Saturday, May 28, 2011

Review - Portal 2

Despite one major defect on the Mac, Portal 2 is an awesome continuation of the original.  I gladly gave up 12-14 hours of my life over the last couple of weeks to play the single-player version.  The puzzles are fun to solve.  The graphics are amazing.  The plot is hilarious.  The music is appropriate.  (One part sounds like Philip Glass, but I don't think it's his.)

Players of the original Portal will most likely LOL from the sequel's references and the way it fills in the holes.  To get the most out of the sequel, I recommend playing the original first.  It only has 19 levels, and you can probably beat it in a couple of hours.  Note that you can buy a two pack from Steam/Valve (from the link above) where the original costs only $5 more.  Plus, if you play your cards right, you may get a $60 rebate when you finish both games.

Alternatively, if you want to skip playing the original, you can watch this entertaining walkthrough.  It's only two hours long.

Is the sequel worth the $50?  Definitely.  You get the one-player campaign, and a two-player cooperative play (I haven't played through that yet).  You get more GlaDos-like humor and even another clever song by Jonathan Coulton.

A word of caution: this game is very demanding on the graphics card.  Make sure to check the bottom of this page first to see if your current graphics card meets the minimum requirements.  It runs fine on our less-than-one-year-old MacBook, but will not run on our two-year-old HP computer.  The buzz is that this is a sore spot for people with older computers who want to play the sequel.  But once you see the improved graphics, I think you'll understand.

And the Major Defect?  This is only for the Mac, but evidently plug-in controllers don't work with any Valve games.  Really?  We're talking about a basic video game input.  Even the rinky-dink freeware game emulators on the Mac use plug-in controllers.  Why can't Valve figure this one out?  You don't need the controllers to play the one-player campaign (as you can use keyboard/mouse), but how in the world can you play the two-player game?  There's only one mouse, and both players can't share it!

Supposedly there's a way to hack into the game and get the controllers to work on a Mac.  I guess that means more research.  But I'd much rather that Valve fix this Defect so I don't have to.

Other than that: great game!  I look forward to #3.  (Please tell me #3 is coming!)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Review - Blindsight by Peter Watts

Voted #4 Sci-fi/Fantasy Book of the Decade by, Blindsight is an imaginative and thought-provoking book.  Peter Watts has invented possibly the most alien race I've ever read.  He also engages the reader in a thorough, yet agnostic philosophical discussion on what it means to be human.  What does it mean to be intelligent?  What does it mean to be self-aware?

The story is told by Siri Keaton, a man with half a brain.  As such, the first 50 pages or so read like the "Benjy" section (or perhaps more correctly--the "Quentin" section) of Faulkner's Sound and the Fury.  If you find yourself getting confused, just keep pushing ahead in the book, and it'll start to make sense around page 50.

Around 2100, a crew of five (plus four backups) are sent to investigate a possible First Contact situation in the Oort Cloud.  #1) Siri is the observer.  #2) Susan James is the linguist, who has partitioned her brain into four distinct personalities--the future of multiple person disorders.  #3) Isaac Szpindel is somewhat of a cyborg, having upgraded parts of his body with mechanical enhancements.  #4) Amanda Bates is a military chick who knows how to control floating robot grunt things.  #5) Jukka Sarasti is a vampire.  Yes--you read that right.  He's a resurrected remnant of the now extinct species homo sapiens vampiris.  (Note--I can't seem to find any links to anything explaining this species that doesn't also refer to the book.)  Sarasti is in command of the expedition.

The whole encounter in the Oort Cloud is amazing--I won't say what happens except to say I could believe this is how a First Contact situation with such a race might transpire.  The science is mostly accurate.  Peter Watts definitely did his research.  He doesn't dumb anything down (which could be good or bad).  For example, he mentions the "Turing Test" but never explains what it is.  So, throughout the book, you may either find yourself saying, "What the heck is that?" or you may pat yourself on the back for each term you already know.

