Friday, July 31, 2015

Physics of the Future (a book review post)

For me, Physics of the Future was a bit of a research project. I have a couple of different sci-fi things in various stages, and I wanted to see how this stuff lined up with what I'm doing. As it turns out, pretty well. Although, I have to say, I do disagree with a few things, not that I'm the expert, though. Kaku is the physicist. However, I think the idea of a "space elevator" is a fantasy, and I don't really understand why people cling to it so hard.

Having said that, I do know that it's fantasies (ideas) that turn a lot of "science fiction" into plain old science. I did, after all, do a whole series on that during A-to-Z a few years ago.

But I digress...

So the premise of the book is that Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, would look into the actual science being developed today and, based on past progress in developments, make a projection (prediction) about the kinds of things we can see in the future. Assuming we, as a race, live long enough to see those things come to fruition. And, yes, he talks about that "if," too.

For me, Kaku spent too much time dwelling on the future of medicine. Not only does medicine get its own chapter (chapter three), but it's laced throughout the book. I get it. I do. People are concerned with medical advances that can allow them to live how they want to live with no negative consequences, and, actually, some of the research currently underway might make that possible. It is entirely possible that my generation will be the last generation to die and that the next generation (my kids) could have potentially unlimited lifespans. There's even an outside chance that some of those developments could happen before the end of my generation, but that would require a remarkable breakthrough and, still, probably only be available to the fabulously wealthy. Kaku is considerably older than me, so I can understand the focus. Still, he covered the same ground about early cancer identification at least half a dozen times.

The other thing he spent too much time on was magnetism. Kaku seems quite enamored of the idea of telepathically controlling the environment through the use of superconductors, and he refers to this a lot during the course of the book (much like the nanomachines which will detect cancer). The problem is that this relies on the accidental discovery of something which may not actually exist. Our current generation of superconductors weren't developed, they were happened upon, and he bases much of his magnetism predictions on serendipity.

He also seems to be overly optimistic about the future of mankind, at least from my perspective. He spends a considerable amount of time explaining why the "singularity" won't happen or, if it does, why we'll be able to control it. He makes a point about how, one day, the most sought after thing on the Internet will be wisdom, this after stating how humans are essentially the same as they've been since we became human. He expects ranting bloggers and funny cats to disappear as we all become enlightened, and I think he's been watching too much Star Trek. And that he doesn't really know humans very well if he thinks we (as a group) will give up funny cat videos. And blogger rants.

However, all of that said, the book is fascinating. The technology discussions are fascinating. And the chapter on the future of wealth is extremely fascinating. The unstated comparison of the US to the Ottoman Empire is especially compelling. Nutshell: At one point, the Ottoman Empire led the world in science... until it gave all of that up to embrace religious fundamentalism. Let me re-state that: At least 50% of America's leading scientists have come from other countries and more and more of them are, instead of staying here, returning to those countries after they've received their education. America, because of the deplorable state of public education, is not producing sufficiently educated people of science. It's not our focus anymore.

If you're at all interested in the book, now is the time to read it. Only four years away from publication, and parts of it are already becoming outdated. The section on self-driving cars is a good example. Current projections are that self-driving cars will be as common as smart phones within the next decade; Kaku doesn't really expect them to start even showing up until around 2030. He makes no mention of quantum communication and only mentions quantum computers as an unlikely option. IBM has just developed a computer chip that could completely change the computer industry. Warp fields have been created, too, another bit of science Kaku glosses over as being the least likely of options.

Still, it's fascinating. Even the stuff about the space elevator, but that's mostly because he spends time talking about carbon nanotubes during that part, and carbon nanotubes, if we can figure out how to make them long enough, are another technology that could completely change the world.

Of course, the drawback, even though Kaku has made it very accessible, is that it's very heavy on science. Well, it's all science, so I can see it being difficult for some people to get into. For whatever reason. But, you know, if you're writing any kind of science fiction, right now, this might be a book you want to have on your desk.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Cloak of Darkness" (Ep. 1.9)

-- Ignore your instincts at your peril.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

I'm going to lead on this one with the fact that James Marsters does a voice for this episode. That should have caught the eye of some of you pop culture/Joss Whedon people out there. If you don't know what I'm talking about, just move along. Move along.

Betrayal is one of the themes Star Wars returns to over and over again. Even from A New Hope, we have, "He betrayed and murdered your father," not to mention the betrayal by the clones against the Jedi in Revenge of the Sith and Vader's betrayal against the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi. We encounter betrayal frequently, too, during the Clone Wars, this not even being the first episode dealing with betrayal just nine episodes into the first season.

I don't know what to say about all the betrayal. It's just part of the fabric. Against the background of the Clone Wars, you can't trust anyone. Well, okay, you can trust R2-D2 and you can trust Obi-Wan and you can trust Yoda. You don't really want to go putting money down on anyone else, though. I think that's why we encounter it so frequently, though, so that we understand that you can't trust anyone. And it doesn't matter how innocuous the "person" seems.

Another thing the Clone Wars series does well is to let us get to know Jedi we've only previously had glimpses of. This episode is a closer look at Luminara Unduli. Again (as with Plo Koon in the Malevolence episodes), we get our look at the Jedi through the eyes of Ahsoka. Luminara is less good at listening to Ahsoka than I think Ahsoka is used to and gives Ahsoka some orders that Ahsoka doesn't really agree with. There's not an inconsiderable amount of angst while Ahsoka tries to figure out whether to follow them.

