Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Plastic Lives Matter

I see PETA are having a go at Games Workshop because some of their plastic figurines are sculpted with 'fur' decorations.

And with that, I give up. Real life has officially jumped the shark.

#5: "The Player of Games", by Iain M. Banks

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Unscrambling the Egg

I've been watching "Timeless" on E4 for the past few weeks. It's reasonably entertaining, though it is utter nonsense, of course. But then, so is the rest of this post, so be warned...

While watching the show yesterday, I was wondering about the classic sci-fi debate: if you travel forward in time, do you go to the future, or do you go only to a future - that is, are the events that you see what will happen, or only something that might happen?

I promptly answered myself: due to Uncertainty, you really should travel only to a future, rather than the future. God does indeed play dice with the universe, and so if you roll it twice you'll get different results.

But then it occurred to me: why is travelling back in time any different? After all, the equations work both ways around. So, why should travelling backwards take you to the past, rather than to a past?

And, equally, it's worth noting that if you travel back in time and then forward again, you almost certainly can't get back to where you came from - that second journey forward will take you to a future from the point you left, not the future. In TV shows about time travel, the characters are generally very concerned about not changing the future. But those concerns are misplaced - surely, even if they do nothing at all while in the past, they'll still wind up somewhen different?

(As a simple example of this, consider that if you travel to a point before your own life, the odds of returning to a future in which you even exist are incredibly remote. After all, your existence hinges on one particular egg, out of millions, being released in ovulation in order to meet one of millions of sperm cells at just the right time. The odds against that being repeated are vanishingly small... and even that only provides for the existence of a genetically-identical person - there's considerably more to "you" than that!)

Bottom line: if you ever invent a time machine, don't ever ever use it!

I Wonder...

About a week ago, I was rather bemused to see Donald Trump get into an argument over how many people attended his inauguration. He seems not to have noticed that he's actually the President now, and as such shouldn't really need to engage in a dick-measuring contest against Obama.

On the other hand, this is hardly the first: ever since the results of the popular vote showed that Clinton had actually won that, he's been banging on about how this must be an example of voter fraud. Because, obviously, it's not enough for him to win the election, he has to prove he's the best on every possible measure.

But I do wonder something: if he does indeed kick off a massive investigation into the vote, what happens if the result of that investigation shows that, actually, he have lost some of those key states? That is, what happens if his investigation shows that Hillary Clinton actually won the election?

Other than that being hilarious, of course.

#3: "Far From the Madding Crowd", by Thomas Hardy (a book from The List)
#4:" Jarka Ruus", by Terry Brooks

Monday, January 16, 2017

Maybe Sherlock Should Have Been Allowed to Rest in Peace

Spoiler warning: if you haven't seen the Series Four finale of "Sherlock" yet, and are planning to do so, you should do that before reading any further.

As revered as the Sherlock Holmes stories are, it does seem that they're maybe not terribly well suited to adaptation - an awful lot of the stories consist of five minutes of the problem being laid out, five pages of Holmes checking "just a few things", and then five pages of Holmes laying out the explanation. There are some exceptions, of course, but it when I read through the stories in quick succession last year it was very noticable just how many fell into that pattern.

What this means is that an adaptation has a fairly small number of 'good' sources to adapt, and then there's a need to figure something else out - either write a new mystery from whole-cloth, or use the loose plot outline with some serious padding, or mash some stuff together, or something like that.

And what that probably means is that an adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories is probably best if it has only very few episodes - adapt the 'good' sources, and then stop. (Where 'good' in this case means "easy to adapt".)

Which brings us to "Sherlock", which was excellent for two series (six episodes), ended on a very strong "how did he get out of that one"... and just hasn't been the same since. (Which, to be fair, matches up neatly with the source.)

Series three was okay, but in hindsight showed very clear signs that things were going wrong (notably the failure to explain the answer to "how did he get out of that one?). Then there was the much-hyped 'period' piece, that could have been great had they actually done that rather than gone with "and it was all a dream".

And then series four fell to pieces.

Seriously, when your plot hinges on "Sherlock has a secret sister that he's forgotten all about... oh, and she has superpowers", you should probably stop and think again.

(Though my favourite bit was where Mycroft and Moriarty came face-to-face, and Mycroft lamented that Moriarty remained a "person of interest" but would remain at large until he committed some sort of crime... while they were literally standing on a secret prison used to 'disappear' inconvenient people!)

