Quick-Slow-Slow Weekend

The weekend started with an ultimate frisbee tournament Saturday morning. It rained Friday night, so it wasn’t certain that the tournament would happen, but the rain ended by daybreak and the fields drained well, so the tourney started around 10 am.

Turnout was light, though, and we didn’t really have enough substitutes for me – with my crappy endurance – to stay fresh. My body started shutting down on me towards the end of the second game, which was a bummer, but that’s the way it goes. Our team didn’t put on a great showing, either, getting pretty well beaten in both games. Alas.

On the bright side, bagel halves with peanut butter are pretty yummy.

Debbi came out and watched me the whole time, even though it was chilly and windy and not very sunny. Nice of her!

We usually have to share a little space with hobbyists who come out to fly kites, and remote-control planes and gliders. The gliders are pretty neat, as their owners get them up pretty high with a single throw (they twirl around and throw them like a discus), and then get them to spiral around for a good long while before landing.

After all that running around, the rest of the weekend was pretty low-key. Saturday, in fact, we even took a nap for a couple of hours. I almost never take naps. I guess I feel like I’m wasting the day if I take a nap, and I should instead just stick it out and then go to bed early if I’m that tired. But I was pretty wiped out after the tournament. We spent the evening reading at the coffee shop, which was about all I had the energy to do, even after the nap!

Sunday was equally slow. We ran some errands on both days, and Sunday we basically sat around and watched football, petted the cats, and Debbi cooked dinner.

I tried to do some writing, but didn’t get as far as I’d hoped. I find it difficult to get into a groove, mainly getting stuck on figuring out the specifics of what’s happening in a certain scene. I know the story opens with someone getting killed in an accident, but how does everything line up to make it plausible? It’s not even one of those “things are not what they seem” scenes, it’s just what it appears to be. It’s just a few paragraphs, but it’s still tricky.

I’ll work on it some more tomorrow evening. I have another one to work on, too, so maybe when I get stuck on one I should switch to the other one.

Alastair Reynolds: Zima Blue and Other Stories

Review of Alastair Reynolds’ short story collection Zima Blue and Other Stories.

Reviewing short story collections is hard, even when it’s a collection by one of my favorite SF authors. Reynolds in fact has two collections out this fall, of which this is the first.

Reynolds’ forte is telling atmospheric stories – often with strong philosophical underpinnings – which nonetheless qualify as hard science fiction. His stories therefore are usually pretty heavy stuff, but no less enjoyable for that. He works the edge of the “posthuman” milieu which has become popular these days, although he often write straight-up space opera.

My favorite story? Maybe “Beyond the Aquila Rift”, which takes place in a universe with wormhole travel among stars which humanity has taken advantage of. The wormholes seem to end at the edge of the Aquila Rift, but of course the universe doesn’t end there, so eventually someone ends up going beyond it, by accident. This story I think perfectly encapsulates the sense of otherness which is often present in Reynolds’ stories, and the sense of loss that seems to come with being immersed in the other.

Reynolds tends to write a lot of far-future space opera, and two stories in here occur in the same such universe: In “Hideaway”, a small remnant of humanity is on the run from the cyborg creatures which have taken over the species. Their backs to the wall, they end up in an unusual star system which tantalizingly contains the seeds of escape. It’s followed up with “Merlin’s Gun”, concerning the hunt for a weapon which might be used to defeat the enemy. Both tales leave some story elements hanging – deliberately – but it’s the setting and characters and their approach to their dilemmas which is what drives the stories: How far will you go in the pursuit of your goals, and what are you willing to pay to achieve them?

Reynolds provides illuminating afterwords to each story, and he observes that the future of reporter Carrie Clay is perhaps a rather nice one to live in. In “The Real Story”, she interviews the men (?) who first stepped on Mars, decades after they accomplished the feat. It’s a neat little tale of ambiguity and – again – sacrifice and loss. In “Zima Blue” she interviews the foremost artist of her age, and learns something about art, humanity and memory. Reynolds turns the neat trick of taking what seems (to me) like a trite central idea and dressing it up into a rather elegant story.

