Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Half the Service

In the six years since my wife shut down her children's bookstore, we've listed some of the old inventory on Half.com.  Their commissions aren't trivial, but are better than Amazon's, and we've managed a spotless eBay reputation. We've even got a few semi-regular customers.

Yesterday, I got an order from someone, and they ordered with Media Mail, which is relatively unlikely to reach them by Xmas.  I wanted to offer them a chance to change the order... but doesn't appear to be a way to change your order on Half, besides asking for a refund and ordering it again.  I figured, "There's got to be a better way!" and went hunting for a customer service phone or chat.

I found a phone number... but they'll only answer calls regarding mysterious charges on your credit card or IRS forms for sellers.

So I turned to their email support, and have had a sequence of moronic responses parroting the content of their help pages, to
a) help me offer expedited shipping (I already do, they should know)
b) help me order with expedited shipping (no, I'm the seller, not the buyer)
c) reinforce what I'd already figured out in the second paragraph above, from a buyer's perspective.

Each of my messages is clear, concise, and, um, straining at being polite, but letting them know that they're ruining Christmas for some child in Ohio.

I'd sent a note to the buyer telling them they could cancel and reorder, which they didn't do, so I sent it to them via Media Mail. I'm not eating the $5+ difference between Media Mail and Priority.

Merry Xmas to all and to all good customer service. Sheesh.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Android Battle: SGN v RAZR

I'm traveling to Europe for the first time in two years, and as usual, the phone I have isn't global-capable. Thanks Verizon, for adding a great new technology (LTE) but not standardizing with other parts of the world.

But that's because I've got a Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which doesn't have GSM capabilities, or EU CDMA. The Motorola DROID RAZR, however, does have GSM.  So I borrowed one (thanks Alan!) and off I jet to Germany next week.

So I've had a little more than a day to play with the RAZR.  I spent most of yesterday reloading apps (why didn't they download automatically?  I understand the sideloaded ones, but the Google Play stuff should have just appeared, right?), and found some things I do and don't like about the RAZR versus the GalNex.

Galaxy Nexus Wins

  • Jelly Bean. Hands down, this is the deciding factor.  I really like the Google Search Cards, voice activation, better gesture controls in the browser. At least the RAZR has Ice Cream Sandwich.
  • Buttons. I like the soft buttons on the screen, and their arrangement.  having to long-press home to switch tasks is a pain.
  • Skin/Launcher. Having 16 buttons plus the search bar on each screen is a bonus (although the hard search button on the RAZR offsets this a bit)
  • Lack of cruft. Moto and Verizon both pack this thing with a lot of useless apps
  • Feel. This might be just a matter of getting used to it, but the RAZR has harder edges, and the bulge at the top makes for an unbalanced grip
  • Battery. If I had the MAXX version, the RAZR would win. But the Nexus is removable, and I have the regular one and an extended one (only about 10% better, but beats a poke in the head with a sharp stick). I haven't used it enough to know what real battery life is going to be like, though.


  • Weight. Noticeably lighter and thinner.
  • SD Card slot.  Shameful that there isn't one of these in the GalNex.
  • Speaker. More powerful - the Nexus is rather quiet
  • Camera. Better resolution and with the one shot I've taken so far, better light sensitivity.
In general, though, why do Android phone makers not standardize on function buttons?  Having the soft buttons on the GalNex should be the best way, but I've seen pretty much every combination of Menu, Home, Return, Search, Apps when I look at different phones, and it's annoying.  Having a hard menu button at the bottom means that ICS apps that would put the menu button at the top don't do so, meaning I have to re-learn.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

How to break quartz with warm water - or warranty adventures with sous vide!

I'm a novice with sous vide, and proud to say that it's my first real DIY electronics project (see Make Magazine's project).  So I'd done a couple of things including the obligatory perfect soft-boiled egg, and decided to go for a tender slow-cooked lamb shank at the end of March, so that I'd have shank bones for a Passover seder.  After 40 hours on my countertop at 62°C, I was alerted to a problem when the woman from the cleaning service points at my sous vide and says "brrrroken?"

To my horror, the solid-surface countertop (DuPont Zodiaq) had cracked about 1/8" at the edge to a hairline right under the sous vide.
Crack1Crack 2

The slow heat of a couple gallons of water on a slab of quartz resin that can't expand equally in all directions caused the whole thing to split through the weakest point, the thin edge by the sink.

I was horrified, thinking this was going to cost me thousands of dollars to replace, plus removing it could crack the tile backsplash and at six years old, replacing the tile might be impossible -- and it wraps around the whole kitchen.  I was relieved to see that the DuPont warranty was 10 years -- and it only mentions "extreme" heat as a non-covered reason (more on that later).

So it took a couple weeks for them to send out their warranty service company (Back to Perfection), who measured, took a pile of photos, and eventually called DuPont, because it was a bigger crack than they'd ever repaired (and they don't actually repair, they just slap some resin on to prevent further splitting).  They said they'd refer it to their claims department and get back to me in a couple weeks.

