Thursday, July 23, 2009

Decent Decius

Quick update on Fall from Heaven 2:

I've been playing through the scenarios, and wow, they are amazing.  Since getting through the Momus, nothing has been insanely difficult, just nicely challenging.  A few random thoughts:

I've been working my way towards the Lord of the Balors scenario for most of the time.  This requires doing all but the last of the Falamar scenarios, and all but the last of the Decius ones.  I think I touched on the Falamar ones before, so on to Decius:

Decius has kind of intrigued me for a while.  In the main FFH2 game, he's the one leader who appears for multiple civiliztions.  He has a neutral alignment, the same traits, and, weirdly, absolutely no flavor text in the Civilopedia.  Well, the reason why is twofold.  First, because his story is told in the Scenarios.  More importantly, because YOU are actually CREATING that story.

The whole design is really fascinating... as Decius, you make certain choices, and those choices profoundly affect the future scenarios.  Hm, this probably deserves a


label.  Anyways: Decius starts off as a commander in the Bannor army.  The first scenario is interesting, conventional, and smaller in scope than the latter Falamar ones.  You wipe out some barbarians, found the Order, and work with a Confessor to get rid of some goblins.  The Confessor grows increasingly militant, pushing you to not only kill monsters, but "evil" humans as well.  Eventually, he declares that Junil has declared holy war against the Lanun for their blasphemous Octopus Overlords faith, and charges you to lead it.  You and Rosier Oathtaker (can you see where this is going?) lead the charge to raze the OO holy city.  Rosier is increasingly doubtful about the righteousness of your cause, and when the Drown begin to march on undefended cities, Rosier takes a cursed OO artifact that empowers him to stop them.

At this point the scenario is winding down, but your destiny is being called into question.  Do you forgive Rosier and let him escape, or turn him over to the Inquisition?  I chose the former.  Later, as my troops were returning home, I was framed as an OO follower myself.  Discovered by the Bannor, Decius must flee, and make a choice.  Does he find solace among the righteous Malakim, and continue fighting on the side of good that has betrayed him?  Or will he renounce everyone associated with Junil and find a place among the dark cities of the Calabim?  Well, I had already played as the Malakim, and not the Calabim, so I decided to go to the dark side.

Because of that choice, the next scenario started me off in control of the Calabim.  This was a fascinating game as well... basically, you're being indoctrinated into the ways of the vampire lords.  It isn't a traditional, full-on, kill-the-enemy rush.  Instead, you focus much more on stealth and cunning.  The scenario requires you to found the Council of Esus, and use its advantages to weaken the Malakim without actually fighting against them.  It was the first time I'd used that religion, and I found it fascinating.  It doesn't play like any of the other six religions: there are no priests, no temples, just a shadowy network of agents to carry out your will.

Anyways, it was all very interesting.  You eventually wipe out the Malakim, which then leads to the third scenario.  Here, I could choose to remain as Decius, or lead either the Sheaim or Svartflar.  Since I want to eventually try a Svartflar game in the regular version, and wanted a change from Decius/Calabim, I went with Sheaim.  What followed was one of the most purely satisfying scenarios I've played yet.  There's an all-out war between good and evil: Sheaim, Calabim, Svartflar and - gulp - the Infernals against the Elohim, Malakim, Llofsjar, and - gulp - the Mercurians.  Nice!

It was a blast to finally have Flaming Corpses of my own.  Kaboom!  On the downside, the Sheaim start right next door to Basium.  I had to re-start the game a few times to figure out how to survive.  Once I got that straight, I needed to decide how to proceed.  Basium is incredibly powerful, and a hero from turn 1, AND Immortal, so I was tempted to save him for last.  On the other hand, I knew that if I took the fight to the other Good players, Basium's ranks of Angels would continue to swell out of control.  As painful as it was, I went to war against the Mercurians early.  During this time, I continued to research, of course, and also to explore the map.  The Llofsjar were to my north, Hyborem to the east, in the center of a mountain range; northeast of him were Svartflar, then the Calabim and Malakim below.  The Elohim lived directly south of the mountain range; they cast Sanctuary at the beginning of the game, which (I eventually figured out) keeps anyone from entering their cultural borders, so that was another good reason to focus on Basium.  (Actually, almost everyone cast their World Spell right away.  This felt like a good move for the Elohim, but incredibly dumb for Llofsjar - who needs an army of Treants when I just have a single Hunter in your neck of the woods?)

There wasn't a lot of movement in the Mercurian war, but there was a lot of excitement.  I built some Adepts early, and my skeleton armies helped weaken his forces while the more powerful units you get at start were finishing off Angels and getting more XP.  It felt like tech and passive XP gain came much more quickly than normal, but I'm not sure if that was because of tweaked game parameters or just the way I was playing this game.  It helps that you start off at the second tech tier, so I didn't need to waste time getting the basics.  Back to the war: after an initial rampage, Basium fortified in his capital.  I had no chance to kill him without wiping out my entire army, so I concentrated on his satellite cities.  I would summon a bunch of skeletons, have them suicide-attack to weaken the strongest defenders, weaken them further with horses, then have my highest-promoted melee units attack and kill one or two defenders and gain valuable XP.  Then I would spend a few turns resting and summoning before repeating the cycle.  It was fairly effective - the downside was that his strongest defenders kept gaining more XP and became even tougher to crack.

The tide really turned for me once I got Ritualists into the action.  These evil priests cause massive fire damage and weaken the entire stack, plus they're surprisingly good fighters once they get a few promotions in from their passive XP gain.  That tipped the balance, and I began slowly taking cities.

Basium himself took more than a decade to kill.  By this time I had a few adepts promoted to mage, and their fireballs and other summoned goodies helped immensely.  Oh, and the "planar gate" would occasionally send me bizarre gifts from another dimension.  The most useful was a Mobius Witch, my first unit with Channeling 2; she became a summoning powerhouse.  Because Os-Gabella (sp?) has the Summoner trait, you can basically double the number of active summoned units you have, leading to some pretty impressive waves even with just a few casters.

FINALLY, Basium died.  I had to take out all of the other Angels in his stack first, and he was replenishing them almost as quickly as I was killing the others.  It was worth it, though.  Not only did I finally have a secure southern flank, and could kill other civs without worrying about righteous souls returning to haunt me, but Basium left behind a powerful relic, a +2 strength sword.  I picked it up with glee and began attacking the Elohim, whose Sanctuary spell had finally worn off.  I discovered a nice little trick that may or may not be an exploit: if you have a stack of attackers, you can have one person attack, then the second unit pick up the sword and attack, then the third take the sword and attack, and so on, with everyone getting the strengh bonus.  Sweetness!

I was really torn about how to conduct my research.  Part of me wanted to continue down the religious tech path so I could eventually get to the Sheaim hero - Abashi the Black Dragon.  I've NEVER built a dragon, and really wanted to play with one.  It's almost at the end of the tech tree, though, and I wasn't sure if I'd have time to get there.  Another part of me wanted to press on towards the advanced arcane techs.  The Sheaim unique unit replaces the Archmage, and has a feature where they can devour souls to regain the ability to cast magic.  Intriguing.  Plus, it would fit in very well with my Summoner trait.  Finally, I badly needed to upgrade my melee units with some iron.

