Links and Stuff

So… what’s been going on this week? I’ve been doing more packing. It’s tough packing away stuff when you have no idea when you’ll be moving. Do I pack this book, or will I have time to read it before we go? How many books will I need to prepare Sunday School lessons? And for how long will I need them?

Speaking of moving, we looked at more houses this week. I only have a few more houses left on my list, so unless our realtor and my wife have more for us to look at, we might be getting close to decision time. There are a couple of strong possibilities among the ones we viewed, but none that really captivated us. We were hoping that by now we would have found a place we all love and fits our budget. However, I’m beginning to wonder how much stock we should place in the “love” department. Affection for a house can be a fickle thing. Sure, plenty of people have fallen in love with a house and continued to love it as long as they lived in it. But there are others who moved into a place for reasons other than an overwhelming desire to live there, and¬†over time, came to love that house. Or at least grow attached to it, if only through familiarity. So maybe we should consider more of the practical aspects, and hope the emotional side will take care of itself? I don’t know. I think I’m just ready to get on and be moved! ūüôā

On the links front,¬†a few weeks ago we talked about money and writing. Well, The Writer magazine published an article saying that independent authors are now starting to outsell traditionally published writers. In other words, indie writers, which includes self-published writers, are finding an audience large enough to at least sustain a writing career, if not rake in quite a bit of money. The article mentions six-figure incomes as being not entirely uncommon. It’s a well-established fact that self-publishing has the potential to make a lot of money, if only because you’re cutting out all the middle men (e.g., agents and marketing people). Of course, that doesn’t mean such incomes are guaranteed. You still have to write good books that people want to read. And you are still responsible for a lot of things that, in a traditional model, the publisher would take care of for you (cover art, some portion of publicity, etc.). Personally, I’m still attracted to the idea of having an agent represent me and my work, and having people around me that can take care of the business side of publishing, leaving me to write. But it’s food for thought, at least.

Next, did you know there’s a 15th century Spanish manuscript written in a language that no-one has yet been able to decipher? It’s called the Voynich manuscript, and, according to this article in The Guardian, a small publisher recently won the rights to publish it. Before you go placing your pre-orders, the print run won’t be large, and it’ll be priced way beyond most people’s budgets (we’re talking hundreds of dollars). So it’ll probably find an audience mostly with academic institutions, and very rich people with lots of money to burn. I am fascinated with languages, so the thought of this book intrigues me. Why has no-one figured it out yet? What kind of book is it? Given some of the accompanying illustrations, some speculate that it’s a mystical work, perhaps occultic. Fascinating, nevertheless.

Finally, you might have heard about France’s secular government imposing a ban on the “burkini”–essentially swimwear for Muslim women that enables them to enjoy the beach without violating their modesty. Here’s an article from the BBC about it. France takes great pride in being a secular nation, and has ever since the French Revolution. This is nothing special. The US is, to all intents and purposes, a secular nation, though it’s clear the US Constitution was written from a Judeo-Christian worldview. What baffles me is, if the French government (and, apparently, 64% of the French people) as so secure in their secularism, why do they feel so threatened by Islamic clothing? What does the French government have against modesty on the beach? It seems there is no tolerance in French secularism. And my fellow Christians should take note: this is one of the most severe restrictions of religious freedom I’ve seen in any so-called “free” country. Even with all the recent terrorist attacks in France, such a ban makes no sense aside from being a counter-exertion of the French irreligious sensibility. In which case, it won’t end with Islamic¬†swimwear.

UPDATE: A French court overturned the burkini ban just this morning. I still wonder about, as the article puts it, “France’s rigidly enforced secularism.” Isn’t this just another form of extremism? What happened to diversity and the freedom of expression? Isn’t a “rigidly enforced secularism” just another form of oppression, no better than the Taliban?

That’s all from me for this week. How’s things with you? If you’re a homeowner, did you love your house when you bought it? Any advice for us?

Who Review: Death to the Daleks

As promised at the end of the previous story, “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” the Doctor is taking Sarah Jane to the paradise planet of Florana for a well-deserved holiday, when the TARDIS experiences an inexplicable power drain. Using an oil lamp to guide their way, the Doctor and Sarah Jane¬†go outside to find they are not on Florana at all.¬†After a run in with the planet’s native inhabitants, they¬†encounter a team from the Marine Space Corps who, like the TARDIS crew, have been forced to land due to something interfering with their power supply. The MSC crew’s¬†interest in the planet, Exxilon, is a mineral called Parrinium, which they need to cure a deadly plague that¬†threatens the lives of 10 million people. However, no-one is leaving Exxilon until they discover the source of the power interference. And to complicate things, old enemies of the Doctor have shown up with plans of their own…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

“Death to the Daleks” was broadcast between February 23rd and March 16th, 1974. The four part story was written by Dalek creator Terry Nation, and features a lot of classic Terry Nation problem-solving puzzles. In typical Nation world-building style, the planet’s inhabitants, the Exxilons,¬†are divided into two groups: those that worship the beautiful¬†city with its glowing tower, and the heretics who see the city as the cause of their problems, and want to destroy it. The city¬†worshipers chant and perform rituals, such as sacrificing foreigners to the city by dropping them into a pit and leaving them at the mercy of the creature that lives beneath (more about that in a moment). The heretics live underground in fear of the fanatics, plotting a way to bring about the city’s downfall and freeing their people from its tyranny.

