Monday, December 26, 2011

Let's Do Something

As a man of independent mind, it has been a hard lesson learned that it takes two, baby.

So let's do something. Yes, we may live in different places. Many things can be accomplished over the internet, by phone, or via weekend visits. It's a new year and I am mentally prepared to cooperate and collaborate.

But what should we do? The hell if I know. Let's talk about it. Surely we have complimentary skill sets. We'll seek others within our friend circles with similar interests. If we all work together, we can accomplish something spectacular. Or maybe not! Maybe we'll just play something. Or maybe form a club or circle?

A writing group, an artistic collaboration, a band, a company, a book club, a secret society, a gaming circle, a roleplaying campaign, a short-story compilation, a video-game clan, a child-care coop, or simply a group of drinking-buddies.

Or perhaps you have your own ideas? Get in touch and we'll talk about it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review of "You Only Live Twice" by Ian Fleming

I have always hated James Bond. 007, the icon, is known throughout the world because of his movies. Since the 60s, he's been suave, cool, irresistable to women, over-the-top and dangerous. I suppose his appeal is that men are supposed to want to be him. He gets any woman he wants and kills anybody he wants. If I met him I'd want to throttle him because he's so unpleasant. Frustratingly, he would kill me if I tried.

So you might be surprised to know that I chose to read a James Bond novel. It's number twelve in the series, You Only Live Twice. I did it out of masochistic curiosity, just so you know. You might also be surprised to discover that Hollywood's James Bond does not resemble Ian Fleming's Bond whatsoever.

Firstly, You Only Live Twice (novel) does not begin with an obnoxious action sequence that is supposed to make you vomit in entertainment. It begins with Bond moping after the death of his wife and a series of professional fuckups. In fact, Bond doesn't actually get into a fight until the end of the novel!

Eventually Bond gets assigned to Japan to uncover some vital information (which is never revealed). We're just told the mission is impossible. Impossible it may be, but Bond gets sidetracked hanging out in brothels with his new Japanese drinking buddy. Then his buddy tells him to go murder some crazy Doctor Shatterhand. But first, they attend some more brothels. He does eventually discover Doctor Shatterhand's secret and penetrates his garden-fortress of death, but that's really only the last fifth of the story. It is such a strange book. It reads like a travel brochure punctuated with anti-Japanese slurs and hookers.

And then there's Bond's personality itself. The literary Bond is not the gadget-laden, smooth-talking product placement we know and hate. Instead, he's hateful in a different way. Imagine if you can a chauvanistic, racist and old-fashioned Cambridge professor trapped in the body of a super-spy. He's also clearly an alcoholic. He wanders around the novel muttering stuff like, "I say, Tanaka, this damned lobster's still alive! Give me a rasher of bacon and hop to it, you damn slant-eyed tosser, wot?" For some reason, the Japanese find this behaviour endearing.

It's not that I entirely dislike the idea literary-Bond. He's real in a way that Hollywood-Bond could never be. To be honest, I kind of enjoyed the exploits of this stodgy booze-hound as he swanks around Japan and I liked even more how much Hollywood could never, ever feature this Bond in a film and expect it to be a blockbuster. The last two Bond films with Daniel Craig have tried to bury the campy 60's Bond and make him more realistic and like literary-Bond. But they don't even come close. This Bond is so irredeemably English that you'd expect to see him stumbling around some high-class function telling off-colour racist stories as annoyed guests tolerate him because he's little, cute and British. After about an hour his mortified wife bundles him off to bed.

So, was the novel good? I guess, kind of. It is the only spy novel I've read and in that sense it's like nothing I've ever read before. I don't think I'll be in any hurry to pick up another Bond novel, but I can say I was glad for the experience.
3 creepy sexual encounters out of 5

As a side-note, another reason I grabbed this book was my interest in comparing movie adaptations with their source material. After seeing this art from the movie poster, I've decided not to bother with the movie for reasons that should be obvious to anyone.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Ten Worst Fraggers Ever

I shall never be a great fragger of men.

I came to this realization after I decided to stop playing Call of Duty: World at War. It was a game with everything I could have wanted: realistic historical weapons, customizable equiment and a great World War II setting. Yet I had to quit.

It's not that I lack the talent. Nor do I lack the time, although my free time is precious now that I have the little one. So what was it? After many hours online, I keep running into the same personalities over and over again. Some are worse than others and some make playing not fun anymore.

Here they are, my least favourite reoccurring assholes that we've all met and killed a thousand times. What makes these people special is that they are representatives for larger themes within human existence, which I note in each entry. I dislike these personalities so much that I am really not sure if I'll ever play a FPS online again.

10. The Guy who only says, "Aw fuck"
He sounds urban in a vague kind of way, kind of a half Afro-American half Hispanic drawl. I imagine him sitting at his console dressed top to bottom in Nike gear with his cap spun sideways. Regardless of his socio-political origins, his vocabulary is limited. You know this because every time he dies he says, "Aw fuck", "Oh fuck, meeee-an!" or "Fuck, this is bullshit!" And he dies a lot, resulting in a constant stream of banal profanity.

He is the ultimate nobody in a sea of faceless gamers, desperately wanting to be heard but having nothing to say. His pointless expletives are a constant reminder that the coming generation of youngsters is destined to die in obscurity.

9. The Singing Kid

I find attempts to shelter children from mature-rated games to be absolute nonsense. Regardless of your moral stance on this issue, everybody has the issue backwards. Children don't need to protected from content. Adults need to be protected from children.

There should be two internets: one for adults and one for children. The Singing Kid is the ultimate argument in I have in favour of this proposal. The last thing a bloodthirsty adult needs to hear when he's trying to slaughter his contemporaries is some little brat yelping the latest pop song into his bluetooth. He tunelessly chatters on and on. Then he unexpectedly shouts, "What?!" and the last you hear of him before his connection drops is his distant mother telling him it's bedtime.

I've often tried to speculate on the motives of The Singing Kid. At first I thought he was a troll attempting to goad people into telling him to shut up. Now I'm not so sure. The world of FPSs is comparably silent and it has been a long time since I've heard somebody tell a Singing Kid to shut up. I now believe there is no motive, that the truth is much more horrifying. The Singing Kid is an agent of madness, sent to bedevil our games, by some dark power beyond the veil of reality.

8. The Teamkiller
Most games these days, including CoD:WaW have safeguards against teamkilling. In Hardcore mode, in which team damage is "on", one occasionally hears the in-game announcer saying something very satisfying like, "Get that sonofabitch outta here" or "He ain't fit to wear the uniform" as somebody is kicked.

Such safeguards make teamkilling all the more frustrating, confusing and senseless. Teamkillers must dream ways to skirt the safeguards. I'm reminded of an incident where the wife was invited to a team on City of Heroes. Her new "friend" asked to teleport her to his location and she agreed. She suddenly found herself hundreds of feet in the air and fell to the ground with a splat.

The teamkiller is the brooding psycho that lurks in humankind. He delights in sowing mayhem and sneering at his victims. I will never understand the appeal of teamkilling.

7. The Neo-Nazi
Okay, that's a lie. I do understand teamkilling, but not for the standard reasons. FPSs attract a certain section of society, and with WWII games in particular, the Neo-Nazis appear. The other day I played a Team Deathmatch and some asshole called "junglbunnystomper25" was on my team. My goddess, did I ever want to hunt him down and shoot him over and over again. But he was on my team and I was forced to cooperate with him. I was so angry.

Then there's the guys that see my online name, YouFang, and assume I'm Chinese. Nope. So when they go, "Oh, ching-chong, sing-song so solly!" it annoys me on a different level than they were hoping.

First Person Shooters are one of the last civilized places you can hang with crazies like these (and no, the American South doesn't count as civilized). Other than the Army, I guess. I suppose I'm not the only college-educated Marine who's had to share a foxhole with a racist mouth-breather from Arkansas.

6. The Guy who Leaves his Live Mic Lying Around so I Have to Hear his Rap Music.
You know he's there because he's killing you and you sometimes hear him clear his throat or cough. He's just happily listening to his music and playing his game. Only his mic is on. And we can all hear his music. For some reason, it's always, always gangsta rap.

There's no point trying to tell him his mic is on. The sound is going through his headphones' mic and he's obviously not wearing them. Even if you were to shout loud enough for him to hear, the rap music would drown the sound. If there's no option to mute him the only way out is to quit the game.