Fortunately, this eventually proved to not be an either/or question.  One other thing I loved about this scenario was the strong team structure: you have the good guys and the bad guys, and everyone loves their team and hates the other.  This scenario is the only one I know of that has Permanent Alliance turned on, so you can actually form a permanent team.  It also supports Vassal States.  My defeat of Basium upset the balance of power, freeing Varn from vassalage.  On the evil side, Decius beat me to a Permanent Alliance with Hyborem.  After some research I concluded that each player could only join one team, so I joined with Faeryl Viconia.  Being in a PA is a lot of fun.  You automatically share your map and research with both sides, so every time one of you gets a tech, the other gets the same.  You can even combine research points, so you could reach new discoveries more quickly.  AND in diplomacy you can direct them to attack a particular city as part of coordinated military strategy.  All in all, a very cool system.  Now, in practice, I was the dominant partner in this alliance - Faeryl was researching at maybe 20% my rate, and had a weaker military - but it was still fun to play with it.

Outside of my immediate alliance, the fact was that everyone loved each other.  I think that Hyborem had a total attitude modifier of, like, +25 toward me, between our shared Ashen Veil, my Infernal Grimoire, our Civics, membership in the Undercouncil, and the simultaneous wars we fought.  So I saw some things that I had never seen before in any game of Civ, ever: Hyborem coming to me with a free gift of technology.  Uh... why, yes, thank you!  I decided to return the favor.  The victory conditions for this scenario are just to eliminate three good civs; you don't need to do it yourself, so I had every incentive to help the other evil civs as much as I could.  Once I realized this, I started gifting them all my techs; that way, we weren't duplicating research time, and could jump ahead of our rivals.

It took a while to complete the scenario, but was a lot of fun.  The Llofsjar are notorious turtles, so I decided to focus on the southeast.  The Elohim fell relatively quickly.  The Malakim were more spread out, so that took a bit longer, but I was insanely powerful at that point, and my columns of death marched over the sands.

Throughout this and the other scenarios, you get really cool story text and images as you proceed.  They're really gorgeous and well-done.  Most intriguing, they're particular to the leader and civ you have chosen, so I think replay value for the Decius scenarios will be huge - Os-Gabella was interesting, and her path did cross that of Decius from time to time, but I would have loved learning more about what the others were doing and thinking.

Finally, I had cleared the way to the elusive final scenario, Lord of the Balors.  This was a lot of fun as well.  The plot is that the Bannor had left one of their greatest heroes behind in their journey through Hell.  Capria has learned that he still lives there, and vows to return and rescue him.  The Malakim are always eager to fight the good fight, so they come along as well.  Basium needs no excuse to wage war against Hell.  And, for some reason, Keelyn of the Balseraphs is there too.

The four of you land at various points along a narrow coastline.  On the other side of a mountain range is... well, Hell.  Filled with, um, seven demon lords.  Fascinating.  Your goal is to defeat all seven.

I started this scenario as Basium - I hadn't played as Mercurians yet, and was curious what that experience would be like.  The Mercurians are similar to the Infernals in that they grow when living units die, although they get Angels with XP instead of Manes who can add to cities, and have totally different units and civics, so I guess they aren't that similar after all.  Ahem.  Anyways, I realized pretty early on that doing this would mean relying on the AI to do a good job of dying to give me units, but not such a good job at dying to leave me alone against 7 demonic lords.  Not only that, but I didn't actually start with the Basium unit.  I decided to try again - I was intrigued by the idea of the Balseraphs, who I still haven't played, but ended up deciding to play as Bannor.  Partly because I loved the image - the crusading armies of Bannor storming the gates of Hell - but also because I wanted to get a taste of Shatner's Unwashed Crusade.

As the Bannor, I settled between the Malakim and Balseraphs.  I decided to be greedy in my city placement... I'm not sure if resource placement on this map is pre-determined or random, but it was pretty crazily good for me: a single city could be placed to work six resources.  I also learned that you DO get access to a resource if you build a city on top of it, which I thought hadn't been the case.  (Now that I think about it - the deal may be that you don't get the increased yields, but you do get access to the tradeable resource itself.)  I was happy with my capital, and picked out another site to my west that had a similarly privileged position.  I could have easily fit three cities into the same area, and even four with minimal overlap, but I didn't want to spend a lot of time building settlers.  The way I imagined it, this would be a quick military in-and-out campaign, so I should focus on my units and not my cities.

You start exploring the fertile land outside, which has a few intriguing features, like an altar where previous armies had been sacrificed.  You can eventually discover three separate narrow passages that cut through the mountains and into Hell itself.  Broken Lands form a sort of pathway leading out from here.  I built a couple of Scouts early on to visit the many tribal villages both outside and within Hell, and set about exploring.

Hell is HUGE.  Even with freaking seven Infernal civilizations, more than 2/3 of it is totally empty.  It's also really interesting; I enjoyed the mystery of discovery.  There's a great variety in the terrain: an enormous lake of fire in the west, a huge sea of lost souls, narrow channels that cut through a radioactive marsh of punishment.  There are good barriers and challenges on the way through: certain unmovable (held) units, like wraits and balors and such, guard particular checkpoints, and you won't be able to get past them until you have won many promotions or researched more advanced fighters.  At the same time, you can usually take long detours around them, so there's still plenty to explore.  There are also some fear pillars (I forget the technical name) that keeps you from approaching them until you find the Timor Mask or can build arcane units to grant Courage.  (These pillars are quite deceptive - as you approach them, they seem to be guarding narrow passages, but they often are actually just dead-ends.)

I have to admit that during this scenario, I was way worse than usual when it came to saving and reloading my game.  With so few units and so many opponents, I felt only a little guilt about reloading if I didn't like the results from a tribal village.  As such, I ended up discovering a lot of great techs from them (including free advancement all the way to Astronomy), a free Settler, and other great goodies.  I also made good progress with clearing out the barbarian lairs stocked by undead that give you good XP from grinding.

After only about 10 turns or so, I was surprised to discover that I had founded the Order.  It looks like the three living civs automatically get their proper religions at this time: Order for Bannor, Empyrean for Malakim, and Octopus Overlords for Balseraphs.  This caused a little tension, but the rules of the scenario lock everyone into war and peace, so I wasn't worried about needing to fight against Keelyn.  Also, for better or worse, tech trading is disabled, so I didn't need to keep people too happy.   I believe that Permanent Alliance is off as well, though I'm not sure how to tell that for sure.  What I WAS concerned about was Keelyn.  She was at war with the Infernals, but was also Evil, so her dead units would come back to oppose me.  I decided that my first order of business would be to convert her and Basium to the Order.  This was easier than I expected, and then we were united in Good.

When you found the Order you also get a free Crusader, long before you unlock the tech to build more.  I joined him to a Great Commander that I got from a village and sent him into Hell.  He was followed later by Valin.  By this time my scouts had determined that western Hell was largely unoccupied.  The crusader became my hammer.  The map is way too big for seige equipment to be feasible, so I would rely on heavily-promoted city crackers.  He began taking out the weakest, westernmost cities.