And there's a great good cop/bad cop bit when Luminara and Ahsoka are interrogating a prisoner. Luminara, being the good cop, is trying to logic the prisoner into talking when Ahsoka goes all, "I'm gonna gut you like a fish" on the guy. Luminara, though, thinks Ahsoka is being serious and goes all teach-y on Ahsoka about proper Jedi ways. It's an interesting exchange.

All of that and Ventress makes an appearance. Things always get interesting when she's around.

It's a good, solid episode that fits well into the story flow and can probably even be watched without having seen other episodes. Probably.

Monday, July 27, 2015

There's Something About Mary (Doria Russell)

Earlier this year, Mary Doria Russell's latest book, Epitaph, was released. She was doing a book tour for it at the time and was scheduled to come through where I live...
But she got sick.
And cancelled her stop here.
And I really thought that was the end of it, because those kinds of things almost never get rescheduled especially when they're in smaller-ish cities and were free to begin with. But!
Being the cool person that she is, she rescheduled and showed up at our local book store earlier this month.

And that was pretty awesome because, now, I've met my top two favorite living traditionally published authors (the other being Neil Gaiman whom I met back in this post (and, yes, before I get any smart ass comments, I met him in that post; no, don't ask how that works; you wouldn't understand)).

Hmm... I'm not sure how I should refer to her. Mrs. Russell sounds too... I don't know. It's not that it sounds formal, exactly, but it sounds overly formal. But I can't just call her Mary. I mean, I'm pretty sure we're not on a first name basis. Well, anyway... She was a delight. Lively and exciting and an entertaining speaker. And you should all read her books.

Speaking of which, there were some interesting things about the event, things I don't really understand. First, my wife and I were almost the youngest people there (other than people who work at the book store), and that was really surprising to me. I mean, The Sparrow is science fiction (even if it's not shelved in the science fiction section of book stores (which, I guess, could be a problem)) so it, at least, ought to attract younger readers? I don't know. Maybe I just don't know how these things work.

Because, aside from the readers being on the older side, an awful lot of them seemed unfamiliar with Russell's work. Of the people that I spoke with, all of them were surprised that I've read all of Russell's books. To one woman I said, "There're only six," to which she seemed inordinately shocked. Like it was a huge deal that I had read six books. Of course, I speaking of that from a reading perspective, not a writing perspective. Six books is a lot to write, but I've read more than six books so far this summer, and the woman seemed to think six books should take, I don't know, years to read.

At any rate, it was an odd experience. When Gaiman was here, people I met and I talked about his various books and what we liked best, but I couldn't have that kind of conversation with the people at Russell's event because they were unfamiliar with the books. On the other hand, I got to tell them about what I like about her books and make recommendations about which ones to start with based on what they like.

Of course, The Sparrow is one of the three books on my list of books I think everyone should read.

My only regret about the event is that I couldn't remember where I'd put my first edition copy of Dreamers of the Day until afterward. You know, I put it away for "safekeeping," and I can never remember where anything I put away for safekeeping is when I need it. I did get my first edition of Epitaph signed along with my first edition paperback of Doc. Now, those are put away for "safekeeping," too. I hope that doesn't mean I'll never see them again. Of course, it doesn't! I did find Dreamers of the Day, after all; however, if there is ever any moment I want them, I won't remember where I've put them.

I've reviewed most of her books, so here are my links to the reviews:
The Sparrow
A Thread of Grace
Dreamers of the Day

Yes, I do know that I've left Children of God out, but I read it back before I was doing the whole blog thing, and I haven't re-read it since... a long time. Still, it's mentioned in some of the other reviews.

Look, if you consider yourself a serious reader, Mary Doria Russell is someone you should be reading. She does characters better than, maybe, any other author I've ever read (and, again, I read a lot). To try to put this in perspective, Dreamers of the Day is not my favorite of her books, but her depiction of T. E. Lawrence (you know, Lawrence of Arabia) is so strong and has hung with me so much that I'm reading his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. And Doc feels like you're walking down the dusty streets of Dodge City right along with Holliday and Earp.

Just sayin'.

Friday, July 24, 2015

"The Colour Out of Space" (a book review post)

[Note: I am working my way through a complete collection of H. P. Lovecraft's works. Although I will give my thoughts about Lovecraft in a more general sense when I've finished the collection, I think it's worthwhile to look at the individual stories (or at least some of them) as I'm going through.]

"The Colour Out of Space" is what I'm coming to recognize as classic Lovecraft. A regular guy comes across something strange and starts investigating it and discovers some -- look, I'm just going to put it in the vernacular -- "weird ass shit." Weird ass shit that freaks the protagonist out and affects him for the rest of his life, the length of which doesn't always extend beyond the length of the story. So it is with "The Colour Out of Space."

"The Colour Out of Space" opens with a land surveyor out doing what land surveyors do because a reservoir is being built. Before going, he's warned about "the blasted heath" and how evil it is, but he put it down to local superstition. At one time, there had been a road going through it, but so evil did they believe it that that road had fallen into disuse, and a new one had been built that circled far around the evil place. Even with that, the surveyor thought nothing of the place... until he came upon it, at which point a great reluctance came upon him to enter it. But he had no choice and, so, traveled through the place on his business.

