Thursday, May 30, 2013

Stiff Hand, Part 1

The four men sat fanned out around the blackjack table. At the far right, Antony Alderton was hunched over, his face drawn, sweat beading on his brow. He was a heavy-set man, his suit ill-fitting, as though it had been tailored for a more slender man. Nervously, he moved the cards in his hand, exchanging the position of his cards before returning them to their original order. To his right sat a highball glass, nearly empty. In contrast, in the next seat over, Barney Elwood looked impossibly fresh, his evening jacket as freshly-pressed as it had been hours before. He twirled his waxed mustache idly as he held his cards absolutely still with his other hand. He, too, had a highball glass next to him, but the drink had hardly been touched, condensation beading along the outer edge of the glass and trickling down the side. At Barney's left was Carl Fursey, who had loosened his tie and clutched his whisky glass as a talisman, though he sipped from it only occasionally. Carl had shaved before leaving his house for the casino, but still had a dark shadow of growth on his face. He wore cufflinks with his initials on them, and would invariably shoot his cuffs before making a big bet. The final player, on the left, was Jeremy Fallon. He had the air of someone out of his element, and played his cards nervously. Luck was with him that night, however, and the pile of chips in front of him had grown considerably over the evening. Like the others, he had a highball glass next to him, and he would tap the edge of the glass with a fingernail as he thought about his next move. He also had the bad habit of touching his fingers to his lips before receiving his cards, then wiping his hands on his trousers. Their dealer that night was Morris Skelton, a handsome man in his 30s, dressed in a colorful vest and matching bow tie over a white dress shirt, and an elegant pair of white gloves. He was the casino's top blackjack dealer, and he kept the game moving crisply. In the corner stood Jack Newport, the young barman, a drinks trolley next to him, waiting for one of the players to signal to him. Although the trolley contained a wide selection of bottles, all four players had ordered the same drink: whisky and soda. None had ordered a refill. Jack stifled a yawn as he watched the game progress.

Morris broke open a new deck of cards, shuffled, and dealt. Antony received a jack, Barney a nine, Carl another nine, and Jeremy accepted a trey. The first dealer card was a king. Morris dealt the next round: a seven to Antony, yet another nine to Barney, an ace to Carl, while Jeremy added a queen to his hand. In the game's lingo, he had a "stiff hand" - a two-card total between 12 and 16, too low to stand but one that can go over 21 with another card. Morris looked at the players. Antony defied the odds and signaled a hit, then gulped the last of his drink. He took a deuce and stood. Barney also chose not to play the odds and hit, but his third card was a six, for a 24 and a bust. Carl stood on his 20. Jeremy looked at his 13 with disgust before signaling for another card. A ten, for 23 and another bust. Jeremy shook his head sadly. Morris dealt himself his second dealer card - an eight, for a total of 18. By rule, he stood. He paid out Antony's 19 and Carl's 20, and collected the chips from the two losing hands.

Another shuffle. Before Morris could deal out the next hands, however, Jeremy Fallon stood, clutching his chest, his face a rictus of agony. "Mr. Fallon, are you feeling ill?" Morris asked. Jeremy made no reply, merely toppling forward, sending chips flying from the felt table top, before he collapsed to the ground. The remaining players, Morris, and Jack all ran to him. Antony tapped his face a few times, experimentally, but got no reaction. Barney said, "He looks dead." Morris said, "I need to call my boss. Boy, oh boy, I'm going to be in trouble." Carl said, "Before you call your boss, you need to ring the police. I suggest everyone step away from the body and make sure not to touch anything."

"Are you mad?" said Barney "The man had a heart attack. Couldn't take the strain of the game, I suppose. There's no need to involve the police in this."

Antony replied, "No, Carl is right. The police will want to examine the scene and the body, and we won't do ourselves any favors if we don't call immediately and leave the scene as it is." He gratefully accepted another whisky and soda from Jack and drained half the glass immediately.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Reaching for the Finish Line

I've long realized that I'm not a finisher. I start projects well. I have enthusiasm, ideas, and a general feeling that the end product can be pretty darn good. This holds true for writing projects, blog entries, home projects, hobbies, work,... you name it. But then the work gets underway, and my enthusiasm flags, and things don't work out quite as well as I had planned, and I have trouble finishing. Half-completed stories, plot outlines, and blog entries. Textbooks started but abandoned with a bookmark somewhere around the one-quarter mark. Professional papers stacking up on the desk. Et cetera.

