Friday, August 28, 2015

Review: Animal Farm

Animal Farm Animal Farm by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After reading 1984 and this novel, I can't help but feel that Orwell had better understanding of power than damned near anyone I've ever heard or read about. His ability to weave a tale and show just how over long periods of time one man can come to rule a nation with an iron fist is incredible, or in this case should I say an iron trotter?

If you haven't heard, Animal Farm is an allegory for the Soviet Revolution. Particularly, it follows how the good efforts and intentions of communism when it met the real-world application of evil men with greedy ambitions. I'm honestly not even going to get started here on any of that, because really, this is a review of a book and not Communism or Totalitarianism, but seriously, this book was damned good if you love political infighting and the struggle of power and influence.

I will say one thing, though. I'm equally glad I didn't read this book in High School. I feel that at that age, the concepts would have been lost on me and I would have been bored to tears. I feel a grasp (even a light one) of history would make this novel far more enjoyable for anyone who picks it up. If you have no interest in such things, you might find this story lacking a point. To anyone else, you'll probably love it. Fair warning.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Review: 1984

1984 1984 by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So I missed the 2013 revitalization of this novel when everyone and their mother was picking this old classic up under the wake of the NSA leaks, but I put it on my to-read list determined to get around to it at some point.

And damn am I glad I did.

1984 follows a middle-aged man named Winston through a dystopian world of extreme totalitarianism. The government controls absolutely everything and monitors its people to prevent any of them from revolting against the Party in control. And by control everything, I do mean everything. They even re-write the past to suit their efforts.

Before I get to the lessons in this book, which surely everyone is mostly interested in, I want to address the novel's storytelling, world building, and pacing. I just want to state that all three were fantastic, with the world building being especially deep and detailed. Orwell did a fantastic job of paying attention to all the finer points of living in such a society he imagined that I had no troubles at all immersing myself in this man-made hell. Really excellent stuff and it helped me to get into the story and see the messages he was trying to send.

Mostly, 1984 is a warning about power, particularly the power of thought. The government in 1984 is aware of how dangerous it is for people to think independently and so actively tries to control thoughts and actions, going so far as to dumb down speech so that people will one day be incapable of expressing revolution. It's truly ingeniously wicked stuff, though, as the Soviet Union proved, doomed to fail in a real world application. Despite this, many parallels in our own society can be drawn and lessons can be learned. In particular, I saw a lot of examples with organized religion. Thought police sound a lot like the religious police of the Middle East these days, and of course the NSA seems less like a tool to stop terrorism and more like a weapon to silence those who disagree with the government.

SPOILERS: I want to take a moment to address the fact that 1984 doesn't offer a point of view we haven't heard before. There's the movie Enemy of the State and V for Vendetta for example, but 1984 is particularly interesting because the protagonists lose. The government is not overthrown, the people are successfully controlled, and although the novel doesn't mention it, one day the sun expands and swallows earth whole and all of humanity perishes because of the pursuit of power over itself.

But do I think any of this will happen? No. Not so long as the internet remains a free and open platform for speech, 1984 will always remain a work of fiction. Knowledge and communication are the great unifiers or our time, allowing anyone to instantly connect and talked with people all over and learn things they might never have known. The internet is the ultimate free speech platform and should remain that way. Thanks to the internet, humanity has become aware of how ignorant it is and is slowly working to change that. Some governments, in response, have attempted to control the internet such as Russia's recent banning and then un-banning of wikipedia and reddit so long as the two websites agree to censor their data. Terrible stuff, and I fear we have a great battle ahead of us that I only hope we can reign over.

But I'm totally getting off subject here. Damn 1984 book, making me think! Anwyay, yeah, read this book if you haven't yet. It's some intoxicating stuff!

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Friday, August 14, 2015

Thus ends a terrible yet necessary experiment in writing everyday

It took me five years to write seven books in the World of Myth series; a year for the first novel, half a year for the seventh, and between those two lies my improvement. Well, I still have eleven (thirteen?) more books to write, and after finishing my seventh book, I decided I didn't want to take another five and half years to write them all.

