Friday, July 29, 2011

A Series I Nearly Missed – Vlad Taltos and Jhereg

I've read quite a few fantasy novels in the last five months, and most of them were things that I'd intended to get around to. Other works by authors I already liked (Brandon Sanderson's stuff in particular,) books that had come highly recommended to me by multiple sources (Patrick Rothfuss' Name of the Wind,) or things I'd promise myself I'd get around to when I had the time. Stephen Brust's Vlad Taltos novels are something else. They've been around forever, yet I can't remember ever hearing of them specifically before very recently, when a friend described them at a party and sold me on them with his summary. I can vaguely recall now having seen “Vlad Taltos” or some horrible misspelled variant thereof in online RPGs over the years, but the name meant nothing to me at the time. I'd really been missing out.

Almost 30 years since this first got published, and I heard about it this summer.

Funny thing is, the description of the series almost killed my interest in it with a single phrase: “The main character is an assassin.” There's been a whole lot of mediocre fantasy written from the perspective of an assassin, and not a whole lot of “new” there. When I found that the series was first published in 1983, I discarded this objection. After all, stories from a hired killer in a fantasy world had to have been new once, and there had to be an original template for all those later bad novels to imitate. It just may have been Steven Brust's series. Thirteen of a planned nineteen novels in the series have been published to date, the most recent (Tiassa,) just this year. I have a great deal of faith that this series will be finished in the author's lifetime, as his record for publishing has been rock-solid, and each book has a lighter pagecount than the 800-1000+ page epics we've seen from other popular fantasy authors.

What makes the world, and the characters so special? The titles of the books refer to the Great Houses of the Dragaeran Empire, each of which is named after an animal or other fantastic creature. Dragaerans are like elves, except in addition to being beautiful, graceful and living thousands of years, they are also mostly between nine and eleven feet tall and built like linebackers. Vlad, the main character, isn't one of those. He's a human, or “Westerner” as they are called in polite society. That society, by the way, barely acknowledges humans beyond that, they are a minority, put-upon and disenfranchised. What makes Vlad so interesting is that he manages to be a powerful figure in the games of the powerful and ancient people that really run things.

Vlad himself. Killer. Magician. Husband. Snappy Dresser.
This great piece of fanart by ShardGlass over at DeviantART.

The novels do a bit of chronological jumping about, showing things in the order which the author intends bits and pieces to be revealed. Vlad is, essentially, a hitman in House Jhereg, the house named after a scavenger lizard-type beast who stoop so low as to allow Westerners to purchase titles of nobility. House Jhereg is combination thieves guild, assassins guild and local Mafia. The early books play out almost like detective stories, only instead of bringing the perpetrator at the center of the mystery to justice, he takes a knife in the throat. Sometimes, killing is only done as a warning. Magical resurrection is expensive, but relatively easy, so you murder someone to send a message. If they really anger you, you make sure they can't come back.

The series manages to drop very subtle threads that will be expanded, explained or paid off in later works, but even with all the groundwork and foreshadowing, each book stands on its own. They are fairly quick reads, and each story is self-contained enough that even jumping into the middle of the series wouldn't leave a reader lost. The larger tale told over the course of the series is a gigantic puzzle, there to be revealed a bit at a time to those who have read every book in the larger narrative, but subtle enough that it isn't distracting to those who haven't kept up with every little thread in each of the thirteen books. Brust's style is heavy on plot and character development, with exposition neatly spread out so the massive amount of worldbuilding he's done neither overwhelms or bores the reader.

Jhereg, the first novel, shows a point in Vlad's career where he is established in his house, has performed many successful jobs in his line of “work,” and reveals a key point in his life. In addition to some small proficiency in Dragaeran sorcery and skill in Western-style fencing, Vlad practices witchcraft, a form of magic little known and practiced mostly by humans. A side benefit to practicing obscure magics, in addition to people typically not bothering to defend against them, is that a ritual can be performed to gain a practitioner a familiar. In Vlad's case, his personal familiar matches his House, as he has called a jhereg named Loiosh who frequently engages in telepathic wisecracking at his master's expense.

Wikipedia had the most recent and least eccentric image I could find of the author.

The methodical pacing of the planning of seemingly impossible assassinations, along with the legwork and research required to both get at the target and figure out what is really going on is a great read. Even if someone doesn't want to commit to all nineteen books, the individual works are short enough that reading one while on a break from a series containing longer novels can work as a change of pace or palate cleanser. I wouldn't make the mistake of suggesting that shorter means “light” in terms of substance or content, however. Since the plot is focused on a single character rather than a large ensemble, the story can provide depth on par with Martin or Sanderson in a much smaller book.

Getting access to all of the books currently available will take a little planning, as there aren't official ebook editions of some of the earlier novels. This is an oversight that I hope Amazon will correct in the future. I've put the rest of Vlad Taltos and Malazan on the backburner for the moment, however, as I have a review coming of the debut novel of one of this blog's readers. I hope to finish that work over the weekend to be ready for a review at some point next week. Am I alone in never having heard of the Vlad Taltos books? Let me know.
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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Collection Agencies: Predatory, Unethical and Often Illegal Practices Pursuing Money We Don't Have.

This afternoon, I got a painful reminder of the lengths unscrupulous debt collectors will go to attempt to squeeze blood from a stone, whether or not debts are legitimate. With the global economy in trouble, collection agencies are doing a booming business, even if their specific practices frequently fall outside what is allowed by law. The blatant scam and con-artist tactics used to attempt to extort money from those ignorant of the laws protecting them are just one piece of the puzzle. As the collection industry becomes more powerful, they apply political pressure and sink a whole lot of money into getting the legal system to interfere on their behalf, and the burden of proof falls on the public, many of whom are down and out, desperately trying to hold on as it is. A word before I get further into this. I've had debts in the past both legitimate and not. I ask readers to not assume anything about my financial responsibility when I write about this, and the standard disclaimer that I am not a lawyer is appropriate at this time as well.

Even both Scrooges (Ebenezer and McDuck) never stooped to the level
of many of these companies.

Advice concerning what is legal and what is not, and what the recourse for someone targeted by this sort of activity is tricky at best. For one, the laws vary wildly from country to country, and even if you are in the United States, both the laws themselves and how the courts choose to interpret them is often different at the State level. It is also worth noting that unless someone is well-versed in Fair Debt Collection Law and willing to file court paperwork themselves, many of the fines are small enough that hiring an attorney to fight to assert your rights in a matter like this is more expensive and stressful than it is worth to the average person. Illegal or quasi-legal tactics used by debt collectors is part of a numbers game. They count on ignorance of what is legal and/or hassle of defending yourself to make it profitable enough to collect from those who cannot or will not fight that the few willing and able to defend themselves do not affect the bottom line.

