Wednesday, July 27, 2016

What I'm Playing: Diablo III

Wow, get with the times, right? Diablo III came out back in 2012 and I'm only now getting around to it?

Well, not quite. JV picked it up for PS3 last year, so I'm not quite as pokey as it sounds. But considering that the PS3 version came out in 2013, and that JV waited until 1) Reaper of Souls was out and 2) the price dropped, I'll admit that we were hardly bleeding edge users.

Like every other PC gamer who grew up in the 90s and early naughties, I played the hell (hah, hah) out of the first two Diablo games, especially Diablo II. I didn't truck with (our dial-up connection was so far from any trunk that on a good day our connection was 32 kbps; most days it was around 26 or 28.8) but I loved laying waste to fantasy creatures in ever-powerful ways and scoring phat loot. After the announcement (on my birthday!!!) in 2008, the release of Diablo III was a thing just constantly in the back of my mind, though by the time it came out, my Linux machine was too old to be able to handle running the game in WINE or PlayOnLinux (RIP Priscilla). I could have hit up a PC bang—the odd moment when I had to stop in and use one for whatever reason, I definitely saw my fair share of gamers fighting evil in Sanctuary—but the idea of sequestering myself in the fluorescent light and cigarette smoke of your typical South Korean PC bang for hours at a go was not my idea of a good time. So I waited.

Now we've had Diablo III for a while and I've played through the game multiple times. A while ago, actually. But a couple days ago I finally got the platinum in Ni No Kuni and wanted something else to fill my time (since I'm a little burned out on Fallout Lou Bega). I've also been carrying around some kind of low-level depression and inner heaviness at the state of the world: the inevitability of a Trump presidency, rising Nazi rhetoric in Europe*, our collective failure to recognize history repeating itself and refusal to Do The Right Thing...all of that despair and frustration needs to vent somewhere. It might as well be crushing demons with a warhammer! So after a long dry spell, I've picked the game back up.

Gamer attitudes surrounding Diablo III confuse me. It has pretty good reviews everywhere, and I'm definitely enjoying it. But so many people I talk to seem to consider it clearly inferior to its predecessors. These same people also seem upset that Deckard Cain (in their words) "gets killed by a butterfly." Um, Maghda isn't a fucking butterfly? She's a witch? Also Deckard Cain has to be in his 90s by now? It sucks that Blizzard killed off a beloved NPC, but it's a fantasy world. They can always bring him back as a ghost or an angel or something.

My one and only gripe with Diablo III, at least compared to Diablo II, is that the settings feel less varied. Let's compare the two:

Diablo II
Diablo IIII
Act I: Medieval fantasy temperate forest   Act I: Medieval fantasy temperate forest
Act II: Middle East-ish desertAct II: Middle East-ish desert city
Act III: JungleAct III: Medieval fantasy wintery fortress
Act IV: HellAct IV: Demon-corrupted Heaven
Act V: Wintery mountainAct V: Medieval fantasy town

Why did they get rid of the jungle? The little blow dart guys were annoying as fuck, but the setting was cool and different! Plus, the Witch Doctor character seems to be a nod to that setting. Also (and I didn't realize it until I sat down to write that table) the settings in Diablo III are more enclosed. You spend a lot of time wandering the desert in Diablo II's Act II; in Diablo III the major plot points and events happen right in the city. And while you roam an entire jungle in Act III in Diablo II, in Diablo III you're stuck in one (huge, granted) fortress the whole time.

So Diablo III is a bit more repetitive than Diablo II ever got for me. Act IV in Diablo III is a really cool concept and I like it a lot, but even there the visuals of Heaven feel really similar to the visuals of Caldeum (if Caldeum had been overrun by demons).

But killing stuff is killing stuff, and few games have mastered the art of the killing spree the way that Blizzard has. Warner Bros. Entertainment came pretty close with Lord of the Rings: War in the North, but not quite. Demon's Souls and the Dark Souls games are also solid dungeon crawlers, but if you try to just mindlessly hack and slash you will die. (I can't believe I haven't written about Demon's Souls yet. I love that game!) I've heard really good things about Torchlight but haven't gotten around to playing either of them yet (though now both have Linux ports so maybe...!). I also played a little Sacred 2 but couldn't really get into it in the same way. The controls and the interface are just not as intuitive and seamless as in Diablo, or maybe I'm just picky. I also admit to having a hard time actually tracking my character on screen in Sacred. So many times I thought JV's character was my own. This doesn't happen when we co-op in Diablo III so I have no idea what my problem is. Maybe the camera angles are slightly different?