Ultimately, though, this last episode of "Sherlock", and increasingly the last two series, has shown much the same problems that have dogged much of Moffat's tenure as showrunner on "Doctor Who" - he's had some spectacular early success, and thereafter has been trying so hard to top his previous effort that he seems to have replaced 'clever' with 'convoluted'. And some of the output has, I'm afraid, degenerated into abject nonsense.

Which, conventiently, suggests to me that the best thing to happen with a Steven Moffat show is for it to run for a fairly short time (one or two series at most), and then stop. Because, "Day of the Doctor" aside, he never did manage to come close to his first season running "Doctor Who", and "Sherlock" was definitely at its best in those first two series.

(One other thought occurs. Some time ago, I did a post about "The Death of Superman", and how it damages the films - since the story is so big that they have to address it, without necessarily being very good. It would seem that "The Final Problem" maybe the same for Holmes - any adaptation will want to address it, and they'll want to use Moriarty as early as possible. But "The Final Problem" really should be the last story in any adaptation, and end with Holmes dying - thus neatly avoiding the question that nobody, including the author, has ever managed to answer convincingly: "how did he get out of that one"?)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Life Among the Boxes

This process of moving home now ranks as the second worst in my life. Partly, that's a measure of good luck - in that things have generally varied between 'okay' and 'pretty great'. But, partly at least, it has just been rubbish.

Since mid-November, LC and I have been living surrounded by boxes of possessions that we packed believing a move was imminent. Indeed, some more boxes of stuff are being stored in our downstairs lock-up which is fine for short-term storage but really not good for anything that might be affected by cold and/or damp. Meaning that the flat that we'd been finding increasingly oppressive has become increasingly uncomfortable and inconvenient in which to live.

And, since mid-December, we've been in a position where we simply must complete the sale of the flat before we can move, and we not only don't have a date when that will be completed (even nominally), but we we don't even have a date when we'll have a date. And meanwhile our seller is also becoming increasingly frustrated with the delays (can't say I blame them... I just wish there was anything I could actually do about them).

Basically, it just sucks, and with no end in sight. I think I'm going to give it another week, and then start unpacking. Putting up the Christmas tree didn't work, but maybe this will...

#2: "Reaper's Eye", by Richard A. Knaak

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Experimental Cookery 2017 #2: Bang-bang Chicken

This one comes from "Chinese Food Made Easy", which is a book I really enjoy but never feel I get enough use out of. It's basically a chicken and noodle salad with a peanut-based warm sauce. The sauce has all manner of flavours in it - sweet, sour, creamy, crunchy... The meal was pretty quick and easy to make - prepare and layer the noodles and salad, blitz the ingredients for the sauce in the food processor, heat for two minutes in a saucepan, then apply to the salad and serve immediately. And it was really good - the mix of flavours, and indeed the fact that they weren't entirely combined, so there was some variety from bite to bite, was all really good. I'll certainly be doing this one again - there's lots to recommend it and no downsides at all.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Revisiting "The Hobbit"

One of the things I did over the Chrismas holiday was to watch through the three Extended Editions of the "Hobbit" movies. For the most part, I hadn't bothered to watch these since shortly after purchasing them, and so memories had faded a little. My recollection of these was that in the first two cases, the Extended Editions significantly improved the films, while the third one I just didn't rate at all. But how did they hold up?

Well, "An Unexpected Journey" was considerably better than I remembered. I very much enjoyed the return to Middle Earth, and the world-building on show is good stuff. Further, the key weakness of the film that I recalled from the cinema was in the form of Radagast's chase against the Worg riders, which seemed much shorter than I remembered - maybe an effect of being in a longer film, perhaps?

However, the film does start to suffer a bit towards the end, with the Escape from Goblin Town and the subsequent battle against Azog's orcs being problematic, each for different reasons - although in both cases the scenes just went on too long.

The weakness of the Escape from Goblin Town scene lies in something that comes to plague the films more and more as they go on, which is a failure to take the material seriously. To a large extent, the success of the "Lord of the Rings" films, and indeed "Game of Thrones" is that they take the material seriously - there's a feeling that the events depicted could (mostly) have happened as described, and where something is fantasy it is generally called out as such.

But not so here - the dwarves run and jump through the tunnels with not even a nodding recognition of physics or sense, or anything like that. As I said at the time, it all feels more like them showing off the level design for "Lego Hobbit: the Video Game" than a serious take on the subject. This culminates in a long fall that absolutely should have killed our heroes - the only way they could have survived is if they were made of rubber.

