Sunday, September 27, 2015

Anthology News and Some Nerdy Dissection of "Star Wars"

    Recently found out that another story of mine has been accepted, in the anthology whose cover is just above this.  This is another one of EMP Publishing's books, who readers may recall is publishing another story of mine in their Creepy Campfire Quarterly, Issue 1, due out in January of 2016.  The Prison Compendium will be published in December of 2016.   It's also open to submissions until September of 2016.  So if any writers out there are looking for a home for a story, or want to write a new one, you can check out the guidelines at the EMP website, which is:
This anthology was inspired by several famous books/movies/television programs, such as "The Green Mile," "The Shawshank Redemption," "Dead Man Walking," "Escape From Alcatraz," "American History X," "Cool Hand Luke," "The Experiment," "Caged Heat," "Stir Crazy," and "Orange is the New Black."  My own contribution, "A Ray of Hope," is about an inmate who's dealing with a new cellmate, who happens to be a religiously devout killer who specializes in killing babies and young children.  So I'd like to thank the folks at EMP Publishing once again, and I'll provide more details as I get them.

     Moving on, last week I mentioned a little Star Wars trivia, in my post about exotic dark chocolates.  I got to thinking about the series a little more, and a small detail about the original Star Wars (AKA "A New Hope," or Episode 4).  (SPOILERS on a 38 year old movie ahead) To review, in the movie Luke, Ben, C-3PO, R2D2, Chewbacca, Han, and Leia are all on the Death Star.  After Ben sacrifices himself to Darth Vader, the remaining six escape on Han and Chewbacca's ship, the Millennium Falcon.  Leia wants to go to the Rebel Alliances's secret base on Yavin 4, where specialists there can look at the complicated plans of the Death Star, and in doing so hope to find a weakness for this incredibly powerful space station.  After the Falcon leaves, it's pursued by 4 TIE fighters.  They manage to inflict some, but not major damage to the Falcon (and no character is killed or destroyed), before Han and Luke destroy all of them using the Falcon's guns.  They then make their way to Yavin 4.  At the time, Leia seems very suspicious of this token pursuit, thinking the Empire is up to something.  As it turns out, she's right--the Empire has left a homing device in the Falcon, which they use to locate the last remaining large Rebel base.  Only because Luke manages to destroy the Death Star (using strategy figured out by the Rebel's analysis of the Death Star's plans) mere seconds before the space station can destroy Yavin 4 is the Rebel cause preserved.
     The more I think about this, the weirder it is.  First off, it seems odd that Leia would risk going straight to the Rebel base if she is so suspicious about how easy their escape was.  But putting this aside, the Empire's plan of attack is strange in many ways.  I understand why they put the homing device in the Falcon, of course, and I also get why they want to (slightly) cover up their ruse by sending out a small attack force of TIE fighters to make it look like they were trying to attack the Falcon.  But how does that work?  Specifically, how does this make sense to the TIE fighter pilots?  If the pilots aren't told anything, then presumably they will fight as well as they can, and there's a chance they could have destroyed the Falcon.  Which means the Empire wouldn't know where the Rebel base is for some more time, until their spies can find out, etc.  And if the pilots are told, basically, "this is for show--don't actually blow up the Falcon." why would they obey this?  They don't call off the attack at any point, they keep firing on the Falcon until they're all destroyed.  The pilots would know they're doomed.  Even if they're clones, or super patriotic soldiers, doesn't pretty much everyone have strong urges to save their own lives, or at least not utterly waste them?  True, there were real life Earth examples of this, like the kamikazes of Japan, but I think there's a crucial difference in the situations: the kamikaze were willing to kill themselves, but by trying to destroy enemy ships, not by acting like it, to pull off a rather unconvincing ruse.  So I guess what we're left with is that the Empire either deliberately sent out 4 of their worst pilots, in the hopes that they would fail (and so the Empire could follow the Falcon to Yavin 4), or that the Death Star had a bunch of clinically depressed pilots on retainer who were perfectly willing to commit suicide by enemy guns, as characters in a not very compelling one act, space play.
     And I know, I know, it's just a movie, and I'm almost certainly overthinking this.  Pretty much every movie has at least a few plot holes/logic inconsistencies in it.  Also, don't think this nit-picking means I don't like the movie--on the contrary, I think the Star Wars series (at least Episodes 4-6) is one of the very best ever.  But, with movies I like especially, I enjoy thinking about all the minutia, and reading about wacky fan theories, and the like.  Plus, I thought I needed something else to flesh out this blog post.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Environmentally Conscious, Politically Progressive, Dark Chocolates

