Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Last night we finished the BBC adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It was very well done, and I recommend it. I read the book several years ago and remembered little to nothing about it, so the show was completely new to me. Clocking it at only seven packed episodes, it was a treat to watch something whose first priority was telling the story. (It seems strange to praise a seven hour long series as “concise”, but that’s where we are.)

It’s a great story, too. Set in an alternate Industrial Revolution England where magic once was commonplace but hasn’t been around for 300 years, it tells the story of what happens when a magician – a real one, who can actually do magic – suddenly appears. And then what happens when there’s a second one. The first, Gilbert Norrell, is a retiring, orthodox scholar who wants to make magic respectable. The second, Jonathan Strange, is less an academic and more of an impulsive type, and is interested in all areas of magic, especially the ones Norrell thinks are better left forgotten.

It’s not just a story of friends, colleagues, rivals, and enemies, though. There are also political matters, social commentary on race, class, and gender, and philosophical arguments. The characters all have great depth to them, and their motivations and actions are not always simple. Though much of the story involves Strange as protagonist, he is not always in the right. It’s very well handled.

The actors do a great job as well. The two leads are charismatic and dynamic, and most of the other actors keep up with them, especially Ariyon Bakare as Stephen Black, Marc Warren as The Gentleman, and Alice Englert as Lady Pole. Enzo Cilenti’s Childermass is also an excellent portrayal of a character who one is never quite sure of.

It’s available on Amazon Video, and well worth your time and attention.

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I Played That! #23: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (C64)

This was another game that was eagerly, furiously awaited by my pirate friend Joe and I. I, being a teenage nerd, had devoured and practically memorized the book and watched the BBC series over and over. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this. When we finally got hold of it, I spent the night at Joe’s, brought over my C64, and we worked on solving it.

And it was hard.

Not just Infocom game hard, though it was that. We ran into a problem with one of the first puzzles, a pretty easy one that we couldn’t get around. You fall unconscious and have to regain consciousness. The game tells you something along the lines of, “You can’t see anything, feel anything, taste anything, or hear anything” and you have to do whatever the sense that is missing is. It took us forever to figure this out.

Then you get to the infamous Babel Fish puzzle, in which the act of getting a Babel Fish into your ear is a multi-step process rife with points of failure. I think that’s where we gave up.

Later on, I played it again and got further, but even then it was frustrating. In an attempt to capture the humor of the book, the game does things which I’m sure sounded funny at the time, but ended up just being frustrating, such as lie to the player about exits from a room. You travel through space and time and have to set certain things up in the past to avoid instant death in the future. It’s not so much funny and it’s not so much fun. I don’t think I ever completed it.

Douglas Adams and Infocom would later collaborate on a text adventure called Bureaucracy, which took the “irritate and frustrate the player” feature and ran with it. I had it at some point, but I barely even attempted it.

Posted in Videogames | Tagged ,

My Tweek on Twitter

What I did these past two weeks on Twitter, part of a balanced breakfast.

* BEST OF THE WEEK imo:

* So tired of this discussion.

* lol nerds

* Demi for president

* Placeholder for a future blog rant

* Stellar RT

* This one blew up which is nice but I have a nagging feeling I’ve seen someone else do it before?

* I’ve continued to do this over and over.

* my standard policy.

* I need to actually photoshop this even though maybe four people will get it

* makes u think

* jk I don’t like it

* I love Hope Jobs Cash jokes

* see?

* want to hear it right now

* quality

* I sing it quietly, in my head

* I’m sorry but this is hilarious

* you’d think we’d be more worried about this supernatural event happening again

* my goodness how many will he eat

* hahaha a joke album how hilarious

* the hell with all of you, this is funny in at least two different ways


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You Should Win Things By Watching!

There’s an article making the rounds now about big Hollywood action movies becoming impenetrable messes with sprawling, convoluted plots. I haven’t seen enough of these movies to have much of an opinion on them, but I’m pretty familiar with this current trend.

The first thing that comes to mind is Doctor Who under Steven Moffat. Under his watch the show’s storylines transformed into overblown complex machines with tons of moving parts but which didn’t actually do anything. It also gained popularity.

None of the big, multi-season Moffat storylines make any actual sense, but they’re full of references and callbacks and “did you notice”s and such, and are therefore regarded as intelligent and crafty. Ask fans to explain what it’s about and you’ll get funny lines, “fuck yeah” moments, and possibly a description of scenes, but no actual story or theme. There are ideas but they’re not tied to anything, and very often parts that are “awesome” separately make no sense or are contradictory when looked at as a whole. Attempt this kind of analysis and you’re told you’re nitpicking, that it’s not about that. The show that was formerly praised as being so intelligent and structurally complex is now a kid’s show, dumb entertainment, just turn off your brain.

