Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Building Droids

These days my professional reading tends to focus more on abstract, architectural books, rather than the nitty-gritty technical books that drive the industry.  I happily made an exception for "Android Wireless Application Development" by Shane Conder and Lauren Darcey.  I know and like the authors, and haven't gotten to see much of them since they moved to the East Coast.  In a lot of ways reading this book felt like catching up: it's wonderfully well-written, with a great voice (or maybe "voices"): warm, funny, bright, and helpful.  It's pretty rare to find a truly well-written technical book out there, so even if it wasn't for the subject matter, I'd be predisposed to like it.

Fortunately, the subject matter is excellent.  When Android was first announced several years ago, I had seriously mixed feelings.  On the one hand, I liked Google.  On the other hand, the endeavor seemed like a Quixotic quest.  Back to the first hand, it had a great architecture heads and shoulders above existing mobile development platforms.  But, to return to the second hand, as a professional developer I began crying on the inside at the thought of having yet ANOTHER operating system to support.

We still haven't heard the final word on Android, but the ongoing buzz seems cautiously optimistic.  The initial launch device, T-Mobile's G1, didn't displace the iPhone, but it gained a respectable following and has aged really well in this notoriously fickly marketplace.  Android has a lot of great behind-the-scenes fundamentals going for it, like open source and the $0 price point, that makes it really attractive to phone manufacturers, so we've seen increasing interest as people become comfortable with the idea that Android is here to stay.

The net result: Android phones are now announced for all major US wireless carriers, and have a respectable worldwide presence as well.  Their market share is still tiny compared to other platforms, but it is growing, and I expect that trend to continue.

Oddly, as Android has become more widespread, I've spent less and less time working with it.  The peak of my involvement preceded the launch of the G1 when I was working on several apps for the Android Developer Challenge.  Post-launch I supported the first several OS revisions, then got increasingly distracted by the mobile platforms that I'm paid to work on, and as a result I've only been peripherally aware of Android changes over the past half-year or so.

But no longer!  This book provides great reminders of the fundamentals that have been rusting away for me, like the application lifecycle and resource management.  It also covers APIs that didn't even exist when I was knee-deep in the platform, like Bluetooth and WiFi.  It's cool to read about something that I thought I knew, and still be surprised by what I find.

Having recently written a technical book of my own, I have to confess to some jealousy at the writing.  I've never been good at humor in writing, and have learned to stop trying.  This book shows how a sense of funny playfulness can really help pull along even the driest subject matter, keeping things interesting.

Oh, and the artwork!  I'm guessing that they did it on their own, and once again, I'm extremely impressed.  There's a lot of it, for one thing - sometimes it seems like every page has at least one diagram, image, or screenshot on it.  More importantly, the quality is uniformly high, particularly the art in the images.  There are wonderful touches, like the Droid logo seeming to squawk as he careens down a waterfall, illustrating the hazards of traditional software development methodologies in mobile development.

Oooh, that's another thing I need to specifically call out.  The first 4/5 or so of the book is a great Android primer, tutorial, and reference.  The last 1/5 or so is one of the best general-purpose introductions to the mobile software business that I've ever seen.  It's fantastic material, and should be required reading for every mobile development shop, even those doing no programming at all.  They quickly and efficiently describe how to set up crucial systems like a phone database; talk about the most important factors to analyze at the start of a project; how to assess your overall philosophy of business in mobile; and so on.  Shane and Lauren's years of experience really shines in this part: it's all the stuff that mobile software veterans have learned, and that people outside the industry don't even suspect.

I was pretty surprised to realize that this is actually the first technical book that the authors have written; still, both have written a variety of technical articles, blogs, and such, and so the book doesn't feel like a first effort at all.  It's calm and confident, the perfect companion to someone trying to learn Android from scratch, add Android to a quiver of existing wireless platforms, or just fill in the holes of their own knowledge. 

Monday, October 26, 2009

Have Mercer

I picked up "Alive in Necropolis" after hearing the author read the preface on "The Writer's Block," KQED's literary podcast. That podcast can be pretty hit-and-miss for me, but there's enough intriguing stuff in there that I keep coming back. In this case, I was struck by both the tone - a mixture of creepy and matter-of-fact - as well as the local angle. I added it to my list, and just recently finished reading it.

The author is a native of the Bay Area, and it shows. Most of the book's action takes place in Colma, an odd little town a little ways south from San Francisco. The book's first paragraph includes a sentence like the following: "Just over one thousand people live in Colma. More than one million dead people reside there." If you look up Colma on Google Maps, you'll quickly grasp the situation: the city is almost completely covered with cemeteries. For more than a century, ever since San Francisco reclaimed valuable real estate that was filled with paupers' bones, Colma has been THE major final resting place for a plurality of Bay Area residents. That said, it IS still a town, with its own mayor, police force, local politics, businesses, and residents. It's a kind of bizarre situation, and it takes a book like this to remind people who live here just how odd it is.

The author breezily uses real geographic features: street names, cities, counties, and so on. I don't think any of this will turn off people who aren't familiar with the region, but it does add an extra layer of resonance for people who live here. For example, at one point in the book we learn that a certain group of teenagers are from Burlingame. From the context, anyone can grasp what they need to know: Burlingame ain't San Francisco, it's somewhere in the suburbs, and is a relatively safe place. For people who live here, though, Burlingame will instantly conjure up a host of other associations: wealth, status, privilege, quiet, entitlement. That's a lot of mileage out of one place name.


The main hook of the story, though, is Colma, and specifically the afterlife. In the metaphysics of AiN, after people die, they continue to exist as ghosts. The ghosts obey many of the Hollywood conventions: they can see the real world, but living people cannot see them; they have only a limited ability to interact with physical objects; they never age. When people die, they will exist forever in a particular form. That form seems to be somewhat random: it isn't necessarily the body that they died in, but some people come back as much younger than others.

The dead can be hurt: they can "die" again in accidents, and can attack one another. Doing so is rather pointless, as they will be "reborn" as a ghost again shortly. There is one permanent end, though: if a ghost chews something called the Root, they will vanish forever - or at least, no longer be seen within the realm of ghosts. Root was one of the authorial inventions that I especially enjoyed. I take it for granted that it means Mandrake Root, though it is never called that by name.

The ghosts were a really interesting touch, and one that I wish Dorst had explored a little more deeply. He mainly confined himself to about a half-dozen deceased characters. There are four villains, led by the sinister Doc Barker. The strongest character is Lillie Coit, the famous philanthropist and supporter of firemen. She watches over Doc Barker's gang and tries to warn people about their actions. The other two major deceased characters are Phineas Gage, who survived an iron pipe that was driven through his skull, and a deceased daredevil aviator. It's a big group, but... well, I have a confession to make. Very early on we catch a glimpse of Emperor Norton regally presiding over a funeral. And I wanted SO BADLY for him to be a major character. Sadly, he remains strictly background, and never even speaks. Looking over the past hundred years of history, there are tons of fascinating characters who would make for terribly intriguing ghosts: wealthy capitalists like Flood and Mills; the media mogul Hearst; rock stars from the 1960's; and many more. The dead characters we do get are charming or creepy enough, but bringing the dead back to life is such a great idea, I wish we'd gotten to see more.

(As a side note - I'm now wondering whether Dorst only included the people who were actually buried in Colma, and if so, if that necessarily restricted his choices. It's possible that Colma hasn't been as popular a place to be buried recently.)

The dead are the most interesting part of the book, but the main storyline actually deals with a living cop, a rookie on the Colma force named Mercer, referred to on the radio as Boy Thirteen. Mercer was a great character, and we get to know him well throughout the book. He's trying to find meaning in his life, and thinks that he's found it in policing. However, he still carries a lot of uncertainty and self-doubt with him; he constantly analyzes himself and his own decisions, and has trouble enjoying what he has. He's a grown-up who seems to have not fully grown up yet.

Mercer gets a majority of the POV chapters, but plenty go to supporting characters as well, and they are also worth knowing. I won't list everyone here, but we get a great mixture of personalities and roles. Late in the book, we get to see how a particularly messed-up teenage girl thinks, and it's creepily impressive. We can hear the storyline that she tells about herself, and compare that to the reality of what she does to others.

Oddly enough, even though this book is nominally a detective story and is filled with dead people, the actual crime feels relatively tame. Well, maybe not tame - the main crime that opens the book does seem really horrible - but still: in a world where seemingly every mystery novel features murder, kidnapping, or other heinous crimes, this one boils down to a group of kids being incredibly stupid and taking dangerous risks. I think that this is actually a strength of the book: by trying for less, it achieves more. The victim is still alive, and Dorst milks his gradual and evolving reaction to the crime, which allows for more psychological playfulness than would have been possible in a more conventional straight-up murder story.

Plus, as local readers know, anything like that that happened on the Peninsula WOULD be the most important local story for months. Yeah, thinks are kind of dull around here sometimes.

This seems to be Dorst's first novel, and it kind of shows. There are a few interesting plot lines that he raises which never go anywhere. I kept waiting to meet Jude's gay friend, but he disappears from the book and we never see him. Lorna's financial troubles are interesting and touching, but don't seem to play into the main storyline at all. The bit with Mercer's mother in Tahiti seems like a big deus ex machina.

