Thursday, July 4, 2013

Going Fourth

This Fourth of July has probably got to be one of the most depressing in recent memory for me.  It's depressing because what has been for almost two and a half centuries a celebration of freedom feels so unspeakably hollow to me.  And it shouldn't.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Winter of Discontent

I cannot tell: the world is grown so bad,
That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch …

                                                                    --”Richard III”, Act I, Scene iii

By now, everybody on the planet who has access to a radio, a TV, or an Internet connection has heard of the Newtown shootings.  It’s arguably one of the most heinous events this year, and likely will be in American history for many years to come.  If Euripides, Aristophanes, and Sophocles sat down together and tried to create the ultimate tragedy storyline, they probably couldn’t have bettered Newtown if they had a hundred years to work on it.  And once again, in the face of incomprehensible horror, we’re hearing the same chorus of voices.

“It’s the guns!  Ban ALL the guns!”
“It’s the violent media!  It’s Hollywood movies and video games!  Burn them all!”
“It’s the press!  It’s all their fault! Make them stop reporting tragedies!”
“It’s the lunatics!  Lock them all up for our own good!”
 


There is the understandable desire to Do Something, or failing that to be Seen As Doing Something.  There are going to be blue ribbon panels.  There are going to be Congressional hearings.  There will be more drama and agony in the next year or so then there was during the actual event that sparked the whole thing.  And it will not end well for anybody.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

NaNoWrimo 2012 Playlist

Yup, it's that time of year again.  Time for otherwise sane human beings to go batshit crazy and try to crank out 50,000 words in 30 days.  It's possible.  I've done it before.  Once.

In honor of this insanity, I thought I'd put up my playlist and let folks make suggestions to improve it.  The premise is an alien invasion, written in a technothriller sort of vein.

1. AC/DC - It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)
2. Anberlin - The Resistance
3. Atreyu - Becoming the Bull
4. Bear McCreary - Admiral and Commander 
5. Bear McCreary - Wayward Soldier
6. Corroded - Age Of Rage
7. Daft Punk - Overture From Tron Legacy
8. Daft Punk - Tron Legacy (End Titles) (Sander Kleinenberg Remix)
9. Dethklok - The Lost Vikings
10. Dethklok - Thunderhorse 
11. Disturbed - Ten Thousand Fists
12. Dropkick Murphys - The Gauntlet
13. Dropkick Murphys - The Legend Of Finn MacCumhail
14. Eminem - Lose Yourself
15. Enya - Boadicea
16. Enya - March Of The Celts
17. Everclear - When It All Goes Wrong Again
18. Fuel - Won't Back Down
19. Godsmack - Awake
20. Godsmack - I Stand Alone
21. Incubus - Adolescents 
22. INXS - Don't Lose Your Head
23. John Williams - The Asteroid Field
24. John Williams - Bounty Hunter's Pursuit
25. John Williams - Zam the Assassin and The Chase Through Coruscant
26. Judas Priest - You Got Another Thing Comin' 
27. LeƦther Strip - Evil Speaks
28. Linkin Park - Breaking The Habit
29. Linkin Park - New Divide 
30. Lo Fidelity All Stars - Battle Flag
31. Metallica - Hero of the Day 
32. Monster Magnet - Black Balloon 
33. Monster Magnet - Space Lord
34. Monster Magnet - Temple Of Your Dreams
35. Nickelback - Burn It To The Ground
36. Nine Inch Nails - Into The Void
37. Papa Roach - Getting Away With Murder
38. Pillar - Frontline
39. Pink Floyd - Dogs of War 
40. Prodigy - Funky Shit
41. Prodigy - Smack My Bitch Up
42. Puddle of Mudd - Drift and Die
43. Rob Zombie - Dragula
44. Sevendust - Black
45. Shinedown - Save Me
46. Stabbing Westward - Save Yourself
47. The Damned Things - We've Got A Situation Here
48. The Jam - Town Called Malice
49. The Rolling Stones - Gimme Shelter
50. Thrice - Image Of The Invisible
51. Yoko Kanno - Run Rabbit Junk

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Dissipated Cloud

This last week saw the closure of OnLive, the cloud gaming service which stubbornly held on longer than I would have given it credit for even under the best of market circumstances.  Roughly two hundred employees arrived at work, went to an all-hands meeting, and were told that they were no longer employed.  They would get no severance pay.  Their stock options weren't worth the paper they were printed on.  As a business entity, OnLive had been obliterated, the name now only an echo in the graveyard of tech startups.

As somebody who spent a long and ugly period being unemployed relatively recently, my heart goes out to all those guys.  I went through a similar experience fairly early in my tech career, though not quite as brutal, and I know that the job market is still a desolate wasteland compared to a decade ago.  But for all my sympathies and hopes that they do find work quickly, I remain convinced that all of that talent, all of those wonderful minds, every last one of them was fucked from Day One.

The central premise behind OnLive was, on the surface, an intriguing notion.  Instead of having to tediously muck about with hardware swaps and settings on a PC or buying some bloated chunk of plastic from Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo, all you had to do was plug in a happy little device about the size of a radar detector and just let games stream across the Internet straight to your TV or PC.  How?  The magic of the cloud!  Sit back and relax!  We'll handle everything for you!

This was the first clue that things were doomed to failure.

"The Cloud" has been the big damned panacea for the last few years in the tech industry.  Not enough server space?  Put all your data in "The Cloud."  Not enough processing power?  Offload your cycles to "The Cloud."  I think the only reason its champions don't come out and proclaim that "The Cloud" will cure cancer is because the public isn't quite that gullible.  What far too many people don't understand about "The Cloud" is that it's ultimately a parlor trick.  Cloud computing makes promises about saving people money and resources, intimating that since everything is online, they'll never need hardware of their own.  But what seemingly escapes people is that there's still hardware running somewhere.  There is no such thing as a free lunch, and there's no such thing as a purely virtual environment.  The virtual server in a cloud environment exists only because it is part of a physical server in a datacenter somewhere.  Multi-core processors, RAM, drive space, all of those are allocated chunks of a physical server, or even multiple servers.  You may not have to have the hardware on your premises, but that doesn't mean there's no hardware involved.  It's the apotheosis of outsourcing.

OnLive was not the first to suggest the premise of games without media and without any overhead on the part of the gamer.  The Phantom console from Infinium Labs promised that players only had to buy the hardware and then they could download titles to the console "on demand" (another buzzphrase that needs to die a quick and painful death).  That one was quickly exposed as utter bunk, though the company has since been reorganized.  Strangely enough, they've been selling wireless keyboards and mice under the name Phantom Entertainment with some OnLive-focused sites recommending the hardware for OnLive customers.  The level of meta in this scenario makes my head hurt.

Then you've got Gaikai, the direct competitor to OnLive, the guys who just got bought by Sony for almost $400 million.  Same premise, streaming games on demand, only no hardware to buy.  Everything is browser based.  This might well have saved a lot of money for Gaikai, since OnLive had their "mini-console" hardware which you needed to buy and they had to produce.  However, I think Sony grossly overpaid for Gaikai, and I wouldn't be surprised if the current officers are gone within six months or so.  There is some suspicion that there will be tighter integration between the PSN and the purported PS4 when it comes out, potentially being something similar to the Phantom console.  I really hope not.  That would be beyond stupid, for reasons I shall address shortly.

To some extent, Valve's Steam service has been doing stuff like this for years now, letting people install games with physical media and then just linking them to Steam as part of the install process (Skyrim, Fallout 3, New Vegas, and Civilization V all come to mind as good examples).  Recently, they've been pushing the Steam Cloud as a place to store all your save games and what not, though thankfully it's still only an option and not an absolute requirement. Gabe Newell may seem to have difficulty counting to three, but he's smart enough not to alienate his customer base like that.  Steam has had an offline mode for a while now.  For folks who don't want to have a Diablo III-like experience, that's been a truly attractive feature.

The big problem with OnLive, Gaikai, and other services like them is that they're dependent upon the Internet to function.  And as much as I like the Internet, as truly useful as it is, it too relies upon hardware.  More than servers and routers, it relies upon telecommunications hardware. It relies on phone lines, fiber optic trunks, telecom satellites, and cellular towers.  Each and every single one of those elements can and will cause problems.  Satellites, even in geosynchronous orbit, can be affected by terrestrial weather patterns and solar interference.  Fiber trunks get cut.  Cell signals are nowhere close to uniform in strength, as the presence of dead zones even within a single building can demonstrate.  Even the humble little POTS line can be all too easily disrupted.  Streaming games require a fat pipe constantly, and one that is burdened with almost no errors or technical failures.  Some of us have that pipe ready to go.  All too many of us do not.  And the presence of the pipe is no guarantor of successful utilization of the pipe.

At E3 this year, I was invited to a press briefing on cloud gaming and streaming services.  We were treated to a demonstration of OnLive and some of the new features they were rolling out.  For those of you who have never been to the Los Angeles Convention Center, it is a massive structure, and as such it likely has a pretty respectable data pipe.  Even with that pipe, there was some latency and some lag in the demonstration.  And while there are doubtlessly some OnLive users who had no trouble with the service, there have likely been folks who've had nothing but since they signed up for it.