     I've obviously done several posts about chocolate before (See the March 21, 2015, the December 22, 2012, and the August 20, 2012 posts), but recently I decided to try some more.  The difference this time was that I went with various smaller companies (or in one case a small division of a huge company) which announce their commitment to various political or socially conscious movements.  Also, I was not particularly fond of dark chocolate the few times I've had it, but I decided to give it a more extensive, fair trial once and for all.
     Just for a quick review, what we refer to as chocolate usually consists of cocoa solids, fat in the form of cocoa butter, and sugar, along with other preservatives, flavors, etc.  "Dark chocolate" has these ingredients, and although the numbers vary from country to country, the minimum cocoa solids percentage is usually 35% and up.  "Milk chocolate" also includes milk, of course, and has lower percentages of cocoa solids--in the U.S. a minimum of 10%, in other places 20%.  "White chocolate" has the sugar, cocoa butter, and milk, but lacks the cocoa solids.  These distinctive chocolate types are easy to tell apart, as white chocolate is, as the name suggests, white in color, milk chocolate is light brown, and dark chocolate is dark brown or even almost black.  Dark chocolate appears to be the healthiest option of the three.  It has higher percentages of fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, potassium, manganese, selenium, zinc, phosphorus, and antioxidants, and is alleged to help in lowering "bad" cholesterol, improve blood flow, protect the skin versus the sun, improve brain function, and lower blood pressure.  (I used the word "alleged" as these effects aren't yet scientifically proven.)  But, even dark chocolates' biggest fans will admit it (and the other forms of chocolate) is high in calories and fat, so moderation in consumption should be observed.
     On to the companies that made the chocolate I bought.  I was struck by the level of detail on the packages.  Much of which was about issues unrelated to the food itself.  For example, Alter Eco advertises that it is Fairly Traded and organically grown.  They claim they worked with the U.N. to enable Peruvian rainforest inhabitants to change from growing coca (for cocaine, with all the associated illegal drug trafficking dangers) to growing cocoa instead.  They are also replenishing the forest by planting native trees, which helps protect against soil erosion, and captures carbon to fight against global warming.  The Divine company is also big on Fair Trade, with a co-operative with farmers in the Kuapa Kokoo company in the West African nation of Ghana.  The Endangered Species company is Fair Trade, gluten free, non-GMO, and certified vegan.  But their major cause is in their name, as 10% of their net profits are donated to help endangered animals.  Dagoba is a division of The Hershey Company, but is also organic and uses cocoa from the Rainforest Alliance Certified farms.  So, to sum up, basically all these companies would cause "South Park" character Cartman to go on a rant about how much he hates hippies.
     But enough about nutrition and morality.  Let's get to the reviews.  As usual, I'm using the U.S. scholastic system of grading, with "A" being excellent, "B" good, "C" average, "D" unsatisfactory but barely passing, "F" for failing, and pluses and minuses as necessary.

Dagoba lavender blueberry flavor, 59% cocoa solids:  D+.  Didn't like this much.  Couldn't taste the blueberries, or the lavender (I think--don't really know what lavender tastes like).  Just bitter and fairly unpleasant.  I was excited by the name though--more on that at the end of this post.

Dagoba eclipse--extra strong dark chocolate (87% cocoa, the most I could find):  D.  Bad, and overly bitter, but not as terrible as I anticipated from the high cocoa content.  Could finish, barely.

Endangered Species dark chocolate with blueberries, 72% cocoa:  D.  Similar to the Dagoba, I couldn't taste the blueberries at all, or anything resembling sweetness.  Worse than the Dagoba version, probably due to the higher cocoa content.

Divine dark chocolate with ginger and orange, 70% cocoa:  C-.  Ginger chunks very noticeable, and kind of stuck to my teeth in an annoying way.  Orange could be detected as an aftertaste.  A little better than the others, but still far from great.

After Eco dark quinoa (See post about superfoods, March 1, 2014), 60% cocoa:  B-.  Reminded me a lot of Nestle Crunch, which is made with crisped rice instead of quinoa.  Still overly dark and bitter, but by far the best of the bunch.  Its slightly lower cocoa content was presumably a factor.

     As you just read, my opinion of dark chocolate hasn't changed.  I love milk chocolate (and white chocolate is pretty good, too), but dark chocolate just has an unappetizing bitter taste to it.  Which is unexpected, I guess, since I adore the hop bitterness of many India Pale Ales, for example.  But there we have it.  Maybe my taste in chocolate has been ruined by constant exposure to the lighter, sweeter, American style chocolate.  Whatever the reason is, I don't see my position ever changing.
     To end on another note, I was severely disappointed that the Dagoba company takes its name from the Sanskrit word for "temple," and not from the planet Yoda was hiding out on in "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi."  And just FYI, according to Wookieepedia, Dagobah is located in the Sluis section of the Outer Rim Territories, near the Rimma Trade Route.  Its sun is Darlo, and its sister planets are Ness, Undar, Bubbok, and Sty.  Dagobah is the second planet, as determined by proximity to Darlo.  The entry goes into a lot more detail about Dagobah's "day," "year," ecology, history, geology, etc.  Reading it I felt oddly interested, under-informed, and relatively less nerdy.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Agave Sweetener

