Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bibliophile: Feng Shui Blogging: An Easy and Practical Guide Packed with Exciting Hints to Enhance Your Hit Count

Bibliophile: because an ink fetish is nothing to be ashamed of. Right? Right?

Let's see what's new and interesting in the university ledgers this week:

Most of the first 500 are videos available on a database not accessible at my university. So skipping over those really speeds up the process.

Two regimes of madness : texts and interviews, 1975-1995 / Gilles Deleuze ; edited by David Lapoujade ; translated by Ames Hodges and Mike Taormina New York : Semiotext(e).
I've always felt kind of bad that I haven't read a lot of Deleuze and Guattari; I have the first 100 pages or so of A Thousand Plateaus read, but that's about it. Generally speaking, either of them are worth further reading, although what you get out of them depends how open you are to the more "ramble" based side of the French theorists.

What if Derrida was wrong about Saussure? / Russell Daylight. Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, c2011
I first came across Derrida and Saussure when I had to read Of Grammatology for a class on Jean-Jacques Rosseau. It utterly baffled me, but I think I have enough of it down now, six years later, that I could follow this book. Maybe.

Freud on coke / David Cohen. London : Cutting Edge Press, 2011.
A detailed investigation of Freud's coke use and its impact/allegiance with his general theories? Yeah, I'd read that. In general, we need more books on long-standing humanity theorist go-to figures, and their various drug addictions.

Hurt feelings : theory, research, and applications in intimate relationships / Luciano L'Abate.
I feel like this is a book that could be utterly fascinating, grant me great insight into human behavior, and make it that much more unlikely that I will ever be able to sustain a long term relationship.

Fengshui for joys of sex : an easy and practical guide packed with tips and exciting hints to enhance happiness in love, sex and romance / Ashwinie Kumar Bansal.
I feel like this is a book that could be utterly fascinating, grant me great insight into human behavior, and make it that much more unlikely that I will ever be able to sustain a long term relationship. But mostly because I'm worried I wouldn't be able to remember any of the positions unless I take notes with me. I also love that this is by the same author who wrote Fengshui for Offices ; An Easy and Practical Guide to Improve Efficiency and to Fulfil Your Career Goals. Because those are two very close subjects.

God laughs & plays : churchless sermons in response to the preachments of the fundamentalist right / David James Duncan.
I'm not particularly religious, but I know which side of the debate I'd be rooting for.

Bureau of missing persons : writing the secret lives of fathers / Roger J. Porter.
This sounds interesting, and it's one for you autobiography scholars out there: Porter is studying memoirs of people whose fathers led some sort of secret life, focusing on how their desire to learn about their sires (sorry) turned them into detectives searching for the missing people that were right in front of them. It features, among others, Paul Aster and Alison Bechdel of Fun Home.

Evening's empire : a history of the night in early modern Europe / Craig Koslofsky.
I mention this only because I wanted to make a joke about it being good nighttime reading.

Video games and learning : teaching and participatory culture in the digital age / Kurt Squire ; foreword by James Paul Gee ; featuring contributions by Henry Jenkins.
It's not even remotely where my interest in game studies lies, but it's got Jenkins and James Paul Gee, and I feel scholarly obligated to mention anything related to videogames when it comes up.

Selling sex short : the pornographic and sexological construction of women's sexuality in the West / by Meagan Tyler.
I have a feeling I might have mentioned this before; the cover is certainly familiar. Ah, well--I bring it up now because I don't think we should really accept "sexology" as a word.

Carnal resonance : affect and online pornography / Susanna Paasonen.
This plays a little more to my interests. Digital tech interests, I mean, not... ahem. At any rate, I recently went over a 2002 paper on this subject with my students. They were very, very reluctant to talk. So I'm interested in Passonen's book, on the level of how we respond to the issue.

Motherhood online / edited by Michelle Moravec. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK : Cambridge Scholars Pub., 2011.
I just wanted to juxtapose a book on online pornography with a book on online motherhood. If the next book's about online old age, we'll have a nice gamut of human life cycle going.

Sex cells : the medical market for eggs and sperm / Rene Almeling. Berkeley : University of California Press, c2011.
Points for the pun.

Siblings : brothers and sisters in American history / C. Dallett Hemphill.
My brothers never call me. Sigh...

Getting wasted : why college students drink too much and party so hard / Thomas Vander Ven.
This gets a mention because there's a picture of a girl doing a beer bong on the cover. How many academic books can say the same? In case you were wondering, the answer to the title question appears to be "peer pressure."

Very small cafés & restaurants / John Stones
This would be a perfect coffee table book for a very small... eh, maybe a little too on the nose.

Duels and duets : why men and women talk so differently / John L. Locke.
Locke argues that, based on physiological difference, men are better at conversational arguments, whereas women operate on collaboration. I know some women who would challenge this argument--and thus invalidate it.

Drunk as a lord : samurai stories / Ryotaro Shiba ; translated by Eileen Kato.
I know I'm guilty of cultural tourism here, but... this sounds awesome.

Essential Avengers by Roy Thomas, Harlan Ellison, Steve Englehart at el.
This gets a mention because it's comic books. Also: Harlan Ellison! Writing superheroes!

Characters and plots in the fiction of Raymond Chandler / Robert L. Gale.
I hope there's a lot about the Operative.

Sweet invention : a history of dessert / Michael Krondl.
Okay, this one's here because I'm hungry.

...And that brings another end to a round of Bibliophile. Till next week, then.

Later Days.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Steam Monk: An Arcanum Retrospective

I look glumly at the distance between the two locations. The game features an expansive world, but what that translates into is a long slog between locations. Sure enough, no sooner do I set off to my next than I'm attacked by a series of bandits, assassins, and local wildlife, each one determined to make me part with my money, my life, or both. My companion is of little help; my control over him can be charitably described as limited, and during a battle, he's just as likely to run away than to come to my aid. Finally, as I narrowly finish off my first my last opponent, a telltate chime sounds. A faint smile shows through my weariness. Finally, a level up. I open up my character screen, and bite my lip. So many skills, so few points to spend...

For the first major (excluding Fate of the World, which was a less thorough play for me) gameplay on my new laptop, I thought long and hard about what game would get the honor. From the above description, you can tell that I went with a game that will clearly stand the test of time, something that could really put an Alienware game rig through its paces. I wanted a game that would be rather long, and involved. It didn't matter so much if it was weak on characterization, as long as the world was richly portrayed, and the character management was nice and robust. So, clearly, I had no choice but to play--what? Skyrim? That flavor of the week? No, I decided that the best choice for me was the 2011 Troika game "Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magik Obscura."

You'll have to pardon an old blogger his little jokes. Of course, Skyrim is the one destined to be championed for years, at this point, whereas the the ten year old Arcanum has sadly been delegated to the dustbin of videogame history. But the similarities between the games struck me as worth noticing--Arcanum, directly or indirectly, is part of the history that leads to Skyrim, a legacy of excruciatingly detailed gameworlds, complex player character design, and emergent, sandbox-style quest play. So let's talk about that for a while, shall we?

The preliminaries, then. As mentioned, Arcanum was developed and released in 2001 by Troika Games, a short-lived game company that operated from 1998 to 2004, formed mainly by former Interplay employees. it was so short-lived, in fact, that it released only three games: Arcanum, the critically acclaimed Vampire: The Masquerade--Bloodlines (because nothing helps sell a game than two subtitles), and the lesser-known Temple of Elemental Evil. Troika games have a history of being very intricate, yet simultaneously very buggy. That's one of the benefits of coming to a franchise such as this a decade late to the party--fan patches have rounded off a lot of the rough edges. (And there were a LOT of rough edges--see a partial list of one of the patches' changes here, on Muro's post.) That isn't to say my play was bug-free, by any means; I was beset by game freezes, numerous exploits (although that's more of me beseting on the game than the other way around), and broken quests. But it was at least playable.

Interplay was the company that produced the original two Fallout games, which means that Troika employees originally cut their designer teeth on that post-apocalyptic series. (It also means that there's a more direct connection between Arcanum and Skyrim; the former is by people who created the first two Fallout games, and the latter is by people who created the third.) And Fallout's influence on Arcanum is pretty clear. The graphic engine, for example, is clearly very similar. Compare these screenshots:

Without the telltale signs of the HUD, there's very little reason to identify the top screen as Arcanum and the bottom as Fallout 2, a game that predates it by three years.
Similarly, the world map, inventory menus, and combat (isometric, turn based, with what you can do limited by the number of action points you have) are all very familiar. Worse, the game has somewhat less personality than its older brother; whereas Fallout 2 is famous (or infamous) for its humor and pop culture, Arcanum, while not totally without charm, is playing things much more straight-faced. No "What is your favorite color?" here, I'm afraid.

