Thursday, July 17, 2008

Movin' back in.

After some thought, I've moved the blog back over to Blogger. It's... easier to deal with than Wordpress is.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The neighbors are... unsettling.


Just... wow.

So, I went and actually looked around at some of my fellow Blogger accounts last night, and well...

...Boy, howdy.

I'm thinking of moving this thing. Again.

I'm open to suggestions, here.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

History is Programmed by the Victors

Verrrrrrrrrrrrrry interesting blog post by Mark Pilgrim over here on the future of reading. I especially like the way that Jeff "Do you like my fancy hat? It is made of MONEY!" Bezos' oh-so-magnanimous words from five years ago directly contradict the terms of service that his dream device, the Kindle, bear heavily with it.

You know, I actually thought about getting one of those, but now... no. Not after reading over the TOS briefly. Here's a few choice tidbits.

Definitions. The following terms apply to the Device and to (a) all software (and the media on which such software is distributed) of Amazon or third parties that is pre-installed on the Device at time of purchase or that Amazon provides as updates/upgrades to the pre-installed software (collectively, the "Device Software"), unless you agree to other terms as part of an update/upgrade process; and (b) any printed, on-line or other electronic documentation for such software (the "Documentation"). As used in this Agreement, "Software" means, collectively, the Device Software and Documentation.
Automatic Updates. In order to keep your Software up-to-date, Amazon may automatically provide your Device with updates/upgrades to the Software.

Information Received. The Device Software will provide Amazon with data about your Device and its interaction with the Service (such as available memory, up-time, log files and signal strength) and information related to the content on your Device and your use of it (such as automatic bookmarking of the last page read and content deletions from the Device). Annotations, bookmarks, notes, highlights, or similar markings you make in your Device are backed up through the Service. Information we receive is subject to the Privacy Notice.

Changes to Service. Amazon reserves the right to modify, suspend, or discontinue the Service at any time, and Amazon will not be liable to you should it exercise such right.

Termination. Your rights under this Agreement will automatically terminate without notice from Amazon if you fail to comply with any term of this Agreement. In case of such termination, you must cease all use of the Software and Amazon may immediately revoke your access to the Service or to Digital Content without notice to you and without refund of any fees. Amazon's failure to insist upon or enforce your strict compliance with this Agreement will not constitute a waiver of any of its rights.

Amendment. Amazon reserves the right to amend any of the terms of this Agreement at its sole discretion by posting the revised terms on the Kindle Store or the website. Your continued use of the Device and Software after the effective date of any such amendment shall be deemed your agreement to be bound by such amendment.
So basically, if I read that right, they can turn off your service at any time, without notifying you, for breaking rules that you might not have known existed.

It also says to me that they can and will keep tabs on what you read, how you read it, what passages you choose to hilight, or not, what pages get bookmarked, or not... and that has all sorts of nasty potential if they choose to hand that info over to the government, or anyone else interested in your reading habits, no matter what their much-vaunted Privacy Notice might say.

The validity and integrity of a corporate entity's Privacy Policy is inversely proportionate to the level of scrutiny that company is being subjected to at any given point.

At least, that's how I feel on my more distrustful days, and yet like the rest of the people out there using the intertron or making use of credit and debit cards at local shops, I do it anyway... So I really don't have room to bitch, now do I?

Of course I do. It's my blog, so this is my room, and I can bitch here if I want to. Yes, it is something of a hypocrisy, but the alternatives are:

  • Pay someone an exorbitant and embarassingly large stack of cash to erase my existence from all databases.
    • Drawback: Can't be sure they got everything.
    • Drawback: Can't be sure they actually did ANYTHING.
    • Drawback: I just handed over an exorbitant and embarassingly large stack of cash that I could've used for other purposes. Oy, I'm a schmuck.
  • Start dealing in cash-only for all transactions.
    • Drawback: Not feasible for everything that needs to be done.
    • Drawback: You start looking like one of those crazy-ass Montana Militiamen.
    • Drawback: Your ass gets a dent from how big your wallet has to be.
    • Drawback: If someone breaks into your house and makes off with your stash, you sir, are PWNED.
  • Become a hermit in a cave and live off legumes and rock moss for the rest of my life.
    • Drawback: My wife would kill me for even suggesting this.
    • ...Do I need to go on after that one?
...In any case, after thirtysomething years of life, the damage has been done. It's the price of living in the modern world, unfortunately.

