Archive for the Uncategorized Category

Something, Somewhere, Sometime

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on August 20, 2012 by Alex

“Something, Somewhere, Sometime” is by Daniel Martin Moore, Ben Sollee, a nameless guitarist, and a guy stopping and clapping in the background.  They dedicate the performance to the awareness of mountaintop removal coal mining.  It’s better than it sounds.

I’m not quite what you would call an environmentalist, but I am finding in the process of writing my story that God has impressed upon my heart an interest for our planet. We are not bound to this rock, neither are we equal to its creeping beasts, but we have been granted dominion over it.  The implication is to not be a tyrant, but to care for it as God as cared for you.  At the same time, we have the authority to exact justice when it overtakes our loved ones.  Just like God has done.

The story is now 26 pages long and getting closer towards the end. And should the final product contain even a single paragraph untouched by the editing process, it will certainly be a miracle.

A Happy Security

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on August 1, 2012 by Alex

Whatever good things I do, I can only do so many.  I can serve others, I can be disciplined in my writing (either for blogging or for fiction), I can pour myself out at work, I can save my money for the future, I can give it to others, I can watch my tongue, I can read my Bible, I can pray for my great, great-grandchildren, and I can do all sort of wonderful things.

Sometimes I’ll beat myself over the head with the question “Did I do it with a pure heart?”  For me…  some of them.  Maybe.  I can’t tell.  A more penetrating question for the situation might be “Did you find your identity in who God is and what He’s done or did you find it in your offerings to Him?”

A man who finds his purpose in being the perfect father will find himself purposeless once his children are gone.  And the same man who accidentally berates his children will find himself a failure.

See friends, this is the problem.

We need to pour ourselves out, but we can’t put our flag on top of it.  We’ll find ourselves lying in our beds thinking, “I could have been more loving today.  I shouldn’t have made that snide comment at work.  God doesn’t love me anymore.”

Actually we probably won’t do that.  But we’ll likely meditate upon these lies in our heart.  And we might even think that we’re becoming more Christ-like with how depressed we make ourselves out to be.  Which is really quite demonic when you think about it.

My pastor once said “God is not love with a future version of you.”  God is absolutely wild about the bedraggled nincompoop called yourself.  When you fail, God loves you.  When your duties change, His love remains the same.  This is all because God’s relationship to us is built on what He’s done and not on the activity or cleanliness of our hands.

Consider 2 Corinthians 1:20:

For all the promises of God find their Yes in Him. That is why it is through Him that we utter our Amen to God for His glory.

Notice how Paul clearly represents the heart of the gospel by saying “in Him.”  God’s promises, for the Christian, are not made in light of what we do.  Quite the opposite.  God’s promises are made “through Him.”  And it is to the praise of His glory.  The careful examination of God’s character and the hiding away of His word in our heart, that is what compels us to action.  It is not from trying to earn anything.  We do not reach God’s favor by climbing a mountain of our own good deeds.

So I’m happy to be serving you because of how God has served me. I need the discipline of writing for you, but I cannot turn it into an idol like I had previously did before the break.  So if I’m mysteriously gone for a day without a word, know that I am happily not worrying that I had let God down.  But do count on me being here for you all.  Discipline is a wonderful, God-honoring thing.

I love you.  Let us continue.

Brackenwood and Writing Backwards

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on May 23, 2012 by Alex

This is a link to the personal site  of the former Disney animator Adam Phillips.  He’s good, very good.  If you have a few minutes, I’d strongly recommend checking out his popular “Brackenwood.”  The series takes place on a giant forest planet and most of episodes center around a spiteful creature named Bitey.

“Prowlies at the River” was initially Adam’s breakthrough work, but all of them (even his non-Brackenwood work like “nightShift” or “hitchHiker”) really do merit a watch because of his immense gift in animation.

