television December 10, 2014 Jack No comments

On Sons of Anarchy

I’m not a huge fan of Sons of Anarchy. I got pulled into it with the young gangster conflicted about the violent life he was born into, trying to move on and make an exit, go legit. While the series was focused around that, it was good. Plenty of crime, violence, drama and internal conflict to spend 45 minutes watching it and be entertained. It effectively jumped the shark when Jax took over the club, and his plans to leave the life of crime ended (which was around the end of season 4).

From there, it’s decline wasn’t precipitous, but it was steady. Harold Perrineau was interesting and turned in a great performance as Damon Pope, the Lawful Evil businessman and it was great to watch Jax frame Clay for Damon’s murder, effectively killing two birds with one stone. Yet the die had been cast, and President Jax was never as strong a character as VP Jax under Clay. Jax failed to extricate the club from crime. Tara began to accept her criminal life, went to jail and became a copy of Gemma who by season 5 was intolerable to watch. Even in a crazy season 6, the lure of getting the kids out of Charming is enough to drive the plot and convince Tara and Jax to betray the club and serve a jail sentence just to break the cycle.

But this season… this season was terrible.

The first problem is that a lot of characters we were invested in are dead before the season even starts. The Jax – Tara dynamic is gone (she’s dead). The Jax – Clay dynamic is gone (he’s dead). Opie is dead. Juice is discredited. Eli, who was an excellent foil for Jax, is dead. Gemma has already long since become evil. The rest of SAMCRO have become paper cutouts.

The second problem is that Jax apparently has no brain. He burns everyone around him without any proof. He burns Lin, which burns Marks, and burns the Indian Hills charter with nothing but a whisper from Gemma. His mother, yes, but also someone that he knows isn’t trustworthy from the get go (anyone else remember Jax convincing Gemma to backstab Clay after she got high and nearly killed the boys in a car crash?).

And honestly, trustworthiness aside, how could you not suspect Gemma being the murderer? She was there and saw “an asian guy” escape. Jax is aware of Tara’s plans at the time of her death and knew that Gemma would have a problem with Tara leaving with the kids. Gemma actively encouraged Jax to kill Clay (and is in general a bad bitch), so it’s not like murder is somehow out of bounds for her. How does this not instantly cause suspicion in Jax? Well, he’s lost quite a few brain cells this season, apparently.

Even if you choose to believe that Jax’s loyalty would prevent him from suspecting his own mother killed his wife, why then blow up your whole world to exact vengeance on an a random asian guy without a shred of proof? Sure, Jax can’t go to Lin and ask politely if he had Tara killed, but he could definitely tap his police contacts (Unser, Patterson, Jarry – and speaking of tapping, Chibbs’ relationship with Jarry is unbelievably dumb) and find out, surprise, that guy was in a Vegas drunk tank, off the official record. He probably could have found this out if he’d taken the time to listen to the asian guy before brutally murdering him too, but I can understand why you wouldn’t want the distraction of talking in the middle of your ritual killing (I read that in an etiquette book once). The point is, this information isn’t exactly top secret and there are probably a lot of other ways you could debunk Gemma’s assertion without going to the Chinese, at which point it either becomes obvious that Gemma is the murderer, or that you at least need to spend more time to find out who is.

I want to make one more thing clear, as a lot of internet comments seem to be under the impression that all of this poor reasoning is due to Jax being destroyed by Tara’s death and that vengeance doesn’t have to be rational. I’d buy that, if it weren’t for the fact that Jax’s revenge takes the form of a plot to destroy Lin in retaliation. Plans that are laid out and executed over weeks and months, it’s not like Jax rolled out with a shotgun bent on revenge the night he found out Tara was dead. You can’t excuse shitty writing with blind vengeance. As it stands, Jax could apparently spend a huge amount of time and effort planning his revenge, put his life and the lives of his crew on the line, but not spend a 20 minute phone call to his police contacts, or some discreet inquiries on the street about whether his revenge made sense. Where is the cunning gangster that required proof of Clay’s misdeeds and then so perfectly orchestrated his downfall?

Beginning season 7, everyone knew that the season would hinge on how Jax dealt with the situation and he did poorly. It took more than half the season before Jax even questioned whether Gemma was full of shit. It took Abel overhearing Gemma saying something really dumb to Thomas for Jax to get it right. Seriously, who confesses a murder aloud, in a house full of people, to a toddler? It could’ve been anyone at that door. Wendy, Jax, a club member. At least Gemma started the show as a dumb spiteful bitch so she didn’t have to fall very far for her part in this season.

Which brings me to the finale itself. On the heels of Jax killing Gemma, Unser and indirectly Juice in what probably should have been the first 45 minutes of the finale instead of an independent episode, Jax basically spends all episode abandoning his club, abandoning his children to an ex-gangster and his ex-junkie ex-wife, and throwing his life away for no good reason. The writers desperately tried to shoehorn in some Christ imagery and Shakespeare to fool you into thinking the story has depth, but SOA’s finale was DOA.

Okay, okay, so maybe in the process of realizing that he’s gotten a lot of people killed and imprisoned pursuing vengeance on the wrong people he’s decided that he can’t be allowed to live. Somehow, he believes emulating his father’s murder makes some sort of point (what point? I have no idea). Yet, how would Jax’s life be different if he’d actually been raised by a father? How would the MC be different if JT was still in charge? When Jax destroys his own notes and his father’s notes, it’s because he doesn’t want his children to follow in his footsteps, but he fails to realize that children need good parents more than they need to be insulated from the evils of the past. Jax could be so much more effective if he actually manned up and raised those kids as a loving father. Everyone knew that Jax was going to die in the finale. It’s a cliche at this point. A trope. I just find it hard to believe that this hardcore gangster did it to himself. Then again, if I lost 50 points of IQ over the course of an off-season I might off myself too.

The only redeeming feature of Jax in this episode is his murdering Barosky and Marks and killing some of the Irish to set things right. But these are almost entirely independent to the rest of the plot. He walks away from both murders. At this point, a highly connected top level gangster like Jax could just make a bid to disappear. He could go to Nero’s farm with his kids. He could do anything yet he’s only apprehended when he, like a moron, decides to talk to his dead dad’s marker on the side of the road. That’s right, a suicidal gangster talks regrettingly to his murdered gangster dad and yet fails to realize that maybe he should allow Abel and Thomas to avoid the same situation by being there instead of being another stop on the Teller Highway Death Tour. I was disappointed with this bridge from Jax’s vigilante justice. If it was more intense, in perilous flight from the police, trying to reach a safehouse and eventually the boys I would have felt for him and felt that he was still attempting to honor that initial impulse from way back in season 1. Instead, it’s a flaccid and utterly baffling mirror of his dad’s accident, starting from it’s endpoint (oooh, symbolism).

The final scene is a weak “car chase” that’s really just a 30 mile an hour police funeral procession, some really terrible CG crows, and Jax decides to give the grill of an oncoming semi an up close inspection. What. The. Fuck.

To summarize, Jax finally puts someone else in charge of the MC, escapes club justice, tidies up the loose criminal ends, escapes real justice only to allow himself to be caught so… he can have witnesses to his suicide? If he didn’t decide to kill himself in the most terrifying painful way possible he could’ve gotten away with it and moved on with his life. No such luck.

