Friday, November 27, 2009

Technology from Star Trek: The VISOR

Everyone knows that Star Trek has contributed to popular technology in many ways. For instance, cell phones were based on the concept of the communicator. OV-101 was named Enterprise, not after the famous carrier then in service, but after the fictional starship commanded by Jim Kirk on the television show. Personal computing was a fantasy in 1967, but a reality by 1984 with the launch of the Macintosh - and a necessity by 2000.

Now we have a new example of Star Trek's fiction becoming reality: Geordi LaForge's VISOR. In Star Trek, the VISOR takes visual input on several levels and sends it right to the brain, bypassing Geordi's non-functioning optic nerve. This lets the character see, though not quite as people do. Visually, the VISOR is a clip-like thing that sits over the eyes.

Well, science has done it again. The Daily Mail reports that a 51 year old man named Peter Lane is now seeing for the first time in 30 years once he was fitted with a device that takes camera input, digitizes it with a small belt-mounted computer, and sends it to his eyes in a series of lines and dots. While it isn't as functional as Geordi's VISOR, it is a start, and for Peter Lane, it is surely all the difference in the world.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ronald Reagan, Scored by the RNC's Reagan Unity Principle

The Republican National Committee has come up with the idea of charting future Republican candidates against a so-called "Reagan Unity Principle", holding all these Republicans running for office to a field of idealistic Reagan-like ideals. Candidates who fail to meet 8 or more of these ideals would be refused funding by the RNC as being ideologically unpure. The RNC will score candidates based on their voting record and public statements. I wonder how President Reagan would score?

The entire text can be found here (via Taegan Goddard's Political Wire).

So, let's take a look at them, shall we?

(1) We support smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama’s “stimulus” bill;

Oh, bravo. Ronald Reagan certainly supported smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits, and lower taxes, right?

Except, that when he was Governor of California, Reagan raised taxes. But that was in order to pay off the Californian deficit. Yet, he didn't seem to care so much about that when he was president: Reagan originally slashed taxes, but two years later increased those taxes somewhat. The US debt rose from 909 billion to 3.2 trillion from 1980 to 1990 - eight of those years were under Reagan. In addition, government expenditure still increased, albeit at a slower level than previously. So, Ronald Reagan clearly fails this section.

(2) We support market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare;

This is certainly true. While health care was not a major issue in the 1980s, Reagan was very slow to act on the AIDS crisis. He was certainly not interested in interfering with health care, even in this limited area. Reagan gets the RNC Seal of Approval on this one.

(3) We support market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation;

Such things did not exist when Ronald Reagan was president. However, Reagan did think that acid rain was nonsense, he deregulated the oil industry, and used federal environmental funds for political purposes. Seal of Approval!

(4) We support workers’ right to secret ballot by opposing card check;

Yeah, Ronald "Strikebuster" Reagan supports workers' rights.

(5) We support legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants;

Again, illegal immigration wasn't particularly an issue during Reagan's years as presidency. So I have no idea what Reagan was perceived to have done to defend the United States against the evil brown people who want to work for a living. So this is going to be an "invalid point".

(6) We support victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges;

Ronald Reagan wasn't a very big fan of sending soldiers to actually fight. In fact, most of his presidency involved America paying others to fight for them. But he does like invading weak countries like Grenada. Presumably, he'd be okay with fighting a war the US was already in. Again, Reagan wasn't really on the record about Afghanistan and Iraq, having withdrawn from public life in early 2001 to battle Alzheimer's. This point is again invalid.

(7) We support containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat;

Ronald Reagan secretly sold weapons to Iran. He was not interested in containing them, rather arming them so he could fund his pet projects in Latin America covertly. Reagan fails at this point.

(8) We support retention of the Defense of Marriage Act;

Reagan is said to be personally tolerant to gay people, but firmly was against GTLB rights. He gets the RNC Seal of Bigoted Approval!

(9) We support protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing health care rationing and denial of health care and government funding of abortion; and

Reagan was very firmly anti-abortion for most of his political career. However, very early on, as Governor of California, he signed into law the "Theraputic Abortions Act" which was designed to reduce back-alley abortion. While this turned Reagan, personally, against abortion (so he claimed), the RNC is unlikely to forgive a moment of ideological impurity. So he is denied on this point, because Ronald Reagan once supported abortion rights, in even a small and limited way.

