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2011/03/31

Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers




I've been seeing this book in stores for years, but I never bothered picking it up, figuring Red Dwarf is best in thirty minute bites and can't sustain an extended storyline. But Audible had this on sale recently, and it is read by Chris Barrie, so I decided to give it a shot.

Storywise, the book is a mash-up of several episodes across the series' first two seasons, along with a significant portion of new material at the beginning. This new stuff, detailing how Lister joined the RD's crew (and what happened to poor McIntyre), is the best part of the book, giving us our only real glimpse into human society prior to "The End." Once Lister signs up, the book more or less follows the plots of the various episodes incorporated into the story ("The End," "Future Echoes," "Me^2," "Kryten" and "Better than Life"). Grant and Naylor do try to stitch these parts together, but while they add connecting material the result is still an rambling, picaresque tale.

That's not to say that if you've seen the series you should skip the books. There are times when the text is little more than the script with some "he saids" added (which makes the audiobook somewhat bemusing, with Rimmer's voice speaking Lister, Holly and Cat's lines). But Grant and Naylor change things up enough to keep you on guard. Captain Hollister becomes a woman with the misfortune to be named Kirk. The events of "Me^2" are tied into the discovery of Kryten with the Kochansky subplot jettisoned. The biggest change, apart from the beginning, is at the end when we enter Better than Life. On the show, BtL was essentially one long gag with no more depth than the backwards Earth, but in the novel Grant and Naylor take the opportunity to flesh out the world and show the sort of lives Lister and Rimmer lead there. In doing so, BtL becomes more insidious than it was ever presented on the show, and the story ends with a surprisingly sad twist.

Death's Daughter by Amber Benson




When Death is kidnapped, his daughter Susan Sto -- er, Calliope Reaper-Jones has to take over the family business. On the plus side, this means she has an excuse to skip out of work. But it also means missing a killer sale at Macy's!

If that last line reminds you of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it probably should. Amber Benson spent three years on the show as Tara, the sexy Willow's even sexier lesbian lover. Mmmm. Remember that great scene in Once More with Feeling? Yeah. I'll be in my bunk.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Joss Whedon, you jerkwad, how dare you kill Tara. Her character was about the only bright spot in the post-graduation episodes! No, wait, that's not it. Ah. I know.

Calliope is certainly a Whedonesque character, ready to bombard her enemies (family, friends, the pizza delivery guy) with a stream of sarcastic quips. Benson isn't as skilled with such dialogue as Whedon (Wayne's World was like 20 years ago -- nobody says, "Not!" anymore) but she still manages to make the text 80% witty by volume. Calliope also spends the bulk of the novel horny -- any time she encounters a being with something resembling a penis, her first instinct is to wonder if she has any chance of getting laid. Yet, despite being an apparently attractive young woman, she doesn't seem to've had a sexual encounter in recent memory, and her luck doesn't really change in the course of this story.

As for the course of the story -- there's not much here. Calliope has to complete a set of tasks before she can become the new Death, and of course she's really worried about her dad and spends most of the book searching for him. No, wait, that's what you'd expect from the book. But actually, she spends more time thinking about her chances of boffing the hot guy in her office than worrying what happened to her dad. Even in her quest, she's entirely reactive. She has several people to help her along and tell her what she needs to do, and these same people bail her out when she screws up. Even when these characters get knocked out of the narrative, she still finds someone to rescue her from dire situations, including, at one point, God himself.

And there we come to my one major reservation about this book. God exists in this universe, as does the Devil. We're even told the Devil was kicked out of heaven in something resembling the standard Miltonian version of events. All fine and good -- I have no problem with fantasy that assumes Christian myths are true anymore than I have a problem that involves Greek or Norse gods. But then this story does involve Greek and Norse gods -- and suddenly we're facing the Xena Problem: how do you reconcile these incompatible mythos?

Benson's answer is a variant of the Small Gods approach, where a deity's vitality is dependent upon how many adherents it has. This still doesn't square with (the apparently Judeo-Christian) God and Devil being the prime movers in the afterlife, but I can live with it. Until Kali shows up.

See, Calliope goes to meet the board of directors for Death, Inc. As she's on her way, one of her companions explains that the board is made up of gods who no longer have worshipers -- in fact most of the afterlife is run but such defunct deities. And this board is made up of Wotan, Persephone, and Kali.

