Thursday, May 29, 2008

Jumping aboard the Wayback Machine...

Feeling a little nostalgic today.  I won't bore you with a long, rambling, I-remember-when, but I was thinking about the first book I recall owning -- a Hardy Boys juvenile novel, published in 1959: "The Mystery of Cabin Island."  (This was, I believe, the original 1929 version; it's important to identify when a Hardy Boy book was published, since the book was revised to eliminate ethnic stereotypes and update vernacular in the mid-Sixties.)  Loved that book.  Still do.  And that's all I have to say about that.  What was the first book you remember owning?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Darkon Rising

Watched an entertaining documentary last night called Darkon, which follows the exploits of a LARP group on the East Coast.  LARP, for those of you not in the know, is an acronym for live action roleplaying -- i.e.: folks who dress up as knights and elves to fight pretend battles in parks and school yards.  The documentary is fairly sympathetic to the people in this group, though it doesn't try to hide the fact these LARPers are, to put it kindly, pretty odd.  My first reaction, watching the film, was a queasy embarrassment -- you know the feeling you get when you're at some kind of public event, a wedding maybe, and someone who really shouldn't decides to show off their singing voice?  You shudder; you silently plead with them, "Oh no, no, please, don't get up there, don't do that, oh no, please don't."  But they do, and you cringe on their behalf, and pretend you don't notice they're making an ass of themselves, and you pray, for their sake, that nobody has a video cam.

Well, that's how I felt as the movie introduced us to these nice, well-meaning, slightly loopy folks who make war with foam swords and duct-tape shields.  But as the film progressed, and I got to know the various LARPers and their families, I began to have another reaction.  (The queasy embarrassment didn't go away; it just faded into the background.)  I began to think these folks aren't all that weird or strange, after all.  What they do -- the way they play their game -- isn't that different from how most people committed to a hobby, a sport, or some other personal enthusiasm, pursue their interests.  Is there any difference in kind between someone who puts on a costume to battle with fake swords, and someone who puts on a uniform to play weekend baseball?  There's a park near my house, and almost every night during the summer, the baseball diamonds are filled with guys in their mid-twenties, early-thirties, dressed up in uniforms and playing baseball.  Somehow, that isn't considered strange, but putting on a hand-sewn tabard and whacking another guy over the head with a foam bat, somehow, that's thought to be weird. 

I guess an argument could be made that amateur sport clubs promote physical fitness, but something tells me keeping fit isn't the primary motive at work for these guys.  Joining an amateur sports league, wearing a uniform, playing ball -- it's role playing.  For a couple of hours once or twice a week, you can pretend you're a baseball legend.  And honestly, that's what you're doing: you're pretending.  You hit a home run, you win the game -- so what?  What difference does it make in the "real" world?  Absolutely none.  The only place it matters is inside you, in the way you see yourself.  I guess LARPing serves the same purpose for people who got picked last, if at all, for their sandlot baseball teams.  God bless 'em, I say.

Anyway, anyway, it's a very entertaining film.  Highly recommended.  Get it through Netflix, or failing that, pick it up on Amazon.  It's worth your time.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Ehh

Heads up:  This is the official, Conway's Corner obligatory Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull review.  Feel free to skip it if you've had enough Indiana Jones talk over the Memorial Day weekend.  If you're interested in my take on the film (and why would you be?  If you're a reader of this blog, you've probably already seen it), then read on.

Naturally, like many guys my age who grew up reading comics and can kinda-sorta remember old time movie serials from watching them on Fifties television, I'm a huge Indiana Jones fan.  And like many Indiana Jones fans (I think this is true), I experienced a gradual sense of deflation over the first three movies, from balls-out excitement watching Raiders of the Lost Ark, to excitement tempered by distaste watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, to finally a grudging excitement and a ho-hum sense of lowered-expectations satisfaction from watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  (It's not that Last Crusade was a disappointment, by any means; it's just that, the best that could be said for it, was that it wasn't a disappointment.  It was, in a word, okay.  It hit the right beats, it didn't go too far overboard, and it wasn't an embarrassment to enjoy.  But still and all, truth to tell, it was no great shakes.  Fun, yes, but not particularly memorable.  Except for one or two lines by Henry Jones, Senior.)

And now we come to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

I enjoyed it, but honestly, I had to work at it.  On at least three separate occasions, the filmmakers (this is one of those cases when the plural really does apply; this is a film by both Spielberg and Lucas, with all the good and bad that implies) threw me out of the movie and made me aware I was watching something that bore no resemblance whatsoever to reality.  Yes, I know, any movie that involves a two-fisted archaeologist, a female commie sword-fighting psychic, and secret alien remains hidden in a magnetic box at Area 52, bears little resemblance to what we normally refer to as the "real world."  But none of that is beyond the realm of acceptable "fantasy reality;" i.e.: if you accept the basic situation -- we're in an action movie about commies pursuing the mystery of what happened in Roswell in 1947 or whenever, and they're opposed by an over-the-hill archaeologist who's already had some pretty extreme adventures -- then you won't have a problem accepting any of the foregoing.

But you might have a problem with how Indiana Jones survives being trapped at a nuclear test site in Nevada; or how Mutt Williams catches up to a pair of speeding army vehicles in a South American jungle; or how the filmmakers chose a lame circular escape attempt to provide an opportunity for the Big No-Surprise Reveal concerning the identity of Mutt's long-dead dad.  (Uh, guess what, it's Indiana.)

Look, I'm willing to accept that a 65-year old man can fight like a 30-year old.  (Fitness is relative; a 65-year old Joe Frazier could easily cream most 30-year old non-athletes.)  I'm willing to believe the U.S. government kept a secret stash of alien artifacts in a warehouse in Nevada in the 1950s.  (It's outlandish but there's nothing to say it couldn't have happened and we just never found out about it.)  I'm even willing to believe Indiana Jones dumped Miriam Ravenwood at the altar and it never came up in conversation with his dad a few years later, despite the fact this was the daughter of one of his father's best friends.

However.  I am not willing to believe a human being can survive being blown up by an atomic bomb just by hiding in a conveniently lead-lined refrigerator.  I am really not willing to believe said human would survive being hurled several miles through the air inside said lead-lined refrigerator.  Then get out and still have his hat.

