Sunday, December 27, 2015

Writing Vivid Settings: Professional Techniques for Fiction Authors (Writer's Craft Book 10), by Rayne Hall

Book cover This book opened my eyes on multiple levels. First of all it went right through my Dunning–Kruger effect that made me hope that writing would be easy. Second, it showed me how to see the world as a writer, which is hugely valuable.

Writing Vivid Settings is also a value packed reference book. Rayne Hall doesn't go artificially raising your expectation level - you know the type: "in this book I will show you how to eliminate hunger and solve poverty, but before that...", he instead just goes right into it. In fact the transition to actual useful information was so abrupt that I found myself feeling grateful before I could even understand what the book was about. Then, when I did, it hit me even harder, because I understood not only what I was missing in my writing, but also what I was missing in my every day perception.

If I were to summarize the book, it is all about consciously describing from the point of view of your characters, in a way that makes the reader connect emotionally and subconsciously to the character and scene. In Hall's view there is no such thing as objective scenes, they are defined more than anything else by the character that observes them. The book advises to describe through the senses: smells, sounds, the lighting of the room, the way things feel to the touch, etc, then go towards what the character would most likely notice, based on their own personality and background, making sure to use similes so that the memory of the scene becomes anchored in the reader's mind in the same way it would in the mind of the observer in the book. Yes, it does sound weird, doesn't it? Make the reader feel as the person who doesn't really exist except in the writer's head.

Each chapter in the book explains elements on how to describe the surroundings, when to use them, how to use them, what to avoid, professional examples from other books and some assignments to make you get right to it. And there is where it becomes interesting. When I told my wife about it, she immediately recognized exercises for "grounding", something that is used in mindfulness and gestalt psychology. As an example: describe the smells in the room, then the way the light enters it and how it changes the colors, then some background sounds, all by using verbs that are very specific and indicative of the character's mood and similes that would be indicative of the character's background. I kind of mixed several chapters in this, so you can get the point. Well, when is the last time you ever did something like that in your life? When were you last conscious of the sounds and smells around you and what they evoke? When did you last compare the light in a place to a living thing, with a mind of its own, just because you can? It is all about bringing all those vague perceptions to a form that can be communicated, to others and to yourself.

That is the trick to good writing, for sure, but also a way of observing the world around you. Suddenly, I felt like a little child that doesn't see the world around because he doesn't know how. I found myself going places and trying to describe the scene as instructed in the book - many of the assignments in it suggest doing right that, anyway - and it was hard. It was more than hard, it felt impossible. Like living your life on a psychologist's bench, always asking you "what does that mean?" and "how does it make you feel?" and "what will that lead to?". But how alive the world seemed while doing that! Aware of my own senses, feelings and their roots, I could suddenly understand people who enjoy life for its own sake. The book's description is "Do you want your readers to feel like they're really there—in the place where the story happens?" After reading it, it seemed that I was never there in the first place.

It probably doesn't say things differently from other writing books, but it certainly opened my eyes. I also absolutely loved how it didn't start with marketing bullshit and got right into it, with theory, examples and exercises. It can be used as a reference, before and after writing, since it has exercises on improving already existing work. I think this is a great book.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Trek The Next Generation: Starfleet Academy Book Series - 1,2 and 3, by Peter David

book covers I've decided to read some of the stuff that takes place in the Star Trek universe, for research purposes. I was particularly interested in Starfleet Academy and, since Next Generation was clearly the best Star Trek series yet, I went with that one. So here I am reviewing the first three in a fourteen book series called Star Trek The Next Generation: Starfleet Academy Book Series, all written by Peter David. And, boy, am I disappointed!

It's not that I expected some high end drama, but in reality each one of these books is a booklet that one can read in about 2 hours. All three of them together are barely a novel. And the thing is that this is exactly what I was looking for: a history of the crew of the Enterprise from when they were cadets. What am I disappointed for? It is a "written by numbers" book. It is one of those "write a novel in nine days" thing, only each is probably written in five. The characters are shallow, undeveloped, details are missing and there is no real science fiction in there. I mean the real stuff, the one that takes into account centuries of cultural and technological evolution in which we had eugenic wars and a third World War, in which we encountered a myriad of alien species that are very different from us. There is no social commentary, no psychological evolution, no high technology and no real personal drama. And I understand. Just take a look at the bibliography of Peter David, it needs its own page. The man is a writing monster. However, it is clearly a quantity vs quality thing.

Anyway, I will review all three books as a single story, which in fact it is. All about Worf at the Academy, Worf's First Adventure is about proving himself in a simulated battle against the Romulans, while Line of Fire and Survival are about him taking command of a diplomatic mission on a joint Federation-Klingon colony.

From the first pages we get that Worf has a conflicted personality, stuck somewhere between the strict tenets of the Klingon culture and the Human education from his parents, unclear if he is more Klingon or more Human. His parents are proud of him and his adoptive brother as they embark for the Starfleet Academy, but from then on, for three "books" of adventure, we don't hear anything about those parents anymore. In fact, the first book is there merely to prove Worf's superiority over his human brother who is forced to leave the Academy as soon as the story ends. Afterward, we don't read anything about him, either. There are more pages dedicated to grumpy and violent behavior than it is to what the Academy entails, what are the courses, or how disjointed lectures can form a cadet into an officer in a four year standard program. It is not explained why some are engineers and some are in security, even when they are taking the same classes. Nor is it made obvious how the teaching methods in the twentyfourth century differ from the ones in 1980. Worf simply floats from one sequence to the other, like in a dream, without the need for continuity or context or even common sense.

To summarize: Worf comes to the Academy, learns nothing new and his innate values and abilities help him go through the challenges posed by a Starfleet training. I mean, really, there is a part there about how Worf was taught to be in a certain way and not helping a team member when in need was simply not conceivable. So basically... he remains unchanged. True, Worf is one of the most stubborn and difficult to change characters in Star Trek, but still, a good story needs some sort of development, some sort of life changing challenge, any kind of challenge at all.

In truth, this level of writing makes me more confident on my prospects of writing books myself, but I don't want to read stuff like this.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Is Syfy finally living up to its name? The Expanse: Finally the Sci-Fi we deserve!

The asteroid belt, the main stage of the show I have always been bad mouthing the Sci-Fi Channel, later, after 17 years, renamed to SyFy, as if they wanted to distance themselves from the genre they were supposed to promote. Why? Because I was born in Romania, a place of rancid communism and cultural isolation. After the Revolution, Romanian television stations were scarce in showing SF, and when they did it was always if there was nothing "better" to show, like sports or stupid peasant comedy shows. I grew up with science fiction books and a thirst for sci-fi movies and series. All this time I was dreaming of these foreign channels that I've been hearing about. Amazing to think that there was a SciFi Channel out there, where they were showing sci-fi all day long!

Of course, the reality of it is that science fiction only recently started to pay off. While I was dreaming of a channel that was all Star Trek, Babylon 5, Farscape, BSG, even Blake's 7, showing all new SF movies in the interim, the truth was less than stellar. They were showing crappy, mass produced, cheap programs that was all they could afford. Many of them were reality TV. I wasn't actually able to ever watch the SciFi Channel as a television station, anyway. But I have had contact with other similar ones and I was not impressed. So I judged them by their productions, stuff like Sharknado.

Lately though, I feel like I have to swallow my disdain, after they started doing really interesting stuff like Z Nation, which may be low budget, but well written: exactly what I have been waiting for from the Internet, but failed to materialize. Since writing should be the smallest effort in a show, I expected it to far outweigh production values, but until now, I have rarely seen stuff like that. After loving Z-Nation, now they started with a TV adaptation of The Expanse book series and it is amazing!