Three weeks later, they said, "Nope, not covered by warranty because it's heat."  I said "It's only 143°F, that's hardly extreme.  To me, extreme should be taking something out from a broiler or off a stove burner." They thought about it for a minute and said they'd appeal it.  A couple weeks later, they said they'd replace it -- the whole 19' section of my countertop!  It took three months in total to replace it, but they did a smooth job, didn't even crack one piece of the backsplash, sending a licensed plumber to re-attach the sink and faucet and even cleaned up after themselves.

Thanks, DuPont for standing behind your product.

For more pictures of my kitchen (we did a lot of the fit n finish including the floor and wall tile), go to my Flickr photostream.  Lots of pix of food, and the whole construction process.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Storytelling is back!

What I wanted to post about today is the glory that is the current crop of Saturday morning cartoons.  Four in specific: The Legend of Korra, Tron: Uprising, Green Lantern: The Animated Series, and Young Justice.  For years I've whined (offline) about the lameness of cartoons, from the meager pickings on networks on Saturdays -- which used to be a kid's paradise -- to the annoy-a-tron that is Cartoon Network.  There's still too much talk, too little art on CN (I can't even stand the ads for Adventure Time), but there's hope, in these four at least. Not only do all four have style, but they're telling intricate stories that don't expect an attention span of under ten minutes.

CN has created a one-hour block they call DC Nation, which includes Young Justice and Green Lantern: The Animated Series, and some short-short segments which are mostly pretty lame (although the anime-style Teen Titans and the Batgirl/Supergirl/Wonder Girl segments are pretty good).  GL is all CGI, and has some great character designs.  I'm not following any DC superhero comics these days, so I have no idea how closely it follows what's happening in the comics (except for the introduction of Red, Purple, etc. lanterns).  The plot is galaxy-spanning, and one of the keys is the design and characterization of Aya - the AI of their ship, doing a good Pinocchio process of turning her into a "real live girl."  I've got one major beef with this show, though: Of the four cartoons I'm watching, this is the most kids-oriented, yet almost all the female characters are extremely sexualized: wasp-waisted, sloe-eyed, and bikini-clad.  Sure, Hal Jordan is also an overly-male stereotype (ultra-wide shoulders, jutting chin) -- but no bulging package. For the audience this is aimed at, I'd have expected some restraint.

There's something to be said about the same issue in Disney Channel's (also CGI) Tron: Uprising, but if anything, they've toned down the hyper-sexualization of females in Tron: Legacy.  It's also aimed at an older audience (on Disney's XD block), and I'm more fond of the spindly-thin cell-shaded stylization of all the characters.  I've only seen two episodes (I think there's a third on the DVR), but they've put together a pretty rich world with more emphasis on the life-experiences of a basic program.  The main character is a mechanic leading the uprising against Clu, and has a slick little device for analyzing and modifying vehicles.  He's taking on the role of Tron, who for unknown reasons is taking a mostly offstage role (still voiced by Bruce Boxleitner) -- the most obvious reason is that he needs to hang back until the appropriate time in Tron: Legacy.  Style plays a big part here, between the character designs and the disc combat and lightcycle runs.  Happy to see it, have to see if the plot holds up over time.

Young Justice, also part of the DC Nation block, is in its second season, and to some degree, YJ is a continuation of some plotlines in the previous Justice League series' on CN (hey, why aren't those on Netflix?).  They definitely have strayed from DC canon (for example Beast Boy has his powers from an infusion of Miss Martian's blood), but in ways that drive the plots nicely.  Characters are pretty rich, and the plot is a long story arc that not only spanned the entire first season but carried over into the second -- with a five-year (story) gap in between! There's romance, intrigue, double-crosses, clever and stupid villains, basically everything you'd want in a superhero story.

But none of them hold a candle to Nickelodeon's The Legend of Korra. It's a 70-years-later sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I think it's the best-written show on TV right now. They advanced the civilization of A:TLA 70 years, going from early steam age tech to a somewhat jazz-age, deco-styled "Republic City." Lots of nods to the original series (Cabbage Industries' logo is the hapless cabbage vendor whose cart was repeatedly destroyed in the first series, sports teams named Fire Ferrets and Wolf Bats), and the world is one I'd want to live in: Pro Bending League is a spectator sport somewhere between fencing and team handball; metal-benders run the police force (swinging on balletic cables which can be controlled to coil around evil-doers); and a deep plot around Equalists, protesting the status of benders over ordinary people.  It's a little more grown up than A:TLA (more romance, the violence is a little harder-edged), but not as much as Tron: Uprising, and it's certainly funnier, more clever, and just plain great.

If you had to add only one cartoon to your DVR, I'd say add Korra. If you had to leave one of these out, probably Green Lantern.  But we've hit a renaissance in animation, folks: Story is king again.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Live Music

It used to be, live albums were nothing more than louder, faster versions of the original album music, with screaming (Cheap Trick at Budokan comes to mind).

There's a new crop of live albums that I'm loving, the latest being "Live Music" by the Joe Jackson Trio.
Jazzed-up versions of classics such as "Sunday Papers" and interesting covers including the Beatles' "Girl" (which I've heard him do in concert) and Ian Dury's "Inbetweenies" (which I haven't).  I've got four live Joe albums now, including "Summer in the City" and "Two Rainy Nights" plus the double live album (which is the weakest of the four). Now if we can only get him back in Chicago (he's avoiding the US for its anti-smoking laws).