This is the feeling I get when I’m playing boardgames such as Russian Railroads or Tzolk’in or Stefan Feld stuff. These are complex games that are quite trendy at the moment, in which there are a myriad of parts one must navigate in order to win. They are often called “point salad” games because usually you score some victory points for successfully working each individual piece, but to really win you have to gain some from everywhere, not just focus on any particular element. When I play these games, I see all these elements and epicycles and gears within gears, but there’s nothing to them. There’s no ultimate point to them other than to appreciate the complexity. They are elaborately designed engines that don’t actually do anything. My personal take on “point salad” designs is that they are such because, as with the Doctor Who scripts, since there’s no overarching goal, you have to try to develop interest in the individual parts. These games are difficult for me for the same reason Doctor Who has become pointless to me: I’m not interested in a series of individual scenes; I want them to unfold into a satisfying — or at least comprehensible — whole.

It’s not like I don’t like complexity. One of my favorite boardgames is The New Era, which shares a lot of elements with some of these games. It’s a very complicated game with a lot of moving parts, but the parts fit together and serve the whole. Lords of Waterdeep isn’t a complicated game, but it’s a breeze to teach and learn because each individual part moves towards a specified goal. There aren’t all these exceptions and subrules and complications that only exist to add more pretend depth and complexity to the game. Agricola frustrates me because it’s so close to being something I would really enjoy but then at the last minute it swerves and decides that although it’s going to give you a sandbox to play in, you have to make your sand castle just so or else it doesn’t count.

Beyond boardgames, one of my favorite movies is The Royal Tenenbaums, which seems like a series of individual scenes that are only sort of related, but when you look at the whole you see how each one is a necessary part of the large picture.

Right now we seem to be in a phase where nerd culture (which I’m only singling out because it’s the one I know best) believes that more is more and convolutedness, callbacks, and dropping vague hints that may or may not ever play out are signs of quality. It’s not just enough to get a comic book character on the big screen, the movie has to be part of a “cinematic universe” that bumps up against and sets up further movies. (This is related to the fact that people are more interested in what they think a movie is leading to instead of what they actually got in the movie; there’s forever a promise that something more is happening.) A self-contained, done-in-one movie? That’s kid stuff. And the truly deep and satisfying stories will require at least five seasons on cable to be done right, because you have to make sure there’s enough room for labyrinthine sub-plots and that the in-jokes and catch phrases have enough space to both land and be used-and-re-used.

This is why 15 hours of Firefly is seen as not enough, despite the fact that hardcore Firefly fans seem to be only interested in about four total minutes of it. It’s also why, when I say that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is great for the first three seasons, and then you should stop because that’s a perfect end point, I get told no, the other seasons are absolutely essential, and then am told of three, maybe four episodes from those seasons that are worthwhile, as though that’s a suitable return on time investment. More is more, more is better, more is quality. It doesn’t matter if, in the quest for more, we are just throwing things in that don’t actually fit but will help bulk it out, so long as the things we throw in are awesome enough.

There’s an episode of The Simpsons where the kids are being asked what they want from Itchy and Scratchy and Milhouse says, “You should win things by watching!” That’s where we are now, winning prizes for watching. You get, as prizes, “fuck yeah” moments, references, in-jokes, and yes, VPs, but they’re small prizes designed to simulate a satisfying whole. At the end you’ve amassed a big pile of trinkets, but that’s all. Nothing more satisfying or significant. If you like that, great, it’s your time to shine. That’s not my thing.

Posted in Misc | Tagged

We Can’t Have Nice Things, Unless We Make Sure Some People Have Nicer Things

Back in April, a Seattle-based company called Gravity Payments did something novel. The CEO took a $930,000 pay cut in order to raise the minimum salary of all the workers to $70,000 a year. How did that work out for them?

Turns out, not well. Can guess what the problem was?

Give yourself a hand if you guessed, “Whiny assholes who are not content to make $70,000 a year because co-workers they see as undeserving are making the same amount.”

“He gave raises to people who have the least skills and are the least equipped to do the job, and the ones who were taking on the most didn’t get much of a bump,” said the 26-year-old, who helped Mr Price do the sums on whether Gravity Payments could afford the move in the first place.

That’s a 26-year-old kid making $70,000 a year complaining because she wasn’t getting more than everyone else.

“The people who were just clocking in and out were making the same as me,” he told the paper. “It shackles high performers to less motivated team members.”

