Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

I live on a farm, and a lot of my spare time is spent simply maintaining the property. When we moved out there so many years ago, I had grand plans for all of the land: an orchard over here, a hedge maze over there, and wonderful garden near the kitchen.

Then reality set in and it’s all I can do to keep the place from getting overrun with weeds. Luckily, nature gives me a bit of a respite with winter, but now that it is over I can look forward to the majority of my weekends being taken up outside. Not that I really mind, to be honest, but it doesn’t leave a tremendous amount of time for other pursuits I love, such as reading.

Last weekend was an exception. I decided to spend it reading (and watching NCAA basketball, but that’s church) and managed to read two really good novels.

One, The Fifth Season I have already reviewed, which was loaned to me by Ben. The second was The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi.

I picked this book up last week at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill where Scalzi was appearing on a book tour promoting the novel. If you bought a copy there you could get it signed, so I went, along with Ben and his bride Cynthia.

If you get a chance to see Scalzi speak, I highly recommend it (here is a link to his tour dates). He does a really good job and I found the hour entertaining. He moved the talk along without ignoring the audience, which was loaded with your usual assortment of Sci-Fi nerds and people who just love books (for example, a group of us. some strangers, played the mobile version of Exploding Kittens on our phones while waiting for the talk to begin).

Afterward, we lined up for a few minutes with the man himself. Ben and Cynthia are “Sea Monkeys”, otherwise known as people who take the annual JoCo Cruise, and they had seen Scalzi speak a month ago on the boat. They were ahead of me in the signing line and bonded a bit with Scalzi over that shared experience.

Everyone who knows me knows I love to talk, especially with interesting people, but I knew I wouldn’t have much time with him. I did want to talk about something cool, and I brought up a memory triggered by his talk.

He didn’t read from The Collapsing Empire, instead he talked about the upcoming book in his Lock In series. In that universe, 1% of the world’s population suffers from a condition known as “Lock In” when they are fully awake yet fully paralyzed (similar to the end-stage effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease and other causes of Locked-in Syndrome). Technology comes to the rescue allowing those who suffer from this condition to pilot and interact through android bodies, called “Threeps” after the character C-3PO.

I got to thinking about what it would be like to interact with one or more people in such a body, and it reminded me of an incident that happened with our telepresence robot at the office. We have a device made by Double Robotics that you can think of as an iPad on a Segway. People can connect to it and drive it around. At my office we have a number of people who work remotely, some in other countries, so we got this robot to make it easier for them to feel part of the team.

One time I knew that Ronny, who lives in Germany, was on the robot talking to Jessica (our graphic designer) in her office about a new web site design. Even though I communicate with him often via instant messenger or a Hangout, when I realized I needed to ask him a question I unconsciously got up, left my office and went to talk with him in her office. It only struck me how odd that was after I returned to my desk and noticed my chat window. Thus, I think it would be very easy for such androids to assimilate into our culture without some sort of Future Shock.

We chatted about this for a minute, and then I offered my hand for a handshake. I immediately felt foolish, because I know a number of people who interact with lots of strangers tend to shy away from contact, but he shook my hand without hesitation. I did notice him grab the Purell right afterward and had to laugh. I like to think I’m on the high end of the geek hygiene scale but having suffered for nearly two months with some crud I picked up in Brussels at FOSDEM, I totally understood.

Anyway, back to the book. I always like to stress that I am not a professional book reviewer (I write these more to capture my own thoughts than for general consumption) and I try to stay away from spoilers. This is easier with a book I like, like this one, so minimal spoilers ahead but if you are sensitive to such things don’t continue on. If you want better reviews, check out Goodreads.

The Collapsing Empire Cover

The first thing I noticed about the novel is that it felt slim. At 329 pages it was a lot smaller than the last two speculative fiction (SF) novels I read (The Fifth Season at 512 pages and Babylon’s Ashes at 544 pages). But then Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a scant 181 pages. Scalzi even addressed this on his blog, and from my own experience it read like a novel so no complaints there.

For some reason SF stories tend to span multiple volumes. Since I fully understand the author’s need to eat I know why they are released over time, but it can be frustrating for the fan. Some of my favorite authors are also notoriously slow writers. In some cases it doesn’t matter. For example, Neal Stephenson puts out huge books but for the most part they stand alone (the Baroque Cycle being the exception). I know as a reader that once I get to the end of it there will be some sense of closure. Other authors tell epic stories that don’t end with that last page, and it can be a bit frustrating waiting for the next part of the tale. Now I’m not one of those fans who are all “Write me a book, bitch,” it is art after all and art doesn’t follow schedules or deadlines, but I understand the sentiment.

My point (and yes, there is a point here) is that I really don’t care about the length of a book as long as the story is solid, and I don’t care if it spans multiple volumes as long as those come out on a regular basis. The two authors I mentioned above, Jemisin and Corey, are pretty good about releasing a new book once a year, and that once every one or two years works for me. I read so much that if it goes on much past that I end up having to re-read the original books, and quite often I don’t have the time.

Scalzi is pretty good about his output, although he did mention in the “Acknowledgments” that he was frustrated by the time it took to finish The Collapsing Empire.

Yes, there is a book review in here somewhere. I’m getting to it.

The Collapsing Empire takes place several centuries in the future of the Earth, and humankind has spread out to other star systems. One thing that all SF writers who include interstellar travel have to deal with is that pesky issue of the speed of light.

In our current understanding of the universe, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. As one approaches the speed of light, time, length and momentum change by an amount called the Lorentz factor, often represented by the variable gamma. Here is an equation for gamma:

Lorentz Factor Gamma Equation

Note that it looks kind of scary, but it becomes much easier if you represent velocity, v, as a percentage of the speed of light.

For example, at one-tenth the speed of light, 0.10c or roughly 30,000 km/s, the denominator becomes the square root of (1 – 0.01) or 0.99499 which divided into one results in a gamma of 1.005. This means that at one-tenth the speed of light, time will appear to be half a percent slower, length will appear half a percent shorter and momentum will be half a percent greater.

Just to note that one of the fastest things I know about, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, is only moving about 17 km/sec, and if you plug that into the gamma equation the difference is negligible. This is why Newtonian physics gets the job done in most situations.

As you get closer to the speed of light, gamma gets larger. At 0.9c gamma is 2.29 and at 0.999c it’s 22.4. At the speed of light the denominator becomes 0 so gamma becomes infinite. This demonstrates why faster than light travel is not possible. With a Lorentz factor of near infinity it would take an infinite amount of energy to go faster.

Note that the speed of light is a limit with the caveat “for now”. The light speed limitation applies to everything, including information, but there is some evidence that it may be possible to send information faster than the speed of light.

Anyway, since the nearest star to Earth, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, is 4.25 light years away, interstellar travel is problematic. Let’s say the bad guy in the story hops in his starship, cranks it up to a whopping one-tenth the speed of light, and heads out for the nearest star. The plot would have to pick up with his offspring something like 40 years into the future, assuming they survive. Not very exciting.

So it is up to SF authors to come up with some way around this speed limit. In Star Trek it was “warp speed” and in Star Wars it was “hyperspace”. In the past Scalzi came up with a rather unique way of addressing this by using multiple universes. In quantum theory, at microscopic levels it becomes impossible to know the exact location and the exact momentum of a particle at the same time. Thus the particle’s state is defined by a series of possibilities, describe by something called a “wave function”. When a measurement is made, the wave function is said to collapse into one of the possible states. One interpretation of this is that there are actually an infinite number of universes, real close to one another and representing all possibilities, and when the wave function collapses it is our consciousness, through the measurement, deciding in which one it wants to be.

Pretty heady stuff.

