Monday, June 30, 2014

Read the Ingredients

Someone asked the fellow behind What-If.xkcd how much real dinosaur is in a plastic dinosaur.

The thought behind the question is that plastic is made from chemicals that use petroleum and other hyrdrocarbons as a base. Those chemicals themselves are supposed to be the remains of dead dinosaurs, compressed and acted upon by millions of years of geologic and biological processes to become the stuff we pump from the ground and process into what makes cars go.

Except, as the answer man points out, most of the original critters that make up crude oil and natural gas weren't dinosaurs. So the plastic that makes a toy dinosaur probably doesn't have nearly as much dinosaur leftover as you or I do.


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Smash Box Office

Over at Mental Floss, an article rounds up some of the worst box-office results of all time; movies that grossed embarrassingly low amounts of money.  A couple of the totals are helped along by the fact that a stateside release of one week in one theater was held just to establish some international distribution rights; so "release" is kind of a fuzzy term in those cases.

This doesn't seem like that big of a deal or to be the occasion for much conversation. What's obviously wrong with the movie industry is when stuff like this happens. Or this. Or this. Or this.

When you tell me a crappy movie like Storage 24 or Playback made no money, I shrug. That's how it's supposed to go. But when you tell me Pineapple Express made a hundred million dollars worldwide, or that Transformers 4: Yes It Has a Subtitle But What Difference Does That Make, It's Still the Same Stupid Movie as the Others would open to $300 million worldwide, that's when I shake my head in bewilderment.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Sci Fi Scene

Some sights from Soonercon this afternoon:

-- There aren't many things cuter than different groups of teenage girl fans of the same anime series when they run into each other and begin applauding and admiring each other's costumes and created gear. The encounter ends with a group photo, of course. Several, actually, as the volunteer photographer is handed a variety of cameras and phones, each of which seem to have different procedures for taking said photos.

-- These things used to be a lot more loosely organized, which had its own kind of charm. Sure, you were a lot more likely to see (and never be able to un-see) sketches of some nude male model drawn with Leonard Nimoy's head, but in the pre-Internet days you could also score some artwork, books or items that you'd been looking for forever, instead of a less-than-15-second search on Google and a winning bid on e-Bay. Sometimes the search itself was part of the fun.

-- One of the appeals of any gathering of people of shared interest is how much fun they have sharing their interests with large groups of new people. You can almost see the lights come on as people walk through the entry: These people like all the same weird stuff I like! This is going to be awesome! It'd be the same at a philatelist convention, only with fewer rayguns.

-- If you put his armor on tween kids, even Boba Fett can be cute.

-- A grown man wearing the getup from "The Empty Child" Dr. Who episode is just creepy, sir.

-- Some other folks, who go in full cosplay, such as a Ghostbuster or Star Wars stormtrooper, as well as the aforementioned Boba Fett (complete with a Mama Fett, too!), are a big part of the fun as they pose for photos with people who ask them too. Good on you all for sharing your hard work and effort with people who enjoy it.

-- Veteran voice actor and Star Trek Continues' Captain Kirk Vic Mignogna is a hoot as a presenter, knows and loves his work and obviously appreciates his fans. A fellow in my profession also appreciates his succinct, non-overbearing but clear mention of the importance of his faith to his work and life. Bravo to Mr. Mignogna.

-- Not-bravo to the bellicose convention volunteer whose urging a crowd to line up single file was done at full volume in their faces. If you're going to walk down the line to tell people to back up and get in single file, madam, you need not turn the dials up to 11 to make certain you are heard.

-- Thanks to everyone whose hard work made Soonercon possible. Live long and prosper, y'all.

Friday, June 27, 2014

What Not to Say

At Real Clear Politics, Carl Cannon has a list of 15 of the most annoying expressions in politics. Color me impressed. Since almost everything politicians say is annoying, he had to wade through quite a bit of verbiage to pick 15 of them.

On second thought, color me concerned. I can't imagine that he could listen to all of that without some damage to his sanity or to his cognitive abilities, so perhaps Mr. Cannon should check in with his doctor. Or clergyperson.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Bogie, Double Bogie

Screenwriter Raymond Khoury has had better luck with his series featuring FBI Special Agent Sean Reilly and archaeologist Tess Chaykin than in his two standalone novels, so he returns to Sean's world as Reilly investigates the death of a Russian diplomat who was very probably pushed through an apartment window. And the middle-aged couple who live in the apartment have disappeared, deepening the mystery. Reilly will find conspiracy several layers deep as he probes the case, uncovering a potentially world-wrecking new technology that may fall into the wrong hands if he isn't successful. One of the last men to use that technology: Grigori Rasputn, the "Mad Monk" whose machinations helped lead to the downfall of Tsar Nicholas II.

The Reilly novels let Khoury flex one of his strengths, which is a crisp, fluid action scene, and they also allow him a healthy dose of wry through Reilly's dialogue and observations. But Shadow suffers from an overly-long string of flashback sequences connecting a present-day character with Rasputin and the mysterious device sought by Russian spies. The flashbacks derail the momentum of the present-day plot and wind up bringing less to the story than their rabbit-chasing is worth. But they also serve to pad the story out, since Reilly and company basically wind up in several shootouts with Russian gangsters and spies in a sort of "Rinse. Lather. Repeat" mode. There's far too little Tess in the story and a couple too many places where Khoury gives in to his habit of lecturing through character monologues, and some of the windup depends way too much on a ridiculous coincidence uncovered by Reilly. Khoury's narrative skills and fun characters still give him a lot of tools to work with, but Rasputin's Shadow might have needed another measure before being sent off as completed.
It's 2005. A top-selling 2003 airport thriller has been in production and will hit theaters next year. So other publishers know exactly what they have to do: Get as many knockoffs of The DaVinci Code into print while people are still interested in secrets contained in centuries-old artwork and manuscripts and shadowy Vatican conspiracies.

