Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Nov 3, 2009

Dragon Age: The Calling

My friend Chris got me this novel for my birthday, as I'm currently running a game in the Dragon Age setting so I was hoping to get more material by reading the novel. As with The Stolen Throne, it's not a hugely impressive novel. It's enjoyable, but really only as a prelude to the video game. In many ways, though, the problems are the opposite of those in The Stolen Throne, which had excellent characterization but mediocre dramatization.

The Calling starts off with an excellent plot hook. One of the Gray Wardens (warriors tasked with keeping a lid on the Darkspawn threat) has been captured by the enemy and taken deep underground. This particular Warden has knowledge that the enemy could use to launch an assault and potentially even destroy civilization entirely. The other Wardens decide that they must breach the underground realm of the Darkspawn and either rescue or kill the captive before he can reveal this knowledge. Sounds pretty ominous.

Yet, the novel stumbles almost immediately by the bizarre decision to include probably the least interesting character from The Stolen Throne in this mission, the generic good-natured "nice guy" Maric who was thrust all unprepared into leading the rebellion and later becoming the King of Ferelden. The rationale for including this fellow in the story is poor at best, and his presence as the spotlight character steals time and attention from the interactions of the new main characters. David Gaider's treatment of Maric in this novel virtually turns him into a Canon Sue--except that Maric is portrayed as "endearingly" incompetent except in the realm of getting people to like him. He was only tolerable as a character in The Stolen Throne with the cynical and harsh Loghain to balance him. In The Calling he is tedious. The multiple re-treads of his romance with Katriel in the first novel (especially since he finds a new elf chick to glom onto) inspire epic amounts of eye-rolling.

This is sad, because the story itself is quite interesting and raises a lot of questions about the setting. Are the Darkspawn directed by a conscious evil, or are they merely animals driven by inescapable instincts? What, exactly, are the motivations of the mysterious Architect and are they benevolent or horrific? What is the nature of the Old Gods and this strange relationship they have with the Darkspawn? Yet these questions and their impact are largely minimized by excessive attention to Maric's personal problems and a return to the "setting tour" in the form of basically unnecessary battles with a dragon and an abomination. A couple of editing missteps (you could make a drinking game from the number of times the words "a single bead of sweat" and "sickening crunch" appear in the novel) seal The Calling's position as a solid meh.

Rating: 2.0

Nov 2, 2009

Game Journal: Threat

I'm running a new game on Sundays for a (mostly) new gaming group, and I keep having these interesting thoughts about the way I run the game, so I decided to start recording them on my blog as they occur to me. I'll also be talking about computer games in addition to tabletop games.

These thoughts about making players feel threatened were sparked off by Shamus Young's excellent article on The Escapist about the Survival Horror genre. I often use horror elements in my games and I've been told they're quite effective. However, I have real difficulties inspiring a healthy level of dread when I want the players to do things like make extra preparations for combat or run away from a monster.

The reason for this is that I forget what actually inspires players to be nervous or careful, so I wind up rediscovering it all over again every time that I run. Fear in games runs contrary to what most people are used to seeing in, say, movies. In games--even tabletop games--people aren't really afraid that their character will be killed, no matter what they might say about it. The more you warn them that their character may die, the LESS frightened they will be about the prospect. I've found this out, to great annoyance, in circumstances when I put OBVIOUS death-traps in the party's path. Not only were they not frightened into caution, but they were so incautious that they set the trap off on themselves and almost killed the entire party.

I think there are a number of reasons for this. Some players have a tendency to mistake dithering for caution. If it takes a long time for them to come to a decision about what to do (as it did in the above trap situation) they seem to subconsciously assume that some sort of precautions have taken place and thus no harm will result. There is also a tendency for people to forget that they may roll poorly just at the wrong moment. Gaming is like gambling in many respects, in that you're almost always playing the odds and nearly all actions involve some element of risk. The players become inured to this risk over time because they usually do succeed and almost all the time, when they fail, the consequences are negligible. Your character's life usually doesn't depend on a single swing of the sword or damage roll, but you're doing exactly the same thing (rolling the dice), as when your character's life DOES depend on it.

Secondly, the characters exist in a world which is organized so they can succeed--and usually, succeed just via the expedient of not dying. If the GM wants to kill off the characters, there's nothing to stop them. The GM runs the entire universe. If they want to slap in an impossible monster or situation, they can. (Some GM's get a kick out of putting in tricks and letting the players kill their own characters, but this doesn't change the fact that they can't even get as far as the trick without the GM organizing the universe for their benefit.) In computer games, this phenomenon is even WORSE, because even if your character does die, you can just load the game.

So, if the threat of death doesn't inspire dread in a game, what does? The answer that I've seen, over and over, is uncertainty. A huge monster stumbling around in the open, no matter HOW big it is or how many vicious teeth and claws it has, does not inspire fear in itself. You may get a measure of fear if the players aren't sure that they can defeat this monster, which is why the tradition is to hide the creature's statistics. It's the uncertainty that generates nervousness and thus cautious behavior. Likewise a sudden sneak attack inspires no dread. You have to build suspense by first telegraphing some alarming event and then hiding the details. Don't have a big fanged monstrosity stomping around in the open and roaring. Hide it in mist and give the characters only the thought of "something large moving around". This is so effective that they'll continue to be nervous even after you've shone light in the corners and proven there's nothing there.

One video game that did this quite well was the original Gothic. The forests in that game were so nerve-wracking that I avoided them even when my character was quite high-level and could maul just about anything in the game. Why? Because they were built up in this way. In Gothic, the game was full of groups of creatures that, especially early on, could annihilate your character. This wasn't fear-inspiring in itself (it was more annoying, but also rewarding when you managed to clear them out). In the open, though, you could see them quite some distance away and avoid them easily because they didn't move around all that much. Heck, even if you did accidentally anger them, you still had a chance to get away because they'd go through a little "growling at the PC" ritual before they outright charged.

In the forest, however, you couldn't see the creatures. (Once you got past the first rank of trees, they pulled a graphical trick that made it very dark and hid objects even in the middle distance--you had to almost trip over things in order to see them.) Due to the forest noises and the eerie music that played, you often couldn't hear the faint rumble that preceded "I charge you, sir!". It was terribly scary to be in the forest for even a short period.

One last note: this doesn't mean you should just take the expedient of hiding everything in the game in order to make it scary. Pitch black games are not scary, they are annoying. They don't inspire the player to caution, they make them turn up the gamma. In order for this sort of thing to work, there has to be a transition from "I'm safe here, I can see things coming" to "where'd everybody go?" Likewise, in tabletop games, if you never tell the players what is going on, you'll just frustrate them and they'll begin randomly acting out in order to provoke some kind of reaction. All you want is a touch of built-up uncertainty at the moments when they have a strong reason to push forward, and they will shake in their boots.

Oct 30, 2009

Still Life of Apples and Onions

I think I'm learning better how to work this paint thing. It still needs some work, but I'm starting to get the idea.

Oct 29, 2009

Experimenting with Paleo

While Adam was in Atlanta for training, I decided to try experimenting with the Paleo diet. For those who don't know, the idea behind the paleo diet is that you try to eat a diet more suited to human evolutionary development. It's high in saturated fats, protein, vegetables, and VERY low in carbohydrates. In particular, you avoid grain products and refined sugars as those are believed to have deleterious effects on most people--they cause inflammation and jack up your blood sugar and cholesterol in the form of triglycerides.

Well, I have to say that the experiment was pretty successful. Within the first day I noticed I was shedding retained water and the chronic swelling in my ankles and feet disappeared. My intestines seem much happier with this diet, as well. I ate some bread a couple of days ago and I was not at all pleased with the result. The stuff sits in my stomach like a lump of wood.

The paleo works well for controlling hunger pangs, too. I can easily go down to one meal a day without really noticing, especially if I wait until later in the day to eat. (I start looking around for snacks in the evening, so it's easier for me if I eat later.)

The really funny thing about this (to me) is that Adam is more into this diet than I am. Not *eating* it--he's not the diet type because he wants to be able to eat whatever he feels like eating. No, he's having a fun time making sure I stay on it, to the extend that when he wants to go out, he'll spend time poring over the menu to make sure there's something I can eat. This is quite a sea change for him because usually he's far from supportive whenever I try a diet program of some kind.

