Wednesday, December 14, 2011


TEDx Brussels - John Bohannon & Black Label Movement - Dance Your PhD

I have to admit, I am not a TEDhead. A lot of the presentations seem oversimplified, overwrought, or obvious. Every once in a while, though, an astonishing genius breaks through.

Saturday, November 06, 2010


A little parity

Friday, January 15, 2010



Pivot, slice, drop
widen your stance
don't lean over so much
elbows down but not out
turn the fist and think UP UP UP
set the bag swinging
follow it
lead with the left
the off-hand
the weak hand
the wrong hand
use it
use it
use it
Because what will you do when he gives you angles?
Turn and turn and turn?
Into the crouch
don't lead with your head
you're made low to the ground
use that
know when to come out and
give him something as you stand

I thought it was fear, then I thought it was anger.
It is not any one thought, any one feeling,

or any one memory.
Here is emotion and direction.
Like a marriage, I come to this with
all the baggage
all the beauty.
No thought, or all thoughts, or no feelings,
all feelings,
pressed and poured into steps and vectors and timing,
into so much speed, so many foot-pounds of force.

Enough, I'm no Zen master.
I'm not fucking Yoda
and don't want to be.

It is the shadow that I box.
The living, breathing opponent,
who weaves and slips my punches
and tests my defense,
and gives as good as he gets.
The bag disappears into him.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009



for A.U.

There's a cord between me and the bar on the way home.
It pulls, gently, at my center of gravity, 
bending the path of my steps if I am not paying attention.
Pulling towards Susan, the Duchess of Happy Hour,
towards a a drink or two or five
while I wait for the Muse.

Most nights she stops by;
she's reliable in that way.
She leans up against the counter,
lithe and smiling,
and we work together
before she catches the late train home.

I am selling off my life
one shot of speed-rack vodka at a time,
cutting the straps that dig into
my arms, my shoulders, my hands.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


Hold a mirror up to (virtual) life

Review of Gamer (2009)
directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor

First, the supporting cast of this film is wonderful. Keith David, Ludacris, Michael C. Hall, and John Leguizamo steal every scene they are in. The two scenes when actors sing in character are incredibly effective and creepy.

It is strange to write this, but while I was very engaged by this movie, I am not recommending it to many people. “Gamer” reminds me of the 1975 “Rollerball”; it succeeds at being a movie about the spectacle of violence, something which “Gladiator” failed to do. In this case, it is the physical and social violence of virtual worlds. In “Gladiator” the violence is transformative; it is the main way that characters identify themselves. The violence in “Gamer” is inelegant, sudden, and ugly, and there is nothing expressive about it. It is something to survive and get through. However, there is a problem with making a film about violence: you risk creating what you are trying to examine.

If you are one of the millions who have familiarity with Sony Home, Second Life, Halo, The Sims, Team Fortress, World of Warcraft, and other virtual spaces, then you will immediately recognize when “Gamer” holds a mirror to a lot of features of those games: banning, overly bright colors, teabagging, absurd costumes, odd marionette-like movements, rudeness and childish acting-out, and of course, the miming of sexual acts with your avatar. If you are one of the millions who don't understand what any of that means, then “Gamer” will be an unredeemed pornographic mess.

As another commenter wrote, this is a dystopia; a warning, not a celebration. There is nothing titillating about watching Amber Valletta's character dressed in humiliating costumes, knowing that she has sold control over her body to another - that is scary and sad. At the same time, that is exactly the kind of thing people do with their avatars. The desire to completely control a figure in an imaginary circumstance is, at its heart, a very strange one, but it touches something very deeply in many people. Americans spend more on games than they do at the box office. “Gamer” is a flawed movie, but not one I can dismiss.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Faster than anyone better than me

It comes in under the closed door,
through the window screen,
pushing in under my eyelids,
into my nose, my ears.
It's getting in,
like a hard rain,
bouncing off bricks and doors,
its drops bending in their flight,
coming in under your umbrella,
to hit your shirt, your collar, your face.

I talk with myself to let it out,
because it's built up,
scaring people who can't hear
the other side of the conversation.
I try to stop and I can't;
it has to come out.

So, I reach for the bottle.
I reach for a book.
I reach for a game,
to get another hour
to chase it out, into a fantasy,
a construct where it can run
for another hour.
Another hour that work piles up
needing to be done.

Because when I touch something important it
screams sometimes,
or it whispers, which is worse.
I breathe and put up my hands
to struggle with it,
and I push it away and remember to
keep the pen moving.


Saturday, September 19, 2009



Never discard a dream.
It will not explode
when deferred, like an errant missile.

I bought the cut-rate bacon; it is nearly as good.
Put it in the oven for twenty minutes, but the fat wouldn't render.
Cooked it slow in a skillet, until it seemed right.
Pulled the strips of meat from the grease and chewed them,
wishing they were crunchy.

I leave old dreams in the freezer now.
They don't spoil, but the color changes.
I open the door, sometimes,
just to look at them.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Four seconds

This is a bad sign,

this strong, unnatural glee.
Someone just said hello to me,
and I stopped for four seconds
with a smile on my face.
one two three four
That is a long time.
Wait four seconds between two words,
any two words,
the next time you talk to someone.
Four seconds is much too long.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009



Wind struck the sea as I looked west. The sun
would dim and flare as distant waves rose and fell.
The black stern of my ship stood like a monument.
Did my father watch the same sun set,
leaning on his cane, feet planted in the dark earth?
Did he look east and wonder, “Are the same stars shining on my son?”
Peleus, will death wait for your child's homecoming?
Two men on deck make light, the tripod's fire
reflected down to me from their faces.
One smiles, gap-toothed, and calls for wine and dice.
Briseis, I remember, hip to hip
we slept while keener minds than mine made plans.

I see my mother on the rolling waves,
her shining feet do not quite touch the waters.
I will call to her soon, but not yet.

An hour ago, Briseis and she held hands and leaned
their heads together, deathless god and mortal woman.
The black ship hid me as I saw them kiss like sisters;
they rolled a chariot wheel between them, making it a toy.

When you play, you are free.

Fear of divine curse kept the men away.



The Pitch

“Burning Tower was a good movie,” I said.
“What was it about?”
I want to answer as best I can.
It had Shavian overtones, and I hadn't seen a film
that really showed me anything I hadn't seen before in months.
It had flaws, yes - sex was awkwardly handled,
as it is so,
so many times.
There were three lines that made me cringe;
howlers, howlers.
There was one scene in it that I had written a long time ago
before I had any balls.
Waking up from a dream,
my computer was on,
I typed for twenty minutes and
this motherfucker put this film together and took it from me somehow.
I love movies and
how do I say that?


Saturday, August 29, 2009


I am vengeance. I am the night.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (XBOX 360)
Zero/Five Stars out of Five

If you don't know who Poison Ivy and Killer Croc and Two-Face are, if you think Batman must occasionally kill someone with all the fights he gets into, this game has zero stars for you.

For everyone else: holy shit. This is the Batmaniest Batman game, ever. You cannot have more Batman in a game.