So what does Arcanum have going for it that's uniquely its own? In short, plot, character system, and the connection between the two. The idea behind Arcanum is that the game world is a place of magic, but magic that is now being rapidly occluded by technology. It is, in other words, a steampunk universe. The aesthetics of steampunk are reasonably common in videogames and even RPG series; the Final Fantasy games have dipped their toes in it frequently, and I think the latest Fable game dabbles in the area too. The difference between these games and Arcanum is that Arcanum makes the conflict between magic and technology the crux of the story. The game starts when the zeppelin the player is riding on is brought down by mysterious means, and you are soon embroidered in a long-term quest to find out what happened to a group of dwarves banished for (it appears) allowing a human to have access to steam technology.

That brings me to the level up system. It's the basic fallout model, which in turn was cribbed, I think, from the traditional D&D form: you get experience, you go up a level, you get points to spend on abilities. Where Arcanum starts to go off the beaten track is the sheer number of options to spend points on. First, you can raise your basic stats--the usual array of Charisma, Intelligence, Strength and so forth. Or, you can raise skills. And that's where things get interesting. Your character has an aptitude level for magic and technology. It starts somewhere around zero, between the two (or a little higher or lower, depending on how you dish out your character initially). You learn a spell, then the gauge moves up the magic side. You learn a technology skill, such as mechanical crafting or gun use, it moves down the mechanical side. Some skills, such as melee and dodge, are neutral, but most are geared to one or the other. And the effects are accumulative; the higher the gauge is on the magic side, the better your spells and magic items work, and the same for mechanical.

The catch is, then, that you have to choose. The game caps leveling at 50, and that gives you less than 100 points in total to fool around with (again, not counting initial character creation). When you factor in the fact that you need a certain level of basic stats to raise certain skills (a charisma of 18, for example, to raise the skill Persuade to its full value), then your choice becomes further limited. It's not just that you need to choose mechanical or magic, you need to choose what kind of technician or mage you want to be. Do you want to deal in healing magic or ice magic? There's 16 different branches, and 5 spells for each, so you'll have to choose. Similarly, do you want to be able to construct firearms or build mechano-spiders? (Okay, stupid question; spider-bot, I choose you!)
(Look at that. Eight legs of mechanical mayhem.) On the negative side, I was extremely paranoid that I'd construct a character that was totally useless, especially in an early part of the game I'll get to later. But on the positive, it really makes it feel like the character is your own, and really adds to the game's replay value, which is a real consideration when it comes to RPGs.
Here's a screenshot of the skill screen:
Starting from the top left, we see the menu trigger buttons: quest, world map, items, etc. Then there's the fate points, which are worth explaining: if you finish a notable quest in an exemplary manner, then you get a fate point, which can be used to guarantee some action--100% success rating for a lockpick, or a critical hit for example. It's a nice way of rewarding the player, by allowing them control over the stat-based system. Then there's the middle bit, with three spaces. I never did figure out what that's for. That's followed by the "wait" button, determining how long you wait, and an iconic representation of the time of day. That brings us to the next row: first we have the character window, which is what's currently going on in the main screen. Then there's the character portrait, with level (clearly a mod, since level is above 50), name, race, and so forth. To the right of that is three buttons that control the submenu below them: skills, mechanical skills, and magic, respectively; currently, it's the magic submenu that's open. And the lightning bolt icon to the right of that allows you to set auto-leveling schemes, where the computer decides for you where the character's skill points will be allocated (it also doesn't tell yo that it's controlling this already, by default). Moving down another level, we have the gauge that measures alignment in terms of good or evil, and to the right of that is the main stat list; below this list is the stats that are based on these main stats (and equipped items) and the player's various resistances. To the right again we have the list of spells, currently in the lightning subclass. And to the right of that is the magic/mechanics gauge. Finally, we can start on the bottom row. We have first the red gauge, health. Then there's the shield button, which triggers combat mode. Under that is a number I never figured out. Below that are two quick cast/use icons depicting the last two items/spells/skills used. And to the right is the entire quick cast/skill/use bar, with the description text box underneath. To its right is the quick buttons for the spells, skills, and crafting submenus. And finally, on the bottom right, we have the blue gauge for fatigue/magic power. If it goes to zero, your player collapses, which is usually sure death in a combat scenario. My point here is, there's a lot of stuff going on.

Moving finally back to the magic/mechanical divide, it's equally important, the alignment choice has an effect on the story. Certain characters will treat you differently or even hostilely if you're overly aligned on one side or the other. Not only does aligning your character with magic make magic more effective, it also make mechanical technology much less effective for you. So if you're building an uber-mage, those working at the train station are rather reluctant to allow you to ride their rails. And if your mechanically inclined gnome inventor is in need of healing, you'd better not expect your team's healing mage to get the job done. It's an excellent integration of story and game mechanics, and other designers (I'm looking at you, Bioware) could do well to take notes here.

And that brings us to my playthrough. It being my first time, I took the vanilla approach. Neutral affinity, neither fish nor fowl, neither mechanical nor magic. The result was that I never got the uber level skills with either side--no giant elementals or robo-spiders for me. Instead, I focused on the combat skills, particularly the dexterity related ones. Being able to attack 8 times a round compared to my enemy's three is a good thing. What I'll remember most about the game, I'm surprised to say, isn't the story, or the level system, or the exploit I found where you can sell items to merchants, sneak into their houses at night, steal them back, and sell them again (although I did find it funny that I could do that and not have it even slightly affect my "good" standing). No, what I remember most is my first golem.

Ugh, golems. Baldur's Gate 2 had impossibly hard golems too, so maybe it's a D&D thing. But in this game, somewhere in the first third or so, you're sent into an abandoned dwarf mine, and meet your first golem. If your character was anything like mine, it's a moment of extreme punishment. It brutally decimated my character in three turns flat. To add insult to injury, my own blows were not only extremely ineffectual, but because of the golem's hard exterior, I was damaging my own weapon in hitting it. And with a typical dungeon comportment of at least six or so, after a few, you're fighting them barefisted. And you don't want to do that: If I unequip the weapon and hit it barefist, then I take damage, hasting my own demise. I went online, and looked for others' strategies. Use magic. Nope, didn't invest any points in attack magic. Shoot it with a firearm. Again, no firearm points had I. Shoot it with arrows. Same problem. This was the point I mentioned earlier. Would I have to start over? Would I need to replay hours of the game, just to get back to this point with a few more levels of magick to my name? Finally, I hit upon a running strategy--I noticed that if I kept just the right distance between me and the golem, it would target me exclusively and by running back and forth, I could keep it distracted while my teammates battered their weapons into nothingness inflicting small amounts of damage on its damnably impenetrable hide.
Damn your impenetrable hide!

So yes: even though it's the sort of thing that leads players in great droves to exclaim that a game is "unbalanced" or even "broken," I'll remember that golem. Not fondly, but I'll certainly remember it.

In the end, the whole thing wore a little thin for me. Once I reached the level cap, there wasn't a lot of inertia left to make me want to finish the game. Once they're on your team, most of your characters show remarkably little personality, rarely making any comment or contribution beyond the odd battle compliment. (With the exception of Virgil, who has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the blandest characters in games that I can think of. Affectionately bland, but bland. Though trivia fans should take note that he's voiced by Rino Romano, the man who voiced both Batman from "The Batman" and Spider-Man from that ill-fated series where he goes the animal-man planet.) And the plot itself isn't really interactive enough to keep me fully engaged--the sidequests become somewhat dull when you take out the experience incentive, and the main story is rather linear. Granted, it has a nice twist at the end, one which is even slightly choreographed, but the themes it pursues in said twist is rather contrary to the thematic thrust of the game up to that point.

So: It's no Fallout, it's no Planescape, it's no Baldur's Gate. But its storyworld and character design make it worth remembering. And its golems make it worth cursing. Seriously.

