autobiography Blog

Andy K from Otago Bay

fourcornerscoverIntroducing: my friend Andy. He writes and sings awesome songs. As Falling Rock National Park is the place to go for new music, and given its massive audience, I figured this would be the perfect place to break this young and exciting artist.

To hear the song, Healthy Happy Family, just press Play on the music player to your right.

UPDATE: Do to popular demand, I’ve added MORE SONGS to the right. Just click on the one you want to hear, and it will magically play. Enjoy!

Blog friday robot

Desperate Robots

What are they desperate for?

Blood, money, oil.

Blog reviews

an open letter to Frank Oz

The-Stepford-Wives-Poster Dear Mr. Oz,

You’ve done so much to entertain us over the years. From the Muppets to Star Wars to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Bowfinger, your track record has been mind-boggling. You really don’t owe us anything. I’m not writing to harass you or complain. I am merely making a suggestion.

When A. and I watched your remake of The Stepford Wives I couldn’t help but notice you were a little off. I don’t blame you. The script could’ve been better, and Nicole Kidman strikes me as a humorless person in general. There were a number of things out of your control which made that movie such a disappointment. But you were the director, and as director you kind of assume responsibility for the finished product. It has your name on it, after all.

The main problem with the 2004 Stepford Wives was that it was billed as a comedy, but it wasn’t funny. Oh, it had lots of funny actors in it: Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Christopher Walken. It even had a very talented director: you. The original Stepford Wives was a legitimately creepy movie, and it had one of the best sci-fi movie endings of all time (right up there with the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers). You had the chance to comment on feminism thirty or so years after the original, but you kind of side-stepped it in favor of bland jokes and an ending that – let’s face it – I can hardly remember.

Since it seemed your intention was to wink at the original premise and throw in a modern twist, let’s start there. Why not use one of your old friends? Miss Piggy is an icon. You voiced her for 30 years. Do you still do that voice? Even if you don’t, she would be perfect in this movie. Instead of abducting women and turning them into manmade robots, all the women of Stepford are turned into Muppets. The joke would be that none of the male characters can tell the difference between a human woman and a felt puppet. Miss Piggy, of course, would be the “Queen Bee” of Stepford. You could then make Muppet versions of some other actresses for when they are turned into Stepford wives.

And how about a twist ending? Instead of being acquiescent homemakers, the Muppet Stepford wives revolt against the men (lead by Miss Piggy, of course) and start their own community. Maybe some of them run for public office. The men, horrified and unable to do anything about it, turn themselves into Muppets as well. The cycle is complete. Everybody is a Muppet.Miss_Piggy_In_PinkWhile I don’t expect you want to revisit a movie considered to be a failure, Mr. Oz, I think that making it into a real farce might be just the trick. I’ve always wanted to see what Matthew Broderick would look like as a Muppet (not to mention Christopher Walken). And I think the world is ready for a new kind of Muppet movie.

I hope you will consider my suggestion, Mr. Oz, and not take it as an insult. You have long been an inspiration of mine and I hope you continue to make movies just the way you want to.

Kid Shaykidman-stepford

autobiography Blog

no more cars

This morning on my way to work I almost got run over by a bus. I was crossing on a sidewalk. When I stepped off the curb the little man was lit, and a few steps later the red hand began to flash. I thought – naively, apparently – I was still safe to cross. A bus, coming the opposite direction, took a right hand turn directly in front of me. I kept thinking he’d stop when he saw a pedestrian in the crosswalk. Nope. He started gesturing at me to get back to the sidewalk. I wish I had flipped him the bird. Instead I pointed out the green light. I was amazed at his incompetence and his self-righteous anger. He really thought he was right. Well, I’m here to tell you that he was wrong.

Cars are indirectly killing us all. They are slowly suffocating us with their evil emissions. They will eventually contribute to the end of life on this planet as we know it. Say what you will about the dinosaurs’ evolutionary skills, at least they didn’t commit species-wide suicide.

Worse still, cars kill people directly by running us over in crosswalks.

I am hereby submitting my proposal to every city in the nation: ban cars from your downtown. Whether your downtown be a single road with one traffic light or one hundred blocks of intersecting road, do not allow cars to drive there. Emergency vehicles, buses, taxis, and delivery vehicles will be excepted (restrictions apply). Think of all the space you’ve just created for yourself. A lane for bikes, a wide promenade for pedestrians. Maybe an avenue of trees. Don’t these things sound better than dirty, loud, smelly cars?