In addition, he appointed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who is pro-abortion, to the Supreme Court, something that could never be supported by conservatives today.

(10) We support the right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership;

By the same note, Justice O'Connor voted for gun control. As a Justice appointed by President Reagan, he must be held accountable for choosing a judge that could not be relied upon by the conservative movement to uphold one of their Reagan Unity Principles. Thus, Reagan fails.

So, in conclusion, the Republican National Committee would not support Ronald Reagan if he were to rise from the dead and run for President once more, finding that he is not ideologically pure enough to deserve support, based on a rose-tinted look back at the terrible President of Ronald Reagan.

Thought From Canada, November 23rd, 2009

Dear United States;

Hi there, been following your goings-on for awhile, and I'd like to toss in my few cents about a couple things. First of all, I gotta confess - I'm generally a big fan of what you've done. World War II, Eisenhower, the Moon Landing, and Obama, that's pretty cool stuff. But obviously, there's some things that a Canadian like me just doesn't get right away. It takes some time to ponder the character of America and really understand it.

So, let's talk about the big political to-do of the month: Former Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. Everyone knows about this lady - she's a dynamic, charismatic, and polarizing figure in American politics. I'd love to do a review of her, but why bother? Everyone already has an opinion on the lady. Let me just say that my opinion of Governor Palin is not very flattering, nor am I fond of her.

But I do not think she is an idiot, as many have said.

There's a lot of people who dismiss Palin out of hand, calling her a half-term governor of a backwards state. Some use the term "Caribou Barbie" (admittedly, so have I, as offensive as the term truly is). And others just laugh about how she "can see Russia from [her] house".

This needs to stop. Governor Palin is one of the scariest people in politics today. I spent some time yesterday considering other American political figures to whom she is analogous, and discarded many possibilities. She's certainly not George W. Bush - Bush only paid lip service to the base which Palin clearly adores and revels in. By the same manner, she's not George H. W. Bush, nor is she Ronald Reagan, both of whom were closer to centre than the second Bush. I don't think she resembles Barry Goldwater, nor do I think she is similar to Nixon.

She reminds me most of George Wallace. Like George Wallace, Palin is the embodiment of a section of American society that has been largely and loudly informed are now out of date, unwanted by the public in general. There's a lot of anger about that sort of thing, and it shows. George Wallace was a pro-segregation candidate during the 1960s; Sarah Palin is a pro-religious right, pro-life, small government, no tax, less educated white candidate, and as a result, reflects the demographics of around 30% of Americans, much as Governor Wallace did. This is a vocal, loud, and frankly vicious group of people who are demanding to be heard and considered as the majority, when they are, in fact, not.

The existence of Sarah Palin as a political force is indicative of an upcoming difficult decade of American politics. The upcoming presidential election is likely to be a divisive force on the Republican Party, much as the 1968 was divisive to the Democratic Party. This is because internal infighting over the future soul of the Republican Party will rend the GOP heavily, and Palin is going to be front and centre.

Face facts: nobody has mobilized the Republican base like Sarah Palin since Ronald Reagan. Nobody. But when she is rejected by Republican voters in the primaries (as she surely will be), how will she react? It is unlikely that the winner of the primary will offer her a place on the ticket. It is even less likely that she would accept if offered. Would she consider a run as a third party candidate, dooming the GOP to another four years of Barack Obama?

These are questions we won't know the answer to until 2012. But they are worth pondering. We can, however, guess some things by looking at the former Governor's record. We know the woman quits when the going gets tough. Don't give me that bullshit about how she quit to protect Alaska; she quit because people were watching her like a hawk after the election, and it turns out she's not a particularly good governor who was overloaded with ethics complaints. As a private citizen, she's able to make hundreds of thousands of dollars per appearance, "write" a best-selling book, and avoid the close scrutiny of her activities that must go along with public office.

I don't think the scrutiny bothers here when she's working towards a goal. Certainly it didn't dissuade her during the campaign, when she made wild and factually incorrect accusations against her opponents. I think what bothered here is that she might get bogged down and her image tarnished by her term as governor. Quitting only harms her brand in the eyes of those who already dislike her - those who appreciate her agree that what she did was for the good of Alaska.

