Update

It has been awhile since I updated this site, so I should probably say something now that the situation has come to my attention.

I have two forthcoming articles now; the one in Rhetorica and another, co-authored, in Business and Professional Communication Quarterly.

This semester I’ve been working on a new article about Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s The New Rhetoric. It has been a very difficult piece to write, quite possibly the toughest I’ve encountered. Normally it takes me about a semester to write a new article, but as this spring is almost over, I will have to admit defeat in this case. The difficulty lies not in finding a line of argument, which I have found and I’m confident about, but in the supporting materials; there are very few people talking about what I’m discussing due to certain assumptions in the very core of the discipline of rhetoric. This translates into a disturbing lack of citations that I’m simply not used to. My first article had over 100 citations, and I’ve come to think that I need at least a decent fraction of that to proceed further. More simply put, I am feeling alone in the woods on this one and progress is slow. It may take me until the fall to finish, as I typically don’t do much writing over the summer for various idiosyncratic reasons.

In other news, this is the year that I go up for tenure. I turn in my application in early October. I have been pretty proactive in gathering up materials in the last year or so, so it should be a relatively simple matter of scanning documents (the file is completely online these days, as I understand it) and placing them in the proper order.

This semester is almost done, but I am scheduled to teach in the summer once again (June) for my usual two sections of Business and Technical Report Writing. They are both early morning classes, M-TH.

Thief

Concerning the new Thief game, Kotaku is flat-out negative, while RPS is more sanguine. Here’s another negative one. I can’t say I’m surprised it’s getting mixed-to-negative reviews. Anything more would be a miracle. But I’m in the mood where I could accept a flawed gem.

In any case, there is the Dark Mod to play, which I tried out last week. If the mainline game fails to meet expectations, I’ll be running through the fan missions that seem popular from the forum discourse. To be honest, I’ll do that anyway, regardless.

Reading again

I ordered a bunch of scifi books to read last week, because the gaming front has been slow (mostly waiting for the new Thief in late February) and I felt like it. I haven’t exactly been plowing through bestsellers in the last ten years, so it is going to take me awhile to discover who among the current crop  is good and who isn’t. That is always the most frustrating part of reading books for me – the uncertain quality of authors I haven’t read. Will the experience be worth the three-four hours it takes me to devour a novel? Reading journal articles is a little more profitable in that light, because they’re shorter and I can read the beginning and the end near-simultaneously without feeling cheated.

Most of the books have arrived already. I picked them by reading lists of ‘best in 2013′. I read three this weekend: The Frozen Sky by Jeff Carlson, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, and Brilliance by Marcus Sakey. They are three very different books, but because I read them more or less at the same time I can’t help but compare them against one another.

The Frozen Sky is a first contact story set on Europa. It is a hard scifi thriller, meaning there are more ideas and action than character. All we really learn about the protagonist is that she is determined, which goes without saying. Of the first contact genre, it is of the ‘can we talk to them meaningfully’ type. So I didn’t find it sufficiently original, though it was written competently. The challenge with hard scifi is linking it to a actual rather than puppet protagonist.

Ancillary Justice was more interesting. It is about a troopship AI that is reduced to inhabiting just one of its  many previously simultaneously operating parts – a ‘corpse soldier’ or ancillary – after the ship and all the rest of its ancillaries are destroyed. The motivation is revenge – seeking out those who destroyed the ship. Lots of discussion of ethics. Also interesting was the treatment of gender. The ruthless yet principled and music-loving AI is very bad at discerning gender, and refers to everyone as ‘she’, which can make for some frustrating but enjoyable reading. An original book, I think, with the author worth sampling again.

Brilliance was light sci-fi. Its plot is basically the X-men with a helping of Heroes. In the early eighties one in a hundred babies are born ‘brilliant’ – having some kind of advanced cognitive ability. The government attempts to control the most powerful of these with NSA-like agencies, killing some and indoctrinating the rest from an early age. The protagonist is one of these ‘abnorms’, able to see patterns, especially body gestures, with uncanny accuracy.  He works for the government but – unfortunately in a predictable way – finds himself having problems holding to that allegiance. I thought this was the best written and most enjoyable of the three books – it had a steady flow to it – but in many ways the least original and most predictable. Sakey has written some other things, which might be better.

