Review: Timeline V24, #3 – July September (2007)

Timeline is a quarterly publication of the Ohio Historical Society. My annual membership pays for this fine journal. One reason I am reviewing it is because it is for sale to the general public, although at $12 an issue the price is steep. It is a very high quality magazine and perhaps people think it is worth the cover price. That is the other reason I will be reviewing it. I think it is worth it, and am glad not to be directly paying for my subscription. I am facinated by history and I look forward to its arrival and thought I’d share my impressions of each issue. This issue includes articles on four very diverse topics.

Milton Caniff by Lucy Shelton Caswell

What is history without people? Places, events and dates give us the framework of the where, what and when something occurred, but it is the who that normally provides the most interesting insight into history. I love biographies.

As a child, I read as much as possible. I devoured the Columbus Dispatch Sunday Comics. I read every cartoon, including the serials. It was tough to keep up with the exploits of The Phantom, Steve Canyon and Prince Valiant reading only the one strip each week, but I tried. I suspect that my imagination and ability to reason things out follow from those early mental exercises each Sunday. I was aware of Milton Caniff, the creator of Steve Canyon. I did not know anything about him and this excellent article filled that gap in my knowledge. I am left with a curiosity about not only finding out more about Caniff, but also about the early years of syndicate owned comic strips. Caniff created, wrote and drew the hugely popular Terry and the Pirates that was published prior to, and during, World War II, yet Caniff had no ownership rights to his creation.

What is it About Bats – by Peter Hildebrandt

I like that the Ohio Historical Society includes Natural History as part of its mission. Geology, biology and botany are fascinating. This particular article covers bats that are indigenous to the state of Ohio. It never occurred to me why it was that bats invade barns, attics and other mostly vacant man made dwellings. It is because they needed to find substitutes for hollow trees that use to permeate the old growth forests of the distant past. I had a fun evening a few years back simply watching hundreds of bats flying out of and back into unused chimneys in downtown Waverly, Ohio. How much closer to a hollow tree could these bats get? I learned quite a bit, and the pictures are fantastic.

Autumnal Fever and Daniel Drake – by Stephen Gehlbach

This offering had everything a person like me could want; the what–autumnal sicknesses; and the who–an early scientist following the data instead of folklore.

Back in 2003 I acted in a trilogy of community theater plays that celebrated the Ohio Bicentennial here in Pike County, Ohio. In the first two plays I portrayed the same character that in the second act of the second play succumbs to the “black ague”, an unnamed autumnal fever. I did a little research on my own, but was still curious. This article actually mentions the epidemic the play’s author used in the play. It is mind numbing but 80% of the population of Pike County, Ohio died to epidemic fevers in the early 1820’s. It is a wonder anyone stayed in the area.

Enter the scientist, Daniel Drake. Drake did not trust the lore of the day that spoke of unhealthy air and bad weather causing the outbreaks. He set about collecting meteorological data, soil and water samples, and anything else that could be used to explain under what conditions the fevers occurred. This fascinating physician nearly discovered the mosquito borne malaria that was rampant in the Ohio Valley during that time. He even went so far as to predict viruses, although he called them animalcules. Because this dealt with things I was already interested in, I was totally captivated. Scientific method winning out over superstition. Great stuff!

George Crook: Soldier and Humanitarian – by John K. Ohl

I think the editor of Timelines has been looking at my reading shelf. This forth article also dealt with at topic that I am fascinated by. Native Americans, the Indian Wars and the people that stood up, even if belatedly, to give voice to the plight of these peoples.

I relished this opportunity to learn more about the famed General Crook, Indian Fighter. I was surprised to learn that he was from Ohio. I guess this is because the first I learned about him was from vacationing in Arizona near the Chiricahua Mountains. I was even more surprised to learn about his efforts to succor the native populations that he helped herd onto reservations. He came to respect Native Americans as equals. I am planning on finding additional reading about Crook and his time in Arizona.

Over all this was a fantastic issue of Timelines for me. Normally there are articles that while interesting, just don’t capture my interest and enthusiasm. Not so this time. It was an utterly enjoyable read from cover to cover. It is a shame I have to wait three months for the next one to arrive.

