The Martian (Book) Review

Mark Watney has a problem. Due to a dust storm during his NASA mission, he’s been stranded on Mars. His teammates – and the rest of mankind – thought he died. He has no way to communicate with Earth. He’s trapped in a small habitat designed to last a month. There’s no breathable atmosphere outside. He has enough food for six people which, even if rationed, will last him less than one year. Since a rescue mission will take at least four years to arrive, he has to figure out a way to grow more food…on a planet devoid of water. But if no one knows he’s still alive, he’s going to starve anyway.

Okay, make that several problems.

SPOILERS

Needless to say, The Martian isn’t your typical survival story. A deserted island is one thing, but Mars is a completely different beast. How do you live on a planet that’s essentially uninhabitable? The answer is an awesome blend of the sheer isolation and desperation of Castaway and the determination and scientific improvising of Apollo 13. Watney was part of the NASA mission for a reason; as the team’s botanist and engineer, he’s got the right skills and knowledge to keep himself alive. Not enough food? Okay, cover the floor of the Hab with dirt, plant potatoes, and use your own waste as fertilizer. Keep track of your daily calories and ration accordingly. No water? Fine, burn some hydrazine, store the results, and be careful not to blow yourself up. Need to go on long excursions outside? Outfit your rover with solar panels, create a breathable atmosphere inside, and find a heat source to keep yourself from freezing. Communications array busted? Scrounge for leftover technology, fix what you can, and send information via telemetry, handwritten signs, or Morse code. Your spacesuit helmet cracked? Duct tape.

Seriously.

While some of these MacGuyver-esque techniques might seem daunting for the non-scientifically inclined, The Martian is quite to easy to read and understand. Andy Weir’s extensive research in potential and existing spaceflight technology shows through in both the details and the way they’re presented. While most sci-fi narratives are bogged down by their technical aspects, this novel benefits from having a narrator with a sense of humor. For all his expertise, Watney is a huge geek with a penchant for sarcasm. His first journal entry is laden with profanity, which is exactly how any normal person would react. His ability to describe realistic science in layman’s terms is impressive and often funny; he can say things like, “Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore” or “Something very hot and very explodey had happened” without coming off as condescending. His journal entries give a sense of confidence and self-awareness; he confronts the dire situation with straightforwardness and honesty, but relies on knowledge and humor to keep himself sane. When he’s not explaining how stuff works, his idle musings over Aquaman, Three’s Company, disco, other pop culture tidbits are more than enough to keep readers hooked.

Whenever we need a reminder that Watney’s situation isn’t all laughs, however, the perspective switches over to the rescue operation. NASA discovering he’s still alive is a foregone conclusion; they still have active satellites observing the planet’s surface. Communicating with and getting him back to Earth requires extensive logistics and engineering marvels. The novel examines what would actually happen in this kind of situation; the media frenzy, JPL redesigning rockets with limited time and budget, spaceflight physics, and frantic improvising when things go wrong. There are no villains; everyone wants Watney to make it back alive. How that’s achieved is up for debate, and coming up with a decisive plan is what forms the conflict. While the explanations are in-depth, the characters describing them are not. Most of NASA’s higher-ups (aside from the wonderfully brash Mitch Henderson and supremely competent Mindy Park) are sadly forgettable. Watney’s crew fare little better; their personalities are developed just enough to keep things interesting. There’s potential, like Commander Lewis dealing with the guilt of leaving one of her men behind, or Johanssen’s adorkable interactions with Beck. Aside from those, the astronauts are utterly one-note. Martinez is an ace pilot, constant joker, and nothing else. Then there’s Vogel, the German orbital mechanics and chemistry expert. That’s all. They all provide a little witty banter and technical expertise to get them – and the reader – through the mission, but nothing else. While the story is supposed to be focused on Watney’s survival, a little more time with the rest of the crew would’ve been appreciated.

That doesn’t make The Martian a bad novel. Far from it. It’s got just the right combination of humor and technical know-how to keep readers hooked. Mark Watney is a wonderful protagonist; his snarky attitude and determination turn what should’ve been a tragedy into an epic survival adventure. While the other characters don’t get nearly enough time, they serve their purposes in portraying a nearly impossible rescue mission. The story is well-paced and incredibly difficult not to finish in one sitting. Not due to brevity – the paperback release clocks in at just under 400 pages – but because it’s entertaining. I’m not going to spoil if or how Watney survives, but let’s just say that you’ll be rooting for him every complicated step of the way. This is one of those rare science fiction novels that strives for realism, but absolutely refuses to be weighed down by technical jargon. It can inspire people to study sciences, space flight and exploration, and anything else associated with astronomy. That, above all else, makes The Martian worth reading.

Go Set A Watchman Review

Like countless other children, I read and watched To Kill A Mockingbird in a grade school classroom. I could spend hours writing about how it introduced me to the concept of racism, illustrated the importance of compassion, the complexities of its theming, and Gregory Peck’s phenomenal performance as Atticus Finch. You probably know all of that already, though; Go Set A Watchman has been a bestseller since its release, and for good reason. Be it for Harper Lee’s legacy in the literary world, talk of the scandalous publishing circumstances, or the morbid curiosity in regards to a fallen hero, readers are interested in going back to Maycomb. The reunion is bitter, but worth the trip.

SPOILERS

Before getting into this, one thing above all else needs to be understood: Contrary to what might’ve been marketed to you, Go Set A Watchman is not a sequel. It started as an early draft that eventually led to a famous novel. It featured a 26 year-old Jean Louise Finch coming home to visit, finding out how messed up everything is, and dealing with it while accompanied by flashbacks to her supposedly idyllic childhood. Those flashbacks – and advice from Lee’s editor – are the foundations of To Kill A Mockingbird. Any transition from first draft to book is fraught with changes, and Harper Lee’s work is no exception; the continuity errors and lack of editing are obvious. Tom Robinson was acquitted (the iconic trial is only mentioned in passing) in this version, which makes one wonder if this story can even be considered canon. Jem is dead and Dill is likely traveling through post-World War II Europe, thus depriving her of  some much-needed friends/confidants. The cast is limited to only a handful, and even fewer get any kind of development. Rather than a fully fleshed-out novel, it comes off as a character study strung together with a series of anecdotes.

