30 January, 2010

Order of the Stick by Rich Burlew (http://www.giantitp.com/comics/oots.html)

Inside all of us, there is a little bit of gamer nerd. For Rich Burlew, that nerd is two-dimensional and stick-figured. Beginning in 2003 as an aside from Burlew's gaming site, Giant In the Playground, Order of the Stick began as a series of poorly-drawn in-jokes with the Dungeons & Dragons community, but the comic has grown over the last few years in include a wider audience of non-gamers, while keeping its heart and mind set firmly in the universe of where so many outcomes are determined by the Game Master's whim and the multisided die.

Following the travails of your canonical adventuring party, OOTS has grown into a textured world with equally textured characters and storylines of the same quality as one which A Gm lovingly been pieces together for the enjoyment of himself and his players. As necessary for any D&D story, the scale of the adventurer's journey is no less than epic, with the very whole of creation in the scales of balance as the party seeks to defeat the lawful evil Xykon and contain the chaotic wrath of the Snarl. Going well beyond the simple race-class-level descriptors of characters, the comic creates a meta-gaming experience through character backstories, relationships, and theology.

The basis of Order of the Stick's jokes-- as backed-up by lowbrow high fantasy-- has always been based in poking fun at the game as the players so often do (e.g., characters are quite aware of their level, stats, feats, and how well they did or did not do on that last spot-check). Although heavy-handed in the D&D jokes, the strip appeals to non-gamers alike, often setting the atmosphere to interest and invite would-bes to the game itself. Indeed, the poorly-drawn world which the adventurers inhabit, in fact, has become one of the running jokes of the strip, with both the author and characters well-aware of their one-dimensional proportions, taking note of when their creator shifts with any new artistic style or character clothing. As for an artistic critique, the stylization itself has modified somewhat over the last few years, with the cartoonist utilizing differing media for the Creation Story, but has otherwise remained static, keeping to the simplistic roots.

While the update schedule once followed a Monday-Wednesday-Friday series, one can now count on Burlew's updates at least once per week, the scheduling having been on a bit of a sliding scale for the past few years. While this is often a sin in the webcomic community (nonetheless, one which drives me mad), I can give Rich Burlew a pass, as he has been suffering from an undisclosed illness for a few years; in recent months, however, the updates schedule has improved.

Admittedly, I have not yet gotten a chance to take a look at Order of the Stick's related six books (which include many origin tales, and side-stories in addition to the strips), I do look forward to pick them up one of these days to fill-out the remains of the storyline (Although one can do well-without the formulaic romantic subplot). In addition to the usual commentary on the gaming world (great tribute the late Gary Gygax in 2008 as well), the strip has introduced general geek humor, bringing Harry Potter and Dune into the adventure when the time calls for it.

This one speaks to the inner nerd in us, and feeds on the absolute geekiness with no apologies, and congratulates you on that new d20 you bought, and challenges you on the rules and opinions of 4th Edition.

Roll for initiative.

Humor: B
Artwork: C-
Plotline: A+
Characters: B
Schedule: D+
Creativity: A-

28 January, 2010

J.D. Salinger died today. He passed away in his home in New Hampshire at the age of 91.

Seems appropriate on a day like this. I'm not sure what the whether is like in New Hampshire today, but in Massachusetts today, it was a still, soft snow that left all lines-- tree limbs, wires, and fences -- iced as if designed. As usual, it was cold, but unlike the wind what one pictures biting in Manhattan in December of '51, it wasn't bitter.

To most of the world, Salinger had been dead for a long time-- almost mythic in his decades-long seclusion, which almost appeared to be in resonance with his most well-known character, Salinger had thrown off the world. It is wrong, however, to embody our antihero is his creator; Holden will always be sixteen and confused and disenchanted, and in love with the world, and this is why we hold onto him. There's more than one reason why I re-read Catcher in the Rye in December.

In all likelihood, Mr. Salinger you will not want much made of his passing, and this blog will not join the myriad obituaries. So many of us never got a chance to thank you for your creation and your inspiration that touched that part of our mind who has no patience for irreverence or selfishness or selling out. Thank you for displaying beauty and agape in a broken young man. Thank you for making the worst student in my class part of my conscience.

24 January, 2010

Food Rules: An Eater's Manual by Michael Pollan

Sometimes, you need some ground rules, sometimes simple ideas need to be spelled-out orderly and succinctly for one to take notice. Learning how to eat again is no different.

Author of the bestseller, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and it's distilled version, In Defense of Food, Pollan has further refined his arguments and crusade for mindful food into a slim, 140-page list of sixty-four rules to keep as a pocket guide for your meals, or a conscience sitting on your shoulder as you devour another can of Pringles.