Later Days.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Friday Quotations: Yellow Wallpaper

Moira: Madam, are you all right?
Vivien: It's my own fault. I... I read labels on everything. And then I didn't, when it really counted, I just followed directions blindly. My doctor gave me a prescription last week for a drug for nausea, and I just checked it on the internet, and it says that it can cause fevers, and seizures, and, um, vision changes. It's the only explanation.
Moira: For what, madam?
Vivien: For all the crazy stuff that's been happening. My doctor never even told me about the side effects.
Moira: Doctors are charlatans.
Vivian: My mind is playing tricks on me, Moira. I'm seeing things.
Moira: There, there, madam. You just need a good cry. Sometimes it's the best possible thing.
Vivien: And everybody thinks I'm crazy. I know Ben does, I know it. And I've been too embarrassed to call Luke.
Moira: That's what men do. They make you think you're crazy, so they can have their fun. Haven't you read "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman?
Vivien: No.
Moira: Her husband, a doctor, locks her away in the upstairs bedroom to recuperate from a slight hysterical tendency. Staring at the yellow wallpaper day after day, she begins to hallucinate that there are women trapped in the pattern. Half-mad, she scrapes off the wallpaper to set the women free. When her husband finally unlocks the door, he find her circling the room, touching the wallpaper, whispering, "I've finally got out of here. (Pause) Since the beginning of time, men find excuses to lock women away. They make up diseases, like hysteria. (picks bowls out of the sink) Do you know where that word comes from?
Vivien: (whispers) No.
Moira: The Greek word for uterus. In the second century, they thought it was caused by sexual deprivation. (puts bowls on counter) And the only possible cure was hysterical paroxysm; orgasms. Doctors would masturbate them in their office, and call it medicine.
Vivien: I had no idea.
Moira: It was a hundred years ago, but we're no better off today. Men are still inventing ways to drive women over the edge. Look at you and Mr. Harmon. Cheating on you, leaving you here, pregnant with twins, alone to care for your truant teenage daughter. Any woman would lose her mind. May I speak freely, Mrs. Harmon?
Viven: Yes.
Moira: You are not crazy. And the strange things you are experiencing, I am afraid it's not the drugs. I've never said this to any of my employers, for fear of losing their trust or my job, but this house is possessed. Things break, disappear. Doors open for no reason. There are spirits here. Malevolent spirits. Mrs. Harmon, please hear me. You need to get out while you still can. I fear for you, if you don't.

--From American Horror Story, episode 1-8, "Rubber Man."

Later Days.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Super Orphans

Why is it that both comic book superheroes and Disney characters are marked by a distinct lack of parental figures and marriages?

Later Days.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Bibliophile: Don't Want No 18th century Short People

Books. Books, Books, Books.

Food : from farm to fork statistics. Luxemburg : Office for Official Publications of the European Communities
Did you know 41% of the family labor force for European farming is provided by women? It's true.

Book forged in hell : Spinoza's scandalous treatise and the birth of the secular age / Steven Nadler.
Good title, though I was expecting the Necronomicon.

Canada's 10 least wanted foodborne pathogens. [Ottawa] : Canadian Food Inspection Agency, c2011.
Sadly, the sequel, Canada's 10 most wanted foodborne pathogens, sold very poorly.

Walt Disney on the front lines [videorecording] : animation from 1941-1945 / produced by Buena Vista Home Entertainment in association with David A. Bossert and Kurtti Pellerin ; producer and writer, Leonard Maltin.
This could be very interesting. I remember being fascinated as a kid by a video we got somehow of a 1940s cartoon where Scrooge convinces Donald to invest in war bonds.

Blood, sweat and cheers : sport and the making of modern Canada / Colin D. Howell. Toronto ; Buffalo : University of Toronto Press, c2001.
I imagine there's a lot of hockey in here. Like, a lot a lot. Hopefully the fierce, gripping sport of curling gets its fair shake as well.

Crass struggle : glitz, greed, and gluttony in a wanna-have world. Montréal : McGill-Queen's University Press, c2011. Naylor, R. T.
It's been a while since I finished "Evil Paradises," and I could go for something that will fuel my inner Marxist rage.

Onward : how Starbucks fought for its life without losing its soul. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K. : Wiley & Sons, 2011. Schultz, Howard
...Starbucks has a soul? So yeah, here's a book on the history and goals of Starbucks written by its CEO. Now my inner Marxist is scared.

Your call is (not that) important to us : customer service and what it reveals about our world and our lives / Emily Yellin. 1st Free Press hardcover ed. New York : Free Press, c2009.
As someone who now has a rhetorical stake in instruction manuals, I find this line of thought fascinating.

First 60 seconds : win the job interview before it begins / Dan Burns. Naperville, Ill. : Sourcebooks, c2009.
Now that's crafty marketing. I bet he got a five-book deal to cover the next four minutes.

Greenback planet : how the dollar conquered the world and threatened civilization as we know it / H.W. Brands. 1st ed. Austin : University of Texas Press, 2011.
So can you tell yet that the local business college just made some big purchases?

Connected : the surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives : how your friends' friends' friends affect everything you feel, think, and do. 1st Back Bay pbk. ed. New York : Back Bay Books, 2011.
Okay, two subtitles is cheating.

Making is connecting : the social meaning of creativity from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0 / David Gaunlett. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA : Polity Press, 2011.
Reading YouTube : the critical viewers guide / Anandam Kavoori. New York : Peter Lang, c2011.
No jokes here; these two would probably be useful to read for my pop culture class next semester, and I want to make a mental note to come back to them.

Host in the machine : examining the digital in the social. Witney, Oxford, UK : Chandos Pub., 2010. Thomas-Jones, Angela.
This, on the other hand, gets points for the pun. I can't believe that's the first time I've seen that variation.

Designing culture : the technological imagination at work / Anne Balsamo. Durham [N.C.] : Duke University Press, 2011.
And I know enough about Balsamo to know that when a new book of hers comes out, it's worth paying attention to. Consider the mental note extended. (Sidenote: looking for her wikipedia page, I was informed that it didn't exist, and that I might be really looking for "anna balls." Which also doesn't have a page that exists. Stop helping, Wikipedia.)

Digital fandom : new media studies / Paul Booth. New York : Peter Lang, c2010.
Okay, university library system, if you're just going to present me with book after book of material that's incredibly relevant to my area of research, then this is going to take all day.

Not quite adults : why 20-somethings are choosing a slower path to adulthood, and why it's good for everyone / Rick Settersten and Barbara E. Ray.
This doesn't apply to ME, clearly, but... it might help shed some life on... a friend... of a friend... yeah...

How to build your own country / written by Valerie Wyatt ; illustrated by Fred Rix. Toronto, ON : Kids Can Press, c2009.
Mostly, I mention because a 40 page educational book clearly written for children has been filed between "Morality, leadership and public policy : on experimentalism in ethics" and "Globalization and human rights in the developing world." Sometimes, the Library of Congress gets whimsical.

Free for all : fixing school food in America / Janet Poppendieck. Berkeley : University of California Press, c2010.
Seems somewhat topical, what with the "pizza is a vegetable" ruling and all.

Intern nation : how to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy. London ; New York : Verso, 2011.
Skills for the modern worker! Also, I appear to be back in the business section.

Prairie fabric : architectural intensification in Saskatoon / by Logan Kari Hepworth. Waterloo, Ont. : University of Waterloo, 2011.
As a Saskatchewanier, this one had to get a mention. And congratulations to Logan Hepworth for completing his thesis. If I could only read one book on Saskatoon housing, this'd be it.

Media, masculinities, and the machine : F1, transformers, and fantasizing technology at its limits / Dan Fleming and Damion Sturm.
I don't even *like* Transformers (not part of my childhood culture), but yes, I would still like to read a book analyzing its masculinity.

Encyclopedia of the vampire : the living dead in myth, legend, and popular culture
Joshi, S. T., 1958.
Someone I know, but can't remember, is giving a paper on vampires in the near future. Maybe if they're reading this, (or more likely, someone who reads this knows who I'm talking about, and can tell me who the person is) they'll find this useful.

Kiss my relics : hermaphroditic fictions of the middle ages / David Rollo.
No interest in the topic, but good title.

Looney tunes golden collection.
Rabbit of Seville, Duck Amuck (which was actually adapted into a videogame), and Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century? Yes, please.

Secret identity reader : essays on sex, death and the superhero / Lee Easton, Richard Harrison.
The super hero stuff will pretty much always get a nod with me.