In the United States, there is a law called the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. This law was put into place to protect the public from unscrupulous practices by collection agencies, and the specific restrictions of this law are frequently ignored. The law requires a collection agency to provide written proof that a debt is valid, they are not allowed to contact a person by phone at inconvenient times, and they cannot threaten violence or any legal action they do not intend to take. Further protections are in place to keep a collection agency from harassing an individual, including a prohibition on abusive or obscene language and restrictions on who may be contacted regarding the debt. Many of the tactics commonly used by collection agencies violate one or more provisions in this law, and the debt collection industry is keenly interested in weakening it as more people become aware of how to use it to protect themselves.

Important legislation, but not a "one size fits all" sword and shield against legal action.
Understand it and how it is used for you locally before assuming it can or will protect you.

Particularly angry or legally savvy individuals have taken advantage of the FDCPA to countersue collection agencies over violations of the act. Damages awarded typically include legal fees, money lost as a result of an illegal debt collection plus $1,000 per FDCPA violation. The time, expertise and expense in pursuing these cases as an individual makes it a difficult proposition for the average person. Also, in certain states, the courts are more friendly to debt collection companies than they are to the consumers, so proper research and documentation is a must when considering legal action. Cases like this are becoming more and more common, however, as the unemployment rate holds at a fairly high rate. People with a lot of time on their hands and not much money to “pay off” unscrupulous companies are more likely to file these sorts of lawsuits.

Another disturbing manipulation of the legal system by these sorts of companies has led to the modern day version of the Dickensian debtor's prison. A debtor's prison was the practice of incarcerating an individual who would not or could not settle a debt, typically indefinitely as it is difficult to raise funds to settle a debt from a cell. Officially, the practice was outlawed in the US in 1833 as a form of cruel and unusual punishment, but legal loopholes have brought the concept back. Since 2010, collection agencies have, even without proper documentation to prove validity of debts, won warrants to have debtors arrested and held until payment was either made in full or a payment plan could be arranged. Funds used toward bonds have, in many cases, been forfeited to collection agencies towards payment of debts without benefit of a process to dispute the validity of the debt itself. Public outcry over these practices has motivated states to look into the callous manipulation of the legal system, and at least one major company specializing in holding public debt has stopped the process of seeking arrest warrants. Still, thousands of these warrants have been issued under the justification of being “the only way to get some people in to settle their debts.”

Can't pay rent, don't get income, go to jail. Who knew Monopoly was training Life Skills?

Personally, I've never been subject to legal actions as a result of these sorts of practices, and have declined to file lawsuits in instances where I am certain collectors have committed FDCPA violations. Without a growing number of people willing and able to defend their rights, and others voicing their displeasure over uneven enforcement of these sorts of actions, it will continue to remain profitable to skirt the line of what is legal and what is not. I'm curious to hear the perspective of readers outside the US about whether these sorts of vultures exist in other places where people are struggling financially. What do debt collectors do in your country? Is it all legal, and if not, what can be done about it. Let me know in the comments.
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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Humble Indie Bundle: Support Charity and Indie Devs, Fight DRM, and Pay What You Want.

 I know I just talked about video games yesterday, and I make it a point to keep my content varied so people can come back at the end of a week and see if what I had to say on one or more days lines up with what they personally find interesting or not. I'll break the rule I established for myself on this occasion because this is important. If you are into the indie game scene or follow the news on certain social media sites, you may have already heard of the Humble Indie Bundle. This project is as close to a “win for everyone” as anything I've ever heard of in computer gaming. Things the average gamer claims to like: good games by smaller studios, fair pricing, companies that support good causes, and no DRM. The bundle has all these things.

It isn't just about the games, this is important to a lot of us.

The spirit of the Humble Indie Bundle is one of positivity and trust that if given the opportunity to do the right thing, most people, gamers in particular, will expend great effort to see that whoever provides that opportunity is rewarded. Games in past bundles have included such popular titles as World of Goo and Braid, which both enjoyed moderate success as downloadable titles from console services like Xbox Live Arcade and Nintendo's WiiWare Store. The pricing of these games? Whatever you want. Any amount from a single penny to thousands of dollars in US currency is a valid an accepted amount for purchase. The average chosen amount for the current bundle as of the publication of this article is $4.78, and the largest amount paid (by Notch, the creator of Minecraft) is $4048.

The current bundle, which was released July 26th and will be available until August 9th, contains the games: Crayon Physics Deluxe, And Yet It Moves, Hammerfight, VVVVVV, and Cogs. These titles are a blend of puzzle, platformer and physics-based action games. I'd previously played demos for more than one of these and I am very happy with my personal purchase of this bundle, contributing to the cause. More than half a million dollars in sales has been generated in the first day that this bundle was made available to the public, and it is set to break record sales from previous bundles (highest ever was $1.8 Million USD for Humble Indie Bundle 2.) Funds from this game (the portion allocated to developers, more on that in a bit) go directly to game developers, bypassing any middlemen.

This and Crayon Physics Deluxe are in the early running for my favorite of this Bundle.

The contribution of gamers to the success of such a bold experiment is great for the industry, and proves in some small way that the prevailing “wisdom” of the big studios that a game can't be a success without restrictive anti-piracy DRM and a $50-$60 price tag... Well, it is just plain not true. Not only can gamers set their own price, but they can decide how the money they spend is used. Through simple sliders, every gamer can choose what percentage of their personal purchase goes to the game developers, the company that hosts and pays the bandwidth bill for the bundle, and two charities. It doesn't hurt that the charities are personal favorites of mine, either.

Donations to either of these charities can be turned down or off if you don't agree with what they stand for, but that wasn't a problem for me. Child's Play, founded by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade is a charity by gamers to provide games and toys to children in hospitals, dealing with illnesses, conditions or injuries and the fear and pain that comes with them. The charity was founded in response to the public disputes between crackpot anti-game crusader Jack Thompson and Penny Arcade, as well as the entire gaming community. The other charity for the Bundle is the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to protecting rights, especially those of free speech and privacy issues online. I've given to both of these organizations before, and will happily do so again in the future.

