Monday, April 30, 2012

TEAM-UP! Microsoft+B&N = NOOK Viability

Own a Nook? Like the Nook platform? Don't really care, just don't like the idea of Apple and/or Amazon dominating the ebook market? If your answer to any of these questions was "yes," then you're in luck:
Books and bits united Monday as Microsoft provided an infusion of money to help Barnes & Noble compete with top electronic bookseller Amazon. In exchange, Microsoft gets a long-desired foothold in the business of e-books and college textbooks.

With Microsoft Corp.'s $300 million investment, the two companies are teaming up to create a subsidiary for Barnes & Noble's e-book and college textbook businesses. Microsoft is taking a 17.6 percent stake in the venture.

The agreement underscores the importance of electronic bookstores as traditional booksellers and technology companies jockey for position in the increasingly competitive market. While no definitive numbers exist, e-books are believed to account for some 20 percent of book sales in the U.S.
So this is mostly of interest to college students, some of whom may be nerds, but who are rarely asked to read the right kind of nerdy books for their courses.
Comp-lit students demo B&N's new, funnel-shaped e-reader

Micro Review [Film]: Freaked

The Meat

The early 90s had a very unique and peculiar trash aesthetic that occasionally washed up on the shore of pop culture. If you're able, remember back to Spike & Mike's Sick and Twisted animation festivals, Ren & Stimpy, GWAR, and Green Jello's Cereal Killer Soundtrack, which all shared a Rat Fink-meets-Evil-Dead-II, eye-bulging, vein-popping style. Alex Winter (Bill S. Preston, Esq. of Bill and Ted fame) and his NYU film school friend Tom Stern embraced this aesthetic whole-hog, and were asked by MTV to produce a sketch comedy show called The Idiot Box. When that show was done, someone at 20th Century Fox inexplicably gave them $10,000,000 to make what become 1993's Freaked.

In Freaked, Bill (I'm just going to call him "Bill") plays a moronic TV celebrity who accepts a dump truck full of money from an evil corporation to go to South America and talk up a controversial liquid fertilizer, but falls afoul of a crazy freakshow operator who turns him into the hideous "Beest Boy," and throws him in with the rest of his mutated menagerie, all created using the liquid fertilizer in question and, apparently, a Nintendo system. The result is -- starting with the opening credits -- a brutal, stomach-churningly disgusting, insane, partially claymated gumbo that I expect you're either really going to love, or man, you're just not going to want to watch a single frame of. This film effectively derailed Bill's career. After its release (into only 2 theaters, Wikipedia tells me), Bill went from the co-star of a successful comedy franchise to a guy who didn't work again for four years, only to return with roles such as "TV Gangster" and "Subway Passenger."

For my part, I loved the Bill and Ted movies, and was partial to Bill above Ted, so I root for Bill, and he seems to have a pretty successful career now, especially as a director. And I expect Alex Winter must be pretty smart, and a hell of a nice guy, because here are some of the people who agreed to appear in Freaked, which was clearly never, ever, ever going to be a successful mainstream film: Brooke Shields, Keanu Reeves, Randy Quaid (not widely known to be crazy at the time), William Sadler (the wonderful character actor who next appeared on film in The Shawshank Redemption), Bobcat Goldthwait, Michael Stoyanov (at the time on the highly successful TV show Blossom), and Mr. T (who plays a bearded lady). I remember seeing a tidbit about this movie on Entertainment Tonight when I was maybe 15 years old, and being really excited that Bill was going to be in a new movie, but that was the last I'd heard of it until Turner Classic Movies scheduled it as part of their TCM Underground series this past weekend. So as much as I wanted to like the movie, and was excited to finally see it, I can't get behind it. I love cult movies that happen by accident -- amateur filmmakers who stumble across something evocative, Hollywood outsiders who build truly inept films around interesting ideas, or people who manage stunning feats of filmmaking with almost no resources. But Freaked seems to be one of those films that aspired to be a cult movie, and that, to me, is a fool's errand. Sorry, Bill.

The Math

Objective Quality: 2/10

Bonuses: +1 for the intriguing supporting cast; +1 for the makeup and effects which are grotesque but quite accomplished

Penalties: -1 for a pervasive we-know-how-clever-this-is attitude while not actually being very clever.

Cult Value Coefficient: 3/10

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Micro Review [film]: Green Lantern

The Meat 

DC Comics' most science fiction-y of superheroes has always been dear to my heart. Sure Hal Jordan can be really annoying (as can Kyle Rayner and Guy Gardner), but I love the whole Guardians/Oa thing, and I really dug Geoff Johns' series reboot. So when I heard Warner Bros. was making a feature film, I thought: "Wow, if this could be as good as The Dark Knight, or even X2, I'll be really happy."

Unfortunately, it wasn't to be. The problems begin with casting. Hal Jordan is supposed to be cocky but likable, headstrong but street smart; Ryan Reynolds plays him flat and emotionless. Then there's the inexplicable decision to cast hot-but-nothing-like-the-character Blake Lively (with unnatural looking died brown hair) as Carol Ferris. Of course, I might have been wrong about all this--had I been able to actually hear what they were saying while they were mumbling their lines. Hard to tell who to blame for this one: actors, director or production team.

The second fatal error was to try to incorporate 3 iconic GL villains into one film: Sinestro, Hector Hammond and Parallax. Sure Sinestro is there to basically set up the sequel (if they actually make one), but it's just too much. I know this was a decision made "for the fans," but I'm sure the fans would have preferred a better, more cohesive plot.

The bottom line is, Green Lantern is a very bad film adaptation of a beloved comic book franchise. But hey...there are some cool special effects.

The Math 

Objective Quality: 3/10

Bonuses: +1 for stuff on Oa actually looking like it's supposed to

Penalties: -1 for terrible casting; -1 for not just adapting Rebirth.

Cult Film Coefficient: 2/10

Saturday, April 28, 2012

World SF/F

There's a big ol' world out there, with more than 6.8 billion inhabitants. Around 370m of those, or roughly 5.4%, live in the US and UK. But writers from the US and UK account for, I'd have to guess, at least 80% of the SF/F that reaches bookshops/major online retailers (and that's a conservative estimate). There's a number of reasons for this: the US and UK have highly developed publishing industries; they have the SF/F tradition; the most developed markets; their writers write in English; etc. But in today's world, where global communications networks grow denser by the minute, where more and more people are being raised functionally bilingual, and where rapid changes to economic, social and political systems raise big questions about the pace of technology and our relationship to it, the science fiction world is both expanding globally and coming to the realization that it already is a global phenomenon.

About a month ago, LA Times had an interesting article on the re-emergence of SF/F in China:
Next month, Chinese writers will be under the spotlight as 2012's Market Focus country for the London Book Fair. It is a prime opportunity for China to push its cultural clout abroad (a top priority for the Communist Party), with dozens of authors traveling to the U.K. But political science fiction — long suppressed during the Cultural Revolution and afterward — is unlikely to be at the top of the agenda. Relations with the state remain fraught. (Last March, China all but banned popular "time travel" television dramas for promoting "feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.") 
Despite this, science fiction is having a comeback in the country. Thriving online fan sites host legions of amateur sci-fi writers. China's leading sci-fi magazine, Science Fiction World, boasts a circulation figure of 100,000. (American writers such as George R.R. Martin are also in demand in translation.) Above all, insecurity over China's meteoric economic growth coupled with an authoritarian leadership has produced ripe pickings for the genre's top writers.
Damien Walter over at Guardian Books argues that SF/F is emerging as a literary lingua franca:
It's as a response to that cultural void that science fiction becomes genuinely interesting. In the midst of an ever accelerating technological revolution, science fiction has emerged as the literature best able to articulate the relentless pace of social change. And as that technological revolution has spread outward from the western world, so the symbols and archetypes of science fiction have become a shared language for understanding the new world we are entering.
Then there's a nice plug for World SF, a blog that works hard to bring SF/F writers from outside the Anglophone world to the attention of readers within it. It's a great site, and one of the highlights for readers is their Tuesday Fiction series, where they post short stories from global writers for free. This week's story is "Flight of the Ibis" by Malaysian author Fadzlishah Johanabas. Ever thought of Malaysia as a place to discover SF/F? Me neither, but that's the point: good authors are everywhere. Bravo to World SF for helping us find them. More for short fiction lovers...

