Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Mel's Year in Review: 2014

I wonder if I should let Facebook put together my Year in Review for me.  Would they be first in pointing out that I failed in my main goal?  But wait!  2014 wasn't all that bad for me.  As with the past years, I've had failures and successes -- actually a very big success.  Let's see ... where to begin?

At the beginning of the year, I set off with a simple goal: make at least one dollar of profit.  The plan was to get some of my short stories published, to try out AdSense, and self-publish my novel Escape From the Planet Justice.  How did I do?

  • Short stories: I've come the closest to getting published (other than winning the contest in 2013).  I received my first positive custom personal rejection letter for my story "Stanley Saucer: Space Assassin."  However, I still lack a magazine credit.
  • Adsense: It was worth giving it a try.  I turned it on here on this blog, and also on my YouTube channel, earning a measly $10 over the whole year.  Woot!  Woot!  I'll give a more detailed report once I get the official numbers for 2014.
  • Planet Justice: I made a lot of progress in preparing this story for publication, but the critters website let me down, providing only one person to critique my novel, which only provided one perspective.  I made a few adjustments, adding two brand new chapters at the very beginning, and turned to my personal friends for critiquing (subsequently annoying the heck out of one of my good writing friends).

But then ... something happened to bring everything to a screeching halt.  I failed an actuarial exam in the first half of the year.  Realizing it was destroying my life, I made the decision to put everything on hold while I put all my effort in passing the stupid thing.  To get a sense of how difficult these exams are, you can read my prior posts:

Why I hate taking actuarial exams (complete with funny video that captures the essence of the experience).

Just a few days ago, (are you ready for that very big success I mentioned?), I got word that I had passed, and the good feelings have not yet gone away.  It was the first time that I had applied some newly-learned "7 Habits" techniques, and it worked.

So, now I hope that what I said the hunker-down post will come true.  Everything will open up now.  I no longer have around my neck the albatross of having to study, so I should be able to expend a lot more energy in getting published.  Plus, if the "7 Habits" techniques worked with that stupid exam, they should work in helping me accomplish my other dreams.

Already, after having finished the exam in October and while waiting for results to come out, I used a session of NaNoWriMo to put out another 50,000 words in my two-thirds done novel, Space Cadets.  Boom baby!

In short, 2014 was a good year for transition, hopefully preparing me for a very productive 2015.

Other stats for 2014:
  • 40 blog posts (including this one), same as with 2013.
  • Up to 42,311 views (up 41% from 2013).
  • Two new blogs:
  • I reviewed:
    • 8 movies
    • 8 books
    • 10 TV shows
  • My personal favorite posts:

How well did you do in 2014?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Christmas: All About the Money?

I love Christmas.  It's by far my favorite holiday of the year.  I love the lights, the Christmas Trees, the Christmas hymns, Christmas performance, opening presents, getting presents, talking about Jesus, getting sick from gingerbread houses, and being around the family.

But this time in my mid-life years, I'm experiencing something else: Christmas fatigue.  Maybe it's from studying and doing NaNoWriMo mixed with crazy pressures from work.  Or maybe it's just looking back over the past few years, realizing that December is a month where I know I'm going to be staying up late researching Christmas presents and pulling everything together.  Then I wonder when I'm going to get any rest.

And then I realize the center of my fatigue.  It's the whole idea of having to buy presents.  That's really what Christmas has become.  It's a major boon for the retail industry.  In fact, without Christmas, we would all experience a major economic disaster.  It's become so intertwined with our economy.  It doesn't depend on your religion.  Even most atheists participate in the gift-giving.

In fact sometimes, if you don't give a Christmas present, it's bad.  You don't care for that person, or you're exhibiting ingratitude.  On the other hand, if we all gave everyone we knew presents, we'd all go broke!

It's a big conspiracy!  (But it keeps our economy going.  Heh!)

Then this cute little kitty we picked up a couple of months ago reminds me of the joy of Christmas.  Life is fun.  Christmas is having the family together.  Sure, we get to exchange presents, but then after the hustle and bustle is done, we can all relax and enjoy life.

And sleep.

To all my homies going through the Christmas fatigue, I say: let's weather the storm together.  Let's survive the crowded shopping sprees, and the online orders while remembering to clear out cookies and emails to hide our tracks from the kids.  Let's survive that Christmas Eve shopping where Daddies like me go out for those last minute gifts (yeah ... I usually see mainly guys out that night).  It'll all be worth it in the end.

And to remind us of the fun that is to come, here's another picture of our kitty:

Saturday, November 29, 2014

NaNoWriMo ... Finished

Boo-yah!  I did it.  50,000 words of my novel Space Cadets is written.  All good feelings of success are belong to me!

Next up ... a little relaxing, and then an Actuarial Speculative Fiction short story.  Followed by getting Justice ready for publishing, and then back to this story sometime in 2015.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

NaNoWriMo: The Penultimate Week

Don't you just love that word?  Penultimate?  It means next-to-last.  Now that this past week is over, I have only one week left to finish up NaNoWriMo.  And only at 38,069 words.  I basically have 12,000 words left to type.

Let's see: 2,500 words on Monday.  2,500 words on Tuesday.  Then 1,000 on Wednesday.  That would bring me down to 6,000 words split between Friday and Saturday.

Yeah, I can do it.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

NaNoWriMo: Halfway Done

Here we are, one week later from my last report.  I had a productive week, but sickness keeps coming back.  I'm currently at 26,200 words, which is past the recommended 25,000, but below where I want to be at 28,500.  (I won't be writing during Thanksgiving, so I must make up for it before instead of after.)  So really, I'm 2,300 words behind schedule.

Here goes the next week.  If sickness holds off I should have no problem securing the "win."  Good luck on your own NaNo-ing!

Monday, November 10, 2014

NaNoWriMo: Recovering From Disaster

The last couple of days I've been sick.  So much that I got no writing done at all yesterday (Saturday).  After doing so well keeping to my schedule, I've fallen behind.  I came really close to giving up, but then I realized I could move my schedule around a little bit to make catching up reasonably possible. Also, my story keeps screaming, "I need to be written!"

Now if only I can get over this sickness.

If you're behind on your NaNo, don't give up.  There's still plenty of time.  Let's finish this together.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Interstellar: Inception in Space

On the most part, Interstellar was another Nolan movie that blew me away.  Most of the science was spot-on, and the story was incredible.  The music was the typical Zimmer awesomeness, and the acting was good.

In Interstellar, the Earth is dying, and Cooper, played by Matthew McConaughey, is sent to find a new planet suitable to support human life.  I can't say too much more without spoiling it, but just like in Inception, my mind was blown.

The special effects were nearly perfect.  The journey through a wormhole and near a black hole look just like the simulations mathematicians and scientists provide.  The gigantic waves as you see in the trailer look remarkably real.  The dust storms on Earth are convincingly scary.  The spaceship mechanics all look to be correct.  In short, everything looks real and scientifically correct.

The music was amazing.  The use of organ adds a new instrument to the Hollywood orchestra, paying homage to Richard Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra, the main theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The organ also nearly quotes from Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi in some key emotional moments.  During the early scenes as the spaceship first launches and goes through docking procedures, the music echoes Johann Strauss's waltzes as used in 2001 in similar scenes.

I only have one complaint with the music.  Many times it was just TOO LOUD.  I found myself frustrated several times when a character was saying something dramatic or important, but I couldn't hear it over the music.

As I mentioned before, the science is mostly accurate.  I was impressed with their treatment of Relativity and not messing anything up.  The only thing that wasn't quite right was the whole idea of solving some equation.  That was nothing more than Hollywood drama, but considering they got a lot of everything else right, I'm not going to complain much.

One last complaint ... somewhere in the middle of the film, events unfolded on Earth in an unconvincing manner.  Several characters' motivations seemed to be in conflict and their development wasn't entirely convincing.  In one particular scene, I was thinking, "Why is everyone being so melodramatic?"  It was almost like a scene from Signs.

Then again, character consistency hasn't always been a Nolan specialty.  Once the film got past a particular point, each character seemed to settle and I could enjoy the ending.  Then the Nolan brothers more than redeemed themselves.

My suggestion: go watch this movie in IMAX and enjoy.

One last bit of trivia: Does that rectangular robot (in the trailer at 1:22) remind you of anything?  Its dimensions appear to be very close to 1 by 4 by 9.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014 Begins

At 12 Midnight, when October 31 turns into November 1, after saying "Rabbit!  Rabbit!", I conducted the ceremonial beginning of NaNoWriMo.  During the month of November, I will write 50,000 words of my upcoming novel "Space Cadets."

