Friday, April 28, 2006

I know you're in there! I can hear you caring!

Several people have asked for status updates, so I thought I'd put all the info up here. My specific injury is a partial fracture of the right scaphoid, which is a wrist bone under the thumb. The doctor put me in a short-arm fiberglass cast for four weeks. He warns that it may take as long as 10 weeks to heal, more if a disunion occurs (the bone breaks all the way through), but since the fracture isn't very deep he hopes it'll be done in four.

I haven't felt any pain since I first got my splint; the only downside is the frustration of dealing with the cast. I'm gradually getting better at managing life, partly by making adjustments (like wearing sandals instead of shoes) and partly by training myself to be left-handed. I'm definitely not at 100%, but am much better at managing tasks than I was at first. That said, don't expect a lot of blog updates over the next four weeks, or at least not the standard long-form ones.

There's a lot I want to hit when I get back to normal: Kafka on the Shore, V., the Cherry Blossom festival in San Francisco, the San Jose mayor's race, springtime in the Bay Area, On the Waterfront, and whatever happens in May. Sigh. It's going to be a while.

By the way, do any blog readers know of any free speech-to-text programs? Like electronic dictation? I figured this would be the perfect time to try that, but I can't find any free options online.

My overall feeling right now is one of slight frustration matched against great gratitude. I've been very thankful that the accident wasn't any worse, that I didn't wait too long for treatment, that I'm not in pain, and, especially, that I have health insurance. So far I've payed a total of $20 out of pocket for all my care, and even when I'm done it will have cost less than half as much to fix me as it will to fix my bike. Health care is one of those areas of glaring inequality in the US today, and I feel very fortunate to be someone who has it.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

I wanted to go to a doctor, but not like this! Not like this!

Yes, I am aware of the irony. Almost immediately after boasting how I'm putting off a physical because there's nothing wrong with me, I fell off my bike and broke my wrist.

Of course, I didn't immediately realize it was broken. Everything still worked, albeit painfully. HUGE thanks to the crew at the office for pestering me to have it checked out, and to Brad for giving me that final kick in the butt and going above and beyond to find a nearby acute care clinic.

I'll give the whole story later. Right now I'm in a splint and typing is difficult, so don't expect many updates here. (And if you catch me on AIM, be prepared for a SLOW conversation.) I go to an... orthopedist, I think, on Monday. Hopefully this won't be a long ordeal.

My best thing today? Waking up without an alarm, not feeling any pain, and eating some pancakes. Not too shabby!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


I want socialized medicine. If we had a bureaucratic, rigid healthcare system, I'd be assigned a doctor, would go to him and get my physical, and that would be it. Instead, I have freakin' CHOICE, which would be nice if I had a particular doctor in mind. Instead I'm going to ask around, see what doctors other people have used, how they like them, who's accepting new patients, and on and on. I have no doubt that by the end of the process I'll have spent way more time doing research than actually receiving care, and the care I get won't be of noticeably higher quality. At a minimum I'd love a system like e-bookings in the UK, where you can make your appointment online and not deal with phone trees or anything.

I'm going to San Diego! Wayne, our perpetually awesome CEO, is taking the whole company down there for BREW DevCon. Road trip! Just kidding, though that would be awesome. We'll be flying down and spending two nights in late May, with several very illuminating sessions surrounded by a great deal of merry-making. I regretted missing out on this at Nexgenesis, and am glad to do it now.

The weather here is nice again. It started being really nice yesterday, though unfortunately it was drizzling when I woke up at six so I didn't ride. I remedied that today, though, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I don't think I'm in as good of condition now as I was before the rainy stretch started, but it's nowhere near as painful as my very first ride was, so that's good... I don't feel like I'm starting from Square One. I'd almost forgotten how big a difference the ride makes - I arrive at work alert and cheerful, and banged out a ton of code before most other people were even in the office.

Expect more on this when I finish it, but I'm reading "Kafka on the Shore" by Murakami Haruki, and it is amazing. Weird and wonderful and surreal, also a real page-turner.

My reading has really ramped up. I'm going to polish off Kafka about a week after I finished Norrell, and I have another four books requested: Endless Nights (Sandman-related stories), The Third Policeman (spotted in a Lost episode, I requested this back in December and am now #3 on the list), At the Mountains of Madness (H. P. Lovecraft, I've meant to read his stuff for a while) and V (Thomas Pynchon, this will be my second attempt, and hopefully this time I can get past the first chapter). I'm not entirely sure why I'm reading so much more, though it's almost certainly related to the generally damp weather - I'm spending a lot more time inside now than I was in January or February.

Lots of news stories and stuff here commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake that destroyed San Francisco. At a ceremony this morning, the fire department rang all their alarms in memory. I'm sure I'll regret saying this, but I feel a little bummed that I've lived here for... wow, I guess eight months now, and have yet to feel a single earthquake. Nothing, nada, zilch. I don't want the Big One, but I'd like at least some idea of how the experience feels.

I ate pancakes for breakfast today, and tonight I'll cook myself some tacos. Man, life can be pretty good sometimes. I'm sure there's a lot of kids out there who envy me.

I received an invitation last week for a "Classes Without Quizzes" program. This is a really neat series that the Washington University alumni association runs. A Wash U professor flies out to a particular city, delivers a short seminar on a particular topic, and spends time socializing with the group. I went to one in KC last year where an art professor spoke about an exhibit on early Midwestern painters. It was pretty interesting, he sort of examined the role of art back in the frontier and the ways it has influenced popular art through today. After that we had a really nice meal in the museum cafe and then a docent-led tour of the exhibit itself.

This one is called "Medical Ethics and Frankenstein's Monster." It is led by Dr. Ira J. Kodner, who is a prof at the med school and also the Director for the Study of Ethics and Human Values. Pretty cool, huh? He'll be talking about the prescient issues raised in Frankenstein, which is essentially about a man who creates life and is unable to deal with the consequences, and use that to look at contemporary issues like stem cell research and our unequal system of care. Sounds really fascinating. It'll be held at the Four Seasons hotel in downtown San Francisco, within a block of the Argent where I stayed when interviewing with Weather News. Honestly, I really am going mainly for the lecture, but there will be a cocktail reception before and a discussion afterwards, so I'll try to extrovert myself and meet some fellow alumni. I've wanted to go to one of these things since moving here, but the events are always in SF and it isn't very easy to get up there in time after work. This is on a Saturday so I think I'll make a day of it. I might finally hit SFMOMA, which is nearby, or get out to the zoo or one of the other farther spots, then swing back to Market for the event.

