Thursday, November 13, 2008

Testify: REPO - The Genetic Opera

For over a month, my son has been raving about REPO. I figure Sarah Brightman, Anthony Stewart Head, Alexa Vega, Paris Hilton, director of Saw II-IV... what can go wrong? (OK, those last two it could be a lot). It's been compared to Rocky Horror Picture Show, but that's not even close: Camp isn't what it's about (well, maybe a little). Only a little goth lingerie ties them together. If you really want something similar, think Tommy -- child with health problems, very little spoken, awkward pacing, structurally flawed, and you're there.

First off: Paris Hilton didn't suck at all. You want to see Paris waste space, spin Veronica Mars up on your Netflix queue and get Season 2, Episode 18. Urgh. Poster child for vapid. Here, she was completely appropriate, sang OK, and looked sleazy as she was supposed to be. Perfectly appropriate stunt casting.

I wish the other casting was a little more on-target: Alexa Vega can hit the notes, but there was nothing behind it, no emotion, no acting. For the lead character, she was kind of whiny and weak. The Rotti brothers were awful.

The movie mostly comes down to a confrontation between Paul Sorvino's organ transplant firm CEO and Head's repo man, based on a 17-year grudge over a stolen love. There are some fantastic visuals, most of them around Sarah Brightman's character Blind Mag's replaced eyes which project as well as see.

The music is hit or miss: a few songs such as Zydrate Anatomy work well, but are a little bit on the Broadway hokey side, others are atonal and arrythmic, just moans and grumbles. The story is a bit hard to follow (who poisoned Shiloh?), and the story is held together with comic book panels drawn by the writer/composer/Graverobber (looks like influences by Mignola, and maybe Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!), that would be better with a song.

Will you love it? I didn't, but I don't want my time and money back (hello, "Sex and the City?" -- you've been beaten). See it now on the road show, or in one of the eight (Eight? When crap like Indy IV opened on like 3000?) screens around the US, with a live audience that'll cheer and boo.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Knocking Opportunists

To the young woman who walked out of my house with my wallet:
You suck, lady.

I don't think you were scamming when your car had trouble -- your car didn't start, still didn't start with a gallon of gas (which you'd offered to pay for and never did), and it was left there for a couple hours. So when I invited you into my house, and you sincerely thanked me, why did you grab my wallet? It's a crime of opportunity. Now I like opportunity. I'll take advantage of something presented to me if it doesn't hurt anybody. This doesn't fit that model. You suck.

Yeah, I lost probably in the neighborhood of $80, and some photos, and a lot of my time getting ID and credit cards back. Those hotdog stand buy-six-get-one-free cards were no loss, but that photo of my wife from her college graduation was one of my prized posessions. You suck.

So you dropped my wallet on my neighbor's lawn, and he's just found it 11 days later, wet, kinda fermented-smelling (we did get a foot of rain last weekend), and all that's missing is the cash and strangely that photo of Sue. I want those two days back of calling credit card companies, insurance companies and others, the soul-destroying hours at the DMV (Luckily I had a passport which makes replacing a driver's license easy. Think about it -- what picture ID do you have, and by you I mean my miniscule audience, not the lady who sucks). You could have put it into my mailbox, into any mailbox, and I'd've gotten most of my stuff back. If you really needed the cash, I'd have given it to you to avoid this annoyance. But no, you suck.

And on top of it, you're an idiot: There were two Visa gift cards in there. You obviously found them, because they were other than where I put them. That's $100 you passed up. But wait -- I think you took the Starbucks card (not sure, I may have killed it myself). That had all of, what $2.47 on it?

Have you destroyed my faith in the general good of people? No.
Will I be more reluctant to assist my fellow human being? No.
But I don't classify you as human anymore. If I see you, I'll probably spit on you. You've been warned, even though you suck.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Too long in the waste (of time) land -- Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained

2000+ pages...
Cast of thousands, no, billions...
A first-book non-ending that pissed the hell out of me...

How did I end up enjoying the ending of Peter F. Hamilton's weighty dualogy, "Pandora's Star" and "Judas Unchained"?

Well, I have to admire the sheer gall of a story with this kind of scope. I could call it a 300+ year tale, but only the prologue occurs in the 21st century, the rest more than 300 years later. The sheer number of characters and worlds created is pretty astounding too. There's a lot of irons in the fire, balls in the air, and a couple dozen other metaphors too.

