Sunday, December 29, 2013

Mel's Year in Review: 2013

2013 is over!  Man, these years go by so fast.

This past year, I had a major win ... my first contest win.  It was the first time I've ever received a paycheck for writing fiction.  I won "second best overall story" in the 2013 Actuarial Speculative Fiction contest.  I also won "most unique use of technology in a story."  You can read the winning story here.

I'll say this meets my goal of getting published "somewhere."  Though, it would still be nice to get a magazine credit.  That's still up and coming.

This past year was a year of stopping and revising.  Armed with a win, I knew I had the talent inside me.  I had a lot of activity with the website.  I had some stories in progress critiqued, and I revised several stories.  I also critiqued several stories of other writers, making a few friends along the way.

A summary of my achievements ...
  • Novel Writing -- Even though I was supposed to be concentrating on short stories, I couldn't resist the temptation to begin my semi-autobiographical fictional novel, Space Cadets.  I figure I can write a chapter, then move back to a short story, and come back and write another chapter.
  • Short Stories --
    • "Actuarial Year" -- this is the story that won the contest.  I wrote it, had it critiqued, and revised in less than two months.  My biggest achievement so far.
    • "Depths of Inner Space" -- revised and submitted again.  Still, rejections.
    • "When Time Flows West" -- revised and submitted again.  And still rejections.  I think there may be something about the story itself (the same with "Inner Space") and my best bet may be to concentrate on my other stories.
    • "Stanley Saucer: Space Assassin" -- this story was well received at, so I've made several revisions and will be sending out shortly.
    • "Gamma Base Mars" -- this story got a major revision and is about to hit
    • "Google Brain" -- this is a totally new story that hit me over the holidays.  I have notes, but no first draft, yet.
  • My Facebook Fan Page now has 68 likes.  However, I haven't paid that page much attention this year.  I seem to get more responses to my posts on my personal Facebook page (as recent changes seem to go against "commercial" pages being viewed).  Also, I've had some difficulties uploading videos on Facebook.  Instead, I've switched to posting my videos to my Google+ page.
  • I didn't do as well in keeping up with this blog ... only 40 blog entries this year.  As I explained in an earlier post, I struggled a lot this year as I went through a busy job change situation.  Just recently, I've finally gotten the new work stress levels down to more manageable levels.  Excuses or not ... I wish I had written more.  Yet ...
    • I'm now up to almost 30,000 views ... more than double where I was this time last year (those web crawlers sure keep busy).
    • I reviewed 14 movies, 4 books, 6 TV shows, and a couple of other random posts along the lines of "Google isn't that great." 
    • My personal favorite posts of the year ...
I hope you've had a great 2013, and here's to an even more successful 2014!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

I Cannot Control My YouTube Accounts

Okay, I have to whinge.  Again, Google is trying to be the end-all answer to everything, while at the same time coming up with the most bonehead decisions -- as if intentionally trying to find ways to make life difficult for people who use their products.

It all started a long time ago (2008) when I created this YouTube channel: Melorama2000.  There, you can go to see me perform some piano pieces and some of my compositions.

Then when Google+ came out, I jumped on the opportunity and signed up as soon as I could.

Then a few months ago, I noticed that my YouTube account had bifurcated.  I have the original Melorama2000 channel, and now a "Melvyn Windham" channel on YouTube.  The latter channel is basically empty.  There are no videos for you to watch.  There's no history.  It's some weird ghost channel that Google decided to create for me that I never intend to use.

Plus, Google took the "initiative" to create this Melorama2000 Google+ page for me that's linked to my "real" YouTube account.  There, I don't make any posts.  I don't follow anyone.  Somehow I have 1 single follower.  For all intents and purposes, it's a weird ghost page that I didn't create and that I have no intention of using.

So, I have these annoying ghost page and account.  Is that really something to complain about?  Get this...

On my real Google+ profile, there's this YouTube tab, but you can't see my YouTube videos, because they're linked to another Google+ account.  You think there'd be a way to link my "real" YouTube account to my "real" Google+ account, but guess what ... YOU CAN'T.  The ghost "Melvyn Windham" YouTube channel is "permanently" linked to my "real" Google+ account, and you can only link one channel to an account.  So, I'm out of luck.


What I want (and it's a simple desire), is to have fans go to my profile, click on my YouTube tab, and see all my 80+ YouTube videos.  Is that too much to ask for?  But evidently, I just can't have that.

And I'm not the only one.  I've come across several forum posts where people want to change how their accounts are linked, and then someone knowledgeable comes along and says, "You just can't," and other people say, "Why the heck not?" and "Why does Google keep ignoring us?" and so on.  There really is no solution?

Just like with Apple, Google doesn't have good customer service when things go wrong.  It's so much easier to ignore the few that have issues, and put on their "What's wrong with you ... everyone else is happy" faces.  Any feedback I send in private gets ignored.  But I've learned that a complaint in public gets much faster results.

Have any of you had to deal with this issue?  Have you been able to successfully link your desired YouTube channel to your desired Google+ profile (not "page" ... it has to be the profile)?  Tell me your stories.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Ender's Game: What Me Boycott?

This article is directed to those who wish to boycott the movie Ender's Game.  I won't stand up for what the author, Orson Scott Card, has written in the past (as he's written some really stupid things).  But I would like to ask you to reconsider the boycott.

To catch up others who have no idea what I'm talking about:  The pro-gay organization, Geeks Out, has launched a Skip Ender's Game campaign.  The idea is simple ... Orson Scott Card has written articles denouncing homosexuality, and has been a member of the board of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), which is known for its fight against gay marriage, including efforts like Proposition 8.  To retaliate against Orson, Geeks Out asks pro-gay people to choose not to go see the movie.  As they say: "Don't Give The Bigot A Buck."

Now back to my fellow protestors:  I don't blame you guys ... after all, this is America, where one can peacefully protest through withholding funds.  There's nothing illegal in that.  I applaud you for standing up for what you believe in.

On the surface, it seems like a noble effort.  For example, check out the mission statement near the bottom of the Geeks Out website:
"Geeks OUT aims to offer and maintain a visible and vivacious queer presence at geek events, fostering inclusivity and openness within our community."
Who can argue against that?  After all, if you're against inclusivity and openness, then that makes you a bigot ... right?

If you're gay, you want everyone to accept you for who you are, and you want everyone to include you.  You don't want to hide in a closet.  You know all about inclusivity and openness, and would expect others to treat you as you would treat them.  And further ... I would expect you to show the same inclusivity and openness to me that I show to you.

But now I ask: does that inclusivity include our friend Mr. Card?

I'll let you think about that for a moment.  What is your ultimate goal in boycotting Ender's Game?  Is it to make the world a better place, hoping that more people will see the boycott and be more willing to accept gay people, and eventually support gay marriage across all 50 states?  Or is it rather to punish one individual and attempt to ruin his career and use him as an example for other artists ... you better support our views or else?

If it's the latter, then keep reading.  What exactly do you want to happen to Mr. Card?  Do you want him to stop writing books and become a lonely bigoted hermit ... an outcast of society for his crimes against humanity?  Or would you rather have Mr. Card come to a better understanding of what you're going through and learn to accept you for what you are?

If it's the latter, then there's hope for you.  But if you'd rather Card just go in a corner and die, then I would respond ... "Now that doesn't sound very inclusive of you."

Before you react, I invite you to consider it just one more time:  Do you really, really, really believe in inclusivity?  Then why do wish Mr. Card to fail?

When the gay community successfully blocked Mr. Card's Superman story this year from being published, what was the message?  "Sorry.  Anyone can write Superman stories, but not you.  I don't care if your story is about tolerance and inclusion ... we just don't want you writing."

This is all ironic, especially considering that Ender's Game is all about tolerance, inclusion, and forgiveness.  It's ironic that Orson Scott Card was one of the first to portray a gay person in a positive light in his 1980 novel Songmaster.

As for Mr. Card's ability to thwart gay marriage, he has given up the fight.  He has stepped down from the Board of NOM and has admitted defeat.  He has very little money of his own available to donate to ANY cause, let alone any anti-gay organization.  Orson is just one man ... and one who has been rendered impotent in the fight against gay marriage.

Thus, supporting Ender's Game would have nearly zero impact in supporting anti-gay causes.

