Sunday, November 28, 2010

"The Revenge of the Fallen Reboot" Lives Again!

Last night, I figured I would have a lot of free time today to write.  Although I have a chapter of Battle for the Wastelands I can finish up quickly, it has also been nearly three months since I updated "The Revenge of the Fallen Reboot."

(I wrote the last parts of that chapter while waiting for my friend Jamie's birthday party to start at DragonCon.)

Considering how I could finish the first draft of the Battle chapter today anyway and how it's been a long time since I've done anything for my loyal readers from the "Transformers" fandom, I decided to bang out another chapter for "Revenge."  Three to four hours and 2,131 words later, it's done.

This chapter is entitled "Then I Saw Another Beast, Coming Out of the Earth," an allusion to Revelation 13:11 in which we meet the False Prophet, who is depicted as being a ram-like beast coming out of the ground.  My story features the Fallen being entombed in Jbel Toubkal in Morocco so that he actually rises again (as the opening of the actual film implied) and I figured an appropriate Biblical allusion would make the project a bit more literary and classy.  This opposed to the crassness that made parts of Revenge of the Fallen so annoying.

(Seriously, an asexual alien robot humping Megan Fox's leg?  Giant robot balls?  Michael Bay, I loved the first film and didn't hate the second film, but this was just silly.)

In order to make the tank combat semi-realistic, I had to get into my Character Sketches file and use some of the material I had gathered while doing research for The Gates of Vasharia.  Hopefully the scenes from Lennox's perspective of the M1 loading and firing its main gun will ring true for any Armor veterans out there.

Here's the link to the new chapter.  If you haven't read the rest of it, you can always bounce back to the first chapter.
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Movie Review: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One" (2010) (Spoilers)

I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1with my mom the other night.  Here's my review...

The Good:

I liked the moment between Harry and Ginny before the wedding, with George interrupting. It was funny and another nail in the coffin of the "It's Not You, It's My Enemies" idiocy from the book. 

For those of you not familiar with TVTropes or the overall storyline, at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry breaks up with Ginny on the grounds that her association with him will put her in danger from Voldemort.  Never mind the fact that she's in danger anyway due to her being a Weasley and the events of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in which Harry prevented the shade of the teen Voldemort from using her soul to build himself a new body.  And Ginny, who in the past showed herself capable of being fierce at need, simply goes along with it.  The movies avoid that entirely, both in the Half-Blood Prince film (which does a better job showing the substance of Harry/Ginny than the book) and in this one.

Lupin's angst and his final debasement when he abandons his pregnant wife is left out.  That awful behavior on his part was one of the reasons Kyli Ann Rasco, one of the moderators at the Harry Potter site FictionAlley, and I decided to write Lord of the Werewolves--in fandom lingo, it was a "fix fic" repairing a part of the canon we didn't like.

Although Lupin has been depicted as being a weak character, especially when he was younger (aiding and abetting the bullying of the nerdy young Snape because he was grateful to James, Sirius, and Peter for being his friends), that was an entirely new level of gutlessness from him, especially since he's older and more mature.  In the film, Tonks nearly announces she is pregnant and some of the people on FictionAlley said they saw Lupin and Tonks talking to Molly Weasley about that during the wedding.  Teddy Remus Lupin's presumed appearance in the second film has been foreshadowed, although it could have been a bit more obvious.

Given how Dobby seems to have been hiding the last couple of movies, the explanation for his return (he saw Kreacher pursuing Mundungus and joined in) was good.

I really enjoyed the shadow-puppet version of "The Tale of the Three Brothers," especially the depiction of Death.  Telling the story in shadow-puppet form was a good way of differentiating it stylistically from the rest of the film and really cool.

Voldemort's close encounter with the power lines was fun to watch. I'm not sure if the power lines crumble because Voldemort is having a fit about the wand situation not working or because the wand-magic blew him backward into the lines, but it was a cool scene overall.

When Harry knocks out Dolores Umbridge, he begins his attack by calling her a liar to her face, quoting her "I must not tell lies" spiel from the fifth book, and then blasting her.  In his place, I would have used something a bit more destructive than Stupefy (for example, Harry used Sectumsempra on Draco only a few days or weeks before and given Umbridge's propensity to force students to cut themselves, slashing her would be really fitting), but it got the job done.  I think that deserves the designation Crowning Moment of Awesome.

I like the aesthetics of the Voldemort-controlled Ministry, especially the Nazi-like uniforms of some of the enforcer-types.  It would have been better if we saw more of the Magic Is Might monument other than just the Muggles being ground down, though.

When Umbridge is trying the Muggleborn woman for allegedly stealing magic from a "real" witch or wizard, just how this theoretically works is actually explained--Umbridge shows her her wand as though it were evidence and demands to know from which witch or wizard she stole it.  I don't know if the exact mechanism behind the alleged "stealing" of magic was ever actually explained in the books.

When Harry is going through Umbridge's office in search of the locket Horcrux, him finding the book "When Muggles Attack" and a list of Umbridge's enemies, the ones who have died being marked with an "x," was a nice touch.