The story that perhaps best shows Reynolds’ penchant for grandiloquent explorations of the nature of the universe is – naturally enough – “Understanding Space and Time”. It begins as a “last man standing” tale of loneliness verging on madness, and ends on a too-large-for-mere-words scale of understanding reality. Both parts of the story are interesting, although not fully successful, to my mind. It’s quite a page-turner, however.

Of course, not all the stories grabbed me – not unusual for a science fiction collection. I think sometimes the atmosphere overwhelms the story, or maybe is the whole point of the story, and the piece doesn’t come together for me. I think this was the case in both “Enola” and “Angels of Ashes”, for instance. On the other hand, “Signal to Noise” is a straightforward character yarn about (just barely) parallel worlds, but I found it rather routine. None of these were bad, but they were a few notches below the stories above.

The limited edition contains one more story written specially for this collection, which is pretty annoying since I don’t have the limited edition. Hopefully “Digital to Analogue” will be collected in another volume sometime.

Zima Blue is a better-than-average short story collection, and if you enjoy Reynolds or like dark space opera, then it should be right up your alley.

This Week’s Haul

Fables presents a scenario where the humans would totally conquer the homelands – if only they knew about them, which they would, if the Emperor decided to invade Earth. Pretty neat point-counterpoint stuff.

Eternals is Neil Gaiman’s latest project for Marvel, illustrated by John Romita Jr. It’s a pretty straightforward riff on some obscure Jack Kirby characters: Immortal godlike beings who were left on Earth by even more powerful beings to safeguard it for their return. The Dreaming Celestial is about to awaken, and that might mean Bad Things for Earth.

Rex Mundi takes place in an alternate France in 1933 where the Inquisition holds sway, Islamic nations control the Middle East and North Africa, and magic-using secret societies are real. Julien Sauniére is a doctor in Paris who gets mixed up in a conspiracy when a priest friend of his is killed. The story is on the slow side and the art is a little stiff (if nicely-rendered), but it’s not bad. Good enough for me to try the next volume.

The new volume of Luba continues the stories of Gilbert ‘Beto’ Hernandez’ heroine and her sisters and daughters. Beto’s work peaked in the middle of the first run of Love and Rockets, and has meandered too far into magical realism for my tastes. I do wish he’d tighten up his storytelling and focus on the characters more, in particular not wandering off into the earlier lives of the sisters. The series was more fun when it was more grounded in present-day concerns, with a more linear narrative.

(For those familiar with the series, no, I’m not really a fan of Jaime Hernandez’ work.)

Now What?

Everyone’s wondering (well, in the liberal American thoughtspace), “Now that the Democrats have control of both the House and the Senate, what do we do next?” Meaning, of course, what do the Congressional Democrats do with the big mess the Repugnicans have handed them?
And by “What next?”, I think people mean “What to do about Bush’s adventures in Iraq?”

The problem here, I think, is that the Democrats’ answer to this is: We wouldn’t have gone in there in the first place. Going into Iraq was a stupid move, made out of stupidity and greed and ignorance, and which has exposed the country to far more danger than Iraq ever posed before we went in there.

Which, unfortunately, doesn’t solve the problem, because we are there, and pulling out without first stabilizing the government is just going to leave Iraq to turn into a breeding ground for really serious problems, because the nation basically consists of (at least) three factions who don’t really want to coexist peacefully.

The Repugnicans have been accusing the Democrats of not having a plan for stabilizing Iraq and finishing our jobs there. Which is ironic since the Repugnicans certainly don’t have such a plan, and have spent the past four years proving that they don’t have a plan. The Bushies’ plan, as far as I can tell, involved going in, extracting as much value as possible for their friends, and leaving the political mess for someone else to clean up.

But, unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the Democrats have a plan, either. And I have yet to hear anything which sounds remotely like a real plan from the Democrats which will accomplish the goals of getting the US out of Iraq without leaving it a complete disaster area. All the post-election chatter seems to discuss vaguaries like “The American people voted for change, and by god we’re going to give it to them.” But “change” doesn’t mean “progress”, and to me it sounds like “we don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’ll come up with something.”

I’ve written about all this before, and it’s dismaying to feel like I need to write about it again, that nothing’s changed in three months. But it’s such a bloody disaster, and it’s not at all clear to me that the Democrats have any idea what to do about it. Never mind that it’s not really Congress’ job to deal with it, it’s the job of the Executive branch and the military. And, as I said above, I don’t think the Bushies are really interested in dealing with the problem.
Aargh.

Anyway, hopefully at least we’ll get some subpoenas and hearings so that some of the administration’s backroom machinations will come to light.

Heroes

Debbi and I have been watching Heroes since its debut, and haven’t missed an episode. We’ve watched it faithfully for one fundamental reason: It airs on Monday, and Monday is the one night of the week when we typically have nothing else planned. By contrast, it didn’t take long to bail on Jericho, since that airs on Wednesdays, which is both comic book night and gaming night.

Heroes features a world in which some humans have developed super powers, and so far it mainly involves the characters finding how in what ways their life has changed as a result. Two characters have learned that in a month New York City will be destroyed in what seems to be a nuclear blast, and the key to preventing this is to save a cheerleader from Texas. (The series’ tag line is “Save the cheerleader, save the world.”) There are several forces working at cross purposes to this, or so it seems, and the main characters themselves are often of mixed or dubious moral character.

The pacing of Heroes is extremely slow, with a great deal of time spent on the characters’ personal problems and foibles rather than moving the overall story along, and since several of the characters are either dull or not very likeable, this means that the feel of the show is one of “Something interesting happens!” followed by 20 minutes of “I wonder if they’re showing poker on ESPN2?”

The individual characters have their own story arcs which cross but rarely directly relate. Here’s how I feel about each of them:

  • Claire Bennett (Hayden Panettiere) is the cheerleader, who heals from almost any wound. She spent the first episode documenting on videotape her attempts to kill herself, and then changed her mind – a change in motivation which made no sense at all. Her stepfather is the man in horn-rimmed glasses (Jack Coleman) who is investigating powered individuals, and who was described in one episode’s promo as “the face of evil”, but this week’s promo suggests he’s a more ambiguous figure. Claire’s arc is deadly dull, being mainly a boring little soap opera.
  • Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka) is a Japanese businessman who can teleport and freeze time. He jumped to New York in the future just before the bomb blast, then returned to the present and flew to America with his friend Ando (James Kyson Lee) to try to stop it. Since then they’ve gotten delayed in Las Vegas encountering several other characters. Oka is hands-down the actor who comes out the best in this series, and his character is the most likeable, which does a lot to keep his arc interesting even though it’s been stalled out for several weeks.
  • Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg) is a telepathic policeman who’s having trouble with his marriage. He’s also working with the FBI to investigate a serial killer who seems to have powers (apparently telekinesis). His professional life is interesting, his personal life varies between boring and painful, so his arc is a Jeckyll-and-Hyde one to watch.
  • Mohinder Suresh (Sendhil Ramamurthy) is the son of a man who was trying to learn about the powered individuals springing up around the globe. He travels to America from India after his father’s death to find out what he knew. Unlike the others, he has no powers that we know of. Although he’s gotten involved with a woman (Nora Zehetner) working for the horn-rimmed glasses man. When Mohinder is around, the story tends to move forward a little, and he seems like a good guy, and Ramamurthy is an engaging actor, so I am encouraged when he’s on screen.
  • Nathan Petrelli (Adrian Pasdar) is a prospective New York Senator who can fly, but who is not interested in using his powers. His wife is paraplegic, and Petrelli is kind of a slimeball, involved with a mobster and cheating on his wife on a trip to Las Vegas. He also treats his brother like crap. I hate him as a person, so when he’s on screen I mostly hope he’ll get his comeuppance.
  • Peter Petrelli (Milo Ventimiglia) is Nathan’s brother. Peter thinks he can fly, too, but his actual abilities are somewhat different (I won’t spoil them here). He’s a good guy who is getting involved with the destruction-of-New-York element, but other than a subway encounter with one of the other characters, he hasn’t had a lot to do yet. I’m hopeful, though.
  • Niki Sanders (Ali Larter) is a single mother to Micah (Noah Grey-Cabey) whose reflection in the mirror has a mind – and powers – of her own. She lives in Las Vegas and was an Internet stripper before her debt to the mob sent her on the run. Most recently, her husband D.L. (Leonard Roberts) has shown up and taken Micah away. The story around Niki’s powers is interesting, but her personal problems got old really quickly, around the second episode. Overall a net minus.
  • Isaac Mendez (Santiago Cabrera) is a painter and drug user who paints pictures of the future, including the destruction of New York. Other than meeting Peter, his story has gone nowhere at all.