There is no such thing as a free game platform.  Fifty years from now, something like OnLive and Gaikai might be practical and effortless.  But in the here and now, they are not.  As long as they invoke "the cloud," there will always be smoke and mirrors involved.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Gearing Up

Today is an auspicious day.  Least, I think it is.

Exactly one year ago today, I started a new job after an eighteen month stretch in Unemployment Hell.  And it's been one amazing, frustrating, tiring, exciting, unbelievable year.  "My new job" has now officially graduated to "my day job," and one that I hope to stay on with for a while yet.

It has also been thirteen months since I posted anything in this blog.  God knows there's been plenty of stuff going on in the industry that I bloody well could have gotten off my ass and put down at least a few words.  But with the launch of Armchair Empire's new site, I suppose it's time to get back into the habit.  The day job pays the bills, but the games industry is what stirs my passion.  And very often my bile, my vitriol, and other humors that are likely caustic in nature.

The blog has been on hiatus.  It is now off hiatus.  Here comes the voice of outrage, skepticism, and impassioned concern for the games industry.  And there goes the neighborhood.  Again.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

PSN'ing Me Off - Sony's Failure to Secure The PlayStation Network

Let us establish first and foremost the basic position in which Sony now finds itself with the gaming public: they are fucked.

Some of you will doubtlessly protest my very strong language and crude imagery regarding the current situation with Sony's PlayStation Network.  Some of you probably expect nothing less.  Either way, I stand by my assertion.  The scenario that has played out couldn't possibly be conceived, even with assistance from LSD, salvia, shrooms, and mescaline all mixed together.  DDOSing the PSN, that sort of thing should be something that any network engineer, security oriented or not, ought to be factoring into their designs when they build something like this.  But this has gone way beyond a mere botnet or script kiddie attack.  Somebody, or a group of somebodies, didn't just shut down the PSN the way that Anonymous "accidentally" did a few weeks ago.  They broke in and made off with user data.  How much user data?

Try all of it.

There are, best estimate, some 70 million PSN accounts.  Those accounts contain names, addresses, and most importantly, credit card info.  And every last bit of that data was taken.  This is light-years above owning a box on Sony's network.  It's like the Great Train Robbery, only considerably worse.  What could you do with essentially unfettered access to 70 million credit and debit cards?  Depends on how smart you were about it.  The best part, from the perspective of the hackers, is that Sony has actually helped them get away with this.  How so?  By not owning up to the fact that they got hacked, and not owning up to the fact that personal data was lost.  Because Sony sat around with their thumbs up their asses, putting out milquetoast "updates" which informed without actually enlightening anybody, and ignored the rising degree of protests far longer than they should have, they essentially covered for the hackers.  Their prevarications have given those guys at least a week's head start to play around with other people's money.

One thing that should be kept in mind at moments like this is that it really is smart to avoid ascribing malicious motives to certain actions which can be better explained by basic stupidity.  Consider Patrick Seybold, the Senior Director of Corporate Communications and Social Media for Sony.  It's tempting to paint him as an outright villain, a corporate mouthpiece stooge who propagated a farrago of lies by repeating over and over, "we don't know how bad it really is" for six whole days.  But it's perhaps more accurate to look at him as being stupid.  The less flattering view would be the typical suit, a guy who is in the habit of talking a lot but not really saying much of anything, which might go over well in the boardroom but tends to make your customers start hauling out their pitchforks and torches.  The more forgiving perspective would be a man who was given the mushroom treatment by another segment of his company and used as a human shield for a week.  Continuing up the food chain, we have the engineers whose balliwick the PSN falls under.  Again, real tempting to paint them as evil bastards.  Again, much better to look at them as exercising gross stupidity rather than genuine evil.  In a corporate environment the size and breadth of Sony, the size of a problem is proportionate to the speed with which one's CYA reflex kicks in.  A tiny little problem, nobody will give it a second thought, just fix it and forget it.  A bigger problem, say an authentication issue for the East Coast for example, and you can be sure there's some CYA going on before the problem actually gets fixed.  When you've got a problem like the current one, everybody will be on the verge of panic trying to figure out how their posteriors can be sufficiently shielded, even as the small vestiges of their brains still capable of coherent thought inform them that there isn't a snowflake's chance in Hell they can make anything relating to the disaster look good.  Fiascoes like this one tend to lead upper management to demand people's heads, and heads will be served up one way or the other.  If the engineers weren't feeding Seybold any genuinely useful information, then it's certainly understandable why Seybold's blog posts weren't assuaging the public's discontent.

I would like to take a moment to address another example of stupidity, and one that has far more potentially damaging consequences.  It is the stupidity of complacency.  The stupidity of "don't worry, it's not a big deal."  To some extent, Sony gave us this brand of stupidity over the course of the last week, and it's turned out that we shouldn't just be worried, we should be all sorts of pissed off and justifiably scared.  An article on Ars Technica had some choice words from Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan who has seemingly made the current stage of his career focused on "analyzing" the video game industry.  And by "analyzing," I mean "spouting mindless bullshit and getting paid six figures for it."  In the past, I've done my best to avoid giving much thought to Pachter and his inanities, but his pronouncements in regard to Sony and the PSN breach just cannot go unchallenged.  The first mistake is playing the "shit happens" card, stating that security breaches do happen and it sucks for customers.  Sony wasn't even stupid enough to try and use that gambit, which doesn't start Pachter off on solid footing.  Yes, security breaches happen, but in regards to the PSN, security breaches DIDN'T happen.  Outages, yes.  Authentication problems, more than Sony would probably like to admit.  I know that no system is 100% secure and no system can avoid being breached forever.  The PSN was probably the closest thing to an impenetrable system that Man has devised in the last decade.  When it finally was breached, it was ripped wide open and the really valuable data, the personal user data, not the games, was sucked out like marrow from a cracked bone.  The "hassle of tracking down whether somebody is fraudulently using credit info" which Pachter breezily dismisses isn't the sort of annoyance that can be dispensed with by clicking a mouse and re-entering some data.  Assuming for a moment that the spread of credit cards stored on the PSN is evenly split up between the 4 major credit card companies (Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover), then each of those companies is looking at dealing with seventeen and a half million cards that need to be cancelled and re-issued.  It's likely not such an even split, but the company who's only handling four or five million card cancellations probably won't be feeling suitably grateful for the distinction.  That's going to tie up massive amounts of resources which would otherwise be pointed towards day-to-day operations.  The ripple effect on the economy just from having to process all those cancellations beggars the imagination.  Even if it's handled at a lower level through local banks and credit unions, it's still eventually going to impact the operations of the credit card companies.

Pachter continues to show his absolute lack of anything resembling intelligent thought when he made the following pronouncement: "In my view, a serious hacker with evil intent would be better off hacking into a financial institution rather than a gaming network."  He continues to diminish the scale of the disaster by concluding that the breach is "not a serious security threat."  If I were a serious hacker with evil intent, directly hacking into a financial institution would be the last thing in the universe I'd want to do.  It wouldn't matter to me if it was the Last National Bank of Zimbabwe.  Shooting for a direct breach of bank data would be unbelievably stupid and ultimately profitless.  Banks have been directly robbed so many times in physical form over the centuries that they tend to design their computer systems much like they would their branches.  Lots of security fences, lots of redundancies, lots of alarms.  Banks expect people to try and straight out rob them, so they harden themselves accordingly.  True, they can still be breached, and user data can be obtained, but banks will go berserk the minute a breach happens and they will be locking down everything related to the breach very quickly.  If you're lucky, you'll have about 24 hours worth of use out of that data, then it's pretty much wasted hard drive space.  Rather than hit the banks directly, hacking a game network would allow somebody to come at them sideways.  Remember how I asked what you would do if you had 70 million credit card accounts, all the personal data associated with those accounts, and a week's head start?  If I were the smarter version of Pachter's hypothetical "serious hacker," I'd be making relatively small money transfers.  A cash advance here, a direct withdrawl there.  Keep the limit down to a C-note at a time.  Even if I could only pull it off one time each for 10% of the accounts that I snagged, that's still 7 million accounts, and a Benjamin from each one of those accounts would add up to some serious money.  Banks look for big money transfers into and out of individual accounts.  Somebody shows up with a hundred million dollars and says, "I'd like to make a deposit," you can bet there's a manager on the phone to the Feds before the ink's even dry on the deposit slip.  Small money transfers, on the other hand, it's background noise to a bank.  A modicum of caution while pulling money out and putting in, nobody would have any reason to suspect anything, certainly nothing that would justify filling out a Suspicious Activity Report.  And if I were being extra smart about it, there would be a mix of ATM withdrawals and electronic fund transfers.  Shift a C-note to the bank of my choice, pull it out a few hours later, and the cash is mine.  I could go on about how ATM cameras would be recording me, but if I'm smart enough to have planned and executed a plunder on this scale, dealing with ATM cameras would have been factored into my thinking and a suitable countermeasure developed.  Bottom line: a gaming network is the perfect vehicle to rob a bank, because nobody will see it coming.