I mean, come on.

There's nothing this flat-out unbelievable in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  (The closest you get is the idea that Indy hid out on the superstructure of a German U-Boat while it crossed the Mediterranean; lucky for him it never submerged.)  There's nothing this unbelievable in Temple of Doom (okay, maybe it's a stretch Indy and his pals survive falling from a plane by means of an inflatable raft; but you can justify it because we don't really know how far they fell, or at what angle they hit, or how deep the snow is they landed on, etc.).  And unless I'm forgetting something, there's nothing this out-of-reality in Lost Crusade.

But wait, you're saying, what about all the fantastic magical stuff that happens in these movies -- the Ark opens up and releases killer demons; an Indian mystic pulls the living heart out of a human sacrifice (and forgets to do it to the hero's girl friend); Henry Jones, Sr., survives a fatal gunshot wound thanks to the healing properties of the Holy Grail.  Aren't those things unbelievable?  Aren't they outside the boundaries of reality?

Sure they are; but they're the MacGuffins of these films -- the plot devices that motor the rest of the story.  Whether they're inherently fantastic or not doesn't matter.  They are, in effect, the gimmies of these movies.  By the time they arrive we've suspended our disbelief.  Because, up till then, everything else we've seen has been within the bounds, more or less, of commonly accepted reality.

But, come on -- Mutt Williams playing Tarzan with a troop of monkeys?  Swinging from tree to tree and doing it fast enough to catch up with a speeding truck?  Really?  Really?  (By contrast, I don't find it unbelievable that Mutt gets in a sword-fight with the commie psychic; it's been established that he fenced, and it's established that she fences; and while it's a stretch, it's at least humanly possible that by coincidence, these two people would find themselves in opposition, and both end up with swords.  Not likely, sure; just possible.)

And, please, how's this for a limping plot device:  Indy and his people escape from the bad guys and get separated from each other just long enough for Miriam to tell Indiana he's Mutt's father, and then, as soon as Indy knows the truth but before it leads to any awkward conversation, they're captured again and the plot is back on track.  How incredibly convenient for the filmmakers.  How utterly predictable.   Nothing is accomplished by the failed escape attempt except the revelation Indiana is Mutt's father.  It's a total movie moment and it completely took me out of the "reality" of the story. 

To me, these three things -- refrigerator escape, Tarzan moment, circular escape attempt -- are signs the filmmakers did not take their responsibility to the audience seriously.  They didn't just push the bounds of believable; they knocked those bounds over and trampled them underfoot.  I almost felt like they were laughing at us:  "Sure," they seem to be saying, "you may take this stuff seriously, but we sure don't.  How dumb is this material, anyway?  Isn't it ridiculous?  Aren't you ridiculous for wanting to suspend your disbelief?  Don't think so?  Then watch this!"

It's... insulting.

Anyway... as I said above, I did enjoy the movie, but I had to work at it.  I had to suspend my suspension of disbelief.  Which is a shame, because it didn't have to be that way.  The atomic bomb sequence is superfluous -- you could just as easily cut from the rocket sled escape to Indy in FBI custody; Mutt could've found another way to catch up with the bad guys; and clever script-writing could have given us a lovely moment between Miriam and Indiana as the truth of Mutt's heritage slips out -- maybe providing some insight into why she kept it from Indy for so long, and how he feels about the sudden knowledge that the world still holds some surprises for the man in the battered brown hat.

Passing on and passing by

The memorial service for Karen's dad was yesterday, so I wasn't in the mood to update the blog.  I'll do so later today.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Read 'Em and Beep

This will come as no surprise, I'm sure, but in case you've been wondering, I'm something of a geek.  I love gadgets, the shinier and higher-tech the better.  If it weren't for Sell-It-On-eBay, I'd have a closet full of out-of-date tech goodness -- including several iterations of ebook readers, going way back to the original Nuvomedia Rocketbook.  (Now there was a monster -- big as a hardback book, heavy as a concrete block, but capable of holding several hundred books, with an easy-to-read screen.  If you didn't mind developing carpel tunnel syndrome from reading an Agatha Christie novel, it was pretty handy.)  I've tried stand-alone ereaders, Palm and Windows Mobile PDAs with ereader programs, software programs for notebooks and laptops... you name it, I've tried it; I've even attempted to read books on my mobile phone.  So far, nothing has quite worked, though some have come pretty close.  Why these things continue to attract me, I'm not really sure -- maybe I just like the idea of carrying a small library around with me as I go about my day.  It's a sickness, I admit it, but I'm not really ready to seek a cure.

The latest gizmo I've been using is the Sony PRS-505 Digital Book Reader.  It's a pretty nice device -- as light as a paperback book, with a nice clear screen, an easy-to-use interface, and enough memory onboard (with the option to add two SD cards) to carry upwards of a thousand books.  In addition to buying titles from an online store that works pretty much the way iTunes works with an iPod, you can also load plain text files, or Microsoft Word docs, or PDFs onto the device without much difficulty.  It also supports MP3 playback, including audio books.  Combine this baby with the free public domain books at Project Gutenberg, and you have access to thousands of titles ranging from classic to modern literature.  If you're interested, you can find it here:

Shiny, isn't it?


Wednesday, May 21, 2008


A friend of mine, whose wife is about to start a job at Blizzard (oh envy, oh jealous heart), admitted to me recently that he's tried to play World of Warcraft, but has had a hard time getting into it.  "All I know is you've got to kill a bunch of spiders," he told me ruefully.  "Am I missing something?"

Well, yes. actually.

But it's not his fault -- the truth is, unless you have a particular mindset, or previous experience with a certain kind of game play, WoW can be difficult to get into at first.  The manual, what there is of it, doesn't help much.  The in-game tips are useful, but limited.  To learn the game, you have to play the game, which means you have to be willing to feel lost and bewildered for hours before things begin to click into place and make sense.  Some of us enjoy that sense of disorientation and exploration; some of us don't.  Those who don't, feel frustrated, and eventually give up.  They don't get it, and honestly, I don't blame them.

