Monday, March 30, 2009

Ten (More) Prompts

Come to think of it, it's been close to one year since I originally put up a list of ten crime and mystery prompts, which was probably inspired by some discussion on the lack of such local stories at the time. Having been bombarded with such TV series as Criminal Minds and the CSI variants recently, I figured that it would be a hoot to try to come up with ten more.

One thing that has struck me so far involves how easy it is to come up with a plot that involves a dead body. A corpse is the neatest, cleanest avenue to an investigation: it immediately screams that something is wrong or has gone wrong, and it leaves only just enough elements behind to explain the entire scenario (given a bit of legwork by the protagonist investigator/s). Simply put, a corpse appeals to our sense of order and justice: it points out that a crime has taken place, gives us some of the jigsaw pieces and challenges us to solve the puzzle.

In contrast, I theorize that it's harder to come up with a plot that doesn't involve dead bodies because you're not even sure if a crime has taken place. The result is something that usually bypasses our sense of whodunit... and leaves us with just the question of piecing together what happened. I suppose that certain elements can substitute for that: maybe there's a sense of urgency involved, or maybe a level of moral outrage. Heck, there's always plain curiosity.

For that matter, I'll try to avoid dead bodies in this series of prompts. I'll stay out of the supernatural as well, and I'll still welcome anyone who wishes to use any of these as they may.

1. A series of new gang signs are showing up in the middle of a neighborhood that is being contested between two existing criminal gangs. The new signs are being sprayed over the territories of the two warring groups despite the fact that no representatives of the new organization have revealed themselves, and tensions are starting to come to a head.

2. A horde of small business owners have reported finding counterfeit five-hundred-peso bills in their accounts at the end of certain working days. But the fake bills are all apparently drawn on thick paper with an amateurish hand... and none of the businessmen has any clue as to how they could have accepted such obvious fakes.

3. A Starex van turns turtle in the middle of a major intersection, seriously injuring the four occupants inside. No less than seven separate witnesses testify that no other vehicles or obstructions were even so much as near the van at the time of the accident.

4. Three local entertainment celebrities have all attempted suicide in the past week, and the only common thread is a single rehabilitation center that each of the three has attended within the past month.

5. Dead cockroaches are showing up in bottles of alcoholic drinks across the bars and nightclubs of a popular posh district, sometimes even before the decanters are even opened. The appearances seem completely random and spread out across different brands... and these are confined to a single area alone.

6. Someone has broken into the showroom of the biggest jewelry store in town. But although virtually all of the glass display cases have been smashed, the only thing missing is a diamond engagement ring of relatively low value.

7. Eighteen people in a single apartment building come down with symptoms of the same rare disease within the same week. Only two tenants remain strangely immune: the mother of a family of three on the third floor of the building, and the landlord... the latter of which has mysteriously disappeared.

8. A popular socialite has sworn high and low that the sexually explicit pictures that appear in an underground men's magazine are not her, and yet a newer and bolder set gets shown with each successive issue. Shortly before an investigation reveals the identity of the publishers, the socialite drops all charges, after which she doesn't seem to remember the investigators' names...

9. A college student reports that vagrants and homeless men are attacking him for no discernible reason, and insists on a regular police escort in order to ward off such occurrences. Before long, however, similar attempts on his life by unknown perpetrators begin to take place.

10. Someone is vandalizing parked jeepneys by painting anti-government messages on them. The only suspect common to all of the incidences is an eight-year-old boy; two days into his interrogation, investigators discover that he is illiterate.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Laminated: a Review

Animax Asia has been hyping up its first original feature release, LaMB, for a while now. It started with the contest announcements, I think, which eventually led to a selection of finalists, the collaboration of a series of international studios, an interactive web site, a couple of music videos, the release of a "Making Of..." feature, countless commercials upon commercials, and finally the first thirty minutes of the show.

Somewhere in the middle of the ruckus, my brother and I both mentioned our skepticism — the animé had better be good, we figured, considering the amount of effort that Animax's great marketing machine was putting into it.

To be fair, I missed its original telecast last Tuesday. Fortunately, it's standard practice for Animax to give working stiffs like me a second chance to see their shows, so I managed to catch the first episode around Sunday lunch. Given all of the handling and preparation, I was expecting the animé to impress me.

Unfortunately, it did not.

For starters, it's an interesting premise. I like the idea of a setting where criminals are "rehabilitated" into blank slates in order to serve a useful function in society — and that, as a result, you have a class of people who act as pack mules for the rest of the population. It's a "crunchy" setting that can lend itself to any number of plots, and which has its own built-in moral conflict. Despite the strange nomenclature ("LaMBs" are each assigned to respective "Shepherds"), I would be interested in seeing what other stories can be told with such a universe.

The music definitely got my attention. While The Click 5 and Simple Plan aren't exactly on the global radar, I think they did a great job; their music seems to add a secondary element into the setting — I'll go as far as saying that it gives it an added push in the "techno" direction without going into hard sci-fi (which I don't think the show emphasizes). LaMB looks like it's setting itself up to be a love story in a futuristic environment; considering that the emotive aspect should take precedence in such a case, I think that the music really nails it.

The graphics were, admittedly, rather hit-and-miss for me. On the one hand, the background images were great — they're absolute works of art, and I'd really like to find out who the artists were, and if they have any other works available. On the other hand, the 3D renderings feel merely adequate for the most part... although that could be because I'm not sold on a future that's made entirely of streamlined surfaces. The character models were a bit of a disappointment on my side; While they would make for excellent posters and still images, they looked quite awkward on the screen.

