Dr. SkySkull in China, part 3: the Terracotta Army

There have been two books sitting on the shelf in my office for as long as I can remember.  They are picture books about the Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, constructed to serve the Emperor in the afterlife and buried around the time of his death in 210 BCE.  The books I’ve had are children’s books, but at the time I became interested in the Army, there really weren’t any other books I could find on the subject.

I mention this to illustrate how it has long been a dream of mine to see the massive Terracotta Army in person, and on my recent trip to China I was finally able to visit this magnificent array of sculptures that has reasonably referred to as a “wonder of the world.”

I took a lot of pictures.   This will be a long blog post.  As always, you can click on individual photos to see them larger. But before we begin, let’s talk about what the Terracotta Army is, and its history.

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The Sea of Ash, by Scott Thomas

A short break from my China posts to catch up on some weird fiction blogging!

In 1870, a spiritualist named Simon Brinklow disappears as he is pulled into a barrel full of leaves at a farm in Vermont.  In 1920, Dr. Albert Pond goes missing after he investigates the appearance, and strange disappearance, of a beautiful woman with teeth fashioned out of fossilized trilobites; his investigation is preceded by a bizarre murder.  And, today, a retired school teacher takes a sightseeing tour across New England, retracing the path of Pond’s investigations.  Though he intends to be only a spectator, he soon finds that it is not possible to be a passive observer of the secretive unnatural parts of the world.

Such is, in broad strokes, the plot of The Sea of Ash by Scott Thomas, which was first published in 2011 but only received wider attention in late 2014.



This novella is, for me, a perfect illustration of how bad I am at recognizing excellent weird fiction at a glance!  I had come across it several times in my Amazon recommendations, but didn’t look at it closely or purchase it until I was taking a lengthy trip and needed to load up my eReader.  Since then, I’ve read it twice, and its sublime and beautiful weirdness haunts me regularly.

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Dr. SkySkull in China, part 2: the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda

I arrived in Xi’an late on a Saturday night, two hours later than expected due to a weather delay flying out of Beijing.  So I was pretty exhausted on Sunday, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to get out and see some of the sights!

After a nice lunch, my former postdoc advisor and his graduate student took me to see the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, a historic and still active Buddhist temple which is also a popular tourist destination.  It was a great opportunity for me to practice making stitched panorama photographs using PTGui, an excellent piece of software which I haven’t played around with for a long time.  I uploaded most of the panorama pictures, and many of the other ones, at high resolution, so be sure to click on them if you want to see details.

Front of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.

Front of the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.

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Dr. SkySkull in China, part 1: Overview

The blog has been quiet this past week because I’ve been literally halfway around the world!  I was invited to China to give a pair of scientific talks and plan out some collaborative work.  The trip was productive and fun, and already I’ve been invited to return again, which I will be seriously considering (though not right away — 20 hours of flying is brutal!).

My hosts at Northwestern Polytechnical University were very hospitable, helping arrange a number of fun activities.  My former postdoctoral advisor has also been working there for several months every year, and he not only helped arrange an invitation for me but showed me around and helped me, as a clueless American, navigate a very different culture.

There was so much to see and do, and I tried to do as much as possible and take pictures of everything.  I’ll write a number of posts about my trip, and I’ll start with a general overview and some impressions of China, stretching over the entire trip.  This wasn’t my first visit to China — I visited Shanghai some ten years ago — but everything was still quite novel to me.

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Unconventional skydives: helicopter jump!

I haven’t posted any skydiving videos for a while, largely because I’ve long depended on other people, with cameras, to video me in freefall.  This Christmas, my lovely wife got me a GoPro, however, and the other day I finally broke it out to video a jump or two!  It so happens that this week was  Carolinafest at Skydive Carolina, a week-long skydive “boogie” with lots of visitors, trainers, load organizers and, of course, cool aircraft.  I took the opportunity today to make two jumps out of a helicopter, which was a perfect opportunity to try the camera in action.

I was originally planning to just stand on the strut of the helicopter and hop off, but the first group I jumped with insisted on hanging from the strut!  It is not exactly easy to get down in a hanging position on a lonely metal bar 5,000 feet above the ground, and I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I managed!

There are a couple of cool things about doing a helicopter skydive.  Like hot air balloons, helicopters can move with little or no horizontal motion, so one can experience genuine freefall with almost no wind resistance.  It is a weird feeling — the first time I jumped from a balloon I involuntarily shouted “Holy CRAP!”

The other cool thing about helicopter jumps is the ride up.  The helicopter doesn’t have its doors, so one gets an entire open-air view of the countryside for the entire ride to altitude.  I included this ride in the video — if you just want to see the jump and canopy ride to the ground, skip to about 7:39.

This video is the second helicopter jump I made today — if I have time, I’ll add the first later!

Update: here’s the video of the first helicopter jump! Very much like the second.

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The comics moment that most inspires me: Suicide Squad

Update: Forgot to say “thank you” to my Dad for mailing me my complete “Suicide Squad” collection, which made this whole post possible!

I suspect that people who don’t read comics fail to realize how much kids can be inspired by them, in both behavior and morality.  This can be both good and bad, of course, depending on the comic.  One of my big influences growing up was Mark Gruenwald‘s massive run on Captain America, from 1985 to 1995.  Gruenwald portrayed Cap as simultaneously very idealistic and very human, often struggling to make his moral code live up to the complexities of the world.

Even today, I occasionally draw inspiration from the comics I used to read when I was younger.  One scene in particular stands out to me, and it is led by a rather unconventional characters in the DC Comics Universe.

Amanda Waller, boss of the “Suicide Squad.”

Amanda Waller, from the DC Comics Wikia.

Amanda Waller, from the DC Comics Wikia.

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Michael Talbot’s The Bog

A novel about an archaeologist digging up 2000 year-old bog bodies in the UK that have been mauled by some mysterious ancient creature?  A supernatural creature that is awakened by the excavations and begins to stalk and kill again?  Yes, please.

Since starting to publish 20th century authors, Valancourt Books has been on an incredible roll, and they’ve released so many forgotten gems that I’ve had a hard time keeping up with them.  Last month, I finished reading The Bog (1986), by Michael Talbot.



Talbot was not a terribly prolific fiction writer, only publishing 3 novels during his lifetime.  In fact, his is known much better for his books on mysticism and science, of which I will say more later.  Nevertheless, his novels are clever and well-written, and one of them — The Delicate Dependency — is widely regarded as a classic of horror.

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