Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Proper Way to Deal With Invasive Lionfish: Eat Them!

I went SCUBA diving with my dad in Key Largo in the summer of 2009 and I remember taking a boat tour of the mangrove islands offshore one morning.  The guide made references to lionfish-hunts intended to obliterate the fish entirely, since they had no natural predators and were destroying the local ecology.

One of the best ways to get something done is to provide a profit motive for it, so I have high hopes for this effort.  I wonder if one could transform it into a full-blown industry, although that would provide incentive to keep a few lionfish around rather than exterminate them.  That's what the goal of this whole project should be--eradicate an invasive species before it does too much damage.

Good luck, good hunting, and good eating.  For those of you who are interested, here's The Lionfish Cookbook for you to purchase.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

An Indian Muslim Woman Stands Up to Extremism

Good to see that this woman is able to stand up to the prejudice many Hindu Indians have against Muslim Indians and the elements within her own community who would have her "bury her talent in the sand" so to speak because she is a woman and, according to "traditional" values, ought to dedicate herself solely to familial activities and not use her other abilities.

(See my earlier comments on the film Tangled if you want to read about my severe disdain for those who would try to keep people from living up to their full potential.)

It's unfortunate she did give into the pressure to marry and leave university.  Given her husband's family seem like decent sorts--they haven't tried to stop her from engaging in her health activism, for starters--hopefully she will be able to go back to school and finish her degree.  And hopefully her example will show her brother and others drawn to extremism and attempts to push women out of public life how wrong they are and serve as an example for other Muslim women under similar pressure.

An Interesting Draka Fan-Fic (SPOILERS)

Proof Through the Night

Found this the other day and read through the whole thing in one sitting.

I really like the story.  It's good to see Eric von Shrakenberg trying to balance the fact that the system he serves is EVIL and he darn well knows it with his dedication to the survival of his family and his people.  In the canon timeline, he solves this equation (thanks to his niece deliberately leaking plans of the Draka superweapon to an Alliance spy to force his hand) by launching the Final War that kills 700 million people and then trying to hand out Citizenship to as many Alliance survivors as he can.  Rather tragic, considering how he described the Citizen lifestyle as "a way of life based on death" and sent his serf-born daughter to America to be free when he was a young man, at great risk to his life.  This timeline will give him a happier ending.

It's also good to see someone on the side of the angels not being a complete moron as far as the Draka are concerned, one of the canonical series' major failings.  The elaborate backstab the Anglo-American alliance pulls on their ostensible Draka allies is well-done.

The strategic picture of the nuclear Pearl Harbor inflicted on the Domination by the United States and the British is really cool.  On the micro level, there's a race against time as Eric tries to take his army to Genoa and then across the Mediterranean into Africa, which the Draka have ruled in its entirely since the 1880s while an American carrier group trapped in the Mediterranean attempts to nuke the last surviving Draka-held port in southern Europe and strand him there.

There are also some nice little touches, such as:

-Selections from this timeline's version of Eric's daughter's autobiography hinting that with the fall of the Domination, she could safely seek out the father she'd missed so much.

-The hint that Eric's sister Johanna had survived the war as well (her daughter is quoted in the epilogue).

-The way the vile Security Directorate hooligan Vashon and his men get what they deserve.

-The famed Tuskegee Airmen obliterating the descendants of exiled Confederates.

-Eric toasting the end of the Domination with wine from his family's African estate--the last vintage it will ever produce--and Sofie's speech about why she can't join him.

-The line earlier in the story where Eric tells Vashon that it's time "to come to Jesus" when he finds out Vashon hasn't been telling him that U.S. agents have been smuggling radios to European resistance groups for the last year and that they're likely coordinating in the aftermath of the nuclear strike.

The only flaw I can think of is that the Domination in Africa crumbles far too easily too quickly, but when 10% of the Citizen population lives in Archona (our world's Pretoria) and 10% of the Citizen population lives in Alexandria and both of them go up, the fact that the Draka are outnumbered 9-1 by their slaves presents a bigger problem than usual.

A nice treat for Draka fans, especially since this time, Evil is not victorious and yet its destruction does not take its most noble adherent (Eric V.S.) down with it.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the Draka, here's the Wikipedia entry on the whole series:

Monday, December 27, 2010

Movie Review: "Legend of the Guardians" (SPOILERS)

On this lovely (but cold) Boxing Day, I decided to rent the movie Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole to watch while I ironed the tremendous amount of laundry that stacked up over the last week.  I just realized that Boxing Day is something celebrated more in the Commonwealth countries than in the United States and Legend of the Guardians is an Australian film, so that's rather fitting.

So here's my review...

The Good

The animation is downright awesome and incredibly detailed, right down to the feathers.  The soundtrack is good, most of the time.

The combat sequences are well-done.  The owls fight like owls would, striking with their talons (upgraded with blades) and dive-bombing.  Metalbeak, the primary villain, is really dark and awesome-looking and he does a good job turning on the evil charisma.  I've described the film to friends as "300 with owls" (it's even directed by the same man) and it does that part well.

