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The public executioner at Rome, who executed persons of the lowest rank; hence, an executioner or hangman.

Tag: Review

Review: The Power of Now

Posted on February 6, 2019  in Books

The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual EnlightenmentThe Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The good: There is a lot to like in this book. It puts a modern spin on some old ideas. I like the idea of not letting the regret of past actions or worry for future actions take you out of what is important right now. I really do think we spend a lot of time and energy worrying about things we really have no control over and it is a good thing to concentrate of the things we do have control over, which are all in the here and now.

 

I would dearly love to be able to shut down my thinking, at least occasionally and just be happy with where I am and what I am doing. I have never been able to meditate, more because i never understood why I should, but this book gives a good clear answer as to why meditation is good and can help you, although he does not go into meditation directly, I can see where it would be helpful. It also explained very nicely why some processes I use seem to work so well for me. Like when I have a problem I cannot solve, setting it aside and doing something else allows the answer to come from somewhere deeper inside me. I knew this worked for me, but I did not understand why it works for me.

 

I also really liked the idea of listening to yourself talk in your head and separating yourself from it so you can judge if what it is saying the correct thing, or if its just going off into directions that may not be the best option. I have always known there were two voices in my mind, the loud one and the one that is much softer and is often more like feeling than conscience thought. Reading this book, I realized the loud voice is basically a hammer I use to pound on problems with, while the other is more nuanced, that I often ignore.

 

The bad: I kind of felt like he was talking down to me throughout the book. I felt he expected me to “Just Get It” and when I did not, I felt myself resisting what he was trying to teach me. I also felt he was trying to sell me on something, which also caused some resistance in my acceptance of his message.

 

The ugly: The author is really not a very good writer, besides the above mentioned condescension, he also tended to repeat himself and towards the end of the book I found the repetitive nature of his writing style to wear thin. I also did not care for the question and answer format of the book, it made it feel like I should have already been familiar with his work and that I was missing something important, like I had not done my homework so to speak.

 

Overall, it is a pretty good book, it was well worth the read. However, if this is your first book of spirituality, I would suggest going for something a little simpler, perhaps a good book on meditation. This will help you understand some of the concepts he kind of expects you to have already grasped. He does have a book he wrote later Practicing the Power of Now, which I have not read, but is supposed to give you a basic framework and help you integrate his ideas into everyday life. In retrospect, I should have read that book first.

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Tag: Review

Review: Station Eleven

Posted on February 3, 2019  in Books

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I knew I was going to love in the first chapter. Most post apocalyptic stories these day tend to be dark and grim, even when the hero wins all they have done is survive another day. This book, in spite of the “End of the World” story line, is pretty up beat, it is not just about people trying to not die, it is about people who are genuinely trying to make the world a better place. Not through defeating some evil villain or by trying to bring back the old world in some grand gesture style quest. But rather these people are doing small things, like going from town to town playing music and performing theater, or building a museum in an airport terminal. Don’t get me wrong, there is some action adventure going on and there is plenty of grittiness, it is just not the overall theme of the book. I am 100% sure I will eventually read this book again.

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Review: Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards

Posted on January 29, 2019  in Movies and TV

Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards is one of my favorite movies. It is a classic heroes journey tale told by a 1970’s stoner. The movies detractors complain that the animation is awful, the story is uneven, silly characters and it is terribly dated. I agree with only one of these things, the movie did not age well at all. However, I do not think this is a bad thing. Many movies made decades ago are now dated, but still considered classics. The animation of this movies was and is actually very good, it has bright colors and made good use of the tertiary color schemes. The retroscoping was definitely a low point, but really only because it was so different from the rest of the movie.

 

The story on its surface was simply about good versus evil, two brothers hashing out their differences. However under the surface, we see a world that has been devastated by war, pollution and excesses of greed. A world which is once again on the brink of destruction. While much of the movie is in fact a bit goofy, but there are many iconic scenes that pointed to deeper issues. For instance the scene where Blackwolfs army goes to the church and asks the priests to take the prisoners of war, the priests say “Patience. We must first observe sundown and pray.” and then promptly danced and prayed for hours before the soldiers finally killed the prisoners. This draws attention to how often religion does nothing in the face adversity, preferring instead to pray and let god sort it out, rather than taking action. The classic “They killed Fritz” scene is another good example, it is a satirical look at soldiers dying from friendly fire. The whole movie is a commentary on the dangers of war and unrestrained industrialization.

