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Quiet Birthday Weekend

I took last Friday off for my birthday, and decided to do… nothing. The last few months have been stressful, so I really wanted to spend a day just hanging around at home not worrying about things I needed to do.

So I got up, got sausage biscuits from McDonald’s for breakfast, then did my one chore for the day, which was getting my hair cut. I went downtown to get a falafel sandwich for lunch, and otherwise I spent the day sitting in our library reading graphic novels. Other than a blip in some e-mails that I had to handle, it went pretty much as I hoped. In the evening Debbi took me out for dinner to Sundance the Steakhouse, as I was craving their prime rib and of course their mixed drinks.

Saturday was busier, as we ran errands all over town, from Costco to OSH to Bed Bath and Beyond. And then at PetSmart we found a new cat tree to replace our ten-year-old one which has been just about shredded on top. Amazingly we were able to get it into my car and get it home, too! The cats seem to have all accepted it, even Roulette, who has been snoozing at the top of it on a regular basis, after having mostly avoided the old tree since we got the kittens.

Sunday went back to being a lazy day, as we watched the two football conference championship games. It was pretty sad to see the Seahawks win, meaning we’ll have one more week of The Worst Fans in Football, but watching the Patriots stomp the Colts was fun. (I actually like the Colts, but they’re not there yet.) Since then we’ve had “deflate-gate” over allegations of the Patriots deflating the ball when they were on offense. This left me agog that teams apparently provide their own balls when they’re on offense in an NFL game. Haven’t all sports leagues learned from baseball’s steroid controversy that any aspect of the game which isn’t closely overseen by the league will be exploited? How in the world could the league have not realized sometime in the last ten years that this was a bad idea?

Well, regardless of whether or not the Patriots cheated, hopefully the NFL will learn from this. The last couple of years have shown that they have a lot of learning to do.

Anyway.

Sunday evening we went to meet our friend Paul for drinks. After a brief bit of confusion over where we were meeting, we had a nice couple of hours with him and a friend of his at Shiva’s. A pleasant wrap-up to the weekend.

Once again, it’s hard to believe another year has passed. It feels like I’m in that stage of my life where the days, the weeks, the years are starting to fly by. That’s a little scary, if I think too much about it. On the other hand, I think back to where I was 20 years ago, how much has happened since then, and think that 20 years from now I might be nearing retirement, but by today’s standards I won’t really be old.

So, it’s not time to worry about the passage of time yet.

Back to the Gym

I went back to the gym this morning for the first time since… well, since last March. That’s misleading, though, since I switch to biking to work in April once Daylight Savings Time starts (so I’m not biking home in the evening in the dark). But other than walking and doing some push-ups in the morning, I haven’t gotten a lot of exercise since the end of October.

I’ve been spending a lot of my mornings before work making phone calls for my mom’s affairs, being stressed out about making those phone calls, or taking care of stuff around the house. (Home ownership! Never lack for things to do again!)

Anyway, the gym went fine. On the elliptical machine I started reading Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible, whose upside I figure is entertaining-but-lightweight. The place was pretty busy but not too bad.

Maybe I’ll go again next week.

End of the Holidays

The end of the holiday season for us comes when we take our Christmas lights down, which we did this weekend. We put them up the weekend after Thanksgiving, so they’ve been up for six weeks, which has to be a record for us.

We have two artificial trees, a big one which goes in the living room so it can be seen from the street, and a smaller one in our family room so we can enjoy the lights while watching television. (It is still a little weird to me that our TV is not in fact in our living room. Almost as weird as the fact that we own three couches, even if one of them is in bad need of replacement.) Then we put up lights around the first floor of the house outside. I added a few more this year, and by my count we had 23 strands of lights up. I think almost all of them are low-power LED lights now, except for maybe a yellow strand and a white one which contains some blinking lights. I actually prefer the rich color of LED lights to incandescent ones, so it’s a win all around as far as I’m concerned.

The holidays were somewhat bittersweet this year: My mom is having some issues, which both my sister and I have been dealing with (her more than me, as she made two trips up on the last two weeks to see her; my role has been in making a lot of phone calls). And Debbi got sick the week of Christmas and has continued to be sick through this weekend. She went to the doctor on Friday and got some antibiotics, which seem to be working already. I thought she’d just had the nasty cold that’s been going around (which I had over Thanksgiving), but apparently hers was worse than that. Hopefully she’ll be better soon.