A well thought out universe in the near future, where the Solar System has been colonized and the three political entities are Earth, the Asteroid Belt and Mars, locked in an awkward standoff of military and economical influences. The show has really good effects and its attention to details, no doubt coming from the book, but well translated to TV, is great! The African ethnic influences on the Belter culture, the East-Asian preponderance in Earth leadership and the weird mixes of cultures all over, are really cool, but what I appreciate to no end is the realism of the space technology. There is a little inadvertence between script and reality, of course, but most of the stuff in the first 4 episodes is really believable (meaning it is achievable within the science and resources that we know today). The characters are deep and interesting, their interactions weaving together and apart in a very well coordinated dance.

But what I like about The Expanse more than all the production values, great writing and complex characterization is that it is a courageous enterprise. While I was watching it with my wife she was constantly pestering me with questions about stuff that she didn't understand. This, for once, is not a lowest denominator kind of show, it is hard sci-fi for hardcore sci-fi fans! And well done enough so that even on and off fans like my wife would be able to appreciate!

To summarize: watch The Expanse. I have high hopes for it!

Friday, December 18, 2015

The birth of Jesus

We are three in the room, all dressed casually, but I know them for what they are: angels. And they are here to kill me. I fire bullet after bullet, but they hit in weird places in the room, as if I am not even aiming straight. I spit at the first one, defiance my only weapon. The spit ball goes sideways, at a 60 degree angle from my target. Illusion! I aim the gun 60 degrees in the other direction and fire three bullets. The angel falls down.

My gun is pulled from my hand by invisible forces and the second assassin is upon me. He tries to kill me, but he can't. I've taken precautions. Pig meat during this holy day makes me unclean and angels can only kill pure creatures. The angel snarls "You thought pork would save you?" A ball of pure light grows from his open right hand. Unfortunately for me, angels can also purify one by touch alone. I am powerless in his hands. I know I am going to die. As the energy touches my temple I feel the excruciatingly painful ecstasy of purification. In that fraction of a blink of an eye, I feel I can be anybody, do anything. I choose to have telekinesis and get my gun back. I shoot the angel full of holes.

"Who the hell are you?", the dying angel murmurs. "I am Jesus of Nazareth", I reply. He scoffs "That place doesn't even exist!". "Not yet", I grin as he breathes his last.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Nine Day Novel: Writing Fiction: How to Use Story Structure and Write Your Fiction Novel Faster (Fiction Writing Basics Book 2), by Steve Windsor

book cover This book itself was written in two days and it shows. Fortunately for Steve Windsor, the author, it is also a damn useful book, concise and mostly to the point. Full disclosure: I've decided to study writing and hopefully write a novel. This is the first book I have read about the subject.

Meant as a reference, Nine Day Novel: Writing Fiction: How to Use Story Structure and Write Your Fiction Novel Faster is going for covering structure and speed, identifying a commonly used template for fiction and applying it for creating the structure of the book. Windsor then prepares the future author for a nine day schedule in which to write a 100000 word novel - which is at the lower end spectrum of what is considered one, but still technically a novel - even indicating ways to gain the time without making huge changes to your way of life. You know, stuff like not watching TV series (damn you, Steve!!).

He names the template 4PSS (four part story structure) which looks kind of like this:
  1. SETUP
    • Opening scenes
    • Killer Hook Event
    • Establish setting, scene (location), stakes of hero
    • Foreshadow coming events
    • Set up the inciting incident
    • First plot point - inciting incident
  2. REACTION – retreat, regroup, run
    • Reaction to first plot point
    • First pinch point - allude to evil force – Physical middle of Part 2
    • Reaction to pinch point
    • Lead up to midpoint
    • Midpoint of the story
    • Revelation - figure out what you are up against – Physical middle of your Novel
  3. PROACTION - Doomed attempt to take action
    • Reaction to midpoint
    • Second pinch point - allude to evil force again
    • Reaction to second pinch point
    • Pre second plot point lull - give the reader a tidbit of info – take a breath
    • Lead up to second plot point
    • Second plot point - the world changes again
    • Start the Ticking Clock
    • Hero accepts reality of the situation
    • Climax battle scene
    • Final Resolution
    • New equilibrium/cliffhanger if writing a series
Actually, it looks exactly like this. I've downloaded it from his web site. He even goes the extra mile to create a story with us and point out famous books that used this structure.

Bottom line: as a reference, it is a great little thing. It is actually part of a Nine Day Novel series that covers outlining, writing, self editing, self publishing, etc. It's too bad he plugs the Scrivener book writing software tool, which only seems to work on Mac. I've tried installing the Windows version and it is a crappy Java bull that never went past the start of the installer. That may indicate that the book is slightly dated, but it's not, it has been published in January 2015, at least on Amazon.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

TV Pilots - clearing the smoke - part 4 (final)

This is the fourth part of the 2015 autumn TV series pilot review. See parts 1,2 and 3 before this one.

The Frankenstein Chronicles is a terrible title. Inspector John Marlott investigates a series of crimes in 19th Century London, which may have been committed by a scientist intent on re-animating the dead. Sounds like a mix between Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein. Interesting enough it stars Sean Bean, who is also the lead in Legends. Does that mean Legends is on its way to cancellation? Anyway, Bean seems determined to not die in movies anymore!

The beginning is quite well done, with Sean Bean being some sort of police officer in a London plagued by crime and corruption. He finds a corpse, apparently made of pieces of several other bodies, and then he is tasked to find the responsible, not out of civic duty, but because it clashes with a planned legislation against unlicenced medical professionals. Quite gritty and quite interesting set up. If the rest of the pilot is as good, I guess this will remain in the list of shows to watch.

Unfortunately, the show is not as good as I would have liked. It tries to shove all too many clichés down your throat, while being slow in pace and low in entertainment. I will keep watching it, like I do Jekyll and Hyde, but I think they both will not be worth watching.

The Last Kingdom. The year is 872, and many of the separate kingdoms of what we now know as England have fallen to the invading Danes, leaving the great kingdom of Wessex standing alone and defiant under the command of King Alfred. Against this turbulent backdrop lives our hero, Uhtred. Born the son of a Saxon nobleman, he is captured by the Danes and raised as one of their own. It sounds like an attempt to follow on the success of Vikings, which I have to say has more to do with casting and music than the story. Anyway, time to watch.

Well, it is with Matthew McFadyen, well known to me from The Pillars of the Earth and Ripper Street, but I believe he will only be in the first episode. Rutger Hauer is also in, however still for one episode only. It smells like bait-and-switch.

The pilot starts with Vikings attacking Northumbria and killing everybody due to their superior training and tactics. They take away a boy and a girl to serve them, the boy being the lord's son. Soon he will become the Dane's earl adopted, but that will change when he is a man. That is his story. Damn it, I wish I had reasons not to watch it, but... I find none. This one stays.

Two to go: The Romeo Section Lies, corruption, murder - welcome to the world of The Romeo Section where spies are recruited to seduce for secrets. I hope it is not another government agency that solves crime thing. The description leads to some pretty dark thoughts in my head, but it might just as well be beautiful people acting all sexy the entire thing. James Bond without the action or the brain, that sort of thing. Personally I expect people who get recruited as spies in order to seduce secrets away to be soulless sociopaths or tortured souls looking for redemption... or both. Let's see which one is it.

The episode starts with an exotic location: Hong Kong, a well aged gentleman at the horse races and people watching him or giving him "subtle" hints in conversations. Funky jazzy music (almost like a heist movie one - oh no!). 15 minutes and nothing happened other than posturing and fancy musical themes. 10 minutes later some sex scenes in which not even boobs are being shown. That's really brave... More and more talking, posturing, meaningful looks. At the end of the pilot I wasn't interested in the section, the head of the section, the members, the cute girls they are banging without showing their bodies or the fucking heist music that is telling me "wait, this is cool" without actually showing me anything cool.

Conclusion: no way! Dark enough for me to like it, but damn slow, badly acted, horrendously edited and plain dull.

