Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Book Review: Shadow of the Giant by Orson Scott Card

( #EndersGame )



After my last review, I almost quit reading the “Ender Series”. But since there was only one book left of the “Shadow Saga”, I wanted to see how it all worked out. I am glad I stuck with it because “Shadow of the Giant” was much better than the last two books.

The book definitively wraps up the hegemon storyline concluding with Peter Wiggin as an old man. The last two books depicted the battle to unify humanity under one world government after the “Formic Wars”. Some of it was good, some of it was bad, most of it was “meh”. Since "Shadow of the Giant" was the finale, the writing in this book was consistent, the motives were much clearer, and (for the most part) none of these “genius” characters did anything that defied logic (although there was the one scene were Peter’s parents talk about farting which was out of place).

Card does a solid job getting most of the characters to reasonable places to make the end battle tie everything up...except Virlomi who somehow decides she is a goddess for no reason and foolishly leads the Indian army against China. Essentially, Orson Card trapped himself by establishing the battle school graduates are all military prodigies, none of them can make a mistake “unless they temporarily go nuts”. And I say temporarily because the second she loses, she comes back to her senses and they give her an entire planet to lead. Really.

The point about Virlomi’s behavior brings me to my other major criticism: Card treats his female characters horribly:
1. Valentine from the first series is supposed to be a genius but always plays supportive second fiddle to Ender and Peter. She never really has a defining moment in any of the books.
2. Mrs. Wiggin is first written to be an idiot, but then fleshed out in the Shadow saga to be really smart but bitter and sarcastic.
3. Petra is relegated to becoming a baby making machine. 10 children total by the end of her life. Card gives her one scene were she leads a small campaign which was written off as “a distraction.” Also, she is the only one of Ender’s Jeesh in the first book to crack under the pressure of the battles, a point brought up often, but she never really has an epic dare to be great situation where she gets the stink off.
4. I mentioned Virlomi’s issues above
5. Since I am talking about all the female characters, Ender’s wife in the first series - Novinha is an absolutely horrible bitch. No redeeming qualities at all. Her character is a narrative black hole. The Novinha character essentially ruins Ender so badly that Card kind of hits a magic reset button to get him out of the marriage while saving face.

Readers - is there one female character that comes out positive (don’t say Jane, she is a computer)?

Female issues aside, I would rank Shadow of the Giant #3 (out of the 8 books) in terms of quality and payoff. There was an emotionally satisfying end for Peter and ties back to the original books. It is funny how the four “Shadow Saga” books have echoed the original four, Card seems to get tired of his main character and shifts focus to someone else by the end. In "Children of the Mind", Ender was in such bad shape as a character, Card literally flushed the toilet and made a new Ender. In the Shadow series, Bean is the focus, but by the fourth book Peter becomes the lead. This time around, Card does it much more gracefully and the results are considerably better. I enjoyed this last book so much that I purchased "Ender in Exile" to read, so be on the lookout for that review.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Rant: Apple Products

( #iPod, #Apple)


Note: I really hate this commercial. Bring back Feist :-)

I have had this conversation so much over the last few weeks that I decided to document it, so I can just point to this post instead of actually having to say it again. Sorry in advance to the Apple fan boys.

So to get right to the point, why don’t I buy Apple products? I won’t buy the laptops because they are underpowered and very expensive. The end. That being said, their native video editing software is MUCH better than anything that comes for free on Windows (or Linux). So I can completely understand someone in the video field having a Mac.

What about iPods/iPads? Lets start with the device itself. I had one about 5 years ago. The damn thing NEVER synced right. NEVER! So I bought a $15 dollar Sansa on Woot, and it is still alive, has great battery life, and works exactly like I want it to. To further my point, even though I was off the iPod bandwagon, I got one for my wife 2 years ago and she had the same damn problems. I hate the iTunes desktop program with a passion. I hate that Genius sidebar. And I don’t think it is a very intuitive piece of software when it comes to managing your music collection. Windows Media Player actually does a better job. Seriously. How is that even possible?

Now lets talk about the iPod eco-system. The iTunes store and their DRM-loaded, m4a file formats is an absolute abomination. I have a Xbox360, a Logitech Revue, PS3, 2 Android Phones (including my wife), a tablet, and a TV that streams DLNA. Out of all of those devices, the only thing that plays music from iTunes is the PS3. If I had a music collection that was all iTunes, I would have to buy an Apple TV (which is only 720P) or a few devices that support the format.