However, one has to wonder whether, if her race towards the Republican nomination falters, she will deem the ongoing scrutiny of her brand to be worth it as the surely vicious campaign drags on. As a result, I think that unless she is an early frontrunner, she will bow out quickly - even if she is in second place, unless it is an extremely close second. Whether or not she quits the Republican Party (much as Wallace quit the Democratic Party) will be determined by how bad the damage to her is; if she was severely lambasted, I wouldn't expect to see her at the convention, especially if the person whom handled her worst wins. Sarah Palin holds grudges; one only needs to hear the excerpts from her books to realize that. She holds grudges publicly, and I am quite sure she would refuse her support to a particularly distasteful candidate.

Would she split the party?

This one I can't even guess at. She likes to portray herself as a rogue. But how far is she willing to go? I don't know. A split might destroy the GOP permanently; it would certainly guarantee a Barack Obama victory in 2012, and it would harm the GOP brand for a long time. But I don't know if she's audacious enough to do it, nor if she believes in herself enough to try. That question will stay up in the air.

Twitter Movie Night?

So I was on teh Twitter and I had an idea: watching a movie as a group on Twitter and tweeting each other about it. No idea what that movie will be or anything, but I thought a blog post is a good place to start.

The basic idea is that we will share, in short text bursts, sarcastic comments and deep inner thought about a movie of mutual interest. I believe that finding a movie that will be acceptable to all shall be the first challenge, given that we are several different people with many different tastes. I like just about anything, as long as it doesn't star Hugh Grant or is produced by MTV. Beyond that, we can talk.

Secondly, we need a hashtag to put it on teh Twitter. I was thinking #twitternmovie but I have no idea if that's gonna work or something. Thoughts.

Comments are down there!

Friday, November 20, 2009

TNG Episode Review: "Who Watches the Watchers"

"Who Watches the Watchers" is the fourth episode of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I haven't seen it in quite some time, certainly not since I began identifying as an atheist. Upon watching it last night I was rather taken by how strongly pro-reason and anti-religion the episode is, and I think that it deserves a second look.

It should be noted that Star Trek has always handled the subject of religion carefully. The few times the concept has been raised, the answer (once in the form of Picard speaking to Data) was that knowledge isn't complete, and who knows - not a pro-religion answer, and it reminds me of the famous quote by Dumbledore, "After all, to the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure." Other cultures have been very strongly religious (the Bajorans, specifically, as well as Chakotay in Voyager) but there's never been a truly "divine" intervention.

(It should be noted that the original series sometimes had some wonky pro-god stuff, like the episode with the Roman Empire where people discovered the Son of God. I'm talking about modern Star Trek here, not hippie Trek.)

In this episode, the Enterprise is on their way to relieve a survey station wherein Federation archaeologists are studying a culture called the Mintakans, a proto-Vulcan race that is governed by reason, unusual for many humanoid species at this stage of development, but not unusual for the proto-Vulcan style beings they are. However, before the Enterprise can arrive to relieve the surveyors and repair their "duck blind", the station's core explodes, dropping the holographic screen, allowing the Mintakans to see the station.

An away team beams down to the station to begin recovery and rescue operations, however, a Mintakan named Liko climbs up to the station, looking inside and gettin1g shocked by touching the downed holo screen. With Liko critically injured, Dr. Crusher decides to bring him up to the Enterprise for emergency surgery. Picard lambasts Crusher about violating the Prime Directive; she promises to try and wipe Liko's memory, but says that his proto-Vulcan brain is resistant to the methods used for removing his short term memory.

Liko is returned to the surface; meanwhile, the survey team realizes that one of their members, Palmer, is missing - having fallen out of the duck blind after the core explosion. Troi and Riker are surgically altered to look like Mintakans and beam down to the planet. Here they find Liko telling the Mintakans about his encounter with "The Picard", who he claims is the deific Overseer that the Mintakans had stopped worshipping generations ago, who brought him back to life from the dead.

Riker and Troi relay that the Mintakan civilization has been contaminated by Crusher's interference; they find out how contaminated when the Mintakans find a badly injured Palmer. A discussion of what to do with Palmer arises, Liko insisting that he must have been punished by "The Picard", and the group considers that they should finish the punishment. Riker and Troi argue against this view and for using reason; but Liko insists. Troi distracts the group while Riker escapes with Palmer, but he is seen, and Troi is captured after Riker and Palmer beam out.

