Thursday, August 30, 2012

Something for Thursday

Apparently 'reboot fever', in which old properties are exhumed dusted off dragged from the archives for the purpose of maintaining rights ownership revisited for a new generation, has struck the folks at Disney, who are developing a new Rocketeer project. Originally a comic book, The Rocketeer was already made into a movie in the early 1990s. It's the story of a depression-era airplane mechanic who finds a rocket jet-pack (complete with cool art-deco helmet whose flanges act as rudders for steering), and his adventures thereof as dastardly folk try to get hold of the jet pack for military purposes. (There's even a Nazi propaganda movie showing an immense armada of Nazi soldiers flying across the Atlantic with their jet-packs to conquer the USA, which prompted Roger Ebert to wonder if they pack sandwiches for the trip.)

The Rocketeer was a fun movie, if memory serves; I only saw it once. It's genial and entertaining and well-made (if a bit slow in the pacing area), but it didn't really strike me as something that needed revisiting. Little did I know. Anyway, here is a suite of James Horner's music from The Rocketeer, which features one of his more endearing melodies. (Speaking of which, at around 40 seconds in, you can hear the first of several instances of one of Horner's favorite compositional tricks, which I call "the James Horner Rolling Chord of Melodic Punctuation").

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter (Thursday edition)

Someone asked me this for Ask Me Anything, and it struck me as a good question, so: what's your favorite vegetarian dish or recipe? (I like to use this regular posting feature as a means of picking the brains of my brilliant readers!)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Answers, the third! (The political ones)

Time to continue providing answers to the queries posed for Ask Me Anything!. A couple of politically-themed ones from Roger today. I'm surprised that, given an election year, there were only two political questions. I'm also glad that there were only two political questions.

These are beneath the fold...but just in case any of my readers on the other side of the aisle are thinking of reading my brief political thoughts, here's Bugs Bunny to distract you:

OK, just click away now!

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Very Public Service Message

Hey folks!

Expect a lighter than normal posting frequency here for a short while. The main reason is that I really need to get the manuscript mark-ups done on Princesses In SPACE!!! (not the actual title). I'm way behind the goal I had set for myself, and I need to get the proverbial arse in gear. I'm not going on hiatus or anything, but there will be more days than usual where nothing new appears here.

(By the way, Little Quinn would have turned eight years old yesterday. Time's passage never stops, does it?)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Film Quote Friday

"Darmok" is one of the most memorable episodes, and for me a high point, of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Enterprise makes contact with a people, the Tamarians, whose language has resisted all efforts at translation, to the point where not even the Universal Translator can make head nor tail of what they are saying. Their language appears to be based on random citations of stories, an extreme way of talking in metaphor and citing examples from a rich storytelling heritage to make one's point. As someone who often thinks in terms of stories I've read or seen and who frequently cites them in the case of arguing various points, this hits home for me.

In the episode, Captain Picard and Captain Dathon (of the other ship) go down to a planet surface to face a 'monster', to suffer a shared danger, which Dathon hopes will somehow forge a connection between them. It takes Picard a while to realize that Dathon's 'kidnapping' of Picard to the planet surface is intended as an act of friendship, and it takes him a bit longer to put together just what some of the Tamarian phrases mean. They do battle with the creature, and manage to fight it off...but Dathon is mortally wounded. At night, Picard and Dathon sit by a campfire. Dathon is clearly in great pain:

DATHON: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

PICARD: Our situation is similar to theirs. I understand that. But I need to know more. You must tell me more about Darmok and Jalad. Tell me. You used the words, 'Temba, his arms wide' when you gave me the knife and the fire. Could that mean give? Temba, his arms wide. Darmok. Give me more about Darmok.

DATHON: Darmok on the ocean.

PICARD: Darmok. (draws on the soil) The ocean. Darmok on the ocean. A metaphor? For being alone? Isolated? Darmok on the ocean.

(Dathon writhes in pain)

PICARD: Are you alright?

DATHON: Kiazi's children, their faces wet.

PICARD: Temba, his arms open. Give me more about Darmok on the ocean.

DATHON: Tanagra on the ocean. Darmok at Tanagra.

PICARD: At Tanagra. A country? Tanagra on the ocean. An island. Temba, his arms wide.

DATHON: Jalad on the ocean. Jalad at Tanagra.

PICARD: Jalad at Tanagra. He went to the same island as Darmok. Darmok and Jalad Tanagra.

DATHON: The beast at Tanagra.

PICARD: The beast? There was a creature at Tanagra? Darmok and Jalad, the beast of Tanagra. They arrived separately. They struggled together against a common foe, the beast at Tanagra. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

DATHON: Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.

PICARD: They left together. Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.

DATHON: The ocean. (another spasm) Zinda! His face black, his eyes red. Callimas at Bahar.

PICARD: You hoped this would happen, didn't you? You knew there was a dangerous creature on this planet and you knew from the tale of Darmok that a danger shared might sometimes bring two people together. Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra. You and me, here, at El-Adrel.

DATHON: Kira at Bashi. Temba, his arms wide.

PICARD: My turn? No, I'm not much of a story teller. Besides, you wouldn't understand. Shaka. when the walls fell. Perhaps that doesn't matter. You want to hear it anyway. There's a story, a very ancient one, from Earth. I'll try and remember it. Gilgamesh, a king. Gilgamesh, a king, at Uruk. He tormented his subjects. He made them angry. They cried out aloud, send us a companion for our king. Spare us from his madness. Enkidu, a wild man from the forest, entered the city. They fought in the temple. They fought in the street. Gilgamesh defeated Enkidu. They became great friends. Gilgamesh and Enkidu at Uruk.

DATHON: At Uruk.

PICARD: The new friends went out into the desert together, where the great bull of heaven was killing men by the hundreds. Enkidu caught the bull by the tail. Gilgamesh struck it with his sword.

DATHON: Gilgamesh.

PICARD: They were victorious. But Enkidu fell to the ground, struck down by the gods. And Gilgamesh wept bitter tears, saying, 'he who was my companion through adventure and hardship, is gone forever.

At this point, sadly, Dathon dies. It's a haunting moment in a terrific script, made all the better by Patrick Stewart and guest star Paul Winfield (as Dathon). It amuses me that they have Picard claim to not be a very good storyteller, and then he goes on to make even this Cliff's Notes version of the Epic of Gilgamesh riveting.

I've heard some fans over the years wonder why they never revisited the Tamarians on Trek. I'm not sure, but I do think that as good as the Trek writers were, they weren't always great science fiction writers, and to really be done well, the concept needed someone on the order of, say, a Vernor Vinge. The idea of a society whose collective memory has become so ingrained as to literally form the basis of its language is a fascinating one, and it would need to be done justice.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Many Faces of Monti Carlo

UPDATE 5-23-13: Thanks to the ever-wonderful Monti Carlo for linking this bit of silliness on Twitter and Facebook! And welcome to everyone dropping by. I hope you enjoy, feel free to look around a while, the furniture's old so don't worry about putting your feet up or putting coasters under your drinks! Yes, I'm weird, but I'm harmless. Really!

Spoilers for Master Chef, and mainly a tribute to contestant Monti, below the fold....

Something for Thursday

One of my favorite little things in The Music Man is the way Prof. Harold Hill is able to continually distract the School Board from investigating his background by tricking them into singing. Here's one such example, which combines with another lovely song being sung by Marian Paroo across town: "Lida Rose" and "Will I Ever Tell You".

(Note to self: Wow, it's been a lot of years since you've watched The Music Man. What's up with that?)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

If the government came to you and said "We will spend whatever amount of money it takes to do the one thing that you think will improve life in your municipality the most", what one thing would you pick?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

It came from the freezer section!

OK, another frozen pizza. Sticking with the Palermo brand and their ultra-thin crust, this time I went the complete opposite way from the cheese pizza I had the first time. This time, I had a Supreme pizza.

In general, over the years, my pizza tastes have shifted from liking tons of toppings to liking only a few toppings. 'Supreme' type pizzas too often seem like overkill to me nowadays, what with lots of pizza makers seemingly approaching these pizzas as a way of cramming toppings into every possible bite. The problem then is that all the flavors just end up clashing together, and all those toppings can make the crust hard to get nicely cooked, too.