A while back I watched one of those new Monty Python highlight programs, "The Very Best of Eric Idle." It has been years since I've seen the classic TV episodes and I was delighted to see that, for once, something is every bit as good as I remember it. The pure anarchic spirit and erudition on display in their sketches just blows me away. Even when I know what's coming, I still feel a thrill when I see the Greek and German philosophers take to the field for their football match. There were also quite a few bits from their Hollywood Bowl appearance, which I've never seen but need to. I really need to pick up their box set sometime. I really think it's a shame that most people only know them from their movies - "Holy Grail" is excellent, but I think that the very best sketches from their show are better than the best parts of that movie. I'm thinking of the Hungarian Tobbacconist, the Spanish Inquisition, Operation on Mr. Gumby, the climbers scaling Third Street, the entire episode with the guy on the bicycle ("How could you miss?!"), the architectural design competition, and on and on. I'm not saying that every single thing they did was comedic gold, but they have an amazing success rate, and virtually every successful modern comedy owes a huge debt to them. (I'm looking at you, Family Guy.)

That's it from me. Hope everything's going well over there.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Destiny Death Dream Destruction Desire Despair Delirium

Well! That was fun. I just wrapped up "The Wake," the last Sandman book. Now, I haven't actually read all the Sandman comics yet - the library didn't have "Worlds' End," so I bought it from Amazon and have yet to read it; and there is also a collection called "Endless Nights" which has stories about the Endless family. But this is as good a point as any to stop and put down my thoughts, now that I've read the entire arc of this story.

First, let's get some minor things out of the way. I was slightly disappointed in the art in the last two books. That didn't make a huge difference, since I've always been attracted by Gaiman's story-telling more than the visual component, but I didn't realize how much I appreciated the art until it was taken away from me. I'm not even saying that the art is bad - I'm definitely a philistine when it comes to painting, and one twice over when it comes to comics, and am perfectly willing to accept that I just don't "get" it.

The Kindly Ones has a very striking, simplified visual style. It's almost cartoony, although it retains the menace and malevolence of earlier art. Everything feels pretty abstract and representational. In a way this is nice - it shows how familiar we have become with the characters that we can instantly recognize them even with just one or two visual clues. Still, I much preferred the earlier artists, which so often seemed to be doing actual paintings as opposed to illustrations.

That complaint aside, The Kindly Ones has what is probably my second-favorite panel in the entire series: a captionless image of Matthew the raven staring silently at the reader. And once you get used to the change it isn't actually bad. It's just frustrating. I loved poring over panels in "A Game of You" or "Brief Lives" and pulling out little details. Here, everything is presented up front, with nothing to dig into.

The Wake abandons this visual style and returns back to a more traditional look. A few particularly wonderful images are in here, but I don't care as much for the character designs. Death looks particularly anemic, and all of the surviving Endless are less pleasant to look at. It definitely gives a better final impression than The Kindly Ones, but I still wish they could have brought back the artists from the strong middle section. (I know that at least one of them was no longer alive by the time this book was written.)

What follows are some thoughts on events in this book. Let's jump into some

This is a tragedy, in the good old-fashioned sense of the word. Morpheus's stature and weaknesses make his downfall inevitable, and all the more admirable for his lofty position. When reading The Kindly Ones it was really cool to see all the little threads Gaiman had woven earlier come together. I love reading that sort of well-constructed and thought-out stuff.

That said, there was a lot in this book that I'm still unable to make sense of, even after The Wake. In particular: Rose Walker's visit to England, the angels, and Lucifer all seemed interesting but I could not understand how any of it affected the main plot. Why was it here? The most likely explanation is that some of it does relate to the plot in some way that I can't see. It seems especially probable that this allows you to figure out who was ultimately responsible for Morpheus's fate. It's also possible that Gaiman introduced them as red herrings - as the afterword says, there are some threads which don't seem to fit. Finally, it may be intended to add some perspective to this story. The message might be that, while Morpheus's fall is horrible, it is just an event; in the grand scheme of things, both at a universal and a personal level, things will keep on happening. Morpheus is the King of Stories, but he is not really essential for those stories, and things will continue to happen and change without him.

Returning to the big question: who really did it? I have three suspects, two of whom have vowed to destroy Dream and all of whom are related to the seeming loose threads. My first thought is Desire, who was behind the earlier plot in The Doll's House. He/She is proud and vain, and having failed before, he/she would likely try again. Of course, the mode of Dream's destruction is nearly identical to the earlier plot, though I can't decide if that makes Desire more or less likely. If this is the case, Rose was probably lured to England because she might have revealed to Dream what was going on (I'm not sure exactly how, but since she nearly played the role that Orpheus later fulfilled, it seems probable).

The second suspect is Lucifer. Wouldn't it be cool if his whole process of abandoning Hell and becoming a lounge piano player was just an incredibly elaborate ploy to fulfill his oath to destroy Morpheus? He constantly protests that he has no desire to regain Hell, and that may be true - but after all, he is the king of lies. It seems entirely possible that he just wants to do this one big, evil thing, and then put the whole villain costume away forever.

The third suspect is one or both of the two angels. (I forget their names; I think the silent one's starts with a D.) They obviously are very big on justice and duty and the redemptive power of punishment. Dream has clearly sinned, probably thousands of times throughout his career, with the killing of Orpheus just the most recent example. However, because he is one of the Endless, they will not be able to "redeem" him in Hell. Combine that with their frustration at the terrible task that he has saddled them with and I can imagine that they would be tempted to bring him down, in the name of "justice" but also to satisfy their own personal desire for vengeance.