Sometimes it's refreshing to see an agnostic discussion of what it means to be human/intelligent/self-aware; but ultimately, I don't think one can fully explore the subject while ignoring religion.  Watts' conclusions are pessimistic--that we humans are a very inefficient race.  I think that a hundred years from now we will prove him wrong.

I would rate this book 9 out of 10 stars.  There are a few annoying distractions that keep it from the full 10.  Though it's an interesting, believable story, it still feels highly concocted to prove Watts' points.  Sometimes it feels as if the characters have no choice but to follow along (funny, though, how this fits in with his "free will" discussions).

The name "Bates" is so similar to name "James," it confused me until I realized they were two different names.  Orson Scott Card has some tips on how to avoid this.

In a couple of sections, we see things from the POV of inanimate probes so far removed from Siri, it's unclear how they could be included in the story.  It only happens near the beginning of the book, and is never explained or reused later.

The many f-bombs don't seem to fit such an intelligent book.  The word itself is an overused cliche that should only be used correctly.  Unfortunately, everyone in the book uses it, including Siri's ever-so-romantic love interest Chelsea; and even the aliens!  Very distracting.

Even with these flaws, I found the book to be an engaging read.  I recommend it to anyone who loves sci-fi; one who's looking to learn new ideas; and one who doesn't mind the barrage of f-bombs.  This is one book that will be remembered for a long time.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Review - Thor (2011)

This movie reminds me why we still watch some shows in the theater.  It is teh awesome!

The Norse gods are real.  They are a virtually immortal and technologically advanced race.  Long ago, they protected our planet from the evil Frost Giants.  The Vikings wrote of their stories--the origins of Norse mythology.

Thor and Loki are the two sons of Odin, one of which is to become the next king.  When Thor demonstrates unbridled recklessness, Odin exiles him to Earth.  Lucky us!

At first, Thor's character is annoying and pompous, as if saying, "Look at me!  I'm Kevin Sorbo!"  But he's supposed to act that way.  This is a character transformation story, and it's actually well done.  Though the writers sacrificed a little action to accomplish this task, it was well worth it.  Chris Hemsworth gave a decent performance.  The women may also appreciate his "cut build."  He's like me, only fatter and with red/blond hair.

Some scenes reminded me of Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time (really bad), and Superman II (not quite so bad); but fortunately the writers didn't spend too much time pointing out the differences in culture between Thor and us.  It's funny that Thor's people speak English, but not unforgivable, considering that English itself derived in large part from the Vikings.

Thor's world is awesome eye candy.  The special effects throughout the movie are also teh awesome.  I want one of those rainbow bridges!  Note that this movie was not shot in 3-D, but was rather converted, and I hear that it's not well done.  I watched it in 2-D, and I didn't miss anything.  Don't waste $3 a person to watch it in 3-D.

Be prepared for a few cameos.  One of them is the legendary J Michael Straczynski (Thor writer and creator of Babylon 5), who tries to retrieve Thor's hammer.  Also, stay tuned at the end of the credits for a sneak preview of the next movie.

Parent watch: there really isn't anything much beyond comic violence.  Bring the kids.  They'll love it.

Annoying question that doesn't get answered: If Thor was a child (or not even born) when Odin saved Earth back in the Viking times, then how did the Vikings learn of Thor's awesomeness?  Hmmm....

I recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys comic book movies.  This is one of the better ones.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Spring Conference - 2011

This past week, I attended the NCWN Spring Conference.  Unlike the Fall Conference last year, this was just a one-day affair.  It was only $99, and it provided an opportunity to meet Ed Schubert, the editor of Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.