But the seams show, way too much. Worldbuilding should be about what the author knows, to make the story better. It seems sometimes like Hamilton felt that because he put the work into it, he had to write it all down in the final story, there's just too much there. Upon introducing a person, we don't need to know what they're wearing, maybe just the class of dress. When we get to a planet, we don't need to know about the foliage, only that it's a jungle.

There are at least a half dozen alien intelligent lifeforms (counting an AI) in this story, that's a strength, that they fit (although I was hoping for one of them to have a bigger role in the finale). There are at least a half-dozen major narratives, including a mechanic disatisfied with his factory-world life, a murder mystery, a political thriller, a world-spanning adventure, a war story, and they interact only tangentially initially. In fact the first nearly 1000 pages of "Pandora's Star" really doesn't get very many of the characters together, and it ends in a literal cliffhanger, no major conflicts resolved at all.

Personally, I'd have rather seen three or so mostly-unrelated novels, with each story being told linearly, rather than taking 100-page vacations to hit the other threads. By the third or fourth books, it could all start coming together with a smash, finishing up at maybe 1400 pages total. It's really way, way too long. For instance: he tells us every single gosh-darned time that it's "enzyme-bonded concrete" -- whatever the hell that is. After the first time, call it "concrete" and I'll be pretty sure that's the enzyme-bonded stuff unless I'm told it's the "old-fashioned, not even enzyme-bonded" type. Same with "plyplastic" and "malmetal." There's just no need for that.

But he comes up with a solution to the story that works, and the characters find their proper place in the universe in a rather deft fashion. That's impressive. Is it enough to get me to start another over-500-page book by PFH? Not sure. A friend recommends "Neutronium Alchemist" but I need to read two other books before getting to those two.

I doubt he's getting paid by the word, so what he really needs is an editor. Remember Blaise Pascal:
“I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”

(I had thought that quote from Mark Twain, the closest from him was “If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.”)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

*#!% Blinking Lights

Why should a light blink? To get your attention. Flashing signs, countdown timers, warning signs, answering machines with unanswered messages.

So why are there so damned many lights that blink when they're working just right?

My most hated is the Verizon Broadband Access card, which sticks out of my laptop at a bad angle to begin with, and then has to have a bright flash of light every couple of seconds. Extremely distracting, and redundant: If it stopped working, there are a couple of indicators on my laptop which would tell me already. And if my laptop isn't open, I don't care. I've taken to taping over the thing, but I need more opaque tape.

My Dell Lattitude D830 blinks sometimes when it's charging. Like I care. I plugged it in after having it untethered because I want it to charge. Turn the light on steady and stay that way.

The last hotel I was at in Boston was full of blinkies: the fire alarm blinks brightly once every couple of seconds (again, why?), the LG flat panel TV had a red LED that blinked half the night, and the telphone would occasionally blink the Line 1 light for no apparent reason (no, I didn't have a message).

It's just LEDs, you say, what's the big deal? Well, I'm profoundly nearsighted, and with my contacts out, a single LED blows up to the size of a dinner plate at arm's length, and if my eyes are open at all, it's distracting from falling asleep.

If you've got to have an indicator light, leave it on! Make it dim if you have to save power, or get rid of it all together (Kudos to DirecTV's otherwise mediocre HR21 in that it has no "standby" light. I know it's always on, in order to record things, thank you for having it go dark when I tell it to). Blink when there's a problem.

Here's another stupid blinker in my living room: A 2-line answering machine. It's got a big LED button on the left and right to tell me there are messages on each line, and a couple-digit display that alternates "L1 0 L2 0" all day and night. Does the blinking mean something? No, just that it can't tell me everything it wants to tell me at once.

Bored with this subject. Back to work.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Hopelessly TiVoted

I've been a long-term TiVo fan (and definitely not a Grease fan, so no love of the OLJ singing here, just the pun). I have a first-gen TiVo, with a lifetime subscription, and an HD DirecTiVo which I bought off eBay last year (prices have fallen by 75% since) when I finally bought a JVC HDTV. I knew I wasn't getting all the HD channels I could get, but I wanted my TiVo.

Then lightning struck two weeks ago. Killed the TV ($461 repair), the doorbell ($10 repair DIY), the Sony VCR (no big loss, if I ever need to watch something, I'll go out and buy one), the DirecTiVo (a $70 power supply didn't fix it), and the old TiVo (which the kids were still using in the other room).