I've thought about why I have this trait. Like a romance, the start of a project is certainly preferable to its end; the excitement and promise are there at the start and have long since disappeared when the last punctuation mark lands. More to the point, the start of a project is about possibilities, where no one can critique the result because it's still in a state of flux. Something finished, however, something released into the wild - well, that's fair game. Fear of being found out a fraud is a powerful deterrent.

I made the mistake of dating a revision of a story I was working on: November of last year. The darn thing was half-completed half a year ago. I finished the difficult part in a few days, but kept making excuses not to finish the last bit, until at last I opened the file and kept at it until I was done. Other pieces are substantially older. It's embarrassing.

While I'll never complete projects speedily, I'm going to make an effort to not let things languish so long. To the finish line!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Review: Doctor Who, "The Sands of Life" and "War Against the Laan"

These two audio dramas from Big Finish, released earlier this year, are really one story. Written and directed by Nicholas Briggs, and starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor and Mary Tamm as Romana, the story finds the Time Lord and Lady coming to a future Earth beset by a megalomaniac businessman, Cuthbert, and billions of very pregnant telepathic aliens, the Laan, who live in the Time Vortex but give birth in the "sands of life" - except that the birth process releases a destructive amount of time energy, and billions of such energy releases will destroy the planet. From the Big Finish description:
Sheridan Moorkurk has just been elected president of Earth... but the harsh realities of who really runs the planet are just beginning to dawn on her. And what's more, she's starting to hear voices. Meanwhile, the Doctor and Romana encounter a mass of aliens heading to Earth... Aliens who have already made the mistake of upsetting the infamous Cuthbert, all-powerful CEO of The Conglomerate, by destroying one of his space platforms. Will the Doctor and Romana be able to avert inter-species war that will destroy all life on Earth?
 "War Against the Laan" follows immediately in time:
The Doctor, Romana and newly elected President Sheridan Moorkurk take on the all-consuming powers of business tycoon Cuthbert and his vast Conglomerate. But the situation goes beyond a struggle for political power. Cuthbert is intent on revenge on creatures he feels have attacked his interests. But when his revenge looks like leading to inter-species war, the Doctor knows the stakes couldn't be higher. The Laan are on the move. Is it too late to prevent the destruction of all life on Earth?
The stories are about an hour apiece. The stories suffer a bit from several problems. First, there are a large number of explosions that substitute for dialogue. Second, the main villain, the tycoon Cuthbert, is fairly one-dimensional. Finally, the ultimate solution is pretty abrupt. I know the cast was expensive, but each story by itself seemed a bit short for the price.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Windows 7 and Some Wishful Thinking

After some time - five years, perhaps? - with Windows XP at work, the transition to Windows 7 is nigh. (As an added bonus, we're also finally dumping WordPerfect. Various lawyers have clung to WordPerfect like a lifeline. It's inexplicable.)

Ever since I switched back to a Macintosh as my home computer, I've been trying to find a good system for shuttling work between office and home. Not work work, mind you, but blog entries, story scraps, journal entries, and so on, things that I may update during the day but that ultimately end up on my home hard drive.

The office PC is locked down tightly. I can't install software that requires administrative access, or even change some system settings. I'm not permitted to install any software, attach a personal flash drive or any other peripheral, or access file storage and download sites such as Dropbox. It's a little fascist, really, even if the purpose is to minimize viruses and the like on the network and minimize software-induced incompatibilities.

The iPad helps immensely, because I can use it to access Dropbox and other taboo sites, and can use iOS equivalents of some of my OS X applications, such as Byword and Evernote, to make it easier to write in one place and finish the work elsewhere. Still, it would be nice to be able to use my home tools, such as Text Expander, LaunchBar, and 1Password while using a full-sized keyboard and a large monitor at the office.

