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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Link Dump
We're through the looking glass here people, more links from the depths of the internets. Fear them.
  • Twitter Tsunamis - In response to two floods of tweets last week, one heralding a well written essay, the other in response to this weekend's tragedy, Alan Jacobs laments:
    This kind of thing always makes me want to flee Twitter, even when I am deeply sympathetic to the positions people are taking. It's a test of my charity, and a test I usually fail. To me these tsunamis feel like desperate signaling, people trying to make sure that everyone knows where they stand on the issue du jour. I can almost see the beads of sweat forming on their foreheads as they try to craft retweetable tweets, the kind to which others will append that most wholehearted of endorsements: "THIS." I find myself thinking, People, you never tweeted about [topic x] before and after 48 hours or so you’ll never tweet about it again, so please stop signaling to all of us how near and dear to your heart [topic X] is.

    So, you know: charity FAIL. I know that most - well, anyway, many - of the people tweeting about what everyone else was tweeting about were sincere and expressing genuine interest. It's just hard for me to handle such exaggerated and repeated unanimity.
    This is a failing of twitter, a platform that was never meant to host these sorts of conversations. Twitter is supposed to be inane and snarky. There are some wizards who are able to pack a lot of meaning into 140 characters, but they are rare. The Ta-Nehisi Coates essay at least prompted tweets with links to the article (along with some obscenely hyperbolic praise) which is long and detailed and worthy of discussion - but discussions accomplished through bursts of 140 characters are not going to get it done. Twitter is great for short back and forths, but have you ever tried to follow a back-and-forth conversation that goes on for more than 5 tweets? Even with Twitter's improving ability to group this stuff together, it's annoying as hell, and I'm talking about nerdy debates about movies or beer. Imagine debates about racism or abortion happening on twitter. Can you really accomplish anything in 140 characters? Get a blog, people!
  • Calling Kids Out - Now here's someone doing it right. It's a guy who got drunk and decided to mock lame child fashion designers. Here's a man who knows that 140 characters just won't do. (In case you were wondering why the crazy tone and rhythm sounds familiar, this is the same maniac that's behind the Don't Drink Beer blog)
  • How YouTube and Internet Journalism Destroyed Tom Cruise, Our Last Real Movie Star - An excellent long look into the career of Tom Cruise and that fateful moment when he "jumped" up on the couch on Oprah. Perhaps related to the distortion effect caused by condensing complex debates into 140 characters on Twitter, this is a situation where no one ever watches the full 40+ minute interview with Tom Cruise, just the one time he stood up on the couch. And most likely, you only get a screenshot, which distorts things even more.
    Like Humphrey Bogart saying, "Play it again, Sam," Tom Cruise jumping on a couch is one of our mass hallucinations. But there's a difference. Bogart's mythological Casablanca catchphrase got embedded in the culture before we could replay the video and fact-check. Thanks to the Internet, we have video at our fingertips. Yet rather than correct the record, the video perpetuated the delusion.
    It is perhaps going a bit far to say that the couch jumping "never happened", because Cruise did end up standing on top of a couch, but there's definitely a lot of distortion and exaggeration going on here, and this article covers the whole thing, and Cruise's career in general, very well.
  • H.R. Giger's to-do list for Alien - Giger has always been a favorite, largely because of Alien, but even just in general. RIP...
  • Spurious Correlations - It turns out that correlation does not imply causation. We've all heard that aphorism, but it's always nice to see it in action. (h/t Heather)
That's all for now. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.
Posted by Mark on May 28, 2014 at 10:26 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Hugo Awards: Neptune's Brood
I didn't need to get very far into the Hugo-nominated Neptune's Brood to come to an initial conclusion that author Charles Stross doesn't like money very much (and the same goes for its corollaries, debt and capitalism). I'm only really calling this out because much has been made during this Hugo season about how SF should or shouldn't be political, how some authors stress ideology over storytelling, and the like. Personally, I think it a little foolish to prescribe what a piece of fiction can and can't do, and this book is probably a good example. I do not take anywhere near the dim view of money, debt, or capitalism that Charlie Stross apparently does, and yet I greatly enjoyed this book. Why? Because Stross thoroughly explored the universe he created, and any questions you might have about the economic conundrums that he devises are answered, and he did it while telling a fun space opera story. Indeed, the ideas of this book come off to me as a grand thought experiment on the expense of interstellar travel, and the various realities any such endeavor would face.

Thousands of years in the future, humanity has gone extinct (multiple times). It turns out that the human body, while well adapted to survive on earth, is not very well adapted for space travel. But our story follows beings that are so closely patterned after humans that they have maintained much of our social and cultural norms, as well as the physical form factors (though those are often adapted to their environments as well, as we see in the course of this story). Reproduction seems much simpler, with children being "instantiated" rather than born, among other such terminology derived from software and hardware, but on the other hand, messy human characteristics like emotions and love still seem to exist. These are post-humans, but ones that are easy to relate to.

