Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Everybody's Got the Right...

Assassins performance, 2004 Tony Awards

Everybody's got the right to be happy.
Don't stay mad,
Life's not as bad
As it seems.

If you keep your goal in sight,
You can climb to any height.
Everybody's got the right
To their dreams...

Everybody's got the right to be diff'rent.
Even though
At times they go
To extremes.

Anybody can prevail!
Everybody's free to fail.
No one can be put in jail
For their dreams...

Assassins probably tops the list of Broadway musicals that I really want to see right now. It's not actually for the performance, though -- it's more for the premise behind it. Assassins, you see, is an introspective piece that takes a closer look at the nine individuals who saw fit to attempt to kill an American president.

The fact that anybody would want to kill a president is unsurprising, especially given the controversial issues of contemporary times. It's probably not much of a secret that Osama bin Laden wants to see George W. Bush dead, or that Pat Robertson would wish a similar fate upon Hugo Chavez. I would imagine that being president, much less being a controversial one, is much like drawing a crosshairs target on one's own forehead: You inevitably become a target.

What Assassins points out, however, is that the nine individuals in question don't quite fit an expected profile of politically-motivated killers. In fact, their grievances seemed to be far more personal in nature; I'll even argue that self-delusion played an important role in shaping them:

John Wilkes Booth -- Assassinated Abraham Lincoln, presumably over the outcome of the American Civil War. Booth was a Confederate sympathizer who had previously attempted to kidnap Lincoln a month before.

Charles Guiteau -- Assassinated James A. Garfield. An unsuccessful lawyer-theologian, Guiteau was convinced that his work was a key factor in allowing Garfield to win the presidency. When his request to be named to an ambassadorial post was rejected, Guiteau sought to kill the "ungrateful" president.

Leon Czolgosz -- Assassinated William McKinley. A socialist fanatic who was never accepted in any group, Czolgosz convinced himself that the government was the source of the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy. Czolgosz therefore killed McKinley to initiate the change he desired.

Giuseppe Zangara -- Attempted to assassinate Franklin D. Roosevelt, presumably over "class envy" -- Zangara was jealous of people who were wealthier than him. The bullet instead hit Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, who died weeks later from complications.

Lee Harvey Oswald -- Assassinated John F. Kennedy, although a sizeable conspiracy theory has grown regarding the plot. No clear motive seems to have been put forward for Oswald, although the killing may have been masterminded by other parties.

Samuel Byck -- Attempted to assassinate Richard Nixon by hijacking a plane with the intent of crashing it into the White House. Byck initiated his plot because he had been turned down for a small business loan, and blamed Nixon for his failure.

Lynette Fromme -- Attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford. Fromme, an associate of Charles Manson, purportedly wished to meet with Ford over environmental issues. It is unclear as to whether or not her motives had anything to do with her background or alliances.

Sara Jane Moore -- Attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford in order to prove herself to a radical organization she had recently joined.

John Hinckley -- Attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan, apparently in a desperate attempt to get actress Jodie Foster to notice him. Hinckley had been in the process of stalking Foster for five years when he decided to make the attempt.

I find these developments oddly fascinating, in a way. There are plenty of people who oppose presidents from a political context, and murder is a constant on the list of crimes. Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo seems to be reviled by a significant portion of the local populace, and Filipinos are no stranger to any news of political killings. So how is it that the United States sees an attempt on the life of its commander-in-chief about once very twenty-five years, yet the Philippines sees practically none at all?

Maybe there is something about the American context that has produced these nine individuals. Maybe Assassins has a valid point to make when it trots these personalities out for our scrutiny. While this does mean that the musical cannot work in a Filipino context, this is why I believe that it works as a method of introspection: When a piece causes you to question your very culture, it's probably effective. Sadly, I'll have to figure out how to sneak my way into New York City before I can have a first-hand look.

What's creepiest about the work, I suppose, is the fact that these people all believe that they're doing the right thing. It's implied that each of them are following a dream that is greater than their very selves. Motivation is a strange animal, I suppose -- it spurs people to things that they would otherwise not be able to accomplish, but it has little or no consideration for morality in the long-term. Morality, after all, is only truly determined once we can look back on what happened.

I'm assuming that most other people out there haven't seen Assassins, either. That's all right, I think. It's already possible to draw quite a bit of insight on it from where we stand.

"Get to hell out of here, you sonofabitch... I go sit down all by myself... Viva Italia! Goodbye to all poor peoples everywhere! Lousy capitalists! No picture! Capitalists! No one here to take my picture. All capitalists lousy bunch of crooks. Go ahead. Pusha da button!"
- Giuseppe Zangara, last words before execution

* All data on Assassins' nine individuals was sourced from Wikipedia. The summaries here barely scratch the surface; I would recommend following the respective links above in order to find out more about each one. The Assassins performance from the 2004 Tony Awards is sourced from YouTube, and is included to provide a glimpse of the title song's execution. Please don't sue me for any of this... otherwise I'm liable to go out and kill someone.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Dealing With the Dead

All Saints' Day is coming up, so I don't suppose that anyone will be surprised to find out that I've been visiting the local cemeteries a lot lately. In fact, I'd be surprised if anyone out there didn't have any predecessors to venerate; Each of us has our own dead, after all.

