachine and the Marvel site allow the user to select thumbnails of items before they're added to the character, but Marvel has a paltry few choices compared to HeroMachine, and users of Hero-O-Matic have to click through all the options for an item in order by clicking arrow buttons. Both HeroMachine and Hero-O-Matic allow for layering of characters clothes and weapons, which creates some interesting effects, but Marvel's use of layering is very limited. Apparently, only Hero-O-Matic allows for variance in the texture and transparency of items, but I have yet to make full use of these features. Marvel does allow users to save their creations to their hard drives as JPEG files, but this feature runs slowly and is liable to balk, especially if there are other applications running in the background. Users can save their creations simply by taking screenshots in all three applications.

In short, the budding superhero creator who can't draw has some choices available, but in my opinion HeroMachine 2.5 is the best.

Amended June 29, 2008.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Whack a Penguin!

Dale Price, author of the Dyspeptic Mutterings blog, has enriched my life in so many ways--with his snarky commentaries on, well, just about everything, including the Catholic Church, politics, and sports, not to mention the occasional photo post of his ridiculously cute kids--but never more so than when, as a public service to all humanity, he posted a link to this delicious bit of internet-based, time-wasting goodness: The Whack a Penguin Game!

Click the mouse once, and the yeti will assume the ready position, like a batter in the batter's box. The penguin will dive off the top the iceberg. Click the mouse again, and the yeti will take a swing. If you time it just right, the yeti will send the penguin flying, and the game will automatically record the distance and your highest score--in somewhat gruesome fashion, however. The sign comes down out of the sky and spears the poor penguin clean through.

After two days of trying, I've achieved a new personal best of 317.2. I've even included documentary evidence of this titanic achievement:

America's newest athletic sensation takes time out to chat with the "It's All Straw" sports department after his latest entry into the record books

Don't let anyone tell you the internet isn't educational.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Nine Billion Names of Borg

Hey kids! Ever wish you could be a cybernetic organism or a robotic artificial intelligence mercilessly crushing all those petty carbon-based units and hopelessly inferior biological life-forms that stood in your way?

Well, now you can with with The Cyborg Name Coder. This name generating engine will take the name of anyone you choose and generate a cool, science-fictiony acronym that makes them sound like the baddest hunk of high-tech hardware around. For example, depending on how I choose to spell my first name (Neil or Niall), I can be a:


Networked Electronic Infiltration Lifeform


Get Your Cyborg Name



Or I can be a:


Networked Intelligent Assassination and Learning Lifeform


Get Your Cyborg Name



The one I like best, however, is based on my last name, so don't mess with me because I'm a:


Lifelike Electronic Sabotage and Logical Infiltration Entity


Get Your Cyborg Name



So there.

(H/T: D. G. D. Davidson at Sci-Fi Catholic).

Friday, April 11, 2008

Rights for Chickens but Not for Monks


Well, I was looking for something to blog about, and sure enough I found it. On the front page of this week's Catholic Miscellany, my diocesan newspaper, I found this story:

The monks at Mepkin Abbey [Moncks Corner, SC] have started the search for a new way to support themselves once their popular egg production business comes to an end.

In December the abbey announced it would begin phasing out the 56 year-old business, citing pressure from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals over treatment of chickens as one of the reasons. Public protests and a threatened boycott by PETA that started in summer 2007 put unwanted pressure on the Trappist monks and interfered with their quiet life of prayer and work.


The story goes on to point out that "Sales averaging nine million eggs a year have generated around $140,000, which is about 60 percent of the abbey's annual income, according to figures released by Abbot Stan Gumula."

So a monastery that has supported itself for close to 60 years by selling eggs now has to sacrifice 60 percent of its annual income to satisfy a bunch of animal-rights wackos who espouse opinions contrary to Catholic teaching, historical fact, and plain common sense?

