Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Empire Rises Somewhat Differently, Or "The Skywalker Heresy"

My alternate-history message-board allows for alternate histories of fictional universes (known as "AU" in the fan-fic realm's parlance) in the "Alien Space Bats" section. Although that part of the site is restricted to members only, I've encouraged many writers of interesting scenarios to post them on (or other such sites like AO3) so I can share them with everybody.

So without further introduction, allow me to introduce "The Skywalker Heresy," a Star Wars AU story beginning soon after the Battle of Coruscant. Palpatine has already set in motion the final chain of events to make Anakin Skywalker his new Sith Apprentice, but even the best laid plans of mice and men can be set awry by the smallest things.

(Seriously, Anakin's canonical fall was a pretty tenuous, unlikely thing, although I've heard the animated Clone Wars series does a really good job setting up Anakin for this particular path to damnation. It'd be pretty easy for things to get...complicated.)

The author has posted the entirety of the first full story set in this alternate timeline on the message-board, but will be posting it on a chapter per day due to the need to scrub some coding. I won't go into a lot of detail about what happens in it to avoid spoiling some fun surprises, but some knowledge Clone Wars series would be helpful.

And he's promised there will be more stories. So keep those reviews coming!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Some Thoughts on MARTA, Infrastructure, and Keynesian Economics

I was perusing some articles from magazines published by a company I've been working for since midsummer and that got me thinking about transportation, Atlanta's mass-transit system MARTA, and related topics. Here goes...

MARTA has historically not functioned very well for a number of reasons, including a lack of support from the state, state meddling in how it spends its money, opposition to expanding it from its core territories (for various reasons--although a lot of opposition is driven by excessive fear of crime and even outright racism, there're better reasons like not wanting to pay extra taxes and the fact the train doesn't go to places like Turner Field), etc. However, under new management, it has undergone a major turnaround. The possibility of extending MARTA buses and even rail (although they really should stop being so vague about doing this "in the future") to Clayton County is on the table, while 2012's failed TSPLOST (which would have passed if it had been limited to a more truncated area instead of including counties like Cherokee) included proposals to extend MARTA rail to Emory and even up Ga. 400 into North Fulton or up I-75 into Cobb. As the Governing article notes, there's a lot more support for expanding MARTA due to people moving in-town, high gas prices, etc.

And now for the Keynesianism. This article here describes how in many places, growth and employment are low but so are borrowing costs. That would be a good time for infrastructure investment, since it would employ people and get them spending money ("priming the pump" if you will) and low interest rates mean that it's safer for a government to borrow money to fund the project. And given the dilapidated state of much of U.S. infrastructure (here's a specific example of where things can go very wrong), we wouldn't be talking about stupid make-work projects like paying people to dig holes and paying others to fill them, but stuff that is in legitimate government purview. Here's some evidence that this can kick in the "money multiplier" effect.

As far as Atlanta is concerned, Georgia recently had the highest unemployment rate in the nation, although things have gotten better now. MARTA has a bunch of projects under consideration already. I'm not a transit expert, but I can see some areas where expanding MARTA rail in-town and out-of-town would merit further investigation and, if built, would provide lots of construction/infrastructure-type jobs.

*Although the stereotype of MARTA opponents is white people from the northern suburbs, there was opposition to the TSPLOST based on how it wouldn't have extended heavy rail to Stonecrest Mall. Residents don't want to wait decades to get rail out the I-20 East corridor. This would be pretty pricey based on that article--according to these specifics here, it'd be 12 miles of heavy rail, some transit centers (presumably for buses), and a bunch of other stuff, at a cost of $2 billion. That's billion with a B. Still, if it would clear out the traffic in the area, it would reduce air pollution and improve quality of life for area residents on top of the obvious "reduce traffic" parts.

*The Clifton Corridor project would extend MARTA to Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control facility in Atlanta. This is the main reason I advocated in favor of the TSPLOST, since I've visited friends out there and the place is a traffic black hole at certain periods of the day. Someone I knew online opposed TSPLOST funding for the project by saying that Emory and the CDC should contribute and that's not a bad argument. I'm not sure about using light rail vs. heavy rail--a lot of the times light rail isn't separated from car traffic and if the trains get snarled among cars like a streetcar would, people won't use them.

*A direct rail connection to Atlantic Station would help remedy the "doesn't go anywhere" problem inside the Perimeter. I've seen movies like Ender's Game with friends from Alpharetta and it was easier to drive than take the train because then we'd have to use a shuttle bus to actually get to Atlantic Station. This would be even more convenient for people already in-town, since they wouldn't need to make the long trip down from North Springs into Atlanta proper. Thing is, with all the development already there, it would be more expensive to build a rail connection (even a cheaper light rail one) and according to the MARTA site, it's not that far of a walk.

*Assuming Clayton votes for MARTA this November, go to page 2-11 to see where rail stops can go. I used to live in the Lovejoy/Jonesboro area (back when I was a reporter for The Griffin Daily News) and I would have loved this for DragonCon and even for church (I go to a church in-town near a MARTA stop). Although rail wouldn't go as far south as Lovejoy (at first), it would have been much better to get on the train at the Jonesboro Justice Center than drive all the way up to Lakewood/Ft. McPherson.