Arkham Island is a moody horror. It looks like a cross between a Victorian estate, a swamp, and Tartarus. The fine ironwork has gone to rust. The ivy on the walls has turned to slimy moss. The books are yellowed and frayed. The statuary is eerie. The towering cliffs are riddled with tunnels and alcoves. The shouts of madmen echo down stone corridors. A lot of games try to be spooky, and B:AA is one of the few that pulls it off.

Combat is as hard or as easy as you want it to be. You can mash the attack button, and come through mostly ok. Or you can grab your nuts, and try to get the timing right on the strikes, use the evade and counter buttons, and chain combos together. Your reward will be a Batman that fights like Batman: he will block attacks from behind with supernatural ease, slip punches and riposte with brutal linear strikes, flip over giant mutants, and the camera will lovingly slow down and zoom in as you fold an attacker's arm the wrong way. You leap out from around corners, and pull legs out from under attackers as they stand on a ledge you're hanging from. Yes Virginia, you pull unsuspecting criminals into the air, and then leave them suspended upside-down, to shout for help and terrify their comrades.

Can I say that they got the body language just right? He never kills anyone - if you look close, the chests of your unconscious foes rise and fall as they breathe. When alone, B-man will kick in grates to air vents, walk easy, and look around. When there are enemies around, he will carefully pull grates away and quietly set them aside, and drop silently from heights. Best of all, when enemies begin to attack, he stands utterly still as they charge him, in case you forget that you are controlling a creepy bastard who dresses like a bat to fight crime.

Did I mention that the Riddler's riddles are actually interesting, difficult, and satisfying to solve?

The experience system is simple, and only gives you upgrades that are actually worth a damn. Paul Dini wrote it, and they brought back the voice cast from the Batman animated series. The music adapts Hans Zimmer's tense string section from The Dark Knight film.

'nuff said.

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Saturday, August 01, 2009


Mike Sugarbaker on Story Games

Story Games: How to Play Them and Why, by Mike Sugarbaker from Substance on Vimeo.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009


2009 Ennie Awards

Voting for the 2009 Ennie Awards is open through midnight, August 1st. If you have an RPG game you love, or even just like, go vote.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


The Podcast Project

At last, I have begun my RPG actual-play podcast. I am using podbean, a free host, for the time being, and Feedburner to normalize the feed so there'll be no need to change links if and when I move to a new host.

RSS feed to the podcast episodes

Link to podcast blog at podbean

Friday, May 29, 2009


Zombie Uprising - Vegetarian Style

The latest game-heroin hybrid from Popcap Games is Plants Vs Zombies, a modification of the "tower defense" style game.

Zombies are attacking your house, and you use plants with different powers to defend your lawn and prevent them from entering your house. You buy these plants with Sunshine, the most important resource in the game, which comes from certain plants which generate income, and falls randomly during daytime levels. There are many different variations and mini--games to choose from, and the replayability is high.

 You can get the demo, try it out for yourselves. Like a lot of puzzle-strategy hybrids, you can determine within minutes whether you like it or not, and at $9.99 on Steam, it is a super value.

Here's a picture to illustrate a few tips I picked up. This mostly applies to the endgame, and the harder survival-mode levels. This pic was taken at the end of the first Pool Survival level.
(Ranks go left-right, columns up/down.)

 Notice the blue shaded Garlic Bulbs. The line shows the path zombies take after taking a single bite. They move to the next rank randomly, so Garlic at the lowest and highest ranks forces them to move to the only available space. The second bulb exists as a back-up - Garlics last a long time, because each Z only takes one bite, but they do not last forever. Also, pole-vaulting Z's will jump the first and bite the second. The first two spaces of ranks 2 and 5 have powered-up spike mats, which strike at every Z in their space while they cross, therefore every Z that enters at rank 1, 2, 5, and 6 takes decent damage, almost enough to kill unarmored Z's before they ever reach the second column, or even the edge of the screen. This funnels the enemy to the yellow-shaded area - The Valley Of The Shadow Of Death.

Behold the Star Plant. One of the cheapest offensive plants, it has a very high rate of fire. It has two drawbacks: low health, and it does not shoot directly forward, requiring a little bit of forethought to use. Notice the gray lines, which indicate the paths of fire. A handful of these babies absolutely rain a wicked crossfire into the target zone - a zone full of zombies because of their repulsion to garlic.

In the purple-shaded area, I have Cat-tails, which are upgraded Lily Pads. These are the most flexible offense, firing spikes at a high rate of fire, which hit Zacks at every altitude, including the airborne Bungee and Balloon Zacks. Their rate of fire is nearly as good as the Quadruple Pea Shooters, which cost twice as much. More importantly, the spikes target every zombie on the screen, with the Cat-tails aiming at the Z closest to them. These eight formed the core of my offense - absolutely everything in the lead of any wave starts taking a steady stream of damage the moment it steps on screen.

The Double Sunflowers keep my economy space-efficient, and the Frozen Melon-pults have a splash attack that does decent damage, and slows every Z in every adjacent square to the target, forcing the enemy to spend extra time in the kill zone. In fact, the freezing weapons are the only viable way to keep the tough Football Jock and Ogre Zacks from making openings in your lines.

Kudos to this game - deep strategy options at a bargain.

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Tuesday, May 19, 2009


The next tier

This is from an argument I got into over the most common RPG gamer divide - systems with mechanically-enforced character levels, versus systems that do not have these.

* * * * * 

Hold on hombres. Whether you classify Savage Worlds as level-based or skill-based, powers-based, turkey-basted, is really not the point. Let's say it IS level-based, for the sake of argument. I can't defensibly say what definition most gamers use for any particular term is held by the majority. I also don't think there are terribly good arguments for saying SW is broken because it is level-based. I'm more interested in pulling specific issues out into the light and figuring out what causes them. 

The argument I was making above was that the criticisms leveled against traditional level-based systems (almost every game published before 1990, let's face it) mostly don't apply to Savage Worlds.

Some specific ones that come up a lot on RPG boards, and these are all distinct issues that we can all see as being problems in certain games (games of any type, in some cases, not just RPGs):

Accessibility - A 2nd level Crazy walking into a RIFTS campaign where the party is all 8th level and above is essentially dead weight. This is true of AD&D 2e, D20, etc. None of his abilities can affect any of the foes at the tier that the party is operating. I walked into this campaign two ranks below every other PC, and was making significant contributions from the word go; at least I think so.

Skill/Feat/Power Bloat - In Savage Worlds, I like that the Blast I bring to a fight is the same Blast that anyone else brings. More advanced creatures will be tougher, or have more powers, but this streamlines combat a lot. If you have 34 levels of character progression in your game, you better have a LOT of choices to justify each of those tiers. Players have to be rewarded for passing a threshold, in some way, or it is empty. The easy, lazy way to do this is (I think) to add variables to powers that increase in some way with level. As in: 

Your Wizard casts (3 x your level) of Magic Missiles.
Your Cleric turns (5 x your level) in zombies.
Your Warrior does (3.14159265 x your level) each time she Smites Evil.
Your Cow Wrangler owns (23 x your level) in bull testes.
At level 17 you gain access to Super Improved Afghani Pelvis Wrestling.
This leads to another problem.

