Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ Category

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Sword & Laser YouTube Feed Fail

September 25, 2012

Vista busy cursor Frightening to think my last post on this site was back in April. I really have struggled to find time to nurture my blogs.

In that post I described how to use Yahoo! Pipes to create a pseudo podcast feed for the video component of the Sword & Laser show on YouTube. The method relied on identifying each episode of Sword & Laser by its YouTube tags. It was a less than reliable solution given that hosts Tom and Veronica were wont to be inconsistent in their use of tags from episode to episode. Also the feed would occasionally pick up videos from other sources which happened to refer to the Sword & Laser podcast.

It is all academic now because the last few episodes have not been tagged at all and the Yahoo! Pipes feed has gone dark, apart from the false positives. My guess is that this is deliberate. The Sword & Laser video is part of the Geek & Sundry stable and we the consumers of the content are supposed to embrace the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel, subscribing to it and all that sails in it.

Well, I suppose that the expensive set, high production values, (minor) celebrity hosts and animatronic dragon all have to be paid for somehow.

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Rocky Gibraltar Earth

October 5, 2009

Books Finding time for reading has been hard for years, and to compound the frustration most of my recent book choices have been disappointments.

Normally I have both a paper book and an audiobook on the go, thus using technology to extend “reading” time to commuting, dog walking and the like. Now a third front has been opened with ebooks on my Windows Mobile phone. I was getting fed up with my increasingly absurd “dead tree” book, The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld, and had nothing else to read so bought Gibraltar Earth by Michael McCollum in PRC format (mobipocket), based on a ringing endorsement by SF fan Steve Gibson of Spinrite and “Security Now!” fame.

Buying Gibraltar Earth as an ebook made it both cheap ($5) and near instantaneous by the miracle of Internet file download, followed by a dangerous dabble with WMDC (aka ActiveSync) to straddle the final, short hop from PC to phone. I’d have preferred to get it on a Kindle but such delights have yet to make their way across the Atlantic.

My wife has denounced my ebook venture as a terminally geeky thing to do. She insists the very idea of attempting to read a book on a phone, even one with a large high-res screen, is wacky beyond redemption. I was sure to wreck my (already pathetic) eyesight. I pointed out that I can adjust the font size so that it is bigger than the paper book I was reading, as readily proved by a side by side comparison. You end up with rather fewer words per screenful than you would have on a page of a paperback, but navigating from screen to screen is very easy with the phone’s “joystick”. The wife remained unconvinced, even when I pointed out that I no longer needed to worry about losing my place or fannying around with bookmarks, as the software would always keep my place.

I can even do a text search, so if I come across the name of a character in the story and can’t remember where they last appeared, I can search for previous occurrences by name rather than having to scan the pages of a physical book by eye. Best of all, because my “book” is in my mobile phone, I always have it with me so if I have a spare moment, say waiting outside school to collect my daughter, I can steal a few minutes of reading time. So whether or not reading a book on a phone sounds or looks ridiculous, it is perfectly feasible and has many enumerable advantages.

Sadly, though, this did not turn out to be the hoped for happy solution to my reading material crisis. Not because of any particular issue with mobipocket books on Windows Mobile phones in general. It’s just that the book itself turns out to be dire.

It is such a let down, after the build-up Steve Gibson gave it. The premise sounds riveting. Centuries from now, mankind makes first contact with alien life but discovers that the galaxy is ruled by an all-powerful cruel race which enslaves or destroys all other life, so humans are only still around and free because they have yet to come to the super-aliens’ attention. But it is only a matter of time before they are discovered, which raises the question of how mankind will deal with the problem. Fascinating concept, which unfolds over a trilogy.

But the writing is so amateurish and cliched. Almost stomach-churningly so. I may stick with it a bit longer but am finding it hard to take.

I had been tempted to start reading some SF by Peter F Hamilton, based on Steve’s effusive praise, but have been put off as I’m not sure I can trust his judgement. This is possibly unfair on Hamilton who is a far better known and more prolific author. Maybe I’ll sneak a read of a couple of pages in Smiths or Waterstones just to make sure it’s not another complete turkey.

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The Huxin Ting Teahouse in the Diamond Age

November 14, 2007

Books There is no doubt that the venue for Judge Fang’s initial meeting with Dr X in Neal Stephenson‘s “The Diamond Age” (Bantam, 1995) is the Huxin Ting teahouse in the bazaar area of Old Shanghai.

huxin ting teahouse shanghai china

The book may be set in a dystopian future where people’s lives have been transformed (mostly for the worse) by nanotechnology, but it’s clearly one in which the famous 18th century teahouse remains intact. There really aren’t any other 2-storey teahouses in Old Shanghai rising out of lakes, accessed by zig-zag bridges with 9 bends and close to a Ming dynasty garden.

The name Huxin Ting is more prosaic than it sounds. It simply means “mid-lake pavilion”. The zig-zag bridge is called Jiu Qu Qiao, the Bridge of Nine Turnings, and is indeed supposed to stop evil spirits on the basis they can’t turn corners – a bit like an American car.