*Extending MARTA rail to Turner Field (which would allow the buses used for the Braves shuttle to be deployed elsewhere) was on the initial TSPLOST project list, but was ultimately removed. The lack of transit options was one reason the Braves gave for leaving Atlanta, although the fact they're moving to Cobb (where the transit situation is even worse) makes them look dumb at best and dishonest at worst. Still, given the possible uses Turner Field could be put to--Mayor Kasim Reed wants a middle-class housing development and Georgia State University wants to transform it into a combination of sports, retail, and student housing--extending MARTA rail to the site anyway would be a good idea.

*As far as extending MARTA outside the Perimeter is concerned, back when I was a reporter in North Fulton I heard all about various proposals to extend MARTA into Alpharetta. That particular line would begin in the Perimeter area and extend all the way to Windward Parkway, with stops in Roswell along the way. That has faced some opposition from people who think it would "urbanize" Alpharetta (in context they're talking about dense development, not using "urban" as a synonym for "black"), but others have pointed out that there's a whole lot of office space in the area. If you work in the same office all day, you won't need a car like more mobile workers (such as journalists like me), so if a lot of office workers commute to Alpharetta from elsewhere, rail service might be a boon for them.

*If we go through with bringing the Braves Stadium to the Cumberland area (gag me with a spoon), it's going to create a traffic nightmare in the area. Extending MARTA up I-75 will connect the system to in-town fans and fans from the south who could take MARTA through Atlanta to Cobb, but one reason the Braves moved is because, based on ticket sales, they figured most of the fan base lived in the northern suburbs. However nice building a MARTA line connecting Cumberland to the rest of Atlanta would be in and of itself, it won't help "northern arc" people get there any faster and, as the following article points out, the politically-easiest route would also be quite expensive. Here's a transportation proposal that should make things easier and would create jobs to boot.

*This is an odd proposal that I'm not aware anybody has even studied, but some kind cross-Perimeter line connecting Doraville (Gold Line) to Dunwoody (Red Line) would be interesting. The distance is relatively short and it would allow much easier transit between the Red and Gold lines if somebody wants to go from the Northside to Lenox or Brookhaven rather than having to go all the way to Lindbergh Center and then change trains. If someone is heading up from downtown to the Northside and wants to detour to Lenox for whatever reason, they could keep going on the Gold Line and get back on the Red at Doraville.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"The Strain" Season Finale Review and Recap (Spoilers)

Just got done watching the season finale of The Strain. No more icky medical vampires until 2015. A pity.

This episode was quite a lot of fun. It starts out with elderly billionaire Palmer (who's looking surprisingly healthy) and his minion Fitzwilliam entering Setrakian's shop, where Palmer confiscates Setrakian's collection of vampire lore and even his late wife's infested heart. He meets Eichhorst there, overjoyed to think he's received the ultimate blessing of vampiric immortality and wondering when he's going to get a stinger--only to find out he hasn't. Being transformed into a thinking vampire like Eichhorst is not for him yet. Next we have a rather telling flashback in which Kelly gives Zack a birthday bike and films him riding it to send to Eph while he's at a CDC conference in Atlanta. Yep, we know who the good and involved parent actually was here. It turns out it was a dream and Zack is with the rest of them at another home Setrakian owns. They're plotting to go after the Master again and Eph and Setrakian get into a fight about just what to let him know. Then Eph and exterminator Vasiley Fet are off to do some reconnaissance.

Meanwhile, Palmer is not happy to know about Eph's broadcast, especially since the secretary of health and human services is considering shutting down Manhattan. He orders Fitzwilliam to bring around the car to take him and Eichhorst to see her, but Fitzwilliam refuses. Palmer gets rather PO'd at him and they fight. Fitzwilliam resigns from Palmer's employ, but refuses to kill him as a tribute to the help he'd provided him over the years. You know, honor is all good most of the time, but now it's not.

And Gus is captive of the mysterious vampire commando who hasn't been named yet, but I know who he is so I'll say it--Mr. Quinlan. Quinlan unties him and wants to show him something, parrying every attempt Gus makes to attack him.

Eph and Fet sneak into the theater that "Goth douche-bag" Gabriel Bolivar rented, since it's close to where they faced the Master the first time. They find the coffin being partially reassembled and bail when the vampires start sensing intruders. On the way out, Fet pops a manhole open to flood the sewers with sunlight and keep vampire reinforcements out.

Next we see Palmer and Eichhorst confronting the secretary of health and human services and Eph and Nora's boss Everett Barnes. Palmer tries to talk her out of canceling her planned quarantine and when that doesn't work, he throws her off a ledge. He and Eichhorst bully Barnes into agreeing to go along with their plan.

Eph and Fet return and we find Nora smoking and mourning her mother, whom she had to kill last week after vampire-Bolivar took a drink out of her. Eph initially quails at going after the Master again (he wants to protect Zack from vampirized Kelly), but Nora rants about people disappearing in Argentina and so Eph agrees to take Zack to war with them. Setrakian gives him his very own silver blade and he and Eph give him some pointers on how to use it.

