Wednesday, July 29, 2009

MONSTERQUEST: Critical Evidence

History Channel -- Original Air Date: 7/8/2009

Guess what?  Another bigfoot episode of MQ!  I'm sure none of us saw that coming.  (And just when I thought this season was over.)  Okay, getting over that shock, you may be surprised to find that I share the opinion that Dr. David Begun (paleoanthropologist) expresses on this episode: "We don't have anything against the idea of bigfoot ... It's just that as scientists we require reliable, reproducable evidence, and that just doesn't exist right now."  Among the show's "best evidence" the Freeman Blue Mountain Footage (1995), the Cripple-foot cast (1969), the Mid-Tarsal Break tracks, Sighting Density studies, and the (in)famous Patterson film (1967).  The show will examine all of these, mixed in with the usual compelling eyewitness stories and recreations.  Makeup man Bill Munns will examine the Patterson film.  He uses scene measurements, the camera lense, and distance to subject to solve the figure's height -- and immediately gets questionable results (a 4' bigfoot).  Clearly, some site measurements are not accurate.  So the MQ team goes to the original site to re-measure using a 3d digital scanner.  They take Bob Gimlen, the surviving "eyewitness," to help find the correct area -- but they're foiled when heavy snow prevents their helicopter from landing.  So, it's back to the studio and more math.  David Murphy, a Patterson biographer, believes the film is real.  He claims Patterson passed a polygraph (according to Wildlife Magazine).  The show mentions Patterson has been vilified, but doesn't mention any anti-Patterson details, undercutting their attempt at "balance."  A film expert looks for signs of hoaxing on MQ's high-quality print, doing the usual enhancement stuff.

As that goes on, the show looks for sighting hotspots in relationship to annual precipitation - predicted to be crucial for survival of a large primate.  Surpisingly, there are a lot of sightings in the east central as well as the west (usually associated with Bigfoot).  As theorized, there seems to be a correlation betweein sightings and rainfall.  Jeff Meldrum believes that, being a great ape, bigfoot tracks should have a mid-tarsal break, which human feet do not have.  He uses lasers to scan prints and create models to see how the creature would walk.  Meldrum also talks about the Freeman footage (which looks completely fake to me), which he clearly believes in. The footage is low quality, and resists serious enhancement (due to pixilation).  Meldrum's "tarsal break" demonstration fails to convince me, too; it looks like the same kind of bend you'd get in someone wearing a big, fake foot.  An MD opines that the Cripple Foot cast seems realistic and very difficult to hoax.  (People have been saying that since my childhood, when the print first surfaced -- so nothing new there.)

Back at the Patterson film, re-creator Munns decides that the lens is different from the one reported because of calculation (he figures 15mm).  He then re-creates the scene, re-calculates the creature's height at 7' 4", and then begins analyzing the proportions.  To determine the head shape he builds 5 different heads to try and recreate the look of the film using what he believes is the actual camera and lens (not the reported one).  Anthropologist Begun insists that the Patterson creature walks like a human, not an ape.  (I don't even think he's seen the guy who walks like this in Is It Real?)  But Munns opines the suit looks more real than materials at the time would allow.  The film analyst ehnances the image, revealing what he believes are breasts as well as some face details -- but he is not willing to say whether the thing is a costume or not.  Because of his mask recreation and his attempt to fit a (standard) human figure into the filmed figure, Munns believe the thing on the Patterson film is not human.  So, in the end, scientists remain skeptical, analysts split, and belivers believe -- but we have little more light shed on the subject than before.  All of the analyses done on this show have been done previously, with similar results.  Even the new "evidence" of the camera lens size is educated guesswork, at best.  So like most bigfoot "science," that analysis is based on hopes or guesses rather than anything truly reproducable.  Of course, no matter on which side, opinions are not facts, and on MQ we routinely get opinions masquerading as more.

Sadly, again, none of the analysts ever compare the Patterson footage to footage of Bob Heironimus, who claims to have played the creature and can be seen on Is It Real?  Failing to consider "best evidence against" means that "best evidence for" remains, at best, unconvincing.  Why can't these shows build on each other's finding rather than recreating the same findings?  MQ, like most shows of this type, is too interesting in selling commercial time to really dig deep and jeopardize a good story.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Trouble with Twilight - A Review

Cross-posted from

(There are SPOILERS below. And hard-hitting opinions. You've been warned.)

Twilight is not a very good book. It has numerous problems that I'll go into below, but there is one part of the book that is really strong: It captures almost perfectly the feeling of what it's like to be a teenager passionately in love -- that obsessive, all-consuming love that's akin to nothing so much as madness. Twilight gets that feeling dead-on right.