We still got out to see Christmas lights the week leading up to Christmas, though. We have a lot of nice ones in our area to go view.

We also had a good holiday break, as much as possible with Debbi not feeling great. We got out to the coast and walked the new Devil’s Slide coastal trail, which is about as much fun to walk as the old highway along the cliffs was to drive. We also got together with some neighbors for drinks, and got up to Cal Academy for a day with our friends Chad & Camille and their kids. (Doing the museum with kids is quite different from doing it without kids!)

But this weekend we took down the lights and put everything back in the shed for another year. It’s a bit sad each year when we do it, but it’s nice to reclaim the space from the trees and have the house get back to normal. And, as they say, it’s the fact that it only comes around once a year that makes it special.

Christmas lights

Doctor Who, Season Eight

Welcome to my review of the worst season of Doctor Who since the Colin Baker era. Yes, even worse than last season, which did not have a lot to recommend it.

As usual, I’ll start with my ranking of episodes, from best to worst:

  1. Deep Breath (written by Steven Moffat)
  2. Mummy on the Orient Express (Jamie Mathieson)
  3. Robots of Sherwood (Mark Gatiss)
  4. Last Christmas (Steven Moffat)
  5. Dark Water/Death in Heaven (Steven Moffat)
  6. Time Heist (Stephen Thompson & Steven Moffat)
  7. Listen (Steven Moffat)
  8. Flatline (Jamie Mathieson)
  9. The Caretaker (Gareth Roberts & Steven Moffat)
  10. Into the Dalek (Phil Ford & Steven Moffat)
  11. In the Forest of the Night (Frank Cottrell Boyce)
  12. Kill the Moon (Peter Harness)

Let’s sum it up this way: I own every season of the new series on DVD – but I don’t plan to buy this one. Frankly there is not a single episode I particularly want to see a second time. The best of the season, “Deep Breath”, is barely more than a run-of-the-mill suspense yarn. And it gets worse from there.

Also as usual, my reviews contain plenty of spoilers, and so I’ll continue after the jump…

Read on, Macduff! »

Webcomics I Read (2014 Edition)

Every year I think, “I didn’t really start reading a lot of webcomics this year”, and every year I’m surprised by how many I did start reading. This year is no exception, and includes one of the comics I’ve had the most fun catching up on from the beginning (The Bright Side), and one which I most look forward to reading new installments every day (Demon), and a whole bunch of others besides. I also recommend Alice Grove, The Specialists, and Sufficiently Remarkable.

As usual I’m just going to write a short piece for each one, and encourage you to check out the strips themselves if they sound interesting.

Entries for past years can be found here: 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013.

  • Alice and the Nightmare, by Michelle Krivanek: Alice in Wonderland-inspired fantasy about a woman named Alice living in a stratified society and not being comfortable with the callous attitude her peers display towards lower class citizens. Only one or two chapters have been published before it went on hiatus in August, and it’s not yet clear to me what the “nightmare” is. Might appeal to fans of Ava’s Demon or Blindsprings.
  • Alice Grove, by Jeph Jacques: Known for Questionable Content, one of the most popular webcomics around, Jeph Jacques launched Alice Grove this fall. It’s a long-form science fiction piece in which an alien falls to Earth in, well, a grove tended by a woman named Alice. Alice seems to be the protector of a local town, and recently took down a visitor sporting some serious nanotech. That’s all the know so far. The strip pushes Jacques’ art skills farther than QC generally does (which I bet is part of the reason he started it) and they’re taking a little while to catch up. On the bright side it features some of his whimsical humor. Overall I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes next year.
  • Bird Boy, by Annie Szabla: Fantasy story about a 10-year-old boy who strays from his tribe and gets caught up in the goings-on of powerful beings who do not have the best interest of humans at heart. The story follows our hero on his mostly-solitary adventures which sometimes threaten to overwhelm him not just physically but emotionally. Szabla knocks the art out of the park, though the story is not bowling me over so far. I’m still in wait-and-see mode with this one.
  • Boulet: Boulet is a french cartoonist, and he publishes here strips of greatly varying length. I discovered him because his strip “Kingdoms Lost” got spotlighted, and it’s a terrific story of a warrior and princess who get ousted from their universe and have different outlooks on going back. More cynically there’s “Jurassic Park: Realistic Version”. A new Boulet page usually requires a little time commitment to read, and not every strip grabs me, but it’s good stuff overall.
  • The Bright Side, by Amber Francis: I devoured the extensive archives of this strip in less than a week – it’s really, really good. Emily is a girl who saw the personification of Death when her mother died when she was young. She met him again as a high schooler, and they became friends. He’s immortal and can travel through time (he kinda has to in order to do his job of reaping everyone who dies), but he’s a nice guy despite his unique vantage point, even a bit naive since he hasn’t had the human life experience himself. The strip is mostly about them discussing the nature of life and existence, which might sound tedious but once the strip found its legs it actually stays quite interesting. Also thoughtful, touching, and funny.

