Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Awesome Book: Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a book written specifically for me ... or at least it feels that way.  My wife asked, "So you're really reading a novel about ... playing video games?"  And I answered, "Yeah.  Isn't it awesome?"

The plot is very simple and easy to follow.  James Halliday was a gaming genius, multi-billionaire, and creator of the multiplayer online virtual reality world called OASIS.  The book opens with James' death.  In his will, he announces that he has hidden an Easter Egg somewhere inside of OASIS.  The first person to find the Egg will inherit his entire fortune.

What follows is a mad race to find the three keys that would open the gates to find the Egg.  Think It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World meets TRON.

The book also has thousands of 1980s references, which is understandable, considering that was the era during which computer gaming first became big.  So, not only did I enjoy the game, but I enjoyed reliving parts of my own past.  And I even felt proud for being a geek.

Because of the simple prose and simple plot, the book is a very fast, enjoyable read.  My only complaint is that it had to come to an end.  Though, there are a few hints near the end of a sequel.  Ernest is currently working on a different story called Armada.  Perhaps it will occur inside of OASIS, but we'll see when that book comes out.

As I read Ready Player One, I kept an eye out for a possible Easter Egg by Ernest himself.  My not-so-diligent search came up empty, but I learned after the fact, that he did indeed put in an Easter Egg.  Those who found it were led to a website where they were tasked to find three gates, and the person who finished first won a Delorean complete with a flux capacitor.  Dude!

I wouldn't recommend this book for younger children, as there are f-bombs (no more than 10) and a few brief adult situations mentioned, though I'm not sure why they were included.  Other than that, today's kids would love this book.

If you're an older geeky "kid" like me who loves video games, then this book is required reading.  Pick it up today and enjoy the read.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fringe: It's Finally Over

Fringe has its good moments.  It lasted 100 episodes, just enough to survive well in syndication, ensuring its immortality like Lost and Star Trek.  Now that the last episode has been shown, I'll share my memories.  Be forewarned ... SPOILERS.

Season 1
It started off strong with a grotesque death scene on a plane.  That first episode lasted 2 hours, introducing us to the main characters.  I was surprised by how far the producers went to show really horrible events.  The one man's translucent skin was both intriguing and nightmarish at the same time.  Then I was surprised to learn that the genius insane man in the asylum was going to be the one to save the day.  I was hooked.  For that first season, I watched as the team was formed, and as they secretly investigated the weird of the week.  We also got a glimpse of the Observers.  Who were they?  Aliens?  Supposedly, they appeared in every episode, like an easter egg.  But I must admit I only saw one of them hidden once.  It was cool when that happened.

Season 2
In another strong season, we came to learn that there was a parallel universe tied to our own.  Yes, there could be an infinite number of these parallel universes, but this one was close to ours for some reason (much like in Star Trek, we have all those annoying "Mirror" episodes without any explanation why it's always that universe and not one of the other infinite ones).  We also learned that Walter caused the Fringe events to occur when he tried to save his "parallel" son.  When Walter had crossed over to the other side, it fractured the something between our two universes, which would later cause all these Fringe events and shatter both universes -- eventually.

This season ended in the series' best cliffhanger.  When Walter and Olivia went to the other universe, Walter came back, but with the wrong Olivia.  Awesome!  That last episode ended with our Olivia imprisoned on the other side with "Walternate" gloating over her.

Season 3
This season was more about the parallel universes than it was the "strange of the week."  In one way, this was good, because it gave the whole series a better sense of direction.  But it was also a divergence from the old formula.  The Observers served to help the right thing happen.  Walter's son, Peter, had to be sacrificed.  Both universes built this mysterious machine.  Walternate tried to use the machine to destroy our universe so that his could survive alone.  But then we learned that the true purpose of the machine was to heal both universes.  The season ended in a great climax, with Peter stepping into the machine and disappearing, and then nobody remembering who Peter was.

