Thursday, March 22, 2018

You Got Cthulhu In My Scooby Snacks! A book review...

(I need to get my toes wet again in the pond that is my blog. I've neglected it. Ignored it. And I need to give it some love.)

"Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life."
~Mark Twain, 1898

My taste in literature is eclectic - OK, my taste in books is actually better described as indiscriminate and promiscuous, but eclectic sounds much more cultured - but I do tend to read in themes. One book leads to another, and they incline to be relatives of a sort, sharing a taste, a flavour. Some sunny afternoons find me walking alongside detectives like Marple, Spade, Qwilleran, Millhone... Some evenings I am fighting (or running away from) zombies, werewolves, and other supernatural baddies that share a world with Dresden, Cabal, Yellowrock, Crowe... Of late I've been swimming in a horror motif. It's broad enough to encompass mystery and adventure and fantasy and historical fiction. And that makes me cosmopolitan, yes?

Seshat, Egyptian goddess
of record-keeping and 
measurement by Jeff Dahl.
I consume rabidly from the shelves of the library, which I feel contributes to the general stability of society and proves I'm an adult. (Seriously, I'm an adult. I am.) While giving me access to more books than I can ever possibly read - this being both a happy and a sad thought - getting books from the library also creates a reading fingerprint of sorts that allows Seshat, with her mystical, magical powers, to provide suggestions of books I might like.

I'll be honest, Seshat is wrong 80% of the time. Mostly she doesn't get me.

But occasionally she'll throw out a book that does peak my interest. With a surfeit of horror titles - and the ineluctable link to the Lovecraft mythos - it was perhaps inevitable that this book should pop up like a giant albino penguin.

Enter Meddling Kids. Seshat got it right. I did enjoy it. A lot. 

Meddling Kids (A Blyton Summer Detective Club Adventure)
by Edgar Cantero

A solid four stars - plus one for sheer wit!

★★★★ + ★

Did you love Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! as a kid? (And do you still love it?) Did your literary journey inevitably lead you to the (sadly opuscular) works of H.P. Lovecraft and the (happily ubiquitary) mythos he created? Did you ever wonder what it would be like if your childhood scoobiphilia and your penchant for lovecraftian horror had an 80s Reese's Peanut Butter Cups "Hey, You Got Peanut Butter in My Chocolate" moment? Well, wonder no more! Cantero took your favourite Saturday morning cartoon sleuths and your beloved, cherished, madness-inducing non-Euclidean geometry and made a tasty treat!

It's not a two-pony show. Peppered in with the million Scooby Doo and Lovecraft references are nods to Enid Blyton (Duh!) and Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown and the Goonies and lots of stuff-from-my-childhood things.

There's even a circumlocutory reference to Neil Simon if you pay attention:

"Tim curled up in a corner of the backseat, sheltering his penguin from the storm, all tensed up in 'scandalized Maggie Smith' pose."
Or maybe that's a Paul Rudnick reference?

Er, maybe a J.K. Rowling reference?


Part mashup, part homage, part lark, Meddling Kids explores how our beloved gang of sleuths (under copyright-infringement-free pseudonyms, of course) made the transition from kid detectives to adults. Turns out it was a rough ride for all of them.

The two boys, two girls, and big dog (Ringing any bells?) of the Blyton Summer Detective Club spent their summers solving zany mysteries in and around Blyton Hills, Oregon. It was a fun and exciting way to spend their vacation together. But their final, laureate case had a profound effect on them and after they unmasked the Sleepy Lake Monster and the media frenzy died away they went their separate ways and lost contact with one another. Thirteen years later, when Thomas X. Wickley, the Sleepy Lake Monster, is released from prison it sets off a series of events that brings each of the surviving gang members back to Blyton Hills. The case, they realise, had never really been solved and each of them was changed in ways that they are only now beginning to recognize.

