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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Serial Thoughts
Over the past month or so, I've caught up with and finished off the first "season" of Serial, a NPR podcast that spun off from This American Life. It was a 12 week series of podcasts of varying length that attempted to exhaustively cover one murder case from 1999. The devil is in the details, and if you're fond of that saying, you'll probably enjoy Serial (I am and I did!) You'll be safe for the next few paragraphs, but there will be a spoiler warning later in the post.

The case covers how a popular high school senior, Hae Min Lee, was murdered by her ex-boyfriend and classmate Adnan Syed. He claims innocence, but the prosecution had a witness named Jay who says that he did it. It's an interesting case, especially once you start digging into the details, but that's not why the podcast is great. The creator, Sarah Koenig, takes a very active role in the podcast, such that it's not really about the murder so much as her perspective on the murder and how she reacts to the various pieces of evidence or, more frequently, how difficult it is to actually piece together coherent evidence.

Therein lies the strength of Serial, the stubborn insistence that it's extremely difficult to piece together the details of what happened 6 weeks ago (and even moreso 15 years ago). It's one of the first points the podcast makes, asking several people (unrelated to the case in question) what they were doing 6 weeks ago (no one could confidently remember in detail), and it's something that comes up repeatedly throughout the series.

Watching TV shows like CSI or Bones makes it seem easy to figure out in minute detail exactly what happened in the past, but that's clearly not the case in real life. One of the most amusing examples in the podcast is the alleged payphone outside of a Best Buy store: no one can confirm that it ever existed. Best Buy doesn't remember, the phone company doesn't know, blueprints show a space for a payphone inside the building (but no one remembers that either), and so on. The case against Adnan definitely depends on that phone being there, but no one can corroborate it (though it does seem unlikely that no one would have noticed that the phone didn't exist during the investigation and later trial, it's still a good example of how difficult it is to piece things together). It's probably worth remembering this sort of stuff the next time some sort of controversial crime is committed or even the next time you get angered by something as trivial as a tweet or something like that.

The other interesting thing about Koenig's perspective is that it seems pretty clear that she entered into this case because she thought there was a fair chance that Adnan was innocent. This is not at all unusual, but it is an interesting look at how media bias shapes the way stories are pursued (it would be a great story if Adnan was innocent, perhaps not so much if he wasn't and the courts got it right). To her credit, Koenig doesn't seem to ignore any of the evidence that looks bad for Adnan, and indeed, spends a lot of time on those aspects of the story. This again gets back to the difficulty in piecing together events from the past. Koenig doesn't downplay any of the evidence, but there are so many holes in the story that it's hard to know what actually happened.

(Here be the Spoilers) And in the end, after over a year's worth of investigation, Koenig still doesn't know. In the final episode, she does personally come down on Adnan's side, but only in an "innocent until proven guilty" sorta way. She just doesn't know enough about what actually happened to Hae to say for sure that Adnan actually did murder her. She says that if she was on the jury, she would vote to acquit. Having listened to her perspective for 12 weeks worth of podcasts, I would probably agree, except what do I know but what Koenig presented to me? There's a reason that a trial has two opposing advocates. I mentioned earlier that Koenig "doesn't seem to ignore any of the evidence", but how would I know that?

At the very start of the series, I was immediately reminded of Errol Morris's documentary The Thin Blue Line, which covers a case in which a police officer is killed in Dallas, Texas. Morris has stated that he started this project with a specific goal in mind (I won't go into too much detail here because it's a film you should watch and I don't want to ruin anything), and unlike Koenig, he actually got to that endpoint. The movie actually had a tangible impact on the system, eventually causing decisions to be overturned on appeal. Again, Morris embraced his subjectivity in making this movie. He was almost taunting the viewer through his use of non-linearity, editing, and even visual cues like lighting and framing.

Did Koenig do something similar in Serial? The podcasts are primarily comprised of her direct address to the listeners. She frequently plays audio recordings of calls with Adnan, police interviews, and even court proceedings, but they are usually very short clips. She also attacks the case from multiple angles, thus leading to a non-linearity that also reminded me of Morris' documentary. And while it's clear that she spent a long time pouring through documents, evidence, and audio, it's not entirely clear how much was left out in the interest of streamlining the story. This sounds overly cynical and paranoid, I'm sure, but that's kind of the point, isn't it? How do we know what happened? With the case, with the podcast, with anything!?