(Now, there are exceptions here – our favorite local pizza joint, Imperial Pizza, absolutely loads its pizzas with toppings, and they're frakking heavenly. I am large, I contain multitudes!)

So anyway, here's the Palermo Ultra-thin Supreme Pizza box:

And here's the pie just out of the box, before going in the oven.

In truth, I like the way that looks. There is a variety of toppings (pepperoni, Italian sausage, onions, peppers, and black olives), but they're not so heavily piled on there that the cheese itself disappears. On that basis, this pizza looks promising. Into the oven it goes...

...and about twelve minutes later (the box recommends 10 to 15 minutes of baking), out it comes.

That looks...really nice. Really, really nice. The only downside here is that because toppings are taken right to the edge, a couple of those items actually fell off in the course of baking and wound up on the floor of the oven. There's a little char around the edges (could've been a little more with a few more minutes in the oven), but no real burning. The bottom of the crust, like the cheese pizza, looks great:

But of course, the final test is in the eating. The crust and sauce are pretty much identical to the Cheese-lovers, so I ditto those comments here. The main difference here is the toppings, so what of them? They're pretty good. Now, let's be clear here: we're talking frozen pizza, so we're not going to be getting the highest quality toppings here. But the pepperoni is pretty good, as is the sausage. The meats are a bit on the dry side, which is fairly typical for frozen pizza; the veggies are decent and taste of what they are. Not great toppings, really, but as frozen pizza goes, they're pretty good.

I liked this one.

(Why no, this series of posts isn't just an excuse I've given myself to eat frozen pizza. Why do you ask?)

Answers, the second!

Continuing the answers for Ask Me Anything!

Chris asks: What's your favorite vegetarian recipe? (If it's good, I'd actually love to know the ingredients, not just the name. :-) )

First of all, I have to admit that I'm not entirely sure what's 'vegetarian'. I would tend to consider something vegetarian if no animals were killed for the production of the item, which means, I consider vegetarianism to be quite compatible with eating dairy products. That said, I love a pizza with no meat on it. One of my favorite pizzas has garlic and olive oil spread on the crust, topped with mozzarella cheese, and then sliced tomatoes and banana peppers. I think that pizza without meat is awfully great.

And of course, salads. Love salads. You can go in lots of directions.

And fried rice or noodle stir-fries, with lots of good veggies thrown in. I'm discovering that I like quite a few veggies either raw or cooked in stir-fry fashion (i.e., cooked on high heat very quickly). My latest discovery is that stir-fried or quick-cooked string beans make me happy. Yay!

Vegetarian sandwiches are cool, and you don't have to pile them with salad-type veggies, either. PB&J is vegetarian, yes? Or PB and potato chips? Yum! And a favorite sandwich of mine is cream cheese and sliced strawberries on thick, toasted, whole-grain bread.

Ooooh, and beans! Love beans. I absolutely adore beans. I think beans are wonderful. I tend to include meat in my chili just out of habit, but increasingly it occurs to me that if I just add a fourth can of beans, why would I even need the meat at all? Beans are awesome!

Here are some problem areas: are eggs 'vegetarian'? I struggle with the dividing lines thereof.

One vegetable I want to experiment with this winter (when I do more baking) is eggplant. Ultimately, I don't do a whole lot with specific recipes yet, in terms of vegetarianism. My approach has been to gradually incorporate more vegetables in my diet, in keeping with Michael Pollan's advice: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." But as I explore this stuff more, I will post recipes and various discoveries as I go!

Chris also asks: And, if you could have one - just one - superhero ability, which would it be and why?

Flight. Wouldn't it be amazing to fly!

Jeremy asks: My question is: Would you rather invent a true blue rose or the next best smart phone? Why?

I had to do some Googling for this one. It turns out that, as roses evolved, they are incapable of producing a true blue color in their petals, because of the genetics involved. So, of course, people have been trying for years to force the issue and create a rose that will blossom true blue. The things you learn!

And frankly, I'd rather do that than come up with the next great smart phone (or whatever other electronic gizmo). The first true blue rose can only happen once, but there will always be a next great smart phone, or laptop, or tablet, or whatever.

Unless...unless what Jeremy is asking is, would I want to create the first great whatever-the-next-thing-is. If I want to create the first iPad or iPod...or the first Macintosh...or so on. But even so...I'll take the rose. As William Blake wrote:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Actually, I'm not sure that applies...but I like that poem, anyway.

More answers to come!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Answers the First: Jerry Goldsmith!

OK, it's time to start answering the queries from the most recent iteration of Ask Me Anything! (Speaking of which, I'm not closing out for queries yet, so feel free to ask, at the afore-linked post.) I'm going to start with a query that was actually not posed in connection with Ask Me Anything!, because I'm tricksy that way, folks. But the question came up a couple weeks ago on Twitter, and I promised to answer it as a blog post because that would be a better place to go into things in a bit more depth. As the question came when it did, I'm counting it as an Ask Me Anything! submission. The question was:

I don't currently have any Jerry Goldsmith in my music collection. What should I get?

Ahhh, Jerry Goldsmith. He was one of the giants of film music, producing a huge body of work: I'm guessing well over 300 scores over a career that lasted more than 40 years. Some of his scores are outright classics of the genre, and a great many more are fine works that provide hours of good listening. And yes, in my opinion, he did write a few would anyone as prolific as he was. But if you haven't heard any Goldsmith in detail, where should one start? Here is a short list of possible 'gateway' Goldsmith scores.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

I lead off with this one because this is how I discovered Jerry Goldsmith. It was one of the very first film music records I bought, and I listened the hell out of it, eventually wearing it out and doing a lot of mental comparison of it to John Williams's two Star Wars scores at the time. (Yes, ST:TMP came out before The Empire Strikes Back, but I didn't get the record until a year later, after I'd already bought TESB.)

The Trek score starts off bold and brassy, in a way that suggested Star Wars, but it was a quicker theme, more militaristic in nature, and then there's a pretty amazing cue that accompanies the Klingon investigation of this strange cloud that ends up destroying them. The score is very different from Star Wars, and it was my first foray into science fiction that was more about a 'sense of wonder at the unknown' than the swashbuckling adventure that was more the thing with Star Wars. Goldsmith's work here is full of wonderful tone-painting as he takes us musically into the heart of the V'Ger cloud.

And frankly, only Goldsmith's music is what saves the first Enterprise fly-by from being a self-indulgent mess.

Total Recall

For me, this might be the last truly great score of Goldsmith's career. It stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from his ST:TMP score, being for a more adventurously bold SF movie than the one from eleven years prior. And it's a muscular pulse-pounder of a score that nevertheless includes some real moments of Sfnal wonder.

The Wind and the Lion

Goldsmith was more than an SF or action composer; he also scored quite a few films like this period adventure piece featuring Sean Connery and Candice Bergen. (As well as Brian Keith as Teddy Roosevelt, and a young, pre-Dallas Steve Kanaly as an Army officer.) This score became one of my favorites the very first time I heard it, with its gorgeous, sumptuous melodies that were evocative of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade and its stunning action writing. This is Jerry Goldsmtih at his very, very best. I'm not sure, but I might well consider this to be his masterpiece.

The Omen

And then there is the score for which Goldsmith won his only Oscar. (This is something that eternally vexes his fans, and one does wish that Goldsmith had received more such honor in his life, but in general, he tended to fall victim to the fact that there were only so many Oscars to go around.) If you want to hear some really deliciously creepy Biblical horror music, complete with a main title called "Ave Satani", this score is your huckleberry. It's amazing. (And if you like this, I'd also recommend the other two scores in the Omen trilogy. For the most part, the Goldsmith scores are the best things in this trilogy, and a quick scan of his filmography reveals that Goldsmith may have scored more crappy movies than any other composer, ever.)


When I say that I might consider The Wind and the Lion to be Goldsmith's masterpiece, I am mainly given pause by his score to Chinatown. This score is one of the legends of film music. Goldsmith wasn't the first choice to write the film's music, and was brought in under a severe deadline crunch after the original score was deemed lackluster. (This happens far more often in film music than you might suspect.) The result was that Goldsmith had just ten days to rescore the film. So what he did was to write a noir score, essentially in a theme-and-variations approach (which turned out to be his usual calling card), for a very small ensemble, including some modern sounds like a prepared piano.