Kali doesn't have worshipers? Bad enough to have a Hindu god serving in the afterlife at Jehovah's behest, but to do so by implying that Hinduism is a defunct religion and the Indian gods are has-beens -- what? This is just one step up from crazy ignorance of Temple of Doom. (On a sidenote, I listened to the audiobook, read by Benson, and for some reason her voice for Kali started out with an East Indian accent but kept changing to West Indian.) Though a minor world-building detail, this really detracted from the story for me.

2011/03/30

Glowing Text in GIMP: A Technique for Making Titles Stand Out on eBook Covers



People say, "Don't judge a book by the cover," but while there's wisdom in that expression, the truth is if you're in a bookstore and a cover pops out at you, you're more likely to pick it up. If this weren't true, why would professional publishers spend so much money on spiffy artwork?

The same principle applies to ebooks, but with an added challenge -- you need a cover that stands out when reduced to a 160-pixel tall thumbnail. Worse -- a black-and-white thumbnail for people browsing with the Kindles. There's a lot you have to cram into that postage stamp image -- a cool picture, a title, and the author's name. If possible you'll want the title and author to be legible even in the thumbnail, though both of these will be listed next to the image in most ebook stores.

If you look at self-published ebooks, many authors simply take their cover image, select a font, a color, and a size, and write the title across the picture. In many cases, this looks perfectly fine, but if you don't have high contrast between the text and background color it's easy for it to disappear in the thumbnail.

This tutorial will demonstrate some simple techniques for making text jump off the screen.

  1. Open the image you're going to use.

    • Select Text Tool.
    • Select the area where you want to place your title
    • Select your preferred font and size.
    • Set text color to white.
    • Type in your title. Do any tweaking of the layout now, because if you change your mind later, you'll have to redo from start.



  2. Click "Path from text".
    • Make your foreground color black.
    • Layer->New Layer
    • Name the layer "Title".
    • For "Layer fill type" choose "Foreground color".
    • Click "Okay".


  3. Disable the text layer (click the eyeball next to the layer)
    • Select--->From path (The outline of your title should appear doing an ant-crawl.)
    • Make your foreground color white.
    • Click bucket fill Bucket Fill.
    • Make sure the Title layer is selected (not the text layer)
    • Click your pointer within the outline of your title (zoom in if necessary).



    • Filters-->Blur-->Gausian Blur
    • Set the blur radius between 3 and 10 pixels. The smaller the text you're working on, the smaller the radius necessary. Too small and the effect won't be noticeable, too high and the end result will be too blury.
    • Click "Okay".
    • Colors-->Color Balance
    • For midtones use the following settings:
      Cyan/Red +100
      Magenta/Green +30
      Yellow/Blue -30
    • Click shadows and use the following settings:
      Cyan/Red +100
      Magenta/Green +30
      Yellow/Blue -30
    • Click highlights and use the following settings:
      Cyan/Red +100
      Magenta/Green 0
      Yellow/Blue -100
    • Click "Okay" (This should give the text a nice, fiery glow. You can experiment with other settings -- for example, if you push the settings towards cyan, green and blue, you can get a nice electric glow.)
    • Select-->Invert
    • Hit delete.
  4. This step is optional.
    • Make sure you still have the Title layer selected
    • Layer-->Duplicate Layer
    • Filters-->Distorts-->Emboss
    • Click "bumpmap".
    • Click "Okay".
    • Since the title is on a light background, it looks fine now. If it's on a darker background, you can lower the opacity until the glowing layer shines through the emboss.
  5. This is another optional step:
    • Click on the Title layer.
    • Filters-->Light and Shadow-->Drop Shadow.
    • And here's the image with drop shadows and opacity on the embossed layer set to 40%:

2011/03/27

What Is Wrong with This Poll?

Seen on Goodreads:

April Fantasy Theme: Asian and Middle Eastern Flavoured Fantasy

Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was, by Barry Hughart

50 votes, 22.7%

Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, by Alison Goodman

47 votes, 21.4%

Across the Nightingale Floor, by Lian Hearn

39 votes, 17.7%

The Bhagavad Gita, by Anonymous

25 votes, 11.4%

Monkey: A Folk Novel of China, by Wu Cheng'en

18 votes, 8.2%

The Desert of Souls, by Howard Andrew Jones

16 votes, 7.3%

Snake Agent, by Liz Williams

15 votes, 6.8%

Heart of the Ronin, by Travis Heermann

10 votes, 4.5%

So out of eight "Asian and Middle Eastern flavored fantasies," only two are by actual Asians, and both of those predate Shakespeare. I know very little modern Asian literature gets translated into English, but surely there are enough that you don't need six white guys to fill out the list. Where're Uehashi, Miyabe and Ogiwara?

