Monthly Archives: May 2013

May 26, 2013 – Of Star Trek, Family, Hangover III and the Indy 500

I just started this ‘post about things from the day’ business yesterday but already it’s clear to me that this takes a LOT of time.  Encapsulating an entire day isn’t a trivial undertaking.  Clearly I need to have less interesting days to save myself the trouble of documenting anything about them.

Of Star Trek

One of yesterday’s random outings  was to wander off to a couple of movies.  The first was the new Star Trek movie and it’s worth saying as introduction that I’m not exactly a Trekkie but I do know enough to wonder at night why original series Klingons look nothing like the Klingons from every other series and movie.  The fact that I wonder this at all puts me in the category of annoying nit-pickers when it comes to movies and to sci-fi movies especially.

One of my lesser complaints about every Trek movie ever has been the rather forced nods to several decades of Trek history.  For example, given all the trouble they caused before, it seems rather contrived that there just happens to be a dead tribble laying about for Bones to experiment on.  It’s also sad that after so many centuries of progress we still have to resort to animal testing.  Progress my eye.  In general, the whole Trek series is just one big continuity failure.  It is, at times, as bad as Doctor Who in this regard but without the ability to infinitely weasel out of absolutely anything with a nearly all-powerful time machine.

Taking out my random and numerous quibbles, on the whole it was a well-executed enough movie by the standards of today’s cinema.  The effects, as always, were brilliant and I was happy to see that for once, at least some portion of the movie at least wanted to obey the laws of physics.  As the Enterprise is plummeting towards the Earth with artificial gravity failing, the contents of the ship react in a way that reminded me of old naval films.  It was refreshing to see us get back, ever so briefly, to that old standard. Sadly, the interlude of physical credibility is brief.  I still contend loudly that no spacecraft built in that configuration could withstand reentry.  There’s no material in the universe strong enough to hold a warp nacelle up against the force of gravity with that little structural support.  The Enterprise is built for space, not in-air planet-bound flight no matter how much we may think it an amusing plot-line vehicle.

Lastly, and most disturbingly, the Star Trek franchise has lost its soul.  The original series, and to an extent later ones, had a message that wasn’t just about space cowboys riding around and shooting their six-guns at one another.  While the newer movies entertain, they just don’t have any real societal content left.  Science Fiction, in its grandest tradition, was always a mirror of society.  Whether it was reflected in the half-black/half-white inhabitants of Cheron or some other fictional vehicle, there was always some kernel upon which to chew after the show was over.  It made us better by showing us just how silly we were being.  Star Trek has just become Star Wars with different characters.

On Family

I learned on this day that someone in my estranged family was diagnosed with cancer.  Of course this is sad news for anyone, but it made me ponder for quite a while why it is that I don’t go out of my way to talk to them.  It’s worth noting that I have no hard feelings about anyone involved but there’s not exactly an aura of good and happy memories surrounding anyone in my family.  My mother, of course, is a non-issue.  She asked me to stop calling her years ago and I’ve held true to that request and long gotten over the fact that my own mother told me to go the hell away and never come back.  My father’s side of the family, while more receptive to me, doesn’t really seem interested.  I’ve visited them a handful of times over the years and they’re very kind and polite it just seems like we don’t have anything to really talk about.  I come from a long line of people who aren’t exactly conversationalists and when we get together it’s just a lot of awkward silence.  This is as much my fault as anyone’s because, let’s face it, I spout more words in this blog in a day than I do aloud in a month, but the fact remains that we’re just not a well-connected family.