Friday, April 27, 2012

Micro Review [Film]: This Island Earth

The Meat

In This Island Earth, a scientist/jet pilot named Cal Meacham (the impossibly deep-voiced Rex Reason, which was his real name, apparently) orders some science parts out of a mysterious catalog, and follows the instructions -- which clearly did NOT come from Ikea -- to build a super-advanced wireless video telecom device that converses with an alien named Exeter. That Exeter is clearly an alien is utterly lost on Meacham and his assistant. So Exeter sends a magical, self-piloting plane to pick up Meacham and whisk him away to a secret science facility in Georgia that looks like an equestrian center/country club. Meacham falls in with Dr. Ruth Adams ("Dr. Ruth," hee-hee), an old girlfriend who pretends not to know him, and another scientist, Steve Carlson (Russell "The Professor from Gilligan's Island" Johnson). They finally figure out Exeter "ain't from these parts," and after The Professor makes one of the most odd and ill-fated filmic attempts to escape from an alien death-ray, Meacham and Dr. Ruth accompany Exeter to Metaluna. Exeter's home planet, Metaluna is constantly under attack by Zagons, who keep shooting radioactive meteors at the planet, threatening its existence.

This Island Earth is one of those movies held up as an exemplar of great 50s sci-fi, and it appears that it earned much of this reputation upon initial release back in 1955. The warm critical reception that welcomed it seems to owe a lot to the fact that it was 1) in color, and 2) had some special photographic effects. Both of these things were new at the time, and probably wowed the heck out of people seeing this stuff in a movie for only the first or second time. The movie made a big impression on kids like Steven Spielberg and other young sci-fi fans who would go on to reference This Island Earth in other films, documentaries, and books when they grew up.

The problem is, color and special effects aren't new anymore. And maybe you've had the experience of flat loving a film as a kid, only to revisit it later and think "You know, this actually kinda sucks." You'd rather have left alone the really good movie you remembered in your head, instead of burdening it with the actual, sorta crappy movie that exists out in the world where the rest of us live. I think we can pretty safely put This Island Earth in that bucket. The gaping, jaw-droppingly "wha?" plot turns and broken science may have paled in comparison to the awesomeness of the special effects in 1955, but not so much any more.

The Math

Objective Quality: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for having one of the more iconic 50s sci-fi monsters; +1, the customary bump for an early appearance by Russell "The Professor from Gilligan's Island" Johnson.

Penalties: -1 for woefully under-utilizing that cool sci-fi monster; -1 for moving the characters around like cardboard cutouts, rather than even attempting to give them sensible motivations for their actions; -1 for making an utter mockery of science. I mean, by 1955 we must have known that shooting a planet with some meteors wouldn't turn it into a star, right? I mean, we must've know that.

Cult Value Coefficient: 5/10

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Also of note, this interesting essay by Errol Morris about a strange echo from This Island Earth in Douglas Sirk's 1959 racial drama Imitation of Life with Lana Turner.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Blog Roundup: What the Neighbors Are Saying

We here at nerds of a feather recognize that this is just a small corner of an ecosystem of blogs and websites dedicated to nerdery. So periodically we'd like to recognize all the good stuff our friends and neighbors are producing.

Ebooks, DRM and the Brave New World of Publishing

Ebooks and the changes they entail to the publishing industry are hot topics at the moment in the nerdosphere. Just the other day, major SF/F publisher Tor (a subsidiary of Macmillan) announced it would forgo DRM, to the delight of bloggers everywhere.  Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi all offer sophisticated arguments as to why this is win/win for everyone involved. The best: 1) that DRM leaves readers in the lurch if their chosen ebook format disappears; and 2) that they don't really do much to stop piracy anyways.  It may herald a broader trend, where publishers one-by-one abandon DRM.

For the record, I tried to find an opposing view--someone who could eloquently defend the use of DRM for ebooks on moral, ethical or strategic grounds. I failed, because DRM is just terrible. I did, however, read this article from Guardian Books (which isn't a blog, per se, but is very bloggy in its approach). The author, novelist and blogger Barry Eisler, makes an incendiary rebuttal to the conventional wisdom with regards the DOJ suit against Apple and 3 publishers, summarized here. The most important bit:
If you ask legacy publishing's defenders, "Which is the monopoly: the entity that charges high prices and pays low royalties, or the entity that charges low prices and pays high royalties?", you'll be told by those defenders (tortured logic to follow) that of course it's the latter. If you're a customer of Amazon, novelist Charlie Stross wants you to believe that in fact Amazon has you in a "death-grip". If you love books and like buying them from Amazon, Authors Guild president Scott Turow argues that in doing so you and Amazon are "destroy[ing] book selling". Enjoy your Kindle? More legacy insiders than I can count will accuse you of participating in the degradation of "literary culture", an Orwellian euphemism for "current literary establishment of which I am a member and with which I identify". 
Now, will Amazon break up the current publishing cartel only to become a monopoly itself? I doubt it. The company's DNA is all about serving customers, for one thing; for another, unlike in the analogue world, on the internet the competitor who wants to eat your lunch is always just a mouse click away, and with competitors like Apple and Google, I expect Amazon will be forced to stay true to its customer-centric roots rather than attempting to rely on the kind of monopoly rents that have poisoned legacy publishing's willingness and ability to compete. In the meantime, the publishing establishment wants you to believe that in order to prevent Amazon from possibly one day charging higher book prices, the establishment has to charge you higher prices today. Or, to put it another way, "Hey, you might get robbed if you carry all that cash around, so I'll just save you the trouble by taking your wallet right here." This isn't an argument; it's a con job. Consumers ought to recognise it as such.
Nick Harkaway (John Le Carre's son) rebuts the rebuttal here...

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Exhibit: 'The History of Space Photography'

Readers who live in the LA area, as well as those passing through sometime between now and May 6, might want to head to Pasadena, and specifically to the Art Center for Design for an exhibit on 'The History of Space Photography.'  The LA Times has a nice review of the exhibit.

If you go, you can see stuff like this 1882 photo of a comet:

Or this 2008 photo of a black hole:

More photos here.  Details on the exhibit here.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

ALERT! Asteroid Mining Plans Revealed

Artist's Rendition of Asteroid Prospector
We've been waiting a whole 2 or 3 days for this, and it's been pure agony. Turns out we'll have to wait a little longer before we can git prospectin', but not actually that long:
It's unclear exactly when the actual mining of these asteroids will begin, but within 24 months Planetary Resources plans to release the first of its spacecraft, the Arkyd 101, which will operate in low-earth orbit as a space telescope. "We will use this capability to look out to the asteroids," Planetary Resources president Chris Lewicki said at the press conference.
After the Arkyd 100-series, the company will launch the Arkyd series, which will go beyond the low orbit of the Arkyd 200. Next, the Arkyd 300 series will directly explore asteroids with swarms of a half dozen spacecraft that will collaborate to learn more about the asteroids. Subsequent series of spacecraft will actually do the mining. According to Anderson, the spacecraft will take advantage of the latest in information technology, including cloud computing.
Sweet. And when we get there, we'll find all kinds of awesome stuff:
Anderson said in the press conference that he sees the key resources available in asteroids to be water and precious metals such as platinum. Water is widely used as a rocket propellant, and Anderson said that he foresees the water found in asteroids as a means to create "gas stations on the way to Mars or to the moon." He also said that it could be used to produce breathable air and to support life as drinking water. Precious metals like platinum, meanwhile, don't occur naturally in the Earth's crust, but are found in abundance in asteroids--a single asteroid could hold the equivalent of all the platinum ever mined on Earth. Other minerals found in asteroids include nickel and iron.
So we're set if we get thirsty, and man jewelry should be cheaper in space. Score!

