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True Confessions

July 25, 2009

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this blog, and I’ve decided it’s too unfocused to reflect upon me as positively as I’d hoped. When I started writing 40 weeks ago, it was intended to be a ready-made collection of writing samples in lieu of a proper portfolio. I’m looking for a job somewhere in the writing/publishing industry, ideally as a copy editor (although I’m told that’s a position to be worked up to). And so instantly I was a blogger with nothing to blog about. I’d hoped to turn that into a gimmick, hence the “Potpourri of Prose.” Unfortunately, it’s starting to turn into just a hodge-podge and I want to nip that in the bud before it goes too far down the hill.

This does not mean that I’m quitting. On the contrary, I would like to take this opportunity to introduce my new blog, P.U.G.S.S. — Punctuation, Usage, Grammar, Spelling, and Style. The topic has been a deep interest of mine for quite some time now, and I believe writing on that will do me greater justice.

I don’t plan to get rid of this blog, but it will lie dormant for the foreseeable future. And with that, I slip sideways into the new blog.

Sticking Around for a While

July 18, 2009
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I mentioned last week how I was eagerly anticipating getting The Sims™ 3. Sadly, it’s starting to look as though my computer can’t run it. To offset my disappointment, I’ve been playing with The Sims™ 2 a lot more, exploring gameplay options I’ve been ignoring. It’s helping me see the game with new eyes, making it a bit fresher for me.

The Sims™ is an amazing empire. The second game has, so far, a total of eight expansion packs (University, Nightlife, Open for Business, Pets, Seasons, Bon Voyage, Free Time, and Apartment Life) and eight major stuff packs (Family Fun Stuff, Glamour Life Stuff, Celebration! Stuff, H&M® Fashion Stuff, Teen Style Stuff, Kitchen & Bath Interior Design Stuff, IKEA® Home Stuff, and Mansion & Garden Stuff). That’s a lot to install! All told, that takes up about 14.5 gigs, which seems like a lot. The Sims™ 3, on the other hand, is just the base game so far and needs about 5.5 gigs. We can all see the path that’s going to go down!

Generally, I’m the kind of player who just likes to explore all the stuff. Sometimes it seems as though I spend more time creating Sims and building houses than I do actually playing the game. I have one neighborhood (which I’ve called Area 5.1) that I’ve populated with a wide variety of genetics in the mad scientist hope of seeing what happens when everyone interbreeds. Can you imagine the bizarre result of a Sim with custom Cthulhu skin having a child with a Sim with custom skeleton skin? And I’m just cruel enough to want to find out what happens when a Plantsim becomes a Vampire. I’ve been known to create a full household just to kill everyone off so that the next family who moves in is haunted by their ghosts. Well, that and I wanted to see what the different deaths looked like.

Right now, I’m working on a brand-new family. Perhaps I’ll look up some gameplay challenges posted to various communities a while back, just to give myself some ideas. After all, I have no idea how long it will be until I’ll be able to play The Sims™ 3.

A skeleton Cthulhu clan? Won't somebody think of the children!

A skeleton Cthulhu clan? Won't somebody think of the children!

Looking Back: The Sims

July 11, 2009
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Well, The Sims 3 came out last month. While I don’t have it just yet, what I’ve been reading about it has really been firing my imagination. There are many ways in which it’s supposed to blow The Sims 2 right out of the water, much how The Sims 2 blew the first Sims out of the water. And that’s how it works, isn’t it? The current, the new, is so amazing, so innovative, so wow. When I first got The Sims, it fascinated me. I’d make people, build houses, and watch them go about their day, directing them when they didn’t do what I wanted them to do. Then I got The Sims 2, and I was gobsmacked at all the things I could do that I couldn’t do before. I fell in love.

In anticipation of getting The Sims 3, I decided to go back and play with my original Sims, to compare the original game with the second incarnation and marvel at the astronomical differences.

