Category Archives: Blog

‘Member Star Wars?

Writing this in December 2016 a couple days before Rogue One comes out in theaters. I’m excited about the movie because it’s Star Wars, it looks like it’s going in a new, mostly good direction, and Alan Tudyk is involved and many of the things he’s involved in are awesome (Firefly, Wreck-it Ralph, Baseketball). On the other hand, Tudyk has been involved in some stinkers (In my opinion: I, Robot; Death at a Funeral; and his webseries Conman). The robot he is giving his voice to also looks a bit like a hillbilly with his overalls hiked up too far. (Edit from 7/2/17 I’ve seen the movie now and, interestingly enough I liked that it was going in a new, mostly good direction, but was not as pleased with it as I hoped)

Also disturbing is that Forrest Whitaker is in the movie. I have yet to see Forrest Whitaker be in a movie that’s actually good. The closest is the Crying Game, which was memorable mostly because it was disturbing, not because it was particularly good. Somehow he has a reputation of being a good actor, and while I can’t say he’s a bad actor, I can’t really think of a time where I was struck by any of his performances. I think he’s one of these arthouse actors that get thrown into a movie to give it gravitas, only it often seems to backfire. (Edit: Did NOT like Forrest Whitaker in this movie either.)

It’s kind of a shame, because I get the impression that Whitaker has a good sense of humor and likes a lot of the same things I like. It’s just he always gets these overly serious roles. In most of his scenes he seems to be expressing dismay at having learned some unfortunate truth. At any rate, his being in the movie makes me think that we’re going to have a scene at some point where there is a field of dead soldiers and several lines bemoaning the horrors of war. I suppose that could be a good thing for the movie, I just hope it’s not what the movie is about.(Edit: I was a bit off. Instead of a field of dead soldiers there was a tremendous apocalyptic wave of earth and death)

On a somewhat related note, I just finished playing a Star Wars game from about 8 years ago called Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. This was a game released from LucasArts, before the rights to Star Wars were sold to Disney, but after the last of the three prequels came out. There is a funny moment in  the game where you’re fighting in a room of collectibles and on the wall is a gungan frozen in carbonite that looks an awful lot like Jar Jar Binks.

It’s a frustrating game to play, mainly because the targeting system is so buggy. You can move things with the force, shoot them with electricity, or throw a lightsaber at them, but only if they have a blue square around them, AND you have a clear line of sight, AND they aren’t something that’s immune to the attack you’re trying. Not to mention that if you move a little bit the blue square winks off, and sometimes you can attack somebody even though they don’t have a blue square.

This frustration aside though, it’s fun fighting with and against wookies, jawas, and Rancors; throwing spaceships around with the force; and seeing all the iconic robots and ships from the movies. Also you get to be Darth Vader for a bit, which is neat. The story line of the game isn’t too bad either. It at least has one or two interesting characters. Not the main character, Starkiller, who, while voiced excellently by Sam Witwer, has a strange arc that makes it hard to figure out his motivations. Rather it’s two side characters that I wanted to know more about.

Proxy is a droid that can use holographic projectors on its body to appear as any one he’s studied sufficiently. He repeatedly says that it is his mission to kill the main character, but he obviously cares about him too. Also he has strange insights into the people he pretends to be. There’s a line about midway through the game after Proxy becomes Darth Vader to deliver a message. Proxy says “I hate having to be him” and Starkiller says, “I think he does too.”  I would love to play a game where I could play as Proxy, or see a movie where he was around more. But I’m not even sure if he made it to the sequel of the game, and since the story is no longer canon, we might never see his like again.

The other character I wanted to know more about is Maris Brood, the apprentice of one of the Jedi Knights Shaak Ti. Shaak Ti herself is a canon character now, I think, but at least in the game Maris Brood was way more interesting. She was trained by someone who followed the light side, and yet she herself was dark side. She had an affinity for animals, notably a Megarancor that you have to fight when you battle her. She also could teleport and used lightsabers like tonfas. Shaak Ti’s fight by comparison was something of a letdown and I didn’t get anything of where she was coming from. Maris Brood seem to have a genuine beef that I would have liked to know more about.

Doing research for this post led me to a novelization of the game, which I might check out later, because overall the game was like a glimpse into a much larger story. I play games for three reasons, to pretend to be someone else, to challenge my brain with interesting puzzles, and to be entertained by an engaging, if often not particularly sophisticated, plot. The game had definite good points in all three categories, although it stopped frustratingly short of complete success in any one of them. The ending was a bit contrived and the one choice you could make to influence the plot was way too little, way too late. By the time it comes, you’re almost not even aware that it is a choice, since the rest of the game is so linear.

