Saturday, July 31, 2010

Starcraft 2: What's Next? Spoilers Contained Therein...

I went to TVTropes the other day hoping to learn more about Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty but thinking that, since it wasn't that long since the game came out, I wouldn't have the entire storyline ruined.

Wrong.  Pretty much everything's there.  Life lesson--if you see a lot of spoiler tags, assume someone's beaten the game already and don't read them.

Of course, Starcraft 2 at present is only the human campaign, which my friend David said is so well-done it's better than the three-races campaigns of the first Starcraft and Starcraft: Brood War and, for that matter, many movies.  Scuttlebutt online is that the Zerg campaign "Heart of the Swarm" won't come out for another 18 months.

So now it's time to speculate as to what's going to happen in that one.  For the record, this is all speculation based on what's happened in Starcraft 2 and scuttlebutt online about the later campaigns.  I don't have any inside sources feeding me information.

David told me that due to the revelation that Terran Dominion Emperor Arcturus Mengsk brought the Zerg down on Tarsonis, much of the Dominion is open revolt.  Furthermore, his son Valerian has taken much of the Dominion's fleet for the attack on Char, which would weaken Daddy Mengsk further, especially since David says that Valerian wants to use Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan (de-infested during the climax of the campaign) to help overthrow his father.

I suspect that the Zerg campaign will involve Kerrigan attempting to re-establish her control over the Zerg to use them against the Dominion alongside Raynor and Valerian and/or against the Zerg-Protoss hybrids and the "Great Hunger" behind them.  The rumors about the Zerg campaign describe it as kind of like a role-playing game where Kerrigan "levels up" and gathers new mutations to help her take control of more and more Zerg.

If her de-infestation decapitates the Zerg Swarm and it either starts falling under the control of the Protoss-Zerg hybrids Zeratul foresaw or goes wild and starts killing everything, I can imagine Kerrigan being needed to take control once again.  Zeratul said she was necessary to keep the hybrids from using the Swarm to exterminate the Terrans and Protoss and her taking control of the Zerg would be a good way to stop this.

Even before she was infested, according to other Starcraft media, she was able to control Zerg, but I could imagine her de-infestation could weaken her abilities in that field.  The "leveling up" part I could imagine as her using her psychic abilities to compensate for her lack of Zerg biology to take over more and more of the Swarm, although I hope to heck and back that they don't re-infest her (the "new mutations" part). 

I liked Raynor/Kerrigan from the first game (it alternated between being hilarious and sweet) and the breach brought about by Mengsk's treachery and her infestation was sad.  I would prefer to avoid the sad and unhappy, thank you very much.  Besides, it'd basically be rehashing the original game and Brood War and I think Blizzard can go in a much more interesting direction with Kerrigan's character than having her getting "re-bugged" (as opposed to her being "de-bugged").

Think about it.  She was probably the sole survivor of the forces Arcturus abandoned on New Gettysburg, there's the physical and psychic trauma of being captured and infested, and there's all the evil stuff she did as the Queen of Blades.  Assuming her de-infestation restores her human personality--which, based on how she recognizes Raynor and smiles, I think it did--she's going to likely have a colossal amount of survivor's guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, and ordinary guilt-for-sin.  This on top of the issues she had before, due to her experiences in the Ghost program.

Her overcoming all these issues to take control of the Zerg Swarm once more, for good (protecting the sector from rogue Zerg, overthrowing Mengsk, and defeating the hybrids) and not for evil (her own self-aggrandizement) this time would make a really interesting story arc for her and perpetuate her status as a strong female character.  Bonus points if she does all this while dealing with everybody who is out to kill her for what she did as "the Queen of Blades" (essentially everyone except Raynor and Valerian, and Valerian might well sell her down the river to ensure his popularity with the general public and although Raynor can be trusted, some of his crew probably can't).

Her slowly but surely reverting to "the Queen of Blades" even after all the trouble gone to to save her from the Zerg and her own dark side (she killed Raynor's Protoss friend Fenix of her own free will) would just be a major downer.

Despite all the horrors I inflict on my characters in my own writing, I'm a big fan of happy endings.  Valerian overthrowing his tyrant father and bringing peace to the human powers of the Koprulu Sector, the "Great Hunger" being defeated by the combined efforts of the three races, and Raynor and Kerrigan retiring to Mar Sara to have lots of red-head telepathic kids who romp with Zerglings like ordinary kids might play with puppies would be a nice ending. 

Hopefully the Blizzard powers-that-be won't read this and decide to rework everything to avoid the possibility of being sued--apparently movie producers won't even listen to idea pitches anymore for fear of stuff like this happening.  Blizzard people, if you've already come up with something resembling the above storyline, for the love of all that's holy, USE IT!  I hereby solemnly swear that you did not get it from me!

(Seriously, they probably already have the macro-plot mapped out already even if the Zerg and Protoss campaigns aren't close to ready yet.  But people have done very odd things due to fear of litigation.)

In any event, the reason I haven't gone out and bought the game yet is because my computer isn't advanced enough to handle it.  I've got 2 GHz processor speed and 960 MB RAM and the game requires 2.6 GHz and 1 GB RAM.  Plus I don't know if my computer's video card can handle it, although I'm able to watch cinematics and the like on YouTube.

I'll swing by the Best Buy at some point and see how much it is to upgrade my computer.  I wonder if they have a "Starcraft 2 Upgrade Package" available?

If I do buy the game, I'll be sure to play it and blog about it here.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Conan the Barbarian" Movie Review (and Suggestions)

I just finished the film Conan the Barbarian - Collector's Edition, which I rented the other evening to entertain myself while I was ironing. Time for the review...

To be perfectly blunt, I could have written a better script than writers John Milius and Oliver Stone did.  I've read a fair bit of Conan fiction, although to be fair, it's mostly from later writers like Robert Jordan who filled in the gaps creator Robert E. Howard left in Conan's life.  Thus, I've got a fair bit of knowledge about the Conan mythos.

