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This Hour has 22 Batches

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Robot Fencer

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December 20th, 2013

When I was a kid, I read a book called Life's a Funny Proposition, Horatio. In most ways, it's a pretty standard young adult novel. It's about growing up. It's about a kid dealing with the death of his father — who was diagnosed with lung cancer only shortly after quitting smoking. It's about relationships starting and changing. It's about the endless confusion and loss of getting older.

Which is not to say it's a great book. I don't think it is, although I don't remember it all that well. I haven't read it since I was a kid. But a small part of that book has always stuck with me. I've carried just a bit of a scene with me ever since I first read it.

Horatio, the titular kid and main character, has been complaining to his grandfather about all the shitty things going on in his life. It's a mixture of the serious with the mundane, as you'd expect from a kid. But everything is serious to a kid. Horatio doesn't expect any kind of good advice or comfort from his grandfather. He's never gotten it before. His grandfather is a nice guy, but he has a tendency to just quote Shakespeare in response to just about anything, as if the world wants to ponder literary references and their relationship with their problems. This time, however, he says, "Life's a funny proposition, Horatio." Horatio, of course, expresses confusion. That doesn't sound like Shakespeare. His grandfather proceeds to quote the entire line: "Hurried and worried until we're buried, and there's no curtain call. Life's a very funny proposition after all." He then says that it's a line from a George M Cohan song, and explains something about how he thinks it relates to Horatio's life, and to our lives in general.

I had never thought to look up the song before (though of course this was pre-Internet when I first read it, so it wouldn't have been that easy), and in fact I never listened to it until today. But I always loved the line. It expresses, in the quick succession of two sentences, how both terrible and silly life is. Life is a mad push forward, a source of terrible anguish, and not only that — but it's the only one you get. You don't even get the dignity of coming back out to take a bow. You just get dumped in the dirt and forgotten. At the same time... that's kinda funny, isn't it? We were given, without having any choice in the matter, life: something impossible to perfect, something that only fewer than one percent of us will ever use to its fullest potential. Something so very complex, yet, at the same time, so simple. To borrow another line from the song: "Why, all we seem to know is we're born and live a while, and then we die." We get no foreknowledge, no time to prepare, no practice: it's all real and it all counts. And yet, there don't seem to be any rules or boundaries. How do you know if you're living correctly? Is there such a thing? Is it okay just to be happy, or do you also have to be useful? Is a life well-lived if its influence ends when the life ends, or should we strive to leave a legacy? Does any of this even matter, or we wasting time even thinking about it? And time is another matter: every life is finite, but each life has a different duration. One will last 100 years, another 75, another 45, another a mere 20, yet another... only 5. And no one gets to know this time limit beforehand. We're all trying to fill a certain about of time with life well-lived, but we don't know how to live well nor do we know how much time we have.

Isn't it funny, isn't it absolutely silly, that we were given this on these terms?

And so I tend to think of that line whenever things don't go my way. When I start taking the drama of my life too seriously, I try to step back and think how ridiculous it all is. And it helps. It always has. The drama of life is important, of course, but it's also important to me to remember that the drama floats atop a sea of silliness.

August 5th, 2013

There are many things I don't understand about Internet culture, but I've been wondering for awhile about why there's so much hatred for Anita Sarkeesian, of "Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games" fame. The third part of her "Damsels in Distress" series recently came out. I can understand disagreeing with her, I can understand having issues with her methods or conclusions, and I can understand critiques of her style and attitude towards her subjects and critics, including her decision to disable YouTube comments on her videos (though seriously, I'm pretty sure that almost every popular YouTube star secretly wants to disable comments, because it just forms a fucking cesspool).

What I don't understand is the HATE. Her detractors seem to hate her with the same burning passion of AM from "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream."

I personally think that she makes a lot of good points and has a great presentation, though her criticisms are generally shallow. I think that shallowness is generally by design, though, since she is examining "tropes," and to a large degree simply trying to point out recurring trends and the cultural attitude towards them by performing a surface analysis. Her focus is on breadth, not depth. I think she probably often does go looking for evidence for her viewpoint rather than forming a viewpoint based on the evidence, but with her subject there almost isn't a difference: there IS widespread sexism in the video game industry, and it should certainly be pointed out and examined. To a large degree, her most vocal critics probably just desperately want to shoot the messenger.

That's not to say that there isn't room for valid disagreement: there is room for it in just about everything. But Sarkeesian's critics often appear to put arguing points second to discrediting Sarkeesian herself. She's been attacked for supposedly not being a "real" gamer or fully playing the games she critiques, for not being a "real" feminist, for being biased, for not engaging in debate (though after seeing her most vocal opponents, I don't blame her), for delivering her Kickstarter videos late (all Kickstarter projects ever are delivered late), for not being transparent in how she's using the money she was given (she asked for six grand and got completely overwhelmed - she's still delivering the promised product), for not examining the games the critic thinks she should examine, for supposedly gaming the system for sympathy and publicity (though the vicious underbelly of the Internet that opposed her Kickstarter campaign can never be unseen no matter if Sarkeesian summoned it or was simply subjected to it).

And, if there's time left over, they take a whack at her actual arguments.

I certainly don't think she is radical, rude, or a fraud. And I don't get why people hate her fucking guts.