So fearsome was the place, and because he had not, yet, finished his surveying work, he asked the locals about it, but all he could get was half stories about strange days. Until he finally finds the person who can tell him the horrible story.

Because the story is being told about something that happened decades before, we never need to worry about the protagonist; however, that doesn't make the story any less horrifying. All we really know is that the locals are greatly looking forward to the reservoir and that "the blasted heath" will finally be consumed by the deep waters. We also know that after hearing the story, our protagonist vows that he will never drink of the waters that will come from that place.

Beyond that, you'll have to read for yourself.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Ant-Man (a movie review post)

Decades ago, Isaac Asimov asserted that science fiction wasn't so much as its own genre as it was a vehicle for other genres. As there was much dissent, he set out to write a sci-fi detective novel which became the first of his robot novels, The Caves of Steel. It seems that Marvel has set out to prove the same thing about the super hero genre. Sure, there's the pure super hero stuff like The Avengers, but we've also seen a war movie, an espionage movie, and, now, a heist movie, among others.

So, yeah, Ant-Man is structured as a heist movie, which is pretty clever. It's not a straight heist, though, there's a little, I don't know, rom-com(?) added in. You know, whatever kind of movie it is where the guy who has messed up and alienated his family has to put it back together again. At any rate, as Scott Lang says in the movie, "It's not just a heist."

Speaking of Scott Lang, Lang was one of my few worries about the movie going into it. As I've noted in previous reviews of Marvel movies (especially Iron Man 3), I do understand that the universe of the Marvel movies is not the same as the one for the comics, but I couldn't understand why they weren't having Hank Pym be Ant-Man when he was going to be in the movie. It was baffling. BUT! I think they did an excellent job of threading the Ant-Man origin story into what they did in the movie. Actually, I really like what they did with that. It adds some extra layers to the movie than just doing an "origin story."

Also speaking of Scott Lang, Paul Rudd was great. Okay, so, I already really like Paul Rudd, but he was great in this role. This is another case of Marvel finding an actor who would really own the part and make it his, because that's what Rudd did. However, it was Michael Pena as Luis who almost stole the show. He was brilliant, and the voice-over stuff they did with him was hilarious.

Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lily were both very good. Douglas probably about what you'd expect since he's always really solid. Lily was better than I expected because my main exposure to her has been in the horrible Hobbit movies, and, though those weren't her fault, her inclusion in those has been a sore point. I was also glad to see Wood Harris in the movie. His performance wasn't extraordinary or anything, but I like him as an actor, so it was good to see him in a high profile movie.

The only weak link was Corey Stoll who came off more as an over enthusiastic used car salesman trying to sell you a bad car than as a real villain. Fortunately, the movie didn't focus so much on him.

Also, the scene with the Falcon was awesome. I love Anthony Mackie in that role, so I was glad they included him. "It's really important to me that Cap never finds out about this."

Basically, this is another really solid Marvel movie and, while I would quite put it as high as Captain America or Iron Man on quality, it's close. Guardians of the Galaxy close. I would have gone right back in to watch it again if I could have.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

"The Festival" (a book review post)

[Note: I am working my way through a complete collection of H. P. Lovecraft's works. Although I will give my thoughts about Lovecraft in a more general sense when I've finished the collection, I think it's worthwhile to look at the individual stories (or at least some of them) as I'm going through.]

So let's play pretend for a moment.

It's Christmas. Now, I don't know who you are or how you celebrate Christmas or the yule season, but, yet, that's what it is. You're descended from an ancient, reclusive people who live in a small fishing town in the northeast. Not many of them ever leave. Yet, somehow, whether it was your grandfather or your mother or whoever, one of your more immediate ancestors left that village. All you know is that once a century, your people, your family, are commanded to keep the Festival. You are the only one of any of the scattered ones of your people who return to keep the tradition.

And what you find there in that village of your people, that village that you have never before visited, is far from... normal.

Would you go back? Knowing that your parents or your grandparents, whoever it was who "escaped," is ignoring the call. All of your immediate family is ignoring the call of upholding the tradition. Would you go back?

"The Festival," by Lovecraft, is the story of a man who did go back. A man who finds stranger and stranger things the more he allows himself to be pulled along with the happenings of the Festival. A man who, in the end, is left to question... everything. Even his sanity.

The real power in this one, apart from Lovecraft's imagery, is the blending of the mundane with the fantastic. Everything is just normal enough for the protagonist to think that he's imagining things or that he's the one who's crazy.

All I know is if I ever get called to some out-of-the-way location for some ancient family tradition that I am going to do some major amounts of research before I go.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Bombad Jedi" (Ep. 1.8)

-- Heroes are made by the times.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

This is probably the episode that no one was waiting for, considering the general view of Jar Jar, that is. Which is not to say that the episode doesn't have its moment, because it does. It's just that most of those moments are slapstick.