If there was any aspect where Animax really dropped the ball, though, it was with the animation. I've seen project teams make good animation, and this definitely isn't it; I feel hard-pressed to put it in such a category. The majority of the scenes look rushed and strangely-executed; the opening montage alone was enough to make me wonder if I was watching an effort that had been put together by disorganized high school students. There is a ton of well-produced animation out there, and as far as I know, we moved beyond static character models and choppy transitions somewhere in the early 1990s. I feel that LaMB fails abysmally in this area.

While I can't pass judgment on the story after seeing a single episode of the animé, I'm fairly certain that the writing can be improved a bit. There are some good lines, of course (I'm looking forward to further explorations of Keiko's "sense of humor", for example), but the dialogue seems tattered in some areas. Jack Griswold seems to get a lot of the awkward stuff; I'm hoping that that's because his character is really supposed to be like that, and not because he happens to have most of the spoken lines. Animax usually acquits itself well when it comes to its English translations; I'm not sure how they managed to come up with something that I feel I could either match or improve.

In contrast to the writing, however, the voice acting isn't bad. I feel that it has good potential, actually — although I must point out that these are experienced actors and actresses that we're dealing with. I expect a short "grace period" before the voices reach their full range, which implies that this aspect will get better as the series goes along.

I'm aware that this is the first original Animax-produced work (and possibly the first regional animé effort), so I have the feeling that I should go easy on this. However, all the marketing hype makes this difficult to ignore: LaMB is, in my eyes, a finished product that comes with a lot of scratches despite the manufacturer's pristine guarantee.

Animax will probably get better at this with time, yes. But until then, I can only hope that somebody takes a close look at where the technical production fails here, and apply those lessons towards future efforts. This is, strictly speaking, a work that should have seen further development on the assembly line. As a viewer who's sat through all the anticipation, I just expect better.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Last Transcript

I graduated from the Ateneo de Manila University in March 2000, with a Bachelor of Sciences degree in Computer Science.

...At least, that's what my transcript of records implies. To be honest, it doesn't actually have a date of graduation printed on it; I requested for a copy about a month before I actually put on the toga and the plasterboard cap, and added a xeroxed version of my last grade report to fill in the blanks. I imagine that it was so that I could be prepared for the oncoming job search that plagues all new graduates.

Fast forward nine years later, and it turns out that I still have a copy of the transcript. I think I've had this photocopied and re-photocopied any number of times. It's even the original version, mind you, which means that it's discolored and stained with whatever the last decade has seen fit to throw at it.

To be honest, I'm not as proud of my grades as I am of the fact that I managed to survive college. Computer Science in my time was a complicated course, which meant that we left a lot of casualties by the roadside. If memory serves me correct, about forty of us future Computer Scientists met up with each other on orientation day... and of that number, only twenty-one of us actually walked out of the university with Computer Science diplomas clutched in our cold, dead fingers. That mortality rate's not something to be taken lightly, and I know more than my fair share of people who have either dropped the course or shifted out.

It wasn't just the Computer classes, of course. My university had a penchant for throwing each of its students into a variety of different classes, just so that we could emerge as well-rounded individuals. While we didn't get the benefit of, say, supreme concentration in a single chosen field, we got exposure to quite a few disciplines that either added something to our backgrounds or provided alternative directions to our education. Talk to an Ateneo graduate now, and you'll be surprised at how much stuff we know that wasn't part of our course.

With that said, I'm struck by the fact that you can draw a clear line drawn through my grades: I either did fairly well in a specific subject, or I crashed and burned to the point of mediocrity. I've never failed a single course and I only approached that threshold once — that tale, along with a few others, is noted below.

EN 11: Composition — A
EN 13: Introduction to Fiction — A

EN 26: Introduction to the Essay — A
EN 12: Rhetoric — B+

Yeah, you can tell that I was one of the really nasty writer-types in college. You're also probably wondering about how I managed to score that B+ for my last class.

You see, our final project for that last class involved writing a one-thousand-word composition on a given subject (mine was The Process of Fiction, predictably enough). I remember that it was rather easy for me — I took a certain viewpoint about fiction-writing and worked it into a short story, then took advantage of a pre-finals review and gave it to my professor for a few suggestions. We had a short discussion on his recommendations, and I left to make the changes that he had brought up.

After I submitted the final manuscript and he gave it back, I was surprised to find that it had gotten a lower grade. When I raised an eyebrow at that, my professor admitted (rather sheepishly) that "it looks like my suggestions made it worse." It gave me a good laugh, though — and it was enough for me to drop the matter and learn a good lesson from it.

FIL 11: The Art of Communication in Filipino I — C
FIL 12: The Art of Communication in Filipino II — C+
FIL 14: Survey of Philippine Literature — C+

In sharp contrast, I was terrible at my Filipino classes. I had the feeling that my professors here would probably cross to the other side of the corridor if they ever noticed me walking down the hall towards them.

It wasn't that I'm not very good at understanding poetry, prose and essay in what's supposed to be my native language, mind you... it was more because my skills in Tagalog are vastly underdeveloped compared to my skills in English. I remember going through Jose Rizal's Noli Me Tangere in Filipino and barely understanding half of the text, then going through the Soledad M. Reyes translation (for English speakers) and loving every bit of the novel. Yes, it was that bad.

MA 18A: Principles of Modern Mathematics I — Passed
MA 18B: Principles of Modern Mathematics II — Passed
MA 21: Mathematical Analysis I — B
MA 22: Mathematical Analysis II — C+
MA 101: Mathematical Analysis III — C
MA 122: Linear Algebra — C+
MA 151: Elementary Probability Theory — B

I can hear some of the audience collapsing in convulsions now. Don't worry — there's a few chairs in the next room, and you can stay there while I devote a few minutes to this topic.

There are seven courses on the list here, but I only actually went through the last five. I did sufficiently well enough on the college entrance exam that I was allowed to skip the first two courses.