However, I don't like to criticize without offering suggestions for improvement, so I'll go through the film from the beginning and describe how I would have done things differently when I don't like something and praise the things I did like.

For starters, I would have had Conan be a teen when his village is destroyed by raiders and he is sold into slavery.  In the timeline assembled from the stories by various writers, Conan, before he was sold into slavery, had already fought against some invaders from the civilized realm of Aquilonia who were attempting to colonize Cimmeria.  Some of the source material describes him as a respected warrior among the tribe by the time he was around 15.

In the stories, Conan was enslaved as a gladiator as a teenager, but not for very long.  He broke his chain and, using it as a weapon, battered his way to freedom.  Also, in the film we see a frightened-looking woman brought to Conan in his gladiatorial cell, where he proceeds to rape her--in the stories, Conan is proud of how he never took a woman against her will and the sex while he was a gladiator was from noblewomen who admired his prowess in the ring.  I don't recall anything in the stories or the timelines about him being bred "to the finest stock" as part of some prehistoric eugenics program.

That version of the "gladiator phase" would eliminate the need for the decade on the Wheel of Pain (some kind of slave-driven grain-grinding machine) and make Conan a far more active character than the man who was a slave his entire life and is only freed (for no discernible reason) by his master rather than his own efforts.  It would also give him reason to say the "to see your enemies driven before you" line, as he would have had the life experiences to learn this lesson.

Soon after leaving slavery and finding a sword in a tomb, Conan is seduced by a woman who, while having sex with Conan, starts turning into a snake-like monster and trying to bite him.  He physically tosses her away and she turns into some kind of fiery being who flees the area. 

That scene strikes me as something taken from Howard's short story "Worms of the Earth," which was about a Pictish king fighting the Romans and had nothing to do with Conan.  It also didn't involve shape-shifting--the woman in question was the product of the rape of a human woman by one of the "Worms of the Earth" (a reptilian semi-human race whom the Picts drove underground centuries before) and had some snaky features, but didn't change her form.

Given how the purpose of that scene is to introduce Conan to his traveling companion Subotai, who for some reason is chained to a nearby rock wall for the wolves, I would have simply had Conan, soon after escaping slavery, hiring on as a caravan guard and fending off a group of horsemen.  Subotai could have been a survivor of that group who becomes Conan's devoted henchman for having his life spared or something like that.

After meeting Subotai, we have a scene where he and Subotai discuss their different gods.  I would have kept that or something like that because it exposits Conan's (and the general Cimmerian) attitude toward their god Crom.  However, after that, I would have replaced the montage of them running through the fields with a montage of them doing the various things Conan did during his early career--thievery and mercenary work.  We could see scenes of them fighting and debauching afterward (see below).

I liked the introduction of Valeria and the way her relationship with Conan began.  The montage of them blowing their loot on parties and material goods after they successfully rob the temple of the snake cult nicely ties in with how Howard and his successors got Conan off on adventures again after he'd successfully snagged a lot of money--he proceeds to blow it all on drinking, gambling, and prostitutes and soon ends up with only his sword.

I also liked how Conan managed to infiltrate the headquarters of the snake-cult on the assignment to rescue the princess who'd run off with cult leader Thulsa Doom (although I would have used a different villain, since TD was actually associated with Howard's other barbarian hero Kull), although it would have been nice if it were clearer just how Conan was discovered.

(Some of the priests of the temple that he'd robbed recognized the icon he used to gain access to Doom's headquarters but there's no dialogue to indicate this when they confer with each other.)

I liked how Doom's casual dismissal of Conan's accusation of the murder of his family ("I was younger then") showed his evil attitude and the "power of flesh" demonstration (in which he showed off his authority as a cult leader by having a woman jump to her death).  Conan's subsequent crucifixion, in which he bites the head off a vulture trying to nibble on him, was unintentionally hilarious due to bad 80s effects but it does come from one of Howard's short stories, I think "A Witch Shall Be Born."

However, in that particular story, Conan was rescued from the cross before death and not killed and resurrected in a rather trippy sequence where his companions Valeria and Subotai fight off some demonic-looking beings.  I think there might be a dead-and-resurrected Conan in another story, but I didn't like how this was pulled off in the film.

The infiltration of Doom's fortress and abduction of the brainwashed princess were fun, although I'm not sure why Doom took that opportunity to transform into a giant snake, which he never does again throughout the film.  It would have been better if he did that for the purpose of sneaking around the heroes and ambushing them or escaping them when they burst into his chamber to retrieve the princess.

Valeria's death works, since to preserve a sense of threat to the main characters, one should be willing to kill off the supporting cast.  I guess it would be either her or Subotai, since the Wizard was introduced too recently for the viewers to develop an attachment to him.

Conan, Subotai, and the Wizard making their stand against Doom's horsemen in the middle of the standing stones makes sense, since the alternative is being taken on an open plain, as does their carving of many anti-cavalry stakes.

The problem is, we never see the stakes being used for their intended purpose.  No horsemen end up being impaled on them, nor do we see them being used to "channel" the enemy into traps or positions Conan and his friends can more easily defend.  All we see is someone riding past the stakes and later some soldiers Subotai shoots with his bow and arrow smashing them by rolling down a hill.

In the stories, although Conan did not have a lot of formal education, he was intelligent and his enemies underestimated that to their detriment.  The defense against Doom's cavalry could have done a much better job of illustrating that.

It's also not clear why the princess, after Doom tries to kill her, helps Conan infiltrate the temple for the final showdown with Doom.  Obviously she has reason to be angry with him, but it's an abrupt jump from Doom's retreat to the infiltration of the temple.  Some dialogue here would be nice, especially since earlier, Subotai explicitly told Conan to simply retrieve the princess and save killing Doom for another day.

The defeat of Doom was also rather anti-climactic--he attempts to hypnotize Conan like he had Conan's mother, only for Conan to kill him.  Given how Doom was a raider before he became a cult leader, I would have him bust out some martial skill and, failing that, turn into a snake again.