After the scouts, the first thing my capital had built was a Mages Guild, and I carefully built a steady supply of Adepts throughout the game.  I got to Sorcery around the time my first Adept had reached 12XP.  I had access to 2 Law Mana, and 1 each of Body (built on a mana node so I could get Haste), Earth, and Spirit.  The Hosts of Eijendhar (sp) were a crucial tool in my battles.

As is often the case when playing with the Order, my strategy relied heavily on mutually supportive units.  My Confessor would Bless, the Hosts would weaken defenders, then the Crusader would strike the fatal blow.  XP climbed higher and higher, and over time I built up an impressive army.  At a certain point, it seemed like every laid I explored gave me a free acolyte-class unit (Savant, Disciple, Zealot, etc.), and once I gave them Combat 1 and Demon Slaying, they became quite effective units.  Capria's Spiritual trait gives such units free Mobility 1, which is WAY more useful than I would have expected, especially on a map like this.  I could strike against a stack and then move my wounded units safely out of range.

My endgame strategy gradually came into focus.  I knew that I eventually wanted to research Fanaticism so I could experience the fun of a Crusade.  However, I wanted to get to Iron Working before that so I could actually build Demagogs and do sufficient damage.  As the research continued, I continued patiently chipping away at the weaker demon lords.

There are some really interesting events and flavor texts that you encounter during this scenario.  At various times, a demon lord will approach you and offer you peace in exchange for some act of obsesiance on your part.  I thought this was interesting, but always turned it down... I just couldn't imagine a Bannor ever compromising like this, and in any case, the demons never actually threatened my cities.  Hyborem built Rosier the Fallen pretty early on, but stacked him with a bunch of movement-1 axemen, and they seemed to just wander through Hell.  Other than the occasional hellhound, the infernals almost never sent anyone out to attack us.

All Infernals are at war with all living civs, but some of the Infernals are also at war with one another.  I tried to avoid these paired civs when I could so they would continue to weaken one another, but it wasn't always feasible, so I sometimes ended up eliminating the weaker civ.

I stumbled across a great semi-hidden tactic.  I think that the map is laid out to encourage you to fight through the mass of the Infernals and end the game with an assault on Dis: you work your way through the fallout, battle Duke Sallos, then work your way north through Meresain, past another altar flanked by snake pillars that offers more flavor text ("Many other human armies have passed this way before, but you are the first to do so without chains."), and finally into the valley where Hyborem holds sway.  All cool, but what's ALSO cool is that there's an extremely narrow passage at the extreme top of the map.  I found and followed this passage while trying to find the last city of another Infernal lord, and discovered that it led to the backside of Hyborem's empire.  Once through that passage, I was only steps away from Dis.  Hooray!  I had brought my strongest units through here, and although it took a few turns, we managed to slay Hyborem himself - YES - and raze Dis, with its Prophecy of Ragnarok and various other evil wonders - DOUBLE YES!

I was finally approaching discovery of Fanaticism.   Once I had it I spent just a few turns wrapping up the last few buildings I wanted.  With an eye towards Crusade for the entire game, my (eventually four) cities nearly exclusively focused on building peaceful buildings to boost research, commerce, health, and happiness.  Shatner had warned me that once I entered the Crusade it would be too late to do anything about my economy.  The most crucial thing was to get access to Iron - there was only one deposit outside Hell, located at the very southern end of the map, far from my capital.

The Crusade finally started.  I called Rally and began moving my huge forces towards Duke Sallos while my few super-powerful units were working on finishing off Hyborem.  I watched in amazed glee as my economy tanked.  I had been running a surplus at 100% research for much of the game (thanks to Code of Junil, Bazaar of Mammon and God King), plus I had been pillaging Infernal towns, villages, and cottages after I destroyed their cities; as such, I had more than 3000 gold in the bank at the start of the crusade.  By the height of the crusade, I was running a deficit of -70 gold per turn.  It felt... great.

After Fanaticism I researched Engineering, and was amazed at what a huge military difference it made.  By this time my Infernal conquest had given me a total of nearly 20 Workers, and I had set them to the task of extending a road from my capital into the bowels of Hell.  Two Workers could build a road in a single turn, so by leapfrogging each other, they could lay down four tiles of track in a single turn, and have the military catch up for protection.  With this road in place and Engineering, I could march units across nearly the entire width of the map in relatively short order.  My greatest fear came when I ran smack into Rosier.  If he attacked my huge stack of Workers, I'd be in deep trouble.  I managed to dramatically raze Hyborem's final city before Rosier could finish the job, killing him from afar.  I cheered.

After Hyborem and Rosier were dead, the war became absurdly easy.  My countless Demagogs, Crusaders and Champions (along with the odd Flag-Bearer) rode ruthlessly over the remaining cities of Duke Sallos and Meresin.  Or nearly so.  I discovered to my horror that each of them had one city left on an island.  Across an ocean within Hell.  FRACK!  How on earth was I going to cross that?  Would I need to build a Settler and bring him all the way in?  That would mean ending the Crusade!  FRACK!

I called it a night and slept on the problem.  I half-hoped that the designers had left in a secret teleporter or something to get over there.  Eventually, the answer came to me.  Duh - I had been razing all the Infernal cities, because I had no desire to maintain land inside Hell, but of course I had the choice to keep them.  Fortunately, of the three remaining mainland cities, one of them was a port on this interior ocean.  I took it the next day, parked in my strongest units as I razed the remaining two cities, then, once the disorder was suppressed, paid for scratch for a brand-new Galleon.  800 gold?  No problem!  Loaded on my Crusader (who by now had more than 250 XP, with Blitz, Commando, and every other useful promotion), Valin (who was nearly as good but without Blitz), and my best mage and Confessor.  We sailed over to the last Meresin city, made an amphibious assault to destroy it in a single turn.  A few years later, we did the same thing with the last refuge of Sallos.

Success!  All hail the unwashed crusade!

The final victory screen was very satisfying.  It felt weirdly upbeat and triumphant after the relentelessly dark tone of previous scenario victories.  It pleased me greatly.  It also made me more curious about the details of the story, so I spent the next thirty minutes poring over the Civilopedia, learning more about Donal Lugh, Sabathiel, and the history of Erebus until the time of the Age of Dragons.  The story owes a huge debt to Tolkien's Silmarillion, but that can be a compliment.


All in all, I was really happy with where these scenarios went.  Oh, and I was also happy from a technical aspect: unlike the earlier scenarios, I didn't get any crashes in these, and very rarely freezes.  It's weird that there's such a difference between the scenarios in this regard - I guess it must have to do with the python code, but still, it's strange that they're so random.  Now that everything's working well, I'm carefully keeping my environment the way it is, not taking any updates to Wine or installing the new patches for BTS or FfH2. 

I think that "Lord of the Balors" is a good cap to the scenarios as a whole, and would be a logical ending point for the game.  Now that I have beaten it, I'm wondering whether the reward will actually do me any good in the rest of the scenarios - I'm not sure if there are Infernals in the remaining ones or not.  Either way... I could stop here, but the experience has been so interesting that I'm sure I'll eventually play the remaining games.  At the very least I want to follow the story lines for Falamar and Decius to see how their tales end.