Kludd, the protagonist Soren's brother, does have a good character arc--he starts out flawed but basically good and is slowly corrupted into being an owl version of a member of Hitler Youth.

Although Soren manages to avoid killing or being killed by Kludd via a Karmic (Apparent) Death, something I generally object to, he does kill Metalbeak.  And although the effect of having done this isn't really discussed, it's clear that killing another owl has affected him and he has to be reassured by his hero Lyze of Kiel that he had done the right thing.  That adds a bit of moral complexity to the whole situation rather than treating killing even a villain as no big deal or having contrived circumstances end the villain without the hero being responsible.

And on the matter of Lyze of Kiel, the film does get into how horrible war is.  When Soren reads the accounts of the battle in which the Pure Ones were defeated for the first time, Lyze (who was living under the pseudonym Ezylryb and worked as scribe of the Guardians' history) tells him that the war wasn't glorious and heroic.  It was terrible and left him with scars, but it was the necessary thing to do.  That's the right attitude to have--the Pure Ones, like the Nazis that obviously inspired them, needed to be squashed, but that does not make the violence accompanying their squashing good.

The movie is apparently a conglomeration of several novels written by Kathryn Lasky.  It's good to see new intellectual properties being developed rather than endless remakes.

The Bad

I think some of the lesser villains needed more character development.  Although Kludd's skepticism of the existence of the Guardians could provide a partial motivation for him joining the Pure Ones--he might think they'll never be rescued and decides to make the most of a bad situation--I don't think it was sufficient for him to be as jerky as he was, especially before he's really fallen under the Pure Ones' spell.  It would have been better if we saw him bullying his younger siblings or picking fights with his parents before he and Soren were kidnapped, to show there was a superiority complex there the Pure Ones could exploit to bring him over to the Dark Side.

Lord Allomere's reasons for turning traitor are clear when we first see Metalbeak discussing dividing up the owl world with a mysterious figure who turns out to be him--desire for power.  However, in council, he doesn't seem particularly hostile toward the other leaders of the Guardians.  Beyond him trying to cover his treachery by suggesting the Guardians not investigate Soren's claims about the Pure Ones and spouting peacenik cliches when challenged, he doesn't have any concrete policy differences with the other owls, nor do we see anything that suggests he resents Boron and Baran, the king and queen of the tree, and wants their position.

Seeing Soren and Kludd's parents at the celebration of the second defeat of the Pure Ones seemed a bit odd.  There's no way for the Guardians to know where their hollow is to bring them there and Soren and Gelfie finding Twilight, who knows the way to the sea (the first leg of the journey) was a fluke, so the parents finding their way there themselves would be rather dicey. 

I think it would be better to have Soren returning his little sister to the tree while wearing the armor of a Guardian for the first time.  Also, the parents don't seem to mourn Kludd--despite his turning evil, he was still their son.  I think the ending should have been more bittersweet than it was.

Finally, although the music was good, the producers should have stuck with the instrumentals.  The vocals from Owl City were downright annoying.  In addition to that, the overall world seems to be post-human, as it is in the books--we see human ruins and artifacts like books but no evidence we're still around--so including humans singing doesn't really work.

The Verdict:

It's surprisingly deep for a children's movie and a showcase of good animation, although some areas could have been developed better.  I think it's a good movie to see once.  I'd give it 8.5 out of 10.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Iron Sky: A Movie Funded By Subscription

I was hanging out with my friend David after I visited the fossil show a few weeks ago and we found this gem online:

The alternate history stuff isn't all that plausible--if the Nazis had the resources needed to colonize the moon, chances are they wouldn't have lost the war on Earth--but despite this, it simply looks awesome.  And it's got a really cool soundtrack, especially the music playing when you see the swarm of Nazi flying saucers approaching Earth.

Another aspect of it that's interesting is that they're relying on donations to fund part of the production of the film.

That's pretty clever.  It seems they got most of their resources through traditional filmmaking channels, but "crowd-financing" could be useful for someone interested in producing a film that the banks don't think is going to be profitable (and thus won't underwite) or the "Hollywood set" would not be interested in producing (say an adaptation of Starship Troopers that doesn't deform Heinlein's belief system into something resembling Nazism and actually includes powered armor).

It would need to be something with a pretty big existing fan-base to have a good chance of working--funding "Starship Troopers as it should be" might be doable this way because there are masses of ST/Heinlein fans who were disappointed by the actual film, but something like Hiero's Journey, which is relatively unknown, would need to rely on the fundraising talents of the producer and not an existing fan-base that can fork over the cash.

I'd send the producers of the movie some cash to help finance the project, but they're only accepting a limited amount of funding outside of the European Union and apparently there are various rules to invest in it.  However, this blog has gotten a fair number of hits from Europe, so I might have some readers who would have an easier time chipping in some cash.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Movie Review: "Ultramarines" (SPOILERS)

For Christmas, I received the collector's edition of the Ultramarines animated film.  After my younger siblings were done with Inception, I settled down to watch the film.  Here's my review...

