Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Nerdiest Place on Earth

My yearly pilgrimage is coming up soon so there will be the short stories tomorrow and I'll put something fun up on Monday but after that I'm going for a week. Where could a colossal nerd go on vacation? I'm headed to Columbus, Ohio for the Origins Game Fair.

When it comes to gaming Gencon is better for RPG's. Essen is better for board games but its a bit of a haul for an American (and October is my busiest time anyway). The World Board Game Championships is impressive but its focus is a little outside my preferences. The Gathering of Friends has the small problem of not being public.

Origins is becoming the definitive US destination for board game fans thanks in large part to the work of the Columbus Area Board Game Society who manages a magnificent game room that is almost a con unto itself. They started two years ago and when I went to their room it was pleasent but a bit quiet. People realized it was the place to hang out though and last year it was packed solid at the busy hours. I played more prototypes and met more game designers in that room than I think I've ever encountered in one place and I've been to E3 when it was still a private conference. I first played my favorite game of last year months before release there.

I fully expect this year to be even busier. They've already announced that just for showing up they'll give you a board game and nothing lures nerds more than free games. Pretty much anyone who doesn't have to work the show all weekend and likes board games is going to turn up there.

Other things I'm looking forward to on my trip:

Rio Grande Games is celebrating their tenth aniversary with a large party and that will be fun.

I've entered myself into the world qualifier for Settlers of Catan; I fully expect to not do well against the agressive players but it's one of those things that I want to take part in just to do it.

On that note Mayfair games will be continuing the Catan resource collection game where you play their games to gain a set of resources which you trade in for a full 50% discount on their games.

It's possible that Agricola, the board game of farm development which has been getting monsterously positive buzz in since its European release last year, may be available at the show and I'll definitely be getting that.

I'm looking forward to meeting Dr. Reiner Knizia again. I met him once very briefly years ago and when he was at the convention the last time he cancelled a talk I was looking forward to. This year I fully expect him to be around and available so I'm looking forward to it.

I'll bring back pictures!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Review - Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park
1994 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

I remember the hype that lead up to this movie. Spielberg hid all footage of the dinosaurs but had to use them to promote the movie so there were things like onset pictures of the director with black dinosaur outlines behind him where they blocked out the models. Everyone inside hollywood seemed to think that Jurassic Park was going to be a monster hit but the public only had promises. Then the big day came and despite a few flaws the movie was everything that was promised.

Jurassic Park is based on the Michael Crichton novel and in it a theme park developer manages to clone dinosaurs to populate an island safari park. Before opening the park to the public he needs experts to sign off on the safety and so he pulls in a mathematician and two paleontologists to examine things. As must always happen when people in a Crichton story go to a theme park the exhibits run wild initiating a lot of screaming and running.

Let's talk about the bad first. The story is just a loose framework for hanging action sequences on and does not hold together well. People do stupid things just to move the plot on to the next section and coincidences abound.

Thematically the movie is lost. It pounds a message "Don't play god" (handed down from people who don't have enough information to make an actual judgment) because nature is better but all of the chaos is directly due to human intervention and the lack of anything resembling safety procedures at the park.

And I know the park must have been built outside of the US (Costa Rica to be exact) since there's no way in hell that OSHA would let it be a workplace let alone allow people to tour it. Not a single safety device functions: seat harnesses don't hold, car doors on rides don't lock, back up generators for vital systems don't exist, animal handling is done poorly at best, and so on. If the elementary procedures required for Six Flags were in place then this movie could not have happened.

The characters are annoying at best. When they're not telling us that creating dinosaurs is evil (as opposed to building a death trap of a theme park) they're filling times with reaction shots of them looking awed at the majesty of nature. And there's a pair of "cute" kids who act poorly and scream a lot.

But you know what? Who cares about that. We're here for the dinosaurs and that's what this movie does well. From the point where the first shot of dinosaurs roaming the island occurs the viewer will rarely be more than a few moments away from another spectacular sequence involving the animals. They look incredible and perhaps more importantly they move so smoothly and with enough grace to give them a real feeling of life. Jurassic Park is about as close as anyone has ever gotten to putting real life dinosaurs on the screen and the old Godzilla style tail draggers have all but vanished from their depictions.