Krina Alizond is a "forensic accountant" who has embarked on a decades long study pilgrimage to visit and work with several of her colleagues. As the book opens, she has just found out that one of her colleagues, a distant sib named Ana, has disappeared in mysterious circumstances. It doesn't take long for Krina to get entangled in a similar web as she seeks out her sister and gradually finds out that the subject of their study, various interstellar debt scams, has become somewhat more complicated in that they've stumbled upon the biggest financial scam in the history of the universe. Along for the ride are a small crew of down-on-their-luck religious folk (though their religion appears to surround bringing back "fragile" human beings), a look-alike assassin hot on Krina's tale, privateers chasing Krina's sister's life-insurance policy, and a group of squid-like communists.

The story generally takes the form of a roller-coaster space opera, with occasional interludes of exposition and info-dumping. It's mostly written from the first perspective of Krina, and you could argue that this is a rather clunky way of delivering a lot of exposition, but on the other hand, I rather thought those chapters were among the most interesting in the book.

Much of the detail surrounds the nature of metahumanity's expansion to the stars, how expensive that proposition is, and how that expense is structured. A lot of this falls back on physical realities like the speed of light, and how it takes centuries to reach new star systems and so on and so forth. It turns out that using something as malleable and fragile as "cash" in that context is rather foolish. Stross takes the unglamorous nature of space travel and expansion and combines it with economics, devising a clever ponzi scheme of debt based on something called "Slow Money":
Slow money is a medium of exchange designed to outlast the rise and fall of civilizations. It is the currency of world-builders, running on an engine of debt that can only be repaid by the formation of new interstellar colonies, passing the liability ever onward into the deep future ...

By design, the slow money system is permanently balanced on the edge of a liquidity crisis, for every exchange between two beacons must be cryptographically signed by a third-party bank in another star system: It takes years to settle a transaction. It's theft-proof, too - for each bitcoin is cryptographically signed by the mind of its owner, stored in one of their slots. Your slow money assets are, in a very real manner, an aspect of your identity.

...the very slowness of slow money guarantees that it isn't vulnerable to bubbles and depressions and turbulence and the collapse of any currency that is limited to a single star system.
For all its benefits, Slow Money does seem to have a lot of structural difficulties. Krina, being a forensic accountant, has studied all sorts of scams and just plain failures (where, for example, one of the three involved parties dies to soon or other such similarities). Her job is often to swoop in and grab unclaimed slow money that has been sitting around for centuries. There's even a fantastic riff on the usual hand-wavey FTL mumbo-jumbo that always shows up in Space Operas. Here, Stross has adapted the Spanish Prisoner scheme to work on an interstellar scale. If FTL travel was invented, it would suddenly make it possible to trade fast money across interstellar distances, thus depreciating all of the slow money out there (and slow money is what the rich and powerful trade in, so you can see why they would want to preserve the status quo). It's impossible to travel faster than light, but that doesn't stop con artists from attempting to defraud folks (only now it's happening across the vast distances of interstellar space).

I won't obsess over all the nooks and crannies of these shenanigans, except to say that I really enjoyed the way Stross was able to structure all of this and build his plot around it. I also enjoyed the way that Stross was able to adhere to known physics of the universe and pull interesting story aspects out of that, rather than just hand waving his way around the science the way a lot of space operas would. One example of that is the concept of Slow Money, but we also touch on things like interstellar warfare ("It is a well-understood truism that interstellar warfare is impossible") and some impressive underwater conceptualization.

From what I've read of the Best Novel ballot thus far, this seems to be vying for my number one vote (along with Ancillary Justice). I have not finished Mira Grant's Parasite and have only just begun Larry Correia's Grimnoir Chronicles, but from what I've read so far, I don't see them overtaking Neptune's Brood or Ancillary Justice.

As for the politics of the story, there were maybe one or two paragraphs in the book where it felt like Stross was simply lecturing for ideology's sake, but even those were generally part of the story he was trying to tell here. If I felt obliged to not read anything I thought I might disagree with (or to denounce such things), I'd find myself reading very little (or enjoying even less of what I read). While an author's politics will no doubt color their work, some authors are more difficult to figure out than others. Stross seems pretty easy to read. While I tended to think of his story as a grand thought experiment, there are definitely times (the aforementioned "lecturing" graphs) when I caught a whiff of something more politically motivated. Other authors may be more difficult to suss out, but even a cursory glance at Charlie's Diary indicates that yes, Charlie and I would probably disagree about a lot of things when it comes to economics. And you know what? That's awesome! No one has all the answers, and the idea that we all thought the same things and didn't question anything would be far more terrifying than the fact that Charlie and I might disagree about something (which is not, in any way, terrifying to me).

