Hobbit 2, the good, bad, and ugly

HobbitI knew exactly what to expect as I walked into the second Hobbit movie. And I got it, in spades.

So, then, okay. The good the bad and the ugly.

The good – ah, Smaug my love. I went in for the dragon, dammit, and the dragon was wonderful. Except- stretching into the Jacksonesque overkill once more -– the molten statue. WTF? Didn’t anyone watch that scene from Game of Thrones where Khal Drogo pours molten gold over his new brother-in-law’s noggin, and it kills him, and Daenerys says dismissively, “he was no dragon”? Don’t you know even without that piece of evidence that dragons, um, are fire and heat beasts and in particular GOLD LOVING beasts, and gold plating one would just make it mad, not hurt it?

I WAS a tad disappointed in the much-vaunted Cumberbatch voiceover. The voice was so filtered and altered that I really had to fight to remember who was talking. Which was a tad annoying because it was awesome to have Sherlock Dragon and Dr. John Burglar yapping at each other in the golden hall. My different fandoms, colliding.

Also good – the usual. The visuals. But New Zealand is utterlt photogrnic and it would be hard to screw that up. But some scenes are starting to blur just a little, all those vaulted halls with arching lipless bridges over the void – wait a sec, are we inside a dwarf hall, a goblin city, or an elven throne room, again…? And at least he appears to have learned a little bit about the qualities of a king in the intervening period. Even though Thorin doesn’t always wear his royalty well, at least he wears it, arrogance and all, which is more than an Aragorn was ever given. Are you seriously telling me that Thorin knew more about being a King than Aragorn did, both after years of exile?  Why? And how come it didn’t reduce him to Aragorn’s hand-wringing ‘I am not worthy’ persona of the LOTR movies?

The bad – the things that were missed.  

I wanted to see that scene of arrival at Beorn’s where Gandalf had the dwarves arriving in dribs and drabs to keep Beorn sweet. They just didn’t seem to think that was an essential keystone but it was… of the original Hobbit. Perhaps the damn CGI bear was just too important to… but more on CGI below.

Also, the spiders. As it stands the whole spider scene (a) comes more or less out of absolutely nowhere and (b) dammit, just because you need to introduce Legolas the Badass somewhere and drop another extracurricular ninja girl-elf character in there just for kicks, that doesn’t mean that the Elves have to take over here. The dwarves really come off rather acted-on than acting. The small tiny question of protagonisting and agency and all that. There are moments, but not nearly enough of them, and they are separated by looooong half hours.

The ugly… several things.

One, Jackson LOVES him his orcs, doesn’t he? He lingers so lovingly on their twisted visages, so tenderly on their dismemberment, so keenly on their grunts and growls. And let us not forget the obligatory Jackoniana of Orcish and Goblinish hordes in funky armor massing for bloodshed, marching in lockstep in their thousands until the ground shakes underneath them all.

Which leads into Two, Jackson and his extracurricular whackfests. What was that business with Legolas stomping on dwarwish heads in the Battle of the Barrels? And really, watching him go all ballistic Yoda Action Figure in the streets of Laketown with a clutch of evil goblins – well – nice try, Jackosn, but we know he survives and so we know he isn’t in any real danger. Close, but no cigar.

Also, just to have it on record,

I am bracing myself for what Jackson will do in the wholesale mayhem of the Battle of Five Armies in #3. It will be something to weep over, I suspect. LOTS of dead goblinses. .

Three. CGI Overkill! That whole “Sauron” thing. Really, Jackson. REALLY. Just stop it. If you want to do a cartoon go and do one somewhere else. Unfortunately, he seems wedded to this. And some of the stuff is just plain bad. The Sauron manifestation. Beorn’s bear form; he just looks misshapen. The first time we saw him, I thought he was a stray and rather large Warg, actually. When you can’t tell your goodies and your baddies apart it begins to be largely irrelevant as to who’s doing the dying in the whackfests.

Four – just WTF with the elf/dwarf miscegenation? We all know it isn’t going anywhere. It’s just sleight of hand and misdirection. The whole dwarf romance subplot is… just… cringeworthy.

Five – while we’re on the Elves, did anyone else want to know what happened to the intermittently working Universal Translator? I mean, Legolas and Tauriel would switch between English and Sindarin within a given conversation with no warning and no particular reason – perhaps just to show off the Elf Pretty Talk. But then they drop into English again because, hey, over here, that’s what your audience speaks.  