Wicked City. A pair of LAPD detectives track down serial killers terrorizing the Sunset Strip. Cop show. I will watch 10 minutes and if I don't like it by then, it's a no.

The interesting thing is that it is set in 1982. The actors, I quite like: Jeremy Sisto as the cop and Ed Westwick as the first killer. Some more boobless sex... Police investigating, killer wiggling around, killer's girlfriend that may or may not be killed at any moment...

I actually watched two episodes on fast forward. I was still waiting for something to happen. It's better than most cop shows, I guess, but kind of slow and bringing nothing terribly new to the table. I will not watch it.

So, final list of autumn 2015 TV series pilots.
Liked: Blood and Oil, Into the Badlands, London Spy, Jessica Jones, The Expanse, The Last Kingdom
Undecided: Flesh and Bone, From Darkness, Heroes Reborn, Jekyll and Hyde, Limitless, The Frankenstein Chronicles
Discarded: Agent X, Quantico, River, The Player, The Art of More, The Bastard Executioner, The Coroner, The Romeo Section, Wicked City
Ignored: all the rest

Transfering phone contacts from Windows 8 on a Nokia phone to IPhone

The bigger a company gets, the stupider, it seems. I wanted to transfer the contacts from an old phone to a new one. Actually, since it was a phone - a smartphone, mind you - I thought it would be easy to just save everything to a file and import it to the other phone. Wrong! Every smartphone needs to be connected to some cloud account, otherwise it doesn't feel good. Let's enumerate the issues:
  • There are contacts on your SIM, but the SIM cards are too small to hold all the information of your contacts or all the extra info the phone associates with them - so no way to transfer to SIM, then just be on your merry way. This was the old way. In Windows 8 and higher, for example, the option to transfer to SIM has been removed completely
  • Each platform has it own cloud that, like clouds in the sky, are actually quite disconnected. Called it "corporate blindness", the symptoms being that you ignore that other companies even exist when you are working at one of these giants. You know, like when you are a character in a zombie movie and you see an undead walking towards you and you call it... a walker. Damn branding!
  • There is no way to delete all the contacts on your IPhone without a special software, and the software is not Apple.
  • There is no way to transfer contacts to a file from Windows 8. You can only transfer it to Outlook and then in a file

The day was saved by a very simple thing: a Nokia app that was installed by default on the phone called Transfer my Data. If you go to the app settings, it has the option to transfer all the contacts to a .vcf vCard file. All you have to do then is to email the .vcf file to your IPhone email account (I did it by first transferring it on my laptop via a USB cord and the standard Windows Explorer), open the email and click on the attached file. And voilà! Not only the contacts can be merged with existing contacts, but there is also the option to create entire new contacts (so overwrite and therefore delete old contacts).

Hope it helps someone who, like me, had to navigate through tens of unuseful and even deceitful corporate pages that try to force you to move your contacts to their cloud.

TV Pilots - clearing the smoke - part 3

Just as in the previous part 1 and part 2, I am exploring the pilots for new TV series from autumn 2015. Some of the shows I haven't even heard about, some of them I flat out refused to try based on the genre or description, but some remained to be tried. Here we go.

The Art of More. The Art Of More exposes the crime and intrigue behind the glamorous facade of New York auction houses. Already sounds boring as hell and a tat pretentious (see what I did there?), but it stars Dennis Quaid, which is one of the actors I like, so let's see where that gets us.

The show starts with a museum, some American soldiers guarding it and some robbers that are trying to steal a valuable crown. We move to present day where the crown is auctioned for 1.2 million and one of the soldiers is now dressed in an expensive suit. This introduction kind of pulled me in, but after the series intro, the very first scenes threw me back out: fancy rap music, quick whooshing moves of the camera, like something from Entourage without it being funny. Then we get this cutthroat auction floor, with agents trying to charm and cheat their way into the pleasure of the money people. Quaid plays a very annoying and terribly rich person that everybody wants to woo. I feel a hook coming up. If it's nothing interesting I will give this up. I fear that it is a sort of Wall Street made serial, with the rich mentor and the resourceful youth.

I was right. The smartass young resourceful man that climbs the ladder, stepping on toes and heads. I am not going to watch it.

Next on is The Bastard Executioner. The Bastard Executioner tells the story of a warrior knight in King Edward I charge who is broken by the ravages of war and vows to lay down his sword. So a knight who decides what to do in medieval England? Like that is at all possible. Is it some attempt of rebooting Robin Hood without paying royalties?

It starts with one of the cheapest medieval battles I've seen so far, where a valiant knight (a poor man's version of Chris Hemsworth) is being grievously wounded then saved by a kid that looked like young Storm from X-Men. She asks him to fulfill his destiny and lay down his fighting sword. Later on, he is happily married with a pregnant beautiful girl while an ominous baron who fucks his wife then insults her, then gives orders while sitting on the shitter and while the Fool wipes his ass. Guess who is going to get killed and who will seek revenge? I can already see it.

Ah, Stephen Moyer is here, playing the baron's best man. To me it feels like this series is a little sssssuckie! Heh. Faith, prophecies, cardboard characters. This I will not watch.

The Coroner is next. A UK crime/drama that doesn't even have a description on IMDb. On Wikipedia we find a more detailed description: Jane Kennedy takes over the job of coroner in a South Devon coastal town she left as a teenager. Matt Bardock stars as Detective Sergeant Davey Higgins who was Kennedy's childhood sweetheart, and together they investigate local deaths. Oh, hell no!

This one I will gladly not watch.

The Expanse just started. The crew of the Rocinante discover a derelict vessel which holds a secret that may be devastating to human existence. Yeah! A new sci-fi! I just hope it's good.

I have to admit that this series might appeal to me more than to others, but I am going to tell you that I loved the pilot. It's about life and politics in the asteroid belt in the 23rd century. They took great lengths to make it realistic, as much as a TV show can do that with space physics and biology. There are several points of view: a relaxed officer on a cargo ship, a semi-dirty cop on Ceres, an Earth matriarch of a security company and a missing young heiress of a Luna based corporation. The ship interiors are too big, some space maneuvers are not quite accurate, but the post-colonization of the Solar System world is believable and the acting and production values are high.

Decision: this one I am going to watch!

Continued in part 4

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Cooking my first sarmale

Sarmale with polenta, cream, smoked meat and chilly pepper Sarmale is a dish that is traditionally eaten around Christmas in Romania, although you can make them all year round and some Romanians do. This type of food probably has Turkish origins, since the word "sarmak" means "roll" in Turkish and "leh" is a common Turkish pluralization. Not that I know Turkish, but part of Romania was conquered by them, so some things remain. Sarmale is one of the good ones, but it is a time consuming dish to prepare so I never cooked it myself. That's what parents are for, right? However, recently when I was abroad, I found myself wanting to cook some for my foreign friends. Unfortunately I couldn't do it then, but the idea to cook some tasty sarmale remained.

Today me and the wife set off to do just that. She knows how to make them, unfortunately. That means that my giddiness was uncalled for, since I expected numerous improvements on the recipe, but instead I was coerced to follow "the law". Even worst, due to differences in taste and digestive systems as well as a lack of some more exotic ingredients, the recipe we agreed on is some of the simplest possible. No onion, no garlic, no paprika, no parsley in the mix, nor bacon or tomato sauce - only outside. However, I am sure that even so they will be extremely tasty and the simplicity of this recipe means even people that don't know how sarmale should taste like can do them at home and then experiment with their national ingredients.

