Thursday, January 28, 2016

In His Tomb


I know nothing about Francis of Assisi. Well, I know he was pro-poverty... or something to that effect. Oh, and was he the nutjob who jumped into a briar patch because he felt horny? Maybe it was chastity or maybe Br'er Rabbit's just that hot. Hey, what monks and folk heroes do behind closed bushes is their own business...
What else? Oh yeah, stigmata. That's about it.

I don't know much about Saint Francis but I like him. Not only did he totally nail the whole "lunatic ascetic" monkish media figure (the guy preached to birds) but, supernatural gibberish aside, his image, his persona seems to evoke so closely the archetypal self-destructively dedicated social reformer that it provides century after century of inspiration. It's not just that Umberto Eco made the heroes of The Name of the Rose Franciscans, or that Zarathustra and Siddhartha drum more than a few of Francis' footsteps across continents, but his largely imagined, stern, somewhat pained patrician visage which has fueled some of the best paintings in history.

My favorite would have to be Zurbaran's macabre, wall-sized effigy, which I was honored to have looming over me during a museum visit a few years ago, or maybe Bellini's slightly more upbeat imagining, though any number of random images now conveniently google-able may serve. Don't really need to know much about Francis to be impressed with the impact his persona has had on artistic depictions of intrapersonal workings. Whether true to the original nutjob stigmatist or not, we could use more figures like him in movies, games, what-have-you. More patron saints of somber kindness and peaceful midnight vigils, more serene, animal-loving, plain-clad, honestly deluded do-gooders.

No, this individualized moratorium on my hatred of fundie brainwashing has nothing to do with that story about Francis taming a wolf. I only now found out about it. It's a coincidence - a hilarious coincidence; the sort which, were I sheepishly inclined, I would take as celestial signo to convert and do some vincesing in the name of Saint Frankie.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Ain't no air 'n space

This here is a screenshot from EVE-Online, one of the many random structures you might find floating in space during your travels. Just eye-candy really, something you can zoom in on if you feel like it. It's this... thing... and it's spewing flame. Now, for one thing you wouldn't just eject matter like that if you're out in space and don't have gravity to bring it back down to you for free. Aside from being wasteful it'd likely push you out of orbit.

For the other thing, this is fire... in space! You know, with the vacuum and the no up or down jazz and the liquids forming bubbles and no heavier gases to sink below a heated gas to make it rise in a single direction. Granted, I don't know what a fire should look like out in the depths of nothing (though this annoying but nicely illustrative video gives some examples) but I'm guessing a quaint little candleflame guttering in the breeze probably ain't it!

Don't even dare say "oh it'd cost too much to change it" because greater thought should have been placed into creating these little gimmicks in the first place. When this item was being designed, its creator had a choice: make it mundane and insulting to your customers' intelligence, or take a chance, take a guess as to how it should actually look. Sometimes you have to make necessary concessions to your creative medium. Other times you just decide to gratuitously eye-poke your customers.
This example does not fall into the first category.

I mean, how much cooler would it have looked if the expelled gases turned to liquid halfway out the smokestack? Then snow? It may not be accurate either, but at least you could've shown you're trying. This is costing you participation grade points, CCP.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Where the bots have no name

"The city's a flood and our love turns to rust
We're beaten and blown by the wind, trampled in dust
I show you a place high on a desert plain
Where the streets have no name"

U2 - Where the Streets Have No Name

Jeph Jacques did something very interesting a few days ago over at Questionable Content. He skipped time. Noteworthy first because webcomics tend to dip rather more often in the other direction, dedicating dozens upon dozens of pages to each day in the characters' lives, and second because after three thousand pages QC's cast has grown so large that a few months of Faye's life could easily have passed while the audience catches up with everyone else. That little montage seems not only a very conscious choice but a somewhat gutsy one, and to me achieves more than the author might have intended it to.

QC's a daily comic. Relatively light on plot, heavy on banter and fart jokes and relying on relationship drama for instantly accessible intrigue. Also robots. It's not particularly dark... okay, not compared to some of the other stuff I like anyway. Suffice it to say that one of the main characters, Faye, a barista who also happens to sculpt metal, has gone through a rough patch. The audience sees the conflict, sees her start a new job working with robots and then...