Six – Jackson can’t resist showing off and insists on pre-shadowing stuff – the whole kingsfoil/athelas thing – that was kind of Aragorn’s claim to fame. Here, well, it’s just an excuse for (a) more off-kilter grafted-on “romance” and (b) more CGI of course. I really don’t know what it is about Jackson and his CGI worship. Maybe that’s why these movies cost so much.

And seven, dammit, he’s changing stuff that didn’t need changing again. Just because of the silly romance he denies three of thedwarves their return to Erebor.  Listen here, Peter Jackson, that just isn’t fair. In the story you’re a making a movie from, they were there. In the story you’re making a movie of, Fili and Kili DIE protecting Thorin in the final battle. Just how are you going to accomplish that given that you just pulled them out of the Mountain? And what was your reason for it? So that one of the pretty dwarves gets to live, and moon forever over an unattainable elf-maiden with whom he could NEVER have had any kind of a semi-lasting encounter of the romantic kind? Sorry. Smoke curls from my nostrils, Smaug-like. Argh.

Overall – Too long, too much time given to things that are invented or irrelevant at the expense of things that should have been included and were necessary to be true to the vision of “The Hobbit.” And Hobbit 2 suffers from the classic middle-instalment sag that many trilogies are prone to. If Jackson had to make multiple movies, he should have limited it to two.
 
So, then. I went for the dragon. I got the dragon. The rest… well… I’ll just shut up now, shall I.

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15 things you may not know about Star Trek

Did you know that the famous Vulcan salute was invented by Leonard Nimoy?

Delightful trivia. But split infinitives are NOT grammatically incorrect, whatever the chart says.

Star Trek poster

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The Most Beautiful Space Stations in the Universe

Everybody loves a gorgeous spaceship that can zoom through the cosmos — but there’s something majestic and beautiful about a space station, that stays in one place or orbits one planet. Here are some of the most beautifully designed space stations in any universe.”

Babylon 5Babylon 5   (via CGSociety)
Deep Space NineDeep Space Nine   (via Memory Alpha)

Space stations

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Reading changes the brain

The reading brain(Credit: Ali Eminov/Flickr)

After reading a novel, actual changes linger in the brain, at least for a few days, according to an article in Futurity.

The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” says Gregory Berns, director of Emory University’s Center for Neuropolicy.  

“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically. Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person. We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

All of the study subjects read the same novel, Pompeii, a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris that is based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy.

Reading is brain altering

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Quote of the Day

The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed ~ Carl Jung
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Alma Alexander

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Where are Buffy’s Daughters?

The BBC recently asked why, ten years after the cult TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ ran, there are so few ‘daughters of Buffy’: “strong and complex fictional creations, who aren’t simply the sole female lead in a predominantly-male cast.”

Whle the BBC was talking about TV, the question is of interest to any novelist who writes strong complex female characters.  

I never really watched Buffy. Oh, I saw a few episodes here and there. I KNOW about Buffy. I know what she was, what she stood for, what she embodied, what she tried to represent. But I never wrote my stories trying to emulate the Buffyverse.

My heroines – Anghara from the Changer of Days books, for example, the women who carried The Secrets of Jin Shei and Embers of Heaven on their shoulders, Thea Winthrop of Worldweavers fame – are strong, not because I had a point to prove and wanted them to be “more like Buffy” but because I cannot conceive of any other way for a female character to be and to behave.

We are strong. Given agency, we carry our OWN stories. Always have, always will. And the women or girls still coming in my stories yet unwritten? They too will be strong. I look forward to my next heroine settling down beside me to tell me her tale.

In her BBC story, Naomi Alderman says the Buffy show was ahead of its time in so many ways: the quick-witted teen-speak, the craze for stories about vampires who are in love with high school girls in a slightly disturbing way.

BuffyMost disappointingly, Alderman says, is that Buffy still feels ahead of its time in its portrayal of women characters.

It’s a very interesting take on women in literature.

The Buffy legacy

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The Tricorder is here, kind of

When Walter De Brouwer puts his head to something, Quentin Hardy writes in the New York Times, he can produce single-handedly what usually takes several hospital machines and labs.

His single hand, it should be said, holds a small and promising device with which De Brouwer, the co-founder and chief executive of Scanadu, hopes to remake medicine, even if it isn’t really a Tricorder – yet.ScanaduThe Scanadu is about two inches wide and a half-inch thick.