July 3rd, 2013

Al Lowe and Josh Mandel's Leisure Suit Larry Reloaded, as one of the first video games and the first in a new breed of adventure games to come out of Kickstarter, is historically important. Kickstarter is emerging as the savior of the independent project, and the now-niche world of adventure gamers is turning to it for new content, since we can't survive on Telltale Games alone. It's replacing the old process of "fan-made" games, which consisted of throwing up a website and begging for donations and volunteers with no promise of any return or even an estimated release date. If Kickstarter had been around years ago, maybe the ill-fated Hero6 could have been made, and maybe the miraculously-finished Silver Lining wouldn't have taken a decade to come out. So Larry Reloaded is the first of a new breed and a harbinger of things to come.

That's why it's so disappointing that, despite being a member of a genre known for creativity even in its sequels, Reloaded is a remake of the original 1987 game Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. Al Lowe and Josh Mandel (best known for the creative and funny Leisure Suit Larry series (Lowe), the brilliantly-adapted Callahan's Crosstime Saloon (Mandel) as well as the spoof western Freddy Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist (Lowe and Mandel)) couldn't come up with a new game? The original text-parser-based Leisure Suit Larry was actually already remade as a VGA point-and-click game in 1991. Not only that, but the original Larry was itself a graphical remake of the 1981 text-based game Softporn Adventure (which Al Lowe had nothing to do with). That's right, Larry Reloaded is a remake of a remake of a remake. This Kickstarter-financed game uses a script that's older than I am.

Other adventure game designers from the golden age have, since Larry Reloaded was successfully funded, reappeared on Kickstarter to develop new games. Lori and Corey Cole (best known for the Quest for Glory series) are developing Hero U: Rogue to Redemption, Jane Jensen (best known for the Gabriel Knight series) is developing Moebius, and Scott Murphy and Mark Crowe (best known for the Space Quest series) are developing SpaceVenutre. Not only are none of those projects remakes, but none of them are even related to the series that the creators are best known for, though they do have the same atmospheres. And Al Lowe, the forerunner, does a remake. It's just... disappointing.

That's not to say that there isn't anything new in Larry Reloaded. It contains tons of new gags and descriptions of the many things you can make Larry do or try to do, all read with relish by the sneering narrator (who interacts with Larry from time to time). It's the kind of game where you spend most of your time clicking everything on everything, not to try to accomplish anything, but just to hear the message. There are also some new puzzles, including a completely new girl, Jasmine, to strike out with. The game's hand-drawn graphics also look gorgeous, and the voice acting is top-notch. It includes one of the few adventure game narrators that is actually kinda fun to listen to.

However, a lot of the new puzzles flummoxed me, including everything having to do with Jasmine. There's moon logic, and then there's moon-of-Pluto logic. The gameplay is also dull. It's a carbon-copy of the old icon interface used ubiquitously by Sierra in the 90s. It's a good interface, there's no denying that. It's just that it feels... old. There's no innovation in the interface or gameplay, no innovation in the story, little innovation in the puzzle design. The game is set in 1987, and but for the graphics and clear voice acting, one might be forgiven for thinking it was made in 1987 as well.

I've read that Lowe and Mandel are considering remaking the rest of the series in the same manner. I can't emphasize enough how much I hate that idea. Al, Josh... I love ya, but make a new game! If I wanted to play Leisure Suit Larry 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, or 7, then I would. They're great, but they were already made!

May 11th, 2013

(Spoilers lurk below, just in case you avoided reading the book in high school somehow.)

The Great Gatsby is visually spectacular. From the magnificent mansions, to the wonderful costumes and makeup, to Gatsby's extravagant parties, to the gray and purgatory-like Valley of Ashes, to the glorious scenery porn of New York City, this movie is a visual work of art. It's one of the few book-based movies that looks far better on screen than it ever did in my mind. Part of that has to do with how masterfully it was envisioned by director Baz Luhrmann, but I think that a larger part of it is how sterile F. Scott Fitzgerald's original prose is. Fitzgerald was far more interested in moralizing than evoking imagery, and, while the movie does not avoid moralizing, it's far more interested in interesting visuals and music than anything else. That's a good thing, because the story, characters, and morals of The Great Gatsby are repugnant no matter how you adapt them.

This movie follows the original book more closely than any other book-based movie I can think of. It hits all the major bits that everyone remembers: Gatsby standing at the end of the dock and reaching out to the green light, Nick's awkward first visit to Gatsby's party, Daisy and Gatsby's awkward tea together (clock and all), the colorful shirts scene (which was fantastic), Nick's final hypocritical line to Gatsby, etc. It pretty much is is the story, making only mostly-judicious cuts for time. The primary casualty of those cuts is Jordan, who for the most part might as well be "unnamed female friend." It's not even made clear when (or even if, really) she and Nick started dating. But that's fine since, if we had to lose a character, Jordan would be the one.

I'm torn as to the framing device of Nick relating the story to a psychiatrist while staying at a sanitarium. It's primarily a transparent excuse to allow Nick to do voiceover, and finally literally write the novel before our very eyes, as his doctor encourages him to write when he doesn't want to talk. Early on, I liked it, because Nick's depression suggested something very important that the book never did: that Nick might feel some modicum of responsibility for what happened to Gatsby. I don't mean to say that Nick is responsible, only that he is not the innocent bystander that the Nick of the book believes himself to be. He introduced Daisy and Gatsby at his own home, without warning Daisy of what was happening, and knowing what Gatsby had in mind and that Daisy was married. He saw Tom carrying on an a very serious affair, but didn't attempt to tell Daisy what was going on. He had at least an inkling of Gatsby's true profession, but again didn't care enough about his cousin to tell her about the kind of man she was carrying on with. At last, Nick allows Gatsby to die, despite knowing the danger he must be in (Gatsby is far too naïve and trusting to realize it), and tries to make himself feel better by managing Gatsby's funeral, when it finally didn't matter.

