Gifts and ettiquette

I had my birthday, which was nice. I got two video games, an Irish hat, a hands-free blue tooth thingie, and a water carbonator. The only gift I had any sort of problem with was the blue tooth thing. I’ve never really understood Bluetooth. Sure it’s hands-free, but you have to spend so much time setting it up and you have to look at the phone to make a call anyway. It’s probably more for people who have more than five numbers stored on their phones who have their voice assist working and who can expect to get calls regularly during a period of time. Also people who use Bluetooth are probably not using their phones primarily as mp3 players

It would be alright if the Bluetooth thing could work as a general speaker, but the one I got was overly engineered. Some bright team worked out how to distinguish the sounds coming from a phone’s operating system or other programs from the sounds of the incoming and outgoing calls. Furthermore, they bundled all the programming into a device that’s essentially a black box with a button on it. Never mind that I’m slightly worried that somebody somewhere is dying every time I press the button, I cannot change the functionality of it without breaking the thing open, taking a bunch of computer programming courses and going at it with a soldering iron.

It might still be useful if I was expecting to receive a lot of calls one day. But that’s not likely to happen.

I got the Irish Hat from my friend Dac (not his real name) as a replacement for the one I lost at the IHOP some time before Christmas. The original was a hat I got some ten years ago or so, when my dad and I went to Ireland with some extended family. It was a pretty snappy hat. I’m not really a hat person, but that was one that I didn’t mind wearing. So I thought maybe I would wear it around more one day. A week later I was with Dac and his wife Kilc (also not her real name) at the IHOP and I took it off, because of the rule of etiquette that says it is rude not to take one's hat off when entering a building. I put it in the pocket of my jacket, thinking it was safe there, but it fell out, never to be seen again.

 Dac and Kilc were awesome though and looked online and found the place that makes the hats in Ireland. Turns out there’s a guy John Hanna who’s continuing his father’s business. I don’t know whether the hats are called Hanna hats in general or if that’s just his name for them, but I enjoyed the added bit of history that came with the garment. Now I just have to figure out how to wear the hat without losing it.

The two video games I got were Resistance:  fall of man (a wwII-ish game with aliens) and Dead Space 2. I haven’t played Resistance that much yet. It seems to have a rather high learning curve, which can be good, but I haven’t been hooked yet. Dead Space 2 though, might become a problem. I’ve been playing it a lot, probably too much. There are some problems with it, but it’s a really slick experience over all. It has a third-person, over the shoulder perspective which makes things a little tricky at first, and the gamma correction in the game doesn’t quite correct enough, so there are times when enemies are hiding out in the shadows and you can’t see what’s attacking you, which gets annoying. It would probably be better if I wore head phones so the sound would be more directional, but I keep forgetting to set them up.

I really like the world building they did for the Dead Space games. Maybe that’s the wrong term. There are inconsistencies that wouldn’t hold up in a novel or movie, but I like how the player character Isaac gains new gadgets based on what’s around him, and how each of the enemies require different tactics to defeat. I’m actually thinking of making up a Dead Space costume for Midsouthcon this year. I think I could do the health indicator that everyone wears on their backs in the game at least, and I might even be able to do the suit as well. Of course all this requires time, which I should be spending on other things, but if I do it, I’d want to to use LEDs and setting up the circuitry might give me some experience I can use on other, more practical projects.

As for the water carbonator, I think everyone who likes soda to any degree should get one of these things. I like just carbonating water and dropping lemon juice in it, which works fine, but I’ve also had a load of fun experimenting on different things to add to it to make it taste like soda. The flavor samples that it came with unfortunately all used Splenda, which has the taste of sorrow and broken promises, but even so you can imagine how good it would be if it was made with proper sugar and it’s great. My main problem with soda is the lack of fizz, and the carbonator lets you go crazy with the fizz.

So good stuff over all.

I went to a writer’s meeting in Memphis Saturday and enjoyed seeing my Memphis friends again. Unfortunately it had been a while since I was in a group of that many people, and I may have acted like a jerk once or twice unintentionally. The subject of ghosts came up while six of us were at dinner afterward, and I couldn’t help but express my feelings about the silliness of those who believe in them. Booker (not her real name) made a perfectly reasonable point that it was a matter of perspective whether they existed or not. A point that I’d have been able to agree with if I had thought about it for more than half a second; in fact an earlier post on this very blog expresses a similar view, but I wanted to be right and make a joke, and so I said something to the effect of “Yeah, there’s my perspective and there’s being wrong!”  Which was a jerky thing to say. I’m fine with people believing anything they want as long as they don’t try to force it on me. Sometimes I can’t help wanting to force my beliefs on other people though.

At the meeting proper, we were talking about magic systems in fantasy fiction, and whether they should be explained or not. The argument against explaining things was in part that explaining things destroys the sense of wonder. This argument goes right up my spine. I consider myself a scientist. I enjoy learning about the universe, because everything I learn fills me with a sense of wonder and appreciation for the cosmic dance that everything participates in without even being cognizant of it. The idea that remaining willfully ignorant of something somehow increases the enjoyment of it goes counter to my entire worldview.