That might sound like a copout, but it's not. It's a simple recognition that sometimes the Truth is not always knowable. A project like Serial or The Thin Blue Line could lead to revelations, as it did with the latter, or with a big fat question mark, as it did with former. Sometimes you still need to make a decision, even when you don't have all the facts you would like. Ultimately, assuming Koenig to be trustworthy (and I have no reason to really doubt her, despite the above), I'd have to agree with her conclusion. There's no real answer, but I don't know that the evidence was clear enough to convict someone either.

I've often wondered about The Thin Blue Line - was Morris just lucky? How did he know to keep pushing the established story? How do you select a case for this sort of thing? How much time do you spend investigating before you decide whether to continue or not? When and why would you consider giving up on a case? Serial has been a resounding success, and it appears that there will be a "Season 2" of the podcast, so perhaps this will be one of the things Koenig addresses. It would be entirely fitting with the general tenor of the series so far. (In case it's not abundantly clear, if you are reading this and enjoyed Serial, I highly recommend checking out The Thin Blue Line, currently available on Netflix Instant!)
Posted by Mark on December 28, 2014 at 04:16 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A few years ago, Neal Stephenson wrote an article in Wired called Innovation Starvation. In it, he laments the decline of the space program ("Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars?") and a general failure of our society to get big things done. He brought up concerns at a conference, and promptly got a finger pointed back at him: if Science Fiction authors weren't so pessimistic, they might have inspired a new generation of folks who actually could get things done. Intrigued, Stephenson set out to correct that imbalance with something called Project Hieroglyph a collaboration between SF authors and real scientists at Arizona State University. There were two major challenges that Stephenson laid out: a moratorium on dystopian futures as well as "technology so advanced that the world it describes bears little or no resemblance to our own world." In short, no "hackers, hyperspace and holocaust". The result of all this is a collection of short stories, also called Hieroglyph, that was recently published. I would probably have read this in any case, but I was also hoping to find some short fiction to nominate for the Hugo Awards. Alas, like most anthologies that I've read, this collection is decidedly hit or miss. Surprisingly, there are quite a few stories that do read like a dystopia, and many seem to have a fundamentally pessimistic idea at their core. This is quite distressing, considering that this collection was supposed to get us away from such things. It's not all bad, of course, and there are several bright spots, but I was overall pretty disappointed.
  • Atmosphæra Incognita by Neal Stephenson - Unsurprisingly, this is one of my favorites of the collection. It's a story about building a twenty-kilometer tall building. Stephenson explores the limits of our current civil engineering capabilities in his usual detail, and I am totally a sucker for the style. There are several moments of conceptual breakthrough and the sense of wonder is palpable. This is impressive since he's not really proposing any crazy new technologies. This 20 km building is being built with current technologies, just on a much larger scale than anyone has actually dreamed to do. Stephenson, at least, seems to have taken his guidelines to heart. In addition, it feels like something actually happens in this story. Stephenson doesn't downplay the difficulties of such a project, and the main conflict is derived from that, but his attitude is optimistic and the story is a great read. Highly recommended, and will probably be on my short fiction ballot somewhere (is this a short story or novelette?)
  • Girl In Wave : Wave in Girl by Kathleen Ann Goonan - The idea at the core of this story is an interesting one, a way to dramatically improve the learning capabilities of the brain, and Goonan does a decent enough job exploring the possibilities. Alas, there's not much of a story to hang this on. It reads more like a history lesson or short memoir than a real story. Nothing wrong with that, to be sure, and the idea is at least interesting and optimistic. Ranking this somewhere near the top of the middle tier of the stories.
  • By the Time We Get To Arizona by Madeline Ashby - This one is about the interplay of technology with immigration. Once again, I'm not sure the story is particularly eventful, and the idea isn't super clear either. In fact, one could read this more as a dystopia (especially with respect to the surveillance state), though Ashby thankfully doesn't go fully down that path. This would be in the middle tier of the stories.
  • The Man Who Sold the Moon by Cory Doctorow - This is the longest story in the collection and it reads strangely dystopic in its outlook. It centers around a couple of Burning Man like festivals, and spends a lot of time going through automated 3D printer robot thingies. Eventually it gets to the interesting part, where we send a bunch of these robots to the Moon to create the building blocks for our next trip to the moon. Alas, I was not particularly inspired by this story. The impression I'm left with is that we'd send these robots up there, they would build a bunch of stuff for us, but we'd never get there because we're too busy destroying ourselves back on Earth or something like that. Lower tier!
  • Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA by Lee Konstantinou - Another seeming dystopia, exploring some interesting ideas about drones and the commons, but it's still an ultimately pessimistic look. Lower tier!
  • Degrees of Freedom by Karl Schroeder - This is an odd one for me. On the one hand, it's exploring one of the more relevant and important ideas in the anthology. It's all about how Big Data and collaborative decision-making tools could make the political process more effective, and the system described here really stuck with me. Of course, we are talking about a short story here, so I have about a gazillion questions and am not really convinced that the particular implementation described in the story would work quite that well, but that's also kinda the point. The particular system described here probably won't work, but it does hit that goal of inspiration pretty hard. Bottom of the top tier!
