Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Review - John Hartness - Hard Day's Knight

Here goes a review of another John Hartness book.  I did tell you that I bought two of his books back in November, right?  Last month, I reviewed The Chosen.  Today I review Hard Day's Knight.

This book is the first of a series.  It features a duo of vampire detectives.  Even though they are damned souls, they still have good hearts - or at least what's left of their hearts.  It turns out that some things about vampires are true, and other things are just myths.  I'll give you one clue.  As John Hartness says, they don't twinkle in the sunlight.

The story reminds me of the Dresden Files television show.  (I hear the Butcher books are better than the show.  I haven't read them, but they're on my list.  The TV show was still awesome.)

Knight refuses to stick to one thing (just like Dresden).  It's not just about vampires, but it's also about other supernatural creatures and even magical humans.  It has the right combination of humor and serious plot.  The action moves very quickly.  The only slow part is when the main characters give their back story.

I enjoyed this book much more than I did Hartness' The Chosen.  My main complaint with the other book was the lack of character distinction.  In Knight, however, each character is clearly different.  The ones you're supposed to like are likable, and the other ones are convincingly annoying.  The result is a fun and satisfying read.  I've just ordered the sequel Back in Black, and I can't wait to see what happens next to the vampiric duo.

However, just like with The Chosen, beware of annoying typos.  There aren't so many in the first few chapters, but then they show up: missing quotes, missing words, wrong words, etc.  This is one drawback of self-publishing.  Another round of editing could tighten up the book.  (Note that I have an earlier copy and it's possible that the author may have already fixed some typos.)

Parent's guide: this is definitely PG-13.  There are sexual innuendos, at least one quick nude scene, but nothing explicit, and no F-bombs.  It should be suitable for older teenagers and up.

I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys vampire stories, supernatural stuff, and humor.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Review - Sucker Punch (2011)

I'm still trying to figure it out.  I think I know what happened.  Whatever it was, it was a fun ride - mostly.

Sucker Punch is a movie with a graphic novel feel.  Be prepared for interesting camera shots that emphasize the small things that are important (for example, an extreme closeup of a key hanging around a man's neck).  Also be prepared for in-your-face music meant to emphasize what people are feeling.  This movie is expressionism on steroids applied to the screen.

The opening sequence pulls us in immediately.  With a tricked-out "Sweet Dreams Are Made of This" playing in the background, we see a series of events play out without dialogue showing how Baby Doll ends up in a mental institution.  All we have are facial expressions to tell the story, and it's done well.  By the time someone utters the first words, everyone in the audience wants to see Baby Doll escape.

A lot of the movie plays out in Baby Doll's head, which is both fun and a little bit of a drag - as you know what happens in her head isn't real.  Sometimes it feels like an excuse for the creator, Snyder, to get in some awesome gratuitous steampunk action (beware - fun intentional anachronisms abound).  Hey, I'll watch that cool stuff any day, even if the plot isn't being pushed forward.

Scott Glenn is hilarious as the old wise man, though he starts to get "old" around the third/fourth time he shows up.  The epic fight battles are just awesome (for example, check out the trailer at time 0:58 when Baby Doll jumps up in that robot thing's face).  There is also plenty of Meow.  I'm not kidding.  After you see the train scene, tell me if you don't hear meowing.

I enjoyed this movie up until the ending, which for some reason seemed to come up short.  I would have done something different with the last five minutes.  I think it was just poor execution.  And to rub salt on the wound, the closing credits seemed to make a joke out of the whole movie.  (I strongly suggest you walk out when you see the ending credits start to roll.)

Oh, and one more thing.  Why does Blondie have black hair?

I recommend this movie for the person who loves graphic novels, anime, or in-your-head sci fi thrillers.  This movie would not be good for anyone under 13.  It has no sex, but the girls are put in bad situations that really makes you hate guys.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Top Ten SFF Books of the Decade

Here is TOR's list of top ten Science Fiction & Fantasy books of the decade.

1. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
2. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
3. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
4. Blindsight by Peter Watts
5. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey
6. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
7. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
8. Anathem by Neal Stephenson
9. Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
10. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

My first impression is that I only know one book on this list, and that's Sanderson's Mistborn book.  I believe I've also heard of Anathem.  I grew up mainly on the classics, and I'm not as familiar with the modern literature.

This tells me I have some homework.  After I finish reading Atlas Shrugged, I can start working on some of the books on this list.  What makes these books so popular?  What are they doing that I need to be doing?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Keeping Track of Submissions

I am currently at the beginning of a short story blitzkrieg which will probably last till the end of the year, and which will hopefully result in my being published in at least one major magazine.  What this means is that I'm preparing as many short stories as I can, and I'm sending them off to different magazines.  The plan is one submission a week (as long as I have an eligible short story to submit).