PETA, you may be aware, is that fine, upstanding bunch of Scripture scholars who promote the idea that Jesus was a vegetarian. I'm distressed to see that one of the ecumenical team of clergymen employed to promote this view is Father John Dear, a Jesuit. Father Dear (no pun intended) and his cohorts have to employ some verbal tap-dancing to get around the fact that the only miracle recorded in all four gospels involves Jesus feeding more than 5,000 people--with fish. The whole idea that the Last Supper was a Passover meal, which would have involved eating lamb, poses similar difficulties. They insist that Jesus didn't eat the Passover lamb, but they provide no persuasive evidence for this. They discount the accounts of post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus which specifically state that Jesus ate fish in the disciples' presence. Their reason? "Most biblical scholars" or "many biblical scholars" don't believe these events really took place. It's enough to make you think that the purpose of a "biblical scholar" these days is to make you believe that nothing in the Bible actually happened.

When I read about PETA and similar animal rights groups, I'm reminded of G. K. Chesterton's observation about the maniac who "is in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea: he is sharpened to one painful point. He is without healthy hesitation and healthy complexity." PETA's one idea, that they carry to maniacal extremes is that animals should be treated compassionately--according to their standard of compassion--and they're willing to oppose anybody who doesn't live up to that standard.

No sane, humane person is in favor of cruelty to animals. If PETA had legitimate concerns about the treatment of the chickens, did PETA representatives even attempt to meet with representatives of the abbey to discuss the issue? I don't get that impression. Someone from PETA faxed the abbot (They couldn't even bother to send him a letter?) in February 2007. The promotional materials PETA distributed openly accuse the abbey of lying to the press and public about its treatment of the chickens. It sounds as if PETA threatened protests and boycotts almost immediately.

Well, I hope they're happy. They got what they wanted. But if you ask me, it's PETA, not the monks who have "egg on their face" this time.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Talkin' Turkey


From time to time I've reported on my experiments in crock pot cookery. This weekend, I may have had my biggest success yet. I'm president of the local Praesidium (chapter) of The Legion of Mary, and every year all the praesidia in a given jurisdiction (known as a Curia) get together on a Marian feast day for a ceremony known as the Acies. Our curia holds its Acies on the Saturday nearest the Feast of the Annunciation. There's a Mass followed by a covered dish supper. It's a wonderful opportunity to share faith, food, and fellowship. This year, I got really brave and decided to try a turkey breast recipe I found and bring it along. It must have been a success because one of my fellow legionaries asked for the recipe, so I thought I'd share it. This recipe for "Easy and Delicious Turkey Breast" really does live up to its name! I got it from The Fix It and Forget It Cookbook: Feasting with Your Slow Cooker, by Dawn J. Ranck and Phyllis Pellman Good. (p. 196).

Easy and Delicious Turkey Breast
(submitted by Gail Bush of Landenberg, PA)

1 turkey breast

15 oz. can whole berry cranberry sauce

1 envelope dry onion soup mix

1/2 cup orange juice

1/2 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. pepper

1. Place turkey in slow cooker.

2. Combine remaining ingredients. Pour over turkey.

3. Cover. Cook on LOW 6-8 hours.

That's all there is to it! You should have a lot of sauce that will keep the turkey moist. I'd recommend serving this with rice or mashed potatoes or even thick slices of bread. Hope you enjoy it!

Monday, March 24, 2008

He Is Risen!


Rejoice, Heavenly Powers! Sing, Choirs of Angels!
Exult all creation around God's Throne!
Jesus Christ your King is Risen!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!
Rejoice, O Earth, in shining splendor,
Radiant in the brightness of your King.
Christ has conquered, glory fills you,
Darkness vanishes forever.

Rejoice, O Mother church! Exult in glory!
The Risen Savior shines upon you!
Let this place resound with joy,
Echoing the mighty song of all God's people.


--Easter Proclamation

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday


O my dying Jesus, I kiss devoutly the cross on which Thou didst die for love of me. I have merited by my sins to die a miserable death, but Thy death is my hope. Ah, by the merits of Thy death, give me grace to die, embracing Thy feet and burning with love of Thee. I commit my soul into Thy hands. I love Thee with my whole heart; I repent of ever having offended Thee. Never permit me to offend Thee again. Grant that I may love Thee always; and then do with me what Thou wilt.