At least the Nick of the movie does not claim that he is one of the "few honest men" he's ever known.

So, seeing a depressed Nick in therapy suggests that he may want to work through his own many issues. However, by the time Nick starts banging out the novel on the typewriter, the story has reverted to Gatsby hero worship with Nick as a nearly silent observer, and we're expected to see the tragedy of Gatsby's life without seeing Nick as the amoral villain he is. In the end, it would have been better if the sanitarium had been excised. That way, we could draw our own conclusions about Nick's eventual reaction to the events he took part in.

The first scene of Gatsby's party is one of the most fantastic things I've ever seen in a movie theater. It really has to be seen to be appreciated. I actually like the use of modern music in this film. It lends an air of fantasy to the proceedings, which I think fits the novel. East Egg, West Egg, and the Valley of Ashes don't really exist after all: they were made up and grafted onto New York City by Fitzgerald (and yes, I know they were based on real places). The modern music, almost always coming in to represent excessiveness, immorality, and decadence, helps make this movie feel more like the twisted fairy tale that it is than historical fiction.

The casting and acting in this movie are wonderful. I don't think that I'll ever be able to see anyone else as Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby than Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio. Putting human bodies to the characters helped the story and characters of the book, again because Fitzgerald's prose is so sterile. With the movie, it's actually a lot more possible to believe that these are real people. The walking talking symbols of the book manage to almost become human. Of especial note is Carey Mulligan (who magically looks exactly as I pictured her character), who makes Daisy, one of the most repugnant characters of the novel, almost relatable. The acting she does with her face and body do a far better job than Fitzgerald's dialogue of turning her into a person. Tom is just as much a moustache-twirling villain as ever, however, though sadly his moustache is too short to twirl.

DiCaprio's Gatsby comes across as stiff and impersonal, almost rehearsed. But that's part of the point. Gatsby is a fake; that's who he is. Even when he tells the "true" version of his life story, he's telling a version the he believes, but which is probably not entirely literally true. It's more true as far as Gatsby cares. Nick refers to Gatsby as the most hopeful man he's ever met, but Gatsby is really more a dreamer than a hoper. When Nick tells him that he can't repeat the past, Gatsby responds "Why, of course you can!" Gatsby exists in a fantasy world, appropriate for a story that is a twisted fairy tale at its heart.

The failings of the movie are, for the most part, the same as the failings of the book. The characters are all despicable, the symbolism is too heavy, and the moralizing is far too strong by the time we get to the end. It was also a much stronger film before Gatsby was finally shown; he's a much more powerful character in shadow than in the flesh. But at least the visuals are gorgeous, the acting is top-notch, and it represents a much smaller time investment than the book does. While far from perfect, I dub this movie better than the book.

March 31st, 2013

Getting LASIK

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I had LASIK surgery on Friday (two days ago), specifically IntraLASIK or "all laser" LASIK. As a quick summary: this kind of LASIK uses lasers both for cutting the flap and for reshaping the eye. The only physical tools used on the eye are for moving the flap aside prior to reshaping and then replacing the flap. In case you're wondering, here is what my experience was like.

I was at the facility for about three hours, but the procedure itself was incredibly short. Once I'd finally gone through the pre-op examination with my surgeon, I was parted with my glasses and then led to a small dark room with soothing music playing. I was placed in a recliner and given a valium to "take the edge off," the nurse put some drops in my eyes, then I waited for my turn in the OR. A surgical cap was placed over my hair and covers were placed over my shoes. There was a longer delay than usual apparently because the patient prior to me panicked and backed out at the last second, which means they first had to try to talk him back into it and then go through whatever procedures were needed to let him off the hook (note that the place I went to requires that you pay no later than the day before surgery, so he was already out a pretty penny).

Finally I was led into the OR where I lay down where directed. The surgeon put some numbing drops in my eyes. The first part of the procedure is the cutting of the flap, which involved shoving a circular rubber-like vacuum-type thing into the eye socket meant to hold the eye in place. I was told by the surgeon, during both the pre-op interview and the procedure itself, that I'd feel "some pressure" and that it might get "a little dim." That turned out to just be a lie, because I felt a lot of pressure and it went completely black. Think if you shoved the heel of your hand into your eye really hard: it felt like that, except my eyes were open. This caused me to momentarily panic. I chilled out though (thanks, valium), and my eye was positioned underneath the laser device. Cutting the flap took precisely 13 seconds, as they helpfully let me know. It might have been my imagination, but on my first eye I thought I could slightly feel the pinpricks of the femtosecond laser on my eye, but it didn't hurt. The vacuum thing was removed and this was repeated on my other eye. The pressure and darkness were the same, but I didn't feel anything that time.

The vacuum again was removed, and I was directed to stand up. I was warned my vision would be "very blurry," and indeed it was. It was like looking through a foggy window that was inside my eye. I was led over to the second laser device and directed to lie down again. I waited a bit for the surgeon (who was cutting flaps for the patient behind me) while the nurse chatted with me. I was pretty calm at this point, for whatever reason. Maybe it was the drugs. Anyway, the surgeon finally came over and put some more drops in my eyes, and then used a kind of metal clamp to hold my right eye open. He then used a metal tool to move the flap. This was really weird. I could see the edge of the flap over my eye as he struggled a bit to get it to flip over. It didn't hurt at all, and it fact I didn't really feel anything. But it was certainly a weird experience.

