Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Breakfast Club (1985) (Review)

The Breakfast Club is a John Hughes film from 1984. It bears all the hallmarks of a low budget, low risk film. The cast is small. There are no special effects. There are no actors on board who break the budget, but they are all well known enough in teen films of the era. The film doesn't even have a set. Instead, he filmed it it a real high school at nights and on weekends.

The copy that I watched on Netflix has not aged well. I remember the colors as brighter and the tone as clearer. Perhaps that was merely my rosy-eyed youth, as I haven't seen the film since '85, or maybe I've just gotten used to digital stock.

The film is more of a drama than a comedy, featuring five high-schoolers who have to spend 8 hours in Saturday detention. They have literally been sentenced to boredom and an essay. We meet all these characters, all these purposeful stereotypes, who we contribute our prejudices to before we even know them, which is entirely the point.

The main motivator of the film is John Bender, and ADHD young man with many problems. For literally the first half of the film, if the pace slacks even the tiniest bit, it's Bender who gets bored and makes things happen. He jumps into the plot truck, fills it with TNT, and aims for the front door. Without him, I dare say, there would be no film. Every other character had every reason to shut up, sit down, and wait out the boredom. But even with motivation, Bender can't stop because he's got this motor running in him. I'm not kidding when I call him ADHD. The character literally can't stay in his seat.

I found Molly Ringwald's performance note perfect. I never doubted her character, or her humanity, for a second. Where Bender was over the top, a person that you couldn't know, Molly played the girl that you did know. She really could have sat next to you, and really been that narcissistic as only teenagers can be.

I found Ally Sheedy's character conflicted. I feel like I saw two characters, one who was the character that John Hughes wrote, and the other, the physical character, who Ally created. As long as Ally remained seated, you believed that character, but the moment that she stood, her posture was too strong even when it wasn't supposed to be strong. She screamed "dancer" to me. Looking at her bio, yeah, ballet. You can't take the posture out of a dancer. To be honest, I liked Ally's take on the character far better than I liked John Hughe's take on the character. Inherently, the problem with silent characters is that they are silent, and that always poses a problem in films where exposing oneself is the point of the film. In the end, her character felt plopped out, just as she dumped her bag onto the sofa.

Anthony Michael Hall returned as the smart kid in all his adorable dorkiness, but perhaps a little too so. Perhaps because geeks start off as human beings, so thinly masked, you never discover quite so much about them, and what you do discover, you expect.

Emilio Estevez put in a performance as a sports guy, a wrestler. I thank John for not making him a football player, but it was winter/early spring and there wouldn't be football anyway.

The script has its issues, often hitting the limitations of the both the medium and the writer. This was a tough concept to pull off, and I'd have to say that John Hughes eeked out a competent script, but maybe not the script that he wanted, and certainly not the script that he could have developed with more time. At some point, you have to film the damned thing and he filmed it.

I'd love to see the cutting room floor. I am absolutely certain that there were more scenes in this film than made the final edit. At 90 minutes, the film was short even by 80's standards, which lends me to believe that pacing drove the need to cut the extra scenes, or perhaps the studio mandate that the film only be 90 minutes. There are definitely places in the film where a few more lines here and there would have made it roll along better.

I most definitely salute the costume designer for the film. The costumes for each character telegraph exactly what you need to know about each character without feeling cliched. For example, the smart guy wasn't at all dressed like a stereotypical nerd, yet you did take him for the dork that he was, through a combination of his haircut and his lack of fashion. These costumes screamed "bring along your preconceptions", but never made you eat those preconceptions. I love the whole metaphor of taking off coats and layers in this film, for as the characters take off layers, we find what's underneath what we see. Bender, in particular, wears layer upon layer, as does Allison. Where Bender is always more of the same, for his layers of self-defense are deep, Allison reveals white in stark contrast to her dark outer layer, for inside she is light, purer than she may otherwise seem.

Each character began in a car, and even the cars told you about their station and their family life. The cars wound up telegraphing far more about the characters than their clothing did. In just a few moments, you knew about each character's family life without one word being spoken on the subject, most magnificently with Bender, who walks to school, no connection at all to his parents.

After getting to know everyone's stereotype in the early film, the later film slowly breaks those stereotypes. It doesn't strip away the reasons for why each character drifted into their stereotype, but it does let them go beyond those types, letting them be more human. Brian smokes weed, the strange girl doesn't smoke weed, and all the kids close ranks against the vice principal even if they don't like one another. Eventually they all wind up on the floor, talking, revealing themselves to each other, and judging their peers as well.

As the 90 minutes wrap up, you feel as ready to go as they do. You are happy to see the light of day. You're happy to be done with Bender. Then you walk out of the theatre, and maybe you watch that film again thirty years later.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Dragon Age 2 (Video Game Review)

A few years back, I bought a slew of Bioware games for dirt cheap. By the time that I completed Dragon Age, I was thoroughly sick of Bioware games. Fast forward two years, and I finally felt up to playing Dragon Age 2.

It was a game, I played it, and what there was of it, well, it had a lot of it.

I'm not a fan of Bioware storytelling. I find the whole cinematic story a bridge too far for me. For crying out loud, drop the cut scenes and give me shit to fight, OK? Fortunately, I learned the use of the ESC key to grind through the cut scenes faster.

I finally learned what it was that annoyed me about the cut scenes. I think that they use novel writers to create the dialog, which I think is a pretty bad idea. You do want the novel writers creating the story and the world, but when it comes to dialog, if you want a cinematic story, you need SCREENWRITERS. If Bioware ever gets smart enough to hire halfway decent screenwriters, those cut scenes might become worth watching.

The story itself follows a rags-to-riches structure. Hawke and family, fleeing from war, come as refugees to the city. Here, Hawke, a person of no particular character, advances through the city ranks through butchery of everyone else's foes. After enough butchery, she rises in status, and a new chapter of the story unfolds, with all the same heartless butchery as the previous chapter.

Apathy. That's what best describes the first act. I went though all the adventures with total apathy. With chapter two, apathy was replaced with disgust. By the time that I ended that chapter, I wanted to walk out of that city and let the place burn to the ground. It deserved it. Chapter three was just annoying, and I that I wanted to do was to board a boat with Tits, the Pirate Girl, who is most notable for her huge and well displayed tits, and Jugs, my sister, and leave the town in ruins, a victim of its own turpitude.

Your supporting party would have been better played by a slate of characters without any personality at all, as that would have beaten the annoying and irritating personalities that they were given. In short, they each deserved to be abandoned to their fates. It's only because you got almost free XP from helping them that you actually bothered helping them at all.

A major plot thread centers around the conflict between the mages and the Templars, the military mage herders. To say that each was institutionally stupid understates the pure strains of stupidity driving a wedge between the groups. It seems that mages can use demons to make themselves strong, and the only way to defeat them is by organizing into a group and not fighting them one-on-one. Given that the Templars can kick a wizard's ass, its doesn't seem that wizards should even be a problem, and yet, they are to be feared without limit. So naturally, the Templars stick all the mages together into one place, because that's safer, right? Right?

In my imagination, I walked out of the game at the end of Act 2. In truth, I took the game to the end, fought the final battle, then went to bed without thinking about the ending at all. At this point, the ending is already hazy, which shows you how important the ending was.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (1975)

Published in 1975, Patricia McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld won a World Fantasy Award, and in my opinion, the book well deserved it. The book also give weight to my theory that 60k long novels have a specialness to them that the longer novels of today have lost.

The book follows a wizard woman, Sybele, who lives with the strange beasts collected by her father and grandfather. Fate gives her a goose when a man brings her a baby, the child of some relative that she did not know. That baby was the son of a king. So when the boy was grown, his fate pulled at her own.

The writing of Eld, especially in the first half, is somewhere between mythic and ritualistic, where the conversation themselves are more representative of what was said rather than the realism that preponders today. And when not in conversation, which is most of the time, the book takes its good old time describing whatever it is that the author wants to describe. The scenes, rather than flashy or huge, are often even and small. Even the most agonizing scenes are mildly agonizing and mildly distressing. The very technique that gives us the book's abstract representation takes away from the emotional immediacy. For most of its going, this is a distant book.

The weight of the book builds on itself as you read, especially when Sybele interacts with people outside her realm, the book often reading more like a stylized romance than a fantasy book. Yet, it is a fantasy book by no small measure.

The book wins points by being about something other than English or French feudal Europe. The book is more Irish or Scottish, more about clan against clan. The nobles have a say in their kingship, and they have a fair and equal chance to take that kingship themselves. The king of this book is not divine, and not the rightful ruler merely because he is king.

The magic of McKillip is more akin to psychic powers than to the sorceries of today. The heroine works through the power of her mind. Perhaps it is better to say that ESP is magic made plausible through science fiction. These two are certainly tied, and merely switchiing magic for ESP would almost make this a work of historical science fiction rather than fantasy.