The Good

Although there were some quibbles on the forums and the like about the animation quality, I thought it was very good, with one exception (see later). 

Understanding the storyline also didn't require a whole lot of advanced knowledge of the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  There's a nice bit of voice-over during the opening credits explaining the whole "in the grim darkness of the far future" thing.  There are little references here and there to the wider universe, like the really cool stained-glass image of the Ultramarines fighting the Tyranids aboard the Ultramarine ship, but they don't play a role in the plot.

Although the return of Captain Severus from his apparent lethal fall while battling a demon was predictable, his body being possessed by the demon he was fighting, returning to rescue the squad from what appear to be Khorne berzerkers (Chaos Marines who charge enemies wielding chain-swords and handguns rather than fighting like ordinary soldiers), and then rampaging around the Ultramarine ship wasn't.

The film also included the more unusual aspects of the 40K universe, like how Pythol removes the gene seed from the bodies of the dead to be used in later Marines.

There's also a good "Chekhov's gun" moment (in which something introduced early on becomes important later), or shall I say, a Chekhov's hammer.  :)

The Bad

The characterization needed work.  Due to the similar haircuts and facial structure, it was often difficult to tell the individual Marine characters apart, with the exception of the Apothecary Pythol (white armor), Sgt. Crastor (the robotic replacement eye), and Captain Severus (his voice and mannerisms). 

(That's the animation issue I referred to earlier.  When it's hard to tell characters apart, that's a problem.)

There also wasn't enough characterization in terms of personality, beyond the new Marines being eager for combat and the Apothecary, who has to put them back together again when they're wounded and retrieve their gene-seed when they're killed, being more cautious.

The early parts of the film were also rather slow.  There is an action snippet in the very beginning depicting the Chaos Space Marine assault on the shrine-world from the point of view of one of the defending Marines and then we're introduced to the characters, they land on the planet, and then spend a long time marching to the shrine before they find the desecrated bodies of the defeated Imperial Fists.  And after that, it's awhile before they first encounter the actual Chaos Space Marines.

It would have been better for the squad had been attacked repeatedly on the way to the shrine, but we didn't know who exactly was doing it.  That would have been less boring and built up the suspense more.

The Verdict

I will give the film itself (I haven't watched the extra stuff, like how the film was made) a 5.5 out of 10.


Since this is the collector's edition, it came with a comic book elaborating on what happened on the world of Algol, something referred to in the film.  The Ultramarines were fighting an infestation of the Tyranids on the planet, a hive-world with a population of eighteen billion, and the squad sent to investigate the Chaos attack on the shrine world consisted of Ultramarines who were neophytes (trainees who had not undergone the final transformation into Space Marines) on Algol and were griping about not participating in real combat.

When a Marine squad is smashed by the Tyranids, its sole survivor, Crastor, is made a sergeant and placed in command of the neophytes, who then undergo the final surgeries to become Space Marines.  Captain Severus and Typhol had known about the neophytes' griping and, as you say, "be careful what you wish for."

If the events of the comic book had been included as the finished film there would have been a lot more action (especially in the beginning) and a lot more characterization--we see a lot more of the relationship between Severus and Pythol, more development of Crastor's character, and a rivalry between Proteus and another Ultramarine.  Plus we'd get more Tyranids than just a picture on a wall.  :)

Given this is the first movie based on the Warhammer 40,000 property, one can understand why it wouldn't be perfect.  Hopefully future 40K films will take the criticisms of the first movie into account and make improvements.

I will comment on the behind-the-scenes material later...

Friday, December 24, 2010

Biblical Elements in the Film "Tangled" (SPOILERS)

I saw the movie "Tangled" with my friend Daryl and his girlfriend Whitney a few weeks ago.  I had some thoughts about certain elements in the movie, but I never voiced them until now.  Here goes, spoilers included...

In the beginning of the film, a drop of sunlight fulls to Earth and creates a flower with healing properties.  Goethel, then an elderly woman, figures out how to use the flower to (temporarily) restore her youth, but keeps the flower hidden and uses it only for herself.

That reminded me of the Biblical verse Matthew 5:15 (NIV), which is as follows:

Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.

Goethel hid the healing plant under a basket.  She didn't try to either sell access to it (to generate capital to invest in worthy projects) or use it to heal the sick or injured as an act of benevolence.  There isn't any indication she even tried to pollinate other plants from the magical flower to produce more of them, which would allow her to keep the plant she had found and also produce more of these flowers to benefit other people.

(To be fair, Matthew 5:16 elaborates on 5:15 and is basically about letting one's light shine before men so that others will see one's good works and praise God in heaven, so my over-literalizing the passage harms the context somewhat.  That being said, Goethel didn't do any good deeds with the magical plant she had found through no merit of her own.  Luke 12:48 states to whom much is given much is expected and Goethel was given something pretty darn substantial.)