Maybe I'm being too hard on the book, though. After all, there are other things that don't directly contribute to the Mercer storyline that I still loved. Almost all of Toronto's saga, and especially his relationship with Mia, is superfluous to the plot outside of establishing how much more inhibited Mercer is. Still, Toronto's an intriguing guy, and I enjoyed watching him rage, rule, fall apart, and rebuild himself. Similarly, the bit with Gage's iron never gets closure, but I liked the plaintive quality it lent to the story.

Altogether, the feeling was a bit like reading The Big U, but at the beginning of an author's career instead of after it had been established. TBU was a fascinating and fun mess of a book, careening all over the place and dropping plot lines as frequently as it blew my mind. I don't think that Dorst is another Stephenson, but I owe him the same allowances I gave that book.


Alive in Necropolis is well worth checking out. It's a fun mixture of mystery novel and character study, with lots of supernatural action and San Francisco Bay Area lore tossed in for people who enjoy that stuff. Its structure is a tad rough, but it's still eminently readable and a lot of fun.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Books that Stuck With Me

I was tagged with the Book List meme on Facebook about three months ago.  I was distracted when it hit, and I DO like thinking about and writing about books, so... better late than never, right?  Right?

Instructions: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.  (I'm not tagging anyone, but all are encouraged to play!  If you publish a list anywhere, please tag me or send me a link so I can see what books are living in my friends' heads.)

1. The Hobbit
2. The Bible
3. Dubliners
4. Snow Crash
5. Crying of Lot 49
6. Moby Dick
7. Design Patterns
8. Hamlet
9. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
10. Brave New World
11. Lord of the Flies
12. The Official Book of Ultima
13. Tripod Trilogy
14. Dave Barry Slept Here
15. Choose Your Own Adventure series

Although it isn't listed in the Instructions, I've limited myself to books that I first read at least five years ago; they have already passed the test of time.  Also, I'm sticking literally to the "memorable" requirement: these aren't necessarily the best books, or the most influential on my thinking, or the ones I've enjoyed the most.  They are all books that pop easily into my head to this day.

Brief notes on each:

1. A book that made me passionate about reading, and in a sense paved the way for everything else.  It also awakened a love for fantasy that continues to this day.

2. I know, it's a cliche, but it's also true.  As a child I devoured all the bible stories in Sunday School, and fiercely competed in contests to recall facts or race to look up verses.  (Gotta love the Baptists!)  I remember sitting in the sanctuary and, any time I wasn't tracking with what was going on, I'd quickly flip to Revelation and get lost in the phantasmagoric scenes there.  The book has continued with me as I've grown.  Like a lot of other college kids, I was intrigued and devastated by Ecclesiastes.  These days, I'm most drawn by the Synoptic Gospels, particularly the Sermon on the Mount.

3. The first Joyce I read.  I'm tempted to put Ulysses here instead, since its cumulative impact was greater and I'll always vividly remember Circe, Stephen and Bloom's nighttime walk home, the vicious anti-semitic voice in the tavern, stately plump Buck Mulligan, and everything else.  But Dubliners is quiet and filled with moments that I'm still unpacking: the plate of green peas, the election day passion, and above all the heart-dropping end of Araby.

4. Aw yeah!  Stephenson rocks my world, and Snow Crash remains one of the most flat-out kinetic yet mind-bending books I've ever read.  It affects the way I think about technology, about politics, about the future, about pizza delivery, McDonald's, the primal howl of pre-electronic man and the drone of constant information.

5. I love Crying of Lot 49 more each time I return to it.  As I grow older I increasingly appreciate ambiguity, and this book has it in spades.  There's something incredibly compelling about unpacking more and more from a mystery that you know you will never be able to solve.

6. I was pleasantly surprised by how much more exciting this book was than I had expected.  There's a ton of stuff going on in there, and plenty more to unpack.  The reason why it's listed here, though, is primarily from the amazingly vivid scenes that Melville created: above all, the apocalyptic image of monomaniacal Captain Ahab lashing himself to the ship's main mast in the middle of a torrential storm, raging with pure fury against the intractable force of nature.

7. Almost the only non-fiction book on the list.  What can I say - I love novels, and even the best non-fiction books don't burrow as deeply into my brain.  But Design Patterns underlies almost everything I do as a professional developer.  Not only do I use its tools; more importantly, it helped me learn how to think about software development, how to approach problems and find solutions that didn't just fix the problem but were repeatable, generic, communicable, and robust.

8. Shakespeare occupies a huge cumulative space in my brain, and Hamlet remains my favorite of the bunch.

9. This book is considered passe by a lot of folks, but I can't pretend that it didn't have a big impact on me.  It helped me settle on a major, guided me to my university, and changed the way that I think about programming.  The word Quality is overused, but it's still something I feel compelled to strive for.

10. This is my favorite in a dystopic triumvirate that also includes 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.  What's most chilling to me is that, unlike the other two books, there isn't an overt authorial voice telling you how bad the future is.  People in the world treat it matter-of-factly, and I get a little woozy when I think about that life.  Creepiest of all, we're inexorably moving closer and closer to that world.

11. Lord of the Flies may have had the biggest impact on me of any book that I read in junior high.  First, it was filled with vivid imagery that implanted itself in my mind: poor put-upon Piggy, patient silent mystical Simon, the buzzing flies surrounding a dismembered head.  Lord of the Flies also made me start thinking about the basic building blocks of society: who has power, where power comes from, how power is used, the consequences of usurping power.  As such, it kicked off a fascination with politics, both in the abstract and the specific, that remains to this day.

12. My love for the Ultima series was entirely out of proportion to how much of it I had played.  I caught a few brief glimpses of Ultima II at a friend's house while growing up, played Ultima VI at a family friend's house while on a vacation, and years later got a copy of Ultima VI for myself.  (Only later would I play IV, VII, and IX, which in sum would cement my good opinion of the series.) Anyways, what I loved about this book was that it wasn't a strategy guide or something that looked narrowly at the games.  Instead, it described the fascinating process of creating the games, including religious controversy, familial discontent, Richard's astronaut father, selling floppies out of zip-lock bags, and so on.  Even better, in describing his philosophy of game creation, Garriott shares some great advice that I still try to follow.  Most importantly, the first thing to create is the world.  Before you worry about the plot or the characters, create the map.  Once you have a detailed and interesting world, the rest will fall into place, and it will be more varied and interesting as a result.

13. I loved this Scholastic series in elementary school... I haven't read the books in ages, but I still remember the shock when a boy feels his head and finds where a metal disc has been embedded into his skull.  I also appreciate the surprisingly nuanced tone of the series' later entries, which turn away from pure xenophobia and show the workings of the pioneer aliens who have colonized Earth.

14. Dave Barry is probably my favorite humorist, and this is my favorite book of his.  It's incredibly funny.  More surprising, it actually paved the way for learning about actual history much later on... I was surprised to find that his description of the Treaty of Versailles was awfully close to what actually happened.

15. I could have also put Lone Wolf here.  I love games, and I love books, and there was a time when the best thing going was books that were games.  I enjoyed the imagination these books provoked.  They also made me start viewing plots as a series of nodes (scenes) connected by vectors (decisions), which is how I often see even conventional stories.  Choose Your Own Adventure also primed me to love test adventure games, which in turn led me to start programming, which eventually led to the awesome life that I have now.  Hooray for books!

I've Got My Half Life

I was planning on savoring the two episodes for Half Life 2, but ended up plowing through them pretty quickly. Which makes sense, both because they're shorter than the main game and because they share the same compelling design and sense of constant forward momentum. There's never a moment of RPG-ish free-roaming, where you can go wherever you want and tackle goals in your own order. Nope: you're always running from something, or racing to save someone, or fighting to stay alive one way or another. It'd be an exhausting way to live, but it's an exciting way to game.

I was really impressed with the episodes. In some ways, I like them even more than the main campaign of HL2. The biggest improvement is the cooperative AI gameplay. For most of the main campaign, you are totally on your own. You get to play with Antlion slaves for a while, which is entertaining, and towards the end you start leading squads of resistance fighters. I loved the idea of squad-based combat, but sadly the AI wasn't very sharp... they did great with a large number of low-level threats, like when you face a swarm of drones or a rival squad of Combine soldiers, but if, say, a sniper was pinning down an alleyway, and you told them to stay in shelter, then you crept carefully down the alleyway to take out the sniper, the squad would get bored and follow you, only to get popped one by one.

Here, for large chunks of the episodes, you fight alongside Alex. This is a Very Good Thing, for multiple reasons. First, she's gorgeous. I don't just mean visually appealing; the programmers have done a stunning job at modeling her movements. They're not only fluid, which is kind of the holy grail for character animation, but they're also unique and interesting. Way back in the main campaign, I remember being pleasantly stunned when watching her walk away, then pivot and continue walking backwards while talking to you. She's also a climber, regularly scrambling up ladders or rocks. When she gets into a car, she grabs the frame and then swings herself into the seat. Again, all this is done in-game in real time, not in some cut-scene. My hat is off.


Besides the enjoyment of watching your companion, though, it's a ton of fun from a gameplay perspective. There's a great section in one of the episodes where you're in a pitch-black underground tunnel. You need to use your flashlight to see anything. The flashlight can only stay on for about twenty seconds before it runs out of juice, at which time you need to turn it off and let it recharge, keeping you in the dark for seconds more. Eventually, you stumble across hordes of zombies. Alex is armed, but she doesn't have a flashlight. Therefore, you need to shine your light on the enemies for her to shoot them. They structure this brilliantly, forcing you to practice with the idea early on before you get a weapon, then leading you through fights where you could take the zombies out on your own but it's better (you save more ammo) if you let her do it, and finally a full-blown battle royale with dozens of hungry zombies coming at you in a seemingly endless wave while you're pinned down in front of an elevator.

