Sunday, November 28, 2010

Let's play dress up

Wearin' her wig hat and shades to match/ She's got high-heel shoes and an alligator hat/ Wearin' her pearls and her diamond rings/ She's got bracelets on her fingers, now, and everything/ She's the devil with the blue dress, blue dress, blue dress,/ Devil with the blue dress on
Mitch Ryder and the Detroit

I think that playing Dragon Quest IX: Sentinels of the Starry Skies was the first time I've ever really understood why little girls like to dress up their dolls. Whenever you get a new piece of equipment, you can put it on your character, and it changes the 3D model of them on the screen. It can give them an entirely different appearance, and is one of the many charming, simple elements of the game.

Let me give you some examples. Since the DS doesn't allow you to take screen captures, these were done the old fashioned way, with a digital camera, so you can see some screen lines. But they're still good illustrations. Here's the avatar I used as the main character in the game:

When you start, you choose your basic appearance. I chose a silver mohawk and large eyes for this character. You can see he looks pretty intimidating with his sword and shield and powerful armor. But I can also dress him up in a spear with bright red clothing and give him a crown and different type of shield and gloves:

Here's another example, how another of the characters I designed looks in two different outfits. Obviously in one she's wearing a skirt and breastplate, and in the other robes. While she has the same headband and shield, notice her footwear is different.

Seriously, this dress-up thing is addictive. For some time, I left my character in a Flamenco Shirt rather than slightly better armor, because how cool is it that someone would go out fighting dragons and mummies in a shirt normally worn on a dance floor? At another point, I found out that it would be possible to outfit my characters with cat ears, if I went searching for certain hard-to-find components to build them. I spent quite some time searching. My goal had been to outfit my martial artist with cat-ears to complement the cat-tail fan she was wielding, but it turned out they were a bad fit for her powers, so I gave them to the blue-haired priest shown above. 

So, besides a fashion simulator, what is Dragon Quest IX? It's a computer roleplaying game on the DS. As the number implies, there have been eight previous ones, in Japan at least. Not all were released in North America, and this is the first one I've played. Now I'm debating whether to track others down.

DQIX, as I mentioned above, is made of a lot of simple components. If you've ever played a CRPG before, you know the formula: go on quests to help villagers, fight monsters, collect treasures, go up in levels, improve skills, and defeat the big bad monster that threatens the world.  But it wraps this basic formula in a very, very polished shell:

  • The music is simple and catchy. While there's much to be said for clever, elaborate scores in video games, I found myself humming the background tunes to DQIX several times over the last few weeks. Similarly, the graphics have a charming, cartoonish quality. Wikipedia and fan sites tell me that the same composer and animator have been in charge of the series since the beginning, and I can see there's a unity to it. The monsters are all in the same sill style.
  • Someone put a lot of work into the translation. People in different towns talk with completely different mannerisms, sounding suspiciously like Australians, Cockneys, Welsh and a bunch of other different nationalities. The monsters' names are often bad puns: you might face a Meowgician (cat-sorcerer, obviously), Scarewolf,  or Coolcumber (a vegetable with an attitude).
  • The mechanics are pretty easy to follow. With one exception, there's no need to read the manual (though it may provide some helpful tips). And that exception -- the exact effect of different attributes -- is pretty self explanatory, though I wouldn't have figured out the difference between Agility and Deftness on my own. But everything else is pretty easy to follow. When you level up, the only choice you sometimes have to make is how to assign skill points, and it's done in a really straightforward manner. If you've played games with weird webs of special skills and abilities that are never properly explained, this is a pleasant relief. Similarly, the combat options are pretty straightforward -- do you attack, defend, cast a spell or use a special ability? Who is the target of your decision?
  • The longest cut scenes last two, maybe three minutes. Many games are horrible with cut scenes. The worst example I've encountered -- and I am not making this up -- is Xenosaga. There, you'd play a level for about 15, 20 minutes, then it would ask if you wanted to save, then it would show you an hour long non-interactive cut scene. Then it would ask if you'd like to save again. Then you'd play five more minutes before getting yet another hour long cut scene. If I wanted to watch a movie, I'd get a movie.
As a combination of the last two, it's a game which is always moving. If you're in a fight that's boring, you can probably finish it in 30 seconds and get on to exploring for a hidden treasure grove or finding the iron ore you need to make a magic boomerang, because you want to see how your Sage would look if she was holding a boomerang instead of a bow.

Summary: If you're interested in an RPG for the DS, this is a good choice whether you're a hardcore fan of the genre or not (though since it's been available in the US for months, and was available as a Japanese import before then, you probably own it if you're a hardcore fan. It's also a great choice if you want a game where you get to choose your characters' outfits in detail, and don't mind killing monsters along the way.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Art Detective

Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.

The Art Detective is one of the most compelling collection of mysteries I have read in the last few years. Its tales are thrilling despite the lack of murder, violence, or even theft (with one possible, indirect, exception). And the fact that unlike most detective stories, these are non-fiction.

Philip Mould's website, if you're interested in acquiring British portraits
The Art Detective: Fakes, Frauds and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures, by Philip Mould is exactly what the name says, stories of how people in the art world examine paintings and decide whether it's a genuine article or a cheap imitation. Since these works can sell for millions of dollars, this is a serious market.

The Art Detective tells stories of how Mould and others make special finds, and demonstrate their authenticity. 

This is surprisingly gripping, and more than money might be at stake. The proper authentication can lead history books to be rewritten, literally. Historian David Starkey revealed that a painting everyone assumed had been of Lady Jane Grey (sometimes called the "Nine Day Queen," a claimant to the throne after the death of Edward VI) was actually one of Henry VIII's wives, because of the jewelry she was wearing. That picture had been a standard in English text books.

As Mould tells it, finding the authenticity of a picture is a combination of intuition and research. There's a difference between the work of a master and an imitator that anyone versed in the work can feel. In one chapter, "The Norman Rockwell Hoax," he tells of a Rockwell painting that everyone knew had to be authentic. Rockwell had sold it to a friend, whose children had given it to a museum to put on display. But many of the people who saw it were bothered for some reason. They chalked this up to the possibility the canvas had been damaged when it was shipped to an international exhibit, damaging the vibrancy of the work. As the title suggests, there was a much better reason it didn't feel like it was painted by the master of Americana. But intuition isn't enough. Modern science lets art experts determine the age of a pigment and frame, details of what had been painted over, and other things essential to proving a piece is genuine.

Once an artist is finished with a painting, that doesn't mean the picture will stay in the same condition forever. In the late 19th and early 20th century, when there was a vogue in America for classic paintings, many tried to to touch up the details that had faded due to smoke and dust accumulating on the varnish. Then, to hide their touch-ups, they had to paint over parts of the picture where something looked incongruous. The subtle details a master might place on the folds of clothing or clumps of trees became streaks of black or green. Sometimes it was even the artists themselves who "ruined" a work. Rembrandt, who made his living as an art dealer as well as a painter, often had his apprentices repaint his works that weren't selling, turning artistic self portraits into something that might move faster. (Rembrandt, by the way, painted wonderful self portraits. I remember seeing one in the Frick Gallery in New York City a few years ago. He looked both prosperous and extremely sad.)

Also, as Mould notes at some points in the book, a lot of information needed to determine a painting's history isn't available on Google. Trying to track the authenticity of different works took him from library archives where one of a few known copiers of a work existed to small towns in Vermont to Nassau in the Bahamas. Other researchers had to parse everything from bizarre 18th century banking records and speeches Queen Elizabeth I delivered to the House of Lords.

Each story is mesmerizing. Perhaps that's to be expected. In The Art Detective, you travel around the world, deal with works worth millions of dollars, and get a taste of both the big picture of history and intimate family moments.