Straight from the heart : gender, intimacy, and the cultural production of shōjo manga / Jennifer S. Prough.
I've watched every episode of Gossip Girl and My Little Pony. Is it any surprise I'd be a fan of manga designed for teenage girls?

Little everyman : stature and masculinity in eighteenth-century English literature / Deborah Needleman Armintor.
As an amateur 18th centurist, I'm intrigued. As a vertically challenged individual, I'm offended.

Dinosaur vs. bedtime / Bob Shea.
The epic battle.

Chinnovation: how Chinese innovators are changing the world / Yinglan Tan.
That title sounds kind of racist.

Later Days.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Quotations: Juicy is the new Gross

"A juicy game element will bounce and wiggle and squirt and make a little noise when you touch it.” --Kyle Gabler, member of 2D Boy, creator of World of Goo.

Later Days.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thanks from an Asshole

God, that was a good run. Why?

Long version: I went on today's run with a chip on my shoulder. I was carrying the emotional debris of yesterday's post, to begin with. I'd thought the Juul reading would take an hour or so to finish, and it took four hours. Five, counting that blogpost. Which meant I got home at 2:30 am. Which meant I got six hours of sleep. Today was also the first day where it's clear the snow is around to stay, and that's a mood-setter, if you let it be. Then I spent a good portion of today running around trying to track down a laptop for my students (although the downtime downtown was really nice, mostly thanks to good company). Back on campus, I felt inundated with minutiae (It's my blog and I'll use fancy vocabulary if I want): I had to drop off the laptop, get the key from the mailroom, carry a package from the mail room to my office, return a recalled book to the library, go up to the 10th floor to get a book on the rhetoric of instruction manuals (gonna bet they weren't thinking of game manuals), remember that I still had the mailroom key, return the mailroom key, and run at top speed to reach a bus that was pulling away. So I finally get home at around 5, which means the sun is setting. It's at that point I realize that I've lost my debit card, so I have to go the local grocery store and wait around until the floor manager's free so I can reclaim it. I get home, get ready for the run, and it's 5:30, which means the sun has already set.

And thus, I was in a bad mood for my run.

And because of the mood I was in, I wasn't taking the precautions I should have been. I was in a "cars make way for pedestrians, dammit" sort of mood. That misguided view came to a head when I came to a certain corner. There was a main road going east-west, and a road that joined it going south; the only traffic guiding element was a stop sign on the south road. So I'm running east across this walk while a car going west is turning left. I have to jump to avoid being hit, and it honks at me. At which I, being rather annoyed already yell, "IT'S A CROSSWALK!". The rejoinder came in that special tone that only a young male can properly affect: "GET THE FUCK OFF THE ROAD ASSHOLE!".

I'm pretty sure that a pedestrian crossing at a marked pedestrian crosswalk has the right of way in this situation, but that's not the point; if I hadn't been so wrapped up in my own gloom at that point, I probably wouldn't have been in situation to begin with. My anger was endangering me, and I needed to calm down. And thus I did. I took some deep breaths, and ran on, sans iPod and music, just me and cold weather clothing, moving in the night. And once i settled into that groove, it struck me that this was all very familiar.

Those with particularly good memories may recall that I've previously said that I started running in order to impress a girl. Though that's a gross oversimplification, it still has an element of truth. I started running way back in the summer of 2004 for that reason. But what kept me running over these next seven years wasn't misplaced masculine pride. Rather, it was night jogs in the crisp, often cold night air of the late fall and early winter.

At that point in my life, most of my self-esteem was tied into my intellectual endeavors, and for some good reasons. Unfortunately, one of those reasons was that I really, really disliked my body. I was short, short-sighted, kinda chubby, and, though this was long before the asthma days, not exactly in good health. My body was just clumsy, accident-prone, and all around faulty. What was there to be proud of? But when I started running, that changed. Sure, I was still awkward and uncoordinated, but by God, at least I had endurance, and I could continue performing awkwardly long after those smooth-functioning pretty boys had to sit down for a breather.

But while I was appreciating the effects of my running, it wasn't until that fall that I started to appreciate the running itself. I was feeling a lot of pressure from school at the time--the double major was a tough mistress to please. And I was doing marking for the Math department, which meant a pretty heavy workload some nights. Running wasn't an escape, but it was a release. There's a tranquility to a good run that sets in after a kilometer or two. It's a simple satisfaction, but a true one. It's being content in the knowledge that the whole mind/body/meat/whatever assemblage is working together to forge its way through and in the environment around it. When I'm running like that, I'm at peace with myself in a way that's a little different from anything else in my life.

And I'd forgotten that, recently. Partly because I've gotten too used to jogging with the iPod, which, love it though I do, is undeniably a distraction. And partly because I've been doing nothing but day runs, where you have to be more concerned about the fellow pedestrians you're sharing elbow room with. But mostly because I've let the running slide. Once a week, twice a week, maybe skip a week, if sometimes. I've got a lot of things to do, after all, and running's not important. But what I reminded myself today is that it is important. It's important to me, both in terms of who I want to be, and what it does for me on a day-to-day basis.

Or, to put it another way, here's the short version of why that was a good run:
It reminded me who I am. I'm a mother-fucking runner, man.

(Knock on wood, but this would be a good time to start a betting pool for how long until I have my next running-related leg injury.)

Later Days.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book Review: A Casual Revolution by Jesper Juul

“It was important for me to finish the game—I believe that it is important in life, to finish things, no matter what. I like competing with myself, to see development and progress. 'No matter what,' is really the point for me. I googled for solutions and found a cheat code to make Zuma slower. It worked!!! For me, that was even more satisfying than beating the game on its own terms: to modify the game to fit my own limitations and capacities.” --50 year old woman, on discovering the casual game Zuma. Interviewed in A Casual Revolution.
“Look at chess. Why shouldn't video games aspire to [the] same kind of status? Why shouldn't the very best of them aspire to have that kind of impact on the world? A game could be something that is worth devoting your life to, for a player to grow up playing it, to spend their whole life playing it... to make it the centerpiece of their entire life.
“Is that casual? No, but that's what golf is, that's what baseball is, that's what poker is, and those are the games that appeal to a broad audience. So to me, it's foolish to not look at this larger audience. I think wwe should think about this larger audience in historical terms. It's not just about reaching a million soccer moms, it's about making a game that can stand the test of time.” --Frank Lutz, part of the development team of the Facebook game Parking Wars, and a former director at gamelab, interviewed in Casual Revolution.

Right. It's 11:30 pm, I'm still in my office, and time's a-wasting. So let's minimize the amusing anecdotal portion. I am a hardcore gamer. Here, for example, is a short list of games off the top of my head that I know I have spent over a hundred hours on: Mass Effect, Mass Effect II, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Disgaea, and Dragon Warrior VII. I am a casual gamer. I am (or was) a frequent player of casual games such as FreeCell, Minesweeper, Farmville, Mafia Wars, and online Scrabble. So what's the difference between these two identites? Or, alternatively, what's the difference between these two sets of games? Jesper Juul, veteran videogame scholar, aims to find out, in his book A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and Their Players.

The book is rather breezy, to the point of being quite short: it runs at 218 pages, but the last 73 pages are appendices detailing the resulting of Juul's interviews. The real meat is the first 152 pages, wherein he outlines his discussion of casual games. The first chapter outlines the basic theory. Videogames are becoming normalized through the proliferation of popular games, which make a point of appealing to a wider audience. In particular, the casual games function through two main means: mimetic games, that focus on approximating controls with real-life equivalents (think the Wii, the Kinect) and downloadable games that focus on flat screen interfaces over fancy 3D graphics. Juul argues that hardcore and casual don't present two choices or even a spectrum, but different stances on a variety of factors that change over time.

Chapter 2 defines what it means to be casual under five categories: type of fiction (happy or disturbing), usability (ease of learning and mastering the interface), interruptibility (how easy it is to put the game down if need be), difficulty, and juiciness (how immediately the game rewards success). Game studies, he argues, needs to pay attention to how the game addresses these elements, but also on the type of players at work (or rather, play). Chapter 3 examines the history of casual games, with a focus on the development of Solitaire, from the 19th century on. Games, Juul argues, have to be considered in terms of four time frames of experience: historic time (history of the game and genre), design time (the background of the designers), player time (the game conventions the player is familiar with) and game-playing time, the time of actually playing the game. Personally, I would have gone with something like "context" over "time," as the latter places a distracting focus on temporality, but it's still a nice consideration.