However... I digress. The thing that bugs me the most about that TOS is this section:

Definitions. The following terms apply to the Device and to (a) all software (and the media on which such software is distributed) of Amazon or third parties that is pre-installed on the Device at time of purchase or that Amazon provides as updates/upgrades to the pre-installed software (collectively, the "Device Software"), unless you agree to other terms as part of an update/upgrade process; and (b) any printed, on-line or other electronic documentation for such software (the "Documentation"). As used in this Agreement, "Software" means, collectively, the Device Software and Documentation.
Automatic Updates. In order to keep your Software up-to-date, Amazon may automatically provide your Device with updates/upgrades to the Software.
Notice how the books you buy and the news you read also counts as the "Software" and may be updated at any time?

I get an icy feeling in my gut when I think about that, I really do. When my unholy spawn grow to an age where they can start reading, I want the books they read to be the same ones I read, and I want them to be the same books, if you catch my drift. No massive newthink, no Newspeak.

Call me an old-fashioned Gaia-hating tree-cutting Bambi-killing baby-eating motherless son of an oil-burner and send Captain Planet after me if you want to, but I think that books should be on paper for just that reason. You can't update paper over the intertron to suit the political whims of the time.

I don't think Mr. Bezos has malice in his heart, I really don't... but I also know that given the way that things tend to go, he's not going to be able to maintain complete control over it forever, and one day it's going to become a common, open technology.

One day, it will be how everyone reads their books.

One day, maybe Old Yeller won't get shot. Ender won't rebel against his government masters and keep one last egg. Frodo might decide to give up his foolish rebellious ways, submit to the benevolent rule of Lord Sauron, and just hand the Ring of Power over.

One day, maybe Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn will be ideal, obedient children who do everything their parents and The State tell them to.

Hell, maybe one day, nobody will have ever heard of Fahrenheit 451. That'd be irony for you. It might also be the best way for them to hide what they were doing.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Mental Whack-A-Mole

People often talk about soldiers who've lost a war, or rebels without a cause, or generals without an army in soft, almost piteous tones.

What happens when you're a writer without an audience? Or a story, for that matter? The toughest thing about inspiration is making it happen when you need it to happen. In a way, it's sort of like that old adage about pots, watching them, and that whole boiling thing.

The ironic thing is, when my Muse does decide to drop in from whatever ethereal plane she spends her time on and whisper in my ear, it's usually when I'm in the car, or in the shower, or on the toilet, or during cuddle time with the wife... in general, at times when I can't write it down!

And frankly, I've got a shitty memory, lately. Seriously, it's resembled a game of mental Whack-A-Mole. This is why I spent a three-digit number on a very fancy phone with PDA functions to be my memory bank as well as my electronic leash. This is why I ask my wife and my roomie to remind me of things, as well as jotting reminders down in the UltraPhone, because frankly, sometimes I forget to look at the damned thing.

I am seriously considering asking both R & B to just adopt a policy of telling me to check my phone whenever I ask if I was supposed to do something. Absent-minded mad scientist, indeed.

However, I digress.

I've been doing my work for PZP lately, and that's been good. Been having fun with that, and I've got more on the burner, but I also want to work on my own stuff, and that's been harder to get a good start on.

Fortunately, I can has vacation coming up, and that will hopefully yield something. Yes, I am taking the laptop. No, I am probably not going to be gaming on it.

Well, okay, maybe a little.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Offend me, please.

There's an old book, written a long time ago by a man named George Orwell. It's called 1984.

I realize that many of my younger contemporaries may not have even heard of this novel. In fact, it shames me to say that a few people my own age, when asked have they heard of this title, have responded, "That was a really weird movie, dude."

I am now going to expound upon my political views, and on the OMG War On THEM. I will not apologize for offending you. I will not avoid offending you, though it is not my deliberate intent to do so.