A writer who had been most likely at the forefront of the "slow food" ethos which has begun to arise in recent years, Pollan has been a guru of sorts to a small group of Americans who have seen food, eating, and cuisine move farther and farther from its natural purposes of (1) nourishment and (2) enjoyment. In fact, much of the thesis of the earlier Omnivore's Dilemma is "why do we eat?" from which the reader begins to consider what foods are "worth" eating. I realize that the last sentence sounds a bit condescending, but the emphasis of the books is more of the nature where food is approached as an experience, rather than a necessity-- something to be enjoyed rather than simply done.

(in addition to those mentioned above, the 2001 Botany of Desire: A Plant's-eye View of the World is worth picking up)

As for the text itself, I was reminded of the Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu in the simplicity and straightforwardness of its advice: Eat food, mostly plants, not too much. All of the text (as well as the other two above) can be boiled down to those three simple directions. The rules themselves in Food Rules are elaborations on each of these points, often just as simple (avoid food products that contain more than five ingredients; pay more, eat less; spend as much time enjoying a meal as it took to prepare it), which in fact, need little explanation in of themselves.

The spare "directions" for selecting what you eat, how you eat, and why you eat it are koan-like in their nature, as they were meant to be something you can mutter to yourself in the kitchen, rather than ideological advice to be preached. Often, the reader's great-grandmother is invoked, as a ghost born over a century ago clucking over your shoulder about whether or not you need that second cookie, or asking why you didn't eat your vegetables, or simply being uncertain as to what Pop Tarts are and how they should be eaten. Like the manner in which the advice is given, the advice itself is simple in that it asks for simplicity-- would anyone be able to recognize GoGurt or Squeez Bacon or this thing as a food in 1910?

By this point, my review has likely not been longer than the book itself. Brevity is an art in writing when it is well-done; read this book because for no other reason that you can do it in an hour. For a time-to-read/quality-of-material quantification, Food Rules is well-worth your investment (not to mention that I also bought the book for about $7 too).

You get out of life exactly what you put into it; your dinner plate is no different.

21 January, 2010

59 > 41

The unfortunate part about writing before you go to bed is that as consciousness flees from your mind, and escaping with it is general cohesion and argument in any discussion. This is well-evidenced by my previous post.

To pick-up where it left off, the simple matter is that there are parliamentary tricks to deal with this situation. It is very likely, in fact, that any filibuster will be made at all-- this sort of stalling tactic is precisely that which no one needs, putting all incumbents in danger this November. The Republicans might be in the minority now, but there are 34 senators* who are not terribly interested in joining the growing unemployed numbers among their constituents.

*Interesting note-- of these 34, eighteen are Republicans and sixteen are Democrats. Even if we assume a total overturn in Senate elections this fall, this places the Democrats at a now 61 vote advantage with eighteen fresh faces. Nate Silver, you have inspired me.

Psychologically, it takes a lot to stand up and scream "No! This is who I am and you cannot change me!", and I will give this to the GOP. In fact, the psychological antonyms to this are such things as: consideration, empathy, avoiding conflict, avoiding extremes, thoughtfulness and reflection; those general trademarks of the left. It seems since the second red scare of seventy years ago, the progressives of American politics have been afraid of their own shadow-- their own belief. In the end (as so much of politics do), this comes down to high school sociology; a desire to move with the herd represses one natural tendancies. For so long, the left has played the game as defined by the right.... they have tried to be strong Democrats by either trying to be (1) the same as or (2) subservient to the Republican party.

Let the left be the left. Progressive has a meaning beyond its buzzwordiness.

19 January, 2010


Let them do it. Tonight was a disappointment to progressives across the country, but no less pinching in the Commonwealth this evening. While one can look upon the Brown-Coakley race with our glasses-less hindsight, this is looking into the future.

On last night's Daily Show, Jon Stewart, the jester speaking truth to authority put the situation delicately "Democrats will only have an 18-vote majority in the Senate, which is more than George W. Bush ever had when he did whatever the fuck he wanted." (note: the strongest Republican Senate during the last administration was 55 majority in 2003-4). Nonetheless, the upper house of Congress is designed to operate on a strict majority vote. Last week, the New York Times published a great article discussion the constitutionality of this parliamentary maneuver, in particularly how this effectively negates the Vice President's one of two functions. So why is the filibuster in existence? One may argue that in the grand tradition of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, this provides a platform on which the minority will never lose their voice in a tyranny and a possible steamrolling by the majority. A few years ago, in fact, when the dominant Republican party was discussing "the nuclear option," wherein the filibuster was to be destroyed, Democrats were rightfully offended.