So I made the grave yet necessary mistake to force myself to write each and every day.

Here was my plan. The books in my World of Myth series average about 100k words, which is just perfect. It's enough to make a full story but short enough so that I still make some profit charging just $9.99 for each paperback copy. I like consistency, so hence I'll be sticking with that average throughout the series. So my idea was this: if I wrote 2k words per day and edited 10 pages a day, I could pump out a finished novel every 2 months! That means that instead of spending five and half years finishing this series, I'd only spend two!

Just two years of writing 2k words a day to finish eleven books? Pssh! I could do that! And I was right, I could, and it was a terrible choice that taught me something very valuable.

For book 8 in the World of Myth series, I went to town and started writing 2k words a day. It didn't have to be all in one sitting, but my head didn't hit the pillow until 2k words have been pushed out onto the paper. At first it was exhilarating, accomplishing so much so quickly. I could feel the habit growing and the ease with which I was reaching my goal. I knew that without a doubt, I'd have this book finished by the time I left for Europe in September 2015. I was proud of myself, really, up until I started examining my work.

You see, at 30k words into book 8, I realized that the scene I was about to write should actually be occurring at about 50k words in. If I wrote this particular scene now, I'd be lost as to what to do next. Something had gone wrong in my writing, and I self examined it to determined what was happening. I thought about what I'd written and compared it to other books, and I found that in my hurry to put down so many words, I was essentially writing nothing but fluff. I had about 30k worth of shallow material and was missing about 20k worth of anything deep.

No character development, no rounding out people. The villain was dull and flat, the previous great side characters had nothing to say or add to the story. The main character was lacking conflict and depth. The scenery struggled to come to life. The only thing that had done well was moving the story along and also the combat scenes, which I've always shined at. This entire book of 30k words just ended up being one action scene to the next, like a series of shorthand events in a dull history book, or like some kind of moving flash cards.

In my pursuit of quantity, I had indeed sacrificed quality. It felt terrible. It felt like I'd betrayed my work and my (eventual) readers.

So I'm taking a break. I'm not writing today, tomorrow, the day after that, NOR the day after that. When I return, I will re-read this pile of crap I've pushed out and decide what (if anything) I can salvage and save.

But honestly, I might just delete it all.

I will not call it a waste, though. This was a necessary experiment to determine just how much I could push the line. I've found the line . . . behind me . . . so now I will back track to it and make sure I toe this sucker from here until the end of the series. I will write good work. I will make these books fun to read. I will be proud of them.

Quality over quantity, damn it!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Review: The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World's Greatest Empire

The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World's Greatest Empire The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World's Greatest Empire by Anthony Everitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I am biased as I'm in love with Ancient Rome.

That being said, Anthony Everitt as an uncanny knack for intertwining historical lore with storytelling that leaves you pouring over the pages wondering what will happen next and what the consequences will be. His foreshadowing is great, his tie-ins are on point, and he's never off topic. Not to mention his sources, it's outstanding the amount of research this guy puts into his work. Well done!

Enough about the writer, though, what about the book?

The Rise of Rome follows the known history ancient Rome (noting when it's factual and when it is disputed) from the supposed roots of the Fall of Troy all the way up to when the Republic was replaced by the its first emperor, Augustus. Along the way, Anthony draws a careful line detailing not only how Rome could rise to the great power it did, but also noting which points and at what times the civilization sets dangerous precedents and will eventually lead to its demise.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, I feel as though the USA is some modern day reincarnation of Ancient Rome. From the mix of honor and devotion to country along with wicked dealings and terrible contemptible treatment of supposed allies, the USA will cease to be a power if or when the government ceases to coexist with itself. Ancient Rome tumbled because the politicians became Generals and they could no longer tolerate their political enemies.

In the USA today, Democrats and Republicans rip each other down in words only, and so long as it stays that way and after every election the losers go home to follow along, we will not follow in Rome's footsteps.

And oh yeah, side note, I can not WAIT to visit Rome next month!