As my high school forensics coach told me oh so many years ago, it's considered good form to concede at least one of your opponent's points during a debate.  And while I firmly believe that describing Michael Pachter as a halfwit is overly generous praise, his little chat with Ars Technica did produce one point which I can agree with.  "Over the long run, we'll all forget about this, unless it happens again."  Perhaps not entirely accurate, but close enough.  The brouhaha will eventually die down, people will be fired, and life will return to something resembling normal.  How quickly things return to almost-normal, and how close they come to the established benchmark of normal prior to the breach, depends very heavily upon what Sony does next.  The smart thing to do would be complete disclosure.  Let the world see how thoroughly they fucked up and how badly they got taken.  Make sure that the conditions and the environment which allowed the breach to happen do not recur.  Sony needs to be crawling on their hands and knees over broken glass coated in lemon juice and salt to win their customers' confidence back.  Even then, it may never quite reach the level of confidence that they once enjoyed.  The question is how to prevent a new breach from happening.  If the hackers got in through a hacked PS3, what would Sony do?  Update the firmware to further cut off functionality?  Brick every PS3 currently out in the world and make their customers buy all new ones just to rebuild the integrity of the PSN?  Both of those options would almost certainly exacerbate an already infuriated customer base, as well as give hacker groups like Anonymous more grist for their mills.  Until Sony discloses how the hack was pulled off, it's exceedingly difficult to say how best to proceed.  Continuing to do what they've been doing for the last week is guaranteed to make the situation worse.  "Proactive" measures which somehow result in a further diminished user experience for the PSN when it finally does come back up will have the same effect.  For the immediate future, Sony is fucked as far as their customers are concerned, because there is nothing they can do that won't piss people off even more.  Even SCEA's board committing seppuku on YouTube wouldn't make people happy.  Sony will just have to take their lumps and contemplate the scale of repairs needed not only to the PSN, but to their reputation and their customer base.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Game of Thrones Recap - Episode 2 - The Kingsroad

The second episode of the series might carry the innocuous sounding title "The Kingsroad," but it might well have been called "Crime & Punishment," since that seemed to be a recurring theme throughout.

Danerys Targaryen could certainly make a strong claim for being punished for her brother Viserys' ambition, since it's clear at the start of the episode that getting railed like a porn star nightly by Khal Drogo is less than enjoyable to her.  Of course, Viserys' crime isn't ambition, but his willingness to pimp his sister out for power and the complete lack of anything regarding a principle.  To him, his sister is merely doing her job, and when Khal Drogo ceases to be a useful ally, she can do her job with some other sucker.  For Jorah Mormont, the knight who's decided to serve the Targaryens, his crime is a little more obvious.  Rather than execute some poachers, or give them the option to "take the black" and join the Night's Watch, Mormont instead sold them off as slaves.  In Pentos, such a thing wouldn't even rate a mild cluck of disapproval.  But in Westeros, it's the sort of thing that gets the King's Justice after you, and makes you abandon your position as the head of your family.  Naturally, Viserys thinks Mormont's a great guy.

Prince Joffrey runs into the nature of crime and punishment twice in the episode.  The first time is when he rousts his uncle Tyrion from the kennels where "The Imp" has passed out after another night of drinking (and doubtlessly wenching).  Some time has passed between Bran's fall from the tower and the present, and Joffrey hasn't exactly been a perfect guest.  Tyrion instructs his nephew to offer his sympathies and his services to the Starks.  Joffrey refuses, leading to Tyrion slapping him.  Every refusal, every protest, Tyrion slaps the kid, and keeps at it until Joffrey goes off to talk to the Starks.  This is a pretty important character reveal for both Tyrion and Joffrey.  For Tyrion, it reveals his knowledge of politics, as well as showing how very unlike his family he really is.  For Joffrey, it demonstrates that he's a very slow learner, and the archetypal spoiled prince.  When your lecherous drunk dwarf of an uncle slaps you around and tells you to stop being an asshole, it should be pretty obvious that "prince" only applies to your social standing and not your social skills.

At this moment, we're properly introduced to Sandor Clegane (played by Rory McCann), a mercenary, thug, and general no-goodnik who goes by the nickname "The Hound."  His current job is bodyguard for Joffrey.  When he remarks that Tyrion will likely have to explain himself later about why he slapped Joffrey, the dwarf is unconcerned.  If anything, Tyrion realizes that being the Queen's brother lets him get away with a lot of behavior that would get other people maimed if not killed, and he's prepared to take almost ruthless advantage of that fact.

Jaime and Cersei Lannister are also thinking about crime and punishment, though not necessarily in the same fashion.  For all his political and family connections, Jaime knows that he's done some pretty ugly things in his life.  It's one thing to be a regicide, carrying the epithet "Kingslayer" even if the king in question was mad as a hatter.  Screwing your sister, who also happens to be the Queen, that's something else entirely.  And attempted murder, particularly the attempted murder of a child, is probably something that at one time he thought would be beyond the pale even for him.  Now, he knows better, and there's definitely a little bit of self-disgust going on behind those pretty eyes of his.  When Tyrion remarks that he's "most interested to hear what the boy has to say when he wakes up," you can see the wheels turning in Jaime's head.  Will he have to add fratricide, or even just attempted fratricide, to the list of crimes he's committed?  Cersei doesn't seem as concerned about Tyrion finding out, though we've seen that she can be a really good actress when the situation calls for it.  After breakfast, she talks with Catelyn Stark, offering her sympathies and her prayers for Bran's recovery.  She even goes as far as talking to Cat about her first child, one born before Joffrey, who died of a disease while still very young.  Cat, who hasn't left Bran's side since he was brought in, thanks Cersei for her concern and her prayers.

Of course, Cat's motherly side disappears completely once Jon comes into the room.  While Robb and Arya treat him like he's their full brother, which Jon fully reciprocates, Cat simply cannot bring herself to love him even a little bit.  Jon's love and concern for Bran offends her greatly and she continues to punish him with scorn and loathing for the crime of being Ned's bastard son.  Of course, she also punishes Ned a little bit for having a bastard son in the first place.  She reminds him that the last time he rode south to King's Landing, he came back a year later with Jon, and she's clearly afraid the same thing is going to happen again, or worse.

We already know Bran's "crime" was only to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and some would say that being tossed off a tower and laying comatose in bed with only medieval-level medical science available to him would be punishment enough.  But no, somebody has decided that Bran needs to be permanently and thoroughly silenced.  Of course, some punishments are a little more swift than others, as Bran's would-be assassin discovers to his surprise when Summer (Bran's direwolf) comes to his boy's rescue and rips the assassin's throat out.  Once the threat is dealt with, Summer simply lays down next to Bran on the bed and looks at Cat, as if telling her, "Go take care of business around the castle, I've got this."

Sansa and Arya both learn a great deal about crime and punishment while traveling with Ned to King's Landing.  For Arya, her crime basically is that she's not much of a girl.  Sure, she has to wear the dresses and takes the sewing classes and do all the girly stuff she's expected to do.  But it's clear that she doesn't want to do any of that, and worse, her natural talents predispose her to pursuits considered more manly like archery and swordplay.  And while she might say "ouch" when getting hit with a stick while fencing with a butcher's boy along a river, she's not going to go crying or pouting because of it.  On the other hand, Sansa's great crime is being an empty headed little simp.  She so thoroughly believes the hype of princes, princesses, and "happily ever after" that she literally can't see how much of a toad Joffrey is to everybody.  For the second time in the episode, Joffrey learns about crime and punishment, though it's doubtful this lesson will stick any better than the last one.  His crime is more or less the same as before, terminal assholery, though he adds assault with a deadly weapon to the mix when he takes his sword and cuts the cheek of the butcher's boy Arya was playing with, supposedly as punishment for hitting Arya with a stick.  Arya responds by whacking Joffrey once with her stick, drawing his attention away from the butcher's boy.  Joffrey chases Arya and ends up with his sword pointed at her chest, threatening to cut her badly (and my, what lovely vocabulary he has, Mom should be so proud of him).  At this point, Arya's direwolf Nymeria provides us with another demonstration of why threatening a direwolf's two-legged packmates is a very bad idea.  Nymeria doesn't kill Joffrey, but he won't be playing tennis or threatening violent assault anytime soon.  When Arya picks up Joffrey's sword and has him in the same position she was in moments earlier, we realize that Joffrey is not only a bully, but he's a stupid bully.  It's viscerally satisfying to hear him blubber for his life, but you can't help but think the world would be a better place with him no longer in it.  Showing far more mercy than Joffrey deserves, Arya throws his sword into the river rather than run the little toad through.  And Sansa?  She yells at Arya for "ruining everything" and pleads with Joffrey to not hurt her.

Arya knows she's in trouble, and worse, Nymeria is in trouble.  Chewing on a prince's arm might be satisfying, but it's not going to be looked upon favorably by the powers that be.  Nymeria's only hope for survival is to get as far away as possible from Arya, and Arya knows it.  It takes throwing a rock at her furry friend to convince Nymeria to run, but Arya believes it's for the best.  The scene where Nymeria is looking at Arya while the girl tries to get her to run away brings to mind the old saw about "no good deed goes unpunished."   The truth of that saw is brought home rather brutally when Robert  holds court in the local inn about the incident.  Joffrey, being not only a bully but a lying weasel, makes it sound like Arya deliberately orchestrated an attack with a commoner, her direwolf, and a pair of large clubs.  Arya refutes the charge, but Sansa plays dumb.  Caught between her sister, her would-be husband (the betrothal mentioned in Episode 1 is a done deal at this point), and her King, she wimps out and claims not to have a clear recollection.  Robert's willing to let the matter drop, with both fathers disciplining their respective children, but Cersei demands blood.  Since Nymeria is gone, Cersei sees absolutely no problem with Sansa's direwolf Lady standing in.  Ned asks Robert if this is really what he wants to do, indirectly reminding him that he's the King, and should have the final say in the matter.  Robert's silence is telling.  Never one to shirk responsibility, Ned informs Cersei he'll do it himself.  Cersei suspects a trick, but Ned assures her there will be no tricks from him.  The amount of pain and regret on Ned's face as he cuts Lady's throat is palpable.  However little he might have wanted the direwolves around in the first place, they're as much a part of the family now as his daughters and sons.  Even Jon Snow.  Yet, as Ned is executing one of his furry children, Bran finally awakens.  A shame Tyrion's not there to hear what he has to say.