Time Goes By

The story then continues the way its author wants it to, for however long he wants it to. However, I was intrigued by the experience of reading that page, alone, as the end of a line segment. We see Faye moving on or drudging on, getting snarkier or more bitter. She's doing a good job, doing well, isn't she? Isn't she? Her appearance changes, becoming rougher, tougher, condensing, purifying, becoming more fully her pugnacious, torn persona. My guess is that the author intends this passed time as a period of recuperation for Faye. She's a bit more calm. She's dealin'.

But if I were writing things from that point, she would not. There's a quantum divergence here, a truer to life alternate universe in which time goes by but wounds don't heal, only scar. I see Faye retreating, settling, forgetting, digging in, defeated, forgotten, in the warehouse full of robots. Work goes well at first, then compresses her life into the slow grind of commonality. After a while she just moves in. Why commute? The rest of the cast pairs up, moves on, moves out, moves past her. The robots come and go one by one but she remains, a more solid fixture than they, in the crumbling warehouse until the bulldozers push her out. There we have Faye, years and not months afterwards, wandering off, reeking of machine oil, a few hairs grayer than the dust on her clothes. So, after so long, she lets her feet stumble her into the nearest bar. Maybe Bubbles the robot is there every step, stalking grandiosely after Faye, observing impassively.

It's probably a good thing I'm not writing QC. Then again, if I did it would've never made it to thirty pages much less three thousand. I'm not even a hack - I aspire to hackdom, and not very decisively at that. Still I do like the array of possibilities opened up by that one page in that precise spot in the story, the way it sets a long-time reader's mind racing to keep up with imagined plots. Lyricism is often in the eye of the beholder.

Friday, January 22, 2016

ST:TNG - Skin of Evil (and an analysis of Tasha Yar)

In an effort to relive my early teens, I am re-watching old episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is both better and worse than I remembered it, as was my youth most likely.

Seriesdate: 1.23
Skin of Evil

(The one where Tasha Yar dies)
(No, that's not spoiling much, both because this show's thirty years old and for reasons outlined below.)

Let's start with death. Killing off a recurring character is not an easy decision. Forget that writers can get attached to their creations, as professionals overcome their own preferences (often to the detriment of their work - see the dictionary definition of pandering) but keep in mind that death's dramatic tie-ins require conscious attention. You risk alienating that character's fans, you risk making the death either too corny or too gruesome, plus there's always the question of whether the rest of the cast will interact properly in the future without that character's influence. Most relevant in this case, unless you can specifically work some nihilistic lesson about the cold, uncaring universe into things, storytelling mandates important deaths for important characters, or at least good death scenes. Case-in-point: Boromir.

The crew square off against Swamp Thing, moments before it zaps Tasha

Tasha gets insta-gibbed ten minutes into a forty-five minute show. Now, I'm not saying she necessarily needed to make some big dramatic speech or that she was such a major character that her death should overshadow Star Trek's main themes, but she at least deserved a send-off to rival that simpering snot Weasely's ascension to heaven or whatever. Give her at least a couple of lines about bravery or duty or a shoot-out or a cavalry charge or something hers alone. Don't make her death just a footnote in one of Deanna Troi's episodes. Extras and one-shot characters in TNG got better death scenes than poor Tasha.

Sadly, she was always a poor fit for the show. At its most basic the character's a blatant feminist giveaway. While TNG sorely needed more serious female officers to distance itself from the original series, it badly overcompensated by shoehorning a woman in as security chief, the most masculine (indeed the only inherently physical or dangerous) role on the Enterprise. It doesn't scan. The humans in Star Trek still act entirely too human not to have men sacrificing themselves for women as per human instinct. But then, that's feminism. Equality's never enough. You gotta slap men around.
So, instead of a female engineer or scientist or transporter chief or tactical officer of some kind, TNG acquired the plucky commander Yar. Not only is she hired muscle, but men want her because she's a tough chick (sadly, she delivered some of her better lines of dialogue in the otherwise reprehensible episode Code of Honor) and her troubled past has her fighting "rape gangs" for survival - or for feminist legitimacy, because she needed some stereotypically evil, evil men to square off against. Even the tar-monster that kills her was given a deep rumbling masculine voice to build up the male-female animosity.

