Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Distracted Critic: Braid

By: Michael Akerman


Let's try something that might keep me employed on this blog that doesn't actually pay me anyway, shall we? I'll start with a confession: I like video games. I play them all the time. I also love books, and I'm liking movies more now that I have NetFlix. However, I don't always finish games. I usually eventually finish books, and I can't think of a movie I haven't, but it takes me forever. So, making it straightforward that the things I review probably aren't things I've completed, I've decided to make a feature (minor now, while I try out the fit. I might extend it later). Let's call it

The Distracted Critic

Today's review: Braid.

If you're into the video game scene, you may know Braid from the controversy it has suffered recently. This little puzzler is an XBox Live Arcade game that breaks the bank at $15 to purchase (about $5 more than a standard XBLA game). The game, though, is definitely worth the cost.

Consider, if you will, the extra five dollars you stand to lose. I invite you to skip Starbucks for a day and experience what a small developer with a strong vision can achieve (or at least grab the demo).

Braid's hook, as it were, is time manipulation. The apparent throwback to the modern Prince of Persia re-envisionings takes on new dimensions (ha) as it is wrapped around the puzzles in the worlds. There is a satisfying feeling in the smooth transition from standard time to reversed time, a switch presented with a drain of the color palette and a chunky sound effect that lends a nearly-visceral sense of control. The gimmick is used to tremendous effect to create enjoyable and sometimes mind-bending puzzles, reminiscent of the Wii's puzzler Zack & Wiki. However, the art and music are where this game shines.

The music has a consistent orchestral flare that couples with the colorful sprite-based graphics, combining the colorful look that marked the age of the SNES with a score that could grace a modern Final Fantasy or Legend of Zelda. Like a fine beer, the interplay of these elements is intricate and delicate, each masterfully suited to the other and amplifying the impact of the gameplay.

Braid is well worth the pocket change it asks for. Give this wonderfully polished little download a ride by downloading the trial. Make sure to collect all of the puzzle pieces in the first level: the puzzles to collect these are where the meat of the game lie. Turn the volume up just loud enough for the music to surround you, and let your time in the game wash over you!

Man, that last line was hokey.

By my hand,
~Michael Akerman

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

One of Those Hot Georgia Summers

By: Michael Akerman


Well, the world is finally heating back up in a way that is of interest to me. With recent years being dominated by Middle Eastern politics and preposterous single-party domestic politics (effectively. Where were the major bills that suffer endless debate these last few years? My high school days were much more dynamic), I've had a difficult time getting motivated to really think about politics. The Middle East, after all, is a ridiculously complex mess where many of the issues are already caused by our own missteps. The best I can hope to say on this blog without enrolling in a couple of years of Middle East history (you'd think Smith would have been more active, speaking of) is "We should probably do that, I guess." And what is politics without interparty conflict? Tedious interparty bickering, is what. So my motivation has been low, and this is even without considering the remarkable... let's call it "rigor" of the chemical engineering curriculum, but I'm done with that for at least a year, so, onward!

The end of my more-difficult undergraduate education is serendipitous, it seems. The world is heating up in much more traditional ways! The Olympic Games are taking place in a country no one really wants to talk about directly, and the great ancestral enemy in the East is stirring in Georgia. While I have serious qualms with the Chinese government and the decision of the Olympic committee to hold the games there, I'd not be saying anything you couldn't read elsewhere. With Russia, though, I get to put on my Hawk Hat against a country that should be used to conflict with ours.

Let's discuss Russia's tack over the last few years then, shall we? With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Cold War was over in the minds of the people of the US, at least for all but those fantastic fellows who claimed the Russians were coming any day now. And it was true: the weakening of Russia through the seventies and eighties due to their increasingly untenable economic position and the furnace of internal conflict brewing in the Soviet states has neutralized Russia as any more than a hypothetical threat to the United States. However, as is clear from the current leader of Russia, the Cold War did not end in the minds of everybody. While the victors were happy to go off and "focus on domestic affairs" (that is to say, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again, and possibly Iran), the brewing mind of the crazy bear who stands now atop the ruins of the Soviet empire seems to have gotten stuck. When the country should have given up its anti-Western inclinations and joined in trade with Europe in the US to share in our prosperity (see the Theory of Comparative Advantage), Mr. Putin has retained his dedication to nibbling at the heels of the West. This is clear from the recent events involving Georgia!