I hated this season and this episode was garbage.

My only consolation is that SOA won’t be back and I don’t have to hear one more fucking awful Katey Sagal cover, or another butchering of Queen or Nirvana set to slo-mo shots of random gangster shit.

books, scifi October 1, 2014 Jack One comment

On ‘Consider Phlebas’

I’ve read my fair share of science fiction. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert, but when it comes to sci-fi (and most fiction for that matter) I’ve realized there are two major components. There are the ideas and the execution of them.

For example, Asimov was prolific and his stories were very good, but Asimov was an ideas kind of guy. His plots in The Foundation series, and the Lije Bailey stories in the Robot series were interesting because he envisioned a world that was quite different than ours and intricate enough to hang a good plot on, but when it comes down to it, the man wrote functionally. He conveyed his meaning, and you are interested in that meaning, but in the end I would characterize his style as austere. Very imaginative, but very plainly executed. Dry, even.

There are many titans of science fiction that are similar. In fact, I’d say that if you have great ideas and write sci-fi, it’s really not a burden to be lacking in prose. Herbert’s Dune, Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It’s not that they’re poorly written, it’s that they’re classics because of their ideas, or their satire rather than their language.

And of course that’s not to mention the raft of… lesser works out there. The works of Crichton, for example. Jurassic Park is a classic, but I’d put that more on Spielberg than Crichton. Crichton’s work in Congo and Sphere are fun reads, but nothing to write a thesis on. Timeline read like it was a screenplay-in-waiting. Fantasy, which is so often lumped in with sci-fi (and there is a blurry line in between) is rife with successful authors trading on ideas rather than execution. George R. R. Martin’s books are well conceived, but you read them to find out what happens next and not for the pleasure of reading them. Tolkien, who is the grandfather of all modern High Fantasy, is one of the worst offenders in this regard but he was a master of epic mythology and linguistics more than an author.

I bring these instances up not to shame these authors, in fact I’m a fan of all of them, but to note just how rare it is to find a really great author outside of “literary fiction” that trades in not just ideas, but also in writing that packs a punch and doesn’t shy away from being stylistic.

When I cracked Consider Phlebas, first of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, I admit it was with trepidation. The term “space opera” gets thrown around a lot in a pejorative light and, quite frankly, I’m not really one to dig novels that are basically episodes of Star Trek or rehashes of Star Wars. I imagined that it would be yet another band of heroes fighting against an evil galactic empire, or some opposing alien (*yawn*) force. In the first chapter, trying to absorb the names alone made me fear that I’d started reading The Lord of the Rings in Space.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Consider Phlebas has everything. A compelling plot, believable relationships, well thought out action, clever (but not trite) dialogue, fantastic locations, realistic tech, vast scale, suspense, surprise, philosophy. I could go on. The best part of it is that Banks’ style rings clear and true from the first page to the last.

It’s been a long time since a novel has been able to really get me to picture each scene like Consider Phlebas did. The writing was never awkward, never confusing and yet extremely evocative. Amazingly, this includes feats like describing life on a massive Orbital that’s inherently beyond the sort of day-to-day experience we have in the 21st century. And it’s not just describing its shape or dimension or the people on it well, it’s making you feel like it’s a real place. That the people that live there are three dimensional and not just background noise of some boring plot point.

It’s similar with the technology, where Banks really went above and beyond. A lot of really great work (like Gibson’s Neuromancer, another of my stylistic favorites) benefits from the fact that it takes place in the near future. Things are different, but also the same. Banks had no such help, and yet even when detailing things that are literally only in the realm of sci-fi it has that tinge of truth behind it that lets your brain accept that such a thing is not only possible, but even likely. At one stage, he spent a few paragraphs describing just what it would look like looking out of the window of a spacecraft in hyperspace. It’s well trod ground between Star Wars’ hyperspace (all the stars turn into lines!) and Star Trek’s warp speed (the ship disappears into a point!) and likely touched on every single “space opera” between here and Jules Verne. And yet, Banks didn’t just cop out with a single sentence (“They went to hyperspace and all the stars turned into lines!”), he crafted a beautiful scene and included details of what would be seen, and how it relates to real space and celestial landmarks.

The final point I’ll mention in what should hopefully read as a ringing endorsement of Consider Phlebas is that between all of the wonderful metaphors and descriptive language, there is a lot of action and it is all well written. So often in text the excitement is dulled by awkward phrasing or poorly paced or ordered action sequences so I was pleased to find that even in the midst of battle I was able to easily follow what was going on without getting confused and having to re-read or getting bored with minutiae. The whole book flowed from static scene to dynamic battle and back again without skipping a beat.

If I had to register one complaint about the book it would be that it was too short, but even that criticism would only be a joke to underscore how much I enjoyed it.

If you’re a sci-fi reader, like me, that appreciates a little more weight in your worlds then you owe it to yourself to give Consider Phlebas a read. It is a masterpiece.

gaming August 29, 2014 Jack No comments

More D3 – The Fanbase from Hell

I really didn’t intend for this blog to be entirely based on gaming, but considering I keep most of my software updates here, and most of my work and life private, that’s what it’s turned in to.

Diablo 3 fans suck.

There, I said it.

2.1 came out on Tuesday with the usual myriad of buffs and nerfs and new mechanics, etc. Chief among them, in my mind, is the introduction of “seasons” which is basically a ladder system with a leaderboard, some exclusive items and achievements.

Once again, a major patch has been released and a significant part of the Diablo community is totally butt hurt.

The Blizzard forums, and the comment sections for their releases are just a complete clusterfuck, so let me hash a few things out for such luminaries as cremdelacrem for his brilliant comments on the 2.1 Season Preview.

1. D3 ain’t D2

This ship has sailed, folks. D3 was not, is not, and will never be D2. You will never have skillpoints and attributes to allocate, you’re never going to have chat spam trading, you’re not going to be fifteen again and you’ll never be able to wile away summer nights doing Mephisto runs while your mom interrupts you with the laundry. It’s time to get over it.

This game is different. It’s streamlined, and I say this as a hardcore D2 and D3 fan, I’m cool with it. Yes, I have nostalgic thoughts for D2 sometimes. I wish they’d delivered on PvP. I remember trying to turn a dime into a dollar on [Trade], but Blizzard controls Diablo and they decided none of that was worth it. PvP means class competitive balance which is a total nightmare with all of the possible builds, especially when even in D2 it was pointless and achieved nothing. Trading got removed for the same reason the (RM)AH was a thing: the corrupting influence of botters and auction sites. It’s hard to argue now that it’s easy to self-find upgrades that we’d be better off with it even if it would make compiling sets and niche legendaries easier.

It’s easy to think of D2 with rose colored glasses, but I remember a lot of it being a tedious bore punctuated with finding a good item. It’s not possible to argue that killing Mephisto or Baal ten million times to find a Windforce is more fun than running a random dungeon filled with random monsters and a random boss, on a selected difficulty. Blizzard has chosen its direction with the franchise and it’s focused on the one core, inviolable tenet of Diablo:

2. Diablo is a fighting game

This isn’t a trading game, it isn’t a slot machine, or a hoarder simulator, or even really a classical RPG for that matter (ugh the story is still awful). D3 is a fucking fighting game. The core mechanic of Diablo is fighting, finding better shit to fight harder. That’s it, and D3 accomplishes this handily. There are many ways to fight, many places to fight, many enemies to fight, but Diablo, at its heart is a fighting game. In a fighting game, you fight. You fight until you get bored of fighting, and then you stop and play something else. Nobody is forcing you to grind. Yes, there are lots of super rare items, but you don’t have to find them. There are unabashed grinds like the Infernal Machine rewards, but nobody’s forcing you to do those either. I’ve had fun with D3 since launch and I’ve never once crafted a Hellfire anything because fuck it, that’s not fun for me.

