Sunday, April 19, 2015

My Andrew Patel Plan...

Lately I've been listening to the Sell More Books Show, a podcast focusing on independent writers/publishers. Podcast member Bryan Cohen has a book series starting with Ted Saves the Worldand continuing with Mind Over Easy, Portal Combat, and The Light, the Dark, and the Ugly. Mr. Cohen apparently has set the first book for free and that has spurred many sales. I remember hearing that Robert Jordan had done something similar with the Wheel of Time series--the first book, The Eye of the World, was free to pick up at Waldenbooks (anybody remember that wonderful place?) and spurred sales significantly for the second book, The Great Hunt.

So here's how this applies to my Andrew Patel supervillain protagonist series. At some point I'm going to set the first story "Ubermensch" permanently free, remove the second story "Needs Must," and then then post a four-story collection entitled Consequences. The combined tale follows Patel as he deals with the consequences of the events of "Ubermensch" and "Needs Must." Since collections sell better than individual stories, this will hopefully be more economically lucrative as well.

And here's the probable cover, courtesy of Alex Claw.


I'm finishing up coursework for my masters degree right now and I'll need to study for comprehensive exams in June, so this might not be for some time. So get the individual stories while you can. :)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

My "Save the GOP" Reading List

Last year I wrote a few thousand words on a political book tentatively entitled A Republican Party That Can Win California. I discussed some of the issues and themes I would touch upon in earlier blog posts on topics like the economic philosophy of distributism, ways conservative-leaning organizations like the National Rifle Association and the Boy Scouts can make themselves useful, and avoiding over-reliance on the Christian Right and religious politics generally.

I'm not sure if this book is going anywhere even though I've written several thousand words on it. I'm more interested in writing science fiction, fantasy, and horror than in being a policy wonk, even though I'd be darn good at the latter. If we're going to go with comparative advantage, I'd be better off focusing on my fictional pursuits.

But on the other hand, I do enjoy reading all these political books. So here are some of the books I've mentioned in previous blog posts and the lessons I've drawn from them.

Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution-One of the biggies I've learned from this is that many polluting industries are government-subsidized. If you want more of something, subsidize it, and pollution is something we really don't want. So abolish or drastically limit subsidies to oil, gas, etc. so that their "real" cost impacts the market. This doesn't even necessarily mean imposing unpopular new taxes, if cutting subsidies alone can do the job (and save the deficit-wracked government money too).

Unleashing the Second American Century-This puts a damper on a lot of the gloom-and-doom scenarios about America's future. Yes, this country has problems that need to be solved and sitting around chanting, "We're number one" when in fact we are not isn't going to solve them. However, optimism and a sunny outlook are a good way to win elections (see Ronald Reagan) and there are great strengths in this country, great strengths that proper policies can leverage. For example, spending money on science and research is a worthy investment in terms of productivity, jobs, attracting and sustaining vital industries, etc.

Foreign Policy Begins at Home-Author Richard Haass points out that many potential great-power competitors to the United States are suffering from various long-term problems (for example, until very recently Russia's population was declining), so the United States can safely focus on fixing internal problems without risking a rival state getting in too strong a position. It was probably from this book that I found the idea of stapling a green card on every foreign-born graduate of a U.S. college, a policy supported by none other than 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney.

The Second Machine Age-This had a lot of interesting ideas. For starters, it points out that technology is going to increasingly automate any job that could be considered "routine." This will have many consequences, including worsening prospects for those who are less skilled. As far as policy implications are concerned, the authors have several based on the idea that one taxes what one wishes to discourage and subsidizes what one wishes to encourage. A negative income tax--first proposed by Richard Nixon and supported by people like Milton Friedman--would ensure that consumption levels are kept up while avoiding the welfare trap. The U.S. already has the earned-income tax credit, which is kinda-sorta one. Meanwhile, there's a Pigovian tax scheme could be used to discourage pollution.

Whistling Past Dixie-This book makes the argument that the Democratic Party can win national elections without the South, including the counterfactual that if the Democrats had spent the resources they'd plowed into South Carolina in Ohio, they'd have won in 2004. The lesson for Republicans is they can't rely on just one region or cultural grouping for victory. Furthermore, given the demographic problems the Republican Party is predicted to have, not trying to bring more people into the tent risks bringing this scenario to pass.

Day of Empire-The book's thesis is that states that are more tolerant of differing ethnicities, religions, etc. tend to be do better economically. Some anecdotal bits include the Spanish expelling Jews and the Ottomans taking them in and thus benefiting from their skills and trading connections and the Nazis kicking out their Jewish scientists, who proceeded to come to America and build the atomic bomb. As far as American politics are concerned, Chua cites instances where so many talented people were abandoning their European homelands for the new United States that European governments attempted to forcibly stop them. If the U.S. had a more open immigration policy, we could continue our time-honored tradition of creaming off other countries' talented people.

The Devil in Dover-Opponents of the theory of evolution are, to be perfectly blunt, a political albatross and potentially dangerous to U.S. science education, which is going to be more and more important in an age of automation.

Game Change-It's been a very long time since I've read the book, but I do remember stuff Republicans can learn from. For starters, the choice of Sarah Palin to be John McCain's running mate. Whatever this might have done to get social conservatives on-board, it was a net loss elsewhere, especially given McCain's advanced age and health problems. The shenanigans on the Democratic side of the aisle can be an object lesson on what not to do--John Edwards' narcissism and refusal to listen to his aides' concerns about his affair, for example. And even remarks not intended to be mean can come off as such--see Harry Reid's comments about Obama.