Let me provide you with a quick summary to prove my point: The 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest hints that Georgia may soon be able to join the pseudo-alliance of the West in December, after a review of their application. Russia, invited as a guest to the meeting, opposes Georgia's membership bid. This happens in April. In August, Georgia, claiming that separatists in the Georgian territory of South Ossetia shelled Georgian territory (violating a cease-fire), respond with a military offensive. The necessity of this action is not important here. At this point, at any rate, a military situation that is completely a Georgian internal affair is set off.

Russia, claiming that South Ossetia is dependent on their neighbor to the north, moves military forces into South Ossetia and begins airstrikes against Georgian territory. The rest is fairly boilerplate war, which, though interesting, is not important here. Additional detail can, of course, be found on the Wikipedia.

What, then, does this have to do with the West? The key lies in the NATO Summit and Georgia's membership bid. Russia had no reason to "assist" South Ossetia in this territorial conflict except to send a message, and send one they did. With stereotypical Russian obvious-evasiveness, several Russian officials have made it a point to criticize Georgia and claim that it is unfit for NATO membership. Yuri Popov, a Russian envoy, stated that NATO could not trust Georgia, saying "Georgia's step is absolutely incomprehensible and shows the Georgian leadership has zero credit of trust." He went on to call Georgia treacherous. (Reuters)

These statements and Russia's opposition at the Bucharest Summit make it clear that the true motivation for the war is as an example: should the states in Russia's former sphere of control seek to ally with the West, the Russian government cannot be held responsible for its actions. Which leads to the only obvious conclusion: the Russian government must be held responsible for its actions.

This is the difficult part, though. There was a time when the US military would intervene, setting up shop in Asia to fight the Russians through a proxy war (see Vietnam, Korea, etc.), and certainly, that is a possibility now. However, our military is stretched thin, based in Iraq and Afghanistan, of course, but also in Japan, Germany, South Korea, Spain, Ecuador, Guam, Cuba, the Philippines and other former hotspots (see this site) where we, for some reason, see it as fitting to shore up the local economy by leaving soldiers hanging around there. I've complained about this before. Getting into a "shooting war" with Russia would not be the wisest move unless we committed to redeploying our bored soldiers overseas (which ain't going to happen).

But then, if we must do something, which we must if we want to protect freedom of action for Eastern European governments and prevent a second Cold War (or a continuation of the first, I suppose), what can we do? The answer lies, like so many things, in the history of the Middle East (sorry).

Between 1948 and the 1970s, Israel became locked repeatedly in military conflict with its Arab neighbors. The country was in a remarkable position: a tiny strip of land attacking and defending against much larger neighbors, all of which were swift to ally with each other. The most striking example of this was the "Six-Day War" in which Israel, in the course of, oh, about six days, swept through the forces of Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt to take the Sinai Peninsula and much of the western Middle East. This was possible due to years of military support from the West. This support was not in the form of our own forces, but in aid supplied in the form of weaponry and vehicles from Western countries including Great Britain and the US (Wikipedia for more info). While that war has been the spark for much of the further Arab-Israeli antipathy, it is obvious that non-combat support in the form of arms can be a powerful force indeed.

So, the path for the United States seems obvious: to suppress Russia's anti-Western aspirations, the massive US defense budget should be temporarily bent toward helping Georgia's forces compete with the forces of Russia. If Georgia can repulse, or even simply inflict heavy losses upon, Russia, the Great Bear will once again back down, especially when it becomes obvious that the US will not stand for a return to Russian aggression.

Remember, the conquest and conversion of Eastern Europe to form the Soviet Union strengthened Russia enough to touch off the long-running conflict between the two world superpowers, with all the fear and stupidity that came along with it (flash!). I would rather not have to travel that road like my father's generation.

By my hand,
~Michael Akerman

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Nellehseran, Chapter 1

By: Michael Akerman


Chapter one of the renamed and gently edited Nellehseran (formerly Shannelleran) is below. Enjoy!

As the first dim light of dawn filled the cobblestone square, Kilrik peered around the corner of the small peasant house. He seemed to be the first one awake and about in the little village, which was not unusual: he had always been an early riser, and his years of travel had made him still more accustomed to living with a lack of sleep. “Just as well,” he muttered. “I always have to explain myself when people catch me sleeping in the open.” Satisfied that the square was empty, Kilrik stepped out from the shadows.