This might seem obvious, but the amount of vitriol expended over this year's ballot (from both the right and left) seems rather misplaced. When people talk about politics ruining SF, I don't think they're talking about the fact that, for example, Stross's book takes a dim view of capitalism. They're talking about the way we discuss those views, and the fact that some folks are attempting to game the nominations process (and others, seeing this, are attempting to counter by blanket voting against certain authors and works, etc... without even reading those books). Me, I don't want to politicize my every action, I don't want to let politics determine my every move, and I don't want to do an exhaustive biography of every author I could potentially read to see if their views align with mine. Not only is that unnecessary, it's unhealthy. It's a good thing to have your core, foundational beliefs challenged from time to time. It can be infuriating, but it is often productive. There are extreme cases, times when it becomes impossible to separate the art from the artist (hello Vox Day), but I would argue that those should be rare exceptions. Otherwise, I would have stopped reading this book and missed out on what may be my favorite nominee. I used to think this was an obvious truism, but apparently it's not: it's possible to enjoy or like a book without agreeing with it (or without liking the author as a person, not that we ever really get to know the author). I'm really happy that I read this book, and I'm going to be facing a difficult decision when it comes to voting time...
Posted by Mark on May 25, 2014 at 07:41 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Adventures in Brewing: Barleywine Bottling
After six long weeks of fermentation (three primary and three secondary), it was finally time to bottle the barleywine and hot damn, it seems to be in rather fantastic shape right now. Add in a little carbonation and this stuff should be prime. Amazing caramel and dark fruit notes, and the bourbon oaked version seems to have taken on more of that character here than my RIS did... Speaking of which, I went with the same approach as the RIS. Primary fermentation was all together, but when I transferred to secondary I split the batch, leaving one alone and adding bourbon soaked oak cubes to the other. At bottling time, I bottled some of the plain barleywine, did a 1:1 blend and bottled some of that, and then the remainder of straight bourbon oaked beer. Also of note, the beer looked really pretty, especially when I held it up to light, a gorgeous dark amber color that isn't quite as prominent in the picture below, but it's still a nice looking beer.
Homebrewed Barleywine
Final gravity was somewhere in the 12.6 Bx to 12.7 Bx range for all three variants, which translates to about 1.023. Astute readers may remember that I had reported the gravity as 1.017 when I was racking to secondary, but I must have been reading the Refractometer wrong or something, because there's no way the FG should go up. Regardless, this still represents somewhere around 74% attenuation (and around 9.3% ABV), which is pretty good, and 1.023 should provide a nice rich and chewy mouthfeel without being too overwhelming. The RIS finished at 1.029, which seems awfully high, but which tastes really good, so we should be in good shape.

Like I said, this batch smelled and tasted rather awesome even this early in the process, so I can't wait for these to condition in the bottle. I figure I'm in for another 3 weeks or so before it'll be ready, though I'm sure I'll check one of the "transition" bottles (I separated the first couple bottles after each transition from straight barleywine to the bourbon oaked version because of the liquid in the tubing made for an inconsistent blend, though I'm sure the beer will be fine).

At this point, I'm unsure if I'll do another batch before the heat of summer really kicks in. If I do, it may just be a small 4% saison for the keg. Next fall, I'm planning on doing a Scotch Ale (perhaps with a similar bourbon oak treatment) and maybe something like a black IPA (or whatever the heck you call that stuff). I also want to give the Imperial Red ale another chance someday. But for now, I've got a few cases of barleywine and stout to work through, which should last me a while (and quite honestly, I'd much rather free up those bottles than scrape the labels off these other ones because damn, that's an annoying process).

(Cross Posted at Kaedrin Beer Blog)
Posted by Mark on May 21, 2014 at 11:44 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Hugo Awards: The Eye of the World
When I was but a wee nerd of 11 or 12, I had a brief dalliance with Dungeons & Dragons. For whatever reason, I found the High Fantasy stuff fascinating and gobbled up game manuals and started reading The Lord of the Rings. This was before my love of reading really kicked into high gear too, so it was notable that I was reading this stuff on my own. And it wasn't the first time, either. I have fond memories of reading Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books for school, and even wrote a knockoff short story on my Commodore 64 called The Land of Analak (I'm pretty sure I still have a hard copy of this somewhere; I'm also positive that it was terrible.) All of which is to say, I don't know when or even why I fell out of love with High Fantasy, but at some point, Horror and Science Fiction became my reading mainstays, with only the rare Fantasy novel for variety.