What came from his pen was a chamber work that only scores about 25 of the movie's more than 120 minutes, but with astonishing clarity and purpose, starting right from the mournful main theme. I can't get over the level of genius and skill behind Goldsmith's Chinatown score, and it's probably only my general taste for big and lush orchestral music that compels me to give the nod to The Wind and the Lion.

The Secret of NIMH

I once castigated a film music writer for stating that the music Goldsmith wrote for the late-90s Disney flick Mulan constituted the 'best score for an animated film, ever', and I stand by that. Just off the top of my head I can name a dozen animated films with more memorable music than Mulan, and setting that argument aside, I put The Secret of NIMH forward as Exhibit A in my argument that Mulan not only isn't the 'finest score ever for an animated film', it's not even the finest score written by Jerry Goldsmith for an animated film.

The Secret of NIMH is Goldsmith at his impressionistic best. His compositional influences don't tend to be as obvious as John Williams's, but you can definitely sometimes hear Maurice Ravel inside Goldsmith, trying to get out, and NIMH is one of the scores where you can hear it the most. This is just amazing music.


Here's an odd case. Legend had a wonderful score by Jerry Goldsmith, until the film was altered severely for release in the United States, all the way to replacing Goldsmith's music with an electronic score by Tangerine Dream. I don't recall that I've ever seen the movie, so I can't speak to the quality of that decision, but I do know that the Goldsmith score is mostly wonderful.

Goldsmith fans tend to regard this is a towering masterwork of his, but I have a hard time going quite that far, even as chock full of more of the Ravelian impressionism and tone-painting that typifies The Secret of NIMH. My problem is with the use of synthesizers. Goldsmith has always been willing to employ electronics in his scores, and most of the time, he gets it just right, often managing to incorporate the electronics into the orchestral tapestry in such a way that it just seems to belong there. In Legend, however, the synths tend to stand out like a sore thumb, and there are times when the sounds produced are downright unpleasant to the point of being distracting. The good parts of the Legend score are so good, though!


In all honesty, I didn't like this movie, and also in all honesty, Goldsmith's output after Total Recall tends to leave me awfully cold. Powder is one of the rare post-1990 scores of his that connects with me. I don't have anything terribly analytical to say about it, except to note that it's a very moving and sad score.

Now, there are other Goldsmith scores that might serve as exploratory scores: Stagecoach, perhaps. Lots of people love Rudy (although not me -- Rudy is ground zero of Goldsmith's post-1990 tendency to just take a single melody and drive it into the ground to the point that I'm sick of it). There's good stuff in The 13th Warrior, although I do think that score is awfully repetitive as well. After TMP, Goldsmith would return to Star Trek to do the scores for V: The Final Frontier, First Contact, Insurrection, and Nemesis. Of these, the first two are worth exploring (TFF is actually very good, while First Contact boasts one of Goldsmith's very finest melodies in the stately theme that signifies the maturing of the human species that results from the first contact with an alien species), while the others are...well, not. (Especially avoid Nemesis, which I consider to be Goldsmith's worst score.) Some film music fans used to kvetch, back when I regularly interacted with such, that it was just damned bad that Goldsmith didn't get a crack at the Lord of the Rings films, but frankly, if First Knight was indicative of what an epic fantasy Goldsmith score would have been like...I'm fine with that. I've never liked that score. But despite my complaining above, Mulan is really a solid work. It's just not as good as NIMH, which is genius.

So there you have it. I'm omitting a ton of scores, but how could I do otherwise? The man wrote so much, and a lot of it is great, great music!

More answers to come!

Sentential Links!

It's time for LINKS! Huzzah!!!

:: And so the Greeks destroyed Ilion and took back Helen
They squashed those Trojans like a ripened melon!
(Sean celebrates completing The Aeneid as only he can. Hoo boy....)

:: Oh no, no, no…one does not wait 37 years for marriage to receive the Holy Kitchenaid mixer from her besties for her wedding shower to HIDE that gorgeous piece of equipment! (Don't do this, men. Just...don't do this.)

:: And then Reed is always yelling at him and ordering him around like a helper monkey. Jesus, Reed; first you disfigure him, then you browbeat him, and then you turn him into your servant and take his name away? Give it a rest, you yob. Poor guy can't even masturbate anymore, fer chrissakes. Can you imagine the stress he's under? (I've never liked The Fantastic Four, and I never read more than an occasional issue of it when I was actively into comics, mainly because Reed Richards is an insufferable tool. The one issue that I remember focused on She-Hulk, in a humorous story that had a paparazzi-type managing to get naked photos of her.)

:: Possibly all those years of bad-taste fat-Elvis jokes and ridiculous impersonators have blotted out the cultural memories of who he really was, and why he once excited us. Maybe it's something more ineffable. Whatever the reason, though, Marilyn's image (if not her actual work or personality) resonates with younger folks whereas Elvis' does not. (Well, Elvis Presley's reputation ain't going anywhere so long as Sheila O'Malley is around! Read on....)

:: Elvis arrived in Germany on October 1, 1958. Except for a couple of shows in Canada, Elvis had never been out of the United States. He was greeted at the dock by throngs of screaming fans – if anything more insane than the fans in the United States. He signed autographs. You can see how happy he is in the photos and footage, that here he is in a foreign land, with girls who don’t even speak his language, and they all know who he is.

:: I can't tell you how many hours I've spent on these two volumes, but it's a lot. One of the best purchases I've ever made. I've surely gotten more than $70 worth of enjoyment out of them. (Wow, that is a heck of a find!)

:: ‘Blade Runner’ avoids that paradox for too much of its running length, which is why I would like to see someone else take a crack at it. It’s a drama about slavery where nobody ever suggests that slavery is a bad thing, which is a bit too bloodless for a movie with such an angry contradiction right at its very core. The only time we see even a hint of it is when Roy Batty rescues Deckard at the end, an act that gives the lie to the entire notion that androids are incapable of empathy and forces Deckard to confront the truth: He’s a mass murderer, and he never even thought about it. And given that he gets maybe two lines of dialogue after that, I’d call the film at least a little bit flawed. A sequel that really got into the idea, one that confronted the notions that androids could learn how to be human beings…and that human beings can all too easily forget…could be even better than its predecessor.

More next week!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Sunday Burst of Weird and Awesome

Oddities and Awesome abound!

:: Ten Incredible Sea Forts. I love these...the first one looks like it could be a setting in a dystopic, future-Earth-where-global-warming-has-flooded-everyplace story; the second looks like something out of a James Bond movie. The rest are cool, too.

:: Really nifty stormtrooper costumes. My favorite here, given the Dumas I've been reading of late, is the Three Musketeers version.

:: Snell pinpoints the true location of the Batcave. It's...not where I expected. (I have to be honest, though, I mentally rebel against the idea of Gotham being anywhere on the Atlantic coast. In my head, as Metropolis is a stand-in for NYC, Gotham is a stand-in for Chicago. It just is, and forevermore will be. But really, fictional cities suck and mess everything up...said the guy who has set a bunch of his short stories, unpublished as they may be, in the fictional city of New Mowbray, MI, which is located on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan...and which is not unlike another Great Lakes city, farther to the east, at the end of Lake Erie....)

More next week!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Ask Me Anything!

UPDATE: Link fixed!

Hey, folks, one last reminder that I'm still soliciting questions, queries, and interrogatives for the August 2012 edition of Ask Me Anything!. Just drop in in comments on this post, or on Twitter, or on Facebook, or in e-mail. Heck, you can try Morse code, but I wouldn't vouch for its reliability these days. I've got some good queries already, so go ahead and throw in some more!

Film Quote Friday

The first time I realized that there was something of a 'geek subculture' was when the movie TRON came out. The big 'tentpole' movies of geekdom -- Star Wars, Superman, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET -- everybody saw those. Not so much with TRON, which was pretty much ignored that year, except by me; I saw it and assumed that everyone else did, too. But when I mentioned it to classmates, not one of them had bothered. They had all assumed it was just a piece of, well, geek fluff.