    Time is slowly passing in the strip (maybe a year or two since it started?), so there is gradual progress. For example, Em recently learned the truth about her father, and has gone to visit him and his family. I don’t know whether Francis has an ultimate direction or goal for the strip (there have been a few hints that she does, but they’re ambiguous enough that it needn’t play out that way). I kind of hope she does, but it doesn’t need to come any time soon.

    The art starts out rough and gradually tightens up, though the style stays sketchy. It’s very expressive, though, which is necessary since there are a lot of subtle things that happen along the way, so the range of facial expressions is invaluable.

    Highly recommended. Honestly given its extensive archive I can’t believe I haven’t heard of it before this year.

  • Cardboard Crack, by Magic Addict: Gag-a-day strips for people who play Magic: The Gathering, and probably of limited interest to anyone else. The art is very simplistic, somewhere south of xkcd quality, but the artist clearly understands Magic gamers and their foibles.
  • Demon, by Jason Shiga: Shiga is an independent comics artist who’s been around a while, but I discovered him through this strip (and then promptly bought most of his catalog at APE this fall). The protagonist, Jimmy, attempts suicide in a strip motel in the first chapter – and wakes up back in the same room. He repeats this several times before he learns what’s going on – and then things get really weird. The reveal at the end of the first chapter is awesome, and the story has had several twists and turns since then, and continues to get more involved and tense. Shiga also brings his trademark cool, analytical approach to explaining how things work in the story. Shiga’s art has a distinct, recognizable style, although his geometric-shape figures sometimes feel a little stiff, but they never really get in the way of telling the story. Demon pages go up 5 days a week and they’re usually one of my first reads each day.
  • Dicebox, by Jenn Manley Lee: A high-profile science fiction webcomic following the exploits of Molly and Griffen, friends and lovers travelling around known space and working various odd jobs. It’s strongly character-driven, mainly around Griffen’s idiosyncrasies and complicated back story. The art is complex and gorgeous, but I often feel like the story is not really for me: It feels like it’s a lot of running around and talking, but that the story is largely in the background and is progressing very slowly. I also feel that, despite all the talking, the characters are not very strong – Griffen is really the only one who seems distinct. There are some dryly entertaining moments, but it’s not one of my favorites.
  • Dorkly, by Andrew Bridgman and others: Geek humor, broadly told and hilariously illustrated. Dorkly is a geek clickbait site, but the comics are amusing.
  • Fowl Language Comics, by Brian Gordon: One- and two-panel observations of the world, full of sarcasm and smartassery. Be sure to read the bonus panel for each strip.
  • The Fox Sister, by Christina & Jayd Aït-Kaci: A modern urban fantasy story taking place in South Korea (well, actually it takes place in the 1960s, but that’s “modern” by fantasy standards). Yun Hee is a young woman whose older sister died years earlier. Alex, a visiting American, gets interested in her, and gets caught in a struggle involving an evil spirit and possession. Things moved right along for a while, but updates have been infrequent lately, making it harder to follow. It’s worth reading through the archives, though.
  • Happle Tea, by Scott Maynard: Gag-a-day strip focusing on making fun of (mainly) religion, though also pop culture and the supernatural. Oddly most of the jokes involve defunct religions (e.g., Greek or Norse mythology), which I think is less satisfying than skewering contemporary religion. It doesn’t really have an ongoing narrative so you can jump in anywhere. Good art, though the jokes are usually verbal rather than visual.
  • LeveL, by Nate Swinehart: This one baffles me a bit. Science fiction in a multi-sectored metropolis, in which a young man named Cael was involved in some sort of disaster, and lives under house arrest for three years thereafter. We also see what happens when a sector gets closed down. But it feels like this is all the very early stages of a much longer story, and it’s not at all clear where it’s going.
  • Lovecraft is Missing, by Larry Latham: A long-form horror strip which has been running for several years: In the 1920s, the writer H.P. Lovecraft disappears, and some friends and acquaintances investigate what happened, naturally finding that many things he wrote about are real. The story plods at times (much like Lovecraft’s own work), but it’s pretty good. The real downside is that writer/artist Latham was diagnosed with cancer, had to stop drawing, hired a new artist – and then passed away this fall. So it’s not clear whether the strip will get finished.
  • M.F.K., by Nilah: Abbie, a teen girl carrying her mother’s ashes, ends up in a desert village. She also reveals herself to be a telekinetic – unregistered – when a band other other such folks wanders in to terrorize the town. There’s some good stuff here – the art, for instance, and the showdown between Abbie and the others – though the story is on the slow side. No, I haven’t yet figured out what “M.F.K.” stands for.
  • Monster Soup, by Julie Devin: I can’t really summarize it better than the artist does on the site: “A zombie, witch, ghost, werewolf, and a vampire are sentenced to live in a castle. Unbeknownst to them, they all share the same incompetent lawyer and judge who seemed intent on sending them to the same castle.” The five convicts don’t always get along very well, and the castle has secrets which are dangerous even to them. Art is decent, seems influenced by a mix of manga and video games, neither of which has any special appeal to me. It’s been on hiatus since September.
  • Next Town Over, by Erin Mehlos: A fantasy western in which shadowy bounty hunter, Vane Black, chases an unscrupulous rogue, John Henry Hunter, through a variety of small towns, the pair wreaking havoc along the way. Neither of the characters is particularly admirable or relatable, and the stories are little more than a series of set-pieces or mayhem and escapades. The art is very good, but after 7 chapters it feels like there’s not really a lot to bite into here.