He felt very conspicuous in the middle of that dismal little burgh. The town of Darl’s Folly fell like a set of discarded model buildings on the shore of once-charming Lake Velindra. The waters lay still and silent, with no river current to mix the dark pond. It was something of a geological oddity: rain or some dead stream had filled a small, awkward depression in the distant past. A large population of fish had once dwelled in the lake when the water was still crystal blue, supported by a pleasant climate and a complete lack of natural predators in the isolated pond. The city of Darlhaven sprang up around Lake Velindra, developing swiftly through a robust fishing industry and an enviable trade position.

The city soon grew too large for the little lake, the fish population stuttering to a genealogical halt as Darlhaven grasped for food and profit. The pleasant trade road running through the area was forsaken when the Kingdom of Genream to the east finally conquered the long-hostile Sintreln, south of Darlhaven. With the steady and swift waterways of the Sintreln open to the Kingdom, trade with the western Grand Empire of Halreln doubled as the easy but slow overland route was forsaken.

The city fell into decline, the imposing balustrades and statuary of the famed Darlhaven Exchange collapsing in disrepair and ruin. Blooms of algae choked the lake, turning the peaceful pond into the brown bog that now lay alongside the village. The people struggled to farm, eking out a living by raking through the muck of the moist land. The population of Darlhaven fell, with the council steadily relenting to changes of moniker: from the Trade City of Darlhaven, to the City of Darlhaven, the Town of Darlhaven, Darlhaven Village and finally Darl’s Folly, the blame for the great city’s failure placed unfairly on the shoulders of its founder.

So, it would seem odd and, for some, cruel for a knight in full armor to stand amidst the ruins of the once-great metropolis. Kilrik always found it difficult to convince townsfolk that it was not pride or mockery that made him constantly outfit himself in his finery. Rather, he had no mule, no squire or page, so it was only practical to wear his armor while he travelled. Still, Kilrik couldn’t help but anxiously rub the hilt of his whitesteel longsword like a talisman to ward off conflict.

He stood for a moment, letting his body and eyes adjust to the morning. Shaking his breastplate to find a comfortable fit, Kilrik was turning to leave Darl’s Folly when a desperate scream echoed across the expansive court. Drawing his longsword out, he spun to search the square. In a darkened corner, the bulky mass of a man in a brown fur cloak was raising a tremendous staff above his head. As he tensed himself to bring the weapon to bear upon his hidden target, a feminine voice broke plaintively, begging “No, please!”

Kilrik rushed across the square, swearing under his breath. He was swift of foot, but the distance was great, and the staff had already begun to fall. As he closed the distance, he grew certain that he stood no chance of parrying the crushing blow in time. Kilrik shouted in a final effort to distract the attacker, but even as the large man drew back slightly at the noise, the momentum of the staff carried it through its dreadful arc.

Just before striking its prey, however, the staff came to a shuddering halt. A high, short tone, like the striking of a silver bell, shot across the square, while a glow of silvered-blue gauze filled the corner, silhouetting the cloaked man and the halted weapon. Silence filled the breadth of a second, as the stave shuddered in the shocked man’s grasp. Then, with the echo of a deep gong, a sphere of scintillating gold swept outward from the corner, tossing shards of the shattered staff about and lifting the large man from his feet. Kilrik gasped and fell backwards, knocked down like a child’s doll by the rushing sphere. Then, as swiftly as the sphere had formed, it dissipated harmlessly against the walls of the village huts, leaving only a dying echo of the initial clamor.

Groaning, Kilrik stared at the cloudless morning sky above. He lay prone, his longsword wedged at an angle under his back and above his arm. Trying to stand, he rocked about fruitlessly, unable to find purchase with the sword pinning him as it did. Finally, leaning to his left, he pressed his arm up from under the sword hilt, leveraging himself into a quick spin that sent him flat on his face. Clamoring to his feet, he ran with his longsword ready to the corner of the square.