The aftermath of Doom's defeat was rather slow.  Not sure what suggestions I would have to improve it--perhaps less time showing Conan sitting on the steps of the temple looking contemplative.

As far as movie quality goes, the version I saw merited a 4 out of 10.  The soundtrack was really good, which helped.  Hopefully the upcoming animated Conan film Red Nails, which has experienced delays but has recently picked up some new voice actors, will hew more closely to Howard's stories.  After all, it's a straight adaptation of one story rather than an attempt to glue several of them together.

Edit: The podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood discussed the film. Here's the link. Having watched it a second time, I was probably less harsh on it this time around

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Escape from the Wastelands" Concept Album

When I was a wee lad (okay, when I was in middle school), I liked the TV program The X-Files a lot.  At some point, I purchased a CD entitled Songs In The Key Of X: Music From And Inspired By The X-Files, which had some good songs on it like "Unmarked Helicopters" and various versions of the theme song.

More recently, a former member of the writing group that meets in Lawrenceville got me interested in the Stephen Lawhead's "King Raven" novels, which make the claim that the story of Robin Hood was inspired by Welsh guerrillas using the longbow to fight the invading Normans. 

("Robin Hood" is a corruption of "Rhi Bran y Hud," which means "King Raven the Sorcerer," a persona the dispossessed Welsh kinglet Bran adopts in his insurgency against the Normans.)

I actually purchased a couple of songs, "Black Arrows" and "Raven Dance," off the album King Raven Vols. 1-3, a CD inspired by the books.

I had a similar concept for my "Vasharia" novels and even drew up a list of songs dealing with certain concepts in the books.

Here're the songs I'd like to include:

*"The Hunter" by Iced Earth.  It illustrates the wrath and vindictiveness of anti-hero Patrick Rassam when it's unleashed.

*"Waiting for a Star to Fall" by Boy Meets Girl-Long ago, Patrick loved Eva Stuart, who later married his close friend Calvin Grenville.  Things get awkward later...

*"Hands to Heaven" by Breathe-Calvin later becomes Imperator after Patrick kills the previous incumbent after a betrayal and declares himself Imperator instead.  Cal has to leave Eva in Cados, the Imperial capital, to do battle with Patrick.

*"All Coming Back to Me Now" by Celine Dion and "The Search is Over" by Survivor.  These songs represt Patrick's reconciliation with his former concubine Adaena Talmai, whom he eventually marries.  "All Coming Back to Me Now" is Adaena's POV and "The Search is Over" is Patrick's.

Thing is, there are some themes in the Vasharia novels that I feel I could better develop when I have more life experience (marriage, for example) and, given how the series would likely be my magnum opus, I'd also like to improve my writing skills to write it the best it can be.  The Vasharia series is now on the back-burner while I focus on the Wastelands saga, which will be easier to write.

So I figured I ought to focus my musical inclinations on Escape from the Wastelands, the first book of the saga.  Cross-promoting the book with an accompanying "concept album" means more publicity and money, although securing the rights to all the songs could be difficult.  Songs in the Key of X has songs by R.E.M., Sheryl Crow, and the Foo Fighters, but the X-Files had resources I cannot match at this stage of my career.

The thing is, I haven't thought of any songs that would go on this hypothetical album.  I'd imagined the song "Hail to Odin" by the metal band Iron Fire playing during the final battle between protagonist Andrew Sutter and the warlord Grendel, but that takes place in the fourth planned book, not the one I'm working on now.  I'd also pondered "Sarah" by Jefferson Starship due to Andrew's twin sister being named Sarah, but including that would suggest Andrew has rather un-brotherly feelings for his sister, which is wrong, wrong, WRONG.

(If the song were titled "Cassie," that would work--Cassie is the name of Andrew's hometown girlfriend who, sadly to say, does not survive to see him return to throw down Grendel and his minions.)

I figure there'll be a lot of Norse-themed music, since Grendel's origins are in a Scandinavia-like land to the northwest and Andrew himself becomes the strong man who brings down the doom on the evil, much like the hero Beowulf or the protagonist of the Manowar song "King of Kings."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Google Invests in Wind Power

Applause to Google for making a long-term investment in wind energy.  It's a bit strange, Google having its own energy company, but given how data centers need to be kept powered-up at all times lest power outages lead to data loss, them investing in energy generation makes sense.

Viable alternative energy needs long-term investment and people aren't going to invest in something like that if there's too much risk.  A long-term contract with an entity like Google helps reduce that risk.  And if Google expands its physical networks and data centers and makes it a policy to invest in alternative means to fuel them as much as possible, it will encourage further investment in alternative energy, the green industry, etc.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Another News Article Roundup: South Korea and eBooks

I had a couple more news articles I emailed home to blog about, but forgot to. So here they are...

The opposition to nuclear fuel reprocessing really gets on my nerves.  Anti-nuclear activists criticize nuclear power on the ground it generates dangerous waste that will remain dangerous for thousands of years, but then they turn around and criticize nuclear reprocessing, which will cut short the "dangerous period" immensely.

South Korea is even less able to afford this than the US can, since their country is much smaller than ours and they can't let nuclear waste pile up to the same degree we can.

Plus, the 1974 treaty is out of date.  Back then, South Korea was a ramshackle military dictatorship, "the land of almost-right" and the U.S. had legitimate concerns about how they might use nuclear technology.  South Korea is now a wealthy democracy that is, if anything, rather passive in the face of gross provocations by that loony-tune Kim Jong-Il.

Were I the South Koreans, I would want to greatly revise the treaty to permit nuclear fuel reprocessing or toss the whole thing in the shredder.  The whole "it will give Kim a pretext" business is in my opinion a bunch of nonsense--Kim is going to misbehave regardlses of what the U.S. or South Korea do.  Besides, this isn't something like South Korean testing its own nuke that could well seriously provoke North Korea--the only people who seem really upset are the anti-nuke crowd.