 

While I am talking about iconic things, many of the characters are very iconic. Avatar, the wise cracking, cigar smoking hero. Weehawk, the brave and fierce elven warrior. Blackwolf, the most evil man in the world. Necron 99/Peace, the assassin turned good guy. Then of course there was Elinore, I am pretty sure Elinore played a big part in my life during puberty. I can remember at least one conversation at the time about how sexy Princess Leia was and my comment was, “Yeah, I’d do Princess Leia, but I would be thinking about Elinore.”.

 

In spite of what anyone says Wizards is a great movie, every time I watch it, I see something new and laugh at gags I have seen a dozen times, because they are still funny.

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Tag: Review

Review: Feed

Posted on December 30, 2018  in Books

FeedFeed by M.T. Anderson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Feed was a really tough read for me. It starts out depressing and steadily gets more depressing. I get that it is supposed to be an extension of smartphones and the “People as products” business model of Facebook and Google, but that is really what is depressing about it. I am also not the type of person who needs a happy ending to a book, but when people die, I like there to be a reason for it, I like there to be meaningful in some way. Violets death did not change anything, it did not even change the main character in any way, he ultimately made the same bad choices at the end of the book that he was making at the beginning. While I found the slang language used by the teenagers to be kind of distracting, I do have to say though the descent into the pit of despair was subtle and well written.

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Tag: Review

Review: The Tripod Trilogy

Posted on December 23, 2018  in Books

The White MountainsThe White Mountains by John Christopher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Tripod series is three books; The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire. The books were written decades ago by John Christopher, who is a tier two, possibly tier three science fiction writer, he did the bulk of his work in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, and was a reasonably prolific writer. Reading his Wikipedia entry, I think he was popular primarily in the U.K..

 

To start with, the things I did not like about the books. First off, these books did not age terribly well. They aged better than your average Heinlein book, but they still come off as very dated. The writing itself is pretty good, its just that the books were obviously written with 14 year old boys in mind, with no thought to appealing to any other demographic, which was pretty standard procedure back then. Remember this was at a time when women science fiction writers had to pretend to be men in order to get published. The story reads a bit like Huckleberry Finn, where a couple of kids go off on a grand adventure and do things no 14 year old boy could realistically do, the characters instead rely on luck to survive. By modern writing standards this falls under the category of seriously Mary Sue writing, however at the time of the writing, this was an accepted story telling mechanic.

 

Now the things I did like. Reading these books from the prospective of the 14 year old boy that lives inside my head, these books were a lot of fun to read. I mean who didn’t want to be the young hero who always got the upper hand on the adults and the super advanced alien race in the story. There were quit a few just straight up fun scenes in the books and what the boys lacked in skill, they more than made up for in chutzpah. They were able to do things simply because no one ever told them they couldn’t. The books show the true innocents of the time and the generally optimistic view of the world that many science fiction writers had at the time. The author also wisely skipped much of the potentially boring stuff, like the process of coming up with a plans to defeat the aliens, instead, this was left up to the adults to do off screen, while the boys only had to deal with the fun and cools things.

 

Overall, this series is well worth the read, I wish I had read them when I was in High School, before adulthood ruined my sense of wonder and my need for adventure. All three books are pretty short and easy to read, I had a lot on my mind in November and December, so it took me way longer to read then it normally would have. I am pretty sure an average reader could get through them in a week or two.

 

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Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

Posted on October 11, 2018  in Books

The Left Hand of Darkness (Hainish Cycle #6)The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Admittedly, this was a slow read for me, mostly because of how dense it is with information about the world and its inhabitants. The story was written at the height of the Cold War between the United States and Russia, but unfortunately much of it is very relevant today, we have a trade war with China brewing and we have a mad king of our own who wants to build a wall between us and our neighbors.

One of the things Le Guin does best is world building and she does not disappoint here. As I was reading about this cold world locked in an ice age, I was reminded of my own childhood growing up in Montana and shivering.