The first thing I notice is how utterly static — and small — the neighborhood is. There are only ten lots, and they all fit right there on one screen. And the lots aren’t interchangeable. A house built on 5 Sim Lane can only fit on 5 Sim Lane, and it can only be called “5 Sim Lane.” Starting with the Livin’ Large expnasion pack, I have multiple neighborhoods and the ability to create more (although it’s a bit of a hack). Starting with the Hot Date expansion pack, I have a downtown. In The Sims 2, the neighborhood is dynamic and huge. I can scroll around, I can zoom in and out, I can rotate my view. I can change the landscape. I can move any lot anywhere and rename it. There are community lots nestled in among the residential lots. Right from the beginning, I have multiple neighborhoods and an integrated ability to create — and customize — more. Starting with the University expansion pack, I can play a slightly different game with slightly different objectives in a sub-neighborhood.

Then I decide to create a family. In The Sims, there are adults and children, period. I can select from three skin tones and then mix-and-match pre-made heads to pre-made bodies. Add a personality mix, and that’s the extent of it. In The Sims 2, I’m almost drowning in choice. There are toddlers, children, teenagers, adults, and elders. There are normal and fat body types. There’s a selection of hair colors and hair styles. There’s a selection of eye colors. I can choose from a variety of head shapes and then tweak from there. I can select what the Sim will wear every day, for formal occasions, as underwear, as pajamas, to go swimming, and to exercise in. And there are genetics! Once I’ve made two adults, I can create a third Sim based on their appearance. I can make people related to each other, too, as spouses, parents, and siblings. I can also give my Sims aspirations, general outlooks on life.

Now I want to build a house for my Sims to live in. I move them onto a lot and … whoa. They live isolated in the middle of literally nowhere! Just suspended in space, the land ceasing to exist at the boundaries of the lot. Rotation is constrained to isometric view from each of the four corners. There are three pre-set zooms. The couple I created, imagining them to be married, are nothing more than roomies and won’t share a bed until their relationship score goes up. In The Sims 2, I can zoom and rotate with amazing precision. The land continues after the lot ends, and if there are neighbors, I can see their house. My married couple have the relationship scores to show for it and I don’t need to buy them separate single beds.

Live mode. Oh, great heavens, the Simlish! I’d forgotten just how different the Simlish used to be! Men and women using entirely different — and a lot more repetitious — gibberish. But here is where I truly wax nostalgic. I kind of miss such gems as “Com on snalla?” and “Dis graw es fredashay, eh wopitasnau.” And let’s not ignore how Swedish the men sound. I cannot capture the cadence and intonation with mere transcription, but “Inna swoo, en a houghten a burrwati” is truly classic. Past this, I’m surprised at what I can’t transcribe because it just sounds like mumbling. The Sims 2 really expanded their vocabularies and co-ordinated the scripting a lot better, which I suspect here means “at all.” Men and women sound similar when they interact with toddlers, and men, women, and children sound pretty much the same when interacting with animals. My boyfriend doesn’t even have to look at my computer screen: When he hears “shurb,” he knows someone is teaching a pet a trick, and he could even identify “speak” and “shake” without having seen it before.

Looking back on it, one thing I find endearing, even if I don’t miss it per se, is the contented rocking on the balls of their feet while patting their stomachs. The Sims 2 made great leaps in making the people a lot more realistic. It’s still every bit the resource management game it was when The Sims first came out, but now it’s so much easier to relate to the people and tell stories with them. The kids grow up. They know what a weekend is. Most NPCs can be interacted with. I do find it very amusing, though, that in my Sims 2 household in which I have one adult who carpools to work, one adult who takes a cab downtown, and kids who go to school, when the vehicles don’t all come at the same time the driver is usually the same person in all three situations.

When I finally get The Sims 3, I’ll be sure to write about my jaw-dropping amazement and gush about how much fun I plan to have with it. Until then, happy Simming!

