Sunday, January 5, 2014

If I Had a Billion Dollars ...

I like to think about what I would do with an unmanageably large sum of money. It's pretty entertaining. You should try it sometime.

My wife and I will occasionally say things like "If we were ridiculously rich, we'd re-do our master bath and utility room just so we could have a laundry sink," or "I'd pay full price for car insurance," or "I'd buy you real diamonds.1 "

It's also fun to think about all the morally superior things you would do with the kind of money the ultra-rich spend on yachts, racehorses, and gold-plated staples. You could provide clean drinking water to an entire city in Africa, or sponsor an entire South American village of children through 12 years of schooling, or fund a program that helps college students meet 8th grade writing standards. (jk, lol)

On top of all that, I want to quantify roughly how much I would wantonly spend. I know; planning kind of defeats the purpose of wanton spending, right? Well, my Microsoft Excel spreadsheet says to shut up and keep reading.

Once you have the house of your dreams complete with panic room and a private E.R., and the right car (repair costs are meaningless, so go ahead and drive that 15-year-old car you love into the ground2), and a sweet $400 per person per month food budget, what else would you spend money on? How would you live differently?

Here are three rules I would live by.

First rule: Have less stuff.

Yes, with the freedom to have anything, I would have less. Probably. Well, at least in the house. Today, I keep a bunch of things on hand because I might need them again. With unlimited resources, I could donate, recycle, or burn anything I own, knowing that I could buy or rent another one if it turns out we needed that dining room table after all. They don't make it any more, you say? I have a theory that things that you can't find anywhere are magically put on the market when you offer $1,000 for Season 2 of Human Target on DVD, and hire somebody to search for it full-time for a fortnight.3, 4 Using words like "fortnight" probably helps somehow. With that kind of freedom, I would actually do what experts tell you to do: If you don't use it for a year and it doesn't make you smile, get rid of it.

Second rule: Digitize it.

If it can be digitized, I'd own it digitally. I've already waded in to the Ultraviolet and Amazon digital movies world, and although the content usually buffers at least once (I definitely blame my AT&T U-Verse fiber-optic internet connection, but has some issues also), I still think it's the future of my movie collection. So, being ultra-rich, I would gladly and painlessly pay $20 per movie for the HD (blu-ray quality) version of any movie that I want to watch. Besides, with Ultraviolet, you can have multiple people on your account, so I could share the wealth.

I'm currently accepting friend applications.

I'd buy tons of Kindle books. Currently, with a 2-7 day wait for each e-book, I can read the entire Dresden Files and Jack Reacher collections for free through my local library, without ever leaving my home. But in the immortal words of Homer5, "40 seconds? But I want it now!"

Third rule: No more wasteful impulse buying.

Make no mistake, I'd be all about buying crap on impulse, but I'd have rules. Do you own any movies/books/music that you haven't seen/read/heard since you bought them? I most certainly do.6 To keep myself in check, I would have a rule that if I'm not going to use it right now (books7, movies, and CD's), or if I bought something similar and haven't used it yet (clothes, food, and stun guns), I can't buy anything new.

I’m sure I'll think of another rule when I win the lottery without playing, and I'll update you then.

So how much would this new lifestyle actually cost?

- Go on two amazingly luxuriously suite8 14-day cruises every year ($1000 / month)
- Pay someone to do beautiful things with my yard ($200-ish per month? Maybe?)
- Get a premium car wash and wax every two weeks ($100 / month)
- Go to the movies twice a month ($120 / month including concessions & babysitter)
- Buy up to 2 Ultraviolet HD movies per week ($240 / month)
- Buy a Kindle book a week ($10-75 / month)
- Buy a top-of-the-line computer at least once a year ($200 / month)
- Buy a top-of-the-line smartphone at least once a year ($85 / month)
- Get a data plan ($50-75 / month), 'cause I don't have one
- Get Netflix Instant Streaming and DVD's. And Hulu Plus. AND Amazon Prime. ($31 / month)
- Write in my blog more often (priceless)

So apparently, excluding the yard care and travel (you know, the boring stuff), I would feel irresponsibly rich with only $11,112 in additional discretionary funds per year. That's all it takes.

