Friday, October 31, 2014

Book Review: Under Stars by KJ Kabza

Like the most ardent of mad scientists, KJ Kabza infuses a crackling, electric revival into the tropes of speculative fiction with his second short story collection, Under Stars. Kabza’s inimitable, whimsy punk style breathes life and juicy layers of meaning into dictionary pages, Norwegian trolls, high tech beaches, and, yes, the outlying mad scientist intent on conquering death. If you like your science fiction fantastical and your fantasy limned with the digital brushstroke of reality, Under Stars offers up a healthy dose of wonder in a meaty broth of believable human interaction.

Some of the most powerful pieces in this collection create conflict from twisted relationship dynamics. In “The Ramshead Algorithm,” the playboy son of a distant billionaire father plows through his family’s dysfunction in search of a spell to protect his magical heritage. “The Color of Sand” follows the dynamic transformation of an impetuous child and his single mother. The dangerous pursuit of love figures heavily in stories such as “Heaventide” and “The Land of Stone and Stars.”

Kabza’s work is not without its share of troubles. “Gnarly Times at Nana’ite Beach,” and “Nathan and the Amazing TechnoPocket Nerd Coat” both feature unlovable losers who may never convince the world of their own worth. There’s a degree of quiet hilarity in these problematic protagonists, although “surf punk” Dusty finds a measure of redemption, while the eponymous Nathan seems destined to remain misunderstood. In “Copyright 2113,” Kabza dissects restrictive, but commonly cited, lies about intellectual property to demonstrate how the intersection of art and science is not as problematic as some would have us believe.

What Kabza does best is shine a scintillating new light on the oldest archetypes. Under the diffracting lens of his creative gaze, vampires (in space) come alive in a tight flash fiction (“Light Years”). “The Idiot” serves up a unicorn and a maiden as they’ve never been paired before. Another standout, “The Soul in the Bell Jar,” reframes the well-worn theme of reanimation, but where a lack of patriarchal devotion precipitated Dr. Frankenstein’s hamartia, Dr. Albion Dandridge’s fatal flaw is an undying love for his child.

Kabza’s first fiction collection, Under Stars, is probably one of the few anthologies to include a section of R-rated stories (labeled “for grownups”) beside a larger selection of juvenile literature (“for kids”). Under Stars is instead divvied up into “Fiction, Fantastic” and “Fiction, Science,” although one piece, “The Terms of Our Alliance,” penetrates deeply into adult territory, describing a new method of riding dragons that never appeared in the pages of any Anne McCaffrey novel.


More to the point, the cherry on top of this strange parfait is the final section, “Dirty Limericks for Kinky Nerds: 69 Questionable Contributions to the Genre,” a selection of almost unspeakably filthy, frequently hilarious poetry about fairy tale, science fiction, fantasy, and horror characters. The title itself is a litmus test for Kabza’s fandom. If you read that section head and think, “I would love to read 69 dirty, nerdy limericks,” you’ll most likely enjoy the other flavors in this book. If you find the very thought of sexually charged, humorous poetry about Dr. Who, HP Lovecraft, and Greek mythology distasteful, just move along. There’s nothing for you to see here.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

QWERTYvsDvorak

It's been a while, I know. If you'd like to see some of what I've been up to recently, you can check out my T-shirt shop or my new blog. In the T-shirt shop you will find whimsy and magic, printed on a variety of fine products. In the blog, you will find an assortment of dragons, mandalas, and other designs.


Friday, October 7, 2011

Ugh?

What up with this 'life' thing?

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Invention of Hugo Cabret


I've been reviewing books over at Steve Barancik's Best Childrens' Books, but, after I wrote this review, I realized that Steve had already posted his own review, and I *really* enjoyed this novel. Check out Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret

It is always a joy to discover a book that embraces attractive and conventional children’s book tropes (a friendless but talented orphan, a mysterious object paired with a mysterious notebook) while, at the same time, exhibiting and celebrating boundless inventiveness and creativity. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is such a novel. Some aspects of the story play out precisely as the seasoned reader might expect, as the young hero, Hugo Cabret, slowly unravels the secrets of an unusual automaton retrieved from the smoking ashes of a burnt museum, while other—secret identities, shifting loyalties, and the story’s true purpose—surprise the reader with no advance warning.

Visually, the book offers another surprise: much of the story is communicated not in the straightforward, descriptive text of the novel, but through lush pencil illustrations, lovingly detailed and crosshatched for depth and perspective, similar to the manner of a Chris Van Allsburg book. In some ways, these pictures convey more meaning and emotion than the writing could possible hope to accomplish, most particularly when the artist catches a particular expression in the hero’s eyes. When he is intent on study, or pleased with kindness, or shares a moment of understanding with another character, it is reflected in the eyes, and the pictures are literally worth a thousand words.