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Game Review: The Last of Us

So, after finishing Mass Effect 1 through 3, and playing each two to four times a piece, I finally got around to trying out a "new" game, the new meaning new for me. Introducing:

Released back in 2013 by Naughty Dog, see the wikipedia page here, I had heard great things about this game and put it in my ever increasing and too long to mention to-play list. My friend had the game for the PS3, so I borrowed it from him a few months ago and began playing it.

Last night, I finished it, and all I have to say is "Holy . . . f*cking . . . shit."

This game was intense. Playing this game was like watching Requiem for a Dream for the first time or Django Unchained. Just one continuous slog through the worst that humanity has to offer. This game's awesomeness essentially comes together threefold: The Plot, the Gameplay, and the Acting.

I'll start with the Gameplay. Most video games, or perhaps most shooters, have a tendency to empower the player. You are often an unstoppable juggernaut of destruction, slaughtering hordes of lesser mortals who dare stand in your way while occasionally slugging it out in a couple boss battles where you finally encounter a slight challenge for once in your life. You laugh at the countless peons, stamp mercilessly upon the weak and downtrodden, and rain down bullets and powers from on-high like the god among men you are.

Meanwhile in The Last of Us, you enter a room and see two enemies and go, "Damn it! How the hell am I going to kill them both?"

I mean it full well that each and every fight in The Last of Us was a struggle. This gameplay was brutal, your character sneaky but weak, easily spotted and killed if you ever dared tried to fight fair. Every fight required dirty tactics, tricks, and ruthless execution of well thought-out plans. If you didn't be prepared for the fight of your life because those NPC's ain't never heard of no Conservation Of Ninjutsu trope. They all charge in, and they'll beat the ever loving life out of you with no remorse.

I'd like to say that as my character got more tools, weapons, and power, the fights got easier, but that's not true. The fights just got harder just as quickly. But hey, if you've been following me for any length time, you know that all of this is actually a good thing. I crave this kind of difficulty, and The Last of Us brought it on THICK!

The Plot & Acting: These two really go hand in hand, so I'll address them together. This movie played out like a film worthy of academy awards, with twists and turns that left you reeling, characters that were so deep and real that I struggle to recall any actor that could match the care that was given to this game. These characters' facial expressions, sighs, twitches, and voice acting brought the story to life as if I were watching a live-action movie. And that writing! That ENDING! By Athena what an ENDING! I will spoil nothing for you, though, but suffice to say it left me stunned.

This is yet another game that has raised the bar for me. My hat's off to you, Naughty Dog. Well done.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Movie Review: American Sniper

 American Sniper
(2014) on IMDb

I feel like movies such as these have to be handled with figurative oven mitts. What I mean by that is not some pun that the movies tackles a "hot" issue, but that its hard to look at these types of movies objectively when they contain material that is so strongly subjective. I mean, these issues aren't "hot" at all. In American and in the rest of the world, we rightfully expect that countries who send their citizens off to war take care of those citizens when they return. There is nothing "hot" about PTSD. It is real and requires attention. What I mean about the subjective material is that this movie is about real events that happened fairly recently, all following the perspective of an admirable man who is American and in the military.

I'm probably still not making sense. You're probably still thinking to yourself, "WTF do you mean subjective?" Let me put it to you this way. Sometimes when I watch movies like this, I try to imagine I'm not American. I try to imagine I'm either from some un-involved country or even that I'm on the enemy side. Being American, it's a given that I root for the hero, I feel for his or her cause, and I hate the enemy. All of this is subjective. Had I been born in Iraq or Britain or China, I might very well think differently, and I might have a different opinion about this movie American Sniper.

Yet, I am American. So, take that as you will.

American Sniper follows at a quick pace the story of Chris Kyle, a man from Texas who join the Navy SEALs, went on 4 tours after 9/11, and then retired to help other veterans overcome the stress of re-adjusting to peacetime life, helping himself and his family along the way. The strongest compliment I can lay on this movie is the extreme detail it gave to PTSD, showing just how all this stress compounds on men and breaks them down. We've seen war movie after war movie portray the horrors of war, but very few have taken the time to tell the ending story of when these soldiers return home and nightmares stay with them. If nothing else, whether you're an American or not, I feel every human can take part in understanding this message from the movie that when you send people off to war, you must do so understanding that these people will be forever changed.