It's not perfect. Far from it. The writing isn't the best (or maybe not my cup of tea), with run-on sentences finding a far too comfortable home in this novel and Cantero inventing new words when really he shouldn't as (a) there are already perfectly serviceable words in English for what he is trying to communicate and (b) he isn't that great at coming up with the new words. Cantero also seems unsure if he is writing a book or a screen play. The narration shifts from one format to the other and, whether intentional or unintentional, the result is a jarring read through the transitions that completely break you out of any suspension of disbelief.

Even with the sometimes-enervated writing style, this book remains aware that it is a piece of tribute and is, throughout, a very entertaining read if your nostalgia is littered with Scooby snacks and Elder Gods. With both sly and glaring pop culture references, a tongue-in-cheek sensibility, and the bravery to confront child-cum-adult issues (mental illness, drug abuse, suicide, addiction to black magic...) this is a fun and entertaining adventure.

As Cantero states:
"No book is dangerous in and of itself you know, but historically reading a book in the wrong way has lead to terrible consequences."

Ashley Joanna "Ash" Williams knows. And Cantero knows we know.

Again, a solid four stars - with that extra star for Cantero doing something that I really wanted somebody to do but didn't realise I wanted it.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

For Your Eyes Only. Or a few things I learned on my morning run.

"Goodbye Mr. Bond, I trust you had a pleasant... fright."
~Ernst Stavro Blofeld

OK, this post really isn't about James Bond. It's about running. Something I love to do.

I run with Zombies, Run! (ZR), a fitness/running app. (I talked about it back in 2014 in my post, Zombies, Run! Comes to Google Glass.) I've had my ups and downs with the app, both for technology reasons (What app doesn't occasionally get buggy with updates?) and content reasons (I personally like my zombie-themed fitness app to have actually zombies in it so I took exception to one of the seasons - you know who you are, bad, bad season!). But the folks who put together ZR have been on their game lately and I have been enjoying a most definite UP in running to Season 5.

The missions (as they are called) are usually named after song titles and Season 5, Mission 27 took it's name from a song from Bond. As in James Bond! Namely, For Your Eyes Only. (See? It makes sense now, right?!?)

I have no idea why this got me fired up for my run, but there it is.

Sure, For Your Eyes Only featured Carole Bouquet as Melina Havelock.

And Lynn-Holly Johnson as Bibi Dahl.

But neither of them is very zombie-like. So...

There was some running in For Your Eyes Only. But not in a significant way. But when I saw the title of the mission I got really excited. Maybe it just resonated with the 10-year-old me. The 10-year-old me really, really liked Lynn-Holly Johnson.

I decided a Bond-themed mission deserved a Bond-themed playlist. So between the juicy story and while running away from zombies I listened to "Goldfinger" by Shirley Bassey, "Thunderball" by Tom Jones, "You Only Live Twice" by Nancy Sinatra, "We Have All The Time In The World" by Louis Armstrong, "Diamonds Are Forever" by Shirley Bassey, "Live And Let Die" by Paul McCartney & Wings, "The Man With The Golden Gun" by Lulu, "Nobody Does It Better" by Carly Simon, "Moonraker" by Shirley Bassey, "For Your Eyes Only" by Sheena Easton (of course!), "All Time High" by Rita Coolidge, "Never Say Never Again" by Lani Hall, "A View To A Kill" by Duran Duran, and "The Living Daylights" by a-ha. (BTW, Shirley Bassey knows someone, you know?)

All-in-all it was a great run. And I learned a few things that I thought I would share:

1) Even though running through the golf course may seem like a fabulous spur-of-the-moment idea at 5 AM - Because, hey! no golfers at 5 AM! - you have to keep in mind that there are also no frickin' lights at 5 AM. And golf courses are dark. Very dark. Staring as hard as you can at the ground to keep on the path is fraught with perils, including low hanging tree branches.