Double Down-Some examples of what not to do, including the failure of Jon Huntsman--the candidate I supported--to campaign worth a rip. Huntsman was a major missed opportunity for the Republicans that year due to his various qualifications, but he failed to seize it. The fact "the base" would likely to be hostile to him wouldn't have helped things, but the fact he apparently believed it was beneath his dignity to ask people for money or criticize his opponents and his unwillingness to use his family money (when combined with the first issue) was all on him. Rick Perry's campaign collapsing due to some of the strange things he said while on painkillers after surgery is another lesson to learn from.

Pillar to the Sky-Yes, this is fiction, but it's very plausible, science-focused science fiction on how beneficial a space elevator can be. Not only would it make getting things into orbit significantly cheaper and easier, but running solar panels up the entire length of the elevator would make it a massive energy generator. If even a small tax percentage-wise were imposed on the energy generated from such a structure, it would make the government holding jurisdiction incredibly rich and allow for cutting other taxes, investment in worthy projects, etc. This also ties in with my blog post about a "space-industrial complex" to reorient the present military-industrial complex to cheaper, more long-term constructive ends without the political fighting and economic problems that outright axing it would cause.

There're also a lot of newspaper articles, blog posts, etc. that went into the project, but if I listed all of them, this blog post would get entirely too long.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: The Flight of the Navigator (1986)

For my friend Nick's podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood and for a friend's birthday--two special occasions rolled into one--we watched the 1986 science fiction film Flight of the Navigator.I had not seen that movie in probably close to twenty years, ever since my grandmother taped it for me (I suspect off the Disney Channel because that was something I remember watching at her house when I was little), so I was cool with seeing it again. Here's the podcast. And now the review...

The Plot

David Freeman is a twelve-year-old boy living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1978. He has a dog named Bruiser who can't catch a Frisbee and an annoying little brother Jeff, who makes fun of him for his crush on pretty neighbor Jennifer Bradley. He's sent out to retrieve Jeff from a friend's house and falls into a ditch. When he climbs out, he finds strangers living in his house and that eight years have passed. Perhaps his strange situation has to do with a flying saucer that has crash-landed nearby...

And now for the review...


The Good

*The film has got some real pathos in it. When David discovers an old couple living at what he thought was his family's home, his emotional breakdown is quite believable. And the poignancy of his parents when they find the son they thought was dead alive again is genuine.

*The science of David's abduction and why so much time passed during what was, for him, a very short period is quite well thought out even if they use the meaningless term "light-speed theory" instead of the more technical term "time dilation."

*David's fish-out-of-water attitudes toward 1980s popular culture are quite amusing. His favorite television shows have been canceled and there're these strange "music videos" on TV in their place, he doesn't recognize any of the popular bands, and he's not pleased.

*The teenage punk Jeff is amusing.

*The NASA scientist who wants to study David doesn't engage in the cliched "we can make you disappear in the name of national security" routine like one might expect. Instead he manipulates David and his parents into agreeing to what they think is two days of examination by playing the "don't you want to know what happened" card. That's a bit of character development and a bit of realism--not only does he not want to bully anybody, but he's intelligent enough to know that could backfire.

*There are a couple "flying saucer fakeouts" early on in which things the viewer might think are the first appearance of the aliens...aren't. I thought they were clever.

*In the second part of the movie, there are a lot of 1980s toys to be seen. Whether product placement or cash-free attempt to set the scene, either way works.

The Bad

*After the "Trimaxion Drone Ship" scans David's brain, his robotic personality is replaced with a deranged new one voiced by Paul Reubens. Yes, Pee-Wee Herman. Although this can be funny at times, most of the time it was rather annoying.

*The movie gets really dull in the last third to half. This is a pretty succinct description of what was a pretty big problem with the film. And the ending is downright saccharine--too sweet and sentimental. I can understand why certain characters say the things they do and since this is a kid's movie subtlety isn't always doable, but still.

*There are some missed opportunities. David never reunites with Bruiser even though the dog is still alive and healthy even after eight years (a long time for a larger dog), nor does he even inquire about Jennifer. He remarks that all his friends would be 20 now, but doesn't go far beyond that.

*The opening sequence with the dogs catching the Frisbees took a little long.

*Not all of the special effects have held up. The practical effects like the spaceship, the eyeball-tentacle that interacts with people, etc. all seem fine (although the floor of the spaceship has a very "80s material look" to it), but the CGI isn't particularly convincing. The movie was made in 1986--well before the glories of The Abyss, Terminator 2, and Jurassic Park, but still.