The plot of the story revolves around young Hugo, an orphan child from a family of clockmakers. After his father’s death, he becomes apprentice to his uncle, who maintains all the clocks in a large train station. However, the uncle drinks, and soon Hugo becomes responsible for the clocks all on his own, even after his uncle disappears for good. However, Hugo’s primary concern is a damaged automaton, an obsession with which led to his father’s death. Hugo is determined to repair this strange and magical toy, to which end he has been stealing small pieces from a toy shop in the train station. One day, the toymaker catches him and discovers the small notebook in which all Hugo’s father’s observations about the automaton had been written.

The toymaker steals the notebook, and Hugo, in his desperate attempt to recover his property, strikes up an uneasy friendship with the toymaker’s goddaughter. Together, they begin to wonder: who is the toymaker, and why is he so interested in Hugo’s notebook? Why won’t he let his goddaughter, Isabelle, attend the movies, and why does he take Hugo on as an assistant, while pretending to have destroyed his notebook?

At the heart of the story comes Hugo’s revelation: he is as competent as any clockmaker, and he may be able to fix the automaton without his father’s notes. If he does so, he’s certain, he’ll receive a message from his father that will help him find his way in the world, show him that he’s not completely alone.

Needless to say, Hugo does fix the automaton. He even receives its message, which both reassures him and leads to far more perplexing questions, which carry him though the second half of the novel. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a mystery and a love story: the mystery of the automaton’s meaning and the toymaker’s identity, and the love of young children for magic and adventure and uncovering the hidden truth. This wonderful book helps the reader rekindle a belief in true, everyday miracles. Magic can happen, it promises. We need only help it along.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Plugging Away

If you simply don't have enough Dragon in your life, there's a remedy!

First, of course you can always check out my other Blogger blogs, including my book review blog, Dragon's Library, or, for a more potent shot of Dragon, dip into my microfiction blog, Raincoat Flashers.

Want if you want to see Dragon in print? You can order a copy of the January 2011 issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly,  a lovely publication that includes my short story, "Spin Free," along with some more great speculative fiction. My first published piece was a semi-professional sale! How about that?

Still not enough? How about a whole novel? That's right, now you can actually read one of my many unpublished novels on inkpop.com It's called The Final Flavor and it's about eating disorders, teen sex, mad scientists, love, betrayal, and a very unusual fetish.

Inkpop is new terrain for me. This site encourages writers to upload their work, which is evaluated by the community. Every month, the top 5 manuscripts are sent directly to the editors at HarperCollins. It's a great web 2.0 idea. The mss are all YA books and the users are mostly teens, so you can get actual feedback from the actual intended readers of your work. If you do take a look at my book and enjoy it, why not create a profile, leave me some feedback, and recommend my novel? You may help me achieve my dream!

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains


The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains is a comprehensive discussion of the effects of modern technology on modern thought, packed with information all too often glossed over or ignored in our quest for more and more efficient computing, networking, and information retrieval. This is not a hollow lamentation from a hysterical Luddite yearning for the past, but a detailed, scientific journey through the landscape of the mind.

The Internet is an exciting and distracting place, an entrancement into which it is far too easy to fall and from which it is far too difficult to extricate oneself. Carr noticed that as he spent more time online, he was less able to focus on anything. Other academics noted that their dependence on the Internet resulted in a loss of their ability to read long pieces of text. The digital age promised to provide us access to the information that would make us smarter, but more and more users report that they feel scatterbrained, unable to concentrate. Why? Because our technology is shaping our minds, and not necessarily to our advantage.

To structure his argument, the author provides a good description of how the brain works, including the concept of neuroplasticity. We are born with certain connections in the brain, but as we learn, we create more and more connections. This is the nature of intelligence. We can continue learning, and therefore continue creating new neural pathways, throughout our entire lives, and the more we practice a behavior or study a subject, the more entrenched those neural pathways become. Our actions change our brains.

Further strengthening his reasoning, Carr uses historical information to demonstrate how analog technologies have changed how humans think, and, in doing so, made wholesale changes in how society behaves. The invention of maps, clocks, and typewriters has had a profound effect on individuals and civilizations. The proliferation of the printing press and of copious reading material introduced a dependence on deep, linear, and introspective thought that has allowed greater advances in philosophy and art, a way of thinking that once was the sole bailiwick of privileged intellectuals.

The Internet threatens all that.

Multiple studies have demonstrated that, far from enhancing our learning experience, the type of multi-media and on-demand content that is the hallmark of the Net actually decreases our ability to learn. Study after study shows that “people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.” Clicking, it was discovered, “got in the way of learning.”

And this is not likely to change. Clicking is the basis of the Internet, and for Google, which has become our virtual god and ruler, clicks are currency. While Google’s stated mission, to catalog and distribute all the information in the world, is a noble one, their business model is the sale of ad content. Google wants you to click, because clicking is their bread and butter, and they spend millions of dollars scientifically determining what makes people click.