And then there’s the city itself, built by a highly advanced civilization to be self-sustaining to the point where it acts like an organism, repairing itself and creating antibodies to deal with invaders. It’s the beacon on this city that is preventing the flow of power within any machine that comes within its vicinity. This includes flash lights, but not oil lamps. For some strange reason, it also includes Dalek guns, but not Dalek motors–they are still able to move around.

The acting in the story is good, especially Elisabeth Sladen. She plays Sarah Jane with such conviction, you can see in her eyes she is totally sold on making you believe this is real. It’s a shame Nation gave her the ultimate clich√© Who companion line, “What is it, Doctor? What’s happening?” at the moment the lights go out in the TARDIS. It seems out of character for her. Otherwise, we begin to see why Sarah Jane fast became a fan favorite.

For that alone, this story is worth watching. There are plenty of odd moments that, strangely, make time spent with “Death to the Daleks” even more worthwhile.¬†These odd moments fall into two categories, odd in a good, quirky or unusual sense, and odd in a… well, just plain odd¬†sense. On the “good” side, we have the Doctor going off without Sarah Jane while she goes to change into something a bit warmer than her beach costume, just after Sarah Jane tells him not to go off without her. We see Daleks unable to use their weapons, so they adapt their guns to fire bullets. Also, there’s the Doctor’s ominous¬†command to Sarah Jane before he enters the city: “If I don’t come back, go with them” (i.e., the Marine Space Corps). That line adds¬†a level of intensity, showing a hint of trepidation, that the Doctor really doesn’t¬†know what he’s getting into.¬†And then there’s the Doctor’s almost inappropriate humor at the end, as the city melts, undoubtedly killing all who are within: “Pity. Now the universe is down to 699 wonders.”

On the just-plain-odd side, we have the Daleks using model TARDISes for target practice with their new weapons. There’s the awkward battle between the Dalek and the “root” monster in the underground pit,¬†clearly a victim of budget constraints.¬†The “root” looks like a vacuum cleaner hose with a headlight. In fact, it probably¬†is a vacuum cleaner hose with a headlight.

And then there’s the whole puzzle scene at the end of episode three and beginning of episode four, which deserves its own paragraph.¬†For some reason I thought these puzzles were reminiscent of Nation’s “The Keys of Marinus” from 1964, where the TARDIS crew had to go through a series of quests to find a set of keys. Unlike the “Marinus” trials, though, these puzzles are a bit lame. First, we have a maze. A big maze on a wall. And in the room are the skeletons of those who couldn’t figure out how to draw a line¬†from start to finish, and spent so long on it, they died. It’s a MAZE for crying out loud! They’re not that hard. Even one this big! If you take your¬†time, perhaps an hour or so, it wouldn’t be that hard to solve. Sorry, but I would hardly call that an intelligence test. Then we have the floor puzzle, which the Doctor doesn’t even figure out; he just uses the sonic screwdriver to tell him which areas are¬†safe. Where’s the logic in that? AND… they made seeing the floor puzzle the¬†episode three cliffhanger!! “Look out!” says the Doctor to Bellal, his Exxilon friend, and the camera zooms in on the extremely threatening red and white floor tiles!!!¬†DUH DUH DUH!!!! Eeeeerrrrrr… oooeeeoooo…. *sigh* That really wasn’t well planned. And then there’s the mind attack, which was probably the most effective of the “challenges.” While all this is going on, the Daleks are hot on the Doctor’s heels. Except… how did they solve the maze when the¬†Dalek’s¬†plunger couldn’t have reached to the starting position, and is¬†too big to accurately trace the correct path? And since they got through while the Doctor and Bellal were just about finished with the Tiles of Doom, how come they didn’t catch up? What’s more, the Daleks were able to glide over the tiles, sustaining little damage from the electric bolts that would have fried the Doctor. And yet it took them ages to get anywhere close to the Doctor and Bellal!

One more¬†point of odd interest. There’s a scene where the Daleks are using the Exxilons and the Marine Space Corps crew to mine for¬†Parrinium. One Dalek is guarding Jill, a crew member, in a cave, but Jill escapes, with help from Sarah Jane. The Dalek realizes its¬†prisoner has fled, and instead of immediately setting out to recapture her, has a complete mental breakdown. This is Dalek depression at its worst. “I have failed! I have failed!” it cries out until it shuts down completely. Are the Daleks aware of the deep psychological issues some of their number have?

Oh, and just one last thing: I have¬†never understood the title. Why “Death to the Daleks”? Isn’t that what everyone wants in a Dalek story? Perhaps someone could explain that to me.

