Shaken (Quake Runner Book 1) by Kevin Tumlinson— brief review and commentary

This is a pretty good novel. The main character, Alex Kayne, is sassy, super smart, and just vulnerable enough to avoid the “heroine can’t die” syndrome that afflicts almost all comic book super hero characters, or Lara Croft (heroine of the Tomb Raider games/films). Alex is a fugitive computer whiz who needs something to do as she hides from all the forces who want to either kill her or “bring her to justice”, so she kinda does her version of “The Equalizer” in that she helps people who have a specific need. The needy person in Shaken is a surfer/marine biologist named Abbey, who lost an arm to an encounter with a shark. Abbey received a prototype bionic arm, in part due to her high profile injury, and someone stole it. The arm and it’s charger, gone. Who the heck steals a limb from an amputee? (Literate folks might respond with another story, “Good Country People” by Flannery O’Conner, but I digress.)

So, we have Alex Kayne, who manages to change her appearance, her lodging, her cell phone, and her method of transportation more frequently than anyone in any spy novel I’ve ever read. In this book, she is mostly hiding out in Disney World. Other characters include Eric Symon, the FBI agent who nearly nabs fugitive Alex, Abbey who needs her arm back, and a cast of suspects or villains, depending on how the mystery unfolds. The action in this novel is well told, and not quite believable, but that’s part of the fun of it all.

Readers who enjoy puzzles and/or action heroines and want to be entertained for an evening (or two) should try Shaken (Quake Runner Book 1.)

Now, for the commentary. This was my first book by Kevin Tumlinson, but I certainly intend to try another. At the end of this book there’s a note wherein the author explains that he didn’t plan to self-publish this novel, intending to put it in the hands of an agent. However, he thought better of it and put it into his self-publishing stable of products. For many authors (yours truly included) self-publishing is better, due to control of the process and potential financial gain. That decision is understandable, but when the author said he wrote the book in roughly 15 days, I was shocked. Shocked.

Y’all, fifteen days is like two weeks. I can’t edit a book in two weeks, much less go from beginning to end. Wow. I had a whole new perspective on the novel after that. I thought it was a good, if not spectacular read, with very few errors. However, the very idea that such a book could be dreamed up and written in such a short time is simply hard to believe. However, as the author of Ecclesiastes says, “There is no new thing under the sun.” Shaken is a bit like that, in that the elements in the story have been used before, but perhaps not in precisely this manner. The author’s website is a feast for those who want to know more about marketing and branding, especially marketing self-published novels. Clearly, Tumlinson is not just prolific, but also understands how to get the product to customers, too.

Inside Marine One by Colonel Ray L’Heureux

While I seldom read biography, when I do, I usually really enjoy it. Marine One: Four U.S. Presidents, One Proud Marine, and the World’s Most Amazing Helicopter is a really good read. The author, a retired Marine, knows his subject matter, of course, but the book’s organization, which is both linear yet focused, helps make it an engaging read.

After an opening which describes the “victory lap” circling Washington on Inauguration Day, which is a taste of one of the final “missions” that the author participated in, the usual chronological approach takes the reader back to the time when the author’s love of flying helped him choose a career path. Lacking the funds to pursue a private education in aviation, Ray L’Heureux (call sign “Frenchy”) decides to join the Marine Corps as a pilot. During his very successful training, he decides to fly helicopters rather than jet aircraft, which most of his fellow Marines sought as their specialty. While on duty in California, Frenchy is in the audience gathered to see President Reagan land at his base. As he is impressed with this unit, Frenchy decided that he wanted a tour of duty with HMX-1, which is the name of the part of the Marine Corps which provides helicopter transportation for the President.

L’Heureux actually served in HMX-1 twice during his thirty year career in the Marines, hence the “Four Presidents” in the sub-title. He was a junior officer during the Bush 41 and Clinton administrations, meaning that he was part of the group that planned the helicopter trips (called “lifts”) and occasionally flew as co-pilot for dignitaries. L’Heureux returned as commander of HMX-1 during the presidency of George W. Bush, with whom Frenchy became friends. When Bush 44’s term was over, the author was still the commander of HMX-1, thus he flew the Obamas for a few months before his assignment ended and the reins of HMX-1 went to another Marine pilot.

