Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What I'm Playing: Papers, Please

It finally happened, you guys. I bit the bullet and installed Steam. I could no longer resist the siren song of all the indie games available on the platform. Grudgingly, I have expanded my PC gaming beyond Wesnoth and Minecraft!

JV was over the moon about this and got me some Steam credit for Christmas. I sat on it until the Winter Sale, and immediately pounced on Papers, Please. This was a game I first heard about via NPR. Considering that NPR reports on games once every never, that's how you know this is a must-play game.

Jorji is my favorite. 
People talk a lot about video games as art these days. Gamers in particular (a demographic I only tangentially belong to, if that) often get their undies in a bunch over the perceived legitimacy of their favorite pastime. I've always found that irritating, to be honest. Here's a hint: people aren't treating you like a child because you like video games. It's because you're acting like a child in every other respect

That's a rant for another day, though. What was I talking about? Video games! Art! 

There's never going to be a satisfactory definition for art ("Art"). It will always include things that still don't pass the "sniff test"; it will always exclude things that by all rights belong. But playing Papers, Please got me to thinking about Art and how it applies to video games. I had three different friends who don't know each other at all tell me on three different platforms that when it comes to video games as art/Art, Papers Please is a prime candidate. The last game I had heard people talk about in the same way was Heavy Rain. What is it about these games that connects them to art? What about them is different from other games? 

Even though I just said there's never going to be a satisfactory definition for Art, I'm going to circle back to that for a moment and propose a rough definition here: successfully and meaningfully conveying an experience. If only because that is what Papers, Please does well, and in particular what makes its gameplay aspects so crucial to that conveyance.

If we are going to talk about video games as art, beyond just the escapist route of games-as-narrative-method, then I think that is the route writers and developers are going to need to go. We have plenty of story-telling media: books, movies, graphic novels, etc. But they are all one-way, top-down experiences; games are inherently interactive. Even when there is just one narrative in the game and one ending you can get, you play and progress the story of a game differently than the story in a movie or a novel progresses. 

People have started to see the value of games by introducing choice elements into the story. Fable is a classic example of this: as you make good or evil choices, the story and your appearance change accordingly. Of course, the problem with Fable and other games that hopped on that MORAL CHOICES!! bandwagon is that the moral choices are painfully stark (my perennial favorite Jade Empire is guilty of this as well): do you save the children from the burning orphanage or let loose another fireball so it burns all the faster?

Much realism. So moral. Very wow.

Moral choices like that are now par for the course with many Western RPGs these days, and thankfully have become a bit better implemented. Stopping at this trick of moral choices isn't really enough to successfully and meaningfully convey experience, though, even if it is the first step of connecting the player to the game beyond mere clicking or button mashing.

Heavy Rain took this idea of "outcome of game events changing the story" and applied in a slightly different way that nonetheless made a lot of difference. No longer is it about moral choices, or at least, only moral choices: Heavy Rain is also about your success and failure. How well you handle a task can change the track of the story.

But did Heavy Rain "successfully and meaningfully convey an experience"? That is harder to say. The draw of Heavy Rain is in the story, which I can say without spoilers is dramatic and intense and kind of fucked-up right from the get-go. Even with the different endings (I think there are four or five?) and the player-story interaction, the gameplay is still primarily a means of taking you through a preset story, even though you can now effect it in more meaningful ways than many other games. The fact that the narrative is still the artistic focus of Heavy Rain is underscored by the fact that there are already noises about adapting it for a live-action movie. (It would be a great movie. I would watch it.) The story of the game is what's "Art" about it, not the gameplay aspect. This is highlighted by the fact that rather than play through the game itself, I looked up the ending online. I didn't want to have the protracted experience of playing the game; I just wanted to finish the story.