Of course, on the other hand, in the book, that emotion is oddly decoupled from any sexual feelings, which is very unlike being a teenager. So, even in its strength, Twilight has a deep flaw; the obsession is right, but the hormones and other things underlying those feelings seem completely absent. I've been told that other reviewers have gone on about the possible reasons behind that choice elsewhere, so I won't speculate. As far as the book's flaws go, I find that to be a minor one -- probably outweighed by the capturing of fiery passion.

Here are the main problems: the book has no plot, and it has no main characters. It also, apparently, had no editor, at least not in the old-fashioned sense of the word: someone who takes raw prose and helps the author craft them into something worth publishing. Because of that severe lack of editorial guidance, Twilight rambles. It took nearly three-quarters of the book for anything interesting to happen (when the rival vampires show up). The rest of the novel was merely set-up, stage dressing that could have been accomplished in a chapter or two. Even listening to the book in pieces while driving, I was amazed at how little happened from chapter to chapter. The first three-quarters of the book could have been drastically condensed, and the whole book would have been better for it.

Twilight is filled with what a wise editor I know called "process." Process is tiny details that don't advance the story or serve any real purpose except to fill out a word count. "Don't do that," she counseled me on one of my first novels. (And, for me, one warning was enough.) Yes details, even tiny ones, can be important to a book -- but it's the choice of those details and how revealing they are that separates a good author from one who is merely in love with his or her own words. Twilight is in love with its own words the same way the two main characters are in love with each other -- madly, obsessively in love. In love enough to be blind to everything else.

Let's talk about those main characters a bit. Who are they? Sure, we know their names, Edward and Bella, and we know that one is a clumsy teenager and the other a vampire, but what else do we know about them? We know that her parents are divorced, and he's part of a vampire family, and we know they're in love. But why are they in love? I don't know. I couldn't tell from the book. Bella seems to be in love with him because he's handsome and mysterious; he's in love with her because she smells good and (spoiler here), he can't read her mind.

But why? What character traits do they have that attracts them to each other? She apparently likes to cook and/or clean (at least, she's always doing those things, like any good vampire's "housewife"); he likes to play baseball in thunderstorms and drive fast. And they're in love. Don't you get it? They're IN LOVE!

Basically, their main character trait is that they're in love with each other, and they're in love with each other because the book needs them to be. The two of them are empty vessels entirely filled up with this obsessive love. That's it. There's no more to it. And while teenage love may feel this way, life is seldom so uncomplicated.

Yet, I have the feeling that very emptiness is one of the things that has made the book (and series) so popular. The characters are empty vessels into which the readers can pour their own experiences and emotions. As near as I can tell, Bella has no special character traits. (I kept hoping her clumsiness would turn out to be CP or some interesting and perhaps-fatal disease; at least in book 1, no such luck.) Edward keeps telling her she's "special," and I think when he says that to a girl who is plainly not very special, the readers may be taking that as "I'm special, too!" After all, if boring old Bella can be special, surely anyone can.

And Edward is a cipher as well. He's the "best boyfriend" who you can fill up with your own hopes and desires -- because he has no personality, aside from his love for you and his "dark secret." (Which is a pretty sparkly dark secret, as it turns out.) Surely a guy who's close to 100 years old could have had something interesting in his background. Nope. He's just been hanging out since 1920, waiting to meet the right girl: Bella, the special one. (Hasn't even gotten laid yet.) So, for readers, Edward gets to be whomever you want him to be in the same way that Bella becomes "everygirl." But that projection on the part of readers shouldn't be mistaken for character or personality.

Oh wait, there are a couple of perhaps-telling character details: Bella likes to complain -- even though, near as I can tell, she has little to complain about. Sure, her parents are divorced, but it doesn't seem to have been a nasty divorce. She doesn't like her dad, though he seems to be a stand-up guy; she does like her mom, who's a worrying narcissistic flake. (I can't make sense of that, either.) She complains about her friends or would-be friends, too, especially when they worry about her.

And Edward? He likes restraining Bella. Picking her up, carrying her, holding her so tight she can't move, and encircling her wrists so she can't escape or "hurt herself." Lots of subtle bondage in the book, I thought. Lots of The Man lording over and protecting The Woman (both from others and herself), too. Very old Testament, but, as I said, I believe others have written more on that. In any case, their relationship doesn't seem very healthy to me. But the book would have been more interesting if it'd gone further down that dark, obsessive road. (Maybe I'll write a goth vampire romance taking that path one day.)

