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Category: Book Reviews

Various books I’ve read

Favorite Scary Stories for Fall

Favorite Scary Stories for Fall

One of my favorite pastimes is reading and listening to classic spooky stories. There’s no better time for curling up with a spooky story than a cold, fall evening in front of the fire.

Here’s a collection of my all-time favorite scary stories:

Plays/Dramatizations

Good general scary classics channels on YouTube:

Books

Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories – Michael Cox, R.A. Gilbert

Playlists:

Fighting Fantasy

Fighting Fantasy

ChrisC has a nice Youtube channel with a few good playthroughs of some of my favorite adventure books. Fighting Fantasy books were created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone in 1982. He does a good job on his walkthroughs and is a nice, calming listen. Honestly, I don’t know why more Twitch streamers don’t read old adventure books like this and let people vote on the next choice. Perhaps there’s an idea there…

Deathtrap Dungeon: Livingstone, Ian: 9780440917175: Amazon.com: Books

Back to the topic. My first introduction to the books was as a middle schooler and I can’t tell you how many times I checked out this white-cover Dell version of Deathtrap Dungeon. I soon found the City of Thieves, Warlock of Firetop Mountain, and many others. Before the internet, one had to visit many libraries to find more of them.

They recently did a new reprint series, but they can still be had on ebay. Or, if you’re interested in a more professional production, Eddie Marston was hired to do an interactive video series that’s had much higher production values.

The Pirates of Somalia 2017

The Pirates of Somalia 2017

LOS PIRATAS DE SOMALIA (THE PIRATES OF SOMALIA, 2017)".

This movie was MUCH better than I expected. It was extremely real and held a depth that the truth does more than standard formulaic Hollywood story telling. I highly recommend it as some solid telling of a real person’s story.

Warning: spoilers below.

The Pirates of Somalia tells the true story of Jay Bahadur, a young Canadian trying to make a name for himself while living at home and working as a questioner for supermarket product placing. In a chance meeting with his journalist idol, Seymour Tolbin, Tolbin inspires him with some wisdom. He says that the reason journalism is a pile of garbage today is because real journalism can’t be taught – it’s innate. Tolbin says his famous war reporting (that gave him shrapnel in his back) wasn’t by using his head, but following his instincts on the story. Tolbin tells Jay that if he wants to be a big journalist, you gotta go somewhere crazy. Somewhere western reporters would consider it too dangerous to go – and write about it.

In pondering this later, Jay thinks back to a paper he wrote about Somaliland. It’s a place no western journalist would go after the brutal civil war of the 1990’s (made even more infamous by the Black Hawk Down incident). Jay then sees a news report on the famous hijacking of Richard Phillips’ ship by Somali pirates. Taking a completely blind leap, he contacts their diplomatic office via email, is accepted to come, and flies there with almost no money.

The majority of the movie is a very realistic and humble telling of Jay’s adventures. He meets the pirates – but even more so in the telling of his struggles and relationships with the people of Somalia. Along the way, Jay learns some great life lessons – lessons I think are universal:

  • Boyah is a lower Somali pirate that sees himself as the Robin Hood of his people. He says he is only defending his country’s waters and just extracting the taxes due his people from illegal fishing. Jay starts shooting cans that are ‘the size of a man’s heart’ with Boyah. The pirate tells him to shoot the cans not as if at an enemy, but as if it’s his lover’s heart. When Jay finally hits one, he says the heart was that of his ex-girlfriend. Boyah is disappointed and says that it was a waste of bullets – because there was “no joy in your victory, only revenge.” While certainly not a Christian ethic of ‘turn the other cheek’ and forgiveness – he has a lot more insight than many. Even when we’re fighting for something, are we fighting for good – or just revenge? Is the aim of our activates to spread evil/vengeance/revenge – or to follow one’s heart to joy. I think it’s a something here about how one can still maintain their focus on true joy/vision/path while even in the thick of the worst evils.
  • At the end, Jay is brought in as an expert to speak with various western generals who ask him what he thinks is needed to stop the pirate hijackings. Jay remarks on Somali’s amazing bloodless election in 2002 in which the minority clan won the election – yet the transition of power happened without a single shot fired. He told of the fact Somalians used to settle disputes and wars using poetry – not guns. Jay sums up that, “A fledgling democracy doesn’t make headlines like pirates do. You guys wouldn’t be sitting here talking to me if I just wrote a book on a fledgling democracy. All I’m asking is that you guys start to look at Somalia in a different way, not so much as them vs us, but rather look at Somalia as us, when we were young.” This spoke to me in several ways. First is how shallow our journalism is – and that we, nor our style of sensationalistic journalism, really cares about the everyday struggles that actually matter to the lives of most people. It reminded me never to discount anyone. Game designers have a saying, “Every winner was once a beginner”. Every great person was once broken or needed help. It’s reminds me of the way of Christ – that is to enter into the often broken realities of every person with love, respect, and dignity. And to walk that path of redemption with them. That real conversion happens when we forgive and walk with our enemy.
  • If you have a natural gift, follow the innate leads it directs you towards. I found some of the lessons Jay got were the same as mine. Jay started following his dream of being a journalist. I found that I had a gift and natural drive towards computers and programming. I followed that gift throughout elementary school through college – despite the fact my pursuit of it lead me down strange paths. I taught myself to program when I was in elementary school. I bought my own computer when others were buying their first cars. I spent my money on programming books and devoured everything I could find at local libraries. Later, I entered programming contests and won more often than I imagined – even winning a trip to Japan to work with big corporations. Following instincts that weren’t the established path turned out to have opened countless career doors, experiences, and relationships I would never have had. Something I think Jay would agree with. I sure may not be easy at times, but following your instincts can be life-changing.
New Deathtrap Dungeon FMV game?