You can see the common thread here, right? There’s a lot of soap opera plotting going on and it’s just plain boring. The series feels like it’s stuck in its prologue and can’t manage to get the main plot moving. In retrospect, the first episode seems almost entirely redundant. When I think back over the episodes to date, it seems like there’s a lot more motion than progress, and it feels like a series badly in need of editing down to fewer episodes.

The series bend over backward to portray the characters as flawed but not evil, but the writing doesn’t feel consistent. It feels like the writers want us to be able to root for any of the characters, but also not to be able to see what’s coming. Consequently, several characters feel like they’re being pulled in different directions for no good reason; the characterization often feels made-to-order rather than natural.

To me, what drives the interesting bits of Heroes is a set of questions: Who is Claire’s father, and what’s he doing? Who is the killer the cop is tracking? Who’s going to blow up New York, and why? And, of course, why are people developing super powers?

So my fear for this show is that it’s going to fall into the trap of The X-Files and Smallville and (I hear) Lost of not really resolving things. If most of the questions in the preceding paragraph aren’t satisfactorily resolved this season, then I’ll know that the show isn’t serious about telling a story, but just wants to string us along. I bailed on The X-Files in its third season when I realized it wasn’t serious about going anywhere. A series with ongoing storylines needs to deliver a payoff in a timely manner or else it just feels like a cynical effort on the part of the producers and writers: “Keep watching, because something might happen at any minute!”

Overall, I feel that the series isn’t very original from a comic book superhero standpoint, and not very lively from a character drama standpoint. It has the potential to be a good series, but it needs to live up to that potential sometime soon, or I’m going to lose interest, even if it does air on Mondays.

Another view: Scott Marshall

On Voting

The comic strip Dullard, er, I mean, Mallard Fillmore, is at it again, trying to convince people not to vote.

Now, while I don’t agree with this, I don’t go the other way either. Indeed, I hate it when someone says something like “If you don’t vote then you have no right to complain,” which in one pithy comment helps set the cause of free speech back 250 years. This attitude isn’t helpful, either. While I believe people should vote, I also feel people have the right not to vote, while still having the right to complain about the outcome.