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Review: Live Free or Die Hard

Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

I liked it. Yes, it is an action film that highlights action for the sake of more action. Regardless, I liked it. I could have been better without the PG rating. The Die Hard series screams R rating, and I would not be surprised to see a special director’s cut DVD hit the stands in time for the holiday’s.

As a computer guy, I feel they treated the computer aspect of the story line intelligently. They didn’t over explain things, which is where so many computer based plots go awry in movies. They kept the explanations simple, and while I do not think that everything done with computers was 100% possible, they kept it at an arms distance and I felt that it was plausible. Nothing made me step out of the story and say to myself, “computers can’t do that”. In fact the opposite happened in one scene. There was a scene of a computer room that made me scoff, “yeah, right. That’s realistic.” What it ended up being was a clue that something wasn’t what the characters were saying it was. It was a clue that our hero had to discover. So it fit. There actually is a plot to the story, and it is intelligently followed. More importantly they didn’t cheat and treat computers like magical machines.

The acting was fairly well done. No award winning performances here, but nothing to get upset about either. Young actors Justin Long and Mary Elizabeth Winstead did fine work. Bruce Willis again plays the character with an understated “oh, no, not again” fatalism. It really works for this hero.

Speaking of the hero… John McClane while being perhaps the most unlucky (getting sucked into terrorist plots) and most lucky (surviving numerous attempts to kill him) NY City policeman, he still seems real enough to pull the story along. I know people that are relentless in their pursuit of what they want. McClane wants to do his job well and to protect those he cares about. With such motivation he really is still a likable character even when he is casually snuffing out bad guys. My friends and family have speculated about who would be included in a modern day League of Extraordinary Gentelmen. John McClane gets my vote. Yippy Kai Yay, @#)^(*&@#$er!!

Overview: Ohio Historical Society

I am a unashamed history nut. Nearly all of my nonfiction books cover history or historical topics. For some reason it took a father’s day gift to get me to join the most prominent history based organization in the state of Ohio. I am very glad for the gift.

Yet, I still haven’t taken full advantage of all the Ohio Historical Society has to offer. They have holdings and museums all over the state. From Adena Manson and Gardens to Zoar Village, from Serpent Mound to the Armstrong Air & Space Museum, the society covers all areas of the state, and all eras of history. I have only visited the Adena Manson and Gardens, and that was to participate in a fund raising activity, not to simply enjoy history.

I guess I just need to make a list of places I want to see, plans some trips, and get busy enjoying history.

I hope to have more to write about in the future as I actually get out and visit all of the historical places around Ohio. Until then I will just keep reading their fantastic publications. Timeline is a wonderful journal. I have to admit that I look forward to its arrival as much as my science fiction magazines. Echoes is the newsletter and also contains fun information, but also updates on all of what is happening across the state. The OHS website is always up to date, and is very easy to navigate.

Diesel from Plastic

If this is real, and it appears it is, then this is the most cool news to come out of recycling in a very long time.  I AM STOKED!!!  A month ago the magazine New Scientist reported about a company that has developed a process to take hydrocarbon based garbage like plastics and rubber and convert it back to diesel and gas using a specialized microwave oven system.

The machine developed by Global Resource Corp. uses microwaves to gasify plastics, rubber and any hydrocarbon based waste.  The lighter “natural gases” can be captured and the remaining molocules cooled back into a diesel grade oil.  The remaining byproducts are pure carbon black (a highly salable product), and any non-hydrocarbon based material.  A good example is that when 20 pounds of ground up automobile tires are processed the results are 8.5 pounds of diesel oil, 7.5 pounds of carbon black, two pounds of steel and two pounds of light gas.

The thought that they can convert tires back into nearly 100% usable products is very exciting.  A metals recycling company that specializes in recycling automobiles plans on using this process on the “autofluff”; the ground up non-ferrous metals, plactics, dirt, etc. that make up our cars.  They plan on using the resulting gas and diesel to run the machines to process the autofluff, and then sell the excess.

More exciting to me as an outdoors lover, is that this process can be used to clean up contaminated soil, resulting in clean fill and diesel.  It appears that even organic matter can be converted using this process.  I’d like to see if medical biohazardous waste can be made clean with this process.

I had a computer professor tell me that “the only free cheese is in a mouse trap”, and this news does appear to be to good to be true, but, GOLLY, wouldn’t it be fantastic!!

