Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Man Who Never Came Down

Neil Armstrong’s name shouldn’t be a household word. Not any more.

Don’t go Chernobyl on me yet. Pay attention to what I’m saying. Neil Armstrong, the quiet, modest, engineer and astronaut wasn’t quite 39 in June 1969 when he climbed into the Apollo 11 command module. He never made it down. Instead, a few days later, the First Man On The Moon made a triumphant return to Earth, where he remained an icon, a symbol to the very end of his days.

The First Man On The Moon was a hell of a guy; a hero to the world. But poor Neil: we sent him up there, all of us, hoping, dreaming, wishing, watching that shining ball in the sky at night. We sent him up there on a raging tower of hellfire barely controlled by instruments and systems so primitive they wouldn’t even be sufficient for a modern family car. We sent him up on a wing and a prayer, nobody knowing — least of all the man himself and his companions — whether we could even get him to the moon in one piece, let alone bring them back alive.

We sent three men up there. Two men touched down on the moon. One of them made it back. But Neil Armstrong got lost; marooned. Somehow, we replaced him with The First Man On The Moon.

Credit where it’s due: The First Man On The Moon played his part well. He was modest and humble, acting as an inspiration to people everywhere, both in public and in private. But you have to wonder what he gave up, don’t you? The actor Anthony Perkins sometimes spoke bitterly of his role in Psycho — the role that defined him forever in cinema. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy both publicly struggled against their better known incarnations. The First Man On The Moon never complained at all: he just kept being the role model, the hero, the vital symbol of the greatest of all human achievements. He was an amazing human being. It’s a shame that he had to be so amazing for so very long. But that wasn’t his fault. He did the job, and did it perfectly, and he deserves the greatest of respect for that.

But you and I, now...  in a very real sense,  everyone who looked up at the moon and thought of Armstrong and the others, the lonely footprints, the grainy black-and-white camera footage — we never let Neil Armstrong come back down. Thirty-nine years he lived, man and boy. The First Man On The Moon got forty-three.

There’s nothing wrong with recognising heroic actions. There’s nothing wrong with making a role model out of someone who behaves modestly and well, works with a team, and achieves something genuinely historic as a result. But it’s past time — long past! — that we asked what our hero, the First Man On The Moon might have wanted from us.

Who discovered Antarctica?

Give up? It’s a trick question anyhow. Nobody’s sure whether Cook’s expedition spotted it amongst all the ice in 1773. If they didn’t, then it was probably William Smith and Edward Bransfield in 1820, locating the Antarctic Peninsula.. At much the same time, a Russian called Fabian Gottlieb von Bellinghausen apparently became the first to see the Antarctic continent proper.

Now: who was the first to reach the South Pole?

Oh, that’s easy, right? Everybody knows it was Roald Amundsen, just ahead of Robert Scott’s doomed expedition.

Smith, Bransfield, von Bellinghausen; these are not household names, though they may well be the names of heroic men. Amundsen and Scott, though — why, they went to the South Pole!

Neil Armstrong went to the moon knowing it would change his life. But he neither wanted nor expected  to be the First Man On The Moon forever afterwards. Everything ever said or written about the man suggests he thought he was part of the beginning of something great, something wonderful. He made it as plain as possible: for him, the trip to the moon was just a small step for mankind, though it was a great leap for a single man.

Armstrong went to the moon expecting us to keep taking small steps. The First Man On The Moon spent his whole life wondering when we might remember how to walk again, if ever.

We put Neil Armstrong on the moon with the hopes and desires of a whole world, and then we left him there. We spent billions on wars, and movies and cars and mobile phones and more wars, and meanwhile the Saturn V programme went away, replaced by a shuttle fleet that was never even intended to go as far as the moon. When the shuttles got old and tired, we gave up even that much.

The first of our early mechanical probes has finally gone extra-solar. Launched thirty-five years ago, Voyager One has only just left the boundaries of our star system. In those thirty-five years, what have we done? Well, there are robots on Mars. Probes have visited most of the planets, the odd asteroid, and even the Sun.

But human beings?