Just now, I wrote the first 441 words.  You can read the first snippet and see my profile here.

And if you're thinking about working on a novel, this could be a good chance for you to kickstart the effort.  Sign up at and start writing.

Good luck to all my writing friends and happy writing!

Friday, October 31, 2014

I'm Back ... Again

I have completed my actuarial exam, and this time it feels like I passed.  I'll find out in about eight weeks.

This means that my blogging hiatus has come to an end.  Though, I will be doing NaNoWriMo during November, which will take up most of my writing time.  I'll still sneak in a couple of posts (such as reviewing the movie Interstellar).

It's good to be back!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Finding My Voice

As I mentioned earlier, I'm currently studying for a test, and that means a break in most everything else I'm doing in life.  Over the past couple of months, I've been getting out these last few posts before shutting everything down.  So, this will be my last post on this blog until November.

In the meantime, I'm going to let my subconscious mind work on a problem ... what exactly is the voice I'm pursuing?  What separates the aspiring writers from the ones that everyone wants to read?  What separates the composers who write just interesting music from those who everyone wants to download?  What separates the viral videos from those who are trying too hard?

The answer: those who catch everyone's attention are those who have something to say--the ones who have found their voice.

Think about it.  I know my aspiring writer cohorts are reading their aspiring writer friends' books, and they are also reading the big name authors ... and guess which books they are enjoying more ... the ones written by the established authors who have already found their voice.

Yeah ... it's kind of depressing, isn't it.

I have spent the last several years working on my technique, improving my writing, learning to better organize my stories.  But nobody wants to read something that's only well-written.  They want something that moves them--takes them places they've never been before--something that makes them forget they're reading a book.

If you take a really close look at a book that many find fun to read, I bet you'll find the same things I find--mistakes up the wazoo--mistakes that established writers tell us we should avoid or our submissions will be thrown out.  But who really cares about the mistakes if the books are FUN to read?

So, when I come back, it'll be time for me to do what I'm suppose to do:  WRITE.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review of COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey

I've enjoyed watching the COSMOS reboot (A Spacetime Odyssey) over the past couple of months.  Overall, it was a positive experience.  It took many scientific ideas and presented them in a fun way for many to enjoy.  Special effects were top-notch (mostly), and the music by Alan Silvestri was superb.  The historical stories told were very interesting and provided many new details I had never known before.

Possibly my favorite episode was the one on Global Warming.  Seldom do we see non-partisan, non-biased views on the subject.  Republicans want to pretend like it doesn't exist, while Democrats seem to want to go overboard and panic.  Neil deGrasse Tyson presented scientific facts without all the politics, and it was very much appreciated.  He even presented some valid solutions to the problems--many of which scientists are already researching and/or implementing.  After watching the show, I felt inspired, realizing that Global Warming is real, and we're going to okay, since we're going to figure it out eventually.

I would love to see another 13 episodes produced.  Tyson says he most likely wouldn't host another series, but fans are calling for the likes of Bill Nye or other prominent well-known scientists.  We'll see.  The 13-episode series stands as-is on its own.  I strongly recommend catching this now on Netflix (or some other online source).

The show isn't without its faults, though.  I still find the original Carl Sagan's COSMOS to be a greater and more inspirational show.  There were a little too many cutesy Seth MacFarlane-ish funny bits that didn't work for me.  In one episode when Tyson spoke of the electromagnetic spectrum, there were several moments when the light surrounding him went dark and we heard a short discordant clip from Gershwin.  Tyson would then give a funny smile and ask, "What was that?"  When the show ended, I still didn't know what the heck that was.

In another episode, we were treated to a closeup view of the photosynthesis machine, which looked oddly like a factory.  I have yet to talk with anyone who had a positive reaction to that graphic.  Unfortunately, it started getting to where it was hard to determine when something was an artist's rendition and when it was an actual video of something.

For example, when Tyson was in the underground Super-Kamiokande chamber, I didn't know whether the blue flashes of light in the dark were real as presented or exaggerated.  I tried to confirm on Youtube to see if anyone else captured this amazing radiation (at that brightness, and with that frequency), but was unable to find a single video.  My conclusion is that the producers exaggerated the effect.  Though, I'd appreciate it if a reader could help confirm with an independent video that this effect was not exaggerated.

I was also a little disappointed with the level of technical knowledge shared.  The science felt dumbed down for general consumption.  Many times, when the actual science started getting interesting, Tyson would stop and move on to the next topic.  I felt that Sagan's COSMOS went into more detail and covered more interesting topics overall.

And lastly, I'd like to talk about Tyson himself.  To me, he comes across as the cool uncle who has plenty of cool stories to tell, and cool things to show, but he's also cranky and always complaining about something, always more than willing to point out when you're being stupid or wrong.  In comparison, Carl Sagan was like the wise old man who not only tells you stories, but also makes you think, slow to judge you, and more than happy to help you figure things on your own.

While I praised Tyson's episode on Global Warming and its mostly nonpartisan approach, there were still many times during the 13 episodes that Tyson took direct stabs at several different "silly ideas."  Tyson claims that he was just presenting scientific fact, and that we were the ones making it controversial, but I'm going to call him out.

I will present as evidence, the following.  In one episode, Tyson was talking about how long it takes light to travel.  He was doing well until he stopped to say, "There are some who believe that the universe is 5000 years old.  But if that were true, then we could only see this much of the universe."  Then a graphic showed how our view would fall short of some famous nebulae.  I found this to be a low blow.  His comment (though really convincing) did not really add to the episode.  He had already provided the information a person needed to come up with this observation on their own, but then he stopped the flow of the show to attack a "silly idea."  This wasn't just presenting scientific fact, but rather going out of his way to disprove a controversial topic.

Atheists watching cheered in unison, praising Tyson's slam-dunk presentation, while at the same time high-fiving each other and talking about how stupid religionists are.  At the same time, many religionists watching decided to turn it off, and unfortunately missed out on the rest of the show.  I would have preferred that Tyson et al had read Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People," and come to more of a realization as to how they pushed some of his audience away.  Tyson missed an opportunity to reach a group of people who initially wanted to hear what he had to say.

Sagan, who was as much of an agnostic as Tyson is, was much better at not alienating his viewers.  He inspired me as a child to appreciate science.  He still remains my favorite scientific philosopher/presenter.

Despite Tyson's flaws, I believe he does have a good command of logic, and he remains on my short list of people I would love to meet in person.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Mockingjay - Book Review

Most people I know say that the book, Mockingjay, is the weakest of the Hunger Games trilogy, but I disagree.  This final book is the pinnacle.  It's everything that the first two books lead up to.  And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Though, I can see why many don't like this book.  Some say it's a lack of direction.  Others say it's a disappointing ending.  Some even say it's the extra amount of violence one wouldn't expect in a young adult book.

That's because this book is about when chaos rules.  It's all out war.  In many ways, it's entirely different than the two books preceding it.  What I like the most is how consistent the old characters remain in this new world.  No one knows exactly what's going on, and there are conflicting incentives.  It's a lot of fun bedlam.

Plus, there is much more opportunity for the introduction of all kinds of cool sci-fi gadgets, traps, and solutions.  And as being the last book in the series, no major character is safe.  (I hate a book that's too wimpy to let its characters die.)

If you've read the first two books, chances are you'll read the third.  I highly recommend continuing the series.  I also recommend keeping an open mind.  Embrace the chaos!

To the naysayers (who say the first book is the strongest), I'd like to make the following prediction.  As the second movie has proven to be the better of the two, the third movie (despite being torn into two money-grabbing parts) will prove to be "really cool," as the writing in the third book should lend itself to the big screen very well.  Then, I think everyone will gain a better appreciation of the third book.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Goodbye: Revolution and Believe

Here are a couple more shows ending in 2014 that I'll miss (spoilers may appear):

Revolution (NBC): Season 1 was good.  It started with electricity turning off all over the world.  Then it jumped a couple of decades into the future where most of the story takes place.  The Monroe Republic ruled the northeastern portion of what used to be the United States.  The show focused on the lives of a few selected families as they all struggled to make things right (that is, according to what they thought was "right").

As the show progressed, we learned some interesting tidbits.  The uncle turned out to be a major part of the Monroe Republic.  That mom from LOST turned out to be alive, and also the one who caused the whole electricity-turning-off incident.  Similarly, every character turned out to have an interesting backstory.

My only complaint would be that the action scenes relied heavily on coincidences and bad guys shooting like storm troopers.  Are we really supposed to believe that Miles armed with nothing but handguns, could take down twenty trained gunmen?  At least the plot kept things interesting.