  • Opportunities, by ML Snook & Katie DeGelder: This is a comic I feel I should like a lot more than I do, inasmuch as it’s pretty serious SF stuff involving aliens and humans interacting in the present day in a single spaceport, where a murder occurs. The art is not very sophisticated, but it’s good enough, especially in rendering the backdrop of the grand hotel where events take place. But the cast is sizable, not especially developed, and the story seems to mainly just be characters running around with few notable developments. So I’ve found it hard to get invested in what’s going on, though of course it’s always possible that I haven’t paid close enough attention.
  • Scandinavia and the World, by Humon: Humorous strip featuring personifications of various nations (the Scandinavian ones, of course, and some others) and the way they view each others’ peculiarities. The art is on the adorable side, which is a funny contrast to some of the subject matter.
  • Sfeer Theory, by Alex Singer & Jayd Aït-Kaci: Fantasy-adventure in a world resembling, perhaps, 18th or early 19th century Europe in which those who master Sfeer Theory can control physical objects. Valentino is a young man with an unusual mastery of these skills, but who has low social status. Also, his kingdom of Warassa is wrapping up a war with a neighbor. Lots of interesting stuff here, but seems to update irregularly. Also, it doesn’t have an RSS feed, which makes it very difficult to keep up with.
  • The Specialists, by Al Fukalek & Shawn Gustafson: It’s World War II and the Nazis have developed superhumans. The Americans are trying to do the same, but it’s not going very well. The Specialists are the team of superhumans they have so far, and most of the government regards them as something of a joke. The premise is similar to Kieron Gillen’s comic book Über, but it’s less grim and desperate, with a little more humor. Fukalek’s art is a bit on the rough side, but it gets stronger as the story goes along. The story took a while to get going, but it’s paying off: The team is currently in the midst of their first battlefield test, which has brought several things to a head. Overall a strong strip.
  • Spindrift, by Elsa Kroese & Charlotte E. English: High fantasy with different species (some with wings, some with horns), class warfare, cross-species children, family responsibilities, and cultural burdens. Not exactly my sort of thing, and my interest has flagged since updates fell to once every three weeks. The art is attractive, though.
  • Stonebreaker, by Peter Wartman: I bought Wartman’s graphic novel Over the Wall some months ago (it’s also available online here), and Stonebreaker is billed as a sequel to it. A girl enters an ancient abandoned city searching for her brother and encounters the demons that live there. It’s still spinning up, it feels like. Nice black-and-white art, especially the details in the background.
  • Sufficiently Remarkable, by Maki Naro: Here’s a comic I enjoy more than I expected to: A couple of roommates, Riti and Meg, working through life in New York. Riti is a dreamer who’s constantly bogged down in the mundanity of every-day life, while Meg is a free spirit with little sense of responsibility. The writing could be tightened up a bit as sometimes the story feels a bit aimless, but some of the escapades are funny. The art reminds me a bit of that from Lilo and Stitch.
  • Supercakes, by Kat Layh: A series of vignettes about a pair of superhero girlfriends. Updates irregularly (last update was in August), but some fun character bits: A quiet morning, meeting family at the holidays, and a winter adventure against ice giants. Really strong artwork. Looking forward to more, when it arrives.
  • Trekker, by Ron Randall: Trekker was published as a series of comics back in the 80s, and a new chapter was printed recently in Dark Horse Presents. Ron Randall has all of that material available to read here, along with new chapters. Mercy St. Clair is a “Trekker”, essentially a bounty hunter working on future Earth to capture criminals the law can’t keep up with. Though she looks younger, there’s a developing thread of her being older and her body starting to break down on her, though she’s still one of the best in the business. More adventure than hard science fiction or noir, it’s a fun read for fans of that genre. Randall is also a terrific artist so the pages look great, and while Mercy is an attractive woman, there’s not a lot of cheesecake in the strip.
  • Unearth, by Mathew Van Dinter: Boy, I am not sure what to make of this strip. Steampunk fantasy in which – eventually – the characters will be burrowing into the Earth, I think, but so far it’s been an extensive set-up largely involving comedies of manners (especially poor manners). The artwork is very quirky, the poses having a weird mix of stiff and expressive. It seems like it has a lot of promise, but it’s taking a long time to get to it.
  • Utopia City, by Ron Gravelle: Aeons ago, space gods fought among themselves and eventually called a truce. Today, they empower proxies to fight their battles for them, but in Utopia City one man is working to defeat their minions and ultimately stop the gods themselves. A Kirby-esque pulp superhero yarn told in realistic black-and-white illustrations, it’s loud, hard-hitting, and not at all subtle, it frankly feels decidedly retro in the modern day. The art is good, if somewhat lacking in dynamism. The story hasn’t really grabbed me yet, as it’s light on characterization.
  • Witchy, by Ariel Ries: A fantasy ina kingdom of witches where the strength of your magic is determined by the length of your hair – but if it’s too long, you’re judged an enemy of the state are executed. Our heroine Nyneve had her father killed in that way when she was small, and now a teenager she hides the length of her hair to save herself from the same fate. But the day of being tested for entry into the Witch Guard is coming. The story is still in its prologue, building to its first major dramatic turning point, but it’s pretty good so far. The art is on the simple side – not many backgrounds, for instance – but it has some interesting character designs.