So thriller author Christopher Hyde adds the pen name Paul Christopher to his work and offers up Michlangelo's Notebook, a novel which is almost entirely derivative and which is still not any good when it isn't.

Graduate art history student Finola "Finn" Ryan has found something incredible tucked into a back drawer of the works she is cataloging at the museum where she interns. An old, tattered page that may be from the famed lost anatomical sketchbook of Michelangelo himself. But her boss rejects her notion and fires her; then a mysterious assailant attacks her later that evening. Now alone and on the run, Finn calls on an old friend of her late father's, a rare book dealer named Michael Valentine. But Valentine has a past of a different sort, and he will call on those skills to help Finn unravel the conspiracy that endangers her.

Notebook mixes art theft, Vatican conspiracies, puzzle-solving and breathless flight from evil assassins in a tested formula. And Hyde has a much better hand at the keyboard than Brown. His dialogue rings more real, his sentences don't limp and he inserts touches such as an art aficionado noticing a room's paintings and decor before anything else. He switches narrative tone for different viewpoint settings and characters in a way that helps distinguish them.

All that being said, though, Notebook is just about as bad as a knockoff of an already lousy book could be. The flashback scenes take up far more space than they merit. The ending is rushed, with a fairly major plotline ending instead of really being resolved. The whole thing reads like someone bet Hyde he couldn't write a DaVinci Code-like thriller in less than a week and  he brought this manuscript back as proof he could. Too many narrative threads, incomplete resolutions, specious "history" fueling the core conspiracy... Notebook hits all the checkpoints. And it adds in a Manic Pixie Dream Girl heroine who speaks and acts exactly the way a middle-aged author would imagine a twenty-something female who begins a romance with a middle-aged book dealer would act.

Hyde would continue the Finn Ryan series and in 2009 offer a second series from the pen of "Paul Christopher." Without having read them, I would be fairly certain they were better than Michelangelo's Notebook. Because it would take a lot of work to make them worse, and nothing about Notebook indicates that this is a series in which Hyde wants to invest that much work.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What Have We Done?

I'm not so sure I'd agree with Geekologie that the 2014 World Cup logo is a facepalming Captain Picard, but sure does look like someone who's just realized they've been getting really really excited about tie scores:

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Return of the Writing Dead

Thriller author Vince Flynn passed away last year after a battle with prostate cancer. His hero, the tougher-than-nails CIA operative and former assassin Mitch Rapp, was a not-always-nice guy who had zero problem with doing unto others before they did it unto him, and sometimes doing unto others who might possibly have been thinking about contemplating doing unto him. Flynn gave Rapp some dimension and depth, and every once in awhile let him think about the consequences of his actions as well as his permanent disdain for anyone who sat behind a desk. That depth, plus Flynn's strong style and deft handle on action scenes, made the Rapp books a big-selling series.

Publisher Simon and Schuster was loathe to let such a property ride off into the sunset, especially since Flynn had a novel in production when he passed, so they and Flynn's estate have tapped Kyle Mills to finish the 14th Mitch Rapp novel, The Survivor, and then produce two more.

It's hard to know exactly how to greet this news. Some reanimated characters work. A whole lot don't. The ones that seem to have the hardest time are those in which the actual novels' success owed as much to writing skill, style and the author's own creativity in dialogue, scene-setting, language or some other aspect of the craft. The undead versions may have the same names and do some of the same things, but the difference is obvious and it is not to the replacement authors' advantage.

Flynn's strengths were in his explanation of Rapp's laser focus on his task, his unflinching willingness to be brutal to get that task done and his ferocious loyalty to those who had earned it. Those things can probably be echoed by another author. Stylistically, Flynn's strengths were clear descriptions and prose that didn't divert from its purpose of storytelling and a little scene-setting. That's probably also easier to duplicate than, say, witty, snappy and smart-mouth dialogue such as Robert B. Parker gave his protagonists. Continued Rapp wouldn't necessarily need a great author, but it sure as heck needs a good one.

Unfortunately, judging from the one book of his I have encountered so far, Kyle Mills is not a good author. Maybe five years have improved him. We will have to hope so, I suppose.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Fiction and Science

Given that federal and state agencies may often be compared to unkillable weeds like kudzu, Jim Geraghty may have betrayed his presuppositions by writing a satire about a fictional United States Department of Agriculture agency directed to observe and respond to their growth (That he writes for National Review probably betrays them as well). Although based on some actual federal departments, Geraghty's titular bureau in The Weed Agency is fiction. Several of the things he writes about it, though, aren't, as he indicates several real-world bureaucratic nightmares he adapted to the story of the USDA Agency of Invasive Species.

Alan Humphrey is the skilled bureaucrat who guides the agency, first created by the Jimmy Carter administration, and does so with little or no input from the actual agency director, whomever that may happen to be. We meet him as he begins to train Jack Wilkins, a young Carter White House aide who leaves the political world for the bureaucratic one. We watch as Humphrey skillfully fends off Reagan budget-cutters, Al Gore-era "fix the broken government" reformers and "Contract With America" small-government disciples. At each turn Humphrey employs a kind of bureaucracy-jitsu to demonstrate why the AIS should not only not be cut, it might even be better off expanded.

Agency follows in the path of Christopher Buckley's 1986 The White House Mess, although it's neither as broad in some of its satire or as arch in its tone. The real-world anecdotes, plus the chapter headings that display the US federal deficit and the AIS budget (hint: Neither ever shrinks), give the book some immediacy, especially as we read in actual headlines these days about the Internal Revenue Service offering an excuse for lost records that it would never accept from a taxpayer.

