Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Did They Really Have to Shut Down Lego Universe?

Have you ever wondered what you would do if the world were to end in a few hours?  My two sons asked themselves this very same question yesterday when their world was coming to an end.  I write of the now late Lego Universe, which used to be a Massively Multiplayer Online Game for kids.

Lego Universe provided a place where kids could go online (after their parents paid a subscription fee), walk around a 3-D world, build creations on their own personal property, and make friends (all interactions were moderated).

My boys got it for Christmas 2010, and over the past year, they played in that world.  They built up experience and lego money.  They fought the evil Maelstrom.  My two sons talked about their adventures and bonded with each other.

In Lego Universe, each player received their own property to build things.  You should have seen the maze my oldest son was creating.  He was creating an exact replica of the last dungeon in the original Phantasy Star I, and he even added a bonus Medusa.  He tried to beat the shutdown date, but gave up a week ago when a glitch destroyed half his bricks.  They came back a couple of days later, but he had missed his weekend to complete his work.

I hear that other players had built awesome creations on their properties, including castles, battle simulations, puzzles, games, and even a large toilet.

When I got home late last night, my two boys were at the computer.  They asked if they could stay up till midnight when Lego Universe was scheduled to pull the plug.  I said, “Sure – this only happens once in a lifetime.”

They played for those last couple of hours.  They got in a last minute dragon battle, and did one last pylon race.  They also noticed funny things going on, such as a giant ghost ship appearing near the top of Nexus Tower. 

At 11:15 PM, my older son saw me watching and he said, “Do you want to see my maze and walk through it before they take it away?”  We went to his property, and it loaded up till 98% and it crashed.  My two boys looked at each other.  NOOOOOOO!!!!!!  (Did I mention the game could be buggy?)  It took us 15 minutes to get back up and running again.

At 11:30 PM, I was able to walk around his maze for a couple of minutes.  I even saw Medusa.  She looked pretty cool with her snaky hair.  I walked out the exit and said, “That was fun.”  (We did have a jet pack to help me skip a lot of the maze.)

Then my older son went to a “party” where a lot of friends were gathered.  For about 10 minutes he chatted, sending direct messages to all of his friends who were online at the time.  “Goodbye. It was fun.”  Then something happened.  He typed, “I’m going to log off so my little brother can use up the rest of the time.”

My younger son got on, and checked his mail.  He got some cool gifts from the Mithrin (sp?).  They sent him two cool purple-glowing bad guy swords (impossible to get previously) and bad guy hair, or was it a hat?  He put them on and went to a friend’s property.

At 11:50 PM, we started getting system wide messages from developers saying, “It’s been fun.  It was a great experience.”  At that time, my younger son went to a friend’s property to join a “party.”  When he got there, they were all inside a castle with no door to get inside. 

“How do you get in there?” my boy asked.  The answer: “It’s a secret.”  My boy searched for a way to get in, but couldn’t find any.  “Come on, let me in.”  He didn’t want to be outside, alone. 

With two minutes left, someone finally broke some bricks to create an opening for my boy to enter.  He went in, and they closed the hole back.  They were then trapped inside.  About twenty players gathered in that small room.  It was reminiscent of all the scenes we’ve seen in the movies where destruction is coming and everyone runs into the closest church, comforting each other, and hoping the disaster spares them.

We started counting down the seconds.  With about fifteen seconds left, everyone typed “bye” in their chat window.  The words “bye” popped up over all the minifigures’ heads.  We got one last broadcast “goodbye” from some admin person.  Then 10 … 9 … 8 …

My sons did nothing but stared in disbelief at the screen.  Was their world really coming to an end?

7 … 6 … 5 … some more goodbyes.

4 … 3 … 2 … how was it going to happen?

1 … I think it happened one second early.  At 11:59:59, the world around them went white.  For a split second there was nothing but all the players’ minifigures.  Then we got kicked out to the login screen.

My older son said, “Let’s log back in and see what happens.”  They got to the window you see in the picture above.  The message said, "Hello Adventurer!  LEGO Universe is currently closed.  Please check the game launcher for system status!"

It was all over.  All those creations on everyone’s property--gone.  My son’s maze--gone.  That massive toilet we heard about--gone.  The characters that everyone built up and strengthened and armored up--gone.  Everything that used to be was now nothing more than a heartless three sentence message.