Artists (at least the ones I'm buying live albums from) seem to be able to take more liberties with their own music on today's live sets.  Try Glen Phillips' "Live at Largo" for some stripped-down, pure singing.  Try "Katie Todd Live" for some of the best, jammin' versions of her early works (and I was there at Milwaukee Summerfest during the recording). Try "Try" by the John Mayer Trio :)

Thursday, May 05, 2011

I should've made him diagram that sentence, a lot. You're darn tootin'.

OK, since Dave Barry isn't doing it anymore, I hereby nominate myself Mister Language Person.

Today, it's all about typing on the Internet...
...and how most of you out there suck at it.

I'm talking about grown adults who don't know the differences between "your" and "you're." If it's too much work to type "you're" then please type "ur" -- at least then I know you're abbreviating and not pig-ignorant.

A lot of you people seem to think that "alot" is a word. Here's a hint: No, it isn't. "Allot" is a word, but it's a verb.  I anticipate I'll have to teach this lesson a lot.

Lately, though, there seems to be a new language epidemic of "of" where it doesn't belong. The English language has these wonderful little contractions that have been around for centuries. They can confound immigrants and androids, but you'd think high school graduates could remember that "should've" is the contraction for "should have" and not "should of." The latter isn't shorter, and makes absolutely no sense.  "Should" is what my third-grade teacher called a "helper verb" and needs a verb to help.  "Of" isn't that verb. "Of" is a preposition, and needs a prepositional phrase, like "of mice and men."

Is that too much for today? I'll deal with "too" next time.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Turning Pro (Droid)

I just received a loaner of a Droid Pro (no, they're not available on Verizon's Global Loaner program yet, but I gots connections -- Thanks Alan!).  My 1st-gen Droid doesn't have a global roaming capability, and I head for Nice on Saturday.

Switching over was relatively simple: Just called Verizon up and gave them the new hardware ID's on the phone. Activation and logging into Google brought in almost all my apps (except those downloaded outside of the Android Market), and all my files came over on my MicroSD card.

High points: MotoBlur is a little spiffier than vanilla Android 2.2 (Froyo), with 7 home screens instead of 5, and a number of active widgets that put it close to on par with the active blocks in Win7Phone. If I cared more about social media, I'd probably be squee-ing, but, no.  The batteries are the same as the Droid, so I may take the other as a spare. There are a number of extra apps, which I haven't had a chance to play with yet: Camcorder, City ID, Dialer (slight changes from the standard Phone app), DLNA, Files (a real file browser built in), Verizon Account Manager, NFS Shift, Social Networking, Task Manager, VZ Navigator (bleah).  I was a little disappointed that I had to reconnect to all my other accounts, but that was managed very well by an Accounts tool.  Nice point: EasyTether still works (and they've got great support -- got me a new activation key within minutes), so I don't have to shell out $$$ to use Verizon's tethering. It would be nice to have the hotspot feature, but hey, for avoiding a $30 charge, I don't mind having a cable.

Low points: Form factor. It's a little thinner and lighter than the standard Droid (no slide keyboard), but the keyboard is smaller, and there's a BlackBerry-like keyboard at the bottom. Lose it, and I'll use Swype instead.  They also moved the order of the four main buttons (Menu, Home, Return, Search instead of Return, Menu, Home, Search) -- but apparently that varies on every phone: my son's EVO has yet a different layout. The case is also a much cheaper-feeling plastic, versus the heavier coated metal back of the Droid. While I didn't like the position of the USB cable in the Droid, it's worse on the Pro -- lower on the left, where I'd hold the phone.  The BB-like keyboard doesn't have the cursor keys that the Droid's slider does, and it's harder to click on a particular piece of text on the smaller screen.

Everything is a little different: the email program is significantly different, in the browser bookarks are a list versus a grid, notification icons are all different.   Nothing I can't get used to, but it hardly makes Android look like a "platform."

Most likely, I'll just be getting used to the differences around the time I hand it back.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Petty Grievances

Saw Tom Petty at Summerfest in Milwaukee (link above) Saturday night.  Awesome performance, if a little short (about an hour and a half), and shallow.  Shallow?  Yeah, while Petty may put everything up there on stage, heart on his sleeve, really one of the great rock and roll journeymen... this show was pretty much just the greatest hits.  I hadn't realized how many Petty songs were so darn easy to sing along to.

And yet, much of the audience failed at at that.  (New Lyrics to "Drunk Girls" lcd soundsystem: "Drunk Girls -- don't care if they're in tune, Drunk girls -- just shout it louder").  Y'know, I paid over $100 for the two of us to hear a professional musician (on the lawn -- Pavilion seats were about three times that), not 10,000 fans.  Shut the hell up.

So it was nice to hear the few items that weren't on Top 40 radio: "King's Highway"  was about the only deep track we got.  A very nice cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" -- which did get the singalong treatment -- showed off Mike Campbell's awesome guitar chops (he should have been at the Crossroads Festival). That song seemed a perfect Heartbreakers tune... and I realized why: "I Should Have Known Better" off the new album "Mojo" is pretty much the same sort of short-lyric-then-screaming-guitar song.  They should have put them up against each other, instead of about 20 minutes apart.

