Month: December 2014

Her Name Was Leelah

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It’s tragic when someone dies.

It’s even more devastating when that death is a suicide.

When that act is committed by a young person, all of that is compounded exponentially.

Leelah Alcorn was a teenager who identified as transgender, who was transgender. Unfortunately, her religious, specifically Christian, family could not accept this. In their horror, they decided that their son who felt he was really a daughter should not accept this either.

That’s the thing about Christianity, if you don’t conform you are condemned. It is seen by Christians to be a righteous act to “save” someone by changing his or her nature to prevent condemnation.

This is how Leelah’s family reacted, by subjecting their child to religious based counseling. All they wound up doing is confirming that this type of therapy does not work. They broke their own child’s mind, and heart, and sense of life. Leelah decided to preserve what was left of herself by prematurely ending her life in order to avert more torture.

Many will judge Leelah for this, but no one has a place to do so. No one really knows for sure that things could have gotten better for her, so no one can say that she should have held on to such an unconfirmed potentiality.

The real regret is that Leelah is not alone. Many young people will suffer the same fate, but with much less awareness. Leelah’s desperate wish was that her death would mean something, and I’m attempting to do my part by sharing my sadness at her loss.

I didn’t know her personally, but I have felt similar pain. I am fortunate to find acceptance for being gay where she did not for being transgender, but I always feared that I wouldn’t either. In some ways, I still don’t have true acceptance, but those of us who are different have to take what we can get, because some of us, like Leelah, don’t get any.

I wish to extend with my words through this blog all the sympathy that I can to those like Leelah, living or otherwise, who are transgendered, gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, or just different in any way that is especially challenging. It does not get better for everyone, as long as people like Leelah’s parents wreak their ignorant havok upon the innocent.

It is true that there are some who have come through the pain to see better days, but that is not a promise made that is always kept by fate. We still have a long way to go, and when we lose friends on the way, we have to remember that we fight for their equality as well as our own.

Image by pixel–speechbubbles on Tumblr.

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How I Left My Mark On Congress

Or in it to be exact.

But first, let me tell you how this all started.

It was tradition for the fifth graders at my elementary school to join the elite squad of hall monitors, car door openers, and bus room patrollers known as the Safety Patrol.
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I was one so lucky to join, and proudly I wore my unfabulously orange Sam Browne belt.  My duty was to patrol the gymnasium every morning, which was basically a holding tank for all the children before classes started. This was supposed to allow our teachers to prepare for their day, but I’m pretty sure they went to the bathroom and toked it up.

Occasionally, the safety patrol did more harm than good, such as when a girl opened the car door for me too suddenly one morning, causing my dinosaur diorama to crash off of my lap onto the pavement. This created a mess and led my second grade teacher to think I was a sloppy kid. The way my mother yelled at that poor safety patrol girl likely caused trauma.

Because of this sour experience, I made it my mission to be the best junior safety patrol ever. I was never recognized for this achievement. However, I was eligible to go on the annual safety patrol trip to Washington DC.

This trip was incredibly eventful for me, actually. While at the zoo, my “buddy” walked off without me and left me to wander alone. He said I went off to chase Amish people, and it is true I saw them there for the first time in real life after learning about them from Harrison Ford’s movie “Witness”.

I did not, in fact, go off chasing Amish people. I was actually looking at pandas or zebras, something black and white, when my buddy left me. I then spent the rest of my time wandering around the same part of the zoo, where I also saw an elephant handler using a spiked prod to maneuver the big animal, which was when I became aware that zoos could potentially be cruel to animals.

I eventually made my way to the restaurant where we were supposed to meet, and everyone acted happy to see me, especially my teacher, Mrs. Smith. But from the way everyone was finishing up their boxed lunches I could tell they were ready to call off the search and officially abandon me.

At that point, I was the little boy who got lost at the zoo.

Later, at the Smithsonian, my chaperone left me to watch the big pendulum that slowly swung around and knocked off little wax things or whatever. She never came back. I tried to wait patiently, but when I emerged from the Smithsonian alone and another chaperone found me, she had no trouble guessing that I was the little boy who got lost at the zoo earlier.

Now I was the little boy who got lost at the zoo, and the Smithsonian.

