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Monday, February 13, 2012

FITotD: Weffriddles

Alright, this should really be called the "Maddening and Addictive Internet Thing of the Day."  But it's still fabulous.

Weffriddles.com was a sleeper internet sensation several years ago.  That's like a millennium in internet years.  But it's still around, and it still holds up as a maddening, frustrating, fascinating, and time-consuming puzzle.  That's the very best kind.

In some ways it is the progenitor of A Google A Day; unless you are gifted with a ridiculous amount of trivia knowledge, you're going to have a lot of trouble doing it without a search engine.  (Or, at least, eventually you will.  Many of the puzzles on Weffriddles just require common sense, a warped mind, and banging your head against a metaphorical wall, but several require additional resources.)

I figure that it has been out of the collective internet consciousness for long enough that it might be able to make a serious resurgence.  You never know.  At any rate, you should take a look at it.  Think of it as a gift from me to you; a gift that makes you feel dumb and frustrated, and completely eradicates any free time you ever had.  It's practically like being in a relationship!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Gun Seller

I just finished reading The Gun Seller, written by Hugh Laurie.  Dr. House, of all people!

This is the best book I've read this year by a large margin.  Actually, it's the best book I've read in the last six months or so.  (Look, it's February, you figure it out.)

I was told that it was a very funny book, and I'm not entirely sure if I would describe it that way.  Don't get me wrong, it is a funny book, but it is so much more than just funny.  In fact, I rank it in the top ten most beautiful novels I've ever read, which is quite frankly a bit ridiculous.  It can be beautiful, poetic, and practically a prose poem in places, in spite of what Mr. Laurie is doing: writing a straightforward, noir-ish spy novel.

But because he is a sardonic British comedian, he wants to flip every trope, or at least call out the fact that he's making use of a trope. This has the double effect of making the book extremely funny, and forcing the reader's attention (and presumably the writer's, as well) toward the language the entire time:  "You have to pay extraordinarily close attention to every word of this delightful prose, or you might miss a joke!"

Highlights for me included:

"There's an undeniable pleasure in stepping into an open-top sports car driven by a beautiful woman.  It feels like you're climbing into a metaphor."

"I was working on the principle, you see, that the more obvious you are, the less obvious you are.  Given the choice, I'd usually say that the more obvious you are, the more obvious you are, but choice was one of the things I was short of at that moment.  Necessity is the mother of self-delusion."

"The guards at the door let us through with no more than a glance.  British security guards, I've noticed, always do this; unless you happen actually to work in the building they're guarding, in which case they check everything from the fillings in your teeth to your trouser turn-ups to see if you're the same person who went out to get a sandwich fifteen minutes ago.  But if you're a strange face, they'll let you straight through, because frankly, it would just be too embarrassing to put you to any trouble.  If you want a place guarded properly, hire Germans."

And, when he first meets the novel's femme fatal, "[She] pointed a pair of grey eyes at me. I say a pair.  I mean her pair.  She didn't get a pair of someone else's out from a drawer and point them at me.  She pointed her own pair of huge, pale, grey, pale, huge eyes at me.  The sort of eyes that can make a grown man talk gibberish to himself.  Get a grip for Christ's sake."

He does something like this every couple of pages, and at first it just seemed quaintly amusing, in a Roald Dahl sort of way.  But eventually, I realized that he wasn't just subverting the classical thriller novel, he was actually improving it.  We get a main character who is made more intimidating, more insightful, and more in-tune with the dangerous world he inhabits just from the simple fact that he knows a classic thriller trope when he sees one.  Even better, he often knows when he would be playing to type, and is therefore often only pretending to type.  He's been given genre superpowers.  And as a result, the prose matters in a way that it never does in a thriller.

On top of that, The Gun Seller is a legitimately exciting novel, which you should immediately buy and read.  No, I'm not joking.  Bonus points if you can read it without mentally hearing Mr. Laurie's Voice narrate.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Fabulous Internet Thing of the Day

Today's Fabulous Internet Thing:

Magic Cards with Googly Eyes.