It seems fine at first. Scout has grown into a confident, successful young woman. Not only can she afford to live in New York and visit Atticus annually, but approaches her hometown’s seemingly old-fashioned traditions with open contempt. She has a passive-aggressive war with her Aunt Alexandra (who serves as the embodiment of Maycomb’s values as opposed to a fully-realized character), and considers her Uncle Jack as eccentric bookworm. With her peers gone, the narrative focuses on Scout’s relationship with Henry Clinton, her not-quite fiance and Atticus’s protege. It’s a charming story until Scout finds out about their participation in the local Citizens’ Council. Rather than taking a step back and trying to figure out what’s going on, she immediately assumes the worst and spends the latter half of the book having a meltdown.

This is nothing new for her. We get to see Scout’s childhood and coming of age via flashbacks, and they all foreshadow her problem. She tends to believe whatever she sees or is told without question, makes assumptions, lets her issues build up, and either gets caught or has to be bailed out of trouble by her companions. These passages blend often comedy and tragedy; we get a glimpse of a clueless Atticus turning to Calpurnia for help with Scout’s first period, which is a reminder of how Mrs. Finch is long dead. Scout also gets French kissed on the playground, thinks she’s gotten pregnant, secretly harbors the guilt for months, culminating in a half-baked suicide attempt. Not to mention insecurities with her appearance,  which nearly ruin her experience at school dance, and how it leads to her near-expulsion. With stories like these, it’s not surprising why To Kill A Mockingbird became its own thing.

Scout’s misunderstandings and awkward stubbornness are endearing when she’s a kid, but not so much when she’s 26. When attending a coffee luncheon with her former classmates, she spends the entire time musing how they have nothing in common and how she despises Maycomb’s expectations of women. She never makes an attempt to see them as actual people instead of walking cliches.There are over 100 pages between her finding about Atticus and confronting him about it, and she spends them either reminiscing about her childhood, dismissing other people, or inwardly fuming. The narration explains it immediately: Scout worshiped her father, but never realized it. It’s one thing to respect your parent, but holding him up as an idealized bastion of moral perfection is not good for you. Parents are flawed just like you, and you won’t always agree with them. Scout’s near mental breakdown and falling out with her family shows how bad such a character flaw can get.

“She was extravagant with her pity, and complacent in her snug world.”

Surprisingly, Atticus is written more sympathetically. Make no mistake: His view of African Americans is offensively patronizing at the very least. To modern audiences, his anti-integration stance is disgusting. By no means is he the frothing, manic, lynch-happy racist Scout thinks he’s become (she compares him to Hitler in one eye roll-inducing moment during her lengthy, bitter speech), but his brand of bigotry is more subtle. Unlike his daughter, he argues his side calmly; he hates what happened with Brown v. Board of Education and its relation to the 10th Amendment, and loathes the idea of NAACP affecting Maycomb. His heritage is deeply intertwined with the town; of course he’d want to protect its values and keep things unchanged for as long as possible, even if (to us, anyway)  they are horrifying. It’s no coincidence that Atticus is 72 and crippled with arthritis; he, like the town, embodies beliefs that are on the verge of death. He’s not necessarily evil, but merely a product of his time.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast didn’t get the same attention. Calpurnia, now withered and confined to a rocking chair, shows up for one incredibly sad and guilt-ridden scene. Aunt Alexandra only shows a hint of depth when Scout makes her cry during their final argument, which makes their interpersonal spats look juvenile in retrospect. Henry seems primed for character growth; he’s the scion of one of Maycomb’s “trash” families, worked his way out of poverty, and done well under Atticus’s wing. He admits that he’s just going along with the Citizens’ Council because he’s trying to live according to others’ expectations, and is desperately afraid of being shamed by the community and losing everything he’s worked for. It would’ve made for an interesting arc, but Henry slips into irrelevance soon after the reveal.

Uncle Jack, however, steals every scene he’s in; he’s savvy enough to understand that a confrontation is inevitable and tries to stealth-mentor Scout via exposition and literary quotations. She ends up so angry and confused that he has to physically intervene and slap her just to keep her from walking out on them forever. He then has to spell out Scout’s personal failings – and a major theme of the novel – because she’s too dense to understand them. The fact that he considered Scout and Jem to be the children he never had – and the revelation that he was in love with their mother – is practically tacked on as an afterthought. Uncle Jack’s lack of character development is unfortunate, because his sarcasm and eccentric personality makes him such a great contrast to the straitlaced Atticus:

“”Listen, girl. You’ve got to shake off a twenty-year-old habit and shake it off fast. You will begin now. Do you think Atticus is going to hurl a thunderbolt at you?”

“After what I said to him? After the-”

Dr. Finch jabbed the floor with his his walking stick. “Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?”

No. She had not. She was terrified.

“I think you’ll have a surprise coming,” said her uncle.”

There’s a scene in which Scout, desperate for something welcoming and familiar, returns to her childhood home. It’s been replaced with an ice cream shop, and it takes only a few pages before she vomits up her vanilla and realizes that everything has irrecoverably changed. While I doubt Go Set A Watchman will provoke such an extreme reaction from its readers, there’s no denying what it means for To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s easy to dismiss this novel for its lack of proper editing, continuity errors, and questionable background, but its messages are worth considering. Just like Scout, we’ve spent decades worshiping Atticus Finch as a figure of ultimate moral integrity. It’s so easy to forget that perspectives and values change over time, and not everyone will be on the right side of history. Our heroes aren’t as great as we thought…and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. They are not perfect, but they are human. Maybe it’s more interesting that way.

