Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Amazing Race Round-Up, 18-6

Okay, I lied. This is the kind of leg that must be hard for the editors to make look interesting.

On the one hand, I thought it was a very well-designed Road Block. It was a needle in a haystack challenge, but one that didn't rely purely on chance--the racers could, if they had paid attention back in China and remembered the taste, scent, and color of the tea they had drunk the previous day, solve it very quickly and easily (as Ron did. Yes, I know, Ron is not completely useless! We are all equally amazed here, including Christina.) But if they just swigged down the tea and ran for the plane, and they didn't remember what it tasted like, well...they were going to be drinking tea until they cried. Literally.

At that point, it really just came down to "Is this a NEL/double leg?" Because the Detour was not hard enough to give the last-place team a chance to catch up, and that meant that unless it was a NEL, Margie and Luke were screwed. And we found out that it wasn't a double leg pretty early on, and we haven't seen any plan NELs this season. So we spent a whole lot of time suspecting strongly that Margie and Luke were screwed.

At this point, I'm beginning to suspect that the final three will be Zev/Justin, Jet/Cord, and Gary/Mallory. All three have been running strong races leg after leg, and while it does take just one bad leg to put you out of the running (as with last season, where Gary/Mallory just got epically lost and washed out), they don't seem to be prone to that. Whereas everyone else has been kind of trying to come in "not last", it seems, which only works as a strategy for so long.

Next week, no Race, which means no Race recap. But in two weeks, more Race! And Zev apparently gets annoyed by loud noises. Oooh.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

I Do Not Make Friends Easily

Recently, in my capacity as guest commentator on Mightygodking.com, I posted a review of the novel Ravenous that was, to put it lightly, not positive. In the comments section, an author named Steven Spruill took issue with my opinion of the novel, suggesting in no uncertain terms that my lack of enjoyment of the novel was due to my inexperience with the written form, and that Professional Authors such as himself knew better about its quality. A lively discussion ensued from there.

(It should be noted that the actual author of the novel, Ray Garton, has not involved himself in the discussion, presumably being far too classy to get into a dust-up with every person who gives his books a bad review. One rule I've learned, over a decade or so of reading and writing in a medium that allows fans and creators an unprecedented opportunity to interact, is that it is never a good idea to respond to a bad review in any way other than saying, "Thanks for your feedback." You will not convince people that your book is better than the reviewer says it is, but you will convince them that you are petty, small-minded, and unpleasant.)

(And for the record, no, this is not my opinion of Steven Spruill. I think he's possibly being a bit overzealous in defense of his friend, and his attempts to throw his weight around as a Professional Author are faintly pathetic, but I don't think he's a bad person or anything. He just has a few lessons to learn about how far your reputation will take you in Internet discussions, and I think he's learning them now.)

But one thing he said did have weight, and I wanted to address it here. He pointed out that it was unfair of me to call Ray Garton an "inept" author, based solely on a single novel out of the sixty-plus that Garton has had published. In this, at least, he is absolutely right; it is unfair to judge Garton's talent on the basis of one novel. The only answer I can give is: Life isn't fair.

I don't mean that in a trite, dismissive way; I mean it in the sense that the reader of a story is not in any way obligated to the author of a story. In fact, it's the exact opposite; the author is asking for the reader's time and (frequently) money, and is obligated to the reader to provide an experience that is worth that time and money. Authors don't get to put a little note in the front of the book that says, "Look, this one is actually an old manuscript of mine that the publisher dusted off once I got famous, but it's really not my best work, so don't expect too much out of it." They don't get to sit down and tell the reader before he/she starts reading, "Oh, this one? Man, I totally locked up on the last forty pages. But deadline was already two weeks ago when I got to that point, and so I just pushed through and got something down on the page and called it good. Really sorry, but it's going to disappoint the hell out of you." They do not have the luxury of expecting the reader to give them a second chance--heck, they don't really have the luxury of expecting the reader to give them a first chance. Every opportunity to impress a reader is a precious gift, and should be treated as such.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Amazing Race Round-Up, 18-5

So when last we left Kent and Vyxsin, they were in last place with a second leg coming up and a missing passport. Could they find their passport? Could they make up the missing time on the second half of the double leg? And who would be penalized for breaking Race rules?

