Monday, September 15, 2014

Roundup: blogging elsewhere, hard to get into books, code as brain-colonizer, a weak September movie list

Today, a roundup of smaller topics, for reasons that number 3 will explain.

1) While I'm in the MakerSquare course in Austin, I am trying to blog daily (for now) over at Incremental Code. Writing daily is... perhaps not the smartest thing to do, time-wise; but I'm limiting myself to 15 minutes or less per post; and writing daily helps me to process the day.

2) Before falling asleep many days, I read a few pages of Iain M Banks's 1987 Consider Phlebas, the first book in his Culture series. Banks is loved by people whose tastes match up with mine. And I like it... but I find it hard to get into.

Partly that's due to the writing, which is occasionally odd--and even when it's in a good way, odd prose is odd.

Partly that's due to the structure of the book, which is very episodic: one guy gets lost in space and tries to get somewhere. Even when the scenes are interesting--as when the main guy gets marooned on an island of religious cannibals and has to figure out a way off--it's hard to see the long-term stakes of these episodes. And long-term stakes matter when you've got such a long book.

3) In college, I took some computer science courses, and I noticed that writing code is a lot like playing Tetris: if you do it before bed, you'll start to dream about it. You'll look around the world and say (Tetris) "I wonder if an L could fit under that branch" or (code) "I wonder is a hash would be a better way to model bus riders." Like Tetris, code-writing colonizes your brain. (Kind of like any language, I guess.)

But the real way that code will colonize your brain is in how--hold on, I just thought of something.

::Time passes while I try something out on my code.::

And that is really the way that code colonizes your (or at least my) brain. You can be doing something else and suddenly--wham!--you thought of a way to solve a problem that you were stymied by before. That's just good, old-fashioned subconscious puzzle-solving, the same as when you fell asleep and woke up with the answer.

The colonizing part is when you have to stop whatever you're doing and go check that solution to see if it works. And that example above, that wasn't a joke. I really did have an idea and I wanted to see how it worked out.

Which is great for my code, which is getting incrementally better.

But it sure is hard on the rest of my life, which at any moment can be taken over by a code-related idea.

4) Which brings us to this: For that past few months, I have kept careful records of any movie I saw and I saw a lot of movies. Movies I watched with Sarah, movies I watched while at the gym, etc. So far, in September, I haven't purposely watched any movies. In fact, I purposely watched an episode of Star Wars Clone Wars--and that took me four-five days to watch a 20-minute show. This time in Austin may be not so good for my culture consumption. Which is ironic, since it's Austin and there's so much going on!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 243: Francis Scott Key, Defence of Fort M‘Henry (#243)

Francis Scott Key, "Defence of Fort M‘Henry" (1814), with an account by Roger B. Taney (1872) from The War of 1812: Writings from America’s War of Independence:

So, sometimes, these LoA stories give a glimpse behind the history: the story from before people knew how history would turn out or a view of a historical event from someone else's POV.

Today's selection doesn't really do any of that. We have Francis Scott Key's "Defence," which we know as "The Star-Spangled Banner." And sure, it's nice to see all the verses and think about people struggling through more of that before they get to see a ball-game.

After that, we get Key's friend Taney's account of how Key came up with that song. Which is almost exactly what we read in the headnote: Key goes to negotiate for the release of a friend; he ends up a temporary prisoner of the British so that they can attack Baltimore without fore-warning; Key ends up watching the bombardment of the American fort; and he is much relieved when, you know, the American flag was still there.

Which means that we get a glimpse of history almost EXACTLY as it is often told. I rarely say this, but you can give this entry a pass.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Fiasco game play review: Fort Two Fork, TX

For most of my life, I've been into roleplaying games but not a big player of them. It was always easier to collect and read the gaming books than it was to collect actual players (except for a brief, shining moment in college). Even when I lived in San Angelo, where I wasn't likely to get a game going (largely because I didn't leave my apartment), I still read about new games and occasionally put them on my present list. 

Which is how I ended up with a copy of Fiasco, a game where three-to-five player co-create a Coens Brothers-style story where ordinary folk get caught up in schemes that inevitably go horribly wrong. It's really an interesting game, which I liked so much--in theory, after reading but not playing it--that I recommended it on Twitter to screenwriter and occasional gamer John August. And that's how we got this episode of his podcast, where he and two other screenwriters played an on-air game.

Finally, after telling other people about it, I got a chance to play a game last night with some other programmers who live in this student-housing. (Which I will explain later.) Luckily, there were only four of us and one had already played and I had the book with me to refer to for any questions. It all went relatively smoothly game-play-wise.