If there’s a common thread I notice when putting together these entries, it’s that long-form dramatic webcomics which don’t update regularly are hard to follow and hard to remember. This is compounded if the story doesn’t have memorable characters (either visually or in personality). Hell, it’s sometimes hard to remember what’s going on in Girl Genius, and it updates three times a week like clockwork. There are a lot of strips like that fighting to distinguish themselves from others, and it’s gotta be hard on the artist if they’ve been toiling away for a year or two and haven’t broken out.

Sometimes I wonder if some strips are too ambitious, so that a year or more of strips still feels like the story is in the prologue. Contrast with ongoing humor strips which often start with a small cast and build them out over time. I wonder whether dramatic strips might do better to take the same approach, especially if they update infrequently.

Still, it’s easy to say all that when you’re not doing your own strip, eh?

Ascension

I was kind of aware of the SyFy mini-series Ascension (no relation to the deck building card game of the same name) because they’d been running ads for it for a few weeks now (mainly promoting it as Tricia Helfer’s return to SF TV). Somehow I stumbled upon the timeline for the story and it got me much more interested.

The premise is that in 1963 the United States launched a generation starship to Proxima Centauri, with a planned mission length of 100 years, and that this was kept from the public. So the ship, the USS Ascension, developed its own society (with only 600 people), cut off from communication with Earth. The series starts in the present day, 51 years after launch, and begins with the first murder on the ship since it took off. The first episode (of three), in particular, focuses on the investigation of the murder, and various red herrings along the way.

The first episode also ends with a big plot twist, and it’s impossible to talk about the story in depth without spoiling it, so I’m going to continue this entry after the jump.

But if this sounds interesting, I suggest watching the first episode, which features some stellar set design and costuming, maybe the best I’ve ever seen in an SF television show. When you hit the twist, you’ll either be intrigued to watch more, or you’ll decide to stop there.