Rule Bloat - Players explore all these options and find combinations that work well together. This is not my idea of fun, but I respect that a lot of players enjoy this and that it is a real talent to explore a system and find abilities that work well together. The pressure to generate more and more powers means more and more rules to prevent overlapping, preserve the game balance the writers intend, and handle places where mechanics become contradictory. This makes a huge barrier that keeps people out of the hobby, and discourages players from experimenting with other systems when they've invested so much time and energy into learning one. Just watch the Youtube video where a copy of the Hero System 6th Edition stops a bullet with its 650+ pages of charts. Savage Worlds Explorer's Ed: bloated it ain't. I am going to do an experiment with my sister this weekend. She's never gamed, even once, and I'm going to take her through a Savage Worlds story, soup-to-nuts, from character generation to finale, and see how long it takes. There's only a couple of systems I would try this with.

I could go on - a lot more things come up again and again, especially the isolation of setting from rules. In fact, I've gone on too long. Anyone who's been a gamer long enough has been in these conversations. 

For myself, I know that no system can really handle every setting - people who say otherwise are trying to sell you something. The idea of GM fiat itself, that a separate person defines everything in a campaign and has an unrestricted veto power over story paths and solutions to problems, seems uninteresting, silly, and flawed. is not perfect, I have one or two specific problems with it, but it does a good job of compromising crunch, character choices and ease of play, and there are a lot of settings where this system would be a good fit.

I am enjoying the campaign thoroughly, and I haven't yet seen any foes that are insurmountable. If we do try a new system, I would only host or play in something radically different, with cooperative storytelling and narrative control meta-mechanics: Mouse Guard, Dogs in the Vineyard, Polaris, or Grey Ranks.

Friday, May 08, 2009


I want to return

I was lucky to catch the encore screening of “Return to the Scene of the Crime”, a project of “This American Life”. It was simply wonderful – one of the best things I've seen on a movie screen in months. I have a man-crush on Ira Glass, and I am not ashamed to admit it. The greatest show is just watching someone do something that is truly their joy. Somehow, he made the business of audio production (talking into a microphone, fiddling with sliders on a mixer) like watching a magician.

Many times, some of us in that theater had to remind ourselves that this was not the original live broadcast of the show from two weeks ago, but a recording. Hell, more than once, some of us clapped, then stopped suddenly when we realized that the performers on stage couldn't hear us. Ira Glass gave a little bow to us, the folks who would be watching the encore. Dan Savage, Mike Birbiglia, and Starlee Kine all have moments that are so emotionally naked, I had take a breath. They pointed me to many books, podcasts, and spoken word albums I will be looking at in the near future.

Joss Whedon made a great showing, playing piano and singing a song from the DVD commentary of “Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog”, called “A Heart... On Sale Now”. A fact I did not know until last night: the entire commentary to Dr. Horrible is, itself, a musical. It is sung in rhyme, and it manages to simultaneously be commentary on Dr. Horrible and writing as a profession.

As an aside, I wanted to add that the people coming for the This American Life screening were mostly ego-crushingly attractive trustfundafarians in their thirties. I wanted to stand at the door and guess which movie each person was there to see:
Hmmmm, Wolverine... Scene of the Crime... Adventureland, maybe?.. Scene... Scene... Oh, those guys are definitely here for Trek...

The outgoing audience buzz for "Star Trek" was very positive. It even managed to capture a non-geek demographic: the young urban male testosterone-cinema buff. Most of the guys coming out from Trek and Wolverine were gargantuans in the fanboy uniform of black gamer and comic book t-shirts. I say that with love; on another night that description would apply to me.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009



I didn't revive this blog to talk about myself. Really.

I don't see this as a forum for extemporizing. If I broadcast something, it will be something I've taken the effort to think through and polish.

That being said, there was a little medical incident in my life that inspired what I'm putting up today. I've turned this into a fiction piece, but autobiographical asides like this will be the exception, not the rule.

* * * * * 

It began, as all things do, while playing Heroic Cthulhu.

Friday night, I suddenly felt dizzy and tired. If you go back and listen to the right episode of the podcast, you will hear the beginning of my heart beginning to get congested.

I go to sleep, and wake up 2 hours later, with a cramping pain in the enter of my chest. This pain spreads and gets worse every time I try to breathe deeply. 

Indigestion, I think.

I take an antacid, and try to sleep. 8:00 AM comes without real sleep. I doze off for twenty minutes or so, only to wake up when the pain flares. I've realized that I need to see a doctor. I walk to my friendly neighborhood clinic, which is nearly empty on a Saturday morning, and see someone fairly quickly.

The doc gives me an EKG, examines me, comes back five minutes later and says, "I think you should go to a hospital."

"Yes, I want you to get cardiology consult."
"Can't this wait? My dad can drive me this afternoon."
"No, in fact, I've already called an ambulance. The EKG showed markers that you may have had a heart attack very recently, or are having one right now."
"Oh," I say.

The ambulance arrives and takes me to the hospital, still relatively early for a Saturday. The heart-attack people have been notified, and are ready to meet me. I get aspirin, another EKG, and an echocardiogram.

"Hmmm," says the cardiologist, neutrally. She tilts her head and looks at the screen, where my heart is beating away in blurry gray lines.

"Your heart is swollen. It's bigger than it should be. Also, your blood pressure is low. VERY low."

"So that's why the pain breathing?"

"Most likely. Fluid is backing up inside your heart, because your heart beat isn't strong enough to keep up pressure to move fluid out as fast as it comes in. May be a passing thing, just a reaction to a medication, or something you ate."

"So what do I do?"

"We keep you here for observation, at least 24 hours, and see what happens."

"Great, so I get out of here tomorrow? I am starting training for a new job on Monday."

She looks at me, doctor-neutral again.

"Probably not. We'll see."

Some family came by, friends called etc. By dinnertime on Saturday, I was pretty much regretting my decision to go to the hospital.

I've over-reacted. This was probably just stress, or a panic attack, or something. Come lunchtime tomorrow, I will demand that they let me go.

They had connected me to the machine that goes "beep." The beeping is quiet.

The beeping woke me up a little after nine, when the steady beep on the green line had turned into frantic beeping and a red line, with large flashing text box that said "V-TACH."

I hit the nurse call. I tell them, "The pain is back."

Earlier, I'd had an interview with one cardiologist when I'd been referred to the catheterization lab. Someone suggested that a catheter introducing contrast dye into my coronary vessels would highlight any blockages, which are the most common cause of my symptoms.

"Well, I don't think you are having a heart attack," Doctor Catheter says. "You are comfortable, and responsive. People having heart attacks are NOT comfortable. I think the risks of a catheter procedure outweigh the possible benefits. Later, if something happens, we'll be on call, and we'll reassess."

I like Doctor Catheter. He and his team strike me as being levelheaded and experienced.