When the queen of a nearby city grew deathly ill while pregnant, Goethel apparently made no attempt to use the plant's healing powers to help, even though from a perspective of self-interest alone, it would have gotten her the royal family's gratitude.  When the king's soldiers found the plant and used it to heal the queen, who then gave birth to a girl whose hair inherited the flower's supernatural healing properties (Rapunzel), Goethel proceeded to abduct her and raise her in a tower. 

That's extremely selfish, denying parents their child and denying a dynasty its heir, especially when Goethel could have tried something else like applying for a job in the castle in which she would potentially have access to Rapunzel or, given how incompetent the castle guards seem to be, sneaking in and doing the magical hair thing every so often.

Although she educated Rapunzel (the film shows she has access to books on history and geography) and provided her the means to exercise her other talents like painting and baking, she deliberately isolated her, convinced her the outside world was a dangerous place, and tried to make her believe she was weak and untalented.

(Goethel is IMO a classic example of an emotional abuser.)

The "light hidden under a bushel" thing continues.  Although Rapunzel is certainly talented in painting, baking, etc, as a princess she was intended to (in the absence of brothers, I would imagine) succeed her father as ruler and apparently did that quite well according to the voice-over epilogue of the movie.  Her light was hidden away, so to speak, and her talents would not have been fully developed had she remained in the tower.

And that in turn ties in with Jesus's parable of the talents (a substantial unit of money in those days), which can be found in Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27.  I will not post the entirety of them here, but here is the the Wikipedia entry on the parables.

Note that the master who returns and demands his servants give an account of what he entrusted them with is displeased with the servant who did not put his talent (a unit of money in those days) to use.  Not only did he not invest it in a profitable venture, he didn't even put it in the bank to gain interest.  In all versions of the story, the master takes the talent away to give to the other servants who put it to good use and in the Matthew version, the "worthless" servant is sent to what is obviously a representation of Hell!

I am not suggesting Rapunzel would have automatically gone to hell if she had died in her isolated, abused state (she seems to know something is wrong even in the beginning of the film, but also trusts the woman she believes is her mother and we are commanded to honor our parents), but I strongly suspect Goethel would be in exceedingly deep trouble, not only for the obvious stuff (extreme selfishness, kidnapping, lying, attempted murder, etc).  For James 3:1 (NIV) states as follows:

Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.

Rapunzel not fully developing her talents would have been the result of Goethel's false teachings (among other things) and Goethel is likely to be punished for that on top of the other stuff.

I have some related comments pertaining to certain present-day theological disputes going on in the American church, but I think I will save them for a later blog entry.  Among other reasons, it's Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Some Thoughts on a Crossover Between "Space: Above and Beyond" and "Battlestar Galactica"

A member of my message-board whose handle is robertp6165 has started writing a crossover between Space Above and Beyond and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.  The basis scenario is that when Racetrack's Raptor's jump-drive malfunctions, it takes her to the Lion's Head Nebula--one of the guideposts of the Thirteenth Tribe's journey from Kobol to Earth.  "New Caprica" is never found, Baltar never becomes the Colonial president, and the Colonial survivors encounter the Wild Card squadron from SAAB.

(He said the "trainwreck" of Seasons Three and Four never happens as a result.  I liked some elements of those seasons, but the macro-plot and Final Five stuff was immensely irritating.)

Robert wanted to stick with the more extreme variant of the Chariots of the Gods theory that inspired the original Battlestar, the notion that humans are not native to Earth and there are other human civilizations out there.

(If I remember correctly, the more "normal" COG theory is that aliens visited ancient Earth and helped bring about early civilization, which isn't nearly so much of a clash with what science has discovered about our genetic kinship with Earth life even if it is extremely unlikely.  The "we're not from here" version, however, is easily-disproven garbage.)

Back when I was active on the Sci-Fi Channel's Battlestar forum, I was among those who wanted the Colonials to find an advanced Earth, perhaps one where humans lived in harmony with artificial intelligences, and that Kobol had been settled from Earth.  Given the timeframes involved (I think the settlement of the Twelve Colonies from Kobol was 3,000 years before the series began), it would have to take place many thousands of years in the future for this to work.

However, when I was younger, I was really into cryptozoology (literally the study of unknown animals, it's basically stuff like Bigfoot).  Among the many books in the 0000 section of the library, where Bigfoot, UFOs, conspiracy theories, etc. lurked, was a book claiming there had been an advanced civilization in ancient India that developed nuclear technology and bombed itself out of existence.  The book cited some alleged fused glass, the sort that's found as a result of nuclear explosions, and some other anomalous odds and ends.

Here's a Google search that has some links elaborating on this theory, since I cannot remember the book I found and it's probably out of print anyway:

Dean Koontz's novel Twilight Eyes has a similar concept--there was an ancient advanced civilization on Earth that literally bombed itself back into the Stone Age, only with this one, the perpetrators were "goblins"--genetically-engineered shape-shifting soldiers bred for war that got out of control and into positions of power.

Robert's scenario involved a war between the Twelve Tribes that founded the Twelve Colonies and a Thirteenth Tribe that objected to the former's enslavement of the Cylons and joined them in revolt as the cause of the original Exodus from Kobol.

