Thursday, December 29, 2011

Review - NotDoppler Games

After having gone through two depressing and stressful months, and spending hours on, I've decided to gain something from all my "lost time."  I'll review the games I've been playing!

Click on the pictures below if you want to play.

Into Space: In this game, you are tasked to build a rocket to go into space.  On the first day, you start off with a dinky rocket, which crashes after twenty puny seconds of flight.  But you earn money from your achievements, and you can build on to your rocket: add better fins, boosters, fuel tanks, etc.  Once you hit space, you win.  The goal is to reach space in as few days as possible.  I've done it in 16 days.  Today I almost did it in 14.

I give this game high marks.  It makes sense.  The controls are accurate.  The physics are passable.  The whole thing of earning money and building better ships is fun, too.  When you're more experienced, you start to develop a strategy--deciding what you don't need to buy, and how to time everything to your advantage.  A full game could last less than an hour.

Isoball X1:  This is a very satisfying puzzle game.  The goal is to lead a ball through a grid to it's goals.  You can use ramps, arrows, bridges, energy bridges, elevators, and triggers.  There are 36 levels that begin with "easy" and work up to "difficult."  I strongly recommend this geometrical logic puzzle game.

Solarmax:  This is a poor-man's StarCraft.  The concept is simple.  You colonize planets.  Once they're yours, they produce ships.  When you attack enemies, the side with the larger numbers wins.  Then you can neutralize and colonize those planets for yourself.  This game also includes warp stations, space stations, lasers, and motherships.  This game is addictive, and it's fun to try and get the lowest time possible.  The only drawback is that there are only eighteen levels.  Also, the AI isn't the best and is easy to beat once you learn how it works.  I would love to see a Solarmax II with more levels and more advanced AI.  Still: high marks for this version.

Bubble Shooter: This game is fun to beat, but I've also found it to be irritating in many ways.  The goal is to shoot your bubble such that you get three or more of a color in a row.  If you achieve that, those bubbles disappear.  Also, if you orphan any bubbles (not attached to any other bubbles or the very top), those bubbles will disappear as well.  Once you remove all bubbles of one color, that color disappears forever.  If you don't get three in a row, you get a strike against you.  In the picture above, you have four strikes left.  Once you run out of strikes, the bubbles come down on you: 1 row if you have all your colors; 2 if you eliminated 1 color; 3 if you eliminated 2, etc.

At first, the game is fun, and it's really satisfying to clear out the whole grid.  And then the game ends.  But the more and more I played, the more I got annoyed with this game, and now I just don't play this game anymore.  These are the annoying points:

#1) The colors are sometimes hard to distinguish.  Red is close to purple, and green is close to light blue.

#2) Though the physics is pretty good, there's a little inconsistency as to whether the bubble passes through a gap or whether it gets stuck.

#3) When the bubbles come down on you, they shift, disturbing the order of the colors.  Sometimes bubbles disappear without apparent reason (of course you won't complain about the latter--take your gift horses when they come).

#4) The number of strikes is random.  This is very irritating when you've eliminated two colors and you get one strike four times in a row.

#5) When you die, the game claps--the same as if you clear the field.

#6) The most annoying of all: the scoring doesn't make sense.  If you clear the field quickly, there should be a bigger bonus than if it takes you over an hour to do so.  If you're trying to maximize score, you don't want to clear the field, but rather keep missing that last bubble until you get some infinite score.  Boring!

So, there you have it.  Four games from NotDoppler that'll keep you busy while you work through your own stress and depression.  Go beat these games, and have fun!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review - War Horse

This most recent installment from war horses Steven Spielberg and John Williams entertains while following the life of Joey the horse.  If you love horses, you will love this movie.  Even if you don't love horses, you may find yourself overlooking all the cliches and enjoying the masterful story telling.  Either way, the two and a half hour movie flies by quickly and leaves you wanting for more.

The movie begins with Joey's birth.  The colt is quickly separated from his mother and ends up on a farm.  The boy trains the horse to save the farm.  And, so it continues until the horse ends up participating in World War I.  Along the way, we see different vignettes about people the horse meets.

A lot of the movie looks familiar, as it's full of cliches.  Or more precisely, it's full of Spielberg techniques you've seen in other of his movies.  But it all fits together well.  Spielberg sticks with what he knows works.  Though, his use of coincidences to drive the story gets a little annoying.

The John Williams score is really good in spots, but in my opinion a little lazy in others.  Decades of success shouldn't give a license to overuse parallel fifths (a technique usually reserved for Americana, which the film isn't, or for inexperienced composers).  As the film progressed, I realized the parallel fifths persisted mainly during the farm scenes, something I still don't understand, but hey - Williams made up for it in later scenes.

The acting was good.  Perhaps some new talent will arise from this movie.

Be warned that there are some violent scenes when you get to the war, so I would not recommend this for young children, even those who really love horses.

My advice: go see this movie with your date, especially if you love horses, or even if you just like good story telling.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Mel's Year in Review: 2011

2011 has come to an end.  Looking over my writing goals for 2011, I see that I made great strides in some areas and fell short in others.  I'm still unpublished, but yet it was a productive year.
  • Novel Writing
    • I revised the first three chapters of Escape From the Planet Justice, and submitted to an agent.  I was rejected instantly.  Then I realized the book could use a different angle.  First person and more back story may make the book more exciting.  (Though I'm told by some the book is fine as-is.)
    • I extracted a short story from the first chapter of The Silver Lining.
    • In general, I came to realize that I need to build up some short story credits, so I began setting aside novel writing temporarily in order to devote more time into short stories.
  • Short Stories - I worked on several stories, submitted 10 entries and received 9 rejections.
    • "A Turn-screw tlhImqaH": I submitted this more before realizing it is probably considered to be already published, as I had entered it into the Actuarial Speculative Fiction Contest in 2009.  If you search on the title, you can find a pdf file with the story included.  I submitted it again to a publisher that does reprints, but only got a semi-warm rejection.
    • "When Time Flows West": I finished and submitted this story and got two rejections.
    • "Actuarial Weeding": I completed the final version in January and submitted to the Actuarial Speculative Fiction Contest in 2011.  It placed 4th out of 23 in the contest.  I submitted it three times to magazines before realizing it's probably "already published."  Since the story was well received in the contest, I'm considering expanding it to a 20,000-word novella.
    • "Depths of Inner Space": After several revisions and condensing, this story is ready to go.  I've submitted it once and it's been rejected.
    • "Cat Scratch": This new story about a cat gone wrong is in its second draft.
    • "Gamma Base: Mars": My first horror story set on the planet Mars is in its first draft.
    • "The Long Hall" is an excerpt from the middle of Escape From the Planet Justice.  It's in its third draft.  I'm trying to do this in first person.  If well received, I may rewrite the whole novel in first person.
    • Silver Lining - Chapter 1: I submitted this extract back in March, but have yet to hear back.  I'm concerned the 13,000 word length may be too large, so I may end up condensing and submitting to another Mormon publication.
    • Mighty Kid - Episode 1: After revising and condensing the first chapter of this superhero genesis story, I submitted and was rejected.  I'm learning that there aren't very many paying markets for superhero stories.
    • Time Sleuths - Recruit: Another Chapter 1 extract from my upcoming novel Time Sleuths is in its fourth draft.  I'm still struggling to find the right voice in that story, but I feel like I'm close.
  • I joined my first writing group: the Press 53 Center for Creative Writing.  I attended several monthly meetings, attended book author events, took a class, and joined a critique group.  It was fun and useful until Press 53 closed down the Center in October due to the economy and other issues.  More details of my milestones:
    • It was my first time attending monthly meetings where writers talked about anything and everything on the subject of getting published.  It was very enlightening.
    • My first author reading event was Marjorie Hudson at Barnhill's.
    • I also attended the Press 53 Author Dinner event in August.
    • I took my first writing class.  (Review yet to be written...)  It helped me realize the direction I need to go next.
    • I joined my first in-person critique group.  But it died out shortly after the Center closed.
  • I joined my first writer's forum: AbsoluteWrite.  On these messages boards, I submitted three short works for critique, and I critiqued four works of others.
  • I attended my second writer's conference, and met Ed Schubert, the editor of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.
  • I created my Facebook fan page.  Be sure to visit and "Like" the page.  I need 12 more Likes to reach 50.
  • I continued posting in this blog.  I...
    • Wrote some 105+ blog entries, averaging about 2 a week.  I learned that my incoming views are proportional to the frequency of my posts.  I hit my biggest fame with 720 views in July when I wrote 23 posts.
    • Reviewed 7 books, 25 movies, several TV shows, and a couple of restaurants, and a few other things.
    • Created a new blog: The Econo-Mel and I repeated two blog posts from this blog.  (So many ideas and not enough time!)
    • Made several improvements to this blog, including a new title (The Word of Mel), a new look, a new Site Map and a page for News & Reviews.
    • My personal favorite posts of the year:
And that's about it.  What did you accomplish in 2011?  I hope you also had an enjoyable writing year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

