Defender of Texel: an accidental new game addiction

So I play this game called Pocket Frogs, in which players collect and breed various color-combinations of frogs.  It's a Mobage game -- Mobage makes freemium app games for iOS and Android.  There's a pretty good play/cost balance, where you can get a lot out of the game without ever spending any money, but I really want to baby-proof another one of my habitats (you start with one nursery) so that I can breed more frogs at once.  That costs 499 MobaCoin, or $4.97.[1.  I would have some more MobaCoin left over after that transaction, but since they're sold in batch increments, that's the smallest amount of money I could pay to get a sufficient quantity of MobaCoin.] Instead of paying that, I'm just taking their pop-up offers, to download and start playing various other Mobage games in exchange for MobaCoins.  I'm up to 175 through these promotions, and I've started spending a lot more time playing one of the games, Defender of Texel (D.O.T.)

In D.O.T., players control a three-by-three grid of fighters, with which they explore linear dungeons full of random encounters.  Players have a high degree of control over the arrangement of their fighters, and reasonable control over their stats -- and during combat, choose the order of attacks, by drawing three tic-tac-toe style lines across the grid, forming three self-managing waves of attack against the enemy lineup.

There's also a semi-complicated system of evolution, to improve fighters, but I won't get into that.  The point is, Mobage's business model appears to be successful.  They have now enticed me into regularly playing two of their games, to the point where there's stuff I meant to have done by now today, that I haven't started on.  Like getting dressed.

Movie Triggers: the best new website I've seen lately

A while ago, I had an idea for a website, that would use a social network/review system to catalog movies with triggering content.  It's a pretty basic idea, I don't think it was stolen or anything, and the hard part is obviously the work on putting something like this together. I'm thrilled to say that someone has actually done that work.

MovieTriggers.com is a catalog of movies which, over time, will hopefully accumulate a decent collection of trigger warnings for popular movies.  Right now, most of them say there are 0 triggers -- which, the site stresses, "does not mean that this movie is non-triggering."  (Emphasis theirs.)

Symbols specifically indicate whether more than 10 people have agreed something is triggering, and whether there are comments on the thread, which would hopefully offer a better idea of what the triggering content is, so visitors can make informed judgements about whether they can handle it.

I'm personally looking forward to when the site gets enough traction to start warning about spiders -- I sent a feedback message asking whether arachnophobia was an appropriate tag here's the thread:

[me:] Is there any sort of guideline on what counts as a trigger, or what sorts of things you hope to cover?  For example, I'm arachnophobic -- would it be appropriate for me to add a spiders warning to movies that caused me to panic?  (Right now, my strategy is looking away if spiders show up and letting my partner tell me when it's safe to look back up.)

[Response:] Hi,

Tagging with spiders is completely appropriate. There are no specific guidelines for what counts as a trigger. We specifically left it open ended so people could share their experiences.

Thanks for using the site!

- John

Please, use this site, share it, add your experiences to the catalog.  Including spiders.

Homeland: a reaction

I finished reading Cory Doctorow's latest book, Homeland, today.  I read it on my cell phone in the form of a Creative Commons licensed e-book that I downloaded from his website, for free.  This post is labeled "A reaction," because I don't know how I would review this book.  It's awesome, and you should read it.  But the only properly review-y thing I can say about it is that it's a well-written book by someone I pretty much entirely agree with, and who is much better informed than me. I'll be doing the same thing with this book that I did with the last one, Pirate Cinema, adding it to my Charity Debt list to donate to a library when I have money, but that has to wait until I've got sorted out whatever the hell happened to my spreadsheets.

I was planning on waiting to read Homeland, because I was trying to get a good number of books read by all the Clarion authors this year and I've already read loads of Doctorow, but I didn't get in, so I put down the book I was on (Sorry, Robert Crais) and downloaded Homeland.

Well, it was part that I didn't get in.  But more than that, I was super curious about what Doctorow had referred to as a "Vote-finding machine," that Aaron Swartz helped him design when he was writing the book.  I'm not going to copy the whole section into this post, because I don't want to spoil anyone's anticipation.  That said, if you're a public servant, and you have no intention of ever reading Homeland, this bit is still pretty damn important.  So here's a legal link to the full text of the novel.  Ctrl+F will allow you to search the text for a particular phrase.  The exact phrase "Vote-finding machine" only ever shows up once, in the first of the relevant nine paragraphs.

And if you change your mind about reading it, here's a link to a bunch of different formats of free e-book.

Apart from that, this book is packed with awesome new information that I didn't already have.  Some of it was made-up stuff, but that stuff has real-world analogues that are pointed out in the afterwords.  But the coolest things -- iPredator, Hadoop, Burning Man -- are all very real.

Reading Cory Doctorow books, especially the ones set near the present day, is like taking a class with a really fun teacher.  It's a great way to get a slightly-better-than-basic grasp on politics, copyright, privacy and security. And they're all free.  (But if you have the money, you should buy one.  Or donate one to a library.)

Friends: The half-way point

My partner and I have been watching Friends. She just pointed out that we're about halfway through the series, and I feel that is worthy of comment. Thing #1:  Spoilers.  I would appreciate it if you did not comment all the details of what happens in all the story arcs after season 5.  That said, I will be commenting on things that have happened so far, so if you are also working your way through the box-set, and are further back than I am, you may want to circle back to this one at another time.  I believe we're somewhere in early season 6, but I might be mis-remembering.