It looked kind of like this:

Although the darkness does add a realistic ambiance to the whole running away from zombies in a post-apocalyptic world feel, the effort required to keep from falling on your face is just over the tipping point into "too much".

Also, thinking that it will be easier to see on the side of the course where you'll get light from the cars on the freeway is a very false assumption. Glaring, moving headlights cast weird, disorienting shadows on the hilly landscape of a golf course that make you feel like you are going to fall into black chasms and never be heard from again.

2) In the dark and semi-dark of predawn, you may discover that the adorable cat and her kittens are actually an adorable skunk and her kittens. Moving off the path to give them a wide berth is wisest.

Going home smelling like a skunk, which could be analogous to smelling like a rotting corpse (eg, zombie), is not a proper way to start off a busy day.

3) Apparently 5:28 AM is a great time to turn on the sprinklers in the park. And there is nothing you can do about it when you are equidistant from all the sides.

Trying to find the silver lining, had you been skunked, a brisk morning shower might have helped, although unless you packed tomato juice I think you'd be stuck with the skunk funk. (We don't ever find canned tomato juice on the missions...weird...)

4) Telling a cyclist, "Sorry, running away from a horde of zombies" does not, apparently, ease the sting of having a runner pass them on the trail. And they are bitter. Oh so bitter.

5) All zombie chases will commence right as you hit that bridge or hill. And, oddly enough, right after ZR informs you that you have just picked up a car battery or a tool chest.

6) My supposition that a James Bond-themed ZR mission would be best done to a soundtrack of Bond theme music - especially the Connery and Moore years - was 100% correct.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

630,720,000 seconds & counting...

"What a happy and holy fashion it is that those who love one another should rest on the same pillow."
~Nathaniel Hawthorne

What can I say? It's been an exciting, breathtaking, amazing journey with this woman I call my wife and best friend. 

Two thousand and sixteen in many ways is a long way off from 1996 when we said our "I do's" before God and family and friends. Even further away from 1990 when we met and I immediately fell in love with her kindness and her humour and melted into those bluer than blue eyes.

And yet, what're 20 years?

A blink of those blue eyes.

A flash.

Just a moment.

A glimpse of the eternity I want with someone who seems to know me better than I know myself.

She's made me a better human. Infinitely better. 

Wiser. Stronger. More self-assured. I'm more comfortable in the aspect of adult and far less of the ingĂ©nu. Her confidence in me brings about a very real intrepidity and spirit that I do not think I would possess without her support, her love, her faith.

Yes, sometimes she is impossibly stubbourn. But then so am I. And it works. She gets angry and I get angry. But it is rarely at the same things, so we calm each other down. The things that scare her I can face and vice-a-versa. It makes for a wonderful balance of feeling the protector and the protected. And that is a nice combination in this world. (I'll give you an example: For her I swim in the ocean. She doesn't know it's because of her. I am deathly afraid of deep, dark water - thalassophobia is no joke - but I get into that ocean or lake and swim. Not to impress her or because I think she expects it of me, but because somehow that overwhelming, smothering dread I feel when the ocean or lake floor drops away is softened with the knowledge that she believes I can do it. And through that belief in me I am braver.)

That is me in the flippin' Pacific ocean.
I still like holding her hand. I think she likes holding mine. She's the first person I think of when I wake up and the last person to float through my mind when I go to sleep. Making her happy makes me happy. Thinking about her makes me happy.

This is terribly maudlin and I do not apologize.

We can talk about anything. Anything. (Politics, religion, death, sex, morality, fear, Brexit, bleu cheese. (Yes, even blue cheese. Which she still loathes and I still love.)) And sometimes we can not talk at all and so much is communicated. It's rather amazing. 

Come to think of it, there is a lot around this woman that is amazing. A lot around us that is amazing. And I am grateful. Grateful to her for letting me share in her life, her adventures.

I raise my glass to this wonderful, sublime, woman and to the 20 years I have called her "wife". (And to the 26 years I have called her friend.) 

