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Glamorous Fashions at Awards Shows

Usually I stay far, far away from the subject of Awards Shows, and even further from what the women at the shows are wearing.  However, this weekend, happenstance caused me to pay attention for half an hour.

I must have a more European than American sense of taste.  We have just had the Grammys and also the BAFTAs (British Acadamy Film Awards).   I was channel surfing when I came across the BBC-news coverage of the red-carpet of the latter, and this evening a news website covered the former.  Generally, what I have to say about what the ladies were wearing at the Grammys is either yikes or boring.  Two of the dresses even looked like almost-open sequined bath-robes, even to how much skin they showed.  That's their choice, but in my opinion: very tacky and crass.  The clothes worn at the BAFTAs, on the other hand, were much more elegant.  Also, much less use of glitter.   My opinions didn't always agree with the BBC commentators, but on negative effects of glitter: yes.   Some of the dresses even had sleeves and a neckline that had a passing relationship with the lady's neck!  But elegant, beautiful and complementary they were.

Jupiter Ascending

Saw Jupiter Ascending last night. As expected, it is a sci-fi action adventure, and as such it delivers a smooth, fast-paced and gripping conflict.   I went to the movie expecting nothing else, and I wasn't dissappointed on that score.  The action and the special effects (CG) are seamless and impressive.  Moreover, the characters are interesting and the galactic world and technologies they postulate are fascinating.  As someone said last night, that's a world in which all sorts of interesting stories could be set.  It's a pity that the plot doesn't match the quality.   Also, at times it was confusing and many times the dialog was hard to understand.  I'm not talking about the Russian (I assume), but the English.  Whether it was the theatre's speakers being poor, or the background noise, or the explosions, I had to whisper to my partner "What did they say?" several times and so did she.

I won't critisize the physical improbabilities.  (How Jupiter's shoulders weren't dislocated during the fight in Chicago, for example.) This is a modern action movie.  That means that such improbabilities are par for the course, and in this case were well integrated into the action.  Unlike in many other movies, they did not stand out and wreck the experience.

One more kudo I have to give the story.  The writer resisted the temptation to make Jupiter a kick-ass fighter.   She has no training, no hardness, no technical (weapons, human vulnerablities, etc) knowledge.  So while she becomes a player, her characterization is honest and never becomes ridiculous.  For that, I applaud.

It is interesting however, to note how many times Jupiter falls and has to be saved by Caine.  That's one trope that got a little tedious.

[Spoiler (click to open)]

Actually, the plot reminded me of a much better The Last Starfighter.  While TLS was corny and the special effects poor, Jupiter Ascending was much much better.  However, the idea that a person could leave earth, take part in a galactic battle and come back with no one else the wiser isn't a new concept.   Even so, the characters and the setting aren't contrived; it hangs together well.

Nonetheless, I have three particular critisisms of the movie.  Firstly, the destruction of Chicago is repaired and Caine explains that memories will be wiped.  Yet, with that much collateral damage, there have to be casualties, many deaths.  Tens of thousands of people will have witnessed that.   Papers, documents, computers and all the digital ephemera (and physical: family photos, movie tickets, ...) will have to be replaced.  The idea that all that can be covered up in 24 hours is laughable, and is also a tedious cliche.

The Abrasax family makes the Borgias look like the textbook of humility, cooperation, powerlessness and poverty, but when Jupiter goes to the beaurocracy to get her inheritance proved, she is treated like a nobody. I have to assume that was put in to create a light-hearted break from all the violence.  However, a beaurocratic infinite loop is such a cliche that it does the movie a dis-service.  More importantly, it destroys the power (political, economic and social) of the Abrasax family that has been established in the early sequences of the movie.  One could argue that Jupiter isn't yet a member of the Abrasax's, but she is claiming membership and an enourmous inheritance.  Yet, that doesn't even cause an eyebrow to be raised.  It's like this is an every-day event.  Even the man who eventually gives her the mark, he treats her with familial condescension.   She now has the power to destroy his career, if not his life, and from what he says, the family has a reputation including ruthless power and petty vindiciveness.  And which is confirmed 5 seconds later.  So why?   The movie doesn't give an explanation.  I'm fine with un-answered questions, but for me, this is such an glaring contradiction that it needs to be explained.

My last objection is the ending.  Jupiter returns to Earth, which she now owns, to live her "normal" life.  Presumably the writers wanted a traditional cute "happy ending".  However, she is now a pivitol player in one of the most important (if not the most important) families in the galactic civilization.   That creates a power vacuum that is guaranteed to cause even more conflict, assassiniations (of her, if no one else), corporate takovers ...  Even if she establishes a committee of trusted people, she is vulnerable.   Only one of her "family" has died, so there are two left, not to mention any cousins, children, etc.  To hold power and keep the earth and herself safe, she needs to exercise that power, live that power, be that power.   The galactic culture is clearly a place where bounty-hunters, assassins, agents, double-agents, private armies, etc abound, and hiding on Earth isn't a practical option.  She needs a 24/7 team of bodyguards, at the very least.