The object Scanadu is working on is an oval disk that when held to the forehead uses light to measure oxygen intake, an accelerometer to figure out how far the chest extends in breathing, and a small electrical plate under the thumb to measure heart rate. Other sensors, some still in development, will measure temperature, blood pressure and other body functions.

Rather than taking the rigorous and expensive approach usually applied to medical devices, Scanadu works like a software company. It creates a product, then toys with it, improving the software and tweaking the algorithms. Eventually, both theory and experience show, a product can become pretty good.

The infant Tricorder

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19 Regional Words All Americans Should Adopt Immediately

When traveling across the US, it sometimes feels like the locals are speaking a whole different language, Haley Sweetland Edwards tells us at Mental Floss.

That’s where the Dictionary of American Regional English comes to the rescue. The last installment of this staggering five-volume tome was published in 2012, and it’s a whoopensocker (anything extraordinary of its kind—from a sweet dance move to a knee-melting kiss.

SlangImage credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE/LANDOV

In celebration of slang, here’s a list of 19 delightful obscure words from around the U.S. that you’ll want to start working into conversation. For example:

bufflehead (n.), Pennsylvania (mountains)
You would have to be a real bufflehead if you didn’t think this word, meaning a fool or idiot, is not an awesome insult. Also, for your consideration, the related adjective buffle-brained.

Don’t be a bufflehead

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Great Lost Manuscripts of Science Fiction and Fantasy

Some of the greatest authors of science fiction and fantasy have put words on paper — only to see those words lost or destroyed, Emily Stamm and Charlie Jane Anders report in io9. Before there were computers, manuscripts got burned or lost in the mail all the time. Here are the famous authors whose books were lost, destroyed, misplaced or erased. For example:

Jules Verne: The novel Paris in the 20th Century was thought to have been destroyed during WWII, like so many other great works of art across Europe.

'Future' ParisParis in the Twentieth Century, art by Gilles Roman

Lost VerneHappily for us, Jean Verne found it in a trunk in his garage in 1991. This novel was written in 1863 and is set in Paris in the 1960s. His publisher refused to publish the book because he believed its claims about the future were too unbelievable, although to modern readers it seems eerily accurate.

Robert Louis Stevenson: Thanks to his wife, we will never know what the first draft of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was like. Stevenson wrote the first draft of the famous novel in less than a week, sometimes writing 10,000 words a day. His wife dismissed the book as “a quire full of nonsense” and destroyed the book in a fire. That didn’t stop him from rewriting the book — reportedly in three days — and it went on to be a bestseller.

Lost manuscripts

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Six Libraries Exceed a Million Digital Checkouts  

Six libraries in North America marked more than 1 million digital checkouts this year, Dianna Dilworth reports at GalleyCat, including eBooks, audiobooks, music and video files.

Digital libraries

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Charities That Encourage Reading

During the holidays, many people are looking for charities to contribute to help out. To help encourage literacy, GalleyCat has put together a list of 10 charities that promote reading.They list the name of the charity, their mission statement and linked to their site.

Give books

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Quote of the Day

‘My So-Called Life meets The X-Files’ ~ Joss Whedon’s description of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer show
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Alma Alexander

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The Dancing Santa & Obama

Vignettes from my town

There are times that I do wish I lived in the same century as the rest of the world, that I carried a smartphone with me everywhere, and thus had the capacity to take photos or videos whenever I see something amazing. Twice, today. TWICE.

The first one was out in the street – there was a life-size Santa mannequin outside a store, and other than the fact that it was a disconcertingly SKINNY Santa I didn’t think anything more of it when we first passed it. What I didn’t realize at that time, and found out on our return journey past the same figure, was that it was an ANIMATED Santa mannequin.

A young mother and a little girl of no more than four or five years old – wearing a Santa hat herself – had stopped in front of the mannequin, and had obviously toggled something – because the mannequin suddenly began gyrating at the hip like a Christmas Elvis singing “Jingle bells” and then saying “Ho! Ho! Ho!” and asking, “And what do YOU want for Christmas, little child?” (intelligent, that – no ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ confusion.)

The little girl was *mesmerized*. She stood there before the dancing Santa with her mouth open and her head cocked to the side like a puzzled puppy’s, and she kept on looking around at passers by with eyes the size of saucers and pointing at the Santa without a word as if to say, “look, are you seeing it too? It’s dancing! it’s TALKING to me!”