New Deathtrap Dungeon FMV game?

It’s no secret that I love the old Fighting Fantasy adventure gaming books. It’s a series that had the perfect mix of choose-your-own-adventure and D&D stories. It was something I discovered around 10 years old – and now have collected almost every book in the original series.

One of the best of the series was Deathtrap Dungeon. Turns out, Eddie Marsan is narrating a new FMV version of the original Deathtrap Dungeon book. Wireframe has a writeup on the new effort, and a short clip gives a teaser:

In reading that article, I found out about something equally cool. Knightmare was a British children’s adventure game show that ran on from 1987-1994. A team of four children – one who takes on the game by donning a sight-blocking helmet and the other three acting as their guide and advisers – attempting to complete a quest within a fantasy medieval environment, traversing a large dungeon and using their wits to overcome puzzles, obstacles and the unusual characters they meet along the journey.

The show is most notable for its use of blue screen chroma key to put the child into the dunngeon, use of ‘virtual reality’ interactive gameplay on television, and the high level of difficulty faced by every team.

I had no idea this show existed. I would have loved to watch it as a kid.

Crossing the Sahara in the 14th century

Crossing the Sahara in the 14th century

I have been fascinated with early stories of people trying to climb mountains, have early adventures through vast foreign lands, or cross the great unknown and deserted barrens.

Yet no stretch of land is so isolated, bare, and desolate as the Sahara desert. It’s hard for us to imagine the realities of traveling during the early centuries of modern civilization, but fortunately we have some documents from those periods. Some of which have been summarized and collected in a book called ‘The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages‘, by Francois-Xavier Fauvelle.

First off, there were your guides. You had to travel in groups for safety from bandits and injury. Guides at the journey’s port cities had to be purchased to lead you across the desert. Deserts they knew fairly well because when not guiding, they might be the very raiders that would kill you on a different trip. They were often a shady lot that had little patience for the unprepared.

While today’s travelers complain about $4 bottles of water at the airport, the water situation was different for earlier Saharan travelers:

Then there was the problem of water. It would be even better to say the problem of thirst, your constant companion during the crossing. All travelers, all geographers say the same thing: the water is sometimes “fetid and lethal” and, Yaqut al-Hamawi humorously reckons, “has none of the qualities of water other than being liquid.” Such a beverage inevitably generates intestinal pains that make life difficult and sour the memory of the trans-Saharan experience. In good years, when there had been plenty of rain, water filled the rocky gullies, and people could drink and do laundry. In bad years, the burning wind dried out the water in the goatskins; consequently, a camel’s throat had to be cut and its stomach removed. The water it contained was drawn off into a sump and drunk with a straw. In the worst-case scenario, one could kill an addax antelope and follow a similar procedure to extract greenish water from its entrails.

We complain about uncomfortable airline seats for 8 hours while crossing the ocean at 30,000ft. Earlier travelers endured countless days/weeks of far worse inconveniences.

And then there were the small, but numerous and in the end obnoxious, daily inconveniences: the omnipresent fleas, which you would try to drive away by wearing cords soaked in mercury around your neck; the numerous flies everywhere there was a rotting carcass (i.e., precisely around the wells and the camps); and the snakes.

And then there was the ever present danger of dozing off, lack of attention during a stop, or just getting turning around in the maze of dunes to realizing you were separated and probably lost in the desert to die.