Thing #2:  Ross and Rachel are terrible people.  I kinda wish it was a pattern, that everyone in the show whose name started with R was awful, but Richard was a really good person as far as I could tell, so I don't see that theory panning out.

Everyone in this show displays some problematic behavior, but Ross and Rachel are, I think, the only really, really terrible people.  Monica's problematic behavior largely stems from her obsession with cleanliness and with being the best at everything, Chandler's behavior mostly stems from his severe low self-esteem and fear of intimacy, Joey's self-absorbed, impulsive and dishonest with the women he sleeps with, and Phoebe's got a lifetime of accumulated superstitions and traumatic experiences that make it virtually impossible for her to make consistently reasonable decisions.

But Ross and Rachel just do awful things.  They consistently treat other people (their friends and everyone else) like they're around for their benefit, they both take extreme positions in any argument, which place them as unequivocally right, and they're dishonest with themselves to the point where it compels them to make harmful decisions, even (and especially) when other people point it out to them.

So I really don't care what happens to Ross and Rachel.  I just hope they don't screw things up for anyone else.

Thing #3:  Chandler and Monica are my favorite characters, and Chandler/Monica is my OTP.  Unlike Ross and Rachel, they only generally let their neuroses and insecurities take them to a place of mild wrongness before they allow themselves to be dissuaded.  (Except in any case where Monica is trying to win something that has been clearly characterized as a competition.)  And they've been growing into better people as the series goes on, unlike Ross and Rachel, who came into the show on a down-note and kept up momentum since.

Thing #4:  I don't have anything against Phoebe and Joey, I just haven't been really engaged by their plots lately.

SimCity's new release

I was vaguely aware of the existence of a new SimCity game in production over the last few weeks.  Today, I found out it came out yesterday, and I started looking into it.  Adam Sneed at Slate has written a long post about his experience with the game, that has made me drool a little bit:

To tinker with the environment during a preview of SimCity, I created Sneedville, a playground for my more destructive tendencies. The area in which I founded my city was rich in coal and metal ore, so I chose to specialize in industry. [...]

Because of the work available to them, the residents of Sneedville were low-income. This limited the city’s tax revenue, and there was little incentive for people to move into town. Worse, data showed that pollution from the industrial park was lowering property values and diminishing quality of life. It also turned out that the ore beneath the mines was being depleted.

The city was off to a decent start financially, but following the trend lines wasn’t hard. Real estate was limited, so I needed to make a decision. Should I dedicate myself to industry, knowing it will bring money as well as environmental damage, and that the area’s lifeblood would someday run out? Or should I try diversifying the economy by shifting to, say, commerce, education, or tourism?

[...]

Another way SimCity accurately captures in the leading edge of urban planning is through its use of Big Data. Cities around the world are using sensors to measure everything from energy and water usage to pollution levels and crime trends. The game puts the player at the helm of the ultimate smart city as it tracks just about every metric of life in the simulation. At the click of a button, dynamic, colorful maps—inspired by the infographics of data scientist Edward Tufte—present real-time data on traffic, crime, pollution, public health, property values, and much more.

Apparently, there are some serious problems with server access going on right now, but EA says they're working to sort them out.

Whimventory, the universal wishlist

So my partner was putting things on a wishlist on a yarn site somewhere, and I was thinking "Isn't it annoying that there isn't some kind of universal wishlist for the whole internet?"  Then, instead of saying anything out loud about it, I googled "Universal wishlist," because I think it's annoying when people ponder conundrums that can be solved with the same keywords that are in their question, so I figured I shouldn't make anyone else (i.e. my partner) sit through it. The first link I found when I googled "Universal wish list" was Whimventory, the universal wishlist.  It's quite a cool site -- you get a little browser button, and if you're on a site that sells things, and you click on it, it makes some guesses at the name of the product you want, the picture of it, and the price, and gives you a box to adjust those things if they're wrong, then saves them in a little index card kind of thing as a link to that page on your wishlist.  For example:

Whimventory - txwatson - Wishlist

I started my wishlist off by stocking it with the first things that came to mind from the overlap between stuff I want and stuff I think I ought to want.  By the way, I've set the image above to go to my wishlist, like, just in case for some reason you wanted to buy me something or whatever.  No big deal.

Google Glass test run

Joshua Topolsky at the Verge has had the opportunity to give Google Glass a test-run, and he's written a very long article about the experience.

The design of Glass is actually really beautiful. Elegant, sophisticated. They look human and a little bit alien all at once. Futuristic but not out of time — like an artifact from the 1960’s, someone trying to imagine what 2013 would be like. This is Apple-level design. No, in some ways it’s beyond what Apple has been doing recently. It’s daring, inventive, playful, and yet somehow still ultimately simple. The materials feel good in your hand and on your head, solid but surprisingly light. Comfortable. If Google keeps this up, soon we’ll be saying things like "this is Google-level design."

[...]

When you activate Glass, there’s supposed to be a small screen that floats in the upper right-hand of your field of vision, but I don’t see the whole thing right away. Instead I’m getting a ghost of the upper portion, and the bottom half seems to melt away at the corner of my eye.

Steve and Isabelle adjust the nose pad and suddenly I see the glowing box. Victory.