The honored dead in my family take up residence in only two places: the Chinese Cemetery in Quezon City, and the Manila Memorial Park in ParaƱaque City. The former venue houses our more senior members -- great-grandparents, grand-uncles and such -- while the latter is home to our more recent decedents. We're not heavily traditionalist when it comes to All Saints' Day, which means that we usually drop by those places well before the first of November. But then again, we're a meticulous lot, so you're likely to find us checking up on the family tombs around three or four times a year regardless of anything else.

As you might expect, the typhoon that took place late last month got most of the family worried. This resulted in the greatest concentration of cemetery visits I've ever seen at any one time: I dropped by to survey the landscape and pick up a damaged portrait on the 7th, returned the repaired version on the 15th, and performed a final inspection of each mausoleum's surroundings and facilities on the 22nd. This weekend happens to hold our "official" scheduled visits: I've already mucked about the Chinese Cemetery earlier this morning, and I'll be whiling away a couple of hours in Manila Memorial Park tomorrow.

My trips to the Chinese Cemetery tend to be mercifully short. One of the reasons for this is that the current generation of my family barely remembers the people buried there -- they're great-grandparents, after all. The other major reason, however, has more to do with the congestion than anything else: The Chinese Cemetery here sits right next to the infinitely more popular Manila North Cemetery (home of many a Philippine icon), and there's a substantial traffic jam that seems to have settled in the vicinity as a result.

I've observed that most people seem to know the Chinese Cemetery as a tourist attraction. Having visited my relatives' graves in the dirty, labyrinthine pits of the place, I sometimes wonder why. Some of the tombs haven't been cleaned in years despite a constant trickle of interlopers; Other denizens have been completely forgotten by their supposedly "faithful" descendants. In our little corner of the cemetery, the mausoleums are spaced so close together that they blot out the much-needed sunlight; Sometimes I ask myself what manner of architect designed the layouts.

The Manila Memorial Park, on the other hand, serves as a significant contrast to the Chinese Cemetery. The people who designed the place must have been big on things like "natural surroundings" and "wide open spaces", so it feels a lot less claustrophobic most of the time. It's a lot like the suburbs in that the dead receive enough room to stretch, so to speak. My father, my maternal grandparents, and a couple of devoted uncles all make their homes there, and they're all definitely people who would have preferred such a comfort.

I know that I drop by Manila Memorial at least three times a year -- in August for my dad's birth anniversary, in mid-October for his death anniversary, and on All Saints' Day because, well, it's All Saints' Day. Ironically, my father usually found the cemetery to be a really boring place. Not surprisingly, I echo his sentiments.

Interestingly enough, now that I think about it, I do have one deceased family member who doesn't reside in a cemetery or graveyard of any sort. My paternal grandfather -- the only other true writer in the family -- ended up going through the crematorium shortly after his passing last year, and now resides in a porcelain urn locked inside a brass cabinet, housed on the second floor of a massive Buddhist temple somewhere in Manila. As you might expect, he doesn't need very much in terms of space... although it does shorten the length of our visits due to a lack of sitting room.

It's been said that dealing with the dead exerts a strange toll on one's psyche, although I have yet to observe exactly what the aftereffects are. It's probably more obvious to everyone else who knows me, however, seeing the amount of time I'm starting to spend hanging about the deceased. Seeing that I'm probably headed in that direction anyway, though, I might as well stay open to the idea of overseeing what may very well be our future accommodations.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Counting the Lost

As of this writing, the videos I have linked for a couple of previous articles have been removed from the YouTube archives. Those videos happen to be the ones by Chemistry and the Counting Crows from my Seven Songs series, both regretful losses. In addition to that, I'm encountering problems with the Five for Fighting video, and it's probably only a matter of time before the others drop off the radar entirely.

The removals are most likely due to YouTube's recent enforcement of copyright policy, which dictates that copyrighted or trademarked material in its original form cannot be uploaded for use or display on their site. YouTube has presumably tightened their scrutiny in the face of pressure from international media agencies.

As a devout follower of copyright proceedings, I suppose that I'll have to agree with these moves. All artists, after all, maintain the rights to their respective creations. While the vast majority of the music videos in YouTube did contain appropriate references to their originators (thus negating any obvious attempts at thievery), it's the artists who have the final say as to whether or not their efforts should be made available in such a manner.

In support of such a move, I'll apologize over the use of potentially copyright-infringing material on this site. But I'll also say that, in an age where some or all of those videos are not normally available to the public, it was nice being able to freely listen to them, even for a little while.

This, of course, leaves us with a bit of a problem. YouTube has been an excellent source with regards to music videos -- especially with the older ones, all of whom see limited play time on the local music networks, if they receive any at all. I think of Michael Jackson's Smooth Criminal, for example, as one of the best videos ever made... how can I possibly demonstrate it to people without direct access to a media clip? It's not as though MTV's likely to show it nowadays, particularly considering MJ's current media-inspired "reputation".