Without further due:
  1. mix pork and veal chopped meat with some rice and pepper (and optionally thyme)
  2. wrap mixture in pickled cabbage leaves to get the sarma rolls
  3. put rolls in a large pot in the following fashion
    • first a layer of simple chopped pickled cabbage
    • a layer of sarmale, put one next to the other, but with some small space left, since they will grow
    • put a layer of chopped pickled cabbage and some bacon and a bit of smoked meat (like ribs), more thyme, maybe a little hot paprika
    • repeat the previous two steps until the pot is full
  4. add water to fill the space
  5. place in oven at 150C (300F) and cook for at least three hours

The time consuming part if the making of the rolls, which not only requires manual labor for each roll, but also needs good cabbage leaves, cut in the correct way. Plus the long cooking time. In Romania we eat them with polenta, sometimes with cream or yogurt, while biting from raw chilly peppers. Some prefer them hot, some like them cold. I especially like the cold ones, because you can just pick them up and eat them.

Now, the dish called sarma is done differently in each country. If you google "sarma" you get recipes from the former Yugoslavia (see this, as an example), but if you google "sarmale" you get the Romanian ones (Here is a decent one). The types of leaves used, the mixture, the cooking style may very drastically. I, for one, want bacon,onion and garlic in the dish. I would also add some tomato sauce and hot paprika in the mix on principle. I wanted to experiment with different types of meat, coriander, cumin, Indian spices and so on. There are also different types of leaves, but I would say that the pickling of the cabbage is one of the main reasons why the sarmale are so good. Perhaps other types of leaves could also be pickled, but that means I either have to do it myself or use the standard ones that you can find already pickled at the market. Perhaps one of the things that makes my mouth water the most is to add some mutton sausage mix in the meat, moving more towards the Arabic style of meat dishes, or just add sheep fat over the sarmale when they are cooking.

But why stop there? If you look at the various recipes, some of them start off by frying the garlic, onion and rice. Some of them add egg to hold the mixture, or celery, or parsley or other things. I know vegetarian people that don't put meat in the mix, or people like my wife who don't want fried onion in their food. There are fish cabbage rolls, there are chicken ones, some people use fine cut potato with or instead the rice. The leaves are usually either grape leaves or cabbage, although some don't use pickled leaves and any large leaf can be used (or even small ones if you are a clock maker with OCD). One example that I've heard about and doesn't appear in the Wikipedia article is using linden leaves. And the leaf type really really affects the taste. The grape leaf sarmale are eaten with yogurt, for example, while the cabbage one rarely so, but are eaten with hot paprika or chilly peppers. In other words, one can create any type of roll using any type of leaf with any type of content, as long as it absorbs the water and fat that carry the taste of the leaf and the other ingredients.

So, do you feel a little inspired by this or not? It is one of the most common Romanian slow cooking dishes and a delight to eat.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

TV Pilots - clearing the smoke - part 2

Continuing with the autumn TV series pilots that I started in part 1 we reach Into the Badlands. A mighty warrior and a young boy search for enlightenment in a ruthless territory controlled by feudal barons. Even if the series has been advertised, they were smart enough to be vague. The only thing I get from those advertisements and the description is that it might be a post apocalypse, motorcycle knight kind of thing.

Oh, wow! The introduction is great. The knight is played by Daniel Wu, an American-Chinese actor who knows Kung-Fu (pardon the pun) and it shows. The world is indeed a post apocalyptic one, after wars that devastated it. The Badlands are now ruled by 7 barons who banned all firearms (and maybe even all ranged weapons? it's unclear). The show starts with Daniel Wu destroying a group of about 10 armed people with only his hands and feet. And it's not one of those pacifistic knocking people down or hitting their pressure spots or whatever. He breaks hands, arms, legs, necks, spinal columns and kills them all brutally. You know what? Based on that alone and by Daniel Wu's acting as well as fighting, I am going to greenlight this one. Oh, and the main title theme is by Mike Shinoda.

After watching the whole pilot, I remained equally impressed. The actors are good, even the adolescent ones, the production values are high, the battles are impressive and the baroness... hmm hmm hmm. BTW, Orla Brady, the actress playing her, is 54 years old.

Next on the list: Jekyll and Hide. 10-part drama set in 1930s London focusing on Robert Jekyll, the grandson of the original doctor. The show will follow Robert Jekyll's quest to discover his real identity and the true nature of his family's cursed history. Sounds like an attempt to follow on the success of Penny Dreadful and Sherlock. I kind of dread "the son of..." concepts, but who knows?

The story is set 50 years later, where Robert Jekyll is a doctor in Ceylon. Apparently his adoptive father is hiding him from the world there, until he is lifting a 10 ton lorry of the back of a girl and gets into the attention of a British lawyer. The first 10 minutes set the stage, but I find them amateurish and bland. I can only hope that it goes better than this further along. It seems that this adaptation moves away from the psychological roots of the original story, instead going with a paranormal "old gods" idea. Richard E. Grant is in it, too, as the head of a shady government organisation and there seems to be an evil organization as well.

I am not ready to dismiss this, yet. It might be interesting. After all, I do watch a lot of fantasy and sci fi and I usually like British dramas. I will leave this undecided.

Limitless. A man gains the ability to use the full extent of his brain's capabilities. A television adaptation of the 2011 film, 'Limitless'. This series I will leave for later. I haven't seen Limitless and it seems bad form to not watch the movie first.

London Spy Story of a chance romance between two people from very different worlds, one from the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service, the other from a world of clubbing and youthful excess. Oh, my, another spy series. Spies, the new vampires? Anyway, it has an interesting premise, that a young clubber would enter the world of spycraft for love. Funny, that: the two main actors come directly from Spectre and Kingsman.

I like that the romance between the two guys is realistic and drawn out, not just a smile, some adventure and a kiss. Most romantic films could learn from this one. On the other hand... it's being drawn out :) Nothing interesting happening after the first 20 minutes. But the characters are well fleshed out and the acting is good. It gives you that feeling of "if they make so much effort to define the characters, how much more wonderful the story will be?".

I think I am ready to mark this as a keeper. It might grate homophobic people, but the actual homosexual scenes are few and far between. I am really curious on how it will go on.

Following on the list is Quantico. A look at the lives of young FBI recruits training at the Quantico base in Virginia when one of them is suspected of being a sleeper terrorist. I am already sick of police or other government agency series and it also features a nonwhite female lead. It also has something to do with terrorism. It feels all like a big cliché. I hope I am wrong, of course, after all Homeland was kind of the same and I love it. Let's see what is it like.

After watching the pilot, I can tell you that it is all of the above, but also more. It is not acted badly and the story, while playing on the artificial fears of the Americans, is intriguing. I would have rather seen more about their FBI training at Quantico than see a character being singled out and then the story turning into The Fugitive, though. The perfect physical specimens, the pop music telling you what to feel and the "fancy" editing reminiscent of so many mass produced series didn't help either. Oh, and the second episode starts with "My name is...". As a friend of mine said, one should run away from shows starting like that.

I was tempted to let it undecided and watch a few more episodes, but I realize that it is just me having problems letting go. This is a recipe TV series with all the classic hooks. Just in order to make sure I watched the "previously on Quantico" bits and they sucked. I will remove it from the list and not watch it.

River. John River, a brilliant police officer whose genius and fault-line is the fragility of his mind - a man haunted by the murder victims whose cases he must lay to rest. Really? A brilliant whatever with emotional problems solving police cases? Again?! I am tempted to not even try it out. However, it is British and stars Stellan Skarsgård.

Well, all respect for his acting, but Stellan alone won't make me watch this series. Retroactively I think for the same reason I should not watch From Darkness. It's about a cop who hallucinates his female partner and obsesses about who killed her. His singular focus makes him able to solve cases, even when his entire department feels sorry for him and wants him to get a compassionate leave.

While it might be a well done series, the subject is completely uninteresting for me. This one I will leave out.

Next on: The Player. A former intelligence and FBI officer, who now works as a security expert in Las Vegas, is recruited by mysterious pit boss Mr. Johnson to, based on his tips, try to prevent crimes, while the rich place bets on his chances of success. Solving crimes again? The only thing that makes me try this on is that Wesley Snipes is in it.