Now is a good time to pick it up if you’re looking for something to play that’s not too expensive, since it’s got a lot of good Star Wars references, but if you want a game from around the same time period that’s easier and more fun to play, Infamous is probably a better bet. You have many of the same powers, but without the clunky UI. Also Infamous has choices all the way through it that affect gameplay as well as the character’s appearance. Granted the affect on gameplay isn’t very drastic, there are mostly a few lines of dialogue that are different and a few missions that turn out differently. Still, it’s much more satisfying from a roleplaying perspective and it meshes with the storyline better too. I think a good takeaway might be that Force Unleashed tells a better story, but Infamous tells its story better.

Along the lines of remembering things from the past, I’ve run into a lot of stuff on Alzheimer’s research lately. First there was an episode of 60 minutes that aired recently about a group of people living in Colombia that have a rare genetic mutation, making it almost inevitable that they will develop Alzheimer’s. It’s a recessive mutation, so not all of the people get it, but by testing for it, researchers can know ahead of time who’s going to get the disease, and therefore they can know how well whatever therapy they come up with will work. Most of the therapies they currently have show little or no effect on the disease, but that might be because the patients who receive the therapies aren’t getting them early enough.

Far more exciting in my opinion, though, is the research coming from Li-Huei Tsai about using the light from flickering LEDs to lessen the beta-amyloid plaque in the neurons of rats with Alzheimer’s. Beta-amyloid plaque build up is though to be one of the major contributing factors in the development of the disease. It was theorized that causing neurons to fire at a certain rate, known as the gamma frequency, would encourage janitor cells in the brain (microglia) to clear up the plaque. Initially Tsai, used a rather invasive procedure (optogenetics) to cause the neurons to fire at the right frequency. She found that there was, in fact, up to a 50 percent reduction in plaque using this procedure. However, when she simply tried using LEDs with no further surgery she found it had almost the same effect!

Now here’s the clincher, and the thing that ties this whole blog post up. A human gamma wave is a neural oscillation of between 25 to 100 Hz, 40 Hz being the most typical. The unit Hz stands for “Hertz” and means “per second.” Most monitors and TV sets show images at around 60 frames per second. This equates to a light oscillation of around 60 Hz which is well within the gamma range. Furthermore, Gamma oscillations occur when the mind is in a state of extreme concentration, which can occur during meditation, during a difficult calculation, or…playing a particularly engaging video game.

Playing video games could possibly keep you from getting Alzheimer’s.

Dad&BradPod Episode 2

Part two of a conversation between me and my father in March of 2014 about Midsouthcon and other things.

This episode makes reference to the following things:

Police procedurals:
(although I should note that I was initially thinking of police reports, the things actual police write, but said “procedural” which caused some confusion.)


True crime

Tropic Thunder

The character Hannibal Lector from the movie “Silence of the Lambs” from the series of novels by Thomas Harris and the new (at the time) TV series Hannibal

A joke about monks and cannibalism.



Science Fiction art  and its similarities to surrealism

Kelly Armstrong and the TV series Bitten based off of her first book of the same name. Also the new (at the time) book she had at the con Omens


Frank Sinatra

How to Achieve Your Dreams

sky-clouds-above-clouds-wallpaperThe following is a response to a question on Quora. I didn’t quite read the question correctly, but I like what I came up with as an answer. I have no definite expertise on any of this, but I have learned a few things that may be useful for somebody.

dmaicIf you’re serious about accomplishing your dreams, there are some tools that have been developed in the business world that can help. I’ve been involved with some Six Sigma projects, and I like the model of DMAIC for the most part. That is Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control. These sound boring, but they’re really not. Let’s go through them.

The first step of accomplishing your dreams is to have realistic dreams. This isn’t giving up, this is building up. If you want to fly, great. I’m not going to say you can’t fly. But what exactly do you mean by flying? Is flying an airplane going to work for you? No? How about skydiving, that’s kind of like flying, or hang gliding? Do you actually want to be like a bird, or do you want to be superman?

Already, while we started off with something that seems unattainable, we now have several options that are much more attainable. One of the things that keeps you back in this step is fear. Your dream of flight is nice, but what if you don’t like it? What if it’s dangerous? What if it seems less beautiful? These what-ifs can hold you back, but they shouldn’t be ignored either. Make a list of these fears along with any other risks, because its entirely possible that you actually don’t want to accomplish this particular dream. Next to these risks, you want to list the benefits of accomplishing your dream. What will you gain from it. Why do you want to accomplish it? It could be that while your dream involves flight, what you really want is a feeling of freedom, and there might be better ways of doing this. If you think of some, great, make another list of risks and benefits for this new dream. Does it look better than what you had before? You keep at this until you have something that matches your desires and yet still fits with what can occur in reality.