This guy is a reminder that human society is very closely knit. No matter what you do or don't do today, you are going to ruin somebody's day even if you never find out.

5. The Hotshot "Leader"

To be fair, he's pretty good at the game. He would probably be better, though, if he didn't expend so much energy ordering his teammates about and badmouthing them. Everything his friends do infuriates him because his ego is too huge for any game to contain. Here's some sample dialogue:

"Shoot him! Shoot him! Hah, now you're fucking dead, you shoulda shot him! God now he killed me, God you're such a fucking idiot! YouFang you fucker, you stole my kill! Get the flag! Get the flag you fag! God, way to die, moron!"

And God help thee if thou teamslayest him in error. For then thou shalt unleash a deluge of abuse and be thyself teamslain by Him, that thou shalt know the idiocy of thy ways.

Just as in real life, bad managers exist in the world of video games. However, in video games, nobody asks them to be in charge.

4. The Inquisitor
Whenever you actually do well at a video game, Inquisitors materialize to accuse you of cheating. Swearing ensues. No arguing will convince them. So sure are they that you are hacking that they sometimes follow you into other games or send you personal messages. It's never skill or bad connectivity, it's always cheating.

I think the Inquisitor might actually be the other face of the Hotshot "Leader". If the Leader actually loses to people on the other team, his ego would collapse if it was a result of sucking. So therefore it has to be cheating, right? The Inquisitor represents the human mental defect that blames their folly on secret consipiracies when their own abilities fail.

3. Captain Echo
Here's a hint for all you dumbasses out there: either turn down the sensitivity of your mic or turn down the volume of your TV. I am so goddess-damned sick of hearing every shout and explosion echoing through your voice port.

Captain Echo is significant because he's... uh... he's just fucking dumb, okay?

2. Oink-Pig
Gaming is very addictive and when you are caught in the majesty of another universe, it's hard to find time to eat. It's a temptation to eat while gaming. And yes, that's okay. What isn't cool is not turning off your mic. Nobody wants to hear the sloppy crunch of your Cheetos, the smaking of your lips or your tongue darting in and out of your mouth, Oink-Pig. And we especially don't want to hear you burping. Over and over again.

Oink-Pig is a nice symbol selfishness of consumer culture. He could take measures to curb the "externalities" of his consumption which cause misery to others, but honestly it's too much work and he doesn't care. BUUUURRRRRP!

1. The Game Breaker
This is by far my least favourite personality. Which is too bad, because the Game Breaker is the ultimate symbol of excellence in humankind.

In the world of RPGs, such individuals are called "Power Gamers". To be a true game breaker, you must want to win and nothing else. You don't play to have fun. The only fun is in triumph.

First you must know your equipment. Where equipment is customizable, choose only equipment that causes the most kills, not that which is coolest or most fun. If equipment is not customizable but collectible on the map, head straight for the good guns. Headshot anything in your way.

Secondly, you must know your maps. Every map has nooks where nobody can see you. Find them and take up sniping position.

Thirdly, you must know the broken-rules and glitches in the game. Find which ones you can exploit. Ones that defy physics and graphics are especially useful because n00bs won't expect or understand them. If there's a way to walk through a wall, you must find it.

And lastly, you must be the best. You must play and play until your reflexes are unrivaled. You must be able to headshot a n00b the quarter-second you see him, not the half-second. This is what is truly admirable/scary about Power Gamers is the sheer devotion to mastery of a useless pasttime. One wonders what these people could do if they devoted half the energy to real life what they sank into first person shooters.

It was this last personality that finally soured me on online CoD. In my final game, a Game Breaker stood directly behind a concrete wall, fired through it with a rifle and head-shotted the guy in front of me from a room away. I had just enough time to process this before I too was shot in the head. My goddess, such devotion!

Game Breakers are utterly predictable in their behaviour but what makes them frustrating is that it doesn't matter if you become wise to their tricks. Their skills are so ultimate that you can't defeat them on even footing.

Right now, the console version of Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes is utterly unplayable because of Game Breakers. If you try to play it online right now, some 161st level guy will slaughter you using the undead team, the cursed shield as an artifact and either Death Knights or Bone Dragons as a special unit. Every online game becomes broken like this unless the designers constantly monitor it, seal the glitches, depower the abilities that are too tough and constantly thwart the Game Breakers as they seize some new angle. I remember people complaining about Blizzard constantly tweaking StarCraft, but it absolutely must be done to maintain the fun. Video Games are supposed to be fun.

So that's it with me and online competition for awhile. All the games I'm craving are one-player only. There, the only annoying personality I have to deal with is my own.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Book Review of "Two Sisters" by Gore Vidal

After reading Julian this spring, my mind was primed for more Gore Vidal. As I described in this review, Julian is easily one of the best books I have ever read. So on the way to rescue the wife from a root canal one day, I stopped into the White Cat Bookstore and said, "Give me all the Gore Vidal you have". I had two options, and bought them both. However, I chose the book Two Sisters because I opened the cover and the first sentence I read went, "Despite my protests, Marietta revealed her breasts."

I say "book", because Two Sisters is part novel, part screenplay and part memoir. The memoir bits are the sections where he reminisces and bitches about days past and present. The novel bits are the parts he makes up, and the border between the fiction and nonfiction is never clear. The screenplay is a relevant but amateur script about Herostratus, the ancient Greek arsonist who burns the temple of Diana to one-up his sisters. The three parts intertwine and gradually Vidal reveals the story of a love triangle between himself and twins Eric and Erika.

I can see how somebody could really hate this book. The structure is unconventional and some might find it jarring. The protagonist, Gore Vidal himself, could be construed as disagreeable. He's two-faced, petty, dispassionate and self-interested. He constantly snipes other authors. The universe in which Vidal lives is hedonistic, affluent and decadent. Some might see the antics as disgusting.

Yet I did not hate this book. I liked it. If one views the book with certain amount of distance, it becomes hilarious. It seems to me as though the Gore Vidal of Two Sisters is a self-parody. Therein is the key to liking this book. While Gore Vidal never winks at his audience to tell us that he's not really that bad, I'm willing to risk being wrong and say he's not the awful person he portrays. Even if the parody touches truths that are too close to reality, at least they're funny.

This book is full of quotables. I'm terrible at memorizing quotes, so I won't remember a single one. But Vidal's use of phrase had me constantly chuckling. He ranges late 1960's culture and brings home a variety of anecdotes and humourous observations on which the reader can feast. The world was changing as television and movies humbled the novel and Vidal has many things to say, sad and eloquent, as he watches his world of great literature dying.

This book was particularly significant for me. For this book is about the foolish pursuit of immortality. Vidal and his cast of characters in both his memoir and the screenplay all seek to be known after they have died. This has struck me hard at a time when I have ceased to be a young adult and I hold a baby in my arms.

Throughout my youth I wanted to create something or many somethings that would be admired in future generations, like a Beethoven Symphony. It's not just my desire, but that of just about every writer, artist, and composer. Here, in Two Sisters, Gore Vidal is watching literature collapse. His memory is failing him. He is just beginning to realize that the drive to create which he posessed in his youth will be destroyed just as certainly as his body will decay. Paraphrasing him, death comes for us all and the writer has a chance to take a shot at him. Some shots are better aimed, but death always wins.

Even during my lifetime, the yardstick by which I have judged immortality, Ludwig van Beethoven, has diminished. His music, and the means by which it is played, has grown fainter as interest and public money dry.

I have known that at some point I will have to challenge this idea of living through the art I leave behind. But I don't know if I'm ready to examine it yet. If I look inward and see that the reason why I write is empty, why write? I think before I'm ready for this philosophical leap, I'll have to actually be earning money through writing. That way I can say, "I write because it feeds the baby". That will certainly soften the blow. If I look too deeply now, that job at the 7-Eleven in Rosetown will be too appealing.