The actual conflict in the episode revolves around someone close to Padme betraying her in order to hand her over to Nute Gunray, who is still seeking revenge against her because of the fallout of The Phantom Menace. The real question, though, is why was Padme taking Jar Jar with her on a diplomatic mission. Maybe she thought this was a safe one to take him along on considering that she was going to see someone she was close to. And, yes, we know that Jar Jar becomes part of Padme's diplomatic contingent even by the time of Attack of the Clones, but it's unclear what his role was supposed to be during this particular mission.

What his role ends up being is "Jedi rescuer" as the battle droids mistake him for a Jedi after he throws on a cloak to hide himself during his attempt to rescue the captured Padme. Hi-jinks, of course, ensue.

My issue with the episode has nothing to do with the actual hi-jinks. For what it is, the episode is generally amusing. The issue is that it feels thrown in in order to give some screen time to characters who have mostly been left out of the narrative to this point: Padme, C-3PO, and, even, Jar Jar. So, while the episode does have an important plot point, overall, it feels a little strained and as if it's a bit of comic relief in the very serious story arcs that have so far dominated the series.

This is not an episode I would recommend to a first time viewer, but it's enjoyable enough within the context of watching the series.

"The ship has been destroyed."
"Battle droids?"
"Jar Jar?"
"Jar Jar."

Monday, July 20, 2015

Reading Is Power

I was having one of those thought things recently, and I want to point out that it was just a thought thing. A thing like "I wonder if there's a connection here" kind of thing. Of course, since I'm about to talk about it, I think there is a connection, but my wife tells me I'm wrong about this one. But, hey, it's my thought, and she's just telling me that because I don't have any data to back it up. And, it's true, I don't have any data to back it up (she's a real data person), but, what's more, I'm not going to do the research, right now, to figure this one out, because it was just a thought thing.

However, it all makes sense to me, so I'm going to go with it. I mean, I'm going to go with it at least as far as I'm going to talk about it as an idea. It's not like I'm putting this forth as law or, even, as any kind of fact.

It does make me wonder if there's any data out there about this, though, or, even, how one would go about figuring it out. It doesn't make me wonder enough, though, to do the research.

So, anyway, here's where the thought began:
Reading Is Power

As someone who reads, this seems like a pretty obvious statement to me, but let me re-frame it by walking you through a bit of history.

For centuries (at least) only the wealthy have been able to read. Well, the wealthy and the priests, but there was wealth in the priesthood even if not controlled by the individual priests. And not just the wealthy but, more specifically, wealthy men. I'm not just talking about European culture; this has been prevalent across all cultures for thousands of years.

Now, an argument could be made that it's the wealth that created the power, but I think it was the ability to read. I think the reading created the wealth and the wealth was used to maintain the power. Books were expensive, so it was, then, easy to keep reading out of the hands of the "common man."

Over time, the power base expanded as reading was taught to those few who became successful enough, or wealthy enough, to be able to buy the knowledge. Remember, for hundreds of years, schooling only went to those who could buy it.

Eventually, though, education had to become more widely available because of a growing need for skilled professions (doctors, lawyers, even skilled laborers). And, then, an American guy had the startling idea that education should be available for all, and thus was born the public education system.

An interesting thing happened after that: Women started reading. I'm not trying to suggest that no women ever read prior to that, but, after public education, reading became available to women en masse. And, not long after that, women began to demand the right to vote. With the ability to read, women gained power.

Likewise, when under privileged minorities have learned to read, they have gained power.

When people in countries of oppression have learned to read, they have gained power.

It's through reading where ideas like "freedom" and "democracy" are spread.

Ideas are power, and ideas come from reading.

And here is where my thoughts lead me:
It is often widely bemoaned how boys don't read anymore and, when I say "boys," I mean white males in the USA. Reading has fallen out of fashion for white males and, as such, the white male power base has been eroding for years. Or decades. White men in power are gnashing their teeth about all sorts of things that are undermining their power. Like women. And "minorities." And "gays." And whoever else they complain about.

Well, I think it's their own fault. The white males, that is. It's their own fault that power is slipping from their grasp, because they have largely given up on reading and learning and are doing all they can to foster a society that thrives on ignorance, "faith," and a lack of education (the ability to read). White male leadership continually undermines the power of reading and science by clinging to... well, all sorts of things that have no factual basis.


Because they don't read.

So I don't feel bad for them that they are all fearful of losing their grip on power, because people who cling to ignorance don't deserve to lead.

Friday, July 17, 2015

"The Nameless City" (a book review post)

[Note: I am working my way through a complete collection of H. P. Lovecraft's works. Although I will give my thoughts about Lovecraft in a more general sense when I've finished the collection, I think it's worthwhile to look at the individual stories (or at least some of them) as I'm going through.]

"The Nameless City" is a city so horrible and horrifying that it doesn't even have a name, hence the title. It's only spoken about in whispers and as threats to children and its facts have long been lost in antiquity. It's the murmurings that draw the unnamed protagonist to find it, but just its skeleton in the desert causes such fear in the man, he says that no other has even known fear like him.

So, of course, he goes in.

But he does wait till morning.

Lovecraft's writing is very atmospheric, and the city he describes is truly creepy. Not just because it's abandoned but because it's... alien. All of the proportions are wrong, not to mention the strange winds and noises.