Here are some arguments to try to encourage people to vote:

  1. Voting helps keep politicans more honest. I think nothing would frighten the politicians more than if voter turnout went up by 50%. Especially if a lot of disaffected fringe voters who don’t support either major party were to show up.
  2. Going to vote is fun! Well, I think so, anyway. But then, voting for me just involves a plasant 10-minute walk to my polling place and (usually) a short wait in line. Your mileage may vary.
  3. You might be able to shake up the system! If you hate the major party candidates, go vote for some minor party candidate. They might not win, but you might help their party establish a footing in your area. If everyone who doesn’t like their major party candidates went to vote for a minor party candidate, that would be pretty neat. It would certainly make politics more interesting, which given the shape their in probably wouldn’t be a bad thing.
  4. You can send a message. I hate referenda, propositions, ballot initiatives, or whatever they’re called in your state. I tend to vote against them because I feel they’re an abdication of responsibility by the government. I vote for representatives to act, not to send things back to me to vote on later. Occasionally I vote for one, but the bar is set very high. I want to vote against the others to help send the message that ballot initiatives suck and I work against them just on principle. (You could make the same argument about bond measures, with the additional factor that bond measures are a way of sidestepping the tax system.)
  5. If you didn’t know who your Congresscritter was until election season, maybe the problem doesn’t lie on your end. Maybe it’s time to elect someone who will be a little more, um, useful.

While I would be happy to see the Democrats take control of Congress by Wednesday, I would be even happier if voter turnout vastly exceeded the expectations of the politicians, media and analysts. That would be really, really cool.

The Prestige

After thoroughly enjoying The Illusionist, I was interested to see The Prestige, which also features turn-of-the-century magicians. I expected it to be a less-stylish film, with flashier special effects and more of a thriller than a character drama. While I was right, that understates the film’s quality considerably: It’s quite a good film.

The film opens in 1899 with Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) witnessing the death-by-drowning of his rival magician, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) during a perfoormance gone awry, followed by Borden being jailed for Angier’s murder, likely to be executed. In prison, Borden reads Angier’s diary from the last ten years, in which Angier in turn writes about decoding one of Borden’s journals.

The film centers around the rivalry between the two men. When they were young and both employed by the same magician, Angier’s wife (Piper Perabo) drowned during an act, for which Angier blamed Borden for tying her with the wrong knot. Borden sets himself up as a solo act after meeting his wife, Sarah (Rebecca Hall), but loses most of two fingers when Angier sabotages his bullet-catching act. Angier starts his own career working with their mentor, Cutter (Michael Caine), and his assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), but his own early career is sabotaged by Borden.

Borden’s career takes off when he unveils a fantastic crowd-pleaser called The Transported Man, in which he enters one cabinet on stage and emerges from another one across the stage just a second later. Angier is desperate to copy this trick. Cutter is certain that Borden is using a double, but Angier is sure it’s the same man. Olivia agrees with Angier, since she’s seen that Angier is missing two fingers at both ends of the trick.

Angier sends Olivia to Borden to spy on him, and she produces Borden’s coded journal. Decoding it, the journal sends Angier to America to seek out Nikolas Tesla (David Bowie) who he is convinced will yield the secret of Borden’s trick. This sets in motion the events that lead to the story’s tragic ending, which is layered with several surprises.

The Prestige was co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest. Nolan was also the man behind Memento – another very cool film – as well as Batman Begins, and he continues to entertain with his latest clever and engaging film.

The story of personal hatred and professional jealousy is very well done, and is mixed with Borden’s up-and-down relationship with Sarah, and his love for their daughter Jess (Samantha Mahurin). Although the film has the unavoidable sense of foreboding (given that it opens with Angier’s drowning), the feeling of watching these two men at the edge of a new scientific age, both of whom are dedicated to their professions, keeps alive the feeling that if only they’d give up their rivalry they’d both be the better for it.

The acting is first-rate. Bale and Jackman are both quite good, but they’re overshadowed by Caine’s fine performance as the man watching the drama from the wings, and especially by Bowie’s intense performance of obsession and self-control as Tesla. Johanssen is, well, not bad, but not great either; Hall’s role as Sarah has more meat to it, so she comes out with the stronger performance.