If, at this point, you still don’t see how you can accomplish your dream, then look for ways to get closer to accomplishing it. If you want to be Superman, maybe look into jet packs, physical fitness, rescue work, or space travel. Depending on what it is about Superman that you most want to be, learning about these subjects might not get you there, but it will get you closer. The idea here is to bring your dream closer to reality by bringing reality closer to your dream.

weight-scale-400x400-300x300How close are you to your dream today? The easiest example of this is weight loss. If you want to lose 30 pounds before next Thanksgiving, you need to monitor how you’re doing to know if the diet you are on is working or not. Even if it’s something you dread, you have to get on the scale and check, otherwise there is no point in dieting. You can get more sophisticated in this step for more benefit. You can make a graph of your progress for example and a list of all the foods you ate each day and any exercise you did. This way if there is a large dip or a peak, you can see what might have caused it. Weight loss is nicely quantitative, so measuring is easy to do.

The picture to the left links to a blog about not letting scales control your life. This is a common sentiment, and I can understand where it comes from. I think it’s a completely wrong way of thinking about things, but I understand it. If you aren’t having too much success accomplishing your dreams it can be disheartening to measure how far you’ve fallen. This is because humans aren’t robots. If you aren’t doing well in your progress, you need to either move on to the next steps (analyze and improve) or reconsider the previous step. Is loosing weight really what’s important to you? Could it be that you’re really worried about your fitness? Weight may not be the best way to measure that. If you stress eat, you might measure progress by recording times of stress and how you coped. Or maybe whatever is causing you stress is the problem. Putting serious effort into fixing that might be the best bet. You are never going to be able to levitate yourself. That’s depressing. But being able to do a pull up is close. Even Superman started with tall buildings. But whatever you’re goal you HAVE to measure your progress toward it somehow if you’re serious about accomplishing it.

For your more qualitative goals, like flying or perhaps owning your own business, you might need to make a journal dedicated to the goal. You can probably come up with many little goals and you can note your successes and your set backs in a journal as you experience them. The point is to have a record of what works and what doesn’t so you have some guidance in the next step.

Analyze and Improve
If your diet isn’t working out, change it. If you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, move. You do NOT want to be consistent if you are unhappy. A foolish consistency, as Emerson said, is the hobgoblin of little minds. Although you want to make changes that are likely to work and that aren’t too dangerous, remember it’s okay to make mistakes. You are, in fact, required to make mistakes in order to know what does not work for you. There are different kinds of writers, different kinds of digestive systems, you may, in fact, be from the planet Krypton. You can’t just follow someone else’s plan.

It is very important, however, to continue to measure your progress. You might think it’s a good idea to eat nothing but soy products in your diet, but you might find out that you actually gain weight (because, surprise, soy can be fattening!) Give it some time so you can be sure of how things changed, but if things are going worse, change your system back to how it was before if possible, or make another adjustment if its not.

houseflyI’m going to digress here for a moment to talk about house flies. If you watch a fly fly, you might notice how randomly it moves. It buzzes around your sandwich quite a bit yes, but then it takes a trip to the window and the to the lamp shade and back to your sandwich again. The actual motivations and causes for the complicated behavior of a fly is complicated, but one possible way of explaining it is as a modified random walk. A random (or drunkard’s) walk is one in which a moving object moves in a random direction for a random amount of time. The fly does just about the same thing, except it has memory, sight and smell, signals that make it prefer certain directions over others. As long as the good signals are getting stronger, the fly will keep going in the same direction, pretty much, but if there’s a bad signal that’s getting stronger or the good signals are getting weaker, it sort of tumbles in the air and flies in a new, but still mostly random direction. This is rather inefficient, but it works. If you are near a sandwich, and you get further away from it, the signal goes down. You then go in a different direction and maybe this is also leading away from the sandwich so you change directions again, and now you are going toward the sandwich again so you keep going. I should say that the fly is a bit (a LOT) more sophisticated than I’ve described here, and, while a fly does act this way somewhat, this behavior is more like how bacteria move (Howard C. Berg has written a lot of interesting work in “random walks”). The point is, that it doesn’t matter so much what you adjust, or in what way you adjust it; what does matter is how often you adjust it and how closely you monitor your situation.