To sum up, as I said, this serial¬†is¬†worth watching for the performances and the generally good story. It’s even worth it for all the strange and quirky parts I mentioned above. ūüôā

Links and Stuff

RioOlympicsWeek Two of the Rio Olympics and, aside from Michael Phelps winning a boatload more medals, perhaps the most notable thing (at least for me) is how well the UK is doing. As of this writing, they are third in total medal count (behind China), and second in gold medal count (behind the US). Here’s the NBC Olympic Medal Race chart so you can keep track for yourself. As an ex-pat Brit, now a US citizen, I always have conflicting feelings whenever the US and UK compete against each other. I probably tilt a little to the UK, simply because it’s a British trait to root for the underdog, and they are definitely the underdogs against the US. Though I stand by what I said to the Immigration Officer at my citizenship interview: if the US and the UK were to go to war, I’d be on the US side. Sorry Mum. And yes–they asked.

House Hunting¬†Update: We looked at some more houses this week, and I made a list of all the houses we still want to look at, so we can start narrowing down our options. We’ve already crossed off four or five houses, and we have a couple that are the current favorites. But we still have a lot to look at. One house we liked is out in the countryside, but not too far from town. Unfortunately, it’s a little on the expensive side, and it’s still liable for city taxes, so money is a hindrance, even though we all liked it. Wifey grudgingly thinks we should strike it from the list. Call me ever the optimist, but I’m keeping it on there for now. Then there was the¬†house we wanted to see but we couldn’t get in. The realtor’s key turned the deadbolt, but the door wouldn’t budge. We considered breaking the door down, but decided we’re not that desperate. Our realtor is¬†going to contact the selling agent to let them know, so hopefully we can make a return visit. Note to house sellers: if you want to sell your house, make sure potential buyers can actually get into it. ūüôā

I recently read my first Lisa Gardner novel, FEAR NOTHING. Lisa was on the cover of Writer’s Digest not long ago, and I bought FEAR NOTHING on the basis of¬†that¬†interview. I wasn’t at all disappointed. The novel is well-written and well-plotted, using two different POVs for the two main characters. One of these (third person POV), is a police detective injured in the line of duty. The other is her pain therapist (first person POV), who has a genetic condition that makes her incapable of feeling pain. The twist? The therapist’s father was a notorious serial killer, and her sister is currently in prison for murder. What’s more, the case under investigation involves someone who is murdering people in exactly the same style as the therapist’s father…! There’s profanity and some moderately gruesome scenes (depending on your tolerance for such things), but otherwise I recommend it.

Finally, the British Library¬†has digitized and put online a 1,000 year old manuscript of the poem “Beowulf.” As you probably know, “Beowulf” was written in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon), and is the oldest surviving poem in the English language. So this is quite a big deal for students of ancient literature. Of course, to fully appreciate this manuscript you need to be able to read Old English. But even if your linguistic repertoire does not extend to Anglo-Saxon, you can still have fun getting an up-close look at 1,000-year-old writing.

That’s all from me. How’s your week been? Read anything good?

Who Review: The Time Warrior

A Sontaran spaceship crash-lands on Earth in the Middle Ages. Linx, the sole occupant of the craft, is discovered by Irongron, a robber baron, and his men. Unable to effect repairs without help, he cuts a deal with Irongron. Supply a place to work and raw materials, and he will provide weapons by which¬†Irongron can fight his neighbor, Lord Edward of Wessex, and take his castle. But these medieval supplies are not sufficient. Linx needs technical know-how, but for that he must steal from another time…

Meanwhile, back in the 20th century, the Doctor is¬†helping the Brigadier investigate the mysterious disappearance of scientists from a top research center. Sarah Jane Smith, a journalist, infiltrates, posing as her¬†scientist aunt. Sarah’s curiosity gets the better of her when she sneaks aboard the TARDIS, just as the Doctor gets a lock on a signal that seems to be the cause of the disappearances. Not long after their arrival¬†in medieval England, Sarah is taken captive by Irongron. Not only must the Doctor rescue Sarah and send all the scientists back home, he needs to put an end to Linx’s tampering with Earth history before he finishes the repairs to his ship…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

Season 11, Jon Pertwee’s fifth and final season as the Doctor, gets off to a cracking start with what is arguably one of the best stories of his era. I certainly consider this my favorite Third Doctor story, and one of my all-time favorite Who stories. “The Time Warrior” was written by Robert Holmes–who has already proven himself as one of the best writers for the show–and was broadcast over Christmas and New Year, 1973-1974.

Aside from the story, which we’ll talk about in a moment, “The Time Warrior” is notable for some firsts. There’s a new title sequence, featuring a new “diamond” logo that will be a distinctive hallmark for years to come. We are introduced to Sarah Jane Smith, who will become one of the Doctor’s most beloved companions. This story also introduces the Sontarans, a clone warrior race with unforgettable potato heads. And it’s in this story that the Doctor first mentions the name of his home planet: Gallifrey.

The premise of the story is simple enough, as I described above. Since it’s only a four-parter, it doesn’t need to be overly complex, and it ends up working well. Linx and Irongron form a typical bad-guy alliance, where neither trusts the other, and plans the other’s demise once they get what they want. The Doctor and Lord Edward, on the other hand, form a typical good-guy alliance, based on trust, and working for their mutual benefit. There’s a lovely twist at the beginning where Sarah Jane is convinced the Doctor is working for Irongron, and works with Hal, Lord Edward’s archer (played by Jeremy Bulloch, who later played Boba Fett in the “Star Wars” movies), to capture him. Sarah’s initial conviction that this is all some kind of costume pageant is also beautifully played. Linx’s passion for a fight, and his disappointment with Irongron’s lack of courage heightens the tension in their shaky allegiance.