On the other hand, once they had Tasha's basic persona, the show's various writers seemed at a loss as to what to do with her. The cast's other two major female crew members, Troi and Crusher, filled stereotypically feminine, empathetic (or in Troi's case, outright empathic) roles, compounded by sexiness and motherhood respectively. If Yar was to balance out the female cast all by her lonesome, then her "tough chick" persona would quickly escalate to farcical proportions which the show as a whole was unlikely to accommodate. Star Trek's Utopian precepts left little room for dark pasts and grim grittiness, for the likes of Molly Millions for instance, so Yar would likely be reduced to muscling her way into various scenes to reinforce the presence of a "tough chick" in an egalitarian society where her presence was nominally supposed to be a given. The difficulty of orchestrating such situations within an otherwise fairly nonviolent show cropped up throughout the first season. Yar's abilities had to be displayed or alluded to in holodeck demonstrations, ritualized combat and sporting events. Only in one episode, the one preceding Skin of Evil, was she allowed to simply be a security chief whose dialogue and actions reflect a concern and practical care for the ship's internal safety.

Her replacement with Worf was, I'm sorry to say, appropriate (though it might have worked equally well if Worf had been female) because the Klingon angle lent more credibility to plots involving aggression, violence and, errr, growling? It's a pity that TNG didn't acquire more competent female professionals with no token reproductive role (until Guinan plus Dr. Crusher's rather late replacement with the more balanced Dr. Pulaski) but Tasha's role was too prone to farcical overstatement to be good in itself.

That being said, she still deserved a better death scene than "she's dead, Jim" to serve as verbal reference for other cast members' character development.

As for the rest of Skin of Evil, it's not as terrible as some of the other first-season nonsense, or any Wesley episode. Some relatively weak emotional dialogue, a somewhat interesting villain hampered by a lack of appropriately grandiose special effects or hard-science postulation, and a good show of headshrinking under fire by Troi can't dress up the poorly written and badly directed write-off of what was originally obviously intended as a major crew member. Even her funeral makes no sense. She addresses Wesley in her farewell video? Forget that she barely knew any of the crew. The Enterprise is a new ship and Riker only joins halfway through the pilot episode, but Wesley? One of many, many lower-ranking crew with whom she's had no direct interaction whatsoever throughout the show? His only link to her was through his mother. She may as well have made a final farewell to Picard's aunt or Riker's sister-in-law.

Aspiring writers take heed. This is precisely how not to set up and take down your characters.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Monday, January 18, 2016

Tarnished Amarrian Silverware

I tend to invest quite far ahead into the future in games - sometimes ludicrously far ahead.

I've been out of EVE-Online for five or six years, aeons in game terms. I came back to sift through my scattered wealth accumulated in days of yore which most current players would deem pre-historic. My dusty fleets of now ever so slightly outdated ships and equipment lay unmolested even after all this time in hangars scattered through the game map. Though able to bring my best spaceships up to speed with only a bit of modernization I soon blew through my cash getting my character caught up and found myself seemingly destitute, only a couple million credits to my name. (A good ship takes a couple hundred million - great ships several times more.)

Woe is me. Oh, woe is Wolfie!
Oh, wait. EVE's best point is its market system and I'd invested pretty heavily in spaceship components before quitting. I may not possess a great deal of liquidity but I had hangars full of half-researched blueprints and large orders of parts already built, still dangling off the end of some assembly line. I soon discovered that while my wallet admits a hearty breeze, I find myself quite well-to-do in terms of property. My largest pile of spaceship components by itself turned out to be worth a cool billion. Nothing galaxy-shaking, but still not bad for an old-timer.

Except you gotta be able to move the damn merchandise, and the problem with my long-term investment is that it's going to take almost as long a term to divest myself of it. As it turns out, I'd built enough of that particular part to outfit three hundred medium-sized ships. The listing of available quantities for this particular product at my local trade hub looks something like this:
That's right. That's me shaded in blue. Even after a few sales I amount to almost half the regional market - and that's just part of the stack, having split off more of it to the big city where the big sharks selling ten times that much undercut everyone. Still, I am the Southwest king of windshield wipers baby!
Except people don't need that many windshield wipers.

At this point, permit me a slight divergence into the topic of EVE's playable races and their personalities. There are four major ones, not true races as in other RPGs but merely different human cultures. You've got the greedy militaristic corporatist macho cut-throat bad boys, then the token "good" race of freedom-loving beatniks, and third, the token tribal bad-ass rebels. While chaotic archetypes always draw me to some extent, I instead opted for the fourth choice when creating my character twelve years ago, the Amarrians, a slave-driving ironfisted theocratic interstellar empire:

"True Amarrians are proud and supercilious, with a great sense of tradition and ancestry. They are considered arrogant and tyrannical by most others."

Aside from being religious, Amarr lore fit me so well that on being kicked out of one corporation for my abrasive personality I was told something to the effect of "at first we just thought you were really good at roleplaying an Amarrian!"