If things are progressing well, don’t mess with them! But if things aren’t going anywhere, some kind of change is in order. If things are getting worse, than a change is not only a good idea, but an urgent one. Don’t let fear keep you from a better life. You might be in a situation where you don’t have a lot of options, but even if you only have two paths you can go on as Led Zeppelin says, “in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.”

ControlThis step has two phases. While you’re still attaining your dream and making adjustments, you will probably find it helpful to establish some rules and guidelines. For example, jumping off a building is not an acceptable means of learning to fly. In weight loss, you might find that day to day, your weight varies by about a pound or so there’s no reason to stress about an increase unless its more than that (stress->despair->ice cream so limiting stress is also important). You may also have some go-to adjustments for when things go wrong, such as doing more exercise or taking a quiet moment to watch the birds when you’re feeling down. These guidelines that you develop on your way to your goal are the first phase of control.

The second phase of control occurs after you’ve attained your dream. So you’re successful. Now what? Well, the answer to that question is usually that you want to make sure you stay successful. A lot of the guidelines you came up with in the first phase will work in this second phase, but there may be a few things you need to do differently. If you get a job as a pilot, for example, you need to review all the safety procedures even though day-to-day you may not need to know them. You also need to keep an eye out for new technologies and if necessary train yourself on them so you don’t become obsolete. Once you lose the weight, you have to stay vigilant to keep it off, and you may have to employ different strategies as you age or go through other life changes.

As you may have noticed, all these “steps” overlap, and turn back on themselves like eddies in a river. You could in fact just as easily start with Control, and then notice somethings out of whack and move to Analyze and Improve and then Measure, and then find out what exactly the problem was at the end of the whole process (Define). That’s more or less what happens when police make an arrest. Perhaps it would be better to call these phases or even aspects of goal setting, but I think if you’re looking for a way to start accomplishing your dream, defining your dream is a good place to start. If you’ve got your dream well-defined, measuring your progress is the next thing to try. Then adjusting things as needed, and finally controlling them once you have things pretty well established. They build on each other nicely that way, and besides, that’s how the business world groups them.

Note: This post used pictures from the following websites. Please visit them and consider purchasing any products they’re selling.

Brad&DadPod001: Midsouthcon, Steampunk, and Lycanthropy


This is the first part of an interview with my father where he asks me about what I did at Midsouthcon, a science fiction convention held in Memphis, Tennessee. This is from March 2014 so the information isn’t entirely current, but the talk could just as easily be about any science fiction convention. We also talk about the phenomenon of steampunk in literature. Finally we discuss werewolves and related lycanthropic characters in fiction, partly due to the short story I recently had published. Dad has a way of asking questions that start out seeming basic, but end up being rather deep. It makes for some interesting conversations, and I think this one qualifies. Hope you enjoy.


New Story published in Luna’s Children!

doubleThe anthology Luna’s Children is now out in kindle and a print version is coming out soon. This is an anthology of werewolf stories edited by D. Alan Lewis. There are actually two volumes: Stranger Worlds and Full Moon Mayhem. My short story, “Always Hungry” is in Stranger Worlds.

So what’s in my short story? The story bends several of the rules of the anthology. For one thing it’s not really about a werewolf per se. The main character is a coyote who is altered by the tears of a young woman into…something else. Something not quite human, but not of nature either. It’s an intense horror story, though there are some lighter moments in it. Like many horror stories it deals with humanity coming into conflict with darker natures and the supernatural.

Read it and tell me what you think!

How Much Does Clutter Cost?

How much does clutter cost?

I’ve been asking myself this lately because over the last year or so I’ve been going to yard sales, and as a result, I have begun to accumulate stuff. There are some odds and ends, but most of this stuff consists of books. Turns out you can get books very cheaply at yard sales. Furthermore I frequent a used bookstore  that has a free bin. As in FREE.

For the most part, this is awesome, but while I’ve been able to pick up books on all sorts of topics ranging from Native American folk remedies to a book on cop slang, I’ve also lost a lot of space in my room as a result.

But how can I pass up a free book? I have a fairly good idea of the benefit of a book, but how can I determine the cost? What am I really paying for a free book?

I’m going to concentrate on books, because that’s my main problem, but I think I could generalize to other things pretty easy.  I figure, based on the various apartments I’ve had, that, discounting some initial costs, a square foot of living space is worth roughly 1 dollar per month. Bearing in mind that most rooms are around 10 feet tall, this means that 1 cubic foot of living space is worth about 10 cents per month. Most books are about a fifth of a foot thick, a half foot wide, and a foot tall, so 0.1 cubic feet. This means that by bringing in a free book, I’m paying about a penny each month that book is in my room.  That’s 12 cents a year, $1.20 a decade.