While this book is factual, I feel like I'd be giving away too much to go into details of his finds. But here are a few teasers:

  • How the author wound up in the middle of Vermont in a snowstorm, and how he found a collection worth millions by a man who hated to spend money on anything.
  • How the author discovered a work he thought could be an early Gainsborough even though it was attributed to a different artist; and how it helped reinterpret that landscape painter's early life. Also, this story had a moment which made me feel so sorry for Mould and his hard work in making this discovery.
  • Why generations refused to believe that a picture was by Rembrandt when it turned out the be the genuine article.
  • How paintings can suggest details of the love life of royalty. 
  • A classic Antiques Roadshow story where a find made while on a fishing trip turns out to be worth a fortune.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Storyteller: thumbs up

"I knew that from then on," Wilder says, "the audience wouldn't know if I was lying or telling the truth." Or whether Wonka was good or evil, sane or crazy, a question that isn't resolved until the last few minutes of the film. 
"Gene Wilder: It Hurts To Laugh," by David Segal, The Washington Post, March 28, 2005

Did you know that in the first draft of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie Bucket was Black? Roald Dahl's inspiration for the character was drawn on a servant he had while living in Dar Es Salaam, Mdisho. (It was horribly colonial: he was employed by Shell Oil company, and they provided each of their employees at Shell House in Africa with their own personal "boy.") Though Mdisho was only 3 years younger than Dahl, the future children's author was charmed by the 19 year old. "Mdisho's lack of guile and his simple, honest view of the world resonated with Dahl," writes Donald Sturrock on Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl.

Given the first draft of Charlie, it's surprising that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory got Dahl in trouble with the NAACP, who objected to the portrayal of Oompa-Loompas as African Pygmies. If you think of the Oompa-Loompas as orange with green hair, like in the movies, you're right. Dahl changed the detail for later editions, shocked that people had seen it as offensive, but infuriated with the NAACP for what he thought was misreading his work. Interestingly, Charlie had been out several years before anyone started objecting to possible racist overtones.

Roald Dahl is, to my mind, not just one of the best children's authors of the 20th century, but one of the best authors, period. For example, I cannot think of any book nearly as disturbing as The Witches. I can still remember how the Big Friendly Giant (who wasn't so big for a giant) said "belly choppers" instead of "helicopters." When I went to see Fantastic Mr. Fox in the theaters, I remembered only one detail from the book -- about his tail -- but that vivid image stuck with me for two decades. Lemony Snicket, author of the wonderful Series Of Unfortunate Events, says that when he was first asked to write a children's book, he used Dahl as an inspiration.

But amazingly he was much more than just an author. He made two major contributions to the field of medicine, both to help ailing members of his family -- including helping his first wife, Oscar winning actress Patricia Neale, recover from a major brain injury, changing how stroke victims are given therapy. He wrote the screenplay for You Only Live Twice, which was fitting, because he'd worked with Bond creator Ian Fleming on espionage matters duirng World War II. (He actually didn't like the original novel, but neither did the director.) It would be easy to make a movie out of his life.

He was an unpredictable man, perhaps the only person in all of England to say Salman Rushdie had made a mistake by publishing the Satanic Verses when he knew it would prove so offensive. (Though he was very kind to the owner publishing house who printed the book and got in trouble.) Editors were afraid to work with him, because you never knew what he considered helpful criticism and what he considered attempts to destroy his vision. Once, when he found a woman needed to raise money to by expensive electric wheelchairs for her children, and was looking for some autographed books to auction in a fundraiser, he not only signed a complete collection of his works, but also gave her $10,000 to buy a chair. He convinced his American publishers to pay him through a dummy corporation based in Switzerland to avoid paying enormous British taxes -- then complained about the conditions of the contract.

But -- most importantly to me -- the title of the book is very appropriate. He was a storyteller. I remember reading Boy, his memoir of his youth, years ago. It was aimed at a young audience, and I assumed he had simplified some details for them. Sturrock said he did more than that: a lot of it seems to be somewhat imaginary. It's hard to tell whether he was deliberately sprucing up his life story, or genuinely misremembered.

Dahl led a fascinating life outside of his stories, so I understand why so much time is spent talking about his affairs, his relationships with his family and friends, and so many other details. But I do wish there had been more about the writing process itself. It's amazing to know details such as the fact that Charlie was supposed to have a different skin color (and Willy Wonka had a son in that draft, too), or that Mathilda was supposed to die after using her powers to win at the track. Or which incidents in Dahl's life he drew a particular scene from. I would have loved to see even more behind the scenes looks at how his characters and plots evolved.

In the prologue, Sturrock tells of a conversation he had with Dahl over dinner, where Roald complained that all biographies are garbage. As was frequently the case, it's hard to say whether he believed that, or was baiting his guest. I think Storyteller has some flaws, but I think they're flaws endemic to most biographies. In 1975, when describing what made a good children's author, Dahl wrote that children are savvy readers. "But they hate descriptive passages and flowery prose. They hate long descriptions of any sort... But above all, bear in mind that they do not possess the same powers of concentration as an adult, and they become very easily bored.or diverted. Your story must, therefore, tantalize and titillate them on every page..."

By that standard, Storyteller is not for children. It has many fascinating moments, but fails to tantalize and titillate on every page. It starts slowly, describing ancestors Dahl was not aware he had, and how Nordic society changed over the course of the 19th century.I agree the book is authoritative, but feel it would be a smoother read -- and more to Dahl's taste -- if Sturrock had taken out about 50 pages from the work.

Anyway, it's been too long since I've read any of his work, and I've never seen his adult fiction. I'll have to check it out soon. In the meantime, I've taken my copy of The Witches out for rereading.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

What's the opposite of a best seller? I have an idea for one.

Sherlock Holmes rose and lit his pipe. "No doubt you think that you are complimenting me in comparing me to Dupin," he observed. "Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends' thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour's silence is really very showy and superficial. He had some analytical genius, no doubt; but he was by no means such a phenomenon as Poe appeared to imagine." 
A Study In Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle

I'm in the middle of The Apprentice, by Tess Gerritsen. It's the second novel in the Detective Rizzoli series, which was, loosely, the inspiration for the television show Rizzoli and Isles, a police procedural which is very careful to break no new ground. Not that the show (or the book) is bad, exactly. But it's like every other procedural on television (or in the 'summer reading' aisle, in the book's case). The only suspense on the show is wondering if  Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander are going to confess their undying love for each other. I predict that happens in season 3.

Here are some excerpts from a detective novel I'd like to see. I believe it would sell exactly one copy. However, any publicist who wants to throw their money away, contact me and I'll write more.

Chapter 2
"You look glum, chief. What's up?" Detective John Smith asked.

Chief Joe Green did not reach for a cigarette. After all, he had never smoked, and smoking had been outlawed in police headquarters 15 years ago. He did, however, take a sip of coffee before answering the detective's question. It was delicious; it only took a couple of minutes to brew a fresh pot, so the staff regularly put up new batches throughout the day.

"You're not going to like this John. The FBI called. They want in on your latest case. In fact, there's an agent coming here right now. Should be here any minute. I'm sorry, but it's-- "

John was grinning as he interrupted. "What are you talking about? That's great! The FBI has hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on fancy investigative equipment. It will make our job so much easier."

At that point, a man walked in. He wasn't wearing sunglasses, because it was an overcast day. He was wearing a black suit, which looked good, but not perfectly tailored. John would have guessed it came off the rack at Macy's or somewhere similar.

"Chief Green? Detective Smith? I'm agent David Stone."

"It's a pleasure to see you," John said, shaking his hand.

"Same here," said Stone. "I love it when I get to work with local police departments. We have all this fancy equipment, but it's so useful to have someone who knows the neighborhoods and what local people might be of interest. I think that by working together we'll have a great chance to capture this criminal."

Chapter 5
The killer watched the television intently. Soon he would see what the world was thinking of him. Soon he would affirm how much fear he had struck into the hearts of Detroit.

"Good evening. Welcome to the 10 o'clock news. I'm Grace Casper, filling in for Johann Miles, who is on vacation. Our top story tonight is--"

He licked his lips. What nickname had they come up with for him. Did they base it on the fact he sliced all his victims into seven equal portions. The Unlucky Seven Slayer. That had a ring to it. Or perhaps the toys from his childhood he left at the scenes would create his moniker. The Action Figure Killer. Maybe the coroner had found the orchid stems he left lodged in each victim's trachea, in memory of the greenhouse his mother had kept. The Floral Menace?

"-- the continuing tension in the Middle East. We go now to Sarah Tellington in Washington D.C., where..."

How could this be? Weren't two deaths, both committed on Wednesdays three weeks apart, not enough to be the lead story? Of course, what was happening in Iran was pretty frightening. Maybe he would be next.

"... thank you, Sarah. We have to take a commercial break, but next we look at a story closer to home --"

Yes! This was what he had been waiting for.

"-- how one high school is helping students get ahead."

No! Perhaps he would be on later. But he had to be at work tomorrow. He pressed the 'record' button on his DVR, and went to bed. It was better that way. He hated Sam's Sports Spotlight and would be able to fast forward through it tomorrow. Sam was so insincere. Always pretending the Tigers could pull through this year.