Character is one of Holmes’s strengths, and there’s no shortage of them here. Irongron is the blustering robber baron with a devious mind, and no patience for fools. Bloodaxe, Irongron’s loyal companion might be dismissed as a fool if it weren’t for his unshakable faith in his master, and his agility with the sword and the compliment. Lord Edward is a bit of a wet blanket, so it’s hardly any wonder he’s an easy target. His wife, Eleanor, however, is made of stronger stuff. Linx¬†gives us one of the best new Who monsters in a long time. The concept of the Sontarans is pure genius, and Linx is¬†perhaps one of the Classic Series’ best monster designs, as demonstrated by the part one cliffhanger, when Linx removes his helmet for the first time. Kevin Lindsey’s portrayal is perfect. His occasional poking out of the tongue is a small detail that adds so much to the character, and the strong rasping voice is just right for the stocky soldier. As for Sarah Jane Smith–wow! I can only imagine what it must have been like seeing her entering the scene for the first time, full of confidence and curiosity, a complete contrast with previous companion Jo Grant’s initial encounter with the Doctor. I was¬†a few months shy of four when this story first aired, so Sarah Jane was a fact of life in my earliest Who memories. It’s no wonder she commonly appears among the top few on all-time favorite companion lists. Elisabeth Sladen’s performance is pitch-perfect, and absolutely convincing.

The show is not without its dodgy moments. Perhaps the one that makes me cringe the most is when the Doctor and Sarah Jane pose as monks to gain entrance to Irongron’s castle. They tell the guards they are there to collect alms from Irongron. The guards let them pass, and when they’re gone, the guards¬†laugh at the idea that Irongron might give them anything but the end of his sword. I don’t know who they got to play these two guards, but their dialog comes out sounding like a bad high school performance of Shakespeare. And their laughter is so obviously forced, perhaps they weren’t paid enough to be believable.

I’ve also¬†encountered¬†criticism of Professor Rubeish, the almost-blind scientist who is whisked away by Linx, but doesn’t succumb to his hypnotism because of his poor eyesight. While the other scientists go about their work like zombies, Rubeish walks about freely, doing his own thing (like crafting a monocle from a piece of glass and some kind of machine Linx just happened to have in his makeshift workshop), and Linx doesn’t seem to care. This is a valid criticism, though Rubeish does seem to keep out of Linx’s way, and does prove to be useful to the Doctor in helping to break the hypnotic spell, and get the other scientists back home. So he’s not a complete waste of space.

As I said, “The Time Warrior” is a classic, and one of Robert Holmes’s finest. In my estimation, it is required watching for any Whovian. Aside from the story, the performances, and the drama, there are some classic lines. For example, when the Brigadier makes a smart remark to the Doctor about his recent detour to Metebelis Three¬†(see “The Green Death”), the Doctor explains: “A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, but it is by no means the most interesting!” Then there’s Irongron’s description of the Doctor: “A longshank rascal with a mighty nose.” Yes, this story is well worth your time.

Links and Stuff

Just a quick L&S today. The 31st Olympic Games started in Rio this past week. I haven’t seen much of it, but what I have seen has been quite impressive. In fact, I feel guilty critiquing the performances because I know I couldn’t do nearly as well. Like the gymnast who flipped and tumbled¬†and ended up landing on her bottom. Granted, that’s a major faux-pas and cost her a lot of points. On the one hand, I sit there shaking my head, tut-tutting like a judge. On the other, I’m in awe of all the moves leading up to the crash, knowing if I tried anything like that, I would fall flat on my face after three steps. Athletics, like car mechanics, is something I wonder at from afar.

My wife and kids have been out of town this week, so no progress on the house-hunting. They’re back so we plan to look at some today. I’ll report next week.

Today’s link is to¬†an article by Susan Spann, warning writers about signing books. Okay, so she’s not saying signing books is a bad thing, but she does caution against using the same signature in a book as you use, say, on a contract, or a check. In other words, keep your legal sig for legal docs, and develop a special signature for books. It’s not often identity thieves will steal signatures from books, but it can happen. Why give the thief that opportunity? I think I’ve discussed this before, and I do plan to adapt a signature for book signings (should the day come people ask for my squiggle on something I wrote). Mind you, my motive isn’t just security. My legal signature is virtually illegible, so it’s probably worthless to a book collector. ūüôā

What do you think–about book signatures, the Olympics, or anything else going on in your life?