A few years ago, I listened to a caller on the Dave Ramsey show who was concerned that his mother might spend his family into bankruptcy. She could spend up to $50k in a weekend! It turned out the family fortune was in the ballpark of $20M, so at that burn rate they would be bankrupt (assuming no interest income) in 400 weeks (7.7 years). If she only spends $10k per week, they're good to go for over 35 years. Based on my extremely frugal wish list above, give me that money and I'll make it last a lot longer.

No seriously. Give me that money.

1 Just kidding, I wouldn't.
2 Or into your jerk boss's Tesla. No need to worry about the increased insurance premiums. Just make sure it looks like it was an accident.
3 It's deliciously wasteful, right?
4 Okay, I don't even know if they ever released it, but I'm jonesing for it, so if you can find it, TELL ME!
5 Simpson
6 Ugh. Now I feel guilty about my existing (much smaller scale) reckless spending habits. … Okay, I just listened to Awolnation - Sail. I don't need to feel bad about that $0.74 any longer. … And now I just re-listened to my favorite "Sail" cover. And then the Pentatonix Daft Punk remix. But wasting time is what being ultra-rich is all about (I presume). I'm just getting in character.
7 I just went to Amazon to price their Kindle books, and I almost bought their $0.99 Natural Born Thrillers Box Set. I don't even like thrillers, but there are 12 of them! How can you pass that up?!
8 See what I did there?

Friday, December 27, 2013

Pacific Rimshot

SPOILER ALERT. As in, if you liked it and don't want that spoiled for you, you shouldn't read this. Also, I have lots of plot spoilers. Finally, I didn't even try to be funny here; if anything, this movie left me angry.

I'm finally getting around to posting this because so many people seems to think Pacific Rim was a good movie, and it wasn't. Rotten Tomatoes reviews gave it a healthy 72%/78% rating. Howard Tayler said it cleared his "threshold of awesome".

I put it in the same category as the Transformers movies; it's better if it's on mute.

Conclusion: It was fun once, but I won't be paying for the Blu-Ray. I could watch the action sequences again, but not the rest of the movie.

The premise was interesting and fun. Large aliens build a wormhole to the bottom of the Pacific ocean, and send marauders (Kaiju) through periodically. Humans built Jaegers (giant robots) to defend themselves against the Kaiju.

The fight scenes were very cool. The first one was only okay, but starting in the middle of the movie they were really good. In the final fight, there were a few moments where I got really excited because I found myself hoping they would do something specific because of how cool it would be, and they actually did it!

Closing credits images were amazing. They showed the Jaegers from the movie, but in shiny, crisp CGI. So cool.

First, let's agree that the reason to like the movie is because of the monsters, the robots, and the fight scenes. To win over their fans, they didn't have to deliver a Tom Hanks dramatic performance or an Aaron Sorkin script; they just had to have a plot that wasn't Swiss cheese, actors that aren't so bad that they constantly remind you that you're watching a movie, have cool robots, and have cool fights. While I enjoyed the fights, I still think they failed in a big way at three of these four goals.

The first fight scenes were mediocre at best. They were clearly saving their best for later, so I won't hold it against them, but I also won't be re-watching those fight scenes ever, because they were boring.

Now, I'm going to criticize the robots, but I'm not even going to argue that if you have the technology capable of building these robots, you could deploy it as different weapons that would be more effective against the Kaiju; let's ignore that entirely. The Jaegers were very, very stupidly designed for the fighting techniques they used. Punching was the primary attack, so name one reason you would not design your machine with short, retractable Wolverine-style blades, or better yet with a bolt pistol (used to stun animals before they're slaughtered) that is triggered by contact. Anyone? No, they only added a (very time-consuming) rocket booster to the elbow so they could punch harder (and less frequently) once.

