Sunday, 24 August 2014

I Need A Holiday...

Last Wednesday, I almost destroyed the company payroll system.

This was not my intent; indeed, I was assisting the application support team with their annual disaster recovery test by restoring a copy of their live database to their test environment. However, when the files were restored in error to the live server, there was potential for database corruption, since it was open and in use at the time.

The irony would be apparent even to Sheldon Cooper.

Fortunately, the files restored to a parallel directory structure, so no harm was done, but the fact that I made such a rookie mistake is testament to the fact that I need a holiday. As usual (and it's my own stupid fault), I've worked without significant downtime since January, and that, combined with some health issues, has culminated in a degree of stress that I need to address.

I have a system upgrade this week, then two more the following week. I'm going to take them as they come, then take a couple of weeks off.

I might even get away for a couple of days (somewhere)...

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Robin Williams, Your Table's Ready...

Robin Williams died the other day.

Even now, it seems wrong to have written those words. I mean, this is Robin Williams, FFS* - the man's lived so many lives he's got to be immortal.

Doesn't he?

Genie, Patch Adams, Walter Finch, Andrew Martin, Adrian Cronauer, John Keating, Popeye, Armand Goldman, President Eisenhower, Peter Pan, King of The Moon (!), Perry, Eupheginia Doubtfire (the name alone deserved an award), Teddy Roosevelt, Sean Maguire, Mork.

He had the ability to mix humour and pathos in just the right amounts; he could make you laugh so hard you'd cry, or cry until, finally, there would be a laugh.

Like many people, Mork & Mindy was the show that introduced - no, make that 'unleashed' the comic genius of Robin Williams onto an unsuspecting audience. The character's charm was his naivete and complete guilelessness, and his weekly reports to Orson were witty, if sometimes poignant, observations on life and the highlights of humanity.

I read somewhere among the many tributes in the press today that the writers on the show couldn't keep up with Williams's sheer creative energy, and would just leave gaps in the script so that he could ad-lib. I can't imagine what it must have been like to try to keep up with him on the set.

He made the move, naturally enough, to movies and found roles that gave him a chance to develop his dramatic abilities while still allowing him to use his manic comedic talent. He played doctors and teachers, and, in a curious sense was both a doctor and a teacher, healing our hearts and our souls while teaching us how to just let go and enjoy the things life has to offer.

I especially enjoyed his impression of Elmer Fudd, and recall his saying in an interview that he wanted to make an album of Bruce Springsteen songs in Elmer Fudd's voice. Then he sang 'Fire'. I fell off the sofa laughing.

And yet sadly, as happens to so many of those gifted with the ability to entertain, the spectre of depression was never far, and finally took him from the world to which he had given so much joy.

There are so many tributes being paid to this incredibly talented man, with many people posting quotes and videos by which to remember Robin Williams, but I found this clip on Youtube, posted by Jen Luckey Dancel and I thought I might share it:


Thank you for the tears and the laughter, sir - NaNu, NaNu...


*not his actual title...

Monday, 4 August 2014

Star-Lord? Never Heard Of Him...

This evening, a Bank Holiday Monday in Ireland, I went with my nephew to see Marvel Studios' latest release, "Guardians of The Galaxy."

Here is a brief, spoiler-free synopsis:

Peter Quill is a ten-year-old boy whose mother lies dying. In his grief he runs from the hospital, only to be confronted by an alien spaceship, which abducts him.

Fast-forward 22 years: Quill, by now grown, is a Ravager - a sort of Indiana Jones-type character - who recovers artifacts for money. His latest acquisition, an orb of unknown properties, promises to yield a sizable sum, so he decides to cut his partners (led by Michael Rooker) out of the deal and go, ah, Solo (see what I did there?). The only problem is, Quill is also an asshole.

Others want the orb also, however, and their agent (Zoe Saldana quite recognizable in Orion green) tackles Quill as he visits his buyer. Quill's partners have put a bounty on him also, and a couple of bounty hunters, a sentient raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and an ambulatory tree called Groot (Vin Diesel) attempt to intervene, as does a revenge-driven Drax the Destroyer (professional wrestling star Dave Bautista). All five are captured and imprisoned, and with Rocket's genius, they plan their escape.