A man passing by began to sing a carol together with the Santa. My husband and I stood there grinning like two loons. The mother was giggling quietly into her glove. And still the Santa sang and danced and the little girl stood staring, bewitched, smitten, amazed. Oh, when Christmas comes out and smacks you on the noggin. As we were leaving I said to the mom, “Thank you, that MADE MY DAY!” She smiled back and said, “Mine too!”

Not much past that delightful scene, we came across a car parked in the street, It had a very large “OBAMA” painted on its side, right along the length of it. But what was even more wondrous was the rendering (by an indifferent artist, to be sure, but still a recognizable image) of the POTUS himself on the front of the vehicle, made even more remarkable by the fact that he was flanked by two fluffy white clouds with a cheesy little rainbow arched over his head.

Fan, much, you think…? You don’t see THAT every day.

Oh, if only I had taken a camera with me.

Thanks for the smiles, world. Merry Christmas rightbackatcha.

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Overheard in a Bookstore at Christmastime

Wendy Welch, co-owner of Tales of the Lonesome Pine bookshop, Big Stone Gap, Va., shared “a list of our favorite customer sayings compiled from Christmases past and present”, Shelf Awareness reports. For example:

Lonesome Pine

* A woman asks: “Do you have any books about how to be a good husband? Maybe two or three.”

* After child rips page out of a picture book while mother browses nearby: “I’m not going to pay for that. You shouldn’t have the children’s books lying about where children can reach them.”

* “Do y’all sell Christmas presents here?”

* “I need a gift for my mother-in-law. I don’t care what it is. Just make sure it’s big and heavy. And wrap it for me.”

* “Excuse me, do you know a lot about books? O.K., pick me out something a 14-year-old will like. Quick, I’m in a hurry.”

Overheard

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Robots of death

Robot handImage: Chris Beaumont/CBS Interactive

Judgement day may have just taken a step closer, for killer robots at least, Steve Rangers writes in a thoughtful article at Tech Republic that discusses the reality of android soldiers and why laws for robots are doomed to failure.

For the military, war robots can have many advantages: They don’t need food or pay, they don’t get tired or need to sleep, they follow orders automatically, and they don’t feel fear, anger, or pain.

There are already plenty of examples of how technology has changed warfare from David’s Sling to the invention of the tank. The most recent and controversial is the rise of drone warfare. But even these aircraft have a pilot who flies it by remote control, and it is the humans who make the decisions about which targets to pick and when to fire a missile.

But what concerns many experts is the potential next generation of robotic weapons: ones that make their own decisions about who to target and who to kill.

The Laws of RoboticsUnfortunately, attempts to control the automatic killing machines may be futile, as even SF writer Isaac Asimov believed when he penned his laws of robotics.

When the killer robots come

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‘Write A House’ to give free homes to writers

The mission statement of ‘Write A House’  tells it all, Arianna Rebolini writes at Buzzfeed.

Our mission is simple: to enliven the literary arts of Detroit by renovating homes and giving them to authors, journalists, poets, aka writers. It’s like a writer-in-residence program, only in this case we’re actually giving the writer the residence, forever.

The project is two-tiered. First, they plan to educate local youth through vocational training in carpentry and construction who will ten renovate and rehabilitate vacant homes in Detroit.

Second, they will award at least three homes per year to low-income writers.

Free house for writersWrite A House / Via scontent-a-lga.xx.fbcdn.net

Free homes for writers

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Jargon run amok: A whimsical mashup of techspeak

Speaking Tech
Adam L. Penenberg at Pando Daily offers his take on the matter:

Call me #hashtag Ishmael, though I am no longer a man, I am skeuomorphism, caught in a p2p network and WWW of my own design. I’ve been hacked, flamed, and trolled, armies of botnets firing spam at me and inundating my in-box with phishing scams, pleas for crowdsourcing, and embargoed press releases. I am the ultimate UGC-creation machine but had to pivot to avoid the embarrassment of sunsetting my product line. (It’s all there in my 12-slide PPT investor pitch deck.) Maybe I should organize a brain dump to get all this on my strategic road map, although I may lack the bandwidth to grok all of that.

Do you speak Tech?