It was said during the meeting that if magic was explained too much it would be just like science. As if science was somehow inferior to magic. As if magic was anything other than counter-intuitive technology. It really gets my goat, but that doesn’t mean I should snap at people who don’t share my philosophy.  In a one on one conversation I wouldn't have as much a problem. I would have just said that I disagreed, and if the other party wanted to know more, I would explain myself. But we were coming to a consensus on things as a group and when someone came out with the ignorance is bliss assertion as something to base the group's decision on, I had a difficult time stifling myself. I don't think anything I said was offensive, really, and the atmosphere of debate was congenial enough that it probably wasn't noticeable. But I noticed it, and I didn't like how I handled it.

I had a lot of fun at the meeting and I was glad I went. Kevens led the meeting and shared an interesting technique for world building in fantasy by setting up in advance the type and method that magic is used. The group is supposed to a writing assignment based on the idea and it looks like a good project. Jllynno brought out the card game Apples to Apples after the meeting and that was a hoot as well.

I don't know if I will continue giving people alien names they didn't ask for, but it amuses me:-)

quarterlife crisis

Happy Valentine’s Day!

 My birthday is coming up. Going to be 30. Mixed feelings about that. Going through a bit of a fourth-of-life crisis (Yes, I plan on living at least that long). Still not gainfully employed after about nine months of getting fired from Vanderbilt. Children have been conceived and birthed in the time since I’ve had a good job.  

I’m not technically unemployed. I have three jobs, but none of them are paying very well or consistently. I probably should be applying for other jobs or going to universities and asking to work with big puppy dog eyes and maybe a kick ass presentation of how awesome I am and how I’ve always wanted to work on whatever it is the lab I talk to wants me to work on, and I’d be great at it. Really.

But resources keep getting diverted to other things. That’s passive voice. What I mean to say is that I keep doing  things that allow me to forget that I’m not anywhere near where I want to be in my career. Things like writing, reading, playing video games and watching movies.

It’s not really so bad. At least I don’t have some drug addiction. But then again, there are meth and heroin addicts right now, beating their wives and children, who are making more money than I am.

So I’m a little anxious to get back into some sort of swing of things. It doesn’t help that I want to do everything. I’m watching American Idol for the first time and I notice how no one over thirty got in. Did I miss out? Is there an age limit that I passed? Or can I still try out? I could do it. I tried for the choir in High school and got in, I just couldn’t join because I wanted to take a physics course. And I’ve been singing in the shower for years. All I’d have to do is start going to Karaoke bars and build up my confidence and repertoire. Then show up at the next try out. It would be a cinch. Then I would drop out after the second or third round, because I don’t really want to be a star, that’s too much stress. I just want some one to realize that I can sing, and start up a small group with me. We’d meet every second Saturday and jam at some out of the way bar. People would pay us gladly and give us requests which we’d nail every time. They would ask us why we aren’t famous and we’d explain that we just do the music as a hobby, because our real passion is Science, or Medicine, or Firefighting or whatever the other people in the band are really on about.

I’m starting to write more now. Trying to think of it as a part-time job. Putting in 20 hours a week and actually submitting stories so that I might actually make some money. I got done with two flash fiction pieces. I sent one off to Apex, because they pay well. If they don’t take it, I’ll put it somewhere else. I’m not sure I’m using the right approach. I feel like I should maybe do some more editing on it or something, even though I've proofread it quite a bit. I haven’t shown the stories to anyone else for one thing. The reason for this is that the last times I did this, I got feedback that made me want to scrap the whole work, not because the people thought it was bad, but because their interpretation of the theme was at right angles to what I was going for.

How do you clarify a moral without messing with the story as a whole? And to be frank I wasn't all that sure of the moral anyway. I just know that it isn’t what the reader thought it was. I don't claim to be all-knowing or anything. I don't want to answer a question, I just want to pose one. But I want to be clear which question I'm posing. And maybe I shouldn’t care and just send somewhere anyway, but too late. I do.

Another little wrinkle is my nom de plume. On the short story I got published (almost four years ago now) I used the name Zorknot Robinson, the reason being that Zorknot is significantly less common than my given name, but I felt an obligation to honor my family in some way; so I kept the last name. But on American Idol, I recently saw a contestant show up dressed up like a transformer robot. “Why would he do that?” I said out loud, “He had to know a gimmick like that wouldn’t work.”  And then one sleepless night I thought to myself. Isn’t using Zorknot as my name the same thing?