The grades here may be a bit of a surprise when you consider how many math problems I doodle and solve on this blog. The reality, however, is that I find it difficult to remember formulae, much less entire collections of the stuff. This showed up quite easily in my final exams — particularly in my Probability class, where one misremembered variable led to me missing no less than four word problems there.

I still do math problems as a hobby, mind you, but you'll notice that I don't place as much focus on the formulae as I do on the interpretations. I try to put higher math in understandable real-world terms nowadays, if only because I don't think it's good to write stuff that other people can barely understand.

CS 195.O2: Special Topics: Computer-Aided Instruction — B

This was one of my favorite classes; It was an elective that discussed various learning theories and how software systems could approach this element of education. In short, it was a one-semester excuse to create various teaching aids and learning programs, and our sessions involved analyzing the effectiveness of existing material as well as exploring different theories on education. I used my final presentation to provide a nice dissertation on Edward de Bono's context-learning approach, which influences my take on literary criticism now.

CS 150: Computer Architecture — C

This one covered contemporary hardware structures, if I remember correctly, and it was a strange paradigm shift from all the classes on software theory. I'm still not very good at computer hardware, but I can at least talk turkey with the local computer stores. The strangest benefit that this class gave me, however, was the ability to fix certain hardware issues just by knowing where to hit the computer. Strange, but true.

CS 175: Introduction to Multimedia Systems — B
CS 195.O7: Advanced Multimedia — B

Over the course of two semesters, I learned how to handle Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premiere, and 3D Studio MAX. (Macromedia Flash was still in its infancy back then, however, so I missed out on that.) The projects, however, were killer — especially when you realize that this was not the kind of software that we could install at home, so we spent long hours in the Computer Lab competing for space.

PS 141: Electronics I — D

I acquitted myself well in all my Physics classes — except for this one, which is the single lowest grade on my transcript. As much as I hate to say so, this was the worst class I've ever taken: the professor's lectures were difficult to follow, and her responses extremely obtuse. Our reference material changed on a regular basis: On one day she would ask us to look up a chapter in a certain book, and the next week she would ask us to check out a completely different one.

And if all that wasn't enough, the final exam had absolutely nothing to do with Electronics at all. It involved a tiny ten-item identification test, then a monstrous essay portion whose major entry asked us to "Write a poem of at least 800 words, which must have at least 600 words that are related to Physics." Even I can't do something with those specs, and I've made a lot of weird writings in my time.

A couple of years later, I would find out that my professor for that utter waste of time was a local award-winning physicist. That single revelation was a better lesson for me than any of the classes she taught.

HI 14: Medieval Civilization — B+

I'm fairly good at history, so my grades here aren't much of a surprise. My teacher for this class, however, turned out to be a budding opera student, and she promised that she would give us a performance if the majority of us came up with a high grade threshold for the final exams.

As you can probably surmise by the fact that I'm telling this story, we won that bet. So on the last day of class, we closed the windows and got treated to one hell of a rendition. I don't think that any of us stayed in touch with her after that, though, and sometimes I wonder if she ever got into actual performance.

HI 165: Rizal and the Emergence of the Philippine Nation — A

Jose Rizal's two novels were an integral part of this course, as you might expect. Should you have any lingering doubts about my ability to interpret Philippine literature, I must point out my grade here: I did rather well for my recitation, I submitted a treatise on Rizal and his perspective on religion based on his writings, and I pulled an A off the final exam despite being awarded an exemption from it.

TH 11: Man's Search for God — B
TH 21: The Church and Sacraments — B
TH 131: Marriage and Family Planning — B
TH 151: Seminar on Contemporary Theology — C+
TH 141: Contemporary Theological Problems I: Theology of Liberation — B

I don't have much of a fondness for Theology, and it doesn't have that much of a fondness for me. Two of my most interesting memories stem from Theology classes, though.

The first involves my practicum: five visits to the New Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa. The inmates were quite friendly, especially when you realize that I barely spoke an inch of Tagalog back then. Despite their demeanor, you could see what toll that prison life was taking on them: one of our visits had to be postponed because someone decided to have an attack of insanity and run around stabbing people with a kitchen knife. There was also an obvious contrast between the rich convicts (who got air-conditioned houses to themselves), and the poorer ones (who had to sleep about fifty in a cell designed for one.

The second involved a stray dog who was methodically beaten to death outside our classroom window by a couple of bare-shirted men. While my class looked on in horror, our professor (who until then was a saintly old woman who played the guitar and went on a retreat once every three months) got ticked off, and demanded that we pay attention to her instead of the dog. That was another lesson right there, I suppose.

JSP 101: Elementary Japanese Language I — B
JSP 102: Elementary Japanese Language II — C

Yes, I took up Japanese in college. And, oh yeah, am I rusty: Watashi wa nihon no gakusei des.

PE: Physical Education: Fencing — C+
PE: Physical Education: Advanced Fencing — B
PE: Physical Education: General Health — B
PE: Physical Education: Tai Chi — B

As this post has gone on for long enough, I'll close on my performance in Physical Education. I didn't get enough exercise then, and I still don't get enough exercise now. And to be fair, our Fencing instructor was indifferent at best — I don't think he even knew who the heck I was.

That said, though, looking back at this list of PE classes makes me wonder: Didn't the university offer Basketball, or Volleyball, or something? This list looks like something that I would make up completely. (And I wish I did.)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hey, Where's My Fizzy Umbrella Drink?

I think I'm due for a vacation.

One of the things that has always struck me as strange, though, is the fact that my idea of a "vacation" is different from everybody else's. To most people, a vacation is a basic getaway, a complete escape from the pressure of workaday life. It's a movement from a tense scenario into a more relaxing situation, one that probably involves long distances, new experiences, and alcoholic fruit drinks with little umbrellas in them.