The following article is a bit more light in content.  Apparently Kindle eBooks have exceeded hardcovers in sales on

I'm rather leery of eBooks as opposed print editions of the collection I'm working on with Daverana because I don't know how to promote eBooks beyond posting "buy my book" on web-sites I frequent a lot, as opposed to organizing signings of physical books at bookstores and other places.

However, eBooks look like they're becoming more popular, so perhaps my fears are unfounded.  After all, has the "customers who like this might also like this" option, which could contribute to eBook sales.

Productivity Update

Here's how things in my personal writing are going these days:

Yesterday morning, I revised "Old Daniels' Mine" according to some suggestions from my friend Nick.  I reduced the dialect a bit, standardized the usage of "Serpent Men" for the antagonists instead of "Serpent People," inserted some legal concerns about the gunfighters' plans to arm the Chinese miners (there was a lot of racism against the Chinese in the American West), increased the number of Chinese miners who had died before the mine owner took action (again, due to the racism), put some different dialect in (referring to the Serpent Men's priest and wizard as a "brujo," which I got from Dictionary of the American West), and did some general housekeeping.  Then I sent it off to my editor at Daverana.

I'd hoped to have the collection ready for DragonCon (so I could have an author's table), but that's not possible, due to time issues (my editor is very busy these days) and the fact that the company's policy now seems to be that one must sell 100 eBooks before a print run is considered.  Prior to me finding this on their web-site, however, I was told a print run would be considered if it was above 40,000 words, which it is.  We shall see.  There are always more conventions to go to besides DragonCon, although a lot of them will involve taking time off from work and traveling.

I've also been working a lot on Escape from the Wastelands, although not as much as I ought to have.  I plotted out a lot of the final battle and wrote up some text for it (and some other parts of the story, I cannot recall which) Thursday night.  The second version of Chapter Six has been sent out to both the Kennesaw and Lawrenceville groups and I've made some revisions to it based on comments from members of the Kennesaw group who have critiqued it already.

Sunday, I spent much of the day working on a later chapter in which the antagonist Grendel begins planning an expedition across the Iron Desert dividing the Northlands (the feudal empire Grendel rules which is beginning to disintegrate without more enemies for his lieutenants to fight) from the Southlands (a more developed area).  He's in the sack with one of his concubines, but his mind is dwelling on this issue, despite the efforts of said concubine to get his attention and figure out what's going on (and three guesses as to how she does this).  He goes along with this, to a degree, to make it seem like she's able to manipulate him sexually when he really knows what she's trying to do and isn't falling for it.

(I'm trying to make Grendel, to put it in TVTropes terms, Dangerously Genre Savvy and someone who has clearly read the Evil Overlord List.  For instance, in another chapter, his interior monologue makes it clear he does not believe in "killing the messenger.")

He then goes and discusses the matter with one of his advisors over a couple of glasses of mead.  More character development--Grendel is from a Viking-like culture originally and mead is a major form of drink from that mileu.

I've put so much thought into developing Grendel into something other than a generic evil overlord that I need to put more thinking into making Andrew a complex character.  Thus far, the plan is to make him a bit racist (toward some desert mercantile folk who have Jewish or Arab antecedents) and sexist (he discounts the ability of women to fight and is pleasantly surprised to learn his twin sister had killed a Flesh-Eater cavalryman), promiscuous, and with raging Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (not that this is a character flaw, but the goal is to make it so that a man who appearly outwardly to be a killing machine is really terrified that if he hesitates to kill again, more people he cares about will die).

This will have to come into play later--he hasn't had the opportunity to meet the desert trading folk and the total ruin of his life hasn't taken place yet (his best friend Sam, his mother, sister, and girlfriend are still alive).

I've even managed to get a bit of work done on my Transformers fan-fiction The Revenge of the Fallen Reboot.  Not a whole lot--I've written basically two paragraphs--but since it's fan-fiction, it's easier to write.  I shouldn't keep my readers waiting so long between updates, though, especially since I'm using the story to channel people here.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Book Review: "Boneshaker" (SPOILERS)

I finished reading Cherie Priest's novel Boneshaker the other evening.  Having taken a bicycle jaunt to return it to the library this morning, time for my review.  Spoilers contained therein.

Starting off, I do like the concepts and overall aesthetic of steampunk.  Furthermore, it's in my interest that steampunk novels like Boneshaker do well, since my unfinished novel Escape from the Wastelands (and its planned sequels) and an idea I have for a series of novels featuring air pirates all fit into the steampunk genre.  I also picked out the book because I remember reading that it featured a strong female protagonist and I figured I could use help with that.

If by "strong," they mean "resourceful," "decisive," and "not taking crap," protagonist Briar Wilkes works well.  In Boneshaker, her teenage son Eziekel, seeking to prove that his father Leviticus Blue did not build his gigantic drilling machine to rob Seattle's banks, ventures into the walled-off city of Seattle (walled off because the titular machine instead released poison gas that turned people into zombies) in search of proof.  Briar, upon discovering her son is gone, proceeds to beat one of his druggie friends into revealing where he'd went, then persuades the crew of a disreputable airship to drop her off over the city so she can find him.  When confronted by a local mad scientist who has some people convinced he's really her husband, she proceeds to chew him out rather than quiver in fear of him.

Points for that.  Briar is a good female protagonist who is not a simpering wimp, nor is she the "Jane Kickass" overreaction.

However, the book is a little slow-moving, especially the beginning.  I was willing to push through this, but one of the writing lessons I've learned is to not have slow beginnings, lest the reader become bored and put the book back on the shelf.  I also did not like how it turned out Briar had killed her husband upon finding him in the basement with bags of money stolen from the banks after his initial test run and he gave her the choice between leaving with him on the Boneshaker or dying of the poison gas along with the rest of Seattle.  She knew this the entire time, but it did not show up in her interior monologue when facing off Dr. Minnercht, the mad scientist who was using her husband's inventions, even though this would be an entirely appropriate time for her to think that if not bring it up in conversation.