I should also comment on Thessaly. She seems to be the most obvious culprit - she directly prevents Morpheus from dealing with Lyta, and the foreword writer in "The Wake" says she is at fault - but I'm much less sure. She definitely plays a role, but I don't see her as being more important than, say, Loki. First of all, given the fact that she threatens to kill Lyta after it is done, I get the impression that she wanted to torment Morpheus but not kill him. Secondly, her speech in The Wake doesn't seem to paint her as the grand manipulator who would be required to do all this. I could be wrong, but I just don't see her as the ultimate villain.

The Furies are pretty scary, huh? I think the artists made an excellent decision when they decided never to actually show them when on the job. It's a classic horror technique: when we don't actually see something, our imagination takes over and creates something more frightening than the artist could come up with. Also, it's interesting to see the Furies in comics so soon after reading about them in His Dark Materials. Given Gaiman's predilection for Greek mythos, it is utterly appropriate that the Furies take center stage here. I remember being fascinated by the thought that there was just this one particular sin that the Greeks feared, and that no matter who committed this one sin they would be punished.

I think Nuala was the saddest part of this whole book. Dream just can't catch a break: he is set on the path to destruction because he cannot love a woman enough, and loses all hope after a woman loves him too much. I remember and love Rose's speech to Desire in this book, about how horrible love is, and feel like Nuala's role in this tale illustrates that perfectly, even better than Thessaly does.

The title "The Wake" is just wonderful. For some reason I always thought of it in the sense it is used in the book, as a mourning celebration. Once I started reading, though, I thought, "Duh! Wake is what you do at the end of a dream!" That makes it all the more poetic and wonderful. The characters of the story are attending a Wake, but we the readers are going to Wake - emerge from the dream we have been immersed in, and carry fragments of it with us into the day.

The odds-and-sods at the end were interesting choices for inclusion. I enjoyed reading about the Chinese exile, but don't really understand why Gaiman included it here. Hob's tale was great, it felt anti-climactic after the wake, but in a way that's good - it deals on a small, personal level with what the wake handled on a large, corporate level. And ending with The Tempest was just brilliant. Shakespeare's words apply to this tale on several levels, both as they did in the original: an allusion to death which is equated with fiction, the players taking their final bows. It was also interesting to close on a much earlier version of Morpheus, and the more I think about what he says to Shakespeare, the more I think that Gaiman is letting us view this story as a redemptive one. 17th-century Dream says that it is impossible for him to leave, to give up, to end his story; in this light, one can view his transformation as a positive one, his eventual fall as a fortunate one.

So, now that I'm pretty much done with Sandman, what am I taking away from it? An increased appreciation of the potential of comic books, for one. I wasn't exactly opposed to them before, but other than "Bone" had never really read through a series. I think that, like television, they can profit from the capability to tell longer-form stories, evolve their characters and build a compelling world (provided that, like television, they do not fall into the trap of repetitive stories and situations). They are inherently more abstract than television, and so require a greater degree of engagement on part of the reader. The illustrations and writing work hand-in-hand in a way that I think has a lot of potential - strong art can carry the story when necessary, just as words can shoulder the load when they are more appropriate. Each supports the other. Ultimately, comic books are just another medium, with different strengths and limitations, and it's authors like Gaiman who can show us what potential that medium has.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Class! Refinement! Enchantment!

As with practically everything I read these days, I don't have a clear memory of when I first heard of "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell." I think I read a review of the book, perhaps in the New Yorker, but was already familiar with the title and knew that it was about magicians. My biggest impression of it was that it was a book about magicians that was not a fantasy.

I also am not sure why I grabbed this one to read now, out of all the names on my list. I've never read anything else by the author - this is her first novel, and I am not familiar with her short stories or novellas. It might have been because I haven't read any fantasy in a while, and while this isn't a fantasy, it seemed like it combined fantastic elements with a decent literary pedigree. Plus it's encouraging to know that when I'm done reading a fantasy book I'll know everything that happens and not need to plow through another half-dozen books before getting to The Grand Confrontation.

I'm very pleased with the book. It's odd and quirky, but that is due to its anachronistic nature and not because it is avant-garde. I've been trying to think of a suitable metaphor, and have settled upon comparing it to another English export. This book is like an anti-Monty Python. Python takes "high" concepts such as history, philosophy and politics, and brings them down to a silly and disrespectful stew. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (henceforth JS&MR) takes a literary genre which has been widely reviled and is poorly thought of in academia, and uses that raw material to write an elegant, respectful book steeped in the style and settings of 19th century England. In both Python and this book, a great deal of the humor comes from the incongruity between how we expect the subject to be treated and what it actually receives. There are almost no "jokes" in JS&MR, but the entire book is sort of a grand joke, and if you appreciate the humor in a serious treatment of a silly topic, you'll be engaged.

One of the funniest elements of the book comes in its extensive use of footnotes. The narrator pre-supposes a great deal of knowledge from the reader, and casually references past English magicians while explaining more esoteric events. Sometimes the narrator will primly lecture the reader on the qualities of the English; other times an exhaustive footnote explaining a minor incident will spill across two entire pages. It isn't all capricious, though, and as you get further into the book you come to acknowledge that Clarke has created a fully-realized world. By the end you have a very good idea of the personalities and importance of historical figures such as John Uskglass, Martin Pale, Col Tom Blue and more.

The narrative style itself is probably the single biggest factor in determining whether someone will enjoy the book. If you enjoy reading Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, or Henry James you will probably feel at home here. If you choose to view the narration as a mockery of those same authors, you will find the going easy. If you can't stand the thought of reading paragraphs describing how people are dressed, the procedures of making introductions and the difference between country servants and city servants, you won't make it far enough to where the plot kicks into gear. I will say that the opening chapters are probably the driest there are, so if you can read those without squirming you're in good shape.

I want to talk a bit about the themes and the characters. That means it's time for some MINOR SPOILERS.

Any time I read fantasy or science fiction, I'm always thinking, "What does this MEAN?" I love a good yarn and always have, but for some reason I'm not content to just read a good story. I need to link it and connect it to "real" experiences and knowledge. Some part of me thinks that every book is a tool that will help me better understand the world I live in.