(oh, before I forget: Petty's stage has awesome pillars of plasma screens which show graphics or the band at various times.  just terrific)

But really, I liked the peformance.  What I want to whine about today is the venue: sound is OK (a little echo-y out on the lawn), sight lines aren't bad... but two major issues: The Marcus Amphitheater is praised for its steep hillside allowing clear view.  That's fine except that (a) nobody sits, and standing at a 40-degree angle for several hours isn't much fun, and (b) if you do sit, you're going sledding on your blanket down the hill.  The capper to the annoyances though, is that Wisconsin isn't as much of a nanny state as Illinois: you can smoke there.  And people do. Constantly. I'm really just about ready to test if spitting on people is just as legal as the actions of those who pour their smoke over me.

My run of great opening acts ran short that night:  ZZ Top was pretty unexiting.  Just before the performance began, the PA was playing a live ZZ Top performance... I couldn't tell the difference in sound.  No spontenaity, no extended jams.  The songs were synched to clips from movies and their '80s videos, so there's no room for hanging loose.  Except for really bluesing up "Jesus Left Chicago", it was pretty dull.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Swype me one of those!

Wow, somebody got it right!  Swype, in beta for Android phones, is such a quantum leap beyond the Android keyboard -- physical or "soft" -- such a huge step over Blackberry keyboards, worlds better than my old Palm's learn-a-new-alphabet letter recognition.

Rather than typing out letters one at a time, swype has you trace a finger around the soft keyboard to spell out the word. It uses continuous dictionary lookup to figure out what word you're really typing.  Something the soft keyboard on Android should do -- and almost does, by showing possible words on the top, none of which are what I'm actually using.

Is it perfect?  No.  It occasionally comes up with the wrong word, or gives me a choice of eight words none of which are right, but it's accurate much more frequently than the standard soft keyboard, and much, much faster.  It may be sucking battery power more than my already-thirsty phone does (something likely to improve with the release version, I'd hope).  But I swyped several emails yesterday while waiting for my plane, things I'd only have done with the slider keyboard on my Moto Droid previously.

It looks like support for it within apps depends partly on the app: most of the Android apps integrate with it beautifully.  A couple times, I couldn't get it to appear in landscape mode, but I haven't put my finger on it yet.  The one app it doesn't seem to support at all is "Twisty" -- an interactive fiction interpreter for playing "Adventure" and the old Infocom-type text adventures.

But this is an app that's staying on my phone, and I'll probably pay for it if I have to when the beta is up.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

America Pulled In Its Welcome Mats

Welcome to Ohio - Really? So where's the welcome center?
Pennsylvania?  You too.
Maryland?  Nope.
Delaware? Sad, just sad.
West Virginia? Closed, Visitor Info "store" closed at 5PM, Interstate tunnel closed and alternate route down to one lane.
Indiana seems to be the only state between here and DC that's still got its welcome mat out on the turnpikes and interstates.  Everywhere else, it was a closed rest area and a sign saying it's 48 miles to the next one.

It's not just for the lack of a pee break, although that's annoying too.  A chance to stand and stretch, a little caffeine, and a coupon book for cheap motels is what I need.

And you all (except for the Hoosier state) let me down.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Why I hate autotune

I am not a gleek.

Yes, I watch the show, but I wouldn't if Sue didn't want to.
Yes, they do a nice job at arrangements -- "One" on tonight's episode was terrific, as was Kurt's solo, but it was forgettable enough that I don't remember it just an hour after hearing it off the DVR.

But get rid of the autotune.
I mean, I love music.  I'm actually reading non-fiction to understand what it's all about.
And autotune is exactly what music isn't. 
It's turning singing into video-game chiptunes.
It's turning some pretty good voices into robots.
It's eliminating any humanity and variation from the voices, which is where all the emotion and expression is.
A few of the songs they let the real voices come through (Kurt's song, in particular), and it makes it worthwhile, but when they were autotuning Mercedes earlier in the show, it was a tragedy.  She's got the pipes, let it out.  Odds are the actress playing Santana can't sing -- why did they hire her?

Monday, April 05, 2010

Stocking Up

The freezer was getting empty, and I had to have more veal stock.

The link above goes to the recipe I use: Michael Ruhlman's "Elements of Cooking". It's not a cookbook, it's not a pictorial... it's a freakin' glossary. In reality, it's a food-nerd's book, an overview of the main components of cooking, and a big fat glossary of cooking terms. It's sort of a crib sheet of the ultimate food-nerd's book, Harold McGee's "Food and Cooking," which I've barely flipped through.

But Ruhlman's right about stock: It's important. It's umami. It's body to sauces, and the base of soups. If a recipe calls for a half-cup of stock, and all you've got is a can, use water instead. I do use some of the boxed stocks (Wolfgang Puck's or Emeril's when they're on sale, Kitchen Basics other times, although it's pretty flavorless). But I don't use their veal -- in fact I don't think I've seen veal stock from Kitchen Basics or Emeril.

I've loved what veal stock -- neutral flavor, gelatine body -- has done for my sauces, especially Chinese cooking. It's worth the time, and really, time is all it takes. Veal bones are pretty cheap, even if they're more than pork or beef.

What takes the most time? Finding the darn bones!
Forget the supermarkets: Jewel and Dominicks' have got nothing that doesn't come out of a box and sell by the dozens. Even my trusty local Garden Fresh let me down -- and they've got a real butcher that actually cuts up meat... but they don't do much veal. So I went to the place I got it from last time: Fresh Farms in Wheeling.