VOCE: Christmas Concert 2011

As an aspiring writer, you learn how to occupy your time with other things while you're busy not getting published.  For me, music is a big outlet.  A couple of months ago, I joined VOCE, a singing group based in Mt. Airy, NC.  I'm often asked why I travel 70 miles round trip to practice with this group.  My answer: my free time is short, and if I'm going to sing, it should be something I've never sung before.  VOCE is one of those groups that dares to try new things.

My first concert with them was a week ago: "Christmas Blessings" performed in Mt. Airy's Central United Methodist Church.  To be honest, I expected no more than five rows to be filled, all of whom would be family members of the singers.  We were all surprised to see the whole sanctuary filled.  The only open spots were a couple of rows reserved for the camera.

I suppose it helped to have local special guests Melva Houston (jazz and blues legend) and Doug Reeves (country singer & writer of "Christmas in Mayberry").  In the audience, we also had Betty Lynn (actress who played Barney's heartthrob, Thelma Lou), but she was too frail to come up front.  I also halfway expected Andy Griffith to make a surprise appearance, and that he'd come shake our hand after the concert, but alas; I was told he lives out in California and no longer lives in Mt. Airy.  Dang!

My claim to fame is that I got to be a backup singer for Melva when she sang "Elijah Rock."  You can watch it for yourself in this video.  Start it at about 6:00.  (Though, Doug Reeves' "Andy's Mayberry Christmas Card List," which comes first, is very entertaining.)

VOCE is directed by uprising conductor and composer, Mark Daniel Merritt.  Three of his pieces were featured in this concert: "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day", "Deo Gratias", and "Precious Little One."  The last of these pieces was my favorite.

With Melva's gospel singing, Doug's Mayberry songs, the brass and organ, the choir's singing, and the standing ovation at the end, it was all an enjoyable experience.  I'm proud to be part of this organization and look forward to future concerts.  I may not be published, but at least I'll be happy until I get there!

Here's our whole concert minus the congregation sing-along in the middle.  Enjoy!

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Review - Cinder by Will Wright

Cinder, written by uprising author Will Wright, is an epic fantasy filled with dragons, wizards, archers, sailors, cats, dogs, and a few surprises. 

The title character, Cinder, is a young dragon who loses her parents to an unknown force.  The wizard Tig (short for Tigris), protects Cinder and embarks on a quest to learn what killed her parents.  For a disguise, Tig transforms her into a human girl--the girl you see on the book's cover.  The result is a fun-filled journey as Cinder learns to cope with humanity while helping to save her fellow dragons.

The book's biggest strength is its vast array of colorful characters.  Each member of the cast is distinct and well formed, and each one acts on its own.  Half of the characters are human, and the rest are dragons and other magical animals.  My favorite happens to be Mank, the cat.  You won't find any halflings (that is, elves, dwarves, hobbits, Elvis, or any of those Star Trek aliens that look like humans with fancy makeup thrown on), which some people see as a plus.

The many characters are also the book's main weakness.  It takes a while to introduce the cast, which is okay until you realize that some characters cannot be fully explored.  There just aren't enough pages to cover everyone.  I found myself caring for half of the main characters, while others would meet their demises without a sniffle from me.  Same as with the first book in the Harry Potter series, most of Cinder's energy is spent in introductions and worldbuilding.

A lot of these concerns could be alleviated with sequels and/or prequels.

The book is well-edited, family-friendly, entertaining, and recommended for anyone who loves epic fantasy.

Finally, a disclaimer: you might find my name in the acknowledgements (included in the free sample).  I helped to critique the first draft, but I received no favors to write this review.  I'm happy to see he took some of my suggestions, though.  :)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thanksgiving at the Golden Corral

This Thanksgiving, my mother announced that we would be going to the Golden Corral for our big dinner.  What a change in pace!  I had been used to reserving space at a church or a gym, and having the traditional meal complete with turkey, dressing, cranberry sauce, and sometimes ham (everyone bringing their own dish).  But this year was going to be something new.

On hearing the announcement, two things immediately came to mind.

#1) That scene from "A Christmas Story" where they went to the Chinese place for Christmas, and they sang "Fa ra ra ra ra."  Would we be the only ones at the Golden Corral while everyone else stayed at home eating their traditional dinners, napping it off, and watching football?

#2) When would the Golden Corral employees go home to their families?  I know that some people say: "Don't worry about the employees.  Golden Corral is open and even advertises their Thanksgiving dinner.  The employees are there on their own free will."  But this is faulty reasoning in a lame attempt to make oneself feel better.  I know a lady who works at Golden Corral and is unable to attend church because they won't let her take Sundays off.  (And you know somebody has to feed all those hungry Protestants who grab brunch after church on their "day of rest.")

But then, I understood my mother's decision.  Consider all the pros: no cooking; no washing dishes; no leftovers; eat all you want and what you want; big enough to fit a large party.

There are also the cons: the food is not homemade; no turkey-salad sandwiches over the next week; other strangers will be there with you; could be more expensive.

Then the big day came.  We all met at the Golden Corral and Holy Moly!  The line went out the door!  I couldn't believe it.  All visions of "fa ra ra ra ra" vanished.  I never knew that people actually did something different than the traditional dinner at home!

It took us fifteen minutes just to get to where you pick up your drinks.  We paid for our own dinners, and wouldn't you know it?  Golden Corral charged the special Thanksgiving rate.  I heard Mister Krabs of Spongebob fame back in the kitchen.  "Ka ching!  Arghh argk argk argk argk argk!"

There we were--all twenty of us holding our drinks--waiting to be seated.  The waitresses started putting together a section in one of those glass rooms.  After about five minutes, they told us that someone else grabbed those tables.  We were standing there with our drinks for over twenty minutes!  (Well, my wife came up with the awesome idea of resting the drink trays on a ledge.)  Yet, it was hard to get angry because of concern #2 above.

It was noisy all over the restaurant, but luckily, inside the glass room, it was quiet enough to where we could all have pleasant conversations.  There was always someone up getting more food (which I suppose is true in most Thanksgiving dinners).

I started with a soup and salad, while my brother-in-law got a taco bowl.  Then I went for my "Thanksgiving" plate.  Wouldn't you know it?  There was a line for the turkey and fixings!  The turkey was okay, but nothing like how my wife cooks it (nice and dry - yum!).  The dressing, mashed potato, cranberry sauce, and rolls were good.  They always have good rolls.  Desserts were okay.  I didn't even try the chocolate fountain, though it seemed everyone else did.

We were there for over two hours, and it was all fun.  It was good to see family again.  There was a lot of laughing and the usual pouting kids and the poopy diaper.  What Thanksgiving dinner would be complete without those?

When we left, the line to go in was still going out the door.  It was all over for us.  We had survived, and it wasn't all that bad.  Though, I really wanted to hear somebody sing "Fa ra ra ra ra."

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Many Discouragements of Being an Aspiring Writer

Yes, I realize I risk sounding like Luke Skywalker on one of his whinging binges, but I've had a really hard couple of months in the writing world.  I started this blog to detail the steps in becoming an "established writer," and no honest account would be complete without a big complaint-filled post.  So, here goes nothing...

Life sucks!  I am this close to giving up (I'm holding up my thumb and index finger).  When you're only an aspiring writer, you're nothing but big in your own head.  Nobody wants to publish you.  Nobody wants to read your stories.  You might as well stick with your day job and be a work zombie till the day you die.

