Heroes (TV Show)

29. October, 2007

*gasp* (Sound after emerging from a two day Heroes Season 1 marathon). If you haven’t seen this, yet, you should.

As an author and SciFi fan, I’m always looking for good movies and TV shows. Here is my summary of season 1 (with a few spoilers further down below).

Overall, I’m very impressed. The show delivers depth and atmosphere like few I’ve seen before. It’s as smart and logical as CSI or Dr. House but the cast is much more complex and the story is a beautiful example of an interwoven stream of events which happen independently but influence each other in a very special way. Nothing in that series is set into stone; events happen, the viewer feels he knows what is going on just to stumble over another small piece of information which turns everything around. The same happens to the characters which often find themselves having to make hard decisions they feel they aren’t prepared for. Babylon 5 showed a glimpse of what can be done in this regard, Heroes goes the whole nine yards: Storytelling at it’s best, rich, believable characters, super-human action without losing a grip on the special effects.

Spoiler Warning: The following text is only safe to read after seeing all of season 1.

There are a few dark spots, though, and they show a few of the problems an author/storyteller faces. Let’s start with the “perfect prison”. The prison itself contains almost nothing except for a few pipes which one of the heroes uses later to make an escape. I didn’t notice them when Sylar was in that cell, so I’m giving the author the benefit of doubt and assume that Sylar was in a similar cell but one without the pipes. Alas, if you have ever seen a real prison, you’ll know that surveillance is ubiquitous. Furthermore, with dangerous criminals (especially ones with special abilities), guards never visit the inmate alone. Not so in Sylars case; no one seems to care who visits him and when and what they take along. When Jessica Sanders is imprisoned, the authors don’t make this “mistake”: Guards never handle her alone; they are even afraid to come close to her in rather large groups!

I’m calling this a “mistake” because actually, it is quite easy to create a prison that no one can escape without help. Unfortunately for the show, Sylar has to escape which renders the whole “perfect prison” idea into a death trap for the writer. Authors: If you ever feel you have written yourself into a corner, take a step back and check where you came from. If you can, try to find a real instead of a cheap solution, because when Sylar escaped, I thought: “Oh, that’s so silly.” I didn’t believe the show anymore for some time. When you write a story, the reader trusts that you produce a logical, believable world. Whenever you betray that trust, the reader will feel that your work is not worth the money she paid for it and this not what you want.

In the Sylar case, a possible solution would have been to rewrite story to make the attack on Claire happen far away from any “Company” location. Sylar could then have escaped much more believable from a make-shift prison. Or how about having more people around? It’s unlike Sylar to just slaughter anyone in his path but he could have just rendered the “normal” guards unconscious and then go after the persuading girl (so she can have her grand moment).

The ending of season 1 is something else entirely. At first, I thought is was impossible for Sylar to be alive. Mr. Bennet knows how dangerous he is and would surely have put a few more bullets through his head if he had had any doubt that Sylar was dead. Some of that is solved in season 2 where the writers come up why the heroes didn’t notice Sylar … “escaped”.

Just to round this up, here are a few more blunders which probably only happened because the writers had written themselves into a corner or vital information had to be cut away to fit the time slots of the show:

  • In the scene in the future when the guards smash in the door and shoot “Future Hiro”: Why doesn’t he stop time when he hears the door give in? Why doesn’t he stop time as soon as the Haitian is taken out to tell Hiro everything he knows just to be safe? There is no apparent reason to wait until the last moment (except to allow for a dramatic and tragic (a.k.a stupid) death). Or why doesn’t he stop time as soon as the Haitian is down to take out the guards trying to smash down the door?
  • When abducted in Las Vegas, Nathan Petrelly can fly away despite the Haitian being close by. Oh, and if that was a sonic book we’re hearing, Nathan ought to be dead but maybe his ability turns his skin into something more durable than steel while he flies. That only leaves the question how his clothes make it …
  • Again in the future: In all these years, Matt Parkman never noticed that Nathan Petrelli was in fact someone else? Never? In five years? Okay, again the benefit of doubt: Maybe the ability to create illusions can fool a telepath, too. Still, it seems uncomfortably odd.
  • After Claire ran the car into a wall, her father Noah has the brain of the quarterback erased so he “can’t make her life even more complicated that it already is”. Later, the whole school knows that Claire is somehow involved in the event. Having his brain erased just makes everything worse for her. Seems like an unlikely mistake for someone like Mr. Bennet.

All this might give you the impression that the crew around Tim Kring did a sloppy job. Well, think again. If you have seen Star Wars, you probably noticed the 264 mistakes in the first movie. For a TV show with a budget that is probably close to what Goerge Lucas spent for rubber stamps during the shooting, they did an incredible job.

Conclusion: Well done.

Lesson for authors out there: Strive for perfection and try to eliminate all logical mistakes and “easy ways out”. Otherwise, your readers will spend their money on the authors that try harder than you do, the next time they buy a book.