And anything else I say about it would be getting into spoiler territory. I'll say this, though: I was not satisfied with the ending. Everything else was great. Lovecraft's language and imagery make it a story well worth reading despite the ending, and, I think, other people may not have the issue with the ending that I had. Which I can't talk about without giving it away. If you like stuff like this:
"...afar I saw it protruding uncannily above the sands as parts of a corpse may protrude from an ill-made grave."
then you will like "The Nameless City."

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Duel of the Droids" (Ep. 1.7)

-- You hold onto friends by keeping your heart a little softer than your head.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

Anakin continues his search for R2-D2. Sort of against orders. It's not that they (well, Obi-Wan) told him to stop, they just told him to do something else. And he does do that thing, but he does it while attempting to rescue R2. His rational for his devotion to R2 is that R2 is a friend, not a mere droid as everyone else sees him. Still, R2 is an attachment he's not supposed to have.

In going after R2, Anakin leaves Ahsoka to face off against General Grievous in order to complete their actual mission while he goes to rescue R2, who has fallen into Grievous' hands. Of course, he didn't know Ahsoka would end up having to face Grievous, but, still... Ahsoka fails to understand how outmatched she is and proceeds to almost completely wipe out her clones.

This episode continues the layering of Anakin and his attachments, including his growing attachment to and dependence on Ahsoka. Yoda has already (in a previous episode) brought up that the true test for Anakin in training Ahsoka will be in his ability to let her go, and we see shadows of how all of that is going to play out within the relationship Anakin has with R2. A droid.

And we haven't even gotten to Padme, yet. Of course, most of what happens between Anakin and Padme is in the movies, but they play with all of that stuff in these episodes of Clone Wars.

One other note, the change in the music from the previous episode is carried over into this one. There are hints of it in a couple of places, but "Duel of the Droids" pretty much returns us to the standard musical scheme.

Also, I've skipped what is probably the essential question being dealt with in both this and the previous episode, but it's too much of a spoiler, so I've left it out on purpose. If opportunity arises, I'll return to that question in the future.

"No need to fear; we're all droids here."

Monday, July 13, 2015

Trinity 2015: Part Three -- Other Stuff

Trinity this year was a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, because I was going to be away from the Demon Cat for a week (also known as Jack (here's a picture of him feeling ashamed of himself
(I'm lying; he's never ashamed))), I thought that I would actually take advantage of that by getting, you know, some sleep. Now, previously, when we've been, I've gotten up earlier than everyone else and sat on the deck with my mocha and used the time to write, but, no, this year, I slept in. I was under the false... um, no... I just had some bad logic that told me that I would somehow be able to write during the day when everyone wanted to do things. Yeah, that didn't happen. I didn't wise up and get up early to write until the last two days. Next year, I'll know better than to take the sleeping in option. I do think I came back slightly more rested than I went, though.

Here are some other pictures I took while there that I really like.
We found it this way, but I thought it was cool that someone took the time to make that.
Unless, of course, this is some kind of weird, naturally occurring formation.
We found one other before we left, not as tall as the first, but, see, maybe they are naturally occurring, and this one just hadn't grown as big yet.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road (a movie review post)

I think I've decided I don't like Tom Hardy. He seems to like wearing things on his face, which is fine, but it's not acting. Plus, he doesn't seem to ever speak clearly. Or coherently. Basically, he speaks with this guttural mumble which is, more than anything else, completely indecipherable. Fortunately, Max is not the protagonist of this movie, because, if he had been, it would have made even less sense than it did.

But that thing about Max not being the protagonist is an issue. I mean, as a Mad Max movie, we ought to care about the character and his goals, but he doesn't seem to have any goals other than, eventually, the co-opted goal of helping the actual protagonist, Imperator Furiosa.

A lot of people have been going on about Charlize Theron in the role of Furiosa, and, I have to say, I just don't get it. I mean, she was fine, but she wasn't any kind of amazing nor did she do with the part anything that a dozen other actresses couldn't have done.

However, Nicholas Hoult, in a part that, although important, seems a bit of a throwaway was amazing. Of the characters in the movie, Nux was the only one I came to care about enough that I felt compelled to root for. Nicholas Hoult is an actor I am with whom I am increasingly impressed, so he was a nice discovery in this movie (because I had not paid attention enough to know that he was in it before I saw it).

The other surprise was Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as The Splendid Angharad. She's all the more impressive in her role for the simple fact of being impressive in the first place. It's obvious that she, along with the rest of the breeder wives, were thrown in as eye candy, and the other four do nothing more than fulfill that expectation, but Huntington-Whiteley brought a certain amount of attitude to the role that made her stand out. I didn't think much of her after her stint in Transformers, but maybe she's someone to keep an eye on. Considering she's only done two movies so far, I'll guess we'll have to wait and see.

Now, it seems almost wrong to talk about the story, because there's almost no story. There might even be too much story. The story amounts to, "Oh, we need to escape. Oh, we need to go back and take over." It is only there to give a semi-plausible reason to have the various cars chase each other through the desert and have mayhem. That's fine, as far as it goes. Likewise, it seems wrong to point out any stupidity within said think fabric of story, but there was one thing that really bugged me, bugged me through the whole movie: the whole blood transfusion thing. The thing in and of itself was fine, if it had been done correctly. The idea is that blood is being drained from Max into Nux, so the needle in Max should be in an artery going into a vein in Nux. [Also, since there was no way to get blood back to Max, he should have been dead within, oh, minutes, but, not only does he not get weak from blood loss, he seems to be perfectly fine throughout the whole procedure.] At the point when the line is finally cut, blood should have gone spraying everywhere but, not only does that not happen, it doesn't seem that there is any blood leakage at all.

