Monday, March 31, 2008

Common Interests

This tasty morsel just in from my Google news alerts: the website LesbiaNation has published their top-ten women of sci-fi list, the result of a reader survey. (Note: my news alert search terms are “science fiction” and “sci-fi,” not “lesbians.” Not that there’d be anything wrong with that…). The article starts, “Lesbians and strong sci-fi women go hand-in-hand….” I never thought about it that way, but now that I do, I like thinking about it.

Anyway, I am totally down with this list, because the winning actors play characters who are intelligent and competent, as well as smoking hot. For a geek, hotness, by definition, includes smarts and competence. Bimbos need not apply. After all, why is Dr. Crusher hotter than Deanna Troi? Because Crusher can take over the ship without batting an eyelash, while Troi tries it once and crashes the boat.

Number ten is Natalie Portman. You’ll have to click on over for the rest: LesbiaNation Top Ten Women of Sci-Fi

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Geek Genes

A few weeks ago I was taking the bus into Rochester, watching an episode of Stargate on my iPod, when I had a flashback to my childhood. When I was six or seven, I had one of those ubiquitous cassette tape recorders – the ones about the width and length of a shoebox and half as high. I often used it to record Star Trek (the original), which I watched in syndication almost every day. I’d set the recorder on top of the TV, and then wrap the mic cord once or twice around the channel knob so the mic dangled in front of the speaker. I recorded many episodes like this, jumping up to turn off the recorder during commercials. Later at night, when I was supposed to be asleep, I would lie in the dark and listen to the show using one of those little white mono earphones. I was geek before I knew what geek was.

A couple years ago I was team-teaching a programming class an hour and a half from home, and staying at a friend’s house one or two nights during the week. I had episodes of Trek with me on my laptop, and I’d watch them right before I went to sleep. I didn’t consciously think of it at the time, but I missed my wife and kiddies, and these shows were comforting. It seems kind of pathetic to have an emotional connection to a TV show, like I’m a baby rhesus monkey clinging to a wire mommy. But these are early memories of good times in the comfort of home. Even if I was hiding behind the couch, afraid that Kirk would not escape the doomsday machine, it's still a good memory. I suppose everyone my age has a show or two like this. For some it’s Little House on the Prairie, or Happy Days, or Charlie’s Angels. I have early memories of Charlie’s Angels, too, but they are not really warm and fuzzy. They’re…other adjectives.

We’ve been watching the old Treks with our kids. It’s fun and surprisingly educational for them—there’s a lot that needs explaining. It makes me wonder how much I understood when I first watched. Anyway, I get a real charge when my kids ask to watch a specific episode by name. Yeah, brother!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Robot Schmobot

Yesterday, several news sites reported that a man was shot by a robot. Headlines like this, conjuring images of Cylon toasters mowing down Colonial civilians, will certainly get a few readers. The sad truth, though, is that an old man killed himself.

Apparently, an 81 year-old man in Australia was distraught because his family was pressuring him to move into a nursing home. He decided to kill himself instead. He found plans on the Internet for a machine that could pull the trigger of a handgun remotely. He built the machine, set it up in his driveway, and killed himself with it.

I haven’t seen this machine, but calling it a robot is cheerless sensationalism, given that it was probably made from a power drill and a vice. Leave it to Fox News, though, to go over the top. I’m not making this up. This is their headline:

Australian Man Gunned Down
in Driveway by Killer Robot

Do these idiots really want to parody themselves? If Fox News were on the Comedy Channel, along with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, they would be pretty funny. But they're not, and they are always making up slogans claiming impartiality. Their latest is this: We Report. You Decide. OKI’ve decided. I’ve decided that Fox News is a bunch of assholes.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Dreams with Sharp Teeth

I love Harlan Ellison’s stories, and I recently learned of a movie about him, called Dreams with Sharp Teeth, which premiered at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film and music fest last week. Ellison is an outstanding and prolific writer of short stories, longer fiction, TV scripts, and more. Most of his work would be classified as speculative fiction or science fiction. He eschews the label of science-fiction writer, though, for the same reason Vonnegut did when he wrote this classic line years after some early success: "I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled 'science fiction' ever since, and I would like out, particularly because so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal."
Like Vonnegut, Ellison wants his work to be considered seriously, and on the same level as any published fiction, and it should be.
The movie shows Ellison giving a tour of his eccentric house to Robin Williams. It has interviews with Dan Simmons, Neil Gaiman, and Peter David, among others. They all say Ellison is great, and he is. He’s also famously abrasive and grumpy. He rants a lot. But he’s a writer’s writer, and a staunch supporter of artists' rights in any media. The trailer for the movie shows a lot of rants, but reviews have it that there’s more to it than that.
If you are at work or with the kiddies, be warned: the following clip contains BAD WORDS.