In Scalzi’s system, the way to travel to another star is to simply pick the alternative universe that is the same in every way as the one you are in, with the exception that you are there and not here.

While it is dangerous to apply quantum theory to macroscopic things, such as a cat, I thought Scalzi’s use of it was pretty original and cool.

With that prologue (sigh) let’s get back to The Collapsing Empire. In this universe Scalzi invents a new method for faster than light travel. Humans have discovered a part of the physical world called “The Flow”. It is, to paraphrase Ted Stevens, quite literally a series of (one way) tubes. While the physics of The Flow is pretty abstract (and not really relevant to the story), ships are able to enter a particular Flow at an entry point called a Shoal. Then, after some amount of time, they will exit the Flow at some distant location. This has enabled humans to colonize a number of star systems, although for the most part the places they live are underground in constructed habitats, as Earth-like worlds are hard to come by.

The main seat of civilization is one such habitat called The Hub, because it is located near a large number of entry and exit points to various Flows. Travel within a flow is not instantaneous, and the farthest system, End, is over nine months of Flow travel away from Hub.

The actual physics of The Flow is unimportant because this story is much more about plotting and intrigue than space travel. With all of these far-flung outposts of humanity, society had to be structured in such a way that they didn’t go to war with each other. The solution chosen was called the Interdependency. Resources were parceled out under control of guilds, which in turn were controlled by dynastic houses. Guilds received a monopoly on various products, and since these were scattered out among the various habitats it required them to work together in order to survive. One such house, the House of Wu, was powerful enough to install an emperor, called in the book by the gender-neutral term emperox, who stands at the top of society’s hierarchy.

The book takes place when two big events are happening to the Interdependency. One is that the emperox is dying, and we pick up with the first days of the new emperox. The second is that The Flow, which was considered stable, is now entering a time of great flux. In a very short period of time these “tubes” between various outposts of humanity are going to close forever, and thus the Interdependency is about to collapse. In fact, the Flow to (and I assume, from) Earth disappeared centuries earlier, as did one to another settlement, but those were considered outliers to The Flow’s innate stability.

Against this backdrop we get a healthy dose of court politics and backstabbing. Certain parties have more accurate information than others, and since these changes to The Flow mean, basically, the Interdependency is finished, people are angling to be in the best position when it goes away. As usual in such situations, some people are more concerned for their own well-being than those of society as a whole. It is a lot of fun to uncover the various plots and to see just how far people are willing to go to achieve their ambitions.

One of the coolest things he introduces is a perk of being an emperox. An interface is inserted into your neck which then records everything you think and experience. When you die this information is added to the “Memory Room” where the next emperox can come in and talk to those who held the position in the past. Scalzi makes use of this throughout the story, but what I liked about it is that the constructs of those who were emperox in the past are without ego, so they talk without any filters. I think it would be so interesting to be able to talk with certain people who lived in the past and get access to their unvarnished thoughts.

All of this is done in the prose for which Scalzi is known. I had to look up some new words, such as “squicked”, and toward the end he refers to one house as the House of Jemisin, which is an obvious nod to the author N.K. Jemisin.

It was a fun read, and I really look forward to the rest of the series. It looks like his next book, Head On will continue the story started in Lock In so I guess we can expect the next one in this series, The Last Emperox in late 2018 or early 2019. Despite that, I wouldn’t wait to read The Collapsing Empire, as it is really good on its own.

Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

Over the weekend I read the excellent The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. I always feel the need to justify negative reviews with examples, but since I liked it expect this review to be light on spoilers. However, if you are sensitive to such things, read the book and then come back. As usual, this post will be meandering and contain a lot of digressions, so you might want to just go check out Goodreads.

The Fifth Season Cover

This book won the best novel Hugo Award last year. I have a strange relationship with the Hugos, brought on mainly through my acquaintance with Ursula Vernon.

I live outside of the small town of Pittsboro, North Carolina. It is rare that we have any sort of celebrity here (well, unless I bring them) and outside of a brief handshake with Al Roker, it’s not often I’ve met anyone even quasi-famous.

Through my work with open source software, I met a man named Kevin and eventually I was introduced to his partner, Ursula. She had written a number of things, most notably a web comic called “Digger”. Digger is a wombat who has, shall we say, adventures. Wonderful adventures. It’s delightful and was successful enough to be turned into books.

In 2012 those books were nominated for a Hugo. This is a Big Thing™ especially for someone I actually know.

So, me being me, I set out to find out how I could vote in the Hugo awards. I figured someone has to, so why can’t I?

The awards are given out by the World Science Fiction Society at the annual WorldCon convention. In 2012 you could become a supporting member for $50, and that let you nominate and vote for works in the various award categories. Not only that, but it also included digital copies of all of the nominated works (which are a lot). It was definitely worth it.

I joined specifically to vote for Ursula, but, me being me, I felt I couldn’t vote on the other categories unless I was familiar with the nominees, so familiar I became. I read everything they allowed me to, including all of the novels.

Of course, the hands down winner for best novel of 2012 was Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (now a television series on the SyFy network). Of course, it didn’t win.

The winning novel, Among Others by Jo Walton, was good, but I felt that it pandered a little too much to the nostalgia of speculative fiction. Ironically, I was reminded of the film Hugo which was in part about the history of film making, much as Among Others reflected on the golden age of science fiction and fantasy. I saw this as a bias in the process, although understandable and not like one that would soon grow into a controversy on its own right.

Ursula Vernon at the Hugos

Even though my preferred novel didn’t win, Ursula did (and she was up against some strong competition). Read about it in her own words. I love this picture of her on stage, she’s on the left with Neil Gaiman on the right. She has since won a Nebula for her short story “Jackalope Wives”, and I’m trying to angle an invitation to “Kevin and Ursula Eat Cheap” where they eat weird things and drink a lot. When I do, I plan to drink and then fondle both awards.

Anyway, what does this have to do with The Fifth Season? Well, it won the Hugo which means it was probably pretty good, but it made me wonder, did it “win win” or just “win”?

Of the other nominated works, I had only read Seveneves which I reviewed here. I’ve read the first of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series and quite liked it, but I haven’t read Ancillary Mercy. The other nominated author I’m familiar with is Jim Butcher, and while I haven’t read The Aeronaut’s Windlass I love his other work so I’d probably like this as well (I just realized how behind I’ve gotten on my reading).

When Ben loaned me The Fifth Season and I saw “Hugo Winner” right on the cover, I was a little skeptical. I knew it had to be good, rarely have I found a Hugo nominated work I didn’t like, but I wondered how much was talent and how much was hype?

After reading it, I’m convinced it is talent. While it is hard to compare a book like this, which is heavy on character development and interaction, with a saga like Seveneves, which is set in space and is heavy on technology and science, I think she earned the honor.

The story takes place on Earth (or a planet very Earth-like) several millennia in the future. All of the continents have come together in sort of a “Pangaea” and a number of civilizations have come and gone, including the one we live in now. While a number of “deadciv” artifacts are still about, including some orbiting obelisks, the current level of technology seems to be stuck around the Middle Ages, with a few modern conveniences thrown in for the rich. The land is called the “Stillness” which is ironic, since the world is constantly subject to various tectonic issues. Every few hundred years something happens, usually a huge volcanic eruption, that creates a “Season” (or a fifth season in addition to the usual four). The resulting earthquakes and ash radically disrupt the normal flow of things, which causes hardships for the people living in the Stillness.

To prepare for this, society has organized itself into “comms” or communities. These are groups of people who have banded together to guard against a potential Season. Most people are identified by three names: their given name, their use-caste, and their comm. For example, a politician would be in the Leadership use-caste, so someone like North Carolina governor Roy Cooper might be known as Roy Leadership Carolina, or some such. There are twenty such use names, with the most common being things like Strongback, Resistant, and Innovator.

