The Turing test, which was created by Alan Turing back in 1950, is used to determine whether, after a series of questions, the questioner can tell whether they've been speaking with a human or computer.  But how would such a test apply, with all the advances in technology, to artificial intelligence?  Ex Machina explores this with a mixing of technology, personalities, and duplicity.

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer for Bluebook, the world's most popular search engine.  He wins a company lottery and heads for a week-long trip at the mountain retreat of company CEO Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).  Nathan gives Caleb a key card that opens certain doors (but not all) in the home, insists that Caleb treat him like a regular guy, and has cameras and monitors throughout the entire house.  Nathan also gets drunk a lot, "remembers" things in a self-aggrandizing way, and has a servant named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) who doesn't speak English and seems to be there to serve Nathan's sexist whims.  But Nathan's big reason for bringing Caleb is seemingly simple: Caleb has created an android, and he wants Caleb to question the android to see if it actually has artificial intelligence.

The android is Ava (Alicia Vikander), who has spent her whole life in a single room with glass walls.  Ava and Caleb seem to immediately hit it off.  She's also been causing the power outages in the home, and during those times she and Caleb aren't being watched, she warns him not to trust anything Nathan says -- and starts flirting with Caleb, including putting on her clothes and wig to look fully human.  But is Nathan misleading Caleb, or is Ava?  What is Caleb's own agenda?  And what about Kyoko?

Were it not for a couple of scenes with extras, Ex Machina could easily be a modern play, focused almost totally on the four main characters, almost all in the same rooms.  And it all works quite well.  The actors all do very well with their parts, from Alicia giving Ava a blend of naive innocence and calculated planning to Oscar's boss who pretends to be a regular guy while constantly making it clear who's in charge and what he wants.  The visuals support the story perfectly, from Ava's combination of sexuality and machinery to the sterile, reflecting-glass environment of Nathan's created home.  Ex Machina is intriguing and quite dramatic.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


AS KINKY AS YOU WANNA BE by Shanna Germain (and others)

Being kinky can be fun -- but what about the first steps towards entering that world?  How to bring it up with a partner?  What should someone know about safety?  What's out there in the culture?  As Kinky as You Wanna Be: Your Guide to Safe, Sane and Smart BDSM by Shanna Germain is a good introduction to the diverse world of kink, BDSM -- and, to a certain extent, well being in general.

As Kinky as You Wanna Be has a different format that most books on sex.  Shanna's discussions on different topics are intelligent, informative, often personal and sometimes humorous.  Interspersed with the chapters are interviews with assorted extras, plus short stories and excerpts from erotica authors including Janice Ashbless, Kristina Lloyd, Remittance Girl, and Shanna Germain herself.  The mix keeps things interesting, as we get different perspectives on the same topics, along with some pretty entertaining fiction that illustrates the discussions in quite exciting ways.  (The book also ends with a glossary of common vocabulary in the kink world, along with resources such as books and websites.)

My only issue with As Kinky as You Wanna Be is that it is, first and foremost, a primer for those new to this world.  The introduction says "Whether it's your first time or thousandth adventure: welcome" before ending with "All you have to do is take that first step."  The latter sentiment is more in tune with the rest of the book: Those experienced in kink will find little new here, from communication (more about overcoming initial awkwardness than expanding one's repertoire) to the glossary.  (I knew virtually all the terms there.)  If you know the scene(s), this is not the book for you.  That said, if you want to discover what you (and others) enjoy, or you'd like to share your interests with someone inexperienced, As Kinky as You Wanna Be is a fine doorway to this side of sex and sexuality.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch



The supernatural and psychological are often blended in horror -- but few movies mix the two elements as thoroughly as The Babadook.  This movie is as much about the stresses of parenthood as its supernatural title creature.

This Australian movie is about a struggling family.   Amelia (Essie Davis) lost her husband in a car crash when he was driving her to the hospital to give birth to their son Samuel.  Six years later, Amelia is working with the elderly, lonely (and horny), living in a small house with her small dog, and dealing with Samuel (Noah Wiseman).  Samuel is at best a handful, and at worst troubled: He is obsessed with performing magic and reading scary books, and he's armed with homemade weapons to fight them (which get him kicked out of his school).  Samuel scares the other kids, and tends to throw tantrums anytime he doesn't get what he wants.  Amelia is continually worrying about him -- and stressing to no end over him.
One night, Amelia lets Samuel pick what he wants to read, and he selects Mister Babadook,  This is a creepy black and white pop-up book about a monstrous creature in a top hat who will knock three times, get into the people's lives, and then horrible things will happen.  But the last pages are empty, so Amelia puts the book high on the shelf and reads a less scary book to her now-screaming son.