  • Two Scenarios for the Future of Solar Energy by Annalee Newitz - This one takes the form of a guided tour through a couple of futuristic, carbon-neutral cities, each of which uses an approach that mimics biological processes in some way. It's got some interesting ideas, but the "guided tour" approach didn't really work that well for me. Middle tier.
  • A Hotel in Antarctica by Geoffrey Landis - An interesting idea and Landis does spend time working through the practical aspects of building a hotel in Antarctica. We hit it from many angles: political, environmental, and physical. There's even a surprising interaction with an environmental activist, though I found that a bit on the nose too. Still, it's a fun little story that ranks somewhere towards the bottom of the top tier here...
  • Periapsis by James L. Cambias - Among the more out-there efforts in terms of being very futuristic, but it's not so far-fetched as to be unapproachable. It's set in the far future, and it covers a competition amongst a bunch of young adults. The prize: citizenship on Deimos, one of Mars' moons. Deimos has become the economic powerhouse of the solar system, and features a small population of very innovative people. This is one of the few short stories that actually feels like a story. There's an actual plot here! And there's plenty of interesting bits of technology and breakthroughs too. It's among the best in the collection and I plan on nominating this for a Hugo. Top tier!
  • The Man Who Sold the Stars by Gregory Benford - An interesting story that covers how an ambitious businessman started mining out asteroids in order to fund his search for other Earth-like planets. It's an odd one in that we're spending time with the richest of the rich, but it's implied that things aren't going quite as well for everyone else, at least in the near term. By the end, though, things seem to be working out, and there's a clever little bit around a nearby Earth-like planet that I enjoyed. Top of the middle tier? Bottom of the top tier?
  • Entanglement by Vandana Singh - This one really didn't do it for me. It's all climate change and misery. I think. The only thing I really remember about this story is how much I didn't like it, which probably says something. Bottom tier!
  • Elephant Angels by Brenda Cooper - This one proposes the use of drones to prevent Ivory poaching (or track down the poachers after the fact). It's an interesting idea, but comes off feeling a little slight compared to the other stories in the collection. Then again, that sorta rings true as well. Bottom of the middle tier.
  • Covenant by Elizabeth Bear - An interesting look at a convicted serial killer who gets "rightminded" to prevent future murders. It reminded me a little of Clockwork Orange, only it seems to approve of this treatment. There's lots to dig into here from a moral and social aspect, and Bear also tells a quick little story here too. Bottom of the top tier.
  • Quantum Telepathy by Rudy Rucker - Lots of bioengineering and the titular concept of Quantum Telepathy work reasonably well, but it feels kinda like bio-punk or something like that. It's a little too weird to be all that inspirational, but it works well enough I guess. Middle tier!
  • Transition Generation by David Brin - At first this one feels like a dystopia, but it turns out well in a fairly predictable way that is nonetheless pretty entertaining to read. Top of the middle tier!
  • The Day It All Ended by Charlie Jane Anders - One of the more fun entries in the collection, I have a hard time believing this could ever happen, but it's still a fun story that tries to pull the rug out from underneath you several times. Anders is playing the game well enough that I don't mind some of the more ludicrous aspects of the story. Top of the middle tier.
  • Tall Tower by Bruce Sterling - The second story about a giant tower, this one has a decidedly less optimistic approach, though it's clearly not a dystopia or anything like that. I've never been a big fan of Cyberpunk, so perhaps it's not surprising that the authors famous for that (see also: Rudy Rucker) don't really connect with me. This story has some interesting stuff in it, but it also doesn't really go anywhere.
And there you have it. There's also an interview at the end that has some interesting stuff, as well as a few introductions that are interesting reading. On balance, it's a decent collection, though again, it's hit or miss, and there were several stories that baffled me by their inclusion. Still, I've got a solid two stories that I would like to nominate (the Stephenson and the Cambias)
Posted by Mark on December 21, 2014 at 08:56 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Link Dump
This time, featuring actual relevant and timely information. Partially. It's otherwise just links to interesting stuff from ye olde internets. No one's perfect.
  • Sony Cancels ‘The Interview’ Release, Has No Plans For VOD/DVD; U.S. Links North Korea to Sony Hacking - This makes me feel like a grumpy old man. Say what you will about America's problems, one of the things we've always been decent at (not perfect, to be sure) was free speech. For all our partisan rhetoric and cheap debating tactics, we used to be pretty awesome at free speech. No matter what problems we faced, we could at least talk that shit out. The past few years seems to have heralded an odd resistance to free speech, often from those who rely heavily on its protections. The lessons here are simple. Are you offended by something stupid someone said? Threaten to kill someone, and they'll stop talking. Sony apparently considered a VOD release (and there are interesting implications to that approach), but currently has no plans. I was ambivalent about this movie before, but I would have totally seen this in the theater (or VOD). This is a shame. I'm really hoping this precedent isn't set it stone.
  • Hobbit Office - In lighter news, this is brilliant. No, wait, it's offensive. Someone threaten SNL.
  • In an All-Digital Future, It’s the New Movies That Will Be in Trouble - The challenge of archiving digital data is more challenging than it might seem:
    ...when it comes to preserving movies for the long haul, the digital revolution may turn out to be something of a catastrophe. "At this time, the longevity of digital files of moving images is anybody's guess," says Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator at George Eastman House, one of the nation's most significant motion-picture archives. "We do know that it is much, much shorter than the longevity of photochemical film." If hard drives aren't occasionally turned on, he notes, they start to become unusable.