The season ended with a very believable explanation as to how the electricity went out.  Cool ... and freaky.

Season #2 was bold, as if looking for a fresh style ... perhaps borrowing from the successes of The Walking Dead?  I actually found it to be more interesting, though a lot more violent.  I'm sure the show lost a lot of viewers because of the change in formula.  I'm also sure that very few new viewers came onboard.  The change in tactic was a failed attempt to keep the show on air, and sometimes I wonder if it would have been better if they had stuck with the formula and kept the show how it was.

After the Monroe Republic was destroyed, life seemed to be a lot more hectic.  At first I was annoyed with the first few episodes in the season #2, as the writers were holding back information from us that the characters knew.  Plus, we were four months in the future.  (Why do show writers feel they have to add in four months so as to simulate the passage of "real" time over the summer?)  Eventually, though, the writers made with the details, and the show became watchable again.

Season #2 dealt with the nano tech striving to become some kind of god.  At first this was cool, as the nano seemed to be watching over the good guys, but then as the season progressed, it became very freaky as we learned what the nano really wanted to do.  At the same time, Monroe tried to regain power, while Miles constantly tried to keep him in check.

I think it came to a satisfying end, except for the very last bit about the nano starting to collect people.  I wasn't sure where that could lead.  Either way, we won't find out since the show is cancelled.  Despite the efforts of fans trying to get someone anywhere to pick up Season #3, there's no sign that this will happen.  It's a shame, but I'm nowhere as torqued up as I was with Firefly and Jericho.

Believe (NBC):  This show was a pleasant surprise this past Spring (along with Resurrection).  This show is Touch without the annoying mathematical coincidences, and slightly better writing.  It also allowed itself to come to a satisfactory end in just one season (just like Awake, though not as good an ending).

The show started out showing William Tate getting busted out of jail just before his execution.  By the end of that first episode, he learned that he was being asked by some questionable people to watch over a little girl, Bo Adams, who had amazing powers.  Bad guys were after her, but of course, as the series progresses, we come to learn that the bad guys weren't quite so bad, and the good guys not so good.

The show does get to be a little slow sometimes.  As Tate tries to hide Bo and protect her, she always ran into some stranger that needed her help--thus getting in the "damsel in distress of the week."  Whenever any of these subplots became slow, I think it helped to make the show less interesting.  Being a spring show mixed with these slow parts most likely killed off any renewal chances.

Even as it is now, I think the show does fine with just one season.  There doesn't seem to be too much material for a second one.  But since it comes to a satisfying end, I recommend catching this online.  Right now the whole season is on for free, and I'm sure it'll eventually show up on Netflix.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

2014: A Few Shows That Are No Longer With Us

My blog blitzkrieg continues (slowly) with this report on shows ending in 2014 that I'm going to miss.

First off, I'll start with an honorable mention ... one show that I've given up on that's still showing.  I've really, really enjoyed watching Grimm, but the third season was losing me big time.  The zombie line was kind of cool, but then the writers decided to bring in a few non-Wesen weirds of the week--an unfortunate signal of "we're running out of ideas."  And they were also focusing on the most uninteresting plot line (at least to me) ... the whole Prince/Adalind thing.  Boresville!  I stopped after the Santa Claus episode (which was actually pretty good) as the direction in the show seems to be lost.

Okay ... now on to the really dead shows.  Warning ... spoilers may follow.

Psych (USA) was a hilarious show.  Who could not love Shawn pretending to be psychic, and his trusting but often reluctant sidekick Gus?  These guys were not just funny, but they were from my generation--growing up in the 80's and 90's.  It was also the perfect companion detective show to Monk.  (Didn't they used to come on right next to each other?)

It lasted eight seasons, which was both good and bad.  Good in that Shawn and Gus could both make funny fresh.  And bad in that some jokes started getting stale.  The tone of the show started getting raunchy.  In fact, it almost seems that they hired one writer who had a potty-mouth and his mind in the gutter, and he got to write one out of every five episodes toward the end.  And what the heck did they do to Woody's character?  He went from likable to major creep over one of the season breaks.

Still, Shawn and Gus kept their characters going, always staying likable to the end.  Man, that Jamaican Inspector Man bit was pretty funny.

Thanks for all the memories, and thanks for a semi-satisfactory ending.

24: Live Another Day (FOX) started out as more of the same, with the silly twists and turns.  They stuck with the annoying formula, and it actually worked.  Once I finally got to the 5th episode, I was hooked.  The excitement was about as great as I remembered from my favorite 4th season.  The bad guys were fun to watch, and fun to hate.

My favorite line came after the mother terrorist said, "Tonight, all this blood is on your hands."  Then Jack replied, "The only blood on my hands tonight will be yours" as he threw her out the window.  That was surprisingly satisfying.

The last episode was mostly good, but it was really, really, really, really, really dumb that everyone didn't think there might be a "second shooter."  The writers might as well have thrown a bear trap in Audrey's face, and it would have been more believable.  But once she died, the reactions from Bauer and the President were priceless.  I felt sad ... not because I liked Audrey's character, but because how others acted when she was gone.  (Reminds me of the end of Godfather III.)

The biggest disappointment was ... yeah, Bauer's in trouble again.  Stupid non-committal ending.  It sets up for a sequel, which I would place a surety of 90% of it happening.  But they already did this ending with the Chinese in an earlier season.  Just once, can one of these seasons simply give a final ending?  (Don't worry ... a "final" ending doesn't mean there can't be sequels.)

When it comes on again, I'll probably watch.

Warehouse 13 (Syfy) will be a show to remember.  The science was doggone awful, and the idea of "genius endowed artifacts while the rest of the world is oblivious" can't really be sustained.  But I didn't really care.  These characters were enjoyable, interesting, and funny.  The world that was built was mostly consistent.

This show had an almost perfect balance of humor mixed with action.  Toward the end it seemed they went a little too far on the humor side, but on the most part they kept everything together.

One complaint I have about the show, was it was hard to determine when it was time to be sad about a death or disappearance of a major character.  More often than not, an artifact would kick in to bring a person back to life.  When Leena died, I was all, "Don't worry.  She'll come back."  But she didn't come back.  Oh well.

The show had some funny cameos as well.  Go, Brent Spiner!

The ending felt rushed, but it provided closure while ending the show on a high note.

BTW, did your DVR cut off the last minute?  I was super-annoyed.  Especially when I discovered there was no free way to watch it on demand.  Though, I think Syfy received enough complaints, and you can now catch that last minute at  Here's a link, but there's no telling how long it'll be good for.

Anyways, it's all over.  Good show.  I'm glad I watched it to the end.

I'll be back tomorrow with two more shows to kill off.

Monday, July 28, 2014

John Hartness: Back in Black

John Hartness is another North Carolina writer, whom I met a few years ago at a writer's conference, and let me tell you--he is a hilarious writer.

Back in Black is book #2 in his "Black Knight Chronicles" featuring the two kind-of-vegetarian vampire detectives, Jimmy Black and Greg Knightwood.  While trying to hide their true identities, this couple tries to solve mysteries at night, often running into crazy supernatural adventures.

I bought one of the original editions from when the author self-published this series.  Thus I had to wade through a few typos and a couple of instances of awkward writing.  I'll just assume these got fixed in the currently available edition and move on.

This book contains the same humor that existed in the first one.  The story is interesting and engaging.  The ending is satisfying.  We get to learn more about Hartness's world of vampires.  I particularly loved how both Jimmy and Greg struggled to be "vegetarian" as much as possible.  The fight scenes are hilarious.  The whole world is just plain imaginative and different.

I found myself distracted by only one weakness in the plot.  The case our vampire friends pursue is a series of brutal beatings of gay males.  Several times in the book, the plot freezes as one (or two, or more) of the main characters delivers a soliloquy about how we should accept gay people and allow gay marriage.  This is good for the author--letting us know what side he's on, even though he's from conservative North Carolina.  But I found the delivery to be flat, derivative, and preaching to the choir. It basically stopped the flow of the plot while not really adding anything.

In my opinion, Hartness missed a golden opportunity to have at least one of his main characters originally opposed to gay marriage, but then by the end of the book coming to learn that gay people are alright after all ... such as in the movie Philadelphia.  Such a sub-plotline would have had more convincing power to readers who happen to be more conservatively oriented.

Despite the one minor flaw, I highly recommend the first two books in this series.  They're funny with rich characters in a rich environment.  And dag nab it ... now I'm going to have to get the next book in the series.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Valerie Nieman: Blood Clay

Have you ever been in a hopeless situation, only to relive it over and over, wondering what you could have done differently?  Blood Clay, written by Valerie Nieman, explores one such incident that occurs in rural North Carolina.

