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.

    A Google+ Invite: I'm Somebody!

    I have to admit.  Google knows how to launch a product.  You start off small by inviting a few people.  You let this select group test it before it's released to the general public.  When others hear about it on the news, they'll get curious and want to check it out.  Since they're not invited, you send them this message:
    "Right now, we're testing with a small number of people, but it won't be long before the Google+ project is ready for everyone.  Leave us your email address and we'll make sure you're the first to know when we're ready to invite more people."
    You let them click on a "Keep Me Posted" button, and then you ignore them.  It just makes them want to join even more.


    I clicked on that "Keep Me Posted" button on July 2.  I wanted to check out Google+ so I could write a review, but no Invite came.  People were tweeting and posting "I just got a Google+ Invite," as if saying, "I'm somebody!  I'm part of the chosen few!"  I clicked on that "Keep Me Posted" button a second time, and still no Invite.

    Then on July 14, Google announced that they've had 10 million users join.  Really?  Where was my Invite?  After all, I had made my intentions to join known--twice!

    I then came to learn that anyone in Google+ can invite anyone.  I asked around, and someone invited me.



    If you want to be somebody, too, let me know, send me your gmail address (has to be gmail), and I'll send you an invite.  You don't have to accept the invitation, but at least you, too, will be able to tweet or post that you're somebody.

    Now for the review, two weeks in the waiting:

    On the most part, Google+ looks like Facebook merged with Twitter using a different graphical interface.  Google+ uses "Circles," which seems to serve the same purpose of "Lists" in Facebook.  You can assign people to different Circles.  When you send a message, you can choose which Circles can see that message.  You can choose one Circle, or several, or All.  You can even choose "Public" if you want every Joe-Blow to see your post.

    You can add non-Google+ friends to your Circles.  Supposedly, when you send a message to that Circle, your friend will get an email containing the message.  However, when I tested out this feature, it didn't appear to work.  That is, my friend never got the message.  Next, I tried sending a message directly to that person.  She got that email.  She also got a Google+ Invite along with it.  Lucky her!

    Posts appear in something called a "Stream."  It's just another word for "News Feed."

    Unlike in Facebook, You don't need permission to add someone to your Circle.  You just do it.  Then you can see all of their "Public" posts.  This is like following someone on Twitter.  However, if they don't do any "Public" posts and they don't add you to one of their Circles, then you're just out of luck.

    Then there's the "Incoming" stream.  This part's confusing.  It's for posts made by people who have you in one of their Circles, but you don't have them in one of your Circles.  Let's say I put Will Wheaton into my "Following" Circle.  Since he doesn't know me, he's probably going to ignore me.  Assuming he doesn't block me, any message I send to the "Following" Circle will appear in his "Incoming" stream.  Imagine the spam Will's going to get!!  Supposedly there's a way to choose which people's posts show up in your "Incoming" stream.  I can't imagine keeping up with 1000 new followers every day.  Even I (a nobody until today) will probably get barraged by spam in my "Incoming" stream.  I predict that eventually, everyone will just ignore that stream, and it'll become the butt of jokes on late night TV.

    Just like in Facebook, you can upload videos and photos, and share links.  I noticed that Google+ went ahead and imported all the photos I ever loaded into this blog--even the photos I deleted.  It's unclear who can see these photos.  It's set to "Whoever has the link," whatever that means.

    There's something called "Sparks," which looks like a glorified Google news stream.  You type in the subject you're interested in, and related news articles pop up.  If you like something you like, click on "Share" and it goes to your Circles.  It's a different kind of setup that may actually take off.

    The "Hangout" feature also looks interesting.  It allows you to do a kind of conference video chat with several people.  First you have to download the plugin.  And if you're on a Mac, you'll also need the latest Flash plugin.  I don't know why--it's one of those weird bugs they're trying to fix, but I don't care, as the Flash update fixed things. 

    But I don't have anyone to Hang out with, yet!  I just hope this turns out better than Skype.

    The "+1" functionality is the Google+ version of the "Like" button.  I'm not sure what it does, but some people are saying it will revolutionize search engines.