Google’s profits are tied directly to the velocity of people’s information intake. The faster we surf across the surface of the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunities Google gains to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements. Its advertising system, moreover, is explicitly designed to figure out which messages are most likely to grab our attention and then to place those messages in our field of view. Every click we make on the Web marks a break in our concentration, a bottom-up disruption of our attention—and it’s in Google’s economic interest to make sure we click as often as possible. The last thing the company wants is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction.

The result is that Web users are bombarded with information that they fail to process or remember. Content as a bridge to content, rather than the revelations or conclusions or questions inspired by content, becomes the end goal. Humans require some processing to move ideas from short-term to long-term memory, and this leapfrogging from idea to idea inhibits that transfer. It turns out this technology is “not only diverting resources from our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories…. The Web is a technology of forgetfulness.”

And this effect follows us offline, due to our neuroplasticity. Using the Internet literally teaches the brain to be distracted, forgetful, and shallow.

Carr found that, in order to write this book, he had to get off the Internet. He stopped blogging, disconnected from his social networks, and checked his email infrequently. But, once he finished the book, he got back online. In no way is he suggesting that the Internet itself is bad. He admits that it improves our skills in certain tasks, such as spatial reasoning and certain types organization. Computers, it seems, teach us to excel at the tasks that computers themselves excel at.

These advances, it’s suggested, come at the cost of excellence in those tasks at which humans excel. He concludes, “as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”

We cannot undo technological advances, and few of us have the luxury of unplugging completely. However, keeping ourselves aware of the changes the Internet wreaks on our thought processes provides an opportunity to control the effect. The Internet is a valuable tool, and few of us would choose to go back to the slow search of the codex, but if we prefer not to bow before our computer overlords, we might remember that the Internet is still, and only, a tool, and treat it as such.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Please Don't Feed the Trolls


Many years ago, when I had first developed an interest in symbolism, a wise man explained to me the mytho-poetic location of a bridge: a place between places. It starts in one place, and takes you to another place, and in the middle, you are simply hanging over a place you cannot practically inhabit: a raging river or a gaping chasm or a busy highway. You are between places, en route, neither one nor the other.

Under the bridge is a precarious place: a negative place. Who dwells under bridges? In our culture, it’s people who have no better place to be: homeless folks may dwell under bridges for shelter, teenagers may take refuge there in pursuit of antisocial behavior. Gangs may stake out their territory under a bridge, as will animals. Under the bridge is outside of society. When Anthony Kiedis sang about being “Under the Bridge” he was singing about the absolute lowest point in his life, a place to which he wishes he had never gone, and hopes never to return. (Look it up.)

In mytho-poetic geography, under the bridge is the place where trolls dwell. Trolls are ugly creatures that live in darkness, emerging from the shadows only to feed on innocent travelers.

On the Internet, trolls are ugly creatures that dwell in darkness, emerging from the shadows only to harass innocent websurfers.

Trolls may seem harmless at first, particularly when they’re picking on the very weak: those lacking a basic understanding of grammar, spelling, history, geography, science, and math. “Well, they deserve it, the ignorant fools,” we may think. "Why don't they run a spellcheck/do a web search/go to Wikipedia?"

On the other hand, while trolling is very amusing for trolls, it does not make the Internet a nicer place to be, and it does not imbue the ignorant fools with a basic understanding of grammar, spelling, history, geography, science, and math. Rather than teaching to the deficits of the user, trolls exploit those deficits.

Trolling makes the Internet a stupider place. 

If ignorance bothers you, doesn’t it make more sense to politely correct it, so that the potential troll-food becomes wiser, more informed, and less irksome to the know-it-all troll? If you disagree with others' beliefs, does japery convert others to your worldview, or force them to reexamine their own? 

But trolls don’t care about making the Internet a nicer or smarter place. Trolls, in my experience, tend to be self-important blowhards who troll to feel better about their own lack of success. They are intelligent people who feel that the world has not handed them all the accolades they deserve, and rather than accepting their limitations, they empower themselves by hurting others.

They don’t all live in their mother’s basements. Some trolls are quite successful by most standards, but they feel robbed, angry not to have achieved the level of triumph and recognition that Ayn Rand promises they deserve. Their trolling moves beyond merely mocking teenagers for poor writing skills. Instead, they attack without provocation, treating every network as a platform for heckling. They hijack threads, take comments out of context, and view each forum as a medium to spread their own madness, all the while assuring themselves that they’re not really serious, they’re just having fun with stupid people. They’re trolls after all, and better and smarter than everyone else, and deserve to amuse themselves by demonstrating their superiority over the rest of the world.

They never question whether their beliefs actually are superior.