If there was any sort of secondary theme to the episode, it would be that of enlightenment, of learning unpleasant truths and making decisions based upon those truths.  Jon learns the truth that the Night's Watch isn't all comprised of selfless heroes, but just as easily rapists and murderers can fill their ranks.  Cat learns that what happened to Bran really wasn't an accident and that the Lannisters are very likely involved right up to their pretty blonde heads.  The telling evidence was the weapon used by Bran's would-be assassin, a dagger made of Valyrian steel with a dragonbone hilt.  More background on this below.  Ned learns that Robert's actual power is very sharply circumscribed when it comes to the whims of his wife, and her whims seem entirely too focused on her family and herself rather than the Seven Kingdoms.  Daenerys learns, with the help of a slave/lady-in-waiting, that she doesn't have to just take it like a Boy Scout when it comes to sex with Khal Drogo.  If anything, she can probably do what Dothraki hordes and Free Cities merchant princes couldn't: she can make the Lord of the Dothraki her slave, subject to her desires and wishes, if only she's willing to take him as roughly as he's been taking her up to this point.  As for Sansa, well, much like her betrothed, she's a very slow learner.  She can't quite shake her illusions, the fairy tale crap still mucking up her thought processes in the face of harsh reality.  And where she's going, slow learners tend to get eaten alive.

I'm hoping you're hating the wait for these episodes as much as I am.  Only two episodes in, HBO's greenlighted the next season, where things get even more intense, and I'm almost dying for the next one to come in.

Winter is coming.



*-----*-----*-----*-----*-----*-----*
BACKGROUND NOTE: VALYRIAN STEEL
Just as the forging of Damascus steel was considered a lost art for many years in the real world, Valyrian steel is a lost art for the peoples of Westeros and the Free Cities.  The only difference is that rediscovering Damascus steel didn't require magic be present in the world.

Valyrian steel is the closest that any character in Game of Thrones will ever come to owning the stereotypical "magic weapon" beloved of fantasy settings.  In a world where "castle forged steel" is the gold standard which virtually every soldier and general recognizes, Valyrian steel represents history, a link to a much different and romanticized past.  Stronger, slightly lighter, and able to hold an edge far better than regular ferrous alloys, Valyrian steel is vanishingly rare in the world.  Ownership of a weapon made of this material marks the individual as either very rich or unspeakably lucky, almost always the former.  Eddard Stark's greatsword Ice is one such weapon.  The fact that the assassin carried a dagger whose blade was Valyrian steel and whose hilt was made of dragonbone is a dead giveaway that there's an individual with a lot of money and a lot of power at their disposal.  To give some modern context in terms of scarcity and cost rather than relative force, the assassin carrying that dagger would be roughly the same as a gangbanger trying to rob a 7-11 with a Hellfire-armed Predator drone.  Dragonbone is not a metaphorical name, but a literal one.  In the books, dragonbone is a semi-ferrous material that comprised the skeletons of the dragons that the Valyrians used in their ancient conquests and which House Targaryen used to seize and cement their hold on Westeros.  Despite it's iron content, dragonbone is remarkably light.  It too is increasingly rare in the world, since there are no more living dragons that anybody knows about.

Valyrian steel can be reforged easily enough, but the process for creating new Valyrian steel is lost, hence the great value placed upon such weapons.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Game of Thrones Recap - Episode 1 - Winter Is Coming

(Note: The following article would have appeared on Suite101.com if not for their idiotic policy demanding one "high quality" image be attached to every single article, a recent change which is particularly troublesome for those of us who are writing recaps like this one.  You, my readers, get to enjoy this here because of somebody else's stupidity.)


Last night, HBO launched their new series, Game of Thrones, based off the novel of the same name written by George R.R. Martin. It manages to pack in a great deal of action and a rather formidable cast of characters into just one hour, with ten more left to go. Rather than the high heroic fantasy of Tolkien, Martin gives us a very low fantasy setting. Yes, there's magic, but it's vanishingly rare. Yes, there are creatures that are arguably supernatural to one degree or another, but they too are not common. The world that the characters inhabit is driven by motives anybody can understand: love, honor, greed, lust, power, hatred. And yet, for all the turmoil that will eventually engulf two continents and countless lives, it all starts so quietly

The continent of Westeros holds The Seven Kingdoms, once ruled by Mad King Aerys Targaryen and now by the man who deposed him, Robert Baratheon (played by Mark Addy). The northernmost border of the Seven Kingdoms is delineated by The Wall, a massive fortification of ice stretching from one coast to the other, manned by a sworn brotherhood known as the Night's Watch. Three members of the Watch make their way through the Wall to perform what should be a normal patrol against wildlings, the people indigenous to the area. One member of the patrol finds a camp of dead and dismembered wildlings and brings his comrades over to show them the find, only to see nothing but fresh snow in the campsite. Moments later, the patrol is attacked by one of the few supernatural beings of the series, an undead creature known as a white walker. Far from the stereotypical zombie, they are swift and merciless, killing two members of the patrol while leaving the third alive to tell the tale.

The survivor deserts the Night's Watch, an act which will earn him a death sentence. Somehow, he makes it far enough south to come into the domain of Winterfell, where he's captured by soldiers of House Stark, the ruling noble family in the area. Word of the deserter reaches Eddard Stark (played by Sean Bean), Lord of The North, as he watches over three of his sons while they work on archery practice. His wife Catelyn (played by Michelle Fairly) is with him when the news is delivered. Duty demands that Eddard, or "Ned" as he's called by friends and family, be the one to pass judgment and carry out the sentence. When Catelyn objects to Ned taking their younger son Bran (played by Isaac Hempstead-Wright) to watch an execution, Ned reminds his wife of the family motto, "Winter is coming." The motto not only provides the episode title, but also the grim mindset of House Stark, a more pessimistic take on "be prepared."

The deserter accepts that he will be executed but insists that he really did encounter a white walker, beings who have theoretically been gone for thousands of years. A single swift stroke of a large greatsword is all that is required to behead the deserter for his crime. When Bran asks his father if the deserter really saw a white walker, Ned is clearly reluctant to believe him. While making their way home, Ned, Bran, Ned's oldest son Robb (played by Richard Madden), Ned's illegitimate son Jon Snow (played by Kit Harrington), and Ned's ward Theon Greyjoy (played by Alfie Allen) come across a strange sight. A stag lies in the middle of the road, disemboweled, one of it's antlers broken off. Just off the road is a direwolf, dead with the missing antler chunk through it's throat, and with a litter of five pups trying to suckle. As Jon points out, the direwolf is the animal which forms House Stark's crest, and five pups is the exact number of Ned's legitimate children. Taking it as a sign, the pups are gathered up to be returned to Winterfell. As they're leaving, Jon finds a sixth pup, an albino, and the runt of the litter. Despite some light mockery by Theon, Jon brings the pup home with him.

Shortly after their return to the castle, Ned gets more news, none of it good. The first piece is the death of Jon Aryn, the King's Hand, and a foster father of sorts to both Ned and Robert. The second piece is that Robert is making his way to Winterfell with his wife and a full entourage. Ned and Catelyn both know what will inevitably happen: Robert will ask Ned to become the King's Hand, the most powerful person in Westeros after the King himself. To do this will mean Ned having to relocate the family to the capitol of King's Landing. It's a big decision, and it's putting the duty owed to family squarely against duty owed to the kingdom, as well as to Ned's best friend.

Robert's arrival is well received by the Stark family. Robert himself is a jovial man, though his jest that Ned has gotten fat reflects more upon him than his friend. Robert's wife, Cersei (played by Lena Headey), is clearly making the best of a bad situation as she greets the Starks. Ned's younger daughter Arya (played by Maisie Williams) quickly identifies Jaime Lannister (played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), but asks her older sister Sansa (played by Sophie Turner) where "The Imp" is. "The Imp" is the rather unflattering nickname given to Tyrion Lannister (played by Peter Dinklage), a dwarf who is Cersei and Jaime's younger brother. Tyrion seems to be enjoying his first visit to Winterfell far more than his sister, as evidenced by the ale he drinks and the prostitute whose company he's enjoying. His brother Jaime makes it clear that Tyrion's presence is practically required at the evening's banquet, and the four fresh prostitutes Jaime ushers in make it clear that business will be attended to after pleasure.