It really is pretty surprising how hard it is to find meals that don't involve some sort of bread/pasta/potatoes, though. Usually salads are my best bet, and they're not exactly high in saturated fat. So I expect to be cooking at home more in the future.

Oct 25, 2009

Acrylics on Illustration Board

I've been having to do some paintings for school, so I thought I'd share them. They're not great, but I think the apple looks good.

Sep 28, 2009

Dragon Age Fancomic

I've been working on my comic skills again, creating this short comic for the Dragon Age: Origins game.

Aug 29, 2009

District 9

This movie is very unusual in that Adam didn’t like it while I actually did. Usually, if there’s any movie-disliking going on, it’s me not liking the movie while Adam kind of does. I can understand his point—if you go into District 9 expecting to be entertained in the usual style of a summer action movie, you’re not going to get much out of it. If you’re looking for your standard tale of people overcoming their differences and prejudices, you’re going to find District 9 impenetrable. Because this is not a movie about aliens and humans or even something as straightforward as racism.

It’s a movie about South Africa. Or, rather, the underlying problems that make places like South Africa what they are. It would be equally applicable in any similar place.

What District 9 does is to take a story any American would find nearly as familiar as their own bed—strangers slapped together by circumstances and forced to work together to accomplish a common goal—and uses it as a platform to rip the lid off of Hell and show it to you in a way you can actually understand. They even tell you outright the purpose of the movie very early on. The alien space ship, they say, could have stopped in New York or Tokyo or Moscow or any other famous city, but it wound up in Johannesburg. And then the fun started.

Even the style of the movie, presenting the events as newscasts and documentary footage with interviews of various distant participants mimics the only way most Westerners ever get news about Africa. Through this mechanism and the revelation of actual events, it goes on to show just how distorted, random, and ineffectual that news coverage is. Everything in the movie follows this same scheme. The brutality and callousness of all the characters, without exclusion, delivers the impression of staring into a completely foreign world where solutions for problems are the vain dreaming of distant madmen. It’s never explained why the many parties behave as strangely as they do. Counter-productive behavior isn’t an aberration here. It’s the rule.

And at the end, while there are words of hope, they are more a conceit of dreamers than anything that can really be reached or grasped. A fog of questions that will never be answered descends, leaving only one impression.

Now what?

Aug 21, 2009

Fun With Housework

It's been an interesting week around here because apparently everything has decided to break or need attention at once.

1. The garbage disposal went kaput and clogged up the kitchen sink and the dishwasher. Yay.

2. The vent over the stove is now home to a sizable nest of bees. These are the most relaxed, blase bees I've ever encountered--they'll fly over and land on you like they're just saying hi, then wander off again--but that doesn't mean I want to share my living quarters with them. Adam has sprayed them three times. They don't seem impressed. If you listen closely, you can hear them giggling in there. "Those idiots!" they say. "They're using wasp and hornet killer! But we're bees! We're going to be in this vent FOREVER!!" They think they have a sweet gig going.

3. Also now inhabiting the kitchen are some disgusting black ants. Well, I mean, they're kind of cute for ants, but they are freakin' everywhere. Heck, they're not just in the kitchen. Perhaps they're using the bees for a taxi service to other parts of the house. I've put out ant baits, but apparently this just inspired them to come out in force so now they're REALLY REALLY freakin' everywhere. Joy.

4. The toilet in the hall bathroom is leaking and cannot be flushed unless you want this procedure to involve a mop. So we have to use the toilet in the master bathroom.

5. The SHOWER in the MASTER bathroom, conversely, does not leak. In fact, no water of any kind whatsoever comes out of it at all in any way. So we have to use the SHOWER in the HALL bathroom. This situation has led to a comical ablutionary procedure involving migrating from one bathroom to the other and back as many as three times depending on where you've left your personal toothbrush and whether or not you remember where you left your personal toothbrush. The Dance of the Bathrooms, I call it.

6. It's been storming sporadically all week, primarily whenever Adam seems inclined to go out and do yardwork. In fact, this has become so predictable that it seems Adam has turned into some sort of weird thunder god who wields a weed whacker instead of a lightning bolt. This finally let up today.

7. So, Adam decided to teach *me* how to use the lawnmower. Now, you have to understand that I am comically inept at every sort of yard work and the lawnmower turned out to be no exception. Heck, I couldn't even get the thing started at first. It turned out this wasn't my fault, as Adam gave me misleading instructions on how to start the thing and then stood back and sniggered when I followed them and the lawn mower would not start. He kept telling me to "pull it like you've got a pair!" while I yanked fruitlessly on the starter cord. I asked him, twice, "are you sure I don't need to prime it again?" "No, no." Finally, he got tired of watching me flail around and gave it a yank himself. Nothing. Yank, yank, yank. Nothing. So he sheepishly bends over and primes it again. Bam. Starts first pull. Punk.

8. After I mowed the front yard (leaving comical tufts of untouched grass here and there), Adam decides to tackle the back yard. Now, Adam hasn't mowed the back yard in some time. I'm not sure what we have going on in the back even qualifies as a "yard" any more. It's more like a jungle someone inexplicably fenced in. So he gets out the pith helmet and sends me on an expedition to cut down the more tree-like growths in the hopes that he won't completely annihilate the lawnmower within the first five minutes. I forage around for a while and pull out a full-grown tomato plant with five fist-sized tomatoes on it. No joke.

9. Finally, we're done and I hold the trash bag while Adam rakes up the grass. Only he seems to be having some sort of difficulty with the raking procedure because he has the hiccups and it's throwing him off.

So, yeah. Fun times.

Aug 17, 2009

Facts? What Facts?

I just overheard a television commercial telling people to get "the facts" about health care reform and claiming that no matter what the "scare mongers" say, "you and your doctor will always choose what is best for you".

Excuse me? My doctor and I can't choose what's best for me NOW, much less if this Obamacare nightmare gets off the ground. If I have chronic insomnia, can I get a prescription for GBH (the "date rape" drug)? No. Heck, why do I have to get a prescription in the first place?

The *real* fact is that your doctor and you are the people most excluded from making decisions about what is best for you, and the health care plans of the current administration are aimed exclusively at limiting your choices even further.

Aug 13, 2009

G.I. Joe

Soooooo . . . it's not actually a bad movie. It's not great, but it's not bad, either. My biggest quibble is that I didn't like the actor they got to portray Duke (Channing Tatum, what a great name), and my main complaint was that his ears completely ruined the character for me. Yes, I'm aware that's extremely petty. Women can be shallow, too. But I had a major crush on Duke as a kid and I don't like seeing him re-imagined as a scarred charisma-less brick with two milimeters of hair and ears that make his head look like an upside-down soup bowl. This is about the worst thing they do with the source material, although I *swear* that I saw Brendan Frasier do a brief cameo as "Sergeant something-or-other" (I didn't catch the last part of the name, I thought it sounded like Slaughter, which would make him the Least Appropriate Sergeant Slaughter Ever Imagined) but he's not credited on the cast list. There are a LOT of very recognizable actors in this movie.

The rest of the movie is as campy as you might expect, but it's not awful because there's an underlying childlike glee about all the explosions, flashing lights, and ridiculous Secret Ultra-High Tech bases. Heck, even the throwaway particle scientist gets his own Ultra Cool High Tech Base even though it's only in the movie for 5 minutes. Now that's devotion to concept. They don't even work very hard at making you care about the characters. Periodically the movie remembers "oh, these people ought to have some motivations here, how do we . . . right, flashback!" and you'll get to see some snippet of a character's personal history unfold. But the movie itself seems to find these flashbacks boring and punctuates them with punching, kicking, and yet more of the beloved explosions. The scenes where you'd normally expect to hear excessive violin music of overwhelming pathos are usually drowned out by, you guessed it, explosions. It's GREAT. It's also ridiculous, particularly during the lengthy underwater aircraft battle (they really should have put that in a giant open-air cave and be done with it) that takes up maybe 1/5 of the movie.

Also, for those who are used to experiencing motion sickness in modern action flicks, don't worry. While they still did *some* photography via the "camera strapped to an excited dog" approach used in movies like The Bourne Supremacy and Batman Begins, it's much less awful and you can actually follow the action even when they're switching rapidly between three or more viewpoints. This is really helpful because otherwise the sheer quantity of action would be inducing epileptic seizures in entire audiences.