The length of contamination is evident; the survey leader believes that belief in the Overseer will spread throughout the Mintakan homeworld from this point, and urges Picard to appear to the Mintakans to set rules for the newly rediscovered religion. Picard, for his credit, is horrified by the concept of a religion arising on a world that had known none:

Horrifying... Dr. Barron, your report describes how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? No!

A traditional, but brilliant, Picard speech. Instead, Picard decides to beam up the Mintakans' leader, Nuria. He shows her the Enterprise, explaining that that he is simply from a culture that has greater technology than the Mintakans, much as the Mintakans have learned to build homes, weave cloth, and create powerful bows, his people have learned to sail the stars. Even still, she refuses to believe that Picard is not a god until she watches the death of one of the members of the survey team.

On the planet, things are getting worse. Liko insists that, due to the arrival of a storm, "The Picard" is angry at Troi. He wants to punish her for Riker stealing away with Palmer, hoping to please the god he now worships. As Liko is about to shoot Troi with his bow, both Nuria and Picard arrive. Nuria tells Liko that she has watched members of Picard's people die, but Niko insists Picard is a god, begging for the man to bring his wife back to life.

When Picard responds that he cannot, because he is just a man, Liko (in desperation) points his bow at Picard. Nuria tries to get in the way, but Picard pushes her aside, telling Niko to shoot, if it's the only way that Picard can prove that he is a mortal man. Niko shoots, but his daughter tries to push him aside at the last moment; Picard is shot through the collarbone, and his blood is the final proof that he isn't god.

The episode ends with Picard revealing the duck blind to the Mintakans, and they express a willingness to eventually learn to sail the stars, much as the crew of the Enterprise does, having again relinquished their belief in the Overseer.

So, here's the deal. Picard sees a species that has abandoned religious beliefs, and when they want to pick those back up, he wigs the fuck out and declares that he will not have it, even violating the Prime Directive more so that he can save the Mintakans from the fate of having a religious destiny.

Is religion that bad? The answer would seem to be yes. Picard says it himself - the history of religion is a history of war, torture, violence, and hatred. The Mintakans have an unusual advantage in that they realized at an early stage of civilization that such things are bullshit; as a result, they appear capable of advancing rapidly, and considering their situation in manner we wouldn't ascribe to, say, 800s Europe.

In the end, Picard sees the danger to the Mintakan people that religion poses, specifically a vindictive, violent religion that appeared to be welling up around his visage. He takes some serious steps to get the Mintakans back on the course of reason. In the end, when he faced down Liko and demanded that the Mintakan shoot him to prove his point, Picard proved that he would rather be killed by a primitive arrow than corrupt a reason-based society with the evils of religion.

Extrapolating a bit, what are the writers and producers trying to say? Memory Alpha doesn't really have any behind-the-scenes discussion of this episode, but it is a known fact that religion is responsible for probably more deaths than any other social phenomena, including Nazism and Communism (consider, the Reformation, the Crusades, the conquests of Africa, Asia and the Americas, the taming of the noble savage, manifest destiny, 9/11, the Iranian Revolution, and the destruction of Jerusalem, for starters). To me, they're warning us that religion when taken seriously and considered ahead of reason has only one course: death and disaster.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

How not to design a website

So, I chat on the internets. And I understand this is a geeky and nerdy thing to do, especially when you balance it out by me saying that it's primarily roleplaying online. Whatever, fuck you. I do what I want.

The site I most commonly use has just merged with another and created a new site. Okay, that's nice, a larger member base and such means a more successful site, right? Wrong. They basically created a new site from nothing and replaced the previous sites with a pre-alpha build, the sort of thing a muppet wouldn't ponder doing.

Portal of Dreams is supposed to be a collaborative effort in creating the sort of site that everyone would want to visit for their chatting needs. OK, not that there's a huge market out there, but there is one, so sure, create the dominant site. You first of all hit a welcome page, and then the whochat. Portal of Dreams has tried a different whochat where each "section" has its own screen, and it shows a display of the current users.