ALERT! Tor/Forge Books Go DRM-Free!

Previously, I took a look at Digital Rights Management (DRM) protections on ebooks, and concluded that they have a mostly negative effect on the burgeoning ebook industry. Prominent SF authors agree, for example Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross.

Today, Tor/Forge--one of the biggest names in SF/Fantasy publishing--announced that their ebooks would, heretofore, be DRM-free. As per head honcho Tom Doherty:
"Our authors and readers have been asking for this for a long time....They’re a technically sophisticated bunch, and DRM is a constant annoyance to them. It prevents them from using legitimately-purchased e-books in perfectly legal ways, like moving them from one kind of e-reader to another."
Amen, brother. This was interesting, though:
DRM-free titles from Tom Doherty Associates will be available from the same range of retailers that currently sell their e-books. In addition, the company expects to begin selling titles through retailers that sell only DRM-free books.
Not entirely sure what that means. It definitely means that Tor/Forge intends to sell its DRM-free titles through Amazon, B&N and iBooks...for now.  However, it also seems to mean that, later down the road, those retailers will have to demonstrate they've ditched DRM altogether if they want to get Tor/Forge titles.

Pressure on the bigs to scrap DRM is a good thing, but I'm not sure how much pull Tor/Forge has, and I'd feel mighty bad for Kindle/Nook owners (who are stuck with a proprietary format) if they were suddenly cut off from all the goodies Tor/Forge has to offer. That said, something's got to give, and if enough publishers made the same commitment, maybe we'd see the end of DRM on ebooks.

What do you think: necessary move or unfair to Kindle/Nook users?

UPDATE: a few of my favorite author-bloggers have weighed in on this. John Scalzi explains why the move from DRM benefits customers:
As an author, I haven’t seen any particular advantage to DRM-laden eBooks; DRM hasn’t stopped my books from being out there on the dark side of the Internet. Meanwhile, the people who do spend money to support me and my writing have been penalized for playing by the rules. The books of mine they have bought have been chained to a single eReader, which means if that eReader becomes obsolete or the retailer goes under (or otherwise arbitrarily changes their user agreement), my readers risk losing the works of mine they’ve bought. I don’t like that.
...and why it doesn't really hurt publishers:
Does this mean it’s easier for someone to violate my copyright? It does. But most people don’t want to violate my copyright. Most people just want to own their damn books. Now they will. I support that. And I believe that most readers who like my work will support me. They get that if I don’t get paid, they won’t get books — and more than that I really do believe most people who can support the artists whose work they like will support them. So personally I don’t think ditching DRM will mean people will stop buying what I and Tor have to sell.
Plus, now it looks like Macmillan may follow suit.  Charles Stross has the skinny here.  His conclusion--dropping DRM won't suddenly save the publishing industry from its existential crisis. However:
Longer term, removing the requirement for DRM will lower the barrier to entry in ebook retail, allowing smaller retailers (such as Powells) to compete effectively with the current major incumbents. This will encourage diversity in the retail sector, force the current incumbents to interoperate with other supply sources (or face an exodus of consumers), and undermine the tendency towards oligopoly. This will, in the long term, undermine the leverage the large vendors currently have in negotiating discount terms with publishers while improving the state of midlist sales.
Net win.

Micro Review [Film]: Equinox

Most Friday nights, Turner Classic Movies broadcasts an obscure, cult, or exploitation film as part of its TCM Underground series.

The Meat

Me and Equinox got off to a rocky start. It's not often that The Criterion Collection releases a B-movie, which it did with Equinox, so I was excited to see it pop up on the TCM Underground schedule. But then The Haunted Strangler happened. A late-career Boris Karloff vehicle, the Criterion release of The Haunted Strangler showed up at my house the day before Equinox aired, and I watched with increasing displeasure as this bizarre Karloff movie proceeded to swallow its own tail about 35 minutes in and just get more disjointed and worse from there. Having just been led astray by Criterion, when the first 10 minutes of Equinox proved totally inscrutable, I turned the thing off.

I poked around online to try to find out why this movie had been singled out for special attention, and I got an answer so unexpected that I gleefully waded through the murky (and, so slow) first 20 minutes of the movie to get to what makes it remarkable. It's definitely not the plot, where four kids go to the woods and...zzz...zzz...zzz...

Sorry. Look, you don't need to know what happens. Here's what's important: Dennis Muren -- the only living filmmaker with 9 Academy Awards to his name, the first visual effects artist to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a VFX pioneer who worked on five of six Star Wars movies, Terminator 2, and about 25 others -- co-wrote, directed, and created the stop-motion and effects shots in this movie right out of high school, on a budget of $6500. A lovely essay about the whole thing can be found over on the Criterion site. You have to slog through a whole lot of stilted dialogue, terrible ADR looping, exposition, and picnics before you get to it, but the stop-motion animation and other visual trickery that come in the second half of the film more than make it worth your while.

The Math

Objective Quality: 4/10

Bonuses: +1, hybridization of stop-motion and cel animation that no doubt makes Ray Harryhausen proud; +1, Muren's grandfather, who put up the money for the film, appears as the cackling -- and quite well kempt, I must say -- hermit who gives the poor, dumb kids a book of necromancy; +1, launching pad for arguably the most storied VFX career in Hollywood history; +1 for the film's connection to Forrest J. Ackerman and Famous Monsters of Film Land, which helped bring the collaborators together; +1, although not explicitly stated in any interview I could find, this film provided the clear inspiration for much of The Evil Dead, with many 1-for-1 parallels in terms of the magical book/Necronomicon, expository scenes, and animated shots.

Penalties: -1 for the nonsensical bookend narrative device about a reporter unable to find a story in this craziness about the dead kids with their crazy story about devil-worshipping park rangers and inter-dimensional rifts.

Cult Value Coefficient: 8/10

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Monday, April 23, 2012

Micro Review [book]: Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

The Meat

Fantasy fiction is a pretty conservative genre: you've got swords, you've got magic, some combination of dragons, elves, monsters and gods and a healthy dose of Celtic, Nordic and/or High Medieval mythology.  It all takes place in alt-England, alt-Ireland, alt-Scotland or alt-France--maybe if you're really lucky, you get a bit of alt-Germany or alt-Scandinavia thrown in for good measure. There are probably knights, and some code of chivalry; there are definitely kings and queens, and a high probability that at least one of them serves a dark lord. Somewhere to the east or south of where the action takes place, you get some foreign types who dress funny, have shocking attitudes towards sexuality and generally behave in an appropriately exotic and exoticized manner.

Enter Saladin Ahmed, who thinks this is a bit of a problem. His solution? Write a fantasy book that isn't just trapped in proverbial Europe, but draws upon other mythological sources--specifically, on the rich tradition of magic and high adventure found in the medieval Islamic world.

Throne of the Crescent Moon follows Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, "the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat." He and his steady companion, dervish and swordmaster Raseed, uncover a sinister plot that threatens the realm, and enlist the help of the sorcerer Dawood, his wife (and accomplished alkemist) Litaz and a shape-shifting nomad, Litaz. I won't say more, because unlike most other reviewers, I don't want to spoil your fun.

So how well does it all work? To begin, Ahmed has crafted a fantasy world that feels fresh, new and familiar all at the same time. In part, that's because, thanks to various popularizations of the 1001 Nights/Arabian Nights, people are more familiar with the underlying mythos than they might realize (djen = genie; ghul = ghoul; etc.). More tangibly, though, it's because of Ahmed's fluency with this mythos and his wise decisions to: a) allow himself some flexibility with it as source material; and b) drop readers in the middle of the story, and let them internalize the world as they go along. The dense cities, political structures, social relations, metaphysics and climate, as a result, all feel natural and well-realized. As much as I love A Song of Ice and Fire and other alt-Europe-based fantasies, I can't stress enough how important it is for the genre to break free from its mythological cliches and geographic trappings.