I love this.  So much.  Yes, that makes me a nerd.

But you have to understand this.  Magic is a game whose creators and players take it more seriously than anyone else.  Not just a little bit more seriously.  The online Magic community is full of big time monetary speculation, big-name superstars, intensely focused (although still mostly amateur) sports coverage, and how-to/DIY columns that rival "cooking" as the search result most likely to provide you with detailed, bulleted, and carefully formatted lists.

And an important part of all this, just as it is for the Food Network, is the pretty pictures.  But Magic players don't want scenes reminiscent of domestic bliss.  They want gorgeous fantasy landscapes, legitimately creepy bad guys, heroes and heroines who look bad-ass, and the intimation that the made-up magical fairy stories that form the backdrop for the game of Magic are important.

That isn't to say that Magic doesn't have a sense of humor occasionally.




A game of Magic can be lighthearted, or even ridiculous, but that doesn't mean that Magic players take themselves any less seriously.

And that's why every pack of Magic cards should really come with googly eyes.

Here are just a few of my favorites, but I encourage you to check out the rest.
   


Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Politics? What Politics...

This is taken from a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Therefore, obviously, it has nothing to do with contemporary politics.  Therefore, you aren't allowed to treat this as anything political.  This is merely a blogger revisiting the words of a well-loved American statesman.
"There are two ways of viewing the Government’s duty in matters affecting economic and social life. The first sees to it that a favored few are helped and hopes that some of their prosperity will leak through, sift through, to labor, to the farmer, to the small business man. That theory belongs to the party of Toryism, and I had hoped that most of the Tories left this country in 1776. 
"Yes, the people of this country want a genuine choice this year, not a choice between two names for the same reactionary doctrine. Ours must be a party of liberal thought, of planned action, of enlightened international outlook, and of the greatest good to the greatest number of our citizens. But it is not and never will be the theory of the Democratic Party. This is no time for fear, for reaction or for timidity. Here and now I invite those nominal Republicans who find that their conscience cannot be squared with the groping and the failure of their party leaders to join hands with us; here and now, in equal measure, I warn those nominal Democrats who squint at the future with their faces turned toward the past, and who feel no responsibility to the demands of the new time, that they are out of step with their Party.
"Now it is inevitable – and the choice is that of the times – it is inevitable that the main issue of this campaign should revolve about the clear fact of our economic condition, a depression so deep that it is without precedent in modern history. …

"… My program, of which I can only touch on these points, is based upon this simple moral principle: the welfare and the soundness of a Nation depend first upon what the great mass of the people wish and need; and second, whether or not they are getting it.

"What do the people of America want more than anything else? To my mind, they want two things: work, with all the moral and spiritual values that go with it; and with work, a reasonable measure of security–security for themselves and for their wives and children. Work and security–these are more than words. They are more than facts. They are the spiritual values, the true goal toward which our efforts of reconstruction should lead. These are the values that this program is intended to gain; these are the values we have failed to achieve by the leadership we now have."
 
"… My program, of which I can only touch on these points, is based upon this simple moral principle: the welfare and the soundness of a Nation depend first upon what the great mass of the people wish and need; and second, whether or not they are getting it. 
"What do the people of America want more than anything else? To my mind, they want two things: work, with all the moral and spiritual values that go with it; and with work, a reasonable measure of security–security for themselves and for their wives and children. Work and security–these are more than words. They are more than facts. They are the spiritual values, the true goal toward which our efforts of reconstruction should lead. These are the values that this program is intended to gain; these are the values we have failed to achieve by the leadership we now have."

Thanks Slacktivist!

-Sleepyhead

Ready Player One


I’ve just finished reading Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. You’ve probably seen it in bookstores or plugged on the interwebs. It’s been bandied about that this book is for geeks. I’ll just tell you right now that it mostly isn’t. It is, however, some kind of bastard child of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Hunger Games trilogy, and Neal Stephenson’s newest release Reamde. While that’s not praise, it isn’t necessarily criticism either.