Enough about me. Two Sisters is certainly not for everybody, but it was certainly for me. I get the feeling that writers and literature enthusiasts will enjoy it more than others. The reviews that don't like it seem to dislike the ego of the Gore-on-steroids protagonist. For me, the book made me chuckle and sad by turns, and it is undeniably well-written.
4 bitchy writers complaining about each other out of 5

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Book Review of "The White Plague" by Frank Herbert

Dune and its sequels got me through some hard times. In the midst of a painful breakup, I was lifted out of my funk by the words of fictional characters. A great deal of the series revolves around change and not being afraid of it. The books showed me how gripping the past leads to stagnation worse than any disruption caused by change. The action sequeneces make great film, as shown by the various adaptations, but they miss that the books are as much intellectual discussion as plot. The characters are more philosophical ideas than real people. Through author Frank Herbert's words, I was able to begin living again. It also set the stage for my future Discordianism.

It was with exitement that I found an old hardcover edition of The White Plague in an unlikely small-town bookstore in Perdue, Saskatchewan. It was his first non-Dune writing that I had found. Also, being a traditional Irish musician, the setting in Ireland was a plus. As I removed to irritating book jacket and settled into bed to read, I was hyped.

The action begins as the family of biochemist John Roe O'Neill is killed by an IRA bomb while on vacation. O'Neill's marbles go astray, he goes into hiding and manufactures a new plague which he releases into Ireland, England and Libya to scour those sinful countries clean. The world's women begin dying and the political and scientific elite scramble to find a cure.

Unfortunately, this beginning is a stumble rather than a leap. The narrator's viewpoint, in third-person, is unsettled and constantly switches between the perspectives of the characters. For myself, I didn't like it much. I found the constant switching between characters' thoughts to be disorienting rather than interesting. It also seemed to be cheating: rather than allowing the reader to guess a character's thoughts by their words and actions, Herbert just tells us. Yet, and perhaps Herbert meant this to be clever, there is still much mystery surrounding the motivations of characters. People just do things sometimes, and despite the amount of perspective switching, I had no idea why they were doing it and no amount of recollection or re-reading could reveal the mystery.

Luckily, after this opening face-flop, the story dusts itself off and gets going again. I became used to the perspective switching and during the plot's second act, I was able to enjoy myself. John Roe O'Neill, after a period of sneaking around the planet, returns to Ireland incognito to sabotage the efforts for a cure. There, he falls into the company of Father Michael: a priest who has lost his faith, Joseph Herity: the IRA operative who set the bomb that killed O'Neill's family, and a mute boy. They travel towards the biochemistry lab at Killaloe, across the island, and witness the devastation of the plague.

It was here that I found the Frank Herbert that I knew so well. For as the companions journey, they engage in philosophical discussion. Their intellectual discourse raises tempers as Father Michael and Herity try to destroy each others' psyches and secretly discover if their companion is O'Neill.

The problem is that this time, Herbert's philosophic and scientific discussions didn't work. In Dune, his characters are the intellectual elite of the universe and it makes sense that they speak on a level higher than average discourse. However, in The White Plague, everybody is a philosopher-historian and has something profound to say. Herity and Michael's sparring, in particular, is disconcerting as they are constantly becoming furious with each other for reasons which can only be described as esoteric. It is obvious that these are not characters but intellectual ideas and it is silly as often as it is enlightening.

In the end, The White Plague is a simple story dressed in fancy clothes. Nothing really unexpected happens and when it does, the reasons why it happens are confusing. Nevertheless, Herbert manages to paint an interesting picture of what might happen to our society if the full potential of biochemistry were unlocked, suddenly, on an unsuspecting public.
2 stirrings of O'Neill-within out of 5

ps: I've once again proved false the theory that one must like any book they've read from cover to cover. Ha.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Book Review of "A Game of Thones" by George R. R. Martin

A continuing five-part novel series named "A Song of Fire and Ice". A board game. A trading card game. An HBO series. When a fantasy novel inspires that much attention, there must be something good about it. How is it that I hadn't read A Game of Thrones until now? Regardless, I decided to give this one a read because I love reading books and then watching the adaptation.

Thrones is set in a medieval Europe-like world. Most of the action is set on Westros, a Britain-like island complete with Scotsman-like Wildlings. Mongol-like horsemen ravage the mainland. The big differences between our two worlds is that magic and mythical creatures exist in Martin's world. Also, instead of having winter during the course of a regular year, winter arrives two or three times a generation and lasts several years (the details of how and why this happens is not explained in the first book).

The action begins at the end of a pleasant summer, but the wise are predicting a dreadful winter. Westros is saddled with the irresponsible King Robert, his conniving wife Cersei of the rich, cruel and power-hungry House Lannister, numerous debts, and a gaggle of unusually selfish counsellors. Wildlings and terrifying creatures known as "The Others" threaten the north. Across the Narrow Sea, King Robert's mortal enemies, the remnants of House Targaryen who once ruled Westros, plot to sieze his throne. Into the action is thrust the honourable Eddard Stark, whom Robert asks to become his right-hand man. Eddard and his family are tossed from their happy northern lifestyle into a cauldron of intrigue.

The result is not pretty. Martin spins complex web of characters and their histories and I don't mind telling you that the cast is thinned significantly by the end of the first book. Jugular veins are slashed, femoral arteries opened, heads roll, wounds fester, poor slobs swing from tree branches and unpleasant things are poured over people's heads. Nor does Martin pull punches when it comes to sex. Pee-pees are inserted into hoo-hoos and the results described in detail. In true medieval style, some of the hoo-hoos in question belong to girls that we in the modern age would describe as underage.

However, blood splatters and money-shots are not, I repeat, NOT the point of A Game of Thrones. The stars of this book are the beautiful characters, their rivalries, loves, fears and aspirations. Even if some of the characters don't last very long, each one is an individual with their own needs and desires. This is not a realm of cartoons, but real people. Nor are their motivations obvious. Martin leads us to what his non-POV characters are thinking instead of just telling us. Each chapter leaves the reader excitedly speculating on why characters acted as they did and what they will do next. The plot is great, I was frequently surprised and never disappointed.

I have only two complaints with the book. Firstly, Martin excessively describes people's armour. For whatever reason, near the beginning of the book, everybody we meet is wearing ringmail over boiled leather. Then, as if to make up for the amount of boiled leather described, later characters are introduced with huge chunks of text describing the damn saphhire-encrusted gold with ivy rivulets covered by a cloth-of-gold cape that makes so-and-so gasp and blah blah blah. Next, please.

Secondly, while cliches are noteably absent, when they actually appear in middle sections of the book, the effect is jarring. I had, up until this point, marvelled at the lack of cliches and to read that somebody's blood ran cold and they were chilled to the bone was very disappointing. However, only the middle sections are polluted. (I would, however, bet that with the success of A Game of Thrones and possible resulting arrogance, later volumes may be more cliche-ridden. Can anybody confirm that?)

Thrones is a work of fiction that is almost mastery. If you like intrigue, mystery and great battles, this book will expand your understanding of what makes humanity tick. Yes, it's that good. However, I would say it is not for tender readers or persons who enjoy contemplating the Baby Jesus.

4 1/2 heads on spikes out of 5

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

With Greatest Sympathy

I'm going to try very hard not be trite in this post.

Being a parent has given me a perspective that I lacked at this time last year. A year ago, I would not have been arrested by this picture which I discovered as I surfed the internet. Scratch that. Not just been arrested, but moved to weeping.

It's a picture of a baby from over a hundred years ago. His eyes are vacant and trusting. He looks like a sweet little boy, maybe with an unfortunate haircut, but sweet nonetheless.

Here's the thing. It's Hitler. I must have been one of the only history buffs in the world who hadn't seen this image until now, and I also missed the commentary and uproar it stirred. It's a bit of a cognitive dissonance. World War II propeganda turned Hitler into a demon and history and legend have transformed him into the most evil man who ever lived. Up until this point, I had not dwelled much on Hitler's past. I had known he was a shrimpy geek who was refused service by the Austrian army but was subsequently accepted into the German army and gassed on the Western Front. I also knew he was a mediocre artist. Before that, however, I had no idea. He might as well have rocketed out of the earth with a belch of flame and sulphur and a "Mwa-hah-hah-hah-hah!"

Yet there he is. There are no horns, no blood-spatters and his eyes do not appear to be luminous red. Adolf Hitler was once a sweet little kid who didn't know anything. A year ago, I'm sure the same thoughts would have formed. What brought tears to my eyes was the fact that when I saw this picture, I was holding my own baby in my lap. In her eyes is that same vacancy and trust. When I enlarged the resolution of the picture to look at it more closely, she recognized Hitler as another baby, leaned forward and smiled.