That is where Papers, Please differs from Heavy Rain. By taking one narrow aspect of life—working as a border control agent—and gamifying it, Papers, Please  manages to convey the stress, confusion, and moral ambiguity of working as a government agent who is simultaneously a tiny cog in a massive machine and the arbiter of people's lives and even deaths. There is a general track that the "story" takes: some of the papers you process will be randomly generated, but others will more or less repeat. There are always triggered events that will shorten work days, lead to new rules and regulations, and sometimes both. Like Heavy Rain, how well you manage these events has an effect on the world at large, the bulk of which you only read in headlines. If you deny or allow a known sex trafficker, dozens of dancers at a sketchy nightclub are murdered. But if you manage to get him detained, you break up a sex-trafficking ring.

The experience conveyed by Papers, Please is one that is well-suited to the challenges and stresses of a video game environment. There is not overmuch of a story here, no well-paced plot with rising action, climax, and denouement. It, like life, is just an endless series of puzzles, with themes or miniature stories here and there, and stress. Lots and lots of stress. You couldn't adapt it to a movie or a novel and have the same experience. Papers, Please has to be a game, in a way that Heavy Rain doesn't.

There is also an endless mode, with a few different submodes:

I haven't tried any of them yet. I want to clear all of the story mode endings first.

What else should I get in Steam's Winter Sale, you guys? For Linux, please!!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

What I'm Reading: A House for Mr. Biswas

Sometimes I read a book that has a cool idea, but I wish the writing were sharper and better. Other times I read a book with marvelous writing, but the story the author wanted to tell is just not a story I want to read.

So it goes with A House For Mr. Biswas. Mohun I supposed to like him? Feel sorry for him? Feel contempt? Are the problems in his life there because he has no ability to defend or stick up for himself? Or are they there because of his family of in-laws?

Mr. Biswas begins life as an ill-fortuned baby and it all goes downhill from there. You find it very hard to root for him, though. I'm reminded of those romantic comedy plots where there is only drama because the characters won't sit down and talk to each other, thus letting the misunderstandng boil over into comedy. ("Comedy.") I hate those plotlines and I can never stand to watch movies or read books based on those sorts of misunderstandings because they are just so easily avoided in real life. I have the same frustration with M. Biswas. His marriage and all the resulting problems could have been avoided if he had just said the damn words, "No, I don't want to marry your daughter."

He gets harder to like as the book goes on, as everything that is wrong in his life he traces back being forced to relate to his wife (whom he never seems to like, ever) and his in-laws (who afford him zero respect). Maybe Mr. Biswas is intended to be a buffoon, someone we don't like but someone we laugh at. If that is the case, he is still too well-meaning to really be a satisfying laughing-stock. His store closes because he extends too much credit to customers; he makes sure to visit his daughter to lives at the in-laws house in the next town over and to check that she's not getting beatings or awful food. It doesn't feel good to laugh at someone like that; Biswas is no Ignatious J. O'Reilly.

There is just something so repulsive about the book that reading it has become a chore (which it usually isn't for me). It started off well but it has become tedious. It's the only English-language book I have on my person for our upcoming Christmas trip to the farm, though, so I expect I'll power through whether I want to or not. At least being at the farm I'm likely to finish it faster than I would otherwise.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Super-Exciting Winter Solstice Announcement!

I've been sitting on this for a while, but everything has been finalized and set in order so I can tell you all:

Kokoba jewelry is available for sale in the Da Vinci Center gift shop!

The Da Vinci Center is a hands-on science museum for kids and families in Allentown, PA, not far at all from where I grew up. It has lots of great activities and exhibits, and most importantly we share similar visions: making science (and math!) fun and accessible. The Da Vinci Center was also a huge part of my growing-up years, though not in the form it is today. Prior to this funky new building, the Da Vinci Center was known as the SMART center and operated out of nearby Lehigh University, where they broadcast footage for the JASON project. As an elementary school student, I attended some of their JASON project broadcasts at Lehigh University (and even had the t-shirt for YEARS afterwards to prove it!). Later, they moved off Lehigh Campus into their own building (that had previously been part of Bethlehem Steel), called the Discovery Center, and I had a few memorable field trips there as well: I remember crawling around in a dark labyrinth, a static electricity display, landfills, and more. As of 2005, the center runs in its own new building on the Cedar Crest College campus. Stop by and wave hello to my jewelry display if you're ever in the Lehigh Valley!