I admit to owning a car. Road trips have long been a way to explore this grand country. But there must be limits. Since none of our governors is man enough to draw a line in the sand, I will be the one. No more cars downtown. No more needless deaths, either from carbon emissions or from physically being hit by that tangled mass of steel.stretch_hummer

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Bike/Bridge Robots

If you have read either Great Wave of Falling Rock or Owl & Other Comics, you should write a review! Just go either here or here at Powell’s website and tell the world what you think. Unlike my friend Ian I don’t have a sweet mix CD offer, but maybe I’ll dedicate a future Friday Robots to you.f-r-6-20-08

Blog fiction

Plague’s Evil Friends

Remember this?plague+in+mountains

It’s from an article on plague (or Black Death). Well, apparently there are more diseases out there. Plague’s got a posse of evildoers, and you never know where you will find them. A few examples:Prolapsed+Disk tinnitus typhoid+fever leprosy fever+blister

This message brought to you by the Falling Rock Committee on Disease and Pestilence Control (FRCODAPC, for short).

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Welcome to Fort Plague

Falling Rock is your source for up-to-the-minute information on the Black Death, or bubonic plague. What follows is an article from New Scientist. “Fort Plague,” a Russian fort constructed on an artificial island in the middle of the Gulf of Finland, housed scientists who studied deadly infectious diseases.

Be wary, dear readers. The plague abounds.

During a field trip to the Russian steppes in 1912, biologist Ippolit Deminsky finally found what he had been looking for: a rodent called a suslik that had died of plague. Perhaps now he could persuade the Russian authorities that the disease was not carried into the country by foreigners but had always been there in the indigenous fauna. Before he could report back, however, he realised he had been infected. Carefully, he composed a last telegram: “When you arrive take the cultures that I had isolated. All the laboratory records are in order. The rest you will be able to find out from the laboratory. My body should be examined as an experimental case of a human contracting the plague from suslik. Goodbye.”

FOR much of the cold war, western intelligence agencies suspected that the Soviet Union’s capacity to wage biological warfare was superior to the west’s. Their suspicions were only confirmed in 1989, when a Russian visitor to Paris turned up at the British embassy and requested asylum. Vladimir Pasechnik was a brilliant microbiologist who worked on the bubonic plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis. He was flown to England and taken to a safe house, where he revealed details of what was then the world’s largest biowarfare programme, codenamed Ferment.

Its full extent remains a mystery to Russia’s cold war foes, but one thing is certain: its foundations were laid long before the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, in a lonely, windswept fortress in the Gulf of Finland. There, Pasechnik’s predecessors lived – and sometimes died – as they tried to find a way to end the epidemics that ravaged Russia.

The story of how Fort Alexander I came to be Russia’s “plague” laboratory begins more than 600 years ago. In 1346, Mongol forces were laying siege to the Black Sea port of Kaffa (now Feodosia in Ukraine) when they realised they had been infected with plague. In an early example of biowarfare, they hurled their dead over the city walls. Plague ripped through the city and those few who escaped fled west, carrying the bacterium that would set off the world’s second pandemic of bubonic plague – the Black Death.

For most of the centuries that followed, outbreaks of plague were frequent in Russia, often devastating whole cities or provinces. Convinced the disease came from outside the country, the imperial authorities looked to its borders, gathering intelligence on outbreaks in neighbouring countries and introducing strict quarantine measures at its ports and frontier crossings. The epidemics continued. Russia’s belief in the polluting influence of foreigners remained unshaken even when, in 1894, French bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin identified Y. pestis as the agent responsible for plague. But the discovery did prompt the authorities to set up an organisation dedicated to the study of the disease, says Alexander Melikishvili at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Washington DC, an authority on the pre-Soviet anti-plague system.

The Special Commission for the Prevention of and Fight against Plague was presided over by Prince Alexander Oldenburgsky, a member of the ruling Romanov family, decorated war veteran and the driving force behind the Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine (IIEM), Russia’s first scientific research institute.