So here I am. I find myself an old-money aristocrat, a snooty relic from the mists of time dredged up after half of EVE's history, returning to a crumbling estate. A destitute noble in antique garb not knowing where my next meal will come from yet sitting on a pile of historic property with no immediate financial use, what else could I have been other than Amarrian! I can make long-term plans but hot damn, even I couldn't have planned such a gimmick.

Maybe I should just open my hangar to tourists. Worked for the English nobility.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Les tyrans du nez

Google "Roman nose" and you get a dictionary definition of the term, a couple of lists of famous people who had Roman noses, make-up tips if you have a Roman nose, and something about an oddly named Cheyenne chief known as Roman Nose. Okay. After that you pretty quickly get into advertisements for Italian restaurants. Good for the nose, Roman or otherwise, I suppose.

Now Google "Jewish nose."
Racial stereotype!
Slanderous racial stereotype!
Hit after finger-wagging hit about Jews being "depicted" with noses, discussing how the stereotype was invented, fabricated, etc. offset by hilarious repetitions of "why do Jewish people have big noses?" All noses are not created equal. One is a simple casual observation, the other a heinous racial slur. Don't you dare ask why.

Except people do ask, and I find it hilarious that the harder the political correctness police, to lend themselves importance, try to convince everyone that stereotypes are nothing but conspiratorial fabrications from which we all must be protected by the holy trinity of censorship, indoctrination and public shaming, the more little kids will pop out of the woodwork to ask "yeah, yeah, yeah.... but no, really, why?" You can't call something a cultural invention when it's as plain as the nose on your face.

Or maybe you like walking around with a taboo over your mouth?

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Liberate Detective Jack Robinson

"Still you lead me and I follow, anything you ask you know I'll do
Wrap my eyes in bandages, confessions I see through
I get everything I want when I get part of you"

NIN - Ringfinger

Freakin' Aussies takin' over the movie industry man, I tell ya...

Anyway. I dislike half-measures. In art I can admire dedication, completeness, the fulfillment of a theme. Cheese can be delicious. Among the few TV shows I can still stomach I'd have to count the flamboyantly jazzy Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, rather a treat from the unabashedly ludicrous pearl-handled revolver to the old-timey jalopies to the often seemingly random means of murder running the gamut from spears to radioactive paint. Knocking people over the head is so passe, you know?

The show's got style. Unfortunately it's also got a feminist agenda, not terribly rabid but still decidedly feminist and not progressive or egalitarian. See, the titular Miss Phryne Fisher's main love interest is the stalwart Detective Jack Robinson, an unflinching professional who knows quality when he sees it and is wiling to work with a flapper to solve his cases. Banking on a pretty standard "will-they-won't-they" routine, the overarching plot never actually has them bang, keeping the audience enthralled by the sexual tension season after season.

Not that there isn't sex on the show. Phryne herself is a liberated woman whose several flirtations, past lovers or one-night-stands parade through various episodes, sometimes flaunted right in front of Jack's face. Unfortunately, the line on freedom is drawn there. The theme is deliberately left quasi-modoed. Jack doesn't get to play. He doesn't get to finish off an episode victoriously clapping his hand on the buttocks of some hot-bodied movie star in bed next to him like Phryne. Jack's role remains at the end of Phryne's leash.

See, the problem with feminism isn't that it ignores men. That's a self-serving canard, a smokescreen, a fall-back position trotted out whenever feminists like to pretend to compromise. Detective Jack, crucial to every plot, can hardly be left out of the equation. He's right there in every episode, protecting Phryne, providing her with leads, evidence and official cover, awaiting her favor with monastic humility as she lives it up. To follow the pattern to its conclusion, Jack's role is that of the beta-male husband protecting and providing for a mate who breeds with alpha males. "And a baker for bread and a prince for whatever." Jack is Phryne's plan B. A decade or two later when the millionaires and princes and movie extras no longer find her attractive, she will expect him to still be there for her to latch onto, to raise her eventual purebred children as his own. Whether following her around like a puppy-dog or circling like a guard-dog, Jack is a good man and good men heel.

There you have feminist progress and equality: a liberated female and a slavish male.