It is in fact my belief that people need to be offended, every so often. World views must be challenged, or we become complacent, and complacent people are more prone to slide down the path to becoming apathetic. Easier to guide. Easier to intimidate. Easier to confuse.

Easier to control.

Take for example, OMG War On THEM, as I have taken to mentally labeling it. Do I agree that these are very bad men that should not have flown a plane into some of our very tall buildings? Yes, I concur with that statement. Do I think that we should have retailiated against the people and organizations that we found responsible for such a reprehensible act? Yes, I do. Do I feel that all people of the Muslim religion are ticking time bombs waiting to go off? No, I do not. Do I think taking Saddam out was good? Yes, but we should've done it the first time, and not have to be dicking around over there right now.

Then let me make this statement of my opinion: While I do not believe that all Muslims are evil, neither do I believe for one instant that the current leaders of that religion have the best interests of their flock at heart, or anyone else for that matter. They are accustomed to their power, and it is my opinion that they will not hesitate to sacrifice as many human lives as necessary, "infidel" or otherwise, to see to it that said power remains secured, either because That's How The Game Is Played Over There, or more frighteningly, because They Actually Believe Their Own Rhetoric. Honestly, there are days I think that whole region needs to be stuck under a concrete dome for a decade or two until they all sort it out amongst themselves.

If I were to state that opinion on television, radio, or in widely-published print, I would immediately be slammed with lawsuits from known and suspected terrorism-supporting organizations in the United States for defamation, libel, and slander, not to mention religious oppression. And you know what?

The very same government that professes to want to protect us from the howling madmen at the gates would let them do just that, whether it is actually true or not.

We live in a society where it is quickly becoming a cardinal sin to offend someone. The very villains that we are supposed to revile are simultaneously gaming our system against us. Our government, our whole society is waffling, confused, and in a state where we can't catch the Bad Guys because it might offend them... and you know what? They're loving it.

They love it. It makes their job endlessly easier. Rather than taking real action to make things more secure without sacrificing our liberties, we wind up with a bunch of feel-good legislation that simultaneously prunes away at our rights, one by one, until we live in a state of confusion and fear, where we don't know whether up is down, or whether it's day or night.

As Orwell wrote:
War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.

I wouldn't buy that line if you gold-plated it, offered it at a 1000% discount, and gave me an un-expiring coupon for unlimited sexual favors with the porn starlet of my choice. I don't rightly see why anyone else should either, except that it be their choice to do so. The sad thing is, more and more people are either actively choosing to do so, or are inactively choosing by not choosing.

This is the sinister thing: Not all of the Bad Guys, I think, are bomb-strapping maniacs. Some of them are right here at home, on both sides of the party lines. There are so many fingers in so many pies in so many countries that it's impossible to tell who's really playing for whom, and it's enough to make a professional paranoiac get the quivering heebie-jeebies.

It all comes down to the same thing: Control, either through fear, or through making people dependent.

On the fear side, you have OMG Teh War On THEM, whoever "THEM" happens to be at the time. Stay in line, or The THEM will get you. You're not one of THEM, are you? If you don't do as you're told, you're helping THEM. If you're one of THEM, then you're not one of US, and WE will GET YOU. Remember, We Know What's Best For You, And We Have Your Safety In Mind.

On the dependency side, you have a different tack: Have some free health care. Free housing. Free food. Free cars. Free bus rides. Free this. Free that. You don't have to do anything, you don't have to produce, you deserve all this wondrous bounty, because nobody is better than anyone else, and it's only fair that those who do all the work and produce all the goods and make all the money should share with the less-advantaged such as yourself, right? But all the same, we have to make sure you're safe, yes. You must be safe, but you should already be safe, so you don't need the ability to defend yourself. You should still do as you're told... you only get your Free Stuff if you stay in the lines, if you do as you're told. Remember, We Know What's Best For You, And We Have Your Safety In Mind.

...Do I really need to spell out which side is which, here? Either way, it comes down to control over you and I, Joe and Jane Citizen. To anyone who can look at it objectively, it's apparent, and it's scary, and it's almost farcical, but again, Mr. Orwell gives us another good line:

Until they become conscious they can never rebel, and until after they have rebelled, they cannot become conscious.