The adventure, far from beginning here, actually began half an hour earlier, and doesn't let up for the entire length of the movie. Chris Pratt is excellent as Quill, or as he would like to be called, "Star-Lord", and the chemistry between him and co-star Saldana is believable and effective. Rocket and Groot aren't simply there for comic relief - everybody, even Drax gets a chance to play for a few laughs.

As my nephew commented, it's a long time since a movie like this has had such a good balance of action and comedy. The story sets itself up nicely for a sequel or two, which I for one and Mitch for another will be eager to see.

Here's the trailer - do not miss this movie...


Oh, and here's the other trailer:


And the soundtrack's cool too...

For The Good Of My Health...

So there I was, returning from vanquishing the latest Xylak outbreak while also having to deal with a case of Argonian 'flu and plan an integration workshop for some Pcinian Security officers on an exchange program, when suddenly I lost all feeling in my left side.

No loss of strength or ability, just a general feeling of numbness. It passed after about twenty minutes, and I resolved to seek medical attention if it happened again.

Fast-forward a week: It happens again.

Sort of. I was having a stressful time in my day job, and on this particular Tuesday afternoon, things were out of control. Trying to deal with a half-dozen things at once, I suddenly developed a pain in my upper left arm, coupled with a sense of numbness in my left hand.

That did it for me so I excused myself from duty and, after a brief stop at my apartment to gather some essentials, headed for the nearest A&E department, fortunately only a short distance away.

3:00PM:
Arrived at the Mater Hospital's Emergency Dept. I check in with Reception, noting that it isn't particularly busy, and I am seen by a triage nurse after a short time. I explain what I am experiencing, she takes an ECG and checks my blood pressure and other vitals, and I am sent back out to the waiting area while the results were processed. Having expected this, I had come prepared, so I take out my book and settle in for the inevitable wait. Since I'm not in immediate danger or distress, this is likely to be some time; however I am renowned for my patience.

4:30PM:
My name is called, this time by a young woman who introduces herself as Roisín and who leads me to a treatment area for further testing.

As she does so, another patient, whose name is Gary, becomes impatient that his name isn't being called, but Roisin gently but firmly tells him they have to wait for his rest results to come back, so he'll be seen as soon as they are available. I don't think he hears - Gary is a little high.

In the treatment bay, Roisin goes through my details - the hospital is fastidious about records - and I describe what's going on with me. I explain that I had suffered no cognitive or other deficiencies as part of my symptoms, and she performs some reaction tests to see whether any have since developed.

I will admit to perhaps misunderstanding one or two of her instructions, albeit not at the time, which may have coloured her diagnosis somewhat, because she tells me she wants to confer with a colleague before deciding on a course of treatment. I joke that I'm not going anywhere, but I am the only one who smiles.

After a short time Roisín returns and says that she has ordered up a CT scan for me, which would happen as soon as they could get a radiographer on-site. For that, I'll need a line in my arm, through which a dye would be fed into my bloodstream to, ah, light me up. She hooks me up on the spot; I don't feel a thing.

Then it's back out to the waiting area and my book. Gary is wandering about, talking to people as if they were old friends. A World Cup match is playing on a TV, but I can't get interested in it, so I stick to the printed page. Thinking back on it now, I can't recall what the book was called nor the name of the author - it may come to me later...

6:00PM
I decide to phone my parents to let them know where I am; and, while I don't want them to drop everything and rush to my side (I am the Mightiest of Men, after all), that's more or less what they do, arriving about fifteen minutes after my friend and office colleague Gerry is brought in by ambulance, having been the victim of an assault on his way home from work an hour previously.

With his head bandaged, shirt stained with blood, he is surprised when I ask,

"What the hell happened to you?"

After a double-take, and a "What are you doing here?", we swap stories and sit in for the wait. Gerry has a bandage on his head from where his assailant had struck him, presumably with some sort of object in his hand. The EMTs, called by police on the scene, had patched him up before bringing him to A&E for treatment and possible stitching, but as he wasn't in immediate danger he went on the waiting list with everyone else, while life (but not death) went on around us.