The Bad

They left out Dudley's turnaround, which would have been a good bit of character growth.  In the books, the Dementor attack showed Dudley what he really was and this was an impetus for him to shed his bullying ways and start treating Harry better.  This culimates with him thanking Harry for saving him from the Dementors, which took place in Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix.

The Harry/Hermione dance seemed a bit jarring, although it is good that he does try to comfort her when Ron bolts.  At FictionAlley, there were people who complained about how, in the books, Harry doesn't care that Hermione is weeping every night about Ron's abandonment.  I don't remember that, but it has been a long time since I've read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

It wasn't initially clear whom the people Hermione encounters when she goes out by herself were--I first thought they were the group of fugitives the Trio overhear in the books, but it turns out they were Snatchers.  It's also not clear that the Snatcher with the ugly long hair is Fenrir Greyback, the ruler of the werewolves and an ally of Voldemort.  He is never named and he seems to defer to another Snatcher (IIRC the clean-looking one) rather than being the leader of the group as he was in the book.

It's not clear that Grindelwald was a Dark Lord in his own right that Dumbledore defeated in his youth.  In the movie, he seems to be little better than a common thief and his remorse for his years of being evil during the dialogue with Voldemort is missing.  The fact that he and Dumbledore were friends when they were younger never comes up at all.

Bill's disfigurement isn't even clear (we only see a couple of scars through his hair once, IIRC) and we only hear about it having taken place rather than seeing the attack on-screen. Given the abbreviated Battle of the Lightning-Struck Tower (the death of Dumbledore) in the last film, perhaps it would have been better to move it to the Battle of Seven Potters.  It would have been cool to see an airborne hand-to-hand brawl between Bill and Greyback.  Also during the Seven Potters, the fact it was Snape who took George's ear is never mentioned, even though in the books, it came up twice (Lupin wishing he could have paid back Snape in kind and Snape's post-mortem explanation for it).

Overall, I think I'll give it a 6 out of 10.  I'll definitely see the next one.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Book Review: "I Am Not a Serial Killer"

My friend Daryl got me into the Writing Excuses podcast in the fall and I've been listening to the podcast a lot, typically when I'm on the elliptical at the gym.

In one podcast, the podcasters discuss the novel I Am Not A Serial Killer, a book written by one of them whose protagonist is a clinically-sociopathic teenager who works in a funeral home.  I found that character concept interesting and decided to see if my local library had it. They did, so now it's time for the review...

It's a good book.  Dan Wells does a good job developing the protagonist John Cleaver, in particular the way he fulfills the MacDonald Triad.

(Bed-wetting, cruelty to animals, and fascination with fire.  An extraordinarily high percentage of people who have these three characteristics at the same time become serial killers.)

Although the bed-wetting aspect of Cleaver isn't touched on to any great degree, the cruelty to animals and pyromania are.  As a child, Cleaver apparently tortured and killed groundhogs caught in traps and he tells his psychiatrist that to him, this was like playing with Legos.  This explicates Cleaver's lack of empathy--he doesn't even seem aware the animals are suffering at all.  The pyromania is described really well, in passages in which Cleaver waxes eloquently about how beautiful fire is and how it could be considered a living thing using the scientific definition for life, since among other things, it consumes fuel, leaves waste (ash), and reproduces (by burning).

One particularly memorable scene takes place at a school dance, where a bully named Rob Anders harasses him.  To get rid of him, Cleaver tells him that in order to control his darker impulses, he says nice things about people who make him angry.  He compliments the bully, then describes how thanks to his sociopathy, Anders is nothing more to him than a cardboard box.  However, cardboard boxes sometimes have interesting things inside them and he want to cut Anders open in several places to see what's inside.  However, because he doesn't want to be a killer, he has made a rule that every person he wants to cut open, he compliments them.

"That's why I say, Rob Anders of 232 Carnation Street, that you are a great guy."

Guess who runs away terrified and later has nightmares, to the point Cleaver's psychiatrist reprimands him?  I wonder if I should join TVTropes and add this to the entry, if there is one, under "Crowning Moment of Awesome."  Cleaver is this nerdy, physically-unimposing little guy, but he psychologically breaks a guy who I have the impression is bigger and stronger than he is and has been a bully since the third grade.

I just tried to request the sequel, Mr. Monster, which looks promising.  According to what I've read about it, it continues the character arc Cleaver began in the first novel when he had to overcome the code he developed to prevent himself from becoming a serial killer in order to protect his town from a demon.  Unfortunately, I can't request it right now (probably because it's new), so it'll be awhile before I can read it.

Something I've noticed is there is a similarity between Cleaver and Dexter Morgan, the clinically-psychopathic protagonist of the books and the Showtime TV series that bear his name.  Cleaver personifies his dark side, calling it "Mr. Monster" like how Dexter calls his "The Dark Passenger."  Furthermore, both of them have personal codes they live by to keep themselves out of trouble, although Cleaver seeks to repress his violent urges entirely (his sole outlet being working with bodies at the mortuary) and Dexter just channels them (by preying exclusively on killers who have escaped justice).