No one knows exactly why they decided to shut down Lego Universe.  The official word seems to be: “Unfortunately, we have not been able to build a satisfactory revenue model in our target group, and therefore, have decided to close the game,” as stated by the Jesper Vilstrup, Vice President of LEGO Universe.

However, in light of the high profits gained from the project, one can’t help thinking there was some other reason behind the scenes.  In this informative interview,  Rayhawk, a concept artist for Lego Universe, opines:

It’s funny, because by a lot of objective measures it’s been extremely successful: stable service, fantastic public opinion (once we added enough content), a healthy base of free players (over two million, LEGO just publicized), and a growing base of paying players who were dedicated and deeply invested in the game. We had a seasoned and motivated dev team, and a parent company with the financial stability to ride out those first couple of years that every MMO needs to gain traction and reach profitability. From a product standpoint, we in a great position, and lots of companies would have killed for our numbers. In the right hands, LEGO Universe was (and still would be) an absolute gold mine waiting to be tapped.

But in the wrong hands, it’s a liability, threatening to damage the core LEGO brand as soon as a tone-deaf decision by management outrages the userbase, or if there were even the barest rumor of a child safety breach, or in any of the million unpredictable situations where an online community can suddenly turn itself against you without warning.

Everybody on the team has their private conspiracy theories about the real reason LEGO shut down the project right as it was getting its legs under it. I think LEGO management took a sober assessment of their own unfamiliarity with exactly what MMOs are and how they work, and realized that they couldn’t trust themselves not to steer the ship straight into the rocks.
The child safety breach concern piques my interest.  Could it be that Lego Universe is simply the latest victim of the litigious monster that is quickly becoming America and threatening to destroy all creativity?

Whoever killed this world, it’s all over now.  My sons no longer have access to this part of their lives, but at least they have the memories, which should last a lifetime.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Am I Aiming Too High?

Something just hit me.  I'm trying to get some short stories published, and I'm getting rejection after rejection, and usually of the form letter variety.  Could it be that I'm aiming for the big-name publishers while ignoring the smaller magazines?

In a recent post, I moaned about all my rejections and how an unnamed fellow aspiring writer, who not only got one of his favorite stories published, but also received over 15 "warm" rejections.  And wouldn't you know it?  That very same unnamed writer wrote in the comments!  This writer is none other than Milo James Fowler of Write1Sub1 fame.

Then when I saw a recent post from another Write1Sub1 friend, I noticed a pattern.  The magazines that are publishing their stuff are the smaller magazines.  Of course!  It's starting to make sense.

Bigger magazines are going to publish the big names.  Yes, I know that they claim to champion the cause of discovering new talent, but they have bills to pay.  If a magazine has five slots to fill for an issue, and there are five well written big name stories available, what do you think they're going to pick?  Yes--the ones that are not written by anyone named Mel.

And who am I currently targeting?  I'm going for at least the lowest level of membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America.  If I can sell one story to one of their qualified publishers, I can then become an Associate member, and then become more likely to sell my upcoming novels.

But here--take a look at the published stories of Milo James Fowler.  He has a lot of credits, but so far, only one qualifies for SFWA membership: "Tomorrow's Dawn" published October 2011 by Daily Science Fiction.

Getting published is kind of like those role playing games, where you start off as a little runt.  If you were to fight a really big monster, you'd die in one stroke.  So, you build up experience.  You get the bigger guns and the heavier armor.  You gain hit points.  Then the next time you see that big monster, you kill it in one stroke.

Milo published 25 stories before he hit that first big one a couple of months ago.  Is that what I must do as well?

So, where do I begin?  I'm sure there are plenty of vanity publishers that will publish just about anything.  I don't want to go that low.  I want the publisher to at least like my work and choose to include it in a carefully put together issue.  I suppose a good place to start is to study the magazines listed by Milo and my other Write1Sub1 friends, and cross reference with Duotrope.

The moral of the story?  If I really want to be discovered, I must go to where new talent is really discovered: the small magazines!

Star Trek Online

Star Trek Online has been around for a few years, and as of this past January 18, it has gone free to play.  So, what are you closet Trekkies waiting for?  I've been trying out the game for the past week, and so far I'm impressed.  Completing the ambiance are sounds you'll recognize from all the different Star Trek shows.  The space battles are also cool, where you can fly around in 3-D space with full 360° control.  I love the photon torpedo effects.

The game takes place in the future several decades beyond the movie "Nemesis."  All your favorite characters are probably dead, but along the way you'll likely meet descendants or visit places named after historical people.  Of course, you can expect references to particular events that occurred in the past.