But copyright is copyright, I suppose. And the last thing that YouTube wants to stir up is another Napster-oriented controversy. It's probably going to fall to self-conscious introspection again, I think: There are, of course, a number of great works out there; It's just a matter of whether or not we're willing to let them out.

In a way, that's not much different from writing to begin with. Or art. Or music.

Right now, I'm thankful that YouTube has a lovely system in place for people who have the lost videos embedded on their sites. You still have the video screenshot, of course, but playing it now gets you a message saying that the clip is no longer available. It's a nice nod to their audience, and it'll have layout artists sleeping better at night.

All the same, though, I'd rather somehow have the videos -- under legitimate circumstances, of course. Maintaining favorites kind of assumes that you'll want access to them for a long, long while. But of course, I'm perfectly willing to settle for even the briefest glimpse.

Thanks, YouTube.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Down the Rabbit Hole

I've been on a nostalgic kick lately, and it seems that every now and then I log on to a few web sites just to see if they have any holdovers from my youth. I've looked over such things as modern Lego creations, music videos from the 80s, and even old interactive novels of the sword-and-sorcery genre. I don't spend as much time browsing through those, however, as much as I do spend my time hunting for old computer games.

You see, my generation reached the peak of its childhood in the late eighties, right around the time when most video games first reached our shores. I was fortunate enough to grow up in the shadow of a household computer, and apart from the fact that it got me started on an IT-based background, the infernal device also got me hooked on some of the classics of gaming. Admittedly, most of those classics managed to get themselves lost in the mists of the last two decades, but some of the better ones are still available through the efforts of a few "abandonware" sites.

The Kyrandia series of games were a clear favorite, I believe. Developed by Westwood Studios under Virgin Interactive, it was one of the first PC adventure games to feature an intuitive point-and-click interface. Not that this really mattered to me, though; I was more attracted to the series' sense of humor and offbeat setting. And of the three games created with the world of Kyrandia in mind, nothing represented a better combination of puzzle logic and utter weirdness for me than the second installment: Kyrandia 2 - The Hand of Fate.

The Hand of Fate was an interesting game, to say the least. Its predecessor, The Legend of Kyrandia, followed a young man named Brandon in his efforts to stop Malcolm, an evil court jester, from terrorizing the kingdom. Its successor, Kyrandia 3 - Malcolm's Revenge, followed the villain Malcolm in a quest to redeem himself (in a funny, twisted way). But The Hand of Fate was totally independent of those other two forays in that you didn't need to know anything of the setting's history in order to get around.

The story behind the game is remarkably uncomplicated: The kingdom of Kyrandia is literally disappearing... rock by rock, tree by tree, and almost certainly in a very inconvenient manner.

This strange phenomenon baffles the land's preeminent magic-users, who obviously have to do something before everything -- and everyone -- disappears completely. Eventually they decide that the only way to solve the problem is to retrieve an enchanted "anchor stone" from the center of the planet. (What that has to do with the disappearances is never adequately explained... although for good reason.)

This, however, raises the issue of finding some poor, unlucky sod who's gullible enough to make the perilous journey. And interestingly enough, the "right" man for the job turns out to be a woman:

So now you, as the player, get to step into Zanthia's shoes and guide her on her quest to find the anchor stone. Zanthia is actually unique in terms of game characters: She's skeptical, smart-mouthed, and otherwise intolerant of other peoples' stupidity (which Kyrandia's population accurately represents in varying doses). Zanthia also happens to specialize in potions and alchemy, which practically gives you license to grab bunches of random items and mix them all together to create strange effects.

With all these responsibilities swirling around her head, Zanthia returns to her home in the swamp to make preparations for the journey. Only there's one catch: Somebody has ransacked her house.

At this point, you take over Zanthia's actions. Crippled by the loss of her reference books, cauldrons, ingredients and other equipment, you have to guide her across treacherous locations, past insidious individuals, and through intractable situations. Or maybe not.

Zanthia actually knows her way around, for the most part. As with most adventure games, you have to find items strewn across the landscape, then use them with various people, places and things in order to progress along your journey. The "thinking" requirement of the game comes in when you realize that you have to find these items to start with, not to mention the fact that you have to figure out what object to use with what other object, and then perhaps in which situation.

Despite the interesting background and setting, this is not necessarily an easy game. Some of the items are difficult to locate or acquire, and a few of the puzzles have unintuitive solutions. Sometimes the game even actively seeks to confuse you, implying that there is more than one solution available to a problem even when you actually only have one realistic alternative. After running through the game for three times, however, I'll admit that everything does make a kind of sense after a while. This is Kyrandia, after all, and if there's anything that can be said about Kyrandia, it's that it's weird.

Throughout the game, Zanthia almost certainly finds herself stuck in a lot of situations that cover both the bizarre and the mundane. She has to find a way to ride a dinosaur, collect seashells on a beach, turn gold into lead, hitch a ride on a mustard ship, take candy from a baby, disguise herself as an abominable snowman, turn lead back into gold, win a three-shell monte game, make cheese, get out of jail, and even capture a giant foot. Needless to say, it definitely makes for an interesting trip.