It takes a moment to adjust to this spectral screen in your vision, and it’s especially odd the first time you see it, it disappears, and you want it to reappear but don’t know how to make it happen. Luckily that really only happens once, at least for me.

Here’s what you see: the time is displayed, with a small amount of text underneath that reads "ok glass." That’s how you get Glass to wake up to your voice commands. Actually, it’s a two-step process. First you have to touch the side of the device (which is actually a touchpad), or tilt your head upward slowly, a gesture which tells Glass to wake up. Once you’ve done that, you start issuing commands by speaking "ok glass" first, or scroll through the options using your finger along the side of the device. You can scroll items by moving your finger backwards or forward along the strip, you select by tapping, and move "back" by swiping down. Most of the big interaction is done by voice, however.

[...]

Let me start by saying that using it is actually nearly identical to what the company showed off in its newest demo video. That’s not CGI — it’s what Glass is actually like to use. It’s clean, elegant, and makes relative sense. The screen is not disruptive, you do not feel burdened by it. It is there and then it is gone. It’s not shocking. It’s not jarring. It’s just this new thing in your field of vision. And it’s actually pretty cool.

(emphasis mine)

This is just a small selection of some of the amazing details about the product in this article.  The thing that sounded the coolest to me was the navigation -- mapping instructions directly onto your field of vision.  That is a feature I would benefit from immensely.

(I wonder if they'll be coming out with a Glass-inspired overlay for car windshields?  No, more likely we'll just get driverless cars soon.)

Honestly, I started to like Glass a lot when I was wearing it. It wasn’t uncomfortable and it brought something new into view (both literally and figuratively) that has tremendous value and potential. I don’t think my face looks quite right without my glasses on, and I didn’t think it looked quite right while wearing Google Glass, but after a while it started to feel less and less not-right. And that’s something, right?

(emphasis mine)

I am looking forward to this technology so much you guys have no idea.

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1

I'm about to click on the first half of Atlas Shrugged in Netflix.  I don't know how long I'm going to make it into this movie, from what I've seen in commercials it looks like it's going to be unforgivably preachy.  But I'm also curious. It starts following a train in 2016, so, there's an optimistic view of the future of government oppression -- more public transportation.  We're out of gas and oil, so the trains are apparently a last resort.  But I'm betting the message of this movie isn't going to be "Trains are awesome."  In fact, one ends up derailing, apparently, right at the beginning because the tracks aren't maintained.

I was under the impression that the plot of this movie was supposed to be about government incompetence, but what it looks like is everyone-incompetence.  It's corporations responsible for the poorly maintained railroads.

It looks like the hero of this movie is a woman who proudly doesn't care about people, and the bad guy -- at least, the first bad guy we see -- is an executive who tries to avoid servicing monopolies and puts effort into areas outside his own backyard.  Pointedly, Miss Taggart, the heroic sociopath, is saving the day by going to a metallurgist who faces widespread criticism for his awful metal, who himself throws away appointment requests with people in a position to evaluate his work, on the basis that she studied engineering in college and is therefore qualified to decide that the metal is secretly perfect.

Reardon, the metal salesman, heroically squeezes as much money from her crisis as possible, and she explains that she doesn't have any emotions again.  He also heroically forgets his wedding anniversary.  He had already bought her a gift, though.  To celebrate the fact that he has a contract for his country.

I've gotten pretty sick of this, so I've decided to skip ahead.  I'm watching a YouTube video of a reading of the section of Atlas Shrugged everyone talks about -- the John Galt rant.

So... The point of this rant sounds like "Some of the rich people are the lynch-pins of the whole civilization, and without them everything falls apart."  And they're "On strike."

This ten-minute video cuts off in a way that suggests to me that it's not the whole rant.  But, if I may attempt to summarize:

(a.)  Popular morality is inherently destructive to civilization.  (b.)  The main premise of popular morality is 'people should be nice to each other, to the exclusion of themselves.'  (c.)  The alternative to popular morality is being rational, and (d.)  Rationality is inherently anti-kindness-to-others.

This argument sounds good, because all of its premises are really close to reasonable premises.  For example, take these alternate terms:  (a.) There are systems of morality that are destructive to civilization, (b.) One of the flaws these systems feature is an impulse of self-destruction in pursuit of others' welfare, (c.) We must therefore evaluate our moral systems through rational methods, and (d.) Reason doesn't come pre-loaded with any moral answers.

The conclusion of the first set of premises is "Everyone should be super-selfish, but think more than two hours into the future while doing so."  The doctrine of rational self-interest that is the main pillar of Ayn Rand's Objectivism.  The problem with that conclusion is that it argues there is a predetermined moral premise, that one should maximize one's material self-interest as determined by a zero-sum accounting of all the stuff that happens to exist at the time you're thinking this through.

The sort of similar, but much less overreaching, conclusion of the second set of premises is "A moral system that (a.) is interested in maximizing well-being for people, and (b.) is applicable to any given person who wants to pursue morality, should not have an actively negative effect on the well-being of its practitioners."  This doesn't fall into the same hole as the rational self-interest argument does, because it leaves the moral assumptions as they are -- assumptions that are outside the realm of reason -- but it doesn't therefore conclude "Thinking about morality is nonsense and no-one should do it."

Rand conflates acting against one's self-interest and acting in a way that serves the interests of anyone else.  It's obviously not inherently true, and fortunately it's also not true in real life, that there's nothing people can do that can improve both their own lives and the lives of other people.