Most of the enemies are the same as in HL2, with a few interesting additions. Some of the Combine soldiers have gotten infected by headcrabs, turning into a more dangerous form of zombie. These are a lot of fun: they're stronger and faster than the stock zombie, but in a great moment of comedy, they sometimes try to use a grenade on you. Only, they've forgotten how grenades work, so they'll hold it in their hand until it explodes. You'll want to keep your distance. We also get to see more stages in the Antlion lifecycle. Tiny, helpless grubs grow underground and are defenseless against your bullets and boots. Immature antlions can spit acid at you. Finally, there is a gigantic Antlion Guardian that's kind of like the queen bee of the colony. You only encounter one Guardian, and one is enough. Later, you run across Hunters, who may be the most difficult standard enemy: they can attack from great distances, do a lot of damage, move quickly, and have devastating close-range attacks. You also have a brief encounter with the terrifying creature that is glimpsed on the video screen near the end of HL2.


The storyline is really compelling. It actually starts out with a reversal of the HL2 ending: the G-Man is repelled from his attempt to collect you, and you and Alex are saved from the destruction of the Citadel by the efforts of your Vortigon allies. You learn that the Citadel's core is about to blow, and you don't have time to escape City 17 before it does. Therefore, you and Alex head back in to the Citadel to strengthen the containment field to give extra time for you and the remaining civilians to escape.

While in the Citadel, Alex intercepts a message from Dr. Judith, the reformed double-agent member of the Resistance. Judith is attacked and apparently killed on screen, while trying to transmit a set of coordinates. You also learn that the Combine is trying to send some sort of message through the portal swirling above the Citadel. It appears that they're trying to re-establish a link that would allow more reinforcements to cross over to Earth.

You secure the containment field and escape the Citadel. There's a hilarious segment where Dr. Kleinar appears on the Combine transmission screens, warning civilians to flee the city, advising them that the Combine suppression field has been shut down, and urging people to do their part and start procreating. You fight your way towards the train station, where you run into Barney, who is leading a rear guard of citizens. You provide cover for everyone to escape the city, then you and Alex take the last train out of City 17. You watch the Citadel explode, which seems to send shockwaves through the fabric of reality. The train crashes and Episode 1 ends in an epic cliffhanger.

Episode 2 sees you waking up in the wreckage of the train. You and Alex see that the Citadel has vanished, but the portal in the sky remains. (I have to say, the sight of the valley where the Citadel used to be is one of the most gorgeous scenes I've seen in any video game, including Oblivion.) Alex contacts White Forest, the resistance's base, where her father and Dr. Kleinar are. Also there is a new character, Dr. Magnesun, a pompous administrator from Black Mesa. When they learn about the transmission that Alex intercepted, they urge the importance of you immediately coming to White Forest. The transmission appears to be some sort of code used to establish the portal, and with that information, they should be able to shut the portal down and re-establish Earth's independence.

In a jaw-droppingly painful scene, Alex is stabbed through the back by a Hunter. (I initially mistook the Hunter for Dog. Whoops!) The Vortigons stabilize Alex's condition, but she is still critically wounded. You travel with a Vortigon into the Antlion colony to retrieve a substance that can save her life.

After a lot of effort, you eventually retrieve the substance. While the Vortigons are restoring Alex, time freezes, and you are revisited by the G-Man. He gives the longest exposition to date, both explaining more about his purpose and making himself seem even more mysterious. He instructs the unconscious Alex to deliver a message to her father: "Prepare for unforeseen consequences." You shift back to reality as Alex comes back to life. She seems weak, and for the rest of the episode, my heart would sink a little every time I saw her: bruised face, and two ugly-looking bloodstains on the back of her jacket where the Hunter stabbed her.

You resume your journey towards White Forest. Along the way, you have an incredibly creepy experience in the basement of an abandoned farmhouse: I forget the name of the creature you encounter, but I think it's called something like Ambassador or Agent. (Update: I just looked it up, they're called Advisors.)  It looks a little bit like a giant, floating, cloth-wrapped grub. What's terrifying is that it takes control of you and all other humans, leaving you unable to move, although you can still look around. Its small, mechanical hands can hold a victim in place while a short sensory tentacle stabs into their throat and annihilates the brainstem. This one is weakened, and the two of you manage a fortunate escape.

You help out other Resistance fighters on your journey, reunite with Dog, and finally arrive in White Forest. Dr. Magnesun is as insufferable in person as on the video screen: he is obsessed with building his rocket, and believes that everyone else is incompetent and lazy. The other main characters suffer him more or less gracefully. You have a chat with Dr. Vance, who is disturbed by Alex's message: "Prepare for unforeseen consequences." Outside of Alex's hearing, he reveals that he knows the G-Man, and is conflicted about how the G-Man has saved his daughter only to use her as a pawn. You also get the feeling that Dr. Vance wouldn't mind having you for a son-in-law.

The three scientists review Judith's transmission. It proves to be the coordinates of a particular ship that makes them all very excited: it was developed by Aperture (hooray for the Portal reference!) and was believed lost forever. They are divided on what to do about it: Dr. Kleinar wants to use it as a weapon to help defeat the Combine, while Dr. Vance is emphatic that it is too dangerous, too much like the experiment at Black Mesa where everything went wrong, and should never be used. They table the discussion while Dr. Magnesun prepares the rocket for launch. Multiple attacks occur as launch time approaches. You manage to beat back each one.

One of those attacks was one of the most frustrating and difficult experiences I've had in any game. A seemingly endless wave of Striders, each guarded by Hunters, storms into the valley. This would be difficult enough if you fought them the standard way, with a rocket. Instead, the game has you use an entirely different method: use the gravity gun to grab a special sticky bomb, launch it up at the Strider, then detonate it with another weapon. If that's all that was involved, it would still be incredibly difficult. To make matters worse, the Hunters can destroy the bomb while you're holding it, or in mid-air, or once it's on the Hunter. And you can't stock up on the bombs: you can only grab one at a time, from a few specific locations on the map, which may be far from where your particular Strider is.

I swore a lot during this section, and eventually dropped down into Easy mode. Even in Easy, I probably used Quick Save and Quick Load more often in this segment than in the entire rest of Episode 2. It was not fun at all.

Still, once you're done with that, you're treated to some great, unbroken story. You have the honor of pressing the switch that launches the rocket. It gets off fine, and as everyone had hoped, the transmission it broadcasts closes the portal in the sky. There is much rejoicing: the Combine forces on Earth are now isolated, and the Resistance can start taking them down without worrying about an endless replenishment. With that major threat out of the way, Alex and you volunteer to go and rescue Judith. Dr. Vance repeats his warning that the ship she was tracking must be destroyed, not used. The episode is obviously winding down, and for a few minutes it looks like this might be the first-ever HalfLife game that doesn't end with a cliffhanger.

Until the Advisors show up. Two of them appear, seemingly out of nowhere, with no early-warning reality ripples. They incapacitate you, Alex, and Dr. Vance. The elder doctor is killed in front of Alex's screaming face; they sob out final words of love for each other. Alex begins crying out in terror as they advance on you. Suddenly, Dog bounds into the room and savagely attacks them. The spell is broken and you fall to the floor. The screen fades to black as you listen to Alex's sobs as she weeps over her dead father.

Roll credits!


Man... the episodes were great! Terrific continuation of the story, and really fun gameplay as well. I said this in my original post, but what I like most about the HL series is its variety. None of the battles in the episodes felt exactly like the battles in HL2. There's always something different and interesting going on tactically. You need to think and adapt to survive.

The episodes also made me kind of wish that I had played the expansions for the original HL. I saw the boxes for Blue Shift and Opposing Forces, but never tried either one... I think I was in Linux-only mode when those came out. If those episodes were comparable to these, then I'm probably missing out on a lot of the HL universe's story. I wonder if these might explain more of the stuff that confuses me, like when and why the Vortigons joined the Resistance, or exactly how the Combine is related to the aliens from Xen that you battled in HL1.

I'm also very curious where things will go from here. I expect that we'll get another Episode... it feels like there are too many loose plot threads to carry over to a stand-alone HalfLife 3. I can imagine one final game that wraps up the storylines with Judith and the ship. Or maybe just takes you to the ship, where HalfLife 3 could start up. Eh... it's all speculation. I expect it will be good, though, whatever form it takes.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Holy Graphic Novels, Ronin!

I continue my march through the works of Frank Miller and Alan Moore with two totally different graphic novels: The Killing Joke and Ronin.

TKJ seems to be one of the most famous modern Batman stories, possibly just behind The Dark Knight Returns. The look of this book is wholly unlike that one. Where DKR's art was impressionistic, with evocative pencil strokes that contained little detail, TKJ's art is lush and rich. An afterward explains that the artist has retouched the book from its original form, but still, even if it was uncolored it would be gorgeous. The color isn't an afterthought, though... particularly in the nightmarish carnival scenes, it lends a hallucinatory quality to the proceedings. Even the pure whiteness of The Joker's face feels somehow new here.

I think that TKJ is one of the most attractive comic books I've read. I can't say that it has the best story... it's good, but doesn't really amaze.