On the whole, I enjoyed the work. I found myself pleasantly surprise from the first page and reasonably entertained through the read. If you like high adventure, then this isn't your book, but if you are open to a lower-key fantasy, then check this one out. It deserves a read.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Harpist In The Wind (1979)

Harpist in the Wind (1979) is the last of the Riddle_Master trilogy by Patricia McKillip. In this book, Morgon discovers more about his world and realizes his final DESTINY. This book won the Locus award for best fantasy novel, and also received Hugo and World Fantasy Award nominations.

Yeah, whatever. The moment that I hit the character of Morgon, I wanted him the hell off stage. I wanted Raederle back. Every issue that I had with Morgon came back, and this time, they came back with power-ups. Meanwhile, Raederle was patted on the head and received an also-ran.

I must confess that I skimmed over most of this novel. I skipped vast swaths of description and barely noticed.

To McKillip's credit, she's a good describer. When that woman is on, she is on. Her descriptions just flow across the pages and you can just drift along with them. For readers that like this style, the descriptions must be grand. Not so much for me. I found them somewhat useless. However, her great discriptivey-descriptions did prevent her from falling into any technobabble traps as magic was seen entirely from the experiential point of view.

To say the the entire point of this novel is to say, "Oh-mi-Gawd! I have to finish this series in one book!" would be the most accurate summation of the book that I can present. Everything that was hanging around unsaid in the previous two books had to all get said and explored in this one book, giving this book and overstuffed feeling. You eat the world too fast, getting no chance to digest it. We are at the buffet of fantasy building and the author only gets to fill one plate, so she heaps it on.

There's a big battle at the end, of course, not that it mattered, because the battle doesn't even matter. It's just a trope. We could have just skipped that battle and had a more interesting ending.

Especially in this last book, I just don't buy McKillips world. "Miners and farmers and her animals, oh my!" We hear about unrest, rebels, armies gathering, people gathering ancient cities, and I am struck by the sheer uselessness of humanity. Really? That's all that people can think to get up to? Eight hundred years of history and no militia? I am at a total loss.

My wife gets this book on a meta-level that I don't. For me, it just falls flat. Even with an explanation of the meta-level, it still falls flat. Judging by reviews over on Goodreads, this is a very loved book, so I'll just hang my hat onto the minority opinion and be done with it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Heir of Sea and Fire (1977)

I've wrapped up reading The Heir of Sea and Fire by Patricia McKillip, 1977. I originally read this back in the autumn of 1980, when I was fourteen. I effectively had no memory of this book, other than it broke distinctly from the first book.

Our heroine, a betrothed woman, goes out to look for her missing man, building up a cohort of adventurous women, butting heads with the authorities, and generally being uppity. The overall characterization was good, the pacing was fun, the motivations were clear. Best of all, the conversation in this part of the book were highly naturalistic and contained great humanity. I found the first half, maybe 60% of this book, absolutely delightful.

Where concepts are explored, they are explored nicely from inside the context of the story. You get to understand what this idea of land heir means, and how its magic, and how it matters to everyday people. I can do with more fantasy like that. Even the heroine realizing and developing her magical powers were naturalistic and engaging.

Alas, from a great beginning came a mediocre ending. For some reason that I can't fathom, McKillip broke up her dream team and sent them home. Our heroine developed some magical powers for herself that let her do stuff. At first this all worked well, but everything accelerated towards the end, shoving our heroine towards the end of the book at a breakneck speed. I wound up getting to the end of the book so fast that I just didn't get the point of getting there.

In particular, McKillip had troubles with transitions in this book. In one paragraph, the heroine would be talking to some person, and in the next paragraph, ride a day, then speak to another person, so that if you weren't paying attention, the reader would miss the transition, and if the reader was paying attention, would still find that transition rather abrupt.

I found the heroine's sudden accelleration in magical power confusing and rushed. Towards the end, I had no idea what she was every trying to do with her magical powers, other than wish fulfillment.

Then there are some things that are both wonderful and terrible at the same time, such as McKillip's description of magic. In places, this works well, avoiding technobabble and letting us see the humanity in magic. In other places, the descriptions are so thick and colorful that all the colors run together into mud. Despite the wonderful descriptions, you really don't know what the hell just happened, and worse yet, you don't really care.

Overall, the quality of this book is a good cut better than The Riddle-Master of Hed. McKillip's successfully avoided repeated her mistakes from her first book, which is a very good sign from any writer. So go and enjoy the first half of this book, but when you hit the slog, just skim.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976)

Our next read is the Riddle-Master of Head, by Patricia McKillip, 1976. The book follows the adventures of Morgon, a man with three mysterious stars upon his forehead. What are they and what could they mean for himself, his land, and his world? Plenty.

I found the opening chapter for the Riddle-Master of Hed very rough. The opening chapter introduces us to Morgon, who seems to have no good sense whatsoever, gets into a random fistfight with an array of characters, meets a harper, and barely makes a reference to the three super-important stars on his head. If i were to judge this book by the first two or three chapters, I would put it into the recycle bin. The opening simply does not work for me. The first few chapters utterly fail to achieve a narrative. My belief is that these beginning chapters were among the earliest of McKillip's work, and that inexperience shows.

Why do I call Morgon an idiot? Well, Morgon is a riddle-master, trained in knowledge. He tells the story of how he went to a tower to win a crown from a ghost. Fair enough. Yet somehow, despite being trained in knowledge, he did not know that the King of An had offered his daughter's hand to whoever won that crown. Even more spectacular, his best friend is the son of that king and the brother to the girl, and he still doesn't know these things. How does that happen? The only possibly explanation is that Morgon is an idiot, which explain much of the remaining book with ease.

The beginning does feature a wonderful narrative, one that I wanted to know more about, but that narrative is only referred to. Morgon goes to the ghost of a dead king, willing to lose his life to win that crown. Why? A great story hands on that, but that story wasn't told to us.

The opening chapters also dump a vast amount of information at you. Rather than read these chapters, I fell back to scanning through the text. The signal to noise ratio of those early chapters was rather poor. In my opinion, there was too much noise to too little narrative. Even later on in the book, I found myself skipping all the details, often skimming from dialog to dialog.

McKillip is certainly a detail-oriented writer. She goes on for extended lengths on what is: what is seen, what is done, what is noticed, and what is said. Her prose is very literalistic, leveraging very little simile and metaphor within description. If anything, this betrays her inexperience. In later books, her narratives read far more naturalistic.

The novel itself follows a walkie-talkie structure. The plot turns around people who get together, share information, come to reasonable conclusions, and then move onward. So much plot lies within conversation that I find it a bit maddening. The conversation are also chock full of lore and detail, but almost entirely absent of human emotion or social jousting. To ridiculous extents, people in the story are quite well behaved and rational even when they are neither well behaved nor rational.

Areas seems to have the simplistic, modular structure that is so familiar to fantasy. One area is a city of THIS while another area is a city of THIS. This is a fine fantasy tradition, which hails back to Swift, certainly, and possibly to the Odyssey. However, areas doesn’t really seem to matter and everyone acts mostly the same.

Of special note is the harper. I had forgotten just how prevalent harpers were in 70's fantasy. I must remember to subvert that tradition in my own books. That they play of role of information gatherers fits well with other harpers of the time. If anyone wants a good paper to write, pick the user of harpers in high fantasy of the 1970s.

Of the fantastic elements, McKillip had some interesting ideas, such as land rule, the nature of wizards, and the great unsaidness of magic, but I think that these were all underplayed and poorly executed. I say that because in later books, she figures out how to present these to the reader in a far more effective and engaging manner.

In summary, I found the novel somewhat simplistic and dull, betraying in no way the improvements that would soon follow in her narrative. I was left with almost no opinion of the characters, neither fearing for them nor sympathizing with them.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Endhaven Rules: Steel Rules, Unobtanium Drools

In Endhaven, steel is king and there's no obscurium or unobtanium in sight. "What's with that?" my shill in the audience asks?

When I began my Endhaven series, I fully intended to have adamantium and other exotic metals. They seemed fun. They seemed cool. They looked like they would work well in the story up until I got to the point where I actually needed to know what these metals did and why they were so important. Needing a bit of inspiration, I hit the books and surveyed the literature on metals, especially steel. Whatever this fanciful metal was, it had to work better than steel.

Here's a hint: NOTHING works better than steel. OK, that's a simplification, but it's pretty much true in the case of weapons. If you want a sword today, you are going to buy one out of steel because, after a thousand years, steel is still better than anything out there. It's not just that steel is hard, or that steel is flexible, or that it weights enough to give you a good punch without weighing too much. It's because it does all three of those things so well that any challenger has to do better. Steel was picked as the metal of choice for weapons because it hit the sweet spot so well.

