Tuesday, January 19, 2010

G'bye, Blogger... it's not you, it's me...

Hi all!

I am moving the blog! I have been cheating on Blogger with WordPress, and have decided it's best to just bring things out in the open. I don't want Blogger to see a suspicious email from WordPress, then chase me down the driveway with a golf club.

Anyhow, the new site is up! The old posts have been imported, and I will shortly change the redirection from themanversion.net.


If you follow the blog via RSS, that should be working too.

See you on the other side!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar is better than no tar at all

I'm still trying to decide if I liked Avatar or not. Almost every review I've read has made the same points: stunning visuals, weak story.

And they're right. Looking at Avatar was looking at art. I haven't been so caught up in the visual effects of a movie since What Dreams May Come. Even The Lord of the Rings movies, as beautiful as they are, never wrested my attention from the characters. Especially when Eowyn was on the screen. Rowr.

I'm over here, darlin'

For the visuals alone, this movie is worth a look on the big screen. That might be the first time I've ever said that.

As for the story, the common comparison is with Dances with Wolves, and I can see why. I have also seen it referred to as the Anti-Matrix and Independence Day from the aliens' point of view. The Dances with Smurfs line from South Park isn't as clever as it thinks it is -- the Na'vi are blue, but they are nothing like the Smurfs. Dances with Hypothermic Thundercats maybe?

But Dances with Wolves was a good movie. At the time, we were all generally fond of Kevin Costner, remember? He had done The Untouchables and No Way Out and Field of Dreams and Bull Durham. We liked the guy! It wasn't until after Dances that we got hit with Robin Hood and JFK and The Bodyguard and Fishtar (sorry -- I mean Waterworld). Dances with Wolves also brought Mary McDonnell to our attention. All of us Battlestar fans owe Dances some thanks.

Dances with Wolves was a beautifully shot epic with a moving story, reminiscent of Gandhi and Lawrence of Arabia. Yet Avatar is no Dances with Wolves. There are just too many things that make you wonder what director James Cameron is thinking.

Unobtainium. Give me a frakkin' break. I understand this might be some Hollywood inside joke, but please treat us (and your characters) like adults. For those who haven't seen it, unobtainium is the name of some hard-to-extract substance vitally needed by the Earth corporation sponsoring the excursion. Maria and I have been joking about this for a week. "It's a rare isotope of allovertheplacium," and "Can we just use the lookhereisalotium?" and "I think it's underneath the hipdeepinthisshitium." Maybe if they figured out why they needed it (other than "it's a vital plot contrivance to give us motivation to remain on a dangerous planet and menace the indigenous population"), they could think of something that already existed. They could have just said they'd found oil.

Cameron's soldiers are sociopathic idiots. You'd think that a man like James Cameron has had the opportunity to meet some military personnel who are not slack-jawed xenophobes with twitchy trigger fingers and anger management issues. These characters aren't even humans; they are bad G.I. Joe stereotypes barking cliches through clenched teeth. The head military guy is so comically over-the-top that you expect him to be a double-agent for the other side (maybe he was suffering the side-effects of unobtanium deficiency). His rush to blow stuff up before diplomacy could work might have been part of the reason there weren't any armed forces recruiting stations set up in the theater lobby.

Cameron's politics are getting in the way of his plots. I remember an article on WingNutDaily after his last film (Titanic, if you recall) claiming it was a piece of liberal propaganda designed to make wealthy people look self-absorbed and evil. That article was difficult to believe, since Cameron isn't known for his vast poverty. But Avatar didn't have any problems with cribbing from modern events, and didn't waste time on subtlety. One character referred to an impending unprovoked air assault as "shock and awe." Another scene was so reminiscent of 9/11 that I was a little creeped out. Several references to terrorism too. While I don't object to sci-fi films using current affairs for its themes, I get bored and irritated when I'm hit over the head with a stick labeled THIS IS THE MESSAGE SO PAY ATTENTION.

"I think he means us!"

Common responses to reviews like mine say things like "you don't go to a film like this for the plot."

Why? Why do we have to chose between visual effects and an engaging story? This movie cost $300 million to make -- they couldn't spare a couple hundred thousand to lure a top-notch screenwriter? The visuals wouldn't have been impacted, and there might have been an emotional connection to a broader audience. With each new Pixar film, I am impressed by how stunning it all looks, yet there is always more to it than that. The beginning of Up was the most moving moment I had in the movies all year. (And yes, I saw New Moon.)