We made Neil Armstrong into The First Man On The Moon. By this time, he should have been Neil Armstrong again. He should have been one of a list: the first person on Mars, the first to Venus, the first to the moons of Jupiter, and more. It might not yet be a long list, but at least he wouldn’t have been alone any more. He could have stopped being The First Man On The Moon, and he could have come home at last.

It’s too late for Neil Armstrong. He’s never coming home now. We can’t rescue him. We can only eulogise the First Man On The Moon, and admit our own failure in abandoning the man who went up there in the first place.

But that doesn’t have to be the end. It shouldn’t be the end. For the sake of Neil Armstrong, for the sake of our survival as a species, it must not be the end.

Eugene Cernan is seventy-eight years old. Chances are he’d give almost anything to live long enough that he can stop being the Last Man On The Moon.

For the sake Eugene Cernan; for the sake of the whole world; for the sake of every human being yet unborn: let’s go.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Aargh. Ow.


Having lately read a couple of very interesting books from a guy called Rory Miller, I've thought long and hard about martial arts, and most importantly, the application and the instruction thereof. I'm not going into any depth or detail here, but I will say this, just once: if you practice any form of martial art for any reason, or if you are concerned in any way about the potential necessity for dealing with violence, you need to read both Facing Violence and Meditations On Violence by this guy. I'm not going to sell him to you. If you're interested, you can look him and his stuff up for yourself.

I will say this, though. As an instructor, these days you can steal nifty technique and methods of practice from the Internet with ease. (Okay, if you're a hardcore traditional style it can be challenging, sure. But for a ju-jitsu instructor trained on the concept that "we will borrow anything that works", YouTube and similar resources are just fucking brilliant.)

Further: once you've earned a real black belt, you should be able to pick up technique and ideas from just about anywhere, assess them, and integrate them with either your own stuff, or the broader range that you teach, if they're worth keeping. Technique is an ocean. You're a bucket. You use what you can carry.

However, the underlying ideas behind combat and conflict and self-defense are extremely important. If you haven't thought long and hard about violence and conflict, then you have no business teaching anything called a "martial art". And no: I don't care if your aikido or your tai chi is the most peaceful exercise on the planet. If you're teaching it as a "martial" art, then you have to accept and understand that it comes from, and is related to, the human tendency to violence.

I've thought about it. A great deal. And read about it. And trained, and practised, and watched and observed. But Rory Miller has also done these things, and frankly, he's done them better. The man writes with clinical accuracy and crystal clarity about what violence is, and how it happens, and what we can do about it. The books are very useful. They are also inexpensive, and not particularly long or complicated.

As a result of reading Miller's stuff, I've done two things. First, I've made it mandatory that everyone aiming at a higher-grade belt has to read the damned things. And second, I've added a section of serious, high-intensity drills to every class. Ugly, potentially painful stuff. Tonight: you've been knocked down on your face. Before you can think of getting up, an attacker armed with a long weapon like an axe (or similar; a hoe, a stick, whatever) moves in to beat the snot out of you wholesale.

Fun stuff. We used padded weapons instead of axes or sticks, but we worked up to full speed and power. There are going to be some bruised people out there in the morning. Including me.

Meanwhile: the weekend was full-on. The Mau-Mau had her official birthday party, complete with helium balloons and a Godzilla Pinata, courtesy of yours truly. Also, because we had a spare kid -- young Deadly D of the Double-Banger clan -- he got a birthday party too. That was fun: Genghis and I went down to the local cheap-ass store, and bought a load of ridiculous stuff to wrap up for him. He got a garden gnome, for instance. And a CD compilation of 70s disco hit music. And a Fun Wig, and a Ninja Sword Kit, and a Bob the Builder belt with tools, etc. All good fun.

It was an energetic and busy day, and when I get time, I'll put up a couple photos. Meanwhile, I'll simply note that Tehani and half her brood were along for the day, including young Miss G, who stayed the night before as a guest of the Mau-Mau.

