Friday, March 21, 2014

The Nature of Stories

"Stories come naturally to us.  We can't help it.  There are many different worlds, many competing realities within our heads, fueled by books, television, even barely remembered childhood tales.  There's an endless supply of fictional concepts more familiar to us than anything or anyone real.  We have a far greater connection to the fictional characters we know and love than the random people we pass on the street.  Our destinies and inspirations are shaped by lies, myths and fables."

--Alan Wake (American Nightmare)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

And the word of the year award goes to....

Lots of people pick a word for the day, or even a word of the week.

But what about a word for the year?

If you could pick one word to describe the past year, what would it be?  It could be something that encompasses your life, your work in progress, or just a concept you keep running into on the net.  But the key is to not use any descriptions.  Just a word.

Mine = Dystopian

What’s yours?

Friday, September 14, 2012

With An Eccentric Eye (Factotum)

I'm going to try and make at least one post a month devoted to an odd film I've watched.  Seeing as how I've got quite the backlog on my Netflix Instant Queue this shouldn't be a problem.  These might be 'foreign' films (I use the term loosely since the web audience is obviously global) or art-house films, or quirky little dramas that few have heard about.  But they will without fail be films that won't appeal to everybody.  And just because I think a film is discussion-worthy for the purposes of this blog doesn't make it a blanket endorsement.  Nor should these be considered reviews.  I just feel that there are a lot of odd, quirky films that aren't blockbusters that have a lot to say.  Or, at the very least, will make you go, "Hmmm?"  What can I say, I love the underdog.  I hope this will be a section where those who are fed up with run-into-the-ground formulaic movies (don't get me wrong, I love a good action flick) will be able to get ideas for new things to watch.

Sometimes I may go in-depth with the movie, or it may simply be a suggestion to watch along with an observation or two.  But it will always be eccentric.  At least to my eye.  And my eyes have seen some pretty bizarre stuff in my time on this planet.

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The first film up for discussion is called 'Fac-to-tum.'  The byline reads "a man who preforms many jobs," which is very appropriate, though I think they meant to say 'performs,' but that could be a typo on the part of Netflix.  The movie is from 2005 and stars Matt Dillon as Henry Chinaski, a would-be writer in World War II-era America.  Somewhat raunchy at times, it's about a writer who constantly sends off short stories for publication while searching for his muse in women and booze, and gets fired from pretty much every job he goes to.  It's for the most part a serious look inside one writer's life, but does have a couple laugh-out-loud moments.

I think one of the reasons I found this movie interesting was because it's based on a novel by Charles Bukowski.  There are three specific scenes in the movie that I'm going to quote below.  I haven't read the book to verify this, but I can imagine the director likely took them verbatim from the text.

These are internal dialogues of the main character where we, the viewer, get to hear what Henry is thinking.  They are taken from different sections of the film, usually when he is sitting at a desk writing or getting ready to send off a submission.  (Dillon does an excellent job doing the voice-over for these.)  I thought the quotes portrayed an interesting take on the starving-artist mentality that is so prolific in our culture.  But they also left me with a feeling that I can only describe as "The Courage to Write."  I wanted to post them here so those who don't feel like watching the movie or reading the book can benefit from them, and also so those who have seen the movie can comment.

Enjoy.  Discuss.  Or don't.  You choose.  Or don't choose.  (But then you'll never find out what happens to the cat, will you?  Schrodinger's cat, that is.)

 "As we live we all get caught and torn by various traps.  Writing can trap you; some writers tend to write but as please their readers in the past.  They hear accolades and believe them.  There is only one final judge of writing and that is the writer.  When he is swayed by the critics, the editors, the publishers, the readers, then he's finished.  And, of course, when he's swayed with his fame and his fortune you can float him down the river with the turds."

"Even at my lowest times I could feel the words bubbling inside of me.  And I had to get the words down or be overcome by something worse than death.  Words not as precious things but as necessary things.  Yet when I begin to doubt my ability to work the word, I simply read another writer and then I know I have nothing to worry about.  My contest is only with myself to do it right, with power and force and delight, and gamble."