But it doesn't fucking work. Everything says 0 visitors, so you have to open the individual whochats anyway (clicky for bigger):

I tried this on all five browsers I have (IE, Chrome, FF, Safari, and Opera), and it didn't work with any of them. So, there's one feature one might expect to work (where people are actually chatting), and it's just not going. I mean, let's be honest - this may not be a feature that yet works. But, if that's the case, why set it up so it looks like it should. That's what you do in an alpha build.

Visually, this first page looks okay. I don't think it looks great, but they kept it simple, stupid. The text along the top is a little...too phony looking, and the various links are pretty simple, but that's fine. Where it fails is where it displays the six constituent whochats - they don't look like "portals" or "doors", there's not even a cheap flash or javascript to make them look fancy. They're screenshots on a page without borders or anything. Add in the fact that the damn screenshots themselves are buttugly...well. I'll get to that later.

Alright, let's click on one (my fav. section, Medieval and History), and see what happens:

Okay, so let's take a look. The background is a nice gradient, which is OK. The banner up at the top looks a little comicy, but at least it seems to fit the theme. The buttons are there, and they have a decent look to them. The border at the bottom, however, appears to hit a shade too early, and the copyright text is over it, and blends. In addition, the orange colour chosen for the subrooms blends with the red gradient, and makes them progressively more difficult to read.

The biggest thing I am noticing here is that there's no way to return to the front page. So, if I want to go to another section, I have to click the go back button in my browser. This is poor website design, especially if you're like me - I tend to open these things in tabs, so the go back button doesn't work. They don't even link back to the original page at the bottom, where it says the page is Copyright Portal of Dreams. So that's a huge fail when it comes to convenience, and one that will be repeated in every section whochat on the site.

Overall, though, while I wouldn't call it appealing, it's mostly functional. I give it a solid B. And it gets worse from here. Check out this clusterfuck:

What the fuck is that skull thing? It's a shitty cg-style devil's head that wouldn't look out of place in a 1992 adventure film. The colour scheme here is drab and pretty much ugly. The navigation buttons on the left have a completely different and totally not-fitting font, and the letters look to disconnect from the buttons, which just look slapped in over the background graphics without thought to how they should integrate with the page (unlike on the medieval/historical page). You can hardly read the heading, the letters are so tiny and muted.

While I'm complaining about the buttons, it should be noted that the contact link on this page is broken. I tried it, again, in all 5 browsers, and none of them worked. So yeah, broken links are a huge no-no, and given that there's only like 36 links on the fucking site, it's inexcusable that one of them shouldn't work.

We also come to the first major inconsistency on the website. On the entry page, the overall whochat, and the medieval page, all the "All rights reserved" text have been links to the copyright statement for the website, which is good copyright practise. On this page, the link is not there. Not a major thing, something that could easily be missed in an alpha release, but really it goes to show that whoever designed the various pages was inconsistent, a theme I am going to hit on later.

The centre text is very difficult to read. The primary function of the whochat is to show you what users are in what rooms, letting you know if a friend is present, or if there's someone you want to avoid. They're the first place new chatters look to, and they are oft drawn to sites that have a large amount of users. But wherever that stupid devil's head is, I can't read the name of the room without squinting. In addition, the spacing between logged-in users is very small, giving it a crowded and poorly arranged appearance.

Finally, check out the background. You'll notice that the background is set in an appx. 800x600 section, and that the colour gradient of the extended background is different to the centre section. They don't match, making the background and the centre arrangement look out of step. The end result is the whole page is ugly. Final grade: D.

Here's why I'm testing in multiple browsers:

That's the front page for the Lifestyles section, in Opera, Safari, and Firefox. It's hard to see here, but look at the buttons. Each one displays a little differently. Opera looks the best, I think - it looks like the transparency works alright. Firefox takes on a more muted appearance around the buttons, and if that's the design, then it works (but I think the Opera experience is closer to what's intended). Safari looks bad. You can see the cuts along the corners in it, and where hasty erasing was done. It's not quite as clear in that screenshot, but go download Safari. You'll see what I mean.

For reference, Chrome looks the same as Opera and IE looks like Firefox.

In addition, each button is its own image, and the transparency effect is an illusion made on each button. That's fine, but the problem is that while the first 2 buttons line up, they don't line up after that, till there's a 2-3 mm. difference in the last button. I don't get why you'd even try if that's the result.

