Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pacific Rim

Based on the trailer, the new movie Pacific Rim will do well if there are enough 13-year old boys out there.

The gimmick seems to be that giant alien monsters from another dimension emerge from inter-dimensional portals deep under the Pacific Ocean and then come on land to attack humanity. The only effective weapon we have against them is equally giant, remotely controlled robots that can have face-to-face punchouts with the aliens. This is obviously far more effective than the most destructive rockets, bombs, etc. that mankind has developed.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Dr. Sleazevago

It’s odd to watch a movie again, decades after first seeing it. You’re surprised by the big chunks of it that you don’t remember at all as well as the scenes that you do remember quite well.

We just watched Dr. Zhivago, the original one with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, which we last saw back in the 60s, when it first came out. I remembered it the way it was received at the time, as a big-screen epic romance with lots of vast, snow-covered Russian landscape — which was actually Finnish, Canadian, and other landscape, because the Soviets refused to have anything to do with a movie made from a novel by an author who was persona non grata.

What I didn’t remember was what a dirtbag Yuri Zhivago was. Lara, his mistress, is only slightly better. Rather, she has a slight excuse for her behavior — her experience when she’s 17 — whereas Dr. Zh. has no excuse at all.

Just like two morally depraved movies that I despised, The English Patient and Like Water for Chocolate, this epic romance is really a celebration of sleaze. I have an unpleasant taste in my mouth.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Aborted Flight

Save your money and your time. Flight aborts on takeoff. It never reaches cruising altitude. Its engines sputter and flame out. Skip this one and catch a different flight.

When the airplane piloted by drunk, high-on-cocaine Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) takes off, the passengers are told that the flight will take just under an hour. Perhaps if the movie had been edited down to one hour, it might have been bearable. As it is, the official running time of two hours and 18 minutes can’t possibly be correct. The movie seemed to go on forever — or at least until it ends abruptly with an anticlimax.

As we know from the trailers, their flight will be much shorter than that. Wisely, the trailers focused on the scenes of the plane flying upside down just above the ground and then crashing in a field. That’s the most entertaining part of the movie. No, it’s the only entertaining part. If the movie had ended at that point, with everyone aboard dying in the crash, it would have been no more unsatisfying than the actual ending and slightly less disappointing.

Don’t be fooled by that trailer. This isn’t a picture about airplanes or pilots. It’s a story about alcoholism, and it’s no Days of Wine and Roses. Unlike that classic movie, it doesn’t even have a good theme song.

Whip Whitaker drinks heavily and constantly, snorts cocaine, smokes feverishly, denies that he has a problem, and repeats the process over and over and over … There is no subtlety to the story. The writing is inferior, rising occasionally to pedestrian. With the exception of Don Cheadle’s excellent depiction of a slimy lawyer, the acting is barely adequate. Denzel Washington, normally such a fine and riveting actor, is severely out of place here. His understated style is exactly wrong for the character. He should be flamboyant and larger than life until his moment of truth. Instead, he’s a loser from the beginning — a boring, uninteresting, and unpleasant loser.

Making matters worse, after the crash scene, the movie starts meandering down a side road of preaching and moralizing and vague religious references. None of this is made clear and unambiguous. The writers seem to lack the courage to take a position either way. Rather, they throw lots of ingredients into the mix as though they hope that everyone in the audience — atheist, theist, supporter of AA, opponent of AA — will take from it what they want and will therefore like the movie. I suspect that I’m not alone in being offended by such spinelessness.

I said that the crash is the only entertaining part of the movie. That’s not quite true. There’s also the naked girl at the very beginning, before the crash. But she’s not onscreen for long. Not naked, anyway. If only we got to see that actress naked as often as we are forced to see Whip drinking. That might have helped.

The only other element that makes the movie even moderately interesting is John Goodman fighting valiantly to provide comic relief.

