Friday, February 28, 2020

When playing Dungeons & Dragons I love to use dioramas made from Dwarven Forge tiles.

I think I've mentioned it a time or two that I play a game called Dungeons & Dragons. For the uninitiated, this is a tabletop roleplaying game where friends come over once a week, and we sit around for a few hours drinking soda or beer and eating snacks and taking on the roles of characters we've created to explore a fantasy world. The fantasy world varies from Dungeon Master to Dungeon Master. Currently, the one I play in the most is run by my friend Jake, but that will change as it always does as people take turns in the seat of DM.

Anyway, I have a small Dwarven Forge collection. In case you don't know, Dwarven Forge is a company that specializes in making hand-crafted terrain from the same material that PVC pipe in hardware stores is made from. They have a manufacturing plant based in China that (I assume) employs workers there to mould and then paint all of the pieces on an assembly line. These (in turn) get shipped back to the Americas where Dwarven Forge then takes and packages into boxes and ships to people who visit their online store.

I think that Dwarven Forge makes the majority of their money from multi-million dollar Kickstarters that launch about twice a year for new product lines. I've participated in one of these in the summer of 2019, and I haven't received my product because it takes a lot of time to manufacture these things. It was due to arrive sometime in April 2020. However, that's changed because of the corona virus (Covid 19). So we're looking at probably August 2020 or even the fall before I get any of the stuff I originally picked out for myself as a backer on Kickstarter. Such is life.

Anyway, Dwarven Forge is going to launch another Kickstarter in April for their new expansion called "The Wildlands," and they previewed some of this at PAX East, which is a conference for game enthusiasts and collectors. I didn't actually attend Pax East. Rather, these are pictures that someone else took from visiting the Dwarven Forge booth. I'm super impressed by the water tiles that you see in this miniature diorama that I could use in any D&D game. It looks like real water to me. Additionally, the tiles are full of details that catch the eye. See for yourself below.
Look at the way the growths on the tiles look. There's a neat purple looking flower, and the twisted branches on the tree look amazing, as does the log on the right side.
And here's a better picture of the water tiles. It looks incredible, in my opinion, and from at least a few feet away like real water. I love how the boat docks extend out over the water (I have those by the way), and I already have the rowboat and a bunch of the rocks and cavern stuff. Anyway, this all gets me extremely excited. I feel like I'm going to be a back on this Kickstarter, just like the last one I backed about nine months ago.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The War of the Worlds reboot on Epix feels like The Walking Dead with no money spent on computer effects or makeup.

This is probably the best effect in the entirety of the first episode. As you can see, this show is made on the cheap. This is just a person standing on a street, which filming on was probably free, and then they added that shiny star thing for one of the spaceships landing on Earth during the initial invasion. You never get a closeup shot of a spaceship.
The new War of the Worlds series that is on the Epix streaming service doesn't actually feel like it's a War of the Worlds adaptation. Rather, it feels like its The Walking Dead. Most people are familiar with the H.G. Wells story either through having read that story or having seen one of the many movies. With respect to my bias, I've always been a fan of the Spielberg version of War of the Worlds, primarily due to the director's ability to keep a thumb on Tom Cruise and tell a story that Spielberg wants to tell. This as opposed to a story that is written around Tom Cruise who obviously sees himself as "Ethan Hunt" these days. If you want an example of what this looks like, please watch Tom Cruise's The Mummy, and you will see that this is what happens when a story is wrapped around an actor as opposed to a story being true to itself (and then the actor gets to be a part of it). I much prefer the latter, as I don't take too much stock in actors and actresses these days. As the Academy Awards and the many social media accounts point out, all actors and actresses are in modern times are regular people like you and me that have a lot of money and interesting jobs, which they probably got because they got lucky. It's like a winner and a loser at the casino game of roulette: one person is a winner and one person is a loser, but no one honestly can tell you why it happens. It just does.

