Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Academic Thoughts III: The Classroom

I was putting the finishing touches on the syllabus for my fall course today--an introduction class on digital media that starts in (blinks in a way that's meant to show catatonic terror) less than two weeks. And that process means I'm about as ready as I'll ever be to start the next post in my Academic Thoughts series. We've talked about the blog, we've talked about the conference, and now it's time to talk about teaching classes.

Now, the interesting thing about classes in terms of the CV is that it can help you get a job--but it's more likely to get you a non-tenure track position than a tenure-track one. The sad truth is that while prospective employers may look a little askance at a candidate who's never known the podium side of the classroom, extensive teaching experience is a nice frill in comparison to other factors: a track record of grants and scholarships, a web of connections, and, as I'll discuss in the next post, a history of being published in the right places. That all sounds very jaded, but honestly, the biggest factor is simply being in the right place at the right time: that you're looking for a job at the exact moment a professor is scheduled to retire and they're looking for a 17th century Bacon scholar. (Or something. My 17th century knowledge is vague.) So if you'd prefer, the process isn't so much a series of Machiavellian manipulations as it is the random strings of pure chance.

No, that doesn't make me feel better either.

Research grants, especially on the humanities side of things, aren't really growing very quickly, so the need for the tenure-tracked positions goes slow. But the number of students attending university is still on the rise, which means the demand for sessional lecturers is increasing, or at least increasing at a faster rate. Pushed to excess, this difference becomes a complete imbalance. The sessionals are overworked with little chance of ever transitioning into tenure-track, as they don't have time for original research. The tenure-track are become increasingly isolated and bureaucratically driven. And the students suffer as well, because of the extra barrier placed between them and the top level research they want to be a part of. (Assuming they want to be a part of it, of course, and are there for more than rubber-stamp certification. The commodification and commercialization of the college degree is a related, but different, issue.)

And it's a shame, because teaching can be a lot of fun.

I was talking to a professor recently, and he mentioned that he makes a point of teaching our first year course on basic academic writing at least once every couple of years. Now, this class is arguably one of the most thankless tasks you can be assigned in our department, teaching-wise. Most of the students are from other disciplines, and are just there for their aforementioned rubber-stamped English credit. Worse, the course is counted for the equivalent of an ESL language test, so you get a number of ESL students who are here because they failed the normal test. So basically, you have a room overflowing of uninterested, bored students who in some cases can barely grasp what you are talking about. But even considering all that, I could understand why the professor did it. Teaching a class, even that class, is like being the conductor for a mass orchestra. For that rare moment when everything's in sync, when you can tell that the room is genuinely interested in what's going on and in participating, there's a feeling of communal thought that goes beyond the mundane everyday into something transcendental.

Plus, it's a huge ego boost to speak in front of a captive audience twice a week.

It works better for courses that the instructor is genuinely interested in, but the classroom is a great place to try out ideas. It exposes the ideas to new people outside the closed academic circle, and offers a perpetually renewing source of perspective. (In fact, that's the advantage it has over the conference, which tends to be full of people who think the same way. Or occasionally, think almost the same way, with a slight difference that's just enough to turn a convivial conversation into a screaming match.) Both of parents were teachers, and they'll both tell you the same thing: teaching is an incredibly draining, but incredibly rewarding experience.

That's a best case scenario, of course. In reality, you get students who don't bother to show up, students who think they know better than you, students that derail class discussions and leave you rolling your eyes. There's essays to be marked, grades to be assigned, and rosters to fill. We've come a long way since the days of the Socratic method (for example, we admit that women are people now; not all change is bad), and the bureaucratic side of the classroom isn't any better than that side of academia at large. But my point is, teaching is a valuable learning tool, for the instructor as well as the students. It's also a skill, and those that choose to develop it and hone it deserve nothing, in my opinion, but the highest level of respect.

Too bad it doesn't count more for the CV. It should, but it doesn't.

Later Days.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mass Effect Conclusion

It's finished. I'd give a final tally on how many hours and pages I wasted lovingly pored through during my play of a modern videogame classic, but, well, it's a little depressing. I think a quick wrap-up commentary wouldn't be amiss.

I went into this analysis of Mass Effect 2 assuming it was a much looser game, plotwise, than Mass Effect 1. That it streamlined the gameplay is without question; the level upgrades have been lessened, there's no more items to equip, and so forth. And I also thought it was a little looser on the themes of the game. Mass Effect 1 was about forcing the player to take a position on the issue of intergalactic race relations, and its culminating choice was to either save the multiracial galactic Council, or create a new human-dominated one in the wake of their deaths.