Chapter 9
The crime lab was always brightly lit. John Smith had wondered about that, after watching CSI, but Lucy Dorchester, the chief coroner, had explained it to him one day. "If I'm looking over a body for subtle signs like a needle puncture, I want as much illumination as possible," she had told him. John had always respected Dr. Dorchester, for both her intelligence and her charming sense of humor. But that was as far as it went. They were, after all, both happily married. Besides, it would be a gross breach of departmental regulations to let the relationship go any further.  The idea that a man and woman couldn't have a relationship without it turning into a sexual one had always struck him as bizarre.

Of course, he wasn't with her anyway, because he hadn't come here for autopsy results. He was with forensic detective Anna-Lucia Proppiata, reviewing the evidence from the last crime scene.

"If there were any weird chemicals in the blood, it will be a few days before we know," she said. "To test for this you need the solution to sit for 48 hours."

"I understand," Smith said. "And I know this isn't the only thing the lab's working on. This serial killer may be my main case, but I've got several other things I'm working on myself." Anna nodded, grateful he wasn't trying to demand the impossible.

Smith continued, "How about that oil-like substance we found?"

Anna smiled. "We have identified it as motor oil."

"Great," said the Detective. "It's a sort used by only one car company, right? It will tell us that the suspect drives a custom-built 1994 Jaguar?"

She shook her head. "Sorry. It's the sort sold in every hardware store, convenience store and mega-mart around the country. He could be driving anything. Heck, he could have used it for a lawnmower or boat. It really tells us nothing. Sometimes clues are just a red herring."

Chapter 14
He got the impression the police weren't taking him seriously enough. It was time to get personal. He would stalk the detective investigating his case just like Jeffrey Dahmer had stalked... actually, he didn't know the name of the detective who had arrested him. But he would torture his pursuer's dreams the same way that Ted Bundy had tortured... how had Bundy been caught again?

Well, neither of them had the advantage of Google. Ignoring the search engine's slogan of "Don't Be Evil," he typed in "Detectives in Detroit,"  ready to locate his nemesis and slowly drive him insane.
Now showing results 1-10 of 998,000.

Well, he'd have to narrow it down. Maybe Google was giving him results for private eyes. Maybe if he tried "Detroit Police Detectives" instead... results 1-10 of 7,194,000.

Over seven million hits? How was that possible. No way he was searching for all those. Oh well, he'd just keep killing like he always did.

It was getting late and he had work tomorrow. He really should start planning his killings earlier in the evening, but who had the time? Bed soon, but first the auction sites. Maybe someone was selling a cool toy,

Chapter 28
Dr. Barcus Emptor stared out his maximum security prison cell, barely even blinking. The prisoners in the cell across the hallway avoided his gaze, scared of the cleverest serial killer Michigan had even known. He listened to the inane chatter of the security guards in the hallway.

"I'm telling you, we want to keep at least two people on patrol in this corridor at all times. We've got Doctor Emptor here! He's as bad as Hannibal Lector."


"You're kidding me. You've never heard of Hannibal Lector? From Red Dragon? Silence of the Lambs?"

"What are those? Plays? Radio dramas?"

"They're -- look. Forget it. Let me try another example. Ever see Con Air. He's like Steve Buscemi's character."

"Steve Buscemi? The guy on that Boardwalk show? He's been in other things?"

"Ugh. Okay. Ever watched CSI? Remember the Doll House killer?"

"CSI? Is that the one which shows Masterpiece Theater?"

"No! That's PBS... Gah. Look, the dude is cell 5 is an evil psychopath who's already killed 3 guards who let themselves get distracted when they were dealing with him. Don't -- I repeat, do not -- let your guard down near him."

"Oh. All right."

For the millionth time, Dr. Barcus wondered how, exactly, he had been captured.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Hunger Games Trilogy

I touch the fire and it freezes me/ I look into it and it's black/ Why can't I feel? My skin should crack and peel?/ I want my fire back.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer

I just finished the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. It's a great page turner, though not without its flaws Technically, they're young adult books, but in a world where Harry Potter and Twilight dominate the best seller lists, and the New York Times saw fit to review Mockingjay this week, so there's no shame in checking them out even if you're not a young adult.

The books are set in the future, in the dystopia of Panem, which was once North America. There, the Capital rules over 12 Districts. Technically, it still is North America, since it's not so far in the future continents have drifted. I assume Collins means it was once the U.S., and maybe parts of Canada and Mexico. It's really not too important to the plot. Other than mentioning that District 12 is somewhere in the Appalachian coal mines, the geography isn't mentioned much. I suppose if I wanted to study the books more closely, or look up a FAQ, I could find out where each was.

Anyway, the Capital controls the Districts with an iron fist, keeping them too poor to rebel. The heroine of the series, Katniss Everdeen, comes from District 12. Even though it's a coal mine, they have to buy fuel to heat their homes at exhorbitant prices. Food is scarce, and Katniss helps supplement her family's meager income by hunting -- which would be punishable by death if she got caught. To make matters worse, once a year, to punish the districts for the rebellion of the 13th, the Capital draws the name of a boy and a girl from each district to compete in the Hunger Games. The 24 competitors are put into a specialty arena, and forced to fight to the death, until only one survives.
When her little sister's name is drawn, Katniss volunteers to take her place. The boy chosen from District 12 is Peeta, who complicates things before they go into the arena by saying he's always loved Katniss.

I don't want to give away too much, though since there's three books, it's safe to say Katniss survives the Hunger Games. The later books take on a bigger scope than the first one, expanding the world beyond her attempt to survive the death match and into an attempt to survive the much bigger death match of life and politics.

If you want a good page turner, I recommend reading the series. I went through the three books in under a week. There is some intense imagery I imagine could disturb people, but I expect cruelty in my dystopias. (Then again, I read 1984 when I was 10 and was unfazed by the scenes of Winston Smith being tortured. So I may not be a good judge of something going too far.) So I'm not too upset by hideous genetically engineered monsters or people slowly dying of horrible wounds.

One complaint: you keep hearing music when you read the series. Every time I looked at the first book, this song came to mind. 

Catching Fire  suffers a bit from middle child syndrome. It's the weakest book in the trilogy, often either repeating things from the first or setting things up for the final. But it does remind me of a song too, which I put in the opening quote of this entry. Rather than post from the original episode, here's the song in a family reenactment of the musical episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, just because it's so weird.

The third book is good, with the most depth of the series. It's also musically memorable:

Also, while Katniss was charismatic and sometimes clever, she's not the sharpest tool in the box. ("Why does she act so dumb?" I asked my sister, who loaned me the books. "She's 16," she replied. That does explain a lot.) Also, as young adult novel, the series doesn't want to go over the heads of its readers. So sometimes things just go on too long. At some points I just wanted to reach into the pages and shake some sense into her.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Æternal Legends comments, part II

Julie Newmar: "I could give you more happiness than anyone in the world." 
Adam West: "How do you propose to do that?" 
Newmar: "By being your partner in life, I mean it's me and you against the world." 
West: "What about Robin?" 
Newmar: "Why I'll have him killed. Painlessly."
Batman Displays His Knowledge, 1966

The rules inÆternal Legends are normally pretty clear, but sometimes, like Catwoman in the above quote, I think it's possible to not quite get them. 

Like last time, I haven't played the game, but I've now created some characters, tried a solo round or two of combat, some skill checks, the magic system and a few other odds and ends. And, as I said in my last post, I think a few examples and designer's notes could make things a lot clearer.

The mechanics used are called the Ready 2 Run system, and they're pretty straightforward, simple, and seem solid enough, especially for a system which explicitly calls for trust among the players. So the fact that this analysis below may look like a lot of griping isn't because the system's broken, but because I think these are areas which could trip a player up, or are neat and I want to elaborate on more.

I'm going to assume you've read the rules, which means these comments will probably be of use only to a very small number of people, most of who will never read this blog. C'est la vie.

Character creation
The first character I created -- a theology major turned cop -- took 15 minutes, and would have gone faster if I hadn't needed to double check how some of the rules worked (particularly Spheres).  A second one -- a Dwarven cat burglar -- went even quicker. If you have a rough concept, creating a character can probably be done in a few minutes. For my second one, the hardest part was figuring out some appropriate Beliefs.