Spielberg's War of the Worlds feels epic in scope. It has amazing scenes like a train that's on fire speeding toward some unknown destination while people gawk at the horror of it all. It shows planes falling out of the sky, people blown to ashes, and huge tripod spaceships raining terror down upon the human race. The human race is so impossibly outmatched that any conflict between us and the invaders is similar to a grasshopper attacking a tank. That story never ends well, but it's also something that commands a lot of money to do (I'd imagine), which is probably (in part) why the Epix streaming service has opted for low key storytelling similar in vein to The Walking Dead. In the Epix streaming service version, they don't even have to worry about excessive makeup and prosthetics to make people look like zombies. So there's that too.

But does it work? I kinda/sorta like it, but I'm not quite sold on it as something that I'll continue to watch. I think I need to absorb a few more episodes before I can tell you that. What I can tell you is that deciding to present the alien invasion as an apocalyptic event, staging it in Europe, and using subtitles in long stretches because the actors are talking in French...does appear different. But it also feels made on the cheap, as the alien invaders used an invisible pulse to kill all humans who were not either 1) underground, 2) under water, or 3) encased in metal. So like more than half the world's population instantly died, but they just had the actors lie down on the ground. There's no "ash" effect like you see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and there's no expensive C.G.I. like Spielberg might use. And because the people were just "turned off" there's no makeup needed either. People can just lie down and look like they're napping.

By the end of the second episode, there was an introduction to something that actually seemed otherworldly: a dog or canine made of metal that you only see in glimpses that basically chases down survivors and butchers them. These are obviously servants of the invaders. So that adds a scary tension to the show, which I like. And the show does play effectively on the anxieties of a post-apocalyptic world in which the survivors embrace the epitome of selfishness. But how quickly this happens is surprising. Almost immediately after the "Big Death," the survivors are already treating each other pretty much like garbage.

Because I like big epic alien movies, I do hope that the show eventually gives us something like this...something that brings a kind of awe to it that you never get from many post-apocalyptic tales, because these kinds of stories are generally comprised of "one small band of people on a deserted road looking at the wreckage of a once vibrant world." This is exactly how this series is right now. And this is also why I feel like what I want is "never gonna happen." Most of that "epic" stuff that I crave in stories like this is the shock and awe that happens during the initial invasion, which is pretty much handled with a whimper. The "survivors" of the silent but deadly brain wave that kills off the majority of the population are probably just going to be pushed into hiding and to the point of extinction by the aliens before the "virus" trope is played and the aliens all die out because they have no immunities to Earth's diseases.

So...yeah, I'm basically looking at watching a series where there's going to be no real or impressive C.G.I. and where everything is going to be "makeup lite." Being filmed on location in Europe and keeping the story on a very personal level with no name actors is just money in the bank for the streaming service. And they don't have to pay money for a lot of extras because in this story, Earth is mostly dead now.

I guess we'll see what happens and whether the showrunner can win me over with cheap but effective storytelling. At least the acting (so far) is decent. Maybe I don't notice bad acting because I'm busy reading subtitles? I'm going to keep watching, and I'll try to keep you apprised of the situation as it evolves.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Star Trek Picard is walking the disappointing road that the Star Wars sequels followed by killing the happy ending.

I'm a few episodes into Picard, the CBS All Access examination of what occurred after Picard's illustrious Starfleet career is over, and I'm beginning to think that what we have going on here is the same thing that seems to have happened with the continuation of the Star Wars movies. In other words, the happy ending didn't last and what was once good enough to be left alone has now been mined for visceral and emotional reaction to justify nasty changes in these beloved characters.

Spoiler Alert: I'm going to discuss "Stardust City Rag," which aired last week.

Case in point, the brutal killing of Icheb, who was a character I really liked in Star Trek: Voyager for about two seasons, was awful as soon as I realized who it was that was screaming while he was getting chopped up. I didn't need to see this, and I'm pretty angry with Star Trek not because of the gory death per se, but because it was Icheb. I liked Icheb a lot, and I know (because I'm a thinking adult who knows how stories work) that the director of this episode (it's Jonathan Frakes a.k.a. William Riker of Next Generation) called "Stardust City Rag" mined old content looking for ways to connect these present events to the past, stumbled upon Icheb, and was like, "I'm gonna kill off this character to motivate Seven of Nine."

It makes me shake my head in disgust.