If you're looking for something intelligent, thought-provoking, or even emotionally engaging, see something else. But if you're just really in the mood to see Stuff Blowing Up, you could do worse than G.I. Joe.

Aug 7, 2009

Clearly I'm Dangerous

I've decided to comply with the White House's request:

Dear White House:

I am reporting myself as a dangerous subversive in total opposition to any form of government health care "plan". I regularly express my opposition in print, in conversation, and in electronic media too numerous to mention. I contend that there should be a free market in health care as in any other good or service.

If this be treason, make the most of it.

Jennifer Snow

Aug 5, 2009

Anatomy: Foot

And here are some feet. I tried to get these approximately the same size but didn't quite manage it.

Aug 4, 2009

Anatomy: Hand

Here we have some hands. I did a better job with these, I think.

Aug 3, 2009

Anatomy: Pelvis

I'm a little annoyed because my textbook doesn't have a picture of the female pelvis, which is substantially different anatomically--it looks to be at about a 45% angle compared to the male pelvis.

Aug 2, 2009

Clicking Away Your Soul

This video is pretty horrific. It's also somewhat inaccurate--in order to log in and reach the stage where you're faced with that privacy statement, you have to register to get the *dealer* information. But it's still pretty bad when the government is declaring that it *owns the system* while a person is logged in and can share any and all information on said system with anyone it likes.

Car dealerships would be bad enough, but most car loans go through banks and other financial institutions, and they are people who are quite likely to want to register on sites like these, making all of your personal information de jure property of the government.

Oh, I agree that this is likely just sloppy wording and won't ever amount to anything, but it's another sign of just how far over the hill into tyranny this country is. Tyrants and scam artists rely on a lot of the same tricks and the Big Lie is one of them. Think they won't enforce things like this given the chance? They will. People in power who think they're doing things "for your own good" have shown time and time again that they have NO scruples about doing WHATEVER they can do to "get the job done" as long as they can get away with it, and maybe not even then. Heck, the wayward cop who breaks the rules to get his man is as much a cultural icon as the debonair rogue or the cowboy.

Sure, we cheer for cops who find the rules tiresome when they're up against a murderer or rapist or someone genuinely evil. But honest citizens must remember that there are people out there who consider you *genuinely evil* if you are in favor of legal abortions or insist that you have a right to keep your hard-earned cash when someone else "needs" it. Those "tiresome" rules exist for a very good reason and a principled person understands that and accepts them as necessary. If you want a cultural icon, the scrupulous cop would be a MUCH better choice.

Glenn Beck's indulgence in scare-mongering masks a much bigger and scarier issue that could swallow us all whole.

Update: Here is a link that takes you to the privacy policy Beck quoted.

Anatomy: Torso

Here's the torso. I tried to do a bit more with the modeling this time around, although the drawing is actually really small so it looks pretty crude. I'm also displeased with the way the book shades the bones in the ribcage. The dark connective tissue holding the ribs to the sternum should actually be white. It's costal cartilage and literally looks like rubbery white plastic, much whiter than the ribs themselves which are thin and filled with dark bloody tissue.

Aug 1, 2009

Anatomy: Leg

Here's the leg. The skeletal view is messed up--unfortunately the book doesn't have a corresponding skeletal view for EVERY muscular view, and I picked a muscle view where I had to make up the skeleton.

Jul 31, 2009

Anatomy: Arm

I've been doing a lot of sketches of anatomy for my Life Drawing class, so I'll post a few of them for Your Viewing Pleasure.

Jul 30, 2009

My First Commission

I've been soliciting artistic work and I just finished the first design request. I know it's not perfect, one of my friends sent me a tutorial on creating flames in Illustrator that I'll have to try out, but I think it's not bad. I really am improving quite a lot.

Jul 24, 2009

On Parasitism

My friend Shamus just wrote an excellent article for the Escapist that really got me thinking. Here's the relevant bit, but read the whole thing:
So far there aren't any videogames called "Edge," so you should be good.
You release the game to the iPhone and it gets very favorable reviews and is praised as something unique and different in a sea of bland Bejeweled clones and Tetris knock-offs. Congratulations, you made it. You're a successful indie developer.
A little after launch, you get a letter from the lawyers of a guy named Tim Langdell. Langdell owns the "international trademark" for "Edge Gaming," and he claims you're infringing on his trademark by using the word "Edge" for your game. Your creation gets pulled from the Apple store.

One of the biggest problems people seem to have with the idea of capitalism is that it (supposedly) gives free reign to parasites like this Tim Langdell character. This is a huge misconception based on the idea that there's nothing to prevent people from engaging in activities that are morally questionable but not actually illegal. The Germans actually have a saying that encompasses this philosophy: "If it is not required, it is forbidden".

The best thing to do to protect yourself from people like this is exactly what Shamus has done here: GO PUBLIC. Complain loudly, unceasingly, and with large amounts of evidence. Or, do what The Chaos Engine has done and get together with others to blast the guy. There is no need to stoically submit to this indignity and no need to suffer endless lawsuit threats, either.

For my part, I'm having nothing whatsoever to do with the IGDA if they allow someone like this to sit on their board. It's like they're the United Nations of professional associations. I was considering looking into the student chapter at the University of Pittsburgh, but after this news, forget it.

Jul 16, 2009

Objectivim Blogs Roundup

It's over at Titanic Deck Chairs this week, and I actually submitted a post. I really should do that more often.

Jul 15, 2009

United Breaks Guitars

My dad sent me a link today to this great video produced by artist Dave Carroll. It's a fun song and also terribly amusing. I'm glad I never fly United. Usually I do USAir or (very rarely) Southwest "The Walmart of the Airways". If I'm hitting the East Coast, I'll fly JetBlue in preference to anything else. All three companies have been great to me, and while I've hit some delays with USAir in the past (both times getting stuck in an airport halfway home for an unreasonably long time), they've never once lost or damaged any piece of my luggage. In fact, the worst thing that ever happened was due to a very narrow squeak at a connection where I had to RUN all the way across the Minneapolis airport to get on another plane, so my luggage got left behind. A service guy drove from Columbus to my home in Dayton to hand-deliver said luggage IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FREAKIN' NIGHT. What a nice guy!

In general, I've found that the companies that have good customer service treat their employees well. That's not to say that their employees aren't overworked--I've had some great waitresses who were working a triple shift because of call offs. But the manager APPRECIATED what they were doing, so they stayed in a good mood regardless of the crazy schedule. This is because customer service is based on empathy and it's hard to have empathy for other people's problems when your boss is a stupid jackass and you've worked seven hours without a break because the person who made up the schedule can't do math.

Jul 10, 2009

Moral Thermostat?

Via Geekpress I encountered this fascinating article on the subject of temptation and why it may be harder to resist than people think. I'm not sure I agree with this premise, but it's certainly an interesting idea. If anything, this research seems to demonstrate why duty-based ethics just don't work. Guilt is not a motivating force. Willpower, as the article indicates, wears out.

I can certainly verify this from my own experience. When I do something, not because I want to, but because I "have" to, I get fed up. I do just enough to assuage the guilt and then abandon it to go do something I actually want to do. Often, I'll just *distract* myself from feeling guilty by becoming preoccupied with something else, and then, whoops, look where the time went. I think that this is what most of us are doing when we claim we were too busy to do something. We didn't want to do it, so we let other things interfere with our ability to do it. Sounds malicious, doesn't it? It's not. What's malicious is that we don't feel free to admit that we just don't want to do it.

There's more than one kind of not wanting to do something, of course. Sometimes it's because we know it's going to be work. Ayn Rand called this the "white tennis shoes" when it comes to writing. This is where willpower can actually be useful, because if you're like me, once you get started doing work you enjoy, you'll go and go and go and not notice--because it's fun. But it takes a constant exertion of willpower to do something you *don't* enjoy on *any* level, like, for me, doing a regular diet and exercise regimen. I *don't* like being hungry and nothing I can do will ever change that. The only diet I could ever successfully do is one where I'm *not* hungry and I don't have to spend large quantities of time thinking about it. Exercise is the same way. Oh, I enjoy *specific* activities, but after three or four days of a regimen I'm bored and it starts taking constant willpower for me to keep doing it. I'd need a "regimen" that was completely different every day--but that didn't require me to sit around trying to think up how to make it different, because I'd get bored with that, too.