Okay, on to the whochat:

Actually, this isn't bad. The text is easily read, the spacing is good, the little links down at the bottom all work. My biggest critique is twofold: when you open the section from the overall front page, unlike the other two I have reviewed, this brings you to the selection screen I saw earlier. I mean, I don't think it's that necessary to add a second click when one will do. People have already had a chance to access the forums and their memberpages from the original whochat, and if you're room editing, it's the same amount of clicks as previous (whochat then room editor, instead of welcome page, then room editor). Other sections do this too, giving you the idea that nobody really thought it out. Anyway, it's an overall of an A-, and it would have been an A+ if it wasn't for the inconsistency and the fact that swirling plasma streams have nothing to do with "lifestyles".

One more of these whochats:

Egads! This is the Themes section, and it is a giant turd. Look at the banner - those are several images melded together, including at least three copyrighted images (Agent 47, the Joker, and Spiderman). The quality of the various pictures is dubious, the transition amateurish, and what the hell did they do to 47's aspect ratio? And I get the yellow title, but don't write "Circa-2009". There's no hyphen needed. Christ, learn some fucking punctuation.

Then you get a black bar with the various links in it. Okay, that works, but then the background directly below it has a blueish tint, and the thing above doesn't have a black tint either. It just looks like it was stuck right in the middle for no fucking reason other than they couldn't find a better place to put it.

And what the dick is that background! It looks like it was directed by JJ Abrams! You know, you might be trying to say "Sci-fi", but really, it's not necessary, especially since it breaks with the banner at the top, which is colourful, at least, and then you have this essentially monochrome background. Now, originally they had a room over the giant lens-flare in the centre, and people had to complain for them to move it. Not that it's much better now. Try to read "Enchantica". You can't really.

Again, the rooms extend beyond the background image, into this shitty grey fill colour that doesn't match with any of the content of the page. It's not as ugly overall as the Vamp page was, but it's more of an unmeasured clusterfuck than any of the other pages. Overall grade: D-.

I'm not going to show you much more. The chatrooms themselves aren't bad, and are some of the more advanced ones I've seen, so that's good. The memberpages don't have log out options, which is stupid. A lot of the previous code is just being changed now (when I started this review, all the room editors had reference to Alter Realm, the previous page, but has since been updated to say Portal of Dreams). It's a copy and paste hackjob, and it's utterly infuriating.

I am going to bitch about the board, though. It's one of the most infuriating things I've ever read. And it's fucking ugly - lots of reds in it. Like the rest of the site, the individual pages just straight-up don't have unified colour schemes when comparing the other sections, making everything a mess to pull up. You'd never know they're part of the same site to look at them. The board is terrible, too. A lot of functions I take for granted (like skip to newest unread post) either don't exist or are difficult to find. I don't know what the indicator icons mean, and when I mouseover them, nothing happens. It's infuriating and a crap piece of software. Isn't SMF free?

Really, is this the product you expect me to pay for? I put hard-earned money into the previous site, which was not particularly great, but at least it didn't have graphic mishmashes, broken links, and terrible page coding, and it was simple enough to work on the five major browsers. And they came back with this piece of crap. Sure, they're fixing a lot of the issues, but if I was testing this site, I wouldn't have let it past anything. It feels like an alpha build at best, it's inconsistent and frequently ugly as a ten car pileup.

Way to fuck it up, guys. Final grade: D+.

Book Review: Memories of the Future

Memories of the Future, by Wil Wheaton, is a review of the first thirteen episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation by one of the actors in the series, and one who has a unique bend on the series. Wil is best known to Trekkies for playing the oft-despised character of Wesley Crusher, and was 14 when he worked on the first season of TNG. Since then he's gone on to be an occasional actor and a successful author, but I have not read any of his previous books, nor have I really paid much attention to his career since TNG until I hooked up to, which has a love affair with the man.

I started following Wil on Twitter, and eventually he posted a link to something called Memories of the Futurecast, a podcast wherein he reads an excerpt of a chapter of Memories of the Future, one each week for thirteen weeks. He promised they'd be 5-6 minutes, and of course most of them are at least 20, and utterly hilarious. So I decided, why not buy the book? I was at work, and Lulu offers a download for $10 USD of the PDF, DRM-free (Wil is a big supporter of Creative Commons and the like).