Some tips:
  • There's a lot of neat, non-obvious synergy possible. For example, I chose a Dwarven burglar because Dwarf Legends have an ability to sense things at a distance through the earth. I thought this would be a really neat way to case a joint before robbing it, figuring out how many guards were around and where they were stationed while 1,000 feet away and looking in a different direction. (She's also faster than you'd think, because Dwarfs get a bonus to health and running speed is based on health. I can't tell if that's a bug or a feature, but it works well for a non-combat oriented character to get away.)
  • Some concepts call for a specific Sphere. The cop, a fighter type, screamed for Strength. Others will require a bit of lateral thinking. I chose Splendour for the cat burglar, going for an Indiana Jones, seeker of knowledge and artifacts feel. It's not an obvious match (mages re the ones who truly dig Splendour) but it's at least a square peg in a rectangular hole.
  • While the rules say you start with two Aptitudes, remember that you'll be playing a Legend, so you get  a sphere Aptitude too. That gives you some extra flexibility. 
  • Like I mentioned last time, check out the sample characters from the game's website. It helped clarify a fair number of details for me.

Task resoltion
This only takes up a page or two, which is all it needs. It's pretty self explanatory, especially if you've played any game with a Stat + Skill die pool before. My only complaint is that the extended task resolution method is confusingly worded. An example could have cleared that up easily

Example: Kylie (Body 3, Aptitude Cat Burglar 3) has to scale a 30-story building in a blizzard to get to the penthouse, where an elf is keeping a rare copy of Summoning Demons For Fun and Profit.The GM rules the conditions are so bad this is an Extended Task which would take a Professional climber 30 minutes. The chart says a professional-level task has a threshold of 3, and it should be divided into three checks. Every roll Kylie makes represents 10 minutes of game time spent climbing; she'll need to accumulate 9 successes total to get to the top, and at least 3 successes each time to make progress on the icy building. 

I think that's how it works, anyway.

Some tips:
  • Unless you don't mind a big whiff factor, spend Will, and justify using your Beliefs, Sphere, and magic to help get bonuses. Every die rolled will, on average, give you half a success point. A starting character is probably going to have 4-8 dice in their basic pool, which means 2-4 points per roll. Since a Difficult task requires 5 points, these supposedly impressive Legends don't look too competent unless they're making an effort.
  • I just want to say I love the Expertise rule. You get to define a niche where your character is given primary control in a situation. Since Aptitudes are so broad, it allows a good place for overlapping character ideas to shine. The Bodyguard might specialize in hand-to-hand combat while the Soldier specializes in tactics. Also, while I don't think it's particularly relevant for this system, it helps a player who doesn't think in terms of character optimization get spotlight time to do what they want when another player would dominate them on paper.
Given how simple the task resolution is, combat feels relatively complex. This is achieved through a bidding process. Every round, you have a number of points equal to your Wits to spend. Every action costs at least one point, and some require more. It can also be used for defense, or to add dice to an attack or action. Since Wits is based on Mind, I think this may be the only game I've seen where intelligence is arguably the primary characteristic in battle.

I like this because it leads to a lot of interesting choices through a simple decision. Should I put only one point of Wits into my attack, and hope I roll well? Should I put several points in for a better chance to hit, or does that risk points I could use to defend against the counterattack I know is coming. Maybe at the start of the round I should spend points to boost my order in combat, which means I'll attack early, but with fewer resources to attack or defend.

The damage system, with three different types of injuries, is probably the crunchiest bit of the R2R system. As a sidebar notes, it's possible to incapacitate or kill someone by either nickel and diming them with a bunch of weak, light blows; or to do it with one decisive blow. A punch will probably just bruise, but if they're battered up, or it's a good shot, it could wind up breaking bones.

Among the Aware, the ability to use magic is very common. If you learned an Aptitude while Aware, you probably learned how to cast some spells or enchant some items to make your life easier. (This is in the book, but it's one of the things I didn't realize until I was creating a character.) While it's difficult to enchant complex items with mechanical parts, simple devices such as books, hand weapons and clothing are easy to make magic. Aware tailors probably make their suits so the buttons can never tear, and the jacket grows with a man's waist-line.

Even someone without an appropriate Aptitude can learn a specific spell for just a couple of experience points and a teacher. I'd be inclined to say that for an Aware community, many spells are taught in an evening workshop. 

Technically, each spell must be a form of Alteration, Creation, Destruction, Divination or Preservation. If you have an applicable Aptitude, it's got to relate to that domain, but it can be freeform magic within those parameters.  One mage might achieve an effect by chanting and gesturing, another by singing. It's all good.

There are three effect levels: minor, significant and major. I didn't look too closely, but there's a huge cap in casting costs between minor and significant. The system looks like it encourages people to use a bunch of small effects rather than regularly blowing up buildings with an ancient blasphemous invocation.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The symbol Æ is called an "ash" for the curious

Boy, that was the best scavenger hunt ever. 
Cordelia, Buffy the Vampire Slayer 

I just picked up a series of small-press roleplaying games, because I enjoy reading them. (They came at the same time I picked up a whole bunch of other books, so I may be a bit slow getting through all of them, but that's no big deal.)

The first one is Æternal Legends, which I picked up because it was described to me as an angst-free modern day fantasy game. That sounded pretty good (the most popular modern fantasy RPG is Vampire, which is crawling with angst.) I also liked the fact the preview section discussed how important beliefs were to the characters existence and well being. It seemed like an interesting take, maintaining a sense of magic but not sliding into the cliche "anything is possible if you just wish hard enough."

Overall, I like it. I think it had me when it described orcs as charismatic leaders; I knew I wasn't just reading a Vampire clone or Dungeons and Dragons with machine guns. But one or two bits stick out, and I'm not sure how I feel about them. 

This is definitely a first impression review; I haven't actually played a session of it, and may not have completely digested the rules and setting.

The Weird
The thing that first struck me about the book was its shape and size. It's landscape style, as opposed to portrait, and it's 7x9 inches. I'm used to portrait configurations, but it made no difference to the readability.

The Bad
I'm getting my major complaints out of the way first, then I'll spend the rest of the review being positive, or at least constructive.

If you have a low threshold for typos and other errors, avoid Æternal Legends. It's not unreadable, but it contains far too many examples of things like "than" instead of  "then," of "if" instead of "is." Sometimes a line is repeated -- or almost repeated. For example, on page 68, the first paragraph begins "Splendour is only partially applicable to spellcasting..." The second paragraph on that page starts "Splendour is only applicable to spellcasting..." The word "partially" makes those two rules very different from each other. If you're willing to overlook these things for a book that is pretty clearly a labor of love put together by a handful of people, then you can decide if you want to check the book out or not. (I know, since I'm criticizing them, there will inevitable be typos and mistakes in this blog entry no matter how much I try to avoid it. But you're getting this entry for free, and I'm willing to cut myself some slack.)

I also wish it had given some more examples, such as how to create a character, or run a few rounds of combat. I think every game should have these, since it helps me know what the authors envision, and can help clarify some ambiguities. Fortunately, sample Player Characters are available. On the website, under the "downloads" link, there is a file containing six sample characters, which is worth checking out for some out there ideas, like Anvil Jenny, a nice Jewish Elf with clockwork eyes. No good walkthroughs of the mechanics though.

The good and the interesting
Æternal Legends is set in our world. Magic is real, but we don't realize it, because we are Unaware. (To those who don't normally read RPGs, I'm capitalizing some common words to show that they are special game terms.)

The Unaware -- about 95 percent of the world's population -- just do not see magic. The reason I began this entry with a quote from BTVS is because most of Sunnydale, in the first few seasons, are perfect examples of Unaware. Buffy's mother automatically invents a perfectly acceptable rationale for what's happened to her daughter, no matter how much bizarre stuff she's seen. If every female in the town falls under the effect of a love spell, they'll be happy to believe they were all crammed into a small space with one dorky man because of a scavenger hunt. (Not that the rest of the game resembles Joss Whedon's universe.) To the Unaware, a troll made out of granite is just a bulky looking man, and a cockatrice's poisonous breath would probably be a leaking vat of toxic chemicals.

The Aware, the remaining one in 20, see the world as it truly is. They have a bigger sense of self-belief, and because of this, they see what is really going on. They might live among the Unaware, in Aware neighborhoods (that the Unaware instinctively avoid as too Bohemian for their taste) or they might live in pocket kingdoms, places where the mundane can't go, and magic is more prevalent. To continue to BTVS analogy, they might love the changes, as Faith did when she became a slayer, or be ambivalent about what they'd learned about the world, as Buffy often was. The Aware do not always look human, but sometimes take the form of Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, Goblins, Orcs or Trolls. (I'll have more to say on those in a bit.) The Aware are governed by an organization known as the Ministry, which is actually a branch of the government. Since Unaware naturally rationalize it away, none of them want to join this dull-sounding bureaucracy, but the Ministry has enough access to provide law enforcement, assistance for the magically inclined, etc.