Myself, I blundered about the newbie area for hours the first few days I played -- not understanding, for example, that my weapons and armor were gradually being eroded during battle, and that I had the option to replace them with new weapons and armor from fallen mobs.  ("Mobs" are the creatures and NPCs you kill during game play; they drop goodies which you can pick up by right-clicking on their fallen bodies.  See?  Now you know something I didn't know the first couple of hours I played.)  Eventually I had no weapon to kill anything with, and I was stuck -- till I asked another player what the heck I was supposed to do now.  He showed me how to fix my weapon at a weapon dealer, and voila!  I was on my way.

A little while later, around level 12 or so, I got stuck again when I came upon a fishing quest.  I had no idea how to fish, and there were no tips to tell me what to do.  So again, I asked another player;  she showed me how to fish -- and voila!  I was on my way again.

You may see a pattern developing here.

One of the secrets of WoW -- in fact, the secret of WoW -- is that you can't play the game alone; you need help from other players.  Once you understand that, the rest falls into place.

Yes, asking for help in the early stages of the game marks you as a n00b, a newbie; but the fact is, at almost every level of the game, you are a n00b, at least compared to somebody who's been at that level or in that situation before you.  There's nothing wrong with being a n00b -- a newbie -- though there are always jerks who'll act like there is.  Most players, though, will be happy to help you; most of us remember what it was like to blunder around those first few hours, or days, or weeks, trying to figure out what to do next.  A lot of the fun in playing WoW comes from helping other players.  So don't be afraid to ask for help.

I've promised my friend I'll give him a hand the next time he wants to start a new character.  I'll even start a new toon with him, if he wants, so we can play those early levels together.  I'm pretty sure it'll be fun for both of us.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why is being smart a bad thing?

As the primary season dwindles to a close, I find myself thinking about a perennial issue in American politics --  the way some politicians play to that portion of the electorate who appear to believe well-educated, well-spoken, and generally smart candidates are somehow a bad thing.

We all know the drill: Candidate Not-My-Guy is an "elitist" -- political speak for "college educated know-it-all."  Somehow, implying someone is well-educated has become a short-hand way to disqualify him or her as a "representative of the people."  When you think about it, this is bizarre.  Do we really want our leaders to be uneducated buffoons?  (Okay, given the result of the last two presidential elections, maybe we do, but still.)  When did electing someone stupid to high office become a goal for America?  How did we end up in a situation where smart equals bad and dumb equals good?

This isn't a new phenomena.  The 19th Century gave us the "Know-Nothing" Party, and plenty of candidates for public office over the years have portrayed themselves as "just plain folks" in an effort to appeal to the masses.  But it seems to me this presents us with a larger set of contradictions  deeply woven into the fabric of American life.

We are, after all, a people who believe in upward mobility.  We want our children to do better than we did; we want them to achieve more, to be better educated, to be more successful -- in effect, to leave us behind.  (Of course, there are parents who don't want this for their children, who feel threatened by their sons or daughters' achievements, and resent it when their kids try to better themselves.  Let's leave them out of this -- they don't deserve our consideration.)  Most parents want their children to get a good education; most are willing to make tremendous financial sacrifices to see it happen.  And when their children do achieve this kind of success, these parents burst with pride, and are delighted to tell everyone how wonderful their kids are, and how great they feel about their achievements.

So, on the one hand, we applaud education, we admire success, we take pleasure in academic achievement.

And, on the other hand, we resent paying taxes for public schools, we resent teachers for seeking higher salaries, we ridicule "eggheads" and "smarty-pants," and we act like an Ivy League education is a fatal sign of elitism and a disqualifier for the most important job in the country.

Does this make any sense to anyone?

There are those who'll try to make a distinction here: they'll claim the "elitist" label isn't a reference to the candidate's education, but to his "distance" from the lives of "ordinary Americans."  Please.  No politician who's risen to the level of being a serious candidate for higher office these days can ever be truly connected to the lives of "ordinary Americans."  The citizen candidate, plucked straight off the farm like Jimmy Stewart in a Frank Capra film, is long gone -- if he or she ever existed.  All political candidates for high office are, by definition, members of the elite.  Some just hide it better than others. 

(George W. Bush hid it better than his father, with his down-home Texas twang, his malapropisms and just-folks mannerisms; but the reality is, he was born with the proverbial golden spoon shoved up high where the sun don't shine, and he has as much in common with the average American as the average American has with a starving kid from Darfur.) 

Sometimes, you've got to wonder...

Amy Walker tells it like it is...

This has been floating around the internets the last few days, and it's worth a look:


Monday, May 19, 2008

Making movies by the book

Back in the late 70s, early 80s, Roy Thomas and I wrote several movies together, and for a time, while the script that became "Conan the Destroyer" was in development and production, we were even "warm" -- pursued by producers and agents who wanted to rub our knobby little heads for luck and magic.  It was fun, particularly since neither of us had any idea what we were doing, at least in the "we've been to film school and we know all the rules" sense.  Like Indiana Jones, we were just making it up as we went along, writing the kind of movies we'd like to see, and doing it pretty much by gut instinct.  Stories either "felt" right, or they didn't; scenes either worked for us, or they didn't; characters were enjoyable for us to write, or they weren't.  We were flying by the seat of our paired pants, and believe it or not, it worked out pretty well.  Out of the seven or eight scripts we wrote and sold together, two were produced, and in the world of Script Development Hell, that's what's known as a terrific batting average.  Yep, we did darn well --

-- till we ran into a team of producers who knew the "rules" of writing screenplays, and decided we weren't following them.  Didn't matter we'd written two films that had been produced.  Didn't matter we were "warm" and in demand.  Didn't matter that among them, not one of these three producers actually had produced a movie.  (Two were attorneys and one was a Canadian TV animation producer.)  They read a book, and the book said there was a right way and a wrong way to structure films, and by God, these folks were gonna make sure we did it the right way.

The movie they hired us to write, by the way, was "X-Men."  This was in 1984, and somehow these folks had locked up the rights and made a deal with Orion studios to finance development.  They'd developed several scripts already with other writers, and had run out of money to fund a complete new script, so they offered us  a special deal -- they'd pay for a first draft, period.  No outline, no rewrites.  Against the advice of our agent and attorney, we took the deal.  How could we resist?  We were comic book writers; Roy had written the X-Men in comics; I was a huge fan.  Here was our chance to write a screenplay for an X-Men movie.  No way were we going to turn this down.