I'd like to make it clear here, before I post this, that my point is that Ayn Rand is wrong; not that the inverse of Ayn Rand's philosophy is right, or that the philosophies she was arguing against are right.

So, this got away a little bit from watching part 1 of Atlas Shrugged.  But that movie kind of made me feel nauseous.  So, there's that.

Seven Psychopaths is an awesome movie

There are many ways in which Seven Psychopaths is problematic.  But in most of those ways, the movie is also a direct attack on those problematic qualities in mainstream movies. (It would be difficult to have any sort of discussion about this movie without significant spoilers, so I'm not going to bother trying.)

For example, there are barely any women in the movie.  They pretty much all die violent deaths.  None of them have a particularly strong active role in the plot, nor are shown onscreen exercising any sort of agency.

When Hans calls Marty out on that point -- Marty being the writer working on the screenplay of the movie "Seven Psychopaths" -- Marty says something like "Life is hard on women."  He's being obviously dismissive, and Hans is obviously unsatisfied.  The audience, I think, is expected to be in on the point that mainstream media's treatment of women can't be called feminist or progressive just because screenwriters and directors say stuff like "Women are trivialized and objectified -- just like in real life!  And that's awful," in interviews when they get called out on it.

The TVTropes article on Seven Psychopaths contains the bullet point: "Lampshade Hanging: Everwhere once they head out into the desert."  Translated: "T.X. Watson loves this movie once they head out into the desert."

Billy is pretty obviously psychotic from pretty early on, though that mightn't have been very clear if it hadn't been for the title.  But the reveal, when it becomes obvious to Marty that he's a psychopath, was incredible.  "Do not burn neighbor's flag."  Cut to neighbor's flag, burnt almost entirely off.

I love Billy's character -- I think it's a great depiction of what life is like for most psychopaths.  He wants to fit in.  He wants to be able to live in normal life, with friends, and peace, and comfort.  But he can't, because there just isn't that thing in him that compels him to act against his own, immediate interests.  He doesn't have any empathy.

So he tries to reason his way around it:  "People have a right to fly a flag."  But reason is just barely good enough to get him to behave mildly normally in public.  He makes it obvious that reason alone isn't a substitute for a moral sense -- he can't stop himself acting in his own shallowest, most immediate interest if he's doing anything else at all.  If he's choosing not to do something because he's reasoned that it's wrong, that has to be his activity.  Sitting down, looking out the window, actively, constantly choosing not to burn down his neighbor's flag.

It's obvious that psychopathy isn't a two-way street here.  Billy can't empathize with the audience.  He can care what we think of him, and he can work to earn the perception he wants people to have.  But he can't ever actually see himself the way we see him.

But we can empathize with Billy, and we do.  We empathize with all the psychopaths, because often as hard for a non-psychopathic person to not care as it is for Billy to not burn his neighbor's flag.

So, yeah.  I recommend this movie. Its reflections on media, on psychopathy, on the nature of character flaws, are all compelling and engrossing.  I kinda think I want to own this one.

Review: Pretty Monsters: The Wrong Grave

The book I started this weekend, Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link, is a collection of short stories.  So, I think I'll review them one by one.  Mostly because the first one was awesome, and I have loads I want to say about it. ...Below the fold.

The Wrong Grave is about a teenager who puts some poems in his dead girlfriend's casket, then later on decides he wants them back.  So he digs her up, but finds some other dead girl in her grave -- a dead girl with a snarky attitude and pretty intense supernatural powers.

I've been watching a lot of Adventure Time lately, and I cannot begin to explain how much this story reminded me of Marceline. 

I don't just want to gush about Adventure Time, though.  (Well, I kinda do.  I'm getting there.)  I read some of Kelly Link's work a few years ago, and I found it hard to follow, and fun, but only after a great deal of unpicking.  The everything-going-on-all-at-once aesthetic offers an extraordinarily complex sense of otherworldliness that, at the time, I had no experience with.

Now, though, I have Adventure Time to compare it to.

A couple years ago, I had very nearly no experience with narratives that implied huge, complex backgrounds that are totally alien to the intended audience.  Most of the stuff I'd read or seen very carefully spoon-fed all the necessary information to me before it relied on it for plot purposes.

Since then, either this screw-it attitude to explaining things has gotten a lot more mainstream, or I've just bumped into it a lot more.  Adventure Time is full of this kind of apparently uncoordinated backstory, and for a while I thought it was just thrown together randomly.  But the more I watch, the more it turns out there's a huge, coherent narrative, almost all of which we're just not being told.

I think this experience has made Link's work way easier to follow, and so it's way easier to enjoy.  (Not that I didn't enjoy it before.  Just now it doesn't take me several days.)  I'm glad I'm there now, too, because apparently that's the kind of writing that's getting popular.

Review: The New Moon's Arms

I finished reading Nalo Hopkinson's The New Moon's Arms on Friday night.  And, I don't really know what to say about it. I mean, it was good.  Really good.  The writing was vivid and constantly engaging, the characters were well-rounded and compelling, and the magic snuck in so gradually that for a while I thought I might be reading one of those books that gets shelved in the other part of the book store.  You know, the ones about families and relationships and tragedy where it's all real-lifey and sad.