    The most awesomeness is that Google+ will be integrated with all other Google products.  Now that I've joined Google+, whenever I go to iGoogle, it says "+Melvyn" in the upper left corner of the screen.  If I click on that, it takes me to the Google+ home page.  It would be convenient if I could access everything I need in one place (though this will probably freak out all the 1984 conspiracy theorists--Big Brother is watching!).  In fact, if you look at the bottom of this post, you'll see a "+1" button down there.  If you wouldn't mind, could you click that for me?  :)

    So there you have it: Google+.  It's different.  It's new.  And anybody who's somebody is doing it.  Will it replace Facebook?  Will it attract all those people who have been avoiding social networking up till now?  Only time will tell.  All I can say now is that Google+ is much more interesting than Buzz and other recent Google attempts.  It may be as good as Facebook.  It will at least give them a run for their money.

    Saturday, July 16, 2011

    Review - Harry Potter 7.2

    It's finally over!  The most successful movie franchise ends in a bang.  It was a satisfying ending.  I can't say much without spoiling, and what I will say you probably already know.  It has lots of action.  People die (the producers don't hold back).  Harry Potter grows into a man.  The special effects were well done (except for perhaps the corny "3-D" scenes).

    I've had people ask this question already, so I'll answer it.  Yes, 7.2 is better than 7.1.  It is better than #6.  It may be the best out of all eight movies.  (For some reason, I really like #3.)

    I did not watch it in 3-D, because it was not shot in 3-D.  I did not want the final installment ruined by a gimmick.  I don't think I missed anything, except for perhaps the Gringotts scene near the beginning.  Other 3-D scenes (like a flower floating above a hand) looked "fake."  There was even one scene where I thought, "Oh, no--they did not just do that for the sake of 3-D."  But they did.  That particular effect did detract from the scene.

    Be warned that this is the scariest movie of the bunch, so younger children may want to stay at home.  There was one moment when some kid in the theater yelled, "What?"  Evidently, he didn't like what he saw.  At least there are no half-naked people in this installment.

    If you haven't seen this movie already, go watch it.  It has already broken opening day records.  The movies have earned it.  J. K. Rowling has earned it.  And now it's all over.

    New Blog: The Econo-Mel

    I've created my first "other" blog: The Econo-Mel.

    I'm a little concerned that too many non-writing articles are making it into this blog, so I'm going to set aside a couple of blogs dedicated to these other subjects.

    "The Econo-Mel" will talk about anything having to do with money.
    Money, money, money, money ... (Mr. Crabs)
    Go check it out.

    Postmortem Spring 2011 - The Cape, The Event

    Okay, I'll admit it.  I actually liked "The Cape" on NBC.  It was fun and campy with plenty of corny jokes.  I probably would have watched it for as long as they showed it.  (After all, I stayed with Heroes to the end.)  Then again, I can't say I haven't missed it too much--not like "Firefly."

    This show was canceled before it came to an end, so of course the last televised episode didn't provide closure.  But wait!  There's one more episode online.  You can watch it here, embedded from, until 9/17/2011.

    <Video no longer valid>

    "The Event," on the other hand, was given a full season's run.  I enjoyed this show despite a few annoyances.  The second half of the season really picked up, and each Monday, I looked forward to the evening to see what happened next.

    The "24"-like scenes did get on my nerves.  After having watched that for eight seasons, I didn't really need any more dramatic zooms and ridiculously contrived scenarios.  (The President has been drugged, but wait!  There's an antidote, and it will take us 10 episodes to get it to him!)

    The characters were a little inconsistent, especially Sophia.  One moment she's "I'm just trying to help," and then next moment she's Crazy Chick.  Also, James Dempsey (Hal Holbrook) is supposed to be the good guy, but then why was he torturing innocent alien girls and having his people kill others?

    At least Jason Ritter and Sarah Roemer were consistent.  "Look at us!  We can stare into the camera!"  I know--not the best directing.

    But it was all fun to watch.