It must be possible to make a film that reaches across the normal demographic lines and pulls in a wide audience -- one that doesn't say "this one is for the nerds, and they don't care about touchy-feely crap like plot or relationships." Cameron himself has done it before. I've met people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds that loved Aliens. Doing that more often can't be covered in that much unobtainium, can it?

But Cameron made his 10-year passion project and 20th Century Fox is raking in the coin and the computer people got to play with fancy new toys and I guess I'm the only one who's not happy.

I know this sounds like a negative review, but I truly am torn about this film. It is astonishing to see, and it has its moments. The problems I have with it are not insurmountable (which I guess is a bigger pity). I hope now that Cameron has this out of his system, he can go back to whatever he did when he gave us the first Terminator. If I want to see a movie with good SFX and a boring story, I always have George Lucas.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A face for radio, and a voice for the written word

If you guys aren't listening to the wholly excellent and mostly sodium-free Amateur Scientist Podcast, you should be. I mean, really. What the hell is wrong with you? It now has 15% fewer calls to violent revolution!

This week
, in an effort to sex the podcast up, I explain what's going on with the so-called ClimateGate, dazzle with a wide range of realistic accents, and stress why you should keep a handful of silver bullets when you go to astronomy conferences. All in five minutes! You should not miss it!

Also, Brian Thompson contributes some information, I don't recall what. A breakdown of Heidi Klum's shoes during the most recent Project Runway season, most likely. I tend to replay Dido songs in my head during his segments.

So give it a listen. Subscribe today. Make it a part of your ritual -- it's probably time to update whatever your ritual is anyhow.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

When does the fabulous weath arrive?

Woo hoo!

I remember a time, back before I was a novelist. Some of you may recall. We weren't sure if 2012 would be the worst thing in the history of the world, or only the worst thing for about a week before New Moon arrived. No one thought it was possible to just stroll into a White House dinner and shake hands with the president and make Joe Biden fall for the "pull my finger" trick eight times in a row. The forces of goodness and righteousness still held out hope that Auburn would beat Alabama. No one but climatologists and conspiracy theorists knew what "CRU" was. We were all so young.

That's my way of saying I hit my target on NaNoWriMo. 50,045!

The book isn't finished. I'm guessing it's about 15,000 words away. My fault -- if I thought of a scene that would be funny, I'd put it in at the cost of advancing the plot more quickly. I hope to have it available for anyone who's interested by Christmas.

I highly recommend NaNoWriMo. It was a lot of fun, and a huge rush to finish (in more ways than one - on Thanksgiving I was at 32k. If any of you tried to talk to me over the weekend, please try again). In April, there's something similar with scriptwriting.

But now it's done, and I can turn my attention back to what's important: the War on Christmas. Happy Holidays, all!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Week Off for Pop Culture Cred

I recently took a long-awaited mental vacation. I am happy with my standards of quality entertainment, but they are getting tougher to maintain. It's good to relax them once in awhile, because you come back more invigorated.

The preceding was a flimsy justification for watching 2012 and reading the latest Dan Brown book.

If you have to see 2012 -- and if you really do have to, I can only assume you have made poor life choices so far -- you really must see it with as many science nerds as you can. The riffing that occurs is actually educational. I expected a lot to happen during that film, but "learning stuff" was not on the list.

If you need to borrow some science nerds, I recommend my friend Nicole. You may have to sweeten the pot to get her to sit through that movie again, but it's well worth it. If you need her address, let me know! (Hmmm... I don't recall... NoisyAstronomer doesn't read this blog, does she?)

It started innocently enough. I would be passing near her town on my way to visit my sister, so I asked if she'd like to join me for some Roland Emmerich-spawned disaster porn? Most of you, be you man, woman, child, or fetus, would react to that question by launching yourself at me and trying to beat me into unconsciousness, then phoning the authorities. And you would be right to do it. But Nicole has a trusting nature, so she went for it. (Rather, she HAD a trusting nature. I think the last of that burned away at the beginning of Hour Two.)

2012 begins by ignoring the myriad of doomsday scenarios attached to the end of the Mayan calendar, and creating a phenomenon even dumber. Here is a non-verbatim-but-representative discussion by some scientists near the beginning.