And the action sequences involving those dinosaurs are done as well as anything Spielberg has ever shot. If there's one thing that man does well (or perhaps I should say did well) is frame exciting action sequences. In that regard I would say Jurassic Park is his masterpiece but there is Raiders of the Lost Ark as well; perhaps the two of them can fight on top of a collapsing ancient monument while dodging lava bombs from an erupting volcano.

So I guess a final judgment comes down to what you want. Clever story and brilliant acting? Go somewhere else. On the other hand if you want to say "Ooh! Dinosaurs!" then this is the only movie worth watching.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Stan Winston in Pictures

Stan Winston died this week far too early at the age of sixty-two. If you know the name then you were probably saddened by the news but I haven't seen a lot of reaction that I expected. Stan Winston is one of the pioneers of make-up design and special effect. He's worked on some of the greatest films ever made (in fact I'm reviewing another one tomorrow) and some of the worst but if he worked on a movie then you at least knew that his make up and effects would be great. He was a man who could take twenty dollars to a supermarket and bring you back the scariest monster ever put on film. Even in this era of CGI he was a master of the practical effect; ones done on set for the camera.

What he will best be remembered for is his Creature Shop, his make up and modeling studio that designed more monsters than you can shake a stick at. And so I give you a small sampling of his work through his films that struck enough of a cord with science fiction fans to win Hugo awards:

In addition to taking the already iconic alien design to its ultimate level Winston was also the second unit director for Aliens and was directly responsible for many of its effects and model shots.

How do you create a "monster" that looks like they should removing digits from Victorian children who refuse to stop sucking their thumbs and let the actor under that make up express that it has a soul? Stan Winston knew how.

The morphing effects may have been the defining moment when CGI rose to the special effects throne but many of the memorable moments in Terminator 2 were due entirely to Stan Winston's work. This is one effect that I know for a fact that he personally did.

I have to save something to talk about tomorrow but this was both Winston's greatest popular success and perhaps even his greatest work all together. If you don't recognize this iconic moment then shame on you; I am still impressed at how well he made that iris look and function.

He also did the effects for Galaxy Quest and I just found out that my DVD drive can't read the disk for it so I'll need to do something about that before that movie comes up.

And naturally Winston's work goes far beyond the films that I tend to emphasize in this little blog. The Predator is one of his. John Carpenter's The Thing is one of Winston's earliest triumphs (the first time I saw that head effect the character on screen and I said the same thing in unison; if you've seen the film you know what I mean and if you haven't then why aren't you watching it right now?). He created the army of penguins in Batman Returns. And even the Wookies... in the Star Wars Holiday Special.

I won't hold that against him.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Review - The Claw of the Conciliator

The Claw of the Conciliator
by Gene Wolfe
1981 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

Let me start off by saying that whoever purchased Gene Wolfe that word a day calendar back in 1979 is going to feel my wrath. I can count on my fingers the number of times that I've run across the word "gnomon" in my life (though I suppose with this review that moves me on to toes) and Wolfe's prose is packed with those archaic words that I only know because of my taste for pre-twentieth century literature. And how he could use "gnomon" but not toss in what would be the fourth legitamate use of "wabe" I would have encountered I don't know (look them up if you don't know; use the unabridged OED).

Severian is a torturer who the reader knows is destined to rule since the book is told as his memoirs after gaining the throne. His duty is to deal out punishments that are handed down by lawful authorities regardless of his own feelings or opinions on the victim. In the first book of the series immediately after completing his training and being admitted to the guild of torturers he gave mercy to a victim that he had been allowed to grow close to. For this crime he was exiled from his guild to a distant post. Before leaving the city he became entangled in petty conspiracies, had a relic with mystical powers hidden on him, found love, and briefly joined a theater troop. That first book, The Shadow of the Torturer which itself won the World Fantasy Award, ends on a cliffhanger as a riot breaks out while Severian and his travelling companions try to leave the city.

The Claw of the Conciliator abandons that cliffhanger picking up months later with the companions vanished (what exactly happened is never adequately explained) and Severian working his way north by executing the criminals in the towns he journies through. On his way he encounters the man leading a rebelion against the Emperor and the Emperor himself. He becomes more entangled in the schemes of those with power while the nature and the goals of those plots becomes more murkey.

This is not a complete novel; Wolfe's story goes on for two more books. In fact I'd say that the novel is relatively light on plot; Severian wanders, runs into people, and then moves on and very little really gets resolved. On the other hand Wolfe keeps things moving very quickly so that while in the final analysis very little has actually occurred it doesn't feel like that while you're reading it.