7:00PM
My parents arrive - they remembered Gerry from a party we were all at the previous year, and we spend the next few hours in conversation. Gary continues to wander about the place talking to anyone who makes eye-contact. He offers my mum a can of Coke, which she politely declines, then wanders away.

10:00PM
No sign of my radiographer or Gerry's stitch-up artist (or Gary's test results, for that matter), so I suggest that my parents go home, that I'll be fine and that Gerry and I can probably share a taxi home, he living only a short distance away from me. My dad says he'd be back for us, and takes Mum home.

Ten minutes after he left, I am called for my CT scan; at almost the same moment, Gerry is called into the treatment area. Talk about timing...

I've had my head stitched before (many years ago: I was ten) so I won't talk about it here; however I've never had a CT scan before so this is new territory even for me. It isn't what I'd expected; I figured I'd be inserted into a machine similar to the one that turned Dr. Banner into The Hulk, but this is nothing like that.

The radiographer notes the line in my arm and hooks up a bag of clear fluid which he explains is dye. He also explains that it would produce in me a warm feeling that might make me think I had, ah, urinated, but that that would not be the case.

Easy for him to say - I've been holding it in for a half-hour and was about to go for a pee break when he came to get me.

The test is short and painless, and after about fifteen minutes I am back outside to wait for the scan results. Dry, I hasten to add.

Gerry has returned also; seemed that his wound won't take a stitch, so they're going to use glue instead. I had heard of soldiers in the field using superglue to close a wound, but am surprised it has become part of standard treatment. But you live and learn, I guess.

11:30PM
Back into treatment area again - this time where I speak with a doctor who introduces himself as Aongus and wears odd socks, something that I notice but don't comment upon.

He tells me that my CT scan is clear, and shows no signs of TIA, or Transient Ischaemic Attack, which the layman will interpret as a Stroke warning. We go through the same tests as Roisín had done earlier, and I suggest that I may have misunderstood one or two of her instructions.

We discuss my job and lifestyle; whether the job is stressful, etc, my diet, exercise and so on, and Aongus says he wants to send me for further tests as he feels the earlier incident (the numbness) points to something neurological, so he'd make some appointments and I'll be notified when and where to go.

In the meantime he is happy to release me; just needs to have the line taken out of my arm and give me a prescription for aspirin and I'd be all set. With that, he disappears, and I sit cooling my heels for a while until someone comes to remove the device and patch me up.

As I'm sitting there, trying (and failing) to get a phone signal, Gerry is ushered into the treatment bay next to mine, where he has his head glued by a pretty nurse and a fresh dressing applied.

We are both then released, whereupon leaving the treatment area we find the waiting area half-empty. It seems that one of Gary's friends (the amateur pharmacist) had brought along some contraband and was ejected by Security, followed by Gary, his other friends and the curious, wanting to see what transpired.

What transpired was a fight, resulting in several individuals not being allowed back inside and one or two arrested. Gary had sustained sufficient damage to warrant being patched up, so he was finally being seen to. We leave him to it and go outside, where my dad is waiting. He tells us about what had happened and then drivse us home, dropping Gerry off first before swinging back past my place.

I tell him about the tests, and how the doctor wants to schedule an appointment for an MRI and to speak with a neuro-vascular specialist, and we agree that I am a lucky man and should take things a bit easier. He also advises I take a day or two off, which I do not argue about.

He leaves me at my door; I go inside and collapse into bed.

It is 1:30AM...

What will happen next?

Tune in again for another exciting adventure!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Tin Star...

I must preface this post with a brief statement (for clarification purposes, you understand):

I really hate Country & Western music.

I've had long discussions with a friend and colleague over the years regarding this particular genre; Tony says that it's about "real things, happening to real people." These generally involve divorce, infidelity, drunkenness resulting in a spell in jail, having to shoot your dog, etc. In short, misery.

Okay, I know I'm oversimplifying things here - there is, I will admit, a complexity and deepness of meaning to all music that resonates with those who enjoy a particular style. For me, it's jazz. For some, death metal. But for me, C&W has and always will be the Music of Pain, and to quote Forrest Gump,

"That's about all I have to say about that."