Book Review: The Speed of Dark

July 4, 2009

One important rule of good story writing is to provide just enough description and detail. When there’s not enough, the picture painted for the reader is vague, blurry, ambiguous, and splotchy. When there’s too much, the reader gets bogged down and can lose sight of the story. The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon, often goes into excruciatingly minute detail. But this book is one of those rare exceptions where this style works particularly well, because it is narrated in first-person present tense by a man who is autistic. Rather than being extraneous, these details allow us to be inside his mind and understand how it works.

The Speed of Dark is the love child of Gattaca and Flowers for Algernon. It takes place in a near future where disease and disability can increasingly be cured before or just after birth. The viewpoint character, Lou Arrendale, and his cohorts were born just a bit too early for their parents to be able to take advantage of the technological development. Lou is fortunate enough to be high-functioning, able to live independently in his own apartment and hold down a job. He works for a pharmaceutical company as a bioinformatician. For all that his autism makes him socially naïve and renders ordinary figures of speech mystifying to him, it’s also blessed him with an uncanny talent for pattern analysis and generation.

Lou works in a department where almost all of the employees are autistic. Their boss, who is new to the company, is a no-nonsense, bottom-line, former military man who resents their difference and doesn’t understand why they can’t get through their day like normal people. He is dismissive of their productivity and and prodigious skills and sees only the “frivolous” workplace adaptations they need to help keep them functional throughout the day. It’s not long at all before he begins to pressure everyone in the department to participate in a human-trials experimental procedure that promises to cure autism in adults. This presents Lou with an uncomfortable conundrum. He needs to decide whether to remain as he is, the person he’s always been, the self he’s comfortable being, or to undergo a risky brain operation and be rebuilt from the ground up. But if he does decide to go through with it, the biggest question he faces is how much, and what parts, of himself will he lose?

Elizabeth Moon has raised a son with autism and thus has a perspective few other authors share. Her insight allows us to vicariously experience what the world is like to the autistic mind. This is one book I would definitely recommend to anyone with the least bit of interest in understanding this complex neurological disability better. In brief, autism is essentially a sensory processing disorder. Whereas neurotypical people have a filter that allows them to sort through the constant input of stimuli, autistic people’s filters are deficient. Thus they have a harder time distinguishing figure from ground, which is to say everything is a jumble of detail with little to tie it together and few cues to indicate what needs their attention and what can be disregarded.

While the scientific community has come a long way in its understanding of autism (until about a generation ago it was believed to be related to schizophrenia or an emotional disturbance, possibly caused by bad parenting), the popular idea of it seems to have stalled out at Rain Man. Although it’s true that the character Raymond Babbitt was based on a real person, Kim Peek, Kim is actually not autistic but has a brain disorder called FG syndrome (also known as Opitz-Kaveggia syndrome). Thus it makes me happy to see books like The Speed of Dark and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time that portray autistic people in a more realistic and three-dimensional light.

Not a Problem, Just a Catastrophe

June 27, 2009
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I’ve always considered myself very lucky in that I’ve been able to avoid most of the major disasters that can befall a person. Only once have I had a medical problem that dented my pocketbook (broke a tooth last year). Living in my parents’ house, I’ve suffered power outages at most a handful of times as a result of storms, and I happen to live in the area that was affected by the Northeast Blackout of 2003. None of these lasted for more than two or three days, and the most lasting damage caused by one happened back when I was in junior high: Because I couldn’t blow-dry my hair, my school picture came out horrible. I’ve lived in an area that got the occasional tornado, but they always passed by at a comfortable distance.

Last week, there was a heavy rain storm in my area and my garden-level apartment got flooded. Water accumulated in the landing outside and the drain pump, which was probably old to begin with, became overwhelmed and failed. There were parts where the carpet was squishy, parts where I could see a quarter-inch of water above carpet level, and parts that stayed bone dry. I’m not sure which part baffles me more: the fact that some areas remained dry or the fact that my closet, which is in the back of the apartment along an inside wall, got the worst of it.

