Saturday, March 21, 2009

This is why People Hate Duke

I got to go see two NCAA first round games on Friday here in Boise, and I intend to blog about that. At the moment, I'm just royally pissed off by the finish of the Texas-Duke game.

I only got to watch the last couple minutes because naturally we're given the Gonzaga game here in Boise. But that was enough to see Duke bailed out once again down the stretch by the referees.

First Duke takes the lead on an extremely sketchy "loose ball" foul where the only thing Texas did was be bigger and stronger than Duke's stick-man players on the interior. A Duke guy comes flying into someone with inside position, falls on his ass, and goes to the line for two. Classic.

Then on the other end, our big guy gets mugged underneath on the shot and fighting for the rebound with no call. (Watch this and explain how the Duke guy got freethrows at one end and the Texas center didn't.) Duke's point guard flings the ball past half court. A Texas and Duke player are in hot pursuit. The Texas guy has clear position on the ball and bumps the Duke guy flying past him. The Duke player reacts as though he had been punched by Superman. The whistle blows and Duke gets the game-sealing free throws.

Here's the thing: The Texas guy HAD THE BALL. There was no way the Duke player was going to get it. Any contact had nothing to do with altering the outcome of the play--it didn't put Duke at a disadvantage or give Texas anything they didn't already have. It wasn't flagrant contact. It was incidental. I can't think of two other teams in the country who would be given that call at that point in a game on this stage.

So TWICE in the last minute, TEXAS HAS POSSESSION OF THE BALL and not only do the officials take that away, THEY AWARD FREETHROWS TO DUKE.

I want to like Duke. I defend them fairly regularly against Duke haters because they play smart. But when the fact that they are undersized and puny across their front line and thus highly vulnerable to being outrebounded and outfought for loose balls gets turned into an advantage for them because the officials try to bail them out, that just pisses me off.

Then the assholes at CBS show "the final seconds" of the Texas-Duke game and leave out BOTH of these controversial sequences that decided the outcome of the game. Great reporting, douche-bags.

I'm not a big fan of Villanova, but I hope they DESTROY DUKE in the next round. And if the officials call the game remotely like they called the Villanova-UCLA game, Duke has no prayer. And I'm so angry at the moment that I'm hoping for an utter beatdown.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Horror! The Horror!

The 3D Tetris game I've been playing for the past few years, the only version of the old arcade game Blockout that I've been able to find, just went down. I went to the host site today and got a message in Danish or German that I had to run through a translator:

"Very honoured visitor, unfortunately an error arose: The desired side was not found. Did you perhaps mistype or old URL did call? If not, inform please the Web master of this homepage by email. In order to return to the previous side, you use please simply " Zurück" - Key of your browser."
Rejection in broken English.

I was really, really addicted to playing this game. Back in my undergraduate college days, I had to take a bus from the University of Texas campus to my home in North Austin. By the afternoon this bus ran only once an hour, so when I was through with classes I had a long wait.

The University Rec Center was right by the bus stop, so I could go in and play or watch video games. But I usually had 30 minutes to kill, and a very limited budget, so I needed a game I could get good at if I wanted to play. I'm not really great (or even good) at video games, but then I discovered Blockout, a three-dimensional version of Tetris with vector graphics and two joysticks that let you rotate pieces along the x, y, and z axes as well as move them up and down. I became probably the only non-engineering student and among the only non-Asians to become a top ten player at this game, whiling away half an hour on a quarter.

Guys would come up while I was busy playing to challenge me, note the English lit and History books scattered by my backpack, and confidently drop in their quarter, only to be taken aback by my thumb-twiddling, shape-spinning prowess. At least that's how I remember it.

A few years ago I found a free online version. It was hard adjusting to using 9 keys to rotate, slide, and drop pieces, and level 9 somehow always managed to kick my ass, but I could always get a score in the top 20 for the past 24 hours, frequently in the top 15, and occasionally even the top 10. You have to bear in mind that my typical ranking for an open to all, online game like this is in the hundreds at best.

Now it's gone. I found this variation, but it's ugly, has the wrong perspective, and the grid is tiny compared to the real Blockout grid.