As the book starts, it has a tone of Humphrey revealing the secrets of his trade, so to speak, to Wilkins, and almost feels like a bureaucracy-centered version of The Screwtape Letters, wherein a senior demon explains to his rookie nephew how to tempt human beings. Geraghty doesn't stay with that theme, and Agency suffers when it wanders off as well as when it spends several pages making fun of the dot-com boom and bust. It's still funny enough and still dead on target in its mockery, but it had the potential to be more if it hadn't gotten lost in the middle and muddled around at the end.
The presence of a movie tie-in novel is usually pretty certain, especially in the case of large science fiction epics. They often provide some interestingly different perspectives on the movie's version of events. An author, sometimes a big name and sometimes not, is contracted to write the novelized version based on the shooting script or story treatment. And of course, there are always movies made from books, which do a better or not so better job of bringing their tales from page to screen.

2001: A Space Odyssey developed a little bit differently. Director Stanley Kubrick and science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke met in 1964 when Kubrick had the idea he wanted to work on a movie about extraterrestrial life. The two hit it off, and began working on ideas -- drawing on a couple of Clarke's own 1950s short stories like "The Sentinel" and "Encounter the Dawn." They intended for the novel to come first, followed by the movie, with both projects bylined as collaborations. Clarke would have top billing on the book and Kubrick on the movie. But the two projects fed each other, changing both story and theme interactively, so they eventually came out together, with the dual credits on the movie and Clarke solo on the book. Clarke has said that the novel should also have a dual byline.

The story is similar across both media, although Clarke's book explains more of what's going on while Kubrick's movie focuses on visuals and impressions and allows for a wider range of interpretation.

The novel opens three million years ago, where a small tribe of hominids is dying out from starvation and thirst. A strange black monolith appears among them and their behavior starts to change as it affects their thinking. The peaceful, vegetarian tribe becomes hunters who learn the use of weapons and not only save themselves by learning how to feed on animals, but also defeat a neighboring tribe. From there we shift to 1999, where Dr. Heywood Floyd leads a team of scientists that finds a strange black monolith buried under the Moon's surface. Uncovered for the first time in three million years, it transmits a message to a small moon of Saturn.

Now we shift to 2001, as two astronauts and the self-aware computer HAL 9000 guide their spaceship Discovery towards Saturn on a scientific expedition. But the astronauts, Dave Bowman and Frank Poole, are becoming suspicious at the behavior of their computer crewmate, and their mission may be in jeopardy. The fact that there may be more to the mission than they have been told doesn't help things.

Clarke spends a great deal of the "modern" section of the book describing the two voyages and does an excellent job in the 1999 section of showing how routine a trip to a space station and the moon have become (He did this, of course, a year before astronauts actually landed on the moon and four years before they quit). He's hit and miss on his predictive qualities; he absolutely nails the iPad when he describes a computer screen wireless newsreader but whiffs badly on the idea that six billion people on the planet mean worldwide famine and meat shortages even in the U.S.

The monoliths and their unknown purpose tie the different sections of the book together. Clarke's limitation of dialogue in the Discovery section highlights the isolation of the space travelers and provides an excellent atmosphere for the tension of the voyage into the unknown. His unadorned style reads like a news article and helps focus attention on the ideas he and Kubrick wanted front and center. Though feeling a little padded at times and dated by events, 2001 remains a journey worth taking by book as well as by screen.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

From the Rental Vault

James Bond has been onscreen more than 20 times, played by six different actors. Japanese cinema has a similar icon, the blind swordsman Zatoichi, who was the focus of 26 movies between 1962 and 1989 and played by Shintaro Katsu. For good measure, the actor took the role for four seasons on television as well.

Several Japanese moves set during the Edo period of the early 19th century use the Zatoichi mythos as their backdrop. One of those is 2008's Ichi, with Haruka Ayase playing a blind musician and swordswoman originally trained by the great Zatoichi and trying to find him again. The characters actually have the same name, as the word zato translates more as a rank than a part of a regular name.

While on her trek, Ichi meets the honorable but seemingly bumbling samurai Toma Fujihara (Takao Osawa), and both of them find themselves caught up in a struggle between the samurai-owned inns of a local village and a gang of mercenary bandits led by the disfigured and dishonored Banki (Shido Nakamura).

All three leads are maimed or disfigured in a way by events from their pasts -- Banki by being burned over half his face, Toma by a family tragedy and Ichi by a past betrayal. Director Fumihiko Sori shows how each copes with his or her wound -- Banki allows his ugliness to consume him, Toma remains crippled by his memories and Ichi avoids further betrayal by closing herself off from everyone she meets. In the final confrontation, the three battle against these deep hurts as much as against their opponents in an interesting conclusion. Ichi is a little confusing until the random flashbacks are given some coherent explanation, and the character's blankness for much of the film gives Ayase little room to work as an actress. But as a historical drama used to consider some interesting ideas about suffering and how it's borne, Ichi turns out to be worth the time.
Randolph Scott probably hit his peak as an actor during the seven movies he did with director Budd Boetticher, producer Harry Joe Brown and screenwriter Burt Kennedy. This "Ranown Cycle" of low-budget, no-frills, straight-ahead Westerns pared the stories to their simplest and straightest and showcased Scott as a straight-talking, straight-shooting man of action who always wound up doing the right thing, even if he was a little off the straight and narrow to start with.

Although 1953's The Stranger Wore a Gun uses these same elements (including production from Brown), it shows just how special a mix the Ranown Cycle was by misusing them at almost every turn. Scott is Jeff Travis, a spy for William Quantrill's raiders during the Civil War. When he discovers how the increasingly brutal Quantrill no longer even pretends to follow the rules of war in his attacks on civilians, Travis leaves the raiders. But his connection with them remains widely known, and at the urging of Josie (Claire Trevor), he escapes a fatal riverboat quarrel and heads west to Arizona.

