Monday, May 21, 2012

Where No Straight Man Has Gone Before

The Lady in My Life has been reading the Fifty Shades of Grey book series lately.  She's about halfway through the second book and is completely hooked on them.  She's even encouraged me to give them a read because of how...intense (?)...they are.  I know the books are extremely popular with women readers right now, and almost every woman I know has at least started reading them (if not finished them) or wants to check them out. 

So last night, I cracked open the first book in the series to see what the fuss was about.  I read about 60 or so pages before calling it a night.  I didn't get to any of the "good stuff" so to speak, but I got far enough to meet the main characters and the general sense of why the books were popular.  I might even continue reading the first book to finish what I started, despite how it's clearly written for women audiences.

Now I have to say that it's refreshing that while Fifty Shades is certainly about romance and relationships, it isn't the childish tripe that is Twilight.  I couldn't tolerate even the commercials for the movies in the Twilight series, and I certainly never got the appeal behind them.  A teen vampire and a teen werewolf bicker over the love of a human girl?  So what?  What's at stake? 

There are issues I have with Fifty Shades, but they aren't anything quite like what I have with Twilight.  I think my biggest issue is the sheer amount of time the lead character Anastasia ogles over Christian Grey.  From the moment she lays eyes on Grey, she is immediately drawn to his physical attractiveness, and from that point she daydreams about him and lusts after him constantly.  I know she's around 22, and that kind of behavior isn't that uncommon for a 22 year old woman, but COME ON.  After about 30 pages of reading paragraph after paragraph over how much she can't stop thinking about him or lusting after him, I found myself wanting to scream, "OKAY, I GET IT!  SHE HAS THE HOTS FOR HIM!  MOVE ON!"

The inherent flaw, if you will, with my issue is that I also know her emotional state is very central to the story itself.  From her first meeting with Christian Grey, it was very clear every response, facial reaction, and gesture on Grey's part was designed to intimidate and control Anastasia.  I guess I wish subtlety was used more instead of putting Anastasia's thoughts in bold-faced capital letters so the reader has little to figure out.  Not to get too far off on another tangent, but it's the same problem I have with Dan Brown; his lack of subtle hints kill any chance for tension or surprise in his novels.  He has no faith in the reader's ability to remember details early on in his books, so he has to spell everything out in order for the payoff later on. 

In any case, I'm not trying say Fifty Shades is bad.  I still have a feeling I'll be more satisfied reading Game of Thrones while I lay out on the beach this weekend. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Are You Reading This, Verizon?

There's a lot of blog types out there, and one of the most popular is the whining and bitching blog.  The writer is upset over something and feels the need to vent about the subject.  Sometimes it's a legit reason, like some political or social cause the author supports.  Others it's something much more mundane like paying too much for a pizza.  I've done a little of both, with the former written a long time ago and the latter being much more recent.

My latest gripe is somewhere in between.  Yesterday, Verizon announced news to completely do away with its old unlimited data plans for its smartphones, and shift any customers still on those plans to its tiered data plans.  I got my first smartphone in January 2010, and I had upgraded to a new one this past December.  I got an unlimited data plan along with my first smartphone, and I was able to keep it with my current phone.  Now, according to this latest news, whenever I upgrade again I will be forced to dump that unlimited plan and switch to tiered or shared data.

I should confess that part of the reason that I am upset over this is because I am a heavy data plan user.  I know that the vast majority of smartphone users don't go over 2 GB of data every month, but I tend to go over between listening to the radio online or watching YouTube videos.  Sure, I can (and do) switch over to Wi-Fi networks when they're available, but I should only have to give up my current data plan if I really want to.  It's nonsense to force me into choosing a new something just because it's convenient for the other party.

I'd actually have less of a problem with this if Verizon came out and said something like, "Our 4G network is being overloaded with heavy data usage, and as such we are no longer able to sustain unlimited data usage on our phones."  But no, their CFO actually said it's much more about moving those customers onto tiered and shared plans so Verizon can charge either A.) excess fees for those who go over their monthly alloted amounts of data, similar to exceeding monthly minute plans for talking, or B.) higher rates for larger amounts of data for customers.