It started Friday evening. What gets me is that I had spilled my drink a bit earlier. I mopped it up the best I could, but later on I noticed a spot that seemed rather wet. Since it was right near where I had spilled, I thought I’d missed it. I went through several paper towels trying to mop it up and didn’t make a dent. How odd. Then I noticed a similar spot a bit further away. I hadn’t realized my drink had splashed so far.

Then I noticed that there was water all over the kitchen floor, but we couldn’t find a leak under the sink (as well there shouldn’t have been: I had the garbage disposal replaced when I moved in because it was leaking). That was when I called emergency maintenance. I went to go get dressed, since I had just been lounging around thinking about going to bed and now some guys from maintenance were coming over. En route to the bedroom, it seemed as though my shoes were tracking the wet around — that’s not right!

To my growing horror, I discovered that the carpet in the bedroom was wet and my closet was swimming. I started bagging clothes that had been on the floor and worked on moving things to higher ground. Dan was lucky that his closet pretty much stayed dry. Around this time was when Dan opened the front door to find the landing filled to the threshold — five inches deep. That certainly explained where the water came from!

Thus began my sleepless night of moving things out of the way. First maintenance drained the landing, then they called in a team of professional carpet cleaners with wet/dry vacs to suck up as much water as they could. Who knew that you could get a team of professional carpet cleaners to come out in the middle of the night? Then they set up four carpet fans around the apartment to help speed the drying process: one in the entryway, one in the living room, one in the hallway, and one in the bedroom. Four carpet fans all on high in an 800-square-foot apartment makes for a lot of noise.

I was feeling utterly exhausted and useless around 6:30am and, for lack of a place to lie down, took a three-hour nap in the car. I was amazed at how much that recharged me; I was fully functional for the entire rest of the very long day. Around noon, the carpet people came back with an industrial-strength de-humidifier, which threw a lot of heat. Maintenance told me that running the A/C would also help the drying process, so on that went. Four carpet fans, a giant de-humidifier, and the air conditioning, all day Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Ow! My electric bill!

On Tuesday they removed the high-powered equipment and steam-cleaned the carpet. To make ourselves scarce while the carpet air-dried, Dan went to work and I took my laptop to the clubhouse and played with my Sims, having done the vast majority of the laundry Saturday and Sunday. Ow, my jar of quarters. At least now the carpet is cleaner than it’s been in a while, and they need never know I spilled my drink, hur hur. :roll:

Dan and I are very lucky that nothing valuable or important was seriously damaged, although there were a few casualties such as some of my old math notes, two small rug/mats, and a contoured memory foam pillow. It has, however, driven home the fact that we are pack-rats and have way too much stuff crammed into far too small a living space. We’ve begun to cull through everything and I’ve already gotten rid of approximately one drawer’s worth of things. It’s not much, but it’s a start. I’ve taken to calling last Friday “the night I became a Buddhist” because I’m starting to realize just how true the central philosophy is: Life is suffering, and suffering comes from attachment to things. The sooner I can learn how to let go of all the random, useless junk I’ve accumulated over the years, the freer I’ll be.

It just won’t be easy.

We Now Return to the Regularly Scheduled Blog, Already in Progress

June 19, 2009
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My apologies for this unusually late — and unusually short — entry. I know I’ve been uploading every Thursday for the past 34 weeks, but when I went to upload my planned post yesterday, well, let’s just say I ran into a few technical issues. Suffice it to say that the entry I planned to post will not be posted, and I am caught in the embarrassing position of not having a proper entry this week.

The downtime did give me the opportunity to think about this blog and what I’ve been doing with it. I’m not really sure whether any change will result from this, but food for thought is always a good thing. After all, if you don’t feed your thoughts, they tend to die! One thing I am considering is changing my regular post day from Thursdays to Saturdays. You don’t mind, do you?