Chapter 4 looks at downloadable games, with a focus on the 3-tile swap game's evolution. Again, I would have handled this somewhat differently; in my mind, if you want to talk about the history of the downloadable game, you need to start much earlier, with not just Doom and shareware, but also with the original distribution style of the mainframe game. Yes, these games are about as far from casual as you can get, which is why I imagine Juul didn't go there, but that's the point--what changes alter the use of this medium of distribution to change it from a hardcore channel to a casual one? (Easy answer: the Internet, but I suspect there may be more to it.) Anyway, using early tile-based games Tetris and Chain Shot, he identifies four traits for the games: time (whether the game is hectically paced or turn-based strategic); manipulation (whether you manipulate pieces as they fall or after they are in place); completion criteria (matching three or filling a row), and obligatory matches, whether the game lets you make nonmatching moves or not.

The next chapter is on mimetic gaming, with an emphasis on the Wii and the Guitar Hero-type games. He focuses on the Wii, as the first console to use a simplified controller as its main peripheral, and the arcade games, which had a heavy mimetic bent (think racing games shaped like race cars). Chapter 6 is on social meanings and social goals. Essentially, Juul states that gamers in a social setting keep in mind their desire to win, their desire to create an interesting game, and their desire to keep the esteem and goodwill of the other players. (Note that in an online multiplayer game, anonymity makes the last element less of a concern.) Chapter 7 studies Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and The Sims 2, stating that the success of these games is their flexibility in offering goals, but not forcing players to meet them, enabling hardcore and casual play.

Chapter 8 concludes things, suggesting that the casual shift is occurring because of rising costs in game production, the proliferation of PCs, and the aging demographic of players. He also briefly mentions browser-based games, like the facebook apps, and concludes that games becoming normal is good for hardcore and casual folk alike. Three appendices follow: the first show number crunches for who's casual gaming (most interesting part: the people at that particular site tested 93% female, and average age of 41); interviews with players over what brought them to casual games; and interviews with casual game developers.

As you may have guessed by my dissatisfied, almost snide remarks, I wasn't too enamored of this book. A lot of that, to be fair, must be chalked up to my own personal prejudices. As a scholar, I like studying both casual and hardcore games, though the former my focus is more on player discourses than the games themselves, per se. But as a player, I far prefer the hardcore. And I think that may be because of my single player RPG background. I *do* prefer a good story with my game, even if that story presents itself mainly in terms of ambiance, as in Oblivion. As one of the casual designers, Margaret Wallace, admits, the interruptibility of the casual game means it's not really suitable for sustaining a long term narrative, and I find that inherently less interesting. So I have a vested interest in supporting the hardcore (but not the multiplayer FPSes, or the MMOs. See, even in "hardcore," there's distinctions).

And I should say that the interviews are really quite fascinating. Juul sticks to a pretty typical set of questions for the interview subjects, and those questions really illuminate his discussion points for the book proper: whether casual refers to players or games, whether all video games were originally casual games in the 70s, but drifted away from this form, whether there's a distinction between developing games for themselves and developing for a casual audience. The first question question is significant, because it asks designers to choose a side: focus on the game, or focus on the players. Most designers, like Juul himself, answer somewhere in between. The second question is significant, because if the answer is yes, then suddenly you have a different narrative happening. It's not about casual games suddenly appearing now, but a return to the originary form. My favorite answer to this one was also a yes and no; yes, some games were very simple, like Pac-Man, but others were so punishing--and designed to be punishing, to get the maximum quarter drain--that they can't be really defined as casual. And finally, the third question is significant, because it deals with the image of the designer. If the designer designs for themselves, they are still, in some way, auteurs, creating works of art they themselves appreciate. Or, alternatively, they are selfish jerks, ignoring a wide segment of the population. If they design games they wouldn't play themselves, they are more akin to business suits, catering to demographics. Or, alternatively, they are widening games to more than their immediate narrow circle.

I quite liked the interviews; I liked them more, in fact, than the conclusions Juul drew from them in the book proper. I suppose my main problem with the book is that just because its subject is casual gaming, it shouldn't feel like a casual encounter with the subject. And yet, it does. It's too short. 152 pages is almost nothing, especially when you consider the liberal use of large screenshots and diagrams. It's great to see such quality shots, but it doesn't help me shake the feeling that this book is artificially inflated at the cost of cheapening its subject. Take chapter 6, the chapter on social gaming in casual games. It's eight pages long. Eight pages (one of which is a page long cartoon strip Juul reprints) to describe the entirety of the social element of casual games. It seems like there should be more to say on the subject. (But while I remember, that cartoon strip does get points for being incredibly moving, and a great example of social aspects of gaming--see its original slideshow version here, Animal Crossing is Tragic.)

So to wrap up then: Excellent topic, excellent discussion. I'm just left with the feeling that something of greater substance is still waiting to be written on the subject.

Later Days.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

TV Talk: How I Talk About Meeting Your Mother

To say that How I Met Your Mother has been slow going this season is an understatement. It's been in a slump, and it isn't aging particularly well. A large part of the problem is the show's central concept, that the Ted character is telling a prolonged story to his kids about how he met their mother. Presumably, then, the show ends with the line "...and that's how I met your mother." The problem with approach--or at least one of the problems--is that it means that your main character's story arc is already set: he is the one who will meet his "true love" and there's only so much you can do with introducing "potential mothers" before it feels as if you're teasing the audience. So the show tries to distract with its other running plots. This season, it's the Barney/Robin love connection, the mystery of Barney's wedding (which we've seen in flashforwards, thanks for adding that phrase to the TV lexicon, Lost), and Lily and Marshall's attempt to have a baby. The immediate problem with the show is that with the exception of the wedding frame, these are all plot lines we've seen before. This season seems to be a clearing of the deck--Barney's put his womanizing ways behind him, and Ted has resolved two of his longstanding love affairs, the chef girl from Season 1 and the Season 1 Slutty Pumpkin. (On the former: the show's a lot more tolerable if you imagine it ending when he meets the chef. On the latter: don't ask. The explanation's less interesting than the phrase.) But really, it's been more about wallowing in the past than moving forward. And while moving forward is not really a traditional strength of the laugh-track sitcom, HIMYM usually does a better job of at least presenting an illusion of such progress.

Last night's episode, (he said, finally getting to the point)was a welcome departure, not so much because it depicted anything radically new, but because it played to the strengths of the show, namely, its romantic flair and its focus on the subjectivity of memory. We tend to take for granted that what we see in a sitcom is what's actually happening in the fictional world. At times, HIMYM breaks this convention, drawing on the fact that it is not just a world that we're glimpsing into, but a story told by an unreliable narrator. (Which is why, as I continually argue with a friend, you have a father you sounds like Bob Saget, but, in his own memory, looks and sounds like Josh Radnor. It's not a point requiring a suspension of disbelief, it's part of the show's basic conceit!) I've discussed this great, boring length elsewhere, so I won't rehash it all now. Last night, that element is brought to the forefront. First, there's the A plot. (Oh, spoilers abound, folks.)

Barney and Robin slept together last episode, which means they are both cheating on their respective partners. Through one of those ridiculous coincidences sitcoms are built on, they have to go to a boat party with these partners, and thus see not only the person they cheated on, but the person seeing the person they cheated with. (But the contrivance allows for a guest spot from Alexis Denisof, so I'm not going to complain too loudly.) They're both feeling guilty, and thus, through their interpretation, the live band is singing a song directly to them, telling them to confess. In the B plot, the subjectivity is even more evident. Lily, Ted, and Marshall are attending a concert, and Ted and Marshall go through a drug trip. They think they spend hours wandering the stadium, encountering bizarre figures and hearing odd nonsequitors. In reality, as we see through a security camera, they stumbled around for two minutes, and we revisit the whole scene through that perspective (there's a brilliant double use of the line "It's a sign."). The actual plot point--that Marshall is worried about becoming a dad, and Ted's insecure about losing his friends to parenthood--has already been done multiple times this season. And as my brother pointed out, that is not how people high on pot actually act (though if my parents read this, I assume he got this knowledge from friends, because OF COURSE my brother has never smoked any pot, ever). But it's still a clever use of both the show's concept and a reversal of the audience's confidence in what they're viewing.