---Stations of the Cross by St. Alphonsus Ligouri

Text and illustration, courtesy of Fisheaters.com

Adoration Meditation


Last night I completed my first ever hour of silent Eucharistic Adoration following the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper. I wish I could say that I was transformed by holy zeal for the Eucharist and that my attention was rapt as I contemplated the awesome reality of Jesus Christ, really present, body, blood, soul, and divinity under the species of bread and wine. I wish I could say that I didn't almost nod off three or four times (now I see why Jesus warned and begged the disciples not to fall asleep as they prayed with him in the Garden of Gethsemane that night). I wish I could say that my mind didn't wander to my latest fiction project or to what I wanted for dinner or whatever other silly, vapid thoughts filled my head. Christ's warning about the dangers of being lukewarm (Rev. 3:15-16) flashed through my brain, and I would snap back to attention--until the next time. I tried to pray, honest! I wish I could say it was a transcendent spiritual experience. If it wasn't, whose fault was that?

Mine.

I'm not a particularly extravagant or public sinner. I'm not an ax murderer, a child molester, or a drug dealer. I daresay, however, that if you were to run through the old list of Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Lust, Avarice, and Gluttony, I can think of a few occasions where I'd have to plead guilty to each. My sins tend to be quieter and more garden-variety: giving in to selfishness, arrogance, laziness, and pettiness; indulging in unkind thoughts and words about others; being to quick to take offense, too long to hold a grudge, and too slow to forgive; visiting websites that are best avoided, if you catch my drift. In short, being a mediocre sinner and an even more mediocre Christian.

And yet, I thought, isn't that one of the paradoxes of Easter? That the Lord of the Universe, the Creator of All That Is--entered into his creation, became part of it, struggled with it and for it, and transformed it through his suffering, death, and resurrection--all for the sake of a little nebbish like me. In that suffering he experienced everything that his creatures can experience, including hunger, thirst, fear, rejection, failure, abandonment, and a humiliating, painful, and public death. God himself offered to die for my sake, to atone for all those sins great and small, that keep me from loving him and knowing him as I should--as I want to. God didn't come into the world to reward us for being perfect little ladies and gentlemen who always ate our vegetables, said please and thank you, and had our ducks in a row. No:


For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly.

Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die.

But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
(Romans 5:6-8)

Graham Greene put it this way in his brilliant novel The Power and the Glory:

Man was so limited he hadn't even the ingenuity to invent a new vice: the animals knew as much. It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or children or a civilisation--it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.

I am one of those half-hearted and corrupt people, but Christ still reaches out to me--from the cross and from the altar at every Mass. I cannot possibly deserve such an invitation or be worthy of such a tremendous gift, but I can accept it with faith and gratitude and take the advice of the psalmist: "
Today if you shall hear his voice, harden not your hearts" (Ps. 94:8, Douay-Rheims Version).

Thursday, March 06, 2008

America's Newest Super-Heroine

Ladies and Gentlemen, feast your eyes on:




The mystical warrior maiden Celtica and her faithful avian companion Branwen.

Click on the image for a slightly larger version. As you can plainly see, I discovered that there is a way to capture screen shots on a Mac and convert them to GIF or JPEG files.

Image created with HeroMachine 2.5.

I Have Just Discovered . . .


the coolest website ever! If you like comic books and superheroes, that is. HeroMachine 2.5 is a website which allows you to design your own superheroes from the ground up, even if you can't draw to save your life (I can't). You choose the body type, gender, and other characteristics of your superhero from a menu of preset options and watch your creation take shape on the screen before your very eyes. You design the costume, choose the weapons, select a backdrop, and name your newest super with a just a few mouse clicks and keystrokes. Think of it as a Mr. Potato Head for the electronic age, only cooler. Want your super-heroine to be a tall willowy redhead? No problem. Or maybe you're a gentleman who prefers blondes. We can do that, too. And what's a superhero without super-villains to fight? Any super worth his salt needs a good rogues gallery. In just a few hours (too many) I created a superhero (The Gryphon), and a super-heroine (Celtica), inspired by my love of all things Irish and by seeing one too many episodes of "Wonder Woman" and "Xena, Warrior Princess." Somebody help me, I'm such a geek! I also created Draxon, an armor clad, ray gun-wielding baddie, Big Tony, a musclebound machine gun-toting thug, and Dr. Frost, a nerdy scientist type who can go either way. Story ideas are already percolating.