When reading the first few chapters of JS&MR, I thought I had an answer: the book was an allegory, with English magic standing in for English literature. This doesn't really hold up under scrutiny, and by the end of the book I'm convinced that Clarke wasn't thinking of this, but still, it's tempting to draw the parallels.

At the beginning of the book, English magic has been dormant for centuries. Oh, there are still people who call themselves magicians, but they are purely theoretical: they study existing magic, and talk about it, and debate the merits of past magicians. None of them actually DOES any magic. Does anyone else here instantly think of academia? A typical English department is filled with professors filled with opinions and theories about nearly every book written in the last two hundred years, but nobody who has actually published a book on their own. In the book everyone bemoans the fact that English magic has declined without actually doing anything about it; in real life, there's a strong sense that English literature has fallen from its peak early in the 20th century, and people would rather talk about that decline than write something which reverses it.

Once Mr. Norrell arrives on the scene, the reaction he inspires also feels quite familiar. I think that there are few things which annoy a certain class of English professors quite so much as living authors. Even though they produce what the professors study, authors who are in a position to dispute and puzzle them are avoided. Similarly, even though Norrell will be doing the first new magic in centuries, he is looked down upon by the magicians who have never done magic; they believe that theoretical magicians have a higher, purer calling than someone who mucks about actually performing magic.

However tempting this interpretation is, it really doesn't hold up through the rest of the book. Doing magic seems very different from writing books, and it's hard to draw more parallels. Besides, magic had completely vanished from England, rather than just grown pale and unpopular. Ultimately I think that Clarke did base the school of magicians on academia, but did not intend a strong parallel between English magic and English literature.

So, what is this book about, then? Just your boring, mundane topics: knowledge, friendship, class, love, ambition, and, of course, the Napoleonic Wars. For me, the most poignant scenes were those showing the relationship between Strange and Norrell. These are two deeply different people who are unable to break away from one another because of their shared passion for magic. This felt very real to me. I've noticed that in my own life, I almost never become good friends with people whose personalities are close to my own; however, I treasure the instant kinship I feel when I find someone who shares my obsessions or can understand my convoluted thoughts regarding literature and technology. I'm not saying this is what the entire book is "about," but in my opinion it is most successful when it examines the way relationships begin and evolve.

I'm going to run down and give my thoughts on a few characters.

Norrell - Remember how I tend to identify myself with fictional characters? I'm afraid that there's a lot of Norrell in me. More so in his mode than his opinions. I'm all for trying new things, forging ahead, and trying risky ventures. However, like Norrell, I'm much more comfortable among books than people, I tend to relate events to other stories I know, and I have an inflated sense of my own importance.

Strange - Definitely the hero of the book. I love the way Clarke drops one or two footnoted references to him long before he appears. The accumulated anticipation probably translates into an elevated regard for him. And he's certainly more exciting than Norrell - the book would have been quite boring without him.

Childermass - I was convinced he was a fairy when we first saw him. Probably one of the more interesting characters in the book, and his role as a dominant servant lets him do things no other character can.

Arabella - What a sweet woman! Extremely realistic, too. She doesn't feel idealized, even in her role as a magician's wife. She's certainly feminine, and also practical and essential to Strange's psyche. One of my favorite passages in the entire book is when Strange is rehearsing his conversation while riding to meet her; I do that all the time, and, like in the book, the actual conversation is never anything like what I have imagined.

Lascelles - At one time I thought he was the best of Norrell's three "friends." I based that mainly on the way he took over the magazine and, you know, actually did something with his life. His eventual fate shows that it is not enough to be active, and a force directed for ill is far worse than someone who does nothing.

Drawlight - Yet another person who I thought was a fairy, simply because "Drawlight" sounds so much like a fairy name. Of all the changes in the book, his transformation may have been the most surprising: from a foppish dilletante to a con artist to a malicious rumor-mongeror to a terrified slave. Each step along the way is surprising yet logical.

Stephen - Interesting. I felt like they spent a lot of time with him in exchange for little payoff in the end. However, I think he may have been a brilliant literary device, because his passages allowed us to see the gentleman with thistle-down hair without switching to his perspective. This helped keep the fascination and threat of the fairy in the foreground for much of the novel while simultaneously keeping him alien and removed. That said, Stephen didn't feel as well-developed as a character, though that's probably the fairy's fault more than the author's. Oh, and I figured out his prophecy the very first time I heard it. (Just about the only prophecy I did get without it being explained in the book, and it's pretty stunning that the fairy couldn't figure it out either.)

The Gentleman - Good villain. Did you notice how every other sentence of his starts with "Oh!" He belongs to the school of villains who are even more chilling because on the surface they appear so cheerful and charming. And in a book that is, frankly, populated mainly by dull and stupid people, it's very hard not to be captivated by the fairy. For much of the book I was in suspense about whether he was malicious or simply capricious, but just before the end they unload enough information about him to firmly convince the reader of his wickedness.

Even the minor characters were well-done, I thought. Though they only receive a few chapters each I was quite impressed with John Segundus, Walter Pole, Lady Pole, the Goodfellows (is that their name? the family in Italy), Strange's manservant, the ministers, Wellington and the King.

When I finished the book I was immediately faced with a question: will there be a sequel? It seems an odd thing to worry about, given that I ostensibly read the book in part because there wouldn't be sequels. Clarke's world is certainly rich enough to support further adventures, most likely a prequel covering the time of the Raven King, or possibly one (and probably just one) sequel to the events here. Still, judging from my impression of her based on this book, I kind of doubt that she will return to this world. In a way she seems too serious an author to build a franchise.

It's a bit of a shame, just because this sort of alternate-world construction can be so entertaining. Too often it's just an excuse for a cheesy video game or worse, but when done well as it is here... wow. I could spend hours projecting along the lines the author has drawn, filling it out for myself. What other countries have magicians? How is their magic different from English magic? Will World War I be different if magicians face one another on the field? Will the Church turn against them? Will magic become so common as to seem boring?

That's all I have to say about this for now. I close with a few questions - if you have read the book and have answers, please share them.