I like the idea of showing The Joker's origin, but it feels kind of anticlimactic. I suppose this is inevitable - it would be really hard to come up with a story that matches the consistent menace and creepiness of the character - but given that, I almost would have preferred that they kept the mystery there. It does serve a really important purpose... by seeing what The Joker was like before his life collapsed and he turned to crime, the idea of him achieving redemption becomes feasible. Heh... it sure is easy to criticize and second-guess other writers. Anyways, it would have been cool to either have a more exciting origin story for The Joker, or found another hook that showed there was a real human underneath the pallor.

That idea of redemption, incidentally, was hands-down my favorite element of this book. It's kind of depressing that that the idea of a bad guy atoning for his crimes and turning good would seem so radical, or even that a good guy would reach out to someone with a plea to stop the endless cycle of violence. I think it's even more radical to tell that story in the context of a well-established comic world, rather than inventing new characters for it... it helps the book immediately impress on us the importance of what Batman is offering, since we know who Batman is, who The Joker is, and how fraught their relationship is. That final page, of course, is ambiguous... I don't think you can really know whether The Joker has given up or not. But even the possibility that he might have surrendered is exhilarating. It's also incredibly significant, of course, that Batman laughs at the joke. This means that he isn't in a pure power play, forcing The Joker to play the script written by Batman; he's engaging with him, giving and taking, letting his facade slip a little, accepting something offered by The Joker.

Back to the downside - the shooting of Gordon's daughter was incredibly dramatic and powerful, as I'd expect, and the whole photo thing was extremely creepy. Still, the whole incident plays into the comic convention of nothing ever changing - she didn't die, she'll get better, Gordon had a rough time but he's fine now. Gordon's trip into madness was yet another thing that I thought sounded much cooler than it ended up being. It mostly came down to seeing pictures of his daughter and saying "Oh God" a lot. The most interesting part by far was The Joker's patter, but the visuals didn't really convince me that Gordon was on the edge. (Of course, this may be a case where I would have a different reaction if I was more plugged into the Batman mythos and had stronger relationships with these characters.)


On an almost totally unrelated note: Ronin! There actually is a tenuous connection: Ronin was the book that paved the way for The Dark Knight Returns, and DKR has affected every Batman story (and many comic stories) since. Ronin stands entirely on its own, though, as a fully independent universe.

I really, really liked Ronin a lot. Let's talk about the universe, the story, and the meaning.

I believe Ronin was written in the 1980's, and it projects that decade's gritty view of New York far into the future. Manhattan in the 21st century is a chaotic, lawless land run by racial gangs. Worldwide, economic recession has largely decimated the nation-states, and corporations hold what little power is left. However, in the center of urban squalor lies mankind's hope.

A scientist, Peter McKenna, has succeeded in bridging the gap between biologic and electronic components. He is able to create living organisms, fleshy robots and buildings, and an artificial intelligence called Virgo. With the support of Mr. Taggart, a natural leader and keen businessman, McKenna builds Aquarius, a gigantic, living, utterly secure oasis lying among Manhattan's decaying skyscrapers. Throughout the book you repeatedly catch glimpses of Aquarius, and it looks much like kudzu: a breathing, living thing spreading across the landscape.

The whole setup is pretty fascinating... that's not the whole thing, but enough to see that the book can play with some pretty interesting ideas. The barrier between man and machine is breaking down, and as the book progresses the characters are trying to make sense of what it all means.

Now, for the story.


"Ronin," of course, refers to a masterless samurai. The book actually opens in ancient Japan, where we learn about a samurai's battle with and eventual loss to a powerful demon. His follower pursues the demon throughout his life, and the conflict eventually brings them into the time of Aquarius.

So, in addition to the man/machine tension inherent in the future, you also have the added tensions between ancient and modern, magic and science. In the center of all this, though largely absent from our sight, is Billy, who in some ways seems even more out of place than the samurai. Billy is a man-child with telekinetic powers. Throughout the book he is goaded and manipulated into using his powers. Finally, in a shocker near the end, we learn that Billy may have invented the whole story of the ronin and the demon from his own mind, and the chaos their battle has brought to the world is the result of his feverish imagination.

It's a deeply satisfying story, complex and full of interesting little twists and reversals. Best of all, the story sets you up to seriously ponder the underlying meaning that they're getting at.

For me, the book seemed to ultimately be hinting at the creative power of storytelling. This isn't a new idea, but it's still an incredibly exciting one that I never seem to tire of. Billy has had a rough childhood, and is helpless to act on his world the way he wants... he gets picked on, he loves a woman who won't love him back, his mother smothers his ambitions. Within the story, Billy acts out through telekinesis, reshaping the world to act out his fantasies. In a way, that's what most artists do: they create a narrative, and bring that narrative to life in the context of their medium. You could view the whole book - both the past AND the future parts - as being one long dream of Billy's. Well, how is that so different from the author's experience while writing it, or our experience while reading it? The fictions we create and consume can exert enormous influence on us... they may not be "real," but they have very real effects on us.


Both books were excellent. I'd give a personal hat tip to Ronin for its originality and really fascinating world, but you can hardly go wrong with either one.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Inherent Virtue

I practically squealed out loud when Inherent Vice first popped up on my Amazon page. I don't remember exactly when this was - early this year sometime - and I was shocked that the book was this close to publication and I hadn't heard about it yet. I deliberately avoided reading anything about the plot, but did take a quick peek at the page count. It was fairly short - glee! It was far too early to draw conclusions, but I harbored a hope that the book might offer a sublime readable-yet-deep experience like that of The Crying of Lot 49, rather than the more lengthy and obtuse books (Mason & Dixon, Vineland) that he has written in recent years.

I finally had the chance to pick up the book and read it. I fully enjoyed it, but Crying this ain't. That said, most of the reviews I've read since finishing the book over-emphasize how different this book is from Pynchon's other stories. The genre is totally different, but the more I think about it, the more I believe that this is of a piece with other Pynchon I've read.

First and most obviously, IV IS genre fiction. You can't really slap a label on, say, Gravity's Rainbow, at least not one that makes any sense - psychedelic historic rocket war science philosophical adventure, perhaps? IV is a noir crime novel, with the twist that its protagonist is a hippy in 1970's Los Angeles. It observes many of the conventions of the form: the experienced PI who bumps heads with the police, the attractive stranger who walks into the office, the menacing messages left by crooks, etc. Someone who's looking to read a mystery novel will feel at home and, hopefully, happy.

You can tell all along, though, that this is a Pynchon novel. First, the characters are brilliantly named, each and every one. More importantly, the cast list is sprawling. I don't think I've read another book this short with so many significant characters. He somehow manages to name them, give them motivations and actions, and still squeeze... I dunno, it feels like nearly a hundred people in here. I'm very tempted to create a diagram that would outline everyone's relationship to everyone else: who loves whom, who knows who, who assaults or kills who (fewer than you would think!), when various people arrive or leave.

This sort of complexity is the hallmark of Pynchon's work. I've read Crying almost half a dozen times, and still find new stuff each time. I've only read GR once, and can't claim to have understood even a quarter of what happens. That said, IV feels... easier, breezier. Well, let me be more specific. If I did draw out that diagram, it would take me, say, about a month to puzzle everything out of the text, put it into a coherent order, and draw it out. Once it was done, I would have solved a cool, puzzle, but that's it... I don't feel like there's any deeper prize than figuring out what happened. With Crying, I could create a similar diagram. It would have fewer nodes on it, but when I finished that diagram, I wouldn't have the answer: I would have a tool, something that I could then apply to the text in order to try and glean deeper meaning from it. The puzzles in Pynchon's other books are facades, fun gizmos that grab our attention and lead us into interesting territory that a book can't otherwise reach. IV is all facade. That sounds more critical than I mean it to - it's a gorgeous facade, the work of a master craftsman, but there's nothing underlying it.

Besides the complexity, I also get a kick out of the mystery aspect of the book. This is another area where I think that IV has more in common with Pynchon's other works than most people believe. Not all of them, but both V and Crying are about the protagonist's search for a mysterious quarry. The nature of that mystery is different: in V, the reader is presented with a plethora of V's throughout the book. It seems like any one of them might be a plausible candidate for the "real" V, but by the end of the book you (or at least I) can't say for certain who it is. There's no such multiplicity in Crying: the source of the mystery is one specific organization called Tristero. The mystery here isn't Tristero's identity, but rather its nature. Does it exist? Is it a hoax? Is it a hallucination? Crying succeeds by balancing on the edge of this dilemma. Throughout the book you constantly have at least two fully plausible and non-reconcilable theories, and those theories remain potential at the very end.


The mystery in IV is... well, it's a little hard to say. Nominally it's about what happened to a real-estate developer, but I preferred to view the central mystery as the Golden Fang. Golden Fang is a mystery more in the V sense than in the Crying sense: the name belongs to a mysterious ship, and a dental cooperative, and an Asian crime syndicate, and probably some other sources that I'm forgetting. It's impossible to dismiss all these shared names as coincidence, but at the same time, there isn't much overt information tying these things together. Doc Sportello, the protagonist PI, stumbles across one lead after another, gradually widening the perceived scope of Golden Fang, rather than narrowing in on its purpose.