So up until 2010, the music file quality (bitrate) for iTunes was 128 kb/s, I read that they actually removed DRM and upped the quality to 256 kb/s which is a good move, but why not just sell in MP3 format so you can access your music on your other devices (you PAID for it!). Here is the bottom line on the quality issue: you are paying more money to buy an album on iTunes than a CD now costs, but if you rip the CD on your computer you get better quality (320 kb/s) and you can play the file on anything you want. I should also note that Amazon sells music in DRM-free, MP3 files at 256 kb/s and all of your purchases are backed up on their cloud.

I just recently converted a friend to a digital set up but it was pretty difficult since he purchased music via iTunes. I found a device made by Western Digital that does streaming and connects to home networks for music files (that transmits in 1080p). So for those who have not made several equipment purchases and are stuck with iTunes, this is a solid compromise. That being said, I have a friend who is just getting into digital music (most of his collection is still on CD) and he wanted to use iTunes, which I steered him away from. Here is a part of our most recent exchange that was kicked off after I sent him this article:
Friend: But what about scenarios like what Apple is imposing...low bitrate, but high quality. What becomes the test there? Or are you saying to avoid that type of situation entirely and never try to save space (which I think is silly anyway this day and age).

Me: Space is cheap, for music go for the higher encryption rates. Avoid their nonsense all-together. It will only work on their products anyway which doesn't help if you are listening through a good sound system. They are designing for the headphone/Apple TV crowd.

Friend: I agree 100% on all this. Apple makes nice-looking devices, but ultimately if you're into getting quality media from them, you're out of luck.

Me: Also if you are a 19 year old hipster living in NYC and listening to your iPod with the buds all day hopping trains and ignoring bums, it may work, but I listen to my music through my sound system... unencumbered.

Friend: BWAHAHAHA!
So that is basically why I avoid iTunes music and in general, Apple products. I am sure there are plenty of counter-arguments to be made, but I built an eco-system in my house that works and welcomes all sorts of equipment and I don’t want to change that.

Here is a question to my readers - will Apple let you re-download your previously purchased music files now DRM free and at the better bit rate?

PS: One more thing that drives me nuts is the media's illusion that everybody uses a Mac. If you are looking between Mac vs. PC users, Windows has 89.2% of the market.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Friday, February 24, 2012

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Recipe: Joey's Meatballs (v2)

( #meatballs )


NOTE: You can use whatever meat you want for this recipe, but I used a blend yesterday so that is what I am going to use in the directions.

INGREDIENTS:

Meatballs:
1 lb - ground Beef (80/20)
½ lb - ground veal
½ lb - ground pork
3 slices of Italian bread (cut off crusts and cube)
½ cup of milk
2 eggs
½ cup of breadcrumbs
½ cup of grated cheese (parm-reg)
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon parsley
½ teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon of garlic salt
salt and pepper to taste

Sauce:
1 16 oz can of crushed tomatoes
½ large Spanish onion (diced)
3 cloves of garlic (pressed/diced)
½ cup of white wine
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon parsley
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon thyme
salt and pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

You have to make the sauce first because you will line the pan when baking the meatballs.

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
2. Get a sauce pan and set stove top to medium heat. Add olive oil and let it warm up. Then add the onions and cook for about 4 minutes.
3. Add the garlic cook for 3 more minutes
4. Optional: Add a splash of Worcestershire sauce to the onions and garlic and stir.
5. Bring the heat to high and then add the white wine to glaze the onions (1-2 minutes - don’t let it burn)
6. Add the crushed tomatoes, mix everything well.
7. All the oregano, parsley, red pepper flakes, thyme, salt and pepper to the sauce. Mix well and then drop heat to a simmer.
8. Allow the sauce to cook for 15 minutes (leave the sauce in the pan, you will need this setup later)

9. Get a deep cookie sheet and line the pan with the tomato sauce. Set it aside until you are ready to roll the meatballs.
10. In a large bowl, soak the bread you cube in the milk. Let it get really soggy to the point that it falls apart.
11. Add the two eggs and the oregano, parsley, thyme, garlic salt, salt and pepper to the bowl and mix well.
12. Add the meat and mix with your hands. Then add the grated cheese and breadcrumbs. Continue to mix well with your hands.
13. Start to roll the meat into balls with your hands (I like them to be the diameter of a half dollar, or just a little bit smaller). Place the meatballs onto the cookie sheet that you put the sauce on.
14. Put the meatballs in the oven for 40 minutes.
15. Heat up the tomato sauce again and when the meatballs are done, put them in the pan and toss them around for 5 minutes to soak up the tomato sauce flavor.