TRON isn't a perfect movie, but it's a fun one, and it's deeply imaginative in its depiction of 'the world inside the computer', where programs take on the personalities of their 'Users'. For all the ballyhooed use of computer graphics in its effects, the film's production design is surprisingly old-school, using photographic effects of the time, but there is still a lot of amazing eye-candy in the movie. (And the lightcycle sequence is, for my money, one of the iconic action sequences of the period.)

Early in the film, a program from an accounting firm is being escorted into the Game Grid, which is where programs are gathered and forced to engage in forms of cyber-gladiator games. Here we meet Crom, a program who won't be around much, because he's doughy and nerdy and....

Crom: Look. This... is all a mistake. I'm just a compound interest program. I work at a savings and loan! I can't play these video games!

Guard: Sure you can, pal. Look like a natural athlete if I ever saw one.

Crom: Who, me? Are you kidding? No, I run out to check on T-bill rates, I get outta breath. Hey, look, you guys are gonna make my user, Mr. Henderson, very angry. He's a full-branch manager.

Guard: Great. Another religious nut.

It interests me that belief in the Users is portrayed amongst the bad guys as a strange religion, but that's the way it had to have started, right? The Master Control Program didn't always exist. I wouldn't mind knowing the story of its rise to power...but that'll be a thought for another day. Anyway, I'm glad that over the years, TRON has been embraced more than it was back in 1982. But I'm also glad that I was on board at the beginning.

Greetings, Programs!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Something for Thursday

I saw this image earlier on Facebook...

...and the song's been in my head ever since. So here's the Steve Miller Band.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

Antique stores: "ZOMG, look at all the wonderful treasures of yesteryear!" or "ZOMG, look at all the old crap!"?

Extra credit: For those in either camp, what's the best thing you've ever acquired at an antique store? Regular readers will know that I'm in Camp One, but I know a lot of folks who are in Camp Two.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

An apple a day keeps the Republicans away?

President Obama keeps a bowl of apples on the table in the Oval Office.


Here's a big selection of photos of the action in the Oval Office, as witnessed by the apple bowl. I assume they change the apples regularly -- if those are the same apples after more than three years, well...ewwww!

(I almost titled this post "Obama Had A Heap Of Apples". If you understand that reference, you're my kind of people.)

An awful waste of space

As much as I love Carl Sagan, I have to admit that I never warmed to his one and only novel, a science-fiction first contact story he called Contact. I tried reading it a couple of times, and each time I only got about a hundred pages in before I stopped. I just don't think that Sagan was really cut out for novel writing, no matter how great his gifts may have been for science writing. But in 1997, a movie adaptation of the book arrived in theaters, starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConnaughey and directed by Robert Zemeckis. The movie was six months too late for Sagan to have seen it, alas.

I've had a somewhat uneasy relationship with Contact ever since it came out. On balance I like it a lot...but I don't love it, and in truth, I never really have. I've never been entirely successful in putting my finger on what it is about Contact that vexes me, but after recently watching the film again on NetFlix, I think I have it: the movie is too unfocused. When the film is concentrated on telling its story and attending to that central story, it is a fine, fine piece of work. But too often I get the impression that Robert Zemeckis got distracted, often by something shiny, and there are way too many times in the movie that the story gets lost so we can follow something shiny.

Contact tells the story of Ellie Arroway, an astronomer whom we meet as a young child, operating her HAM radio under the guidance of her father. They have a wall map of the United States, on which she marks her radio contacts with push pins; after talking to someone in Pensacola, Dad comments that it's her farthest contact yet. Ellie asks if a radio could talk to the Moon, or to Mars...or to her mother, who is apparently dead. Dad responds, "I don't think they'll ever make a radio that can reach that far."

Grown-up Ellie (Jodie Foster) turns out to be an astronomer, as noted, who is using her research time at the Arecibo Radio Telescope to look for, as she says, "little green men": she is dedicating her career and scientific energies to SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). This leads to her meeting a former priest (Palmer Joss, played by Matthew McConnaughey), who despite being religious and spiritual where she is not, attracts her on a number of levels, and it also leads to run-ins with an older male scientist named David Drumlin (Tom Skeritt) who is snide and condescending to Ellie as he regards her chosen field of specialty as an utter waste of time. After a number of obstacles to her career – mostly owing to funding difficulties, as convincing people to part with money for something like SETI tends to be difficult – Ellie finally has a breakthrough when, while working at the Very Large Array in New Mexico, her radio telescopes detect an unmistakable alien signal. The rest of the film follows the implications of such a discovery.

Or, rather, the rest of the film should do that, and when it does, it's incredibly effective and thought-provoking and loaded with the grand "sensawunda" of all the best science fiction. The problem with the movie is that it too often wanders into less interesting stuff, or its steps away from subtlety to drive its points home with a jackhammer, or it does things that forcibly eject me from the world of the film.

Taking the less interesting stuff first: Ellie Arroway is too often portrayed in the film as the feminine voice of reason in a crowd of over-bearing, pompous, or downright dim men. Science and engineering are male-dominated fields, and it's a well-established fact that women in those fields tend to have a tougher going just to overcome gender biases. The problem with Contact's approach isn't so much that it points this out, but that it's about other things, and thus it can't really delve too intelligently into those topics which really do deserve higher scrutiny. Thus we have Ellie being treated like an outsider on her own project, or Drumlin stepping up to claim ownership over a project he's derided consistently up until the moment it proved fruitful. Ellie is constantly on the defensive in the movie, and I think it hurts the narrative because the film can't just gear up and take us where it wants to go. Instead we have to keep talking about God.

And God is where subtlety just isn't something that interests Robert Zemeckis. Contact is full of discussions of religion versus science, but the feeling is never that anything is really being debated; what happens is that opposite sides' viewpoints are stated, and restated, and stated again. Ellie goes to a reception in Washington, where her first order of business upon approaching Palmer Joss is to immediately launch into a discussion on religion, without any preamble or preliminary; more than that, though, the script treats all such conversations – and many that aren't on the topic of religion at all – as though Ellie has a sizable axe to grind, while everyone else (just about all of whom are male) is calm and collected in their disagreement. Coupling that with the several instances in the film where Ellie is betrayed by men – Drumlin's taking of the credit, Joss's posing of a question at the hearings when he knows that the answer is going to doom Ellie's chances of being the one selected to go in 'the machine' – and the film seems to depict Ellie as someone who doesn't so much achieve a lot but whom is given things, table-scrap like, by the men in her life. It's an odd kind of feeling.

It also bothers me that the film ends right when it gets most interesting, and it feels to me like it takes the easy way out. To me, the most interesting thing is, What would human society be like once we know that we are not alone in this Universe? We may know next to nothing about who is out there, but surely knowing once and for all, without speculation, that there is someone or something living out there would be a staggering revelation for the human species. Unfortunately, the film doesn't do much with this notion – in fact, it backs away from it. We get lots of intrigue involving the contents of the message that is received from space, and then the construction of the transport "machine", and so on. And this is all very compelling and entertaining...but at the end, the film gives us the old "Did it really happen?" gambit, reducing a momentous scientific discovery to something that will appeal to some people and not to others. Not unlike, say, the belief in God.

(Again, I don't know to what degree the film's story tracks that of the novel.)

I always find that the film deflates in its last fifteen minutes or so, after Ellie returns from her journey only to learn that, so far as anyone here knows, she never went anywhere. This leads to a Congressional hearing (which really drives home the film's theme of "one woman versus a whole bunch of mean men"), at the end of which one Representative says, "Are we supposed to take your story...on faith?" And yes, he really pauses and puts big emphasis on those last two words, just in case we missed the irony of a scientist committed to objective observation being forced to admit the necessity of faith. Again, subtle, this is not. The movie does try to have it both ways by showing two government folks discussion the fact that the machine's video recorder recorded eighteen hours of static (had nothing happened at all, there would have been about two seconds' worth). But this is to be kept secret, apparently. They might as well seal all this information in a crate and store it in the warehouse next to the Ark of the Covenant.

And the movie ends, on this state of affairs. What happens now, though? Does some kind of new religion start to accrete around Ellie and her scientific beliefs? Does Ellie somehow become an evangelist for a new blossoming of a scientific worldview? Does her experience have any effect on the human tension between science and religion? We never get any suggestions or speculations. All we get is the rolling of the credits. Contact tells a good story, but it stops just as its important story is just beginning.