Some Aware are even more in touch with magic. They become Legends, touching on spheres of power, giving them a natural affinity for combat, diplomacy, knowledge, building, or other fields. Legends must go on quests to continue to improve. They must challenge themselves, and challenges naturally occur to them. If they stop in a gas station to pick up a newspaper, a man carrying a mysterious artifact will almost certainly stagger in, mutter an arcane phrase, and drop dead.

In your normal game, the players are Legends. It's possible they'll do something similar to what would happen in D&D, only instead of rescuing the princess from the goblins armed with spears, they'll rescue the CEO from the goblins armed with shotguns. But they can also go in other directions, pursuing strange paths to spiritual enlightenment.

The game is pretty up front with the fact that, just like the Unaware, you shouldn't think about this too closely. The Unaware are to explain why this world is familiar. They can be a major part of your stories, or just background.

I'll note while the game is designed around the assumption you'll play Legends, I think it might be pretty interesting to play those who are merely Aware. You could have a good, gritty urban fantasy setting, where the players are members of the Ministry trying to cope with problems like the enchanted cocaine a gang of high-powered executive elves are smuggling in from a pocket kingdom, or protests from those who object to goblins and dwarves wedding each other. Most importantly, it would allow more thorough use of several races in the book. (Again, more in a little while.)

Interesting bit one: Beliefs
As mentioned before, what powers the Aware is the fact that they really and truly believe in things. The Unaware have weaker beliefs, are willing to trust what society tells them to.

All characters have beliefs that can come up in play. The rules explicitly state they don't have to be positive. They can range from "The only thing I have to fear is fear itself" to "The ends justify the means" to "Only people with my skin color deserve to live."

For Legends, there are two paths to power: the Light and the Dark. Those who follow the Light, and embrace their beliefs, gain power through mystical Spheres. Those who follow the Dark deny their beliefs, and follow Shells, hollow spheres with similar powers. For example, the Sphere of Mercy is about responsibility, and gives its followers healing powers. The shell of mercy gives those powers without responsibility. A Lightsider might use these powers to heal their allies, tend to earthquake victims, or help an exhausted army keep fighting for their cause. A Darksider might use the same abilities to get rich with their miracle cures, torment their enemies with promises of relief, or stitch together Frankenstein-monster abominations.

What I find interesting is that, since beliefs don't have to be positive, a Lightsider doesn't need to be good. If a Legend believes that everyone with a different skin color deserves to die, and goes on a rampage against a gang of blue-skin elves who are minding their own business, he's technically following the path of Light. If a Troll Legend steps up to defend them, not because he cares about them, but because their screams are ruining his party, he's following a Dark path.

I don't know if this is a bug or a feature. I suspect it's both, and a GM should talk to the players before deciding if Dark Legends are automatically "evil" and those who follow the light are "good" or if it's just that those who follow the Light value integrity over easy answers.

Interesting bit two: The Clades
What most games call races, Æternal Legends calls Clades. I'm not sure why, though it may be because there's a lot of ethnic variation in each of the Clades. Goblins from Japan look very different than those from Africa.

None of the Clades quite fits roleplaying stereotypes, which is a good thing. Some are very divergent. Elves aren't these things willowy things with pointy ears, they're descendants of demigods, and take on features of whatever the surround community believes spiritual beings should look like. In a Christian community, they might have halos, in Silicon Valley they might have jet black skin with green flashing numbers, a la the Matrix. Gnomes might be awesome mechanics who build wondrous devices, but that's just a tiny aspect of their creativity. They might be accomplished poets, or chefs who make unforgettable meals.

With the exception of humans, each of the Clade has a complementary one. Elves and orcs share some traits, as do dwarves and trolls, and gnomes and goblins. Orcs, goblins, and trolls are known as the Dull Clades or Dark Clades, and there's some prejudice against them. It's illegal, but the Ministry can't always enforce that.

With one exception, that prejudice is pretty clearly undeserved. Trolls don't need to be thugs; nothing keeps them from being a security guard, or a forensic accountant. (They're slow thinkers, but not stupid. They'd probably be right at home digging through a spreadsheet that would bore others to tears.) And the allegedly Light Clade gnomes frequently become robbers, developing an "I was gonna give it back eventually" mentality.

The one exception is Legends. When a character becomes a Lightsider Legend, their race changes to the Light Clade equivalent. A troll who follows the sphere of strength turns into a dwarf, though he may maintain some troll-like features. If they become a Darksider, they turn into the appropriate Dull Clade, so our corrupted dwarf would once again become a troll.

I really don't know what moral statement, if any, this is supposed to make. People who want to say that orcs are evil merely need to point out that the most powerful orcs ultimately follow a corrupt path, and elves who lose sight of their goals turn into orcs.

Perhaps more annoyingly, the rules are really only set up to let you play Lightsiders. There's no rules for how Dark Clade Legends use the shells, what special abilities it gives them. Effectively, half the races are closed to player characters, despite the fact that ostensibly they're not about the dark side.

I think that sums up my preliminary thoughts on the philosophy behind the game. My next post, I'll look at some of the mechanics.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Read any decent books lately?

Overall I would rate it a C+, OK, not great. As a result, we will not destroy your planet. But neither will we provide you with our recipe for immortality.
Lrrr, Futurama

Normally when I get a book out of the library, I either tear through it or decide it's not worth my time and return it only partially read. "Skirmish," a collection of stories by Clifford Simak, was one of those exceptions. I finished it, but found parts of it slow going. When Simak's prose is good, he really immerses you in the setting. When it's not, it has an awkward, repetitive feel. Also, a lot of the stories cover the same themes, which makes the book feel repetitive if you read it too rapidly. I guess if I were using the Siskel and Ebert scale, it would get one thumb up.

There's some nice stories here, but a lot of them feel dated. While Simak is a science fiction author, they don't feel dated in the same way that Arthur Clarke's 2001 feels off (space stations around Jupiter and frequent flights to the moon did not happen nine years ago). No, many of these feel like period pieces. I could give you the copyright date for this collection of short stories, but it's probably more effective to tell you that the 320-page hardcover cost $6.95.

Here's an example of what I mean by period pieces. This is from "The Big Front Yard," which won a Hugo award in 1959. Hiram, a repairman, has been asked to fix an old television, and tells the owner it might be more expensive than replacing it. Here's what she responds:

"That's just what Henry said," Abbie told him, tartly. "Henry wants to get one of the color sets. But I won't part with this one. It's not just TV, you know. It's a combination with radio and a record player and the wood and style are just right for the other furniture, and, besides --"

I remember when they made TV sets with built in VCRs, but a built in radio or phonograph? That's just weird.

In another story, "The Autumn Land," a character takes photographs of something, because "the camera saw what it saw and could not lie about it; it did not fantasize, it did not rationalize." Anyone who's retouched a digital photo knows how quaint that belief is today.

I really liked "The Autumn Land" though. It felt like it would have made a perfect episode of The Twilight Zone. A man who's lost his job and started driving to Chicago in hopes of finding a better career winds up staying in an idyllic little community where it's always a nice fall day, and the few neighbors are warm and friendly, even if they don't ever learn your name....

Another story, "The Ghost of a Model T," also had a Twilight Zone feel, though the "shocking ending" was pretty obvious after the second page.

Another interesting story is "Good Night, Mr. James," which feels like something Philip K. Dick might have written. A man finds himself on an unfamiliar street, and can remember nothing. He soon recalls he has to kill a dangerous alien whose existence threatens the world. And then, in the middle of the story, it suddenly becomes about questions of identity and individuality.

Sadly, if you want to read Simak's books and can't find them at your library, you're going to need a Kindle (or maybe some other E-reader) or a deep wallet.

* * * * * * *

For those looking for more accessible books, here are two relatively new ones I took out at the same time as Skirmish: Black Projects, White Knights: The Company Dossiers, by Kage Bakes, and The Caryatids, by Bruce Stirling.