While not overly technical, L’Heureux lets the reader know quite a lot about how helicopters work. The focus of the book is on HMX-1 and their two sorts of helicopters, all painted dark green with white on the top, but the author also flew in other types of helicopters with other missions, and that’s of interest. However, the “inside” view is largely about how the military goes to great lengths to insure both the safety, comfort, and efficiency in providing transportation for the President, the Vice President, and heads of state of visiting nations. Whether the reader knows much about helicopters, the military, or just recent history, or not, there’s something for everyone in Frenchy’s book. According to the author, President Eisenhower was the first U.S. President to use helicopters for day to day transportation, as it was faster and far more convenient for everyone. Motorcades require a number of security measures, which, of course, takes time and impacts traffic. When the President boards one of the “white top” helicopters, he can be where he needs to be more quickly, and traffic is unimpeded. So, since Eisenhower, most Presidents have relied upon Marine One for quite a lot of their transportation, whether going to Andrews to board Air Force One, or just a short trip to the Presidential retreat, Camp David.

One of the aspects that I found quite interesting were the stories about Camp David, which is a 45 minute ride from the White House via helicopter. The author describes playing “Wallyball” with Bush 41. Later, L’Heureux, both an athletic guy and a Marine, was invited to ride mountain bikes with Bush 44, and that experience began their friendship. During his time of flying George W. Bush, the author was frequently at the ranch in Crawford, Texas, and helped build a bike trail on the ranch.

Another interesting aspect of the book is that when the U.S. President travels abroad, the helicopters go over first, so that the President is always flown by Marine pilots. The effort necessary to dismantle, load, unload, and reassemble and then test the helicopters before the arrival of the President is a bit mind boggling. In his memoir, L’Heureux describes flying Marine One over Normandy for D-Day anniversaries, landing in Germany so the President could meet with Angela Merkle, and even landing at Windsor Castle, so the President could have tea with Queen Elizabeth.

For readers who enjoy history, insider information, or just an entertaining read, do check out Inside Marine One.

Remember when journalism was compelling reading?

Hubby and I have been watching Manhunt: Unabomber on Netflix, and since the storyline is anything but linear, we both looked for articles to help us understand the story. As we are chronologically gifted, we remember the case being in the news, but as it happened some 25 years ago, we wanted a refresher. Hubby looked at Wikipedia, because, as always, it comes up first on search engines. I went a bit farther and looked at the source material for that article and chose a piece in the NY Times archives. Oh, wow, is that a great article. A hell of a great read, and it helped me know more about the Unabomber case than I ever knew way back when. Also, it was a glaring reminder of how far the standards of good journalism have fallen.

Unabomber

One of my sisters is a journalism major, and she still thinks that journalists do a reasonable job. Oh, sure, she says, there are some bad ones, and some hacks, but that’s always been the case. My other sister works in communications and believes modern journalists are often poor writers managed by even poorer editors who are more interested in how many times articles are shared or clicked upon than actual quality. After reading the simply superb article about Ted Kaczynski in the NYTimes, I tend to agree with the sister that says journalism has fallen on hard times.

Manhunt: Unabomber is a good show if you haven’t seen it, and I recommend it, but the filmmakers do jump from scene to scene, sometimes with only a brief graphic telling the date, too quickly. In part, this seems to be an effort to create a bit of suspense, which is always tricky when telling a tale wherein the outcome is known by the audience. The folks behind the show do an excellent job of portraying the very complex man who chose to bomb those he deemed hostile to him or to his vision for the advancement of society, and it reveals the mis-steps of the initial profilers of the suspect labeled UNABOM because his targets were associated with universities or airlines. The NY Times story mentions Kaczynski’s failed attempt at getting articles (or rants, depending on one’s viewpoint) published. Indeed, only the Unabomber’s success at getting his “manifesto” published in a national newspaper actually caused him to be captured, and the FBI had a tip or it wouldn’t have happened at all.

The story in the NYT is not entirely linear either, as it jumps from witness to witness, but the story is primarily based upon a long interview with David Kaczynski the bomber’s brother, who ultimately helped the FBI identify the bomber. Still, the article is far more informative, if not as dramatic, as the television show. In particular, I was struck with the tremendous dilemma in that David had, because he knew that other instances of FBI vs. a long sought suspect ended in a firestorm (such as the Branch Davidians in Waco and the stand off at Ruby Ridge) so he was concerned. With the support and prompting of his wife, he supplied materials to support his suspicions and approached the FBI. Despite being assured that his role would be anonymous, someone in the investigation leaked it to CBS news. Nowadays, it is no secret that the FBI is more of a political organization than a crime fighting one, but even then, the younger Kaczynski brother was very wise be concerned, and even wiser to have an attorney.