Tracey Gaines is a Yankee who moves to the South to pursue ... she's not exactly sure what ... a change of pace?  An escape from her past?  At first, the natives are friendly.  But then when Tracey survives a vicious dog attack, she learns quickly how most of those friendly faces are just a facade.  Tracey tries to do the right things, but meets resistance and hostility wherever she turns.

Well, almost everywhere.  She befriends a local teacher, Dave Fordham, who has his own conflicted past.  He walks with a limp, and is basically a big wuss.  Or at least he looks like one.

What makes this book a joy to read are the real and complex characters.  Each person has major flaws, and no one is "good" or "bad."  Each person has their own desires and needs, and the events are believable.  In fact, when I was done reading, I had to do my own research to see if these events actually did occur.  As far as I can tell, it's all fiction--I think.

The only complaint I have is that in one or two places, I thought the stereotypes were a little thick.  However, these concerns are small in light of the complex story and the dramatic ending.

I highly recommend this book to all Southerners and Yankees.

P.S. You may wonder why a sci-fi reader like me is reading one of these human-interest stories.  Sometimes I just like to take a break and read something more down-to-earth.  Valerie Nieman is an author local to my city, and I met her at a couple of functions.  When she read from her book, I was hooked.  Valerie also happens to write sci-fi as well, and has even hobnobbed with some big-name authors at SFWA meets in the past ... and boy does she have some stories to tell.  There's even a little science in Blood Clay ... just a little.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

More Shows That Died in 2013

In my Blog Blitzkrieg (and all around catching up on stuff), I'll honor shows I used to watch, but ended or got cancelled in 2013.

First off, here are two shows I gave up on, which are actually still showing.

The Following - I think I watched about seven episodes before I realized I really wasn't interested.  The show relies way too much on techniques that made 24 famous.  The twists became so convoluted that they were almost predictable.  Also, the writers seemed to be too much intent on pushing the envelope on how violent a TV show could get.  Sometimes this is fun, like Kubrick in his movies.  But in the case of this show, I just wanted to see more story.  Instead I just got empty boredom.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D - I lasted about five episodes.  My kids watched it with me.  But with the other TV shows going on, this show didn't kindle enough interest to keep watching.  My kids loved to tear apart the science.  Other than that ... we all just lost interest.  Each episode was more of the same.  But of course, it's being renewed because of its franchise value ... I suppose.

Also, I'll throw in an honorable mention for Zero Hour, which got cancelled after only a couple of episodes.  I saw two episodes, and found it to be somewhat interesting.  It was like National Treasure for TV.  I think this show could have found a home with a larger audience, but when the show was on TV, it seemed as if nobody knew it was on.  Perhaps it died because of poor marketing.  For those who are interested, 13 episodes are currently available on Hulu Plus.

Now for the shows I watched till the bitter end...

Alphas (SyFy) - Technically, this ended at the end of 2012, but somehow I missed sending this off.  Overall, I was impressed with the cast and the complex relationships.  Some of the episodes were hit or miss, and we often saw a lot of "Strange of the Week."  But even with these weaknesses, the writers were able to get a good overall arc to the whole show.

My only complaint was that it had not finished when it ended.  The bad guy had won (temporarily).  Everyone was dead-ish.  But you knew that in the next episode, everyone would come back to life.  The baddie would be caught, and Season 3 would go underway.  However, this isn't what happened, and we have yet another good show that left us hanging.

Thanks a lot, SyFy!

The Office (NBC) - This show went on about seven seasons too long, but the show always seemed to find a way to keep me going with it.  When Michael left the show, the remaining characters were sufficiently funny.  Though, toward the end, there were a lot of plot lines that didn't do much for me.

The biggest slap to the head was the whole thing about Jim and Pam having marriage "issues."  I just found the setup to be heavily convoluted, and we all knew they'd work it out in the end.  Kudos for trying to tear them apart, but I wish they had gone with something a little more believable.

The final episode was satisfying.  We got to see Michael again, but not as much as I would have liked.  We finally got to see the end of the documentary, and how most everyone's life ended up, including a couple of good tear jerkers.  It was almost as good as the British final Christmas special.

The show had lots of memorable moments ... the Fire Drill, the Parkour, Dwight and all his antics, Jim and Pam's practical jokes on Dwight, Kevin sticking his feet into the hotel's ice bin, Pam's stupid mural, and so on.

I think I might watch the whole show on Netflix again ...

Touch (FOX) - Several times I complained about the science/math of this show.  It's all complete bunk, even though the writers tried to tie everything to the Fibonacci sequence (which does indeed govern all of nature, but can in no way be used to predict what's going to happen).  Pythagoras would have eaten up the doctrine, but ... I watched it despite this major annoyance.  The story lines were actually interesting.  Give me a good story, and I can overlook the <groan> pseudo-science.

In two seasons, I think the show came to a good stopping point.  It could have gone farther, but at least we weren't left with a big cliffhanger.  Martin is the new protector of the 36.  Jake can live with his father.  Amelia can lead a normal life.  The terrible Aster Corps is destroyed.  Yeah!

Though ... I have to say ... weren't there some parts where Martin was a lot like Jack Bauer?  Didn't you love the parts where he's all, "Don't hurt me--I'm just a dude watching over his son" and then he's all, "I told you not to mess with me"?  Jack Bauer trying to act like a wimp?  Yeah, right.  Sutherland is now permanently typecasted.  Especially when the baddie Ortiz was introduced in Season 2, I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn't watching 24.

Now the show is over, I'll have fond memories.  Good luck, Jake!  Go do your thing!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Orson Scott Card's Homecoming 4 & 5

Now I will review the last two books in Orson Scott Card's Homecoming Saga.  If you missed the reviews of the first three books, you can catch them here.

Book #4: Earthfall.

Out of the five, this volume was my favorite.  The ragtag group finally gets off the planet Harmony, and things happen more quickly.  The trip across space is cool.  Orson introduces two new races that had evolved into intelligent species on Earth in the humans' absence.  Also, we get to know more about the Keeper of Earth, some highly advanced something that communicates with humans through their dreams--not to be confused with the Oversoul, the supercomputer entity that talks directly to Nafai and others.

You can expect more of the same as from the older books.  Elemak and Mebbekew still try to find ways to kill Nafai, while Nafai and his allies try to stay alive.

Once they get to Earth, they have interesting interactions with the new aborigines.  The result is a very imaginative and interesting story.

Book #5: Earthborn.

The last of the series takes place 500 years into the future.  So right off the bat, everyone I cared about is dead.  The naming conventions have changed.  Women have been placed in a submissive role.  And people are starting to doubt the stories about Nafai and his family.

As a story, this one was my least favorite out of the five.  I could have stopped with Book #4, which had a satisfying end.  The new characters just aren't as interesting.  Some of the characters flip-flop more than politicians, and it's difficult to determine their true motives.

However, the book does enter into some interesting discussions about religion, women's rights and racism.  Unfortunately, the characters sound more like Socratic Dialogues rather than real human beings working out their issues.

The book ends in a good place.  However, there are still some questions unanswered.  The good news is that at least it's not screaming for a sequel.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Upcoming Break

Followers of my blog may know that I've been struggling with passing a certain Actuarial Exam.  As this exam contains the least amount of math out of all 9 exams (or however many there are now), it is not as easy for me to pass.  You can read about my love/hate relationship here and here.

If I pass this last exam, I will gain the Associate designation.  That would mean letters after my name, and I would become a "Qualified Actuary" who can become worthy to sign official Actuarial Opinions.  After years passing all these other exams, it would be a shame to give up now, only one exam away.  Thus, this time I'm going to try and throw everything at this exam, even going so far to give up many things that I love in the meantime ...

... including this blog.

But then again, I'm finding out that NOT passing this exam is also getting in the way of my life.  It pulls me down, adds to my depression, etc., etc.  I write fewer blog posts, compose less music, write stories slower, and so on.  I expect that if I hunker down and get this (stupid) exam over with, then my life will open up and become exciting again.

So, how I go ... I will first end with a blog blitzkrieg over the next two or three weeks.  I'll catch up with a few articles I've been meaning to write.  Then I will start the break and not return until November.  I'll miss you guys, but when I come back, I'm going to be more raring to go.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Orson Scott Card's Homecoming Harmony

It took me a while, but I made it through Orson Scott Card's Homecoming Saga -- all five books.  Today I'll review the first three, which are combined into this one big volume called Homecoming: Harmony.

Book #1: The Memory of Earth.