Yet all I read is bitching about grinding and PvP and “who wants to play seasons, you lose all ur shit!” and “DHs are too strong” and “my class sucks!” and “waah, they nerfed my set!”

Which brings me to my next point:

3. Blizzard doesn’t owe you shit

All of this reads to me like spoiled children. Keeping in mind that this is a fighting game, the logic for you to play D3 should look something like this:

It shouldn’t look like:

Look, if you don’t want to grind the answer is simple: don’t. I find it funny that our friend cremdelacrem is paragon level 400+. Considering most of his criticisms were just as valid day one, it’s interesting that someone so vehemently against D3 has probably dumped more than 1000 hours into it. If you’re not having fun then stop. Or level the other classes that you still haven’t touched. Or try manning up to play hardcore.

There is no out of game reward for this shit. You fight, you find better stuff, you fight harder. In short, you play D3 to get better at playing D3. This is especially true now that the RMAH failed. None of this translates into the real world. You’re not going to get a job based on your paragon levels. It doesn’t teach you anything. It doesn’t make you think. You don’t win anything for being first or best or toughest.

This is why I find this community so frustrating. Any amount of difficulty, any amount of grind is fine, as long as it’s not mandatory. Hellfire jewelry, putting together ultra-rare sets, finding all the gear for your niche build – these are all tasks that take a lot of time but aren’t necessary to enjoy the base game. You can beat the whole campaign, you can Rift and Grift, do bounties, and find great items all without grinding.

For example, I’ve played on an off since launch (and more on since the 2.0 patch and RoS made everything so much better). I’ve easily put a 1000 hours into the game, probably half on Softcore and half on Hardcore (I’m P90 SC, P75 HC or so). The character that I created day one, my softcore main, is facerolling Torment III solo and doing Torment IV in pubs. I’m not bragging, and if you’ve ever been in a game with a P600 you’ll know this. My point is that he’s still not endgame. He’s still not being limited by gear such that I’m trying to get vanishingly rare legendary items, or that I need a Hellfire Whatever to progress to the higher difficulty and this is with more hours of play time on this character than I’ve put into some other entire games total.

Here’s the rub. It’s bullshit that the Diablo community will complain about the grind and in the same breath demand a practically never ending endgame. You can throw weeks of your life into this game before you have to grind to get better, and after that point Blizzard has provided us with ways to keep improving even when our gear is basically perfect. They have stretched this game as far as they can without entering the realm of the absurd.

So next time you think about complaining about drop rates, or grinding, remind yourself that it’s just a game and there are ten thousand others you haven’t played. If you’re not having fun, then stop and play one of them. Making optional endgame stuff easier to get defeats the purpose and after getting thousands of hours of play for a game you paid (at most) $120 for, Blizzard doesn’t owe you shit.

gaming March 1, 2014 Jack One comment

Diablo Revisited

I last talked about Diablo 3 here.

In short, it was a disappointment. I particularly lamented the lack of social features, because without the ability to compete or show off, or even the incentive to team up due to lack of coordination, the end game becomes a grind for items that will let you grind for items faster. I also briefly mentioned the poor itemization, and the fact that the auction house robbed the game of the rewarding feeling of finding upgrades.

This Tuesday, Blizzard released patch 2.0.1 for the game and it’s a great return to form for Diablo. It introduces a modicum of social features – clans and communities and, more importantly to the actual game, completely revamps the loot and difficulty systems.


The social features are surprisingly effective despite being minimal. They’ve added clans with up to 120 tagged members, and communities with indefinite members both do wonders. Both of these amount to adding channels to the chat window. I’ve joined the /r/diablo ‘reddit’ and ‘redditHC’ communities and it’s amazing how just seeing the same names show up in chat makes you feel like you’re part of a group. I haven’t joined a clan (not my style), but even through the community chats there are a lot of people looking for groups. I do still miss the D2 style lobby with all of the characters lined up at the bottom, but I’ll take the communities as a good start.

There are also rumors of a D3 ladder with the expansion, which would be excellent, but I’m counting those as unconfirmed.


The more important thing is that they fixed loot. With the AH shutting down, it’s important that characters be able to support themselves. Find upgrades, find legendaries that work for them without converting them into gold on the AH. I’ve played some hours on the new patch and I’ve already found more legendaries than I had in ~250 hours before the patch, and most of them (but not all) have been upgrades for my current character. It’s so nice to play Diablo without the AH meta-game. This patch has fundamentally fixed the core incentive – to find cool shit.


I was surprised to see that they removed the D2 style Normal/Nightmare/Hell/Inferno difficulties. Everything is now dynamically scaled to your level and your difficulty setting measures how much harder than that baseline the game becomes. Just like with the pre-patch Monster Power system, you get bonuses to XP/magic find the higher your difficulty.

I can’t overstate how much smoother this makes the game. I’ve started a handful of characters since Tuesday, and it’s fun immediately. Even in D2 the first playthrough (Normal difficulty) was mind numbingly easy and it wasn’t until you hit Nightmare or Hell that you really had to sweat it. With the new system, you can set the difficulty to maximum (Torment VI) from level 1. Suddenly leveling isn’t a mindless chore and you can level quickly based on your skill and the items you have prepped for you character. For example, my hardcore Wizard playing on “Master” difficulty (made easier by having gems and gold from my level 60 Demon Hunter) is already level 20 and just beat the Skeleton King. Before the patch, characters beating the Skeleton King were, at most, level 9 or so. Sure, it’s probably taken me twice as long, but I’ve been challenged and I’ve had fun instead of breezing through it. It also means that you don’t have to play the game three or four times all the way through to get to the endgame content. I can easily see my Wizard being 60 long before I face Diablo for the first time.

As a side effect, it does make hardcore a little less nerve-wracking by allowing you to start an easier game to progress the story. The next time I face Belial (the Act II boss), I’ll start a game on “Normal” difficulty and breathe easy.

Trade – The Downside

I see a lot of bitching on the Blizzard forums. What’s new, right? People have complained about D3 since release and it’s no surprise. However, a lot of the chatter I see now is complaining that trading is broken. It’s true, legendary items are BoA (bind on account, so legendary items are tradeable to your other characters, but not between accounts except to other people in the game when it dropped and within two hours).

I am in agreement on this to some extent. In some ways, Blizzard is damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. One of the primary reasons they implemented the AH in the first place was that trading in D2 was a pain in the ass. The RMAH (real money auction house) was implemented because in D2 there was a thriving and shady business trading dollars for in game items. By making both of these official, they brought the whole practice out into the sunlight and made it safe and easy. It was a good idea. Theoretically. In practice it was the reason the loot was so warped in the first place. If selling a legendary on the AH can net real money or gold then the most powerful items need to be tightly controlled to keep from flooding the market and thus keep supply low. You also want to encourage people to buy in to the AHs to keep demand high. Basic capitalism with a twist in that Blizzard finely controls the availability of the items.