"OK, I agree. I feel fine."

I am back in the catheter lab within a half-hour of telling the attendings that I am hurting. This time the pain was like someone reaching into my chest with a monkey wrench, and twisting something in my heart. Every inhaled breath was like a line of fire across my chest. I kept talking about what was going on and answering questions. I am being pretty calm, I thought, except for the river of tears running down my cheeks.

"How would you rate the pain, from one to ten, with ten being the worst pain imaginable."


Thinking back on it, I should have said "ten." If I've ever been in worse pain, the amnesia machine that is my brain has blotted it out, because I can't recall it.

The catheter team gets ready, real quick. Talking a little too fast, since I am obviously in distress.

"I'm okay. Take your time."

The atmosphere relaxes, but not my pain, unfortunately. They implant a sheath in my an artery in my thigh, and run a tube into my largest vessels. I watch as my vascular system blooms into contrast against my other tissues, on the large screens.

My arteries are all clear as bells.

"Good, it isn't any blockage, so we don't have to install a stent, which would require you to take medications for the rest of your life."


"However your heart is really inflamed. Your heart capacity is probably down below half of what it should be."

The catheter is withdrawn, and I am placed in a cardiac care unit; a pretty restrictive level of monitoring, just above ICU. I am put on more powerful medications that tease fluid out of my system, reduce my heart rate, and control my blood pressure. No surprise, I am drowsy, and sleep through most of Sunday. Some family comes by, and I fill them in on what's happened.

I am monitored constantly, with blood pressure checks every three hours, until my BP returns to normal on Monday morning. One final sonogram, appointments for followups, and I am discharged Tuesday morning.

They've taken a tragicomic amount of blood from me since then. Tested for many markers for different viruses, Lyme disease, and on and on. I'm still hoping to track down exactly what happened to me that weekend, but it doesn't seem likely at this point.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Two things I am happy about

A mini-update to point to two things:

The Path

You're either onboard the 'video games are art' train, or you are not. I definitely am.

Also, if you are aware of the work of the Brothers Grimm, you know that original versions of many of the faerie tales that have come down to us from the European tradition differ from their modern interpretations. In a word, they have been Disneyfied. The sorrowful overtones and barely-veiled allusions to physical assault, sexuality, and fear of illness have been lost.

I am proud to present a project that combines these two interests, THE PATH by Tale of Tales Games. This game uses the story of Little Red Riding Hood as a frame to hang a whole off-balance mobile of symbols. Since you are playing one of six different versions of Red, with an age spread from about five to eighteenish, femeninity and growth are two themes that get a lot of exploration.

The game aims at a lot of targets and hits most of them. It is atmospheric, creepy, poignant, challenging, and sad, and the best money I've spent on a game in a year.

The Path home page

Video reviews (the first one, from The Escapist, is very good)

Robert De Niro's gift to the University of Texas at Austin

The video says it all. There's also a story on the New York Times site today.

De Niro Collection at the University of Texas

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To The Inspector General

The Deadliest Warrior is one of the best examples of unintentional humor on the air right now. The entire cast is made of rejects from “300.” Grown men in a gym pound on ballistics gel dummies and skeletons. Force pads measure the power of their strikes in pounds-per-square-inch. Adults are standing around and arguing, really arguing, and taking grievance over disagreements about which long-dead nation of people, existing centuries apart, produced men with greater martial prowess. 

If you gave two eleven-year-old boys a special effects budget to live out their “Who would win in a fight?” conversations, this is the show they would produce.

The Deadliest Warrior site


A letter to Mr. Barry L. Kluger, Inspector General of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (published here and sent via USPS)

Mr. Kruger:

I am a born New Yorker, and I've been using the buses and subways of New York City since I was small enough to be carried on board.

A few weeks ago, I was leaving Grand Central Station, and I came across a scene that made me write you this letter. I was using the row of turnstiles in the annex where the hallway to the 42nd Street Shuttle meets the stairways to the platforms for the 4,5, and 6 trains. It was a weekday afternoon, around 3:00, so the area was busy, but not anywhere near rush-hour usage. There are about twenty turnstiles in front of the exit there. Still, there was a steady stream of riders moving out through each of the turnstiles.

I go through one of the turnstiles, and a couple is standing in front of me. It is a man and woman in their fifties, with their rolling carry-on-sized luggage, and the guy gives me this sad, polite smile. I turn around, and immediately see his problem: the constant flow of people exiting mean that there's no way he and his wife can get through. I had never seen it this way. I am used to charging towards a turnstile when I am trying to enter, counting on my focus and energy to announce to people exiting that I am about to use this turnstile, and they need to choose another one.

This is a very strange social negotiation that happens every minute, but I don't think that it has to.

When I was younger, I seem to remember that each station had the old, “herringbone” rotating exits, and these are still installed in many outlying stations, such as the 5 train station at Gun Hill Road, near where I live in the Bronx. I'm sure you know these; the exit is just a frame with metal slats and a rotating cage on a gear that allows travel in one direction. They are inexpensive, simple, reliable, have been in use for decades, because they allow people leaving to keep moving without having to negotiate a two-way turnstile. 

They have been replaced by the push-bar exit door, but these doors are clearly marked as emergency exits, which play a harsh beeping alert to discourage their regular use. By phasing these out, you create the problem that this couple faced. Worse, during peak times at the busiest stations, you can stand aside and watch hundreds of near-collisions (and many head-on collisions), people tripping or bumping into each other as they side-step, looking for an exit or entry that is clear for a moment, headphone wires and bag straps caught and pulled – and so on.

So please, Mr. Kruger, bring back the simple, one-way rotating exits. If there is some fatal flaw in these that I'm not aware of, I'm sure that some ingenious person has developed a device that serves the same function in a catalog or on a drawing board somewhere.

Thanks for your time,

[my signature]

Website of the Inspector General's Office

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Thursday, April 23, 2009


Slavery and lycanthropy in the works of Laurell K. Hamilton

Notes and links follow each item

There's a lot of agreement that the second Knights Of The Old Republic game was deeply flawed (to give full disclosure, I liked the first game, but never played beyond a half-hour of the second). The production schedule was rushed, the original ending was changed, length was cut, and many interesting locations and quests were cut. Worse, some of the quests that were in the published game were broken, which is the worst sin in any computer RPG; glitches would cause saved games to be lost, and crucial items did not work as intended.

Much like the Star Control 2 remake project, a group of fans has taken it upon themselves to create a mod that addresses these issues. If anyone knows of any other projects like this – attempts to fix, re-imagine or remake games of the past - please let me know.

"Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords" Restoration Project

"Star Control 2: The Ur-Quan Masters" remake on Sourceforge


The Drawbacks of Lycanthropy

My sister pointed me towards the “Anita Blake” series of books by Laurell K. Hamilton several years ago. I absolutely tore through the first seven books; this series is a guilty pleasure to the nth degree. The strength of the first half of this series is that it manages to juggle a lot of genre balls and keep them in the air in a way that only a few other franchises have managed – Dresden Files and Buffy come to mind immediately. 