RIP, Satoru Iwata

Yesterday, Satoru Iwata passed away. For those unfamiliar with his work, he was the president and CEO of Nintendo. But he was so much more than that; unlike countless other businessmen and executives, he earned his success the old fashioned way: starting from the bottom and working his way up. He studied programming in the 1970s, when video games were still in their infancy. He began as an unpaid intern for Commodore, then became a freelancer for HAL Laboratory while in college. After graduating, he worked full time and rose up its ranks in the early 90s. He had a hand in founding Creatures Inc., the folks responsible for bringing Pokemon to the world. He didn’t wasn’t just some guy in suit, either. He took over programming for Earthbound and saved it from developmental oblivion. He programmed the original Pokemon Red/Blue battle mechanics into Pokemon Stadium without any reference documents, using just the Game Boy’s source code instead…in one week. He famously compressed the all of the original game into the Gold/Silver cartridge, just to surprise and reward players for beating the regular quest. When Super Smash Bros. Melee was facing a delayed release date due to programming issues, he – already Nintendo’s General Manager of Corporate Planning – went downstairs and personally debugged the game hands-on, all in less than a month.

Yeah, he was that good.

He was in a unique position of growing alongside his industry; unlike many of his peers, his insight into game design came from the effort of making games the old fashioned way, with a focus on the fun experience while dealing with the hardware limitations. He understood that focusing so much on flashier graphics and processing power wasn’t necessarily the answer, and that appealing to people beyond hardcore gamers was incredibly important. Nintendo is often derided for appealing to kids instead of adults, but he was proud of it; he argued that children have an instinctual understanding of whether a game was good or not. He refused to let the company stagnate, constantly pushing them to try new things. He was initially mocked for bringing forth the DS and Wii – both consoles had unorthodox designs and admittedly terrible launch lineups – but was eventually vindicated via record-breaking sales numbers and some of the finest games in the last decade.

What was more inspiring is what Iwata did when the company wasn’t succeeding. Nintendo fell into a slump when it released the Wii U, mainly due to its high prices, strange design, and lacking lineup. The company was losing money, and he was being roasted by both gamers and corporate shareholders alike. Instead of stepping down, he voluntarily cut his salary in half to make up for it! That was the second time he did it, too; when the 3DS’s sales went poorly, he took the same action. When corporate demanded why he hadn’t fired employees for the sake of profit, he absolutely refused to do so, saying that it wouldn’t work well long-term, and that it’d wreck the company’s morale. If you look around online, you’ll find countless stories of people meeting Iwata and saying what a passionate, candid, and kind guy he was in person. When Ocarina of Time was released, he even went out and bought a copy on the way home from work. His hilarious “Direct To You” presentations and sense of humor have become the stuff of Internet memetic legend. The hundreds of thousands of tributes pouring in – even from Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo’s business rivals – shows just how loved and respected Iwata was.

I wish I had a personal story about meeting him. I wish I could say that we crossed paths at a convention, or that we shared an elevator, or that I pitched an idea and worked for him. But I can’t, and now I never will. Instead, all I have are the games he made, and the memories of how he helped shape my childhood. Yes, I caught all 151 of the original Pokemon, played almost every Kirby game, and spent countless hours fighting in Smash Bros. My gaming library is full of titles made with him as the Executive Producer; I wouldn’t be the same person without Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and other Nintendo franchises influencing me. While I don’t play nearly as much as I used to, gaming is still very much a part of me. It reminds me of something Iwata once said:

“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”

Thank you for everything, Mr. Iwata. We understand.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Professor Layton and the Last Specter Theme (Live)

I love the Professor Layton series. It’s the closest Nintendo – or any major video game company, for that matter – will get to making a Sherlock Holmes-style character. He’s highly intelligent, polite, and solves mysteries of ridiculous proportions. It would’ve worked well enough as a visual novel, but letting you solve hundreds of puzzles along the way makes it so much better. The series is also well known for its extensive continuity and well-written characters; The Last Specter is the fourth installment out of six (seven if you count the Phoenix Wright crossover), but it’s the first chronologically. It’s also famous for its various soundtracks, which are among the best you’ll ever hear on a Nintendo console. While the theme of the Diabolical Box will always be my favorite, this live version of the Last Specter is great for some easy listening.

Good gaming, good music.

Well, It’s About Time.

So, the United States Supreme Court finally decided in favor of same-sex marriage. It’s not surprising, really; it’s been a foregone conclusion for a couple of years now. It was like a poorly-paced novel or show; the outcome is inevitable, but it drags on for so long that you almost don’t expect it to happen. But when it finally does, it feels like the most satisfying thing ever. That kind of statement probably warrants the assumption that I’m neck-deep in the politics at hand, but I’m utterly apolitical; if you’re looking for a debate, don’t bother posting. I lack the time, patience, and energy for that kind of thing. I doubt I’d change your mind regardless.

For me, it’s not a question of parties or other inherently limiting affiliations. Anyone can make promises and tell you what you want to hear. People can change sides and make concessions whenever it’s convenient. All that matters to me is if it works. I consider myself a student of all subjects, though history is among my favorites. I find traditions fascinating, but I’d be foolish to ignore how society changes with times. Knowledge, technology, expectations, roles, beliefs, goals, prejudices, businesses, friends, enemies…It’s all connected in one huge, ever-shifting reality. All we have are the memories from which we can hopefully learn.

If I traveled back in time 20 years and told 1995-Me that same-sex marriage would be made legal, he’d…Well, he’d probably grab a kitchen knife and chase me – the 30-year-old stranger that suddenly appeared – out of the house. That aside, he’d likely be confused and uncomfortable. At that point, my only exposure to anything remotely homosexual were Uranus and Neptune, the lesbian couple from the Sailor Moon anime who were infamously dubbed as “cousins” in the American broadcast. I’ve always been amused by younger viewers saying how “groundbreaking” recent shows like Adventure Time, MLP: FIM, and The Legend of Korra have been with regards to their implied same-sex romances. Japan has had that market cornered for decades; there are whole genres devoted to them! It’s just that mainstream American media – until quite recently – has had a huge, often hypocritical hang-up when it comes to portraying sexuality. What we have now is not so much a leap forward as it is slowly playing catch-up.