And it was.  I don't think I was really ready for that.  I mean, I wasn't expecting to come into a book that spent this much time exploring what it means to be a human being in a normal world, and I don't really know where to take that in terms of broad interpretation.

Mostly what I got from this book was the really brilliant, skillful writing, but that's not much of a topic for a review.  I've got a lot of reading to do this semester, but if I have time, I hope to circle back to this one and take a closer look.  This might be one of those books you need to read twice.  Or, at least, one that I need to read twice.

I'm going to leave off the spoilery section of this review, because I don't think I have enough to say to justify it.

Review: Warm Bodies

Warm Bodies is a zombie romance movie.  I mean, more so than nearly every zombie is a zombie romance movie, because in this one it's not just "two people [fall in love/cling to each other in desperation] while zombies happen to be nearby," it's "Zombie falls in love with girl, zombie kidnaps girl, somehow that works out." That said, if you ignore the extremely problematic main storyline, it's a really good movie.

Spoilers below.

There are two kinds of zombies in Warm Bodies:  the regular dead, kind of isolated-in-self, partially conscious people who all seem like they're recovering from serious brain damage and also crave flesh.  Then there are the 'bonies,' or skeletons, zombies who are so far gone that they've torn off all their flesh and attack anything and everything with a pulse.

At first, the bonies are just a sort of weird background thing, but by the end it's clear that they need to be there to keep this movie a zombie movie, because the zombies aren't really zombies -- or, at least, they get better. The power of love starts their hearts beating again, and they start to learn how to be human.

This movie is clearly engineered from start to finish to be heartwarming -- which totally works -- and if you apply the standardized, out-of-the-box metaphorical interpretation of zombies, that they represent the mindless horde of consumers, it's extremely optimistic.

The message seems to be that empathy is the solution to some major world problems.  In this case, a zombie eats some dude's brain, and thereby experiences that guy's life.  In doing so, he comes to understand his experiences, but also comes to empathize with his ex-girlfriend, who he kidnaps and takes to his plane-full-of-junk.

(He acts like he's saving her life, but really, he could have just helped her hide when he and his buddies all left, and Julie would have gotten out of there just like her friend, hiding under a nearby desk, did.)

Then, other zombies see him acting weirdly, and instead of murdering him for being different, one of them reaches out in a gesture of friendship to try and understand.  That understanding and empathy spreads, and shortly thereafter all the zombies start remembering what being a human being is.

Given that interpretation, I'm not really sure who the survivors are supposed to be.  I'd say that they're the rich people ruling over the zombified poor, but there are slums on the inside of the wall.  And they don't seem to be the handful of remaining super-special-people who never lost their humanity, because the leader of the survivors, Julie's dad, is the most hardcore-anti-empathy person not skeletonized.

Maybe I'll see more if I get to see this movie again, but right now it seems like the kind of movie that feels really deep and moving, but doesn't have much more going on under the surface.  But it's funny and it's self-aware and it's an earnestly well-done fresh take on zombies (heh, fresh zombies) so if you're looking for a fun movie to go and see, I recommend it.

And if you see any underlying themes or philosophical puzzles that look like they'll pan out into something deep, please comment.

Review: Ender's Game

I finished reading Ender's Game on Friday night.  I've been meaning to read it for several years now, after many people had insisted that it's life-changingly good.  Ultimately, I was disappointed.  This book is fantastic, as far as the quality of writing goes.  It's deeply engaging, believable, and vivid.  I have no complaints to make about the quality of the book as a work of fiction.  Everything that follows is why I was disappointed with it as a work of serious emotional significance.  Review, including spoilers, below the fold.

The first thing that bothered me about Ender's Game was that it's a power fantasy.  If I had read this book when I was little, I would probably have liked it a lot more, because it's all about children who are smarter than everyone else.  But not just children -- There are books with some amazing children in them that make a lot more sense.  The Hunger Games, for example, or Harry Potter.  The difference between Ender's Game and these books is that, at his highest level of achievement, Ender is about twelve years old.  He is frustratingly perfect, and reminded me frequently of the TVTropes entry, Cursed with Awesome.

The morality of the book, too, is all very cheaply convenient.  Ender, of course, constantly struggles emotionally with the fact that he's super awesome and amazing at everything.  I mean, the reason is that there are a bunch of adults trying to emotionally wreck him, but it's all for a good cause.  Except that it's not, because (a.) the Buggers weren't coming back, and (b.) if it weren't for the intervention of Ender's sociopath older brother, the world would have descended into horrific violence as soon as the war was over.  Humans in Ender's Game suck.

The whole thing reminded me very much of Ayn Rand -- the way that people get kind of fanatical about her.  It's got roughly the same thesis:  That super humans who are inherently better than everyone else are going to singlehandedly make the world a better place, acting entirely out of self-interest.  Notably, the weakest of the three super humans, the one with the least agency, is Valentine, who is the most inherently caring towards other people.

Ender's Game takes this thesis to an absurd extreme with a handful of children who are smarter than everyone else, nearly smarter than everyone else combined -- but I think it's more problematic in the sense that it encourages the view that some people really are more valid, more special than others.  It's the opening premise of fascism:  some people, if given all the power, will make the world a better place.

Review: Les Miserables

I saw the Les Miserables movie today.  It was awesome. They did an awesome job of being faithful to the musical.  That said, especially near the beginning, the singing and integration of the music wasn't awesome.  (I've used the word awesome three times already in this post.  I am going to try to use it less now.)