Of course, there's also the fact that Verizon now also charges its customers a $30 activation fee whenever someone buys a new phone.  They also dumped their "New Every Two" discount, so in addition to paying full price for a new phone and an extra $30 activation fee, I will be capped on the amount of data I can use on my phone every month.  Verizon had also tried adding online bill pay fees for those who didn't permit automatic drafting from a checking account to pay for each month's bill, but fortunately there was enough customer backlash that killed that plan.

Verizon, like any major corporation, has a responsibility to its shareholders and investors more than anyone else.  The company has to show how it's going to continue increasing its revenue every year and why they think it'll work.  They have no reason to show their customers any sign of loyalty, even someone like me who's been with them for 14 years now.  They also know they're the big boy on the block, and other companies like AT&T or Sprint can't come close to the level of technology or access Verizon provides. 

So what option does that leave someone like me with?

I don't think there's any real answer to that question.  I could go to Sprint, provided they still offer unlimited data when my Verizon contract ends next fall.  But I know what I'd be getting myself into there, and it's unlikely leaving Verizon will help me much.  And one customer leaving Verizon won't even be a drop in the pool, considering they have nearly 100 million customers.

I do know one thing: I will be writing a formal letter of complaint to Verizon about this topic.  They may simply discard it in the trash, but I have a right to voice my displeasure.  I don't often get this upset over something like a cell phone, but considering how Verizon has systematically made changes to upset their customers, something has to be done.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Movie Review: The Avengers

Simply put, The Avengers is my new favorite film EVER.  Sorry, Braveheart; you've been dethroned.

I'm not sure what I could possibly say about this film that hasn't been said dozens of times since it's been released Friday.  I'll give it a shot, though.

The plot: Loki - the villain from last year's Thor - has been searching for a mysterious object called the Tesseract Cube.  He's figured out it's on Earth and has assembled an army to track it down.  The cube will give him a limitless source of power, one that he will use to conquer our planet.  He manages to steal it away from S.H.I.E.L.D., run by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).  Fury knows how powerful the cube is, so he has to figure out a way to stop Loki and get the cube back.

Fury quickly decides to put together a team of superheroes to find Loki.  He uses what's left of S.H.I.E.L.D. to round up a group of pre-selected men for this team.  They track down Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, and Steve Rogers, and also work on finding Thor.  It's clear this motley crew doesn't jive from the moment they all meet one another.  Round ups like this sequence have been used time and again in movies, but this situation is somewhat unique since we've already seen all four of these guys in action on their own.  That's actually a positive about the film because we care about these characters already, instead of meeting them some or all of them for the first time at this point and trying to care about them later.

One of the other great things about this film is that while the audience can sit in awe over these guys interacting and fighting alongside one another, the film itself isn't in awe of them for the most part.  When I saw Star Wars: Episode One in theaters for the first time, I went in expecting to be in awe over seeing the Jedi in action, fighting with the Force and their lightsabers.  The problem was that the film was in awe over the same things, and so the characters and story were all constructed to suit those special effects.  The films all sufffered as a result.

Such is not a problem with The Avengers.  Sure, it's great to see Iron Man and Captain America argue with one another about whose ego is more important, but there's an actual pay off to everything in the final battle sequence.  It'd be incredibly easy for one or more characters to be overshadowed by the other heroes, but they all get roughly equal amounts of screen time throughout the film.

That brings me to one character in particular in this film: Bruce Banner.  The previous incarnations of Banner and the Hulk certainly were built over the inner struggle between the two sides of Banner's personality.  Here we get to see not only the Hulk truly rampage over everything in its path, but also how Banner can simultaneously focus its anger.  Up until now, Banner has been focused on ridding himself of the Hulk from him; and while he still lives in fear of his version of Mr. Hyde at the beginning of The Avengers, he actually gets to contribute more to the plot of the film prior to turning into the Hulk in its climax. 

Speaking of the climactic battle, it's the kind of balls-to-the-wall action sequence that has to be seen several times.  Iron Man blasts serpent machines out of the sky.  Hawkeye picks off baddies flying through the air with his bow and arrow.  Captain America and Black Widow lead the ground assault.  Thor bashes things left and right with his hammer.  And the God, the HULK.

