Friday, October 22, 2010

Sci-Fi Horror Weekend (Tulsa)

I know the dude's who putting this on and he knows his shit, so it should be awesome.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Does Your Computer Play Beethoven?

Here's one straight from Microsoft's official support files: if your computer is playing "classical music" seemingly at random, you've got a big problem. (Interestingly, Microsoft classifies the brain-numbingly obnoxious Disney song "It's A Small, Small World" [sic] as classical... unless there really is a classical song called, It's A Small, Small World, which I don't think there is.)

Here's the official support page, which I Stumbled! upon a few minutes ago.

During normal operation or in Safe mode, your computer may play "Fur Elise" or "It's a Small, Small World" seemingly at random. This is an indication sent to the PC speaker from the computer's BIOS that the CPU fan is failing or has failed, or that the power supply voltages have drifted out of tolerance. This is a design feature of a detection circuit and system BIOSes developed by Award/Unicore from 1997 on.
 If my computer behaved in such a manner, I'd automatically assume virus. If I got the Disney version of the unique system notification, I'd blow my brains out with a .410 shotgun revolver. Why wouldn't they choose Chopin's Death March instead? It makes no sense, man. Makes no sense!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

What Is Reality?

The reason I like Philip K. Dick's fiction so much is because he continuously asks the question: What is reality? The current idea among physicists is that time isn't a constant. It's an emergent property of the universe, no different than anything else with a reducible list of ingredients. In other words, time—as it exists in our universe—did not exist until after the big bang created everything else.

Reality itself is an emergent property of the universe, too. What kind of reality could have existed before the creation of matter, space, and time?  The entire concept of reality is terrifying when you realize how fragile it is. I don't claim to know what reality is in the least, but most people think they do. How could they even begin to comprehend such an abstract concept? I dare you to construct a definition of reality that is foolproof, a definition that holes cannot be poked into. Discover for yourself that the task is futile.

One of PKD's more famous novels, The Man in the High Castle, presents a reality in which the Allied forces lost World War II. The titular man in the high castle is the author of an alternative universe novel in which the Allied forces won. You realize, then, that you're holding in your hands a tiny portal to these people's world, which I guess is what every fictional book is. However, the characters in that novel just happen to have a tiny portal to our world.

You've just been PKD'd, boyeeeee!

Dick's entry in the classic anthology Dangerous Visions presents a character who takes a drug that makes the world's leaders and politicians look like grotesque monsters. Because of the horrifying nature of the hallucination, the character wants to know exactly what it is he took. He takes the drug to a laboratory who analyzes its chemical makeup. When the results come in, the character is stunned to learn the drug was not a hallucinogen, but an anti-hallucinogen.

PKD'd again, bi-atch!

Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said tells the story of a famous television personality who falls out of reality completely. One night he closes his show with millions of viewers. The next morning nobody knows who he is. Few things are more terrifying. Do you understand reality well enough to say such an event is impossible? Would you bet your life and soul that such a thing could not happen in real life?

(I was stoned when I wrote this, sorry.)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

MST3K Tattoo

I can't decide whether this is tacky or cool:

mst3k tattoo Pictures, Images and Photos

On one hand it's a tramp stamp which might be mistaken for a smear of shit from afar. On the other hand, it's a Mystery Science Theater 3000 tattoo(!), which means it's much more appropriate than the frightening trend among young women who feel the need to commemorate dead loved ones above their asses. Tough decision.

Monday, September 6, 2010


I was eight or nine years old the first time I saw Freejack. I remembered how stupid I thought it was then and decided to see if I thought it was still as stupid now.

Emilio Estevez is a race car driver in the year 1991. He's married to Rene Russo who has a killer set of legs. An opening shot frames those killer legs against a messy bed and we get excited. This may be a good movie yet! But when the camera pans up, it's not Russo at all. It's the considerably boyish and hairless Estevez. And he's wearing a pair of whitey tidies.

So the groaning begins. The film has just launched the first in a never ending sequence of bad "artistic" decisions. Please, I beg of you: note the quotations around "artistic."

Like most mainstream genre films of its time, the story spends too much time in its opening act. We're introduced, in painstaking detail, to characters we don't care about. We have to endure the writers' attempt to establish who the characters are and how good everything was in 1991 and blah, blah, blah. But although Freejack assaults us with the obligatory first act, it doesn't spend as much time there as most movies do. Soon, Emilio is driving his pink (pink!) race car around the track and the music lets us know something bad is about to happen.

Here's what happens next:

1. A closeup reveals a race car's front tire has just rubbed Emilio's back tire. Just before the camera cuts away, we see the tail end of Emilio's car lift from the track.

2. An awkwardly inserted shot, one of pure cheese, pushes in on Russo's face and her stupid Blossom hat as she screams.

3. The camera cuts back to Emilio's car, which is inexplicably sailing through the air with its tail end low this time, which leads us to believe... well, I don't know what to believe. Obviously a shot like that is supposed to excite, but I was left scratching my head. I have a feeling the editor was sitting at her Moviola, snickering as she pieced this nonsense together. As luck would have it, the race car collides with an overpass and explodes like a fighter jet with an atomic payload.

4. Poof! Emilio falls into place on an operating table. The medical team waiting for him are wearing silvery hazmat suits which A) lets us know this is the future and B) makes them look like giant baked potatoes. Emilio groggily grumbles, which leads one of the medical personnel to call for the lobotomy gun.