Steel armor also does pretty well, to the point where we put it on soldier's heads through two world wars, and still insert it into body armor today to ward against sharp weapons. Where steel doesn't do well is against bullets, but you already knew that. If there were no bullets out there, I'd lay good money that we'd still be using steel in armor. (If you know something that's better in terms of weight vs. protection, speak up.)

Steel was developed before 1000 AD, but it took a while for the technology to spread. Smiths who knew how to make steel kept that knowledge secret so that they could corner whatever market they could. Up until the industrial revolution, the manufacture of steel was incredibly labor intensive, and therefore incredibly expensive. Once the blast furnace hit, the cost of iron plummeted, soon followed by steel. What was once rare became far more common.

So you can imagine what an unbelievable advantage that a group of steelmakers would have if they invented the blast furnace 500 years sooner than anyone else. They could undercut all their competition with lower prices while raking in a monster share of the profit. That's a pretty nice place to be.

One would also imagine that the secret of steel production would be worth an incalculable amount of money, so whoever had it would defend it vigorously, if not kill to keep it, like so many ancient technological secrets. (Read about silk sometime.)

With all this setup coming out so engaging, why would I go and invent a new metal? Steel is already the wonder metal. I literally could not make up better. So, I threw out adamantium and embraced steel.

Friday, November 14, 2014

1989 Honda Civic

In 1989 I bought my first car: a beige, base model Honda civic hatchback. This car came equipped with a 4-speed manual transmission, air condition, and not much else that wasn't required by law. Ticket price for this treasure was $8. The funds for this car came from my first job, working the night shift at a gardening supply warehouse, delivering gardening supplies to stores all around Baltimore. A few months after I bought this car, I lost that job.

Learning to drive a stick was irksome. I knew the basics of stick, but getting all the coordination down took forever. Shifting at road speed was easy, but starting and stopping was where all the challenge was. I remember adrenalin rushes every time that I had to stop and turn. I never knew if I would stall the car or not.

I named my car Basil after the character Pazu from Laputa. They both seemed like little beige troopers that could.

For the life of me, I couldn't find a picture of a beige Civic, and I couldn't find of my own pictures of my Civic, so here's a silver one. My didn't have any sort of moon roof, but it did have hand-cranked windows that those louvered rear windows.

(A similar civic from the front.)

Three months later, I found a new job. I would use my fledgling PC skills to repair PCs at pharmacies all over Maryland, Delaware, Northern Virginia, a bit of West Virginia, and southern Pennsylvania. Back in those days, the bad old days, computers sure did like to die terrible, horrible, no-good deaths at the bat of an eye. They were big, expensive, and businesses held onto them for a long time. To get more out of them, some had custom DOS OS's that let terminals access them.

During my first winter, and my first snowfall, I discovered how sucktacular my tires were. I am surprised that I made it home during my first snowfall. The tired did nothing but slide. Not long after that, I replaced my tires out of self-defense. My tires weren't snow tires and they hated driving in the rain. My new tires actually worked in the rain and worked well in the snow, too, which converted me to the cult of good tires. I'll happily get overcharged for tires because I know what bad tires are like.

(My car looked much like the one below, but without so much striping.)

My friends ribbed me for getting a civic. All my school friends bought Ford Probes or other nice, sporty cars. I bought a Civic. My D&D group at the time suggested that I turn my Civic into a sports car as a joke. In time, the joke would be on them. I would never turn my Civic into a sports car, but others were. The Civic had a few traits which made it a great car for modding. First, the Civic was light. I could push that car up a hill by myself. I could pop start it drifting backwards across two parking spaces. (I frequently forgot and left my lights on.) Despite being light, the car was very stable, with a very low center of gravity. Put that together with an easily tinkered engine and a low price, and you  had everything necessary to be a great beater. Every HP that you put into one of those cars came straight back out. By the late 90's, the Civic was among the favorite cars for street racing. Little did I know that I might be ahead of the curve.

The only real modding that I did was to put a wooden shift knob onto the stick, and put a wrap around the steering wheel. The knob was for show, but the extra grip on the wheel was absolutely needed. Also, car seat covers because vinyl seats are for the birds.

I had a tendency on this car to drive using my wrist. The bottom of the wheel was open, so I would just hang my wrist there and cruise along, never having to worry about my arms getting tired.

I must confess to leaving the windows open during the summers. On more than a few days, I came out to a soaked front seat, so I worked out various ways of not getting my seat wet, but the results were never any fun. Keeping your behind on a wet seat for hours is a recipe for woe and an itchy ass.

When the gulf war hit, the Civic made me a mint. As I drove about for a living, I earned mileage on my private vehicle. My Civic got me 40 mpg, and well tuned, could hit 45 mpg. As gas prices spiked during the golf war, the payments spiked as well. My little gas sipper barely noticed. I wound up earning so much from mileage in 18 months that the mileage flat-out paid for my car, and that's taking out insurance, gas, and tires.

My Civic was usually good in the snow. I rarely got stuck. I took the thing out after a major blizzard with no trouble. Ice was a different story. I was driving out to Herndon with Paul in tow when we hit a patch of ice on 270. A brief bump swung the car around in a graceful twirl, leaving us going backwards on 270 at 60 mph. Knowing this was bad, especially as there was a stuck car ahead of us, I flicked my front-wheel drive wheels, gunned a bit, and righted the car back around. After that, it was as easy drift over.

That wasn't the only accident or near accident. I did have to dive off the road once to avoid the tail end of a bus. That was easy. Scarier, I had a truck towing a race car decide that it wanted to be in the left lane for no goddamn reason. The car pushed me into the medium out in western Maryland. Fortunately, everything turned out OK.

The only accident was when I tail-ended a woman on the Washington beltway. I still feel bad about that. I jammed down my foot, but put the weight onto my heel, not the toe, so I didn't brake well enough. Bam, she got it in the rear and I got an almost perfect circle poked through my bumped. I drove it home, too. After my car had gotten fixed, I found that the mechanics had taken all my spare change from the car and one of my mixed tapes. To this day, I don't remember what was on it, but I still wonder. It's like a lost pet. It's gone, but you don't want to forget.

I did eventually get a radio for the car. Crutchfield provided everything that I needed. Wiring the antenna in was the hardest part as I had to get the antenna down through the frame to a place where I could find it. Everything else just got pulled to where it needed to go. Once I had a cassette deck, I had happiness. That was the golden era of mixed tapes for me as I really liked having my tunes on those drives. Albums got put onto loops for days at a time. Particularly good survivors were the Bangles' All Over the Place, both Voice of the Beehive albums, all the Reivers albums, and Concrete Blonde's Bloodletting.

I wasn't very social before I started driving around in that job. I had never needed to be. My social skills were truly terrible. But visiting pharmacists over and over got me lots of social practice and my social skill pretty much went through the roof. Going to a job site became going to visit friends and fixing their computers. Me and those pharmacists had a great time together (except for those killjoys who weren't any fun.)

The hardest part of driving was that no amount of rushing could get you there faster. You could go faster, but really, it didn't matter. I just had to be patient and drive there. Sometimes the tedium of driving got to me. Getting bored of the highway system, I dropped back to using the rural route system which predated the highway system. The back roads were usually far more interesting than the main road, which helped me to stay awake, by God. I didn't drink coffee back then, so something had to keep me engaged. I knew my routes by the time that I was done. I could tell you how to get between any two pharmacies in my territory, off the top of my head, including how long it would take to within five minutes. Yeah, I was good.

Staying awake during the winter seemed especially hard. I would bundle up, roll down my windows, and stay awake in the cold.

On the job, I learned PCs and learned them fast. The techs down in Richmond were used to working with idiots who always needed to get talked through things. I usually only needed one call to learn something. This surprised them to no end, which I still find pathetic. By the time that I was laid of from that job, I had my foundation as a solid PC person.

I wound up selling the car in 1996 after I bought my Subaru. The dealership offered me $200 for it, so $500 seemed like good-enough to me. The girl who bought it from me didn't understand that you needed to hold it the clutch to start it, so that gave her some fits, but she worked through it. Meanwhile, I felt like I had sold my car down the river.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Castle Roogna (1979)

Castle Roogna was the third Xanth novel by Piers Anthony. The novel features Dor, Bink's son, who is in training to be the next king of Xanth. He is tasked with turning a friendly zombie back into a real person. And on that hangs a tale that involves going back in time to 800 years ago, during the golden age of King Roogna.

Stylistically, gone is the comedy that was A Spell for Chameleon, and also gone is the classic adventure of The Source of Magic. With Castle Roogna comes the final pieces that makes Xanth the juvenile series of the late 20th century, those being a coming of age story, the forced and gratuitous use of puns suggested by the fans, and a new lead character every book. The lighting is now gone, replaced by merely competent writing.