When he finally flipped the flap over, it was incredibly blurry. I was directed to look at a blinking red light (which had been the size of a pinhead before the flap had been flipped, but which now looked like a huge blurry golfball), and I was told that the reshaping would take 23 seconds. The lasers then kicked in, and looked like blurry blue lights surrounding the red light. I didn't feel anything. After exactly 23 seconds, the surgeon used a new tool to push the flap back into place (or "squeegee" it, as my dad, who was watching the procedure, described it). The tool released saline to remoisten the eye, and he carefully flattened the flap out. He then removed the clamp and told me to blink several times, I assume to make sure that the flap was going to stay put. It did.

This process was repeated with my left eye, though it took two more seconds for the reshaping since that eye was worse than my right. Other than that, the experience was identical.

I was then directed to stand up, and the world immediately looked much clearer, if a bit hazy. I could see facial features when I couldn't before. My eyes felt fine at the time.

I was led to an examining room where I waited for the surgeon to check on me. While I was waiting, the nurse put some drops in my eyes. My eyes also started burning a little bit: think like you've been swimming a little too long in an over-chlorinated pool. The surgeon came in and examined my eyes. He seemed satisfied with how they looked. He put in some more numbing drops to help with the burning sensation and told me to go home and take a long nap. The nurse taped some clear plastic "shields" over my eyes which I was directed to wear the rest of the day (except to put in my eye drops at regular intervals) and while sleeping for five nights.

My vision was obviously very clear at this point, though still a bit fuzzy because my eyes were watering.

My eyes were very sensitive to the light (I'd been given some sunglasses, thankfully), and the burning sensation came back on the ride home. Once home I put in my eye drops and lay down for about four hours, though I was only able to sleep for about half of that (what with those stupid shields taped over my eyes). The burning sensation was pretty much gone by that time, though by then I had "foreign-body sensation" which made it feel like there was a piece of sand in my eye.

By the next day all unpleasant sensations were gone and my eyes felt fine. The only issues I have currently are dry eyes (which I have drops for) and haloes around bright objects in dim light (which should lessen or go away with healing).

Overall I'm pretty satisfied, and hopefully it will get even better as I heal over the next few weeks, etc.
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January 31st, 2013

Time Spike, by Eric Flint and Marilyn Kosmatka, is the worst alternate history/time travel book that I've ever read — and that's impressive in a genre so weak that Worldwar is considered a benchmark. (Tip: if you have any intrest in the genre, read John Birmingham's Axis of Time trilogy; it's fantastic.) But it's not my purpose to fully review Time Spike here. It's been out for a while, and I think the consensus is pretty clear. I read it, despite seeing how poorly it was received, because I think that the concept is one of the best I've ever seen in this genre, right there next to Flint's own 1632: a maximum security prison is flung back in time to the Cretaceous period, and caught in the disaster's wake are a variety of other groups from different eras, all ending up back in time with the prison: a band of Cherokees and American soldiers traveling along the Trail of Tears in the early 19th century, Hernando de Soto and his army of conquistadors exploring America in the 1500s, and several villages of Mound Builder Indians from the 1200s.

Because these groups form the entirety of human society in the Cretaceous, it presents a unique opportunity to explore some interesting culture clashes, to see what happens when such ridiculously disparate groups are forced to work together. How far can the prison guards go in paroling prisoners when their work is needed in building and maintaining a new society, especially when there aren't even enough guards to run the prison, let alone a parole program? Trapped together in this truly New World, can de Soto and his men find a way to work with both the ancestors and descendants of the same Indians they were slaughtering and enslaving in America? How will the Cherokees and the American soldiers escorting them on their forced march find common ground? How will 21st century men react to the vastly different morals and values of every culture around them? — Even some serial killers would be disgusted by what conquistadors did on a regular basis.

Those are all fascinating questions, and not a goddamned one of them is explored in Time Spike. They're all either ignored, given a facile and unsatisfying treatment, or answered in a disgustingly wrongheaded way — and it's that last one that I particularly want to talk about.

One of the hardest things for people to wrap their heads around, when it comes to studying and understanding history, is how utterly different people were in other times and places. We like to think we've moved beyond much of the prejudice and ignorance of the past, but the fact is that our culture has done that. No individual, on a personal level, can really take much credit. If I could go back in time, kidnap you as an infant, and transplant you to Mississippi in 1830, you would almost certainly grow up a racist who thought that slavery was okay. Yes, you, the person reading this now (well, assuming that you weren't a slave). The only thing that prevented you from growing up thinking that slavery is okay was the time period in which you were born. Now, there were abolitionists throughout history (the Quakers have a very clean record in this regard), but the norm, growing up in Mississippi in the early 19th century, would have been to accept slavery. So before you get all high and mighty about being a good person, remember that you're fucking lucky more than anything, because virtually every person today who supports good things like marriage equality and sensible gun control would have supported slavery if he'd only been born in the South 200 years ago.