But as a story, it was amazing. The first part of Fiasco is picking a setting and using some random dice to help build up your characters' relationships according to the setting options. We played in the wild west, so the relationship options included things like "sheriff and deputy," "opium dealer and addict," "reformed criminals," and "mail order bride and groom." As soon as we had those relationships mapped out--and the setting options and dice really help here by limiting the choices--we could instantly see all the forms of conflict embedded in these characters. Which is, of course, why Jason Morningstar doesn't give individual character creation, but only gets at those characters through their relationships.

Perhaps now is a good time to note that our game played a little silly with some parts of the story: our "western" sometimes had Indians acting up on the frontier and sometimes had the internet; sometimes there were horses and sometimes cars; and above all, while character generation keeps things vague, when we never really decided if the "mail-order bride" was actually a woman or if we had a homosexual relationship, that turned into a running joke about how progressive our town was.

As for the story itself, it turned out to be a classic tale of innocence abused: our good sheriff was also an opium addict with a plan to get all he could from the town; our reformed criminal and opium dealer wasn't so reformed after all and wanted to take over the town, using whatever mysterious prize he had stolen years ago in a deal gone wrong; our mail-order partner really did want to leave his criminal past behind and wanted to help the deputy see all the evil machinations that the sheriff and the opium dealer were engaged in; and our deputy, oh our deputy, was the easily confused muscle who kept getting used by people. (Really, I spent most of my night busting in to confront people about their villainy, only to be turned around and sent off to confront someone else. Imagine Brad Pitt's character from Burn After Reading but with a badge instead of a bicycle.)

It all ended with a lot of bloodshed and tears and new bad habits--which is how you want your game of Fiasco to end.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 242: Jerry Izenberg, A Whistle-Stop School with Big-Time Talent (#242)

Jerry Izenberg, "A Whistle-Stop School with Big-Time Talent" (1967) from Football: Great Writing about the National Sport:

It is college football season, which I know for two reasons: one, I'm living in a house in Austin with some people who are interested in college football; two, I'm living very close to the UT-Austin campus. So, yesterday I went out grocery shopping at 9--before it got too hot--and I passed a bunch of people who had set up in the stadium parking lot for some tail-gating. Think about that for a second: people set up to hang out at 9 for a game that starts at 6, knowing that it'll get up to 100 degrees around 2 or 3. That's dedication.

Which is one of the themes of today's LoA story, which is an article about how pro-football scouts discovered the talent pool available at all-black colleges, starting with Grambling State University--and starting because a series of men were dedicated to the work and to the people they served. First, there's Grambling's president, Dr. Ralph Waldo Emerson Jones, who took a struggling college and made it into a successful institution; second, there's coach Eddie Robinson, who Jones brought on to coach football, and who believed in himself and in his players enough to make them work hard; third, there's the star running back; fourth, there's the black pro player who finds this news article on the college player and gives it to his scout; fifth, there's the preacher and coach who taught Eddie Robinson, etc.

(If you're wondering, women play an out-of-focus role here: they are the mothers who need to be convinced that Grambling is the place for their boys, they are Robinson's aunt who told Jones to go hire him, and so on. Their role is important, but not really what Izenberg is interested in.)

It's all set up almost perfectly for a sports movie: how the little (black) guys persevered and overcame the odds.

Underneath that, though, Izenberg is not shy about the racial angle and about what that means for these men. (Interesting to note that this story was written for but not run at the Saturday Evening Post.) When he notes that Jones and Robinson help their players with their contracts, he notes that many white players would go into those negotiations with a lawyer, but the black, low-income, and rural students of Grambling don't have that option. When he notes how much Robinson gets paid or how many people the stadium can hold--or even that Robinson, after his own graduation from college, could only find manual labor--Izenberg hits on the notion that America hasn't been the land of opportunity for all its children. Which, in 1967, might've been a radical tone for a sports column to take.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A few thoughts on mid-life career changes

Labor Day seems like a fine day to consider what work means to life and vice-versa; and especially for me since I've just started an immersive web-programming/development course.

You might think that this is a radical change for me, going from English major to programming, but I've always been interested in science and especially computers. I mean, I had all the classic kid-scientist toys: microscope, chemistry set, physics set, telescope, scissors for cutting through electrical cords when the fan was still on, etc.

I also took just about all the computer science classes that Bard offered when I was there. I started by learning to sort using wooden blocks (cedar, according to the teacher, so after learning to sort we could keep the moths off our sweaters); and I ended by learning assembly code. I wasn't one of the kids programming his TI-85 to play Monopoly in high school, but I did build some websites from scratch in college. So let's not say that this is a big change in interests, just a change in focus.