And just like before... they've got 3-4 pounds wrapped up, some "Veal Soup Bones" and some "Veal Neck Bones". So I throw them in the freezer, and next time I'm in the neighborhood, time to get some more... and a third time and I've got the 10 pounds I need, finally.

So I picked a day I was going to be doing a lot of cooking anyway, got up early and started roasting bones before I finish breakfast. Oil some baking sheets, roast the bones at 450F until they're brown and toasty. Drop them in a pot, deglaze the pans with some water to go into the pot, and more water to cover. Simmer in a 200F oven for 8 hours, then add carrots, onions, celery and tomato paste, fresh parsley, thyme and pepper, and a couple more hours.

Ruhlman's book says that it should be down to about two quarts from the original 10-12. No way. I don't know if that's because the oven is sealed too well, and the steam doesn't evaporate? Maybe it's a little cool? I have no idea. So I strained out the bones and veg, put it back in the oven, and left it overnight. Still lots more than 2 quarts, but I can live with that. Chilled overnight so I can skim the little bit of fat off, and I've got about 5 quarts in the freezer of jiggly, tasty stock, apportioned from quarts down to ice cubes.

Mmm... what to make next? Tracks, apparently, I'm off on a business trip for the rest of the week... but when I get back, Sue will be off on a trip, so I'm planning on the Taiwanese steamed fish with black beans and scallions from the latest Sauveur.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Easter Counter-Programming

Sue was hoping that Netflix had "Jesus Christ Superstar" on their streaming plan -- no dice. I could show "Life of Brian" for her family... but I get the feeling the language and full-frontal nudity may be out of the question for some of my nieces and nephews.

But what I really wanted to talk about is the alternative to Easter food. What's with ham, anyway? Jesus certainly didn't have any. Not at the last supper, nor the one before that.

I've always hated ham (jamon iberico and prosciutto are another thing altogether, but as Alton Brown says, "That's another show."). So since we've started hosting Sue's family Easter, I've come up with alternatives. Last year was an Indian chicken pilaf (made with Kosher chicken for my future daughter-in-law, an no butter *sigh*). This year, it's b'stella, from one of our favorite cookbooks, "Cooking Under Wraps" By Nicole Routhier (ISBN 0688108679, currently out of print, but you find a used copy, snatch it up!). I've made this dish before, and it's one of the most fragrant, rich dishes in the world. Chicken poached with cinnamon and black pepper, then mixed with sauteed onions, garlic, ginger and spices, cream, cilantro and mint; scrambled eggs made with some of the poaching liquid; all enclosed in phyllo with almonds, sugar and cinnamon. Sweet, spicy, wow. But it's a kitchen-killer: I'm on about four pots and pans so far, and I haven't melted butter for the phyllo yet.

I'm betting this will be gone... and the ham will have lots of leftovers. I'd rather it were the other way 'round, though.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Imagine there's no heaven -- at least we've got Terry Gilliam

We saw The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus last night, and there's no doubt it's a Terry Gilliam film: shattering landscapes, floating hands, and nods to Bodicelli's venus are sure signs that something from that particular mind has made its way to your eyeballs.

It's certainly the most visually stunning film Gilliam's done: the fantasies from Brazil and the storytelling of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen merely hint at what's behind the good doctor's mirror here. And not only is the scenery fabulous, but we've got a stellar cast to chew on it: Christopher Plummer as the doctor, Lily Cole as Valentina (who bears more than a little resemblence to the 9-year-old Sarah Polley of Munchausen), Verne Troyer in a role that should help people think of him as more than just Mini-Me, and especially Tom Waits as Mr. Nick: a devil not so much interested in turning people to evil as the game itself. Did I forget somebody? Heath Ledger you say? It's nice to have a last performance, but it's no Joker. His character is something of a cypher through much of the movie: how much does he remember, how much does he want to forget? Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell do a good job as Fake Shemps, but I would have really liked to have seen what happens when Ledger himself steps behind the mirror.

The core of the movie is all about the wagers between Parnassus and Mr. Nick -- I've never seen Waits having so much fun on screen, even as Renfield in Coppola's Dracula. But it's also the weakest part. What exactly is the bet, the choice that each soul must make? It's really not clear. It's not really good versus evil, it's something more like imagination versus base instincts. There was one mumbled line about it early on, and I'd really like another go at the movie to hear it again. But the choices people make behind the mirror, especially Ledger/Farrell's Tony, are kind of vague.

There's also an interesting twist: the typical "Devil Take Your Soul" plot is a putting off of a eternal torment for a little pleasure now. The Doctor's mirror seems to give that immediate pleasure to those who choose "good" while the sinners get their hell instantly.

Trying to figure out the morals of a filmmaker from his visions is probably a fruitless task anyway. The movie isn't about the choices of good and evil -- it's the playing of games, the quest for immortality and the eternal chance to return from dereliction. It's a fantastic ride, don't miss it.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

A pair of punks -- cyber, that is

Over a recent business trip, I read two books that fit the post-cyberpunk model well, and perhaps even good ol' cyberpunk:

It's interesting to see how many themes crop up in both books -- I'll try not to give too much away, but definitely put both of these on your short list to read.