Anyways, I think that element of mystery helps explain how this book does kind of fit in with Pynchon's earlier works. V and Crying can be read as extremely literary mystery stories. (That's not all they are, of course, but it's a perfectly valid way to read them.) VI is a mystery story, with maybe a tad less going on literature-wise, but with the same level of craftsmanship, play, and intricacy on display.

So, uh, that's that. Don't read this expecting the next Crying or you'll be disappointed. If you're looking for the best ever noir crime novel that features copious marijuana consumption, surf talk, and an incredibly groovy PI, you'll find it here.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

We are here to save the Erf! E-R-F!

Another year, another Blog Action Day, another topic that I feel unqualified to write about that I will nonetheless spend a post discussing!

This year there was a new wrinkle: the folks behind BAD offered a vote to choose the topic.  Previous participants could cast their ballot and guide the conversation.  There was some seriously organized lobbying behind it, including a passionate push for the topic of human rights.  In the end, climate change won, so that's why if you poke around the blogosphere today you'll see so many posts on the topic.

I believe that climate change poses the largest existential risk to humanity outside of rogue nuclear weapons.  I also find the topic incredibly boring.  I'm not sure how I can reconcile those two attitudes. 

Like most people, I rely on the research performed by scientists to make sense of the issue.  Based on what I've read, it seems obvious that our actions are modifying our atmosphere.  This is nothing new, of course... residents of Dickensian London went striding through pea-soup fog brought about by nascent industrialization.  In my own lifetime rock formations around the world were decimated by acid rain caused by sulfuric compounds pumped into the air by factories, and Antarctica's ice began melting due to the damage fluorocarbons from consumer products were doing to our ozone layer.

When people talk about "climate change" these days, they're referring to a much vaster phenomenon: the amazing mass of volume that we're transferring from our soil into the air.  The term "climate change" has replaced the earlier buzzphrase "global warming" to reflect the fact that the effects will be varied, leaving no part of the planet unaffected but affecting each in different ways.  Africa, already parched, will be desiccated.  Meanwhile, the melting of the Greenland ice shelf will likely freeze the Atlantic gulf stream, sending Europe back to the Ice Age.  Siberian tundra will be replaced with Siberian swamp.  North America actually will come out better than most, but that isn't saying much... many of our animal species will die out, and far more of our plants, which can't migrate nearly as quickly.  Locally, at least 2 of the 3 airports will be under water, as well as all of Foster City, much of Milpitas, Alameda, and large chunks of San Francisco, Oakland, and many more.

And yet - again, I just can't get too worked up about it.  I'm way more passionate about far more limited issues, like government surveillance of law-abiding citizens, copyright reform, patent reform, our transportation infrastructure, and so on.  I can't rationally argue that these things are more important than addressing the carbon problem, but I never tire of talking about them, while I rarely have the patience to even finish newspaper articles on climate change.

My theory?  My priorities are wrong.  Or, more charitably, I don't feel like I have much useful to contribute to the climate change debate.  (As opposed to climate change itself - more on that later.)  It seems like all the information is out there, people are getting the message, and politicians are slowly coming around to the need to act.  If I join the debate, I'm joining a chorus - all well and good, but I find it more rewarding to dig into issues that may not be as widely appreciated or understood outside the nerdy circles I frequent.

Of course, everything is connected.  Ever since moving to California I have become mildly obsessed with the water problems that this region (and, generally, America west of the Rockies) faces.  There's a lot that we can and should do to address these problems, but you know what?  In the long run, none of that will matter if we can't slow the course of surface warming.  Similarly, while I've long been a passionate believer in the need to move from an auto-based economy to a more sustainable one.  I've had many reasons for this - greater national independence from foreign dictators with oil reserves, a need to preserve the scarce resources available on this planet, the healthier lifestyle that comes with more walking and biking, more attractive urban layout, etc.  The climate change issue adds some really powerful arrows to this particular quiver.

While I hardly ever talk about climate change, I try to be a good liberal and do what I can.  To be fair, I probably would do most of these things even if it wasn't for the threat of drowning San Francisco or killing penguins.  Most of these are great ideas anyways as they save money, improve lifestyles, or more.
  • Transit.  I'm fortunate to live in a part of the country with good mass transit and fairly bike-friendly cities.  I used to put about 12,000 miles a year on my car; now, I put on about 3,000 per year.  This saves me a ton of money - I can cut way back on car maintenance, mainly just doing an oil change twice a year; I barely felt the enormous gas price spikes in late 2008 because I fill up less than once a month; and I even got State Farm to reduce my insurance price because of how little I drive.  I also feel better physically than I ever have before, thanks in part to the walking and biking that are built into my lifestyle now.  AND I'm happier and more productive; instead of the stresses of traffic, I can read novels and write blog posts while the nice train engineer drives for me.  (In all fairness: according to what I've read, any carbon savings I make in cutting back on car use are totally blown out of the water by the two airplane vacations I make each year to Chicago for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Sigh.  Well, maybe one day we'll have a bullet train that will get me there in a reasonable amount of time.  Or maybe teleportation devices!  That would rule.)
  • Energy use.  I learned good habits growing up from my parents.  I turn off the lights when I leave the room, I close the refrigerator door when I'm not using it, I strategically open and close the blinds and windows depending on the temperature inside and what the sun's doing.  These add up to a manageable electric bill.  Again, I'm lucky to live in a part of the country with temperate climate, but still, I'm usually able to keep my bill to around $20 a month in the summer and around $30 in the winter.  Lately I've gotten better about unplugging appliances when I'm not using them, and I'm already seeing those benefits as well.
  • Food.  Rather than driving in an air-conditioned SUV to purchase a paper-wrapped meal made from processed beef raised on gigantic feedlots and flavored with chemicals manufactured in New Jersey, I make virtually every breakfast and dinner in my own kitchen, generally from food purchased from small local farmers.  (Midgets!)  I had some false starts early on, but it's always been fun, and now it doesn't take any longer than it would to go out for food.  As a bonus, it tastes great, I know exactly what I'm eating, and I'm in control of servings so I can eat exactly what I want and not waste any leftovers or feel compelled to keep eating.  (Disclaimer: I haven't done the math on this one yet; I know the raw ingredients are more carbon-friendly, but it's entirely possible that the energy I spend by operating a burner or the oven is greater than my proportional share of the energy required to create 10000 fast food hamburgers.  If you were to walk to your fast food place, you MIGHT be more planet-friendly than cooking for yourself.  But you'd be missing out... there are plenty of good reasons to cook, and unlike most other items, this is something that humanity has been doing for thousands of years.)
  • Politics.  While individuals can make an impact, this is a global issue and it will require global solutions.  The talk about carbon credits is good; I think a carbon tax would be far better.  I doubt we'll get one, but I'll support a politician who's willing to try.  Ultimately, though, even a carbon tax won't be enough unless we can convince China, India, and all other countries to limit their emissions as well.  This will be the big challenge of our generation, and we'll need to elect strong, diplomatic, intelligent leaders who can pursue those negotiations with aggression and tact.  I'm nowhere near being a single-issue voter on this topic, but it's something I try to keep in mind when I'm considering candidates at the national or (because I live in this crazy wonderful messed-up wreck of an experiment) state level.

Sooooo, uh, that's what I think about climate change.  It's bad, but we know what needs to be done to fix it.  Just as we eliminated fluorocarbons and sulfurs to fix earlier environmental crises brought on by our industrial age, so we need to severely limit the amount of carbon to solve this crisis.  I'm hopeful that Richard Branson or microbiologists can come up with a technological solution to this problem, but I'm not willing to bet the planet on that.  We should hope for the best while preparing for the worst, and start taking action now to make sure this planet is in good shape for our descendants.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I immediately jumped on Portal once I bought the Orange Box, but it didn't take me long before I started working my way through HalfLife 2.  I'm not a big FPS guy - counting HL2, you can still count all FPS action games I've played on the fingers of one hand - but I am a fan of Half Life, and it seemed long overdue to return to the world.

I think I first encountered HalfLife in the summer of 1999, after graduating from high school but before starting at college.  I can't remember now exactly what made me pick it up.  I've far and away been much more interested in RPG and strategy games than action games, but I think the torrent of praise I was hearing for HL grew too big to ignore.  If I remember correctly, it won pretty much every single "Game of the Year" award there was when it came out.

For a while I'd held the iD games of Doom and Quake in contempt as convenient whipping boys.  It helps that I'd never played either one... the subject matter made them pretty much off limits to me, but even beyond that, the reputation they've had is amazing graphics with minimal plot and reflex-based gameplay.  I prided myself on having more intellectual aspirations in my gaming.  In contrast, while HL was still definitely an action game, it had won kudos for its storytelling and puzzle aspects.

So I started playing Half Life.  And kept going, and going, and going.  I went off to college, put gaming on the back shelf for a while as I got my academic sea legs, then picked it back up again.  I started to wonder when it would ever end.  Not that I was eager to stop, you understand - I was amazed at the variety of the game, the way that it was constantly unfurling, growing ever bigger and more complex.  I just couldn't comprehend all the work that must have gone into making a game that was this enormous.

My roommate picked it up and made it pretty far through the single-player campaign, then got bored and switched to the multiplayer portion.  For a while I used my Linux partition to run a deathmatch server called Timmy's House of Sprinkles.  It was a simple affair, 8 players maximum, with I think a 10-minute limit on each game, and stayed on my favorite multiplayer map, a warehouse that I liked for its small size and the constant action you got as a result.  My roommate later migrated on to Counterstrike, which I never got into, but further amazed me.  Valve hadn't just created a killer game: they'd built an amazing platform, and I was stunned that the volunteer-based collaborative model that had produced Linux could also create a successful, commercial-quality game like Counterstrike.