One aspect of the NYT story that helps it be fascinating reading is the focus on Ted Kaczynski, from childhood on, and the use of excerpts from the manifesto. Despite being mentally unbalanced, the brilliant former math professor did have some profound observations about the deleterious effects of advancing technology on people and society. He attempted to wall off those technological intrusions by living as he did, off the grid, in Montana. For whatever reasons, whether one deems it mental illness or just plain evil, Kaczynski did try to fight technology by writing and bombing. His life, and those of his victims, would have been far better if he had written more, been a little less clueless about getting published, and never made those bombs, however.

The television series Manhunt has two seasons available. Season one is about the Unabomber and season two, entitled Deadly Games, is about Eric Rudolph and Richard Jewell, one of whom made bombs, and one of whom was falsely accused. Both shows are worthy of viewing. Sadly, I don’t think anything published in the New York Times today is as nearly as good as “PRISONER OF RAGE — A special report.;From a Child of Promise to the Unabom Suspect.”

Time for Dystopian Science Fiction?

Reader’s Alley, a nifty site for bargain eBook lovers, divides their science fiction offerings into sub-genres: sci-fi romance, sci-fi thriller, and science fiction, dystopian. While those first two descriptors would seem self-evident, the dystopian flavor is considered by some (mostly jaded members of academia) as the only serious science fiction. Typically, I avoid reading dystopias because they tend to be so darned depressing. But, with all that is happening in the news, which I also try to avoid, perhaps it is time to take a look at the genre.

One of the finest books about the history of science fiction is Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree, which covers science fiction literature from its beginnings to the early 1980s. Aldiss does discuss many sub-genres, but the thread of dystopia runs strongly throughout his encyclopedia of science fiction in printed form. The term, dystopia, is applicable to “a world in which everything is imperfect, and everything goes terribly wrong. Dystopian literature shows us a nightmarish image about what might happen to the world in the near future. Usually the main themes of dystopian works are rebellion, oppression, revolutions, wars, overpopulation, and disasters. On the other hand, Utopia is a perfect world – exactly opposite of dystopia.”

Science has, until recently, been viewed as a two edged sword; while it can make life much better, mis-use of science has been the root of all sorts of evils. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is often considered to be the first science fiction novel, and the dark side of science is clearly the central theme of the novel. Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment and Rappacini’s Daughter, short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne, also feature mis-use of science as their main themes. When teaching those stories, which used to be in many American Lit anthologies, one way to make it simple for students is to say, “Hawthorne is basically telling his readers, ‘don’t mess around with Mother Nature’.”

Later novelists fine tuned dystopian themes, with societies becoming more and more restrictive upon the populace. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 share these themes, “including the consequences of totalitarianismmass surveillance, and repressive regimentation of persons and behaviours within society.” Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, Harrison Burgeron is one of the most widely read dystopian stories, due to its inclusion in anthologies for students, and I recently read a news story liking our current government policies to Vonnegut’s didactic work. Y’all, it is scary when dystopia becomes reality.

Of course, many fans of science fiction today seldom, if ever, read it. Instead, what they know of utopia and dystopia is presented via video. Early episodes of Star Trek explored both sides of the scientific divide. The Ultimate Computer, rather dated today, explored the man vs. machine conflict, using future war games as a setting for its rather disturbing premise. Various dystopian novels have been adapted to long form (movies) video, including everything from 1984 to Planet of the Apes. There are literally dozens of dystopian sci fi films. Some are rather laughable now (Mad Max?) but others are quite troubling.

My own fiction, which has many conflicts for characters to attempt to resolve, certainly isn’t “happily ever after, ” but it isn’t as dark as some of these works, and that’s because my outlook on life is more pragmatic. Hopefully, there will be some gravitation away from the totalitarian policies of modern politicians and administrators. But, when I consider what I am seeing when I do go out and about, I wonder. I really do. Remember this: In each fictional dystopia, the goal was to make things better for certain segments of the population, and bad outcomes are unhappy accidents. Be careful what you wish for—

Star Trek Picard—review and commentary

 

Ryan in Trek

Then and now— Seven of Nine


Star Trek
is an integral part of American culture
and a controversial view of the future of humanity. It began with Gene Roddenberry’s concept for a serious science fiction television series, a novel idea in the early 60s, and it has continued to evolve for fifty years. As America has changed, as science fiction has changed, as television has changed, Star Trek has changed, too.

Picard is set two decades after the feature film, Nemesis, and is based upon the series Star Trek The Next Generation, which ran for seven years on television. Later, four of the feature films were based upon the characters from TNG series. Picard has ten episodes in season one, but the second and third seasons are planned for CBS All Access, which is how hubby and I watched the first season.