As with many horror movies, strange things start to happen: Lights flicker, strange sounds occur in the house, the dog keeps barking when nothing is there (or is there?), and Samuel keeps on insisting that the Babadook is real and coming for them.  But there's also plenty that seems to come from Amelia's increasing stress and lack of sleep: snapping at Samuel and others, growing more and more detached from everything, and letting old issues come to the surface.  When she finds another copy of Mister Babadook that shows her killing the dog, Samuel, and herself, we don't know if it's the creature or her imagination.  (The fact that she burned the book before going to the police makes them understandably skeptical that she's being stalked.)

The Babadook is a different and quite effective horror movie.  The movie revolves almost entirely around Amelia and Samuel, and the actors are quite effective: Essie Davis captures both the tired stresses of mother and the growing homicidal nature, while Noah Wiseman is a nicely bratty kid who might be on to something with his fears of monsters.  The movie manages to make the mental explanation as or more fearsome than the supernatural one: Amelia's deterioration comes across as even creepier than her hearing a voice croaking "BAAAA-BAAAA-DOOOOOOOK" when driving.  The Babadook uses growing tension more than special effects or quick surprises to create terror -- and it does so well.  (DVD extras are lots of movie background, from special effects and actor interviews to discussing the book-within-the-movie from the illustrator.)

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


Steel Wheels

My favorite Rolling Stone’s album is most likely Steel Wheels. It is hard to believe when I think back that it was released in 1989. Of note, it was also the first all digital Rolling Stone’s album.
It is interesting to note in retrospect, that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had both not worked together for some years prior to the Steel Wheels Album, and were both pursuing less memorable solo albums (Mick Jagger’s Primitive Cool, and Keith Richard’s better received Talk Is Cheap). However, their former differences were set aside after the induction of The Rolling Stones into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in early 1989. While their more recent previous work had more modern underpinnings, for Steel Wheels they wanted to return to their more classic signature, Stones sound. Steel Wheels is considered their “Reunion album.” It took the band five years after Steel Wheels for their next album, Voodoo Lounge.


Los Angeles Smarts

As someone who's spent most of his life on the east coast of America -- New York, Richmond, North Carolina -- I've often dreamed of visiting California.  I've heard so much about it, from the awards shows, movie history, and, in the winter, heat (though the latter is less of a problem since I moved to North Carolina) -- and Los Angeles is the center of it all.  Since I don't know the area, though, I'd either have to go for one event or wander around aimlessly.  The Armchair Critic got a guide to L.A. called Los Angeles Smarts -- and it looks like quite a guide to quite a city.

Entertainment in Los Angeles

Los Angeles Smarts describes itself as "a small company that specializes in everything to do with Los Angeles " and while that's quite a claim, they do provide lots of information -- and links to other places for more information or details.  The site itself provides information on L.A. theaters, venues, sporting teams, and restaurants.  In addition, their site provides other information, whether finding other activities for tourists, or the latest news on what NFL team might be moving to Los Angeles.  It's a nice way to find more possibilities for a L.A. vacation.

I have no idea when I'll be going out to California -- but when I do, I'll be using Los Angeles Smarts to figure out what to do and where to go while I'm out there.

Written by James Lynch


WHAT IF? by Randall Munroe

While the show Mythbusters uses experimentation to either prove or disprove myths, what about random or weird questions that can't be actually tested in reality?  Fortunately, before Randall Munroe began the stick-figure webstrip xkcd , he was a physicist and roboticist for NASA; and he still takes and answers weird questions on his strip.  What if?  Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions addresses some of the best/weirdest questions, using math and science.  And while there are no actual physical experiments to prove or disprove the answers, since a lot of them result in the creation of plasma that's probably for the best.