You start the game as an Ensign.  While you beam down to assist the outpost during a Borg attack, the entire staff on your ship is killed.  When you return to your ship, you're the highest ranking officer, so you're in command.  As you blow the Borg cube out of the sky, your valor is recognized.  You are promoted to Lieutenant, and you get to continue serving as acting captain of your ship.

You start to collect officers, who you can train.  Their special skills come in handy during battle.

Several tutorials help you practice and learn the complex controls and indicators on the screen.  After a week of playing, I'm still getting used to everything.

The drawbacks so far: Well, for starters, I didn't get very much else done this past week.  This game is definitely a production killer.

The game only works on Windows, which I find surprising.  I would expect a lot of Trekkies to be Apple lovers.  But if you have an Intel Mac with OS 10.5 or higher, you can follow the directions in this forum thread.  A developer named doh123 prepared this wrapper that can emulate Windows on a Mac.  But be warned, since he/she is a developer, expect the directions to be a little hard to follow.  Once you get things working, it's worth it though.  I've been playing on my 2011 iMac with OSX 10.6, and I haven't noticed any problems.  I may post easier-to-follow instructions shortly...

The 3-D 360° battles are cool, though there are two annoying facts.  #1) There appears to be a limit to how far you can pitch up or down.  When you hit a ceiling, you have to jiggle the ship around and reposition so you can go up/down further.  I hope they fix this bug.  The original Descent from the 90s didn't have this problem, so I'm sure the Star Trek programmers could figure this out.  #2) In real life, there is no friction in space!  In real life, you can't come to a complete stop!  In this game, inertia just doesn't exist.  Then again, I can't complain too much, as this is consistent with just about any Star Trek show.  I can't think of even one episode where inertia is demonstrated (beyond people shaking on the bridge when the inertial dampeners go offline).

I'm also starting to wonder if I've already "beat the game."  It appears the main goal is to shoot ships in space and shoot people on the ground.  Kirk's "we come in peace; shoot to kill" comes to mind.  Most missions I've done so far seem to be: enter a system; attack a ship; beam down to planet; shoot some people; beam back up; shoot more ships; get rewards/promotion.  A few missions have been a little more complex than this, though.  And I hear that some classic episodes are contained in some of the later missions.  I want to do one of those!  I'd also like to do a mission that challenges the mind with a good puzzle.

Right now I'm stuck on one mission in the Delta Volaris cluster.  I'm supposed to aid a planet by providing either medical supplies, provisions, or shield generators, but I can't seem to find a planet that needs one of these.  When I searched the web, I discovered the issue: when you scan an anomaly in the Delta Volaris cluster, the mission you get is random.  Sometimes it's to learn something about why an outpost has no survivors.  Sometimes it's protecting a planet from intruders.  After scanning at least 20 or 30 anomalies, I have yet to stumble on an "Aid the Planet" mission.  In short, it's appears possible to get a dud of a mission.  Bummer!

Despite these drawbacks, I'm still having fun.  If you haven't tried it yet, go and beam that game to your computer.  Live long and prosper, and fire all torpedoes!

P. S.  If you see me in the game, be sure to say "hi."  I'm Mel'Rut, a Vulcan serving on the USS Kimmer.  

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Don't Limit Your Audience?

Most of my rejections are form letters.  "Thank you for sending <insert name of short story>.  It is not a fit for our magazine.  Thanks."  But a couple of months ago, I got my first "warm" rejection.  This is rejection that does a little more explaining, specific to your story.  It may say, "I really liked it, but it does not fit the theme of our current issue."  Or it may say, "It started off good but gets confusing around page 5."  When you start getting these types of letters, you're getting close.  Or it could mean that you sent your story to a magazine with a staff that strives to always offer feedback.

In my case, I think it was the latter.  This is the feedback I got: "The story's concept was interesting, but it did not grab me.  The structure of the story was confusing ... Be careful not to limit your audience too drastically."

Though I am grateful for this thoughtful feedback, I'd like to harp on that last sentence.

Don't limit your audience?  In general, that's good advice.  If you want to sell stories, you will want to maximize the number of people who'll read them.  It's simple math.  More readers = more dollars.  But if you follow this advice exclusively, what would you ever produce that would push the envelope?