To me, however, a vacation is a question of getting into a different sort of pressure. I'd like to do some of the stuff I've been neglecting, for example: Fiction has slid further and further down the priority list for me recently, and I'd like to take a crack at it again. When was the last time I doodled in my sketch pad, really? When was the last time I searched the bargain bookstores? And when was the last nerdcore gathering I that actually attended?

Oh, don't get me wrong — while I'd jump at the chance to explore a foreign landscape (especially if Hawaii is involved), I think that I've been on too many international junkets already. As a result, I immediately tend to associate these with such things as morbid expense rates, suitcase living, and language barriers. While they never turn out as bad as they seem (and I do enjoy my international junkets), they just look like dismal options in the face of my simpler choices.

Now that I think about it, I may have taken so many genuine vacations that I've developed an affinity for personal getaways. That's remarkably ironic.

For a start, though, my company has generously approved my request for two days' leave for the second week of April. That effectively gives me an entire free week for the whole Philippine holiday season, a span of time that I will spend focusing on one specific task.

Frankly speaking, I'm going to get some sleep. And this is not the eight-hour-long "healthy" sleep that those outspoken media personalities recommend; this is the sleep-like-a-rock sort of sleep, the kind where you nod off at midnight, wake up at eight for a large breakfast, fall asleep at nine, wake up at two for a late lunch, nap for the rest of the afternoon, scrounge up some dinner, and then doze off just before David Letterman introduces his Top Ten list.

Yes, it's the kind of sleep that would make Rip Van Winkle proud. They'll be rewriting the record books, if everything goes according to plan.

But of course everything won't go according to plan, mostly because I'd like to squeeze in some other stuff as well. I'd like to take at least one visit to a day spa, for instance. Or perhaps visit a nice restaurant with some friends. Or catch a random movie with the largest bucket of popcorn I can buy — there are quite a few things that I haven't done for a while.

As much as I'd like to plan out my down time, there's this little squeaky voice in my head that tells me that the act is tantamount to doing more work. It's like bringing your day planner to the Bahamas, I suppose, so I'm not inclined to do that right now.

It'll just be a question of vague plans, I think, and then a brief waiting period. The waiting period is always longer than we think.

I can hear that clock ticking right now. And it will only get louder as the next two weeks roll by.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Literary Device

Reiji and Eon have both written similar posts about the LitCritters review group recently, specifically about how it seems that the critical discussions are going over their heads. I feel that this is actually a long-standing issue that emphasizes the gap between writers and critics; it's been around for quite a while, but I suppose that it doesn't get any attention until we encounter situations like the ones they've experienced.

To be fair, no one's at fault here. This, I think, is just a case of two parties not being able to engage in conducive discussion, and it's because there's a definite line between writing a story and critiquing one. I admit that I have yet to attend a LitCritters session myself (and therefore am unaware of the technical level of discussion taking place there), but I've served on at least one critical panel before, and I feel that I might be able to provide some enlightenment in this regard.

I'll start by putting my biggest argument on the table: I think that writers and critics look for different things in a story, really.

I feel that a writer just writes. You don't necessarily have to know every single technical or literary term out there, you don't have to have sixteen years of study or experience behind you, and you certainly don't need a formal degree of any sort to pick up a pen and start scribbling stuff on a piece of paper. When a writer does write a story, he does this in order to satisfy a plot or progression of events that flows through his or her mind; it's all a mental picture that we try to take down as best we can, so to speak. I don't think that most of us build our stories like we do houses, all blueprints and schematics and stuff like that. ("I guess I'll put the denouement... here.") I feel that writers just write, period.

On the other hand, an experienced critic can't just do this. She would have to tailor each of her opinions depending on the story that's under review; she can't simply come up with a set template of responses that can be stamped on each work as needed. A critic has to read each story, identify whether or not she likes it, figure out why that's the case, question why she thinks that such an opinion is reasonable, and continue trying to resolve the matter to the point where she has a final word about the piece.

This is why critics have a lot of terms that describe the various aspects of a story. This is why they discuss the effectiveness of a given plot twist, for example, or the presence of symbolism. This is why they can place strange emphasis on such things as foreshadowing and impact. As Eon notes, this is also where such things as ekphrasis, parataxis, pastiche, heteroglossia, stream of consciousness, montage, exposition, and dubivalutorianism get raised. (I made that last one up, by the way.)

And if there is any single point that I must raise in this article, it's that writers usually don't give a whit about any of the above items at all. I suppose that some of us will look back on our old stories every now and then and see those things where we didn't notice them before, but we sure as heck don't have them in our minds when we actually write the stuff.

But that brings up a second point, and this concerns the question of what sort of value a discussion panel provides for writers as a whole. And in this case, my answer just happens to be "not as much as you'd like to think."

I feel that critiques are just that: critiques. They're opinions for the most part — feedback from people who have read your work and who feel strongly enough about certain points to offer them up for your consumption. Whether these things come from your best friend or from a panel of faceless men in black suits, they're the same thing in the end: they're opinions.

But one important distinction involves weeding out those statements that are the actual opinions from those items that assist towards forming those opinions. An opinion can be as simple as the question of whether or not you like a story, of course. But regardless of how much we may agree on a final opinion, there's still the fact that we may easily use different ways of thinking to arrive at that conclusion.

In short, you can read a story and declare that you like it, just because you happen to like it. I can read a story, analyze its plot flow, dwell on its foreshadowing technique, figure out if the little plot twist had the desired impact, marvel at the poor choice of words on page three, chew my lip at the needless rhetoric near the ending, and eventually declare that I like it. The bottom line is that we both end up with the same relative opinion of the piece... but we just happened to take different paths to get to that destination.