Once the wee ones cleared away, the slightly older crew stuck around. We barbecued some food, and then I made a load of popcorn and we retired to the Cinema Zone, where we watched The Raid (Redemption)

Yeah, I'm back on the martial arts thing again, but really - this is an interesting film. It's made in Indonesia, with an Indonesian cast and crew (though the director is Welsh, oddly) and it's very cool. It's a martial arts/action flick, and the martial art featured is a high-intensity version of Silat, with an emphasis on the striking. The hero character Rama is played by a young guy called Iko Uwais, whom we first saw in "Merantau". He's got the chops, I must say. He's fast as hell, knows his martial arts... and scarily, he can even more or less act. He's a shitload more convincing than Jason Statham, for example.

One word of caution. The fight sequences in this film are fucking brutal. This is not a movie for impressionable youngsters. There is blood, death, and savagery. And the little guy who plays a character called "Mad Dog" is one of the sc

ariest bad-asses to show up on screen for a very, very long time.

He's interesting, actually. You watch actors like Jason Statham, Arnie or the rest onscreen trying to project that sense of badass, and mostly, they just don't. They're actors. They do impressions. The bottom line is: you can tell the difference. Occasionally, though, you get a trained guy put up on screen, told to be bad. Really bad.

Now, someone who thinks of themselves as an actor will still act. Jet Li, for example. He makes a very cool villain, and he can project a degree of menace. But the guy playing Mad Dog? I think he's just a fighter, who got drafted into the film for his physical abilities. And I think this because he can, without moving a muscle, without changing expression, suggest absolute, ice-cold, psychopathic murder. The only other person I've met who could do that was my old instructor, Shihan Mark Haseman. Step on the mat to spar with him, and he'd just kind of... chill. The light in his eyes would sort of go away, and he'd just... watch you. And you knew damned well that the only reason you were still breathing was because he'd decided it would be that way.

Same thing with the little guy in The Raid. Watch it yourself. You'll see. He makes Hugh Jackman's "Wolverine" look like something from The Wiggles.

Aha. A little research gave me a pocket bio from IMDB. Turns out I'm precisely on the money. Yahyan Ruhian (the actor) is a professional Silat instructor who was hired as a consultant to Merantau (the first film by the same crew) and wound up being cast because he could do the shit they needed, and they couldn't find anyone else who could. So, yeah: professonal man of violence asked to be a bad-ass. Beautiful.

I don't know what they're going to do with the main actor, Iko Uwais. I doubt there are a whole lot of roles for Indonesian hero-types in either Asian or USAnian movies, unfortunately. But there are plenty of roles out there for savage bastards, and I will be extremely surprised if you don't see Yahyan Ruhian cropping up in a raft of films from this point forward.

So, there you have it. I'm going to finish up now, have a shower, and go to bed. Big day of writing and stuff tomorrow...

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Goodbye, Harry

Harry Harrison's official webpage says that he's gone.

If you don't know the name, I'm sorry for you. You've missed an awful lot of fun.

If you recognise the name - and most of you reading this will - you'll understand why I'm feeling a little downbeat.

I'll say only this: I really don't know what kind of person I'd have been if I hadn't discovered a trove of Stainless Steel Rat books when I was still back in primary school. I can't tell you  how many endless hours of toxic bullshit I wallpapered away with the adventures of Jim diGriz and the many others that Harry Harrison created.

No, I'm not arguing that he wrote immortal literature. But he had a hell of a sense of fun, and his priorities were in the right place, and his books made a thousand worlds of difference to me at a time when I desperately needed that escape.

I'm sorry I never got to say 'thanks' in person.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Musing On The Masters

One of the most interesting thing coming out of my Masters studies in creative writing is that I am learning just how... off-centre my expectations were. I figured okay: I'm a working writer. I want to refine my writing, and understand the process a bit better, and I'd like maybe a qualification that might give me some credibility if I want to do more teaching. (Which I probably will, as Jake goes on becoming a better, more sophisticated writer. The schools show no signs of being ready to handle someone who can read far better than most adults, and write narrative fiction with an advanced-adult level grasp of the technical usage of English. Ergo, he's gonna need a bit of outside guidance, and if I'm going to help him, I might as well see if I can find a way to convince the Education Department - or anyone in a similar position - to pay me to handle that kind of thing.)