Now, after that big introduction, I have to be honest: I don't really have all that many thoughts on changing focus. Or rather, I have one big thought: if you're changing focus or even having a more radical career shift, it probably means more to you than it does to anyone else in the room. I don't mean "it's all in your head, man"; I mean, everyone starts somewhere. So even if you started by sorting cedar blocks (which I still have in my closet, keeping my sweaters moth-free), there's still no telling where you'll end up.

But just to prove that I haven't given up all my literary interests, I'll add that many of my favorite writers basically began writing in the middle of some other career, like Sherwood Anderson. Anderson operated a successful business selling paint when, at the age of 36, he suffered a pretty serious nervous breakdown, including disappearing for four days and walking (probably) from Elyria, OH, to Cleveland, OH. (Which really shouldn't take four days.) Only then did he begin writing.

So, if you're changing careers, just remember: as long as you don't disappear for four days, you're doing OK. Heck, even if you do disappear for four days, you might be doing great. Just look at Sherwood Anderson.

2014 monthly movie list: August

  1. The Lego Movie
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy
  3. Saving Mr. Banks
  4. The Infidel
  5. Bad Milo!
  6. Mary Poppins (never seen entirely before and interesting: so much of the story was plot-unrelated spectacle; and the real protagonist of the story--in one reading--is Mr. Banks, who hardly gets any screen time at all, but has the biggest arc, from caring about the bank to caring about his children*; but a lot of this is still very enjoyable and engaging)
  7. Brave
  8. Turner and Hooch (so 80s, so young Tom Hanks)
  9. Pontypool
  10. 20 Feet From Stardom
This was a good month. Even the lower rated movies were still pretty solid. 20 Feet From Stardom is a documentary about back-up singers that was very interesting, but not quite for me; Pontypool was a strange horror film that didn't entirely work, but at least it went for something a little different with its language virus and limited setting (a radio station under siege).

Special note here for Bad Milo!, which is a very particular type of horror-comedy film--and that particularity is a lot of anxiety about the ass. And anxiety in general. Ken Marino plays an anxious husband and employee who swallows all his anger and other ugly feelings: when his overbearing boss makes him fire people--swallow it; when his new office is a repurposed bathroom and his new cubicle mate tries to use one of the (non-functioning) toilets--swallow it; when his dad who abandoned him can't bother to help him through crisis--swallow it; when his mom's young new husband is very demonstrative about their sex life--swallow it.

In a move worthy of J. G. Ballard and David Cronenberg, these bad feelings that Ken swallows cause/exacerbate a medical situation: he has a polyp in his rear that is actually a Dark Half. This is somewhat archetypal Jungian/Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde material (or at least our modern form of that story): when someone upsets Ken's character, Bad Milo comes out to kill them--but since Bad Milo is a part of Ken's character, he can't just kill it, but has to reconcile with it.

Of course, given that premise, this isn't a philosophical film about accepting your shadow--or it is a film about that, wrapped up in a lot of jokes about things coming into or out of Ken's ass. As you can tell by the fact that I don't even know Ken's character's name, the film is not a masterwork of narrative storytelling. (I mean, if the main couple is waiting to have a kid, why are they seeing a fertility expert?) But it is a fine execution of an odd premise.

I'll talk more about the film du summer, Guardians of the Galaxy, at a later date.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Nerds and their toys; or, The thing you like is not your ego

The World Fantasy Award is--and I hope this isn't too big of a shock--an award for best fantasy in the usual major categories (novel, novella, short fiction, anthology, etc.). The award statue is a caricature of Lovecraft--or, if we're being honest, a pretty faithful view of Lovecraft.

Now, Lovecraft is a guy with a spotty legacy in a few areas. Some people today think he's a bad writer because he occasionally used odd words ("squamous") and his mad narrators can be a little completely insane in their descriptions.

But where Lovecraft really shines for people who don't like him is in his racism, which is very real. Though it's also more complex than some people seem to understand: when looking at historical racism, it's important to understand that their racism is not our racism. So, Lovecraft has some things to say about Africans and Asians--and also Eastern, Southern, and Northern Europeans. Also the British at times. Also: Yankees. Or put it this way: Lovecraft has some really mean things to say about the Jews--or at least, Eastern European Jews. He has no problems with Portuguese Jews. And his hatred of blacks in NYC is pretty clearly a hatred of southern culture. And for all the evil mixed race people--whether that mix is human or monstrous--there's no real notion that there are some completely clean people in those encounters.

But put that to the side for a moment, because, however complex and nuanced Lovecraft's racism can be, he's also just a racist.

So now we come to the main issue that's rocking a very tiny corner of the nerdosphere these days: should we change the statue for the World Fantasy Award so that it doesn't look like we're honoring Lovecraft? Why don't we honor someone else, like respected author, Octavia Butler? That, at least, is what the petition going around now asks for.