It is tough, considering our politically polarized society, to assign "Good" or "Evil" labels
to non-profit organizations, but I'll go ahead and say it. These are the Good Guys.

Despite the ability to “name your price” and the good causes associated with the project, there has been quite a bit of piracy associated with the bundles in years past. I've struggled with the ethical questions concerning piracy for years, and despite my views moving toward the center on this issue, the average person would still probably say that my perspective comes down on the side of the pirates. That said, I have nothing at all reasonable or nice to say about the poor excuses for human beings for whom a single penny is too much to pay in support of something like this. Titles in previous bundles suffered from piracy rates in excess of 25%, people not only taking free copies of the game, but using up all that bandwidth to transfer the files. I excuse anyone who made a large donation in anticipation of downloading multiple copies for friends unable for one or another reason to pay themselves from my opinion on this subject. I understand that the rest may never feel bad about their actions in this, but if there was ever a line to draw with what should or should not be pirated, this is it.

For people interested, the games are available for Windows, Mac OS and Linux, and come with product keys to redeem the games using either Steam or Desura, whichever you prefer. I hope that in my own small way, I can provide a little more exposure to something that is such a Good Thing.  I am contemplating running a contest of some sort in the next few days, with one or more bundles as a prize for the winner. The value and the causes are both so good that despite my being out of work for going on six months now, I'd buy a few more copies.  I'll think on that soon, but in the meantime, I have 5 new games to play.
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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Champions Online: Free For All – Review

I'm a fan of a lot of things that are associated with Champions Online, developed by Cryptic Studios and published by Atari. It is a superhero MMORPG, it is on Steam with a TON of achievements, it is based on a tabletop roleplaying system, and it uses the Free-to-play model. This isn't my first superhero MMO, as I played City of Villains when it launched as a companion game to City of Heroes. There are a lot of places an MMO, particularly a Free-to-play one, can stumble and falter, ruining the experience. Any MMO can suffer from tepid character creation options, unsatisfying or sparse content, server/lag issues, overly harsh penalties for death and/or forced interaction with a community that may consist mainly of unpleasant people. “Free” MMOs have additional potential pitfalls. Every Free-to-Play game has content available for purchase with real money, that's the business model. Entice, and have players willingly pay through microtransactions for additional content. Having too many features locked away behind a “paywall” can easily create a situation where a player feels like they were promised a game and given a demo. So, how does Champions Online Hold up under these critera?

Can Champions succeed where City of Heroes (arguably) failed?

Character creation in Champions is, in a word, amazing. Free, or Silver members start by choosing one of several “Archetypes,” which behave like character classes. Additional Archetypes are available for a small fee, and Gold Members (the monthly subscription option) can create a completely custom hero archetype. The sheer amount of cosmetic options for character customization at creation is mind-boggling, even without purchasing additional costume pieces with Atari Tokens. Head/face and body can be tweaked with custom sliders for control over precisely how the person in the costume looks, and when creating a character's costume, I've never seen another MMORPG with as many different custom bits. Tights, capes, insignias, horns and helmets, weapons and accessories, jetpacks and mystical artifacts can be added, re-colored and moved around. Some costume parts are unlockable through gameplay, others are free for Gold members or a small fee for Silver.

The content available in the game has the advantage of almost three years of updates and refinement based on subscriber feedback. Normal missions are fun, usually tied to a larger plot involving supervillains who will be encountered at the end of a quest chain, and suitable for either solo or group play. Combat is dynamic and representative of the genre after one or two powers past the starting basics are earned, with a single hero taking on groups of minions with a whole lot of flash. With only a few levels under your utility belt, the combat makes you feel like a hero. In addition to basic missions, there are daily instanced missions, public missions tied to specific areas of the world (like a prison breakout that needs to be stopped) and PvP Arenas in the “Hero Games.” Of particular note is the “Zombie Apocalypse” PvP match where heroes fight waves of zombies until killed, and then return as zombie versions of themselves and join the other side, gaining points on each side for survival time and kills. Some of those matches are as good or better than any PvP experience I've had in an MMO.

Android, Samurai, Wizard, Beast, Soldier... If you can imagine it, you can probably make it.
The usual MMORPG features of Auction House, Bank and Crafting Systems are present, with the ability to store, sell or disassemble the different power enhancement objects dropped by villains based on need. Power sets are tied to origin, chosen at the beginning of the game based on your preference for Mystical (gods/spirits, spells and magic items,) Science (cybernetics, altered/mutated DNA and radiation or chemicals,) or Arms (Training, weapons and gadgets.) None of these features is particularly revolutionary, and some of them seem included just to sastify the expectations of the genre, but they perform their role adequately. Guilds are present as well, predictably as Superhero Groups/Teams.

On the technical/mechanical side, characters are randomly assigned to an instanced version of the city, mission location or zone each time they change from area to area. This controls lag and server load without the need for multiple servers, and you can always tell which instance you are in if you need to meet up with friends to form a group. Game mechanics allow for increasing or decreasing combat difficulty and the corresponding rewards from defeated foes. This difficulty adjustment can be important, as there is a penalty for being defeated in combat, though it is not overly harsh. A hero respawns without need to run back to a corpse, but as a penalty, a “hero point” is lost, which reduces damage and healing done for each of the 5 points, represented by stars that can be lost though “death.” Hero points are regained by completing missions, defeating foes, or donating resources (currency) to charity.

My hero, The Arcane Eye, bringing his Sorcerous might to the Gangs of WestSide.

In terms of how much “game” there is for someone who chooses to spend nothing at all to play, it is a LOT. Aside from three purchasable adventure packs, all of the content is playable by free players, and the level cap can be reached without paying a dime. Most of the features that can optionally be purchased with Atari credits (bought with real money) are things like additional character slots (you get two free,) more inventory space, costume change slots and specific costume pieces. The features that are locked away to free players are tempting, but there is a full game there without any of them. I really prefer and respect the riskier choice to provide most of the game for free, and hope that the players like it enough to support the company with a few piecemeal features here and there.

The world of Champions has a nicely diverse cast of foes from gang members and thugs to supervillains, many NPCs and missions paying respect to pop culture references. I've encountered missions paying homage to A Clockwork Orange, Big Trouble in Little China and even Anchorman. The NPC cast of other heroes as allies to your character is handled in such a way that even though they are famous and powerful, your character isn't overshadowed, as you hear citizens talking about you and your exploits. The single greatest feature in making you feel like your character's personal story is part of the world is the Nemesis system. At level 25, you can create your character's own personal Arch-enemy. You design your villain's look, theme and even the appearance of their henchmen, and start getting missions to oppose your own archenemy. In true comic-book style, your personal foe may take advantage of moments of weakness, sending agents to attack while you are busy fighting other villains on a mission. I've never seen anything quite like this, and am looking forward to fighting an archenemy of my own design, the Joker to my Batman.