Sorry, went on a tangent. Point is, back in 1995 I was just a child a San Francisco Bay Area suburb. I was a classic latchkey kid, the kind who’d spend afternoons watching TV, finishing homework, reading, and doing chores before (hopefully) seeing a parent at dinnertime. I still get surprised reactions when people – mostly women – find out I know how to run a household. Not exactly quantum mechanics, folks. Being isolated so much never struck me as odd. What did, however, was how the other kids were treating me. I’ve mentioned how much of a bookworm I am; even as a child, I was intelligent, short, effeminate, shy, awkward, lacked confidence, skipped a grade, wore glasses, and was a late bloomer. That’s some prime bullying material, and everyone seemed to know it. But it went beyond that, and I didn’t understand what it was until much later:

I was different.

It wasn’t something that could be pinned down to just intelligence and whatnot; the others could sense that something was “off” – and therefore wrong – about me. I think it had mostly to do with my appearance; I still get mistaken for a woman sometimes. I’m now awesome and confident enough to roll with it. But in 1995, I was a nervous, quivering, prone-to-crying wreck who was bullied all the way through freshman year of high school. California might have a reputation for being progressive, but that doesn’t work so well in real life. I got crude jibes about shaving my legs, putting on makeup, my time of the month, you name it, they said it. I’ve been called every homophobic epithet you can possibly think of, usually from kids on bikes or passing cars as I walked home every day. I’ve had stuff thrown at me, been beaten up, all of it. Unlike the supposed politically-correct era we live in today, nobody – adult, kid, or otherwise – stepped in to help me. There was no “It Gets Better” for me. People only cared when I started fighting back; a ruthless temper can end a fight very quickly. It can also isolate you, and not in a good way. I was respected as a potential valedictorian for the rest my high school days – I was even nominated for the Every 15 Minutes Program and to give a speech at graduation – but I didn’t make any friends.

The problem wasn’t limited to school, though. Much of my family are devoutly religious; my grandfather was a minister, and his emigration here to preach was the reason I was born in America. I went to Sunday school, attended church twice a week, the whole bit. I’m still pretty good when it comes to Biblical topics on Jeopardy.  Growing up like that isn’t too bad; there’s a sense of family, community, and purpose. It’s all fine…as long as you follow whatever you’re told. That’s a real problem when it comes to someone like me, who constantly searches for answers, questions explanations, and strives to see the bigger picture. Or someone who so blatantly doesn’t conform to gender roles and sexuality, for that matter. There’s a lot of guilt involved with that kind of upbringing: the constant fear of disappointing your elders, the paranoia of being caught and judged, the logic that God doesn’t answer your prayers to stop the bullying because you’re a sinner, hating yourself for not wanting to be masculine etc. Never mind being smart, responsible, and having perfect grades; if you don’t conform, you’re a rebellious outcast. Needless to say, I wasn’t popular with the kids my age, either.

I’m not going to deny the importance of religion – people need to believe in something to survive, be it spiritual, philosophical, technological, whatever – but I can’t abide by it. The human mind is far more stubborn and creative than any religion can fully encompass, and we’re just starting to understand how it works on a psychological level. The centuries of violence, bloodshed, and oppression, all for what? They’re all the same stories, told in different ways. It’s like the human race; many branches, one tree. We should be learning from and helping each other survive. Yeah, I know it’s naive and it’ll probably never work; we as a society are still too foolish to make it happen. We’ll probably never find whichever beliefs – if any – are accurate. That’s a two-way street, by the way. Extremism is bad regardless of what side it’s on, and the messages from some well-meaning social media groups outright terrify me. I’m celebrating the same-sex marriage victory with the rest of you, but remember, popular beliefs and morals change over time. In another 40 years, we’ll be the ones considered old-fashioned and mocked accordingly.

Think about it.

So, where does the legalization of same-sex marriage leave me? Pretty much where I was yesterday, honestly. Despite numerous assumptions to the contrary over the years, I’m not gay. I’m 1.5 at most on the Kinsey Scale. I’m not too keen on the whole categorizing thing, though. I’m far more interested in gender fluidity; biological sex and gender are now considered separate, and the latter has its own spectrum. That explains a lot for me, even if the concept is still being developed. 1995-Me could’ve really used that term and had a better childhood. The human mind is too complex to be limited to society’s expected gender roles, which is something that our culture is only beginning to understand. As for all those lost, bitter years? I’ll never get them back. But I can take solace in the fact that while I may be different, the times have (temporarily, at least) shifted in my favor.

As for the rest of you, congratulations. You’ve earned this victory.

Daily Prompt: Polymathic Playlist

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about music. Specifically, the kind of mix tape/playlist you’d make to introduce yourself to someone new. This one took a while to make, mainly because I was raised with a really eclectic music selection. I’ll just let the playlist do the talking. Happy listening! EDIT: For the sake of simplicity, I made a playlist on YouTube.

Daily Prompt: LEGOs For Life

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was all about toys. Specifically, the ones you played with as a child, and the ways they affected your adult life. I could spend all day writing about how video games have shaped me; I learned how to use an Atari 2600 joystick around the same time I learned to walk, I could speed run through Mega Man X like a record-setting pro, and I’ve played just about every Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and major fighting game released in America. I don’t play as religiously as before – though I have a tendency to play Tetris as I’m watching Jeopardy – but the 90s gamer geek culture is thoroughly engrained in my personality. However, it’s not all that I am, nor is it my only influence. Besides, video games aren’t actually toys; they’re part of an emerging medium, much like films were in the last century. When it comes to toys, I can think of only one thing:

LEGOs.