There is a school of thought that says that critics who can surgically slice up a story and split it among its different aspects have far more "legitimate" opinions than those who can merely read a story and judge it without the same level of technical knowledge. I think that this is rubbish.

Ever encountered a situation in the real world where a movie gets lambasted by the critics for having no redeeming value whatsoever, then goes on to make hundreds of millions in the public box office? That's the best example I can give for this kind of conflict: You can break down a single story into its smallest separate components, but while that'll definitely make you sound more intelligent, it won't necessarily mean that your final opinion is completely aligned with everyone else's. Just because I know more obscure words than you do doesn't necessarily mean that my opinion should be taken more seriously than yours.

So what do you get from critical discussions, anyway? I would think that this involves a glimpse of how the critics will see a given work.

I don't think that panel discussions really exist to determine whether people like a given story or not (well, editorial boards do, but that's another thing entirely). I believe that panel discussions exists in order to point out certain aspects of a story that bear note — sort of like figuring out what seems to work and what doesn't. This is really what writers are looking for, I'll wager.

The trouble is that the discussions tend to get mired in technical terminology because it's not easy to describe exactly what makes a story tick. Saying that one likes an ironic statement, for example, is a lot easier than saying that one likes a certain line because "it feels like it's alluding to one thing but is really implying the complete opposite of that concept." To add to the confusion, there's the fact that some aspects aren't necessarily visible to each and every reviewer, and on top of that I'm willing to bet that half the critics in the world have no idea what they're talking about around half the time. (The next time somebody mentions ekphrasis to me, I'm going to ask them for a specific example. Or, failing that, I'm going to ask if it's animal, vegetable, or mineral.)

When this happens, it's not a question of intellectual capacity and the seeming threat of an opinion that's somehow "more legitimate" than yours. No, in this case it should be treated as an exercise where the aspect should be distilled to its essence. Just because one likes the "ekphrasis" of a certain passage doesn't make the analysis complete; you'll have to go into the question of why the "ekphrasis" is so effective, which will often lead to defining just what "ekphrasis" is in the first place. Frankly speaking, I wouldn't worry about knowing just what "ekphrasis" is, as much as I would wonder whether or not the others do.

A writer's task in the conflict of critique is to get the critics to bring down their arguments in such a way as to make them more rational and understandable. Otherwise, well... how else are we supposed to use these? As I said, it's not like we have such things as "ekphrasis" in mind whenever we write our stuff — only the desire to describe a physical work to such a degree that the reader can place it clearly in their minds, so to speak.

And if that doesn't work, if the critics persist in using their highminded terminologies... then the writer can just ignore them really. It's not like a knowledge of those exact same terms is a requirement for writing. Writers just write.

We're two kinds of people really, with a significant gap between us whenever we do our strange little things in our strange little ways. We don't even directly affect one another by doing the things we do. But we can try to catch a glimpse from time to time.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


I was in the middle of an eight-man Magic tournament at the local mall when someone mentioned it as an overhand, almost casual remark: "I hope I'm not playing against you next round, because I don't think I'll be able to take on your deck."

Normally I would have laughed that off, perhaps said something about how play skill was a significant factor in addition to the deck, but at that point my opponent (who was one game down in our three-game match) mentioned a similar comment: "Yeah, I didn't want to go up against you either." At that point, the proverbial eyebrow went up.

I get the feeling that my reputation precedes me now. I've been playing the game since 1996, stopping only for a two-year interlude before informally resuming in 2002. I specialize in Limited formats — tournaments where you have to build a deck from a small and random collection of cards — and I have one first-place finish under my belt so far. My ELO rating's a 1757 as of this writing, which indicates that I'm above average in terms of playing skill, and I clock in at #77 out of about 2000 registered Philippine players.

And these remarks surprised me, not because I had hit this certain level of recognition, but because they reminded me of a strange attitude that persists when it comes to competition.

I imagine that a lot of people hate going up against a superior contender, and it's for good reason. I don't think that many of us could last a couple rounds of golf against Tiger Woods, for example, as much as most of us couldn't go twenty moves against Garry Kasparov on the black-and-white board. A superior opponent simply belies the sensation that the odds are stacked against us — we're probably going to end up as just another notch on their belt.

I did hold such thoughts in my mind at one point, I admit; when you're young, it's easy to see your own inferiority when compared to the world's collected resumés. Since then, however, I've come to a bit of an epiphany: Why should we be afraid of going up against those with superior skills? I mean, we're quite likely to lose in the end... but wasn't that the expected outcome in the first place? What do we lose by taking the opportunity, really?

That should be the essence of the whole thing: Just why are we afraid of facing superior opponents in formal competition? I would think that it involves the humiliation of defeat — we don't like the prospect of losing a fight that we're highly likely to lose. It doesn't do any wonders for our ego, it doesn't inspire us to better things, and it doesn't make much of a significant gesture at all.

On the other hand, there's also the question of what we have to lose. And the answer to that, I think, is that we usually stand to lose nothing at all.

For the last few years, I've felt that all the pressure is really on the "superior opponents", as it stands. How do we think Manny Pacquiao feels before each fight, anyway? As much as he can bluster and bluff his way through the media, there's always that single thought crawling through his head every time he faces a fresh opponent: "Will I be able to get through this with my reputation intact?"

The problem with people getting closer and closer to the top, you see, is that it takes less and less effort to push them off.

I may have an ELO rating of 1757 right now, but one loss to a 1500-rated opponent (the standard average) will push me all the way down to the amateur-status 1600s. And if the usual expectations do take their course and I beat this hypothetical 1500-rated opponent, then that means, what, a one-point drop in his rank? That's not even worth any number of sleepless nights.