5. A group of transient rebels (every future city ever depicted in a 90s movie like this has transient rebels) attack the convoy... wait, did I forget to mention the aforementioned operating table was housed inside a moving vehicle?

6. Mick Jagger acts... or reacts... kind of.

7. The rebels' missile launchers rock the vehicle Emilio's in. He seizes the opportunity to swat away the lobotomy gun, which fires green lightening. Green lightening! For long distance lobotomies! One of the nurses screams, "We've got a freejack!" This term is used several times throughout the movie. This suggests people have done what Emilio has done so much, it has become part of the future's lexicon, yet no one thought to implement any preventative measures.

8. Emilio escapes from the vehicle, which is now on its side. (I fell asleep during the part it rolled over, maybe?)

9. Mick Jagger instructs his henchmen to, and I quote, "Go get the meat." The meat!

10. Emilio, despite having nowhere to go and being the only person wearing a 90s jumpsuit, manages to evade the police of the future (until he's caught by a phone booth of all things). He's a little slow, but finally realizes he's in the future... all the way to the year 2009.

I don't make fun of science fiction which imagines the future and gets a few things "wrong." Science fiction isn't concerned with predicting the future so much as it wants to present a possible future. (Nobody would laugh at 2001: A Space Odyssey's "predictions" today. You could even say it's the space program which came up short, not Clarke's story.) The reason they set the bulk of the movie a few measly decades later is so Emilio's character could rekindle the flame with his wife, Russo. That's all fine and dandy, but the movie makes a real stinker of a mistake: there's talk of the "Ten Year Recession" which means the movie was already dated by 1999, eight measly years after it came out.

So no, I won't make fun of the dated stuff. What I will make fun of is the casting. The obvious mistake is Mick Jagger. I hoped it would be funny bad, but it's just bad bad. Rotten boiled egg bad. There's no telling whose dick he sucked to get in this picture, either.

The problem with Emilio is he already looks eighteen years younger than Russo when the film opens, when it's still 1991. I'm not saying Rene Russo looks old. Quite the contrary. I'm saying Emilio Estevez looks—and perhaps always will—like a child. Hell, I bet he still gets carded at bars despite belligerently screaming, "Don't you know who I am?! Haven't you seen Young Guns?!"

Another mistake is the lack of aging effects. Rene Russo doesn't age—the movie plays it too safe to age their leading actress—she just changes clothes. The same is true of the hotshot racing manager who betrays Emilio in a way nobody didn't see coming.

I took an awful lot of issue with this movie. One is the absurd lack of characters with color: one black man lives in Emilio's old house which is now in a slummy building, another is Russo's chaufer, and yet another one is a bum... hell of a long way equal rights will come in 2009, huh? I'm just saying, movies about the future must have a reason for only having white people in it.

In this scene, the movie manages to make us watch it all over again 
with a contrived series of flashbacks.

Oh, hey! Anthony Hopkins is in this.

You saw the trailer so I'm not giving away anything when I say he's the bad guy. There's a scene in which Hopkins appears exactly as the Emperor was introduced in The Empire Strikes Back, hooded cloak and all. So, for those keeping score: you've got Hopkins and Russo, two effortlessly good actors neutralized by Mick Jagger's ability to ham absolutely anything up.

The most watchable part of the movie comes towards the end. There's a pretty good scene taking place inside the mind of Anthony Hopkins through a somewhat interesting technology, though it's really nothing new to the genre. Unfortunately, I'd been struggling to stay awake for so much of the movie, I finally fell asleep at that point and missed most of the good stuff. When I woke up, Mick Jagger was suddenly a good guy.

My biggest complaint is the lackluster romance between Emilio and Russo. They really had something to play with here, but screwed it all up by being unwilling to explore any emotion. When Emilio and Russo are reunited the first time, the movie employs an unlikely gimmick to trick Russo into turning him in to the authorities. When they're reunited the second time, Emilio is inexplicably cruel and untrustworthy around the supposed love of his life. I don't even think they kiss in this movie. I think the most they do is hold hands and speak to each other in whispers.

This movie was destined for greatness. It seems impossible they could get it so wrong.

Note: I haven't yet read the Robert Sheckley novel Freejack was based on, but I admire Sheckley and I'm sure the book was pretty damn good. It might just be Gone With the Wind compared to its adaptation.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Portal 2

Hello Worlds! is an awesome Flash platformer with Portal-like brain teasers. Check it out here. (Yes, it's free to play.)

Speaking of Portal, guess what's coming out in February?

Anyone else as excited as I am?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Galaxiki: A Strange Science Fiction Social Network/Wiki

Galaxiki press info:

Science Fiction & Fantasy addicts love it: Galaxiki the award winning wiki based science fiction galaxy created, maintained and owned by its Community. Membership is free - sign up now and start naming and editing stars, planets and moons, or get your own personal solar system. Go ahead and take the tour.

As a visitor you may explore the galaxy or read science fiction and fantasy stories written by our community. As a site member you may name and edit edit solar systems and write your own science fiction or fantasy stories, post news and stories in our community blog (anything related to science, space, science fiction and fantasy is allowed) and help to build a fantastic online world.

It sounds like a pretty cool idea, but it's still in beta and a quick look around the forums seemed to indicate it isn't the most visited site in the world. Still, I haven't heard of a nerdier social network since Diaspora.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov

I couldn't really remember why I liked this book so much when I was younger and decided to check it out again.