In fact, (and this is what I hope to get you to understand) I think the boycott against Ender's Game has had more of a negative effect than a positive one.  Why?  Because I think people pick up more on the non-inclusivity angle of the boycott.  What was it Patrick Yacco, Board member of Geeks Out, said of the boycott?
"Hopefully, it will send a message that people who are actively vocal against the LGBT community don’t really have a place within the greater geek culture."
Many people sitting on the fence (including anyone of a hundred million US citizens) pick up on the negativity of this statement, see it as a "threat," sense intolerance on the part of the protestors, and end up having less sympathy for gay causes.  Others may decide to go to the movie twice or invite friends to join (like me) in order to counteract the protest ... because we care more about the stories than we do the politics behind the scenes ... because we believe products should be boycotted on their own merits/faults ... and really, really, because we just want to see more of Mr. Card's stories being turned into movies.  He writes good stuff!

This "negative" effect was experienced in the Chick-Fil-A boycott.  The company ended up winning big, as counter-protestors came in to show their support for the product.  And the company won again when Cathy changed their donation practices.  The boycott helped, rather than hurt Cathy, but then again ... it was a successful boycott in that it convinced Cathy to change his mind.

But what would be the signs of a successful boycott against Orson Scott Card?  His lonely death?  And a good family left without support?

And would it stop with Orson Scott Card?  What about people like me who happen to be Mormon, but have yet to speak an ill word against a gay person?  Will you ban my books and my movies just because of my affiliation with the religion I grew up in and came to love?  Is there a place for me in your brave new world?  Would I have to change myself to be accepted?  Would I be required to renounce my religion ... or else?

I hope you would find forgiveness for my favorite living author, who is now rendered harmless.  Accept him for who he is.  Help him understand.  Be inclusive.

Look at how other gay activists are handling the boycott.  Dustin Lance Black, writer of the true story Milk, has called the boycott 'misguided.'  The prominent activist George Takei has been silent on the issue, though he has had several people try to get him to join the fight.  Note in contrast how George Takei chooses to take the route of showing people how "normal" and "fun" gay people can be.  In my opinion, George uses more positive than negative techniques, and has done much more in kindling support for gay causes than all these attempts to boycott.

In my opinion, if you look inside yourself and admit that you want to see the movie ... if you loved reading the book when you were a kid ... then you should go ahead and see the movie.  Support the efforts of the director, actors, and producers, of whom 99% are pro-gay.  You won't be betraying your people.  Rather, you will be exhibiting inclusiveness and forgiveness ... and then the world will become a better place.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Ender's Game - Is It the Last?

Ender's Game, starring Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, and Ben Kingsley, was an enjoyable ride, and I hope we get to see more Orson Scott Card book adaptations.

Yes ... I know ... if you've been reading my blog from the beginning, you know I have a strange bromance with this author.  I just love the way he writes.  His stories are always interesting and thought provoking.

And yes ... my review might be a little biased, because I know what Uncle Orson has said: If Ender's Game bombs, then I'm not doing another movie.  So, I'll go ahead and admit ... I want this movie to succeed.  Still, I'll try my best to give a non-biased review.

As a fan of the book, I enjoyed it and was amazed at the adaptation.  Most of the good parts of the book make it into the movie.  I enjoyed watching Ender going through all his stages in Battle School and his promotions.  I loved the portrayals, with Ender, Graff, and Mazer being the strongest matches.  The CGI was well done, and the climax was pretty awesome.

Harrison Ford gave a great performance (after a not-so-great performance in Cowboys and Aliens).  He successfully pulled off the mentor and manipulator angle.

Some parts felt rushed.  For example (very minor spoiler), at the beginning of Battle School, when the kids go out in zero G for the first time, Ender immediately comes up with "The enemy gate is down."  But he does so prior to learning the rules of the game.  The book, instead (as I remember) has the kids flailing around in a couple of matches before Ender comes up with that gem.  And then this idea isn't really used for the rest of the movie.  It's only in there to please the fans who want to hear that line.

Then again, I understand that in a two hour movie, sacrifices have to be made.  While things are being rushed through, there's hardly any time to get bored.  The fast pace keeps the whole movie interesting and watchable.  (Though I'd like to see this movie redone as a miniseries ... that would be awesome!)

Also, there were some strange changes made that I didn't understand.  For example, the Command School was moved from the local Eros to some far away outpost near the Formic homeworld.  When Ender was transported across many light years, I struggled to remember if Earth had the technology to warp like that.  I thought that came in the later books.  And also, I couldn't understand why the change facilitated anything that made the story more portable into the movie format.  It was distracting, but not enough to make me hate the movie.

I have to mention one "bad science" moment.  Right before they entered zero G, the gravity was all wrong.  The room just outside the gate would actually be spinning in relation to the battle room (which would be stationary).  Again ... not enough to kill the movie.

Finally, I should warn you that the anticlimactic ending in the book is pretty much replicated in the movie.  I think someone who hasn't read the book might be confused by what's supposed to be a transition from the Ender's Game proper to the second book in the series.

My suggestion ... go see the movie.  It's pretty cool in IMAX.  If you want to see it in that format, you better go in the next couple of days, because I think Thor will be needing that room.  Help this movie to be a success and let my favorite author know that we want to see more of his books turned into movies.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Gravity -- Not Just a Heavy Movie

The guy sitting next to me was so convinced he was in space, his head exploded.  Gravity was that good.

After a quick introduction reminding us how impossible it is to live in space, we see the earth spinning slowly beneath us.  It looks so far away, and yet so close.  And it looks so real.  Then off to the right comes something that almost seems out of place ... a space shuttle surrounded by a few astronauts.

George Clooney--the experienced one--is putting around with a jet pack--almost as if he were on a joyride.  Sandra Bullock is the researcher who has earned the right to go into space to run her experiments, but she's having trouble with her zero-g environment.  Some Middle Eastern dude is tethered to the ship as he flails around saying, "Look at me!"

Then as the attached trailer shows, disaster strikes.  Space debris tears through the party and you can imagine what happens next.  The astronauts do their best to survive.

The plot is very simple, but it all seems so real.  This is something that could really happen, and not one of your everyday Hollywood formulaic, escapist, let's-all-have-a-happy-ending movie.

Alfonso Cuaron brings to us a detailed and magnificent journey.  The research, detail--both in visuals and sound, and the directing are amazing.  On top of all this, Cuaron writes a story that makes a good attempt to develop characters in the short time allotted.

The name Gravity is about as perfect as titles come.  It could refer to the seriousness of our astronauts' situation.  Or it could refer to the real driving force behind all the events that occur in this movie.

It is very easy to root for the astronauts, and by the end of the movie, it is very easy to feel so small and fragile.  Gravity not only delivers a fight-for-survival story, but it also dives into what it means to be human.

Despite the fact the the movie was NOT shot in 3D, I would strongly recommend going for the IMAX experience.  If you're a 3D purist like me, just keep in mind that it relies heavily on some very well done CGI, and the effects of depth are just as good, if not better, than Avatar.

Though, I was disappointed that the producers didn't go the one extra step of shooting in 3D.  Most of the time, the 3D conversion was well done, but there were still some mistakes.  For example, in one cool scene where an astronaut spins inside a module, the foot closer to the camera seems to be at the same depth of the farther foot, giving a slight sense of the one foot being detached, or swallowed by the rest of the body.  And there are other scenes where the depth just doesn't look right, making an otherwise awesome scene look a little fake-ish.

As for the science in the movie ... it is nearly perfect.  There was only one scene where the camera moves outside of a module and we still hear a little sound (muffled) from inside.  Also, the only other thing would be the timing of events, which seem to occur faster than I would expect ... but understandable in a movie setting.  Still, the good science far outweighs any of the bad, so you can relax knowing the producers did their homework, and they won't lead you astray.

Major kudos to Cauron for bringing us a good hard-sci-fi story, doing it right, and making it interesting enough for the general public to enjoy!  Go watch this movie!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Replacing Google Reader - Part 1


It's been a while since I've kept up with reading my RSS subscriptions.  Earlier I mentioned my issues with transitioning between jobs.  However, one big deterrent has been the demise of iGoogle and Google Reader.  Yes, I know iGoogle is still around for another month or so, but it no longer comes up automatically.

I used to love the convenience of having everything pop up on one page ... calendar, RSS feeds, news articles, etc.

Now ... it's all gone.  Supposedly I could upgrade to Chrome, but to be honest, I'm a little unnerved by what Chrome does to our computers.  It tries to take over everything ... it deactivates functionalities in the other (evidently "inferior") browsers.  It was the weirdest thing.  Once we removed Chrome, the other browsers started working again.

Also, do we really need to continue supporting Google's attempts to monopolize EVERYTHING?

But I digress ... I need to find a replacement for Google Reader.  If you're anything like me, you panicked in June and did the "Takeout Service" and created these cute little JSON files.  And then you did nothing with them, because you never got around to finding a replacement.

So, here goes nothing...