But back to our story:

I was watching TV a while back,  channel-hopping during the damnable commercial breaks,  when I came across some sort of arts programme on the national broadcaster.
There was an interview with a young Canadian singer named Lindi Ortega, around which was shown a live performance of a song from her latest album,  "Tin Star".
It had a country flavour to it that ordinarily I steer clear of (see preface), but I was captivated by her voice and style - reminded me of Emmylou Harris with a touch of Dolly Parton (yes, I know who they are, Tony) and stayed with it before downloading the album on iTunes.

Here's why:

 (Video by Lindi Ortega / LastGangRecords)
Ladies and Gentlemen,  Ms. Lindi Ortega...

Sunday, 6 July 2014

These Are The Voyages...

When I was a kid, there was this secondhand bookstore near where I lived, where I used to find the most amazing things. More than books, the place sold American comicbooks, which were hard to get here in those days, but also science fiction novels, and especially Star Trek. I got most of the James Blish adaptations of TOS stories, as well as Alan Dean Foster's adaptations of the animated series episodes.

I also picked up a copy of the Starfleet Technical Manual and, unbelievably, a set of the Franz Joseph-designed plans of the Enterprise.

I used to wonder what it would take to build my own Bridge, a full, 360-degree set with stations and viewscreen; I had little concept of money in those days, but knew it wouldn't be cheap. And my imagination often outstripped my abilities when it came to building things, so I knew it was going to be little more than a pipedream.

But what if...?

And that's what it seems many other fans of Star Trek asked themselves, and then had a go at it, with varying results. From handheld video shot in someone's back yard, to more ambitious efforts using sets and props, culminating in professionally-produced episodes with full cast, sets and special effects in broadcast quality.

Initially, fans produced shows based on their own characters and ships, notably Starship Exeter and Starship Farragut, both sister ships of the TOS-era U.S.S. Enterprise, but focusing on their own crews rather than attempting to continue Kirk's adventures.

Sadly, Exeter only managed two complete episodes, the second of which ('The Tressaurian Intersection') languished in post-production limbo for several years awaiting completion, perhaps reflecting the inherent difficulties in raising capital to build sets, props, make costumes, rent facilities and equipment, etc.

Farragut's voyage was equally as ambitious, if more successful, with (to date) three episodes released and another due this summer. In addition, they've produced two animated episodes in the style of the 1973 Filmation series.

Numerous other projects exist, noble efforts all, but thus far, the two that stand out are James Cawley's Star Trek: Phase Two , with nine episodes completed, one on the way and another in production; and Vic Mignogna's Star Trek Continues, with three episodes available to view.

As with Exeter and Farragut, both shows are set in the Original Series era, working along the lines of "What if Season 4 had happened?" and every effort has been made to duplicate the 'feel' of the original, down to the smallest detail. Kickstarter has been a major factor in funding these projects, since they're not otherwise professionally financed, and the productions are permitted by the copyright owners on a not-for-profit basis. That probably means nobody gets paid (much)...

The results, however, speak volumes for their respective creators' love of the source work. Both Cawley (among other things, a successful Elvis impersonator in his day job) and Mignogna (actor/producer) star as James T. Kirk in their respective versions of the show, and both manage to carry the role without turning into 'Shatner impressionists'. Cawley, who had an uncredited role in JJ Abrams' 'Star Trek', has since handed over the role
of Kirk to Brian Gross, who will take the big chair for Phase II's next episode, "The Holiest Thing". Here's a trailer:

                                           (by startrekphase2DE via Youtube)


Star Trek Continues' latest episode focuses on the events following the conclusion of the TOS episode, "Mirror, Mirror". Entitled "Fairest Of Them All", it shows what happens in the Mirror Universe after Kirk, Scott, McCoy and Uhura manage to get back to their own reality.

This clip is a shot-by-shot comparison of the final scene of "Mirror, Mirror" as recreated by Mignogna and his team:

                                         (by tommiph, via Youtube)

The scene forms the opening for the episode, and so feeds nicely into the proceedings.

And so now we have not one, but two groups dedicated to continuing the 5-year mission. Differences will be evident in the production styles and story types - Phase II has gone for serious drama, with little of the humour that would occasionally be seen in episodes featuring Harry Mudd or Tribbles, while also addressing social issues such as same-sex relationships.  