The first I realized right off the bat was that this book was a retelling of the Book of Mormon.  Not the entertaining (and not-so-accurate) musical, but the actual book.  Instead of Nephi, the main character is called Nafai.  His brothers Laman, Lemuel, and Sam become Elemak, Mebbekew, and Issib.  And instead of God leading the way, it's the Oversoul, a supercomputer that watches over humanity on the planet Harmony over the past forty million years.

At first I thought this was pretty cool and a neat idea, but then as the story progressed, I came to realize that I knew exactly how the book was going to progress.  This started to become annoying and distracting.  You ever try to read a book when your friend told you how it's going to end?

Also, I think the actual book I read was a first edition.  It had many errors such as bad punctuation, unclosed quotes, and misspelled/wrong words.  (And it was published by Tor?)  I'll just assume these got fixed in later editions.  All this came together for me almost as if this were an early attempt at writing from my favorite author, and not a particularly good one--heavily relying on a religious text to guide the plot.

But then I noticed something else.  In a way, it was commentary on what could possibly have gone through the heads of Nephi and his brothers as they did what they did in the Book of Mormon.  And when Card's book ended, it did feel like it was somewhat more than an imitation of scripture.  I had enjoyed some parts of it even though I knew what was coming.  After all, Orson Scott Card always finds a way to bring everything together with a satisfying conclusion.

Ultimately, I recommend reading this book, especially if you're an Orson Scott Card fan.  This book tells the story about Nafai and his brothers.  After forty million years of decay, the Oversoul computer realizes it's dying and losing influence on men.  He/she/it calculates that the humans will destroy themselves.  It chooses Nafai's family for reasons that become more apparent in the later books.  Nafai's family must flee their extravagant lifestyle and prepare for whatever the Oversoul has in mind.

Book #2: The Call of Earth.

This second book of the series tells the story of what comes next.  Nafai and his brothers must go back to their old city and bring back wives for their upcoming journey.  Eventually they must find their way to Earth, where humanity began, and repopulate it.

In many respects, I found this book to be better than its predecessor.  Orson Scott Card spends less time relying on the Book of Mormon and much more time fleshing out the characters.  He even introduces new major characters that have no parallel in the Book of Mormon.  The writing itself also seems improved and definitely free of the errors I saw in the first book.

This may surprise some Mormons, but this book spends a lot of time talking about sex.  It's nothing explicit, but rather it explores different attitudes toward sex.  This might be expected, considering the main plot point is about marrying the characters off.  One of the characters also turns out to be gay, where Card gives a surprisingly sympathetic point of view (well, surprising to those who think they fully understand Card's views).

Towards the end of the book, I saw the pages running out, and I wondered where Card was going, but as always, he ends with a very satisfying ending that ties everything together.

Book #3: The Ships of Earth.

The story continues as Nafai, family, and friends disembark on their journey across the desert.  They have no idea where they're going, but the supercomputer Oversoul watches them.  He tells them what direction to go, when to stop and camp, and when to keep on going, alerting them to any and all dangers along the way.

This journey takes a couple of decades.  Along the way, the group makes babies, which then become new characters.  At times, the details of the journeyings and who's who in the new generation gets a little cumbersome, but on the most part, Orson Scott Card keeps the direction moving forward at all times.

The biggest plot device seems to be the struggle between the oldest brother, Elemak, and Nafai.  Elemak wants to be in charge, but resents Nafai since he's the one who's chosen by the Oversoul.  Elemak would love to kill Nafai, but he can't without losing the support from the rest of the clan.  Also, most of the group wants to leave the difficult desert life and return to the lavish city life they had left.

When the group gets to its final destination, Orson Scott Card gives a very imaginative story as to how they come to build a ship to get to Earth.  Again, it's a satisfying ending.

There are still two more books in the series, and I'll get to them next week.

Monday, June 16, 2014

How To Train Your Dragon 2

The first movie was cool, and so is the sequel.  How To Train Your Dragon 2 has the same humor, action, and wittiness.  Hiccup is back and he's older.  He's created cooler gadgets, and more adventures await as he goes exploring the world.

High energy pulls the viewer through the whole show, with no boring parts at all.  Even adult viewers are easily pulled in, while at the same time without the annoying use of sexual innuendos or colorful metaphors that some writers mistakenly think are above children's intelligence/experience levels.

What makes this movie so successful is the strong story line.  Even though it sometimes feels like it's setting up for the third movie yet to come, it all holds together and prompts strong emotional responses across the spectrum.

I recommend watching this in the theater because of the colorful imagery.  Sometimes I forgot I was watching a cartoon.  I watched it in 2D, but my kids went back to watch it in 3D.  They report mixed reviews.  Two thought it was worth the extra bucks, and the third wasn't so sure.  Either way, you get the story, and sometimes that's just most of the experience.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow: It's Not Dead Yet

Why is everyone so ready to write off the movie Edge of Tomorrow as this summer's first big-budget flop?  I would love to see the numbers turn around and make these experts eat their words.

Why did the movie do so terribly in the US (so far)?  I can tell you why ...

#1) The title really sucks.  The movie is much more exciting than its title.
#2) The poster looks boring, too.
#3) People are hesitant to see another Oblivion (though, I liked that movie--it wasn't too bad).
#4) Tom Cruise and his wacky religion.  Yeah, I've seen people online complaining about that.

But something else is happening.  People are talking about this movie.  It's much better than Oblivion.  Tom Cruise actually did a good job in this role and is not too annoying.  (Some will even enjoy seeing him cut down in the beginning of the film.)  The action is awesome, and the plot is interesting.

I wouldn't be surprised if this movie enjoys a steady cash flow over the next few weeks.  Let's look at some numbers.

Edge of Tomorrow had a production budget of $178M.  Domestically, it earned only $29M over the weekend.  As of June 10, its cumulative is now up to $35M.  That sounds pretty paltry, doesn't it?

As usual for Tom Cruise, the foreign market is eating up this movie.  It's already eared $111M in the foreign market, bringing the total to $146M so far.  It will definitely end up covering the production costs.  It still has a long ways to go to meet other costs, though.

I don't think it's over, yet.  I'm hoping that those who've seen it already will tell their friends, and we'll see another wave of viewers in the next couple of weeks.  Don't let the experts tell you NOT to see this movie because it's DOA.  Rather, go and enjoy this before it leaves theaters.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow: The Next Blockbuster?

Could it be that Tom Cruise is finally in a sci-fi movie that will be well-received?  I really hope so, because I really liked this movie.

First I should say in full disclosure that I'm a fan of Tom Cruise sci-fi movies, even when they're not popular.  Often I think his movies get a bad rap because of his affiliation with Scientology and his whole "I'm better than you" attitude.  But I am one who is able to set that aside and enjoy his acting.

The first few minutes seemed a little cheesy and reminded me of Battle: Los Angeles (which I liked and no one else did), and I feared I was watching a dud, but then I was hooked when the real story began.  The action continued forward, and there was never a dull moment.

Tom Cruise plays Major Cage, a total jerkwad and a coward.  It's fun to watch what happens to Cage as he earns his just rewards.  He is thrown into the thick of battle, dies, and ... Groundhog Day!  He wakes up one day earlier.  He relives the disastrous battle and learns that he can do different things to change the outcome.

Yes, a large part of the movie is practically isomorphic to Groundhog Day.  At first there's the concern that we, the audience, will be forced to watch the same scenes over and over again.  (Well, we do get to see Emily Blunt do Upward Dog at least six times.)  But just when you think it might start to get boring, the slow parts get skipped, and ... well ... I'll just say I think they did a very good job in editing and story telling -- keeping it interesting while not confusing the audience.  I only got confused once (when Cage took some random trip among civilians one time ... how exactly did he get there?).

The movie isn't perfect.  There are several glaring plot holes, which I'm sure many will say, "I hated this movie because ... <blah>."  Unfortunately, I can't describe any of these holes without giving away what happens.  The action and interesting characters more than make up for the glaring holes.

My advice ... go see this movie.  Don't see it in 3-D, though.  They didn't pay the extra amount to shoot the movie in 3-D (instead opting to go the cheaper 3-D conversion route), so I didn't pay the extra $3.  I don't feel like I missed a thing.

And finally, one small spoiler.  If you watch it this Friday (June 6), notice where the big battle takes place.  My verdict: it's a fun movie to watch while simultaneously celebrating D-Day.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The 80-20 Principle: The Secret to Success?

If you've ever taken a class on job efficiency, I'm sure you've heard of the 80-20 principle.  Basically, it says that 80% of the results comes from 20% of the effort.  What this means is that you can often spend 80% of your time and effort trying to achieve the final 20% of your results.  This is often called the Law of Diminishing Returns.