I hope to have pictures of the display to show you guys soon. From everything I've heard about it, it looks great!

Friday, December 19, 2014

Five Fandom Friday: My Must-See List of Christmas Movies

This 5 Fandom Friday is inspiring a lot of classics in other posts, but to be honest I'm not much of a Christmas classics fan. Some of my choices will be a little....odd.

1. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

But really, is Christmas complete without this Rankin-Bass gem? No. No, it isn't. Burl Ives' singing is enough to make me feel better no matter how stressed or freaked-out I'm feeling.

2. The Charlie Brown Christmas Special

I think this one and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were the only specials we watched regularly. The soundtrack also got heavy play during Christmas, which is fine by me.

3. The MST3K Santa Claus/Santa Claus Conquers the Martians double-header

True, Thanksgiving and its Turkey Day Marathon is like the High Holy Day for MSTies, but there's no shortage of (if by "no shortage of" you mean "two") Christmas episodes to enjoy once you've woken up from your Thanksgiving food coma.

4. The RiffTrax Christmas marathon

Mike, Kevin, and Bill (you don't know how hard it was NOT to type "Mike, Tom, and Crow," or maybe you do) have really outdone themselves on digging up really creepy old holiday shorts. JV and I are particularly fond of Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, Santa's Village of Madness, Christmas Rhapsody, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, and A Christmas Dream. All of those, I can assure you, are as bizarre as they sound. Bonus points go to Nestor for being the bleakest, grimmest Christmas special I can imagine...and it's by Rankin and Bass! 

5. The Big Lebowski

Okay, so I skipped from Christmas to New Year's. Yes, for me, The Big Lebowski is a New Year's staple. I don't know why, except that it's a movie that bears up under rewatching and also goes well with booze.

What movies do you have to watch during the holidays?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Trek Thursday: The Deadly Years

#44: The Deadly Years

In case you forgot: The Power Trio gets old. Really old. There's also some drama with the Romulans and THE NEUTRAL ZONE!!! but of course it all gets solved by Kirk.

Sometimes the science in Star Trek is just shaky. Other times it's ridiculous. That is this episode's biggest flaw, and why it isn't rated higher: while a virus that ages you prematurely is shaky (not necessarily outside the realm of possibility; at the least it sounds plausible), the episode's adrenaline cure is total nonsense. Adrenaline doesn't magically shield you from viruses, guys...

Much like the science, Kirk's leadership is by turns inspired and idiotic. Like, has he not heard of a quarantine? The infection shouldn't have spread as quickly as it did if he had followed good medical protocol. But his decision to use old, decoded frequency to bluff the Romulans into backing the hell off is excellent captaining. Would that Kirk was always that on the ball—but then, it'd be rather boring television, wouldn't it?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Read Play Blog: My Gaming Wishlist

Read Play Blog is a meme about video games and books, posted every 16th of the month. Bloggers are encouraged to answer a discussion question, recommend a video game that they like, and share what they're currently playing. Hosted by Happy Indulgence Books & Read Me Away!

My Gaming Wishlist

JV has a solid PS3 library. There is a short list of games in it that I still need/want to finish: Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2, Little Big Planet 1 & 2, Fallout New Vegas, 3D Dot Heroes, Bayonetta, Sengoku Basara, and others I'm sure I'm forgetting. (I've finished Ni no Kuni; I haven't hit 100% on the trophies or finished all the postgame content, but I beat the story, so I'm counting it as finished, even if I'm still grinding for 100%,  haha.) As a result, there aren't a whole lot of recent-ish releases that I'm desperate to acquire because JV already owns most of them. Instead what I could really do with are some of the few consoles we don't have.