Seriously, this is a huge drawback for me, since it seemed like over 50% of the blows delivered were basic punches at various angles. This tells me one of two things. They either unintentionally designed the machines badly, which is unforgivable given the audience expectations mentioned above, OR they intentionally made them less effective so the fight sequences could be longer, which tells me they're crappy writers who do things because the plot requires it. Or both.

Next, the plot and script, while not expected to be good, were so bad that they frequently jolted me out of my movie-viewing experience.

Issue #1. They decided to shut down the giant robot program because they felt building a giant wall around THE ENTIRE PACIFIC OCEAN was a better idea. The first time it was tested, the kaiju breached the wall within *an hour*. So, you thought giant monsters capable of destroying giant killer robots would be incapable of climbing or knocking down a wall? That's what the best and the brightest came up with? This incredibly idiotic decision is what the writers used to ensure there were only 4 robots remaining for the final battle. Without all applicable world leaders agreeing on this there would have been more robots available, and the final battle would have been easy. They did it this way because the plot required it. And when characters make decisions because the plot requires it, you've failed as a writer.

Issue #2. Frequently, characters kept secrets from each other, not because the characters would have kept those secrets, but rather because the writers needed them to keep secrets in order to maintain suspense and have big reveals.

The first unnecessarily kept secret that was also a major plot point was when Pentecost refused to tell Raleigh why Mako couldn't be his co-pilot. He reiterates this restriction multiple times, and refuses to tell him why every time. Raleigh has already established himself as a bit of a loose cannon, so if he were behaving in character, he would have said "I've found my co-pilot. If you can't give me a good reason why Mako can't be my co-pilot then you're going to be looking for two pilots instead of one." Instead his reaction was basically "I'll happily be paired up with somebody incompetent because I suddenly respect you and believe you must have a good reason why I can't be paired with the only qualified person here."

Then Pentecost gives in the next day without an iota of explanation and makes Mako Raleigh's co-pilot. You can't make it such a big issue for Raleigh, and then never explain it to him. Or to me. I still don't understand it. Was Pentecost being overprotective and thinking of Mako like a daughter (flashbacks would be the only evidence supporting that), or did he think she was too volatile to drift with because of her terrible past (see below)? Major plot points with insufficient explanation are a sign of incompetent story-telling.

Second big plot point with an unnecessarily kept secret: Chuck Hansen (the son of the father-son duo) storms into the hangar minutes before the final fight, angry that he doesn't know who his co-pilot is going to be. Then the big reveal (with a hero-shot and everything) is that Pentecost is going to be his co-pilot. Keep it a secret from everybody else if you want, but don't keep it a secret from the pilot. The writers wanted this big reveal, and the way they chose to do it was to make something illogical happen.

Issue #3. I'm just going to start listing things that are stupid, or done badly.

The scene where Mako and Raleigh first drift together, they do so in the head of a fully active robot. Mako gets trapped inside terrifying memories, and nearly fires the plasma cannon at the entire scientific staff. Very tense. Except that they should never have been in the machine. If drift compatibility is so hard to come by, wouldn't they absolutely, certainly, with no question, have a separate chamber for pilots to work out the kinks of drift compatibility prior to putting them in a live robot?

If Pentecost's reason for keeping Mako from being Raleigh's co-pilot was that he feared whether her memories would take over during the drift, then couldn't they just drift a few times to work out the kinks?

In the wormhole, Raleigh needs to overload the nuclear reactor. Ask yourself, in action movies requiring the detonation of a bomb to save the day, what technical issue has been completely over-done? If you said "something goes wrong and the bomb has to be triggered manually, likely sacrificing the life of either the hero or the protagonist", you'd be right. You'd also be a Pacific Rim scriptwriter. I actually rolled my eyes and almost turned off the movie when he received the "Manual Activation Required" error.

Shortly thereafter, mission control concludes that either Mako or Raleigh (I can't remember any more) is dead, explicitly stating that the only way (s)he could be alive is if the life sensors were malfunctioning. Which they were. Of course. Conflict presented and resolved in 30 seconds, because it was totally unnecessary.