One day, chemist Frederick Hallam discovers plutonium-186... sitting on his desk. The container is marked TUNGSTEN STEEL. As it turns out, aliens from a parallel universe want our tungsten. The physical laws of their universe are different than ours; tungsten to them is as powerful an energy source as plutonium-186 is for us. What the humans set up with the aliens ("para-men") is a free energy trade: they get our tungsten steel, we get their plutonium-186. And although there is the distinct possibility that pumping resources back and forth will lead to disaster, humanity is too addicted to care. They deny the potential catastrophe. Who'd want to give up free energy?

Isaac Asimov is known for relying on standard prose to convey grand ideas, but here he steps out of his comfort zone (a little) and creates something unusually (for him) literary. In his memoirs, which I read recently, he calls it "writing above my head." For the first time he writes something which belongs with the then current trend of "New Wave" science fiction. It's experimental, it's risque, and it's anything but golden age.

The book begins with Chapter 6. Then we get Chapter 1, more of Chapter 6, Chapter 2, and so on. When Chapter 6 finally concludes, you get why he arranged the novel this way. And just when you get to know the human characters—poof!—Asimov changes gears altogether and presents us the titular gods themselves: the para-men, who occupy roughly one third (the best part) of the novel's attention.

The somewhat abstract yet scientifically plausible para-men are as different from any alien ever imagined as they are from the humans. They come in two major categories: the hard ones and the soft ones. The soft ones come in three sexes: parental, emotional, and rational, and it requires all three of these types for the species to breed. The good doctor does something he's never done before: he writes about sex. And although their sex is vastly different than our sex, he isn't dodging anything at all even though Asimov himself complains about his sometimes laughable characterizations of sex matters in the aforementioned memoirs.

Despite Asimov's departure from his usual style, you never forget he's the man who masterminded it. He's far too modest when it comes to the quality of his writing, but The Gods Themselves proves he shouldn't be. Here he proves he is a great science fiction writer. He has said this is his favorite novel of his. Maybe it's my favorite book of his, too. I don't know.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Time Fcuk

Time Fcuk is a video game at the flash entertainment site Newgrounds. Time Fcuk has really fcuked my time as I started playing it around 11:30 and now it's well past midnight.

Here's the author's description:

Time Cfuk is a game about stasis, its a game about perspective and viewing both sides of the story from afar, its a game about blocks, platforms, drinking, high school reunions and work time fun.

Time Fcku is a "puzzle platformer" about finding logic in irrelevance, its a 1+1=2 formula that will ask more from you after you leave it alone, its a community experience about communication with people who you dont like.

Time KcuF is not an art game, its an allegorical game about stuff you've never experienced, its an escape from your current existence, its the feeling of loss and panic.

Time Fcuk is a play on how if one changes around the letters in a word even though it means nothing logically, we all still see it as something that its not.

Play the game here.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Adjustment Bureau trailer

I guess Matt is making this to apologize for Ben's Philip K. Dick adaptation (Paycheck):

Friday, May 21, 2010

LOST: The Final Season

I'm getting antsy. The second to last episode of Doctor Who to premier in America on the BBCA was so terrible, I haven't even gotten around to the second part I TiVoed, which showed last Saturday. I like the weeping angels and I even like the doctor's future wife (the first time he met her was a few seasons ago... see, the doctor first met her at the end of her life and she met him closer to the end of his life... such things are possible when you have a time machine). I just feel the show has lost some of its bite. And I think this article may shed some light as to why.

Those nutters.

LOST, too, has lost a bit of its allure. This Sunday, the last episode ever premieres. And though I initially loved this season—they led us into an alternate universe without over-explaining it like most made-for-TV programs would've—I have to say what drew me to the show is it's questions, not its answers. The answers, you ask me, almost ruin it. Almost.

If you're hoarding episodes of LOST, there are spoilers ahead. 

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"You mustn't be afraid to dream of a bigger gun."

I cannot get past how cool this movie looks. It stars Leo, Juno, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who's becoming one of my favorite actors (see: 500 Days of Summer and Brick). On top of that, they cram Michael Caine in there, who is one of my favorite actors. Like, definitely in the top three on my "living" list.

I think drawing comparisons between this and The Matrix is unfair, but people are doing it.

* * *

I always said it: I'd watch The X-Files if Netflix ever got it for Instant Play. Well, they just did and I started the pilot episode around four in the morning last night. Previously, I'd only seen the show twice and somehow it was the same episode—the one with Peter Boyle. However, I've seen the movies and was pretty enthusiastic about both of them, especially the second one which was kind of like the first movie mixed with The Silence of the Lambs.

Apparently a lot of people didn't like this movie, fans and non-fans alike. I think they need to give it another chance.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Terminator Suckvation

Terminator Salvation is basically a slightly better version of Battlefield Earth. I know this an ad hominen point that's been run into the ground, but it's hard to expect much from a director who encourages the use of his "McG" nickname, especially one who has never made a movie that was worth watching. Never. This guy is such a douche, he publicly tells those who criticize his big screen adaptation of Charlie's Angels and its sequel to "fuck off." I've seen more artistic integrity in a stick-figure doodle. You cannot make such a set of movies and defend it when people rightly recognize it as shit.

I'm so sick of movies with such ridiculous plots taking themselves so seriously. Since when was it okay for a movie to be so joyless? Are all the new filmmakers emo adults who think the audience should be depressed just by the way their movies look? When you have metal skeletons shooting at your characters, it takes a lot of misdirection to make that boring. What we have here is an example of a movie director who doesn't understand drama trying to craft a drama out of a franchise that was fun the first two times around, then uninspired the next.