Sadly, this will never happen. My organization insists on PCs (and, God help me, Blackberries). They say it's for security reasons. On the other hand, the Pentagon okayed iOS devices, and OS X has a whole lot fewer pieces of malware written for it than does Windows, so we know the real argument is that they don't want to incur the costs of supporting multiple operating systems. Annoying, but I understand that.

Anyway, one can hope.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: Doctor Who, "The Auntie Matter"

"The Auntie Matter" is another Big Finish audio drama. The 2013 production is about 60 minutes long, in two parts.

Trouble seems to find the Doctor - especially the Fourth Doctor - even when he isn't looking for it. Even when he is especially keen to avoid the attention of the Black Guardian...

Taking place just after the Key to Time stories (Season 16 of the classic series), before Romana regenerates, the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Mary Tamm) are lying low in a London Town house in the 1920s, Lord and Lady of the house. The Doctor has left K-9 aboard the TARDIS and set the ship to visit a thousand random locations before returning to Earth in order to keep the Black Guardian, presumably still displeased with the Time Lord and Time Lady after failing to gain the Key to Time, from finding them.

Elsewhere, Reginald brings his fiancee to meet his "aunt" - whereupon the "aunt" takes over the young lady's body. Reginald's memories of the event are erased and he is sent out to find an attractive, smart, young lady to marry.

Reginald encounters Romana and takes a fancy to her. He feigns interest in science to attract her attention, and she travels with him to Bassett Hall to meet "Auntie." Meanwhile, the Doctor goes off with Mabel, his maid, in search of an alien energy source he detected. It's no surprise that the source is Bassett Hall.

Tom Baker and Mary Tamm are terrific (and, with an audio production, I can still visualize them as they looked in 1979. The story has a great deal of humor in it (just like a Tom Baker story from the classic series, come to think of it). Add some killer androids, mix, and one has a great story.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Victorian Fantasy: Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The topic for this month's meeting of the Victorian Fantasy discussion group was a pair of poems by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: "The Lady of Shalott" and "The Lotos-Eaters." Dame Kghia Gherardi took the lead in the discussion.

Dame Kghia started off by saying, "In many ways, I tend to think of Tennyson as the epitome of the Victorian gentleman. He is someone struggling to make sense of a rapidly changing world, the place for art in that world, and even his own place…[H]e turns to myths and legends for his subject matter, but turns them to a more contemporary theme."

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"The Lady of Shalott" is poem in which the lady of the title is "cursed" to remain in her room, viewing the world only through a mirror, condemned to die if she leaves. After seeing the Knights of the Round Table pass through town, she takes a fancy to Sir Lancelot, sets out in a boat toward Camelot, and dies. The poems is said to be a metaphor for the dilemma of the artist: live a life or create art while viewing life as in a mirror.

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Our extensive discussion of "Shalott" left little time for discussion of the second poem, "The Lotos-Eaters." This time, instead of Arthurian legend, Tennyson's inspiration was Odysseus and his wanderings. As the poem opens, Odysseus's men have reached the land of the Lotos Eaters, who bear gifts including the flower of the lotos. The men partake of it and enter a dream-like state. The men express a desire to stay forever. One similarity with the previous poem is that the effect of the lotus is to live in a dream world - the same conflict between the "real" and the idealized world as in "Shalott." The reader is left with the impression that the dream world is not necessarily the right choice, that the struggles of the real world are to be preferred over the lassitude of the dream world.

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Next month's topic will be Robert Browning and "The Pied Piper of Hamelin."

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Treating People with Respect

I keep reading about the sexism and verbal abuse that women receive in the tech field and the gaming world. (One example is from Miss Iris Ophelia at New World Notes.) I've seen some of the abusive language used, and it's utterly appalling.

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that in both areas, tech and gaming, the male/female ratio is pretty high. Here's the puzzle for me: if I were a heterosexual male in an environment where women were scarce, I'd do everything I could to be nice to the women I met. Not "Hey, baby, wanna [fornicate]?" but genuinely nice. If I wanted a date, I'd figure that I'm competing with a lot of guys for a small number of women, and that being mean, or sexist, is not the way to a woman's heart.