The Verdict

A good movie for kids, but see it only once if you're feeling nostalgic. I doubt you'll want to see it a second time. 6 out of 10.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

How I Would Have Done Mortal Kombat (1995)

I've said many times that it's easy to complain, but coming up with alternative solutions is so much better. You all have read my review of Mortal Kombat that points out a lot of problems with the movie, so here's what I would do if I were writing the script. Here there be spoilers for the original movie. If I don't mention something specific, assume it would go the same or generally similar to the canonical film.
Act One

*In the beginning, I would have made it clearer why Shang Tsung is fighting Liu Kang's brother Chan at the Shaolin monastery before the tournament has even begun. Maybe we could see Chan at dinner with the other monks and hear Shang Tsung whispering taunts and challenges telepathically. He manipulates Chan into accepting a challenge and after beating and crippling him but before he claims his soul, he tells him that now the monastery has no champion and Earth will fall to Outworld. In the actual movie he seems to be telepathically taunting Liu (all the way from China no less), even though later on he studiously attempts to avoid fighting him. Here there will be no deliberate attempt to provoke the more capable Liu and it would show just how much of a mind-screwer Shang very early on, in a thoroughly terrifying way, rather than having Raiden tell the audience this and only show it at the very end (when he takes Chan's form in the fight with Liu).

*The revelations Shang makes in the process of beating on Chan will reduce the need for Raiden to explain everything to the main characters later. During the podcast, Raiden got referred to as "Basil Exposition" at least once. I didn't mind, but moderation in all things...

*Speaking of Raiden, if I could find an Asian (or at least more "exotic" looking) actor who can deliver as well as Christopher Lambert, I'd have cast him. When Raiden arrives at the temple, his features obscured by his conical hat, and it's revealed he's a white guy in a wig, a lot of my podcasting friends just started laughing. If he physically resembled the game character more, that would've been better. The stuff the character does will pretty much stay the same (besides the reduced exposition), as I liked Lambert's Raiden.

*The scene where Sonya and Jax raid the nightclub in search of Kano will be a bit more realistic. Kano's henchman will actually fire his gun properly (rather than holding it Gangsta Style) and at least some people will notice there's a gunfight going on. Yes it's a mosh pit and I would imagine a lot of the people are high as a kite on something, but nearby gunfights tend to sharpen the mind. Kano could escape in the hubbub and Sonya could pursue him to the docks...

*When Sonya chases Kano onto the scary dragon ship taking the contestants to the tournament, I'd have made Jax a heck of a lot more emotive about it. His partner's running into a situation that could get her killed (or something less lethal but still unpleasant, given how this is the first time Shang Tsung pervs on her). He's trying to stop her, but he doesn't sound remotely invested in it at all. If I were in his position I'd be screaming my head off.

Act Two

*I would keep Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa for Shang Tsung, but whenever he has to make a big loud pronouncement, I would use SFX to amplify and deepen his voice. If it's too blatantly different from his actual speaking voice, hang a lampshade on this--it's an invocation of his supernatural power, much like the Gou'ald voices and eyes in the Stargate universe.

*Practical effects for Reptile--a big puppet in the style of Pumpkinhead or (some of the time) the Jurassic Park velociraptors. He looks like a video-game character and the CGI has not held up well. The whole chameleon-invisibility thing was done pretty well in Predator, made years before this one, so using CGI for that alone and physical effects for Reptile could have been awesome.

*When Liu Kang fights Kitana, I would make it clear there's a lot of hostility between her and Shang Tsung. It should be clear Shang is trying to make her fight Liu as an act of sadism (although we won't know just why until later) and Kitana simply refuses to give him what he wants (Liu Kang's death). When Shang tries to point out the rules require the match end with a death, she points out the rules were made by someone higher on the food chain than him, a reference to her adoptive father Shao Khan and hinting that by being too harsh on her, he risks his master's wrath. This aggravates Shang, who orders Liu to fight Sub Zero immediately even though he might be tired from dueling the superior Kitana (who, being 10,000 years old, is almost certainly a more skilled fighter).

*The Liu and Sub Zero fight will occur as it did in the film, only without Kitana there to remind Liu of what to do and Sub Zero's ice shield not taking forever to form. This would strengthen Liu some, as he'd have less help and remember what he's supposed to do on his own.

*When Art Lean faces Goro and Goro defeats him, it's Johnny Cage (who has actually interacted with him) who freaks out first. Sonya, who doesn't know Art well, doesn't freak out until Shang Tsung sucks his screaming soul right out of him. Given how the film hints at romantic interest between the two of them, this shared freak-out could be a bonding moment. In the actual movie it was reversed, and that didn't make sense.

*I'd leave the fight between Johnny Cage and Goro--and the prelude between Shang Tsung and Johnny Cage--as it is. It sets up the climax rather nicely.

Act Three

*Sonya's abduction by Shang Tsung was pretty pathetic in the movie. I would depict Shang panicking when his champion Goro is killed by Johnny Cage and immediately order his minions to kidnap an unprepared Sonya and drag her off to Outworld so he can fight her there. Rather than her implied but not seen pathetic showing against Shang in the film, we see her getting mobbed by dozens of ninja minions and have her put up a decent fight. She could even defeat these two featured-extra minions who we see shouted at each other during multiple fights but never get any particular explanation.

*In the movie when Liu figures out Reptile is stalking them and attacks him, Reptile is somehow incorporated into this man-eating statue alongside the road in Outworld and transforms into a being resembling his video-game incarnation. He proceeds to have a lengthy, brutal fight with Liu Kang...while Johnny, who is nearby, does nothing. Given how Johnny, Liu, and Kitana infiltrate Shang Tsung's tower in Outworld dressed as monks, perhaps a bunch of them attack Johnny while Reptile engages Liu and he has a fight with them?