The movie begins with a story box. I groaned. Then, a future biological machine named Marcus (Sam Worthington) is prepared to be executed on a table which conveniently allows the director to sneak in crucifix imagery—shit's so basic they teach it the first day in Metaphor 101. I groaned again. There's a plot, which is as simple as you can get when you tamper with the mythology surrounding John and Sarah Conner, Kyle Reese, and the fact that, originally, Skynet was supposed to have roasted the world by 1997.

(When the flow of time can be so easily changed, why should we care what happened/happens? One gets the feeling they'll just change it in the sequel anyway.)

Despite this "simplicity," the plot's needlessly complex and convoluted; beginning with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, they had explanations for why Skynet was "postponed," but no real good reasons beyond the obvious financial ones.

And there was no good reason to continue after T2: Judgment Day, either. It's so obviously a money-making scheme, I was turned off from the get-go. Which isn't to say I didn't give the newer films a chance. It took me several false starts to get through parts 3 and 4, but I did it. Too bad John Conner can't send a terminator back to stop the production of those movies, for they take away a lot from the good ones. You can't trust anything in the series anymore. Part 5 will probably go back and alter it so that parts 1 and 2 never even happened. Then the filmmakers will be free to screw up the franchise in any way they choose.

Terminator is a great movie, but Terminator 2 is also great movie in a completely different way. It wasn't about Skynet and machine-on-machine fight sequences, not entirely anyway. It was about John Conner and his need for a father figure. It was about how a machine, the very thought of which the main character's mother despised, could provide that role. I imagine the idea came to James Cameron naturally. He wasn't just sitting around, wondering what he could do next to keep the franchise going. And for the film's villain, he imagined a logical successor: the T-1000, which provided something we had never seen before in a movie.

The villain in Terminator 3, on the other hand, provided something we had seen done a million times before in all those terrible movies that ripped off the first Terminator films. There was nothing new. It felt more like a sequel to JCVD's Cyborg than a movie worthy of the Terminator title. John Conner was an absolutely terrible kid in part two, yet he was a lot easier to sympathize with than the boring adult version presented in part 3, or the one-note JC in Salvation for that matter.

Which brings me to the continuity errors surrounding John Conner's character. The only father he'd ever known was a machine. He was helped again by a machine in the same incarnation in part 3, albeit a lot less believably. So why, then, wasn't he a little more receptive of the idea of a good terminator in Salvation? Why did he automatically hate Marcus so bad? Even his mother eventually learned to accept the idea a machine could be good. So why the sudden turn-around?

I'll tell you why: bad writing. That and lack of respect for the preceding films. You ask me, that's unforgivable.

The obvious direction the fourth film should have taken was an exploration of Kyle Reese's relationship with John Conner, similar to the father/son riffs in Terminator 2. Instead, you have Reese taken hostage midway through the movie and held there nearly until the end. By the time Conner finally meets him during the ridiculous climax, there's no time left to explore anything remotely interesting.

Which just goes to prove that once you remove the human element, you're left with is a film that amounts to porn for action junkies. But even though it's the focus, I felt even the action wasn't good enough for the franchise. It didn't flow like music as it did in the first two and it didn't do anything new whatsoever. (Okay, one scene was pretty good: it's when John Conner gets into a helicopter, flies away from a nuclear blast, and crash-lands when the EMP knocks him out of the air. It was all done in one shot, which was mildly interesting, but that doesn't make up for the fact that Conner was so lacking in character, I couldn't sympathize with him enough to care.)

Other thoughts about the franchise:

  • The writers of part 3 were sitting around a table, wondering how they could make their villain better than the villain in Terminator 2, which was an impossible goal from the get-go. One writer probably exclaimed, "I know! We'll make it a woman!" And then they proceeded to pat each other on the backs and blow each other.
  • The obnoxious biblical symbolism began in part 3's ending, I believe. John Conner and Clair Danes are Adam and Eve. How goddamned sickening. 
  • In parts 1 and 2, we get a feeling for how the terminators were programmed. We get in their heads and learn how they think. In parts 3 and 4, they don't think at all. They fire a million bullets, even when the characters have long ago removed themselves from the path of fire, and they fall into impossible traps with all the grace of lemmings. (By the way, why do they have such bad aim now?) One terminator, in part 4, is caught hanging upside down in a rope. Instead of shooting the rope, it shoots its foot—its own fucking foot! Yet another point where I groaned. The terminators now lack a certain strategical purpose. They're essentially metal zombies with guns now.


    I hadn't seen WarGames since I was a kid and didn't expect much from it when I watched it for the first time as an adult. I tend to hate eighties movies, which isn't to say I hate all movies which were made in the eighties. I just hate movies which are quintessentially eighties-ish. Yeah, some of the John Hughes stuff was all right, but it's nothing I really want to watch again in the twenty-first century. (Sorry, Ducky. Sorry Long Duk Dong. Sorry Emilio Estevez's career.)

    I'm thankful to say WarGames is not just an eighties movie. It's not Ferris Bueller Hacks NORAD, which was my preconceived notion of the film. The promotional material leads you to believe that's what they're selling, but Hollywood isn't known for its truth in advertising.