Often, 80% of the results is good enough if you have a million things to do.  If you spend only 20% of the time on the project, then you can produce results quickly, impress your superiors, and move on to the next project.  On the other hand, if you want perfection when it's not really required, you could spend hours just getting that annoying font perfect, or the calculation of a non-consequential number perfect.  In other words, you could be wasting time when other projects are awaiting your attention.

Makes sense?  It's a very good principle to follow in business.  I've found it helps me greatly at work.  When I see others ignore it, they tend to work more inefficiently and end up working long hours.

However, there's another side to this principle that I'd like to explore.  As I come near an end to my five-year midlife crises, I've come to a realization about myself.  I am naturally very good at several different things.

For example, as I was finishing my Masters in Music, I needed 3 more credit hours.  Just for fun, I took Physics 2 (skipping Physics 1).  Without hardly any effort at all, I was able to pass at the top of the whole class, even beating that one Chinese dude that wanted top.  Heh heh heh.  

I am also good at sight-reading.  Put something in front of me, and I'll pound it out on the piano.

My whole life I've been living the 80-20 Principle without realizing it.  Everything was just so easy that I felt like I didn't need to put forward the extra effort.

That is until I hit 40 and realized: "Why doesn't anyone read my stories?" and "Why won't people listen to my music?"  The answer is very simple.  I had never really worked hard in life to achieve the 100% perfection.  I had been getting by on 80% in many aspects of my life, but get this ...

Whatever you do, there is somebody else in this world who can do it better than you.  If you want to get published, you're going to have to be in that top 1% of all the writers of the world.  80% just doesn't cut it.  Sure, your stories may be fun to read, and well written and all that, but are they 80%?  Or are they 99%?  The magazines will be publishing the 99% stories, while the 80% stories will be long forgotten.

Here's another example.  Chopin wrote the Etude opus 10, number 1, which is so difficult, even Horowitz avoided playing it in public.  (If you can find a recording, I'd be interested to hear it, but I can't seem to find one.)

The Etude is actually very easy to memorize.  It's basically all chords with a moving bass line and the melody interspersed almost randomly in the right hand.  So, I worked it up, giving it my usual 80% effort, and I posted it on YouTube thinking I was hot stuff.  Here's that recording (listen for about the first minute or so):

But then, I was brought down.  One You-Tuber (who has since deleted his comments) pointed out some technical difficulties that was ruining my performance.  He basically opened my eyes that this was a terrible performance.  Sure, my performance may be cool and impressive to some who don't play the piano, but any experienced piano player would cringe and stop listening after the first 15 seconds.

With this small amount of effort, it's no surprise that I'm not currently playing in Carnegie Hall.

So, I worked up the Etude again.  After spending a whole year on technique and smoothing out issues, I got it to this 95% performance (again, you only need to listen for about a minute) ...

It's not perfect, but this second performance is much more bearable.  Also, check out the difference in times.  2:17 vs. 3:19?  Yes, I got it to be faster!  And yes, it's impressive.  I bet most of you can't hear why it's not going to get me into Carnegie Hall.  I still need to finish up the last 5% and get the piece closer to 100%.

Here is a professional recording (listen to the first minute or so)...

Ashkenazy plays this very well.  He's at least 99% if not at 99.5%.  He's mastered the dynamics.  He plays it slightly faster than I do.  He has fewer errors.  He's found a way to add feeling into the piece.

Now for the coup-de-grace.  Go back to my second recording and listen again to the first minute or so. Now, can you hear the difference?  Yes.  If I ever hope to get noticed, I need to get to that 99% level.

It's the same with writing fiction.  Have you ever read a book that was so good that you almost feel like "I'm not worthy"?  If so, you have experienced the 99%, and that's exactly where you need to be if you want to get published.

So, what does this all mean?  Basically, you must decide what you want to excel in.  You can put forward 20% of the effort in most aspects of your life and be happy with the 80% results.  But where it really matters, you should put in the other 80% effort (what Bradbury called Perspersistence) and do whatever it takes to bring your work much closer to 100%.

It's not too late for me.  I want this.  I want my fiction to be published.  I want people to perform my compositions.  I want to do something good in this world and leave my contributions.  I know exactly what I need to do next.

Who's with me?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

AdSense: The Saga Continues

Here's another update on how well AdSense is working for me.  (You can read the first three parts here: 1, 2, 3.)

After three months of AdSense being active, I'm happy to report that I'm still under $2.00 total.  Yeah!  I'm up to four clicks.  Also, after the first month, I started seeing occasional 1 cent revenues, which I believe is just from people seeing the ads, but not clicking on them.

So far, it doesn't seem worth it.  It's almost as if I'm providing nearly free advertising.  I'll keep it going for a while, though.  I need to at least get my first $10.  Then I may request my payment and turn off the service.

It's been a fun experiment, though.

Today I'm expanding the experiment to my YouTube videos.  I turned on monetization over there.  Though, I was a little disappointed at the seemingly lack of clear explanations as to how it works.

Also, I don't want to monetize very many of my videos ... just the more popular ones, and not ones where I'm borrowing any free material.  In fact, those specific videos are not eligible for monetization.

So, I turned on monetization, and you'll never guess what.  YouTube/Google turned on Monetization on ALL my videos.  And there's no mass edit to turn off the ones I want to turn off.  I have to go into every single video and turn them off one by one.  Plus, YouTube/Google may now investigate ALL my videos and may punish me for asking to monetize ineligible videos.  But ...


Sorry, I'm just a little angry.  Here I go ... turning off monetizations one by one, saying, "Stupid Google" with each click.  It's actually kind of fun.

Monday, April 28, 2014

When Good Guys Go Bad

I'm sure you've seen it a hundred times in TV, movies, and in comics.  This guy is totally awesome, nice, and handsome.  But then halfway through the story, the audience learns that he's really a villain and/or a jerk.  Sometimes this is done well, and the character retains his consistency, but most of the time, it comes with an unnatural and unexplained change in the character's persona.

Beware ... spoilers up ahead ...

I bet most of you have already seen Frozen.  If so, one person should immediately come to mind: Hans, the prince with twelve older brothers.  At first we see him like this ...

Nice guy, huh?  (Though many have pointed out ... why isn't he included in most of the Frozen merchandise?  Could it be ...?)  Yeah, he turns out to be evil.  Up until the big reveal to the audience, he looks all good-natured and full of concern and responsibility.  And then as soon as the reveal is made, it's as if a light switch is flipped.  Then for the rest of the movie, he looks like this ...

Even when he's trying to look nice to the others, we can still see it in his eyes.  Why didn't we see it before?

Simple answer ... because he was drawn to be look nice up until the reveal.  It was a direct attempt to fool the audience into being taken in by him.  Watch Frozen again, and see if you can see the evil in his eyes before the big reveal.  I've tried, and it's just not there.

Can you think of other instances?  How about Nina Myers from 24.  I remember how "good" she looked until the writers decided to make her bad.  Then she looked "evil" all the way.

If well done, the character will look the same before and after, and only the audience's perception changes.  I would use Senator Palpatine from Star Wars as a well-done example, if only it weren't really due to bad acting all around.  Another small example done well might be Harrison Ford in Ender's Game, who's the same throughout even though we come to learn how much of a jerk he really was.

What examples can you think of ... well-done or poorly done?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Firefox and Intolerance

I must be getting all political here!  Last week, I explained why I removed Candy Crush (because of their greedy attempts to patent the names "Candy" and "Saga" in order to crush the competition).  This week, (and this is ironic), I will be removing Firefox because of Mozilla's show of intolerance in the face of the latest witch hunt.

Before I continue, a quick little bit about myself:  I am a conservative Christian who happens to hold the political view that gay marriage should be allowed.  That is, even though I believe homosexuality is a sin, I don't think my views should stand in the way of the happiness of those who believe differently than I do.  Let them be happy.  Don't judge them.  Be friends with them.  Support them.  That's what tolerance is all about.

I also believe that those who disagree with gay marriage should be allowed to disagree, and even fight the current trend.  That's what being American is all about -- free speech -- standing up for what you believe in.  Does that make these disagree-ers evil and intolerant?  I suppose it depends on how they carry out their protests, but who am I to judge?

My fear is that one day very soon, as gay marriage is becoming legal in all 50 states, the tables will turn, and the gay community will unleash a wave of intolerance against those who fought against gay marriage.  It will be a deliverance of "much earned" retaliatory comeuppance.  If you don't get with the program, you'll be boycotted, or fired, or blacklisted, or ostracized.