But now, on to the spoilers:

Read on, Macduff! »

Handling the Grandfather Paradox

Time travel stories are maybe my favorite type of science fiction story. However, as I get older I find that I have higher standards for what makes a good time travel story. I realized this after recently reading a the novel Man in the Empty Suit and seeing the film Looper, both of which I think are only so-so time travel stories for reasons I’ll discuss.

(Spoilers for both of those stories below.)

What I mean by “a time travel story” is a story where the use of time travel is integral to the plot and its development, it’s not simple an enabler for a basically different story.

For example, the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is not an instance of what I mean by “time travel story”. Time travel is an enabling plot device, but the story itself is a light comedy driven by a clash of cultures, and the time travel is just a means to get into that situation. Similarly, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine leaps into the far future, but again it’s just a means to get our hero to a far-off shore, the fact that time travel was used is mostly immaterial to the plot.

To me, a time travel story at least skirts, and realistically has to somehow grapple with, the Grandfather Paradox. Some sequence of events which threatens to break the protagonist’s timeline so that the story you’re reading can’t happen. Paradoxes and the avoidance thereof are part and parcel of the story.

What frustrates me about many time travel stories is that they play fast and loose with what happens when someone changes history, and don’t explain what their model of changing history involves.

For example, consider Looper (2012): I think this film runs into problems because it has some clever scenes it wanted to depict, but those scenes undercut the whole story.

The film takes place in 2044, where Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an executioner. Sometime in the future, time travel will be invented, and outlawed, and the mob will use it to send people back to 2044 to be executed. At some point the mob will send the loopers back to be killed by their younger selves, at which point their “loop has been closed” and they’ll be retired with a big payout, which they can enjoy until sometime 30 years hence when they’ll be picked up and sent back for execution. (There are some motivational problems with the story – why would the mob wipe out the loopers 30 years after they retired? – but I found them easy to forgive, and they’re not my concern here.)

The most chilling scene in the whole film is where Joe’s friend Seth (Paul Dano) fails to close his loop, and his future self (Frank Brennan) escapes. The present-day mob captures young Seth and carves a message into his arm to get to a certain address in 15 minutes, which his future self sees as history has been changed. The mob doesn’t want to just kill young Seth since that may change time more than it can handle, but instead they start mutilating him and cutting off his limbs, which his future self experiences as he travels to the site. When he arrives he is killed.

Young Seth is not killed, but he’s obviously maimed and crippled for life (his legs have been amputated, for example, and his nose cut off). It’s a very effective scene when it’s happening, but how can these changes have been significantly less serious than just killing him? Maybe Seth’s future life was largely irrelevant, but if so, why not just kill him? It’s not explained, so it makes the film feel sloppy at one of its best moments.

The crux of the film is that future Joe (Bruce Willis) comes back, and also escapes his execution. He has identified three children, one of whom will grow up to be “the Rainmaker”, the big boss of the mob in the future, and he wants to kill him before he grows up in order to prevent that from happening, and also save his wife from being killed when he is rounded up. He and young Joe have a showdown over the boy who is the future Rainmaker, and young Joe realizes that this very experience may be what turns the kid bad, so he commits suicide before old Joe can kill the kid’s adopted mother, causing old Joe to disappear.

This paradox basically rips the story apart, because it means that none of what happened after old Joe arrived could have happened, and yet it obviously had to happen. (Secondarily, the film fails to show that young Joe’s sacrifice actually prevented the Rainmaker from developing – the film is missing its denouement, which is critical to it being emotionally satisfying.) The story is fundamentally flawed because even by saying that time travel is subject to the many-worlds interpretation wouldn’t have fixed it, because then young Joe killing himself wouldn’t have caused old Joe to disappear, since old Joe came from a different branch of time. So the story ends up as something of a mess, pretending to use time travel in a serious manner but not treating it very seriously.

Man in the Empty Suit, by Sean Ferrell, has similar problems. It has a really neat premise (which is why I bought it): The protagonist invented a time travel device (the “raft”) when he was 19, and every year of his personal time he travels to New York exactly 100 years after his birth (i.e., to the 2070s) to have a party in an old hotel with all of the other birthday incarnations of himself. The main version of the character is 39, and he learns when he arrives that his age-40 version will be killed, and that all the older versions of himself have been covering this up, and expect him to solve the mystery and keep it from happening.