It isn't a perfect book, though. For all the inventiveness in world-building, the plot (heroes save kingdom from evil menace) is a little too familiar. The main characters also leave something to be desired. Adoulla is clearly supposed to be the "cantakerous-but-lovable sage," but he often comes off as just cranky and mean; consequently it isn't clear why his foil, Raseed (aka the "pious prude"), sticks around with him. Nor why the godly Raseed falls in love with the enigmatic and decidedly impious shape-shifter, Zamia. Fellow companions Daoud and Litaz are more fully realized, but I wanted to know more about them too.

...and that's the main problem: Throne of the Crescent Moon is too short. Not that every fantasy book needs to be 900+ pages, but as is, we don't get enough insight into what motivates these characters, their backgrounds or enough complexity in their relationships with one another. This lends them a sort of YA fiction sensibility. This won't be a problem for everyone--plenty of adults love Harry Potter and Hunger Games--and consequently it shouldn't be a surprise to see a book straddle the line between YA and adult fiction. But my feeling is that, given the often mature and challenging subject matter, it neither intentional nor the optimal path. It's also something that could be solved with an extra 100 or so pages of character development. Here's hoping the next installment gets a little more meat on its bones. 

Bottom line is, Throne of the Crescent Moon may not be the best the genre has to offer, but it's still a fun, engaging read that breaks barriers, introduces you to a memorable world and leaves you looking forward to the sequel.  It reminds me a bit of old-school adventure tales, like ones written by Edgar Rice Burroughs or Robert E. Howard--only without the anachronisms and embarrassing colonial-era sensibilities.  If that sounds like your cup of tea, you're in for a treat.

The Math 

Quality of Writing: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for deviating from crusty genre norms; +1 for picking a rich alternative in terms of historical and mythological source material, and applying it successfully; +1 for this book actually feels "fun," and that makes you realize how few adventure stories are actually "fun" anymore

Penalties: -1 for all that said, the plot feels a little too familiar; -1 for YA-style characters; -1 for these issues could have been solved with a bit more explication

Nerd Value Coefficient: 7/10, "an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws"

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

BIG IDEA: A Sustainable Lunar Colony

Ever wondered what it would be like to live on the moon? What it would take to actually live there and, you know, not starve or be held hostage to supplies from Earth? Well, a group of scientists mapped out what a sustainable lunar colony could look like. They call it Luna Gaia. Here are their six steps to sustainable moon living:
FIND A BIG CRATER Designs call for Luna Gaia to be built in a mile-wide crater near the moon's north pole. The crater wall casts a shadow that protects the astronauts from solar radiation. 
GO SOLAR A dozen mirrors, each 100 feet wide, sit on top of the crater's rim, an area that's nearly constantly bathed in sunlight. These direct light onto another set of mirrors that focus the beam on a water supply, creating steam that drives a turbine and generates electricity for the base. 
INFLATE YOUR BEDROOM Luna Gaia will consist of several inflatable modules made of Vectran, a flexible material that's more durable than Kevlar and can be compressed in transit to help keep delivery costs down. The greenhouses will be transparent, but living quarters will be covered with a layer of regolith, or lunar soil, to provide added protection from radiation. 
GO FISHING Tilapia are high in protein and thrive in a crowded tank. Astronauts will also dine on hydroponically grown wheat and a variety of vegetables, such as spinach and potatoes. The same algae that cleans up the crew's water will be a good source of protein. 
URINATE OFTEN Urine runs first through an ion-exchange filter that removes some contaminants and then into the algae tanks, where the algae drink it up and release water vapor that a condenser liquifies. This water either runs back to the crew quarters for washing or is further purified to make it drinkable. 
REUSE EVERYTHING Several different strains of bacteria break down feces into water, minerals and ammonium. These materials are converted into nutrient-rich fertilizer and pumped into the plant, fish and algae chambers.
Washing down endless meals of tilapia with urine-derived water doesn't exactly sound too appealing, but you've got to figure the kind of people who'd actually be stationed on Luna Gaia are already used to freeze-dried meals and astronaut ice cream. So maybe this is a step up? Popsci has a nifty animation explaining Luna Gaia's architecture here.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

About Micro Review Scores

Now that we've had a few micro reviews, it's probably about time we discussed what all these numbers mean.  Unlike many other review outlets, here at we emphatically reject grade inflation. 10s are given out infrequently, and are reserved for cultural products of extraordinary value, personal resonance with our reviewers and a clear timelessness.  9s will be more common, but still don't expect too many of them.  Anything from 6 on up is worth a look; anything below 5 is suspect.  Here's a more detailed breakdown:

10: mind-blowing/life-changing
9: very high quality/standout in its category
8: well worth your time and attention
7: a mostly enjoyable experience
6: still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore
5: equal parts good and bad
4: problematic, but has redeeming qualities
3: very little good I can say about this
2: just bad
1: really really bad
0: prosecutable as crime against humanity

Red Planet Curse?

This was interesting:
Disney movie studio boss Rich Ross stepped down on Friday, taking the fall for at least a couple of over-budgeted bombs as Hollywood shies away from taking risks on big blockbusters. His resignation comes after two years in a row of nasty March surprises, ironically both having to do with the Red Planet. Last year it was "Mars Needs Moms," a creepy animated movie that lost $70 million. This year, it was "John Carter," a sci-fi action movie set on Mars that resulted in a $200  million loss.
Brings to mind an earlier pair of Mars duds: Red Planet (2000) and Mission to Mars (2000). That begs the question: why do studios keep backing bad Mars projects? Or, is there something about the red planet that inspires really bad movie projects?  More importantly, is there a Mars curse for movie studios?

(So you can decide for yourselves, here's a handy list of Mars-related films (and yes, most of them are pretty terrible).)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Lists! "67 Books Every Geek Should Read to Their Kids Before Age 10"

GeekDad over at Wired has compiled a handy list of books every nerdy/geeky/interesting Dad (or Mom, really...let's not forget the ladies here) should have handy during his (or her) child's formative years.  The list is expansive and printable.  It includes authors like Neil Gaiman, Orson Scott Card, Philip Pullman and many others, writing books you'll probably enjoy reading as much as your kid will.  Get cracking!

ALERT! Asteroid Mining to Begin Tuesday

A mysterious Seattle-based company, Planetary Resources, claims that on Tuesday, it will unveil an actual plan to mine actual asteroids for metals.

According to the press release, the company is run by: Peter H. Diamandis, M.D.; leading commercial space entrepreneur Eric Anderson; former NASA Mars mission manager Chris Lewicki; and planetary scientist & veteran NASA astronaut Tom Jones, Ph.D. In case you don't know who these people are, here's some background information on Diamandis:
[Diamandis] is the Founder and Chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, an educational non-profit prize institute whose mission is to create radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.[1] His foundation is best known for offering the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for private-sector manned spaceflight, a prize that was won in October 2004 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and famed aviation designer Burt Rutan with SpaceShipOne, the world's first non-government piloted spacecraft. More recently, Diamandis has created the Rocket Racing League. In addition to serving as chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation, Diamandis is also the CEO and co-founder of Zero Gravity Corporation, which offers parabolic weightless flights to the general public. He is also the co-Founder and a Director of Space Adventures, Ltd, the company that has flown eight private citizens on Soyuz to the International Space Station.
As well as Eric Anderson and Tom Jones. So these are no slouches in the space business. Also, they claim support from some famous dudes as well, who are ready to blaze some new frontiers:
Supported by an impressive investor and advisor group, including Google’s Larry Page & Eric Schmidt, Ph.D.; film maker & explorer James Cameron; Chairman of Intentional Software Corporation and Microsoft’s former Chief Software Architect Charles Simonyi, Ph.D.; Founder of Sherpalo and Google Board of Directors founding member K. Ram Shriram; and Chairman of Hillwood and The Perot Group Ross Perot, Jr., the company will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.
Sounds great, right? There's certainly a lot of upside:
Such mining could yield a large amount of water, oxygen and metals to help further space exploration by allowing humans to fuel spacecraft, build space stations and other constructs. The resources could potentially be brought back to Earth as well.
Harvesting raw materials in space is possible with modes of technology currently available or expected to be developed in a matter of decades. A robotic mission may capture a smaller NEA with a diameter of several meters and slow it down enough to bring into low-Earth orbit for further processing. As a bonus, no nation has sovereignty over space, so its riches are free for anyone to come and get it from a legal point of view.
Sounds good, right? Well don't get your nickel pan and prospecting hat packed just yet: But in practice such a mission has numerous challenges, from identifying an asteroid with proper orbit and composition to timing it to return the investment fast enough. Planetary Resources apparently are more likely to become trailblazers of private space exploration than future asteroid-drilling trillionaires. And:
Louis Friedman, a former NASA aerospace engineer who also was involved in the study, said he supports this strategy but noted that it would take "hundreds of millions of dollars" to get started and that Planetary Resources would "need to find a lower-cost way to access space" in order to succeed. He is also skeptical the company could find ways to transfer raw materials extracted from asteroids back to Earth, given the cost of going in and out of earth's gravity well. Thus, he said, the materials could only be useful in space.
Bottom line, though, is that this isn't really all that far-fetched. Others are thinking along the same lines:
Although the general public is mostly unaware of this nascent industry, the notion of mining space has already inspired several other major efforts. Moon Express hopes to make regular trips to mine Earth's Moon, and NASA itself plans to launch an asteroid surveying spacecraft called OSIRIS-REx in 2014. If the hints at space mining mentioned in Planetary Resources' announcement turn out to be on mark, this could very well be the dawn of an exciting new age of extraterrestrial wealth creation and innovation.
So just around the corner...maybe not. But there's a lot of asteroid-mining-based science fiction for a sorta, kinda makes a lot of sense for an increasingly resource-strapped, crowded world to look towards a bunch of uninhabited, metal-rich rocks as an alternate source, doesn't it?