It starts with action hero strong jaw "security consultant", the obligatory black cop and the professional and compassionate and really cute girlfriend who gets killed and motivates him. Then an all powerful shadow organization which can "predict crime" and employs him as an agent... in order to bet on him.

Wesley Snipes does a fighting routine at the beginning, only to show us how fast he still is, but his role is that of a puppet master, not a really main character. Therefore, dismissed!

Marvel's Jessica Jones A former super-heroine decides to reboot her life by becoming a private investigator. Now, I feel a little bit hypocritical. It is about special person solving cases, right? In all intents and purposes is yet another of those shows that I don't want to watch. But it is part of the Marvel universe and, best of all, it's another Netflix show, following the footsteps of Daredevil. All episodes in a season arrive at the same day. The very concept of "pilot" loses its meaning. Add to it David Tennant as the bad guy and I can't help myself.

Jessica Jones is an interesting character: a failed female superhero, with PTSD after she was basically mindraped by a villain, hiding as a private investigator in New York, overdrinking and having nightmares. Different from most female fronted shows, this one is well made, with a believable and strong character, without it being a guy with tits or a damsel in distress waiting for the queue of men to save her. I will personally watch this, especially since I can go through a season in a day or two. Plus, Jones is a respectable comic book superhero, not the female version of an already established one, like Super Woman, so there is a ton of material to inspire the screenwriters of the show. Verdict: I am keeping it!

Continued in part 3

Friday, November 20, 2015

TV Pilots - clearing the smoke - part 1

It's almost winter and the TV scene is filled with new series, there are new movies at the cinema and there is also what people call "life", whatever that is, apparently something that is not about films or books or even online videos. In order to be able to experience this strange concept, I have to abandon some TV series without even watching them. Unfortunately, after doing that, I am still left with several which sound interesting from their description and could be either great or really awful. In order to make a decision, today I am going through the pilots of several of these television series and blogging about them while doing it. I will watch them in alphabetical order, not sorted by any type of value.

So here we go. First one in the list: Agent X. Hidden from the view of the public - and even from the President - there is a top secret agent who is trained and ready to serve, deployed only at the careful discretion of the Vice President. Already a pretty annoying description, again putting intrinsic value on government agencies and their decision making prowess rather than on a lawful democratic system. I would have hoped they would present this as an antihero story, where the guy is an interesting person, but works for a shitty agency, but that would be putting too much faith in writers and production companies.

In the first 5 minutes we see a CIA agent captured by some Arabs, insisting he is actually a missionary. His Bible is actually a bomb and he kills his captor with his legs only, while hanged by the ceiling by the hands. Why would they think a Christian missionary would be a good cover for a Western agent in an Arab country is not explained. Then he gets recruited and 4 years later he goes after targets completely unprepared, fighting with sloppy movements and without backup, but having a flashy car and making puns. A poor man's version of an American Bond, in those five minutes he manages to shoot a guy in his left shoulder, who then miraculously gets up with a wound in his right one. The lead actor is not charismatic, the series presentation puts Sharon Stone as the first billed cast member and it features pictures with American presidents throughout their history guarded by "agents X". Well, if it's for the president, it must be good...

After five minutes I've decided not to watch this anymore. If it goes on like this, I am going to finish fast.

Next one in the list: Blood and Oil. A young married couple of newcomers looks to cash in on the modern-day oil boom in North Dakota and becomes involved with sly local oil baron, Hap Briggs, and his troubled family.. Not to be confused with the Blood and Oil 2013 reality show, this serie's description reminds me of Dallas. Let's see if I am wrong.

Set in the present day, in the area of the Bakken formation, a place where almost 10% of the US oil production comes from, the series starts off with a car accident. The actors seem charismatic enough, the setup intriguing, but the accident leaves a lot to be desired. Do they always have to have the scene where someone turns completely to watch the person next to them while they are driving? Doesn't anyone in the movies watch other movies that repeat the same trope over and over again? The show is set in cowboy territory where people wear the hats and have conflicts with the native Americans and the big boss man is played by Don Johnson! The sheriff is played by Delroy Lindo, as well.

To me, the first fifteen minutes of the pilot proved that the show has potential. The actors are decent, the production values are high and, besides some rather amateurishly written scenes, I believe this to be able to become a classic. It feels like the story is about innocence corrupted by money, as evidenced by the young hopeful and loving couple and the roughness and mercantilism of the people and the area. I will try it on my wife, see what she says.

Next stop: Flesh and Bone. Claire, a talented but emotionally troubled dancer, joins a company in New York City, and soon finds herself immersed in the tough and often cutthroat world of professional ballet. Sounds like an interesting show... but not for me. The wife will have to consider this as well.

I kind of hoped it would be connected with the Flesh and Bone song by The Burning Brides, wonderfully used in the vampire comedy Suck. Well, it wasn't. More likely is an attempt to bank on the success of Black Swan. Although if the show is serializing that, I will watch it!

Following is From Darkness. The story of Claire Church (Duff), a former police officer who moves away to the remote Western Isles in an attempt to escape the violent past that still haunts her. British show, it sounds like an attempt to continue shows like Broadchurch and put in a female lead while at it, so they can fill their diversity quota. Let's see what it's about.

I was right. Dark, brooding, depressing, about emotionally scarred police people going to solve cases. Verbal and emotional violence, flawed personalities, well fleshed out characters. I may end up watching it, but I am not certain yet. On IMDb it's rated 5.2 and the people's comments are quite negative.

Oh, dear. Heroes Reborn. A year ago, a terrorist attack in Odessa, Texas, left the city decimated. Blamed for the tragic event, those with extraordinary abilities are in hiding or on the run from those with nefarious motives. A direct followup of the Heroes series that I eventually ended up not watching anymore. If the pilot is good, though, I might keep it to watch it on fast forward. Let's see what we've got.

The pilot starts within a world of hope, where people and "evos" can live in peace. Then... kaboom! Some terrorist attack and the whole world changes. Yeah, I know, it sounds familiar, doesn't it? Maybe it will open up some eyes, but I doubt it. After all, the same message was exposed in the first series and no one cared. The same comic book feel, with the titles and the chapters and so on. I like that Jack Coleman is still in it as Noah Bennet, I am really glad Claire Bennet is not a character anymore and I see Hiro in the cast, which is nice. Let's see where it goes. I am not ready to dismiss it right off the bat, but I believe that is almost identical to the first series, save the different cast.

Continued in part 2

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb

All three book covers The first thing to notice about Robin Hobb's writing is that it's good. Characters are well written and well embedded in the scenes, scenes are well described, albeit sometimes too well, the world is well defined and the story feels both original and familiar, so it wasn't difficult to enjoy reading the three books in the Farseer series. Sure, there were issues with the story that I felt frustrated about, and I am afraid to say that it comes from the female perspective of the writer, more than not, but overall it was really difficult to put down once I started reading it.

The main character of the story is the bastard of a royal prince, next in line to the throne, that is being brought by the maternal father to the prince's doorstep. It's yours, you take care of him, that sort of thing. The poor mother had nothing to say in the matter, although why that stayed like this for the rest of the story is unclear. Immediately the existence of this child leads to major changes: his father doesn't come to see it or recognizes him in any way, but abdicates from his royal position and retires to the country, where he is subsequently murdered. The child is raised by the prince's most loyal man, a stableman that is tasked to the boy's care by the prince himself before his death. The old king takes a fancy to the boy and keeps him at the castle if he agrees to become a King's loyal man and become the apprentice of the royal assassin. Several other things happen that see him trained in fine writing, royal intrigue, sword fighting and so on.