  • Rejections everywhere:  This is one area where I excel.  I can see the first readers shaking their head when they see my name.  "Oh no, not again.  Come on, Melvyn.  Is this the best you can give us?  Say hello to our form letter rejection."  If only I knew where I was failing to connect!
  • It takes so long, and no results:  I could easily spend an hour writing one of these blog posts.  After putting together what I think is a useful article, I check the stats the next day and see: "4 views."  That's all?  When I ask for comments, going for more reader participation, I might get one or two responses.  Whooo!
  • The world doesn't need another writer:  Look at all the books at our disposal.  Name any random topic, and chances are you'll find a book that fits that need.  My stuff?  Whenever I describe my two finished books, I get something like: "Oh, that sounds like 'Face Off' in space," or "That's 'Touched by an Angel."  In other words, my drivel has already been written.
  • Life is so busy:  First, there's the day job.  It eats up 40 hours of my precious time every week.  45 if you count the lunches, and 50 if you also include commuting time.  There's also church and family and community.  With all these responsibilities, if I did everything I was "supposed to do," I'd get no sleep.  And then I'd still have no time to write.  Sometimes when I do have free time, I'm exhausted to do anything except relax.  NaNoWriMo?  Eesh!  Not this year!
  • Depression loves writers:  I don't know why, but depression seeks out writers like tornadoes love trailer parks.  Maybe it's all the rejection letters we get.  Or perhaps that brain defect that makes us want to write and write and write also makes us depressed.  Do you know why they don't hold writers' conferences next to cliffs?  Because it would only take one writer, and then you'd have lemmings!
  • I don't have enough money to break into the business:  The NCWN held their big annual conference this past weekend.  I didn't go, because I just can't afford it right now.  I've even had to temporarily stop my movie review trips.  Today's economy is stressful and makes it much harder to spend money on conferences, books and the like.  I know they say you don't really need to pay a dime to get published, but I don't believe it.  You pay to enter conferences where you might meet an agent.  You can sometimes pay extra to force an agent to sit with you for a 20-minute session.  You can pay for classes that might increase your chances of getting published in a particular magazine.  You can pay an editor when you self-publish a book that might get your book cleaned up enough to sell millions.  In other words, no money = "don't even think about it."
  • Other writers are better than me:  I was reading one of my fellow aspiring writer's blog, and he was celebrating a relatively big short story sale.  He stated that it was after some 20 rejections.  At first I thought, "Wow!  I'm not up to that many on any of my individual stories.  I just have to keep submitting."  But then I kept reading.  He gave some excerpts from his rejection letters, which were all "warm" rejections like: "We really like your style, but this doesn't fit our magazine.  Send us something else."  Well, good for him.  I've only received one non-form-letter short story rejection, and it was a "cold" one.  In other words: my stories plain suck.
  • It would be so much easier to give up:  I love video games and puzzles and math problems and rainbows and reading books and watching movies and TV.  If I just removed the stress of having to write and get published, I could still live out a fulfilling life.  Of course, no one would know who I am, but is that really so important?  I bet other aspiring writers wouldn't mind if I gave up.
Yes, if you are like me--an aspiring writer who has nearly zero credits--then you have most likely experienced one of the above.  It sucks, and it's so easy to come to a grinding halt and not push forward.

I wish I could say I'm in a position where I could say, "This is how I came out of it and became an established writer," but alas, I'm still in it.  So, I'll just pretend I'm an established writer and try to give this advice:
  • If you're nobody, then nobody cares what you do.  Think about it.  If nobody knows who you are, you have no deadlines.  You don't have busy book signing schedules and all those other things established writers have to worry about.  If you fall flat on your face, who's going to laugh at you?  You'll just die one of those lonely deaths where no one hears a tree land on your grave.  So, you might as well give it your all, right?  Go corner that agent in the elevator!
  • You really think you're going to stop writing?  Face it.  We aspiring writers have that brain defect I mentioned earlier.  We have so many stories and ideas floating around in our heads, and if we don't stop writing our heads will explode (followed by a lonely death--remember that tree on your grave?).
  • The day job isn't all that bad.  It pays the bills.  If you're happy with your job, it can actually free up time.  Since you're not constantly chasing dollars, you can relax and write.  Whoa!  What's that on the floor?  A dollar!  Oh, yeah!
  • So what if no one's reading your blogs?  When you become famous, all your devoted fans will go back to ALL your wonderful past blog entries and read every word.  Don't think of it as attracting attention now, but rather that you're setting up the stage to give your fans a ton of free stuff to read when the time is right.
  • Depression?  It comes in cycles.  Since you're a nobody, it's okay to take a break when the chips are down.  Go play some video games or whatever you do best when you can't do anything else.
  • Those other established writers?  Jealousy gets you nowhere.  If someone else is doing better than you, figure out what he's doing right.  Get into his head and leave nothing behind.
  • Giving up isn't permanent.  As long as you're still alive, you can still write.  Has it been years since you touched a keyboard?  Perfect!  That means that all those magazine editors that you've been bothering have either moved on to bigger gigs or are dead by now.  Green blood!  These new guys don't know what's about to hit them, do they?
Well, I hope that helps.  Feel free to comment and add your own whingings.  Let it all out!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

2011 TV Fall - The Second Wave

The second wave of Fall shows are now upon us, and now all shows have been presented.  Some have already been cancelled:  "Charlie's Angels", "How To Be a Gentleman", "Free Agents", "The Playboy Club."

Some are in danger of being cancelled soon, but luckily, it appears that all ten shows that I've chosen to watch are still looking strong and will last at least through the end of the year.  This also means that my DVR is going to fill up fast and it'll take me forever to catch up.  Dang!

At the beginning of the month, I gave a report on the five shows that came in the first wave.  Now, here's what I think about the next five shows...

Once Upon a Time:  Only one episode in, the jury's still out.  This show could either be awesome or stupid, but it's too early to tell.  Just like in "Tron," the underlying premise is idiotic.  The evil queen puts a spell on everyone so that they all end up in a horrible place and nobody remembers who they are.  And where is this "horrible" place?  It's in our world--a city called Storybrooke, Maine.  Yes, it sounds like the punchline to a funny joke, but can you build a series on it?

Why did I bring up "Tron"?  Because, I love both of the movies.  They're cool once you get over the idiotic underlying premise.  This means that "Once Upon a Time" has a chance.  Already they've shown a few fun interactions between the characters.  If they can keep that up, then I'll keep watching.

It looks like this could be a family show, but it's hard to tell with shows this day.  How many times have you watched a show on the "Family" Channel (affiliated with ABC) with your kids and then ... whoa ... where did this mushy sex stuff come from?  I don't remember the Pilot having anything too harsh for kids, but I feel the potential for some hanky panky down the road.

Grimm:  NBC decided to delay the premiere of this show one week (as well as "Chuck") to get it closer to Halloween, and I have to say it was a good choice.  I ended up liking this show more than I expected.  Though, for once I'd like to see cops follow due process for a change.

Nick Burckhardt is a cop who also happens to be one of the few remaining descendants of the Brothers Grimm.  He has inherited the gift of seeing monsters for what they really are.  We normal folk see these monsters as regular people.

In this first episode, he's tracking down a big bad wolf who's eating girls that wear red hooded jackets.  Despite having a couple of "why did they do that" moments, it turned out to be funny, suspenseful, and intriguing.

My main concern is that this show might become another "Smallville" with the creep of the week.  Ask yourself this.  In the Pilot of "Grimm," a wolf is killing these girls.  The big bad wolf has been around for who knows how long, and the cops are just now learning about it?  That was the problem with the early seasons of "Smallville," where the bad guys came one at a time as if they were fighting Bruce Lee.  In real life, all these crimes would be happening at the same time.

Nevertheless, it appears that "Grimm" has an overlying story arc that promises to keep the energy running in the show.  Some bad guys are after him, but who are they?  I'll keep watching.

Chuck:  The season opener began with a funny energy-filled first five minutes.  Chuck no longer has his superpowers.  Instead, Morgan is the star, though Morgan has retained his ... well ... his Morgan-ess.  Now that Chuck and friends are kicked out of working for the government, Chuck is now trying to lead his ragtag compatriots through his new private spy contracting business, "Carmichael Industries."  Now, that's funny!