There, Josie's friend Jules Mourret (George Macready) calls in his favor for helping Travis escape by enlisting him to help steal gold from the stagecoach run by Shelby Conroy (Joan Weldon) and her father. Travis soon loses his taste for deceiving the Conroys and tries to undermine Mourret's operation while avoiding confrontation with the crime boss's henchmen, played by Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin.

Stranger has at least two layers and four plot turns too many; we haven't even mentioned the role played by Mexican gangster Degas and we don't really need to because it promises more than one payoff it never delivers, further confusing the story. Scott's turn from wrong to right never convinces for the simple reason that no one watching Randolph Scott in a movie is going to believe he would stay party to a plot to rob a widower and his beautiful daughter. He's also never convincing when we're supposed to believe he's falling for said daughter, since he was thirty-two years older than Weldon and Claire Trevor's experience and attitude make her Josie a much better fit with Scott's Travis.

Most of these same elements, good and bad, and many of the same people would show up again in the Ranown Cycle. But together with Boetticher and Kennedy, Scott and Brown will use them in a recipe that makes much more satisfying movies than Stranger.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Fetch + Sit Up = Roll Over?

Dan Saffer at Wired suggests that much as our ancient ancestors co-evolved with a few friendly species of wolves so that today we have everything from Fido to those rodent-like things adored by old ladies, so too should we consider how we will domesticate a new partner on the scene: the algorithm.

To severely oversimplify, dogs came from the kinds of canines who figured that hanging out with the slow, clumsy and scent-blind two-legged creatures was worth it because they also could build warm fires, provide an astounding amount of food, rub bellies and answer the existential question about whether or not they were very very good dogs (Hint: It seems related to where one relieves oneself).

Some scientists say human beings changed as well, although our changes do not seem to have been as external as were those for dogs. Look upon the Pekingese, therefore, and be grateful.

Although Saffer notes that algorithms are not alive, many of them fulfill functions in our lives similar to the kind of help living companions provide. Dogs helped early humans hunt food. Your GPS helps you get lost much more quickly and thoroughly that you ever could on your own, and its lack of an "abandoned house used as a meth lab" notation means that you just might stay that way. In fact, algorithms have already begun changing human behavior. How many cars carry highway maps these days? Aside from such Luddites as your author, that is. I don't know, but if the answer isn't "Less than in 2005," I'd be shocked. How many homes have phone books?

So, Saffer says, we need to be in the business of watching how algorithms affect our behavior and judge whether or not we want our behavior so affected. They may promote welcome changes, or the changes may not be so great. But unlike our joint venture with canis lupus, we have a lot more ability to affect what kind of algorithms we use.

If we are any good at math and figuring out equations, that is. Which I will try once I get some scratch paper -- it's over there, under the stack of maps and Yellow Pages.

Friday, June 20, 2014


Although we tend to think of computers as ultramodern types of things, several of the ideas that govern how they work have some deep roots in time. Alan Turing worked around the middle of the last century. Charles Babbage's "difference engine" was on the drawing boards in the 19th century.

And a fellow named Paul Otlet developed many of the principles used in sorting information online when he opened a gigantic research facility called "the Mundaneum" in 1920. Otlet saw it as a kind of "universal bibliography," a way of cross-referencing and indexing as much information as he possibly could.

Sited in Belgium, the Mundaneum suffered a little when it was replaced with a Nazi art exhibit (surprisingly, Nazis weren't interested in knowledge). It exists today as a museum in a refurbished department store building. Otlet saw the main value of the information not in its centrality but in how it could open access to anyone who requested it from Mundaneum staff. He also foresaw speech recognition tools and wireless data transmission, even if he didn't necessarily predict the manner by which that would come about.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Cost Benefit

Every now and again I still read something worth the time at Big Hollywood. John Nolte, who sees the oncoming death of packaged cable television sometime soon, notes the news that starting in 2016, Netflix will stream a talk show with Chelsea Handler. Ms. Handler recently announced her E! Network show Chelsea Lately will end not soon enough. Although he is also not a fan of Ms. Handler, Nolte compares the prices between Netflix's streaming and cable television's offerings:
Ratings already prove that people would rather watch a whole list of late night hosts not named Chelsea Handler, but if Chelsea is there for $7.99 a month, is that good enough compared to a Jimmy at $99.99 a month?
I would have to answer no. You would in fact need to pay me closer to $500 a month to watch Ms. Handler -- more if you wanted me to do it with the sound on and still more if I had to do it more than once in that month.

Irrational Reason

You would think that if you ask a series of questions which have either obvious correct answers or which have been designed to bring a clear response, it wouldn't matter in which order you asked them.

You would not be alone in thinking this, but you would be wrong. One of the more famous examples is a 1997 Gallup opinion poll in which people were asked whether or not they believed then-President Bill Clinton was trustworthy.  If poll respondents were first asked the same question about then-Vice President Al Gore, seven percent more of them found President Clinton honest and trustworthy. Ken Starr was presumably not among those polled.

This is called the "order effect" and it has no basis in rational thinking -- even though it happens all the time. Ohio State University professor Zheng Wang noticed the order effect was similar to a principle in quantum mechanics called "commutation." Commutation says that certain pairs of experiments will bring different results depending on which one is performed first. The properties those experiments measure are labeled "noncommuting," although there is no evidence they actually work from home.

Professor Wang says the similarity does not mean that human thinking operates as a quantum computer would, but that commutation could offer a better model for figuring out how people think than ones that do not take the order effect into account.