The villain creation system is unique, and more in-depth than the character creation system in any other MMO.

By nearly every test I can come up with for “Is this good?” Champions Online passes with flying colors (no pun intended.) If I was forced to find a complaint, despite the PvP options presented being good, there aren't many of them, the community in general, as it is with many free games is often hostile and juvenile, but there is no forced interaction with them if you don't want to wade through the trolls, scammers and elitists to find other decent strangers to game with. I also haven't tried grouping much yet, but have heard that traditional tank/heal/dps strategy works, but not as well as say, in WoW. With the exception of single-target boss encounters, tank type characters can't expect to hold aggro on everything the way you can in fantasy MMOs and most of the best healing powers are only available at higher levels except to the dedicated support archetypes. Overall, these complaints are exceedingly minor as compared to all the good things found in this game. Definitely worth your time if you like superheroes or MMORPGs, and you can't beat the price.  
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Monday, July 25, 2011

Sarah Michelle Gellar Returns to TV in “Ringer”... playing twins. Yes, Please.

The title of this post was about all anyone knew about the upcoming thriller/mystery series developed by CBS for sister cable network CW until Comic Con 2011, but even that was exciting news for some of us. It has been eight years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer went off the air, and fans spent quite a bit of that near-decade wondering when we'd see Sarah Michelle Gellar in anything on TV again. The teaser trailer that premiered at San Diego Comic Con International gives us a whole lot of information, and even if it isn't science fiction, it looks like Ringer could be really pretty good. Some of the setup is familiar territory, a story about two sisters who look alike and lead very different lives, one wealthy and one destitute, but both of them have had hard lives and face real problems that are about to catch up with them.

One of the more popular images, showing both sisters, in a way.

Ringer will premiere on Tuesday, September 13th, and in addition to Sarah Michelle Gellar playing twin sisters Siobhan and Bridget, the cast will feature Nestor Carbonell (known as Richard Alpert on LOST) playing Victor Machado, an FBI agent assigned to track and protect Bridget. Other supporting cast members are Siobhan's husband Andrew Martin (Ioan Gruffud) and her lover Henry Gallagher (Kristoffer Polaha). From the trailer, we can also see that Mike Colter will be playing Bridget's AA sponsor, but it is difficult to tell at this point how large a role that character will have in the series as a whole.

Bridget is a woman whose life is a mess, she is poor, struggling with addictions and consistently makes poor choices that get her into trouble, on occasion needing to turn to prostitution in order to survive. She's trying to pull her life back together when she witnesses a murder that pulls her into an FBI investigation concerning the Mafia. She reluctantly agrees to testify in order to qualify for witness protection, but she has little faith that the system won't let her down again and the men who want to make sure she never gets to the stand will eventually find and kill her. She is contacted by her wealthy and estranged sister and the offer to visit and mend fences provides her with a potential way out.

So many of the early plot twists seem to have already been
given away, I'm curious to see the specific other mysteries in  the series.

Siobhan and Bridget reconnect as best they can, sorting out their past and the six years they haven't seen each other, and Bridget is at first enamored with the wealth and power her twin's life has brought her. Shortly, however, it becomes apparent that Siobhan's life isn't perfect either and she is struggling under the weight of problems all her own. When the sisters take a boating trip out, Bridget discovers that Siobhan has taken her own life out at sea, leaving behind her wedding ring. Deciding quickly that being at the center of another criminal investigation isn't what she wants in her already complicated life, Bridget makes the snap decision to put the ring on and pretend to be her identical twin sister. She'll let everyone from the FBI to the Mafia believe that it was her who died in a tragic boating accident.

Her choice puts her into a position to learn, one secret at a time, that she may have jumped from the frying pan into the fire. People, including her sister's husband and the man she is having an affair with allude to things that they believe she already knows, and she begins to piece together why her sister committed suicide. She pushes deeper and deeper into the secrets around her sister's life and the dangerous events she was involved in, and quickly realizes that if she can't puzzle out exactly what is going on, she is no safer in her sister's life than she was in her own, money or not. While she deals with this, the FBI agent assigned to the witness protection program she “died” before making it into is investigating the mysterious circumstances surrounding her “death.”




By the end of the currently available promotional materials, we've been shown a lot of action, modern film noir-style mystery and a show based around the secrets and hidden motivations of the ensemble. It is even suggested that Siobhan may have been the one faking her own death, and each sister traded one set of problems for the others, and it isn't clear at all who got the worse end of the deal. Sarah Michelle Gellar has done a few interviews on these points, and assure long-time fans that the intelligence of the fans that she is used to from her days on Buffy will not be insulted by this show. She further insists that every mystery has an answer and every secret an explanation; the writes and producers won't be making anything up as they go along, or answering questions with more questions.

There's a lot of familiar territory here, but the setup is really interesting to me, and I'll be looking forward to seeing specifically how the story plays out. I'm a sucker for a good mystery and a fan of film noir in general, so if the characters are well-written enough to make me care about them, this one will be a show that I'll be keeping up with. I have a lot of faith in the actors who have been cast in this, and the announcement that the series would be airing on the CW rather than on CBS is good news for the potential of a show that isn't reality TV to survive for more than a season. Sarah Michelle Gellar said that she'd wanted to return to TV for these eight years she was off it, but she was waiting for the right project to come along. This fall, we'll see if it was all worth the wait.
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Friday, July 22, 2011

Review for Captain America – The First Avenger.

Last night, my wife and I made it out to the Midnight showing of Captain America. Midnight shows have always been something kind of special for me, as you get the fans who are really into whatever the film you are about to see is about. No one in there just trying to kill a few hours or to not have to interact with their shrieking offspring for a few hours, just... fans. It is different going to one of these when unemployed. You don't have to worry about how the late night out will affect you at work the next day, and you've probably gotten into the habit of staying up too late already. At this stage of the game, if I can manage it, I'll try to see all my movies as Midnight showings. More respectful audience and I can go out at my leisure? Yes, please. But what about the film itself?

There were a lot of ways they could have gone with this, and I
respect the choices made to bring this to the big screen.