There isn't too much more I can say about this movie, honestly. It was well done, fantastic acting that made me a fan of Bradley Cooper, but it was otherwise your typical well-done war movie that makes it hard to blink as you watch and makes you feel heavy when the movie ends. All this has been said and done before, and I listen every time, but I feel American Sniper has one more message not covered by other critics and I feel is imperative to what sets it apart from (and above) other war movies.

In the movie, Chris Kyle is forced to shoot (sometimes) women and children in order to save his fellow troops. He knows, tragically, that these kids never had a chance to make their own choices, having been indoctrinated by the types of evil bastards who would send children into war. Also, Chris Kyle has to watch, helplessly, as an informant of his is killed and the informant's young son has his head drilled out, just for trying to help the Americans catch the bastards. Then towards the end of the movie, Chris Kyle states to his psychiatrist that killing the bad guys doesn't haunt him. He made those shots to save his men, and that the only thing that does haunt him is the men he couldn't save. The psychiatrist then goes and shows Chris Kyle to other wounded veterans who need saving now.

See, I think there's a hidden message in there. I think that the men Chris Kyle couldn't save doesn't stop with his fellow troops. I think the men he couldn't save includes those children he killed who fought for the wrong side, or those innocent people who were just trying to help the Americans and were killed for it. I think there's a strong anti-war message right there that among the evil bastards Chris Kyle gladly shot, there were some people (too many) who he had to shot and deeply regretted because he couldn't save those people.

Remember how I said sometimes I watch these movies and try to imagine I'm not American? Well, that right there is what would make me admire Chris Kyle above the standard of just-your-normal-average-gunho-American-patriotism. That right there is the message I feel every war movie should carry, that among the few evil bastards that truly deserve death in war, too many are killed just for being born on the losing side.

When we make war, we are all victims.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

My 2-Year's of Fitness Progress Report

Two years ago, on July 17th of 2013, I decided that for once in my life I was going to get fit. I was going to lose the weight, start working out, watch what I eat, and make a true effort to get 6-pack abs.

Well, I don't have the abs yet, but damn have I made progress. This is what I have to show for these two years worth of work:

I did this by counting calories and working out roughly 4 days a week, sometimes more sometimes less but on average about 4 times per week for half an hour to an hour at a time. This is just a status report though, because I'm still not at where I want to be. I figure I have about another two years before I'll finally have the body I envisioned when I started back in 2013.

But, if you'd like to know how I got this far, I'll give you the summary:

Firstly, by far the biggest factor is my diet change. I had tried getting fit several times in my life, but the only thing I did was run or go to the gym and I never watched what I ate. This meant I got stronger, but I never looked stronger. Counting calories is the holy grail of fitness, and I embraced it fully. Most people use app like MyFitnessPal, which is great and I highly recommend doing that, but it wasn't enough for me. In order to stay on track, I have to eat pretty much the exact thing every day in order to form a consistent habit. To do this, I created a spreadsheet that tracks my calories and macros. Have to keep that protein intake high in order to build and maintain muscle!

Secondly, I worked out. Obviously, right? Well, what isn't so obvious is that just going to the gym and lifting some weights here and there doesn't do anything. You need a program that targets the right muscles at the right time, allowing them to rest to recover and grow. The program I followed was essentially a modified version of the basic routine, meaning I didn't have to pay for a gym membership and I could workout from home, which was essential for my lazy and cheap attitude.

If you're reading this and want further information on how to get fit, I highly recommend reddit's r/Fitness Wiki, as that will tell you pretty much everything you'll need to know about gaining weight, losing weight, building muscle, or what have you.

As for me? My goal from here is to keep on going. I've got goals like being able to do a 1-arm chinup and such, as well as looking my best and being healthy. I'm addicted to this stuff now and so glad for it!

See you in a year for my next progress report! I have to keep accountable to someone, right? Might as well be me.