Category Archives: Literature

Goodbye, EGM

I just read and confirmed from multiple sources that Electronic Gaming Monthly, a veteran gaming magazine published since 1989, has been canceled. It seems EGM’s parent company, 1Up, has been sold off to UGO and almost immediately, the decision was made to scrap EGM and lay off several senior staff members. The January 2009 issue will be EGM’s last.

I’ve read EGM on and off since the early 90s, back when gaming was just for us nerds and didn’t command near the popularity and respect that it does these days. I remember the bold sense of humor and no-nonsense reviews were traits that really made the magazine stand out from its competitors.

But alas, as video games have evolved and shifted into mainstream popular culture, so too has journalism evolved away from print media such as newspapers and magazines toward interactive, cheaply-distributed websites. Magazines and local newspapers are going to have some tough choices to make as the years go by. Even the ones that survive may not remain in the same forms we recognize today.

I knew the day was coming when most of my favorite print magazines would disappear in favor of an online presence, but I didn’t expect it to feel like suddenly losing several old friends. I hope all of the recently unemployed staffers find alternate work quickly. For all the laughs they have provided over the years, it’s the least I can hope for.

More on Orwell – Morewell!

Through all my rambling in my last post, I never mentioned that 1984 is actually a pretty good novel once it actually gets going. I can see how a reader might be turned off at how slowly the pace moves until about half way in. Regardless of how boring it might seem at at the start, I still recommend that people read it simply to open their eyes to how easily we give up some of our most basic freedoms and the consequences of doing so.1984-front

My primary reason for reading 1984 in the first place was to discover the story behind “Big Brother,” a term that seems to be thrown around a great deal by the media and conspiracy theorists. It turns out that Big Brother is just a name and a face given to the concept of around-the-clock surveillance of the individuals of society.

In 1984, the government of Oceania monitored all citizens through devices called telescreens (televisions that watch you – yeah it sounds like a Yakov Smirnoff joke) to ensure they weren’t engaging in illegal activities, behaving erratically, or fostering anti-government tendencies. Since the government needed a friendly face under which to operate, they created Big Brother, their benevolent leader and protector.

Propaganda was also spread that stated, “Big Brother is watching you,” which is just a masked way of saying: “Be careful what you do, because the government always has its eye on you.”1984-Big-Brother-Poster

Knowing now what the concept of “Big Brother” is, I’ve come to realize that it is now used primarily by the media as a fear mongering tactic to shy people away from some new technological advance – especially technology that makes use of personal information or communications (i.e., Google’s GMail*).

1984 shows us that we should remain ever vigilant about what rights we surrender. In this day and age, by simply using certain technologies, we effectively waive certain privacy rights. Fueled by recent films such as The Matrix and I, Robot, fear of becoming slaves to our own technology is very real. Such films inspire us to ask one of the great philosophical questions of our time: What negative impacts are new and existing technologies making on our lives?

At first thought, it’s easy to say there aren’t any negative impacts. However, to consider the question further, perhaps it may be helpful to think of the state of our lives should certain technologies (e-mail or mobile phones, for example) become suddenly inoperable. In my opinion, over-reliance on technology is a negative impact.

So indeed we have already sacrificed pieces of ourselves for our modern conveniences. How many more sacrifices are we prepared to make in the name of technological advancement? More importantly, how close are we to the world of 1984 by making those sacrifices?what-is-right-is-often-forgotten-by-what-is-convenient-quote-1albert-einstein-quotes-appalingly-obvious-technology-exceeded-humanity-toxic-relationship-destroyer
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*According to many misinformed people, someone working for Google is sitting at their computer, reading peoples’ e-mails, and deciding what advertisements to put up based each message’s content. In actuality it is a computer algorithm that scans for keywords from the text – not much different than anti-virus software scanning messages for viruses or software spell-checkers searching for misspelled words.

No Names

I finished George Orwell’s 1984 shortly after finals week, but I’m only now sitting down to write about it. Considering some of the recent happenings in the news, it seems an appropriate time.

Like it’s cousin, Brave New World, 1984 is a dystopian novel that outlines a grim existence for the future. 1984 has come and gone, but does that not reduce the potency of Orwell’s critique. It’s not difficult to see society heading in the terrible direction of 1984’s circumstances. Every day we give up certain freedoms to maintain social order and harmony.