Now this wouldn’t be a fantasy novel without a fantasy element. In this case certain humans, called orogenes, have a magical affinity for the Earth. They can use this power to still possible quakes and tremors, and trained orogenes can further manipulate matter in very magical ways.

And that’s the problem. Untrained orogenes can actually cause a lot of damage. In deference to a number of magical systems (the one that comes to mind is the “sympathy” of Patrick Rothfuss) the energy to do those manipulations has to come from somewhere, and in some cases it can be from surrounding human beings. As you can imagine, removing energy from your body, mainly in the form of heat, is not a healthy idea. Mistakes get made and people die.

This causes a lot of superstition and suspicion. In fact, most of the non-orogene “stills” refer to them by the derogatory term “rogga” which is similar to “nigger” in our society.

To help deal with this, the rulers of this society have created a place called “The Fulcrum” where orogenes can be trained to use their powers. New recruits, almost always children, are called “grits” and as they master their abilities they can gain rings (from one to ten corresponding to each finger). The more rings you have earned the higher your status in orogene society. Since those orogenes with many rings can be quite powerful, and even grits can kill, they are watched over by “Guardians” who have the ability to block the orogenes’ power with a power of their own.

Against this backdrop, Jemisin weaves three story lines that ultimately come together. In one she uses the second person, thus “you” do certain things. I’ve read a number of novels written in the second person, such as Bright Lights, Big City, and while I like the device it almost always becomes tedious. Jemisin avoids this by only using it for part of the book.

And that is one of the reasons I think this book earned the Hugo. There are a number of great storytellers out there, but few can use things like second person and multiple story lines and still keep the attention of the reader. I strongly recommend any fan of speculative fiction check it out. I’m very eager to read the next one in the series, The Obelisk Gate once Ben is finished with it. (grin)

Pokémon Go From an Ingress Perspective

This weekend I managed to “catch” my 143rd unique pokémon in the game Pokémon Go. Currently it is possible to catch 145 different pokémon, but four of them are regional and I’ve only been to two of the regions. This means that I have caught all of the ones it has been possible for me to catch.

Pokédex with 143 Caught

As a player of Niantic’s other game, Ingress, I thought I’d write up a review of Pokémon Go but from the perspective of an Ingress player.

I’ve written about Ingress before so I won’t go into detail, but the easiest way to sum it up is that it is a geo-location “capture the flag” game played on mobile devices. Players are on either the green “Enlightened” team or the blue “Resistance” team and the object is to physically move from place to place to visit locations called “portals”. Using items found in-game, players can control the portals for their team and points are scored for the amount of control a given team has over the playing field, which happens to be the planet Earth.

It can get quite addictive, so when Pokémon Go came out I had decided to pass, as the last thing I needed was another time sink like Ingress. However, Andrea started playing so I did as well. There are many different aspects to the game, but the part I liked was trying to catch all of the different types of pokémon. My OCD kicked in and I was determined to do it even though the game became kind of boring, and now that I’ve done it (well, to my satisfaction) I don’t really have the desire to play it much more.

Pokémon Go shares a lot with Ingress. For example, both require you to move around to different locations, and the locations in Pokémon Go happen to correspond to the portal locations in Ingress. But they differ in a lot of important ways.

Pokémon Go Splash Screen

Pokémon Go is a joint venture between Niantic Labs and The Pokémon Company, although I think the opening splash screen can be misleading since it looks like Niantic is The Pokémon Company. When I first heard about the game, the partnership made sense, since Pokémon has this huge legacy and backstory that fits well with Niantic’s tech.

Pokédex

In a nutshell, the goal of Pokémon Go is to catch “pokémon”, or little monsters. You do this by finding them in the “real world” by walking around and they will then appear in the application. You then throw a “Poké Ball” at them, and if you aim well, you have a chance to trap the pokémon in the ball and they get added to your collection. Catching a unique pokémon will add an entry into your “Pokédex” and one of the goals is to catch one of every type. Various actions let you earn “experience points” (XP) and the more experience you have, the more powerful the ‘mon you encounter and the more items you can use (both you and your ‘mon have levels, and you can’t have a ‘mon higher than you).

You don’t have unlimited Poké Balls. They, along with other in-game items, have to be acquired by visiting a “Pokéstop”. When you are near enough to a Pokéstop location, you can “spin” it (in the app you do this by swiping your finger across the screen) and you will receive things. You get Poké Balls (of different types depending on your level) as well as potions that can help heal your ‘mon after combat (more on that later). You can also receive an egg. When an egg is placed into an incubator, it will hatch after you walk a certain distance (2km, 5km or 10km depending on the type of egg) and produce a pokémon.

One of the things Niantic did right with the game is monetize it from the start. You don’t have to walk and spin to get Poké Balls, you can buy them. While you get one unlimited incubator when you start, you can either earn or buy more (although the ones you buy are limited to three uses). You can also increase the limits on your inventory (number of items) or your bag (number of pokémon). There are a number of other items you can obtain, such as “lures” which can be applied to a Pokéstop to attract more ‘mon, or a “lucky egg” that will double your XP for 30 minutes. This allows Niantic to generate, even now, millions of dollars a day.

[On a side note, if I were serious about trying to level in the game I would simply buy lucky eggs. If you buy 14,500 pokécoins for $99.99, that’s 0.69 cents a coin. You can then use 1250 coins to buy 25 lucky eggs, or roughly 34 cents an egg. Since each is good for 30 minutes, if you decided to play 4 hours a day it would cost you $2.76 to double your XP].

You don’t have to give Niantic money, however. Another aspect of the game are “gyms” where you can battle and train your ‘mon against others. Gyms, like Pokéstops, exist at certain locations. In much the same way you “capture” a portal in Ingress, you can deploy a ‘mon on an empty gym. Once every 21 hours you can collect ten “coins” for each ‘mon you have on a gym.

In order to “train” your pokémon, you have to choose a team. Unlike the two in Ingress there are three in Pokémon Go: red (Valor), blue (Mystic) and yellow (Instinct). If a gym is claimed by a team, three ‘mon can immediately be added, but in order to add more (up to ten) you have to train on the gym, which means battle your ‘mon against the ‘mon already on the gym. If successful, you gain XP and the gym gains “prestige”. As it gains prestige, more ‘mon can be added. If the gym is owned by another team, you battle as before but this time you lower the gym’s prestige. When it hits zero the gym goes gray and can be claimed.

I want to point out that the best thing about Pokémon Go is that it is “nice”. You use “candy” to evolve and power up your ‘mon. Once you’ve captured one, it is yours unless you decide to trade it to the “Professor”. You can’t lose it in battle. In fact, your ‘mon is never “killed” in battle, it just falls asleep, and then you have to use an item called a “revive” to wake it up, sort of like smelling salts. While Ingress has an in-game communication system so that players can chat with each other, this is missing from Pokémon Go. This is both a curse and a blessing – comms in Ingress can get abusive – but the lack of such a system makes it very difficult to find other members of your team. Another good thing in Pokémon Go is that you can play pretty much anywhere. Pokémon will spawn away from a Pokéstop or gym, so you can play on your couch. With Ingress, unless you happen to live or work next to a portal, you are limited in what you can do without moving.

To reach the highest level in Ingress, Level 16, requires 40 million “action points” (AP). To reach the highest level in Pokémon Go, Level 40, you need 20 million XP. Thus Pokémon points are worth half of an Ingress point.