JV has a Retron 3, which plays SNES, NES, and Genesis/Megadrive games, so we have a whole boatload of retro stuff covered. He also has a DreamCast, a GameCube, a PS2, a PS3, and an Xbox 360. Out of the ones we're missing right now, the one I would love to get the most is the Wii. Or Wii U, I guess. My brother got a Wii for the family soon after its release and I built up a small library of games. But because I was also moving around internationally soon after we got it (going back and forth between the US and South Korea), I didn't get to devote a lot of time to gaming after I graduated in 2008. As a result, I've missed most of the Wii library except Guitar Hero, No More Heroes, Ookami, Super Mario Galaxy, and Trauma Center. I have no idea what's out and available for the Wii U now, and I don't particularly care, but anything that plays Wii games is fine by me!

I've been even less diligent in keeping up with portable gaming. I have my GBA SP, and that's about it. I could use a DS and catch up on all the new portable games I'm missing out on. It finally feels like I have the time again! (Until classes and work both start again in January. Sigh...)

My recommendation

This is a stretch this month, I suppose, but I was just thinking the other day how Jade Empire is clearly the best game that BioWare has ever done (oh yeah, I went there) and how it's too bad we'll never see a sequel or even another game set in the same universe because they're too busy milking that Mass Effect cash cow. But maybe, someday, if we can all convince EA that it would make megabucks, we'll see another Jade Empire game. If you haven't played it, you should! It has probably one of the best combat systems ever devised.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Five Fandom Friday: Presents I Want Santa to Bring Me

Honestly, at this moment in time the things on the top of my list are a laserjet printer and a heavy-duty laminator, but that's basically interesting and exciting only to me (oh, the thrilling life of a freelance English tutor). So putting aside practicality....

5 Presents I Want Santa to Bring Me

#1. A new apartment (and all of the new hobbies that would entail).

Haha, a girl can dream, right? Our apartment right now is cheap and conveniently located, but it is far, far too small to accommodate all of the hobbies of both myself and JV. Ideally we'd have an office for each of us (since we both do a lot of work from home) plus bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bath. (And a guest bedroom but let's not get carried away here.)

If I had my own space, I would be able to do a lot more with my jewelry: take better photos, get more work done, learn new skills. Plus, I could finally start moving the last of my stuff books from my parents' house over here.

I guess this one was a boring and practical choice, too. Sorry!

#2. A treadmill desk + a home gym.

I guess I know that I'm an adult now, because everything I can think of is so...dull. But I would die if, in the new apartment he brought me, Santa left me a treadmill desk and a home gym in my office. (And one for JV, too, ideally.) I don't like how much I sit all day, and I hear that once you get used to them, a treadmill desk is more comfortable than just sitting all day.

As for the home gym, weight training was always my favorite part of high school gym class. We had block scheduling in my high school, so we had four periods of 90 minutes each instead of whatever it is most high schools have. But that meant gym class was long enough that we spent half of it on some dumb sport (almost always volleyball, fucking volleyball) and then half in the weight room. The weight room was the best part and honestly it should have been the entire phys ed class. I think I might have actually enjoyed gym class, then!

In any case, you never know when the zombie apocalypse is going to strike. I'm never going to be the world's buffest, fittest person, but I'd at least like to survive the zombie apocalypse.

#3. Electric violin/piano (with headphone jack, of course).

One of the hazard of apartment living (which is a reality when you live in a city like Stockholm; a house is simply out of the question) is dealing with noise. JV and I both strive to be good neighbors, so an electric violin or piano (or both, Santa!!) is the perfect solution to "how do I practice without also irritating everyone within earshot?" Especially with the violin. That is not an instrument that fares well under beginner hands. And despite all the years I played in the school orchestra, I'm essentially a beginner.

#4. A personal assistant.

Paperwork is the worst. So are phones. I would love to never have to fill out a form, or make a phone call, or worry about this or that card expiring for the rest of my life. I don't care if it's an elf or a human or a troll or a goblin....just as long as it's someone who can get the job done.

#5. All of the jewelry supplies.

I mean this quite literally: a bag of holding with every type of high-quality beads, files, rivets, silk, pliers, steel-coated nylon, findings, etc. imaginable. There is nothing more frustrating than when I'm working on a design and I realize that I don't have enough beads left! I have yet to find a good bead shop in Stockholm (it's either high-end jewelry stores selling off bits of their stock, or cheap-o hobby shops), so that means I have to order FROM THE INTERNET, which simply does not have the same kind of immediate gratification. Plus there's so much I want to do with metals as well. If I could have a bag of holding to fit all the supplies, that would be the next-best thing to a new apartment.