It is an odd feeling to be “reading” a book (I’m listening to the audiobook) that describes an exotic location I have visited in the last few months and can picture very clearly in my mind. The story is set in Shanghai and its environs, some real and some imagined, and the author had already recalled many familiar Shanghai locations to mind – the Bund and the banks of the Huangpu river, Pudong with its spectacular array of skyscrapers – but the treatment of the Huxing Ting teahouse is rather more intimate and tries harder to capture the character of the place.

He does rather over-romanticise it. The building itself is genuine, old and unspoilt but when I was there in April of this year the surrounding bazaar was noisy, crowded with tourists and more like something out of Disneyland than offering any sense of genuine Chinese cultural heritage.

The adjoining Ming dynasty gardens are the Yuyuan gardens.

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The meaning of “Hasta la vista”

October 13, 2007

Vista busy cursor I guess most English-speaking people are familiar with the phrase “Hasta la vista” and know what it means. But clearly not everyone. Reviewing the search strings which bring traffic to this site I’m forever coming across “hasta la vista translation” or “what does hasta la vista mean?”

Well I’ve decided to take pity on whoever it is (or possibly a number of people) who don’t know what the phrase means and keep finding their way to this website while searching for the answer, only to leave again none the wiser.

“Hasta la vista” is the Spanish equivalent of the French “Au revoir”. Spoken between friends it means “be seeing you” or “see you later”. The words literally mean “until the seeing” in the sense of “until our next meeting”.

It can also be used in an ironic sense to mean “bye bye” as in goodbye forever. The classic example being Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s use of “Hasta la vista, baby” in the film The Terminator. It’s what someone tough might say, in a film of course, to someone who is pusillanimous and unworthy before despatching them into the next world, usually violently and noisily.

Which is, for the avoidance of doubt, the sense in which I use the phrase in the title of this blog.


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Noisy Universe

September 12, 2007

Clapperboard I listen to podcasts to keep me sane on the commute to work, but lately found myself running out of stuff to listen to. I still listen to much of the output from Leo Laporte‘s This Week in Tech network, and the BBC Today programme, but Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time is still on its summer holiday, the AVForums podcasts are down to monthly and I had simply had enough of Alex Lindsay‘s tedious and self-indulgent This Week in Media, so I’ve been tending to run out of material to entertain and inform me on my drive home.

I have tried a couple of audio books, notably Scott Sigler’s Earthcore and Ancestor, but I need a break from his voice and his penchant for gratuitous violence (I’m referring of course to his storylines – I’m sure he’s not personally a danger to society).

It was thus that I came to scan the web for possible new listening material and came across Silent Universe, a serialised SF story and branchild of one J. Marcus Xavier (and I’ll be very surprised if that’s his real name).

Silent Universe

The episodes come out every few months. They’re up to no. 6 and I’ve been catching up. I downloaded the free low-bitrate mono version (with 30 second embedded advert) for tryout purposes, but the subscription for the stereo higher quality ad-free version is modest.

One of the “selling points” is that listeners can influence the storyline via their views and feedback on the Silent Universe Forum. As a newcomer to the series I’ve not had that benefit to date.

One thing I like about Silent Universe is the refreshing notion that while man may start colonising the planets and moons in the solar system, the nations of today will remain separate and just extend their rivalries and wars to new off-Earth battlegrounds. This is not that startling per se, but most sci-fi seems to take it for granted that countries and wars are features of Earth-bound humanity, so our expansion into our solar system and others will inevitably be accompanied by a new and peaceful world(s) order. The scenario familiar from say Star Trek is a case in point.

Against this there is quite a lot of bad. It is very clichéd and plays out a bit like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without the laughs. I was hoping for serious, deeply observant science fiction, that might reveal something about the human condition by extrapolation into a near future space age. Even Scott Sigler’s violence-fests have some inventive sci-fi ideas at their core. Silent Universe is like a rehash of Blake’s 7 – small band of intrepid do-gooders battling in Space against evil powers. It really isn’t desperately original. There is the usual motley crew of unlikely personalities, including the computer whiz who only talks in Star Wars impressions (Yoda, Vader, Chewie etc.) The script is trite and irksome.

Particularly irritating is Hilary Blair’s accent as the main character, space mercenary Emmeline Kaley. Emmeline is supposed to be Scottish but the accent is somewhere between Irish and Betelgeusian. It drives me up the wall.

Neither have I fathomed where the name Silent Universe came from. Given all the explosions and other amateurish sound effects I find it to be a fairly Noisy Universe.

Mr Xavier puts out short taster episodes every now and again, to bring the listenership up to date with feedback and other news about the series. He cleverly put out the free version of one of these in high quality stereo, including the first scene of the next episode, to try to drum up subscriptions.

Another time, explaining why one particular episode was not out yet, he mentioned he had not yet “received a couple of the lines”. I take that to mean the various voice artists record their lines independently in different locations and email him the sound files. He then has to edit them all together, add the sound effects and so forth. That might explain the interesting chemistry between the characters.

I may have been quite scathing but I’ve not yet totally given up on Silent Universe. I’ll stick with it until at least episode 6 (I’m now at 4) but I may then scour the Internet again to see if I can find anything better to fill the gaps in my listening schedule.

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