Diablo II set a gold standard, and the only subsequent game to meet that standard is...Diablo III.

Stay a while, and kill things.

*Almost overnight we've seen honest-to-God neo-Nazi stickers and posters materialize in our neighborhood. "The Zionist conspiracy to rule the world! Mass immigration is a ticking time bomb!" etc. But the good news is that they have a maximum lifespan of 24 hours before someone either rips them down (difficult; Nazi glue game is on point) or defaces them. And that someone isn't even always us! Look for the helpers.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Friday 5: (Im?)potent Potables

Let's take a moment to recall Celebrity Jeopardy! sketches of days past.

Moving on!

What’s your favorite beverage that has chocolate in it?

Hot chocolate and chocolate milk are the two obvious ones that come to mind. Dirty Girl Scout is maybe the best drink. Or shot. However much you want.

What’s your favorite non-citrusy fruit drink?

I don't care much for citrus in general, so all of my favorite fruit drinks would qualify. But there is a special high school nostalgia over Welch's White Grape Peach juice.

What’s your favorite mention of a drink in song?

I kind of hate "The Pina Colada Song" so much I think I might secretly love it, but I legitimately love The Gourds' bluegrass cover of "Gin and Juice."

Roy Rogers, Arnold Palmer, and Shirley Temple are among people who have mixed drinks named after them.  What would a drink named after you contain, and what would each of the ingredients represent?

First of all, I don't think my name would make for a particularly catchy cocktail title. And I think I'd rather rename an existing drink than think up a new one. So the top contenders are:

1. The OMG! shot, which may be a Uijeongbu "foreigner bar" specialty. Bacardi 151, Everclear, a pint of shitty beer, and a shot of blue curacao (and more that I'm not remembering, certainly), set on fire, best consumed with the help of oven mitts.

2. The Long Island Iced Tea.

3. The Bullskey, which is almost certainly a hyperlocal specialty (being the favorite post-trivia beverage of a couple of my former bar trivia teammates): equal parts whiskey (a shitty one, preferably) and Red Bull.

Besides milk and cookies (’cause that’s really too easy), what are a food and drink that you must have together?

I usually just have water with most of my meals, so this one is tough. Most of the "pairings" I feel at all strongly about are Korean: pajeon and makgeolli, chimaek, soju and samgyeopsal.

I have stronger feelings about food combinations, though. I need something sweet with every meal, especially if it's something savory. I'm particularly fond of grapes alongside pizza. Otherwise I need a carton of pears on hand to go with any meal I have at home. If I'm out, I just wash things down with a lot of water. (This is apparently a very American thing to do: to drink copious amounts of beverage with food. But how else do you rinse the taste out?? You're weird, Europe.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

What I Read: Monstress (#1)

This is my latest freebie from NetGalley: the first issue of Marjorie Liu's Monstress.

I said last week that I wanted the next thing I read to be easy and good. Well, you don't get much easier than comics (no shade, fans: I'm one of you!) and Monstress is really, really good, so: itch scratched!

Monstress is the brainchild of Marjorie Liu, brought to life by Sana Takeda. Set in an alternate universe/fantasy version of 1900s Asia, Monstress is the story of Maika, a young woman caught up in the war between humans and "arcanum"—creatures with supernatural abilities.

The series is just at 6 issues so far, which are available in a trade paperback. Issue #7 is due out in September. So that's everything you need to know if you want a copy yourself. Now for my thoughts.

0. Why can't I get a goddamn ereader app to work for me? I now have five (5!!) different apps on my phone and it seems like I have to fiddle with things forever until one of them decides to play nice with a file.