    ...In one of the most famous examples of the perils of digital preservation, when the makers of Toy Story attempted to put their film out on DVD a few years after its release, they discovered that much of the original digital files of the film - as much as a fifth - had been corrupted. They wound up having to use a film print for the DVD. "That was the first major episode to draw public attention to the fact that digital files are a challenge when it comes to conservation," says Usai. (Somewhat hilariously and almost tragically, a similar fate came close to befalling Toy Story 2, which nearly got nuked when someone accidentally hit a "delete" button.)

    The fate of Toy Story highlights a sad irony of the digital revolution: It's the newer movies that are in trouble. For a long time, it was assumed that the real loser in our rapidly approaching all-digital future would be older films shot on celluloid, as they would have to be digitized at great cost in a world where movie theaters had forsaken film prints.
    And that's before you get to more intentional transitory experiences, like video games (remember Lord British?). It feels like there has to be a better way to do this. Maybe if someone threatens... nah.
That's all for now. Stay tuned for some some reviews for SF short stories.
Posted by Mark on December 17, 2014 at 08:38 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, December 14, 2014

2014 Year End Movie Cramming
As we approach the end of our current orbital period, many publications are releasing various best-of-the-year lists. Being a movie fan, this means that a bunch of movies come into theaters for an Oscar qualifying run. It also means that a lot of interesting, weird, small movies get some love thrown their way, and become available on streaming services, etc... Here at Kaedrin, we watch a lot of movies, but usually not as much as your typical critic. As of right now, I've seen 55 movies that could be considered a 2014 release (are you on Letterboxd? You should totally friend me there.) This is actually much higher than I was at this time last year, and I've felt this year went a little better in general. I've still fallen back on watching a lot of television shows, but less this year than last year. My gut reaction is that this is a "good year for movies", though of course that's a completely arbitrary designation (and pretty much every year is a good year for movies!). All that being said, there are plenty of movies I want to catch up with before Kaedrin awards season kicks into gear (we're not very timely here, so that usually starts off in January). For the most part, these are not theatrical releases, just stuff I want to catch up with on streaming/BD, etc... I will, of course, be seeing Inherent Vice and a bunch of the other high-profile releases. In no particular order:
  • The Unknown Known - An Errol Morris documentary covering Donald Rumsfeld, it's a pretty obvious must-see for any film fan... (on Netflix Instant)
  • Blue Ruin - This indie thriller generated a lot of buzz earlier in the year, but I never managed to catch up with it. It's on Netflix Instant, so I'll definitely be checking this out.
  • Journey to the West - I heard about this when someone was talking about Fantastic Fest, and from what I've seen (about the first 15 minutes), it seems to fit that film festival's general tone (i.e. profoundly weird and a little disturbing, but also kinda fun). It's the latest film from Stephen Chow, the guy who made Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer (both very fun, energetic movies). Also on Netflix Instant.
  • The One I Love - So I'm not sure what to make of this one. A couple who is having marital problems goes to some cabin in the woods... where they meet idealized versions of themselves. Seems like it will be very talky, but whatever, I've heard good things and it's on Netflix Instant, so I'll probably check it out...
  • Happy Christmas - I don't know about this one. I've never been too into Joe Swanberg's mumblecore stuff, but hey, I'm down for some Christmas cheer. I don't expect it to be great, but it could be fun and again, Netflix Instant means its easily accessible.
  • Ida - This is one of those movies that seems to come out of nowhere and appear on every critic's top 10 list or something. I'm usually pretty suspicious of such movies, and they don't always work out, but then, this is how I discovered Short Term 12 last year (which was one of my favorite movies of last year), so there's that. Again, Netflix Instant, so it's at least easily accessible.
