Saturday, July 25, 2015

EVE Online

Somebody at work calls EVE Online "that mining game."  She also says that if I ever start playing they'll never see me again  That neatly sums up the prevailing opinion - it's incredibly tedious, it's incredibly addictive.

So I've given it a week now and have yet to find the addictive part.  It has the steepest learning curve of any game I've ever encountered and the most annoying thing is that this is deliberate.  One of the tutorials usually can't be completed at night because other players have destroyed the needed material during the day but there's no indication of that.  For a tutorial!  I learned from a website comment discovered when trying to find out what I was doing wrong (nothing as it turned out).

Other tutorials are even worse.  For example, the one that's supposed to teach you how to do a mission basically just says do a mission.  There's nothing helpful about how to acquire one (which is not at all obvious) or how to get where you need to go (also not obvious).  And one I tried was listed as beginner but some Internet posts later informed me it's basically impossible for beginners.  Two of the "easy" ones I never could figure out which can't be good in general since I'm a very experienced gamer (going back literally to Pong).  If I have trouble what about curious people who might just want to give this a try?

None of that opacity is unusual for EVE but what I've played doesn't even seem appealing enough to try to push through.  Everything happens in space and all space looks pretty much the same (I'm sure later other sectors look different but they can't be that different - imagine if WoW had been played entirely in The Barrens, which some pre-Cataclysm Horde will tell you it felt like).  Combat is even more mere button pushing than any other game and I usually play ranged dps so I generally love some button pushing.  But there are limits.

And mining, oh goodness the mining.  You know grinding in other MMOs?  Well imagine grinding that is both automated and has to be stopped frequently to deposit material.  It's the worst of all possible worlds. And for rewards that honestly don't seem much like rewards - it's not like you're getting glowing ships with gryphons painted on the sides, or cute little space pets, or flaming blasters.

This article claims that the real attraction is groups and interacting with other players so maybe that's my problem.  I'm mostly a solo player even when I'm in a decent guild and consider LFG and LFR queues a blessing from the Turing Machine heavens.  A game that pretty much has no point if you're not constantly in groups isn't really for me, particularly if it's just making for more efficient mining.  I have two free months of this thing and may give it another go or two but it will likely be uninstalled before the month's out.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Why I'm Changing from Song of Ice and Fire to Game of Thrones (Probably)

My answer when anybody asks if I watch Game of Thrones has been the full-blown snobbish one – I'm literate, why would I watch the show? But it's not wrong. I read A Game of Thrones years ago, back when there was no talk of a TV show, when a TV show would have seemed like a silly joke. But I'd read George R.R. Martin off and on since I was a teenager, mainly the short stories and early novels (Fevre Dream isn't just the best vampire book I've ever read, it's just one of the best period). Maybe I shouldn't have been entirely surprised at A Game of Thrones but it had the epic sweep of high fantasy (though notably was possibly magic-free despite much character talk) combined with the complexity of medieval/Renaissance politics and a pretty grim but fairly believable view of human character.  And it was dense with description, incident, people. A TV show could be worthwhile in its own right but would invariably be a reduction.

So at some point I started The Clash of Kings, got a few chapters in, then misplaced the book. I never felt like buying another copy but when I found it again recently the time seemed right to continue the series. And whatever I saw in the first book now felt diluted in a flood of material in the second. There's so much background – kings and village histories and myths and why castles were built and ravens and what's being eaten at every single meal and on and on. And so many characters doing so many things for so many reasons, many apparently irrelevant. At some point even the actual stories became confused and exactly who was fighting who seemed unclear. Sure I could go back (or more plausibly online) and figure this out but signposting is the novelist's job. To make it worse even big fans of the books say the fourth and fifth wander quite a bit. Clearly like so many other SFF writers Martin was too enamored of his created world to control appropriately what he was doing This isn't even getting to the very real possibility that Martin won't live to finish the series – at the moment despite rumors of next year there's no publication date for the next book, not to mention talk that it may go even to an eighth book.