Then, of course, there’s the argument that “they won’t be around forever” and this is true.  Sadly though, I feel like in most meaningful ways I’ve already lost them.  My childhood was far from pleasant and whatever connectedness and sense of family I should have had just never came to flower.  I could call every day and visit twice a day on Wednesdays but the fact would remain that my connections were severed (or never created) decades ago.  On some level, I think it goes both ways.  I left my hometown 22 years ago and in that time I don’t think anyone from my family has ever seen any home I ever lived in or even asked to.  It’s unlikely they know where I work or have much inkling about what it is that I do except to the extent that Facebook or this blog tells them.  I don’t think they’ve even met my youngest daughter who teeters on the brink of being ten years old; my eldest they’ve seen once or twice.  I say none of this in spite, but merely to point out that it’s not that I’m pushing anyone away.  The disinterest seems fairly mutual.

On The Hangover III

I often tell Laura that “we need to go see more movies in the theatre.”  Sometimes when I say this we get into a brief spate of going to see lots of movies until we come upon one that makes us rather nauseated.  While Hangover III isn’t quite noxious, it’s not far off.  I anticipated a comedy, something to lighten the mood of the day.  Unfortunately, The Hangover was anything but light-hearted.  Perhaps I failed to remember the first two (or wisely ignored them) but this movie was more about death and destruction than anything else.  There were mildly amusing points but they were more than overshadowed by the crazed violence.  Not at all what my attitude needed yesterday.

On the Indy 500

The day closed with the Indy 500, watched on tape delay because it’s blacked out here in Central Indiana lest we all decide not to go.  This seems a fallacy, frankly, because I’m not sure most people go for the race, but that’s a discussion for another time.

For years now I’ve rather poo-pooed the 500.  Having been a couple of times it seems just like a lot of cars going in circles and doing so VERY loudly.  As the years have gone by, however, I’ve come to appreciate the history.  Sure the cars are just going around and around but they’ve been doing so for 100 years.  No matter how silly you may think something is, the fact that they’ve done it for that long does tend to lend validity to it.

In addition to history, I think the real joy of the race comes about from familiarity and sympathy with the drivers.  I recall with great vividness Sato’s last-lap attempt to win the 500 only to spin out.  Because of this, I root for the guy every time.  He’s got my sympathy, I remember him, and therefore he gets my vote.  For those who have watched this race for their entire lives, they’ve got decades of near misses and spectacular finishes.  Anyone who heard the words “Mario is slowing down” will always root for an Andretti forever after.

I know a lot of techy people who love the race and it’s not hard to see why.  All the technology that goes into propelling a car at over 200 miles an hour is mind-boggling and the strategy of a race is like a chess match from drafting positions to gas mileage calculations to rolling the dice to try to pit under yellow as the very last drop of gas leaks from the tank.

So after years of being non-appreciative, I get it.  I may well forget that I get it by the time next year rolls around, but today, the day after the race, I get it.  Every year before the race I make a blind know-nothing prediction about who will win.  It is, literally, just a name chosen from the air at random.  Last year my pick was Emerson Fittipaldi.  I was sad to learn that the random name I had picked hadn’t raced at Indy for over 30 years.  Needless to say, he didn’t win.  This year my random know-nothing pick was Ryan Hunter-Reay.  Clearly I’m making progress.  (He came in third)

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May 25, 2013 – Of Books, Bradbury, Artichokes and Teeny Tiny Theatres

So what are these posts about…?

From time to time I tell myself that I’m going to sit down each day and write about the various and sundry inputs that pass through my life and record some of the random rot that goes on from day to day.  In general, I don’t expect this to be especially interesting to anyone else unless they have a hidden streak of curiosity or voyeurism but both of those things represent a large proportion of what the blogging world is about, so mayhaps I err in my assertion.

On Books

As anyone who’s read this blog for a while will note, I have spent the past several months reading very current publications.  Thanks to GoodReads and publishing houses who are eager for readers to talk (and write about) their latest, I’ve had no shortage of books piled up on my shelves… and my desk… and the floor… and other people’s desks, shelves and floors.  It’s been gratifying, to an extent, to have anyone give a hoot about what I had to say about a book and it has satisfied my material urges quite nicely.  There’s nothing quite like having things just show up in the mail seemingly at random.  However, as I was moving some stuff about the apartment in preparation for actual furniture to arrive, I happened upon the pile of books I was working on before the glut of new material started showing up about a year ago.  This was chock full of booksale finds, old editions of classic literature and lots of very deep non-fiction titles.  In a fit of nostalgia I pushed aside the new and shiny and sat down with an old copy of one of Ray Bradbury’s short story collections and I can’t help but feel the proverbial worm has turned and the fad of new and flashy has passed.