(The old TiVo isn't even quite dead, but its modem died in an interesting way that no only can't it dial out, it caused a short on my phone line that if you didn't pick up on the first ring, it would go to a busy signal)

Anyway, DirecTV offered to replace my DirecTiVo with an HR21 DVR for no cost, and for $5/month, put a second DVR in the family room (they had no sat receiver previously). I was told by friends that I would hate the DirecTV DVR, but in the words of Monty Burns, "I know what I hate, and I don't hate this."

There are some things the TiVo did better: I think it changed channels faster; the searching for titles was nice because you could filter it by show type, and "Suggestions" were useful, because unless you fed your TiVo the wrong info, you'd usually have something worth watching that it "thought" you'd like. It also shows more shows and channels one one screen when browsing (on an HDTV, more rows should have been easier on the HR21)

But the HR21 has some benefits. Aside from a slightly more modern menu scheme, that doesn't look like you're playing "You Don't Know Jack", it has a Picture-In-Picture of what's playing while you're fiddling with menus, or a mini-menu over the show. It has 30-second skip built in instead of a key hack (it's not instant, but it's acceptable), and it's got oodles of more HD channels. So yes, I can live with this, but I still wish DirecTV and TiVo would kiss and make up.

The big loss, though, is that the HR21 does not have an Over-The-Air antenna. I see no reason to pay $3/month for 5 HD local channels, when I get about two dozen in Chicago OTA for free. Sure I never watch 3/4ths of them, but it's the principle of the thing. I complained about this, hoping DirecTV would give them to me free. Instead, they're shipping me an AM21, which integrates an OTA receiver into the HR21 through the USB. Innnnnteresting. We'll see what it's like when I get it.

That reminds me of one more gripe: Food Network in Stretch-O-Vision. Food Network broadcasts everything in HD, even if it isn't, by applying a variable stretch filter to fill the screen. Wacky. Ugly. No point to it. I'm perfectly happy to 'pillar-box' my SD shows on the HD set when you'll let me. Watching Emeril's face swell to twice its width when he goes to the right or left of the screen is pretty nasty.

More HD is a Good Thing. But it will fill my DVR faster, sadly.

p.s. The TV and DirecTV DVR are now connected through a UPS, instead of a cheap-ass surge supressor.

p.p.s How did I find out the modem died on the TiVo? I called AT&T again complaining about the busy signal problem -- they said to check inside, which seemed unlikely, but unplugging the TiVo fixed the problem.

Monday, March 03, 2008

That's Right, [We're] Not From Texas

So we just got back from a whirlwind, 1000-mile tour of the eastern half of Texas: Dallas -> Houston -> Galveston -> San Antonio -> Austin -> Fort Worth. A friend of mine warned me it would be terrible (practically a Thelma-and-Louise "You know how I feel about Texas"), but I had a great time. Linked to Lyle Lovett above, in case you're wondering.

Some notes about Texas:
  • Whoever paves their roads needs a good lynchin'. Loudest interstate highways in the world, they make a ton of noise driving over them. I'm not talking potholes or anything, just the pavement
  • Eat great barbecue in Lockhart, Luling or Elgin; don't believe anyone that the Salt Lick in Driftwood comes close (actually, their smoked sausage rocked my world, but their brisket is just merely very good)
  • Texas sure isn't all desert and cactus -- most of where we were it looked like Wisconsin: bare-leafed trees, rolling hills and the occasional cow.
  • They've got their primary in a week, and I only saw campaigning for Obama and Paul. Not a McCain sign in sight, and the only Hillary sign was being carried by someone in DFW airport.
  • If you're going to Austin for the music, don't do it two weeks before SXSW -- they're saving up the good stuff for then. Heard a lot of Hendrix-by-way-of-Stevie-Ray-Vaughan (Little Wing, Voodoo Child, etc.). And the bars with no cover serve very inexpensive soft drinks, surprisingly ($1 Coca Cola? unheard of! I'm no teetotaler, just don't like beer, and won't risk my life ordering wine or fruit+rum or tequila drinks in a Texas bar)
  • See the "Lucy" exhibit in Houston, or when it comes to your town. Nice history of Ethiopia, and seeing 3 million year old hominid bones is extremely cool. The staff was extremely knowledgable and enthusiastic, especially the guy carrying a well-thumbed National Geographic of the dig.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bad Boys, Bad Boys, Whatcha Gonna Do?