Marvel faced a unique set of challenges in the making of Captain America: The First Avenger. Set in front of them was the task of doing an origin story for a character set in World War 2, giving that character his due as a major superhero, and getting that same character from the 1940s to being ready to return for the Avengers Movie next year. Given that Cap has a 70 year history and his backstory has taken many crazy twists and turns in all those years, this is a tall order. All the other usual comic-book film challenges are present as well, incorporating a costume that might look great in a comic book (but ridiculous on-screen,) developing the main character without neglecting important secondary characters and villains, etc...

The brains behind this film knocked it out of the park. Not only did they hit the high points I list above, but they also managed to tighten up the connections between Captain America, Thor and Iron Man to set the stage. Let's be frank for a moment. There were changes made, though not many to Steve Rogers, his origin, and the essence of the character. Most of the significant changes were made to explain or justify elements that, had they been 100% true to the comics, would have taken hours of exposition to explain minor points or would have looked like nonsense and disrupted the flow of the story. Most of the significant changes were in Captain America's specific actions in the war, and in the motivations and background of The Red Skull.

Instead of ignoring Cap's origin as a pulp-action bit of WWII propaganda, the film
embraces it, reframes it and makes you care about the character because of it.

In the comics, both Cap himself and the Red Skull had a whole lot more to do with the war and the fight against Nazi Germany than their film counterparts. The Skull from the comics was personally trained by Hitler, and remained one of his top agents throughout the war, and Cap regularly fought on the front lines, with nazis as his stock enemy. In the film, the Red Skull is still, of course, a nazi in terms of origins, but he breaks away from Hitler in favor of allegiance to HYDRA, which he leads in pursuit of using super-science to conquer the world and destroy his enemies. The shift in focus from Cap fighting Nazis to fighting HYDRA troopers keeps the story on-task. (If I need to pick nits at this stage, I could complain that the "Hail HYDRA" salute looks a little silly.) This is a story with a lot of respect for the original material, but one that can't sacrifice telling a comprehensible story to comic-book accuracy.

Those original 1940s comics, with Captain America as propaganda tool punching out Hitler and with the kite shield rather than his now-iconic Vibranium round shield are paid homage to in a clever and unexpected way that also explains the costume in a world that is otherwise gritty 1940s pulp. The transition from “war movie” to “superhero movie” is aided by the Red Skull and Arnim Zola (played by Toby Jones, perfectly cast as the version of the Nazi scientist before he started impanting himself into android bodies with a big face in the chest.) The origins of HYDRA are linked to the Red Skull's obsession with the occult and how it can be bent to evil scientific ways. The source of the Skull's superweaponry is The Tessaract, a piece stolen, according to legend, from Odin's treasure room, which ties in nicely with THOR.

Zola and the Skull years after the war. I was geeking out over how well they handled Zola without
going too far and showing him in his final supervillain form.

The supporting cast manages to work in not only “Bucky” Barnes, who is a necessary component in a story about Captain America, but also some of the top characters from other WWII-era Marvel titles and a link back to Iron Man. The presence of Stark Industries as a military weapons contractor fits with what we know from the Iron Man films. Tony Stark's grandfather is an important character whose presence is only natural in a science-based program in the war effort. I was more impressed with how neatly many of the iconic members of the Howling Commandoes were worked in, in particular Dum Dum Dugan, Jim Morita, Gabriel Jones and Montgomery Falsworth. Though in the comic universe these characters were led by Nick Fury, their placement in the film does the characters justice and they get to be heroes on-screen in a support role to what could have been a one-man show.

All of the characters from this era who, in the Marvel continuity, survive from the 1940s to the present day are handled neatly in a “for this story, their role is complete, but you didn't see a body now, did you?” manner. The film opens telling us that the classic method of getting Steve Rogers from hero of the past into the present is maintained with him, and his shield, encased in ice. By the end of this movie, Cap's own story has been told and all of the pieces are in place to properly launch The Avengers as a single film, and if the story told there is as well done as the work on Iron Man, THOR and Captain America... hopefully a series of movies. I know I'll be lined up to see Joss Whedon's take on bringing all these characters from their own movies into a superteam ensemble... most likely, at Midnight.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Netflix Streaming – The Controversy and the Price Hike

From the very beginning of my period of unemployment, I've had to stretch my entertainment dollar as far as it will go. Gas prices the way they are, this also means that a lot of my entertainment (aside from the occasional movie or social engagement with friends) has to also be delivered to me, rather than having me fire up the Ford to go to it. In my wild and reckless youth, I'd have had a simple solution. I'd have pirated until my (1 TB) hard drive could take no more. As I've grown older, and hopefully wiser, I've approached what little media piracy I engage in with a personal ethical code. Something has to be: unavailable in the format I need it in when I need it for a reasonable price in order for me to pirate. I've long said that if a fair-priced and convenient legal alternative is available, I'll use it in order to support another solution to the piracy problem aside from random thuggish lawsuits. I've talked a lot about Steam, and how it reduced my game piracy to almost nothing, but for TV and movies... it has been all about Netflix.

This is what I asked for. A fairly priced, convenient alternative to piracy.

A little over a year ago, I decided that a Netflix subscription might be right for me when I was investigating the options on this PC, which is a Media Center computer with a few hardware modifications to allow for gaming. Exploring what I could do to play movies and watch TV on my new-ish computer, I first noticed Netflix streaming. I'd considered Netflix before, but I really don't watch nearly enough DVDs to make it seem worth the price. I prefer streaming digital content when I can get it. Browsing the offerings on Netflix streaming, and seeing that it was included with the “1 movie out at a time” option, made it a no-brainer. I set it up right before we moved in here, and Netflix was waiting for us before we'd unpacked a single box.

I wasn't really surprised when I got the first e-mail with a small price increase. What I'd been getting was a value that was, really, too good to be true, so I wasn't really surprised or angered by that first tiny price increase. More recently, however, I got the e-mail that so many people got stating that September 1st, those of us used to a single DVD and unlimited streaming would have to either choose one or the other, or get hit with a 60% price hike. Like so many others, I sharpened my pitchfork and got my torch ready. So many people are regularly disappointed and mistreated in their business relationships with big companies that it feels like a real betrayal when something like this comes from a company that most of us consider “one of the good 'uns.” Before shooting my mouth off online, however, I decided to do a little research into why this happened.

Recent customer reaction to the controversy found on Reddit.