My reaction to the book was, overall, I thought it was hilarious. Wil's well-applied snark doesn't remind me of a super-polished comedy routine, but more of the same sort of sarcasm I would apply with my group of nerdy friends whilst watching the same episodes, and it works better for that. The Futurecast reminds us of how heavily Wil works on each review, and I think that he did a great job maintaining the "off the cuff" feeling of the synopsis.

He then would offer some behind-the-scenes memories, which I think most Trekkies would love the most. To be honest, I enjoyed the snark just as much as I did the memories, but some are just fun. Futurecast tends to share a few more of those memories as well - it's recommended to listen to the episodes just for that. There's some really great memories and thoughts which I shan't spoil here. If you're a devoted Trekkie, Memories of the Future is worth it just for these thirteen sections.

Finally, Wil grades each episode based on its content and its audience expectations. One of the things that is incredibly evident is that Wil *understands* Star Trek in a unique way. He grew up as a nerd, and immersed himself in that in a way impossible for anyone else, living his teen years on the show. He gets the way the relationship between the individual episodes and us fans get, and he vocalized a lot of my thoughts in an efficient and really well-thought manner. He offers insights on each episode as to what might make it a better episode, even if they did something as simple as rearranging the aired order, and it made sense to me.

Understandably, Wil aims a lot of his snark at Wesley Crusher. Poor Wesley is always maligned without reason (I don't think he was written and better or worse than any of the characters in the first and second seasons. OK. A little bit worse...adults), even though he provided some *great* moments later (The First Duty, The Game, and Final Mission are all among my favourite episodes). To be honest, sometimes I feel like he's harping on Wesley to impress me, but some of the critiques are true too. He had me laughing, but sometimes I questioned if I was laughing because I'm supposed to laugh at Wesley.

The author is in line with a lot of my opinions on the early TNG episodes. I was...what? Three when TNG debuted? One of my earliest memories is my parents making me stay up to watch Encounter at Farpoint. But TNG doesn't enter conscious, constant memory until I was around 5-6, so third or fourth season. When I watch the first season, I get a feeling of familiarity but not the instant click of recollection I get with everything from Best of Both Worlds forward. As a result, I've always tossed Season 1 aside mentally, assuming every episode was like Justice or The Naked Now. Wil's made me go back and watch The Big Goodbye, and it's really helping me to understand some of that early genius - how there's that spark in TNG that convinced the network to renew it.

Overall, this book had me laughing, and was well worth $10. But make sure you read it with Memory of the Futurecast - it completes the experience. I can't wait for Part 2...I need to hear what Wil is gonna say about Angel One!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Nano 2009: Chapter 1

Moving quietly, the five men of the assault squad crept up to the wall made of sand-bricks, crouching down for cover behind it. A sixth man was already there, and he was peering through a long, slim tube that protruded above the wall, which was just over waist height. Pitching his voice low, the leader of the squad leaned in and whispered, “Report.”

“Activity is as previously described, sir,” the scout said. The captain nodded, and he made a hand motion. Immediately the group split into two; the scout and another soldier moving with the captain to the left, the other three heading around the wall to the right.

Another hand motion, and all of the soldiers lowered down their night vision goggles, engaging them, flooding their vision with green lights that grew brighter as they detected a form of heat. The three-story building before the soldiers was made of the same bricks as the wall, and as a result, was quite good at insulating heat, revealing little of the Taliban mujahideen inside. However, the two on the roof were quite thoroughly revealed to the captain’s eye.

The scout was already lowering his rifle and taking careful aim, concealed by the shadows of the building and his carefully patterned desert camouflage. The captain knew that one of the other soldiers would be doing the same. After a few seconds, both the bodies on the roof crumpled noiselessly.

Afterwards, the captain moved quickly up to the building itself, his soldiers following. The other group of men slipped around to the rear entrance, both snipers leaving the rifles behind and picking up suppressed sub machine guns. The captain reached out and carefully tried the doorknob, but found it locked. He attached a tiny, shaped charge to the latch and then waited for a moment.

“Captain, we’re prepared to breach,” a voice whispered into his ear, through the small microphone there. He nodded and whispered back, softly.

“Ten seconds,” he responded.