First up, I tried Feedly.  I've heard great things about them, and about how you can import your Google Reader settings and subscriptions ... but really?  I've tried to get it to work on my Mac, and I'm not having much success.  On the home page, there's a link "Import an OPML file."  I click that and it asks me to sign up through my Google account.  I say, "Sure" ... and then it peters out.  It doesn't ask for a location of the JSON files, or the subscriptions.xml file.  It just does ... nothing.

Then I did some research ... other people are having the same problems.  Plus, it appears Feedly will only take the subscriptions, but it leaves behind your starred selections, and other important Google Reader information.

Honestly, I'm surprised, as these JSON files are nothing much more than souped up text files.  If I had to, I could manually go in and set up every single subscription I had, and find the starred articles, etc.  But I didn't do the "Takeout Service" to have to resort to doing something a computer could easily do for me automatically.  I mean as a programmer, myself, I'm at a loss trying to understand what could be so hard to write some simple code to read in a text file and set up subscriptions ... heck ... even I could write that code!

But then again, I don't think that's the real problem.  I notice how fancy the website's trying to be ... the whole fancy look and functionalities.  Perhaps they're going way too fancy when all I'm looking for is a simple reader that will show me the text and pictures and videos.  What good is a "fancy" feed when basic functionalities don't work?  Mac Users need not even try?

I'm sure I could search the Help files to figure out how to make it work, but I searched for 15 minutes, and that was way too long.  By then, I've just lost interest ... and I'm just going to look elsewhere.

Stay tuned as I continue my quest.  Suggestions welcome!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

2013 TV Fall Preview

Here we go ... this is the big week where most of our favorite shows have their Fall Season premieres.

I'm not sure if I'm starting to suffer from TV fatigue, or if TV shows are getting suckier.  This time around, there is only ONE new show that grabs my interest, and I'm dropping a couple of regular shows that I've been watching.

That ONE new show is none other than Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  (Tuesday nights at 8 PM ET.)

... and the only reason why I'm watching is because I'm interested to see how well the "Avengers" movies can be transformed to the small screen.  I'm having difficult remembering any recent successful attempts (other than animated knockoffs, which seem to be popular).  I suppose the closest is Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, but a lot of die hard fans don't like to accept the movie.  Hmmm ... that series was also by Joss Whedon.  I suppose if anyone can pull off a series spinoff from a movie, Joss Whedon can (unless the plug is prematurely pulled like in the case of Firefly).

We'll see how it turns out.  If anything, we gotta watch to see how Agent Coulson comes back to life.  Right?

Other than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the new fall offerings are woefully deficient of sci-fi goodness.  There's plenty of fantasy: Dracula, Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (yes ... it's a spin-off), Sleepy Hollow, and The Tomorrow People.  But none of these strike my fancy.

When are we going to get another interesting hard-science offering?  At least we have Neil deGrasse Tyson in Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey coming in 2014.  Hurry!  Please!

Returning shows I'll be watching:

Haven (SyFy - started Friday, 9/13)  It still looks like it could be interesting, but how much longer can it go?  It's on my chopping block.
Persons of Interest (CBS - Tuesday 9/24)  Yes ... it's still going strong, and it's still interesting.
Revolution (NBC - Wednesday 9/25)  I have to see what happens next, now that the lights are back on, and missiles are flying.
The Simpsons (FOX - Sunday, 9/29)  I can't stay mad at little Bart.
The Walking Dead (AMC - Sunday, 10/13)  It can't come soon enough.  The Governor's true nature is revealed, and he is now at large.  The prison is now overrunning with humans.  Can Rick and company support them all?  Is Rick really done with his crazy spells?
Grimm (NBC - Friday, 10/25)  Nick is a zombie now?  That could be interesting.

Series in waiting:

Warehouse 13 (SyFy) -- I could use a "last season" like Eureka before I lose interest entirely.
Psych (USA) -- also on my chopping block ... it's just getting too raunchy while getting less funny.
Doctor Who (BBC) -- we got the anniversary special coming on 11/23, and then the Christmas special (which will probably have the regeneration into the next Doctor), and then hopefully the next season will come after that.  And hopefully some questions will be answered!

Some new shows I picked up over the summer:

Downtown Abbey (PBS - 1/5/2014)  What's Mary going to do?  I also wonder if we Americans will get to see any of the shows sooner on Amazon Prime?  I mean ... the UK gets to start watching Season 4 this month!
Sherlock (BBC - Possibly November 2013)  How did Sherlock do that last bit?  We'll find out soon...

Shows that I've given up on:

The Neighbors (ABC - started Friday, 9/20)  It turned out to be much funnier than I expected last year, and I enjoyed watching, but over the summer, I came to realize that I just don't care what happens next.
Once Upon a Time (ABC - Sunday, 9/29)  I still can't get over the introduction of Mulan and Robin Hood, who are more of actual historical legends than they are fairy tales, and their existence in this show is only because they were in Disney movies.  Also, the overuse of Deus ex Machina  has caused me to lose interest.  What good is a dire situation, when some magical cure can always be found at the last minute?

I hope you all have better luck finding some good new shows to enjoy.  I suppose I'll be hitting up Netflix and picking up good shows I missed in the past ...

Saturday, September 7, 2013

And the Band Played On

I am proud of the six years I spent marching in high school and college.  Now, the torch passes on to my oldest son who has just started his first year.  Last week, I got to see him march for the first time, and that night, I saw something amazing, which I'll get to in a moment.

First off, you can watch the following video, and see if you notice anything interesting.

Perhaps you heard how noisy the crowd was, or how difficult it was to hear the music over them.  Perhaps you noticed the majority of those caught on camera NOT clapping when the performance was done.  Yeah, it's pretty strange, as it didn't appear they were doing anything else while sitting there.

Yes ... I noticed that though the crowd had "spirit," and cheered on their team ... and though they sat down in reverence to honor an injured player ... and though they showed how to enjoy a game ... yet when it came to the band, the crowd largely ignored them.  "Who needs them?"  You'd think that the largest band in the county would be appreciated by their own school!

Then, as is custom at this school, the band hung back at the end of the game to perform the halftime show for the parents.  The reason for this, I found out, is that it's usually too loud during the "real" performance.  So, evidently the band is used to this disregard, and has taken steps to re-perform the show after the noisy teenagers have left.

I watched the re-performance, and it was nice to be able to enjoy it without distractions.  But something else happened...

The football players (on our team) also hung back at the end of their game.  They went over to the end zone and sat on the grass, watching the band's whole performance.  This was not normal.  When the performance was done, the football players stood up and clapped.  Then they converged on the band.

One of the parents yelled, "They're mingling!"

Down on the field, the coach explained that the football players wanted to thank the band for their support.  The last week, the team had to play without the band's presence, and they noticed the difference.  The band helped everyone to cheer the team more, and helped them feel better about themselves.

As the football players walked off the field, the band played the fight song.  They all looked happy.  It was something I had never seen before, and may never see it again.  It's good to know that someone else enjoys the band!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Life Getting in the Way Again

You've probably noticed my lack of writing this year.  That's just life getting in the way again.  Apparently stress over losing your job, finding a new job, and adjusting to a new schedule can really take away your energy!

Plus, on top of it all, Google Reader has gone the way of the do-do.  So, I haven't been keeping up with my friends' blogs.  That's too bad, as I find my friends' stories to be inspirational as they enjoy different successes winning contests and getting published.  (I'll look into that Feedly website and see if I can get back on my blog reading.)

The good news is, I'm starting to see everything come back together again.  I've started writing again, and I'm starting to get some really good ideas for new stories.  The urge to write just can't be held down for so long.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Pick Me! Pick Me!

I'm sure you've seen it a million times on TV ... kids playing kickball or dodgeball, and as they pick their teams, the ONE kid always gets picked last. Here's one of my favorite examples from the movie Megamind ...

A little overdone?  A little too much melodrama added for just the right comedic effect?  Actually, they have it just about right. How do I know?  Because I was THAT kid.

My family moved during the summer right before my third grade year. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to have a fresh start in life, and for a few hours, it was all going my way. That first day of school, the teacher introduced the new kid ... that was me. The kids crowded around me. The girls winked at me, cooties and all. The boys talked about me coming over to play. It was a dream come true.

... and then came P. E.

First up was kickball. All the boys warmed up by kicking the ball straight up into the air, and catching it on the way down. It was all a big contest to see who could get it to go the highest. Then with great anticipation, they handed me the ball. I gave it a small toss and then the biggest kick I could muster. The ball went off to the side, and hit a girl in the head.