So in summary, Jupiter Ascending is a gripping action-packed adventure with a fascinating world, characters, technology and culture, but the plot has annoying cliches and holes.

Magic in the World of Atria

Most of my fantasy writings are set in what I call the World of Atria. Atria happens to be the country in which my earliest (1978) creations (characters, stories) resided.  Those who have read my Tower books will know it as the Atosian Empire from 2300 years ago.

Magic in that world is repeatable, observable and consistant; therefore it is analyzable and open to scientific understanding. Also, it is consistant with standard forms of science like physics, chemistry, thermodynamics, etc. It does, however, require generalizations and extensions to what we think of as conventional laws of science.  Magic consists of a number of fields and forces that link to everything, including abstract thoughts and emotions.   Consequently, unlike in some universes, it never runs out, never vanishes and has no moral good-bad connotations.

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Evening with Frozen

Yesterday evening, Susanna and I had dinner, ice-wine and a movie: Frozen.   It was our first time seeing that movie.  All in all we liked it.  For one thing we both like musicals. Charles (who arrived home just after we finished watching the movie) and I also think it is a much better movie than Tangled. The characters have more depth, actually grow as people (well Kristoff doesn't, but he's just window-dressing), and the story's theme is more universal and more worth paying attention to.

Before I get to the spoilers, I have one question.  How old are Elsa and Anna during the main body of the movie?  I don't believe the ages Disney has given.  Those ages feel wrong, and I suspect Disney stated those for political/legal reasons.  More about that below

Spoiler WarningCollapse )


Magic and Technology (and Science)

Most of us are familiar with Clarke's third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

I have just run across the reversed version: Any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from science

which makes a lot of sense.

This leads straight into my forward to my trilogy, asking what is magic?  If the magic can be analyzed, then is it scientific?  Since science is emminantly practical: being about what theories and methods work, and not about an externally imposed "correctness", this begs the whole question yet again: what is magic?   If you can answer the question, then you have analyzed the magic, so it isn't magic any more but belongs to scientific understanding.  So, this means that being "magical" is not a property of the phenomonon, but a property of the observer.  Something is magical because I don't understand it, rather than from an intrinsic property of the phenonomon. Like beauty and the beholder of it, the "magicness" of the object or event properly belongs to the person making the statement.

There are those that might say that magic cannot be analyzed, that there are just some things in the world that are intrinsically inscrutable.  In that case, we can never know what magic is, by definition.  That means again, that claims of magic can always be refuted, because the lack of understanding can always be due to insufficient study.  Why have we never found the elephant in the cherry tree?  We just haven't looked hard enough.

It is possible that there are things in the world that are inscrutable, or perhaps humans just don't have the brain-power to understand everything.  Personally, I suspect the latter is more likely to be true. So where does that leave magic?

Now that's acting, and good storytelling

Just saw Roman Holiday, the original version with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.  I've seen it before, more than once, but not since I started writing.   By modern movie standards it is considered cheesy and dated, and the story idea has been used so much since that it has become a cliche.  However, you can't blame the movie that started the idea for that.

I still like the movie, even though I wasn't even alive when it was made in 1953.  This time I watched the movie from the prespective of the acting and the script-writing.  Sure, it's slow by modern standards, with very little action, the guy doesn't get the girl in the end, and is indeed in significant financial trouble.  After all he turned down a $5,000 story and took on $600 debt (to his friend and to his boss).  In modern terms that's more like $100,000 and $12,000.   However, without many words, without hysterics or over-bold actions (okay, the music is corny by today's standards) the actors portray strong inner emotions while at the same time the script and acting creates characters that are honest to themselves and to the world around them.   At the end of the "holiday" they talk about what might be, lying outwardly while knowing full well that they are deceiving no-one.   The plot might be a little campy but the chemistry between the two actors and that inner honesty is very refreshing compared the run of the mill action-adventure characters that we see so much these days.

Even the supporting cast's acting is the same.  When Princess Anna says "Your Excellency, I trust you will not find it necessary to use that word again. Were I not completely aware of my duty to my family and to my country, I would not have come back tonight... or indeed ever again!"  she doesn't shout, she doesn't cry, she doesn't break down.  She is calm, collected and firm, but we can see from her face not only how hard it was for her to say that, but how much she means it.  And then, the Embassador and the Countess say absolutely nothing, hardly move, don't lift a hand at all, yet we can see that they understand the strength of those words.