    The season closer did make for a good series closer.  We finally learned what "The Event" is.  A whole planet appears.  (Seems to be a popular motive recently.)  I would have liked to have seen Season 2, as the stage was set for some interesting stories.  It ended in a good place, and we can easily imagine what happens next.

    Wednesday, July 13, 2011

    Press 53 Critique Group

    A few months ago, I started reaching out to local writers to see if I could network and be part of that community.  I've been attending several meetings at the Press 53 Center for Creative Writing.

    What I didn't know is that the Center is new, itself.  They are also reaching out and trying to fill the needs of the writing community in the Winston Salem area.  A month ago, they launched a Critique Group initiative.

    In June, only two people showed up.  I was one of the two.  It wasn't enough to get a good critique going, so the two of us brainstormed for thirty minutes, and then joined the Open Mike that was going on in the next room over.

    In July (last night), the Center decided to combine Open Mike with the Critique Group, as attendance was light in both groups.  We tried the format of reading 5-7 minutes of our work, and then oral feedback.  Five of us read.  It turned out pretty well for me.  I thought I had written an awesome story that would blow everyone away, but my story turned out to be the weakest of the five.  The other listeners found problems, and now I know what my story needs.

    It was good to receive quick feedback, but I also realize that I'm much more effective in giving written feedback.  I'm not the best listener, and I'm also not the best on-the-spot communicator.  It's something I need to work on.

    My guess is that we will try this format again in August.  It has pros and cons.  You only get to read somewhere around 3 pages, but you get instant feedback, which you can most likely apply to the rest of your story.  We may experiment with other critiquing formats.

    If you're an aspiring writer in the Winston Salem area and you'd like to get feedback on a story, please consider coming in August.  This is a free service, and is participant-led.  If we have enough people, we'll start breaking up into smaller groups.  We'll make this out to be what we want it to be.  We meet every 2nd Tuesday, so our next meeting is August 9.  See you there!

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011

    Review - Alphas (Premiere)

    Here come the new Syfy shows.  I celebrated by watching all three shows tonight.

    "Eureka": Funny opening.  It reminded me of Syd & Marty Croft's "Far Out Space Nuts."

    "Warehouse 13": Also funny.  New guy not as good as Myka.  Overblown Prius commercial made me laugh.

    And to finish off the night, the premiere of "Alphas": The characters are interesting.  I liked watching them deal with everyday problems.  The science is silly, but cool. 

    It's too early to tell if I like the show as a whole.  I found myself drifting off in a couple of places--maybe because of watching so much TV in one night.  We still haven't seen enough of the bad guys, though I liked "Monk gone bad."  I'm also a little confused as to who the doctor is watching over the Alphas.  I suspect that in future episodes, we'll learn more about this doctor and the bad guys.

    One cool part (or corny part) was the one dude who just then learns that he's an "Alpha."  Imagine that!  You don't know you're something special, and then guess what?  You really are special!  That means there's hope for all of us!

    I'll keep watching.  The characters may prove interesting enough to carry the show.

    Sunday, July 10, 2011

    Postmortem Spring 2011 - Stargate Universe

    This week I'll go over five shows that ended this past Spring.  Warning: there be spoilers.

    Stargate Universe (click here to see trailer)

    I'm really going to miss this show.  Of all the Stargate installments, this one came the closest to "real" science fiction.  This show borrowed a lot of technique from the "Battlestar Galactica" reboot, including realistic space scenes (no sound in space - mostly) and overly-troubled characters.  At first, the latter was irritating, as the writers decided to place the biggest incompetent group of misfits on a distant ancient ship that's barely working.  It made for interesting conflict, but during the first few episodes, I kept thinking, "Man!  Stargate Command really needs to screen their employees!"  When I got over it, I started enjoying the episodes.

    The episodes themselves were hit or miss.  The "stones" episodes were the worst (Melrose Place in Space).  The second season was much more consistent.  I enjoyed the conflict between Rush and Young, and how they learned to work together.  I also enjoyed watching Eli coming of age, getting over Chloe, and making his big decision at the end.  The time travel episodes were fun (though impossible).