Looking back on my history a bit, there was a time when I refused to read anything less than 100 years old.  The reasoning went somewhat along the lines that if people still bother to read it after 100 years then it MUST be worthwhile.  I don’t think I’m ever likely to go quite to that extent again, I have revived my appreciation for the old musty, dusty and trusty.

On Bradbury

In general, when I think of Bradbury, I tend to lump him in with the pulp sci-fi writers from the 50s with their robots and rocket ships but this is a misconception drawn from my failure to read him often enough. It takes all of about 10 pages to realize that Bradbury isn’t writing about technology at all really. He’s writing about people (and societies) and the way they change as their world changes and becomes more technological.  That’s a much deeper and potent conversation to have than anything you might get from the average sci-fi writer of the period.  In particular, three stories from the first quarter of the book struck me today as relevant to us today.  It should be noted that anything I write below will be a complete and utter spoiler so consider yourself warned.

In ‘The Pedestrian’ the year is 2052 and a man is out for a stroll.  He walks through neighborhood after neighborhood and meets no one.  The streets are quite as a morgue, the entire population tucked up in their houses watching the television as he makes his way along.  Finally, the police, or what little is left of the police force since everyone is so well behave, find him and arrest him for his non-conformity, assuming that if he’s out on the street then he must be guilty of something.  The world today, while not descended quite to this situation, seems well on its way.  Children no longer play outside; they sit on the sofa and play video games.  What will the world be like in another 40 years when those children grow up to all be adults who are sitting on their sofas doing whatever people will do with their time?

‘The Flying Machine’ is set in China in 400 A.D. and reads more like an Aesop’s Fable than a modern short story.  The story begins as Emperor Yuan awakes to find a man flying over the countryside in a suit of his own making.  The man’s clever invention gives him the power of the birds and invokes considerable envy from the Emperor.  Fortunately (or unfortunately as you choose to see it), the Emperor sees that no good will come of this and orders the man and his suit destroyed before the populace can learn of the invention and do insane with greed to all own one.  One can see easily the historical backdrop of the story as mankind develops newer and more effective bombs to blow himself out of existence throughout the 50s.  Times haven’t changed much since, sadly.

Lastly, we have the story titled simply, ‘The Murderer’.  The time is, from Bradbury’s perspective, the not-so-distant future.  I would argue that in many ways Bradbury’s prophesied time has come.  The protagonist in our story is a typical man of his times.  Everywhere he goes he is treated to music and advertising.  His house talks to him each time he comes in the door to make sure he takes off his muddy shoes.  His wrist radio keeps him in touch with his wife and friends every few minutes tracking their every movement from their progress on the way home to what they had for dinner.  His world is one of simply too much connectedness in which there is nary a moment of quiet to be had.  Finally, in a fit of pique he begins to take his vengeance and win back his freedom.  He stomps on his radio; pours ice cream into his car stereo, pummels the computers in his home…. until he’s carted off by the police as a deviant.  All this brought to mind our current world.  We are now so connected that I know what people have  for dinner despite the fact that I haven’t seen them in 20 years.  Thanks to Facebook and Twitter and Foursquare and a million other services, I feel like I have some connection to people that in reality… I don’t.  Some of them tell me every day about what they did that day yet I wouldn’t recognize them if they walked straight past me on the street.  After this I deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone and haven’t looked back since.  There’s a place for connectedness but it really has to be on one’s own terms and at a time of one’s choosing.