Mass Effect 2 goes for something different. Plotwise, it's in a bit of a sticky place. It's the middle game in a trilogy, which means that it can't resolve the plot definitively. And if you can't have the protagonist defeat the major baddie, then what is your story about? The ME2 team at Bioware basically centered the game around not around spatial race relations, but around a more personal story of recruiting your team and gaining their trust.

That isn't to say the race stuff isn't there, which is something I'd forgotten in the course of my previous playthroughs. Pretty much each such thread is referenced at least slightly. The twinning of female sexuality and race as seen in the asari is pushed forward with the addition of the Ardat-Yakshi, barren asari that seduce people, and kill them during mating. (Yes, they're essentially adding a succubus to the all-female species of the game. I didn't say it was a good or original use of race.) The krogan genophage is furthered with Grunt, the manufactured krogan, and Mordin, the scientist who altered the disease to restore its effectiveness (and the resulting moral conundrums of that is one of the more interesting parts of the game). And the robotic geth's status as monsters is tested through both Tali's plotline and the addition of your final team member.

And the technology-organic reversal represented by the game's main villains, the Reapers, is furthered with the introduction of the Collectors, an organic race the Reapers have altered to use as weapons--in other words, the machines have turned people into tools. Granted, this is more a recycling of the same idea as ME1, but it's a nice thought, I guess. We even get a glimpse of a new thread, with the establishment of the drell, a frog-like race that operates almost as willing indentured slaves to the aquatic hanar. So the race stuff is still there.

But the brunt of the choices of the game are based around the brunt of your actions: the recruitment and loyalty of your team members. And in the game's final mission, known repeatedly as the suicide run, these ties are put to the test, as you're put in a situation where many of these characters may die, a death far more final than the usual *use phoenix down* such games present. If you failed to gain a character's loyalty, then he or she may fail under pressure--the same may happen if you assign them a task that they're not suited for. The game still fails to connect the action portions to the choice part in a totally meaningful way, and some of the deaths in the last bit can seem a little arbitrary, but to have the bulk of the choices you've made in the game connect so directly to its conclusion is very gratifying.

I'll conclude, then, with two complaints. The absolute final choice of the game is between destroying the enemy Collector base, or giving it to the Illusive Man (a shadowy pro-human figure who helped you put together your team). It's framed as a choice between "we can't take that risk" and "we must do what's necessary to succeed" but the results frame it as a choice between colluding with the IM or refusing and going your own path. It resolves another of the game's long-standing themes, which is fine, but it really should have been presented differently if that was the decision the player was supposed to be thinking about.

Second, what really irritated me this time round was the way the main character asked for information from his fellow crewmates. He sounds less like a captain trying to secure his people's loyalty and more like an unprepared ENow interviewer:

Miranda: My god. I think it’s a Collector.
Shepherd: Is that some kind of alien? he says, as we see an alien on the monitor.

Shepherd: Sounds like Cerberus wants to dominate all aliens and put humankind on top? Which, you may note, isn't actually a question at all.

Shepherd: You said you were in the Special Tasks Group. What kind of research were you doing?
Mordin: Not simply research. Several recon missions. Covert, high risk. Served under young captain named Kirrhe. Studied krogan genophage. Took water, tissue samples from krogan colonies.
S: Why would Special Tasks Group study the genophage?
Krogran rebellions bloody, dangerous. Nearly as bad as rachni attacks. All species adapt, evolve, mutate. If genophage weakens, need to be prepared.
S: What was the Special Tasks Group preparing to do?
Military schematics for likely krogran population growth. Political scenarios for attack points. Genophage reduced krogan numbers. Species aggression unchecked. Population explosion would be disastrous. Special Task Group helped check krogan rebellion. Needed to be ready to do the same. Simple recon. Nothing to worry about.
Shepherd's asking about a devastating, manufactured virus that keeps an entire species near extinction with all the emotional intensity of a reporter inquiring how the last box social went. It's not the frequency of the questions themselves that bother me--when it comes to videogames, I'm not really interested in immersion, and I'm fairly tolerant of violations to the "show, don't tell" maxim (more on that issue in some future post).

What bothers me is that the questions themselves are presented in such a dull, plodding manner, mere placeholders thrown together to get to the real part, the character's answer. What I'd rather like to see is these questions phrased so that we get some sense of Shepherd's feelings on the subject. But we don't. There are reasons for that. The guy doing the voice for Shepherd generally plays him as fairly dispassionate (unlike Jennifer Hale, who does the female Shepherd character, and if I had played through with a female, I doubt I'd be having this problem). And the writers deliberately make Shepherd as much of a blank slate as possible so that the players can take him in any way they want. But it still seems like a waste of time for people investing so much of it into this game.

People like me, for example. Although, given the length of my notes, I suspect there aren't very many players like me. That's probably a good thing.