I have other reasons than just wanting to be flashy of course. Zorknot is what I use consistently on the internet, it’s googleable, hardly anybody has used it other than me, and it represents a persona that I’ve been trying to cultivate for more than a decade. But, in the end, it’s a rather silly persona, isn’t it? It is true there are a lot of Robinsons out there. Even in the fiction world. That almost is a reason not to use Zorknot Robinson though. I’ve never really read Spider Robinson (other than a few pages of one of his books) but I don’t want be accused of trying to him or anything like that. I could just write as Zorknot, but that seems vaguely pretentious, and it’s still silly.

I should just use my own name, probably, but I’m still not convinced on a gut level.

And along with all this, I’m supposed to be getting back into a lab somewhere. Maybe my priorities are messed up.

I’m working on it.

movie reviews

I’ve actually watched Shyamalon's The Last Airbender. I can now assure you with authority that the movie does, in fact, suck. Especially if you try to watch it in 3D. The only thing good about the movie is that it kind of vaguely reminds you of how good the cartoon was. Also you can tell that if almost anyone else had done the writing and directing, it might have been an okay movie. 2/10

 In related movie watching news, last night I saw the movie Devil, which is about the devil killing people in an elevator. Shyamalon PRODUCED the movie, but he did not direct or write for it, so it was actually pretty decent. Now you don’t want to think about this too much, because it isn’t terribly logical, but the directing and plotting of the movie was note perfect so you can forget how silly it is and get wrapped up in the spookiness of it. Granted, you are left wondering just what the Devil wanted out of the whole business, (he/she/it causes someone to commit suicide and kills several innocent as well as not so innocent people in order to teach somebody a lesson in forgiveness?) but the pacing was great and it had the same spooky feel of a ghost story told well. 6.5/10

 I also saw the movie Buried, which has Ryan Renolds in a wooden box. He has been buried alive, and we watch as he tries to call people on his cell phone and KEEPS GETTING PUT ON HOLD! (dramatic music) This was actually a pretty intense movie and you can get a real sense of the claustrophobia and other types of fear going through the character’s limbic system. It’s probably the best movie that takes place entirely inside a wooden crate that has ever or will ever be made. On the other hand, it takes place entirely inside a wooden crate. A few scenes outside, a flash back scene or two, anything like that would have been nice, but the closest thing to that is the overly long cartoony introductory sequence which looks like it belongs in front of a zany spy comedy (or spymedy), which this most definitely is not. Overall a 6/10, but a SOLID 6. It’s a pretty good movie for what it is.

What's the deal with M. Night Shyamalon?

I mean seriously. How many bad movies does he have to make before people realize he's a bad director? And yet even I keep on thinking "well he made the sixth sense...maybe this one will be good..."

And I also wonder whether there's an underlying reason why his movies suck so much. I'm pretty sure it has something to do with him being a big name, so people don't question him and things get okayed without due diligence (a variation of  Ed Wood syndrome) But other directors are able to get recognition and still kick out good flicks. Christopher Nolan for example. Is there a tragic flaw in Shyamalon's character that makes him incapable of correctly judging the quality of his own movies?

I bring this up because of the Last Airbender movie. I've been watching the cartoon and loving it, but I look at the reviews for the movie and realize that MNS has screwed up again. Normally I don't follow reviews that much, but every critic panned it and the only positive user reviews were from people who hadn't seen the movie. They literally said they hadn't seen it in the review. Why was it so badly reviewed? Well the most cited reason is that MNS changed the pronunciation of the character's names, and I think this is a very telling point of contention.

See I read a recent interview with MNS on Wired where he explains why he did this. And the thing is his explanation makes sense. The name Aang for instance, should be pronounced "Ahng" rather than "Aing" how the cartoon does it. I had the same thought myself when I first saw it spelled. But this makes at least two assumptions. First, that the spelling is correct, and second that everyone who made the original cartoon got it wrong.

In the universe of the cartoon all writing is shown in chinese characters. Anyone who has taken a class in an Asian language knows that the romanization of an asian language is open to a great deal of interpretation. For instance, in Japanese the name of a particular rock singer might be written as Gakuto or Gackt. "R"s and "L"s may be interchanged and "Si" is indistinguishable from "Shi". Chinese is even more confusing. The pin yin system makes almost no intuitive sense to me. and there are two other systems which don't make much sense either. Furthermore there's a multitude of languages in China that could be using the same characters. Peking and Beijing are the same city because one is Mandarin and the other Cantonese. Furthermore while the characters in the cartoon look a little asian, they are not definitively of one race or another. Some of them look like Inuit, others look scandanavian. Yet they all seem to speak the same language. Here's a thought, maybe in the Avatar universe the names ARE pronounced the way they are in the cartoon!

And so there really isn't any reason to change the pronunciation of the names. Unless you are an arrogant asshole who thinks he knows better.

This is I think Shyamalon's problem. He thinks he knows better. You can feel it throughout his interview in the Wired article. "Oh this poor, deluded fans," he says, "they don't realize how stupid they've been this whole time. We really need to educate them!" He almost actually says those very words!