Now, maybe what happens is that most of the guys are well-adjusted and, like the rest of the population, have wives or steady girlfriends already. The small percentage of jerks figure that they have no hope of having a relationship with a woman, so they figure they have nothing to lose by their behavior. If so, they're guaranteeing a bad outcome for - what, the psychic benefit of being able to act like a jerK? It doesn't seem rational.

The really odd thing is that this rudeness does not arise simply from a male/female imbalance. The corporeal me works as an economist, as I've mentioned before, a profession that is predominately male. Yet the sexes appear to treat one another professionally.

I'll have to say that Miss Ophelia, while clearly upset at her treatment - and justifiably so - illustrated a treat of young people that I find irritating: indiscriminate use of profanity. Her blog entry uses a vulgar four-letter word four times. Even without the use of the word, the reader would understand her anger. Sometimes less is more.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Review: Doctor Who, "Whispers of Terror"

In this 93-minute audio drama from 1999, the Sixth Doctor and Peri (Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant, reprising their TV roles) find themselves in the Museum of Aural Antiquities, a repository of sounds from speeches to wiretaps. Visteen Krane, a voice actor-turned-politician, had been favored for the Presidency until his recent death, an apparent suicide. Instead, Beth Pernell, Krane's agent and his presumptive running mate, is making plans to announce her own candidacy, using a Krane speech praising her toward that end. Pernell and her associates are also in the Museum, planning the big announcement.

After a mysterious death and claims that someone had altered Krane's speeches, the Doctor and Peri help investigate. They discover that, when Krane died, he transferred his mind into his recording equipment and has been altering tapes. They must discover why - and how to stop him.

The stakes in the story were important - murder and political intrigue - but small in the grand scheme of things, with no planetary catastrophe or alien invasion at hand. To me, that's a good thing, as too many Doctor Who writers seem to believe that the only stories that matter are when the stakes are sky-high. In contrast, I find small stories can be very effective and focus the listener (or viewer) on character and plot, rather than on the almost forced emotional reaction to planetary peril.

In some ways, this story is ideally suited to the audio drama format. The story involves sound and the manipulation of sound, so much of the action does not rely on auditory versions of what would otherwise be visual cues. (Reinforcing this point, the Director of the museum is blind, which does not handicap his work with sounds, but does play a role in the plot.) The mystery is straightforward but enjoyable. I enjoyed the banter between the Doctor and Peri; although "The Two Doctors" is the only TV story starring Colin Baker as the Doctor that I've seen so far, Baker and Bryant resume their roles as though this were made in 1985 and not fourteen years later. The Doctor is a little mellower, too, which is a good thing.

If I had a criticism about this drama as a Doctor Who story, it is that it lacked a great deal of Doctor action. He deduces what is happening before the others, and performs a little deus ex machina Doctor magic, but in many ways in this is a story about Krane and Pernell, with the Doctor in a relatively small role.

One difficulty I had was in distinguishing among the actors' voices. Peri was unmistakable, and I usually could identify the Doctor, but other characters occasionally blended together.

I'm still of two minds about these audio dramas. I like having an expanded range of stories, particularly in the increasingly long waits for new television episodes, and I think it's terrific to be able to have new adventures with the classic series Doctors, particularly with the original actors in the role (along with some of the original companions). In addition, I can listen to audio in places, such as the subway, when watching an episode would be difficult or impossible. And completing a story in 90 minutes or so gives me a fighting chance to remember important plot points, more so than reading a book over a much longer period. On the other hand, there's always the question of how these stories fit into the show's canon, and the limitations of audio make for some tough going at times. Still, I'll keep listening, at least for a while.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Review: Doctor Who, "The Chimes of Midnight"

My second foray into Doctor Who audio drama, following "Storm Warning", was "The Chimes of Midnight," (116 minutes) released in Feb. 2002 and starring Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and India Fisher as Charley Pollard.

En route to Singapore for New Year's Eve 1930, the TARDIS instead lands in the pantry of an Edwardian manor on Christmas Eve, 1906. The kitchen appears abandoned, yet the kitchen sink still has warm water in it and preparations for Christmas dinner are still fresh. They seem to be stuck in a time loop. When they extricate themselves, they are still in the scullery, now fully populated - except for Edith, the scullery maid, who is dead, drowned in the kitchen sink.