That was what broke my heart. Hitler started at the same place my baby did. I'm reasonably certain my little girl won't become a perpetrator of genocide during her lifetime, so what happened to him to so utterly destroy his humanity? What turns a sweet little boy into a paranoid butcher of millions who needs a child or soldier to watch him sleep lest a menacing spectre only he can see wake him screaming in the night? Was he emotionally and physically abused by his parents? Did an uncle touch him? Was he mocked until he cried or beaten for being short and brown by his schoolmates? How did World War I destroy him? What spiritual toll was exacted for years of having his simple, impressionistic artwork ignored? Or was he always just irredeemably broken?

And that was that. I FELT SORRY FOR HITLER.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review of "My Year of Flops" by Nathan Rabin

Watching bad movies has been a favourite pasttime of mine for almost two decades now. I'm not alone in this questionable activity and different folks derive different strokes therein. Some enjoy feeling superior to others. Some come for a laugh. And some, and I admit I am guilty of this, enjoy inflicting bad movies on others for the sadistic joy of watching somebody else cringe. In any case, I've seen more than my share of cinematic shit and I fear that it has warped my sensibilities.

My quest for awfulness has led me to read several books about bad movies. Such books are essential for seeking movies that have otherwise escaped notice. Most of them adopt a snarky tone and give play-by-play accounts of the worst aspects of the films. The better books provide backstory to showcase production follies and the devatating effect on the careers of those involved, as well as contacting members of the cast and crew and allowing them to reminisce.

My Year of Flops, by Nathan Rabin, senior editor of The Onion's AV club, has all the best qualities that a rotten movie book should. However, the aim is different. Whereas other movie books have been written exclusively to mock, Rabin watches bad movies to find undiscovered gems. It is well known that if art and entertainment are misunderstood in their time, the public can punish the artists involved with mockery and shunning. When Nathan Rabin watches a notorious flop, he tries to see the good in each of these creations. However, if there is no good to be found, mockery ensues.

Those of us who revel in cinematic garbage know that there are several types of bad movie. To be avoided are movies that purposefully try to be awful and fail. Many such films are created every year and, surprise-surprise, it actually takes talent to purposefully make a cheesy movie. The result is an awful lineup of shitty horror movies that try to bad and hope that snarky viewers like myself will watch for a laugh. The result is usually excruciating. Sorry guys, the best bad movies are sincere efforts that have gone awry. My Year of Flops is composed entirely of sincere efforts.

Rabin has three ratings in his system: Failure, Fiasco and Secret Success. A Secret Success is a film which he feels is actually good, but misunderstood. A Fiasco is a film that is filled with love and effort that has gone horribly wrong, resulting in hilarity. A Failure simply has nothing going for it. It's a useful way to sort. Those who wish to find secret successes can seek them. For the rest, the Fiasco/Failure ratings are an excellent way to separate the hilarious from the irredeemably horrible.

Rabin's writing is charming, often following his stream of consciousness which invariably leads to the river of sewage that is his "case". He often begins his case files talking about some other bad movie, waxing witty on a thought which helps illuminate his subject. My only complaint with the writing is that often it seems like Rabin is playing to an audience which has already seen the movie in question, rather than introducing an outsider to the madness.

There are too many movies to list here, but some highlights include "The Conqueror", featuring John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in the role that would kill him, "Battlefield Earth", wherein John Travolta plays a hulking alien overlord to appease his Scientologist masters, and one of my personal favourites "Southland Tales", featuring an ensemble cast in a senseless story set in an incomprehensible future that constantly leaves the viewer giggling, "What the hell is going on?" Rabin concludes with his tortured minute-by-minute notes as he watches the director's cut of "Waterworld". Ugh.

My Year of Flops is clever and charming. Readers who are having a lousy day need only pick up the book, read a single case file for ten minutes, and I guarantee their quality of life will be improved. Nathan Rabin is obviously passionate about cinema and it shows in his writing. He loves to sift bad movies to find a good performance, a beautiful shot, a truth, a cool idea or an excellent line of dialogue. When he finds one, his praise is touching. When he can't find one, his commentary makes me laugh out loud. It's a marvelous masterwork of mockery, a must for movie masochists!
4 1/2 manic pixie dream-girls out of 5

Monday, August 22, 2011

My Conversation with Jack Layton

In the winter of ought two and ought three, in a small, dirty campus room lit by buzzing fluorescent lights, I met Jack Layton. Before me were rather uninspiring candidates who wished to become leader of the New Democratic Party. Behind me was a depressing crowd scarcely more numerous than the candidates. It was cold outside and, indoors, the meeting whispered bleakness. You could not be in that room and escape the feeling that you were alone, that your voice didn't matter, and the struggle for human right and human gain was over.

That is, until candidate Jack Layton spoke. I had known previously that he was a professor and notoriously green, so I had been canvassing for him. However, it was only until I saw him speak live that I was inspired. When he spoke, he banished all the cold and hopelessness of that unhappy gathering. He made me believe that impossible things could be accomplished.

After the meeting, he sat at my table and asked my small group of friends what most concerned us. I told him that nationalism was inhibiting governments. He adopted a serious expression and asked, "What do you mean?" I told him that multinational corporations don't care about nations, that they move money about the globe to avoid taxes and exploit legal loopholes, while national governments can only disjointedly patrol their own borders: The only way to have true democratic socialism is a world government (see this post), but nationalism was standing in the way.

He thought for a moment, but an aide tapped him on the shoulder. Jack said, "This is interesting. I have to go for a moment but I'll be back to continue this." He left our table. Unfortunately, some ridiculous incident where my girlfriend accidentally kissed Pierre Ducasse on the mouth occupied my attention and we left the meeting in the midst of a minor quarrel. It was one of those things that only a young person could get upset about, but it seemed really important at the time. My conversation with Jack Layton remained unresolved.

For the next eight years, after Jack's successful leadership campaign concluded, he was mostly ignored by the Canadian public. Somehow, his speeches and stage presence seemed dulled. I'm not sure if this was a deliberate effort on the part of his PR people to make him seem more boring and middle-of-the-road, a time-honoured Canadian path to greatness. If that's so, it didn't work for Jack. He seemed to fade into the background, noticed only when people mocked his moustache.

The election of 2011 began similarly to the other elections. The media continued to cast the election as a two-way race between the Liberals and Conservatives with the other parties as minor distractions. But this year was different. Jack, returning from a battle with cancer and a broken hip, stormed into the public consciousness. He shed his boring persona and became a champion who fights with a grin on his face, damn the adversity. When I went to see him for his public appearance at Station 20 in Saskatoon, the atmosphere of hopelessness in that bleak campus room so many years ago was gone, replaced by infectious optimism. I couldn't get near the man, let alone have a discussion with him about nationalism. Again my conversation was unresolved.

And now suddenly he's gone. After catapulting the NDP to the official opposition, Jack Layton's cancer returned and today he died. Our conversation will never be finished. But that's how it is for all Canadians today. Like my conversation, Jack Layton leapt into our national dialogue and suddenly he's gone just as it was getting good.

I don't know what it was that made his last year on earth different from his previous years in federal politics. Perhaps his brush with death filled him with exuberance for life that captured the public's heart. Perhaps the lingering threat of cancer pushed him to live every campaign day to its fullest.

As a lesson for us all, I could insert some cliche along the lines of, "Live every day like it's your last" here, but I don't think it's necessary. His life speaks for itself. He accomplished the seemingly-impossible, just as he promised. In an era where opportunistic so-called-capitalism is waxing, he led an NDP surge in Quebec, of all places, and oversaw the first federal democratic socialist opposition. His dream of a kinder, cleverer Canada has never seemed nearer.

Thank you, Jack, for ever-sowing the seeds of hope in my jaded heart.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

MMO Games are Officially Boring Now

Awhile ago, I played a game on Facebook called Mafia Wars. I'm sure that this game has undergone massive changes in the year-and-a-half since I quit playing, but back then, it was a disaster. You clicked buttons over and over again which represented various crimes. You bought and received simplistic items, including horribly unbalanced items that could be purchased with real dollars. Then you spent health points to attack other people, another button-clicking action that produced simplistic results. This poorly-planned mess could barely be called a game. And yet I came back again and again, checking my Mafia Wars account several times daily once my energy meters refilled to click more buttons.