Look at network television which is driven entirely by profits from commercial advertising.  What kind of programs do they produce?  If a show is great but only appeals to a small portion of the world, that show is going to get terrible ratings and get pulled.  (Think "Firefly" or "FlashForward" or "Wonderfalls".)  So, what do you have left?  Tasteless gray mush--stuff that everyone likes, but no one gets really excited about.

Cable television has a little more leeway, and seems to get away with producing more interesting shows, even though the viewers may be few.

Now, let's look at my story.  It's about an actuary who just graduated and is going for his first job.  He's so much of a Trekkie that he thinks he's actually flying around in a spaceship.  He's been accepted into the Academy, and he speaks Klingon.  But then a couple of senators decide to try an experiment.  They implant a math-inhibitor chip, such that whenever our Trekkie thinks about math, he gets deathly ill.

Sounds familiar?  It's a parody of "A Clockwork Orange."  Instead of Nadstat, it's Klingon.  Instead of violent crimes, it's tutoring math.  I thought it was a creative and funny piece.

Does it limit the audience?  Well, let's see.  Everyone raise your hands and when I say something that doesn't interest you, put your hand down.  First, you either had to have read or seen "A Clockwork Orange."  Second, you have to be a Trekkie.  Are there still some hands up?  This isn't as big a part of the story, but you also have to understand a little about what it takes to become an actuary.  What?  Your hand is down?  Okay, maybe it's a little limiting.

But who cares?  The story is what it is, and if you happen to have your hand still up, you would love my story and you'd be rolling on the ground.

I submitted it in the 2009 Actuarial Speculative Fiction Contest.  It didn't win any prizes, but here are some of the reactions:

On the Actuarial Outpost Forum, I asked this question: "Anybody else reading these stories?"

The very first response to the question: "In bits and pieces. The A Clockwork Orange one cracked me up."

A couple more posts later: "Ah, which one was that?"

Answer: "I think it had 'Turn-Screw' in the title, and words that seemed to be Klingon, and lots of Clockwork Orange references."

Response: "Oh, yeah. That was funny.  I missed a lot by not knowing Klingon. And any Clockwork Orange references were lost on me because I assumed they were Star Trek stuff. (Sorry, I guess I'm not geeky enough to be an actuary.)"

A couple more down: "I read the Turn-Screw story. Very good. I'll take any suggestions on others to read, otherwise I probably won't."

Post #27: "The klingon one was a little strange, I think it would be a small non actuarial crowd that would appreciate that, I liked socially awkward Actuary Man!"

So, you can see some of these actuaries loved my story, though note how that last comment echoes what the magazine publisher said. 

Comments from the judge: "Very funny and wacky, chock full of good jokes. A nice dig at innumeracy. Its debt to Star Trek and A Clockwork Orange was both a plus and a minus: Roddenberry, Burgess and Kubrick did the heavy narrative lifting here vs. a more original plotline. Nonetheless, quite enjoyable."

Comments from the coordinator: "I liked your attitude in this story!  I guess that comes from being thought of as weird if you like math.  The wording in the story is excellent and kept my concentration making sure I was following the details.  The language really made me feel the futuristic setting!  You have a very creative humorous mind!!"

So, what do I think of the advice "Don't Limit Your Audience"?  Don't worry about me.  I have lots of different stories.  Some are specific to Mormons.  Some are for actuaries.  I even have hilarious stories/parodies specific to a very small group of people.  And yes, the majority of my stories are for the general sci-fi audience, as I do want to make a buck or two.

But every now and then, I'm going to have a strange idea.  I know only a small few will appreciate it, but I'll go ahead and write it.  Screw all the others--I didn't write the story for them.

And I'll tell you what I'm not going to do to my Klingon Clockwork Orange story.  I'm not going to revise it hoping that everyone and their dog will enjoy it, because then it would become diluted and not so funny.  Instead I'm going to keep searching for a publisher who would like to do a reprint (I'm not looking for cash on this one--just exposure) and help me find a bigger audience of people who would like this story.  It's called targeted marketing.

If you'd like to read it yourself, you can read it here, and let me know what you think.  Oh, and you might need this small Klingon glossary that goes with the story.

As for your own writing, let your heart dictate what to write, and then target the appropriate audience.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

2012 Winter TV Preview

Here we are at the beginning of 2012, and new shows are upon us.  I've chosen four new shows to try out...

"Alcatraz" on FOX is another J. J. Abrams production.  This one stars Jorge "Hurley" Reyes.  The music is composed by Lostie Michael Giacchino (one of the better composers).  It also has at least one LOST writer.  So, yes--we have another show with tons of LOST connections.  Could be good.  Could be bad.

