Eight Geeks

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Book Review - Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Well, I finished Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman a while back, and I've been mulling it over, trying to digest it. That always takes a while with his books, and especially the Amercian Gods universe stories. But I think I've finally gotten a handle on it, so here's my review:

I'll admit, I was looking forward to this book more than I had realized (even going so far as to call Ranson a jerk because he got to read it before me...sorry, man). That's in no small part because I'm just a big Neil Gaiman fan. But the adventures of Shadow and Mr. Wednesday in the original American Gods hooked me on this universe in a big way. I was looking forward to exploring it a bit more. And Gaiman doesn't disappoint, although he puts a unique spin on this second book-length foray into the world of gods made flesh.

The first book in the series was a combination of whodunit and adventure story, with a bit of self-discovery thrown in for good measure. It featured a litany of gods from around the world, and had a truly global feel, if not a global scope. Anansi Boys takes an almost 180° opposite tack, having a very narrow focus, but a globe-trotting storyline. Both books are appropriately named, and AB is all about the travails of the sons of Anansi.

Anansi Boys can be looked at in several different ways. It could be a coming of age story. It could be a journey of self-discovery. It could be an empowerment play. It could be a straight-up G vs. E story. And it's all those things, to one degree of another, but what I really think it is, is a love story.

Multiple love stories, actually, because duality is the name of the game here: two brothers, two love interests, flamboyance versus drabness, age versus youth, authority versus rebellion, male versus female, brother versus brother, parent versus child, mortality versus godhood and the big one, life versus death. The beauty of AB, though, is that all these dualities get blurred along the way. Nothing is ever as cut and dried and you think it is, and I think a story about the bloodline of Anansi is the perfect venue for making that statement.

This tale starts out with the death of Anansi, or at least the American Southeast's version of Anansi, since in the American Gods universe, people bring their gods with them, and there are multiple copies roaming different geographic areas. This Anansi leaves a son, called Fat Charlie, to continue his life. That's not all that hard, since Fat Charlie is extremely embarassed by Anansi and haslittle contact with him. I can sympathize. My father loves to sing, especially in public, and couldn't hold a tune in a bucket. I don't think I'd go so far as to shun him for it, but hey, he didn't give me a nickname like Fat Charlie, either. Through the course of the book, Charlie discovers many things about his family, including the existance of a brother, of sorts, called Spider, who gets everyone into no end of trouble. It's up to Charlie to fix things in the end. Isn't that always the way, with family?

But the narrative isn't nearly as important as the subtext in this book. We create our own gods, who then interbreed with us, and thus, we create ourselves. Thus are mortality and godhood blended together. And that's not the only blurring of dichotomous lines. Spider and Fat Charlie seem to be polar opposites, but share more than either of them know. There are hundreds of other examples, both great and small.

So why do I call it a love story, above all else? Because everything that happens throughout the entire book is due to love, in one way or another. The love of a father for his son, or vice versa. The love a brother for his sibling, even when he doesn't deserve it. The love between men and women, both living and dead. Even greed, the love of money, comes into play. So, to me at least, there are two strong themes. "Love is a powerful thing" and "Nothing is as cut and dried as it seems".

Both are good messages, I believe. Now, where's that lime...

Thursday, January 26, 2006

A Philosophy of Games

I've always been attracted to games. I don't mean your average "kid likes to play" thing; rather, games are large part of how I became who I am. They are a fundamental force in my life; an influence on my mental processes and psyche. I've been thinking a lot about it lately, and I'd like to share.

Some of my first memories of family involved card and board games. My parents taught me how to count with a deck of cards and point-counting games like rummy, dominoes, and Hi Ho! Cherry-o. They worked my memory with games like Husker Du. I don't know how much this early exposure shaped my outlook. A lot of good early memories center around games. It might have been the fact my family always seemed to have fun then. We weren't exactly a hate-fest at other times; quite the contrary. There were rough times, though, mostly money and work-stress related. I wasn't actively aware of it at such an early age, but I had to have noticed.