1. I have never been a fan of the traditional Golden Age/Silver Age art style in comics. There's nothing particularly distinctive about it and it's just blah. Comics and graphic novels with unique or just different art styles will always grab my attention. Past favorites include:

  • The Alchemy, David Mack (I got into Kabuki backwards from this, after I picked up a random issue of The Alchemy at the local comic shop)
  • The Mystery Play, Grant Morrison
  • Pop Gun War, Farel Dalrymple

Let me know if you can recommend any others!

But Takeda's style is lush and fantastic, with many obvious nods to Art Deco. I just want to stare at the art ALL DAY. So many tiny little lines and details.

2. Diversity: many of the background characters, as well as Maika, are women. Many of the antagonists and allies are women. Set in (an imaginary?) Asia, everyone is also not white but also not caught up in Asian stereotypes/tropes. No opium dens, Fu Manchus, or geisha girls to be seen.

3. Body diversity: people look different. People are short, tall, old, fat, skinny. Of course, Maika is young and beautiful (though missing her left arm), but I have no idea what or who is coming up in future issues. Things bode well so far, though.

4. The steampunk/fantasy setting is intriguing—it's a world that feels fantastic and opulent and also real, but things are very rarely bogged down by clunky infodumps or exposition (this is arguably a matter of taste and YMMV on what feels clunky).

5. The first issue sets things up for a pretty standard "avenge my dead parent" story, but it's clear by the end that there's going to be a lot more going on AND I NEED TO FIND OUT.

Like Pop Gun War, this is definitely a series I'll be purchasing in print format. Unlike Pop Gun War, new issues seem to be coming out regularly so it won't be too hard to get my fix. Yeah!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Friday Five: Television

This week I'm borrowing from the old school Friday Five again! This time, the theme is television.

Image courtesy DuBoix

What TV series have you watched every episode of?

This is probably going to be a short list. There's:
  • Trick
  • Jonathan Creek
  • Community
  • Jikou Keisatsu
  • The Queen's Classroom
  • Star Trek: The Original Series
  • [a whole crapton of anime I can't be bothered to remember right now]

Conspicuously absent from this list is....Mystery Science Theater 3000! Yes, that's right: I have yet to see every episode! There's like 190+, though, so I mean, it's a lot of work. (You'll note that most of the series on my list are fairly short.) Especially since I only started watching during Season 8, and there's new RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic episodes to watch as well. But every once in a while JV and I like to relax with an MST3K episode neither of us has ever seen, so I'm making progress. One day I'll cross that goal off my 101 in 1001 list!

What are your favorite instrumental and vocal TV theme songs?

I think the Community theme song is really good! I need to get a hold of the full-length version and put it on my mp3 player.

I also really like the theme from the US version of The Office. I only watched a few seasons before I lost interest, but the show has a special place in my heart, set as it is in Scranton, PA. I'm not from Scranton—from where I grew up, it's a shorter drive into New York or Philadelphia than it is to Scranton, but Scranton is probably closer than either those ~culturally~, if that makes any sense. (Closer than New York in that regard, that's for sure.) I also drove through/by it on my way to and from college. (Yes, filmed in California, but nonetheless...!) Here's a full-length version for your consideration:

And finally, I like the first theme song (of many, probably) for Detective Conan. I was not at all surprised to hear that the band who performs it (The High-Lows) includes two guys from The Blue Hearts, who are awesome. (Linda Linda! Linda Linda Linda~~~~!)

What’s a TV series you stuck with even when it got bad?

These days I will ditch as soon a series as soon as it loses my interest or jumps the shark. The only exception is if I'm close to finishing the series, because in my heart I'm still a completionist. That said, I watched way more Boys Over Flowers than I enjoyed, really.

What supporting TV character would you like to have seen featured in his or her own spinoff?  If you’re feeling creative, what would be the premise of that series?

Spinoffs aren't really my thing, but I would love to see what Troy and LeVar Burton got up to on their boat trip!

What is the single funniest moment on TV you have ever seen?

I watch a lot of comedies so it's really hard to pick.

In retrospect it's not that funny, but one Saturday morning I was watching MST3K in the family room while Lawyer Mom sitting with me, folding the laundry. I still don't know if she particularly likes the show, but as long as it wasn't the dinnertime news hour she relented and let my brother and I, both huge fans, put it on the only nice TV in the house. (This was when it had two Saturday time slots on SciFi: 9 - 11 in the morning, and 5 - 7 in the evening.) The episode was the classic Space Mutiny, and there's a line that Tom Servo delivers as someone hobbles away from the firefight:

"Stay together, cheeks! Stay together!"