Picard isn't Game of Thrones unless I missed a memo somewhere. Beloved characters do not need to be put on the chopping block in order to create visceral emotions for new stories. I honestly think that this is the laziest of storytelling...going for a character death in order to spur a major character onto a path that you want them to walk. There are a myriad of other ways that this could have been accomplished, maybe by devoting one episode (or several episodes) to a backstory following Seven of Nine's awareness of how the Federation has changed following the destruction of Mars, or following her own investigation into what exactly the Romulans are doing with that Borg cube.

It could be any number of things. My first guess as to what's going on with the Borg cube is that it's the one that was destroying Romulan colonies on the very edge of the Neutral Zone in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. They never followed up on that, but it definitely had a "Borg foreshadowing feel" to it, as entire colonies had been scooped up and were missing. Maybe the Borg had a problem assimilating all of the there was something toxic or poisonous about Romulan genetics similar to what happened when the Borg attempted to assimilate Species 8472. All of the Romulans that are removed from the Borg ship (is the word "recovered" appropriate here?) seem to be crazy/ there's obviously something medical (that's unexplained) going on here.

I think that the Borg decided to cut loose that ship and return to Borg space until Season 2 and the episode "Q Who," which introduced humans (and the Federation) to the Borg, which then was followed up in the season finale of Season Three "The Best of Both Worlds." And that's where that Borg ship that the Romulans are studying came from.

Anyway, I haven't been able to connect many of the dots in Picard, but killing Icheb seems cruel and unnecessary. There are plenty of things going on that are interesting enough to have brought in former beloved characters from Voyager, Next Generation, and even DS9 (if that happens at some point) without having to axe characters to give these people a reason to interact with the story. It seems gratuitous, and I don't like it.

At least Discovery is knocking it out of the ball park (in my opinion), by breaking new ground in tremendous thought-provoking ways.

Friday, February 21, 2020

The cover for Empire of Grass is absolutely breathtaking.

I know that it's common wisdom to say, "Never judge a book by its cover," but I think that old saying fails when it comes to Michael Whelan. That being said, I love Tad Williams, and I'm looking forward to reading this...the 2nd book in a new trilogy by Tad Williams set in the world of Osten Ard. This cover manages to look serene, peaceful, and yet epic all at the same time.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Deepfake technology and some of its future amoral users will probably end up starting a war.

Following the very unsettling online release of a clip from Back to the Future that casts Tom Holland in the role of Marty McFly and Robert Downey Junior as Doc Brown via computer manipulation, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this kind of technology is going to bring about the end of the world for human beings in one way or another. "It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye," is an old saying. I feel like its appropriate here, with the "eye" being a metaphor for "our civilization."

The lubricant of civilization...the thing that makes all of the wheels work trust. It's a simple thing, really. Trust is what gives value to our money (the trust that America will continue to pay its bills), and it's trust that we extend to our community members that allows us to learn things and educate ourselves on what is right and what is wrong. It's trust that allows democracy to work. And folks...all of that is eroding in the post-truth era.

The Back to the Future clip I'm talking about is weird. It's not right, but it looks so good that if I hadn't seen the movie, I might be convinced that this is what the actors looked like way back then (You can find it online if you'd like to see it as I'm not linking it here). After having watched it, I'm convinced that these deepfakes are going to be so good very soon that people will begin to rewrite history. We are heading toward a time in which nobody will be able to discern what is real and what isn't, and that includes scholars. And there will be no point in trying to convince people that a video "isn't real" as too many people will be fooled into believing that what they see is the only truth.

Think about it for just a moment. Events could be deepfaked to the point that the truth of what happened in the event will forever be doubted by one or more people, where facts are no longer a part of the human experience. It will be nothing but the experience of perception, and this scares the hell out of me.

Users of deepfake technology can make Bernie say anything that they want. They could make Trump say that he loves abortion. They could make Hilary say that she's a cannibal and relishes the taste of children. This deepfake technology is quicksand for all of us, and it worries me deeply.


Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Academy Awards are still entertaining but they've lost a bit of their mystery and luster because the modern world has no room for outdated privileges anymore.

I (like many others in this country) watched the Academy Awards this past Sunday (for films released during the 2019 calendar year). I've heard that viewership was at a historic low, and it definitely "feels" like the Academy Awards have lost a bit of their mystery and luster...that things aren't as "reverential" as I used to see them. How does it feel exactly? It's difficult to put into words. Maybe just a little more like Dancing With the Stars than the high-brow Academy Awards of yesteryear.