Removing the AH removes the pressure to maintain that balance and has allowed them to fix the game. This also moves the real money item market back underground (like in D2) and into the hands of shady dealers. Currently, they’ve solved this problem with BoA legendaries. It’s now literally impossible to transfer ownership of legendaries (except in the specific circumstances I mentioned before) and thus impossible to sell them out of game for real money.

The problem is that D2 trading was fun. It was time consuming, it was scammy, it was open to exploit from outside websites, but it was fun. I can see why a lot of people miss it. Honestly, I can’t say that I miss it more than I missed getting decent loot, but to each their own. The core difference between D2 trading and the AH was that it was more a barter relationship. Even though Stones of Jordan became the defacto currency, you were mostly trading items and gems and runes that were mutually beneficial. There was also a huge amount of luck involved because the ‘bidding’ was limited to people in the trade channel at the time. This means that it was possible to make out like a bandit by taking advantage of people’s specific needs or their ignorance of what an item was worth, or just the timeframe of the trade (i.e. what an item is worth at Tuesday 2AM when there’s no demand, versus Friday at 10PM when everyone’s just getting started on the weekend). The AH was so standardized and easy to use that there was never any ignorance of value, and the timeframe of a ‘trade’ could be days long. It just didn’t have the same luck factor and thus lacked the same exhilaration of making a good (for you at least) trade.

I feel for Blizzard because they’ve failed to find a balance between these two extremes (totally regulated and totally unregulated) in the current patch. Personally, I believe they should return to the D2 model. Don’t provide any assistance outside of making a trade channel and don’t regulate anything. I understand their need to shutdown people making money from their work (fucking item farmers are the scum of the earth) and there is value in keeping people from getting scammed, but it worked in D2 for two reasons.

  • There was a natural barrier to buying items for money and that was having to go to an external site and trust them with your credit card. “Reputable” auction sites showed up, but for the people that just want to play the game and have fun, that’s not on their radar. The only people wanting to spend money on digital items are idiots people that are desperate for an edge. It’s sad, really.
  • In-game scamming is avoidable (sans patchable exploits). There were all manner of tricks to get people to commit to trades that were slanted against them. From the old trade window switcheroo to the just plain out bad trading done by the naive. That’s life though. Some people are scammy bastards, some people aren’t and it’s a valuable skill to be alert and on your toes when dealing with other people.

Especially now that it’s possible to play D3 with only found items (and thus there’s no pressure to trade), a return to this laissez-faire policy makes a lot of sense.


Overall the patch is a gigantic improvement to the core game. Loot feels good, playing is rewarded with juicy items frequently, and you spend no time on the AH (which will officially close on the 18th). The difficulty system is a great improvement to not just D3 but the franchise itself. The trading is a hopefully temporary setback but if Blizzard is insistent that nobody gets screwed trading then so be it. I’d rather have a fun fighting game with great loot you can’t trade than a fighting game with shitty loot you have to trade to afford upgrades.

In some ways, I view the patch as a commitment from Blizzard to get the game right. You can see their thought process with the creation of D3 vanilla, and you can also see the thought process that went into this patch.

They created the AH for noble reasons and then designed the game around it. Coming from D2 it made perfect sense to absorb the underground market that grew up around the game and make everyone’s lives safer and easier. It was controversial, but it was a bold choice to not just put out a clone. Two years later, the AH experiment has failed and Blizzard had the balls to not only remove it, but also to redesign the rest of the game’s systems around the new AH free game.

The difficulty system was also taken directly from D2 (with the addition of the fourth difficulty, Inferno) but it was and always has been repetitive. First, they merged in Monster Power to layer dynamic difficulty on top of the set difficulty but that was clunky and still meant you had to play through the game four times. Now this patch has eschewed the set difficulty and gone entirely dynamic. You can see the evolution of D3’s difficulty and how it incrementally improved on D2’s.

It’s funny because the AH and the difficulty settings were the two major places that D3 tried to learn or borrow from D2. Everything else, the skill system, the attribute system, the game mechanics, and the classes were all solid (eventually) and all original to D3. Even the enemies, items and locations were, for the most part original (barring the mandatory appearance of Tristram and Diablo and legendaries like Windforce). It’s almost as if Blizzard designed the game with 2.0 in mind as a radical departure from D2 but then got cold feet and bolted on the AH trading, warped the loot table, and took D2’s difficulty system wholesale to seem like it was a proper sequel instead of a similar game with Diablo in the title. Now that D3 is free of these, it’s a much better game.

In some fantasy world, D3 borrowed D2’s understated story and community PvP/ladder features instead of its repetitive difficulty scheme and ‘fixing’ its unregulated trading. That world has a perfect D3. But our world’s D3 has now unlearned some of the bad lessons of D2 and become a much better game. Who’s to say that D3 can’t learn some new lessons along the way. After all, D2 had some really great features patched in years after release too (patch 1.10 brought skill synergies and uber-Diablo more than three years after release).

I never thought I’d say this after the vanilla game and taking more than a year off from the game, but I’m really looking forward to the expansion, Reaper of Souls, on the 25th. Its feature set is compelling, but only in the light of the new fixed game. In the meantime, I’ve got a few weeks to enjoy finding decent loot, playing D3 the way that two years of hindsight tells us it should have been at release.

baseball January 8, 2014 Jack No comments

The Hall of Fame is Crap

I’ve mentioned before that this last season I really put my heart into baseball. True, adult fandom instead of the sort of child nostalgia of the Cardinals in the ’90s. This offseason I tried to care about football and basketball and even the laughably elitist Winter Olympics but since those failed to create the same undefinable spark, here I am focused on the Baseball Hall of Fame which today inducted three new members, up from zero last year. Frank Thomas (of whom I was a fan), Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine. All of them deserve to be recognized for being great baseball players.

But here’s the thing. So does Barry Bonds. And so does Roger Clemens.

The Problem with Performance Enhancing Drugs

They should be disqualified for steroids, right? After all, would Bonds have hit 73 homeruns in 2003 without bulking up on steroids? Would Roger Clemens get the Cy Young seven times between 1986 and 2004? Maybe not. It’s undeniable that they were cheating and their stats got boosted by it. As such, I understand the impulse to punish them retroactively for it.

The problem is that you don’t know who did what in any era of baseball. There are so many ways to increase your performance chemically and they’ve all been around since early in the 20th century. Anabolic steroids first crop up in sports in the 1950s, and in football by the ’60s. Why is it inconceivable that baseball legends were also guilty in an age before drug testing? Roger Maris broke the homerun record too, right? Hank Aaron had more homers than anyone until a ‘roided up Barry Bonds broke his record. Do we ignore the possibility they cheated because we didn’t hear rumors about it? No managers and teammates testified against them for behavior that wasn’t illegal by the letter of the law? Or was it because we never saw hitters show up with a suspicious amount of extra muscle one year? Certainly we have to acknowledge that it wasn’t impossible in their day and age.

What about drugs for attentiveness and energy, like amphetamines? Bob Gibson and his ilk pitched complete games with razor sharp focus and a disconcerting intensity, how do we know that he wasn’t dosing with uppers?

