The Horatio Factor

This article was originally posted in another venue on September 30, 2006.

Struggling Upward, Or Luke Larkin's Luck - by Horatio Alger Jr.It looks like the 11th annual Horatio Alger Street Fair in Marlborough, Massachusetts has a bit of a public relations problem on its hands. Horatio Alger Jr. (1832 – 1899) was the bestselling (and prolific) author whose “rags to riches” novels helped popularize the American dream. At the height of his popularity, his sales rivaled those of another, more familiar icon of the American literary field, Mark Twain. However, in the 1980’s, long-buried allegations surfaced concerning Alger’s abrupt departure from a ministry in Cape Cod in 1866 … allegations that Alger had been involved in the “abominable and revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys.”

After being recently apprised of this unexpected news from 140 years ago, Marlborough town leaders are considering dropping the name of Horatio Alger from the festival. Next year’s festival may very well have a new name, despite that the fact that, as pointed out by Janet Bruno, chairwoman of the fair committee for Marlborough’s Chamber of Commerce, these allegations were never proven in a court of law.

Maybe I have a different perspective on all of this controversy. To me, there’s a fundamental difference between the message and the messenger. The writer and the body of work created by that writer are two separate entities.

I can remember reading Alger’s books when I was in elementary school. No, I’m not that old! I can assure you that I didn’t read them in their original editions. I had gone through all the usual books that you go through at that age, like the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Tom Swift (hey, I grew up before Harry Potter was around, OK?). With nothing else of interest, I checked out a few of Alger’s books. And they were pretty decent, albeit very formulistic after you’d read a few of them.

In most of them, a young man heads out to seek his destiny, often going on a long journey. In at least one of the books, the hero traveled to California during a gold rush. Through a combination of luck and pluck, the hero beats the bad guys in the end, achieving fame and fortune in the process. Alger wrote something like 130 of these, of which I read the ten or so that the library stocked.

Ride of the Valkries - By Ricard Wagner As I stated before, they’re formulistic. Also, to my adult eye, probably a little stilted and moralistic, too. But place them in their context, and the books were widely read and hugely influential in their day. They may even have had a great deal to do with shaping that concept we generically perceive as “the American Dream.” Not a bad legacy at all.

The Cloud Walker - by Edmund Cooper On the other hand, consider Horatio Alger Jr., the individual. Well, people are flawed, sometimes seriously flawed. Perhaps, in Horatio Alger’s case, even criminally flawed. If the allegations were true, he undoubtedly deserved to be severely punished for his transgressions. And Horatio Alger is by no means the only creative person to ever be reviled for his actions or personal beliefs.

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883), the German composer best known for “The Ride of the Valkyries,” was widely reviled for his anti-Semitic and political remarks. Within the science fiction field, writer Edmund Cooper (1926 – 1982) was noted for his disparaging and critical attitude toward women.

I’m not condoning the actions or beliefs of any of these people. In fact, reprehensible is the first word that comes to my mind when I think of them as individuals. But I will note that they all have something in common. They’re all dead. They’re all safely beyond any possibility of benefiting materially from their work. And they all left behind a legacy, a body of work that has outlasted them.

I find it ironic and strangely uplifting to think that the legacy of a creative individual can transcend the flaws of the creator. As for Marlborough and its festival, well, they need to decide whether they’re celebrating an individual, Horatio Alger Jr., or a body of work that promotes the American dream as success achieved through hard work, fortitude and resolve (rather than just a spectacular IPO).

Editorial Note: (December 17, 2006) — Marlborough just officially changed the name of the festival to the Heritage Festival. It seems to me that they’ve both gained and lost something. One could say that they’re celebrating their own history now rather than the American Dream. I wonder what happened to “innocent unless proven guilty?”

Editorial Note: (July 1, 2009) — Michael Jackson, the noted pop singer, just died last week. Like Horatio Alger, he’s been subjected to some serious allegations regarding his relationships with children in the past. His legions of fans seem more than willing to put aside the controversy that plagued earlier phases of his life and focus solely on his musical legacy. I think Jackson is another example of what I’m talking about in this article. An artist’s body of work can transcend the flaws of the artist to provide something of lasting merit to the public.

Posted in Creativity | Tagged | Leave a comment

Invasion-Themed Advertisement

I’m one of the founders of RubyNation, a technical conference for the Ruby programming language. Each year we solicit sponsors to help us make the conference happen. Code Sherpas, a local consulting firm, is responsible for creating my favorite advertisement, which appeared in the 2010 Conference Program.