It would probably be hard to live with a person who rants a lot, but they’re fun to watch for a while. Most of us won’t get to see this till summer, and I can’t wait.

P.S. While looking for that Vonnegut quote, I found this nifty article:
15 Things Kurt Vonnegut Said Better Than Anyone Else

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Citizen TR-20216691 Reporting

I got my new passport in the mail. I’m pretty excited because I’m planning a trip to the UK in the fall. I also got back my old passport, which I had to submit as proof of ID. It happens that my old passport is almost exactly 20 years older than my new one. I held the pictures side by side and showed them to my wife. “Depressing,” I said. But it wasn’t really depressing, just interesting. Twenty years – POOF.

The new passport has the following warning on the last page:

This document contains sensitive
For best performance,
do not bend, perforate, or expose
to extreme temperatures.

For best performance? What exactly is it going to DO? They could have left off that phrase, and the imperative would have followed perfectly from the first sentence. More interesting than writing by committee, though, is that sensitive electronics part.

That little rectangular symbol means it's an "electronic" passport. Passports now contain your personal data encrypted on a chip. The chip is accessed using short-range radio wavesthe same tech that’s common in credit cards, car keys, security fobs, and lots more. According to the State Department web site, the passport has a shielded cover, so it has to be opened and passed directly over a scanner to be read. I’m fine with this. It makes sense and seems secure enough.

But then there’s the passport card. This is offered as a cheaper and more convenient alternative for travelers who frequently go to and from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. It’s good only for land or sea travelyou can’t use it to fly. The card is wallet sized, and is billed as more convenient because it’s smaller andget thisthe data can be read at a distance. If you have a passport card in your wallet, the boarder guard will know who you are before you pull up to the gate. Really.

The government says not to worry, though – it’s secure because there’s no personal data on the card – just a number that they can link to your records in a “secure government databases.”

Let’s see, why doesn’t that make me feel better…Oh! I know; because THE GOVERNMENT IS WHO I’M AFRAID OF. If the passport card catches on as a national ID card (or is mandated), is there any doubt that the government will put readers in every government building, highway toll booth, bank, hospital, and anywhere else they can get away with? I don’t think I'm being too paranoid here. I mean, I would do it if I were them. It would be very handy in all sorts of situations.

But it is scary, in a delightfully sci-fi dystopia way. I refuse to get a passport card. I'm holding out for the really convenient subcutaneous passport implant.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Gedo Senki

A few years ago the Sci-fi channel produced a film version of A Wizard of Earthsea. The production utterly and completely sucked. I mean, really. Such good material, and they totally blew it. Anyway, I recently searched IMDB to see if there were any other Earthsea movies out there. I saw that there is an animated Tales from Earthsea, directed by Guro Mayazaki, son of Hayao Mayazaki, the great director responsible for Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Gedo Senki came out in 2006, but I hadn’t heard about it. It’s a beautiful production. The animation backgrounds are like paintings, and the music is interesting dramatic. Even the ambient sound, something you might not normally notice in an animated movie, is textured and detailed. This is Guro's first directorship. Maybe it's not as good as his father's work, but it's a little unfair to compare.

The movie isn’t taken from the original Earthsea trilogy, but from a later collection of stories. If you haven’t read the Earthsea books, by Ursula LeGuin, you should. They’re really worth the time. Almost 30 years before the first Harry Potter, there was Ged from the island of Gont. Ill-treated as a child, he discovered he had magic powers, and was sent for a school for wizards to develop his skill and learn to use it responsibly. The trilogy is short. The three books are under 200 pages each. LeGuin also wrote later books, Tehanu, The Other Wind, and Tales from Earthsea. These are also good, but a little darker and more grown-up. I would gladly have my kids (7, 9, and 11) read the trilogy, but I think I’d want them to wait on Tehanu.