As it turned out, the answers were about as anticlimactic as you can get, at least for the first two questions. Kent and Vyxsin found their fanny pack and made it to the Pit Stop, only to find that they were still racing and that the next "task" involved going to a train station where the producers had arranged for some truly spectacular bunching. And I mean truly spectacular. Even Kent and Vyxsin didn't stand a chance of missing this one.

Don't get me wrong, I think that bunching (the practice of giving teams that are behind a chance to catch up by putting everyone on the same train, plane, bus, boat, et cetera; or arranging hours of operation for the location of the next task so that everyone has to wait for the place to open in order to start the task) is necessary sometimes. If you never bunched, you'd have a situation where the really good teams would wind up with an insurmountable lead by the sixth leg or so, to the point where Phil would have to sub-contract eliminations to a second host while he went on ahead to check in the leading teams. But a double-leg is supposed to be a continuation of the previous leg, an endurance test as well as a chance for teams that are behind to make up ground. Starting every double-leg with "go to the train station/airport and wait fifteen hours" turns something that should be difficult into a glorified non-elimination leg, with the added benefit that the last team doesn't get a Speed Bump. I'm actually pretty disappointed in the way this turned out.

That said, Kent and Vyxsin did earn a thirty-minute penalty for taking the wrong flight. (The rule used to be that your penalty was equal to the time saved by taking alternate means of transport. If that had happened here, Kent and Vyxsin would have jumped forward several places due to penalty.) The producers were at least maintaining the pretense of double-legs being challenging, so instead of serving it during the meaningless Pit Stop, they were informed that it would be waiting for them at the end of the next leg.

After an inconsequential-but-adorable sequence of the teams waiting for the train (they played three-on-three, with a Globetrotter on each team and Jaime and Cara acting as cheerleaders) they moved on to the next destination, all nine at once. They then had a second detour, which was a memory challenge on one side and a lift-and-haul-heavy-things-then-assemble-them challenge on the other side. Oh, and there was a Double U-Turn (also known as "the only fair U-Turn") waiting at the other end of this one.

Surprisingly, it wasn't much of a factor. Perhaps this was because several teams got spectacularly lost between the Detour and the Road Block (the two teams that got U-Turned actually wound up in sixth and seventh, ahead of Zev/Justin and Gary/Mallory--they tried to follow Ron/Christina instead of getting directions themselves, and their cab drivers turned out not to be that good at following.) Perhaps it was because the memory challenge didn't throw many teams; I was assuming we were going to see lots of slow, sad head shakes from the guy with the clues, but most teams seemed to get it fairly quickly.

The Road Block, on the other hand, was a major challenge. It involved assembling a giant 3-D dinosaur puzzle (actual dinosaur size, in fact) and all the teams were working at it when the last team arrived. Said last team was Gary/Mallory, who promptly assessed their odds and said "Screw it, we'd rather use the Express Pass than get eliminated." It was a wise idea; even skipping the Road Block, they still wound up in second. (This is a bad sign, actually; when Gary and Mallory got eliminated last time, it was due to major problems with navigation and not any issues with the tasks. If they got lost twice on this leg, it means they haven't gotten rid of that weakness, and they don't have another Express Pass to help them recover.)

In any event, the dinosaur assembly turned out to be harder than expected, mainly because they were all working off of one picture of the finished product and half the teams didn't do a good job checking their work. When it comes to lifesize puzzles made of very big chunks of heavy wood, the last thing you want to find out is that you put the hips on backwards. Lots of teams had problems, but in the end, it was Jaime and Cara whose problems turned out to be insurmountable. They reached the Pit Stop exhausted, grumpy (Jaime actually said that "things never go our way", which is a pretty impressive statement for a team that finished second in their first race and a respectable ninth in their next attempt) and, of course, last. They were Philiminated, meaning that I'll thankfully never have to see another Jaime-tantrum again.

Next week, India, where Luke seems to be having terrible difficulties with the Road Block. Which means, given my theory on Amazing Race trailers, that they are the one team safe from elimination next week. See you then!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Someday They'll Get the Cybermen Right, Right?