Unfortunately for me and other Kyrandia fans, Westwood Studios has since moved beyond -- far beyond -- the fantasy-adventure series. In fact, the one-thriving genre of adventure games is now at death's door, seeing that contemporary game-playing audiences give more attention to first-person shooters and wartime strategy titles nowadays. Westwood Studios is itself gone, having been absorbed by Electronic Arts in 1998 and liquidated a few years afterwards. The company is actually more well-known for producing the Command and Conquer series in its last decade of existence, and has left behind a significant number of followers. Given these developments, it's highly unlikely that we'll ever see another Kyrandia game.

What that means, of course, is that these games remain classics for the older crowd, particularly for those thinkers of my generation. It also means that you're unlikely to find a lot of other games that offer a similar level of entertainment (unless you're one to go rooting through old downloads), and that you really owe it to yourself to try them. Yes, this is a not-so-subtle endorsement; Do find a copy of the game and give it a run.

Some good things, after all, must be made to last.

If anybody needs me, I'll be collecting a few anchor stones...

* Despite my acquisition of the game from the odd abandonware site, Westwood Studios / Electronic Arts presumably still holds all the rights and privileges to Kyrandia 2 - The Hand of Fate, as well as all related items. These screenshots are posted here for the purpose of review; Should the actual copyright owners turn their attention to me, I urge them to keep this game free for download. That would keep this classic available to other potential fans, and make a nice promotion for any further sequels (Fate willing).

Friday, October 20, 2006

Ignore This Post

Can't sleep. Clowns will eat me.

I've been struggling to write something over the past couple of weeks. That's not to say that I'm suffering from Writer's Block at the moment, mind you. Writer's Block tends to be a figment of the imagination -- an unrealistic barrier that we place upon ourselves as an excuse for not finding the time to sit and think. I'm not the sort who places much belief in Writer's Block, or at least not at the moment.

What I am suffering from, however, is Concentration Block. You know, it's that kind of problem you get when a story flits through your mind in one continuous train of thought, and then something comes along and breaks it just when you've sat down to put it to paper. Concentration Block takes up the Mild Disturbance, the Constant Interruption and the Supreme Irritation, and mixes them all into a single recipe for disaster.

What makes things more complicated, of course, are the loads of freelance work I've taken on recently. Apart from these things having a priority that matches my literary pursuits (or even exceeds them at times), I have to eventually realize that I'm the one who agreed to take them all on. So in a sense, I probably screwed myself there.

There's also the consideration of the job hunt as well. I've been in and out of the house over the past few weekdays, attending interviews and testing sessions that seem to get more and more complex with each passing visit. Ironically, it all hasn't resulted in any regular employment yet. Sometimes you've just got to wonder, I suppose.

When it all comes right down to it, I seem to have less and less time in which I can sit down and write. Even my late-night sojourns have been compromised, due to the fact that my brother and sister have both been burning the midnight oil lately. (Fortunately, my sister has finally completed her first semester, and I can therefore get on to arguing with her over use of the computer.)

Whatever the case, I've got to find some way to stabilize. I have the inspiration on hand as well as the resources, and in these days there's even likely to be a willing buyer or audience for my work. The problem is that I still have to write the darn pieces, and right now my circumstances are just Being Very Difficult to Work With.


The first person to say anything about multitasking gets a pencil up where the sun don't shine, I can tell you that much.


Monday, October 16, 2006

The Fax / Microwave Problem

And now, a question for all the Marketing people out there, or at least those people who talk to a lot of clients. Think of this as a bit of introspective research, if you will.

Let's suppose that you have a brand-new product or service on your hands, and that you're expected to sell it to a random selection of clients. Let's also say, for the sake of argument, that the product or service in question is so unprecedented that you don't have much in the way of history to work with -- say, a combination fax machine / microwave oven. And finally, just so that we don't continue stumbling over the term throughout this article, let's call it "The Fax-Oven".

So your task, to put it in a businesslike manner, is to sell the Fax-Oven to any number of corporate offices. Although the bulk of the units will only arrive in a few weeks, you currently have a few test units that can already be sold and implemented. And of course, you have access to a number of market studies indicating that fax machines and microwave ovens are a fixture in a lot of high-class offices. (I would be surprised if they weren't, I suppose.)

Given that you have all these materials and the right skills to supplement them, you could probably sell the Fax-Oven to clients, and do so quite easily. The catch, I think, would lie in what the clients would expect to see from you.

That's where my question comes in: What would be the best way to convince clients that your little Fax-Oven doohickey would work for them?

If you only had to demonstrate that the product worked, I suppose that it would probably be an easy sell. We can safely imagine that the Fax-Oven is the most efficient and stable product combination of its type, after all. The problem is that it's not merely a matter of demonstration; You'll have to convince a client that your proposed item is worth implementing on an initial basis, or worth replacing older products of the same kind. A company will not shell out money just because a product works -- you will need to prove that the product is viable, too.