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Quote of the Day

The function of science fiction is not always to predict the future, but sometimes to prevent it.” — Frank Herbert
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Alma Alexander

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Earthrise

They left the world behind and flew out into eternal night
falling into the moon
a thousand stars beyond its rim
shimmer softly, diamond  dust in the darkness
a long way from home
and then in a moment they turn
and see their own planet against the vast vacuum emptiness
of lifeless dark
hanging fragile and blue and pale
touched by sunfire gentled by distance –
and it comes rushing in,
the consciousness of cicadas in the summer night
and foxes in the twilight
and women walking with heels clicking on city pavements
and children laughing
and wild horses running
and the flutter of butterfly wings
and the hum of bees
and the grunt of a sleepy sated lion
and the ring of temple bells
and kiss of sea foam upon the shore
and the song of the whale
and the silence in a library
and daffodil bulbs sleeping and growing underneath winter earth
and the thunder of waterfalls
and the scream of a hurricane wind
and nightingales
and roses
and lullabyes
and the soft scritch of chalk on blackboard
and the whisper of wind in the firs
and a fall of snow

the only place where all of this
any of this
lives
hangs fragile as a glass ornament against the cosmos

I never saw it with my own eyes
but it is forever burned into my vision –
Earthrise.

Alma Alexander

How astronauts took the most important photo in space history

EarthriseOn Dec. 24, 1968, by what is essentially coincidence and fast thinking, one of the most iconic photographs in human history was taken: Earthrise over the Moon.

It occurred during Apollo 8 as astronauts Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, and Frank Borman were orbiting the Moon—the first humans in history to do so. Their orbital motion brought the Earth into view over the Moon’s horizon, moving slowly upward into the black sky. The photographs taken became a symbol of human exploration, and of our fragile and beautiful planet.

Apollo 8
Earthrise

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This is why I write what I write – and this is probably why it will never make it to a visual medium like TV or a movie. This story is mind blowing: A show was cancelled because boys like dolls! — well, you know, action figures are dolls in disguise.

TV Show Canceled for Having Too Many Smart, Interesting Girl Characters

Hollywood execs can get awfully creative when they need to come up with excuses for why film and TV should stay so male-centric, Inkoo Kang writes at Indie Wire.

Boys’ love of dolls is the explanation that writer Paul Dini got for why his Cartoon Network show, Tower Prep, was canceled. In a fascinating discussion with the director, Dini relates that higher-ups at the cable network urged him to focus his storylines on his male characters and make his female characters “one step behind the boys, not as smart as the boys, not as interesting as the boys.”

When Dini proceeded to create fully realized girl characters anyway, the Cartoon Network axed the show.

Boys like dolls more

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Amazon’s ‘popular highlights’ chart reveals a revolution in reading habits

The highlights reveal that most readers of ebooks are unabashedly sentimental, Dawn Foster tells us in The Guardian.

Hunger GamesHunger Games dominates Kindle’s ‘popular highlights’ chart. Photograph: Allstar/Lionsgate/Sportsphoto Ltd

And, she notes, “the high volume of highlighting in teenage fiction is symptomatic of a need to connect. Alarmists who claim that the young don’t read nowadays may be amazed at the evidence in Kindle’s highlights chart of how teenagers linger over fiction. And it’s also social: people can see anything you highlight, so picking out passages is an expression of your better self. It’s a mindful way of reading, but also quite public. When highlighting or annotating any part of an ebook, the eyes of dozens of other future readers are peering over your shoulder.

Highlights on highlighting

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An explosion in slow motion: How 2013 blew apart our notions of privacy

2013 was an extraordinary year for those interested in privacy and data protection, David Meyer reports at Gigaom. It was the year that changed everything by demonstrating the extent and power of state — and commercial — surveillance

But it would be a mistake to see 2013 purely in terms of Edward Snowden and his revelations. Indeed, the year began as it meant to go on: by demonstrating the power and dangerous potential of our increasingly open, plugged-in nature.

An explosion in slow motion

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Do you want to be a Were? Bids close today.

This is your last chance to bid on turning into a Were-creature in the second book of my new YA series, The Were Chronicles. (The first book in the series, Random, will be out in May; the second, Wolf, later in the year.)

In The Were Chronicles, the world is full of people who turn into something every time the moon gets full – Corvids, Canids, Felids, you name it. Anything warm-blooded, that is, but never snakes, lizards, or insects. True Lycans, the original werewolves, exist, but are now a rare form.

The Random of the title are odd folk – they are Weres who can turn into the last warm-blooded creature they set eyes on just before the change comes on them – and so they lead lives of quiet desperation, lest a stray encounter turns them into a mouse or vulture.