    The last episode would have been a great season closer, but was very disappointing as a series closer.  It felt like one of those episodes the writers put together at the last minute when they learned the show was getting canceled.  After an awesome battle with one of the drone mother ships, and discovering that drones are now parked at every stargate, the crew decided to go into hibernation and skip over to the next galaxy. 

    The timing of the drones' appearences doesn't make sense.  When Destiny first encountered them there were two mother ships (Destiny killed one and left one behind).  Then there appeared another one that seemed to be following them.  Then there are more, but who knew how many more?  Then in the last episode they're everywhere.  Where did they come from so fast, and why weren't they there at the beginning of season 2.5?

    Many plot lines are still wide open.  What happened to the rest of the descendants?  We can only assume the drones will kill them shortly.  What about the "other" Destiny that went down with the "other" Rush sitting in the Chair?  It felt like we would see them again.  And what about Johansen's ALS?  Okay, I didn't really care about that one.

    In the last episode, we got to say goodbye to all the characters we grew to love.  That part was done well.  Eli chose to stay awake to make sure everything goes okay.  But did the writers really have to have just one remaining malfunctioning stasis pod?  It was sad seeing Eli staring off into space at the very end.  Was that him giving up, knowing that there is no chance to fix the pod?

    We'll never find out.  I'm going to miss the well-written episodes.  I'm going to miss those 3 chords that opened each show.  I'm going to miss having "real" science in a sci-fi show.  Right now, there just isn't another show available to me to replace it.

    SGU, thanks for the fun memories!  Maybe you'll be back in three years.

    Coming later in the week: The Event, Smallville, The Cape, V (2009)

    Saturday, July 9, 2011

    Anticipating Google+

    I am not one of the lucky invitees, but I'm waiting to see what Google+ is all about.  I hear great things, but I'll believe it when I see it.  Google has a lot going for it, but they are nowhere near the end-all answer to everything.

    I remember a decade ago when Yahoo! was the search engine of choice.  Then Google came around, and for some reason, they took off.  Almost everyone I knew switched to Google, but I couldn't understand why.  I always seemed to get better search results from Yahoo, and Google always seemed to return more results than I needed.

    However, over the past decade, Google has improved their search engine (due to more popularity?), and Yahoo's seems to have declined (I don't understand how that happened).  A couple of years ago, I finally gave up on Yahoo, and now I almost exclusively use Google.

    I still go to Yahoo for news.  They have that cute news box on their home page that cycles through some 48 popular news stories.  (Though I hate that it often cycles to the next article when you're about to click on a link.)

    I prefer Yahoo Mail over Gmail, because the interface is easier to use.  Yahoo has a preview screen where you can click on an email and see in the window below it.  Gmail doesn't seem to have this.  I hate having to click on a gmail to read it, and then click the back button to go back to my inbox.  An alternate nice feature would be to allow for opening each email in a separate tab.  Then I could go through my emails much more quickly.

    As you can tell, I use Blogger (run by Google).  The posting interface is fun to use, but is very buggy.  The cursor doesn't always blink where its supposed to.  Sometimes it jumps to the very beginning of the article I'm editing.  And what you see isn't what you always get.  I almost always have to fight between "Preview" and editing until it looks right.

    Supposedly, Blogger is going away at the end of this month to be replaced by a feature of Google+.  I don't know what that means, but my guess is that my posts will still exist, though my links may be out of whack.  We'll see how they handle the migration.

    Google Buzz looks to be nowhere near Facebook or Twitter.  Buzz looks like a Facebook wannabe with no privacy controls.

    Judging by what Google has put out in the past, I wouldn't be surprised if Google+ is buggy.  Though, it would be cool if it knocks Facebook out of the water.  After all, Facebook is very buggy, and its privacy controls are confusing.  (I hear the Google+ privacy controls are even more confusing, and that people in your "circle" can still share your post with whomever they want.  We'll see when it comes out.)

    Regardless, if I were Facebook, I'd be shaking in my boots.  First, it was Classmates, and then MySpace, and now Facebook.  Google+ could be next.  For better or for worse--get ready for it!