Problem: How do I keep track of all my submissions?

This is a very important question.   There appear to be two main rules to follow when submitting short stories (with some exceptions):

1) Only send a particular story to one magazine at a time.  (If two magazines like your story, you have a problem.  They may both drop you.)
2) Only send one story to a particular magazine at a time.  (Most magazines don't like to be barraged by all your stories at once.)

So, while the Intergalactic Medicine Show is reviewing one story, I can send a separate story to Asimov's.  However, without some kind of aid, I may make a mistake and inadvertently break rule #1 or #2.

The Answer: Simple spreadsheets.

I have one spreadsheet where I collect information on each magazine.  I list the name of the magazine, their home state, website, acquisition editor's name, whether they accept simultaneous submissions (rule #1), anticipated wait time, extra notes, and payment notes.  Each line in the spreadsheet represents one magazine.

I have another spreadsheet that keeps track of the stories I submit.  It lists the story name, the magazine to whom I sent it, the date submitted, their response, and the anticipated wait.  Each line in the spreadsheet represents one submission of one story to one magazine.  This is going to have lots of line filled in by the end of the year.

Spreadsheets are nice, because I can sort the data in any order - in particular the second spreadsheet (the submissions).  Let's say I want to see how many times I've bothered IGMS.  I just sort by their name and submission date, and I can see how many stories I've sent, and whether or not they're currently reviewing one of my stories.  Or, I can sort by story name and submission date to see how many magazines I've burned with that story.

I also have separate spreadsheets for keeping track of agents and publishers and novels.

Well, I've got to get back to my blitzkrieg.  Happy writing!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Scam - Part 2: I Call Them Back - Transcript

In Part 1, I described what happened when I received a phone call from "GCS - 1-714-551-9581."  The call ended with me signing up for an accidental supplemental insurance program with National Union Fire Insurance Company (of Pittsburgh).

With some research after the fact, I've determined that Nation Union Fire Insurance Company is a legitimate company.  They really have been in business for a long time.  They are even listed in an old actuarial exam paper I had to read dated around 1964 (look on page 229).  This means that NUF has to pay claims as they promise, or else the Pennsylvania regulators would shut them down in no time.  In other words, if they are a scam, then they are the biggest insurance scam ever created - having pulled the wool over so many eyes.

So, they're legit.  But do they engage in shady practices?  That remains to be seen.  I will now continue with Part 2...

It took a week, but I did get a policy in the mail.  (Some people have complained that they never received one.)  I also got the $25 gas voucher they promised to send.  Only, I don't feel inclined to send it in.  Who knows what mailing list it would put me on?

The insurance plan itself is simple.  It's supplemental insurance, meaning if a certain event happens, I will be paid a predetermined dollar amount.  For example, if I have an "emergency accident" they'll send me $250.  If I have a physician office visit, I get $50.  A day in the hospital gets me $1,370, and so on.  This is a typical gap insurance plan meant to fill in holes in your primary insurance (which usually has deductibles and copays you have to pay).

It sounds like it could be a good deal, but ultimately, I decided it wasn't right for me.  My biggest two complaints are: 1) It doesn't seem geared toward sicknesses (which is actually listed as an exclusion), so it's not really health insurance; and 2) my children would be covered mostly at 10% of my coverage.  That is, an "emergency accident" would be $25 instead of $250; a day in the hospital would be $137 instead of $1370; and the physician office visit would be $25 instead of $50 (okay - that last one is 50%).  This isn't for me, as my kids will have a much higher chance of getting hurt.  That is what kids do, right?

So, I made up my mind to cancel.  Since they had recorded our conversation when they signed me up, I decided to return the favor and record our conversation when I asked for them to cancel.  So, if they decide not to honor the cancellation, I have proof that I made the call.  Here's an excerpt of the call (most ums and ahs and what-did-he-say's edited out).  I am "M", and the salesperson is "T."

T: Good afternoon. Thank you for calling customer service.  My name is T.  How may I assist you today?

M: I'm actually calling to cancel insurance.

T: I'm sorry to hear that, sir.   But in order for me to better assist you ..., may I please have your phone number beginning with the area code first?

M: ### ###-####

T: Okay and how's your day going so far, sir?

M: So far so good.

T: That's always a good thing.  Now can I please have the client's first and last name?

M: M. W.

T: Okay, now can I also have your first and last name, sir?

M: Uh, that's me, too.  M. W.

T: Okay, Mr. W.  For security purposes, can you please verify ... your mailing address?

M: …

T: Okay.  Thanks so much for verifying your mailing address for me today, sir.  And also, Mr. W., could you please verify as well your date of birth?

