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)

Review: The Record Company Give It Back to You

A couple of years ago we decided to lease a company car, and it came with SiriusXM satellite radio. For those of you who aren’t familiar, this service provides quite a large number of digital audio channels and each features a particular style of music. For example, music from the 1950s is on channel 5, music from the 1960s on channel 6, etc.

When I got it I spent most of my time on channel 36 “Alt. Nation” which plays alternative rock. After that started to get old, I branched out and started listening to a number of other channels. When I wanted something upbeat I might hit channel 51, “BPM” or channel 43 “Backspin” for “old skool” hip-hop. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time on channel 32, “The Bridge” which focuses on (gulp) folk and soft rock. Hey, I’m old and besides I know all of the words to the songs. When I need something a little more modern I drop down to channel 28, “The Spectrum” which plays more energetic rock and mixes it up with both the classics and modern tracks.

Today I was coming into work and I heard this great song on The Spectrum called “On the Move” by a band called The Record Company. Now I know that smell is supposed to be the strongest trigger for memories, but for me music is a close second, and this song brought back a number of strong memories from my youth.

I grew up in a small town in North Carolina, and after I graduated from high school I moved to Los Angeles. I was done with this backwards and backwoods State and ready to enter the real world. That lasted two years, when I returned to the place I now call “God’s Own Earth”.

When I got back I reconnected with some friends I had left behind on my sojourn to California. I am blessed to have met some amazing people in my life, and in my fifty-odd years I’ve collected some great memories.

One of those involves Vonnie, the mother of a close friend. She used to live with a man named Bob who was an avid motorcycle rider, specifically of the Harley Davidson variety. Now about this time of year there is a huge motorcycle rally in Florida known as Daytona Bike Week. It turns out that for people who live up North and want to ride down, where we live is a very convenient place to stop about halfway. So each year Vonnie and Bob would host a party.

I got invited by my friend with the words “Mom is having a few bikers over for a cookout and you are more than welcome to join us”. It turned out to be a beautiful day, so I grabbed my buddy David and we headed out to Zebulon.

Along the way we kept passing groups of bikers, almost all on Harleys. We figured it was just because it was such a nice day to ride but as we got closer to Vonnie’s it turns out they were all headed to her party. There were at least fifty bikes, over a hundred people, as well as assorted cars and at least one cab from a tractor/trailer rig.

If you have ever seen the movie Mask, it was pretty much just like that, except Cher wasn’t there. It was awesome.

David and Tarus at a Biker Party

Yup, that’s me looking like the Oates half of Hall & Oates. Dave is the guy next to me.

Now the kind of music that is played at these parties is best described as “Southern Rock”. While I can’t remember a band at this particular party, I do remember going to another one soon after at a nearby farm with twice as many people, if not more. The stage was a flatbed trailer someone had pulled out into the pasture, and a number of bands would get up and play music from the standards like Alabama and Lynyrd Skynyrd, as well as tracks from Little Feat and Nantucket and blues songs from Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. I can remember The Black Crowes were huge at this time as well, so a number of their tunes would always get played. We’d drink beer, eat “chicken ‘n pastry” out of a God’s honest cauldron, and hang out under the stars just having a great time.

It was these memories that came flooding back when I first heard “On the Move”.

Now lately I’ve been stung by a number of album purchases. I would hear a song on SiriusXM that I really liked, go get the album and be disappointed that the one song was by far the best track. Luckily, I have Amazon Prime and so I was able to stream this album before buying it. By the time I got to “On the Move”, which is the fourth track, I’d bought it. Such a great album and an absolute steal at five bucks.

Give It Back to You

I’m not a music critic, so don’t expect me to review this with words like “a strong hint of apricot with a grassy overtone, with a finish that reminds you of almond” or some such crap. If you are of a certain age, or even if you aren’t, this music will remind you of simpler times, when a good party, great friends and rock ‘n roll were all you needed to forget your troubles. In a time where the country is run by a billionaire who never mowed a lawn in his life yet talks about making America great again, this album will remind you that America has always been great, in no small part due music from the heart and the heartland.

I was incredibly surprised to find out that The Record Company is based in LA. Heck, I lived there once, but they are channeling some down home feeling in their music. Please, check out their stuff. You won’t be disappointed.

Review: Minimalism on Netflix

This weekend we got a few inches of snow and ice, and while the horses made it impossible for me to be a total sloth, I did manage to veg in front of the television for a few hours.

I ended up watching Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things on Netflix.

Minimalism

At the end of every year I make a concerted effort to get rid of a bunch of the junk I’ve accumulated over the previous years. About a week ago I spent at least a full day scanning in various bits of paper that I might need in the future but definitely don’t want to store, and I got rid of clothes and other items I just don’t need. But still my house is pretty full and I’d like to change that. It doesn’t help that I live on 22 acres with various outbuildings, etc., that are just a magnet for “stuff”.