Pokémon Go Levels

But therein lies the problem. In Ingress I can go to certain areas and gain 80 thousand or so points in a few minutes. Note that this is rare but possible. With Pokémon Go it is just a grind. There isn’t a way to get a lot of points at once, so once you hit the higher levels it starts to get dull. I made it to Level 27 and pretty much decided to quit trying to level, but did hit Level 28 through casual play. As with most gaming systems, the points required to level start to increase exponentially and so progress begins to slow as you advance. It also gets real frustrating when you need a particular ‘mon and can’t find it. With Ingress I’m in control of my destiny – I need to make links, I can go make links. In Pokémon Go the last ‘mon I needed was the Charizard, which is the fully evolved form of the Charmander. The problem is that they are rare in the areas I play. I needed 100 candy but only had 50. Luckily, Niantic added the ability to choose a ‘mon as your “buddy” and earn candy by walking. I had to walk nearly 70km to get the candy I needed. Andrea is even worse off since the ‘mon she is missing is the Aerodactyl, which I got by hatching an egg but we’ve never seen it in the wild. You can’t evolve one so her only hope of getting it is to get lucky with a 10K egg or stumble across one in the wild.

Walked nearly 70km

Which brings me to the main reason I like Ingress better than Pokémon Go. Ingress, warts and all, is inherently a social game. Portals can be up to level 8, but it takes two players to make a portal higher than 5, three to make one higher than 6 and a total of eight players to make a Level 8 portal. Doing a lot of the fun things in the game requires cooperation and coordination, and nothing illustrates this more than the “anomaly” events Niantic holds to bring Ingress players together. For example, we spent last weekend in New Orleans with a group of our friends playing the game at one such anomaly. The actual game play happened over five hours or so on Saturday, but we had a lot of fun the whole weekend hanging out and creating memories.

By contrast, Pokémon Go seems lonelier. While I play with Andrea (more than one person can attack a gym at the same time) only once have we managed to meet another player on our team and we forgot to come up with a way to meet up with him again. When the game came out, I started talking to the young people who were all excited about it, and a week later most of them had stopped playing because it “wasn’t fun”. If it could be made more of a social game perhaps that would help keep people interested.

Another thing that isn’t fun and that affects both games is GPS “spoofing”. It is somewhat easy to fool the games into thinking you are somewhere that you are not. When Pokémon Go started we had an issue with players trespassing at our office. We have security cameras that caught them in the act, but now more often than not when our gym changes teams no one actually bothered to come by – they just sat at home and spoofed their GPS. For Pokémon Go this lets you catch ‘mon that you might not otherwise see and to control more gyms, but in Ingress it has become extremely frustrating as a player may spend days setting up a portal in a remote location just to have a player for the other team take it out with little effort. When I was trying to get candy for my Charizard I was walking around town a lot. I stopped into the Chinese restaurant to grab lunch and the guy behind the counter saw my handy and that I was playing Pokémon. I looked at his phone and saw the same app, although his map looked totally different than mine. Turns out he was “in” San Francisco.

I’m not sure how Niantic can fully address the problem. While you can report abuse, with the success of Pokémon Go they don’t have the staff to manage that game much less pay attention to Ingress.

A few final notes, while the Ingress app is pretty stable, the Pokémon Go app needs some help. I have to restart it a couple of times an hour when playing, which just adds to the frustration. Plus, they have made it harder and harder to find pokémon, and the latest update requires you to travel at a relatively slow speed (seems to be around 8mph) in order to do anything. May be fine in a large city, but it sucks in rural towns.

So I won’t miss Pokémon Go. Andrea seems convinced I’ll pick it up when they release more generations of pokémon but I don’t think that will entice me. I’ve actually scaled way back on my Ingress play as well, but I still look forward to seeing my friends again at anomalies.

Overall, if you grew up playing Pokémon you’ll probably continue to play Pokémon Go, but for most non-fans the novelty wears off really fast.

Review: Star Trek: Beyond

When J.J. Abrams took over the Star Trek franchise, the biggest complaint I heard is that he departed from canon by turning it into an action series. Well, fans should rejoice since he has helped return it to its roots where odd numbered movies suck. This was a steaming pile, and should remind people more of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier than the last two movies.

The main fault lies in the plot, which has more holes than a square parsec of Swiss cheese. When I dislike a movie I feel the need to explain why in detail, which will pretty much reveal the whole story, so if you hate spoilers or plan to see this dog then stop reading now.

Star Trek Poster

Okay, the movie starts out with a throwaway scene where Captain Kirk is trying to negotiate a peace treaty. He’s seen in an impressive chamber where threatening aliens sit above him in judgment, and when they decide he is there to trick them they attack. Turns out they are the size of terriers (ha ha) and James is beamed to safety.

As a peace offering, Kirk had brought part of an ancient weapon, which Spock returns to the ship’s archives. There is a weak attempt at character development as Kirk is thinking about taking a desk job and Spock returning to New Vulcan, but it really goes nowhere.

Speaking of nowhere, there is a new super space station called the Yorktown at the edge of known space near a scary nebula, and that is the next stop for the crew of the Enterprise. It’s a big, glittery ball in space housing millions of Federation citizens and you know from the moment you see it that it will be in peril by the third act. Oh, and Sulu is gay.

Soon after they dock a mysterious ship comes out of the nebula bearing an alien named Kalara. She tells a tale of how her ship was attacked near a planet in the center of the nebula, and of course the Enterprise is the only ship that is advanced enough to navigate through all the debris to reach it (well, outside of a ship under construction at Yorktown).

Within twenty minutes of screen time, the Enterprise goes to the planet where it is attacked and destroyed by Krall, the big bad in this movie. Can’t seem to have a Star Trek movie without blowing up the ship, can we?

One of the two cool things in this movie was his “fleet” which consists of a swarm of devices, some manned, which probably does reflect the future of warfare. There are also humanoid soldiers in motorcycle helmet armor that are never really explained. Turns out Krall is after the little trinket offered to the terrier people in the first scene, as it is part of a super weapon created by the extinct race that used to live on this planet, and Kalara was sent to lure the Enterprise to bring it to him.

Anyway, there is a big fight as the ship is crashing and Kirk gets the weapon away from Krall and hides it with an alien member of his crew. Then the rest of the crew gets scattered as most of them eject in life pods that are collected by Krall’s ships, with the exception of three: Kirk and Chekov, Spock and McCoy and Scotty.

Scotty is the first to run into Jaylah, a super model who has escaped Krall and now lives in an old starship called the USS Franklin that was lost hundreds of years ago but somehow ended up on this planet. She hides it with cloaking technology that makes it invisible. Pretty soon the gang’s all back together and they hatch a plan to rescue the remaining crew.

So, it turns out that Krall is Balthazar Edison, the captain of the Franklin. He was a soldier who got pissed off when the Federation was formed as a peaceful organization and not one bent on war. Got it? His ship crashed on the planet and he’s lived so long ’cause he found vampire technology that lets him suck out the life force of other living things, although it alters his appearance to sort of match the being on which he is feeding. Kalara and a man named Manas are the only three survivors of the ship, although Kalara is killed when she goes after Kirk and Chekov among the wreckage of the Enterprise, and Manas is presented as kind of the “heavy” (he killed Jaylah’s father) although he really isn’t developed as a character (surprise, surprise).

Anyway, Krall eventually gets the piece of the weapon he needs by threatening to feed on Sulu (turns out the crew member Kirk gave it to has an Alien face hugger on the back of her head in which she hid it) and when assembled it turns into a hand-held “swarm” producer that destroys living matter. The plan is to nip on over to the Yorktown, destroy all the people and use the technology of the base to wage war.

Got it?

So, where to begin. Krall says he’s been searching all over the galaxy for the weapon, but it isn’t apparent that he’s left the planet. Jaylah is hiding the Franklin from him, but wouldn’t he know it was there? Hard to forget the ship you used to captain. He also is a super hacker and has used his hundreds of years old credentials to tap into the Federation network (from inside a highly active nebula) where he can do things like read Kirk’s private captain’s log.