I don’t think I need to expound of the virtues of those amazing building blocks; it seems like common knowledge. It even got its own feature length, award-winning movie in 2014! It makes you think and create, limited only by the extent of your imagination and patience. Unlike video games, it allows you to play and build with something tangible; you can see and physically touch the fruits of your labor, and thus feel accomplished for it. On my fifth birthday, I was given the Black Seas Barracuda. Even by modern LEGO standards, it’s an amazing, massive piece of work: 865 pieces, eight characters, cannons that actually fire, the folding stern that lets you see inside…So good. The adults apparently didn’t care that it was supposed to be for kids aged 9-12; they just set up a table, opened the box, handed me the instructions, and let me work. It took a couple of weekends – my parents were divorced – but I built that ship myself before I started first grade. It’s still sitting in storage somewhere, a remnant of a childhood long past.

Needless to say, building it (and many others to follow) played an important role in how I turned out. For me, it was another puzzle to solve; I grew up noticing the little pieces that made up life. When I read, I could understand things like characterization and theming long before I knew those were even words. When I drew with crayons, I didn’t just choose random colors; I asked how we knew that the colors we saw were the real ones. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I freaked out a few adults with that. The more I learned, the more pieces I found, the more I could understand reality and how it all tied together. As an adult, I have so many interests in both nature and the sciences; I love a great sunset, and even more because I understand the physics and astronomy behind it. I can walk on the beach and feel the sand between my toes, and imagine the time it took for the waves and wind to grind the particles down. There’s so much out there, and so few see it…

By the way, I never outgrew LEGOs. No one should. I have a few vats of assorted pieces at home, and I’ve made a tradition of getting one of the Architecture sets every Christmas. A shelf in my room has the Empire State Building, John Hancock Center, Seattle Space Needle, Burj Khalifa, Sydney Opera House, Big Ben, and Leaning Tower of Pisa. They’re not quite as grand as the old sets, but they’re a nice reminder of my travels and places I’ve yet to see. In that sense, LEGOs are inspiring me in a completely different way now. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Happy Free Comic Book Day 2015!

Hey, folks. May 2nd was the annual Free Comic Book Day. Basically, you go to a participating shop and get a bag of free samplers (and buy anything else that looks interesting), all while enjoying whatever other promotions are going on. Fantastic Comics is only a short BART ride away, but I was kind of on the fence about attending. Then I found out Gail Simone was going to be there, which was an insta-YES condition. I I left early, assuming I’d be able to beat the line. Turns out everyone else had the same idea.

Yeah, I should’ve left earlier. It took an hour and fifteen minutes to get inside, but it went by fast. Everyone was in high spirits, particularly those who’d just seen Avengers: Age of Ultron. The kids ahead of me were debating who’d win in a fight between Goku and Superman (Seriously?! I remember high school lunch hours focused about that exact topic over a decade ago.), while some guys nearby were getting their Xenoblade Chronicles 3D on. The couple standing behind me even offered to share some pizza, but I declined. Between my DSLR, backpack, and Italian phrasebook (yes, I’m still working on that), I don’t think I could’ve juggled a freshly-baked slice.

I took the opportunity to take photos of the few – but quite awesome – cosplayers in attendance. I feel uncomfortable taking photos of people, though. I’m awkward enough around others as it is; How do you just walk up to someone as say, “Hey, you look awesome, may I take your picture?” without sounding like some kind of creepy stalker? Seriously, that’s the last thing I want; even when I’m doing beach photography, I wait until everyone is out of the frame. After taking these photos, I made sure to promise that I’d send copies to them just as a record of the event. Not sure if they believed me, but they were good sports. Check these out:

Things stayed upbeat and organized inside the store as well. The flow and layout was simple: the line was kept off to the side as much as possible, then directed to the shelves of comics towards the back. That way, customers could look at/consider purchasing interesting comics while waiting to reach the free stuff at the table in the corner. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety; I’m not a hardcore comic book fan by any means – I’m far more into literature and games – but the selection was impressive. I ended up buying a copy of Secret Six #1 and an exclusive Swords of Sorrow print by Kate Leth, then getting into another line that was reserved for meeting Gail Simone.

It was totally worth the wait. She – and her husband – were incredibly nice and gracious. A lot of folks could’ve just autographed stuff and called it a day, but they actually spoke with fans  – someone in front of me took the time to show off all of his superhero-related tattoos – the entire time. I wonder how many of these signings/conventions/etc. they attend every year. I promised myself that I wouldn’t geek out too much, but I ended up babbling a little bit anyway. I’m awkward enough when it comes to regular conversation; what was I going to one of the most famous comic book writers in existence? I settled on a handshake, and thanking her for awesome writing, and how inspirational she is. I even managed to get a photo:

After that, I’m pretty sure I’d been standing there too long. I’m just one random guy, after all. There were plenty of other fans waiting. I collected everything she autographed, gave both Gail and her husband a final thank you, and left. I felt relieved to be out of there – crowded places are not my thing – but sad that I couldn’t stay longer. I nursed my regrets by going next door to Half Price Books and stocking up on a few things. I also walked to University Press Books by the campus (yesterday was also Independent Bookstore Day) and spent an hour looking over old texts. By the time I got home, my Free Comic Book Day haul included:

Autographed by Gail Simone:

Comic Book Samplers:

  • Attack On Titan by Kodansha Comics
  • Street Fighter: Super Combo Special by UDON
  • Mega Man & Sonic the Hedgehog: Worlds Unite Prelude by Archie Action
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender/Plants vs Zombies/Bandette by Dark Horse Comics
  • Secret Wars #0 by Marvel
  • Pokemon X/Y by Perfect Square
  • Teen Titans Go/Scooby Doo & Super Friends Team-Up by DC
  • Cleopatra In Space by Scholastic
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by IDW
  • Ten Year Celebration by Boom Studios
  • Simpsons Free-For-All by Bongo Comics.

