Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review: The True Meaning of Smekday

I read Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday a week or so ago, and enjoyed it very much. (Thanks to jadelennox for the recommendation!)

"The True Meaning of Smekday" is (within the novel The True Meaning of Smekday) an essay written by Gratuity "Tip" Tucci (her mother started calling her "Turtlebear" once she found out that "Gratuity" didn't mean what she thought it meant when she named her daughter). The essay was occasioned by the "National Timecapsule Project" to "provide a record of this time in American history for generations to come". "This time in history" meaning when the extraterrestrial Boov invaded on Christmas Day (which they renamed Smekday in honor of their glorious leader Captain Smek) 2013.

Gratuity, who is eleven-and-a-half for most of the events recounted in the book, is caught up in the central events of the time. Before the invasion, her mother claims to have been abducted by aliens (and forced to fold laundry), has a large and growing (and glowing!) mole on her neck, and then disappears on Christmas DaySmekday. Gratuity survives on her own after the Boov invasion (and destruction of all human resistance), but when the Boov discover that humans are unwilling to let the Boov move into their cities, the Boov decide to put all humans into small areas (Americans get Florida). Gratuity decides to drive to Florida rather than go in the Boov rocket pods. Hijinks and hilarity ensue.

I could summarize some of the plot, but it would probably sound like a ten-year-old describing their favorite movie to someone who has never heard of it. Suffice it to say that it's an enjoyable romp, complete with irony and wit, some of which would go right over the heads of younger readers (and that's okay). And it includes one of the most twisted explanations of how Disneyworld (showing up here as "Happy Mouse Kingdom") manages to stay so incredibly clean.

The cast of characters includes Gratuity's mother's cat (named "Pig"), a Boov who calls himself "J.Lo" and is on the run from the other Boov, more aliens (the Gorg), and a bunch of pre-teen boys hiding out in Happy Mouse Kingdom, who have formed "the Brotherhood Organized Against Oppressive Boov" (BOOB). (Gratuity asks if that shouldn't be "BOAOB", but the boys reply that they wanted to be "BOOB". Needless to say, this doesn't endear them to Gratuity.)

The book is illustrated with near-realistic drawings (representing the Polaroids that Gratuity takes), Gratuity's drawings, and a couple of comic strips drawn by J.Lo to explain various things Boovish. Adam Rex is ridiculously talented to be able to draw all these things and write as well as he does. (Not fair!)

You should also look at, which includes a short "Human Learning Video #42: The True Meaning of Smekday" (if the Quicktime movie doesn't work for you, follow the link to the YouTube version). This instructional video is of a puppet show explaining the new Boovish holidays, and is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. (I was nonplussed the first time, and every viewing since it just gets funnier.) The problems (for me) with the video are (a) it raised my expectations too far -- no book could include the sheer density of comic genius that the video does; and (b) there's only one!

In summary: go buy this book. It's fabulous (and on sale at Amazon). And watch the video.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Further Thoughts on the Battlestar Galactica Finale

Here are a bunch of thoughts on the Battlestar Galactica Series Finale. They are not particularly well ordered.

Highlight to see them; this is to avoid spoilers.

If you read this in an RSS reader, stop reading now if you haven't seen it yet!


So this really seemed to call come down to "God did it". And angels? Really?

Somewhat ironically, this is quite a bit closer to the original Glen A. Larson Battlestar Galactica than any of the rest of the show. (Both the Mormonism and the plot. Wasn't there an episode of the original series with angels?) Larson may be smiling.

At least the Baltar-in-Caprica-Six's head showed up again.

I do wish they'd explained how Baltar survived the nuclear explosion in the miniseries (which clearly killed the original Caprica Six -- she downloaded from it in "Downloaded", the late-second-season episode where Baltar-in-Caprica-Six's head first -- and last -- showed up). Was he resurrected the way that Kara was?

Tell me again why Hera was so important? Because she seemed more like a walking Plot Device than anything else here.

Why were Laura and Sharon/Athena kept out of the bridge for the climactic "can't we break the cycle" scene? Okay, I guess Sharon/Athena probably would have blown Cavil's head off, but it seemed like they just needed to recreate a hallucination that was originally set up 1.5 seasons ago.

I'm so sick of SF that ends up with "and that planet became our Earth". Resounding cliché alert!.

It was 150,000 years ago? Really? That's just dumb. 50,000 would fit better insofar as the colonists were anatomically modern humans.

If Hera was Mitochondrial Eve, then that means that the indiginous populations died out, or were killed off. Nothing sinister there.

What are we now supposed to make of the shot at the end of Season 3 (after Starbuck re-appears) where they show us Earth -- our Earth, with North America clearly visible? I am fairly certain that Ron Moore stated clearly that the Earth there was really our Earth. I suppose he could wiggle out by saying that the Earth that they found at the end of the first half of Season 4, the 13th-tribe Earth, was not Our Earth, and not what they showed us at the end of the Season 3 finale.

And WTF: Saul Tigh saying to Galen (Tyrol) "If anyone had done that to Ellen, I'd have done the same"? Really? (a) wouldn't this means that Saul should kill himself? (b) Galen looked ready to space Callie retroactively when he found out that Callie's kid wasn't his.