And so they're off to fight the vampires. Oh boy, things are fun. Fet blows up a bunch of vampire reinforcements momentarily stalled by the open sewer with dynamite and then they're into the theater. They blow through the minion vampires until Eichhorst arrives, promising to drink Dutch first. She shoots him, but is only able to wound him. He and Fet go hand-to-hand while Dutch can't get a clear shot and Nora vents some of her rage into strigoi-slaying. Bolivar shows up and loses a big chunk of his stinger for his pains. Setrakian, Eph, and Zack ascend into the upper floors, where Eph kills a vampire that looks an awful lot like Kelly. There Setrakian and the Master face off, with Eph and Zack smashing windows to expose the Master to sunlight. The wounded Master knocks Setrakian aside and leaps through the window into the sun, where he starts to burn. The other vampires, including the wounded Eichhorst, retreat in a creepy reverse-VCR kind of way. Darn. Fet had pumped at least one silver nail into his face and Dutch had already hit him twice with silver bullets. The old Nazi was one or two more hits away from a long-delayed meeting with his Maker...

Finally, Setrakian and Eph have the Master at their mercy. Setrakian is all, "IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT IS HOLY!" and is going to deliver a silver shanking when the Master rolls over (using his cloak to protect himself from the sun) and flees down the side of the building. We can see his skeleton through burnt-away flesh, but he's not dead yet.

Damn it! Setrakian really should have learned not to Call His Attacks like that. If he hadn't had that dramatic pause and struck right then, he might've speared the bastard to the ground with the gigantic silver wolf-sword he carries and then Eph could have used his own weapon. They can gloat once they've taken off his limbs or transfixed him butterfly-style so he can't get away. He bugs off and Setrakian admits he doesn't know how to actually kill the Master. Umm...he was burning alive in the sunlight and bugged out rather than try to finish his decades-long enemy Setrakian and his new apprentice Eph. Sunlight isn't an instant-killer for any strigoi--they all saw the bunch in the sewer step into the sun, start smoking, and recoil--so why is it such a problem to think that a being that is around nine feet tall, weighs probably 400+ pounds, and covers most of his flesh in a big heavy cloak might take awhile to cook?

Afterward, Zack is having an asthma attack, so they detour by the Goodweather house to retrieve his inhaler and medication. Only it turns out he was faking the attack in order to retrieve a family photo album! That idiot kid. He and Eph talk about a particularly well-remembered birthday party (!) when a shadow with long hair falls. Zack immediately thinks it's Mom, whom Eph had repeatedly neglected to tell him has been turned. She calls for him and Zack nearly runs for her, but Eph shoots her in the shoulder and she retreats. She's going to be a problem later. Eph (a recovering alcoholic) for the first time takes a drink, as Nora pleads for him not to. Bad move, old bean.

Meanwhile, Gus manages to apparently escape from Quinlan and runs into an empty room. The lights go on and we see a bunch of emaciated naked creatures very similar to the Master (except not so huge). They're all asleep and Quinlan says he speaks for them in a well-delivered monologue about how these Ancients are creatures of great dignity, honor, etc. If they were to be woken up, they'd be hungry and Gus wouldn't like that. Quinlan offers "revenge and a rich payday" to Gus to be their daytime warrior against the Master and Gus accepts his role in the vampire turf war. Let the games begin.

The episode ends with our heroes heading out of the city toward Fet's place, with some fires burning amid the buildings. This was a good episode overall. I knew the Master would survive, but I was hoping Eichhorst would bite it. He so nearly did too! Oh well. Onto 2015...

Friday, October 3, 2014

Can Sean Bean Save Westeros? Let's Take a Look...

Found another A Song of Ice and Fire fan-fiction for your entertainment. It's entitled "Sean Bean Saves Westeros." The gist of it is that after Season One of the television series Game of Thrones wraps, Sean Bean (the actor who played Ned Stark) wakes up as Ned Stark in Westeros in the city of White Harbor in the North--soon after Ned Stark was executed. Now he has to pretend to be Ned Stark (resurrected by the Old Gods) to reunite the Realm in the face of the return of the Others and the coming Winter.

The writer seems to know Sean Bean's career and personal life very well and that's what makes the story at times really funny (an enthusiasm for soccer that leads to an amusing clash with Jaime Lannister) and other times somewhat poignant (he sings a rather sad Northern English song from our world and compares Ned's relationships with Catelyn to his own failed marriages and Ned's relationship to Arya to his relationship with his real-life daughters). The story is also setting up Renly Baratheon of all people as the Big Bad (at least before the Others show up), since between "Ned" with modern historical and military knowledge (Bean is depicted as knowing a fair bit about the historical Battle of Hastings) in command of the Northern host and Stannis's fleet, the Lannisters get neutralized pretty quickly but Renly still has his army of 100,000 heading (slowly) for King's Landing. And along the way, some of canon's villains get their just desserts.

So if you like fan fiction that's a little off the beaten path, you'll definitely like this one.