Note: Photos of the above can be seen here.

Books:

Man, I’ve got a lot to read…

 

San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival 2015

Hey, folks. If you’re into Japanese culture, festivals, or botany, chances are you’ve heard of the Hanami, more commonly known in the West as the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Most associate it with the events in Washington DC or Macon, but San Francisco’s tradition has been going strong for almost five decades. I happened to be in the Bay Area this year – my travel months usually fall between April and May – so I decided to go for the first time. The festival lasted two weekends in a row, but that wasn’t enough time to do everything; I settled for going each Saturday and seeing what I could. The results were mixed, but it was an awesome experience overall.

WEEKEND 1

I hadn’t been to Japantown in a couple of years, so I’d forgotten how much of a walk it took to get up there. It’s certainly BART-able; I’m in decent shape, so the 1.5 mile trek (most of it uphill) was a nice warmup. The official website even recommends that you take the bus, but I wanted to save money and get some exercise in. However, it’s understandable why everyone just takes public transit; if you’re going to Japantown from the Financial District on foot, you have to go through the city’s dreaded Tenderloin. You’ll never see such a sudden and drastic change in atmosphere. Just a few blocks from the flashy lights and trendy stores of Union Square, there are boarded-up windows, seedy bars, crime, prostitution, and more homeless than you’ll see anywhere else in the city. Most depictions of San Francisco conveniently overlook this area. Pretty sure those red double-decker tour buses never drive on Turk Street, lest those high-paying visitors see something horrifying and tell their friends. I love wandering the city in my spare time, but I typically make a beeline onto Geary and call it a day. However, the Tenderloin is redeemed by its incredible art; it’s so easy to stumble across a gorgeous mural and varied architecture.

Japantown was another story entirely. I was used to seeing the place on weekday afternoons; a peaceful, quiet district that happened to house every geeky anime and video game thing I could want. But this time, the square surrounding the Peace Pagoda was crammed full of people. I don’t like crowds; they feel suffocating and draining to me. There were hundreds of people sitting in rows of chairs, or standing at the nearby railings, all eagerly anticipating the drum performance by the iconic Taiko Dojo. I couldn’t find a good place to see the show, so I decided to wander. What struck me wasn’t just the amount of people, but how many of them were cosplayers. I’ve never been to Comic Con or any major geek convention, let alone seen these dedicated and creative fans in person. For example, I immediately bumped into this familiar fellow:

That’s aside from Junior from RWBY, No-Face from Spirited Away, Mega Man, a mini Gundam, Ryuko Matoi from Kill la Kill, a couple Harry Potters, and at least three Soras (one even had a metal keyblade!)  from Kingdom Hearts. Not to mention all the people in their gothic and sweet lolita outfits; I think that fashion style rocks, and I wish I were confident/pretty enough to pull off the look. Or any cosplaying for that matter; I actually considered going as Vincent Volaju, but the weather was too warm for a trench coat. I also didn’t to come off as one of those creepy guys that stalks and takes pictures of these coplayers at conventions, so I kept my photography to objects and performances. It was probably to my detriment, though; I was surrounded by literally thousands of other geeks, but I didn’t actually talk with anyone. I thought I’d gotten a handle on this whole introversion thing. Sigh. There’s always next year…

I spent most of the time exploring some old haunts at the indoor Japantown Center.  If you’re a local and don’t like buying your anime/gaming memorabilia online, chances are you’ll find your products here here. Japantown Collectibles has a decent selection of models (though Ying’s Hobbies in Chinatown has a vastly superior Gundam selection), as well as several Play Arts Kai and other statues. Japan Video & Media is essentially a one-stop shop for anime DVDs, as well as decent variety of plushies, posters, and other memorabilia. That also apparently includes body pillows (?!) printed with famous characters; I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned having a childhood crush on Sailor Mars, but nowhere near the point of cuddling up to a picture of her! There’s also the Kinokuniya Bookstore, which has an absolutely massive selection of Japanese texts, both translated or otherwise. The lower floor is dedicated to manga and gaming; while the average Barnes & Noble stocks a shelf or two of manga at most, this was practically an entire store’s worth of comics! Their art book selection is impressive as well. I was sorely tempted to pick up UDON’s Street Fighter and Bayonetta works, but I kept my temptation in check. These places are a wonderland for collectors and hardcore fans…but they don’t come cheap. Anime products released stateside – DVDs in particular – suffer from serious price gouging. After making a mental wishlist, I left the stores without regret.

Instead, I focused on the artist’s alley. It wasn’t huge; there were a dozen booths spread out near the shopping center’s main staircase. These folks know their clientele; everyone was selling some kind of print, pin, or bead sprite depicting characters from popular series. Stuff from Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, Metal Gear Solid, Sailor Moon, Persona 4, Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy…the characters go on and on and on. I looked at each table three times before settling on a signed print of this Okami work by Wenqing Yan, famously known as yuumei on DeviantArt. I’ve been a fan of her work for years, but I never thought I’d ever see her in person. On the way out, I stopped by Katachi and bought a nice, sturdy machete. I’d been meaning to replace my old one for months, so I didn’t want to pass on the opportunity. The 25” blade was too large to fit in my backpack – the hilt was stick out of the back – but thankfully no one on BART noticed.

I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the booths outdoors. There were plenty of other local artists (The Bamboo Whisperer is still my favorite!) but I focused on the food. There was a small – but quite successful – vendor selling freshly cooked Japanese cuisine. It was a selection of edamame, takoyaki, and karaage. I’m not a foodie by any means, but their karaage was easily the most delicious thing I’ve had this year. I’m actually tempted to look up some recipes. The most popular food seller, however, was the Hello Kitty Cafe Truck. Seriously, that’s a real thing. They were selling a small assortment of boxed desserts, including donuts, mini cakes and, macarons, as well as bottled lemonade and t-shirts. The line for this smorgasbord of sugary adorableness stretched down – and through – most of the street. There were at least a couple hundred people in front of me; after 20 minutes and only a few feet, I gave up. I managed to score a free box of Pocky from another truck, so it wasn’t a total loss.