I look forward to the rest of the season.  I hope we get a full set of episodes, and then see a satisfying close to the series at the end.

Psych:  It's in its sixth season, and it's still funny?  How do they do that?  We're a couple of episodes in, and I can't wait to see what happens next.  It looks like they're concentrating a little more on Carlton, and there's a lot more of the mortuary dude.  Keep it up, writers.  It's always good to develop all the characters.

The Walking Dead:  I saved the best for last.  This is now my favorite show, and I never knew zombies could be fun.  Well, I don't really like zombies, but I love a good apocalyptic story.  If they only had one zombie attack every other week, that would be fine by me.

Though in the first episode, there was a lot more zombie attacks than usual.  It's almost as if they took an episode off of developing story just to give us more action and let us remember where we left off last year.  I think that was an appropriate decision.  The second episode gave us more story and introduced some new characters.

This show promises a lot of story down the road.  My comic-reading friends tell me they know "what's in the barn."  I have no idea what they're talking about, but they say it's going to be cool.  I'm racking my brain as to what could be so cool in that barn.  Maybe they'll show us tonight.

What makes this show so great?  How the writers focus on the people instead of the zombies.  They develop characters and make us care.  (Just keep that in mind next time you write something.)

Now to get ready for November sweeps...

Sunday, October 23, 2011

After the Lot: Sam Friedlander

Sam Friedlander placed 4th in the 2007 show "On The Lot."  Click here to see my overview of his films for that show.

Four years later, Sam is still pushing ahead in his career.  He is an associate producer of the show "Royal Pains" on the USA Network. 

He has also teamed up with his "On The Lot" 3rd place compatriot, Adam Stein (blurb coming soon), and "Royal Pains" actor, Mark Feuerstein in creating Supdawg Productions.  In 2009, Supdawg put out the web series "The Hustler," an over-the-top dark comedy featuring an unrealistically awesome on-the-edge dude.  Sam co-produced, co-wrote, and co-directed the thirteen episodes.  Below is first episode, and you can catch the rest on Crackle.  (And yes - the Hustler is that "Royal Pains" doctor.)

I look forward to more Sam Friedlander productions.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

2011 TV Fall - The First Wave

The first wave of shows has infiltrated our homes.  Some shows delivered, and others have already tanked.  One of the worst, "The Playboy Club," is already in danger of being cancelled after only two episodes.

For once, so far I am happy with my choices in shows to watch: 4 new shows and 6 returning.

Person of Interest: A decent show.  After watching the first two episodes, I'm going to keep on watching.  The whole premise is cool: a supercomputer predicts when a major crime is about to happen, but all they have access to is a social security number.  They have to work quickly to fill in the blanks, and stop the crime before it occurs.  Of course, everything they're doing is dangerous and illegal.  So, they get beat up, and you wonder how much longer they can keep it up.  This is all cool.

There are still a few problems with execution.  In one scene, Reese says, "Don't try to find me, we'll meet on my time," and then they're together in the very next scene.  In another scene (or was it in the opening credits?), they say, "no one can find us," but there they are walking on the sidewalk in plain sight.  We can see them.  But who cares?  I'm enjoying watching this show.  You can catch the first two episodes on

Terra Nova: Now my favorite show, as long as they can keep it up.  After watching the pilot, I just said, "Wow."  The special effects are beyond awesome.  The story grabbed me and didn't let go.  It's clear that they spared no expense.

Set 150 years in the future, it appears we don't have long before we become overpopulated, with oxygen depleting and no moon or stars in the sky.  But then after discovering a rip in space-time that opens to a place millions of years in the past, they start sending "pilgrimages" to colonize and grab a second chance on life.  The show starts with the tenth pilgrimage.

And get this (this is very important).  They go back in time to a different parallel universe.  Without this, the show's premise falls apart.  Just their being on ancient Earth with all that technology would destroy the "original" human species' chance of evolving.  But it's okay in a parallel universe.  It nicely avoids those timey-wimey paradoxes.

After watching an hour, and they finally arrived at the camp, I thought: "Okay, here we are in Jurassic Park.  It was fun getting here, but now what are we going to do for a season?  It's not like we need any more dinosaurs.  We already have three movies, plus the rumor of a fourth."  But they delivered in the last hour.  You can always count on human nature to provide an interesting story.

The sixth pilgrimage was corrupted.  They somehow fixed the Lottery and they have an unknown agenda.  They no longer live inside the camp.  The leader lost his son in the second pilgrimage, but he's still alive somewhere.

I'll keep watching.  Ratings were a little low for the premiere, which is always concerning.  If you haven't watched already, check out the Pilot on

The Office: This show might just survive without Michael Scott.  The remaining characters have their chance to shine now.  My favorite character is Kevin.  He very funny.  My least favorite is (and I have to look up her name) Angela.  Her constant ribbing of Pam is getting on my nerves.  James Spader is a fun addition.  That whole genius thing is funny.  I don't know about his idea to raise prices to attract customers, though.  Who wants a pyramid?

Fringe: The first episode was decent.  Though, I'm a little concerned that these zombie shape-shifters may dominate this season.  I really like the "new guy".  He's new because the timeline has been rewritten and he's no longer part of Fringe Division.  But now he's back in a different capacity.  I wonder if he's still a leader-type in the alternate universe.  I would assume not, as they would have met him already.  How long is it going to take for Peter to come back?  Oh, please make it interesting!  It already feels like, "I can't believe we made it this far."

Simpsons: The first episode had its funny moments, but the magic of the earlier seasons is pretty much gone.  Keifer was funny in his guest role.  I'll keep watching, because every now and then they hit gold.

Still waiting for the second wave of shows in October: Grimm, Once Upon a Time, Psych, The Walking Dead, Chuck.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Write 1 Sub 1 - September

Starting in July, I joined the Write 1 Sub 1 challenge.  You can either choose monthly or weekly.  I chose monthly since I write longer stories (and I'm usually crazy busy).  This means that every month, I write something, and I submit something.

In July and August, I met the challenge, but a few days late.  This time, I beat the end of the month, which meant a little hunkering down the last couple of weeks.

Write 1: "The Long Hall" - an excerpt taken from my yet-to-be-published novel "Escape From the Planet Justice."

Sub 1: "The Depths of Inner Space" - the journey of three scientists through the center of the earth.


PS, if you like this blog, please click on that Facebook Like button over to the right.  I only need 16 more fans to reach 50.  Thanks!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

2011 TV Fall Preview

Here's my list of shows that I'll try to watch this Fall.  It all starts this upcoming week, and just in time as SyFy summer comes to a close.  Note: all times are Eastern.

New Shows

Person of Interest (CBS Thursday 9PM - 9/22): As this is produced by J. J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan's brother, Jonathan, I'm already excited.  What happens when you team up Benjamin Linus with Jesus?  You get a scientist and a "dead" CIA agent who try to stop crimes before they occur.  Note: don't confuse this with last year's low-rated film by the same name.

Terra Nova (FOX Monday 8PM - 9/26): It reminds me of one of the only two "South Park" episodes I ever watched.  People from the future go back in time to give life a second chance.  Despite the premise being a little silly, this looks like an exciting show.  You can't go wrong with Steven Spielberg, but I really hope this won't be a "Jurassic Park" rehash.

Grimm (NBC Friday 9PM - 10/21): This dude is a descendant of the Brothers Grimm.  It turns out the stories really happened, and the Grimm line has the power to see people as they really are.  This show could either be really great or it could fall on its face.

Once Upon A Time (ABC Sunday 8PM - 10/23): Of the four new shows I'm choosing to watch, this one appears to be the most interesting and imaginative.  It's written by those LOST guys, so anything could happen.  It appears that there's the "real world" and the "fairy world" that happen at the same time?  And the characters exist in both worlds?  We'll see how it goes.  It's also got Robert Carlyle, who always plays a fun, conflicted bad guy.

Returning Shows

The Office (NBC Thursday 9PM - 9/22): Can the show survive without Steve Carell?  They're adding James Spader as the new CEO.  He's a genius.  Rumor is it that they will have one of the existing regulars take Micheal's job.  Who will it be?  Jim?  Dwight?  Creed?  I've got to keep watching and see how the show ends.