However, I was distracted by Goodman’s heavy breathing. I couldn’t help wondering how many more movies he’ll live to make. It’s ironic that in a movie about alcohol and drug addiction, the most memorable actor in it is a barely walking symbol of the dangers of food addiction — as were so many of the people in the audience with us and in the restaurant we went to before the movie. Instead of Flight, what America needs is a movie titled The Days of Lard and Heart Failure.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Children of the Undead

A social and political satire disguised as
a comic novel about zombies and pickles.
Or possibly the other way around.

With this book, I’m trying a marketing approach I’ve never tried before: making it free. Well, for a while. It’s only available on Amazon in Kindle format (printed version coming soon), and the Kindle version will be free starting tomorrow (9/10/2012) and ending on Friday (9/14/2012).

Other writers seem to have had mixed results from giving books away. Some end up with a significant sales boost for all of their books while others report that they see no sales boost and not many takers for the free books. So I have no idea what to expect.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Publishing Process in GIF Form

This is perfect. (Contains a lot of animated GIFs, so it may take a while to load.)

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Neil Armstrong, Ted Kennedy, and the National Turning Away

The death of the first man on the moon naturally elicits thoughts of the death of the American manned spaceflight program.

Strictly speaking, it’s not dead.

There are Americans aboard the International Space Station, but given how uncertain the future of that project is, and how unclear it is whether it will lead to anything significant, the ISS is not a satisfying substitute for astronauts on the moon. It’s certainly not as exciting.

NASA is also laying the groundwork for a return to the moon, but we have no assurance that that will really happen — or, if it does, that it will be continued beyond a few missions. Apollo was supposed to be just the beginning of America’s exploration of space, too.

I was part of the Apollo project. I worked at NASA/Houston on the Apollo missions, from the start through Apollo 15. When I arrived there in 1967, the excitement was fresh and the future was wonderful. But by the time I left, it was clear that America had decided to abandon manned spaceflight.

This may be surprising to those who are too young to remember those days and to those who should remember them but weren’t paying attention at the time.

Support for the moon-landing program was never unanimous. On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy said: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” Immediately, there were those who objected, insisting that the money would be better spent on Earth. Those objections grew louder as the manned space program progressed. Arthur C. Clarke pointed out that objecting to the money spent on the space program while ignoring the immense amount being spent on the military — a disparity that’s far greater now than it was then — was equivalent to a policeman arresting a jaywalker while ignoring a nearby bank robbery. But Clarke was preaching to the choir — to people like me.

Still, enthusiasm and support for the program were generally high in the early days. I let myself believe that America was committed to spreading human exploration and settlement across the Solar System just as it had earlier done in the American West. Putting aside the question of whether that’s a romanticized, idealized, and very incomplete version of our westward expansion, it certainly is how Americans see themselves and how we view, or used to view, our destiny.

However, even before Apollo 11, carrying Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, lifted off, polls showed a sudden and dramatic drop in public support for the manned spaceflight program. There was at least one group of social activists who showed up at the Apollo 11 launch itself to protest the money being spent on the space program. America wasn’t in love with the idea of exploring the universe, after all. Like a toddler, it had been suddenly attracted to a shiny, new toy, and just as suddenly, it had lost interest.

During my remaining time at NASA, I saw constant layoffs and a steady reduction in the number of Apollo missions. The people whose job it was to devise post-Apollo missions — that whole exploration and settling of the Solar System thing — were laid off and their group was eliminated. It was clear that the increasingly abbreviated Apollo program was now a dead end.

One of the Apollo program’s strongest and most effective opponents was Senator Ted Kennedy, the surviving Kennedy brother, the younger brother of the man whose soaring vision and soaring words had sent Americans to the moon. By contrast, Ted Kennedy’s words were angry and hostile.

After one major NASA budget cut Kennedy pushed through the Senate, NASA eliminated whatever it could that wasn’t directly mission related. That included a group of highly paid PhDs in Cambridge, Massachusetts who were working on very blue-sky future technology ideas. They weren’t contributing at all to the ongoing missions or the few missions that remained, so they had to go. That office was eliminated. Kennedy blew his top. In a furious speech, he attacked NASA for dumping those fine Americans who had families to support. Many of my colleagues, laid off by NASA and private aerospace companies contracting with NASA, also had families to support, but they didn’t live in Massachusetts, so clearly they were of no consequence to him.