My one regret (and it's a big one) is that as a Mac user I cannot save my brilliant creations as JPEG or GIF files. Windows users, however, can save their heroes and villains (It's discrimination, I tell ya!) The best I can do is save the parameters for my characters as lines of code, go back to the website, paste them in, reload the characters into the HeroMachine, and print out hard copies. (Sigh). I've posted a comment on the creator's blog calling attention to this grievous error. I suspect I'm not the only Mac user to complain.

Until next time, superfriends!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

More Shameless Self-Promotion



In the hopes that I might get more reader feedback in response to my Shadow/Superman fan fiction story Shadows of Steel, I posted it on the FanFiction.net archive site. To go directly to my story, you can click this link, or you can go to the FanFiction.net main page, click on the "Movies" link, scroll through the list of movies until you find "Shadow," and click on it. Since my story is the most recent Shadow story posted, it will be at the top of the list. You can also find the story on my personal website.Hope you enjoy it!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fan Fiction Follies

Having just completed my most elaborate piece of fan fiction to date ("fanfic" to those in the know) I found this set of items from the always interesting Eve Tushnet to be especially noteworthy. Eve links to:

I started writing fanfic myself while in graduate school as an antidote to the academic and theoretical bilge I was forced to read and regurgitate on exams and papers. I've loved it ever since. I think fans writing their own stories about characters from [insert name of your favorite TV shows, movies, books, etc. here] is a way for fans to take part ownership of characters they enjoy and become producers of culture and entertainment, rather than just passive consumers of whatever swill the corporate suits in New York and Hollywood want to feed us. While I think it would be unfair for fanfic writers to publish their work via conventional means and profit from it without acknowledging or paying royalties to the creators of the characters they borrowed, I can't see any harm in uploading your own stories of Captain Kirk or Mulder and Scully to a website and making them available for free. Write on!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Wollf at the Door

In other comment news, in response to my recent post on a blessing for beer from the Rituale Romanum, blogger Wollf, author of the Howling at the Moon blog wrote:

Amen.

First time visitor, nice house.
Wollf


Thanks, Wollf. Glad you like it. Come on in and have a look around. Come back often and tell your friends. It's nice to know somebody besides me reads this blog every once in a while.

More on Access Israel


My mention of Access Israel, an Israeli disability rights and advocacy organization, in my last post brought this comment from reader Tomer, who wrote:

Hi Niall,

I'm a volunteer working for Access Israel. In fact, increased awareness as well as new legislation has greatly improved the accessibility situation in Israel.
Almost all tourist sites have a reasonable level of accessibility for people with disabilities.
If you like, Access Israel can help you plan you visit.
Contact me at tomerto@yahoo.com for more details.

Cheers,

Tomer

Shalom, Tomer! I'm glad to know that my previous impression of limited access to tourist sites and other locations in Israel for people with disabilities was incorrect. I would love to visit your country, and maybe one day, God willing, I will have the opportunity.

The comment feature that allows bloggers and their readers to enter into conversation like this is one advantage of a blog over a traditional journal, isn't it?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Memed by The Maximum Leader

KT Cat, Maximum Leader of the Feline Theocracy and principal author of The Scratching Post blog, has tagged us with a meme here at It's All Straw. Participants in the "Week, Month, Year, Half-Your-Life" Meme are to pick four places on the globe and explain where they would spend a week, a month, a year, and half of their lives. After some careful thought and in full and total obedience to the command of the Maximum Leader, I herewith submit my choices:

A Week - Rome


















I told you I was Catholic, right?

A Month - Ireland
















I was fortunate enough to get to go to Scotland for a week, when I was in college, but I've never been to Ireland. Since about half my ancestors were Scots and half were Irish, I'm missing a connection to about half of my heritage!