And Lawyer Mom and I looked at each other and couldn't. stop. laughing. I don't laugh that hard at the joke now, but it never fails to remind me of that moment with Lawyer Mom. Not funniest moment, but certainly the most memorable.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What I Read: The French Lieutenant's Woman

Once upon a time this blog was about my STEM-themed jewelry. I need to pick up some supplies and just get back in the habit, but until then, y'all get to hear about my books. This week I finally (!!) finished The French Lieutenant's Woman, a selection from the TIME Top 100 Novels list. Reading all of them has been a goal I set for myself way back in 2009 as part of my first 101 in 1001 project; I started at something like 25 and am in the home stretch with 91. My list differs from the actual list, for reasons I've explained elsewhere, but it's more or less the same. This is my Classics Club list. I'm not sure what I'll replace it with: Modern Library's top novels? Queer lit? Feminist lit? POC authors? Science fiction? The entire oeuvre of Agatha Christie? The sky's the limit!

I knew nothing about The French Lieutenant's Woman going into it. Considering that John Fowles is listed among Great Britain's top 50 writers that makes me maybe one of the worst English majors ever, but so it is. I'd never heard of Fowles, or The French Lieutenant's Woman, or any of his other books prior to my TIME 101 mission. It worked out because I was still really grumpy after Fangirl and I wanted to come at a book with zero expectations or hype. That said, I don't think a book published in 1969 is going to have much hype in the year of our Lord 2016...

Image courtesy Jonathan Cape/Random House

Basically I went from ultradense postmodern historical fiction to twee YA escapism back to ultradense postmodern historical fiction. It's been a bit disorienting, I guess, and I very much want the next book I read to be both easy and good. As it stands, The French Lieutenant's Woman made me want to throw the book across the room. (The only reason I didn't was that my copy was a very nice 1971 hardback library copy.)

Where to start with this book? Well, the writing is complex and dense. This is not a complaint; it's good to stretch the little gray cells once in a while, and once you accustom yourself to the faux-Victorian style of the novel things continue at a relatively snappy pace. But it's still work, and for so much work one expects some kind of reward. Possession (a novel inspired by The French Lieutenant's Woman) has a reward; Under the Volcano has a reward. The French Lieutenant's Woman has...nothing.

By "reward" I don't mean a good or at least satisfying ending; I mean the entire reading experience. Byatt wrote an astounding amount of Victorian-style poetry and built entire lives for two fictionalized poets and, to a slightly lesser extent, their spouses—that's four people, if you're counting. The story of Possession is engaging enough but the real reward (for me) is in standing back and appreciating Byatt's thorough commitment to the structure. Lowry brings to life the despair of alcoholism and imperialism, which is far more engrossing than the mere plot of the book. If dense writing lends itself to an astounding technical feat or a sublime truth about human experience, it's worth the work.

The French Lieutenant's does neither. There is no great, interesting accomplishment in structure or format; there is no divine, haunting truth. It's just, as the top-rated 1-star review glibly puts it, "heterosexual nonsense."

The essential problem of the book is that we spend exactly zero time with the titular character. You know how Cleopatra, with gorgeous Liz Taylor being all scheme-y and sultry, is really more about "the men who loved Cleopatra" than Cleopatra herself? It's the same here. We spend most of the time with Charles, a young man who is obsessed with "the French lieutenant's woman" (Sarah), and not...Sarah. Because of this, everything else falls apart.

Here is the story, such as it is: Charles is engaged to Ernestina. They are spending their pre-nuptial time in a small village more familiar to Ernestina than to Charles, and one day on a walk they see Sarah. (Insert melodramatic thunderclaps here.) Charles wonders who she is and Ernestina begrudgingly explains. Charles continues to encounter Sarah by chance, learning her story (fell in love with a French lieutenant who was wrecked along the British coast; was ultimately jilted by him) and ultimately falling in love with her. He ends up breaking off his engagement with Ernestina to be with Sarah, despite it not being respectable, but Sarah never gets his proposal. Charles, heartbroken and mortally embarrassed, spends some time abroad and finds Sarah a year-ish later. They either maybe reunite or never reunite (Fowles presents two endings and very strongly implies that either are equally possible.)