Why? Because the game also included character development and advancement. After each crime you committed you gained experience points and levelled the abilities of your character. I had to stay up just one extra hour so I could gain enough energy to commit a crime that would level me! Ooh! I just got an awesome ice cream truck that adds to my attack score! Greasy Jeremy's doing awesome!

That was okay for awhile, but then it began to irritate me. I began the question the spiritual, intellectual, temporal and entertainment purpose of levelling my Mafia Wars character. When I searched for answers, I saw the roaring abyss of nothingness and knew it was time to move on. Greasy Jeremy went clean and gifted all items he was able to his friends who played.

It was after I had purchased DC Universe Online two months ago that I began to hear the roar of the abyss again. I had been anticipating the release of this game for more than a year. Superheroes are awesome and I was eager to play an MMO on my PS3. At first I took delight as Ludwig van Scorchoven, a tight-panted, shirtless villain wearing a top hat, launched burning meteors at victims through sheer passion and shattered the eardrums of his enemies with sound blasts. Then I lost interest. When he gained level 12, I actually angerly tossed the controller at my feet. This was going nowhere. I was bored and I had spent $60 on a game which no trader would accept because I had used the free month of subscription. I was screwed and felt like a retard because I had spent good money on a game that offered less play value than even Mafia Wars.

The fault with DC Universe is not in the mechanics of the game. The mechanics are fine. The problem was that I had played this game before. In 2007 I spent half a year immersed in City of Heroes, another MMO superhuman game. This game used the same MMO formula as World of WarCraft, easily the world's most successful MMO. I had also encountered the MMO formula in by brief forays into Champions Online (which is actually more fun than City of Heroes) and Lord of the Rings Online.

The formula goes like this: you create a hero. Then you run around attacking groups of eternally respawning enemies who have their names written in different colours to help you know if they're too tough. These mindless idiots stand around waiting to be attacked, despite the fact that their friends are being slaughtered ten feet away. Certain NPC characters can be seen standing around in central locations, offering quests. The quests are usually tasks like, "Defeat 20 mindless enemies" or "Click on five helpfully glowing boxes". Occasionally, you can recruit the help of your friends to beat up some mindless enemies, or you'll be minding your own business and then suddenly die when a Player Killer ambushes you.

However, the thing that truly annoys me about the MMO formula is that nothing is permanent. Despite the fact that numberless NPCs say stuff like, "Congratulations! You sure showed those orcs a thing or two" or "Excellent. Scarecrow is behind bars", your hero cannot truly influence his environment. Those orcs will always be respawning in the woods and Scarecrow's fear gas can always be seen floating above Gotham. Every box, sidewalk and building is indestructible and if you write your name on the wall with a machine-gun, it will vanish within 30 seconds.

In short, once the novelty of attacking mindless enemies and other PCs vanishes, all that is left is character advancement and development. This is no different than that catastrophe of a game, Mafia Wars. Experience points are a wonderful incentive to play a game, but levelling your character is not a game. The game should be how your character interacts with the environment and other players. If your character's effect on the environment is meaningless, so is the game.

So here is my decree. Until some game washes away the stagnant World of Warcraft MMO format, I will never play another. I want to see my avatar make meaningful change possible upon his world.

And yes, I know that with the current way MMOs are played, such a proposition would be impossible. Great mountains of defeated enemies thousands-deep would litter the forest. Troublemakers would wander around burning down buildings. Within a week, any City of Heroes would be reduced to a pile of scorched rubble, save for a few buildings which still stand, blasted into the shapes of penises.

Please allow me to describe the MMO I want to see. Not being a game designer, I have no idea if such a universe could exist under our current technology constraints. But here goes.

Nothing is randomly spawned in-game. Every NPC who lives there exists even when no PCs are around to see them. They have a place in the universe where they live and routines that they follow to survive and have fun. They have wants, needs and fears. In this way, every NPC is a potential quest-giver: he or she wants money, food, a place to live, the attentions of a loved one or vengeance on an enemy. Any PC who talks to one can hear them say, "God I'm hungry. Can you get me some food?" or "Mister Blister stole my purse! Teach him a lesson and I'll make it worth your while!" PCs should be allowed to create their own quests which any other PC can complete for reward. When every PC logs off, he leaves his character behind as an NPC with a place in the universe.

The universe should be a place of creation as well as destruction. In order to counterbalance the troublemakers who want to burn everything, PCs should be able to own property that they would want to protect. Using basic materials such as wood, stone, fabric and metal, players should be able to build and design structures, furniture and other posessions, kind of like Little Big Planet with a permanent address. Can you imagine how awesome it would be to publish a book on virtual paper in this universe?

The universe itself should be a story. If the actions of the players cause the destruction of the universe, then the universe will have to reset itself and everybody has to make new characters. If they don't like that, well maybe they should have worked a little harder to prevent disaster.

Lastly, it seems as though such a universe would have to be one in which death is rare, if non-existent. So either comic, high-magic or high-technology. But defeat should be meaningful and have consequences. Either a loss of XP or money or something should do the trick.

Because players can create, this game would necessarily have to be M-rated. When players are allowed to create, the cocks start appearing. The sex-obsessed masses of humanity will begin constructing giant dicks within a day of the game's launch, so there's yet another reason to have the universe be a comic place. Or, God! Even better, I'd love to see prudish players forming decency leagues in-game and destroying every penis they see!

Okay, this game is starting to sound like a sociology experiment. But don't the best games, like the best art, tap into humanity's embarassing nature? I'll stop my description here, other than to say that I would love to see an MMO based on GURPS Goblins. Those of you who know me well, however, will not be surprised and accuse me of indulging my Goblins obsession. Guilty as charged.

So. Anybody want to buy a copy of DC Universe Online off me? Anybody?... (crickets chirping...)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Review of "The Baby Book" by Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears

Disclaimer: Apologies to my friends who are attachment parents. Please do not misconstrue this article as a reproach of how you raise your children. Continue to raise them in the best way you see fit. If your feelings are hurt, I apologize. Thank you.

So me and my wife, Suzi, were minding our business raising a talented, clever and happy baby, Kara. Then a well-meaning relative gave me a Father's Day present. Browsing at the bookstore, she had seen a very large book which gave helpful advice about feeding our baby, who was just turning six months old. The book presented reasonable information about how tall and heavy a baby ought to be at a certain age as well as expected developmental milestones.

That poor relative! She had no idea the effect that this book would have on my family. For she did not know the name Dr. Sears, nor his reputation as the man who coined the term "attachment parenting". She could not have known the amount of upheaval and sleepless nights it would cause us. The moment we opened this book, we began to feel horrible about ourselves.

I'm fairly certain that this was not the intention of the Dr. Sears and his wife when they wrote The Baby Book, either. I will grudgingly admit that our own insecurity as parents is our unresolved issue, not theirs. But, for vast sections, the tone and style of The Baby Book is written from an emotional and intuitive standpoint, and the language stirs powerful emotions in the reader.

Attachment parenting is a style of raising children that emphasizes intense emotional nurturing. It stands in stark contrast to many of the commandments fostered by physicians of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Attachment parenting features closeness to your baby at all times: co-sleeping, sling transport and skin-to-skin time. It recommends quick responses to crying and obeying intuitive parenting instincts. The first chapter of The Baby Book is about attachment parenting and the rest of the book is infused with it.

I like the idea of attachment parenting. So does the wife. So does the Royal University Hospital maternity department where we had our baby, which recently abolished its nursery so that parents could spend the first days of their child's life in close contact. While we had never previously read anything by Dr. William Sears, attachment parenting has inflitrated the institutions surrounding birth.

We really wanted to be attachment parents. We succeeded at first. Then, two and a half months after our baby was born, the wife had to get a job. The details of this decision I chronicled in this post. Basically, we decided that she could support us monetarily while I couldn't. With that, she spent less time with our baby. Her body couldn't keep up with baby's increasing breastmilk demands, so formula began to creep into Kara's diet. Then, a little past the four-month mark, Kara began to squirm, kick and scratch us in her sleep. We woke each other constantly. I was tired, Kara was cranky and Suzi was hopelessly exhausted with night waking, nursing and working.