How, then, would you go about doing that?

Two methods immediately come to mind. The first involves background studies and theoretical analysis, which is probably where the surveys come in. You could tell the client, for example, that current studies show significant usage patterns for both fax machines and microwave ovens in offices -- patterns that run remarkably close to one another. Bearing in mind that the same subset of people use both the fax machines and the microwave ovens, combining these two machines into a single unit would not adversely affect daily requirements, yet save on the cost of power and maintenance.

The problem with the above approach, however, is that it's all theoretical. A client can easily toss aside any hypothetical conclusions regarding the product, and demand that you give him some concrete evidence to support your proposal.Evidence, after all, is quite difficult to dispute.

This leads to a possible second approach: You implement some of your test units in a few other clients, and monitor their feedback after a bit of time. You could probably offer a "promo" or "beta" discount to these clients in exchange for the information, or possibly even gift the Fax-Oven units to them. After you finish gathering all the feedback and testimonials from these 'test cases', you can collate everything into a final report, and then use it to convince the skeptics. Assuming that your responses are all good, that should provide a very good base for your sales pitch.

This empirical approach, however, also holds a catch: It'll take a while before you can expect any substantial feedback, and you'll still need some time to process everything on top of that. By the time you wrap up your so-called "hard evidence", some other company could already be peddling their own version of the product out there, and generally cutting your audience out from under your feet.

Yes, time's a huge factor in this one. Moreover, you'll need to bear in mind that the Fax-Oven is a first-generation product with no clear precedents (so you have nothing but pure theoretical information to start with), and that you have no way to determine how fast your competition is moving (so you don't have a good idea of how much time you have before the "originality" of your product goes flat).

You can see why this isn't an easy consideration, especially when you're playing with the modern corporate setting. Do you have time to come up with substantial testimonies for the viability of your product? And if you don't, will potential clients readily accept the risk of theoretical information?

It's probably one or the other, I think. And if you slice it down to its essential core, it'll all depend on what your clients are willing to work with. Are modern clients comfortable enough with theoretical information, or do they absolutely require empirical evidence? That, unfortunately, is the question that I can't answer. (Although there are probably a few procurement agents or business developers out there who can answer me on this one.)

Exercises like these, I think, measure the priority of hypotheticals against the logic of empiricals. The empirical evidence is far better to look at, of course, but the theoreticals simply have the issue of time on their side. It's a lot like seeing the wind blow down trees and power lines, and realizing that you're standing in the middle of a powerful typhoon: If you had listened to the weather report the day before, you would then have had a lot more time to seek shelter.

All that, and I haven't even discussed how pricing fits into the whole picture. I'll leave that to the true analysts, though; Anticipating how potential clients think is enough of a headache for me as it is.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Priorities, Man

I've been writing for about fifteen years now, and I've had the benefit of exploring various corners of the literary spectrum. While I don't yet have the caliber, skill or work ethics of other professional writers, I like to believe that I'm getting there. (Or at least, slogging along in a similar direction at 0.001 kilometers per hour.)

As with a lot of other writers, however, I do maintain a list of resolutions. These are different from the ones people normally make on New Years' or other occasions: For one, they're very open-ended -- it's difficult to set deadlines on the process of writing evolution, after all. Another difference lies in the fact that they may not even reference self-improvement in the first place; Sometimes there are some things that you want to try out, just for the heck of it. Whatever the case, I maintain a list of writing resolutions. Some of them may be resolved in the near future, while others might remain on the back burner for quite a long time.

I can think of five items at the moment, off the top of my head. There are probably a lot more of them, but I suppose that I can set the others aside until they become prominent enough concerns.

1. Finish Antaria.
If you have no idea what "Antaria" is, it's the high-fantasy setting and story that I touch upon every now and then. You'll find a number of links on the right-hand sidebar, if you're interested.

Antaria's been in the doghouse lately. To start with, my computer suffered a meltdown about a year ago, wiping out almost all the notes I had on the background and story. Then, my reconstruction effort ended up throwing a number of new characters and plot twists into the already-complex melting pot, and I had to step back and consider the story again. Finally, I shelved the writing after I started wondering if its influence was starting to bleed into my other pieces.

As of this writing, I'm considering a number of different approaches to the story. There's the possibility of making it more graphic-oriented via comics or illustrated text, but then there's also the possibility of simply serializing it into a number of smashed-together entries covering multiple characters and multiple events. Sooner or later, though, I'll decide on one of those approaches, make a few calls, pick up the pen, and continue.

2. Write at a regular pace.
This is most likely my biggest problem at the moment. I'm currently mired in a certain attitude regarding a story's worth: If I can't develop it to a certain degree, then I can't write about it.

The problem with that is that not many plot ideas get developed to the degree that I like: They crop up, get batted around for a few seconds, and then die natural deaths. Some of them manage to last longer than an hour or so, but then I proceed to do nothing about them, and therefore they die anyway. I can only think of one way to capture these ideas accurately, and that involves setting a regular writing schedule for myself. I've got the discipline, I suppose (How else do I write and rewrite multiple drafts of a single work?); The question involves finding the proper time, and maintaining the habit faithfully.