Another important aspect of the story is the magic. The Farseer royal line, meaning the king and his sons, are strong in the Skill, something that gives them mostly power over other people or the ability to see or communicate at great distance. There is another type of magic that comes from the mountain folk called the Wit, which is the ability to communicate and even bond to animals. The latter is seen as disgusting and sometimes criminal and many a person was put on trial and killed for having a talent in this type of magic. Guess what? The bastard has both talents.

So it starts like the normal fantasy young adult plot, where the main character is a hapless child that discovers he has superpowers, but Hobb makes this as an unpleasant experience as possible for him: lost friends, jealous uncles that see him as next in line for the throne if ever recognized by royalty, a tragic attraction for a childhood friend, the moral dilemmas associated with being an assassin, deceit, torture, and so on. I will not spoil the book for you, so I will stop here.

The thing that annoyed me the most about the book was the inconsistency in some matters. One moment he is a berserker brawler attacking with a big ax and killing dozens, the next he is traveling everywhere carrying swords or staffs and having fear of two or three people. At one moment he is a trained assassin, the next he can't figure out how to kill people. At one time he blows a powder in someone's face and they immediately die, the next he doesn't know how to kill people that he routinely gets close to, one moment the love of his life is the most important thing, the next he ignores her for a few months while he does stuff for the king. Also, he is loyal to a fault, while everybody else, including his wife and his so called teachers, treat him as a child and keep essential information and training from him. This gets worse and worse as you get closer to the end of the story. The first book was wonderful, the second gets more inconsistent and the decisions of the characters are really weird and the third is filled with WTF moments. The most annoying thing of all is the ending, which features some spectacular sacrifices that are completely invalidated a few pages later on.

Bottom line: the kid is much more effective, smart and logical when he is a child. As he goes through puberty he gets worse and worse until his only skill seems to be listening to what others say and obeying for no good reason. If you don't like the books too much, be happy that the story ends satisfactorily with the three books, if you do like the writing and the world Hobb describes, there are many other books set in the Elderlings world, including a sequel trilogy to the Farseer one called Fitz and the Fool.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Blog redesign

As much as I enjoyed the old format, I needed to change the design of the blog. This is the result. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated!

My personal preference is toward darker themes, and I've added a dark/light tool switch in the Tools menu. I also tweaked the template in order to work on mobile devices better. I hate the default Blogger mobile style. Please let me know if there are any issues.


Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Abandoning Adobe Reader

Today I wanted to read a PDF. Nothing more than that, just read a damn file. Instead, I got the first use of the Adobe Reader DC, which I may have inadvertently updated to when asked for an update (rather than a complete redesign). But I was OK with it, you know. Adobe Reader was always a lightweight reader of files and the updates have mostly been about security. So now they want to redesign it, what could possibly go wrong? Just rearrange some menus or something, right? Wrong.

I skipped EULAs and bloating features for a while until I got to (surprise!) an online login screen. I didn't want to log in anywhere, I just wanted to read the PDF, so I closed the login popup window. It reopened. I started looking for buttons or links for skipping, cancelling, ignoring, doing it later, but none were there. Quite literally I was locked until I chose to log in. You know what I did? I forcefully closed the process and installed Sumatra PDF reader. 10 seconds later I was reading my damn PDF.

And you know what? I have used Sumatra PDF on other computers in the past. What I found is that, besides some features for PDF that I will never use, like forms and such, Sumatra was better than Adobe Reader. Way faster, that's obvious, but then it read correctly some PDFs that could not be even opened by the default reading application from the company that invented the damn document standard. Once, I remember, we had a weird PDF that we had to wait for about a minute in Adobe Reader in order to render a single page. Sumatra opened it instantly. Not only it is smaller, leaner, faster, better, but Sumatra also reads a lot of other formats: ePub, MOBI, CHM, XPS, DjVu, CBZ, CBR.

Bottom line: I have abandoned the last Adobe tool that I was regularly using on my computer. Will they ever learn?

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

New Star Trek series!! An official one, this time.

Yesterday, a CBS original announcement was published stating that a new Star Trek series will be produced to be released in 2017! Yes! Finally! However, I am not all enthused about this. The news item is doing nothing more than promote a generic product. It's like saying "We are going to release the newest detergent brand in 2017" without saying what makes it special or what it is supposed to clean. The entire announcement is about the old Star Trek, the 50 year anniversary (or the 47th of it's cancellation, I guess... morons!) and how the people who wrote the worst Star Trek films yet are on board for it. At least J.J.Abrams is not in. They basically are advertising "Generic Star Trek series. Get you space ship high at the lowest cost in our store".

Yes, I do have a problem with the Kurtzman/Orci team. Take a look of the filthy trash made for the lowest common denominator that they have worked on: Hercules and Xena, Alias, Fringe, Sleepy Hollow, Scorpion; all shows that look interesting, but have no story, no substance, no end. You just watch them for watching's sake, on fast forward, hoping you will see a fun monster or to see how an episode ends. They also worked on the new Star Treks, which personally I disliked with a vengeance.

I mean, look at the announcement. A generic Star Fleet symbol in a shiny, misty light and a text saying nothing. You know what says something? The "Shop" section in the right, where you can already buy T-shirts and Spock ears.

Mr. Kurtzman, Mr. Orci, if you are reading this, please, pretty please, prove me wrong. Show me some light in the pit of cynicism that I fell into. Demonstrate to the world that you are still in it for the stories, for the emotion, for the fun, not just for the money. Make this great concept and then you can say "Ha, Siderite! You're just another moaning critic on the faceless web and you don't know what you are talking about!"

Rumors about a new Star Trek series have appeared and died many times, but the most recent and believable ones stem from March this year, where two pitches seem to be favored: a Michael Straczynski and Bryce Zabel complete reboot, which is highly unlikely, and a further in the future Federation story, where the entire quadrant is at peace and complacent and has to jolt back to action after a surprise new enemy attack. This one seems likely to me for many reasons: Picard is way too old to play any significant role, so is Kirk, while all other attempts at heroic leaders have misfired. CBS doesn't have the guts to make the captain or even the entire vessel alien, so the captain will be a human, like always, and they already went through the phases of black captain, female captain, young captain. Therefore they need a completely new human captain, one that is again a rebel white male and navigates the ship through the moral labyrinth created by alien concepts, which are veiled concepts from other non Western countries. Also, the complacent peaceful empire attacked from outside seems connected to the political reality of the present, which is a constant in the successful Star Trek series.

I don't know how I feel about this. I felt that Star Trek was best when there was no arch enemy in the mix. Next Generation was without question the best Star Trek series ever made and it wasn't based on the war of the Federation with anyone. There were new crises and skirmishes all the time and aliens with long term aggressive intent like the Borg, but the show was never about the war. Deep Space 9 was also like that, until they entered the Dominion War phase, and nobody cared about it much. Enterprise failed terribly with its ridiculous time war, while Voyager started well, then collapsed under the stupid idea that the show needed to be about a strong female character, and therefore they created strong male enemies for her to defeat. Ha, in a way, Voyager's end - the defeat of the Borg Queen - showed not only how stupid it is to try to put females in charge just for the sake of political correctness and no other plot related reasons, but it showed it twice, and then both died at the end, saving the Universe from the great PC threat :) The original series of Star Trek was also not about a specific war and people remember it fondly because of that, regardless of the silly budget and production values. However, that doesn't mean this Star Trek: Federation thing couldn't work. Because it would be anchored in the present, they would always have some ideas on how to go on without having to pull concepts out of their ass while stoned. People would empathize with one side or the other, which I believe to be crucial: paper villains always make bad shows.

There is, of course, the possibility that the new show would be a completely different idea. Perhaps the Star Trek: Star Fleet Academy series that I am expecting for so long, just because it is the last stage of a franchise: adolescent audience, adolescent actors. But the ideas could be fresh as well: think Star Trek meets Harry Potter via Ender's Game (or even better: Fisherman's Hope).