For a back-story more consistent with what science has discovered, I suggested a mishmash of the India scenario and the Twilight Eyes scenario.  Basically, there was an advanced civilization centered on India thousands of year ago that developed artificial intelligence and treated them like uppity machines rather than thinking beings.  These early "Cylons" revolted, aided by humans who objected to the situation, and the resulting war devastated Earth.  Many of the survivors left Earth and settled Kobol (which side did this isn't really important), while those that remained behind had their civilization collapse and had to build their way back up again, to the point we ended up with the scenario depicted in SAAB.  Given one of the dangers of nuclear war is radiation-induced sterility and/or birth defects, the group that left Earth could have collected human populations not immediately affected by the war, which would explain the racial diversity of the Twelve Colonies rather than all of them being Indian.

Robert said he wanted to stick with the original back-story and suggested that the Panspermia theory used in the show to explain the origin of the alien Chigs--basically bacteria from Earth were blown clear by the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs and ended up on their planet, leading to an entire ecosystem evolving--could be used to explain the genetic kinship between humans-from-another-planet and Earth life.  Basically, all life on Earth originated on Kobol and a celestial event similar to what brought Earth life to the Chigs' world brought Kobolian life here.

It's Robert's story and it's better written than some other examples of SAAB/BSG fan-fiction that someone linked to in the thread, so I'm not going to complain too much.  However, I think I might use the "nuclear war in ancient India" scenario if I wanted to have a story with an advanced human culture from outer space in our present-day or near-future.

Hmm...a friend of mine is writing a book involving an advanced human culture from deep space.  I think I'll send him this when I'm done.  And maybe I'll see if I can get hold of SAAB DVDs--apparently it was a really good show.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm Ending? (SPOILERS)

Found this online today.  Supposedly it's the cinematic ending for the Heart of the Swarm.  I can't copy the embed HTML to post the video here and in any event, given how Activision has yanked it from elsewhere due to copyright, they'd make me take it down sooner or later anyway.

If it's genuine, it must be an early version due to how crude the graphics are.  It does correspond with the information released early on about how Kerrigan, de-infested at the climax of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, rebuilds her power over the Zerg Swarm via mutations, since she is essentially back to being the Queen of Blades.  She sounds like Tricia Helfer, who voiced her in both her human and Zerg incarnations in Wings of Liberty, only without the scary buzzing aspect to her voice.

I'd rather this not be the ending, or at least the final ending. 

For starters, Kerrigan is infested once again, which isn't really necessary for her to control the Zerg.  In some of the canonical material taking place earlier, she was able to control individual Zerg telepathically while a Confederate Ghost.  Her removing the last of the psionic inhibitors the Confederates installed in her during the first game should be enough for her to control great numbers of them without turning her back into a bug.

Her leaving human space, and thus Raynor, behind, is also rather sad.  There's enough sadness in this world as it is.

Furthermore, what exactly is going on with the naked Kerrigan clone in the tank?  Unless whatever is being done to her causes her to psionically attack Kerrigan, cloning doesn't work that way.  If someone cloned somebody, they'd be identical genetically but a lot younger and attacking them wouldn't hurt the original genetic donor a la stabbing a voodoo doll.

Of course, she could be a "Chekhov's Gun" if Blizzard ultimately wants a happy ending for Raynor and Kerrigan.  Bug-Kerrigan could be killed or mortally wounded in, say, the final battle with the Dark Voice (which would be in the Protoss campaign, which takes place after Heart of the Swarm) and telepathically transfers her consciousness into the clone, which given her circumstances, might not have a mind of her own and could serve as a nice backup body.

Good to see Arcturus gets his, although I figured given his cunning and selfishness, he'd flee his crumbling empire with his hard-core loyalists and ally with the Dark Voice for revenge, the promise of supernatural powers, etc. and wouldn't be punished for his many crimes until the absolute end of the game.  Still, this is a fairly cool death--Arcturus cursing his enemies ("choke on the ashes") and Kerrigan gets a really nice "THIS IS JUSTICE!" death-scream coupled with (I assume) some kind of psionic attack to finish him off.

I'm wondering if this is a fake designed to mislead people, though, as some people seem to think.  Blizzard could release an abandoned ending or even cook up something entirely new to generate buzz and keep people talking during the long wait until Heart of the Swarm is released.  Some people on seem to think it's an older ending for Wings of Liberty that got scrapped due to the whole "Kerrigan must save the universe from the Dark Voice" story element, which does not appear to be accounted for in this video.  One person even claimed it dated back to August of 2009, close to a year before Wings of Liberty was released, which if true, would be a strong argument in favor of it being an abandoned ending for the first game.

I did post some video here a few months back from Blizzcon 2010.  There's a piece of production art depicting Kerrigan as a human (wearing Ghost armor no less) summoning an Ultralisk with what looks like a swarm of Zerglings underneath it.  If I remember right, Ultralisks are fairly high on the tech tree, so she'd be well on her way to regaining control of the Swarm if she was able to control them.  And she isn't a bug again, at least superficially.