Black Projects is a collection of short stories about The Company, a 24th century business which sends immortal cyborgs back in time to get valuables -- lost treasures, extinct plants and animals, etc. It's exciting and pretty humorous. While some are straightforward stories of robots from the future trying to pass themselves off as humans to find valuables, there are several which are only tangentially related to this. This is the second book by Baker I've read this year (who passed away in January), and she's very easy to read. I'll just warn you that there is a liberal political slant in her work (though it's silly enough I'm not sure how much she intended it). The 24th century is a dystopia where the government monitors people's health so closely that sugar and coffee are illegal substances, and Shakespeare (or at least the computer recording of his personality) is prohibited from reciting any lines from his own plays, because people might be offended by the customs or language.

The Caryatids is set in an apocalyptic world where pollution, radiation, global warming, and a host of other issues are slowly destroying the world. It follows the clones of an evil European dictator (who is now living on a space station, where she can't be tried for her crimes against humanity). Each of the clones has gone on to leave very different lives. One is rebuilding a devastated island in her homeland. One has become a Hollywood star. And a third has become a heroine of the Chinese people, in a world where China is the last nation and the rest of the globe is run by corporations. My largest complaint about this book is that a lot of issues I had when reading it -- some surprisingly stilted dialog, the attitudes everyone had to some bit characters -- got resolved only in the last few pages, and possibly a bit glibly.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I know what I'm eating for breakfast tomorrow.

Some people like cupcakes better. I for one care less for them! 
Frank Zappa, "Muffin Man"

A few weeks ago, I saw this recipe for blueberry crumb muffins at Evil Shenanigans which is a very cool cooking site. I first discovered the site from a YouTube clip where the author prepared a king cake that Sandra Lee made on Semi Homemade Meals, with very different results.

Anyway, while her photos look great, because she knows how to pose the food, my muffins might not look quite as attractive, since they were just photographed on a cooling rack using a cell phone camera. But they taste great:

In an attempt to play around with it, I did some work with the free Photoshop clone. The name of that clone is The GNU Image Manipulating Program (because the sort of people who put out free programs think it's hilarious to say "I played with The GIMP today." GNU is a recursive acronym, which means GNU's not Unix, by the way.)

I have Photoshop at work, but won't spend hundreds of dollars to use it at home. When I tried the GNU Image Manipulation Program a few years ago, it was almost unusable. Now, it's a lot better, and almost as usable as Photoshop. This would be higher praise if Photoshop wasn't such a pain.

I didn't do anything too fancy. I just cropped an individual muffin, and then played with the lighting and colors to make it look more attractive. Strangely enough, the blueberry muffins looked too blue. Adding a touch of yellow really makes a difference.

Here's a close-up of the second muffin from the bottom right. Below is the same muffin with adjusted colors.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Ares Express

He took it all too far, but boy could he play guitar
David Bowie

Ares Express by Ian McDonald is pretty much a fantasy novel, even though it has science fiction trappings. If you like novels filled with wild imagery and strange characters, it's well worth checking out.
Despite its name, it takes 250 pages before it explicitly states the book is set on Mars, and the only scientific fact you really need to know is that a martian year is two earth years long -- since the characters all give their ages in Martian, and you need to know the heroine is a young adult, and not a nine-year-old.
That heroine is Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th. The last two parts of Sweetness' name imply that she is the 12th generation of a family of engineers. On this futuristic Mars, trains that dot the surface are manned by the same families for centuries; they inherit jobs such as manning the fusion-reactor boilers, tending to the passengers, or what is (in the engineers' opinion) the creme de la creme, driving the locomotives around the world.

Sweetness is a proud, beautiful girl, and a little mysterious. Whenever they stop at a certain point along the train ride, she has conversations with her dead uncle, whose spirit merged with the planet after he was struck by lightning at a signal crossing. And when she looks in mirrors, she can see (and talk to) someone who looks just like her, but dressed in the clothes she wore yesterday. She calls this person Little Pretty One, and believes she's the ghost of her co-joined twin who didn't make it out of the womb, though we quickly learn Little Pretty One is actually much more than that.

Sweetness has a problem -- only men can become engineers, and her father is planning to turn the reins of the ship over to her younger brother. Worse yet, the family, according to tradition, plans to marry her off to a prominent family of stewards on another train. So she runs away with a boy she's just met who can see Little Pretty One out of his cataract.

This turns out to be a mistake; this boy worships Devastation Harx, a man who runs a mail-order cult out of a flying fortress that uses no computer technology. He's recognized that this isn't a ghost, but the goddess who controls the machines that keep the world safe. And Harx manages to kidnap Little Pretty One in a maze of mirrors, planning to use her power to destroy the world, then throws Sweetness out of the hovering fort.

The rest of the book is the story of Sweetness' attempt to save the world.

 As I said, this is a book you read for imagery. And it's chock full of vivid, fascinating scenes and characters. There's the card game where Sweetness' grandmother, Taal Chordant Joy-Of-May Asiim Engineer 10th, bets years of her life. There's the town which has been infected by a plague that stops people from dreaming, and they've imprisoned a man who has a machine that shares dreams of the evening news broadcasts. There are giant household items -- ironing boards, shoes, fireplace sets -- hundreds of feet tall, scattered around the landscape. There is a scene where Sweetness is angry, and begins swearing -- and McDonald takes two pages to list all the different types of oaths and profanities, of the different societies, that she knows.

It's certainly not a book for everyone. While a lot of exciting things happen, they seem more like backdrops to meet interesting characters, or ways to explore interesting ideas, than action-packed sequences. There are also a few points which annoyed me, but I feel describing them in detail would be giving too much away. If you enjoyed Gormenghast, a trilogy where the first novel only covers the first year of the hero's life, you'll probably like Ares Express.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Ceramics and couscous

Let's think of other things that starts with "C"! Uh... Uh... Who cares about da other things?!
Cookie Monster

So a couple of weeks ago, I bought this really nice looking ceramic dish at Art In The Park in Long Branch, made by Roz Potz (the first thing that came up when I Googled her was also her Facebook page, but it was in Welsh or something.)

I wanted to cook something in it, but it's summer, and ceramic dishes to me really cry out for stews or beans or other things that you simmer slowly in the over for a long period of time. Then I realized, I don't need to cook in it. I can just use it as a nice serving dish. Since it has a lid, I don't even need to put leftovers away in a different container. So I made couscous with summer vegetables.

Couscous with summer vegetables
  • 1 Red Pepper
  • 1 Summer Squash
  • 1 Onion
  • 3 Cloves of Garlic
  • 2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
  • Salt and Pepper
  • 1 cup Israeli Couscous
  • 1 1/4 cups vegetable broth
  • Some grape tomatoes

Note: Israeli couscous is a very large grain cousous. It looks more like pearls or orzo than your traditional couscous. You can substitute just about any grain: regular couscous, rice, quinoa, etc. Just change the amount of broth.

Step 1) Arrange some of the ingredients artistically, so you can take a picture of them and put it in your blog, like this:

Step 2) Cut the onion, pepper and squash into fairly large chunks, about half an inch square.

Step 3) Heat a large saute pan over medium low heat for about two minutes. Add the olive oil. Add the cut up veggies and a pinch of salt, and cook for about 8-10 minutes, stirring occassionally, until the onion turns transluscent.

Step 4) Chop the garlic fairly fine (I just whacked it with the flat of the knife, then sliced that). Add to the veggies and cook about 30 seconds. Add broth and couscous.

Step 5) When the broth has come to a boil (which should be pretty quick), turn the heat down to a simmer and cover the pot. Cook for 7-8 more minutes.

Step 6) Transfer stuff to your pretty dish and add tomatoes as a garnish. It should look like this:rve
Serve warm, room tempertature, or chilled, depending how hot it is outside.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Watchin' TV: I'm doing it wrong

It meant nothing to Tarzan, of course, for he could not tell one language from another, so when he pointed to the word man which he had printed upon a piece of bark he learned from D'Arnot that it was pronounced HOMME, and in the same way he was taught to pronounce ape, SINGE and tree, ARBRE. 

Edgar Rice Burroughs

My cable channel is trying out a new channel called Centric. It's a spin off of BET, and most of the shows aren't that interesting to me. But two are: it's showing reruns of Miami Vice and the A-Team. I don't have much to say about Miami Vice, but I'd like to talk about the A-Team. (And I promise to avoid saying anything like "I pity the fool who don't read this" anywhere but this sentence.)