So worst case scenario, the book sits in my house for a couple decades and it costs me a few bucks, big deal. At the same time, surely I can’t just keep that up. Eventually I’ll run out of space and I’ll either have to buy more space or purge my book collection. All these books that I’m getting might not cost me much individually, but in aggregate, well there’s going to be an effect on my personal well-being after awhile. How can I factor this in as a cost?

Does this coffee table define me as a person?

This is tricky. I have to find a way to quantify my well-being as it relates to furniture.

Looking at extremes can sometimes be helpful. The worst case scenario would be for there to be literally no space. In this case I would have to find somewhere else to live, which would most likely double my current living expenses (I would still have to pay for where the books live). The other extreme would be for there to be no books. This wouldn’t be so bad really, because this would just mean reading books outside of my living space instead of storing them where I live. However, by not storing physical books, I would have to purchase more e-books, or purchase space to store my books . So in that extreme too, I would probably end up increasing my expenses. These extremes seem to indicate there is an ideal amount of books and that straying too far in either direction would end up costing money.

Well, at my current rate of about 1 physical book read every two months, the most amount of physical books I will be able to read in a 100 years would be 600. It’s also nice to have options when I’m ready to read a book. And really that’s the reason I keep getting books. I’d like to read them someday when I feel like it, and I want to be able to pick up the book when I feel the urge. The time it takes me to browse through a shelf of books is roughly a minute per shelf if I’m being thorough, and the most amount of time I’m going to want to spend deciding what book to read is maybe thirty minutes. So that equates to 600 books again at twenty books a shelf.  600 books is the ideal amount it seems.

600 books might work as an ideal number, but that doesn’t tell me what the maximum number is. If I have a more or less square room that is 625 square feet, then the perimeter of the room would be 100 feet or 500 book thicknesses. If the room is 10 feet tall, this would allow an absolute maximum of 5000 books.

I spent way too much time on this.

So let’s say that the cost of storing books is R*|x-600|/4400 where R is the amount of money per month spent to live in the space. For a typical low-rent apartment then…the expression would be 625*|x-600|/4400 or (.14)*|x-600| This translates to about 14 cents per book per month. That’s $1.70 for a year. If I expect to live for a hundred more years, then each book I get now and never read will cost me 170 dollars. Of course this still isn’t that much, really, and this graph probably has little to do with reality, but maybe it will help to know I’m not just picking up a free book, I’m committing to a data plan.

Update 6/10/12

Rattlesnake root?

Here’s a hodge podge of me news from the last few months or so.

First of all, I took a biology course at Austin Peay to make myself more marketable to graduate schools. It was an introductory course, but an intense one. It took place over three weeks and covered topics such as respiration, photosynthesis, mitosis, genetics and evolution. From the courses I took at Vanderbilt I had actually learned quite a lot of the information covered in the class, but the class put it all together in a neater arrangement, and there were a few things I hadn’t run into before that I was able to learn about.

I did well in the course and got an A. I signed up for a human anatomy and physiology class in the Fall, because that course isn’t offered in the Spring and the other courses filled up or I needed prerequisites for them. I need to figure out what prerequisites I need and sign up for another class. I also probably need to start applying for graduate schools again and maybe sign up for the biology GRE. I didn’t show up last time for the BioGRE because two years ago I couldn’t find the will to wake up early in the morning. Now I’m a more responsible person and I have a better sleep schedule, so I should be able to do it.

I’m still trying to look up some of the plants around my parents’ property without much luck. The professor of my biology class recommended I talk to somebody at Austin Peay, but I still haven’t made contact due to my not wanting to waste anybody’s time. I found one plant that’s about 6 ft tall with hastate leaves in an alternate arrangement and with a circular stem about an inch in diameter. I’ve narrowed it down to family asteraceae and it looks like it might be in genus prenanthes, as it looks a lot like the pictures of the purple waldlattich in the prenanthes link, only that plant is supposed to only go to 150 cm and this one was as big as I am. Also, I haven’t seen any flowers on it yet. Every plant identification site seems to only care about the flowers. It’s a bit frustrating.

On a musical note, I’ve started to practice playing the piano, which has been surprisingly entertaining. Right now I’m trying to play the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven. I can almost get through the first two lines before madness sets in.