I eventually beat the single player campaign, and was well pleased.  I poked around a little with various user-created modules, including a cool three-part horror game called something like "They Live."  But when I switched to a LInux-only system, HalfLife was one of the casualties, and it faded away.

I'm frankly stunned that it's ten years later and I'm playing the sequel... it doesn't feel like that much time could possibly have passed.  I'm also stunned that the game is five years old and still looks amazing.

The original HL was revolutionary for its time, but I think that the industry has caught up.  To some extent, you were being radical if you even included any intimations of story in a FPS game before then, other than "All the bad guys are X, kill them all."  HL's story was evocative, which is one of the things I like best about it.  There were no videos, no cut scenes, everything happened in real-time in front of your very eyes.  And so you wouldn't get the standard gaming exposition, describing what's going on and why.  Instead of hearing how dire the situation was, you would see it for yourself: not only the hordes of aliens you must constantly fight off, but distantly glimpsed encounters as scientists are slaughtered, or a panicked call for help coming in over a radio.  Occasionally you would encounter a particular researcher or someone who would fill you in on something a little more nuanced - "The survivors are gathering in the Lamda core, you should make your way over there."  On the whole, though, HL was a textbook example of showing and not telling.

In some ways, HL2 is a step back from that austerity, though I didn't mind at all.  There is far more dialog in the sequel than I remember in the first game, and more differentiated characters.  Instead of two models of scientists and one model of security guard, you get really well-modeled and well-crafted characters with their own personalities, ambitions, and behavior.  It's still an action-driven game, of course, but this time around you hear more from the people you're working to save.

The gameplay is a huge step up from the original, which was already a lot of fun.  FPS games have a reputation for linearly improving weaponry; once you get the BFG, there's no point in using anything smaller.  In HL, you had to quickly learn which weapons to use for each situation.  The machine gun was best when you had a swarm of soldiers in a large room to clear out quickly; the shotgun was best if you were in tight quarters in one-on-one combat; the sniping crossbow could help if you could spot enemies from far away; grenades were tough to master but could clear a room if you got the timing right; and the crowbar was the ultimate melee weapon if you could move quickly and judge your enemy's reach.  Add to this exotic weapons like the "bee gun," which could seek out enemies, and the rocket launcher, your only hope for taking down certain large enemies but something that would destroy you if you got caught in the blast.

HL2 keeps most of these weapons (except the bee gun), and adds its own.  The new biological "weapon" is an antlion seed pod, which you can use to summon a swarm of obedient alien ants.  However, the hands-down most impressive and most praised weapon is the Gravity Gun.  This unique tool shows off Valve's vaunted physics engine, and lets you interact with the world in extremely fun, unpredictable ways.

One thing that is a little odd is the set of enemies.  There are plenty of new ones, including the forces of the Combine, the alliance between collaborationist humans and the aliens that police human cities.  There's also a return of many old enemies, including our friends the headcrab and ceiling tentacles, and some new aliens, such as a great and creepy "fast zombie" and a poisonous version of the headcrab.  But I feel like we've lost some of the large enemies from the first game... I vaguely remember there being some larger aliens later in the first game that seem to be entirely missing here.  Almost everyone you fight is roughly your size, although there is one great boss in the form of a giant antlion.

Level design!  It's amazing.  The city environments are cool and pretty unique for a game... it's a dystopic version of an Eastern European city, which is more varied and interesting than the white antiseptic look we got in HL1 or the standard post-apocalyptic New York-ish environment of most sci-fi games of this sort.  Where the game really sold me, though, are the exteriors.  In particular, you play extended sequences along a coastline, and the interplay of water, sky, sand, and grass are really quite gorgeous.  Some levels are just awe-inspiring.  Ravenholm is fantastic, a demented Transylvanian landscape filled with spooky atmosphere, environmental puzzles (and weapons), and a great mixture of free roaming exploration and more standard goal-driven progression.  Finally, the Citadel at the end of the game is jaw-dropping, a masterpiece of cool design.

On the whole, I think HL2 is a bit shorter than HL1, but still plenty long enough.  I've also played through the Lost Coast, an entertaining tech demo, and have just started on Episode 1.  I am a little curious where and how they will make this franchise go, but they have so much going for them that they shouldn't have much trouble.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bounce Back


"Zeitoun" is a really powerful and moving book.  A work of nonfiction from Dave Eggers, it tells the story of one family's experience with Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.  It manages to be gut-wrenching without feeling manipulative... the story is so compelling that it demands a response, and I'm still trying to sort through just what that response should be.

Like many Americans, I was horrified at the stories and pictures we saw of devastated New Orleans after the hurricane.  I shared in the frustration at the seeming incompetence of our government to respond to the disaster.  I suspect that I'm also like many other Americans in the way that the incident has been slowly fading for me.  I still think it was shameful, of course, but I very rarely think about it any more, and when I do it's from a more detached viewpoint.  Which isn't very helpful.  As many people rightly pointed out at the time, the biggest legacy of Katrina is not the storm itself, but the way it exposed existing problems in our own society, things that are rarely seen in the media but that profoundly affect the character of our country: the vast divide between rich and poor, the severe social isolation within cities, rampant prejudice, and so on.

Weirdly enough, though, those aren't the areas that Zeitoun mines.  The main characters in this book aren't part of the masses crammed into the Superdome that so outraged the world; they are successful middle-class people who have realized the American Dream.  I think that this book gives an unflinching and unapologetic view of three sides of America.  We see the good: the selflessness, courage, everyday decency of individual citizens that both enrich our daily lives and help see us through scenes of tragedy.  We see the individual badness, too: blind prejudice, lack of responsibility, and fearfulness that push people to make bad decisions which cut others down in small or large ways.  Finally and most damning, we see first-hand how our institutions work in stressful situations, and the sight isn't pretty.  It was stunning and depressing to read about the actions of police, the National Guard, the corrections system, the judicial system, and the political system.  The problems here rose far above the level of individual incompetence and revealed that the structural orientation of these bedrock institutions is in dire need of reform.


The book starts slowly but engagingly, after Hurricane Katrina has been named but several days before it makes landfall.  We gradually get to know the Zeitoun family.  The father Abdulrahman (usually just "Zeitoun") comes from a large Syrian family, and settled in New Orleans after working in the merchant marines for a decade.  He met Kathy, a native of Louisiana who converted to Islam.  Together they raise a loving family with one son (from Kathy's previous marriage) and four daughters.  They also run a successful painting and contracting business, known throughout New Orleans for their high quality of work and reliability.

The Islam aspect is fascinating, both getting glimpses inside the faith (through the eyes of one born to it and one who came to it), as well as seeing how Muslims felt in the post-2001 crusading years.  One of the stories that affected me most was reading about how Kathy came to leave her Christian faith after her pastor publicly humiliated her after she came to him for spiritual help.  The side of Islam we see here is the one we keep hearing about on NPR: peaceful, devout, upright, thoughtful.  Along with Kathy we see that there are a wide variety of Muslims, just as there are a wide variety of Christians: some are extremely strict in their faith, others are just occasional practicers, some are highly modernized, others remain in the past, and so on.  Of course I'm not going to convert or anything, but it was nice to see more of the faith through the eyes of the faithful.

The middle section of the book is extremely hopeful.  Kathy and the family leave the city once an evacuation order is issued.  Zeitoun remains behind to watch after the dozens of properties that the family owns.  He stays awake through two days of storm as the rain pours down, leaks spring in the roof, the wind howls, the water rises, the rain tampers down and then leaves, and the water rises.  He breathes a sigh of relief, but we remain tense, knowing that the worst is yet to come.  He wakes up to find the water improbably rising once again, and instantly realizes that the levees have been breached and the city is doomed.  He doesn't panic or flee, though.  He believes that he has remained behind for a reason: that God wants to use him to help the others who are stuck in the city.  He uses a small rowboat to paddle around his neighborhood.  He rescues some elderly shut-ins who could not or would not flee the city before, he meets up with some other people who stayed behind and are interested in helping others, and feeds neighborhood dogs who were abandoned and trapped in their owners' houses.

This section feels surreal and exciting.  The scenes Zeitoun encounters are very different from the images that we have of life after the storm.  He realizes this as it happens, too; he and Kathy have cell phones, and through her reports and reports from other Zeitoun family members he receives countless warnings about the chaos in the Superdome and roving gangs of looters.  He also receives many rumors that later will prove to be false: mass rapes of children, snipers shooting at rescue workers, and other horror stories.  These tales are so far from his experiences in Uptown New Orleans that he can't take them too seriously, and he continues on his mission of exploration and rescue.

Zeitoun only once sees looters, and never has any violent confrontations with anyone who remained behind.  No: his horror comes entirely at the hands of his own government.  He is attacked and arrested, along with three other helpers, within one of the properties he owns.  From here he swiftly falls into a legal black hole that echoes Guantanamo in every way: prisoners, American citizens, are not allowed phone calls, legal representation, medical attention; nobody is told where they are, and Kathy spends more than a week thinking that her husband might be dead.  We eventually learn that Zeitoun was arrested because a corrupt cop identified him as someone who had looted a Walgreens, but once he enters the prison system, the military justice system begins treating him as an al Qaeda member.