Now, to be clear, I’m not accusing any of these players. I don’t believe that they did anything illegal or immoral, but the question is how would we know? Anabolic steroids weren’t even illegal until 1990 and it was only then that the MLB made it clear that it was against policy. Random drug testing didn’t start until 2001, long after the problem came onto the radar.

There’s very little hard proof the players used steroids outside of testimony of others. I can believe the testimony, but it’s going to be necessarily incomplete. No one person knew every other person using PEDs and as such there are likely players that got away with using PEDs. They might not be Hall of Fame caliber players, but nonetheless their stats will be recorded in the Annals of Baseball without asterisks or footnotes.

In addition, how do we punish a player like Barry Bonds who had a hall of fame career for a decade before anyone accuses him of starting to use steroids? If we take the common wisdom that Bonds started juicing in 1999 and ignore his entire career from that season on, the man would still have 3 MVPs, 7 Gold Gloves, and 7 Silver Sluggers as well as league high records in a lot of stats like homeruns, RBIs, and OBP. He consistently put up 9 WAR seasons without PEDs. If he had been permanently injured after 1998 and never played baseball again, he would still be a hall of fame caliber player clocking in with a cumulative 95 WAR. So how do we classify him? Does his later steroid use wipe out his phenomenal playing before that? How do we take into account that he looked at McGwire and Sosa and suspected they were juicing and it went totally unpunished while they shattered the homerun record and made headlines across the country?

The bottom line is that we can’t disqualify only PED seasons, we can’t even be sure we know a comprehensive list of PED users since the beginning of baseball, and we can’t even enumerate every possible PED and show that they were against the MLB drug policy. In fact, a lot of the drugs, like McGwire’s Androstenedione weren’t. This is why we have to take a more pragmatic approach and look at the stats and the stats alone. We can’t base who gets to be enshrined in the Hall on what rumors the BBWAA believes and which it doesn’t believe.

Stats are Inherently Unfair

The argument against this, of course, is that PEDs boost these stats and could take a good player and make them great. This is true, but so can a lot of other changes to the game over the years. Science has revolutionized the game in legal ways as much as it has the world around it.

Babe Ruth didn’t have a nutritionist. He didn’t have a physical therapist and a personal trainer and video archives of pitchers and hitters to examine. The pitchers and hitters he faced didn’t have those advantages either, but that doesn’t make it an even exchange.

Sandy Koufax didn’t have the advantage of modern medicines and surgeries that could have persuaded him to continue pitching instead of saving his arm.

Teams of yesterday didn’t have the ability to scout every high school and college in the country, or import players from the Caribbean and Japan.

There’s a generation of negro league players that never even got to have their stats recorded consistently and will consequently never have the numbers they should have.

Hall of Famers like Stan Musial, Joe Dimaggio, Yogi Berra, and Ted Williams lost seasons at a time to military service, how is that fair compared to the players that came before and after the war and didn’t have seasons taken from them in their primes?

What about hitters in the dead ball era? And what about all the other equipment changes like sunglasses and batting helmets and pitching machines? And what about the “traditional” kind of cheating that doesn’t show up on drug tests like corked bats or pitchers junking up the ball?

The fact is, it isn’t fair. Stats don’t tell the whole story. They don’t account for the changes in the game, they don’t account for better training, medicine, or equipment and they don’t account for cheating in any form. Stats are already useless for comparing players of different eras in any truly meaningful way. You can say Ty Cobb was a better hitter than Ted Williams because of their lifetime batting averages but it’s not true unless you couch it with ‘in their own eras’. It certainly doesn’t mean that Ty Cobb in his prime would’ve had nearly the same numbers facing teams that Williams did 20 years after he retired.

Because of this, I believe players like Clemens and Bonds should be inducted to the hall based on the strength of their numbers. No matter what, in their own eras, they were the best at what they did. Inducting them doesn’t take away from the players of yesterday or from the players of tomorrow (that hopefully won’t be juiced up) because they’ll be competing against a whole new crop of talent with all new advances in science and medicine and changes to the game (like instant replay coming next season).

The Popularity Contest is Stupid

The way the BBWAA votes on the Hall is absolutely ridiculous and divorced from stats. The Writers are likely to vote for players that, while good, aren’t Hall of Fame material. This year Kevin Gurnick voted for one player out of a possible ten. Jack Morris. Now Morris isn’t a bad pitcher but he’s not a hall of famer. He accumulated 43 WAR over 18 seasons. He was an all star a few times, but never got a gold glove, Cy Young Award or an MVP.

Gurnick’s reasoning, which is braindead, is that Morris didn’t play in the steroid era. Fair enough, except that he played until 1994 which is well into the steroid era. Not to mention that the three automatic slam dunk inductees this year were all not connected to PED use whatsoever. I could understand not voting for Bonds or Clemens, but to not cast a single vote for anyone but Morris is a total joke. Gurnick was using his ballot as a political statement and that’s a really fucking dumb reason to keep someone like Craig Biggio (who was two votes away) out of the Hall.

In addition, there are some players that are in the Hall for poor reasons too. Look at Bill Mazerowski. Had 8 Gold Gloves, but only accumulated 36 WAR over 17 seasons, averaging about 2 WAR a season. That’s good, but not great. His lifetime batting average was a meager .260 and he never once led the league in anything of consequence. Certainly not enough to be in the Hall. The only reason he made it was that he got a Game 7 walk-off home run for the Pirates. That’s all. One lucky at bat and a slightly above average career.

The point is that the writers that are in charge of the Hall aren’t doing a good job. They’re casting ballots against players in protest or for players that just don’t belong when all the Hall should be concerned with his a player’s accomplishments on the field, encapsulated nicely in their recorded stats.

What I’d Like To See

I’d like to see a milestone based Hall that is unconcerned with PEDs. It’s not the Hall’s duty to punish PED players on admittance, it’s the MLB’s duty to catch and punish them harshly enough that it’s not worth it in the first place – which will hopefully be reflected in their stats. Reaching a particular milestone, like 3000 hits, 500 home runs, etc. is an automatic ticket to the Hall. This means players like Bonds, Clemens, and Pete Rose would be immediately inducted regardless of their conduct off the field.

I don’t believe that it should be entirely objective either. If the Writers want to argue for a player, perhaps one with a value that’s hard to quantify, they should be able to rally support for them despite not reaching any of the hard milestones. Yeah, maybe players like Mazerowski still get in for a single at bat, but I’d rather have some false positives than false negatives.

As for PEDs, I think the MLB should still attempt to keep players from using them with stricter testing and more severe monetary and gametime punishments. Jhonny Peralta, then a Tiger now a Cardinal, only had a 50 game suspension last year for getting caught in the Biogenesis scandal. That’s 1/3 of a season, barely a slap on the wrist in terms of statistics. You want to get players to stop using PEDs to blow up their contracts and extend their careers for millions of dollars? Hit them where it hurts, in the wallet. Drop ’em back to the league minimum for a season or let their teams get out of contracts scot-free. Yeah, someone might have to sell a mansion and scale back to half a million a year, but I’m sorry if I can’t cry about them only making 10x the median household income in the US when they get caught cheating. I’ll guarantee you one thing: if getting caught using steroids ended up costing you $15 million instead of making $15 million more, players at all levels would rethink it.