    The movie opens in a missile silo. Two regular guys are faced with the task of keeping an eye on their assigned launch station. We're led to believe they never thought they'd be faced with actually having to push the button—it's just a job to them, showing up and looking at the blinking lights while they make idle chitchat. What human being could possibly accept what it really means to push the button? Not many summer blockbusters bother to ask that question. The ones that do don't get it right.

    This one did.

    That's when the unimaginable happens: they're ordered to launch without warning. And what happened next actually had my heart pumping. Pure and simple, the name of the game is suspense. Here, nuclear war is not just a convenient plot device. The appropriate understanding and horror of this warfare is conveyed before we even see the title screen.

    The two men in the missile silo fail to launch the weapon, so the brass at NORAD make the decision to take humans out of the equation all together. A super computer would have all the capabilities of a human to push the button, with none of the conscience.

    the opening

    Next we're taken through a series of seemingly conventional Hollywood setups. Seventeen year old David Lightman (Mathew Broderick) is a somewhat popular kid who spends a lot of time in his bedroom, messing about with his modem-enabled Imsai 8080 mircocomputer, which I hope is in a museum somewhere.

    His high school love interest is introduced, whose character is usually only hinted at but never really fleshed out. It doesn't matter because she seems like a real girl and I didn't think her interest in David ever came off phony. After all, David has the power to hack into their high school's computer and change their grades. What girl wouldn't consider a guy like that a catch?

    One day David is leafing through a magazine when he discovers an advertisement for an upcoming computer game. I had no idea mysterious, Kojima-like hype-generation existed back then, but apparently it did in this movie's version of 1983. The ad promises the best video game ever made, but you'll have to wait until Christmas time to see what it is. David refuses to wait. Instead, he commands his computer to dial every phone number with the same area code as the video game company. The idea is his computer will provide him with a list of every computer connected to a modem in the area. If he's lucky, he'll find one with the secret video game on its hard drive.

    David thinks he finds the computer he's looking for and launches a game called Global Thermonuclear War. What he's really playing, however, is the super computer at NORAD. Now that I'm faced with explaining it, it seems so needlessly complex and convoluted, but the movie handles it so well you'll barely notice: the super computer is an artificial intelligence that plays war games 24/7, constantly learning, constantly predicting the enemy's preemptive strikes and countermeasures so that it'll be ready for the real thing.

    The problem is, there is no enemy and the super computer is already ready for the real thing. There is no good and evil, either. The computer is only doing what it thinks it's supposed to be doing when it decides to launch an actual global thermonuclear war. Which plucks this film from the usual cat-and-mouse thrillers we're so accustomed to.

    Thankfully, the message is not one of technophobia, nor is it as blandly simple as "nuclear war bad." Rolland Emmerich, as well as the producers of the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, should take note: you don't have to be so painfully stupid and obvious when you make a movie like this. Being smart does not negate the ability to entertain your audience.

    Movies should be fun, no ifs ands or buts. WarGames occasionally insults the intelligence (micro-cassette recorders can be hacked to open keypad-protected doors?), but it's fun and cleverly so. If anything, it really captured the attitude of real life hackers who, if you think about it, are the kinds of people who gave us affordable microcomputers and the Internet to begin with. There are some things I didn't like about the movie, notably the stereotypically nerdy computer specialists who help David crack NORAD's backdoor password, but the climax of the film is unlike any I've ever seen. It hit me hard and it stuck with me. I only wish more movies in the genre were so high above taking the easy way out: explosions and gunfights.

    Tuesday, April 27, 2010

    HBO "Starship" Intro: Behind the Scenes

    Here's the original HBO "starship" intro, which played before a movie:

    And here's how they did it:

    My father, who can barely remember a movie he saw yesterday, was talking about this behind-the-scenes special recently. Oh, how CGI has made things easier/shittier.

    Thursday, April 15, 2010

    Second Impressions: Ebooks

    See my first impressions of my ebook reader here.

    Well, I gave it a try, but I'm back to traditional ink and paper for my reading needs. Summer's coming up and I'm not sure if I'm comfortable leaving a $200+ device in my car during the sweltering, Oklahoma heat. (Fuck Oklahoma weather, by the way.) Actually, I'm not sure I'm comfortable with it at all. You have to pamper the fucking thing and you can't just leave it lying around next to your bed or on the bathroom floor. In fact, it's scary taking it into the bathroom altogether, what with the close proximity of all that water.

    Complaint #1: The digital clock in the upper right hand corner of the screen. 

    Why would I need this? I've got GPS navigators, phones, and everything else that takes a battery telling me what time it is. When I read a book, I'm trying to leave the real world. Is there a way to turn the clock off? I don't know. Maybe it's in the manual, but the manual's on my ebook reader, which brings me to...

    Complaint #2: Reading reference books is a PAIN IN THE ASS.

    You want to flip to the things you need. You sometimes want to flip back and forth. You can't do that on an ebook reader, not if you want to keep your sanity. You have to use the gruelingly unresponsive touchpad screen to search for the information you want. You have to wait for it to load. And that reminds me of yet another complaint...

    Complaint #3: Loading times.

    A traditional book accesses the page you want in the time it takes you to turn to it. Ebook readers get hung up frequently. They freeze. Mine isn't the only one... I Googled the problem and discovered a significant portion of the population who was also duped into buying such a gadget had the same issues. I also got the feeling that they hated their devices as much as I did.

    Complaint #4: It's infant technology.