What about you?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Trek Thursday: A Taste of Armageddon

#45: A Taste of Armageddon

In case you forgot: Starfleet wants to establish diplomatic relations with Eminiar, a planet that is in the midst of a war with neighboring planet Vendikar. Despite being warned away, a pompous diplomat insists the Enterprise beam down and help him establish normal diplomatic relations. Turns out the war is being fought by computers (cool!) but people still die (...what?). In a wacky turn of events, the entire crew of the Enterprise has been determined to be among the casualties of the latest attack and the leader of Eminiar seems pretty hellbent on sending them all to the disintegration chamber. Kirk and Spock destroy the computers and leave the diplomat behind to negotiate peace between the two planets.

The base idea behind this one—fighting a war that exists only on a computer but still taking it deadly seriously—isn't a bad one. It's one of the more interesting conceits that's cropped up in the galaxy. I feel like I'm going to be saying that a lot over the course of this series: "It was an interesting idea...

...but the execution is awful."  If Eminiar and Vendikar are so "civilized," they would surely understand that an outside party not part of their agreement to a permanent WarGames state of affairs wouldn't be beholden to its rules. Anan's obsession with disintegrating the crew of the Enterprise is, quite frankly, pretty stupid. It feels very shoehorned in there. Boderline backassing.

Anan also talks a big game about preserving "civilization," but losing three million people a year would do a lot to disrupt civilization and whatever kind of "development" you care to count. I guess they're spared the agony of a slow death, or a life permanently disabled by some devastating injury, but that's a tiny silver lining on a very big, bleak black cloud.

Also, those hats.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Classics Club December Meme: Children's Classics

Let’s talk about children’s classics! Did you read any classic works as a child? What were your favorites? If not, have you or will you try any classic children’s literature in the future? (We’re aware children often read at an adult level. Please feel free to share adult OR children’s classics that you treasured in childhood OR children’s works that you've recently fallen for.)

Lawyer Mom jokes that I "came out of the womb reading." And while I was a gifted kid and an advanced reader, I never considered myself above children's literature. Mostly because I didn't really think of anything as being "for kids" as opposed to "for adults." I read whatever I could get my hands on. There are a whole host of books that I've read and forgotten, but there are still some that I love even today.

1. The Chronicles of Narnia

I remember getting a copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe from a bookfair as a kid. I don't know how we didn't already own the series, since Lawyer Mom is a big fan of C. S. Lewis, but there you have it. In any case, I got the rest of the books shortly thereafter and devoured them all. The world-building, the characters, and the magic absolutely entranced me. 

My only gripe was that I was disappointed with The Final Battle but then again, isn't everyone? Even without fully comprehending what Lewis was saying about Susan Pevensie and her belief as opposed to the rest of her siblings, it felt like a weak, skim milk version of the good stuff that had come before. And then what I realized what was really going on with Susan, I liked it even less.

That doesn't diminish my love of the rest of the books. They are a permanent part of my library.

2. The Phantom Tollbooth

I can't remember if I asked for this book or received it from a particularly insightful adult, but I know that I first read my own copy in the third grade (probably the summer before), and read it so often that the paperback cover is nearly off now. I wrote a book report on it, complete with a cover of traced art that I was inordinately proud of.

There were a few jokes here and there that I don't think I understand the first time I read it, but there were many that I did, like the feast of eating your words or jumping to conclusions or being stuck in the doldrums. I had never, even when I was little, cared for cartoonish slapstick or gross-out humor. The Phantom Tollbooth is the perfect, Platonic ideal of the kinds of things I found especially funny when I was small. More importantly, it is a children's book that does not talk down to its readers. I was also very aware of being condescended to and very resistant to that idea; The Phantom Tollbooth, I could tell, was not a book that thought I was stupid.