A Year - Israel

















The Holy Land. The land of kings and prophets. The land where Jesus walked. Bethlehem. Jerusalem. Golgotha. The empty tomb. Places I've only read about in the Bible. Almost 'nuff said. But when I was doing a Google Image search for pictures of Israel, this image caught my eye. It's a "badge of honor" awarded by an organization called Access Israel to Israeli businesses, government agencies, and tourist attractions that make a special effort to ensure that their facilities are accessible to those with disabilities. I gather from the information on Access Israel's website that access to public facilities and full participation in daily life is still fairly rare for Israelis with disabilities.

Half My Life - Myrtle Beach, SC*



For this one, I'm going to cheat a little bit and name the place where I actually did spend nearly half my life--Myrtle Beach, SC and environs, the coast of South Carolina. Like KT, I'm a beach bum at heart because I grew up just over the hill from the beach, and when I was younger my idea of the perfect summer day was one where I could swim, lie in the sun, build sandcastles, and play in the dunes. I'm going to cheat a little bit more and say that it's the Myrtle Beach of my memory--hence the asterisk--and not the battery powered, neon-lit, plastic-coated Babylon it's become. I grew up there in the 1970s, which was probably the last generation before it became a major tourist and retirement mecca. It was still a fairly small town frequented and populated mainly by people from North and South Carolina. The beach was always the main attraction, and people who came to visit it stayed mostly in beach houses and Mom-and-Pop motels, not sprawling, soulless mega-condos as they do now. My Dad was involved in an ad hoc citizen's group trying to keep such behemoths out of our neighborhood. With his usual talent for exaggeration, he used to say that our parish church was built for the tourists, but in the off-season, the entire Catholic population of Myrtle Beach could fit in the first two pews. Ah, the good ol' days!

I digress from the meme! By the authority vested in me, I do hereby tag Mark Mossa at And I Let Myself Be Duped, Louise at Purcell's Chicken Voluntary, and D. G. D. Davidson at Sci-Fi Catholic. So there.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Test of New Keyboard


This is a test:

Mary had a little lamb,
Whose fleece was white as snow
and everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.

This is being typed on a new Kensington SlimType keyboard for Macintosh. My cleaning lady expressed an interest in my old iMac G3 for her nephew, and since I was using the old keyboard, I figured I would get a new keyboard for myself and give her the G3, old keyboard and all. Unfortunately, the new keyboard does not have its own USB port for a mouse, but with a little juggling, I was able to rearrange my USB hub satisfactorily and allow me access to my mouse, printer, and digital camera cable. The new keyboard has "short fall" keys like those of a laptop, so it has a very light touch, unlike my old keyboard. That will take some getting used to, but overall, I expect many happy hours of typing from the new device.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Mmmm . . . Beeeer . . . Sanctified!


A blessing for beer from the Rituale Romanum:

Bene+dic, Domine, creaturam istam cerevisae, quam ex adipe frumenti producere dignatus es: ut sit remedium salutare humano generi: et praesta per invocationem nominis tui sancti, ut, quicumque ex ea biberint, sanitatem corporis, et animae tutelam percipiant. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

Bless, O Lord, this creature beer, that Thou hast been pleased to bring forth from the sweetness of the grain: that it might be a salutary remedy for the human race: and grant by the invocation of Thy holy name, that, whosoever drinks of it may obtain health of body and a sure safeguard for the soul. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hat Tips: Thomas Peters at American Papist, via D. G. D. Davidson at Sci-Fi Catholic.

To Boldly Go Where No Pope Has Gone Before

The Curt Jester has photographs and commentary on the altar furnishings that will be used when Pope Benedict visits Washington, D.C. later this year. Here's the design:



CJ says they look to him as if they might be appropriate for a certain 23rd-century starship captain, much beloved around these parts. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Successor of Peter, The Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, the Vicar of Christ, The Servant of the Servants of God:


His Holiness, Pope Kirk I


Commenting on the general look of the chairs and ambo, CJ asks: "Maybe IKEA is now designing liturgical furniture?"