The more reading I do, however, the more it becomes apparent that University English departments really aren't set up to handle this kind of thing. Look at it this way: if you want to write, you're doing it for an audience. Simple as that. And for most of us, that means we want to be published, and preferably, paid.

Now, every working writer will tell you immediately that if you're going to be published and paid, you have to know the audience you're writing for, you have to know what the marketplace is doing, and it sure as hell helps to know the publishers and the industry too. In other words, the creation of a novel isn't an isolated, writer-alone-in-the-ivory-tower experience, and if you try to treat it that way, you'll probably never get into print. (There's a word for people who write precisely what they like, and expect the audience to magically appear. It's a technical term. In the industry, we call them "wankers".)

I'm not saying you don't create, as a writer. I'm also not saying that you shouldn't write something that you actually enjoy writing. In fact, you pretty much have to enjoy it if it's going to be worth anything. If you hate writing the piece, believe me: your audience will know. The trick is to find a section of the market with which you can enjoyably engage. And so, my buddy Birmo writes explodey books that hover between SF and techno-thriller, and though I've never bothered to ask him, I'm absolutely certain he gets a kick out of doing it.

But the approach taken by English departments, which have been dominated by Literature studies for about a thousand years (You think I'm kidding. You're wrong. The first universities identified as such were founded around the beginning of the second millennium CE. They taught law, rhetoric -- and the study of the classic Greek and Latin literature.) is almost exactly the reverse. You can sum it up with a famous quote from Jacques Derrida: "There is only the text!"

Derrida, of course, is the famous post-modernist/deconstructionist French ur-masterbateur who has bestrode the literary theory scene like some kind of deranged colossus for the last forty years or so. And he has a point. When you're analysing a text, there's not a lot of value, ultimately, in trying to second-guess where it sits in what may be a very foreign cultural context. You'll never know exactly what the writer was thinking. (Even the writer doesn't. That's post-modernism for you!) You'll never know precisely what the work meant to its audience... and if it's old enough, (cave paintings, anyone?) you may know jack shit about the audience for which it was intended. So you study the text.

But that's pretty crippling, in a lot of ways. It's fine for constructing theories and analyses, but it's not much good for creating new work. And, well... isn't that what "creative writing" implies?

There is a very real problem here. It's like a hole in the middle of all the theory and research. Here I am, looking into the way in which Lit Theory of Genre can be used to enhance the production of genre-based fiction... and I'm told that if I want to look at the effects of the publishing industry -- well, that's not English. That's Publishing Studies. Oh, and that powerful community of committed and engaged people who have turned Steampunk from a bunch of books into a huge fan movement with music, costumes, bands, games, movies, conventions, etc? Ummm... no. We don't know what to say about them. If you tell us that they have an influence over the creation of new fiction in the genre... most likely we're probably going to have to cover our ears and go "la la la la la!" VERY VERY LOUDLY until you go away.

My Prof is one of the good guys. He acknowledges and recognises this gap, and he's encouraging me to find ways around it, and to reflect on its effect in my work. But it's getting challenging as hell. It would be nice if I'd just, say, decided to discuss changes in the symbolic meaning of the Catholic Church across Twentieth Century literature, and used that discourse to generate a piece of fiction of the appropriate length which re-constructed that symbolism in a different fashion. That would have been simple.

Also, it would have been fucking boring. So now I'm reading in genre theory, publishing studies, reception theory, and a whole bunch of other shit, and once again, the project is threatening to get Out Of Hand.

Must restrain myself. Do a PhD some other damned time.

A Bit Of Random Cooking

But before that, a whinge.

Why is Google Chrome turning into a piece of shit? I stopped using Firefox because it got big, slow, stoopid, and stopped efficiently loading web pages. I've been using Chrome since not long after it launched.

I didn't get rid of Firefox, though. I've seen all this shit before, and I've long ago learned that having a back-up browser is useful. And sure enough, lately Chrome is starting to suck. It won't handle Yahoo Mail any more, for example. Just... fails to load. Or if it does load, it won't actually do anything. And even this blog -- five minutes of pondering and fucking around, waiting for it to load. I got bored, so I opened up Firefox, hit it with the URL, and bingo: open and ready to work within seconds.