I can see why this book got the attention of the authors in the SFWA over the previous one in the series. Besides putting a massive vocabulary on display Wolfe drops both an alegorical play and "folklore" in the story. While placing the retelling of a "legend" in the middle of a novel is a narrative device that has been worn thin at the time it was distinctive. These distractions are not as well integrated as they could have been but Wolfe did a fine job of providing a distinctive structure to his book.

What really worked for me in The Claw of the Conciliator was the exploration of the moral issues in crime and punishment. Severian holds himself seperate from the people; he thinks of himself as a tool not a person as he enacts his duties. Is the executionor free of responsibility, though? Where does justice lay? And how far should punishment extend. Wolfe gives no answers but offers plenty of arguments.

I have to give the measure of a series like this on if I'm willing to read the next book and in this case I definitely am. Wolfe has left me curious to where he's going with his story. And if that isn't enough the worst thing that I can say about Wolfe's writing is that his archiac vocabular makes for dense reading. He's crafted engaging characters, placed them in a complex plot, and is telling a deeper story than it appears at first touch. It's a supurb work and well worth reading.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Rock Me Tamashii!

I stumbled onto something rather interesting last night: Rock Tamashii.

Or Guitar Idol as this apparently mock-up packaging calls it. But they say Rock Tamashii on the actual toys and that's what they can be found as online so that's what I'll stick with. They're thick guitar pick looking things with a speaker and button on them.

When you press the button a hysterically bad Japanese cover of an English pop song plays but it's missing it's guitar track. That track plays only when you strum the with the pick. Essentially the idea is that they're "real" air guitars. After about a minute of time the song stops and it rates your air guitar performance.

Obviously its a low market Guitar Hero but they do have some novelty value. Especially when you get a small pile of them for nothing.

The songs have to be heard to be believed; it features some fine Enrish which makes me think that the singers learned the songs phonetically. There's head phone jack on there but I can't find a male to male 1/8 inch cable (yeah, I know; I had it before so my guess is it was lost in my recent move; every nerd needs to have every possible cable ever needed handy so I'm ashamed of myself there). I may put up some of the songs later this week.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Review - Timescape

by Gregory Benford
1980 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

And we're back after a long break for one week before I go on vacation. Still I'm going to make the most of this.

In the dark future of 1993 the world is on the brink of collapse. Social, economic, and ecological factors have driven everyone to the edge but a scientist at Cambridge holds out a thin hope. He's learned how to generate tachyons and hopes to use them to transmit a message that could be detected in the past. Unfortunately no one knows if history can be changed or what happens when a paradox is resolved but it's an intriguing enough of an idea that a major government official throws all of his weight behind the project.

In 1963 an ambitious scientist detects regular shifts in electron spin that appears to be a message but large portions of it are garbled. Controversy around this discovery risks his career and as he tries to proceed scientifically he is stymied by people who want to suppress the discovery since it doesn't fit with their views and those who see far more in it than he does.

From this you might get the impression that this book is about the scientific process and how politics affects it. And while there is some of that in the book what its really about is the personal lives of all of these characters. The reason I didn't mention that in the plot description is because despite being the majority of the book those aspects have no plot. The scientists all have troubled home lives where they fight with their spouses as they work harder but there's no personal growth or examination; it's just like being around when spouses fight. The politician spends his the book being a jerk and seducing every woman he meets but nothing actually happens with it. The details that Benford spends the majority of the text on feels like repetitive padding for the actual novel.

Not that I was very thrilled with with the science plot. Let's say you're a a scientist in 1963 examining electron spin and you notice regular changes in it that in correspond to four syllable English words and complex phrases in morse code. You've received roughly three hundred words like this which corresponds to roughly five thousand distinct regular signals. How would you procede:

A. It has to be naturally occurring spontaneous changes in electron spin and the language detected in it is just coincidence even if it's a coincidence with the odds of locating a precise table spoon of sand in the Sahara desert.

B. You sit on this for nearly a year not even looking into it deeper despite thinking it is being caused by some artificial phenomena which is completely unknown to science and an understanding of it would put one in the running for a Nobel prize.