The dual gendered people of this world was an interesting idea that the author put to good use to build interesting characters and highlight the differences between the two races without making them TOO different. I also think this might have been an nuanced way of talking about homosexuality without offending the readers of the time it was written and published. I admit though I may be mistaken, perhaps someone smarter than me can chime in on this subject.

Of course the most interesting character in the book I thought was Estraven, not just for his fall from grace story, but because at the beginning of the book, he almost seems like a throw away character, someone who was present in the first few pages simply to set the stage and I was pleasantly surprised when later in the book he become central to the story.

Overall, good read, although now I have to go back and read the other books in this series, as I did not realize this was #6 in a series when I started it.

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Review: The Fantasy Trip 3rd Edition

Posted on September 25, 2018  in Role Playing Games

This week Steve Jackson Games released the PDF’s of its newly revised game, The Fantasy Trip. These PDF’s are basically beta releases they put up for downloads for those who backed the Kickstarter campaign. They are collecting feedback to fix any issues before they send it off to the printers. I skimmed through the PDF’s and then printed them out, while I do not mind PDF’s, if I am going to be sitting down and reading a game book(s) from cover to cover, roll up some characters and then write a short adventure, having a printed copy on hand is nice.

 

First a bit of background, back in the late 70’s Steve Jackson (Steve) worked for a company called Metagaming Concepts, they published inexpensive little wargames, that were cheap and quick to play. This is where Ogre got its start. While there, Steve wrote a game called Melee, a nice little game for simulating man to man arena combat, like their other games, it was small, cheap and easy to play. He followed up with Wizard, which simulated magical arena combat. It did not take them long to figure out that this could easily be leveraged into a roleplaying game similar to Dungeons & Dragons, which was growing popularity at the time. Steve then went on to build The Fantasy Trip, which filled in the gaps and added all sorts of new ideas. Jackson at this point became disenchanted with the way things were going at Metagaming and left the company. He took some of the games with him, like Ogre and started his own game company. A few years later, Metagaming went under, Steve tried to negotiate for the game, but the owner Howard Thompson want too much money, so Steve went on to design GURPS. Thirty five years later, after the copyright to his works went unused, he applied to the U.S. Copyright Office to have the rights returned to him and he succeeded. Here we are today with an all new 3rd edition of the game.

 

Between 1978 and 1982, my friends and I use to play a variety of games in our High School Library during lunch hour. There was an early complaint that we were gambling, because we were rolling dice, but one of our mothers came to the school and straightened Principle and the Librarian out. I have no idea what was said, but no school official ever bothered us about it again as long as we did not get noisy. Wizard and Melee were chief among those games because they were fast and easy to play. Although, we never played it specifically as an RPG, surviving gladiators often developed personalities, relationships and drama over time. A winning gladiator always had the option to let the looser live or die. Often times this was a good way to get rid of a particularly annoying rival, but not showing mercy was also good way to not get any yourself, so it was a fine line. Occasionally there would even be interesting dramas and blood feuds, at least one of which lasted a couple of years.

 

Okay, so now onto the review. Frankly, not much has changed from the original version, the mechanics and virtually identical to the original game. The characters have three attributes, Strength, Dexterity and Intelligence. Strength dictated how many hits a character could take before dying, how many spells a wizard could cast and how big of a weapon a character use. Dexterity provided the character with the basic to hit roll, based on three 6 sided dice. Intelligence tells use which spells a wizard can use and how many. As the character received experience points, they could raise these attributes, because of the weird way the rules worked, it was not unusual for a Wizard to have a high Strength, sometimes higher than their Intelligence. It also did not take long for characters to get ridiculously over powered, once a warrior had a Dexterity of 15 or 16 he rarely missed and a wizard with a high Intelligence and a decent Strength could put a dragon on the battle field on the first turn or throw a huge fireball down range making for whoever goes first wins type of game. Reading through the rules, I see very little that would change either of these conditions. In the Labyrinth, which is the book that provides the RPG part of the game, does give players more choices like adding Talents rather than increasing attributes, but it is not really enough to counter balance the game. Having said all of that, the mechanics do work fine for low to medium powered characters, combat is quick and fun, magic has a lot of interesting effects and you can come up with a lot of cool characters to play.