I love this woman. 

I love her more than I can express. She's pretty special. And for some reason she seems to think I'm pretty special, too.

Happy anniversary, my love.  What say you to another 20 years to see what happens?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Zombies, Run! comes to Google Glass

"There are as many reasons for running as there are days in the year, years in my life. But mostly I run because I am an animal and a child, an artist and a saint. So, too, are you. Find your own play, your own self-renewing compulsion, and you will become the person you are meant to be."
 ~George Sheehan

"You got your Zombies in my Glass!"

"You got your Glass in my Zombies!"

Zombies, Run! and Google Glass. Two great tastes that taste great together!

On Tuesday, after a run, I posted my run stats on Google+. It's something I do after every run. Often when I run I use an app called Zombies, Run! It's a fitness-app-audio-book-game.

Perhaps I should explain Zombies, Run! a bit.

Zombies, Run! does the things a traditional fitness app does - tracks your distance, your time, your pace - plus it adds in a story element. You are Runner 5, a runner from Abel, a small settlement of survivors somewhere in England after the Zombie Apocalypse. Each run you do is a "mission" within the story. The app plays an audio clip telling you what the mission is and setting things up for your run, then it plays music (of your choice), then another audio clip telling you more of the story. Repeat until you finish the mission. 

Scattered throughout your run are virtual objects you pick up. The app helpfully tells you the things you are picking up, which range from clothing (sports bras are a very common item), to various weapons (baseball bats, axes, pistols, knives), to medical supplies, to random items (teddy bears, USB drives, board games, money, glasses, deodorant, etc.). The items themselves are not (usually) integral to the mission you are running, but they serve two purposes: helping you avoid zombies and building your base.

That leads us into the two other aspects of Zombies, Run!, namely avoiding zombies (sprinting) and building up Abel. If you have "Zombie Chase" enabled within the app, groups of zombies will attack you at random points throughout your run. Sometimes the zombie attacks are story driven - you are at a point in the story where you encounter zombies and need to run - or some are merely random attacks during the non-story portion of music listening. To avoid the zombies you need to increase your pace by 20% from your average pace (which the app calculates based on your pace over the previous 30 seconds) and maintain that increased pace for one minute. If the zombies do catch you AND you have items collected, you will drop some of your items to distract the zombies - who apparently like things like sports bras, whiskey, and umbrellas - allowing you to escape and continue the mission. If you have no items to drop then the zombies catch you and the mission is aborted. Wah!

And presumably turn into something like this:

It is an interesting aspect of the game and it really adds to the fun. But, again, you can turn the chases off if you so desire.

The other reason to collect supplies is to build your base. When you are back at home and recovering from all those zombie attacks you can go into the app and look at your base. Using the supplies you collect, or rather an aggregate score based on the supplies which translates into supply points and building points, you can increase the size of your base, add buildings to increase defense and morale, and upgrade existing buildings.

For me this is the least compelling aspect of the whole app. Yes, it is fun to build up your base, see your population increase, etc. But it really has little to do with the story and is more of an add-on.

But, back to my post on Google+. I posted my run stats and as an aside to an aside about a feature-request I mentioned that I would dearly love to have support for Zombies, Run! on Google Glass.

Because Google Glass (I've been a Glass Explorer for just about a year now) and Zombies, Run! (I've been using the app for two years) together would be incredible.

Little did I know...

Within hours of my post (And admittedly unrelated to my post, but a boy can dream, right?) Google announced new features for Google Glass. One of them: SUPPORT FOR ZOMBIES, RUN!

Wow! I have a super power!

Today I got a chance to take Zombies, Run! for Glass (ZRG) out for a test run (heh!). I'm impressed. Having my phone already tucked away for the run is great.

I always find an annoying stutter at the beginning of a run because I have to start the app, lock the phone, tuck it away in my running pack and then get started. With ZRG you start the app with a voice cue, "OK Glass, Start run." You can already be running!