Radio Freefall is a first (and only) novel, and it's quite well polished for a first outing. It falls squarely post-cyberpunk if only because it's not a dystopian society, but it carries some important CP items: emergent AI and world-spanning AI, and the ethics of AI ownership, and hackers of computers, societies, brains and bodies... plus good ol' rock 'n' roll! Following the band "Snake Vendor," the book features excerpts of lyrics from that band, plus "Sex Lethal" and a couple others. Jarpe gets rock music and lyrics, the way few bands seem to today. I want to hear some of those songs. There's an interesting McGuffin: A virus so prevalent in every computer (cough) that the world economy depends on its side effects.

Implied Spaces is a bit less groundbreaking, more of an SF comfy old shoe. It opens reading like a heroic fantasy, except the protag is aware he's in a fantasy, making me think perhaps it's a Dream Park-like setting, and it is and it isn't. Where Radio Freefall was more of a Neuromancer-like near future, this is more of a far-future superscience story. Again, we've got AI rights, violation of mind, self and computer, but at a different scale. Worlds held in the balance kind of thing... and a talking cat and a magic sword. Could be trite but ends up far from it. Probably more nods to folks like Lieber than I'm picking up on.

Bottom line? Good to see old-fashioned Cyberpunk still being written. With folks like Bear (Quantico), Sterling (Zenith Angle), and Gibson (Pattern Recognition) getting out of the future and into maybe next week, there's a new guard picking up where the old left off a while ago.

And that applies to music too: Airborne Toxic Event sounds like Psychadelic Furs (if the Furs had clearer singing voices); MGMT's Electric Feel sounds a bit like The Clash's Hitsville UK.

Is everything old new again? Or am I just getting old?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Another Great Opening Act - One Eskimo

Sue won tix for the Tori Amos concert which was last night at the Chicago Theatre. Can't say I loved the show, although the audience was definitely into her. It didn't help that I only recognized two songs ("Cornflake Girl" and "Big Wheel" which pretty much bookended the show), and a lot of the rest was very avant-garde, almost operatic. Her diction is not in the Natalie Merchant zone, so following the songs -- which didn't have a lot of verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure -- was difficult, even boring at times. Nice light show.

The opening act was One Eskimo. They weren't on the ticket or the marquee, but I'm glad they were there. It consisted of a vocalist who couldn't stand still, bopping up and down even when hunched over the mike, and three musicians who were so laid back, sitting down, almost comatose, that at first I thought it was all coming from a recording (there were some recorded/sequenced synth and samples). The bassist also played horn, the guitarist had nice chops, and the drummer was playing a mostly-electronic kit that looked like he borrowed it from "Rock Band" but really rocked out when he pulled out the mallets and tom.

I'd have to say that influences definitely include Moby, Primitive Radio Gods and that sort of trance/electronica stuff -- I'm probably getting those names wrong, it's outside my usual music comfort zone. But it was fun, engaging and these folks could go far. They've got an album coming out in September, and a 3 song/4 track EP (only $5 at the souvenir stand? You can't get a pin for that price anymore). We listened to the EP on the way home, and it didn't have the immediacy, the emotion of the live show -- but it seldom does (let me tell you about Billy Joel's Storm Front some time).

Give them a listen. Nice stuff.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Flat is right

Just got finished with Larry Niven's "Flatlander" -- four old stories of Gil "The Arm" Hamilton, plus one new one. I realize it's not new -- the book came out in '95, but I finally picked up a used copy. I'm not shelling out the $6.99 list price for one short story.

The old stories (originally found in "The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton" and an illustrated TPB called "The Patchwork Girl" -- no relation to same in the Oz pantheon) are still a delight. Terse prose, wry jokes, well crafted plot, a techie macguffin per story on top of the SF aspects of a detective with an imaginary arm.

The new story is what left me flat: "The Woman in Del Ray Crater" seems to pick up shortly after "Patchwork" but it's jarring: different language patter, no humor, awkward phrasing (everyone calls Gil by his rank: "Ubersleuth Hamilton" -- where did that come from?). The common thread in the other four stories of the organ bank crisis is dropped here, introducing a new 'impenetrable' device into the Known Space universe -- we already have skrith (Ringworld), Slaver stasis fields (World of Ptavvs and others), GP Hulls (Ringworld and others). It's barely even critical to the plot, and the motive makes most CSI episodes seem truly brilliant.

Niven was an author that used to be tops on my must read list: Ringworld Engineers is the first SF I bought new in hardcover. Mote in God's Eye (with Pournelle) is still one of the best hard SF stories written. But latter stuff just doesn't thrill. "The Gripping Hand" (sequel to Mote) was pathetic, and this new story shows he can't even keep it together for forty pages. I picked up "Crashlander" at the same time (the Beowulf Shaeffer stories) but I'm not putting it too high on my must-read list.