According to records kept at the modern IEM (it lost its imperial “I” after the revolution), Oldenburgsky’s interest in infectious diseases may have been sparked by an incident in 1885, when an officer in his regiment was bitten by a rabid dog. The prince paid for the soldier to be treated by Louis Pasteur in Paris, and when he returned cured, Oldenburgsky was inspired to build a Russian version of the Pasteur Institute, a centre for research into infectious diseases.

Oldenburgsky understood that the IIEM needed an isolated laboratory where its scientists could work on highly contagious diseases such as cholera and anthrax – and plague. Fort Alexander I was ideal. It had been built on an artificial island in the shallow Gulf of Finland about 60 years earlier to defend the southern sea approach to St Petersburg. Advances in military technology rendered it obsolete and in 1896, it was struck off the register of fortresses and Oldenburgsky was given permission to use it. And so a fort built to defend the imperial city from outside threats was put to work on a disease the Russians had for so long seen in the same light, with such disastrous consequences.

Once up and running, the lab was subject to stringent security. All visitors were ferried to the fort on the steamship Mikrob, and had to leave before sunset. Safety regulations were strictly enforced. Medical staff working with infectious samples and sera had to wear galoshes and rubber-lined capes. Any member of staff who developed symptoms was incarcerated in an isolation unit cut off from the rest of the facility by an elaborate system of hermetically sealed doors.Thanks to such precautions, there were never any major outbreaks of disease – although two of its scientists died after accidentally contaminating themselves with plague.

Medical staff had to wear galoshes and rubber-lined capes

Despite the country’s xenophobic attitude to plague, one researcher, Ippolit Deminsky, realised that not all the questions about the disease could be answered within the confines of the fort. A physician and epidemiologist, he rubbished the idea that the source of plague lay outside Russia and encouraged his fellow biologists to look for its hosts in nature. He practised what he preached and paid dearly for it when, during a field trip to the steppes, he isolated the plague agent from a dead rodent called a suslik, contracted the disease and died. He didn’t die in vain: his discovery confirmed that far from being a foreign import, plague was endemic in Russia.

Oldenburgsky compensated the employees at the fort for their devotion to duty in perhaps the only way he could: by making their lives comfortable. The fort had a well stocked library and a billiards room, and staff each had their own private room. He also ensured they had everything they needed for their research, including a collection of organs from diseased animals and another of preserved parasites, suspected of being plague carriers. A menagerie housed monkeys, rabbits, mice, guinea pigs and deer – but the most important animals at the fort were horses, which were large enough to provide the quantities of blood needed to make anti-plague serum. The horses were well catered for too: there were 20 stables, a riding ring and a lift capable of raising one horse at a time into the laboratory above.

IEM records show that the lab produced huge quantities of sera and vaccines – in the case of plague, enough to prevent or contain outbreaks in the Volga and Transcaucasian regions, Odessa and the far east of Russia, with some left over to export.

The lab’s output dried up after the revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war. Blue-blooded Oldenburgsky was forced to resign and fled to France. In 1918, a new dangerous-pathogen laboratory was established at Saratov University on the Volga, south-east of Moscow, and from then on the country’s anti-plague system underwent a massive expansion. According to Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley of the Monterey Institute, the Soviet-era network consisted of more than 100 facilities scattered across the 11 Soviet republics. Her colleague Raymond Zilinskas reckons that within a decade of the Saratov lab opening, staff were working on an offensive biowarfare programme alongside their public health research.

Today, the fort has fallen into disrepair. Nothing remains of the horse lift, the huge vats for brewing lethal microbial soups or the furnaces in which legions of animals and the bodies of two unfortunate scientists were incinerated. According to Melikishvili, thieves have stripped the place, scavenging every last piece of metal. “Even the doors are gone,” he says. Last year, the very foundations were threatened by plans to widen the channel feeding the St Petersburg sea port, until the city’s heritage committee stepped in and ordered the works to be moved a safe distance.

