Saturday, January 30, 2016

Myths Born in Dark Places

The tales say God is missing, driven from Heaven by an onslaught of demons. The angels fight a desperate holding action against the armies of Satan and an even more powerful evil. An evil, who's name you probably already know, stalking children in the darkness. Spirits provide guidance, the mysterious Blue Lady provides aid, and both sides are fed by your own thoughts and actions.

This isn't another Supernatural-like genre TV show (though there certainly several cropping up right now, aren't there). It isn't another urban-fantasy novel series. These are the secret stories of young homeless children in Miami, circa 1997. The story gained new life on the Internet via reddit (of course) a few years ago, and I must admit it's a pretty compelling framework. Culturally apropos, interesting folklore, and a narrative that binds disparate people together. That's what myths are, and this is clearly an example of what they provide. Once again we see the power of verbal storytelling and personal connections.

Perhaps this can also help illuminate the strain the current world puts on the narrative of mainstream Christianity. But that's another subject for another time.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Bookworming: The Time Machine

The Time Machine, H. G. Wells, ****
It seems a bit silly to write a review of one of the foundational works of science fiction that has been highly acclaimed for years, but I'll do it anyway. The Time Machine is a quick read. Much like Psycho, I'd recommend it even if you already know the main story beats. Wells was a great writer, and aside from the rather sudden introduction of the names of the two mysterious species, the story flows extremely well. If there is any criticism to be found, it is in the lack of depth. But that's judging it by the standards of today's multi-book epics. In truth, it's a very focused story with a single premise, and there's nothing wrong with that. There's just not much more to say. if you like science fiction, you have probably already read this, but treat yourself if you haven't. You won't regret it.

Title Apropos

I woke up at 3 this morning from a dream. I won't go into detail (you're welcome), but the phrase my unconscious brain left me with was, "Why do you dream of flowers and sand? -a prophecy" My just woken semi-conscious brain responded to this with "that better be the title of a book or essay, because a question is literally the opposite of a prophecy."

This has been you weekly glimpse into Brian's brain, and a reminder that there are no lifeguards on duty and swimming in my stream of consciousness is done at your own risk.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Diablo UI as a Metaphor for Life

It can be funny where one finds inspiration sometimes. I have been trying to clear out my podcast backlog for some time now, dropping a couple and spending more time listening to the episodes of those that remain so that I will eventually be caught up. One of the things I do while listening is play Diablo 3. I'm rather ashamed to admit it, but as simple a Skinner box as the Diablo series is, I have probably put in more total time playing those games than any other series. Or maybe it's because they are such simple things.

Lately, I have been fighting a very strong malaise. Part of it is the relentless frustration that a computer programming job brings. Part of it is working what for me were atypically long hours over a much longer sustained period than I had ever done before (and the resulting uptick in back pain). Part of it is being in a new place where I know almost nobody. And I'll admit, part of it is turning 40 as the guy that never got married. Now none of this is to say "oh woe is me"; I well know that my life is downright cushy on the grand scale of things. Instead it's a simple striving for self-awareness. Knowing where I am now, and knowing that it isn't where I want to be, is the first step toward changing directions. But the how... the how is always hard. And maybe that's where a little Diablo metaphor comes in.

The primary visual element of the Diablo series' user interface are the health and mana globes. One keeps you alive, and the other lets you do magic stuff. You want to keep track of those at all times, but sometimes in the heat of the moment it's hard to remember to do. Without keeping your health up, you aren't going to last long against the terrors of the world. (It's also worth remembering that different characters can have wildly varying base health.) But health alone won't win the day. It takes the skills you have trained up through experience, and the mana/spirit/will to employ them. Constantly running against the big monsters will get you a bunch of experience, but it will also deplete your reserves and make the fights last longer than they need to. Or you might just fail outright when a better-paced tack might have lead to success. Maybe knock off some easier critters for a while and take the slow and steady path in between the big struggles.

The secondary UI elements are the active abilities on hand. In the most recent incarnation, Diablo 3, with enough experience you can learn all the skills the game has to offer, but you can't use them all at the same time. You have to choose what is most effective for the goal you are facing in the moment. Focus on wielding a few things well. And you have to know how they interact with one another, when spamming one will leave you too depleted.

And sometimes you just have to portal out and find somewhere quiet to recharge.

Maybe not the deepest life philosophy out there, but maybe you can find some interesting reflections of a greater truth. I mean, as metaphors for life go it could be worse, I could have picked Dark Souls...

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Bookworming: Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie, ***
This is a science fiction novel examining individuality and identity. That's not actually the plot, but that's what drives the book, at least for me. Our point of view is provided by the titular Ancillary, a human altered to be a tool for and extension of a starship's artificial intelligence. The first thing that jumps out at you is the use (or lack thereof) of gender. The society that created the ship, the Imperial Radch, de-emphasizes gender, and all the various cultures the ship encountered over its existence expressed it in a variety of ways, leading the AI to be bad at telling the difference between men and women. In addition, many parts of the story involve the ship seeing and acting through multiple ancillaries at a time. Both of these factors could be considered confusing. I think Leckie did an amazing job of keeping the multi-viewpoint clear through the narrative. And having a mostly gender-less cast leads to some interesting questions about gender assumptions for the various characters as the story unfolds. The world building is deft, slowly building from tight focus to the situation in the wider galaxy. In all, there is much here to commend. The book is a slow burn, structured somewhere between quest and unfolding mystery with a great deal of philosophizing mixed in. While it is a space opera of sorts, it falls much more on the Star Trek examination of philosophy and identity side of the spectrum than the Star Wars action and adventure side. For science fiction fans, I think trying this one out should be an easy decision. (If all the awards didn't already give that away.) For a wider audience, I expect mileage may vary by taste and expectations.

Monday, January 4, 2016

State of the 'Blog 2015

In my 2014 state-of, I said I really didn't consider 2014 to be a good year for the 'blog. And here I sit, just past the end of 2015, with my blog posts (such as they are) down by nearly half. Once again, this was a reflection of goings on in my life, mostly due to demands of work. While things didn't get quite down to the level of the long-commuting times, I did have a pretty brain-melting year, and it showed in my output of things creative.

And so I enter 2016 with all the projects on my to-do list still to-be-done. Only time will tell if something moves along that front. As usual, I make no promises. And I'm always open to suggestions.

Bookworming: Dark Force Rising, The Last Command

Dark Force Rising, Timothy Zahn, ***
The Last Command, Timothy Zahn, ***

The second and third books of the Heir to the Empire trilogy review pretty much the same as the first. With most of the secondary characters introduced, they do pick the pace up a bit. My only real criticism is for the somewhat abrupt ending to the trilogy. There's not much more to say other than if you liked the first one, you will like these as well.