With that one kick, my elementary school career was ruined. When they chose teams that day, guess who got chosen last! And then the next day, and the next, and so on. The girls stopped winking at me. The boys also left me alone. Plus, because of alphabetical discrimination, I was always last in line.

Yeah. It sucked.

But just like Megamind in the clip above, I found my strengths. I knew what I was good at. I could make people laugh. For spelling exercises, I would create the funniest stories. Ask my friends about the one that ended with a girl and a boy kissing in the bathroom. (I didn't get to finish reading that story!)

If I couldn't be the super jock, at least I could be the class clown!

In fourth grade, the trend continued. I still got picked last. Everyone (even the outfielders) would scoot in when it was my time to kick, and I always got out.

Then there was Leroy. He was really good at the game, and he was usually one of the captains or one of the first ones chosen. And man, was I ever so jealous! He was a good kid and all that, but one day something happened. I can't remember the exact details, but I think I hit Leroy, and maybe he hit back.Or maybe one of us scattered the other boy's papers.

Whatever it was, the teacher had a long talk with us and determined what the real issue was. She decided to make me a captain for the week. Wouldn't you know it? It turned out to be a good experience. I played well that whole week. My team kept winning. I would kick the ball over the people who scooted up. I could dodge the ball when it was thrown at me. I scored runs.

It impressed all my classmates, and it also helped me gain greater appreciation for them ... especially Leroy.

But then the next week, everything went back to normal. My kicks went back to random duds. I went back to being picked last. I still reigned as class clown! The only difference was that I stopped resenting the whole situation.

Fast forward many years, and life happened. Now we're all grown up. I'm still friends with several of those kids. I'm still a clown. I'm actually better at kickball/softball ... especially when I play against the cub scouts. "Watch this home run, kids! And try not to cry so much!"

Now I'm fighting other kinds of captains. There are gatekeepers out there who have the power to choose people to publish. I feel that I'm being chosen last, only this time there are thousands of colleagues in the same situation as I am. The ones who actually get published are the same players ... big name authors who have credits out the wazoo.

But you know what? I already know how to play the game. Just keep trying, sit out on the sidelines, and yell, "Pick me! Pick me!" Because one day, I'll have my turn.

Until that happens, did you hear the one about ... ?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Despicable Me 2

Despicable Me 2 delivers exactly what it promises: funny gags, a good story, and hundreds of minions. It picks up where the first movie leaves off and follows a natural continuation.

Gru is approached to find and stop a master criminal, and at the same time he tries to protect and take care of his little girls.  I can't say much more without spoilers.

The only complaint I have is that there were a couple of slow parts where I started falling asleep.  Perhaps it was when the action slowed down to allow for some feel-good moments.

The only regret is that I didn't watch this one in 3-D.  It looks like it would have been fun.

The kids loved it.  I highly recommend catching this one ... especially if you liked the original.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Redshirts ... Even the Book Died

John Scalzi's Redshirts is a funny, quick read with several good parts and some very interesting philosophical questions.  Yet, when I was done reading, I felt very unsatisfied.

The concept is hilarious.  You're probably familiar with what happens to "redshirts" on Star Trek.  If an unknown gets beamed down to a planet along with Captain Kirk and the other regulars, guess who's going to get shot by the laser!  It's going to be the unknown dude.

On Star Trek, these poor "redshirts" don't know what's about to happen to them, but in Scalzi's book, they figure it out.  They avoid away missions and try their best to maximize survival.  Sounds hilarious, doesn't it?

Well ... it was until I got about halfway through and the concept wore thin.  Plus ...

#1) The plot was very simple.  The ending was abrupt and didn't provide a good sense of closure.

#2) The several f-bombs and "college dorm" situations seemed inconsistent with the whole established Star Trek universe.  I felt a little gypped, as the book didn't "feel" like what I expected.

#3) The characters were very bland and difficult to remember -- which I expect may be intentional, because they are "redshirts" after all.  But still, they seemed like pawns moving through a series of very helpful coincidences.

I did enjoy the philosophical questions Scalzi raised.  My favorite part turned out to be the "first person"  Coda.  There was some really good stuff in there.  I just wish the rest of the book had Scalzi's usual intelligence and fulfilling story telling.

My recommendation ... if you're looking for a light, funny read, then check this book out from the library.  Otherwise, you may better enjoy other Scalzi books such as Old Man's War.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

World War Z ... The Movie

How do you take a book such as World War Z with its multiple plots and heroes and villains, and turn it into a successful movie?  Simple ... throw away the entire story and write a new one.  And wouldn't you know it?  It seems to have worked.

The movie is similar to the book.  After all, there's a worldwide zombie pandemic and each nation reacts differently.  North Korea does have its secrets and rumors that one hears about but never sees.  Israel does end up being a little more successful than other countries.  And there is that one UN guy who now has a name ... Gerry Lane.

However, not even one story from the book survives (except for perhaps quick random snippets in the prelude and postlude).  There is no Battle of Yonkers, or valiant Japanese guys or Chinese submarines or chicks lost in the woods, and all those cool stories from the book.

In other words, don't go in there expecting to see your favorite story from the book, because I guarantee it's not in there.  As a fan of the book, I was a little disappointed and left with a feeling of "that's it?".

As a standalone movie, though, it does pretty well.  There's plenty of action.  For a PG-13 movie, it still successfully kindles suspense and a sense of doom.  Though I laughed a couple of times when something gory was moved off screen -- such as when one guy kills himself, it happens just as he moves off the screen.

You do end up spending the whole time with Brad Pitt, but I'm okay with that.  He had some cool parts.  I know many can't stand him (like many can't stand Tom Cruise), but I always try to turn off any dislike for the person so I can admire the craft ... and Pitt was good.

I recommend catching this one in the theater.  Stay away from the 3-D version.  They didn't pay to shoot it in 3-D, so don't pay for the glasses.  If you're not a fan of the book, you may have a better chance of enjoying the movie.  (Then go read the book.)  If you are a fan of the book, just realize up front that: yeah -- they should have called the movie some other title.

... And if you liked the movie, good news for you!  A sequel is now in the works!  Maybe they'll bring back parts of Straczynski's script, and give us some of the book.  We'll see ...

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Man of Steel Rocks

I should first admit that I'm a huge fan of Zack Snyder's films. The Man of Steelis no exception. As you watch, prepare yourself for Snyder's usual comic-book style of directing ... his epic scenes ... his cool special effects ... and of course the one guy who likes to yell like that one Sparta dude.

Add in a little Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, writers of Batman fame, and you have an epic film that nearly blows away all Superman movies made before.

The cast is very strong. The plot is strong. The fight scenes are epic. Hans Zimmer's score rocks, as he explores new musical ideas. (In fact I thought it was someone else trying to imitate Zimmer's style ... I laughed when I saw it was indeed Zimmer.)

If I had to complain, it would mainly come from comparing with earlier Superman films. A lot of stuff feels missing, and sometimes things happen that could make one say, "That's not how it's supposed to go!" Some may find this movie darker than all the rest. But don't worry ... our hero, Kal'el, stays pure and true to the American wave. (Well, it's now more like the worldwide wave.) In fact I would venture to say that despite the PG-13 rating, I think it would be safe and enjoyable to kids down to say 10 years old.

Also, a couple of times, the fight scenes were so epic that it actually felt a little too much to take in. Then again ... that's why you need to watch the movie again. One thing's for sure, though. After watching this movie, it's hard to watch any of the fight scenes from Superman II with Christopher Reeve:

In all, I say ... well done! I'd recommend not watching it in 3-D. It's awesome all by itself in good old-fashioned 2-D, and since they didn't pay the extra money to film it in 3-D (instead resorting to the cheaper conversion method), why pay the extra dough for the glasses?

I look forward to the sequel and the upcoming Justice League movie.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Warrior Girl: A Charming Book

I would have missed reading Warrior Girl entirely, had I not been approached by the publishers to read it and write a review.  Their description of the book pulled me in instantly, so I agreed to give my honest review.

The story features Sun Hi, a Korean, during her first year at Oxford.  While dealing with some not-so-nice and very competitive colleagues, she often retreats into the World of Warcraft.

At first, the plot may not sound so exciting ... another coming of age story set at some English university.  But I couldn't resist the World of Warcraft angle, being a gamer myself.  When the game is first introduced in the story, it feels like something coming from left field.  It also feels like a major character flaw ... retreating into some imaginary world when she can't handle things.  However, it later becomes central to the whole plot.  I believe the authors pulled it off well.

I was also impressed with how much the authors got right about Korean culture.  Having lived there for two years, I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the whole book.  There are certain things that Sun Hi does (or doesn't do) that you might not expect from an American/English person, but are actually common among the Korean people.  After reading the book, I wonder what the true origins of the story are.  Is it the result of major research?  Or is it a retelling of something that really happened?