So let the Republicans have it. If there is one thing that Americans have no patience for, it is legislative inaction. While the control of the 111th Congress has been doing a fine job of this all by themselves, as soon as the minority "party of No," rushes to scream as loud as it can with its 41st vote, this tactic can only explode in their face. Not only will this grind healthcare reform to a halt, but the senate Republicans will take the spotlight.

While proper analysis is necessary, why is this not an option? One may picture the minority party screaming like a petulant child, throwing a tantrum until they at last fall asleep. Let their own legislative exhaustion exhibit itself. An eighteen-vote majority is more than enough to accomplish the Democratic Senate's goals.

A majority simply needs fifty.

Comments welcome

18 January, 2010

Updates abound! Yes, the promised reviews aren't in, but I felt the Haiti has more than taken prominence this week over my half-spell checked rants about books. [Please, please, please support aid efforts if you can but clicking the link above]

So let's begin critiquing the internet. To begin this quasi-periodical series of webcomic reviews, is a very old one, and one of the first which I began following in 2003 or so, Nukees by Darren Bleuel.

Following the adventures of a group of nuclear engineering (Nuc.E) graduate students, I took to this easily given various references to physics humor (yes, us geeks have our own jokes), and somewhat skewed reality. The story lines and humor centers upon Gav, whom is best described as the megalomaniacal mad scientist wannabe whom establishes himself as Alpha geek in the Stanford engineering department.

As any good webcomics geek should, digging into the archives places one in the AOL-era Internet of 1997 when Bleuel (a then grad student at the university) began posting his campus newspaper a generalized slice-of-life strip regarding departmental humor, (grad) student life, and campus culture. Through the late nineties and early aughts, however, Nukees quickly departs into a somewhat surreal development of Gav and his friends as they explore and exploit the world through the power of a gigantic robotic ant, journeys through the legal system, the afterlife, relationships, beer, and other general metaphysical entities.

Written for the pure science nerd at heart, Nukees has kept it's fan-base of physics and engineering geeks at the core of humor, in spite of the frequent wanderings in the plot line. In particular, one would be remiss to forget Bleuel's arguably greatest contribution to geek culture, Agnostica, created within the Nukees world in the December of 1999. Beginning on December 14 (the 99th anniversary of the presentation of Planck's theory of quantized energy-- the birth of quantum physics), and extending to an indeterminate date (in consideration with the Uncertainty Principle), Agnostica is a fiercely secular celebration of logic, the beauty of the natural world, uncertainty, and ultimately, the spirit of giving. Amazingly, this self-prclaimed geek holiday has curiously sprung-up within certain circles with joyous celebration of physics, math, and glögg.

Although Bleuel's work has clearly undergone metamorphoses through the last thirteen years, the strip itself (both in artistic style and writing) peaked somewhere in the range of 2002-2004, and has in recent years been relatively static on both these accounts. While there has been a greater degree of character development since mid-decade, many of the plots tend of be of the nature of rambling episodes which stretch over the course of months to get to any sort of conclusion. The slice-of-life style of the early strip is now long passed, and the innate weirdness of particular plots (Giant Ant, Danny's Inferno) have seemed to given way to relatively weak stories wherein the reader, at most times, in unsure as to the direction and ultimate point of the author's intentions. While the whole of the story-arc has been sub-divided into sixty-odd pieces, these "chapters" are generally only defined long after they have been completed, making introduction for new readers difficult. While site design isn't particularly something of which I take note (so long as I can find what I'm looking for), Nukees.com has a very strong Web 1.0 feel, having undergone little revision in many years (news updates are seasonal at best).

This is not to say that Bleuel has done a poor job. As one of the longest-running comics I read, Nukees has a distinct credibility in never posting late. While Gav began as a loose caricature of the author, the years have since proven Gavauthor to have real-life capacities far beyond that of Gavcharacter in organizing the Keenspot network of webcomics (through which I discovered Nukees), the International Random Bag of Fun (see "Agnostica"), his own research, in addition to the regular strip and its book, Nukees: d/dx.

Final call: more physics, less drama. Keep the funny

Humor: B
Artwork: C+
Story lines: B-
Characters: B
Schedule: A+
Creativity: B-

13 January, 2010

I know that I promised webcomic reviews, but please take the time to find aid for Haiti. Goodness knows that life isn't easy there in the best of times.

One of my favorite site for donation is Doctors Without Borders , which puts something like 90 cents per dollar worth of contributions into actual aid. They're global, quick, and highly competent.
To a lesser extent, check out the International Red Cross/Red Crescent, or many other aid programs, but be sure they're legitimate!