Review of A Dangerous Method

image from IMDB

This movie is about Sigmund Freud ( played by Viggo Mortensen) and Carl Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) and their interaction with a patient/ doctor named Sabina Spielrein (played by Keira Knightley). I’m a fan of both Viggo and Keira, so I was looking forward to seeing this not just for the intriguing subject matter, but for the acting as well.

Unfortunately the movie was something of a mixed bag. The worst thing about it was Knightly doing her crazy freak out routine. The story begins as Sabina is taken by force to the institute Carl Jung works at while she writhes and screams. She pulls out her jaw, arches her back, whips her arms around. She looks like she’s possessed. She does a pretty good job, but the problem I have is that it goes on for too long. About a minute into the freak out session I remember that Keira Knightly is not crazy, and that this is a performance. Then it begins to just seem ridiculous and I question whether anybody actually reacts like that.

I don’t blame Knightly for this. I blame the director, David Cronenburg. He started  out making horror and scifi movies like The Fly. There was a movie he made in the seventies that involved an a woman with a stinger in her stomach that she used to suck blood out of people. One of the things that becomes evident when watching these movies, is that Cronenburg  enjoys shocking people. More specifically, he likes scenes where the humanity of a character is questioned. So I think this is why he let the freak out scene happens so long. It’s a director’s responsibility to let an actor know when they’ve done enough, and Cronenburg was probably egging her on.

The movie went over a number of themes. There was the question of whether we should quench our passions or let them rule us. Carl Jung decides to have an affair with Sabina, but later regrets it, even though he ends up getting another mistress that’s more or less just like her.

There was an issue of race. Sabina and Freud are Jewish, while Carl Jung is Aryan, and this is brought up at odd moments as the characters talk to each other. This puts an interesting light on things as the second world war happens a few years after the movie, but sometimes it seems a little forced.

There is also the question of Freud’s insistence that sex is central to all human motivations. Carl tries to prove that Freud is wrong about this, but he offers in place of sex bizarre ideas about telepathy and mysticism. There’s even a scene where he predicts that something will occur in Freud’s office based on a burning sensation in his gut. It does occur.

Finally, there’s the issue with Freud’s resentment of Jung’s relative wealth, and the dissolution of their friendship as a result of this, the Jewish-Aryan thing, and the affair that Jung has with Sabina. Freud at one point acts as a mediator between the two of them and he cites the event as the main reason he lost respect for Jung, thought the movie leads one to suspect that it might have been for other reasons.

Viggo Mortensen, well known for his role in Lord of the Rings and his tough guy characters in crime movies and westerns, does an amazing job as Freud. I can’t say how true it is to the real Freud, since I never saw a video of the actual guy, but his accent and mannerism made me forget it was him most of the time. Kiera Knightly, aside from the freak outs that happened early in the movie, also did a good job becoming a different character. Her performance was completely different from her character in Pirates of the Caribbean and  her character in Domino. Michael Fassbender did a good job too, but before I checked the actors on IMDB I thought it was the best acting job Ewen McGregor had ever done.

Overall, the movie didn’t do much for me. The ending just sort of sits there like the last roll in the basket waiting for someone to pick it up. There’s an epilogue which seems to tell a more interesting story than the movie itself.  So I have to say that despite the great acting and the subject matter, the movie isn’t something I would recommend to most people. I give it a 6.5/10

The Meaning of Good

What is the meaning of “good”?

That’s a question I’ve been struggling a little with lately. I’m not concerned with “good” in a moral sense, that question has its own difficulties. I’m just talking here about “good” as in “that was a good book I read.” Or “that was a good movie.” So, okay, this is a subjective thing. You either like something or you don’t. If you like it, it’s good, if you don’t like it, it’s bad.

Hold on. That’s overly simplistic! There are some things I like more than others. That doesn’t mean some of them are all good and some are all bad. There’s a spectrum. Some things can’t even be called good or bad; they’re just “okay.” So there’s a region on the spectrum where things are bad, and a region where they are good and an area where maybe they’re just okay. I can even assign a number from 1 to 10 or 1 to 5 indicating how good I think something is.  I can assign a rating, and so can anybody else. Putting a large number of ratings together into an average, then can give an indication of  how good something is to most people.