Scientist 1: "Look at all those neutrinos coming out of the sun!"
Scientist 2: "Is that bad? Neutrinos don't really interact with normal matter."
1: "These are Super Neutrinos."
2: "Oh!"
Scientists in the Audience: *spitting out popcorn* "HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! SUPER NEUTRINOS!"

These Super Neutrinos are turning the core of the planet into a liquid, see. Which means the Earth's crust will be floating on a lot of magma, totally unlike what it's doing now, and the whole place is about to be in a right dreadful state.

That setup took about 10 minutes, and we spend the rest of the movie fretting about whether John Cusack's ex-wife Amanda Peet will fall in love with him again before they all die, and whether he will give her the sandwich she so desperately needs. (If you strip out the End of the Earth stuff, Cusack has made this movie at least a dozen times already. Somewhere in all this, an iPod with "In Your Eyes" playing must have slid under the lava.)

Of course, there is a happy ending as about 500,000 people are saved (roughly 0.008% of the present population - party time!), and it turns out that Africa wasn't destroyed, even by the waves that washed over the Himalayas. I bet those people feel stupid for loading all those giraffes and elephants on the arks. You are going to miss those yaks, people.

Oh, I forgot. There were a bunch of arks.

It was a long way to drive to see this movie. I spent the time softening my brain for it by listening to an audio version of Dan Brown's book, The Lost Symbol. Let's spin the Secret Society Wheel and see who we get! ... Spinning ... Spinning ... No Whammies! ... Whew! We don't want a book about the Boy Scouts ... and the winner is... the FREEMASONS! YAAAY!

Dan Brown is one of those authors that millions of people read, but no one admits to reading. For good reason: he's a terrible writer. The frustrating thing about him is that his Robert Langdon books have a hint of a good story under them, but they are buried in howlingly awful dialog, ridiculous plot devices, and so much exposition that it seems he's writing for Clive Wearing.

Brown doesn't give us credit for basic observation either. Here is another sample paraphrased from this latest book. It's Langdon's inner monologue after he discovers a human hand lying on the floor of the U.S. Capitol, right under the dome.

The hand lay still, thumb and forefinger extended towards the top of the dome. I could tell from the large ring with the Freemason crest that this hand belonged to a freemason. I was worried for my friend Peter, the freemason, who had gone missing. Peter would also occasionally extend his index finger and thumb out like this, as though he was pointing, though I had never seen him do it towards the top of the U.S. Capitol's dome. Odd how the stranger on the phone had said that the hand would lead the way. I assume he meant this hand, the one on the floor here with the extended index finger and thumb. I do not see any other hands around here, except for those attached to the arms of the tourists. This was going to be a long night. Above my head, the top of the U.S. Capitol dome remained unmoving, as it had for many years, since it was first installed on this building, although not always above the hand of a freemason with the index finger and thumb extended upward like this...

Evetually, it occurs to Langdon to look where the fingers are pointing (i.e., "up" or "towards the dome") where he is reminded of some other piece of arcane knowledge that he explains in excruciating detail. Also, those of you who have read The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons might be interested to know that there is a mysterious stranger (with a dark past and a secret he wants to keep) working against Langdon, who is aided by a beautiful woman that also happens to be a leading expert in a ridiculously obscure science... a science that will come in very handy before the end.

After these twin experiences, my brain is relaxed and as razor sharp as ever. I am ready for some deep thoughts and highbrow entertainment!

Who wants to come see New Moon with me this weekend?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Must... keep... writing...

So I've been awful about posting lately. I feel terrible about it. I am very fond of all six of my regular readers, and I don't want them to abandon me for Phil's blog. (Don't do it, Artful Dodger! It will only encourage him!)

Unfortunately, it's probably going to keep up at least through Thanksgiving, because I find myself wrapped up in NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month. The thousands of us doing this are supposed to complete a 50,000-word novel by the end of November -- roughly the equivalent of 175 pages in a real book.

Edited to add: If you're also doing NaNoWriMo, please add me as a writing buddy. My nick there, like most everywhere else, is "phlebas."

I started writing on Nov. 2, and after four days I'm just over 13,000 words, so it's moving along better than I expected. I believe it is already the third longest work of pornography featuring ocelots, horny priests, and a traveling production of Oliver! If I get to 50,000, it'll be the second longest. I cannot compete with the seminal (ha ha!) work in the genre: Saint Humberto the Sniffly wrote his eight-volume masterpiece Eu Estou Revendo a Situação Santamente do Ocelot (or I Am Reviewing the Holy Ocelot Situation) in 1963.