After visiting one parish in particular, I might be inclined to think so. The altar and ambo have a distinctly minimalist butcher-block look to them. You have to use a magnifying glass to find the Stations of the Cross, and when I asked where the Tabernacle was, my guide pointed down a side hall. If I were Pope Kirk, I'd order a full spread of phasers and photon torpedoes on the place and start over.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Everything Old . . .

is new again. Yes, I've changed the template . . . again. Never did really like that pale blue. I guess green is more my color. But this layout is the one I used when I first started blogging way back in the Dark Ages of 2004 with a long-defunct effort called "Falling Off a Blog." It lasted for only a few entries before I got tired of it, moved on to other things, and later came back to blogging in the Spring of 2005 with IAS. Y'know, since this is more or less a Catholic blog, I could change the color scheme every few months to reflect the liturgical season: green for Ordinary Time, purple for Lent and Advent, red for Pentecost, white for feast days . . . Nah!

Monday, January 28, 2008

OK, Now This Is Just Creepy

It's ironic.

Just after I finish posting a piece expressing a certain ambivalence towards the science fiction genre, along comes Ray Kurzweil proposing stuff that sounds like science fiction and leading me to conclude that I have good reason to feel ambivalent about science and technology. Mr. Kurzweil invented the first text-to-speech reader for the blind, a line of high-end music synthesizers, computer hardware and software designed to enhance human creativity, and a host of other pretty cool gadgets all built around the concept of artificial intelligence, or teaching machines to do what people can do. If I remember correctly, he was also the guy who once referred to conventional libraries (y' know, the old-fashioned kind with real books and stuff) as "museums of compressed wood pulp," or words to that effect.

OK, so Mr. Kurzweil is apparently not a big fan of printed books and is a big booster of high technology. That's fine. Everybody's entitled to an opinion. We all have our likes and dislikes, right?

But now, some of the things Mr. Kurzweil is advocating, proposing, and forecasting for technological advances just give me the heebie-jeebies and bring out my inner Dr. McCoy. On the original Star Trek show, every time Mr. Spock would rhapsodize about the glories of logic and science and the supposed infallibility of the ship's computers, McCoy would lose his patience and blurt out something like, "It's a blasted machine, Spock! You can't argue with a machine!" McCoy is the voice of the humanist, warning us that we risk losing a little something of our humanity and our liberty every time we allow our machines to do our thinking and acting for us.

Mr, Kurzweil, on the other hand, apparently thinks it's just fine to let our machines think and act for us, since he says that in a few years we'll not only make increasing use of technology, we'll actually merge (his word) with our technology. In a few years, the machines will be as smart as we are, anyway, if not smarter. Here's what he says in a conversation with host and interviewer Steve Curwood on the public radio show Living on Earth:

CURWOOD: But what excites him most is what he sees over the horizon now. What he calls 'the singularity.' And what does he mean by that?

KURZWEIL: Well, it primarily refers to our merging with our technology and greatly expanding our human potential. Literally the word refers to a profound transformation. And here we're using it in a context of human history, in that there will be a great transformation of human society. I put it around twenty forty-five. Where we will greatly expand our capabilities by merging with our technology. And to be a little more specific, by the late twenty-twenties we'll have both the hardware and the software to create machines that are at human levels of intelligence. We've already modeled and simulated twenty different regions of the brain. And we can test those simulations and they perform equivalently to human performance of those brain regions. And the hardware will be quite capable of actually being much more powerful than the human brain.

CURWOOD: So you're saying in the next twenty-five years—

KURZWEIL: Right.

CURWOOD: The machines will be as smart as we are?

KURZWEIL: Right . . .


And the hardware will be quite capable of actually being much more powerful than the human brain.

Apparently, he thinks this will be a good thing! Is anyone else as creeped out by this idea as I am? What happens when tools become smarter and more powerful than their masters? Who then is the tool and who is the master?

I realize I'm beginning to sound a bit like a paranoid Luddite here. I'm not. I'm obviously using a computer to compose this blog entry. I just finished uploading some fiction to a website where anyone and his brother can read it if they so choose. I listen to podcasts almost compulsively. As I write this, I'm sitting in an electric wheelchair that gives me infinitely more freedom and mobility than I would have otherwise. I have pacemaker or cerebellar stimulator to compensate for some of the effects of my cerebral palsy. I have cable TV and a home stereo system, like most other Americans. Obviously then, I don't hate technology on principle. It's just that I like a little distance between my self--my soul, my being, that certain something that defines me as a unique human being created in the image and likeness of God--and any tools I use. I'm not sure I'm ready to go from this:



to this:



I'm not sure the future Mr. Kurzweil is proposing would allow me that distance, however:

So, my vision of what life will be like in the late twenty-twenties, is we will have millions of these nano-bots inside our blood stream. They'll be keeping us healthy from inside, repairing DNA errors, removing debris, killing cancer cells, augmenting the immune system.
.