Five Easy Ways to Fail

25. October, 2007

It’s been said over and over again and now, once more: Five Easy Ways to Fail lists five simple ways to make sure a project will fail:

  • Hire without brains
  • Sloppy schedules
  • Demand reality matches your deadlines
  • Spread tasks evenly
  • Work as many hours as you can

Another insight by Joel Spolsky

Resizing a 3ware RAID-5 Array With Linux

25. October, 2007

Ever wanted to extend the available space in your RAID 5 array? Whenever I do, I’m missing a consistent recipe how to do it. The following applies to OpenSuSE 10.2 and a 3ware 9550SX controller with 8 lanes. If your setup is different, adjust as necessary. Here are the steps:

  1. Add the drive in a free slot.
  2. If it doesn’t show up in the web gui (Management -> Maintenance under “Available Drives”), click “Rescan Controller”
  3. Select the RAID-5 array you want to expand (not the free disk!)
  4. Click on “Migrate Unit”. The web gui should offer you a list of drives to add and a few other settings you can change in the process.
  5. Click OK to start the migration. If your array is large, this can take a long time. I migrated from 1.3TB to 1.6TB. This took 24h.
  6. After the migration has completed, you’ll have to reboot. Linux will see the new bytes only after the reboot but there is no danger in using the drive in this strange state for as long as you like. You just can’t claim the new space but you can’t loose any data, either.
  7. After reboot, make sure that no filesystems on the expanded RAID array are mounted. If they are, unmount them.
  8. If you run “vgdisplay” as root, it should show you the old size.
  9. Run “pvresize /dev/sdb” as root (replace the device name with yours). This will make Linux notice the new size. Note that it is safe to run this command without a reboot. It just won’t do anything in this case. It will only print “1 physical volume resized” but when you run “vgdisplay”, the size won’t have changed.
  10. Run “vgdisplay” again to make sure the new size is correct.
  11. Run “yast2 lvm_config” to add the free space to any existing file systems or to create new ones.

That’s all, folks.

Heroes (Storytelling)

25. October, 2007

As an author, you need to love your characters. You need to love them so much that you can make their lives really miserable. That doesn’t mean slaughtering their families. Killing is easy. Giving them depth is hard.

Characters must have reasons for what they do. Take the doctor in “Alien”. In the beginning of the movie, he opens the airlock blocked by Ripley and lets the contaminated crew members in. At that point, we think he’s doing this because he’s a doctor and he wants to help. Later, it turns out he is an android specifically programmed to gather alien lifeforms, ever at the expense of the crew. This gives the character depth that he doesn’t have when you just make him do things to move the story on.

It’s not necessary to explain everything to the reader; but every action should have a reason and at least you as the author should know that reason. Otherwise, the actions will soon start to become erratic and random. The readers will notice a pattern: There doesn’t seem to be a reason why someone does something except to drive the story on. If you want to check your story against this, ask yourself: Does the character at this point in the story even know why he should do this? Or is he just making life easier for me?

Rambo is another good example for this. It also demonstrates my main point: You must make life as hard as possible for your character. When Rambo decides to stand up against the sheriff, that is the hard decision (just shrugging and walking away would have been much more easy). After that event, things get out of control. The deputies handle Rambo like any other petty criminal, only Rambo is not your standard drunk picked from a gutter. Their abuse triggers Rambo’s instincts that kept him alive in the jungle. Blood is spilled.

Again, all characters could make the decision to step back, calm down, think. Instead, everyone tries to corner Rambo. They are driving him. Rambo escapes them as good as he can and only shoots down the helicopter when his own life is in danger. Again the pattern: Take the hard way.

The “Die Hard” movies work along the same lines. John McLane has a lot of chances just to hide in a corner and wait until everything is over but he never does. He always struggles to get the upper hand. That is what makes a character into a hero.

Many authors don’t get this (at least, it doesn’t make it to the screen). They put big and bigger guns into the hands of their “heroes” (“Eraser”, anyone?) They add bigger explosions or make the evil guys commit worse atrocities. Cameras zoom in deeper and longer when blood is spilled. Guts fly around. Special effects take over. When Norman Bates killed the woman under the shower in “Psycho”, Hitchcock keeps the camera on the drain. We don’t even see the act itself but the scene is more intense than anything I’ve seen in the last twenty years.

If you as an author take the easy way out, so will your character. If you put a lot of effort into making life miserable for your hero (little or no ammo, no shoes, no food, no shelter, no help, no way out) and you can still come up with believable reasons why your hero can survive against all these odds, then your hero will be great.

Or to put it another way: How could your hero be better than your effort writing about him?

Telepods of Doom 2

19. October, 2007

On Telepods of Doom, Mike P. argues:

We can only assume that a machine can reconstruct experience, consciousness and the human soul.

First of all, the machine maybe doesn’t have to reconstruct the soul of the being transported. Our everyday experience shows that the soul moves along with the body. There doesn’t seem to be a limitation on how fast the body can move (at least not up to the speed we can achieve) without losing contact to its soul. In fact, looking at the problem from a quantum physics view, there is no reason to believe that the soul has to care about the actual location of the body. This means that if the wave form which represents our body is teleported across the universe, the soul might just stick to it.

Of course, I might be wrong and the soul might loose contact the moment the body is teleported. On the positive side, this would be a final proof that a soul exists (or at least something beyond the sub-atomic level). On the negative side, this would open a whole new world of tools to people who are not prepared for such power.

When someone manages to prove the existence of the soul, people will start to work on way to measure it. To access it. To modify it. Area Denial Systems already offer convenient new ways of torturing anyone you happen to dislike without leaving traces. For the victims, this makes it impossible to prove the act in court, making their situation twice as bad.

Imagine machines which can access the soul.

Luckily, nature has laws which will make sure we become extinct unless we are able to handle the powers which we seize.

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