Before we made our way to see the White House, we went to the United States Capitol. This is where we had our picture made on the steps to commemorate our adventures in DC. It was quite a hot spring day, and I was placed on those sunny steps between two larger children.
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The thermodynamics of this situation meant that I was getting really hot, really quickly. Additionally, the photographer was really uptight. Apparently, photographing a large group of children was an affront to his artistic sensibilities. Every time a child so much as blinked, he would throw up his hands in prissy exasperation.

It took minutes upon minutes to take a picture that had so many children in it that you could barely make out any features, much less whether or not eyes were open or closed. We were all squinting anyway as the sun proceeded to bake us.

After that we were made to trudge up that massive stairway in some kind of obedient sacrificial march to the monstrous building of politics before us. It was then that I began to feel faint. Queasy.

I stopped a moment on those stairs, fearing for my health. Mrs. Smith was none too concerned for me as much as she was concerned that her arm pit sweat was soaking her tee shirt. I mustered my remaining constitution and continued inside the Capitol building.

We arrived inside that great dome and took our seats. It was surprisingly massive. C-Span could never convey that from their monotonous coverage of Congress. It was also quite well air conditioned in there, too. Quite well.
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I don’t know why or how, but just as a man began to speak at the podium below, my body began to revolt against the stresses wreaked upon it. I was suddenly on my hands and knees, vomiting.

I’m probably not the only person to have ever spewed meaningless filth from my mouth in that building. I am sure, however that I’m the only one to produce actual vomit instead of petty politics

Mrs. Smith futilely offered me an air sickness bag, but her cautious distance was too remote (and literally behind my back) so I continued contributing to my one pile of mess, in a small effort to leave only one stain on the carpets of Congress.

I was rushed to the bathrooms as quickly as an injured politician, but the deed was done.

Now I was, officially, the little boy who puked in our nation’s capitol.

I reflected on this as I sat inside the fanciest bathroom ever. Did you know that there are televisions inside the bathrooms?  Oddly enough, in order to see them, you must sit on the toilet with the stall door completely open. Just imagining the nation’s least deserving, most powerful men taking dumps in plain sight of one another is actually quite humorous. And awful.

But not as awful as leaving a vomit stain somewhere at the end of a row of seats near the aisle in the capitol of the United States of America.

And that is how in the spring of 1996 I left my mark on, or in, Congress.

Cloud Atlas: A Review of the Film

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I had wanted to see Cloud Atlas for quite a while. The concept of interwoven storylines and a futuro-sci-fi setting intrigued me, and the Wachowskis have made a few films before of similar scope that I enjoyed, most notably V for Vendetta.

Released in 2012, and one of the most expensive independent films ever produced, the story of Cloud Atlas is actually several interwoven stories that explore similar or related themes and characters across time. The idea is, in some cases, well utilized in its attempt to thread separate narratives along a single flow of action.

Of the things I liked in the film, I enjoyed the cast the best. Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, and Halle Berry are the standouts to me. Normally I don’t find Halle Berry to be all that engaging an actress, despite being an Academy Award winner, but her performance here was quite good. Tom Hanks is always a pleasure, and Hugo Weaving always brings a menace to his villainous characters, and he does it so well.  He even crossdresses to play one of his characters, a little reminder of his adventures in the desert with Priscilla.

In fact several of the cast assume roles as different genders. Across time and place, the cast is consistent, which helps establish some continuity for the audience to follow. A great deal of makeup and creative wardrobe were used to evoke different times and personalities. The makeup in particular has received criticism, especially when depicting a futuristic Korean society with several of the actors wearing prosthetic face pieces to make them look Asian.

I didn’t find this offensive as it was clear to me that the actors were meant to be recognized across time regardless of race or gender. Had this movie been animated, I doubt people would complain if characters were drawn as different nationalities in different settings.

The movie is quite long, and sometimes the cuts between stories can be frenetic, but the build up through the first half works out quite well. The latter part of the film, though, does begin to buckle under the strain of the ambitious scope. This is mostly because the focus is frayed among the different strands of story that suffer from a lack of priority.

There are some clear themes that provide a strong framework for all the plots, such as equality and disenfranchisement, with slavery, race, and sexuality being some specific applications. Tom Hanks’ character also follows an arc of redemption that is fairly good, a testament to his acting skills.