M: …

T: Okay.  Thanks for verifying your date of birth.  ...  This was a policy--a supplemental accidental policy [through] Wells Fargo Home Mortgage because you remained in good standing with them.  They decided to treat you with a policy that would treat you better back.  What that basically means is, sir, that whenever you make a claim ..., you receive that amount of money in the form of a check coming directly to you in the mail.  ... we have not billed you for this as of yet.  ...  it doesn't take effect until <date>.  And did you receive a copy of your policy, Mr. W?

M: I did receive a policy.

T: Okay.  That's perfect.  Seeing how you received a policy, do you have any questions on that policy or any concerns or anything of that nature, sir?

M: No questions.  It's just that when I looked through it, I decided that it wasn't right for me. 

T: Okay, and was there something you did not like about the policy, sir?

M: It seemed to be more of an accidental …

T: Yes, Mr. W., that it is.  It is supplemental accidental insurance policy, <three minutes of blah blah blah about what the policy pays for> ... you'll be able to receive a check in the mail for $50 for that.  And, sir, are you currently married, Mr. W.?

M: Yeah.

T: This policy also covers your wife as well.  And if you have any dependent children, your children are also covered under this benefit as well, because this is the combined family plan.

M: Yeah.  I …

T: And also, sir, you do have additional time to review this policy before you make any solid decisions, because ... this is a ... dated policy that wouldn't begin until <date>.  And the same benefits [I read] are the same benefits that do apply to your family as well.

M: Yeah.  Well, now let me ask a quick question.  Based on the information that I received, it looks my children are covered at a different level than I am.

T: Let me see here.

M: Is that correct?

T: Yes, sir.  They are covered at a different level that you are, but they are still in the combined family plan.  Now, even though there is a price difference as far as your children go, sir, they are still covered under this, and even if you claim or whether it be your wife or the children that you currently have, that check is going to be sent directly to you in the mail.  <another two minutes about maximum payouts> ... you still receive that amount of money in the form of a check sent directly to you in the mail.  So let's say if you claimed your wife on the same benefit that you are covered for, ... you still receive that amount of money if the form of a check sent directly to you in your first and last name, seeing how you are the primary insured on the account.

M: Okay.  So, yeah.  I understand all that.

T: And then also, sir, you do have additional time to review the policy ...  Because you are paid up until <date>, and you will not be deducted off of your mortgage until that time--because [of] the 60 day delayed effective date on this.

M: Okay.  Well, Yeah.  I've actually finished reviewing and we already have insurance that covers most of those costs.

T: And that's actually a good thing that you do currently have insurance because we do pay in addition to your current insurance, sir.  And not only that, you--again you can claim on your wife as well and any benefits that you are covered for with our company, and you do have additional time to review this policy with your wife as well, because you are paid up until <date>.

M: Uh, I think I prefer to cancel now.

T: Oh, okay, and was there something you did not like about the policy, sir?

M: Um, it's just … I don't … um … oh, nothing in particular.  Nope.

T: Okay, because you do--as I said earlier--you do have additional time to review this with your wife as well because she is covered under the policy as well as your children.

M: Yeah …

T: And not only that, ... your dependent children are covered until the age of 18 and ... if they enter into college after the age of 18, they are actually further covered ... under this policy until the age of 23 if they are a full-time student in college.  And not only that, if they have special needs they will always be covered under this policy.

M: Yeah …

T: Even into their adult years.

M: Uh, I've already talked to it with my wife, and …

T: Okay, uh, well, Mr. W., I do understand and we can process that cancellation for you today if you like.  Uh, do you have pen and paper available today, sir? ...  Okay, the cancellation confirmation number for this policy, sir, will be #########.  ... Okay, ... this policy is cancelled effective immediately, and Mr. W., is there anything else I can further assist you with today?

M: I think that will be all.

T: Okay, Mr. W., this policy has been cancelled effective immediately.  I've provided you with your cancellation confirmation number as well.  And because we do value your opinion, Mr. W., I'll be transferring you to a very brief survey about our service and products, so please hold while I transfer you, and thank you for calling customer service, Mr. W.  You have a nice day.

M: Okay.  You, too.  Thanks.

And that was it.  In a couple of weeks, I'll see if they start charging me.  I'll let you know what happens.  If I see any charges, at least I'm armed for a fight...

Update: Would you believe it?  Right after I submitted this post, I saw our mortgage payment for next month.  It shows no charge for this insurance, confirming that they did indeed cancel coverage.  My final verdict: Not a scam, but I did get a funny transcript - as they try hard to get me not to cancel!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Melvyn Windham: The Runner

Every now and then, I'll introduce a few snippets of my life.  Today I'll write about me as a runner.