    Friday, July 8, 2011

    Introducing the News & Review Page

    I just now added a "News & Review" page to my blog.  Yeah!  Check it out.  I mostly moved stuff from the "Site Map" page to this new page.

    At the same time, Blogger somehow reverted my "Site Map" page to an older version (undoing a lot of work).  What an annoying bug!  I'll be fixing that tonight!

    Review - David Halperin - Journal of a UFO Investigator

    David Halperin's Journal of a UFO Investigator is a fun journey into the fantasies of teenager Danny Shapiro.  As the book progresses, there are two stories to follow.  One story occurs in real life, where his Mom is dying and the Dad is distant.  The other story occurs inside of Danny's journal, which merges his fantasies with what's really happening.  We learn that the journal is one way for Danny to cope with his difficult teenager years.

    The fantasies center around UFOs.  Here, the author shows off his vast knowledge.  Either he did his research, or he really lived it when he, himself, was a teenager.  I remember being fascinated by UFOs when I was young, but I never got this much into it.  The books that Danny reads were really written.  The things he experiences in his journal are consistent with UFO theories prominent in the early 60s: the "dero," the "three men in black," caves in the earth, etc.  I enjoyed having the history lesson sneaked into the story.

    The journal itself reminds me of Maurice Sendak: Very impossible, dreamlike, out of this world, and yet with several real life elements.  All together, it's a surreal world beautifully described and experienced.

    Part of the fun is trying to figure out which parts really happened, and which parts were pure fantasy.  Some gems are left unrevealed, which is perfect for this type of book.  I'm also left wondering which parts actually happened to the author when he was a teenager.

    I found only one slow part where the book took a different turn, giving more insight into the real life story, but much less UFO-age.  In the end everything gets pulled back together.

    Despite the attractive cover, this book is not for kids.  Just think of the fantasies you had when you were a teenager - and yes - that's in this book.  There are also a handful of f-bombs (all unnecessary but PG-13).  Kids may also not appreciate some of the strong emotions that make this book a success.

    My recommendation: read this book.  Lose yourself and relive the fantasies you had when you were young.

    Wednesday, July 6, 2011

    How to Lose a Contest

    Today, I write about something I know how to do: losing a contest.  I don't enter very many contests, but as an actuary AND a writer, there's no way I could miss entering the biannual Society of Actuaries' Speculative Fiction Contest.

    In 2011, I entered "Actuarial Weeding," an action thriller about an actuary who learns that his math is being used to kill off people.

    The winning story was "Second Chances," which was in my top seven list.  The second place story was my number one pick, "Hen House Number Theory."  Another of my top seven, "The What Ifs," made the "Best story emphasizing Futurism methods" prize.

    The story "Risk Managing an Investment Portfolio" made the "most creative actuarial career of the future."  It was well written, though I had already heard of that scheme on an episode of Ed and also in an old text from Actuarial Exam #2 (either Landsburg or Brealy/Myers).

    The Reader's Choice Award surprisingly went to a non-fiction entry called "Let's Test the Airplane before Selling Tickets," proving that when you award a prize based on popular vote, anything can happen.

    Even though I didn't win any recognition, I received encouraging remarks from the judge, Dr. Bob Mielke of Truman State.  He said that he thoroughly enjoyed my story, and he thought I would win until he read the three other stories that he liked better than mine.  I ended up placing 4th out of 23.

    It begs the question: why enter any contest when you can just submit to a magazine?  Think about it.  In any contest, there can be only one first place.  There could easily be several equally fine stories in contention, and it would then fall on the judges to pick the "best" based on their own personal preferences.  There may be a second and third place, and possibly a couple of honorable mentions.  Most likely a few perfectly fine stories will receive no recognition.

    But submit to a magazine, and they can accept more stories.  There is no first place.  Either your story is accepted, or it's not.  If it's rejected, you can send it somewhere else until it gets published.

    Then again, how could I not enter the next Actuarial Speculative Fiction Contest in 2013?  It's just plain fun.  I hate losing, but it's fun to write the stories and shoot for the top.  Even if I have some of my stories published by then, I'm sure I'll still do it.