In the battle against Azog's orcs, the issue is instead one of pacing. Once the orcs have the dwarves pinned and in trouble, Thorin strides forth to make his heroic stand - only to be casually over-matched by Azog. But, just as everything seems lost, in rushes Bilbo to save him! Only then, Bilbo is himself casually over-matched. But, just as everything seems lost, in rush some of the dwarves to save him! Only, then, those dwarves are casually over-matched. But, just as everything seems lost, here come the eagles to save them! It's too long, and too repetitive.

Still, "An Unexpected Journey" is by far the best of the three films, and genuinely improved with the Extended Edition.

"The Desolation of Smaug" starts well, and indeed has a significant amount that is very good about it. And, again, it is significantly improved with the Extended Edition over the theatrical one.

But DoS also suffers from the same issues as UJ, only moreso - the Barrels Out of Bond scene is laughable and the scenes with the dwarves in Erebor are worse. In both cases, these are far too long, and destroy the sense that this could in any way happen. Worse, those scenes take elements from the book and change them utterly, and not for the better. A real shame, since those scene are some of the best in the book (and, indeed, the scene between Bilbo and Smaug is quite close to the book, and is quite excellent).

However, the biggest problem with DoS lies with the elves, those being Legolas! and, particularly, Tauriel.

The big problem with Legolas! is not what he does, but rather that he utterly over-shadows the dwarves who should be the stars of this show - Legolas! got to steal the show in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, so he didn't need to do so here. (Though it also doesn't help that his insertion necessitates the addition of suitable orcish foes for him to defeat, vastly padding out the running time for little benefit.)

But Tauriel is a whole other level of trouble. The big issue here is that they felt the need to insert a prominent female character into a story that didn't really have one (and, in fairness, the lack of good female roles in cinema in general is indeed a problem). And making the captain of the guard of the wood elves female is indeed a good choice to do that.

But the problem comes when you start looking for something for that character to do, because by inserting Legolas! into the storyline they've already swallowed up all the obvious material - had he not been there, Tauriel could have been commander of the squad that captured the dwarves, she could have been the captain of Thranduil's army in the third film, and she could have led the negotiations with Bard's forces. Oh, and she could have been given Bolg to fight and, ultimately, to defeat.

But since Legolas! has already stolen the show, they needed something for Tauriel to do, and so she gets landed with the most cringe-inducing movie romance since "Attack of the Clones". Everything about that plot-line sucks.

But the suckiest element of the whole thing is what that does to the characters. Another one of the weaknesses of "The Hobbit" is that, in truth, it really has too many characters. Most of the dwarves are there just to make up the numbers. And the film team have done a reasonable job of expanding the roles, of differentiating the characters, and making it work. Kudos to them.

However, they can only do so much, and so a lot of the characters remain a bit thin. The consequence of which is that Fili is largely reduced to a "boy in a refrigerator" - for most of the second and third film, he exists almost entirely to provide motivation for Tauriel to act. And then, when he dies, the roles shift immediately, and now it is Tauriel who becomes the more-traditional (and sexist) "girl in a refrigerator" to motivate Legolas! in his heroics. Which isn't terribly good, really.

So, anyway, that's the second film - mostly good for the first couple of hours with a couple of bad scenes, and then a terrible conclusion.

And then there's "Battle of the Five Armies". Oh dear, what a mess that is.

Basically, this entire film is one long scene that goes on way too long, defies all sense or logic, thumbs its nose at even the slightest hint that it is to be taken seriously, and generally sucks. (My personal pet peeve is that it shows trained warriors breaking their allies' shield walls not once, but twice.)

The film also feels the need to shoe-horn in yet more stuff for Legolas! to do, brings the Tauriel/Fili storyline to its cringe-inducing end, and basically pads out a far-too-long battle with lots of other extraneous stuff. Oh, and the Extended Edition throws in yet more dross.

By this point it's all starting to feel like some guy telling you about his epic D&D campaign that he ran when he was a teenager... for nine hours. (And I play D&D and I like D&D, but even I don't want to endure that, not even for 20 minutes, never mind nine hours!)

As a technical achievement, I don't doubt that BotFA is impressive. As an exercise in story-telling? Not so much.

So, yeah, it turns out that my opinion of the films some year on is pretty much as it was when I first saw them. On the plus-side, having watched the prequels, I get to enjoy watching the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy as a reward. Which is nice...

Friday, January 06, 2017

Dear Warner Bros...

Following "Rogue One", we now live in a world where a small thing like being dead is no bar from appearing in a prominent role in a new movie. It's fair to say that Tarkin didn't quite work, and also that it's phenomenally expensive, but those are temporary issues - we're just a few years away from the point where an actor could star in a movie without actually appearing in the flesh in that movie.