I'm a little late to the game to Dynamite Entertainment's The Boys -- I read volume one a while ago, and enjoyed some of it, but I think they're finding their stride in the 7th to 14th issues that make up the second volume.

The proprietor of the comic shop I patronize said he's enjoying it, but finds it a little too over-the-top. Nah, Garth Ennis' Preacher skewered more sacred cows and got more gruesomely violent, deviantly sexual and just plain gross. I loved it, but there was also a great plot running through that story that made it worthwhile -- what is religion, god, faith, etc?

The Boys is (are? am? no, "is" will do), so far, a bit less far-reaching. Billy the Butcher (who speaks like Bullet-Tooth Tony from Snatch), Wee Hughie (visually based on Simon Pegg), Mother's Milk (not as blaxplotiation-like as Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, but on that path), The Frenchman (insane, keen sense of smell), The Female (doesn't talk, doesn't like to be touched, very destructive) and The Terror (very cartoony bulldog), are CIA black ops to keep tabs on, blackmail and extort superheroes to keep them in line, and when they don't, take them down. But it draws the question of who watches the watchers? These guys are enhanced the same way as the superheroes in this universe. Hopefully, this will get addressed. As nasty as the boys can be, why are they the ones that are being used to reign in rogue heroes?

This second volume covers two stories: The first is a search for a killer of a young gay man, and it may be the Tek-Knight or his ex-sidekick Swingwing. I was a little disappointed by this, because it rehashes stuff as old as 1992's Brat Pack, and alluded to in the hoary old Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Not enough funny, and shows the Boys will beat the face in of any suspect out there. Call me a bleeding heart, but even vigilantes need some due process.

The second story is a lot more fun. The Boys go to Russia to track down what's going on with two supervillain's heads blowing up spontaneously... and leads to the possibility of a supervillain coup in Russia, and the involvment of corporations and gangsters. A lot funnier, and a lot more over the top without teeth and blood spraying. When a Soviet-era super team features "The Tractor", "Collective" -- OK I get it... but the fifth and surviving member, a huge bear of a man is called "Love Sausage", there's a game afoot. I was a little disappointed by a major change in the art in the middle of the second story. It wasn't clear in the credits what this change was, but it got a lot more cartoony.

Not anxious enough to pick up every issue, I'll keep grabbing the trades, because, after all, comic books are for Boys. (No, there's good stuff for girls too, I'll write about some of that some day)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Local talent: Kristine Smith's "Code of Conduct"

I just got finished reading Kristine C. Smith's Code of Conduct, the first of her Jani Killian novels. They were originally recommended to me on John Scalzi's blog, and I've got to say, I'm fascinated.

Smith's a Chicago area SF writer, and her day job (pharmaceutical product development) crosses paths with mine (software for the pharma industry), so there's an interest there too (I'd thought perhaps I'd worked with her in the past, but no, different company).

Code of Conduct follows Jani Killian who's been hiding out for 18 years after nasty fallout of a political situation with an alien race, the Idomeni. They're prehaps not as fleshed out as some of CJ Cherryh's, but they are at least truly alien, and it's impressive. The main idomeni character, Tsecha, doesn't think like we do. He thinks in different idioms, struggles with "humanish" concepts (toward the end of the book, his aversion to bodily contact makes him uncomfortable when the prime minister says he's "pulling her leg"), and has goals and influences that cross the human characters' objectives, but at different angles.

The characters are interesting: broken, on edge, stressed to their limits (another similarity with Cherryh), and the fact that there are a couple more books leads me to hope I"ll learn a lot more about the idomeni. But it's not perfect. Smith gets a little obsessive with a few "futurisms" in the language such as "trash-zaps" in every room which dispose of waste, "dispos" which are disposable containers, and "skimmers" that cover everything from gurneys to coffee carts to cars and trucks in various sizes and shapes. I'm hopeful her writing matures -- there's more books I want to read. I'd also hoped for more biotech in the story given her day job -- I'd expected a bio-oriented resolution to the story which may yet come in a subsequent book. More reading to come -- book 2 is in my suitcase. That reminds me -- I need to write more about Len Deighton too.