Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The ever-evolving opinions of society have made me more secure when talking about my love for fantasy books and Dungeons & Dragons in particular.

This week for Insecure Writer's Support Group, I want to talk about how writing and reading has changed for me over the years. Specifically, I used to be insecure talking about how I liked writing and reading things that were considered trash. But I don't feel this way anymore. I feel like it's okay to admit to reading comic books, reading fantasy novels, and writing trash of my own. In fact, my own tastes toward writing and reading has become so mainstream that in a way, I'm not weird anymore.

In my youth, being a nerd wasn't a good thing. If you were a nerd, you stood a good chance at getting taped to a pole, ridiculed for reading fantasy books instead of things that were considered intellectual like the Scarlet Letter or anything that Hemmingway wrote. And yeah, playing games like Dungeons & Dragons branded you as a Satan worshiper. You just didn't talk about it if you wanted to keep your books (some parents who found out their kid played D&D would throw their books in the trash or burn them). Others would simply punish them, keep them from hanging out with "bad influences," and increase the amount of time their children spent doing church activities.
This headline and news article is pretty typical of the way people thought of
my hobby when I was a young man. So my friends and I never really discussed
it except among those that we actually knew also enjoyed the game. I want to
say though that I think it was D&D that influenced me to write. I made all of
these characters and used short stories to kind of tell their lives. Did it stunt my
growth? I have no idea. Maybe it did. Maybe if I'd focused on other things I'd
have some great occupation these days and be a world-renowned surgeon. But
it is what it is, and I identify as a nerd and accept that. It's who I am.
That being said, I recently got back into playing Dungeons & Dragons. I used to play it about ten years ago and then quit. With the release of Fifth Edition from parent company Wizards of the Coast I figured that now was as good a time as any to learn the new system and see how much things had changed since the last time I played. I gotta say, I've been having a really good time and as a bonus, I've been making some new friends that are fellow nerds/geeks. This is always good as it's more difficult to make friends as one gets older.

Last night, the new R.A. Salvatore book that accompanies the release of the "Rage of Demons" storyline got released (it's called Archmage), and I downloaded it onto my iPad to read. This book comes along at just the right time for me, what with my renewed interest in fantasy tabletop games and all things "dark elf."

The gist of the story is that in the Forgotten Realms (the fantasy setting for Dungeons & Dragons) all of the communication that transpires between the underdark and those living on the surface suddenly goes quiet. Of particular interest is a drow city by the name of Menzoberranzan: a place that's huge by medieval standards and even more compelling because it's miles underground. As one of the greatest drow cities (that's the race of the dark elves), the overwhelming silence and disappearance of merchants that travel the highways of the underdark is troubling.
This is an artist rendering of the drow city Menzobberanzan.
What basically happened is that a spell cast by one of the most powerful wizards in the city went awry. Intended to seal the power of the drow for good, the spell instead opened a permanent portal to the Abyss, an alternate dimension where the most powerful demons in the mythology happen to reside. So naturally, all of these demons poured through the opening and into this dark elf city.

The cover of the module (to be released later this month) called "Out of the Abyss" (and released in conjunction with Mr. Salvatore's first novel in a brand new trilogy detailing the events I'm telling you about here in this post) features a creature called Demogorgon, a.k.a., the prince of demons. He's a two headed monstrosity that towers some twenty feet tall; the cover illustration shows him tearing down the many structures of Menzoberranzan like they were toothpicks.
This is Demogorgon tearing down the walls and turrets of Menzoberranzan
It's exciting especially considering how powerful and evil the drow actually are as a race. For them to be confronted with something that's even mightier (and possibly more evil) rings of poetic justice. But it could also mean apocalypse for those who call the surface home. I mean, once Demogorgon and his cronies finish the drow off, what's to stop them from pouring out onto the surface world and wreaking havok there? It's just the kind of excitement I was looking for, and it's refreshing that I can feel so comfortable sharing it with you without the feeling of being judged. So yeah that's what I'll be reading this week. :)

I'm glad that I live in the time of evolving opinions. It makes bearing one's true self to society so much easier. And thus, I suppose, it is just another example of how a once insecurity becomes a security once broad acceptance of one's differences is achieved. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

NBC's Hannibal is over now and I gotta say it was better than anything I saw in Silence of the Lambs

NBC's Hannibal sat down for its last supper this last week. I still haven't gotten around to watching it yet. See, I fell behind as I'm apt to do and then started binge watching the episodes from the season 1 pilot through to season 3 with my friend. I have to tell you as I'm sitting here in the midst of season 3, this now "canceled" series is a masterpiece up there with Breaking Bad. It really really is.

I don't know how many times I said, "I can't believe this show was on network television and that hardly anybody has been watching it." The writing is absolutely superb, and it's not just me that thinks so. It has a 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and reviewers from io9 to Forbes have been raving about what a good drama this show is.