For me, it started with Ed's class, "Writing and Selling Science Fiction and Fantasy."  He provided useful information, some of which I've heard before, and some that was new.  Here are a few of his suggestions.
  • When you write a story, do you know what your character(s) want most?
  • Science fiction stories really need to have an element of science.
  • There are four kinds of SF stories: milieu, idea, character, event.  In longer stories, you will probably mix two of these together.
  • There's a saying that the 20th Century had the greatest writing about absolutely nothing.  That is, authors spent more time writing "pretty" words than they did telling a story.  Science fiction needs to be fun!
  • If you're trying to break into the short story business, shoot for 3000-5000 word stories.  Magazines will consider longer works, but they will compare it against other shorter works.  That is, a longer story needs to be three times better than two shorter stories combined.  Strive for elegant precision.
  • A story can contain one fortuitous coincidence to help the protagonist.  If you use more than that, the reader may not believe it.  You can however use as many unfortunate coincidences as you please.
  • Please--no more stories about being afraid to get on a transporter.  (I'll take his word on that!)
After Ed's class, we listened to Carole Boston Weatherford talking about poetry.  She read from her book Becoming Billie Holiday.  It was fun learning about the famous singer.

Then came lunch.  As part of the "Lunch with an Author" program, I got to spend more time with Ed.  In the informal setting, I was able to learn a few more things about him and what happens behind the scenes of publishing.  For starters, he has been active in Greensboro, participating in writers' groups.

We asked him about working for IMGS.  He doesn't see all the stories that are submitted.  First, a group of four assistant editors weed out the submissions.  Then it goes to Ed's desk.  He says that it reduces the number of stories he has to read.  You can look at some stories and reject them immediately, but since these are weeded out, Ed ends up spending more time reading each surviving submission.

The longer it takes to receive a response, the better your story is.  Both of the stories I submitted to them were rejected after 28 days, which is pretty short for them.  A "good length" for them is about 3 months.  This implies that my stories never made it to Ed's desk!

On a funnier note, Ed told of a friend who used a pen name to get his books off of the floor.  His last name starts with a "W" (or somewhere down there), so he would see his books sorted near the floor at the bookstore.  He changed his pen name to somewhere in the middle to get his books about eye level.  And I thought I was kidding when I wrote my post on Alphabetical Discrimination!  Ed turned to me, Mr. Windham, and said it's something I should consider.

After lunch came the faculty readings.  We heard poetry from Anjail Rashida Ahmad.  She has completely lost her sight and has overcome much.

David Halperin read from his new novel Journal of a UFO Investigator.  I was so enamored by his clever writing that I bought his book and asked him to sign it.  I'll review the book shortly.

Joseph Mills read some his poetry.  It was well-written, funny, and thought-provoking.

Finishing it up was Ed Schubert.  He read a humorous short story about becoming a ghost.

Next came the second workshop session.  I attended Carole Boston Weatherford's class, "Think Anyone Can Write a Children's Book?"  She had us do a couple of writing exercises.  She also discussed how the children's market works.

She broke the types of books into Picture Books (including Baby, Toddler, and early picture books), Easy Readers, Transition Books, Chapter Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult.  Each type of book is looking for different types of submissions.  It's good to know what they're looking for before you submit.

I was glad to learn that you don't need to have an illustrator chosen when you submit a story.  In fact, the publishers prefer to choose the illustrator, unless an author and illustrator are related, or are two people who usually collaborate with each other.

From the writing exercises, I learned that I do have a child's voice.  I may yet produce my Cathalooma and Zabadaba stories.

I ended the day with the Publishers Panel.  We all discussed what publishers are looking for.  There were lots of fun questions.  Of course, I had to ask the first question: "How do we get published?"  That got a few laughs.  The answer: "Writing is the ultimate reward.  Write first, and then worry about getting published."

There was also an Open Mike session, but I had to leave and get ready for friends.

Throughout the whole day, I was a little more proactive in approaching people (compared with my shy performance at the Fall Conference last year).  I met another sci-fi guy, Kevin Courington (scroll down to see his bio).  He's about to finish his first novel.  He was very outgoing.  Kevin Watson was also there representing Press 53 (Winston-Salem publisher).  Daniel Zafren was also there representing Time Treasured Books.

It was an enjoyable conference, and well worth the money spent.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Smallville: It's About Time!

Somebody save me!  After ten long seasons, Smallville is coming to an end, and I'm left asking this question: "What took you guys so long?"