Towards the end of the book, one of the dancers in Lost Hope says that Strange and Norrell are prophesied to fail. What does she mean? As far as I can tell they ultimately succeed. Is the prophecy just wrong? Or is she referring to something else that they attempt?

Is Vinculus really the fairy's greatest enemy? For a while I supposed that they went to the Raven King, who left as soon as they arrived. If it really is Vinculus, why? I can think of four people who were no less important in bringing down the fairy than he, and who certainly played a more active role than he did.

Did Strange give up on trying to consult dead magicians after he was interrupted by Segundus? If so, why? If not, did he have any success? I don't recall anything being written about this between their first meeting and the climax, though I might have glossed over something.

Time of the Season

Hi all! Just a quickie update on Lost now. Later tonight I'll probably be putting up my post on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but I wanted to comment on Pat's post before I forget. The rest of this post contains MINI SPOILERS for the season finale; actually clicking on Pat's link will take you to MEGA SPOILERS.

Now that I've written this, never mind. The whole thing is MEGA SPOILERS.

I'm glad Pat wrote about Hurley and Libby making hand-made jam in the Lost season finale - I remember thinking it was interesting when I first read about it, but it totally got shoved out by all the other stuff that happened. It didn't seem to lead anywhere definitive by the end, but it's almost certainly one of those cases where they're laying the groundwork here for a big payoff in the third season. And what exactly will that be? I have no clue. Maybe Libby has been infected by the Others, and the jam business will be a distribution network to get the rest of the survivors? Maybe they'll go looking for jam-jars and stumble on the Dharma warehouse? Maybe... ah, heck, I don't know, but it'll probably be cool.

I think we'll have to agree to disagree on the Charlie thing. I've been expecting him to die since the end of first season. The mode is certainly unexpected, though, and I agree that more insanity is always a good thing.

Oh, and I didn't want to gloat, but: holy &@%$! SoaP! That was unbelievable. And bizarre. I ASSUME it's some sort of preemptive homage, or weird cross-promotional thing (though I don't think the studios are affiliated). It'd be even more bizarre if they came up with the ideas independently. Anyways, while Lost was already one of my top shows, having the nerve to put snakes on a plane catapults it into the realm of All Time Best Shows.

Better get back to work. Keep watching the skies! Er, I mean... can't wait to see what happens next season!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Lost Season Finale: The Truth!

Who here has been following Lost? Its quality can be inconsistent, but when it's going right, man, it's just about the best thing on television. The last two episodes in particular have been really gripping: a tantalizing glimpse of cryptic writing which will keep the fanboys busy for weeks to come, and then last week a trippy exploration of insanity that provided an alternate framework for viewing the show.

Through my small but efficient network of sources*, I have come across the following information about the upcoming season finale. These count as MEGA SPOILERS, people! Do not read if you want to be surprised!

Several things will be revealed. First and most importantly, the island of "Lost" is filled with poison pineapples. Jack, Kate and Sun were poisoned in their first week. This does not manifest itself in physical weakness, but rather, they will each suddenly grow a third arm. The third arm, though, is not controlled like the other appendages; rather, it acts as an independent entity, a little like Ash's hand in "Evil Dead 2" but more mysterious and less malevolent. Needless to say the limbs will freak out the other survivors and these three will be kicked out, along with Jin who tags along.

This leads to the second revelation, which a lot of people have suspected all along: there are actually two factions battling for control of the island, not a monolithic group called the "others." The refugees will be captured by the group who they call the "strangers." Here they are re-united with Michael, who has pledged his loyalty to the Strangers in exchange for their help in rescuing Walt from the Others.

Meanwhile, back at the camp, Mr. Eko surprises everyone by crucifying Charlie and retrieving the rifle cache. He barricades himself in the hatch along with Locke, Ana-Lucia and "Henry." The rest of the camp watches in amazement as yet another plane crashes on the island. And inside, Mr. Eko reveals a hidden passageway that leads into the dark. In what seems like a deliberate echo of Season 1's ending, the last shot is of the four people aiming flashlights down a long, dark passageway.

Now, some thoughts:

First, the pineapple poisoning seems way out there. I don't think we've even SEEN a pineapple on this island, just lots and lots of cocanuts, but suddenly we're led to believe that they've been here all along? And, even more improbably, just three people ate them? There's something fishy about this.

The third arm sounds really intriguing, I can't wait to see what it looks like. The first thing I think of is "The Third Policeman," the title on the book Desmond grabbed from the hatch. Probably a coincidence, but I love the idea of appendages being policement. IF that's the case (and again, this seems like a stretch), those limbs are guardians and protectors of... the island? The humans? Dharma? In any case, expect them to play a bigger role soon.

We only see two of The Strangers (at least, that speak in the script I saw), and it sounds like both of them have third arms. None of The Others do. I wonder if there are two mutually exclusive diseases on the island - an Other virus and a Stranger virus.

I think it'd be great if we found out that The Others are really the good guys after all, but it sure seems like they won't be. We finally have confirmation of their army of lost children, which just can't be a good thing. The bigger question is, are The Strangers really any better?

Here's my totally wild theory: The Strangers are the direct descendents of the Dharma project, and the Others are the subjects of their experiments. One of the big "points" of the series will be that, while The Others committed all these bad things, The Strangers are ultimately responsible for what they did. Expect the blogosphere to draw lots of parallels between the show and upcoming actions by the new regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I've known for a while that Charlie was next on the kill list; they've been going out of their way to make him an unsympathetic character, plus he's probably the most high-profile actor currently on the show. Still, that was really harsh. I really dug Mr. Eko - the stuff he's doing might ultimately be for good, but he officially is out of the running for Favorite Character now.

And for the very end of the show, with the plane crash and the sideways hatch: it really feels like the writers of the show are having fun with us. They took so much flak for ending the show like that first season, it takes guts to do it again this time. That said, there's kind of a nice "Finnegan's Wake" quality to this. You can see the self-perpetuating cycle Dharma has created on the island, and can easily imagine that 15 years from now, Kate will be holed up by herself in some foxhole, torturing new survivors and trying to find out if they are Others. That's what's really chilling about the island - now more than ever, one feels that they're stuck in something so big that there will be no end to it.