Artichokes

Now, of course, in a fit of irony, I will go on about what I had for dinner last night.  Before the play, we journeyed to “The Chatham Tap” on Mass Avenue and had the most marvelous artichoke and spinach pizza in the known universe.  I’ve heard it said that “artichokes will substitute for any meat” but I am increasingly convinced of the truth of this.  It is my hope that the artichoke remains unpopular, however, so that more are left for me.  It would be regretable if they should ever reach $20/pound.  I might fritter away my entire salary on these delectable and under appreciated vegetables.

Teeny Tiny Theatres

After the delightful ‘chokes, we took ourselves to Theatre on the Square.  I’ve been a fairly consistent visitor there for a while and it never ceases to amaze me that such places exist.  As a rather shy person, I tend to worship anyone who can get in front of a crowd and speak confidently.  Because of this, it’s rather giddy to go see a play that is so close to your seat that you have to keep your feet under your seat for fear of tripping the actors.  It also makes me happy to go somewhere that the LGBT community is embraced and welcomed with such open arms.  This is Indiana so it’s far from a given that people are going to accept such differences.  It’s nice to know there’s an island of openness and sanity even in the heart of the Midwest.

OK, that’s it.  That’s what made me think on May the 25th.  Any feedback or commentary is, as always, appreciated.

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On Online Reviews

CaptureFirstly, it’s worth noting that the majority if this post is really a reaction to the news story I was lucky enough to participate in for the local CBS affiliate.  I’m not really writing this for anyone’s benefit except my own because it’s something I’d like to remember and the only way I’ll remember it is to actually write about it.  So without further preamble, the link to the story:

http://www.wishtv.com/dpp/news/indiana/whats-the-truth-the-money-behind-online-reviews

So in general, the topic is one that’s near and dear to my heart.  I’ve been avidly (read that: obsessively) reviewing books on Amazon for about … well, apparently almost a year.  In everyday non-review-related life I’ve said that honesty is a great gift to give someone.  If someone is doing something offensive or just plain wrong then the best thing you can do is tell them about it so they can stop doing it and offending everyone else in the universe.  It’s a hard thing to do but ultimately, at least in my opinion, it’s the correct “golden rule” behavior.  This is the concept that I try to carry into the book review process.  If someone is spending their precious free time pumping out books that are abominations to the English language… well, I’m going to say so.  Not everyone is intended to be a writer and perhaps that author who is slaving away on a 15th novel that’s of no use to anyone would make a wonderfully fine sculptor instead.  It’s never my intention to be cruel but I’m certainly not going to lie to someone and tell them they have a good book when really…. well, they’d be better served to take up professional cookery.

Starting from that general viewpoint, when WISH-TV approached me to do an interview on the topic of online reviews, I was exceedingly nervous about the prospect.  Let’s face it, I’m a computer programmer by trade.  The absolute last thing I want to do is anything that could even remotely be viewed as ‘public speaking’.  Nevertheless, a few factors acted to sway me enough to get in front of a camera and the foremost I credit to the interviewer herself.  Before actually sitting down with someone from the press I didn’t think much about who these people are or what they do for a living.  If asked, I would have simply assumed that they get in front of a camera and read off cue cards.  What else is there to it?  Talking to Teresa Mackin on the phone, however, I realized the finesse that’s required in this job as they get people to open up and talk about themselves.  As I talked to her on the phone that first day, I found myself blabbering on endlessly about the review process and going on and on rather effortlessly.  She said at one point that she’s “not intimidating” and as it turns out she’s quite expert at drawing out her interview prospects.  If she can get me to blather on like that then she can get anyone to.