As a side note, I know those things aren't impossible. I've been looking at the idea behind the "paleo" diet and I think I could do it if I had more control over what I was eating at the moment. Doing a sport or martial art would be sufficiently varied for exercise, too. I've done volleyball before and I didn't want to miss a practice no matter how much work it was. We only practiced twice a week, though, so it wasn't enough.

Anyway, the real way to avoid this problem is to avoid the trap of duty-based ethics altogether. "I really should" won't turn you into a moral person. Only rejecting the evil as truly *undesirable* leads to full morality. There's a great quote in Atlas Shrugged that conveys this idea completely (on page 720 in the Centennial Edition):

[A]nd they looked as if, should they encounter malevolence, they would reject it contemptously, not as dangerous, but as stupid, they would not accept it in bruised resignation as the law of existence.

Full morality *is* possible, there is no "moral thermostat" that prevents people from becoming too moral. You just have to know that evil is not desirable and that you do not become good by grudgingly rejecting it. Nor is good some duty you owe someone above, beyond, and against what you want--not some unpleasant chore to be performed and dispensed with as soon as possible. Once you fully understand the consequences of evil, you'll never feel tempted to engage in it, and you'll find it bizarre that anyone ever could be.

Jun 28, 2009

Old Sketchbook: Dakota Sue

And here's a portrait of Dakota Sue from the M&M campaign that's posted on this blog. And yes, I know the nose is messed up.

Jun 27, 2009

Old Sketchbook: Marty

Here is Friend Andy's character from the same M&M campaign.

Jun 26, 2009

Dayton Independence Day Tea Party

I'm hoping I'll be able to attend the Dayton area Independence Day Tea Party. It's actually scheduled for the 3rd at Golden Gate Park in Brookville. Be there to help show support for capitalism and individual rights!

Or, go to one of the 1,200 other protests scheduled across the country. From what I've seen, there's one pretty close to just about anyone.

Old Sketchbook: Knox

This is one of my few portraits, of a character of Adam's in a Mutants and Masterminds game. Not sure he liked the character all that much.

Jun 25, 2009

Old Sketchbook: Gundancer

This is a picture from the same campaign as "me", depicting my friend Andy's character. He was a bit dumbstruck and not exactly thrilled with the idea, poor guy.

Suicide Watch

To anyone lacking my admittedly peculiar mind-set, this post is going to seem really horrible and likely in poor taste, indicative that I Need Help, and probably a number of other stupidly cliched reactions. If you're the type of person who has never felt the need to think about suicide and gets jumpy when the topic comes up, you should probably stop reading right now. Go do something cheerful. Nothing I have to say will do you any good, anyway.

Personally, I confess to being surprised if there are people out there who *don't* contemplate suicide on a regular basis. I do, every few months or so (or even more often), and it's comforting in an odd sort of way. Well, maybe comforting isn't the right word--liberating, maybe. It makes tough things easier to handle when I know I don't have to handle them if I don't want to. It's a sort of value affirmation. Do I still have reasons to stick around? Apparently so.

I also don't understand why just talking about it gets people so upset. A lot of people seem to have the same knee-jerk reaction. Therapy. Medication. GET HELP. It's almost like they take it personally somehow, like they have some sort of responsibility for making you want to stay alive. But no one can make you want to live, propaganda and suicide hotlines to the contrary. They may manage to avert a sudden crisis. But the problem that makes someone suicidal in the first place will still remain. If you don't learn your own methods of coping with sudden pain or loss, then crisis will own you forever. You have to know why you want to live. Or even if you do at all.

Most would probably say that wanting to live comes from inside, but the real truth is that it doesn't *come* from anywhere. It's something you manufacture. It doesn't arrive. It has to be constructed. You have to be someone like me to notice that, I think, someone who has had to assemble desires bit by bit from strange and isolated parts. Someone who regularly watches the entire edifice teetering on the brink of collapse and has to decide all over again whether to keep working at it or let it fall down.

I think that's why suicide upsets people more than the more ordinary sort of death. (Is there an "ordinary" way to die?) Not because it's particularly horrible, but because it reminds them of the existence of their own ramshackle house or skyscraper or whatever kind of soul they've managed to build. If it's not well-constructed, maybe they start to wonder whether some hidden defect might send the whole thing tumbling down. Perhaps they feel out of control, and it frightens them.

I don't, and I think that's the one good thing about really thinking about suicide on a regular basis. I may feel out of control in my daily life. Things happen, I wasn't paying attention, everything gets out of hand. But when it comes down to the line, I'm in complete control. I know what kind of soul I have. So I can talk about suicide. I can even make horrible black jokes about it when most people would shy away. I'm not afraid of a sudden fracture--I knew the stress was there from the beginning.

That's not to say that my way is a good way. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. I imagine it's much better to have a soul that's carefully constructed from thinking about life, not death. But it's the way I'm stuck with, so I may as well enjoy the benefits, such as they are. I'm not sure anyone else would call it a benefit. It certainly doesn't make it easy for anyone to deal with me.

At least I know, for certain, that I'm only doing this because I want to.

Jun 24, 2009

Old Sketchbook: Sorceress

This, if you can believe it, is supposed to be me. Me as an elven sorceress. Also thin. I claim artistic license.

Jun 23, 2009

Old Sketchbook: Tega, Action Girl

Here's Tega in an action pose. I do actually like doing action poses, but they're a lot of work for basically no benefit, as some yahoo ALWAYS says something along the lines of "what, are they humping a rhinoceros?"

Jun 22, 2009

Old Sketchbook: Tega the Scarred

One of my all-time favorite characters, although not a very distinctive drawing.

Jun 21, 2009

Old Sketchbook: Necromancer

This one was, unusually, not my character, in, also unusually, a bit more of an action pose. Sadly, I've also forgotten the character's name.

Jun 20, 2009

Old Sketchbook: Halire

I really, really hate the positioning of the sword in this one, it looks like she can barely lift it. But the legs and armor were pretty interesting, I thought.

Jun 19, 2009

Old Sketchbook: Leren Ratbreed

This is actually the main character of the novel I'm working on, however in the novel she doesn't wear that outfit. At all. Don't even think about it.

Okay, well, maybe a little.

Jun 18, 2009

Old Sketchbook: Bayleros Viridian

This is some astonishingly impractical "sexy armor" I did for an Exalted character.

Jun 17, 2009

Old Sketchbook: Navara Serpentine

Not only did several people insist that this was a guy, one person said she looked like Michael Jackson. A word to the wise: unless an artist has labeled their work "Michael Jackson", this is probably not a comparison you should make.

Jun 16, 2009

Old Sketchbook: Ymboura Gozani

Everyone annoyed me when I first did this drawing because they kept saying "he". It's a girl. So there.

Jun 14, 2009

Old Sketchbook: Jaw Dog

I've been too busy/distracted for blogging, but I've been scanning my old sketchbook, so I'll post a few drawings for ya'll.

Jun 8, 2009

And Another One

Here's another illustration similar to the last one. It didn't take me nearly as long to do, though. The weird skin color is an artifact of the characters I'm trying to portray--this character has a greenish-bronze tinge to his skin that was rough as all heck to work out. I think it turned out well, though.

Jun 5, 2009

Working With A New Medium

In case you've been wondering where I disappeared to, I've been working on mastering Illustrator so that I can actually start doing some illustrations. Here's the first one of several to come.

Jun 1, 2009

Drawing of Adam

Here's a profile drawing I did of Adam for my current drawing class. It's not perfect, but I think it turned out pretty well.

May 31, 2009


Up is the name of Pixar's latest movie, just out in theaters. Adam took me to see it tonight, possibly so he could put off having to sit still and model for my drawing class. Whatever the reasoning, it was a lot of fun. Yet something about it doesn't quite add up.

I think the main problem is that the main character is not as well-characterized as any of the other characters. The old man, Mr. Fredrickson, is largely passive during the first half of the story. Things happen to him and he seems happy to go along with them. The other characters (Ellie, Russell, even the dog Dug) are initially a lot more active and motivated, so the events wander all over the place without a central unifying principle.