Finally, I just have to note that all the cameos in the movie annoy the crap out of me. This was when Robert Zemeckis had just discovered that he could put people into lots of interesting situations, digitally; remember, he'd had Forrest Gump consorting with Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. So here we get loads of real-life CNN personalities, and even President Bill Clinton, with the film taking quotes from actual Clinton newscasts and editing them so that it sounds like he's discussing the events of the movie. It's incredibly distracting. Instead of being drawn further into the story, I find myself trying to think of what event Clinton was actually discussing in the speeches that were repurposed for this movie. Things like having Rob Lowe play a Christian conservative leader named "Richard Rank" are incredibly distracting, because of course it makes me think of Ralph Reed. Shoehorning in mention of the mass suicide of the Heaven's Gate cult, which had happened just months before the movie came out, is another example. Zemeckis seems to want his movie to seem 'real' and relevant, but all this stuff has the exact opposite effect on me: it forces me to keep the story at arm's length.

Ultimately, I want to love Contact, because of my love and admiration for Carl Sagan, for the subject matter of the story, and for the view of the Universe as a place of wonder and of science as humanity's greatest achievement. And there really is a lot to love about Contact. But the movie spends so much time getting in its own way that I inevitably end up just admiring it a lot.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Random Thoughts on 'Manbabies'

I was going to post about this last week, after local blogger (and, in general, a voice I respect) Christopher M. Smith did a podcast in which he crankily outlined all the ways he thinks US society is unserious and immature, but I ended up not posting it, because it just struck me as a waste of time. But now he's visited the topic for a second straight week, so here are some random thoughts.

1. Any statement of the form I no longer engage in [INSERT ACTIVITY HERE] because I'm [INSERT AGE HERE] is inherently dumb. Sorry, but I don't take anything of the sort seriously. I can probably think of a very small few statements of this type that are well taken, but I wouldn't even try to universalize them to a general rule, to invoke Immanuel Kant. People who say "I don't see superhero movies because I'm 38" are little different from people who say, "Edna shouldn't have long hair at her age." I've been told that if you're over the age of five, you shouldn't eat peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches or wear overalls. Well, I'll keep my own counsel on that.

2. Equally obnoxious is I no longer engage in [INSERT ACTIVITY HERE] because it's a waste of time. Again, this is pure obnoxious snobbery. You may decide that some things are more important than other things, and adjust your time use accordingly. That you've decided that a given activity is a waste of your time does not imply that it's a waste of everyone's time.

3. Smith argues, or at least attempts to argue, that various leisure activities are commanding too much attention from Americans to allow them to focus on the more important things. He doesn't really argue this, though, because he provides zero evidence to back this statement up. Where's the data that show this?

4. At the same time, he states that well, OK, it's fine to have hobbies as long as you don't let them 'define you'. No clarification on what it means for a hobby to 'define you' is given. He does speak derisively of people who cosplay at the San Diego Comic-Con, again leaning on the 'you shouldn't do that when you're a certain age' line of thought, but how are we to know who is allowing their hobby to define them and who is not? I have a friend who is really into sports-related hobbies, mainly autograph collecting and fantasy sports leagues. He attends a lot of sports events, has Bills season tickets, and so on. He is also deeply involved in the activities of his church. Does sports define this man? I think not. Are there people who are too deeply into their particular hobbies? Of course. Are there too many in society? Ahhh...that's a question that requires a lot more evidence to support it than Smith provides.

In fact, he undermines his own point when he cites people he knows who have hobbies of the type he's deriding, but proceeds to indicate that those people are fine, because he knows then and knows that they aren't the ones taking things too far. But who are, then? A bunch of people he's never ever met? Is he able to read minds now?

5. "We don't do big things anymore." I'm sorry, what was that? I was too busy reading up on the achievements of our Olympic athletes and looking at the latest data beamed back from the Curiosity rover that we just landed on another planet.

That's overly snarky, I know. There really is a case to be made that our society isn't getting enough done to confront our serious problems. But is there a strong case to be made that our entertainment is proving to be a massive distraction thereof? I'm not convinced, because Smith's argument simply doesn't have enough connective tissue to convince me. Instead, it basically sounds like, "Too many people like stuff that I don't like, and they like it too much." Meh.

6. Smith and his interlocutors slam Hollywood's filmmaking culture for making too much crap these days, and there's some real hay to be made here. But extending our movies -- and not all of our movies, but just the biggest profile movies -- to an argument about all of culture doesn't seem to really hold up. First off, he quotes Francis Ford Coppola as saying that he couldn't get The Godfather made in today's Hollywood culture. And that may well be: I completely agree that movies are too homogeneous right now, too focused on a narrow subset of subject material, and too focused on resuscitating existing properties as opposed to taking risks. But he keeps singling out the entire superhero genre, without even bothering to consider the idea that maybe a good movie can be made of superhero material. One wonders if he similarly dismisses fantasy and science fiction.

Two sub-points here, though. First of all, maybe Coppola couldn't make The Godfather today. But somebody could, and I know that somebody could because somebody did. His name is David Chase, and he made it as The Sopranos. He just did it for teevee.

Could a movie about inner-city crime in Baltimore get made today? Maybe, maybe not. But an extremely well-regarded teevee show called The Wire got made. How about a movie about a successful teacher-turned-drug dealer? Maybe not, but there's a teevee show called Breaking Bad. How about a gritty and violent fantasy series that at its best overturns the tropes of its genre? Game of Thrones. Or a science-fiction series that depicts the choices faced by a society that finds itself at permanent war? Battlestar Galactica.

Objecting "But we're talking movies, not teevee!" doesn't hold up. Neither, really, does a rejoinder that those are mostly cable shows and not network shows. Cultural media don't exist in a vacuum. You can't cite a ton of crap movies as evidence of the increasing crapiness of our popular culture whilst ignoring the other things, in other media, that stand as evidence that the quality exists and has simply moved someplace else.

Secondly, it's been my belief for years that the denizens of any particular era are the worst people to judge the quality of their era's artistic and cultural endeavors. Quality takes time to rise, sometimes decades, and the history of every art -- not just movies, but books, music, poetry, you name it -- is replete with examples of things that were loathed in their day but later became cultural touchstones. There's a wonderful book called A Lexicon of Musical Invective that makes this point very simply by providing excerpt after excerpt of scathing reviews of works of classical music that would go on to become beloved standards of the classical repertoire, by the critics of the time. We remember the hits and forget the misses.

7. Remembering the hits and forgetting the misses also applies, I think, to regarding too highly the eras gone by. Smith seems to believe that there was a golden age of civic involvement in the past. Is this true? Maybe it is, actually. There is evidence to be cited that in some ways, earlier incarnations of American society were more 'serious' than they are now. But I'm not sure how true this is. We don't vote enough, certainly, and in terms of public policy, we tend to stick rigidly in some odd middle, neither particular liberal nor rigidly conservative. But I'm not prepared to grant that we're stuck in neutral, either. This deserves greater discussion, but again, not from the rhetorical framework that Smith establishes. Our problem is not that we're seeing too many superhero movies.

Smith cites a relative of his -- an uncle, I think -- who did a lot of civic stuff, and Smith cites himself as a further example of the way everyone should be. This is sheer nonsense, and it's basically equivalent to Professor Henry Higgins when he wonders, in song, "Why can't a woman be more like me." If your argument for what's wrong with society literally sounds like "Not enough people live their lives the way that I choose to live my life", then maybe you might want to think about reframing things a tad.

8. My final point here: at one point, Smith argues that a big problem is our increased connectivity, with stuff like texting on smartphones. He complains that even when we're standing in line at the post office, we're so busy checking Facebook and tweeting and texting and stuff and dammit, "Can't we just wait in line anymore?" And I'm thinking, "What in God's name is so great about standing in line?!" I mean, seriously: are we really supposed to romanticize the act of standing in a long line at the post office or the bank or the DMV? What are we supposed to do otherwise? Look at the cinderblock walls? Maybe talk to the person in front of us or behind us...but what if they're not feeling conversational? In having new options for things to do while we wait our turn at the counter, am I really supposed to think that we've lost something as a society? Because...I don't.