Later Days.

Friday, August 26, 2011

They're like people who use vacuum cleaners in a world of dish detergent.

I would say that people who don’t like add-on packs are the kinds of people who would drink Coca-Cola in a world of Champagne.
--Rod Humble, formerly one of the head developers on the Sims franchise.

Later Days.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

That's Mister Fancypants, to You

In my ongoing quest to read every single post at the PC gamhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifing blog Rock, Paper Shotgun, I recently reached this post. Essentially, the article is about NPC (nonplayer characters) in games that players have found amusing, especially those that became amusing in particular because of some buggy behavior. The post prompted me to leave a comment on my own experience, though it wasn't so much "amusing" as "deeply, deeply disturbing." I can't imagine that it'll get much reading on a three year old blog entry, though, and I think it's a good story, so I'll recount it here, for posterity's sake:

The one NPC interaction I’ll always remember from Oblivion was the time I was witness to a psychotic breakdown. I was buying something in Chorrol, from the town merchant/lizard person, and after I finished talking to her, she starts moving and leaves the house. I follow, somewhat bemused. As her trip around town prolongs itself, I start to get a little excited. Is this the level of NPC interaction I was originally promised? Characters interacting with the world beyond my presence?
Deaf to my musings, the lizard merchant heads into the town smithy, and stops in front of the smith. I prepared myself for a typical in-game conversation about things I had heard many, many times before. Instead, the merchant attacks the smith, and kills her. The innocent smith offered no resistance. Why would she? She wasn’t some racist, fearing the presence of a lizard person she knew for years. She had no idea her neighbor had finally snapped.
It was so sudden, I didn’t react either, until it was all over. And then the guilt started. I wasn’t just an innocent bystander. I had followed the lizard woman every step of the way. I could have stopped her at any time, but I was just curious, until it was too late. Oh, I could avenge the smith’s death–but I didn’t. After all, I had already lost one unique character, why should I give up another? Merchants were a nonrenewable resource. It was the rational decision, but every return trip to Chorrol for the rest of the game carried with it a sense of dread. I didn’t know which was worse: the accusing emptiness of the town forge, or the cold, dead stare of the lizard merchant.

Well, there’s that, and the pirate on the docks who accuses me of being a “fancypants” in the most flamboyant manner possible. I love that guy.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Reflections on Jack Layton

The Internet is full, at the moment, with news of Jack Layton, leader of the NDP, and his death from cancer. I thought I'd take a moment from my lack of meaningful content to ruminate on what he's meant to me as a Canadian, an NDPer, and a person.

I still remember the 2003 NDP election where he took over the party from Alexis McDonough. I'll admit, for the longest time, I had a slight aversion to him. He was still the leader of "my team," so he had a certain level of support as a given, but a lot of his actions at the time seemed overly flashy, and downright embarrassing. He seemed more interested in showboating, to me. But over time, I came recognize that the showboating was more showmanship, and that there was a statesman under it, and a man who had a lot of deeply ingrained beliefs--many of which I shared.

I don't know what his death will mean to the future of the NDP. It's clearly a blow to it, as it is a blow to all of Canada when someone who has been a part of the debate on our future for so long passes. I hope the party will be able to take what he's taught and what he's created and build on it. Time will tell, I guess.

On a personal level, his death reminded me of my own parents. My father is the same age as Layton (celebrated his birthday last week, in fact), and I can't imagine what I'd do without either of my parents. While I haven't depended on them financially for a while, emotionally and spiritually, they're still big pillars in my personal foundation. I'm really lucky to have them in my life.

No catchy endphrase. Just take a moment and appreciate your home country and family today.

Later Days.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Friday Quotations: You Should See the Krogan do Cats

I know I said that this scene was my favorite from Mass Effect 2. And it was a very nice moment, and I liked how it demonstrated the roles even the most peripheral characters can play when given the spotlight. But I like this bit too.

Mordin's so care-free and vocal here that you almost forget he was project leader for the creation of a disease that rendered thousands of aliens infertile. The scamp.

The sad thing, no matter how much effort I put into this, we'll probably have to do the whole "obsessive research" thing over again when Mass Effect 3 comes out next March.

Later Days.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

TV Talk: NewsRadio

The laugh-track sitcom has earned a bad reputation of late. It's formulaic. It's unrealistic. (Whereas comparatively, nothing says "realistic" like having your characters speak directly to the camera to further the framing device that your sitcom is really a reality show. I'm looking at you, The Office, Modern Family, and Parks and Recreation.) Most damning of all, it's old hat. And there's no sentence worse in the entertainment biz than being deemed yesterday's media.