 

Outside of Flash, I thought I’d share Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 “rules” for writing (actually tips for writing a short story but they work in all species of narrative):

 

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.  (Note: Vonnegut takes this rule to the extreme in his novel Galápagos as he clearly tells you how characters will die way before the actual occurrence of the event.)

 

I bring these up primarily to highlight the 5th rule.  In my own writing I’ve found that I’ve had started building many stories and, being unable to create anything juicy or interesting, I would give up in frustration.  More often than not, they started with initial bursts of inspiration like “A demon queen falls in love with a Cactus Lord” or “A man has a lawnmower for legs, he better not run out of gas.”  But I would always get stuck.

Now when Vonnegut brought up the 5th rule, he meant opening up the finished story as close to the end as possible.  But I thought about it in terms of crafting the story from that very simple end point and then working backwards from that with further characterization, action, and background detail.  So get the climax down and work my way inch by inch to the opening.  And it’s working.  It’s working very well in fact.

I wish I knew this trick a long time ago because openings are so terrifically difficult. They have to grab the reader’s attention while assuming no knowledge of the story’s setting but also fit within that story’s spirt.  Now I get to learn as I go long what fits within the confines of that’s story’s writing.  I don’t have to determine anything until it’s necessary to do so.

Catching Fire AKA The Hunger Games Book Two AKA Snow Falls at Midnight

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on May 21, 2012 by Alex

So that last one has never been a title for the second Hunger Games book.  But I like it and it makes sense.  Anyway, on with the review.

Catching Fire is about the swell of political unrest that began in the first book.  We get a better look at the Capitol as viewed through previous Hunger Games, the life of the aristocracy, and the swift malevolence of the privileged elite.

I’ve certainly read worse books than Catching Fire.  It’s a fun read that, like the first, moves very quickly and is fun.  It’s brutal, it doesn’t get in the way of action, and there are plenty of great, “Okay, just one more chapter even though I had to be asleep two hours ago,” moments.

My main complaint is that while it starts out seeking to tell a very different story from its predecessor, it loses sight of this aim.  Catching Fire begins to be about the political intrigue and the slow bubble of unrest among Panem and then uncomfortably drags the reader back to all too familiar territory for the second half of the book.

Was the shift possible within the confines of the setting?  Absolutely it was.  I can’t deny that something can’t happen in the The Hunger Games because it clearly did.  But at no point does the mere fact of its placement automatically justify its own existence.

The ending is not, however, unnecessary.  It’s actually quite cool.  I saw most of it coming, but I felt it at least tried to justify the shift.  Did it work entirely?  Nope, not really.  But I’m happy for the ending.

So my overall impression?  Catching Fire is a step back.  It’s not a terrible book by any means, its just uncomfortable.  Not in the Martian Sunrise Canon.  I would not recommend it to my great, great grandchildren.  But the first half is pretty decent, I’ll give it that.

And as an unfair, last minute nitpick before we brave the territory of spoilers, a coal miner’s daughter should not use a word so highbrow as “mollify.”

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So here we are.  Perhaps what made the jump back into the arena so annoying was the intrigue of the Capitol.  We have the heroic couple touring the Districts, the rumors of District 13 still carrying on, the gross display of the citizens binging and purging, the strain of an impending loveless marriage, President Snow creepily breathing down Katniss’ back, and the flashing of Plutarch Heavensbee’s mockingjay watch.  This is interesting, juicy material that I was enjoying mightily.

And then we’re taken away from it all.  Was the new arena fun?  Of course.  We saw new traps, new mutts, and colorful characters.  But it really wasn’t necessary.  Why can’t the book be about Katniss and Peeta skulking around before the wedding?  It would have been a great sequel.

So how’d I do with my predictions?

Yes there’s a love triangle.  I’m still holding out that Katniss will choose Peeta.  His capture will make him all the more tantalizing.

Yes there’s already a resistance and all three are connected to it.  It least it seems like they are.

Muttations don’t return.  I’m not holding on to them taking down the Capitol.