So here is my pitch: a well aged alien teacher is training a class of young cadets, too young to do anything, mind you, except learn. While on a training mission with a shitty training ship, they encounter an unexpected situation, one that requires study, for the survival of the Federation. Notice that I didn't define this as "an enemy", but just something that needs to not fall into adversary hands, perhaps, something that would help the Federation, but would threaten it in the hands of anyone else. Unable to communicate or return, the old teacher must become a captain to his students and solve the situation through ingenuity and hard work. Instead of Spock, Data, 7 of 9 as a counterpoint to the human captain, the captain is now utterly non human, the alien voice of reason, while the entire crew of kids would be a young virile emotional counterpoint to the cold calculation of their captain. It would be controversial because it would also put children in situations where children should not be put, making every experience in every episode a coming of age thing, changing all the characters as the show progresses. They would be the rebels, the bringers of new ideas, the brave bodies and minds that would employ unexpected tactics to achieve their task, but also the stupid kids that die needlessly, that put others in danger, that get physically and psychologically abused.

It would be also anchored in the reality of the moment, because it would touch subjects like teaching methods, the way adults often dismiss or discredit the young, the stupidity and beauty of said youth, the traps they fall for and the people who want to take advantage of their untrained minds and souls. It would also bring god damned sexuality in a show that always looked like made for people that are 50 years old. It would have a political side as well, since the reasons why a discovery cannot be shared because it is too powerful, but should not be destroyed because it is knowledge, will always be controversial.

Oh, dear, I knew that writing a Star Trek post would just never end. Perhaps I should start ST fiction and be done with it. I hope my Star Trek reader fans have enjoyed this and that the rest were not utterly bored. Can't wait for 2017! Perhaps if I would run really fast towards the sun...

The Cycle of Arawn, by Edward W. Robertson

Young orphan, thief, mugger, magician, leader of men The Cycle of Arawn is a three book story arch written by Edward W. Robertson. I have no memory on where I got the idea of reading this series, but now, after researching a bit, I realize is one of those self published books that caught on sooner or later. Robertson is a 30 something guy who wrote a surprising number of books besides Arawn, but he is still young and that may explain the quality of the writing. I mean, he has a blog on Blogspot, for crying out loud! Who does that?

The story is about this young orphan who lives his life by the day, stealing, mugging, surviving. One day, though, he sees a wondrous thing: a man resurrecting a dog from death. He then decides, just like that, to find out what that is about and so he learns about the nether, the opposite of ether, which is the normal stuff of wizardry. The writing is not bad, but not good either. The characters are very thinly fleshed out and they change their behaviour as dictated by the plot, rather than be their own people. One thing that immediately jarred me is that the language of the writing is quite modern, while it presents a medieval magical world. The disconnect grows when all the people in the land, including men, women, different nations, different species, seem to have the same sense of humour. But what really annoyed me about The Cycle of Arawn is the inconsistency of the characters and even the story. In a three book series about nether users, ether is merely mentioned in a few places, although it was supposed to be most of the magic used in the land, for example.

Let's start and stop with the main character: Dante. He starts off as a poor street thug, but he can read, learn new languages, go to places to get books and find references on how to translate an ancient tome, all while being chased around by the owners of the book. He is 16 at the time. I would find that difficult to believe even if he were a modern 16 year old, but one living on the streets in medieval times? All the learning that is done after this point, though, is completely different: pompous old people give him hints and let him work it out in the most convoluted unprofessional educational system that ever existed. At every point, when people with vast difference in hierarchical position interact, they joke and make fun of each other like drinking buddies. This ignoring of the way structured societies work makes Dante become the leader of the nethermancer city, the first human member of a clan of non-human tribe, the starter of a war, the ender of the war, the ender of another war, all by the time he reaches 26 and while going around the world doing dangerous stuff. Which is all nice and neat, but completely absurd. At the end, it seems like the reading of the book that started it all wasn't even necessary or even the best way to learn to become a wizard. One begs the question, what exactly did the order of the nethermancers with the magic before encountering an uneducated kid from another country?

One might think that, being a young adult thing, this book has a lot of action, adventure, romance. It is not true. Dante is essentially a geek, a book buff that got superpowers. The most interesting portions of the cycle is when he reads something new or finds new ways of using the magic. He doesn't have any romantic relationship of note from start to finish and the only girl he kind of likes becomes the girlfriend of another and then he accidentally kills her and then he just moves on. The action sequences are poor, uncoordinated, uninspiring and worst of all: not using things the character has learned how to do in previous sections of the story. One thing that permeates the cycle: nobody gives a damn about anything, really. They proclaim some things, then they just brush them away like nothing happened and move on to make the plot work.

Bottom line: it was a classical "boy find special powers" kind of myth, but went all over the place. It was easy to read, even if some descriptions of non essential stuff took pages! (in my mind I renamed it to The Cycle of Yawn), and the series had a finality, sort of, with the third book, so I don't have to read 14 books to get to the end of the story (*cough*Wheel of Time*cough*). I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, really, even if it wasn't completely bad. It was bad, though.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo

Book cover - the sexy version :) What starts as a slightly humorous book about the differences in perspective between the Chinese and the Western world turns into a deep insight into the raw psyche of women. That's not a nice place, BTW.

The thing that pops up immediately is the style of the English language in which the book is written. Xiaolu Guo creates this character who is a female Chinese coming to England on a year long visa to learn the language so she can get a better job in her native country. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers is written as her diary and, true to character, her English is really bad, but getting better, so that at the end of the book it is rather decent. Some things that Zhuan, the protagonist, is thinking are sometimes really funny, but sometimes feel really artificial, so much so that I scoured the Goodreads reviews of Chinese people to see if there were many exaggerations and it seems that the verdict is NO! In that respect, the book shocks a European by how weird the mindset of a Chinese country woman can be, so I consider it a win to have read it.

Also, the book is rather short, so unless you really dislike something about it there is no reason to not finish it up once started. However, the starting premise of the book is immediately changed when she meets this older Englishman, who lives life by the day, dabbling into art that he doesn't really care about and making ends meet by driving a transport van, which he hates. However he is well educated and, besides boning the young Chinese girl, also doubles as her English tutor. So it turns into a love story. But wait, it's not all roses, as her perspective over life (the woman that takes care of the household and makes babies and the man who provides for the family) is completely at odds with his views on intimacy, privacy and personal goals.

In the end, I have to say that if you want to start hating the relationship you're in, you should read this book. Like the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang, the two characters in the book are complementary, but separate, archetypes of the male and the female and the great attraction between them cannot nullify the classical disparities on their value systems. I don't know about women, but as a man I started to hate the pitiful neediness that Zhuang was exhibiting and I totally understood how the distance between the two people grew. I despaired when I read her thoughts on her own actions, when she knew what she was doing was hurting him and their relationship, but she found herself unable to stop.

What's worse is that, being archetypes, none of the characters compromises in any way, so I believe the reader is then faced with their own failings, but also with their compromises, laid bare, made evident and seeding regret. In that regard, it is a brilliant book. It pits West against East, male vs female, real vs ideal. It's not for everyone though. While I do not regret reading it, I don't think I would have read it if I really knew what it was about.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Performance of the NOT operator in Javascript when used to verify existence or if a value is set

I had this Javascript code that I was trying to write as tight as possible and I realized that I don't know if using "!" on an object to check if it is set to a value is slow or fast. I mean, in a strong typed language, I would compare the object with null, not use the NOT operator. So I randomly filled an array with one of five items: null, undefined, empty string, 0 and new Date(), then compared the performance of a loop checking the array items for having a value with the NOT operator versus other methods. I used Chrome 48.0.2564.109 m, Internet Explorer 11.0.9600.18163 and Firefox 44.0.2 for the tests.