Serve them in a bowl alone, in a sandwich, or with pasta.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Book Review: Shadow Puppets by Orson Scott Card

( #endersgame )



Continuing with my reviews of the “Shadow Saga” in the “Ender Universe”, I recently finished reading the third book in the series, “Shadow Puppets”. The book begins a short time after the events of “Shadow of the Hegemon”, and focuses on resolving the Achilles plot as well updating readers on what has happened to the rest of Ender’s Dragon Army.

Bean’s genetic disorder has increased his height greatly but he is still within a reasonable frame for a human being. Petra has fallen in love with Bean and spends the first chapters of the book convincing him to marry her. This is a good point to stop and address the “yuck factor”. As far as I can tell, both Bean and Petra are still children (early teens) and Card has Petra spending half the book yearning to have Bean’s babies. Card tries to steer away from ages in the book so readers understand the characters have “grown up”, but then you have the issue of Bean’s disorder and how he won’t live that long and you can’t get away from it.

The plot centers around Peter Wiggin’s decision to free Achilles from China. Bean and Petra flee the Hegemon compound and warn Peter of the mistake. And here is my issue with the book: it was a terrible plot device to justify having the third book. The characters spend the entire book attempting to avoid the dangerous Achilles and his plots to kill them. Every action the characters make are just completely off the wall, here is a sampling:
1. Peter’s mom, who has no military training, attempts to assassinate Achilles to save her son.
2. Bean and Petra decide to use the evil dude who created him to make test tube babies, and he promptly steals them (setting up the forth book).
3. At least two characters become religious military figures (wtf).
4. Bean’s loyal army just let Achilles take over (and then at the end reveal they were always loyal to Bean, they just needed Achilles to explain his plan).

You know what, let me save you some time so you don’t have to read this book... Bean kills Achilles, Petra is pregnant with Bean’s baby, Achilles was responsible for the theft of the test tube babies and has implanted them in his “followers”. Sorry Ender fans, this one was a total stinker.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Friday, February 10, 2012

Video: Blood On My Name

( #whitestone )

Last week I posted a video from Whitestone Motion Pictures, I also watched this short and I can't get the damn song out of my head...



PS: If you like the music, the production team has it available on the website.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Book Review: Shadow of the Hegemon by Orson Scott Card

( #EndersGame )



I finished reading the 2nd book in the “Bean Series” of the “Ender Saga” the other night and I wanted to get my thoughts down before getting too wrapped up in the third book. “Shadow of the Hegemon” takes places a few months after the conclusion of “Ender’s Shadow”. All of the military school graduates (except Ender) are back on Earth and seem to be struggling going back to their “normal lives”.

The villain from the last book, Achilles, somehow gets involved with Russia and starts kidnapping all of the battle school graduates. Ender’s crew become the most sought-after and are either kidnapped, co-opted, or re-kidnapped into serving various nations. Bean, being known as the smartest graduate to return, is targeted for death since Achilles convinces the other nations he won’t work with them. Of course Bean figures this out and gets himself and his family to safety. He knows all of this power-grabbing will start with war and end with a unified world government, but the main plot is what country will take total control. Bean is fairly indifferent, but when his best friend Petra is kidnapped by Achilles and is forced into becoming the main strategist of his plans, Bean establishes opposing forces to save her.

All of the children have issues being accepted by their adult peers after their service in the Formic Wars. Card repeats the scenario of “adult gets in kid’s way, kid finds a way around adult, makes adult look foolish.” This happens with almost every main character several times. Unlike the last book, Card’s politics and preferences leak out in little ways throughout the book. Card’s obsession with Brazil and China are re-established and he makes a few jabs about Kennedy’s presidency. Thematically, this book is very different from “Ender’s Shadow” and “Ender’s Game”, it is more political and spends little time on space and “advanced technology”. Once again, Card leaves plot points on the table to continue the series, even though there was no good reason except to keep the books going (kind of like why Batman never kills the Joker even though he keeps killing thousands of people every time he gets out of jail).

Overall this book was a much better follow-up than “Speaker for the Dead” was for “Ender’s Game”. Card continues his story with familiar characters that you want to read about and manages to keep obvious personal opinions to a minimum.

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Death of Superman by Max Landis

( #Superman, #MaxLandis )



Here is a damn good summary of the "Death of Superman" story back in the 90s. I love the cameos.

Sunday, February 05, 2012