As such, if I had picked up the first book in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, The Eye of the World, when it was published in 1990 (i.e. right around the height of my exploration of fantasy), I would have probably loved it. Instead, here I am 24 years later, slogging through it because the entirety of The Wheel of Time was nominated for a Best Novel Hugo Award. I've already covered how a 14 book, 11,000+ page, 4 million+ word series of books came to be nominated as a single work (short story: a quirk in Hugo nomination rules says that if no individual work in a series is nominated, the entire series can be nominated once it concludes), so I won't belabor the controversy all that much. Ultimately, it wouldn't even really matter if only the most recent work was nominated, as it would probably be difficult to read without knowing what happened in all the earlier installments.

After finishing this first volume in the series, I will say that there's no way that I will finish the series this year (it's simply too long) and I'm positive that it will not land in the top two slots of my Best Novel ballot. It's not that The Eye of the World (henceforth TEotW) is bad, per say, just that it did not reinvigorate my decades past love of the Fantasy genre. You might think that a bit unfair, but I will say that some recent consumption actually has sparked some interest in exploring more of the genre, notably Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion novels and the Game of Thrones TV series, both of which really grabbed me in ways that TEotW failed to.

In a lot of ways, this book was exactly what I was expecting. Heroes journey, complete with naive farmboy? Check. Mysterious cloaked riders? Check. Obvious Tolkien inspiration? Check. Hearty stew? Check. The number of fantasy cliches this book hits is almost impressive, even to a genre novice. On the other hand, there were plenty of things I wasn't expecting, and there were a bunch of things I did really enjoy.

The story follows the aforementioned naive farmboy Rand al'Thor, who is pretty obviously The Chosen One, despite attempts to obscure that fact by ensnaring 3 naive farmboys (Rand, Mat, and Perrin) in the scheme. Their idyllic little hamlet, Emond's Field, is mysteriously attacked by orcs and Nazgul Trollocs and a Myrddraal, but fortunately a visiting historian turns out to be a powerful Aes Sedai (basically a magician), and she is able to repel the initial attack and helps our targeted farmboys flee, along with a coterie of friends. Thus begins epic journey number one, followed by several episodic stops, hearty stews, and at least three or four other epic journeys. Eventually a threat to the titular Eye of the World (basically a powerful magical object of legend) is discovered, and our heroes and heroines race to confront the Dark Ones who threaten the world.

At first, I was happy to see that your typical "Chosen One" plot was obscured by the notion of three boys being targeted, but since the story is mostly told through Rand's eyes, it seemed pretty obvious to me that he was The One (there are some other indications of this that I did not pick up on, unless I was doing so unconsciously). At some point on their journey, they do get split up, so there are some other viewpoints, but Rand and Mat are together (and their sections are told from Rand's perspective) and Perrin runs afoul of some wolves, making it pretty clear that he has other latent talents. As a protagonist, Rand is rather bland, which tends to be the case with these hero's journey type stories. A blank slate of a protagonist makes for an easy entry point for readers (and would undoubtedly have ensnared a younger me), though there's not a ton of depth to the character or even much of an arc throughout this book (but then, there are still 13 books to go...) He is mostly passive, scraping by through luck and the goodwill of others.

As characters go, most of the core seem only slightly less bland than Rand. Mat is a bit of a prankster, and gets caught up in some cursed treasure like an idiot. Perrin seems like the strong silent type, and he's got some talent for talking to wolves, which is neat. The aforementioned Aes Sedai is named Moiraine, and she seems more interesting due more to the fact that she's an Aes Sedai than anything else. There is much in the way of rumors and hearsay about Aes Sedai bandied about here, which is actually a rather interesting notion. Most of the time, a story like this would buckle down for gigantic info dumps (of which there are still plenty, don't worry), but what we get here is a more realistic sort of information. Aes Sedai are famous, but their fame seems to be an accumulation of misunderstandings and half-truths. Or something like that. They do not seem to have great reputations, with many warning that accepting the help of an Aes Sedai will open you up to repayment of some kind, like they're some sort of Mafia/Lawyer hybrid. Moiraine is the only Aes Sedai we see a lot of in this story, so perhaps she's an uncommon example, or perhaps she just hasn't dropped the hammer on our unsuspecting farmboys (I was definitely expecting something of the sort in this book, and it did not really come). Moiraine has a warder named Lan that is basically a badass bodyguard, though we find out enough about him to know that he's also a bit of a poet. I suppose you could call Egwene a love interest for Rand, though not much comes of that, and the story instead focuses on her desire for adventure and latent abilities that could allow her to become an Aes Sedai herself. Then there's Nynaeve, who initially seems rather caustic and whiny, but also has some latent magical abilities (there's a lot of that going around in this book). Finally, we've got Thom Merrilin, who is an old "gleeman" (basically a bard or entertainer). He's old, well traveled, and wizened, and has enough experience to help guide our lowly farmboys.