Although she does not say this, it could also offer an explanation for casting votes for the same utter dumb-ass in two or more successive elections despite ample evidence of said dumb-assery. If I as a voter cast such a second or third or more ballot despite the candidate in question removing all doubt as to his or her ineptitude in office, it is not because I am actually irrational. It is because I am non-commuting. And thus we can explain why Harry Reid has been in office since 1987, why Jesse Helms was in the Senate for 30 years, why there is a second Obama term and why Mary Fallin will probably win another term as Oklahoma's governor in November.

Sometimes it's good to know that there are reasons some things will never make sense.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Keep on Bookin'

For perhaps the first time ever in a Clive Cussler novel, our hero is unsure of himself.

Oh, Dirk Pitt may have gambled on a risky scheme before. Juan Cabrillo may have wondered if he would be in time to save the day. Isaac Bell may have feared his enemies were too powerful, crafty or ruthless to overcome. And Sam and Remi Fargo may have worried they've bitten off more than they can chew.

 But as we open on him in Ghost Ship, Kurt Austin doesn't know if he's ever going to be the same again. Austin's role in a failed ocean rescue has hit him harder than just his physical injuries. Nightmares and depression have sidelined him from his work at the National Underwater and Marine Agency, and when there are some questions about the circumstances of his injury and the fate of those he sought to help, he's not sure he can handle the job.

The fourth "collaboration" between Cussler and Graham Brown offers the usual suspects of straight-ahead action, cutting-edge techno-thriller gadgetry, sinister skullduggery by sinister skulllduggers and of course  femmes both fatale and héroïque. Austin's symptoms resolve themselves as the story unwinds, and Brown manages to slip some actual character development into one of his villains.

Ghost Ship steers the same course that Cussler adventures -- whether from his pen directly or by way of one of his co-authors -- usually do, but Brown doesn't promise more than he can deliver and delivers on his promises.
Before Brandon Sanderson was tapped to finish Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, he had a few books of his own under his belt. Sanderson sees much of his work as interlinked within something he calls "the Cosmere," a way of subtly connecting the different series that doesn't require reading all of his other series in order to follow along. Michael Moorcock's "Eternal Champion" theme is somewhat similar.

The Way of Kings came out in 2010, while Sanderson was finishing Jordan's series. It's the first of the "Stormlight Archive," Sanderson's own multi-volume epic fantasy series. We're looking at a time of war between two nations, Alethkar and Jeh Keved, primarily through the eyes of four main characters: Kaladi, the peasant and prisoner of war; Shallan, the minor noble trying to protect her impoverished family; Dalinar, the uncle to the young king and Szeth, the magic-wielding assassin.  The goal of the war is control over magic left behind by divine beings who inexplicably abandoned it.

As with most epic fantasy series, the main hooks are the world the author builds and the characters which populate it. Sanderson is fabulously successful on the first front; he holds as a rule of all of his work that consistency and plausibility within its own terms are musts for good fantasy novels. He's less successful at the second. Our main viewpoint characters become pretty clearly sketched early on in the book and the rest of their stories add little to their mostly black-and-white natures. That wouldn't be much of an issue except that "early on" means roughly the first couple hundred pages and "rest of their stories" refers to the next eight hundred. Which is a key to understanding the ultimate failure of a work that's only about an estimated 20 percent complete so far: I care far more about the people in a world than I do about the world they're in, and every effort to paint over the former's limits with more of the latter's colors just makes things longer instead of better.

The problem is that the first two books in the series average 400,000 words apiece, and Sanderson says the planned "Stormlight Archive" is ten volumes. Fantasy epics, if they sell well, have a habit of expanding, and since this first pair are already at a thousand pages or better we're looking at a minimum projected four million words and ten thousand pages.

And neither Brandon Sanderson the storyteller nor Brandon Sanderson the stylist are worth that investment. To be fair, the love child of Victor Hugo and George Eliot, adopted and raised by Mark Twain with extended periods at boarding school being taught by Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky and an internship under Virginia Woolf would probably not create work worth that investment. Kings is too long. The whole series is too long at ten books, especially ten books of this size. Pushing through to the end of a too-long book may bring some feeling of personal accomplishment, but it's more like someone who finishes a long-distance race on a treadmill. You've run a long way, but you're still where you were when you started, so there's no reason not to get off now.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Look at the World

Some more fantastic photography, this time from several photographers who've taken pictures in Iceland (which, in the country's native language, means "island," and not "land of ice").

The page is in Russian, which your browser can probably translate well enough for the picture labels even if the introductory text is a little strange. Most of the pictures have also been a little enhanced with photo software, it looks to me, but they're still spectacular.

These three look as much like covers from a fantasy novel series as they do photos of actual places:

And even though it's the wrong mythology for the area, this one would make a great illustration for one of the old stories about Vulcan (if you're Roman) or Hephaestus (if you're Greek):

Note: I reduced the picture size uploaded to this page because I'm just copying; the original work at the links is where you should look for the real thing.

Monday, June 16, 2014


It's what makes the photos at The Daily Overview interesting, as it provides satellite-level views of stuff that looks completely different from way way up there.

For example, from this vantage point one can see the orderly grid outline by architect Pierre L'Enfant when he designed our nation's new capital city in 1791:

But anyone familiar with the output or daily happenings of Washington, D.C knows that it is not neat. Or orderly. Or logical. Or coherent. Or useful. But it probably is best viewed at a considerable distance, like from outer space.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Well of Course

A headline at Science 2.0 says that the recently-mapped genome of a particular parasite worm that afflicts pigs could lead to treatments for several stubborn diseases, including biggies like multiple sclerosis. Here's the headline:

Parasitic worms of pigs could provide new treatments of human diseases

It could also provide a new name with which to refer to one's opponent in an upcoming election: "I, of course, have always supported the existence of puppies. But my opponent, that parasitic worm of pigs, has never once denied that his ultimate goal is the elimination of every puppy on earth!"