If Fowles' intention was to bring to light Victorian hypocrisy and how destructive it was, he limited himself hugely by taking such a narrow perspective. Likewise if his goal was to plum the depths of the human heart and how we always seem to need to rebel against convention. Charles is dull as dishwater, and without the benefit of close narration, Sarah comes off as all the worst stereotypes about "hysterical attention whores." I would say that most of the women come across poorly but really most of the characters come across poorly. But since we spend the most time with men (primarily Charles; to an extent his manservant, Sam), the equal-opportunity-awful still reads as crusty patriarchy.

Because I don't even know if we're supposed to like Sarah! Is she a progressive and Independent Woman (TM) who is out of her time? Is she childish and hysterical? It's impossible to know because we never get to hear her thoughts; only what she deigns to share in dialogue. Granted, her life circumstances when we meet her are awful (being the employ of a tyrannical widow), but much of her story suggests that she went out of her way to make herself an unemployable charity case and pariah.

Could this be some kind of metanarrative commentary on how women's voices are marginalized? Maybe, like, a 1% chance. But probably not.

The bell cannot be unrung; the book cannot be unread. The Magus sounds like it might be more my cup of tea, but other than that I won't be coming back to Fowles anytime soon. Not even Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons can save this one for me.

Heterosexual nonsense.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

48 Days of Blue and Simply Straws

This challenge has been over for a while now, but Natalie just posted about it and yesterday I finally got our glass straws in the mail, so I guess now's a good time to share my thoughts on it! This is going to read like an awkward promo post, and I'm sorry, but I'm just really excited about reusable straws. I didn't get compensated in any way for this. Those links aren't even affiliate links.

Most of the 48 Days of Blue tasks were not totally new to me. Thanks to trendy 90s environmentalism (Captain Planet anyone?) and friends today who are very invested in ocean conservation, I already knew about reusable shopping bags, the evils of microbeads, and shorter showers. The real strength of 48 Days of Blue was their cross-promotion of environmentally conscious products that I wasn't previously aware of. One of those products?  Reusable glass straws.

Now, I'm an uncouth troglodyte who doesn't mind drinking straight from the cup, even at a restaurant. But I get that not everyone is like that. JV, for example, prefers straws, even at home. And he does seem to drink more when we have straws around. So how do you balance your own health with the health of the planet?

The only other reusable straw I had been able to find up to that point were dorky little ones for kids in the grocery store under our apartment building.Sure, they're cute and fun, but they 1) are still plastic, so oop and 2) have curly corkscrew bits in an attempt to be more "fun," which made them really difficult to clean, meaning they ended up getting really gross to the point where they had to be thrown out anyway. In short, we really needed a grown-up version. Simply Straws to the rescue!

My one and only complaint is that the shipping to Europe from the US was kind of ridiculous. As much as the actual straw! But "ridiculous shipping + VAT to Europe" is my life now, so like with many other Internet shopping experiences, I cheated and had the package sent to my parents' house. Lawyer Mom forwarded them along in a birthday care package, which means we just got it a couple of days ago despite ordering it in May.

I opted to get JV's straw engraved with my stupid little pet name for him, which ended up essentially netting us a free straw. The first run on his straw, the text wasn't centered, so Simply Straws kindly sent us that reject for free along with a centered version (and a note explaining the mishap). So now both of us have a straw! (Even if I am an uncouth troglodyte, some things are just better with straws. And we both use the same stupid little pet name for each other, so it works out.) Not going to lie: when I got to the Simply Straws part of the package, I almost had a heart attack, because I could hear the clink-clinky of glass against itself. "What?! Did it break on shipping? But these are supposed to be indestructible!" (I shouldn't have panicked; the straws come with a lifetime guarantee that means if it ever breaks, they'll replace it for free.) No: we just had two straws!

I also opted for the special scrubber brush because I know firsthand that reusable straws can get nas-TAY (depending on what you drink with them). A+ experience, would recommend.