Fringe (FOX Friday 9PM - 9/23): So far it's my favorite Network show currently showing.  When we last left off, Peter Bishop has ceased to exist.  What does that mean?  I hope they don't resolve it in just one or two episodes (like Mika coming back to Warehouse 13).  I hope they drag it out to an awesome emotional climax at a mid-season finale.

The Simpsons (FOX Sunday 8PM - 9/25): Can't stop watching them.  D'oh!

Psych (USA Wednesday 10PM - 10/12): The funniest show I'm still watching.  It's my kind of humor, and they keep referring to the 80's.  That's my era.

The Walking Dead (AMC Sunday 9PM - 10/16): The biggest surprise of last year.  I'm waiting patiently for it to restart.  This show actually gave me nightmares (usually featuring me as a zombie and realizing it's not really that bad).  We'll see if they can keep it up.

Chuck (NBC Friday 8PM - 10/21): I'll keep watching this one as long as they show it.  The episodes are hit-or-miss, but there are still some pretty funny moments.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Review - Rango and Mars Needs Moms

Today I'll review two movies--one critically acclaimed and one critically slammed.  And guess what!  I had the exact opposite reaction.

Rango:  Currently, this sits at 7.5 on  Roger Ebert says, "An animated comedy for smart moviegoers."  I had high hopes for this movie, but something just felt missing.

The movie does have its moments.  There are quite a few funny scenes (most of which are in the previews).  The plot is somewhat interesting, though it's just another typical Western.  (Hey, I did like Cowboys and Aliens.)  There's noticeable character development (though formulaic).  The animation is nearly flawless.  It had all the makings of a great film, so why was I disappointed?

It was just boring.  I don't know if it was pacing, or the fact that I don't really like lizards.  Or perhaps it was the feeling that I saw it all before and knew what was going to happen and wished for someone to change the formula.

But most importantly, my kids thought it was boring.  The only things they liked were the "Pirates of the Caribbean" references.  (I'll take their word for it.  I did recognize the one scene lifted from "At World's End.")  The innuendos and the beheaded naked Barbie top made my older kids uncomfortable.  Just like the recent Land of the Lost, this movie struggles to find its target audience.  Is it for kids?  The trailer seems to say so.  Then why all the sex jokes?  Kids really do pick up on those, and if they're not old enough to understand, they just feel uncomfortable.  If you make a really good movie, then you don't need to "add something for the adults."  Look at "Toy Story" and ... well ... most Pixar movies.

Despite all the positives this movie had, it just didn't deliver.

Mars Needs Moms: This sits at 4.9 on  Jason McKiernan of says, "Mars doesn't need moms, and Earth doesn't need this movie."  Very witty and a typical critic attitude.  If it's trash, it doesn't even deserve to exist.  Lo and behold, the $150 million movie didn't even break $22 million.

I had already heard what the critics said and avoided this movie until it appeared on our Netflix queue.  I was pleasantly surprised.  Sure, the whole concept is idiotic.  (That didn't stop me from enjoying Tron and Tron: Legacy.)  Sure, the animation is no where near Pixar quality.  (Though the whole matching human movement technology is pretty cool and I liked all the color combinations.)  Sure, the setup of the problem (women separated from men, and women raised by nanny bots) and the whole resolution is absurd.  (But what else do you expect from a Disney movie?)

There is a lot in this movie for anyone to despise it, but something happened when I watched.  The jokes were funny.  Some of the scenes were touching.  This movie had heart.  My kids--ALL OF THEM--watched it the whole way through.  There was no running around hitting each other or running to the bathroom saying, "Don't pause it for me."  Something about the movie was captivating.

To summarize:

Rango = good but boring.  Kids went to sleep and/or got offended by sex jokes.
Mars Needs Moms = bad but captivating.  Kids even watched the extras on the DVD.

My advice: if you watch "Rango," plan to watch it without the kids, and put on your "smart" hats.  You wouldn't want Ebert to call you dumb.

If you have kids, put "Mars Needs Moms" on your queue.  It's definitely worth a buck, and you may even enjoy this sleeper.  And if a critic catches you watching it, you can just go tell him to ...

Monday, August 29, 2011

I Need a New Title

Help!  I need a catchier title for this blog.  I'm tired of seeing my full name in every Google search result that references my blog.  I'm thinking something like: "Mel's Something" or "The <blank> of Mel" or maybe an acronym like "My Ever Lasting Blog."  (That spells MELB.)  I'd also like the title to be short so people will see more of each individual post titles in the Google Searches.

I first started out with "Mel-o-rama's Writing Blog."

I quickly changed it to "Mel-o-rama's Club of Aspiring Writers."

And now it is "Melvyn Windham - Aspiring Writer."

Any ideas?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

USPC Puzzle Championship 2011

I've been a little busy lately--tidying up stories and preparing for this year's USPC Puzzle Competition.  This Saturday starting at 1PM, I will join hundreds of other geeky types in solving as many puzzles as possible in 2 1/2 hours. 

You score points for every puzzle you solve correctly.  I think you get around 400 points total.  In 2007 (or 2008) I tried this contest for the first time and scored 70 points.  Then I missed a couple of years due to conflicts. 

I tried again last year with the goal of breaking 100 points.  I was doing great.  I earned 70 points in the first hour, with a full 1 1/2 hours left.  Then something happened.  I froze!  I couldn't finish another puzzle.  Then in the last ten minutes, I decided to end with one of those "count the triangles in this picture" puzzle.  I thought I had the right answer, but was off by one.  They took off 5 points.  Final score = 65.  NOOOOOOO!!!!!!

This time I'll do it.  100 points!!!!  Bonsai!!!!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

NPR Top 100 SFF Stories - Results

A couple of weeks ago, NPR asked for your votes for the top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Titles.  The results are in and here they are.

Just for the record, here were my ten votes and how they fared:

#1) Lord of the Rings
#3) Ender's Game
#5) Dune Chronicles
#7) Fahrenheit 451
#8) Foundation Trilogy
#12) Wheel of Time
#24) 2001
#30) Clockwork Orange
#36) Time Machine
#Didn't make it) Tales of Alvin Maker

How did your favorite books do?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Syfy Summer 2011 Report

Are you, like me, enjoying the Syfy summer?  I'm currently watching four of their shows.

Alphas: A pleasant surprise, this show has turned out to be very entertaining.  The dialogue is intelligently written.  The characters are interesting and remarkably consistent.  The powers are still a little confusing (such as Rachel's ability to figure out what angle the bullet came from in the Pilot, an ability she hasn't used since--now that Hicks can do that stuff).  The villain(s) are cool.  And what exactly is happening at that Compound where they send the bad Alphas?

It feels like anything could happen, and even any of the main characters could go bad.  I predict it's going to be Gary.

My only complaint: is this show really in the same universe as Eureka and Warehouse 13?  This show is on such a higher level, that they would be better off not associating with these other shows.

Eureka: I'll keep watching as long as they keep showing this show, but I wouldn't miss it if they took it away.  The shows are still funny, but the science is getting weirder and more "don't worry--we have a new technology to fix this"-ish.  Carter's solutions are also becoming more, "All these other geniuses really didn't come up with that idea?"-ish.

The mission to Titan doesn't interest me that much.  In fact, I keep asking myself, "Isn't this Eureka?  Why don't they just go to Titan?  They haven't prepared for anything before!"

I do like the Beverly taking over Allison's mind story line.  Though, I'm having trouble remembering why Beverly was evil.  That was like Season 1, and they never went back to it until now?  Does she know about the time change?  And why did her evilness survive unscathed through the time change?

I won't think about it, and I'll just enjoy... just enjoy... just enjoy...

Warehouse 13: This show remains funny and fresh.  I like the new Myka without glasses.  Also, the chemistry is building between her and Pete.

The science behind the show still drives me up the wall.  Why should the fame of a person cause items that they own to inherit strange powers?  And wouldn't more people come to know about this and become used to it?

I won't think about it, and I'll just enjoy... just enjoy... just enjoy...