It appears that Netflix has had some troubles recently, victims of their own success. As compared to a lot of the big media multinational corporations, it is still a fairly small company. In the period of the last few years, though, the streaming option has become so popular that during peak usage hours in the US, Netflix streaming accounts for a higher percentage of all used bandwidth than any other program, product or service. Those big corporations have taken notice of the popularity of streaming video, and they aren't happy that a little upstart company has a foothold in the market and is offering it cheaper than, say, they might choose to price it. The large companies responded as they usually do, by screwing over Netflix in order to run them out of the market so that competing video streaming services can be launched. Several studio contracts with Netflix either just ran out or are about to, and the renewal of those contracts is, in many cases, either off the table entirely or at 10x the previous licensing fees.

I'm still angry, but most of my ire is now directed at the studios that are forcing this showdown to happen. Netflix is taking a beating in the scandal, with irate customers canceling at a rate polls suggest will approach 50% of the current users. Trapped between offering fewer streaming options and raising prices on their service, the company is in a bad spot. If this controversy is the beginning of the end for Netflix, their loss would be a tragedy. I've dealt with the customer service at Netflix as well as the departments at Comcast, Sony, and several other potential players in the upcoming streaming content wars. I have 100% satisfaction with all of my dealing with Netflix on customer service issues, and a terribly spotty history with the giants that want to take its place.

If you're really looking for a villain in all of this...

Personally, the question of what to do isn't a difficult one for me. I'll drop the DVD option, pay a little less on my bill and use the streaming. When content options disappear and only show up on an inferior and more expensive competing service, I won't have a single ethical problem with turning to piracy. I will not reward companies who bully smaller corporations and threaten/pursue legal action against the public with my business. When corporations behave in this manner, I'm not even seeking justification for illegal behavior, they've made it personal. Millions of customers have turned their ire toward Netflix, which after a little bit of online research, seems to be a case of misplaced aggression. Me, I feel plenty aggressive, but Netflix only gets a very little bit of that. The rest is reserved for Time/Warner, Sony, Comcast and the major TV networks.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Project Zomboid and Dead State: Two different takes on zombie games for PC.

I love the zombie genre. I'm just gonna put that right out there. One of my favorite horror movies of all time is still the original Dawn of the Living Dead, and the popularity of the genre in recent film, TV and games is something that I relish. We're already starting to see the “Ugh, I'm so over Zombies...” hipster backlash, but long after zombies aren't the “hot” thing anymore, I'll still be into them. If I were to profile all of the video games about zombies, I could do a multi-week series of nothing but, testing my own assertion that I can't get sick of the topic. Instead, I want to talk a little bit about two games from small studios that have similar visions of a game about the zombie apocalypse, but intend to have very different executions in their finished projects.

An indie game worth supporting. The developers have already been through
a horror story nearly the equal of the one they are trying to tell, just to get this made.

First up is a game you can actually play, today... or at least a version of it. Project Zomboid, in development by The Indie Stone, is a survival game with equal parts isometric action/exploration and RPG elements, including a crafting system and (soon to be introduced) character classes. I was first introduced to the game via a thread on Reddit linking to articles over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. The game is being developed and sold using the same model Minecraft did, that is to say, you support the developers early and you get a copy of the game on the cheap while it is still being worked on. I got in early on Minecraft and was intrigued by the vision the devs had for their final product, so I happily jumped at the chance to get in on the ground floor.

From the beginning, Project Zomboid tells you the philosophy of the kind of story it wants to tell. This isn't the story of brave survivors who shotgun blast and eat canned goods until they are safe and a cure is found, or the military sweeps in and saves everyone. This is the story of the struggle against an inevitable end. No matter what you do, how well you play or what paths you take, in the long run, the zombie apocalypse is total. This is not the story of how you survived. This is the story of how you died. The setting, and the “no one survives” concept may be bleak, but the human stories about how people treat each other and what sorts of decisions people have to make in order to survive are present from the very first pre-alpha tech demo release.

Even with great planning and plenty of supplies, when things go bad in Zomboid, they go BAD.

In the demo, you are Bob, a normal sort of balding middle-aged dude who has just escaped a group of survivors who turned on him and his wife and took all they had, and she broke her leg in the process of getting away. You are introduced to basic first aid, inventory management, scavenging for food and supplies while hiding from the horde, some item crafting and combat with both zombies and hostile survivors. Buildings can be barricaded, supplies scavenged, and you can, at the moment, deal with various needs like hunger, need for rest, panic and pain management. The basic gameplay is reminiscent of a version of The Sims with more RPG elements and where most of the other Sims are trying to eat you. I look forward to seeing what this game will look like in six months or a year, as I'm impressed with what I've seen so far.

-----------------------------------------------

The other game is one that I've been looking forward to for a very long time, and shares a lot on its surface with Project Zomboid, but focuses on different things and should provide a very different experience. Dead State, still in development by Doublebear Productions (release date of "when its done",) is a game with its focus built around the maintenance of a safehouse, adding other characters to the group of survivors and dealing with the crises that come with being cooped up together. NPCs may be found “in the wild,” and depending on the circumstances of your meeting, may be cautious, friendly or hostile on different playthroughs. The focus in a lot of the development journals is on making a LOT of NPCs, and fleshing them out as characters.

Zombies might think I meant something different by "fleshed out" NPCs.

Where Zomboid seems to take gameplay inspiration from The Sims, Dead State seems to have grounded its philosophy in turn-based tactical RPGs like Jagged Alliance and Fallout 1&2. All combat will be using action points and turns rather than arcade action or real-time strategy rapid clicking, and in general, single zombies are only a problem if someone is surprised by them. Running into other hostile and armed survivors while scavenging for basic needs, and the very real danger of a firefight attracting many dozens of zombies will present the real challenges. Morale and fright will also impact how perfectly survivors follow the orders they are given, as someone who doesn't trust in your leadership to being with may behave unpredictably when panicked.

In terms of building trust, one of the most interesting things is the events and NPC concerns while living in the safehouse, that remind me of old political sim games that frequently ask the player to make policy decisions. When someone who commands a lot of respect among the other survivors starts asking for an unfair ration of food, do you agree and risk people becoming upset when they find out... or do you say “No special favors,” knowing they will undermine your leadership later in casual conversation with others? Dealing with others who become selfish, mentally unstable, ill or injured... or just think they'd be a better leader than you are is what makes me want to play this game. Now.

Managing people's respect for you in moments of crisis looks like it will be key.