The caravan tempers these harsh conditions with strict discipline; it diminishes them through distractions. You will put distance between yourself and the column only at your own risk, the Berber leader must have said. Those who paid for the crossing would amuse themselves hunting addax, letting their dogs run free, and riding a bit ahead of the caravan to let their horses graze and to enjoy the invigorating wait. But the games, the intemperance of the city-dwellers, could cost them dearly. Even though caravans could be made up of hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of camels, one could quickly lose sight of them behind a curtain of dunes. A few centuries later, on the same stretch of desert, but from the opposite direction, a caravan of pilgrims lost two of its members in a row and yet noticed only a day and a night after they disappeared. Nobody dared go back to look for them for fear of being lost themselves. The author of the story concludes philosophically: “But our conscience was clear because we had warned them of the risks they were running by not abiding by the rules of the caravan.”

Why you can tell what comes next in any hollywood movie by checking your watch

Why you can tell what comes next in any hollywood movie by checking your watch

Have you had a sense that Hollywood movies have felt a little too ‘cookie-cutter’ lately? Or that they feel somewhat unoriginal or a little too sugary?

John Williamson is a long time lecturer and publisher of games. He gave a great talk at PAX Prime 2016 on why you can tell exactly what is going to happen next in a Hollywood movie by looking at your watch. It’s narrative structure that has been picked up by writers and is now used in almost all our media from graphic novels to Hollywood productions. Just about every modern movie in the last 10 years uses it – it’s called The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet. The structure was outlined in his book called “Save the Cat!

Recently, this structure has been catching some flack for making our movies too cookie cutter or even deceptive. One very valid argument (in my opinion) is that lazy writers can rely on the well-understood emotional reaction the structure creates to communicate themes and messages as true without having to argue them or give any evidence they actually are true. In other words, instead of relying on substance of the story, it relies on the simple fact that the ‘Save the Cat!’ emotional ride guarantees a positive emotional reception for what you want.

Some say it lets writers be so lazy they need not even be concerned about the actual content of the story, but to just rely on the structure of the emotional ride to guarantee a positive response from the audience. Just change the actors, theme, or conflict and you have a brand new movie without changing much else.

You can find a link to John Williamson’s great presentation here, or download a copy here. He covers a HUGE range of story telling techniques from ancient to new, eastern and western, but the relevant section on Hollywood plots, however, starts at slide 111.

Here’s the breakdown of the structure, by minute. (This assumes a movie of 110 minutes. Adjust the times based on your movie’s total time based on the ratio laid out here.)

  1. Opening Image – (minute: 1) – A visual that represents the struggle & tone of the story. A snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins.
  2. Set-up – (minutes: 1-10) Expand on the “before” snapshot. Present the main character’s world as it is, and what is missing in their life.
  3. Theme Stated (happens during the Set-up) – (minute: 5) What your story is about; the message, the truth. Usually, it is spoken to the main character or in their presence, but they don’t understand the truth…not until they have some personal experience and context to support it.
  4. Catalyst – (minute: 12)The moment where life as it is changes. It is the telegram, the act of catching your loved-one cheating, allowing a monster onboard the ship, meeting the true love of your life, etc. The “before” world is no more, change is underway.
  5. Debate – (minutes: 12-25) – But change is scary and for a moment, or a brief number of moments, the main character doubts the journey they must take. Can I face this challenge? Do I have what it takes? Should I go at all? It is the last chance for the hero to chicken out.
  6. Break Into Two (Choosing Act Two) – (minute: 25) – The main character makes a choice and the journey begins. We leave the “Thesis” world and enter the upside-down, opposite world of Act Two.
  7. B Story – (minute: 30) – This is when there’s a discussion about the Theme – the nugget of truth. Usually, this discussion is between the main character and the love interest. So, the B Story is usually called the “love story”.
  8. Fun and Games/The Promise of the Premise – (minutes: 30-55) – This is when Craig Thompson’s relationship with Raina blooms, when Indiana Jones tries to beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark, when the detective finds the most clues and dodges the most bullets. This is when the main character explores the new world and the audience is entertained by the premise they have been promised.
  9. Midpoint – (minute: 55) – Dependent upon the story, this moment is when everything is “great” or everything is “awful”. The main character either gets everything they think they want (“great”) or doesn’t get what they think they want at all (“awful”). But not everything we think we want is what we actually need in the end.
  10. Bad Guys Close In – (minutes: 55-75) – Doubt, jealousy, fear, foes both physical and emotional regroup to defeat the main character’s goal, and the main character’s “great”/“awful” situation disintegrates.
  11. All is Lost – (minute: 75) – The opposite moment from the Midpoint: “awful”/“great”. The moment that the main character realizes they’ve lost everything they gained, or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks even more impossible than before. And here, something or someone dies. It can be physical or emotional, but the death of something old makes way for something new to be born.
  12. Dark Night of the Soul – (minutes: 75-85) – The main character hits bottom, and wallows in hopelessness. The Why hast thou forsaken me, Lord? moment. Mourning the loss of what has “died” – the dream, the goal, the mentor character, the love of your life, etc. But, you must fall completely before you can pick yourself back up and try again.
  13. Break Into Three (Choosing Act Three) – (minute: 85) – Thanks to a fresh idea, new inspiration, or last-minute Thematic advice from the B Story (usually the love interest), the main character chooses to try again.
  14. Finale – (minutes: 85-110) – This time around, the main character incorporates the Theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal because they have experience from the A Story and context from the B Story. Act Three is about Synthesis!
  15. Final Image – (minutes: 110) – opposite of Opening Image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.