    If you buy a reader as they're made today, IT WILL EVENTUALLY CRASH ON YOU. I like to open a book and immediately escape. Sometimes I only get a few minutes of reading time, which I sometimes desperately need on a bad day. On one such day, I turned on my ebook reader and it froze. I had to take the battery out and put it back in, wait for it to boot up, and by then I didn't have the time to read anymore.

    Complaint #5: People have to ask what you're reading... and they usually won't.

    It doesn't happen often, but a world in which complete strangers can't see the book I'm reading, and therefor can't strike up a conversation because they read the same book, is a world I don't want to live in. Then again, depending on what you read, maybe that's a plus. Hey, I ain't judgin'.

    There are some pros to the cons. For one, you can turn the page with one hand, left or right. That comes in handy when you're eating, cooking, or driving (okay, kidding about that last one). Another advantage is traveling. Whenever I leave the house for for an extended period of time, I tend to take three or four books with me at a minimum. With an ebook reader, you can take something like 1,500 if you want. You can also... well no, that's about it. Ebook readers suck right now.

    So... anyone want to buy my ebook reader?

    Friday, March 19, 2010

    I Learned Science from Arthur C. Clarke

    Two years ago today, the last surviving member of science fiction's "Big Three" died. It was Arthur C. Clarke, whose prose was never really what anyone else would call great, but it was sufficient. That's not the point. He was an ideas man.

    ACC also had science—real science, when it didn't get in the way of awesomeness—and he had a huge influence on my imagination today, which is why I believe that science fiction stories and fiction in general are healthy things for children; a lot of Clarke's works would have been labeled "young adult" if released today. I was always interested in science, but I wasn't in love with the subject until ACC showed me how weird and bizarre it is.

    So maybe I should really say I learned science appreciation from Clarke, instead of using the sensational title above, but having revisited a lot of his stories lately, I was struck by one epiphany after another: it was unreal how often I would stop reading and think, "Oh... so that's why I started thinking about that at such an early age." He didn't just have a big influence on my interest in science, but creatively and politically.

    I never realized how much Clarke influenced the adult I would grow up to be until recently. 

    Rendezvous with Rama

    Consider Rendezvous with Rama, which won both the Hugo and the Nebula, not to mention it's one of the books that got me reading in the first place. It's a haunting adventure story told without the prerequisite heroes and damsels in distress, yet it's every bit as entertaining as Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure. Clarke's seminal work begins: "Sooner or later, it was bound to happen."

    The book's fictional element starts on September 11th, 2077, when a meteorite strikes Earth and kills six hundred thousand people. This is foreshadowed, a paragraph before, by Clarke's textbook narration of two narrow misses in real life: in June of 1908, "Moscow escaped destruction by three hours and four thousand kilometers—a margin invisibly small by the standards of the universe. On February 12, 1947, another Russian city had a still narrower escape, when the second great meteorite of the twentieth century detonated less than four hundred kilometers from Vladivostok, with an explosion rivaling that of the newly invented uranium bomb."

    Clarke writes on about the killer meteorite of 2077:

    Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged. They were the lucky ones.

    The catastrophe spurs humans to implement SPACEGUARD, a program which watches for catastrophic collisions. Fifty years later, SPACEGUARD (which is on the brink of being shut down) discovers what scientists will soon call Rama: a cylindrical spacecraft which has mysteriously entered our solar system and will soon leave. This gives humans a very small window by which to study the alien craft. At which point I was hooked and spent a long night reading the novel beneath my covers with a flashlight.

    The year was 1993 and I was ten years old. I'd seen Rama Revealed on a bookshelf and was fascinated by the cover and its synopsis. When I realized it was a sequel, I begged one of my parents to order a copy of the original book for me. Here's a startling thought: what if they hadn't? Honestly, the very thing that makes me me is so deeply wrapped up in that story. If they hadn't indulged my request, the person writing this post wouldn't exist.

    What Rendezvous did for me was introduce my feeble little mind to visual thinking, including in and about conceptual physics. The spacecraft Rama generates artificial "gravity" via centripetal force. Inside, separating the two halves of the cylindrical craft is an ocean in the form of a equatorial band, held in place by said spin. Perhaps I struggled with this imagery at first: a giant band of water that "sticks" to the inside of the cylinder's continuous wall. And when the characters ride a boat in the middle of this ocean, they can look up and see more of the ocean ahead and above them.

    Sure, this type of spacecraft setup has been a staple of science fiction before and since, but it was probably my first brush with the concept. In an interesting subplot somewhere in the middle of the book, the explorers want to get a look at the device at the far end of the craft, which they assume is some sort of a space drive. You see spaceships in movies that don't have any visible means of propulsion, but in an ACC story, this is troublesome because it violates Netwon's third law of motion: "For every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction."

    The Sentinel/2001: A Space Odyssey

    Some time after inhaling the entire Rama series, I found the book version of 2001, which was more or less written concurrently with the film at Kubrick's request. If nothing else, it expanded on the Dawn of Man stuff seen in the film, which was probably the first time I considered human evolution and our prehistoric ancestors. It also expands on how Hal 9000 tries to kill the main character, which in some ways is scarier than the movie. I mean, imagine being alone on a spaceship with a brilliant yet murderous computer and, suddenly... well, let's not spoil that here, but the sequence was probably deemed unfilmable by Kubrick's budget, which is why we got what we got—which was good, too.

    The novel is allegedly based on ACC's short story The Sentinel, which is probably the first time I considered the fact that the haze of distance is unique to planetary objects with atmospheres:

    On the Moon, of course, there is no loss of detail with distance—none of that almost imperceptible haziness which softens and sometimes transfigures all far-off things on Earth.