Hannibal is probably the greatest villain I have ever seen, and he is a remarkable creation of Thomas Harris. If you enjoy crime dramas, aren't afraid of some gruesome (and maybe a little stomach churning) scenes, and love the psychology that made Silence of the Lambs such a megahit over twenty five years ago, you owe it to yourself to watch this series. I never thought I would ever say this, but the actor that plays Hannibal in the series is better at it than Anthony Hopkins. And the series as a whole is a better tale than Silence of the Lambs could ever hope to be. For one it took the series in a bit of a new direction, however, never sacrificing the integrity of the books and the plot points that made the books so great (Yes, I've read them all). Additionally, it was a conclusive telling of Hannibal Lecter from his early days (a prequel), encompassing the events of Red Dragon, and borrowing heavily from the third book to tell Hannibal Lecter's history.

What a pleasure it was (and is) to watch. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

All the burning questions I have about the Ashley Madison hack following Annalee Newitz's article on Gizmodo

If you don't know, recently Ashley Madison (a website marketing itself as a destination for those interested in having an affair) got hacked and as a result, all of its information was spilled forth for people to sift through. Caught up in the scandal are some celebrities, but Gizmodo/io9 writer Annalee Newitz went a step further and investigated the data to uncover some startling statistics that I can't get out of my head.

For one, there are literally millions and millions of accounts and nearly all of them are men or fake accounts made by the employees of Ashley Madison for the sole purpose of impersonating women to perpetuate their con. Ms. Newitz even discovered that of the female accounts that do exist, only about 1,500 were actively checking messages. This in comparison to some 33 million male accounts. I had so many questions as to what's going on here. Questions like: why is the ratio of men so high? Are men biologically programmed for deceit or is something else going on here? And if we do accept that men are biologically programmed for deceit, how would that cause you to raise a boy differently as per se a girl? Would it be harder to raise a boy to be a responsible young man so as to steer him straight from being just another future statistic on an Ashley Madison-type clone in the not-so-distant future?

And then my thoughts turned to such topics as "open marriage" and "polygamy" (hey I live in Utah) and by extent "polyamory" and "open relationships." I started to wonder if the dynamics of "more than one" evolved to placate men (specifically) and not women because with so few women having active accounts on Ashley Madison, my conclusion is that most women are satisfied with their marriages. I suppose I shouldn't be shocked because the United States is a patriarchy, and as unfortunate as that fact tends to be it means that women have been placating the needs of men for centuries. It's just that I've never noticed it as much as I did when I started reading the statistics that Ms. Newitz was posting on Gizmodo.

And then there are gay male relationships to consider. Long term relationships in the gay community do exist, but I would almost say they are "unicorns" in the same manner as Wall Street refers to a billion dollar startup as a "unicorn." In other words, most businesses fail, and I think the same is true of gay relationships (male not female). Why? Because they are comprised of two men and men are (as Ashley Madison statistics show) overwhelmingly deceitful. So yeah, it makes sense that long term gay relationships are rare.

But what about the fraud that the website perpetrated? There's that too. I mean, Ashley Madison was perfectly marketed to its audience. It was a honey pot that attracted enough men that it generated $140 million in profits in 2014 alone. And what were they paying for? Newitz points out that the entire website was a dystopia. It billed itself as a social network but none of the members on the site could be social without paying for that privilege. You couldn't even check your messages without paying money, and it turns out, when you did you were just conversing with a bot...a fake account...meant to string you along and fleece your pockets. If you wanted to quit the site, they withheld your information unless you actually paid them to erase it (kind of like blackmail). And as it turns out, even if you paid they kept your information anyway. So the customers were liars and deceitful bastards and the owners of the website were also liars and deceitful bastards. It's just that one was "outfoxing" the other, and that I suppose is either really sad or pure genius in that it netted $140 MILLION DOLLARS.

I hope some of you will read this and comment and tell me whether you too are fascinated by any of this. We sure live in interesting times.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road is the best action movie of the summer and deserves to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

We really should all just take a moment and appreciate Max in this gif. The
world has gone completely crazy, and it's clear he's the only sane one left.
Now that summer is almost over, I think I'm going to make a crazy prediction. Not only was Mad Max: Fury Road the best movie of the summer, but it could very well go on to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Yeah, I'm saying it now. Wouldn't that be insane? It's a little short on plot but what Mad Max movie isn't? And it has great reviews on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes with a 98% fresh rating the last time I checked. That pretty much puts it in "this is a masterpiece" territory with critical reviewers. It took me watching the honest trailer for it to fully gel this opinion (that you should take with a grain of salt), and I think if you give it a moment of your time, you'll agree that in the least Mad Max: Fury Road was the best action movie of the year. Seriously, watch the honest trailer. It's the best three minutes of your life you'll spend today.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Fear the Walking Dead is already better than The Strain and it's only one episode in.