I'm still waiting for a really good Cybermen story on Doctor Who. (On TV, that is. "Spare Parts" got it right on audio, in ways that I'm about to explain.) Oh, sure, we've had lots of stories where the Cybermen show up, and even some where they do somewhat interesting things, but it says a lot that the coolest Cybermen story I can think of is mainly memorable for them getting their butts kicked by the Daleks.

The problem is that nobody really seems to understand what makes the Cybermen work, and I include their creators. The horror of the Cybermen isn't that they're tough, or that they have laser blasters, or that they have a cool catchphrase (which, apart from anything else, they don't. "DELETE!" sounds like the off-brand Dalek knock-offs.) The horror of the Cybermen is that what they do makes perfect sense. They want to convert every human being into a Cyberman because they genuinely know--not just believe, know--that it willl improve their existences, and they will never stop because they know they're right. The horror of the Cybermen isn't, "DELETE DELETE DELETE", it's "You will become like us."

But everyone writes them like big stompy villains who sneer and boast and preen and strut. For bad guys who aren't supposed to have emotions, they certainly seem to get upset a lot whenever anyone challenges their worldview. Instead, they should be calm, remorseless, and entirely certain in the rightness of their attitude. To the Cybermen, human beings are suffering from a mental illness that makes them irrationally attached...to irrationality, ironically enough. These poor people believe that their brain disorder somehow gives their life meaning, and need to be forced to undergo conversion for their own good. It's unfortunate that they can't understand how much better life is with a superior body and none of the distractions of emotion, but they will. Once they undergo the process, they'll understand just how much sense it makes. And then they'll help to convert others.

My idea for a Cybermen story involves a small group of Cybermen setting up shop on a space station, promising that they will not use violence or force, and simply asking people to volunteer for the process--convincing them, through the logic of their position. Yes, being a Cyberman means an end to joy, but it also means an end to fear, an end to rage, an end to misery and suffering and pain and sorrow and all the weaknesses of the flesh. There are some people who would gladly give up their flesh and blood if it just meant the pain would stop.

Their endgame plan, of course, would be to convert the unwilling by force once they had enough recruits. Because deception, while again unfortunate, is sometimes necessary when dealing with the irrational. It's like dealing with a madman, sometimes. But the Cybermen have a cure for that.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Amazing Race Round-Up, 18-4

I suspect this one must have been a difficult one for the editors; it's always tricky when one team gets way behind the others. Do you try to use clever editing techniques in order to make it seem like the lagging team is closer than they are, or do you just go ahead and acknowledge that there's not going to be much suspense in this episode and show how far behind they really are?

In the case of Kent and Vyxsin, the team that pretty much dominated this week's episode, the situation was complicated by some major bunching that kept them at least theoretically in the race long after what should have been sheer, unmitigated disaster. Driving a full three hours in the wrong direction and missing the flight that every single one of the other teams was on should have meant doom, full stop. (Especially since the subsequent flight wasn't for five hours. You do not want to spot everyone else a five-hour lead on the Amazing Race.) But when everyone else has to wait for an 8 AM bus, suddenly some of that lead gets eaten away, and it's worth focusing on the drama of whether or not running one of the worst legs in Race history is enough to get Kent and Vyxsin eliminated.

And it was a spectacular trainwreck of a leg. Vyxsin starts by insisting the theme for the day is "Positive Mental Attitude", then proceeds to get lost, sob into the map, scream at herself, stare into space, sob at the map some more, give up, lose her passport temporarily, and then berate herself a lot more while attempting the Road Block. Kent, meanwhile, has decided that the best way to deal with a partner who's having difficulties is to stare into space and wander around like an automaton, then say to her, "Well, I was just doing what you told me to do." (In case I haven't made it obvious yet, Kent's checking out was just as bad as Vyxsin's freaking out.) Oh, and then he loses his passport for good measure.