3. The Secret Garden

This is another paperback that is basically falling apart. I also loved Burnett's A Little Princess but it's The Secret Garden that is really timeless for me. I always thought the rags to riches end of A Little Princess was a bit too contrived, even as a kid; maybe the same could be said for Colin's "miraculous" recovery in The Secret Garden but as Mary quite rightly points out, he was never really that sick to begin with.

I remember being SO EXCITED about watching the movie in class (in sixth grade, I think) but then getting very annoyed that they seemed to have added some kind of dopey love stuff in it, with Mary and Dickon, that was never in the book. I also remember the first time I saw the musical and got quite annoyed that they added a romance, this time the unrequited love of Dr. Craven, that was not in the books.

4. The Dark is Rising

One of the most underrated YA fantasy series of all time? Yes, quite possibly. And, like The Secret Garden, victim of an inferior movie reinterpretation.

I don't even know what else I can say about this series, except that it's (obviously) one of my favorites and even rereading it as an adult (which I've done a few times) is magical.

5. Harriet the Spy

Yet another bad movie adaptation. Unlike The Secret Garden, which I didn't see until it was on video, I saw Harriet the Spy in theaters. I'm pretty sure it was for a birthday, and I went with Lawyer Mom (and maybe two neighbor girls? or maybe I invited them but they didn't go so it was only me and Lawyer Mom?) and I was so excited.

And then so disappointed. So much had been left out of the script, and other stuff even changed. There was bitter resentment in my 10-year-old breast, and it never really lifted. I knew, then, that trusting the movies with your favorite books was risky business.

6. Roald Dahl anything

Despite all the "yourfaveisproblematic" issues with Dahl, I can't deny that I loved him as a kid. Any list of childhood classics would, for me, be incomplete without his name. I would borrow his books from a neighbor kid at the bottom of the hill whom I otherwise loathed with every fiber of my being—that's how much I loved Dahl. I have no idea why I didn't have any of my own copies of his books, or why I didn't ask for any. To date I think the only Dahl novel I own is Danny the Champion of the World, and that one isn't even my favorite. That award goes to Matilda. I have to admit, thanks to that book I hoped for crazy telekinetic powers. I related a lot to Matilda and figured if being smart gave HER powers, I would get some too! Nope.

It goes without saying that Matilda is another member of the "favorite books that got terrible film adaptations" club.

Oh, there are so many more, I could go on for ages. Cheaper by the Dozen, Little House on the Prairie, The Wind in the Willows, Anne of Green Gables...but I think I need to stop myself here.

I know YA has become the hot new thing these days, but I've been avoiding that train, so there's nothing recent I've been into, save Throne of Glass. I'm sure that will become a beloved childhood read for lots of people; I just think I'm past that impressionable childhood + teen years age where the things you love you REALLY love and shape your personality and tastes forever. I read all of the books on this list before the age of 10 so they're forever part of my childhood.

What are your favorite children's classics? You can see other responses at the Classics Club's December meme post!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Five Fandom Friday: My Favorite Holiday Songs

I am neutral about Christmas. I don't particularly mind decorations and things going up in November (or even October) and I don't get crabby over people wishing me a Merry Christmas or a Happy Holidays or whatever. But I am also not Buddy the Elf.

As someone with Resting Bitch Face, I can assure you: smiling is NOT my favorite.

What I like about every holiday around the end of the year is the universal theme of light and, consequently, fellowship: sure, it's the coldest, darkest time of the year (in temperate, Northern Hemisphere climates, anyway), but the light's going to come back and things are going to get better! Let's remember to be nice to each other while it's dark and freezing out!

 And while daylight was never something I really thought about when I lived in the States, it's something I notice a lot more now in Stockholm. The shortest day at my latitude in the US is about 9 hours long. Here it's 6. (And, since dawn and dusk are still middling light, it feels much more like 4 or 5 hours.) So the holidays are, for me, something darker, serious, more subdued.