Biiiiig mistake.

Rule of thumb: when people don't pay you what you're worth, they treat you like you aren't worth anything.

Roy and I ended up writing two outlines, a first draft, and a revision, and it was the worst experience of our film-writing career to that point.  And that includes working with Ralph Bakshi on two scripts ("Fire and Ice" and another, unproduced screenplay); working with Dino de Laurentiis on "Conan the Destroyer;" and the disaster that was our bizarre association with the aborted Mad Magazine movie.  What made this particular experience so bad?

The producers had read a book.

The book shall remain nameless here, because I don't want to encourage any would-be screenwriters to read it and ruin their craft.  Let's just say, if you spent any time around filmmakers in the last thirty years, you encountered this book, and you know the man who wrote it developed a lucrative business running seminars purporting to teach writers how to structure films.  The concepts in this book aren't particularly insightful -- the author basically offers a way to apply theater's three-act structure to film -- but they're presented as a fool-proof, absolute technique that guarantee a perfectly structured screenplay.  Maybe so.  But in the hands of the marginally-creative (I'm referring to the executives and non-writing producers who control the development of film screenplays), these rules strangle creativity, and guarantee that every movie made is structured exactly like every other movie made.

These days, when you watch a film -- even a well-crafted one -- you probably find yourself anticipating every plot point, every emotional beat, every twist and turn.  You know, somehow, that about half an hour in, something will happen to the hero that "changes everything."  You know, in your gut, that half-way through the movie, when all looks bleak, someone will offer the hero "unexpected" support that gives him the will or the insight to carry on despite the odds.  And you know, about twenty-five minutes before the movie ends, somebody the hero loves or respects is going to die, or get kidnapped, or break up with him, or tell him he's a fool/coward/loser, and this will be the straw that breaks that heroic camel's back.  Yes, and during those last twenty-five minutes, the hero will finally confront his enemy or his inner demons, during the big trial, the climactic invasion, the last minutes before the wedding ceremony, and yes, yes, yes, he will triumph/or fail brilliantly!!  And then, just when you think it's over, guess again!  There's one last surprise that will force a fantastic piece of derring-do, or a heartfelt plea, or a ridiculous over-the-top pie fight, bringing us all home to a satisfying, completely predictable ending as the credits finally roll.

I'm not saying films shouldn't be structured, or even that the three-act structure, as such, is bad.  I'm simply pointing out there are many different kinds of structure, and films do not inherently require a three-act structure.  Unfortunately, though, in the world of The Book, only one structural formula is acceptable to the suits who write the checks.  Because that formula has become ubiquitous in modern movies, audiences have come to expect it, and feel uncomfortable when a film-maker manges, miraculously, to break the formula and do something different.  We all know what happens when audiences feel uncomfortable: they complain, and they stay away.  So the formula becomes self-reinforcing.  And we're trapped in a cycle of expectations that spiral inward to a creative and emotional dead-end.


Roy and I were insecure enough in our writing -- we knew we didn't know what we were doing, after all -- that we deferred to the producers' confidence and certainty in the rightness of the Book's view of structure.  We began second-guessing ourselves, we started to apply the Book's rules to our work, we began thinking in terms of three-act structures (I'd always thought in terms of the original Greek theater's five-act structure, myself), and we lost that gutsy spark of instinctive creativity that had carried us that far.  After the "X-Men" debacle (needless to say, the script we finally wrote wasn't that good) we wrote one more screenplay together, and one television project, but for me, at least, my heart had gone out of it.  I no longer trusted my instincts.  I no longer felt the hot excitement of an explorer facing an unknown adventure.

I was no longer flying by the seat of my pants, or making it up as I went along.

Pity, too.  We had a lot of fun, till we got hit with the Book.

Okay, this is just awesome...

It starts off looking like somebody's trying to do the stupidest thing ever, and then... omg... 

Friday, May 16, 2008

Free-for-all Friday: Webcomics I like

Just squeaking this update in under the wire.   Whew!

Couple of recommendations, under the heading of webcomics I like.  First off, we have Extra Life by Scott Johnson:

Next, there's You'll Have That by Wes Molebash:

And finally, last and hardly least, the ever-popular Penny Arcade by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik:

All are lots of fun, and Extra Life sponsors a couple of great podcasts, also hosted by Scott Johnson -- Extra Life Radio and The Instance.  Scott's a funny guy, a natural radio personality.  Check out the shows, check out the comics.

(Oh, and about a post I made earlier this week, recommending the British science-fiction show Primeval:  I still recommend the first series, episodes 1-6, but I'm about half-way through the second series of seven episodes, and so far, I have to admit I'm very disappointed.  Almost everything I liked about the first series is missing from the second.  I can only assume the producers were pressured to make changes, and it's a damn shame.  Unless they manage to turn things around in the last four episodes of series two, and that doesn't seem likely, I'll have to take this show off my recommendation list.  Though I still think the first series is very good, the second series is a complete botch.  So far.  Sigh.)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Face on the Cutting Room Floor

Just a quick note today, to recommend a book you'll have trouble getting unless you're willing to skirt the legal limits of copyright law.  (And this provides a great example of what's wrong with current copyright law, but that's a subject for another time.)  The book in question is a noir crime thriller/mystery called "The Face on the Cutting Room Floor," by Cameron McCabe.  

The title refers to the legendary (and very real) practice of cutting an actor out of a film during the editing process.  For the purposes of this book, however, the title has multiple layers of meaning -- it refers not only to the apparent victim, but to the protagonist, and, in a meta-sense, to the author of the book as well.  This is a complex, fascinating novel, one of the original noir novels that had such a tremendous influence on crime films in the 40s and 50s.  It's also a fun read, as you follow the main character -- Cameron McCabe, the narrator and ostensible author of the book -- during the investigation of the death of a young starlet, the proverbial "face on the cutting room floor."  The prose and dialog is taut, heavily influenced by writers as varied as Hammett and Hemingway, and the plot is a mind-bender.  Plot twists layered on plot twists, ironies on top of ironies, and an ending that leaves you satisfied -- but with almost none of your questions answered.