I think this is a result of a botched introduction of conflict. Mr. Fredrickson doesn't have any conflicted values early on in the movie. He's simply an old man with an empty future he desperately wants to escape, so he does. All of his desires and actions line up perfectly. Without a good dramatization of conflicting values, the later introduction of conflict falls rather flat.

It's really enjoyable and well worth seeing. Possibly I'm imagining these issues. But I think the movie is lacking something that would have made it fantastic instead of merely good.

May 30, 2009


So, I finally got to see this movie, and the only thing I had to say about it was "See, THAT'S the father they should have had in Fallout 3. THAT'S what you can do with Liam Neeson." I am such a gamer geek. Really, though, watching Taken has washed some of the bad taste left behind by the extraordinarily poor writing of that otherwise very fun video game.

The premise of Taken is pretty simple. Hence, it's also a pretty short movie. Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA spy/assassin guy whose daughter is abducted during a trip to Europe. He is not pleased. He spreads his displeasure around with a big, big spatula. It didn't really have to be a very complicated movie, though, and what it does it does very well. First, it establishes Bryan Mills as the Scariest Badass in the History of the World. Hmm. I was going to say "second" now, but there really isn't a "second". Scariest Badass in the History of the World pretty much covers it.

Unlike many films of a similar stripe, Taken doesn't do a lot of tear-jerking or emotion-playing. It's a very intellectual film. The action is intellectual, the rage is intellectual; you can watch the man thinking one step at a time, conquering each setback as it comes along. There's no energy wasted on style, panache, or posturing, which makes Mills even scarier as a character. The few characters who do have emotional histrionics, instead of dominating the scene, are sidelined and made me wonder, "why are they wasting all this energy when they could be doing something productive?"

The central premise of Taken is neatly summed-up in Mills's favorite word: "Focus."

May 29, 2009

The Android's Dream

There's a bit of a funny story involved in how I came to be reading this book--Adam went to the birthday party of a friend of ours and the author, John Scalzi, was there and gave Adam this book. Of course, now I'm thinking I ought to get the friend to introduce us. For years, I thought of authors as remote people who rarely conversed with the book-reading public. Then I got old and realized that running into semi-famous people is actually not all that uncommon.

I read and reviewed another book by John Scalzi some time ago--Old Man's War, and while it was enjoyable it wasn't great. The Android's Dream, on the other hand, is just insane. I mean, the book is nuts. It's terrific fun to read and I absolutely recommend it, but I can literally picture Mr. Scalzi sitting at his desk and saying "What's the most absolutely ridiculous situation I can come up with? Okay, now how do I get a bunch of characters to arrive at that end?"

The book is reminiscint of Neal Stephenson and Tim Dorsey all mixed together with a liberal dash of military SF thrown in. There's a lot of fighting and cussing and a great deal of urbane wittiness. There's also a lot of what a witty, urbane person might call Realpolitik but which I will just call political bullshit involved. The plot is very, very obviously contrived--I think the major flaw apart from the often one-dimensional characterization is that Scalzi telegraphs events a bit too much in some instances--but it's still very fun to read if only to see where all the pieces fit together in the end. The absurdity of the plot elements serves to make them feel real in a sort of ridiculous unreal way (like most politics).

It's worth reading once, but it's too complex to read and enjoy while you're sick. This is the sort of novel you read on vacation while you're sitting on the beach getting a tan. It's too shallow to read more than once, I think, so I'm giving it a 2.5 even though I consider it well worth the one read for entertainment purposes.

Rating: 2.5

P.S. I'd at least try to include a synopsis or at least an explanation of the title, but unfortunately this is the type of book where any information of any kind whatsoever is a serious spoiler for SOMETHING. Read it and you'll see what I mean.

May 28, 2009

Hard Work Ain't the Trick

One of the things I hear a lot--in fact, I even say it myself--when people are confronted with some sort of deficiency or failing is "I work hard!". On its face, this seems like a pretty simple statement. Working hard is a virtue, right? Surely that earns you *something*, right?


Hard work by itself is utterly irrelevant. What you work at and what you accomplish are the important aspects. I could work very hard at digging ditches and filling them back up and produce exactly nothing. Actually, I'd produce less than nothing because resources would be consumed in the process. Nor would I earn anything by so doing. Donald Trump, on the other hand, may step out of his jet, say a couple of words to his assistant and make millions. The difference is that Mr. Trump actually did something *valuable*.

I'm not saying that hard work isn't important. A willingness to work hard when and as it is necessary to accomplish certain goals is an important adjunct to living a productive life. But a pathological need to overexert yourself without first choosing a goal and having an idea what you're going to get out of it is silly. This is why many people work hard all their lives and never get anywhere--they are pursuing some activity that is only marginally more productive than digging ditches to nowhere. The fact that their labors were mighty does not provide any excuses.

The proper response when someone says "I work hard!" is "And accomplish what?"

May 27, 2009

Angels and Demons

A brief note in case anyone was wondering--I haven't blogged over the past several days because my job apparently decided to try and work me to death. I've been just a teensy bit busy.

Adam hauled me along to see this movie because, like most guys, he can't go into a movie theater by himself. Apparently, in the Guy Code, going to the movies by yourself is Lame. I was a little curious to see it anyway and I like Tom Hanks, so there wasn't a LOT of dragging involved.

If Angels and Demons were purely a fantasy movie involving a fantasy church and fantasy characters, it'd be a pretty cool movie. The plot pacing is good, there are twists and turns, and they've got a pair of really good actors--Tom Hanks and Ewen MacGregor--who take turns passing the focus back and forth between them like a couple of really good basketball players.

Due to the non-fantasy nature of the movie, however, it winds up looking like an effort to convince people that the Catholic church and ivory-tower academia are, well, cool and some junk. It's even explicitly said that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the Church is just a big ol' teddy bear who heals the sick and comforts the dying and preserves the treasures of centuries blah blah blah yeah I've heard this already. The academic, Robert Langdon, is *apologetic* about the fact that he doesn't believe in the invisible sky ghost, which is just pathetic.

This is one reason why I haven't read the book, which Adam said was a lot better. Some of the exposition in the book that made events clearer was left out of the movie due to time constraints (that, and it's the type of exposition that's really difficult to deliver in a movie). So my final conclusion is that it's probably not worth seeing if you haven't read the book, and if you have, you'll likely be disappointed.

May 21, 2009

That . . . is a Large Number

Okay, so this is a vanity post, but I just noticed that I have over eleven thousand profile views on Objectivism Online. (At least one of the more prolific members has even more than I do--I didn't check everyone).

I'm sure that doesn't seem like a lot to more active netophiles, but I've only made about 3700 posts over there, and I don't look at my own profile very often, either. Somebody sure is interested, that's all I can say.

May 20, 2009

The Implications are Stunning

I check out customers a lot in my current job, and just about every fifth person cannot figure out how to work the credit-card machine. It baffles me because it is just not that complicated. I try to be patient, though. The thing that really gets on my nerves, however, is what they invariably say after pushing random buttons for a while. "All of these things are different. They ought to standardize them!"

It's amazing how many philosophical implications you can fit in a statement that short. Look at just "All these things are different." Well, yes they are, they're all made by different companies FOR different companies and it would actually be illegal for them to copy each other too closely--patent infringement, you know. Phrasing this statement as a complaint is like declaring that you have no desire to pay attention or think at all, you prefer to operate strictly from habit without ever once having to engage the gray matter.

And who is this mysterious "they" that ought to be standardizing credit-card machines? The companies that make and use the machines actually have an interest in being different. It's hard enough to distinguish one big-box store from another these days, and every little bit helps. Is it the government that they're talking about? They'd really prefer that the government dictate what kind of *credit card machines* get used? Of course, the government probably already *does* this, to an extent, but how much freedom are you looking to give up here?

Do you seriously never want to be confronted by anything you haven't seen before a thousand times? What a way to live!! Even thinking about it makes me feel ill.

May 19, 2009


Here's a sketch I did for my first week of drawing class. It's pretty crude (not to mention all those fingerprints--they're not as visible in the drawing itself), but it's not bad for a start.

May 18, 2009

Tenure Podcast

My question about tenure made it onto Dr. Peikoff's podcast this week (podcast #62, the second question), although he only gave the shortened version of my question. That's to be expected, though. I asked this question way back in November and he's only getting to it now. He must have an incredible backlog.