Le Tour de Fracas

The Tour de France is disintegrating on the world stage. As in most sports, the pressure to perform causes some athletes to abandon reason. Cheating occurs in every sport I can think of. In auto racing the car is manipulated to gain a performance advantage. In cycling, it is the human body that takes on the role of what must be manipulated to gain a performance edge. Yet despite rigorous and random testing, riders are still trying to cheat. It boggles my mind. It would seem to me that cheating would spoil the feeling of achievement and pride for winning.

Le Tour de Fracas 2007:

Prior to the tour many famous riders admitted to doping, drugging or otherwise cheating. Jan Ullrich, perhaps the most famous rider besides Lance Armstrong, was one of these.

Also prior to the tour, T-Mobile rider Sinkewitz submitted to a test. During the second week of the tour, that pre-tour test’s results showed that he elevated levels of testosterone. He was dismissed. T-Mobile was allowed to continue without him.

This week the tour imploded. It started with Vinokourov failing a test for blood doping, the practice of taking a blood transfusion to increase the amount of red blood cells available to transport oxygen to the muscles. Vinokourov was the favorite to win the tour at the outset. His hopes vanished after a nasty crash left him with stitches in both knees and one elbow. The way he soldiered on was an inspiration. He could have been a hero of the tour. Not only did he get dismissed for cheating during the tour, his entire team, Astana, was dismissed as well.

Similar circumstances occurred with Moreni of Team Cofidis. He got caught cheating during the tour, he had high levels of testosterone, and he and his entire team were dismissed this morning.

And then…

And then tour leader Rasmussen of Rabobank admits to lying and gets dismissed, by his team, not the tour organizers. This one is a little harder to understand. Because of the rampant nature of doping in cycling, the organizers have decided that random testing, even when the rider is not at an event, is the way to go. That seems to be a good decision because it was one of these random tests that uncovered Sinkewitz’s cheating. Rasmussen was unavailable for a few of these random tests before the tour, and it turns out that he lied to his team about where he was. He claimed to be in Mexico, where his wife is from, but instead he now admits that he was in Italy. It was enough of a lie that Rabobank felt it was better to dismiss him.

What a fracas this tour has become.

But it can be seen as a good thing. Maybe the cheaters will finally get the message.

I have been saying for many years that drug use within the major sports here in the USA, performance and recreational drug use, could be curtailed if the punishments were more stringent. One strike and you are out. NASCAR has the most strict policies on this. Not baseball, football or basketball; NASCAR. One strike and you get an indefinite suspension. You have to prove via random drug tests for the rest of your career that you are worthy to participate. If you are caught again you are banned from NASCAR permanently.

I can’t begin to assume I understand the pressures these athletes must endure. But I do know that cheating is not the answer.

Overview: North Country Trail Association

I have mentioned here that I have been hiking and building hiking trails. Three major long distance trails cross southern Ohio. The most nationally visible of these is the North Country National Scenic Trail (NCNST). Just like its older sibling the Appalachian Trail, it is an official trail of the United States National Park Service.

As far as trails go, it is a relatively new one. It is ten years old. It was intelligently conceived and connects many major state and local trails as it travels between the New York-Vermont border and west central North Dakota. Here in southern Ohio the North Country National Scenic Trail utilizes the pre-existing Buckeye Trail. When you hike footpath of the Buckeye Trail in my area you are hiking three different trails at the same time. One of these trails is the NCNST.

Even though the trail is part of the National Park Service, a non-profit association has come into being to support the mission of the trail. The North Country Trail Association (NCTA) develops, maintains, preserves and promotes the NCNST through a trail-wide coalition of volunteers and partners. Because of the length of the trail there are 34 regional chapters of the NCTA. The Buckeye Trail Association is an affiliate partner here in Ohio. This means that all of my volunteer hours building and maintaining trail near my home counts twice. Once for the state of Ohio for funding of the Buckeye Trail, and again for the federal government for funding of the NCNST. I have joined both associations to show my support of both efforts.

The North Country Trail Association has a by-monthly magazine that it provides to its members. For a non-glossy magazine, I have to say that the North Star is of very high quality. It contains the normal overview of events and news that fill most publications of this sort. The North Star also seems to be able to carry at least one article per month that focuses in on an aspect of the trail, its volunteers or nearby communities.