Something had to change. Then one day when I was at the end of my rope and Kara was crying for seemingly no reason, I obeyed an intuitive parenting instinct and put her alone in her crib in a dark room. Five minutes of fussing later, she was asleep. I was shocked. Then I tried it again in the afternoon and hallelujiah, she slept again! I researched. I was ashamed because I knew that "cry-it-out" was not "in" and I was certain Suzi would disapprove. I secretly continued to practice Dr. Ferber's method for a week before I broke down and told her. After many apologies, we both decided Dr. Ferber knew his shit. Kara slept, I slept, Suzi slept, we were all sleeping, we were all happy for a month.

As it stood, we tried contemporary parenting and it simply clashed with modern life. We couldn't sustain it and keep ourselves fed and rested at the same time. So food and sleep won and Kara actually seemed more-rested for it.

Then this damn book appeared. Apparently, we were causing permanent damage to our little girl. Suzi should have obeyed those instincts and come running with her boob outstretched. The worst part was that we had already done the damage: Kara was Ferberized and broken forever.

What followed was several weeks of guilty vigilance on Suzi's part. She would wake with every tiny night-cry and I started having midnight arguments with her about running to the baby's rescue. Exhaustion slipped back into our lives. We both knew what the book had done, knew that we were good parents and had a wonderful and unbroken baby, and yet the book continued to haunt us silently from its place at my bedside table.

This is what The Baby Book did for us and Eris-help-me, we're still recovering. For this disservice alone, I am inclined to follow my emotional and intuitive instinct to tell the Dr. Sears that he can shove copies of his book up the arses of his huge and supposedly-perfect family. But that's not exactly fair. This reaction is based on my own subjective experience and surely it won't be the same for every parent. So for their benefit, I'll try to actually REVIEW this book and be as impartial as possible.

As I mentioned before, the tone of the book is from an intuitive standpoint. It is unsourced. It is scientific only in that a respected pediatrician and his registered-nurse wife authored it. I can't begrudge that, however: it's a parenting book and no parent needs to read a scientific article to learn how to take care of their baby. Scientific writing is boring writing, so not sourcing their claims is just fine. What maybe isn't fine is this: in the opening chapter the authors actually admit that their advice on parenting is not scientific. They say that their parenting style is based only on their subjective experience of dealing with parents of children whom they considered to be "good". Shabby.

Incidentally, William Sears has indeed published articles with actual sources independent of The Baby Book. I haven't read them, nor do I really want to after my experiences with his other writing, but I did find this article slamming his views on cry-it-out to be very interesting.

The subjective tone of the authors prevails everywhere in the book. Allow me to paraphrase a sidebar which appears in their section on baby's sleep habits:

There once were two parents who were offered a cry-it-out book to help their baby sleep. They tried it and their baby screamed all night. They were heartbroken and sad and as a result of this method they lost their sympathetic connection to their baby's cries. His crying didn't affect them anymore and they stopped caring for him and took increasingly long vacations away from him. The End.

Please allow me this uncharacteristic slip into leet: lolololololololstfu!!!!1!!11!

That's a very accurate paraphrase of their story and I challenge anybody to find it in The Baby Book and tell me I haven't captured the spirit of it. It's absolutely ridiculous. If these parents, who I doubt actually exist, stopped caring about their baby because of cry-it-out, what the fuck kind of parents were they in the first place? The world is filled with parents, such as myself, who continue to love their children and yet have let them cry-it-out. This bullshit story about two sociopaths who abandon their baby insults my intelligence.

The tone of the book continues to drag it down. The average section begins with inflammitory language wherein the Sears' state their opinion, then they repeat themselves over and over again. Then they say, "but if you can't manage to do this, that's okay too!" Then follows a section whereby they answer the critics of attachment parenting by stating the concerns and then unscientifically stating, "No, actually they're wrong and the opposite thing happens." Here's a parody:

Playpens: The Black Den of Evil

Often we find parents asking us about playpens. Are they good? In our experience, no. To a child, a playpen is a prison and you are an abusive guard. She wails and cries and the parent doesn't respond and she learns that nobody loves her. She needs to crawl everywhere and if you don't let her, her muscles will atrophy and she'll get ADD. You shouldn't own one or think about owning one and you should avert your eyes if you see one.

But it's okay to put her in the playpen if you need to answer the phone. Also, if you can't not put her in a playpen, feel free to do so! You need to feel your own way through parenting, so even if you have to keep her in a cardboard box for six hours, that's fine! We're not judgmental!

Some of you are dumb and won't take us at our word, so here are some of your concerns:

I can't watch my child all the time and playpens keep my baby from falling down the stairs or eating electrical cords. Should I use one?
Absolutely not! If you're watching your baby all the time like you should be, then you can keep her out of electronics. And because we don't believe in using harsh language or physical punishment, your baby will learn "no" but not care about it until she's six, she won't learn anything and you'll get to spend even more time watching her!

My baby always has fun in her playpen and seems to enjoy being in there because it's safe. Is that possible?
In our experience, babies only pretend like they're having fun in their playpen. Inside they are screaming for emotional attachment to their parents, but are too frightened to express themselves because they are afraid that if they cry they will have to spend more time in the playpen as punishment. Babies who find themselves in this predicament grow up to be like Hitler.

I heard a baby was put in a playpen and he died. Is that true?

Joking aside, The Baby Book would actually be very helpful if its tone didn't make it unreadable. As that relative observed when she bought it, it is full of great information. I opened it many times for the charts. Personally, I think it could be rewritten. Half could be chopped, namely the paragraphs where they write the same thing over and over again, then some judgmental bullshit and of course one or two stories that probably didn't happen.

As it stands, this book is a giant mess of repeated unobservable and unscientific commandments with some useful charts hidden within it. I'm sure your money could be spent better elsewhere. As for my copy, it eventually left my bedside table and, for a week, it received its greatest use as a block to prop up Kara's carseat so it was level. Then it got returned.
1/2 a value judgment out of 5

And finally, I have some more personal comments to share. I've already railed against the tone of The Baby Book. However, the book does contain a passage that I'll take with me. The Sears ask us to simply not rely heavily on any baby book to raise our children. They say that no book has all the answers and as your child's parent, you know better than anybody else. It's commendable advice and after all the crap I read in this book, I was not expecting to read this passage.

Whenever discussing parenting, parents get uppity. When parenting emotions are stirred, they get judgmental. It's this attitude I object to. Despite the effort the Sears put into making their tone neutral, attachment parenting now has fanatic acolytes who believe that all of society's problems and their own personal disfunctions are Dr. Ferber's fault. Many attachment parents look down on parents who think differently than them. Like the Victorian chowderheads who invented the dispassionate and clinical approach to parenting of yore, they are being bitchy and judgmental and making other people feel bad about themselves.

In the end, the Sears are right about intuitive parenting. The truth of how to raise each kid lies somewhere between attachment parenting and Prussian child-rearing. Different kids will respond better to different things. Furthermore, no scientist on earth can accurately tell you how much nurture effects children versus nature. Some kids are born caring and some dispassionate, some artsy and some mechanical, some gregarious and some asocial and nobody knows how or why. Parenting just isn't a science. Those who pretend that parenting is a science are trying to make money.

So take a page out of the book of the man who coined "attachment parenting" and don't take his book that seriously.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Review of "Starfish" by Peter Watts

Starfish is a sci-fi novel by Canadian author Peter Watts. The story mainly follows Lenie Clarke, a deep-water worker who has been cybernetically enhanced to survive benthic conditions. The world's thirst for electricity has led humankind to tap geothermal power from deep-sea vents, and Clarke and her fellow rifters are specially selected by their employer to be psychologically primed to work in the freezing dark. That is, they are all broken: victims of abuse, unhappy loners, perverts or dangerous psychopaths. Starfish studies how the rifters change themselves, how their environment evolves them, and finally how their world transforms the unwitting humans who rely on them.

I feel safe in an assertion that you have never read anything like Starfish (or its two sequels) in your life. Watts' story is steeped in marine biology, sociology, psychology, parapsychology, computer science and biotechnology. Lenie Clarke's world is unique. She endures lack of sunlight, isolation, dangerous and unpredictable seafloor eruptions, attacks from monstrous fish, and finally the conniving politics of her own employers. Though an unhappy sufferer of previous sexual abuse, she learns to thrive in her new environment.

