Monday, June 19, 2017

Oh, hey, I have a blog! Also, some free time.

OK, today the "being unemployed" thing feels real for the first time since Thursday. That said, I went and did my in-person meet, I'm signed up and filing for UI, and I'm actively searching for a new gig.

Plus, as I've said to several people over the last several days, I no longer wake up with a pit of dread in my stomach. I no longer feel like I have to take my anti-anxiety meds on a twice-daily basis. I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders -- I no longer have to go back to a job that I really didn't like -- and while being unemployed isn't a great thing, my partner and I have been here before, and this time we're in a better place than the last time. Being laid off isn't the worst thing that can happen, and we can deal with it. We have a plan and a budget and each other, and that's a lot more than some people in my position have.

I'm ready to see what happens next.

FYI, if you know someone who's hiring, send 'em my way!

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Occasional Media Consumption: Independence Day: Resurgence

Just in case you thought that all of these reviews were going to be positive, I'll just warn you now: they're not. This movie was a waste of my time. There was exactly one part of this movie that I enjoyed, and that was the relationship between Doctors Isaacs and Ogun, and one of these characters doesn't have a first name. Also, not like this is an actual spoiler, but their relationship doesn't last through the end of the movie (one of them dies).

My time would have been better spent had a repeatedly closed my hand in a door for two hours. This movie is not just willfully dumb, but it assumes that it's audience is as stupid as it is. It was a good thing I had work to do or I might have swallowed my own tongue just to get away from this movie.

And it wasn't even in the "so bad it's good" territory (which I would debate doesn't actually exist, but there do seem to be people who enjoy bad movies for being bad, and what the hell, some people juggle geese); it was just bad. The directing was bad. The plot was bad. The acting was wooden and caricaturist at the best of times, and simply absent at the worst of times. Given the money spent on special effects, the movie never bothered to show us anything; it had to be explained, usually by one (presumably) intelligent character to another (presumably) intelligent character, often in words so small and concepts so simple that I was beginning to think this was a movie designed for five-year-olds.

I would have watched with all my attention the story of two gay scientists working together in the lab as an old married couple, with the sniping and the love and the slapstick comedy, especially if that story starred Brent Spiner and John Storey, both of whom are really quite good comedic actors. There would have been pathos and emotion and a real connection to the audience. You could even have stuff blowing up and aliens invading off-screen, and that would have given them an interesting reason to be working together after so many years.

There were some very sweet moments between these two characters.

Everyone else was terrible. Which makes me sad, because so many of these actors are people I like and admire as actors and I know can do good work: Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, William Fichtner, Sela Ward (criminally underused in this film), hell, even Chin Han. Who was, by the way, specifically put in the film to appeal to the Chinese audience, and who utterly fails to be in any way interesting.

Given the way the movie ended, as a setup for a sequel/franchise, I'm so very glad this movie did horribly at the box office. Perhaps we'll be spared from another two hours of pablum.

Then again, it mostly starred white dudes, so they're probably going to make five of them.

Friday, April 14, 2017

DEEP Nerdery: The Last Jedi Speculation

So the trailer for The Last Jedi dropped today, since it's Star Wars Celebration weekend. And it got me thinking seriously about my favourite little corner of the Star Wars (possible) continuity, the idea of the (historically heretical) concept of the Living Force.

Sidenote:
Me, to Jean: have I mentioned my ideas behind the Liv--
Jean: YEEEEESSSSSS.

For those (three) of you whom I haven't talked to about this: in the Old Republic series of games (most strongly in the Imperial-side stories of the Star Wars: the Old Republic MMO), they talk about the idea that the Force, far from being a mystical inchoate field, has a will and a mind of its own, and gives direction to those who know and believe in it, and trust in the Force.

A careful (read: crazy-ass nerd) watch of the prequels also seems to indicate that Qui-Gon is a believer in the Living Force... his disagreements with the Council and his willingness to bend the moral compass he's ostensibly following in the service of (as he claims) the Force do seem to indicate a somewhat heretical bent. And Qui-Gon trained Obi-Wan, who has a, shall we say, relaxed relationship with the truth...which could also indicate that he is also a believer in the Living Force. And Obi-Wan trained Luke, who we've already seen (in Return of the Jedi) isn't particularly attached to doing things in a traditional way, so it would make sense that in his unorthodox approach to combining the Dark and Light sides of the Force he feels that he's being driven by "what the Force wants", which is the core tenet of the Heresy of the Living Force.