Within the Stark family crypt, Robert offers the position of the Hand to Ned. Even after all the time he's had to think about it before Robert's arrival, Ned is clearly reluctant. Robert reminds Ned of all that they have between them: the childhood shared under the tutelage of Jon Aryn, the betrothal of Ned's deceased sister Lyanna to Robert, and the war that they fought together which ultimately put Robert on the Iron Throne of Westeros. It's a long history, and Ned knows it. Adding to the difficulty of the decision is Robert's offer to arrange a marriage between his oldest son Joffrey (played by Jack Gleeson) and Sansa. Ned defers making a decision until later and Robert is happy to let him work it out, confident that his friend will accept the position eventually.

The banquet welcoming Robert and the court to Winterfell is uncomfortable for several of the Starks. Catelyn is bound as hostess to entertain Cersei, whose mask of polite gentility is slowly slipping. When Sansa introduces herself to Cersei, the Queen swings between polite and fictitious praise for Sansa's sewing skills to gracelessly asking whether or not she's menstruating yet. Ned's brother Benjen (played by Joseph Mawle) has come down from the Wall as an emissary of the Night's Watch, hoping to get some time with Robert to discuss shortages of supplies and manpower at the Wall. Jon Snow expresses his desire to join the Night's Watch to his uncle, but Benjen rebuffs him, telling Jon to wait till he's experienced a little more of the world first. Tyrion also has some choice words for Jon, telling him to claim the word "bastard" for his own so that nobody can make it a slur against him. When Jon asks Tyrion what he knows about being a bastard, Tyrion replies quite bluntly, "All dwarves are bastards in the eyes of their fathers."

Far to the east, in the Free City of Pentos, the last two scions of House Targaryen begin their bid to reclaim the Iron Throne from "The Usurper" Robert, though only one of them has any great enthusiasm for the plan. Viserys Targaryen (played by Harry Lloyd) has been wandering the Free Cities looking for an army big enough and strong enough to reclaim the throne from Robert, and he believes that he has finally found it. The price, as far as he's concerned, is a mere trifle. Only his sister, Daenerys (played by Emilia Clarke), getting married off to the leader of the Dothraki Horde, Khal Drogo (played by Jason Momoa). The marriage has been brokered by one of the merchant-princes of Pentos, Illyrio Mopatis, who has given the Targaryens shelter for the last year or so in his home. Daenerys is clearly uncomfortable with the idea of being married off to a man she's never met before, but Viserys makes it clear what's expected of her. "I would let every man in Khal Drogo's horde, all forty thousand of them, fuck you if it means getting my throne back," he tells her.
The wedding ceremony and feast, since it's a little hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, is quite literally an orgy of sex and violence. If slave women aren't being used sexually, it's only because Dothraki warriors are currently fighting each other to death for the momentary privilege. As Illyrio explains to Viserys, "Any Dothraki wedding where less than three people are killed is considered a dull affair." Among the various wedding gifts Daenerys receives are a set of petrified dragon's eggs from Illyrio and some books from an exiled Westeros knight named Jorah Mormont (played by Iain Glen). Daenerys' final wedding gift is the horse that she will ride alongside Drogo, given to her by her new husband. When she asks Mormont how to say thank you in Dothraki, he tells her, "There is no word for 'thank you' in Dothraki." At sunset, on a beach far removed from the party, the marriage is consummated as Daenerys begins to cry.

The morning after the feast at Winterfell, Robert and Ned decide to go boar hunting. While they ride off, Bran decides it's a perfectly good opportunity for some free climbing along the castle walls. Earlier in the episode, Catelyn had chastised Bran for climbing along the walls and tried to extract a promise that he would stop. The temptation this time proves to be Bran's undoing. Despite his mother's warnings about slipping and falling, Bran clearly knows how to climb and hold his grip against any surface the castle can offer. It's only when he climbs to the top of an abandoned tower that he eventually falls through no fault of his own. Within the tower's top chamber, part of it ruined and exposed, Bran finds Cersei and Jaime having sex with each other. Jaime gets hold of Bran, briefly consults with Cersei, then sighs, "The things I do for love," as he pushes Bran off the top of the tower, ending the episode.

For an opening episode, this one packed in a lot of action in what seemed like a very short amount of time. One hour just shot by so quickly, and there was no hint that the episode was wrapping up until that final blackout with Bran falling from the tower. The players have been established and the opening moves in the game of thrones have been made. HBO deserves high praise for bringing the book to life so thoroughly and with a high degree of fidelity. It's going to be hell waiting for the next episode.

Remember, "Winter is coming."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Great Firewall of America

For the last year or so, I've been keeping an eye on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) with a slightly more than casual level in interest.  It is a far reaching and expansive "trade" treaty that seeks to impose harsh penalties on copyright infringers and those who deal in counterfeit goods.  A little over a year ago, the Obama Administration refused to divulge any information about ACTA in the first place, citing "national security concerns."  Over the last ten years, anybody citing "national security concerns" over anything that isn't remotely related to defense spending, intelligence activities, or military deployments automatically falls into the category of suspicious as hell in my mind.  Naturally, the text of the draft agreement leaked out on to the Internet.  At that time, the most heinous portions of the agreement were provisions that demanded DMCA-style "notice-and-takedown" rules that demanded material be removed from websites by ISPs if the ISP received word that the material was infringing on somebody's copyright, without any actual effort or mechanism to investigate the veracity of the complaint or appeal the decision.  Additionally, there were provisions that prohibited breaking DRM for any reason (again, shades of the DMCA), and rules requiring ISPs to actively police sites with user-contributed material for potential copyright violations, as well as cutting off Internet access to accused (not convicted) infringers.  The entire Blogger site, not just this blog, would doubtlessly shut down because of the literally prohibitive cost involved in trying to cover the costs of lawyers who did nothing all day but scour blogs looking for POSSIBLE copyright infringements.

A year later, things have not gotten any better.  Two months ago, the MPAA sent a representative to an information meeting about ACTA down in Mexico.  It's not terribly surprising in and of itself, since the MPAA has championed the cause of ACTA by crying foul over piracy and believing that ACTA (or the analogous American version of it, COICA) would allow it to finally crush movie piracy in much the same way that the Death Star was supposed to crush the Rebel Alliance.  What was surprising at this meeting was that the MPAA rep asked the seemingly innocuous question of whether or not ACTA could be used to block "dangerous" web sites such as WikiLeaks.  Keep in mind that this was coming shortly after WikiLeaks dumped almost a hundred thousand pages worth of documents that the Pentagon had classified which contained some of its dirty laundry.  The government was pissed off at WikiLeaks and such a question answered in the affirmative could very easily be used as justification to go after equally "dangerous" web sites, though the danger the MPAA is most afraid of is the danger to the bottom lines of the studios as opposed to any trifling concerns about the safety of troops in the field or American civilians potentially targeted by terrorists.

Recently, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) left the Senate Judiciary Committee.  As the EFF reported earlier today, the bill probably won't come up to the full Senate until the start of the next session, but it's troubling given bipartisan opposition to the bill and a host of engineers who basically helped assemble the Internet piece by piece, protocol by protocol.  The first most troubling element of the bill is the blacklist.  The Attorney General (or those underlings acting in the name of the Attorney General's Office) would suddenly have the power to kill a website if it allegedly had infringing material.  Much like the DMCA and ACTA, there's no mechanism in place to contest or appeal such an action, nor is there any provision for an investigation into verifying a claim of copyright infringement.  DMCA claims aren't 100% right, what's to say that the COICA would have a better average?  It's an unregulated, unchecked, and unspeakably dangerous power.  There is simply too little in the way to prevent a gross abuse of the power.  The Attorney General's Office and the Attorney General are not elected officials, but rather filled by executive appointment, which means there is absolutely no means of accountability that can effectively be exercised against them.  Unaccountable bureaucrats given unchecked power is completely anathema to every principle America claims to hold dear.

The second most troubling element of COICA is the subversion (or perversion, if you prefer) of the DNS infrastructure currently under U.S. control.  For the last sixteen years, ever since the Internet became open to public and commercial use, the U.S. has rightly maintained a very hands-off policy towards Domain Name System servers.  You type in "Google" in the address bar of your browser, your command brings up Google by directing the request to one of the many servers which hold an IP address owned by Google.  This simple mechanism allows used to access sites both puritanical and prurient, commercial and crass, polished and amateurish.  Nations like China, Iran, Burma, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia have various filters and cutouts in place to divert requests for "undesirable" sites to sites that are "approved" by the existing regimes, or outright block the requests from ever reaching the undesirable sites, essentially cutting them off from being seen on the "official" Internet by their inhabitants.  Such filtering and blocking, exemplified by "The Great Firewall of China," is in place to crush dissent, inhibit communication, and ultimately control the population to keep the existing regimes in power by attempting to mask the inherent flaws and weaknesses in the system.  Yet this bill proposes that we emulate those countries, countries that the State Department, the United Nations, and various private organizations have been hectoring for years about their repressive Internet policies.  Worse, the bill proposes we do so not to prop up the existing government, but to prop up media conglomerates, businesses that have grown bloated over the years and are deathly afraid of technologies that have the potential to render them extinct.  The fact that the U.S. government would have the means to do precisely the same thing as the aforementioned nations is merely poisonous gravy.