Who Review: The Green Death

Strange deaths at a Welsh coal mine catch the interest of U.N.I.T., particularly because the deceased have strange glowing green marks on them, and their deaths are otherwise unexplained. The Doctor is determined to visit Metebelis Three, now he has freedom to travel, and tells the Brigadier he’ll catch up with him later. Much to the Doctor’s disappointment, Jo is reluctant to go with him. It seems the marvels of the blue planet can’t compare to the need for action against Global Chemicals, and their new “Stevens Process” that, according to Nobel Prize Winning researcher, Professor Clifford Jones, can’t avoid producing gallons of waste that will destroy the environment.¬†The Global Chemicals facility is near the mine, so Jo rides with the Brigadier to Wales,¬†where they discover things are not as rosy as they are made to appear. Someone doesn’t want U.N.I.T. investigating the mine, or the deaths. And when they encounter giant deadly maggots, it becomes apparent why…

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

“The Green Death” is one of those landmark Who stories. It’s the last time the “howl-around” title sequence is used. It’s also the last appearance of that “Doctor Who” logo–at least until it was revived for the 1996 movie, and then for the BBC Books and Classic Who DVD range. This story also marks the end of Jo Grant’s time as the Doctor’s companion.

And what a story to go out on! Broadcast over May and June of 1973, it touches on a lot of concerns about the environment and globalization that were beginning to be voiced at the time. Of course, back then, issues with food supply weren’t¬†quite the same as they are today. Sure, they had processed foods, but not nearly on the scale we do today. Add to that fast food, genetically modified foods, and not to mention the amount of preservatives and other chemicals that go into much of our food supply, the idea of natural, healthy, and cheap food is quite appealing. In “The Green Death,” however, the food aspect seems to focus more on using fungus to make protein-rich meat substitutes. And it’s not preaching vegetarianism so much as sustainability–the fungus can feed a lot more people a lot more cheaply than animal meat.

But “The Green Death” is not just a thinly veiled advertisement for a hippie lifestyle. (In fact, Professor Jones and his “Nut Hutch” colleagues are portrayed as intelligent and industrious, not doped-up drop-outs, which is how hippies are normally perceived.) ¬†There’s a good, coherent story; indeed, two related stories: the mining deaths, and the Global Chemical controversy. Global Chemicals is producing a lot of waste which is being pumped into the ground which, in turn, is creating these over-sized maggots that are deadly to those they attack. In charge at Global Chemicals is a computer, BOSS, programmed for efficiency, even at the expense of human life. Professor Jones doesn’t believe destroying lives, which includes destroying the environment, is worth any financial gain.

This story is also a good lesson in how to write a six-part story without padding. Chekhov once famously said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” Where this advice is ignored, you get padded stories with pointless plot lines. Where it’s heeded, you get stories like “The Green Death.” For example:

  • On his¬†seemingly frivolous jaunt to Metebelis Three, the Doctor steals a blue crystal. That crystal becomes key to breaking the hypnotic spell BOSS has on people, and eventually causing the computer’s downfall. This is not the last we see of the famous crystal in Doctor Who…
  • Professor Jones’s fungus turns out to be the substance needed to destroy the maggots, and cure the green infection.
  • Jo’s preference for an apple over “eggs and bacon” validates her interest in Professor Jones’s work. And, eventually, Professor Jones. ūüôā

Every part of the story advances the whole story, without any wasted scenes. This is hard to do over six or more episodes, which is why such lengthy stories gradually fell out of favor.

This is a good story for the supporting cast, especially Captain Mike Yates, who goes undercover and uses¬†his smarts to get the information the Doctor needs to help bring down Global Chemicals. (The Doctor’s turns as a milkman and a cleaning lady are also quite entertaining–the first time we’ve seen the Doctor in drag since 1967’s “The Underwater Menace”!)

Some complain that the Welsh are patronized and treated unfairly in this story. And yes, there is a bit of stereotyping, isn’t there? Boy-o! However, I would also point out that the geniuses in the “Nut Hutch,” including Professor Jones, are all Welsh. So there is balance.

Considering 1973 technology and Who budgets, I think the maggots are quite well done. For distance shots, they used real maggots. But for close-ups, especially when we see maggots with teeth, they used models. Again, for the time, I think they’re quite effective.

Jo Grant makes her tearful farewell at the end, as the Doctor shares a glass of wine with everyone celebrating her engagement to Professor Jones. He gives her the Metebelis Three crystal as a wedding gift, and then, while everyone celebrates,¬†he slips away, riding off into the sunset. This is the end of an era. Season 11 will introduce a new companion, and set the stage for the next era in the show’s history.

Links and Stuff

Hello, again! Or if this is your first visit to my blog, HELLO!! Sorry–was that a bit too loud and overbearing? No… wait… come back!! *sigh* Well, I guess it’s just you and me again, Mum! ūüôā

It’s all packing and cleaning here at Chez Smith as the hunt for that elusive right-house-at-the-right-price continues. We’ve looked at some more houses this week, a couple of which have promise, and one in particular everyone seems to like. Except I’d need them to come down on the price. I know everyone’s getting sick of me saying it (“What do you think, Dad?” “Very nice… now, if they could drop the price by about $40k, we might be able to afford it and still eat!”), but someone has to make sure we don’t fall into ruin for the sake of having nice digs. Those who are of a praying inclination, please feel free to offer petitions on our behalf, mostly for wisdom, and patience.