And that’s a 29-year-old, again making $70,000, upset because he’s now making the same amount as the “slackers”. It’s not that he’s not making enough to meet his needs, it’s that he’s not making more than other people.

Now, Seattle has a high cost of living, so that $70,000 isn’t as huge as it may seem some places, but it’s enough that when this was first announced, these employees were ecstatic. Now, though, it’s apparently not enough, because how can you say you’re being well-compensated for your job if there isn’t some poor dink under you who’s doing worse? What’s even the point of working hard if it isn’t part of a Darwinian struggle to crush your colleagues and hope that Senpai notices you and throws a few more bucks your way?

Note that for both of these people, the solution to someone not carrying their weight is not that the person’s manager should be talked to or that the person should be let go if they’re not performing. In both cases they are merely suggesting that such layabouts should simply be paid less. So it’s not about the goldbrickers making the workload more difficult, it’s about the fact that them also making $70,000 somehow makes the $70,000 these people are making less valuable and special.

These are the same kinds of people who get mad when they see “poor” people with nice cell phones or large TVs. Not because they themselves lack for such things, but because what is the point of having them if other people — especially the undeserving — also have them?

The article mentions the other hazards of these kinds of businesses: long hours and work overload. Nevertheless, there will be a single takeaway here: that you just can’t raise peoples’ salary without making them bow and scrape and tear out each others’ throats for it. “What’s the point of a $15/hour minimum wage,” a person who can’t remember not flying First Class will opine, “That company in Seattle raised the minimum wage to $70,000 a year and it didn’t work!

It didn’t work because of the same bunch of people who are always ruining things. They aren’t even bitching that someone got a mango popsicle and they didn’t, they’re bitching that someone also got a mango popsicle. So theirs is less tasty now.

“How can I consider myself successful unless someone else is doing shittier than me?” is an evil, poisonous way to live. Nothing good is at the end of that road.

For all I know, my workplace pays a guy my salary to come in and watch Frasier re-runs all day. If that’s the case, good for him. Unless he is interfering with me getting my work done, I couldn’t care less. I’m fairly certain there are people there who do less than I do and make more but it’s not hurting me in any way. I like my work, I like my salary, and I’m doing just fine. I don’t know if that means I gave a good work ethic or a poor one, but at least I’m not whining to the papers because no one’s making me feel like Mommy’s Special Boy.

Posted in Misc | Tagged ,

Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn

Friday night we headed up to Northampton for ice cream and culture. The ice cream was Herrell’s, the culture was Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play at the New Century Theater at Smith College. The play is written by Anne Washburn and directed by Sam Rush. We’d read a little about it and found it had gotten widely divergent reviews, so we were eager to see what it was all about.

It is amazing.

It begins in “the near future” with some folks around a campfire in the woods, drinking beer and remembering the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons (the one where Sideshow Bob gets out of prison and threatens to kill Bart, so the family moves to Terror Lake, but Bob follows them there). If you know the show, you know this episode; it’s one of the very best, In fact, if you know the show, you’ll struggle in your seat as the characters try to remember a particular line that dammit, you know, and just want to yell it to them. When they hear a sound in the woods, they all pull out guns, and it becomes clear that things are not normal here.

In fact, what we find out is that something apocalyptic has happened. We don’t know exactly what, but something involving the complete loss of the electrical grid and some connection to nuclear power plants. The characters don’t know much themselves and are trying to piece it together. The arrival of a new person gives them a chance to maybe figure out more.

I don’t want to say too much, but in act two we see the same group, seven years later, when things have settled down some, but there’s still no electricity to be had. The recounting of the Simpsons episode in act one has now been transformed into a larger thing, and we see as people attempt to find some aspect of normalcy through preserving American pop culture.

Act three, however, is where it all goes fully incredible. Set seventy-five years after act two, the tale-telling has again evolved. It’s an incredible fusion of many of the previous ideas.

The show will be at the New Century Theater for another week, and if you can, I strongly urge you to see it. (I’d really like to know how well it works for people with no knowledge of The Simpsons.) The cast and crew do a great job with the material. We were well impressed with the production.

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I Played That! #22: The Dark Heart of Uukrul (PC)

During my quest to fill time between Ultimas, one of the RPGs I got was this one. It remains one of the oddest games I’ve ever played. A mixture of cell-based first-person and top down views, there are two things that distinguish it: it’s weird and brother, it was hard.

It was hard in every conceivable fashion. Combat could be brutal, healing was in short supply, saves were far apart, and resting was slow and dangerous. In addition, the puzzles were tough. There’s one point where you’re literally inside a crossword puzzle, and it’s not the one on the Denny’s placemat. In fact, it’s a British-style cryptic crossword (the creators were Brits.)