Anyway, this is my line of thinking now. I realize that the PED issue isn’t as clear cut as I’d like it to be, and that players are flawed human beings like us all and that shouldn’t keep them from being put in the Hall of Fame regardless of what a bunch of snobby baseball writers think because they let politics and anecdotes get in the way of honoring the best baseball players of a generation.

hardware, linux, software December 29, 2013 Jack No comments

Biostar z87x 3D on Linux

UPDATE: This has been fixed with a BIOS microcode update..

I’ve been having trouble with a system that I built a month or two ago. Up until this winter break I’d been using it mostly like a Wintendo, only booting into Windows to play Steam games. Seeing as I’m spending a little more time at home, I decided to finally get comfortable in the Arch install which – to my surprise – began to hard lock every time I turned around.

The Short Version

If you’ve got a Biostar z87x 3D that crashes in Linux all the time, add the following to your kernel commandline:


Please note the l, it’s nolapic, not another option, noapic (although they’re related).

You can usually add these flags in your grub configuration, either through /etc/default/grub with GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX or, failing that, in the /boot/grub/grub.cfg directly.

For reference, and in case I’m wrong, I also have clocksource=hpet in there because TSC worries me a bit, but I don’t think that’s relevant to the bug.

The Long Version

The symptoms of this crash were varied. It mostly just hard locked the system, no input, no output, not responsive to SSH/ping. It actually only crashed occasionally, and usually after I finished running a Minecraft server or playing Dwarf Fortress.

First things first, I built a kernel from git and started to use it. My hardware is relatively new (this year’s Haswell + z87 chipset) so it’s not out of the question that there would be some kernel patches in flight between Arch’s 3.12 and 3.13-rc5 in git. No dice though, the problem was just as prevalent on git so I moved on to narrowing down the malfunctioning devices.

I eliminated the USB wireless device that I only suspected because it was throwing warnings all over my dmesg output. It’s a WiPi device that I had laying around with the rt2800usb driver that was complaining about transmission timeouts. Surprisingly, with the nolapic fix, this driver has shut up so it was likely a symptom of the same problem.

Then I eliminated the video card by running in a nouveau console without ever starting X. I would have reverted to the board’s internal Intel device but running from the hardware console and provoking the crash actually let me get a glimpse of the kernel debug output and running MOC seemed to agitate it enough that I could reproduce in about half an hour. With the messages the kernel was dumping to the hardware console I was able to find the pattern in the crashes.

They were all in an interrupt context, which is serious bad news for the kernel. They were all in different interrupt contexts as well, meaning that – unless there’s multiple, board wide failures – then something with interrupts is wrong. So, clearly, I began to tweak knobs with the APIC (the Advanced Programmable Interrupt Controller). noapic, noapictimer, and nolapic_timer were all insufficient to fix it, but nolapic did the trick.

Why Did This Work?

This is definitely a question going forward and one that I’ll give more attention in the future when I’m not on winter break. However, my first theory is that there’s a problem with the Intel idle driver expecting the LAPIC timer to be reliable when it actually isn’t so when the core is idle, and the processor has been put into a low(er) power state, the lapic wakeup either comes late or doesn’t come at all. This would explain why the scheduler craps itself (I don’t think it responds well to starvation or bad timing) in an interrupt context, as well as why I could use the system for literally hours with no problem and then it would fail shortly after I was done.

I also think this is true because Googling some LAPIC quirks I discovered a handful of Intel Atom chips that have to be similarly gimped in the intel_idle driver because of unreliable LAPICs. The associated bugs were about random hangs.

What this theory doesn’t explain is why running MOC would agitate it, although the sound drivers likely make use of precision timing as well and it seems likely that MOC wouldn’t have to keep the process too busy just to keep the audio buffer full.

Anyway, there might be a quirk patch in here if I can get around to pinning it down.

gaming December 2, 2013 Jack No comments


The holiday season is MMO season for me it seems. Last year I dusted off a six-year dormant World of Warcraft account to see what was up. I played for two months and got bored.

A week or so ago, I got an Elder Scrolls Online beta invite, and that was interesting but obviously beta so it’s hard to judge. It seemed to be very much in the WoW vein and as such I can’t say I’m really interested (although I would definitely play another round of the beta to give it a fair shake).

Then I played EVE.

EVE is a ten year old MMO and every time I heard of it I thought “Wow, that sounds pretty neat,” and went about my business. I did a similar shuffle with Dwarf Fortress and Minecraft, hearing bits and pieces of neat stuff until I eventually took the hint and started to play them. Now they’re two of my favorite games ever. When I caught wind of CCP’s 14 day free trial of EVE and just so happened to have most of the week off for Thanksgiving, I decided to give it a whirl.

Once again, I’m glad I did.

EVE has discovered a core feature of MMOs that I think is starting to catch on: being low maintenance. Warcraft and its many clones have done all they could to make the game easy and less time consuming, but when you play these games you’re still actively clicking around, grouping up, fighting monsters. While playing they require not only a time commitment but also an attention commitment.

EVE, on the other hand, is all about long term planning. Its skill system operates in real time, taking minutes, hours, or even days of real time to train a skill but you don’t have to be logged on or active in that time. You also don’t need to do content to train them, there is no XP, you have no level, you just buy a book from the market. Of course, that requires money you have to earn but you can do that in a million different ways from mining, which can be safe and hands off for almost an hour but has little return, to piracy which requires your full attention but can be most lucrative.

Initially, when I heard that people usually surf Reddit or watch Netflix while playing EVE, I thought it was a criticism. Now I realize it’s genius. In WoW to advance you have to kill mobs and get loot. That’s the entire game. Sometimes, like the first time through an area, that’s fun but a lot of the time that descends into repetitive and boring gameplay. There’s a reason that it’s called “grinding” when a player is out killing an endless stream of boars for their leather. EVE has repetition too (mining is basically the same thing over and over), but it doesn’t require you to participate in it, only to set it up and then go do something else for awhile. In short, EVE is perfectly happy to let you automate the grindy parts, where WoW and ilk force you to manually slaughter a thousand boar in shifts of ten even if it’s the last thing in the game you’d like to be doing.

I believe that this core difference, high vs. low maintenance, is why WoW has started to hemorrhage subscribers (7.7 million in 2013 down from a peak of 12 million in 2010 – Source) where EVE has been on a steady uptick for a decade. To be fair EVE only has 500k subscribers, but considering that pretty much all new MMO titles are falling back on some form of free to play, having half a million subs is still impressive. Being high maintenance, requiring the player’s full attention, makes it very easy to get bored with repetitive content. WoW has released many expansion packs (although not even half as many as EVE) that add lots of content and streamline the gameplay but fundamentally it’s the same game. If you’re bored with killing mobs for loot then more levels, zones, skills, gear, race, and class options all focused on killing mobs for loot aren’t going to make you any less bored.

EVE takes a more organic approach to the problem of player fatigue by not forcing you to do anything but when you do decide on what you want to do, EVE lets you take it to its logical conclusion. For example, crafting. In WoW you can craft a very select set of items, you craft enough of them, you skill up and get more items you can craft. 99% of your gear, however, is all from mob drops or quest/dungeon/PvP system rewards. In EVE not only can you craft manufacture every single useful item in the game from battleships to ammo, you can also jump in at any point in the process as long as you have the skill (again, leveled in real time rather than by grinding) and the blueprint. WoW lets you craft trinkets to enhance your ability to craft trinkets. EVE lets you become a one man monopoly, a wealthy industrialist with factory capacity and long chains of players supplying them and distributing from them.