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Why Do Movies Stink Today?

Because people reward their makers by slurping up crap sequels of crap comedy remakes of 1980s TV shows.

Answering the question -- much like creating one of these movies -- does not require knowledge of rocket science.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Twisting Dead?

Chubby Checker, who rose to fame with his 1960 hit cover of "The Twist," has suggested that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame needs to induct him soon or when they finally choose to do so, he will direct them to drop dead.

Checker covered the Hank Ballard R&B hit in the summer of 1960 and hit number one on the pop charts. It would do so again in 1962, after his sequel "Let's Twist Again" went to number 8 in 1961. Checker's chart career dried up in 1965, and he himself was less than enamored of how linked he was to the song, saying it had pegged him as a novelty act rather than a serious singer. Ballard and his Midnighters recorded the song as a B-side in 1959; it cracked the Top 30 on the pop charts and the top 20 on the R&B but stalled out there. Dick Clark heard the Ballard version and wanted the band to perform it on American Bandstand, but they were unavailable so he found another artist to record it that he could schedule: Checker, whose voice resembles Ballard's. Ballard was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, in a class that included Charlie Christian, Bobby Darin, The Four Seasons, The Four Tops, The Kinks, The Platters, Simon and Garfunkel and The Who.

The Midnighters were themselves inducted in 2012 as a special group along with Smokey Robinson's Miracles, James Brown's Famous Flames, Bill Haley's Comets, Gene Vincent's Blue Caps, and Buddy Holley's Crickets -- all of which had been excluded when their respective lead singers had been inducted previously. Elvis' original guitarist Scotty Moore, drummer D. J. Fontana and bassist Bill Black are in as "sidemen," but apparently Johnny Cash's presence in the Hall can't keep Luther Perkins, Marshall Grant and "Fluke" Holland from being chopped liver instead of the Tennessee Three.

Checker is 72 and says does not want the Hall to wait so long that he can't translate his induction into a payday. This may sound crass, except that the Hall is itself a dressed-up I. M. Pei ATM for its operators that hasn't had much meaningful to say about anything other than Jann Wenner and Dave Marsh's Spotify playlists for several years. A couple of years ago, I rambled on this at the long post blog. In 2006 the Sex Pistols were more succinct and profane, if also somewhat more in need of a spellchecker. In 2012, Axl Rose was surprisingly coherent in asking just what the heck being inducted was supposed to mean anyway.

It's easy to make an argument that Checker's five-year heyday of great R&B dance records mostly written by other people is not really "Hall of Fame" material for rock and roll music, but since the Hall brought in Madonna in 2008, it's probably not the one to make that argument.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

In Series

Jack Campbell (the pen name of former Navy officer John G. Hemry) couldn't keep the revived war hero Black Jack Geary and his lost fleet lost forever. So he got them home, only to find that he had new enemies to face -- from alien races with unknown agendas to elements within the government he serves uncomfortable with his fame and potential power.

In The Lost Fleet: Steadfast, Geary has completed a diplomatic escort mission with some new alien allies, the horrific-looking but mostly friendly Dancers. The Dancers are ready to leave Earth, but Geary has to rescue kidnapped crew first, and then once the ships return to Alliance space, he finds himself tasked with what seems like a simple mission to return refugees from Syndicate Worlds space to their home planets. But no mission connected to Black Jack Geary is ever just what it seems, either in the eyes of those who create it or in the way Geary carries it out.

Campbell's own years in the service allow him to communicate a good sense of what it's like to be in a military environment. Geary, as a man put in suspended animation near the beginning of a hundred-year war and awakened near its end, operates just out of phase with the people around him, not sharing their experiences and worldview nearly as much as he thinks he does. Campbell also brings a good sense of that unease to his work, and writes a top-notch space battle.

Steadfast may seem like it offers a lot of what Campbell has presented before, but he adds some new elements to the story of just how the Alliance government tries to deal with Geary and how Geary responds that keep the narrative moving forward. It's not as newly-minted as it was when the series began in 2006, but it hasn't lost all of its freshness yet.
One of the problems that Star Trek fiction had during its glut years was that a large amount of the books being written weren't much better than the fan fiction that had circulated via photocopy and fanzine in the years before the show became a big hit on the big screen. In fact, some of the fan-written work was better than the "official" stories coming out under Paramount and Pocket Books' approval. The recent scaling back of the production line might have helped stem this problem, but if Greg Cox's No Time Like the Past is any indicator, it's an issue that will be sticking around.

The Enterprise is carrying an ambassador to negotiate with a planet that has been giving aid to Orion pirates and smugglers. He's offering Federation help to them if they'll kick the Orions to the curb, but the Orions themselves have a couple of tricks up their piratical sleeves. In the midst of a sneak attack by the raiders, Captain Kirk and company are aided by a mysterious blonde woman whose cybernetic implants and no-nonsense demeanor make her stand out as much as her shooting accuracy. With good reason, because the woman who calls herself "Annika Seven" is actually former Borg drone Seven of Nine, thrown back in time from her own journey with the lost Voyager. She's trying to re-assemble a time-displacement disk that has thrown her back from her own time to Kirk's, and do it before her need for her Borg regeneration tube causes her to collapse and shut down.