Unfortunately, "Face" is out of print, and has been for over twenty years.  Penguin published the most recent edition in 1986.  So, if you want to read this book (and I really recommend you do), you'll have to pick it up as an unauthorized ebook (or try to find it in a library).  Either way, read this book.  Read it now.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The ghosts of Darrowshire

Something I really enjoy about World of Warcraft is the effort the designers make to create a compelling backstory for events and quests in the game.  Quests, in WoW, are tasks you're given by non-player characters (NPCs), and usually involve exploring locations,  delivering messages, gathering items or escorting other NPCs on dangerous missions.  In themselves they're pretty simple and repetitive.  What makes them interesting are the stories, or lore, that accompany the quests.  As you accomplish various goals you learn details about the history of Azeroth (the World of Warcraft), details about the characters who inhabit it, and you develop your reputation with different groups, or factions, that operate in the world.

The best quests, in my opinion, are those that form what's known as a "quest chain."  These are a sequence of tasks which, when accomplished, lead you to a deeper understanding of the lore, and a greater involvement with the game.  The more you do, the more you learn.  Some of what you learn is significant to your advancement; some of it just makes the game world richer.  A great example of the later is the quest chain that begins with the ghost of Pamela Redpath in Darrowshire, in the zone known as the Eastern Plaguelands.

Pamela's ghost starts you on a quest chain that ultimately takes you across Azeroth, and, if followed fully, gives you insight into some of the game's human-based lore.  To get a hint of what that might entail, have a look at this machina video created by a fan of the game, using in-game action combined with a song he'd written:

Admittedly, not the greatest song in the world (sorry, Cranius), but it should give you a sense that there's more going on here, emotionally, than just slash-and-hack.

Though there's a lot of slash-and-hack too.

Anyway, check it out, and I'll catch you later, in the Outlands...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A skeptical skeptic

Two magazines I read on a regular basis are Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer.  Both are smart, thoughtful and intelligent, though I find Skeptic to be the better written and more entertaining.  (Any magazine that has the Amazing Randi on its editorial board is practically guaranteed to be entertaining.)  They take a reasoned and skeptical (duh) approach toward popular controversies, asking critical questions about commonly held beliefs and assumptions, and they make me think.  I rarely finish reading an issue of either magazine without being forced to confront an unconscious preconception at least once. 

(The most recent issue of Skeptic, concerning global warming, is particularly good -- while making no bones about the reality of global warming, and the likelihood that humankind's activities contribute to it, the magazine also makes a strong case against relying on climate model predictions to understand the process.)

So, I like these magazines.  I like their approach, and I enjoy reading them.


One of the topics they both cover, over and over, is the social and political battle in America between creationism (or its stalking horse, "intelligent design") and the theory of evolution, and, by extension, the "debate" between science and religion.  I don't think I've read an issue of either magazine that hasn't contained an article or a book review attacking creationism  or the religious world view.  And, honestly, I'm tired of it.

Understand, I agree with the premise that religious belief is fundamentally irrational, and, in a strict sense, delusional.  I think creationism and intelligent design are an anti-intellectual fraud.  I shudder when I read that large portions of the American population "doubt" or "don't believe in" evolution.  (Evolution isn't something you "believe in."  It's an established fact and isn't subject to "belief" or "doubt."  You might as well "doubt" the law of gravity.)  And I worry for the health of our democracy when so many voters are so ill- or mis-informed.

But here's where I part company with the editors of Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer.  I think it's futile to argue the case for evolution and atheism on any kind of rational level, as these magazines do, because belief in creationism and a personal deity is, by definition and in practice, irrational.

Just as evolution isn't a subject for belief, creationism isn't a subject for reason.

Belief in creationism and a personal deity doesn't result from a process of reasoning (the Jesuits notwithstanding), and can't be addressed by rational argument.  If it were, and if the people who held these beliefs were open to reason, there would be no debate; the question would be resolved, the subject would be closed, and we could move on to something else.

(Actually, I wonder if there is such a thing as rational thought.  According to some recent brain research, the mind apparently comes to a decision before the reasoning process even begins.  In that case, a human being isn't so much a rational animal, as a rationalizing animal.  In other words, to rephrase Descartes, the formulation shouldn't be "I think, therefore I am," it should be, "I think I think, therefore I think I am.")

No, you can't debate a creationist or a theist.  Because the basis of their world view is emotional, not rational, reason doesn't apply.  But that doesn't mean you shouldn't fight their efforts to make the rest of the world "think" the way they do.

The way to fight an emotional belief isn't by trying to reason with the believer; the way to fight an emotional belief is through emotion.

Give up appealing to their mind; appeal to their emotions.

Embarrass them.

After all, that's how proponents of creationism and theism deal with the proponents of evolution: through ridicule.  They mock the idea that "your uncle was a monkey."  They ridicule science for "leaving God out of the equation."  They laugh at our insistence that the human mind can understand anything outside "the word of God."  ("God said it, Moses wrote it, I believe it.")

So fight fire with fire.

Make fun of 'em.

"Creationism is proof Darwin was right, because only a monkey would believe the world was created in six days."

"If you're going to base your beliefs on a book, at least pick a book that's consistent and well-written, with likable characters and a plot that makes sense.  My book is Lord of the Rings.  I believe in Frodo, Gandalf, and Galadriel."

You may not convince them you're right, but there was never much hope of that anyway, so at least you can have a laugh at their expense.  That's got to be worth something.

Then, could we please move on to something else?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Short and sweet

Even though (or perhaps because) I wrote television for almost twenty years, I'm not much of a fan of American TV.  Once you've worked in the sausage factory, it's hard to get too excited when you're offered a nice helping of Kielbasa.  Karen and I do enjoy "Lost" and "Heroes," "Two and a Half Men" and "Rules of Engagement," but for the most part I can't escape the been-there, done-that feeling that much of series TV evokes.  I'm particularly bored by shows that try too hard to be different (conforming in their non-conformity, predictably "unpredictable").  And let's not even get started on so-called "reality" TV.

But there are things I like -- I mentioned a few above -- and when I do find something entertaining, I like to pass it on.  So, in that spirit, let me recommend a show you won't be able to watch here in the States till sometime later this summer.