I've already watched the first hour, and it was pretty decent.  The premise is that 300+ people disappeared on the day that Alcatraz "officially closed."  Their transfers and deaths were faked.  Then fast forward to the present when these people start coming back one at a time.  Each one is a dangerous criminal that no one knows exists.

The man in charge is played by Sam Neill--you know, the guy with the really evil grin from "Jurassic Park" and "Event Horizon."  He does his evil grin in this show as well, but it's so hard to tell what kind of person he is.  The writers will probably keep this from us until some cool reveal down the road.

In the pilot, we get to see the fictional inmate Jack Sylvane emerge.  At first we're led to have sympathy for the guy, but then he starts brutally killing people.  By the end of the episode, we're not sure what to think about him.  Could he actually be an nice guy doing an evil man's bidding?

Then again, with all my talk of good vs. evil, I can already tell that this is one show that's going to say, "There is no good vs. evil."  Sometimes it works, and sometimes not.  My main concern about this show is whether they're going to do the "Smallville weird of the week" thing where we see a new character appear each week, and he kills in his own special way.  If this is the case, I won't last very long.

But for now, this show has my attention.

Next is "Touch," also on FOX.  The premiere is this coming Wednesday.  It's another one of these stories in which patterns exist everywhere, and it's possible to predict the future.  As an actuary (a mathematician who predicts the future by studying patterns in the past), I find this concept very intriguing.  Compare with "Persons of Interest" where a super-computer can predict a violent crime coming; or "Knowing" where a child can see the patterns and determine when and where a large number of people are going to die; or "Minority Report" where a trio of pre-cogs can see the patterns and predict premeditated violent crimes.

All of these stories have one thing in common: the entity giving the information is somewhat incapacitated: autistic, a closed back box, etc.; and someone else has to interpret somewhat incomplete data, fill in the gaps, and save the day.  In the case of "Touch" it appears that Keifer has the potential to go Jack Bauer on some baddies.  If not at the beginning of the series, it'll eventually get there later ... just watch and see!

As a mathematician, I do have one complaint with this trailer, which appears to come from the pilot episode: 3:18 on March 18 in school district 318?  These are too many coincidences coming together with no good reason.  If every episode is going to be like that, then I'm going to start wondering: what superpower is making all these coincidences happen at the same time?  And can the boy not see a disaster if the coincidences don't occur?  We'll see, but for now I plan to watch.

The struggling NBC has introduced "The Firm," a sequel to John Grisham's novel of the same name.  Josh Lucas plays Mitch McDeere, Tom Cruise's role in the movie.  The show continues 10 years after the movie/book leaves off, when McDeere does what?  Yes, he SIGNS UP WITH ANOTHER FIRM.  You think he'd learn.  Now, not only does he have his old enemy's son chasing after him, he now has problems with this new firm, which also happens to be corrupt.

After seeing the two-hour premiere, this is what I liked.  As with other Grisham novels, the lawyer stuff feels a lot more authentic than some of the more popular "Law and Order," and other similar shows.  The terminology seems to be more consistent with the minimal law training I've had as an actuary.  I know this leads to less sensational TV, but I prefer the real stuff.

I also like the conspiracies and the guns and the chasing.  This stuff isn't quite so real, but without it, I wouldn't watch, and would stick with my sci-fi shows.

One concern: the pilot had two different stories going: the chasing/guns/conspiracy; and then there was that teenage murderer case that took up over an hour.  That part felt a lot like "Harry's Law," a show I don't watch, but hear a lot about.  It was an interesting case and all.  It did help to establish that McDeere is a good, honest, kind-hearted lawyer.  But other than that, THE CASE HAD ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH THE MAIN STORY.  If further episodes are going to be like this (weird case of the week), ... see my concern for "Alcatraz" above.

And one last complaint: Tricia Helfer is anorexic both in build and in acting ability.  Her monotone is monotonous.  But I've quickly learned that if I imagine her as an evil robot, the show becomes easier to watch.

By the way, this show is already considered to be doomed, with monstrously low ratings for the pilot.  (Did anyone know it was on?)  But since the show was sold for so cheap, and NBC has no better options for Thursday night, this show will be around for a while.  I'll give it a couple more episodes, myself.

Last on my list is the animated "Napoleon Dynamite."  Yes, it appears that 3 of my 4 new shows are from FOX.  Weird!  I watched the first two episodes, and they were freakin' hilarious--even more than I had expected it to be.