Friday, April 20, 2012

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Micro Review [Book]: Pavane by Keith Roberts

Part of the Neil Gaiman Presents series. Neil Gaiman, in partnership with, has helped commission new audiobook recordings of books that meant something to him as a child/budding writing legend.

The Meat

So, steampunk is a thing, right? I'm in a band that people have called "steamfolk," for whatever that's worth. And before steampunk (or even cyberpunk, see William Gibson) was a thing, there was Pavane by Keith Roberts. Pavane is an alternate history book where the English failed to defeat the Spanish Armada, Queen Elizabeth was assassinated by papists, and the Catholic Church never lost its ascendency in Europe. As such, the entire continent of Europe, and, it is alluded, other parts of the world, have been locked into essentially medieval technology and a persistent Inquisition state into the late 20th century. As a matter of fact, technology itself has been branded heretical because speedy channels of communication that could not be easily censored are anathema to the maintenance of empire. The telegraph, let alone the telephone, has been suppressed, and messages are sent across the countryside via semaphore towers that are so physically demanding to man they sometimes kill their operators. You can imagine the velocity with which heads would explode if someone from our timeline were to pop over and explain Facebook to these cats.

If this sounds awesome to you, then turn off your computer right now and just go read the book. Or, download it from, and then turn off your computer.

If you remain ambivalent, then we should dig deeper. Off we go...

Here's how Pavane works: it's a series of long vignettes that at first appear unconnected, but ultimately join up in both a narrative and emotional Gordian knot. My problem going through the first 2/3 of the book was that I didn't have a strong emotional handle to grab onto. Each vignette either changes characters entirely, or leaps generations to follow descendants of the central characters of the previous vignettes. Each of these leaps may give us a glimpse at a much later sliver of the previous character's life, but it otherwise diverts us away from those people we just invested ourselves in. It was a little frustrating to get legitimately invested in these characters and then have to step away before feeling like their stories were finished. But then at the end, I realized that Roberts had been so much on top of his game, that the mere mention of a piece of machinery featured in the first vignette would bring a literal tear to my eyes. So, all was forgiven.

And when you get right down to it, we have come to expect narrative conventions of stories being finished, but that's not at all how real life works. Even in death, nobody's story is ever really finished (that is, until an individual's third death -- seriously, read this, and try to not get chills). And in Pavane, Roberts is telling the story of an empire that has stretched from the Holy Roman Empire into an alternate 1980s that cannot possibly conceive of synth-pop. It is fitting, then, that a narrative tapestry woven from such material should eschew such "endings."

The Math

Quality of Writing: 8/10
Bonuses: +1, steam traction engines are a real thing; +1, published in 1968, the book is an unheralded forbear of the increasingly popular steampunk sub-genre -- steampunk before steampunk was a thing. Steampunk.
Penalties: -1, despite the ultimate payoff, not having a clear emotional through-line makes it seem longer than it really is; -1, you needn't bother reading the Coda section, which undermines some of the mystery and tragic heft of the rest of the book.
Nerd Value Coefficient: 8/10. Neil Gaiman endorses it - you don't need me to tell you it's worth your time.

The Entire World as a Zelda Map

Since I'm on this 8-bit kick, here's something google did a few weeks ago...all of google maps, for the whole world, re-rendered as a Legend of Zelda/Dragon Quest map.

In case you're interested, here's the story behind it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012



8-bit Remix Jam: Game of Thrones Edition

A couple days ago we had our first 8-bit remix jam. Today we're having another one, because this gem is just too special to overlook:

It's too bad there's no video: I'd love to see Jon Snow pulling up turnips to throw at evil Lannister mushroom soldiers.

But wait! How about a 16-bit version?  The music might not be as good, but these guys show you what GoT would look like if someone decided to make a SNES RPG out of it:

I'd play that.  Wait, no I wouldn't!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Creepy Fake Tupac Explained

...and it wasn't a hologram. Check this video to see how it was done. 19th century technology FTW!

TSoP, Part II: Ebook Pricing and the DOJ Lawsuit

Last week I tackled the issue of DRM and what it means for consumers. In Part II, we'll discuss how ebooks are priced, as well as the implications of various pricing models on the pillars of the publishing industry: authors, publishers and bricks-and-mortar booksellers. At present, they appear to be, in turn: "uneven," "unclear" and "not good." And that, kids, is with a thing called "agency pricing," which publishers favor.

Unfortunately for publishers, mega-retailer Amazon and the Department of Justice disagree. In fact, the DOJ has brought an antitrust suit against six publishers and Apple, described as the mastermind of an "anti-competitive price-fixing scheme" to keep ebook prices artificially high.  Three publishers have already settled, leaving Apple and the rest exposed.

Before getting into more detail, let's first consider two terms bandied about in the press a lot, and typically without much explanation. First, the "wholesale model." This is how Amazon prefers to buy its ebooks: as with most goods for sale, publishers suggest a retail price to retailers, and sell the actual product at a set discount. The retailer, though, reserves the right to adjust the actual selling price according to market conditions. With the wholesale model, a retailer like Amazon or B&N can sell a book they bought for $5 for $1, if they feel it will help them sell Kindles/Nooks or build brand loyalty among customers.

The second is the "agency model," allegedly brought into the ebooks market by Steve Jobs for iBooks. With the "agency model," the publisher sets the final price, and the retailer gets a set commission. The actual amount of money that goes to the publisher is roughly the same as with the wholesale model; the difference is who gets to set the final price.

Open Questions

So why would publishers prefer the agency model, when they get paid the same thing either way? Why would one retailer prefer the wholesale model, and another prefer the agency model? Why does the DOJ care? What about the people actually writing the books?

1. The first question is an interesting one, given that publishers already use the wholesale model to sell books to bricks-and-mortar retailers--as well as online retailers, like Amazon and B&N, for physical books. But that's a different kind of case: while Amazon heavily discounts its physical books, it seems prepared to take a bigger loss per ebook in order to get people hooked on its proprietary format, Kindle. Plainly put, if you've got a Kindle or Kindle app, and see an ebook version selling for $0.99, are you really going to buy the mass market paperback for $7.99 instead? Diehard paper-lovers might, but an increasing number of people would not.  And if Amazon does it, you know Apple and B&N won't be far behind.  A price war could claim B&N as a casualty.