Now there is one wrinkle in the "it's an alternate universe so the names are pronounced differently" theory, and that is that in Shyamalon's movie, the story takes place in the future. But…


Flying, six legged bison do not and cannot exist in our universe. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a FANTASY not a science fiction tale.  You could make it a sci fi story by maybe attaching the bison to a dirigible and cooking up devices that allow all the bending to take place, but, looking at the previews Shyamalon did not do this. And yet he apparently saw no problem. He saw no problem with the plot of the happening either, because I think he thinks this stuff could actually happen. So there’s a second flaw, Shyamalon has no grasp on reality.

But there’s a larger issue at fault here. The last Shyamalon movie that I was able to watch without cringing at its awefulness was Lady in the Water. It was small, it was odd, and while it was a tad sanctimonious it was mainly about one guy and a few of the people he knew getting a life lesson from a mermaid. I didn’t care for it, because it was a little preachy, but it was okay, because that wasn’t all there was to the film.

Contrast that with Signs. This was my first real break with Shyamalon. The first half of the movie is great the anticipation of the aliens’ arrival mounts and you really feel the tension, but even here there are problems. The main character is an ex priest. He has lost his wife. And what does any of this have to do with aliens? Nothing. Signs, as it turns out, has nothing to do with aliens. It is a movie about faith. The signs are signs from God. Which would be fine, if it weren’t for the aliens that show up. Just like how Aslan seems like jerk in the second Narnia book if you don’t get the subtext, Signs killing the aliens with water makes no sense unless you understand it as symbolism for faith. But unlike with Narnia, Shyamalon goes perhaps a little overboard.   Basically, in order to give Mel Gibson back his faith, God gave his daughter an obsession with water, made him see visions of his dead wife telling him swing away, and BROUGHT FREAKING ALIENS TO EARTH.

Night is always trying to shove a message down our throats with his movies. He wants to teach people something. Which is fine, as long as your story is entertaining.

These three things, his arrogance, his loose grip on reality, and his obsession with teaching his audience things, are what make Shyamalon’s movies bad in general, I think.

As for the Last Airbender, Shyamalon is trying to put a lot of different characters  and a lot of different plots from an entire series all into a single two hour movie. A two hour movie allows for the equivalent of six episodes. If he had just taken the first six non-filler episodes and made that into a movie, he might have fared a little better. But no. He got greedy and pulled a Lucas. More quantity is not always better. Quality. That’s what we’re looking for. So for this movie, over-ambition played a role as well.

Now I haven’t seen the movie, but I base all of this on known information. For me, the most damning proof of the movie’s awfulness is the drabness of the trailer. The cartoon is colorful; it is fun. Netflix describes it as “goofy.” Yes it has its serious moments, but Aang is a jokester first and foremost and is almost perpetually smiling. The show is fun to watch. At no point in the previews is a joke cracked. At no point in the previews does the sun even come out. The previews show a dark, bleak world and an always serious Aang.  I don’t want to see a movie full of that.

I am curious how the characters are betrayed by Shyamalon so I’ll probably catch it on television, but I do not want to contribute to the movie’s proliferation at all. My hope is that the movie generates revenue for the creators of the tv series and that they make more episodes, or more series like it.

Clarke's third Law and Philosophy

 Clarke’s third law states that any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic.  Science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts like myself dig the hell out of this idea, because it sort of validates many of the things we enjoy. But there are a few corollaries to it that are a bit distressing. One of these corollaries is that magic exists.  If we accept that sufficiently advanced technologies are indistinguishable from magic, then we assume that there is magic to compare technology to.  Does this mean there are unicorns and wizards and flying carpets? No. What this means, and what is scary about Clarke’s third law, is that we are constantly taking for granted things we don’t fully understand. Take gravity. We have a good theory for gravity. We have equations that we can right to predict the motions of balls dropped from cliffs or the movements of planets. We can even predict the bending of light around a star. But why do these things occur the way they do? Why do they never seem to change? How sure are we that they won’t change?

 Currently, scientists widely accept the idea that gravity is caused by particles called gravitons. We can describe many of the properties of these particles because we know enough to know what they CAN’T be. Gravitons can’t be directly observed by current instruments, for example, and we have very sensitive instruments, so gravitons must be pretty small or exist in some weird state that we haven’t figured out how to observe yet, or both. Another possibility is that gravitons don’t exist and there’s some other explanation for gravity. But the reason why scientists have latched on to the ideas of gravitons, and the reason why we accept many of our scientific theories, is that regardless of whether or not a theory is strictly true, it explains to an adequate degree what we observe in nature, and it does so consistently. Gravitons are nice because they fit into an organized menagerie of sub atomic particles, many of which have been directly observed in labs. 