Season 4
Then, I'm not so sure what happened.  It was almost as if the writers of Fringe thought that they were going to be cancelled at the end of Season 3 ... it got pretty close.  I say this, because this whole season felt like, "Gee ... we're still kicking.  Dang ... we gotta think up something.  I know ..."

The writers went with an alternate timeline where both Peters died as a child.  The "other" Peter had died in the lake after Walter tried to rescue him.  But the Peter that we knew just wanted to come back from Oblivion.  Olivia/Walter somehow brought back this mysterious man, and Peter first tried to convince them who he was, and then he tried to return to his own timeline.  But Olivia, still tripping from cortixiphan, somehow remembered the first timeline, transmuted into her original self (who never really existed in that timeline) and everyone was mostly happy.

Though William Bell was made out to be criminally insane, as he tried to use Olivia's powers to destroy their universes and create a new one where he could be God.

Though there were some good episodes in this season, I was mostly disappointed and felt cheated, as the writers saw fit to start some new story instead of continuing the one from the first three seasons.

Season 5
And the last season only existed to bring the series to syndication.  It was a big disappointment.  The Observers, who had been mostly benevolent guardians of our world, were made to be super time-traveling villains.  And the whole Fringe team was transported 20 years into the future to fight this battle.  There were a couple of good episodes, but the whole plot sucked (see the trailer above). 

How can you fight superior time travelers?  You can't!  If you try to thwart them (assuming you really can change the timeline), they can just go back in time to erase your butt.  They win.  How many times did the Observers appear at the right time to stop some parts of the plan?  But then at other times, they didn't even think to do the no-brainer tricks they could do?  For example, when Olivia and company were on the train, why didn't the Observers do their transport thing to appear inside the train and take them away?

The way to fight the Observers was interesting, but really a big letdown.  Show the boy to the 2167 clan and hope they make themselves smart while holding on to their emotions?  Really?  That was ... big anticlimax!  Plus, it turns out at the very end that they scrapped the entire pieces of the plan when that one piece was unobtainable and realized they could instead use the Observers' time/transport system.

And that whole thing about Walter and the boy being a paradox causing Walter to disappear after 2015?  IT DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE!  It's as dumb as the reasons for why Doctor Who can no longer see Amy and Rory in the current season.  And it's not a case of "I'm not smart enough to understand all the complex timey-wimey intricacies of time travel."  Rather, it's a case of "there is no logical basis for that stupid idea."  Really, there isn't.

And because of this silly "paradox" created only to set up some ultimate sacrifice, I found it difficult to get into the emotional ending.  I found September's death to be more touching.  And ... well, I guess there was that one moment when Walter stood at the gate saying goodbye to his son.  And then it ended with Peter receiving a white tulip ... something that might have been an emotional closure to the whole show ... Walter's finally forgiven himself.  But too bad it would only leave Peter in confusion for the rest of his life.  "Where did my father go?"

But anyways, congrats to a show that kept my interest for five years.  I'll remember enjoying the first three seasons and sticking with them through the last two.  Thanks for the memories!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Les Miserables - 2012

There are few movies like Les Miserables (2012) that know how to find your heart and smash it against the wall.  For me, the most effective movie in this department is Grave of the Fireflies, but Les Mis gets pretty close.

My experience with the musical has been exposure to the songs without knowing all the context.  That is, I've performed almost all of the ensemble pieces, and have used Bring Him Home for an audition piece once or twice.

But this is my first time actually watching the full musical, and the context gives so much more meaning to the songs.  It's almost as if Victor Hugo learned how to capture the essence of pain and suffering and present it in an awesome, complex story.

At first it was hard to get used to everyone singing their lines, even in between songs.  It's difficult to look natural while singing, and this is a big challenge in bringing any musical to the big screen.  Though I must admit, this is the best job I've seen.  After getting used to the style, I often forgot I was watching a musical.

If you don't know the story yet, here's how it starts.  Jean Valjean has just finished serving 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.  When he gets out, most everyone reviles him, outcasts him, and refuses to give him work.  He thinks he's nothing.  Then a priest takes him and and teaches him that he has a soul and that he really is worth something, and he can still do something good in life.  So, Valjean skips parole and tries to restart his life.

Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of the Inspector Javert, who spends the whole movie tracking down Valjean.

Along the way, we see some really sad states ... mainly views of the poor and how they cope with starvation and cold.  Valjean does what he can to help while at the same time trying to avoid Javert.

This film also seems to try and help us remember what we're supposed to be doing in life.  One thing that struck me, is that it's all too easy to think, "Wow.  That's how they used to live back then?"  But there are people living here in the US today ... just like that.  The film helped me to feel more human.

As for the music, I was most impressed with Jackman's singing.  I would have never guessed he would have been capable of pulling it off.  Hathaway also was superb as Fantine.  Russell Crowe did well with the technique, but his "perfection" got a little distracting.  Sometimes it seemed like he was really saying, "Watch me sing these notes with perfect pitch and perfect rhythm.  This is a triplet.  Wasn't that awesome?  And boy, can I belt!"  I've noticed that the better singers will intentionally play with the rhythms so as to better imitate real speech patterns and sound more natural.

I highly recommend this well executed movie.  Keep the young kids at home.  Also, if you're male, I would make sure that none of your male coworkers watch it at the same time as you.  Or if you do, be ready with this line: "Stupid allergies."

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Actuarial Exams Are Fun!

It happens a lot.  A couple of months ago, I took one of the higher level actuarial exams.  I only have three left and then I'll be fully credentialed.  And when I take an exam, people always ask me what it's like.  Well, wonder no more.  This exam consumed me for several months and cut down on my fiction productivity.  So, I think this topic deserves a blog entry.  Are you ready to get learned up?

Often, "Actuary" is listed as the number 1 job in America.  It's low stress, high reward, and reasonable hours.  You basically get paid to play with numbers and project the future and predict when people are going to die, and stuff like that.  I enjoy my job ... well, that is except for the initiatory process known as the Actuarial Exams.

The first exam is easy.  If you paid attention in your college math classes, there's a good chance that you'll pass on the first go.  I scored a 10 on my first exam, which is as high as you can get.

Then the exams get progressively harder.  I enjoyed my first four or five exams.  They had a lot of math in them.  But the last exam I took ... whoa Nellie!  It has a little math in it, but also a lot of regulation and insurance history stuff.  It's stuff every actuary needs to know, but IT'S SO BORING and IT'S NOT ALL MATH!  This exam, now known as CAS #6, is my bane.  I've now taken this exam three times and have failed each time!

But guess what ... it's perfectly normal to fail these exams.  If at first you fail (and most do on the first try), you just "study harder" the next year and maybe you'll pass the next time.

But, you see ... I'm used to what I experienced in college.  You go to classes.  You read the material.  You do homework.  You turn in assignments.  You take quizzes.  And in the end, you take a final.  If you get a sufficiently high score, you pass the class and you receive credit.  In general, if you learn more than 70% of the material, you're ensured to pass.

With actuarial exams, it's completely different.  You only get one chance a year to prove that you know the stuff.  With some exams you get two chances a year.  Each time, you pay $500-$600 for the opportunity to take the exam.  You download the material and buy textbooks.  You take the exam, which is graded on a curve.  If you pass, then you get credit.  If not, then you have to wait another year and pay up again.

When I went to college, I loaded up with an average of 18 credit hours.  Think of your total set of readings for a typical semester.  About how many pages was that?  Now multiply this by three, and you'll get a good sense of how much material is on an actuarial exam.  It's amazing how much they cram into a four hour test.

And if you memorize 70% of the material, you may or may not be okay once exam time comes.  If you memorize 100%, you should probably be okay, but after spending hundreds of hours, I'm not sure 100% can be obtained.  You'd have to know every footnote, and this is difficult for most human beings.

The exam creators also love to ask HARD questions.  Their way of thinking ... if someone can answer a hard question, then they really know the material enough to pass.  But if you ask HARD questions, then you can't ask very many of them on a four hour exam.  This last sitting, there were around 30 questions.