Castle Roogna disappointed me in my youth. I wanted a book about Bink and only about Bink. A trilogy involves a character that you like across all three books. To switch character is book three just spoiled my day. I could not forgive that in the book. That, I just didn't care about Dor. On rereading the novel, I found myself still unable to care about Dor. The further that I read into the book, the less that I cared. I found myself reading this book less and less, not more and more. By the end, I was glad to wrap the book up.

I must complement Piers in his ability to both open and close a novel. Although the middle lost me, he did quite a job at interpolating the whole affair. Interpolating is a technique often used in the Bible where a scene is given meaning by including information on each side of it to give the scene context. Piers uses this technique as well, using it to give the story context. His conclusion is also particularly nice, as he has many threads to wrap up and he wraps them all up quite naturally and well, down to the apparent contradictions that the novel suggests. If you want to improve your wrap-ups, this is a good novel to study.

As an adult, I now understand all the sexual references that the author never explained, for Piers always left the most detailed sex scenes to the knowledge of the reader. In this, Piers shows himself was quite the classy writer. It is this very suggestiveness that allowed youth to read his books and cracked open the audience for him.

The book itself is a blatant reversal of the usual male power-fantasy genre. In that genre, the chosen male find himself in strange circumstances, wins himself a leadership position among his new allies, defeats his enemies, exudes testosterone, and get the highest ranking, most beautiful female available. In this book, all those things happen, but the hero's a kid who keeps it in his pants, doesn't wind up king, and doesn't like all the killing and violence very much. In fact, our hero succeeds by talking to things more than hitting them. Brilliantly done, Piers.

It is noteworthy that this is the first Xanth book written after A Spell For Chameleon had been published. In this book, Piers had already received fan mail from his readers and had already learned a great deal about what his readership liked. Intelligently, the man gave the audience what they wanted, and kept his mouth shut on topics which were too explicit.

Sexism rears its head in this book. The man was clearly writing for boys, not yet knowing how powerful of an audience that girls would turn out to be. I think as the years went by, he came to appreciate that girls did read his books and he strove to increasingly use them as primary characters. What's obvious here is that he did not yet understand how to use them, although that I can't say that is entirely true. When Dor appears as a barbarian in Xanth, he essentially writes a book that could be called A Barbarian in Xanth. It's a story that plays comedic  homage to the barbarian trope, where his muscles destroy all comers and women throw themselves at the manly man. Here, Dor is never comfortable with his manly man-ness, and winds up succeeding by the use of his mind, not his brawn.

I will still accept Castle Roogna as an entertaining read, if not better than average, but I would not put it into the top tier of fantasy books. In my opinion, it misses the mark, alternately over-thinking and under-thinking too many parts of itself.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Endhaven Rules: No Absolutes

One of the rules that drives my editor crazy about Endhaven is my blatantly contradictory cosmology. Those contradictions are on purpose. They are supposed to be there. Endhaven is not a neat and tidy place where everything makes sense and the reader, or even the gods, can know everything that there is to know. If there is anything resembling a system, it's a system built from the wreckage of seventeen different cars, taking the motor from car but the radio from another, until you have something that isn't anything at all. It's sorta like that Johnny Cash song where some autoworkers steal a car one piece at a time.

Why do I do this? Why do I contradict my own world building? Because in human history, this situation was not only prevalent, but normal. The Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Germans, and Persians all disagreed on their religion and the nature of the universe. They tried to draw equivalences where they could, but the system was still a mess. Even inside Greece, the worship of a god and the stories that surrounded the cult differed. The more that you dig your head into those stories, the more that you learn that there are no definitives in the pagan world. Not only is there no answer in the back of the book, there is no book. Paganism is dominated by revalation, intuition, history, reason. revelation, and happenstance. It's a mess. There is no one single person who gets to say what is true and what is false.

For me as a writer, and you as a reader, I think that uncertainty and messiness makes for a better read. So in Endhaven, we know that all souls go to Endhaven. We also know that souls go to the appropriate gods. Which is it? Which is true? Well, I'm not telling you which is true. That's the point. There is no true. There is no absolute. To learn the absolute truth is create certainty, and despite what you might think, certainty does not make for a good story. A story dwells in uncertainty. To know the gods absolutely is impossible.

In the Jura City series, we see Maran visit the gods in the Steel City. This is the heavenly place associated with the dwarves. Is it really there? No, I think not. The Steel City is just a vision that the dwarves understand. It is no more real than any other sort of heaven. I like to think that the elves and the humans have places quite different than the Steel City, but that those places also contain the same characters. Jack still guards a bridge, Rem still dishes out unwanted advice, and the White Lady still sleeps, all recognizable, yet all quite different in their expression.

The only place that is always what it is is Endhaven itself. That place is always a caldera in a placid sea,  holding the Lake of Souls, and on an island in that lake, the Ancient One in whatever form that she takes for you.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Endhaven Rules: A World Without Wizards

I have a simple rule in Endhaven. There are no wizards. There are magic people, of course, because this is a fantasy, but there are no wizards. This goes with never using the words "magic." You see, wizards to magic. They can do any sort of magic in any sort of way. The readers expect this of wizards. To avoid that expectation, I simply don't have them.

What does that leave me with? Quite a lot, actually. At a minimum, I avoid having a cliche, which isn't a bad thing in itself. At best, I have wonderful opportunities, and those opportunities are what makes this rule so much fun.

So, if I don't have wizards, then what do I call my magic people? The answer turned out to be "lots of things." As magic in Endhaven is so fragmented, existing without any sort of overarching system, the practitioners of magic are also fragmented, existing within the context of their race, culture, and time period, and each acting in their own unique way.

Culture has a great impact on what you call something. If I take shamanism and give it to dwarves, what would dwarves do with shamanism? It surely would not remain unchanged. The religious idea would distort and change to serve the needs and circumstances of dwarves. So after all those changes, could you call as dwarf shaman a shaman, or would that magical position now be better called a different word? Even within the dwarves cultures, one type of dwarf some types of dwarf would surely shamanism different than the others. The dwarves who run the iron furnaces would surely have different needs and desires than the dwarves that grow the crops, and these should be different than the dwarves that care for horses and drive the wagons. So even within the same racial groups, should they use the same words or different words?

The great thing about words is that they convey meaning. If grave diggers are the ones who culturally guarantee the passage of the dead to the underworld, then grave digger surely implies something different than shaman even though they do much of the same thing. Where a shaman implies a man or woman of great power, a grave digger implies a dirty person of low station.

Interestingly, early Christians called a grave digger a fosser, a religious position, as the body would be needed in the resurrection of the dead. Laying the body down wrong could result in a good Christian being unable to be resurrected. Same words, two jobs, and such wonderful implications.

As titles are so important, as they are so tied to my stories and themes, I think a great deal about titles before putting them into my books. There's a huge difference between a fossor, a respected member of the community, and a grave digger, among the lowest. Those differences are what makes the story interesting enough to write. In a world full of magic, what is needed from a grave digger? If a grave digger is a religious profession, how does that impact their legal standing in the society? By being religious, what rights does the position confer and what responsibilities does it entail? What happens if those responsibilities are not met? If the grave digger can cross worlds, and so communicate with the spirits, what relationships develop from that?

So simply by not having a wizard, but still having magic, I've given myself a huge amount of material to work with and develop from without falling back to "a wizard by another name who isn't really a wizard but everyone knows that they are a wizard."

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Endhaven Rules: Don't Say Magic

When I began the Endhaven series, I developed a set of rules which helped make the setting interesting to myself, and hopefully interesting to you. These rules are very few, and their use is generally not visible, but their impact is significant. By incorporating the rules early, the implications of those rules play out in the Endhaven stories. So the rules are not just tacked on as an exercise, but shape the way that I think as I write.

The most important rule that I made for myself was to never use the word 'magic.' Even more importantly, there would be no universal word to replace magic because magic represents too many things, so even if the term did exist, no one would bother using it. Instead. magic is represented in more prosaic terms such as secret, skill, technique, or knowledge. The immediate benefit of using these words is to put the reader in doubt about what is magic and what isn't magic, making this whole idea of magic far more unclear.

For example, the Ironmongers know the secret of mass producing iron into steel by using a blast furnace. Now, is this really magic or is it technology? The answer is that it doesn't matter. This technique is making them a fortune and they kill to keep this a secret.

Behind all these terms comes the idea of limitation. When people hear magic, they think of limitless possibilities. Anything can happen with magic and often does. Magic is wonderful and mystical and powerful. If a wizard can just as easily change your shape as protect you from fire. It's all magic. It's all equal. On the other hand, secrets are only secrets when kept secret. He he knows a secret has no incentive to divulge it, usually as gaining that secret had a cost. The secret of changing your shape in no way implies the secret of protecting you from fire. Secrets imply limits, and rather difficult limits at that. With secrets, all things may be possible, but few know each answer.