Idris Elba (Pentecost) is a real dramatic actor. So how do you justify his last words being "I'll always be here for you. You can always find me in the drift"? Is he invoking an inconsistent and heretofore unexplained principle about drifting that anybody who dies while drifting has their mind detached and floating around somewhere out there? Or is it just a really corny line?

The two doctors were both caricatures, not characters.

Both doctors had pet theories about the kaiju. Both ended up being right. Neither one makes sense. One determined a way to calculate how frequently kaiju would come through the Breach, but that was never explained, so I'm going to go ahead and assume the writers don't have an explanation for it. The other determined that it was possible to engage a mental drift with the aliens, and did so in order to obtain information that saved the planet. One question: How on earth were they drift-compatible?

Ron Perlman getting eaten was really stupid and meaningless. He died while mouthing off about how of course he knew the monster couldn't have had the necessary lung capacity to survive, whereas there was nothing to imply that he would have known that, so it was immediately apparent that this dialogue existed for no other reason than as a setup for him to get eaten. Stupid and contrived. However, even dumber was that he was still alive and completely unharmed. The first bite was a *bite*. He was pierced by teeth. He would have bled out long before the first easter egg in the closing credits.

In conclusion, they did the big things wrong, and they did the little things very wrong. This is a terrible movie.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Doesn't Add Up

Some days, I think my blog posts are really long. Then I compare them to The Simple Dollar, Jen Hatmaker, Penelope Trunk, or (if I'm desperate, the fallen-from-grace-since-JD-left) Get Rich Slowly, and I realize that my posts are actually rather short.

They just happen to take a long time.

I get an idea, write it out, fine tune it, then set it aside. Then I re-write the introduction, which means I break the joke set-ups and have to re-build the whole thing. When I think it's almost good enough to post, I have my wife read it. Her reaction (or lack thereof) makes me remove the lame jokes1 and fine tune the rest, word smith, and generally trim. At this point it would be funny to say "and then I re-write it all over again," but I don't, because now it's brilliant and it makes my wife laugh. It's also very different from my rough draft. From the first draft to the final, I probably keep about 70% of my ideas and 35% of my wording.

I take all this time because I hate the idea of putting something out there that can be criticized legitimately2.

Not to mention that the whole world would fall apart if somebody left a joke in the comments that was funnier than my blog. True, it's not much of a risk for a blog that averages just under one comment per post, but someday I'll be famous and people will go back and read my archives and leave comments, and I need to be funnier today than the iPhone's Auto-Troll app will be twenty years from now3.

I didn't do all of that this time. This took about 45 minutes of time that I was supposed to spend doing something else. So, enjoy at your own risk.

1 Yes, the jokes you see all cleared that hurdle.
2 I define legitimate criticisms as the ones that make me feel bad.
3 You know this is going to be one of the first commercial uses of Artificial Intelligence capable of real human conversation.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Book Club for Men

Some friends and I decided to start a book club for men. We all like reading, we all like talking about books, and we all think girls are icky, so it seemed logical. We played it by ear (what's past tense of "wing it"?) for the first four book selections, but now it's time to pick books for the rest of 2013. This way we can start looking for good deals or check them out early from the library to save money for important things like tools, raw meat, and spa days.

We have a few guiding principles for choosing books. First, the book has to be at least somewhat manly. No girly books allowed. No glistening vampires or talking about emotions. Romance is a side plot at the most, and somebody had better die a violent and honorable death.

Second, as one club member so eloquently stated, "I don't want to read any books that will make me a better person." We just kind of nodded when he said that. It was a foregone conclusion.

Third, we're focusing on Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I'll totally re-read Rainbow Six if it gets voted in, but most of us aren't looking for profanity-laden military action novels. We want to read about a world that doesn't exist, with awesome characters, good writing, and good plot development.1 And it's kind of required to have either magic or some technology that is indistinguishable from magic (at least to my primitive mind).