I’m a very liberal Democrat. I supported Ted Kennedy in later years, and I was saddened when his illness effectively ended his political career. Nonetheless, when my fellow liberals mourned the death of the Lion of the Senate, I couldn’t help but hark back to those bitter days when Apollo was being slowly killed.

I’ll give my side of the political spectrum this much credit, though. Their shortsighted objection to spending money on spaceflight, in particular manned spaceflight, stems from the laudable goal of wanting to spend the money on helping their fellow citizens instead.

Indeed, we should be spending far, far more money on rebuilding and strengthening our social safety net, schools, and infrastructure. We should be instituting free, universal health care. We should be giving much more civilian foreign aid than we do.

The problem, of course, is that the money for all of that should be coming, not from cuts to NASA, but from massive cuts to military spending and far higher taxes on the rich.

Obviously, we’re not headed in that direction, not even if the nominal Democrat now in the White House is reelected — and he’s the best Democrat we’re going to get in the current political environment.

If the smirking plutocrat the Republican Party will nominate next week wins the election, matters will be far, far worse. The upward shift in wealth will accelerate, with money flowing even faster from those who can least afford to lose it to those who least need it. The social safety net, infrastructure, and schools will continue to deteriorate, but so will publicly funded science and technology, including NASA.

Some day there will be settlements on other worlds, but they won’t be American.

The toddler who so quickly lost interest in those shiny space toys is an easily frightened child. This is certainly not the land of the brave, no matter what the national anthem says. Overblown, unrealistic fears of urban crime have led to soaring gun ownership. Americans have sheepishly acquiesced to ever more burdensome restrictions on travel and speech and to a grotesquely inflated military budget because of their fear of terrorists hiding under their beds and in their closets.

So we spend our substance destroying our social and physical environment and providing welfare to arms manufacturers instead of exploring the universe. We have turned away from the future. We have turned destructively inward. We have let ourselves be gulled into thinking that we are encompassed by peril, when in truth we are surrounded by wonders.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

This is the forthcoming novel the world has been waiting for

A book just sold to a publisher is described in Publishers Marketplace as "a nostalgic 1980s-fueled nod to the barely controlled chaos of our teens and early 20s, while at the same time a very serious reflection on how a boy learns to be a man, as the world conspires against him."

Man! I'm glad SOMEONE finally wrote a novel about all of that!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The state of American literature

From the announcements of forthcoming books in Publishers Marketplace:

Former Senior Editor and contributing writer for O Magazine Suzan Colon's BEACH GLASS, wherein a sensible, stability-craving woman makes a birthday wish to marry her sweet boyfriend and start a family, but days later finds herself single, on a beach in Costa Rica, falling for her hot, mysterious surf instructor, and taking her ultimate risk -- falling in love, to Deborah Smith at Bell Bridge Books, in a nice deal, for publication in spring 2014, by Louise Fury at L. Perkins Agency (world English).

Monday, August 13, 2012

It was a dark and stormy Bulwer-Lytton contest

I've come to greatly dislike the annual Bulwer-Lytton contest, the winner of which was just announced. It's not that the sentences people come up with for the contest aren't clever. They usually are, and often very funny. But that's the problem: they're deliberately written to be overblown, overlong, overly complex, and amusingly silly. The contest would be much more interesting, and more in keeping with its name, if the judges selected long, awful sentences from published fiction — sentences that were meant to be taken seriously.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Russian rights to Time for Sherlock Holmes

Amphora, a Russian publishing house in St. Petersburg, will be doing a Russian edition of my Sherlock Holmes pastiche, Time for Sherlock Holmes. They’ll be doing a print version (hardcover only, I think), with the option to do an e-book, mobile, and audiobook version of the Russian translation.