Although the protagonist is ostensibly a seventeen-year-old dirt-poor uber-nerd (and if you don’t like my hyphens you have my permission to choke on a pineapple) he comes off as much, much younger.  It doesn’t help that the book is in first person.  It is hard to write an accurate representation of a person’s thinking process without sacrificing clarity.  Cline doesn’t sacrifice any clarity at all, and therefore we get a narrator who sounds earnest, wide-eyed, endlessly patient with the reader, unbelievably sincere, and… nice.  This, too, doesn’t necessarily make for a bad book; what it does do, however, is set itself at odds with the obsessive hacker shut in that our narrator is supposed to be.  I think this is not intentional as much as it is a consequence of RPO’s status as Cline’s freshman novel.  But, for all that it isn’t believable, it did make the novel interesting to read.

This is where the novel became linked up with the Hunger Games in my mind.  Parzival of RPO is uncannily like Katniss of HG.  They are the poorest of the poor, who have had injustice done to them all their lives, who out of dire need have cultivated arcane skill sets, who have been thrust into an increasingly deadly situation, and who are inexplicably, unbelievably, appallingly unscarred.  The shittiness of their lives simply hasn’t affected the way they think, the way they speak, the way they react to new situations, the way they engage in relationships, the way they behave under pressure—they aren’t nasty, or selfish, or particularly damaged, or bitter, or defeatist, or any of the things we expect them to be.

Again, though, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Think of them as the anti-Harry Potter.  Harry Potter (whose shitty early life actually does make him periodically grouchy, bitter, defeatist, and irritating) is not the most endearing character in the world.  Most of the time he deserves to be slapped.  Harry Potter is a much more realistic character.  He rages against people who want to help him and sulks when things don’t go his way.  His poor upbringing leaves him stunted.  And that’s realistic.  It just isn’t always pleasant.

Now, we could call that a fault and chalk it up to Cline’s inexperience; it’s probably true that Cline didn’t intend for his character to be unrealistic.  But what is interesting is what it does to the novel.  Just like Hunger Games, Ready Player One has a grim setting that is tempered by a narrator who doesn’t really let us focus on it.  Now, HG is a little more concerned with that grimness than RPO, but we really care about Katniss and the choices she faces.  That’s the heart and soul of the book.  The grimness is really just setting.  It isn’t the point.  RPO sucks even more of the grimness right out of the terrible world it is set in.  We simply don’t care about it.  In fact, we can’t even form an emotional connection to it.  The best thing is that this is actually the whole point of Cline’s setting.  In a world-wide virtual-reality MMO, we can’t really care about the real world.  The game takes up all of our emotional investment.  Cline’s narrator, intentionally or not, doesn't treat the real world like it matters.

The plot is a contest to find the ‘golden ticket’: an Easter egg hidden by the game’s creator which will empower the finder with ownership of the Wonka Chocolate factory video game company.  The game designer is reclusive, strange, and a genius in his chosen field.  We see very little of him, except through the vast pop-culture and video game knowledge of our hero, who belongs to a group of five treasure seekers (yes, one for each of Wonka’s original golden tickets).  Their competition is a soulless multinational corporation that will pervert the game to their own ends, and that even goes so far as to pervert the Chocolate Factory narrative by sabotaging the efforts of other treasure hunters.

I confess, the only way the book parallels Reamde is its fascination with the reality-influencing possibilities of the MMO.  Reamde doesn’t rank that highly on my list of Stephenson novels, but it is still a vastly more realistic, complicated, interesting world.  Reamde looks at what a future MMO can do to the real world.  RPO uses it as an excuse for video game culture masturbation celebration.

But really, though, the key to RPO is its audience.  It has been misjudged, in my opinion, because it is a book for people who don’t know about the culture it celebrates.  It is a book for people a few years younger than me, people who don’t know about Rush, ‘80s anime, and Atari.  (Heck, I was born at the very tail end of this era—the Atari was obsolete before I was even old enough to manipulate my joystick.  Hehehe.)  It really isn’t a book for adults.  But even though it isn’t a book that I particularly liked, there is something sweet about it; the way that it sends up a little moral at the end is particularly cute.  What Ready Player One is, really, is an older, wiser nerd telling a younger one to go outside and meet a girl for a change.