(sigh)

Oh, so once Krall decides to go off to destroy the Yorktown, our heroes manage to get the Franklin back into space and quickly (and safely) navigate back out through the nebula (that only the Enterprise could do in the beginning of the movie, remember?) in time to beat the swarm (by blasting the Beastie Boys “Sabotage” at the alien ships, of course) and save the day.

Oh, there are some fight scenes, Kirk gets to ride on a motorcycle, and once the whole thing is over that new ship under construction becomes the next Enterprise.

Sheesh, what a stinker.

I mentioned there were two cool things. The second was a brief appearance by Shohreh Aghdashloo as Commodore Paris, a high ranking member of the Federation command. There is no mistaking that voice, and her talents are better used in The Expanse series.

I’m sure the fan boys will find something to like about this movie, and some of the people I went with did just that, but while I don’t exactly lament the loss of two hours of my life, I won’t be watching it again.

Review: Sarah Jarosz at Hall River Ballroom

Once in a generation a voice comes along that is so pure that it goes in your ears, straight through your brain and to the bottom of your soul.

Sarah Jarosz is one such voice.

Sarah Jarosz Tickets

Several weeks ago I had the television tuned to our local PBS station, WUNC. They were showing episode 5 of the Transatlantic Sessions. We weren’t really paying attention, it was more like background noise, but then Sarah came on with her song “Annabelle Lee”. We just had to stop what we were doing and listen. Andrea was the first to comment on her voice.

I went out and bought her second album Follow Me Down which has that song and by the end of the day I owned everything of hers I could buy on-line. I also learned that her latest album Undercurrent would be coming out soon. In the process I saw that she was coming to perform locally at the Hall River Ballroom in Saxapahaw, NC, which is about 10 miles from the farm. A steal at $20 a ticket, we made plans to go.

I had never been to the Hall River Ballroom but I had heard good things. They were all true, but despite that I doubt I’ll go back. More on that in a rant later.

The show was sold out. There is a program on WUNC radio called “Back Porch Music” that focuses on American “roots” music. It has quite a following so my guess is that a lot of the people there learned about Jarosz and the concert from that show.

While crowded and hot, it wasn’t stifling, and I was pleasantly surprised at the acoustics in the Ballroom. They are excellent, and probably the best of any of the local music venues I’ve visited.

The opening act was Scott Miller.

Scott Miller

I had never heard of him before, but he did a good job of warming up the crowd. His music contained a lot of political commentary and I agreed with most of the sentiments. According to Wikipedia, he lives near Staunton, Virginia, which is really close to the farm of a friend of mine in nearby Stuarts Draft. It was pretty much just him and his guitar, and I need to find the time to check out more of his music.

Sarah Jarosz

Jarosz came on stage right at 9pm as part of a trio featuring Jedd Hughes on guitar (and backup vocals) and Jeff Picker on upright bass.

This band was tight.

The first pleasant surprise was that not only is Jarosz an amazing singer, she’s also an amazing musician. I saw her play five different instruments. Her main instrument was an octave mandolin, which looks like an eight string guitar, but she also played a standard mandolin, acoustic guitar, electric guitar and banjo. I was also very impressed with Hughes and Picker, especially since Hughes is a finger picker like me. I’ve never been able to flat pick since I can’t figure out how to “feel” the instrument to know where the pick is going, but with my fingers I know where the strings are supposed to be (although getting my fingers and the strings to get along is the challenge).

Speaking of playing guitar, I get teased by Andrea for the faces I make while playing, and Jarosz does it too when playing instrumental songs, although not as strangely as I do. I’m also teased for the time I spend tuning, so I had to laugh when she told a story about wishing that, on your deathbed, you get back all that time.

A lot of the songs were off her new album, which was to be expected, but she hit all of my favorites, including the aforementioned “Anabelle Lee” as well as “Run Away“.

I had been told that she was not going to do any covers, which was a shame since I started to fall in love with her music when she covered Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells“. It is one of my least favorite Dylan tunes, but in her hands it turns into something magical and uplifting. So the next pleasant surprise was that she did play it.

The set was long, about 90 minutes, and she managed a great flow which sometimes was just her and an instrument, or her and either Hughes or Picker, although for most of it they were a trio. There was a great little medley of Tim O’Brien instrumental songs with just bass and mandolin that really showed off their skills (Tim O’Brien tunes aren’t the easiest to play).

Toward the end of the show she mentioned they would be at the “merch booth” selling CDs and shirts, which reminded me of MC Frontalot’s song “Captains of Industry” (although if you click that link note that Front is a totally different genre of music). I had to fly out early the next morning so we didn’t stay around, but I do plan to buy any music the woman produces for the foreseeable future.

So, what went wrong?

It was the crowd, or namely a few specific members of the the crowd.

Seriously people, can we put away the phones for just a little bit? Okay, take a quick picture here and there, but damn it turn off the flash. When she came on stage it was like disco strobes had gone off. The flash ain’t gonna help.

[rant]

But my strongest bile was reserved for drunk guy standing in front of me. He thought it was cool to record entire songs, the problem being that when he’s holding up his phone it makes it hard for everyone else to see, especially since the glow from the handset in a dark room is insanely distracting. To paraphrase Louis CK: she’s right there dude, in Super HD! Live in the moment!

(sigh)

After one such recording he disappeared, only to return with another beer. By this time he’s weaving, so I have to weave too in order to keep a sight line to the stage. Then at the end of the song he shouted out a song title. Oh no! It’s Song Title Shouting Guy! I’m kind of glad that firearms were prohibited, or I might not be able to write this right now.

Luckily he saw some other guy who was by himself enjoying the show so he stumbled over to bother him for a change. Look, I know I’m old and maybe I’m too old for General Admission shows, but damn it I can’t handle the “mobile phones at shows” phenomenon. Back in the day we brought lighters (and, back in the day, some folks brought stuff to light) and that was about it. It’s one of the reasons I don’t go to movies much any more. Yeah, I know, you kids get off my lawn, but still, it ruined what could have been a perfect evening.

I don’t expect Jarosz to be playing places like the Hall River Ballroom in the future. When more people learn about her I think it will be too small, and I expect her career to match if not surpass people like Alison Krauss. But if she does I might just have to brave the mobile phone unwashed masses again, and perhaps they can swing by the farm afterward for some bourbon and branch.

Review: Kurios by Cirque du Soleil

I love Cirque du Soleil. I’ve seen more Cirque shows that I can accurately remember. This weekend I saw Kurios in Atlanta and it is my new favorite.

It is hard to beat Alegria, the first live Cirque performance I ever saw. Andrea and I were living in Santa Rosa, California, and we drove down to San Francisco to see the American premiere of the show. As we were sitting there, we were overcome with a sense of joy and wonder that we had not experienced since we were children, and we later identified the emotion as “delight”. It’s the delight of a young child on Christmas morning, and it comes all too rarely in our adult lives.

Now, I am not saying that Kurios is the best Cirque show ever created. First, I haven’t seen them all, and second, there are individual acts, like the Balance Goddess in Amaluna, that I liked more than any single act in Kurios, but the show taken as a whole was really, really strong.

I want to state that I am not a Cirque “fan boy”. I don’t see everything they produce nor do I think everything they do is golden. When a new show is announced we look at the description, and sometimes a show comes near to us that doesn’t seem that interesting. However, when I learned that this show was to be “steampunk” Cirque, I was in from the start.