There's a wonderful passage in Time Spike that encapsulates this idea. It occurs during a scene in which Andy Blacklock, the leader of the prison, is negotiating with Geoffrey Watkins, the chief of the Cherokee. Blacklock is trying to form an alliance that will help them both, and Watkins is wary, even knowing about how progressive the 21st century was. Watkins says, "I have listened to you and your people, as you apologize to us for the Trail of Tears. And swear it cannot happen again, because you are not the wicked people your ancestors were. And it is all a lie, not because you lie, but because you do not understand your own ancestors. You do not understand, not really, that your ancestors were not wicked at all." What Watkins is saying is far more frightening than the fact that our ancestors did terrible, disgusting things. What he's saying is that the people who did those things, for the most part, were simply good people trying to do the right thing, just like the prison guards that he's negotiating with. Almost no one sets out to do evil: they set out to do good as defined by their cultural preconceptions. What this means is that it's a lie to demonize most of the people in the past who did terrible things like take over a land that they had already decimated by disease and the sword, enslave Africans, suppress the rights of women, and forcibly remove Indians from their own land. The people who did those things, most of them, were good people doing what they thought was right, and in their place, you would have done the same. That should scare the hell out of you. That knowledge forces us to ask: what are we doing today that we are sure is right that could be judged as wrong or even evil by our descendants?

Not only is the above scene the high point of the book, it's virtually the only scene in the book of any major quality. What it does with the theme afterwards is the greatest sin a piece of literature can commit, one of the few sins that is completely unforgivable (and I can forgive a lot in a book): it undermines it spectacularly. The book treats the Spanish conquistadors as evil villains. There are exactly two scenes, very late in the book, that are from the conquistadors' point of view, and both are very shallow and short. No humanization or character development occurs. There are no scenes in which any of the characters from other time periods interact directly with the conquistadors. The Spanish seem to exist only to be slaughtered by the Cherokee and prison guards, mainly to save the Mound Builder Indians from the conquistadors' atrocities. No one seeks to understand the Spanish, no one seeks to negotiate with them, no one stands up and says the horrifying truth: that the Spanish conquistadors are not devils, but merely products of their time and culture.

In the first major scene to feature the Spanish, Blacklock orders an attack on a unit of them as they themselves attack a Mound Builder village. He orders that only one prisoner be taken. The rest of them are killed mercilessly, some even shot in the back while fleeing, despite the fact that the prison guards have automatic weapons and the conquistadors have only swords and single-shot matchlock rifles. We never see any interaction with their one Spanish prisoner, and it is later heavily implied that he was tortured to death for information. In the climactic battle with de Soto and the bulk of his army, Blacklock orders that no prisoners be taken. They attack the Spanish from long range, mowing them down with automatic weapons while the Spanish attempt to return fire blindly or flee. Those who try to run are shot in the back. No one tries to surrender (they can't see their enemy; they wouldn't know who to surrender to), but I have no doubt that they would have been killed too. After the battle, the prison guards search through the carnage to find any wounded conquistadors who are still alive... and execute them.

This is all presented as necessary, as a victory over the evils of the past by the more enlightened modern men. Overlooked, of course, is that it turns the "enlightened" modern men into murderers. The Cherokee accept the American soldiers who had been escorting them along the Trail of Tears because those soldiers didn't necessarily agree with the decision to move the Indians: they were just following orders. But neither they nor anyone else consider that even a single one of the conquistadors might have simply been following orders: they accept that every last one of them is bloodthirsty, violent, evil, and irredeemable. This makes the book's "good guys" look every inch the bloodthirsty barbarians that they portray the Spanish as.

The book later doubles down on this when the prison guards and Cherokees have to retake the prison from a group of prisoners who escaped and took over. The leader of the prisoners instituted a reign of terror and killed a lot of people, so the attacking prison guards show no mercy, up to and including shooting fleeing prisoners and executing the wounded, just like with the Spanish.

So Time Spike gives a theme with one hand, and takes it away with the other. For its great concept, I was willing to forgive a lot. But I can't forgive that. I could even accept this book if it had in any way humanized or developed the conquistadors and if it had let on, in any way, that it understood that the actions of the "good guys" were dead wrong. Instead, we have a starkly clichéd hero/villain situation, with the villains being treated as 100% evil (with no consideration to the possibility that some of them may disagree with their leadership or that they are simply unfortunate products of their time) and the heroes being treated as 100% good (with no admission that they commit atrocities that are, if not on the same level of those of the conquistadors, at least in the same ballpark, despite supposedly being 500 years more civilized).

There ought to be college writing courses taught on the subject of Time Spike. It provides many lovely examples of things that you shouldn't do when writing a novel. The betrayal of theme is the most egregious problem, but the things that this book does wrong could fill another book.

December 25th, 2012

Homestuck and Lost

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(Spoilers lurk below for both Homestuck and Lost, the latter through season 2 episode 3.)

While recording an episode our podcast the other day, I got to complaining about Lost, which I am watching for the first time as a part of our show. It is J.'s favorite TV series ever, but, going into the second season, I had a lot of issues with how the show is progressing. It makes no sense, I said. I complained that it's introducing mystery after mystery after mystery while offering virtually no answers. Lost exists in a universe that has no discernible rules, that has many things going on that I can't even theorize an explanation for. It's building up the mysteries so high, I said, that it's hard to imagine how they'll go about explaining them in a satisfactory way.

Then, I can to a sudden realization: I might as well have been talking about Homestuck, which is a piece of fiction that I love more than just about anything, as I've talked about before. The primary exception is that Homestuck starts very slowly, while Lost jumps into the action right away. Other than that, the similarities between the two are actually quite striking. They both feature a ludicrously large cast of characters, numerous flashbacks, and a bizarre universe that nevertheless has a set of rules that governs it. They feature reluctant leaders, small groups of survivors, incredibly dangerous situations, people cast out of their element, and the deaths of both peripheral and major characters. They both even feature a paraplegic who regains the ability to walk! Aside from that, Locke and Tavros couldn't be more different, but still.