Some shows still carry the multi-camera torch. But no matter how good such a show is at its peak (How I Met Your Mother), no matter what good points it occasionally reaches (Big Bang Theory), none of them quite equal the sitcoms of yesteryear. Also, some are just terrible (Two and Half Men. I mean, gohttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifod lord, when Ashton Kutcher is your solution, something's gone wrong). Here then, is classic comedy from a classic comedy. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you the fine cast of NewsRadio, performing "Bill's Cane."

It's the moment when Dave (Dave the character, and Dave Foley) breaks that's really the turning point to awesomeness. Also, Phil Hartman is a genius, and while he justifiably remembered for his Simpsons work, he deserves every bit as much credit for his in-person stuff as well. If this leads half as many people to my blog as the phrase "Come on, Lily, Get Your Head Out of Your Ass" does, then I will be a happy man.

Later Days.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Postcard from Illium

If you think you're sick of these Mass Effect related posts, imagine how I feel. Researching a game is a pretty emotionally draining, time-intensive task. Those book-based reader researchers have it easy.
All right. Here's the sound clips played as you pass from one area of Nos Astra (the capital of the asari world Illium) to another:
-Coming up later today, we release our annual list of Illium’s ten richest people. Are the heavens still bright Asari blue, or have the volus finally rolled to the top? And don’t miss our look at the fashion faux pas at the Commerce Awards held last week. All this and more on Financial Entertainment Daily.
-Illium Entertainment would like to respond to complaints about our upcoming film Blastos the Jellyfish Stings. The Hanar Defamation Association claims that our portrayal of Blasto in sults hanar society, going so far as to call it ‘exploitation.’ We at Illium Entertainment stand by our product, which puts a hanar in a lead role and notes the growing importance of these respected galactic citizens. We hope that you the viewer will decide whether we have done Blastos justice and to allow you to decide, all first day purchases are 30% off. Illium entertainment thanks you for your support.
-Tired of training employees only to lose them to your competitors? Perhaps Indenture-Tech can help. The leading provider of cutting-edge indentured servants, Indenture-Tech can provide high quality labor for any technical area. Contact Indenture-Tech today. You’ve been a slave to your employees for too long. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
-Another difficult development for human expansion as the colony Horizon has been attacked. The Council has pledged to investigate the matter thoroughly, possible indication of the attacks on humans galaxy wide. Investigators in prefabricated complexes are rejoicing, however, as the and rebuilding plans have industry wide.
-The Council thought that Blasto , the first hanar spectre, would play by the rules. This one has forgotten whether its heat sink is over capacity. It wonders whether the criminal scum considers itself fortunate. They were wrong. This one doesn’t have time for your solid waste excretions. He’s got a lover in every port and a gun in every tentacle. Enkindle this. Blasto the Jellyfish Stings available for net purchase this fall, from Illium entertainment.
-By the stars, your skin looks amazing. You’re not using biotics to touch things up, are you?
Actually, I just tried exoderm.
New Exoderm moisturizerizing cleanser. They’ll never know you’ve entered the matron stage.
-Bad luck on the stock market? Debt piling up? Perhaps you need to explore other options. Talk to Indenture-Tech to see if indentured servitude is the right career option for you. Remember, the only shame is enjoying nothing.
-This is a recall notice. All users of Corous-brand medical radiation systems are asked to discontinue treatment immediately. Please return your system to an authorized dealer for a refund. Or for credit, try the new exciting Corel-brand radiation personal defense weapon. Customer safety is important and Corous remains committed to supplying the best radiation-based solutions on the market. Corus: a division of Elcoss Combine.
-Antares System has been deeply embarrassed by the recent theft of a new omnigel synthesis prototype. Antares System closed down four points as a result of the theft.
-Illium is the gateway to the Traverse, but is that gateway open too wide? Investment think tanks are noting concerns that new technological discoveries may have set the market balance and cost skilled workers their jobs. Later today, we’ll talk to survey teams discussing the latest technology you won’t be able to live without. And, how much it will cost.
-Nos Astra has recently received an unexpected visitor in the form of a rare justicar, calling herself Samara. Samara denied our request for an interview, leading us in the dark as to what brought an adjusticar to the fringes of asari space. Nevertheless, Illium News is pleased to present a special report on the history and politics of this rare group.
-(male voice, deep) Hungry? Then come to the Fish Dog Food Factory. Tasty varren skewers are just five credits for a limited time only. Or, for the connoisseur, try our grade a tchonka raised steaks. Turian and quarian food options are also available. It’s fun for the whole family. Come to the Fish Dog Food Factory. (different voice, nasal female) A division of Elcoss Combine.
-Are you a quarian or a volus who is tired of being passed over promotions because of discrimination against exo-suit wearing employees? Genetic Paradigms invites you to consider adaptive genetic therapy. Our trained staff hhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifas a success rate approaching 40%. Come to Genetic Paradigms, and come out of your shell! A division of Elcoss Combine.
-Does living in a higher altitude make you more intelligent? Our report may surprise you. New studies commissioned by the Architectural Union has noted a correlation between tested intelligence and height of habitat. The news comes as new homes ranging from studio apartments to studious rooftop mansions enter into open market bidding.
-Bad luck on the stock market? Debt piling up? Perhaps you need to explore other options. (male voice) Indenture-tech paid off my debt and helped me gain valuable job skills. Now, just five years later, I’m a free man again. (original female voice) Talk to Indenture-Tech to see if indentured servitude is the right career option for you. Remember, the only shame is enjoying nothing.