The pilot for Fear the Walking Dead was really really good. It accomplished for me what another apocalyptic undead tale, The Strain, simply fails at. In the 90 minute pilot we got introduced to a junkie named Nick Clark, who stumbles his way around a derelict church where all the other junkies have been killed and eaten presumably by his friend Gloria (a zombie) who (I think) probably overdosed on heroin and then became a walker. And although there was plenty of gore, the show emphasized suspense and atmosphere over action, and in this prequel (which takes place during Rick Grimes' coma) it really works.

The thing that I love about the show are the ominous portrayal of events. A troubled student hints that something strange has started happening across the country. Then there are the horrific events that went down at the church where all the junkies shoot up. There's moody, cinematic lighting, sound, and pacing that actually had me a bit "on edge" even though I just met these characters. And then there's the traffic grinding to a halt with helicopters blaring for "all people to stay with their cars." It's the kind of thing that has just enough "down the rabbit hole" content to it to engender a sense of disquiet and unease in the audience. It's masterful storytelling, and I can't wait until next week's episode.

I almost wish I could tell these characters that what they are witnessing is not just a phenomenon. It is the end of the world, and the crazy has only just barely started.

Friday, August 21, 2015

These twin typhoons make me think that the Earth is smiling at the moon.

Yesterday over at "The Vane," which is a blog run by the Gawker network, author Dennis Mersereau posted a beautiful gif of Earth as seen from a Japanese weather satellite that takes a picture every eight minutes. It captured the birth of fraternal twins in the Pacific Ocean, Typhoon Goni and Typhoon Atsani, and Atsani is already a super typhoon with 165 mph winds. There's something about the power of these storms that fascinates me: how the winds organize around an area of extremely low barometric pressure and relative calm (called "the Eye") and how they draw their strength from sunlight heating the ocean. The Typhoon Twins are especially serene to look at from space in this gif...they almost make a face: two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. Maybe it's the visage of the Hindu Goddess Shiva who is both creator and destroyer. I leave you with this .gif from The Vane. May you stare at it as much as me.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The New York Times article on Amazon's ruthless business practices has me in a state of disquiet and asking why we let our unions die.

This weekend, the New York Times wrote a telling essay about what it's like to work for Amazon. If you haven't read it, you should because everyone is talking about it. When I asked some of my friends and family about the article, I got mixed responses. Some that are in management positions supported Amazon's "shock and awe" culture praising that this is how a company manages to do great things. Supporters on CNBC declared that this is nothing new, saying that what Amazon does could be from any company that wants to disrupt how things are done, e.g., Tesla, Netflix, and Uber.

Excerpts from the article tell of how new employees are told to "forget the 'poor habits' they learned at previous jobs. When you hit the wall from the unrelenting pace, you 'climb the wall.'" Examples of climbing the wall are as follows:

  1. Making daily performance meetings so cutthroat that people leave crying and preparing for them is like preparing for a court hearing.
  2. Amazon warehouses have sophisticated electronic systems to ensure all employees are packing enough boxes every hour. In an eastern Pennsylvania warehouse, workers toiled in more than 100-degree heat with ambulances waiting outside to take away laborers as they fell.
  3. Marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving.
  4. Criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access on vacation and hours spent working at home most nights or weekends.
  5. When you're not able to give your absolute all 80 hours a week, it's seen as a major weakness. A woman who had thyroid cancer was given a low performance rating after she returned from treatment. "I'm sorry, the work is still going to need to get done," the woman said her boss told her.
  6. Another woman with breast cancer was told that she was put on a "performance improvement plan" which is code for "you're about to get fired." The reason: "difficulties in your life have interfered with fulfilling work goals."
  7. A mother of a stillborn child was told by email that her performance would be monitored to make sure her focus stayed on the job.
How could anyone survive in a place like this? I can't think of a person in my social circle who wouldn't be snapped in half by Amazon and be broken and on the floor. Who the hell wants to work this hard?

All of these things and more make me wonder how we got to a place like this in society. Are we living in the Matrix? Why are people selling themselves to companies like this, or is the problem that finding a living wage job has become so difficult that you've got to put yourself through this in order to live the American Dream? Is it possible that to refuse or be physically unable to compete at such a high level means you will live a life of poverty? Is that the new reality?

Honestly, I had no idea what kind of company Amazon was. I feel like I'm culpable for some of this suffering too because, "Yes, I buy and sell stuff on Amazon all the time." But so do you. All of us are culpable. And here's the thing: I don't really see any kind of substitute for Amazon either. So in a way, Jeff Bezos (the Amazon C.E.O.) is the new John D. Rockefeller. My dad used to tell me about Rockefeller, and how he was a ruthless businessman that had his own private army and worked people essentially to death while he made fistfuls of cash. The only thing that was able to stop that kind of rampant capitalism were unions. But unions are basically gone now, and I think we're going to need them in the not so distant future. I really, really do. Let's just hope that this report is an outlier in the world of business and that it is not the norm.