So this started to seem not worth the trouble. If I'm putting this much into such complicated stories clearly it's much better for them to be about the Habsburgs or Caesars or Stuarts, something that matters beyond the particular book they're in. Dan Jones' book on the Plantagenets has four pages of genealogical tables, a fifth of what's in The Clash of Kings (though Jones does have many more maps). It's not that the history is “real” so much as what's in the novel starts to feel like Martin is just dumping notes and drafts into the work. I think one of the great losses in modern literary fiction is how much description has been stripped from it, part of a general shift towards plainness and simplicity that worked for Chekhov and Joyce but not many others. But The Clash of Kings goes too far in the other direction – Martin has a remarkable control over his prose, everything else not so much.  The actual Wars of the Roses were confusing but a series of novels shouldn't be.

Which is why I started thinking differently about the TV show. Much of the excess would have to be removed (gone I hope at least some of the many rapes that occur so frequently they seem less an indication of the setting's brutality and more like something pathological in the author) and with any luck the show wouldn't have gone too far towards the just-the-story approach taught by modern screenwriting manuals. (Robert McKee should never be read though though he's really just a symptom of how money people make decisions – teaching to the test so to speak.)  In short, for this case the story is interesting enough that I want to continue but I don't see enough value in the vast mass of material in the novels to go that route.  This starts to get into the question of why read or watch at all but that's for another time.

So why the “probably” about changing? It's because I haven't seen any of Game of Thrones yet and my experience with so many highly praised recent shows is that they're really not that good, somewhat entertaining at best. I wouldn't be surprised, and even half-expect, to get a few episodes into Game of Thrones and discover that it's somewhat leaden with Hollywood-screenwriter characterization and perfunctory dialogue, all jerked around by arbitrary story needs. The problem with nearly every American TV show is the amount of padding needed to fit the production schedule but with Game of Thrones I hope that isn't an issue due to the compression of the novels. But who knows?  Maybe I'll end up discovering the show is tedious, the books increasingly unreadable and I'm left reading Wikipedia synopses like a caveman.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Marvel vs DC?

A friend who has no interest in comics recently asked if I'm a Marvel or a DC person.  It's a simple answer with a more complex background - I'm a DC boy but now read almost only Marvel.  (At least as far as mainstream, ie superhero, comics.)

Dave Barry somewhere talks about how sports fans imprint on a specific team when they're young and stay fans for life.  Possibly something similar happens for comics fans.  As a kid I read DC and that was pretty much it.  Oh I did Marvel from time to time - often enough that I knew the main characters without all the history - and as a constantly restless reader I dipped into Charlton, Dell, Archie and others that showed on spinner racks at that time, including Warren books years before I really should have tackled them.

Why DC?  I can't say.  Maybe it was goofier, maybe more optimistic, maybe more to my taste, or most likely it was just the first I read.  The brother of a friend liked DC better because the stories were usually finished in a single issue, unlike Marvel which had stories that stretched through issues and issues.  Today of course they're practically the same in this respect.  In retrospect it didn't hurt that DC had a history going back to the 30s which it often reprinted while Marvel seemed to be in an eternal now.  Even now I'm surprised at how much older material turned up in DC during the 70s.

2004's JLA/Avengers could have been just another enormous crossover to excite the fans - in many ways that's really all it is.  But somewhere along the line writer Kurt Busiek decided it could also be an exploration of the ideology of the two companies.  Nothing particularly heavy - this isn't Althusser or Gramsci.  The Flash is the first through the separation of the two universes (its own historical reference) and his reports are what DC characters think of the Marvel universe.  Different people (mutants) not just persecuted but physically abused.  The world smaller and darker.  Murderous psychopaths considered heroes (The Punisher).  Supervillains running entire countries.  The Marvel characters see something different in the DC world.  It's shiny and bright.  There are museums devoted to dead heroes.  Ordinary people ask for autographs.  It's Captain America of course who gets to utter the f-word - they're fascists.

Does this explain any of my interests?  Not really but it offers hints.  Marvel has always been considered more realistic than DC despite that being a pretty subtle distinction for superhero comics.  After all Marvel had Dr Doom shooting the entire Baxter Building into space, a Spider-Buggy (seriously, look it up) and Skrulls turned into cows (that hilariously was decades later referenced as one motivation for the Secret Invasion).  By the 70s DC was printing Batman stories as psychologically insightful as Simenon and the still-controversial O'Neill/Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories that are about the only time superhero comics successfully grappled with real-world problems.