Although the book is pretty interesting and well-done, given the subject matter, I imagine it's not everybody's cup of tea and it is rather slow due to the fact it's primarily a mystery novel.  I'd give it 8 out of 10.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

How China Can Take Down North Korea--And Benefit In The Long Run

I was checking out CNN the other day and I found this article.

This is something similar to an idea I've had and posted on my alternate-history forum (we have a political-chat section).

Basically, North Korea is heavily dependent on China for 40% of its food and a larger percentage of its energy--I cannot recall how much, but I'm thinking 60% at least.  The news analysts I've read have suggested that without Chinese support, North Korea will collapse.  The Chinese know this and have been sustaining the North Korean regime in order to avoid a refugee crisis on their border and avoid the unification of Korea under Seoul, a move they fear would lead to U.S. troops on the Yalu River, their border with the Koreas.  This was one of the reasons they intervened in the Korean War, preventing the odious Kim regime from being plowed under half-a-century early.

However, the Cold War is over and China is one of our larger business partners.  We really have no reason to use Korea as a springboard to invade China and consequently, they have no reason to fear us doing so.  The only potential flashpoint between us and them is Taiwan and that grows less and less likely due to increasing Taiwanese investment in China and trade between the two.

So if China cuts off support for North Korea and the Northern regime collapses, the Chinese will likely have to deal with refugees, but not a hostile army on their border.

Here's where China's gain comes in.  China right now is sitting on mountains of foreign exchange and their economy has been growing at a brisk clip despite the global recession.  They have huge amounts of cash, which they've been investing in resource-producing ventures in Africa and other places.

They could easily make some deal with Seoul, the U.S., or both in which, after the North collapses, the U.S. will withdraw its soldiers from the Korean Peninsula back to Japan and the Chinese will fund the reconstruction of the North, which is a basket case far worse than East Germany ever was.

China will benefit by no longer having to subsidize North Korea, by removing U.S. troops from their backyard, and gaining massive investment opportunities in newly-united Korea.  Unless China starts treating Korea as a colony, they will gain an ally.  After all, trade between South Korea and China is fairly extensive ($100 billion as of 2006), and both of them are not fans of the Japanese, to put it lightly.  A united Korea allied to China is a geographic dagger pointed at the heart of Japan, a thought that I would imagine fills the hearts of the Japanophobes over there with glee.

South Korea will benefit by not having their capital under constant threat of the North's masses of artillery and not having to put up with constant provocations from the North for fear they'd use that artillery.  Furthermore, the decades-long artificial division of Korea by foreigners will have ended and the massive costs of bringing the North up to South Korea's standards will be largely borne by the Chinese.  Plus the North has large amounts of natural resources Southern businessmen can exploit, although in my scenario, the Chinese would make a grab for those as well.

Although the situation will be, in the short run, very painful for the North Koreans, in the long run, they will be freed from the atrocious rule of the Kim Dynasty without a war that could and likely would kill millions of people.

(The Korean War killed two to four million people, IIRC, and a second war could involve the use of nuclear weapons against South Korea and/or Japan and consequent retaliation in kind from the United States.  It would get bad.)

The United States will benefit by having one less foreign commitment, one that could potentially lead to a massive war if the North goes completely psychotic and attacks the South or Japan, which we are treaty-bound to defend.  Furthermore, a united Korea (that has possibly inherited the North's nuclear arsenal) allied to the Chinese will rattle the Japanese and give them incentive to maintain the current arrangement with us.

Of course, the best-laid plans of mice and men do often go awry.  If the Chinese pull the plug on the North, Kim could try something desperate like invade South Korea and take Seoul hostage in order to extort aid to keep his regime in power or, as his little empire crumbles, fire nuclear-tipped missiles at the Chinese as revenge.  Although the Chinese could offer the North's ruling elite asylum in China to give them an alternative between desperate action and being torn apart by their own starving slaves, this may or may not work, depending on connected to reality the Northern leadership is.

Furthermore, a member of the alternate-history forum said China would not allow the North to collapse anytime soon due to the massive amount of blood and treasure expended in the Korean War to keep the Northern regime going.  I think the figure is that one million Chinese soldiers died there, including Mao's son.  The guy on the forum said the relatives of the men who died are still alive and would raise holy hell.

Well, China is an authoritarian state.  Surely they know how to cover up embarrassing political secrets and deal with people who raise holy hell.  The Chinese government could also justify it, should it become known to the general public, by pointing out that North Korea's erratic and violent behavior is most ungrateful (as it causes PR and other problems for the Chinese) and un-harmonious (by disrupting the worldwide economic order).

Obviously the plan has its risks, but it's worth a thought.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

American "Top Gear" Filmed In My Town

Around six months ago, an episode of the American version of Top Gear was filmed at the Griffin-Spalding County Airport in Griffin, GA, the town I report on.

Now the History Channel has posted the full episode online:

From what I've seen of the episode so far, it's pretty fun.  They come up with a rather entertaining sexual metaphor for two car companies collaborating on a "love child"--the Dodge Viper--and play some music from 300 when the Cobra gunship is introduced.  The fact that the Cobra is hunting them all over Griffin certainly explained why I saw it at different places around town as well as doing manuevers over the airport.