I hadn't really thought much about the idea of tenure for professors prior to asking this question. If I thought anything, I vaguely accepted the notion that tenure was necessary to protect the "free speech" or "academic freedom" of professors so they wouldn't be squashed by the university directors. However, I ran across a brief, very brief mention Dr. Peikoff made on this topic in OPAR, so I sat down and thought about it for two seconds together. That's why I sent him the question, and I agree completely with his reply. I even agree that the entire notion of tenure protecting free speech or academic freedom is a Big Lie, most likely brought about by the current degree of goverment control over universities via grants and funding.

It's kind of neat to hear him answer my question, though. :)

May 16, 2009

The Stolen Throne

Since I'm so excited about the (still months away) release of Dragon Age, I decided to pick up David Gaider's prequel novel The Stolen Throne to see what I could see. As much as I'd love to be nice to Mr. Gaider, it's not very good.

That's not to say it's terrible--for game-related fiction it's actually fairly superior, but this is only because most franchise-related fiction is quite bad. I say this as a writer of gaming-related fiction, namely those reams and reams of game writeups that I doubt anyone else will ever read. Most fiction that falls into this category is simply too self-conscious to be good because the purpose isn't to tell a story but to set up or make use of another story. You can see this problem even in other fiction, like Lian Hearn's prequel Heaven's Net Is Wide to her Tales of the Otori series. When you're trying to write a background instead of a novel, it becomes very difficult to tell what you should leave out and what you should leave in, with the result that the narration often completely overtakes the dramatization and your book reads like a chronicle, not a novel.

From a style standpoint, this is the worst problem with David Gaider's book, as well. The plot is pretty straightforward. A young man, Maric, finds himself as head of the rebels in the kingdom of Ferelden after his mother, Queen Moira, is betrayed and killed. He acquires several friends along the way who aid him in regaining his throne: Loghain the ex-bandit, an amoral pragmatist, his promised future wife Rowan, and Katriel the treacherous elven bard.

Gaider has a good grasp of their characters, conflicts, and complex interactions. That's the best part of the novel, although sometimes it can be difficult to tell whose perspective Gaider is using to tell the story--he will sometimes seemingly switch mid-paragraph without any definite sign that he's done so. This makes a lot of the internal mental comments about other characters seem like descriptions out of the *author's* mouth, which they may in fact be. In either case, I consider this a stylistic mistake. An author should *never* offer his or her opinion about the events of the story in so obvious a fashion as giving an outright evaluation of a character or situation. (It's all right to put that evaluation into the mouth of a character, on the other hand.) The story should lead the reader into making that evaluation themselves. This is a vital part of the "show, don't tell" principle.

The other area where Gaider has serious problems is in characterizing the villains. Their motivations and actions are utterly one-dimensional with pat rationales--Severan the mage is "ambitious", for instance, while Meghren the usurper is a petulant hedonist who could have been pulled, whole, from any work featuring a corrupt ruler. If you've ever seen Disney's "Robin Hood" movie (you know, the one with the anthropomorphic animals and featuring this song), Meghren is IDENTICAL to Prince John.

I suspect that writers who rely very heavily on their sense of life often have this problem. If they have a benevolent-ish sense of life, they find it terribly difficult to write interesting, complex, or even real-seeming villains. If they have a malevolent-ish sense of life, their villains are often incredible beyond belief, but their heroes are wooden dolts. If they're in the middle, their heavily conflicted characters are the best, while both full heroes and full villains are kind of unreal.

There's no theme to speak of other than the most general sort of "good vs. evil" action-movie theme. There are some heavy-handed attempts toward the end to introduce a bit of ideology along the lines that a degree of ruthlessness is necessary in the pursuit of justice, but it doesn't gel with any other events. If anything, it contradicts most of the rest of the story and represents a lead-in to the game.

The plotting is competent, but it's so overloaded with narration that it doesn't come across as dramatic. Just when you're starting to get into the story there will be a ten-page retelling covering three years of vague perambulations doing things like hiding from the Usurper's armies and trying to gather support. There's also an unfortunate "setting tour" interlude or two where Gaider seems to remember that the Dragon Age game is going to contain a lot of elements that don't really pertain directly to this single struggle, so he wedges them in any old how.

As a novel, the Stolen Throne is extremely uninspired, but if you're as excited as I am about the game you may enjoy picking it up as an introduction or sneak peek.

Rating: 2.0

May 14, 2009

Best Strategy: Don't Go

There's nothing quite so funny as watching a bunch of impractical geeks fantasize about time travel into their favorite "romantic" era of the past. If any of them were to try this stunt (assuming it was even possible), I predict they'd be dead within hours.

It's simply not possible for a modern American to pass themselves off as a medieval European. I doubt that most modern Americans could pass themselves off as 19th century Europeans. There's just too much to know, and the most important things are the ones that are the least documented.

There's nowhere on the planet now (not that I can think of, anyway) that would be a comparatively hostile environment. You'd be up against an utterly alien culture where most people would have little or no compunction about killing you once they discovered that you were literally nobody. Not a good situation. Not a good situation at all.

May 13, 2009


Here's the banner I've been working on for my as-yet-theoretical webcomic. I know this seems like an excessively weird thing to start with (shouldn't I draw some COMICS first?!), but this is actually a design project for a college course. I had to pretend to design something for a real reason, so I figured I might as well try to get some mileage out of it. So, here it is.

See this Face? This is my Suspicious Face

Some poor sot recently wandered onto this blog after searching for "why is it so hard for men to compliment women". Honey, I feel ya, but it's not just a problem for men. It's generally pretty hard to give compliments to women because most of us (me) learn two things from an early age. Firstly, there's the compliments that aren't really compliments. Secondly, there's the compliments that come from an ulterior motive. After being burned a couple of times, you begin to suspect that all compliments of any type fall into one of those two categories and the, what, 5% of compliments you get that are real compliments get lost in the noise.

So, I will attempt to provide some guidance on how to give *real* compliments. The ulterior motive you'll have to deal with yourself by establishing a reputation for honesty.

1. Don't qualify your compliments. Any compliment that is accompanied by a qualifying statement is immediately disqualified. Don't tell someone "you did pretty well considering that you're sick!" (Especially since I'll guarantee you it'll turn out they weren't sick.) This will get an annoyed reaction from ANYONE with a functioning brain. See the recent Star Trek movie for a particularly good example.

2. Don't give off-topic compliments. I ran across an example of this recently when I was asking how to update an avatar. When I'm trying to figure out why I can't see my new photo, I don't want to hear about how you think it's a nice photo or I look cute or any other inane irrelevancy and I will be suspicious about the comment and wonder what's wrong with you. If I know you well, I may assume you were well-intentioned, but either way it won't come across as a real compliment.

3. Don't make subjective comparisons. Now, I'm well aware that some people do like to be compared to other people, but I'll tell you right now that those people are evil. There's only one type of subjective comparison that is okay in my book, and that's along the lines of "you're my favorite!", because it is honest and it doesn't imply that your standards are skewed. But telling a woman "you're much nicer than X" is likely to be equivalent to saying "well, at least you're not a TOTAL bitch". Don't do it.

4. Don't belabor the point. Telling a woman who has dressed up for, say, a wedding that she is hot once is okay. Telling her that she's hot by staring is okay. Telling her that she's hot, then telling her again when you get to the wedding, then telling her at the reception that someone else in the room said she was hot is not okay. She heard you the first time.

5. And above all, don't give compliments as an attempt to make peace or soften a criticism. I know for myself that the urge to do the latter, at least, can be overwhelming. I do it as a part of my critiques in college classes because we're supposed to be "nice" as well as critical, and it drives me insane every time I type one of those up. But don't *you* do this if you can possibly avoid it, because there's nothing guaranteed to get a person more emotionally involved in your criticism/argument/whatever than trying to give them a compliment at the same time. If they were impersonally detached and thinking before, they won't be after that "compliment". So don't do it.

May 12, 2009


One of my bad habits that I'm having the worst trouble with is my tendency, in some areas, to always over-prepare for everything. I see this trait more in women than in men, the women in my family in particular. This becomes problematic on family trips because my grandmother used to want to bring everything including the kitchen sink--my father once remarked, "I'm sure they have grocery stores where we're going, mom," out of frustration.