Okay, but, let’s face it. Most people are idiots. All of us have probably felt the frustration of not liking something that was extremely popular. In my experience almost every book or movie that made it big had some major flaws in it. Lord of the Rings was full of unneeded exposition and involved a long trek that could have been avoided with much less bloodshed if Gandalf had pulled out the rocs earlier. The system of magic in the Harry Potter universe has no logic to it. Curses and other bad magic things happen, and then other people poof it away.  There doesn’t seem to be any explanation as to why some things work and some don’t, which is fine in a fun YA romp, but becomes a bit frustrating when situations become more dire. How fast, for example, does an avra kadavra shot fly from a wand? Is it instantaneous or can the victim dodge? Is there another spell that can block it? When Voldemort and Harry are dueling with their wands, what governs who beats whom? Is it sheer will? Is there some skill or strategy involved?  In the Twilight books you have sparkly vampires. The Hunger Games is has a scene or two where someone is about to commit suicide. You might disagree with me on some of these problems or that they’re problems at all, but the point is that, assuming for the moment that these issues exist, why are these books popular when there are other books that don’t have these problems that no one seems to know about?

Okay, so maybe it’s a matter of luck. Maybe some of the authors had good publicists or the right people read the work and liked it. Maybe I’m a weirdo and these problems don’t really exist. Then again, it could be that the factors that govern whether something is popular are different from those that govern whether something is good.

Hold on a second. That seems obvious, but if you can’t figure out what is good based on popularity how can you tell if it’s good or not at all? We’re back to saying it’s subjective. We tried that line of thought already, but maybe we can come at it from a different angle. Everyone has different criteria for judging things. Some people like Rap. Some people like Rock and Roll. It’s a matter of taste. Okay but there are bad Rap songs and bad Rock and Roll songs and people disagree there too.

So even the people who agree, disagree? Does the word “good” even have a meaning? We’re beginning to veer into postmodernism. The only reason any word has meaning is because a sizable group of people have agreed that a given collection of symbols or sounds should mean a set thing.  If no one can agree what is good and what isn’t, how can anyone be sure what the word means?

Complicating the issue further,  generally people like things that are original. In order for the public to think something is good, that thing must change public opinion in some way.  So you can’t say that just because something falls in line with what the rest of the public usually thinks is good, that the public is going to like it.

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So if you’re a creator of some work, how can you judge whether it is good or not? Your own enjoyment may have been in the act of creating the work itself, and furthermore you might run counter to the popular ideals of your time. If you are sure that no one else will appreciate it, then you can keep it to yourself and move on to some more pedestrian project when and if you want to make money. How can you tell if what you’ve done is good in a more universal sense though? I don’t really know, of course, but I feel obligated to come up with some answer, and I think it might be that you have to be true to your own idea of good, but provide a bridge to the popular idea of good.

Maybe you’re in a world where everyone loves dogs and hates cats, and you love cats. Maybe you write a story about a dog that befriends a cat. Or maybe you make art with dogs and cats getting along. I don’t know. The idea probably falls apart if you try to think of making something truly abhorrent, like killing children, popular.

Oh wait…what’s The Hunger Games about again?


(I actually liked the Hunger Games BTW. I’m just making a point)

Review of The Windup Girl

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It’s a dilemma we all face to one extent or another: we like technology, but we hate what it does to the environment. We like driving, but not oil spills. We like electricity but we don’t like to think about what ecosystems are being damaged to produce it. You’ve got solar cells? Great, what are they made of? Is that recyclable? We are in the process of resolving this conflict, but we’re not there yet. Let’s say the fossil fuels we rely on finally go out. Let’s say all the things environmentalists have been warning us about actually happen. What’s next? How would people cope?

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi, takes place in a different world. A world that is born after the world as we know it ends. The primary sources of energy are metal springs wound by hand or by the use of elephantine beasts of labor, and the methane produced when burning the refuse from men and beasts alike. The main police force is the Environment  Ministry,  who patrol the city in their white uniforms, ruthlessly burning or destroying anything that might pollute resources too much, or release plague into the populace. The only edible plants that survive are genetically modified to resist such plagues and even then have to be closely monitored. The “white shirts” are at constant odds with businesses, who often hire mercenaries to protect their cargo from destructions when bribes to corrupt white shirt officers don’t work. And then there are the people who are genetically modifying the crops. Called gene rippers, they are loathed by all because they are the source of the plagues that threaten the populace, but tolerated because without them, there would be nothing to eat.

From this short description, you can already get an idea of the vast amount of world building that Bacigalupi did for this book, and his characters are as complex as the world they inhabit.