    My earlier contest entries:

    2009: "A Turn-screw tlhImqaH."  This was a parody of A Clockwork Orange.  Instead of "nadsat," the protagonist (an actuarial candidate) spoke Klingon.  It was well received on the prominent actuarial forum.  The judge said he enjoyed the story, but using a parody form worked against me, as Burgess and Kubrick (with a little Roddenberry) did all the heavy plot lifting.

    2007: "Sam McAtry, Actuarial P. I. and the Case of the Dead People."  This humorous tale recalled the adventures of an actuary who turned detective (against the wishes of his boss).  Laced with actuarial jokes and references, it was a hit on the prominent actuarial forum.  I didn't win a prize, but I got positive comments from both the judge (Dr. Bob Mielke of Truman State) and the coordinator.  It almost inspired them to create a "funniest story" category.

    Tuesday, July 5, 2011

    Writing Excuses - A Podcast on Writing

    "Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart."  This is the catchphrase that opens each weekly episode of Writing ExcusesBrandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, and Howard Taylor team up to wax eloquent on how to write, how to get published, and how to survive.

    I've been listening to these 15-minute podcasts, starting with the 2008 archives and working my way up to today.  The trio are fun to listen to and they give a lot of good advice.  The lessons are geared more toward sci-fi/fantasy/horror, but could easily apply to other genres.

    If you're pursuing an aspiring writer's career, I strongly recommend listening to these guys.  You'll be glad you did.

    Monday, July 4, 2011

    Review - Transformers 3

    Transformers (3): Dark of the Moon wasn't a total waste.  The action scenes were fun, and there were some awesome 3-D effects.  For example, after the Paramount stars whoosh by, a star field appears and falls deep into the screen.  We then get to see the planet Cybertron in the midst of its war.  The 3-D was so breathtaking, I thought there might be hope for the movie.  But then, after the "Transformers" title sequence, it's a cut to Rosie Huntington-Whitely's mostly-naked butt.  I'm not kidding.  (Great!  Now all the teenage male horn-dogs reading this review are going to flock to the theaters!)

    Rosie is Megan Fox's replacement.  Where Megan's character failed to make me care, Rosie's character succeeded in being the most hated love-interest I've ever seen in a movie.  Before I continue, it wasn't so much the actresses' performance as much as it was the script and directing.  Michael Bay sometimes forgets to help the viewers like the characters.  (He succeeds in some of his movies, so I'm a little confused here.)  Rosie's character is so pretty, vain, and set on riches, it's hard not to hate her.  When she leaves Sam in the middle of the movie over something so inane, you can't help but think, "Good riddance."  What did Sam ever see in her?  (Besides that, you horn-dogs.)

    This all happened in that hour in the middle that went on forever.  The cool 3-D effects rested.  A plot attempted to form, but it was so confusing, with characters making inconsistent decisions.  I was about to regret spending the money.  But then the last hour happened, and it was just cool.  There's something about seeing Chicago being blown off the map.  We also got to see the humans join the fight.

    I can't tell if the 3-D effects were better than in Avatar (as the claim goes), but I believe that Avatar better employed the effects to enhance and promote the plot.  That's what gets remembered, and a year from now, people will still be calling Avatar the best use of 3-D in a recent movie.

    Despite the film's flaws, I got my money's worth from the opening scene and the last hour.  If you don't mind surviving the boring middle hour and the terrible plot, then go see this movie.

    Lastly, I'd like to share something I found on YouTube.  This guy found two action scenes that were borrowed from The Island (one of my guilty pleasures) and retouched.  It's common for artists to reuse material.  There's nothing wrong with this, but you have to admire anyone who catches it.  Kudos to cinefilojermain23 for discovering this.

    Rental Review: Hoodwinked, Transformers 2

    Do you know those movies that you know you never want to see, but then for some reason or another, you watch it, and it turns out to be much better than you thought it would be?  Hoodwinked is one of those movies.  Yes, it has terrible graphics and corny jokes, but (this is not evident in the trailer) the storyline itself is actually kind of funny.

