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What I’ve Been Doing 17 Oct 2011 [FB/IB/F/BT/GO]
Oct 17th, 2011 by Dan

Scouts

Those stupid hats everyone makes fun of actually do motivate me to play sometimes.

Movies

Bran Nue Dae – Disappointingly mediocre. I was expecting something interesting from a musical about aboriginal life in Australia, but it just wasn’t there. Uneven pacing, bland characters, and, worst of all, completely forgettable music. That’s the one thing you have to do right in a musical!

TV

How I Met Your Mother – The Jenson episode was great and the roommate episode brought us tantalizingly close to the “Mother”, but I’m catching up on this show by virtue of inertia alone. HIMYM is not a great show, guys. Not anymore.

The League – My favorite kind of crappy show. Can be super hilarious some days and middling other days. It’s a shame that they had to come up with an excuse to not have Nadine Velazquez on the episode. She’s funny and hot.

Homeland – Bizarre opening theme. So weird/surreal/cool. I guess it ties in with Claire Danes’ psychosis. The prince/consort subplot is boring to me, but we’ll see if it bears any fruit.

Prime Suspect – I like the main character, but I don’t love the procedural nature. I’m all about the season long investigations like The Wire. That show really has ruined cop shows for me…

Up All Night – After just watching Bridesmaids practically twice, I was a little tired of the female rivalry thing that Christina Applegate had going on in the class. Still a pretty good show, but this was the weakest episode I’d seen so far.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – The writers on this show get so much mileage out of the title cards. So funny even if all of these people are terrible, horrible people. It makes me laugh when they call out Frank for being racist or a jerk, but they’re just as bad all the time.

Parka and Recreation – Not enough April this week! Ann being terrible at being a girl scout was awesome as was the Batman suit, but it wasn’t my favorite episode of this show.

Community – Super dark. Last week’s statement that the study group’s love was weird was right on the money. Seeing that Jeff, who brought them together is kind of bad for the group is really dark. I wonder if this has to do with Dan Harmon’s recent personal problems. This show is going some really heavy places this season.

Better Off Ted – “I think I need to get new breasts. These are covered in sad.” Finished S2 and, hence, the rest of the show. Not too bad. I can see why it was canceled, even though I liked it. Good light entertainment, but it’s not the greatest.

Dexter – This season has been bad so far. The story beats are obvious and too overbearing, even by Dexter standards. I don’t like following the “big bad” around, especially when they’re being annoyingly cryptic and awful. When they said this show would be really changing this season I didn’t think they meant that it would be getting awful. I really hope this season picks back up.

Music

Extra Hot Great – I love this show, but they made me think that maybe watching Footloose might be a good idea this week. Now to somehow suggest it to the girlfriend without letting on that I actually want to see it…

Books

Reamde – Finished the book. Very Stephenson. Brings to the foreground his love of guns, anarchy/distrust of government, MMOs, and his obsession with the way money/gold works. Good read, but not his best work. Anathem was more philosophically interesting and Crytonomicon had better characters.

(EDIT: You’ll note that there’s no talk of comics here. I might be starting a separate project to discuss them elsewhere.)

Video Games

The Binding of Isaac – Finally defeated the first form of Mom, but now I’ve got to get to her heart to slay her. I’m getting better at this game, but I’ve got a ways to go before I can beat the boss.

Mass Effect 2 – Kasumi’s loyalty mission is being annoyingly buggy, so I’m stuck on the final boss and I haven’t felt motivated to tackle it again after two nights of trying and either doing well and having it bug out on me or failing.

Team Fortress 2 – I painted Max’s Severed Head pink and it’s kind of awesome. Been getting a lot of Soldier and Demoman time in, two classes I really didn’t love before this. They’re not so bad, I guess…Had a killer round with Lee as a Heavy/Medic combo. We were unstoppable!

Gears of War 3 – So much Horde mode this weekend! I will unlock the Laugh Track! Just you wait!

EDIT: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune – Forgot to mention that I started my replay of the Uncharted series to prepare for the third iteration’s release next month. Good game, but the visuals are starting to show their age after all these years. It’s still a pretty game, just not as pretty as Uncharted 2 or 3.

Neal Stephenson’s Writing [You Can Quote Me On That/Bookmark This]
Dec 13th, 2008 by Dan

Here’s an interesting analysis of most of Stephenson’s writing by Matthew Bey of the Austin Statesman:

But even as Erasmas and company pursue the answers to their cerebral quandaries, violence and chaos aren’t far behind. As intimidating an intellectual artifact as “Anathem” is, it’s still an action story. Stephenson takes just enough time to establish his setting before blowing it apart. Like the Unix machines he has praised, his novels are a system of logical mechanisms that run flawlessly until they hit extraordinary conditions. They never quite come to a clean ending, but tapering to a close was never the point. A Stephenson novel doesn’t wrap up so much as it crashes, one process at a time.

I think he’s so right about this aspect of Stephenson prose. Many people complain about his endings since they’re not quite as conclusive as they’d like, not to mention the predictable style of most of his work, where there is a dramatic “crash” of events that drastically changes the status quo, and I think this might be as good an explanation as we could get. For a UNIX programmer to become a novelist, one would imagine that he would have certain thinking processes in place that would shape his work. I can honestly say that I’ve never had too much of a problem with his style, maybe because I get it in the same way? In any case, I thought it was cool and relevant since I reviewed Anathem just a few days ago to post this.