This book is in many ways a study of how life evolves and changes. Each deep-sea organism that Watts spotlights has learned to survive in hostile conditions in its own way. The rifters themselves are changed. Above the ocean's surface, humanity struggles with the evolving artificial intelligences of computer viruses and "smart gels", or bio-engineered brains. Because humans are so numerous, so are the illnesses that plague them. The world of Starfish is one in which nature has begun to compensate for the sudden evolutionary dominance of homo spiens.

The plot is fascinating. Lenie Clarke is a wonderful protagonist. She starts as quiet, shy and broken, and develops into a character with understated power. The story also features a few secondary protagonists, all fully-developed and intriguing. Each character is wonderful, real and morally ambiguous.

Summing, Starfish is unique and, above all, it is a fantastic read.
4 1/2 crippled fish with broken teeth out of 5

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Faceless Enemy

Since fiction has existed, hordes of incompetent foes have assailed heroes. These foes are a literary device which, at first, encourages audiences to fear villains by making them seem formidable. Then the foes get blown away and the secondary literary function is achieved: the hero looks very tough indeed. When these foes appear in a visual setting, such as theatre, comics, film or video games, these foes often have their faces shrouded or hidden. It's a tradition that I'd like to examine.

The Faceless Enemy has a long history. The earliest example I can remember with any clarity is the ninja. The famous shinobi shōzoku outfit that we all know, the all-black costume with the facemask, puffy pants and two-toed shoes, was very likely never used by actual ninja. Rather, it was a symbolic stage-convention of Japanese theatre that would allow audiences to easily identify a character as a ninja. It's a cool-looking costume that sticks in the viewer's mind. No wonder that it resonated over hundreds of years in Japanese culture and was copied by North American filmmakers in the 1970's. Many heroes have donned the awesome ninja garb, but when enemies do so, they are frequently very bad at their jobs.

Of course, the most famous Faceless Enemy these days is the Imperial Stormtrooper. For over thirty-five years, the Stormtrooper has been a pop-culture icon. However, we must not forget that the Imperial Stormtrooper was a dream inspired in George Lucas' mind by the Faceless Enemies that Flash Gordon and other cheapo-serial heroes fought in the early days of cinema.

In the world of video games, you will be playing an exeptional game if you AREN'T killing Faceless Enemies. From the masked-enemies of Borderlands to the shrouded reapers of Infamous to the balaclava-terrorists of Rainbow Six: Vegas 2, they are the industry standard. The reason for this is that it's just easier to program a certain number of enemies for the player to murder and if they don't have faces, it's less likely that the player will say, "Hey, didn't I kill that guy already?"

You get it. They're everywhere. But why? What is it about Faceless Enemies that we seem to like so much? Why do we like seeing them getting killed? It seems to make no intellectual sense. As a writer I am told over and over to fully-flesh my antagonists, yet fiction is rife with cartoon baddies Wilhelm-screaming and falling off roofs.

The enemy who has his face hidden is an enemy who has been dehumanized. Humans have instinctive reactions to seeing each other's faces. When the face is shrouded, those instincts are deadened.

This has two major effects. Fistly, for audiences, we cease to identify with the enemy. It just won't do for viewers to sympathetically exclaim, "Han Solo, you brute! That poor Stormtrooper! Did you think about his family when you blasted him?" This allows heroes to plow through hundreds of faceless foes, letting audiences worry only about the protagonist's peril.

The second major effect is a by-product of the first. When we have our sympathetic reactions to death impaired, it affects censors like the MPAA and the ESRB less. Dead Stormtroopers make for PG-ratings in theatres, at worst Teen ratings in video games. By putting a mask on your baddies, you are making your story available to millions of bloodthirsty children.

Okay, so that explains why creators select the Faceless Enemy. But why do audiences find them compelling? I've mentioned that the mask dehumanizes them, but with dehumanization also comes fear. The mask represents mystery and fear of the unknown. The emotions of a Faceless Enemy cannot be read except by body language, making their thoughts a mystery as well. With the identity hidden, the Faceless Enemy becomes a menacing stranger. Menacing strangers are a powerful human fear, as evidenced by the amount of media attention random murders, child-snatchers and serial killers receive. Lastly, when the Faceless Enemy serves a political entity such as an empire or terrorist group, he becomes a symbol of powerful conformity that has obliterated his identity, quietly whispering to the viewer, "This could happen to you, too."

In short, as a literary device, Faceless Enemies can inspire terror in the human heart. By including them as followers of your antagonist, (who should remain fully-fleshed), they significantly enhance his/her fear factor. Are you still worried about allowing poorly-fleshed characters into your work of fiction? Remember that the way to be a bore is to say everything. Unless that gas-masked Nazi is going to play a significant role in your plot, we don't want to know about him. We don't even want to know that his name is Hauptfeldwebel Helmut von Pickelhube. Just let your protagonist murder him and move on with the plot.

Believe it or not, this diatribe has real-life application. In his book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman showcases the innate human resistance to killing other humans. Apparently, before the Korean war, only about 15% of soldiers actively tried to shoot their enemies. The rest helped wounded comerades, reloaded weapons, cowered in fear, ran around shouting like idiots or fired their weapons over the enemys' heads. Generals like Carl von Clausewitz were confounded as to why, when a Prussian infantry formation fired a musket volley at a barn, all the shots hit, whereas when the same formation fired at an advancing line of tightly-packed infantry, only one or two enemies dropped. The closer you get to your enemy, the harder it is to overcome the urge not to kill him. A pilot can easily fire a torpedo at a battleship and sink it, killing who-knows-how-many soldiers, but the same man may freeze and be unable to bayonet one enemy in close-combat.

Modern training and drilling techniques have been introduced to overcome the resistance to kill. It also helps to have a superior officer yelling at you to kill. The American military also makes extensive use explosives and snipers, which kill at a distance rather than forcing up-close confrontation.

But by far the most time-honoured tradition of getting soldiers to kill is the art of dehumanization. From the made-up stories of the barbarious Hun mutilating innocent Belgians in World War I to the bullshit story about Iraqis tossing babies out of incubators, governments have been using real and fake propeganda to encourage soldiers to kill. If a soldier can view the enemy as degenerate subhumans, he/she can pull the trigger with more ease.

So here's the point of all this. Many special forces, SWAT teams and guerillas purposefully hide or cover their faces when they go into combat. Sometimes it's a balaclava meant to hide the wearer's identity. Sometimes it's facepaint to assist camouflage. Sometimes it's infrared goggles. Sometimes it's a gas mask to protect against airborne toxins.

Considering what Dave Grossman has to say and how audiences react to fictional Faceless Enemies, it might be worth examining the wisdom of hiding the face. Camouflage, anonymity, night vision and protection from chemicals have their uses. But by hiding the face, these soldiers and police are dehumanizing themselves and becoming more attractive targets. In situations where the enemy has no modern military training, this is especially important. An untrained fighter is more likely to shoot a menacing mask than a real person with a human face.

If this is something that soldiers and commanders consider before they enter combat, that's good. I'm glad to hear it. But otherwise, it's something to think about. Obviously there will be other tactical considerations in any engagement, but if I were a soldier (and I'm not), I'd think twice about putting on that balaclava.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Making D&D Alignments Work

Nerd alert! This post is for my D&D readers. You pipe-smoking intellectuals who come here for the dreamy intellectual poetry might want to sit this one out.

Dungeons & Dragons has been around for over thirty years and its system of alignments has been around for nearly as long. The alignment system defines characters along two axes, good vs. evil and law vs. chaos, with neutral between both. The intersection of the axes allows characters to choose an alignment that suits them, such as chaotic evil, lawful good, neutral good, lawful neutral or true neutral. This alignment defines their personality and also has game effects. Something about this system captures the imagination of players. I have to admit that I have thought about it a lot. My opinion of it has swayed back and forth from it being one of the stupidest ideas ever to a system of quiet brilliance.

Here's a quick review of what each point in the axis means:

Good characters like helping people and being nice. Evil characters like hurting and enjoy being mean. Neutral characters follow selfish ideals or have a true commitment to being impartial.

Lawful characters obey the law and have strict personal codes. Chaotic characters disobey authority and have few personal restrictions. Neutral characters can go either way.