9. Finally: if this reads like me trying to defend the honor of superhero movies or 'comic book culture', well, it's not. I don't read too many comics, I don't see very superhero movie that comes along, and so on. But as far as 'comic book culture' goes, I am reminded that comic books are a much bigger part of the cultural landscape in Japan than they are here. If we're truly unserious as a culture -- and there is an argument to be made thereof -- one has to do a bit more heavy lifting than pointing to some movies to demonstrate it.

OK, that's enough of that. Back to doing what I usually do on this blog: indulging my love of things that I'm sure would be judged as 'manbaby' material by my societal betters. 'Tis a cross to bear, but bear it, I shall!

Keep Calm and....

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Very Public Service Message

We're entertaining company from out of town this weekend and tomorrow here at Casa Jaquandor, so I probably won't have anything to post until Tuesday. But don't forget to Ask Me Anything! Lots of good questions are piling up; don't be left behind! Get yours in today!

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Something for Thursday

I re-watched all of Carl Sagan's epochally brilliant series Cosmos last fall and winter, and for a science series that is going on 32 years of age, it's still moving and poetic and inspiring and, well, all the things that it's always been thought to be. In honor of the Mars-fall earlier this week of the Curiosity rover, here is the entirety of the fifth episode of Cosmos, "Blues for a Red Planet".

"The Martians will be us." What an astonishing sentiment.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

"So say we all!"

I've mentioned more than once, over the years, that I have a tendency to not be up on the big pop-culture things when they're big, or up on what's the cutting-edge thing in my favorite genres right when it's at the cutting edge, and so on. For four years back during the 2000s, I heard nothing but good things about the 'reimagined' Battlestar Galactica series – well, nothing but good things, that is, until the show ended, at which point I heard some divisive stuff. But since I didn't have cable, I had to file BSG away for future reference.

Well, 'future reference' is now, and last week I finished watching the first season of BSG. I would post things to Facebook about it, and I'd hear a pretty uniform response each time: fans of the show telling me how jealous they are of my coming to the series for the first time. That's pretty high praise...which the show has, to my mind, equaled. At least in the first season. I've got three more to go. (I think.)

Anyway, Battlestar Galactica famously launched way back in 1978, on the ABC network. Even though it most definitely owed its network pick-up and investment (the show was very expensive) to the incredible success the year before of Star Wars, BSG had actually been under development by creator Glen Larson since the early 1970s. He'd had this notion for a show in his head for a while, and when SF space opera suddenly became wildly popular, his show got its chance.

The story had humans existing on twelve worlds, called the Colonies, and living in peace, until they are viciously attacked at the planet Caprica by the robot race called the Cylons. Caught unawares, the humans are smashed, and end up fleeing their planet with a 'ragtag fleet' of various ships, under the protection of the giant battleship – called a 'Battlestar' – named Galactica. As the tattered remnants of humanity begin to make their way across the galaxy, the leader of the Colonial fleet, Commander Adama, reveals their destination: the mythical, lost 13th colony, called 'Earth'.

This same background applies to the new BSG, although some of the details have been changed, as befitting a 'reimagination' of the idea. Larson's original series was not just a kind of "Wagon Train to the stars" (and was, in fact, probably a better exemplar of this idea than Star Trek, even though that's how Gene Roddenberry originally described his iconic show); he also infused it with a lot of veiled references to his own religion and its beliefs, the LDS Church. But for all that, the original BSG has gained a pretty unfair reputation through the years as a cut-rate Star Wars rip-off. I suppose this is partly due to its short run (a single season, due to the ratings not being quite good enough to justify sufficient advertising charges to cover the show's large budget) and to the follow-up series two years later, Galactica 1980, which was...well, it was, in BSG parlance, frakking awful.

In the years since, there was occasional interest in a revisitation of the BSG franchise, including a project that actor Richard Hatch (Captain Apollo on the original series) spearheaded. It was producer Ronald D. Moore, however, who got the new version off the ground. Moore had a strong grounding in genre teevee, having worked on Star Treks TNG and DS9. The reimagined series, when announced, caused some consternation amongst fans of the original series; I remember one fellow on the FSM boards who would get quite incensed whenever the subject of a new BSG would come up.

So, anyway, as of this writing, I've watched all of Season One and about a quarter of Season Two. I'm coming to this with little knowledge of what is to come, although I've heard some fairly uncomplimentary things about how the series ends. I suppose I'll find out soon enough on that score...but what do I think for now?

Generally, this series is amazing.

The main hook is delivered in a pilot miniseries that's about three-and-a-half hours long. There we open with a deep space station where a human delegate and a Cylon delegate are to meet, once a year, to discuss relations. Or that's how it's supposed to go...but what really happens is that the human delegate basically shows up, sits in a room, and reads the paper while no Cylons come. This time, however, the Cylons arrive: two menacing-looking robot types, and a Cylon who looks, for all the world, like a stunningly beautiful blond woman. She asks the delegate if he is alive, and then...the Cylon basestar (the term for a Cylon flagship) destroys the station.

It turns out that the blond woman, 'Number Six', is one of many copies, and whenever one of the human-appearing Cylons dies, their memories are instantly transferred to an identical and new body. This simple fact allows the same Cylons to appear in numerous places in the story, and there are quite a few scenes where a human sees a Cylon that he or she has previously killed.

Meanwhile, the crew of the Battlestar Galactica is preparing the ship for a decommissioning ceremony, with all that entails – goodbyes being said, press members being led on a tour, the eventual revelation that one of the launch bays has been converted to a gift shop – when the Cylons launch their dreadful attack on Caprica. Almost immediately this ship, with its commander who is preparing for retirement and a crew mostly made up of young recruits who have never seen any kind of action before, are the leaders of the war effort.

As in the original series, the Cylon attack is staggeringly successful, to the point that all of the Twelve Colonies are destroyed, and all of humanity is reduced to around 50,000 people on a bunch of spaceships, only one of which – the Galactica -- is a warship. The rest are tankers and passenger liners and resort ships and the like. They quickly form up into the Colonial Fleet, and take to the stars, fleeing the pursuing Cylons lest humanity be wiped out forever. There's a deeply chilling scene where it becomes clear that only a portion of the Colonial ships have FTL drives, and as the Cylons launch an attack on the fleet, only those ships can escape, which they do – leaving thousands behind to perish.

The new BSG takes a much more realistic and serialized approach to dealing with this central story notion. Episodes tend to pick up where the last one left off, and problems from one episode are rarely solved in the allotted 60 minutes. Problems of supply, such as water and fuel, are addressed in ways that I don't recall the original series dealing with in great detail (not that the original ignored all that, by any means).

BSG, like all great science fiction, succeeds or fails based not only on its premise, but on its characters who are living that premise out. This version of BSG is full of interesting characters, with the line often blurred between who is villain and who is not. Alliances form and dissolve as various people find that at times their individual agendas align, while at others, they clash. Aside from the Cylons, there is no one on this show who stands out as purely good or purely evil. Even Commander Adama, who may be the most effective teevee starship commander since Jean-Luc Picard, has moments when he succumbs to his own inner demons and allows them to control his actions. The show is masterful at creating flawed people, but also people whose flaws aren't so debilitating that we can never sympathize or understand.

Even better, the flaws of the characters make sense. Colonel Tigh is an alcoholic who suffers from crippling self-doubt about his own abilities to command or make correct decisions – so much so that he often doesn't even realize it when he makes the right ones because he has to. He's the one who calmly makes the decision to seal off a section of the Galactica that is on fire and vent that section into space, even though this will mean the instant death of dozens of crew, because it's the only way to deal with the problem.

And then there is Kara Thrace, the brilliant cigar-chomping Viper pilot with a penchant for breaking the rules and who goes by the call-sign "Starbuck". I remember a lot of consternation when the show was announced that they were making Starbuck (Dirk Benedict's role in the original series) into a woman, but it really works here. This Starbuck is arrogant and skilled and resourceful and brilliant, but also brash, disrespectful, and racked with deep guilt that exists on several levels. At the point I've reached in the series, there have been some indications that Starbuck has a deeper level of significance in some way, but I haven't gotten there yet. She is a fantastic character, though. Nothing dull ever happens when she is onscreen.