It is hard for me to accurately define steampunk. According to Wikipedia it is a subgenre of science fiction, but outside of books it tends to reflect a sense of fascination and wonder often identified with the late Victorian era. It can appeal to certain people involved with technology since that world is becoming more and more virtual (you can almost live in virtual worlds accessed via your “phone” where you interact with your virtual friends and have virtual relationships) and in contrast steampunk is very physical. Before electricity became easily available, most motive energy was derived from steam, which resulted in a very mechanical aesthetic. Think clockwork gears, brass and struts, such as this steampunk keyboard.

Or, if you need another example, just check out the Kurios set:

The stage is circular, like most Cirque shows, although this one had a small raised area along the edge that would often host a number of odd devices and people that would travel along its track. In the back were two large clockwork towers, and as the show started the center stage was dominated by a large chair with various devices hanging off of it. Like the shows I’ve seen before, it would start off with various characters wandering through the audience. One was a mystical turbaned man with a large sphere sticking out of the turban. Various images were projected on the sphere and occasionally he would stop in front of an audience member, touch his temple and the images would change as if he was seeing the person’s future or dreams.

The first main character we are introduced to is the Seeker – a man with white, unkempt hair in a lab coat. He wandered around the set playing with the various devices, and he was assisted by a number of clockwork “kurios” would would help clean the lab, ride a bicycle to generate power, etc. Cirque shows usually start off this way to allow for stragglers to get to their seats. Another Cirque tradition is a clown in the role of Master of Ceremonies, this time played by Facundo Gimenez channeling a half-Italian, half-Spanish character who goes through the usual introduction involving exits, phones and the prohibition against photography.

The show kicks off properly by a parade by the band and the introduction of a whole group of characters, all in period dress. I liked the music in Kurios more than the last few performances I’ve seen and I loved how they integrated it into the show – in the main opening number the percussionists use a table, themselves and pretty much everything else as instruments.

We also get to meet the other main characters. There is Nico the Accordion Man whose clothing contains hundreds of folds that can make him look tall or short. Klara wears a metallic hoop skirt that acts as an antenna so that she can receive invisible signals. The most imposing character is Mr. Microcosmos, whose body is made up of a huge sphere that looks like a Bathysphere used for exploring the sea, although he also appears in the opening number as the front of a large train that expels many other members of the cast. It is out of this sphere that one of the best surprises of all pops out: Mini Lili is played by Antanina Satsura is 3.2 feet tall and weight 39 pounds. She is a perfectly proportioned little person who provides a counterpoint to the size of Mr. Microcosmos. At one point Mr. Microcosmos is on stage in a much larger device that opens up to reveal Mini Lili’s parlour, complete with wingback chair and chandelier, where she sits making a phone call.

What I loved about Kurios was this level of detail. They really carry the theme throughout the show. Outside of the Bathysphere, there are a lot of references to sea life. There is a contortion act done on the back of a huge mechanical hand where the performers wear these sea-life inspired costumes that work really well in the piece, and the second half opens with a trampoline aerial performance that also invokes the sea in the form of jumping fish. It didn’t take me long to find a scholarly reference that the Victorians were very much interested in things like sea life, as this was the first time that the technology existed to start exploring that part of our planet.

Which brings me to the only miss of the night: the invisible circus. A large round elevated stage is rolled out to the front and the clown played by Gimenez describes various acts being performed by “invisible” players, including a man riding a unicycle on a high wire, a lion taming act and even a high dive into a pool filled with three inches of water. Like a mechanical flea circus, you see various things move and even see the splash when the invisible diver lands, but I found the whole act strained and not funny.

I was so jaded by the bit that when Gimenez led a woman from the audience on stage for a mime performance I was ready for the same uncomfortable feeling. The act was him pretending to be on a date, and in the set up you understand he has both a bird and a cat as pets. He answers the “door” and leads her to a couch where he mimes some of the hesitation that can come from a first date. To alleviate this he goes off in search of drinks, but then reappears as the bird. The lady from the audience did a great job of playing along and I was starting to warm to the bit, when the bird is eaten by the cat (also played by Després) who then hops up on the couch to investigate the lady.

As a cat owner, what followed was one of the most talented and hilarious pantomimes of the behavior of a cat I’ve ever seen. I was crying I was laughing so hard. Thus, all is forgiven.

I’m not going to go through and describe all of the acts as a) I didn’t take notes and b) you can find it elsewhere, but what makes this my favorite show was how well it all integrated into the theme. It was like they took it to the next level. For example, most Cirque shows have a hand-balancing act. The performer comes out and slowly builds a tower on which they will do various feats of balancing. This one started out as a dinner party hosted by Klara and attended by some of the other characters, including the turbaned mystic from the beginning of the show. At one point he levitates a candelabra, but it won’t come down. So another guest starts stacking chairs to get high enough to retrieve it.

As the tower gets higher and higher, the lights go on in the catwalk above the stage where a duplicate dinner party is revealed, only this one is upside down. They too build a tower but this one heads down toward the stage. While the hand-balancing act was entertaining on its own, it was this extra level of theatricality that made me love this show.

My overall favorite act was one called Rola Bola. A man in a aviator’s costume comes out and does a balancing act on a small platform on top of a ball. Good, but I’d seen that before. Then he builds up a small stack of acrylic cylinders and boards, and he separates them with a smaller metallic cylinder on its side. Again, I had seen something like that before. It wasn’t until he added a second metallic cylinder, perpendicular to the first, that I started to think “wow”. Now there are at least two axes of motion, and when the whole thing was raised into the air I knew I was in for something special.

Not only did he balance on this contraption, he took of his jacket and contorted metal loops around his body, all while remaining balanced. He ended that part of the act by rotating the whole thing 360 degrees. Truly impressive.

He followed that up by adding a third metal cylinder and another stack of objects that at this point was so high he had to use a little pole to get on top of it. Once again elevated, he was able to remain balanced with these three plus axes of motion, although there was little room left for acrobatics.

Is Kurios perfect? No, I saw a few mistakes at Saturday night’s Atlanta show and the invisible circus bit really could be dropped, but overall it is one of the the strongest Cirque shows in recent memory and I might even have to see it again.

It’s in Atlanta until the beginning of May, when it moves on to Boston, DC. New York and Miami. If you can make I highly recommend you get a ticket. You won’t be disappointed.

Review: Netgear Arlo Wireless Camera

I live on a 22 acre horse farm ten miles from the nearest gas station. Being so remote, I like to have cameras set up so that I can monitor what’s going on.

While finding indoor cameras is pretty simple, I am always on the lookout for good outdoor cameras. Due to issues with running wires, the more self-contained a camera is, the better it will fit my needs. One popular brand of outdoor camera is Foscam, but even their wireless units come with a honkin’ huge plug that supports an RJ-45 wired connection. Trying to mount that on the house can be a pain. I had to drill a 1.25 inch hole in the eave just to slide the connector through and then plug it with a piece of dowel rod.

When I listened to Jeremy Garcia review the Netgear Arlo on Bad Voltage, it seemed to be just the camera I needed. Totally wireless, most of the space in the tiny camera is used to contain four CR123 lithium batteries. The camera talks to a base station that handles all of the heavy lifting.

I use an application that runs on my Synology system called “Surveillance Station” to manage my cameras and a quick Google search turned up an article on a site called WCCFTech by a guy named Ali Naqi, who wrote:

Surveillance station is truly incredible and does not require any additional resources in terms of a dedicated PVR for recording from wired cameras. We used NETGEAR’S Arlo webcams to test the Surveillance Station – which can run up to 30 frames per second at 720p maximum currently. The Arlo is one of the best surveillance camera being completely portable unlike most cameras and weatherproof. Exceptional but we would love Surveillance Station to start supporting 1080p as soon as possible.