Why am I watching it? I didn't really watch it when it was first on, so it's not nostalgia. And it's not a very good show, though if you're in the right mood it's the sort of bad show that can be fun to watch. If you really care about the plot, look it up on Wikipedia or somewhere. If you don't care about it, there are five main characters:
  1. Mr. T.
  2. Guy who dresses up in funny costumes (if you're idea of funny is thick accents).
  3. Crazy guy.
  4. A Zeppo (i.e., handsome but no personality)
  5. Someone without a Y chromosome.
Theoretically, they also have tactical roles. Crazy guy is an ace pilot; Zeppo guy is an ace negotiator, the girl guy knows how to gather information.

Each week, this supposed group of mercenaries learns of some bad guys who are picking on poor innocents, and has to stop them. For example -- an I am not making this one up -- a bunch of greedy real estate developers want to tear down a youth center where Hulk Hogan helps underprivileged kids. (The show had a lot of awesome 80s era guest stars. I've seen the Hulkster and Pat Sajak, both playing themselves.) The bad guys send in some "enforcer types" to cause trouble. The A-Team intervenes. At some point, the guy in the costume walks into the criminal mastermind's office in a disguise as a helpless little old lady or something, then whips out a machine gun and destroys all the knickknacks on the wall. Then the bad guys send out a big force to take over the center, and there's a great big fight with low budget special effects. I wouldn't say I dislike the plot, so much as I think it could use a bit more diversity.

There are, however, two things I enjoy about the show, which I wish more modern shows would do. First, it's completely episodic. If the first show you see is episode number seven, you'll be caught up on what you need to know by the time the opening credits are finished. Second, I think the idea of an action-comedy is interesting, and I'm a little surprised there aren't more like it. There are action shows which are comedic, but they normally also throw in several other elements, things like police/law/medical procedural and romantic subplots.

* * *

There are a few TV shows out there which I like, but you'd never know it from listening to my description of it. For example, take Fringe. I started watching it for a simple reason: it was on after House, which I find interesting, and Fox was showing it with limited commercial interruptions when I began tuning in. This meant there was no need to change the channel to find something less annoying as background noise while I read.

There are three main characters in Fringe. The only really interesting one is Walter Bishop, because it's the only role with any serious acting required. Walter is an extremely brilliant, but absentminded scientist. His role is to help out his son, Peter Bishop, and FBI agent Olivia Dunham, as they investigate inexplicable phenomena. Olivia's character is, to my mind, most distinguished by the fact she has a different random superpower each week. Sometimes she has superhuman hearing; sometimes she can detect when something is from another dimension. Sometimes she can travel to another dimension. These abilities appear and disappear as the plot calls for them. Peter is there to serve as a love interest for Olivia and someone for Walter to worry over. Apparently he's also supposed to be a brilliant scientist, but he's not quite as smart as Walter, so he never gets to invent cool gizmos unless John Noble is out of town that week working on another project and the writers needed to redo the script.

While not as formulaic as the A-Team, most episodes follow the same plot outline: There's a creepy, inexplicable murder or mass death, which the FBI is called to investigate. Walter spouts some really bad pseudo-science to explain what caused it. (Seriously, I wish they would just call the killers psychic, or magical. This isn't like Star Trek, where they make some effort to keep the science believable.) They track down the bad guy, and stop him. While this is going on, Peter and Olivia do that flirty thing that all male and females partnered together as investigators do. In the end of the episode, it's implied that this bad guy is part of a bigger, more sinister plot. (Unlike the A-Team, there's a bit of variety; some of the episodes were rather different than this.)

If I wasn't treating this as an episodic series, I'd tell you more about the overarching sinister plot. I'd explain why the bald men with the funny accents are so important, or why we're supposed to get scared when we see a typewriter. But I find it much more enjoyable if I don't ask myself about those things, if I treat each episode as a supernatural crime story without an overarching metaplot.

Like I said, it's really enjoyable if you watch it the wrong way.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

She blinded me with science

I never am really satisfied that I understand anything; because, understand it well as I may, my comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand about the many connections and relations which occur to me, how the matter in question was first thought of or arrived at, etc., etc.
Ada Lovelace

I went to InfoAge without high expectations, but left highly impressed. My family took a trip to this volunteer run museum because it was located in Camp Evans, where my father used to work, and he'd been told that his photo was somewhere in one of the exhibits. I imagined it would have a few kiddie exhibitions and a couple of pictures on a wall. Instead, I found something with a fascinating look at both the history of this camp, the technology it was involved with, and a few other really cool exhibits.

Camp Evans, located in Wall, started out as the station where Marconi did some pioneering work with radio broadcasting. It was later used by Fort Monmouth for numerous projects, such as the world's first portable computer (assuming your definition of portable includes "fits on a 30-foot truck").

What made this place extra enjoyable were the volunteers. They were all deeply knowledgeable, and willing to go into great depth. It's one thing to look at some old china plates and think how nice they look. It's another to look at some old china plates and be told the story of how they lay beneath the sea for over a century, until some spear fishermen realized that what they though were rocks were actually slats from a shipwreck, and while the crates the dishes were stored in had been eaten away, they were still protected by the straw they were packed in.

A few of the many highlights for me:
1) Seeing a picture of Max Adler, the man who gave me Bar Mitzvah lessons, in the Camp Evans hall of fame. (For personal reasons, obviously.)

2) Seeing some of the complex looking radar devices from World War 2. Tracking enemy planes was not just a matter of looking at dots on a screen. There were tons of complex calibrations necessary. For contrast, the exhibit also showed a working modern radar gun simple enough for children, and available in toy stores.

3) The fallout shelter at the camp, which has been turned into an exhibit on fallout shelters. I could probably give this section its own post, but I'll limit myself to pointing out how cool some of the items it showed are. There were posters advertising the shelters, tins of crackers and candies (which were called "carbohydrate supplements" and the volunteer told us were carcinogenic), geiger counters, and other helpful tools for families worried about the a-bomb.
They also showed us the opening credits to this video, prepared to help children in 1951:

4) Hearing about the ship wrecks off the coast of the Jersey Shore. Again, a guided tour of the artifacts uncovered from the deep really brought them to life.

5) A tour of vintage computers by members of MARCH, the MidAtlantic Retro Compuing Hobbyists. MARCH believes that not only should you see old computers, but when possible you should see them in action. They had working classics such as an original Macintosh, a tricked out Commodore 64 with two floppy drives and a 300 baud modem*, and a TRS-80. I used the TRS to write my first BASIC program since about 1994. I kept it very simple:
I thought about adding 20 GOTO 10, but didn't see where the break key was on the keyboard. (The only hard part about writing this was the keyboard was strange. The quotes were above the number 2, not left of the "enter" key, and the "enter" was where the backspace is.)

* For people who don't know about computers, this is the equivalent of a sports car that's been modified to go from zero to 60 in a tenth of a second and shoot laser beams.

That tour also showed us some older computers, including the refrigerator-sized tape drive of a Univac. (They're planning to expand soon, and will show the entire Univac, which takes up a full wall). Another, smaller, one was literally a typewriter hooked up to a TV:

6) A tour of radio and audio exhibits. Highlights included numerous demonstrations. Like the radar, old fashioned radios were not simple to tune -- there were three or four knobs involved. However, a lot of them were really beautiful. We also saw plenty of recording mediums, from CDs all the way back to phonographs with cylinders. This still works, and they played songs on it for us:

Most of the exhibits sound as though they're only half finished. InfoAge is preparing numerous expansions, and I think I'll check back on this place in a few months and see what progress has been made. 

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Feels like I'm going to lose my mind

Have you ever founded anything? If so, is it something that went on to become a global superpower? If not, why not? 
America (The Book), A Citizens Guide to History, presented by The Daily Show With John Stewart

This is just a test of how Blogspot posting works. I have an actual post I want to put up, but want to put a break in it because it has spoilers and was having trouble doing so.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Has he lost his mind?

He's back, the man behind the mask/ and he's out of control.
Alice Cooper
The original Iron Man is not exactly Citizen Kane, but it is perhaps the best summer action movie I've seen. There are two reasons for this. One is where I saw it:
That's the Family Drive In Theatre in Stephens City, Va. It's the only time I've been in a drive-in, and it's a very cool experience.

The other reason was because it kept things moving. About five minutes into the movie, you got your first explosion. Just about every scene was exciting, suspensful, advanced the plot, made you laugh, or a combination of the above.

I saw Iron Man 2 this weekend, and it was good, but lacked something the original had. They still did a fine job of translating the excitement and characters of a comic book onto the big screen, but at times it dragged. And I found it easy to figure out what the problem was. Since the rest of the review involves spoilers, I'm going to put a little break here. Click to continue reading.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Wherein I compare Shigeru Miyamoto to Al Jolson.