Equal kudos has to go to the way the A plot was handled. It's very easy to set up villains and victims in a cheating partner plotline, and it's not the sort of situation that lends itself to laughs. And for the most part, it doesn't. I was impressed with how maturely the plot was handled. Barney and Robin are, obviously, conflicted--they don't want to hurt anyone, and they don't know exactly how they feel about each other. It's the sort of thing that could have been drawn out too far, but both of them have frank conversations with their partners and with each other about their futures. No one's demonized, no one's transformed into a pure victim (although Nora comes close) and the situation is resolved through rational discussion rather than explosive, cheap emotional theatrics. It's a glimpse at adult relationships that haven't been filtered through some overly romantic lenses. And with spoiling even further, one stays with their partner, and one doesn't, and the look on the face of the one who leaves their partner for their friend when they realize that they've made the jump and been left alone is just devastatingly well-acted, and definitely a caliber of performance rarely seen in this genre. Chris Harris, the writer of the episode, also deserves some major props. He's been a writer for the show a long time, and last night, he really showed he understands how to play to its strengths.

Later Days.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Bibliophile: Roommate Dynamics and Telepathic Marsupials

All right, I'll level with you--posting is work. The academic blogs, rare as they are, require a big picture view of my career. The book reviews (and indeed, the reviews in general) require some effort towards theme and reading. Even the personal posts require an amount of self-reflection that I'm not really ready for at the moment. (Who's in a rut? Not me. Where are my comic books and skittles?) And so I stick to what's easy. What's simple. And thus, we have Friday Quotations, Sims quotes, and the subject of the most depressing introduction ever,


Here's what's new and interesting at a library near me.

The Role of taste and calories in access-induced excessive sweets consumption by the rat. By Adam Celejewski.
First: Congratulations to Adam for completing a thesis. It's not easy, which means it amply prepares you for the rest of your life from this point on. Second: there are now some rats in Waterloo that require a good rat dentist.

Manure pathogens : manure management, regulations, and water quality protection / [Dwight D. Bowman, editor].
Mentioned only because I read it as Manure Pantheons, and the six year old in me would have been really fascinated by a book dedicated to the gods of poopy.

Lip service : smiles in life, death, trust, lies, work, memory, sex, and politics / Marianne LaFrance.
Credit where credit's due--that's a clever title.

Astonishing general : the life and legacy of Sir Isaac Brock / by Wesley B. Turner. Toronto : Dundurn Press, 2011.
I don't really know anything about Sir Isaac Brock, but a book called "Astonishingly General" would be great. "Be amazed by our lack of description!" "Marvel at our vague accounts!" "No specifics, no details, just the broad scope you've all been waiting!" And so forth.

Beauty pays : why attractive people are more successful / Daniel S. Hamermesh.
I suspect the answer has to be a little more complicated than "because they're attractive," else it will be a rather short book.

Erotic capital : the power of attraction in the boardroom and the bedroom / Catherine Hakim. New York : Basic Books, c2011.
One assumes that attractive people pay in erotic capital, then.

American idyll : academic antielitism as cultural critique / Catherine Liu. Iowa City : University of Iowa Press, c2011.
The pun's a little subtler than most, which is nice. More to the point, the subject is interesting, if not really my bag; a brief search on the book reveals that its focus is the recent swathe of anti-intellectual, anti-elitist protests in the States, and the failure of both it and the forces it's rebelling against to address the issues that lead to its creation.

Making chastity sexy : the rhetoric of evangelical abstinence campaigns / Christine J. Gardner.
I just saw a Louis C. K. episode on this, and I think it could be a really interesting subject. All right, I saw half an episode. Roommate show-watching is a tricky beast to negotiate. On the one hand, you don't want to commit to asking them to make sure you're informed when they're watching a new episode, as that places demands on both you and them. If you're on the fence for the show, it's a level of devotion that you don't want to meet. And you can't watch the ones you miss by yourself either, because that suggests that you were actually interested in the show all along, but didn't voice any opinion, which raises the question of whether you acted in that manner just to avoid watching them with the roommate. Which means that the only option you're left with if you do like the show is to drift in occasionally and catch what you can. Hence, I saw half of this episode.
...I feel like we've moved off topic somewhat.

John Byrne : art and life.
For a moment, I thought this was John Byrne the comic book writer/artist, but no, it's John Byrne the British artist and playwright.

Ai Weiwei's blog : writings, interviews, and digital rants, 2006-2009 / Ai Weiwei ; edited and translated by Lee Ambrozy.
I like the idea of a book that's just a transcript of an online blog. It's sort of digital archive in reverse. And some Google research reveals that there's a heavy political side as well, as Weiwei was a Chinese artist who blogged until the Chinese government shut the site down and deleted it. (Also, publishers take note: There is precedence, and I am open for negotiating a deal. Experimental Progress goes print!)

Kiss my relics : hermaphroditic fictions of the middle ages / David Rollo.
Heh. Good title.

Politics of insects : David Cronenberg's cinema of confrontation / Scott Wilson
After seeing just a handful of Cronenberg films, I think an in-depth study is very warranted.

Super black : American pop culture and black superheroes. Adilifu Nama.
Another example of a book I think is a great idea, though I doubt I'll ever get a chance to read it. It includes Black Panther, Blade, and Luke Cage, for those curious.

Italo Calvino's architecture of lightness : the utopian imagination in an age of urban crisis / Letizia Modena.
I love the idea of a really thorough analysis of Imaginary Cities, though I understand this is more of a postmodern, urban renewal sort of emphasis.

Hog butchers, beggars, and busboys : poverty, labor, and the making of modern American poetry / John Marsh.
All of the sexiest professions.

Farmer Buckley's exploding trousers : and other odd events on the way to scientific discovery / edited by Stephanie Pain.
Do I really need to explain why "Farmer Buckley's Exploding Trousers" is an attention-grabbing title?

I usually skim over a large chunk of the Q area of the Library of Congress listings, which is the math and computer science section. Honestly, they're incredibly interesting topics, but the titles seem to be in a competition to see who can come up with the driest approach to a subject. And they all make the Sahara look like a sandtrap. ...Okay, that wasn't my a material. Moving on...

Ah, biology. Now there's a group that knows how to lay a title.
Mindreading animals : the debate over what animals know about other minds / Robert W. Lurz.
I assume this book is on the growing danger of the telepathic wombat.

Twitter power 2.0 : how to dominate your market one tweet at a time / Joel Comm.
Considering it's still with only very, very reluctant distaste that I even have a Twitter account, this book would be a novel way to angry up my blood. Twitter. Ugh. (Follow me at PersonofCon! (No exclamation point))

...Okay, that takes at least as long as the regular subjects. I don't know what I was talking about earlier. I suppose it's mildly less intellectual effort, as a bon mot is easier, in many ways, than the careful development of a sustained argument. (Take that, Twitter.)

Later Days.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday Quotations: Future Civilizations will marvel over our devotion to LOLcat.

"Images are not just a particular kind oif sign, but something like an actor on the historical stage, a presence or character endowed with legendary status, a history that parallels and participates in the stories we tell ourselves about our own evolution from creatures 'made in the image' of a creator, to creatures who make themselves and their world in their own images."-- W. J. T. Mitchell

Who has two thumbs, a blog, and just got his Amazon-ordered copies of W. J. T. Mitchell's Picture Theory and Iconology?

This guy.

Later Days.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Creating Electronic Marrow

Research-wise, my focus of late is still on videogame instruction manuals. And the most recent one has been the manual for the 2000 videogame classic, The Sims. Certain traits become apparent after you've examined a dozen or so of these manuals. For example, the longer than manual, the fewer images it uses, especially for PC games. And despite having the budget of the mighty EA behind them, The Sims is less an exception to this rule than its exemplar--aside from the cover image, the only images you get are cropped shots illustrating some piece of text. And there is a lot of text: the manual is over 90 pages long (90 very detailed pages, which in itself says something about the real nature of casual gaming--this "casual game" is really, really complicated.) But it does its best to keep the reader's interest, mainly through a constant stream of reasonably well-written, often eye-rolling, and sometimes head-scratching jokes. So, without further ado, here are the top ten quotations from the Sims Instruction Manual.

1. “The tutorial is just an appetiser: To get to the real meat (or cheese sandwich, for you vegetarians) of the game, you have to investigate the Soul of a Sim/Daily Life section of this manual. Hey, you don't think we wrote them just because we love the alphabet, do you? Check out that information and make some Sims your parents would be proud of. And if you make some that they'd be horrified by, tell 'em your sister did it.” I thought I'd start off with a baffling one. What does that alphabet thing even mean?