I didn't have the chance to do a full story on the filming of the show, but I did take photos of the Cobra helicopter at the airport.


Monday, November 22, 2010

A Bit of TSA Humor, Some of It Vulgar

I was reading a story about the Transportation Security Administration's ongoing controversy about the body scanners, the pat-downs, etc. on Yahoo and in the comments section, I found this gem.  The person who posted it uses the handle "Patrick."

TSA is looking for a new slogan:

1. Can't see London, can't see France, unless we see your underpants.

2. Grope discounts available.

3. If we did our job any better, we'd have to buy you dinner first.

4. Only we know if Lady Gaga is really a lady.

5. Don't worry; my hands are still warm from the last guy.

6. Throw a few back at the airport Chili's and you won't even notice.

7. Wanna fly? Drop yours.

8. We've handled more balls than Barney Frank

9. We are now free to move about your pants.

10. We rub you the wrong way, so you can be on your way.

11. It's not a grope. It's a freedom pat.

12. When in doubt, we make you whip it out.

13. TSA: Touchin', Squeezin', Arrestin'

14. You were a virgin.

15. We handle more packages than the United States Postal Service.

16. The TSA isn't silly; they just want to inspect your willy.

17. Stroke of the hand, now the law of the land.

18. No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem.

19. Let your fingers do the Walking.

20. Cough.

21. Reach out and touch someone.

22. Can you feel me now?

23. When we're done with you, you'll need a cigarette.
Here's Patrick's Yahoo profile:
I figured despite the controversial nature of the subject, we can all use a laugh.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Correction to My Skyline Review

I posted a link to my review of the film Skyline on my alternate history forum and it seems I misidentified one of the aircraft deployed in the initial attack on the alien mothership.

The user whose handle is Wanderlust identified the aircraft carrying the nuclear weapon as a drone, not a manned plane.  She even posted a link identifying what the specific drone is:

Given how (I assume) the military launched the initial attack using drones to avoid the possibility of pilots being hypnotized by the aliens' lights, including a manned aircraft like the B-2 Spirit amid a swarm of Predators and/or Global Hawks doesn't make a lot of sense.  The nuke-bearer being a drone would also explain why it was able to pull the high-G manuevers that it did to evade the alien fliers and gut the alien mothership with the tactical nuke.

Wanderlust also pointed out that since this is a naval project, that would explain the presence of the carrier battle group off the coast.  The user whose handle is The Red theorized that the reason the second attack on the alien swarm above Los Angeles included unarmed helicopters and infantry and a relatively small number of manned aircraft (we don't see masses of F-22s or naval F-14s) is that they assumed the nuke had taken out most of the aliens and were just mopping up.

An unmanned first wave followed by a manned mop-up actually makes strategic sense when dealing with an enemy that can potentially hypnotize and disable human soldiers.  The flaw in the strategy is a lack of intelligence (the mothership was temporarily crippled, not destroyed), which is often a reason military operations fail.  The follow-up attack fails, the carrier fleet is destroyed, and it seems the swarm is triumphant over Southern California.

TSA Hassles Those With Prosthetics

Our least favorite federal agency, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), is behaving even more obnoxiously.  On top of groping people or using excessively intimate scanners, now we have people with prosthetics being harassed.

And John Pistole, rather than acknowledging he may be going too far, is being an arrogant blowhard.

"I'm not going to change those policies," he said, according to MSNBC.  No couching the language or nuance at all--he simply refuses to compromise.

Well he darn well better, or he might find himself unemployed.  It's a lot easier to fire a department head who makes himself unpopular than abolish an entire government agency, even one as resented and relatively new as the TSA and with his attitude, he'd be remarkably easy to scapegoat.

Personally, I think it would be better to abolish the TSA and go back to the pre-9/11 way of doing things, only with more effort being put in to ensure procedures are actually followed.  If I remember correctly, if the procedures had been followed, at least some of the hijackers would not have been allowed onto the aircraft.  John Stossel backs me up on this.

Methinks certain people found an opportunity in 9/11 to pull a power grab--after all, Tom Daschle said "you can't professionalize unless you federalize."  What an arrogant tool.  And it was George W. Bush who signed off on this--more proof the man had no backbone when domestic issues were concerned.

James Madison said if tyranny and oppression ever came to America, it would be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.  Let's not ignore the legitimate dangers of terrorism, but at the same time, let's not allow the terrorists to win by sacrificing our freedom to travel (literally) unmolested.

Here's a way to write your federal representatives and the president.  Those of you who don't like the current airport security regime, write your Congressmen (and Senators, and the President) and let them know.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Movie Review: "Skyline" (SPOILERS)

My friend David and I saw the movie Skylineyesterday, undeterred by the thoroughly awful reviews it's got on

I really enjoyed it.  Here's my review...

The Good

The alien invaders, both in terms of concept and execution, are really cool.  They're basically a biomechanical predatory swarm, using their hypnotic blue lights to lure human prey like an anglerfish in the deep oceans would.  Their amazing ability to repair damage suffered using local materials--the remains of buildings and convenient humans--is exposited early on and done consistently.