There, amidst the rubble that had tumbled down following the onslaught of the golden wave, a young girl lay curled. Her form was perfectly still, a grey pallor cast upon her face. Fearing her dead, Kilrik sheathed his sword and crouched down. Her chest lay still, but her face was locked in a grimace of pain, her brow knit and furrowed. With a sudden sharp inhalation, her expression relaxed and her breathing resumed with a steady, but dangerously weak, pattern.

Looking for wounds on the frail form, Kilrik reached into his belt satchel and groped for his meager bandages and the few herbs he carried with him. Her feet were bare and dirty, the delicate appendages traced with small cuts, but not seriously harmed. Long, pale legs overlapped one another, bending at the knee and tracing up to the hem of a thin cotton nightgown, falling nearly a hand below her hips. These flared out from her thighs and waist, the nightgown following the sinuous curve from her leg and plunging down her right hip to her waist, before climbing back up her torso.

Her arms were splayed in front of her chest, dingy with grime but undamaged. Her long shapely fingers clenched tightly, her close-bitten nails digging into the flesh of her palm. She was certainly a comely girl, the nightgown draped loosely over her trim abdomen and drawing tight over the twin swells of her breasts. While her body was somewhat more attractive than average, her face was astounding.

Hungrily, Kilrik traced the pale, pure line of her neck to her young face, his eyes widening as they swallowed the low hillock of her chin and swept along the fragile jaw line to the labyrinthine seashell of her ear. The girl’s full, coral pink lips were parted, their creases glistening slightly. Fine lashes swept from her closed eyes, standing out from the white of her skin. Her forehead was traced with the bangs of her hair, where sandy brown and saffron yellow strands mingled and swept to her shoulders, cut ragged by a blade evidently wielded by the girl herself, judging by the uneven work.

Even during this overly elaborate investigation of the girl’s features, Kilrik noticed only one moderate wound. A long gash had torn the neckline of her gown, leaving a trail of blood slowly staining her chest. Tearing his gaze away from her face, Kilrik rubbed a poultice of herbs on a strip of gauze. Pulling the torn cloth away from the wound, he pressed the strip to her chest.

As he rubbed the bandage in place, the girl gasped suddenly, her eyes snapping open. Her mouth hung agape as she stared at Kilrik, who raised his hands in an apologetic gesture. As he started to explain, she sat up, throwing her left arm protectively across her chest. Kilrik fell backwards, rocking off his feet and splaying prone on the ground, while she shuttled herself backwards with a scuttling movement and sat with her back against the wall and her knees against her chest.

She glared at him icily as he tried to right himself. “Pervert!” she barked, “Stay away from me!” Kilrik lifted himself to a sitting position.

“I didn’t mean…” he started, frowning. “I wasn’t trying to…. It’s just that you were wounded, and I…” he blushed, glancing away and pretending to be distracted by the crumpled form of the large attacker, who still lay on the cobblestones of the square.

The girl stared at him for a moment, watching him as his deep brown eyes considered the intricacies of the ground. His visorless helm betrayed a clutch of light brown hair draping to the nape of his neck, outlining his strong jaw. His face was young, but lightly creased and worn. He was adorned in full plate mail, mostly constructed from a motley assortment of mismatched pieces. These were made of dingy, cheap iron, save for his greaves, which gleamed with the indefatigable shine of whitesteel. His longsword was sheathed at the belt, but the visible sheath and hilt were well-wrought in a matching motif: gold filigree traced the outlines of countless small wings along the length of the sheath, meeting the gold guard, which stretched out in paired quillons. The walnut grip tapered toward a decorative wing, crafted of gold, which graced the pommel of the sword.

Slowly, she smiled. “Okay, I believe you.”

“What?” Kilrik looked up, surprised.

“Let’s go!” she exclaimed, standing gracefully and clapping her hands together, pleased. Her voice rang in dulcet tones through the square.

“Go? What do you mean?”

“Elsewhere! Away from here! Let’s leave this general area and travel to a different general area. You and I shall escape, scurry, scramble away! We shall sojourn, we’ll ambulate in a specific direction!”

“No, I’m familiar with the concept! But why am I going with you? Who are you? And most of all, why should you trust me to go with you?”

She frowned. “That last question is backwards from what I expected. Well, you’re a knight in partly-shining armor and I’m a damsel in distress, so you’ll be protecting me. As for the last part, the knight is always a good person in the storybooks!”