*When Kitana joins up with Johnny and Liu and reveals her reasons for being an ally to the Earthrealm characters, someone should raise the obvious question about why exactly she's allowed to undermine her father's plans by aiding the Earthrealm warriors in the tournament. After all, she might be some kind of double agent. As part of her revelatory spiel about how Shao Khan killed her parents and adopted her, she could claim that Khan allows her and Shang to screw with one another on the grounds it keeps them from plotting against him or that her little rebellion amuses him. Johnny Cage could even drop some one-liner about how if she helps foil Outworld's designs on Earth, "he won't be so amused now." At that point Kitana might look afraid--being a Rebellious Princess can have a price.

Alternatively, the video games depict her rebelling against Khan after learning she isn't really his daughter, but in the movie she seems to be opposing Shang's plans from the first time she appears. If we go with that, she can mention this as something she found out just prior to the tournament and she made a beeline for Earth immediately. This way Khan won't know she's turned traitor...until he does. Shang can be as hostile as he is in the canonical movie, which would show that he's smarter than his master.

*When the final duel takes place, Shang should adopt Chan's form, which discomfits Liu to the point Liu can't fight him. Shang will not have this problem and will beat on Liu until Liu summons the courage to renounce his guilty feelings for his brother's death at Shang's hands and attack Shang-Chan, beating the tar out of him and then fireball-punching him onto the spiky floor below. He can then transform back into Shang Tsung as he dies, freeing all of the captive souls he's taken.

*I would make it clearer just how Our Heroes managed to escape Outworld after Liu killed Shang Tsung. I'd have a bunch of minions show up to kill them (perhaps some really scary ones, to show how dangerous Outworld's armies would be if they actually invaded), only for Kitana to pull rank as the princess of the Outworld and tell them that Earthrealm has won this tournament and the victors are to be escorted back to Shang Tsung's island immediately. In the movie we never saw how they escaped from Outworld and got back to Liu's monastery and that was kind of an issue. Plus the coming of Shao Khan could be foreshadowed by having his telepathically whispering ominousness in Kitana's ear as Liu, Johnny, and Sonya leave rather than the blatant (and kind of ridiculous) sequel hook/cliffhanger we got in the canonical film."This victory is only a temporary setback and you will not be able to foil me again" (or something to that effect). Kitana immediately sets off after the Earthrealm warriors.

*When we see Johnny, Liu, and Sonya (and Kitana too, making it clear she has abandoned Outworld) at the Shaolin monastery being congratulated by Raiden for their victory, everybody's back in their proper clothing. It would have taken days for them to get there and I would imagine Sonya in particular would have wanted to get rid of the BDSM slave Leia outfit and put her hair back in order as quickly as possible. Compare her preferred appearance to this. If they want to do the obvious set up for Mortal Kombat 2: Annihilation, the scary thunderstorm can start and it ends with Raiden whispering, "The Emperor." No need for a mediocre CGI sky-monster there. Save him for the sequel.

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Mortal Kombat (1995)

I watched the 1995 video-game adaptation (and/or fantasy martial arts film) Mortal Kombat as part of my friend Nick's podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. Here's the actual podcast. I saw the film in theaters with my dad when I was in the fourth grade and probably saw it on video afterward, but it had been a very long time and I was especially interested in seeing how it held up. So here goes...

The Plot

Every generation, the warriors of Earth and a nightmarish parallel dimension called the Outworld compete in a tournament called Mortal Kombat. If Outworld wins ten tournaments in a row, the evil emperor Shao Khan will be permitted to invade Earth. It is now time for the tenth tournament and Asian thunder-god Raiden has gathered the reluctant Shaolin warrior Liu Kang, the prickly Special Forces officer Sonya Blade, and movie-star Johnny Cage to face the forces of Outworld, led by sorcerer Shang Tsung and his gigantic four-armed warrior Goro.


The Good

*It's generally an entertaining movie. It's not necessarily the smartest movie--and there's a lot that doesn't make sense--but it's not boring by any means.

*The opening sequence with fire erupting through the distinctive dragon logo is very well-done. And of course, it has that wonderful, wonderful song.

*All three of the major Good Guys have character arcs. Johnny Cage has to temper his excessive desire to prove himself, Sonya has to learn to trust and rely on others, and Liu Kang has to let go of his false guilt for his brother's death at Shang Tsung's hands at the beginning of the movie.

*Although I think Christopher Lambert was miscast, his delivery in many scenes (the sarcastic clapping and the "your sideshow freaks" confrontation with Shang Tsung) was really good.

*I liked Trevor Goddard's performance as Kano. He's quite amusing, entertaining, and arrogant. Apparently a lot of other people agreed with me because they made Kano an Australian for the remainder of the game series, even though I think he was supposed to be an American of Japanese background in the first game.

*It combines elements of both the first and the second games in ways that work well. Setting the character count midway between the first and second games avoids the pitfalls of a too-large and a too-small cast and lets the creators include useful elements like the younger-looking Shang Tsung of the second game (to make him fighting more plausible) and Reptile (much more impressive a minion than Sub-Zero or Scorpion).

*There's some good continuity and Chekhov's Guns. Raiden informs our heroes that as a former champion Shang Tsung can enter the tournament at any time and challenge any opponent he chooses. Shang Tsung make this especially clear while bargaining with Johnny Cage, who wants to fight Goro right away rather than wait his turn. This sets up the climax of the film rather nicely. And the good guys can rules-lawyer the villains too, as Kitana shows at the climax.