No. It's not the browser history and temporary files. I clear those routinely. Nope. It's simply that times have moved on, and Google Chrome hasn't moved on with them, while Firefox has done so. Guess it's time to switch browsers again, eh?

And now, the cooking.

Bitter cold day today. Snow on the range, rain down here with sleet and hail, and evil, dark winds from the southwest. I wanted something warm for the troops. I figured I'd maybe do some kind of vol-au-vent by way of a change. Unfortunately, there weren't any vol-au-vent cases available, and I didn't really feel like frigging around with a bunch of puff pastry to make them.

So, fuck it. I went to the bakery, bought four nice, big, crusty white rolls. And it went from there.

Two chunks of salmon, no skin. Three ripe avocadoes. A couple of shallots/green onions/whateverthefuck. A handful of fresh basil. Black pepper in quantity. A little salt. A little balsamic vinegar. Some slices of Gouda cheese.

Gently fry the salmon with garlic and a little butter. Don't crisp it up, and don't worry if it's still pink in the middle. It ought to be that way. Add pepper.

Now, chop your shallots into wee slices, and coarsely chop up the fresh basil. Put 'em in a bowl. Halve the avocadoes, and cube them. Dump the avocado flesh into the bowl. Add more pepper, add some salt, and add a couple tablespoons of balsamic vinegar.

Is the salmon more or less cool yet? You don't want to add it to the mixture if it's too hot. Avocado is nicer when it hasn't really been cooked. While you're waiting for the salmon to cool, cut the tops off the rolls, and pull out the bread in the middle, leaving a nice, crusty, bready shell behind. (You can take the bread from the middle and dry it out with the microwave to turn it into breadcrumbs. Or you can eat it. Or you can... I dunno... put it in an envelope and post it to someone at random in the phone book. Why not?)

Now, chop up your salmon into chunks the size of those avocado cubelets. Throw the salmon in with the avocado, basil, etc. Stir it all up, and check the seasoning (vinegar, salt and pepper) for taste. If you're happy, spoon the mixture into the bread rolls to fill them up. Put a slice of Gouda over the top of each, and put them in a hot oven until the Gouda is all melted and bubbly.

For added credit, put the cut-away tops of the bread on the same tray as the rolls while they're in the oven, and when you serve these up, use a big, decorative goddam toothpick to nail those now-crusty lids back onto the rolls, over the top of the cheese.

Rich, tasty, fresh, and full of good nutritious stuff. Serve it with a decent green salad, and a glass of sauvignon blanc.


Monday, August 6, 2012

All's Well... Working My Way Back Up To Date

I've been busy. Sorry. By way of apology: here's the first thousand words (first draft) of the creative work I'm doing for my Masters' Degree. It's a 13000 word poem in the Ottava Rima system used by Byron for his epic Don Juan.

It isn't as easy as it looks.

This isn't a work of undying genius. But before you say anything, go look at Don Juan itself. You can find it online easily enough. I'm not trying for undying genius. I'm trying for something like Byron. This is a first draft. When I'm done, it'll be much more Byronic.

Meantime, I'm off again. Gotta go do some Swedish with the kids.

The Queen of Bedlam

Canto I

When all the world was young, great marvels walk'd
The broad earth o'er, a wild and dreadful place. 
Thus Artemis her Attic mountains stalk'd
And Olympus quailed before Zeus' stern face;
The very stones beneath Poseidon rocked
And warlike Ares father'd the might of Thrace.
Aye, some would call these fearful beings 'gods',
And claim they raised up Man from earthen clods.

They wandered o'er that younger earth at will,
Strew'd tales like dragon's teeth in their wake.
Meaning no mortal either good or ill,
All their mighty deeds wrought for their own sake.
Their smallest whims oft raised the poet's quill,
The hero's sword, the maiden's heart – to break!
For to creatures of such Titanic fame
The lives of men are but a little game.

E'en unto these rainswept isles they came
Roving the grey hills, the greenwoods deep.
Our forefathers gave them many a name
Now lost, for such are mickle hard to keep
When Father Time his rightful meed doth claim
Deliv'ring all men unto lasting sleep.
For who can hope to keep alive the past
When each must go beneath the earth at last?