It isn’t all that different, though, from thinking that the Earth must be flat, because a wooden board is flat and lies perfectly flush to the ground. The theory that the Earth is flat doesn’t work if you travel anywhere out of your time zone or if you are doing something that depends on satellite coverage. The flat Earth theory does not work consistently, but if you aren’t doing anything too sophisticated, it does work. In fact we use the flat earth theory all the time. When we give or take directions, we speak of North, South, East, and West as if they were straight lines on a flat surface. Most of the time this perfectly fine, which is why it still feels a little strange when we encounter an exception; we still call Japan and China the “Far East” even though they exist West of California.

The idea that if you go far enough in one direction, you’ll end up back where you started, seems a little odd at some level, even knowing intellectually that it is true.  Even knowing the reasons behind it, the idea still seems magical.

There is another term for this, which is perhaps more accurate: counterintuitive. Something happens that you don’t expect. Something happens that runs counter to the theories that you are used to using to explain things in the universe. If we insert this term in place of “magic”, Clarke’s third law becomes almost a tautology. “Any sufficiently advanced technology will be counterintuitive.” Well, of course! If it weren’t counterintuitive, we’d be able to do or explain the thing we’re talking about without having to use “advanced technology.”

But while the term “counterintuitive” may be more accurate, it misses the connotations that “magic” possesses. Intuitions can vary with the individual. They can change with time. We drive horseless carriages and speak to each other from great distances and consider this to be completely normal. But this isn’t because we have an intuitive understanding of how these things work. We know how they work on some level, but for the most part we simply understand that turning a key will start a car and that shifting gears and pressing the gas will allow us to move it. The car might as well be a magical gadget powered by fairies who like to drink gasoline. A mechanic or car aficionado might disagree with this, but I tend to think that even a mechanic has a moment when he or she wonders why the car is making that strange noise. “Didn’t I give it enough gas? Didn’t I give it enough oil? It should be happy! Why is it making noises at me?”

So even while something may not be counterintuitive, it may seem magical when thought about from a certain perspective. Conversely, even something that makes no real sense may seem completely logical from a certain perspective too.

This is the main reason why I’ve become more of a skeptic recently. If I hear a strange sound in the night and I don’t know what it is, I wonder what it might be. I don’t say, “it’s a ghost.” If something sounds like footsteps on the stairs, but I know I’m the only one in the house, this seems odd to me, even amazing.  How could that happen? Maybe it IS a ghost! But then, in that case, why, if the ghost can affect physical objects enough to cause the stairs to creak, can’t I see it or detect it some other way? What could it possibly be made of? Is it possible that the creaks could be just the boards settling? This seems more likely, but then why would they settle in that way?

To me, calling something a ghost is an attempt to make something counterintuitive intuitive. It is an attempt to explain something that is unexplainable given one’s current understanding. To believe in ghosts is to limit one’s imagination to a vague, inconsistent theory. The recent glut of ghost hunting shows has occurred, in my opinion, not because they find evidence for ghosts, but because the shows will sometimes find alternate explanations for things, and when something odd happens the question we ask is “Is it a ghost? What the crap was that?” We want to figure it all out. We feel that if we watch more episodes, maybe we’ll get a better answer. The shows give us odd hints. EVP, electrical disturbances, cold spots, the tendency of ghosts to be more prevalent in houses that are near limestone… Of course limestone usually means water, and a creek or underground stream might cause odd sounds, and EVP could just be a result of our human tendency to find patterns in nature. A voice might be saying “Help me!” but it could also be saying “I need to pee!” or, maybe just “oh eee!” It might not be a voice at all. It might be a voice from a radio station.  But which is it? And what about everything else that happened? I find the answer “ghosts” to be rather maddening. To me, the ghost hunters leave their investigations right when they should be trying to find out more.

But there are other, more subtle “ghosts” we use. These theories we come up with that work in our day to day lives, but don’t ever examine. We may know how a car works, but we also have a “ghost” theory of how a car works. We may know something of how our minds work, but we still believe to a greater or lesser degree that we have a “ghost” inside of us. We may know a little about how the universe works, and we may be in awe of it, but to a greater or lesser degree we still believe in a holy “ghost” that controls its various functions.

I think many skeptics, myself included, have a disturbing habit of denying that these ghosts exist. This, to me, is just as bad as believing in them wholeheartedly. Ghosts are really constellations of phenomena that have been grouped together into a single entity or type of entity. Maybe it is wrong to group them in that way, maybe they are really separate, or maybe some of the phenomena aren’t correctly described, but the phenomena themselves are real. To say that God doesn’t exist or the soul doesn’t exist, may be true on one level, but on another it is a bit like saying that the car isn’t going to go where I tell it to go.  Granted I shouldn’t always assume the car is going to work as it should, as there could be something that goes wrong with it, but that is different from saying that it will never work as it should.

Bohr’s theory of the atom is not strictly correct. Neither is Newton’s theory of gravity. To some extent, these are ghosts. But to say they don’t exist isn’t right either. If we simply said Newton’s theory of gravity was a load of elephant dung, we wouldn’t have refined it.