    This may not be pertinent information to most people, but it was exactly the kind of information I needed as a budding science geek. (Though the short story is essentially the beginning of 2001, minus the Dawn of Man stuff, ACC himself has said 2001 really isn't based on The Sentinel despite common belief.)

    The Early Stuff

    Some of ACC's earlier stuff may seem a little lackluster compared to classics like 2001 and Rama, but the science is still pretty hard and the stories are charming, if not disappointingly simplistic in structure. Some of the things he dwells on is common knowledge for most SF fans (particularly the "There's no up or down in space" stuff), but I think it's interesting to note how early he was writing it... specifically the fact that he was writing it before humans ever went to space. A lot of what he wrote was not common knowledge when originally published.

    And sometimes he demonstrated unexpected humor early on, as is the case with Islands in the Sky, a novel aimed at teenagers in which the narrator wins a trip to space:

    There were also, I'd discovered, some interesting tricks and practical jokes that could be played in space. One of the best involved nothing more complicated than an ordinary match.

    What happens is the other astronauts play a prank on the boy: they tell him the way you make sure you have a fresh supply of oxygen is the same way miners do it back on Earth: you light a match. (Never mind why astronauts have matches on board. That's not the point.) If the match goes out, "well, you go out too, as quickly as you can!"

    One of the astronauts demonstrates by lighting a match which promptly extinguishes itself, much to the boy's dismay.

    It's funny how the mind works, for up to that moment I'd been breathing comfortably, yet now I seemed to be suffocating.

    The boy worriedly tells him to light another match. And it, too, goes out. Then, after the boy panics, he realizes they were only pulling his chain. ACC then has his characters explain that, in the absence of gravity, smoke has nowhere to go and suffocates the flame. I don't know why, but that scene always stuck with me. I guess I enjoyed daydreaming about all the pranks you could pull in microgravity.

    Childhood's End

    Childhood's End is probably the most loved of Clarke's earlier novels. (I confess I didn't care that much for it the first time I read it, and only begrudgingly enjoy aspects of it now that I'm adult.) At one point in the novel, the characters successfully use a device that's essentially a spirit board, which is disappointing to those who love ACC's usually hard science. (Yes, Clarke's work has always been described as "mystical," but more in an Indiana Jones way, minus the paranormal crap. Think: the ark of the covenant if it were a natural artifact instead of a paranormal relic.)

    Having said that, beyond the explanations of time dilation at relativistic speeds (one of the first times I was introduced to that concept), the only thing about Childhood's End that really sticks out in my mind today is the introduction included in my edition (1990, Pan Books LTD.). There, Clarke admits that he was impressed by the evidence for the paranormal when he wrote Childhood's End.

    When Childhood's End first appeared, many readers were baffled by a statement after the title page to the effect that "The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author." This was not entirely facetious; I had just published The Exploration of Space, and painted an optimistic picture of our future expansion into the Universe. Now I had written a book which said, "The stars are not for Man," and I did not want anyone to think I had suddenly recanted.
    Today, I would like to change the target of that disclaimer to cover 99 percent of the "paranormal" (it can't all be nonsense) and 100 percent of UFO "encounters."

    At any rate, I just thought I'd use the anniversary of Clarke's death to geek out about the things that made me such a geek today.

    The Non-Evolution of the Hacker Movie

    According to Hollywood, all you need to be a hacker is a computer and a keyboard... and freakishly fast typing skills. You don't even need a mouse! Here are three trailers for hacker films, from three different decades.

    The art of hacking hasn't changed much since Ferris Bueller started in the eighties, eh?

    Sunday, February 21, 2010

    The Nook: First Impressions

    I've gone to the dark side: I purchased my first ebook reader this weekend.

    Okay, I've experimented with ebooks in the past, but never on a dedicated reader. When I was a teenager, back when iMesh and KaZaa were still new (and free), I tried to read some of Clive Barker's stuff on my computer, quickly got annoyed, and went and bought it in paperback. Four or five years ago, I bought a Pocket PC and tried to read .lit files on it. Again, I got discouraged and bought the same ebooks in paper form. More recently, I read ebooks on my Android phone with a two-dollar app, but that, too, led to disappointment—the app itself was as good as market apps get, but no software can physically change the hardware setup... reading on such a tiny screen is a bitch.

    As I've indicated before, I was extremely skeptical of ebook readers. I wanted to wait until the devices became cheaper and better and, above all, I wanted to see who and what formats would beat out the rest. I also wanted the DRM shit to go away, which punishes the law-abiding folks and merely annoys the criminals. So then why did I buy one?

    It was a mixture of curiousity and boredom, I suspect. I also forgot half the crap I wrote in that last article. That's me: good memory until it comes to things I said, I wrote, or things that matter.

    I bought a Nook, the ebook reader sold at Barnes & Noble. I didn't like it very much at first. It was, initially, the most confusing device I've ever met. The loading times aren't that great, but they're not brutal either.

    Then it kind of grew on me. About the e-ink, I previously wrote:

    The first time I saw one in real life, I thought I was looking at a demonstration display until I flipped to the next page. If you didn't know any better, you'd think you were reading an actual piece of paper. 

    The initial reaction is one thing, but you really can't appreciate e-ink until you've spent several hours with it. I bought mine yesterday afternoon and spent eight hours on it. Eyes hurting? Not at all. Battery depleted? Not much. I haven't made a conscious effort to charge it yet, but it's been plugged into my computer a lot for USB transfers, which happens to charge the device.