For publishers, this kind of aggressive ebook pricing is viewed as threatening to their other customers: bricks-and-mortar booksellers . As author Scott Turow notes in a thoughtful essay, rapid growth in ebook sales, in the context of the wholesale model, could create a new bookselling universe in which everyone is even more dependent on Amazon than they already are. Noted science fiction author Charles Stross makes an even more strident version of this argument, suggesting Amazon is aiming for a true monopoly of the ebooks sector. (The market seems to agree: Amazon rival B&N's stock fell almost immediately on news of the DOJ suit.)

The agency model, by contrast, forces all the major ebook retailers to adopt the same--and standardized--pricing model, which appears to appears to allows publishers to keep ebooks from eating too quickly into physical book sales, and protecting smaller sellers from price wars.  I think, from the publisher's point of view, this is definitely the preferable route: with prices stable, you could actually envision more ebook retailers emerging, including a technically improved version of the partnership between Google and independent bookstores.  More customers means more leverage, and better hedging against a bad turn of events.  That becomes difficult to imagine in a price war context.

2. The answer to the second question is more straightforward: back in 2010, Apple had this new device called the iPad, and resident genius Steve Jobs figured, correctly, that the ability to use the device as an e-reader would be one of its biggest and most immediate selling points.  This being Apple, Jobs didn't just want to let Amazon, B&N and others sell their books for his device--he wanted to sell them himself.  But how to eat into Amazon's marketshare and propensity to underprice the competition?  Jobs, one of the craftiest businesspeople of the modern era, decided to harness publishers' discontent with Amazon:
"We told the publishers, 'We'll go to the agency model, where you set the price, and we get our 30 percent," Jobs told Isaacson. "And yes, the customer pays a little more, but that's what you want anyway."

Jobs then told Isaacson that the publishers were able to force the agency model on all the other retailers. That's what some say is a smoking gun.
3. This also speaks to the DOJ's interest: Apple, they allege, schemed with publishers to set prices at a standard, rather than let the market dictate prices. This arguably has kept ebook prices artificially high, to the detriment of the consumer.

Did publishers really collude?  Bestselling author and SFWA president John Scalzi has expressed healthy skepticism:
My immediate thought is that if all of them were in fact stupid enough to have colluded, then sue away, United States Justice Department. If they were dumb enough to collude, then they get what they get.

My next thought, however, is that I’ll be interested to see if the case can be proven, because I don’t think they had to act in concert. That Apple would be aware that publishers would be desirous of agency pricing in a general sense is not hard to imagine; Apple doesn’t enter a market without knowing the players and how to leverage themselves to make a maximum splash and receive a maximum benefit. Once Apple made it known it would accept agency pricing (but not selling books at a higher price than other retail competitors), the publishing companies didn’t have to act in concert, although one of them had to be willing to bell the very large cat called Amazon by moving to the agency model.
+1 for this logical, incisive argument. Apple certainly agrees; Macmillan too. While denials are expected, like Scalzi I'm also not sure how the DOJ would go about proving collusion. Thing is, though, 3 of the publishers have already settled, and the terms were not favorable. That makes me think the DOJ's got something they haven't revealed yet. This guy agrees.

4. The final question concerns the people actually writing the books. Let me begin by stating the opinion that--wholesale or agency model--authors get the shaft. The median advance for first-time authors is $6,000, if they have an agent, and $3,500 if they don't. And did I mention it takes them an average of 11 years to sell that first book? Writers aren't compensated well enough for stuff that takes them a really long time and a lot of blood, sweat and tears to produce.

How the wholesale vs. agency model debate affects authors isn't totally clear. Many authors and literary agents, though, aren't happy with the DOJ lawsuit. Author Sherman Alexie, quoted by the LA Times:
I know for a fact that my publishers and my editors publish books that they know are going to lose money but they think should be of the world...The John Grishams of the world support the experimental nature of publishing. [The DOJ's suit] gave Amazon explicit permission to go for a total monopoly.
While these are legitimate concerns, I haven't ben able to find any evidence that the wholesale model actually treats authors worse than the agency model, while Mike Schatzkin over at Idealog provides data suggesting that authors are marginally better off with the wholesale model, and generally (though still marginally) better off with ebooks than printed books.


If this feels like a pile-on-Amazon, then that's because: a) there are some legitimate concerns about Amazon's growing dominance of the publishing industry; and b) a lot of people in the industry view Amazon as an existential threat, but do not feel the same way about Apple. Though some side-taking is inevitable, Scalzi, in another good blog post, cautions against treating the antagonists like sports teams:
Amazon is not on your side. Neither is Apple, or Barnes & Noble, or Google, or Penguin or Macmillan. These are all corporations, not sports teams, and with the exception of Macmillan, they are publicly owned. They have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to maximize value. You are the means to that, not the end. The side these companies are on is their own side, and the side of their shareholders. This self-interest doesn’t make them evil. It makes them corporations.
I agree, and given that I actually really like both Amazon's and Apple's ebook platforms, don't want to give the impression that I've got a stake in this fight.  I do think that there's a very valid argument that the government shouldn't aggressively pursue antitrust legislation when it so clearly benefits the market leader.  And the traditional publishers, booksellers and so on are worth preserving.  At the same time, Amazon is also one of the driving forces in America's current reading renaissance, and, well, provides a better user experience than Borders did. Popular detective fiction writer Michael Connelly, in the LA Times piece linked above, offers some measured commentary:
I believe in fair play. So I feel that if the government is going to step in and put controls on how publishers act to ensure a competitive marketplace, then I hope the government will be just as vigilant in guarding this amazing, creative and important industry from being monopolized by one entity...Amazon spreads my work far and wide. You can't beat that. I'm very grateful. But I don't want a world where there are no bookstores or other venues for discovering my work or the work of any other writers.
I feel you, Mike. What we want, ultimately, is a competitive market populated both by innovative big players like Amazon, at least a couple other big ebook retailers, and an ecology of high-quality independent bookshops.

That said, I can't help but think everyone's barking up the wrong tree here: in this whole debate, the fate of the people actually creating the books remains unaccounted for. With ebooks, where print runs are not a factor, we could move away from the "throw lots of mud at the wall and hope some of it sticks enough to make up for the stuff that doesn't" business model. Instead, we could be talking about getting to a place where authors actually get paid commensurate to what they produce, or at least closer to it. Instead, we're arguing over which other elements of the supply-chain should get the most say/cut.

So do I think that it's okay to ask consumers to pay moderately higher ebook prices? YES, provided the right people get that extra love. If, say, Amazon or Apple were to suggest a wholesale model that allowed retailers to set prices, but included a retailer-supplied $1/ebook increase in author royalties, we'd simultaneously satisfy the DOJ's antitrust concerns, take some of the pressure off print and make publishing more fair.  Net win, right?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Micro Review [Film]: It Came from Outer Space

The Meat

Ever wonder what would happen if aliens en route to some other planet got a flat tire and had to stop on Earth to fix it? Welp, apparently Ray Bradbury did, so in 1953 Universal threw almost a million dollars at that idea and made It Came from Outer Space in 3D. Watching it now, you get the feeling it was the Avatar of its day -- and not just because a million dollars in 1953 was absolutely in the realm of "James Cameron Money" (although back then they called it "Von Stroheim Money." Look it up.) Director Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man, High School Confidential!) used the 3D in a restrained, artistic way that, if you do see the movie in 3D, is probably really immersive and avoids the bang-the-paddle-ball-directly-at-the-camera-lens technique of its contemporaries like House of Wax. Too bad it's not readily available in 3D these days, though, because without that effect, the whole movie is kinda...flat.

But I know how it is -- it's Friday night, you feel like watching a 50s sci-fi movie, and you want to know if It Came from Outer Space is going to scratch that itch. Let's check:
  • Theremin? Check
  • Memorable alien? Check
  • Skeptical townsfolk/angry mob in waiting? Check
  • Flying saucer? Sadly, no.
So there you have it. It's no The Day the Earth Stood Still, but it'll do in a pinch. There's good production value, but little narrative momentum, and not much pay-off.