The scene where the military goes up against one of the alien motherships with a swarm of Predator drones and at least one B-2 Spirit armed with a nuclear bomb was really cool, both the visuals and the music.  The image of the crippled alien mothership, gutted by the nuclear missile, plowing through the city as it falls was just awesome.

The second fight scene when Jarrod (Eric Balfour) and Elaine (Scottie Thompson) flee their penthouse refuge and watch F-22s duke it out with even more alien flyers while a group of soldiers with big .50 caliber rifles snipe at a large alien ground creatures was fun too.

Although the characterization is not one of the film's strongest points, Jarrod does get a character arc.  He starts out as kind of hapless, reacting to stuff that happens to him (his best friend's employee suddenly announcing he's taken a job in California without asking him, Elaine's unexpected pregnancy) and being a bit obnoxious.  After nearly being snatched by the alien light, something that affects him physiologically and psychologically, he "mans up" significantly, overpowering building concierge Oliver (David Zayas) who thinks he's turning into an alien and whaling on an alien flyer threatening him and Elaine using both a brick and a fire axe.  He even flat-out tells Oliver that nobody is going to stop him from protecting "my family," indicating that despite his earlier response to learning of Elaine's pregnancy, he is taking responsibility.


Even after being captured and having his brain transplanted into an alien body, Jarrod manages to retain his free will and whups up other aliens intent on dissecting the Elaine after discovering she is pregnant (this continues on into the credits--be sure to stay).  This also serves as a big sequel hook--although the aliens appear triumphant in a montage depicting them floating over Earth's major cities, Jarrod could easily be the inspiration for a revolt among the prisoners aboard one of the aliens' bigger ships.

Oliver gets some awesome moments too, including a part where he fills the penthouse with gas to turn it into a suicide bomb against a large alien ground creature climbing up the building to get him.  Although it takes awhile for Jarrod to "man up," Oliver does so from the beginning--he demands Jarrod wake up and realize the gravity of the situation, favors a cautious approach after some other characters are killed, and is smart to be suspicious of Jarrod's appearance and demeanor.  Oliver's pained reaction to seeing the nuclear flash while looking through the telescope was realistic too.

Also, the film begins with the initial alien invasion and then flashes back to "15 hours before," which is a good way to hook the viewer.  Given the film's weaker characterization, starting with the hijinks of these people and THEN seeing the fit hit the shan a la Cloverfield might not be a good idea.

The movie also foreshadows Elaine's pregnancy by depicting her as being nauseous and even throwing up in the morning and Jarrod assisting a woman with a baby when they leave their airplane.  The second part could also foreshadow Jarrod's growing paternal attitude.  I liked that, even though I knew about Elaine's pregnancy from the reviews.

The Bad

The characters need work.  Jarrod has a character arc and Oliver has a brain and initiative, but it's not clear why Terry (Donald Faison) is cheating on Candice (Brittany Daniel) with Denise (Crystal Reed), a woman whose position is not entirely clear but whom Wikipedia describes as his secretary who for some reason hangs around his penthouse.  Earlier we get the impression Candice is jealous and high-maintenance and Denise is besotted with Terry, but it needs to be elaborated on more.  Another character, the one who assumes Jarrod is coming to LA to work for Terry's company, could have been elaborated on a bit more but is killed off pretty early on.

Oliver's back story could be expanded too.  Although his use of "vaya con Dios" identifies him as being Hispanic, I initially thought he was an Arab.  If he was from, say, Lebanon and has seen war before, that could explain why he has the knowledge and attitude he has.

Plus, he stays in the penthouse and waits for the monster to come to him so he can kill both it and himself rather than fleeing into the interior hallways or the stairwell where it would be hard for the aliens to get him.  It's not clear why.  Earlier in the film, Candice behaves somewhat flirtatiously toward him and she was taken by the aliens just before the ground critter spots him, but if the filmmakers' intent was that Oliver loved her and was so distraught by her death that he decided to become a suicide bomber, it didn't work.

Some of the military tactics need work too.  In a modern air battle, the missiles would be launched from miles away.  The cast would see alien flyers and the mothership being hit out of nowhere before seeing the planes coming.  Granted, the attacking force largely consists of Predator drones, but still.

Also, given the fact nuclear weapons were used in the first counterattack, I would imagine there'd be more available when it turned out the aliens were able to immediately start repairing the fallen mothership--surely whoever commanded the attack would be aware the nuke-carrier could be shot down.  A second nuke at that moment would have killed off the alien critters repairing it by the thousands and possibly even completely destroyed its superstructure.  Granted, there might have been more than one B-2 and the one that got the nuke off could have been the last to be destroyed, but making that clearer would have been helpful.  Perhaps another B-2 approaches the crippled mothership to finish it off and it gets swarmed and killed and its missile intercepted by a suicidal alien flyer?

Considering how Southern California is very defense-heavy, it would have been nice to see a larger variety of human units involved in the counterattack.  In one scene, an F-22 strafes an alien ground beast attacking Jarrod and Elaine, a role best suited for a helicopter or A-10.  Seeing a bunch of Apaches doing a "ride of the Valkyries" through the streets of Los Angeles hosing alien ground critters on top of everything else would have been awesome.