Both of these games have taken the "zombie as target practice" and "blast your way to freedom" out of the equation, and I like this more thoughtful approach to the genre. Not that I don't enjoy shooting zombies in the games that do it best, but I've played that already.  The personal horror of making terrible decisions in order to survive, wondering if everyone hates you or fears you because of what you did... Zombie films are about people, not zombies, and I'll be happy to play a few different takes on games developed with that in mind.
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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Game of Thrones Season 2 – Casting Update!

HBO has a hit on its hands, and it doesn't hurt at all that between seasons of Game of Thrones a new book in the series finally released (No, haven't read it yet. Have three things on my list to finish first, including one other that will for sure be reviewed here.) Fans of the show who haven't read the books are likely reeling from the last few episodes of that first season, and wondering with all of the tragic and exciting, erm, things (don't click that if you don't wan't spoilers) that happened, where can the show go next season? Those of us who have been fans of Westeros for years already know that we've got a few new characters turning up, and some of these are incredibly important for the story to be able to move forward.


Casting has been surprisingly amazing for the characters I've grown to know well over the last ten-plus years that I've been a fan of the books. I've heard the usual complaints from the people I expected to hear complaining that this character wasn't cast quite old enough, that one has hair the slightly wrong shade, and the other one isn't actually and actor 8 feet tall capable of shooting lighting from his... well, you get the point. Reasonable folks who have seen casting directors do a hell of a lot worse with beloved characters have, in general, been very pleased with the actors selected so far. These new characters, however, give casting directors all new opportunities to enrage fans, and some of the people showing up in season two are ones you just can't get wrong and do the rest of the show right. So, how'd they do?

The face of Stannis Baratheon. I always kinda pictured him as
Sam the Eagle from The Muppet Show, but I suppose he was busy.

There's been an awful lot of talk about wars, and succession and family, and at the center of those conversations has been Stannis Baratheon. We haven't seen him yet, but we've heard a whole lot about him. He's younger than Robert, but older than Renly, and his personality leaves quite a bit to be desired if the rumors are true. His strict and grim nature make it impossible for a populace to ever love him as a king, and this fact means that people can (and will) go to war to make sure exactly that can never happen. Stephen Dillane, best known for his work on The Hours and his role as Thomas Jefferson in John Adams has been cast as the Lord of Dragonstone and potential heir to the Iron Throne. Dillane is a versatile British actor, capable of pulling of the gravity that personifies Stannis. It is a challenge to play a character with absolutely no sense of humor or warmth, and I look forward to his portrayal.

Stannis' religious beliefs have also remained off-screen for the first season, as we've been introduced to two of the Westerosi religions, the Old Gods of the North and their godswoods and the worship of the Seven as practiced by the Andals and most of the rest of the continent. The Red Priests and Priestesses of R'hllor, Lord of Light hasn't even been mentioned up to this point, but, to be fair, even in the books only minor characters espoused this new faith in the beginning, and it feels more like a cult than a legitimate priesthood. This will all change with the introduction of Melisandre of Asshai, advisor to Stannis Baratheon. The mysterious and reverent (some might say fanatical and seductive) Melisandre is a tricky character to cast, and Carice van Houten, a Dutch actress best known for her part in Valkyrie is a flat-out perfect choice. She looks amazing with flame-red hair, and should nail the piercing gaze and exotic mannerisms of the Red Lady just fine.

Melisandre has that look like she wants to have sex with you
 and set you on fire, maybe not in that order.

Earlier this summer, two other casting announcements were made, and I won't gloss over those. There are two ladies associated with Robert's other brother, Renly, who haven't made an appearance mainly due to his brief time in season one being on the Small Council, rather than at home. We saw in Season One that Renly has already found love, though very few publicly know of his homosexuality, and it wouldn't really do for someone taking a shot at the throne to have his knight-champion and his, um, queen, for lack of a better word, to be the same person. In preparation for “looking the part,” Renly must marry, and who better to assume that role than his lover's sister, Margaery Tyrell? Ser Loras' beautiful younger sister has been cast, with Natalie Dormer, who played Anne Boleyn on The Tudors taking on the role in a spot of inspired casting. They've managed in all cases to get actors who look as though they could be related to their on-screen siblings, and this is no exception.

Cute as a button, and perfect for the younger Tyrell. At least she won't
have to worry about her husband and brother not getting along... and her wardrobe will be fabulous.
The other woman in Renly's life who would desperately like to be both knight and queen if Ser Loras didn't already have the jobs locked up is Brienne of Tarth. Brienne “the Beauty” was tricky casting, as she's described as freakishly tall with a broad and homely face. I personally worried that they'd take one of the pretty actresses known for “tough chick” parts and cast her here. I am glad that my fear was completely unfounded. Gwendoline Christie is 6'3”, and while not bad looking while fully made up, her features are well-suited to the part without modern cosmetics and with just a little bit of grime and makeup to “ugly her up” a bit, I couldn't imagine a better job casting. Her only major screen role was a supporting player in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, but she's been working in the UK for years.

I can't imagine that is is much of a compliment to be called "perfect"
for Brienne, but she is such a loved character that the adoration of fans can't hurt.

With summer rapidly giving way to a new fall season, principal shooting will likely have to start fairly soon, which means that there are only a few key characters left uncast. I'm looking forward to hearing who is finally cast as Davos Seaworth, the Onion Knight, though insiders say the most likely choice is Irish actor David Wilmot, also an Alumni from The Tudors. If all goes well, the new faces we'll run into next season will help to bolster the cast, as we know the body count rises as the Game is played. You win, or you die. 
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Monday, July 18, 2011

Agricola, by Z-Man Games – Farming as a boardgame is way more fun than it sounds.

This past weekend, I spent quite a bit of time in the company of friends at multiple gatherings. Usually, once things get going and people have had the chance to chat, catch up and get a bit to eat and drink, we're looking for some sort of activity. Invariably, since many of my friends are nearly as geeky as I am, board games come up. Two of the more popular choices these last few months have already been reviewed/discussed by me previously: Battlestar Galactica and Shadows Over Camelot. The only other game I've played more than once in the past few months is a relatively new one without knights, spaceships, or fighting of any sort whatsoever. We've been playing Agricola, a game about farming.

A game besides Settlers of Catan where the less mature gamer can
make jokes about wood and sheep. Yeah, I've gone there.