I’ll write some more about the other books as I have time. I’m working on a very difficult article this semester, one I’m not sure is even going to get finished, and that among other problems has occupied my thoughts lately.

The Last of Us

I finished The Last of Us the other day on the PS3.

It is a very, very good game, one of the best I’ve ever encountered, but kinda rough on the emotions. It’s going to take some processing before I’m ready to play anything like it again. It is probably the most violent game I have ever played, and I use the word ‘violent’ in the emotional sense as well as the physical. Playing it for a few hours sends you on a bit of roller-coaster of fear and apprehension. My jaw hurt after each session, because I’d been unconsciously clenching my teeth while playing. That is immersion.

Saying even a little about the game here will easily spill over into spoiler-territory. H, watching me play, was less apprehensive  simply by virtue of reading the Wikipedia page and thus revealing the important plot points. I did not and experienced it directly. I can’t say if some advance warning for certain parts of the game might have helped with the mental bruising. I doubt it; it’s a very visceral experience.

So brief spoilers for those having played follow.

Obviously the opening sequence is particularly brutal and sets the tone of the entire game – bad things are going to happen. That said, the sequence below the hotel where you have to start up the generator was pretty scary, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t felt before. The death of the little kid and his brother was horrific, but I saw it coming.

What really disturbed me, though, was the entire sequence in the abandoned restaurant, with David stalking Ellie. Now Ellie had more than taken care of herself up until that point – and continued to do so – but for god’s sake, she’s still 14. The real tragedy of that particular version of a zombie apocalypse is not humans killing other humans – that’s always going to happen – but 14-year-olds having to kill, and do it alone, as she does with David. Not to say that anything Joel does – murder, torture, etc – is automatically somehow more acceptable – he’s older, is all.

The ending, I thought, was particularly effective. There’s no big boss fight, no Ellie-kills-Joel or Joel-kills-Ellie. Just a quiet moment of realization about how complicated their relationship has become, to the point that Joel lies to her and she lies – at least in my mind – about believing it.

Saga

What’s in a word? Quite a bit of money. I’ve written about Candy Crush Saga here before. Now King has gone and done something with the boatloads of money it has earned from its titles that deserves major opprobrium: try to push around a indie PC studio whose game has nothing to do with clicking on candy. Stoic’s game, The Banner Saga, isn’t an iOS game. It’s an epic Viking narrative that I’ve played that actually knows what the word ‘saga’ means. Completely different market, type, platform, you name it. No way anyone’s ever going to confuse the two things – save a lawyer.

Oddly enough, giving someone a taste of power – in this particular example, a Scrooge McDuck level of money – transforms what should be the relatively ethical enterprise of making games into “defending trademark,” which is, I argue, an essentially odious activity that has zero to do with being human. Now King does face a real problem in that they are facing copycat titles that attempt to associate themselves with their brand. What do I have to say to that? Tough cookies.  It must be difficult to swim in that vault full of cash. So sad!

Temping and unions

This story reminds me of a union drive when I was a temp.

Right before I starting teaching as a TA in graduate school in Memphis, 2003-2004, I spent some time as a temp at a company called Solectron that repaired laptops, printers, and Xboxes. I made about $10.50 an hour doing warranty repair on a variety of IBM Thinkpads and some Gateway laptops. With a BA and experience as a technical editor and writer, I was taking a pretty big hit to the paycheck, but jobs were hard to find and I had retreated back to Memphis, ready to accept anything that came along.