The COICA, much like the PATRIOT Act, has been rushed through with absolutely indecent haste, previous efforts to table the bill notwithstanding.  Like the PATRIOT Act, the stated benefits cannot possibly outweigh the potential liabilities.  Unlike the PATRIOT Act, the single purpose motivating this unholy abortion of a bill is pure unadulterated greed, whatever high minded language might be employed to claim otherwise.

Normally, I don't ask much of my readers.  I take it as a given that my work will eventually percolate through the Internet and people will read it.  This once, I'd take it as a personal kindness if people who read this would pass a link along to friends and family members.  I want people to get mad about this, because it's something they rightly should be mad about.  I know that it doesn't seem as important as the unemployment situation, or the financial markets, or the fact that gas and food prices are going up.  It's not one of those issues that seemingly has any survival value.  Rather, it's an issue that affects the value of survival, and it's important for that reason.  What does it gain you to have food in your gut and gas in your tank, but live under threat of being silenced and cut off from the larger world just because some rich bastards in Hollywood are crying foul?  Nothing, which is precisely what you have to lose by spreading the word.  Thanks.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

May It Please The Court

Much like my late Uncle David, I'm most likely never going to be a lawyer, though he at least finished law school before deciding he couldn't stand the law profession.  Because of my future non-status as a lawyer, I will never likely get the chance to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.  The closest I may ever come is filing an amicus brief at some point, and even that's dubious.  That being said, I would like to weigh in on the matter of Schwarzenegger vs. Entertainment Merchants Assn. currently under review.

May it please the court...

Peter Ustinov once said that in a free society, one must put up with a great deal of nonsense.  As a gamer myself, I will not deny that when you get right down to the core of them, video games are nonsense.  They are expensive electronic fripperies, many of them poorly designed, many of them poorly executed, and many of them incapable of producing anything of inherent value beyond a minimal sense of enjoyment built up through  the few hours needed to progress from start to finish, a sense of enjoyment that fades as soon as the game is put away or erased off a hard drive.  As a reviewer, I see a lot of games whose aesthetic and artistic content ranges from non-existent to superlative, with the bulk of them falling into the range of mediocre to average.  The ratio of good games to bad ones is badly lopsided in favor of the bad ones it seems.  And while I believe that there are games out there who attempt to paper over a basically weak concept with excessive and possibly even gratuitous amounts of violence, I cannot see there being a compelling reason for the law in question to stand.

So far, the law in question has been struck down by the California Supreme Court and by the Ninth Circuit.  Nothing unusual about that.  Laws get struck down, appeals are made further up the ladder until one day, they arrive at the Supreme Court for the final ruling.  It's not even particularly notable that the California Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit are both based in California.  What is notable is that laws similar to the law in question, across the entire country, have gone up to the appropriate federal circuit court judges and not a single one has survived.  For a nation as expansive and as diverse in ideas, creeds, and mentalities as ours, the fact that these laws keep getting struck down suggests that there is at least one constant in American jurisprudence insofar as video games are concerned.  That constant is that the State's interest in controlling the sales of these games does not outweigh the First Amendment's protection regarding the content of the games.  While a particular game might have objectionable amounts of violent content, the State cannot have a blanket ban on all games with violent content.  As much as it might irritate or outrage certain personages, the price of living in a free society means having to put up with the nonsense of violent video games.  A person may be outraged about the amount of violent content in a game, but since they live in a free society, they are blessedly under no obligation to purchase that game.  Just as a violent video game essentially ignores an individual's personal offense at its subject matter, the offended individual can ignore the violent video game by simply not buying it.  It is less a moral issue than a market issue.

"But think of the children!"  Ah, yes.  The cry for preserving the moral rectitude of the next generation of citizens.  A cry which has been uttered over the years with the advent of television, motion pictures, rock music, radio, comic books, rap music, and even the printing press.  Given this universal human propensity to view with alarm any media which potentially could expose children to images and concepts which an adult would find objectionable, it's not much of a stretch to picture an ancient Egyptian worrying about the potential harm of hieroglyphics on young and impressionable minds.  Fundamentally, it is difficult to disagree with the basic idea of controlling the exposure of young minds to content for which they are not yet mentally or emotionally capable of processing.  The disagreement stems not from the desired ends, but from the desired means.  The administration and education of moral and ethical propriety is properly the function of parents, not the State.  Mother and Father know best, not Big Brother.  If it were any other issue besides video games, the suggestion that the State somehow has not only a superior interest but a superior ability to properly raise children into morally and ethically functional adults would cause a full blown rebellion among the populace.  The law in question presumes that superior interest and ability while failing to provide any sort of proof to support the presumption.  And while society has produced and will always produce exceptional individuals who are morally and or ethically bankrupt, the failure to instill those exceptional individuals with the proper background generally rests with the parents, barring extreme cases of genuine physiological defect or subsequent physical injury.

A noted game designer named Sid Meier once described the general concept of video games as "a series of interesting choices."  I would expand upon that definition to read "a series of interesting choices within a specifically arranged set of circumstances."  A player makes choices within a game which their electronic alter ego performs.  However, there are choices which a player might like to make but which are essentially impossible within the circumstances of the game.  The freedom of choice within the confines of a video game are sometimes arbitrarily narrow, either because of mechanical limitations or the intent of the developers to explore a specific set of storylines and thematic issues, but they also have the potential to be quite expansive.  Because of this, some of the "visual aids" with which the Court has thus far seen and reacted to with distaste are inherently dishonest.  The fact that you can act like a complete and utter psychopath in Postal 2 does not mean that you are obligated to do so, and in fact it's possible to beat the game by reacting in a purely defensive fashion to immediate threats to your alter ego's safety.  As the development company, Running With Scissors, pointed out during their original marketing campaign, "It's only as violent as you are!"  The scandalous "Hot Coffee" content in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which could only be accessed on the PC version of the game and even then requiring a bit of hacking to get at, is a minor element in a series which has routinely mocked the nihilism and self-destructive behavior of the romanticized "life of crime" which some people still believe to be a viable lifestyle.  As with Postal 2, the fact that you can act like a thug, a hoodlum, or a wiseguy in-between the chapters of the game's storyline doesn't mean that you are in any way obligated to do so.  And while developers cannot account for every possible permutation of choice within their games, they can keep the effects of those choices within the confines of the game, perhaps upsetting or disturbing a player's actual state of mind, perhaps enlightening it, perhaps generating nothing at all.  The final impact of the choices made within the confines of a game is that the game ends.  If a person has dreams with content influenced by the game and the choices they made within the game, it's little more than coincidence.  There is no reason to believe that violent video games are brainwashing American youth into psychopathic killing machines.

"But what about Columbine?!  They customized a video game to practice killing people!"  While I will not deny the Columbine shootings in particular, and school shootings in general, were tragic and deeply disturbing, I am not going to take the easy road and blame an inanimate object for the actions of psychologically disturbed individuals.  When a person modifies an automobile and gets into a wreck which kills somebody, do we blame the car manufacturer?  Do we blame the company who made the customized parts for the car?  No, we blame the driver, because the driver was in control of the vehicle at the time of the collision.  By the same token, blaming violent video games for a school shooting just because the perpetrators played the games or even modified the games to further their depraved fantasies and psychoses is equally spurious.  A more apt analogy would be the federal government charging Martin Scorcese as an accomplice before the fact in the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.  John Hinckley, Jr. had attempted the assassination in an effort to impress Jodie Foster, whom he'd become obsessed with having watched the movie Taxi Driver an inordinate number of times.  Yet Scorcese was never charged, nor was there even a hint of charging him, and rightly so.  Had any lawyer tried to proceed with such a prosecution, they'd have been laughed out of court.  Put simply, crazy people don't need violent video games to help them be crazy.

"What about that guy that killed himself over EverQuest?"  Same basic premise, slightly different circumstances.  The end result was the same.  The game did not tell him to kill himself, and efforts to hold the game company liable are laughable.  The man clearly needed, and clearly wasn't receiving, some very rigorous psychiatric assistance.  The game did not prevent him from getting the help he needed.

"What about the woman who shook her child to death because she was playing FarmVille?"  Having played FarmVille myself, I can tell you that it's probably one of the least violent video games ever made.  You plant flowers and vegetables, you pick them, you sell them, you plant more.  The fact that this woman shook her child to death while playing a non-violent video game seems to lend credence to the idea that it's not the games that are at fault for violent behavior.

The First Amendment covers not only the written word, but visual representations, audio recordings, and various other artistic media through which individuals or groups of individuals can express themselves with the promise that their work will not be subject to punitive sanctions from the State.  Video games, as a medium for artistic expression, are still very much in their infancy, despite having been around in one form or another for the past quarter century.  If one looks back, one would find a very strong historical parallel between video games and comic books.  Prior to 1954, comic books were not just for children.  Comic book stories were not simply about superheroes, but covered a broad range genres and topics.  You had detective stories right up there with the best film noir.  You had horror themed comics with gruesome monsters and hapless victims.  The potential for storylines and characterizations on par with great literature fused with cutting edge artwork by some of the most talented artists of the generation was almost palpable.  And then, one child psychologist by the name of Fredric Wertham went and published a book by the title Seduction of The Innocent, which was nothing more than a screed blaming comic books for every sort of social ill present at the time.  It whipped up sufficient furor that the U.S. Senate was contemplating regulation of the comic book industry.  Instead of regulation, the Comics Code was established.  A more benighted and patently offensive edifice of censorship likely has not been created in the entire history of the country.  A "code of conduct" that forbid not only depictions of violence and overt sexual content, but also forbid the depiction of concealed weapons (for reasons I can't fathom), any mention of supernatural creatures such as vampires or zombies (most likely aimed deliberately at publisher William Gaines, famous for Tales From The Crypt and MAD), any hint or suggestion that the police or courts couldn't be trusted, and enforced endings where the good guy always won and the criminal always punished.  Today, history looks at Seduction of The Innocent and the Comics Code, and the conclusion drawn invariably is that it crippled the comic book industry.  That a new and exciting form of artistic media was smothered and almost killed in the name of a moralistic fantasy more divorced from reality than any superhero or horror comic ever could be.  Surely, the esteemed justices of the Court know that sometimes the cops really are the bad guys, that convicted criminals really are innocent victims, and that the good guys can in fact lose.  I find it an overwhelming irony that the author of the law in question is a child psychologist.