It's clearly different from the previous set. Most of that difference is a matter of context; the previous messages all came from Omega, a hollowed out asteroid with a civilization based around pirates and lowlife types, whereas Illium is a corporate capital of a civilization, based around slave trade and high-level lowlife corporate types. See the difference? So you get more commercials about indentured slavery and commercial products, and fewer about racial genocide on the cheap. Illium is supposed to represent a place where capitalism has run amok to a certain degree. I'm not sure then, whether the similarity of its commercials to our own is supposed to suggest that our own society is similarly bloated, or whether it was just quicker to design ads that appear like ours, but are slightly more overblown so you can call it satire--I suspect it's the latter. It's from the "Grand Theft Auto" school of in-game advertisement writing.

Honestly, there's probably more personality in the Illium sections than anywhere else in the game. You've got miniquests of recovering salarian genetic information, helping an indentured quarian find an owner, and reconciling a racist asari to the truth. And the details similar to the commercials are everywhere from the hilarious (the human/turian/salarian bachelor party) to the touching (the salarian out to create some memories with his asari daughter, because he knows that given his short lifespan and her long one, he won't be around long enough to make much difference in her life. Awwww.) Why Bioware wants to move away from this to more shooty stuff, I don't know. But at least that makes my job easier--not a lot of ethical morality choices in the middle of a shooting fight. Well, not that you can't have those, it's just that Bioware, by and large, doesn't.

I'm losing coherence. Better get back to work.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Friday Quotations: Bask in the wisdom, comrades

"A critical history of technology would show little any of the inventions of the eighteenth century are the work of a single individual. And yet such a book does not exist. Darwin has directed attention to the history of natural technology, that is, the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which serve as the instruments of production for sustaining their life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man in society, deserve equal attention? ... Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from these relations."
--Karl Marx

Later Days.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Hope you're a fan of games from 2009

It's not often that I comment on my research without giving away trade secrets, so to speak, so... yeah, it's going to be Mass Effect 2 here for a week or so. Sorry. (Although I'm always open to other topics if anyone wants to suggest any...)

Anyway, today's findings:


This is my favorite scene in the entire game. The set-up is a simple fetch quest, of the sort that populate your basic RPG by the thousands. Doctor Chakwas, one of the two crew members in the game who are carried over from the first ship, lost the bottle of brandy she was saving for a special occasion when the first Normandy was... blown up. So you, Commander Shepherd, volunteered to pick up a bottle if you come across one. And if you do... then you get this scene. I think you get a Med-gel upgrade and a few experience points for it, but it's the story that really gets me. It's Chakwas' moment in the spotlight--she was a very peripheral character in ME 1, and she's not really a big character in Mass Effect 2 either. But for one scene, this character, and her connection to you, really shines.

2) In order to collect minerals, you need to do this mineral thing where you approach a planet, and as it rotates, you hit the left trigger to search a small section of the planet. The catch is that while you have the trigger pressed, the rotation stops, and the speed of search box decreases greatly--so greatly, in fact, that it's not even worth doing until you get access to the mining upgrade in the third mission or so. And it's still slow, because you have to wait for the planet's rotation. Only--you don't. Today, I discovered that pushing the left analog while the trigger ISN'T pressed speeds the rotation of the planet (or the fascimile scan of the planet. Whatever) This is at least the third time I've played through this 40+ hour game. And I'm just figuring out how to do this NOW. Sigh.