This will be part of a Sherlock Holmes series they’re planning. They’ll start with the canonical stories by Conan Doyle, and then they’ll do a number of SH books by other authors, including mine.

That book is my Little Novel Engine That Could. It just keeps on selling and selling and selling and … It was such fun to write, all those years ago (first published by Dodd, Mead in 1983), and it continues to provide me with these pleasant surprises.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Seeking a Friend at the End of the World

We saw this movie last night and enjoyed it enormously. It's quite funny at the start and gets much more serious in the second half, with a sweet and moving conclusion — which you would think would be hard to do, given that the world is ending. Steve Carrell's role is mostly serious. He does a fine job, especially in the most serious, subtle moments. He really is an excellent dramatic actor. Keira Knightley is not annoying for a change. She shows that she can be an adequate actress when she chooses to be.

Speaking of KK, one of the previews shown before the movie was for an upcoming version of Anna Karenina, starring KK as AK. It looks like the movie makers have managed to convert a mediocre and silly novel into pretentious twaddle.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Surprising Benefits of Being Unemployed

In 2003, after being laid off, I wrote an essay with that title and put it on my Web site. It ended up getting humongous numbers of hits, and it generated lots of e-mails — friendly ones from other unemployed people, hostile ones from rightwingers, supportive ones.

I've expanded that essay into a short book. Description here:

Or maybe I should say that I've written a short book which includes that essay and other thoughts on the same subject.

Friday, May 11, 2012

If I were to run for Colorado governor

I’d lose in a landslide, because my platform would be:

  1. Free healthcare for everyone except the rich (ETR)
  2. State pension for everyone ETR
  3. Free ETR high-speed rail everywhere
  4. Good cops
  5. No doofuses on the bench
  6. No religion in state government and no hidden subsidies for churches
  7. A fence around El Paso County (with some way of letting good people out — and in, if they insist). Garden of the Gods would be accessible, however.
  8. Gay marriage
  9. No state- or city-level war on drugs, alcohol, porn, prostitution, or any other victimless crimes, and no cooperation with the Feds for the same
  10. Lots of money for education
  11. No subsidies for sports, and no encouragement, either
  12. A very progressive tax system
  13. No guns for anyone at all anywhere, any time. That includes the police. No Tazers, either.
  14. Foreign investors will be encouraged. The pitch will be that it’s true that the US is an insane and dangerous place, but Colorado is the exception. “Move your business to the safe, non-crazy state! Corporate refugees from California, Texas, and other crazy states are also encouraged to move here. Immigrants from anywhere are urged to have themselves surgically sterilized before moving. Also, bring water.”
  15. The rich identified by a scarlet R on their foreheads
  16. Proper use of English is encouraged. The governor determines what’s proper.

I’m sure there’d be more. That’s for starters.

Monday, May 07, 2012

The Girlfriend on Your Desk

In the 1980s, I was working at an oil and gas software company in Denver. We programmed in Fortran (ah! beloved language!) on DEC-20s (ah! beloved mini!). We used IBM PCs, but at that time only as dumb terminals.

A coworker brought her new toy in to show us. It was the first version of Apple’s Macintosh computer — a funny, boxlike little thing with a black-and-white screen on which were displayed cute icons instead of the command line we were all used to. We gathered around and made comments ranging from skeptical to admiring. I don’t remember how much she said she had paid for it, but I do remember that we were all taken aback. I liked the idea of the GUI and considered buying one of the gadgets once the price came down.

The price of oil plummeted, my employer’s competitors moved their software to the PC faster and charged less, and one sad day, the company laid off 11 of its 13 programmers. I was one of the 11.

Years passed. PCs progressed in power and market penetration and moved from DOS to Windows (at least, in terms of what you saw). Increasingly, we programmed on the desktop. DEC20s disappeared, and eventually so did DEC itself.