Like with Sweeney Todd, I think the most major roles in Les Miserables went to the actors who got them less because they're the best actors for the role, and more because they're the most famous actors who kind of fit.  (Well, with Sweeney Todd, Johnny Depp didn't fit at all.  And if you make allowances for that, did a great job.)

Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe both had a rocky start in the roles.  Jackman did a much better job as Valjean as soon as he was allowed to shave -- he plays 'kind soul with a dark past' better than 'haggard vagrant crushed by the injustice of the world'.  Russell Crowe did not grow so well into the role.  Still, he was only distractingly bad near the beginning -- I got used to it.

Thenardier and his wife were fantastic.  (Sacha Baron Cohen must really like playing criminals in musicals.  Or maybe he just really likes musicals, and nobody will cast him as anything else.)

Gavroche was brilliant, too.

I won't say any more, lest I spoil, except to point out that I cried, a lot.  If your heart has turned to stone and you need a film to reach inside you and move something, go see Les Miserables.

Review: the first fifteen minutes of The Following

I started watching Fox's new show, The Following, this morning.  When I say started, I don't mean that I watched the first episode and I'm looking forward to the rest of the season.  I mean I got fifteen minutes in and I couldn't fracking stand it anymore. The Following was disappointing.  It started out with an uninspired and uncreative jail break.  Fine, whatever.  Then, it cut to Kevin Bacon, the grizzled, doesn't-play-by-the-rules former FBI agent getting called back in because he's the only one who knows how to handle this particular criminal.  Also he wrote a book.

Fine.  I'll bite.  Maybe they're just getting off to a rough start.  Oh, and the criminal is super into American fiction from the Romantic era.  He's super into Poe.  So, he believes in the mystical nature of writing, like Poe.  Only, Poe didn't believe that.  Poe was very specific about the mechanical, professional nature of his work.  So that was annoying.

And then Kevin Bacon meets the expert, whose analysis of the serial killer he quickly dismisses as wrong because reasons, then that expert geeks out because Kevin Bacon's character is a fracking superhero apparently and I guess there's only like one serial killer ever because everyone on the show was involved in the case somehow or did their thesis on it.  Yet, Kevin Bacon remains the only available expert.

I stuck it out through the first commercial break, but then when it got to the blatantly stereotypical gay men in the previous victim's apartment I couldn't stand it anymore so I shut it off.

This show sucks.  I'm amazed how much this show sucks.

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

I've been meaning to get around to reading something by Ursula K. Le Guin for a while now, and I honestly picked up the Left Hand of Darkness half out of a sense of obligation.  It's one of those books I knew I should read, which doesn't always translate into books I want to read.  [1. I feel the same way about Ender's Game, by the way, which I'm reading now because my little brother insisted.] I'm really glad I read this, though.  And I'm eager to read more of Le Guin's work.[2. Which won't be for a while, because the next twenty or so books I'm reading are all by teachers at this year's Clarion, in case I get in.]

The general idea of the story is:  Genly Ai, a human male envoy (the "first mobile") has come to a planet, Gethen, populated by a species of human that doesn't have two sexes, and doesn't have a gender binary.  A big part of the appeal of this book is the astounding quality of the thought experiment, what would civilization be like without a sex divide?  But that's not all worth reading in it.

Not totally spoilery content below, but with more information about what the book contains past the first couple chapters.

For clarity, I should explain:  any given Gethenian is usually -- not asexual, but sexually dormant, and during their sexually active period may shift into either a male or female role.  They neither have control over which way they shift on any given period of sexual activity, nor only ever shift into one sex or the other for their entire lives.  If a Gethenian takes on the female role in one particular period of sexual activity, they may become pregnant, and for nine months plus nursing time their body remains more in a state like femaleness.  This isn't a species with secret genders only expressed sometimes, it's a species where everyone has the same relationship to their sexual and procreative organs as everyone else.

It's genuinely striking, when you read this book, to keep noticing that it feels like half of a species is missing.  Everyone is treated equally as full members of society, and you feel that sense that there's a second class missing.  Genly consistently fails to acclimate to the fundamental differences between Gethenian civilizations and ours, and so did I.  In that sense, it's very illustrative of humans' internalized sexism.[3. At first I wrote "Actual humans," but I don't want to suggest that the Gethenians aren't human.  I was going for "non-fictional" but fell short.]

But I don't want to go on forever about the gender identity part of the book.  I hope you read it, and everything I say about it will detract from its impact when you do.

The thing I liked best about the book, I think, was the backstory about how Genly got there.   He represented the Ekumen, an interplanetary organization that primarily focused on organizing trade.  Every planet they represented, though, was populated by humans, and every one discovered the way that Gethen was discovered, populated by humans of some kind or another.

The universe, we discover, was subject to some great trauma, and at some point before that, there were people who went to planets and abandoned groups of humans.  Genly thinks it's likely that the Gethenians were an experiment performed by some unethical group, to remove sexual differentiation from humanity, populate a planet with them, and see what happens.

The narrative of the book comes entirely through two perspectives, Genly's field notes and the journal of Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, as well as a handful of stories from the Genethian oral tradition.  I didn't really expect it to be, but the story that these narratives end up telling is enthralling in its own right.  I was about two thirds of the way through the book before I realized that I cared more about what was going to happen to and between Genly and Estraven than I did about learning more about Gethen.