In another post, I will explore my mixed feelings about the latest Dresden book, which came out earlier this month. Unlike Jim Butcher, Hamilton made a bold change to her main character a little after the midway point in the series. Namely, she added another peg to her juggling act by seriously ramping up the sexual content of the stories. This has gained her a new (apparently larger) readership while alienating her much of her old one.

It is wonderful to watch a successful balance between romance, horror, police procedural, and action-adventure. There is an intricate and multi-faceted supernatural landscape in these books, with many stakeholders, some occult and some public: vampires, necromancers, voodoo priests, fey, police agencies, and lycanthropes of every imaginable. This essay will mostly be a thought experiment concerning this last group. There's a very tragic dimension to the disease that doesn't get explored very much in the novels.

Lycanthropy, in the Anitaverse (and all the examples I give here are in this fictional setting, just to be clear), results from successful infection of a virus, which causes changes that makes some supernatural energies available to the afflicted person. Not everyone exposed to a virus actually contracts the disease. Most important of these powers is an altered animal form. The species of virus determines the animal that inspires altered form, and different viruses have different rates of infection. From most to least potent, the list goes: wererat, werewolf, many of the large predatory cats, down to wereswans, the hardest species to transmit.

Let us say that you are afflicted, four major problems arise. First, the transition from human being to lycanthrope is physically and emotionally grueling. Most infections are the result of an act of violence, which is traumatic enough by itself. Commonly, a lycanthrope who is in an altered form allows their animal instincts of predation and stalking to overwhelm them, at which point they attack a nearby target, which is hopefully some prey animal, but in the worst case, a member of the afflicted's family, or a loved one. Even in the best-case scenario, where you have a close, supportive, and accepting family with financial means, you represent a real danger to the people around you.

Worse, most lycanthrope species undergo an involuntary change at some point in the lunar cycle. For three nights of every month, you live in your altered form, and must either run wild in some wilderness (where you are unable to injure someone else), or be sedated and physically restrained. Since each transformation is physically exhausting, you lose a day after each night to convalesce. This “lost time” is the most obvious indication to your acquaintances that you have contracted the disease, which leads to the second problem.

In modern Western societies, lycanthropes are tolerated. In most of the world, however, suspected lycanthropes are seized, tested, and if infected, killed immediately by local authorities, with no trial, no appeal, no due process. Equal employment opportunity and disability advocacy laws prevent employers from discriminating against lycanthropes, but in practice the suspicion of infection usually leads to termination under other pretenses. Careers in medicine or food preparation are barred, period. This causes a closed circle of opportunity, as happens in many immigrant communities, where lycanthropes employ and make friendships only with each other, which only makes the distrust and distance more acute.

Thirdly, there are serious dangers from within the lycanthrope communities themselves. The animal instincts which become part of the personality create pack- and pride- like structures, separated along species lines, with an alpha-leader at the top of a hierarchy. It is standard practice for this leader to establish a territory, with borders negotiated with other, adjacent leaders, and to settle local disputes among their subjects. In return for fulfilling these duties, the leader (and this office goes by many different names, depending on the species) exacts tithes from her subjects, and keeps them in line primarily with the threat of violence. It is also standard practice to appoint betas, sergeants that help the leader in her duties. 

In this way, becoming a lycanthrope is tantamount to slavery, or perhaps a better analogy is membership in a gang of penitentiary convicts. Someone is set above, at the top of a social pyramid. They provide some protections, but this is essentially extortion. You will be protected, and you will pay, whether you like it or not. Local agencies almost never intervene in these matters. Your only recourse is to rise in the hierarchy by a series of challenges, almost always physical duels, in superhumanly powerful altered forms, and most often to the death. A duel to replace a leader herself is always to the death, which leads to my final point.

If you would like to “vote with your feet” and leave a particularly brutal regime, you will find that it is extremely difficult. Because were-communities are so closely bound and territorial, and violence is the only way to move socially, moving across territorial boundaries becomes a diplomatic snafu. Calls need to be made, messages confirmed, and the leaders of the realms you move through have to be satisfied. They will probably demand a public meeting to exchange a toll price, or some other symbol of submission. It isn't hard to see why this is. If you are a new lycanthrope moving through a leader's territory, you represent a real threat to the establish power structure, because there is a significant chance that you are coming to fight your way into the pack/pride hierarchy.

Now weigh this spider's web of penalties and problems versus the gifts you receive: a robust resistance to any illness, enhanced senses, an alternate form with superhuman strength and stamina, and, hopefully, bonds of friendship with other lycanthropes in your area. Your mileage may vary, but to me this trade is in no way equal.

Now it's time for me to pays my money and takes my choice. If I had no choice but to choose a lycanthrope group to join, the wererats would have my money. At least in the St. Louis of the novels, wererats seem to be more of an anarchic confederacy of equals than a monarchy. Even though the leader is called the Rat King, he is more of a charismatic representative, who guides by his force of personality. This is the best of the worst choices.

Anita Blake on Wikipedia


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Long time no post.

Recent events in my life have convinced me that I need a regular, public forum for my interests. There's just too much material pressing out to hold in anymore, and if I'm going to write an essay or review, it's better to take the extra time and effort to polish it into work that might intrigue or entertain someone other than myself. My usual format will be to place shorter, topical pieces at the top of each post, and leave the longer pieces below the fold.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008


My Six Word Biography

Born. Read. Diminished. Grew. Returned. Continuing.

For Aneris Harmonia

Monday, March 31, 2008


Defending Your Like

From []:


best of craigslist > s.f. bayarea >

Originally Posted: Tue, 26 Feb 17:25 PST
Thanks, Mr.Hipster Record Store Clerk.

Date: 2008-02-26, 5:25PM PST

Dear Hipster Record Store Clerk,

Thank you for judging me on the CD I bought yesterday. Our passive-aggressive altercation made me realize how conformist I am for buying an old Rage Against The Machine album. Your condescension was just the intellectual wake-up call I needed.

I discovered a new me yesterday, and my eyes were opened in a new way. Thanks to you, I realize now that the key to enlightenment is reading Pitchfork, watching High Fidelity, listening to Velvet Underground, having a tattoo of a star on the inside of my wrist, growing an ironic mustache, living in the Mission, and wearing a too-small sweater, multi-colored 70’s ski-vest, chunky plastic-frame glasses, a high school sports T-shirt, air-tight black jeans, and Nixon-era Chuck Taylors.

I had it all wrong, man. You showed me that a skilled job and a comfortable living is just a lie. I need to go to art school, have my parents pay my rent, join a Joy Division-influenced band, and wait for a record deal, like you. I’m totally missing out in life.

So thanks again for mocking me. I mean, at first I thought you were just a pathetic, frustrated musician trying to feel better about yourself. But now I see you’re an uncompromising visionary.

No one will ever understand you. You’re so different.


Everyone Not Like You

* it's NOT ok to contact this poster with services or other commercial interests

PostingID: 588037045

Copyright © 2008 craigslist, inc.