That said, I have somewhat schizophrenic taste in Christmas music. I like both the really somber, dramatic traditional carols, but as far as popular holiday music goes, my tastes run a little more cheerful (at least in terms of sound). I also appreciate the recent hits that pair pretty sardonic lyrics with an otherwise chipper tune:

1. Father Christmas (The Kinks)

I grew up listening to the oldies station (which is now another generic "classic rock" station with nothing predating 1967 or so, sigh). There were a load of holiday songs that would get 24/7 rotation, but there are only a couple I still like today:

2. Snoopy's Christmas (The Royal Guardsmen)

3. Silver Bells (too many damn artists to count)

4. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (The Jackson 5)

I hate, hate, hate Santa Claus is Comin' to Town but the Jackson 5 version is too damn catchy. Even if the lyrics remain creepy as hell. Dat Motown.

5. Carol of the Bells/Shchedryk (Mykola Leontovych)

I love just about any version of this song (shout-out to Christmas Eve Sarejevo 12/24 from Trans-Siberian Orchestra), but I thought I'd present a lower-key a cappella arrangement, as the song was originally written for vocal performance.

The opening bars are from a pre-Christian chant for the new year (celebrated in April in Ukraine, way back in the day) but the rest is an adaptation Leontovych wrote as a homework assignment. Dang.

What are your favorite holiday songs?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Trek Thursday: All Our Yesterdays

#46: All Our Yesterdays

In case you forgot: The Enterprise's mission is to warn the people of Sarpeidon that their doom is imminent, as their sun is about to supernova. The Power Trio beams down only to find the planet bereft of people except one librarian and assorted robotic versions of himself. Turns out that everyone on Sarpeidon already knows about their dying, exploding sun; it seems they sunk their science into time travel rather than interstellar space exploration and have escaped their doom by hiding in the planet's past. Of course the Power Trio get sucked into the past, too—Kirk into some kind of Puritan witchhunt, Bones and Spock into an ice age—but they resolve it just in time. Also, Spock falls in love.

The "time travel as a means to escape the present" idea is probably in my list of top ten coolest throwaway ideas ever used on Star Trek. That's the stuff entire series of novels are written about. But Trek uses it as the Monster of the Week. This was one of two contributions of Jean Lisette Aoreste, not a writer by trade but rather a librarian. (The other episode she wrote was Is There in Truth No Beauty? which we'll come to later in this countdown.) Judging by her skimpy Wikipedia entry, she seemed to have stuck with librarying as there scant little about her online. The last I can find on her is that she was co-editor on Directory of scholarly and research publishing opportunities: a guide to academic publishing opportunities in the humanities, social sciences, and science and technology. in  1971.

Despite such a strong and interesting premise, the story quickly flounders. There is idiot ball all over All Our Yesterdays. The entire adventure happens because the librarian (hah, weird to think about there being a librarian character in this script, considering who wrote it) doesn't realize that the Power Trio has their own escape route and is incredibly pushy about getting them out. Then Spock somehow "regressing" to a previous state of Vulcan evolution? What? Just so that he can have the alien girl of the week? Weak.

Kirk's adventure is more bearable, but not by much. Not enough to save this episode.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

What I'm Reading: Steppenwolf

This is a departure from my TIME Top 100 list, which is rare for me these days when it concerns ~literature~, but 1) I started reading it in Swedish and had a hell of a time but got my curiosity piqued and 2) it was available (in English!) at the library branch where I needed to return A Clockwork Orange when nothing else was. And you can't expect me to return a library book without immediately checking out another! Also, 3) its format as a "found manuscript" intrigues me greatly, as that was the style of the NaNo I just finished this year and I'm always on the lookout for sources of inspiration to draw from, especially now as it's time to start revising (the hardest part of writing).

The translator's note indicates that this is an updated translation and makes some notes about the faults with the prior one, and specific changes made (particularly with regards to the German Mensch). I haven't read the previous translation so I can't comment on it in particular, but if you tried reading this before and didn't like it, I would suggest giving this new translation a go. Unless you've tried David Horrock's translation for Penguin Books, in which case, this book is just Not For You.

This edition also comes with loads of footnotes explaining the numerous literary and otherwise references throughout, which does a lot to elucidate the nature of the titular character, Harry Haller the "Steppenwolf." 