The alternate-history aspect of the book is also somewhat shaky.  Apparently Britain's intervention to break the Union blockade and to support the Confederacy with soldiers, the construction of the trans-continental railroad through the South, and the continued survival of Stonewall Jackson have led to the Civil War lasting 18 years.  Apparently Priest has got a timeline written somewhere--she's writing other books set in the "Clockwork Century" universe and there are references to an independent Republic of Texas discovering oil as being a contributing factor to the timeline--but a war lasting decades would exhaust everyone's economy and manpower and would provoke internal problems for all sides (draft riots in the North, slave risings in the South, industrial unrest in Britain).

It would have been better in terms of plausibility if the South won the Civil War with British help, there was a "steampunk weapons arms race" between the US and the British/Confederacy, and the novel took place during a second war over a decade later.

Still, considering how few steampunk books there actually are and how, despite there being older books that can be classified this way, the modern steampunk subculture is in its infancy, I think Boneshaker is a worthy effort.

6 out of 10.

I think a Boneshaker movie would actually be better than the book, since pages of text would translate to seconds of film, remedying the slowness issues.  Exciting action sequences (battles between air pirates, zombie fights, the residents of Seattle storming Minnercht's lair, etc) would thus take up a greater proportion and the movie would be more fun to watch.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Green Way for Local Governments to Make More Money

Here's a blog post I've had rattling around my head for awhile but never got around to writing down due to more timely things like the Predators film popping up.

Due to the recession, a lot of local governments are running into financial problems and have had to make a lot of cuts, some of which are very painful.  In McDonough, where I live, the library is now closed on weekends and its hours when it is open are greatly truncated.  Although I can understand the financial pressues, this will make it harder for children in schools to do research and homework (especially if they don't have computers at home), make it harder for the unemployed to find work (especially if they don't have computers at home), and make it more difficult for particularly inqusitive children to learn on their own.

(One government entity I feel particularly obligated to is the Cobb County public library system, since it provided so many books for me to read at no cost to me personally.  Without them, I would not be as intelligent or well-read as I am today.)

And that's something that I'm aware of because it affects me personally.  I don't pay a lot of attention to McDonough politics (although I should, since I live here), so there're probably lots of other cuts that affect other people, especially if its jobs that are cut.

Now that I've pointed out the problem, onto the solution...

In the city of Griffin where I work, the city's solid waste department was historically a money-loser, needing large subsidies from the city's general fund.  The high end of these subsidies was $500,000 or even $1,000,000, depending on who you ask.  That's a LOT of money, which could be used to improve the city's infrastructure or for tax-cuts.

Then the city adopted both mandatory recycling and a flow-control ordinance in which all garbage collected within city limits had to go to the city's landfill or recycling center.

These two measures not only eliminated the losses Solid Waste actually incurred, but is slated to profit the city $75,000 in the next fiscal year.  It might be profitable already, since recyclables from McDonough, Jackson, and other cities were not budgeted and the fiscal year was not over when I wrote these stories.

(Re: flow-control, I'm not a big fan of monopolies on principle, but the garbage-collecting entities do use city resources to compete with the city.  What business aids and abets its competitors?  There's also the matter of accurately measuring the waste generated in the city, to satisfy the feds.)

If municipalities established mandatory recycling programs and, if they have the necessary facilities, a flow-control ordinance, this could provide a new revenue source in times of economic distress.  Granted, there will be an initial cost and it might prove problematic to get people to agree to mandatory recycling, but there's always the carrot of reducing or eliminating budget cuts in future years and property-tax reductions if it proves especially profitable.

(Francis told me over 2/3 of household waste is recyclable and given how much of my garbage I take to Griffin to throw out vs. how much I put in my apartment's trash-compactor, in some cases, it's even more than that.  There's a lot of waste to be recycled and, consequently, a lot of money to be made.)

There's also the long-term environmental benefits, but those are harder to quantify in terms of dollars and cents.  Sufficient to say, the more waste is recycled, fewer trees will be cut down and fewer mountains torn open to mine for minerals.

Perhaps I'll drop in on the Henry County Board of Commissioners (they're more responsible for funding the library) or the McDonough Board of Commissioners (it'd be easier for a city to mimic Griffin's program, since both are municipalities) and suggest this.  Or maybe write a letter to the Henry Herald.

Although this IS more government control (if the recycling program is mandatory, the only way to make it profitable), in my opinion, this is the lesser evil than vital services being cut.

What do you all think?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Couple of Steps to Improve "Predators"

Given my philosophy of not criticizing without offering constructive suggestions, I've come up with a couple of ways Predatorscould have been improved.  Given how it was an overall good film and I've got much better things to do, I'm not going to try to "reimagine" it like I did with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

*I would have made Isabel the daughter of Dutch (Arnold's character from the original) and Anna, the female survivor.  Credit for this idea belongs to Keenir from my alternate-history forum.  This would explain how she was aware of the Predators and, in particular, of how Dutch managed to evade their infrared sensors.  I would have also made her an American soldier rather than an Israeli one, to avoid raising the question of how she got there if she were brought up in America or Guatemala.  This would also provide more initial tension between herself and Royce, if she views him as a traitor or washout for leaving the U.S. Army to serve as a mercenary.

*I would have provided some more foreshadowing that Edwin is not what he seems.  He could speak admiringly of the Predators or display a bit too much interest in seeing his fellow humans die.  Some "creepy slip-ups" would make the revelation that he's really a serial killer a bit less abrupt.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Movie Review: "Predators" (SPOILERS)

Just got back from seeing the movie Predatorswith my friend David.  Here's my review. Spoilers ahead, so be ye warned.

To its credit, it does not start out slow.  It begins with Royce (Adrien Brody) waking up in mid-freefall after being parachuted onto an alien world and then flashes the film title.