Man... can you believe that they're giving this stuff away for free?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Solo Marquez

Phew!  "One Hundred Years of Solitude" is a mammoth book.  It's far from a slog, though... after the first dozen or so pages, you're fully swept up in its wake, and are carried down through the years by a desire to learn more about this amazing fictional land and family.

I should back up.... this book, written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was one of many entries in my list of "Famous books that I've known about for a long time, but actually have no idea what they're about."  When I'm looking for things to read, I rely in large part on recommendations from friends, family members, and artificial intelligence algorithms.  This title had popped up near the top of my recommendations list; that list has served me startlingly well in the past, so I decided to follow it again.  I'm really glad that I did.

I haven't heard anyone compare Marquez to Murakami, but I think they're cut from similar cloth.  Both explore a realm that I find endlessly fascinating, the fictional place where the otherworldly enters the modern world.  I don't want to oversell the similarities - 100YoS is far more epic and concerned with human relationships - but the overall tone of both authors are very much alike.  They take on a certain dreamlike quality, where fantastic events are accepted matter-of-factly by credulous people.  It's a style of writing that enjoys play and doesn't demand final answers.


What separates the two, though, is that Murakami's otherworldliness is free-floating, touched upon by his alienated and adrift protagonists.  For Marquez, that supernatural tinge comes up against a fully intact family and social structure.  They aren't exactly in conflict... rather, the former infects the latter.  Down through the ages we see this legacy extending and playing out, drawing generation after generation into its maw.

The book chronicles the story of the Buendia clan.  Each member feels fully fleshed out, each is unique, and any similarities feel like the natural progression from father to son.  With such vivid and rich characters, I expect that every reader will develop their own favorites and villains.  I found the story of Colonel Aureliano the most compelling, especially when you connect the lines before and after his time at war.  On the other hand, I was appalled at the elder Amaranta's actions... it's touching that Marquez gives her a moment of forgiveness near the end, but still, her seemingly bottomless malice is much more shocking than, say, that of a conventional villain who seeks to conquer the world.

The publishers are thoughtful enough to include a family tree at the front of the book, and I certainly consulted it from time to time.  What's especially confusing (although quite believable) are that names keep on getting re-used through the generations.  I think there are at least four Arcadios, and and either three or twenty Aurelianos, and multiple Remedios and Amarantas, even two Ursulas.  It helped a lot that I was reading this book more or less straight through; I think it would get way more difficult to track if you interrupted reading for a while.

I found myself often thinking about that great topic of postmodern fiction, entropy, and I still can't decide whether it applies here.  It feels like it does - you certainly get a strong sense of decline and hopelessness, especially towards the end of the book - but it has a far different tone from what I'm used to from writers like Pynchon.  Part of that may be due to the greater scope here.  We don't just see the decline, we see the growth.  Yes, Macondo falls apart, but we also see Jose Arcadio building it with the force of his will and creativity.  Yes, the banana company impoverishes the city, but we also see Aureliano Segundo's fabulous creation of wealth.  I guess that Marquez accepts entropy, but views it as the natural conclusion to a cycle, not the dominant force in our world.  In other words, entropy will destroy what we make, but we are always free to make more.

A couple of words get repeated throughout the book and seem to have special significance.  One of them, obviously, is "Solitude," although it doesn't seem to appear until decently far into the book.  What's amazing is that you have this incredibly, incestuously close-knit family: multiple generations living under one roof, all growing up together, telling stories, sharing wisdom, fighting, loving... and yet, nearly everyone appears to be somehow alone.  Some characters craft elaborate lies that keep anyone from realizing who they are.  Others develop obsessions and spend all their time poring over arcane knowledge.  Remedios doesn't seem to be a creature of the Earth at all.  This is all kind of sad, but has the smell of truth to it.  I have to wonder, how many of us really, deeply understand the people we spend time with?  How many of us feel certain that nobody has ever seen all aspects of our character, and cannot truly be known?  The Buendia clan pushes this to an absurd degree, but in doing so they may be revealing a streak in all of us.

Another often repeated word is "nostalgia," almost always offered in a negative sense.  People "succumb" to nostalgia shortly before their death.  I think that 100YoS may be one of the only books ever to actually create an environment where nostalgia can be realistically produced.  Again, thanks to its scope, Marquez has more than a century to play with, and he paints the childhood experiences in one sequence and then can return to them hundreds of pages later.  Seemingly small episodes like the miracle of ice become magnified even more when seen in hindsight.  I'm not certain why nostalgia is so feared, but it may be connected to the idea of the cycle of entropy (which, I should say, is never named in this book, it's more a hobby horse of mine)... nostalgia makes us look back and long for the past, which by definition can never be restored.  Instead we should look forward and seek to create anew.

As intriguing as the Buendias are, I found myself often even more captivated by the story of Macondo, the city they found, lead, inhabit, and destroy.  This isn't a political book, but I found myself getting mad at the descriptions of outrages by the Conservatives, and even more distraught at the invasion of the banana company.  One interesting thing about this book is that it's a little hard to locate in time and space: no year is ever mentioned, no famous events, nor the country where it is set.  For the first hundred pages or so, I actually wasn't sure whether it was in the Americas or on the Iberian peninsula.  You do get a rough sense of progress - a train appears about halfway through the book, and there's talk of airplanes near the end - but part of the point is that the residents of Macondo are so cut off and isolated from the rest of the world that, to some degree, it doesn't matter where or when it is.  One of the last things we learn about the town is that the gypsies have returned and are again amazing the residents with magnifying glasses and magnets.


A quick note on style: I love it, and am very curious how it compares to the original Spanish.  Marquez uses a fascinating technique that plays with time in a unique way.  It doesn't play backwards, like in "Memento."  It's a little closer to the un-stuck-ness of Vonnegut in "Slaughterhouse 5" or "Breakfast of Champions," although that doesn't quite capture it either.  The best analogy I can think of - and I really hope this isn't just because I recently read a book with it in the title - is of a pendulum.  Marquez describes an event (say, a firing squad shooting), then described what preceded that event, then picks up a character's thread and tells the story forward in time, past the original event, into the future, then offers background on another plot thread, which then moves forward... amazingly, I didn't get lost, despite the extremely fluid chronology.  You definitely get that weird Vonnegut tension, where you know how a story is going to end, but are still surprised by what happens during it.  I suppose that, ultimately, Marquez might just not have had a lot of choice.  When you're dealing with dozens of characters with overlapping lives, it just isn't feasible to tell it in a straight chronology, and it wouldn't be very satisfying or feasible to have each character told as a separate story.

I'm sure there's lots more that I could say here, but I'll let that stand for now.  This was a great book, and I'm sure it'll keep rattling around my mind for a long time to come.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

I'm really digging NPR's "Why California Is So Messed Up" series this week.  If you're curious about why this great state is so awful, check it out.  It's one of the most comprehensive yet comprehensible indictments that I've heard yet.  They devote separate segments to each of the major problems - ballot initiative budgeting, the school system, our insane prison system, and so on. 

I love this state and don't plan to leave any time soon.  I really do wish it would grow up, though.  I'm irrationally attracted to the most apocalyptic solutions: divide the state into two regions (north and south, or coastal and inland) or even three (north, central, and south); call a constitutional convention to toss out our patchwork system and replace it with something that makes sense; stop electing our officials and instead appoint ordinary citizens via a lottery.  OK, the last one is silly, but it's hard to imagine them doing much worse than our current legislature.