UPDATE 4/13/06: I sent Pat the link and he shares his thoughts, including some great comments on Hurley and Libby's hand-made jam business.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

In San Jose, videogames are more dangerous than shotguns

I have gone 14 days without buying Oblivion. Aren't you proud of me?

For a while I had a respectful fear of the new Elder Scrolls game. Morrowind enveloped my life. Even during a time when I was unemployed and able to play it for hours and hours every day, it still took me many months to beat the main quest, and longer still to finish the side quests and expansions I was interested in.

I deliberately refrained from learning more about Oblivion, other than the broadest kinds of information (it was originally scheduled for release in late 2005 but, obviously, was pushed back). I feared many things. I feared the massive demands it would make on my time. I feared the fact it was being heralded as one of the most advanced games ever and would surely require yet another round of PC upgrading. I feared the fact that Elder Scrolls games are like the sun, casting everything else into pale insignificance, and would most likely obliviate all other gaming for quite some time.

I did not learn the new release date until a few days before, when it caught my eye in a Fry's ad. I held my head in my hands and wept.

Such was my despair that I even considered purchasing an XBox 360, even though I loathe Microsoft above all other corporations and would most likely never buy another game for that platform, just because it would be cheaper than buying a new video card (let alone the RAM, processor, motherboard and hard drive that would be part of my new machine).

However, I had a last-ditch emergency plan for salvation. Coming out that very same week was another game I'd had my eye on for a while - The Godfather. Created by EA with unprecedented production values, it was supposed to be a fine blending of The Godfather's amazing story with Grand Theft Auto's free-form and open-ended gameplay.

As excited as I was about The Godfather, I knew it wouldn't be as good as Oblivion. However, that was kind of the point. The Godfather was being released for the PS2 (along with every other platform), and would require no extra upgrades. It would be long enough for me to get my mind off of Oblivion, but still have an eventual end - there's not much left to do once you become Don and take over all of New York City. With any luck, by the time I finish this game David will have finished Oblivion, or at least not talk about it so frequently, and I'll be able to wait a year or so until prices come down, both on the game itself and on the hardware to run it. I know that I'll enjoy it whenever I play - heck, I started Morrowind about three years after it was released, suffered through its crummy graphics but still loved the game - but I need to hold down the Id in me which says "Buy it buy it buy it playplayplayplayplay NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWWW!"

I could feel my resolve weakening this past week, and so Saturday I went to The Big Fry's to purchase the game. Up until this weekend, I've considered The Big Fry's to be a myth, like Xanadu or Shangri-La. There is a Fry's ("The Small Fry's") about five minutes from my apartment, and it is the largest and coolest electronics store I have ever been to. I still remember the thrill of walking in there - the rows of radio components and wires, the exposed motherboards hung on display, more video games in one place than I have ever seen before. So I would always get confused when my co-workers would talk about The Big Fry's in Sunnyvale. Since I didn't have anything else going on, I decided to take the 15-minute drive to that Fry's instead, and see for myself.

Wow. They were right. The Little Fry's is roughly the size of a Super Target, while The Big Fry's is more like a Home Depot. There's a restaurant in the center of the store; there's an entire book section with both technical works and best-sellers; there's a giant office furniture section; and, hard as it is to believe, there are even more aisles of video games than before. I spent an hour just wandering around, plotting out my eventual PC upgrade and just basking in the pure geekiness of a store that sells both Sony robots and tools to build your own robot. I nearly walked out with both The Godfather and Karaoke Revolution, before reminding myself that the whole point of this exercise was to minimize the amount of money I was spending, so I left the Revolution and took The Godfather home.

I really like the movie The Godfather. I've seen it a few times and it has held up well, even once you already know what is going to happen. It never makes my Top Ten list but would probably be on my Top Twenty, which is still saying a lot. I like the performances and music and cinematography, but as with most of my favorite movies, what I like best about it are the story and the themes. It presents such a wonderful, tightly-woven exploration of honor, family, committment, vengeance and more. You can see the movie as unending tension between two impulses, the urge to violence and the urge to reason (personified in Sonny and Tom, reconciled first in Don Corleone and eventually in Michael as well). This is obviously what drives the plot - the rash demand that blood be answered with blood while the wise seek to end the slaughter - but in a broader sense also characterizes the everyday decisions made by its characters.

EA went all-out in bringing this story to the console. They convinced many of the principles to reprise their roles and record new dialog for the game, including James Caan, Robert Duvall and Marlon Brando. Brando died during the production, so some of his lines were actually done by a voice double, and so far I haven't been able to tell the difference. Al Pacino didn't participate; fortunately, they didn't bother trying to get a sound-alike, so that character is voiced by someone random who does a decent job. Besides the voices, the character modeling is terrific. At first sight I recognized most of the characters from the movie, even those whose names I no longer remember. New York City is wonderfully recreated for the period, with classic cars filling the streets and a cool 1940's skyline rising from Midtown. And the music is spot-on, lifted straight from the movie but rearranged to allow for loops and cues.

I'd wondered about how respectful the game would be to its source material. My biggest fear was that they would just slap the name on the cover, stick a few cut-scenes from the movie in, and otherwise play just like GTA. My second-biggest fear was that they would ride roughshod over the movie's plot, letting you "fix" all the stuff that went wrong (Make it to the bar in time to save Luca Brasi's life!).

I'm really impressed with how well they've handled it. They neither ignore nor change the movie to fit you in; instead, your character plays a prominent role in all the stuff that happens off-screen in the movie. For example, do you remember the opening scene where the Don promises the undertaker to teach a lesson to the hooligans who beat up his daughter? Your first mission is to take care of the little piece of business (you beat them up and toss them into an open grave). Similarly, you're the person who delivers the horse's head to the Hollywood director's bed, and you're the one who hides the pistol in the restaurant toilet. Over and over again you play a crucial role in moving along the action of the movie. Often times such missions will begin or end with an in-game scene recreated from the movie, with your character listening in from another room or sitting unobtrusively in a far table.