I've always had strong legs, and I've always been a fast sprinter.  However, if I ever have to run any distance, I run into endurance problems.  I start running out of breath.  My muscles cramp.  I get that sick feeling in my stomach that says, "You can't do this."  My forehead fails to sweat and I overheat.

This means that I'm great for running to first base.  Also, if some bully's chasing after me, I can zoom away just long enough for her to believe she'll never catch me.

Every now and then, I run in a 5K run.  I always try to beat 30 minutes.  However, I hardly ever train (thinking I'm such a great runner but then remembering after the fact my endurance problems).  About five years ago, I kind-of trained by running around my neighborhood a few times.  I think I got down to 25 minutes that year, but I still overheated and had to have someone pour icy water over me when I was done.

Last year I thought I trained sufficiently with Wii-Fit and EA-Active.  With absolutely no running practice, it took me about 35 minutes to finish and I had the worst shin splints for at least a month after that.  In other words, that didn't work!

This year I'm trying something different: the Couch-to-5K program from Cool Runnings.  I have the podcasts from Robert Ullrey.  In this program, you're supposed to run three days a week (with a day of rest between each run).  It's supposed to build you up gradually to a full 5K runner in nine weeks.  I am now starting week #3, and I'm on schedule to be done by the Memorial Day 5K run.

So far I'm enjoying the program.  The music's kind of funny.  During week #1, a man sings about his girlfriend never calling him.  Then he sings, "Leave me alone!  I don't want to see you!"  Then it's the girl's turn.  She sings, "Do you want me to go or do you want me to fight" or something like that.  Then in the instrumental it sounds like they make up.

During the third day of the first week, I found myself trying to understand the psychology behind why Robert chose those songs.  Is there some study out there says if you listen to self-alienating music that you tend to run better?  I think I could see that: "I don't need anybody.  I can do this myself."

During the second week, the music is more instrumental except for the cool-down song where some girl sings off key.  This kills any theory about self-alienating songs.

Whatever the case, I hope this training pays off, because all the women in the 5K run will have some competition this year.  That's right, Courtney!  I'm talking to you!

Plus, did I also mention that running seems to help me be more alert in my writing?  If you want to get more fit, or if you want to get faster in your own 5K, or if you're looking for some way to get more energy in your writing, I highly recommend checking out the podcasts at Robert Ullrey's website.

Update 4/30/2011: I did it!  Now I can do anything!  (Except beat Courtney--she's moving.)

Update 5/30/2011: Ran the Memorial Day 5K.  I got 28'4".  (There's no way I got 25" a few years ago!  Though, I did beat all the ladies that year.)  Some 4 or 5 girls beat me, including one 14-year-old who did it in less than 24'.  At least I achieved my personal best, and I ran the whole way this time without stopping to walk.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

My First Agent Rejection Letter

First, I have to admit that being rejected by an agent is far less painful than being rejected by a publisher.  Maybe it's because I know that if I can't get agent representation, I can still do it myself.  I can even handle all the legal matters of getting published if I had to.  Learning legal speak happens to be part of my actuarial training.

However, the concept of specialization teaches that I'd be better off finding an agent.  Agents can do all the legal stuff faster than me.  They know the business off the top of their heads.  They can sell books faster.  Simple math tells me: find an agent and I will have more time to write, which translates into more wonderful books you'll get to read one day.

Now, if only I could find an agent!

It reminds me of my late teenager years when I wanted to earn some money for college.  I didn't have a car, because I couldn't afford one.  However, I couldn't get to work if I didn't have a car.  There was one particular job where I was about to be hired, but then they learned I didn't have a car.  A teenager with no way to get to work?  They just didn't feel like they could count on me.  I told them I could ride the bus.  It let off near the place of work.  They told me, "no thanks."

Now here I am again in a similar Catch 22.  I have two books finished, with one ready to sell (and the other will be ready once I set aside time to edit it again), but no publisher will take me seriously because I haven't sold anything yet.  Having an agent would help, but I'm learning that most reputable agents don't want to touch an aspiring writer who hasn't sold anything.

The rejection letter I received summarizes this sentiment:

Dear Mr. Windham:

Thank you for giving me an opportunity to review your query. My client list is currently quite full, however, and I am therefore taking on very few new writers.

I wish you the best of luck in finding representation elsewhere.
This is a "form rejection" letter as spelled out in one of my earlier posts.  I know it's a form letter, as it's nearly quoted from some notes I came across while researching the agency.  It's professionally written.  It doesn't burn any bridges (meaning I can try again later with a different opportunity).  It was also very punctual.  I sent the query last Saturday and received the rejection five days later.