The rest of the story is a quest among the Enterprise's earlier missions to find the other pieces of the disk, pursued by the Orions and attempting to ferret out the identity of a possible spy. Cox clears at least one high bar; he manages to make the ham-handed message of the broadcast episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" even more ham-handed with his revisit to the planet involved. Dead red-shirted characters, a womanizing Kirk, clueless ambassadors -- if there's a Star Trek cliché that Cox misses, it's not for lack of trying. He even ends his story with a "Well, whaddaya know?" kind of time-travel paradox that, not twenty pages earlier, he used in the exact opposite way.

There's nothing offensive about Time, although the sad thing is that there's probably a really interesting story somewhere in the mixing of the former Borg drone Seven of Nine with the original series crew. But now that Cox has written this book, that story won't be told.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Artificially Intelligent?

A mini-buzz surrounded recent claims by some researchers that a super-computer had "passed the Turing Test" that creates a line between human and artificial intelligence (AI).

The test is named after 20th century British computer scientist Alan Turing, whose thinking on the development of computers still has influence today. Turing devised a test in which an artificial intelligence would respond in a conversation with a human being. If the human being could not determine whether or not the computer really was a computer, then it was said to be able to pass the Turing Test.

Leaving aside the fact that there are some flesh-and-blood people whose conversations would have a hard time proving intelligence was involved on either end, Reason writer Zenon Evans gathers up a number of rebuttal arguments from different AI writers and commentors. Among the problems: The test was passed by a chatbot, not a super-computer -- and a chatbot is a program designed to mimic human conversation. Think of the way the average politician responds to the average reporter's question about a scandal in which he or she is involved. The responses are in the form of regular human speech, but they are pre-scripted and designed to carry the form of human speech without fulfilling its function, i.e., explain why campaign contributions got spent at a strip joint. They are instead designed to divert attention from the scandal in the same way that a chatbot is designed to fool people that it is a real live incredibly attractive member of the opposite sex who wants to interact with you and lives just a few miles away.

Also among the problems: Chatbots have passed the Turing test before, and as Evans notes, with higher scores than this one. Plus, by telling people they were talking to a teenage Ukrainian, the test organizers gamed the system by offering a rationale for strange-sounding answers that otherwise might have put them onto the idea that they weren't talking to a person. Evans rounds up several other issues with this particular experiment that would make most reasonable (heh) observers think twice before running with the news.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Handy Writing

Some researchers have found that learning to write by hand -- instead of just how to type on a keyboard -- may help us learn things faster and better.

In fact, even that old dinosaur cursive handwriting may play a role in helping the human brain develop information-processing skills. Nice to know someone took a look at this before we junked the idea of handwriting education completely, but pen and paper are mighty dull competition compared to the gee-whiz factor of giving every kid in school an iPad.

Of course, they're cheaper and easier to replace, too. But a lot of school administrators don't want their field to start looking at things that way, lest they themselves be out of a job.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Location, Location, Location

While waiting for a prescription to be filled (although not at a Chelsea drugstore), the only open seat on the waiting bench offered an unobstructed view of the foot-care products. This is not so bad when the care is gel soles or even bunion cures, because the latter of those relies on an outline drawing rather than photographs.

The fungal cures, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter. They could easily induce an epic reaction -- of the ipecacial variety.


Business Insider says that "short suits," or something that looks like a suit except ends above the knees, are going "mainstream."

Not unless you're in a daycare romper room or play guitar for AC/DC they're not.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Triple Crown Winner

No, not the horse race -- Stephen Pastis, writer and drawer of the syndicated comic Pearls Before Swine, had three panels of this week's strip drawn by Bill Watterson, reclusive creator of the iconic Calvin and Hobbes. It was Watterson's first appearance in print since ending his own strip in 1995.

I sure am glad Pastis didn't waste luck like that on something stupid like winning the lottery or not getting hit by a meteor.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Husky Size

What scientists know about the way planets form suggests that if a planet is much larger than our own Earth, it it probably becomes a "gas giant." This means that it is made of a variety of gases. The pressure at the center may have helped squash the gas into something more like a liquid or a gooey ice, but there won't be any solids like we find on Earth, Mars, Venus or other smaller planets, and whatever solidifying the gas does happens only at extreme temperatures and pressures.

Until they got a look at a place called Kepler 10-C. Orbiting the sunlike star Kepler 10 in the constellation Draco, it's a rocky planet 17 times the mass of the Earth -- well past the limit at which astronomers thought the only kind of planets around were balls of gas. Neptune in our own solar system is 17 times the Earth's mass.

Although Kepler 10-C probably orbits its sun too close for life to exist, its presence shakes up a couple of commonly-held theories, one being the above-mentioned size limit for rocky worlds. The other is its age -- the system may have formed less than 3 billion years after the Big Bang, compared with our own solar system that didn't show up until about 7 billion years later. Rocky worlds were also thought to be rare in the earlier universe, with higher temperatures and energy levels making the formation of heavier elements more difficult.

Seems the universe isn't in any hurry to be completely figured out any time soon.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Never Give In

The German army couldn't keep Bernard Jordan out of Normandy, so one wonders why the staff of The Pines nursing home in Hove, England thought they would do any better 70 years later.

They didn't.

The post title refers to this portion of a speech by Mr. Jordan's countryman Winston Churchill, which Mr. Jordan has apparently listened to and taken to heart.

Edited to add:
The nursing home staff says that Mr. Jordan was not prevented from going, but he hadn't told anyone that he was, so they reported him missing when he didn't come back at night. In fact, they had tried to get him on an arranged trip but were unable to do so, and were pleased to hear he had attended and was safe. Good for them, and my apologies for mocking them!

Buying Life

George R.R. Martin, author of the "Song of Ice and Fire" series from which HBO has drawn its Game of Thrones show, is auctioning off a chance to be in one of the series' upcoming editions.