For everyone who has ever been told, reflexively, that some piece of music they enjoyed was shit...

I raise my mug in salute to you, Everyone-Not-Like-You. I've been dealing with people like the asshole clerks in High Fidelity my whole life. Maybe someday they'll realize that the impenetrable taxonomy of music genres is not the highest achievement of intellectual discourse.

Thursday, February 07, 2008


The Inspection

Soon after Penny Arcade pointed me to the "28 Confessions of a Gamestop Employee," I bought "Conan" for my 360 (not recommended, really). When I reached the counter, I noticed that they had added a new ritual to the cash/wrap.

It's the rare game you buy at Gamestop that is unopened, as many other writers have complained. If you pick up the case for a brand new game, the disc itself is in a drawer secured behind the counter. I brought my empty case up, and the employee flipped over the DVD to show me its brilliantine surface.

"Mint?" he said.

I looked over the disc, confused for a minute. It was free of scratches, dust, or bubbles.

"Ummm, yeah," I said.

He smiled and put my game in its case. I realized afterward that the point of this exercise was to prove to me that the new game I had purchased was in fact, new, untainted by the touch of another's console. Mint, in other words. Compared to what I usually put up with at the cash/wrap (namely, telling the guy at the register three times that no, I don't want to pre-order "Halo 3"), I have to admit that this is a pleasant, positive move on their part.

Okay, Gamestop, one point to you. You win... this time.

28 Confessions of a Gamestop Shift Supervisor

Sunday, February 03, 2008


Assassin's Creed books cancelled, or How I learned to stop worrying and love the Aga Khan

The strife between the different parties in the house of Islam has always been interesting to me. The struggle of Shi'a Islam for acceptance as the minority group, Arab-Persian racism, the good and evils deeds of past empires from the Kush to northern Africa: these things have all contributed to involving the United States an intimate and complex turmoil.

A friend pointed out that the Ismaili are treating the Hashashin the same way the contemporary Church of JC of LdS treats their polygamists. Both Mormons and Ismailis are small minority groups within a larger religion that are attempting to criticize and distance themselves from even smaller sects within them. The polygamists represent an embarrassing wrinkle in the history of a relatively new Christian church; Ismailis see assassins as representatives of a more savage, earlier Islam (I am assuming they no longer exist, and didn't just go into hiding) which they would rather forget.

Either way, I am pretty impressed with Steve Barnes's blog. I am definitely keeping a lookout for his novels and television shows.

Steve Barnes on the cancellation of the Assassin's Creed tie-in novels

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Alanis Demolishes "My Humps"

Good job, Alanis. A damned fine parody, even if it is a little long. Granted,
"My Humps" is just a silly, disposable pop song. Unfortunately, the "shake-what-yo-momma-gave-ya take-the-playa's-cash use-your-GIRL-POWER" trope you see in music videos has become as annoying and clichéd as gangsta rap, and it needs to be lampooned.

Yes, some women have wider bottoms than the rest of us, and some of us men just love that look. Some of us love it a WHOLE lot. Booties are good. We get it. We got it twenty years ago. It's got. It's done. Move on.

I'll be fair to Fergie, and link to the original:

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Sunday, December 24, 2006


Losing the mystery

Thirty-three - Looking at the reactions to act one of season three, I am interested in this idea of the lost mystery of BSG, especially about the Cylons. James Callis said in the roundtable podcast that “33″ was his favorite episode, because the Cylons at that point were a complete unknown, and utterly terrifying. Like the shark in “JAWS,” they were almost a force of nature which acted according to rules we don’t understand, and every 33 minutes they appeared among us and tried to kill us.

I like the human Cylons, though. I’m glad that the show changed gears in season 2. Yes, BSG had this premise at first about enemy agents, and suspense about who they were and what they were trying to do (”How will they attack us THIS week?!”). But that kind of mystery is not sustainable. I look at X-Files as a cautionary tale. That show began with a handful of people, bravely pursuing the truth at social and personal risk, being ridiculed, against a great and powerful enemy in the shadows, trying to execute a long-term plan of incredible complexity with world-ending implications. You would be shown a little bit of truth, a glimpse, and then have it taken away. Friends would become enemies; no one could be trusted. Great.

But someday the heroes have to see the enemy, and say “They are ours.” The man behind the curtain has to be revealed. The protagonists and antagonists have to meet and fight, shout, or reason their way to resolution. X-Files refused to let the curtain fall, bring the house lights up, and let everyone take a final bow, and it left a bitter taste. The damned aliens were still out there, mysterious, ready to enslave everyone, which made the hero’s actions meaningless.

By the time I saw “Eye Of Jupiter,” I had a sense again that Earth is getting closer. I don’t want to see an eighth, ninth season of BSG; the show should be done, and Earth won or lost by then. I don’t need everything wrapped up in a bow; you can over-resolve a plot. It’s fine if I don’t know every last little detail about Cylon toiletry. So, I am glad about the changes in season 3. I see that there is a plan, where seeds laid earlier are starting to bear fruit (like the symbols in the Temple of “Eye of Jupiter” being identical to Starbuck’s paintings in her apartment on old Caprica, way back in the second ep of season two). I don’t think everything had been planned out in some sort of comprehensive outline, but that’s okay. The writers leave themselves room to wiggle, as long as they wiggle to a final act.

POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT: Highlight to read - On the Nature of Earth - I noticed in the writer’s meeting podcast that RDM talked about his idea being that the fleet would find Earth in a primitive state, not with starfaring technology and etc. Then, the Lords of Kobol and heroes like Apollo and Adama (who is himself in the early stages of deification, more on that later) would be the foundation for the Hellenic pantheon and the various hero-stories that come to us from antiquity.

Abel, punching out.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


The Eye Of Jupiter

Thoughts on the last episode of Battlestar Galactica, season three, act one:

(Cylon) Pattern Recognition - Cylons are humans. They talk a good game about the "human pestilence," but once they took on human bodies, they clearly got the whole beautiful/ugly package called "human nature" as well. They get sick, have emotions like bloodlust and love, enjoy sex, and (most human of all) they have factions. They fight and disagree.

The main thing, maybe the only thing, which makes the Cylon different from humanity, is that they are fearless of death. Their bodies are utterly human, except for one small part (that doesn't even show up under the most rigorous medical scans) that allows for a certain amount of programming, the part that makes the downloading phenomena. A Cylon death releases a signal that transfers information and personality to a Resurrection Ship, though they must be fairly close. My theory is that a low-level transmission between individual Cylons shares something distinctive, an RFID, so that "Athena Eight" knows that this is not just any instance of Eight, but the "Boomer Eight" that shot Adama.

The Goo - It must be like the agar in a Petri dish. The beginning of any meat body always involves some warm, viscous fluid, whether inside an egg or a uterus.

Aaron Douglas' Gut - Audra. "Ouch," is all I can say.

Adama's Terms - He is absolutely ready to destroy the Eye. Better to deny it to the Cylons and take a chance that the Colonials will get to Earth first, even if it means being hounded all the way there, than to give it to the enemy and KNOW that they will get there first. However, another 18 people died in the passage to the Algae Planet, and at some point the attrition has to stop.