    The movie begins with cops investigating a domestic dispute at Granny's house.  The head detective enters: a frog (I hate frogs) with an English accent.  I just knew I was in trouble.  Little Red Riding Hood tells her story first.  The wolf is chasing her.  A few funny things happen.  She thinks she sees Granny floating in the clouds.  Yawn.  End of story?

    No, next the Big Bad Wolf tells his side of the story.  This is where the movie takes off.  Things are not what they seem.  The full story isn't revealed until we hear it from Granny and the Woodsman as well.  And it's a doozy.  Though, once all is revealed, the last 15 minutes or so isn't quite so entertaining.  (I felt the same about Vantage Point, which is isomorphic to this film--only not animated.)

    If you haven't seen it yet, go ahead and rent it.  It's worth watching at least once.

    Transformers (2): Revenge of the Fallen, on the other hand has got to be the most boring movie I've seen all year long.  (It even beats Where the Wild Things Are.)  It had some cool fight scenes, but the "plot" is just an excuse to get from one scene to the next.

    This movie has no "care"-acters.  That is, I see people moving around on the screen and moving their mouths, but there isn't a single person that I cared about.  The lines all feel like they're being read.  Michael Bay goes out of his way to show how pretty Megan Fox is, but who cares?

    And what's up with all the language and sexual innuendos?  The original cartoons were geared toward children.  This movie seems more for the horn-dog male teenagers.  My kids were uncomfortable watching.  I found much of the robot's stereotypes to be offensive and not funny at all.  It didn't work in the Star Wars prequels, and it should just never be used again.  These robots come from outer space--so why do those two little robots sound like ghetto potty-mouths?  Why does the one robot have to be Scottish?

    My advice: If you saw the first movie, missed the second, and you want to go see the third movie out in theaters now (review coming shortly): Skip this second movie.  You won't miss a thing.

    Actually, now that I think about it, you can skip the first movie as well.

    Saturday, July 2, 2011

    VirtualBox vs. Boot Camp

    To continue my iMac/XP epic, I have determined that Boot Camp does not meet my needs.  Not only does Apple not provide drivers on new iMacs for XP, Apple makes dang-sure that you can't get those drivers anywhere.  They want me to "get with the times" and upgrade to Windows 7.  Would they like to pay the $200 for me?  The way I see it, Apple purports to run Windows on their machines, and Microsoft currently supports XP.  Like I said before--Apple: FAIL.

    As an alternative, I tried to install VirtualBox.  It works well except for one small problem: it can't see my USB devices.  This is a known issue with VirtualBox (specifically running XP on Mac OS X) starting with version 3.2, and it appears they have not fixed the issue.  With no USB access, this software is useless.  (Well, it does play older games that don't run on Windows 7 and don't use a USB device.)

    Update--10/23/2011: Check out Chris Hooks' comment below.  He got the USB devices to work by creating an extra blank USB device.  We don't know how it works.  Maybe it distracts the USB bug.  See updated instructions down below.

    I'm going to try other alternatives.  Just in case you care, here are the steps I went through:

    • Download VirtualBox.  First choose "VirtualBox 4.0.10 for OS X hosts."  (They just now released 4.1.)
    • When the disk image mounts, open VirtualBox.mpkg.
    • Go to Applications folder and run VirtualBox from there.
    • It says I don't have any virtual Machines.  Click on "New" in the upper left corner.  There's a wizard.
    • At the "VM Name and OS Type" window, choose a name for the XP Machine, and choose Microsoft Windows and Windows XP.
    • At the "Memory" window, allot base RAM.  You can change the amount later.  My music software requires a lot of RAM.  I have 4GB, so I'll set it to 3GB, which will leave 1GB for Mac OS to work with.  Note that I do not plan to run many Mac applications at the same time when I do PC stuff.  You may have different needs.
    • Next comes the "Virtual Hard Disk" window.  Since this is my first time using this, I'll choose "Create new hard disk."  
    • The next decision comes at the "Hard Disk Storage Type" window.  It's either Dynamic (size can increase) or Fixed-size.  Dynamic is the way to go, as the file size grows only as needed.
    • The next window asks what maximum hard drive size to allow.  I'll pick 40GB.
    • Now that the Virtual Machine is created, install XP.  I click on my image and click "Start."
    • Okay, now at the "Select Installation Media" window, put in the XP disk and hit Continue.
    • I'll skip all the instructions to install XP.  I'll follow the same steps laid out in this post.
    • Now that XP is installed, I test the internet.  It works!  I've even activated my XP.  I wonder when Microsoft is going to say "You've activated too many times."  (If that happens, a phone call will clear that up.)  However, I have no USB support.  I think I need to download the Extension Pack.
    • Back to the VirtualBox download page, I download the VM VirtualBox Extension Pack.
    • When I open the file, VirtualBox opens and asks if I want to Install.  I click "Install."  Hmmm--that was easy.
    • Okay--there's already one irritating problem.  "Right-clicking" doesn't work.  I'll get to that later...
    • I plugged in my USB Backup drive.  It doesn't show up in the Virtual Machine.  Section 3.10 of the instructions says I need to set up each USB device separately.  Okay, this is going to be fun...
    • To make changes, I need to shut down Windows.  Then in the Oracle VM VirtualBox Manager, I click on USB.  That pulls up the Ports window.  I click the "+" sign and I can select which USB devices to include.  I make my selections.
    • I will eject the USB Backup drive before continuing.  There's a warning in the instructions that if a USB device becomes available inside of VirtualBox, it'll be removed immediately from OSX, which is the same as unplugging the device without shutting down.
    • Starting up Windows again...  But when I plug in the USB Drive, it shows up on the Mac side, not in Windows.  I'm getting frustrated.  This approach is starting to look like a bust.
    • When I try to add the USB Drive, I get an error that says: "Failed to attach the USB device Unknown device to the virtual machine.  Argument ald is invalid (must be Guid(ald).isEmpty() == false)."  I've looked in their FAQ, Troubleshooting, and their forums, and I can't find anything on how to get around this.
    Updated Instructions: To get the USB Drives to work, add a blank USB drive.
    • Close VirtualBox and open it back up.
    • To the right, click on "USB" to open the Ports Window.
    • Click on the USB port picture with a blue circle ("Adds a new USB filter with all fields initially set to empty strings...").  This adds a blank USB filter at the bottom of your list.
    • Close VirtualBox again and start up your XP session, and your USB drives should work now.
    • Finally--kudos to Chris Hooks for figuring this one out!
      Summary: Apple has left me in the dust to rot with my ancient XP technology.  VirtualBox was starting to look like a viable alternative, but apparently they still have some bugs to work out.  If I can't access the USB Devices, I can't do anything.  I'm going to pursue different options.  With the listed fix above, VirtualBox appears to provide a mostly functional XP environment.

      Friday, July 1, 2011

      Google's Ngram Viewer

      I just found a new toy: the Google Ngram Viewer.  This tool allows you to type in any word or phrase.  Then Google searches the text of a large number of books and returns the word's frequency by year published.  Cool?  You know it.  Useful?  Not much, but it's so cool!  It allows you to guage the relative popularity of words throughout time.

      For example, search on "sayeth."  It spikes around the early 1840s and trails off.  Could it be we pesky Mormons who wrote a lot of books during the 1840s?  :)

      You can separate words/phrases with commas and you'll get more than one line on the graph.  For example, try "the, and, or, but, a."  The word "the" wins in a landslide!  The words "but" and "or" are left behind in the smoke.  I suppose we don't like to use too many conjunctions.

      Here are some fun combinations I've tried:

      cat, dog (you will probably find the results disappointing--I sure did)
      girl, boy (there's an interesting switching point)
      man, woman (I think there's a trend to more unisex terms)
      chicken butt (looks like it was invented in the late 50s)
      one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten (any guesses which one wins?)
      Republican, Democrat (woo hoo!)

      Give it a try.  Have fun.  And don't waste too much time!