The other characters are sufficiently interesting and believable.  My favorite was Miles, the captain of the rowing team.  He's mostly a good person, but he makes his shares of mistakes.  My least favorite was Sun Hi's roommate, Marina, who seemed a little over the top in her arrogance.  But then again, those kind of people really do exist.

The British "flavour" is as charming as Sun Hi is.  At times the book seems to have a "Hogwarts" feel, though without all the magic.  Again, it feels like the authors did their research on English university life.

I found the end to be very satisfying, and I'm happy to have come across this book.  It is targeted for YA readers, but I would recommend this to almost anyone.  I believe it has wide appeal, and that anyone who reads it will find it difficult not to love Sun Hi.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Star Trek: Into Awesomeness

I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness once and I'm going to see it again.  It met my expectations and exceeded them.  It delivered a great story mixed with some cool special effects.

This sequel starts off strong with a mission in progress on the "red tree" planet.  Kirk makes some questionable decisions, getting him into trouble.  However, when Agent John Harrison initiates a terrorist attack, Kirk is pulled back into action.  Nothing goes right, and all the crew members must make the best with what they have and keep it all together.

Cumberbatch plays a great villain, and I would never want to get in his way.  Pine plays Kirk almost as a loose cannon, but someone willing to make the difficult decisions.  Quinto plays up the half-blooded Vulcan still struggling between his two legacies, though slow to admit this to his colleagues.

The composer, Giacchino, has outdone himself.  (He had already surpassed John Williams years ago.)  This time he takes on the style of Philip Glass.  It's by far the most successful emulation I've heard, matching several of his musical markers.  I also heard a little John Adams in the closing credits.  The whole score was amazing, bringing together these styles with Giacchino's own personal touch.

I suspect that almost anyone would enjoy this film ... even those who have never watched any Star Trek.  That is, it's not really a prerequisite to have seen the 2009 movie.

My only complaint about the movie is that it relied too heavily on quotes from the original TV show and movies.  I know these are supposed to be nods to the die-hard Trekkies, but it was a little too much this time, and I found it little too distracting.  In fact, there was one particularly cheezy moment.  Unless they were going for campy-funny, it didn't work at all for me.

I can overlook that complaint (as I watch it again).  But I strongly, strongly and strongly recommend NOT watching it in 3-D.  It did nothing for me.  The coolest part was the IMAX countdown before the movie started.  However, in the movie itself, I could see double images, mainly in my right eye.  And while the conversion was a noble effort, there were still several distance issues as the camera panned, which helped to make certain scenes look fake.  In other words, I don't think they did it right.  I'll try again with good old fashioned 2-D.  I wish they had IMAX 2-D.  Now, THAT would be awesome.

Be prepared for lens flares, as J. J. Abrams can't make a movie without them.  They're cool sometimes, but they really stick out in 3-D (another reason to watch in 2-D).

With the awesome story and new kinds of special effects, you'll definitely want to catch this in the theater.  Enjoy!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Iron Man 3

Who says sequels always suck?  Iron Man 3 may be my favorite of the trilogy.  The movie not only delivers action and awesome special effects, but it also delivers a real story that is both interesting, somewhat complex, and yet easy to follow.  Some complain that it doesn't deliver enough effects, but I'll take story over effects any day.

A terrorist, the "Mandarin," is bombing several different targets, but Ironman wants to put a stop to it.  Tony Stark, again, plays the quirky almost hero, who mostly prevails while things don't turn out exactly as he wanted them to.  Hmmm ... I guess that part does sound like the first two movies.  The movie also makes use of well-timed and well-placed humor.  Okay ... that was also in the first two movies.

Okay ... it was just awesome and entertaining.

Ben Kingsley gave a great performance as the "Mandarin," though many may be disappointed by the character.  Downey was good.  Paltrow was good.  Jon Favreau, director of the first two movies, reprises his own role as Happy.

I recommend seeing this one in the theater.  3-D is optional, as it wasn't shot in 3-D.  I wouldn't recommend it for children under 13.  Have fun watching!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

G. I. Joe: Retaliation

G. I. Joe: Retaliation was nonstop action, but severely lacking in plot.  There were some ridiculously crazy awesome fight scenes, but getting from A to B got a little confusing.

To start off, most of the G. I. Joe crew is replaced with totally different characters.  Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) is always awesome in the roles he plays, but his character, Roadblock, appears at the very beginning of the movie without introduction or explanation.  I suppose we're to assume he's just one of the guys.  It helps that he buddies up with Duke from the original movie, but near the beginning when (as the trailer shows above) most of the Joes are wiped out and Roadblock and a few others survive, we're at a loss understanding how Roadblock got to be that good.  What's his backstory?  Why did he join the Joes?  The whole time it felt like I was watching "The Rock" instead of Roadblock.

Wait!  I just noticed!  ROadbloCK.  He IS the Rock!

There are some connections to the original movie.  It may help to go to a wiki page to refresh yourself what happens in that movie.  However, it seems that the original plot is mostly thrown out the window in the sequel.  We do learn more about Snake Eyes vs. Storm Shadow.  We finally get to meet Mr. G. I. Joe himself, played by Bruce Willis.  Though, his introduction was confusing ... why can we trust him ... and why wasn't he in the first movie?  I saw him more as "Bruce Willis" in Die Hard, than I saw him as the creator of the Joes.  Like the Rock, Bruce is cool in the roles he plays.  How many movies is that guy going to appear in?

I love the comic-book action/violence that permeates throughout the whole movie, but I was a little disturbed by some of the setup.  Since the Joes are practically turned into outlaws, they must do battle with their own government.  Plus, near the beginning of the movie, the Joes must participate in a foreign mission that would be highly questionable in any political environment.  In these missions, the Joes take on and even kill some good people who are just doing their jobs.

In one scene, the Joes must get past some US guards at a gate.  The Joes kill these guards without hesitation.  It's got to be done to save the world, but still ... don't those red blooded Americans have wives and children waiting at home for them?  You think their survivors are going to sit back and "understand"?  No, in the third movie, they're going to be suing the Joes.

But then again, in the mind of the director, who's really only presenting a series of awesome fight scenes loaded with top-notch special effects, these US guards are just random "bad guys" whose real purpose in movie life is to give the good guys someone to cut down.

The violent scenes are indeed cool, but I wish they could have done more with the plot so as to not show too many unnecessary deaths of good people just doing their jobs.  Either make the deaths necessary, or at least don't resort to killing when only temporary incapacitation is required.

Another observation: it seemed that this time, the bad guys got all the cool gadgets, while the Joes had nothing near as cool as what they got in the first movie.  It's not a show stopper, but still ... why can't the good guys have all the cool gadgets?

Finally, I would venture to guess that Republicans and gun-lovers will eat up all the Easter eggs placed throughout the movie ... a Fox News joke ... guns everywhere.  In fact, the very last scene ends with someone holding up a gun at a solemn ceremony and randomly shooting it in the air.  Really?  I guess they had to fade to black quickly before the Secret Service jumped on the shooter.

Yet, I actually enjoyed the movie.  The non-stop awesome fight scenes and action was worth the theater price I paid.  In fact, I would recommend watching this movie in a theater so that you can fully enjoy these scenes.  Because once this hits DVD/Blu-Ray, it's just not going to be as enjoyable a movie.  Go watch this before Senator Feinstein bans it!

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why Watch the Movie When You Can Watch the Trailer?

Sometimes I think that Hollywood believes that we're stupid.  Do they really believe they can put the whole movie into the trailer, and expect us to forget what we saw?  Unfortunately for us, this can kill the suspense when we actually go to see the movie.

For example, consider the classic What About Bob?  This annoyingly funny movie builds to great climax.  Bob places explosives around the doctor's house, which no one expects to ever go off ... that is unless you happened to see the trailers.  If you were one of the unfortunate, then you knew the house was going to explode the whole time.  So those hilarious ten minutes building to the climax? ... All ruined, because you already saw what happens in the trailer!

And a more recent example?  <beware ... minor spoilers ... you might want to skip this paragraph>  Consider Oblivion ... a visually stunning movie, while a little light on plot.  I avoided the previews like the plague, knowing that one day I'd watch the movie.  And I'm glad I did.  Most of the trailers reveal that Sally is evil (not just a lying bureaucrat, but plain evil).  Seeing how this is a main plot twist, what are you, the viewer, supposed to do for the first hour of the movie before this is "revealed?"  Suspense ruined!

And I hate movies where ALL the good parts are in the trailer.  When it's over, it feels like none of the movie is fun.