  • Stretch - Director Joe Carnahan's latest movie had a pretty quiet release, but it seems to be a relatively approachable comedy, so I'm happy to give that a shot.
  • Moebius - From what I understand, this movie will significantly increase the year's batshit insanity quotient. I'm a little scared to watch this, actually, but it's another Netflix Instant film so...
  • Knights of Badassdom - Silly comedy about LARPers summoning an actual demon? It sounds like it could be a lot of fun, but it's reputation is not that great. It's a borderline pick, but hey, Netflix Instant.
  • Cold in July - Don't know how this movie, an adaptation of a Joe R. Lansdale novel, slipped past me earlier in the year (apparently it didn't get much of a release). This is the part of the list that stuff stops being on Netflix Instant though, so it might take a little more time to catch up with this crime/thriller.
  • I Origins - Another movie with Britt Marling's particular brand of SF, this time working with the director from Another Earth. This movie seems to be about, um, eyes and evolution or something like that. I don't know, but I'm always down with checking out Marling's latest, even if I don't seem to love her stuff as much as critics.
  • Boyhood - I'm almost positive that I'm not going to like this movie. But I've thought that about other movies before, and there are plenty of times when I'm proven wrong (again, Short Term 12 last year being the latest example). This movie seems more remarkable for its meta elements (i.e. made over 10 years as the actor grows up) than anything that would show up on screen.
  • A Field in England - Don't remember where I heard of this one, but it sounds interesting enough. I don't have high hopes, but hey, those movies often surprise me.
  • Tusk - Kevin Smith's latest, it seems more like a straight up horror movie than comedy, but I'll give it a shot.
  • Coherence - One of those indie-SF movies, like the above I Origins, that I heard a lot about this year, but never managed to catch up with. Something about a dinner party going weird as a comet passes overhead. Perhaps not my type of SF, but still seems worth checking out.
  • The Guest - All I know about this is that it's from the team that brought us You're Next, which means that I'm going to see this when it comes out on steaming (which is, I believe, in early January)
  • Citizenfour - The Edward Snowden documentary. It's in limited release, so I'm not entirely sure when I'll be able to catch up with this one...
  • What We Do in the Shadows - As I understand it, this is a movie about vampires struggling with mundane tasks, like making themselves look nice without the use of mirrors, or having trouble paying bills. Sounds right up my alley, but it looks like it wasn't released inthe US yet. Perhaps an early contender for the best of 2015 list!
There are plenty of others and like I said, I'm not including the stuff that's entering theaters in the next few weeks. In any case, I don't think I'll have any trouble hitting that 70-80 mark that I usually manage.
Posted by Mark on December 14, 2014 at 08:26 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Movable Type and Commenting Woes
Many moons ago, I heard about this new thing called a "weblog". A new site had popped up called Blogger, and it was the coolest thing evar. It had a hip startup mentality, and it was going to, like, totally change the world. I immediately signed up and used it for a couple years. Keep in mind, I'm talking turn of the century timeframe here, so blogging software options were extremely limited (basically just Blogger and whatever homegrown stuff you could cobble together). I used Blogger for a couple years, until their explosive growth lead to slow load times and unreliable FTP service (a few years after that, they got bought out by Google, and their stability problems suddenly vanished. Incidentally, the founder of Blogger went on to found a couple other businesses, including something called Twitter. Good for him.). At the time, options were still limited, but a new startup seemed promising. It was called Movable Type, and it was fully featured (certainly an upgrade from Blogger's original functionality) and free. I jumped at the software and have been, more or less, pretty comfortable with it since then.