And the roster of the show's best characters marches on. Laura Roslin is the Secretary of Education in the Colonial Government, and as such, she is 43rd in the line of succession to the Presidency...until the Cylons kill, in one fell swoop, the 42 people ahead of her, so this prim schoolteacher finds herself President of the Colonials during their greatest time of struggle in history. This, in fact, turns out to be one of the show's most frequent themes: the way in which history often forces the least likely of people to rise to the occasion and do what must be done to survive. The obscure cabinet member who works on education policy becomes President. The commander of the ship that's being mothballed becomes the leader of the entire war effort. The maintenance workers who repair the ships suddenly find their duties the difference between life and death. And so it goes.

BSG's moral ambiguity is most centered on Gaius Baltar, the brilliant scientist who is seduced into giving access to defense computers on Caprica to the stunning woman he's dating...who happens to be Number Six, the gorgeous human-looking Cylon. In many ways, it's his fault that the Cylons are so able to destroy Caprica so quickly, so utterly, and so decisively. But is he a villain? It's hard to see him as such, even though his agenda, to the extent that he even has one, doesn't really line up to the rest of the Colonial fleet's. As the series unfolds, Baltar is visited over and over again by Number Six, who may or may not be a figment of his imagination...or a vision placed via a chip in his brain. She is able to stoke his ego to enormous degree, first by getting him elected Vice President, and then by convincing him that he is an 'instrument of God'.

The BSG writers excel at creating situations where the moral course is not at all clear. In just this one season, we have the fleet having to rely on convicted criminals to form a work crew to acquire water; we have a decision made on incomplete information whether or not to destroy a Colonial ship that may have been taken over by Cylons; and we have the increasing evidence that what is happening to the Colonials has been foreseen in their scriptures, so that they must decide whether to continue fleeing or stop and retrieve an artifact from their once-lost home planet of Kobol. BSG provides its characters with few easy decisions – in fact, it's almost as if the writers delight in creating situations where their people are in a really bad spot and their only courses of action available basically constitute a grab-bag of suck. "Pick your poison" seems to be the general order of the day on this show...or the choice between the devil you know and the devil you don't.

I don't want to give the impression that the updated BSG is all dystopic depressing stuff, because it's not. It's intense and dark and a lot of bad stuff happens, but there are real moments of happiness along the way, and a couple of moments of outright triumph. This is a show that makes a major victory out of when the running tally the President keeps of the to-the-number population of the human race actually increases by one, and there are moments of humor along the way. Small moments, to be sure, but there's a constant sense that when a triumph comes, it is earned. Prices are paid for victories, but hope remains.

This brings me to the show's mystical and religious themes. The Colonials seem to be polytheistic, believing in gods who are modeled on the Greek pantheon of deities. Reference is made to Apollo and Athena, as well as others. The Cylons, however, are particularly interesting because they are not just a race of robots, as in the original series. The Cylons believe in a monotheistic God, to the point where Number Six, in her talks with Baltar, speaks to him in ways that are so spiritual that it's possible to wonder if she is some kind of angel and not a Cylon at all. The original series had its religious content as well, being famously shaped by Glen A. Larson to reflect the theology of the Mormon church. The BSG update doesn't quite do that, but it does address some of the big spiritual questions. Characters are said to be meant to do certain things, and there is the constant repetition of a single spiritual idea, used almost as a kenning in the show: "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again."

In terms of production design, BSG is top-notch. The Galactica itself is only mildly updated in design, as are the Colonial Viper starfighters – they are still long and sleek, with their tri-thrusters, but they're deadlier now. Interestingly, early in the show's pilot miniseries, there's a touching scene where the flight crew on Galactica provides Adama with a restored 'vintage' Viper, which is, of course, one of the ships from BSG 1978. There are other, small nods to the original series: the gold-plated Cylons of the original show are revealed to be an earlier model in this one, and the Colonial Anthem turns out to be the Stu Philips theme from the original show. These are all small nods of respect toward the earlier show. (The ultimate such nod is, of course, the casting of Richard Hatch -- who played Apollo on the original show -- as Tom Zarek, a criminal-turned-politician, who is one of the more interesting characters on a show that is loaded with them.)

There are other things about the production design that might seem a bit odd at first, but I quickly became used to them. The clothes on the show are contemporary – and by that, I mean, you could pluck just about any civilian character out of BSG, plunk them in the middle of any city in America, and no one would look twice at them. Suits with neckties, women in pants suits and the truth, I found this aspect of the show easiest to swallow. Nobody really has any idea what would be in fashion in some future (or past) society, so why not just use fashions from right now and have done? It was no harder for me to get used to this than it was to get used to all the Western tack in Firefly. One design element in the show that I really like is how every piece of paper, every book, every bit of printed matter, is printed on octagonal paper. That little detail goes so far to make clear that this world, these people, look like our and us, but they're not.

And the music? There's some wonderful music on this show, and it uses a lot of different styles, from slashing synths to action cues that are nothing but percussion to a Celtic-theme for the father-son relationship of Adama and Apollo.

I will continue to report on BSG as I make my way through the series, but for now – what a great, great show.

A Random Wednesday Conversation Starter

So, go ahead and kvetch about the Olympics a bit. What are your favorite events? What events do you just not get? What events would you include or exclude? Granting that providing tape-delayed coverage is a necessary evil given the distances in time zones, what could NBC be doing better with its coverage? How weird is it watching Olympics without Jim McKay on the teevee? Do professional athletes in sports like basketball make for better, or lesser, competition? How big a problem IS doping, and what's the future of the very notion of 'performance-enhancing' medicine?

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Nobody did it better

I've just read of the passing of Marvin Hamlisch. Damn, dammit, and bloody hell, in that order.

"The Martians will be us."

Images of Mars-fall:

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL)

Curiosity Parachute Landing Spotted by NASA Orbiter [detail]

Mars Curiosity Rover Landing Broadcast at Times Square, Earth

Mars Curiosity Rover Landing Broadcast at Times Square, Earth

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) (201208050020HQ)

Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) (201208050018HQ)


Mars Curiosity

If we were to cut our defense budget by, say, a third, and instead of using that money for tax cuts we were to put every penny of it into our budget for space exploration, I think it would be better for us, maybe later rather than sooner...but not so much later as we might believe.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Sentential Links


:: It's this kind of ignorant trash that sets feminism back decades. Women who defend this book are, however unwittingly, participating in some of the most blatant misogyny I've ever witnessed, giving the impression that some women enjoy being debased, abused, and controlled (outside of a consensual dom/sub relationship). (Thank God I'm hearing awful things about 50 Shades of Gray now...if only more people had told me what an awful book Twilight is....)

:: That's something I've been thinking about lately. As much as I love adventure stories, I've never been a risk taker. Presented with the easy way or a potentially more rewarding, but harder way, I've always taken the easier way.

:: You didn't set out to get rich as a favor to the rest of us.

So stop expecting a thank you note.
(Couldn't agree more. The whole "Bow down and thank your Job Creating Overlords!" thing that we've got going on is utterly nauseating.)

:: Er...your brother got killed in a mountain-climbing accident! (In context, this is actually really funny....)

:: What I like most about all three Batman movies is Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon. The character developed a lot over the course of the trilogy and the whole storyline revolves as much around him as it does around Batman. While the flashy action scenes are usually left to others, I get a kick out of every single minute of screentime Oldman has. That man can say more with taking off his glasses than others with a five minute monologue. (I haven't seen the movie yet, but I'm eternally fascinated by Gary Oldman, when he turns up in stuff.)

:: I've made no secret of the fact that I often feel a little lost here in the 21st century, but at moments like this, when technology gives us the opportunity to share things like this with the people who are making it happen, and the people all over the world who also get excited by the thought of something we built setting down on another freaking planet... god, it's all so amazing. It almost makes up for nonsense like whether or not eating mediocre fast-food chicken sends the proper political statement.

:: The news these days is filled with polarization, with hate, with fear, with ignorance. But while these feelings are a part of us, and always will be, they neither dominate nor define us. Not if we don’t let them. When we reach, when we explore, when we’re curious – that’s when we’re at our best. We can learn about the world around us, the Universe around us. It doesn’t divide us, or separate us, or create artificial and wholly made-up barriers between us. As we saw on Twitter, at New York Times Square where hundreds of people watched the landing live, and all over the world: science and exploration bind us together. Science makes the world a better place, and it makes us better people.