You know what, though?  At the end of the day, even if we run out of money and our infrastructure collapses, this will still be one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Worst case, I'll take my tent and my walking shoes and head into the hills.  It won't come to that, though.  One way or another we'll muddle through... and, five years from now, a new crisis will become "The worst in our history!" and "Proof that California doesn't work!"

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Spam Spam Spam Spam

I was amused to receive an automatic warning from Google recently.  This email kindly described their automatic blog spam detection program, and said that my condo blog had been flagged as a possible spam blog.  The email said, "If you're a human, just click this link and follow the instructions.  Someone will review this blog and take it off the list."

I chuckled and complied.  It took them about 48 hours to approve it, during which time C to the Fifth was still accessible, but I was not allowed to add or edit any posts.

I'm still unsure exactly how I feel about their quote-unquote algorithm.  On the one hand, I'll cheerfully grant that is a URL that just screams spam.  I wouldn't be shocked if Google was flagging every blog with the word "condo" in the title - there's a huge number of web pages out there of very questionable value, all hawking real estate of some kind.

On the other hand, I can't imagine any decent algorithm that would process the actual content of my blog and conclude that it's spam.  For one thing, there are almost no links there (at least, there weren't until my recent post-spam-block post about local mortgage lenders), and links are the main reason spam blogs exist in the first place.  And while recent spam generators have gotten pretty good at mimicking human writing (at least in terms of words per sentence, paragraph structure, punctuation, and word variety), they still aren't as good as real humans... I would have hoped that Google could tell the difference between my writing and that of a bot.

Anyways, just another interesting chapter in my ever-evolving relationship with Google.  I'm glad that they're tackling this problem, just skeptical about the quality of tools they're using to address it.

Sunday, July 12, 2009


Neil Gaiman has become one of my go-to authors.  Whenever I'm requesting a parcel of books from my library, I generally have a few specific titles that have grabbed my fancy, and then I'll poke around a bit and grab some books that I haven't read yet from dependable authors.  I'm generally not surprised by such books, but they form the mortar of my reading habits... a good means to bridge the gap between more major components.

Gaiman is kind of a weird example, though, because aside from "American Gods" and a few other books, most of his output is either comic books or juvenile fiction.  As I've said before, I'm really glad to be able to request books from the library and pick them up from the hold shelf, so I can enjoy reading such books without feeling like I'm hanging around the children's or Young Adult sections.

InterWorld is actually co-written between Gaiman and Michael Reaves, who I haven't read before but who also wrote, uh, a Star Wars book featuring Darth Maul.  Hm.  Yes.  I'm not exactly sure how to fit that fact in, so I'm just going to pretend that Gaiman wrote the whole thing himself.


I feel compelled to compare InterWorld to Coraline, mainly because they're so different.  Coraline is aimed at a younger audience, and has fairly simple language, but it's that timeless and ageless type of simplicity.  It almost feels more like a myth than a story.  While I was aware that it was a children's book, it didn't at all irritate me or feel dumbed down.

InterWorld is aimed a few years higher, at the pre-teen (I refuse to write "tween" - oh, dang!) demographic.  The language is a bit more complex than Coraline, enough to lose that ageless feel but not so much to feel like a "real" adult book.  As such, reading it was... not exactly annoying, but less satisfying.  The narrator, Joey, has a friendly voice, which counts for a lot, but the book has an annoying tendency to over-communicate every thing that he thinks.  It's one of the best examples I've seen recently of "Tell, don't show." 

To emphasize: from a technical perspective, the book is perfectly fine.. there aren't any typos or major plot holes or anything like that.  The language is just a little blandly written.

The story itself isn't, though.  As is his wont, Gaiman has created a rich world here - actually, far more than that: he has invented the "Altiverse", a slice of the Multiverse consisting of every parallel version of Earth.  In this slender book of between 100 and 200 pages, he manages to create an entirely convincing system of... well, multiple realities, movement through space and time, an eternal battle between the forces of magic and those of science, and other cool stuff like that.  It's pretty amazing how quickly and fully he can lay stuff like this out.  I think that this is a one-shot thing, but it feels like the book is setting the ground work for what could be an entire series.  A note at the very end describes how the original idea was imagined as a TV show, and I can totally imagine this as being a solid episodic series.  (In addition to Star Wars, Michael Reaves also wrote episodes for my beloved ST:TNG and Sliders, and you can certainly think about InterWorld as being a continuation of the Sliders concept.)

Wow, tangent.  Anyways, what I meant to say was that, Coraline the book focuses on the importance of self-reliance, independence, and personal strength.  The movie subverted these themes, much to my dismay.  InterWorld, in keeping with its title, is much more focused on relationships.  Joey Harker, the protagonist, has extreme talents, but he relies on the assistance of friends at every step of his journey.  Far be it from me to say that one message is better than the other, but I do find it interesting that you can find opposite opinions from the same author.

In a way, it does make a kind of sense... I keep harping on this, but I'm really interested in Kohlberg's theory of moral development.  The early stages that children go through are primarily selfish, and see others as means of punishment or reward.  As people age and mature, they move into the later stages that are more concerned with the good of the group and of society.  I'm probably reading way too much into this, but you could trace a similar kind of evolution through the suggested reading ages of Gaiman's books, from the individualism of the child through the group focus of the tween (shudder) through the complex societies of American Gods and Sandman.

All this, of course, is the opposite of what we tend to think of: we generally think of people starting out as highly dependent upon others, and growing more and more independent as they grow up.  Which is also true.  I suppose you might think of it like this: on a physical level, we need the group less as we mature, but on a mental level, we become better equipped to use and contribute to the group.  It's a little like love: the less you need it, the better it's likely to be.


InterWorld is a very entertaining piece of fluff... it lasted a single day in my commuter bag.  I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to adult readers unless you're a Gaiman completist like me.  It's a fine book, but there's better Gaiman out there.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Arrant Thief

"Pale Fire" is my first-ever Nabokov novel.  I'm still not totally sure why I decided to go with this instead of "Lolita" - maybe because Lolita is too mainstream or some similarly inadequate reason.  It isn't my first Nabokov story, though.  He was one of my absolute short story writers who I encountered in my Fiction Writing class.  Pale Fire reminds me of a lot that I enjoyed in those earlier works, but is really operating on a whole different plane.  It keeps his sense of playfulness, but the complexity is so intricate that it's really in a league of its own.

I was really glad that I approached the book with absolutely no foreknowledge about its contents, which allowed me to be surprised about the path it takes.  If you think you may want to check it out yourself, consider skipping the spoilers in this post.


This book is incredibly funny, but you probably need to be an English major to get the most out of it.  It occupies the exclusive realm of stories that don't look like stories - I've run across this in some of my favorite short stories, but this is the first time I can recall that I've seen it successfully drawn out to an entire book.  Anyways: "Pale Fire" is presented as a 999-line poem, along with an introduction, commentary (in the form of endnotes), and index.  From just flipping through it, it looks exactly like the sort of tome we English majors read for four solid years.  And, refreshingly, it is fully aware of the essential absurdity of this form.