"If you're going to try, go all the way.  Otherwise don't even start.  This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives, jobs, and maybe your mind.  It could mean not eating for three or four days, it could mean freezing on a park bench, it could mean jail, it could mean derision, it could mean mockery, isolation.  Isolation is the Gift; all the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it, and you'll do it, despite rejection in the worst odds, and it will be better than anything else you can imagine.  If you're going to try, go all the way.  There is no other feeling like that; you will be alone with the gods and the nights will flame with fire.  You will ride life straight to perfect laughter.  It's the only good fight there is."

(I wrote down each of these by listening to the film, so any errors are mine.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Teasing the Threads of Truth (From the Eternal Consumption Engine)

I am very disorganized.  I think it is part of my nature, though I am trying to change that, or at least form new habits that overwrite that behavior.  So when it came time to compose this post (which I have made a personal goal to do at least weekly), I decided to try to put together a few ideas that have been kicking around for a while in an attempt to arrange them in some semblance of mental coherency.

The first thing that came to mind was this picture:

Steve Wozniak reveals contents of his backpack, has a lot of stuff

While this collection may be a bit excessive (and more tech than most of us can afford at any given time), it really shows the various ways in which we use electronic devices.  Technology impacts our lives whether we're aware of it or not.  The choice we have then is to decide if we are going to let it overwhelm us, or if we are going to attempt to understand it well enough to make it work for us.  Granted, we don't have to know how the computer chip in our car makes it more fuel efficient; we have mechanics who are quite happy to charge us exorbitant sums of our hard-earned dollars to do that for us.  But while our lives seem to get faster and faster and information (and its exchange) occurs more rapidly, we can use it to help us become more organized.

There's that nasty word_thought again: organization.  Clutter doesn't just pervade my life - it has become my friend.  That's not to say I'm a slob.  I'm actually quite a germaphobe about things like sanitizing my hands after going into a store or when preparing food at home.  But I recently moved into a smaller place and it has forced me to come face to face with how much clutter I actually have and how I need to do something about it.  So far the only thing that has changed is that I now step over my piles instead of around them.  o_O

My piles

So what am I going to do about it?  My first thought was to get a secretary, but that costs money, something not in great abundance right now.  Posting on this blog is actually helping me somewhat in that regard.  It gives me an outlet for some of the random thoughts that don't have a specific place in my current novel or that I can't yet see fitting into a future novel.  But that doesn't stop me from moving my assorted stacks around, shuffling them from one side of the room to the other when I need to get at something.  Again, don't get me wrong - I'm not one of those people you see on Hoarders or read about in the news who have 900 cats in a 1,000 square foot home.

One thing I've done which has revolutionized my life is buy one of these:

The Samsung Galaxy Note
Now I've never been much of an Apple or iPhone fan, and have used Android smartphones almost since their inception, so the leap wasn't as huge as it might be for some.  However, this little (or large, depending on your POV) device is what spurred me to leave Verizon, a company whom I had been with for years and likely would have stayed with for years to come, and switch to AT&T even though I was only 1 year into a 2-year contract.

Crazy, perhaps.

But I am so happy with this phone and it has helped me keep much more organized *gasp* in my daily activities.  Of course, organization is relative with me.  One could argue that now I just have more places for my clutter.  Instead of physical pieces of paper with notes jotted all over them I now have S-Notes in my phone that are in constant disarray.  But at least it is one step closer to getting rid of my piles.  And they don't call it a 'phablet' for nothing.  In my opinion, it is the perfect combination of a phone and a tablet.  Smartphones have become so similar in what they can do that I never dreamed I would leave a cell provider for a DEVICE; normally I would choose a carrier (or stay with one) because of the SERVICE(S) they offered.

This slender doohickey is not for everyone.  For those concerned about the size and all that, I'm not going to go into all the details because there are plenty of reviews available on the interwebs.  But the Note does a large variety of things and does most of them quite well.  Or rather, it gives you the power to perform those tasks in a wonderfully open environment that is there for you to explore should you choose.  Which ties into where I see technology going (and why I started this ramble in the first place).  I think the devices we use in our lives, whether that be a PC, Laptop, Tablet, Phone, Xbox, or PlayStation, have gotten to such a mass-producible state that the next couple generations of tech are no longer going to be distinguished by WHAT a device does but instead by HOW MANY THINGS one single device can do.