I like the new guy, but he's boring.  He's "Mr. Poopypants," the Abbott to everyone else's Costello.  He's quiet, and he's Buddhist.  He also happens to be gay.  Yes, I initially rolled my eyes at another show's attempt to jump on the latest bandwagon; but if we are to have the token gay dude, these writers are doing it right.  It's not preachy and "in your face."  He's not complaining about how different he is and about how nobody understands him.  He's just a different person leading a different, yet normal life.  It even made for one funny interaction when Pete took off his shirt in front of him.

Haven: I would worry if they aired my show right after WWE wrestling.  Is Friday night the night that Syfy shows go to die, now?

I do enjoy this show, even though some of the episodes are hit and miss.  The two Audreys story line is very interesting, and I'm wondering where they're going with this.  And where did that spooky building disappear off to?  That was cool and Stephen King-y.

We already know that the blond Audrey is the fake one.  She just doesn't know it yet.  She's really Lucy.  ;)

Where are they going with the Duke's wife story line?  (I'm a couple of weeks behind on this show.)  She looks like she could make a fun bad guy, but right now, she's just a boring character.

I just hope they wrap up the big questions this season, as it may not begin a 3rd season.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Review - Ayn Rand - Atlas Shrugged

Everyone should be rewarded for their own work.  That is Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged" reduced to one sentence.  It is a doctrine of which no one can argue.  At 1168 pages, Rand eloquently challenges nearly every moral concept known to man. 

For example, one character states that he wishes he could kill Robin Hood for all the damage he has caused, and he spends several pages explaining why he steals from the "poor" to give to the "rich."  Yes, it sounds appalling the way I write it, but Rand helps it to make sense.  The character doesn't really want to kill Robin Hood (whose cause may have been just), but rather despises politicians misusing the legend to support redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor.

Dagny Taggart is the Operating Manager of Taggart Transcontinental.  Her brother, James, is President of the railroad.  Though they work together, they do not see eye-to-eye.  James always wants to do what's moral in the sight of men--help people when they're down; lobby for legislation that's for the common good; thwart greedy people.  Dagny just wants to do what is necessary; find solutions that are mutually beneficial for both parties; and make lots of money.

This is how Rand introduces the characters and then she turns things around.  The reader quickly learns that Dagny is actually the "good guy," and James is the "bad."

This is where I come to my first complaint.  Practically every character in this book falls under one of these two molds. 

#1) The camp of James.  These are the ones who claim to be moral--to do what is good for all mankind.  However, they are all lazy, shifty-eyed, all-around scumbags.  They also happen to be the politicians who are in charge.

#2) The camp of Dagny.  They don't pretend to be moral, but they are noble.  They always stick to their word--well, most of the time.  It is very difficult for them to lie.  All they want is to earn an honest buck and receive the rewards they deserve.

One can't help to think that the James-ites would be called Democrats today, and the Dagny-ites would be Republicans (or more correctly Tea Partyists).  Because of this unfortunate binary setup, the book loses a lot of credibility and the ability to persuade.  It wreaks of a gigantic straw-man argument.  In reality, we have many good, noble "Democrats," as well as many shifty-eyed, greedy "Republicans."  In my opinion, the existence of these characters (absent in her book) would have served to greatly challenge her theories, and make for more persuasive arguments.

My second complaint: a full 10% of the book is philosophical monologue.  It's fun to read if you happen to be a student of philosophy, but as a plot advancer, this technique fails miserably.  The first such monologue happens around page 410 (in the most recent Plume paperback edition) when Francisco speaks at an informal party.  He orates 5 full pages on why money is not the root of all evil.  And everyone listens!  A madame says shortly after the speech, "Well, it's certainly a funny way to talk at a party!"

I thought that the 5 pages was bad enough, but it gets worse, especially in the second half of the book.  One monologue lasts over 60 PAGES!  That was one part I skimmed through.  Then I realized that Rand often repeats herself.  If she tried to publish this today, her editor would have helped her to trim all that fat.

My third complaint: I did not find Dagny to be the ultimate role model.  I believe in her views, but I question her moral makeup.  She doesn't hesitate to sleep with any man that she considers to be powerful.  When a more powerful man comes along, she'll dump the previous man to go after the next.  With these strong Tristan und Isolde overtones, I couldn't help thinking that Dagny was a slut.  Her lack of loyalty toward one particular man rubbed me the wrong way.  She never expresses remorse for her decisions, but rather she praises them.

I suspect this is really Rand's attempt to rationalize her own affairs.  But her arguments lost me.  If her ideal world necessitates these affairs, then I seriously need to rethink her philosophy.

A corollary third-and-a-half complaint is that the Dagny camp failed to demonstrate any charitable acts.  In fact, Rand devotes a whole chapter against the idea of being one's brother's keeper.  I know what Rand was trying to express, but if you take her arguments to the extreme, it turns into a form of Nazism, where anyone who is unable to produce isn't worth anything.

Regardless of my complaints, the book does have its strong moments.  It contains some wonderful vignettes, such as the self-contained short story of Kip Chalmers and the Comet on pages 584-607.  There are also plenty of moments where you can't help cheering with the "good guys." 

This is a book everyone should read, if not for any other reason, than to at least become familiar with Rand's philosophical ideas.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Why I Created a Facebook Fan Page

About three years ago, I received a phone call from an old BYU friend named Ronald.  He told me that I really had to get on Facebook and see all the pictures he posted.  I told him I'd think about it.  I had been out of touch with my old buddies, and I was hesitant to join another "Classmates."  A year later, I finally relented.  I joined Facebook.  I got in touch with many old friends.  It was almost like reliving my former childhood.

This is what Facebook has been known for, and it is its main attraction.  But that's not all Facebook can do.  You can also create your own Fan Page.  I had resisting doing this for almost a year, worrying about my friends saying, "Oh, that Mel!  He's so vain!"  But then something clicked this week as I attended the monthly Press 53 Center for Creative Writing Publisher's Group Meeting.

If you're serious about wanting to get published, you need a Facebook Fan Page.  The typical private profile just doesn't cut it.  How does a Fan Page work?

First off, you do need a private profile.  That's where you post all your "private" and intimate stuff.  Then with the profile, you can create a Fan Page.  All you have to do is scroll to the very bottom of the Facebook page and click on "Create a Page."  Their instructions help you through the rest of the process.  Your private profile becomes an administrator of the newly created Page.

A Fan Page is just like a private profile, except for the following differences:
  • A Fan Page is entirely public.
  • Anyone can post on your Fan Page, though you have the power to delete posts.
  • Instead of Friends, Fan Pages have "Likes."  That is, people come to your Page and Like you.  The Page cannot Like them back, though it looks like you can remove people.
  • You cannot send Messages through your Page.
  • A Fan Page comes with extra features, such as paid advertising (where you pay for ads to appear--I'm not doing that until I have something to sell) and Like buttons you can put in your blog (look--I have one now in the upper right hand corner!).
  • You can assign other Administrators to your Fan Page and they will have the same rights and privileges that you have.
 But why create a Fan Page?  Why can't you do it all with your private profile?
  • A Fan Page provides a place to put your "Public" stuff, while your private profile remains "Private."  That is, now with my new Page, it'll be much easier to keep the two separate.  If I want to talk about my breakfast or my odometer readings, I can do that with my private profile and only my chosen friends can see.  My book and music stuff can be moved to "Public" where everyone can see.  (In fact, I've taken my private profile off of Facebook's search.  A new person searching for me will see the public Fan Page.  When I see that person Like my page, I can decide whether or not to invite them to be my Friend on the private profile.)
  • A Fan Page is the perfect place to put all that annoying stuff like "Buy my books!"  I don't have any books to sell at this moment, but I do have all my blog posts showing up on my private wall.  Once I get 50 fans, I'm going to turn off the feed to my private profile.  Then my Friends can choose whether or not they want to be annoyed with my blog posts and upcoming solicitations.  They will see all that stuff if they Like my Page.  If they just want to be friends, they'll continue to see my private posts, and they won't think I'm some crazy Amway-ish person.
  • A Fan Page invites open discussions.  Supposedly you can add discussion threads.  (I haven't looked into those yet.)  Plus I already mentioned that anyone can post on your Page.
So, if you're already on Facebook and you're an aspiring writer like me, you should also consider creating a separate Fan Page.  Prepare yourself today for what's about to happen in a year in your future career.  :)

Friday, August 5, 2011

NPR - Vote for the Top 100 SFF Stories

Now's your chance to vote.  NPR is putting together their list of Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Titles Ever Written.