Personally, I actually like farming games period. Harvest Moon is a video game series I return to regularly, and the combination of resource management and simulation aspects of these sorts of games I think appeals to the deep-buried part of me that desperately wants to be an accountant despite the fact that I'm terrible at math. Agricola has one of the things I really adore about the best games. You have many options for what you can choose to do with your turn, and there are many different and equally viable strategies to win. There are a lot of things on a successful farm, and having each gets you points based on quantity and a farm missing one of these key things loses a few points. Victory points are awarded for efficient use of land, having stables and fences built, having grain, produce and livestock, and the size and quality of the farmhouse and number of people in the family. Bonus points are available for improvements made to the homestead such as a cooking hearth to bake bread, a well, or a pottery or basketweaving business to sell goods to augment the family income.

The components of the game are high quality, which is nice, as Z-Man Games is evolving as a company to be taken seriously in the boardgame world. Some of their early games had solid mechanics, but the components just weren't as well made as something from, say, Days of Wonder, Fantasy Flight or Rio Grande Games. I'm glad that the nice painted bits of wood to represent resources, building materials, animals, etc. as well as the cards, boards and counters are all very well put together. The game itself has a main board which displays the options players may choose on each round (which start simple, and evolve as the game develops,) and each player has their own board to store their harvested resources and to build the farm on their own plot of land. Cards are used to scale the game based on the number of players and how complex you wish the rules to be, different cards representing options players may select on their turns.

A nice overview of the bits and pieces.

Each player has a number of actions equal to the current number of family members they have (families start with 2,) to work in each phase. Work might mean a number of things, but in order, each player selects an option on the board, and only that player is allowed to perform that action for that phase. Each new phase starts with one new possible action that may be taken, and spaces on the board that produce resources refill if they were selected on previous turns, or additional resources are placed if they were not. This makes spaces neglected for multiple turns more attractive options as time goes on. Players can collect wood, clay, reeds and stone, get animals, build fences to give livestock a place to live, plow fields, sow grain or vegetables or improve their homes. Balanced against the “gather and build” mechanics is the need to feed your family. Every harvest, crops give farmers more veggies or grain, animals breed (if you have room for more and two or more to handle reproduction) and the family members have to eat.

Getting to do everything you want in a turn with the looming threat of needing to feed the family makes the game a balancing act of managing your actions on each round, and hoping that you aren't blocked off by another player who gets to act first. You can't eat raw grain or just grab a fork and eat a cow, so improvements to bake bread or slaughter and cook livestock are key. If you find yourself constantly out of position due to going late in the round, selecting the “take 1 free food and the 1st player token” is attractive. It is also very possible that you may spend several actions gathering wood only to find that someone else has blocked you out of the ability to build fences or stables, so the timing of your actions is nearly as important as managing your resources. The most successful players will be efficient on every turn, balancing the need to survive the next harvest against the desire to make sure that there is a little bit of everything in the farmstead for endgame, when victory points are counted up.

An example of an endgame farm with a little something in every bit of land.

I've played a few times now, and as a board gamer I usually turn my nose up at the least complex version of the rules when there are multiple options presented. The “family game rules” are the version I've been describing up to this point, and the play experience is suitably rich and I'd say rather more complex than a typical game of Monopoly or Risk. The advanced game adds in profession cards for family members and minor improvements that may be built around the farmstead for more bonus points and additional options on any given turn. I look forward to playing a few times with the advanced rules, but this is a complete and fun game even without them. The game takes about 2 hours assuming you aren't teaching the rules for the first time, and supports up to 5 players, with solo play as an available option. Ages of 12 and up are suggested for the game, and younger players will need to be fairly patient and bright, as this isn't a traditional “kids game.”
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Friday, July 15, 2011

A Few Things I Learned Along the Path to 35 and Unemployed.

So, the day this post goes live is my 35th Birthday, and let me tell you, I really considered completely taking the day off. However, when I did my Origins week, and managed to have a full week of updates despite being out of the state, I established some sort of internal precedent. So, with the arrival of guests looming and tasks around the house still unfinished, this piece will be a little shorter than usual.

No lies ahead, just a few thoughts. Some will inevitably be thought of
as cliches... that's just how these things go.


Without further ado, I present: 

7 things I know as an unemployed 35-year old that I didn't understand at 25.


1. The mind overestimates the long-term impact of tragedy on the heart.

This one, I didn't understand until recently. The loss of a job, end of a relationship, death of a loved one, these things suck. The incredible resilience of the human mind to find happiness when there is no choice but to deal with what has happened is amazing. (It is called impact bias, we also overestimate the effect good fortune has on happiness.)  There's a TED talk about it here, you owe it to yourself to make a few minutes to watch this.

2. No matter how much free time or money you have, what you think you need will take up almost all of it.

Whenever I made a decent amount of money, I never felt I had enough to cover what I needed and wanted. The same is true now, with a whole lot less. On that same front, I've been out of work for almost six months, and despite having nothing but free time, I always manage to be too busy to get to everything.

3. Little, stupid, easily correctable things will erode your sanity if you let them. Don't.

The things that have driven me to stupidity aren't usually the big arguments with friends, family or my wife. It is stupid things like coming back from a hard day and the remote doesn't work. I always have spare “AA” batteries in the house, it is an investment in peace of mind.

4. Sometimes, the most important thing you can do is shut up for a few seconds.

Some people will never get this one. They'll wreck relationships trying to “talk it out,” get attacked by someone who was on the verge of calm, and won't understand why. Sometimes, what you gotta say is nothing at all.

5. It is key to identify when you are losing control of your emotions, and make sure no rash actions are taken or decisions are made until you get it back.

Sane and rational adults lose it sometimes. Instead of denying that fact of life, recognize when it is happening to you and don't say or do anything in those moments that will wreck your life.

6. Learn to let things go.

I still struggle with this one. I've stayed in relationships that were hurting me and going nowhere, stayed at jobs where I was miserable and had no future and stuck with projects that were a waste of more time and effort. When things stop working, don't let the fear of the unknown make you stick with it. Learn to bail when it is time.

7. Life isn't a competition, or if it is, we don't all use the same scoring system.

I've worked jobs where people looked down on me for what I did or how much I made. I've gotten myself down looking at where people around my age are, and envying their success. Forget it. Triumph and tragedy happen suddenly, when they happen and no particular moment guarantees either. I've been happy by experiencing and learning, playing and sharing with people around me. By the way I'm keeping score, the lack of an expensive car of annual vacations doesn't mean I'm not winning. What you do for a living isn't who you are.

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Enough musing. Time to get ready to celebrate surviving another year, and get on with doing what I do. Back next week with the usual comics, games and science fiction.

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