When you come right down to it, an "annotated version" is a little silly.  Inevitably, some minor scholar is presuming to explain the work of a great author.  Great authors don't do annotations (with very few exceptions).  It's cruel but compelling to say that these writers long for fame by association.

"Pale Fire" is that raised to the highest degree.  The "narrator" (that is, the author of all material except the 999-line poem) is, to put it bluntly, insane.  The degree and nature of his insanity are up to debate (under "Mega Spoilers" below), but he quite clearly is not at all a normal person.  His madness takes many forms, but at the heart is a preening self-aggrandization that plays perfectly into the role of commentator.  I couldn't help laughing and shaking my head in amazement as Kinbote inserts more and more of himself into the text, sometimes not even pretending to comment on John Shade's poem.

The ravings of Kinbote are the highlight, but there's a lot going on here besides his lunacy.  Shade's poem itself is quite lovely.  It doesn't go at all with the endnotes, but of course that's the point.  His description of his daughter's troubled life is quite heartbreaking, and his joyful affirmation of love to his wife are cheering.  I'm not sure if it's necessarily a very GOOD poem - I'm much more of a prose than a poetry guy - but it's certainly sweet.

The other piece of the story, which is told through the endnotes, is the saga of King Charles II of Zembla: his heritage, flight from the nation, exile, and eventual confrontation with an assassin.  You pretty early on learn (or can guess) the broad outlines of what will happen, but there's still a great deal of suspense that's heightened by the sense of inevitability.

Minute by minute, though, Kinbote is the star of the book.  He may be the best example of an unreliable narrator that I've ever come across, which is saying a lot.  Through the distorted glass of his madness, you can see scenes from his life, and find the madness in there as well.  His relationship with the Shades is comic and tragic.  Kinbote is utterly convinced that he is Shade's very best friend in the entire world, his confidant, his muse, his inspiration.  Yet, we eventually learn, Shade only had Kinbote over for dinner thrice in about a year, and doesn't seem to have ever had a particularly close relation with him.  It's a strikingly asymmetric relationship - Shade tolerates Kinbote, good-naturedly putting up with him, while Kinbote is convinced that Kinbote is the best thing to ever happen to Shade.


It took me a while to figure out that Kinbote and Charles were the same.  I think it was about halfway through, when he mentions Shade's comment that he had guessed his secret.  Leading up to it, though, I'd thought about how odd it was that Kinbote had access to such vivid details from Charles' past.  Again, since Kinbote is such an unreliable narrator, it's hard to know what to make of it.  Did he invent Charles?  Did he just have an extremely active imagination? 

Even after you find out that they are the same, that question is still not resolved.  I'm initially tempted to dismiss Kinbote, to say that this is an example of schizophrenia.  He's really just a sad scholar who has built up an elaborate fantasy world in which he's an incredibly important person.  Then I think back to an earlier scene he recounts at a faculty party, where a visiting scholar is struck at Kinbote's resemblance to Charles, and is trying to find a picture to convince the others.  "Well," I think, "Maybe Kinbote IS Charles.  He's still crazy, but he does happen to be a king.  After all, there's corroborating evidence."  And then I remind myself that Kinbote is EXTREMELY UNRELIABLE.  He could have invented the entire party scene, or created the visiting scholar character.  Or, who knows, maybe the scholar did see a resemblance, and that's what sparked the conviction in Kinbote's mind that he really was a regent in exile.


I had a bit of trouble deciding how to read the book.  In the foreword, Kinbote gives an early indication of how he views his role in putting together the book: he urges you to read the notes in their entirety first; then to read the poem, stopping to read the notes along the way; then to read the notes all the way through again.  Needless to say, I wasn't about to do that.  I ended up doing this the way I would a conventionally annotated book: reading until a good stopping point (in this case, the end of a stanza), then flipping to the back to read any notes that corresponded to that stanza.  There's so little connection between the poem and the notes that you could probably do each one in series, but there are occasional moments of serendipity where it's nice to read them close to one another.

The one exception was when Kinbote specifically urged me to read a note out of sequence.  He often refers you to other notes (again, as is usually the case in real annotated books), which I ignored, except for a particularly insistent one where he said something like, "See, see now, see now, the note to 991."  Ah, that voice!  It's so compelling and strange and dreadful and sad.


"Pale Fire" is a fantastic puzzle of a story.  It requires a lot of effort on a technical level to get through, but once you start to "get" it, it becomes extraordinarily funny and moves along satisfactorily.  I'm positive that I missed a lot on my first pass through, and really should read through it again to try and glean more.  Excellent work.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Chair Leg Of Truth Does Not Lie!

Working in an office full of guys makes it easier than ever before to engage in guilty pleasures.  High on the list are our weekly tradition of watching Zero Punctuation and the huge number of comic books in the bathroom.  I've been gradually working my way through Transmetropolitan, a really intriguing series that channels Hunter S. Thompson by way of Philip K. Dick.  As I keep on insisting, I'm not a "comic guy", but I guess I'm becoming more of one every year.  Four years ago I had never read a single comic (excluding from newspapers or the internet) - now, I've read the complete "Sandman," "Firefly," "Bone," "Watchmen," and started on "Dark Knight" and "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."  So I can no longer claim TOTAL ignorance of the conventions and tropes of the comic medium.

On the other hand, I have no illusions: I"ve just been reading the best.  Much like anime, I have an inflated opinion of the medium due to the fact that I blissfully ignore all the mediocre and poor work out there.

That said, "Transmetropolitan" does wind up towards the bottom of my list of comics - but that's the bottom of a very exclusive set of company.  At its best, T manages to be funny, horrifying, prescient, and thoughtful, all wrapped up into one immoral package.  At the worst, it feels a bit unfocused and overly reliant upon shock humor.  All together, it tells a really compelling story, with copious digressions that help flesh out the fictional world.

Probably the most unique thing about T, in comparison to the other comics I've read, is its political bent.  It isn't political in the same way that, say, Doonesbury is, commenting on particular issues and politicians in our own time.  Instead, it's political in the way that 1984 or Gattaca are... it deals with theoretical situations, but with such gravity and realism that you can't help but think about how we should act in our own world to deal with or prevent that vision of the future.


It's a little creepy to read T and realize that it started in 1997.  So much of it seems to mirror our own experiences in the oughts... the way we were lied to, abused, how we clung to brutish policies and persons who promised to keep us safe.  Thinking back to 1997, when the Cold War was long dead and we seemed to be embarking upon a prolonged period of peace and prosperity, it took a lot of creativity to envision a powerful nation devouring itself.  Warren Ellis did so, and for better or for worse, this was the result.

The main character is one Spider Jerusalem, and calling him a copy of Hunter S. Thompson is an understatement.  This is a good thing, of course... HST is a larger-than-life personality, and one of the most entertaining forces to ever emerge from journalism.  Spider shares HST's predilection for drugs, his gatling-gun diction, his vaguely left-libertarian outlook, his self-deprecation and aggression, his constant smoking.