I figure that writing at a regular pace should also solve a recurring problem I have with deadlines. I tend to agonize over these, right up to the point where I find myself writing up drafts at the last minute because I couldn't think of anything good beforehand. Regular writing practice should get me putting these submissions together with far less trouble.

3. Figure out a "Filipino" Science Fiction identity.
This is the "artsy" item on my list, and it's been a consideration for me ever since the deadline for Dean Alfar's second Speculative Fiction Anthology. It's clear that there's a wide stable of Filipino authors who can write Science Fiction -- the problem, however, lies in the fact that we have yet to establish a brand of Science Fiction that can be uniquely called "Filipino". I find this particularly strange for a country of call centers and technological manufacture, much less a place that maintains the highest percentage population of cellphone users in Asia.

I suspect that the heart of the problem lies in the fact that, as opposed to being an integral part of our historical development, the aspects of technology were only recently foisted on us. Filipinos are more a myth-and-magic type of people, I think, which lends itself well to Fantasy, Horror, and other similarly-inclined genres. The prospect of writing Science Fiction, however, forces us to reach for what little dregs of technological innovation we have... or otherwise emulate foreign authors and their Industrial-Revolution-fueled writings. The latter looks like the more common approach, which doesn't do anything for a Filipino identity.

4. Merge Social Realism and Speculative Fiction.
Despite the way it reads, this is less an "artsy" effort than it is a personal matter. Social Realism is the old conservative, the everpresent veteran, the standard stuff of Philippine Fiction. Speculative Fiction is the young turk, the new blood, the avant-garde prodigy out to make a name for itself.

I don't think I'm missing much when I believe that both of their adherents more or less hate each other. The Social Realists represent a popular class of Philippine literature that has been in effect for decades, whereas the Speculative Fictionists constantly try to find legitimacy for their experimental work. It's like getting a bunch of conservatives and liberals together in one room: All you need is a referee in order to start taking bets.

With all that said, I also believe that there's some middle ground between the two that can be mined for future work. A good piece that qualifies as a mixture of Social Realism and Speculative Fiction would serve as a modern update of the former, yet also a legitimizing impression of the latter. At the very least, it might even be refreshingly different.

5. Break out.
This goal, of course, is pretty obvious. Every writer wants to break from the shadow of mundane writing in one way or another.

What's even more important, however, is the current timing. This is an age of celebrity and fanbases; It's extremely easy to get into one endeavor or another, based on one's admiration for another person's body of work. Simply put, there are people out there who get into writing because they want to follow the footsteps of such stalwarts as Neil Gaiman. Or David Sidaris. Or Dean Alfar. You're welcome to insert the name of your favorite influential writer here, I suppose.

While it's perfectly okay to write under the auspices of an established authority in the beginning, one really has to perfect his or her own style as time goes on. One doesn't want to be known as, say, a Neil Gaiman-wannabe. One wants to be known under his own name, with his own stories and his own spotlight. Pure emultation never brought about personal enlightenment.

At the moment, I don't actively copy the style or approach of any established writer (although I do hold some of them in my repertoire). Given that there are few authorities in the Speculative Fiction genre in the Philippines, however, it's easy to fall into the trap of following any one of their approaches. If I'm going to establish a possible career in all this, I'll have to make certain that it falls outside those bounds.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Of Dice and Mooncakes

Sunday saw my family's celebration of the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, more commonly known as the Mooncake Festival, and probably much more commonly known as "that weird time of the year when the local Chinese buy a lot of egg-based pastries of different sizes".

The Mid-Autumn Festival is actually an acknowledgement of the Autumn Equinox, that time in the latter part of the year when the moon's at its biggest and brightest. The Chinese hold quite a lot of myths about the moon -- I daresay that we were probably responsible for that whole "man in the moon" perception in the first place. Mooncakes came into the scene around the 14th century, when they assisted in the overthrow of Mongol rule in China: Rebel conspirators used mooncakes to smuggle critical messages between agents of the Chinese resistance, and were therefore able to plan an exact date and time of revolution. (The entrie caper most likely remains one of the few historical events made possible by a bunch of pastries.)

The origins of the dice game, however, remain shrouded in mystery. I'll go out on a limb right now, though, and wager that it really has absolutely nothing to do with Mongols, revolutions, or orbiting lunar bodies.

From an international context, few people seem to know about the dice game. Its influence is most strongly felt in parts of Southern China as well as a number of Asian nations with a strong Chinese contingent; The Philippines happens to be well aware of the game in this regard, although not all Filipinos have actually experienced it. For some reason, my family has a long-standing habit of bringing one or two such guests to our Mooncake celebrations and having them join in the festivities.

The game is rather simple in execution: All you need is a wide-mouthed ceramic bowl and a set of six six-sided dice. Each of the dice must be marked with the standard pip-based formations of the numbers one to six, with the "one" and the "four" in red and all others in black.