WerewolfThe series is now in the process of being written – and a character in it could be YOU, named after yourself, and you get to choose what kind of creature you want to be.

Becoming a Were

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Good News Department

JusticeSix boys, one cop, and the road to restorative justice

Molly Rowan Leach reports at Daily Good on a rare program of real justice.

“Officer Ruprecht realized that restorative justice had more teeth than conventional punishment because it imposes real, face-to-face accountability among offenders for their actions, and makes them listen directly to the victims of their crimes. He realized that six young lives might be saved from years of cycling in and out of the prison system.”

Restorative justice

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Employees surprised to get $1,386 profit-sharing checks

The publisher of The Chronicle in Centralia, Washington, Christine Fossett, walked around the newsroom and distributed red envelopes to staffers. They contained a letter from the owner, Jenifer Lafromboise Falcon, and a profit-sharing check for $1,386.01.

Falcon, who inherited the company after her mother died in January, wrote in her letter:

Personally and professionally it’s been a difficult year for me, trying to find my way without my mom’s wisdom and guidance. I want to thank each and every one of you for every blood, sweat and tear shed to make this year a year she would have been proud of!

Bonus letter
Surprise bonus

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Quote of the Day

It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails ~ Nelson Mandela
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Alma Alexander

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Do you want to be a Were?

This could be your last chance to bid on turning into a Were-creature in the second book of my new YA series, The Were Chronicles. (The first book in the series, Random, will be out in May; the second, Wolf, later in the year.)

In The Were Chronicles, the world is full of people who turn into something every time the moon gets full – Corvids, Canids, Felids, you name it. Anything warm-blooded, that is, but never snakes, lizards, or insects. True Lycans, the original werewolves, exist, but are now a rare form.

The Random of the title are odd folk – they are Weres who can turn into the last warm-blooded creature they set eyes on just before the change comes on them – and so they lead lives of quiet desperation, lest a stray encounter turns them into a mouse or vulture.

WerewolfThe series is now in the process of being written – and a character in it could be YOU, named after yourself, and you get to choose what kind of creature you want to be. 

Becoming a Were

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Smart Glasses Reveal What It’s Like to Have Superpowers

Google Glass lets you view emails, find directions and take calls. But what if you put on your glasses and could see a 3D calendar you could move around? Or look in your fridge and have your glasses suggest what to make for supper? Or see how the contractor’s proposed book shelves would look in your living room?

Atheer is launching a Google Glass competitor that let you touch the digital world, shifting from passive viewing to an immersive “doing” and interacting — the ultimate vision of augmented reality.

virtual book shelvesVirtual reality book shelves

Watch the video; it’s fascinating.

Seeing a new world

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10 of the Best Holiday Books You Probably Haven’t Read

For many of us, this a time of classic holiday reading, Emily Temple says at Flavorwire.

A Christmas Carol, The Polar Express, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! are likely to be lying about, cookie crumbs mashed into the creases of your favorite pages, hot chocolate rings on the back. But what about the holiday books that don’t get quite as much love? This year, if you find you’ve gone over The Night Before Christmas one too many times, try swapping in one of these excellent and under-appreciated choices, which we bet only the jolliest among you will have read.

Green KnightThough certainly not unknown, at least to English literature majors, the story of Sir Gawain is not often given the pride of place it deserves this time of year. After all, it is King Arthur’s New Year’s party which the Green Knight interrupts, wanting to play a fun little “Christmas game”: someone may strike him with an axe so long as he can return the favor in a year’s time. Girdles, harts, and hearts aplenty, and much 14th-century cheer.

Nine other Holiday Books

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Job Listing: ‘$40K a Year to Attend Harvard University as Me’

A male Craigslist poster in Pittsburgh is looking for someone to attend Harvard University in his stead, Eleanor Barkhorn writes at The Atlantic.

You do not need to worry about being accepted,” the ad says, “I have already taken care of that.”

I am looking for someone to attend Harvard University pretending to be me for four years, starting August 2014. I will pay for your tuition, books, housing, transportation, and living expenses and pay $40,000 a year with a $10,000 bonus after graduation. All you have to do is attend all classes, pass all tests, and finish all assigned work, while pretending you are me.

A hoax? We may never know: The last line of the posting warns potential applicants they’ll have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, no matter whether they’re selected or not.