Skills and techniques also work well with limiting magic. A master sword maker will spend a lifetime perfecting his technique in making a single type of weapon. Part of that is the secrets of steel, but an equal part of that is experience and training. Just reading a book or learning a secret won't give you enough information to produce a sword. The great implication of this is that producing a sword is as much a work of magic, and as equally capable of producing a magic weapon, as a wizard with some book. It pulls magic out of waving hands and chanting words, pulling it into the experiential. Thing which did not seem magic before seem magic now.

The truth is, raw magic blinds us with our preconceptions of men in pointy hats with staves and spells and near super-powers. Only by pulling it off the table to we see that magic can take a myriad of other shapes, working its way down into culture and language in ways that had not been considered recently.

Why do I say recently? Because we know what a society based on magic looks like. The pre-modern world assumed magic. Look at China and Medieval Europe, and you will see societies based on the ideas of magic. All the world was magic to them. Professions, dependent on the goodwill of saints or spirits or minor gods, made sure to keep up their rituals. The state had a magical and divine explanation for why the rulers should rule, and why you should obey their laws. It's all there if you are willing to see it. What makes it magic was not the fact of it being magical but the presumption of the people that it was magical.

Friday, October 31, 2014

70s Halloween Remembered

The costumes for today's kids just aren't right. I remember the bad old days of the 70's when Halloween reached its pre-manufactured cultural low. My earliest memory of costumes consisted of wearing plastic tunics bearing the image of what I was supposed to be, and a thin plastic mask held on with elastic. These things always pinched your face a little, changed your voice, and didn't breath very well. But hey, that's what all the other kids were wearing, so it's what you wore, too. If you were lucky, the mask survived the night, but often enough the mask cracked or the elastic broke.

I know that I was a hobo one year and my sister was a gypsy because I have a picture of it. I don't remember the costume at all, but I do remember the texture on the burnt cork rubbing on my nose.

In later years I tried some different, home-made costumers. For a few years, I was a ghost. I cut holes in a sheet, but on a tie and a hat, along with a big nose attached to plastic glasses. This suit was far more comfortable than any of the kids costumes, but hot in its own way. When I was old enough to go out on my own, I wandered about in my tween years in the big glasses with the big nose. Yes, that was lame. I was lame. We all were lame. It was the 70's.

In my family, all the candy was dumped into a large pile so that my mother could pull out all the gum and anything else that looked suspect. In the 70's, everyone was afraid of adulterated food, such as razor blades and needes hidden inside them. Mind you, nobody ever knew anybody who actually did anything like that, but those were the fear. In the late 70's, some nut actually went and poisoned pain killers, killing a few people, so I can understand some caution in the late 70's. Once all the food was properly checked out, the family shared the loot. When I met my wife, I was surprised to learn that she got to keep her own candy, and keep it in her room. I never had such a privilege. Then again, if that had been true, my siblings would have stolen it all away anyway. They were shameless.

The nigh before Halloween was called moving night, because that is the night that things moved. If your house was going to get toilet papered, that was the night it would happen. My sister gathered us up once to TP our own house. Valeries has since gone on to become a professional party planner, which surprises none of us a bit. Who can't have a party with a TP's house?

Back in the 70's, there were vast herds of kids that roamed the suburbs as that was the end of the baby boom. Even at the end of the street, our house got lots of kids through. I used to give out the candy in the 80's when I was in high school. Even there we had lots of visitors. By the time that college was over, my mother had stopped stocking large hoards of candy. She had switched over to large chocolate bars as the hoards had greatly diminished.

My new house, on a culd-de-sac, barely gets anyway. The old house got lots of kids. Almost every year we got lots of kids except after 9/11. That year, I left candy on my stoop and not only did no one steal all the candy, but the candy pretty much remained there. The year after that, there was a sniper in the county shooting at school kids and parents were understandably paranoid. After that, Halloween picked back up until hoardes of hispanic kids were coming to our door.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

1989 Ford Probe

When my friends graduated from college in 1988, Jim and Greg bought themselves Ford Probes. They were sleek, sporty, and cost more than I could afford. I had an opportunity to ride in one on several occasions, and they seemed like nice cars. In a world of strange bedfellows, this was a sporty hatchback. That's rarer today, but back then there were quite a few sporty hatchbacks coming out of Japan. The answer the unasked question, no, they didn't have great engines. They were peppy, but they weren't true sports cars. At $12-15k, they were just too dear for me to buy.

To be honest, I don't recall who had which color.

Greg's probe met with a sad fate. He was driving out to the restaurant in Katawba when he hit a patch of gravel that slid him off the road, tipping both him and Steve over nose first. Fortunately my friends wore their seatbelts and everyone checked out fine. The car received a bent frame and so got totalled.

I suppose that Jim eventually just replaced his.

The interior was pretty straight forward. It was much of what you'd expect from a Japanese designed car mated up with American dash design. The interior is now modern enough that you wouldn't blink to buy a car like this today. The car featured a seat belt head which automatically retratcted when you closed the door, relieving you of pulling on your own shoulder harness. However, you did need to buckle your own lap belt, so I'm not sure what good the system really did for you. Maybe it was for all the women who didn't want to muss their dresses? I don't know.

According to Wikipedia, this car was to replace the Mustang. You can see how well that worked out. However, I do think that this car was far more appealing to the female market than the Mustang. This car definitely had more girl street cred than most sporty cars, but not so much that the boys avoided it. However, the REAL MEN drove mustangs because REAL and MAN, and those bastard weren't my friends and didn't let me drive their Mustangs. Bastards.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Land of the Lost

In the 1970's, you couldn't love dinosaurs without loving Land of the Lost, that Saturday morning darling of the dinophile set. How could a show that featured a dinosaur roaring into the camera go wrong? The answer is that it didn't go wrong, at least not for a few seasons.

Land of the Lost opens with a toe tapping, banjo riffing song which the unusual fate of the Marshall family. During a river trip, an earthquake sucks their raft into a giant hole, which is really a portal into another dimension, the land of the lost. There, they find all sorts of things that should not be, all assembled into the same mountain-bound land. In the midst of hazzards, they do their best at being a family. They live in a cave up high off the ground, which they called High Bluff. They discovered and named dinosaurs galore, the most famous being Grumpy, the T-Rex that chases everyone and everything, then roars into the cave mouth.

The dinosaurs were a mixture of stop-motion animation and puppetry. The model work must have cost a small fortune, so the editors used very FX show as stock footage, throwing it in wherever possible.

The family itself was composed of Dad, who had a name that didn't matter, Will, the teenage boy, and Holly, the grade school girl. Their sometimes visitor was Chaka, a humanoid called a Pakuni, who befriended them when they found the land. Chaka could speak Pakuni very well, but he was very bad at English.

The show wasn't just trash. This show was full-blown juvenile SF. It featured a collapse alien civilization that had made the land, the last of whom was Enoch, the Altrusian. Their descendents, now nocturnal, are the Sleestak, taking every opportunity to terrorize the family. The land itself is run by pylons which utilize the Altrusian crystal technology to regulate the sun, moon, weather, and even portals into other worlds.

The first series itself was designed as a loop, so that the last episode directly took you into the first. How cool is that?

Heaven isn't forever, and neither are perfect shows. After two seasons, Dad Marshall had enough of the gig, leaving the show. Before filming season 3, the the cave set for High Bluff burned down, so in show, the family moved into a temple set near the Forgotten City, trading Grumpy for an allosaur name Alice and too many Sleestaks as neighbors. The great conflagration that swallowed dad conveniently brought in Uncle Jack, who was a congenial fellow, but nowhere near as cool as Dad was. (Dad had a certain intensity and daring in the face of necessity that made you really admire him.) Chaka now spoke English pretty well and lost his family. The show even got a few more creatures, such as a fire-breathing dimetridon. All in all, the third season was meh.

After filming enough episodes to go syndicated, Land of the Lost move to the weekdays and the magically profitable land of weekday repeats. Nothing as cool replaced it on Saturday morning.

Land of the Lost did not air without competition. There was also the animated show, The Land that Time Forgot, or something like that, about a hidden valley with dinosaurs and cave men. Again, people got lost and wound up there. That show wasn't nearly as good or as compelling, but if you wanted a dino fix, it did fill the niche.

Sid & Marti Croft tried to revive Land of the Lost in the 90's with a passable show. It wasn't nearly as fun as the original, but not nearly as bad as critics panned it.

Will Ferrell bastardized the show into a Will Ferrell movie, and you can guess how well that worked out. Will Ferrell is a "comedian" who produces "comedies." Personally, I think that he sleeps with all the financiers. Gotta make all those little old ladies happy, right? Make a bad movie, then walk away with the profits. (That's a reference to The Producers, folks.)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Forerunner and Quag Keep (1981)

Forerunner, by Andre Norton, 1981, occupies a special place in my heart. At an age when I read and devoured everything, I put this book down and muttered to myself, "What a total piece of shit. I can write better than this." I so utterly detested this particular book that I never even considered reading another book by her. The prospect was too disheartening. As far as I am concerned, the only reason for this book's existance is that it fulfilled a contract with the least amount of effort that she could muster. As a caveat, I don't know this as a fact, but this is how it feels to me. Perhaps it is merely an object lesson that some novels do need revision.