The Doctor and Charley are trapped in the house. The staff believes they are amateur sleuths, as though they are in a mystery novel, so, while trying to escape from the house, they also try to discover who killed Edith. But when the clock chimes midnight, another body appears. Time moves strangely, and it becomes evident that the house itself is sentient, manipulating time and events for some unknown purpose, and that the dead Edith holds the key to the mystery. As the body count rises, the Doctor realizes that the only way to survive is to understand Edith's life and outwit the sentience in the house.

This is a fun story, though a little repetitious in places (deliberately so, but the repetition still makes the story drag at times). It has elements of a variety of works, from the "Downstairs" part of "Upstairs, Downstairs" to gothic horror (the haunted house) and, of course, some wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.

McGann has a distinctive voice and a calm demeanor as the Doctor that works well. Charley is likable, but not yet fully developed as a character. Instead, she's something of a generic girl companion, though, like Clara in the current TV series, she is something of a mystery herself, having died and yet not died in the R101 airship (see "Storm Warning").

Monday, May 6, 2013

State of Decay 2

Inspired once again by Honour McMillan's travels, I paid a visit to Virtual Decay, a town that, as the name suggests, has seen better days.

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The buildings have an authentic air of abandonment about them. More frightening are the abandoned cars, some with headlights still on, as though their occupants had only recently left their vehicles - or were forced to do so.

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This is the part of town you don't walk alone, the part where you hope your car does not die. Keep rolling down the cracked streets, past the broken windows and boarded-up doors, and you may still be okay, you may still arrive home that night.

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Should you need to pull into a service station, however - perhaps the battery has died, or perhaps you're just out of gasoline - God help you.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

"Storm Warning" - Dieselpunk Meets the Doctor

If not the last stage in the descent into madness, listening to audio stories of television characters is at least a stop near the bottom. Having run out of new Doctor Who episodes, having a stack of classic series DVDs but only so much time to sit and watch, and, indeed, anticipating a day when those episodes will too be in the past, I purchased two audio dramas from Big Finish Productions, both featuring the Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann.

The first of these, "Storm Warning," released in 2001 and running about two hours, much to my surprise started out as a diselpunk tale: set in 1930 aboard a British airship, the R101, heading to India on its maiden voyage, we encounter intrigue in the skies. The TARDIS materializes inside one of the ballast tanks of the airship, having accidentally brought along a predator, a bird of prey called a Vortisaur, through the Time Vortex. The TARDIS disappears as the ballast tank is dumped, trapping the Doctor in the airship. The Doctor encounters Charlotte "Charley" Pollard (played by India Fisher), a young lady impersonating the identity of a male steward in order to see the world, and the rest of the airship's crew. This includes a mysterious passenger, who turns out to be an alien, Engineer Prime of the Triskele species. R101 is returning Engineer Prime, who crashed in England the previous winter, to the Triskele spaceship. The airship makes its rendezvous with the Triskele spaceship high over France. Then the games begin...

The Doctor knows the historical R101 crashes in France on its maiden voyage (as does the nonfictional R101; see the link above), so he has to return the Vortisaur to its proper place, solve the problem of the Triskele, deal with human double-dealing, and keep himself - and Charley - alive long enough to find the TARDIS and escape the airship before it explodes.

I liked McGann as the Doctor in the 1996 movie - certainly he rose above the material in that film - and he's good in the role in audio. Charley (played by India Fisher) is the usual plucky adventuress companion. (Doctor Who regular Nicholas Pegg (he plays a Dalek in various episodes of the new series) is also in this production, playing Lt. Colonel Frayling.) For the most part, I was able to distinguish among the main characters through differences in their voices, though having too many gruff-sounding men with English accents made this challenging. The story was good, without too much hand-waving to fill holes in the plot, with a satisfying resolution.

As a British company, Big Finish sells its audio CDs in pounds and ships them from Britain. Fortunately, Americans can save the lengthy shipping time and high cost by downloading the audio files in MP3 format. (And the stories are conveniently priced in U.S. dollars as well.)

This may be madness, but it's a good way to go crazy.