Another Blizzard leak seems to indicate Heart of the Swarm's release date will be during the "holiday" period (I'm assuming Christmas-ish) in 2011, which makes commercial sense.  I guess we'll have to wait until then to find out.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Chat With a Fossil Salesman

I went to the The North Atlanta Gem, Mineral, Fossil, & Jewelry Show held at the North Atlanta Trade Center in Norcross this afternoon.  I'd hadn't been to any show/exhibition of this nature since the Scout Shows I'd go to at I think the Georgia World Congress Center when I was a wee lad.

It was really interesting.  I wasn't really interested in all the jewelry available, since that seems like the kind of gift one gets a girlfriend and I'm single right now.  I focused most of my attention on the fossils that were available for sale.

Alan Stout, who has a Web site selling fossils, was a particularly social dealer, so I decided to interview him.  He apparently is really well-known for triceratops horns--he's sold around ten this year.  He had one for sale for $3999, although I think he was willing to go as low as $3700-ish.  He said although a lot of people came to look at his wares, there were relatively few buyers.  Due to the poor cost/benefit ratio, he said he probably won't do any more shows like this one.

He did have a lot of really interesting stuff available, including an actual wooly mammoth tusk for $4500.

"It's a perfect piece, all solid ivory," he said.  "It's really nice.  It even has the normal wooly mammoth shape."

(Not quite sure what that means, but I think he said it was curved.)

The tusk was originally from Siberia, where it had been dug out from under the permafrost.

He also had the toe of a camarasaurus, a Jurassic-era sauropod.  He found the toe himself.  He said he could distinguish fossils from ordinary rocks because they're typically lighter (although they're heavier the more mineralized they are) and rocks tend to be more rounded.  He gets most of his dinosaur bones by traveling out west and buying from fossil hunters.

He also had a whole Keichousaurus hui, an extinct aquatic reptile from Central Asia.  That one was $299, a dollar cheaper than the other keichousaurs on display at the show.  He said he had a friend in Washington State who imported them, so he didn't have to travel to Asia to get them.

"He gets them legally because he's a government official," Stout said.  "He sells them out of China."

Stout said that 70 percent of his business is done abroad, with 30 percent done in the United States.

I didn't buy anything from Stout because however interesting and unique his wares were, they were very expensive, even the little fossils like the ammonities and trilobites.  I did ask him if he had any display cases I could buy--I've got a lot of small fossils in an old I Spy box at home and they should probably be displayed.  He didn't have any with him, but I could find some on his Web site.

I think once I have some free time, I'll go to and buy a display case.  That's Stout's Web site, by the way.

I did buy a pair of ammonite fossils on a stand from another vendor.  I think I'll set them up on top of my bookshelf and when I get the display case, set the other fossils up there too.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

News Article Round-Up, Including a Possible Ban on Bake Sales

I had some links I wanted to blog on individually, but I was busy with my book and other tasks and they started piling up.  I'll just do them all at once...

Seriously, Mrs. Obama?  Banning (or at least highly regulating) bake sales?

I can understand your concerns about the health of children and the awful overweight/obesity statistics in the United States.

However, this is a bad idea for several reasons.  For starters, unless you make following these rules a condition of receiving federal money, imposing them on state and local schools is unconstitutional.  Education is a state and local prerogative, not a federal one.  Even if it is a good idea, it is being done in the completely wrong manner.

Furthermore, this could do serious harm to organizations like bands, academic teams, etc. that depend on raising money from the local public to supplement funds from the school, if indeed they get any.  I was a member of my high school's Academic Bowl team and I remember we sold Chick-fil-A chicken biscuits to raise money to go on trips.  I'm pretty sure those didn't meet standards about portion size or what have you.

My life would be a lot poorer if I hadn't been able to go to the tournaments in Chicago, St. Louis, Myrtle Beach, etc.  Those were fun and highly educational.

I hope if Obama signs the measure, someone challenges the constitutionality of it in the Supreme Court.

Joe Scarborough warns the Republican Party about how Sarah Palin would not be good for them.

I share his concerns.  Something I'm afraid of is that Sarah Palin wins the primaries due to her strength in the Republican Party base and then is destroyed in 2012 by Barack Obama.  I can imagine her winning the South and Midwest, but if Republicans win only that, they lose the election.  See 2008, for starters, along with Clinton's electoral wins in the 1990s.

And that assumes the South and Midwest vote for her because she's a Republican.  If something like the Katie Couric interview happens and less-"hard core" Republicans decide Obama is the lesser evil, it could be even worse.  It'd be 1964 all over again.

And I'm saying this as someone who will defend Palin against some of her detractors, like Andrew Sullivan's baby conspiracy theories or the people on DemocraticUnderground who call her a quitter, even though she resigned as governor because her enemies kept filing lawsuits against her that had to be fought with taxpayer money.

(She fell on her sword to protect the state budget.  The lefties are condemning her for her response to something THEY did.)