It was weird in that, like most RPGs, there was some kind of kooky backstory, but in this case it was not the usual faff. It’s weird and evocative. The dungeon you’re exploring isn’t random, but it often acts random, not being laid out in a way that makes it obvious where to go. Physically mapping with graph paper is a must. Magic was unpredictable and could be costly.

Basically, even though Uukrul is, at its core, not that much different from the usual RPGs (start at level 1, explore the dungeon, kill stuff and level up, gain equipment and power, solve puzzles, fight the ultimate bad guy) it presented it in a way that was challenging and disorienting.

I started The Dark Heart of Uukrul several times and never finished it. I’d kind of like to give it another whack.

Posted in Videogames | Tagged

Thoughts About Thought About Pixels

Last week the Adam Sandler movie Pixels came out, to dismal reviews. The movie seems to be the usual Sandler fare: lazy, juvenile, wasteful, and unnecessary. Nothing unexpected or out of the ordinary. Sandler has become a favorite punching target for folks, and I can’t say it’s without reason, though I think he sleeps fine on a huge bed of cash. I’ve no love for Sandler. I’ve seen only one or two movies with him in them (one being Punch-Drunk Love) and don’t see much of anything there for me.

This time, however, one thing was a little different. Since the subject of Pixels was video games — particularly old-school video games — and therefore a nerdy subject, geeks decided to join in on the bashing. This is interesting to me because 364 other days of the year geeks will loudly and proudly declare that they don’t read reviews and don’t care about them because reviewers don’t know what they like and not every movie has to be Citizen Kane and what not. But this time it was very important to point out and laugh at the poor reviews Pixels was given and get mad when it left 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Again, usually they’re getting angry that someone failed to give some Marvel movie an A-plus-plus-plus-with-a-star-and-grape-job-sticker.

It was an odd moment to watch. Pixels looks like garbage, sure, and it most likely is. I’ve no doubt it deserves the thumping its getting by reviewers. But I can’t figure out in what way it’s quantifiably worse than any other garbage that usually gets a pass. Especially the stuff that usually gets a pass from the nerds who formed this unusual “enemy-of-my-enemy” alliance with movie reviewers, of all people.

In any given month we get several geek-aimed movies that show similar lazy pandering, vapid characterization, undercooked special effects, and so forth, and usually instead of gleefully showing them the exit we instead have to hear the usual litany of, “just turn off your brain” or “it doesn’t pretend to be more than what it is” or “so bad it’s good” or “I just go in not expecting much”. It’s worth pointing out that Pixels debuted almost simultaneously with Sharknado 3, which didn’t get the same treatment. I can’t figure out why 15 mediocre CGI-fests can get a “meh, I was entertained” but the 16th is just beyond the pale.

I commented elsewhere that I suspected that, if everything else remained exactly the same except Adam Sandler were instead replaced by Chris Pratt, we’d be hearing a different story. My supporting evidence for me is that two of the criticisms I saw thrown at Pixels was shamelessly trading on nostalgia and having only a handful of female characters, one of which is solely a prize for the hero. Well, I’ve seen The Lego Movie, which had both of those things in spades. Was it a better movie and offered more than I imagine Pixels does? I’d bet it does. But these things which are apparently dealbreakers for Pixels were largely overlooked. I would compare it with the phenomenon of how very concerned about poor relationships and role models fans of comics, anime, videogames, and such suddenly get when the subject at hand is Twilight and not, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So I guess it’s the fact that Adam Sandler is a designated punching bag, as is Twilight or 50 Shades of Gray, which makes people who’ve gone to bat for much much worse schlock suddenly turn their nose up and jump on the anti-Pixels brigade. Nerds are famously very much against bullying until it’s them doing it to a convenient lesser target, and I can’t help but be reminded of the celebrated Geek Hierarchy chart which allowed geekdom to say, “Whatever I am, at least I’m not a *groan* furry.” As long as there’s something we can all agree is worse than whatever it is we’re into, we’re above reproach. I might watch any number of hacky-assed brainless movies, but if one of them wasn’t Pixels, I have a clear conscience. See, I do have limits!

Again, I’m not defending Pixels. It looks like a pile of worthless junk. What I’m saying is, it’s not the only pile of worthless junk I’ve seen on offering, just the only one that, for some reason, it’s very important everyone denounce as worthless junk. In the meantime, there will still be a supply of movies no better or worse than it which we’ll be told we can’t say anything bad about or else we’re “haters” or “bitter” or “hate fun”.

Posted in Movies | Tagged