Well, I suppose there is one use for a "good" trailer.  Sometimes if it's a movie you know you'll never pay money to see, the trailer will let you watch the whole plot for free, and it's all over in a matter of minutes.  I'll close with this trailer that gets my vote for Most Revealed Plot...

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Oblivion - Blew Me Away

Oblivion with Tom Cruise was a crazy fun movie.  Filled with action, suspense, mystery, wonderful sci-fi ambiance, and real three dimensional characters, this movie is worth forking over the bucks to watch in the theater.

The ambiance pulls in the viewer immediately.  The sets, the music, the clothing, and the cinematography all work together to create a believable world with a futuristic feel.

Tom Cruise plays Jack, a technician assigned to repair drones on Earth.  In a war against an extraterrestrial invader, Earth is pretty much laid to waste.  The drones help to fight remnant scavengers.  In another two weeks the mission will be done, but yet, Jack has these strange memories and comes to learn that things aren't what they seem.

At the very beginning of the movie, Jack, in a voice-over, explains how he and his teammate have had their memories wiped clean for their own protection.  Right away, this tells the viewer that something's not right.  For at least the first half of the movie, I kept trying to guess what the catch was.  I had no idea what was coming, and it was pretty cool.

The drones, themselves, are almost their own character in the story.  You get to learn a lot about how they work, and my verdict ... very well designed.  The drones are programmed to destroy scavengers, and they are very efficient at what they do.  The night I watched this movie, I had nightmares of trying to escape and fight one of these drones.

The plot is both simple and complex at the same time.  That is, it's very easy to follow, but be prepared to spend time after the movie trying to put all the pieces together.  At first I thought the plot relied too much on coincidences, but when you think about it, there are certain events and planning that occur "off stage" and are left for the viewer to discover on their own.  After reanalyzing, only a couple of coincidences remain.

There are however, a couple of plot holes.  The biggest one involving a certain artifact.  When you think about it, you'll realize, "Wait a minute.  How exactly did that artifact get to Point B?"  No biggie, but worth mentioning.

There are also a couple of "bad science" instances.  For one, I'm not sure how torn up the Earth would get if our moon was blown into pieces.  Though, I love how they showed the moon, with pieces of it already forming a ring around the planet.  Another thing is the idea of sucking up water for energy when there is much more water available in the solar system that's easier to get to.  Think about how heavy water is and how much energy would be required just to push that water up the gravity well.

But bad science and a couple of plot holes aside, I recommend this movie for ages 14 and higher.  Catch this one in the theater.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Oz - The Great and Powerful Movie

Since I grew up telling everyone that my favorite movie of all time was The Wizard of Oz (1939), I thoroughly enjoyed watching this prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful, and I'm happy that I caught it on the big screen.

This movie tells the story of how the Wizard made it to Oz.  If you know the original 1939 version, then you can probably guess how this movie ends.  That is, you know beforehand that the Wizard is going to be stuck there.

As the trailer shows, the director, Raimi, went to great lengths to match the feel of its predecessor.  The sets look similar.  The music is similar.  Even the plot lines are mostly consistent.  As such, I would expect most 1939 fans to enjoy this film the same as I did.

Just like in the original, the first part is in black and white, and in the original 4:3 aspect ratio.  But when they hit Oz ... watch out!  The color fades in and the screen moves to widescreen.  It was a pretty cool effect.  And as expected, "minor" characters in the beginning reappear as "major" characters later on.  So, this movie also has the possible interpretation of "the Wizard just bonked his head and went crazy cuckoo."  Only, in this version he doesn't wake up!  Oh no!

I missed seeing it in 3-D.  The reason is that when I checked Real or Fake 3D, I saw "The Wizard of Oz" listed as being "fake," but that's a totally different movie.  Oz the Great and Powerful is actually in real 3-D.  If you can still catch the movie in 3-D, it may be worth it.

The only complaint is that I'm not sure how well this movie can stand on its own.  Without its connections to the 1939 original, it's really some good eye-candy with an average plot.  It relies heavily in duping the audience, but then makes the mistake of having the characters duped as well, when ... if you think about it ... they must be really stupid, because how on earth could they not know that stuff?  Watch the movie, and then think about it.  There's even one revelation where a certain character acts one way before ... as if not knowing what's going on, and then immediately after the revelation, acts as if he knew the whole time.  Ooops.

Still, it's worth watching.  I recommend it for the whole family.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Host - Not That Bad

I liked The Host.  My wife didn't.  She read the book, while I didn't.

Even though the movie feels like a low budget feature, I thought it was well written and was all around good sci-fi.  Be prepared for a major chick flick, though.

In The Host, the invasion has already happened.  Only a few humans remain unturned.  Near the beginning of the movie, Melanie is captured and is invaded by the persona called Wanderer.  Since Melanie is so strong willed, she resists and talks with Wanderer, and sometimes regains partial control of her body.

At first, Melanie's voice-over, as she "speaks" to Wanderer, is strange and borders on cheesy, but I got used to it quickly.  Though, there was one love scene later that used the voice-over technique, which didn't quite work for me. 

As you can guess with Stephanie Meyer's work, Melanie is in love with one guy, while Wanderer falls in love with another.  Too bad there's just one body!

The movie does have some pretty good moments and explores some areas I've never seen before.  Kudos to Stephanie.  The acting was decent.  The special effects were decent, though sometimes on the cheesy side.

My wife tells me the book was much better.  She says that it's almost as if the producers took the more "adult" novel and intentionally inserted the feel of the tweener Twilight series.  I can see that through the music they chose and their decisions to play up the love triangle aspect.  Perhaps one day I'll read the book and then hate the movie, but until that happens, I thought it was a good experience.  It was at least much better than the first two Twilight movies that I saw.

My recommendation: This would be a good movie to rent and watch with the honey when it comes out on DVD.  Though there are a few scenes that look cool on the big screen.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

A Quiet Celebration

A couple of weeks ago, I announced my big stepping-stone event ... I earned my first paycheck through winning second place in the Actuarial Speculative Fiction Contest.  Despite how groundbreaking this is, I couldn't help but notice how quiet the celebrations were. 

Yeah ... it was very quiet.  Not that it's at all upsetting ... but where were all the trumpets and the heavens opening up and all that good stuff?

I suppose part of it was realizing how few of my friends even realize that I'm writing.  I think I told two people at work about my big win, and they both said, "That's nice," and we moved on to something else.

My gut tells me that's what it's going to be like with every award or paycheck I receive.  Here's a hypothetical situation I can imagine at work after I win a Nebula award...

"Hey Frank!  Guess what!  Did you hear the news?  I just won the Freakin Nebula award!  Come on ... do the dance with me!"

"Huh?  What's a Nebula?"

"You know ... sci fi books.  Like Ender's Game.  I'm in the same league as Orson Scott Card!"

"You're playing video games?  What kind of card did you win?"

"You never heard of Ender's Game?  There's a movie coming out."

"Oh ... like TRON?  Hey, have you finished up that TPS Report, yet?"

" ... "

Well, at least I got you guys.  I'm just letting you know that the celebrations don't last very long.  But the happiness ... yeah ... I still got that.  My writing is re-energized.  I finally have some real validation of the talent that I was wondering if I really had (as is evidenced in that wonderful last sentence I just wrote).  I may not be doing the dance, but I got my smile on.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

My First Contest Win

I am resisting the temptation to write in ALL CAPS, but I'm excited to announce my very first REAL credit.  I placed 2nd in the Actuarial Speculative Fiction contest!

I also grabbed the "Most unique use of technology in a story" award.

So, Booyah!  First credit to put in my query letters!  Finally, something to put in my Schedule C - Income section!

The other winners are good stories, and I recommend reading them as well.  Also, check here to see an overview of all 18 stories.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a cover letter to write ...

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Mister Six Digits

Did I ever tell you about the toughest student to walk into the BYU Math Lab?  We called him Mister Six Digits, because every time he talked, he never hesitated to remind you how much he made.  He was also very difficult to tutor, because if he couldn't understand you, he would tell you to go away.

My boss gave me the challenge to reach the guy.  I was one of the best tutors in the Math Lab at the time.  That's because of this little talent I have.  When I tutor, I not only look at the piece of paper, but I study the person -- their voice, their posture -- searching for any clues of understanding.  If I see that my approach is working, I continue.  If it's not working, I switch gears and try something else.  It's kind of like playing a musical instrument.

So, when Mister Six Digits put up his orange flag, the other tutors let me have him.  At first it was difficult to learn his style, but things started clicking.  He was understanding the math, and he was happy.  He learned my hours at the Math Lab and came at those times.  He told me that he liked me.  I was his favorite little nerd.  He would put his arm around me and give me fisty-pumps.