Sam the Cat’s loving all this new empty shelf space, though. We’ve often pondered what he looks like. A¬†loaf of bread? An oversize Pikachu? It seems he thinks he’s the next “Game of Thrones” novel:


Can you believe it’s August already? I set myself two goals for the end of July: finish ALEXANDER HAMILTON by Ron Chernow, and finish another short story. As you can see from the review I posted on Wednesday, I completed the first of those goals, and thoroughly enjoyed the book. I also managed the second, which is good since I’m trying to write a short story every month. My hope is to build a little collection of them that I can submit to magazines. Having stories published in well-regarded magazines always looks good to agents, and can give a little bump to the finances, which is not to be sneezed at when you’re contemplating the size of a mortgage.

Forbes issued its list of the World’s Highest-Paid Authors. Now, I know we don’t write for the money, but many of us would at least like to make some kind of a living with our words. So, in a strange way, it can be encouraging to see authors earn¬†lots of money from their books. After all, if these few can make millions, then isn’t it possible for many of us to at least pay the bills and buy food? To me, it was fun to see Veronica Roth on the list. I remember reading the blog posts when she signed with her agent, Joanne Volpe, now with New Leaf Literary Agency. And then her YA dystopian novel, DIVERGENT, was published to great fanfare. It became a bestseller, then the sequel came out, then there was talk of movie deals… and now she’s in the Top 20 richest writers list. Well done, Veronica!

What are your thoughts on writing and money? If you’re a writer, have you ever written for the money–even if it was just one short story to help pay a bill?

That’s it for now. Have a great week! ūüôā

Book Review: ALEXANDER HAMILTON by Ron Chernow

Those of you in the US, do you remember the “Got Milk?” advertising campaign in the early 1990s? One very popular commercial featured a history buff who gets a random call from a radio station offering him a prize if he can answer the question, “Who shot Alexander Hamilton?” As I recall, the camera pans to a picture of Aaron Burr, the original bullet in a glass case, the pistols, etc. Unfortunately, the history buff has just stuffed a peanut butter sandwich in his mouth, so his attempts to say “Aaron Burr” are incomprehensible to the radio host. With time running out, he pours himself a glass of milk–but there’s only a drop left in the carton. Eventually the host tells him his time’s up. Dial tone. Caption: “Got milk?”

That was probably the first time I’d heard of Aaron Burr, and at the time I knew precious little about Alexander Hamilton. He was one of the US Founding Fathers, and his face is on the ten dollar bill. That he died in a duel? News to me. Funny commercial, though. As an immigrant to the United States, my knowledge of US history was very basic, as I suppose is true for most non-Americans, and while a lethal squabble between the third Vice President and the former Treasury Secretary was not inconsequential, it wasn’t as big of a deal as, say, the Revolutionary War, or the Civil War.

I’ve always been fascinated with history, so when Ron Chernow’s ALEXANDER HAMILTON appeared on a book club list a number of years ago, I saw an opportunity to fill a gap in my knowledge–and for just $1!¬†Chernow’s 800-page tome ended up¬†gathering dust on a shelf for a few years while I caught up on a lot of other reading. Then, a few months ago, having read a short biography of George Washington, I figured it was about time I dusted off Chernow and dug in. When I discovered the enormously successful hip-hop musical “Hamilton” was based on Chernow’s work, that¬†solidified my resolve.¬†After all, I could hardly see the musical without reading the book first, could I? ūüôā

The thought of reading an 800-page book on one of the more obscure (he was at that time, anyway) Founding Fathers sounds daunting. But from the opening chapters, I was hooked. Hamilton’s story is very compelling, and Chernow brings it to life with his¬†absorbing narrative style. Hamilton’s childhood in the West Indies, his broken home and questionable parentage, the hurricane that changed his life, and his move to the American Colonies set him apart from the other Founders from the outset. He came to this country with nothing but money raised to send him to college in New York, and his wits. From that, he rose to become Washington’s right-hand man, not only virtually running the government, but creating the government through his co-crafting of the US Constitution, and writing the majority of “The Federalist Papers”–still considered today the authoritative commentary on the Constitution. If that was all Hamilton did, it would be enough. But he also established the first National Bank, and, as Treasury Secretary, built the financial structures that not only made America prosperous, but are still at the foundation of the country’s economy today. He also had a successful law practice, wrote copious amounts of articles, papers, and letters, and raised a large family.

Given all this, I was surprised to learn that Hamilton is not regarded as a national hero. In fact, my wife had the impression that he wasn’t a very nice person. Up until a few years ago, the Treasury was going to replace him on the ten dollar bill with someone more famous and, I suppose, illustrious. As a foreigner reading Hamilton’s story¬†(as related by¬†Chernow), this makes no sense to me. You couldn’t get more of an illustrious American hero than Alexander Hamilton. For a nation founded upon immigrants, surely the immigrant Hamilton is the prime example of the American Dream? But this is one of Chernow’s major strengths: while Hamilton is the hero of his story, he doesn’t shy away from painting a full portrait of the man, warts and all. His life wasn’t scandal-free, and he did cultivate political and personal enemies.