The problem with this is twofold ...

#1) You can't cover much of the syllabus.  Let's say 40% tops.  So, if someone memorizes 70% of the syllabus, there's 30% that he doesn't know.  So in a worst-case scenario, the exam questions could cover the 30% he doesn't know and 10% that he does know.  Thus, he only gets 25% of the questions correct.  My numbers are a little exaggerated, but it really does happen that an exam just happens to jive with your mindset, and the next year it doesn't.  These little mismatches are just enough to push one into a FAIL score.  As it was, on the last exam I took, there were scores of problems and questions I was prepared to answer, and they just weren't tested.

#2) HARD questions are indeed fun to answer if there happens to be enough time to answer them, and I love a good puzzle, but I've seen some heavily concocted scenarios that would never happen in real actuarial life ... such as "We know the final answer and we want you to back into this unimportant number over here."  There was one question on this last exam on a subject that I thought I was adequately prepared.  But when I was asked to think backwards, my exam-frenzied mind froze and I was only frustrated that I was unable to instead show how to do the thing "forwards" like real-life actuaries.  I also then realized that this specific exam was not geared to my mindset and that I was screwed.

And finally comes the grading, which is done by professional volunteers.  The process is heavily safeguarded and everything is double-checked and triple-checked.  However, there are some fundamental characteristics of the whole structure that doom several to fail several times, even though they may actually have a good grasp of the material.  (Once I failed an exam when I felt like I should have passed.  The next year, I hardly put in any study time at all -- less than 100 hours, and I passed the exam with flying colors.)

Each candidate has each of their questions graded separately and independently.  Then an overall "qualifying" score is calculated.  Finally, the scores are tallied.  Actuaries whose scores are right on the border line are graded again just to be sure.  Then anyone above the qualifying score passes.

It almost always works out that if you were to graph all of the final candidate scores, it would show a large number of actuaries right around the "qualifying" score.  Most of them end up slightly under that score.  And that's too bad.  If the passing score is 67 out of 100 points, then you'll have one actuary with 66.75 points who fails, and one with 67.25 points who passes.  But if you compare their answers, you won't find much of a difference in the quality of those answers.  So, what did the passing actuary do any differently than the failing actuary?

And this is where luck comes in.  In other words, even if you know enough of the material to function as a competent actuary, you may have a bad day of testing and lose out on your opportunity to demonstrate that knowledge.  Or you may have performed well, but happened to be just a fraction of a point too low to pass after everything is tallied.

The best a struggling actuary can do is to try again the next time.  I've seen several intelligent mathematicians leave the profession because of the difficulty of the exams.  I've seen some who don't really know the material earn a pass because they just know how to do well on exams (through blind memorization and happening to practice the right problems).

So, there you have it.  My description of the exam process.  I really wish there were some other vehicle to learn the material and pass it off, but for now, that's all that's available.  I'll try again next year.  Maybe I'll get up to 80% memorization and that'll be enough.  Maybe I'll try some more of that blind memorization.  We'll see...

Until then, you can enjoy this YouTube video that I believe best captures the essence of what it's like to take a higher-level actuarial exam ...

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Hobbit -- An Unexpected Trilogy

I enjoyed watching The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, but the idea of a trilogy is strange.  I suppose we can always leave it to Hollywood to make so much fuss over such a little book.  First, this was going to be a simple prequel, and then a two-parter?  Heck, might as well go for the triple!

The good: the first installment is full of action.  Almost every word from the first six chapters of The Hobbit is covered.  If you have a favorite scene, don't worry.  Your scene will be in there.  You can watch as Bilbo proves himself to be valuable, both to himself, and to his fellow travelers.  Each of the individual dwarves looks like what I would imagine.  Peter Jackson spares no detail, and you will get what you want and more.

To stretch out the story, Jackson/Walsh/Boyens/del Toro borrowed from other Tolkien books ... in particular the appendix in The Lord of the Rings.  So, every little bit of extra stuff can be backed up by a little Tolkien research.  Well, almost everything ...