The movie certainly is not boring and has some fun scenes, including an ambush at the Predators' hunting camp.  It's also got some funny, witty comments by characters at various points in the movie.  Plus Adrien Brody, despite not being a traditional macho tough-guy sort, does do a good job of being an action hero.  Although he certainly got a lot of physical action in in King Kong, his character in that film was primarily a writer, not a soldier.  In this one, he is a full-time hard-core and does it well.

However, there were some elements of the film that needed more explanation.  For starters, Isabel (Alice Braga) is aware of what happened in the original Predator, but there is no explanation why.  Despite having a Spanish name and being played by a Brazilian actress, she is a sniper for the Israeli Defense Force.  Given her knowledge of what happened before and her apparent ethnicity, I was wondering if she were related to Anna, the Hispanic woman from the first film.  Of course, that would raise questions as to why she was a soldier in the Israeli army.

At one point during a walk through the jungle, Edwin (Topher Grace) identifies a particular plant by name.  Although the fact he takes a sample of its paralytic sap is important for later in the story, it's not clear how a plant from Earth would end up growing on an alien world.  The obvious answer would be that its seeds could have been on a human or animal the Predators had brought in to hunt, but this was not given in the film.

Also, later in the film, it appears Royce has hijacked a Predator spacecraft, only to have a Predator remotely self-destruct it.  It turns out that Royce was not on the ship.  Given an allied Predator (one resembling the Predators from the earlier films, who was a captive of a bigger, stronger variety of Predator and with whom Royce had attempted to bargain) had earlier set the ship's engines going, it's possible the alien had ordered the ship to leave the planet on its own, but this was not immediately clear.

Finally, the revelation that innocuous-seeming Edwin was really a serial killer who wanted to join the Predators could have been better foreshadowed.  This provided an explanation for why the Predators chose him (I initially thought it was because, as a doctor, he could keep the others alive and thus provide better sport) and helped make the last fight sequence (in which Isabelle cannot help Royce because Edwin has poisoned her), but again, inadequate foreshadowing.  The only things that indicated something was amiss with him was his knowledge of the paralytic toxin and that fact he'd been taken by the Predators to hunt despite not being a soldier or an obvious criminal like the rest of the human cast.

The movie ends with an obvious sequel-hook.  Hopefully some aspects introduced in this one--the civil war among the Predators and the fact there's another sentient race the Predators hunt in addition to humans in particular--will be elaborated on further.

Overall, it's a fun movie, but thinking too much raises awkward questions.  7 out of 10.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Book Review: "Bite Me: A Love Story" (SPOILERS)

Just got done reading Bite Me: A Love Story, the last of Christopher Moore's vampire trilogy (Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story and You Suck: A Love Story are the first two).  Here's my review.

I think it's the weakest of the three.  The second novel was already suffering from overload, with the blue-skinned prostitute and all of Tommy Flood's friends getting vampirized as well, but the third novel features an army of vampire cats, vampire rats, and Goth girl Abby Normal vampirizing herself using blood from a vampire rat and consequently growing a tail.

Plus I really did not like the ending.  Basically, Jody (who was vampirized in the beginning of the first novel) leaves Tommy (her boyfriend and "minion" whom she vampirized at the end of the first novel) and sets off with Okata, an old Japanese man who saved her when she was caught in the sunlight.  She has Elijah (the vampire who "turned" her) captive in order to use his blood to transform Okata, with the ultimate objective of herself and Okata being together forever.

(Moore decides to introduce into the mythology at this late date that the lifespan of creatures vampirized by second-generation vampires is short and that of those vampirized by third-generation vampires shorter still, so Abby Normal nearly dies after being vampirized using the blood of rats vampirized by either Tommy or Jody and Tommy has to be returned to normal quickly.  Elijah's progeny, however, will live forever.)

Meanwhile, Abby Normal's master's-student boyfriend breaks up with her for some reason that I didn't get and she and Tommy look to be a couple now.  Granted, they are closer in age (Tommy is 19 and Abby is 16 vs. Jody being 26), but it was so rushed and lacking in any feeling for Abby on his part.

The second book set up that Tommy did not like being a vampire (due to the inability to function during daylight hours) and Jody did (because she no longer had to fear violent, dangerous men), but their relationship seemed fine* when he was human and she was a vampire.  If Tommy wants to be mortal, fine, and if Jody wants to stay a vampire, fine.  They could just go back to status quo ante.

*Okay, the ending of the first book in which Tommy bronzed Elijah and Jody while they slept, only for Jody to escape and "turn" him showed there were some issues there.  However, Tommy is not a control-freak/incipient abuser--the situation had more to do with keeping Jody from preventing him from disposing of Elijah, whom she wanted to learn more about her condition from.  However, Elijah is also a very dangerous man/creature who had threatened to kill Tommy and liked to "turn" people just to see how long they would survive.  And despite this hiccup, Tommy and Jody remained fine for most of the second book, even though Jody could be justifiably upset at this breach of trust on Tommy's part.

I was hoping they'd get over their issues and remain together rather than breaking up.  Relationships in real life run into problems (most of which are more mundane than vampirism) and it's generally a good idea to work on these problems and try to fix them rather than break up.

The fact that Jody rewarded Okata with sex, then had sex with Tommy one last time, then eloped with Okata seemed out of character as well--although Jody doesn't have any problems with sex outside of marriage (she was living with a boyfriend when Elijah turned her and reflects on waking up in strange people's beds in the past), I never got any indication that she was prone to cheating or being involved with multiple partners.

I will give credit where it is due.  Abby Normal's teen-girl dialogue is often hilarious and the book had a lot of funny moments and characters, including a profanity-spewing Chinese grandmother.  However, I think the first two were much better.

Some Thoughts on "Escape from the Wastelands"

Just purchased Dictionary of the American West from  I think it will be quite helpful for the dialects and internal monologues of the characters from Escape from the Wastelands, which I have described as a "post-apocalyptic steampunk Western."