Going forward, I’m guessing that:

The love triangle will be resolved.  Madge will lure in Gale.  Katniss will get over herself and pick Peeta.

The Capitol will fall.  Haymitch will die as a hero of the rebellion.

Peeta will not only play a crucial part in the downfall of the Capitol, but will take a high office in the new government.

Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back, Lather, Rinse, and Repeat

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on May 16, 2012 by Alex

So I had another idea for an RPG system.

Take a character’s attribute that can be used in combat.  We’ll say his strength (or even total weapon skill) is +7.  In attacking a creature he rolls a d100.  Often, we would expect him to add it to the roll and see if it exceeds his target’s defensive stat (such as Armor).  But instead of adding to get high numbers, why not add to get wide numbers?  What if the sweet spot within that 100 digits was not meant to be reached for but sought for?

Take that roll and go either 7 up or down (including that original value).  So rolling a 57, he could declare his attack range to be 51-57, 57-63, or any range that is 7 digits wide but includes the original roll.  The value the player is looking for might be within that range.  If the GM declares it a miss, the player knows to aim differently on his next roll.  He can hunt through the digits till he gets a strike.  The enemy’s Armor could also be a range or it could be sprinkled in digits (or separate ranges) across the 100.  It could be:

Goblin

4-20 (3+weapon damage)

31-49 (2+ weapon damage)

52-60 (8+weapon damage)

70-79 (6+weapon damage)

With the player’s original roll, this would be a successful strike.  He would indicate within his notes where the sweet spot was found, and then use that on the next goblin he faces.  But he can’t transfer it cross monster.  Another might be:

Dragon

2-3 (6+ weapon damage)

50-56 ( 5+ weapon damage)

90 (20+ weapon damage)

You’ll see on the dragon it has fewer vulnerabilities, but within those sweet spots they are higher damage overall.  The 90 is particularly brutal and is meant to represent an amazing strike that saves the day.  But it’s very different, obviously, from the goblin.  This would be, in a sense, a game where advancement was actually on the part of the players as they get smarter and not an abstract sense of progression of raising numbers.  Not that there’s anything wrong with the traditional “You’re stronger now! Add 3 to you strength score.”, this is just an alternative to the accepted model.  And it would work wonderfully in a low magic game.

The problem would be is that the idea is clunky.  Since their own advancement is built on keeping records, combat would not be quick die rolls but built on looking through their personal archives.  It would be cumbersome, especially for seasoned soldiers with a big combat history. And that doesn’t sound very fun.  So is this the white flag for the Martian Sunrise Tabletop RPG?  Sort of.

In contrast, the FUDGE and FATE systems have caught my attention because they are built around being narrative driven, rather than mechanically driven.  These games are designed for “fudging” the numbers if something’s not abundantly clear.  To be fair, all systems do run into this problem because players get creative.  But none of them cover all contingencies, because this would be impossible.  Some reach for the edge of reality and detail everything.  Those games are also very slow.  FUDGE and FATE encourage the players to think outside the box.  It encourages liberty and speed, rather than perfectly simulating the details of an adventure.

They are also completely generic systems and very useful for running any sort of setting.  FATE has been built into the high flying pulp adventure Spirit of the Century, the hard science fiction Diaspora, the urban fantasy Dresden Files (as in the Jim Butcher books), and is being worked to fit into the world of the recent Atomic Robo comic book.

FATE is actually built out of the older FUDGE.  FUDGE, from what I understand, has been much more of an underground thing because it came out before the Internet really flared up.  But for what it’s worth, there exists somewhere the home brewed rules for FUDGE made into things like Animorphs, Wizard of Oz, Call of Cthulhu, Transformers, Chronicles of Amber, and many more.  So they’re definitely out there sitting somewhere on a hard drive, but only some of them still remain accessible to the public through the Internet.

