Monday, January 30, 2006

God, Nitrogen Sulfide, and Sweaty Vulcan Butt

So, we had a bit of a TV party this weekend with a family friend. None of us had ever seen the last Star Trek series (Enterprise), so we got it from Netflix.

Enterprise was jarring. The pilot has a promising start, and the casting seems all right, but the writing was sub-par. Although we see the beginnings of Star Fleet and hear about the extensive crew training, the crew seems incredibly untrained. There are references to training missions in hostile environments, but at the first sign of stress, the crew members begin to crack up and point weapons at each other. There's almost a complete lack of professionalism of any kind. The Vulcans seem to think that humankind is not ready for space travel. The humans seem to counter them by working as hard as possible to prove them right!

I'm not talking about off-duty banter and camaraderie; I'm talking about landing on a newly discovered planet, or first contact with a new alien race. That's baffling. The theme song has electric guitars and drums over scenes of twentieth-century explorers, where every other Star Trek theme has featured classical instrumentation. That's jarring. The series seems to have an undercurrent of American cowboy-exceptionalism mythology that Grace found particularly objectionable, not because it isn't entertaining, but because the way it is presented it doesn't ring true.

The captain keeps a dog on the ship. When the crew visits a newly discovered Class M planet, the first thing the captain does is let the dog off the leash to go crap. He's been holding it all the way from Earth. After all, alien planets are really just big doggie parks, right? This doesn't even follow internal Star Trek rules, as the dog is not eaten/captured/taken over by an alien life form, just as the newly introduced junior crew member (aka red shirt) is not killed horribly, even though he is stupid enough to deserve to die.

The technobabble is even worse than usual in this series. At one point the ship considers investigating a planet with a Nitrogen Sulfide atmosphere. Nitrogen and sulfur are in adjacent columns on the periodic table. Please. You can have all the gravimetric anomalies, cosmic string fragments, nanotechnology, and unknown forms of radiation you want, but leave the periodic table alone, OK? (N.B.: apparently NS has been detected in comets and in interstellar gas clouds, but I still don't think a planetary atmosphere of NS makes any sense).

You can't have a quasi-military organization with no effective discipline. You can't have crises in a spaceship in which the crew falls apart at the first sign of something interesting. I will just mention in passing three recent films that passed through our DVD player, all of which feature heroic characters with a great combination of competence, humor, and human frailty. Any of these storylines feels ten times more real than Enterprise. They are: Apollo 13, Mississippi Burning, and Catch Me if You Can.

It's a shame, because the cast is quite good. Where did the writers for Enterpise learn screenwriting, truck driving school? On the other hand, after seeing Enterprise, it seems plausible that Joss Whedon's Firefly may have been influenced by what worked and what didn't in Enterprise, so maybe some good came of this failed experiment.

There's a sequence in which a sweaty, half-naked Vulcan with bulging breasts and erect nipples rubs down a sweaty, half-naked male. The two of them are actually arguing at the time. It is almost impossible to pay attention to what they are arguing about, as the camera lingers on her glistening butt-cleavage and his hairy upper thighs. This scene comes out of nowhere.

While I'm all in favor of sweaty female Vulcan butts, and a genuine softcore Star Trek could be fun to watch, I don't know if I should laugh or cry at this scene. This kind of thing would work better in Firefly, but Whedon would have leavened it with a bit of humor. Here it is purely gratuitous tease. This is Star Trek! It looks like a piece of fan slash fiction. I can understand why it failed to engage the fan base. It must have also failed to engage new fans. Apparently the viewing audience dropped off rapidly. It's a shame. I don't claim to know what the next successful Star Trek series should look like, but it is clear this wasn't it.

We also continued with the second disc of Joan of Arcadia, season one. Joan is a show about a teenaged girl from a wealthy family living in a privileged enclave. Her all-star athlete brother has recently been paralyzed in a serious car accident and is now confined to a wheelchair. Her father is chief of police, and her mother works in the administrative office at her high school. One day God begins speaking to her.

With that setup, it could be awful. In fact, it is done very well. God speaks through the voices of an array of other characters and takes on their personalities while retaining an exalted message. What Joan learns, essentially, is the inter-causality of all things. It feels Buddhist. It has an array of great supporting characters. It is, on occasion, quite moving. It's very well-written, and that's rare!