Oh, yeah, the whole thing with the breeder wives down the whole "car wash" scene (without a car) where they're spraying water all over themselves also bothered me. Um, water is the most precious thing in their world, and they're spraying it all over the desert so they can look all sexy in their white bride rags. So, yeah, I get the director was going for the visual stimulus, but it was dumb.

The movie, really, is about the visuals. I think, if he could, he would just have the cars chasing each other and doing their thing without any story at all, and, honestly, that might be better. That's what people who want to see it want to see. It's like... car porn. The story is only there to give an excuse for the rest of it to happen.

And I wish I had liked it. It's not that I didn't like it, but I didn't like it. On the one hand, there was the the vehicle that I'm going to call the "band mobile." The rear was a huge set up of drums, and there was a blind(?) guitar player hanging from the front. Visually, it was cool. The dude playing the guitar in the midst of all of that was really cool. As long as I didn't think about it; if/when I did, my brain would say, "That's dumb," and I'd have to tell it to shut up.

All of that to say:
Visually, it's an amazing movie. If you want to go and just watch the action, this is a great movie to do that with. You have to really go in without any expectations other than car chases and explosions, though. Don't listen to anyone who says anything about the amazing story or how feminist this movie is. Just because it has a powerful female lead does not mean the movie is "feminist," and it certainly doesn't have any kind of story that is empowering to women. Because, well, that would imply that it had a story. Beyond, you know, the very basic one I already explained: "Run away!" Except, in this case, "Drive away!"

Mostly, the movie left wondering if I missed something in the other Mad Max movies or if it's just been too long since I've seen them, because it's been more than 20 years since I've seen them. My new plan is to re-watch the other ones and see if they give me some kind of deeper appreciation for this one, but... well, yeah, I don't think that's going to happen.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Growing Up In the Race Divide (part 8)

One thing I've come to know is that you can't say you're from the South without automatically being linked to racism. It's a thing I hate, and it's, unfortunately, a thing that is almost completely legitimate. And it's not just racism, it's like all the "-ism"s. Or "-ist"s. And I don't want to switch this topic to sexual orientation, but I just want to point out that virtually all of the places that are acting like petulant children in regards to marriage equality are in the South.

Before I get to the issue of the Confederate flag, let's talk about why we're even talking about the Confederate flag: Dylann Roof.

Generally, I would not be one to talk about someone who has not been convicted of a crime as if he is guilty of the crime, but I think it's pretty safe to say that Roof is guilty of the nine murders at the church in Charleston, South Carolina. Actually, it's not even Roof I want to talk about. Roof stated quite plainly that he wanted to kill some black people, that he felt like it was up to him to do something about "it," whatever "it" was, and he went and did that. Even if they were so nice and welcoming to him that he almost changed his mind.

That Roof is a white supremacist and racist isn't in question.

What is in question is the racist tendencies of many people (Republican Presidential candidates) who responded to the attack by trying to call it something than what it actually was (a racially motivated mass shooting). So let's look at that:

Rick Perry, former governor of Texas and a Republican, called the shootings an "accident" and blamed the incident on drugs.

Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and a Republican, basically blamed the victims and said the incident could have been prevented if only they had been armed. Because, yes, the answer is always more guns.

Rick Santorum, another Republican presidential hopeful, called the attack an attack against freedom of religion and Christianity and not motivated by anything to do with race. He's not the only conservative to espouse this view and to call for more pastors to arm themselves for the coming war against religious freedom.

Rand Paul, another Republican hoping to become President, also blames religion, but he blames it on a lack of religion. If only we, as a nation, weren't so heathen and doing things like having children out of wedlock, then poor Roof wouldn't have done what he did. He fails to mention racial issues at all and conveniently overlooks that it's in religion and church that we retain the greatest segregation in America. In other words, churches are the greatest breeding places of racial hatred in the US.

Lindsey Graham, another Republican presidential hopeful (does this sound familiar yet?), seemed to echo Santorum's theory by saying that Roof was just out to kill Christians. It was just coincidence that he happened to kill black ones. [BULLSHIT]

I could go on but, really, what's the point? It's all more of the same and all Republicans trying to divert the issue.
That's actually a good question that boils down to only one real answer: They are okay with the status quo.

Now, there could be any number of reasons they're okay with the status quo. For instance, maybe they think racism is too big of an issue, too hard to deal with, and, so, they would rather pretend that everything is okay than to look at the issue. Looking at the issue means you have to do something about it. Or, maybe, they're okay with it for no better reason than that they are okay with it. As in, nothing needs to be better because there shouldn't be racial equality to begin with.

I don't know these guys personally, so I'm not going to try to guess. However, when someone is running a white supremacist website, professes a dislike for black people, and states his intent to kill some, then, when he does that, it's almost certainly (you know, like 99.99%) a racially motivated crime. Occam's Razor and all of that. To try and change the dialogue afterward is, at best, irresponsible.

All of which brings us to the issue of the Confederate flag.