In 2020 the crowd at the Oscars just seems like a bunch of people who have interesting jobs and get paid a lot as opposed to possessing some kind of "other" quality in which I used to view actors and actresses. People like Jeff Bezos are in the audience. Sure, he's the richest man in the world and owns Amazon, but I had a knee-jerk reaction (at first) that he seemed out of place. And Jeff Bezos (in my opinion) looks like a schlub (like me)...just a balding guy in a suit that started a business out of his garage in Seattle and ended up at the Oscars. That was a wake-up call. I realized how much times have changed.

There aren't any "hosts" anymore for the Oscars. People setting up businesses to deliver packages now have more money than anyone. Jane Fonda has gray hair and basically says, "F*ck it," and she gets arrested a lot. Scarlett Johannson is just the SNL Weekend Update's guy's significant other (I love her many appearances on SNL by the way). Sharon Stone is on Bumble looking for a date because she's lonely and why not? Renee Zelweger is married to an average looking guy and no one cares. Natalie Portman, Chris Evans, Regina King, and Johnny Depp are now just people who do commercials on broadcast t.v., probably to make an extra buck just like Tina Fey for that mayhem commercial. Eminem looked like he walked in from the street and doesn't even know why he's there to sing, but they welcomed him anyway and had a good time because some of his music is fun to listen to. I think this Academy Awards had to set some kind of record for the amount of "F-bombs" that got dropped and censored, because no one cares. I loved Janelle Monae celebrating her queerness. I felt represented...but yeah...things have changed. I love that people in drag now give interviews. Why not? Life is life, and Hollywood stars have knocked pedestals over and are in the mud with the rest of us. No one is above anyone else. Some of these people probably ate at McDonalds before arriving at the Red Carpet.

Then there's the rise of things like Instagram and Facebook where these celebrities post videos of themselves on vacation (or in their yoga pants) has made me see them more as the flawed human beings that we all are. I follow Chris Pratt and he's always posting rambling dialogues on his Instagram without makeup, sweaty from working out, and he just looks like a dude you could run into at the 7-Eleven that would have b.o. Timothee Chalamet posts pictures all the time from his messy bedroom or just hanging out, and he looks like any young person biking to work in the morning. I've seen Ethan Hawke in person at Sundance...honestly he kind of looked homeless as he's very weathered. Tom Holland takes pics of walking his dog Tessa all the time, complains about his workouts, and frequently looks "very real" in his videos when he isn't deliberately trying to be a "thirst trap." It's strange to see these people (who are very famous) just being people. It's strange to see so many fat people in the audience. I feel like I don't even know what fame is anymore, other than some people have it and others don't. I couldn't tell you why.

Overall, I think this is a good thing for everyone, because there are opportunities in the business for tons of people. Now, more than ever, I feel like any successful person can come from anyplace, and a lot of "success" just depends on a person being lucky while also having a solid work ethic. I also don't know if I could point out the qualities that make a star anymore. It used to be physical beauty and the ability to memorize lines. Now I think that there's demands for everything. Have you got big muscles? You can be a star. Are you funny? You can be a star. Are you brown, black, white, yellow? You can be a star. Are you mentally ill (here's looking at you Joaquin Phoenix--and yes, I do think he's mentally ill)? Then too can be a star. It feels very much like barriers that kept a certain "look" or "style" in the movies have very much crumbled, especially with the Best Picture win of Parasite.

I also didn't expect Parasite to win until it won Best Director. When it captured that, I pronounced to my Oscar party that it just won Best Picture. My heart was with 1917, but I knew that film had lost. "How do you know?" They asked. I responded, "It's simple math really. 1917 hasn't won any of the big awards, and this movie has. Parasite has to be Best Picture. Also, Best Director is very central to a film. It's a rare thing that a movie doesn't get Best Director and goes on to get Best Picture."

Parasite deserved its win. I watched it two hours before the Academy Awards. It's a dark and depressing movie that sits with you after you've watched it. This is a tone that many Asian movies tend to take. Income inequality is awful, people. The lives portrayed in Parasite are horrifying, and I'm glad I don't have a life that's like that.