C. It's aliens! Or from the future!

The answer according to the book is B with most respectable scientists responding to it with A and a few with C. While the science fiction answers shouldn't be where a scientist would look to electron spins dramatically shifting regularly via no observable cause would be a dramatic discovery. And yet the administration thinks it would be better to suppress research into something would make their ambitious institute the most prestigious on earth while the young scientist just sets it aside rather than pursuing work that would make his career. If Benford had chosen a most reasonably explainable method of signal transmission this wouldn't be so bad: an administrator might not want a promising scientist to waste their time on a message received by an understood principle. As it stands, though, it makes the scientists in the 60's all just look lazy.

Those scientists are not just Benford's fictional creations. He name drops every single major physicist from the 1950's and early 60's in the book. Most of them show up for extended scenes over the course of the book. At first its cute but as it goes on and on it becomes annoying. Benford even manages to drop himself into his own novel for that extra touch of egotism.

There's a moment in the novel when one of the administrators relates an anecdote to the young scientist and he realizes that it is the same one he told before; it was a common story and the people he was telling it to (famous real-life scientists from the 60's, of course) were being polite when they laughed since they almost certainly heard it before. I wish Benford had applied that principle to himself. Timescape is filled with just about every common college and science anecdote that I think I've ever heard. A lot of the book is just parroting other people's clever phrases and stories while trying to squeeze them into the narrative.

If those complaints aren't enough I also have a petty one: Timescape features the worst dust jacket I think I have ever encountered. Not only is the description wrong on multiple key plot points it gives away the ending of the book. Not in a subtle making the narrative obvious way, it literally comes out and tells you what the last chapter is. There wasn't much in this book worth holding onto but there was some suspense in one key plot point which is completely spoiled by this.

Timescape feels like an attempt to mate a science fiction novel with a degraded photocopy of what some people think mainstream novels are supposed to be about. Of course good mainstream novels feature development in the characters; this is just a collection of unpleasant to read about people told in a way that just makes them boring and petty. Neither side is satisfactory and I can't recommend it.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Review - "The Last of the Winnebagos", "Schrödinger's Kitten", and "Kirinyaga"

Michael Whelan
1989 Hugo Winner for Best Professional Artist

"The Last of the Winnebagos"
by Connie Willis
1989 Hugo Winner for Best Novella
1989 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

In the distant year 2008 society has been transformed by the extinction the dog. When it occurred the world responded by handing over vast police powers to what is essentially the SPCA. Its not only a major felony to harm an animal; failing to assist an injured animal can result in a lengthy prison term. A photographer spots a dead jackel on the highway as he heads to view the last Winnebago on the roads and it sets of consequences that could ruin several innocent lives.

Willis manages to weave several interesting themes into the story. The complications of a society that values animal lives more than humans form a framework. On that she adds the weight of decades of guilt and quite a bit about the passing of ways of life.

It is not a comedic story by any stretch which is a rarity for Willis. It is a harsh story for any animal lover since there are several injured animals at the heart of it. Even the people have been engaged in self-flagellation for decades. Still it is one of her best works.

"Schrödinger's Kitten"
by George Alec Effinger
1989 Hugo Winner for Best Novelette
1989 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

A young woman in a middle eastern city has visions of alternate worlds and the ways her life can go. She knows if she does not take action she will be raped and have her life destroyed. She decides to kill her would be attacker and potentially set of a chain of events that puts her at the heart of physics in the 1930's.

The story isn't bad but there isn't much to it other than name dropping the major physicists of the early twentieth century (and it didn't help that I had just read Timescape which spent a lot of time name dropping every major physicist from twenty years later than the setting of this story). Reflecting on the paths that lives could have taken is a standard theme in alternative world tales and "Schrödinger's Kitten" doesn't really add anything to that genre. It's reasonably well told and I was never bothered by the narrative but at the same time it just didn't thrill me.

by Mike Resnick
1989 Hugo Winner for Best Short Story

A lot of science fiction deals with strange societies and rather than resort to aliens Resnick tells a story about a traditional Kenyan society that has been transplanted to a space colony. A witch doctor there kills a newborn baby drawing the attention of the maintainers of these colonies. A decision has to be made then whether to continue tolerating the society or if corrective actions need to be done.

It's a standard form in the stories that show us a native culture to present them from a position of moral superiority. Resnick doesn't do that as his story refrains from moral judgments. The witch doctor who is the main character is a terrifying figure as he is a man who rejects reason, logic, and science for the sake of his own personal power. That may be my own deconstructionist view of the story but the fact that Resnick keeps things neutral lets the readers draw their conclusions. As the best example of this kind of story I have ever encountered I have to recommend it.