A final point of consideration for the Court.  The law in question is supposed to affect retailers who knowingly sell what is to be determined (by mechanisms yet undefined and regulatory entities yet unformed) to be an excessively violent video game to minors.  Yet the law does not appear to make any provisions for or mention of companies who are using digital distribution methods for video games.  Will Sony or Microsoft be slapped with a fine each time a game that doesn't meet the law's standards gets sold through their respective online marketplaces?  Will people who purchase a game through Valve's Steam service or Stardock's Impulse service unwittingly open those companies up to fines if their title is played by a child within the household?  Or worse, by a neighbor's child?  The potential for spurious civil suits cropping up based off these scenarios makes my skin crawl.

I leave you honored jurists with a quote from Justice Louis Brandeis.  "Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government's purposes are beneficent.  Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers.  The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

100 Movies You Need To See - Part VII: Horror

Since it is October, and I have been kinda dragging my heels on getting this list out, the timing for this section is quite apropos.  Horror movies are as much a staple of cinema as Westerns and crime dramas.  Some of the earliest movies were horror movies, and while we might think them campy or cheesy now, we have to remember that it was new technology back then.  The fear factor was as much in the technology itself as it was in the plot or characters.  Part of me would like to see some contemporary horror movies that evoke the moody Gothic feel of those early films, instead of relying on gore and shock value.  And no more sparkly vampires.  Ever.


Lord of Illusions – It's a Clive Barker film, and one that's somewhat more understated than the Hellraiser series.  “Understated” however doesn't mean it wimps out on the chills.

The Thing – The best John Carpenter horror movie he ever made.

An American Werewolf In London – John Landis has a truly screwball sense of humor.  Mix that with the curse of lycanthropy and you have a trippy scary monster movie.

Dracula – The classic vampire film.  Bela Lugosi may have been perpetually typecast because of it, but he's still “The Count.”

Tremors – It's a modern movie, but it's got the style of a classic '50s monster movie.

Silver Bullet – Another werewolf movie, but this one's played straight.  And it works well.

From Dusk Till Dawn – The horror element doesn't show up till about halfway through the movie.  That's what makes it so damn effective.

Creepshow – The film that firmly established the “anthology” movie genre, in my opinion, since it spawned Tales From The Dark Side and Tales From The Hood.  Notable for Stephen King's essentially one man show.

Flatliners – The cast list sounded like one of those “today's biggest stars” grab bags, but the premise is creepy and the acting is really well done.

Stir of Echoes – This one got lost in the noise from The Sixth Sense, which is a shame because I think it's probably the better movie.  Watching Kevin Bacon go crazy is a lot more fun than watching Bruce Willis play dumb.


Next Time: Drama

A Year Without A Paycheck

One year ago today, my job unofficially ended.  We were taken aside, one by one, told we were getting severance, and then got walked out of the building.  Officially, we were still employed till the 15th of November.  I can't say it wasn't a terribly big surprise.  And to be fair, we'd been essentially sitting on our asses and getting paid for the last couple of months prior.  Still working, but not nearly as much as we had been.

Funny how time slips away, isn't it?

A year later, I'm still out of work.  The job hunt has been a bigger challenge than at any other time I can think of, even worse than when I moved back to Phoenix ten years ago.  The economy is in the toilet.  The tech sector which I've had a career in has become a hell of a lot more picky about hiring.  In fact, every sector has gotten picky.  Even temp work is hard to get these days.  Over the last 365 days, I've had precisely one temp job lasting six hours, which was a couple weeks ago.  I've sent out more resumes and applications than I can easily count.  I've gotten dozens of form emails essentially telling me I didn't get the job.  I've been ignored by dozens more.  I've had headhunters tell me they can get me work, and I've heard a recruiter tell me I'm screwed.  There have been folks out of work longer than me who aren't getting work and there are folks out of work for less time than I have getting snapped right up.  Part of me would like to get out of the tech sector.  Part of me knows I have to get back into the tech sector before I can move out of the tech sector.

It hasn't all been doom and gloom, though it sometimes feels like it.  I met a wonderful woman, the Otaku Girl, who prodded me to put up this blog.  I've met a lot of very interesting people at events I probably wouldn't have met them at previously.  I got to see a lot of things that when I was working regularly I never could have seen.  In some ways, I've been living more in the last year than I did while I was working for a living.

Still, I'd much rather have a job.  Something that lets me have a good work-life balance.  I'll take the paycheck, but I want to be able to enjoy it as well.

The hunt goes on.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Honor At Stake

I've tried not to rant about this.

I've made a great deal of effort since this whole fracas with Medal of Honor started up to not say anything.  To bite my tongue and hope that something resembling sanity and good sense prevailed at EA.  Looking for the triumph of hope over experience when it came down to the tough call between sticking to one's guns and caving in to popular (if misguided) pressure.

And how I hate to have been disappointed.

The fracas started a couple months back.  A British Member of Parliament went berserk when word got out that players would have the option of taking on the role of Taliban fighters in multiplayer matches.  There was, as former SEAL Dick Marcinko might say, an F3 (Full Fucking Faulkner; lots of sound and fury) in the House of Commons as the MP decried the impending ability of gamers to commit atrocities on innocent women and children and kill honorable British soldiers in the name of electronic sport.  From there, it just got worse.  Canada's Minister of Defence also decried the news.  Fox News, not exactly known for it's sense of gravity or restraint when it comes to U.S. armed forces, paraded about the mother of a soldier who died in Afghanistan to denounce what a horrible and callous company EA was for allowing this sort of thing to go through and belittling the sacrifice of soldiers who had died in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The U.S. Army went on record as saying they were "disappointed" with the decision.  Eventually, EA caved in and changed the name from "Taliban" to "Opposing Force."

Bearing in mind for a moment that I despise pretty much everything EA stands for, it perhaps sounds strange that I might be defending EA's original position, or more specifically DICE's original position, regarding the designation of one multiplayer faction as the Taliban in Medal of Honor.  The aim of this particular iteration of Medal of Honor was to cover a different sort of conflict, a new theatre of warfare, one that might have lacked the headlines and press coverage of battles fought in previous eras, but one that undeniably has heroes worthy of the nation's highest award for courage and valor above and beyond the call of duty.  I can understand why DICE and EA didn't use the swastika and other iconography of Nazi Germany in previous MoH games, but the part of me that demands historical accuracy has never agreed with that decision.  Over sixty-five years after the end of WWII, there's still a taboo about those symbols outside of very carefully delimited fields, and they're still flat out illegal in Germany.  But in a way, that earlier decision is very much a double-edged sword when applied to the current controversy.  Some will argue that the fact DICE didn't put in swastikas in earlier iterations of the title means that it's perfectly fine for them not to use the name of the Taliban for the bad guys in the new game.  Others will argue that they're letting themselves be used as a subtle means of propaganda against the Taliban, by refusing to "dignify" them with the proper designation.  If one were to reduce the matter down to a pissing contest between who's worse as a bad guy, then I would unequivocally say that however morally and ethically reprehensible the Taliban have behaved over the past twenty years or so, they're lightweight amateurs when stacked up against the industrialized atrocities of the Third Reich.  And however much the multiplayer screen might say "Axis" or "German" in earlier MoH games, if you weren't fighting in the jungle, you were fighting Nazis, you knew you were fighting Nazis, even the guys on the other side during a multiplayer match knew that they were playing the role of the Nazis for that round.  None of the gamers who played the bad guys legitimized the Third Reich, nor did they diminish or belittle the pall it casts upon history.  By the same token, labeling bad guys in turbans with AKs in Afghanistan as Taliban in the game is not giving any sort of blessing to the actual Taliban.  It's not paying them a compliment.  It's merely acknowledging an existing fact.