2011/03/26

The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss




This is what history should be -- short, concise, and no long digressions on the history of sandals or the archaeological significance of potsherds. When Strauss discusses motivations of various figures, he tells us what ancient sources said, what modern scholars think, his own view, and he makes clear that this is all speculation. Likewise, if the record is unclear about where or when an event took place, he gives the evidence and lays out the most likely answers -- but, again, he lets the reader know that this is conjecture.

After reading far too many histories where the author makes sweeping claims as though stating facts instead of speculation, this was a nice breath of fresh air.

2011/03/19

Wow, It'll Be Like I'm 14 Again

The Good News: 120 Minutes is coming back!

The Bad News: It's on MTV2.

The Other Good News: Matt Pinfield's hosting.

The Other Bad News: It'll only be on once per month.

I have fond memories of staying up till all hours of the morning watching 120 Minutes in it's original run, and I kept with it even after they cut it back to an hour, dumped Jim Shearer and changed the name to Subterranean.

2011/03/14

This Book Is Not About the Thing the Book Is About



I really hate these bait-and-switch history books that promise a detailed look at some obscure but interesting subject, only to use that as a jumping off point for a more general history.

The history of the machine-gun is an expansive enough topic for an entire book, particularly its use as a tool of colonial oppression and slow metamorphosis into a weapon of "civilized" combat. In the Victorian era, machine-guns were seen as dirty pool, which was okay when fighting those pesky natives in Africa, but which no self-respecting European would use on his fellow white-man (well, maybe the Slavs. Possibly Wops and Greeks, too, but they don't really count as white). Then Archduke Ferdinand got himself shot in Sarajevo, and, well, time makes fools of us all. This is a fascinating subject that often gets retrospective coverage in histories of the First World War. A study of how the use of machine guns and public perception of them changed over time would make a great book. Alas, that's not what Keller gives us.

Oh, she covers all that, but in no more detail than you'd get from Barbara Tuchman or Niall Ferguson (both of whom she cites copiously (Ferguson haters be warned; she also cites Jared Diamond uncritically), suggesting that I'm reading a second-hand account of books I've already read). She also gives us a biography of Richard Gatling, but while she tells us what he did -- his early work inventing farm equipment, development of the Gatling gun, his difficulties selling it to the Union government, years spent improving the weapon so it wouldn't be supplanted by rivals -- she never gets inside his head, never reveals his personality. At one point she describes a machine he designed for planting seeds that sounds like it used principles later worked into the Gatling gun, but she doesn't draw a parallel, doesn't even try to explain where Gatling got his inspiration. Her account of his life is more like an itinerary than a diary.

But what's unforgivable about this book is that the history of the machine gun and biography of Gatling make up only half the narrative. The rest of the time she's sidetracked into dissertations on the history of the US Patent Office, or how steamboats spread smallpox -- both interesting subjects, but not what I picked up this book to read about. I wish historians would learn to pick a subject and focus on it.

2011/03/10

American Rebel





This is a breezy, shallow biography with little in the way of insight or original research.

Discussion of Eastwood's films is virtually non-existent -- Eliot gives a small plot synopsis and a rundown of pre-production, followed by a summary of critical reviews that seems to be gleaned from Rotten Tomatoes. There's hardly any discussion of filming, unless you count rumors about which co-star Eastwood was boffing, and he doesn't seem to've interviewed Eastwood's co-stars, even though most are still alive, relying instead upon already published material. Want to know about the difficulties of filming Kelly's Heroes in Yugoslavia? Not in here. How about behind-the-scenes stories about Hackman, Freeman and Clint on the set of Unforgiven? Nope. Details on the filming of the Dollars trilogy? Again, only info on pre-production and reception. Nor does Eliot offer any detailed analysis of Eastwood's films beyond the trite and obvious -- does anyone need to be told that Eastwood likes terse loners?

Eliot focuses a good part of the book on Eastwood's personal life, and although we hear about his many affairs and bastards, we never get any idea of Eastwood as a parent -- how did his children turn out, how much of a role did he have in their lives. If you're going to examine the man's whole life, examine the whole thing, not just the salacious details.

In the afterword, Eliot takes to task Eastwood's other biographers, Schickel and McGilligan, the first for being too kiss-ass and the other for being overly catty, but for all their faults they turned out books with original insights (books upon which Eliot relied for his own book), not just lazy rehashings of other people's research.