Baltar's Mind - I am reminded of something Jamie Bamber said during the roundtable podcast, which is that Baltar is the most seminal, most important human being in the story, and what he does will have more effect on the human race than anyone else, including Adama or Roslyn. For all his megalomania and conniving, treacherous nature, the guy is a genius. He is one of the handful of human beings (e.g. Alan Turing, Nicola Tesla, Einstein) whose intelligence is of such magnitude that it becomes actually strategic. It can affect the course of history.

Anders and Kara - BIG second on Pike's theory that Kara has abuse in her past. No one is born this self-destructive; you start learning it from a very young age. I've seen a lot of relationships like this in my own family, though it is mostly the men who are like Starbuck. It is a machismo thing. I have a bunch of cousins who would say that they are religious, true believers, Christians who tithe and go to church regularly, who at the same time are led around by their dicks and cheat frequently, start side-businesses selling drugs, and hide lots of terrible things they do from the women in their lives, and would never divorce. In turn, these women mostly accept what their men are like. If you have not seen this up close, it's hard to explain. And yes, NO FEELING SORRY FOR DEE, but I feel vindicated that if Billy and Dee had ended up together, the same thing would happen. Billy would be forced into a dilemma: accept that Dee would look for the primal alpha-male quality from other men that he cannot provide, OR divorce her.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Jamie Bamber vs. Billy

I was a little too late to comment on the Galactica Watercooler podcast about “The Passage,” but something about it has gotten stuck in my head. Every time that someone chimes in about Dee’s relationship with some Apollo with some version of “Billy would not have done you that way, woman!” I want to throw something.

I was in the Army Reserves for six years. My experience is that military women like Kat, Dee, or Starbuck, do not go for the Billies of the world. The ones who aren’t there for a good dental plan want adventure, and going out with a Billy is a loud declaration that you are Settling Down and Starting A Family and Changing Diapers.

The scifi fandom, being mostly literary, educated homebodies (I count me in that group) see Billy’s Big Blue Eyes, and his eagerness to please, and his awkwardness, and say “He’s like a little PUPPY he’s so CUTE I want to take him HOME!”

No woman who chooses a life where she stands in a C.I.C., grabbing fistfuls of cable to network computers while hoping to buy a few seconds of time where nuclear missiles are not exploding on the hull of your ship wants a puppy. No woman who sits in a Viper cockpit dancing with Cylon Raiders and the real possibility of a fiery death in the hostile void of space wants a puppy. They eat puppies.

They may go out with a puppy if they fool themselves into thinking that is what they want, only to destroy his self-esteem and send him packing after a few months, a weeping bundle of inadequacy. See Anders' and Starbuck’s marriage. Anders has some tough guy features, and he’s an athlete, but inside he’s 100% puppy. A puppy wearing armor. Kara chooses him, thinking she’s found an essentially good man that she can live with, and ends up getting tired of him and using him for his body until someone better comes along.

I was thinking of all this when a co-worker of mine told me that she went to Cambridge with Jamie Bamber. They hung out a lot, and her best friend dated him for a few months. “He’s deadly boring,” she said, and broke up with him. A sweet guy, bookish, very attractive, and now very devoted to his wife and kids. But deadly boring. If you are angry at what I’ve said here, I offer this consolation: Jamie Bamber is, in real life, a Billy.

Thursday, November 02, 2006




Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Former flight attendant crashes

First note: it is nice to see that The Guardian gets it.

What is catching my interest in the Moussaoui trial debacle of the last few days is the focus on attorney Carla J. Martin. The New York Times story on her is a biography of a career climber gone wrong:

Ms. Martin, 51, is a former flight attendant at World Airways, where she often flew between the United States and Germany because she spoke German. She began working at the Federal Aviation Administration before she completed law school at American University's Washington College of Law in 1989.

Look out Horatio Alger! Can't you see her, tall and blonde, in a
tasteful matching blazer and skirt? By day she worked, pretending to be nice to frat boys heading to Oktoberfest while fending off their roving hands. By night, she studied terms like estoppel and ex post facto, knowing that her keen legal mind was her key to a better life.

Prosecuting what may be the only public trial Americans ever get in connection with the 9/11 attacks, she started to feel self-righteous, a sense of moral invulnerability that comes when the issues are so black-and-white. The United States' side is so clearly right, and Moussaoui's side is so clearly wrong. The only excuse I can think of for such an amateurish mistake as this attempt at witness tampering, is that she had decided (with good reason) that Mr. Moussaoui would be dead by the time anyone stopped to examine her actions.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


Neanderthal Notes

I wrote this email to Barbara J. King, Professor of Anthropology at The College of William and Mary.


Date: Tue, 07 Feb 2006 10:19:02 -0500
From: Abel Vargas
Subject: Neanderthal burials

Dr. King:

I have been enjoying your Teaching Company course "Biological Anthropology." I have been interested in Neanderthals for a long time, intrigued by the fact that another group (sub-group?) of humans lived so close in time and space to us, to anatomically modern humans. You describe yourself as a tall, gracile human being. I am a short, squat, abnormally strong one, so as I look at recent reconstructions of neanderthalensis, I admit a feel a certain kinship and see a similarity with myself.

One thing that interests me about Neanderthal burials is their depth. Is it possible to determine the depth of the grave at the time of burial? Nowadays, few people ever dig a hole by their own work, and movies tend to trivialize the effort involved. When I was in the Army, it took two men, myself and another soldier, four hours to dig a foxhole five feet deep and four feet across, ovally-shaped, big enough for two men to take cover in up to their armpits. We were in a Midwestern deciduous forest, and had sturdy, well-crafted steel tools (a pick and two shovels). This would be barely large enough for a proper modern burial as it is practiced now, (and the wrong shape, since burials now use squared holes, which take even more time to shape) and it was a very significant expenditure of time, energy, and calories.

How much more difficult would it have been for European Neanderthals, without metal tools, using hands, spades, and picks made of quartzite, flint, wood, antler, and animal bone, to accomplish something similar, or even a hole half that size, which would be the barest minimum to hold an adult? Granted, you can make a decent pick out of a wood handle and an antler.

You mention hygienic reasons for burial, because you are (rightly, as a scientist) skeptical about giving Neanderthals spiritual motives for their actions without more evidence. A grave about 24 inches deep would be the minimum needed to gain any hygienic advantage from the burial, and you still would have to worry about some smell or putrefaction rising to the surface, especially if you get a strong rainfall within a week of the burial. You can imagine a human corpse, 100+ pounds of rotting meat, buried in an even more shallow grave, with say about a foot of earth above it. Such a burial would be barely worth the trouble, from the point of view of maintaining cleanliness and avoiding foulness.

Now imagine a Neanderthal group, during the last glaciation, probably hungry and operating on a calorie deficit, in winter with frozen ground, in Europe, with a dead member, attempting to bury her. Digging a grave in these circumstances is not possible, even given Neanderthals greater strength and control of fire.