If any of this sounds familiar yet, then you're starting to catch on to the witch hunt that's currently picking up speed.  This wave of retaliatory comeuppance is nothing more than another manifestation of McCarthyism.  Most of you reading today probably weren't alive when the hearings went down, but many good people were publicly humiliated, blacklisted, and exiled.  The actor Charlie Chaplin was even forced to live away from the good old USA for 20 years even though he really wasn't a communist.  He only looked like one because of his political attempts to bridge friendship between the US and Russia during World War II.  When mob mentality settled in, the witch hunts proceeded.  Those labeled as "communist" were prosecuted.  Logic went out the window.

What was it Charlie Chaplin said when he learned of the possibility of returning to America?
Whether I re-entered that unhappy country or not was of little consequence to me. I would like to have told them that the sooner I was rid of that hate-beleaguered atmosphere the better, that I was fed up of America's insults and moral pomposity.
Today, the new label is "homophobe."  If you do anything to earn that moniker, you're toast.  Prepare to be burned at the stake.  It won't matter if you support gay marriage, or if you befriend gay people, or demonstrate tolerance toward them.  It will matter that you associate with certain groups, or if you provide an unfortunate sound bite.  In my case, it could well turn up ten years from now that I'm a Mormon, and I may be asked to renounce my religion or lose my job.  But wait!  I'm good people!

Back to the present, let's talk about Brendan Eich -- Silicon Valley superstar -- inventor of JavaScript and a whole bunch of behind-the-scene stuff you and I use every day.  Six years ago, this man donated $1,000 dollars to Proposition 8. Therefore, he's a "homophobe."  It doesn't matter that Brendan has a long history of supporting pro-gay policies at work.  Neither does it matter that he emotionally apologized for upsetting so many people a few days ago.  It only matters that his name shows up on the ultimate list of homophobes ... those who donated money to Prop 8, and there's no room for repentance.

A couple of weeks ago, Brendan was named CEO of Mozilla.  Almost immediately, a few pro-gay groups protested.  The prominent dating site OkCupid called for a boycott of Firefox ... a misdirected boycott (in my opinion), as the company Mozilla has no anti-gay policies, and neither was it sending any money toward anti-gay causes, and neither had Brendan had any altercations/issues working with gay people.  In fact, Board member Mitchell Baker said of him, "I never saw any kind of behavior or attitude from him that was not in line with Mozilla's values of inclusiveness."

So why did OkCupid call for a boycott?  The only reason (as confirmed by their recent statements in reaction to the resignation) was to bring Brendan down. OkCupid gave this contradictory statement on their website: "OkCupid is for creating love.  Those who seek to deny love and instead enforce misery, shame, and frustration are our enemies, and we wish them nothing but failure."

It's funny how "creating love" and "enemies" could appear so close together.  This kind of contradiction is a normal symptom of a witch hunt ... mob mentality with the lack of ability to step back and analyze the "logic" being presented.  In this whole incident, OkCupid wasn't "creating love," but rather demonstrating intolerance (of the retaliatory comeuppance variety).  How ironic!

It's all too easy to look back in history at the McCarthy hearings and say, "I would never do that."  But at the time, it was all too easy to be caught up in the Red Scare.  OkCupid, here, demonstrates how easy it is today to get caught up in the retaliatory comeuppance wave that's building.  So, I challenge you.  If you can say, "I would never do that" referring to the McCarthy hearings, then now's your chance to reconsider your position today.  Do you want to support this rising wave of retaliatory intolerance?  Or will you leave it to your grandchildren to look back at our generation and say, "I would never do that"?

Mozilla has chosen to buckle under this wave.  The pressure against Brendan built until he was forced to resign.  Instead of giving their support, the Board basically threw Brendan under the bus.  Take a look at the official Mozilla statement by the Executive Chairwoman, Mitchell Baker.

It starts off apologizing for not acting quickly enough.  (What exactly could they do more quickly?  Give more support to their CEO and help the world understand why he was really good for the company and the community despite his personal views?  Or does this mean they should have asked the world for permission to hire him as CEO?)

Then there's a blurb about standing up for both equality and freedom of speech, but it's hard to figure out how to stand for both.  (It's not really that hard ... allow freedom of speech and treat everyone equally.  They just failed to treat Brendan equally.)

Then there's a part on Mozilla's inclusiveness, as they welcome contributions from all different strokes of life (but apparently not from the conservatively religious, as evident from the outcome).

From where I stand, Mozilla chose poorly.  Now they face a different kind of boycott ... now several want to remove Firefox from their computers because of the unequal and intolerant treatment of Brendan Eich.  Even some prominent pro-gay personas have denounced this whole witch hunt.

I think I'll try out Chrome and Safari for a while as I watch how this all plays out. I realize I risk being labeled a homophobe (despite my actual views on the whole subject), but what can I say?  I will stand up against intolerance in all its forms. We shouldn't meet intolerance with more intolerance.  Let's stop the witch hunt now, especially considering that six years ago, more than half of Americans were against gay marriage.  At this rate, there won't be anyone left.

"An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.  Very good.  That way the whole world will be blind and toothless." -- Tevye

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Copyright Wars

Have you joined the thousands who have stopped playing Candy Crush?  Only a couple of days ago, King Digital Entertainment went public with a very disappointing IPO.  How could such a successful game perform so poorly?  It could be because of a recent copyright scandal.  As more people learn more details from social media, they just want to stop playing the game.  So, what exactly happened?

First, let's remind ourselves what copyrights are for.  They protect the creator of a work of art, fiction, video game, etc.  They help ensure that you get the profits from sales of the work instead of some other Joe Blow who had nothing to do with the creation of the work.

However, more and more, we see examples of people taking advantage of copyright laws in attempts to do what Joe Blow would like to do: earn money when they don't deserve it.

I believe this is what King tried to do and (thankfully) failed.

First off, let's all admit it.  Candy Crush Saga is a fun and addictive game.  One night I tried it out, and I couldn't stop until I ran out of credits.  King did a good job in the presentation of the game, and I believe they should earn money.  Good for them.

However, they started going a little crazy when they tried to "protect" their interests.  Understandably, they went after knock-offs--that is, lower quality games that are similar to Candy Crush.  But they went too far when they tried to trademark the names "Candy" and "Saga."  And they even went after similar games that were created long before Candy Crush existed.

One game in particular is CandySwipe by Albert Ransom, which was created two years prior to the release of Candy Crush.  In fact, Ransom accuses King of stealing parts of his game.  The candy pieces look similar, and so is the use of the word "Sweet."

This snopes article gives a good summary of the saga surrounding Candy Crush, including what Ransom is saying.

What do I think?

#1) I tried out CandySwipe tonight.  There's a demo version you can try for free. My verdict: the games are just too different.  CandySwipe plays like an amateur game with one annoying bug: the screen is too close to the top, and my iPhone "top" menu came down on me at least 10 times while playing.  It also took me a while to realize it's not a three-in-a-row game, but rather a "swiping" game, where you swipe a series of connected pieces to make them disappear.  If you can swipe something like ten in a cluster, you might get a "Sweet!"

I got bored with the game after a few minutes.

I doubt that the gang at King even knew CandySwipe existed.  It's one of those coincidences similar to the story of Larry Potter vs. Harry Potter.  Basically, when someone creates an awesome good-quality story or game, chances are that out of the thousands of mediocre creators who are trying to create similar products, at least one of them will create a product that's remarkably similar.  And to that one mediocre creator, it will feel like the really successful person stole their ideas.

So, no ... King did not swipe ideas from CandySwipe.  (Though as the snopes article pointed out, they may have well swiped ideas from Bejeweled, who also swiped ideas from earlier incarnations of the three-in-a-row variety of games.)  I wish Ransom luck, and I hope he continues to enjoy the cash he's earning from the scandal.  Just, please fix those bugs!

#2) Either way, I find the actions of King to be despicable.  Even though they didn't steal from CandySwipe, and Ransom didn't steal from Candy Crush, there was no reason for either one of them to go after the other.  Ransom's game came out first, so there really should be no standing for King to sue.

King shouldn't have tried to trademark "Candy" and "Saga."  I don't know how many games I've played with those words in the title, and it's silly to expect that others can't use those names.  By the way, since the snopes article was written, King has dropped their attempt to trademark those words.  Though, they successfully pulled it off in Europe.

King shouldn't have threatened to go after "The Banner Saga" which has nothing to do with candy at all, and has zero chance of being confused with "Candy Crush."