-Sleepyhead

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Valis

I've just finished Philip K. Dick's Valis.  Anybody read it?  It is the most deeply, uncannily crazy novel I've ever read.  I feel like I shouldn't say the craziest book ever written, since I'm sure at least a couple of tyrannical dictators have written thoroughly bonkers autobiographies fueled only by insanity, rage, and the blood and tears of entire populations.  But it is the craziest thing I've ever read, by a long shot; and if there was an authoritative list of the 50 craziest novels floating around somewhere on the internet, I would be disappointed if Valis didn't make the top ten.

And it's not as if Mr. Dick is known for writing sensible, middle-of-the-road, beginner-friendly genre fiction.  He didn't pander, and I get the feeling he never really expected people to actually understand what he was writing.  Some of the most brain-blisteringly complex movies in the world are lifted directly from the Philip K. Dick catalog.  Mind you, Hollywood is typically forced to settle for the simplest of these, and they invariably have to dumb it down considerably.  Your average PKD short story is just slightly too complicated for a three-hour brain-teasing blockbuster.  The amazing thing, though--and this really is a startling testament to the genius of the man--is that enough movies have been made from this remarkable canon to actually identify trends in the film versions of PKD stories.  Watch your step when you get up, kids, 'cause I'm about to drop some knowledge.

If you wonder what the following movies have in common:

Blade Runner
Total Recall
Paycheck
A Scanner Darkly
Minority Report
The Adjustment Bureau

Then wonder no longer!  They are all ridiculously complicated.  Oh, and they were all cribbed from Dick's work.

A few trends, then, become clear.  First of all, only two of these movies come from full length novels: Blade Runner is from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and A Scanner Darkly comes from a novel of the same name.  For all that these two movies are immensely convoluted (and in the case of Blade Runner's Deckard, still the subject of belligerent collegiate debate) they are pretty damn simplistic compared to the original novels from which they were taken.  Although these movies are pretty fun, and more than a bit trippy, they don't actually provide the best context in which to understand Valis.


(By the way, although it might be condescending, I'm going to go ahead and keep referencing the film versions, on the theory that more people have watched these movies than have read the stories from which they came.  That could be wrong.  Don't care.  Over-explaining is more fun for me, so we're all going to have to put up with it.)

The best way to get at the crazy that is Valis is to take a quick look at the movies made from PKD short stories.  That's Total Recall, Paycheck, Minority Report, and The Adjustment Bureau.  (By the way, there are others, but I think they are probably less well known.  Besides this is what wikipedia and IMDB are for.  This is the internet; educate yourself.)

Now, I haven't seen The Adjustment Bureau (yet!) and Paycheck is kind of shit (which is too bad because the short story is beautiful and I want to make love to it) so I will just stick to Total Recall and Minority Report.  They come from short stories entitled "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale" and "Minority Report," respectively.  Most of the convoluted plot stuff in these two short stories is actually what happens in the movies.  Mind you, they are complicated movies.  TR features a dude who pays to have memories of a 007-esque fantasy trip to a Mars colony implanted into his head.  The procedure reveals(?) that he's been the victim of a memory wipe, and he becomes extremely (Jason-Bourne-style) combative, claiming that his cover has been blown.  He then attempts to hook up with his secret-agent contacts on mars.  We the audience go back and forth for ages on whether or not he is the victim of crazy memory-implantation gone wrong, or whether he's actually a secret agent who was mind-wiped, but managed through sheer dumb luck to pick an imaginary vacation that exactly matched his pre-mind-wipe career and mission.  The movie manages to convey most of this confusion, although it leaves out the aliens and the magic wand.  (No, I shit you not, the PKD story has a magic wand...)