P.S.: Let's not even get into the topic of villains - the few times any female character does something wrong, as in most any fiction these days, it always seems to conveniently resolve to a corrupting male influence. The Patriarchy made her do it.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

This is your Wolfe on EVE

It's been six years since I've left my last corporation in EVE-Online, so it must be slightly less than that since I've played it. Along with City of Heroes and Lord of the Rings Online, EVE has earned a good half-dozen second chances from me even as I abandoned other games over its dozen-year lifespan. LotRO retains nothing else to offer besides fleeting visions of Middle-Earth itself and CoH drew me back for its character creator and few other thematic elements despite its utterly dull leveling treadmill routine. EVE, on the other hand, I keep revisiting for its gameplay mechanics.

Not that said mechanics can be called good on the whole. EVE stumbles into almost as many pitfalls as any of its competitors, managing to remain borderline playable only in comparison with them, merely by grace of the abysmal standards set by multiplayer genres as a whole. These are, however, different flaws, and as megacorporate homogeneity increasingly strangles the game industry, a slightly different flavor of hell is the closest you can get to heaven. EVE manages to fail on its own terms and these days that's no mean feat.

I bring this up because CCP made me a Christmas discount offer I couldn't refuse, so like any good recovering addict I dove off my wagon head-first. I suppose this detail in itself merits attention: CCP is one of the last holdouts in the industry not to adopt the all-purpose cash-shop as its central feature or call itself "free-to-play" though it does have a cash shop, trial accounts and its own methods of paying to win, which will all have to await discussion in future posts.

For now, I'm flying again. I've already managed to blow up my biggest ship in a PvE mission, mine some asteroids, over-invest in spaceship components leaving me with an utter lack of liquidity and dodged several people trying to kill me while piloting the lovely space-slug flying past the station above, my trusty blockade-runner transport (it made the Kessel Run in less than twelve catchphrases) and set up production of top-quality Amarrian frigates and parts (available at fine trade hubs everywhere.)

All of which serves to illustrate the game's position, out of any well-known MMOs, as the closest approximation of that persistent world pipe-dream I outlined in my MM-manifesto. Activities tie into the main game world to a much greater extent than in any WoW-clone, and for all its myriad flaws EVE has not allowed itself to devolve to the stultifying, monomaniacal "kill ten rats" routine.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

-and counting...

I've been blogging for four years now. In context, this is freakin' unbelievable. It's longer than I've actually played any of the games I talk about, longer than I've been breathlessly, fanboyishly "into" any of my favorite SciFi authors. It's led to me trying to write fiction again, a decade after I threw out my old high-school story-writing notebooks. Hell, it's longer than I've actually held any one job. I used to scoff at writers declaring writing addictive, used to deride it as mere foppish navel-gazing by artistic personalities, yet here I am.

I've received nearly no reinforcement for this. I refuse to advertise myself except to redirect a few people here as I've argued with them online. Few ever find it. I've received more hits from algorithms crawling for keywords than actual people, even with Blogger hiding most of the automated hits from me. Of the few actual live eyes hitting this blog, those not driven away by my lack of talent or relevance within the first few sentences have no real reason to stay past the first post. From the start I decided my den would lack any real theme, knowing full well that "everything" blogs don't actually hold anyone's attention.

Under the possession of the Imp of the Perverse, I've refused to even write coherent series of posts, never lingering on one topic. Though I am naturally scatterbrained, I've also consciously switched from games to politics to movies, making sure every reader can get bored by my next interest. In an era of forums and social networks for every indescribably minute area of human interest, in these days when we're all so apt to seek constant validation from those who already agree with us, I find this self-destructive pattern on my part too deliciously iconoclastic to abandon. I find it most amusing to scare away both right-wingers and left-wingers, to alternate anti-religious or socialist posts with anti-feminist or anti-beatnik posts and just watch my bare handful of readers disappear every time, dragging me back into single digits.

Though, I must say, never since year one have I seen so few hits on the blog as this summer in the weeks following my post about the Civil War. Feminism and religion may have their detractors but Abraham Lincoln is sacrosanct - even outside the U.S. honest Abe is apparently more popular than God.

I like this. I like old-timers from ATITD randomly finding my post about the game and I like seeing five or ten fewer hits on my next post after I've scandalized some poor sheltered innocent by calling feminists dogmatic chauvinists. I get no reward or encouragement for doing this but damnit, writing is addictive! Even when you do it badly, as I certainly quite often ramble aimlessly, there's no true substitute for self-expression. Often I can't tell whether I'm learning how to write by doing or simply defining my own persona, but even as complete a failure as this endeavor has remained, I like it.

I am Werwolfe, hear me howl.
Or don't, whatever.