Another great thing - no GREAT thing - about ZRG is that I now have access to all the music I have on Google Play. All of it! With Zombies, Run! you are limited to playlists you create with the music on your phone. Not so with ZRG. (This access to Google Play music as well as Spotify and perhaps others will be coming to the regular Zombies, Run! in the very near future.)

Believe me, that is way, way, way more music than I could ever keep on my phone. And it ROCKS!

Having a visual level added into Zombies, Run! is a wonderful thing. The problem with many fitness apps is that to see your stats during a run you have to take out your phone, unlock it, and scan the screen. Not the best for convenience or safety. With ZRG you can see your stats at any time with a glance.

The zombie chases are still present - in fact, I couldn't find a way to turn them off in ZRG. Although I couldn't get a vignette (Glass' photo-within-a-photo feature) of the zombie chase screen over my idyllic surroundings - because, you know, I was BEING CHASED BY FRICKIN' ZOMBIES! - ZRG gives you a meter showing how close the zombies are getting in addition to the standard audio warning that zombies are attacking and the audio announcement of how close the zombies are to you. It's not virtual zombies attacking like a video game...

...but it did have an impact. A huge impact. I think my sprint was an increase of much more than 20%. I didn't like seeing those zombies getting closer and closer; the creepy red hands closing in on my little green self.

And ZRG seems to have a hidden feature in that it waits until you are about to go uphill before launching those darn zombies at you! (I was heading up the pedestrian overpass when I was attacked.)

I really enjoy having my stats available to me at any moment. And being able to capture my surroundings with Glass as I run is priceless.

Yes, creepy tunnels are important on my runs.

And when you are done with your run ZRG sums it all up for you so you can bask in the fact that you survived! Mission Complete!

Not everything about ZRG is great, however. And that's to be expected. This is not a final product. It is really just a beta product being run on a beta product - although two awesome betas!

Right now the runs you record in ZRG do not sync with your Zombies, Run! account. You only have access to the first few missions of Season 1 (Zombies, Run! is well into Season 3). The options are very limited - I could not find a way to turn off the zombie chases or change the mission length. The tracking is a bit buggy.

My biggest gripe with ZRG is really not a gripe about ZRG at all but about Glass in general when it comes to using it during any activity like running: the screen does not stay on long enough. In a sitting-at-your-desk situation when you activate the screen - either by touching the touch-pad or tilting your head back 30% - the screen stays on for a good 10 seconds. When you are running and activate the screen it goes off within a couple of seconds. This is true of any app with Glass that I have tried to use while running: Strava, ZRG, camera, etc. I'm not certain if Glass has a sensor that is telling it you are jostling around and so it does not leave the screen illuminated for some safety reason, but this would be a good thing to get fixed as technologies like ZRG mature into viable consumer end-products.

How do I rate ZRG? I give it five stars!

Ok, that's a little too much Google/Zombies, Run! fanboy-ness.

Setting aside my giddiness at having a Google prayer answered and also setting aside the novelty of having Zombies, Run! include visuals after two years of audio only, I give ZRG a solid 3.5 stars out of 5.

When more content is available, the options are beefed up at bit, and it links to your Zombies, Run! account so, like any good fitness app, you can keep track of your fitness long-term, It'll get another star.

When you can actually see the zombies Resident-Evil-style as they are chasing you - perhaps something along the lines of Race Yourself, but more scary - I'll turn my rating up to 11.

For now this is a great addition to the family of Glass apps. And I'm proud to say that as an early adopter of both Glass and Zombies, Run! I hit gold. It is both fun and easy to use (good job Google Glass dev team! and Six To Start) and brings Zombies, Run! into the future of wearable technologies. I look forward to having the full Zombies, Run! experience and even MORE in the (hopefully) near future!

Thanks Six To Start and Google Glass. Awesome work!