ST Continues, for its part, started with "Pilgrim Of Eternity", a sequel to "Who Mourns For Adonais?" featuring Michael Forest (reprising his role as Apollo from the original), then followed it with "Lolani", a thinly-disguised commentary on the continued existence of slavery.

I remain impressed by the dedication of the people who create these new adventures; their passion will ensure that the crew of the Enterprise will continue  "...to boldly go where no man has gone before..."

Ahead, Warp Factor Two...

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Déja Vu All Over Again...

As I may have mentioned previously, I am a fan of crime fiction, especially detective novels in the Chandler style (or at least hovering around it).

To my mind, among the finest proponents of this style have been the late Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser series, and Loren D. Estleman, with his Detroit-based protagonist, Amos Walker.

Spenser, introduced in 1973 in The Godwulf Manuscript, has developed over the intervening 40-plus years, from a mid-thirties, Korean War veteran and ex-boxer into a sixty-something Korean War veteran and ex-boxer; and, with Parker's passing in 2010, the character seemed to stop aging altogether. This may have been as much due to the designs of Ace Atkins, the author selected to continue the bestselling series, than to any intent on Parker's part. Certainly for me there was always a sense that the character was aging in step with his creator (albeit at perhaps a 10-year remove), and so perhaps with Atkins's arrival it was seen as okay to, if not reboot the character, then at least inject a little more youthfulness into him and his world.

Gone are the references to Korea and fighting the famous "Jersey Joe" Walcott - now we simply accept that Spenser was at one time in the Service and boxed. The rest is all there, and Atkins's style sits so well on the page that one could imagine Parker's shade watching over his shoulder, ready to offer, ah, 'parently guidance'.

The stories are sharp, with more time given to the investigation at hand, and somewhat less to the Spenser-Susan relationship byplay that had become prevalent in Parker's latter novels. Pearl remains part of the cast; being a dog person, I have no problem with that.

The latest book in the series, Cheap Shot, sees the Boston P.I. approached by New England Patriots linebacker Kinjo Heywood, concerned about the possibility he's being stalked by persons unknown.

His own reputation for violent conduct having landed him on the wrong end of the media's interest in the past, Heywood hires Spenser to find and dissuade any would-be stalkers, despite objections from the Patriots' head of security and Heywood's own agent.

However, when Heywood's 7-year-old son Akira is kidnapped, Spenser and Hawk are quickly on the case, along with new protegé Zebulon Sixkill.

Scouring the city for clues to the whereabouts of the child, Spenser revisits old adversary Tony Marcus and encounters a new enemy in FBI agent Connor. When the boy's father decides to take matters into his own hands, it threatens to run the clock out before the veteran detective can save the day.

Another fascinating visit to Spenser's Boston, sharply written by Ace Atkins, Cheap Shot stands as a solid addition to the Spenser canon. Atkins once again perfectly captures Parker's 'voice', and I can't help but feel that the great man would be pleased that his character is in such good hands.

*********

I've been following the exploits of Amos Walker for so long that I feel I know Detroit like the back of my hand, despite my never having been there.

For me, it's a city that only exists at 3am, or on a wet Monday in February. It just has that feel to it, and no matter the narrative, I can't escape the image whenever Walker hits the streets.

However, this latest case left me feeling lost in warm sunlight...
:

:
:
From the moment I met Walker's client, Alec Wynn, I had a sense of déja vu. Not remarkable in itself; I get that a lot. But this was different - I had encountered this character before. Wife missing, only a note saying 'Don't look for me', no personal effects out of place - something about this case just didn't sit right.

Walker wasn't at his office when I visited, and I got past Rosecranz easily enough, never mind how. No prospective clients in the outer office meant I was free to try my luck on the inner door. It didn't give much trouble (what's there to steal in a P.I.'s office?) so I closed it quietly behind me and looked around.

Custer's Last Stand on the wall - check; souvenir ashtray from Traverse City - check; safe with spare shirt, extra bullets and the good Scotch - check.

That left the filing cabinet. A three-drawer relic from the Age of Wood, it offered little resistance to a letter-opener and a lot of determination.