As Stuart Langridge would say, what a load of bollocks. It seems apparent that WCCFTech is a site just designed to generate ad revenue, and I’m pretty certain “Ali Naqi” doesn’t even exist. I should have read through the comments, where a number of people point out that the Arlo doesn’t work with the Surveillance Station.

Which is a shame.

Based on that article, I added the Arlo to my Amazon wishlist and my sister bought it for my birthday. I just got time to play with it this weekend (we’re snowed in here in North Carolina).

Once I managed to free it from its package, the setup was straightforward. The base station is about the size of a home network router, and you plug that in to the wall and wire it to your network with the included RJ-45 cable. You then log into http://arlo.netgear.com and set up an account.

The next step is to load the batteries into the camera, and once done you press the “sync” button on the base station and then the “sync” button on the camera. If all goes well, you will see video on the web page.

And that’s the problem.

Look, I read 1984 many years before 1984 and I have no desire to have video from my house going God knows where on the Internet. Did I mention I live on a farm? Where I can’t see my neighbors? Which means I might wander out and about in various states of undress? Trust me, no one wants to see that, and I sure as hell don’t want it recorded on some server I can’t control.

And lack of control is central to the Arlo. I couldn’t even find a way to change or determine the IP address of the base station to see if it was hackable. Now I’m certain I could have figured it out by looking at the DHCP logs on my router, but I didn’t see a way to turn off the uploading of video even if I could have gotten it to work with my system. Even if I wanted to send video to strangers, my DSL connection has crappy upstream speed and we’re not getting better broadband out here any time soon.

On an up note, I was hit over the head with the fact that the Arlo does contain GPL’d code. There is a prominent link on the setup screen:

and clicking on it gets you a pop up that displays the GPL.

There wasn’t any link to actually download the code or a description of what code was covered by the GPL, but perhaps someone with more talent and free time than I have will find a way to open this device up.

Because, it is really cute. It’s tiny, and the mounting mechanism is ingenious. There is a strong magnet on the back of the camera and it ships with a spherical mount that would let you place the camera pretty much anywhere. To reposition it, just pull it off and move it. Of course, this means almost anyone could walk by and pull it off, so you’d want to mount it in a hard to reach location.

But for now it’s on its way back to Amazon. I did find it funny that Amazon sends along a whole bunch of “Warning: Lithium Battery” labels for the box.

It’s funny because they certainly weren’t there on the box in which it was shipped to me.

Sorry that there isn’t more of a review, but I am not one of those people who can exchange convenience for privacy (or freedom), and at a price north of US$160 it’s too expensive to play with. I’m looking at the D-Link DCS-2330L as a replacement, and if I decide to get one I’ll post a review here.

Review: Logitech K380 Bluetooth Keyboard

I have an older Mac Mini hooked up to my television. For the most part it just serves up the content from my weather station, but every so often I need to use a browser or other application that is most easily done on the computer.

I used to have an Apple bluetooth keyboard, but even though I had removed one of the AA batteries, the other decided to leak all over the inside of the device so I threw it out. Needing a new keyboard, I found the Logitech K380:

It’s inexpensive, light and what I like most about it is its ability to connect to up to three devices. Pairing is a cinch – just press and hold the number you wish to assign to the device and it will show up to be discovered. Your device will prompt you to type a series of numbers into the keyboard, and if you do it right you’ll be connected.

Easy peasy.

So now I have the Mini, a tablet and my phone all paired and when I need a keyboard it’s always ready. I’m not sure I’d want to use it as my main keyboard (I use a mechanical one from Code) but at half the price of the Apple one it does the job nicely.

Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

First, let me state that I am an unabashed Joss Whedon fan. From Angel to Buffy, Cabin in the Woods to Dollhouse, and of course Firefly, I pretty much watch anything he creates.

I was on a business trip in Canada when the first Avengers movie came out, and we went to a midnight show the morning it opened. Since I was on another business trip, this time to Chicago, when Age of Ultron came out, I decided to do the same.

I didn’t really care for it.

Now before all the haters come out, I’m glad I saw the film and don’t feel that it wasted several hours of my life (unlike some movies) but I was disappointed.

What follows is why, and warning, spoilers a’plenty. It’s funny, when I review a movie I like it is easy to describe it with few spoilers, but in giving a slightly negative review to something with such a fan base I feel compelled to defend my view with examples.

Here, I’ll add some carriage returns so you can still look away. Last chance.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Okay, the movie starts out with our heroes raiding a Hydra base looking for Loki’s scepter. So far so good, although I can’t really remember when the scepter got lost but I went with it. Things seem to be going our team’s way until two mutants, erm, excuse me “enhanced humans”, named Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch join the fray. While the Avengers are ultimately successful in retrieving the scepter, the Scarlet Witch plants a vision into Tony Stark’s brain that he would be responsible for the death of his companions, and by extension, the world.

Liked that part, so I’m pretty jazzed.

Next, we’re back at Avenger HQ and Tony’s vision still haunts him. He has been working on project “Ultron” which would create a global defense system that will render the Avengers unnecessary, and all he lacks is the AI to animate it. In experimenting on Loki’s scepter, he and Bruce Banner discover that there is an AI in the gem. When they attempt to use it to complete the Ultron project, they unleash the intelligence who is now intent on destroying Stark and the rest of the world’s humans.

Here’s where I start to lose it. Let me state for the record that I am a huge fan of James Spader and I loved they way he brought Ultron to life. But I had a really hard time understanding why Ultron would immediately develop such a hatred for Tony Stark. There was almost no creator/creation interaction, and there was a lot of focus on Tony’s offhand comment “Peace in our time” (which I took as sarcastic WWII reference). Anyway, the monster is alive, angry, and after confronting the Avengers, he escapes (his consciousness can travel via the Internet).

And it went downhill from there.

The rest of the movie is pretty much the Avengers chasing Ultron around. Ultron builds himself a new, coolio body (which was much more expressive than I was expecting – I was thinking it would be more like V in V for Vendetta) as well as an army of robot soldiers he controls. He also goes to collect the remaining world’s supply of vibranium (the metal used in Captain America’s shield) and the Avengers attempt to stop him. This results in the Scarlet Witch putting the whammy on the Hulk and Stark has to don “Veronica” – a Hulk-busting suit – to subdue him. Ultron escapes with the metal and the Avengers are blame for the resulting destruction.

Okay, the suit was cool and I can still hear the line “go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep” but it really didn’t advance the plot much.

The Avengers retreat to Hawkeye’s house in the country, where we find out he has a family, and there is a period of “character building”. I almost fell asleep at this point, although that probably had as much to do with the reclining chairs at the AMC 600 as the movie (really nice theatre). Yes, I know that super hero movies can’t be all fight scenes and gadgets, but I found myself not caring by this point.

Now, the coolest thing, to me, about the movie was the introduction of another infinity stone. See, Ultron wants a more realistic (i.e. non-mechanical) body and he is using tech to build one. While it is growing in a capsule-like thing, he cracks open the gem in Loki’s scepter to reveal a smaller yellow gem, which he places on the new body’s forehead. Once the body is ready he plans to upload his consciousness into it. He must know the gem is powerful.

One of my all time favorite movies is Guardians of the Galaxy. As it was mentioned in that film, there are six powerful infinity stones in existence. The purple one is featured in that movie, and the Tesseract from the Thor films is the blue one. Now we see the yellow one, setting the stage for the upcoming Infinity War when Thanos attempts to collect all six.

Now, that is cool.

Anyway, Ultron is interrupted by the Avengers before he can complete the transference into the new body, and they make off with the capsule. Stark then puts J.A.R.V.I.S, an AI, into the body and there is a big fight scene between the Avengers as they attempt to decide if this is a good idea or not. Thor settles it by smashing the capsule holding the body with his hammer, and the resulting lightning (“It’s Alive!”) causes it to awake. The new entity is called “Vision” and features the infinity stone on its forehead.