Let me emphasize the part that says, "My client list is currently quite full."  I've read that most agents have enough clients already to make the profits they seek.  This was also reiterated in the local publisher's group meeting I attended last week.

Supposedly, some agents (if not all) are also keeping an eye out for that special undiscovered talent.  Since I happen to be special undiscovered talent, this is the agent I seek.  However, it's still up to me to prove that I really am undiscovered talent.  How can I do that with no publishing credits?

Luckily, I have a plan of action.  I'm going to hit the short story circuit over the next few months.  I need to get publishing credits under my belt.  Meanwhile, I'll still try these agents one at a time.  Perhaps one will take me on by virtue of a well-written query letter or novel partial.

If I run out of reputable agents to try, then I'll try hitting up the publishers directly again.  If they want to buy my book, I'll do as Orson Scott Card suggests and find an agent at that time.  Then one will be more willing to represent me.  But at that stage, I would negotiate a reduced 10% commission on that first book, as I would have already done the hard part of getting it sold.

We'll see what happens.  I'll report along the way.  Either I will persevere and finally sell a book, or I will crash and burn and go to my grave with my dreams unrealized.

Happy writing, and go do whatever it takes to get yourself published!  Good luck!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Review - Battle: Los Angeles

Battle: Los Angeles was a fun ride.  In this military sci-fi flick, aliens are invading, and we try to fight back.  Everything is seen from one platoon's point of view.  The movie begins in the thick of things when we're already under attack.  Then it pulls a "24 hours earlier" when we get to meet the platoon, and we see things unfold from the beginning.  When the action returns it never lets up.

What I liked: Everything looked so real.  The laws of physics all seem to be followed correctly.  The acting is superb.  The music was appropriate.  This movie is a vastly more believable than Starship Troopers.  The aliens don't have magical impenetrable shields like in Independence Day, though they are definitely technologically advanced.  There are no unbelievable saves such as trying to upload a virus from a Macbook.  If we were to be invaded in real life, this movie is what it would look like.

The only thing I didn't like was that I forgot to bring my Dramamine.  Similar to Cloverfield, most shots seem to be taken from a hand-held camera, except there really isn't a person holding the camera who gets addressed.  It's clear that they did this for effect.  It works well, but I hope they don't start filming all movies in Pukovision.  (BTW, I liked Cloverfield a lot as well.)

I'd recommend this movie for anyone who likes military movies.  It's also good for any sci-fi buff who doesn't mind lots of military gory scenes.  I look forward to more movies from this team.

Update 3/12/2011:  After reading professional critic reviews, I'm surprised to see that they railed on this movie.  Just keep in mind that these critics are viewing these movies with an "Oscar" lens.  What are the chances that this movie will win some kind of Oscar?  I'd agree with the critics that this movie isn't going to win anything.  After all, this movie wasn't created to keep the critics happy or to earn spots on the red carpet. 

I stand by my review above.  This movie is exactly what it advertises to be: a military sci-fi testosterone-filled action flick with cool special effects.  If that's what you're in the mood for, then don't listen to the critics.  Go ahead and enjoy yourself.

9th Annual Actuarial Speculative Fiction Overview

If you haven't had a chance yet, please check out the stories in the 9th Annual Actuarial Speculative Fiction contest.  As I mentioned in my earlier post, my story is among the 23 submissions.  This is a collection of speculative fiction written by actuaries on story lines developed around some kind of actuarial subject.  Sound exciting?  Some of these stories actually are quite entertaining and can be enjoyed by the non-actuarial crowd.

Also, as I mentioned in the earlier post, anyone can vote for the best submission for the "Reader's Choice" award.  A judge will separately choose awards for "best overall story", "second best overall story", "most unique use of technology in a story", "best story emphasizing Futurism methods", and "most creative actuarial career of the future."  (At least I think those are still the categories.)

Having read all of the stories, I will now make my own picks.  (Dr. Mielke, if you're reading this, you better stop reading this post lest I corrupt your decisions.  < Yeah, right! >)

If you're short on time and would like to read just a few stories before you vote (go to the website above and email Gary with your vote), you can use the following synopses to help you choose which ones to read.

First, let me get my story out of the way.  Since I wrote it, I have no idea how it stacks against the other stories.  Once I introduce it, I will cast it aside, and then make my picks.

My story, Actuarial Weeding, is about an actuary who's hired to do work for a secret government facility.  He's kept in the dark until he discovers what his math is being used for.

Okay, now that that's out of the way, I will pick my favorite three of the remaining 22 submissions.  This is of course reflective of my personal taste.  I will be voting for one of these three.  If you'd like to vote in this contest and don't have time to read all 23, I would suggest that you start with these three (after reading mine, of course).