Also, we see a carrier battle group offshore during the second counterattack, but the only fixed-wing planes we actually see are F-22 Raptors.  A carrier would be launching F-14s, a la Top Gun.

Finally, when Jarrod beats a fallen alien flyer, we see a lengthy sped-up montage of him hammering the critter.  That could have been cut in half time-wise and we'd have still gotten the point.

The Verdict

A fun but flawed movie with a surprising defense of traditional masculine virtues like taking responsibility and defense of women and kids against threats.  I will definitely see the sequel.  7/10.

Friday, November 12, 2010

New Film Trailer: "Battle: Los Angeles"

Now this looks like of cool.  Another alien-invasion film, in the vein of Skyline.  Kudos to Blackwave from my alternate-history forum for finding this.

This time the alien invaders show some strategic sense.  Rather than bringing down their ships from orbit immediately where they can be attacked by human planes and ground fire, they attack human aircraft and ships (from what we can see in the trailer) via orbital bombardment before actually landing on Earth.

(That'd be a major advantage in any scenario featuring an enemy with orbital supremacy.  The novel Footfall, the "hardest" SF novel I know of featuring an alien invasion where the humans actually win, depicts the aliens smashing elements of the Kansas National Guard and later entire armored divisions with "rods from God.")

I think I'm going to see Skyline with my friend David this weekend.  A pity this one won't come out until March, but that gives time for anticipatory buzz to build.  If Skyline does well, this one, which looks a lot bigger-budgeted, might do even better.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Obama, South Korea, and Free Trade

Good for Barack Obama to be continuing to push for a free trade agreement with South Korea and committing to drastically increase America's exports.  The last thing we want to do is start throwing up barriers to international trade.  During the early days of the Great Depression, nations desperate to protect jobs at home threw up trade barriers, ending what The End of Globalization: Lessons from the Great Depression called the first age of globalization and making the whole situation much worse.

And we all know what happened after that.

However, Obama and Congress should make sure that any free trade agreement with South Korea enables truly free trade.  The Ford Motor Company, which didn't need governmental largesse to get themselves out of trouble when things got bad, has sounded the alarm about some of the shenanigans South Korea pulls to keep foreign cars out.

American consumers will benefit from having more automotive choices available to them regardless of whether the free trade agreement enables South Korea's government to continue meddling with foreign automotive imports, but more American cars being exported means more jobs in America, which will help get the economic engine of our country running at full clip again.

The article about how the current US-SK FTA "locks in" the one-way automobile trade doesn't do that great a job proving South Korea's government engages in shenanigans to keep foreign cars out, but the article about trade barriers describes them in chronological detail. 

Some of the stuff like auditing the taxes of those who buy foreign cars strikes me as repressive and undermining the rule of law.  If South Korean cars are truly competitive with foreign cars--and considering how many we buy in the U.S., I'm pretty sure they are--the South Korean government need not indulge in petty goonery to discourage its citizens from buying American cars.

News Article Round-Up: Electric Cars and Elizabeth Smart

This is good.  One of the big problems of fully-electric cars is that miles-per-charge is low and there's no electric infrastructure analogous to to the existing gasoline infrastructure, but an advanced hybrid design like Volt eliminate that problem by having a gasoline engine run the generator when the batteries get low.  Obviously this won't eliminate the need for gasoline entirely, but 37.1 MPG is a big improvement over current gas mileage.

(I've divided miles driven by gas in the tank and I've deduced my Accord gets around 24 MPG on average, although I can't differentiate between highway and city driving since I don't drive in only one environment while on a single tank of gas.)

Hopefully the prices will go down as technology improves so the tax credits can be phased out and the cars will stand on their own two feet.  And hopefully they'll improve the Leaf's mileage-per-charge or build more charging stations so owning an all-electric car is practical for all uses, not just in-town driving.

I'm impressed at how clever Elizabeth Smart was to use religion (and the possibility of getting his hands on more "wives") to manipulate the vile SOB who'd kidnapped her into taking them to a place she'd be more likely to be recognized.  Good job.  And based on her testimony and how she bears herself in the courtroom, kudos to her for getting on with her life and being such a strong person.  She's orders of magnitude higher on the food chain than that lowlife Brian Mitchell is.

And for the record, I don't believe Mitchell is insane.  From her accounts of the nine months he held her, he strikes me as far too clever and manipulative.  Methinks he's cranking the loony prophet act up to be put in a mental hospital rather than an ordinary prison where the other inmates will tear him apart*.  I'll give his defense attorney credit for being gentle with Smart, unlike the way some accused rapists' defense attorneys behave toward rape victims, but he's got to be almost criminally naive if he really thinks Mitchell is nuts enough to merit "not guilty by reason of insanity."

*Rapists and especially child molesters are not very popular in prison.  Not at all.

A Space Wolf Addendum

I realized I should have added this to my mini-review of Space Wolf Omnibus: Spacewolf / Ragnar's Claw / Grey Hunter, but I didn't.

