Monthly Archives: January 2011

A Game of Thrones

Adam Serwer of The American Prospect has a great post looking at the coming HBO series, A Game of Thrones, based on the fantasy novel series by George R.R. Martin. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is a really impressive take on the epic fantasy genre. I’ve read the first two books – A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings – of the seven book series (only four of the seven books have been published) and am part way through the third book, A Storm of Swords. Anyway, I wanted to highlight Serwer’s post, which gets at why one should be excited about the coming HBO series.

One of the producers jokingly described it as “The Sopranos in Middle Earth,” but I actually think it’s more like “The Wire in Middle Earth.” After reading the first two books of Martin’s series, I’m very much looking forward to HBO’s adaptation.

Most fantasy writing takes the term literally, painting an alternative universe readers might prefer to dwell in, hence the ab-flex male protagonists and their female companions in armored bikinis. Martin offers no such comfort.┬áThe world he creates resembles less a world of magic than a world in which magic has ceased to exist.┬áThe lives of the poor are full of toil and famine, the lives of nobles are naught but blood and iron. Honor is suicide, while treachery offers a small hope for survival. Undefeated warriors die from minor wounds becoming infected, cowards quietly flee fields of battle with their lives and honor intact. Martin’s world is populated by some obvious Shakespearean analogues and fantasy archetypes, but the latter ultimately end up subverting type in ways that prove interesting beyond simply defying expectations. Everyone loves Legolas. But what if a child caught Legolas sleeping with his sister and he decided to toss the kid off a cliff to keep him quiet? And so on.

Like The Wire, the impulse to pick heroes and villains gives way to despair over the dumb, arbitrary cruelty of the system all the characters remain subject to. One’s talent for working the system is more important than commitments to abstract principles, and characters who adhere to society’s rules aren’t necessarily good, and those who reject those values altogether aren’t necessarily evil.

Martin has created a bleak fantasy world where there are monstrous deeds and few actual monsters, which is to say, one enough like our own that few of us would want to actually live in it.

The thing that really grabbed me in the first book, A Game of Thrones, was that Martin constructed a world built upon a clear set of moral rules. It is a coherent system that Martin doesn’t take time mucking up after he sets its physics in motion. One of the things that turns me off from a lot of fiction, particularly epic fiction, is the reliance of deus ex machina to preserve heroic rewards. In A Game of Thrones Martin takes no pains to use his authorial powers to save characters from the world they exist in. Heroes die. Villains win. Justice does not prevail. I can’t think of another contemporary author, excepting maybe Brett Easton Ellis, who so pointedly refuses to make everything alright regardless of the trajectory they’ve set their characters on.

Martin continues to preserve his hermetic system in A Clash of Kings, though I do think he slips in a couple points and adds his own power into the system he’d created. I’m not sure how realistic it is in his world for a 10 year old girl to kill grown men and seize castles, while master warlords fall to substantially lesser foes. Martin achieves some of his authorial power through adding more characters and dimensions to his universe, so it’s not entirely fair to blame him for working outside the system entirely, but mostly for changing it in ways that allow what might otherwise be seen as unrealistic or unpredictable. I’m being pretty hard on Martin, but that’s only because I was so impressed by the first volume of his series.

One of the things that I most look forward to with HBO’s interpretation of A Game of Thrones is how they handle the presentation of information. Martin shifts perspective often, with each chapter told from a different character’s perspective. Much of the perspectives that Martin shares with readers are through a character’s internal monologue. Deductions are made, theories are tested, and emotions are hidden. So much of Martin’s books are about the political decisions they must make, which range from palace intrigue to military strategy. Presenting this aspect of A Game of Thrones will be particularly challenging, though I think if Serwer’s analogy to The Wire holds, then HBO will succeed in presenting complexity and depth in such a way to as to garner a dedicated following that includes me.


Tweet Chile: Days Away

Originally posted at A Jigger of Blog

I leave for Chile tomorrow with my beautiful and charming girlfriend Lori. The trip is the grand prize for the Tweet, Tweet, Chile contest, which I was fortunate enough to win this fall (thanks to everyone who voted for me).

Here’s the deal. Lori and I will be traveling for seven days all around Chile. We arrive in La Serena on Sunday and head towards Valle del Elqui, where we will visit the Aba Pisco distillery and Vina Falernia Winery. On Tuesday we’ll head back to Santiago, then drive north to the Aconcagua Valley, where we will visit the Errazuriz Vineyard. On Wednesday, we head south to the Maipo Valley, where our destination will be the Santa Rita Winery. We’ll stay the night right at the vineyard, at the Casa Real Hotel. On Thursday we leave the Maipo Valley and head down the Pan-American Highway towards the Colchagua Valley. We’ll spend two nights in the Colchagua Valley, visiting first the Montes Winery on Thursday and the Bisquertt Family Vineyards on Friday. We’ll be back in Santiago on Saturday and return to the States on Sunday night. It’s a whirlwind trip, but I cannot wait for it to start.

While I’m traveling, I will be tweeting up a storm. Follow me on Twitter @mbrownerhamlin. I’ll also be using the hashtag #TweetChile.

I really want to thank The Wines of Chile Experience for this incredible opportunity and thank, once again, everyone who took the time out of their lives to vote for me to win this trip.


Apple TV

I wasn’t exactly an early adopter, but I have had an Apple TV for a couple of years. I never used it as much as I wanted to, but found that it was great for watching TV shows sans commercials and the occasional movie rental. I didn’t do much with it for photo and audio purposes.