Then the film heads toward the inevitable climax, which was pretty much the same as the end of the first Avengers movie. The team (now augmented by Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch who have switched sides) swat a bunch of flying things out of the air. Ultron and Vision fight (à la Loki and Hulk), and eventually Tony Stark flies into a glowing hole and sets off an explosion.

Yawn.

I know this movie wasn’t easy to make. You are dealing with a huge cast of characters, many of whom have their own entire franchises and many who could, and you have to cram a lot of plot development into less than three hours. I wish there was more reason for Ultron’s hatred and more interaction between him and his creator. I wish there was less sitting around the farm and more humor. And I wish the ending wasn’t so derivative of the first movie.

So I didn’t really care for it and I probably could have waited until it came out on Blu-ray.

Before all the flaming starts, please understand that it’s okay if you liked it. In fact, I hope you did – it doesn’t not make you a bad person. It just wasn’t to my taste.

I am, however, now very eager to see the Infinity War. I love Thanos as a villain and the whole infinity stones back story is cool. Thor mentions that four infinity stones have surfaced, but I don’t know where the green one appears. Perhaps an upcoming movie? Guess we’ll find out.

[UPDATE: Ken Kennedy pointed out that the fourth “red” stone was in Thor: The Dark World. Don’t know where I got that is was the green stone in my head, and while I saw that movie it must have slipped my mind.]

Review: The Lamps Plus Saga

Okay, I debated a bit about posting this. There are too many people who would identify this story as a customer service “nightmare”. This isn’t a nightmare – it’s a first world problem that is a bit frustrating. Not being able to find food or shelter – that’s a nightmare. This is just a pain.

The story starts last fall. I was having some people over for a holiday party and I finally decided that I needed to replace some lamp shades that got busted in the move out to the farm – fifteen years ago. They weren’t that damaged when we moved in, but after having a number of kittens over the years all it takes is one small defect to interest them, and then, bam, that’s it.

As is my habit, I got on-line and did a search for lamp shades and found Lamps Plus (lampsplus.com). It was a good website and I was able to narrow the choices down to exactly what I was looking for, and with relatively little hassle I got some quality lamp shades. The only real problem was that the tracking number I got in the e-mail kept showing as invalid, and I was worried that they wouldn’t show up in time. They did and all was well.

Fast forward a few weeks. Where the “first world problems” angle comes in is that we have access to a cottage near the coast of North Carolina. The only issue is that it needs some furniture and my wife, who is particular about such things, could never find furniture she liked. That is until Lamps Plus sent us a catalog with this picture in it:

She thought that room would go perfect in the cottage and I agreed. Thus started the current saga.

I was going to place my order on-line, but I could not find the white armchair in the foreground listed. Plus, I had the additional need that anything heavy needed to be shipped to the coast (three hours away) but anything shipped FedEx should come to the farm.

I got in touch with a sales agent (I should point out that all the sales agents I’ve spoken to have been friendly and courteous), explained my situation, and ended up placing three orders.

The first was for the little teal side table, the coffee table and a television stand (not in the picture). Those would come FedEx so I had them sent to the office where we have a full time shipping department in the building.

The second was for the sofa and the teal console (seen in the back right of the picture). Those would come freight. I stressed that I needed them to be shipped together, since I would have limited time to get down to the coast (it’s at least a six hour round trip) and she said they should since they were both in stock.

The third was for two of the armchairs. She told me that they would be back in stock in March and I was so excited I ordered two of them.

So far, so good.

For my job I have to travel a lot. This week I was in San Francisco when the three items from the first order arrived, and on the morning I was leaving I get a call from the shipper that the console had arrived. When I asked about the couch, they didn’t know anything, so I called back to Lamps Plus and was informed that the sofa wouldn’t ship until March 2nd.

(sigh)

I spent about an hour going back and forth between Lamps Plus and the shipping company looking for options. I have a completely booked schedule for the next week and going to the beach was going to be a huge inconvenience. I asked the shipping company if they could hold the console until the sofa arrived, and they said yes but they would charge a $48/day storage fee. I asked Lamps Plus if I could just refuse delivery so it would be returned to them and they could ship it with the sofa, and they said “no” and if I did there would be another fee. If I had the shipper send it to my house instead of the coast, the fee was going to be more than the cost of the console.

(sigh)

I had no choice but to decide to go to the coast and get the console. Of course the shipper was as helpful as Comcast with “we’ll be there between 11am and 4pm”. My plan was to return back to North Carolina Thursday night, drive to the office and put the boxes from the first order in the car, and then get up early Friday and drive to the coast in order to meet the delivery truck.

Operating on little sleep, I made it to the coast just before 11am and started unpacking. The little teal side table was fine, but it turned out the TV stand had been damaged in shipment. There was no exterior damage but something had poked through the back panel of the stand:

You can’t really see it from the front and the last thing I wanted to do was to have to pack the whole thing up again (you can’t imagine the amount of gauze, Styrofoam, tape and cardboard they wrap around these things) so Andrea suggested I just ask them if they would discount for the damage.

Also, after unpacking everything, I realized that we really didn’t have room for both chairs I had ordered, so I called Lamps Plus back with the goal of asking about the discount and reducing my chair order from two to one.

I was connected to Jackie, who has been a real soldier throughout all of this. She was able to put in the order change and then she just asked me if I could send in pictures of the damaged TV stand. She also helped me change the address for the sofa delivery. I’ll have it sent to the farm and worry about getting it to the coast on my own, because there is a good chance it will show up at a time when I can’t make it down there and I can’t afford ~$50/day in storage fees.

I sent in pictures of the damaged stand, and by this time it was about 1pm. I called the shipping company for a status and they estimated that the truck would be arriving around 2:30pm, so I went out and grabbed some Chinese takeaway and came back to find an e-mail from Lamps Plus canceling the entire order for the chairs.

(sigh)

I got back into the phone queue for Lamps Plus and actually ended up back with Jackie. She was frustrated about the order cancellation (she had specifically noted to only delete the one) and said she’d fix it.

The rest of the day went pretty smoothly. The console arrived without damage and, on orders from Andrea, I took lots of pictures of the furniture (her career is insanely busy at this time of year so she couldn’t join me) and headed home.

Later that day I got an e-mail offering $50 for the damaged TV stand (cool) and another one correcting my order to just the one armchair.

I thought everything was cool until I started showing Andrea the pictures. When I got to this one, she was like “what’s that?”

I had not noticed that they sent to us a brown coffee table instead of a white one, which was key to the look of the room.

(sigh)

So I wrote back to Jackie and asked what my options were. The best scenario I can think of would be to order a second coffee table. When that arrives, I will carefully unpack it and place the brown one in the box for a return. That’s the best I can hope for and I can think of a lot of other things that can go wrong, especially since I still have a sofa and a chair to get. As I sent that late on Friday I have not heard back as I write this.

I buy most of the things I need, outside of food, on-line. I am a huge fan of Amazon because they have insanely good customer service. I am comfortable dealing with issues, but I’ve been spoiled. I’m not sure what is up with Lamps Plus, but I think it may be one of those cases where they have taken on more things than they can handle. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, it is incredibly easy to buy lamp shades from them, but furniture is a totally different matter.

But the true measure of a company is how things are handled when things go wrong, and the jury is still out on Lamps Plus. I’ll update this post as the saga continues, and I hope it gets indexed by Google so that people searching for “Lamps Plus” and “furniture” and “problems” will have at least one data point to go on.

I just know that at this moment what was once a good vendor/consumer relationship has been soured, and I’ll be hesitant to order from them in the future.