One thing I liked about the book is the depiction of the Chaos Space Marine Madox, a member of the renegade Thousand Sons Legion.  Author William King does a good job of capturing the character's intellectualism, snarky atttiude, and desire for vengeance on the Space Wolves for the wrongs done to the Thousand Sons.

(For those less familiar with the Warhammer 40,000 universe, the Thousand Sons, when the Warmaster Horus rebelled, actually tried to warn the Emperor.  Unfortunately, the method they used was sorcery, which the Emperor had forbidden them to mess with, and the sorcerous warning caused some problems when it arrived on Earth.  Although my older Chaos codex depicts the Emperor as assuming the worst and unleashing the Space Wolves on the Thousand Sons, the more recent canon material has him ordered Space Wolf primarch Leman Russ to bring Thousand Sons primarch Magnus the Red to Earth for questioning and Horus, whose revolt was not yet apparent, changing the orders to attack the Thousand Sons in order to force them to join the rebellion.  The Space Wolves laid waste to the Thousand Sons' homeworld of Prospero and things got worse from there.)

I went to the library the other day to request The Second Omnibus (Space Wolf), since I had been unable to request it from home, but the librarian couldn't get it either.  It was at another library system and the copy might be lost or the home library simply might not want to send it out, as it's their only copy.

Darn.  In one of the books composing the omnibus, we see Madox again.  He was more interesting when he appeared in Space Wolf than his return appearance in Grey Hunter, but he might be back to cool form in the second omnibus.

I did find something cool yesterday.  At DragonCon 2010, Mike Lee said that characters from licensed fiction rarely make it into the actual games, but I googled "Ragnar Blackmane" (the protagonist of the Space Wolves novels) and I found a 40K figurine for him.  One can include him in one's army in the game.

I wonder if they'll make one for Madox?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bagel Leads to Government Child-Snatching

Courtesy of Grimm Reaper from my alternate-history forum:

Now that I've gotten your attention with the headline, time for discussion...

For starters, a drug test more stringent than the federal government's, a drug test that can be failed if someone eats a bloody bagel, is entirely too strict.  I agree that they should change that immediately.  Even the child protection types said they had problems with this hospital before.

One of the comments suggested that informed consent be required for any test, while another comment said that according to some of the documents, the hospital does the drug-testing in order to ensure the child won't be at risk of drug withdrawal soon after birth.

However, wouldn't it be a good idea to drug-test the infant, as part of the usual battery of tests they do on newborns, rather than drug-testing the parent?  An infant is not going to be eating a bagel with poppy seeds on it, after all.

I will take a moment to show some empathy for the hospital--if they do the drug test and send the kid home with parents they suspect to be on drugs and something happens to the kid, they're going to catch hell if it gets found out.  The state of Pennsylvania overreacting with an order to take the child when they could have simply sent one person (not several people and certainly not cops!) to maybe talk to the parents to see what is going on is probably the worse outrage of the two.

I hope the parents take everyone responsible to the cleaners.

Piggy Banks--Made From Real Piglets!

Link courtesy of Mojojojo from my alternate-history forum:

I really don't see much of a difference between having a piggy-bank made from a real piglet and, say, an animal one's killed stuffed and mounted as a trophy.  Especially since the company only uses piglets that have died naturally--the piglets aren't being killed to create these banks, unlike a deer or bear that's killed as a trophy.

For the record, I'm not interested in buying one.  However, I find this entire concept to be rather amusing.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Three Books I'm Reading

Here are three books I'm in the process of reading or have recently finished.

Finished: Day of Empire. 

This book makes the point that states that are the most racially and religiously tolerant are typically more successful.  One example of this is the Dutch Republic, one of the few places in Europe to practice religious toleration during the early modern religious wars.  The result being that they attracted huge numbers of Protestants, Jews, and others, people whose skills and connections helped make the Dutch a commercial superpower.  A counter-example is Nazi Germany, who drove out its Jewish scientists--who then came to America and helped create the Atomic Bomb.  The only way the irony could be more severe is if the European war went on a bit longer and Berlin (the Nazis' political capital) or Nuremberg (the Nazis' spiritual capital) ate a nuke.

The book also has some really interesting stuff about the efforts the U.S. made to attract skilled immigrants from Europe early in its history and how downright nasty various European states got trying to stop skilled people from coming here.  The British required clergy to sign off that someone wasn't a skilled practitioner of certain trades if they wished to emigrate, while the Venetians transferred all of their glass-blowers to some island (!) and threatened would-be emigrants with death (!!).  It also discusses how China attracts professionals from elsewhere to work there, but it doesn't offer them Chinese citizenship or cultural acceptance, something the U.S. is far better at

It does have some minor errors in it, like suggesting Nestorian Christianity was a hybrid of elements of Eastern religions and orthodox Christianity, or referring to Justinian II Rhinotmetus as simply "Justinian," a name which generally refers to Justinian I, he of the Hagia Sophia and attempts to reconquer territories in the West.  However, the macro-point still stands.

In-Progress: Space Wolf Omnibus: Spacewolf / Ragnar's Claw / Grey Hunter (Warhammer 40,000).