So why today do I read almost no DC but large chunks of Marvel?  Basically it's the New 52 which should have opened the creative floodgates but instead shut them tighter (you can read some of my reactions from when it launched) while Marvel has experimented and put more faith in creators.  Before the New 52 DC was publishing more than just superheroes with a Western title, fantasy, crime, SF and some unique ones.  Now that's all gone.  Today it's Marvel putting out titles featuring a Muslim superhero or a black/Hispanic one, who's taking chances on unusual ideas like Hawkeye, Superior Foes of Spider-Man and The Unbeatable Squirrel-Girl, who have more women characters in more prominent roles, who are simply producing better stories.

Looking back it's pretty clear that the New 52 was driven more by marketing than creative concerns, one reason several artists and writers have gone on record about the difficulty getting work done.  For me the titles mostly became too dull and too much the same.  Even the war and Western books were turned into superhero titles and Vertigo was partially dismantled around this time.  I don't care much about continuity but DC titles got to the point where it became an issue.

But nothing in a product-hungry field like comics lasts - there always has to be something new and as I'm writing this both companies are on the verge of big changes.  DC is backing away from some of the New 52 changes and promising more creator-driven titles but we'll see.  Marvel is folding its regular and Ultimate lines together and been tight-lipped about the result but right now have a more reliable track record.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Cool Stuff at My Other Blog

My other blog Discoveries & Oddities from the Digital Library collects unusual books from around the Internet - all public domain that can be downloaded for free and legally.  Not quite something for everyone but lots of things for many people, particularly if you have slightly off-center interests.

Recent entries include:

Fightin' monks
Missing heirs to the French throne
Victorians looking at dinosaur fossils
Poetry parodies with kittens
Accounts of the Great Chicago Fire
18th century guide to getting rid of vermin
Wild illustrations of purported demons & magical beings
How to build shacks and shelters
The first book in English about Zen
Trick photography
Outdated slang
Anti-censorship satire

and so much more......

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (Joss Whedon 2015)

Seems like every review opens with "I enjoyed it but...." and who am I to toss aside a week-old tradition?  Because Age of Ultron is entertaining in a loud-fast summer blockbuster way but lacks much of Whedon - where's the first film's humor and sense of real conflict?  Where's the feel of character and that smart dialogue?  I also find it odd to complain that it's too much like the comics but really that's more an issue of book elements that work there but weren't translated properly to film.  Seriously, levitating an entire (if small) city works on paper but seems a bit silly here.

When we left the Avengers at the end of the first film they had separated and Fury stated they would be back when we needed them.  That sense of desperation (and religious overtone) is absent - the new film opens with them having been together for a while though it's unclear why exactly.  Yes, Hydra clean-up duty but is that all?  By the end, we're shown a way for the franchise to move forward even if the current actors leave.  Comics readers are familiar with frequent line-up changes (or for that matter multiple concurrent Avengers teams) but it's not certain if movie audiences will be as open-minded.

Ultron appeared to be a good choice for an opponent - smart, tricky and almost impossible to defeat.  On film though he becomes more a generic villain.  Why does he do bad things?  Well because he's the bad guy of course.  There is reasoning - he's programmed to defend the planet and thinks the best way to do that is to eliminate people - but it's tossed in.  Consider how much more effective it would have been to have a scene where the newly created Ultron fights alongside the Avengers and we see him reasoning along that path.  Instead it's just a given and unconvincing, perhaps one reason he embarks on such a bizarre mad-scientist scheme.  (Not to mention that Ultron's plan is remarkably inefficient and would take thousands of years to kill humans but at least it's visual.)

Ultron also becomes something of a faceless entity and the struggle against him is either technobabble or smashing robots.  Think of the first film where numerous people argue with Loki, try to reason with him, bring him to a different view, trick him.  The closest this film comes is the Avengers trying to guess what Ultron is doing - hardly the same and resolutely undramatic.  (Just as the sudden appearance of a helicarrier at a needed moment is sloppy writing.)

The film also barely exploits Ultron's biggest strength in the books - that he's an AI and since independent of a physical host nearly impossible to eradicate.  The film briefly has a bit where Ultron jumps bodies but otherwise he's in the same one throughout.  It's easy to see why - because fully using his AI state not only would turn the film into a computer hacking story where most of the Avengers have nothing to do (even if set in a Tron-like visualization of cyberspace) but that would make a sense of closure at the film's end hard to achieve.  As it stands the ending is still a bit ambiguous and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Ultron is brought back to help fight Thanos in the Infinity War.