I have also seen the remake that came out in 1987.  Garbage.   I am not surprised that TV companies prefer to run the original.  However, this movie, and the fact that we do still see it run on TV, is proof that even these days story-telling doesn't have to be about special effects, action, action and more special effects and more action.

Software to Use When Writing

Last week a friend mentioned that she'd heard the scrivener software praised in a writer's workshop.  For anyone who doesn't know, it is software that helps a writer organize, plan, and ultimately write their work whether it is fiction, a paper, an article or a thesis.  Therefore I decided to try it out, and as it has a generous non-consecutive 30 day trial period, I have ample opportunity to try it.   It also comes with a very well written interactive tutorial.
The tutorial is so well written that a manual is almost unnecessary.  Almost.

So having played around with the tutorial and seen its capabilities, what are the benefits of using scrivener?

  1. It has a sophisticated, powerful yet intuitive interface that is easy to learn.

  2. It's adaptable so that you can add new meta-data, track characters, mood, points of view, sub-plots, whatever you want.

  3. All your materials, research, notes, drafts, etc are in one place and can be seen in a logically organized way.

  4. The work itself can be broken into small chunks, say chapters or even scenes.  This is an important advantage.  Keeping a 80,000 word novel in one gigantic file invites disaster, quite apart from the editing nightmare that that creates.

  5. It's easy to attach notes and comments to text, sections, even research and supporting documents.

  6. Creating an outline is dead-easy.

  7. It has a nice corkboard from which you can see notes or an image for each document and section.

  8. It can output your work into several formats, including word, html, pdf, rtf, latex, open-office and a few ebook formats.   The work itself can be structured as a novel, essay, short story, screenplay and others.  This is where a true technical manual becomes very useful, since there are so many options.

  9. The user can save snapshots of their work so they don't have to worry about loosing a previous version during a re-write.

  10. For those who care (say for NaNoWriMo), it can track your word-count.

It is a very impressive piece of software, and I have no qualms recommending it.  Features 4 and 8 are easily the most important to me.  All in all, if I were  looking for a new way to organize my work, I'd snap this up quickly and pay the very reasonable $40 (US) for the software.

However, I'm not going to at this time.  I have my own organizational system that works very well for me.  What is that?  I use the Unix philosophy of smaller tools that complement each other.  These are the tools I am sticking
with for now:

  1. Text editor: VIM.  I know; some of you may throw up your hands right now.  Yes, there is a fairly steep learning curve to use it, and it is only a text editor, not a word processor.  (More about that later.) However, hands never need to leave the keyboard; I rarely have to reach for the mouse, nor leave the home position.  No, I'm not a touch typist, although I'm close to it.  Each time I have to move a hand, I loose speed, accuracy and the flow of the writing.  Using VIM, that doesn't happen very often and not at all when I'm writing the first draft.

  2. For output, I use LaTeX.  More screams of anguish from the crowd.  Yes, I have been a scientist, and have written software for fun.  However, MS Word and other similar WYSIWYGs can't touch the output quality.  Sure the font control is a little awkward, but the power, quality and flexibility is so good that some commercial publishing houses (well, not for fiction that I've heard of) use it.  The other advantages are:

    • I can use a WYSIWYG editor (LyX for example) if I want to. I don't want to.

    • I can break up my document into just about any file structure that I like.

    • I don't need to care whether I use hard-returns.  The MS Word imposed idea that a hard-return defines a paragraph is frankly --- stupid.  I can put one sentence or one word on a line, whatever I want --- I'm not dictated to by the software.  Blank lines define paragraph boundaries, but I can live with that.

    • It's not a WYSIWIG (What you see is what you get) word processor which are sometimes called "what you see is all that you can get".  Consequently, for example, I control the markup, not a piece of software that does things I didn't expect.  Also, it understands the difference between an inter-word space and the inter-sentence space.  The issue of whether to use two spaces between sentences goes away.  I can add as many spaces as I like, and the resulting document has a single wider space after the period of the sentences, as it should. I can even turn that feature off, but why would I want to?

    • I can add comments to myself inside my writing, and they never appear in the final typeset document.  I can add parenthetical comments, footnotes, and other insertions  that can appear, but I can mark characters, moods, detail notes, research into the middle of the text, and it's all invisible to the readers.

    The upshot is that when I write, I don't have to worry about formatting.  I write the story, novel, whatever, using some markup I'll admit, but I don't have to worry about changing paragraph styles.  How difficult is typing

    % comment to myself
    \chapter{My Chapter's Name}
    \footnote{Text of footnote}

    into the document?  Not.