For all the technical inaccuracies and impossibilities of the movie Hackers (which would have been more accurately named Crackers), I admit that I found the film at least mildly entertaining. There are bits and pieces of philosophy stuck in there – so brief that if you blink, you’ll miss them. In a deliberate nod to Orwell, a character named Emmanuel Goldstein delivers one of the most philosophical quotes in the movie:

Screen-Shot-2014-04-18-at-18.51.11You could sit at home, and do like absolutely nothing, and your name goes through like 17 computers a day. 1984? Yeah right, man. That’s a typo. Orwell is here now. He’s livin’ large. We have no names, man. No names. We are nameless!

The amount of digitized data has increased exponentially since that film was made in 1995, so it’s probably safe to assume that 17 computers is now a gross understatement. From the government, to our insurance companies, to our financial institutions, to our commerce – our livelihoods have been reduced to mere numbers in databases. We have become the little ones and zeroes that comprise some huge system that we have little or no control over.

Our identities have become commodities. Unscrupulous harvesters sell our e-mail addresses to spammers by the millions. Advertisers collected demographic information on us such as where we shop and what we eat so they’ll better know what to throw in our faces next time we open our eyes. And now come to find out most of our major financial institutions handle our personal information with very little regard as to how it may be misused. This is clearly illustrated by institutions such as Citigroup, a company that does not even bother to encrypt sensitive customer data before sending out into the world in a UPS box.

We have become so detached from our own identities that it is now possible for others to use them for their own maligned purposes. All it takes is the knowledge of a few sets of numbers that can be obtained quite easily.fortunetellerBW

It’s obvious now that we can’t simply throw away all these conveniences that we’ve come to rely on. It’s not like we can just stop using our driver’s license numbers, credit card numbers, and social security numbers and go back to addressing each other by name. That may have worked when America was nothing but a network of small towns and villages connected by dirt roads, but certainly doesn’t cut it in today’s fast-paced global economy.

Perhaps using biometric verification systems are the future of secure commerce – a scanner at every terminal that verifies you are indeed who you say you are and approve of whatever transaction that’s been initiated. Of course, there will still be tech-savvy identity frauders out there who are able to capture and reproduce fingerprint or retinal signatures for whatever diabolical means, so I’m not suggesting that biometrics would be and “end-all” solution. I do believe, however, it would put us in a better situation than we are in now.

After all, right now all it takes is digging through some victim’s trash or mailbox and doing a little internet research to pull off a good identity fraud.

Well I seem to have digressed a bit from talking about 1984, and this post is already long enough, so more on Orwell another time.

Sandworms and Sequels

W00t! I finally get to credit yet another completed sci-fi novel reading to my name: Frank Herbert’s masterful Dune. Since the spring semester started up in January I’ve maintained a steady pace of reading before, after, and between classes. By the time spring break started, I was on my last 50 pages, so with all the extra time, I was able to finish!DUne

Here are my thoughts:

Unlike the many Michael Crichton novels I’ve read and re-read, Dune started off rather boring. This most likely contributed to my inability to get into it the first couple of times I tried reading it. My favorite books are the ones that I absolutely cannot put down once I start them*, and Dune simply did not fit into that category. Nonetheless, it is still a worthy addition to any reading list, despite its minor flaws, which I will briefly discuss.

After the book began to pick up pace about a fourth of the way in, it steadily began to snowball toward climax. An explosive ending steadily became inevitable, with all the major subplots hurtling uncontrollably toward each other. What irritated me most was how the ending seemed rushed – as if Herbert intentionally left several loose ends untied as fuel for the subsequent sequels. He spent chapters upon chapters at the beginning (the aforementioned “boring” part) weaving an intricate plot web with which to spend the rest of the book untangling.

Most authors separate the climax and resolution by starting a new chapter. This is the formula I am accustomed to and expect to see when reading a novel, since it aids in my mental organization and processing of the plot. The fact that Dune’s climax and resolution are found in the same chapter is probably the source of my irritation – that and the fact that the resolution is only, like, two pages. A two-page ending hardly seems adequate enough to finish off 300 other pages of dense, well-written narrative.