This show is a lot like the movie of the same name.  It includes the entire original cast.  The humor is the same.  Only with cartoons, it seems you can go a lot farther with stuff that just can't happen.  For example, some zit medicine falls on the classroom floor and turns it transparent, as you can see in the trailer.

As an added plus, this show is so tame that my kids can watch it without getting offended.  Yes, FOX's Animation Domination now has a show kids can watch.  That is, if you don't mind people looking awkward as they walk around in their underwear.  Just remember, the writers are Mormons, and how bad can they get?  :)

In addition to these four new shows, I'll continue to watch these shows now back in progress:
Once Upon a Time
The Simpsons
Person of Interest
The Office
Chuck (ending in a couple of weeks)

Coming back in February:
The Walking Dead

Other shows down the road include Syfy Summer (start date still unknown):

Warehouse 13
Eureka (last season)

Also coming back later:
Falling Skies (summer)
Doctor Who (fall)

Maybe coming back sometime:
Terra Nova (looking more and more probable for renewal)

If you enjoyed this preview, be sure to give me a +1, and also check out my Facebook page.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Downtown Lunches in Winston Salem

Working downtown, I've noticed that eating out for lunch can get a little expensive.  But if you go to the right places and refrain from buying a soda, you can keep costs down while still getting good quality food.  (I usually grab my lunch and take it back to work where I can get a soda for free.)

The following places are relatively close to the building where I work, the service is moderately quick, and the prices are reasonable.

Less than $5

Topping my list is The Dill Pickle at 214 W 4th St.  This is a true mom-and-pop store, run by a nice Greek family.  They have the most unassuming store front in the whole town, as you can see in this picture.  But the food is good and the prices very reasonable.  I like to tell my friends that this place has the highest quality-to-price ratio downtown.  For less than $5, you can get a filling sandwich (with generous meat portions) and french fries.  I love how they cook their bacon.  They also serve breakfast and southern-type food.  On top of that, they're friendly and know who I am.

The only catch - prepare to pay with cash.  They would get more business if they accepted plastic, but then the prices would go up.  I wouldn't mind paying a few more cents; it would still be a good deal.

Next on my list: Mooney's Mediterranean Cafe at 101 W 4th St.  Here you can get Greek food at a reasonable price.  They are friendly, but usually pretty busy around lunch.  The price of a meal usually runs around $6-$8, but on Tuesdays, their falafel pitas are $3, a deal that's hard to beat.  They also have good hummus.

If you'd like to eat cheap good quality food in a tall building, you could always eat at the Upper Deck Deli at 200 W 2nd St. in the 2nd floor of the BB&T building.  Depending on what you get, lunch (without drink) will run from $4 to $7.  I usually get a toasted sandwich and french fries.  But what I really like about this place are the free mayonnaise packets they let you take.  I mix that with the ketchup to make fry sauce.  The dining room also gives a nice view of Corpening Plaza.  You can even eat out on the deck.  Hmmm ... is that where it got its name?

A little over $5

Across from the courthouse sits the Courtside Cafe at 102 W 3rd St.  It's similar to the Dill Pickle, except they accept credit cards and the food is a little more expensive.  I love their chicken salad, their philly steak sandwich, and their mashed potatoes.  I always get my bread toasted, though it takes longer.

It gets pretty busy around lunchtime, but the line moves quickly.  You may even see some red juror badges.

Then comes the only chain restaurant in my list: Jimmy John's.  I usually like to support the mom-and-pop stores, but I still can't get over how fast these guys are.  They even remember me (if the right cashier is there), and they already know what I'm going to order.  Then I get my sandwich less than a minute after I pay.  The salt and vinegar chips are awesome.  They're a little overpriced, but I'd rather pay that much for these chips than I would a bag of Lay's (which I can get cheaper at the store).

Also, I can't resist their annual buyer appreciation day, where some of their sandwiches are $1.  The lines are always long for those promotions, but didn't I say they're crazy fast?

A little over $7

When I feel like spending a little more for better quality food (while keeping under $10), I can go to the Downtown Deli & Cafe at 1 W 4th St.  I almost always get their turkey reuben sandwich.  Their potato salad is good, as are their french fries.  The staff is friendly.  There's even a guy outside of the kitchen who helps to deliver the orders.  The restaurant also displays plenty of vintage sports memorabilia, including an old baseball coin-slot machine.