Minimalism discusses the idea of increasing personal happiness in the minimization of objects one owns. This resonates with me for a couple of reasons. First, I have one friend who is a compulsive hoarder, and I see how that disorder affects her life. Plus, I have two friends who actually embraced minimalism a few years ago and seem happier for it (pretty much everything they own can fit into a Toyota Highlander).

Central to the documentary are Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, creators of The Minimalists website, and the film follows them around the country as they promote their book. Interspersed within this are other interviews and examples of how people are embracing the concept of “less is more”. A couple of things stood out for me.

One was a piece on small houses. I love small houses, not because I want to live in one, exactly, but because the are so efficient. They remind me of being on a boat or a plane or in an RV. No wasted space. In the film they spend a small amount of time on the small house trend, but I found one scene especially cool. It was a short piece about a guy who built out an apartment in New York City that was only about 450 square feet. It was beautiful. The main room had a trundle bed that folded out of the wall (to the right as your watched the film) which could be put away to make room for a couch. He had a table for ten that he could assemble for parties and then break down and store, and a stand up desk that opened out of the opposite wall (to the left as you watched the film).

The coolest bit was that the left wall could slide over toward the right, exposing a small area with two bunk beds for guests. Each area also had a privacy curtain for, you know, privacy.

Brilliant. I found a 20 minute YouTube video about it if you want to check it out.

Where I live in the Southern United States, we have a tendency to have a “formal” dining room and a living room in our houses. Basically, these are rooms with some of the most expensive furniture in the house that you never use. We turned our living room into a bar, but we still have a dining room that is rarely used. It is a lot of wasted space that seems to be only there due to tradition.

The second was an idea a woman presented called “Project 333” – wear only 33 items of clothing for 3 months. This would be pretty easy for me to do, as I am not a clothes horse and when I am not in front of customers I tend to wear the exact same outfit: Levi 505 jeans, a Camber pocket T-shirt in black, and white Reebok leather sneakers. It saves me a few minutes each day deciding what to wear, for example, as I can just grab the next shirt off the pile. I think it would be harder for someone like Andrea who has to dress for work, but being in tech makes it easy.

The documentary covers even more extremes, as in a couple of people who can carry everything they own. One guy had all of his belongings in a dufflel bag that would easily fit in the overhead bin on an airplane, and a laptop bag. That was it. I don’t believe I could do that for the simple reason that I don’t get to choose my climate. I travel a lot and even where I live in North Carolina it can get down to 5F (-15C) at times. Thus I have a winter coat for those temperatures that I bought in Sweden, another coat that I wear during the normally warmer rest of winter, and a light jacket for Spring and Fall. But I do see clothing as one way people can minimize what they own, despite the fashion industry wanting to drive that amount up (with examples of that given in the documentary).

As I’ve gotten older I’ve stopped collecting a lot of things, but I still like art. We tend to travel outside the country at least once a year, and we often bring back a small piece of art to remember our trip. One of the things that bothered me about the living conditions of most of the people profiled in this documentary was the lack of art (although a significant number of people had guitars – go figure). I don’t need to surround myself with things but I do like to surround myself with beauty. Plus, say, at Christmas time, I like bringing out older things that have been around, in some cases, longer than I have. It is possible to associate positive memories with objects, but I think it is hard to create memories with them.

Those of us in the “western” world do seem to live in cultures that encourage us to be afraid and buy stuff which has resulted in a throw-away culture that is slowly killing the planet. It seems we rarely buy things designed to last – if your printer dies you throw it away and buy a new one – and we tend to dispose of things like mobile devices and televisions every couple of years. Contrast that with my Kitchen Aid stand mixer which will outlive me and perhaps whoever gets it after me. I think owning fewer, but better, things is a good place to start.

Overall, I enjoyed the program and I can recommended it, especially if you are snowed in.

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.

Ramadan Part 6: Isha’a

The final of the five formal daily prayers is the Night Prayer, Isha’a. It is now offically night and the day is over.

And so is my Ramadan experiment. It was both harder and easier than I thought it would be. I didn’t really get hungry, about six hours in my stomach would grumble but then the feeling just faded. I was thirsty, however. The cotton mouth and lack of liquid gave me a slight headache, and I can see long naps being part of my routine during the month if I had to do it every day.

I did learn a lot more about the holiday, and it kind of reminded me of when I was first really exposed to Islam in Damascus.

I can remember talking with Safwan, who read to me the 99 names of God. But then he had me look at my hands. If you look at your left hand the lines kind of make an upside-down “V” (٨) followed by a “1”. This is reversed on the right hand. In Arabic, the ٨ character represents the number 8. So your left hand reads 81 and your right 18. Add them together and you get 99.

Cool, huh?

I have new respect for people willing to fast for an entire month for their beliefs. I was happy that I don’t have a job that requires a lot of manual labor out in the heat for my single day of Ramadan, and I can imagine it represents a true test for many.