It might also be helpful for my short story "Old Daniels' Mine," a horror tale involving a group of gunslingers facing off against the survivors of a pre-human reptilian civilization in Nevada that will be part of the collection of short fiction I'm working on with Daverana Enterprises.  My friend Nick said the dialogue was very cliche, so throwing in some less-common Western lingo might help that out a bit.

Also started reading Boneshaker, a steampunk alternate-history novel.  That has already helped me out in the realism department--in the novel, the protagonist loads a Spencer rifle (one of the more common Civil War weapons) by filling the ammunition tube in the butt of the weapon with cartridges.  I had originally thought the tubes plugged directly into the back of the gun like a magazine, but that may not be the case.

I hope Boneshaker sells well.  Although the alternate-history aspect is very shaky--the Civil War somehow lasts for 18 years due to a combination of the Southern route of the trans-continental railroad being built, the British breaking the Union blockade, and the continued survival of Stonewall Jackson, never never the ludicrous strain this would have put on everybody's manpower and industry--it's still a steampunk novel.  The more successful the steampunk sub-genre is, the more likely I'll be able to sell the Wastelands novels and a steampunk air-pirate series inspired by the antics of my friends Jamie and Emily at the 2009 DragonCon that I'm worldbuilding for right now.

Also found this link the other day:

This will be helpful in naming characters, especially since I think I'm going to remove two of the weirder names, Karras Merrill and N'Mur.  Karras is especially glaring because his sister's name is Catalina.  I'll keep Grendel's name, but Grendel's name was self-chosen based on a salvaged partial copy of Beowulf rather than the name he was born with.

Also, one character's current name is Callie, but at least one member of my writing group got her confused with Cassie, the protagonist's lover.  I was originally going to change the name to Michelle, but I'll ramp up the Western vibe and name her Eudora.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Obama Does Good: Free Trade

I supported Ron Paul in the Republican primaries and voted for John McCain (however reluctantly) in 2008, so I'm no Obama supporter.

However, I am capable of acknowledging good decisions on the part of politicians I don't agree with.

Once upon a time, it was the Democratic Party that was the party of free trade, while it was the Republicans who were protectionist.  This is a good sign on Obama's part.  Hopefully if it passes, it will increase the volume of trade between the U.S. and the other three nations and improve the overall economy.

(The Hawley-Smoot Tariff made the Great Depression worse; hopefully turning to free trade and not protectionism will prevent a "double-dip" recession.)

One would hope South Korean restrictions on imported beef and automobiles from the United States would be dealt with as part of any free trade agreement.  After all, the point of free trade is that it's unrestricted.

Of course, it's time for my perennial bugbear, farm subsidies.  I don't think South Korean farmers are in any particular danger of being dumped on by subsidized U.S. agricultural imports, but farmers in less wealthy nations like Panama and Colombia might be.  Hopefully any agreement will include action on farm subsidies.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Movie Review: "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" (SPOILERS)

I don't like seeing movies by myself, so I did not see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when it was in theaters.

However, I also don't like to iron without something to distract me, and the trailer for Deathly Hallows reminded me I needed to see the film, so I rented it from the video store last Friday to watch.

Now it's time for my review...

Overall, I felt that a lot of important stuff got left out.  For example, Snape's confrontation with Harry after Harry unintentionally nearly killed Draco with Sectumsempra would have been good foreshadowing of the revelation that the "Half-Blood Prince" whose Potions book gave Harry such useful advice (and a very spiffy combat spell to boot) was the teenage Snape, who'd devised so many interesting Potions techniques.

Instead, the only foreshadowing we get is Snape healing Draco, which does help a little bit (he knows how to undo Sectumsempra) but the book's sequence--in which Snape uses Legilimency to interrogate Harry to find out how he knew the spell and makes a serious attempt retrieve the book once he realizes what it is--would have been so much better.

In the books, the Death Eater flight from Hogwarts was accompanied by a major battle instead of the Death Eaters, after Snape kills Dumbledore, quietly processing out of the building and blasting one person aside, with the only real mayhem being some deranged cackling and scenery-destruction from Bellatrix.

The fact that Slughorn is a Slytherin is left out, although his speech about how he was surprised that Lily Evans (Harry's future mother) was a Muggleborn does hint that.

Also, the fact it was Snape who told Voldemort of the prophecy predicting that Potter would be the one to kill him--the prophecy that led to the death of Harry's parents and Voldemort's first defeat--got left out.  Given how big a role that plays in Snape's own back-story and the Snape/Lily/James high-school drama, that definitely should have stayed there.

Keeping the material about the Gaunts (Voldemort's maternal family) and how Merope Gaunt ensnared the Muggle Tom Riddle Sr. would further flesh out Voldemort.  In the movies, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets includes the teen Voldemort's rant about "my filthy Muggle father" who he believes abandoned his witch mother, but that's it.

Some of the stuff could have been put in if they'd cut the random Death Eater attack at the Burrow that did not happen in the books, although it does help develop Harry/Ginny some more.  See below..

On the other hand, the movie's version of Harry/Ginny is superior to that of the book's.  Harry makes some comments about Ginny's personality that indicate interest on his part beyond simple physical attraction and Ginny effectively backs him up when he's trying to organize the Gryffindor Quidditch team.  When the Burrow battle comes, it shows the two of them fighting together well enough to fend off not only Fenrir Greyback but possibly even Bellatrix Lestrange herself!

(The last part is pushing it--Bellatrix defeated Aurors Nymphadora Tonks, Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody, and Kingsley Shacklebolt in succession in Book Five, so she'd wipe the floor with the two kids.  Perhaps she was waiting out in the reeds for bigger targets like Remus Lupin and Tonks to show up and then engage them.)

Plus there's no idiotic "break up with Ginny to protect her" like at the end of the book.  After all, as a Weasley, Ginny is a target anyway.  Although the film ends the morning after Dumbledore's death--which, IIRC, is before the breakup in the book--it seems that Harry and Ginny are still an item and will be for the foreseeable future.