From time to time, I used a Mac in the workplace. I found the GUI clunky, cumbersome, and badly thought out. The more I used the Mac, the more I disliked it and the more I preferred the relative simplicity, ease of use, and superior design of Microsoft Windows. (Given the choice, I preferred OpenWindows on a Sun workstation to both, but I had that choice only rarely.)

I also found the attitude of Mac users — smugness combined with a persecution complex — increasingly annoying.

Macs seemed to be struggling — used in certain niche environments but unable to break out of those. We Windows people were the slick, smart guys, accepted and needed everywhere, and we sneered at those silly, earnest kids with their toy that pretended to be a serious computer and their sullen resentment and their insistence that we were corrupt fools and the Mac was pure and good and divinely inspired and celestially innovative. Apparently, the Mac GUI’s design was inscribed on tablets brought down from the mountaintop by a bearded prophet in a turtleneck.

With time, that changed. Macs became more widely accepted and Windows suffered the fate of every overly big, overly confident empire. Microsoft’s market share eroded. The toy competitor moved in and took over huge chunks of its territory.

Well, relatively, anyway. Gartner predicts that just over 5% of new PC shipments in 2012 will run Mac OS, and Linux will remain under 2% for the next few years. What will the remaining 93% be? Windows, almost all of it.

Nonetheless, Apple and its fanatical, brainwashed devotees are feeling bumptious, while Windows and its rational, calm, intelligent, impartial supporters are feeling a touch edgy and defensive. Some of the latter are even losing enough of their rational, calm intelligence to consider switching.

It’s rather like girlfriends, isn’t it?

Specifically, two girlfriends: Mack and Winnie.

You sort of have to choose between the two.

They are similar in many ways. Mack is a couple of years older than Winnie, although she acts younger. They’re both nearing 30 and perhaps starting to worry a bit about their appeal. They seem to be applying more makeup these days, although Winnie puts on more of it than Mack does. Indeed, Winnie seems to layer it on and wash it off and replace it a bit frantically.

Both girls have had to deal with embarrassing questions about their paternity. That talk has faded in recent years, though. I don’t know if that’s because everyone has politely agreed to ignore the matter, or if society simply no longer cares about it.

But the differences between them are more interesting than the similarities.


When she was young, Winnie was rather rough around the edges. In the morning, she just threw on whatever clothes were available. She skipped makeup, in those days. I’m not sure she showered regularly or used deodorant. She didn’t care what people thought about her appearance.

That’s because she was so self-confident. She was convinced that people would love her, anyway — or at least that they’d seek out her company. They needed her, and that was enough for her. They didn’t have to like her.

However, beneath the mismatched clothes, she was both serious and power hungry. She planned a long corporate career for herself and didn’t think she’d ever retire. So at some point she bit the bullet and learned to dress appropriately and play the game. And then she rose rapidly through the ranks, quickly achieving Total World Domination.

But everyone knew that the staid, serious image was a false front. She was still the same Winnie underneath. In reality, she was a wild child who slept around. She would let anyone in. This equipped her with a lot of exciting skills. Unfortunately, it also meant that she kept picking up scary viruses.

Nowadays, Winnie switches without warning from cooperative to headstrong. She often doesn’t seem interested in what you want to do. She’s intent on doing what she wants, instead. It’s a personality trait that frustrates you and makes you angry. But just when you think the relationship is doomed and it’s time for you to move on, she turns loving and attentive and pulls you into the bedroom and … wow! As I said, over the years she’s learned a lot of tricks.

However, she’s insecure. She probably always will be. She’s talking more lately about commitment, which makes you a bit nervous. She constantly fears that you don’t love her for herself, that you’re just using her, and that you might dump her for someone else at any moment. Perhaps that explains the makeup.


Then there’s Mack. If she’s your girlfriend, you’re devoted to her. You’d never think of dating anyone else. You feel smug when you see Winnie’s boyfriend looking at Mack when he thinks no one notices.

Mack is certainly aware of her good looks — overly aware. She’s always been very concerned about her appearance. The accusation that she cares more about appearance than substance cropped up early and still dogs her.