The other great thing about this film is its ability to juggle the drama and tension with comedy.  There are points even during the battle sequence that are priceless, ones that had me clapping while laughing.  I'm sure I'll love those moments the second time around even though I know they're coming.

I hope by the time you've gotten to this point of the review that you've stopped reading and ordered tickets for your own Avengers experience.  If you haven't, then I beg you to do so.  It's the rare film experience that's worth not only a big screen viewing, but multiple viewings.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Will the Real Sarah Phillips Please Stand Up...That Is, If She Exists

If you've been reading my blog for a while, first let me both thank you and express my sympathies.  I'm humbled that anyone would read my blog for any period of time, but even I look in bewilderment on some of my older posts on here.  Did I really write that stuff?

Anyway, if you've read my blog regularly you would know I enjoy a weird, juicy news story when one pops up.  I think I found the strangest and most convoluted story I've read in a long, long time today. 

The highlights are that ESPN had hired a 22-year-old woman as a freelance writer and discuss betting on various sporting events.  She's apparently fresh out of college from the University of Oregon and somehow gained notoriety in a remarkably short period of time.  ESPN sought her out to write on their Playbook page, but over a period of time evidence started piling up suggesting this woman had concealed her true identity and lied about her background.  As more people came forward with their experiences with this young woman, ESPN ultimately decided to sever ties with her.

This is undoubtedly one of the most bizarre stories I've ever read.  First, I'm kinda surprised that ESPN would actually want to recruit anyone to write about sports gambling and advise readers on what are the hot bets to make.  Seems a little hypocritical to me, given how each of the four major sports have worked hard to prevent their players and other employees from gambling.  But hey, that's just me. 

The idea that a 22-year-old adult could be so well versed in gambling is quite staggering to me, given that the legal gambling age is 21.  Maybe I'm naive, but how could anyone so young make the kinds of connections and have the knowledge to not only make smart bets on sports, but write a blog regularly about it?  I turn 33 later this year, and I've never gambled in my life.  Part of me wants to just to say I did, but I couldn't fathom plunking down $1000 on a regular basis betting on various games and events.  But this is a girl fresh out of college!  Where does she have this kind of cash laying around?  And she's clearly not a newbie at this at all, so she's had access to the money and the bookies to be betting for years.  Something isn't right here.

But it gets weirder.  In reading more about the details of the mysterious Sarah Phillips and her history with ESPN, I found an article on Deadspin that digs deep into some of the individuals who had dealt with her over the years.  I honestly don't understand half of what I had read, but from what I can gather, it sounds like she had scammed several people into giving her money in exchange for her "team" building websites for her victims (maybe that's how she scored so much money to use on gambling).
I realize that ESPN hires freelance writers all the time, as does any other news-reporting organization.  As such, they wouldn't have ever met Phillips face to face in choosing to hire her since she's based out of Oregon.  But what I find peculiar is the part about how very few photographs she had submitted resembled one another.  Something like this shouldn't pass the smell test.  Different hair colors is one thing, but half the faces in the collage of pictures of her posted on Deadspin don't look the slightest bit alike. 

There are so many other areas of this story that mystify me.  But for the sake of argument, let's say "Sarah Phillips" is in fact a false identity and this woman scammed both private citizens and ESPN.  What legal penalties and consequences would she face?  Since no one met her face to face, I don't see how the police could successfully track her down, especially since they don't have an accurate photograph of her appearance.  Sure, the people she had scammed out of thousands of dollars have legit claims, but I don't see how she could be subpoenaed into court when no one knows her true identity (or if she's even a she, really). 

I definitely intend on reading more about this story, should any additional details come out.  ESPN will obviously avoid discussing it as much as possible, and considering the story is a small blip on most radars I imagine it'll be difficult to find updates on it.  Still, I find it fascinating that such a con game could have gone on for so long and affect a company like ESPN.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Color Me Disappointed

I mentioned in a recent post that I've been a major Star Trek fan since childhood.  I'm talking like complete full-blown Star Trek nerd, one who has watched virtually every episode of every series since TNG, with the exception of Star Trek: Enterprise.  I even had created my own Star Trek fan fiction series, one that I've tweaked and changed around quite a bit since I first came up with the idea when I was 18. 