I'm getting really attached to my character. I spent about ten minutes before the game in the Mobface program, where you get to build him. The programming is just amazing; it's basically a series of sliders that you can use to control your character's appearence, from the obvious (girth) to the less obvious (cheekbone size, brow position, dimples, ear size, etc.) Without at all intending to do so, I ended up with someone who looks eerily similar to Matthew Broderick. Once you get into the game itself you can do some of the customizations seen in San Andreas - new haircuts, a variety of clothing, and, of course, a selection of hats. I'm currently decked to the nines in a dark double-breasted suit, a dark blue dress shirt, slightly lighter blue tie with a nifty diamond pattern on it, shades, wingtip shoes, and a sweet fedora.

It's interesting to compare and contrast this with San Andreas, which is probably the closest game out there. I think The Godfather strives harder to create a believable story while San Andreas strives harder to create a believable world. First, consider the maps: if you look at the map for The Godfather, it is nowhere near as complete as in the GTA games - only certain streets are open, and the entire game takes place either on the street or inside buildings, and not on beaches, airplanes, parks, etc. However, the Godfather's interiors are incredibly well designed and drawn, and feel like real buildings in a way that San Andreas's rarely do.

Both games (unlike earlier GTA games) allow you to upgrade your character as the game progresses. San Andreas has a trait system similar to what you would find in an MMORPG or classic RPGs: the more often you use a skill, the better you become at it. The only way to gain better endurance is to swim or run a lot, the only way to become a better machine gunner is to shoot a lot of people with machine guns, and so on. There are also some traits which are affected in other ways - you gain weight by eating fatty foods, and can gain respect by driving expensive cars and wearing nice clothes. The Godfather has a system that is closer to RPGs like Elder Scrolls or Ultima, except what we call "Experience" it calls "Respect." You gain respect for a lot of things - once again, wearing nice clothes helps, as does running missions for the Corleones and successfully flirting with the ladies - but to get the most respect, you need to pull off crazy stunts. (For example, there's a series of side mission hits - you get a little respect for killing the guy, but a lot more by killing them in the way the family desires. I got 20,000 points for throwing a mob boss's son into the furnace.) Once your "respect bar" fills up, you cash it in and get to choose an attribute to upgrade. The categories are Fighting, Shooting, Speed, Health and Street Smarts. Other than Health, different levels give you different types of benefits - once you reach Level 4 on Street Smarts, for example, you can hot-wire a car; and when you reach Level 3 of Shooting, you gain a chance to disarm your opponent by shooting them in the arm, leg, etc. What this ultimately means is that it's possible to become very good at, say, shooting, while not actually shooting anyone.

Besides upgrading your character, The Godfather also allows you to upgrade your weapons. You can buy special packages with larger clips, faster firing rates and better reload times than the basic models. I've only upgraded my pistol so far but it does make a difference.

There's a good weapon selection in the game. You start with standard baseball bats and Saturday Night Specials, and over time work your way up to shotguns and street-sweepers. There are also some fun items like molotov cocktails, dynamite and bombs. A bomb can take out an entire building, and is very fun to see.

In terms of gameplay, The Godfather is sort of three games in one. The first is a focused action/stealth game: these are the Corleone missions, which hew closest to the movie and tend to give the most variety. The second is a sort of classic GTA game where you drive around and do mini-missions. These include contract hits, bank robberies, and probably more I haven't found yet. The final one is Take Over New York, which seems like it'll be the biggest part of the game. It's a little similar to the turf wars in San Andreas, but is better designed and more interesting. I'll go into it more in the next paragraph.

Okay, this is the next paragraph. New York is filled with storefronts, each of which is a target for your protection racket. You need to convince the proprietor that it is in their interest to let the Corleones manage their security. Shopkeepers need persuasion - you can try beating them up, smashing up their store, harassing their customers, but don't kill them or you won't get any money. This is a sickly fun mini-game, since you want to scare them as badly as possible without killing them or enraging them enough to fight back. Since most storefronts are already protected by other families, you may need to push through a few thugs to make yourself heard to the proprietor.

A lot of stores are actually fronts to back-room rackets: brothels, casinos, gun shops and worse. After you've taken over the business, you can buy out the racket.

Rackets are loosely affiliated with one another, so when you take over a casino, you'll learn of a few other casinos in the area. Once you take over enough rackets, you'll learn about the warehouse that supplies them. Warehouses are held by families and are extremely well guarded - so far I have only taken over one, and it took a ton of firepower to do. Supposedly, once you take over enough warehouses you'll find out which hub brings the illicit goods (liquor, guns, whatever) into the city; once you seize the hubs, you'll control that entire industry in the city.

Like I said, it seems like a huge game. I'm guessing I'm around 25-30% done with the main plot (Don Corleone has just been released from the hospital, but Michael is still in hiding in Italy), but I feel like I've barely scratched the surface on the racket game. I've taken over about 80% of the fronts in Little Italy and about 25% of the fronts in Brooklyn; I haven't even started yet in Hell's Kitchen, Midtown or New Jersey.

One slight annoyance for me is the Vendetta system. Like GTA, The Godfather has a "Heat" system - the more crimes you commit, the more Heat you gather, and eventually you need to worry about the police. However, each of the rival families has a heat-like scale called Vendetta, and the more of their guys you whack or the more businesses you take from them, the madder they will get at you. Before long they'll be shooting you on sight without provocation. This makes it really hard to do what you need. There are ways to bring down Vendetta levels (bribe an FBI agent to put pressure on them or bomb one of their compounds), but unlike Heat, Vendetta persists even after saving your game or finishing a mission. (You gain less Vendetta and Heat at higher Street Smarts levels, so I'm hoping that will make my life easier.)

Really, though, that's my only complaint so far. That, and I would have liked a more genuinely open city like Los Santos, but I'd rather have a few really well-designed streets and neighborhoods than a ton of cookie-cutter ones. And they make Luca Brasi far too articulate when he is giving you the tutorial. And every time you turn on the game you need to sit through the non-skippable Paramount logo, EA logo and Godfather title cue.