I just wasn’t left with a substantial sense of closure. Like the end of Matrix: Revolutions (don’t even get me started on the wasted potential of the Matrix story line), I could tell an ending was supposed to be there, but it just didn’t seem meaty enough for me.

Some free advice to both novelists and screenwriters: I don’t care if you are planning to do a sequel, finish what you’ve started and if it is truly deserving of a sequel, you’ll find a way to write it. It’s not necessary to leave huge holes at the end of your story just in case you need to plug a sequel into them later. I swear I get so sick of how every movie anymore has to be the start of a trilogy. Someone in some office is probably saying, “Yeah that’s a great script, but cut out the detailed ending. If this one makes it big we’ll make two more of ’em!” Exhibit A: Super Mario Brothers. Yes, the movie was pretty goofy at times (to be honest, I think that’s part of its charm), but it probably wouldn’t have sucked quite as much if it hadn’t been designed with a sequel in mind.

Ugh, I went off on a little tirade there. Don’t let my ranting dissuade you from picking up Dune if you’ve been considering it. One of the reasons I and so many others enjoy reading sci-fi novels is because of their power to whisk readers away to worlds that are limited only by the authors’ imaginations. Dune does not by any means suffer from lack of imagination. Anyone whose creative energies are so abundant that they spill over into appendices and glossaries certainly deserves any awards or critical acclaim they receive.

As if I could ever aspire to do better…

Next on the list? Orwell’s 1984.

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*It has never taken me more than three days to read a Crichton novel cover-to-cover. I finished Prey seven hours after I started it, stopping only for snacks and bathroom breaks.

The Deep Dark Secrets of Nursery Rhymes

Last Friday night I found myself at the kitchen table doing calculus homework and finishing up a worksheet for my Probability and Statistics class. Not exactly the most desirable way to spend a Friday night, I admit, but since I currently work two consecutive 12-hour shifts every Saturday and Sunday, you can probably imagine that by Sunday night, I’m so exhausted that I barely manage to stand upright in the shower – much less worry about derivatives and regression lines.

Alas, as engaging as this may sound so far, how I spend my Friday nights is not really the point of this post.

As I sat there, wailing away at the keys on my calculator, Kristopher was listening to one of his music CDs from the living room stereo. It was a toddler compilation consisting mostly of nursery rhymes put to music. I usually require absolute silence to study, but instead of moving to another room I remained at the table. Perhaps I was either too lazy or too tired to move – I suppose the reasons aren’t that important. Anyway, the music had stopped about 15 minutes before I finished my homework, but for some reason I still had “Pat-A-Cake” stuck in my head.nursery-rhyme-signs-pat-a-cake

Pushing the songs out of mind while doing my homework had forced them into my subconscious, haunting me long after the CD had finished its rotation. This got me thinking back to something one of my high-school teachers had said about how most nursery rhymes contained hidden meanings. Her example was “Ring Around the Rosie,” supposedly about the Bubonic “Black” Plague that ravaged the population of Europe centuries ago.

Ring around the rosie,
a pocket full of posy,
Ashes, ashes,
we all fall down!

For decades, schoolchildren have repeated these cute little rhymes without knowledge of their true meanings. The Black Plague wasn’t exactly cute – seeing as it wiped out nearly a third of Europe’s population. Thus I began to search the internet for hidden meanings of nursery rhymes.

history-behind-nursery-rhymes-theyre-horrible-97398

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Most nursery rhymes were most likely created by peasants to be used as metaphorical political or social commentary. Metaphors were used because of course there was no such thing as the freedom of speech. Most of the population was illiterate so they were made easy to remember and recite – thus the rhyming.

Like ancient epic poems, these rhymes were passed from generation to generation until their true meanings were ultimately lost by the time they actually made it to print. Anything we now know of nursery rhymes comes from interpretations by scholars of history, which are still just educated guesses.

Other interpretations are also widely accepted – most of which are Freudian in nature (relating everything to sex). The easiest target with this line of thinking is the nursery rhyme “Jack and Jill” – often interpreted as a warning against premarital sex.

Jack and Jill went up the hill,
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down,
And broke his crown;
And Jill came tumbling after.