But, golly, she’s so pretty and squeaky clean! When you’re with her, she assures you that you don’t even need protection. She’ll take care of everything. You want to believe her, but when you come down with a case of crotch rot, it doesn’t help to be told that Winnie has given even worse to far more lovers.

In her youth, Mack was, or at least seemed to be, brash and fresh, a bit of a rebel. She thumbed her nose at the system. But she changed over the years. She grew up into a slick corporate girl with expensive clothing, every hair in place, glossily pretty, and very smug.

She dates you, but she looks down on you. She’s moving up that corporate ladder, and the higher she climbs, the less interested she is in you. You’ve heard rumors that her father is pressuring her to look for a husband in the upper corporate echelons. You’re so fanatically devoted to her, but how committed is she to you?



Choices, choices, choices. It’s so hard to be a man in the modern world.

You’ve heard some of your friends talking about a new family in the neighborhood named Linux. There seem to be a huge number of girls in the family, with intriguing names like Susie and Ubuntu and Fedora. They sound like a pretty hot bunch. Some of your friends are lining up to date them. Your own attention is wandering …

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Singular Prophecy

A Singular Prophecy
Gary Raham
Biostration, 2012


70 million years ago, an alien race, fleeing the destruction of their world, landed on Earth. Here they would recreate the world they had lost. Unfortunately for them, Late Cretaceous Earth was a fiendishly hostile place, and it destroyed them. That is, it destroyed their bodies. Before they died, they used their technology to preserve their personalities in anticipation of the evolution of a more hospitable environment.

In our own time, a young paleontologist on a dig pries a sphere from the midst of fossil dinosaur bones and suddenly finds himself the host of one of those personalities. As they struggle to coexist in one body, the paleontologist and his not–so–welcome guest learn that the alien personality is not the only one to have reawakened. Moreover, the conversion of part of the earth into a recreation of the alien world that was lost so long ago is well under way.

A tale of alien possession and deep time becomes a moral struggle for both human and alien. The latter, especially, is forced to question its fundamental beliefs about the superiority of its kind and its presumed right to take over a world already inhabited by beings the alien finally recognizes as morally and intellectually on a par with itself.

The alien worldbuilding, told through flashbacks and the memories of the alien refugees, is simultaneously dreamlike and convincing. The biology of the aliens, and in particular their imaginative lifecycle, is shown to us mostly through their eyes, giving it a welcome solidity and realism. Too often in sf novels, such details struggle to rise above the level of intellectual exercise. One stage in the life cycle, the ambuli, we first see through the aliens’ memories. Later in the novel, we suddenly see ambuli through the eyes of humans, and instantaneously the ambuli become terrifying and very alien predators. Raham uses this technique of a double view of things very effectively.

For more information about Raham and his work and writing, see his Web site. To buy A Singular Prophecy, click on the image of the cover, above.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Arm and Flanagan

My latest fiction publication. I'm putting it out as an e-book on Amazon, etc.

It's a novella or a very long story, or something like that. A mixture of suspense and sf, and hopefully Twilight Zoneish. It's just over 13,000 words. Publishing fiction of this length is something new for me. You can't charge less than 99 cents on Amazon, and I have no idea how people feel about paying a dollar for something of that length.

So far, The Arm and Flanagan is available in Kindle format on Amazon (, and also on Smashwords in various formats. It will be showing up in the other online stores over the next few weeks.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Red Riding Hood

I just watched part of the recent movie "Red Riding Hood" on TV.

I had no idea that all the girls in a typical medieval village were so hot. And had such nice teeth. The young male leads were also quite pretty, and it's even possible that some of them are heterosexual. It was a flop in the theaters, I believe; it should have been a CW series.

Gary Oldman chewed the scenery as a strange (of course!) priest. At one point, when looking for a witch among the villagers, he says that one of the signs to look for is a person exhibiting strange odors. Oh, Father. It's the Middle Ages.