Jerry Levy, Hen House Number Theory: Patsy Ghora is an "üma" stuck on the moon.  She is an actuary who happens to be immune to a deadly virus.  While they're performing experiments on her, she is also trying to use mathematical patterns to help find a cure.  To ease her stress, she writes a story ...

Ben Herrington, The Curious Story of Mr. James Phillimore: Sherlock Holmes works with an actuary to investigate a missing person's case.  It's well written in the 19th century style of writing, complete with British spellings (though he accidentally uses the American spelling every now and then).  I love the random literary references peppered through the story.

Nathanial Smith, Everything's Relative: A stressed out actuary is distraught after a close friend's murder.  When he comes across a mysterious computer file, everything changes.

There were a lot of good entries this year, as always.  These four stories were close runners-up.  You ought to read them as well before you vote.

Ben Marshall, Awakenings: Mr. Katameros wakes up in a strange hospital room and he can't remember who he is.  He is about to learn that he was a client of a different kind of insurance company.  This one was well written, but it's the longest one of the bunch (it goes 20% over the 6000-word limit).

Chris Fievoli, Another Green World: Eugene Hartz is an actuary who lives in a world that is so green, that it's against the law to use any fossil fuel or batteries of any kind.  This means that Eugene and his team must do all their actuarial work by hand.  Wait until you see what happens when he gets his hands on some "old" technology!

Karen B. Baker, Second Chances: John's daughter is in really bad shape.  He is presented an option where the daughter can be placed into a prosthetic body.  To pay for the procedure (this is where actuarialism comes in), he'll have to pay a monthly fee until she turns a certain age, then she'll pay for the rest of her functional life - providing an incentive for the doctors to keep her alive as long as possible.  What will John choose?

Steve Mathys, The What Ifs: Annia is getting ready for Draft Day.  She is the best Farstrider among all the Prospectives.  However, she's in for a rude awakening as actuarial modeling is taken to an extreme.  I thoroughly enjoyed this story except for the typos.  In particular, there's an annoying typo (or missing words) in the last paragraph, which makes it hard for me to understand how the story ends.  I'd love to see an edited version.  (Just to be fair, most of these stories have typos, but since I liked this story so much, I'd just think it would be worth fixing them.)

These following stories were also good.  You may find that you like some of these better than I did.

Sophia Dao, Bored to Death: The actuarial department is very tired.  One is so tired that he dies.  It turns into a murder mystery with a twist.

David Johnson, Haiku Story: This is a funny piece of flash fiction written in haiku snippets.  I just hate haikus.  You don't know how much I do.  I really hate them.

Tony Batory, JOANAI: In this sequel to Joe A from two years ago, Joe A is retired from actuarial work.  The year is 9996 and he's trying to get everyone to understand how disastrous the Y10K bug will be, but something is erasing pertinent information, and someone keeps drugging him.  What's going on?

Carol Marler, Measurement of Mortality: A nice short poem comparing actuaries with the three Greek Fates.

James A. Kenney, Omega: An actuary tells his story about how he stumbled on an ancient secret and became the richest man in the world.

Carol Marler, PHUture Vision: An actuary, a physicist, and a risk analyst get together to put together a black box that can see into the future.  Only, it's a little difficult to interpret the outputs from the box.

Christopher Connor, What's in a Rose?: A funny story about robots and an actuary and flowers.

There were quite a few submissions whose purpose seems to be demonstrating an innovative actuarial concept.  These can be fun to read if you happen to be an actuary.  I prefer "speculative fiction" to have a more human element; to have some kind of plot and characters that I care about.  The following stories somewhat successfully merge together innovative math and the human element.  I figure these stories are in the running for the three technological awards.

Jack Farhenbach, The Bus Ride: This paper analyzes what happens after a nuclear terrorist attack - how the economy and insurance in general is affected.  The human element comes from this being written in first person by a chief actuary who is trying his best to contribute positively to the world around him.  I call it a "paper," because that's how it's presented.  While very interesting, be prepared for plenty of passive voice.

Gregory A. Dreher, The Guild: What will actuaries be like in the future when we can all hook up our brains to a Network of everything information?  Jacob is a candidate who's going through the process of becoming a Fellow.  This very innovative story explores this strange new world and also delivers a satisfying ending.

Marilyn Dunstan, The Jungle: The world is in dire straits.  In an effort to save the world, Ben, an actuary, submits himself to a strange trip to a virtual world. 

A. Haeworth Robertson, Two Improbable Suggestions: Alex Morgan is an actuary who discovers an innovative new product to better calculate competitive cash surrender values on a life insurance policy.  Robertson mixes in the human element rather well.

The rest of these stories are more technical and less fiction, but still fun to read if you're an actuary.

