Monday 29 April 2013

'Doctor Who', again!

Just a quick one.

The latest episode of Doctor Who, which aired last night in Australia, is called 'The Journey to the Centre of the Tardis' is all the stuff I was talking about in the last post. It is a fantastic example of how establishing a complex mythology can be immensely beneficial for creating an environment in which these kind of stories can be told. That said, it is still an incredibly accesible episode for new comers.

Friday 26 April 2013

We're in a unique position here

The thing I really like about Doctor Who is that it differs so drastically from one story to the next. This is the reason I have been tuning in for so many years. People

That said, the best stories are the ones that cannot be told anywhere else. Stories that can only really be told in the setting of a time traveling alien mad-man and his charming little bit of tasty human biscuit. "Hide" is the most recent episode, and it is one of these stories. If you missed it, head over to the ABC's iview and give it a watch.

I enjoy this approach to writing for serialised fiction. It is a good way to go. When you think about 'the best' episodes of TV shows or 'the best' story-lines in comics are often the stories that can't be told anywhere else. I'll probably go into this in more detail at a later date, but anyone who is interested should think about how some sitcoms and science fiction shows are written to take advantage of their particular setting or format. Along with Doctor WhoThe X-Files and Star Trek both distinguished themselves from the rest of what was going on on TV through this approach, as did Bewitched, I dream of Genie, The Wire and The West Wing.

Other stories of this ilk in the Doctor Who catalogue include "The Doctor's Wife", "Vincent and the Doctor", "The Girl in the Fireplace", "Blink" and  "City of Death", which are mostly available on DVD and/or through iTunes.

Monday 22 April 2013

Some free Dick!

So, Philip K is pretty much the literary boss as far as I am concerned. In so many ways he poisoned the well, forcing the rest of us to have to make do drawing our muse-water from other less impressive wells. This hasn't stopped people from trying to drink from the well he frequented, but we see the stains at their lips and the wet coughing that belies the weakening beneath the surface, though still soft, has begun to interfere with the smooth delivery of the message. The message in this case revolved predominantly around paranoia, fear, death, war, morality, the divine and the boundaries of self. PKD excelled, because he wrote about things that were true for him.

His relationship with the human machine, with all its whirring parts, dark haired girls and representative governments, was predominantly based on the extreme opposite of trust. Not that his approach called for revolution, but came closer to the approach that one might have toward gravity if one were to live their entire life in some kind of floating castle. You would take precautions, and perhaps only spend as little time standing right on the edge as was required. This relationship caused Dick a number of problems involving both copyright registration and taxation throughout his life. Due in no small part to this seemingly abysmal aptitude for submitting correctly completed forms to the government a handful of his early short stories and novelettes are now in the public domain.

There are a couple of lists floating about that range from eleven or so stories to nearly thirty. From what I can make out, there are definitely about twenty. Just less than. These free stories mostly come from his first three years of publication ('52, '53 and '54), but some include stories from right up until 1957. For the most part these stories are obscur early works that never really gained much recognition, but "Second Variety", "Adjustment Team" and "The Golden Man" are amongst them, which were adapted into Screamers, The Adjustment Bureau and Next, respectively. None of these were particularly watchable films (with the disputable exception of Screamers), but the source material is in each case a far better exploration and realisation of the concepts presented.

More importantly the list of free Dicks also includes "Beyond Lies the Wub", "The Skull" and "Piper in the Woods", which are far better examples of both his early work and of early salvos into the concepts he would go full scale on later in his career.

If you teach English or creative writing and you want to talk to your class about points of view and perspective, you need "Beyond Lies the Wub" in your life. If you want to behold the first ever published story of a giant of a genre, you need "Beyond Lies the Wub" in your life. It is a clean and elegant short story that is structured like a joke.

"Piper in the Woods" is a pleasant mix of 1950s science fiction and European mythology that you might catch yourself thinking about whenever you wish you could just go outside for little while and sit on the grass.

"The Skull" is Philip K Dick's earliest story about religion (particularly Christianity) and self-determinism vs pre-determinism. This early on we see him start to take steps into the territory that would later yield all his religion-in-a-box themes during the sixties and seventies and finally become the VALIS trilogy. While those specific elements aren't present in "The Skull", it still represents an approach to the topic that would allow him to write the way he did.

If you are at all interested in the man behind the stories behind Blade Runner and Total Recall, some of his stories can be found in a number of formats on Project GutenbergWikisource and strewn about the interwebs.

For 10 points:
What is the most common name given to Dick's religion-in-a-box?

Monday 1 April 2013

Bad at maths, good at customer service? Work for Microsoft!

I have recently returned to university and I am meant to use Microsoft Visio Standard 2013 for a number of of my university assignments. We have the 'option' of using it on the computers at uni, as the software is prohibitively expensive. While looking online to see how prohibitive the pricing was I came across this:

$300 doesn't seem so unreasonable to me, not that I have $300 that I could spend on anything right now. I clicked 'Buy now' with the intention of getting as much information on it as I could, and found myself presented with this:

When I called the Microsoft Store and asked what additional features warranted the 83% price difference (based on the exchange rate at the time of writing), I was told that AU$539 was US$299 due to the current exchange rate. When I informed the diligent little Microsoft monkey that he was operating on bad information, and that AU$539 was actually closer to US$560, he apologised for not being able to explain the discrepancy and then offered me some actually useful advice. He suggested that I find a way to set up a US mailing address and then order the product, and as long as the process didn't cost me US$260 or more I would be getting a discount.

This 83% koalas on keyboards tax isn't unique to the Microsoft Store. Check out the price differences over at Adobe, the Apple Store, all computer game distributors and just about anyone else who distributes software. The problem is a long standing issue, and something that I have griped about for decades. In my formative years I would often read US computer game magazines, and was shocked by the price listings for games. That was Twenty years ago, and our dollar is a mightier thing than it once was (thank you Paul). In particular I thought that perhaps things would start to change in the wake of digital distribution, but in reality there are very few digital distribution services that do direct (or nearly direct) exchange rate conversions (Steam is the only one that comes to mind). The vast majority are happy to price us like it's 1984.

Anyway. Thank you Microsoft. Thank you for hiring people who actually want to help your koalstomers, even when you don't.