So the end of the Jedi, the Last of the Jedi, are an act of renewal and synthesis into something greater, something more in line with the Will of the Living Force.

THE LIVING FORCE IS REAL! THE LIVING FORCE IS REAL!

As a Heretic myself, this makes me really, really happy.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Occasional Media Consumption: Arrival

I want to talk about Arrival and how amazing it is as a story, but before that, I have to talk about how amazing it is as a film and how amazing it is that the film got made exactly how it got made.

Arrival is based on a short story, "Story of Your Life", by Ted Chiang. It's a short story about a woman linguist who handles a first-contact situation without guns or explosions or lasers or really anything science-fiction-y. Just a woman and her colleagues talking (and talking about language). No man takes over from her, no conflict is spurred by her relationship with anyone, nothing weird or strange. So in that, the short story itself is rather odd and special. Special because it is a fundamentally beautiful story, exceptionally well-written, clear and gorgeous and worth reading even on it's own. But I'm not sure you should read it without seeing the movie first, because the movie is amazing in its faithfulness to the story.

And that, in and of itself, is remarkable. I mean, let's be clear. Someone in Hollywood was convinced (after, I understand, something like a decade of fighting) to give the writer of Final Destination 5 and the director of Polytechnique forty million dollars to shoot a science fiction film that stars Amy Adams as a linguist and no one actually fires any guns. The closest thing to a male lead is Jeremy Renner as a physicist who never takes his shirt off or punches anyone, and the climax of the film involves finding a cellphone that makes overseas calls. The biggest chunk of the special effects budget is spent on making circles appear on a piece of glass. This is the kind of movie you expect to see coming out of SXSW that was made with gaffer's tape and flashlights and gets shown in five theatres at film festivals. Except that it stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and Forrest Whitaker, and grossed a hundred million dollars domestic. So yes, just the mere fact that this movie exists is in itself remarkable.

But more than that, Arrival is in and of itself a remarkable film because it is really good. I mean, not just OK, not just "good for an SF movie", but seriously, no-kidding good. It's written incredibly tightly and clearly. No characters carry the "idiot ball"; no characters are evil just to drive the plot -- in fact, no characters are actually evil, it's just that some are misguided at points; no characters make nonsensical statements; and at no point does the script resort to technobabble. The closest thing to technobabble is the linguistic discussions around the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has lost some of its support since the story was originally written. Like the really good films that play with linearity, like Memento or Primer, Arrival makes even more sense when you see it again, while also being a really great movie the first time you see it.

Amy Adams does this amazing job of playing Doctor Banks as this quiet, careful, precise person, who is shaped (and reshaped) not just by the big things that happen to her, but also by the small things, the little intersections of daily life. Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly mostly hovers in the background, doing math and being confused, and Forrest Whitaker as Colonel Weber is the reluctant military man, who is willing to go to war but recognizes it as a failure rather than a methodology. No one is unreasonable or stupid or lazy or unthinking. This is a movie that is, at its heart, what John Rogers has called "competence porn": the experience of watching people who are really, really good at something doing what they're really, really good at in a way that's enjoyable to those that aren't as good. The whole parable of the kangaroo is both funny and smart, and makes a point that is important to the plot.

I said on Twitter when I first saw this movie that this was possibly a perfect movie because the plot is incidental to the story. And here's what I mean by that: plot is what happens to the characters. And the plot in Arrival is really great, and the growth of the characters on screen is amazing and enjoyable to watch. The story, on the other hand, is what happens to the audience. Story, a good story, changes the way that we the audience see ourselves; it changes how we see the world; and it can change the way we see movies. Arrival does that, too. It asks the audience a question: is there such a thing as determination? Is free will possible? And can those two ideas co-exist at the interface of human and not-human?