Martin will use the auction as a fundraiser for two charities he supports, and there are prizes for one male and one female character in the book -- be the first to give him $20,000 and you will be that character. You can pick the social station you wish, and Martin guarantees you what many characters in his ever-expanding series have met: "a grisly death."

Given the pace at which Martin is finishing the novels (up to five or six years at a time) and the expansion of the series as a whole -- his publisher just hinted that the expected seven books may actually be eight -- the lucky winner may never have to worry about death -- grisly or otherwise.


And still, 70 years later, thank you, gentlemen.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

From the Rental Vault: The End, Twice

Different nations each have their own "bygone eras," or times that have gained mystique and romance over the years as the reality of their troubles fades into history. Yōjirō Takita's 2003 When the Last Sword Is Drawn focuses on such a time in Japanese history; the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 1860s.

Two men, Saitō Hajime (who was a real person) and Yoshimura Kanichiro, enter service in the Shinsengumi special police squad organized to protect some Tokugawa retainers in Kyoto. Hajime is a brutal, dour killer who fights in the hope of dying in battle, while Kanichiro is a strange man who seems much more interested in money than in fighting or honor, even though he proves himself an excellent swordsman. Through a series of flashbacks from the aged Hajime, we see how the two men became part of the Shinsengumi and fought on what turned out to be the losing side of a civil war over ultimate power between the Emperor and the Shōgun. Along the way, the circumstances that pushed Kanichiro into the Shinsengumi and away from his family become clearer, as Hajime converses with a young doctor. The erosion of the shogunate's power also shows clearly, as the emperor's forces take full advantage of modern weapons the samurai only dabble with.

Sword romanticizes the samurai of Japan's feudal era and partially overlooks the economic devastation that system and isolation was bringing on the country. Kanichiro himself is trapped by poverty, even though as a samurai he is a part of the noble elite of the nation's fighters, and that figures into the story. But since we are focused on him, we don't see much of the larger forces at work. It's a minor quibble, because Kiichi Nakai's performance as Kanichiro and Takita's direction create a wonderful picture of a man who believes that honor matters more the rarer it becomes and devotion to family may require the hardest of choices. Both won 2004 Japan Academy Prizes for their work (as did Kōichi Satō, who plays Hajime), the equivalent of an American Oscar. Even though its view is colored by nostalgia, it offers a good reminder that not everything lost to time should be forgotten.
Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) is, in his own way, a vanishing breed like the samurai in the 19th century. A tough British crime lord in the late 1970s, he has a vision for capitalizing on the country's bid for the 1988 summer Olympics -- a vision that is, Mafia financing and low-level political corruption aside, almost legitimate.

But on Good Friday, when he wants to meet with his U.S. bankrollers, things start to go wrong. A trusted courier is killed, and a car explosion almost takes his mother's life. Harold has to find out who is behind the attacks on him in time to keep his investors from bailing out, and so he resorts to the kind of violence and intimidation that put him on top of the underworld. Allies, both official and quietly bribed, will help him, as will his canny mistress Victoria (Helen Mirren). But his enemies may be closer than he thinks, and they may operate at a level of violence he didn't foresee.

Hoskins is amazing as Shand, basically a thug with money and nice clothes. He cloaks his schemes in corporate-speak, but sheds that veneer as soon as necessary to achieve his goals. All the same, he shows himself unready to handle a modern threat and an enemy who neither intimidates nor forgets. Mirren, complete with '70s Farrah-Fawcett flip, helps make Victoria far more than an ordinary moll, proving at several points she has just a keen of a grasp on the overall strategy as does Shand. The Long Good Friday was Hoskins' breakout role and brought him to the attention of directors in the states as well. It was also one of the first lead roles onscreen for Mirren, who had built an impressive body of work on stage.

Face-watchers might note brief appearances of several folks who will look very familiar, such as Pierce Brosnan in an un-named role and Paul Freeman as one of Shand's men, Colin, a year or so before his René Belloq would be outwitted by Indiana Jones in the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant.

Friday is a brutal and sometimes funny crime drama, a look at a man who fails to realize that if the only law you respect is the law of force, you will always be in danger from those who have more than you do.

Who Ya Gonna Call?

On August 29, you know who you're gonna call, all the way from the big screen...

Wednesday, June 4, 2014


The Sydney Morning Herald notes that the Chinese government is observing the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown in its usual way: "nothing happened here 25 years ago and we can prove it because you can't find it online."

You can always trust the people who tell you that they know what you need to know and what you don't, whether they're in Beijing or protesting a commencement speaker or getting someone fired because of what they said. After all, they know better.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Icons of Protest

In an inexplicably relevant piece for the outlet, Buzzfeed offers seven pictures from the Tiananmen Square protests, which were ruthlessley stamped out 25 years ago tomorrow.

They then show the same spots as a visitor to China might see them today. Or, as the Chinese Communist ruling party would prefer to say it, "Move along; nothing to see here." For now, anyway. Remember, fellas. Freedom only has to win once; then everybody wants it.

Monday, June 2, 2014

I For One Welcome Our New Feline Overlords...

Meet the owners of the largest no-kill cat shelter in the world, who operate The Cat House on the Kings in Parlier, CA.

Over the last 22 years, the shelter has rescued more than 20,000 cats, as well as 6,000 or so dogs -- the latter of whom were rescued without consulting the cats. It was founded by a woman named Lynea Lattanzio, whose name in feline terminology is "The Human We Will Allow to Survive When We Have Taken Over Your Planet, Monkey-Boy."

Too bad for the rest of us -- unless we begin to work on our ear-scratching and belly-rubbing skills pretty darn quickly.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Movie Personality

Have a favorite Bill Murray movie? It might just indicate something about your personality.

Or it might indicate which Bill Murray movie is your favorite. Who's to say?