The writers did embellish a few little details and took a little poetic license.  For example, Thorin Oakenshield fights the goblin Azog in the movie, though it's never mentioned in the books that the two actually fought.  Further, Azog survives the fight in the movie, where in the books Tolkien leads us to believe he died in the battle.  I guess it only looked like he died.

Some say that all these additions ruin the story, but rather, I feel that it changes it.  In the book, we see almost everything from Bilbo's point of view.  When Gandalf runs off to do his own thing, we have no idea what he's doing or preparing.  Thus the book has a sense of magical innocence.  The group of 14 (not including Gandalf) are simply on an adventure.

The movie goes further and fills in the blanks.  We get to see some of what Gandalf does when he's away, and we see what's going on in the background.  Since everything is explained, most of the innocence and adventure disappears.  It becomes more of a "we really got to do this thing or else evil will take over the world" thing.  But you know what?  After the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy Jackson gave us, they had little choice ... could they really give us the wimpy innocent adventure version?  Instead, they gave us The Hobbit with hair on its chest.  "This is what really happened, and it's not all fun and games."

There are some pretty scary scenes, so I would not recommend this for the younger kids.  Yeah, I know the book is for kids, but it's still a scary book and Jackson doesn't pull any punches.

Also, there are quite a few scenes where all members of our traveling party miraculously survive some disaster ... such as riding a rock down a cavern that breaks up just right so as to deliver our friends to the bottom safely.  I had to laugh a couple of times.

If you haven't watched this movie because of complaints that you've heard, I recommend that you go and watch it anyway.  Enjoy yourself.  Turn off that "this wasn't in the book"-o-meter.  There are plenty of fun scenes, and it comes to a satisfying end.  I look forward to Part 2: Desolation of Smaug.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Review - Catching Fire

I may be in the minority when I admit that I liked Catching Fire better than the book it follows, The Hunger Games.

The first book was fun and all that--kids trying to kill each other--and shooting an arrow at the pig's head, etc.  But a lot of the energy in that book was expended on world building.  This is usually the curse of the first book in any series.

The second book, Catching Fire, picks up where the first left off.  But now that we know pretty much how the world works and who the people are, the action starts off more quickly.  This book has more plot and more twists to keep things interesting.

For one thing, it shows what happens in between successive Hunger Games.  Certain events happen as an aftermath to the ending of Book #1.  President Snow tries to smooth things out and to try to stop a rebellion from rising.

Some may not enjoy several "false starts" where the protagonists consider carrying out one plan and then another, but they don't even come close to fruition.  But I enjoyed these several twists, as that's what life's about.

This book offers a view into the government itself and the tricks they use to try to control the twelve districts.  It shows how even the winning District from book 1 is basically hosed.  For example, much of their extra food rations arrive in a rotten state.  Several of my friends point out that this is a terrible way for a dictator to maintain control, and such tactics would definitely kindle rebellion.  I tend to agree, but it's just a story.  The book's more about how citizens react to some crazy concocted civil situation, and not about whether such a situation could arise in real life.

Since the book is written in first person present, there is a lot of action that happens off the pages.  When the climax occurs, there's this big info dump explaining what just happened.  It's all coolness, but I couldn't help but feel that I missed out on a lot of the action.  But then after reading, it's fun putting everything together in your head ... "Now that's why this thing over here happened that way."  It'll be interesting to see how they handle this in the upcoming movie.

My verdict: Well done, Ms. Collins!  And if you read Book #1, it's definitely worth continuing the series and reading this worthy sequel.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

2013 Preview

2013 is a cool year.  For example, it's the first time in 25 years that the year consists of 4 unique (non-repeating) digits.  And 2 + 0 + 1 = 3.  Awesome!  And that whole Mayan thing?  Well, we all know now that the world didn't end.  But was something supposed to happen?  Like the stars switching hemispheres or something else cool?  Man!  Perhaps the Mayans shouldn't have used the Aztec Sun of Stone!