EVE’s PvP interaction is also a natural extension of the game. WoW lets you grief other players in zones, or face off in structured arenas for sport but it’s all consequence free fun. The WoW community would be up in arms if PvPers could destroy each other’s gear or really cause anything but the mildest of setbacks. In EVE this is a matter of course. You can be part of a roving band of pirates (or just one really opportunistic businessman) preying on other players or you can be the victim and lose your ship, its fittings, its cargo, your implants and even your skills (if you’re not careful) while those that attack you make a profit on your corpse. Death hurts in EVE because it has real consequences, which seems to be a unique feature among MMOs.

Importantly, player interaction isn’t limited to co-op or opposing combat. EVE deaths and ship losses hurt, but they also benefit the game because they make a lot of other industries work. Battle and piracy means a lot of dead ships for salvage and a lot of people that need to buy ships and gear to replace their losses. In this way, EVE is much closer to being a real ecosystem than any other game I’ve played. Each trade hub has buyers and sellers and manufacturers. Supply and demand fluctuate based on reality rather than artificial drop chances. Playing as a trader buying and selling goods, there’s a fair chance that the commodities you’re ferrying around were produced by players with resources gathered by players, were sold by players, and will be bought by real human players. External factors, like warfare in a region, jump prices not because of some algorithm but because real people there need replacements and are willing to pay higher prices rather than having to travel for ten minutes round trip to get them marginally cheaper. Instead, you can do that for them and make a tidy profit in the meantime. Low security systems have higher prices because the dangerous space surrounding them is teeming with pirates. High security, well positioned starbases naturally become trading posts. When you simulate a world at a high level, details like this just sort of shake out of the system.

Now, of course, EVE is still a game. There’s a progression to it that the developer enforces. Ships, modules, skills all form a distinct hierarchy. The asteroids you mine still magically respawn. NPC corporations and enemies still go about their routine. Nobody’s ever going to independently develop a ship that didn’t already exist (yet). Within the limitations and bare requirements of the MMO genre, EVE does quite a lot by sketching the universe and letting players fill in the details.

Which leads me to another facet of the game I find fascinating: it is surprisingly fertile ground for immersion. The EVE universe is undoubtedly minimalistic. After all, most systems are just open space with a pretty backdrop and some landmarks strewn about. Yet this doesn’t alter that fact the setting is immaculately well realized. Space is beautiful and empty and space travel is long. You find yourself existing in the world very easily. There is nothing you would wish to do, within the context of a spaceship game, that you can’t do. There are no doors that can’t be opened, there are no ships you can’t control or destroy, no products you can’t produce. When you trade commodities that other players have put up and other players are buying, you are no longer roleplaying a trader, you are a trader. You’re not shipping things back and forth for some AIs that really couldn’t care less, you’re helping another player achieve his goals and making a buck in the meantime, just like a real trader. When you decide to attack another player’s ship or ransom it, you’re no longer roleplaying a pirate, you are a pirate. Even when you’ve backgrounded EVE to mine and you’re watching Netflix… what do you think the captain of an automated mining ship is going to be doing while his ore hold is being filled up? That’s right, you’re no longer roleplaying a miner, you are a miner. Nothing is symbolic. You don’t do just do pirate missions to be a pirate. You don’t get a pirate costume or a class designation or a special ship or title. You just are a pirate, just like a moment later you could just be an explorer or even a powerful CEO. You roleplay in the universe by virtue of existing in the universe.

Compare this to WoW. The universe is baroque and well articulated, but it’s still false. You can’t live in Stormwind, you just log out. You can’t open all the doors. You can’t produce items that match up with the best epic gear. You can’t even really affect other players except to give them a hard time for awhile or defeat them in consequence free PvP. Everything is merely symbolic. One player “killed” another, nevermind he’s respawned and is going about his business without missing a beat, buying new gear, or even giving it a second thought. The players rise up and fight the big boss, but the tide is never turned, the war is never won, the story never moves on until Blizzard releases another expansion pack.

I can’t say that I’m going to be a long term EVE subscriber. I’ll get busy, get distracted by other games, etc. I’ve never played an MMO for more than a couple of months before moving on. However, between having the capability to queue up days of real time skill training in less than a minute and being able to play the game in short bursts of interaction, I don’t feel obligated to spend hours actively playing the game to get my money’s worth. If you keep your skill queue going, whenever you have time to actually sit and play for awhile you’ll still have gained as many skill points as someone that logged on every day. Combine this with the fact that CCP releases two expansions a year that are free to current owners instead of a biennial shake down for the price of a full game and there’s really no reason to unsubscribe unless you’re confident you don’t want to ever play again. Even being broke isn’t an excuse since you can buy game time with in game currency (although I’m betting it takes awhile to be able to general almost a billion ISK in a month and not get wiped out).

What I can say is that, for someone completely bored with WoW-alike theme park MMOs, playing EVE over the last week has been refreshing.

books October 28, 2013 Jack No comments

On ‘The Road’

Spoilers Ahead

I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in two days. Tears were shed.

I started reading The Road because I have a new policy where I shift regularly between high fantasy / sci-fi / comedy type books and more serious fare, literary fiction, non-fiction, etc. I just finished reading all five books of A Song of Ice and Fire, which was about 5 kilopages of complete plot driven fluff. The Road weighs in at not even 300 pages, and yet packs such a hard punch that I feel like every scene has imprinted itself on my memory.

I read McCarthy’s Blood Meridian a year or so ago and I’ll admit that even though his prose was impressive, the story didn’t really capture my imagination. It was a violent, brutal, beautiful journey but in the end I put it down and didn’t think too hard about it. I’ve read analysis of that book that dealt with symbolism, but I’m a firm believer that symbolism only serves literature if it’s woven into the fabric of the story such that the reader gains knowledge of it by reading rather than dissecting. Good fiction is entertainment wrapped around enlightenment, not the other way around.

After reading The Road, I feel indefinably changed. The novel was an easy read. Simple, but brilliant. McCarthy’s prose is, again, taut with meaning. Not one word is wasted. He breathes an ashen, hostile, and frightening life into the world of the post-apocalypse and still makes you feel the loving connection of the main characters, a father and his son. Their story grips you from page one. McCarthy takes you from desperation to delight, from famine to feast, and all the while there is the undertow of ever present danger. There is something here that resonates for every father, son, mother, or daughter.

The internet warns that The Road is a sad, depressing novel. Despite the dark past and the hellish setting, I don’t think I can agree. The boy’s mother commits suicide years into their ordeal because her will has been crushed. The world is a wasteland, where the only animals are cannibal scavengers, and it rains down ash as often as water or snow onto fields of dead grass and forests of dead trees. Any novel of the post-apocalypse forces you to question its end game but McCarthy’s vision is particularly bleak. There are no heroes to save the day, there are no glimmers of hope or restoration. The father himself, upon finding food, questions whether it is a blessing or whether it would be better to just die and be done with it. Yet he persists. He will not be crushed. They will not submit. The world has turned into cold, dark place but they carry the fire as old as civilization itself.