To be honest, my favorite characters tended to be off on the periphery. There's Min, who is basically a fortune teller and seems rather cool (though we get very little of her here). There's a loner named Elyas who can communicate with wolves, and helps awaken the latent ability in Perrin. Rand accidentally meets a princess, some princes, and the queen (and her feared Aes Sedai advisor). I suspect many of these characters would be fleshed out in future installments, and I would be disappointed if they weren't...

In the end, I did enjoy this book. It reads like a slightly more accessible, but bloated Tolkien story. I'm reminded of the Tom Bombadil chapter in Fellowship of the Ring, except that I feel like there were, like, 7 Tom Bombadils that seemed inconsequential for this particular installment, but who will show up later in the series (not that Tom Bombadil shows up much in the rest of LotR, but still). I'm a little unsure how to really think about this book in context of the Hugo awards though. I feel like many of the things I'm holding against it would be resolved later in the series, but on the other hand, the fact that the series is so long is prohibitive in itself. I've mentioned before that I don't necessarily mind long books, even meandering ones, but even I have my limits. While I'm sure much of this stuff will be fleshed out in the sequels, I still can't quite shake the notion that this didn't really need to be as long as it is. But since Tor has decided to include the entire series in the Voters Packet, I will most certainly read more of the series before I vote, but given what I've read so far, I can't see myself getting too carried away with this. I did grow to like this story as I read it, and now that I'm familiar with a lot of the concepts, maybe the future installments will be less jarring. That being said, given its competition in the Best Novel category, I can't see this one winning...
Posted by Mark on May 18, 2014 at 07:23 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Again Saved Titles
Last week, I wrote about my sad devotion to physical media, and how even that has failed me when it comes to some movies. I went through a few of the movies on my Saved Titles list that Netflix doesn't even have DVDs for, and today we continue that list:
  • Blind Detective - Director Johnny To is one of my favorites, so any new movie of his is usually added to my list. This one seems reminiscent of Mad Detective, though perhaps a little more silly looking. Only one way to find out, though. Since this was a somewhat recent release, I would actually expect Netflix to make good on this sucker and get the DVD (or put it on streaming).
  • Cargo - This 2009 German science fiction film has garnered some interesting reviews, but it does not appear to be available on streaming at all, but a rather expensive DVD can be purchased... So how did I discover this? Wonder of wonders, I remember! It was in Ian Sales' post about Prometheus, where he recommended people check out this film instead.
  • Destroy All Monsters - Inspired by Pacific Rim, I spent a week during last year's Halloween movie marathon watching old Kaiju movies, and this was one I really wanted to catch up with, but which was not available anywhere... It looks like a new DVD/BD will be coming out soon, so perhaps Netflix will pick it up. Maybe the new Godzilla movie will drive demand...
  • Don't Open Till Christmas - For whatever reason, I have a penchant for Holiday themed horror movies, and this one seems like it'd fit the bill nicely (especially since I've mostly exhausted said Holiday horror films). This is one that was defiitely in my DVD queue, but which not-so-mysteriously went into "very long wait" mode whenever Christmas rolled around, and really, when else would you want to watch this? So I never managed to snag it when available, and now it's not. It does seem to be available elsewhere (but no, not on streaming), so there's a chance Netflix will restock someday. I'm not holding my breath though.
  • Final Exam - Another terrible horror movie from a reviled sub-genre, the slasher, this one was apparently just released on BD (and somehow, that's cheaper than the DVD), so maybe there's a chance... It is, of course, not available on streaming.
  • Golden Slumber - I missed out on seeing director Yoshihiro Nakamura's A Boy and His Samurai when I went to Fantastic Fest, but managed to catch up with both that movie and the excellent Fish Story and totally fell in love with the director, adding everything I could to my queue. Alas, the list is quite short, and for some reason, Nakamura's movies have not really made their way West just yet. Fish Story was on streaming for a while, but is now only available on DVD. It's well worth checking out if you get a chance.
  • Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS - Back when Grindhouse came out, I remember loving Rob Zombie's fake trailer for Werewolf Women of the S.S. without realizing that there was a whole Nazi Exploitation sub-genre out there, and this one seems to be a popular choice. Frankly, I'm a little happy that this one is not actually available, but it might be an interesting sub-genre to explore...
  • Matewan - Back when I was in college, I spent one of my two (count 'em, two!) free electives on a film class, and this was one of the films originally on the syllabus. For various reasons, we never got to it in the class (I think we ended up watching another John Sayles film, Lone Star, instead), but it's always been something I wanted to catch up with. I can't imagine there's much pent-up demand for this sort of thing on Netflix, so I'm guessing it'll never see the light of day...
There you have it, and we're only about halfway down the list!
Posted by Mark on May 14, 2014 at 11:35 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Link Dump
Just some links culled from the depths of the internets:
  • The art of anticipation - In this day and age of binge-watching television, it's worth considering what the scheduling of a show isn't just a commercial decision, but a creative one. Even something like House of Cards, which is ostensibly "designed" to be binge watched all at once, has episodes and cliffhangers and even something akin to a commercial break. Why? Because that stuff matters:
    Delay, withhold, restrict, release: This is storytelling 101, Scheherazade stuff, and it’s deeper than marketing and distribution. We bring all of our creative talents to bear on matters of plot and character; the anticipation that precedes and interpenetrates a story deserves no less. More than ever, the shape of a season can be designed and managed. More than ever, anticipation can be art-directed.