*This is something I obviously didn't notice in elementary or middle school, but Shang Tsung is pretty blatantly perving on Sonya the entire time. He flirts with her upon first seeing her and plays setting up the duel between her and her archenemy Kano as a present for her. Being a villain and all, this culminates in him kidnapping her and putting her in the BDSM equivalent of the slave-Leia outfit, which given his own propensity for leather shows there's more going on besides him trying to rig the tournament in his favor by challenging the physically weakest of Raiden's three Chosen Ones.

*Some of the one-liners like "too much television" still hold up 20 years later. Sonya and Johnny Cage's bantering is funny too.

*Sonya starts out the movie armed to the teeth and yet by the time she actually gets to the mysterious island, she doesn't have any guns. The fate of her firearms is either explicitly shown (her pistol) or implied (leaving her other guns behind in her impulsive pursuit of Kano). Having firearms in an island where people either fight using martial-arts techniques or medieval weapons would've made things very difficult for the Forces of Evil.

*Although due to the limitations the tournament imposes on beings like Raiden, the times where Raiden is able to use his powers are pretty impressive. I especially liked how he puts Liu Kang in his place early on.

*Sonya's fighting style makes sense for someone who isn't as big and strong as the male characters. Basically technique and agility instead of raw power. No depicting someone two-thirds the size of these ripped death machines as their equal in bulk and strength here.

The Bad

*The special effects did not hold up very well. As I said in the podcast, Reptile in his non-humanoid form resembles a cross between the titular anthropomorphic gecko from the video game Gex and a Jurassic Park velociraptor at one-third the budget. There's a lot of obvious CGI, gloppy fake blood, etc.

*Why is Liu Kang's brother fighting Shang Tsung at the Shaolin Temple at the beginning of the movie? The tournament has not officially begun. Knowing Shang's propensity for cheating and a-hole behavior I could imagine him trying to provoke a duel before the tournament began in order to take out the Shaolin monastery's chosen champion, but I shouldn't have to come up with explanations on my own.

*Too much exposition from Raiden to the main cast once they get on the scary dragon ship that will take them to Mortal Kombat.

*Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa looks impressive as Shang Tsung and can definitely fight, but his delivery can be rather spotty in places, especially when he's making what are supposed to be Big Dramatic Pronouncements. He's just not loud and baritone enough for "demon sorcerer." See this clip here for how underwhelming his Big Speeches can be.

*There's a Mauve Shirt character named Art Lean, who unlike most people thinks Johnny Cage is a legitimate martial artist. When he's defeated and killed, it's Sonya--who doesn't seem to know him at all--who unleashes a thoroughly massive Big No. Not his friend Johnny, at least not until Shang Tsung does his "your soul is mine" thing. That didn't make too much sense. If they'd reversed it so that Johnny is horrified that his buddy has pretty much been beaten to death by a four-armed monster and the Sonya freaks out upon seeing Shang Tsung suck Art's screaming soul out (something she might not have seen before), it would make a lot more sense.

*Speaking of Sonya, the way she was handled got kind of ridiculous. She's able to obliterate various oiled-up Outworld ninja thugs and although Kano gave her some trouble (he does have 50-odd pounds on her), she's able to defeat him. But Shang Tsung reduces her to a damsel in distress--dragging her screaming around by her ponytail--almost immediately. In the original game she was fighting in the tournament because some of her fellow soldiers were being held hostage and she and Kano spent the second game as prisoners in Outworld, but she was never that pathetic. It would have been better if Tsung simply had his ninja minions take her by surprise and mob her.

*And when Reptile attacks--and for awhile is beating the hell out of--Liu Kang in Outworld, Johnny Cage is nowhere to be found even though he was with him when Liu Kang went after Reptile. If they wanted to make the upgraded Reptile an even more impressive opponent than they already did, they should have had him fight both Liu Kang and Johnny simultaneously. Failing that, considering how they actually manage to get into Shang Tsung's fortress for the final battle, perhaps some evil monks attack Johnny and distract him? Apparently the extended fight with Reptile was shot after the rest of the movie was made and Linden Ashby wasn't available to portray Cage, but that doesn't really help.

*Christopher Lambert as an Asian equivalent of Thor? Couldn't they find someone either more ethnically appropriate or at least without that really strange accent? People on the podcast trying to mimic him end up sounding like Hannibal Lecter in the Epic Rap Battles of History video depicting him rapping against Jack the Ripper. I'll give him some credit for having fun with the part though.

*There are these two shirtless ripped dudes who show up in the audience for multiple bouts who spend a lot of the time seemingly shouting at each other. Either they kept reusing the same shots over and over or these two characters were distinctive from the rest of the various minions, hangers-on, etc. and we never learn why. If you're going to have these two featured this prominently, why not do something with them?

*No back-story for Scorpion or Sub-Zero other than they're "deadliest of enemies" who are nevertheless slaves to Shang Tsung's will. The games gave them a back-story and we could see this. If anything, they could be at each other's throats much of the time, with Shang Tsung playing referee.

*Why is Kitana allowed to meddle with Shang Tsung's attempt to conquer Earth for Outworld? Not going to go into detail as to why this doesn't make a lot of sense for spoiler reasons, but it could have been remedied by a single line of dialogue.