Next to all that, everyone else's mistakes seemed like amusing larks. Ron had his bizarre food cravings (I get that he's a fan of the local cuisine and doesn't get to eat Chinese food this authentic very often, but the man was actually stopping on the way to a Detour to smell the fish frying. I think if Christina had one of those toddler leashes for him, she'd have used it.) The Globetrotters didn't know what sign of the Chinese Zodiac they were (they've never gotten bored at a Chinese restaurant?) Mallory screamed, Jen admitted that there's really no way to feel good about yourself after calling a deaf guy a bitch, and the only racers who had any real trouble were Zev and Justin, and even they were way ahead of Kent and Vyxsin by the end.

(Assuming penalties don't come into play. Kent and Vyxsin might get a penalty for not taking the mandatory flight, although to me the penalty should be the five hours they had to wait for the next flight, and Justin might get a penalty for throwing one of his charms in the grass when he found out it was a duplicate, thus making it potentially harder for Vyxsin to find hers. Oh, and Ron and Christina might get a penalty for flinging themselves out of a moving trolley and throwing rocks at a bus to get it to stop instead of going back and taking the bus all the way like the clue said. No, really. They actually did that.)

And then, of course, we find out that the end isn't the end after all. Yes, for the first time in Race history, we get two double legs! (Which has led to some speculation that there will be no non-elimination legs, only double legs. That's a pretty big advantage to the teams at the back--no Speed Bumps!) Which means that Kent and Vyxsin are saved for another week. Even better for them, next week's leg includes a Double U-Turn (the only fair kind, in my opinion--being U-Turned is such a huge disadvantage that the only way to keep it from being "automatically eliminate one team" is to make it a double-team penalty)...and frankly, given how inept Kent and Vyxsin were this week, nobody's going to see them as enough of a threat to U-Turn.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Boiling It Down

The United States government collects money in the form of taxes, to "pay the Debts and provide for the common defence and general Welfare of the United States". That's a nice, vague, catch-all term, made deliberately vague by a group of men who wanted their government to be flexible enough to adapt to a number of future situations; the general point, though, is that there's a lot of United States, which means there's a lot of taxes and a lot of people who need their general welfare provided for...which means that there's a whole hell of a lot of money that the US collects and spends.

A small group of wealthy private citizens are bribing politicians (predominantly Republicans, although there are certainly a few guilty Democrats) to take a large chunk of that money and hand it over to those wealthy private citizens in the form of tax breaks, subsidies, and similar. The politicians then use the resultant budget deficit to justify cutting spending for the purposes that the money was originally collected for--in essence, looting the public treasury with both hands through the use of creative book-keeping. Those wealthy private citizens, in turn, skim off a chunk of the money that the Republicans have embezzled for them and pass it back to the politicians in the form of "campaign contributions", thus completing the circuit and starting the process again.

This is not fiscal responsibility. This is not austerity. This is not good governance. This is a small group of wealthy criminal masterminds who have figured out that if you make the laws, then what you're doing can't be considered illegal. The Republican party has been almost thoroughly co-opted by these crooks, and they are stealing from widows, orphans, the poor and the sick in order to get a cut of the loot. Don't listen to what they say--heck, don't listen to what I say, either. Follow the money, and look at where it goes and who it comes from. Because that's the only thing that really matters.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Amazing Race Round-Up, 18-3

Another week, another week of "The Amazing Race"! This time, we're off to Japan...well, eventually we are. The first half-hour of the show this week was really "The Amazing Hang Around Airports and Discuss Strategy". Not that I minded one hundred percent, because it was actually kind of interesting to see some of the strategizing involved in the Race. Basically, for those of you who missed it, the Racers had a choice of two different flights. One had a connecting flight in Hong Kong (not a tight connection, but a connection nonetheless) but got in at 6:00 AM local time. The other was direct, but didn't get in until 6:15. The question was, is it worth risking the complications of a connection for a fifteen-minute lead?

Long story short, no. It wasn't. The "leading" flight got seriously delayed, putting the five teams who tried to get ahead pretty seriously behind for the entire Tokyo leg. Which was a shame, because some of my favorite teams were on that second flight, and I spent a lot of the back half of the episode twitching. (Except for the time I spotted Zev's "Duck Whisperer" T-shirt, which was just pure awesome.) (It's a reference to their first time on the Race, when they had to herd ducks. If I ever go on the Race, I am wearing nothing but obscure geek reference T-shirts. "I'm Bill Pardy" for the million, baby!)