    It's exciting that TV has come alive to these possibilities. Such ingenuity is not necessarily what you expect from a format insulated by layers of MBAs with a fiduciary duty to say "no" to weird ideas—but here we are! For once, it's the complex, expensive, high-stakes medium that's leading the way. There's an opportunity for other formats to follow.
    It's an interesting take...
  • Hacks! An investigation into aimbot dealers, wallhack users, and the million-dollar business of video game cheating - I'm fond of video game cheating for reasons of "probing" but I don't think I'd ever actually pay for it and use it against other people in competitive play. Yet, there is quite a market for cheating in exactly that field. Perhaps that's why I stink at all the FPS multiplayer modes (or more likely, I'm just plain terrible).
    As long as there have been video games, there have been cheaters. For competitive games like Counter-Strike, battling cheaters is an eternal, Sisyphean task. In February, Reddit raised concerns about lines of code in Valve-Anti Cheat (VAC), used for Counter-Strike and dozens of other games on Steam, that looked into users' DNS cache. In a statement, Gabe Newell admitted that Valve doesn't like talking about VAC because "it creates more opportunities for cheaters to attack the system." But since online surveillance has been a damning issue lately, he made an exception.
    This winds up being a fascinating article, not least of which because of the folks who are constantly getting caught, yet continue to jump through complicated hoops to get their cheat on...
  • Twenty Things About Bones That You Didn't Know and Also Probably Don't Care About But Here I Go Anyway - In the whole Golden Age of TV thing that we're in, it's easy to forget the weekly grind procedural shows that don't feel the need to shoehorn continuity into it, and Bones strikes a pretty good balance. Characters have lives, there are a handful of multi-episode arcs, but the grand majority of episodes are standalone, and it's a great TV comfort food. This list explains why:
    One of the characters is named Angela Montenegro, and she is an artist who is magic and owns a magic computer that can do anything. Like, Cam will say, "Angela, can you show what it would look like if a ferret ate the victim's genitals and then burrowed through his genitals-hole into his chest cavity and then exploded out his face?" And then Angela is all "beep beep boop" and then she makes a computer animation that looks early 2000s of that thing happening. She is magic.
  • Tiny Hamsters Eating Tiny Burritos - The lighter side of my idontknowwhatthefuckisgoingoninthisvideo tag.
And that's all for now.
Posted by Mark on May 11, 2014 at 07:59 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Saved Titles
I'm one of those guys. The people who still have the Netflix DVD/BD program. I know, physical media! Go ahead, make with the jokes, but have you seen the selection on Netflix Instant? Any self-professed lover of movies needs something a little more comprehensive, especially people like me, who get a hankering to do obscure genre marathons, like German Krimi films from the 1950s and 60s or their sister sub-genre, Italian Giallos from the 60s and 70s. I also have Amazon Prime, so I get some movies there too, but as with Netflix Instant, if you're really hunting down a specific movie (especially an obscure one), you're generally out of luck (though you may get the option to pay a la carte, which I guess is better than nothing). There are other options, Fandor, iTunes, Hulu, HBOGO, etc... but even combined, most of this stuff pales to the selection provided by Netflix DVD. That being said, Netflix's DVD selection is not perfect either. I don't know if it's "getting worse", but I did notice that I have 41 movies on the "Saved Titles" list, which is an awful lot. Granted, several of those are movies that are either still in theaters or haven't come out yet, but several are movies you would expect them to have. Let's take a look at a few of them.
  • Bullet in the Head - A Hong Kong era John Woo action film that I never managed to catch up with, this one came after The Killer, but before Hard Boiled. Amazon appears to have exactly 1 BD in stock right now, and it's absurdly expensive, so I guess I can't really blame Netflix for not stocking this sucker. It does not appear to be availabe on any form of streaming. This isn't exactly at the top of my list (though, well, alphabetically it's close, but that's besides the point), but it would be nice to catch up with this one.
  • A Chinese Ghost Story - I don't remember adding this one to the list (I suspect it's been on there for a while), but it's pretty well regarded and it sounds rather interesting. Like the above, it's not available on any streaming platform, and the DVD is extremely expensive.
  • Accident - Another movie I don't remember much about, but the premise sounds great and this one gets at one of the most frustrating things with Netflix's Instant service - this was available a while back, I distinctly remember seeing it whilst scanning through my queue, but it appears to have gone off streaming. Super. The only other option for this one right now appears to be XBox, which I'm not buying just to get the pleasure of purchasing this movie!
  • Anthony Zimmer - A French thriller that I distinctly remember reading about on Reelviews many moons ago, and this one has been in my Saved Titles list for at least 7 or 8 years at this point. Once again, it appears to be because of abnormally high DVD/BD prices, and no streaming options whatsoever.
  • Bullets Over Broadway - So most of the above are relatively obscure foreign films with limited audiences, so I get that they're not available. This is a popular Woody Allen movie made within the last 20 years. It's not available on streaming anywhere, but it is pretty cheap on DVD, so maybe Netflix is just lazy here.
So there you have it. Like I said, I have 41 movies on the list, but I'd be here all night if I talked about each one. Let's revisit this sometime in the near future. What do you have in your Saved Titles? Oh, right, no one uses physical media anymore....
Posted by Mark on May 07, 2014 at 11:16 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