    I should note that on my way home from buying the Nook, I passed one of my favorite book stores. Then I felt very ashamed.

    Friday, January 29, 2010

    Perfect Dark: A Personal History

    Jumping Through Hoops

    Perfect Dark came out for the Nintendo 64 in May of 2000. The $50 price tag was a bit steep for a high school student, but I'd heard good things about the game: mainly that the violence was as realistic as anything in Saving Private Ryan, which was pretty rare for a Nintendo game of any era. That was actually a pretty good word-of-mouth review for an extremely immature seventeen year old.

    What teenager wouldn't want this game?

    It wasn't until I got home from the store that I noticed the warning label on the front of the box: "EXPANSION PAK REQUIRED FOR MAXIMUM GAMEPLAY!"

    what the fuuuuuuuuuuuu'?

    This worried me a little, but how bad could a N64 game be without this expansion pak thingy? DOOM 64 was absolutely awesome on the same console. If Perfect Dark without an expansion pak was as good as DOOM 64, then that was $50 well spent, right?

    I was wrong. So wrong.

    The game only ran certain portions of the full game in an extremely tiny box surrounded by a giant black border. It was like trying to play Gameboy from a distance. Pretty pointless and pretty disappointing.

    Still, I was reluctant to buy the pak. A few years earlier, I'd been scammed into buying Sega's 32X nonsense. See, instead of making a new console, Sega made the 32X, which "enhanced" the Sega Genesis and its other console add-on, the Sega CD (which I didn't get until much later, when a friend bought me a used one for my birthday). Then they turned around and made a brand new console a few months anyway.

    The Angry Video Game Nerd reviews the Sega 32X... angrily.

    Was Nintendo trying to pull the same crap? I assumed if I actually bought it, Nintendo would just turn around and release a brand new console, a "Nintendo CDX-RIP-OFF" or some such shit. But without the expansion pak, Perfect Dark was pretty much worthless and Toys 'R' Us was on the other side of town. So I borrowed the money from my parents and bit the bullet. When all was said and done, I was an underage plumbing apprentice who had a hundred bucks invested in all this nonsense, which, back then, felt more like five-hundred dollars.


    As it turned out the expansion pak was completely worth it. In the years since, people have critiqued frame rate issues and such, but that just wasn't something kids gave a shit about. Okay, so maybe the game wasn't as realistic as anything in Saving Private Ryan, but for 2000's standards, everything in and about the game was like nothing I'd ever seen before. The multiplayer was local versus and co-op (something video game programmers are criminally neglecting these days) and I've never seen more customization options in my life.

    I dislike shields and health meters. My friends and I always thought one-shot kills were a lot more fun among the frantic NPCs, whose guns were a-blazin'. That wasn't necessarily the way Perfect Dark was meant to be played, but you could play it that way. You could pretty much play it in any way you wanted. No game since has provided so much multiplayer fun in my experience because I felt ripped off by almost every shooter that came out afterwards. Shooters today are just too rigid.

    So in 2000 and 2001, a friend and I were logging several hours a day on PD, neglecting our social lives, and becoming so undeniably nerdy that we videotaped our matches so that we could review and improve our tactics. The game was inexhaustible. If you ever got bored, you dreamed up and implemented a new custom scenario, not that you ever got bored much. During one marathon gaming binge that lasted all day and half the night, a blood vessel burst in my eyeball. Perfect Dark was taking over my life and my health was suffering.

    Naturally, I couldn't wait for the sequel.

    Perfect Dark 2

    We kept hearing rumors, but nothing concrete. Nintendo came out with their next console, the Gamecube, and everyone bought one because we were sure Perfect Dark 2 would show up on the console soon. It didn't. We were disappointed to learn that Microsoft bought Rare (the company that made PD) or something like that, and it would be on their new console, the XBOX.

    I was heartbroken. Almost every shooter I tried on Gamecube only reminded me that 97.2% of games would never quite reach the zenith that was Perfect Dark on Nintendo 64.

    I broke down and finally bought an XBOX around the middle of its life cycle, praying the racing games would hold me over until Perfect Dark 2 released. Then I wanted to shoot myself when it was announced that the next Perfect Dark would be on Microsoft's next next-gen console, the XBOX 360.

    Naturally, I went out and bought one of those, too. Halo 3 and Gears of War are great and all, but... yeah.

    Perfect Dark Zero

    By the time they actually made the sequel, which was actually a prequel, most of the people who worked on the original game were long gone. What the new team came up with wasn't a terrible game, but it wasn't anywhere near Perfect. In comparison, it was a pale imitation having little in common with what made the first one so great. Sure, you assumed the same character, got to do a lot of the same things in the same style, but the multiplayer was geared for online play rather than local. Yet again, fans of the source material—many of whom preferred gaming on their couches—were screwed.

    It was Perfectly clear by then: Perfect Dark was dead. And I was stuck with three consoles I probably could have lived without.

    Perfect Dark Redeux

    So how do you please fans of the source material? Re-release Perfect Dark in HD on a next-gen console with the original multiplayer intact. Last summer it was announced that Rare was going to do just that on XBOX 360. The game is currently slated for a Q1 release this year (which means anytime between now and April), and although I would like to say I'm not getting my hopes up, I am. I'm looking forward to wasting my time on a great game again.

    It's been far too long, Joanna.