There are not many movies like Arrival. And I am very glad that there was a production company that was, however long it took, willing to let artists be artists together. And I'm glad Ted Chiang wrote the short story that inspired the movie that prompted me to read it. So I guess we know where I come down on the question of Free Will...

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

So Here's the Thing -- Mass Effect: Andromeda

I put a crap-ton of playtime into the latest entry in the Mass Effect universe. It's explicitly NOT a sequel; it is a separate game with a separate timeline set in the same universe, but much removed from the events of ME 1-3. But it still leverages the same basic design philosophy as the other ME games: storytelling is more important than "innovative" gameplay, character relationships are a big part of the reason for playing, and driving an indestructible truck with handling like a beached whale across landscapes that feel like they were generated by an Amiga 2000 running Video Toaster is not just enjoyable but hilariously fun.

The gameplay is basically what you'd expect from ME: three-person active squad moving through a (mostly) linear map and shooting things with the various loadouts determined at the beginning of the mission, and while you're there you might as well wander around the edges of the maps looking for things to "press Y to interact" with. These mission sequences are interspersed with exploration sequences where you wander around a map picking up quests (which usually but not always end up requiring a mission sequence) and finding hidden macguffins which you collect for your virtual office desk. And, between the cutscenes and the shooty bits, you have conversations with your squad to make them better at their jobs (and possibly have sex with you).  If you're not a completionist, then you can probably plow through the main story in about 20 hours and therefore miss almost everything that makes this a Mass Effect game. You also probably won't like it very much. There's a fundamentally unpolished feeling to this game, that recons back to ME1 in some respects, but in other respects it feels almost Bethesda-esque in it's grandeloquent missteps and buggy nature. 

And I'll tell you, at 20 hours in, I wasn't a big fan. It felt like a retread with a couple different aliens and the theory that if you liked ANY of the minigames in the previous series, then there would be at least one minigame in THIS game you'll like. Seriously: every gathering and exploring game from the previous series has a version in this game, and for good measure they threw in sudoku as an extra minigame because everyone likes sudoku, right? (Spoiler: not really.) The thing is, at 40 hours in, I was loving it. They were doing that "tell a big story while setting up a GIGANTIC story for the sequel(s)" thing that the BioWare team really excels at. It's fun, and I did end up enjoying it. But I missed the Wheel Of Morality, and I often felt as if the various options presented didn't really mean much, and didn't seem to affect the gameplay at all (which was quite disappointing -- I want there to be clear consequences when I make a decision, and that includes things like "this option is only available because you have 271 light-side points" and other examples. Much like Horizon: Zero Dawn, while there is a response wheel, the various choices seem to have absolutely no effect even on the specific conversation you're in at the time, let alone the bigger story arc. 

Now, as the kind of person who won't leave a map or a corner or a building unexplored, this had plenty of that for me to pursue. But the maps themselves didn't feel particularly expansive, and while there were several of them, they didn't feel engaging in a way I was expecting from ME. And while the dialog was fun and the interactions with my crew clever, there weren't the deep and engaging interactions I've been led to expect from BioWare. And the writing was downright PAINFUL in some points ("pathfound" is NOT A WORD, GODDAMIT) which given the excellent writing of the Dragon Age and Mass Effect worlds was a real letdown. 

Was it the Worst Game Evar? No, not by a long shot. In fact, compared to most of the other games on the market, it was pretty good; certainly miles beyond any of the Tom Clancy or Call of Duty games. But it didn't feel as engaging as other BioWare titles, and I wasn't as invested in the characters themselves (which is one thing that draws me to these titles). But it really does suffer in comparison to H:ZD, which was smaller both in scope and in reach but felt much more tightly put together and much more logically consistent within it's story.

So here's the thing: I think ME:A is money well spent, and a fun time. But I think had I played this game before I played Horizon:Zero Dawn, I'd like it more. It suffers immensely in the comparison, which is a shame, because ME:A is an excellent start. But it's BioWare, and with BioWare I expect something a little more... More. Which I suppose is unfair, really. Would I recommend this game to someone else? That's... a good question, actually. I'm not sure there were enough innovations and enough strong storytelling to suggest this game rather than suggesting someone play Mass Effect 1 instead (despite the intervening decade of development improvements). But I also can't say you should skip it; it's a fun ride, even if it's not brilliant. So, I guess my recommendation on ME:A is if you want something SF-ish and fun and light, then go for it. I have spend 100 hours on less-fun games, and at least ME:A feels like it's making those hours of play worthwhile. 