To vote, click on the link and choose your favorite 10 books from the list.  I've put in my vote.

Update 8/18/2011: Check out the results, and my further comments.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Press 53 Author/Member Dinner and Soiree

This past Wednesday, the Press 53 Center for Creative Writing held their first Author/Member Dinner.  Valerie Nieman and Marjorie Hudson were the two featured authors.  Over dinner they talked about their books, told stories about getting published, and opined on the process of writing.  Each participant received a book from each author: Blood Clay and Accidental Birds of the Carolinas (watch for reviews in a couple of months as soon as I finish reading them).

The food was good.  The company was nice.  Valerie and Marjorie had a lot to offer.  Valerie is a sci-fi writer turned into a gritty Southern fiction writer.  Marjorie is a creative non-fiction writer turned into a Southern short fiction writer.  Both of the books listed above deal with the concept of strangers visiting the South, though approached in two entirely different ways.

I left the event ready to write my own stories, after having been inspired by their success stories.

After dinner came the Summer Soiree, which was free and open to the public.  It was a great opportunity to socialize, make contacts and have a good time.  Here are a few pictures, courtesy of Kevin Watson's camera and several photographers.

Valerie Nieman and Me
Marjorie Hudson and Me

Kevin Watson (Founding Editor of Press 53) Doing Something
Sarah Lingley (Press 53 Intern) and Me: Future Writers of America
Stacy Hope Jones (Press 53 Center for Creative Writing Director) and Valerie
Soiree is Another Word for Party
Steve Mitchell (in back) Shows Off a Stoic Pose
The Center for Creative Writing is a Happy Place
Touring the Center - That's Dicy McCullough Off to the Right
Stacy and Me
Beware of Redheads
Sisters in Crime
Valerie and Sarah

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Netflix Streaming - Not That Great

Yesterday I signed up for a month's free trial of Netflix streaming.  At first I was excited.  They have all the "new" Doctor Who episodes through Series 5.  They have all the Avatar cartoons as well as all the original Star Trek episodes.

They don't stream Babylon 5, though.  In fact, I don't think they stream anything WB: movies and shows.

We tried streaming through the Wii.  That was fun, but the video was choppy (less than 15 fps).  We got our best result by plugging the laptop into the TV.  On the most part, it was like watching a DVD, but every now and then, I noticed a slight pause in the video.  One show was pixelated for a few seconds until I suppose the buffer caught up.

We watched The Sorcerer's Apprentice for our afternoon movie.  Then when the kids went to bed, I decided it was time to watch a movie with the wife.  But, what to watch?  This is where I come to my first complaint about Netflix.  Is there no way to see an exhaustive alphabetical list of all their streaming offerings.

We started typing in recent movies.  Source Code, Unknown, Speed Racer, etc.  Every movie we tried, Netflix reported: "xxxx is not available to watch instantly.  Watch xxxx on DVD."

Then I said, "What about a really old movie?"  We tried Casablanca.  No dice.  It's only available on DVD.

We ended up watching The Shadow (1994).

So, doesn't Netflix have any "cool" movies that are available through streaming?  The way things are looking now, we're either going to have to add DVDs (pay double), or go through someone else like Blockbuster.  Netflix's streaming selection leaves much to be desired.

Update 8/16/2011: We decided to go ahead and add the one-DVD-out-at-a-time plan.  At $16 a month, this is still a pretty good deal.  Little by little, I'm finding more shows that I like on streaming.  My kids love it.  The Wii streaming appears to work sufficiently well unless you try to do HD streaming.  Still, the streaming selection could be greatly improved.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Review - Cowboys & Aliens

The Western reinvented?  These cowboys don't know what they're dealing with, but they sure as heck aren't going to let these aliens get away with it. 

Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakens with his memories gone, an ugly abdomen wound, and a strange metal bracelet he can't remove.  It turns out he's a wanted man.  While trying to regain his memories, he constantly fights for survival and independence.

Being in the 1800's, these poor Western folk have no concept of life on other planets.  They don't know what to think when these flying things attack their town and abduct their friends.  Jake doesn't know why he has a bracelet that shoots these things out of the sky.  Together with Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), Jake ends up leading a posse to go find the critters that took their folk.

As any typical Western, expect to see the usual: gunfights, bars, Indians, piano playing, horses, gangs.  Just add aliens to the mix, and that's what this movie is.

The special effects were awesome.  (I'm so glad they didn't even try to do 3D.)  The aliens look real.  There's lots of explosions.  I love the camera effects on the flying machines (the same effects used in Battlestar Galactica - 2004 and Serenity).  Oh, yeah!  Jon Favreau did a great job directing this film.

This movie is probably accessible to the young teenagers and up.  It's rated PG-13 for western/sci-fi violence, one scene of partial nudity (you can see it in the trailer), and one crude reference.  I don't remember any cussing (beyond the "Biblical" ones).

A few weaknesses:  It does have a lot of Western cliches.  There are a couple of convenient coincidences, but not too many.  Like in many Spielberg movies, there's one scene where you see humans dying at such a fast rate that they'd all be dead in less than a minute.  Harrison Ford's acting isn't what it used to be. 

Despite these minor weaknesses, I strongly suggest watching Cowboys & Aliens.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

You Don't Need Gmail Account to Join Google+

Google+ is kind of cool.  It's similar to Facebook, but in some respects it's easier to use.  For example, it's slightly easier to upload photos.  Google+ also has other features such as multi-person video chatting and automatic linking to other Google services (Blogger, Picasa, YouTube, etc.).

There's just one thing missing: my friends.  You know how this usually ends.  If you have a cool toy, but no one will play with you, you eventually lose interest in that toy.

Where are my friends?  I sent out a barrage of invites, but only some have accepted.  When I go to Google+, I'm lucky to see more than 3 or 4 new posts each day from my existing circle people, and it's usually something along the lines of "It's boring here without my friends."

Here are some interesting numbers.

I put around 80 people in my Google+ circles.  Around 10 were already on Google+.  Around 10 specifically asked me to invite them.  I sent another 20 invites to people who already had gmail accounts.  I sent the remaining 40 invites to people who do not have a gmail account.

Practically all of the 20 gmail invitees have accepted the invite, while I'm still waiting for the first of the non-gmail invitees to accept.


When I asked, one person said the joining process is confusing.  Others said that you need a gmail account.  It turns out that YOU DO NOT NEED A GMAIL ACCOUNT TO JOIN.  Perhaps that was true a week or so ago, but not today.  You do need a Google account, but you can access it through your favorite email account.

I just conducted a test, and here's how to do it.

Let's say you're someone who doesn't have a Google account.  You receive an invite to join someone on Google+.  You click on the "Join Google+" button from within the email.  This takes you to the "Google+ Project" home page.  You see this "Sign In" button (so far so good):

This takes you to a Google Account Sign In page:

Okay, since you don't have a Google Account, click on the "Create an account now" link.  Type in your current email (not gmail) into the following box and fill out other info:

You go to your other email site and read the confirmation email.  And click on the link within the email to activate the account.  This will take you to a site that says "Google account" and claims that your Google Account is activated.  Okay, this is the first point of confusion.  We were trying to sign up for Google+, but we seem to have hit a dead end.  So, you go back to your Google+ Invite email, and just like above, you click on "Join Google+".

This time you may come across a "verify your account" page.  What the ...?

I'm not sure if you will have to go through this step.  It may just be me trying to create a "test" account, and they're suspicious.  Since I already verified by email, I'm confused.  I'll bite the bullet and have them send me a "voice call."  (This is already more confusing than I remember when signing up for Facebook.)

Okay, once you're verified, you'll come across the "Join" page:

Type in information, click on "Join," and then you're in Google+.  All notifications will go to your already existing email address.  Enjoy!

I'd like to hear your experiences and thoughts on Google+.  Feel free to add your comments below.  If you're in Google+, what do you think of it?  If you haven't signed up, yet, feel free to express why.  And don't forget to +1 this blog post (button below).