Alien Invasion, compliments of Code Sherpas

The Ruby code that appears in the ad is hilarious in a “We just saw District 9 and we really liked it” way. If the graphic above is too small for you to make out the code, I’ve provided the code below:

   class EarthInvasionPlan
     include StonePath

     stoneplace_workitem do
       owned_by :extraterrestrials
       tasked_through :missions
       initial_state: :hover_over_capitol_cities
       state :awaiting_earths_surrender
       state :warned, :entry_guard => :earth_resisting?
       state :stupid_human_resilience
       state :victory, :entry_guard => :earth_defeated?
     end
   end

   class DemandSurender << Mission
     include StonePath

     stone_path_task do
       initial_state :demand_surrender
       state :ignore_surrender_death_to_all
       state :accepted
       state :rejected
     end
   end

And here's the summary text from the bottom of the ad:

Ruby Developers across the universe are using the StonePath gem to implement workflows. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Apart from futile attempts at planetary invasion, the StonePath workflow engine has been used in applications for the U.S. State Department and local public school systems. How can StonePath help your application streamline business processes, improving standardization and efficiency?

Posted in Conferences, Creativity, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Film Review: All About “Monsters”

I had a chance to see “Monsters” during the brief time last year when it was playing in selected indie theaters around the country. According to Box Office Mojo, it’s widest release was only 25 theaters (plus DirectTV and iTunes while it was still playing in theaters). In fact, it only grossed 237K in the United States (although it managed to rake in more than 4 million dollars world-wide). I dragged my brother to see it because I’d read about it, and we both felt privileged to have seen it at the E Street Cinema in downtown DC.

What was so exciting about it? Well, it was a great indie science fiction film written and directed by Gareth Edwards and produced on a shoestring budget. I came away extremely impressed with the film, not just as a good first film or a good low-budget indie effort, but rather, as a good film period.

Here’s the official summary of the film:

In 2009 NASA discovered the possibility of alien life within our solar system. A probe was launched to collect samples from Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons, but it crashed upon re-entry over Central America. Soon after, new life forms began to appear there and half of Mexico was quarantined as an Infected Zone. Today, the American and Mexican military still struggle to contain the extraterrestrial “creatures.” After six years, they’re no longer aliens—they’re residents. The story begins when U.S. photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy,In Search of a Midnight Kiss) agrees to escort a shaken American tourist Sam Wynden (Whitney Able) through the Infected Zone in Mexico to the safety of the U.S. border.

Monsters - Original movie poster

Original Movie Poster

Gareth Edwards, a UK visual effects expert with a background in creating special effects for documentaries, wrote the film and shot the footage on a micro-budget in real-life locations, including Mexico, Guatemala, Galveston and other places. Footage shot in Galveston after Hurricane Katrina is used to good advantage in the film and helps provide a “big-picture” feel to the scenes of devastation caused by the alien infestation.

Critical reception to the film has been somewhat lukewarm, but my impression is that most of the critics don’t actually get the film. It’s a science fiction drama that concentrates on the human story and uses the film’s basic premise to focus a light on a current political issues. It’s slow-paced, but I felt that helped ratchet up the tension, enhanced the reality of the character experiences and heightened the impact when the alien creatures finally manifest themselves in the film.

The film is essentially a road trip, and there are some relatively clumsy plot contrivances to ensure that the intrepid heroes go traipsing through the Infected Zone in order to get back to the U.S. These flaws are more than made up for by excellent performances the writer/director extracted from various locals, none of them professional actors, which adds immeasurably to the believability and atmosphere of the film.

On another level, I like the way that the film demonstrates how a committed artist with a vision, like Gareth Edwards, can use widely available tools like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premiere and others to create a truly professional movie. I’m a science fiction fan, and Hollywood just isn’t making the kind of SF movies that I generally want to see. I’m heartened to see that indie producers can be this empowered. Let’s hope for more films like this in the future.

Bottom Line: It’s a genuinely good film, with a solid story, a well-imagined premise, some visually stunning cinematography and good overall execution. If you’re the kind of person who thinks Transformers 2 was a good movie, then this is not the film for you. Otherwise, I recommend the film to anybody who’s looking for a unique drama with a little bit of bite to it.

The movie deserves a much wider audience that it ever got at the theaters. It’s also available on DVD now, although I recommend the Blue-Ray format over the standard DVD. There’s a key scene, a very dark one, that just plays better on Blue-Ray.