I checked the clock. I had plenty of time - Walker wouldn't be back for a year or so. Then I dug deep into his files.

After what seemed like a month, but was only about half an hour, I found what I was looking for.

Thee was no mention of international drug dealers; no hint that MOSSAD or their associates had any interest or that the cast fared about as well as the lineup in a Shakespearean tragedy. Just the story, brief and unremarkable, of a missing person.

Closing and re-locking the file drawer, I had to wonder whether Amos was starting to lose it - was this apparent dementia a legacy of his Vicodin issues, or were the powers that be setting him up for something?

Certainly from what I knew of the Wynn case (the second, not the first) it seemed that he was off his game. Rambling dialogue, with comments intended to provoke a punch or a bullet rather than develop a lead, the poor guy seemed more in need of a vitamin shot than a shot of Scotch.

Worked out in the end, though - same as it did the first time, only in a less satisfying way.

I took a last look around the office, used a handkerchief to wipe any prints I may have left, then let myself out, locking the door behind me.

I left the building, passing Rosecranz, asleep and snoring softly in his cubby, one eye open.

I smiled to myself; with Cerberus to watch the place, it's a sure thing that Walker would come to no harm.

I resolved to look in on him again, then flagged a cab for the airport and left the Motor City behind...

*********

"Don't Look For Me" (Amos Walker #23) is expanded from the short story called "I'm In The Book", originally published in 1986 for an anthology entitled "The Mean Streets" (Mysterious Press) and subsequently in the collection "General Murders" (Houghton Mifflin, 1988).




Friday, 14 March 2014

O Captain, My Captain...

Tomorrow evening, at approximately 7:30pm GMT, one of the greatest careers in International Rugby Union will come to an end, as Ireland and Leinster player Brian O'Driscoll finishes his 141st and final international match against France, against whom he played his first Test match in 2000.

On that occasion, at the age of 21, he scored three tries and helped the side to their first win in Paris since 1972. To put things in perspective, if Ireland win tomorrow, it will be their second win in Paris since 1972.

Now, at age 35,having been team captain, four times Lions member, Heineken Cup Winner and 6 Nations Grand Slam Winner, as well as having been acknowledged by his peers as one of the best footballers ever to have worn the Number 13 shirt, O'Driscoll lines out for his final Test, facing the country against whom he posted his debut hat-trick and Ireland's best result in 28 years.

France.

Courtesy of a fan, here's a, shall we say, 'précis' of BOD's career highlights:


Tomorrow I shall be watching with my father, pint of Guinness in hand, as possibly the greatest player of his or my generation takes the field for the final time.

I feel tremendously privileged to have seen him play.

Now if only we could retire George Hook...

Non-Stop...

(Note: I began, but failed to finish, this post before the events surrounding Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 had taken place. I thought about deferring it but felt that the two incidents were sufficiently different in nature that I could proceed with posting.)

Having some time on my hands on Friday last, I went to see Liam Neeson's latest picture, Non-Stop.


For those who may have been off-planet lately (or deep within the Kingdom of the Molemen - they only allow the cinema of Uwe Boll), the story follows troubled US Air Marshal Bill Marks, who, while on a trans-Atlantic flight, receives a message from someone who says he'll kill a passenger every twenty minutes unless his demands are met, namely the transfer of $150 million into a Swiss account.

When the account turns out to be in Marks's name, he's deemed to be a hijacker by authorities, and with  no-one to trust but a passenger (Julianne Moore) and a flight attendant (Michelle Dockery), Marks has to deal with 150 potential suspects if he's to foil the criminal and save the aircraft and passengers.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who gave us the slick Eurothriller Unknown, also starring Neeson, Non-Stop delivers exactly what its name suggests - a suspense-filled thriller in which one is never certain what's a clue and what's a red herring.

Here's a trailer:


One has to suspend a certain amount of disbelief in one or two instances, but the payoff is worth it.

Neeson will return in "Run All Night", a third collaboration* with director Collet-Serra revolving around a retired hitman who's forced into a contract in order to save his family. Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman and Genesis Rodriguez co-star, and it's set for release in 2015.


*but not, it seems, with Joel Silver...