Later Days.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


I've been spending the past few days (and I'm likely to spend the next several more) playing through Mass Effect 2 for a paper I'm aiming to get published. (Yeah, that was originally going to be the culmination of my much delayed academic series. Spoiler, I guess.) Specifically, I'm looking for instances of race, biotech, and choice. While playthroughs of the game are readily available online, unfortunately they rarely consider the outcome of every possible choice in a conversation. Which means I spend most of my time endlessly going through a single conversation, typing out all the possibilities and jotting down some notes to remind myself why it mattered. In that vein, I spent the last two hours transcribing everything said over the intercom in the space station known as Omega. Since it doesn't seem to exist anywhere else on the Internet, I thought I'd post them here, so no one ever has to go through the pain I did. Sections in italics signal a male speaker, normal font a female speaker, and bolded sections refer to an alien Batarian speaker. The ... sections mark where I missed a word. I'd go back and fill in the blanks, but which news story plays next seems to be randomly chosen, and if a news story doesn't repeat itself after an hour, well, that's too bad. (All right, it's not great scholarship. If it was really important to my argument, I would have made the effort, but this stuff is rather ancillary. And besides, doing great scholarship means getting the funding to buy a new computer so I can run the software that allows me to record videos of my monitor feed, and thus not have to press pause every 3 seconds to jot down what's just been said. So if anyone wants to donate for that noble cause, feel free.) Here we go:

-The Vorcha. A blight on Omega’s society, or a boon for the station’s depressed labor market? A new study on the vorcha’s adaptive capabilities shows that with proper treatment, young vorcha can be molded into productive members of society. The study, sponsored by generi-stethics services, promises to redefine the way we look at the vorcha who clog our walkways. Could these vagrants someday become an asset?

-Imagine this. You’re in the Nexus. It’s late, and the only one around is that screeching Prophet and a few vorchas scratching for food. Suddenly, a shot. Red hot life blood pours from a wound in your back as your life ebbs away. The attacker leans forward, hoists your valuables and says, “Good thing you didn’t have a devlon stinger.” Devlon industries. Fine sidearms for your personal protection.

-Two years since the destruction of the Destiny Ascension, and …. For the fleet… of the Citadel have reached an impasse.The Asari republics had ceded its share of defense responsibility to the Turian hierarchy, the human alliance maintains a majority share of forces.

-The hunt is on for Omega’s public enemy number one. And this time, there is no escape. Merc groups from all over the Terminus system are recruiting for assaults on the notorious Archangel in an attempt to kill the meddling bastard once and for all. Who is he? Who gives a shit? He’ll be dead soon enough. And the ones who take him down will be living like kings.

-The Shepherd memorial on Akuze is expected to open next year once the area is declared safe for visitors. Admiral Stephen Hackett will preside.

-A source reports that the attack on the human colony Freedom’s Progress is being investigated as a possible terrorist attack by members from former council races. While no formal statement has been issued, the Council has made formal information requests of the Salarian special tasks group.

-Investigators on Noveria have uncovered troubling data from the wreckage of League 15. Researchers there may have been cloning Rachni genetic material. Fortunately, according to Council representatives, the experiment produced no living Rachni.

-Captain Hannah Shepherd has apparently turned down an admiral star and will remain in command of the Orizaba. The captain deemed her promotion to admiral a political ploy and said that she could best honor her child’s legacy by captaining a ship.

-Sources say that the asari Shiara, more commonly known as the Consort, may be leaving the Citadel after years of bad press and rumors of intelligence leaks.

-The Turian hierarchy has announced that it will not limit its Dreadnought production to previous totals. Citing an increased need for security in the wake of the death of previous Council members, the Turian military intends to increase defense production. Representatives of the new human led Council have no comment.

-Aria T’Loak. She’s Omega’s number one citizen. But what do we really know about her? With your help, we can make damn sure that the people who should rule Omega do so. Act now for Omega’s future.

-Commander Shepherd. He uncovered Saren’s plan, defeated the geth army and died in the final days of the fight. Or did he? Witnesses report seeing him alive on Omega.

-Plague in the slums. Is this the end for Omega’s poor? Omega’s destitute and pathetic are dying in their own filth. Some people demand that something be done. Mostly those whose loved ones live in the slums. Salarian researcher Morlan Solus thinks he has the answer, but he’s wasting his time. The plague is the answer. The answer to the endless sea of sentient waste that populates the slums. Let those people fall to the Vorcha.

-Breaking news. The weekly death toll numbers are in and they’re not looking good. The last report places the station’s murder rate at 89, up 5 from the previous week. The news report places the death toll at just 73 with experts blaming the council’s threatened limits on the slave trade for the lower number. With 80% of all bets placed on the over this week this news could sink Omega’s economy. Experts say that the smart money’s on the over for next week’s report.

-The Fermat Consortium is going ahead with its plans to sue the Citadel council to remove unfair limits on the intergalactic slave trade. A Fermat spokesman had this to say: slavery is an inextricable part of Batarian caste system. By limiting the slave trade the council is limiting our cultural rights. The Council is scheduled to hear arguments for the next few weeks. Fermat Representatives do not expect the council to take the culturally sensitive option.