Ahem. Ray? Mr. Kurzweil, sir? Just what is a "DNA error?" Is it, say, Parkinson's Disease or Down's Syndrome or cystic fibrosis? Or could it be something like not having blond hair, blue eyes, and an Aryan perfect physique? Not being fast enough or strong enough or pretty enough? Just who is to decide what a "DNA error" is, and how the nano-bots are to correct it? Have you not considered the gross potential for abuse with such a technology? And what happens if one (or more) of these little nano-bot thingies goes on the blink? But everything's going to be swell in Kurzweil-land 'cause we all know that scientists are perfect and technology never malfunctions or has unintended negative consequences, right? Hearing talk like this, I'm reminded of Mark Shea's observation that all of history can be divided into two phases: "What can it hurt?" followed by "How was I supposed to know?"

But wait, there's more! Coming soon to a cerebral cortex near you: Virtual Reality!

One thing it can do, for example, is provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system. So, if we want to go into virtual reality, the nanobots shut down the signals coming from your real sensors, replacing them with the signals that your brain would be receiving if you were in the virtual environment. Then your brain feels like it's in that environment. You go to move your hand, it moves your virtual hand. Design of new virtual environments will be a new art form. But mostly it's going to actually extend human intelligence, which arguably computers do today even if most of them are not yet inside our bodies and brains.


So this guy thinks the world of M. T. Anderson's Feed would be a good thing, I suppose: a world of virtual zombies, occupying the same physical space, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually isolated from each other. But hey, it's not all bad--they can still shop, shop, shop!

The last sentence of the quotation is so rich in irony, it's almost like a punchline:

But mostly it's going to actually extend human intelligence, which arguably computers do today

Arguably, indeed. They obviously haven't done much for your brain power, fella.


even if most of them are not yet inside our bodies and brains.

Yes, and please God, may they remain so! Sheesh! This guy is living proof that being educated is not the same thing as being smart and being smart is not the same thing as being wise.

Friday, January 25, 2008

"Shadows of Steel" Now Available!

Fans of Old-Time Radio
Fans of Pulp Fiction
Fans of Classic Comics
Ladies and Gentlemen . . .

Your Attention Please . . .

Thrilling Tales, the online pulp magazine
and
It's All Straw, the blog

Proudly Present . . .

Shadows of Steel: A Shadow/Superman Adventure



This is an all-new adventure in the classic style featuring two of the greatest heroes from The Golden Age of comics, pulp fiction, and old-time radio: Superman and The Shadow:

It is 1938. Lamont Cranston, The Shadow, has been kidnapped. Margo Lane appeals to her sister Lois Lane for help in finding Lamont, unaware that the old flame who has re-entered her life is at the center of the kidnap plot! Only the Man of Steel can save the Master of Darkness, and only the two heroes together can save a nation on the brink of war! Don't miss all the action in Shadows of Steel!


I had the basic idea for this story years ago when I realized the simple, blindingly obvious fact that Superman's girlfriend, Lois Lane, and The Shadow's girlfriend, Margo Lane, had the same last name. What if Lois and Margo Lane were related? Would that bring the two men, the two superheroes in their lives together? Of course it would! This story was the result. I've been working on it over a year now, and it's finally here! Do go read it and tell me what you think. Tell your friends, your relations, and complete strangers if necessary, about this story if you think they would like it. Since it involves two copyrighted and licensed characters, I can't possibly publish it via conventional means without being sued down to my last nickel for copyright infringement. So, like millions of other fan fiction or "fanfic" writers, I'm putting it up on the Web absolutely free for you good people to read and, I hope, to enjoy. Please send me feedback at: "niallmor at earthlink dot net," only replace the dot and the at as appropriate. (You know the drill). Cheerio!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Back to the Future!