Even before I hit ten, I was obsessed with games of all kinds. Sports were okay, but I liked more strategic things, like chess, Tank Battle, and Carrier Strike (my brother's games, showing both a bit of hero worship and the start of a trend of him whooping my ass at military sims).

Then came the videogames.

I was hooked on arcades before I ever went to school, and between the Coleco Telstar, the Atari 2600, and the NES, it was never going to stop. Here lay the answer to my most baisc gaming problem; i.e., needing someone to play with.

As I grew, other games came and went. I was obsessed with Magic for a while, and MUDding. I had played RPGs before, but not regularly, and not with people I actually liked that much. College was really what changed all that.

You're probably starting to wonder "What's the point of this listing of crap you've played?" Well, the list isn't important. It was just to give you an idea of exactly how much of my life has been spent playing games. I've spent an enormous amount of time rolling dice, clicking mice, and getting things thrown at me for being an overcompetitive bastard.

Games are probably my key de-stressor. If I want to sit and think, or rest my mind, or clear it, I try to play a game of some kind. If I've been under a large amount of stress, to the point of getting angry for no reason, the best way to cool off is games. I admit I'm obsessed, but how did it start?

I think I latched onto games for several reasons. The social aspect of board and card games was big to me. Even when I was small, I didn't relate to others well, particularly after I skipped a grade. That throws you into a situation of not only being younger than your classmates, but you've been removed from your social group, and been set apart from your peers (being different is so great for kids, really). Games, though, have a defined social framework. There are rules that define relationships between players. You have stick within those rules for the situation mean anything, and failure to stick to the rules is a basic taboo. "Cheater" is a tag no kid wants to be saddled with. It was a situation I could work with.

Those same rules also allowed me to change who I was. I didn't have much going on the self-esteem front for most of my life. When I play games, though, I enter another world; the world of the game. Pieces and situations come to life for me. It's a place where I can put aside my insecurities and simply let loose. Even should I lose, I can divest myself of that world and move on to the next. At lot of my competitiveness comes from playing against my family, who always play to win and don't cut anyone any breaks (even a five-year-old). However, a lot of it comes from the fact that winning in that other world boosts me up in my own mind. It gives me a reason to smile. That's less of an issue these days, but the same impetus is there. The same satisfaction occurs; it is just less of a balm and more of a bonus.

I sit and reflect on this a lot. It's a hard thing to express to others. I'd like to understand how games work for others. They're so comprehensive an influence for me, I have problems seeing how trivial they might be for others. Not a lot, but it leads to the occasional loud disagreement.

What do games mean to you?

Monday, January 23, 2006

Silent Hill Movie Set In WV

I saw the trailer for the new Silent Hill movie coming out this April, and noticed something interesting. It's set in Toluca County, West Virginia. That should be interesting to see, since there IS no Toluca County, West Virginia. Ah well, I guess it fits in with the mystery/creepy factor these games all strive for.

I'm actually kind of excited by this movie. I have been ever since I heard about it. I tried to play one of the games once, and since I don't get to play much except after Aradia's off to bed and I'm on nightshift, most of my game time was after midnight in a dark house. Needless to say, I didn't finish the game. They are very creepy, and this is coming from someone who has had their creepy quotient run up through the roof by a horror-buff wife.

Orson Scott Card Disappoints With Intelligent Design Article

Orson Scott Card, relatively well-known science fiction / fantasy writer, has written an article lambasting us "Darwinists" for using bad arguments against the poor, defenseless IDiots. The bulk of it is surprising incomprehensible, especially considering his relatively crisp work as an SF author. But it becomes clear very early on that he hasn't done his research. I'd like to deal with his two most egregious mistakes, and then take a quick review of the entire piece of dreck he calls an article.