-Certa foundation is likely to close by the end of this fiscal year. The foundation never recovered from a deadly attack by biotic extremists on one of its medical centers two years ago.

-Survivors from the destroyed colony of Zhu’s Hope have petitioned the council for reparations, given former Spectre Saren’s role in the attack on their home.

-A human colony called Freedom’s Progress has been attacked by unknown forces logging yet another in the chronicle of the humans failing to defend their own colonies. The Alliance has dispatched aid and travel support vessels in an effort to ease the suffering among the ruins of the human colony. Raiders and pirates have already jumped on the opportunity, staking out the routes that lead to Freedom’s Progress. Record windfalls are expected.

-A quiet candlelight vigil is planned for the hostages who died during the Turian attack on Terra Nova. Reverend Michael Bowman, whose daughter Kate died in the fighting, is holding a nondenominational prayer service for the anniversary of the attack.

-The Kaidan Alenko Memorial scholarship … gifted human biotics to the … for care and training. Alenko, a graduate of the controversial biotic acclimation and temperance training project, sacrificed his life to help stop Saren on Virmire.

-The Vorcha. Ruthless parasites on the hard working men and women of Omega. If you’ve got vorcha problems, there’s only one thing to do: get rid of them. Genera relocation services will design and execute a three, four, or five part plan to confront your nagging Vorcha problem and remove it entirely. And it’s safe and humane. In all our long history, not a single client has been harmed by genera relocation services or our methods. Call today. Get rid of your vorcha hassles, forever.

-Later today, we interview Councillor Udina. This relentless advocate for humanity has ruffled some feathers and has no plans to stop. Tune in and learn with the man the Turian Hierarchy called ‘diplomatic incident waiting to happen happened…. In humanity’s galactic affairs.

-The… universe looms wide. Will you be the one to fill it?... Manufacturing has opened offices all over the …and beyond, preparing to drive civilization into… reaches of the abyss. Only the bravest, … and most qualified and dedicated people will survive in the harsh regions of the most untamed section of the galaxy. If you are that type of person, apply to Daton Manufacturing today and look into the abyss.

-We will all perish in fire and radiation. Let those who think themselves worthy come unto him… The Word is clear. The lesser races will be punished. Only the pure will ascend into righteousness. Be forewarned. The end times are coming. And you are not prepared. Paid for by the followers of the exalted light of the word.

24 separate sound bits. It's not quite Grand Theft Auto level of radio commentary, yet, but it's nothing to sniff at. And there's actually some fodder for study there. Note, for starters, that the references to the Vorcha refer to them alternatively as filth to be cleaned, viruses to be wiped out (or, in some cases, a necessary bane to weed out the weak), and animals to be molded into desirable forms. It's rhetoric based loosely on those found in the discourse of Europeans of the 18th and 19th centuries. Definitely some race stuff there. We've also got parallel arms races going on (Turians and humans) and references to the Batarian rivalry for human colony areas. There's plenty of references to events whose outcomes hinged on the player's actions in Mass Effect One: the death of Kaidan Alenko, the human control of the Council, even the existence of Mother Shepard, so it's reinforcing the overall emphasis on player control and choice. Incidentally, my favorite bit is the report that says the drop in murders is bad, because it may disrupt the gambling economy of all those who believed it would get worse.
Well, that wasn't so bad. How much of the game do I have done now? Let's see... I've been playing for 6 hours and... I'm on the 3rd of approximately 25 missions.
Sigh. Oh yes, video game analysis is great fun...

Later Days.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Let Me Tell You A Story

" 'I knew a man,' I say. 'He imagined he was dogged by bad luck, a decent man, but one for whom everything went wrong. We were all sorry for him. No sooner had he saved up some money than there was devaluation. And it went like that all the time. No tile ever fell from the roof when he wasn't passing. This invention that one is dogged by bad luck is one of the favorites, because it's comfortable. Not a month passed for this man without his having cause for complaint, not a week, scarcely a day. Anyone who knew him a bit was afraid to ask: How are things? And yet he didn't really complain, he merely smiled about his legendary bad luck. And in fact things were always happening to him that other people were spared. and all the time he bore it manfully--till the miracle happened.