Sunday, April 02, 2017

The Occasional Media Consumption: Wynnona Earp

Since my partner is out of town, that often means that I have real trouble sleeping. I've been doing OK up until last night, but I didn't get a wink of sleep so I binge-watched Season 1 of a show called Wynona Earp on Netflix. Because why not? Woman lead, gunslinging, silly premise, and a good soundtrack will usually get me to watch at least the pilot, so I figured what the hell, I'm not sleeping anyway...

The premise is re-donk-ulous: Wyatt Earp, just before he died, was cursed and that meant the progeny of the Earp bloodline were doomed to kill (or try and kill) the 77 men whose souls would be resurrected again and again until the heir could return them all to Hell without dying themselves. Oh, and also there's a secret agency tasked with protecting the general public against the supernatural. Oh, and also there's a spell that means that the Earp line (and the "remnants" with whom they battle) can't leave a specific part of the West, Oh, and also, Doc Holliday is immortal. You wouldn't be too far off pitching it as "Buffy meets Longmire with a touch of Justified".

The show itself is good; it's not great, but it knows what it is and does a great job staying in its lane while also playing with the standards of the genre(s). It's a Canadian show shot on a shoestring budget starring a bunch of people you've never heard of (unless you watch a LOT of Canadian TV; I mean, I've watched the entire run of The Pinkertons and I haven't heard of 75% of these people). The scripts are funny and tight without being overwound, and the actors do a great job with the material, and the occasional fight scene (as opposed to the at-least-once-an-episode "shooting someone" scene, which is different) is well shot and well choreographed (which is more than I could say for, for instance, Arrow Season 4). I'm always vaguely amused when a Canadian show tries to pretend they're in the US West somewhere; it's the little giveaways (like the tiny Canadian flags on the shoulder patches of the winter coats).

It also has great secondary characters, including possibly the most amazingly hilarious shipping couple I've ever encountered: Waverly Earp (the youngest of three Earp women) and Sherriff's Deputy Nicole Haught, AKA WayHaught. And they are: the actors have fantastic chemistry together. Also, spoilers: neither lesbian dies (so far, anyway). The florid speech patterns of Doc as a man out of time are hilarious if entirely inappropriate, and the actor manages to at least deliver the lines with a straight face, which is enough for me.

Wynnona herself is a hero in the mold that's recently become popular via AKA Jessica Jones: the woman who is played straight up as a the complicated hero that men are almost always and women are so infrequently allowed to be. She's mean and petty and grumpy and angry and sometimes wrong and drinks too much and tends to be trigger-happy (see the previously mentioned Justified Rayland Givens for a classic example) and generally just gets to be messy and adult and real in a way that makes her rather endearing.

I was glad to hear it'd been picked up for another season: it's a fun and easy to watch and I definitely recommend it for anyone who likes gunslinging and demon-slaying in equal parts. Definitely a fun way to pass a sleepless night.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Spring Break -- The Official Pamphlet

They made a link for the Little Blue Book for the cruise, which I haven't gotten around to digitizing yet. So here's the whole schedule and all of the performers:

https://jococruise.com/uploads/2017/03/JCC2017FinalBookletCrop.pdf

Thursday, March 23, 2017

So Here's The Thing -- Horizon: Zero Dawn

Since this blog is just sitting here anyway, and I play a crapton of videogames, I figure I might as well scream into the void a little about my experiences of playing videogames and what they mean to me. I've decided to call these infrequent and irregular reviews of games "So Here's The Thing", because as a white dude I'm constitutionally allowed to mansplain pretty much everything and I don't think even I could stomach a series called "Well, Actually". Expect these reviews to be highly opinionated and exceptionally biased, as is the custom of my people and by my people I mean Social Justice Warriors (or, in my case, Social Justice Bard).