Note I did say some of her detractors.  She attacked Ronald Reagan (or at least came off as doing so--I haven't seen the context of her remarks), and that's just not cool.  Given the esteem Reagan is held in the Republican Party, this might be enough to ruin her chances of getting the nomination.

Let's hope Palin's reality-TV show is tremendously successful and it keeps her and hers busy for a long time to come.  :)

Doctor Who Meets the Draka, With a Helping of Lovecraft

The author of the Draka/Stargate crossover fan-fiction I've been reading posts his stories in several forums beyond my main alternate history one, and I visit those when he posts updates to see what other people think or if he's dropped any hints about what the world is like beyond what we see in the text.

(Among other things, I learned that the serf concubine belonging to the alternate timeline's Bill Gates, to whom the Draka gave Citizenship for his technical skills, is actually spying on him for the Security Directorate.)

I went to one of the sites yesterday and found another thread about what would happen if the Doctor (of Doctor Who), the time-traveling Sufficiently Advanced Alien from British television, were to arrive in the Drakaverse during the Eurasian War (WWII).  During the thread, someone suggested different scenarios be written in the style of different writers.

Probably the coolest response to this was done in the style of H.P. Lovecraft.  Here goes:

"While like a man he was not one for his appearance contained too much of a mollusk, most especially in the eyes. They gazed out with nebulous intellect that peered into the unwelcome angles. His voice was clear, but its accent was of no mortal nation. North he said he came from. But north of where. More northerly than all the others as he walked out from his abomination of transport, that degradation of the divine that was and was not, that contained and contained not, and stood fixed amongst all of five plus five plus one dimensions.

He came upon their primitive unknowing world with alien judgments brought forth from blasphemous conclusions of the most profane logic. To him all men, negro or woman were equal, and should be made equal. For what are the differences of one bacterium to another from the perspective of the keen researcher gazing down upon them through warped lenses of worked glass, examined and dissected by their terrible minds before and without a single incision so great is the work of their taxidermist art.

Their armies made claim to all creation, but they did not yet know of the terrible forces out of time and space who had once ruled over all known spaces. He came, tall and gaunt as no man should be, dressed like one escaped from an asylum, to enforce the will of their absent gods. For he was the most honored of Yog-Sothoth, the lonely god, the Oncoming Storm."

You'll need to know about Doctor Who in order to get some of the references, like "lonely god," the crazy clothes, and "Oncoming Storm."  If you know the inside jokes, it's awesome.

Here's the thread from whence it came, which includes some darker permutations like Draka armies being trapped in inescapable spheres where they suffocate or starve to death.
For those of you needing background, here is the word of the Most Sacred Wikipedia:
I found the portrayal of the Doctor as an Eldritch Abomination in the style of Lovecraft's horrors particularly interesting, since although he looks and acts like a human being, he's an unbelievably ancient extraterrestrial.  Although he's pleasant most of the time, he sometimes gets VERY nasty.

(Inflicting eternal punishments on a group of lesser aliens who sought to steal his immortality, killing an alien leader in a duel for Earth and then ruining the political career of a human leader who ordered the retreating alien ship destroyed, etc.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Philosophical Objection to "Karmic Deaths"

Some background...

On the Harry Potter site FictionAlley, there was a topic entitled "Who Should Have Killed Bellatrix" discussing whether or not it was realistic or appropriate for Molly Weasley to have taken down Voldemort's chief lieutenant, the wicked Bellatrix Lestrange.

I said my preferred choice was that Lupin and Tonks take her out together, since she had vowed to "prune" the Black family tree after learning Tonks (her niece) had married Lupin (a werewolf).  Having them prune her instead would have been entirely fitting, not only due to her stated homicidal intentions but because the two of them represent anti-racism and individualism (Tonks' mother was cast out of the family for marrying a Muggleborn; Lupin is unjustly despised for his condition but unlike most people, Tonks did not care), as opposed to Bellatrix's Pureblood-supremacism and tribalism.

However, when we last heard from Lupin before he was killed, he was dueling the Death Eater Antonin Dolohov, and Rowling later said Dolohov killed Lupin and Bellatrix killed Tonks.  I said that if Harry, Ron, and Hermione had killed Dolohov soon after the Weasley wedding and the Death Eater takeover of the Ministry, when they had him at their mercy but chose instead to erase his memory of having seen them, Lupin could have survived ands my scenario of the two of them destroying Bellatrix could come to pass.

(In the movie, Ron wants to kill Dolohov, but Harry says if they kill him, the Death Eaters will know the Trio had been there.  I don't recall what happened in the books.)

Somone on the board said they didn't think the depiction of a group of 17-year-olds killing someone was a good message.  I said that having the heroes be too holy to finish a dangerous character (who will later go on to wreak more havoc) and then have the villain conveniently destroy themselves (as ultimately happened to Voldemort, something another board member said was deliberate on Rowling's part) so the heroes remain "pure" rather than continuing rampaging around actually teaches a bad moral message.