What If? takes on all sorts of questions, from the potentially possible (Could you make a jet pack by firing guns at the ground?  How hard would a hockey puck have to be hit to knock a goalie back to the net?) to extremely hypothetical. (What would happen if a pitcher threw a baseball at 90% of the speed of light?  If every human disappeared, how long would it be before the last light went out?)  There are also a few "Weird (and Worrying) Questions from the What If? Inbox" through the book, that get very brief answers.  ("Is it possible to cry so much you dehydrate yourself?" -- Karl Wildermuth.  "...Karl, is everything OK?")  And there are plenty of stick figure cartoons interspersed throughout the book, to comment on the answers/

Even though I couldn't follow most of the math and much of the science here, I enjoyed What If? a lot.  Munroe mixes scientific explanation with humor seamlessly, There are lots of funny footnotes ("If it's past the year 2016 right now when you're reading this, hello from the distant past!  I hope things are better in the future.  P.S. Please figure out a way to come get us.") and "citation needed" uses for pretty accepted facts.  Some answers are quite surprising (such as what would happen if everyone on Earth was in the same place and jumped at once; nothing would happen to the Earth, but there's be mass death and the collapse of civilization as all the humans tried to escape from that one area) and it's hard to disagree with Munroe's answers.  Even if What If? is beyond your science understanding, it's still funny and informative.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch



From the 1930s onward, Dick and Jane books taught children to read by utilizing simple words, basic illustrations, and lots and lots of repetition.  But what would happen if this format was used on the original Star Trek television series?  Fun with Kirk and Spock by Robb Pearlman parodies the show's adventures and characters with the same simplistic format as those early readers -- and it's fairly funny.

The tone of Fun with Kirk and Spock is set at the opening, with the book's take on the show' famous opening split infinitive: "See the Enterprise.  See the Enterprise go boldly.  Go go go, Enterprise!  Go boldly!"  From there, we get similar child-like takes on all the major characters: Spock is no fun, Kirk is a great fighter and lover, and so on.  There are also brief versions of key episodes of the show (the cover references "Space Seed") and tropes of the show.  ("See the crewman.  What is the crewman's name?  It does not matter.  Why does it not matter?  He is wearing a red shirt.  It is best not to get too attached.")

Fun with Kirk and Spock is largely a one-joke book, but it's a funny one-joke book -- if you're a fan of the original Star Trek.  Those who know and like the show will enjoy the take on the characters and episodes (such as Spock and McCoy being "frenemies," the Gorn being "fashion-forward," or the fact that Khan "is not a morning person."), and even with the repetitive format it's good for a few laughs and lots of chuckles.  But give or loan it to someone who's not a Trek fan and be prepared to do a lot of explaining.

I wouldn't have thought that the original Star Trek could be explained so well as a children's story, but Fun with Kirk and Spock does just that.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch



Some great horror films tap into our primal fears for their inspiration.  It Follows combines the basic fear of being pursued relentlessly with a mix of paranoia and 1980s horror movie elements.  And it all works quite well.

The movie opens in the daytime with Annie (Bailey Spry), a teenager, running outside her house, then in a circle, before getting in her car and driving off.  Then we see Annie at night, sitting on the beach, facing her car's headlights, and talking to her father on her phone.  Next it's day, and we see Annie's corpse, hideously contorted and partially dismembered.

Now we jump to Jay Height (Maika Monroe), a young woman living an ordinary life in a middle-class house.  Jay hangs out with her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), continually-reading friend Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and slightly geeky friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist) who has a crush on Jay.  She's also dating Hugh (Jake Weary) and is happy, though he freaks out when she doesn't see the woman in a yellow dress he points out in a movie theater.  But the two get along great, and they sleep together for the first time in the back of his car.  She thinks it's dreamy... until he chloroforms her and she wakes up tied to a wheelchair.  And that's not even the creepy part.

Hugh tells Jay that he's being pursued by an entity, and since they slept together the entity is now pursuing her.  He says no can see it but her (and the people who had passed it on), the entity can look like anyone, and it will walk straight after her in slowly but without stopping until it catches and kills her.  He wants Jay to live -- if it kills her it'll then go after the person who gave it to her (which is Hugh), and then the person who gave it to him, and so on -- and if she sleeps with someone, they'll become the entity's new target.   The Woman in Yellow then shows up, walking towards Jay until Hugh drives them away and dumps Jay in front of her house.

Naturally, Jay doesn't believe Hugh's story and gets the police involved.  But then every bump or strange person seems to affect Jay; and when a large, ghostly figure bursts in the room and none of her friends notice, the panic really sets in.  Her friends quickly believe her and hang out with her; Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the bad boy across the road, doesn't really believe her but still gets her a gun.  Soon Jay and her friends are trying to find Hugh and the origin of this creature, and figure out a way to stop it, while she considers whether or not to sleep with someone and make them the target.  And every stranger, or every friend, could be the evil creature, and it keeps walking closer, and closer, and closer...