Or, to put it in more contemporary terms, from The Matrix:

Morpheus: The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. When you're inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of people we're trying to save, but until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand that most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it. Were you listening to me, Neo? Or were you looking at the woman in the red dress?

I can only hope that enough of my fellow citizens decide to unplug.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Portal Review: The Amazing Adventures of Sir W.C. Cube

So, last weekend, I decided to purchase a copy of Portal off Steam. I figured, "Hey, it's twenty bucks, I can afford that this week, and it promises to be different enough to engage my interest."

...I had no idea how right I was.

The basic premise of Portal is this: You are a lab rat. You're a test subject inside the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center, and Aperture Labs wants YOU to test their nifty new Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device, or "Portal Gun" if you simply must use the layman's nomenclature.

The Portal Gun lets you shoot two linked portals onto any flat, nonmetallic surface. That's very, very cool, and I want one for my very own, but that's not what amazed me. It preserves your angle of attack and momentum as you go through the portal, so you can pull off all sorts of twisty-flippy shit and essentially spank the laws of physics like a naughty schoolgirl. With the right timing and enough practice, you can pull off maneuvers that would make any superhero look on in envy.

That's pretty nifty, too, but that's still not what amazed me. Well, actually, it's pretty damned cool bordering on the awesome, and has kept me surprisingly amused, considering the relatively short span of the game's story mode, but it still wasn't the gut-puncher moment for me.

SPOILER ALERT -- SPOILER ALERT -- SPOILER ALERT -- If you have yet to play Portal and don't want certain parts of the game ruined for you, stop reading now. You have been warned.

Now that the obligatory warning is out of the way...

No, what got my panties in a bunch was this: There are, essentially, four characters in the game, and only two of them ever even speak. Even so, you still manage to get a good idea of the story behind the game, and it leaves enough hooks in you to keep you interested, even though some things simply are not explained.

For example, you have your character, Chell. She's the strong, silent type. Runs around with her Portal Gun, never says a word. Doesn't even grunt when she's shot at by autoturrets or falls from great heights. This makes me suspect she is related to Gordon Freeman.

Then, you have GlaDOS, your antagonist. At first, she sounds disinterested, but starts acquiring some subtle menace through the course of the game as little hints get dropped here and there that all is not kosher in Apertureville. Of all the characters, she natters on the most in her melodious singsong voice, provided by actress Ellen McLain, and lovingly synthed up by the Valve crew.

By the end of the game, I became utterly convinced that GlaDOS was completely effing nuts. Think Eddie from Electric Dreams meets HAL 9000 meets Your Friend the Computer from Paranoia and toss in a spurned psychotic stalker ex-girlfriend, and you're close. This is only reinforced by the lyrics to the end credits song "Still Alive," sung by the lovely voice of Ms. McLain, and provided by the musical genius of Jonathan Coulton.

Then, you have comic relief in the form of the Ferrets -- Ovoid autoturrets with a sighting laser and two cute little paddle-doors that extend off the sides to reveal a pair of freaking nasty machine guns. They speak in almost innocent, childlike voices, commenting on what they're doing as they try to kill you, and sounding almost petulant when you disable them by picking them up or knocking them over or faking them into shooting each other. A roomful of these things is bad, bad news. Clever use of portals is a key tactic in defeating these little buggers, either by circumvention, or my personal favorite, dropping in behind them, grabbing them, then portaling them off a ledge somewhere.

But strangely enough... the most compelling character in the game never says a word, never takes a single action on his/her/its own, and doesn't even have a name beyond that of an equipment designation: The Weighted Companion Cube.

W.C. Cube is just that. A cube. With a heart on it. Like so.

GlaDOS says, "This is your Weighted Companion Cube. It will accompany you throughout the test chamber. Please take care of it." Immediately afterward, you are forced to use it as a shield against deadly balls of energy that will vaporize your lab monkey ass on contact, but W.C. Cube is mighty, and is your friend and protector... as long as you hold him at the correct angle, at least.

GlaDOS then goes on to expound upon your Companion Cube's virtues, such as its inability to speak, and the fact that it will not stab you. And it is true, your Cube is a faithful companion. In fact, you cannot get through the test chamber without it...