The Math

Objective Quality: 6/10

Bonuses: +1, Early appearance by Russell "The Professor on Gilligan's Island" Johnson; +1, uncredited score contributions by Henry Mancini; +1, appearance by character actor Charles Drake (Harvey, Winchester '73); +1, for being originally shot in 3D and remaining watchable without glasses

Penalties: -1, ham-fisted presentation of standard "man is the real monster" sci-fi theme; -1, the aliens' mastery of interstellar travel, but inability to sweep up their glitter trails when leaving a room; -1, random townspeople's lemming-like willingness, with no explanation whatsoever, to grab rifles and follow the sheriff to go murder Frank, local telephone repairman

Cult Value Coefficient: 7/10

8-bit Remix Jam!

Ever feel nostalgic for the NES?  I often do.  Okay, maybe not the inevitable part where you die after  4 straight hours of red-eyed concentration, only to be forced to start over from the very beginning (I'm looking at you, Rygar).

So yeah, given that you no longer have to feel this specific form of violence-inducing frustration, it's fair to say that today's games are just better in almost every way. But the music...the music!  I still fire up the theme from Metroid or Contra on a regular basis.  Timeless classics.

Of course, as awesome as the roboswing from Super Mario Bros. 2 is, it's not quite up to par with the 10 hour soundtrack for Skryim, a compelling hybrid of Wagner and Prokofiev.  But this is a rare beast, and when facing the majority of trite, action-tastic video game soundtracks, I often find myself longing for the forced minimalism and peppy 'tude of the 8-bit wonders.

Thankfully, some enterprising young fellows have interpreted modern gaming's best theme songs through the sonic lens of the Nintendo Entertainment System.  I think you'll agree these are all TREMENDOUS:

1. Skyrim - Dovahkiin.

Arguably the best video game theme song EVAR, Skyrim's main title gets an epic 8-bit treatment here.  Access the lyrics and sing along like a super-dork.  (You know you want to.)

2. Halo - Opening Suite

Doesn't that just make you want to kill a bunch of covenant, side-scrolling style?  (Wait, you can actually do that!)

3. Deus Ex - Main Theme

Feeling paranoid yet?


Monday, April 16, 2012

ALERT: Alien Dinosaurs to Conquer Earth by 2055!

Noted Columbia University chemist Ronald Breslow recently deviated from the accepted parameters of academic discourse by writing something the media actually paid attention to.  That is, at the end of a long and--presumably--dry paper about amino acids and such, Dr. Breslow informed us that there may be alien worlds out there populated by giant, super-smart Pterodactyls and T-Rexes.

Is Dr. Breslow actually claiming these alien dinosaurs exist, or better yet, that they're actually on the way to conquer Earth as we speak?  Unfortunately not.   But I like to think these alien dinosaurs are smarter than we are, and as such, probably deployed Dr. Breslow in an ingenious double-bluff to catch us napping. In fact, they may be on the way here as we speak.  They probably also wear lasers on their backs and talk sassy.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

2012 Hugo Award Nominees (Plus Free Stuff!)

Do you like science fiction? How about really good science fiction? If the answer to these questions is "yes," then you'll be happy to know that the nominees for the 2012 Hugo Awards have been announced. For those who don't know what the Hugo Awards are, here's some background. Suffice to say, they're prestigious.

The novel category usually gets the most attention, so here are the nominees:

Best Novel (932 ballots)
Among Others by Jo Walton (Tor)
A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin (Bantam Spectra)
Deadline by Mira Grant (Orbit)
Embassytown by China MiƩville (Macmillan / Del Rey)
Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey (Orbit)

My money's on Embassytown, which I haven't read but is supposed to be exactly the kind of big-idea fiction the Hugo people go for. Don't expect GRRM's fourth best book in a five-book series to win. Haven't read the others, so I could be wrong about this, but Embassytown has a lot of critical buzz.

Another category people will care about is:

Best Graphic Story (339 ballots)
Digger by Ursula Vernon (Sofawolf Press)
Fables Vol 15: Rose Red by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham (Vertigo)
Locke & Key Volume 4, Keys to the Kingdom written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW)
Schlock Mercenary: Force Multiplication written and illustrated by Howard Tayler, colors by Travis Walton (The Tayler Corporation)
The Unwritten (Volume 4): Leviathan created by Mike Carey and Peter Gross. Written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross (Vertigo)

Yikes, that's an uninspiring bunch. Comes down to Digger vs. Schlock Mercenary for me, but no Habibi? No Oil and Water? Not sure I understand the selections here.

Then there's the nominees for best tv/film:

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) (592 ballots)
Captain America: The First Avenger, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephan McFeely, directed by Joe Johnston (Marvel)
Game of Thrones (Season 1), created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss; written by David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, Bryan Cogman, Jane Espenson, and George R. R. Martin; directed by Brian Kirk, Daniel Minahan, Tim van Patten, and Alan Taylor (HBO)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, screenplay by Steve Kloves; directed by David Yates (Warner Bros.)
Hugo, screenplay by John Logan; directed by Martin Scorsese (Paramount)
Source Code, screenplay by Ben Ripley; directed by Duncan Jones (Vendome Pictures)

If I were a betting man, I'd put my chips squarely on GoT. No offense to the other nominees, but this is the best fantasy fiction ever made for the small screen, and one of the best novel adaptations--of any kind--that I've ever seen. It's rare to have something like that in the genre, so expect a landslide.

While all that stuff is well and good, my favorite category is for Best Short Story. Science fiction is often derided by mainstream literary types as being big on ideas and short on everything else. The shoe does fit sometimes, but there's also a lot of good writing out there, and I feel this is most evident in the compact, clearly defined parameters of the short story form. I read both of the major "best of" compilations every year, as well as a few of the journals, and never cease to be amazed by the creativity and writing chops on display. If you think science fiction is just Star Wars novels and other cheap drugstore garbage, then you owe it to yourself to take a look.

Let me do the work for you. This year's nominees are:

Best Short Story (593 ballots)
“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld, April 2011)
“The Homecoming” by Mike Resnick (Asimov's, April/May 2011)
“Movement” by Nancy Fulda (Asimov's, March 2011)
“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2011)
“Shadow War of the Night Dragons: Book One: The Dead City: Prologue” by John Scalzi (

While this year's crop isn't quite as good as last year's, they're still worth a looksie: Ken Liu's story is experimental, but clever and has a good chance to win the category; Fulda's and Resnick's are traditional scifi stories; Yu gives us standard Clarkesworld fare, by which I mean non-standard science fiction; and John Scalzi offers up a delicious inside joke that should make lovers of the genre smirk (and maybe even laugh).

Best of all, over at his generally excellent blog Whatever, John Scalzi has compiled links to all these stories for you, so you can read them right now, for free. Get going!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Micro Review [Film]: The Iron Rose

[ed: This one comes courtesy of Vance from LA indie/folk band Scifi Romance.

The Meat

Here's a tip if you meet a French girl with a nice rack and convince her to meet you for a sex romp in a crypt the next day: check the cemetery hours, and set an alarm. Otherwise, as The Iron Rose informs us, you're in for a night trapped in the cemetery, occasional tumbles into open pits full of bones, premature burial, a little bit of dancing, naked time on a fantasy beach, and crepes (probably).

The cable guide listed The Iron Rose as a horror film, but it's not. is set in a cemetery, and since you can't put "Just a movie" as the genre, I guess "horror" was as good as anything. The thing is, though, on some level it really works. Probably because it's in French -  really the only acceptable language for visual mood poems.

The Math  

Objective Quality: 3/10

Bonuses: +1, random clown walking through the cemetery delivering flowers; +1, inexplicable second sex romp on a pile of skulls after beating each other with grave markers; +1, a surprisingly solid descent into madness; +1, the score, which is a bunch of reverbed-out clangs, panting, and baby-talk; +1, Francoise Pascal; +1, Francoise Pascal again, because man is she beautiful

Penalties: -1, Francoise is supposedly a professional dancer, but when she has her big crazy solo through the headstones, she looks more like a professional vertigo sufferer. Just say she's a photography student and be done with it.