Minority Report is equally convoluted: our protagonist is the leader of a team of future-cops who use pool-dwelling psychics to just wreck the shit out of the bill of rights by arresting people moments before they commit crimes.  Said future cop is then arrested just before he is told that he'll commit a crime.  The movie only gets about this far into the plot before things start to rapidly diverge from the short story, which is really a masterpiece.    At any rate, his knowledge of the psychics' predictions actually affects what they predict.  So there is one possible future in which he kills a dude; one possible future where he sees the psychic's report and, armed with that foreknowledge, refrains from killing the dude; and a third possible future where he sees the whole entire messy plot played out in a psychic's brain before it even happens, and decides that he might as well kill the dude anyway.

Or anyway, that's what I remember.  To be fair, they are confusing books, and I probably got all of them wrong in one fashion or another.  Feel free to tell me about it in the comments section.  To sum up, though, this is a man who wrote short stories complicated enough that Spielberg can only capture about a third of a plot before he finishes up his 2.25 hour movie.  Imagine what a novel like that can do to your brain.

Now imagine that Philip K. Dick, the author, is a character in Valis.  And that he has a good friend named Horselover Fat: a schizophrenic meta-theologian who believes that God is attempting to fix the universe by beaming an extra-galactic pink laser into his brain.  And that, in fact, what the schizophrenic thinks is happening is actually happening.  And then imagine that Philip K Dick and his insane friend (whose name means Philip K Dick in Greek and German) have been the same person the entire time, Fight Club style.  That's not even the first half of this book.  I recommended it to a friend, and then had to take back that recommendation when I went back and actually thought about what I would be subjecting them to.

But if you'll excuse me, I really have to go find something else to read.

-Sleepyhead

Monday, January 23, 2012

Catchy Title

Alright.  Obligatory first post.  Ahem.

Someone at work turned me on to a show called QI.  It's a BBC quiz show hosted by Stephen Fry (yes, that Stephen Fry) featuring a panel of guest "experts."  They call them experts because they're generally extremely dumb.  QI stands for Quite Interesting.  The idea is that points are distributed on the basis of being interesting (ideally, by knowing interesting pieces of trivia)--but mostly by not being obvious.  Obvious (and incorrect) answers are penalized.  The show often ends up with every panel member receiving a negative score.

There are a lot of problems with the show, although it has become extremely popular in Britain.  Fry is excellent, of course, even when he's an appalling, overbearing bore.  He loves to be pompous, and his panelists (being comedians) really prefer to just dick around, which leads to a lot of directionless talk-show shenanigans.  That said, when the show is interesting, it is very much so, and when it is funny I have been known to choke on beverages.

Like Cash Cab, QI has a tendency to focus way too much on a specific geographical and cultural region that I don't care about (NY and GB, respectively).  That irks me.

The reason it irks me is that since I was really, really young I loved Jeopardy!.  Yes, Jeopardy! has an exclamation mark.  The exclamation mark is important, dammit.  Anyway, I loved Jeopardy!.  I loved it before I could pronounce it correctly.  I still love it.  I actually felt hurt when that stupid IBM ringer stomped on Ken Jennings.  Ken Jennings, who is kind of a douche, is nevertheless awesome for kicking ten kinds of ass on Jeopardy!.  And he was mercilessly destroyed by a soulless internet-trolling robot.  That made me sad.  And he had the good grace to accept his defeat with a smile and a nod at internet culture.  That...  Actually, that made me sad, too.  He should have set Watson (or maybe himself) on fire in dramatic protest.

I digress.

QI is not really a quiz show.  It is irritating, despite the trivia, precisely because the competition isn't really a competition at all.  I never realized it before, but the reason Jeopardy! is awesome is the chance it offers to be superior to someone else.  In QI, because the questions are designed merely to be interesting to a specific group of viewers--and to be answered incorrectly even by those in the know--it is basically impossible to for me to answer questions correctly.  On top of that, since the points don't matter--that's right, the points are just like any job you can get with a liberal arts degree--there are literally no consequences for either suckage or superiority.  And that irks me, simply because I expect my quiz shows to actually be quiz shows.  After I realized that QI cannot properly be understood as a quiz show, I was able to enjoy it again.

For all my bitching, the show is redeemed by both its ridiculousness and its occasional moments of true hilarity.  I recommend checking it out.  You might like it.

-Sleepyhead