Age of Ultron is almost overstuffed with characters.  This isn't much of a problem in the books since comics writers have decades of experience dealing with large numbers, in fact that might be a unique writing experience since maybe only soap operas even approach the same situation.  Some of the techniques used are rotating characters, breaking them off into smaller teams, focusing stories on subgroups within the larger one, etc.  But a movie is locked into a cast of actors and expectations from the previous film.  All have to get a certain amount of screen time and things to do but then again this works against showing a larger picture - this same story in comics could easily show dozens of other characters fighting Ultron across the globe in just a few panels.

Which brings us to the Hulk problem.  Why is he here?  Clearly it's because he was in the first film but in story terms there's no purpose.  In the first film Fury manipulated him just as Fury manipulated all of the Avengers and in the end the Hulk provided something of a wild card status and needed combat heft.  In the first sequence of Age of Ultron he's out of place in what's basically a military operation.  (And speaking of that it's clear why the others kept their costumes but Hawkeye and the Widow really should have been wearing white camo.)  The Hulk's next appearance shows how much of a liability he is - more importantly the Avengers are aware of that and prepared Hulkbuster armor (called Veronica in the film for an oblique reason - Banner dated a Betty and in the Archieverse Betty's nemesis is often.....)

Another comic book element that's a bit grating in the film is all the tosses to upcoming movies, at least four (Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War, Thor 3 and the Infinity War).  Comics are often narratively porous, referencing not just a current storyline but referring to numerous other series, older events, classic images and even elements from other companies.  (Just think of the government hit team based on the Avengers who appear in The Authority.)  This web of references don't work as well on film and here only the Black Panther bits seem workable because most viewers won't realize that's what they are.  But Thor heading off for a mystical bath that's conveniently driving distance from a college?

The Scarlet Witch's powers are still about as vague as in the books but she comes across fairly effectively (and even has a "look" towards the Vision).  Dream sequences and mental visualizations such as showing a character's fears are not only cheap writing tricks but rarely even a minimally effective one.  Here it seems less than useless.  So Stark is afraid of his friends dying and having survivor's guilt?  We need a fear trip to reveal that?  Thor is apparently afraid of parties and Captain America of swing music.  I think we're supposed to read this as something Thor deals with in his next film but it really just seems a reason to give him screen time.  And apparently Steve misses Agent Carter though again we already knew that.  Natasha on the other hand seems to have memories more than fears though this isn't made particularly clear and none of it shows how brutal her training was like the talk she has with Banner.

Why even bother killing Quicksilver?  He has the fewest lines and least personality of all the main characters so I doubt many people cared.  Which clearly is also a reason - the film shows the fight as having consequences but not that bad.  (Unlike the Daredevil show which had a genuinely unexpected death.)  If Whedon really wanted to make an impact it should have been Hawkeye but that gets to the point above that many creative decisions in a film like this are made for contractual and business reasons.  (Though on the other hand comics at times kill off characters willy nilly confident that they can be brought back when needed - we can guess the movie Civil War won't end with Captain America dying because we know he's in the next Avengers films.)

And by the way, Captain America's little speech about innocent people dying every time - every time - somebody tries to stop a war before it starts is quite rousing.  But stop a minute.  Cap is telling us to never try to prevent wars.  That's a little harsh and short-sighted even for a professional soldier.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Library sale

Today's haul from the library sale:

Rube Goldberg vs the Machine Age
Koch - The Rise of Modern Warfare
Solomon - Existentialism
Warren - All the King's Men
Oates - The Stoic & Epicurean Philosophers (Modern Library)
Edel - Henry James: A Life
Williams - Henry VIII and His Court
Meyers - Great Martial Arts Movies (revised edition)
Perelman - Swiss Family Perelman
Perelman - Westward Ha!

There was also a copy of Seven Storey Mountain that I almost picked up just because today was Merton's centennial but it was fairly beat up and the layout seemed more cramped than the current edition.  I'm unlikely to ever read it anyway so there's that.  Last time there were volumes two to four of Anthony Powell which I skipped but this time there was volume one with the others gone.