This is why I welcome matches against superior opponents, really. I may have less of an understanding of the game, perhaps a lower level of experience with the competition as a whole. But I also have less to lose than they do. If they win, then it's no skin off my nose and I walk away from the table with a few more learnings for the next tournament. If it's me who wins, however, then I feel like a million bucks for the week afterwards.

If my deck can only beat your deck about ten percent of the time, then I'll go for that ten percent. If your short story wins nineteen out of every twenty contests out there, then I'll strive for that one-out-of-twenty chance. If a work of the speculative fiction genre will only win a National Writing Award once every hundred years, then every piece I will have notarized and sealed in a dull brown envelope will be with the express intent that this shall be one of those years.

And that opponent I had today who was one game down in our match? He rallied for the next two games to beat me two games to one. Moreover, I was barely able to beat the first speaker in our little conversation — he took the first game before some desperate last-minute maneuvering on my part won the next two games of our match. To say that I'm a "superior opponent" may be a bit premature; it was all I could do today to salvage some of my pride.

But after all that I've said so far, that shouldn't be a surprise, really.

Sometimes we just have to realize that we've got nothing to lose.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Fiction: Day Six

When he decided to create an alternate version of the first prototype, he didn't expect it to be quite this complicated. It was as though he had spontaneously unlearned every innovation that he had placed into the first model, as though the entire ocean had suddenly dribbled out of his ears.

Nevertheless, it was too late for him to stop. The Mark 1 lay on its back in the middle of the artificial turf, its systems temporarily in sleep mode and the front panel on its abdomen gaping open. The soon-to-be Mark 2 — and it was a softer, rounder, more advanced Mark 2 at that — lay on the grass a little ways off. There was a spare cardial infarctor in his left hand, a Class B2 spanner in his right, and some very serious doubts creeping into his head.

Just why had he decided to go this far, anyway? He only intended to build the closed environment up to the landscaping, but he had somehow gone as far as putting together a couple of techno-organic units as an aside. He knew perfectly well that he had a problem with going too far at times — he was intense like that — but this was just... too far.

He screwed the new infarctor in place, then switched on the stimulant generators and watched as it began its rhythmic operation. That was good, at least. He had wondered if it needed to be placed in a different area of the main chassis, perhaps two inches lower to compensate for the slimmer cage, but in the end he just put together some rough calculations and went for it.

Then he tried the pulmonary receptors and was relieved to find that they were working as well. At that point, he had to admit that he must have remembered everything by heart. He had only taken seven days to plan out the first prototype, after all — seven days of bad drawings and blueprints and environmental measures to make sure that it would work the way he wanted.

Wasn't that going to be nice? He had long pondered the feasibility of independent cognition against the question of external control for some time. Now he could see if he could put his theories into place. Even if it failed — and something inside him desperately hoped that it would not fail — he could try to stimulate success by adding a bunch of new variables into the metaphysical system.

That was it, really. He reclocked the sleep settings on the Version Two prototype, sealed the last of the open panels, and left it to its own devices. It would emerge from torpor in about ten minutes, which was just enough time to complete his developments on the first one.

For a moment he glanced at the open panel on Version One, and contemplated the possibility of trashing the less sophisticated model. Eventually, however, he decided that if he was going to have to stop somewhere, then this was the perfect place. It was time to take a step back, perhaps see if everything was as self-sufficient as he had programmed. His personal reputation was on the line here.

He shut the panel on the original prototype and sealed it in place, but not before resetting the sleep program. Behind him, the second model was beginning to wake from its own slumber.

When the Mark 1 was fully awake, it was to the sight of a fellow animate with a strange and familiar resemblance. It seemed confused at first, however, so some explanation was in order.

"A partner," he said, "For you. You can name her, if you wish."

The Mark 1 prototype seemed interested at this, for it spoke in response: "This, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. She shall be called Woman, for she was taken from Man."

He made a note of that — the Mark 1 was remarkably long-winded for a model of its design. He estimated that it would probably take a couple of generations to work this out of its system.

Somehow, he got the feeling that this entire experiment was going to cause him quite a few regrets in the long run. But the dawn was already breaking, and the fatigue of creation had finally caught up to him.

It was about time he got some rest.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Seven Viral Myths

It was 4:30 in the afternoon, and I was already late for my ride. I was rushing through the mall, weaving in and out of the crowds, apologizing to the occasional old lady, when I reached the bottom of a flight of escalators and felt as though it was open ground from there.

Then I ran into one of my uncles — my dad's cousin — who asked me if I could help him out with a problem involving computer viruses. While he was certainly one of those "modernized" executives (laptop, storage disk and all), the finer points of technical troubleshooting still eluded him. Because he happens to be one of my Favored Relatives™, I figured that offering a few minutes of time wouldn't hurt.

In retrospect, "a few minutes" was not a good assessment; Our little conversation took over an hour.

To be fair, I underestimated just how much exposure he had had to viruses or dubious software of any sort. What's worse is that the whole thing went one step further: I was appalled at the sheer number of assumptions he carried regarding computer viruses, as well as the depth to which they were wrong. I literally had to break down more than a few of these walls before I could even begin to explain what he could do about his computer... which explains why I was over an hour late for my ride that day.

Therefore, as a bit of a public service, I'd like to put up what I know about viruses. Don't expect this to be a handy know-it-all guide, though: I'm not a technical person, and I don't know how to resolve every single anomaly that shows up on your desktop. I just want to point out the stuff that should really be obvious to people, because I've at least been around the nasty little buggers more than a few times. That, and each of the seven items below is a remarkably terrible assumption; they bear some correction before somebody causes more damage by thinking otherwise.

Myth: An anti-virus scan will resolve any virus problem that you have.

Uh, no. The thing that you must keep in mind is that this is one of the reasons why an anti-virus industry exists: There is no single piece of software that can clean up every single virus that you encounter. (Similarly, there's also no single piece of software that can shield you from every single virus out there.)