Everybody is supposed to suggest 3 books, so I just spent two hours trying to research good Fantasy novels I haven't read. I already know I love everything Brandon Sanderson has ever published (though I'm unschooled in the ways of the Wheel of Time series), and I appreciate Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles (love his prose, not impressed with his pacing, could do without the sex scenes), but most of us have already read those. We need fresh meat.2

Trying to find reliable Fantasy novel reviews is like trying to find reliable fast food restaurant reviews. Someone who hates Taco Bell could be a food snob, could hate Mexican food specifically, could love a rival (Taco Cabana? Seriously?), or it could be because Taco Bell is actually bad. Without trying it for yourself, you just don't know. Half of you are thinking to yourselves right now, "Taco Bell is awful! Their beef isn't even beef! This is no contest." The other half of you can meet me at the nearest drive-thru in about 15 minutes.

If we can't agree on the quality of a product as simple as fast food (it's the same 8 ingredients organized differently), how will we ever agree on whether a book series is good?

They certainly couldn't agree online:

The book was too slow. - Did you even read the same book? I couldn't put it down! - The plot was derivative, especially where [insert SPOILER here because the reviewer is a giant jerk]. - There were too many characters. - I loved all the characters! - The descriptions were too long. - I loved the way the author's detailed descriptions really transported me there! - It was too straightforward; you don't even have to try to figure things out. - Sure, you may have to re-read it four times to figure out what's going on, but it's worth it! - The series was great, but it's like the author gave up in the last 30 pages.3 - This added nothing new to the genre, so I will discard it offhandedly. - It started slowly, but by the end of the second 1,000 page book, things really started to pick up.

Two. Hours. Of that. And what happens when most people agree that A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones) is good? Then I have to google whether it's "clean," and I find that it's "dark and gritty" and also "extremely gory" with "graphic sex scenes," and "will ruin your innocence the way Michael Bay ruined Transformers." I'm not reading that.

So, any suggestions that don't suck4?

1 And did I mention no sparkling vampires?
2 Which is particularly meaningful in retrospect, because we picked a zombie book.
3 Surprisingly, that last review was not with regards to Mockingjay.
4 I really, really, really mean it; no sparkling vampires.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Partially Excused

There was a time when I thought writing a short story was a great idea. I outlined, wrote a chapter or two, came up with a vague idea for the climax, and got distracted by something shiny. Not finishing it has not haunted my dreams1.

Turns out I'm not much of a writer.

That hasn't decreased my love for Writing Excuses, an entertaining and instructional podcast for aspiring authors. The podcasters include Brandon Sanderson (my favorite published author in the entire world), Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal. Over the years they've proven that they know a lot about writing, and especially about how to think while writing. They've done episodes analyzing each other's work in-depth, and they talk about decisions in their own writing in such a captivating way that I just had to try it all.

Howard's Schlock Mercenary is a web comic, and it's now on my regular rotation. I also take into consideration Howard's movie reviews before deciding whether I need to see something in the theaters2.

I haven't read Mary's stuff yet, but I'm still young3.

Most recently (yesterday), I've been reading Dan Wells. A few months ago, I decided to check out Partials from the local library. There were times when I didn't think I'd finish it before its due date, but I liked the premise and persevered. It is a post-apocalyptic world containing the last remnants of the human race and the Partials, the bio-synthetic soldier race that humanity created. A war with the Partials killed many humans, but is not ongoing. A virus with no known cure killed many more, and those left over are immune, but newborns are not. So the human race is facing a slow, drawn out extinction, and our strong-willed protagonist is determined to find a cure. 3.5 stars out of 5.

Wells bridged the gap between Partials and Fragments (book 2 of the trilogy) by releasing a short story called Isolation that quickly fleshed out the backstory of another character. Isolation was absolutely brilliant, and some fans said that this was the quality of writing they'd come to expect from Wells . That got me excited about the rest of the series. I enthusiastically give Isolation 5 stars out of 5.