Pretend to be me

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39 Dishes from the First Christmas Menu, Published in 1660

If the thought of planning Christmas dinner makes you nervous, be glad you weren’t born in the Renaissance, Joy Lanzendorfer writes at Mental Floss. The earliest known published Christmas menu includes pork, beef, goose, lark, pheasant, venison, oysters, swan, woodcock, and “a kid with a pudding in his belly,” to name just a few.

This is according to The Accomplisht Cook, written by Robert May in 1660.

Robert May was an English chef who trained in France and cooked for nobility throughout his life. In a section titled “A bill of fare for Christmas Day and how to set the meat in order,” May suggests 39 dishes split over two courses, plus oysters, oranges, lemons, and jellies for dessert. The menu is surprising not only because of its size, but because it contains so many proteins—there are 11 different types of birds alone—and not much else. Well, unless you count pastry. There’s lots of pastry, too.

First Christmas menu

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Quote of the Day

Quote of the Day—–  

Alma Alexander

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Is your sex life against the law?

io9 has compiled a map of the Weirdest Sex Laws in the United States and Charlie Jane Anders suggests that you better look to make sure you’re not going to run afoul of the law when you’re feeling amorous. “We’ve painstakingly compiled a map of all the most bizarre and unnecessary laws regulating what you do, with whom, and where.”

Sex laws mapMap design by Reuben Fischer-Baum.

You’ve probably seen lists of freaky sex laws before — like “It’s illegal for one partner to reach climax before the other.” But most of them are urban legends. These, however…

Map of weird sex laws

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Paper Towns, and Other Things That Don’t Exist

Facts are hard to copyright, Adrienne Crezo writes at Mental Floss, unless they aren’t true.   Fictitious entries in encyclopedias and other compilations of facts about people, places and things that exist only on paper are used to thwart would-be info burglars.

Paper townThe town of Agloe, New York, was invented by map makers, but the practice of inserting fictional towns, roads, rivers or other geographical has been in place nearly as long as cartography itself. The weird thing that happened with Agloe, though: it became a real place. The Agloe General Store was built at its fictional location, prompting the (real) county administrator to declare Agloe an actual town.

Facts that aren’t

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Pub signs  

English pubs have long been noted for their often hilarious chalk board signs. Here are a couple of my favorites. Many others at the link.

No great story...Real life

English pub signs

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Free WiFi, but read paper books

San Francisco residents are being given free WiFi this week, but they’re also continually being told to keep their smartphones and smart devices safely stowed away.

Whether on San Francisco’s city buses or on the sidewalks, the city’s mayor and policemen have been encouraging citizens to read paper books to deter electronic theft; they are urging readers to use paper books. The campaign, named Eyes Up, Phones Down, is hoping to reduce the city’s prevalent electronic thefts to zero.

Read it on dead trees

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Bookstores are dead! Aren’t they?

Bookstores are terminally ill. Borders? Dead. Barnes & Noble? Life support. Amazon is king. E-books are the present and the future. Have tablet, will read.

Not so, Michael S. Rosenwald says in the Washington Post. Independent bookstores are not dead. In fact, in some of the country’s most urbane and educated communities, they are making a comeback.

Bookstores still viableKatherine Fay/Washington Post — Cora Preda, 6, at the Curious Iguana bookstore

No obits yet

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From Query to Book Deal in 72 Hours

Elise ParsleyIt’s a true story that reads like fiction – and it’s one that should raise the spirits of any aspiring author, Sally Lodge writes at Publishers Weekly.

Elise Parsley, a 27-year-old piano teacher in Plymouth, Minn., leapt from being an unpublished, agentless author-illustrator to one with both an agent and a book contract in three days.

Elise Parsley (photo: Than Baardson)

The quick-fire timeline went like this: Parsley sent Steven Malk at Writers House an e-mail query on Tuesday, November 19; he signed her on as a client on Wednesday, and on Thursday submitted her picture book, If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t!, to multiple publishers. Connie Hsu at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers made a pre-empt offer on Friday, which Malk and Parsley accepted that evening. The book is scheduled for fall 2015 publication.

72 hour book deal

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Quote of the Day

Don’t look for society to give you permission to be yourself.” ~ Steve Maraboli
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Alma Alexander

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Which books are banned?

The Kids’ Right to Read Project investigated three times the average number of book banning incidents last month, Shelf Awareness reports.

A  number of notable works by minority writers were challenged in the fall, including Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits and Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima.