Something like this:

All players then sit in a circle around the dinner table. The first player simply takes the six dice and throws them into the bowl, taking note of the numbers that appear face-up. Certain configurations win a prize for that player, after which the bowl is passed on to the next person and the cycle repeats until all the prizes have been won. If any of the dice jump or fall out of the bowl, then you lose your turn for that round; If all the prizes for a given configuration have run out, then future appearances of that configuration win no further prizes.

The prizes for the game are built on a system of six tiers, with each tier having a limited number of prizes available. There are 32 "sixth-place" prizes, 16 "fifth-place" prizes, and so forth... all the way up to a single "first-place" prize reserved for the luckiest of dice throws. The game is actually primarily based on occurrences of the "four" value -- the more fours you roll, the better the prize.

Sixth-place prizes are awarded to people who roll one four:

Fifth-place prizes are awarded to people who roll two fours:

Fourth-place prizes are awarded to people who roll three fours:

Third-place prizes are awarded to people who roll four of any number except four:

Second-place prizes are awarded to people who roll either a full sequence of all six numbers, or three of one number and three of another:

And finally, the first-place prize (zhungyuan) is given to the lucky soul who manages to roll four fours, five of any single number, or better:

As the game involves nothing beyond throwing six dice into a ceramic bowl, it is entirely luck-based (despite what the gamblers in the family would have us believe). This makes it impossible to touch on any sense of strategy for the game, but at the same time allows it to act as a virtual heaven for statistical analysts. From what I understand, the game's probabilities are actually slightly flawed, and it therefore presents a good endeavor for the mathematically-minded among us.

As with most dice games, this one also maintains the concept of an "ultimate throw" -- in other words, the best configuration possible. This is composed of either six fours, or six ones:

If you somehow manage to throw this configuration on your Mooncake festival dice, you get all the prizes in the game.

Let me repeat that just so that its magnitude can sink in: You win all the prizes in the game for that year, regardless of who has won them already. Some modern celebrations actually leave this rule out completely so that everyone can get their fair share of prizes, but the chances of such a throw are actually so rare that people will be all too willing to commemorate such an event. That, and they'll keep the set of dice for posterity's sake.

The Mooncake festival dice game doesn't seem to be practiced very often outside the confines of Asia, but it makes for an interesting exercise in thought and preparation. The prizes, for that matter, are almost always mooncakes in some form or another: Smaller versions make up the minor prizes, while the zhungyuan is invariably a massive three-pound monster that can't simply be consumed by one person. (The winner is encouraged to share his good fortune, after all.)

The loose settings for the game tend to allow any kind of adjustment; Some families make up their own "house rules" as they go along. The prizes can just as easily be more useful objects rather than perishable pastries: Some families play for groceries or gift certificates, while the more financially successful clans may even play for money. (These practices, I think, are usually offset by the condition that the prizes each year must be provided by the first-place winner of the previous festival.)

All in all, the dice game that takes place during the Mid-Autumn Festival is, I believe, an integral part of the celebrations that does not seem to hold any discernible connection to tradition. To dwell on the point further, it's an event that probably creates its own tradition as it goes along. It's literally one of the highlights of the year for the local Chinese community, and it's a welcome repast for the few game theorists and mathematicians among our circle.

In short, it's also one of those nice festivals where you can throw six dice into a ceramic bowl without any consideration for strategy whatsoever, and not get accused of gambling your way into a bunch of prizes. That's probably why I look forward to it every year, I suppose. :)

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Table is Yours

I've scoured my room over the last five weeks, and I've counted one plastic cabinet, three drawers, twelve fair-sized square boxes, eight longboxes, two shoeboxes, two candy containers, and any number of miscellaneous hiding places... all full of cards.

This is my collection of Legend of the Five Rings (L5R) cards, of course. I made a serious commitment to the collectible card game (CCG) back in 2000, and I've apparently accumulated a lot of stuff over the last six years. It's probably normal, I think -- everyone has a weird tendency to collect one thing or another in the course of their lives; Mine just happens to involve playing/trading cards.

L5R isn't even the first thing that started me on the collection habit. I started playing Magic: the Gathering in 1996, and even then I had amassed a sizeable bunch of cards then. (After ten years, I still play Magic, although at a greatly reduced rate.) L5R was an object of greater dedication, however, seeing as I followed the game's storyline quite faithfully, and that I ran a great number of tournaments for the local players.

It therefore probably came as a shock to everyone when I announced that I was retiring from the game. After the initial response, I expected people to start asking me for cards and supplies and such; Instead I got more than a few questions asking me why I was packing up and moving on. (This was more than a little ironic -- while I did plan to stop playing and collecting, I wasn't looking to sever my ties to the game completely.)

For the curious people out there, I made the decision to halt my normal L5R activity because interest in the game had simply petered out at home. My brother and sister had slowly gotten off L5R over the last few years, and without their constant availability for games, I was reduced to toting along a deck to the malls every Sunday. Moreover, that was if I was lucky -- my weekends had grown much more busy since my departure from work last July.