Note: I did find a previously unnoticed link in Flatlander to other stories: In "Patchwork Girl" there's a character named Marion Schaeffer, likely Beowulf's ancestor. But PG came out long after the other Gil the Arm stories, it's more of a retcon than history building.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

There's nothing wrong with Cantonese food

Don't get me wrong, I love spicy food. Give me Tony's Three Chili Chicken (Lao Sze Chuan), fiery Indian curries, spicy salsa, crushed pepper on the pizza, giardinera on my Italian Beef... but there's times when I've forgotten how good the stuff that isn't spicy can be too. Anthony Bourdain wrote in one of his books that one of his Mexican-born chefs said, "Why do Americanos like their food so [deleted] spicy?" I don't know... I like it. But sometimes I need to step away from it.

When I was young, there was a restaurant (long gone) on the west edge of Northbrook called Mandarin Village. It was the first place I ever had Kung Pao chicken (and it's still my memory of the best version of that: lots of peanuts, oily chicken, few veggies), but the dish I remember best was something called Beef with White Onion. I've never been able to find that dish elsewhere, (it might have been labeled "Mandarin"), and it's flavors are mainly sweet onion and sesame oil, but something about it has always eluded my cooking skills. Whatever happened to Shrimp with Lobster Sauce? These days, you order it you get a flavorless white sauce full of egg "rags" and not much else. When I was a kid it was a dark brown sweet and salty sauce, probably amped up with sesame oil.

In recent years, LTHForum.com has reintroduced me to the pleasures of Cantonese: Their namesake "Little" Three Happiness in Chinatown, Sun Wah on Argyle. There's a reverence to slow-cooked meats (roast duck and pork), a simple sauce, and a dedication to umami. The good stuff is oilier, fattier than the "healthy Chinese" that's been all the rage for a decade or more, but the good stuff always is.

So tonight, instead of ordering something with a chile pepper next to it on the menu, I ordered Chow Fun with Roast Pork. For a moment, the flavors of that long-lost Beef with White Onion came through.

They say you can't get your childhood back, but I found it for a moment.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Hugo Nominations

So, the Hugo nominations for best novel came out. What do I think? Awesome picks, folks.
This is the first time I can think of that I've owned all five novels prior to the nominations, and I don't think I've ever owned them all prior to the awards either (exccept for the year Brad Templeton's ClariNet created a CD, something even harder to do now that the publishers have caught on to eBooks).

Yes, I own them, but I haven't read them all yet (still slogging through Matter by Iain Banks, from last year's list).

Overall Impressions:
  • Three juveniles (Graveyard Book, Little Brother, Zoe's Tale)! Are people having problems reading grown-up books?
  • Younger authors are definitely pushing out the old guard: Scalzi, Stross and Doctorow are sort of a posse. The Neil/Neal pair looks like the fogies here, and they're still young authors too.

The books, and the odds:

  • The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman: Haven't read it yet, but hey, it just won the Newbery Award, and has lots of critical acclaim. Lots of Gaiman fans on the convention memberships. I'd give it about a 5:2.
  • Anathem, Neal Stephenson: Haven't read this one either. Neal's return to SF after wandering through near-future thriller (Cryptonomicon) and historical SF (Baroque Cycle) also has a lot of critics liking it, but it's big and bloated -- there's some backlash against Stephenson's tendency to digress and 5th-act weakness. Still, a lot of fans going back to Snow Crash will probably vote for this. 3:1
  • Little Brother, Cory Doctorow: Fun lighthearded but serious anti-Homeland Security cautionary tale. I enjoyed this a lot, but the more you know about crypto the less novel it is, since large chunks of exposition are pretty much cribbed from Bruce Schneier's Beyond Fear -- with permission. There's some great bits on LARPing, practical joke-level stuff, and a lot of "get off your butts and realize how much the nanny state is destroying our lives." This isn't allegory like much SF with a political tone, it's real and now. 3:1
  • Zoe's Tale, John Scalzi: This is fun, and yes I think he got the teenaged girl protagonist right (not quite "Juno in Space" but close), but it's a parallel tale to The Last Colony, and it's not that far away for most of the story. There are several, "Oh, that's what happened!" moments because of the different point of view, and it fills in a lot of gaps in the Old Man's War background. Frankly, though, the other three novels in the series are better. 5:1
  • Saturn's Children, Charlie Stross: Stross is probably my favorite author right now, but this isn't his best book. He should have won for Accelerando a few years ago, and there's a chance he might win on a series of noms even through the weaknesses here. Why? It's an homage to Heinlein, specifically Friday (one of the more readable late-period RAH books), but with grown-up sex, in fact rather kinky sex between robots of various sizes and shapes (the heroine has encounters with rather randy hotels and spaceships). That might turn off some readers (not many, but assuredly some), might attract others. 4:1.

In any case, you can't go wrong reading any of these.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The only thing you can do when they're dead is go through their pockets for loose change

If only mom's computer were all dead it would have been easy. Do the stupid HP system restore which "Nukes it from space, it's the only way to be sure."

But no, it's only almost dead -- the Windows folder was gone, but the Users and other folders were still there. I was a little disturbed to see the "Startup Repair Failed" -- and so was the guy at HP support, he said "Oh, that's bad."

Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, HP only provides a restore-to-factory-conditions method, no way to reinstall Vista, so far as I could tell. So I called up HP, went through the phone tree, and the guy was actually very good. No, he couldn't help me, but he (a) acknowledged that the options were bad, (b) didn't try to walk me through his script once I demonstrated that I was indeed the master, and generally tried to be helpful.
Me: "Can I write to a USB drive from the Command Line mode?"
HP: "Yeah!" (too bad my parents have no thumb drives around, more on that below)
Me: "What about writing a CD or DVD?"
HP: "That should work too."
Me: "Uh, what command line commands work to write to CDs?"
HP: "Oh. I guess you need Windows for that."