It’s a great idea, but it opens up several expectations which the book really has to meet to work:

  1. Who kills his 40-year-old self, and why?
  2. How can his future selves exist if age 40 was killed?
  3. How can he prevent his own death while still appearing to die?
  4. Why don’t his future selves know what happened and how to prevent it?

The book is filled with loops, in which the main character sees or learns about things which will happen in his future, and then duly makes sure they come to pass when the time comes. But it also has some flat-out paradoxes, the cardinal example being when one of his mid-30 selves breaks his nose, and one of his slightly-older selves changes things so it doesn’t happen. So some of his selves have a broken nose, and others don’t. Also, while there “should” be only about 50 of his selves around the party (since the oldest one we see is 70), there are many more, including many from before he invented the raft, and he has no memory of them having been there.

I think the book is trying to go for a many-worlds interpretation of events, but it’s messily handled since characters seem to have memories of events which never happened to them. And the book eventually fails to work out any of the goals I expected it to meet above. Okay, a many-worlds interpretation would address some of them (although we never learn who killed age 40 or why they did it). So the book ended up being a big disappointment because the messy time travel and lack of a structure for how it worked made everything else much less meaningful or sensical.

I think time travel stories appeal to me in part because getting the pieces to fit together is challenging, and figuring out how they fit is fun. So when a story doesn’t deal with the Grandfather Paradox appropriately – or at least tried to – I find it really frustrating. Dealing with it usually means taking one of the following approaches:

  • There are no paradoxes, because everything gets carefully worked out so that everything happens exactly as it always did, despite the presence of time travellers. This can be very difficult to do, but it’s really satisfying when it happens. The original series of John Byrne’s Next Men comic book did this really well. (The later series tore it all down and is therefore not nearly as interesting.)
  • The shadow history approach: There are no paradoxes, but it seemed like there might be because the characters had an incomplete understanding of what happened in the past. The story is often focused on illuminating those things. (Some stories use time travel to retcon something from an earlier story which didn’t make sense, which is a variant of this approach.)
  • Use the many-worlds interpretation. This is perfectly reasonable, but it also means you can’t have paradoxes: Changes to a character’s past don’t affect the character’s present, because they create a new timeline with a different instance of that character. This takes away the “character gets killed, his future self goes poof” effect that some writers like to use, as in Looper. But you can’t have it both ways. X-Men: Days of Future Past (both the original comic story and the film) use this approach. In the film, Logan goes back from the dystopian future to 1973, creates a new future timeline, and then returns to the present in that timeline. But there’s no evidence that anyone in the present remembers the other timeline, other than what Logan told them in 1973.

A good example of a film that handles the Grandfather Paradox well is the first Back to the Future, which works because it strongly suggests that the paradox could be created, but our hero prevails and manages to fix his timeline (even if some of the details get revised in the process). The first Terminator film takes a subtler approach where everything works out the way it was supposed to.

Looper would have had to sacrifice some of its cool scenes to satisfy me as a time travel story. But Man in the Empty Suit I think could have been pretty satisfying if it had stuck close to its original premise and not brought in all the paradoxes – or better, come up with a framework where the paradoxes either aren’t what they seem to be, or are explained due to events the hero wasn’t originally aware of. I kept hoping there was an explanation for how age 40 was killed, yet the character survived. But the writer wanted the story to go in a substantially different direction, which wasn’t the story I wanted to read, and wasn’t the story I felt I’d been promised by the premise.

Too bad, because it started off so cool.

Winter Coffee

Yesterday I received my big coffee order from Greenwell Farms on Hawaii. Great Kona coffee, and they have a free shipping deal on orders over $100 every year around this time (through December 11 if you’re interested).

I can recommend all three of the varieties below. They have dark roasts, too, but I’m not into dark roasts generally, so you’ll have to try them yourself. They’re also well worth visiting if you’re ever on the Big Island yourself.

Coffee from Greenwell Farms

I Do Not Recommend This Experience

I’ve been dark here for over a month. It’s been hard to get myself to finish writing this entry, but I’ve got to get through it to put it behind me and move on to other stuff.

In late October I flew back east to visit my parents, and my sister and nephew also drove up. We were all there to celebrate a milestone birthday for my mother. For a change, I had very little to do to manage her financial affair while I was there, so we were able to go out shopping and for some meals, all capped off by a family dinner at a nice restaurant on the evening of her birthday.