Because of the federal rules for certification of National Park Service trails, parts of the Buckeye Trail can not be used as part of the official NCNST. The main sticking point are the parts of the Buckeye Trail that utilize roads open for vehicular traffic. While this may seem to be an unnecessary rule, there are good reasons for it. The main one is safety. When the Buckeye Trail first laid out its route, remote and lightly used roads were chosen to be part of the trail because they would not need to be maintained. As the decades have rolled by many of these sleepy back roads have become major thoroughfares. The Buckeye Trail Association (BTA) is looking to move much of its on road trail to off road foot paths. It is in the best interest of the BTA to cooperate with the NCTA, and as a major affiliate partner they are doing just that.

This partnership benefits both organizations. The NCTA gets the use of the BTA trail building crew, and its myriad of trail maintainers. The benefit to the BTA is a little more subtle. The BTA can use the national status of the NCNST to their benefit. The most visible example of this is the trail tunnel that runs underneath the new section of US35 east of Chillicothe, near Richmondale, OH. When this new highway was being constucted, the National Park Service was able to get the tunnel inserted as part of the planned construction. This is a huge benefit. Not only can hikers cross a major highway in safety, but it happened at zero cost to the BTA and the state of Ohio. There is no way the BTA could have had this tunnel built on their own. Similar nationally funded projects can also be leveraged to the benefit of the trails. It just so happens that the section of trail that I maintain starts at this tunnel and runs west to the eastern edge of Scioto Trail State Forest.

I have not participated in any NCTA activities other than those co-sponsored by the BTA. The nearest NCTA chapter to me is the Adams County Chapter. I plan on attending one of their meetings in the near future. I hope to be able to hike part of the NCNST in the upper peninsula of Michigan in the near future. My parents will be vacationing up there later this summer and Doris and I have been invited to join them for a few days to hike and explore a series of waterfalls that dominate one area. I am fairly sure that the NCNST uses the same trail. I need to do some investigating to be sure.

While I have not participated with the NCTA much, I am still proud to be part of it. Any organization that has the vision to attempt such a long hiking trail, and has the intelligence to understand that this federal trail needs the help of state and local governments and organizations, deserves my support.

Barn Razing

We called it the garage, but it really was more of a prototype for the modern machine building. You know the place on today’s farms where all the tractors and equipment are stored. This building was about 50 years old, and instead of being made out of steel, it was constructed out of red oak. But neglect of the roof over the last 15 years caused structural damage, and the building was starting to sag. It needed to come down.

Thursday, my brother-in-law Ernie drove up from Tennessee and he, my father and I spent the afternoon emptying the building of its 30+ years accumulation of stuff. The man who is buying the property has also been helping. At one point when Dad and Ernie when to eat lunch, (I’d already eaten) the soon to be land owner, his friend, a young relative of his and I were loading a heavy half built farm wagon onto the scrap trailer. These men are all bigger than me and I was the old man; fifteen years older than the oldest of them. At one point two of them were trying to lift up the wagon in order for a portion of it would clear the floor of the trailer. They didn’t have much success. I was leaning on a long steel bar, panting. When they gave up, I took the bar wedged it into place and popped the wagon up to where it needed to be. The two big guys looked at me as if they had never seen a lever in action before. “Give me a lever and a place to stand.” We finished up the afternoon totally exhausted.

Friday we finished emptying the building, wrapped a cable around the upper joists on one side and pulled the building over with a minimal tug from Dad’s tractor. Ernie and I scrambled up on the now much lower roof peak and began stripping off the rusted tin roof. I took a hunk of skin out of one finger on a piece of tin that broke free unexpectedly, and I also fell three feet to the ground when a rotted roofing slat gave away. I fully expected to get a few more nicks, cuts and bruises than I did. We ended the day with all of the roofing material removed and carted away. We were again exhausted.

On Saturday we started taking down the roofing joists. Ernie and I worked on getting key structure points loose, and before long the entire roofing structure was lying flat on the ground. We spent the rest of the day dismantling the rest of the joists, and one side wall. Ernie and I worked very well together, anticipating eachothers working style and actions. We pounded loose the last part of that side wall in one last burst of energy. I had not been that exhausted in a very, very long time. It was just what my arthritis doctor ordered. My back muscles are tired, but I have no joint pain in my spine.