I've had the Galaxy Note for a few months now and have not looked back once.  Even though ICS has been available for a good month or more (for us American users), I finally just downloaded it tonight.  My procrastination wasn't from lack of excitement for the update, but more due to the fact that it required me to hook the phone up to my computer with a physical cable, a task that seemed equivalent to walking up forty flights of stairs in a world where almost every piece of tech I own is wireless.  I'm sure that says something about what technology has done to us, though I'm not sure it's good.  Now I just have to cross that off my to-do list, except I'm not sure which to-do list I wrote it on, as those are either on the phone itself or somewhere among (yep, you guessed it!) one of my piles (IRONY IMITATES LIFE).

As much as I tend to geek out about it, the phone is not perfect.  The S-Pen is not as precise as Samsung would have you believe when it comes to drawing.  However, I have been able to doodle in ways I haven't before, especially on the fly or when waiting in line, someplace I'd normally never have access to the tools for that kind of creative outlet.  I've also had the courage to sketch out ideas for the cover of my book on the phone, and I'll be the first to admit my drawing skills are completely and utterly inadequate.  Ok, I suck at drawing.  

Random Phone Doodle

The pen works quite well when it comes to recognizing your handwriting, and even seems to pick up cursive better than longhand at times.  I left my stylus (sorry, Samsung) I mean, my S-Pen at home the other day and had to thumb-type out a text message.  Felt like I was back in the stone-age.  When you think about how much faster most people can type as opposed to write with their hand, the S-Pen might seem like a step backwards.  However, when compared to pecking at letters on a screen with one or two digits, it's much quicker.  And much smoother than writing on an actual sheet of paper.  So while I'm impressed with it's abilities as a phone, texting device, e-reader, etc., I think we'll see other more efficient methods of input as technology advances.  And I'm not sure voice recognition is the best answer either (unless it does eventually go sub-vocal).

Anyway, this was not intended to be a review of a phone.  Rather, I wanted to use the Galaxy Note as one of the prime examples of how one piece of technology can perform a vast array of tasks for a modest cost.  Those truly hardcore about digital drawing will find better alternatives out there, though at a much higher entry fee.  And I could never use the Note to write an article as long as this.  But like I said earlier, the device streamlines the various activities that I do in a day into one single place that is with me all the time.  Since technology is such a part of my life, I figure I might as well make it work for me as much as I can.

And hopefully one day I'll find a phone that will zap all of my piles into microcosmic dust and I won't have to worry about getting organized.

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I don't claim to be an expert on technology, though I am a voracious consumer of it.  So I would welcome your thoughts and ideas on the subject.  Where do you see technology headed?  Are there any pieces of tech you're excited to see?  Anything out right now that you geek out about or that helps your life?  Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Culture Shock

Culture.  What does the word mean to you?  Is it the way someone dresses?  The way they speak?  Does the way others behave sometimes offend you?  Are you still shocked after you find out that their actions were representative of a belief system ingrained in them since before birth?  However, what if you're not on the outside looking in; what if you wake up one day and find yourself suddenly submersed in a completely foreign society where not only do you not understand a word of what the people are saying, but the people are fifteen foot tall green aliens with four arms?

My stepping stone for this discussion is the movie John Carter of Mars.  (I refuse to omit the reference to the red planet in the title even though the director and/or studios did, but that's a complete subtopic in itself...)  Suffice it to say, for a movie that has such a lighthearted shell, the filling of the film was thoughtfully epic.  I have to admit I did not see this movie in the theatre.  Even though I didn't know much about it at the time except what I saw on the previews, I was worried Disney was 'dumbing down' what I consider to be a classic series of stories.  So when the film arrived via Netflix the other day, I began the viewing with hopeful skepticism.