He starts out quoting Michael Behe (hehehehehe), and that's just a bad way to start any argument for anything, anytime, anywhere. Remember, this fool actually said on the stand, on record, that his definition of science would have to be so broad as to incorporate astrology. And his biology arguments are weak, to boot. Card brings up that tired old chestnut, irreducible complexity, an argument Behe himself has apparently stepped away from officially, even though he and his IDiot cronies continue to drag it out from time to time. Here's a little excerpt of Card defending Behe:

It would be impossible to believe that the entire series of steps in the complex system could randomly appear all at once. But any one step along the way, since it does nothing by itself, could not give the organism that had it any competitive advantage. So why would each of those traits persist and prevail long enough for the complex system to fall into place?

Behe's conclusion is that since complex biochemical systems in advanced organisms could not have evolved through strict Darwinian evolution, the only possible explanation is that the system was designed and put into place deliberately.

This argument has been shown time and again to be false, and not by the specious list of talking points Card quotes a bit later in his argument. For a simple, layman's refutation of the irreducible complexity argument, check out this old post by PZ Myers, of Pharyngula fame. He explains how so-called irreducible complexity might arise without Jeebus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster diddling with biology. And it's quite simple, really. Irreducible complexity is essentially this:

A man puts a ladder against his house. He then climbs up there and puts his satellite dish in place. The wind comes along and blows down his ladder, taking his satellite dish with it. He then decides to repair the hole in his roof, since he can't get down anyway. Meanwhile, a neighbor comes along and proclaims that the house must have been built with a man on the roof to repair holes, since there's no way he could have gotten up there to do it otherwise, and there's no other reason for him to be there.
That simple little analogy has apparently escaped the well-educated Card. And he apparently is getting ALL his data from Behe's crap-ass book, Darwin's Black Box, since he has never run across any of the numerous scientific refutations of IR. And this is what he harps on the most, the fact that scientists aren't standing up and taking the questions the Discovery Institute and their ilk bring up seriously. The problem is that these questions aren't capable of being taken seriously, since, among other things, THEY AREN'T TESTABLE!

Argh! When are these ignorant goobs going to stop poking their noses in where they don't belong? First it was Scott Adams weighing in, and what a fatuous gasbag he turned out to be. Now its Card. And he is even disingenous enough to try to claim that William Dembski and crew don't mean their Christian God when they talk about their unnamed Designer.

His very first section is even wrong:

A few years ago it was "Creation Science" they were trying to teach in the schools.

Creation Science was an attempt by fundamentalist Christians to give the Genesis account, as interpreted by them, a scientific veneer.

But it was only that -- a thin surface -- and any student who actually believed that Creation Science had anything to do with science would have been educationally crippled.

Now the controversy is between advocates of the theory of Intelligent Design vs. strict Darwinists. And some people want you to think it's the same argument.

It isn't.

Excuse me, Mr. Card, but it is. Have you even heard of the Kitzmiller trial in Dover, PA? I mean, it was established early on that the textbook in question had a hasty rewrite that was essentially cutting the words "Creation Science" out and replacing them with the words "Intelligent Design". How is that not the same thing? I defy you to explain that, you goob.

Here is the complete list of his IDiot talking points:

1. Intelligent Design is just Creation Science in a new suit (name-calling).
2. Don't listen to these guys, they're not real scientists (credentialism).
3. If you actually understood science as we do, you'd realize that these guys are wrong and we're right; but you don't, so you have to trust us (expertism).
4. They got some details of those complex systems wrong, so they must be wrong about everything (sniping).
5. The first amendment requires the separation of church and state (politics).
6. We can't possibly find a fossil record of every step along the way in evolution, but evolution has already been so well-demonstrated it is absurd to challenge it in the details (prestidigitation).
7. Even if there are problems with the Darwinian model, there's no justification for postulating an "intelligent designer" (true).