The Verdict

There was a lot of stuff that didn't make a lot of sense and the special effects didn't hold up well, but it was still entertaining. 7.0 out of 10. If you want to see how I'd have done it, check this post out.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

When Leonard Nimoy died, I suggested to my friend Nick that we do one of his movies for his podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood. I suggested the science fiction film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan due to a certain iconic scene I won't spoil, the animated 1980s The Transformers - The Movie because Nimoy was the voice of Galvatron, or The Pagemaster in which Nimoy voiced Jekyll and Hyde. Although Wrath of Khan is the obvious choice, given how Nimoy seemed to want to be known for stuff other than Spock (after all, he wrote a book called I Am Not Spock), another movie might've been a good choice.

Well, as I somewhat expected, we went with Wrath of Khan. I hadn't actually seen the movie in its entirety, although I had read a 30+ year old paperback copy of the novelizationI'd gotten from the library, so I was cool with that. Here's the podcast. And now for my review...

The Plot

James Kirk, formerly captain of the Enterprise and now an admiral growing old and bored behind a desk, decides to take command of a training cruise of his old ship. Just in time too, since an accidental planetary mis-identification unleashes Khan Noonien Singh, villain of The Original Seriesepisode "Space Seed." Khan plots to steal the planet-remodeling Genesis device from Dr. Carol Marcus, an old lover of Kirk's. Dr. Marcus has a son who's got her curls but darker hair more like the admiral's. Ahem...

The Good

*The film works as a deconstruction of (and Reality Ensues moment for) the character of Kirk and, more broadly, of all the dumb things Starfleet people did in the original series. Kirk the ladies man has a resentful illegitimate son, Kirk who marooned a dangerous enemy and forgot about him now has to face him again, Kirk who plays fast and loose with the rules has his ship crippled, and Kirk who never accepts that he can lose pays a terrible price for victory. And we see the consequences of sending flag officers to strange planets unescorted when Khan and his surviving followers capture Captain Terrell and Chekov.

*Once Terrell and Chekov visit what they think is the barren, lifeless Ceti Alpha VI, the ball starts rolling fast and doesn't slow down. Other than the opening credits--more on that later--the film is never boring.

*Due to conflicting shooting schedules, Kirk and Khan are never onscreen together. That actually turned out really well, as having them get in a physical brawl with each other would have been kind of cliched even if it would have been a callback to the climax of "Space Seed." And the only way I can think of within the framework of the existing film of getting Khan and Kirk physically tussling would undermine Khan's supposedly greater intelligence (it would involve him falling for an obvious ploy).

*Khan's scheme to lure his old enemy for one last battle is pretty clever.

*Per TVTropes, many characters are foils for each other. I was already aware that Kirk and Khan were a lot alike--they're both ambitious, dominant men with a penchant for womanizing, with the difference being that Khan is not concerned about the rights of others--but I hadn't thought that Saavik and Kirk's henchman Joachim were foils too. Both are younger subordinates of an aging male leader, both are willing to argue with them, and both leaders are willing to listen at least some of the time.

*I like how Joachim knows how to play on Khan's ego. Someone who's basically grown up in the court of a despot (I'm guessing Joachim was born on Ceti Alpha V during the exile) would know how to do that.

*The beginning, in which a battle with the Klingons turns out to be something entirely different, is very well-done.

*The death of a certain character is well-foreshadowed. We joked that there was four-shadowing, five-shadowing, etc. and I think we got up to seven. But it was very subtle foreshadowing, so it wasn't like anything was given away in advance.

*Kirk's strategy for getting an opponent who outmatches him in both ship quality and intelligence is clever. According to TVTropes, Khan's deadly sins are Pride and Wrath, and Kirk plays these like a harp.

*A certain iconic scene reduced one of my fellow viewers to tears. Nimoy makes a really good call-back to the opening sequence during it, something I thought was particularly good.

*The movie has some really clever literary allusions to A Tale of Two Cities. The aging, bored Kirk's birthday is "the best of times" and "the worst of times," while a character's sacrifice is "a far, far better thing now that I do, than I have ever done before." Bravo. Khan, stranded for years with only a few books to read, sure loves to quote Moby Dick. He might also be a lot more aware of the parallels between himself and Ahab than he seems...

*McCoy's badgering of Spock about how cold, logical, and inhuman he is gets turned on its head. Spock is cold, but he's willing to apply that same coldness to himself as readily (if not more so) than anybody else.

*I liked how Spock and Saavik would talk to each other in Vulcan when they wanted to have conversations not meant for outside ears. I had a friend in high school who was a South African emigre and she and her mother would talk to each other in Afrikaans when they wanted to discuss somebody covertly.

The Bad

*The opening credits roll over an endless field of stars for at least two minutes, probably closer to three. It's quite boring. They should have had the opening credits roll over the opening scene to save time and keep the viewer's attention.

*Dr. Marcus wants a completely lifeless world to test Genesis on, which is why the Reliant comes to Ceti Alpha V in the first place. However, the nearby world of Regula is described as a dead planet several times. Given how smaller-scale Genesis testing had already occurred there I figured Marcus wanted a completely untouched planet to experiment on, but there's not even an offhand comment to explain this. Terrell could be exasperated by her demands for a totally lifeless planet (it's implied she's disqualified several of their finds) and suggest Regula, only for her to shoot him down.