Dick Joss, Let's Test the Airplane before Selling Tickets: This paper explores the drawbacks of relying on arithmetic means in measuring investment growth.

Rodge, A Matter of Degrees: A very technical view of the future that's way above my head.  It looks to be interesting and enjoyable for a small niche of people, though.

Nick Jacobi, Price it Like a Life Product: Another paper above my head.  David G Pilgrim is the Actuarianator who saves the day.  This is a funny paper submitting a real innovative idea, but it appears that the Actuarianator only exists to present the idea and get his kudos.

Jerry Tuttle, Risk Managing an Investment Portfolio: The writer (an unnamed actuary) describes an innovative investment scheme.  Perhaps I should give it a try!

There you have it.  Go knock yourself out.  Get actuarially read-up, and cast your vote.  You'll be glad you did!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Has ABC's V Jumped the Shark?

This commentary is a little more than a review.  It contains spoilers, but nothing much beyond what has already been aired.

Who doesn't love a good fascist-alien-take-over-the-world story?  I can't resist them.  I enjoyed the original V miniseries, and I have fun watching the current reboot.  Well, mostly - that is.  It has its moments.  But more and more, it seems to be having more irritating moments.

What works?  It's fun watching the resistance build up; watching the Fifth Column get Anna's goat.  Don't you just love watching her get worked up, but not really - because she's not supposed to have any emotions?  We are looking at the promise of the biggest catfight since Janeway and the Borg Queen.  What will Erica Evans do to get her son back?  And what will Anna do when she learns that Erica is the leader of the Fifth Column?  Or the one who destroyed her precious eggs?  Or the one who orchestrated the attempted assassination of her?  I can't wait to see how this is resolved.  Meow!

Then again, if it's anything like waiting for Lex Luther to kill his father in Smallville, then I'll be sorely disappointed.  If that's what the V writers are planning then it'll play out something like this:

Marcus: I have learned who is the leader of the Fifth Column.

Anna: Who is it?

Marcus: It's the same person who destroyed all your eggs and yet avoided all our onboard cameras.

Anna: Well you tell me who it is?

Marcus: This person also tried to kill you and shot me instead.

Anna: I'm trying not to show emotions here!

Marcus: It's Erica Evans.

Anna: Ooh, that <bleep>!  I'm going to get her.

Marcus: She planted a bomb on this ship.

Anna: Oh oh!


We'll see what happens, but I'm not holding out too much hope, as the list of things that don't work is getting larger:

Erica Evans is leader of the Fifth Column after winning over captains from all around the world by simply discovering the V's ultimate plans.

The V's spend all season long looking for Hobbes, and in one crucial moment, they simply stop him on the side of the road and say, "Push this button if you ever want to see your girlfriend again."  If he's now so easy to find, then why isn't the Fifth Column dead?  And are they planning on going anywhere with this little distraction?

Did I already mention that so much goes on inside the V ship while avoiding all the onboard cameras?

Anna really doesn't know that Erica is her ultimate enemy?  Boy, is she stupid - stupider than all of Clark Kent's friends.

Erica and Hobbes?  Sex?  Umm - where did that come from?  There was one hint of putting them together in the prior episode where they glanced at each other just before the safe bomb went off.  And then BAM!  Sorry, but it reeks of an ABC executive saying, "We need more sex."  What it isn't is good writing and good character development.  Come on writers, save the drama for the upcoming catfight!

Why can't Diana go up that little elevator of hers?  It seems that everyone else and their dog can go down it!

Where is Marc Singer?  I heard he was supposed to be in one of these episodes.

Who didn't know that Rafael was going to start foaming at the mouth after Tyler punched him?

V's have no emotions?  But they learn them from the humans?  It really comes from wearing the skin?  And taking off the skin really kills them?  Maybe the soul is in the skin.  Hey, I figured out the big secret before Joshua did!

And the worst thing of all: no online streaming!  In this day and age, this is one surefire way to kill off a show.  Warner Brothers (don't blame ABC - it's not their fault) hopes that the popularity of V and the lack of online streaming will force us to watch it live and boost the ratings.  Well, it's not working, and I fear it's having the opposite effect.  This show is on the quick path to cancellation.

I can tell you what's really happening, though.  Warner Brothers is missing out on valuable cash flow.  If they would only let their shows stream on Hulu, abc.com, Netflix, iTunes, etc. like everyone else in the 21st century, then they would get money from the advertising or from the fees to watch.  Nowadays, it's ever so easy to find a not quite so reputable yet legal website that will stream any show for you for free and with no commercials!  After all, if an avid V fan misses an episode due to a snowstorm or a faulty DVR that accidentally records a Walking Dead rerun instead, what other choice does that fan have to watch the episode he missed?