Here's what I posted, cleaned up a bit:

About "seventeen year olds not killing" being a bad moral message, it (and Karmic Deaths in general) teach that:

1. You Can Win a War With Clean Hands-No, you can't. There are lesser evils--nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the lesser evil than a land invasion or blockading Japan until most of the population starved to death--but victory often requires doing distasteful but necessary things.

In Oklahoma!, the villainous Jud Frye conveniently falls on his own knife so Curley and Laurie can ride happily into the sunset with "clean" hands and yet not have to worry about Jud taking revenge at some future date (as he very well might--earlier in the play he semi-confesses to having killed a woman and her family because she favored another man over him).  In real life, this does not happen, or at least not very often.

2. Good Always Wins-Not in this life it doesn't.  How many times have good people/nations been crushed by the bad ones? The Czechs lost their freedom in 1938, got it back briefly in the aftermath of WWII (before a Soviet-sponsored coup), and then lost it again until 1989.  The Poles lost their freedom in 1939 (earlier if you count the fact they were under a domestic military regime that participated in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia), suffered the loss of (I think) one-third of their population to the Nazis, and spent 40+ years under Soviet domination.  On a personal level, 25 percent of all murders go unsolved and truly massive numbers of rapes go unreported.

3. Someone Else Will Take Responsibility-One TVTropes entry is entitled Big Damn Villains and describes how the villains will often do something evil but necessary so the hero can remain "pure." This isn't realistic either.  Sometimes, there is nobody else to take responsibility, nobody else to do the necessary thing. 

Sufficient to say, in my fiction, there won't be "Karmic Deaths."  I am not willing to sacrifice realism to paint a false picture of evil being something easy to defeat.

Now for the record, although I have never been to war and it's been a long time since I've been in a fight, I'm not some armchair warlord ignorant of how awful war, combat, etc are.  Most of my writing involves violence in some form or another--in order to write it realistically, I've had to do a lot of research and thus I know that war, violence, etc. are evil things that should be avoided if at all possible.  I depict war, but I depict it as something truly horrible rather than some unrealistic glorified situation.

Due to this ethic, in Fiction Alley's "Plot Bunny" (story idea) forum, I posted a suggested storyline where the three kids kill Dolohov because with the Ministry under Death Eater control, simply handing him over the proper authorities is no longer an option.  Due to their lack of the skill needed to cast the Killing Curse, they essentially batter him to death with Stunners, with Harry contributed Sectumsempra.  It is a horrific, brutal act that gives them all (especially Ron and Hermione, who unlike Harry haven't killed before) what knowledgeable readers would recognize as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, something those who have killed in war are often afflicted with.

(I think this would be entirely fitting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, given how dark the book is.)

In my planned Wastelands novels, protagonist Andrew Sutter will participate in large-scale battles and many individual combats and I will not invent unrealistic scenarios to have the Forces of Good win the day without blood on their hands.  However, I will most definitely show the psychological toll this takes on them.

For example, early in the story, Andrew hesitates to kill a fleeing officer of the Flesh-Eater Legion, an evil cult that is extorting tribute from his town, and said officer summons a Flesh-Eater army.  During the resulting fight, Andrew again hesitates and another character dies at the hands of a Flesh-Eater scout Andrew could have killed.

(Most people are hardwired to have trouble killing other humans, something that takes significant training to overcome.  Dave Grossman, who I think is a Vietnam veteran, wrote extensively about this in On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.)

As a result of the above situations (and the consequent obliteration of his hometown and the death or enslavement of most of the people he grew up with), Andrew suffers from horrific survivor's guilt and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and, because he has associated hestitation at violence with failing to stop evil men from killing people he cares about, he is much less inclined to be merciful. 

Externally, he will appear to be this apocalyptic bringer of destruction, but internally, we're talking a whole Santa-sack full of issues.  I hope will be able to write Andrew in a way that does my planned tormented gunslinger justice but at the same time doesn't turn into melodrama.

I wanted to post the links to the discussions and "plot bunny" I mentioned, but either FictionAlley or my Internet connection is acting up right now and I am having problems getting there.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

China May Be Inclined to Ditch North Korea, According to Wikileaks

A few days after I posted my theory about how China would benefit from allowing North Korea to collapse and the two Koreas to unite under Seoul, Wikileaks was so kind as to provide the world's media with an ungodly amount of secret diplomatic correspondence.  The documents show at least some elements of the Chinese government are thinking in the same way.

(In fact, the Chinese officials were willing to concede far more than I expected--they would tolerate U.S. troops in united Korea provided they stayed south of the 38th Parallel and wouldn't mind a "benign alliance" between the US and South Korea.)

Some members of my alternate-history forum think that the release of these cables will push the Chinese back toward supporting the North rather than cutting it loose for its bad behavior.  I hope that this is not the case.  Continuing to enable North Korea is making things worse for everybody (the Chinese government itself, the neighbors, and the millions suffering under Kim's odious rule) and provides a continued rationale for U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan, something the Chinese government I imagine doesn't like even if they are more tolerant of this than I expected.