I thought I'd have to drive home to get a USB stick, but then I remembered my Crackberry has a 4GB microSD in it... and luckily we found a cable. It looks like Windows' recovery system only has USB 1.1 drivers, 'cause it was slower than molasses would be outside right now.

So dozens of reboots and "Please wait for updates to install" messages, downloading the antivirus from AT&T, getting HP drivers for her printer, restoring the cruft from the Blackberry... four hours at Mom's house, and probably a couple more to come.

It could have been worse... but as I said, "all dead" would have had me out of there in an hour, but them a lot more miserable.

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.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Alone, In the Dark

Nope, nothing about the video game here. Musing on two books: The link goes to a Froogle search for Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark, the 2002 Nebula winner, but I also want to talk about "Party of One: The Loner's Manifesto"

I don't remember where I first read about Party of One (called PO1 from now on or else I'd end up calling it POO, that's just not right). It's less of a manifesto than a rant in places, but it's an interesting read. I've always called myself a loner, but I'm not as far off the social path as Anneli Rufus, the author. I've belonged to clubs, a sports team (well, fencing is a solo sport, so I barely count that), and was an avid role-playing gamer, which requires social interaction (but see below). PO1 is adamant about the differences between Loners, who seek solitude, and Outcasts, who are thrown into solitude. Loners aren't the serial killers, terrorists, etc. -- they (we?) just don't care enough about other people to want to hurt them. It takes a broken social structure to cause that kind of pain. But I want to give this book to my mother, who keeps thinking that I need to be more social, that I need to change. Well, to paraphrase Ms Rufus, I no more need to be a social person than a bird needs lips.

Thinking about the role-playing: It's a social interaction that lets me be not myself, to interact with people in a way that doesn't reflect people's perceptions of me, but of my character. It's a way to be other than my loner self. A similar concept is often mentioned about the Japanese fascination with karaoke -- it permits a salaryman to socialize with a boss, to escape class and social structrure. Kinda nifty.

PO1 also talks a bit about autism - which translates to self-ism, of course. Which brings me back to The Speed of Dark, a novel following the life of an autistic man -- high functioning, near-genius, given the chance to change. Now I know I'm not autistic, or even Aspergers, but I'm enough of a loner, and sharing some characteristics of those classed as "gifted" to understand some of the situations: intolerant of noises, sometimes socially inappropriate, not liking changes in routine or being touched -- this character touched me. It's more than that, though, the book is outstanding. Unlike, say Flowers for Algernon, Lou, the main character, isn't mentally impaired. His viewpoint is quite different from mine (evoking such SF themes as C.J. Cherryh's alien minds or her vat-grown Azi), and his quite-different viewpoints of life and the universe are poetic in places.

It's a strange book, Lou's speech is stilted, the tech is uneven for an SF book (things such as "personality chips" for criminals are dropped in suddenly). But I have no doubt it's one of the best of its year, or the decade. There's a desperation to the character, to know himself, to try to understand the world that's full of metaphors that don't fit his mind. It's a book that sat on my shelf for quite a long timne, I'm glad I finally got around to it.

The title is the character's puzzle: Is dark faster than light, since darkness, ignorance, are always there first, before light gets there? It becomes a recurring theme in the book, explring what's out there:
The light rushes into the pupil of my eye, carrying with it the information
that is within range of my vision, carrying with it the world, but what I see
when I look at where the light goes in is blackness, deep and velvety.
Light goes in and darkness looks back at me. The image is in my eye and in my
brain, as well as in the mirror.

This gap between knowledge and un-knowing, light and dark, returns again and again, to a most satisfying conclusion I won't give away.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Nothing like DIY to Simplify Your World

The (cough) New AT&T's new motto is "Simplify Your World".
Nothing simpler to motivate you than lack of service.

I had a very loud hum show up on my two land lines the other day out of the blue. AT&T's customer support was friendly and courteous... but said it could be two weeks before they got out to look at my line, and if it did turn out to be internal, it would be a $70 charge.

Tha's motivation for ya -- I could barely hear her due to the 60-cycle hum, didn't want to deal with it for two weeks, didn't want to pay $70, so I took one of the few non-cordless phones out to the interface box. Darn -- it's on my side, no hum when I plug straight in.

So it's time to do the usual crap -- unplug phones one at a time until I find the one that's causing the hum. It's the living room one with the cordless and the answering machine. Not good, I don't want to buy a new one. Also, is it the phone or the wires? Plugging another phone in showed no problem... good. Now it's the cable or the phone. Plugging a different cable into the same phone and I'm OK. But it's only a short cable, I need another one. I've got dozens of phone cords in the house of two varieties: short ones with four or six wires (just fine for the two-line phone), and longer ones with two wires (only good for a single-line phone), which probably all came with various phones and other devices that connect to phones like TiVo etc.

C'mon, guys, four wires on phones has been a standard for decades -- why get so cheap over two more strands of copper?

Anyway, back in business.