Then up Jack got, and home did trot,
as fast as he could caper.
They put him to bed,
and plastered his head,
with vinegar and brown paper.

Regardless of their actual meaning, it doesn’t bother me that kids listen to such rhymes. It makes you wonder, though, how many “gangsta rap” songs of today will be the nursery rhymes of the future. You laugh, but it’s really not that big of a stretch. A century or two from now, very few people, if any, will actually know what a bizatch is. It’ll just be a cute word in a children’s book of rhymes. :?gangstarapcoloringbook1

The following resources are a good place to start if you’re interested in doing some more research of your own:

Brave New World: The Reaction

After finally finishing Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, I can only imagine the impact this novel had when it was first published in 1932. As valid a commentary today as it was then, BNW is the type of novel that keeps you thinking long after you’ve put it down, and certainly deserves its place as an enduring piece of science fiction. It’s narrative speaks volumes of the human condition – where it is, and where it is headed.

The topic of engineering humans seems to pop up in the mainstream more and more lately, especially since the release of The Matrix and recent breakthroughs in cloning technology. BNW was written some twenty years before the discovery of DNA, so it focuses not on genetic engineering, but environmental conditioning.

The brilliance of Huxley lies in how efficiency and effectively his writing functions as objective description and sharp criticism simultaneously. The characters residing in his dystopian society were so oblivious to their conditions that readers have no choice but to take notice of the consequences of living life without question. His society had created its own prison, and embraced it because it had the appearance of a healthy, optimal existence.

Definitely a great novel. I almost want to go watch the made-for-TV movie of it now. Supposedly there is also a sequel to the novel, Brave New World: Revisited, that didn’t gain nearly the critical acclaim of the original.

Making Connections

When digging into any recently published science fiction novel, it’s not uncommon to notice subtle (or not so subtle) references to older, “classic” sci-fi authors and characters. Many contemporary authors like to pay homage to those who’ve inspired them by cleverly naming characters or places after them – either directly or subtly by using anagrams. Most often, when a character or place is named in such a fashion, there’s a certain irony to be found – an “inside joke,” if you will, that can only be understood if you recognize the reference. I wish I could provide a concrete example, but bear with me, you’ll soon see this evidenced, though not restricted to the scope of literature.

My personal library (if it could even be called such) isn’t comprehensive by any means, but I have read my share of science fiction novels. Not surprisingly, nearly every one of them contains references to other works. I’m not certain when exactly it was, but at some point in time I finally decided that no longer wanted to be left out of the loop – I wanted understand the ironic implications. Hence, I began to take an interest in classic sci-fi novels.

I began by picking up Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Frank Herbert’s Dune with every intention of reading them quickly. I managed reading two chapters into each and didn’t pick them up again.

Here it is sometime later and I’ve began again on Huxley. It’s been two days and I just started chapter 8. Now where am I going with this, you may ask? For some reason, right around chapter 4, with the introduction of a main character named “Lenina”, the movie Demolition Man crept out of my subconcious. If you ever sat through it, you’ll remember that DM was set in a “utopian” future, where society has been sterilized, crime and suffering are non-existent, and everyone is generally happy. If this sounds all too familiar, it’s because it is the same setting found in BNW, and more recently, the movie Equilibrium (highly recommended flick, BTW). Anyway, in DM, the name of the character played by Sandra Bullock was none other that “Lenina Huxley.”

I can just hear the stunned gasps of realization already. I’m certain many of you recognized the reference immediately when you first watched the movie, but please remember I’m working backwards here, so I’m quite proud of myself for making the connection. Yes, I know I’m certainly not the first to do it. In fact, while writing this I clicked the IMDb link to DM and sure enough there’s a trivia section explaining it all. Man do I feel dumb now, but since I’ve already put this much effort into the post I might as well make it.

It’s satisfying to see that my labors are already bearing fruit, and I haven’t even finished my first novel. So far I’m really enoying BNW. Perhaps I’ll post a reaction when I finish it.

Also, does anyone have any suggestions for good classic sci-fi? After Dune I’ll probably move to Douglas Adams’ The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or George Orwell’s 1984, but I’m going to need a lot more to keep me going.