Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Journey to the WestJust finished watching Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, an adaptation of the Chinese literary classic. The writer/director, Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer,) takes a very light hearted approach to the material though, and makes it a really engaging story in the process.

Chen Xuanzang is an aspiring Buddhist monk traveling the land fighting demons with a book of nursery rhymes, and not doing a very good job. He encounters bad ass demon hunter Duan, a woman who knows how to get things done, and ends up playing second fiddle to her impressive skills. The movie’s often dark humor is largely due to Duan’s decision she’s going to marry Chen whether he likes it or not, and no matter what demons get in the way.

Journey to the West is filled with fun fighting scenes, off beat characters, and great special effects. If you’re looking for a different kind of movie, this one is definitely worth watching.

Google Nexus Player Review

Received my Nexus Player Friday and spent the weekend messing with it. My first take on it: the Nexus Player gets an F. Want to know why?

Hardware Setup

Google Nexus Player

Google Nexus Player

First let me say I probably had a unique experience as I’ve not seen anyone with a similar write-up, but unique or not, getting this box going was a trial.

First, it just wouldn’t start up. The box, or “puck” as Google would prefer, was stuck on the loading animation. It took 30 minutes of searching to even find a help article, then I had to go through a very consumer-unfriendly wipe and reboot process. On restart, it finally got past the animation, but then I had to download an Android update. Which took an hour. This box quite literally just came out and it needs an update?

Using It

I finally got the box running and authenticated with my various streaming services. That actually wasn’t too bad. Of the four boxes in my house, though, the setup for a Nexus Player ranks 4 out 4. The real issue with using the Player is that there are virtually no apps for it, and the apps I have invested in on the Play store won’t install. Not because they can’t run – I know for a fact these apps work just fine on devices without a touch interface – but because Google has essentially established a secondary Play store just for Android TV blessed apps. I understand the rationale for it, but Google and Android are the anti-Apple, right? So why pursue an Apple like approach to app content?

Amazon Fire TV

Amazon Fire TV

Like the Fire TV, the Nexus Player’s app store has games available for download, although the launch line-up was weak, and had nothing as impressive as the Fire TV launch game Sev Zero. Two of the best games are the ubiquitous Badlands and Riptide GP2. Also like the Fire TV, there is an optional game controller available for the Nexus Player, although most of the launch games play just fine with the remote.

The Player does have some nice features. Voice input mostly works (although not as well as the Fire TV) and the connectivity is good, although I question the decision not to have an Ethernet jack. If you like to “cast” from your Android device to the TV, that feature is carried over from ChromeCast.

So…

Apple TV

Apple TV

Given a choice, and I do have one, I’m not likely to use the Google box. The Apple TV still has the best user interface, especially for browsing Netflix and Hulu, and the best video app content selection (judging by quality.) Roku and Fire TV tie for second for different reasons. Roku for depth of video channels, Fire TV for its ability to play non-video apps. Google comes in a distant last. The test for me is always, “could my mom use it? And would she like it?” The answer is: yes, so long as she didn’t have to go through the launch process I did, and no, because it just isn’t that consumer friendly.

Story plotting and writing poetry with Microsoft Excel

Microsoft Excel is not the first app you would associate with creative writing, but it has become my go to app for thinking through story structure, composing poetry, and doing story outlining.

This is how it started. I was working on a proposal that had four major characters, most of whom were not in the same place at the same time, and all four stories were progressing simultaneously. I needed a way to track everything that was happening with each major character, on or off the page, and I wanted to be able to visualize each character’s story in connection to the other stories. Even that sentence is complex. I tried every software tool I could think of, from timeline apps like Beedocs Timeline 3D to cork board apps, but none of them was quite what I needed. By accident, I was staring at a spreadsheet at work, with several columns of data, and I was struck by the notion that my plot points were just data.
That night, I took all my notes and plugged them into Excel and it was like someone just took blinders off my eyes. I could visualize my story from start to finish AND I could cut across story lines at any point in my story. I very quickly saw where I had gaps, where timing didn’t line up quite right, and even where best to switch from one character to the next to advance the story. It was like magic. The more I fiddled around with Excel, the more revealing it was. I was able to block off areas by day, or color code which scenes I wanted to include in the actual story.

That project ended up not being greenlit, but when I started work on my sequel to Elvis Sightings, I used Excel both to plot it out and write the treatment. In my story, there are several mysteries being investigated simultaneously, so with three columns in my spreadsheet, I could visualize which mystery was getting too much time, or needed to be re-sequenced to work better narratively. When it came to write the treatment, I used each row as a beat in a scene, then used formatting to delineate rows into scenes, chapters and days. I sent the combination of plot outline and treatment to my editor, and she was able to make beat by beat notes in a second column. When I rewrote my treatment, I was able to keep the original in one column, the notes in a second, and my changes in a third. I could see exactly how my story was evolving.

Excel Poetry

From a forthcoming Zombie poetry project

But what about poetry, you say? How could a spreadsheet help with something so artistic? Well, I was working on some poetry where I needed to think in syllables and rhyme pattern. I color coded each line for the a-b-b-a-c rhyming sequence. Then as I wrote, I used each cell as a syllable. It took a while for my brain to stop trying to write a few letters at a time before hitting the tab key, but once I got used to it, I was able to very quickly figure out the right words to fit my syllable counts. I’d start with the words I wanted to try to rhyme, plug them in at the end of each line, then work backwards in syllables to the start of each line. It worked really, really well, and it’s not something I could have easily done in a traditional writing app like Byword (which I’m using now and  love, btw.)

It’s totally counter intuitive, but every writer I’ve discussed this with who’s tried it has been  pleasantly surprised how useful a spreadsheet can be. Obviously, you don’t have to use Excel – any spreadsheet app will do. If you find yourself trying to figure out  some complex plotting or want to try your hand at sonnet, give this technique a try then tell me how you used it. I’d love to hear other creative ways to employ a spreadsheet.

The Night Shapers by James Blish

The Night ShapersMy latest airplane reading was a relatively short book by James Blish. Most of his work is straight up sci-fi, but Night Shapers is quite a different work altogether. The book takes place in 1900-ish Africa, and posits what would things have been like if many of the primitive beliefs and powers of African witch-doctors were real?

It’s a great premise, and not something I’ve run across elsewhere (as opposed to the dystopian future meme) so if you’re interested in something short and off the beaten track, give the book a whirl.