That being the case, once your upcoming "Justice League" film bombs and you're inevitably looking to reboot the whole thing (again), may I please suggest that you should start with Superman but that you shouldn't look for a new actor to portray the character?

Please note that I am not suggesting that any new film should try to be a sequel or remake of the films of the 70's and 80's. On the contrary, it very much should not - in addition to being rather dated, those films have a significant weakness in that they posit a very 'small' universe (that is, there's no room for Brainiac, or Darkseid, or similar villains, not to mention the rest of the DC universe).

But Christopher Reeve was perfectly cast, to the extent that he became the yardstick for all future iterations of the character. Nobody had embodied the role so well prior to that, and nobody since has measured up.

And while I'm at it, there are some other aspects of those films you should be looking at carefully, but in terms of the tone rather than specifics. First up, the music. Hans Zimmer's work on "Man of Steel" is fine and all, but I'm afraid John Williams just did it better. Secondly, the suit, or rather the colour palette as a whole - when doing a Superman film, your colours should be bright. If not, you're doing it wrong. (And I don't give a damn if you think those grimdark colours are more 'realistic'. There isn't a single thing about Superman that is realistic, so if that even rates as a consideration you probably want to think again.)

Oh, and finally: your focus in the character is superMAN. Depicting him as a stoic, brooding alien, or depicting him as some sort of god come down to Earth is, once again, to get it wrong. Fundamentally, Clark is a farm boy from Kansas. He just happens to be one with super powers.

Once you've re-established that vision of Superman, and once you've once again presented your new take on Batman (and that one should be dark and gritty - because different things should be different), then you can bring those together into conflict.

Or not. Some people seem to like "Man of Steel" and "Batman v Superman", so maybe "Justice League" will turn out a massive success.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Experimental Cookery 2017 #1: Pork Chow Mein

I should note at the outset that this series is not one of my goals for the year. I don't have any particular target in mind, nor even any particular number being considered in a not-a-goal kind of a way. However, I did get a couple of new cook books recently, so it's quite likely that 2017 may see at least a few Experimental Cookeries.

This one comes from the "Hairy Bikers' Meat Feasts" book, which I received for Christmas. As with many similar meals, it's very quick and easy to prepare, with most of the effort being involved in chopping up the vegetables. (And the key lesson for this meal is: make sure to prepare all the ingredients before applying heat to anything!) That done, it was a case of adding things to the wok in order and counting time.

The results were very tasty. I'm well pleased with this meal, and will almost certainly be tackling it again at some point. Perhaps the only things I think I'd be tempted to change might be the specific selection of vegetables and the addition of more noodles (or, at least, more noodles relative to the quantities of everything else). Otherwise, it was pretty good as-is.

#1: "Pathfinder: The Whisper Out of Time", by Richard Pett

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Books of the Year 2016

And so we come to the end of 2016. Thank goodness!

Here's the list:

  1. "Pathfinder: A Song of Silver", by James Jacobs
  2. "Fifth Edition Foes", by Necromancer Games
  3. "The Man in the Iron Mask", by Alexandre Dumas
  4. "A Confederacy of Dunces", by John Kennedy Toole *
  5. "Bloodbound", by F. Wesley Schneider
  6. "The Five People You Meet in Heaven", by Mitch Albom *
  7. "Pathfinder: The Kintargo Contract", by Jim Groves
  8. "The Shepherd's Crown", by Terry Pratchett
  9. "Doctor Who: Shada", by Gareth Roberts
  10. "Pathfinder: Breaking the Bones of Hell", by Amber E. Scott
  11. "Pirate's Prophecy", by Chris A. Jackson
  12. "William Shakespeare's Star Wars: The Clone Army Attacketh", by Ian Doescher
  13. "Trigger Warning", by Neil Gaiman
  14. "Brideshead Revisited", by Evelyn Waugh *
  15. "Pathfinder: The Hellfire Compact", by F. Wesley Schneider
  16. "Doctor Who: Time Lord Fairy Tales", by Justin Richards
  17. "William Shakespeare's Star Wars: The Tragedy of the Sith's Revenge", by Ian Doescher
  18. "Wars of the Roses: Bloodline", by Conn Iggulden
  19. "The Long Utopia", by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter
  20. "The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes", by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle *
  21. "Pathfinder: Wrath of Thrune", by Thurston Hillman
  22. "Rogues", edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois
  23. "Hellknight", by Liane Merciel
  24. "Pathfinder: The Inferno Gate", by Patrick Renie
  25. "Possession", by A.S. Byatt *
  26. "House of Silk", by Anthony Horowitz
  27. "Curse of Strahd", by Wizards of the Coast
  28. "Ilse Witch", by Terry Brooks
  29. "Moriarty", by Anthony Horowitz
  30. "Pathfinder: For Queen and Empire", by Stephen Radney-MacFarland
  31. "How to Draw Fantasy Art and RPG Maps", by Jared Blando
  32. "The Shadow of the Wind", by Carlos Ruiz Zafon *
  33. "Doctor Who: City of Death", by James Goss
  34. "Warriors of the Storm", by Bernard Cornwell
  35. "Tuesdays with Morrie", by Mitch Albom *
  36. "Pathfinder: Scourge of the Godclaw", by Larry Wilhelm
  37. "Liar's Bargain", by Tim Pratt
  38. "House of Smoke", by Sam Christer
  39. "Spelljammer: Beyond the Moons", by David Cook
  40. "Doctor Who: Engines of War", by George Mann
  41. "Career of Evil", by Robert Galbraith
  42. "The English Patient", by Michael Ondaatje *
  43. "Trigger Mortis", by Anthony Horowitz
  44. "Spelljammer: Into the Void", by Nigel Findlay
  45. "Pathfinder: Hell Comes to Westcrown", by Ron Lundeen
  46. "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency", by Douglas Adams
  47. "Antrax", by Terry Brooks
  48. "Pathfinder: In Search of Sanity", by F. Wesley Schneider
  49. "The World According to Garp", by John Irving *
  50. "Starspawn", by Wendy N. Wagner
  51. "Spelljammer: The Maelstrom's Eye", by Roger E. Moore
  52. "Software Systems Architecture", by Nick Rozanski and Eoin Woods
  53. "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child", by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne
  54. "Storm King's Thunder", by Wizards of the Coast
  55. "Pathfinder: The Thrushmoor Terror", by Tito Leati
  56. "Notes From a Small Island", by Bill Bryson *
  57. "Spelljammer: The Radiant Dragon", by Elaine Cunningham
  58. "The Night Manager", by John Le Carré
  59. "Tome of Beasts", by Kobold Press
  60. "Morgawr", by Terry Brooks
  61. "Le Petit Prince", by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry *
  62. "Shy Knives", by Sam Sykes
  63. "Spelljammer: The Broken Sphere", Nigel Findlay
  64. "The Long, Dark Teatime of the Soul", by Douglas Adams
  65. "Consider Phlebas", by Iain M. Banks
  66. "N.E.W. Science Fiction Role-playing Game", by Russ Morrissey
  67. "Cold Comfort Farm", by Stella Gibbons
  68. "Pathfinder: Dreams of the Yellow King", by Ron Lundeen
  69. "Spelljammer: The Ultimate Helm", by Russ T. Howard
  70. "The Salmon of Doubt", by Douglas Adams
  71. "Volo's Guide to Monsters", by Wizards of the Coast
  72. "For the Love of God, volume two", by Don Carson
  73. "Holy Bible", by Various Authors *

So, that's 73 books, including thirteen from The List. Of these, there are nineteen RPG books, and six re-reads - the first five books in the "Spelljammer" series, plus a third read-through of the Bible. All the sublists were completed. All in all, I'm happy with that.

The book of the year is "Tuesdays With Morrie", by Mitch Albom, which narrowly beat out the same author's "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" and also "The Shadow of the Wind" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Those were all great books - not quite up there with "The Grapes of Wrath" or "Tale of Two Cities", but definitely in the top ten. Given that last year didn't have any truly great reads, to have three this year was nice.

The weakest book of the year was "Morgawr", the third book in the "Voyage of the Jerle Shannara" trilogy by Terry Brooks. This unfortunately creates something of a dilemma for me - I had intended to use the Shannara books as one of my sub-lists for 2017, but am now not sure I can be bothered. I'm going to try the next trilogy, and then I'll decide.

The target for 2017 is again to reach 60 books, which should be doable. This year I'm declaring five sub-lists: the Pathfinder (12), Pathfinder Tales (6), and Books from The List (12) series will continue unchanged, plus I'm aiming to read through Iain M. Banks "Culture" novels (9 to go), and also some of the remaining Shannara novels (12) - though I'm now not sure of the last. The rest of the books will be new releases, including the final two books by Terry Pratchett (which is rather sad, but on the other hand they've lasted longer than we have any right to expect).