"It was a blow for him, a real blow, when this man won the big prize in the lottery. It was in the newspaper, so he couldn't deny it. When I met him in the street he was pale, dumbfounded, he didn't doubt his invention that he was a man dogged by bad luck, but he did doubt the lottery, in fact the world altogether. It was no laughing matter, he actually had to be comforted. In vain. He couldn't grasp the fact that he was not dogged by bad luck, wouldn't grasp it and was so confused that on his way back from the bank he actually lost his wallet. And I believe he preferred it that way," I say. "Otherwise he would have had to invent a different self for himself, the poor fellow, he couldn't have gone on seeing himself as a man dogged by bad luck. Another self is more expensive than the loss of a full wallet, of course; he would have had to abandon the whole story of his life, live through all the events again and differently, since they would noi longer have gone with his ego--'

"I drink." --Gantenbein, Max Frisch

Back way back, in the early winter months of 2007, I took a course on European literature. We read Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, Michel Houellebecq's Elementary Particles, Marcel Proust's Swann's Way, and Max Frisch's Gantenbein. The other books were superior pieces of literature (well, the Houllebecq's open to discussion), but it's Gantenbein that stuck with me the most, and I think this passage is the reason why. I'm very attracted to the idea that we guide our lives on the basis of stories we make up about ourselves. And these stories being nice or flattering isn't nearly as important as them being intriguing, and all encompassing. They allow us to unify our past and project our actions into a meaningful future. Without them, we drift. We live our lives as if they're stories because the alternative is to live with no story at all.

Of course, in the academic world, the correct term for these stories is "worldview," "subjective perspective," or the catch-all term "ideology." I prefer stories or narratives to ideology though; "ideology" seems like a 19th century coining for something that's been around a lot longer than that (sorry Marx). Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard famously argued that we've entered into a phase where there are no longer grand narratives that prop up and attempt to motivate an entire society. I've got my doubts about that--watch Fox News for a few hours, for example, and tell me no one's selling grand narratives anymore--but I think on an individual level, we still let them shape our experiences.

Using "story" over "ideology" also allows me to speculate without a shred of evidence on what it would be like to live a life based closely on one of the classic forms of narrative, tragedy or comedy. The appeal of living in a tragedy, I imagine, is that you're always the central figure--I mean, that's part of the appeal of any narrative, but for tragedy, it's doubly so. You're a great, noble figure, brought down (or at least besieged) by forces outside of your control. The downside is the obvious one: the protagonist of a tragedy is never at peace, or even at rest. At its extreme, you see yourself as a martyr figure, constantly under attack. (And if you act like that long enough, you probably will be under constant attack.)

And the extreme comedy isn't any better, albeit its excesses are more insidious. Comedy, at its heart, is fairly conservative. Yes, it makes fun of stereotypes and cliches, but it as it does so, it is at some level reinforcing them as well. It not only reinforces such beliefs, it also encourages you to keep things the same--see the anecdote above. The man lives a comic trope, but because he's so used to it, he can't live anything else. Consider your typical sitcom--the characters can change and grow only up to a point, or the spirit of the show is irrevocably altered. Drew Carey never gets out of his dead-end job, Pan and Jim will never work anywhere but the paper supply office, and Liz Lemon will never get her life together (and Jack's wife has to be kidnapped by Kim Jong-Il, but that's a different rant.) An even better example is Jim Carrey's character on the Truman Show; though it wasn't a comedy per se, the life his character was living is comparable to the same consequences: living in a comedy keeps you safe, protected, but unchanging. IT's the irony of the comedy: take it to the extreme, and it becomes a tragic prison. And vice versa. The sad clown trope, and so forth.

The comedy aspect in particular has been in my mind of late. It was my birthday a few days ago and on the day I was walking home from purchasing a few groceries. I was so intent on the book I was reading (yes, I read books while walking. That's a different discussion. Stay focused) and walked into the wrong house. Just as I wondered when we had painted our walls yellow, a stranger's voice called out "hello?". I replied "sorry, wrong house," and 23-skidooed. And when I was at the bar to celebrate said birthday the next night, I told that story a lot, because, well, it's a good story. One of the common responses was "yep, that sounds like something that would happen to you" or "you're really living that absent-minded professor stereotype, huh?". It was a little eye-opening. Am I trapped in a comedic hell of my own making?

Well, no, I'm not. To give Lyotard some credit, it's not so much that grand narratives have ceased to exist, it's that, more than ever, we're bombarded with some many different stories, so many versions of ourselves and others, that one label can fully encompass anyone, myself included. At the same time, you need to recognize when you've put yourself or allowed yourself to be put in a particularly destructive story (or ideology, path, etc), and extricate yourself accordingly. We all have some control over the stories we tell. And no one has to be trapped in a story, comedy or otherwise.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go to Facebook and upload a photo of myself doing a blowjob shot.
Sometimes, the line between tragedy and comedy grows a little thin.

Later days.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Friday Quotations: Pardon the Language, but He's Really Enthuastic About His blocks

"Fucking blocks! I'm going to climb the shit out of you!" --Vincent Brooks, in the video game Catherine.

I'll get back to a regular posting schedule soon, honest. Right now, I'm still covered in that "new game" euphoria. At least I hope it's euphoria.

Later Days.