For one night in July, the fort briefly comes to life – though not in a way Oldenburgsky could have foreseen. Temporarily renamed Fortdance, it throbs to an electronic beat. Hundreds of party-goers dance beneath its thick walls while laser beams swirl over the empty cannon emplacements. In the early hours of the following morning, motorboats ferry exhausted revellers back to the mainland, retracing the route of the old ship Mikrob, and Fort Alexander I reverts to its habitual state: a desolate ruin inhabited only by seagulls. It’s unlikely that many of the departing guests know they have just spent the night in what was once Russia’s official plague laboratory, and the birthplace of its biological warfare programme.

autobiography Blog reviews

My Hero: Jack Johnson

jack-johnson2 What attributes does your hero have? Would your hero be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? Have a special “Spidey sense” to know when trouble is afoot? Dress up like a big bat and fight crime? Know when microwave popcorn is done without being burned? Be able to steal and feel no remorse?

Fortunately for me, my hero exists in the real world. His name is Jack Johnson. He is a singer/songwriter. You may have even heard some of his songs.

Jack grew up in Hawaii. He loved to surf. After high school he went to college, but not any old boring institution for higher learning. He went to school in Santa Barbara to be a filmmaker so he could make surfing documentaries of his friends. After college he bummed around with his friend, G Love. G Love put Jack on one of his songs and it was a hit. Then Jack made an album of his own: Brushfire Fairytales. It was also a hit. Now Jack and his other good buddy Ben Harper write songs, hang out, surf, and talk about saving the environment.

Jack, who is not related to the boxer, is supremely mellow. He is also tall, and awesome. Every one of his albums sound relaxing. Some people – naive and petty people – say all his albums sound the same. Do not believe their lies. While I’d happily put on a Jack Johnson album at a chill party or a BBQ, I would most likely opt for In Between Dreams or his newest, Sleep Through the Static. That’s just the way I roll. Other people may prefer Brushfire Fairytales or the Curious George Soundtrack (which features G Love and Ben Harper). I don’t think anyone likes On and On. Sorry, Jack.

One theory, put forward by my mother, states Jack is the Jimmy Buffet of my generation. He’s mellow, makes you feel good, and has a kind of island-vibe. I agree with that, although I also think Jack is a more dedicated artist than Jimmy. Jimmy is fine, but sometimes he tries too hard to sound laid back. Jack is the real deal.

While I’m not out to convert anyone (Jack would totally oppose proselytizing), I do think that Jack Johnson is worth checking out if you haven’t heard anything beyond “Flake.” I’ll be the first to admit I used to be a Jack naysayer. Then I liked him ironically. Now, I just like him.

Hats (and shoes) off to Jack Johnson: singer, songwriter, surfer, filmmaker. Saving the environment one album at a time.jack-johnson

Blog comic fiction

Decision-Making Hat

I am a man of action. Ask any of my friends; they will tell you my long list of accomplishments. I make thousands of decisions per day, and I never look back. Dear readers, you are fortunate to be reading a blog by a man as illustrious and sure of himself as me.

People have asked me to write a book about decision-making. Many have failed miserably where I have succeeded. Is there a trick to my decision-making process? Some little trick that catapults me above all the riff-raff? Friends, it doesn’t take a book to tell you my secret.

I have a Decision-Making Hat.

That’s right! When I need to think, or sometimes when my head is cold, I put on my Decision-Making Hat and things just come to me. It has never let me down. When I’m wearing the hat, I no longer need to weigh the arguments for and against something. I just know.

Here is me without my Decision-Making Hat. Sitting at my drawing table, completely paralyzed with indecision. Notice the furrowed brow, making me look decades older. Not very attractive, eh?decision1

Now me with the hat. Happy, smiling face. No worries. Why? I’ve gotten so much done! Mission accomplished!decision2

For the rest of you huddled masses, I would advise you get your own Decision-Making Hats. Forget your old worries and be like the President and me. We don’t worry; why should you?

Blog reviews

Stan Winston 1946-2008

stanwinstonThis is sad: Stan Winston, special effects master, is dead. He was only 62. You all know my love for Jurassic Park, the movie that made me who I am today. Stan Winston created the physical effects for that movie and worked on a few other all-time classics: Aliens, The Thing, Predator, Edward Scissorhands, Terminator 2, Big Fish, (the currently playing) Iron Man, among many others. His is the hand that created the visuals for many of the movies that loom largest in our collective memories.

Like Ray Harryhausen before him, Stan Winston changed the way we see monsters, aliens, and robots. He didn’t just create special effects, he set the visual style of movie monsters for the past two decades. His creations are not “realistic.” They are better than real: they are iconic.