Til next time, happy reading!

Bad Sci-Fi, No Cookie!

June 11, 2009

I don’t exactly keep it a secret that I love fantasy and science fiction: Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, just to name a few. I grew up on Amazing Stories, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits. I have no problem with blending science fiction with fantasy. I love Piers Anthony for the way he combines the two. But as with anything, it needs to be done well.

I recently discovered that Hulu has the original Outer Limits, not just the remade series, and had a bit of a geek-gasm over it. So I sat down to watch the legendary show from its beginnings, and I was enjoying the trip back to 1963 until I hit the episode called “The Sixth Finger” (season 1, episode 5) That was when it struck me, perhaps rather belatedly, that TV writers just don’t know science. You see, while it’s true that any good story is about people and how they respond to situations they’re in, perhaps highlighting important issues in the process, what makes science fiction what it is is the science. Radical concept, I know. Magic makes fantasy, cowboys make westerns, and science makes science fiction. And bad science makes bad science fiction.

“The Sixth Finger” deals with a man who has been artificially evolved tens of thousands of years into humanity’s future, and later is reverted to his original state. Now certainly, we often wonder what Homo sapiens will look like in that far distant time, and there have been science fiction stories written where we get to see what we might look like then, through the vehicle of either time travel or simply setting the story in that time period. This is fine because time travel has not been definitively disproved, and conjecture is the backbone of all speculative fiction. But showing evolution in one person is plain old bad science fiction, because it is grounded in bad science. Evolution is not a force unto itself and has no ultimate or inevitable goal. Also, individuals don’t evolve: a species as a whole does over the course of generations.

Evolution starts with a random mutation, an accident in the DNA copying process in the earliest stages of conception, sometimes as a result of a faulty sperm or egg. Some mutations are minor and end up making little or no difference. Others can cause or lead to disfiguration, disability, or disease. Others yet can end up being useful. When organisms procreate, they pass on their mutations good, bad, and indifferent. Once enough people with a particular mutation pass it on to enough offspring, it becomes the norm, whatever that trait happens to be. Evolution has happened and the mutation is no longer considered to be such.

Evolution is “directed,” for lack of a better term, by natural selection and sexual selection. Natural selection means that if a mutation ends up being useful and gives those who have it an advantage over those who don’t, then in time it is likely that more organisms will have it than not and they will be said to have evolved in that direction. Sexual selection is a matter of organisms choosing mates based on characteristics they have. If a given set of characteristics is more desirable than others, then those who have it will be more successful in finding mates and those genes will be more likely to be passed on. In time, again, more organisms will have it than not and they will be said to have evolved in that direction. The important aspect is that an overwhelming majority have, for whatever reasons, passed on a certain trait that began as a lowly chance mutation. Evolution doesn’t always happen in a necessarily positive direction, either. Peacocks are a great example of sexual selection driving evolution into questionable territory. Peahens are attracted to the grand and brightly colored plumage, but so are predators.

Forcing evolutionary change in an individual with no selective pressures to guide it, not to mention the assumption that any given individual possesses within him the full “potential” that mankind can become, is a nice mythology, an imaginative fantasy, but it is profoundly bad science. And this episode makes it clear that we are dealing with straight science fiction, not fantasy. We’ve known the basic mechanics of evolution for a while, so I’m not entirely sure we can chalk it up to 1963. Either way, it fails to stand the test of time. The sad part is that in 1996, Star Trek: Voyager aired an episode named “Threshold” (season 2, episode 15) that dealt with Paris and Janeway evolving forward and back again.

Here’s the deal: If science fiction deals with something not well understood at the time, but later is proved to be quite different from how it’s portrayed, that simply makes that story dated. If, however, science fiction deals with something that is reasonably understood, but portrays it in a significantly different way, that makes very bad science fiction because it’s based on very bad science.

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