In short, I don’t like it when people are satisfied with the ghosts they invent, but neither am I content to deny those ghosts. In my opinion all ghosts should be examined. All magic should be investigated. To me, any sufficiently investigated magic will become technology.


Personal update and Treme

Once again it's been ages since my last blog. I want to eventually blog all the time and talk about interesting stuff. I want a snazzy website that people enjoy going to and so on. Way I figure the first step to that is getting on the ball with the blogging thing. I might as well do that here as anywhere.

Normally I write very long-winded blogs that take too long. So one of the things I'm going to try is to make the blogs shorter. I'm hoping to start blogging every monday wednesday and friday, then maybe make a podcast and put that out every week.

I'm starting to feel like I need to be more professional. But I still want to have fun. I've always considered "Zorknot" to be my internet alter-ego but I also need an internet ego now. And when I do self-promotion, do I promote my ego or my alter-ego? Basically, I have to carve a place in cyberspace for my normal life, which is a bit daunting.

Today I saw the end of the first season of Treme, the show about post-Katrina new Orleans from David Simon. The season ender was a pretty good episode, but not really a big finish. I'm a bit upset at what John Goodman's character did in the 9th episode and I'm a little upset that Lucia Micarelli's character still hasn't quite figured out how awesome she is. But there seems to be hope, which will make me watch the next season.

I've been on something of a David Simon kick since I watched the first season of Homicide: Life on the Street toward the beginning of this year. Even though he wasn't as directly involved in that show, his influence on it was pretty strong, and I really dug how realistic it seemed compared to the cop shows we're currently inundated with. I have since started alternating between seasons of Homicide and seasons of the Wire, which David Simon had a more direct role in producing. The Wire has a slower pace and I can definitely see the stylistic similarities between the Wire and Treme, while Homicide is more of a pastiche, with some episodes being a slow boil while others being heart-grippingly intense. Also Homicide seems more amateur. It seems a bit dated even though it wasn't made all that many years ago. The editing isn't quite there, and the music, at least in the earlier seasons, is, frankly, terrible. The Wire is much more consistent and it delivers what amounts to a novel-length movie instead of Homicide's collection of short stories. I'm on season 3 of the Wire now and I'm definitely starting to feel the depth of the characters. When events from the first seasons influence what happens in the third, you feel like you're getting something tangible. It's good stuff, but while I'd say the Wire is a better show over all than Homicide, the best episodes of Homicide are better than the best episodes of the Wire.

Treme has some awesome characters, but it follows Simon's slow pacing, and it requires a lot of faith to get into it when it could still get canceled before it finds its stride. Adding to this, it has characters with definite leftward leaning political views, which for me is another barrier to entry. Over all I like the show better than most of what's out there though, and I think the reason is the characters. For instance, yes the characters are liberals, but that totally fits their character. If they were conservative it wouldn't work. I do get the impression that the writers share the characters' sentiment, but it still doesn't matter so much, because all the characters are flawed somewhat, so it's okay to disagree with them. What I find myself doing while I watch the show is rooting for the characters I like and booing the ones I don't. And really, that's entertainment

Went long anyway. I'll try to be more succinct next time.

My review of the Kindle 2

I've had the Kindle2 for a while and some people I've listened to seemed a little ignorant of some things, so I thought I'd give a sort of review, sort of defense of the gadget. This may sound suspiciously like a commercial in places. I've watched too much tv to remember what normal sounds like.

kindle 2:Kindle 2 (not DX)

Things you might not be aware of

The Kindle2 comes with the New oxford american dictionary already installed. While you're reading you can move a cursor to a word and it will automatically put the definition of the word at the bottom of the screeen. Also if the word isn't in the dictionary you can search for it on the net through google or wikipedia with just another button press.

You can also select lines from what you're reading and copy them into a file called "My clippings" Which is a .txt file you can access any time on the reader or on your computer when the kindle is connected. You can save the file on your computer too, so that neat quote you see can be with you as long as you want.

For me one of the great features is its ability to read pdfs. I work in a research profession so I'm constantly having to read pdfs of scientific articles. If I send the pdfs to my kindle I can listen to them on the way to the lab or to my classes which saves time, plus if I come upon something unfamiliar I can google it right away.

 I want to address the "Robotic voice" argument, ie that you can't get the inflections and nuances that a human voice can provide. I've actually found this a plus on several occasions. The robot reads what's written and nothing else. If there is a comma, the robot pauses. If a character has a distinctive way of speaking, the robot speaks the words exactly as intended. I find that my brain supplies a lot of the characterization and dialect to the words much the same way it would if I were reading. I still get to interpret what's written instead of some other person.

Obviously a good human narrator can add something to the work, but a lot of the time listening to podcasts of short stories, I find that human readers can distract from the work rather than add to it. It's a mixed bag, whereas with the robot, you know what you're getting.