Homestuck can be much sillier than Lost (and Andrew Hussie has always insisted that Homestuck is a comedy at heart), but they both can be deadly serious. Desmond of Lost claims that he is saving the world. The kids of Homestuck actually play a part in destroying their worlds, and bear the responsibility of saving their species. The castaways in Lost fear an elusive monster that roams the jungle. A rarely-seen monster named Lord English forms the core of Homestuck's conflict. Both works feature complex and varied character relationships, with many shades of gray in character moralities. Both works have suggestions of fate and inevitability in their themes. They both start with small plot points and work up until things get ridiculously grand. And, of course, Lost and Homestuck both feature richly convoluted and perplexing plots, with supernatural, technological, and biological elements woven strangely together, and "coincidences" playing a major role.

So why am I questioning Lost now when I am so totally on board with Homestuck? With Homestuck, a lot of it was that I just wanted to hang around to see where he was going with it. As bizarre as Homestuck is, it starts slowly and establishes rules bit by bit, introducing characters, elements, relationships, and situations, and building on them. I just kept reading, to a certain extent, because I wanted to see where the hell all this was leading. And there came a point when I finally realized that I was going to stick with this for the long haul. That point was [S] WV: Ascend, when a grand display of music and flash animation brought some recent events to a climax, and a montage of images finally gave a real sense of the sheer size of the world and time period of Homestuck. It is definitely not the case that everything started coming together, but one could get a sense that all of these things fit together somehow. It was an an incomplete, confusing puzzle, but one got the idea that it was a puzzle that was going to form a coherent whole. And the pieces that I had were really amazing.

I haven't reached that point with Lost. It's earned a lot of goodwill from me due to the first season, which I thought was quite good, but it hasn't quite convinced me yet that the various pieces of the puzzle it presents are going to form a cohesive whole. And it offers a lot more questions than answers, at least as of the point I've gotten to. Homestuck may feature a famously convoluted plot and many mysteries, but it made a habit of explaining certain small things as it went along, even while leaving the bigger mysteries for later (in many cases much much later). John and Rose spend a lot of time experimenting and discovering the purposes and uses of the various things in Sburb, and as early as Act 2 (pretty much the equivalent of season 2 for a TV show), John's sprite provides a big exposition dump that explains the nature of the universe he has entered. This doesn't make everything clear (far from it), but it provides a basis for understanding what's going on at some level, it gives the reader someplace to plant his feet, so that he doesn't have to feel totally lost at sea.

Lost hasn't done anything like that yet. I still feel totally adrift, with nothing explained or even close to being explained. Maybe they're working up to it, but I feel like I need something to assure me that this universe makes sense. Homestuck, as crazy as it is, did that. Lost has not.

November 4th, 2012

Elementary does quite a few things right. A surprising number of things, really, and the breadth of their limited success is quite subtle. The image of Holmes that they chose to draw from is one that has its origins in the canon, but only in hints and shadows. Holmes the drug addict is on full view in The Sign of the Four, the second novel, as are Watson's deep concerns about it. However, this is also a Holmes who is in complete control, a Holmes who is probably very early in his habit, perhaps not even physically addicted yet. He takes cocaine twice in the novel, once at the beginning and once at the end, because of boredom. While investigating the actual case (which runs for weeks), he apparently does not take any drugs nor even suffer any withdrawal symptoms. Only when the case is over and he no longer has anything to occupy his mind does he stretch "his long white hand up for [the cocaine-bottle]."

Holmes never took drugs "onscreen" again, and his habit was rarely even mentioned. However, in "The Missing Three Quarter" Watson makes reference to "wean[ing] him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career." The implication is that sometime after the events of The Sign of the Four, Holmes's lost control of his drug habit and nearly lost everything, and only with the help of his friend Watson did he emerge from the other side clean and able to continue his work. Watson no doubt never wrote about this period in Holmes's life due to there being no cases of interest during his recovery and due to not wanting to embarrass his friend (though see Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, a pastiche about this period in Holmes's life which I unfortunately have not read).

The Sherlock Holmes of Elementary is one who, from all evidence, went through a similar trajectory. He turned to drugs out of boredom, controlled his habit for a while, and finally spiraled out of control, ruined his career as a consultant in London, and ended up in rehab in New York. This is a Holmes who did not have a friend in London, a Holmes with no Watson to guide him out of the "drug mania," a Holmes who nearly destroyed himself out of hubris. One could imagine the canonical Holmes doing this if he had not had the help of Watson, and it is a tragedy that is interesting to contemplate.

Likewise, Watson's relationship with Holmes is drawn from a different place in the canon than it usually is in an adaptation. The Watson of early Holmes stories is a companion, a biographer, someone for Holmes to bounce ideas off of. As the stories go on, Watson undergoes a kind of transformation into a caretaker, treating Holmes almost as a resident patient. Helping him with his drug problem is one example of this, but Watson also will do things like remind Holmes to eat, remind him of his limits, and either keep him from doing things that are too stupid or at least stay by his side to protect him (see "The Devil's Foot" or "The Three Garridebs"). Holmes the "calculating machine" sometimes forgets that he is all too human, and Watson is often there to ground him (see "The Yellow Face").