Altogether this is an incredibly good book, and I recommend it highly, and look forward to when I'm going to have the time to give it a second read.

 

An Evening of Awesome redux

First, I want to say that I wasn't all that scared.  I was surprised, because it seemed like a situation that ought to have been really scary.  But getting there went very smoothly, and there wasn't really anything to be particularly terrified of. The show, by the way, was awesome.

This isn't going to be a bery directly informative post, because I don't really know how to report on something like this.  It's kind of a blur.  A big, extraordinary blur.

I really hope the opening bit was unplanned.  Or, rather, because it couldn't possibly have been totally unplanned, I hope Hank really hadn't told John he was doing it.  (John came out to give an opening speech, and Hank started singing a jingle-like routine about Carnegie Hall.  Then he kept cutting in over John's narration, and John seemed genuinely surprised, and a little annoyed, by it.  It was very funny.)

John's speech after that, which was obviously planned and fairly serious, was also incredibly moving.  More than Hank's goofy singing, I think John's speech set the tone for the night.  (Hank's singing seriously contributed to the tone, though, which is a very good thing.)

Here's a link directly to the right part of the video.  Unfortunately, apparently YouTube no longer makes it easy to link directly to partway through a youTube video, so if you're watching this at the embed below, it's at 46:00.

A recurring theme throughout the night is the idea that art isn't about convincing people who disagree with it that they're wrong, it's about letting people who are already in the kind of place that the book is about, that they're not alone.  John talks about it in that segment, listening to the Mountain Goats reminded me of that idea over and over again, and Neil Gaiman (who, holy crap, was there) talked about it when he talked about the sense of security he gets around the writing that makes him feel most exposed, because the response he gets, from thousands of people, is "I thought I was the only one."

By the way, the musical guests were all awesome.  (I nearly wrote "Apart from Hank," but that's not fair.  Hank is awesome.  I just didn't think of him as a musical guest.)  I had heard the Mountain Goats a bit before, not a whole bunch, but seeing them live is really amazing, and makes me want to look into more of their work.  One of their songs, "Love, Love, Love," has kept me thinking for a while now about that idea of art meeting you where you're at -- all their songs, but this one in particular, seem like the kinds of songs that would be perfect for someone who's at a place where it's what they need to hear.  They pull this off, it seems, by being near-completely inscrutible to people who don't necessarily need them.  Personally, I keep feeling like I'm on the edge of knowing what that particular song is talking about, which is weirdly annoying.

I had never heard the other musical guest, Kimya Dawson, before.  Well, that's not entirely true.  Looking into it today I discovered that she's the singer from the Mouldy Peaches, who I have heard before.  But I'd never heard any of her solo stuff, and it's really incredibly amazing.  She performed "I Like Giants" and "Same Shit/Complicated," and in doing so convinced me that I need to listen to way more of her music.

Did I mention, by the way, that Neil Gaiman was there?  It was crazy.  He actually tweeted that he wished he could have been there during the show, while he was backstage in order to secure the secrecy of his appearance.  He was on stage with Hannah Hart and John and Hank Green for Question Tuesday, where Hannah asked Hank questions and Neil asked John questions, and mysterious voices from back stage gave warnings about time running out.

Below this paragraph is an embed of the show -- the show part doesn't start for like a half an hour, but it's okay, you can skip the static screen that's part of the first huge chunk of the livestream video.  Nothing important happens then.

Don't forget to be awesome.

Lizzie Bennet Diaries episode 77 is up!

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was gone for a week, and they left off on a huge cliffhanger -- so I'm super excited that they're back. And ohmygod it's SO GOOD.

 

Not really commentary, but spoiler containing blogging below the fold.

I spend the whole video really loudly hoping that the weird/quirky/cool tour guide girl was going to turn out to be Gigi.  And she TOTALLY DID!  OMGSOEXCITED

(Sorry.  I'll calm down.  This blog isn't tumblr.)

So I went and checked out Gigi's twitter, where I discovered this adorable conversation between her and Fitz:

(NOTE: I'm having problems with the tweet-embedding, so just in case I haven't been able to get it to work, here is a link to the conversation on Twitter.)

(NOTE 2: I never got it to work.  So I guess you have to click the link if you want to see that conversation.  Sorry...)

I'm so happy that Gigi likes Lizzie!  This is such a good series I can't even begin to express how into this I am.  (I really need to read the book soon.  I think I will search through my personal library today to see if I have a copy kicking around.)

2012 is basically over

All that's left now is to celebrate the passage of time through one of the more fun arbitrary goalposts.  (Don't get me wrong -- I like arbitrary goalposts.  But it is, still, definitely arbitrary.) And, to review 2012.

A lot of cool stuff happened this year, I'm sure.  Right now, I'm kind of drawing a blank.  I remember Wreck-it Ralph, my relationship with my partner, which, if she doesn't dump me during the countdown, will have spanned the full calendar year, working at an amusement park, lots of school, and lots of Minecraft.

Seriously, though.  I didn't talk about it much (because I can't imagine it's very interesting) but I spent a lot of time this year playing Minecraft, and watching Minecraft Let's-plays on YouTube.  I'm currently following like a third of the Mindcrack server people:  Etho, DocM, BdoubleO, and I just subscribed to Guude.