Hesse is one of my favorites. I feel like most disaffected, cynical youth say that, but he really is. Siddhartha is one of my all-time favorites (if I absolutely have to pick a favorite book); it definitely left a mark. I've also read Demian, which is okay, but I have yet to tackle Hesse's masterpiece, The Glass Bead Game

I'm still early on into the book so it's hard to comment otherwise. And again, as with many classics, I don't often feel up to the task of a review. I just like to keep track of what I'm reading and generally what I think about things.

What are you reading?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

NaNoWriMo RePo

(NaNoWriMo reflection post, that is.)

NaNoWriMo has been over for a grand total of two days now. I meant to post something about it yesterday, but well, I got caught up in reading a paper about diabetic rat testicles and before you knew it was time to go to bed because JV had an early day today.

I won NaNoWriMo this year, as I mentioned in passing a few days ago. Out of all the years I've attempted it (I think it's six, now?) this was by far my most successful. I managed to blaze past the 50k finish line very early on, like by November 9th, though I kept that under my hat because I'm not one for bragging (...much!). As I mentioned earlier, my total NaNo word count ended up at around 74,000 words. The entire manuscript (including the bits I wrote before December) is around 86,000. A good length for a novel.

I was, among other things, a minion this year, too. Theoretically it was my job to help the MLs at events, which I thought might be stressful but in reality turned out to be no less stressful than attending the event as a regular WriMo. I guess because NaNo is something so self-directed ("Okay guys, show up and....write!") it's pretty easy to manage an event once it gets started.

The one event I did basically coorganize (with the help of another minion) was the Halloween Head Start Night/Head Start Day double header. The plan was to have a meeting/unofficial write-in at a cafe on Halloween night and, at midnight, start a mad dash of words until closing time (2 AM), then have another write-in on the afternoon of November 1st. (It's really convenient when NaNo starts on a weekend!) That was the most stress I had during NaNo, mostly because we hadn't done anything like it before and the cafe where we meet that's usually empty at 1 pm on a weekday was packed to the gills on a Friday night. Apparently people in Stockholm would rather fika on a weekend than go out and get hammered, who knew?

The next day was no less stressful as I had no idea that one of our attendees (and newcomer to the group/event) uses a wheelchair, and the cafe we chose is not wheelchair-accessible. I felt like an ass on many levels for that one. You want everyone to feel welcome and thought of when you run an event like this, and I don't know that the group has ever faced that particular challenge before. (Let me assure you: much of Stockholm is very much not designed for wheelchairs.)

Otherwise the events went really well. They were both well-attended and while we were waiting for midnight (in costume!), everyone managed to fill the panic jar with lots and lots of great ideas, one-liners, plot twists, etc. that saw a lot of use in the Stockholm regional forum's panic jar thread.

(The panic jar being a jar full of quotes and scraps and plot twists and etc. that you can turn to in your hour of need/writer's block. It is a popular tool for NaNo and I highly recommend making one for yourself/your region/your writer's circle/etc. For the Stockholm region, it resides with resident overacheiving minion, Jo.)

Now I know, however, and we can better prepare for next year! I would like to make the Halloween Head Start Night a proper overnight/all-day event. There are loads of Scout cabins you can rent in and around Stockholm (including one in the park behind my apartment building), which is what we already do for the Night That Shall Not Be Named. I'd like to find cafes and meeting spaces that are designed with wheelchairs in mind, or are at least relatively accessible. And, if possible, I'd like to win next year just as handily as I won this year. ;)

NaNo last year for me was more of a social stretch than a writing exercise. I didn't really have much of an idea, aside from a one-off D&D character I thought might have fun adventures. The writing was a slog and I barely made it over the finish line. I went to The Night That Shall Not Be Named and most of the write-ins tentatively, trying to feel out long-standing friendships and fellow newbies and where I could cozy myself in. Now I feel like I'm going out to meet friends.

That's quite the leap from first-timer to minion, I think!

I'm pretty sure on what I'm going to work on next year, and I fully intend on being a minion again.