Yet it seems that e'en Titans have an end
Shadow'd and uncertain, 'tis true, but still;
These triumphant centuries of Man must lend
Strength to that belief, or at least until
Some storied wonder comes forth to ascend
In glory, to rule  –  or perhaps to kill.
After all, to the elephant what boots
It if the mouse be trampled underfoot?

Still the world is wide. Mayhap some far land
Of fabled realms, like the high Hindoo Kush
Or ancient, shadow-haunted Samarkand;
Yet makes a home for mighty beings such
As those of long-lost legend. Understand:
Though Albion's a fair land, green and lush
So many millions teem her shores today
'Tis no surprise her gods have turn'd away.

The last such nonpareil in Britain dwelt
Not centuries past, but a few short years
Agone. While of Scotland she came, no Celt
Was she. Last of the fairy kind, her peers
Long since vanished. By many, 'tis felt
Their flight was no loss, but I greatly fear
Mankind's future will be hopeless, tragic
With no  leavening of sweet fay magic.

Maeve was the name of the last fairy queen;
A queen without a country, for in Bedlam
Was she prison'd, until eighteen fifteen,
Cruelly bound by one of the Monro clan.
Not the vile Doctor Thomas, lately dean
Of that benighted hell, but a quondam
Chief Physician, his grandfather James
No man better destined for Hades' flames.

They met upon the shores of  Cromarty Firth
Where the dour North Sea growls and shows its teeth.
He thought her a young maid, alive with mirth
Lissome, lovely, her beauty like a wreath
Of wildflowers, rarest of all the earth.
Her hair, her eyes, her breast – aye, and beneath!
All this the handsome lecher's eyes took in.
He proffered his hand, and made a satyr's grin.

“Sblood,” quoth he, “What star hath fled from heaven?
For surely 'tis a splendid jewel of night 
Before me here. May I die unshriven
If e'er I have beheld such a fair sight.”
It was his habit his words to leaven
With sweet whispers that a comely maid might
Hark to. Displaying thus his manly charms
That he might persuade her into his arms.

Yet no blushing, virginal maid was Maeve
Rather a mighty queen of ancient race
Loved o'er centuries by great men, and brave;
Adored by bards and poets, full of grace.
This James Monro seemed but a very knave
A bumpkin, reaching far above his place.
She thought at first his squalid schemes to thwart
Then check'd herself. Perhaps she'd make some sport!

For in truth, she'd wandered long and alone
A-roving the wildwoods, the beasts and birds
All the companionship that she might own.
Deep inside her, she hunger'd for some words
Of comfort, and merriment, some light shone
In the long dark; a cup from the vineyards.
To be the last of your kind is trying,
While short-lived mortals must go on dying.

So with a pretty smile she turned her head
And in a voice like sweet  music she spoke.
“Grace to you good sir, and good health,” she said
“A shepherdess am I, of simple folk.
Seeking here for my flock, which lately stray'd.”
And here, she gathered 'round herself a cloak
Made play as if she suffered from the cold
To see if this bumpkin might grow more bold.

Say this for James Monro; he was not slow
To act upon an opportunity.
“Eventide is nigh, and the sun hangs low
In the west. Lady, please, my coat,” said he.
“Tis of finest fleece, and quite warm, I trow.”
The garment doffed, he made a leg – most pretty.
No earthly cold can harm a fairy queen
But Maeve took it, and smirk'd to see him preen.

“A gentleman such as yourself is rare
As an honest man in parliament,
And more welcome withal,” she said. With care
She donned his fine, dark, woollen coat, and went
Upon her way, as if to leave him there,
Though 'tis certain 'twas never her intent.
Monro, recking nothing of her wiles
Would have follow'd her for a thousand miles.

“The hour grows late,” said he, “Night comes apace.
Permit me, please, to play your gallant squire
And see you safely from this lonely place.”
Maeve gazed long upon him, her eyes sapphire 
Pools, dreaming on the snow-plains of her face,
And Monro felt as if he caught afire.
For such is the strength of fairy glamour
That incites the soul to lustful clamour.