If I played Warhammer 40,000, I'd play as the Chaos Space Marines or Tyranids, but if I absolutely had to play as Space Marines, I'd play as either the Space Wolves or the Ultramarines.  The Space Wolves have got the "Vikings in SPAAACE" thing going, plus according to some of the lore, they periodically put the hurt on elements of the Imperial government if they believe said elements are abusing the common folk.

(Given the Space Wolves' effectiveness and popularity, the Inquisition has decided to tone down its oppressiveness/evil rather than being on the receiving end of a "War of Compassion" or try to excommunicate and exterminate the Wolves.)

The novel tells the tale of Ragnar, a young man from the planet Fenris, and how he becomes a member of the Space Wolves.  It's fun to read.  I wonder if the PINES library system has Space Wolf: The Second Omnibus (Space Wolves)

In-Progress: Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form.

I borrowed this from a member of my Lawrenceville writing group, who said it would benefit me.  I'll try to read more from it before I decided whether to finish it or give it back, since I've had it awhile and another member of the group wants to borrow it.

My writing group meets at 1 PM today, so I'll read some more of it and see if I want to keep it for a bit longer.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Novel Has Been Split: An Update on My Writing Projects

It's been awhile since I updated my loyal readers on my various projects. So here goes...

My most momentous creative decision thus far is to split Escape from the Wastelands into two novels.  The first one will be titled Battle for the Wastelands and the second one will retain the title Escape from the Wastelands.

I had already pondered doing this for reasons I will get into later, but it was conversations with Alexandra Hughes that sealed the deal.  She has a 130,000-word novel that she has not been able to sell, in part due to its length.  I calculated how long the original Escape would have been, based on an average length of 4,000 words per chapter, and it came out to 160,000 words.  Bringing the average down a bit, it would still be 130,000 to 140,000 words.

That's entirely too long, especially since I recall reading somewhere that the proper length for a first novel should be 90,000 words or so.  The Wastelands tales are genre fiction (I've described them as "post-apocalyptic steampunk Westerns"), so thats another reason not to go too long.

Also, as a member of one of my writing groups (I think it was Lawrenceville) said, "make us care about your characters before you kill them."  Character development is historically one of my weaknesses, but here's how the situation specifically applies to Wastelands.

In the original Escape, Andrew survived the destruction of Carroll Town and briefly fought in the army of Alonzo Merrill, who is the last surviving male of the dynasty that ruled the area before the Flesh-Eaters came.  There's a major battle and it will appear that the Merrill army has been destroyed and Andrew will flee south across the Iron Desert.

He would have only been with the Merrill army for maybe three chapters tops.  That's not a lot of time to get attached to characters before they're killed off.  At worst, the whole situation could be considered a retread of the fall of Carroll Town, not that long before in terms of both story-time and page-count.

Expanding Andrew's time among the Merrills--I've got 50,000 words to write before I hit the 90K mark and I've kicked the apparent destruction of the Merrill army into the new Escape--gives me time to expand on the Merrill war against the Flesh-Eaters, worldbuild a lot more, and introduce a new group of people for Andrew (and the readers) to get attached to.

I haven't planned much of the Merrill phase of the expanded story beyond the capture of a Flesh-Eater dirigible designed for close-air support, but I do have a new group of characters planned who will become Andrew's Nakama.  I've used the structure of the Five Man Band to create the basis for the characters, although don't worry, the scenario isn't cliched.

(For starters, the group is a squad of soldiers and "The Big Guy" is the sergeant, so he, not Andrew, is in charge.  Plus I'm tinkering with making "The Smart Guy" a fellow survivor of the fall of Carroll Town and an outright case of what in our world would be recognized as Asperger's Syndrome, so he's not some comic-relief nerd but something a bit more complex.)

Andrew's new "Nakama" will remain intact until early in the new Escape, giving the reader plenty of time to attach to them before the hammer falls.

I just posted on my PlentyofFish profile that I hope to finish the novel in a year.  So if Battle for the Wastelands isn't done by November 2011 and I don't have a good reason, feel free to give me hell.

Also, I've contacted Daverana and canceled my anthology of short fiction.  I did this for several reasons, but the clincher was that in order to make the required word count, I would have had to fill in the three stories that I sold to Daverana's now-defunct (but hopefully coming back at some point) Flashing Swords magazine with a lot of older material I have been unable to sell, material that often required massive revision.

I figured it would be a much more effective use of my time to work on new material, including my novel, rather than tinker with stuff that I wrote in college.  This is not to say that some of them won't see the light of day--Nick Hoffmann said "Old Daniels' Mine" would make the beginning of a good TV series, while some members of my Kennesaw writing group said it came off more like a transcribed TV episode than a good story in its own right.  I'm seriously considering turning it into a telemovie script.  :)

And as usual, my Transformers story The Revenge of the Fallen Reboot has been neglected.  I haven't updated since early September, when I finished a chapter in my personal notebook while waiting for a friend's birthday party to start at DragonCon.  Luckily, I've only got three chapters or so to finish, so once I actually start writing, it won't take that long.  I particularly like what I'm doing with my Magnificent Bastard interpretation of Starscream (that I feel is more faithful to the promotional material surrounding Movie-Starscream than the actual movie was), so I definitely want to end the story.