...But you cannot get out of the chamber with it. GlaDOS dispassionately informs you that unfortunately, your faithful Weighted Companion Cube cannot accompany you for the remainder of the test and must be euthanized.

This moment changes the whole mood of the game. Rather than just being an objective if somewhat quirkily menacing observer in a laboratory that's obviously not complying with OSHA regs, GlaDOS takes on the role of the Science Gestapo, and forces a choice: You can stay there with your pal, W. C. Cube... or you can frag your buddy by dropping him in an incinerator, leaving you to go on alone. Later, as you race through your confrontation with the deranged artificial intelligence, she taunts you by saying, "There was even going to be a party for you. A big party that all your friends were invited to. I invited your best friend the companion cube. Of course, he couldn't come because you murdered him. All your other friends couldn't come either because you don't have any other friends because of how unlikable you are. Unlikable, it says so here in your personnel file: Unlikable. Liked by no one. A bitter, unlikable loner whose passing shall not be mourned. SHALL. NOT. BE. MOURNED. That's exactly what it says. Very formal. Very official. It also says you're adopted, so that's funny too."

This was brilliant scripting, in my opinion. I mean... the cube is an inanimate object. It doesn't speak. It doesn't act in any way on its own, and yet it somehow managed to galvanize me. What started as a nifty puzzle game became a not only a quest for freedom, but a quest for vengeance. By the time I braced GlaDOS in her lair, it wasn't just about me. It wasn't even about the other poor soul who had also lost his or her Companion Cube before me as evidenced by half-sane scrawlings hidden behind stuck wall panels. It was for my pal, W. C. Cube, and that bionic bitch was going DOWN!

Far too many game writers think they need to "punch it up" by adding extra dialogue. All too often, it comes out forced, or cheesy. Freelancer was a good example of this... I can't count how many times I wanted to rabbit-punch an NPC after he said, "We don't own this place, but we have an understanding with the people who do." Here in Aperture Labs, though, Valve has shown that silence can truly be golden.

EDIT: When I arrived home from $DAY_JOB today, I discovered that the cake is, in fact, not a lie. I love my wife.

Mental Roadblock

Writer’s block: Anyone who’s tried to knock out a story, or a paper for school, or a proposal for work, or even a diary entry has experienced this phenomenon at one time or another.

I know this foe of old… and it’s been hitting me recently, as well. Hence the lack of updates here recently. Well, that, plus some illness issues… and I’ve been punching deck on another project that I can’t really talk about yet, but should be totally awesome when it comes to light.

Yes, that’s right, Faithful Readers, not even mystery spasm-inducing ailments that the doctor claims is just a slipped C5-C6 disc lovingly brushing against my spinal cord can keep the ideas from flowing.

See, the problem I have with writing isn’t a lack of ideas. I have plenty of ideas bouncing around in my noggin, trust me. It’s getting these ideas out onto paper or pixel that is often the issue, and when it’s not that, it’s a lack of time or motivation. Picture a puzzle where you have to use one of those eraser-stub mouse controls from a laptop to align a circle or square in the middle of a triangle… and make the control scheme’s response so loose as to be sloppy.

That’s what it’s like, sometimes. When I can get all of those factors to lock into place though, it’s a grand thing. I’ll tuck myself in front of the keyboard, or hunker down in the armchair with notebook and pen for a few hours, completely unaware of the passage of time.

So how does one circumvent this roadblock? Well… I imagine it’s different for everyone. I find it’s easiest for me if I remove myself from familiar comforts and distractions. Carting the laptop to a coffee shop or a bookstore frequently works rather well, and if I can’t do that, I slap the headphones on, and go downstairs, away from my gaming computer, and put on some instrumental music, usually suited to the piece I’m working on.

Of course, until we get my dearly beloved’s desktop machine built, she’s kind of got possession of my careworn and heavily-used Powerbook, so I kind of have to use the gaming computer to get any writing work done… which is convenient, I guess. If the well runs dry, I can amuse myself for a few minutes or an hour, then get back to it.

Speaking of getting back to it… back to working for $COMPANY, Wage Monkey! HYAH!