The book doesn't grandstand much about race, just laying out its stories about what happened, but it's still profoundly depressing.  Zeitoun and another Syrian named Nasser are grouped together in prison, eventually sharing a tiny cell built for a single prisoner.  Later, they are joined by four African-American prisoners who were also swept up after Katrina.  One of them was a volunteer firefighter from Albuquerque; he answered the call to come to New Orleans and help with the rescue effort.  He was arrested.  Another man worked for a construction company in Houston that was hired by the government to help save some structures in the city.  Even though he was wearing his uniform and had ID, the Guard accused him of stealing the tools he was using, and threw him in prison as well.  Now, to some extent we might be tempted to excuse these wrongful incarcerations as the result of the chaos of the moment, but is it really a coincidence that these men were black and Arab?  If not, what does that say about our society?  When we're stressed, will we always assume the worst of people who don't look like us?

Eventually a Christian missionary talks with Zeitoun; Zeitoun convinces him to break the rules and let Kathy know that he is alive.  From this time on, things begin to move forward, but Zeitoun is still in a weird, Kafka-esque state.  Kathy is told that she should come to his hearing, but will not be told where the hearing is.  Bail is set absurdly high with no chance to demonstrate that it is unnecessary.  Kathy has survived the stress of the storm, deteriorating relationships with her family, a flight across the country to Arizona, dealing with the possible death of her husband, and restarting her childrens' lives in a new school, but it's her encounter with the justice system that finally breaks her.  She suffers a nervous collapse, and to this day she isn't as mentally sharp as she used to be.  It's a really heartbreaking thought.

Overall, you're left with mixed feelings at the end of the book.  Things are better; Zeitoun wasn't permanently vanished, he didn't die in prison, and he and Kathy have restarted their business and had a son.  And yet, in the broader picture, it's hard to believe that much has changed.  Since that time the Democrats have taken over Congress and we have a new President, and I don't want to diminish the importance of those events, but Obama won't be the first person on the ground when the next disaster strikes.  Our institutions are ultimately made of people; those people, in turn, are shaped by the institutions to which they belong.  Fundamental reform and better planning are urgently necessary, and there's little reason to believe that they have learned the right lessons from Katrina.


The most powerful aspect of the book may be its narrow focus.  When you're confronted with a huge tragedy, your mind kind of reels and shuts down.  I can hear that millions of people were displaced, and it sounds awful, but I just have no sense of comprehension about what that means.  However, when you hear one person's story, that becomes something that you can wrap your mind around and react to.  It becomes a gateway that you can use to begin appreciating the magnitude of the tragedy.  It's why Anne Frank's diary is so incredibly powerful: through her personal story, the horror of the Holocaust becomes real.  Similarly, Zeitoun helps move past the headlines and show the reality of Katrina.  It isn't, and doesn't pretend to be, a complete record of everything that happened during the storm, but it's a full story, a necessary one, a chance to find out what went wrong.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Pirates! In an adventure with literature.

Arrrr!  Though I missed the Talk-Like-A-Pirate-Day connection by several weeks, this still felt like a great time to finally read a pirate-themed book, after having devoted so much time and space to a book about zombies.

"The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists" is a fun, quirky little book.  It's just a bit over 100 pages long, and the pages are very small.  As with "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies," I think that the title helps the audience self-select.  Do you like the idea of reading a book about pirates going on a romp that, somehow, incongruously, includes scientists?  If so, you will not be disappointed.

I really, really liked the writing style of this book.  It's simple without being dumbed-down... it feels like the author is winking at you throughout the whole book.  There are lots of funny bits: none of the pirates can remember each others' names, so every pirate is referenced descriptively, as in "The Pirate Captain," "The pirate with an accordion," The pirate with a red shirt," "The pirate with a hook for a hand," and so on.  These are the real characters, too.  You get to feel affectionate towards the pirate with a scarf, a loyal and hardworking man who patiently deals with the excesses of the Pirate Captain.

The other notable aspect of the book is its copious use of footnotes.  These are great, always accurate and almost completely irrelevant to the topic at hand.  They cover things like the atomic weights of various metals with complete soberness.


It turns out that the pirates are really having an adventure with a scientist, not so much scientists in general.  That isn't a bad thing, though: the scientist in question is Darwin.  The pirates board his ship as he's returning from Galapagos, and soon we see that the fractured aspect of this story isn't confined to its depiction of life on board pirate vessels.  Darwin is on a scientific quest to show that a monkey can behave like a perfect gentleman.  He has trained a monkey to wear a gentleman's trousers, dress shirt, top hat, and monocle, and to converse through the use of flash cards.  This "man-panzee" will astound English society.

There's a catch, though.  The sinister Bishop of Oxford is a major backer of Barnum and Bailey's Circus, who is attempting to corner the market on man/animal hybrids with such exhibits as the Elephant Man.  The Bishop has kidnapped Darwin's brother Erasmus, and is holding him in a secret location (later revealed to be Big Ben).  The pirates volunteer to help Darwin rescue his brother and foil the Bishop's evil plan.  Right after they play at the arcade.  And finish a game of miniature golf.  And eat some cotton candy.  And attend a pirate convention.  You get the idea.


Great stuff... I get the sneaking suspicion that this book might have been written for children, but anyone who enjoys zany pirate escapades will get a kick out of it.  Highly recommended.

Friday, October 09, 2009


I don't read a whole lot of science fiction these days.  That wasn't always the case.  I used to devour sci-fi.  I caught the fantasy bug, and it gradually took over.  To be sure, some of my favorite books are science fiction, but they're solidly in the soft sci-fi category... think Kurt Vonnegut, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and so on.  Books that focus on human society in the future, not technology and science.

That said, I did greatly enjoy Vernor Vinge, the first hard sci-fi author I'd read in ages.  When I was last hitting up Amazon for recommendations, I was a little surprised but curious when it offered up Hyperion.  I'd never heard of the book or the author, but the ratings were very favorable, and it seemed like a good change of pace.  I stuck it in the queue, checked it out of the library, renewed it three times while reading other stuff, and finally finished it this past week.

It's... good.  I say that with a little hesitation because I remember how much trouble I had getting into it.  That's part of the reason why I kept putting it off through three renewals while reading more directly rewarding stuff. 

It finally got going somewhere between page 100 and page 150, and once I bought into it, I enjoyed it immensely.  Hm... to be safe, let's call these


The best thing about Hyperion is its structure and style.  Rather, structures and styles.  The book as a whole is kind of a reinterpretation of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales."  There are seven main characters who are on a pilgrimage together.  The pilgrimage is really more of a framing and connecting device, though.  The bulk of the text is made up of the individual stories that each character tells.  From a plot perspective, each story tells us what the character is doing and how they came to join the pilgrimage.  Stylistically, though - ah!  Each is told in the first person, occasionally with the help of journals and media recordings, also in the first person.  Because the seven characters are VERY different, each tale has a completely unique style of its own.  For example, Colonel Kassad is a hardened military man.  His story is told matter-of-factly, with short sentences, clear but unimaginative descriptions, and a very focused narrative.  Martin Silenus, on the other hand, is an insane poet.  His tale is filled with flowery words, TONS of literary and historical allusions, numerous digressions, and highly colorful metaphors.  If you just read those two stories independently, you might not realize that they were from the same book, or even from the same author.

First, let's hit the bad.  The fact that the stories are so different means that some are going to be better than others.  In particular, I hated the first one, the Priest's Tale.  It is hands-down the dullest tale of the lot, with much of the text devoted to describing how nothing is happening or how something doesn't make sense.  It kind of redeems itself with a great bit of horror at the end, but you need to suffer through a lot of drudgery to get there.  I also wasn't too impressed with the last story in the book; as with the priest's tale, the punchline is pretty great, but I found it hard to care about the bulk of the narrative.  In contrast, the Colonel's and Brawne's tales were really exciting (I especially enjoyed the noir-ish aspects of Brawne's hard-boiled detective story), the scholar's tale was sweet and touching, and Martin's was just awesome.  Not just for the allusions, of course, but the really clever way that they support his story.  It was clear that the author knows his stuff.

I'm not sure if this is a complaint with Hyperion or with modern sci-fi in general, but the biggest turn-off for me was the sheer volume of technobabble and invented place-names.  Which is weird, since this is the very thing that I praise most other books for: creating a fully-realized universe, making it internally consistent, and then just running with it, throwing the content out to the reader and trusting that they'll be able to catch up with you.  For some reason, though, it just really rubbed me the wrong way in this book.  This is a shame, because once I got into it, it really is a cool universe. 