2. “Remember, if you choose to quit, you have to return to your regular life, where your family members won't do your bidding like Sims do. Are you sure?”
That is the chief difference between my Sims life and my real Life. That, and my real life career as an international jewel thief hasn't taken off. Yet.

3.“However, just as in human life, these are the kinds of challenges that make life interesting. And miserable as well. Here's to interesting misery!”
Interesting misery would make a good band name. For a gothy/hispterish sort of band.

4. “if you attempt the really high household counts (between six and eight), you're probably no longer eating right or bathing in your real home. (You can still tell the difference between your real home and your Sims' home, right?)”
They're very worried about distinguishing the real world from the game world. It's a real problem these days, what with all the plumber on turtle assaults you read about in the paper.

5. "This section... attempts to answer the question Freud would have posed if he were alive today: 'What do Sims really want?'"
Well, someone on the writing staff knows his stuff. Feel free to draw the conclusions you'd like in comparing women to Sims--especially considering that Sims are portrayed as less-than-human, easily controllable versions of the real thing. Yikes.

6. “Click on the High or Ultra speed settings if you want to accelerate game actions to achieve a certain goal, like getting the gal off to work so the guy can play video games in peace.”
And while we're on the subject of gender, here's another crowd-pleaser.

7. “If you want to place a few of the same items without having to return to the panel, just hold down the Shift key after you select your trinket—you can put 20 grandpa clocks in a row, if you've got time on your hands.”
That is an amazing pun, in both its groan-inducing awfulness, and the effort the writer had to go to in order to make it fit.

8. “If you're just beginning a game in an unfurnished home, you need to cover the basics first. Think eat, sleep, poop, and polish.”
This one works in real life, too.

9. “WINNING THE GAME. Don't be absurd. This is a Maxis game! What's to win? You and your Sims can play unto perpetuity, getting them into all kinds of entanglements and trying to get them out. Before you know it, it'll be 3A.M. your time, and you don't even have your teeth brushed...”
You heard them. This game is an insidious plot to turn us all into Sims.

10. “A balustrade always offers a refined touch on a staircase or balcony, and if you use 'balustrade' in conversation, all your friends will think you're ever, so, so---so pretentious, so don't even try it.”
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

What was your favorite Simism? Do you have fond memories of guiding whole families to their doom? Do let us know in the comments.

Later Days.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Bibliophile: Clockwork Pirhannas

It's time, once again, for another round of judging books by their covers. Or rather, titles.

Iron Jaws: The Killing Power of Civil War Artillery.
I like that title-- "Iron Jaws." The Civil War stuff I could take or leave, but the idea of a giant shark made out of metal appeals to me. Steam-punk fish FTW.

One Breath: A Personal Journey with Asthma.
As someone who can barely breathe in the morning until he has his daily puff (If you haven't experienced this, it's essentially the same feeling that motivates "I NEED Coffee," with a slight but persistent fear that you might accidentally die before you get it.

Truth in numbers?: everything, according to Wikipedia.
A documentary on all things Wikipedian. Apparently, it delves into the ethics of the wiki-founder, Jimmy Wales--though it was facing accusations of being out of date almost since its inception.

Do the gods wear capes? : spirituality, fantasy, and superheroes. by Ben Saunders.
A philosophy book on super heroes? Sign me up.

Surfing life: surface, substructure and the commodification of the sublime. By Mark Stranger.
A consumer-based study of surfing? Finally, something that can shed new light on Point Break.

Selling sex short : the pornographic and sexological construction of women’s sexuality in the West. by Meagan Tyler.
I like books that look into how we make these categories for sex. That, or I'm a dirty old grad student. Take your pick.

Joss Whedon : conversations. A compilation of interviews from Joss Whedon. The perfect gift for someone who really, really liked Firefly.

Approximate Continuum Comics. By Lewis Trondheim.
I've been following Trondheim ever since I came across the Dungeon comics. He's a French comic book writer who combines cartoonish creatures (usually anthropomorphized ducks) with slice-of-life reflections. I think this book is an autobiography.

Beard fetish in early modern England : sex, gender, and registers of value. by Mark Albert Johnston.
There should be more books on beards.

The Clean Coder: A Code of Conduct for Professional Programmers. by Robert C. Martin.
It might be interesting, in terms of what it will say on the social side of a rather tech-based profession.

Epigenetics : a reference manual. by Jeffrey Craig.
I originally read this title as "Eugenics," and was momentarily startled. But no; it appears that "Epigenetics" refers to the study of changes to genes that can be passed on, but don't alter the actual composition of DNA.

Winged obsession : the pursuit of the world’s most notorious butterfly smuggler.
By Jessica Speart.
How often do you see "notorious" and "butterfly smuggler" in the same sentence?

Okay, this turned out to be a much longer exercise than I thought. A lot of good books this time around--and a lot of holds on good books. I think all the librarians may know me by sight at this point.

Later Days.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

"Most online games of the day generated revenue by charging users a monthly subscription fee for access. GSS only charged a onetime sign-up fee of twenty-five cents, for which you received a lifetime OASIS account. The ads all used the same tagline: The OASIS--it's the greatest videogame ever created, and it only costs a quarter.
"At a time of drastic social and cultural upheaval, when most of the world's population longed for an escape from reality, the OASIS provided it, in a form that was cheap, legal, safe, and not (medically proven to be) addictive. The ongoing energy crisis contributed greatly to the OASIS's runaway popularity. The skyrocketing cost of oil made airline and automobile travel too expensive for the average citizen, and the OASIS became the only getaway most people could afford. As the era of cheap, abundant energy drew to a close, poverty and unrest began to spread like a virus. Every day, more and more people had reason to seek solace inside Halliday and Morrow's virtual utopia." -- Ready Player One.

Join me, if you will, as I try to pursue that most elusive of blog posts, the short book review. I think this quotation demonstrates the basic plot: as global conditions worsen in the near future, we'll all retreat to virtual worlds. It's Second Life gone global, with a dose of Matrix-level VR. The catch is that OASIS' founder James Halliday was obsessed with 80s pop culture--Dungeons & Dragons, heavy metal, video games. And when he passed, he left behind a challenge--anyone who could solve his 80s-themed riddles and puzzles would get his controlling share in OASIS. Thus, we have the plot: teenaged geek boy Wade Watt sets out (with some help from his friends/rivals) to unravel the mystery. And against him are the employees of Innovative Online Industries, the heartless conglomerate that will throw any amount of money or kill anyone necessary to get control themselves. (Note to any benevolent billionaires who wish to put odd inheritance clauses in their wills--in general, you should probably add provisions to keep people whose business practices are your exact moral opposite out of the competition.)

Thus, the book is an unusual combination of future thinking scifi and nostalgia-based 80s pop culture. And there is a LOT of stuff on videogames--the opening chapter has one of the most in-depth explanations of Robinett's easter egg in the Atari 2600 Adventure that I've ever read. So this should be right up my alley, right? Eh.... not so much, actually. As someone who was 7 when the 80s ended, most of my pop culture nostalgia is for the 90s--X-Men cartoons and Reboot and Sega Genesis, and so forth. Thanks to various research, I'm familiar with most of the stuff Kline's talking about. I know Joust, and the D&D Tomb of Horrors module, and the phone phreaks. But it's all academic knowledge for me; there's no personal attachment. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

What's more interesting to me is how the book is being marketed. The list of author recommendations on the back include Charlaine Harris, Terry Brooks, John Scalzi, and Patrick Rothfuss. So we're talking about a pretty hard push to get it to the audience that's reading the adult fantasy/sci-fi genre. Ready Player One is not really in that genre at all. I understand why it's promoting itself as that, given adult fans are the ones likely to favor the nostalgia factor. But it is, very much, a book from the\young adult fantasy/sci-fi genre. And despite the uniqueness of the trappings, it's a very typical YA format: teenager gathers friends, fights evil, grows up. It's Harry Potter, if Harry was into obscure 80s geek stuff rather than magic battles against the forces of evil.