The first game I'm going to talk about is the relatively-new release, Horizon: Zero Dawn, from Guerrilla Games, published by Sony Entertainment. I played it on the PS4, and put about 40 hours into it during my vacation. I'll warn you before I drop any spoilers.

Things I knew going into this game: it's a post-apocalyptic game with a woman protagonist fucking all the shit up with a bow and arrow. Had it been nothing else, I would have bought it -- as someone who played both of the rebooted Lara Croft games, it's become clear to me that my perfect protagonist is apparently Kate Bishop (written by Matt Fraction) -- but it turns out that this game has a lot more going for it, and by going for it, I mean specifically pandering to me.

Here's the non-spoilery bit: Aloy (our Hero) is an outcast, but no one including her foster father/mentor will tell her why. So she makes it her mission in life to become the premier hunter so she can demand answers from the Matriarchs of the tribe that cast her out as a baby. Did you say Matriarchs? Why yes, it is a culture run and controlled by old women, with no clear gender division for the hunter/gatherer roles versus the caretaking/vendor roles. The culture of the Nora isn't ever explicitly explained, but it's clear from context and random conversations that this cultural makeup is considered "bad" by most of the other locals, but given that the Nora manage to keep their shit together when everyone else fucks shit up, the subtext is pretty clear. Of course, there are Kind Matriarchs and Angry Matriarchs and Antagonistic Matriarchs so it's not like there's this United Front of Women Are Awesome -- instead, the women are portrayed as people, with both good and bad traits and good and bad opinions making good and bad decisions just like people do. For that alone, I would have bought the deluxe edition.

Also, the big villain in the piece turns out to be the most entitled White-Dude-Manbaby in the history of White-Dude-Manbabies, while the populace in general is fantastically diverse (though it would've been nice to see some of the models with more body-types than "sleek, sleek and muscled, square and muscled, boyish" among the mix. Given that one of the main NPCs is a black woman War Chief and another is a black mechanical genius, it's ahead of 90% of the standard games out there.

Aloy, in her journey to find out just what the fuck is going on, wanders around a post-disaster landscape and proceeds to kill and/or co-opt basically everyone she meets, including a couple of Kings, at least one explicitly trans person, more same-sex couples than I can count, and in the process earns a reputation (which can be one of three types, but the gameplay is effectively the same for all of them). In truth, I'm not sure why the "choose your type of reaction" option exists, since it didn't noticeably change anything about the game, but hey, if you're reaching for that Mass Effect effect, then you gotta have an Emotional Wheel Of Decision-Making.

Is the game perfect? By no means. Much of the actual exploration and gameplay turns out to be rather repetitive, and the jumping puzzles are slightly too easy even for me (and I hate jumping puzzles) while the 'figure out how to kill this type of robot' challenges aren't very well laid out and can lead to much head-bashing and frustration until you stumble upon the magic combo of weapons and moves that then turn defeating the mobs into a trivial activity. Also, for an open-world RP game, it's a bit small and short, especially when compared to the Witcher series or Dragon Age: Inquisition. That said, this is the first of a series, not the last of a series (I hope), and even some DLC to open up the world a bit more would be brilliant, not to mention a couple of sequels.

I fully admit to my bias: strong women in both protagonist and antagonist roles, a diverse cast of NPCs, and the Big Bad being an Entitled Dude In IT are all positive things to me, so I was prepped out of the gate to love this game, and I feel like it delivered on almost all of the things it promised me. And it didn't hurt that there were a lot of disaffected pants-crappers who were upset that a game like this made females the main characters while relegating the mens to support or villain roles. Just reading some of the reviews made me smile and think that my pre-ordered Collector's Edition was money well spent.

So Here's the Thing: if you liked the rebooted Tomb Raider games, you're gonna like H:ZD. If you're expecting the epicness of a Mass Effect game, you'll be disappointed. And if you like the standard "shoot the otherguy" games like Battlefield or Call of Duty, you're going to be really unhappy with this game. But I'll be damned if it wasn't nice to see a triumphant woman on the cover of my videogame.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Spring Break: The Photo Post

Here's that set of photos I promised in previous posts.

You can find pretty much all the pictures I took here:

https://goo.gl/photos/19TpVGcXatupsCJd8

I hope you enjoyed our show.