Number 1. we've already dealt with. It is not name-calling. It's a legitimate argument.
Number 2. is not credentialism, since these people are trying to pass themselves off as scientists to people who might not know better, like sf authors, apparently.
Number 3. we've also already dealt with. PZ and others deal with their bogus arguments on a daily basis.
Number 4. speaks to the credibility of the person making the argument. If you are saying the system is too complex, but you show an obvious lack of understanding of the system, then you can't be making a legitimate argument.
Number 5. is accurate, and since Behe, Dembski and various others have all admitted publicly that they believe their oh-so-carefully unnamed designer is the Christian God, and since their crap-ass textbook is just a rehash of an unreleased Creation Science textbook, this is a valid argument.
Number 6. is a bit incomprehensible to me. I don't know where he's getting this one. While it's true that evolution as a whole has been proven to be quite robust, I can't think of a reputable biologist that doesn't have a stance on several different arguments that are currently ongoing within the evolutionary study field. The details of evolutionary theory will never be completely hashed out. No scientist actually says this. What they do say is that the arguments brought forth by IDiots are "God of the gaps" arguments, and thus unworthy of attention.
Number 7. is his sop to "neutrality" and it doesn't wash.

All in all, the article just rehashes these points again and again, but one section just jumps out at me as especially stupid. It deals with Number 5. above, at least in theory:

The church and state argument is deliberately misleading. First, the Designists are not, in fact, advocating "God." They are very careful not to specify who or what the Intelligent Designer might be. So they are not advocating for any particular religion, or any religion at all. For all anyone knows, the supposed Intelligent Designers might be an alien species of mortal, ungodlike beings.

To the Darwinists, of course, this is hypocrisy and deception -- of course the Designists are religious. They must be. Because only religious people would ever question the Darwinist model.

It comes to this: If you question the Darwinist model, you must be religious; therefore your side of the argument is not admissible in the public arena, and certainly not in the public schools.

This is an attempt to shut down discussion by hiding behind the Constitution. It's what you do when you're pretty sure you can't win on the merits.

First off, lay off the stupid pills. Yes, they are advocating their God. That's been pretty well established. They bend over backwards to claim to not know who their designer is, and then spread the information far and wide that they believe it to be Jehovah. And the alien argument is just silly. None of the real movers and shakers in the IDiot community believe this.

And not just religious people challenge evolution. There has been plenty of non-religious challenge to the Theory, and it has weathered it all, because it's robust. Not because it's fragile and we're overprotective mother-hens. This is just insulting.

Card then wanders on for a while with some drawn-out comparison of evolution to Christopher Columbus. I'm not sure what he was saying there, since there are not very many strict Darwinist biologists any more. Most are neo-Darwinists, at least, if not other, more advanced but unnamed factions. Evo-devo is a huge field and it has plenty of proponents of different views, and none of them feel the desire to attach snappy titles to their ideas, since they feel they'll stand or fall on their merits, not their names.

He finishes off with a preachy little sop to his so-called neutrality that falls flat, mostly because it ends with a profession of his own personal religious faith. I'll not even dignify it with more words.
All in all, a major disappointment from an otherwise good author. I doubt I'll be dishing anymore cash into his pockets, at least any time soon. This guy should really do his homework better.

(cross-posted to Revolvo Inritus)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Free will...?

I've been thinking about this concept for years now. Science has been able to explain how our mind works using the laws of physics. Our thinking is caused by the firing of neurons in our brains. Every single mental process can be reduced to a pattern of firing neurons. If this is true, then my mind is like a bunch of billiard balls bouncing off each other. How these billiard balls started bouncing around were determined by where I was born, genetics, and a host of other factors.
What this means is that my path in life has already been determined by events that occurred before my birth. That means we only have the illusion of "free will" or the ability to control ourselves, when in reality everything we do is the result of a determined set of conditions. If everything we do has already been determined by things outside our control, then that relieves us of all responsibility. Just because we feel like we're responsible for something doesn't mean we are. Feeling responsible can be no more than an illusion, besides, many people can feel responsible for somebody's death even if there is no rational reason for it. If it is true that our mind can be reduced to the random bouncing of billiard balls, it appears that we have no rational reason to feel responsible for anything.
This brings up another point. Let's say the billiard balls interact randomly. That means that their final state cannot be determined by their original state. Some contend that this opens the door to free will. However, it just means that our mind is reduced to millions of neuronal dice. Instead of free will, we end up with random will. Someone who's decision making is at the whim of neuronal dice is hardly in control of their faculties.
So it looks as though free will is a figment of our imagination. But then I must ask myself, with this insight into human behavior, should we feel responsible for anything since it was outside our control to begin with?