So the main characters have no real character -- substantially less character than the minor characters, in fact. Dad, Mom, Mike, Jacob, Jessica, and Edward's whole family all have more character than Edward and Bella. Heck, the villain -- when he finally shows up -- has more character, too. With all that lack of character, you'd think there'd be some plot to keep things moving. But there isn't. I think I can sum the plot up in just a few sentences:

Bella comes to town, meets Edward, and falls in love. She discovers he's a vampire and meets his family. A bad vampire comes to town, makes a play for Bella, and Edward kills him.

Oh and did I mention THEY'RE IN LOVE!

And because this is a romance, not a fantasy or action thriller, when the big battle between good and evil happens, it all happens off screen. That's right, our POV character, Bella, conveniently passes out (maybe because she's special) and misses all the blood and gore -- all the consequences of obsessive love versus obsessive ... lust? (If we're going to give the book credit for thinking along those themes.) Who made that storytelling choice? It's the old hero trapped in the well filled with deadly gas and no means of escape cliffhanger, where the next chapter begins, "After I got out of the well...."

Not a very satisfying solution, at least not in my book. But someone must have liked it; the book's sold about a squillion copies. (Capitalist dogma not withstanding, good sales do not a good book -- or movie -- make.)

Speaking of squillions of dollars, last night, I saw Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for the second time. Good movie based on a good book, but way more plot than the movie could contain. A trailer for the next Twilight movie played before it, and I had a thought: If Harry had too much plot for a movie, maybe Twilight, which has a plot for the last quarter or so, will have just the right amount. Maybe Twilight will be better on film. (Not better than Harry, just better than the book Twilight is based on.)

I haven't watched the movie yet. But when I do, I'll let you know what I think -- at least on my Twitter account. I'm hoping they won't cut away just as the fight starts.

As to the sequels... I'll check out at least one. I do a lot of driving, and audio books help pass the time. I'm not expecting much, though. Maybe, if I'm lucky, they'll hire an editor for this next book (I doubt it).

But at least, for a few moments, during the long Twilight, I got to feel again what it was like to be a teenager in love.

Glad I've grown up since then.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Inflatable Kayaking Fun

Been doing some kayaking on a nearby lake lately. Wanted a kayak for years, and now I have a small fleet of inflatables. Since I was reviewing them on Amazon, I figured I'd share my thoughts here, too.


Picked up this kayak recently at a heavy discount at Dick's Sporting goods. I wanted something I could transport easily, without car carriers and such. This kayak fits the bill nicely. It fits in the trunk in a plastic tub (or across the back seat). I got a 50 gallon for it, but a 35 would probably do, or even a 30. I also picked up a nice paddle, though Coleman's sturdy aluminum ones (not included) would probably have done fine. Overall, I'm very pleased with this boat. It inflates easily (get a rechargable pump -- mine came from KMart) and quickly. You may want to inflate the headrest, which has a small valve, by mouth. The clip-in seat is comfortable and has good back support. About the only problem I had with this is that the instructions are terrible; there are not 5 Coleman inflation valves on the kayak. (Only 4, if you count the tiny headrest one.) I spent some time looking for that "missing" valve.

Having gotten a sit-on-top Coleman afterward, I have to say that this boat is probably more than I initially needed. The nylon hull that surrounds the inflatable core is very sturdy, probably enough to stand up to rocks, sticks, and other hazards not found on the placid lake where I'm paddling. My guess is that this would be great for whitewater or long trips -- it has plenty of storage space, and even a water dispenser. It's fun on the lake, too, don't get me wrong, but a bit unwieldy for just one person to get into the water without dragging. Of course, it's probably rugged enough to drag; I just don't like to. Anyway, I love this boat, and it's a good place to start kayaking. If you want something less ambitious (or cheaper), try the Coleman sit-on-tops; they're great fun, too.


I was having so much fun with my Coleman Fastback inflatable, I wanted at least one more kayak so I could take other members of the family out paddling with me. I was reluctant, however, to pick up another fastback -- even at a reduced rate, it's quite a bit of money, and adding a paddle makes it even more. Fortunately, I stumbled upon this little beauty on sale at Dick's. It was so cheap, in fact, that I picked up two on consecutive days without even trying out the first. I was worried about that. I'd been pleased with my Fastback, and was concerned that the Sit-on-Top would suffer from comparison, that it might not handle the lake chop, or might not be sturdy. I needn't have worried. Though this Coleman doesn't have the rugged nylon hull, it is still a well-put-together product. It's also smaller and lighter, easy to carry under one arm, even when inflated. Don't let that make you think it's tiny and vulnerable, though. I was surprised how solid it felt, and how high it kept my 190# bulk out of the water. (It's rated to 325# or so.) Which is not to say you won't get wet using this. You will.