Apparently, like Firefly, Joan only made it about one season before cancellation -- but it seems to me a far better fate to be too good for TV than to be too poor by by comparison to other TV shows.

Friday, January 20, 2006

The Best of Bruce Sterling

I consider these books to be the best works of Bruce Sterling:

Schismatrix Plus is a collection containing the novel Schismatrix as well as Sterling's Shaper/Mechanist stories. I have read many of Sterling's other stories and can recommend any of the collections without reservation, but this collection is a good introduction.

Heavy Weather is a slightly fantastic, but mostly "hard" science fiction novel about the future of global warming and what the resulting storms might look like.

Holy Fire has as its main character a wealthy elderly woman who undergoes physical rejuvenation, and in the process becomes a new person.

Zeitgeist is something quite different for Sterling: more magical realism than science fiction, about a petty-criminal girl-band producer in postmodern Eastern Europe, and I liked it a lot more than I thought I would, just because it goes much further than I imagined it would.

The Difference Engine is a collaboration with William Gibson, a steampunk "future history" about a world in which Babbage's designs enable the computer revolution early.

And one final pick:

Involution Ocean was Sterling's first novel, originally published as part of the Harlan Ellison Discovery series. It is not a great novel, but it is an intriguing takeoff on Moby Dick, with a deadpan narrator, and written in a style a bit like China Mieville. I have read it several times. Don't read it as an introduction to Sterling, but it is short and memorable and deserves to be back in print, while The Artificial Kid, which has been reprinted, is not as interesting.

I have not yet read The Zenith Angle, but it looks promising.

Sterling and William Gibson are often lumped together. I admire Gibson and first read his stories in Omni magazine when I was very young; these stories are collected in Burning Chrome, which is an excellent collection. Gibson is a beautiful prose stylist; I admire his short stories greatly, and Neuromancer is rightly considered a classic, but his recent novels seem to have a sameness to them. In Pattern Recognition Gibson seems to have actually thrown in the towel and stopped attempting to write about the future, writing instead about the present, his point apparently that we are now living in a science fiction story. This seems to me to be Gibson admitting that he is getting old and his foresight has gone blind. Sterling seems to be the real idea man, and while perhaps not the lovely stylist that Gibson is, he is still a very versatile and assured writer, with a touch of manic comedy and a constant sense of the surreal.

The House on the Borderland

I just received The House on the Borderland and Other Mysterious Places (The Collected Fiction of Willam Hope Hodgson, Volume 1). The House on the Borderland, a long story or novellete, is a weird and dark story that ranks up with Lovecraft's best work; Lovecraft himself reviewed the story very highly. It is almost unclassifiable: somewhere between dark fantasy, horror, and science fiction; think H. G. Wells in a fever dream on laudanum. This edition, published by Night Shade Books in 2004, is wonderfully printed, with silver stamping on the leatherette cover, a sturdy binding, great illustrations, and a highly readable choice of typeface. Best of all it is only $22.05 from Amazon and is eligible for free shipping. Someone in the publishing business may have lost money on this edition, but you can make out like a bandit on the deal. As my budget allows, I will be buying the other three volumes.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Airport, Netgear, iTunes, and new iMac

I've ditched my Airport Express and am now using it solely for AirTunes. It still crashes and has to be power-cycled every few days. I've updated the software numerous times. This is the unit that was repaired or replaced once already. I wonder if the newer units have gotten it right? it is a great product concept, but our unit has been a virtual lemon.

To replace the Airport Express, we now have a new Netgear box, model FWG114P, now serving the Potts house as a wireless router. It is a discontinued model, but I wanted this one: it has a metal case and tested firmware. This box hasn't needed rebooting once over the past month, since I installed the latest software. It does MAC address spoofing, so I can make the cable modem think that it is talking to the same device it was talking too before. We don't have to call Comcast to inform them of the new MAC address. Very nice.

The separate wireless router enables a cool trick. I have iTunes running under Windows on my PC, attached to the wired side of the network router. My wife's battered old iBook will talk to the wireless side. The Airport Express is also detached. Using music sharing, we can sit in the kitchen with the iBook and play a song from the PC through the stereo in the living room. Prior to installing a software upgrade on the Netgear box, this didn't quite work; the audio would repeatedly drop out. I refused to believe that the bandwidth requirement was enough to actually tax the router or the iBook, and it turns out that after the Netgear update, this works quite smoothly.