This show started off great.  I looked forward to each episode and I watched faithfully for about three or four seasons.  Then something happened.  It jumped the shark.  The writing got sloppy.  The music became weird, distracting, and out of place.  Story lines were begun and never resolved.  And Lana did all her witching stuff.

Then something else happened.  They nuked the fridge.  And let me tell you--I've never seen a TV show jump the shark and then live long enough to nuke the fridge.  They brought in a whole slew of heroes (the future Justice League).  They brought in time travelers.  They killed off Lex (anticlimactic), his father (stupidly unsatisfying), Clark's dad (actually well done), Jimmy Olson (I think he died), Pete Ross (whoever he was).

Then the impossible happened.  They nuked the shark and jumped the fridge at the same time!  They decided to try out the Battlestar Galactica approach the season that Zod came back and turned the sun red.  The new format did not work!  Meanwhile, my favorite shows were being canceled, such as Firefly, Jericho, Pushing Daisies, and recently Flash Forward.  WHY???!!!!

I just had to stop watching Smallville.

Things that really got on my nerves about this show:
  •  Clark has access to all his powers except for flying.  Doesn't that seem a little arbitrary to you?  And yet, how many times did we see Clark "almost" fly?  We saw him do it when he was asleep.  When he was possessed by his evil twin, he flew.  We saw him jump really high (it wasn't flying--really it wasn't!).  I think we saw him coasting once.  Considering how every single visitor from his planet could fly, I can only assume that something's wrong with Clark (or his writers).
  • Clark doesn't really want to be a hero.  The Justice League goes on without him!  Oliver Queen has tried countless times to talk him into accepting his destiny.  And how does Clark respond?  "Oh, I don't know.  I don't want anyone to discover my secret!"  Give me a break!  He's been years out of high school.  Someone hand the man some testosterone!
  • Oliver Queen goes bad at least one too many times.  (Or at least three too many times.)  He's been an alcoholic, a "I don't want to live up to my own destiny" loser, and a "I hate you Clark" kind of guy.  It gets old!
  • Clark Kent has really young premarital sex.  I know it's the CW, and everything has to be all Gossip Girls, but Clark Kent?  He's supposed to be true blue, liberty, American wave, etc. -- an example of virtuous living. 
When I heard that this was Smallville's last season, I decided to catch the last few episodes.  It appears that Clark somehow saved the world from the red sun, though I'm not sure how the whole world seems to have forgotten what happened.  Evidently there's a new character called Darkseid (from the comics I take it).  Clark still can't fly.  Oliver Queen still has that stupid friction with Clark, and it looks like he's about to go bad again with whatever that dark seed is.  They've introduced a parallel universe, which has allowed the writers to bring back Papa Luthor and Papa Kent, but not Lex.  I've seen the description of tonight's episode (which I haven't seen yet), which states that Jor-el is going to bestow powers on Lois for a day.  I'm guessing Clark and Lois are going to have sex.  (Or perhaps Clark has learned how to do that with humans without hurting them.  It is the CW, after all.)

The finale is next Friday.  Will I watch it live?  Still deciding.  They're going to bring back Lex, and I hope it isn't too lame.  Maybe Clark will finally put on his suit and fly.  Please, writers--at least give us that!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mel-o-rama Now on Twitter

I am now on Twitter.  I am Melorama2000.  Look me up.

I have heard at least ten times in the last year that I need a Twitter account to promote my writing (and/or music).  Scores of writers use Twitter to build up their internet persona.  If you collect many followers, they all become potential book buyers.  Makes sense to me.

I'll be able to send blog updates to Twitter (like I do to my private Facebook account), which will translate into more blog page hits!

Plus, I can follow other people and build up a network.  If successfully done, one day a publisher will see my manuscript on their desk, and they will say, "I know him from Twitter.  He has so many connections, so I know his book will sell.  Let's see if it's any good..."

Yeah, that'll be me in a year!  (I hope!)

If you have a Twitter account, let me know and I'll check you out as well.

Happy networking!