For this upcoming year, I'm going to keep it simple.  My main goal:

Get ... Published ... Somewhere.

I've gone too long without a credit to my name.  My best shot is to get my short stories in good shape, now that I know what to do.  Basically, "Butt In Chair" and fingers to the keyboard.  Write new story.  Send it to be critiqued.  Make revisions.  Submit to magazine.  Rinse and repeat.  Get rejection.  Send it right back out unless I see something that really needs editing.

... and hopefully by December 31, it'll be: "We regretfully inform you ..." Wait!  It doesn't say "regretfully."  This isn't a rejection letter!  What is this strange e-mail doing in my inbox?

Other than this simple plan, I'll plan to attend at least one writer's conference this year, funds permitting.  And I'll work some more on my blog(s).

Good luck to your writing career this year.  What do you hope to accomplish?

Mel's Year In Review: 2012

Wow!  2012 went by so quickly!  Looking back at my goals from a year ago, I see that I just went through a great struggle.  The biggest "disappointment" was in coming to realize how unready my short stories (and even my two novels) are for publication.  My Uncle Orson's Writing Class experience was eye opening.  Now I know what my short stories need, but there's so little time to revise them.

The result ... my submissions dropped like a rock.  And with taking a break for taking an actuarial exam, my writing has also come to a complete stop.

Now with Christmas and all that behind me, I can get back to work.  Let's try this again!  But first, let's see what I did accomplish this past year ...

  • Novel Writing -- All of my efforts went into short story writing.  Though, I would really love to work on my Time Sleuths story (which is hilarious), or Space Cadets (which is partly autobiographical).
  • Short Stories
    • "Depths of Inner Space" -- submitted twice and got two rejections.  After getting several useful critiques, I realize now what this story needs.  After revision, I'll start sending this out again.
    • "When Time Flows West" -- submitted once and got a rejection.  It's currently going through an overhaul.
    • The Silver Lining: O My Father -- submitted to a contest and never got a response back, which I assume is a rejection.
    • "Stanley Saucer: Space Assassin" -- a new story I wrote this year in the vein of Austin Powers.  I thought it was pretty funny, but it was rejected in less than 24 hours.
    • "Jesse Flag" -- another new story about a man who learns that his dying father is hiding a rebellious Jesse Flag, the Stars and Bars.  Still in its first draft.
    • "Descendant History" -- started and in progress.
    • "A Light in the Darkness" -- started and in progress. 
  • I attended Orson Scott Card's Writing Class.  I actually tried out for the Boot Camp, but was rejected.  When I wrote this blog entry, I thought that perhaps my smashing story excerpt was too good to be selected, but now that I've gone through the class, I'm not so sure.  Oh, and a hint to those who try out next year, Mr. Card really hates the use of vomiting as a tool of suspense.  At least the stuff I learned was invaluable and will hopefully help me get published in 2013. 
  • I did succeed somewhat in increasing my net.  I seem to have gained a few friends online, mainly through my Write 1 Sub 1 dealings.
  • I joined up with another online critique service ... Critters.  I now prefer this over the Absolute Write critiquing forum, and will provide a review later on in January.
  • My Facebook Fan Page finally got 50 likes.  It's now up to 62.  Feel free to join the numbers!
  • I continued posting in this blog and in my other blog, The Econo-Mel.
    • Total of 61 posts, averaging one post a week.
    • In July, I broke the 1000 views per month barrier.  This was topped again in November and December.  In general, the views are supposed to be proportional to the number of posts, but it seems that I've met some kind of critical mass, seeing how I only did one post in all of December.  Then again, the recent influx could be some day-job recruiters checking me out, because I'm currently looking for other opportunities.  :)
    • In September, I hit a total 10,000 views.  Now I'm up to 14,000.
    • I reviewed 5 books, 17 movies, 22 TV shows, 7 restaurants, 3 games, and a few other items. 
    • My personal favorite posts of the year...
How did you do in 2012?  Let's all do even better in 2013!