So I happily don’t know where this is going.  If I get something that’s substantial (for example, a workable squirrel mafia game), I’ll be happy to share it with you guys.  Otherwise, let’s comfortably continue on with humor, reviews, and Scripture.

Omniscience

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on May 14, 2012 by Alex

It was just tonight that I was religiously (as in a man-centered “look at me” checklist) finishing up my study of the Scriptures.  I thought, “Let’s finish on this Proverb for my reading plan, glance at it so I know I can say I did it, and then enjoy the rest of the evening.”  God smacked me.  He knew my heart was not in it and told me directly.  Look at this verse I was scheduled to read:

Proverbs 15:11

“Sheol and Abaddon lie open before the Lord; how much more the hearts of the children of man!”

The verse states that since the shifting patterns of the spiritual world (which are completely invisible to us) are perfectly seen and understood by God, then logically so should that of the material world (notably our hearts).

Suppose if I were to have my entire life recorded and broadcast to the world.  All my blunders and failures and all my tiny (and not so tiny) successes would be seen by everyone.  If this was the case, my behavior would change.  I would want to treat people more fairly and listen to them as opposed to speaking over them.  I would want to take fantastic care of my physical figure.  I would be more giving of my money and not spend it on impulse purchases.

But this verse takes it even farther in that:

1.  It’s not just our actions that are known, but that our hearts behind those actions are known.

2. The audience is perfectly holy.

So all the above good deeds are still good, but they can’t matter a lick if they are done with the wrong heart.  Furthermore, we can never be arrogant because our audience has never done evil and has always done good all the time to an infinite degree.

How humbling is this?  How big does this make God?  Why should I suppose to turn out the lights so I can sin?  It does not matter.  Why should I feel comfortable to hate another within the confines of my own mind?  Truly, there are no privates areas of my life.  Should I react to this horror and say, “Well, let’s not make God out to be frightening”?  I would be a fool to do so.  I need God to see me all the time.

 

Let’s consider this in the light of other Scripture:

1.  When I do good, it’s because God prepared it all beforehand and ignited it with the spark of the Gospel.  Do I have any reason to boast?  No, my boasting is in God alone.

Eph 2:10

10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

 

2. When I stumble, I have been forgiven by the ultimate authority who always sees my sin in the righteous light of Christ.  This is a perfect authority and a perfect sacrifice.

Romans 3:21-22

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

 

3. If my life was really dependent upon fooling mere humans with my actions into thinking I was worth something, would my life really have any meaning?  But if God always sees me, this transforms my world.   I do not want to be left alone to hide in my sin, I need a God who sees it and loves me anyway by embracing the cross with joy.

Hebrews 12:1-2

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

 

 

I need a God that big.  Nothing less will suffice.

The Hunger Games

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on May 11, 2012 by Alex

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a book so popular that it’s highly unlikely you (yes you, the reader) are not hearing about it for the first time reading this post.  The book’s wild success spawned two sequels and a movie adaptation.  Today, we’re going to be talking specifically about the original book and my own predictions of how this series will progress through the next two books.  Once I’ve read the other two, we’ll see how well I did.

The Hunger Games is the tale of Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old living in a run down area (known as District 12) under control of the brutal, totalitarian government known as Panem, and how she is forced (sort of) to compete in their annual gladiatorial tournament known as the “Hunger Games.”  Within the Hunger Games’ arena are randomly selected children between the ages of 12-18 and they are to kill each other off while being broadcast live for the viewing pleasure of Panem’s wealthier residents.  We learn through Katniss’ inner dialogue  that before the Games there was an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Panem, and we also learn that while the Games are a way to drive nation’s economy forward, they also serve the implied purpose of demonstrating Panem’s ability to control its people.

In short, I appreciated my time spent reading this book.  Collins’ writing style is perfect for the narrative because it shares the same essence of being alert, on the move, and quick thinking.  It would be silly to call her language juvenile, when in actuality she is being efficient.