I would make a poor Muslim. Pork BBQ is a cultural tradition where I live, and I make cocktails as a hobby. I also share my house with dogs. But by some standards I make a poor Christian so there’s that.

I do think I’ll make my #onedayoframadan a yearly tradition, although I probably won’t be so verbose about the experience next year.

السلام عليكم‎‎

Ramadan Part 5: Maghrib and Iftar

The fourth daily prayer is the Maghrib (west, for sunset) prayer. It also coincides with Iftar which is Arabic for “eatin’ time” (well, breakfast).

Fast update: over and completed.

I was surprised I wasn’t overwhelmingly hungry, but I was very thirsty. I went to my friend Mohammad’s restaurant, and although he wasn’t there I did get my platter half price since I had fasted. I broke my fast with a salad, falafel, dolmata, hummus and tzatziki. I also had some dates that I brought with me, since that is what the Prophet ate to break his fast and I thought it was appropriate.

Ramadan Part 4: Asr

The third of the three daily prayers of Islam is Asr, or “afternoon”.

Fast update: Thirsty with a slight headache. Still not very hungry,

I like the fact that Islamic times seem to be tied to nature. The prayers are tied to the motion of the Sun and the Islamic calendar is lunar. This means is it about 10 to 11 days shorter than the solar year and thus the months move around. The cycle repeats itself every 33 years, which means that in about 16 years Ramadan will coincide with the winter solstice, which will make the whole fasting thing a piece of cake in the northern hemisphere.

It must be difficult to fast properly in the far north. I looked up Bergen, Norway, which is where my friend Alex lives, and Fajr occurs 85 minutes earlier than Pittsboro and Maghrib over two hours later, so add about 3.5 hours to your fast. Then I looked up Punta Arenas, Chile, and Fajr happens over three hours later than here and Maghrib five hours before, so that must make fasting a breeze.

Some places allow using the times for Mecca in place of local time when they are extreme, but I think I would be willing to suffer a bit now for an easy time of it in a decade or so.

I plan ahead.

I miss the seasons. I could be sitting in my office (which doesn’t really have a window) and whether it is high summer or the dead of winter I’m going to experience about the same amount of light and the same temperature. I’m not sure if that is healthy, as I think it is healthier for us to change with the seasons.

When I was a child there were four seasons. When it got cold there was turkey for Thanksgiving and Santa came from Christmas. In late Spring we waited for permission to go outside barefoot. Summers were lazy and hot. When I started to attend school, there were three seasons: Fall semestre, Spring semestre and Summer. I looked forward to each and marked the years by their passing.

Now it is just one long season with a slight change in wardrobe depending on the weather. Sure, there are holidays but they don’t represent the seasonal change that I used to experience. When we as a society were mainly agrarian, the seasons still existed as work followed the cycle of planting. Now it just seems we are driven to do more, faster. There is little time to reflect and recharge. I like to close the office the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day for mandatory “brain regrooving” but even that isn’t quite enough.

Again, no answers, just thinking about the questions.

Ramadan Part 3: Dhuhr

The afternoon prayer in Islam is called Dhuhr. It falls halfway between the first prayer at dawn, Fajr, and the last prayer at nightfall, Isha’a.

Fast update: no real hunger but I am getting thirsty. The “no water” rule kinda sucks.

I think it must be hard to be a Muslim in a non-Muslim country. For example, my app went off to tell me about Dhuhr while I was in the middle of a haircut. In a Muslim country everyone would be aware of the prayer times, but I can imagine a number of conflicts happening in countries outside of them.

My thought for this prayer time is that it is possible I wouldn’t be able to write this if not for Islam. Here is my argument.

After the fall of the Roman empire, European civilization fell into what is often called the Dark Ages. There was a sharp decline in the amount of scholarly work being published, and the original term “dark” was used to indicate a lack of written records of the time. Needless to say, since publication is a key part of the scientific method, not much science was advanced during that period in Europe.

However, in the Middle East there was an Islamic Golden Age where science was both preserved, encouraged and advanced. A lot of that information was fed back into Europe during the Renaissance, and since modern science arose out of that period my computer might not exist without the Mohammedans.

It seems quite the contrast with modern ideas of Muslims, mainly through the acts of radical Islamists. I am constantly filled with sadness when I read about the destruction of historic sites, especially those I haven’t visited. When I was in Syria I visited Saidnaya, a town where Aramaic (the language of Christ) is still spoken. I visited a church from the sixth century that still stands and rarely have I felt the palpable weight of history as when I entered the original sanctuary.

Where I live in the US we have nearly 400 years of history. When I was in Damascus I walked through streets that had been around for thousands of years and saw buildings nearly 1500 years old. It would be a shame to lose that.

I’m not sure how to stop further destruction, but I do know that it starts with understanding.