Finally I've found the robot voice to be a good way to tell good writing from bad. The robot reads what's written. If the robot doesn't sound as good as it did reading Dostoyevski then it's the writer's fault, not the robot's. I like to read a lot, but I don't want to spend time on something if I'm not going to enjoy it, so I find it to be a good way to cull fiction down.

This is actually the main way I use the kindle. It is supremely easy to go to amazon, search for a book I just heard about  and have a sample of it sent to my kindle. Then I can go on to whatever it is I was doing and when I get a chance I can read the sample. If I want to read the rest, I can buy it after I read the sample. If I REALLY like it I'll go get the physical book in dead tree format, because that way I can share it with people and get reminded of it whenever I look at my bookshelf.

Ebooks do not replace physical books for me. Ebooks are great for a particular class of books. Books that I'm interested in, but don't want to invest as much time, space, and/or money into. Because of the text to speech function, the kindle takes care of another class of books too: books that I want to read but that I find difficult to get into because the writing, while not actualy bad has a style that's a bit dry or high on descriptive elements.  Before kindle I would listen to audiobooks for this sort of thing, but audiobooks are expensive, and they exist in only an audio format

Librivox is great for public domain books, but as I was reading Crime and Punishment, I would come upon something that I didn't understand, or that struck me as interesting and I could stop the audio, look at the text, record parts of it in the clippings folder, and look up words in the dictionary or online. You can't do that with an audiobook.

Some problems with the kindle

The tech isn't 100% there. The Internet is very slow on it, and the controls are a little hard to deal with.

Pictures are only in black and white, which is bad for reading scientific journals.

The mp3 player isn't very good at all, you can't select tracks and if you stop the playback it goes all the way back to the beginning.

It is, also, a bit bulky. I tend to stick it my backpack when I'm walking with it, and it isn't an issue at all if you're driving, but it is a pain to deal with if you don't have a satchel  or something to stick it in.

Also turning the text to speech off and on requires you to memorize button strokes or look on the screen which is anoying and potentially dangerous if you're driving and you, say, get a call on your cell. If you memorize the buttons though it isn't too bad.

What I would really like is a small mp3 player device that had the text to speech function so that you could just import a txt , doc or pdf into it and have it read to you. But that, to my knowledge has not been invented yet.

The kindle 2 is also expensive and many of the wonderful features I've mentioned might be hard to find for people who aren't computer savvy.

There are  plenty of ways the kindle can be improved, and I can certainly see that it could get outmoded by the iphone or some other device. But for now, it works for me.

Also the iphone is evil.

Finally, there's a new kindle out, the DX which is larger and has native pdf capabilities among other things. I'm a bit POed by this. I don't need a larger screen for my purposes, and a lot of the other features can probably be added to my version with a firmware update (hopefully). Still it would have been nice of Amazon to let the would-be buyer know that they were coming out with a new version. And so far there hasn't been a real firmware update, just an update that allows publishers to disable text to speech. So that's a bit of a negative.

Still glad I got what I got though.


So I'm over here in Nashville going to Vanderbilt for my phD. That's cool.

Last semester was a whole lot of no fun though. A lot of work and I didn't know what I was doing. Now there's still a lot of work but I feel like I know what I'm doing a little. Worked nine hours today on stuff. I'm not sure if I've worked that long on some thing in my life.

I'm about ready to go see Synecdoche New York at the Belcourt theater that's next to my apartment. It's written AND directed by Charlie Kaufman, writer of Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. I really liked Adaptation and Being John Malkovich was interesting, but I'm getting a major ho hum vibe off of Synechdoche. Charlie Kaufman didn't write a NORMAL movie did he? I sure hope not.

I want to see Slum Dog millionaire soon too. It got nominated for a bunch of stuff so it's probably going to be in theaters for a while. Both films are artsy fartsy fare. Maybe I'm becoming a snob.

I recently watched a good Bollywood movie, Jab we Met. One of those netflix movies that I would have never have even heard about if it weren't for recommendations. It was a good manic pixie dream girl movie. That's a movie like Elizabethtown , or Garden State where the main character is a fellow whose life is painted in shades of gray and is travelling through Mopey town on a last chance bus  when suddenly a zany carefree girl, a manic pixie dream girl, strikes up a conversation with the character and is so amazingly extroverted and cheerful that the main character reallizes that things ain't so bad after all and maybe a smile might make life sweeter. I swear to science I've seen at least five movies with that plot. Jab we met is a good one of those. There's snappy tunes in it, but most of it is non-musical to the point where you almost wonder if it really is a bollywood movie and when everyone starts singing you kind breath a sigh of relief. Theres a moment or two where the movie could go dark. It pirouettes right on the edge of being edgy but it stays  on the safe and happy sunshine side of things and if you are for that sort of thing, your heart cockles will be toasty warm. If not, you may roll your eyes, take a drag off your cigarrette, flip your bangs out of your  eyes and declare the movie inane and completely not in keeping with the true darkness of the world. I mean it's possible that you might dislike the movie and not be emo about it, but I have a hard time imagining it. 7.5 out of 10
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Review of Minister Faust book and general stuff

State of the Zorknot address:

 I’m waiting to hear back from Wake Forest or Vanderbilt about whether I’m accepted to their Phd program. I’m getting pretty anxious about it.