Carnival Of The Godless #32

COTG #32 is up! Check it out. This is the last post of the first year's posts. Happy birthday, COTG!

(cross-posted to Revolvo Inritus)

Aradia's Underworld: Evolution Review

It being my birthday and all, Aradia and I went out to see Underworld: Evolution today. It was a really cool movie. Here's Aradia's review. Being a vampire nut, I'm sure she says it better than I ever could.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Snape Isn't Evil!

At least one other person thinks that Severus Snape isn't a villain, according to this MSN article. I haven't looked much at Internet resources, but personally, I'm convinced that A. Snape is not the bad guy that he appears to be from the kids' perspective, B. he didn't actually kill Dumbledore and C. he's actually trying to do his best for all the kids at Hogwarts, even Harry, Ron and Hermione. I think he hates it that he's in a position where he has to be responsible for James Potter's kid, but he takes his responsibilities seriously.

Do you disagree?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Wheel Of Time dolls

Yes, I said dolls. No, I don't care what you're thinking. They're truly beautiful, one-of-a-kind works of art, and they deserve to be seen and admired. Check out the artist here, and to see the WoT specific ones, go to Gallery 2. Sadly, because of griefers, you'll have to enter your email address, but it's not a big deal, and it's well worth the minor aggravation. These things are amazing, and put an interesting set of faces on the books I've been reading for almost two decades now.

BTW, I'll be starting in on Knife of Dreams soon and will review this penultimate WoT book as soon as I slog through....ummm....finish reading it. I'm also almost finished with Anansi Boys and half-way through Dark Lord.

Expect reviews.

Nifty Weather Picture

Here's one for Philoman:

Minnesota Roll Cloud

Archeology And Biology

You don't often think of those two things working in close concert, but here's a nifty little article about how the author used them hand in hand to explain a small mystery that goes back almost 2000 years.

The link is here: Snail's Tales

(Via Abnormal Interests)

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Webcomic Redux

To Ranson's list, I'd like to add this webcomic, that rocks beyond belief: Sluggy Freelance!
It has way too much backstory to read through, but it does the best Harry Potter ripoffs of all time, and Torg introduced me to the concept of emergency pants.

Defenders of the Nifty unite!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Webcomic screen

In the beginning, I was spending a lot of time on The Fantasy Powers League, and a regular there put up an ad in in his forum signature. The ad led to his webcomic Exploitation Now. EN was raunchy and hilarious; a real and popular triumph for artist Michael Poe. Former lawyer/pornstar Bimbo Moneymaker teamed with with small weird thing Ralph (for legal reasons, we can't call him a Moog -- er, little guy from Final Fantasy. You'll know when you see him). EN eventually found a plot and real character development, which is when most people felt the strip went downhill. The comic ended a few years ago. Several printed versions exist, although they were hard to get even when they were forst in print. There seems to be a new coffee-table color edition for sale. In all, I'd recommend it for a good, adult-themed read.

Searching for more items in that vein, I came across the early days of Megatokyo. Rodney Caston was still writing the strip with Fred Gallagher at the time. Megatokyo had good art, and a deep, funny plot. It ranged between gags and character development. Fred took over not long after I started reading, and the next couple of years were pretty good. He seems to have been weighed down by plot threads and self-importance. I still read, but stretched out storylines and constant lateness mean I'm more likely to read a few months in one sitting than check out its theoretical three-a-week schedule.