When the new version of the iPad OS launched, I was most excited for AirPlay. I wanted to watch movies and shows I had on my iPad on my Apple TV. I was pretty ticked off to find out that night that AirPlay would only work for new generation Apple TVs, ones without a hard drive and only capable of streaming content. I was so ticked off that Apple wouldn’t include AirPlay for us old Apple TV owners that I vowed not to get a new Apple TV, even if though it was priced relatively low by Apple standards.

Well a month or so goes by and my righteous indignation has worn off. I decided to buy a new Apple TV, in part for higher quality streaming HD movie rentals, but more because I want to be able to stream Netflix onto my TV with ease. The Netflix streaming selection isn’t that great now, but I’ve already paid for it and it will surely improve over time.

What I hadn’t counted on was that Apple’s HD rental market is substantially smaller than their download to own market. The number of TV shows viewable on the new Apple TV is a fraction of what is currently in iTunes. Again, I end up miffed at the quality of product Apple is offering loyal customers.

I like the movement away from ownership of digital media towards streaming, on demand rental. It is probably cheaper in the long run and reduces the amount of stuff I have. I look at my collection of about 100 DVDs next to my TV and think, “What in God’s name am I going to do with that crap?” Until I get off my butt and burn it all to a hard drive, I’m going to be stuck with it just taking up space. So in some regard, I appreciate Apple’s move towards streaming only with the Apple TV. But if you’re going to do that, you must provide your customers with the same volume of product to choose from as you do for download and sale. Why? For no other reason than you just took away Apple TV customers’ ability to buy product for downlad. I was perfectly fine having a device that gave me the choice between renting and owning content. Apple took that choice away from me, but didn’t up the volume in a meaningful way for rental content. That reeks of FAIL. I don’t really care what the underlying contractual reasons with film companies and TV studios is. If you’re not there from a legal side, don’t limit yourself on the hardware side.

Here’s my prediction: by the time Apple gets their new, Apple TV specific iTunes rental volume up to snuff, there will be either another Apple TV product that is somehow better or competitors will have offered a killer alternative to Apple TV. In the end, I guess I’m just a sucker for continuing to be a fan of Apple’s technology products, even as they treat me worse and worse as a customer.

Unexpected Luggage

A pretty brilliant PR move by Spanair. Bravo!

Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Day Pack

I got my Sea-to-Summit Ultra-Sil Day Pack last year, but have only started using it intensively in the last month of travel. It’s a small Ultra-Silbackpack made of Cordura ripstop fabric and it folds in on itself, down to about the size of a keychain attachment. It can do this because there are absolutely no rigid structures in the pack – just the shape it takes. The should straps are about an inch and a half wide, but attach to adjustable straps that are a little thinner than your standard shoelace. Not surprisingly, the Ultra-Sil is very light, weighing a mere 2.4 ounces.

When I first started using the Ultra-Sil, I wouldn’t do much more than put an extra layer and some headphones or a book in it. I really didn’t try to push its capacity at all. But on my recent trips, I’ve come to realize how much space is in the Ultra-Sil. Unfolded, the sack has a 20L volume. Just last week I used it to carry my 15″ Macbook Pro in a neoprene case, my iPad, and a Tom Bihn Snake Charmer filled with cords & electronic accessories. The Ultra-Sil held this all and had room a set of gym clothes, too.

One of the biggest challenges when traveling ultralight – be it for work or for pleasure – is having an adequate option for exploring within a location. If you want to travel with just one bag, having another bag stored in your main one is oftentimes a necessity. But bags are not small things. The Ultra-Sil allows me to have a functional day pack without giving up any real space in my main bag. Hell, I can carry it in my pocket if I wanted to.

There are some obvious downsides to using the Ultra-Sil as full-time day pack. First, it has no padding and no structure, so you will feel whatever you pack in it. I haven’t felt discomfort yet, but I’ve pretty much just done clothing or a padded laptop sleeve. I can imagine it becoming inconvenient if you were filling the pack with irregular objects. Second, the Ultra-Sil does not have any external or internal pockets. I usually like having a bottle of water with me when I’m out and about, so I do notice the lack of external pockets. I don’t know that I would use the Ultra-Sil on a long hike, but in the context of walking around a foreign city or bringing my laptop from a hotel to a meeting on a work trip, it works pretty well. That it does so without taking up any meaningful volume of space in my suitcase is a huge plus.

The only other drawback is aesthetic. Since the bag is folded up on itself and then stuffed away, when it is first unpacked the Ultra-Sil can look incredibly wrinkled. The wrinkles relax as the bag is filled, but they seem pretty dramatic at first glance. It doesn’t affect the bags efficacy to hold a lot of stuff and it’s temporary, but I thought it worth noting nonetheless.

Two pictures of a fully-loaded Ultra-Sil are below the fold:

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Sean Bonner TED Talk

Really interesting talk at TEDxVienna by Sean Bonner.

Gear Diary’s NB4C

Dan Cohen & Larry Greenberg of Gear Diary are doing a No Baggage Challenge for Charity sponsored by Scottevest. They are both bringing a heck of a lot more electronics with them than I did, so their packing methods are definitely useful to watch.

Quite simply, the more stuff you must bring with you, the harder it is to travel with no bags. Every decision involves consequences. But if you’re willing to be more bulky when fully loaded, you’ll be able to have more of what you want. The flip side is that you have to carry it on your person, so the volume at stuff which may be easy in a small day pack runs the risk of becoming inconvenient (or least un-stylish) when worn entirely on your person. Rolf Potts definitely found a sweet spot on his trip, but it helped that he had a videographer doing the filming and editing for him.

Go below the fold to see Dan and Larry’s packing videos, which are orders of magnitude better done than my janky one.

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