Tori deserved better. I totally understand why she killed Callie. It was evil, but I totally understand it.

Daniel. Why even bring him up? Other than to explain the gap between Six and Eight? To show how evil Cavil was? We knew that. I felt like that was a huge loose plot thread that they planted and didn't pay off.

Kara's Dad wasn't Daniel? Then WTF?

Kara just vanishes into thin air?

"God did it." Totally frackingfucking weak.

What The Frack

Just finished watching the Battlestar Galactica series finale.

I'll probably write more about this later, but for now, I am feeling seriously unimpressed. Possibly even annoyed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

"Syfy"? Really? Oy.

So, the SciFi Channel is changing its name to "Syfy". John Scalzi gives it his trademark snark treatment.

You see, it's not just that "Syfy" is a stupid name, and renaming your brand is usually a sign of desperation. It's also that "syfy" means "venereal disease" (e.g. syphilis) in Polish.

Oh well, after Friday's BSG series finale I won't be watching much SciFiSyfy anyway.

Edited to add: io9 weighs in with 25 other possible names they could rebrand with.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


I saw Watchmen today (with Dan) and enjoyed it quite a bit.

The movie is very faithful to the book, but it didn't seem slavish. (They did change a major mechanism for a plot point at the end of the book, and honestly, I think this version is better.) Some subplots were removed, but their absence didn't seem to be problematic to me.

With the exception of Matthew Goode (as Ozymandias/Adrien Veidt), the acting ranged from decent to quite good. Patrick Wilson (as Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II) did a great job, as did Jeffrey Dean Morgan (as The Comedian), but the really standout performance was Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshach. I don't know what was going on with Matthew Goode -- he's a British actor with a solid resume, but he sounded like a demented Dutchman in the movie, which might have been intentional -- but whether on his part or the part of the director is hard to say. It wasn't a big problem, in any case.

The special effects are impressive without taking over the story (and mostly drawn straight from the book), and the pacing seemed fine to me. Some people thought it could have been cut back 20 minutes or so, but I wasn't bored at all -- and I usually am if something is slow.

I'd like to especially note the opening credit sequence, which is simply fabulous and almost worth the price of admission on its own. It was given a shout-out by Teresa Nielsen Hayden at Making Light, and rightly so. (Go read the story. The lawyers at Warner's are jerks, and the Warner's upper management are idiots.) You can find the opening credits here.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Delayed Review 2: Graceling by Kristin Cashore

On the advice of several friends, I picked up a copy of Graceling in mid-September of last year.

Graceling is a first novel by Kristin Cashore. It's really good, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. You should borrow or buy it and read it, and loan it (or buy other copies and give it) to people you know.

The setup of the story is replete with the apparatus of stock fantasy: kings and princes and somewhat mystical powers -- i.e. the tropes and elements that in the hands of someone with less imagination and nerve would be dreadful, but works well when wielded with the right balance and wit. (It works very well here indeed.)

The main character, Katsa, is a young woman (just about 18), neice of King Randa of Middluns, who has a Grace. In this world, Graces are semi-sort-of-magical powers, that manifest themselves in two ways: (1) a very specific skill/talent/power; and (2) eyes of different colors (Katsa has one blue eye and one green eye). Some Graces are benign and in high demand (cooking skills or healing skills); some are less benign but also in demand (fighting skills); others are simply not very useful and are thus not prized -- but these Gracelings are usually mistrusted and mistreated if they have been found wanting by the Kings and Princes of the land).

Katsa's Grace revealed itself when she was eight years old and she reacted instinctively to a leering courtier who tried to grope her -- reacted with lethal violence. From then on, she was trained to be the King's special killer.

Much of the rest of the book concerns Katsa's growing desire to no longer be the King's pet killer, and to change the circumstances under which Kings can do such things. Much of the books' plot is set in motion by the arrival at court of Prince Po[1] from the island kingdom of Lienid, who is also Graced with amazing fighting skills. Katsa dislikes him on sight, which leads in the direction you'd probably expect -- but usually along a non-obvious path.

One of the things I like most about the book is that while the elements going into the story are fairly standard, they're put together in ways that are often quite unexpected. And during the slow reveal of the Main Villain (and I like that there are multiple unrelated villains), the main characters aren't stupid. About three pages after I figured out what the Main Villain is doing and how he's doing it, and just before I started thinking, "Augh! The main characters are dumb! How can they not see it?", they figured it out. Hallelujah! Non-stupid characters, not artificially jerked around to not see something that has become obvious to the reader! And then even though they've figured it out, it doesn't help much. Hooray for turning the screw another turn!

(Okay, I'm going to try to avoid saying anything more about the plot. Really.)