I also read Quag Keep (1979) because it was a D&D crossover and I loved D&D. Sadly, I did not love that book, It's not that I had anything against the book, but I just didn't have anything for it. Whatever it was that captured a reader's attention, it didn't capture mine. The only thing that I remember about it were the bracelets with dice inside them that spun about on occasions. I am happy to say that D&D literature has come a long way since then, but sad to say that doing better than Quag Keep was pretty easy.

As Norton was such a dominant name in the 70's, I will eventually need to read her as I reread the greatest fantasy hits of that decade. I don't look forward to it. I rather suspect that her sensibilities and mine do not match.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

G.I. Joe Doll from the 1970s

Back in the 1970's, every boy had a G.I. Joe, and possibly more than one. It was as much of a doll as a Barbi was, but they were MAN dolls doing MAN things. Girls couldn't possibly understand.

In many ways, I am utterly at a loss to talk about G.I. Joe beyond that because that play was so ubiquitous. There was no story attached to him, or TV, or anything like that. He just was. I had this red haired G.I. Joe. First I shave his beard, and then I eventually shaved him bald. Why? I guess that he looked better that way.

I used to take the head off of my doll, because the head attached to the neck ball joint and was removable. It was just a soft rubber that gripped on. The head itself was hollow and squishy. You could drop these guys on their heads forever and they'd  never notice. Eventually, after enough abuse, the elastic that held the doll together snapped, leaving my Joe a limp rag doll. Thankfully, mom had mercy on me and bought me another. 

My brother had an AT-II Mobile Support Vehicle, which was the multi-part yellow vehicle, which could drive like a big camper, or split apart into smaller components. It featured a wind-up propeller that shut up from the rear camper. That was the satellite that you were supposed to track. The front connected to the rear with a simple plastic pin over a hitch. The back opened up into a technical area so that you could do techno-stuff. 

I had a green footlocker for my Joe and all his gear, along with some diving equipment (Deep Sea Diver set). He had one of those big helmeted diving suits. Some friend must have had the six-wheeler, because that looked familiar to me. The teenager across the street had a space capsule from the 60's which he gave away to us. I don't remember who got that prize.

My aunt made clothes for Barbies, and every time that she asked what I wanted, I requested a G.I. Joe Parachute. My poor aunt had no idea how to make such a thing. Even worse, she didn't give me something good enough to make me happy, because it's not like a parachute is that hard. It's a circle with strings tied to a vest. Done. It can be crappy, it was for a boy who intended to throw his doll up into the air.

Over the years I did attempt to make some parachutes. None of them worked well, but I had fun testing them.

G.I. Joe wasn't the only doll on the block. In the early 70's, there was also Big Jim. Jim was an outdoorsy guy, and he was BIG, and his name was JIM. He had a camper and he could wear all of G.I. Joe's clothes. That's about all that really mattered. To be honest, I had no idea what Big Jim connected into, if he even connected into anything. All that I had for Big Jim was his camper. I figure that I got Big Jim somewhere before Hurricane Agnes (1972), because I remember pushing his camper around the dining room table, chasing my sister. So I must have gotten Big Jim when I was five, in 1971. In the end, Big Jim didn't make much of an impression upon me, but his camper did. 

Another doll that I played with was the Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin. With the show starting in 1973, and merchandising coming soon after that, you can bet lots of boys had a Steve Austin. I certainly did. He had interchangeable arms, and the arms had flesh that rolled up to reveal his bionic workings. You couldn't get cooler than that. A friend of mine had a bullet man, which I think went with that toy line, but I could be so wrong.

Even cooler, Steven came in this capsule thingie which always did what you needed it to do. It sealed him and all his stuff up into one neat little container. I think that I only had the doll and the repair station as none of the other toys rings any bells.

The younger kid next door never had many big dolls, but he did have many super-hero action figures. I didn't know the marvel heroes back then, but he had them. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Failing Audiophile 103

Let's talk metrics. The audiophile community loves talking metrics. Since I can't match the technobabble of a true audiophile, I will retaliate with rambling.

Most metrics are meaningless. They mean nothing. And assembled into lists, metrics have even less meaning. It's not because the metrics are wrong. The metrics are all correct. The reason that metrics are meaningless is because you and I, the average consumer, don't really understand what the metrics mean or how they go together. If a consumer cannot make a meaningful decision with a given set of metrics, those metrics are meaningless.

What do we use instead? $$$. We look at the price of a product as a metric for all those metrics. That ought to work pretty well, but you can see where the mischief starts, can't you? If a manufacturer wants a better performing product, it just give the product new packaging and price it higher. "Now with 30% more statistics!" Now worse products are selling next to better products at the same price range.

How can we tell the difference between the two? Metrics! They're both useless and useful at the same time. Talk about a Schroedenger's cat problem.

The thing about metrics is that metrics are all that we really have to distinguish quality from garbage. Metrics are the only way to guarantee that we are getting the quality that we've paid for. Metrics are also the way that we can determine the fair price of a product in the marketplace. A sales force can whip up lies about "experience" and "impression," because those features are subjective, but they can't lie about measurable features. Lying about your product is false advertising.

An arena where this phenomena plays out is in cables. One group claims that their cables "sound better" (which is subjective), and charge significant bucks for the cables. Another group finds that the cables carry a signal no better than an ordinary cable. Who do you believe? Metrics are our only arbiter.

Claims are easy to make. Measuring is hard. It's no wonder that claims hold such power in the marketplace.

Some claims fall apart more easily than others. I've often heard how amps can sound better by removing their cheap Chinese power supplies sound significantly better with replacement power supplies. That sounds good at first, but once you start thinking about it, the argument falls apart. In the brutally competitive audio marketplace, I'm expected to think that sound engineers somehow don't know that the power supply influences sound. I find that that claim dubious. If an engineer can easily get better audiophile sound with a better power supply, then they would build their equipment using a better power supply. They would talk to manufacturers to improve their cheap power supplies. Nobody's going to screw over 95% of their audio design work by using cheap parts (unless it's the lowest end consumer products, which the audiophile won't use anyway).

How do the engineers know when they've done a good job? Metrics. They know and understand the metrics. They have the tools and know-how to measure those metrics well. Using the design process, they use those metrics to get the best sound in their price range. If there's an easy and cheap way to improve sound, they do so. To think otherwise is to think the engineers amazingly stupid.

Another example of poor thinking operates around speaker materials. "This speaker is made with paper, so of course it's sounds bad. All the cheap speakers are made of papers." Compare this with, "The car is made of steel, so of course it drives bad. All cheap cars are made with steel." The materials used in a product do not determine the final quality of a product. Bad speakers are bad because they are designed that way, not because they are made from paper. Even "paper" isn't just paper. Different formulations of paper at different price points will produce different speakers. A well designed and constructed paper speaker can sound good because engineers, you remember them, record the output of those speakers and measure the distortion. If the measured distortion is too high, they redesign the speakers. Paper may be one of the indicators of quality, but by no means is paper the only indicator of quality.

Products are not made and manufactured in a vacuum. They are designed to markets with certain price points in mind. Over time, improvements are made to every level of product design. True audiophile equipment is made by mindful engineers who put their best attention into making a good products. Any easy improvement to the products have already been made. These products meet their design goals for that price point, for that market, and for that intended use. This means that, generally speaking, money becomes a good metric for quality.

Some things can't be reduced to metrics. Given a list of promises on a box, does the product deliver on those promises with your setup? How does the product compare against the competition? How do the headphones fit? How aesthetic is the unit in question? I don't know a way to measure those things.

Note that knowing this doesn't mean a thing. It won't keep you from get ripped off. We've all spent badly because metrics don't mean anything, and there's always someone willing to lie and take you lunch money at every price point. Metrics work great until somebody starts lying.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Failing Audiophile 102

I've thought of an additional issue with audiophilia, and this one's a kicker.

Science has done some great work on cognition and sight. In short, your brain scales your attention up and down depending on your free resources. If you get enough motion on a screen, for instance, you won't notice that the colors change in the background because your brain is just too busy to pick up all the detail at once. There's nothing wrong with the system, or with you, it's just that the brain has a finite processing capacity.

Now, let's talk sound. When you set up a new sound system, you listen to your new system with close attention, making it the center of your focus. Your cognition is entirely focuses on the sound coming out of that system. You notice things in the music that you never noticed before. The detail leaps out at you. You made a good purchase.