Somebody had donated a fair number of oversized military history books but they didn't seem to be that substantial.  I got the Koch because it's about 16th and 17th century warfare which is under-represented.  I don't think the Perelmans are firsts but they're certainly fairly close and even though these are his most common books the illustrations are nice.  I don't particularly want to read anything else about Henry VIII right now but the Williams book is more about the people, objects and locations around him.  I have the first edition of Meyers martial arts book somewhere but the revised is good to see.  I'm not sure I'll get through all of The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers but had been considering re-reading Lucretius before I read The Swerve and anyway I have a weakness for these Modern Library editions.  All the King's Men is something else I've been wanting to read - this is just a nice condition paperback.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Some documentaries

Sight & Sound released a poll of the all-time best documentaries this summer so I decide to fill in some of the gaps.  (The poll is here but a warning that the website for this is poorly designed.)

Sans Soleil (Chris Marker 1982) - I first saw this about 20-25 years ago and didn't think much of it so I watched the Criterion DVD earlier this year.  If anything it's less impressive.  The biggest surprise over time is that I now see that this is mondo film - I don't mean similar to one I mean it's exactly a mondo film.  There's the same disconnected flow of scenes, the focus on oddities and strange behavior from outside the filmmaker's culture, the faux philosophical narration to tie that together.  The only difference is that Sans Soleil is lower on the sex and violence than most mondo films.  But even if that's mistaken Sans Soleil remains a tedious film and the annoying thing is that it's the type of film that I should love.  There is sometimes an interesting play between narration and image but for the most part it's far too slight and generally almost laughable.

D'est (Chantal Akerman 1993) - This film is a series of extended takes by roadways or public spaces alternated with occasional portraiture shots mostly of women inside apartments, all done in what appears to be Russia.  (There is no identifying text or voiceover and I deliberately didn't research the film.)  In other words basically a structuralist film and if it's labelled as documentary that's probably more for marketing reasons.  Maybe it's an attempt to document daily life but apart from a few shots of field work and cooking there's almost nothing of that.  If anything the film documents the connections between daily life - driving, waiting for a bus, walking, sitting.  I don't know how much this could be considered a comment on the state of Russia (didn't research but I did see the Netflix comments) because basically the same film could have been made in Detroit.  Though this sounds a bit negative I do think this is a strong film despite being wayward and somewhat unfocused.  Overall it reminds me of James Benning's 1982 Him and Me complete with an unedited musical performance towards the end (though I consider the Benning film a much stronger one).

Primary (Robert Drew 1960) - A landmark in the development of verite this still frequently maintains interest as a kind of road movie long after the politics have gone.  (Though perhaps not too much - the farmer's issues briefly mentioned are still far from settled.)  The two surprises are that it's not what I would consider pure verite since there's some narration and a few instances of blatant use of non-diegetic music as commentary.  The other is that Humphrey comes off more personable than Kennedy which I'm not sure was the intention.  That the film often has dull spots is more that we're half a century down the line but nevertheless dull spots they remain.

Man on Wire (James Marsh 2008) - This is also only partly a documentary and not in a productive sense (as say with Close-Up).  Much of the film is recreations of a wirewalker's successful attempt to cross between the WTC towers but unlike with a TV doc about, say, Bunker Hill where the recreations are obvious the attempt here was to duplicate that era.  So even where there are some genuine photos from the actual event they're merged with the fiction.  And this story is clearly fictionalized since the filmmakers rely far too much on the wirewalker's animated and polished account.  For instance he claims when he was 17 he visited the dentist and saw plans for the yet-to-be-constructed WTC in a magazine which he then ripped out and left the office.  We're treated to scenes of that event both in the office and riding his bike afterwards.  Did this happen?  Seems quite unlikely since the wirewalker is clearly not a reliable source and here he's telling a well-worn story that's a bit too dubious.  Even apart from that fiction-issue the bigger problem is that the bulk of the film concerns the mechanics of the stunt presented in much incredibly boring detail.  It's also odd to me when some of the talking heads refer to wirewalking as beautiful.  I'm willing to grant that there are plenty of things I don't quite get but probably do have value (baseball let's say) and maybe this is just another.  But really it seems like a category error of some kind, like saying pouring water into a glass is beautiful.  It's not whether that action is or is not beautiful, it's that the concept of beauty simply can not apply to it.