Yes, I was largely in it for the games, I suppose. Seeing the amount of game-related hypotheses I've written in this blog so far, that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. Some people were in it to construct "killer" decks and crush any opponents within reach; I was in it for the fact that I could make anything out of a bazillion components and face a different deck configuration every time I played. CCGs are heaven for game addicts that way, I suppose.

L5R, of course, was good for readers as well: The game had a unique feature that allowed players to join major tournaments in order to influence some part of an ongoing storyline. The practice therefore allowed them to guide the rise and fall of certain characters, trigger or prevent cataclysmic events, and otherwise direct a story as they saw fit. The fact that the setting was crunchy enough to allow both fan-fiction and RPG efforts was just icing on the cake.

In other words, it's a game that involves: 1) Putting things together to see if the result works, and 2) Joining a bunch of other people in writing an epic storyline. You can see why I stuck to playing and collecting it for a long time, I think.

And now I'm giving it up. I don't know whether or not that means that a certain chapter of my life is closing. It'll mean more money in my savings account, at least.

I didn't plan to give the whole thing up completely, mind you. I still expected to follow the storyline, read through future releases for the RPG, even drop by the local play areas and say hello to old acquaintances. For that matter, I still figured that I was capable of running a few tournaments over the next few months... at least until the nuances of the game's rules finally crawled out from under my feet.

It seems that the game isn't finished with me yet, though. I've recently been offered a job running the local tournaments (where I was previously an independent operator), and I find it ironic that I would receive such an offer at the point where I've started selling off cards. I've been told that I was consistently good at my job, that I had earned the respect of a lot of people, and that some of the community wanted to see me continue the work. And that's a funny thing, because all that I wanted to do in the first place was make sure that everything went right. (Tournaments are much like decks in that way: You have to fine-tune them just as well.)

In any event, however, the offer looks pretty good. It was given by people whom I've worked with in the past, and whom I trust very well. (Yes, they're probably reading this blog, too.) And it looks as though it'll still allow me to maintain a regular office job, once I do find one.

It's strange, in a way. After everything I've put into the game, suddenly the game is putting something into me.

Right now I'm in the middle of sorting the remnants of my L5R collection. There are probably thousands and thousands of the little pieces of printed cardboard, and only a tiny fraction of them will probably turn out to be worth something. The ones I've sold so far were good enough to pay for Cable Internet access, after all.

Now it's just a question of whether or not I'll be good enough for the game, and worthy enough for the community.

Hopefully it won't take me six more years to find out.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Disclaimer: October 2006

That was close, I think. With all that I'm doing at the moment, I almost forgot to put up a disclaimer post for this month. To compound the issue, many of the things I'm working on right now involve business plans, case studies, or publication summaries -- all of them technical documents in their own right. I suppose that, if there's something that I don't feel like writing in my independent time at the moment, it's more of that kind of stuff.

So you'll have to bear with me this month, as I won't be getting my usual kicks out of creative threats today. I figure that a simple summary of the facts will do:

1. I write up a disclaimer post around the first of each month. This is done to ensure that there is at least one such entry visible on the main weblog site as often as possible. There's a better, more permanent Note of Ownership on the right-hand sidebar, but I believe that most people just glaze over it despite my attempts to make it interesting reading.

2. Everything written out on this blog is completely original, except where noted. I therefore technically own the copyrights on all this stuff, and it's mostly pretty sorry stuff to boot. That also means, however, that I also own whatever diamonds you might find in this sheer amount of roughness.

3. In my writing, I occasionally reference creative works by other authors. These references are always given the proper acknowledgements in this blog, wherever they may appear. In the event that I do not provide the correct attributions for anything, anyone is free to contact me regarding the error, force me to change the offending entry, and otherwise kick me in the rear.

4. In much the same vein, anyone is free to use any excerpt from this blog's content as long as the correct references are placed. I would also ask that these people contact me as well, as I'm invariably curious as to who's crazy enough to use my writings. (This also allows me to enforce such things as proper usage or context.)

5. I promise to come down hard on people who take my writings and then either publish or promote them under different names. I feel that this is theft, plain and simple. Apart from the fact that people seek to profit on another man's efforts without just compensation, there's also the fact that this circumvents the entire self-improvement process: People will never learn how to express themselves well if they keep riding on other peoples' work.

6. I feel that out-of-context usage and contextual miscommunication are just as bad in this regard: I do not wish to mislead anyone, much less have excerpts of my work advocate stances that are beyond my knowledge. In light of this, I must therefore reserve the right to enforce the sanctity of my work as I see fit.

7. I'll have to admit that no one's stolen any of my work yet. That could be attributed to any of two reasons: a) The fact that these disclaimers have actually been more successful than I imagined, or b) I'm just deluding myself over the so-called "quality" of these posts. Whatever the case, at least I haven't been a victim of plagiarism yet.

8. Finally, I constantly make threats in order to provide a mocking example of what I plan to do to eventual offenders. Normally I just name up to three random objects and let the readers' minds segue them together into a creative scenario that only they could possibly dream up. For this month, they happen to be: Chicken Feathers, Cactus Plants, and Vaseline.

Have a nice day, everyone.