The underlying theme of the film is about tricks and secrets. One of the refrains in the dialogue is “Are you watching closely?” The film opens with this line, throwing down the gauntlet that there’s something funny going on here and challenging us to figure out what it is. The meat and potatoes of a magic act is a trick, fooling the audience into thinking they’re seeing something other than they are. But no trick is as successful as one backed by a deep secret, something the audience can’t suspect is working in the act. Both Borden and Angier are playing games with more than one level of secrets. Everything is revealed by the end, and although I figured some of it out ahead of time, some of it still managed to surprise me.

Although it has strong character elements, The Prestige is not the character drama that The Illusionist is, and I didn’t think it was quite as good a film. But it’s still very good, and if you enjoyed Nolan’s earlier films, you’ll like this one too.

Related Links:

The rest of this review contains spoilers, so stop reading here if you don’t want the film’s secrets spoiled for you.

Continue reading “The Prestige”

And Sometimes, I Play Poker

On our trip to Las Vegas last January, I started playing poker, and have played it from time to time since then. In California, poker and other card games are legal, and the Bay Area features several card rooms. I play low-limit Texas Hold ‘Em, being not quite confident enough to try some of the spread limit games that go up to $100 or $200 around here.

At this point I would characterize myself as a “mediocre” poker player. I am not a winning player, but I play a tight game which keeps me from losing a lot. I actually feel I should loosen up my game a little bit more than I do. On the other hand, I watch people playing a loose game win some huge pots, and then steadily lose them over the next couple of hours. Mostly I envy their confidence, and I’m continually trying to remind myself that the money doesn’t matter to me. (And at these limits, it doesn’t, really. I’ve lost less at poker this year than one can spend on a new iPod.)

Last night I went out to Bay 101 for the first time in a while to play. Bay 101 is clean, spacious, has plenty of parking, and is always busy. (Right now it looks like their non-poker room is being renovated.) I was lucky to get there just as a new 3/6 table opened up, so I had no wait, compared to the 30-to-60 minute wait I usually have. This was the first time I’ve sat at a table as it was starting, so I learned that the players at a new table draw cards and high card starts as the dealer – the most advantageous position. I drew the high card (the Jack of Spades), which was a nice treat.

The table was loose, tending to be passive before the flop, and moderately aggressive after the flop, by which I mean: People who connected with the flop would bet, and other people would fold unless they had good draws. One player who would bet regularly with both good hands and nothing at all, and he won some hands both ways, but also lost quite a bit.

I had a pretty mediocre night. It seemed like when I played a hand, it usually didn’t go anywhere. Only once did I fold after the flop and then regret it, when my pair of 7s on the flop turned into trips on the turn. That was annoying, but since I had only second pair on the flop and was facing quite a bit of betting with few outs, I was annoyed but didn’t feel I’d played it badly. Being annoyed in those circumstances is one of those things I have to work on.

I had one really good hand: I was dealt a pair of Jacks, and everyone bet the limit before the flop. The flop came three undercards, with some straight possibilities. The turn and river left a board something like 3-5-5-8-8, and the guy on my right was betting into it, so I was obviously pretty concerned that someone had a full house. But Slansky says you shouldn’t fold a big pot if you think you might have the best hand, and I wasnt convinced anyone was playing a 5 or an 8. So I called, and I won! Go me!
I finished the night down money, mainly because of one hand where I lost a bundle due to a combination of bad luck and judgment. My feeling is that I still need to play more aggressively, and also perhaps that I need to play a little more loosely, especially when I’m at a table full of calling stations.

One weird thing about poker is that one session isn’t really enough to get good results or bad results due to your play; the variation in cards is too high. So I can have a losing session and feel like I was just unlucky, as opposed to playing poorly. But I can have a few hands where I feel I played really well. This is rather different from most other games I play. Overall I think I’ve played enough hands to know I’m not a good player. But I might yet improve. It’s a hard game to master, though. And I haven’t even played any no limit poker yet (which I’ll probably reserve for when I play tournaments, because playing no limit with my own money is a little too scary for me right now!).