There seem to be (broadly) two approaches to background detail. In one, the author fills in lots of details about everything, and that can help ground the reader to feel like the world in the book is complete and fine-grained, but can potentially overwhelm the reader with irrelevancies. In the other approach, things are sketched in quick strokes and details are given only as necessary and/or pertinent to the story, which can streamline a plot-heavy story but can also end up leaving the reader feeling like they're missing the grit of a real world. (My problem -- and I know that this is my problem -- is that my reading brain is too lazy, or in a hurry, to make up details to put in the background, so without a certain level of details, I end up picturing things being very smooth and under-featured -- almost cartoony.) An example of this split (or spectrum) in approaches is how walk-on characters are handled: in some stories we learn names for many or all walk-on characters (even horses and other animals), while in other stories, no one gets named unless they're important to the plot. Cashore's work falls into the second category. (David Foster Wallace would probably be an archetype of the first.) Purely as a matter of taste, I generally like to have more details rather than fewer, but in a 471-page book (aimed at young-adult readers both artistically and as a matter of marketing), it does make sense to me to trim that back. (And of course, just because I would like more details puts no onus on Ms. Cashore to do anything to change her artistic choices.)

In summary: I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to re-reading it (probably fairly soon -- but perhaps I should wait until either just before -- or maybe just after? -- the prequel, Fire, comes out in October). Is it perfect? Nope. (Nothing is.) But it's a cracking good first novel and I highly recommend it.

[1] Every time I read "Katsa and Po" my silly brain does have a tendency to recite bits from The Mikado. Fortunately, this didn't affect my actual reading of the book.

Delayed Review 1: A Fine Frenzy's One Cell In the Sea

I bought A Fine Frenzy's album One Cell in the Sea almost a year ago (my iTunes tells me I added it on May 2nd, 2008, which is in turn nearly a year after it came out).

I quickly got obsessed with this album to a degree that I haven't done in years. (The last album with which I got anywhere near so obsessed was Green Day's American Idiot.) I listened to it at least once a day for several months, sometimes multiple times a day. And instead of abruptly dropping out of the rotation like some albums (it's sort of like my brain is done with them and doesn't crave it any more), I still listen to it three or four times a week.

The problem with this level of obsessional listening is that it's hard to tell if it's actually good or if it's just the obsession speaking. However, I've given the album to some people as gifts, over the past few months, and they like it too. So I feel validated. Go me!

A Fine Frenzy is effectively Alison Sudol plus backup instrumentalists. She sings and plays the piano, both very well, and writes all her own songs (as far as I know). She's got a voice that can go from low and husky to high and clear, and she knows how to write songs that fit her voice. She writes strongly emotional songs and catchy tunes (sometimes at the same time). The songs aren't treacly; many of them are about relationships, but most of those are about failed or failing, or just plain didn't-happen, relationships (like "Almost Lover" and "Ashes and Wine", the latter of which is my current favorite).

There are some songs from the album (notably "Rangers"), which just get stuck in my head, but which I still don't know how to interpret. Is it just a catchy tune with obscure lyrics, or is she making literary references I don't get? I still don't know.

Apparently Alison Sudol has been tagged with the "red-headed piano player = Tori Amos" meme, which is bizarre since I don't feel like there's a lot of overlap, other than the relatively superficial facts that they're both female piano players/songwriters who have red hair. But then again, I like both of them, so maybe I'm just not seeing it.

I am slightly annoyed by the album cover (go look on Amazon), and wonder how much of that was Sudol herself and how much was the record company. I think it's clear that they are trying to market her as a Little Redheaded Girl, which annoys me. (I expressed this to my wife, and she said "What's your problem? You like redheads." I replied "I like redheaded women, thank you very much.")

I strongly recommend this album. But on the off chance that you have the same obsessional reaction I did, don't say I didn't warn you.

Interstitial Advertising FAIL

I have a pile of books and movies and albums (from the last year or so) about which I've wanted to post at least short reviews, and I figured I'd come up with a catchy name for the sequence. I wanted something with rhyme and assonance and the only thing I could come up with was "Delayed Deconstruction", which isn't quite right, and "Retarded Reviews", which has the right denotation and entirely wrong (and unfortunate, if not downright offensive) connotations. So I went to to look for less-freighted synonyms of "retarded" that would match it's original meaning of "delayed".

I then got


One entry found.

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Entry Word: retard
Function: verb

Text: to cause to move or proceed at a less rapid pace <an herbicide to retard the growth of weeds>— see slow 1

Not quite an epic FAIL, but worth at least an "augh!"

Monday, March 09, 2009

Dear Large Financial Services Company

Dear Large Financial Services Company:

If you are going to send me notification email messages, with

Content-Type: text/plain

then please actually make the message be plain text, not HTML crud.

Or send a MIME version with one in text form and one in HTML.

Really, this is 1998 technology we're talking about here.

And while we're on the topic, please let me have a password that has non-alphanumeric characters in it.

Friday, March 06, 2009

What the...FAIL

FAILblog has a very funny disease FAIL today.

(Warning: humorless Christians should avoid that.)

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Have You Apologized to Rush Yet?

Have you apologized to Rush Limbaugh yet?

It's pretty amazing that we have Democrats who are willing to actually call out the Republicans as the whiny little pussies they are.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

"Peak Oil" Revisited

Is it just me, or should Peak Lubricants maybe change their name, given Peak Oil?

And their slogan? "It's time for a change." Priceless.