It's called "Primeval," from ITV1 in Britain, and it combines elements of "The X-Files," "Lost," and "Heroes."  The hero is Nick Cutter, an evolutionary zoologist whose wife vanished mysteriously eight years ago.  Cutter and a team of fellow scientists have been co-opted by the British home office to investigate the appearance of creatures from earth's primeval past, who arrive in the present through inexplicable "anomalies" -- wormholes that cut through time and space.  The storyline is both character- and action-driven, the writing is smart, and the acting is first rate.  As for the special effects -- frankly, they're spectacular, and much better than you'd ever expect to see on a television series.  The first run of shows, which premiered in the UK last year, comprised six episodes and ended with a terrific cliff-hanger.  The second series just finished its run on ITV1, and there's a third series in the works.  BBC America picked up the rights, and plans to run it on Sunday nights along with "Torchwood" and "Robin Hood."

(I picked up the DVD set of the first series a few months ago from Amazon UK, and ran it on my region-free, PAL-compatible DVD player.  This, by the way, is a great way to get American shows on DVD before they're released here.)

Highly, highly recommended.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sad day...

Karen's father passed away today.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Saturday: Comics I Like

Here's a sweeping statement I'm happy to admit probably has less truth to it than I'd like to think, but which I'm going to make anyway:  Comic book artists today can be divided into two camps, originating from two different approaches to graphical art and storytelling.  

The first approach is what I'd call form-and-function realism, and can trace its origins back to Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon, among others.  Raymond's artistic descendants include artists as varied as Al Williamson, Neal Adams, John Buscema, Mike Kaluta, and Alex Ross.  (Talk about variation.)  Their primary emphasis seems to be on form and mood, and while realism per se isn't always their goal (certainly not in Kaluta's case), they use techniques based in realism to achieve their ends -- form, shadow, an approximation of the natural world.  All of it rooted in the dramatic, "realistic" approach first really popularized by Alex Raymond in his newspaper strip, Flash Gordon, and later, in Rip Kirby.

The other style, for lack of a better term (or at least, for lack of any term that comes to me at the moment), I'll call cartoon-and-graphic-based, and its primary source is the work of Milton Caniff on his newspaper strip, Terry & the Pirates, and later, on Steve Canyon.  Caniff's approach has been inherited by comic book artists like Jack Kirby, John Romita, Ross Andru, and lately, the brothers Hernandez, and Darwyn Cooke.   Here the emphasis is on storytelling-through-graphics,  with less concern for realism, and more attention given to a clean, dramatic line.  Most comic books today seem to be descended more from the Caniff line than from that represented by Raymond.  

I'm not making a value judgment about the artist merits of either style -- I think they're both terrific.  I just find it interesting, and worth thinking about.  I started thinking about it when I looked through a recent reprint of a Justice League story I wrote years ago, drawn by Dick Dillin.  It occurred to me Dick's art owed a great debt to Milton Caniff, and that got me thinking about some of the other artists I'd worked with -- like Romita, and Andru (influenced by Caniff), and Don Newton and Dick Giordano (influenced by Raymond).  I've also been re-reading Caniff's Terry & the Pirates and Steve Canyon:

I've also had a lot of fun reading Tom Roberts' new (heavily illustrated) biography of Alex Raymond:

Thoughts?  Comments?  Let me know.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Friday miscellanea

No special topic today -- on Fridays, I'll just post whatever happens to be on my mind.

What's on my mind today is my 91-year old father-in-law, Al.

For a lot of years, Al seemed to defy gravity, if you think of old age as a natural force dragging us down to earth.  Till  a year ago or so he seemed at least a decade younger than his chronological age -- his hair was salt-and-pepper, he was fit and healthy, kept up with current events, had an active social life, and aside from a touch of high blood pressure and a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol, he had no major, or even minor, medical problems.  Hell, the man still had all his own teeth.  (Which as of two years ago is more than I can say.)  All in all, he was in good shape for someone in his late eighties, and though of course intellectually we knew better, Karen and I both imagined he'd probably stay in perfect health till the day he finally keeled over, or died in his sleep, or got kidnapped by aliens.

Sadly, though, gravity caught up with Al and dragged him down to earth sometime last year, around the time he finally gave in to family pressure and moved out of his condo into an independent living facility.  He didn't want to do it; Al wanted to keep living on his own, but we'd begun to notice he was slowing down -- he wasn't as active as he used to be, he had trouble remembering things, he got lost driving to the store.  None of this was unexpected, of course; he was ninety, and the fact he'd been able to live on his own for so long was pretty amazing.  We saw what was happening before Al did, and he resisted making a change for quite a while, but eventually he gave in.  He sold his condo, moved to an independent-living complex, and almost before he fully settled in, the gradual decline we'd noticed became a steep slide into frailty and dementia.

Late last November, we got a call from one of his friends.  Al had been taken to a psychiatric facility, suffering from a full-scale panic attack.  From what his friend told us, and what his doctor said later, it became apparent Al had developed, almost overnight, a severe case of Alzheimer's.  Realizing that under the circumstances Al could no longer live so far from his family, we made arrangements to move him into assisted care near our home. 

I flew out to Arizona to pack up Al's belongings and hire a mover, and that's when the truth of how far he'd declined hit me --

His apartment looked like the motel room in "Memento."

Everywhere, on almost every surface, Al had left post-it notes to himself -- reminding himself to check the mail, to take his medicine, to pick up laundry, to pay bills, to make phone calls, to wash dishes.  At first glance, except for the quantity of reminders, nothing that unusual -- most of the notes were the kind anyone might make for himself.  But there were other notes, overlaying many of these -- notes of phone conversations; notes of questions he meant to ask Karen or his doctor or his lawyer, and notes of the answers he'd been given; and notes to ask the same question again, and notes of the same answers.  Notes reminding him to make notes.  Notes about notes. 

Al was externalizing his memory.  As his capacity to retain new memories deteriorated, he developed a strategy to maintain the illusion that his mind remained unimpaired.  And for months, the strategy worked, till the stress of maintaining the illusion finally overwhelmed him, and he collapsed with anxiety.  Because we lived in a different state, we hadn't seen how he'd been living, and his conversation on the phone -- while sometimes a little repetitive -- hadn't seemed all that different from the conversations we had before.  But standing in his living room, and looking at the evidence all around me of his deterioration, I realized that what had appeared like a sudden, overnight collapse in fact had been on its way for quite some time.