The next big chunk of the episode was, "Who can drive around Japan best?" This was not Jaime and Cara, who actually took the sideview mirror off a local's car. This was not the best team to be involved in a minor traffic fracas, given that the first time she was on the Race, Jaime expressed her frequent anger at people who had the nerve to speak only the language of the country they lived in. So getting into a car accident, even the most minor one, with someone who spoke no English and wouldn't just accept a wad of bills from a strange woman. (Not even one who said, in sing-song, loud, slowly spoken English, "Maybe if we give you some mon-ey?") Oh, this also featured one of the two...interesting editing choices of the episode. Jaime is explaining that they have to stop, "because..." and it cuts ahead to her already out of the car. Now, I'm assuming that they were editing out some sort of technical explanation of the rules on how Racers interact with local laws, but why keep the "because" then? Oh, well.

Finally, we do get to the Road Block, which is one of the "do as I do" variety. Racers performed a little samurai kata, then fired a bow at a target from a very short distance. (While being spun, admittedly, but still a very short distance. If anyone missed, they didn't show it.) They did show lots of people failing the kata, though. Repeatedly. This provided much of the excitement of the episode, giving many teams a big chance to catch back up.

Then they drove to the Detour, a choice between another "do as I do" task (this one involved performing a purity ritual under a freezing waterfall) and a "needle in a haystack" task, which involved rooting around in mud for a small ceramic frog, while being pelted with more mud by locals. Surprisingly, only two teams opted for the freezing waterfall. Yes, I understand, I wouldn't want to have to stand under a waterfall for a full minute in 45-degree water, shouting strange Japanese phrases either. But you know what? There's a little rule I have about the Amazing Race, which is, "If you can do something that's not a 'needle in a haystack' task, don't do the 'needle in a haystack' task." Because sure, you can find the frog quickly and be out of there in five minutes...but you can also spend two, three, four hours rooting around in cold mud until you get hypothermia and have to stop, and then another team passes you by and gets the frog. Hypothetically speaking.

Still, since just about everyone did the frog task, it wasn't such a big deal. Zev and Justin took first, the Globetrotters would have taken third but for an after-the-fact penalty involving them accidentally taking another racer's stuff...which resulted in the second interesting editing choice. See, when the Globetrotters checked in, the Race judges didn't know they'd done it. So they didn't have to wait out a penalty, as rule-breakers usually do. Instead, Ron and Christina showed up at the Pit Stop complaining about the Globetrotters, and Phil announced that he would give them a half-hour penalty as a result, putting Ron and Christina into third. Or, at least, he seemed to...but we don't see his face while he's making this announcement, and Ron and Christina are distinctly unmoved by their good fortune. Almost as if he actually told them he'd look into it, and the decision to penalize them was made afterwards and dubbed in. Could it be?

In the end, it's Mike and Mel who get the hypothermia instead of the frog, and Jaime and Cara who slip by them to avoid elimination. I'm sad, because Mike and Mel are genuinely class acts (and Phil clearly agrees...he doesn't choose favorites, but you can usually tell from his body language who he's having fun talking to and who makes his job more of a job than usual)...but on the other hand, I did not expect Mel to get far at seventy. The Race is intensely physical, and even a fit, athletic seventy-year-old is going to have trouble with that.

So now we're at nine. Next week, China, and what promises to be an epic tantrum from Ron!

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Probably Unfair CNN Post

As I mentioned on mightygodking, I've been watching a lot of CNN at work lately. (While working--it's not like I just sneak off to the breakroom and veg out all day.) They've been covering the Libya situation, and while I can appreciate that there's a case to be made for intervention, I gotta say, it really does seem like CNN is pushing like hell for the USA to go to war ASAP.

Which makes a certain amount of sense. Let's face it, CNN made its rep off of Desert Storm, and they're probably best known for their determined, courageous war reporting. To CNN, a war might mean dead soldiers, tragedy, and the failure of everything fine and noble about the human spirit, but it also means ratings, Emmys, and the very real possibility that one of their reporters will become a sex symbol as he bravely reports from inside Tripoli as the bombs fall. And that's a trade I feel like CNN will take any day.