The Watson of Elementary fills that role. She not only supervises him to make sure he doesn't relapse, but protects him. A great example is when in "The Rat Race" Holmes stupidly confronts a suspected murder in an empty parking garage (showing a lack of common sense that occasionally pops up in the canonical Holmes), ending up getting himself tasered and kidnapped. It's Watson who has to come to his rescue. Watson will also do things like cut down his esoteric theories (especially the one about the "brain attic") in an attempt to keep him grounded in reality. Also, take the final scene of "Child Predator," an otherwise very bad episode. Holmes is very excited about solving the case and is going through his case files to see what else he can come up with, because he's "hot" and has to keep working. Watson tells him he needs sleep and, under Holmes's protests, forcibly removes the case files from his hands. Holmes continues to protest as Watson steps into the kitchen for a second. When she comes back into the living room, Holmes has passed out asleep where he sits. This scene virtually defines the Watson-as-caretaker dynamic as it should be.

So with all that going for it, how does Elementary fail? The problem is that while it does all of the above wonderfully, it gets absolutely everything else just about as wrong as possible. It's one of the biggest contradictions I've ever seen in a show that it could get so much exactly right while getting so much exactly wrong.

The first problem has to do with Holmes's personality, something that has been a recurring issue in recent adaptations. The Holmes of the canon may be somewhat cold, but he does have deep feelings and cares for people (even though he may protest otherwise) and he is very good at dealing with people of any age, type, or social class (see his negotiating with Mrs. Smith and her son in The Sign of the Four or his infiltration of Milverton's household in "Charles Augustus Milverton"). The "high-functioning sociopath" of Sherlock falls short in the human decency and emotion department, but at least (like a good sociopath) he is good at dealing with and manipulating people, like the Holmes of the canon. The Holmes-inspired characters of House and Elementary are grumpy social idiots, more likely to yell at an important witness/patient than negotiate, a self-defeating strategy that the Holmes of the canon never ever resorted to. And don't be misled by the superficial similarities between Sherlock and Elementary: the latter show bites House's style much more severely than it does Sherlock's. House and Elementary's Holmes have almost the same personality, the same antisocial nature and clinical, detached view of their respective mysteries. That's fine for House, but Holmes should have more grounding in the source material, and the canonical Holmes was capable of caring and deep emotion. For an early example of the canonical Holmes getting emotionally invested in a case and client, see "The Copper Beeches," for a later one see "Charles Augustus Milverton" or "The Veiled Lodger."

Second, there's a major problem with the show's mysteries. They are simultaneously too sensationalistic and too simple. Every episode so far has involved a murder. The canonical Holmes did not exclusively involve himself in murders: he took cases that he found interesting, regardless of what the crime was, or even if there was any crime. Out of the twelve stories in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the first collection of short stories, only three involve a murder* (though one does have a serious attempted murder**) and, of the nine remaining, three involve either a very minor crime or no crime at all.*** The focus in crafting the mysteries should be in creating opportunities to showcase Holmes's deductive skills, not in sensationalism or shocking people. Sherlock draws upon the canon for inspiration (even if its episodes are very loosely inspired by original stories, it uses them as a basis), but Elementary has yet to base an episode upon a story from the canon. We haven't even yet had the obligatory appearance of Irene Adler or Moriarty.

Episodes of Elementary are formulaic, though you'd think that wouldn't be a problem since stories in the canon were fairly formulaic as well. Unfortunately, Elementary follows the formula of a standard police procedural, not a formula reminiscent of the canon. That leaves us with a series bearing a strong resemblance to CSI or Law & Order, a series that is plot-driven. By focussing on the fairly dull mysteries, the series takes the focus off of the much more interesting Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson and the evolution of their friendship. Their relationship is what the show wants to be about, but the structure of the show prevents it. It lacks the scenes of Watson and Holmes chatting prior to the case, often including a performance of deduction by Holmes. It also lacks the final "wrap-up" scene of Holmes describing the evolution of the case to Watson and the police or client, instead having Holmes explain things as he goes along. This lack of character interaction means that Watson and Holmes's friendship doesn't feel like it's developing naturally; it feels rushed and forced.

Finally, despite Holmes's origins as a recovering addict, we have yet to see Holmes actually struggle with his addiction (with the exception of a short, poignant scene in "The Rat Race"). Drugs nearly destroyed Holmes's career, so I really don't think we should see Holmes acting so blasé about it. It adds to Holmes's unfortunate House-like qualities. To House, drugs are a crutch, and one he does not mind. To Holmes, drugs should be the enemy. It's alright for House to be unconcerned about his addiction, but Holmes should be struggling and showing more emotion about it. It's not enough to see that Holmes's father hired Watson to help him get over his habit if we never see him having any issues with his habit in the first place. For all Watson's protests about Holmes possibly relapsing, it just isn't believable.

So where do we go from here? Is Elementary salvageable? I think that it is. I mentioned above that the show bears a strong resemblance to House, but, oddly enough, I don't think it bears enough of a resemblance to House. That show was formulaic and focussed on characters; the medical mystery existed to lend focus to characters and comment on their problems. I think that Elementary should lean more towards that formula, almost push the mysteries into the background in order to give us more focus on the relationship between Holmes and Watson, as well as the one between Holmes and Gregson. That would allow the show to be about characters and relationships, the way it appears to have been envisioned from the very beginning, before CBS executives got their hands on it. And we need to see Holmes struggling with his addiction; that is absolutely not optional for this concept. Back away from the boilerplate police procedural format, and this could actually be an interesting show.