The sturdy aluminum paddles (included) will drip on you, and you're likely to get some spray from the chop, and ship a little water getting in and out. I don't know if this would be any good on the ocean or whitewater, but on a lake or calm fiver, it's just fine -- brilliant, in fact. I was surprised how nimbly it moved over the water. No, it's not as sleek as a solid hull, but what solid hull kayak can you pack in a 15-gallon tote? My only complaint? My stainless steel water bottle was just too big for the drink holder. Oh, well! (I kept it in the front luggage net.) I had a blast paddling this around -- probably as much fun as my Fastback (though the Fastback does have spray guards). It's a perfect little boat for a quick trip on a summer afternoon. Get one and get out in the sun!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

MONSTERQUEST: The Last Dinosaur

History Channel - Original Air Date: 6/24/09

MQ goes to Cameroon, Africa, to search for the Mokele-Mbembe, a supposed throwback to the dinosaur age -- like a brontosaurus.  The show features the usual compelling eyewitness accounts and supporting animations.  Dr. Roy Mackal has spent a long time looking for the beast, but other scientists point out there is no fossil record to support the ongoing existence of such creatures.  Mackal tells stories from explorers of three-toed tracks three feet across.  Because of eyewitness reports, Mackal is convinced the creature is real: a living dinosaur.  In 2004, Peter Beach returned with pictures and casts of supposed footprints.  He says the local foliage, too tall for any known animal to reach, had been stripped.  The prints and photos are taken for analysis.  MQ sends a team to Africa to investigate, but -- already, at the start -- one of them says they're more interested in the eyewitness reports than in the opinions of western scientists as to whether the animal can exist.  This does not bode well for scientific inquiry. The remoteness of the region makes just getting to the area in question difficult (especially in the rainy season).  Locals draw a dinosaur-like picture in the sand, but the show's claim that these people have little contact with the outside world seems undercut by their western wardrobes.  They do, however, pick a dinosaur out of a "mugshot book" of possible local animals.

Theorizing that the creature may hole up on local caves (15' across) during the dry season, the MQ team sets some camera traps and boats out looking for lairs.  (At this point, we seem to be into speculation.)  They find a deep hole, but the earth is too hard to excavate and discover what's inside.  So they decide to use sonar to check the river bed, and seem to find some crocs, snakes, and perhaps tree branches.  But they get no video, and most of their "discoveries" are mere speculation based on sonar blips -- especially when they seem to think they've found something with a big body and long neck.  Surely this would have been worth further investigation, even if starting the motor might have scared the beast.  (Maybe especially if.)  Yet, they keep drifting and trolling the river, finally motoring down to the deeper headwaters.  They think they may have found something here, too, but they drift too close to the Congo, on the other side of the river, and have to turn away to avoid political trouble.  Their camera traps, as usual, turn up nothing out of the ordinary.  The sauropod expert says that the toes on the casts are placed wrong for a dinosaur, and pictures of dino tracks bear this out.  "Who knows?" one researcher says at the conclusion, "the next time we might get some film."  Yes, that would be nice.

I'm a sucker for dinosaur stories, and the legend of this beast is fascinating to me.  The witness stories are interesting and compelling, but the researchers seem to be entirely too invested in the reality of the creature and it being some kind of dinosaur.  That's not a very scientific POV.  And, I should point out that a recent episode of Destination Truth concluded that the beast was merely legend and misreporting of encounters with hippos.  Sadly, another strikeout for MonsterQuest.  By my count, that's no real monsters found (and only a couple of large animals).  Better luck next season.


History Channel - Original Air Date: 6/17/09

MQ sets out to find the biggest killer crocodiles, beasts the show claims (in its opener) are growing larger and threatening humans.  1000-2000 people worldwide are killed by crocs each year.  Naturally, the show has the scary croc attack stories -- which sound a lot like shark attack stories, and leave similar scars.  Crocs have been around since dinosaur times, and their growth seems only limited by age (they never stop growing) and food supply. As humans encroach croc habitat, encounters grow more frequent.  Crocs and aligators are often confused in the US south, the only place where they coexist -- though experts seem to think crocs are more dangerous.  The show has plenty of stories of historical large crocs, and goes to India to see the skull of a giant man eater.  As one team goes to look for crocs in the US, another takes on India's backwaters.

The teams get a lot of pictures of crocs, and find some big tracks/slides.  The Florida team measures a croc, by distance, between 16 and 18 feet long -- the largest recorded in the US.  The Indian team (from a distance) measures a well-known killer at 20 feet.  The "legendary" croc skull turns out to belong to a 20+ footer, but not the 30' of legend.  Clearly, there are some big crocs out there.  But I can't help wishing that Steve Irwin were still with us to "bring 'em back alive."