For those unfamiliar with the story (or, like me, read the novel(s) when you were growing up but don't remember much about them), the film is largely based on A Princess of Mars (1917), the first in a series of eleven novels to feature the interplanetary hero John Carter. In both print and film John Carter is a former American Civil War Confederate Army officer who is mysteriously teleported through a cave in the desert to Mars, which is known to its inhabitants as Barsoom.

Does the film contain a few cheesy moments?  Yes.  Do you have to be a sci-fi fan to enjoy it?  No, because the story, while extremely well-visualized, walks that fine line between science and mythology (the original novels are often classified as science fantasy).  In fact, one of the reasons I was hesitant to see this one in the theatre was because I felt the Tharks (one of the main alien species on Barsoom) looked too much like the Genosians from Star Wars.  However, if you have any interest in culture/world building and are willing to sit down and take this movie for what it is, then I think it may prove to be an entertaining view.

Some reviewers called the film "convoluted."  While John Carter of Mars does have a couple different plot lines running through it, I found it to be refreshing in today's world of cookie cutter blockbusters.  It also makes repeated viewing more enjoyable as you get more out of it after familiarizing yourself with some of the basics.  One important distinguishment to understand at the beginning is the ships from the city Helium fly with a blue flag and the Zodangan ships hoist red flags.  Sounds simple enough, but given that the ships on either side look identical (think Y-Wing type bodies but they fly with the forked section forward) and the ensuing battle is cut together in very quick sequences, it can get confusing who is doing what to whom.

Even though John Carter travels to Mars relatively quickly in the film, it isn't until forty minutes in that he hears the voice of Barsoom and is able to understand what they are saying.  There is so much going on up until that point that the audience is kept in the loop with the use of subtitles, which I thought was a bold move considering this is a special-effects blockbuster.  Speaking of special effects, the Tharks are indeed somewhat similar in appearance to the Genosians, but they don't have wings, nor do they fly (even in ships).  They are also much better animated.  Andrew Stanton, director of the animated Pixar hits WALL-E and Finding Nemo, uses many close-up shots where we get to see, feel, and understand them as living sentient creatures.  Tharks have two sets of arms which aren't there just to make them aesthetically different from humans; in more than one instance we see them displaying functional gestures using the full accompaniment of limbs.

Stanton's eye for detail belays his pedigree with Pixar.  Even at the film's outset, when Edgar visits his deceased uncle's study, the room is filled with enough artifacts and curiosities to make Laura Croft jealous.

The notes, diagrams, and pictures on the wall from Carter's world-wide digs show a much better picture of who he was than the estate attorney ever could.  Embellishments such as these are what made the Martian cultures so fascinating.  The ships of Helium and Zodanga are as detailed as they are massive.  The princess' sprawling throne room is as breath-taking as her body art.  I spotted differences in the way the Thark females dressed from the males, and everything from their tools to their weapons had a production level I haven't seen since the LOTR trilogy.  But all of this just serves to set up the insights we get into their respective civilizations.

The uniqueness of these cultures extends beyond the dress and architecture and into their behavior, a territory not many directors take the time to delve into, especially in genre films.  We get to see the Tharks in their larval stage, watch as they are brought back from the hatchery to the village and released.  The women not only race to scoop one up, but are so desperate for child-rearing that they actually fight over a baby at one point.  Amidst all the chaos we get to know Sola, feel for what happens to her when she commits a 'crime,' and through her we learn about the punishment system employed by her species.

Some of the details I mentioned (and many I didn't) are hidden in the background or shown in glimpses while the focus is on the action to maintain the flow of the movie.  But the important part is that the details are there, which lends the world of Barsoom authenticity and believability.  Often in sci-fi (or any type of culture-building), one has to give at least some thought to what that race or people considers beautiful (see Veronica Sicoe's article: 13 Aspects About Aliens You Shouldn’t Ignore).  This concept was brought to mind not only throughout the film, but punctuated by Tars Tarkas somewhat humorous words when the Jeddak says to John Carter: "You are ugly, but you are beautiful."

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If you are interested in studying various cultures or want to do more research for your WIP, author Juliette Wade has several interesting blogs about culture on her site, TalkToYoUniverse, and one of my favorites can be found here.