I'm just happy that King's attempts failed.  We need less misuse of copyright laws that try to Crush competition and Swipe profits from others who are just trying to make their own living.  I'm glad it blew up in their face, and people could see the greed for what it was.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Bloatation Of Smaug

Next in my list of belated reviews is The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

This movie was really cool and exciting--that is if you've never read The Hobbit. There is plenty of fighting, and magic, and orcs, and invisibility, and bad guys, etc.

But if you have read The Hobbit you will notice lots of bloat, even more so than is found in the first installment.  At least in the first movie, most of each item of bloat could be backed up with some other external source such as The Silmarillion or the appendix of The Lord of the Rings.  However, in the second installment, there just isn't that much excuse for the bloat that transpired.

For example, in the book, the hobbit and dwarves had a nice peaceful journey down the river at night in their barrels.  In the movie, however, it was all out war--orcs and elves everywhere.

The land of Lake-town looks like something out of Waterworld where the inhabitants are inexplicably antagonistic toward dwarves, where in the book the dwarves are welcomed warmly.

The scene with the dragon was drawn out an extra 20 to 30 minutes.  (Well, that part was actually kind of cool.)

The only scene that wasn't bloated was the one with Beorn, the bear man.  I think he said three lines maximum.  And one of my favorite scenes with him was cut.  I bet most non-readers found Beorn's existence in the movie to be confusing, and probably rightfully figured the movie could do well on its own without him. Considering how they treated him (giving much of his screen time instead to barrel bloat), I would agree.

Bloat can be fun, and the movie is indeed enjoyable.  But the magic and innocence of the book is entirely destroyed.  What I liked about the book was entirely absent from this movie.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The New Cosmos: A Worthy Journey

It's back!  Carl Sagan's original Cosmos: A Personal Voyage aired Sunday nights in late 1980.  Back then, I caught every one of the thirteen episodes.  My parents gave me the companion book for Christmas and I loved the whole series.

Tonight the reboot, Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, premiered, brought to us by none other than executive producer Seth MacFarlane, and narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Wait, did I type that right?  Seth MacFarlane--the Family Guy guy? Yes, that's the one.  The same guy who brought the house down at the Oscars last year.  But never fear.  Even though I see a touch of his humor in this show, it's all well done and in good taste.  You can see some samples of the humor in the trailer.  For example, when Tyson puts on shades right before witnessing the Big Bang.  And also when Tyson winces just as the dinosaur-killing meteorite hits.

This first episode was directed by Brannon Braga of Star Trek fame.  What we get is something similar to the feel of the original Cosmos, but with updated special effects, and better pacing for grabbing today's general audience.  Just like in the original, the narrator takes a trip through space and time in a cheesy unexplained ship.  Yet, it looks really cool.

Viewers of the original will recognize some recycled material in this first episode, such as when Tyson proclaims, "We are made of star-stuff."  And when Tyson walks us through the galactic calendar (13.8 billion years of time condensed into one earth year), he describes how all of earth's written history only falls within the last second of Dec. 31.

Tyson is a great choice to narrate this show.  He's nowhere near the same as Sagan, but he also doesn't even try to match Sagan's lovable magical persona. Yet, Tyson has his own charm and a very prominent booming clear voice that is very easy to listen to.  He is funny in his own way.  Instead of trying to match or outdo Sagan, Tyson rather gives a quick tribute or two to his predecessor, including a touching story of meeting him in 1975.

For the finishing touch, Alan Silvestri provides music for the new series.  I know people who have said, "If it doesn't have Vangelis, I'm not watching."  I love the original music, but as a musician, I think that Silvestri's music is more engaging and does a better job at grabbing the attention of the viewer, doing a much better job at matching cues and hits.  Even though his music is much less memorable than Vangelis, it still does its job very well.

My only concern about the show is how it might handle science vs. religion.  Carl Sagan was known for his agnosticism, which came across in the original series, but he always seemed to show respect toward the world religions in the show's presentation.

Tonight's reboot featured an animated section describing the martyrdom of Giordano Bruno at the hands of the Inquisition in 1600.  Though it was informative and entertaining, when it came time to burn Bruno at the stake, his prosecutors had the most sinister looks on their faces, as if the animators wanted to make sure the audience knew who the bad guys were.  I think it would have been more appropriate, accurate, and effective to show these bad guys with faces of "righteous indignation," that is, the look of anger toward a wayward soul.

In other words, I hope that as they present the facts, they do so with accuracy and without the need of artificially magnifying the drama.  Yet, I have high hopes, considering that Carl Sagan dedicated a whole episode to the question of cosmology, where he even related a couple of religious origin stories.  He left the question of origin open.  He even stated how impossible it is to prove/disprove the existence of a god.  If Tyson, et al, follow this same formula, then I suspect that we will see a good discussion on the whole topic of science vs. religion.

In summary, this show it worthy to watch.  It's different than the original, yet some elements are the same.  It's well-produced and well-edited, and it has excellent pace, music and special effects, leaving very little time to be bored.  It doesn't dumb down things very much, yet Tyson speaks very clearly and simply, so as to better explain complex concepts to most audiences.

Be prepared to be blown away as you watch this very-well-done documentary.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

"You Don't Have To Be an Actuary"

Every now and then I post these random vignettes.  It allows me to practice writing, and you get to know me more as a person.  Today, I'd like to describe this difficult choice before me now.  In a nutshell, I must decide whether or not to take this next actuarial exam coming at the end of April. The deadline is fast approaching, and I must decide by this Friday.  (I actually have until next Thursday, but I'm not waiting that long.)  And as you may have already guessed, this is no easy decision, and there's a story behind it.

After graduating from college, I started off strong pursuing the actuarial career.  I passed the first exam with the highest score possible (10), and I also passed the second exam the same day with a good score (8).  That was back in 1998.

For a while, I passed exams left and right.  But as the exam numbers got higher, the difficulty increased.  Sometimes I failed a couple, but then passed those on the second try.  By 2004, I had passed 6 "full" exams.  Only 1 exam away from Associate (the first recognized achievement for an actuary), and only 3 away from Fellow (the ultimate achievement).

But then a few things happened.  Firstly, that 7th exam is my bane.  It has the least math and the most boring stuff I've ever seen in an exam.  I've already failed this thing three times.

Secondly, my company (at the time) got hit hard by the mortgage crisis.  At first, I sacrificed taking exams to help others keep our company afloat.  Then when I was the last actuary left with the company, I suddenly had more time to study, and I was encouraged to continue trying to pass that 7th exam.  That was the last part of 2012.

But then the day after I took the exam, my boss pulled me into a room and told me they were killing the actuarial program.  They were hurting for cash, and they no longer "needed an actuary."  They wanted to keep me, but not as an actuary. They would no longer support my exams nor any subsequent actuarial continuing education.

At first, I resented that decision, as it took away my last chance of career advancement.  I continually expressed my discontent over the next couple of months until my boss pulled me into a room to clear the air for good.

He told me, "You don't have to be an actuary." I have potential and many talents. There are very few actuarial jobs in Winston Salem, where I live now, and if I were to stick with the profession, chances are I would have to move to accept such a job.  However, there are several non-actuarial jobs right here that I would qualify for that pay just as much, he told me, and I needed to keep all my options open.

He gave me a very important wake-up call, and he turned out to be right.

I ended up with the job I have now.  It's not actuarial, but I get to do a lot of similar work.  I don't get to analyze as much as I used to, but we're trying to fix that.  More and more, people are pleased with the work I do, and I have promise of career advancement without ever having to take another actuarial exam.

On the other hand, I'm only one exam away from a designation (the lower designation).  I've been one away for almost ten years now!  Can't I finish what I started and worked so hard towards?  If I give up on the exams, will I look back on my life and regret not passing this one exam?  With one more exam, I'd be able to write actuarial opinions.  I'd be eligible for the next big pay grade.  I'd be able to say, "I won!  These stupid exams have nothing on me any longer!"

And on the other, other hand, life is so much simpler when I'm not studying for exams.  This week in particular has been very depressing in how much study time I've missed.  I also have very little confidence that I will pass even if I go into the test feeling sufficiently prepared (as I felt the last time I took this exam).  I'm growing more and more tired playing the game of paying money to repeatedly fail an abnormally difficult exam, and sometimes I feel I would get more expected financial returns if I spent that time working on my writing career instead.

So now it all comes to a head this Friday.  If I choose not to take the exam, then that would probably be it for my actuarial career (unless I find another local actuarial job in the near future).  If I do take the exam, who knows?  I might even pass!  And then what?

Update 3/16/2014: I decided to sign up for the exam.  This means at most one new post a week for this blog till the end of April, but I've decided that I need closure--do everything I can to pass this exam and get it behind me.  I may be Captain Ahab, but I didn't get this far just to quit one exam away.