There are differences.  For starters, SJ is naked most of the time.  He also loves cats and hates dogs.  HST seems to be a regular loner, occasionally accepting company from an interestingly psychotic sidekick.  SJ professes loner-dom, but is fortunate to lead a posse of Filthy Assistants.  I wish I had some Filthy Assistants, too.

SJ aside, my favorite character was probably Mitchell Royce, Spider's editor.  Like a lot of other characters, he smokes multiple cigarettes at the same time, and has a wonderful world-weary attitude that perfectly fits the stereotypical editor, while his dialog retains enough of an edge to engage entertainingly with Spider's shenanigans.  I also enjoyed Spider's Maker, although sadly it ceases to be a character after the first book or two.

The Beast and The Smiler were both great villains.  I kind of got the impression that The Smiler was originally imagined as a kind of Bill Clinton - someone who seems friendly and is quite deceptive.  I may be over-reading into it, though, and by the end there isn't much resemblance to be found.  I do like the general sense of reversal one gets when reading the series - very reminiscent of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again."

The main political plot thread is quite interesting.  Page by page, though, there are more side stories than main stories, and these really run the gamut in quality.  My favorite passages from the whole run are included here - among the very best is the incredibly surreal and hilarious "Spider Watches Television" sequence.  Others just seem to be taking up time.  I never really got into the whole Transient subplot, and was usually bored any time Fred Christ was on the page.

Oooh, gotta mention the art.  It's really remarkably rich and dense.  The artist does a phenomenal job at bringing The City to life, with all that that means.  Any given street scene will be jammed with more graffiti, syringes, piercings, concrete cracks, filth and depravity than you can really fit into your brain.  On the rare occasions when they visit a reservation or other "outside" location, the sheer beauty is even more moving in relation to the ugliness we're used to viewing.


I'd never recommend this as a first comic book series to someone looking to get into the scene, but I'd certainly nod in approval to someone looking for an interesting comic to read.  It almost goes without saying that this is an incredibly R-rated, violent, sexist, and purposely offensive piece of work, but also one that should entertain people looking for an edgy glimpse into our dark potential future.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Shameless Commerce

I very rarely blog about my job. Partly because I spend all day thinking about it; partly because I'm often working on projects that haven't been announced yet; partly because there's already a wealth of useful technical information available out there.

Anyways, because it's so rare, I hope you'll forgive a quick little plug for my company. Gravity Mobile released MusicID 2 earlier this year, and lately it's been going gangbusters. You may be familiar with similar products from Shazam and Midomi: you can use your phone to "listen" to a piece of recorded music, and it will automatically find out what that song is. MusicID 2 goes above and beyond the other apps, though. I'll cheerfully grant that I'm biased, but even if I didn't work here, I'd think that this app just looks much more gorgeous than the others. (I take no credit for this part - we have some incredible in-house graphic design talent that more than makes up for my lack of the same.) Music recognition is just the beginning, too. You can search and browse through a vast catalog of music, listen to snippets, read the lyrics, purchase content for your phone (wallpapers, ringtones, full tracks where available), save and share your music, and more.

The app was a blast to work on - it's extremely feature-rich while remaining focused. You can do all the cool things with just a few clicks, never getting lost in the weeds. I take some personal pride in this product as I created the BlackBerry version of the app, as well as the touch-screen Java ME versions.

If you want to use it, MusicID 2 is available for AT&T phones. We just released the iPhone version this past month, and it's already up to #4 in the App Store - woo-hoo! It's available for most popular AT&T phones on Media Mall, and comes pre-loaded on most new AT&T phones.

It's been a few months since I worked on this app - as is the way in this business, by the time my products actually come out, I've long since moved onto the next secret thing. I'm extremely proud of this, though... MusicID 2 is the little app that could, and it keeps on getting and doing better. I consider myself extremely lucky to be in a situation where I get paid to write really fun and cool software. Let's hope the trend continues!

Monday, July 06, 2009


Just wrapped up "Spook Country," a recent novel from William Gibson.  Gibson has gone through a bit of a transformation lately.  He's considered the father of cyberpunk (somewhat misleadingly so - Bruce Sterling probably did more to define the genre, Neuromancer notwithstanding), but his books this decade have a firmly different purpose and tone.  Instead of the far-off future, they are set in the present day.  What's interesting is that they feel like present-day sci-fi... he retains a focus on technology and science, but it's more explanatory than speculative.

I really enjoyed "Pattern Recognition," the earlier book he wrote in this new mode.  That book dealt with a lot of things, but mainly the soft social sciences of branding, intellectual property, consumption.  "Spook Country" shakes things up a bit, retaining an influential character from the first book and the overall tone, while moving its thematic focus.  SC is much more politically aware, and sort of broods over The United States as it existed in the early part of Bush's second term.  It's a book about fear, about strife between agencies, about the lack of port security, about problems coming home to roost in America.  It also deals more directly with technology, particularly GPS, and plays around with an interesting idea that Gibson dubs locative art.  I believe that this is an invention, much like the logo allergy in "PR", but it's a well thought-through and intriguing one.

Unfortunately, despite the move from imaginary technology to real technology, Gibson still just doesn't know much about tech.  This isn't that unusual; very few sci-fi authors really do know what they're writing about.  It becomes much more obvious when you're dealing with real things in the present day, though.  For example, throughout the book Gibson describes the various wireless networks that a character attempts to join.  He talks about how the security conscious will use WEP encryption.  Fine, except that's totally bogus.  WEP is still around, but it's largely considered obsolete among the technorati; no admin worth a darn would seriously consider using anything less than WPA.  Granted, this is a mistake that many people won't pick up on, and it's more of a color piece than anything central to the book.  Still, though... when a five-second Wikipedia search can prove you wrong, it's a little embarrassing.


Gibson fares better on the character front.  He has a collection in this book, and while some of them never feel like they really get flushed out, there are a few winners.  The most intriguing is Tito, a young Cuban/Chinese exile who speaks Russian and works with a family with long-standing CIA ties.  He's almost overloaded with interesting things, most especially the way that (as far as I can tell) in times of great stress he becomes possessed by spirits who guide his actions.  You don't get that strong an idea of what he's thinking, but his actions are consistently fascinating.

The most sympathetic character is probably Milgrim, a sad tranquilizer junkie who is recruited and abusively led around by a quasi-rogue government agent.  Milgrim has very highly developed coping skills, and retreats into fantasies about 14th-century religious movements.  His captor is hands-down the most despicable character in the book, which makes liking Milgrim even easier.

Also, Hubertus Bigend makes a return appearance from PR.  As is only fitting - he's such a larger-than-life character that he could not be contained within a single novel.  I do wonder if he will show up in all of Gibson's future novels.  As long as he continues to write in this style, I imagine that he will.


All in all, "SC" is interesting, but hard to recommend.  It doesn't cohere as nicely as "PR" did, and while its aimlessness seems to be at least somewhat deliberate, that doesn't make it more compelling to read.  People who've read and loved "PR" should enjoy this book, though probably less so than that first one.  Others can take a pass, at least until after they've tasted the new Gibson and decided whether they like him.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


And, just a few months behind schedule, I've finished watching what I want from the 2008-2009 television season!


First, a few additional notes on "Lost":

As previously noted, I nearly missed the last few episodes, having somehow misjudged how many were in the season.  That really helps explain why the "ending" didn't feel very dramatic.