The only part of it that seemed a bit odd was Ginny tying Harry's shoes for him in one scene.  I didn't get that.

Luna is the one who finds Harry after Draco paralyzes him and leaves him under the invisibility cloak instead of Tonks this time. Given how they dumped the "emo Tonks" plotline of the books, which the train scene is the first hint of, this isn't so bad. Luna seems to be the sort to wander around aimlessly for reasons known only to her, plus the exchange between the two of them when she heals Harry's broken nose was pretty funny.

Slughorn's recollection of Lily's gift to him was a nice touch.


The depiction of Narcissa Malfoy as being an overweight middle-aged Cruella DeVille (complete with the multicolored hair) instead of the attractive blonde she was in the books wasn't as terrible as I expected, probably due to the actress's performance.  However, a glimpse of the wizard paper describing her and Draco leaving Lucius Malfoy's trial didn't ring true--however odious the three of them are, they love and are loyal to each other in the books.

Lupin and Tonks apparently are already a couple, although Tonks' hair is brown, which is problematic (it was only brown for most of the sixth book because she was depressed over Lupin pushing her away, which apparently did not happen in the film series).  This eliminates the scene in the books in which Tonks publically argues with Lupin about their relationship, which some think made Tonks come off an obsessive pest trying to badger the spineless Lupin into dating her.

(My impression was that he liked her too and was trying to push her away for her own safety--he's a werewolf--but not everyone agreed with me.)

I'd score it around 6 out of 10.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

BP, Homeland Security, and Local Cops Detain Journalist

Okay, this stinks.  The reporter is taking pictures of a BP refinery from a public road and he's tailed by BP officials and ultimately pulled over by local cops.  Law enforcement, including a guy who claims to be from Homeland Security, reviews his film and takes down his personal information, including his Social Security number, and gives it to the BP guy.

What the hell?  I can understand why they might be concerned about some stranger taking pictures of an oil refinery, but he was on a public road.  Furthermore, why the need to show the photos to the BP guy?  And why did the BP guy collect his Social Security number?

The latter is especially skanky given how Social Security numbers can be abused.  What if they don't like the final report and decide to steal his identity in revenge?

And then there's the threat of being arrested if he doesn't let them look at his film, which I'm not sure is even legal.

I've already used to write the appropriate people and I think you all should.  I hope MSNBC sues somebody over this.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

An Early July Fourth Message...

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

-The United States Declaration of Independence, July Fourth, 1776.

In a little under an hour, it will be July 4th, the 234th anniversary of the declaration of independence of the United States from the United Kingdom.  The nation was not born in a day; fighting between Colonial forces and those of the British Empire had been going on for roughly a year beforehand and would continue for years afterward.  The war did not effectively end until 1781, with the last battle--an American naval victory--taking place in 1783.  The final peace, in which Britain renounced all claims of authority over what would become the United States of America, did not take place until September of that year.

Here is a link to the full document:

Tomorrow, let us celebrate our nation's birth and let us remember the many sacrifices it took for our forebears to earn their freedom and begin the greatest experiment in government by consent of the governed our planet has ever seen.  Let us also remember that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

Google, eBooks, and Independent Booksellers

Found this on the New York Times the other day.

If Google can overcome the advantage the other online booksellers have, this could be very interesting for the eBook market and very beneficial for the independent and small-town booksellers.

And I'm sure college students, who have to shell out a lot of money for books, will love Google providing textbooks in bulk, even in an electronic form.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The No-Fly List is Unconstitutional and Un-American

I was aware of the "no-fly list" before, but I never really pondered the constitutionality of it.

However, this article points out very well that people--including many U.S. citizens--are being denied the ability to travel on private aircraft by an un-appealable decree of some security personnel.  No due process involved.  As a result, there are people stranded in foreign countries unable to get home.

The case of Ayman Latif, a disabled Marine veteran who needs to fly to the US from Egypt for medical treatment, strikes me as particularly aggravating.  Repeat after me: Disabled.  Marine.  Veteran.  In other words, I fail to see how he's going to hijack an aircraft, and being a freaking U.S. Marine, is a lot less likely to have sold out to the enemy than John Q. Public.

I am aware there are dangerous people who would do us harm out there, but there are legal mechanisms already in existence for dealing with this kind of thing.  To be arbitrarily denied the use of airplanes by some bureaucratic decree is un-American (the whole purpose of the Bill of Rights is to protect Americans from the kind of arbitrary abuses of power common in almost every other country in the world at the time) and in all likelihood, unconstitutional.

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Although this is not a deprival of liberty in the same way that being imprisoned is, it is still a denial of liberty in other ways.  Freedom of travel, for example.  Although there is not an explicitly-enumerated right to freedom of travel, I present to you the Ninth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Therefore, if the feds are going to put someone, especially an American citizen, on the no-fly list, they should have to go through the same legal process the government needs to go through to search or arrest someone.  This way, evidence can be weighed, appeals made, that kind of thing.  If we're dealing with people who are abroad, perhaps they could participate via tele-conferencing or some kind of Internet chat-like mechanism.

Methinks if this was not done in the name of defending against terrorism, a lot more conservatives would be opposed to it.

I mean, think about it.  Imagine you're just going around on your daily business and suddenly you're barred from flying.  No reason given, no appeal, and no clear-cut way to get off this list.  This would be a gross abuse of government power, but many people will reflexively defend it in the name of national security.

Let us remember the quote from Ben Franklin:

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Tibetans, Chinese, and Evolution

Now this is very interesting.  I think I'll send this to my old East Asian history professor to see what he's got to say about it.  I'm mostly interested in the "population bottleneck" among the Han Chinese and what events in Chinese history might explain that.

Although I've always been interested in science, I haven't been keeping up to a large degree with the use of genetics to track ancestry.  The most recent news item I recall based on that subject involved the exact timing of the divergence between humans and other primates and since it was posted on my alternate-history forum, the headline (which had to do with when humans and apes stopped mating with each other) provoked a lot of crude humor.