It’s what we can do, and what we must do.
(Amen. Oh my God, Amen.)

:: I tell you these summer days passed by with saddle, foot, and bow are becoming legend in my own life. I adore every hoof mark, stride, and knocked arrow.

And the very best part?

It's Monday.

More next week. Or not.

(Actually, maybe not...I have family visiting from out of town this coming weekend, so posting may not happen much. You are warned. Heh!)

More next week!

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Sunday Burst of Weird and Awesome!

Oddities and Awesome abound!

:: A seven-foot-long model of the Serenity, made entirely out of Legos. Absolutely amazing. Lots of linkage at io9!

01 Serenity

:: For some reason, Major League Baseball teams have, for the last few years, employed the pie-in-the-face as their post-game ritual for the celebration of individual heroics, such as the pitcher who throws a complete-game one-hit shutout, or the left-fielder who goes 5-5 with two home runs and 9 RBIs. Baseball 'pies' tend to be shaving cream, which is gross, but...well anyway, the Oakland A's did a video of what their office culture might be like if they employed pies for celebrating off-field accomplishments of the organization, such as, say, selling a set of season tickets.

:: And there's just no other way to say this: it's Awesome.

God I hope this works!

More next week!

Friday, August 03, 2012

Reminder: Ask Me Anything!

Just a reminder that I'm soliciting questions and queries for Ask Me Anything! August 2012. Drop 'em in comments to this post!

Film Quote Friday

With new trailers for the new James Bond movie Skyfall hitting the Interweb this week, I turn my thoughts back a few years to Daniel Craig's first outing as Bond, Casino Royale.

CR was extremely well made, and with all extremely well-made movies, it started with a very intelligent script that made its world seem downright real. Two examples of the movie's smart dialogue:

Early in the film, after James Bond (who, in CR, is a newly-minted Double-O agent) has had a mission go slightly awry (to the tune of an international incident), M (Dame Judy Dench) storms out of a meeting with Parliament or the Prime Minister or some such and unleashes this rant:

Who the hell do they think they are? I report to the Prime Minister and even he's smart enough not to ask me what we do. Have you ever seen such a bunch of self-righteous, ass-covering prigs? They don't care what we do; they care what we get photographed doing. And how the hell could Bond be so stupid? I give him double-O status and he celebrates by shooting up an embassy. Is the man deranged? And where the hell is he? In the old days if an agent did something that embarrassing he'd have a good sense to defect. Christ, I miss the Cold War.

That bit about missing the Cold War is pretty funny; from a spy's perspective, it probably is preferable to have a single, unflinching enemy. I'm reminded of an installment of the "Wayne's World" skit on Saturday Night Live years ago, when Wayne and Garth ticked down some reasons why it sucks that the Cold War ended. One of the items is "Spy stuff is less interesting", or as Garth puts it, "Yeah! Like who's James Bond gonna spy on, the Guatemalans?!"

Back to Casino Royale. Later in the film, after M decides to put Bond into a high-stakes poker game against a guy who is financing terrorists, in hopes of finding out who he is bankrolling. Bond's poker playing is funded by the British government, whose representative is the stunning Vesper Lynd (Eva Green). Bond and Vesper meet on the Orient Express, over dinner.

Vesper Lynd: [after discussing poker skills on the train] What else can you surmise, Mr. Bond?

James Bond: About you, Miss Lynd? Well, your beauty's a problem. You worry you won't be taken seriously.

Vesper Lynd: Which one can say of any attractive woman with half a brain.

James Bond: True. But this one overcompensates by wearing slightly masculine clothing. Being more aggressive than her female colleagues. Which gives her a somewhat *prickly* demeanor, and ironically enough, makes it less likely for her to be accepted and promoted by her male superiors, who mistake her insecurities for arrogance. Now, I'd have normally gone with "only child," but by the way you ignored the quip about your parents... I'm going to have to go with "orphan."

Vesper Lynd: All right... by the cut of your suit, you went to Oxford or wherever. Naturally you think human beings dress like that. But you wear it with such disdain, my guess is you didn't come from money, and your school friends never let you forget it. Which means that you were at that school by the grace of someone else's charity: hence that chip on your shoulder. And since you're first thought about me ran to "orphan," that's what I'd say you are.

[he smiles but says nothing]

Vesper Lynd: Oh, you are? I like this poker thing. And that makes perfect sense! Since MI6 looks for maladjusted young men, who give little thought to sacrificing others in order to protect queen and country. You know... former SAS types with easy smiles and expensive watches.

[Glances at his wrist]

Vesper Lynd: Rolex?

James Bond: Omega.

Vesper Lynd: Beautiful. Now, having just met you, I wouldn't go as far as calling you a cold-hearted bastard...

James Bond: No, of course not.

Vesper Lynd: But it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine. You think of women as disposable pleasures, rather than meaningful pursuits. So as charming as you are, Mr. Bond, I will be keeping my eye on our government's money - and off your perfectly-formed arse.

James Bond: You noticed?

Vesper Lynd: Even accountants have imagination. How was your lamb?

James Bond: Skewered! One sympathizes.

Vesper Lynd: Good evening, Mr. Bond.

James Bond: Good evening, Ms. Lynd.

I hope that Skyfall is as smart.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The New Hoodickey

I've been resisting the whole e-reader thing for quite some time, but I have now weakened.


My resistance started faltering last summer when The Daughter used some collected birthday money to buy her very own Nook, which she loves. I thought it seemed pretty cool, and I knew that the trend toward e-books was gathering steam.

Then, for Christmas, I bought The Wife a Kindle Fire, which she still uses every single day. It's a great gadget, and I knew that the writing was on the wall. I decided finally that I wanted some kind of similar gizmo; the only questions were when I'd be able to afford one and which one I'd get.

I had no desire for an iPad, for both reasons of price and because I just don't want to become an Apple cultist. I also did not want a ten-inch tablet, because I find seven inches to be the preferable size for my hand. I was impressed with the Kindle Fire, but I didn't really want to be locked into the Amazon way of doing things, and I didn't really like how that device has no provisions for adding storage via a Micro-SD card. For similar reasons I didn't want a Nook Tablet. So, in doing my homework, I settled on the Samsung Galaxy 2 Tab. After saving up my money for a bit, I finally had enough to buy the thing...and it's been mine for about a month now.

And it is fantastic. I love it.

My main reason for buying it was to have my first e-reader, and for that, it's a terrific device. It came preloaded with a Kindle app, so I can use the Kindle store for e-books without actually owning an Amazon device. I also added another e-reader app for other formats; this I use for things like Project Gutenberg downloads (such as my unabridged The Count of Monte Cristo, through which I am now making slow progress).

The tab is also great for things like Facebook and Twitter, except that I cannot seem to share items on Facebook -- the 'share' button isn't even there. That's weird. And I haven't yet figured out things like cutting-and-pasting text and URLs, so I still have that to do. I also added a comics-reading app, because reading comics on the tablet is something I wanted to try. How do comics render? Well, I had to try a couple of different comics viewers before I got to the one I like the best currently (which is called 'Perfect Viewer'). Yes, reading comics on a screen this size is a bit tough, but I liken it to reading digest-sized comics when I was a kid.

I also love the tab as an audio device. I've put a lot of music on it (I added a 32GB card as soon as I bought it), and I can also stream on it from radio stations on the Web, so it's great for listening to music and stuff when I'm working on something else, like editing a manuscript.

I have little notion of using this device for writing. The onscreen keyboard works well, but I find that I have a habit of hitting the 'M' key instead of the space bar, and going back to fix errors isn't the easiest thing in the world. The thing that bugs me the most about this device? There's a touchscreen icon at the bottom for taking a screenshot. The way I tend to hold the device, I find it hard to always avoid hitting that icon and taking a screengrab.

It's kind of frustrating right now in the tech world for people like me. I'm innately inclined to buy a gadget and then use it until it dies, and the longer that is, the better. This is increasingly unrealistic, as newer and better gizmos hit the market all the time. I know people who buy the new thing and ditch it less than a year later when the new thing comes out; I know folks who upgrade their phones every few months. I have no idea how long I'll be using this tablet. I hope it's a while, though.