ACTORS EAT CAKES WITH THE COOLIDGES; Thirty Enjoy Breakfast at the White House and Then Entertain Their Hosts. PRESIDENT NEARLY LAUGHS Guests Crack 'Dignified' Jokes, Sing Songs and Pledge Support to Coolidge.
New York Times front page headline, Oct. 18, 1924

Super Mario 64 is The Jazz Singer of video games. (I mean the 1927 film with Al Jolson, not the 1980 film with Neil Diamond.) It's incredibly important historically; and it's still pretty enjoyable today, if you can put up with some embarrassing elements by modern standards.  

As I said earlier, playing Super Mario Brothers Wii made me nostalgic, so I played Super Mario Brothers 3. And that inspired me to see what else the series had to offer I had missed, so I'm in the middle of Super Mario 64. I plan to play until I get an ending, though not necessarily the ending. (The object of the game is to collect stars. You can, I have learned, defeat the big bad when you get 70 stars. But to get the ultimate prize, you need 120. I've got 49 stars as of this writing, and I'm willing to put up with the game's flaws to get 21 more, but not 71.)

I never had a Nintendo 64. In 1988, I purchased a Nintendo Entertainment System. In 2003 or 2004, I bought a Playstation 2. Because I'm rather proud of my "Jazz Singer" analogy, let me beat it into the ground. That was the equivalent of going to the theaters to see Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush in 1925, and not seeing another movie until The Wizard of Oz or Gone With The Wind in 1939

Here is my mini-synopsis of the history of the Nintendo 64, derived from Wikipedia and a few gaming sites. The console premiered in 1996, and helped usher in the era of 3-D gaming. Super Mario 64 was one of the first two games for the system, and reviewers instantly called it the best thing since sliced bread.  IGN's review said "it must be stated that SM64 is the greatest videogame to date, and one which all games, regardless of genre, will be judged henceforth."

Despite praise for its games, the N64 was a relative failure. It sold 32 million copies. Its competitor, the Playstation One, sold more than three times that amount. The N64 used cartridges for games, like the Nintendo and Super Nintendo, while the Playstation used CDs. While cartridges had some advantages, they had two major disadvantages. For one, they could only hold 64 megabytes of data; a CD could hold 10 times that, meaning it could create much bigger games. For another, they were more expensive to manufacture. A game that sold for $40 on the Playstation would sell for $60-$70 on the N64. Also, the controller was horrible. Here is a picture of it. For Mario, you were supposed to move around with the joystick in the center, jump with the blue button, punch and throw with the green button, use the red button for some special moves, and use the yellow buttons for adjusting the camera angles. That's an ergonomic nightmare. There are times where you need to move and press the red and green buttons at the same time; that must involve some real finger contortions.

Fortunately, I'm playing it on the Wii, with a controller that resembles the one I got used to playing with a PS2. Everything is in a much more sensible location.

The Jazz Singer was not, technically speaking, the first film with recorded sound. However, it revolutionized the industry. Similarly, while Mario 64 may not have been the world's first 3-D game, it changed the way they were designed, and made them popular on consoles.

Mario's plot is, as usual, elementary. Bowser has kidnapped the Princess in her own castle, and used the power of magical stars to trap the inhabitants of the castle in paintings. Mario must enter these paintings, each of which has a world guarded by his minions, and recover the stars in there.

The Good:
The main reason why I continue to play this is that it's a joy to control Mario. Legend has it that Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Mario games going all the way back to Donkey Kong, demanded that it be fun to move Mario. Before any levels were designed, they created a garden level, where all testers did was make Mario run, jump and swim. They did this for a month before designing the first world, satisfied it would be a pleasure to move around. (Another legend about Miyamoto is that he records testers' faces while they play, and if they're not smiling enough, he redesigns the section. He's definitely a cult figure among gamers.) The ease of moving him is complemented by his sounds; when he jumps exceptionally high, he makes a little "woo-hoo" of delight.

The graphics are also, to my mind, excellent. They're bright and cartoony, and it doesn't matter that a modern game system could put more polygons onto the screen. It's fun to watch the little mushrooms (Goombas) wander around the screen.

Nintendo has always been a master of music. The background tunes are lively and quickly get stuck in your head. With a few exceptions, I'd say that music in games has actually suffered since the days of the NES. It's richer, of course, since they can have a full symphony instead of just synthesized beeps, but it's also much less memorable. Play a few strains of Kid Icarus, which I haven't played for 20 years, and I'll be humming along. Play the background music to all but two of the games I bought for the PS2, and I'll have no idea what you're playing, even if I put 40 or 50 hours into that game.

The Bad and the Ugly
The Jazz Singer has some scenes which are painfully embarrassing today, where Al Jolson puts on blackface. While the movie may have major historic significance, and a touching, classic plot, elements like that make it hard to watch. Also, while there is talking, much of the film is silent, so you need to put up with the extreme  gestures and over-emoting actors of the era did to get their points across. Things like that tell you this isn't a modern movie.

Two factors keep Mario 64 from aging perfectly: the camera, and the design philosophy.

Mario games have always rewarded oblique thinking. If you jump on a blank looking location, you might find an invisible box with a mushroom inside. Maybe you can walk on the roof of a level, avoiding all the enemies. But for most Mario games, these are bonuses. You can get through the game without ever figuring it out. In addition, the rules are pretty well defined. Mario can jump, break bricks, and pick some things up. No puzzle in Super Mario Brothers will ever call for Mario to mix a cocktail.

In Mario 64, sometimes you need to guess what the hell the designers were thinking. Each painting has six stars in it, and gives a clue how to get the star. Many present the sort of puzzle you expect from a Mario game: climb to a certain location, find a certain number of coins, or defeat a certain opponent. But a lot of the clues are so oblique as to be useless, and involve tricks that you use only once.

On one level, you have to push two crates as part of finding a star. That would be fine, but this is the only level I've encountered where you can move crates, and these are the only crates in the game that can be moved. In another level, you need to climb a tree, which wakes up a sleeping owl. The friendly owl then offers to fly you around. If you steer him properly, he'll take you to an otherwise inaccessible location where a star is located. Again, this seems to be the only helpful avian in the game; it's not a trend, and it's hardly intuitive. Yet another secret level is found by looking up at the ceiling at a certain point. All other levels are entered by jumping into a painting or hole.

I've given up trying to solve the problems on my own; that's what the Internet is for (particularly But the fact that each puzzle has its own solution, which may have nothing to do with anything else in the game, is driving me crazy.

The other part I can't stand is the camera, which was considered a cutting edge piece of programming in the day. For most of the 3-D games before Mario, the action was shown from either a first person perspective or situated just behind the character. As an example, look at 1982's Pole Position, where you always see the action from just behind the race car.

While that's fine for a race track, it doesn't work for a platformer, where you want to have interesting things above and below, where sometimes you'll want to see the action from Mario's side (e.g., on a flat plain, so you can see enemies approaching from all directions) and sometimes from behind (e.g, while climbing a mountain, so you can see the falling boulders getting closer.) Mario 64's solution was "Lakitu," a cameraman who followed you around in a cloud, and was supposed to film you from the most appropriate angle. If the player wanted to change the angle, he could do so with the camera buttons, or turn Lakitu off and force a "behind the shoulder" perspective.

In theory, it means you'll see the action from an ideal perspective. It doesn't work that well. Too often I've plunged to my death because the camera shifts perspective while I'm walking across a thin plank over a bottomless pit, and suddenly pressing left doesn't move me along the board, but off it. The camera angles also have a nasty habit of omitting important facts. I was stymied on one world because it looked like there was only a bottomless pit in one direction. If you turned the camera to look down -- which it never does by itself --  there was a single step where you had to go to find anything else.

Since it feels wrong to have the only image with this post be from a game I'm not even discussing, here's a clip of someone playing the first world. Notice how sometimes the camera is behind Mario, sometimes to his side, and sometimes it can't quite find where our favorite Italian plumber is. You only need to watch about a minute or so to see all of that.

I don't mind failing in a game because I made a mistake. I hate failing because the game is making things artificially more difficult by warping my perspective in the middle of a delicate maneuver.

Most modern games are better about the camera, but still not good, and I really prefer my games with a fixed, intelligently positioned camera at every scene. Mario 64 set an unfortunate precedent.