His presentation then shows how this structure works from modern movies like ‘The Fault with our Stars’, to “Indiana Jones” to video games like Super Mario Bros and Ico.

Try it out on the next movie you watch and see how accurate it is.

Perverting Education to just be rationalization

Perverting Education to just be rationalization

Barrett nodded. “Education?”
“New York. London. Berlin. Paris. Vienna. No specific course of study. Logic, ethics, religion, philosophy.”
“Just enough with which to rationalize his actions, I imagine,”

– From the description of the depraved Emeric Belasco. Hell House by Richard Matheson

If your philosophy, religion, ethics, or logic come from popular authors or coffee table/internet level articles – do yourself a favor and stop. You’re far more likely to end up justifying your own beliefs instead of being challenged to find real truth. The kind you can base your life on.

Pro-tip: it doesn’t exist in any soundbite. Instead, it teaches you to think critically, to see the nuances of arguments, to realize NONE of them are completely correct, AND to see both sides. If your education isn’t doing this, then you’re just being spoon-fed what you want to hear. Your education should challenge you, make you angry, confirm and refute what you believe. Education is what allows you to experience that without having to lash out against others – and just deal with the ideas.

Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian

“They were watching, out there past men’s knowing, where stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.”

Atomic Accidents by James Mahaffey

Atomic Accidents by James Mahaffey

This has to be one of the most interesting reads (audiobook listen in my case) I’ve had on the subject of nuclear history. I also think it should be read by every engineer of any background.

Why? Jim Mahaffey, while a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics and having spent over 25 years in governmental, military, and civilian nuclear projects, presents a narrative that isn’t stilted in the usual pro/anti-nuclear rhetoric. It isn’t trying to scare or discount each event. I found myself captivated for three reasons. Firstly, some of these events and details I had never heard of before. It was fascinating to hear that there was a cave full of natural radioactive ore that sickened some hunters who wandered into it. Secondly, and related, he knows exactly what he’s talking about. He cites the chemistry, physics, and even patent information for everything involved. There is no hyperbole. His information comes from actual studies, chemistry, nuclear physics, and the hard scientific data. Some of the facts in the book I’d never heard anywhere else before. Sometimes I even wondered if he wasn’t leaking secrets.  Finally, he does all this with a captivating sense of storytelling and a fantastically dry sense of humor. I found myself sitting in my car listening to a story finish out – such as when he tells the story of a cable tray fire that breaks out during one particular accident:

“The fire continued to grow so the supervisor ran down the hall and grabbed a larger fire extingisher. He emptied it into the blaze, but the fire was unimpressed.”

The thing that makes this book great is that he isn’t arguing for or against nuclear power. It explains the chemistry and physics of what is going on so well that it removes the fear and terror we often associate with nuclear reactions. So all you are left with are the accidents. Most books of this type would be trying to either scare you or dismiss what happened. This is really unbiased storytelling that does what it should: it doesn’t tell you what to think – it presents all the data and narrates the story so that it makes YOU think. What would I have done? What should be done?

This is why I suggest every engineer read this book. Even if you are not interested in nuclear accidents or nuclear power scares you. It’s not really about that. It’s about the difficulty of engineering – especially engineering where failure means serious consequences. It’s about the traps we as engineers fall into. We can be extremely intelligent and well versed, but get taken out by a simple rat chewing a cable. Instead of telling you what to think, it tells the story. The fact that it deals with energies that can, and have, killed people crystallizes the importance of each design decision. You’ll often see yourself connecting the thought that the designers had with your own engineering principles – and realizing the weak points.

Highly recommend.