But Chernow also digs a bit into the lives of those around Hamilton, and it seems even while he was alive he had to contend with a bad press. His actions and intentions were constantly misunderstood or misinterpreted, often, it seems, deliberately, by his opponents–particularly Thomas Jefferson. I found it fascinating to read about the other Founders, and get a glimpse at their characters. Jefferson does not come off at all well in this story. He treated Hamilton abysmally, and sunk to levels of character assassination that Hamilton, in good conscience, couldn’t reciprocate. John Adams, while of the same party, had no time for Hamilton, and did little to promote¬†his virtues. Even James Madison, with whom Hamilton had worked on the Constitution, turned against him, siding with Jefferson, and going along with spreading ill-repute of his former colleague. I suppose, given that his detractors long outlived him, it’s no wonder their version of Hamilton got more attention. This, despite Eliza Hamilton’s attempts to manage her husband’s estate, collect his papers, and make the case in his favor.

To sum up, this book is as close to a definitive work on Hamilton that you will find. It’s balanced, and thoroughly researched. Though not originally a historian by training, Chernow has¬†written a scholarly work that ranks with the best of historians. Chernow’s degrees are in English Literature, and he started out as a journalist, and I think this background plays to his advantage with a¬†book like this. For a large historical work, ALEXANDER HAMILTON is immensely readable, at times as gripping as a novel. It’s little wonder Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired by this book to write his musical. I felt I had come to know Hamilton so well, I dreaded those final chapters, and that last encounter with Aaron Burr. Chernow’s narrative is heart-wrenching, especially as he argues his conviction that Hamilton shot first, and deliberately aimed high, hitting a tree behind Burr, so there would be no doubt in Burr’s mind that he had no intention of killing him. This was supposed to give Burr time to reflect, and maybe come to terms. Instead, Burr aimed and shot to kill.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an¬†interest in American government, and early American history. I also commend it to those who love a great biography. I have read few better. Indeed, this might be one of the best works of history I’ve ever read. A very easy five Goodreads stars.

PS: I still haven’t seen the musical–and given the ticket backlog (not to mention the price), I may as well¬†wait for the movie version!

Who Review: Planet of the Daleks

The wounded Doctor lies on a pallet in the TARDIS console room while the TARDIS whisks him and his frightened companion to the planet Spiridon. There, Jo goes in search of help, only to be attacked by¬†plant sap. Little does she realize that this sap will start to expand until it covers her, as it is beginning to cover the TARDIS. The Doctor awakens to find himself sealed inside, and his supply of oxygen running out. He is rescued by a group of men whom he recognizes as¬†Thals from the Dalek home planet, Skaro. The Doctor encountered the Thals the first time he visited Skaro, back when he traveled with Ian, Barbara, and Susan. That time¬†he helped the Thals defeat the Daleks. Now it seems the Daleks have enslaved the native Spiridons to discover their secret of invisibility, and are¬†preparing a virus that will kill all life on the planet. With these weapons added to their arsenal, along with the thousands of Daleks hidden and waiting in suspended animation, they plan to conquer the galaxy. Can the Doctor, Jo, and this small band of Thals defeat the mighty Daleks and save the universe–again?

SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!

The story that began with “Frontier in Space” continues with “Planet of the Daleks.” The two form a sort-of six-part saga, though I¬†don’t think they are so intimately connected that they can’t be watched as stand-alone stories. Certainly “Planet” picks up some plot threads from “Frontier,” but nothing that requires watching the whole of “Frontier” to grasp. All you need to know is that the Daleks are using Spiridon as a base for the army they have amassed in their quest for galactic domination.

“Planet of the Daleks” sees the return of Terry Nation to write for his famous monsters. One of the hallmarks of a Terry Nation script is a tendency to eschew hi-tech solutions and go for resourcefulness. Hence, the Doctor and his Thal friends fashion a parachute out of clear plastic (okay, so it wasn’t supposed to be plastic… but it was, you know what I mean?) so they¬†could utilize the updraft from the heating system to escape the Dalek “city” via a vertical chute. They¬†disable a couple of Daleks by pushing them into a frigid lake, then¬†sneak into the Dalek city by hiding under fluffy purple Spiridon blankets (the invisible people use them to keep warm in the cold nights), with one of their number inside a Dalek (having removed the Dalek blob first). The Doctor wards off night creatures using a flaming torch¬†when the blasters fail them. The Doctor even ignores his own sonic screwdriver to use a regular screwdriver (that one of the Thals just happened to have handy) to unscrew his recording¬†device, out of which he fashions a radio signal jammer to disable a Dalek. Is it any wonder Terry Nation went on to write for¬†MacGyver?

The story itself has, I think, fewer plot problems than “Frontier.” Terry doesn’t throw in useless plot threads just to pad the story. There is at least the appearance of cohesiveness, where a discovery in an early episode can impact a solution in a later episode. For example, the discovery of the cooling vents, which the Doctor and friends use to escape. These same vents deliver the icy goop that the Doctor will use to put the Dalek army in a very long-term deep freeze at the end of the story. Also, early on, the Thals plant bombs which the Daleks subsequently discover. The Daleks¬†only detonate a couple of them, and Jo manages to salvage the rest. One of these bombs will be used at the end to blow open the cooling duct that will deep-freeze the Daleks.