For that matter, the business of anti-virus software is reactive by nature: Anti-virus solutions are created in response to existing infections, not in anticipation of them. This means that anti-virus software almost always lags behind the most cutting-edge viral threats. It takes a while for people to identify any new strains, longer to come up with a safeguard against them, and even longer to clean them up completely. And by the time all that is said and done, the new generation of malicious code may already be spreading.

Anti-virus software will do a fair job of cleaning any older threats that your computer may have caught. Just don't automatically assume that it'll also handle any newer viruses that manage to sink their tendrils into your technical setup.

Myth: Your USB drive / external storage unit can't be infected by a virus.

This is one of the most appalling assumptions I've come across. Of course your external storage unit can be affected by a virus; in fact, USB drives, flash drives, portable hard drives, and data storage devices (like that iPod of yours) have a reputation as virus carriers.

I think that this goes back to the fact that, in pre-Internet days, the humble floppy disk (and its 3 1/2-inch successor) was the choice medium of transmission for most viruses. Now that diskettes are on the brink of death, however, and more viruses are being transmitted via computer networks (Internet and otherwise), the idea of virus transmission via storage unit has fallen by the wayside. In fact, modern Windows systems inadvertently contribute to this issue by automatically accessing these devices the moment you plug them in.

Myth: Macs (and other non-Windows-based units) can't be infected by a virus.

The anti-Windows lobby has long used this as a self-congratulatory point, but it's inaccurate for the most part. While the vast majority of viruses indeed target Windows-based systems, that doesn't necessarily mean that absolutely no viruses are written for any other setup.

Macs have their own viral problems too, as well as any other operating system that makes it to the general public. They just happen to run into far less attacks and incidences of infection — certainly a good selling point, but a far cry from implying that you're perfectly safe.

That said, I find it an interesting method to "cleanse" data storage units that are infected with Windows viruses by plugging them into a Mac and cleaning them out there. Hopefully there aren't any "modal" viruses that can hit both types of computers at once.

Myth: The purpose of a virus involves "breaking" your computer for no reason at all.

While some viruses exist to define the skills of their creators (mostly by fooling around with security settings), it would be foolish to assume this for the entire roster. In fact, it's tantamount to saying that a virus is more an annoyance than a major security threat.

Quite a few viruses nowadays were built with specific purposes in mind. The most common one involves stealing secure data by either screening the files that you open, logging the keys that you press, and tracking the applications or sites that you use. Other viruses steal processing power in some way, often to try and bring down a specific online site or service by overloading it with feedback. I imagine that there are a lot more of these purposes built into the modern viral generation, almost certainly enough to question the assumption that these things don't do anything but try to "break" your computer.

The bottom line, I think, is that any incident where a virus makes it into your computer should be seen as a good-sized security threat. Either your system should have been able to ward this off through its built-in settings, or it should have been caught by any counterintrusion measures that you have installed. Anything that bypasses these should be taken as a sign that something's wrong with your setup.

Myth: Your average virus creator is a young, teenage kid who likes fooling around with malicious code.

The media seems to like this stereotype, but it's not a good one to propagate. There are almost certainly some young virus writers out there, but to say that they're all pimply-faced kids working from their parents' basements is just laughable.

Virus writing shouldn't be underestimated. The whole business of writing, modifying and upgrading code is a pursuit that demands time and attention, especially when you consider that you're looking for ways to bypass existing security setups. In a sense, it's like an artistic hobby: You won't be much good at it unless you put in some effort and craftsmanship.

In fact, the prospect is even more removed when you consider that techncially-savvy adults may have more extensive backgrounds, better expertise, and greater resources to fool around with malicious code. There are definitely some younger programmers here (a lot of them, mind you), but one shouldn't make the mistake of assuming that they're all young and immature.

Myth: Your average virus creator is an expert computer programmer who knows how to break into secure systems.

On the other hand, one also shouldn't automatically assume that they're all expert computer programmers. Most bleary-eyed corporations fall into this trap: They think that a person is a technical expert just because he or she is capable of creating a virus (or has created one in the past).

Some people simply don't create viruses for the infamy and the prestige; they do so because they just want to toy around with a bit of code. Heck, there are more than a few amateurs out there who simply take existing viruses (or parts of viruses) and end up making variants that pose a much lesser threat than their original counterparts.

One interesting thing to note is that a lot of viruses don't actually work as intended. Either some configurations are too foreign for them to handle, or some anti-virus shields are too difficult to crack, or some sections of code don't function correctly at all. It's not as though every single virus creator strictly follows a set of guidelines for good programming conventions, after all; this is still a rather independent and informal setting.

A good virus that actually works as maliciously as intended is rare. You'll probably know them when you hear about them; These are the ones that usually make the news.

Myth: The anti-virus software companies are actually the ones creating the viruses, because it gets people to continue buying their product. The more viruses are out there, the more they're guaranteed some form of return business.

And of course, this article wouldn't be complete without the inevitable conspiracy theory. While I won't discount the possibility that a computer virus may end up finding its origins in an anti-virus collective, it would be absurd to say that this happens on a regular basis.

One good way to look at it involves asking yourself how many computer viruses you've ever encountered in your lifetime as a computer user. This is most likely a relatively small number, perhaps ten or so. Twenty would probably be your upper bound here.

In contrast, Wikipedia's list of computer viruses is so long that it has to be split into four or five sections. And even considering that I wouldn't necessarily trust Wikipedia on this matter, you can look up your favorite anti-virus provider's list of security threats and see just how long the list is. The truth is that, historically, only a small percentage of these viruses have infected a large portion of the population... which is really what you'd like a virus to do if you're an anti-virus company looking to drum up some business for yourself.