 

Spoilers below on what I ‘learned’ – don’t read if you want to come up with your own conclusions

After listening to it on audiobook over the last week or so, I found myself thinking about these topics:

  1. Anything that is foolproof is not. All mechanical systems have a useful lifetime and/or fail at some point. Maintenance doesn’t always happen when it should. Things that fail sometimes take time for people to realize they failed – especially if it is a backup system that is rarely used. People plug things in backward by accident, read the wrong gauge, use the wrong lubricant, etc. You cannot suppose that everything will be maintained as it was when it was perfect and new and the designer is right there watching it.
  2. The weakest system, not the strongest one is all that is needed to start a problem.
  3. In work around dangerous forces, you cannot have an ignorant workforce. People must understand WHY each procedure is there, or they’ll come up with shortcuts that may get themselves or others killed unexpectedly because they’re trying to save time/effort/money/etc.
  4. We should probably not run experiments on commercial reactors/preparation plants. That should only happen in the lab. But there are many ambitious, very smart people that want to make a name for themselves and do things they should not because they believe they are smart enough.
  5. When something must run constantly over a long time – given a long enough timeline – EVERY possible thing will happen. Every possible combination of failures will also happen. You simply can’t imagine it all.
  6. Even when you imagine and prepare for the worst, it can be worse.
  7. Luck plays a big part in disasters. Given exact same plants and the same accident, one will be ok and the other will not because of luck in the smallest detail/timing of how something happens.
  8. Real disasters usually involve 2 or more very unexpected and different things simultaneously going bad or failing in quick succession.
  9. Individual systems that are failsafe on their own can react in unexpected combinations when more than a few things at once start failing. You must look at how the system as a WHOLE handles an event that causes serious single and multiple system failures (i.e. the chocolate cake delivery truck loses its brakes, knocks over a power pole, and then hits the turbine building. It starts a fire that shuts down the turbines. With the external electrical wires down, the lights in the basement of that building go off. Unfortunately, that happens to be where the fire handling equipment is – that nobody can now find in the dark).
  10. You must design things to end in a state after such an event that you can recover from them without endangering lives.
  11. It is often the discounted/seemingly unimportant support systems that cause the accident to become a disaster. While massive amounts of effort are spent understanding nuclear forces and fission, most reactor accidents are caused by things like pump bearing failures, valves that get stuck, emergency generators that don’t kick on because the wiring went bad, or running ill-advised tests.
  12. An unexpected chain of failures is what sometimes causes a disaster. (ex: a failing cable starts generating error messages. The error log starts filling the available hard drive. The drive fills and crashes because nobody thought there would be so many messages. The computer that crashed was also controlling some other subsystem, which now fails too. That causes a bigger failure that leads to a disaster.)
  13. An alarm that goes off all the time is as useless as if it hadn’t been installed at all.
  14. The amount of thought and fail-safes you build must be directly proportional to how bad it will be if it goes wrong. Dropping a jar of tomato juice requires water, a mop, and bucket and buying a new bottle of tomato juice. Dropping a jar of fission products all over the floor is a whole other matter. From isolation, to clean up, to personal safety, to disposal, to handling what to do with the materials, clothes, and items used in the cleanup – all require complete thought and handling.
  15. One must stay a little paranoid and constantly vigilant when working with systems that involve deadly/dangerous forces. A regular schedule of checking and re-checking is the only way to know if things are working as they should. You cannot be laissez-faire until a failure to fix something. Even little anomalies are indications that must be checked out. One must stay curious, regularly check, and fix things that don’t even seem super-important at first. See #2.

Here’s a great example:

A liquid storage tank of olive oil that develops a tiny leak could be bad. You are losing product, money, and might cause an injury if someone slips. It is even worse if it was almost undetectable and goes dripping into the floor drains for weeks, months, or even a year.  It gets even worse when the oil coagulates in the underfloor drains and almost completely plugs them up. Then the 50,000-gallon vat of spaghetti sauce spills and the drains that should have saved everyone don’t work. It causes the spill to go everywhere and gets on everyone. It gets even worse when the sauce ruins tens of thousand dollars of product that was sitting on the floor and destroys electronic machinery drenched in it. It gets even worse when it runs into the basement, filling it 2 feet full of spaghetti sauce. Because of one dripping olive oil vessel, you now have tens of thousands in lost products, people drenched in goo, machinery destroyed, and a basement flooded with a sauce that may take hundreds of thousands to clean up. On top of the fact you can’t make one more jar of the product until it’s all cleaned up.

Now imagine that it was nuclear fission products that dripped. And when enough collects, it becomes an unshielded reactor in the floor that kills anyone that comes near it.

This is why every engineer should read this book. To understand how failures really happen, and why just making an individual system fool proof and having safety systems can be a false comfort. The nuclear world is full of extremely smart people that bragged nothing could go wrong. Humility and diligence are the values we should cultivate.