As he became more acquainted with me, he opened up ... well, kind of.  He would talk about being rich and successful in general, but would never go into details.  We math tutors tried to figure out how he was getting those six digits.  Was he an Amway dude who got in early?  Was he a drug dealer?  In Utah?  The best theory we could come up with was that his father owned a successful company and put his son into a management level position at the top.

I resented the guy, but I had a job to do, and I would do whatever it took to make sure this guy got the highest grade possible in his class.  However, it was difficult when he would say something like this ... "Do you know the difference between me and you?  I'm going to college because I want to, since I make six digits.  You're going to college because you have to."

There were so many responses I wanted to give, but bit my tongue since I had that job to do.  I would go home at night and unload on my wife and tell her what I wanted to say.  After all, how did he know that I wasn't making six digits?  Well, I wasn't.  Not even five digits.  But one day I'd catch up to him ... when my music and writing career took off.  It'll happen one day.  Right?

I didn't have to go to college, either.  If I wanted a real job, I could quit right then and there.  Right?  Well ... maybe he did have a point.

As the semester progressed, he got more and more on my nerves, but I was still the only person who could help him.  Then one day, he unloaded a big frustration on me.  With all the money he had in the world, he was unable to find a girlfriend.  He was feeling lonely.

And then the next week, he learned that I was married and my wife was pregnant with our first child.  He never knew before, because I don't usually wear my wedding ring.  He asked to see a picture of my wife, so I showed him.

He said, "Wow!  She's hot.  How did a loser like you find such a hot babe?"  He vented for another few minutes about how he still couldn't find himself a girlfriend and then he told me, "I'm sorry, but I can't concentrate.  Go away."

The next day he put up a flag when he saw me, and we tried it for about a minute when he said, "I'm sorry, but you can't help me anymore.  I can't stop thinking about how you got that hot wife.  That's so messed up."

And that was it.  I probably helped him one last time on a particularly difficult math problem, but on the most part, he pushed me away.

I never knew what happened to Mister Six Digits after that semester.  Did he figure out his "girl problems"?  Did he learn any lessons from our exchanges?  Is he still making six digits?  Did he ever become happily married?

I came out of that experience happier and satisfied.  I didn't have six digits, but I received happiness through fulfilling the duties of my job, and going home each night to a hot wife.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Actuarial Speculative Fiction - 2013 - The Stories

Last month, I announced my participation in the 10th Annual Actuarial Speculative Fiction Contest.

You can see my entry along with the others at this link here.  Then after you've read the stories, you can vote by clicking on the "Vote for your favorite story" link.  The voting ends on March 15, so read fast so you can vote.  The chances of me winning that honor are slim, but I'm hoping for winning one of the judged prizes.

If you only have time to read a few stories before voting ... or if you just want to read a few without voting, I'm supplying this guide to the stories.  These synopses can help you decide which ones you'd like to read.

I'll get my story out of the way, first.  As usual, I'm a terrible judge as to how great my work is.  The common phenomenon is that I know in my head what I wanted to accomplish, and when I read my story, that's what I see instead of what I actually did accomplish.  As such, I never vote for my own story and I leave it out of the rankings that are to follow.

Actuarial Year - John Johnson, an actuary, awakes from a coma and realizes that the world is starting to go his way.  Is everyone becoming an actuary?  Or is John still in a coma?

The following four are my favorites of the stories that remain.  Each of these follow an individual person's struggles or experiences, and also incorporates actuarial science to a satisfactory degree.  I predict that these stories would be enjoyable for actuaries and non-actuaries.  I will vote for one of these four.

Calibration (Steve Mathys) - In the not so distant future, probabilities rule everyone's lives.  Every night, probabilities are calculated on several yes/no events.  Then the morning of the next day, randomly generated numbers determine the actual outcomes.  Stuart lives a happy life until one day the answer to a certain question ruins his day -- big time.

Ever-Changing (Kevin Jones) - in a time when the world government establishes an annual budget and decides how resources are allocated, Henry (an actuary) is given a business opportunity that's hard to refuse.  Yet, he struggles -- is it best for his family?

Peanut Butter Cookies (Nate Worrell) - A robot is watching over Grannie and taking care of her, but is the robot as good as a human?  Plus, the insurance company is getting a little squirrely about the care.

Tolva (Jerry Levy) - Tim Tolva, an actuary, uses his skills to help design babies through manipulating genetic code.

The following five stories are a close second.  And you may like one of these better than my top four.  They each follow an individual's journey, and should be enjoyable to the non-actuary as well as the actuary reader.

Activities of Daily Living (Carol Marler) - This is a study of a new type of assisted living, from several different viewpoints.

Discrepancies (Laura E. Kieft) - All Celine wants to do is find Kyle (an actuary), but soon will find out that Kyle has stumbled on a discrepancy that is making lots of people rich.  However, guess who's in charge of the show...

The Fountain of Youth (Ben Marshall) - There's a new drug in town, and it's called Time Warp.  Rumors are that it can extend one's life expectancy, so naturally, insurance companies are very concerned, and may do whatever it takes to make sure Time Warp never sees the light of day.  While Sam learns of this drug, his wife contracts a terminal illness, and Sam does everything he can to save her life.  NOTE: This well-written and enjoyable story would be in my top four, but it sits at my estimate of at least 8000 words, which is well beyond the 6000 word maximum of the contest.

Sources and Characteristics of Mortality Tables (James A. Keeney) - Al Payano, actuary is tasked to produce a mortality curve, yet there's a big spike in the data.  Why did it show so many 30-years old dying at the same time?  At the same time, he's receiving major pressure from his boss to produce results.  Al tries to get down to the bottom of the data issues, but starts to wish he hadn't.

The Trial (Rodge) - Dr. Lopez is diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma.  In an attempt to save his life, he agrees to be cryogenically frozen until a cure can be found.  19 years later, he's cured and revived.  However, the life insurance company is upset that they paid out a death benefit only to find out that he's alive again.

The remaining stories are also interesting reads, but rather than following an individual's journey, they are really stories expanding on theories and hypothetical situations.  Actuaries will probably find these interesting more than non-actuaries.  Oh ... except for "Roxanne, Interrupted" which has nothing to do with actuarialism at all, but still well-written and worth reading.

My guess is that the judged technical awards will come out of this group.

The Actuaries of Boulder Ridge (Chris Fievoli) - shunned by society, actuaries who survive now live in a compound in the boonies of Montana.  They do their work in secret, even though standard insurance had collapsed.  The government is in a bad way, but one day the actuaries' biggest fears are realized: the government has found them.

An Actuarial Opinion (Mark Birdsall) - a group of actuaries has predicted the collapse of the US economy.  Can actuaries save the day?

Defending Your Life (Gregory A. Dreher) - James Johnson, personal actuary, uses his skills by helping people prepare for retirement.  But since the degradation of social programs and longer life spans cause retirement ages to be pushed into the 75 range, desperate couples find creative ways to get more money ... through innovative game shows.

Dreamliner (Rizwan Majeed Khan) - An actuary in the future makes a living in the secondary market insurance business.  One day he meets Michelle, an aspiring actuary, and taken by her, the narrator hires her and trains her to be his apprentice.

The Martian Paper Flea (Marilyn Dunstan) - Earth's magnetic field is dying and attempts are made to colonize Mars.  Peter Gabriel, an actuary, joins the colony and helps to assess morbidity and mortality.  As they come to learn that life once existed on Mars, they become exposed to a very interesting virus spread by the martian paper flea.

One Forecast of the Future (Scott McInturff) - Radha and Simon have just graduated with actuarial degrees, and they discuss their plans for the future.  NOTE: This story is very well-written, and I enjoyed it as an actuary, but not as a story reader since there really isn't any plot.  After introducing the characters, it turns into a long Ayn-Rand-like info dump.  I would love to read an action-thriller or some other story with a plot by this author.  Also, the word count is either right at 6000 or a little higher.

Roxanne, Interrupted (Walt Herrington) - this story is about Roxanne running from a pack of cyberdogs ... or is it.  The story is interrupted by some entity.  NOTE: This well written clever piece would possibly be in my top four, except it makes no mention of actuaries or the profession.  It's still an enjoyable read.

The Subprime Directive (Sean Behre) - an intergalactic committee has an interesting discussion concerning the death of the human race on Earth.  This is a clever analogy of our recent subprime market crash with a funny twist.