SF Book Review, Part 16
So while I start chomping through this year's Hugo Nominees (controversies aside), I figure I'll catch up on some non-Hugo related (er, mostly) reviews.
  • The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu - Wesley Chu is nominated for the The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer this year, which is technically not a Hugo award, but they are administered, voted upon, and awarded as part of the same process (I believe I'll be eligible to vote, though I'm not sure if I'll get through all the nominees either). That being said, I picked this up before those nominations were announced, as it was garnering a fair amount of buzz amongst nerd circles as a fun, Scalzi-like SF adventure story (incidentally, Scalzi is a Campbell winner). And it is!

    The story follows Tao, an ancient member of an alien race called Quasings. They crash landed on Earth when life was in its infancy. I'm a little unclear on Quasing physiology, but they cannot survive on earth without inhabiting a host. Their goal is to find a way to leave the planet, so they have guided evolution along, attempting to build an infrastructure that would allow them to return home. As humans became intelligent and Quasings guided them further, disagreements arose around how best to leverage the humans, and a civil war has arisen amongst the Quasings, who have split into two factions: the peaceful Prophus who want to cooperate with the humans, and the more ruthless Gengix who will destroy the planet if it means they can get home. Tao is a Prophus, and as the story opens, he finds himself unexpectedly in need of a new host. Enter overweight, underachieving Roen Tan, a meek IT worker stuck in a dead end job. As Tao whips him into shape, the war rages on, and Roen finds that the life of a secret agent is not all its cracked up to be.

    This is a neat premise, and it allows Chu to play with history without altering what we already know. There's a whole alternate timeline here that happens to match up perfectly with our notion of history, but, for instance, Tao once inhabited Genghis Khan, putting an interesting spin on what we know about him. This implies that humans are a rather malleable, unambitious bunch, but perhaps future installments will change that... and yes, this is the first in a series. It comports itself well enough, and there's a solid character arc for Roen here, so it's not one of those first-in-a-series books that is unsatisfying. So we've got some interesting ideas, a well paced plot, secret agents, intrigue... if this were a movie, there would be some fantastic training montages. I'd say that the Scalzi comparisons are fair, though Chu clearly has his own style. Roen is an unlikely action hero, and a fair amount of the story plays with his expectations of glamor and adventure... it's certainly fun for me to read the story, but it wouldn't be quite so fun to live it. This is a series that I will actually revisit. The next book is actually already out, but at this point, I've got my hands full with other stuff! Still, I look forward to returning to Roen and Tao.
  • Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey - This book has an odd reputation. It was nominated for a Hugo Best Novel, but it has some very loud detractors as well (it did not win, nor have any of its sequels garnered further nods). The story is set in a highly developed version of our solar system, with the three main powers being Earth, Mars, and the Asteroid Belt ("belters"). It follows two main viewpoint characters in alternating chapters: Holden, a down-on-his-luck captain of an ice mining vessel who runs afoul of a nefarious plot, and Miller, a down-on-his-luck police detective in search of a missing rich kid. They eventually meet up, the nefarious plot becomes more clear, and hijinks ensue.