 

The layout, again has changed very little from the original books published way back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The art has changed, primarily because Steve did not get the copyrights to any of the art from the original product. Steve did however have the good sense to hire Liz Danforth, who did much of the art on the original, to be the primary artist on his new revision. If you are an old school gamer and especially if you actually played this game back in the day, you will like this game. In fact from that perspective, you really could not have asked for a better product. Steve did not make any radical changes rules wise, he simply sanded down some of the rough edges and in designing the layout he stuck with what was there rather than going for a more modern slick appeal. If you are a modern gamer, this will probably seem simplistic and amateurish by modern standards and you would be correct about this. Steve has made no announcement about what he is going to do in the future beyond supporting the game with some new adventures next year. I suspect that if the game does well, we can expect a 4th edition with a more modern appeal to it.

 

Overall, I am going to give this 3. Realistically, I should give it a 2 or a 2.5, because the new edition really does not add anything to the hobby and the rules were not particularly ground breaking at the time nor are they especially interesting today. However, being an old school gamer myself and I fully remember what it was like back in the heady days of the golden age, this does have a certain appeal to me and gamers like me. I can certainly see playing a couple of games of Melee or Wizard on one of those game nights where half the players don’t show. It does not happen often, but it does happen occasionally. So I am going to go with a 3 and I hope Steve does something interesting with this in the future.

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Tag: Review

Review: The Fresco by Sheri Tepper

Posted on August 12, 2018  in Books

The FrescoThe Fresco by Sheri S. Tepper
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was recommended to me by a friend, her first comment about it being “I wouldn’t recommend it to most guys – or to anybody conservative”, and of course my first though was, “Oh this is going to be fun!”. About a quarter of the way through I knew why she was not inclined to recommend it to most guys. Let me get this straight right off the bat, this book is not anti men, but the book does depict a certain types of men in a bad light and if you happen to identify with those archetypes, you are not going to like this book much. If you are not of fan of irony and poetic justice, I would not suggest reading this book. In fact, lets just come right out and say it, if you oppose abortion, you will not be amused by this book.

The story is about earths first contact with aliens, instead of landing on the White House lawn or in Central Park, the aliens contact a rather unremarkable person, Benita Alvarez-Shipton. Benita is married to an alcoholic deadbeat husband who beats her, in spite of this she has worked hard all of her life and tried to support her family in spite of the the hardships imposed by her husband. Benita is a unique character among fictional female protagonists. Most female protagonists in science fiction tend to fall into a couple of categories, women who are thinly veiled men, oversexed killing machines and ice queens. Benita has no special ops training, she is described as mildly good looking and does not seem to have much of a sex life. She is literally from the bottom rung of society, no one cares about her and society often places her husbands well being over hers. She is the epitome of unlikely heroes. What Benita brings to the table is a wisdom born out of having lived a rough life, an intelligence that only someone who has been on the edge of the abyss all of their lives could have. She clever and competent, but not unrealistically so. In the beginning of the book she is shown to be out of her depth, but by the end, she grows into her role.

The plot of the book is a bit off the beaten path as well, when the aliens, the Pistach, come to earth, they are not here as an invasion army, but rather to guide earth into the interstellar community and help them become good neighbors. The aliens start solving problems and making earth a better place, some of the things they do are very colorful and the thought process of the aliens is interesting to read. Of course the Pistach are not the only race with interest in the earth, there is also a group of predators who want to make earth their hunting grounds. These predators have no trouble finding human allies who would rather things stayed the way they are, even if it means sacrificing human beings in the process.

Overall, this is a good read, I enjoyed it start to finish. Yes, the book has a liberal bend to it, but it is no worse than the conservative bend you might find in the John Ringo or Larry Correia book. The book has a solid plot, the storyline is tight, it is well written, and the primary characters are interesting. My only complaint about the book is the author does over use some archetypes, and hits us over the head with those characterizations, but this not a show stopper and certainly does not detract from story. I recommend it to anyone who is tired of standard fair science fiction, and are looking for something different, it even has a happy ending.

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