*"The Boscombe Valley Mystery," "The Five Orange Pips," and "The Speckled Band"

**"The Engineer's Thumb"

***"A Case of Identity," "The Man with the Twisted Lip," and "The Noble Bachelor"

September 19th, 2012

Part one (lawful good) and explanations here.

Part two (neutral good) here.

Part three (chaotic good) here.


Equius

"The thought of you fraternizing with and abetting those stink-b100ded h001igans strikes me as scandal beyond measure"

Equius is a textbook example of his alignment. He believes in the blood caste system above everything else, taking it much more seriously than anyone else in the story. He wants nothing more than to settle into his rightful place in the hemospectrum (his fetish for being ordered around by lowbloods notwithstanding). He believes in the hemospectrum so much that when he has the chance to kill or incapacitate Gamzee, which he could have done almost literally with a flick of the wrist, he can't bring himself to fight back. As Gamzee comes higher on the hemospectrum than he does, Equius believes that it is Gamzee's place to rule over him. Equius even dies with a smile on his face, more pleased than anything to be fulfilling the role his blood color intended him for.


AR

"The law is all that's left to hold on to in this unforgiving dust bowl. You cannot afford to loosen your black claw's grip lest justice slip through your fingers. Law is beauty. Order is peace. Judgment is the very basis for all that is pure and..."

As an enforcer of the laws of Derse, AR opposes creation simply because that's what the law demands. He attempts to continue some semblance of law and order in the post-apocalypse Earth, despite there being no basis for it anymore. He easily falls back into the role of servitude when WQ appears and a command structure starts to develop among the exiles.


Terezi

"Did you honestly think you could dip your corpulent snout into the imperial beetle coffers like that and get away with it?? Did you think your revolting abuse of the public trust would go unnoticed??? THINK AGAIN, GOOD SENATOR. WHILE THE PROSECUTION MAY BE BLIND, REST ASSURED THE LEAGUE OF LEGISLACERATORS SEES ALL."

As a devotee of the Troll legal system, Terezi respects a set of laws and procedures that is clearly morally bankrupt. In a universe without Sgrub, Terezi probably would have gone on to become a vicious Legislacerator (if not culled due to her blindness, anyway). As it is, she continues to think in terms of laws and precedent whenever possible, and, when she absolutely had to do it for the good of everyone, she was willing to play judge, jury, and executioner to someone she once considered a friend.

September 16th, 2012

Part one (lawful good) and explanations here.

Part two (neutral good) here.


Rose

"I am not playing by the rules anymore. I will fly around this candy-coated rock and comb the white sand until I find answers. No one can tell me our fate can't be repaired."

Rose is much more towards the lawful side of good at the beginning of the story: witness her systematic attempts to discover and document the rules of the game and her interest in discovering the purpose of it all. Once she finds out that she and her friends are destined to failure, however, she completely loses faith in the system of rules built around Sburb. Any ruleset that disallows victory is not one that she is willing to give any respect to. After making this discovery she blows up her first gate (going through said gate being the first objective of Sburb) just to show that she no longer gives a shit about rules. She stops playing to win and instead makes it her goal to break the game. She makes pacts with mysterious dark gods, and her tactics make everyone who knows her uncomfortable. That said, it is largely Rose’s plans that rescue them from their impossible situation.


Roxy

"TG: i kinda already
TG: made this bogus file for her
TT: What? Why?
TG: 2 scare the shit out of her
TG: make her learn to fear an respect the fuckin hag like she should"

While Rose starts off caring about the rules, Roxy does not even do that. She lives in a dystopian future surrounded by the poor and the suffering, and she is predisposed to see rules as bad things. She even resists playing Sburb because of her perception that that's exactly what she's supposed to do. While learning about her class as a rogue she compares herself to Robin Hood, and indeed she uses her appearifier to help feed her hungry neighbors by stealing pumpkins from paradox space.


Feferi

"You would redefine what it means to be CULLED in troll society. Under your rule it would mean caring for the unfit and infirm rather than exterminating them, and you have put this idea into practice by CULLING THE FAUNA OF THE DEEP."

As the heir to the throne of Alternia, and a rare one that actually has a chance of ascending because she is gaining the favor of her dangerous lusus, Feferi has every right to be a vicious megalomaniac. However, she has no respect at all for the caste system that places her at the top. She wants nothing more than to get the chance to dismantle the brutal warmongering troll government, and except for the whole end of the world thing, I'd have given her fair odds at succeeding.


Aradia

"You are now the Maid of Time, recently resurrected from the crypt of Derse. Your name is Aradia Megido, and for the first time in your life, you feel truly alive."

Between her death and rebirth, Aradia was much closer to true neutral than anything else. After ascending to god tier, however, Aradia becomes much more focussed on doing good and helping others, and doing it for its own sake, not just because it's something demanded of the alpha timeline. She decides to dedicate eternity (or however long it may prove to be) to wandering from dream bubble to dream bubble in the Furthest Ring, helping the newly dead accept their fate.


Sollux

"You have developed a new game, adapted via CODE PARSED FROM THE RUNES AND GLYPHS IN AN ANCIENT UNDERGROUND TEMPLE. You believe this game to be THE SALVATION OF YOUR RACE,"

True to his dual nature in all things, Sollux is both good and bad, both chaotic and lawful. He writes a code that blows up Karkat's computer and curses him, but later he gives his life to save all his friends. (Well, half his life. It's complicated.) He sets up a rigid command structure for their Sburb session, even though he knows that it will fall apart and reform as something completely different. In the end, however, he is not only a good person, but one of the best of the trolls.
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