But 13,000 is respectable for less than a week. Good thing, too. I'll lose about four days at Thanksgiving for l-tryptophan poisoning and the Alabama/Auburn game. I think we should move this to March when there's nothing going on but St. Patrick's Day, hockey, and frakkin' basketball.

It's a great deal of fun, too. I've learned that not all of the novelists in the world are schizophrenic nutjobs when talking about their own works. For example, fiction writers often say things like "I had no idea my character was going to do that! I am as surprised as you are! I thought this one thing was going to happen, and this other person just strolled in and did this!" To most of the non-novelist world, this sounds fatuous, at best. (Insane, at worst.) Especially if that writer uses so many impersonal pronouns.

But I get it now. If you have your characters fully realized, at least in your head, and you drop them in a situation, you might intend to get to a specific outcome. But sometimes if you stay true to your characters, you can't get them there. You either have to change the initial situation or roll with the new outcome. Or you could completely insult your readers and not worry about it, but I can't imagine selling millions of copies of a book that awful.

This happened to me just yesterday. I got to the end of the scene, thinking "what the hell am I going to do now?" This particular scene would change my protagonist's motivation completely. See, when a priest loves an ocelot very much, he sometimes dresses as Fagin and [SPOILER ALERT]. I'm keeping the new scene, because I like this set of motives better, but I'll pay for it with some tricky emotional scenes down the line.

I am enjoying this, but I understand why some people write science books with plenty of pictures. (In an unrelated question, do all of you have a copy of Death from the Skies! yet?)

Stay tuned! I'll be back!

P.S. In CPAP news: I hate my damn CPAP. I have yet to get a full night's sleep, and I've had the stupid thing for almost a month. I had to take a few days off from it because I needed the rest, and then I had a head cold. Sneezing in a mask would be like a SCUBA diver barfing into his respirator. I've got another week, and maybe I can ditch it.

This has been this week's edition of Sinus Digest.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I need Sigourney Weaver ASAP

Check out my new face hugger.

Looks sort of like a Muppet, doesn't it? A Muppet down whose mouth I stick my nose, and whose eyes I press against my forehead. It's my new CPAP!

I talked about CPAPs before. "CPAP" stands for "Completely Prevents Any Peace" and it blows air into your nose while you sleep. That gray hose you see at the bottom attaches to a machine about the size of a shoebox, and it makes a noise THEY claim is a gentle puff of air. To me it sounds like Darth Vader trying to say something in Parseltongue.

I wanted the surgery. I don't want sleep apnea and I don't want to be tethered to some iron lung wannabe every night for the rest of my life. Jesus H, it's hard enough to fit everything in one suitcase when I travel. But the insurance people weighed in, and said they wanted me to do a CPAP for a month before they pay for the surgery.

What they did not tell me is how they'll decide at the end of that month whether I get the surgery.

Agent: It's been a month. Did your like it?
Me: No. It was like having an air compressor blow-drying my sinuses.
Agent: Did your snoring stop?
Me: Yes. I haven't slept in 31 days.
Agent: So your snoring did stop?
Me: It has, as have many of my normal brain functions and sensory perceptions. Just this morning I was having a conversation with former president Warren Gamaliel Harding about whether the Kansas City Chiefs would win the Americas Cup. One more night with the CPAP and I will either kill myself or start a cult. Does that window open onto the street?
Agent: Did you know it also came in red?

Not that the surgery is a pleasure. It's another overnight stay in the hospital (with all the attendant Crocodile Dundee issues) and you feel like you have gravel in your nose for about two weeks. But then you're DONE. No more sleep apnea, no snoring, and no inflating my sinuses to 44psi.

Something just seems wrong with the CPAP notion. My problem comes from a partially blocked nasal passage after a broken nose when I was a kid. "Solving" it by just blowing air through it harder seems less like sound medical advice and more like something physicists would try on a bet.

I just had a horrible thought. What if I get a stuffy nose? Happens all the time when you get a simple cold. With that thing on my face, I won't have time to get a tissue. The pressure will just increase until the blockage clears. That's no way to cure snoring -- that's a way to kill zombies.

Off to bed! If my new Muppet doesn't smother me in the night, I'll be back to tell you all about TAM London!