     The agave is one of the most useful plants I've ever heard of.  (And the common beliefs that agave is a cactus or else related to aloe, are incorrect, as it is neither.)  Practically every part of it can be used, either for foods/beverages, or else for various household items.  Its flowers are edible.  The nectar from these flowers can be used as a sweetener.  A tea can be made from the leaves, which is thought to be useful medicine against constipation, or for a diuretic.  Its juices can be made into a traditional alcoholic beverage called pulque, or also as a sweetener.  The sap can be fermented into mezcal, or most famously, tequila.  The dried stems can be used as natural razor strops.  The fiber can be made into rope.  The sharp leaf tips are fashioned into awls.  Finally, the dried stalks make good didgeridoos.  So, it appears that if there is an apocalypse, zombie or otherwise, hope you're near an area where there's agave (basically Mexico and parts of the Southwestern U.S.), as basically all your food, tool, and even entertainment needs can be satisfied by this wonderful plant.
     As I've mentioned many times before, I'm not one for cooking, or even doing basic food preparation much beyond telling a waiter or pizza parlor employee my order.  So I don't typically carry around sweeteners like sugar or honey.  (Just thought of one exception--I do carry around some sugar packets for adding to absinthe.)  But when I saw the agave sweetener in the Shaw's grocery, I decided to give it a try, anyway.  It was even some kind of reduced calorie agave, as it only contained 5 calories per teaspoon.  It also billed itself as being non-GMO, organic, vegan (because unlike honey, of course, it's not an animal product), gluten-free, and BPA-free (I assume, and hope this refers to the plastic container that housed it, and not the agave itself).  It was made by Madhava Natural Sweeteners out of Colorado.  Other ingredients included stevia and monk fruit.
     It was, as advertised, very sweet.  I tried some on other foods (crackers, and some granola-type bars) and plain.  It was good.  Also noticeably less viscous than syrup, or honey.
    However, when I looked into it some more, I learned some potentially disturbing things about it.  There are a host of health concerns with agave sweetener.  Most of them hinge on its high fructose content, which is higher even than high fructose corn syrup.  Detractors claim consuming too much can cause fructose malabsorption, hypertriglyceridemia, decreased glucose tolerance, metabolic syndrome, hyperinsulinemia, accelerated uric acid formation, and insulin resistance.  Also, the high triglyceride levels in it are a heart disease risk factor.
     As it turned out, my crew and I switched hotels, so I had to throw the remaining agave out (like 95% of the bottle), because once opened it needs to be kept refridgerated.  But, reading off all those potential health problems it evidently can cause did give me some concern.  So while I enjoyed it just fine as a sweetener, I would also definitely advise prospective customers to go easy on it, especially if they have blood sugar issues.  And part of me is mad at myself for forgetting to try it with absinthe, to see how that tastes.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Creepy Campfire Quarterly and Some Thoughts About Wes Craven

      As I just put up in the previous post, the cover for Creepy Campfire Quarterly has been created.  The names of all the authors whose work will be featured are included on it.  We've also started the editing process, so things are going well, and I think the announced publishing date (in January of next year) will be easily reached
     Moving on, the horror community has recently lost one of its greats--Wes Craven.  Mr. Craven succumbed to brain cancer earlier this week at the age of 76.  He was one of the best horror directors/writers out there.  He made four incredibly influential classics--1972's "The Last House on the Left," 1977's "The Hills Have Eyes," 1984's "A Nightmare on Elm Street," and 1996's "Scream."  (Of the rest of his films, my personal favorite is probably the underrated 1991 movie "The People Under the Stairs.")
     Like many other hugely successful horror movie directors, Craven seemed the opposite of what you'd expect.  The same guy whose movies had the most extreme, most dark and disturbing events and characters in them always came across as being so nice, shy, modest, and intellectual.  This presumably was shaped by his childhood.  He was raised in a strict religious family, and wasn't  allowed to see practically any movies throughout his early life.  After receiving his undergraduate degrees in English and psychology (from Wheaton College in Illinois) and a Masters in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins, he settled down as a teacher and began to raise his own family.  But, his marriage struggled, and he found himself professionally unfulfilled, so he turned to the film industry.  Only a few years later, he had edited porn movies, and then made some of the most controversial and horrific films of our time.  I remember reading that, not surprisingly, his mother never saw any of his films, and was puzzled by his dramatic life and career change.
     One of the things I most admire about Craven was his durability.  He had many periods where he was unsuccessful, with long stretches without any movies, or with some that were both critically and popularly reviled.  But he was kind of the John Travolta of horror movie directors--every time people thought his career was about over he would come up with a new, great film.
     So, RIP Wes Craven.  And for anyone out there looking for an effective, chilling horror movie, you might want to check out one of his movies, especially his classics.  Several of his best ones have been remade in the past decade,  But, as if usually the case, these are usually pale retreads of the awesome originals, in my opinion.

Cover Reveal For Creepy Campfire Quarterly