Like most hard sci-fi and unlike the Hollywood version of it, this book actually takes the theory of general relativity into account and what kind of impact it would have on space travel.  The future of Hyperion is one where humanity has left Earth and spread out across much of our spiral arm in the Milky Way.  The central planets are known as the Web, and are where commerce and exchange flow freely.  Outer planets form the Colonies, and are more hardscrabble places that are still developing.  You might be thinking of Firefly and the rise of the Alliance, in which case, good for you!  Like Firefly, Hyperion imagines a future where class structures and factions are very much alive, and there is tension (though not war) (usually) between the haves and the have-nots.  From a technical standpoint, though, the differentiator between the Web and the Colonies is the presence of a device called a Farcaster.  As they (eventually) explain, a Farcaster is essentially a man-made wormhole, which connects the portal with every other Farcaster.  Which is cool, but you need to actually be somewhere to build a Farcaster there, and it takes a lot of special machinery and such to create it.  So the process of mankind's expansion is as follows: A ship full of people will travel from Planet A to Planet B at a very high speed (but still slower than the speed of light, of course).  Because of relativity, the people on the ship may experience (for example) that 4 years have passed during their journey, while from the perspective of Planet A and Planet B, ten years have passed from the time they left until when they arrived.  Because of this, there's an entire, rich vocabulary of time used within the book.  People talk about "ship years," "standard years," "time debt," and so on.  I found the idea of "time debt" to be most fascinating.  We encounter it several times within the stories: two people know each other, then one of them travels for a time, and when they next meet, their age difference has increased.  It greatly complicates friendships, marriage, and family relations.

So, with that as the background, you can see why farcasters are such a big deal.  They allow you to instantly travel anywhere within the Web, without requiring the accumulation of any time debt.  But, again, only the relatively wealthy have access to farcaster portals, and before a portal can be built, multiple generations of settlers must spend their lives making the hard journey to another planet, preparing it for human habitation, setting up a society, and building the portal.

OK, one final (minor) annoyance: EVERY TIME that Simmons is giving examples of something - say, artists, or philosophers, or scientists - he will first list a couple from our history, and then list a couple from our future.  And always in order.  So, for example, he might say "Napoleon, MacArthur, Ebberson, or Xevelax."  I'd be happier if he occasionally picked all examples from our own era and occasionally all examples from the future, or if he mixed them up a little.  Especially since the characters in general do not seem to have a great grasp at all of history; Martin is very educated but doesn't know who Hitler was, for example."  Anyways... more than anything, I guess this bugs me because it's one of the only tics from the author that spans multiple narrators' stories.


That's a small complaint, though.  On the whole I loved this book.  It combines interesting and believable science with some of most clever literary references that I've run across in popular fiction.  If you read just one sci-fi Chaucerian romp this year, make it Hyperion!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Prose and Parody and Zombies


I could probably let that one word serve as my review for "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies."  That would be cheating, though.  Hm... perhaps a better review would be "Bwahahaha!"

First of all, I don't think I'll need to include any spoilers tags at all within this review.  That's the beauty of the title: it tells you everything you need to know.  I also suspect that everyone who reads this book will enjoy it.  If, when you first heard that someone was re-writing "Pride and Prejudice" with scenes of bone-crunching zombie mayhem, your immediate thought was, "Oooh!" or "Awesome!" you will LOVE this book.  If you first thought was "Ew!" or "How dare they!", well, I doubt you'll make it past the first scene where Elizabeth and Jane decapitate a score of the ravenous undead.

What's most impressive, though, is how GOOD it is.  I was expecting a farce, or at best a parody, and ended up with something really well-written.  And not just because of Jane Austen's original text... even the modified bits are quite well-done.

OK... this is already chaotic, so I think I'll need to bring some structure to this write-up.  Let's look at what works dramatically, what works humorously, and what doesn't work.  Ready, set, go!

As awful as it may sound when I say it, there are some ways in which PPZ actually works better than PP.  For example, certain events in the original book just didn't make a whole lot of sense, like why any woman would WANT to marry Mr. Collins, or what the King's regimental army was doing kicking countryside estates during peacetime.  Answers are finally, helpfully supplied.  Mr. Collins is the one person dumb enough and self-centered enough to marry a zombie bride without realizing it; and, the regimental army is in the English countryside as a desperate barrier between Satan's damned army and the (largely) helpless citizenry.

The overall arcs of the book are almost entirely unchanged from the original.  Darcy and Liz still meet at a ball and form instant opinions of one another; Darcy's opinion of Liz quickly changes, while Liz's attitude towards Darcy takes most of the book to resolve itself.  Jane and Mr. Bingley go through their roundabout engagement.  Wickham's dalliance and background are largely intact. 

The characters' personalities are also largely unchanged.  Liz is still feisty, intelligent, spirited, and proud; Darcy still reserved; Bingley and Jane are open and warm; Kitty and Lydia are flighty; Mrs. Bennett is amazingly obtuse and narrow-minded;and so on.  I was most pleased to see that Mr. Bennett, who is not only my favorite character from this book but also one of my favorite characters in English literature, kept his indefatigable wryness. 

The difference, then, is not so much in their essence as in their actions: in this book, Mr. Bennett had paid to send his five daughters to train in Shaolin, China, where they learned the deadly arts of zombie-slaying.  Darcy's aunt is a renowned combatant who is working on a serum that may help reverse the effects of the zombie plague.  And so on... to me, it felt less like a re-interpretation than an alternate universe.  If you took Jane Austen's characters, and dropped them into a situation where the newly buried dead would leap from their graves and seek succulent brains to feast upon, then you would expect them to react rather like they do here.

I haven't read PP in a decade, so my memory is a little fuzzy.  My impression is that PPZ doesn't drop any major plot lines, but does trim some of them.  Mary is hardly present at all in PPZ, while I think she had a bit more to do in PP.  The book as a whole seems to be about the same length, and you don't feel like anything was unnecessarily dropped - or, weirdly, like most was unnecessarily added.  Now, in terms of plot, yeah, it's hugely incongruous to read a scene where young couples are dancing in an elegant ballroom, when suddenly all the windows shatter as scores of zombies are drawn to the mass of warm living flesh, resulting in gory combat where zombies are torn apart and their limbs used to beat back the second wave of invaders.  But in terms of STYLE, it actually flows.  You get the same period English inflection, the same clever observational style, the same way of drawing attention to details by using purposely understated descriptions.  That's the most remarkable achievement of the book, and what elevates it from being just a clever idea to something that actually works as a book on its own terms.

Now, what works comically: first of all, the same thing: transporting the 20th-century popular horror genre of the zombie flick into the Regency period setting and writing style.  I'm a big fan of incongruity and non-sequitors, hence my admiration for Monty Python, the Marx Brothers, Robot Chicken, and anyone who doesn't force A to line up with B.  This seems to be a primal humor response in many of us: confronted with something that we can't explain, all we can do is get angry, ignore it, or laugh at it.  I gleefully follow the last path.

You also get a lot of 20th-century humor transplanted here.  It's almost all bathroom humor, but again, given the elegant setting and style - heck, the fact that this really is a comedy of manners - I laugh at things that I otherwise would not.  Simple example: Balls.  I honestly didn't think of this when I first read the book, but there are a lot of balls in PP.  This is a topic of some discussion: Darcy asks Liz if she likes balls, the sisters argue about whether big balls are better, people talk about how much fun balls are, and so on.  It's all really arch, and I shouldn't laugh, but I do. 

There's also a shocking amount of bodily fluids in this book.  A lot of it is bloody gore from the battle scenes, which I did.  However, a ton of it is vomit.  People vomit all the time, when they're upset, when they see something gross, when they're sick or worries.  And that vomit can make other people vomit.  I can totally visualize what the book is getting at, and have seen similar things on, say, Family Guy, but on the printed page it's more weird than anything.

I think there's also a lot more infidelity in PPZ than in PP.  I'm guessing that this was invented for the book, but it's also possible that there were some subtexts in the original that I didn't pick up on at the time which are gleefully exploited in the rewrite.

OK, finally, what doesn't work.  As noted above, some of the toilet humor didn't do much for me.  Which is a tough call to make, because I thought other toilet humor was hilarious.  Still, in general, when they're punching up PP by adding zombies, the results are generally good; when they're punching up PP by adding lots of vomit and incontinence, not so much.

The other thing is a bit harder to explain.  There's a kind of backstory about the girls' training in Shaolin, which is held to be more middle-class than training in Japan, where the TRULY go to learn zombie-slaying skills.  The book sets up this conflict between the two, and it's kind of present throughout the story, but at the same time it's a bit unsatisfying.  Elizabeth thinks of how she should give herself the Seven Cuts of Shame as taught by Master Liu when she has done some wrong; Darcy's aunt is proud of her ninjas - from Japan, of course - who do her bidding.  Now, in theory, bringing ninjas into a zombie book is an amazing stroke.  The only thing that could make it cooler, of course, would be if some of the undead turned out to be zombie pirates.  But it feels like a good idea wasted in execution.  You never get to see the ninjas fight the zombies; they're just spent in this stupid duel between the various Eastern traditions, and don't really go anywhere.  On the one hand, I think that we don't want to have TOO many ninja scenes - it would overshadow the rest of the story.  On the other hand, though, if you're going to put ninjas in the book, do something really awesome with them!

Ahem.  I can't believe that I'm arguing about ninjas and zombies.  What a WONDERFUL world we live in, folks!  Ahhh...

By now you've probably heard that there's a new book in the pipeline: Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters.  It isn't from the same author as PPZ.  I hope it's good, but honestly, it would be really, really hard to top this one.  Still, I do love the general idea of updating classics with bizarre new elements.  Imagine Wuthering Heights where werewolves stalk the moors, howling mournfully in the night, infecting Heathclif so his passion burns brighter than ever and he begins to destroy those he loves.  Or how about Ethan Frome, but where Ethan is a mad scientist, who creates automatous golem-like creatures to do his bidding, and eventually builds a rocket sled that allows him and his creations to escape the cruel grasp of his wife, who turns out to be an evil priestess of Cthulhu?  I'm telling you, the possibilities are endless!