An interview between Industry Gamers and three U.S. Special Forces members is particularly telling about this whole situation as far as the reaction from the guys who are actually in the suck.  For the most part, they seem rather pragmatic fellows, which isn't entirely surprising.  I will say (spoiler alert!) that the JTAC they interviewed seems to have a rather skewed sense of reality.  He decries the game as "war profiteering," but he states that he's perfectly willing to give the game a try.  He openly states that the Taliban will make use of Medal of Honor as a recruiting tool, though it seems difficult to picture Taliban fighters or those sympathetic to them to somehow start smuggling in Xbox 360s and PS3s into South Waziristan.  Perhaps the statement that really irritated me was the one at the end where he states that adding the Taliban into the game made them "recognized as a legitimate fighting force."  Clearly, years of military aid to the Taliban and others like them during the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan didn't rise to the level of recognizing the legitimacy of the Taliban as a fighting force, insofar as the JTAC is concerned.  It bothers me when people spout off about how such-and-such a group or so-and-so's army isn't a "legitimate" fighting force.  It sounds far too reminiscent of the Vietnam War, when the higher ups in the Pentagon derided the Viet Cong and the NVA even as they were chewing up American troops with gusto.  If they're willing to tangle with you more than once, I'd say that pretty much gives them "legitimacy."  As for the other two operators interviewed, both of them applauded EA's refusal (at the time of the interview) to cave in under pressure.  Part of me would like to get their opinions now that EA has caved in.  They both spoke to the inherent inability of any game, even one as detailed as Medal of Honor, to truly capture the essence of modern combat.  They both saw no reason not to label the Taliban as Taliban in the game.  If guys at the sharp end don't seem to mind, it says a lot about the brass in Washington who are "disappointed" about the situation, and none of what it says is particularly flattering.

I would like to take a moment to defend what has been stated by some as the intellectually lazy position that Medal of Honor is "just a game."  Strip it off all the specifically identifying labels, remove all the fancy mechanics and graphics, and what do you have?  You have "cowboys and Indians."  You have "cops and robbers."  You have good guys vs. bad guys, running around a predefined field, attempting to achieve an objective in order to claim victory over their opponents.  Folks, that right there is a game.  Does it trivialize the ongoing conflict in the region?  I would say not.  If anything, it's giving people a different perspective on the conflict, admittedly a very narrow one, but different all the same.  Is it, as the JTAC stated, war profiteering?  If so, then every news agency, wire service, broadcast network, website, and blog that even thinks to discuss the conflict is just as guilty, including this one.  I will not deny that the perspective provided by Medal of Honor is narrow, even shallow to a degree.  For a truly deep representation that goes into the larger issues and the smaller day-to-day perspectives of Afghanistan, I'd point to Armed Assault II and it's scenario building tools as having the best ability to model the conflict for the average person.  As far as I know, nobody has attempted to make such a model, but that title would be the best suggestion I would make to somebody looking to create such a model.

The bitter irony of the whole situation is that EA released a game centered around men who refused to quit fighting even at the expense of their own lives, but gave up fighting when popular pressure over one small detail grew too loud for their liking.  Had they continued to persevere, I might not have liked EA much more than I did, but I would have respected them a little more.

Monday, September 13, 2010

100 Movies You Need To See - Part VI: Thrillers

Action movies are great, as I sort of pointed out during the last part of this list.  But if there's something better than a good action movie, it's a good thriller.  One can look at an action movie as a ball that gets rolling down a hill, and pretty much ends up blowing up everything that it comes into contact with before it hits the bottom of the hill and comes to a stop.  Thrillers are more like taking a piece of rope, or even chain, and pulling on both ends, adding more and more stress until it meets and exceeds it's breaking point.  Sometimes, there are two or three chains all being put under strain at the same time, but not at the same rate, which gives us a lot of good pop-pop-pop excitement.

The Hurt Locker – It's easy to dismiss this one as a war movie or merely a drama.  It would be a mistake to do so.  This one, particularly during the bomb disposal scenes, is garrote wire tight.

Hard Candy – Very few movies make me flinch.  This is one of them.

Chinatown – Growing up, John Huston had this very wholesome grandfatherly appearance to me.  After seeing this one, he reminded me that great actors have more fun playing the bad guy.

Primal Fear – The first film I saw Edward Norton in.  The last scene still sends a chill down my back because the way he delivers his last lines is almost perfectly in sync with what I'd imagined the character saying when I read the book.

Unbreakable – This was where M. Night Shyamalan peaked.  While it has a decidedly fantastic premise, it's still structured like a thriller.

The Game – It all starts out so innocently, and then goes to hell at the speed of light.  And what a ride.

Deathtrap – For a movie adaptation of a stage play, it's damn good.  Also helps remind you Christopher Reeve was more than just Superman.

The Name of The Rose – Proof that not every thriller has to be set in the present day.  Sean Connery doesn't chew up the scenery like he does in the Bond flicks.

Ronin – If it had just been about common hijackers tooling around the south of France, it'd probably be considered just another action flick.  But when you throw in ex-spooks, ultraradical IRA maniacs, double-crosses left and right, and a mysterious package that suddenly takes a backseat in the movie's last great twist, you know you've got a thriller on your hands.

Sneakers – It feels a little lighter than some thrillers, but it's still got plenty of twists and turns.


Next time: Horror movies

Thursday, August 26, 2010

100 Movies You Need To See - Part V: Action/Adventure

Sometimes, you want to go to the movies to experience something magical and wonderful.  A touching love story.  A wrenching drama.  An uproarious comedy.  You go to feel something you might not otherwise feel and experience a story that you will probably never experience in real life.  You go to connect with characters that you'll never meet in real life, but you would really like to know.

And sometimes, you go to watch shit blow up.

Sometimes, you don't want high concepts and deep characterizations.  You don't want all the drama of dramas.  Sometimes, you just want to see big explosions.  You want to live vicariously through men and women of action.  Yes, they're sometimes cartoonish.  Yes, they have lines that straddle the line between hilarity and cringing awfulness.  And you don't care.  For a couple hours, you just want to see good guys win, bad guys lose, and shit blowing up all over the place.

With that in mind, my list of ten action movies.

Conan The Barbarian – If you're going to do a fantasy flick, this should be how you do it.  It shouldn't be just swords and sorcery.  It should be almost operatic.

300 – A larger-than-life adaptation of a larger-than-life story of legendary figures in a legendary battle.

The Princess Bride – For all the lighthearted lines and jokes, it's a classic adventure.

The Replacement Killers – The first movie I ever saw with Chow-Yun Fat.  I didn't quite become an instant fan, and there are several of his earlier works I haven't seen yet, but I try to catch every movie he's done since this one.

Mad Max – It's an oldie and a goodie.  Mel Gibson before he got big.  The fact that it involved fast cars, motorcycles, and a bit of the ultraviolence enhances the performance.

Sin City – While it has a strong film noir feel, it's all about the gangsters, guns, and girls.

Excalibur – The rise and fall of Camelot, with all the blood, seduction, sorcery, warfare, and grand scale you can handle.

Leon: The Professional – Another first exposure, this one being Jean Reno.  It's a little too straightforward for a thriller, but it's an excellent action flick.

The Delta Force – One of the many Chuck Norris films done during the mid-80s.  Notable because they managed to find one guy more badass than Chuck Norris: Lee Marvin.

Young Sherlock Holmes – This one is hard to find, which bothers me tremendously.  The action was fast paced and well written.  Also one of the forgotten landmarks in movie history.  This is the first film where a human actor shared the screen with a fully computer generated character and played off of it.

Next time: Thrillers

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Totally Uncalled For

I have a pretty simple outlook as far as the Internet goes.  I don't mess with you, you don't mess with me.  It's a system that has served me pretty well up to this point.

However, somebody over in China thought it would be a tremendously fabulous idea to hack my Gmail account, and my Facebook account, and otherwise poke around where they should not be poking.  I do not appreciate it.  I do not like it.  While I'm somewhat glad they didn't mess around with anything as far as I can tell, I'm a little annoyed that they didn't leave a note saying "This is how we got in.  Please close your door more securely."  As it turns out, Google was good enough to give me a warning.  It would have been nicer if they'd warned me when it happened instead of two days later.

Since somebody, or more likely several somebodies, felt it was fine to hack my account for no good reason, I feel no particular compunctions about keeping silent on the matter.  Below are the IP addresses of the individuals that hacked my accounts, along with the providers for those IPs.  Yes, I know, somebody could be spoofing the IPs, but it's a place to start.  Special thanks to All-Nettools for their free SmartWHOIS tool which helped make all this possible.

183.90.187.126
183.90.187.0 - 183.90.187.255
Asia Data (Hong kong) Inc. Limited
Block B 08/Floor
Hi-Tech Industrial CTR
No. 491-501 Castle Peak Road

ASIA DATA HONG KONG INC LIMITED - network admin
FLAT/RM 24 BLK B 08/F HI-TECH INDUSTRIAL CTR NO 491-501 CASTLE PEAK RD
TSUEN WAN HONG KONG
+852 39043643
+852 60618724
stanley@adi.hk

220.200.49.192
220.192.0.0 - 220.207.255.255
China United Network Communications Corporation Limited
No.21 Financial Street,Xicheng District, Beijing 100140 ,P.R.China

Xiaomin Zhou
No.21 Financial Street,Xicheng District, Beijing 100140 ,P.R.China
+86-10-66259626
+86-10-66259626
zhouxm@chinaunicom.cn

118.124.16.163
118.124.0.0 - 118.125.255.255
CHINANET Sichuan province network
China Telecom
A12,Xin-Jie-Kou-Wai Street
Beijing 100088

Chinanet Hostmaster
anti-spam@ns.chinanet.cn.net
No.31 ,jingrong street,beijing
100032
+86-10-58501724
+86-10-58501724

Remember, folks, I don't mess with you, you don't mess with me, and everybody's happy.