At the end of the weekend my sister and nephew left to drive home, and I took mom out to lunch. Then we decided to drive to another city to do some shopping and take a look at the colorful fall leaves on the trees, which I don’t often get to see.

And on our drive there we got into a serious traffic accident.

I’m not going to go into the details of the accident here, save to say that we collided with (I’m told) a Ford F-350 pickup truck. Given that, I think we’re lucky that we got out without broken bones or internal bleeding. I keep telling myself that it could have been much, much worse. My father’s car, nowhere near as big as a pickup truck, was totalled.

We spent the rest of that day in the emergency room getting checked out as both of us were sore. Then we took a cab back to return my mother to her apartment in her assisted living facility, and then I took a second cab back to my dad’s house, finally collapsing into bed close to midnight.

I was lucky to be able to find my iPhone immediately after the crash (it had been sitting in a cupholder giving directions), as it was essential to keeping my family up-to-date and to be able to make necessary calls while in the emergency room. I’m also pretty impressed that it came through the collision with only a small scratch to the case – no damage to the phone at all.

I had originally intended to fly home the next day, but instead I rescheduled my flight for the next weekend. The next few days were a whirlwind of talking to the insurance adjuster, renting a car, helping my father test and buy a new car, visiting my mother, filling out forms, and just generally being massively stressed out.

One bright spot of that week was going to dinner one night with my dad and a friend of his, whom I’m sure I’d met before, but probably twenty years or more ago. It was a nice, relaxing dinner with good conversation and good food, which was much better than getting dinner on my own while they went out together and being left to my own thoughts.

I had a couple of scrapes and nicks and some lower back soreness following the accident, but some extra-strength ibuprofen controlled the pain I felt from the very first dose, and I gradually weaned myself off of it over the next couple of weeks. Today, a month later, I’ve been pain free for a couple of weeks. My mother had a harder time bouncing back, although we eventually learned that she had some unrelated medical issues which were not being properly treated, so we may never know exactly what was happening.

I finally flew home on my rescheduled flight. In a classic “adding insult to injury” development, Debbi called me the day of my flight to tell me that our refrigerator had stopped working. Whee! For various reasons this took a lot longer to resolve than it should have, involving two different repair companies. But it is finally fixed, which makes us happy because it’s really exactly the refrigerator we want (other than that not-working problem). We can highly recommend Your Appliance Repair to any locals looking for similar service: Friendly people who explain what they’re doing.

Since then I have been extraordinarily busy at work, my sister and I have been doing a lot of stuff involving Mom’s health and affairs, and to top it all off I got sick last Monday, stayed home on Tuesday, felt better on Wednesday, and then felt a lot worse on Thursday, and it’s still lingering around today. Few things take the wind out of your sails like feeling like crap for the better part of a week.

So that’s been my month in a nutshell, including what is a contender for the worst week of my life in the wake of the accident. I’m sure there will be more to deal with in the future, but for now it feels like life is finally edging back towards normal.

Electric Razors

I’ve used an electric foil razor for shaving for most of my life. When I was a teenager I tried safety blade razors, but they were too abrasive on my skin, and I still cut myself frequently. My grandfather bought me a foil razor which lasted until I was in grad school, and worked well.

For most of the time since then I’ve bought foil shavers from Remington, but I’ve been increasingly unsatisfied with their products. Also, replacement parts were increasingly hard to find locally. A couple of months ago the razor – which I didn’t like as much as the one it replaced a few years ago – started failing, so I bought a new one, which I liked even less. I gave it a try for a month and a half, but it just wasn’t doing the job.

So I did some research online, and the consensus seems to be that the Braun Series 7 razors are the best you can get in the realm of foil razors. So I ordered a 7-720 and gave it a try over the weekend.

And holy cow does it work well. It’s quieter and much more effective than either of the Remingtons. I suspect replacement parts will be a bit pricier because the shaving cartridge is a single unit rather than separate blades and foil, but if it holds up in shaving quality then it will be well worth it.

I bet I’m soon going to wonder why I didn’t switch to Braun years ago. (The answer is that I was cheap and didn’t want to spent that much money on a razor. Being cheap is its own punishment.)

On the left, the Remington razor that died 2 months ago. In the middle, the Remington I replaced it with. On the right, the Braun razor I started using on Saturday.

On the left, the Remington razor that died 2 months ago.
In the middle, the Remington I replaced it with.
On the right, the Braun razor I started using on Saturday.