Hopefully this beautiful engine of virtual geometry and pointless block stacking will return once more to induce trancelike states of mental peace and occasional outbursts of swearing from yours truly.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Updated My Web Site

So in my latest creativity phase, which I'm anticipating will last about a week, I've started adding more material to my web site, Dreaming Empires. Specifically, superhero setting and character material. There are even character pictures I created using a software program from a game called City of Heroes. Woo-hoo!

I've also decided to host a bunch of material for the Marvel SAGA rpg that I can no longer find online. Not sure why that is, but I had copied it from the original web site (I'm anal retentive that way--you never know when stuff will disappear from the web, so I copy and save a lot of web sites I like) so I posted it on mine. With my luck, someone will ask me to take it down soon. On the other hand, so few people read my stuff that perhaps it will be safe!

Anyway, I'm hoping to update stuff over the next few days, once I did up more character details and stuff on organizations. Then I'll be converting some of the characters to one or more rpg systems. And then I imagine I'll get distracted by another topic, maybe jumping back to the fantasy or science fiction.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Watchmen Parodies

Thanks to my sister and my buddy Aaron, I've recently come across two brilliant parodies of the Watchmen.

The first is a short animated clip portraying the Watchmen as a Saturday morning cartoon show.

The second is a webcomic Watchmen parody (the Ombudsmen) on PvPOnline.

Both are short but hilarious.

If you don't know what the Watchmen (one of the most lauded graphic novels of all time) is about or who the characters are, these aren't as funny. But trust me, both the parodies and the novel are very well done.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

I Tell Stories

Not always the way I'd someday like to, in nice printed editions, but as a part of my everyday life, I'm a storyteller.

Today in the grocery store I noticed that the cashier had bandages on the fingertips of her right hand. So I asked her if she had been playing the guitar or of she was just so fast on the register keys that her fingers had spontaneously combusted.

She seemed surprised, then looked at the bandages and laughed. She said that her fingers just get dry and cracked and that they never seemed to heal up. So she used some special lotion on them and had to tape them to keep it from getting the register machines greasy. Then she asked about the guitar comment.

Here's where I started to let my imagination go. I could have simply said that I'd seen guitarists like Mark Knopfler wearing bandaids on their fingers to protect them. I even think I remember my Mom either talking about this or doing it herself once.

But I transformed that into a little story about how my Mom had recently taken up the guitar again after many years away from the instrument, and that she hadn't had time to build up the callouses on her fingers yet, so she was taping up her fingertips.

Why did I pick that particular version? Well, unlike me, my Mom can play the guitar. But she doesn't do it much anymore, as far as I know. And this was a middle-aged woman I was talking to, and I wanted to give her the mental image of someone a little like her doing something kind of cool, rather than referencing some rock start. Making a story personal without making it about yourself also seems to draw people in, at least in casual everyday conversation.

As I was bagging my groceries, the cashier asked me about how my Mom got started playing the guitar again. I made a spot assessment: age, hairstyle, the part of the country I live in, and a little necklace with what I thought was a cross on it. The obvious answer became: "She plays every now and then with a group at church." Now, while I'm not a churchgoer, my Mom does go sometimes to a very open-minded church, and she's a friendly, warm person, so I could picture her doing this--though if she picked up the guitar again I suspect she'd be more likely to try to play along to Ottmar Liebert.

Sure enough, the woman's face brightened. "That's great," she said. "I wish I had a more interesting story myself, instead of cracked fingers."

"Everyone's story is interesting," I replied quietly as I bagged up the last of my items, but she had already turned to answer a question from the next customer, so I don't know if she heard me or not.

Then she turned back to me and smiled again. "I'm going to remember that story," she said. "You have a great day."

I wished her the same and left. As I was pushing my cart out the doors, I wondered at this tendency I have to embellish things, to weave together different memories, to shade a tale toward what someone wants to hear. And I have an uncanny ability to remember these little stories when they come up later should I meet someone again.

I don't think of myself as a liar, because when someone asks me what I really think about an issue or event, I do my best to answer truthfully or politely decline. I try to see the different sides of things, but I do have my own views. Most significantly, I try never to pretend that I understand someone else's pain or suffering when I have no real reason to think that I do. And I try very hard to keep promises without being afraid to make promises, which is a hard combination at times.