Ernie is heading back to Tennessee, and Dad and I will finish up what is left on the ground in the days to come.

The best part of this entire thing is that I got to spend time with family, working outside and drinking lemonade. So what if it was hard work.

Atkinson on Asimov Nonfiction

When you mention Isaac Asimov to most people either they have no idea who you are talking about, or they identify him as a science fiction writer. What a lot of people don’t realize is that Asimov wrote mostly nonfiction. History has not caught up with him yet, but I would think that in years to come Asimov will be regaled as one of America’s greatest essayists.

He had a lot of practice at it. He wrote an essay in the magazine Fantasy & Science Fiction from the late1950’s until the early 1990’s. His editorials in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine were normally informative and hilarious. He even wrote a continuing non-fiction column in American Ways, the American Airlines in-flight magazine. Most of these essays have been captured in book format.

I really like his short non-fiction, however, it is with his longer non-fiction that he really finds his voice. People have dubbed him “the Great Explainer”. I don’t think that hits the mark. His work does not just explain, it does not lecture. Asimov had a way of entering a topic and getting the reader, at least this reader, to become a participant in the book, not just a reader. He wrote books on just about every subject. The large portion of them had very simple titles like, Asimov on Astronomy, Asimov on Physics, Asimov on Science Fiction and so on. He wrote science books at the juvenile level and college texts on biochemistry. He wrote about the Christian bible and penned collections of dirty limericks and jokes. He covered Shakespeare and the complete time line of the universe as we know it. He wrote about the origins of words, and the biographical histories of scientists. He wrote on just about every topic and brought with each one a common man sensibility. He even wrote books that are hard to classify. I just picked up the tome, The Edge of Tomorrow and was pleased to discover that it contains both non-fiction essays and fiction that he’d published in Fantasy & Science Fiction. I find myself excited to read Asimov fiction that I have never read before.

If you get a chance, read some of Asimov’s nonfiction. As a life goal, I am trying to collect one example of each of Asimov’s 400+ published works which are mostly nonfiction. I plan on reading them all.

Planned Obsolescence

So… the passenger window on my car decided it wasn’t going to work anymore. Fixing it has been on my to do list for over a month. Yesterday morning I finally got around to attacking the problem. One of the things I learned as a kid is how to be mechanical. My Dad hated working on anything himself, and there were times when something just had to be fixed. I have torn down, fixed and re-assembled a lot of 3.5 through 9 horsepower engines, including replacing bearings and piston parts. Breaking down a car door seemed easy. The thing is, while I have torn apart car doors in the past, this was my first “power” door. The wires and speaker system make it a little more complex. I got to curse at my stupidity when I broke a plastic part. (Duct tape will fix it!)

When I got the door panel off, I figured the fix would be easy. Silly me. It seems that GM cars have a planned obsolescence built into the window assembly. The scissor lift that pulls the window down or pushes it up attaches to the base of the window with a ball joint that fits into a clip, (the socket) that is embedded into a runner that is pop-riveted to the frame holding the window glass. A really slick design for a big car window that uses curved glass. It can flex inside the door.

The thing is GM used a cheap plastic clip. And over time plastic gets brittle and then one day snap, the clip breaks and the window glass can fall inside the door frame. I guess I am going to have to buy a two clips and get it fixed right. For now, I just got the window into the top position with the ball joint locked into the runner where the broken clip is. As long as no on lowers the window, it won’t fall down. I immobilized the switches.

I was talking with my Dad yesterday afternoon. Two of his GM cars have the same problem. Looks like I’ll be buying a bag of clips and fixing the whole lot.

The warranty period on these cars has expired. Did GM use plastic instead of aluminum or some other light metal to save money, knowing that the warranty would be over before the plastic turned brittle?

Sure looks like planned obsolescence to me.

Review: People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard

The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard

This book is a collection of four Conan the Barbarian novellas; The Devil in Iron, The People of the Black Circle, A Witch Shall Be Born, and Jewels of Gwahlur.

Howard wrote these stories over seventy years ago. Why review them now since there are doubtless enough reviews already in existence? The main reason is that I have decided to review everything thing I read (except newspapers, newsletters and similar periodicals) and since it has been just shy of thirty years since I had last read these stories I think it might be interesting to try and remember what the kid I use to be thought of the stories, and add to that what I think about them now, now that I am (ahem) all grown up. The book I have is one I purchased back in 1977 or 78. It is the Berkley Putnam edition that claims to be the full text of the stories as published in Weird Tales back in 1934-35.