Other than those little quibbles, I've been thoroughly enjoying the game so far. EA threw a lot of money into the pot and most of it shows in the final product.

UPDATE 4/5/06:
Wow, I can't believe that in that whole post I forgot to write about combat. Let's rectify that.

In short, it's awesome. On a superficial level it is identical to the recent GTA games. You control a little guy who carries an unrealistic arsenal. You have limited ammo, which you can purchase, find or take from defeated enemies. Because both games have complete physics engines you can take out enemies using objects as well, such as ramming them with a vehicle or forcing them to go off a ledge.

As much as I've loved GTA games, combat has generally been frustrating for me. A few missions in each game will be set up to do something fun and unique with fighting, but for 95% of the fights you get in, all you can really do is pick a good position (preferably on a rooftop) and shoot until everyone is dead. In practice, whenever I had the choice, I would almost always end up just getting a car and running people over, because it was a lot easier to do.

The controls for combat have gradually improved with each GTA game, with San Andreas finally becoming pretty decent, but there are still always annoyances. There's a tendency for the targeting system to lock on to the wrong person, it's tough to quickly get to the weapon you want, and melee combat has always been frustrating.

The Godfather takes a lot of ideas that were started in San Andreas and actually makes them work. Most noticeably of all, there's a phenomenal cover system. To accomplish this they both enhanced their engine and did a great job with level design. The first few times I tried to take on a warehouse I became very angry when the car I was using to drive over the guards caught on fire and exploded; I got past my frustration once I got over my GTA habits and started to play the game the way the Godfather programmers wanted me to. I've gotten used to seeing cover in GTA levels but it's generally only useful for stealth missions; if you try to take advantage of it when fighting, you'll get pegged any time you try to shift between positions, you won't be able to lock on to your opponent because you're facing the wrong way, and so on.

In The Godfather, it works like a dream. You can move freely from place to place. There are two special stances available to you that will be familiar to anyone who has played a recent Metal Gear game. The first is a crouch, which is useful to keep a low profile behind crates, window ledges, and similar objects; it also makes it harder for opponents to shoot you, although you move correspondingly slower. You'd want to stay in a crouch when scurrying from barrel to barrel, but not if you need to cross an open yard. The second is wall cover, where you flatten against a nearby surface and peek around corners. This is most useful for walls, which may be exterior to a building, or something like a staircase or hall on the inside.

There are two good reasons to use cover. First, it's the best way to close range with your targets. This is especially important if they're packing tommy guns and all you have is a snub-nose pistol. If you just ran at them you'd be dead in seconds; by carefully keeping concealed and moving at the right time, you can be right on top of them and even the odds. Secondly, it's the way you defeat enemies without taking damage. I've gotten so used to the inevitable damage in GTA games that I never start any mission without full health and body armor. In last night's game, I took down an entire warehouse filled with around thirty Tattaglia goons and lost only about an eighth of my health. While you are still concealed, you can lock on to a target; when the time is right, you tap the fire button and pop out, take your shots, and then duck back. It takes a little while to get a feel for this, but once you have it down and can pick your weapons appropriately, you can quite easily take on a room full of enemies without being shot once.

So all of that is a lot of fun. And this kind of combat covers probably less than 50% of your fighting, at least in the first part of the game. Unlike GTA, The Godfather has a deeply satisfying melee combat system. It's no longer a simple "punch" button. You lock on to them as normal, then use your right analog stick to pummel them - better fighters will be able to block, so you'll need to switch up your jabs to take them on. Once you close in on them, you can grab on to your opponent, which opens up a whole world of possibilities: head-butts, tossing them around, choking them, slamming them into walls (or displays or cash registers, whatever's handy), tossing them over ledges, and more. Needless to say, the more style and creativity you bring to your assault, the more Respect you will earn.

The same system is used when you extort shopkeepers, though in this case you will need to be careful not to kill them. Everyone reacts differently - often simply grabbing a hold of them will be effective, other times they won't react at all until you apply a little more pressure. As I believe I've mentioned earlier, one particularly effective method is to smash their head into the cash register.

In both melee and firearm combat, once you get your opponent in a particular position you will have the option to press R2 to perform an execution. This is another sickly rich system; there are something like 40 execution styles available, and the game tracks which ones you have performed so far.

Oh, and the AI is quite good as well. Like you, your opponents know how to take cover, and will run for shelter if you destroy whatever they've been hiding behind. They also know how to use their weapons - someone with a pistol will take great care to stay concealed until you present a target, while someone with a tommy gun will stay in the open so they can catch you as soon as you show yourself. That said, while they feel smart, they are still extremely beatable.

Hopefully that gives you a better idea of combat, which will probably take up the bulk of your game. Also, I want to add two minor gripes to yesterday's list. First, they kept the brake button on square but put the parking brake on circle, which makes it impossible to do a GTA-style quick brake, and often leads to comical situations where I'm holding down R1 while crashing into a building. Secondly, the interiors are officially repetitive. I've now taken down two Tattaglia warehouses and one of their hubs, and each one had the exact same layout as the others, with the same goons occupying the same positions. Granted, they were still fun to do, but I'm hoping the other families have a different architect, or at least different defense strategy.

UPDATE 4/6/06:
Yeesh, I was just looking over this and realized I goofed on San Andreas's respect system. Clothes and a nice car are huge components in your Sex Appeal stat, but only clothing affects your Respect, and even that isn't a very large factor. You get Respect for finishing missions, but the best way to max it out is in turf wars. Also, killing drug dealers helps a lot. As far as I can tell the only way to lose Respect is to kill your own gang members. Sex Appeal helps you get and keep girlfriends, Respect controls how large a crew you can run with, which is generally only useful for turf wars.

Also, I'm happy to report that not all warehouses are the same - last night I took on a Brazini warehouse, which was on the waterfront and completely different from the Tattaglia warehouses. And I'm getting better at managing Vendettas - for a cool three grand you can pay off an FBI agent who will reset all your Vendetta levels to zero. You won't want to do that often, but it becomes a necessity if you started a gang war while seizing a warehouse.