You're probably now wondering if I've ever even seen a girl in my life, much less touched one.  The answer is yes and yes.  In fact, the fine young lass I'm dating now actually forgives me for my fanhood.  I have no plans to get her to become a Trek fan like myself, but she can have her Sex and the City as a trade off.

Anyways, back to Trek.  When J.J. Abrams (of Lost, Alias, and Fringe fame) was brought on board to direct the reinvention of Star Trek a few years ago, I was excited.  Trek needed a kick in the seat of its pants since it had been bogged down with technobabble nonsense and new age philosophies for the better part of 15 years.  I thoroughly enjoyed the final product of Abrams Trek, though it was by no means a perfect film.  In spite of the movie's shortcomings, I was looking forward to a sequel, which is now currently in production for release in May 2013.

From the first film's release, I read on plenty of movie message boards about where things would go in the sequel.  Lots of Trek fans clamored for the sequel to feature a reboot of Khan, who was arguably the greatest villain in Star Trek history.  He had been the primary villain in what was the best Star Trek film ever to date, 1982's Wrath of Khan.  From what I've read online, fans want to see what a rebooted Khan would be like and use him as the next film's villain.

Insert record-scratching sound effect here.

That's an incredibly stupid idea.  For a lot of reasons.  But in order to get to those reasons, let's look at Wrath of Khan first.

For starters, Khan was used in the original film as a sequel to an episode from the Original Series called Space Seed.  His entire backstory of his origins was detailed in that episode, so to get proper context to everything going on in Wrath of Khan, watching Space Seed helps big time.  Of course, such a complex set up can't be covered in a 2-hour film, which takes away from the dramatic punch in the original movie.

Second, all the major themes from Wrath of Khan can't be used this time around.  The film started off with Admiral Kirk having been away from the captain's chair on the Enterprise for several years.  He's a lot older and more mature than the gung ho captain seen previously.  He's never had to truly come face to face with death, and the training session in the opening of the film sets up for what happens later on.  Meanwhile Kirk has to come to terms with getting older in life, instead of fooling himself into thinking he's eternally young.

Then there's the major plot of Wrath of Khan, which centers around a technology called the Genesis device.  It was designed to be used on a dead target in space, like a moon.  When launched, it would reform the moon into a habitable planet over the course of several years.  New resources of water, plant life, and food would form.  However, if used on a planet that was already inhabited - like say, Earth - the device would then be a catastrophic weapon and wipe out anything currently living there before reforming the planet.

You can probably see how the Genesis device is a perfect dramatic fit with the themes of aging, life, and death in the film.

Now consider the new cast of the Star Trek movies.  They're all young, in their late 20s and early 30s.  They were purposely chosen as such as part of rebooting the entire franchise.  As a result, none of the themes of getting older, facing death for the first time, or being reborn can be used in this new film.  Khan himself won't be the ghost from Kirk's past coming back to haunt him.  Kirk won't have to face the kinds of sacrifices he faced in Wrath of Khan.  The entire emotional impact of that film won't carry over into a sequel in this new franchise if the writers chose to reboot Khan.

You can clearly see that I have been deadset against rebooting Khan.

What I'm getting to here is that yesterday official reports were made that the primary villain will indeed be Khan in the next Star Trek film.  Supposedly he will be a completely different version of the character compared to who he was in Wrath of Khan.  I don't know anything more than that, but I am still very disappointed and unhappy.

Okay, so the writers decided - and rightfully so - that there was no way to recreate the emotional impact of Wrath of Khan, given the complex backstories and arcs in the film.  Instead, they decided to take a name that's easily recognizable to Trek fans everywhere and slap it on a new version of him, even though this new version will have virtually nothing in common with the original.  If that's what they chose to do, why bother with doing a fan service at all and not just make him an entirely new villain?

The writers had the chance to start from a blank slate here.  They used the first film to set up this new universe and could have gone in any number of new directions.  Instead, they went back to the well for an easy sell to the fans.  I'll still see the film and hope for the best, but I am thoroughly disappointed at the lack of creativity here.