Anderson Lake is a gene-ripper who has a cover job as the overseer of a massive kink spring factory. The factory is huge, with giant elephant beast turning giant cranks in giant baths of algae. Helping him out with the logistics of this operation, and with bribing the necessary officials is Hock Seng (pronounced hock sahn), an Chinese refugee from the genocidal massacres that had taken place in Malaysia several years before. Hock Seng’s entire family was killed during the tumult there , and he had barely made it out alive. So now, even as he pretends to do Anderson’s bidding, he is secretly making plans to steal enough money to establish himself as a merchant in a country where he won’t be persecuted.

The book starts as Lake finds a bizarre fruit in a market that seems to be immune to plague. Realizing that this means there must be another Gene-ripper around, and that this gene-ripper must have access to other sources of genetic information, Lake quickly makes meetings with important business leaders in order to leverage himself into getting access to the gene pool. One of these meetings takes place in a brothel where a beautiful looking Japanese girl, with skin eerily white and smooth, serves Lake. She moves in stops and starts, identifying her as a genetically modified or “new” person. She is Emiko, the wind-up girl.  She is lower than a slave in the brothel, only allowed to exist because of the bribes paid to white shirts. She is mocked, ridiculed and despised by almost everyone she comes into contact with. But Lake is intrigued by her, and he tells Emiko of a village of wind-ups to the North where Emiko might be accepted. This gives Emiko hope for the first time in years.

Finally there are Jaidee and Kanya. Jaidee is the captain of a squadron of white shirts. He started out as a Muay Thai boxing champion and carries his fighting spirit into his job. When there is a ship full of suspicious cargo, he doesn’t bother trying to sort through it, he burns it all. Even while most of the Environment Ministry are despised by the people for their corruption and meddling, Jaidee is well-liked because of his pure motives. But his exuberance has cost a lot of powerful businessmen, and they are going to try to make him pay for it.

Kanya is Jaidee’s first officer, and where Jaidee is boisterous, Kanya is quiet. She rarely ever smiles. She seems at first to be a relatively minor character, but she has many secrets, and after a series of catastrophes, she becomes one of the most important characters in the book.

The Windup Girl is science fiction written as epic fantasy. If you’re ready for it, the plot is intricate and engrossing, but if you aren’t, it can also be complicated and confusing.  There are also several sections depicting gory scenes, and there are two rape scenes that I find disturbing. These scenes aren’t gratuitous. They are important to show the arcs of the characters, but you should know this isn’t a book of chaste kisses on gleaming spacecraft or anything. This is a gritty depiction of an all too possible future, a future that you could argue is already taking place in some developing countries.

So why should you read it if it’s so depressing? First off, I wouldn’t call it depressing. I would say illuminating and even uplifting to an extent. The book illustrates an important point about the conflict between technology and nature: there is no real conflict. Technology comes from us, and we are part of nature. Nature changes all the time, and like all creatures, we must adapt or perish. We can now control larger and larger areas of nature. As part of nature, we have to adjust to this. We can’t eliminate technology, but we can’t be reckless with it either. We’re grabbing the steering wheel of the Earth-mobile. If we don’t pay attention, this could go very badly.

This isn’t the only theme of the book,  and I’m not sure if the author would even agree completely with my interpretation. You don’t have to agree with the theme to like the book, though. The characters carry the story. They are all flawed people trying to do the right thing even while they end up fighting against one another. Anderson Lake is my least favorite of the point of view characters, but even though he can be arrogant and inconsiderate, even cruel, he has a discernible arc, and his motives are understandable.  All of the characters, Anderson included, had numerous moments where I was rooting for them.

On the negative side, there were some ends that were a bit too loose at the end of the book. Particularly for Hock Seng. He was the biggest underdog in the story and his fate was a bit too unclear for my taste. Although some things made sense after thinking about them for a while, the ending initially felt a little too abrupt too. I wasn’t sure about the arc of all the characters. Once I figured out how everything tied togethera couple days after finishing the book, I was struck at how moving it all was. As I figured out, there is an emotional theme along with the semi-political one. To paraphrase Jaidee…Cities don’t matter. Plans don’t matter. In the end, what matters is people.

There were some moments as I was reading to the book that I didn’t like it much at all, mostly because some of the scenes with Emiko were a bit hard to get through, and because it took a while to get a grasp on the plot, but by the end of the book, it was a 7/10, and after I reflected on it, it reached 8/10. (This is a pretty high score. For comparison, the Lord of the Rings movie series gets an 8/10 from me).  I bought the book after attending a panel at The Southern Festival of books where Bacigalupi was a guest. He does an incredible amount of research for his books and seems to look deeper into things than most people. After reading this book, I want to meet him again so I can be properly impressed.

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