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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.

Halloween Soap

Changed my soap in the shower yesterday to this:

Pumpkin soap

I get my soap from Essence of O, when I see them at the many art fairs in the area during the summer.

Averted Cartastrophe

The worst part was the waiting, not knowing whether my car would still be drivable, or if it would need a new engine, and thus need to be replaced. Because I wasn’t going to throw a new engine into a 15-year-old Honda Civic that I’d been considering replacing anyway. But if it were toast then I’d need to find an alternative way to work for a few days until I could rent a car and start looking for a new car. Unless I just wanted to go buy another Civic to keep me going for a couple more years.

The cracked radiator is by far the worst problem I’ve had with this car. Next worst would in cost have to be replacing the struts, but they never went bad to the point of inconveniencing me. And after that is mundane things like a dead battery. That’s pretty good. Hondas are very reliable cars.

So I was on edge most of the day waiting for the dealer to get back to me as to whether the engine had been damaged due to running hot. The temperature gauge had been pegged in the red when we got back from San Francisco on Thursday, but it had only been five or six miles since we’d first smelled what we learned was coolant steaming from the crack. And then another two miles or so in the red driving it to the dealer – apparently low-50s morning temperatures aren’t cool enough to keep the engine cool.

Finally I called them, and the advisor got back to me that the leak test showed no problems with the engine. It seems my car is nigh-indestructible, and it should keep going for at least a while longer.

Which means I’m gonna have to get that oil change and new windshield wipers later this month after all.

I think its days are still numbered, but that number is not zero. Not yet.

Car

A Lot in a Day

Debbi and I took today off to go up to San Francisco to go to Cal Academy and a few other places. So here’s the obligatory panorama from the Academy’s living roof:

(click for larger image)

(click for larger image)

On the drive home, Debbi remarked that she smelled something like maple syrup. Then she smelled it again as we got close to home. I looked down and the temperature gauge for my car’s engine was pegged. Fortunately we were only blocks from home. I opened the hood and it looks like there is a leaky seal or hose, because steam was squirting out above what I think was the radiator. So, off to the shop it (hopefully) goes tomorrow.

Inside, I found that one of the cats had pooped on the carpet. Hopefully it’s just some transient diarrhea, but we’ll keep an eye on them.

Moreover, Debbi seems to be coming down with a bad cold and plans to stay home from work tomorrow. Hopefully it doesn’t find its way to me in the night – I do tend to get sick when the temperature changes for good in the spring and fall.

On the bright side, I think I’ve figured out how to fix our outdoor accent lights, which have been going on and off erratically at night. And we got to watch the Giants advance to the World Series.

So it should all work out. Worst case, if this is the end for my trusty car, it’s given me 15 years of mostly trouble-free service, which is about all one could really ask for.

Most Played Songs

The top 10 most played songs in my iTunes library, probably dating back 10 years or maybe more:

  1. “River Out of Eden” by Frameshift, from Unweaving the Rainbow (2003)
  2. “Mandelbrot World” by Jack Foster III, from Jazzraptor’s Secret (2008)
  3. “Journey’s End/The Traveller’s Lament” by Magenta, from Home (2006)
  4. “The Seventh House” by IQ, from The Seventh House (2000)
  5. “A Crack in the Ice/Pins and Needles/Double Vision” by Arena, from The Visitor (1998)
  6. “End on a High Note” by The Flower Kings, from Paradox Hotel (2006)
  7. “There Was a Time” by Spock’s Beard, from Octane (2005)
  8. “Squonk” by Genesis, from A Trick of the Tail (1976)
  9. “If The Sun” by Glass Hammer, from If (2010)
  10. “Believe/No Place For the Innocent”, by Pendragon, from Believe (2005)

This is a pretty representative list of my musical tastes over the last 10 years, largely neo-prog rock with a smattering of other proggy stuff as well. These ten are tracks which I am more inclined to just pick and listen to because I really, really like them.

This list would have looked very different in years past. In 1991 it would have been dominated by Jethro Tull and The Who, while in 1999 you probably would have seen Sonia Dada and Collective Soul. I (re-)discovered progressive rock in 2001, stopped listening to commercial radio, and prog has dominated the list every since.

Weird that Home is the only one of the ten albums not available on the iTunes Store – Magenta seems to have only a couple of albums available there, and not their best ones.

At Long Last, A Baseball Game

Last night I went to a baseball game in person for the first time in several years. Honestly my baseball fandom has flagged in recent years, but I followed it closely for almost 20 years so I don’t feel too badly about it.

Ticket

I’d actually been invited as part of a group to a luxury box at AT&T Park. I’d been to a Giants luxury box once before, and it’s very nice, but when I got there it wasn’t what I expected: Rather than one of the paneled boxes in the second deck, the “Corona Beach Club” appears to be where the news photographers used to set, so it’s in front of the first row along the first base line, about 3 feet below field level. The view from the box looked like this:

(click for larger image)

(click for larger image)

The folks hosting the box sprung for a fair amount of catered food, for instance this:

The food spread

It was all quite yummy. Well, the sausages were standard ballpark sausages with moist buns, so that wasn’t great, but I mostly stuck to the soft tacos.

It was a pretty exciting game. Admittedly, with only 4 games left the Giants weren’t playing for much, as all that was left to decide was whether they’d be hosting their wild card game or not, and they’d clinched their wild card spot earlier that day when the Brewers lost. Still, the Giants jumped out to a 6-0 lead, then watched it collapse in the 7th inning, backed by a grand slam, and then they retook the lead in the bottom of the 7th, helped in part by a successful suicide squeeze (I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in person before), and eventually won the game 9-8. It took three and a half hours – I think a third of it making up that seventh inning.

Looking towards home plate

The team was also celebrating the 60th anniversary of “The Catch” by Willie Mays (which actually happened on September 29, but there are no games scheduled for that day this year), and Mays (who is 83 years old) came out in a very spiffy car, and was driven around the field occasionally throwing baseballs into the crowd. I snapped a couple of good pictures of him, the second one being just as he tossed a ball into our box (no, I didn’t catch it):

Willie Mays in his car

Willie Mays tossing a baseball

Occasionally Major League Baseball is a little too wrapped up in celebrating itself, but it’s hard not to appreciate when a team does something like this for one of its greats.

The weather was great, the game was fun, I got some good pictures, and even enjoyed riding CalTrain to and from the park (and the walk home from the station at a little after midnight was kind of pleasant, too). I’m gonna have to go see another game or two next year.

Celebration of winning a playoff berth