And Ze Frank started vlogging again.  That's awesome, and I've really enjoyed having the chance to be part of the Sports Racers community live this time.  I also became much more deeply invested in the Nerdfighter community over the course of this year.  (Having learned they exist just over a year ago.)

And, there was the serious, global stuff.  Like the election.  That was scary -- I felt okay on election night, because I checked Nate Silver's projections and decided that I felt confident in them, but I really didn't know.  It's still scary, because our government is not being super cooperative, but Romney as president was not a pleasant idea.

And the shootings.  There were three major shootings in the US this year, and it's pretty seriously solidified my position on guns.  (No-one should be allowed them.  It should be a jailable offense to be caught just having a gun.  That way, we can just arrest the people who get their hands on guns, rather than waiting until they do something awful with them.)

But back to nice things.  The Lizzie Bennet Diaries!  For anyone who doesn't know, they're a modern-day adaptation of Pride and Prejudice via the medium of vlogs.  (And tweets, and tumblr and pinterest.)  Not only is it an amazing series in its own right, but it introduced me to the story of Pride and Prejudice -- which, up to this point, I basically knew featured someone named Darcy.  Now, having watched multiple TV adaptations and staying up to date on the Lizzie Bennet Diaries, I understand why some people rank it as the greatest English novel.  It's freaking extraordinarily fascinating, and I'm looking forward to reading the book.  (Didn't get around to that this year.)

Food was also a significant theme this year.  No, seriously.  My partner and I do a lot of cooking together, and it has expanded my horizons re: food.  I have also rediscovered a number of foods that I had forgotten I loved.  Like Hummus.  Hummus is amazing.  How did I go several years without eating hummus.

I mentioned Wreck-it Ralph earlier -- that was one of a few amazing movies that came out this year.  Rise of the Guardians was another one, which was a huge surprise to me.  I was expecting a weird, cheesy movie about the importance of telling kids there's a Santa.  And it kind of was, I guess, but it was also amazing and inspiring and moving.

And there was the Dark Knight Rises.  And the Avengers.  This was a pretty good year for superhero movies, which appear to be being taken more and more seriously by Hollywood.  (It occurred to me the other night that there are some inherent problematic qualities in the concept of a superhero, which I want to talk about, but I'd like to gather my thoughts first, so not today.)

Altogether 2012 was a great year.  I give it 4 out of 5.  Would see again.

2013 is scary.  It's a big, huge, scary year coming up.  I'm going to turn 24.  I'm going to find out if I got accepted to Clarion.  I'm going to have to figure out where I'm going after I graduate NECC. Lots of big, scary stuff.

For now, though, things are pretty good.  I'm going to enjoy that tonight.  I'll worry about my life tomorrow.  That's what hangovers are for.

 

Review: Rise of the Guardians

Okay, I'm going to be honest.  I cried through, like, all of this movie. It's about Jack Frost, and other contemporary child-mythology creatures -- Santa, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, and the Easter Bunny.  They are the Guardians, and they protect the world's children.  Basically, they work to increase awesome and fight worldsuck.

I wanted to see Rise of the Guardians ever since I found out that it's not the next installment of the Guardians of Ga'Hoole movies.  Specifically, because I found that out in io9's interview with Guillermo del Toro about the movie:

What's the biggest mistake people make in telling stories about children, or for children?

Well, I think that one of the things is to actually try and create a sense of darkness in the tale. A lot of people just make this sanitized super happy-go-lucky, "bright sunshine and clouds" type of childhood movies. And you really need an element of the dark in it.

The movie opens 300 years ago, with Jack Frost being born at the bottom of a lake, and the moon telling him who he is.

I mean, like, his name.  He doesn't tell him anything else.  He gets a name, and finds a magic stick, and he's basically left to figure things out from there.

Spoilers below the fold.

The main villain of this movie is Pitch Black, who is the boogeyman -- and the main enemy of the guardians.  Jack is selected to be a guardian at the start of the movie, when they find out that Pitch is coming back, but through most of the plot he's kind of reluctant.  Pitch calls him a "Neutral party" -- because they both go unacknowledged by children around the world.  Whatever these people are, they are powerless and alone without the belief of children.

Pitch is a painful villain to watch.  He can't win.  It would be the worst thing in the world for him to win, because for him to be believed in, people have to be miserable and terrified.

But losing means he has to be alone, and the film makes you feel that.  Pitch is miserable.  He's unloved, uncared for, afraid, and he's going to be around forever -- with the handful of people who have anything in common with him sworn to fight him back down into the underworld if he ever makes a peep.

Jack's almost that badly set up -- he doesn't know why he exists.  Unlike the rest of the Guardians, he only remembers becoming Jack Frost, it's not till near the end of the movie that (SUPER SPOILER DON'T READ UNTIL YOU'VE SEEN THE MOVIE) he finds out he used to be a human boy, with a family, and he died saving his sister's life from cracking ice.

Jack doesn't remember that.  For three hundred years, he didn't know why he existed, what he was for, why nobody, anywhere, apart from the Guardians (one of whom doesn't even like him) can see him or knows he exists.

Everything bad or sad in this movie is excruciatingly tragic.  Everything good in this movie is miraculous.  It makes sense, for a children's movie -- with as little experience as children have, most things do reach to the very edges of their ability to feel.  To quote Randall Munroe of xkcd, "Our brains have just one scale, and we resize our experiences to fit."