Look, I am all for the 1st Amendment. Seriously. I will defend your right to be a racist asshole and spew racist assholery as quickly as I will defend my right to call you a racist asshole for saying racist assholery, that includes your right to have your own Confederate flag on your own property. However, I cannot be behind a state government being allowed to fly a symbol of racist assholery over a state capitol building. There is no "heritage" that excuses the government for making any kind of statement that supports racial hatred, and, I'm sorry, but the Confederate flag is a symbol of racial hatred. Just ask the neo-Nazi movement in Germany, who use the Confederate flag as their symbol because Nazi symbology is illegal.

Somewhere in my schooling, I picked up that the Confederate flag is a bad thing. Being schooled in the South, I'm not quite sure where I picked that up. It certainly wasn't a thing they tried to teach us. If it was, the Confederate flag wouldn't be so prevalent. And, yes, I did grow up watching The Dukes of Hazard, but that's as close as I got to any ties to that flag (and I'm sorry John Schneider -- I know it cuts into your income stream -- but I agree with the pulling of your show from TV).

One of my cousins (on my dad's side) and I, during high school, had frequent arguments about the Civil War. He hated Lincoln and the "war of Northern aggression." That's what he always called it and tried to make it about "states' rights," but the only "right" that was in question was the "right" to have slaves. Point being? We went to school in the same city and we both came through it with radically divergent views.

It's time to move past the Confederate flag. Or, to put it another way, it's time to lay the Confederate flag to rest. It's time for the government, including each individual state government, to get behind "all men are created equal." We can never expect the citizens to start believing in that while the leaders are still claiming racial hatred, through flying the Confederate flag, as a "heritage."

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Downfall of a Droid" (Ep. 1.6)

-- Trust in your friends, and they'll have reason to trust in you.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

The first thing to note about this episode is the music. It's quite a bit different than other episodes. Kind of space rock. Upbeat and exciting. I'm not sure why the music is different for this episode in particular, but I liked it.

Now, the episode, upon casual glance, looks kind of like a throwaway episode, but it actually contains quite a few important pieces of information.

Before we get to the important parts, though, here is one that is just fun:
We get the very first look in "Downfall of a Droid" of the IG series assassin droids in action. The IG series is introduced in The Empire Strikes Back with IG-88.
Ahsoka sees a couple of them deactivated and dismisses them as harmless despite Anakin telling her not to underestimate them. She finds out how right he is when they surprise attack them.

Oh, there's also this really cool thing with some tanks, but I can't tell you about that because SPOILER!

Okay, so, Artoo gets lost. Of course, we know that nothing permanently bad can happen to Artoo, because he has four more movies to go after the Clone Wars series is over. However, his loss reveals a couple of things about Anakin that are important to his character development:

1. Anakin wigs out. The Jedi are not supposed to form attachments but, here, we see Anakin really lose his shtuff over the loss of a droid. Obi-Wan even has to sort of reprimand him and remind him that Artoo is a mere droid and that Anakin should see it as nothing more than that. It's replaceable. Or it should be in the sense that Anakin should not have a relationship or feel ownership over it.
Note: This provides an interesting contrast to how we've been seeing the Jedi and their view of the clones. Though the Jedi should have no attachment to any individual clone, there is a lot of emphasis on their value as individuals. Droids have this same individuality. Or, at least, they have the potential to as sentient AIs. To keep the droids from developing true sentience, though, they have a protocol of regularly wiping the droids memories. [In light of what we know today about sentience, limited though it is, I find this idea of accumulated experience being part of sentience very intriguing, especially since this has been part of the story from Lucas since the 70s.]
2. Anakin has failed to follow protocol and keep Artoo's memory erased. Basically, Artoo has enough accumulated experience to operate as an individual. A sentient individual. Which explains a lot about R2-D2, not that we didn't already know it. But we get to see that played out here along with Obi-Wan's anger at Anakin for not doing it.

So, although on the surface this seems like a frilly adventure episode with no real substance, it actually contains significant character points for Anakin. And Ahsoka, too, in relation to her trying to provide a substitute droid for Anakin, but there's more to that than what it looks like, too, just not in this episode.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Trinity 2015: Part Two -- The Critters

I took what is probably an inordinate amount of pictures of... well, I took a lot of pictures of bugs this year. No, I don't really know why other than that we didn't go to any new places, and I wanted to get pictures of things I hadn't taken pictures of before. So you're getting bugs. And some lizards. And, yes, if you think those lizards are doing something, that's because those lizards are doing something. The dude lizard even did a series of push-ups before hand to both impress the lady lizard and get ready for the deed.

However, it's still the dragonflies I find the most impressive. Having grown up in a place where I was always finding their shells, I never once saw a dragonfly "hatch," so this was a cool experience even if we only found them after they'd emerged. My son brought the shells home, even.

So, without further ado, the bugs of Trinity!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Clone Wars -- The Movie

-- A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

I got to see The Clone Wars at a special Lucasfilm premiere event. It was a pretty big deal, and they had a special display area set up at the Presidio offices with original, concept art and maquettes, which are like concept sculptures. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take pictures, so I don't have any to show you. However, we got lunch in Star Wars lunch boxes created specially for the event. My friend didn't want his, so he gave it to me. I'd show you a picture of the lunch boxes, but they're in storage somewhere, and I'm not going to go dig around for them right now.