I hope you enjoy reading these stories ... and if you feel so inclined, vote for your favorite one.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Zero Hour - A Familiar Story

After watching the pilot episode of Zero Hour, I feel like I've just watched an hour of National Treasure made for TV.  That could be good or bad.  In fact, I'll go as far to say that if you liked National Treasure, you'll love Zero Hour.

As for me, I didn't hate it, but I also didn't love it.  There was enough to keep it interesting, and I'm curious to see what the Nazis tried to do, and why it would be the end of the world.  It could be some fun Twilight-y Zone sci-fi semi-religious stuff.  Now, that would be awesome.

But just like in the Nicholas Cage thriller, the characters are nothing more than pawns moving on a board.  In other words, the story is all action and very little character development.  Maybe we'll get some of the latter later.

One part I found ironic was when Victor (the bad guy) kept referring to all those movies where this stuff happens, but this is real life.  I wonder if the writers were trying to be funny, because if they really thought "all those other stories are fake so this one must be real" would work, they were wrong.  It didn't work.  Instead it seemed like a funny joke.  Just like in all those "other movies and shows," this show has all the fun cliches.

I'll keep watching, because it is fun to watch.  But this will be near the bottom of my list until I get some other fun shows out of the way.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Last Resort - RIP

Last Resort was not one of favorite shows, but it was interesting enough to hold my attention for its 13 episodes.  It had some really good moments, but at the same time it had a couple of pretty boring parts.

My biggest complaint remains the same as when I reviewed the pilot episode.  Throughout the whole series, it felt like the writers tried to cram in so much into so little time.  The result was a lot of exposition without feeling.  In other words, I saw all the action happening, but I never really felt anything for any of the characters.  Even up to the end when the captain went down with the ship ... nothing.

Yet I still always wanted to see what happened next.  I'm at least glad that they tried to wrap up the show.  They did what I like to call a "Pushing Daisies" conclusion.  That's when you know your show is going to be cancelled and you're told that you can tweak your last episode, so you reshoot the last 5-10 minutes to quickly wrap things up.  The result was very disappointing for Pushing Daisies and it was equally disappointing for Last Resort.

The first 50 minutes of the finale felt like a normal season finale.  Even though the ship was run aground, there was that feeling that something would happen and they'd get that thing back into the water (like as was done in earlier episodes).  Then after that last commercial break, we saw the missile blow it to smithereens.  Kablaam!  We saw that one chick shoot the president.  We saw the XO reunited with his sweetie.  So, all the major loose ends are tied up, but there are so many other questions left unresolved ... like why did the US attack Pakistan again?

Great -- now the more I think about it, the more I get confused as I look over the last couple of months trying to figure out what I just watched.  Oh well.  At least it was fun, and I won't miss it very much.

Actuarial Speculative Fiction - 2013

Every other year, the Society of Actuaries hosts an Actuarial Speculative Fiction Contest.  The rules: the author has to be an actuary (including anyone who has taken one exam).  The story has to involve actuaries or feature some actuarial concept.

By now, you may be asking, "What's an actuary?"  My favorite answer to this question is: "A mathematician who predicts the future by examining patterns in the past."  That usually gets an oooh.

For me, this contest is the intersection between my day job and my aspiration as a writer.  By entering this contest, I can write stories geared toward other geeks just like me.  And I also get to read what my fellow geeks come up with.  Some of the stories can be quite good.

This is my fourth time entering.  My first three entries tried: #1) Funny, #2) Parody, #3) Action flick.  This time I went with a tiny bit of humor mixed with actuarial fantasy and exploring what happens when you turn someone's world around.  Will this be the time I win a prize?

You can see all eighteen entries by clicking here.  I invite you to read, and check out this crazy world of actuarial fiction.  Then if any story strikes your fancy, vote for your favorite story (instructions at the link).

In a couple of weeks, I'll present my own overview of the eighteen stories and pick my three favorites.

Happy actuarial reading!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

200,000 Views on YouTube

As a composer/pianist/etc., I've been posting music videos on Youtube, and a couple of days ago, I hit 200,000 views.


To celebrate, and at the same time, to introduce my writing friends to my world of music, here are six representative videos.

#1) My most popular video now has 58,000 views.  Someone asked me to arrange and play Chopin's funeral march on the organ, and at the time there weren't any such videos on Youtube.  I had no idea how popular this video would become (especially in Europe).  Listen to about 2 minutes of this, and then move down to my next video...

#2) Storm Etude is my own composition, a 7-minute experiment in orchestration.  I put together some virtual instruments to play it, and perhaps one day I'll get to hear it live.  Watch through the whole thing to get the full effect.

#3) For my sci-fi friends, here's what you get when you merge a popular tune with a Chopin prelude.  I first noticed that the two melodies where very similar and even in the same key, so I thought ... why not?

#4) Perhaps you like my writing voice, but what about my real voice?  Here's me singing some Handel.  The accompanist informed me at the time of recording that I needed to alter the return of the "A" theme the second time around, so I made stuff up on the spot.

#5) Here's a taste of some minimalist piano music.  I'm a huge fan of Glass, Adams, etc.

#6) And last but not least ... here is the video that started it all.  It's not particularly good, but it was my first, and I think it's pretty funny with all its mistakes and mishaps.  (At the beginning, I say "Pucker" with a "P."  I swear!)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

2013 TV Winter Preview

Now at the midseason point, I'll be trying out these three new TV shows.

Continuum on SyFy (Mondays @ 8PM): 4 episodes in already, this show promises to be my favorite of the three.  It starts in the year 2077 when terrorists are about to be executed.  However, just before the trigger is pulled, the terrorists launch a device that sends them back into time.  A cop named Kiera is caught in this time vortex, and she goes with the terrorists back to 2012.

Most of the story happens in our present (funny how it always seems to work out like that), but there are plenty of special effects to keep it interesting.  Each of the characters is richly portrayed.  Kiera wants to go back to her husband and child in the future, but at the same time, she feels duty-bound to stop the terrorists from whatever they're trying to do.

Also, the terrorists may not be completely bad.  Their desire is to overthrow the evil corporations that run the government (in 2077), though unfortunately they have to kill innocent people along the way.

Another one of those not-quite-so-black-and-white sci-fi shows, this is really good science fiction--the stuff you usually only read in books.

And the timeline continuum?  So far, it appears that the laws are "correct" in that there are no paradoxes or alternative timelines.  Though it remains to be seen if the writers will stick to these rules.  I can't wait to see the remaining 6 episodes of this first season.

If you want to watch from the beginning, there does not appear to be any way to stream for free.  But SyFy will run a marathon on Feb. 24 showing the first 6 episodes.  That would be your best bet to catch up.

The Following on FOX (Mondays @ 9 PM): 3 episodes in ... The first episode was shockingly good, and also very disturbing.  Kevin Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, an ex-FBI agent who is called in to go after a serial killer who just escaped from prison.  However, the serial killer has a grand plan.  He's recruited several followers who will do his bidding, much like a cult.  And this cult really wants to make Ryan Hardy suffer.

The whole premise could be interesting, but I have a couple of concerns.  The first being that the second episode was kind of boring, and it felt a lot like 24 -- especially the parts that show what's going on with the bad guys.  The second concern is the whole idea of relying on shocking scenes -- how gross can we make this?  Or what does the audience least expect here?

The third episode seemed to bring back the interest, and we'll see where this show goes.  Will it tell an awesome well-planned-out story?  Or will it just be another 24 with annoying plot twists and silly camera shots?

Zero Hour on ABC (starting Feb. 14): This show looks interesting ... a blend of action, sci-fi, and maybe a little religion-y stuff.  Plus, it has that ER guy.  I wonder if there will be one clock to rule them all!

Returning shows on my list:

The Neighbors (this show has picked up immensely--some episodes are very funny)
The Office (hit or miss, but some episodes are hilarious--will Michael come back for the finale?)
Person of Interest (still going strong)
Once Upon a Time (interesting, but feels like they're stretching--Mulan?  Really?)
The Simpsons (though, I'm getting fed up with the DVR and FOX's inability to show the show at its actually scheduled time and not start 2 minutes early and end 2 minutes late)

Touch (returning Feb 8--the coincidences are getting on my nerves, but I'll keep trying)
The Walking Dead (returning Feb 10--can you hear me girly scream?)
Psych (returning Feb 27--does Dad live or die?  Not sure, but the formula's changed, and I like the old formula better)
Grimm (returning Mar 8--I'm really enjoying where they're going, well ... except for I really don't want to see the almost-wife making it with the boss man)
Revolution (returning Mar 25--it has its moments)
Doctor Who (returning end of March--I'm looking forward to see how they explain the new companion, though I'm still reeling from the stupid way of losing Amy and Rory)