    I'm a big fan of old-school space opera, but this just wasn't cutting it for me. There are some fantastic ideas here, and the high-level premise (involving an ancient alien virus/organism/somethinglikethat) is very interesting, but it's the journey that's the problem, not the destination. I had a difficult time relating to Holden and Miller, and most of the folks who surround them, and the story wallows in their misery a bit too much for me to really get into it. Holden has some very high-minded ideals, and he sticks to them, which would be admirable if he wasn't otherwise pretty incompetent. At first, I thought Miller's hard-boiled detective story would work, but he spends more time wallowing in self-pity than tracking down criminals... of which, there are many. The Asteroid Belt is portrayed as a cesspool of prostitution, crime, underage prostitution, rape, riots, and prostitution. I'm not entirely sure why humans have settled on these rocks, but apparently 90% of their activities are criminal enterprises. It's a long book, and we spend way too much time with this mostly irrelevant world-building. We get it, the solar system is a grim, gritty place.

    It takes entirely too long (like, half the book) to get to the meat of the plot, the aforementioned alien virus conspiracy, at which point, things get mildly more interesting. The details of the conspiracy (including a rather cartoonish plot to maliciously expose millions of people to the alien virus, complete with mustache twirling villain) strain credibility, but if you're able to take them at their face, it works reasonably well. The physics are probably the least problematic aspect of the story, and the author manages to wring plenty of suspense out of that, which is good. Still, I found it was not worth wading through all the crap to get to the good stuff. There are some aspects of the ending that work reasonably well, even when the dedication to rigorous physics fades away, but the ultimate resolution (at Miller's hands) borders on the ludicrous. James S.A. Corey is the pen name of Daniel Abraham (a mildly successful Fantasy author) and Ty Franck, and they've written three books in the series, with a fourth on the way. Alas, I'm not particularly interested in revisiting this series.
  • Consider Phlebas by Ian M. Banks - Since Leviathan Wakes didn't really scratch that space opera itch, and since I've really been meaning to check out some Banks, I decided to start reading the Culture series (in this case, the series appears to consist of self-contained stories sharing a setting, rather than one long story). Being a completist, I started with Banks' first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas. Unfortunately, I'm getting the impression that this isn't a particularly great way to enter the series.

    What we have here is a episodic series of stories centered around Bora Horza Gorbuchul, a quasi-human shape shifter and agent for the Idirans, an alien race of religious-minded warriors who have picked a fight with the Culture (comprised mostly of humans). We don't see much of the Culture in this book, but the implication is that they are a decadent, hedonistic people that are technologically advanced enough to create Artificial Intelligences that are so advanced that they are able to create a sorta utopia (whether this is possible is another debate, probably best saved for another time). The opening of the book winds up being very disorienting, as we find our hero, Horza, being continually captured and thrown from one place to another, managing to escape and survive only through guile. After a couple hundred pages, I was beginning to think the book would be nothing but disjointed tales of Horza's escape from one band of crazies to the next. But then things settle down a bit, Horza resumes the mission he was given at the beginning of the book, and a more steady plot emerges. Of course, it's still a rather small plot (Horza must retrieve a Culture Mind that has crash landed on his difficult-to-reach home planet), and again, what we're left with is disjointed and episodic. Which is all well and good, but not very cohesive.

    We get our fair share of grim and gritty here, too, but unlike Leviathan Wakes, it doesn't feel quite as all-encompassing or oppressive. While we are following Horza and his Idirian allies, it gradually becomes clear that the Culture will emerge victorious. For his part, Banks never paints this conflict in blacks-and-whites, allowing for more nuanced views of each side. The Culture is not Skynet, and the Idirians are not Klingons (though individual Idirians, especially towards the end, prove to be quite capable of wreaking havoc). While the episodic nature of the story ultimately harms it, each episode is imaginative and features some rather fantastic scene-setting, from the thousand-mile-long ships of Vavatch Orbital to treacherous Temples of Light. There's plenty of action, raids, heists, even a rather strange high-stakes card game. Some of these vignettes, like the weird cannibalistic cult that Horza runs across, are perhaps not as successful and only really serve as filler. Ultimately, what we end up with is a bit too sloppy for my liking, but this is interesting and at least somewhat ambitious stuff, even if it leaves something to be desired. I am certainly curious to further explore Banks' Culture books, even if this one was not really pushing my buttons (and my understanding is that the next two books in the series, Player of Games and Use of Weapons, have more cohesive stories, which will help!)
So there you have it. Up next on the SF review front will be one of the Best Hugo nominees, though I'm not sure which I'll finish first (probably Neptune's Brood). I've also read some non-SF stuff that I should probably go over as well, but I may save that for later.
Posted by Mark on May 04, 2014 at 01:25 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.

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