It Follows is very simple and very effective.  The movie has virtually no special effects (the most elaborate is Annie's body in the opening) and creates quite a few scares through tension, as slow panning shots reveal nothing -- or a place the creature could come -- or someone slowly walking closer.  The movie also hearkens back to 1980s horror, with both the music (either loud blasts of noise or all-synthesizer songs), the idea that sex is punished by a monster, and a seemingly unstoppable adversary who never runs but always catches up with the target,

Unfortunately, It Follows also has some of the '80s horror flaws as well.  The actors are decent, but only star Maika Monroe has a lot to do -- and even that is mostly looking scared and tired.  And most characters' personalities can be summarized in a sentence, or even a long phrase.   But even with those weaknesses, It Follows still generates more tension and fear than any horror movie in recent memory.  Much like The Blair Witch Project, It Follows skips the usual gore and special effects to achieve a lot with the basics.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch


HOGFATHER by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's Discworld universe, centered on the city-state of Ankh-Morpork, is a place that may have magic and an Assassins' Guild but still manages to be a whole lot like our world.  In Hogfather, Pratchett blends fantasy and similarity in an adventure and mystery revolving around... Santa Claus.

In Ankh-Morpork it's almost Hogswatchnight, when boys and girls eagerly await the Hogfather: a fat being in a red suit who rides a sled pulled by four magic hogs, drinks Sherry left for him by the parents, and giving gifts to the good children.  But after a strange assassin named Teatime (which he insists is pronounced "Teh-ah-tim-eh") gets an assignment from shadowy being called the Auditors, the Hogfather seems to have vanished.

But there's a replacement Hogfather, and it's the last being one would expect: Death.  The Grim Reaper (who ALWAYS SPEAKS IN CAPITAL LETTERS) has donned a red suit and fake beard and, assisted by his servant Albert, is showing up in homes and giving presents to the needy (sometimes at the expense of others.)  At the same times, magical beings that do what everyone expects keep popping into existence at the Unseen University of wizards, who do things like eat socks or cause baldness (but not, as one hopes out loud, a Huge Bags of Money Goblin).

Meanwhile, Susan (a governess, member of royalty, and Death's granddaughter) is out to find out what happened to the Hogfather -- and why Death is so eager to take over.  She's joined by a talking raven the Death of Rats (who also only speaks in capital letters, but who only says SQUEAK), and Bilious, the God of Hangover (actually, the Oh God of Hangovers).  What could possibly go wrong?

HOGFATHER is sometimes thoughtful, often silly fun.  Terry Pratchett has a keep ear for language and satire, whether it's the inept academic wizard rulers fumbling around each other, trying to get their computer (Hex), powered by ants and bees, to work by figuring out what question to ask or what its answers mean, or just getting anything done:

The Archchancellor pointed dramatically skyward.
"To the laundry!" he said.
"It's downstairs, Ridcully," said the Dean.
"Down to the laundry!"

Death comes across as oddly nice, yet also unsuited for the distribution of free goods, as when giving gifts in a department store:

-- and a sword.  It was four feet long and glinted along the blade.
The mother took a deep breath.
"You can't give her that!"  she screamed.  "It's not safe!"
IT'S A SWORD, said the Hogfather.  THEY'RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE.
"She's a child!" shouted Crumley.
"What if she cuts herself?"

Susan is a suitably stable and rational heroine, trying to figure out what's happening and why, as well as the source of and reason for myths.  (She's also great at kicking monsters' asses with a poker.)  Teatime is, by contrast, a Joker-like villain who's as lethal to his allies as to his enemies (as he says about friends: "I don't seem to have many," he said, apologetically.  "Don't seem to have the knack.  On the other hand...  I don't seem to have any enemies.  Not one.  Isn't that nice?")

Hogfather is clever, from the characters and situations to the jokes and footnotes.  It's also oddly touching, as the characters try to find some kindness and justice in a seemingly uncaring universe.  And it's tremendously funny and nigh-infinitely quotable.  There are plenty of Christmas novels that are saccharine or preachy, but Hogfather is a slanted view that's both alien and familiar -- and damn entertaining.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

Then the Dean repeated the mantra that has had such a marked effect on the progress of knowledge throughout the ages.
"Why don't we just mix up absolutely everything and see what happens?" he said.
And Ridcully responded with the traditional response.
"It's got to be worth a try," he said.