The other part of the process that people don’t see, but that is ludicrously important, is the contribution of the guy running the camera.  Again, if you’d asked me a month ago what a TV cameraman does I would have said, rather ignorantly, “that he runs the camera.”  As it turns out, Teresa and her cameraman work as a wonderfully cohesive team.  Of course his primary responsibility is to run the equipment and get the visuals and audio but he’s also a key part of the interview process.  At one point Teresa turned to her camera operator and asked him if he had any questions.  I was surprised to hear her do this but his question set me off on a response that I felt especially passionate about and went on with for quite some time.  Simply put, the cameraman isn’t just running the camera.  He’s contributing key input to the whole interview process.  In closing on the interviewers, I was thoroughly impressed by the whole process.  In a way (well, ok, in every way) I’m jealous of just how much interesting news they must get to see first hand; these two are the sort of people for whom you’d buy dinner any day of the week just for the interesting stories that will no doubt result.

The last thing to cover is my reaction to this whole thing.  Being especially self-conscious, I refuse to watch the video.  When it aired, I got texts and emails from half a dozen people but personally I’ve not seen it and don’t plan to.  Perhaps it’s something akin to Teller (of Penn and Teller) who won’t speak on camera but I just don’t want to see myself on video.  It’s like I’m breaking through some freakish wall and seeing myself as others see me. Totally uncomfortable with that.  That said, I have to smile at the print version of the story.  I’ll admit that in general I tend to be rather hyperbolic in my use of language.  So when I saw myself quoted as saying “The books I’ve reviewed, I’ve tried to be devastatingly honest” I see my own personality loud and clear.  Based on that quote though, it’s clear to me why my inbox hasn’t been flooded with authors who want me to review their books.  ‘Devastating’ isn’t exactly an adjective that anyone actively seeks out.

To sum up, it’s over.  I did this interview about a week and a half ago and waited on pins and needles for it to come out.  In some ways I’m glad it’s over.  On the whole though I’m glad that my only real public entry into the mainstream news was one in which I stood up for simple honesty and integrity.  I’m no Abe Lincoln, but I feel fortunate that the little bit of the world that knows me from this story knows that I just tell it like it is.  I’m not sure what better legacy one could have.

Alright.  Back to the reviews!

 

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Always Watching by Chevy Stevens

Always WatchingAlways Watching by Chevy Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As is the usual preamble, I received this book for free via the courtesy of a GoodReads giveaway. Despite that kind consideration, I will proceed to be abundantly honest about it.

The story is told from the viewpoint of a respected psychiatrist who didn’t have such great luck with raising her daughter. Early in life our protagonist barely escaped the influence of a vicious spiritual cult and now must struggle to bring the leaders of that cult to justice while balancing the needs of her drug-addicted and exceedingly remote daughter.

First and foremost with any book is to attempt to categorize it into a handy bin so that readers know whether they have any interest in the concepts at all. In general, suspense novels fall into two major categories. The first is the forensic bin, all about blood splatters and footprints. The second is more emotional, in which we hear in detail how the characters feel and react to situations. This book is a subtle blending of the two, but the forensic side, rather than being focused on the physics of the crime scene, delves into the psychology and motivations of the characters involved. While many thrillers are “ripped from the headlines”, this novel is “ripped from the DSM” (DSM = Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for those among the uninitiated.)

Steven’s characters, and her protagonist especially, are vivid and touching. One can easily imagine a mother, a thousand mothers, going through the same heart-breaking disconnect that her main character does as she tries to balance her professional life, her search for justice and her love for her daughter all at once. All in all it’s a brilliantly rendered episode in this character’s life.

The only remotely negative thing I would say is that it does tend to go on a bit. About three quarters of the way through I found my mind wandering. The real power of the novel peters out after a while and only the hope for a conclusion can bring the reader back around. On the whole though this is a rather weak complaint and one that I make only in the attempt at SOME sort of balance between positive and negative.

In summary, “Always watching” is … well, I’ll dispense with the usual cliched terms. It grabs your attention well and keeps it quite thoroughly. The author obviously did her homework and it shows in this well-written and true-to-life novel of life in a oppressive spiritual cult and one woman’s quest to stop the abuse. Top notch!