In a way, I admire Al's ability to fool us into believing things were all right when, in retrospect, obviously they weren't.  It's a tribute to his intelligence (and yes, his guile) that he pulled off the deception for so long.  It reminds me of Donald Pleasance's character in "The Great Escape" -- the forger losing his eyesight, who works out a series of tricks to conceal his blindness from his superiors, till one of them (literally) trips him up.

We moved Al to an assisted living facility here in Los Angeles in early December of last year.  He hasn't lost his long term memory, but his short term memory is almost non-existent now.  During the course of a brief conversation, he 'll repeat the same question and receive the same answer half a dozen times, unless he can be distracted to a different topic.  As I said to Karen, he hasn't lost his curiosity -- only his ability to retain the information that might satisfy it.  It's sad to see, and I can only hope that among the memories he can't retain, is the knowledge of what he's lost.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tome Talk Thursday

Okay, trying to come up with alliterative titles for each day's theme post is starting to annoy even me, so I'll desist, unless I decide not to, which is entirely possible.

I'd like to recommend a book -- I'm not sure you'd call it a graphic novel, exactly, as we've come to understand those, but it's certainly graphic, and it's novel.  The book is "The Arrival," by Shaun Tan:

It's a marvelous, wordless story-in-pictures about the immigrant experience.  We follow a nameless man as he leaves his wife and child to take a wondrous journey to a strange new land where the miraculous seems commonplace.  Tan's artistic and story-telling influences seem to range from Will Eisner to Lynn Ward to German expressionism to Hiyao Miyazaki (particularly "Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind").  The book itself takes perhaps fifteen minutes to "read," but the emotional impact is astonishing, and the artwork is so intricate (and yet simple) that you can spend hours pouring over each page.  I can't recommend this book highly enough.  Go buy it.  Right now.  This instant.  You'll thank me, really.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

World of Warcraft Wednesday

So if you're following my blog, you may notice a subtle pattern developing... different topics on different days.  Movie Monday, Political Tuesday, and now today, World of Warcraft Wednesday.

Yeah, I know, it's terminally precious -- but it's a way for me to structure my updating of this blog, and to keep me from straining for something to say on a topic I already covered yesterday.  Not that I won't strain to find something to say on my chosen daily topic on any given week, but the odds are a little better that I won't come up dry if I'm only dipping in each well once every seven days...

Talk about overwrought metaphors.

Anyway, World of Warcraft -- to put it the way J. Jonah Jameson might have, is it addictive, or just habit-forming?

Beats me.  I do know this: I enjoy playing it, and I've played it for over two years now, and while I get sick of it from time to time, I keep coming back.  Like Michael Corleone in Godfather III, "Just when you think you're out, they pull you back in."

For those of you who've never tried it, WoW is what's known as a Massively Multiplayer Online game.  It's set in a fantasy-based world that's vaguely Tolkeinesque, but with an attitude (and a self-referential, pop-cultural sense of humor).  You pick one of several different races to play, from human to night elf to orc to dwarf to gnome, etc.; you choose a "class" of character, ie:  warrior, hunter,  rogue,  priest, and so forth;  you choose whether to be a male or a female; and you pick some physical characteristics to make your character your own.  Then you name him or her, and send your character off on a journey of adventure and discovery -- along with ten million other players from around the world.  While playing the game, you team up with other players, join a guild, make friends, and hopefully, have fun.

Did I mention ten million people play this game?

Those ten million people come from, as they say, all walks of life.  You've got kids, of course (my daughter Rachel is a sometimes-player), and nerds (like the guy who writes this blog), and World Series-winning baseball players (like Red Sox pitcher Curt Shilling), and cartoonists, and bus drivers... basically, a full cross-section of humanity.  Men and women, young and old.  All playing this game.

Weird, huh?

I think of it as a kind of online, non-athletic golf.  (Assuming you can call golf "athletic.")

Golf is one of those games that's hard to explain to a non-enthusiast.  I mean, basically, an average of four people in shorts and tube socks drive around a hilly green field in a cart, get out and swing ridiculous-looking clubs at little pock-marked balls, in an attempt to knock those balls across the field into a hole marked by a stick with a flag on it.

Sounds pretty silly, huh? 

Yet some people spend a good portion of their free time, and a large portion of their disposable income, pursuing the perfection of this so-called "sport."  And while we can make jokes about it, and chuckle with amusement at how seriously they take something that seems so inherently silly, there's no question that the people who enjoy golf enjoy it with a dedication that's positively awe-inspiring.  In fact, they love it.  And who are we, really, to say they shouldn't?  They have fun, it's social, it's harmless, and it gets them outdoors.

Well, except for the getting outdoors part, World of Warcraft is a lot like golf.

And every Wednesday, I'm going to have something to say about it.

Hope you'll tune in.  (And maybe join me and my avatars online.  More on that next time.)

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Tuesday political talk

John Kennedy was elected president when I was eight years old, and his election remains one of the strongest memories I have from that time of my life.  There are a lot of reasons why this is so, but I guess the main reason is the way his election affected my parents, and the social group I grew up in.  We were Irish Catholics, and Kennedy wasn't just one of us -- he was glamorous, articulate, obviously intelligent, married to a lovely woman and father of two adorable kids, and he represented the arrival of our ethnic group into the accepted mainstream of American life.

Most people today either don't know or don't want to remember this, but there was a time -- and not too long ago -- when Irish Catholics were the Hispanics of their day.  As fresh-faced immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, Irish Catholics worked as day laborers and domestics.  My grandfather worked as a day laborer in a Brooklyn shipyard; my step-grandmother washed floors at Hunter College in Manhattan.  Like the Hispanics of today, they were considered a drain on society by Protestant, white, middle-America -- congenitally lazy, stupid, overly religious, politically passive, and fundamentally, probably genetically, incapable of true assimilation into the American mainstream.  Irish Catholics were The Other, and like immigrant groups before and since (the Italians, the Eastern Europeans, the Polish, the Jews, the Asians, and today, the "illegals," ie: Hispanics) were treated like second and third-class citizens. 