As time goes by, you don't spend your full focus on your sound. Your brain wanders. You pay more attention to lyrics or remember that you need to take the trash out. With the sound no longer the center of your attention, your brain silently drops details in the music. Your system still sounds good, but you know, it could sound better, so you buy some new cables and then listen intently. New sounds leap out at you. You've made a good purchase.

Do you see the pattern? This is exactly what I see among audiophile. "I got this new thing was it was AWESOME." The reason that it was awesome, the reason that they heard things that they never heard before, was because they were paying attention.

One audiophile thing that survives this analysis is the listening room. For those people who build their own listening rooms, having a place where they can pay attention, matters more than most gadgetry.

Am I saying that all upgrading is bad? Nope. What I am saying is that the listener affects the sound far more than they think, and that their behavior may make the biggest difference in a good sound system. It's no use buying a $20k audio system if you let yourself get distracted, only to have your brain scale it back to a $1k sound system. Your brain destroys the best specs. If you are ignorant of this phenomena, you can wind up spending money without actually improving your sound, which, I am sad to say, too many audiophiles have fallen prey to.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Failing Audiophile 101

Every time that I try to improve my overall sound system, even if by a little amount, I find my presumably educated choices as either bad, or at best low-fi. Even my wonderful Grado SR60’s come in as “low-fi” in terms of fidelity. It seems that in the sound arena, I am easily impressed and impossibly overmatched.

Or am I?

I’ve been kicking around this topic in my head for a while, and I think that I finally get why I am so happy and easily fooled by sub-par sound reproduction, and that audiophiles are so underwhelmed by my choice. The whole problem lies in psycho-accoustics. Now, psycho-acoustings aren’t deadly little sounds wandering around with knives hoping to stab you when you aren’t looking. No, psycho refers to how your mind handles something and acoustics means sound. In layman’s terms, your brain has its own internal sound processor, and the behavior of that sound processor influences your interaction with sound.

But hearing is hearing, isn’t it? Nope. You can train your ear. Beginning musicians don’t know one pitch from another, but they sort it all out and get better at pitch as time goes by. (At least, one hopes so.) If you don’t believe me, take it from the audiophiles. They firmly believe that you can train your ear to hear more than you think. As your ear doesn’t have muscles, nor does it change shape, what they must be referring to is your brain’s psyco-acoustics.

The most important thing about pschyo-acoustic profiles is that we all have them. They are invisible to us as language and sight. We take them for granted because for most of us they seem granted. This profile gives our ears expectations.  Music that agrees with this profile will seems familiar and right, while music that doesn’t will be perceived of as wrong. Most of us already know this feeling and it makes sense.

Most people have untrained psycho-acoustic profiles. Their expectations of music are born of the imperfect sound systems that they grew up with. Music that sounds like these imperfect systems will sound right while those that don’t will sound wrong. Can you see where this is going? You should.

Let’s talk about Bose. “No highs, no lows, must be Bose.” That’s the saying. Audiophile hate Bose. Bose is an overhyped product that has bad sound. Yet amazingly, Bose sells well to ignorant people who don’t know that they are being ripped off. The only explanation could be because they are fooled by advertising and don’t know better. I think that they are wrong. The explanation is far simpler.

Bose is a smart company. They want to sell the most speakers possible at a price that most people who want to go “premium” will pay. First, they price their speakers in the range that the average non-audiophile are willing to pay for. This gets them a big market share that helps them to sell speakers. Secondly, they design their speakers to keep the overall sound of bad speakers while improving the dynamics. That means that the speakers sound “right” to a non-audiophile. They sound both right and better at the same time, enabling them to sell their speakers to more people. In other words, Bose makes a product that will make the average non-audiophile very happy. They get what they are used to, but better. And when people get that, they become happy customers who talk about how wonderful their sound system is.

The average non-audiophile doesn’t explore other options for a variety of reasons, but the big his against them is that they actually improve the sound, which makes sound samples sound different to non-audiophile, which translates into “not right.” So heard side-by-side, non-audiophiles opt for the familiar over the different.

People also have a trait which I call “tolerance.” That is, how far can sound be away from your ideal form? Most people have a very high tolerance. You can change their music around and they will tolerate it. It may not sound the best, but they really don’t care. Tolerance is why most people simply don’t bother with super-duper sound systems. They don’t have the incentive to go out and spend the money. The lower your tolerance, the further that you move into the audiophile category. It’s this dissatisfaction which what you have, and the promise in technology that the puzzle of electronics can be solved to make the sound better that drives an audiophile. Upgrade your wires, change your power supply, get a higher resolution recording, build your listening room. These are all things that audiophiles can do.

$20,000 worth of audio equipment may sound absurd to most people, but most people also don’t find it absurd that you spend $100-$200 per football game or pay $30,000 for your car, or even $10,000 for granite countertops. Although spending a bundle on audio may sound extreme, compared to other passions, it costs no more. The unusual part is the choice, not the money. Additionally, all that money is not usually spent in one go. Pieces are acquired as desired. Money is saved up as needed. The price tag of an audio system should be treated more as a hobby, like football. How much do you spend per season?

A third difference between audiophiles and ordinary listeners is what they are listening for. Audiophiles tend to value accuracy, while the ordinary listener tends to value experience. If you give an ordinary user a good experience, then they will feel good about their purchase. As the ordinary user has a pretty high tolerance threshold to begin with, they aren’t going to be bothered about the inaccuracies in their purchases.

In addition, accuracy has its own problems. Whose accuracy are we talking about? When the original engineers mixed the recording, did they account for the distortions of their current tech? Will improving the accuracy work against the balance that the engineers worked so hard to achieve? Were the original engineers even concerned with accuracy? Or were they concerned with other aspects of the sound? So you can see, in the upper level ranges of reproduction, the particulars of what you want shape your system more than the technical requirements of reproducing sound.

I think that in the end, I’m a user who values the experience of his music more than the accuracy of reproduction. While I appreciate quality and accuracy, I am not always in the position to maximize it. I like good speakers in my car, but my car will never sound like a symphony hall. I like good sound in my study, but I don’t have the flexibility in my study to optimize my listening space. The speaker placement is dreadful and will remain so. Most of my listening is off of mp3’s, which further limits the maximum quality that I can get. So given my practical limits these days, aside from better headphones, I am happy with my current audio setup, even if I do have Bose 301’s as my main speakers. They good enough to make me happy, which is all that I require.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Source of Magic (1979)

With The Source of Magic (1979), the tone of this and all other Xanth books change. Gone is the sexual comedy and extremely lighthanded humor that was A Spell For Chameleon, replaced instead by a very straightforward adventure book with humorous aspects. Three henpecked men go off in search of magic, and in the course of the adventure, discover things about themselves, and so establishing the the structural basis of all other Xanth novels to come. The characters featured our hard-headed and unspeakably lucky Bink, and reprises of Chet the Centaur and Crombie the Soldier.

This was the first Xanth novel that I ever read. (At the time, there were only two, so this was pretty easy to do.) After I read this book, I went back and found A Spell for Chameleon. So to me, this was the most definitive Xanth novel ever written because I was thirteen and this book was just AWESOME and I had never read anything like it before!!! Together, these make up the only two REAL Xanth books written because all the others don't star Bink. (Yeah, can you tell I was a Bink fan?)

We still get some sexiness and some chauvinism stuff thrown in there. There's more than enough buxom to go around, Even the land of Xanth itself has cleavage with the Gap. Can you get more titty worship than that? I don't think so.

The story opens with some ill-behaved women behaving badly. Chameleon, who was at least likeably while she was ugly, even if she was rough around the edges, has become a totally unsympathetic character. Queen Iris is off the rails. And whats-her-face is trying to entrap Crombie into marriage. It's now wonder that people think that this book is mysoginist. In truth, what's going on here is an archaic comedy trope where of course husbands are henpecked by their wives. This trope, so popular in the 40's and 50's, fell out of favor during the 60's presumably because divorce had become more common and couples were no longer stuck being married to each other. In other words, it stopped being funny.

Bink wants to find the source of magic. Chester wants to discover his magic talent. Crombie looking for an alternative to Sabrina. Humphry doesn't want to go at all, but he comes along anyway to great comedic use. And finally, we get a trash talking golem named Grumby who just wants to be real. Together, they tramp along the wilds of Xanth that seemed to always have people living nearby in an episodic construction that always introduces just enough trouble to push off success until the next chapter.

You can add or remove almost any chapter from this book and not harms its execution. That's what makes this thing a straightforward action-adventure. Your goalposts are necessary and everything else is just enough filler to make the book enjoyable, although it's also long enough that it also makes the book feel a little tedious, because adventure is what keeps the characters from immediately solving their problem.

Now that I've reread both of them, I must say that A Spell for Chameleon is technically and literarily the better book. I had a blast reading it. Writing comedy is hard and Piers succeeded wonderfully. The Source of Magic, although a generally humorous read, often had the feeling of wading through filler. You know while you're reading it that the side adventures are superfluous. A good editor could hack the book in half and the reader would never notice. Even so, if you need a change of pace, I can recommend the book. Nobody is trying to take over. The fate of the world is not at stake. No great fate rests on the protagonists shoulders. No, it's just a book about somes guys wanting to find the source of magic, which is all that the book claims to be.