Actually, that's not quite right; it doesn't remind me of Harry Potter so much as a YA Heinlein-penned book, such as the previously reviewed . They're both tales about a young male figures overcoming adversity (in fairly black and white conditions) and growing into independent adulthood. It's the difference that's interesting, because the difference between the two is the difference between Heinlein's 1950s, 60s version of what makes a boy into a man, and the modern equivalent today. Heinlein's figures need to become functionally independent, for example, and Wade's problem is largely the opposite. Starting off as a rather stereotypical shut-in, he slowly becomes more used to having friends in his life--he doesn't have to worry about setting himself apart from his parents, because they never had much impact on him to begin with. Similarly, Heinlein's boys to men come to occupy very traditional gender roles, with a slowly blossoming, era-appropriate relationship with a young woman, in a manner that solidifies the proper behavior for both. (This makes a sharp contrast with his adult material, such as Job: A Divine Comedy, which features the Church of the Divine Orgasm.) Wade is a boy interested in girls, but gender roles don't really concern him; he accepts homosexual relationships as readily as any other sorts, and falls quite thoroughly for a girl gamer who's largely his gaming equal--no shrinking violets here. The society of the future may be economically starved and generally impoverished, but at least we're not intolerant jerks. (The best example of the difference between now and then, though, is that there's a passage in Ready Player One where Halliday extols the virtues of masturbation. Not finding that in a 50s YA novel.)

Thematically, the book is about escapism, and doubly so. By centering on a sci-fi based creator that's obsessed with the 80s, the book has simultaneously a retreat to the past and future--anything to escape the now. Cline set himself a difficult task. How do you sell a YA story about moving into adulthood when so much of the plot is about glorifying the past? There are two choices--you either promote the past as better, which is rather defeatist, or you try to forge ahead, in which case you risk disrupting exactly what attracted readers in the first place. I think he strikes a nice balance between nostalgia and bildungromans, all in all. And Cline's pulled off a double audience: I'd recommend the book for both the Harry Potter adventure crowd, and those looking for an 80s nostalgia kick. It's a light, fast-moving story, and if that's what you're in the market for, it'll do fine.

Later Days.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Quotations: Bigger than Orc Jesus?

"Only a handful of religious denominations have more members than World of Warcraft does. Given its supernatural symbolism, its engagement of the user's emotions, and the many hours each week members may participate, one could argue it has greater significance than all but a half dozen mainstream American denominations." (46)
William Sims Bainbridge and Wilma Alice Bainbridge, "Electronic Game Research Methodologies: Studying Religious Implications."

Later Days.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

First you get the laptop, then you get the power, then you get the women

I've had a lot of trouble with technology over the years. I came across a prime example of this misfortune when I was dredging up posts for the 500th compilation--there was a period of about three weeks when the keyboard on my computer was so broken that I couldn't use the spacebar button. I'd copy a space from regular texts, then insert it in by first typing "*" and using a find and replace function to change them all. How well did that work? It*didn't*work*well.

And my dear computer, beloved as it was, really wasn't any better. Just prior to moving down here, the graphics card burnt out. With a bit of jury-rigging, I got the computer working again, but it wasn't the same. Without a graphic card, even the scrolling changes, as the screen can't process as fast as you're moving. And when you're focused on game studies, not being able to use a reasonable graphics card means that you can't play anything beyond 1997 or so.

Thus, I bit the bullet, and bought a laptop. The very same laptop I'm using now! Since I needed something capable of a bit of gaming, it's an overpowered behemoth Alienware thing that cost more money than I've ever paid for anything except tuition. And I have to say, despite my miserly, luddite streak, I love it. It's transformed where and when I can work. (and play for that matter, but it hasn't, in the two days I had it anyway, cut into work time) And thus, I go one step further into technological sophistication.

So it begins.
Later Days.

Does Not Compute

I rode home on the bus today. The bastion of public transport, the chariot of the people, the service for the masses. And so forth. And while traveling on the bus, juggling my reading with my new laptop (more on that later), I overhead a conversation between two undergraduates. One was adamant, even proud, that he had never, ever picked up a math midterm after it was marked. Why bother, he asked? His mark is posted online. The answers are posted online. The actual effort to go down to someone's office and pick it up was superfluous. (I'm paraphrasing. This particular undergraduate's vocabulary did not, I'm betting, contain "superfluous" in its regular listings.) The friend offered several counter-arguments:
-don't you want to know what you did wrong? Not really.
-But what about finding your mistakes, so you don't do them again? Fixing them at that point servers no purpose; he'd forget what he learned, since the class was moving on to something else. Made more sense to learn with the answer key when studying for the final.
-What if the mark was wrong? Well, arguing with the TAs never does any good.
-But what if they actually added it wrong? You could prove that much. Sure, but what are the odds of that happening? Why waste the effort?

It was at this point the bus reached my stop. And I'm glad it did, because I really, really didn't want to hear any more. You see, in my life before being an English grad student, I was a Math marker. And, not to put too fine a point on it, I was the best. Or one of the best. In my department. At that university. That I knew of. Marking math isn't like marking English, but the difference is really one of degree rather than kind. I imagine the popular conception is that English is subjective marking, and math isn't--there's one right answer. That can be the case. But just as often, your math marker is looking for either a written proof or shown work, and in either case, it becomes somewhat subjective. Is skipping the expansion a half-mark penalty? If the student just made one error in adding, and got the wrong answer, is that worth less than the student who showed no work but came to the right one? Did they skip a step in their logic argument? How does skipping that step translate to a deduction for a problem with 3 marks allocated to it? Can you really deduct 1/4 of a mark?

Yes, it's often one check mark after the other, but there can be a lot of work involved. I usually had a large number of students, much larger than any English class section--in some first year courses, I was marking around 100 papers a quiz. But I had a fast turnover, I wrote analyses to the profs explaining which problems most students got wrong and how (I bet they loved that), and I always, always made a point of finding out where the student had gone wrong, and at least hinted at how to go about getting the final solution. Yes, it was more work than my pay or instructions merited. But I thought that if I was in their shoes, I'd like to know.

And then to hear, even years later, in a university I'd never even marked a math paper for, that some undergrad couldn't be bothered to walk down to an office to pick up his own paper--that bugged me. In some small way, it felt like it dimished all those hundreds of papers I worked hard to mark. Yes, he's paying the same amount of tuition as a student who did pick up their paper (or so we'll assume for the sake of argument), and he is entitled to not pick it up if he chooses, but... well, there seems to be a basic respect for the process and the actual people involved to shrug it all off with such a cavalier, self-indulgent attitude.

Or to put it another way, sometimes I wish "Rate Your Professor" had an equivalent "Rate Your Student."

Later Days.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I've become a very small portion of the things I hate

One of the truisms of being a prolonged student is that you extend certain "student-esque" traits beyond their commonly accepted lifespan. That is, many grad students are poor, keep poor hours, eat poorly, and live in poorly cleaned areas, often with similarly minded roommates. Generally speaking, the traits tend to fade somewhat when cohabitation with significant others and children enter the list. But frankly, most of that fits me like a glove. Poor cleaning and poor eating habits segue nicely into the life of the eccentric professor, a position I have been training for quite extensively. And the prospect of some day giving up being poor in a monetary sense is a pleasing, if entirely abstract and distant, possibility. But of all the poorness listed above, I never thought that my first to go would be "keeping poor hours."

That's right. I've been sleeping regular hours for the first time since... high school, probably. I go to bed around 10:30 or so, I'm asleep by 11:30, and I'm up at 7. Let me repeat that, as those who know my sleeping habits may have assumed they misheard: "I'm asleep by 11:30." That's right, the man who once prided himself on never closing an eyelid before the witching hour now rarely sees it at all. How did I get to such a state? It started, as most addictive behavior does, in small increments. Since I'm teaching a morning class this term, I figured it behooved me wake up early on class days. And that was fine. A bit of a pain to remember the night before, but fine. But then I started waking up earlier on my Tuesday/Thursdays. And then I did the same on weekends. WEEKENDS. Oh, I've held the line at the 10 am slumber sessions on my weekend days, but it seems that for Tuesday/Thursdays, 7 am is the new noon.
Now, being up at that time has its benefits. I'm getting more work done. I'm seeing more people. But at what cost? Is it worth giving up a romanticized version of my ideal slacker persona just to be more efficient at my chosen profession?

Well, yes, probably. When you put it that way.

Sigh. The real test will come next week, when my new laptop arrives. If my new schedule can survive a time sink like that, it will probably last the rest of my life. Or at least until the first newborn enters the equation.

Later Days.