Banned booksWhether or not patterns like this are the result of coordination between would-be censors across the country is impossible to say,” said coordinator Acacia O’Connor. “But there are moments, when a half-dozen or so challenges regarding race or LGBT content hit within a couple weeks, where you just have to ask, ‘What is going on out there?’ “

The Kids’ Right to Read Project offers a poster of some of the most frequently heard myths about challenged and banned books.
 
Banned Books Myths

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The Greatest Gift

So, it’s nearly Christmas. What’s on your writer-friends’ lists:

There’s practical and useful stuff, sure – and then there’s the geekly gadgets that every writer with a background in a certain pool of tropes grins when (s)he sees, things that are utterly useless in any practical sense but tickle our sense of the awesome and the purely ridiculous – but …

Here’s a different and very doable wishlist.

This Christmas, if you are inclined to gift giving, give your favorite writer… A Reader.

Tell a friend about your favorite writer’s work and suggest they buy a book. Or two. Buy your favorite writer’s books as presents for your friends yourself. Write a nice review somewhere – on Amazon, on Goodreads, on your own blog, somewhere. SPREAD THE WORD.

If you like what you’ve read from me, give me another reader this Christmas. Go tell a friend. Tell that friend to tell their friends, if they agree that there was something in my books worth discovering. (And if you’ve already done this, bless you.)

I realize I am asking for something that is potentially enormous – I am asking for a gift that is intangible, that can’t be wrapped, that won’t be squealed over on Christmas morning as the ribbons are ripped from packages – but at the same time I am asking for a simple thing that it is yours to bestow. Spread the word. If you succeed in this, drop me a line and tell me about it – or get that friend to – and it’s a Christmas present that will keep on giving all year round.

To all the readers I’ve already got – thank you for coming along with me on this journey. You are ALL appreciated.

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What? You thought self publishing was a modern phenomenon?

On December 16, 1901, a 35-year-old writer and illustrator printed 250 copies of her first book, featuring a naughty rabbit. Beatrix Potter decided to take control of her own future after getting fed up of receiving rejection letters from publishers for a story she had made up to entertain a sick child.

Peter RabbitThe Tale of Peter Rabbit was printed with 41 black and white woodblock engravings and a colour frontispiece, Claire Armitstead writes in The Guardian, and proved so successful that, within a year, it had been picked up by one of the six publishers who had originally turned it down. By Christmas of 1902, Frederick Warne had sold 20,000 copies of the book, with Potter’s own watercolor illustrations.

The Tale of Peter Rabbit

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10 of the Greatest Essays on Writing Ever Written

If there’s one topic that writers can be counted on to tackle at least once in their working lives, it’s writing itself, Emily Temple says at Flavorwire.

A good thing too, especially for all those aspiring writers out there looking for a little bit of guidance. For some winter inspiration and honing of your craft, here you’ll find ten great essays on writing, from the classic to the contemporary, from the specific to the all-encompassing. For example:

Barthelme“Not-Knowing,” Donald Barthelme, from Not Knowing: the Essays and Interviews of Donald Barthelme

In which Barthelme, a personal favorite and king of strange and wonderful stories, muses on not-knowing, style, our ability to “quarrel with the world, constructively,” messiness, Mallarmé, and a thief named Zeno passed out wearing a chastity belt.

“The not-knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.”

Essays on writing

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How to Write — A Year in Advice  

“This year, I talked to nearly 50 different writers for the By Heart series, a weekly column about beloved quotes and cherished lines,” Joe Fassler says at The Atlantic.

Their contributions were eclectic and intensely personal: Jim Crace, whose novel Harvest was a finalist for the Man Booker prize this year, shared a folk rhyme from his childhood, the investigative New York Times journalist Michael Moss (Salt, Sugar, Fat) close-read the Frito-Lay slogan, and This American Life host Ira Glass eulogized a longtime friend and collaborator. Though I began by asking each writer the same question—what line is most important to you?—their responses contained no formula.

HosseiniElena Seibert
Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and this year’s And the Mountains Echoed, reminded us that we can only approximate the book we want to write—the final product will never capture the excitement of initial inspiration.

Interviews with writers

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Quote of the Day

Anyone who still believes print is dead never worked in an indie bookstore the week before Christmas. Seriously.” ~ Facebook post from Changing Hands Bookstore, Tempe, Ariz.
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Alma Alexander

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