So I see myself as honest. Yet obviously I make things up, especially little things during chance encounters. I guess I like to share a smile and a laugh with people, to forge that brief connection with strangers, because the empathy and emotion that arises from such moments seems very real to me, even if it arises out of some tenuous blend of fact and fiction.

And there's a sincerity underneath it all. My Mom is a wonderful person; thinking about her makes me smile and fills my heart with pride. That cashier smiling and being pleased at the image of my Mom that she and I had just created seems right to me somehow, because it shares the fundamental truth that thinking about my Mom makes me happy.

That's a rationalization, but it's one I can live with.

More Thoughts on Dragons

Some comments from Aaron led me to do some more thinking about Dragons and to articulate my views.

In a nutshell, I think of Dragons as huge, long-lived, essentially solitary predators who happen to be very smart. And I wondered what sort of civilization such creatures would develop, because their interactions with each other would be limited and they would so often be in competition with each other. Plus you could only have so many of them, particularly Elder Dragons.

I saw Draconic civilization as progressing very slowly because individual insights were so rarely shared and they would create very little infrastructure. One big Elder Dragon may be very smart and very powerful, but how much can it really achieve on its own in terms of creating infrastructure? Especially if it has to guard its territory against incursions by other big, powerful predators?

To me this screams out for servants. No Dragon could successfully raise herds of food animals, for example, because they couldn't control a bunch of beasts terrified by having a huge freakin' Dragon around.

But human servants could. Human servants can build great works over long periods of time and produce large amounts of mundane goods that would be wasteful and boring for a powerful Dragon to spend the time making. Human servants acting as proxies could engage in tentative cultural and economic exchanges with other Dragons who by their nature would be uncomfortable and possily violent if gathered together. Human servants can even explore the natural world more efficiently than a single powerful Dragon, traveling around in groups to collect specimens, conduct research, and compile knowledge. Human servants are also the best tools for hunting and controlling groups of "wild" humans that might encroach on a Dragon's territory. Humans can even help defend a Dragon against its rivals, acting as an early warning system.

The Dragons that "domesticated" humans thus gained advantages similar to those acquired by humans who domesticated animals like horses, cattle, dogs, and sheep: extra labor, expanded and reliable food supplies, protection, and greater access to goods. In essence, Dragons paired with humans led to accelerated civilization for Dragons.

The Dragons that followed this path out-competed their rivals. Then they set up a social system that controls Dragon populations in settled areas (by limiting reproductive rights for Dragons, promoting wars of conquest, and limiting the number of Elder Dragons active in any area), selects for the strongest (by sterilizing those with the least ability), and provides outlets for the instinctive predatory desire to acquire territory (by tying active Dragons to large feudal fiefdoms and encouraging constant exploration and expansion).

At the same time, the Dragons that bond with the human nobles of the Great Houses often forge strong emotional ties with certain lineages. Think of it as a curmudgeonly farmer who has few social contacts but who breeds and trains sheepdogs. That farmer grows to have real pride and even love for his animals, which are more than pets--they are work and life companions.

Now, all of this is colored by the fact that humans are more intelligent relative to Dragons than cows, horses, and even dogs are relative to people (though you might not agree!), with the most obvious example being that Dragons and people can communicate with each other using sophisticated language. But the underlying dynamic is still similar to that of domestication and pets/working animals. Some Dragons will treat humans as disposable, while others will love their closest human companions more than they are capable of loving any of their Dragon peers. But they'll all see humans (and the other intelligent hominids) as inherently useful.

As to Dragon frequency, Elder Dragons are rare and mysterious in my setting, their motives uncertain and often frightening simply because they take a very long view. Adult Dragons are rather more common, but not in groups--there tends to be one in an entire principality, for example. The exceptions are the sterilized Dragons, who are much smaller but still long-lived and secretive, tending to work behind the scenes to shape human civilization.

Juvenile Dragons are still rare enough that most people would only see them from a distance, but they are often assembled into Flights that serve the Empire as a kind of aerial shock troops. Those that prove themselves and survive for 20 years or so of service can gain reproductive rights. This is the most socialization that a typical Dragon will ever have.

Ironically, when other cultures write about someone slaying a Dragon in heroic battle, it is almost always a juvenile Dragon that they are talking about.