  3. For output to others: Latex2rtf and then OpenOffice to clean it up and export to Word or RTF.  I haven't encountered any difficulties with OpenOffice/Word incompatabilities.  Anyone with experience to the contrary? I've got a template that I use which I might make available here if anyone wants it.  This way the master version remains the text-only files that I have written using Vim.  I don't have to manage multiple versions of the same thing.

  4. For backing up, I make a copy of the directory.  Simple.

  5. For outlining, character templates, word-counts, character-scene-plot inter-dependencies, I use a spreadsheet.  Sure, I could use dedicated software for some of those tasks, but so far, the spreadsheet works fine.  I have templates for character descriptions, based in part on ideas gleaned from the excellent The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus.  I plan day-by-day plot action, yes, even for plot-lines that span more than 2 years.   That way, for example, I can track character's travel, and ensure that it remains reasonable.   I also "spread-sheet" scenes against characters, so that I can ensure that every significant character and every scene contributes to at least 3 of:

    1. plot progression

    2. subplot progression

    3. significant character (protagonist, antagonist, close support character) development (as the reader sees him/her)

    4. significant character growth (as he/she actually changes)

    5. setting (world building, etc)

    6. mood

    (BTW, this does make my scenes and characters so interdependent that cutting almost any scene or character has serious ramifications to the story.) Yes, this can all be done on simple spread-sheets. I have even tracked lunar phases and climate.

It's not perfect, but it works.   However, I'm still looking for:

  • a decent corkboard that can show text (structured preferably), images, snippets from a spreadsheet (could be output---not an actual mini-spreadsheet).  It really should be an application in a window that can manage multiple boards, not something that takes over the screen.  I've heard they exist for Macs and they exist online (www.listhings.com isn't bad), but I've not found a good one for Windows.

  • a simple relationship diagram editor.  That way I can plot out the character's relationships (good, bad and neutral).

If you know of either of those, please let me know.

Picture of New Solar System

I saw this:  Planet formation captured in photo. in the news the other day and the implications are staggering.
Scientists at the Alma radio telescope have captured this image of a new planetary system around HL Tau in its early formation.

Now we can do more than just infer the existance of other solar systems from doppler shifts and transit dimming.   We have the ability to "see" (albeit with radio) details including extra-solar planetary systems.  Of course, I'm not so silly to think that we could see fully formed solar systems (yet), but the idea of being able to see the formation stages of a planetary system is exciting.


Character Tests

A friend and I were emailing about characters in our fiction. I commented that I have a test for characters in my stories:

Does each significant character have a humanizing internal non-defining characteristic that has nothing to do with the plot?

I apply that to everything from short stories to novels. For the longer works like novels, novellas, etc. I apply a more stringent rule:

Every named character must have a humanizing internal non-defining characteristic that has nothing to do with the main plot nor that character's primary sub-plot. Primary characters should have multiple such characteristics. Moreover every significant character should have an opportunity to grow or learn or develop or struggle no matter their eventual fate.

By humanizing internal non-defining characteristic I mean something that the character has emotional investment in, and potentially interesting to the reader. Because it is non-defining, the characteristic cannot be something related to the character's role in the story, and definitely something beyond the steriotype or even archtype. For example, a mother must be something more than just a mother.

Some of my protagonists and other important characters, their defining roles, with some of their "extra" characteristics:

  • Charles (some guy with bad dreams): restaurant owner, has sister who is concerned about him, reads mass-market thrillers.

  • Fiona (trying to get home, conflicted): artist, plays tennis, musician, ballroom dancer

  • Allison (on a quest to find a doctor) : ballet dancer, artist

  • David (engineer, purposeless): insecure about his looks, plays harp, ballroom dancer

  • Stephanie (witch): likes cats, street-smart, curious, plays recorder (badly)

  • Lisa (witch): has an abusive mother, sympathetic ear, intrigued by medical knowledge

  • Grisivren (musician): wonderful calligraphy, likes to teach

  • Paul (army captain): big, people-person, excellent archer (OK that one is useful, but not essential to the plot)

  • John (language expert): womanizer, card-shark

The Curse of Chalion

I've recently read The Curse of Chalion and its sequel Paladin of the Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold. These are easily the best books I've read in several years. The first, I think, is the better but both are good. While not action-packed, the characters are interesting and the storyline compelling.

[Spoiler (click to open)]Actually I found one thing a little disturbing/confusing. The setting is clearly based on medieval Spain and Bergon and Iselle are the equivalents of Ferdinand and Isabella. In CoC I liked Iselle, but I don't like her actions in PotS. She's behaving like Isabella--becoming gung-ho about the reconquista. I liked Iselle yet--true to her character--she does that. That confuses me.