Where am I going with this? I suspect neanderthalensis was more sophisticated than you give her credit for.

Some ideas:

1) Grave-digging could have been a communal activity. Four people can dig a grave faster than one, with less expenditure of energy as well. This means a level of communication and probably language use (although not necessarily spoken language) that is quite advanced. Perhaps some persuasion had to be used to convince participants that were not strongly connected to the deceased.

2) Moving enough earth to bury someone is very difficult, and hard to justify on purely hygienic grounds. In a predator-rich environment, it is much more efficient and economical to simply drag the body a mile or so, where some bear, large cat, or carrion birds will eliminate the body. Alternatively, use a nearby river that is moving swiftly enough to carry the body away.

3) Grave goods: why leave ANY? An ax is an ax, and losing a useful ax to a grave isn't a smart thing to do.

4) Taking the trouble to bury someone means that you have a profound emotional connection to that person. It doesn't make sense to do it otherwise. If you bury someone you are close to, it is a means to resolve your grief and part of an emotional life. If you bury someone you are NOT close to, it is probably for a better reason than because the body will stink. Probably, you have a belief in a spirit or essence that must be dealt with.

Granted, none of this is a smoking gun, definite proof of Neanderthal spirituality, but it indicates to me a level of communication, not just of information and skills related to survival, but a society of a more complicated sort and with a sophisticated emotional life beyond any of the great apes as we know them so far.

If you can point me to further research on this, I would appreciate this, and I hope some of these are legitimately new points for you, and that I have not completely wasted your time.

Thank you,


Here is her response, this morning.


Barbara J. King wrote:

To Abel Vargas,

I'm online avoiding other work (!) so will at least briefly answer your most interesting email. As a non-archaeologist I don't know much about depth of graves, but your points about communal graves, symbolic marking of graves etc. are very well taken. You are right when you interpret the 2002 course in this light: are (rightly, as a scientist) skeptical about giving Neanderthals spiritual motives for their actions without more evidence.

But, interestingly enough (at least I think so!) I've read and thought a lot in the intervening 3 1/2 years, and, my next course for TTC (taping in July) will be on the evolution of religion. And I definitely do discuss Neandertal spirituality. My next book is on the origins of religion-- it's done and will be out in January '07--and after reading lots more on Neandertals, I shifted my position somewhat. Not TOO much; I still think some anthropologists are far too accepting of patchy evidence and go too far with hominid spirituality... but definitely I've shifted. Life-long learning is fun!

You might find as helpful as I did

Shamans, Sorcerers, and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion (Hardcover)
by Brian Hayden

Thanks for writing!

Best wishes,
Barbara King

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


Shadow of the Console, part two

My cousin turned to me in his car the other day and said, “I can’t get that Katamari song out of my head.”

I know how he feels.

Katamari Damacy and its sequel, We Love Katamari, came from an unholy union of rhythm games (like Parappa the Rapper and Dance Dance Revolution) and real-time puzzle games like Pikmin. The game mechanic is incredibly simple: roll a sticky ball around some mundane Japanese environments, collecting objects as you go. Yet the otherworldly presentation, the cluttered playing fields, the obscure sense of humor and the subliminal power of the soundtrack combine to make something special. My cousin was right: the music does get under your skin.

What really strikes me about the Katamaries Damacy are their sense of physical scale and examination of the minutiae that fills our daily lives. The world looks different from the five-centimeter-tall perspective of the Prince of all Cosmos. By the end of the game, as islands, Ferris wheels, skyscrapers, and weather patterns are stuck by the increasing gravitic pull of the Katamari, it makes me happy to think that a guy the size of a smurf is rolling this behemoth around.

I have tickets to an advance screening of Jarhead tonight, and I can’t wait. I will roll out the review here as soon as I’m done.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Shadow of the Console, part one

As often happens in Consoleland, some of the best franchises and game ideas for a system only happen when a system is winding down its useful life. One has only to look at the fanatical followings of the Sega Saturn and Dreamcast and the nearly superhuman feats developers pulled in the last few months of the cycle of each of those pieces of technology. Nowadays, we are about to begin the post-mortem on the PlayStation 2, as by Christmas next year we will have two, possibly three, consoles of the next generation to play with. While I was fighting a throat infection yesterday, I decided that the PS2 obituary will begin with Shadow of the Colossus and We Love Katamari.

Shadow of the Colossus is a game of sweeping, elegiac beauty made by the same team that brought you the simple joys of ICO, a game that reduced one of my friends, a cynical man, into a delighted six-year-old for hours at a time. Colossus itself consists of sixteen terrifying and wonderful boss battles. In fact, Colossus is original in almost every facet of its presentation. It is, as Tycho put it, "unorthodox." The game has very little plot to speak of, and what does happen is paced slowly. Your hero and his lady don't even have names, which is yet another testament to the power that mystery can have over exposition in a story. The only music are battle themes, which means that for long stretches all you hear are hoofbeats and the sounds of wind and water. You do not see another living human until two-thirds of the way through. The control scheme is odd, although it starts to really shine at about the halfway point.

Spoiler: Let me just describe one hour of playing Shadow of the Colossus.

Leaving the central shrine on my trusty horse Agro (there seems to be discussion about whether the horse's name is Argo or Agro), I crossed several miles of grassland, passed a rough stone altar overgrown with ivy and shooting an arrow at the occasional lizard startled by my horse. Following the beacon of reflected sunlight from my magic sword, I rode over a stone bridge, watching a waterfall rush hundreds of feet down into a river canyon in the midmorning sun. Passing into a desert after a few more miles, I awaken the local colossus, which I can only describe as horned birdlike dragon creature, about a kilometer in length. I name him Hornbird. Hornbird takes the same notice of me that I would of a snail on my hedge: none at all. I follow HB as he flies around the valley, and then notice he has a series of gasbags on his underside. I send a few arrows into the bags, and HB bellows in pain and drops lower with each bag I puncture. At his lowest, HB drops his front fins to the sand. I ride at full speed alongside HB, standing and then leaping from Agro's back onto the bony ridges of his fins, and then start climbing up the hundred-or-so feet to HB's body, reaching his back just as his gasbags heal, re-inflate, and he soars back into the sky.

This is one of the most immersive and compelling sequences I have ever played through, in a lifetime of playing games.

As much as I like Colossus, I have to mention that I feel tremendous moral qualms about fighting these guys. Most of the colossi are asleep, or simply curious, or take no notice of you at all. Two of them will not attack you, and show fear when you start to hurt them. Riding the back of some mighty beast to the ground as it slowly topples over and expires leaves me feeling like a murderous bastard. The music changes, and I feel as though something irrevocable and wonderful has been lost when I destroy these things, each created for some unique, unfathomable purpose.

One final note - above is a picture of Agro. Agro is stubborn, willful, hard to get going, hard to stop, enjoys being petted, and gets tired. He whinnies when he gets excited, and sometimes wanders off to graze. He has more personality than anyone else in Colossus, and he is the horsiest and most convincing horse in any game ever.

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