I declare The Source of Magic to be a fine beer and pretzels book and approved reading for all Real Men.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Piers Anthony, Sexism, and Misogyny

I've heard assertion that Piers Anthony is misogyny for quite a while now, but on examination, I just don't see that assertion proven out in his Xanth books. I'll go over my my reasons. You are, of course, free to disagree.

If Piers was a misogynistic writer, I would expect that the women in his books would get their comeuppance violently, or at least firmly. In his books, the heroes don't take the women in hand very well and do not use violence or compulsion. If Anthony is a misogynist, he's got to be quite the wishy-washyist misogynists on the planet.

Another test for misogyny is the no-win situation for women: if women have sex, they are sluts, but if they don't, they are prudes. Again, I don't see that in Anthony's books. His men aren't constantly putting women into no-win situations. I don't see slut shaming. His characters don't utter verbal violence. I don't detect any sort of trollish behavior at all (other than as character traits for certain characters). That's another strike against misogyny.

I'm not satisfied yet, so I'll ask another question: if I was a misogynist, would I get any satisfaction from reading these Xanth books? Honestly, I don't think so. There is one character who is a woman hater in one story, but he's just one character among many, with a remainder who don't utter hatred of women, and the woman-hating character doesn't even hog the screen time. In the end, the woman-hater gets married, which is a very strange fate for a man in a misogynistic book. I don't see that fate appealing to a woman hater. So, a basic failure to appeal to the misogynistic audience strongly indicates that the books are not misogynistic.

As I've just reread Anthony's early Xanth books, I find that the women there are depicted to in a highly objectified style reminiscent of  pinup girls from the 40's or 50's. Piers's humor reminds me of the type of gender humor that you hear in mid-century radio comedies and films. When I checked up on Piers Anthony's age, the result confirmed my observation. He was born in the thirties to become a teenage in the late 40's through the 50's. In other words, his depiction of women in the Xanth books is consistent with the cultural female narrative that dominated the United States in the mid-20th century.

There's a word for the male attitude towards women in the mid-20th century. That word is "sexist." It is this very narrative of sexism that led to feminism and bra-burning. The male culture asserted a narrative of women which asserted that women were shallow, assigned women the traits of illogic and nonsense, that a man was doomed to love a woman, and that once he caught her he'd have to put up with all her feminine silliness. The ultimate sexual purpose of a woman was to be available to her man. It's that narrative that I see in the early Xanth books.

In A Spell For Chameleon, young Bink goes around the countryside bumping into women, having all sorts of nearly-erotic adventures, meeting all sorts of women making (or not making) all sorts of enticing offers. The work itself is a flat-out sexual tour-de-force making fun of the sexual revolution. Bink doesn't have magic (he's a virgin), wants to find his magic (lose his virginity), and so goes on a long quest which ends with him getting laid. Of the many offers for sex he does get, they all come with catches, so buyer beware. In all instances, the women were't what they seemed, so keeping it his pants on proved pretty smart. In The Source of Magic, the story begins with three henpecked husbands who had discovered that their perfect girls weren't so perfect, and so happily went off on an adventure to get away from their shrews. This once common comedic trope died upon meeting feminism and the easy availability of divorce. That very comedic trope only works in the context of sexism.

In Anthony's later works, where he discovered that he had a much younger audience for his books, he toned down the sexuality and played up the teenage anxiety. The man wasn't dumb and his books sold, sold, sold to both boys and girls.That's a weird thing if your misogyny causes girls to flock to you books.

Are any of Piers Anthony's other books misogynistic? I can't fully answer that question because I haven't read everything that he's written. You can safely assume that anything from the 70's was sexist simply because his target audience was young professional men, but can you assume misogyny? On further investigation, I would certainly expect to find misogynistic tropes, because these were fairly common in the era, but you need more than a trope to make a misogynistic work. Misogyny is not incidental, occurring here and there, but structural, laid deeply into the structure of the work.

So my opinion is that Piers Anthony write sexist books but not misogynistic books. I can't definitively proclaim that his sexism transformed or softened over the years, but it is my opinion that he did grow more inclusive as the years went by, lessening the sexism as he learned that he had a wider audience.

Addition: 7/1/2017

Way back in the 80's, I remembered a great number of women who loved the Xanth series. If it was so sexist and mysogynistic, why did those women like it?

In the land of Xanth, everybody had magic, even women. Anyone could be born with magician level magic, even women. Women had job. Women were heroes, villains, companions, hazards, and monsters. In Xanth, women could literally be anything.

Piers Anthony may have been sexist, but Xanth itself was feminist. At a time when women in fantasy were a strange sight, the Xanth novels brimmed with women in every sort of role. Because Piers began with the most sexist stereotypes, but strove to never repeat characters, as he wrote more novels, the variety of his female characters increased. Xanth became more inclusive over time.

So, as you consider whether something is sexist, keep in mind that sexism is not a binary. Some parts of a work can be sexist while others parts can be egalitarian or feminist.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Chevy Impala 1979

After my dad's Ford Grenada caught fire and took itself to a fiery grave, he bought a 1979 Chevy Impala coup. This car came the closest of any car that I've ever driven to being a class '70's sex machine. If any teenager but me had been driving this car, it would have been going 90 in a school zone and not stopping at the crosswalks. He bought a dark blue one, same color as the blue one below. Judging by the images that I've found, it must have been a favorite to soup up. I can attest to its potential. Even stock, that car wanted to go.

Don't ask me whether it was the 6-cylinder or the 8-cylinder. I don't know.

I got to drive this car in high school primarly because my sister was afraid of its size. It was too big for her. (These days she drives an SUV, so go figure.) That left me cruizing down to the local library in style. Too bad nobody back then appreciated it.

You can see from the images that the interior was nothing special. It was your standard, psuedo-luxury fare, meant more to feel like luxury than actually be luxury. It even had a few surviving panels of wood-like material that spoke loudly but unconvinciingly about luxury.

The only real trouble that I had on this car was after stage crew one winter night. I left from school and went to turn left at the stop sign. Little did I know that black ice lay on the intersections, so the next thing that I knew, I was going sideway. These days I would just have drifted through it, but back then I didn't know better, so I turned the week and pressed the gas, sending me off to one side and into oncoming traffic. I could have corrected, but just then a car came around the turn and I didn't want a front end collision. Turning the wheel again, I went off the road at a 90 degree angle, blammed over the curb and stopped in an empty plot. Fortunately there was no damage as I wasn't going that fast. I also completely missed those pesky telephone poles that leap out to wreck cars.

Of all the cars that I've driven, this is the only one that I would take now, just for the fun.

I can't tell you what happened to the car. I figure that dad got rid of it when it got too expensive (disposable American car that it was). His next car was a Mitsubishi of some vintage that I haven't figured out yet.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ford Grenada 1976

After driving a Chevy wagon for six years or so, just enough to pay it off and for the shitty American engineering begin breaking down, my dad bought a Ford Grenada. My guess is the year 1976, give or take a few. I don't remember what I felt about the wagon going away, but I do remember being excited by the new car. What's not to get excited about?

What my father bought was a green Grenada, which looked remarkably like the picture below. It even had the same icky white roof and uninspired interior. (There were designs that the 70's strove to forget, and this was among them.) At the time, they were pretty normal, so it all seemed spiffy. As the roof was this textured vinyl stuff, dirt got into it, so keeping the top clean actually took a fair amount of scrubbing. If it wasn't for these pictures, I would be hard pressed to sketch a picture of this car.

The image below is from the Gia variant, but the dashboard is pretty much the same. I don't know what kind of wood the dashboard was trying to imitate, and to this day, I remain befuddled.

There are many details that I've forgotten, like that arm rest in the middle and the cushiony looking doors.

I partly learned to drive on the car. It had power steering, so it was pretty easy to turn the wheel. (At least, I think that I learned to drive with this. Memory is funny that way. I may just remember sitting behind the wheel and pretending.) The thing had no power to talk about, it being a family car and all that. Ours was an automatic, of course, because mom did not drive stick.

I was in this car when we had its only accident. My mother was taking a carload of kids to school in a car pool when someone pulled out in from of her while she was going 25 mph. I was sitting in the middle of the front seat for the ride. I saw the hood crumple as I bent over. Before I could sit back up, my mother pulled me up in a complete panic, horrified that I might be hurt. If that had been true, she would have done more damage to me than the collisions. I'm happy to say that the car survived with just a bit of love and money.

This car ultimately met its end on the beltway while I was in high school. My dad was driving home when the engine decided to catch fire. He got out and watched it burn. After that, he bought a used Chevy.