Anathem Review [Bookmark This]
Dec 11th, 2008 by Dan

It’s been quite some time since Stephenson’s ambitious Baroque Cycle hit the shelves, but, based on his latest offering, it seems that Stephenson spent that time doing boatloads of research for his second most ambitious title to date (the ~2700 page Baroque Cycle has to take the cake on that one), Anathem. While it seems that his work is definitely well-researched and that he has a very clear unerstanding of what points he’s trying to convey, I think that Stephenson fails at the more important task of keeping the reader interested and conveying the complex-yet-interesting plots from the get-go that he is normally so capable of.

It’s not that Anathem is bad or anything, it’s more that The Baroque Cycle seems to have spoiled Stephenson a bit by making him think that he can spend as much time goofing off with intellectual tangents as he did in the previous, epic-sized novel. To a certain degree, it’s all relevant to the plot and some of it is downright integral, as the reader needs to come up to speed with the crazy, outlandish philosophical points that Stephenson is trying to convey within the narrative. I can imagine trying to read this book like any pre-Cryptonomicon Stephenson book and being totally flabbergasted by the points he makes in Anathem being laid out within the twenty (if that) pages allotted, but these Socratic dialogs he presents can seem a bit useless to engineering types, such as myself, who find theoretical philosophy to be a little bit impractical.

Let me take a step back and explain this a bit better. Anathem is a book about a planet that is much like ours. It has developed, philosophically, along similar lines, but culturally it is quite different. In this world, Arbre, there was a division way back in history that split up the intellectual/philosophical elite from the rest of the world. The intellectuals are part of the Mathic world, a world consisting of hyper-isolated monks, to draw an Earth connection, while the rest is part of the Saecular world. This isn’t to say that smart or dumb people inhabit one or the other or even that the maths are religious and the outside world is not, there are both in both, it’s just that most of the interesting theoretical work is being done by the maths (and they tend to be athiest) instead of the outside world…except for the detail that all outside technology is mostly forbidden from the mathic world. Each person only has a robe, a rope to tie it with, and a sphere, all technologically advanced so as to change shape and property, but nothing more technological. Even so, they have a vast telescope and develop serious theoretical advances based solely on their devotion to such advanced intellectual thought.

Here’s where it starts to get a little annoying, even if it is basically the whole point of the book. You see, instead of using Earth-terms for stuff, there is a whole series of terms that are native to Arbre that are used instead. For example: we have “Gardan’s Steelyard” instead of “Occam’s Razer.” While it doesn’t really take too long to get all of these intricacies sorted out and the book does provide a useful glossary in the back, its still a little bit distracting and annoying. This is just personal preference for me though, and I did start to soften up to it once I got further in the book, I got used to the parallel terms, and it started to get more interesting.

Which leads kind of nicely into the next problem: the pacing. Yes, we need to establish the characters. Yes, we need to take it slow at the start so that you can get used to this brand new world (in fact, as a reader, you have to take it slowly, flipping back and forth from glossary to text trying to understand Erasmus’ narrative), but we’re talking around 400 pages just to get the faintest scraps of knowledge about what is truly going on. In an 900 page book, you have the liberty to take it slow, so to speak, and it’s generally not Stephenson’s style to tip his hand early (if my memory serves me right, Golgotha didn’t even become a factor in Cryptonomicon until 3/4 of the way into the novel), but the daily life of an avout just wasn’t as interesting as, say, the emotional development of Randy Waterhouse.

I don’t want you to think that I hate Anathem or even that I didn’t enjoy it. Once I started to become familiar with the terminology that Stephenson was using in this new world, things began to get much better. The story got compelling and interesting very fast, with the exception of all the theoretical discourse that serves to slow down the novel a bit, but ultimately prepare you for the stunning events which will be impenetrable to anyone who wasn’t a professional philosopher had he not slowly ushered you into understanding. The characters are great, but not as memorable as the Shaftoes, Eliza, Hiro Protagonist, YT, or the Waterhouses. As mentioned before, the plot, once it gets going, is amazingly cool, filled with some neat head-scratchers and only one poly-cosmic plot hole that I don’t think was fully resolved (or maybe it was and I have to re-read it). There are some neat little bonuses in the narrative too for anyone who understands just a wee bit of French (or has the Romance language know-how to recognize the origins of some words) that I thoroughly enjoyed and quite a bit of philosophical exploration for those who love a little bit of that.

Anathem is a bit of a mixed bag. The more I think and write about it after having read it, the fonder I am of it and the things it did. Clearly, Stephenson wanted to try something new, that much is clear. The entire book cohesively fits together with his themes as well as the purpose for his parallel world-structure, but I can also see it as being impenetrable to those who do not already give Stephenson some credit. If you’re not willing to read up at least four to five hundred pages to even start to get why you’ve been doing this the whole time, you’re not going to like Anathem, the payoff is just not as immediate as with Cryptonomicon (I can’t compare any other books, like Snow Crash, because their shorter length necessitates different pacing). There’s also a good chance that, unless you love this sort of thing, you’ll feel like this XKCD comic at least until you get the hang of the new vocabulary. Trust me though, there is a definite payoff and it’s quite good once you get there, it just takes a little work.

My recommendation: If you love Stephenson, you should still consider that you have to get through about half the narrative to get to the action. If you can manage that, it’s a must read. Non-Stephenson fans: think about what I just said above and realize that Stepehnson writes intellectual prose. If you don’t like a little philosophy, mathematics, and physics served up with your novels, you won’t like this book. Anyone who does though, will be treated to a book with an incredibly engaging and cool story that returns huge dividends based on the time you put into it.

If you’ve read and liked this book, you should, without a doubt, read Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash, two of Stephenson’s best works. Move on to The Baroque Cyle if you didn’t mind the density and pacing of Anathem.

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