It was a bit like I would imagine working in an medieval guild; in the middle of a huge warehouse, we sat closely together at long work benches and had the laptops delivered to us on wheeled racks throughout the day. I usually worked the 7-4 shift. The job was very fast-paced. We were trained to fix a laptop in less than an hour; we practiced by taking apart and putting back together various models over and over until the motions became second nature. To this day I could take apart a T or X series in seconds. And we needed that speed, because while I was there, we went from 8 laptops fixed in a day to 10 and sometimes 12. Older workers told me it had used to be 6. There was constant pressure to increase productivity, because as I understood it through rumors that swept across the warehouse floor from bench to bench, as well as official pronouncements, that Solectron wasn’t doing well and had mishandled its contract negotiations with IBM and Compaq and HP and Microsoft, leaving scant money for temps, especially hiring them full-time. So I figured out that speed and accuracy would help me keep my job, but the chance of a raise or advancement was zero. At one point I was the fastest repairer in the IBM section, but I deliberately slowed down, realizing (too slowly for my taste, looking back) that I was getting nothing out of it.

Anyway, at one point while I was there, a union drive started. It was limited to the full-timers; the many temps would not get a vote. In any case, FTers and temps were steered into rooms where we watched some really bad anti-union videos and were lectured on the evils of unions, including the reality that the plant would close if the union was let in – what the article above calls a “captive audience meeting.” I said nothing; I needed my job a little longer until I had 18 graduate hours and could teach, and as a temp,  I couldn’t vote anyway. In any case, the union drive failed by a huge margin.

I took another pay cut when I left; teaching as a TA at the UofM, while a lot of fun, paid perhaps half that of temping, and provided no summer employment, which I always had to scramble for.

I’m not saying my time as a temp was bad – it filled a space when I really needed work, allowed me to maintain an apartment and a car, and mostly worked with a night graduate school schedule – but I was well underpaid, as I’m sure that Amazon pickers and other warehouse employees are.

Happy holidays

It’s a pretty lazy holidays for me so far. I’m sitting here with the dogs at my feet, doing some ancillary reading for a spring project. Tomorrow we go see my mother and stepfather and grandmother, which is good.

Some other good news recently – another accepted article, this time at Rhetorica (see the About page) – though I don’t know when it will appear. This one is particularly important as it’s the first time a chapter from my dissertation has made it to print. Previously I had a big idea from a chapter appear (the article on Origen) but not a whole rewritten chapter. So I’m pleased.

Solid copy, Commander

I’ve been playing the expansion to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which is called Enemy Within. It adds a great many things, including a new alien-friendly enemy, but perhaps the largest amount of fun comes from the new MEC troopers. These poor souls have all their limbs amputated so they can be fitted into giant mechs (not that anyone ever thought of NOT amputating their limbs and creating mechs that can be run by normal, four-limbed humans). The resulting combination is so fast and deadly that it’s hard for normal humans to keep up.

Also, I went back to State of Decay and finished it by avoiding the cheap death trap entirely through the judicious use of manually backing up the saved game folder. This felt only slightly dishonest.

State of Decay

It’s quite possible that this game, State of Decay, is simply not for me. Normally I like a zombie apocalypse or two, but this one has two features that make it difficult to like.

One is permadeath, even though it is just the kind that makes you switch characters. I must have killed a few hundred zombies and convinced myself of my general competence  before one uber-powerful one came out of nowhere and kicked my ass. It was nothing I could have prepared for. Maybe it was realistic, but not fun. Sadistic, really. Why continue? I was sort of attached already to my character and his cheap death didn’t exactly win me over.

Two is offline death, where characters die and resources dwindle while you’re not playing the game. This was even more insult to injury. I am lucky enough to have a job and a life; I can’t babysit a game. I’m lucky these days to play on weekends. I’m already addicted to caffeine. I need something I can play, then stop, and return to, as I see fit, without randomized penalties.

A game that did permadeath pretty well in single player PC in recent memory was XCOM. That game allowed saving and loading, there was no offline deaths and draining of resources, and death still mattered. (And they did it turn-based, too! Kudos!)

Why can’t State of Decay manage the same?  I can understand why the developers made these  two decisions – there are plenty of young, masochistic gamers out there who will replay a game again and again after a largely randomized death. What to me is crummy design is to them a badge of realism.  I’m older, more temperate, and have less time on my hands, alas.

What particularly frustrates me, if it is not already clear, is that I would like to play more of the game. I really would. I would like to work around its weaknesses and derive enjoyment from it. But I can’t justify the attempt, and that makes me conflicted – again, not something I want in a game.

pay no attention to that man behind the curtain