Fast tally:
  • NOT operator: 1600/51480/1200ms
  • === 0 (strong type equality): 1360/47510/2180ms
  • === null : 550/45590/510ms
  • == with 0: 38700/63030/131940ms
  • == with null: 1100/48230/900ms
  • === used twice(with 0 and null): 1760/69460/3500ms
  • typeof == 'object' (which besides the Dates also catches null): 1360/382980/1380ms
  • typeof === 'object' (which besides the Dates also catches null): 1370/407000/1400ms
  • instanceof Date: 1060/69200/600ms

Thoughts: the !/NOT operator is reasonably fast. Using normal equality can really mess up your day when it tries to transform 0 into a Date or viceversa (no, using 0 == arr[i] instead of arr[i] == 0 wasn't faster). Fastest, as expected, was the strong type equality to null. Surprising was the null equality, which catches both null and undefined and is second place. typeof was also surprising, since it not only gets the type of the object, but also compares the result with a string. Funny thing: the === comparison in the case of typeof was slower than the normal == comparison for all browsers, so probably it gets treated as a special construct.

It is obvious that both Chrome and Firefox have really optimized the Javascript engine. Internet explorer has a 18 second overhead for the loops alone (so no comparison of any kind), while the other browsers optimize it to 300ms. Sure, behind the scenes they realize that nothing happens in those loops and drop them, but still, it was a drag to wait for the result from Internet Explorer. Compared with the other huge values, the ===null comparison is insignificantly smaller than all the others on Internet Explorer, but still takes first place, while typeof took forever! Take these results with a grain of salt, though. When I was at FOSDEM I watched this presentation from Firefox when they were actually advising against this type of profiling, instead recommending special browser tools that would do that. You can watch it yourselves here.

Final conclusion: if you are checking if an object exists or not, especially if you can insure that the value of a non existent object is the same (like null), === kicks ass. The NOT operator can be used to check a user provided value, since it catches all of null, undefined, empty space or 0 and it's reasonably fast.

Here is the code:
var arr=[];
for (var i=0; i<100000; i++) {
    var r=parseInt(Math.random()*5);
    switch(r) {
        case 0: arr.push(null); break;
        case 1: arr.push(undefined); break;
        case 2: arr.push(''); break;
        case 3: arr.push(0); break;
        case 4: arr.push(new Date()); break;

var n=0;
for (var j=0; j<1000; j++) {
    for (var i=0; i<100000; i++) {
        if (!arr[i]) n++;
console.log('!value                    '+n+': '+(end-start));

for (var j=0; j<1000; j++) {
    for (var i=0; i<100000; i++) {
        if (arr[i] === 0) n++;
console.log('value===0                 '+n+': '+(end-start));

for (var j=0; j<1000; j++) {
    for (var i=0; i<100000; i++) {
        if (arr[i] === null) n++;
console.log('value===null              '+n+': '+(end-start));

for (var j=0; j<1000; j++) {
    for (var i=0; i<100000; i++) {
        if (arr[i] == 0) n++;
console.log('value==0                  '+n+': '+(end-start));

for (var j=0; j<1000; j++) {
    for (var i=0; i<100000; i++) {
        if (arr[i] == null) n++;
console.log('value==null               '+n+': '+(end-start));

for (var j=0; j<1000; j++) {
    for (var i=0; i<100000; i++) {
        if (arr[i] === 0 || arr[i] === null) n++;
console.log('value===0 || value===null '+n+': '+(end-start));

for (var j=0; j<1000; j++) {
    for (var i=0; i<100000; i++) {
        if (typeof(arr[i])=='object') n++;
console.log('typeof(value)==\'object\'   '+n+': '+(end-start));

for (var j=0; j<1000; j++) {
    for (var i=0; i<100000; i++) {
        if (typeof(arr[i])==='object') n++;
console.log('typeof(value)===\'object\'  '+n+': '+(end-start));

for (var j=0; j<1000; j++) {
    for (var i=0; i<100000; i++) {
        if (arr[i] instanceof Date) n++;
console.log('value instanceof Date     '+n+': '+(end-start));

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Continuum is so much better when you're drunk

some sort of poster Continuum is a strange TV series. It starts as some sort of police procedural, only set in the past from the standpoint of a future in 2077, where the corporations won and the future is stateless, corporate run business, where the police is just another private security force, etc. The crisis point is one from which a cell of anticorporate terrorists are sent back in time, together with a Protector (a cop from the future) to the near future (from our perspective). Each season from there on is more or less a different story, where the viewers much suspend their disbelief (again) to understand the new timeline story. As usual, a time travelling idea destroys, rather than rejuvenates, a story. Instead of a steady, involving plot, we get an all you can eat buffet of redefining the story. Each season we get basically a new series, but with the same characters. And it kind of works, but it loses all sense or meaning. (Meaning you would be dumb as fuck - and as me - to watch this)

I was fortunate enough to watch the last episode of the series (season 4, episode 6), when I was inebriated. I have to say that this is the only way Continuum will make sense to you: utterly drunk and on fast forward. This way, the storyline invented by cocaine driven Hollywood execs makes a little bit of sense and gives one the feel that the idea Continuum had has a sort of ... pardon my pun... continuity. Other than that, you should definitely avoid this series.

Rachel Nichols is super sexy and cute. That's the only thing going for the TV show. I am not kidding; I actually watched the series exclusively because she was hot. The story, the characters, the way everybody would get in bed (so to speak) with everybody - without having sex, mind you - was just puerile. And the last episode (read this: the last episode they had the budget to finish) was so underwhelming that it made me cringe with pain and disgust, only I was so piss drunk I didn't care. And I would definitely bone Rachel Nichols if I had the chance, so you, the more moraly advanced human beings, should ignore this series altogether.

Bottom line: everything that happens in Continuum feels natural when you are piss drunk. You should avoid it, if possible, if not inebriated.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Z Nation, one of the most fun and innovative TV series out there

Main characters are killed all the time, too Update 31 December 2018: After five seasons, Z Nation was cancelled. It had its ups and downs, with inconsistent levels of quality and storytelling, but it was very nice overall and I am glad to have watched it. Personally, I loved the innovation in the sci-fi and the way the show did not take itself too seriously, but sometimes tackling serious and contemporary social issues was important, too. The last season, for example, was all about democracy and egomaniacs trying to subvert it. Perhaps it wasn't the right show to try that on, but I appreciate that the creators thought it was worth it. So, no Z Nation in 2019, but maybe SyFy will learn from this and continue with fun and intelligent storytelling. I certainly hope so.

And now for the original post:

Due to the sheer number of TV series I am watching, I've abandoned the list format, in which I would give a short review of each. I am thinking that I will periodically review shows that I think are exceptional in some way or another. Z Nation is something that sounds stupid from the get go: a low budget Walking Dead clone from SyFy, made by The Asylum. I mean, can this be good at all? The Asylum are famous for the low budget rip-offs and SyFy... well, they changed their name from SciFi Channel to reflect their utter disrespect for the genre that they were supposed to promote. And, to paraphrase Woody Allen, it involves zombies.

The answer to the question is a resolute YES. While it doesn't take itself seriously at all, it is not a comedy. It is not like Sharknado, for example. Most humor in it is ironic with some occasional and subtle references to other work in the genre. The characters are complex and wacky, the story gets more original as we go and the show is full of death and gore. Let me tell you this: Walking Dead is a boring piece of crap compared to Z Nation.

Is it also bad? Yes. Some of the non permanent actors can barely act, the pacing is all over the place, the budget is low and the things that go on in the series don't always make a lot of sense. But compare it with, say... Farscape, which was much better funded, it is more consistent and more fun.

Bottom line: I don't believe this is a show for everybody, but it certainly is not a fringe thing, either. It's like somebody said "We know TV series are mostly crap and instead of trying to pretend they are not, we accept it. But we will make fun crap!". It is a really refreshing TV series and I enjoyed every episode. Give it a go!