(You'll notice I put "illegals" in quotes.  That's because I believe our current immigration laws are hypocritical and disingenuous, written to pander to the same mentality that treated my grandparents as social inferiors.  Current immigration law just continues a long tradition of abusive, dishonest and, frankly, racist treatment of immigrants.  Scapegoating the Other worked for the "Know-Nothings" in the 19th century and continues to work for know-nothings today.)

John Kennedy's election changed the status of Irish Catholics in America.  He was a symbol of our acceptance into the political mainstream (we'd been part of the political process in major urban centers for decades, but barely welcome within the main party system, despite the Democratic party's willingness to accept our votes).  It was, in short, a very big deal for my parents and the nuns at my school -- despite the fact that under normal circumstances, my parents, staunch Republicans, would never have voted for a Democrat, and the nuns, representatives of a conservative, patriarchal religious oligarchy, wouldn't have had much interest in any kind of political activity.

In a way, his election was a sign that America itself was growing up.

His candidacy, and his election, was a transforming event.

That's not to say it was easy, or went smoothly, or that he wasn't challenged -- outrageously and unfairly -- because of his religious beliefs and ethnic background.  He had to separate himself politically from supporters who brought some ugly baggage to his campaign (among them, his anti-Semitic and Nazi-sympathizing father); he had to address concerns about the extreme religious views expressed by his church; and he had to reassure America that he was more than just an eloquent voice speaking inspiring words.  It wasn't easy, and it wasn't pretty, and in the end, it even got kind of ugly.

But he prevailed, and while ultimately tragedy consumed his presidency, the very fact of his election inspired a generation that went on to change the world.

Food for thought on another election day.

Can you tell I'm a supporter of Barrack Obama?

Monday, May 05, 2008

Movie Monday musing...

Before I get to how much my daughter Rachel and I enjoyed Iron Man this weekend (and apparently we weren't alone in that department), let me update you a bit on what's been happening since the last time I regularly (ha) updated this blog.

As some of you know, I'd been working as a writer-producer on Law & Order Criminal Intent for several years, which was pretty much the culmination of twenty-plus years working in the film and television industry.  About two years ago, the show's executive producer, Rene Balcer, the man who hired me, left the show as the result of a contract dispute.  (A polite way of saying, he wanted to be paid what he deserved to be paid, and the studio wanted to cut costs, so they replaced him with a producer who was willing to work for a third or less of what Rene was getting.)  The new management decided they didn't want to work with a bi-coastal writing staff, and since I (and the only other LA-based writer) were already under contract, the studio decided to pay us off.  That's probably an oversimplification; truth is, I didn't much get along with the new producer, who had his own ideas about how to run a show, so the decision to write off my contract was probably a combination of convenience and preference.  It came as a shock, though, I'll admit.  I'd written for L&O CI for five years; my episodes had done fairly well; one had been nominated for a Mystery Writers of America Edgar award.  But all things end, and that part of my writing career was over.

Best thing that ever happened to me.

Because I was under contract, the studio paid me for an entire season -- in effect, they gave me a year's vacation.  During that year I went through the motions of meeting with studio and network executives, pitching shows and being pitched shows, getting offers for various positions, etc.  And pretty soon I realized I was just going through the motions.  My heart wasn't in it.  I couldn't convince myself that writing for any of the shows I was being offered, or any of the ideas I was proposing, was really a worthwhile use of my time.  Sure, I would've been paid well, but thanks to some judicial money management the last five years -- mainly, resisting the notion that being paid a lot of money meant I had to spend a lot of money -- my family's financial future was pretty secure, and Karen's business was doing very well, and there just was no sense of... urgency... about getting another job.

And gradually, reluctantly, and finally joyfully, I decided I didn't want another job.  At least, not another job writing television.  The previous five years, as gratifying as they'd been, had also been incredibly stressful and emotionally draining.  The year I spent away from the business allowed me to decompress, to relax, to gain perspective on what was important to me.  I became a more attentive husband and a better father.  I was less sarcastic and critical (I say "less," but that's relative -- I'm still sarcastic and critical, though I'm working on it, believe me).  Generally speaking, I became a more pleasant, nicer person.

So, after talking it over, Karen and I decided it was time for me to let that part of my career as a writer go.

What I'll replace it with, I still don't know; I'm tooling around with a novel, I'm going to start updating my blog, a friend of mine is planning to republish two of my earlier novels (fingers crossed), and I'm trying to let the desire and passion to write seep back into my soul without the crazed pressure of needing to write for a living.  It's liberating, let me tell you.

I'll talk more about this as time goes by, I'm sure.

Right now, a word about Iron Man:


In my mind, there have been only a handful of really successful super-hero movie adaptations.  The first two X-Men films, the first Superman film, the first Batman movie, and of course, Batman Begins.  The first Spider-Man film, and part of the second.  The rest fall into the categories of either "nice try" or "what were you thinking?"  But, with the exception of Batman Begins (and I'm not sure it's entirely an exception), even the best movies have left me with the feeling that they were, well, patched together.  By that I mean, there's usually a clear transition from traditional movie making (building character, structuring a story, designing a dramatic arc) to comic book movie making (introducing the super-powers, introducing the costume, introducing the "first night" of action, introducing the super badguy, etc.).  Some of the movies I mentioned did it well, but all of them did it, with greater or lesser ease.

Iron Man, on the other hand, feels like the first super-hero movie I've seen where the transition from traditional movie to super-hero movie is so seamless it is, for all practical purposes, invisible.  Iron Man works as a movie, period.  Sure, it's about a guy who builds a red and gold metal suit and fights another guy in a bigger metal suit, but that's like saying The Maltese Falcon is about a detective who unravels the mystery of a missing onyx bird.  (Okay, Iron Man may be good, but I admit it's not in  The Maltese Falcon league; but you get my point.)  It's a genre film that somehow lifts itself out of the genre and is a genuine, legitimate story, first and foremost.

 What can I say, I liked it.

And if it's any indication of what we can look forward to with the summer's other genre films, I'm excited.

Keeping my fingers crossed.

See you tomorrow.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

I'm baaaaaaack...

... and plan to update my blog on a daily basis.

Starting first thing tomorrow...