This made for the web series has very high production values—the sets and effects rival feature films. Sir Patrick Stewart is still an amazing actor, although the pace of the series (slow!) seems to be partially dictated by the age of its principal character. Viewers who prefer space battles and fisticuffs will probably be a bit disappointed. Casual viewers may also find the editing, with its rapid cuts from scene to scene, confusing. Honestly, I don’t like that aspect at all, but this is apparently in line with Picard‘s sister show, Star Trek Discovery.

Spoiler alert—

We both thought the first few episodes were confusing and lacking in characters, apart from Jean Luc Picard himself, with whom we could empathize. The writers made a good decision in embracing the age of the main character. Anything else would insult the viewer, as Patrick Stewart looks and sounds old. For us, as fans of Star Trek Voyager, the show got better when Jeri Ryan pops in, as an older and less “Borg” version of Seven of Nine. Ryan is still riveting to watch, even without the cat suit that made her fodder for lots of magazine pictures in the late 1990s. In the seventeen years since her character graced the small screen, Seven has become much more human—in her speech pattern, in her attire, and in part due to suffering losses associated with years of living in a deteriorating society.

A key word here is suffering. One of the better aspects of Trek in its first few decades was  its optimistic view of the future of humanity. Although Roddenberry sought to put serious science fiction onto television, and therefore into lots of living rooms, his vision was seldom dark. However, much of serious science fiction—in print, in film, in gaming, and even in graphic forms—has embraced the dystopian view of the future of humanity. A utopia is an idealized society in which social and technical advances serve to make all things better for humanity. Yes, I did say it was idealistic! A dystopia is the polar opposite, in which “advances” in society and technology make things worse. For some examples of dystopian literature/film, think of Orwell’s 1984 or the film Blade Runner, based upon the work of Phillip K. Dick.

Alas, Picard‘s greatest weakness isn’t its slow pace or its rather confusing editing. Nor is it the “flashbacks” in which the characters look just as old as they do in the current timeline, no doubt due to the unforgiving nature of high def photography. Nope, the core problem for many fans of Star Trek will undoubtedly be the dark vision of the future embraced by the writers. Picard is a dystopia. Beloved characters from the previous Trek series will suffer, and some will die. New characters suffer and some of them die, too. And, by and large, those deaths may very well be without purpose, meaning, and certainly without honor.

Star Trek Picard has some strengths, including dazzling cinematography, a rich background of material from which the writers can draw inspiration, and an aging but talented main character. Guest stars include characters from TNG and Voyager, and the development of Seven of Nine, the former Borg, works well. Enjoy the series, but temper your expectations. This is post-modern Star Trek.

 

The Future of Learning for K-12

ChromebookNews organizations have truly embraced the old adage, “never let a crisis go to waste.” With every new pronouncement regarding the COVID-19 virus, the sky gets a bit closer to falling. Many of the public schools in my area have closed, but most of them are posting assignments online. Indeed, one of them has offered Chromebooks for check out if the family lacks a computer. This strikes me as a leap into the future of K-12 education.

Having taught both web enhanced and hybrid classes for the Technical College System of Georgia, I fully understand how to teach from my couch. In those classes, students had access to an online learning suite (either Blackboard or Angel, depending on the flavor of the year) wherein I listed assignments or offered online assessments. For those readers who are not chronologically gifted, the idea of closing schools seems unthinkable, but for anyone who has attended a post secondary school in the past decade, these fortnight long closures are no big deal. Indeed, I used to make jokes (during face-to-face class sessions at school) about teaching in my pajamas!

For younger students, such as those in K-12, however, quite a few of them have little experience with online learning, and some of their parents may not have experienced it at all. With a bit of coaching, both students and parents will come to see that much of what happens in a classroom can happen at home. In fact, in some cases, it is better to have online content. Forgot what happened to that important handout? Just print another one. Want to check the due date for an assignment? Just look at the online lesson plan. Need extra help? Email the teacher with your questions and concerns and you should get a prompt, personalized answer. Missed a class? Watch a recorded video session. In my experience, most college students eventually came to appreciate online resources, even if they didn’t embrace them. There is a learning curve, of course, as anything new requires some learning. Parents around here are about to embark on a new way of helping their kids with homework.

Who knows if the COVID-19 will actually be a serious threat to public health? Only the perspective of time will let us know that. However, this unprecedented interruption of business as usual in public education will demonstrate the power of online instruction. No doubt there will be some kinks in it, as this is new for some folks. But, the future of K-12 will be online, and this is just a preview of how it will work.