It's an interesting way to view the world. But is it applicable to real life? A look at psychologist Theodore Millon's Inventories, which I covered briefly in this post, shows some similarities. Millon also has axes of personality and motivation, but many more of them.

The Law vs. Chaos axis in D&D bears close resemblances to two of the axes in the Millon Inventories: Systemizing vs. Innovating (cogniative) and Conforming vs. Dissenting (behaviour). Systemizers live their lives based on past experiences and evaluate new things based on old views, while Innovators seek novelty and change. On the other axis, Conformers follow societal trends and obey authority while Dissenters follow their own drum-beat. Realistically, the behaviours covered in Law and Chaos should follow two axes, not one.

Good vs. Evil is a little more difficult to compare. For one thing, Millon does not acknowledge the existence of malevolence in his inventories. Most of the axes that deal with such things view behaviour as either selfless or selfish, which in D&D terms translates into good or neutral. I would imagine that psychologists would see the desire to hurt or cause harm as a rare mental disorder rather than having its own place on a Millon axis, and when such individuals are following selfish desires when they act upon those brutal urges.

Regardless, Millon has two axes which could fit upon the D&D scales: Nurturing vs. Individuating (motivation) and Complaining vs. Agreeing (behaviour). Nurturers love to help others while Individuators prefer to help themselves first. Complainers are angry and sullen while Agreeing folks are generally nice. Once again, two realistic axes in place of D&D's one.

Aside from the four axes I listed in this post, Millon classifies personalities with eight others, making a total of twelve. While Dungeons & Dragons has 9 possible alignments, if you made an alignment for each of the combinations in the Millon Inventories, tacking neutral into each axis, that equals 531,441 possible alignments. Not gonna happen. Still it's fun to think of the possibilites. I'd love to see a spell called Sense-Blast that did extra damage to characters with the Intuitive alignment, or the Antisocial Sword that does 1d extra damage to Gregarious characters. Ha!

But D&D has only two axes and if you play you have to live with them and the limited roleplay possibilities that result. Not only that, but in a game system where your alignment can shift depending on your character's actions, leading to important game effects, you have to pay close attention to what your actions really mean. DMs especially should think about alignments and be clear with players about the decisions when they arise with players. Players who commit alignment-altering actions and unexpectedly find their alignment shift can get pissed-off.

That doesn't mean you can't have fun with the system. Here's some tips on the common pitfalls that can make this system annoying and how to avoid them.

Chaos is Bad

As a Discordian, this particular logical flaw is very important to me. The Milgram Experiment proved conclusively that most of the human race is Lawful. We obey the rules and if somebody in charge tells us to do something, we do it, especially if they're yelling. Another trait of humans is the tendency to fear and hate things that are different from us. Therefore, many players confuse Chaos with evil.

This just isn't true. Chaos is change. Change is neither good nor evil. Yes, change claimed your kindly grandmother on her deathbed. But it also killed Hitler. Change began every government and will destroy every government and all its laws. When a law is broken, even if it is theft or murder, good or evil can result.

Remember, Order and Law are merely artificial constructs that allow us not to think very hard. The breaking of a tradition merely forces us to re-examine it. Unless the breaking was intended to maliciously hurt or generously help somebody, the act of breaking is not a moral action.

The Chaotic Good Paradox

A Chaotic Good character has a thin line to walk. His mantra must be to do as much good outside the scope of the law as possible. The only real way to do it seems to be selective about who and what he uses as the targets of his chaos. Destruction and punishment of evil must be the main focus, rather than fixation on Law versus Chaos. Cruel brigands should be his target just as much corrupt tax collectors. Robin Hood is a good example of a Chaotic Good character. He robbed only the rich and wicked and routinely gave the money to people in need. Similarly, Malcolm Reynolds of Firefly loves to win fights by thwarting warrior codes and catching opponents unprepared. A Chaotic Good character should have no problem knifing a psychopath in the back if it prevents others from being hurt.

Malcolm Reynolds and Robin Hood were lucky, however. They were in direct opposition to governments which could be fairly called Lawful Evil. It is much more difficult to play Chaotic Good when living under a government that is Lawful Good. How is it done? With difficulty. Certainly a Chaotic Good character would refuse a draft order and engage in illegal protests if he was riled enough. I also don't see this character paying taxes. But neither do I see him hurting soldiers, police and government agents when they come to arrest him, unless he knew they were bad people.

Whose Laws are you Following?
Lawful characters are great if your campaign takes place in one kingdom. However, it's more than likely that your decade-spanning epic will not. So what happens when your goodie-two shoes paladin crosses the border?

If said paladin enters a wilderness area with no government or laws, I hardly think it would make sense to take a literal view of things and let your paladin start robbing travellers. It would make much more sense for him to continue to live the life of a law-abiding citizen from his own kingdom within the barbarian reaches.

Well and good. Now he travels to the magical elf-lands of Franduil. Like most elves, they are Chaotic Good and live as a sort of anarchist commune. Their legal system is lax and it is more likely that families and clans will punish their own, if at all. Your paladin's urge to smite the guilty is going to get him into trouble. Not only that, but if he imposes his kingdom's laws upon the elves, is he truly acting in a Lawful manner?

After eviction from Franduil, our paladin travels to Wickedia, a Lawful Evil kingdom ruled by vampire overlords who rob their peasantry of riches and blood. What does the paladin do when he witnesses his first perfectly-legal virgin sacrifice? If he halts it, he's breaking the law. Does he impose his own kingdom's standards on Wickedia?

Here are the basic moral dilemmas. If he chooses to impose his kingdom's laws elsewhere, how exactly is "Lawful" even a universal alignment if it's based on ONE KINGDOM? Next, if he chooses to follow local traditions, he will often find himself doing stuff contrary to his alignment. And lastly, if it's his own choice whether he chooses to follow the laws of whichever kingdom he's in, how is he any different from a chaotic character?

Honestly, I don't have the answers. This is a matter of choice for your Dungeon Master. DMs, think about this one. If you don't have an answer you might have annoyed players.

Vigilantes: What alignment is Batman?
A D&D sourcebook called "The Complete Scoundrel" lists Batman as being a Lawful Good character. But is he really Lawful Good? He's a vigilante, one of the most lawless professions known to man. He is routinely hunted by police for being a vigilante. He constantly assaults police officers, resists arrest and wrecks public resources to evade capture. Yes, he hunts lawbreakers, but he breaks the law to do so. So what alignment is he?

I'd say he's Neutral Good, honestly. But once again, if you're playing a vigilante, ask your DM. The same goes for evil vigilantes like the ones that Woody Guthrie used to complain about.

Evil characters in the party
It's likely that a Lawful Evil character with his code of honour could fit well into a party situation. But what about a Chaotic Evil character, the sort of personality that is basically a dangerous sociopath. Or the Neutral Evil character's pure and passionate dedication to cause harm in the world? What is stopping these characters from slitting their friends' throats while they sleep and fleeing with all the magic items?

Obviously, the most simple solution is for DMs to say outright, "No evil characters allowed." It's an easy solution that works. But some players like being evil.

The best way to justify the existence of an evil character and his continued cooperation with a party of adventurers is the long-con. He is only temporarily working with them so that once they have defeated your campaign's antagonist, he can make his play for true power. Either that, or traveling with a pack of powerful troublemakers who constantly engage in combat provides many opportunities to inflict suffering on others. Of course, there is also a chance that a player of an evil character will engage in "character development" (in D&D? Seriously?) Witness the development of Sawyer in "Lost", in the first season starting Neutral Evil and later becoming Lawful Neutral.

These solutions sound good until that paladin character shows up. If the alignment system was more ambiguous, it might be easy for a paladin to work with evil characters and have doubts about them without smiting them. However, paladins come equipped with Detect Evil spells and paladins cannot suffer evil to live, right? If you're a DM who wants to allow evil characters in the game, you might actually want to say, "no paladins allowed."

That's the best I can do for making the D&D alignments work. Personally, I'd rather play an RPG like GURPS or Savage Worlds that allows for complicated personality customization. But D&D has such massive appeal that it is easier to find a game. D&D games can be found in the most unlikely places, from tiny prairie towns to isolated forest cabins to secret games in the basements of Mormons. So if you're starved for the art of interactive storytelling, D&D and its beautiful and flawed alignment system is often your best option.