I’m still a little mystified about the Doctor’s injury at the beginning. It’s possible he was shot by the Master, but it’s just a head wound. He’s recovered from worse before. Though this scene at the beginning of episode one gives us the chance to admire the TARDIS IKEA furniture.

There are a couple of unnecessary deaths,¬†not because they didn’t serve¬†a purpose in the plot, but because the situations in which the characters died were not life-or-death.¬†Marat was gunned down by a Dalek because he didn’t want to crawl under a¬†door to escape. He had plenty of time, and there was plenty of space between the door and the floor. Marat’s death was necessary for the plot because he had the map showing all the Thal bomb locations. But they could have at least made it look like death was his only option. And then there was Vaber’s death, shot by a Dalek as he tried to escape in the forest. My problem here is that the Doctor and the other Thals¬†were later¬†shot at by Daleks in the forest from about the same distance, but somehow the Daleks missed them all!

By the time “Planet of the Daleks” aired (April-May 1973), Katy Manning¬†had, I believe, decided to leave the role of Jo Grant. I don’t think this¬†had been announced to the public yet, which makes it all the more intriguing that a relationship between Jo and Letap, one of the the Thals, would be allowed to develop. This relationship resulted in Jo having to decide whether to go back to Skaro with Letap, or go with the Doctor. Had the audience known of Katy’s impending departure, they might have wondered if this was it. But Jo returns with the Doctor. And yet, once inside the TARDIS, she tells the Doctor she wants to go to Earth. “Home.” This scene truly marks the beginning of the end of Jo Grant’s time with the Doctor.

Not must-see who, but better than average, I think. Worth seeing if given the opportunity.

Links and Stuff

This past week it’s been the turn of the Democrats to have their little convocation, where¬†people get up and preach to the choir, and they officially select their nominee for President of the USA. It wasn’t without controversy, since a number of Bernie Sanders supporters are not happy their man threw his support behind Mrs. Clinton. They were quite vocal about it too. Happily, the Democratic National Convention built a wall around them to keep them out. I haven’t heard if Bernie will be getting the bill for that. But history was made in that Hillary Clinton became the first official female presidential candidate… oh, wait, qualify that. The first official female presidential candidate from a¬†major party. Victoria Woodhull was actually the first in 1872, representing the Equal Rights Party,¬†campaigning for women’s suffrage, equal opportunity, equal pay,¬†and such.¬†Oh how times have changed in 144 years! ūüôā Also, Mrs. Obama made a speech in which she used all her own words. I’m sure Mrs. Trump was watching and making notes for next time…

We continue our house-hunting and moving exercises here at Chez Smith. This past week, we looked at four or five houses. Our realtor advised against more than that or they would all become a blur and we’d forget which we liked (“the one with the study upstairs… or was that downstairs…? With the real fireplace… or was that the closet for the washer dryer…? With the fenced-in back porch and pool and trees…?”) Anyway, there were a couple of houses we liked–not loved, but thought “mmm… we could make that work.” One house we went to was in an¬†area my wife really loves, but it wasn’t the right house. She did get quite emotional. If only there was a house there we love, at a price I love, we’d finish the search now. *sigh* As it is, the search continues…

I’ve made a start with the packing. Don’t believe me? Here’s photographic evidence! I started with some of my weightier academic tomes:



Then I was faced with the problem of finding the most suitable box for these books:


(Sorry, a bit of an in-joke for my friends over at Janet Reid‘s blog.)

After clearing one shelf, I’ve determined it’s going to take about 50 boxes to pack all the books in my office. Maybe more, given that my mathematical and spacial guessitmation skills are beyond sucky.

More on the house-hunting and packing next week. Now, a couple of links!

First, this Wall Street Journal article talking about how audiobooks are the fastest-growing format in publishing at the moment. I don’t own many audiobooks, but I know people who swear by them. If you have a thirty minute (or more) commute to work every day, you can redeem that time with an audiobook and catch up on some reading. Or if you need something to block out your cries of pain as you exercise, what could be better than listening to the latest Stephen King?¬†In my brief dabbling with the format, I’ve discovered I’m picky about who reads the book. That voice has to fit the text. One of the best audiobooks I’ve ever heard is John Cleese (of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame) reading C. S. Lewis’s THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS. My roommate at university had it on cassette (I’m old, okay?!), and I’d love to find a copy for myself. Writer friends,¬†who would you like to read¬†your current work in progress? I’d love to hear either Tom Baker (the Fourth Doctor) or Benedict Cumberbatch do mine. ūüôā Non-writer friends,¬†who would you like to read¬†your favorite novel?

The last link I want to share with you this week is from Jeff Somers, and it’s a piece he wrote for on “How to Completely, Absolutely, and Totally Fail to Brew Beer at Home.” Something about the piece, and Jeff’s ineptness at such practical skills, resonated with me deeply. I, too, have no ability with wood, or anything that requires mechanical intuition. I’ve not tried beer making, but I don’t doubt my results would be much the same as Jeff’s. There’s a lesson here about recognizing your weak areas and leaving them well alone. If you enjoy this, then I urge you to check out Jeff’s blog, and subscribe to his newsletter. Heck, maybe even buy some of his books!

That’s all from me. How’s things with you? Any thoughts on audiobooks? Or anything else?