Thursday, July 21, 2011

Write 1 Sub 1

I've just joined a new initiative called:

It's such a simple idea: write one story a week (or month) and submit one story a week (or month).  According to the website, Ray Bradbury was known for penning one story a week and submitting.  We know how that worked out for him.  Lucky @#$$@$.

I'm going with the monthly variant, as my stories are a little bit longer than 1000 words.  Starting with July and going through June 2012, I'm going to work on at least one new story, and submit at least one new story each month.  With twelve new gems that magazines will have a hard time rejecting, I am bound to have at least one publication (my ultimate goal).

If you're an aspiring writer, I forward this challenge to you.  Pick your poison: monthly or weekly.

Happy writing!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Theaters: Carmike vs. The Grand

There are two theaters within a few of miles of each other on the northern side of Winston-Salem.  One is the Carmike 10 off Reynolda.  The other is The Grand 18 off University.

The Carmike is much older and is starting to show its age.  It's in one of those shopping plazas that has a lot of empty stores.  It's hardly ever crowded.

The Grand is much larger, newer, and popular.  They just now opened their new iMax.  The seats recline.  Their lobby is gigantic.

Would you like to guess which theater I frequent?  You know I'm going to say: the Carmike.  The Grand is very attractive, but when it comes down to what really matters, the Carmike is just the better deal.  Here's why.

  • Carmike's tickets are usually $2 cheaper than The Grand's.
  • All of Carmike's movies are digitally projected.  Almost every movie I've seen at the Grand used the traditional projectors.  Some say movies are supposed to be shown the traditional way, so you can see the black spots, hear the cracks, and experience color mismatch when they switch the reels.  I just like digital better for the consistent and brighter viewing experience.
  • The reclining chairs at the Grand hurt my lower back.  They just don't give support.  Reclining chairs sound like a nice idea, but would be better if they came with some kind of locking mechanism to give support to us lumbago sufferers.
  • Carmike is less crowded.  You can show up at a premium showing of a movie and most of the time it won't be sold out.
  • Carmike accepts Fandago, but The Grand doesn't.  (Sometimes Fandago offers some good deals.)
  • Carmike offers some pretty good discounts on their refreshments as well.  (Though I usually skip those.)
  • The Grand is indeed more attractive, with the large lobby, and neon lights, and all.  However, I usually do my movie viewing in the theater, and not in the lobby.  Carmike is decent, and is kept just as clean.  Together with the other points listed above, I just think the Carmike is the better theater for me.

    On the Lot: Short Films by Sam Friedlander

    Back in 2007, Steven Spielberg and Mark Burnett produced a reality show for aspiring movie directors called "On the Lot."  Though the show was a flop and an embarrassment to the art, the contestants still made some interesting movies.

    Earlier, I showcased the #5 winner, Zach Lipovsky.  Today, I introduce the #4 winner, Sam Friedlander.  Here are three of his short films.  My favorite is the first of the three (my kind of humor).

    Sam also has his own website, where you can watch all seven "On the Lot" movies in HD quality.

    Monday, July 18, 2011

    Postmortem Spring 2011 - V, Smallville

    As I finish saying goodbye to five of my shows that ended Spring 2011, I end with my two least favorites.  Beware of spoilers.


    I really liked this show when it first came out.  It showed a young Clark Kent learning to cope with his powers and who he was.  He dealt with bullies in school.  He did everything to protect his Secret.  His father taught him right vs. wrong.  His friend Lex Luthor was basically a good kid who was struggling with his own destiny and a cruel father.

    This show had promise, and it was good for a few seasons.  Sure, they got stuck in the "meteor freak of the week" formula for a while.  (You know: Dude gets exposed to a meteor; develops power; captures Lana.  She gets knocked out.  Clark protects Lana, and the meteor freak accidentally kills himself.)  They found a way to break the formula, and it was genuinely interesting.  Lex was little by little getting more evil.  Clark was learning more about himself.  All the characters were developing.

    Then something weird happened.  Lana developed witching skills.  Magic?  Really?  In a Superman story?  Once that story line played out, the writers mostly let it go (thankfully).  Then Lex started getting weird.  Chloe was getting weird.  Lex eventually died and left the show.  Even the soundtrack began to detract from the show (music not fitting or playing too loud).  Still, I had to keep watching to see Clark fly and see how the show ended.

    The show kept dragging out.  Clark kept getting older.  He picked up his Justice League friends.  They were cool for a season, and then Oliver went super-weird.  Clark became Luke-Skywalker-whiny.  Then the Zod season happened.  That was the year someone said, "Let's take Battlestar Galactica and try it out on Smallville."  That was the year I said goodbye.

    That is, until I heard this was the last season.  I watched the last 5 episodes, which caught me up on what I missed.  Then came the finale.  It had some good moments.  The whole marriage-that-didn't-happen went too long.  I wanted to see action, not sappy soap opera stuff.

    When Darkseid did his stuff and Clark finally learned he could fly, beating that floating planet thing was just too easy.  Darkseid really gave up that easily?  It did make for an effective montage when Clark realized who he really was.  It helped me remember all the good moments the show had (mostly from the earlier seasons--hah!)

    The last five minutes showing Clark Kent as full-blown Superman was cool.  HE WASN'T WHINY!

    It was a decent ending that only came five years too late.

    V (2009)

    I save the biggest disappointment for last.  This show wasn't terrible.  It was just inconsistent.  It had its good moments.  There were times when I looked forward to the next episode.  But then Season 2 felt like one of those stories you get when you have one person write the first sentence, and then you pass it on to a second person, etc.  There were so many interesting story lines that started, showed promise, and then just died out.

    For example, Season 1 ended in a dramatic cliffhanger.  The motherships were descending and Anna was getting ready to show her true colors.  But when Season 2 started, it was only "Red Sky," and everything went back to normal.  The motherships were not descending.  It was the biggest "cockadoodie" ever pulled in the last ten years.

    Another example: Hobbs was somewhat blackmailed to help try and kill Erica.  The V's said that they had his daughter (or girlfriend--I can't remember which).  Hobbs ended up killing Erica's husband--a situation so convoluted that I felt nothing for Erica and her loss.  In the several episodes that followed, there wasn't even a hint of Erica finding out the "truth," or Hobbs challenging the V's to see his daughter, or the V's trying to get him to do more evil things.  That story line just dropped!

    Need another example?  What about Tyler?  In one episode, he was the only hope to breed V-humans.  In the next episode, there turns out to be a "Tyler" in every country.  One of them (Rafael) started to move in on Lisa, and Tyler was no longer needed.  But wait!  In the next episode, there was something seriously wrong with the "Tylers."  A virus started killing them off.  Rafael died.  Tyler got sick.  But wait!  In the next episode, there was a cure.  And if Erica continued her one plot, her son would have died.  Luckily for him the plot failed.  Too bad for him that he ended up toast in the last few minutes of the finale.  SO, WHAT WAS THE POINT?

    I read that many people loved the season finale, but as I watched, I just felt so let down.  Who ever thought it would be a good idea to have Lisa kill her mother?  They really couldn't come up with a better plan?  Wait, I just came up with one in my head, and I'm only an aspiring writer. 

    While Diana started to take over the ship and win back what was lost, Anna just comes on board and kills her with her tail?  Really?  Diana didn't see that coming?  The other V's didn't revolt on the spot?

    There was nothing Joshua could have done to thwart the evil twin Lisa?  How about switch their places?  Since they had the same memories, would Anna ever really know which one was which?  With so many losers failing to perform in the last episode, Anna just deserved to win.  Marc Singer showed up just in time to see his show choke itself to a quick second death.

    Had there been a third season, I would have kept watching.  Perhaps the writers would have gone back to all these forgotten story lines.  Perhaps they would have made sense of the cacophony they created.  Too bad the WB destroyed all chances of a third season when they decided to nix all streaming of the show.  Too many people just lost interest when they missed an episode and had no way to watch it.  Hey, WB, I'll give you a hint.  Next time, just try giving us a good show with consistent writing.  Then we'll watch it and stick with you, and you won't have to resort to such gimmicks.

    The show had it's moments, and I wish they had their third season to redeem themselves.  But now it's gone, and I'll just have to find something else.  There's "Falling Skies" on TNT.  Now, that show is really picking up.