Getting to know the old Dharma members was interesting.  By far my favorite character from that crew is Horace.  The whole thing feels really 70's, but he takes it to another level.  His laid-back vocabulary, and especially the way he walks everywhere with his hands in his pockets, really resonates with me.

Richard Alpert used to be cool and mysterious - now he's even more of both.  I feel like we're finally starting to get some insight into how the island works, and it isn't a straightforward hierarchy like I would have thought of at first.  He feels a little bit like a steward in a monarchy - he's a titular servant, but one who wields actual power.

In general, I really dig "Lost" more the more complicated it gets.  I think that they pulled off the time travel things well.  Pretty much my only real complaints were the cheap-sounding ways that they backed out of some character deaths - "Oh, wait, Jin isn't dead after all!  SCIENCE!  THE ISLAND IS MYSTERIOUS!!!"  In general, though, it feels really well put together.

Not to mean that there aren't holes.  I give the writers huge credit for trying to tie up loose ends and weave everything into a coherent whole, but there are some cases where it's pretty clear that they didn't initially know where they would end up.  One of the biggest examples of this: a flashback in an earlier episode had shown Dr. Whoever (you know, the guy in the Dharma training videos) in the tunnel, warning about the energy source.  Then he bumps into a guy whose face is concealed.  He apologizes, moves on, then lifts his helmet and OH MY GOSH IT IS DANIEL WHAT IS HE DOING BACK IN TIME!!!  Towards the finale, we see that scene actually take place - Daniel travels to the site, sees the doctor, puts on the helmet, bumps into him, apologizes... walks forward, lifts his helmet... then, because there's actual plot going on now, needs to turn around, walk BACK to the doctor, announce himself, and warn him about what's going to happen.  That isn't horrible, but still... why go through the charade of hiding your identity when you'll discard it five seconds later, once the flashback is over?

Another example would be the various Locke flashbacks.  I'm generally really happy with this overall theme, that future Locke set a chain of events in motion across time that affected his childhood and led to him becoming future Locke.  That said, I really doubt that the writers were thinking about all this when they did those early season episodes.

I think just about my favorite writing from this whole (generally pretty good) season comes towards the very end, when they've decided to let Jack detonate the hydrogen bomb in the anomaly, and Miles says something like, "I hope that you've all considered the possibility that it's us who cause the incident, right?  That everything would be fine, except that setting off the nuclear device in the middle of all that magnetism is what causes all of the bad stuff to happen?  .... Well, all right then.  Glad to see that you've thought this through."  I'd been wondering that for the previous three episodes, so I was really happy to see that the writers had considered the possibility as well.

One complaint about the finale: I'm not sure why, but I wasn't really happy with how they handled Jacob.  For a while now he's been this very mysterious entity - they stripped away the mystery by actually giving him a face and a body, inserted him into all the characters' pasts, but didn't really give us a lot else to hook on him.  And then killed him.  (I hope - I don't think I can take another reversal from this show.)  It just felt a little wasted, I guess.  I do like how they're setting things up for the final season - near-immortals who struggle for dominion over a mysterious land through generations of proxies - but Jacob feels like a trump card that was flushed out too early.

Ever since the beginning, I've enjoyed "Lost" the most when it delves into the mystical, and hated it when it kowtows to science.  I groan whenever they say "Magnets!" or "Radio!" to explain some formerly cool phenomenon.  I think that by this point of the show, it's evolved to where they can genuinely say that it is both, without it feeling like a cop-out.  Seeing Dharma in action really helps with that.  It's an old saw, but anything that you can't explain is magic; it becomes science once you can explain it.  Dharma is in the process of providing those explanations.  They've found this island that's filled with phenomena that defy all known explanations, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're super-natural, just that they aren't part of nature that we're familiar with.  I hope they stay on that ontological path for the final season.  I'll be one happy viewer.


In the other corner: House!  I'd stopped watching this about halfway through the season, but thought that the ending was EXCELLENT.  Apparently it's gotten a pretty bad rap, both critically and for viewer numbers.  I'm not sure why... the show has definitely changed from its early seasons, but I view that as a good thing.  My fear with "House" has always been that they would get too locked into the medical procedural thing and become repetitive.  The past two seasons have proven that they can get away with changing pretty much anything.

At the same time, I've officially decided that I prefer watching TV this way (via DVR).  It's far more enjoyable to watch a long-form series with just a few nights between each episode rather than seven days.  I can keep the plot lines in my head better, and it maintains better dramatic momentum.  Best of all, now that show creators can expect that they will eventually be going to DVD, there's less recapping built into each episode than ever before.


Even bad episodes of "House" are still pretty good - as I keep saying, I survived the first half of the first season just because of Hugh Laurie's phenomenal deliveries.  Where "House" becomes amazing are the rare episodes where attention shifts from the body to the mind.  Every single one of my favorite episodes have to do with dreaming, or amnesia, or hallucination, or imagination.  Whether it's "Three Stories" or the last few episodes of this season, "House" soars when it plays around with perception and reality.

So, yeah, there was no way that they could do a plotline of "House seems to be going crazy" and not make it excellent.  I'm glad that they spent as much time with it as they did - they usually don't spread things out too long, but this really gave them plenty of time to deal with the uncertainty and doubt that they went through.


Holy cow... I was almost ready to press "Post" without even mentioning Kutner!  That was huge.  I've done a lot of reading online since that episode to see what's up, and learned that he asked to be written out of the show.  (To go work in the White House, which is AWESOME - Kal seems like a solid guy, and did work for Obama's campaign that went far beyond the standard Hollywood photo ops.)  Given that they had to get rid of him, I thought they did so in an incredibly powerful way.  I was especially moved by the long, drawn-out reactions that people showed to his death, which to some extent mirrored my thoughts while I was watching - it's a little pathetic how quickly I signed up to the idea that he was actually murdered (which, in my defense, was my first thought when I saw the body).

One more thing - I am simply amazed at the cinematography of the last season or so of this show.  (Can I still say "Cinematography" if it's television and not film?  Hm.)  I don't remember it being this good before.  There are some particular scenes that just make my heart ache, they're so beautiful.  The shot of Amber's death from last season's finale was one - chilly beauty in a sea of horror.  When Kutner died, there was this amazing dark blue/black lighting that was used whenever people gathered together, casting a visible pall on everyone's spirits.  Later, when House started going mad, they began using this really interesting bright, overly saturated lens to show House's increasing disconnection from reality.  And at the very end, the scenes of Chase's wedding are gorgeous, clean, crisp, and bright, while House's trek into the asylum are purposely bleak and cool.


Awesome stuff.  I'm really curious how they're going to adapt the format of the show to the first set of episodes next season.  With House and that environment, I think there may be a whole new world of material available.  Can't wait!

Hm, any other television news?  I was bummed to read that we won't be getting more Venture Brothers - I thought we were due for another season this summer, but no go.  I've checked out a few episodes of the British "Coupling" and Cartoon Network's "Metalocalypse" - both are decently amusing, but I doubt I'll go through the whole run of either.  I'm content to wait until the good shows start back up again... as you can see, I don't have enough time to watch all the television I want during the season, so it's good to have some more downtime.