In the final encounter, the boy and the shotgun wielding man that takes him under his protection, the man claims to carry the fire as well. If we take him at his word, and we have no reason not to thanks to the fulfilled promise of covering the boy’s dead father, there is a family that still remains. The good in the world has not burned out, and the father has achieved his ancient goal of ensuring that his son did not perish. Where once there were three, and then two, and then one, now there are five bearers of the torch of civilization.

The final paragraph of the novel is a disconnected scene and, in a fine tradition of literary fiction, is open to wide interpretation.

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

One might interpret this as saying that the world is over and cannot be set right again, the fish being some forgotten treasure of earth that we squandered in our destruction. Others might interpret just the very existence of this passage being a hopeful indication that these fish live on someplace. I find that unlikely considering even brook trout need the sun to live.

Perhaps being contrary, I believe that the final line is the most important. These fish are from a time before man, they hummed of mystery, yet they are being discovered by a man. They are seen, they are grasped in the hand, touched, they are smelled and – soon, I imagine – tasted. The mystery of the fish, and the greater world, has started to unravel. I believe this negates the message of the fish’s appearance since it was generated in a time before we had understanding of the the mystery it represents. Now, with that understanding – or perhaps with greater understanding – we can indeed make the world right again.

My wife, Juliette, had an interesting – and positive – take on it as well, even if it was a little far afield from my usual thought pattern. She hasn’t read the book, but the last paragraph was just too good for me not to share and, again, it’s disconnected from the rest of the story. She interpreted the fish as the world itself. In terms of literary symbolism I think that’s a valid first step (that map of a thing representing the thing itself), and it has some interesting implications. First, the world is in the hand of a man but it is dying (indicated the fact that it feels torsional, as if it’s trying to escape the hand holding it out of water). Second, the implied existence of multiple fish which in this interpretation would be multiple worlds. So, perhaps we have broken the world and perhaps it can’t be set right, but there are other worlds. The glen where the fish all live, then, is the universe humming with mystery. A neat thought, if it gets a little science fiction-y on expansion.

I greatly enjoyed The Road. It’s hard to distill such a great and potent brew of imagery. McCarthy is a master, and The Road is a masterpiece.

television September 30, 2013 Jack No comments

On Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad ended last night. Spoilers ahead, naturally.

With last night’s episode, Breaking Bad is basically neck and neck with The Sopranos in the easy list of Best Television of All Time. The only reason that I can’t give Breaking Bad the crown alone is that the two series were trying to accomplish very different things. Both of them are violent, rise and fall type shows, but where The Sopranos attempted to juxtapose Tony’s criminality with the very common issues and problems of American life, Breaking Bad was purely about pushing Walter White to the limit.

This was the genius of Breaking Bad. At every turn there was escalation, but it was also believable, and there were dire consequences for every one of Walt’s actions. We’ve seen a lot of the new wave of dramatic TV shows end poorly because the writers find themselves incapable of providing a believable progression and then wrapping things up. Lost is a canonical example of a show that promised the world and failed to deliver. Every season was wilder and more mysterious than the last, but the end was ultimately a complete cop out. Dexter, which just ended a week ago was, was such a show as well. The first few seasons were great TV but it ran off the rails and the finale was gutless in its failure generate suspense as well as its failure to make its protagonist come to his end. I could elaborate on quite a few others like Battlestar Galactica, Weeds, or Heroes. Even the laudable Sopranos had an ending that was, for all intents and purposes, a disappointment – although you can applaud David Chase’s artsy execution of blue balls by failing to explicitly show us Tony’s death.

But it was not so with Breaking Bad. The ending wrapped up the entire story. It gave us everything we wanted. It touched on every character still breathing. It provided the long awaited payoff and, in the end, Walter White wins. The show could have ended in any number of ways, and in some ways Breaking Bad chose the most predictable (i.e. Walt achieves his goal of providing for his kids after his death and dies on his own terms), but just the fact that there were options other than the foregone conclusion indicates how well the show was written. Speculation was rampant. Some thought he’d be brought to justice. Some thought there would be the anti-ending where he’d die of cancer before his work was complete. Some thought he’d finish his work and ride off into the sunset with a couple million in tow. Some even thought that he’d go on a rampage to kill everyone that had ever wronged him (I guess the ricin and the machine gun really worked them up). All were possible in the first minutes of last night’s finale.

Best of all, despite the fact that the “predictable” conclusion was reached, each scene still offered suspense. When he showed up in Gretchen and Elliot’s house the viewer has no idea whether he’s there to brutally murder them, get something off his chest, surreptitiously poison their food or what. Same thing when it’s revealed that he’s standing in the kitchen with Skyler. We don’t know why he’s there. If he’s there to threaten or cajole her into playing some part in his plans, if he’s there asking forgiveness, offering money, telling more lies, or if – as it turns out – he’s there to come clean, to admit that the whole thing was ego and avarice, and to catch one last glimpse of the kids. Even in the final scenes of confrontation Jesse and Walt’s relationship, frayed to the point of enmity, evoked the same level of intensity as being intimidated by the gang of neo-nazis just moments before.

There was not a single flagging scene in the Breaking Bad finale, just as there was never a flagging episode in the show overall. It showed the same brilliant writing and imaginative cinematography we’d come to expect from the show and, in the end, provided us with a great contrary example to the failures of modern TV drama. It ended when it needed to end, it ended how it needed to end, and it ended with such sweet resolution that it will go down in TV history as one of the most iconic shows of a generation.

baseball, books August 2, 2013 Jack No comments

On “The Art of Fielding”

Last night I finished Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding.” It’s a literary fiction book that’s ostensibly about a rising baseball star competing in a small college to get drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals. You can see my obvious attraction, being a Cards baseball fan, but I’m also an avid reader and it had been awhile since I’d read something that takes place in our universe – even if it is fictionalized.

I found the book to be quite well written. There are the physical descriptions of Henry, the main character, playing baseball evoking images of the sort of otherworldly perfection that gets you low draft numbers but the well-crafted adjectives used for the game are matched by the great sort of introspection, motive and doubt that make the characters seem real. The whole story fits together with interlocking pieces so tightly coupled that you can range from baseball to Melville to rising homosexuality to setting description without it ever feeling unnatural. No topic is disconnected, no metaphor unnecessary, no simile unpolished. It was a joy to read pretty much from cover to cover.

As I stated, I’m a baseball fan and there is a certain romanticism about the game that’s soaked into this book. I’m curious as to how a non-fan would take to the use of the games as a cornerstone of the book because baseball is one of the primary methods of creating tension and driving the plot. There are a lot of other factors running in the story, and with some work (or a different sport) the book could stand alone, but those other factors are much more subtle and much less likely to create the kind of grip that makes you reluctant to put a book down. In addition, I was pleased that – and I’m not giving up much of a spoiler here – there is no cliched bottom of the 9th go-ahead home run syrupy ending that one might expect from the structure of the story. It only takes a few chapters before you realize that this book is a lot more than just fantasy wish fulfillment.

In short, “The Art of Fielding” is a great piece of fiction and it’s quite evident that Chad Harbach is both a baseball fan and an excellent writer. It’s clear that this novel was an epic undertaking for him – having spent nine years crafting its immaculate prose. I’m looking forward to seeing if he creates another masterpiece or if this is the sort of one-off story that’s born of intimate personal knowledge that is impossible to reproduce twice in a lifetime.