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Ten Thousand Heavens by Chuck Rosenthal

Ten Thousand HeavensTen Thousand Heavens by Chuck Rosenthal

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I received this book free of charge in a LibraryThing giveaway. Despite that kind consideration by the publisher, I give my candid feedback below.

In a nutshell, the book is fundamentally Watership Down, but with horses. A troubled horse finds a connection in her new trainer and their lives become inseparably intertwined.

On the positive side, the author does a reasonable job of viewing the world through the eyes of these noble and intelligent creatures. While I’m not a horse person myself I can see how his portrayal of the inner workings of their minds might not be far off the mark. They are, I suspect, smarter than we give them credit for and do have mental lives more complex than we dare to speculate about.

Sadly, the negative side of the book far outweighs any equine insight by the author. After a reasonable start at an intimate character sketch of two species, the author endeavors to conceive a plot which is at the same time maudlin, beyond any reasonable credibility and much better suited to a childrens’ novel. The use of profanity, which adds nothing to the book, sadly ruins it for consumption by the young adult market, however.

In summary, this is a child’s story written for an adult audience that will be left with eyes rolling. It reminded me strongly of the “Land Before Time” series of movies that my now teenager enjoyed so much when she was a small child. It is this reviewer’s opinion that the book should be cleft in twain. One half can stand alone as the story of a relationship between a man and his horse without need for contrived plot lines. The other half can entertain children with its story but divest itself of all the unnecessary adultness.

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Pale Horses by Jassy Mackenzie

Pale Horses (Jade de Jong, #4)Pale Horses by Jassy Mackenzie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As usual, I received this book via a GoodReads giveaway and therefore paid nothing for it. Despite that very kind consideration by the publisher, I give my candid opinions below.

Placing this book in a tidy nutshell, this is a classic ‘who-dun-it’ set in South Africa. A woman is dead, ostensibly killed in a base jumping accident. The worried boyfriend has engaged the services of the esteemed Jade to find the real killer before the cops come along and pin it on him.

The setting adds somewhat to the novel as we get a small smattering of local color and culture one wouldn’t expect in a more western-focused novel. Our author does a great job of misdirection and the ending is anything but the typical. I’m not a particularly regular reader of this genre but this veered off in a direction I didn’t really expect at the outset. Mackenzie’s rendering of character is vivid and her descriptions of violence or wonderfully graphic, though tasteful and used only when necessary.

The downside here is that at times her novel seems a bit preachy and struggles to make a political point. While I agree at least in part with her assertions, the tactic she uses is at times overly blunt-force.

On the whole, for fans of the suspense genre, this is a reasonably amusing series. The unique geography sets the book apart from most and the storyline doesn’t fall into the usual predictable track. This is no Agatha Christie, but it’s a fair start towards that standard.

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Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock HolmesMastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As usual, I received this book for nothing from a GoodReads giveaway but despite that kindness I give it my candid opinion below.

Our author’s submission is one of those that tries to be two things at once, cross-selling you on a bit of neuroscience in the context of Sherlock Holmes as favorite fictional genius. The basic format boils down to something like this:

* Quote from a Sherlock Holmes story
* Here’s what Holmes did that was so genius
* Here’s what Watson, mental midget, did.


* Don’t be like Watson; here’s how you can think more like Holmes

As a pattern, it’s not bad. Assuming the reader is a fan of Holmes, it’s a fairly good gateway to the headier topics of Neuroscience and Psychology.

Personally, I found the whole thing rather cloying. I’ve read a dozen books on this topic so the slow and easy introduction to the science was rather annoying and ponderous. I found myself skimming over the quotes and introductory banter to find the real meat of what she was trying to get at.

So in summary, a good introduction to the topic if you’re a fan of Holmes. If you’re past the introductory stage though, best to look elsewhere. There really is a lot of noise and at the end of it the material covered is done more incisively in other popular works on the topic.

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