I watch the Academy Awards every year, but its definitely evolving, and it's becoming more inclusive. I think barriers are coming down everywhere, especially with the rise of social media and the rise of independent streaming studios like Amazon and Netflix. Television is becoming more relevant, and movie theaters less so. I wonder if we'll ever see a YouTube influencer like PewDiePie on the stage in a tracksuit giving out an Academy Award to someone. Oh how times have changed.

Assorted Musings:

1) I wish I'd seen Dwayne Johnson. Was he even there? He's like the biggest star in the world. He's probably too busy marketing Termana Tequila, which is his vehicle to becoming a billionaire. George Clooney stumbled into this thing too, which is probably Dwayne Johnson's inspiration for an intentional business choice to use his star power to sell high quality tequila for a price everyone can afford.

2) I miss the Oscars having a host. Now we get ramblings like the one Maya Rudolph and Kristin Wiig delivered. Those were painful to watch and decidedly not funny.

3) I disagree with Martin Scorsese who said publicly that Marvel movies are not real movies. He's a dinosaur marching off to his tar pit, and it really shows in that The Irishman won nothing of its ten nominations.

4) Luke Perry and Sid Haig (House of 1000 Corpses) should have been in the Memoriam tribute.

5) Best Animated Feature Film was kind of a joke this year. I thought all the nominees paled in comparison to the ones from previous years. You know it's a "blah" year when the fourth entry in a franchise is the freshest thing you can find to win this category.

6) Laura Dern winning an Academy Award for a Netflix show is a testament to the rising power of streaming services and the growing marginalization of movie theaters.

7) Anything political the stars have to say feels even more tone deaf and out of touch than it ever has before in the past. The world is on fire. Everyone knows it, and every opinion about it is in a bubble now (viewed only by people who already know and support all the things being said). Being lectured to about going vegan from a man that can afford chefs to prepare and cook meals for him feels very odd. All other topics felt very much like an Echo chamber? No one that is conservative watches these award shows. Only liberals do. In many ways, it's just like Facebook in that anyone that was liberal and had conservative people following them got blocked a long time ago. Audiences are completely bifurcated. I've a friend like that who is oblivious to the fact that he's in an Echo chamber, posting anti-Trump stuff. He probably has twenty people (all liberal) who actually see those posts anymore. He doesn't realize that Facebook allows you to unfollow (but remain friends) with people.

8) I'm happy that Asians are winning things now. It's about damned time.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Behold the actual size of a Woolly Mammoth.

I knew Woolly Mammoths were prehistoric creatures and that they were big. I know elephants are big, because I saw them in the now extinct Ringling Brother's Circus before it was not okay to have elephants in circuses anymore. And, yes, I've seen them in a zoo too. But the circus elephants left more of an impression on me because people were always crawling all over them and doing things.

So the above picture is a photo of "life-sized" sculptures of mammoths located in the Siberian town of Khanty-Mansiisk. I found it while reading scientific opinions written by mostly scientists on the ethical implications of bringing back Woolly Mammoths from extinction via cloning. Folks, that person posing with the trunk looks tiny in comparison. There's no mention of how tiny that person is, but I'm guessing maybe 5-foot six-inches or thereabout. Anyway...I'm a little in awe of how big these creatures actually were. I can't imagine how much a thing like that needed to eat, but I'm sure it was a lot. Honestly, it's kind of amazing how big some creatures get on our planet.

On a side note, did you watch the Oscars last night? I'll be blogging about the Academy Awards on Wednesday.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Today I learned that J.K. Rowling and Richard K. Morgan are TERF's. Neat.

"TERF" is an acronym for transgender exclusionary radical feminist. These are people who believe that sex is binary and assigned at birth and that surgeries and/or inner identity have nothing to do with any of that. Here's the tweet that earned her this interesting acronym (which I had to look up by the way):

The "Maya" in the tweet refers to Maya Forstater, who tweeted such things as "men cannot change into women," and "it's unfair and unsafe for trans women to compete in women's sports."