 I’m also still almost done with Oyu no Ranma chapter 4. I almost submitted a partial chapter, but I was thinking of continuity and realized that if I wanted to do what I wanted to do later on, I’d have rewrite some things. Oh well. Still, that’s progressing.

 I just bought a book on C++ and I intend to learn everything about it in two weeks so I can whip up a few programs to help me with my research and solve all the problems I’m having with it and then send in an article to a scientific magazine and have people weep in the presence of my awesomitude.

 Aim high, I always say.

 I just finished reading From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, by Minister Faust. It was a pretty fun read. I’d give it an 8 out of 10. I’ve also read Faust’s other book The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad and one of the things that’s evident in both books is Faust’s ability with voice. His characters are the best thing. They are intricate multilayered three dimensional and not all of one ethnicity.

 If you go to Faust’s website there is a lot of pro-Africa graphics on there, (although he spells it “Afrika” with a “k” because…I guess it’s more African?) and to be honest, if I had seen the website first I would not have read the book. I’m all about Africa. Pyramids are cool and so are lions and giraffes, but most  the people I see in the media who celebrate Africa the way the site seems to celebrate it, usually also want to kill whitey, which, being white, I take objection to. But I hadn’t seen the website so when I heard the name of the first book I thought it sounded neat so I got it and read it.

 The two characters in Coyote Kings were black, but that was a good thing. The book was filled with wonderful and colorful expressions that really could only be spoken through ebonics . The characters weren’t angry or violent caricatures, like most black men seem to be in a lot of media, they were just two fun-lovin dudes who liked reading comic books and had problems with the ladies. Nor were they stripped of their ethnicity in the book. They were black, and you believed they were black, but it didn’t matter, it was just part of their character.

 I contrast this with A Confederacy of Dunces, which English teachers fall over themselves to praise because of its descriptions of scenes and characters. But I read that book and found it utterly bleak. There was a black man in that book, but his expressions were ridiculed just as the characteristics of every other character was ridiculed. Look at this black man, it seemed to say, isn't he stupid? Let's laugh at him. It was supposed to be a humorous novel but I found it mean spirited and depressing.

Faust CELEBRATES his character’s differences. He revels in them. He’s proud of them for their faults as well as their strengths.

 But aside from this Faust also has a lot of fun too. He organized the book like a D&D game. He’d introduce a character and give their stats, including alignment and strengths and weaknesses and then he would narrate their point of view as if they were telling the story. He could slip into a different narrative voice so easily and effectively it almost didn’t matter what he was writing about.

 In the latest book, Faust takes on superheroes, pop psychology, and surprisingly what would seem (just glancing at his site) to be his own political group, the militant pro-african movement. Which again isn’t to say he ridicules any of these things. What he does is exaggerate their features, both bad AND good, in a way that’s funny without being mean.

 For instance his version of Superman, Omnipotent man is a back woods hick without much brains, and he has a lot of problems that snowball and multiply throughout the book, but everybody likes him and the reader can’t help but like him either because despite being simple he continually tries to be a good person and he’s just so gosh darned pleasant.  Also throughout the book, Faust lampoons the self help books that you find riddling the psychology section of the bookstore. The off the wall similes and mixed metaphors the condescending,  pseudo-cheerful tone, the use of made up, intellectual sounding words. But at the same time, and often right next to something completely ridiculous you find a nugget or two of real insight into what the characters are going through. Eva Brain, the narrator, is obviously off her rocker, and she’s a bit blind to what’s really going on around her, but at the same time she’s good at what she does.

 Nobody in From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain is completely evil or incompetent, but no one is innocent or without fault either. You find yourself rooting for different characters at different parts of the story. And there’s a mystery to it too. In fact in the end the format of the book is just like one of those Clue-type mysteries where all the interesting characters are in a room and someone dies. But this mystery has people who can make cars appear out of thin air, human flies, and Norse goddesses. And it’s funny. And thought provoking.

 The problem with it, and the reason why it’s an 8 out of 10 and not higher, is that the character I was rooting for towards the end of the story, wasn’t really treated the way I thought he should be. That and there were SO many red herrings that I was getting mental whiplash. First this was what was going on, but then no it was actually THIS. That’s great every once in a while, but I didn’t have time to get centered “psychemotionally” as Dr. Brain would say. Finally, while I liked it the first one or two times, almost EVERY character in the novel is secretly intelligent and putting on act for everyone else. It got just a tiny bit old.

 Anyway overall Dr. Brain was a very fun read. I couldn’t put it down, and it made me want to write more, like all good books do. Despite what happened to the character I was rooting for, the ending was very good in an evil sort of way. The kind of ending that makes you want to go back and read the book again.

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