After enjoying a performance by the Nihon Buyo Kiyonomoto and picking up some commemorative stamps for my grandmother, I made the mistake of leaving early. I did not want to walk back to BART at night. Also, I somehow missed the post that showed the full schedule of events; I didn’t know that I was missing out on kendama and ikebana demonstrations, the cosplay chess tournament, and tea ceremonies. After realizing my mistake later on, I was determined to return and see more.

WEEKEND 2

Armed with a schedule and a map, I returned to Japantown on the 18th. I stopped long enough to watch another Taiko Drum performance, but kept walking. I skipped all the stores I’d visited previously – though I did pick up two boxes of Harajuku Mochi Chocolates at Nippon-Ya – and made a beeline for the Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibit at Issei Memorial Hall. There were at least a couple dozen entries from the Marin Bonsai Club, the Yamato Bonsai Kai, and a few other groups. I did at least five laps around that room, taking as many shots of those amazing plants as I could. Growing a bonsai requires patience and dedication, so I was stunned by the 60-year old Chinese Elm on display. The exhibit deserved far more attention; I’m glad to be one of the relative few to enjoy it.

Afterwards, I headed upstairs just in time to catch the Iaido demonstration by the Nishi Kaigen Iaido Dojo. I’ve played enough video games to recognize the martial art on sight, but it’s so much cooler in person. An average person might be able to awkwardly swing a sword, but these practitioners were unbelievably smooth and precise. It was going well until one of the performers tore his foot on a staple in the stage’s carpet. I was standing off to the side, so I got a glimpse of the bloody injury before the man was carted off by the EMTs. In order to save face, the remaining iaidoka had the audience push the chairs back, then continued the show in front of the stage. They were followed by the Azama Honryu Seifu Ishisenkai USA and Kinuko Mototake Dance Academy, a troupe that specializes in traditional dances from Okinawa. Their performances were slow and relaxing – an older fellow sitting next to me kept falling asleep – but quite elegant. I’ll have a few more videos for them up soon. On the way out, I stopped by the Washi Ningyo table at the back. There were several detailed paper dolls (including a miniature taru mikoshi!) on display. The owner invited me to an upcoming workshop, but I haven’t decided to go yet.

On the way out of the building, I stumbled across a shodo (aka Japanese calligraphy) demonstration. I’ve never studied it, so it was fascinating to watch this group of elderly folk make beautiful art from just ink and paper. The placement of the characters, the shading, the coordination involved…it was so good. And to think, this is initially taught as a mandatory elementary school subject. Do we even teach cursive to American grade-schoolers anymore?! Once the show was over, the calligraphers gave out personalized trinkets to the kids. I sheepishly asked for my name on a fan, which is now proudly displayed on my desk. Coincidentally, I came across another shodo desk when I went back through Osaka Way. Not only did they give me a second personalized fan, but a mini wall scroll with “Knowledge” painted on it. I also stopped by Forest Books; it doesn’t have Kinokuniya’s huge selection, but focuses more on Asian culture, history, and politics. Definitely worth visiting if you’re looking for more obscure texts.

With the day winding down, I had one more objective: the Hello Kitty Cafe Truck. This was my last chance to pick up some desserts for my relatives, and I didn’t want to come back empty-handed. The line wasn’t so bad this time; about 20 minutes later, I walked away with a box of donuts, five macarons, and a cute little tote bag. Yes, I truly earned the swagging rights. I also stumbled across the real mikoshi on my way out; unlike the doll version, this one was decked up out intricate patterns and golden trimmings. A few kimono-clad women were offering people some free sake, but they ran out by the time I walked over. I don’t drink – sparkling cider is the strongest beverage I’ve tried – but it would’ve been an interesting experience. On my way out of the Peace Plaza, I stopped to watch the UC Berkeley Yosakoi Group perform their dances. Such a strong, awesome show was the perfect way to finish my day.

As I walked back down Geary and onto BART, I thought about what I’d seen over the last two Saturdays. The Cherry Blossom Festival is an interesting blend of both old and new; the younger folks enjoying their modern forms of art, while still appreciating the traditions of their predecessors. With all the manga, anime, and games permeating Japanese pop culture, it’s so easy to overlook how they were influenced and inspired by the creativity of the older generations. Not everyone cares about the humanities, but judging by the turnout, they’re won’t be forgotten any time soon. Hopefully next year’s festivities will be even better!

Oh, and one last thing. In a bit of irony, I didn’t see any cherry blossoms at the festival. Due to the stormy weather we had a couple of weeks back, all of the usually gorgeous trees were completely bare. There were more cherry blossoms in my front yard, for crying out loud! There’s always next year…

Xenoblade Chronicles 3D Review

Oh, I want to get away…

Once upon a time, two titans clashed in the middle of an ocean. The Bionis and the Mechonis – the deities of natural and mechanical life respectively – fought until they were locked in an eternal stalemate. Both figuratively and literally; both beings died before they could win the battle, and their enormous corpses petrified together. Rather than crumbling under the ravages of time, their bodies formed a new world. Whole civilizations grew and flourished on these fallen gods, but the modern world hasn’t forgotten the ancient conflict. The human race is fighting a losing war against the Mechon, a seemingly unstoppable horde of killing machines. With death already on their doorstep, the ever-dwindling colonies of survivors desperately need a savior.

They’ll have to settle with Shulk.