I'm not sure how widespread this information is, but one of the things we were let in on at the event is that the movie actually started out as individual episodes of the series. It was the first story arc. If you pay attention and are familiar enough with the series, you can actually see how the movie breaks down into its constituent episodes. On the one hand, I think launching the TV series with a movie was a great idea; however, I think they probably would have done better to have actually developed a movie rather than to string the several episodes together into a movie.

Which is not to say I didn't like it, because I enjoyed it very much, but the general response to the movie was a little underwhelming and I think part of the reason for that is that it didn't play like a movie. Because it wasn't.

The other failure of the movie was to involve the offspring of Jabba the Hutt. I think that's something people didn't want to look at. One, they don't want to see slug babies and, two, they don't want to view Jabba with any kind of sympathetic light. It's hard not to have sympathy for a parent who just wants his kid back. Personally, I found it an interesting take on Jabba, but I can see how it could cause people difficulty.

All of that said, the movie opens with a tremendous battle scene between the clones and the droids. It's, in a word, spectacular. The movement is very much like a video game, say Battlefront, and it's almost worth the whole movie just for that battle scene.

Also, this is where we're introduced to Ahsoka Tano, so the movie is essential from that standpoint. Anakin doesn't want a Padawan, but they send him one, anyway. A plot between Yoda and Obi-Wan, though they don't admit to it. He's set to get rid of her until he has to work with her during the battle, at which point he changes his mind. His comment to her is something like, "You wouldn't have made it as Obi-Wan's apprentice but, as mine, you just might work."

There are some other significant elements as well.

  • Anakin faces off against Dooku. The Anakin vs Dooku dynamic is important not just in the series but in the movie mythos as a whole. Anakin has to rise above Darth Tyranus in order to become Darth Vader, so it's always interesting to see how that relationship develops.
  • There is this incredible vertical battle between the clones and the droids during which the tanks walk up the face of a cliff. I know it's animated, but it's amazing.
  • Anakin comes by his ship, the Twilight.

Basically, the movie serves to set up all the essential elements for the ongoing television series. It's not that you can't watch the series without having seen the movie, but the movie helps, especially for the dynamic between Ahsoka and Anakin. I think, also, if the approach to the movie is that of watching several episodes of the series back-to-back that it becomes much more satisfying. It's all in the frame of reference.

It's not, by any stretch, the best story arc in the series or, even, the best story arc in season one; however, it possibly does have the best battle scenes. I'm not remembering anything more epic than the one the movie opens with, at any rate. It's a solid arc, and it ought to be included in anyone's watching of the series.

"Why can't you be a tiny, little mouse droid!"

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Inside Out (a movie review post)

I think it's safe to say that it's been a few years since Pixar put out a truly great film. Not that I haven't enjoyed the last few, but they've lacked a certain Pixar-ness. And if you're wondering what I mean by "Pixar-ness," well, I can't answer that question. You might as well ask me to define love definitively. Whatever it is, though, Inside Out has it.

My first thought was that this is the best movie they've done since Up (because I was forgetting that Toy Story 3 was actually after Up because those movies exist all together somewhere outside of the rest of the Pixar movies). That was before I found out that this one is made by the same guy that did Up, Pete Docter. This one is just as good (I know because my wife spent approximately half of the movie crying and the other half laughing).

The first most interesting thing about the movie is the representation of how the mind works. Evidently, a lot of research went into getting the science of it correct, even if just for an animated movie. The whole thing started, basically, as a science question because, when his daughter entered adolescence, Docter asked himself the question, "I wonder what's going on her brain." And, so, he tried to find out. And, then, made a movie about it.

The idea of there being core emotions and those emotions sort of being in control of who we are as people is, what I'm going to call, "good science," meaning they didn't just make up that stuff for the movie, only simplified it a little. I think the struggle between Joy and Sadness for the movie is extremely telling for our culture, especially for girls and women for whom there is a much greater social pressure to be happy. All the time. Of course, the conflict centers around Riley's loss of control of her Sadness.

Which is where I'll stop, because I don't want to have spoilers.

The animation was amazing, as is to be expected. Mostly, it's the backgrounds. The movie is full of memory marbles (my term; I don't know what they actually call them) and, if you pay attention to them in the background, they are always active. They're not just stacks of static spheres to fill up space. Seriously, the difference in animation from when I was a kid to now is... it's the difference between making a cardboard stage and putting on a finger puppet production and television.

The voice acting was, of course, excellent. Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith were perfect for Joy and Sadness. Poehler brought to Joy the same kind of exuberance that she brings to Leslie Knope, which is why, I'm sure, she was chosen for the role. But it's Smith who really made the movie. Her rather, what I can only describe as, sad-sack voice was the perfect fit for Sadness. The other voicers were great, too, but it all comes down to Joy and Sadness; if those two hadn't worked, the movie wouldn't have worked.

And it does work. If you've ever seen a Pixar movie and enjoyed it, you definitely don't want to miss this one. In fact, if you take the Toy Story movies as one spot, Inside Out has a fighting chance at being one of the top five movies Pixar has done. Okay, that might be a hard call, but saying top six seems kind of weird. Anyway, it's a great movie. It will make you laugh, and it might make you cry.