Cult Value Coefficient: 8/10 ]

Micro Review [film]: Your Highness

Your Highness (2011): Directed by David Gordon Green; Written by Danny McBride and Ben Best

The Meat

I like fantasy fiction and I like HBO's redneck cringe comedy Eastbound & Down, though I'd have never thought to put them together.  Evidently someone is a lot more creative than me, because that's exactly what this movie is.  It's written by the guys who brought you Eastbound & Down too (as well as Pineapple Express).  What's more, it has an excellent cast, starring Kenny Powers himself, as well as James Franco, Natalie Portman, Zooey Deschanel, Justin Theroux and Tywin Lannister.

The plot follows shlubby prince Thaddeus (McBride) as he reluctantly joins his more princely brother, Fabious (Franco), on a quest to save his beloved (Deschanel) from the evil wizard Leezar (Theroux).  Along the way they meet an ass-kicking Natalie Portman, encounter various monsters and villains and engage in a bit of questly self-actualization.  The violence is absurdly gory, the humor sophomoric and the plot predictable, but there are some genuinely funny moments and some very quotable lines delivered entirely in over-the-top, "we're not even trying to make this sound good" English accents.  Franco was particularly funny, playing Fabious totally straight in the midst of all the insanity.

Critics mostly hated this movie, but I think they missed the point: it's a film for 14 year olds and sleep-deprived/hungover adults, meant to be watched on cable or streaming, on a random afternoon when you don't have anything better to do, either because you can't drive yet or momentarily can't scrape yourself off the couch.  I think this is one of those films, like Amazon Women on the Moon, that had I seen it at age 14, I'd have thought it was brilliant, and promptly memorized.  I'm not 14 anymore, though, so I don't think it's brilliant (or even good), but I did enjoy watching it during a moment of epic tiredness.

The Math  

Objective Quality: 4/10

Bonuses: +1 for McBride and Franco; +1 for buxom Zooey Deschanel; +1 for Natalie Portman partially redeems herself for role as Jane in Thor; +1 for managing to put Eastbound & Down humor in a fantasy context

Penalties: -1 for Zooey-Deschanel-overexposure-index; -1 for it's not as funny as Eastbound & Down; -1 for I'm glad I didn't pay anything for this

Cult Value Coefficient: 5/10

Friday, April 13, 2012

The State of Publishing, Part I: DRM

Anyone who knows me knows I have strong opinions on books.  Not just the books themselves, but the industry that produces them and the marketplace in which they're sold.  Specifically, I believe it's in the common good to have a healthy publishing industry that compensates authors appropriately for their very hard work; that there should be multiple formats available for buyers to choose from; that when you buy a product, like a book, it should really, actually be yours; and that there should be a healthy, competitive market in which books are bought and sold, corporate behemoth and mom-and-pop shop alike.

Is that where we're headed?  In terms of formats, things are mostly okay--hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, iBooks/Kindle/Nook/ePubs/etc. format ebooks, various audiobook formats, etc.  I've read books in each of these formats, and consider myself a format omnivore.  Not only that, I think having multiple options empowers the consumer, and that's a good thing.  That said, there's a bit of a problem.

Let me explain: each of the major ebook sellers--Apple, Amazon and Barnes&Noble--have their own proprietary format.  If you own a Kindle or Nook device, you're pretty much locked in to that manufacturer's format.  If you read ebooks on an iOS/Android device (or PC/Mac), though, you have choices.  You can decide if Apple's fake pages (that turn!) help you suspend disbelief and imagine you've got an actual, tactile book in your hands, or if you prefer the cleaner, PDF-like digital format used by the Kindle and Nook apps.  You can decide which of these giant corporations offends you the least, and give them your business.  Or you could base your preferences on the quality, quantity and accessibility of information on each of these company's online stores.  Basically, you've got choices...except when it comes to DRM.

Enter Cory Doctorow, speculative fiction writer and techie extraordinaire.  He's got an interesting article in Publishers Weekly on DRM and the ebooks industry.  Doctorow lays out the essential problem of DRM:
[We're] now entering a world where this kind of interoperability is verboten. Thanks to the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it’s illegal to break DRM, even if you’re not violating copyright. Say, for example, you’ve bought a DRM-locked iBook from Apple and you want to switch to a Kindle. Converting the underlying files (going from EPub to Mobi) is a solved problem—a program called Calibre does it with a simple drag-and-drop operation. Of course, it’s illegal, because that conversion involves removing DRM. It is not only illegal to convert lawfully purchased e-books, it’s illegal to make a tool that does so; illegal to tell someone how to make such a tool; and illegal to distribute that tool. Even if you wrote the book and own the copyright, it’s illegal for you to remove DRM to convert your own book.
So basically, you bought a book in electronic format, but have to read it on the device/app provided by the company you bought it from.  Makes sense, from the retailer's perspective:
In practice, this means that once you use DRM, every cent your customers spend on DRM-locked e-books becomes a whip for the retailer to beat you with. Because once your customer is locked into a retailer’s DRM-locked format, your customer becomes the retailer’s customer. This is especially troubling when you consider that the duty cycle of a handheld device like a Kobo, Nook, or Kindle is all of 18 months. Every year or two your customers have the opportunity to switch platforms. If their e-books have no DRM, they can simply switch. But if they are DRM-locked, switching platforms could mean abandoning their e-books.
But what about everyone else?  People who read their ebooks on a dedicated ereader like the Kindle or Nook are the most screwed, because frustrated publishers can and have removed their goods wholesale from these stores (mostly Amazon's).  That puts readers at the mercy of the terse relationship between publishers and the big ebook retailers.  Those who read ebooks on iOS/Android devices are spared this fate, because the ability to install multiple ereader apps means you don't actually have to choice format, except on an ad hoc basis.

I'd add another disturbing possibility to the discussion: what if one of these retailers goes out of business, or stops selling ebooks?  Not likely in Amazon's case, but what about B&N or Apple?  B&N is known to have some financial troubles, though thankfully not in the realm of pre-bankruptcy Borders.  But it is plausible that the Nook format could, one day, disappear.  And how about if Apple decided to stop selling ebooks?  Probably not going to happen, at least not in the immediate future, but it's not outside the realm of possibility either.  In either of those scenarios, what would happen to your DRM-protected Nook or iBooks format ebooks?

Doctorow makes one other point I'd like to mention: ebooks allow retailers to simply cut out the publishers, and publish directly.  Nothing wrong with that, per se, except in how it interacts with DRM.  DRM, Doctorow argues, enables ebook retailers to set (mostly lower) the rates of compensation for authors.  Sure publishers can do this too, but it usually involves more negotiation and communication.  Doctorow's cautionary tale:

In February, veteran author Jim C. Hines discovered that Amazon had discounted his $2.99 e-books to 99 cents, cutting his royalties in the process. Jim tried in vain to discover why Amazon had done this. One Amazon rep told him that the company reserved the right to re-price their e-books (“...sole and complete discretion to set the retail price at which your Digital Books are sold through the Program”). Jim made a stink, and another rep got in touch with him to say that in his case, they’d lowered the price because they had out-of-date information about how he priced his books in the Kobo store.

This is what DRM enables. Imagine Amazon and other platforms all reserving the right to lower your e-book prices to match a competitor’s lowest advertised price. Imagine if Amazon decided to cut your $3.99 book to 99 cents for a promotion (while paying you royalties on $3.99 for the duration of the promotion). Its competitors would soon notice that Amazon is advertising your book at 99 cents and invoke their right to price match. The upshot: your book is never going back to $3.99, ever. Such baked-in price matching would have the effect of making all price drops permanent.

Jim C. Hines’s e-books are marketed both through a big publisher and solo. The books that were re-priced by Amazon were his solo titles—unagented, and unrepresented by a major publisher. As an individual, Jim has no leverage over Amazon. Not so his publisher, which controls a much larger number of SKUs and has much more leverage.