He’s not a hero. He lacks both the physical capabilities of a soldier and wisdom of his elders. He’d rather spend his days doing research than going on adventures. That’s what makes him more believable than most game characters; he’s a naive bystander that gets swept up in a war, suffers, survives, and gradually becomes a hero. He’s far more interesting a protagonist than his friend Reyn, who acts like a stereotypical thickheaded, temperamental warrior. What starts as a fairly creative story is dragged down by the cliches typical of the RPG genre. Shulk is somehow chosen to wield the Monado, a legendary sword capable of slaying Mechon. His background is hazy at best, which leads to a few predictable plot twists. He’s trying to avenge the destruction of his home town, but eventually gets drawn into something much bigger. Revenge is hardly an original motive, but the game does well in getting you emotionally involved; the heroes seem real and sympathetic, and the villains are sadistic and powerful. While the story is long – even the most straightforward playthroughs take dozens of hours to finish – the decent pacing and character development keep things interesting.

Shulk’s inexperience isn’t just for narrative purposes. He embarks on his quest woefully unskilled, armed with only a handful of awkward slashes and stabs. Finesse and variety are sacrificed for practicality; the combat mechanics focus on teamwork, positioning, and ability buffs. Some attacks deal more damage when he approaches from behind his opponent, while some enemies can’t even be hurt unless they’ve been inflicted with status effects. Battles take place in real-time, and attacks need to be recharged after each use. It’s not so bad early on, but many of the later fights require you to constantly manage your party’s tactics. The controls lend themselves well to the New 3DS’s button mapping, but surprisingly lack touch screen menus; the top screen is needlessly cluttered with information that could’ve been displayed  in other ways. It’s tempting to blindly mash your way through and pray your random commands work, but you’ll just get everyone slaughtered. As you rack up critical hits, you’ll build up a gauge that can be used to either trigger high-damage chain attacks or revive fallen party members. Shulk can occasionally see oncoming attacks and let his friends decide on moves, but it’s inconsistent at best. Since the AI is rarely reliable in terms of advanced strategies, you’ll have to divide your time between keeping everyone alive and dishing out damage. While it seems overwhelmingly complex at first glance, the essentials are easy to learn.

It’s not all about fighting, though. Xenoblade Chronicles was designed around exploration, and it shows. Shulk’s quest spans two continents, taking on over 400 optional side-quests and killing creatures along the way. There are no random battles; just several areas teeming with monsters that don’t necessarily have to be attacked. The game tells you how strong they are, so you can go in or back off accordingly. While most RPGs favor linear designs, this world practically begs you to go off the beaten path. Not only are there tons of nooks and crannies hidden everywhere, but the game rewards you with experience points and other bonuses for your curiosity. There’s almost no downside to getting hurt in battle; health is plentiful, and you’ll re-spawn close by if you die. There’s even an ability to warp to any landmark you’ve previously visited, which eliminates countless hours of backtracking. It’s especially handy if you’ve accidentally passed an area or need a certain item for a side-quest. These tasks are usually menial, but are essential for developing the huge assortment of skill trees, equipment, character affinities, and everything else that factors into combat system. Fair warning, though: You need to find a balance between storyline progression and going off on your own. If you focus too much on exploring, the pacing will slow to a crawl, the characters will be over-leveled, and you’ll likely burn yourself out.

Xenoblade 3D is indeed a massive game, both in terms of gameplay content and sheer scale. You won’t understand just how big and open-ended it is until you see Gaur Plain for the first time. The green fields and hills seem to go forever, and the silhouettes of the Bionis and Mechonis loom distantly in the drifting clouds. It gives you a sense of how utterly small you are, and how much there is left to see. Since there are so many creatures with widely varying strengths roaming around, the world feels more like a cohesive, living whole instead of a pre-structured journey. It’s no wonder the game can only be played on the New 3DS; it would’ve been impossible for the older handhelds to process these kinds of visuals consistently. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, though. The Wii version of Xenoblade was absolutely gorgeous at a distance, but suffered from poor texturing and bland facial designs up close. These issues are more prominent on a handheld; even with its impressive frame rate and 3D effects, the New 3DS can’t match the splendor of a console and television screen. Everything just seems a little fuzzier and faded, which lessen the overall experience. That being said, this is still one of the best-looking games on the system. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate might be more colorful and look smoother, but Xenoblade 3D trumps it in terms of draw distance and size.

The downgrade wasn’t limited to graphics, either. The Japanese voice acting was removed entirely, but the localized cast does an admirable job at bringing the characters to life. Phrases like, “Now it’s Reyn time!” or “I’m really feeling it!” are grating in their repetition, but the thick English accents are endearing and memorable. That goes double for the hammy villains; their “MUH-NA-DO BOY” nickname for Shulk is both sinister and unintentionally hilarious. The soundtrack is back in all its glory, too; if the visuals don’t stun you, the superb audio certainly will. You Will Know Our Names, Mechanical Rhythm, the Gaur Plain theme, and other instrumental tracks add so much emotion and atmosphere. It’s tempting to wander into an area, put your system down, and just listen to the music. If you want to enjoy the songs without the adventure, you’ll have to unlock them in the newly-added Jukebox. It’s pretty gimmicky – you have to either rack up tokens via StreetPass or buy a Shulk amiibo – but it’s well worth the effort. Combined with some good headphones, you’re in for one of the greatest soundtracks in recent memory.

That can be said for the game as a whole. It’s a testament to the quality of the original Xenoblade Chronicles that a technically inferior port is arguably the best RPG on the 3DS. Its visuals aren’t perfect, but they’re still impressive. The game’s design was ahead of time; no other handheld title gives you the kind of freedom and sense of exploration seen here. The sheer scope, scale, and complexity of this adventure might be intimidating, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Rather than limiting you to a strict path, it encourages you to find your own pace and rewards curiosity. With hundreds of side-quests, it’s so easy to ditch the lengthy story and go hiking for a few hours. Shulk’s cliched revenge isn’t nearly as important or compelling as the journey he undertakes to achieve it. Thanks to the New 3DS, you’ll be able to experience each amazing moment at a time, all in the palm of your hand.

When was the last time you got lost?