I'm willing to admit that I could be wrong, but when you hear their tones of voice as they talk about "establishing a no-fly zone", or "arming the Libyan rebels"...they almost sound eager. It's a little creepy, especially for an outfit that prides itself on its non-partisan, non-agenda'd reporting. Democrat, Republican, the important thing at CNN seems to be, "So when are you going to start the shootin' match?"

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Amazing Race Round-Up, 18-2

Sorry for the lack of a Thursday post, but I got sick with a fast-moving virus Thursday morning which I'm just now recovering from. While I was too sick to write, move, or do much beyond sit on the couch and play "Plants Vs. Zombies" (my Tree of Wisdom is almost 600 feet tall!) I decided I'd devote the Monday post to the current season of "The Amazing Race" while it's in season, because a) I like the show and like talking about it, b) it means I have to only think of one vaguely clever thing a week, and c) why not? (Those of you offering up, "Because I don't care about 'The Amazing Race'" as an answer to c) can be comforted with the knowledge that there will still be one post a week that is not Race-related.) The post will be a mix of recap, discussion, and snark, blended according to mood.

I discussed the first episode on Mightygodking last week, and it left off with a big cliffhanger: The teams checked in at the Pit Stop had already discovered that they were on a double-leg, so they had to keep racing with no chance to rest! And Jet and Cord, the only team who hadn't yet made it to the Pit Stop, were falling further and further behind as the Road Block continued to stump them!

And this episode, we see that the next challenge...was to find the place to sign up for the charter flight that left the next morning. I have to say, I was really disappointed, and not just because I'm rooting against Jet and Cord because they're homophobic idjits. After a first episode that established quite well that this Race was going to be tougher and more grueling than usual, due to all the seasoned Racers, bunching them all up again essentially turned the double-leg into a non-elimination leg, rescuing Jet and Cord from a spectacular foul-up without even the penalty of a Speed Bump.

The Detour did somewhat make up for it, though, being a well-designed choice between a fiddly detail-oriented task that would take a while and reward staying calm under pressure...and something that sounded kind of icky, and could be tricky, but could also be completed very quickly for those willing to try it. (Which was exactly one team, and them only because they had to. But hey.) Pretty much everything we'd already seen of these teams was on display again; Ron and Christina bickered non-stop, Flight Time and Big Easy took everything in good humor, Jaime and Cara got frustrated easily with people who weren't helpful even though said people weren't there to be helpful to begin with, et cetera et cetera.

After the Detour, we had a very good navigation task--I like that the destination was expressed in the form of highlighting elements on the Periodic Table and forcing the Racers to figure it out. Of course, nowadays that just means stopping a passerby and asking to borrow their smartphone for a moment, but let's face it, that's the world these days. It's just about impossible to keep the Racers away from the Internet, and honestly, I'm not sure it's such a bad thing. Without the Internet and sympathetic passers-by, about half the teams would wind up standing around for hours, arguing about whether or not Hg stood for Hydrogen. Which yes, does separate the men and women from the boys and girls, but makes for boring television.

Oh, and they all had to find the intersection while wearing kangaroo costumes. Probably didn't make it that much more challenging, but a lot more amusing.

Then it was just a race to the Pit Stop, and despite my hopes that we'd see a swift exit for Ron and Christina (well, Ron, at least; Christina could stay, but Ron was being rude not just to his own daughter but to Mallory to boot) ...it was Amanda and Kris who made the exit. So basically the U-Turn again proves to be fatal, which is why they should use the Double-U-Turn from last season instead. As it is, the presence of a U-Turn almost removes all the suspense from an episode.

On the one hand, it's a bummer that Perfectly Nice Couple Amanda and Kris went home while there are at least four teams (Jet and Cord, Ron and Christina, Kisha and Jen, Jaime and Cara) that I'm actively rooting against. On the other hand, I can at least take some comfort that none of the teams I'm actively rooting for (Margie and Luke, Flight Time and Big Easy, Kent and Vyxsin, Mel and Mike) went out, especially given that Mel still looks like he's about to collapse in a heap at any second.

Next week, Jaime and Cara appear to run someone over. Presumably, Jaime will get out of the car and berate them for slowing her down. And then berate them again for not screaming in English.