Ending my list is a relatively new entrant: Downtown Diamonback on the first floor of the Park Building at 101 N Cherry St.  Since they are new, they aren't as busy as the other places on my list.  Their food is good.  The prices are around $7.  Their chicken salad is wonderful, but the bread makes the sandwich.  Their potato salad is also good.  When you have money to splurge, grab one of their cookies or other desserts.

There you have it: seven relatively cheap, yet good quality restaurants in downtown Winston-Salem.  If you're ever in town and happen to be near the courthouse, give one of these places a try.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Postmortem Fall 2011

Believe it or not.  For the first time in forever, none of the show I picked to watch during the Fall 2011 season have been cancelled--yet.  I usually like to wax eloquent on my shows when they end, but it looks like I have nothing to report.  So, I'll do a little brag dance.

Yes, "Chuck" will end in a few weeks, but that will be a Winter 2011 end.  "Terra Nova" is still a toss-up as to whether it will be renewed.  Though it was inconsistent, the season finished strong, and I want to see what happens next.  "Fringe" will probably make it to the end of Spring, but no further.

Now we have some new shows coming out for Winter 2011, and it's time for me to make my picks again.  Stay tuned in a few days for my Winter preview and review of some shows that have already come out.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Review - Adjustment Bureau and Total Recall

I've never read any Philip K. Dick, but I'm in love with his stories (or at least the movie adaptations).  Today I'll review two movies based on his stories.

The Adjustment Bureau:  The strange-hatted men in this movie, strongly reminiscent of the "Observers" in the TV show "Fringe," are the "Second Foundation" of Asimov's Foundation series.  They sit behind the scenes and make sure everything goes according to Plan.  If an important person begins to deviate from the Plan, these guys step in and give a little "adjustment" to get them back on track.

Those little books they carry show a person's path and alert them to any upcoming deviations.  Sound like fun?  I enjoyed it, but I'm one who likes the stuff that makes written sci-fi work so well.  Some may find this movie a little on the slow side.  It's more brain than action.  Perhaps this contributed to its modest intake of $62.5M USA ($127.9M worldwide).

Things go awry when David Norris meets the girl of his dreams and discovers the existence of the Bureau.  They can't kill David because he's too important to the plan.  But they also can't let him have this girl of his dreams, so they tell him to stay away from her.  You can probably guess what happens next.

One of the Bureau men is played by John Slattery of "Mad Men."  This role fits him perfectly.  As he runs around New York and up stairs and such, I wanted so badly to see him barf all over someone's shoes.  But I guess that's just me.

I highly recommend this movie to all sci-fi lovers.  It'll give you something to think about: free will vs. enlightened guidance.  Plus it has a few cool action scenes.

Total Recall (1990):  A classic!  I caught this on TNT sometime last year.  This movie was the Matrix before "The Matrix" was the Matrix.  What is real?  If you think it's real, is that enough to make it real?  And wouldn't you know it--there are two different ways to watch this movie: one where the Mars world is real, and one where it's all in Quaid's head.  Both ways are fun to watch.

The movie begins with Quaid bored with life and obsessed with Mars.  He decides to go to Rekall for one of those implanted Mars vacations--complete with secret agent action and a sultry girlfriend.  But something goes wrong.  People start chasing him, and he comes across a video of himself saying he's a secret agent.  Is it real?  Or is it the implant talking?  Hmmmm....

Schwarzenegger may not be the best actor, but Verhoeven makes it work.  This movie has some great one-liners, some cheesy ones, and who could hate Johnnycab?  It also has some fun action.  My favorite scene is when a doctor from Rekall tells Quaid he's stuck in his implanted vacation.

Since I caught this on TNT, it was edited for TV.  They cut out all the "boobie" scenes, and they silenced all the bad words.  I noticed two things: #1) the movie worked fine without them and #2) Wow!  Did they use a lot of language!  I rolled on the floor when Quaid's video tape said, "Get your ___ to Mars.  Get your ___ to Mars.  Get your ___ to Mars.  Get your ___ to Mars."

That touches on my main complaint with the original movie.  Verhoeven took a PG-13 plot and sprinkled it with Rated-R material.  The "boobie" scenes in particular detracted from the action.  Yes, the scenes were funny, but the humor seemed displaced and "fake."  Yes, that's the best word for it: "fake."  I'm really hoping that the remake coming out later this year will be PG-13, after all, it would be the perfect plotline for the teenage crowd.  But with Colin Farrell playing the lead role, I'm not holding my hopes too high.