Kilrik rose to his feet. The girl faced him, her head level with his shoulder. He looked down at her, his eyebrow arched cockily. “First, I’m not a knight, at least not now. Second, the fellow with the staff seems to have been knocked out or killed, and besides, his weapon is broken, so you’re hardly in distress.”

“All the more reason for you to come! You shall have to explain how that happened. I’m afraid I fainted for a bit.”

He blinked at her. She smiled back. Kilrik incredulously gaped, “You mean you didn’t-“

“Besides,” she interrupted, a note of weariness and wariness beginning to tinge her voice, “the townspeople have been staring, and my unconscious father is going to wake up soon, which are two good reasons for both of us to get out of here.”

“Your father?” Kilrik asked, looking in surprise at the massive, beastly man, who was, in fact, stirring next to the hut with which he had collided. As Kilrik glanced around, he noticed the dozens of shocked eyes which stared out of filthy windows and partly-opened doors. “Yes,” he nodded slowly. “I think it’s a good idea to leave.”

The pair crossed the village square, heading east. Kilrik felt the girl edge closer to him, pressing her sinuous form against his side as she grasped his arm. Staring ahead, she looked sidelong at the suspicious and lascivious eyes following them, while Kilrik blushed, cursing his armor for blocking his sense of touch.

As they passed the general store, which also served as the village tavern and inn, the road narrowed, funneling the oddly-attired couple between close-set huts. Soon, however, fewer eyes stared, the earlier discord having faded before reaching the outskirts of the town. Kilrik relaxed his gait while the girl’s hand fell absentmindedly to hold his gauntleted palm. They walked on in silence until the village had faded to sparse and unprofitable farmland.

“So, you never explained how you stopped my father,” the girl stated, breaking the silence. As Kilrik glanced over, she smiled at him, her teeth flashing into view.

“And you never told me your name,” teased Kilrik, grinning back.

“Nor have you told me yours. My name is Nellehseran.”

“Nellehseran? That’s something of an odd name for this area.”

“You can call me Nell,” she smiled at him. Suddenly, she seemed to realize that she was still holding his hand. She dropped her arm, her ears turning scarlet as she looked away.

Kilrik smiled softly. “You have a beautiful name, Nell,” he complimented. “I am Kilrik Taynerone, of the Halward Taynerones.” He drew himself up, the pride he held in his heritage evident. “My family is-“

“I’ll call you Rik!” she interjected. His shoulders fell as he looked over at Nell, who beamed at the road ahead. Kilrik sighed in resignation, changing the subject.

“Do you have a surname, Nell?” he asked.

“Of course!” she responded.

Kilrik waited for a few moments. “Well, what is it?” he finally asked.

“Not important,” Nell stated flatly. Her jaw was set, her rose lips pressed into thin lines. Kilrik frowned in concern.

“You’re right, it’s not,” he said, before they once more fell into silence. The pair continued past farms where rural hands were just setting to work. Nell set a brisk pace. It was not long before she noticed bleary-eyed young farmhands staring at her as they passed. She sighed.

“Haven’t they ever seen a girl before?” she challenged accusingly, her face contorting in a disgusted grimace.

“Well, you are still in a nightgown,” Kilrik said, his vocal timbre flexing in defense of his gender.

Nellehseran stopped in the road. Holding her palms open and out with her elbows bent at her side, she looked down at her white garment, bending over slightly to see her legs past her chest. “My goodness, I’d completely forgotten!” she laughed, brightly. “Well, I guess I’ll have to find clothes somewhere.”

Kilrik nodded, not noticing that Nell had already turned toward a nearby farmhouse. Looking over her shoulder, she sighed in exasperation. “Rik, come on!” she hissed. He stopped, peering at her quizzically. “The whole family is already in the field,” she clarified, pointing. As she continued to the farmhouse, Kilrik stood for a moment, mouth agape, before hurrying after her.

He caught up with Nell as she crouched on the doorstep, her ear pressed to the door. She grinned and winked at Kilrik as he crouched beside her, but he was too busy being flabbergasted to be flattered. Pulling herself up by the doorknob, Nell peered through the keyhole and, satisfied that the house was empty, slowly let herself into the house. Kilrik stood to follow, the seams of his armor clicking. Nellehseran glowered at him. “Watch it, Sir Clanks-a-lot!” she hissed.