My mother, on the other hand, tends to spread the preparing around, chivvying my father and brothers into packing long before they think it is necessary and trying to orchestrate about a thousand chores that she needs "help" with. Of course, my reluctant brothers and father tend to perform these chores in a desultory fashion, which makes my mother even more annoyed. Usually by the time we've actually gotten out the door she has gone completely insane, sometimes to the point where she forgets to pack important items for herself. At that point, the rest of us tend to adopt a turtle defensive strategy and hope it blows over. Perhaps the next time we all go on vacation together we should begin our preparations with some Nitrous Oxide for Mom, like she's going to get surgery. Knock her out until it's all over.

In my case, this is one of the principle reasons why I eat too much--because I'm trying to stave off hunger as long as possible "just in case" something happens and I can't eat at the Regularly Scheduled Time. This, of course, is ludicrous, because you get hungry again at about the same rate no matter how much you stuff yourself. Granted, what you eat can make a difference, but stuffing yourself by itself has no real effect on how soon you'll be hungry again. I'm sure someone will disagree with that, but it has been my general experience.

The trouble with divesting myself of this particular habit is that being prepared is generally a good thing, but like many good habits it can reach neurotic proportions and turn into a bad thing. Limiting a good habit down to reasonable proportions once you're used to regularly exceeding them is terribly difficult. You don't want to train yourself out of the good habit altogether, and the best way to quit most habits is usually to quit cold turkey. I think I also have more than one bad habit going on at the same time. I've noticed a lot of people don't have single bad habits that they can't shake, instead they have a powerful cocktail of mutually-reinforcing bad habits that combine to render them unable to approach the problem successfully.

So, I think the solution for overzealous good habits is to pick a *part* of it that you *can* quit cold turkey, and then quit that with extreme prejudice. In my case, this would probably be eating out--which is difficult for me to quit right now because someone else is in charge of the food budget around here. But it's something to keep in mind for when I have more control over what's going on.

May 11, 2009

Star Trek

So, a brief warning if you somehow managed to avoid learning this on your own already: the new movie knocks the canon over, smashes it, and sets it on fire. This isn't an act of vandalism, it's done intentionally and for a good reason, because the "canon" of Star Trek is such a mess that there was no way to reboot the franchise without pulling a stunt like this. If they'd tried to stick with the canon, they'd have wound up violating some other semi-contradictory part of the canon and wound up in the same boat. So doing it intentionally was probably the best way to go. Still, it's startling.

Chris Pine does all right as Kirk, although I personally think that he was a bit too much hormone-driven kid and not enough Captain. Zachary Quinto (aka Siler for Heroes fans) does such a fantastic job as Spock that it's easy to forget Kirk is even there.

The movie itself is merely okay, with an exaggeratedly implausible time-travel plot that requires so much suspension of disbelief it becomes difficult to actually evaluate the movie in any useful way. If you drop suspension for long enough to be critical, you'll wind up buried under a heap of cumulative nitpicks that make it impossible to enjoy this Star Trek. If you don't drop it, the entire movie seems like more fun then several barrels of monkeys.

To take just one example, the movie opens with Kirk's father taking over the captaincy of a Star Fleet ship to fight a delaying action while the crew escapes, his wife among them. His pregnant wife who is, of course, just now giving birth. It's a well-done and very heroic and poignant scene except for one problem . . . why the heck is his wife aboard a military vessel? There are no *other* civilians shown as in The Next Generation when the crew of the Enterprise had their families with them. She's apparently the only non-crew on the ship. Well, I'm assuming about her being non-crew. But generally it's unwise to have a hugely pregnant woman as part of a military team, in the same way that it'd be unwise to have an 80-year old or a 13-year old.

This is part of the reason why Spock is so much more engaging as a character than Kirk. Kirk's next major scene consists of a joy ride in a car. No reason is given for his indulgence. Apparently he's "just" an adrenaline junkie and maybe having lost his father he has lacked discipline or a role model. But this is never conveyed in any solid way, and "just" is bad characterization for a main character.

So, in conclusion, it's worth seeing, but everyone is likely going to have a very different reaction depending how much SoD they can manage. Don't blame me if you don't like it.

May 9, 2009

Habit and Automatization

Like most people, I have a number of habits. Some are good (buckling my seat belt when I get in the car) and some are bad (overeating). Enacting personal change is really a matter of tackling these habits to establish new good ones and get rid of old bad ones. This can be really difficult. Some things seem incredibly resistant to habit-forming (exercise), while other habits are so deeply ingrained that it can seem impossible to combat them. I'm gradually accumulating a list of observations that I hope will help me out. Here's what I have so far:

1. I have NEVER EVER been able to form a habit of doing something that I really don't like to do. Doing it remains a conscious process, consciously assumed no matter how many times I do it. Unfortunately most exercise falls in this category. The sad part is that I enjoy physical activity, but I hate getting exercise just to exercise. Anyway, I digress.

2. I get in the habit of doing things I like to do (eating lunch in a particular place), really, really quickly--so much so that it's hard for me to break out of it if I have to do something unusual, like go to the bank during lunch. I think this is why most smokers have such a hard time quitting. They enjoy their smoke breaks and they feel weird if they don't take them.

3. The more precision a given activity requires, the longer it takes to form a habit and the more quickly I lose the habit when I stop. Getting lunch doesn't require much precision--I just meander in the right direction and things take care of themselves. All the activities involved (walking, driving, eating) are automatized. I can do ALL of them while reading. (Although reading while driving is pretty ill-advised.) Most video games use pretty much the same button combos so I don't usually have any problem learning to play them--even if I haven't played in a while, I can become proficient again in about 15 minutes. I remember when I first learned how to type, though. That's a skill that requires a lot of precision. It took me YEARS to become proficient and I still become awkward at it if I'm confronted with a different keyboard or typing position. Some other skills (swordfighting, for instance) require so much precision--whole body precision, too--that you have to practice pretty much daily to maintain your proficiency. If I take a break from drawing for a while, I have to re-learn it all over again and I'll usually waste a bunch of paper or time producing crap for a while.

4. It's possible to mentally form a "habit" without actually doing whatever-it-is. I picked this idea up from a friend of mine and I use it whenever it's ABSOLUTELY necessary that I remember to do something. I'll picture myself doing it ten or twelve times (and you have to PICTURE yourself doing it, not just say "Remember to take out the trash" a bunch of times). Usually, it works, but I have what seems to be an abnormally good memory so I'm not sure of the precise mechanism at work, here.

That's all I've got for now, I'll continue making observations in the hopes that I'll conquer this habit problem sooner or later.

May 8, 2009


Okay, wow, apparently that little comment I made about Kajeel in Mysteries of Westgate has brought in a whole bunch of traffic. I can understand why, as that's a pretty ambiguous part of the game and no doubt a lot of people want to know what to do.

So, if you are one of those people, I provide this free hint gratis for nothing:

Just kill him. No, seriously. No, I know the game makes it sound like something horrible will happen, but nothing happens. Just kill him. Kill him, kill his thralls, take the key, go in the back room, and go through the trapdoor.

You're welcome.

May 7, 2009

Now I'm Embarrassed

I hadn't realized how badly I've been neglecting my blog until I finally went to update the index. Whew! I hadn't updated that sucker (except the Cold Blood entries) since the middle of last year. Well, it's updated now, and as you might have already realized, I'm going to be blogging more consistently now. I've found it's a lot easier if I schedule posts in advance instead of trying to come up with something every day.


I'm not a big TV watcher. I (usually) catch House if I happen to be home on Monday or whatever day it's on since Fox seems determined to switch days every three months, but I'm not too fussed if I miss an episode or three. But I had to miss Fringe last night due to work and I spent a couple of hours sitting around clicking "refresh" and waiting for them to post the episode online so I could watch it.

I seriously think this is the best TV show I've ever seen. It's nominally science fiction, which puts it in my "preferred genre" area, but when the trailers started I wasn't impressed at all. I figured it was going to be another anti-science, anti-corporation "things man was not meant to know" hack job. I have since learned that this show is in the hands of people who would never do anything so obvious, if only from a desire to be unique and surprising.

I adore all of the characters. They are complex and fascinating, yet they remain like real people, getting temporarily knocked askew when shocking things happen but returning, like a gyroscope, to their center of gravity. This is how people rightly act, grounded by their principles into a powerful sense of self.