The only downside: the print spooler does not support my HP Business Inkjet 1100D. The Airport Express did not work well with the printer either, at least not for photo printing, so it is no great loss, but a nice reliable print server would be most welcome at the Potts house. I'd like to be able to keep the PC booted into Linux, not Windows, but there goes iTunes. Always compromises. So, on my wish list: a laptop running Linux, preferably with wireless support, and a wired Mac of some type. Since I still have some tools that require Classic, I'd like it to be a G5 desktop machine, aka "very expensive giant cheese grater." That will have to wait, except that I had better not wait too long, if I want a G5-based rather than an Intel-based machine. It can go along with the 30" flat panel display I'd love to have. Actually, I'd be satisfied with the much more modest 23" display. They're getting cheaper every day, so eventually they will just give me one, right?

Breaking news: my mom is getting a G5 iMac, to replace her Bondi Blue iMac running MacOS 9. She is getting the current version, now obsolete, based on the G5 processor, even though the Intel version will shortly be available at the same price point; you don't get your mom a brand new, just-shipping computer design; you get her one that has been around for a while and seen several software updates; you get her AppleCare. The Intel will be faster by some increment, but speed is relative; she will already be going from a 233 MHz G3 to a 1.9 GHz G5. That's enough of a speed boost for this round. We're also going to see if we can get her set up with a cable modem or DSL to replace her dial-up; that will be a far more significant speed boost. I'm also going to see if we can get her set up with Apple's Pages application for her newsletter work, and replace her old inkjet with a low-end home laser printer. I'll be going out there to help get her up to speed. Wish me luck!

Tea and TEE

Today I'm thinking about tea and TEE.

At the Potts house, we get tea from Harney and Sons ( This morning I drank Hao Ya 'A' tea. It is a Keemun, a China Black tea, considerably more expensive than the standard English Breakfast, but with an amazing complex flavor, even when drunk behind the wheel of my car out of a plastic travel mug.

The difference between the Hao Ya 'A' and the regular Harney and Sons English Breakfast is a bit like the difference between a single malt scotch and a good blended whiskey. The single malt is, well, singular: full of character and intrigue. The blended version is reliable and tasty but does not baffle your taste buds. A comparsion between the two really highlights the tea blender's art. The standard English Breakfast has many of the same elements (I think it has some of the Hao Ya 'A' in it), but they are harmonized. The Hao Ya 'A' is full of piss and vinegar (well, not literally). It demands your attention. It fascinates. Even with a mild cold this morning, it has a bewildering variety of flavors and aromas: a smokiness, a nuttiness, a peatiness, a meaty flavor, even a briney pickled flavor. It is too fine a tea to drink every day; I would start to take it for granted, and that would be wasteful.

I recommend both the Harney and Sons English Breafast and the Hao Ya 'A' very highly. For a less complex but excellent "comfort tea" I recommend the Malachi McCormick, an Irish Breakfast blend that goes very well with sugar and milk. The English Breakfast and Malachi McCormick blends may seem expensive, but per ounce they are actually cheaper than decent bagged teas.

Now, TEE. TEE stands for Trans Europe Express, the train and eponymous Kraftwerk song. Isaac and I have been watching the Minimum-Maximum live Kraftwerk concert video. The live performance of Trans Europe Express is fantastic. It makes me wish for a larger TV and a better stereo. An extended solo section of the song is performed in front of a montage of steam engines and clashing steel. It is strangely erotic and romatic. I didn't know very much about Kraftwerk or the TEE back then; in particular, I didn't understand the suble nostalgia that Kraftwerk's music embodies, a kind of Gernsback Continuum of electro-pop. but I am reminded of a friend of mine who was also at the College of Wooster: Dalex. His independent study thesis involved creating several different ceramic tea sets inspired by the design language of the TEE, including a set designed for a male couple. I went to his thesis exhibition.

I realize now that Dalex was the kind of art student that a teacher must run across only once or twice in a career. It was amazing work! I admired it, but did not fully appreciate it, at the time. Dalex, if you are reading, congratulations. You were at least sixteen or seventeen years ahead of me in your reading of Kraftwerk in the tea leaves. I raise my plastic travel mug to you.


This weblog is a continuation of my far-too-infrequently updated weblog, Geek Like Me, found at:

At least for the time being, I will not be updating the original Geek Like Me.

Paul R. Potts
"Me a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, covered with chocolate sprinkles!" -- Cookie Monster