I have a love/hate relationship with science fiction. I love the sense of wonder and possibility, the thrill of "exploring strange new worlds" and "seeking out new life and new civilizations" in the immortal words of Star Trek. On the other hand, I hate the dark, violent, nihilistic strain that runs through a lot of science fiction: the strain that says everything in the universe, including humanity, is just a product of mindless, soulless evolution; that says violence is the natural order of things; that says God and religion are just ignorant superstition; and that says given enough time and enough knowledge, human beings will completely understand the things of God, or in a sense, become gods themselves. This is a complex topic, and I won't try to unpack all my thoughts on it here; but I have been listening to a lot of classic, early science fiction lately, and I've found plenty to both love and hate. I'm thinking of writing something that harkens back to those early pioneers of the genre, such as Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I've learned that this deliberately retrograde style of SF has even acquired a name--"steampunk."

I grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars, so tales of starships, super weapons, beautiful alien maidens, green bug-eyed monsters, and "boldly going where no man has gone before" have always had a certain appeal. The longest piece of fiction I've ever written was in fact a Star Wars/Star Trek: Deep Space Nine crossover story that you can find here. I've also written one straight Star Trek story that you can find here, and I have several other unfinished fiction projects on my hard drive that have a distinct SF flavor. I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs's tales of Barsoom (as much swashbuckling romance as SF) several years ago and enjoyed them thoroughly. I listen regularly to Steve Eley's Escape Pod and Escape Pod Classic podcasts which feature short stories by both new and established SF writers. The latter show features stories that are more "family-friendly" for parents and other listeners that are concerned about explicit violence or sexually suggestive material.

Recently, however, I had a hankering to go back to the very roots of the genre--to read or hear the stories of Burroughs, H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. I suppose this was motivated in part by the news that Pixar is developing an animated version of Burroughs's Martian stories, and by hearing an audio version of Ann Leckie's short story "Hesperia and Glory", an affectionate tribute to those same Martian tales, on Escape Pod, episode 131. Since then, I've listened to podcast versions of Princess of Mars by Burroughs, War of the Worlds by Wells, and The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (In addition to creating Sherlock Holmes, Doyle also wrote tales of adventure, suspense, and horror fiction.) I'm also plowing through the podcast version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Seas by Jules Verne. The text for this last book is based on a new translation of Verne's original French text by F. P. Walter of the University of Houston, that you can find, very handsomely illustrated, here.

I say I'm "plowing" through Verne because the author insists on larding his text with lots of extraneous facts and figures that do little or nothing to advance the plot: summaries of previous ocean expeditions, tediously detailed explanations of how the Nautilus works, its average depth, cruising speed, and distance traveled, Latin names of plants and animals encountered, etc. Like the nerdy kid who just can't resist showing off every aspect of his winning science project, Verne just can't let any of his background and technical data go to waste. Another problem with this podcast version, as with many LibriVox recordings, is that it's read in round robin style, with different readers recording different chapters or different blocs of chapters. This is disconcerting for the listener who has to constantly adjust to different rhythms of speech, different accents, different pronunciations, and different levels of drama and expressiveness in the reading.

The reading for War of the Worlds is much better. The single reader, who choses to remain anonymous, reads the story in what I would guess is a middle class London or Surrey accent, appropriately professorial and matter-of-fact for the narrator, but able to reproduce the accents of working class people such as soldiers and tradesmen accurately. It's easy to read The War of the Worlds as a protest against late Victorian smugness, complacency, and class consciousness, and a reader who can bring these things out in his reading is an added bonus. It also struck me when listening to this reading that Wells constantly peppers his text with place names that an American might mispronounce and which would have added an extra level of verisimilitude and made his tale even more terrifying to a British audience. Just imagine how disturbing it would be if you sat down to read a fanciful story of an alien invasion, but the invaders were moving inexorably through real towns near you.

I don't know what will come out of all this reading and ruminating--I hope some good writing on my part--but it has been fun to travel back to the future and share with you what I've discovered.