Anna Torv's character Olivia Dunham is, by far, my favorite. If I had a mental image of what I would like to be, myself, it would be Olivia Dunham. I think she should play Dagny in Atlas Shrugged, that's how much I love this character.

From a science fiction aspect, the show is popular fare at best--the science is bunk. But as a drama, Fringe is second to none.

May 6, 2009

I Don't Think It Means What You Think It Means

All right, something has been bothering me for a while and I just have to speak up. Everyone listening? Good. Please learn to speak clearly. Please, please, please, please. You have no idea how much grief you are causing me and everyone else who has to deal with your weirdly ambiguous statements. I know it takes a little more effort to word your thoughts in a precise manner, but you will save yourself so much grief down the road.

Why is this bothering me, you ask? Because part of my current job consists of asking people questions--the same questions over and over and over, usually--and so often I'm stuck with an answer that gives me no clue as to what I should do. Perhaps some examples are in order:

You: "Can you price check this for me?"
Me: *beep* "It's 3.49."
You: "Okay."


You: "Did you ring up this cereal?"
Me: "Yes, you said it was okay."
You: "I told you not to ring it up."

I love this selective amnesia you're having. For those lacking a grasp of elementary grammar, "Okay" != "No". "Okay" = "Okay", i.e. "Yes".

Or, to give an even worse example:

Me: "Would you like to donate to {sponsored charity}?"
You: "That's fine."

IS THAT A YES OR A NO?! Now, I usually assume it means "yes", but from what I can tell most of my customers think it means "no".

People, there are perfectly good words in the English language for expressing precisely what you would like me to do. They are called "Yes" and "No" respectively. They have one syllable. They are easy to pronounce. And they are completely, totally, unquestionably unambiguous.


May 5, 2009

My Vote Counted!

The Escapist won the Webby award for best games-related website! Go Escapist!

Bioware "Gets It"

I don't often make a lot of commentary about Gaming Industry News, but one of the big and ugly problems currently in the industry is DRM. I won't write my own article about why DRM is useless, stupid, and annoying, I'll just point you to Shamus Young's article. He has the additional benefit of actually knowing something about the programming difficulties involved in DRM.

To make myself clear, though, I'm in agreement with Shamus, although I won't go to the lengths he does of eschewing games that I really want to play solely based on their DRM. I don't consider boycotting to be an effective means of combating a *single issue* in the same way that I don't consider voting for the other guy to be an effective statement. A different sort of communication is necessary.

That being said, I am so happy that I ran across this announcement on the Bioware Dragon Age forums:

"[Bioware is] happy to announce that the boxed/retail PC version of Dragon Age: Origins will use only a basic disk check and it will not require online authentication. In other words, the retail PC version of the game won’t require you to go online to authenticate the game for offline play. We have chosen not to use SecuROM in any version of Dragon Age that is distributed by EA or BioWare."

I am SO excited about this game--more than I have been about any game in years and years. I even applied for the beta test of the toolset and am busily propitiating the computer spirit in the hopes it will bestow favor upon me. It's nice to see that I can continue to love Bioware wholly and without reservation because they have done the right thing about this DRM fiasco. If they stand firm and are successful with it, they may even begin to coax EA away from their psychotic DRM policies.


May 4, 2009

Preliminary Sketchwork

Here's some of the preliminary work I've been doing for my comic idea. Right now I'm still in the "relearning how to draw using the Wacom tablet" stage.

Yes, she looks kind of like me, but what's the point in having a webcomic if you can't have an author-insertion character persona?

May 3, 2009

Neverwinter Nights 2: Mysteries of Westgate

I'm managing to squeeze along, so I thought I'd take a short break with a cheap game: the Mysteries of Westgate "Adventure Pack". Well, I'll tell you right now that the only reason I finished the thing was because I was planning to blog about it. At best, it gets a D+. I've played FREE modules by AMATEURS that were better than this thing.

Probably the worst problem right off the bat is that the thing is buggy. The game crashed more times with this module than it did the last time I played the original campaign all the way through. In addition, there are many "cut scene" dialogs where either there's no voiceover or the voiceover is broken in some way. In either case: BOOO!!!

From a gameplay perspective there's absolutely nothing new. If you've played the rest of the NwN2 releases you're not going to find anything surprising in this one.

The worst aspect of the adventure pack is, by far, the plot. It is *horrible*, like something an eleven-year-old might come up with if you asked them for something "devious". There's no intrigue, in fact, due to the way the module is set up it might even be the diametric opposite of intrigue. All of the areas are present (and most of them are LABELED ON YOUR MAP) from the beginning, the developers just make judicious use of mysteriously locked doors until you stumble upon the correct key/event/whatever that causes the door to become equally mysteriously *unlocked*. The results of this are predictable.

Take just one example: toward the end of the game you find a note from a, quote, "mysterious figure", named Kajeel. Well, if you've done any exploring at all by this point (and you have, it's pretty much obligatory), you already KNOW who Kajeel is--he's an illithid who runs a bar that is guarded by a Dao Genie in the "under city" area. This isn't mysterious! This is like finding a grocery list stuck to your refrigerator. Ooo, I wonder who it's from? Maybe it's from mom! Add to this the fact that you stumble upon at least a dozen of these accidentally dropped notes, necklaces, gems, conversations etc. etc. etc. throughout the game until you begin to believe the conspirators are throwing this stuff around like candy at a parade. They relentlessly beat you over the head with the clues and give you no opportunity at all to figure out anything by yourself. Your job is just to go where they told you to go and hope a new clue falls out of the sky onto your idiot head. It's a good thing they do, too, because you'd be lost otherwise.

The side-quests are awful, too. Most of them are downright silly (intentionally so), but they also tend to be unnecessarily convoluted, forcing you to run to four or five different locations all over the city (and, of course, endure several loading screens each time) in order to get the item for whatshisname. I'm sorry, but those obligatory fetch quests were tedious when they were straightforward. The silly aspect also makes the end of the game stupid, because there's a sudden change in direction as the writer apparently remembered he was supposed to be doing a horror story and threw in some blood and slavery and betrayal at the last second. Unfortunately, now there's no chance at all of you taking it seriously.

Even the NPC's who join you don't seem very impressed, spending most of the game bickering with each other and complaining about your actions. They're more caricatures than characters. There were several times I was actually pleased because I managed to annoy all three of them simultaneously by choosing to take the most direct route.

So, in conclusion, is Westgate worth $10? No. Give it a miss and go find a nice fan module to play if you're bored.

May 2, 2009

Procedural City

Shamus over at Twenty-sided has finished the programming part of his procedural city project and posted this REALLY AWESOME VIDEO. Check it out:

May 1, 2009

More Design Project

Here's another design project with circles, this one using gradients for a more 3d appearance:

Apr 30, 2009


I'm experimenting a bit with Illustrator and comic layout and Blogger, but even so this might seem a bit weird:

Sorry. I can only say in my defense that I'm never quite sure exactly how something will look on the blog until I post it.

Jeezus that's fuzzy. I wonder what happens if I use a file-hosting service:

Yeah, that's better. I'm going with that.

Design Project

In case you're wondering what I've been up to (since I haven't been especially communicative), I've been spending most of my time working and going to college. Here's one of my latest projects for a class:

I like this design, even though it's pretty simple.

Apr 29, 2009

Queen of Parentheses

I've noticed recently that when I'm making informal comments (such as on a forum or blog), I use WAY too many parenthetical statements. I'm better about this when I'm doing more formal writing, but I wouldn't be surprised if my longer comments are incredibly difficult for some people to understand.

I think I do this because I realize about halfway through a sentence that more background info would be interesting or helpful, but I don't want to go back to restructure my entire comment to include the background in a non-parenthetical way. So my comment may include more asides than comment, and sometimes I make asides inside the asides!

I talk this way, too, which is why I sometimes wind up telling a long rambling story when I just meant to tell a quick funny anecdote. Part of the problem there may also be that most of my funny anecdotes aren't funny unless you know the entire story--I prefer contextual humor to snarky one-liners, so I'll start to tell the story, then backtrack to give the context, then deliver the payload only to get a "hmm" from the person who has long since stopped listening. That in itself is probably pretty amusing, though.