Then came Fragments. It took me two 14-day check-outs of the e-book to finish Fragments. That's almost an entire month that I spent procrastinating instead of reading4. Writing Excuses talks frequently about following the rule, "in late, out early," which helps keep the story interesting and moving quickly. Fragments asked that rule out on a date, then stood it up and Facebooked about its crush on the whole Tom Bombadil section of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Basking in Isolation's afterglow, Fragments opened brilliantly, then drizzled boredom through the halfway mark. Some plot advancement burst brightly through the clouds for a chapter, and then again left us trudging through the chilly puddles of character stagnation. I didn't feel properly gripped by the story until the climax (93% of the way through, according to my e-reader), and then I spent an hour angrily writing down all the things that the climax did wrong. Characters made key decisions that were out of character for them because the plot required it (there's no Excuse for that), and a key premise of Wells' world was based on smart people making an obvious and massively stupid decision5.


I wouldn't be so annoyed if the premise hadn't captured my imagination.

With the pacing, exposition, and other issues through Partials and Fragments, I can say that the entire trilogy would probably fit better in a single book.

With all that said, because of Isolation, I'm giving Dan another chance. I'll read the last 10% of the third book (Splinters? Crumbs? Very Small Rocks?) because I want closure. He also wrote the John Cleaver series, which I'm hoping will turn out to loosely be a cleaner, Young Adult horror version of Dexter.

Wish me luck.

1 The current nightmare is Manu Ginobli in Miami cooking apple turnovers.
2 Sorry, Man of Steel, Howard told me you use shaky cam for action scenes. That means I'll wait until you cost $6 on eBay, or I may just skip you entirely, like I did with Wolverine, Electra, and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
3 Okay, I just did the math (and hurt my back in the process), and it turns out I’m not all that young.
4 Also, sorry that I haven't called, Mom. I've been really busy.
5 Even more stupid and more massive than the current round of Obama Administration scandals.

Monday, September 17, 2012

My little space heater

From my unpublished archive, March 26, 2011.

My precious little (8.5 lb) computer has been overheating and underperforming for the last few weeks1. So much that I can't even keep my hand flat on the bottom for more than a few seconds. This is not normal.

A while back, I replaced my laptop fan because the old one was dying. I'm still quite proud of myself2, 3 for parlaying a $50 investment into another year or two of my computer's life. But since the symptoms have recurred, I either accept that I fixed it wrong, or I take apart my entire computer.

So, after taking apart my computer, I found a very innocuous explanation for the overheating: dust. The exhaust vent was clogged by dust. One twist-tie cleaning later, I put my computer to the test by wireless streaming the Fellowship of the Ring full-screen on Netflix.4

Frodo and I are happy to report, the problem is solved.

1 Footnote Mad Lib: Kind of like an old __[noun]__ of mine.
2 Ask me about it sometime.
3 No, really. Do.
4 If your computer can handle that with no problems, then it's not six years old, and part of me doesn't want to speak to you, but does want to get to know your computer better.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

It tastes like purple

I prefer married life, on the whole, over single life. There are aspects of single life that I miss (I used to do things with my other friends), and you won't hear me extolling the joys of parenthood while spending an hour getting my son back to sleep at 3AM, but I wouldn't go back.

Think of my life as a puzzle1. The things that made single life good were lots of little puzzle pieces, and they were mostly in place, but they left gaps. My marriage is one large piece, and it displaced many of those little pieces, but left far fewer gaps overall. I like this better.

One of the joys of our particular marriage proceeds from our differences. Specifically, my wife hates anything artificially grape flavored, whereas I think it's the greatest thing since banana Laffy Taffy2. This means that anytime I see a grape Welch's fruit snack sitting on top of an otherwise consumed bag3, I can eat it merrily and without repercussions4.

Married life is good.

1 I know my wife does.
2 She says my cheap tastes make me more loveable.
3 She says this phrasing makes her sound like a goat. It was badly worded, but there's no way I'm changing it now.
4 Calories don't count when it came from my wife's bag of fruit snacks.