Despite the Rated-R distractions, this movie remains one of my favorites.

If you like any of these two movies, you may also like these other Philip K. Dick shows.  I enjoyed each of these...
  • Blade Runner
  • Next
  • Paycheck
  • Minority Report
  • Total Recall 2070 (TV Series)
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Friday, January 6, 2012

2012 Preview

2012 promises to be a great year.  The Mayan calendar runs out.  It's a big election year.  The Olympics will be in London where the flame and what it represents will help release a alien consciousness trapped on our planet by a solar flare.

What will I accomplish?  Could this be the year that I finally get published?  Or will it be the year I give up pursuing foolish dreams?  Here are my plans.  I will:
  • Continue writing, editing, and submitting short stories.  (Though I really want to get back to my novels.)  I'll be following the Write-1 Sub-1 monthly model.
  • Find a new writing group to join, and possibly another critique group.
  • Try out for Orson Scott Card's Boot Camp this summer.
  • Attend one or two conferences.
  • Increase my net.
  • Continue working on my blogs, which includes:
    • Two posts in this blog a week.
    • More attention to my other blog(s).
    • Improving my existing blog(s) to make them more user friendly.
There you have it.  It doesn't sound like much, but if I can accomplish all this, and if I can get just one story published in a SFWA-eligible magazine, then it will really be a good year for me.

What are your plans for the year?  Good luck, and may you have a productive year!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Review - Neil Gaiman - American Gods

"American Gods" was voted #2 of the best Science Fiction & Fantasy books written in the last decade by tor.com.  It also won a Hugo award in 2002.  I can see why it's well-liked.  It's well-written.  Gaiman is a wonderful story teller.  The story plot has an awesome structure.  The endings are satisfying.  As an added benefit, if you've happened to visit any of the landmarks described in this book, you'll enjoy the meticulous attention to detail as you watch events unfold.  It would be a perfect book if it weren't for three main flaws, which I'll get to in a minute.

First, I'll harp on his humorous grotesque style of writing.  It's similar to Stephen King, except where King's horror has an "evil" feel to it, Gaiman's is a little lighter and funny.  Think Coraline vs. Carrie.  Gaiman also has a knack of coming up with the funniest one-liners and most quotable quotes.  He achieves this by taking a common saying and changing or switching a word or two.  For example, one character moans about how he wishes to get away "from a world in which opiates have become the religion of the masses."

When you read the book, you learn quickly that gods are real and they walk among us.  We humans create the gods by simply believing.  When we stop believing, the gods become incredibly impotent.  So, you have your old gods, such as the Norse and Roman pantheons.  Then you have your newer gods such as technology, media, and industry, etc.  One of these gods, who calls himself Wednesday, enlists a human named Shadow to protect him in an upcoming war among the gods.  What you get is a highly imaginative story with all kinds of fun twists.

But then there are those three flaws.

#1) The novel is interspersed with random short vignettes of indirectly related dealings between humans and gods.  In these short stories, either a god is created, or a god royally screws over a human.  These vignettes tend to be Rated R in nature (in a novel that's predominately PG-13).  One would expect these vignettes to tie in together with the main story, but the tie-in was very disappointing and not very relevant.  (It happens on page 290 in my 460-page edition in almost a footnote.)  I snoozed through a couple of the stories, and it didn't seem liked I missed anything when I "scanned."

#2) The book feels like a PG-13 story with some Rated R stuff added just to give the book some "maturity," as if in an attempt to add hair on your chest by reading it.  Everybody and their dog drops the F-bomb (which came across to me as a very distracting overused cliche).  I know this book explores the human condition and our biggest desires, secrets, and foibles; but if we're all this bad, then we're all screwed.  My personal experience is that we humans are much better than this.  Because of the book's "mature" elements, I am unable to recommend this book to a majority of my friends.

#3) The characters in the book seem to move around like pieces on a chessboard.  It's unclear why some characters do what they do (besides being there to push the story along).  When it's hard to care for the characters, that's when I put the book down.  I had a very hard time getting through the middle of the book.  We do learn near the end what drives some of the characters, but I wish we could have had some of that earlier so I'd care about them earlier.

Despite these flaws, I'm glad I read this book.  I look forward to the rumored movie that should be coming out in the near future.  I'll probably read more Gaiman down the road, but I have so many books cued up already.  When I do get back to him, what shall I read?  Maybe I'll read his Underbridge Academy next.