I have to say, at first, I was not influenced by the anti-Lovecraft petition, largely because (a) I like Lovecraft's work; (b) I think the statue--designed by Gahan Wilson--is neat; and (c) it was easy to get into the weeds of the argument that the statue should be changed. About that last point, the argument should simply just be that Lovecraft's racism makes him a bad choice for a statue honoring fantasy. That's a pretty persuasive argument, to me. Instead, some of the anti-Lovecraft bloggers and writers have pointed out that he's not a great writer or didn't write fantasy--neither of which are really true. And when Butler got proposed, I think many people scratched their heads: she has far less fantasy in her works than Lovecraft does.

If I were for changing the statue, my argument would simply be: because of his racism, he's a bad emblem for fantasy; and rather than all pick our favorite authors, we should choose something more abstract or symbolic to represent the award.

(For comparison, the science fiction awards are symbolic: the Hugo Award's statue is a rocket, while the Nebula Award's statue is a... nebula. Sure, those symbols harken to a time when science fiction was synonymous with space, but everyone understands that they are symbols. Even if you don't have a rocket in your novel, you can enjoy your Hugo. So it's perfectly reasonable for the World Fantasy Award to be something like a dragon or a sword or something similarly symbolic of fantasy.)

But now that I've seen all the pro-Lovecraft arguments--mostly in the form of whining about political correctness--I'm really coming around to the idea that we should change the statue. Maybe this happens in all sorts of genres and hobbies, but people who love Lovecraft--among whom I usually include myself, except in this occasion--sure can't tell the difference between an attack on Lovecraft and an attack on themselves. It's like any negative comment about Lovecraft is aimed at their own ego.

I don't want to single out Lovecraft fans, especially after listening to a podcast discussion about the Game of Thrones tv show vs. the books where one nerd talked about how the show was threatening to ruin his reading experience. On one hand, I get where he's coming from, since the books are very plot-heavy and surprising. On the other hand, oh brother--discussing this particular media property in the hushed tones of romantic and religious exaltation seems a little overdone. I've had movies and books "spoiled" for me and you know what? I still enjoyed those books and movies. Demanding that no one else gets to enjoy something because their enjoyment threatens yours, that's not any way to go through life.

This seems to be something that nerds in particular are given over to: the adoption of some particular works as central to their identity. And again, one hand: I get it, because when most culture is set up in a way that doesn't excite you and then you discover something that does--something that no one else is excited about--of course you're likely to take that on as a part of yourself. Everyone else cares about football and you're the only one reading Dragonlance books? Then you may think of yourself as the person who reads Dragonlance books. But seriously, we nerds do ourselves no favors when we calcify our identities and associate our egos with some particular person or work.

Or for the bumper sticker: No matter how much you love Lovecraft, he does not love you back.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 241: George R. Gleig, Storming the Capital (#241)

George R. Gleig, "Storming the Capital" (1821) from The War of 1812: Writings from America’s War of Independence:

Last week, we read Dolley Madison's letters to her sister around the time of the British invasion of Washington, D.C.; this week, we get about the same time period from the POV of a triumphant British soldier.

First thing to note is that the young Gleig (18 at the time he joined the fight against Napoleon in 1813) is writing a memoir to be published; so if his writing seems a little more audience-friendly than Dolley's note to her sister, there's a reason for that.

(Still, quick lesson for writers: if you want to give a description--here, of the land--because it's necessary to understand some later issue, feel free to tell us that BEFORE you go on with your description. Gleig gives his reason after, which is no way to win friends.)

Second, while Dolley was writing from within the historical moment--and so limited in not knowing how that history would work out--Gleig is writing after the fact and writing a comprehensive note on the war. So, when he describes how strong the American position was, even before he says it, he knows the second part of that sentence: what a strong position those losers had. Similarly, when he's describing the destruction of Washington, D.C., it's interesting to note that the British army at that moment is split up into two groups--and he's never clear as to which group he personally was in.

Third and related, Gleig writes for posterity, so he explains pretty clearly how the British won the battle of Bladensburg even though they were outnumbered and the Americans were strongly positioned. (Answer: the Americans did a very poor job of soldiering. Though Gleig does take time to praise the American seamen who were on artillery duty.)

He also explains--with a mixture of righteousness and slight embarrassment--the aftermath of the battle: when a British detachment came into D.C. under flag of truce to negotiate the surrender of certain goods (plunder being an integral part of war at that time), they were fired upon, which is why the British decided to burn some government buildings. It's curious to me that I'd never heard about the envoys being fired on; and it's also curious how Gleig expresses some regret that the British army burned and destroyed the archives and some printing offices. Which, again, may be something he felt at the time, but is clearly something you might reconsider when looking at the battle as a historical event.