Otherwise the stories all start to congeal at the end as if the effort to adapt everything from novel to screen had created a great wound, and things just never healed properly. The climaxes mostly seemed to go by a check list of things that needed to be complete, rather than express any culmination of plot and theme.

The film’s tagline, “Everything is connected,” is basically a by the numbers promise, and yes that much is delivered, but not with nearly as much flair as the build up seems to indicate. In fact, most of the characters never develop. Instead they merely get things done in order to ensure that things do connect.

This is why I mentioned this film lacks priorities. Perhaps in the novel the author was able to imbue all of his narratives with equal power. This is not so in the movie, and some storylines could have benefited from more editing, and even one storyline, Jim Broadbent’s main one, could have been cut out entirely despite its light-hearted feel providing a counterweight to some of the heavier plots.

One story’s climax in particular was emotional, the one where a homosexual composer, wonderfully portrayed by Ben Whishaw,  commits suicide. Watching his lover cradling him moments after the deed was heartbreaking, but slightly aggravating as well for two reasons.

The first reason is that this is just another example of depicting homosexual love as being fraught with tragedy. Yes, this character was a “product of his times” and all that jazz, but it is just too convenient to make homosexuals these tragic, troubled, unhappy creatures.

The second reason is that the surviving lover plays an important role in another, chronologically later story, but there is no reason depicted as to why his lover’s suicide was a catalyst for his later actions. That character barely had enough screen time for us to even see how events could have affected or changed him.

And therein is the flaw of this film. We are shown *what* happens, but very little of *why* things happen. I’m not sure if it was an oversight of the adaptation process, or if the filmmakers didn’t think an audience would much care for more in depth exploration of the characters’ motives, but the reason why someone pursues something is just as important as the plot itself, and provides the relevance that makes it engaging.

Telling me that within three hours you are going to weave together a handful of seemingly separate plots isn’t an example of good filmmaking as much as it is an act of sleight of hand.

The Saga of Crusader Kings 2

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Crusader Kings 2, released by Paradox Interactive in 2012, is a grand strategy game in which you choose a person, from count to king, and lead him and his descendants through the medieval era through wars, intrigue, and rivalries against hundreds of other in-game personalities. Sound overwhelming?

It is.

And this game isn’t my first rodeo, but it is where I finally managed to rope the bull or whatever. I began several years ago when I picked up Europa Universalis 3 on a whim. I was intrigued but quickly overwhelmed. I returned when Europa Universalis: Rome was released. It and its expansion Vae Victis entranced me with the ancient Mediterranean setting.

I finally got Crusader Kings 2 on Steam, where you have access to all kinds of medieval methods to victory, and this game is the best iteration of this formula I’ve yet played.

For example, in my recent game I played as The Republic of Venice, or more specifically as House Participazio, a patrician family of power among others in the republic. When I wasn’t the Doge, I could still lead my family with a great deal of independence. I made it my mission early on to establish myself in southern Italy.

This led to centuries of on and off war with the Byzantine Empire. They were a looming giant in my game and there were several wars between us and we each had our share of wins and losses. In fact, after one war, my leader lost all but two counties to the Byzantines. That was about two centuries of work. But I didn’t give up.

My leader, who also became Doge, exacted his revenge with assassins. After about five Byzantine emperors fell to my scheming,, and several heirs too the empire finally fell into disarray and civil war. That’s when I regained my lost territories, but my assassinations continued with other European leaders, which led to the strange of affair of Ireland becoming a Europe-spanning kingdom for a brief time.

You see, you may be the only player, but all of the other in game personalities are carrying on, too, with getting married, getting killed, plotting rebellions, or being possessed by devils. Somehow my series of assassinations royally screwed up some successions and once Bulgaria regained its territory, it held sway over most of Ireland for the rest of the game.

Byzantium, too, defied history. Turks never came, and the Greeks converted to Catholicism. Thus anytime the east posed a threat, the west was happy to help their brothers under the cross, and a great foe never emerged to challenge the Greeks. Maybe if the Byzantines had really converted…

Oh and then there was the Aztec invasion of Spain and Norway. Even after they were repulsed, lingering Mesoamerican culture continued to influence those areas until the end of the game. Yes, Aztecs.
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By the end of the game, Venice controlled the lower half of Italy, but it had survived several dire moments. I may not have conquered the world, but the experience was better than anything.