Nell and Rik snuck through the single-room house cautiously, on cat’s feet and bull’s hooves, respectively. With each clamping step, Rik grew more nervous, sweating the medieval-fantasy equivalent of bullets under his armor. The farmhouse family stood all too close to the back window of the house. Kilrik passed, staring adamantly ahead to prevent an exterior glance from tempting fate. Finally, the pair reached the bureau near the sleeping quarters of the house.

Nell slid open the top drawer, rifling through the clothes within. “No,” she said, “this is all men’s clothing.” She moved on to the next drawer. Digging in, she squealed in delight! Kilrik started, casting a fearful glance at the back door of the house.

“What is it?” he asked.

Nell lifted a small bundle out of the drawer, unfolding a tiny dress sized for a five or six year old girl. ”Isn’t this just too cute?” Nell asked, pointing to a line of daisies painstakingly embroidered along the hem of the skirt.

“I suppose, but it’s much too small for you,” Rik responded. Nell frowned at him, rolling her eyes as she replaced the dress.

Moving down to the third drawer, Nellehseran retrieved two dresses of widely different sizes. One dress was long enough to cover Kilrik and still drag the ground, with the top billowing out to accommodate an ample torso. The other dress was much shorter, tailored for a far more petite frame. Nell held up one, then the other.

“I don’t like the colors, but I guess the smaller one will have to do,” she said regretfully. “At least it was worn by someone close to my age. The larger dress must be the mother’s.”

Kilrik peered out the window. The family was set to work in the field, the father standing next to his son as they pushed a plow. Three young girls were planting vegetables, while two taller women picked a nearby harvest. The shorter one stooped awkwardly at her work, her midsection swollen with child. The taller one harvested with gusto, her youthful face beaming as her muscular arms tore crops easily from their stems. Kilrik frowned.

“Actually,” he said, “I think you have the mother’s dress.”

Nellehseran laughed a short silvery sound that she cut off with her palm, and Kilrik grinned. He backed away from the window and turned just as Nell shed her nightgown. The morning sun gave a fiery cast to her nude form, highlighting the pleasant curves of her body as she thrust her breasts up in concert with the movements of her arms and gown. Kilrik gasped sharply, spinning about and crossing his arms, his face hot with embarrassment.

“You could have told me you were changing!” he said, his voice a mixture of anger and penitence.

Nell cocked her eyebrow before pulling on the peasant’s dress. “What? I don’t understand. What’s the matter?” she asked, confused.

Kilrik closed his eyes, holding the image in his mind. “I saw you without clothes!” he responded. “Not intentionally, I mean. You didn’t tell me you were changing.”

“Is that a problem?” Nell asked, pulling her hair from the tall collar of the dress. “It’s just a body. How does this look?”

Rik brought his breathing under control. Confused, but relieved that Nell was not angry, he decided to let the incident pass. He looked at Nellehseran in the newly-acquired dress. By some miracle of fate, the dress was the perfect length for the girl and fit fairly well.

“The tailoring is not quite appropriate for me, I’m afraid,” Nell said, apologetically.

Kilrik smiled at Nell. “I think it looks wonderful,” he beamed.

“Wonderful!” Nell exclaimed, clapping her hands together and twisting them until she held them in front of the waist in true peasant fashion. “Let’s go!” she commanded.

Kilrik and the newly-attired Nellehseran snuck cautiously through the house once again, escaping through the front door. Safely outside, they continued their previous eastward path, passing several minutes in silence as they moved away from the farmhouse. Suddenly, Kilrik broke his stride, looking back in the direction they had come.

“You know, I really wish we had thought to pay them back for that dress,” he lamented.

“You did pay them!” Nellehseran comforted him, gleefully. Rik opened his mouth, paused, and closed it again.

“Huh?” he queried in his deeply philosophical way.

“I grabbed some of the money from your satchel,” she explained. “I hope you don’t mind.” Nellehseran smiled sweetly at Rik, batting her eyes for good measure.

Kilrik turned back eastward, shaking his head and grinning. Together, the pair continued onward, following the road to the concealing marshy forests that surrounded Darl’s Folly. Kilrik glanced at Nell as they walked, smiling in spite of himself.

By my hand,
~Michael Akerman