It's been over a decade, and in that time, Movable Type has treated me rather well, despite the emergence of a rather popular competitor in the Open Source Wordpress. In fact, Wordpress has pretty well eaten Movable Type's market, to the point where they're currently retreating up market, catering to enterprise clients like Huffington Post. For a while, it wasn't that big of a deal. Indeed, they even released an open source version of Movable Type. However, about a year ago, they shifted focus dramatically. Open Source options were set to expire and the individual blogger license was set to go away, replaced by a ridiculously overpriced option (effectively leaving amateurs like myself out in the cold).

My problem? The Google login for comments seems to have stopped working for some reason. No obvious fixes have presented themselves. I've upgraded Movable Type to the latest Open Source version available, but that has not resolved the issue (in fact, it actually broke things further, though I figured out that issue pretty quickly, leaving me back where I started). This makes me want to jump ship and hit up Wordpress. But then, I'm 14 years into this and maintain two blogs with over 3000 entries, copious meta-data (as bad as the categories are here on my generalist blog, my beer blog has a pretty comprehensive categorization scheme), and nearly as many comments. I'm sure many folks have it much worse, but it still seems daunting.

Simply migrating to Wordpress would be rather difficult (hell, just transferring my current data into a local version of MT running on my Ubuntu box was a huge pain in the arse). It's certainly possible, but even in the best case, I'm likely to lose any SEO benefits I've accrued throughout the years, not to mention the hassle of actually getting the data to load (I can pretty much guarantee that various timeouts and permissions will have to be overridden in order for all that data to be transferred). There are ways around this, but it would be a huge hassle. My best case would probably be to commission a hired gun to make the transfer go smoothly, but I'm sure that's still going to be a painful transition.

All of this is to say that comments aren't working quite right these days. In particular, the Google login seems to be failing for some reason. Wordpress and Yahoo (and other options) seem to work fine, but Google is clearly the option used by the majority of commenters here. Anonymous commenting hasn't been an option for a long time (the last time I enabled anonymous commenting, even with a captcha, I received about 5000 spam comments in just a few hours). I tried enabling User Registration (where you could actually register an account here at Kaedrin), but for some reason, the email confirmation isn't working properly. I will probably take a swing at this over the next few weeks, but I wouldn't hold my breath. My days of hacking all this blogging software stuff are long gone, and I'm not really into the hassle so much these days. Maybe I'll figure it out. Or maybe a long overdue transition to Wordpress is in the cards. We'll see where it goes, but for now, just note that the Google login for commenting isn't working so well. Sorry for any inconvenience. Personally, I blame spammers. Those assholes made commenting and trackbacks a total nightmare to deal with. Stay with me here, I'll figure something out eventually. In the meantime, feel free to email me at tallman_at_kaedrin.com (see, I even need to remove the @ symbol from my email, least I get bombarded with spam) if you want to comment on anything (or use a Wordpress login, which seems to work fine).
Posted by Mark on December 10, 2014 at 08:36 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Sunday, December 07, 2014