*This version of the movie lacks a deleted scene (that appeared in a 1985 ABC TV broadcast and later in the director's cut) revealing that the character Peter Preston is actually Scotty's nephew. As Nick pointed out in a discussion about why the scene was deleted, the fact he's Scotty's assistant is reason enough for his death to tear up the older man--he reacts most viscerally to that, not to any of the others--but the fact Khan has killed a major character's relative on top of the multitude of nameless cadets would make him seem more dangerous. In the novelization it's especially poignant because Scotty's last interaction with Peter was to chew him out about something (probably his blatant crushing on Saavik, which isn't in the movie either).

*There's a lot of stuff that's told or implied rather than shown. Khan's invasion of the Regula station and torture of the Genesis scientists for information being implied by the hanging corpses and what Kirk's crew learns afterward works because stuff that's imagined is often more horrible than what's depicted and a rampage/torture scene would have slowed the movie down and probably gotten it rated R. However, showing the hijacking of the Reliant rather than handwaving that it was done and leaving the view to think of possible explanations (the mind-controlled Captain Terrell ordering most of the crew to beam themselves down to Ceti Alpha V and then having the skeleton crew beam up the Augments to overpower them is one possibility) would have been nice. It would show Khan as a strategist and he and his surviving Augments as dangerous warriors (we see a couple feats of superhuman strength from Khan, but that's it). It would also build suspense--the Reliant is bringing Khan on a murderous course for Regula and everybody is completely oblivious.

*Those who have seen "Space Seed" know the identity of Khan's late wife, the one for whom he grieves and for whom he pursues Kirk so vengefully, but someone who hasn't would have no clue. The actress who played the character in the original series had been disabled by multiple sclerosis and could not be in the film, but given her unusual story (she was a Starfleet officer whom Khan had seduced), mentioning her would have been a good idea. Given Khan's repeated references to "her," someone who knows the story (like Chekov, whom the novelization reveals had a crush on her and later wondered if his acting on it could have saved her from herself) could flippantly remark that he couldn't have possibly really cared for her. This could--and probably would--provoke an epic freakout by Khan.

The Verdict

Great film. 8.5 out of 10.

Monday, March 2, 2015

How To Fix Georgia's Transportation Woes: A Constitutional Amendment

Earlier this legislative session, the Republicans controlling the Georgia legislature unveiled their solution to Georgia’s transportation woes. Their proposal would phase out the existing sales taxes (state and local) on gas and replace them with an increased excise tax. Local governments would need to levy their own gas taxes to replace this lost revenue. Meanwhile, users of alternative-fuel vehicles would pay an annual $200 fee that would fund transit projects specifically. The plan also includes a $100 million bond issue for transit. Due to concerns about local governments losing out on their own gas-tax money, this proposal has been amended.

Good on them for proposing a solution to a growing problem. An Urban Institute study cited in a recent WABE 90.1 article stated Metro Atlanta’s population is slated to grow by 1.3 million people by 2030 at minimum — and possibly by as much as four million. If you think traffic is bad now, just wait. If something isn’t done, it’s going to get a whole lot worse.

One way to deal with this is expanding MARTA rail--buses can get caught in traffic--to keep as many people off the roads as possible. Plans on MARTA’s website include the Clifton Corridor light rail to the Emory area, underserved by MARTA and, according to my CDC friends, Bermuda Triangle at rush hour. Another possibility is extending rail eastward to the Mall at Stonecrest, relieving traffic on I-20E. As far as outside the Perimeter is concerned, MARTA has proposed extending the existing heavy rail line from North Springs into Alpharetta to take traffic off Ga. 400. Clayton County’s recent incorporation into MARTA would allow for rail all the way to Lovejoy, where I lived when I was a reporter for The Griffin Daily News. It’d be a lot easier for Clayton County residents lacking cars to get to work or school in Atlanta if they could get on the train south of the airport, believe me.

Problem is, these projects cost money — the Clifton Corridor light-rail $1.12 billion, the Alpharetta heavy-rail project $1.6 billion. The Stonecrest MARTA expansion would be the most expensive of them all at just over $2 billion. And given how projects often go over-budget, I could imagine things getting more expensive before they’re done.

MARTA is the largest urban mass transit system in the country not receiving operational funds from its state. It does not receive very much in capital funds either. If the state is going to use the 50/50 rule on how MARTA spends its own money, it should contribute more. No representation without taxation, after all. Not only would state monies allow MARTA to operate its existing assets more effectively, but in sufficient quantities would facilitate improvements to keep Atlanta’s growing population from choking its freeways into uselessness.

Of course, where would all this money come from? The plan would raise $1 billion for needed improvements, but as I said earlier, it would also revamp the gas tax in ways that would cost local communities. It would also discourage the use of alternative-fuel vehicles with a ridiculous tax.

Rather than just complain, however, I would like to offer another suggestion. Increase the gas tax — which won’t be noticed too much given the recent price crash — and amend the state constitution to allow it to fund transit alongside roads and bridges. In 2011, the tax provided $675 million to the Georgia Department of Transportation. Though four years of less driving and more fuel efficiency have no doubt reduced that figure, gas-tax revenues could still allow significant improvements to MARTA. If this money can secure additional funding from the federal government (since it would help CDC employees) or stakeholders like Emory University or back bonds, even better. This alternative would not cost local communities or penalize the adoption of alternative fuels.