The Hunger Games is also a love story.  I am not going to pretend I understand the inner workings of the female mind (much less the very scattered inner thoughts of a 16 year old), but I appreciated that Collins was able to show Katniss saying one thing and yet, inwardly and often subconsciously, hold to an entirely different position.  Since the novel is in first person, Katniss’ personal struggles are expressed in an interesting way with often unreliable accuracy.

Before going into spoilers territory, I will give my one complaint.  I could not buy the ending.  The very close of the book is ragged and uncertain.  We’re not entirely sure were things are going and Collins even caps it with the line “END OF BOOK ONE.”  Which is silly, but that’s not my beef.  The novel presents a science fiction world where we can expect technology to be ahead of our own.  But there is a giant leap within the last few chapters that breaks from the previously established “rules” and “feeling” of the rest of the book.  I don’t mind jumps, but I cannot buy jumps that are not anticipated in some way to gear the reader for the shock.  There is a good storytelling principle called “Chekhov’s Gun.”  It states that if a writer hangs a shotgun above a mantle in a story’s beginning, that shotgun will be used in some way by the end.  The Hunger Games recognizes the existence of the hanging shotgun and finishes the story with a spaceship crashing into that mantle piece.  Its jarring, unbelievable, and unwelcome.  I believe if the ending resulted in a more mundane fashion, it would come off as more satisfying.

You’ll notice I’m not going to commit to some sort of a numeric rating as I did in my previous movie reviews back in the dark days of Martian Sunrise’s infancy.  Let’s say we’ll try it without it.  Instead for now, I’ll keep it binary.  I wouldn’t want the book in the Martian Sunrise Canon to read over and over again and share it with my great grand children.  I wouldn’t want it on a desert island.  So there you have it.

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Here on out, we’re entering spoiler territory.  You’ve been warned.

If there’s one thing that immediately reminded me of the human condition, its Katniss’ turmoil over Peeta saving her family from starvation.  She is uncomfortable in being shown grace because of its humbling nature and, it would seem to me, part of the reason she has trouble opening up to him is because she’s embarrassed he saw her at the point of desperation.  In the same way, people don’t like to think of themselves as dust (Psalm 103:14) and because of this do not want to come to God.  Its the revelation of their own finitude that keeps them from the Infinite.

Consider the passage from Psalm 10:4-6

4In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him;
all his thoughts are, “There is no God.”
His ways prosper at all times;
your judgments are on high, out of his sight;
as for all his foes, he puffs at them.
He says in his heart, “I shall not be moved;
throughout all generations I shall not meet adversity.”

This is Katniss.  Bold and powerful.  She’s very tough, but at that cracking open of her helplessness, she is too proud to receive Peeta.

The jump in technology I referred to above are the Muttations.  I believe the problem could be fixed (or at least mended) if it was anticipated or wondered by at one point.  At no segment do I recall Katniss ever thinking where dead tributes went outside of being sent home in a cardboard box.  The novel also never spends any significant time wondering at Panem might be able to do and yet keeps hidden.  If Collins took either of these routes, it would have made the twist  (starting with electrical fields and genetically engineered wasps then ending on werewolves built off the genetic data (and possible brainwaves) of dead people) much more believable.

Now I do like the muttations because they are frightening.  Collins likely spared most of them so they could be used at a later date.  I just hope that she doesn’t use it as a way to resurrect Rue to full health.  I don’t mind if she’s a muttation that only wants to kill.  I don’t mind if she’s a human again with severe brain damage and no real recognition of Katniss.  Just don’t bring her back completely and make her death mean nothing.

In terms of future predictions, I’m guessing that:

There will be a love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale.  Katniss will choose Peeta.

The other two books will focus in some way about a new rebellion to take down Panem.  Katniss (and likely the other two) will take part in it.  They won’t start the rebellion, but be contacted by a previously established group of hidden revolutionaries.

The muttations will return and play a part in the downfall of Panem.