To Warner Brothers, I say: get with the times.  Do away with your old fashioned ideas that shoot you in the foot.  Instead of resorting to your greedy attempts to artificially boost ratings, why don't you just give us a good show to watch?  Why don't you let your shows breathe on their own?  Why don't you listen to your fans and give them what they want?

Oh well, V.  It was fun while it lasted.  There are two more episodes left, and I would love to see a third season.  If I get to see Marc Singer before you go off into the canceled abyss, it will have all been worth it!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Writers' Publishing Group Meeting at Press 53

Last year November, I took my first big step in attending my first Writers' Conference (of which I'm still writing blog entries).  Last night, I took an even bigger step.  I attended my first local writers' group meeting.  This was the Writers' Publishing Group meeting at the Press 53 Center for Creative Writing.

They meet the first Tuesday of each month.  They discuss anything having to do with getting published.  The topic for last night was how to market yourself and your work.

Now, let me tell you: going to meet with other local writers has got to be the scariest thing I've ever done.  I figured one of two things would happen.  Either they would be friendly and helpful, or they would be exclusive and make me not want to come back.  I'm so happy that it turned out to be the former.

I was already nervous well in advance of walking into the building.  Even when I found the address, I had trouble finding the center.  (It's downstairs in the northeast corner behind the glass.  You can't miss it.)  When I walked into the center, I saw the publisher Kevin Watson and a few others sitting in a circle.  I knew right away that I was in the right place, as we writers have a certain aura about us.  They looked at me and I saw an immediate "Who the heck is this"-ness all over their face, but then after a few seconds (probably when they recognized my aura), they invited me to sit down. 

Kevin suggested I go to the bar to get a drink, and I lied, "I'm okay" as I sat down and froze up for at least ten minutes.  The other writers went on talking amongst themselves while I sat there thinking, "What the heck am I doing here?  I have no idea what I'm doing!"

A few more writers showed up, and we began with introductions.  Stacey Hope Jones, the new center's director, went first after Kevin.  Then went Anne, Ray, Me (I told them I was as green as they come), Cory, Steve, Dan, another Steve, and Pat.

After introductions, Stacey broke into an awesome exposition of different strategies to promote oneself.  I had trouble taking notes quickly enough, and I'm amazed at how much information there was to absorb - and not just from Stacey.  There were plenty of tips from all the other writers as well.  It'll take me ages to apply what I've learned.

Stacey was also able to tailor the discussion to the people in the room.  In particular she targeted me as a sci-fi writer, and Cory who does horror.  Evidently there are different strategies for each genre.  She asked me if I had a blog.  When I said, "Yes," she answered that she guessed I did, because sci-fi writers almost always have blogs.  I guess it all goes with the stereotype: computers, science, D&D, video games, Twilight Struggle, comics.  I might as well hold up a sign on my forehead that says, "YES I DO ALL THOSE THINGS!"  It didn't help that I gave out business cards that looked like this.

Throughout the evening, I learned a lot about each individual person.  Pat and Steve (the first one) showed their websites.  Cory talked about his zombie books.  We must have spent at least five minutes talking about The Walking Dead.  Cory's zombies eat everything except themselves.  Dan also has a zombie-ish book where an evil scientist takes over the world with stem-cell diet pills that eat you from the inside out.

And Ray's a vet.

After the meeting, I talked with Stacey and Kevin for a few minutes.  Stacey talked about what all the center has to offer.  Kevin told me the story of why he picked the number 53.  It turns out he wanted to pick 7 as his favorite number, but that was taken by his brother.  (I think it was his brother.  And I think it was 7.  You should ask him to tell the story.)  So, he picked a number he thought no one else would pick: 53.  It's actually is a cool number.  It's prime.  It's a deck of cards plus one (or minus one if you include the jokers).  After he picked the number, he started seeing it everywhere, such as on Herbie the Love Bug, and the length of some 18-wheelers.  Funny thing is, the temperature of my graph diode is currently reading 53 degrees C.  (I have to watch that temperature due to an early Intel iMac graphics card anomaly.)  Is it a sign?

After talking with them, I walked out of the building with Dan.  We talked outside on the corner for a few minutes.  Dan invited me to check out the Winston-Salem writers group.  I told him that I was happy to meet other people just like me.

My verdict: if you're serious about writing, go to one of these local writing groups.  You'll learn a lot, and you may make friends in the process.  In order to be successful, you need to get out of your shell.  Now that I've been to one of these meetings, and the jitters are all gone, I feel like I can do anything.  I plan on attending the Press 53 Open House on March 15.  If you're in town, come check it out.  Then if I still have enough energy I may check out the Open Mike upstairs later that night at the Rana Loco.  I'll let you know how it goes.