Richard K. Morgan, the author of Netflix's Altered Carbon series had similar things to say, when he wrote the following:
“I also hold these truths to be self-evident – facts are stubborn things; human sex is binary, you are either born a man or a woman, and neither sex can change into the other. The much vaunted phrase “Trans women are women” or “trans men are men” is a semantic nonsense; it is quite simply objectively untrue.”
I am a little disappointed, but I've come to expect it from the modern era where we know a lot about the people whom we look up to. I enjoy reading Richard K. Morgan quite a bit, and I don't see myself not liking his writing because of his somewhat "tone deaf" response to transgenderism. I guess I am a little shocked because his stories lend themselves so well to transgender identity. The whole conceit of Altered Carbon is that a physical body is just a sleeve and consciousness can be downloaded into any sleeve effectively making a person immortal.

I guess the only thing I really can say to this is, "Neat." The word says nothing, only maybe it's a little better than a sigh in that it's an acknowledgement that I didn't ignore what was said. I guess I support a person's ability to express what they believe? I dunno. It's weird. We live in an age where strong opinions can just be shouted out into the online world, and I wonder if people who hold these strong opinions even realize that some of these things are hurtful to others who are really struggling. I guess the outrage machine burns on and on, and at the end of the day, the world is exactly how George R.R. Martin saw it in Game of Thrones. We all know nothing, just like Jon Snow, and there is no such thing as good or evil. Only shades of gray, entirely dependent on what you believe and what you fight for.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

In this month's Insecure Writer's Support Group post I say that art is a great starting place for a story.

Are you participating in the Insecure Writer's Support Group? If the answer is "No," then I think you should go HERE and sign up. Each month, the Insecure Writer's Support Group gives a bunch of people who sign-up, a platform to talk about writing or writing-related topics. You can choose to do a writing-related blog entry, or you can answer the "Question of the Month." This is what I usually do, and the February "question of the month" is quite interesting.

February 5 question: Has a single photo or work of art ever inspired a story? What was it and did you finish it?

When I was still in high school, I saw the below picture in a book. The artist was Michael Whelan, and I stared at the scene for a while, conjuring up stories of a world where a city fell from the sky. You never see one like this in fiction, you know? The cities are always flying...never one in ruins and lying upon the earth.
I never finished the story, because it was mostly just uncollected thoughts jotted down in a notebook about a post-apocalyptic world of fantasy, where the survivors could see evidence of a bygone age all around them, in ruins (like this fallen sky city). Knowing what I know now of genres, I'd probably make it a steampunk story were I to revisit this thing.

I think art is a great place to inspire an author to write. We are such visual creatures, aren't we? Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, February 3, 2020

The Outsider is so intense that I can only watch half of an episode before I have to switch to something else for a while.

I started watching The Outsider on HBO. I've purposely not researched it on the internet, because the first episode was so gripping that I had to stop it about halfway through and watch something else. Call me a wuss when it comes to scary stuff, but this kind of story occupies my thoughts long after I stop watching it. So when it gets to intense, I press pause, then exit, and watch something else to kind of decompress. Then after a while...I go back to it.

The show accomplishes this by masterfully building up the tension, hitting all of those "there is something very strange going on here" buttons that kind of skillfully gaslights the audience into believing that one reality is the obvious reality...but then the show provides you just enough details for you to notice the cracks in that reality. After a while you start doubting yourself as things don't make sense and the likely explanation seems impossible. The Outsider takes itself seriously with every event unfolding and firmly planted in a modern America reality of 2019. The plot thus far is pretty simple. There is an eleven-year-old boy who was brutally murdered (this is about the only time there is real gore). As a side note, it does make me wonder why Stephen King likes to murder little boys. After all, It Part One has lots of boys getting murdered, and so does Doctor Sleep. I've noticed the trend in "King" books. If the character is an underaged boy, then it's the same as wearing a "red shirt" in 60's Star Trek. But the author has a lot of practice killing and brutalizing this kind of character. So it's always done masterfully and really exploits my "horror" reflex well.

I want to continue watching The Outsider, but I find myself kind of being anxious to start the next episode because it so fully pulls me into the story. I suppose that this is the kind of thing that the creators of the show wanted to do.

Is anyone else watching The Outsider? If so, what do you think of it?

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