The Devil in Iron

I didn’t remember this one at all. So much for my then versus now comparison. I must say that it is not a very sophisticated tale. It is action followed by more action. And that is what I liked about it. I must admit that I had the right mindset when I read this tale. I read it during any down time I had when I was attending Origins 2007 this summer. The story captured my interest and was engrossing enough that I finished my lunch one day without realizing it; I was reaching for more sandwich after I had finished eating all of it. Recently I read a review of a modern author’s story that was referred to as “similar trope” to Conan stories. It bothered me, and now I know exactly why. Howard does not write trope. If anything he is extremely literal, which is a hallmark of Sword & Sorcery. This tale is a straight forward telling of events, and it was very enjoyable.

The People of the Black Circle

I do remember this story; or at least the ending, which I shall not give away. When I saw the Conan the Barbarian movie several friends I talked to remarked about how little Conan spoke. I personally would rather be shown something rather than being told something, and I think a lot of people feel the same way. These friends thought it was bad for some reason, but I remember thinking of this particular Conan story which is heavy on description and light on dialog. Perhaps this is why some people think that Howard’s Conan is trope. (Maybe I should reference that review… Nah.) I promise that even with a lot of prose, there are not a lot of metaphors or non-literal flowery language in this story. When there are metaphors they are well crafted and pertain to the description. A good example comes mid story:

High above them a stone tower poised on the pitch of the mountainside. Beyond and above that gleamed the walls of a greater keep, near the line where the snow began that capped Yimsha’s pinnacle. There was a touch of unreality about the whole— purple slopes pitching up to that fantastic castle, toy-like with distance, and above it the white glistening peak shouldering the cold blue.

Howard paints a picture of grandeur that informs us of not only of distance, but of the entire lay of the land. It is easy to keep the image these words paint in mind as the story progress up onto those slopes and into that castle. Maybe I am picking on the word trope too much here. More likely the reviewer meant “ilk”. These days too many people are using “trope” to mean “unlikeable ilk” they way they are using “penultimate” to mean “better than ultimate”.

This does bring up the one thing I do remember enjoying about Howard’s writing when I was a kid. He is vivid in his descriptions of both scenic backgrounds and character actions. Howard must have been to children of the 1930s what action movies are for children today. Straight forward fun and escapism. I had fun reading this tale again.

A Witch Shall Be Born

One last thing about that review I read, and then I’ll shut up about it. The reviewer wrongly lumped all of Howard’s Conan tales into one stylistic category. Yes, Howard wrote Sword & Sorcery, but not all of the tales are crafted the same way. This is the story that proves that. Conan plays an important yet distant role. It could almost be said that this is more the story of a young valorous soldier making a stand for his queen than it is a story about Conan. Howard switches point of view several times without losing the reader. His vivid prose shows us whose portion of the tale is being told. He weaves it together and provides us with a satisfying ending. This is one of the most tightly plotted stories that I have ever read.

Jewels of Gwahlur

If any of the stories in this collection fit the commonly held stereotype of what a Conan tale is, then this is it. It is a romping jewel hunt complete with all the monstrous horrors and narrow escapes. Yet even in this tale the descriptions paint wonderful pictures. The one new thing I am taking away from this re-reading of Conan after nearly three decades is that I can now appreciate Howard’s narrative style and tight plotting. Conan as a character is not simplistic either. He may have a simplistic goal, to be as rich and as powerful as he can become, but that does not define the man. He follows his own moral code, even if it is a barbaric one. I can guarantee that these are things I did not ponder when I first read these stories as a kid.

I really enjoyed getting back in touch with Conan the Cimmerian. It has been a while since I even considered reading anything other than science fiction and non-fiction. It feels good to dip back into the literature of my teens. I have two more Conan books that I will be reviewing here at some point, and I am really looking forward to re-reading those stories as well. I am tempted to buy the Del-Rey Conan collections just to read Conan stories I have never encountered before. Who knows, I may even get around to watching “The Whole Wide World” the movie based on Robert E. Howard’s life.