To a troll, anyone with a strongly held belief that does not perfectly match their own narrow worldview is an idiot, worthy of mockery, not deserving of respect, or even the courtesy of examining or understand the argument they’ve chosen to troll.

Many trolls do not believe in much, other than their right to excoriate others for a lark.

Any time a troll can insult or belittle someone else, the troll feels bigger. The only thing that gives a troll a greater sense of power than making fun of someone online is if others defend the original post, or attempt to engage the troll in a serious discussion about the validity of the belief or the appropriateness of sharing said belief in a particular forum.

Trolls imagine themselves on top, on sound footing at the end of a bridge, devouring fools. But the true place of the troll remains under the bridge: nowhere. Beneath nowhere. They think they’ve ascended to a point above everyone else. But in reality, they’re always rolling around in the muck and hurling nothing more than their own filth.

In fairy tales, trolls are often outwitted by children or animals.

On the Internet, anyone can outwit a troll. Simply do not engage. Ignoring a troll reduces its power. Don’t feed the trolls and eventually they starve to death.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Vice for the Holidays

A few years back, I was asked to help a class of first graders learn about the Jewish holiday of Hanuka. The children heard an abbreviated version of the Hanuka story, learned about the candle-lighting tradition, ate some latkes, and played dreidel.

After a few rounds of dreidel, many of the kids, unfamiliar with the concept of gambling at their tender age, had the same complaint: This game isn’t fair.

It’s a game of chance, with no skill involved. No, it’s not fair. And, I would argue, the actual playing of the game is not relevant.

What’s the connection of the dreidel game to the Hanuka holiday? When the Israelites were living under Syrian occupation, they were forbidden from studying Torah. Like girls in Afghanistan who pretended their schools were sewing circles whenever the Taliban dropped by, the Israelites found an innocuous cover story for their gatherings. “Study? Why no, officer. We’re just playing this delightful game of chance in which the outcome of a spinning top’s fall determines the redistribution of our meager resources.”

I have my own peculiar take on gambling, forged in a childhood where gambling was the nucleus of the biggest family secret. In a nutshell, I think betting on anything is stupid. And I think a children’s game in which kids are given money (or, in our case M&Ms) and told to gamble for the sake of their cultural heritage, is more stupid. For the most part, we were only playing to fill the time before the sufganyot were done, after which the M&Ms would be sticky with jelly and we’d eat the pot.

The Maccabees and that crowd weren’t really playing dreidel. They were just hiding their true intentions. Hanuka’s not about money or presents. It’s about studying. Aside from the acronym on modern dreidels, the four letter mnemonic that stands for the Hebrew phrase translated as, “A great miracle happened there,” there’s not much that’s interesting or educational about an actual game of dreidel.

My advice? This year, forget the disappointing game that causes some kids to lose all their money to some other kid. Instead, teach your kids about civil disobedience. Explain to them the incredible privilege that is freedom of information. Reveal to them the great lengths to which various people have historically gone to obtain an education that has been denied them by a stubborn and corrupt society.

Also, teach them that gambling is stupid.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Crystal Body Deodorant

My boyfriend recently purchased a stick of all-natural deodorant, made of natural mineral salts and ammonium alum. It's a good alternative for those who worry about the safety of antiperspirant (some research suggests a link between those chemicals and Alzheimer's or cancer; some people are allergic to standard products) or if you just don't like the scent of other deodorants.

The company that produces Crystal Body Deodorant claims that the product neutralizes the bacteria that cause body odor. The product works well, can be used by men or women, and does not leave a mess on your black T-shirt if you accidentally combine the two. There is no problem with Crystal Body Deodorant.

Their logo, however, is hysterical.



So check it out. We've got a man and a women. They appear to be naked. That's cool--it's a unisex hygiene product, so that makes sense. The woman's face is lighted, but the man appears only in silhouette. But women are prettier than man, right? The man is flexing his prodigious bicep. The couple are holding what must be a stick of the product. And it looks more or less like the lady is helping the man apply deodorant to his underarm.

Huh?

Does this guy need help applying his deodorant? Is the women trying to tactfully tell him he stinks? If he's a bodybuilder, isn't he already aware of the effects of sweat? or am I perhaps in the minority of relationships where the woman does not help the man put on deodorant?

Most pressing question: how did these models keep a straight face during the shoot?

I don't know. What this picture is meant to communicate is uncertain. But it was too good to keep to myself.

Thursday, September 9, 2010



"Members of Iran's Kocholoha (small ones) soccer team attend a practice session in Tehran"

Pretty much no information about this team, at least none I could find. Everyone on the team is a little person, the team has existed for 2 years, and they are going to play an establish team of little soccer players from Brazil. Here's another pic:



Also, Little People, Big World just started its final season. I probably only watched a dozen episodes, none in the last couple years. Little people aside, it was still a reality show. But, for a reality show, it wasn't bad. Zach probably needs a break from his dad, anyway.