I can even export my game to Europa Universalis 4 and continue this alternate world into the modern era, however the converter is currently not functioning with new patches as of December 2014. But, hey, at least this game continues to get patches and expansions. Lots of them.

And that’s where this game really succeeds. I’ve played several strategy games from the Civilization series and it’s spinoffs to some of the Total War series, and even some RTSs like the Age of Empires series, but very few of those games have come close to matching the varied and rewarding gameplay in Crusader Kings 2.
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As I get older I’m less interested in material or superficial things, and in my games I look for experiences that will last for more than a quick trip to the victory screen at the end of a thirty minute game. You may spend most of your time looking at maps, but Crusader Kings 2 tickles a certain strategy fancy in the most fully satisfying way.

Steam-y Reflections

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Valve Corporation’s Steam has undoubtedly affected my PC gaming experience much as it has for many other people. It’s been in service for over a decade now, and my first encounter with it several years ago occurred when I purchased Half Life 2, which required Steam in order to play it.

I remember begrudgingly acquiescing to this demand, which at the time seemed rather draconian. In fact, I was unable to play Half Life 2 for a while because for the first couple of years I lived on my own, I didn’t have internet. I was so Spartan.

Nowadays, Steam makes a common appearance on my PC desktop, where I can peruse the latest patch notes and updates, sort through random statistics (I’ve played that game for 200 hours!?), and sometimes I even get roped into buying a new game because of some special sale that happens every time someone breathes or something.

For better or worse, Steam has wedged itself into my PC habits. iTunes did the same years ago, but with streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, I rarely open that mess of mp3s anymore. Maybe something will come along in a few more years to replace it, but until then Steam looks to be a constant companion.

Having said all that, there are some things regarding my gaming habits that gave changed with my adoption of Steam and others (gog.com is another of my favorites). Here’s a rose tinted look at some aspects of PC gaming that have changed for me.

1. Shopping!

Well, I still shop for games. In fact, nowadays I can peruse more games than ever with my mouse.  I can view gameplay videos, cinematic trailers, and screenshots. I can read customer reviews. But there was something about walking into the store and looking at all the boxes lined up for you to feel and weigh and otherwise drool over. You could feel the discs and manual sliding around inside (Oh, that one feels heavy). Which leads to…

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2. Boxes.

PC games still come in boxes, but they’re usually the flimsy, cheap, DVD case kind. Before that they came in smallish boxes that where about the same size as DVD cases except thicker. And before that PC game boxes whee big and sometimes different shapes (I fondly remember Tomb Raider’s trapezoidal box). Sometimes cover flaps would open exposing more screenshots and features. Then there were the special edition boxes that were usually huge and contained all kind of collectible things. Long story short, PC game boxes used to set themselves apart, whereas now they attempt to blend in.

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3. Instruction Manuals.

I considered it a badge of pride when game companies would include decent manuals with their products. More than just installation instructions, good manuals included backstory for characters and setting, detailed explanations for in game features, and all that jazz. Great manuals were fun to read like magazines or something, and they always gave you a bit more to experience even when you weren’t playing the game.

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Nowadays, the digital days, these things are a rarity. Sure you can still go to the store and pick up a hard copy of a game, but it’s easier to get the same thing at home, and often for less money if there’s a sale.

Boxes are a thing of the past, even for consoles which are also providing non-physical options for purchase. Plus, they tend to take up space. When I moved last year, it was a pain to lug around boxes of old CDs and games and boxes. Boxes of boxes. Such a first world problem. You may not be able to make me get rid of my big box for Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, but there’s a certain kind of relief in knowing that I don’t have to make room for boxes as I impulsively purchase games.

As far as manuals are concerned, I do miss them, but plenty more games are better about offering tutorials in lieu of physical instructions. When a game came with a great manual, I would skip any tutorial that was also available, but it’s nice to know I that they are more common now, and the internet is such a good place to get useless info anyway.

Times have changed for PC gaming, but I’ve changed as well. Perhaps I have rationalized my acceptance in order to better cope with the changes. I’m less interested in having physical things in favor of experiencing things instead, so holding onto discs and CDs and boxes and books and all that stuff is more of a hassle for me now. It is sad that young gamers don’t get to experience what I did years ago, but that makes those memories more special to me.

Besides, isn’t purchasing a game at home from your PC and then playing it just a few minutes later the future that we all dreamed when we were kids?