Spring Break, Day 8 and Beyond -- thoughts and take-aways

The deboarding process was exactly as efficient as the onboarding process, and we were out and off to the airport with our luggage quickly and easily, and our flight home was uneventful, and our arrival back to our home was pleasant -- it was good to see our dog again, to lay down in our bed again, to use our washer and dryer again. It was a little disappointing that there weren't any towel animals, or turn-down service, and there wasn't a 24-hour room-service line, and we had to cook our own food rather than just wander into the dining room and grab food. So, trade-offs, really.

Jean and I had several conversations, especially in the last two days of the cruise, about whether or not we would be interested in going on JoCOcho (aka JoCoCruise VIII). Our experience was a generally positive one, and I certainly had a blast, but we both recognized that, as a couple prone to introversion, we spent a bunch of time turtling up together and not giving ourselves the chance to meet new friends. Especially at dinner; we had a tendency to grab a two-top and sit together, rather than joining a big group table and getting to know other people over dinner. If we were to do Ocho, our goal would be to do group tables every day it was possible. We also recognized that the cruise would have been more enjoyable had we had more friends with which to spend time, so another variable in our attending Ocho-on-the-Oosterdam is if we can convince any other people to also go on the cruise.

We also agreed that the price bump for a veranda cabin is significant, possibly significant enough to stop us from making the change, and that might be a deal-breaker. While the internal cabin was perfectly cromulent (and the Rotterdam deck, deck 7, was basically the Best Deck Ever), it would be nice to get some natural light in the morning, and having a place to just sit privately and watch the water and wake up and/or journal and/or read a book would be fantastic. That said, it's almost double the cost of an internal cabin. And while the internal cabin was fine, we're not sure we'd be willing to do it again. On the gripping hand, we spent an unexpected amount of time in our cabin, and if we were doing it again, we would probably try to spend less time there. Also, I'd probably bring my white-light clock.

Jonathan Coulton himself said that taking a cruise is a lot like living like a really rich person for a week: you're waited on hand and foot and nothing costs anything.  This is true, and it's amazing in several ways. It's also true that, in general, the people waiting on you hand-and-foot are mostly young mostly people of colour (in our case, almost exclusively Filipino youngsters), and if you're in any way socially conscious this leads to some really, really uncomfortable moments, like when you realize that while the workers are mostly PoCs, the managers and supervisors are almost all white, and a significant number of them are men.

That said, it was good to hear that as a group, the Sea Monkeys were considered some of the best passengers that our crew had served -- we responded to instructions, tipped well, treated people like human beings with names and lives, recognized we were privileged and tried not to take too much advantage of that, and in general acted like decent human beings -- but the fact is still that we were a bunch of mostly white, mostly wealthy Westerners being waited on by young people of colour. Also, having done a bit of research, cruise jobs in general are just terrible, shitty jobs: because they're mostly at sea, a lot of labour laws just don't apply, so the folk are working long hours for not-great pay, and the only thing that makes it survivable is that a worker doesn't have any time to spend the money made, so it ends up piling up pretty well (though, with all the Filipino folk, I imagine it was either being sent back to the family or being saved up for a chance to start a business).

I personally tried very hard to learn all of the names of the crew I interacted with, and tried very hard to be at least as polite to them as they were to us. Rather than just seeing them as faceless servitors, I worked hard to make sure I was seeing them as people, and treating them as someone who was doing a hard and often thankless job generally quite well. This ended up being extremely hard on day five when I was sitting next to the pool and was irked that a young man with a tray wasn't making it down to my end of the pool fast enough. And then metaphorically punching myself in the head for that particular thought, and then getting up and walking the twenty feet or so to the bar, because GODS FORBID I walk twenty feet to get my drinks...

Especially with BlizzCon happening in November (and the plan for a big chunk of our Raid Team to meet up during this one), it's a real question whether or not we can even save the bank we'd need for Ocho. But I change my mind every five minutes as to whether or not I want to go again. I mean, I definitely DO want to go again, but there are some definite caveats on how that can happen.

I had a fantastic time on JoCoCruise VII. And I am definitely glad I went.