Despite everything that I've written here, I recognize that I still have a lot to learn about viruses and other security threats in general. I'm not too knowledgeable on how to recognize them, and I'm even less knowledgeable on how to remove them. (Like I said, I'm not a technical resource at all.)

Regardless of that, however, I think that we would benefit from a less stereotypical and more practical view of these things. It would certainly help us the next time we find that we've been infected in some way... although it's already too late for me to get that one hour of my life back.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Weapon of Choice

Okay, one more weird post before I go to bed.

I've had a fascination with weaponry since just before I started writing. I'm not sure where it came from (because you obviously don't see kids with this kind of interest, oh no), but I know that I've had one for a while. I'm not so obsessed that I've taken to collecting the stuff and stalking the streets at night with various implements strapped to my back... but I figure that I'm engaged enough to know some strange things.

I can, for example, judge the purpose of a knife with a few glances at its blade. I read heavily on the technology of war throughout human history, and sit up to watch television programs about the effectivity of these tools. I can explain the physics behind guns and cannons, and probably know a hundred synonyms that correspond to the names of various weapons scattered across the world.

Ironically, I don't use the knowledge very often, beyond the occasional literary reference. I haven't had any special training in any of the things I read about, and I haven't even held a lot of them in my hands. It's a lot like being a janitor who knows the basics of calculus: the information is utterly useless beyond mere curiosity. It's a weird quirk.

The stranger quirk, however, lies in the fact that I occasionally use this pseudo-martial knowledge as a form of association. Put simply, I will sometimes bring the image of a person to mind, and immediately associate a single weapon with that person. I can imagine weapons into peoples' hands, if you like to think of it that way. Don't ask me why, because I don't know why I do it. Maybe it's incomprehensibly Freudian.

Let's take a convenient example: Dean Alfar. Dean, for those who don't know him, is a multiple-Palanca-Award winner, and is the driving force behind the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology (which has just released its fourth issue). He's a regular member of quite a few contemporary panels on Philippine Fiction, he runs a publishing studio and a pet store, and he plays patriarch to a wife and two kids.

I imagine Dean Alfar with a sawed-off shotgun in his right hand. Now, I already mentioned that I don't know if that has any psychological significance... I just imagine him holding a sawed-off shotgun in this right hand. It's one of those one-barrel specialties, too, the kind with an ungodly roar that will turn paper into confetti at point-blank range. The image of him firing it into empty air, pulling it back with one hand, reloading, and then firing again just seems... appropriate. Somehow.

Dean isn't even the only victi... er, example who I hold in this context. If you must know, I imagine quite a few people with quite a few instruments:

Kenneth Yu: The proprietor of Philippine Genre Stories holds a lance, the kind used by medieval knights for jousting. It's blunted at the tip, but that's probably because I keep wondering whose job it is to sharpen the lance.

Dominique Cimafranca: I can imagine him with a starter's pistol in hand, that weapon-that's-not-a-weapon which gets used to start races. I don't know if it fires blanks or not; I just have a starter's pistol in mind.

Sacha Chua: The image of Sacha firing a missile launcher amuses me. In fact, I have a tendency to gift tiny young women with massive implements of destruction, probably for the mere fact that the concept amuses me.

Bill Gates: And now we move on to some more well-known public figures. Bill Gates actually doesn't get a weapon – for some reason, I keep placing a stainless steel guitar pick in his hands, although it's sharp enough to cut a few throats.

Bobby Fischer: The late chess eccentric holds a fireplace poker in his right hand. The image is strangely clear in my mind – it's polished brass, somewhat new but showing signs of wear, with both a straight and a curved blade at the tip. It glows against the light of the fire.

Jac Ting Lim: The blogger / artist / model / cosplayer / gamer wields a pair of shuko – claw-like weapons used by ninja.

Charles Tan: The reader's reader holds a morning star – a fantastic medieval weapon that's basically a spiked or studded iron ball attached to a chain. No word on what he uses it for, though.

Joseph Estrada: A broken beer bottle.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo: A dagger. Not just any dagger, mind you... I'm thinking a dagger with a slim blade and a slight wave to the edge near the hilt. It would be perfect for stabbing people in the back... although that's more a clinical observation than a critical opinion of her personality.

Manuel L. Quezon III: This man is one of the few people who I can imagine holding a sword. Weirdly enough, that sword happens to be a heavy Scottish claymore in this case. I'm not even sure if I know what a claymore looks like, which doesn't speak much as to the authenticity of this image.

Britney Spears: Heh. I can imagine her firing a Beretta handgun... just your plain old Beretta. Nothing fancy, and she doesn't seem too skilled at the firing range.

Sean Uy: I wield an umbrella. It's not even a special, steel-tipped umbrella with secret compartments and a concealed blade; it's just a regular umbrella that one buys in the local convenience stores. The irony is that I do bring one with me every day... and in a pinch, it would actually be my weapon of choice.


Monday, March 02, 2009

Disclaimer: March 2009

* All items on this blog were conceptualized and written by Sean (i.e. me), with the exception of those items and references sourced from other creators. These items have acknowledgements and links whenever possible; if any of the attributions are incorrect, or if you own these works and have a complaint against my featuring them on this site, you are welcome to contact me for cordial discussion.

* Please ask for permission before using any of the works on this blog so that I may make sure that these are used in their proper context. No compensation is usually involved for non-commercial use, although I'll just ask for a link of some sort. Do not use any of these works with the intent to malign, slander, or use under any name that's not my own... otherwise I'll lock you up in a room to get eaten by cute wittle bunny wabbits. And lawyers.

* One thing that you probably don't know is that bunny rabbits abhor the taste of the Creative Commons License. So visit that link in the right-hand sidebar of my main blog site while you still have time.

* The above image was sourced and created via Just when you thought they only liked carrots...