Given Atlanta’s rising population and how MARTA, in the words of a transit skeptic near and dear to me, “doesn’t go anywhere,” keeping our city from choking on traffic will require thinking big. The $100 million stopgap will help, but a long-term expansion of the system to meet the coming demand — and the money to pay for it — need a more ambitious solution.

Since constitutional amendments must originate in the General Assembly, the ball is in the legislature’s court. Although constitutional amendments can only be voted on in even-numbered years, the TSPLOST failed in the legislature the first time it was proposed. If we want to get started on building a transportation system to accommodate Atlanta’s coming millions, we’ll need to get started now.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Free Skeptic-Friendly Ghost Story To Good Home

The other day my friend Drake Dunaway posted on Facebook a link to the song Ballad Of The Great Eastern by the musician Sting, which appeared on his new album The Last Ship.

I first became aware of the Great Eastern when I was in elementary school and was strongly interested in all the Bigfoot, paranormal, unexplained-type stuff. According to legend, two workmen were accidentally sealed up alive inside the ship's double hull during construction. The ship was plagued for years by various problems and the crew and even the captain reported hearing a mysterious pounding sound. The Great Eastern turned into a major economic loss for most of its owners, and according to the legend, when the ship was finally broken up, they found two skeletons inside. Sting makes it even more poignant by suggesting that the dead men were a father and a son.

However, like most stories of the paranormal, there's a mundane fact that undermines the whole thing. Apparently the inner hull of the Great Eastern had inspection hatches. Even if the workmen had become trapped (the bit about the skeletons is rumor and in different versions of the story there's one skeleton or two, the skeleton is of a shipwright rather than a common worker, etc.), they could use the hatches to escape.

However, that doesn't mean you still can't have an interesting story. Here goes...

The workmen are briefly trapped inside, but use the hatches to escape. Them realizing they're trapped and trying to find a way out before they suffocate or overheat, with nobody able to hear their cries for help over the noise of the construction, could be a terrifying start for the tale. After they get out, they confront the foreman or even shipbuilder Isambard Brunel himself (the villain of the Sting song) over what happened. Fearing the bad publicity, worker unrest, etc. this could cause (according to the song Brunel was rushing construction), Brunel has a couple goons kidnap the two men and take them to some faraway place and dump them. He reckons it will take them a long time to get home and the ship will be finished and launched by then, so even if they do manage to raise a stink, it won't be a major problem.

One of the workers--perhaps unhinged by claustrophobia during his entrapment or by the pounding of the hammers (that the two hulls would amplify)--makes his way back to the Great Eastern in time for it to launch. He hides inside the double hull and commits various acts of sabotage over the years like a sort of working-class Phantom of the Opera,starting with the death of Brunel himself. You could throw in some class envy and poverty by depicting him sneaking out of his lair and eating the kind of luxurious ocean-liner food he could never afford as a Victorian industrial worker. If you want to go with the "skeleton found in the hull" aspect of the legend, perhaps he's killed as the result of one of his sabotages or in some other sort of mishap (like the time the hull got gashed at sea) and his body is found when the ship is broken up, thus spawning the legend.

You like? It's a "rational explanation" for an apparent haunting (hence the title of this post) but still touches on things like workplace safety, the rich and powerful being above the law, poverty, etc. Between my graduate school obligations and higher-priority projects I can't write this one, so if you think you can make a go of this, feel free to write it.

I'd like some kind of acknowledgement though. :)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Caligula A Christian? This Could Be Fun...

Caligula. The name of this Roman emperor has become associated with insanity, sexual depravity, murder, and other heinous crimes. He was the first Roman emperor to be assassinated due to his real or imagined atrocities.

However, a gentleman (I'm assuming) from my alternate-history forum has suggested another path in life for this maniac who thinks he's Zeus. In an alternate timeline entitled "St. Caligula," a Christian named Clement miraculously heals Caligula during the illness that in our history may have driven him insane, or at least is around to claim the credit for it. This leads to Caligula becoming interested in the Christian faith and ultimately becoming a baptized believer himself.

Here's the timeline.

This could get very interesting. At this early point, most of the apostles are still alive and most of the New Testament has not yet been written. An imperial benefactor who adopts many Christian ideas into his regime (such as imperial foundling-houses), even if his reign isn't very long, could have some interesting ripples down the line. So far things are going well, with Caligula anonymously delivering charity to the poor and writing treatises on the ethical behavior of senators, but hints have been dropped that he'll end up wearing the martyrs' crown as well as that of Caesar...

Saturday, February 21, 2015

"Sam" Is Here!

Yesterday for the first time since October, I posted a new story for you to purchase on Amazon for your Kindle. It's entitled Sam and tells the tale of a loyal Doberman who must defend his Pack from a Bad Thing that only he can see.


It's not often that you see a story (mostly) told from the point of view of a dog. The only one that comes to mind is Wayne Smith's 1992 novel Thor, which was adapted into the 1996 film Bad Moon.I've only seen parts of the film, but the book does a much better job getting into the head of the dog.

This story also serves as a good example of the importance of a writing group. Originally Sam referred to the Bad Thing as "the Evil," but my friend James R. Tuck said that dogs don't think that abstractly. Calling it "the Bad Thing" would make more sense. Incidentally, that's how the titular dog in Thor thought of the villainous werewolf, so there's a strong precedent. He also suggested beginning the story from the point of view of the dog rather than the sullen dog-sitting teenager, which is another change I made.

So take a look and enjoy!