I drifted across 8-Bit Theater while searching links on Final Fantasy. A "sprite comic" that uses art from the original Final Fantasy, the real draw on this comic is the writing. Brian Clevinger, while very loosely following the plot of the game, has woven a deeply hilarious tale that is still ongoing. While many criticize the use of sprite art in webcomics, Clevinger has built some serious Photoshop skills over the years, creating a massive body of real art alongside Square Enix's sprites. It's a world that gamers, D&D junkies, or anyone who's ever liked a Three Stooges short can appreciate.

Clevinger's website also held a great deal of other comedy material, including columns written by "Red Mage", Clevinger's friend Brian Sosa. Sosa and others are part of their own website Side Quest. Side-Quest has a variety of comics, reviews, small games, and a set of forums that I am highly active on (see the blogroll). The real gem, however is True Life Adventures of Brian and Sosa, a crudely drawn, surreal romp. It's update schedule is approximately "never to sometime", but what there is constitutes a well of hilarity. Side Quest also features several other good comics, so be sure to browse around.

Another related comic is the weekly VG Cats by Scott Ramsoomair. Scott provides us with gaming commentary and humor that is both biting and hilarious, with some really skillful art along the way. My icon for this blog is one of Scott's characters, the recently deceased Dr. Hobo.

Speaking of gaming comics, we can't fail to mention Penny Arcade, the Gold Standard of webcomics. These are the big boys of the webcomics world, a tri-weekly force of nature that offers both satire and poop jokes, while raising more than a million dollars for charity in the past few years. Gabe and Tycho are the ambassadors for gamers and webcomics the world over. Whether or not that's a good thing, they haven't decided yet.

Jon Rosenberg's Goats is closing in on a decade of existence, and it's been great from beginning to end. I of course recommend reading the archives of every stip I've mentioned, but Goats is the most consistently funny. Be sure to have a lot of time for belly laughs set aside when you read.

Speaking of long archives, we can't forget one of the other leaders of webcomics in general, Scott Kurtz's PvP. Less consistently funny over the years, but capable of sustaining interest and reinventing itself on a whim, PvP is an indicator of where the webcomic winds are blowing. Kurtz is a master of promotion and controversy, but he turns out a consistent product, day after day, as well as rewriting and repackaging material for print publishing through Image.

One of the people teaming with Kurtz on those print comics is Aaron Williams, and experienced humorist and illustrator that publishes two print comics of his own, as well as strips for the D&D family of magazines. He also puts out two web strips: Nodwick (see the blogroll), a medieval/D&D romp that is also the subject of one of his print comics, and Full Frontal Nerdity, a weekly look into the lives of four gamers that turns a sharp wit on the worlds of gaming and geekdom. This guy is one of my favorites, both online and in print, and I encourage you to visit his site and buy things. Lots of things.

I'd like to end with one of the most consistent daily stips ever, a humorous and plot-driven strip called General Protection Fault. GPF is a great strip, deserving another long archive read. It's fun to note that the creator, Jeff Darlington, is married to a college friend of Coralius and myself. Jeff makes a great strip, and I encourage you to check it out.

Wow. Long post. That's what we're here for, though, so stay tuned! Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Welcome To Eight Geeks

The name is short for Eight Geeks In A Duffel Bag, which plays off of the movie Eight Heads In a Duffel ....oh hell. If you don't get it, you don't get it. Pfah on you!

There will be a lot of different views around here, and while we only have three members right now, that will change, I can assure you. We will incorporate others.

I guess you could view us as a sort of Panda's Thumb for every kind of geek, not just science geeks. Or not, as you wish. I'm sure Ranson and Ph1lom4n have different views of what it'll be, and they're welcome to post them. That's the whole point here. And the counterpoint.