Posted in Film, Science Fiction | Tagged | 2 Comments

Who Am I? A Writer, Storyteller, Public Speaker, and Futurist

David Keener speaks about science fiction
Dave Keener at the GFIRST Cyber Security Conference
David Keener In An Interview
Dave Manning the Video Camera
Dave Presenting in an Auditorium
Dave Giving His "The Finest Legacy" Talk
David Keener at the Washington DC Cherry Blossom Festival
Fugitive from the Cubicle Police

My name is David Keener. By day, I’m a wage-earning, creativity-deprived, office worker for a soul-sucking, government contracting firm.* By night, I’m a liberal, creative writer and artist expressing myself in written stories, drawings, videos and public speaking (with an emphasis on storytelling).

I’m a long-time science fiction and fantasy fan, a dedicated movie buff, a member of Toastmasters (a non-profit organization dedicated to educating people in public speaking and leadership skills), and a regular attendee of the annual World Science Fiction Convention.

I’ve created this blog so I can discuss the creative aspects of my life in a public forum, from my journeys in public speaking to my explorations of a professional writing career. I’ll blog about the books that influence me, the writers that inspire me and anything else that matters to the creative aspects of my life.

Why don’t you come along for the ride? It might be kind of interesting.


  • Er, I’m exercising a bit of artistic license here. Actually, I work with some pretty decent folks, and they pay me really well to work on interesting problems that really matter. Still a little lacking creatively, sometimes, though, but that’s just the nature of the job.

Writing

PensiveI think I was 11 when I decided that I wanted to be an SF writer. That was the magical age when I discovered Andre Norton, still in her writing prime and pumping out four squeaky clean adventure stories every year like clock-work. Andre Norton’s books, like Robert Heinlein’s juveniles, were the SF gateway drug before today’s Young Adult (YA) category ever existed.

Over the years, I’ve had technical articles published professionally, and done all sorts of writing within the IT industry, from design guides to proposals (which, in a way, are kind of like fiction; think of them as “lies with a price tag”) to ornate presentations. But, somehow, life got in the way and I never really made a serious go at fiction.

Until now. If I’m ever going to become a professional writer, now is the time.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

SF - Let Your Imagination Run WildI’ve been a science fiction and fantasy fan for almost as long as I can remember, having originally caught the “infection” from my father. Although I like many types of books, including mysteries, military fiction/non-fiction and others, the bulk of my reading has always been science fiction and fantasy, probably slightly more slanted towards SF.

I also like SF conventions. Where else can I go to talk to fellow fans who know as much (and sometimes more) about SF than I do? However, as a working professional, I don’t get the chance to go to as many as I would like. My favorite convention is the World Science Fiction Convention, or WorldCon as it’s known. I try to get to this convention every year. So far, I’ve only managed to attend the following World Cons:

  • 56th World Con – 1998 in Baltimore, Maryland
  • 59th World Con – 2001 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • 63rd World Con – 2005 in Glasgow, Scotland
  • 64th World Con – 2006 in Anaheim, California
  • 66th World Con – 2008 in Denver, Colorado
  • 70th World Con – 2012 in Chicago, Illinois
  • 72nd World Con – 2014 in London, England

I’ve got plans to do San Jose, CA in 2018, and Dublin, Ireland in 2019.

Film and Video

Monsters 2010I’ve always been a movie buff. Growing up, my family watched the Oscars faithfully every year, not the Superbowl. I don’t think I’ve missed the Oscars since 1980 or so. My love of movies was only exacerbated by my first job as a teenager — working in a movie theater (the long-vanished Movie 6 cineplex in Dover, DE).

As a side job, I videotape conferences using professional-caliber recording equipment and enterprise-grade editing software. I’ve become increasingly convinced that all of the tools for creating movies are moving into a realm where talented and determined individuals can produce quality entertainment without a studio or huge budget, as witness 2010’s indie film Monsters.

I’m intrigued with where this trend is heading. Wherever it’s going, I want to be part of it.

Storytelling

A Knight on a QuestI first joined Toastmasters, an international organization dedicated to educating people in public speaking and leadership skills, because I wanted to improve my presentation delivery at technical conferences. While I’ve accomplished that goal, I discovered that people responded the most strongly to my talks when I simply told stories.

I became interested in the possibilities inherent in simple, old-fashioned storytelling. Stand up in front of an audience, tell them a story, and you will quickly find out what does and doesn’t work in your story. My vision is to eventually do an “Author Reading” at a convention, but to surprise the audience with storytelling, sans any form of interpretive reading, instead.

In the meantime, you’ll soon see some of my storytelling videos online. I’d love to hear what people think about them.

Posted in Creativity | Leave a comment