SF Book Review, Part 18: First Contact
In recent readings, I seem to have inadvertently stumbled upon a series of First Contact stories. Like any sub-genre, these generally include other sub-genres (notably military SF and Space Opera), but there's actually something of a through line with these three books that I found interesting. I will start with the most famous of the three, an exemplar frequently referenced when discussing First Contact stories:
  • The Mote in God's Eye by by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle - This is one of those novels that shows up in "Best Of SF" lists all over the place, and as a mix of military SF, Space Opera, and First Contact, I was pretty well on board with the premise. And yet, it took me quite a while to actually get into the story, which is my primary problem with the book: it's a bit on the bloated side. Much time is spent with a lot of characters, but they still tend to feel two dimensional and functional, rather than fully fleshed out. This is not normally a problem, except that a lot of time is spent on character building, so if you're going to go down that route, you should make that worthwhile. Fortunately, the dilemma at the heart of the book is a truly fascinating puzzle, both in figuring out what is causing the problem and what kinds of solutions could be proposed. The puzzle is posed by the alien species first encountered by humans in this book, and results as an interplay between biology and sociology. It also explores the weird moral quandaries of First Contact stories. I won't go into more detail here because while this book is a little bloated and long in the tooth, the core ideas are fantastic and worth exploring. Just be patient with it at first, as it takes a while before things start to get really interesting.
  • Blindsight by Peter Watts - This book made waves back in 2005/2006 (it was nominated for a Hugo), and as a novel of ideas, it is fantastic. Again, though, I'm left with characters that Watts wants to delve into, but are nevertheless not all that relatable. They are interesting, as a point of fact they are all "freaks" of one kind or another, but there's no real point of entry for us normal humans. The closest we get is a guy named Siri Keeton, but he's had portions of his brain removed and isn't the most likable guy in the world. Again, not a terrible thing in a novel of ideas, except that Watts spends a bunch of time, for example, going into Siri's childhood friend and ex-girlfriend. Outside of Siri, we've got a linguist with multiple personalities, a few other folks, and a Vampire. Yes, a vampire, and actually that's one of my favorite bits about the book. As the universe of the book goes, Vampires were real predators from the distant past that have been resurrected through recovered DNA. They are far more intelligent than humans, their brains operating in parallel, allowing them to maintain multiple simultaneous thoughts in their mind. This leads to advanced pattern recognition, which ended up being their original downfall - they have trouble perceiving right angles (i.e. a cross would actually harm them). In the late 21st century, they've been resurrected and given drugs to help with the Euclidian problem, but their vastly different way of approaching the world means their speech patterns are cryptic and odd. They are very nearly an "alien" presence, and in fact, they are one of many explorations of consciousness that seems to really drive this book. The first contact with aliens goes rather oddly, and it's never particularly clear if they are a conscious intelligence, or something less than that. There is a very rich exploration of the concept of Philosophical Zombies, for instance, among other ideas. Watts does not dumb anything down and really lays on the ideas thick. This makes for interesting reading, but it's also clear that Watts has a very pessimistic approach to all of this, which hampers things a bit for me. Not fatally so, to be sure, and it's clear that Watts knows his stuff and plays the game well. I just wish there was a bit more of a story here to hang all of these interesting ideas on... Watts just recently released a sequel of sorts (at least, it's set in the same universe) called Echopraxia. After some initial Hugo Award buzz, the chatter around this seems to have dropped off considerably. I don't know that I loved Blindsight enough to run after Echopraxia right away, but if it does get nominated, I will look forward to reading it.
  • A Sword Into Darkness by Thomas A. Mays - This was one of the 2014 books I was looking to read as a potential Hugo Nominee for next year's awards. As a self-published book in a sub-genre that the general Hugo voter tends not to like (military SF), I seriously doubt it will make the slate (or even come close, really), but I may consider nominating it. As a first contact story, it takes the angle of a potential invasion of aliens. Given the realities of space travel, we can, of course, see them coming once they turn their ship around and start decelerating, thus revealing their thrust. This is an implicit reference to The Mote in God's Eye, made before a character in this book explicitly references the classic. A team of humans on earth recognizes the threat and privately finances the creation of a greeting party (complete with new drive technologies and weapons). The government is initially dismissive, then helpful, then, well, I won't spoil anything there. The science behind everything is very well thought out, especially when it comes to the weaponry and battle sequences. This shouldn't be too surprising, since the author was a longtime member of the US Navy. Of course, so is our main protagonist, a pretty obvious Gary Stu character who gets to fall in