He counted to ten, slowly, and then pressed the small button for the shape charge. There was a soft, dull thud, and the door creaked open. The captain’s size ten boot kicked it hard, and it flew open. He and the other two men rushed into the door. There was no power to the building, casting most of it in shadow. The suppressors emitted dull whomps as the soldiers shot the several men in the room, rapidly, before any of them could grasp for their AK-47s or other weapons.

After a few seconds the other assaulters joined up with the soldiers in the front room. “All clear, captain,” the Welshman leading that group reported.

“Take your group upstairs. We’ll take the basement.” The Welsh sergeant nodded and moved to the stairs up, whilst the captain headed to the stairs down. He led his two followers down, slowly, making sure the snout of his MP5 was pointed forward.

The loud noise of an AK-47 reverbrated from above, and the captain paused, hoping his soldiers were alright. Then he kicked open the door before him and charged through, sending small spurts of 9mm rounds at the guards in the room, men easily identified by the larger robes they wore. Lifting up his night vision, the captain moved to the small cells set in the walls.

Seven women and one man were locked in the tiny cells. The women had instinctively curled away from the cage with the sudden noise of the door opening and the onset of violence; the one man looked unconscious. Moving in close to the cages, the captain whispered softly to the prisoners. “Stand back…move him away from the door.” The captain and one of the other soldiers attached more of the tiny explosive charges to the locks on the cages and moved back. After a nod, both men detonated their small charges, causing the cage doors to swing open with a loud squeak.

“There you are, lass, it’ll be alright now,” the captain said. The nearby woman recoiled a hint, for a moment, but the quiet Scottish brogue of the leader seemed to calm her a bit. He reached out for her hand, and she got up, slowly, shuddering as she rose. He smiled to her. “Come with us, lass, and we'll have you kindly on your way.”

One of the soldiers moved to help pick up the unconscious man. His face was thrown into relief for the first time as the captain removed his nightvision, revealing how badly beaten and broken the fellow's face was. He didn't wince, but he moved to usher the others towards the stairs.

The radio crackled for a moment. “Sir, the rooftop is clear. Evac choppers are on the way.”

“Understood. We're on our way.” The women shuffled up the stairs after one of the captain's men, followed by the two people supporting the unconscious, well-abused male prisoner. The captain went last, following them up the three steps of stairs to the top floor, where the other soldiers met up with the prisoners, assisting them up the ladder to the roof.

A helicopter was moving in slowly towards the roof, which was fairly wide and open. The soldiers had the prisoners hide on the edge as the chopper was waved in by one of the men, whilst the others moved to the various edges, watching carefully.

It was difficult to hear over the whir of the chopper, but after a moment, one of the soldiers turned his head, and called out, loudly, “Trucks, sir! Two trucks coming in!” The captain scurried to the edge indicated by the lookout, hefting up his MP5 as he peeked over the small lip on the side of the building.

“Sergeant, get those people on that chopper!” he ordered the Welshman. “Everyone else, suppressing fire on those vehicles!” Both of the trucks were Toyotas, stripped down and with a heavy machine gun mounted, and both guns started to fire their thick rounds after they realized they'd been spotted.

Sand bricks exploded as .50 calibur shells smashed through them, while the soldiers returned fire, their much lighter weapons spurting down from atop the building. Their fire was far more accurate, and one of the first rounds took out one of the gunners. Taliban warriors spread out from the trucks, holding up Kalashnikovs, firing them randomly at the soldiers on the rooftop.

“Sir!” came the voice of the Welsh sergeant. “Time to go!” The captain waved away the other soldiers, standing up and emptying his clip at the enemy, turning to dash for the helicopter, as the side of the building exploded. The next thing he knew, one of his soldiers was pulling the captain into the side of the helicopter, holding his body in as the aircraft pulled away from the crumbling brick building before another RPG round lashed out through the air.

“Hold on, sir! You're gonna be fine!” someone said. The captain noticed pressure around his stomach, and looked down. His nightvision goggles were gone, and he could see thick liquid seeping out around someone's palm. Moving hurt, and he tried to move his arm, only to feel a stabbing pain just below his elbow. Something was broken.

A needle punctured his thigh as one of the soldiers hit him with a suchet, and immediately the captain felt the pain subside. The sensation of leaving his body slowly took hold, and after a few more moments of morphine-induced delight, he lost consciousness. The helicopter flew on.