Please donate what you can

10 January, 2010

The biggest problem with employment is that performing a task for money severely hinders my time for books. Between the December 23 and January 2, I was able to take-down and review at least three readings, and was able to get started on several more. In fact, in the time that I've run this quasi-periodical rant, there's been a definite time compenent to posting frequency with school vacations. The issue remains that I would like to post on a regular basis, but my duties elsewhere draw away from time which can always be better spent reading (most times in life are, in fact, improved with a book in hand).

So Tilting at Windmills will embark on a new adventure for the next couple of weeks, where reviews of webcomics-- my daily dose of small-scale reading regularity (ah, alliteration!). As webcomics go, familiarity and reading-times are not issues, just finding time to write them up will be the key to providing daily updates. While I'm not too sure how many readers out there (all 3 of you) participate in the webcomics subculture, but there is a strong following within the geek community, and I'll see how this goes. As always, I'm looking for input; there are about fifteen posts which I have in mind to begin with, but if you have any suggestions, I'm more than happy to broaden my horizons.

Incidentally, the books will probably slow down for a while (see working above), but I randomly found a nonfiction about maps of all things, which has been nerdishly addictive. Additionally, I've finally started House of Leaves, which I've been looking forward to for a while. I look forward to reviewing both soon.

03 January, 2010

Unfinished Tales by J.R.R. Tolkien

How appropriate, upon doing some research on the author for this review, I discovered that today, January 3, is his eleventy-eighth birthday! Sooner or later, a biography of the sage of Middle-Earth must be added to the ever-growing reading list.

Known by and large for the legendary (in every sense) Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien created and sustained a full universe inhabited by an illustrious, plenary and vibrant mythology. Having read the "core" Tolkien works, which comprise of the previously mentioned two, as well as the posthumously published Silmarillion, one understands with the wealth of tales in Middle-earth, that when the author passed away at the age of 81, he left myriad stories of this world left untold and uncompleted.

While LotR (1954-5) told of the great War of the Ring and its lead-up/impacts in the Third Age of Middle-earth, The Silmarillion (complied throughout a lifetime, and published by his son Christopher in 1977) sets the stage of creation for Middle-earth telling the stories the Valar (gods), the first Eldar (elves) and Atani (men), and their epic struggles of the First and Second Ages. Between these epics of high fantasy, Tolkien establishes a deep mythology and society within his work, beautifully self-consistent and interconnected to a tapestry of pure legend.

This is where Unfinished Tales begins. Not to be taken lightly, I strongly advise approaching LotR and The Silmarillion as prerequisite reading for Tolkien's in-depth work. Compiled in the years following his father's death, Christopher Tolkien has done a marvelous job of stitching together his father's fragmented, scattered, and often illegible notes about the history of Middle-earth. It had been a habit of the late Mr. Tolkien to half-write many stories, often heavily annotated with present and future edits, as he fastidiously combed-over them to discern their final form and their proper place in his legendarium. Scraps of paper, the back of maps, and scattered notebooks left in J.R.R. Tolkien's collection stretching from 1911 to his death in 1973 have been brought together with his son's dedicated work as a marvelous gestalt
which thoroughly textures the vibrant world of Arda.

Absolutely written for a pure Tolkien fan, this book almost demands prior knowledge of the Rings, Númenor, Beleriand, the Valar, and the people therein. I would not fault someone for being put-off by such a request for a reading, but this book may easily pull the reader deeper into the illustrious world and mythology of Middle-earth.

Moreover, for the detail-oriented geek in all of us, the text brings the "origin stories" (or at least the scattered ideas thereof) of several characters known to the Lord of the Rings trilogy such as Galadriel, Gandalf, and even the realms of Gondor and Rohan. For the sake of adding incredible depth to an already-existent world-structure, Unfinished Tales leaves the reader with a sense of having lived throughout the Ages of the world, watching events unfold with the sight of of a palantír and eternity and wisdom of Eru Ilúvatar.

As the title would indicate, however, these are in fact, unfinished. Annotated linguistically, historically, and literately by Christopher Tolkien, far too many of the tales are half-written accounts (despite the editor's best intentions of knowing the mind of his father), leaving the reader eager for a greater account of the legends. If nothing else, the reader finds lament and frustration that the author was unable to fully illustrate his ideas and stories.

One can deeply respect Tolkien for having the courage and talent to demand that readers travel deep into his world, and few authors, are capable of this. Take Tolkien warily, and he will take you on journeys. Despite the frustration of partial (and occasionally contradictory) stories, as well as history and geography demanded on my part, the absolute tolkienist in me looks forward to the twelve-volume Book of Lost Tales. See you then.