love with another cliche or whatever you'd call the SF equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. That being said, these are fun characters. They don't have a ton of depth, but at least Mays doesn't try to shoehorn it in where it doesn't belong. They do their job well enough, and I enjoyed spending time with them. The story is well paced and has a more satisfying plot than the previous two novels mentioned in this post. Mays' prose style isn't anything to write home about, but it's functional enough and propels the story along nicely. As plot goes, it's a pretty tight little story, and Mays even manages to do something that most alien invasion stories get wrong: he's come up with a compelling reason for a violent invasion. This is one of the major problems with most invasion stories. Given the amazing amount of resources and time it takes to reach another planet with a sentient species, why bother? When it comes to resources, our planet is hardly unique. You could mine whatever you needed from elsewhere in our solar system (or presumably lots of other systems) without ever having to risk your target fighting back. And so on. Mays has devised a pretty interesting reason for the invasion, one that gets at the hard of what makes a lot of First Contact stories tick while managing to turn it on its end at the same time. It's an impressive trick, and something that elevates this book above a simple trashy SF Space Opera or Military SF story. I'm still on the fence in terms of whether or not I would nominate this, but if I did, it would be primarily because of the motivation factor.
Up next on the First Contact front, The Three-Body Problem, another potential Hugo contender.
Posted by Mark on December 07, 2014 at 05:55 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections on the Star Wars: Episode VII Teaser
This past Friday, the Star Wars: Episode VII teaser trailer came out and holy crap, it looks great. Here's the trailer, and fear not, there appears to be no real spoilers in here (and that's part of what is driving a lot of the speculation around the teaser).
In no particular order, here are some freakish, disgruntled thoughts on the trailer:
  • It's worth noting the the Episode I teaser trailer was also pretty good and had fanboys falling all over themselves with joy. It's easy to look at it now and see the faults, but only because we know what a disaster some aspects of the story were. I was there, I remember the excitement, and that does, in fact, impact the way I'm reacting to this trailer (i.e. with measured restraint). That's probably unfair to J.J. Abrams, but it's where I'm at.
  • So apparently there's some sort of controversy over the fact that John Boyega, a black man, is shown as a storm trooper? It's a very weird controversy since I can't find a single person who is actually complaining about that, but I can find about a jazillion people saying how horrible it is that people are complaining about the black stormtrooper. Seriously, I went on twitter and searched for "black stormtrooper" and got a bazillion people decrying the fact that people are complaining about this, and approximately zero people actually complaining about it. And no actual references to people complaining about it either. I mean, we are on the internet here, so there is absolutely someone who is upset about a black stormtrooper, but near as I can tell, there's about a million posts to one in terms of proportion, if that. It seems like a non-controversy to me. The only curiosity is that I know that John Boyega (the black stormtrooper in question) is supposedly one of the main leads in the movie, so how does that fit with him being a stormtrooper (i.e. a soldier for the dark side of the force, if you know what I mean). Of course, even Luke and Han dressed up as stormtroopers, so there's that angle, but I wonder if it's going to be a story of discovery and rejection of the evil empire's philosophy. Whatever the case, it seems exciting!
  • Not to get too far into the whole identity politics quagmire, but it seems like there was either a conscious attempt to address early casting "concerns" with this trailer. That, or the "concerned" folks in question are utterly and completely full of shit (which is probably the case, not that anyone would ever admit such a thing).
  • That rolling robot thing looks great, and while I have not read the script, I can't imagine that it doesn't look better on screen than it did on the page.
  • That new lightsaber is cool, and I don't care if it's impractical or not (though upon first glance, it seems fine. I accept nitpicks, I guess, but it still looks cool, so whatever. Star Wars has never been Hard SF and it really shouldn't be treated as such.) The memes surrounding it are pretty funny nonetheless.
  • The trailer flows really well, and hits a bunch of points that don't give much away, but which are quite encouraging nonetheless. The worst part was that it says it won't come out until December 2015, which we already knew. I'm not totally sold and I'll definitely be trying to avoid more detailed recaps of the movie, etc... as the hallowed date approaches, but I'm still encouraged thusfar.
And that's all for now, let's get on with it.
Posted by Mark on December 03, 2014 at 07:41 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Tweets of Glory: Pretty Pictures Edition
As a testament to the enduring power of blogs, I present unto you a series of funny tweets. This time around, each tweet will feature an image of some kind, because why not? Moar fun in the extended entry...

Read More »

Posted by Mark on November 26, 2014 at 05:37 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

End of this day's posts

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